(sequel to "The Last Laugh" in Nightscapes # 3)
The young boy was frightened and weary. For hours, he had plodded fearfully through the vast, boggy marsh. The priests of Nyarlathotep had sent forth minions in a desperate effort to capture the squat, blonde haired youth. His name was Maug and he possessed an uncanny ability to translate and speak any language, living or dead. Oddly enough, he seemed unable to speak under normal circumstances and most people assumed that he was demon-possessed. His uncanny grasp of languages had been the unforeseen undoing of his previous master, the sorcerer Mesuvial. Maug's strange ability now made the stocky lad highly valued to a number of religious orders.
Stopping to catch his breath, he wiped his forehead in the oppressive heat. The humidity sapped his strength and he silently wondered how much longer he could continue. Perhaps it would not be so bad to surrender to his pursuers and perform whatever eldritch tasks they deemed necessary. It might be preferable to being drained by the blood-flies that had plagued him for the better part of the day. He slapped one of the shelled insects that lit upon his arm, blanching at the amount of blood that smeared his limb. With a needle-like proboscis, the creature's bite was painless to its victim due to a naturally occurring anesthetic. Maug had several large welts from previous bites and was nearing a decision to end his flight into the pestilent morass of the swamp. Suddenly a shadow covered the ground in front of the frightened and exhausted lad. Gazing quickly into the sky, Maug spotted the large black tracker-bird that had been unleashed by the servitors of Otharion. It was only a matter of time before his discovery and whatever fate lay in store.
Maug was labeled feeble-minded by those who knew him. No one had ever given him much attention except in the way of the occasional kick or curse. Still, in his way, he sensed that something had changed dramatically since reading the strange book that had brought death to Mesuvial. He was unsure how he came to speak the words contained in his master's book or why this was important. He knew only that others had quickly learned of the event and were now in pursuit.
The young boy wiped rivulets of sweat from his brow and kneeled at the edge of a murky pool. An obese priest with pockmarked face struggled through the reeds, making his way into the clearing. His bloated face was scarlet from exertion and his small pig-like eyes were bulging and bloodshot.
Maug didn't hear the other man who quietly entered the clearing from behind. He was a large, hard-looking man with black, close-cropped hair. The man wore a light tunic and carried a sheathed sword. He appeared more than capable of wielding the weapon. His name was Sandorval and he had little use for the followers of The Dark Man.
Sandorval gazed at the obese priest with disdain, contemptuously spitting into one of the numerous muddy pools of the marsh. He placed one meaty hand on a startled Maug's shoulder, pulling him close. Two other companions of the obese priest stumbled into the clearing at the same moment. The priests ignored Sandorval and reached for the boy. They quickly withdrew their hands when Sandorval placed his free hand on the pummel of his sword.
"By Niggurath's teats," cursed the red-face priest, "Give us the boy or you'll rue the day you laid eyes on him."
"You leave without him," Sandorval replied with disdain. "Find some other poor urchin upon which to slake your unholy lusts."
"Unholy lusts!" screeched the priest. "Hand him over now or you will soon know pain as no one before you."
Sandorval smiled, shaking his head. "You must have soldiers nearby else you would refrain from threats. Still, I think it probable that I can empty your guts before they draw closer."
One of the other priests, young and seemingly frightened, spoke. "Fear not for the boy. He is special and will be treated well."
"Silence oaf!" hissed the obese leader.
Sandorval peered at Maug and smiled. "Lad, do you wish to go with these men?"
The boy looked to the three acolytes and looked back at Sandorval. His blue eyes widened in fear as he emphatically shook his head from side to side.
"Well," said Sandorval. "it is settled. The boy stays with me."
The face of the obese priest ballooned with rage. "You're making a fatal mistake. Give us the boy and you may yet go unpunished for your impudence. Trouble us further and I will see you flayed alive."
The third acolyte who had thus far remained silent, pulled a dagger from his sweat-stained robe, seeking to plunge it into Sandorval's belly. He had only to show the weapon when Sandorval, with incredible speed, drew his blade and severed his attacker's arm at the elbow. The man screamed, dropping to the muddy ground in agony. He removed his severed limb from the wet ground and vainly attempted to reattach it to his arm, now pumping large streams of crimson liquid into the nearby reeds. In moments, he fainted from loss of blood and would be dead within minutes.
The dying man's companions froze in fear as Sandorval looked at them, prepared to strike on the smallest of pretexts. All present stood transfixed for several moments until at last the frightened squawks of waterfowl broke the stillness.
"Damn," Sandorval growled, "soldiers coming."
"Over here!" screamed the fat, apoplectic priest. He readied a second shout but his head flew from his shoulders before the second alert could be given.
Sandorval looked at the final priest whose eyes beseeched him for mercy. His muscles tensed, ready to gut the young acolyte but he saw the look of horror on Maug's face and lowered his blade.
"Bless you!" cried the priest.
Sandorval heard the soldiers blundering closer and