Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
He hung high in the sky, a red thing that screamed and screamed in his agony, legs and arms moving wildly as if he swam there between the clouds. Kothar felt the golden hairs at the base of his neck stand up in horror. The chilling winds that swept the treetops here in Windmere Wood must be like salt poured over the skinless body of the wizard Kazazael.
Twice the barbarian tried to call up to him but his tongue clove to the dry roof of his mouth and he had to swallow three times before he could make his voice work. His eyes were fastened on the thing which had been a man that was like a puppet now, pulled this way and that by the winds, hung there in the sky by the magic of his enemy, Red Lori. He could not pull away his gaze, and sweat ran from his forehead down his cheeks.
A cramp came into his middle out of sympathy for the red thing that howled in pain up above. Kothar made a fist of his right hand and hammered the saddle pommel with it.
“Kazazael!” he shouted at last. “Can you hear me?” The wizard was screaming so loudly, the wind was blowing so strongly, that no ears could have heard his words. Cupping his hands to his lips, the thickly thewed mercenary bellowed again and again, until his ears rang with the sound of his own voice.
“Kazazael! Kazazael! Kazazael!” he roared. The screaming stopped. A hoarse throat cried back at him. “Who calls the name of Kazazael the accursed?”
“Kothar of Cumberia, the sellsword. I’ve come to help you.”
“No man can help me now!” Kazazael began screaming once more. Kothar scratched his golden head. He must find some way to help the man, Queen Elfa had commanded him to do so, saying that she could never defeat Lord Markoth unless Kazazael were free to help her with his necromancies. Yet if Kazazael did not know the way to his own release, how was he to accomplish it? He bit his lower lip with his strong white teeth, thinking hard.
“Kazazael—will anything stop the pain?” he cried, unable to listen further to that awful screaming.
“Only one thing.”
“And what will that thing be?”
“The cloak of the sea serpent Iormungar.”
“How do I find the cloak?” The red thing which had been Kazazael shouted down at him, but there was hopelessness in his tones, and a resignation to defeat which Kothar did not like. A man must make a fight of it, he thought, even though there is nothing left to him but black despair. Still, he listened to the instructions Kazazael gave to him, and he put them deep in his mind so he would not forget.
Then he turned Greyling on the forest path and sent him galloping away from the screaming until it faded out. Still he held the gray horse to its mad pace, as if the pounding of its hoof-beats would blot from his memory the sight of the thing in the sky.
He was still hungry, though he felt a touch of guilt about it. Kazazael was suffering far worse than hunger pangs. He tightened his belt two notches and reflected that the sword Frostfire and the warhorse Greyling were all very well, and he was proud of them, being a soldier, but if he might have a bowl of seafood stew or a thick slash of deer meat, he could appreciate the tools of his trade more properly.
The sky was darkening; night was coming on. He had fought hard, he had been through experiences which would test the nerves of any warlock who dealt with daemons, and tiredness was in his bones. Greyling was tiring too, he had run a long way, so Kothar reined him in and let him walk and blow.
The stars in the night sky were close together and very thick in the blackness. The big barbarian blinked at them in his weariness.
He wanted to slip from the saddle and remove his blanket, wrap himself in its length as well as he could, and sleep. Yet the thought of the red thing screaming in the sky drove him onward, with Greyling stumbling now in his own weariness. The forest world was long since behind them, they were moving across a great meadow-land, and faintly from afar his nostrils caught the scent of salt air.
Salt air would mean the sea and the craggy rocks where the waves rolled in and broke apart in a spray of spume and water. Kothar straightened in the saddle. He had always loved the sea—he was spawn of the ocean, having come to Cumberia, long ago in a boat as a lost, lonely child—and the smell of its fragrance was a stimulant to him. He reached down and with a big hand, patted the muscular neck of the gray warhorse.
“A little further only, Greyling.” Then they would rest. His body must have sleep to dare the sea beast Iormungar in its lair and take from it the white wool cloak that had been woven by enchanted mermaids long ago, deep in some blue ocean grotto. Ah, but first let his eyes drink their fill of the restless sea lifting up its swells to batter at the coastline rocks as it had done since the beginnings of Time.
The horse came to a little headland and Kothar reined him up on the rim of the black sea rocks so that he and the horse stood silhouetted against the stars. There was soft loam and grass under hoof, for the meadow grew right up to the edge of the sea stones, and he could make out gorse and heather swaying in the wind.
Standing in the saddle, the mercenary searched the headland for some place of shelter where he might make a fire and warm his body. He saw only a fallen tree a hundred yards away and he sighed. He would make do with what he had, like any other warrior in the field.
Within moments after he lay on his side with his spine to the fallen tree trunk, with his head resting on a mattock of soft grass, he was asleep. Greyling, freed of bridle and reins and saddle, browsed on the sweet grasses, and from time to time lifted his great head and stared out over the dark waters of the ocean.
In the light of early morning, Kothar woke to the pains of an empty belly. He lay a while with his eyes closed, dreaming of the dishes he had eaten in the past until the pounding of the sea waves roused him to a realization that food, for a man who knew the shoreline, lay not far away. With the tip of his sword he dug up clams from the shingle and caught half a dozen crabs. With flint and the steel of Frostfire he made a flame of driftwood breakings and cooked his crabs while he wolfed down the raw clams. In a little while he was rid of his hunger and he stretched in the sunlight and watched the black rocks appear on the ocean floor as the tide ran out away from the land. His hand loosed Frostfire in its scabbard. Beyond the line of black rocks, according to the wizard Kazazael, was the lair of the sea serpent Iormungar.
He waited patiently as the tide ebbed away. Then he set his feet along the coarse detritus of the shore and outward toward the rocks. His leather boots slipped a little on the rocks, they were still wet and hung with seaweeds, but he was used to the sea and he ran lightly across a line of spray-wet rocks until he stood on the very last rock of all and stared downward into a large hole where the Water foamed and gurgled as it came and went.
He must go down into that hole, if he was to find the cloak. Kothar grimaced, being without appetite for a swim in these cold waters. Even as he wondered how he was going to get back up out of the hole, he stepped off the rock and plunged into the freezing waters like a stone. Coldness caught at him, ate through his boots and mail shirt and leather hacqueton under it, stabbed his legs and arms and middle. He went down slowly through the black waters, for the to-and-fro rush of the sea buoyed him up even as he fell, so that he landed on a stone ledge that formed the outer lip of a vast sea cavern that stretched away behind him into darkness. A radiance came from the rocks and gave off a bluish light.
There was fresh air here, and no water except a few drops that had come into this place with him as he had ridden the submerged waterfall to the cavern edge. He wondered who had found this waterfall—it was invisible from the shore and had it not been for Kazazael, he would have passed it by without a glance. From the falling waters he turned his gaze to the smooth stone walls and floor of the bluish cavern.
This place was like no sea cavern he had ever seen. He saw now that the blue light came from glistening streakings on the wet walls of the cavern, as if some playful giant had dipped his fingers in blue fire and drawn their tips across those stone barriers.
Kothar began walking forward lightly, treading as might a panther on the prowl, pulling his sword-belt around in front of him so the golden hilt of Frostfire was in finger reach. His massive shoulders moved in a shrugging motion; the air of the cavern was foul and fetid; a rank stench seemed to move with the wind currents. Kothar liked the free, clean air of beach and forest; not for him this dank noxiousness.
He was annoyed, too, by an odd sound as he moved lightly across the great submarine den. At first he thought the sucking sound might be the sea itself, filling and emptying some stone cavity or other. But this he was inclined to discount, now.
The noise was too steady, and it was growing louder. He walked on hard gravel that ground underfoot like pebbles. He glanced down, seeing a white scattering of thousands of tiny shells. No, these were not shells. They were—bones! Human bones!
Kothar shook himself, anger at his confrontation with the unknown rumbling in his thick throat. He did not like the unknown, it made him uneasy. Give him a foe with a face to battle and a weapon to match, and Kothar was at ease with the world. These powdered bones were no part of any foe he could discover.
The bones cracked underfoot as he walked on into the next cavern, a great dark chamber filled with that same blue radiance. Squinting into the blackness, he made out big oaken chests bound with iron. Kothar grinned, showing even white teeth.
What was it Afgorkon had said? He who carries Frostfire must own nothing else? By Dwalka! These wooden boxes had the look of treasure chests.
He moved toward them, peered through the dim blue light at them. No doubt about it. He lifted a dagger from his belt, pried at a rusted lock. A bulge of forearm muscles, a bending steel blade and—spaaang! The lock to the first chest came loose.
Kothar gripped the chest lid and heaved.
“By Elwys’ golden breasts!” he panted.
He stared at jewels as big as hen’s eggs—diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds—at ropes of golden links at pearls the size of small clams—at the loot of uncounted centuries. His eyes grew big. His huge hands reached out—
There it was again—that noise!
Kothar turned his head.
“Gods of Thuum!”
A huge worm—white as a bleached sea shell, huge as Gargantos, as noisome as a marsh at low tide—slithered down the far wall. Its head reared up, questing, and Kothar saw its pink nostrils flare as it smelled him out. Its other end was lost in the shadows high atop the cavern ceiling, but what the barbarian saw was enough to make his heart thud in dismay.
As the slug moved, it left glowing blue slime behind it. This then, was what kept the cavern eternally lighted for any rash human who might choose to come wandering here. Kothar nodded grimly and drew his blade.
He advanced cautiously. The memory of those human bones was in his brain; he knew the worm was no mean antagonist. Other men had died within sight of that great treasure. Kothar resolved he would live to carry it away. The worm was close now, towering above his head, and Kothar was a tall man. Its maw was opening and closing as if it tasted the human flesh awaiting its appetite. Its maw was dripping slime in great drops onto the floor as the slug undulated closer.
Kothar leaped, sword high to slash.
In mid-leap a drop of that slime from the slug’s mouth splashed on his left shoulder. Agony burned through the big barbarian. A lesser man would have screamed and staggered back, to fall victim to the gaping maw. Not Kothar. He leaped forward, dodging another glob of slime.
Frostfire flashed in the blue light. The great steel blade sank deep into blubbery white hide. With a savage curse on his lips, Kothar pulled it free, struck again. A gaping wound showed in the writhing, twisting worm. The head was moving to left and right, the maw was opening and closing, the giant-slug was making a mewling sound. It was hurt, badly hurt. Faster it moved, as if to overwhelm this rash enemy with its sheer bulk.
Kothar never ceased to strike, slashing again and again at that great hulk, widening the slit in its side. The blue length of Frostfire was slimed now with ichor, sit stank as the worm stank, and made the young giant snort his disgust. Yet always that blade moved, and as it moved, it cut deep into and through the worm-meat.
With a soft plop the rest of the great worm fell from the wall. Instantly it began to twist and flop about, seeking to catch this rash intruder in its domain and slay him. Twice the huge length of the creature brushed Kothar, twice it almost ran over him, nearly pinning him beneath that soft weight from which there would be no escape, not even for his mighty muscles.
Once the barbarian had to put a hand on that blubbery mass and vault over it to land catlike on his sandaled feet, whirling and slashing again and again with Frostfire, always at that same gaping wound.
Now the blade had cut the worm almost in half. The rear length of the creature was barely moving. The head was lower, now, inches above the ground. The worm was in its death throes, cut almost in twain. What remained was still dangerous, however. The tiny worm-brain did not yet know its body was dying. It would be some time before that fact registered on what served it as a mind; until then, Kothar must go on striking with the blue steel blade.
Then the worm-head touched the floor and the entire body became quiescent, except for a few twitches here and there. Kothar staggered back, his face wet with sweat. He drew a massively muscled forearm across his brow, grinning coldly.
“Damned shibboleth,” he grumbled, setting Frostfire sink until its stained point touched the bone-strewn floor.
He turned away, toward the chests. “Dwalka—no!” he bellowed, leaping. The chests were disappearing, fading into thin mists into which he plunged his hands, letting Frostfire clang on the cavern floor. His fingers, stabbed here and there, reaching for a huge emerald, a giant fire-pearl. His hands closed on empty air.
The treasure had existed only in the worm-brain! Just as a scavenger beetle dangled a bit of food before its prey to lure it nearer, so the worm created the treasure chest out of sheer mind-imagery, to attack humans for its food. Kothar rasped curses in high Cumberian and Low Solesian.
A moment later, laughter rumbled from his deep chest. He could appreciate the grim humor of the jest. Well, he still had Frostfire, and that sword was worth a dozen such treasure chests.
He walked on; now, after wiping clean the blade, he carried the great sword naked in his hand, for his was the quick suspicion of the barbarian mind that saw danger in the rush of wind or the faint glint of light on metal. Yet there was no wind, no glimmer of light other than the blue slime-radiance.
Through small chambers and large he stalked, and now he noticed that he moved downward, as though to the bottom of the sea. The walls were wetly dripping, the air was humid, moist. Kothar found it difficult to breathe. He rounded a corner of rock, stood on the stone rim of a vast pool of water. Above him, an eerie light shone, revealing a great cave that stretched away into utter darkness.
This was the cavern of the cloak. It had to be. It was all jagged rock and faint gray light and it was vast, a deep sea cavern unknown to any creatures but the magicians who saw it in the flickering flames of their ensorceled fires, and to the sea beast, Iormungar, whose lair it was. Kothar studied the great cavern from the smooth platform that jutted out over its dark, placid waters.
The rocky walls of the cavern were faintly luminescent, giving off a grayish glow. In that light, Kothar saw a white something high above his head, fluttering faintly in the wind currents eddying throughout the cave. It was a grotesque caricature of a human being with arms and legs and head. It gave off a blue sheen as it rippled and danced like a frightened ghost.
Yes, this was the cloak the mermaids had woven. Kothar looked at the walls of the cavern. They were craggy and afforded him handholds. He could mount up the wall close to the cloak. Ah, but when he was up there, how was he to reach it? It hung suspended in space, fully five feet or more from the closest wall.
Frostfire might be the answer. He stripped off his mail shirt and leather hacqueton, his boots and scabbard belt. Naked but for a cotton cloth about his loins and his fur kilt and with Frostfire gripped between his teeth, he began the slow ascent of those slimy, slippery-wet walls.
Twice his powerful hands slipped on the gray-green rocks, twice he almost fell to the jagged rocks and dark waters below. Only his giant sinews kept him on the wall, clinging like a limpet. His breath burned his throat, and there was the stink of something alien in his nostrils.
Yet always he went upwards, his eyes fastened on the white cloak flapping as if alive where there was no wind. Soon, now. Soon! His fingers gripped, his toes found holds, he hoisted his giant body closer to the cloak.
Where a tongue of stone thrust from the wall, he set his hand. He would have to hang there a moment, poised above the rocks, for only from such a handhold could he reach out with Frostfire and catch that white thing.
Kothar drew a deep breath. The fingers of his left hand stretched out and closed on the rock-tongue. He let his toes slip from the slimed stone wall and hung in midair. His fingers did not have a firm hold; there was wetness under them, a slippery wetness that prevented his fingertips from gripping. A slight mistake in his balance and those fingers would slide off, and he would plummet down onto the jagged rocks below.
He risked a glance at the granite fangs waiting like the mouth of Iormungar to crush his flesh to pulp. His heart hammered inside his rib cage. They were sharp, those rocks, as if burnished by the waters flowing in and out among them.
Kothar drew a deep breath. Gingerly he stretched out his sword-arm and saw the point of Frostfire touch the cloak as it swayed to unseen forces. He put strain on his rolling muscles, seeking to inch closer. Again he sent out Frostfire.
This time the steel point clung to the cloak. Kothar drew the sword and cloak toward him. He could not shift the cloak to his person, his left hand was clinging to the rock tongue, his right held the sword.
Far below his feet dangling in midair, he heard a gurgling, sucking sound, as if the cavern waters were running out. He heeded not the sound, all his attention was focused on the cloak that clung so precariously to the steel blade. One slight breeze and the cloak would fall.
A monstrous bellow shook the air. A civilized man would have frozen motionless before that terrifying roar, or be startled into a fatal slip and plummet onto the jagged stones below: Kothar was a barbarian, his nerves were as solid as the rock to which he clung.
Even as his ears told him he faced danger, he was stabbing his toes toward the wall. His foot slipped, then fastened. The young giant let go his handhold, he threw his body sideways. His hip slammed into the wet rock even as his freed left hand caught hold of a stone ledge. “Dwalka!” he breathed, muscles going rigid. Inches from his leg, a scaled snout snapped shut. Kothar shuddered, goggling down at the monster rising steadily up out of the waters boiling far below him. The barbarian had never imagined anything so huge. Its body was fully as large as half a dozen ships, the kind that ply the waters of the Inland Sea between Azynyssa and the southern kingdoms of Sybaria and Malakor. Its scales were a bluish-gray and glistened as if polished with oil.
Atop that immense body, half-hidden like an iceberg beneath the cavern waters, was a thick, supple neck, longer than five tall men standing one above the other. On that neck was a head framed in scales, with three bulging red eyes glaring hate and hunger up at Kothar.
Thick serpents seemed to hang from the head, twisting and turning, hissing with gaping jaws like Iormungar himself, seeking to find and pierce the skin of this rash man-thing with their own fangs. The trio of scarlet eyes, the living serpents that were a part of the titanic sea beast, made Kothar press back against the slimy stone wall.
“Dwalka—hear me,” he growled. “A gold coin for your nearest temple if you get me out of this.”
Aie! This was the father of all dragons! Against him, Kothar was no more than a midget. The huge head was lowering, preparing to strike a second time. More than half its bulk was still hidden by the boiling waters, but its scaled neck could reach to the narrow ledge where Kothar had braced his heels.
Kothar grinned mirthlessly, sensing his doom.
His right hand still held Frostfire, with the white cloak caught upon its point. The youthful giant knew he could never descend that slime-wet wall with Iormungar yawning his maw to engulf him. One false move, even if the sea-beast only brushed him with his snout, and he would fall to be impaled on the sharp rocks.
Even as he waited to feel Iormungar’s fangs close upon his flesh, Kothar studied the waters bubbling and frothing about the monster’s hidden body. Kothar was as much at home in water as any fish. If he leaped for the sea waters lapping the stone ledge far below, the beast could pick him out of it as he might pick any other fish.
He felt the sweat wet upon his face. He was not afraid, inside he was raging mad at the thought that he had come so far only to fail.
“A golden coin, Dwalka,” he reminded his god. As if Dwalka of the War Hammer put the thought in his head, Kothar gripped the haft of Frostfire and stared hard through the murky gloom of the cavern at the three red eyes of Iormungar.
His hand moved the sword, the cloak fluttered free. And Kothar leaped. The great sword held rigid, he dropped full upon the uplifted snout of Iormungar. The cloak had fallen where he had aimed it, full across those three scarlet eyes, like a blindfold.
The mercenary could see those glittering rednesses through the thin cloth of the cloak, like coals visible through sea mist. Bracing his feet, Kothar stabbed sharply at the nearest eye.
Iormungar bellowed, head rearing upward. The young giant tottered, striving desperately to maintain his balance. His footholds on the huge head were giving way beneath him, but even while he lurched wildly he drove Frostfire deep into a second scarlet orb. The sea beast screamed and shook its massive head. Kothar went flying. So instinctive were his reflexes, so much the barbarian was this golden-haired young giant—that even as he felt his perch go out from under him, he slashed sideways with his blade. Deep into that third red eye he drove his edge, saw the cloak fouled by the blood running from it. Then he was dropping like a stone, hitting the scaled sea beast and bouncing off, to splash deep into the cavern waters. Downward into cold black depths he plunged, sensing the flailing bulk of the monster beside him.
Blinded, Iormungar was still dangerous. His fangs could still bite deep, his head would be questing for this man who had taken away his sight. Bellowing roars shook the cavern walls. Even beneath the surface Kothar could feel their vibrations.
He swam upward. His head popped into view as the sea beast was crashing its scaled head into a rock wall. The gigantic body was threshing about; a hip hit Kothar and bounced him sideways. And where the head had struck the wall, there was a crack running through the rock.
Overhead, the ceiling was reacting to the body heaving madly in its pain throes. Clumps of dirt and chunks of rock fell into the water. A jagged stone hit Kothar on his shoulder as he tried to make his way to the rim that ran about part of the cave.
Something reared high above the barbarian and slapped downward, hitting the water flatly. Thunder rolled in the closed chamber as the monstrous tail struck inches from the Cumberian. Had it landed on him, it would have crushed his head and shoulders to red pulp. Kothar knew the serpent was hunting for him. Its snout was dipping downward, its nostrils flared as it sought out the man-scent. The salt water hid his smell, for Iormungar was searching blindly, helplessly, while its frightful bulk threshed and twisted.
The mercenary kept his left hand on the scales that rubbed his flesh raw, feeling his way across that body and through the water until he was behind the sea beast. More and more rocks and dirt were raining down from the cavern roof. Glancing up, Kothar saw that soon, unless Iormungar stopped his floppings, he would bring the entire cavern down upon him.
There was no feeling in the scales upon which Kothar half stood, staring at the collapsing cave. The beast would not know where the man was, if he made no sound.
He let the scaled body sweep him toward the rock rim. He poised an instant, then leaped. His bare feet hit wet stone and slid.
Kothar went down on all fours to keep from sliding back into the waters. A dozen yards away, the limply wet cloak was draped across the very edge of the stone platform. He would have to get the cloak, right from under the fangs of Iormungar.
He ran like a deer for the cloak. His hand stabbed downward, tangled his fingers in it, yanked it up. The cracks in the cavern walls were widening, whole chunks of the stone ceiling were crashing onto the rock platform and into the green spray of the frothing cavern waters.
Iormungar roared and snapped. Kothar saw that maw opening for him and dove. His shoulder hit the platform and he rolled just as part of the rock rim broke off where the sea beast bit into it.
The entire cavern was falling in now. Kothar ran as he had never run, angling his body at the stone archway. Behind him the sea beast would have smelled him out, would be darting its head straight at him. There was no time to turn and fight. If he paused to swing Frostfire, the ceiling would come down and crush him. Time was an eternity of flying feet and a great sword flashing in the air in his right hand.
A fetid stench touched his nostrils. He felt hot breath searing his back. Kothar left the stone floor in a savage leap. Only his rolling muscles could have carried him across that last twenty feet of space and through the archway before those fangs closed down upon his flesh.
He went through the arch, turning slightly and seeing the great mouth stretched wide to swallow him. His spine hit the floor beyond the archway just as Iormungar’s snout closed on empty air and rammed into the arch itself.
Stone cracked. The cavern rumbled. Kothar was too mesmerized by the catastrophe before his eyes to move. He lay and watched the roof fall; he saw the walls cave in upon the bellowing beast that threshed madly in its death agonies. Even Iormungar could not withstand those uncountable tons of rock and stone thudding down upon him.
The powdered dust from those rocks choked the barbarian. With a snarl, he got to his feet, brushing the stuff from his lips. He could see a long, forked tongue emerge from between huge white fangs and slither across the stone. It quivered a moment, then lay still.
Kothar let the breath out of his lungs, snatched up his mail shirt, his hacqueton and his boots. “Thanks, Dwalka,” he grinned. “I’ll buy a woman from your temple in Shrillikar, first chance I get—along with that gold coin I still owe you!”
He turned and ran for the outer world.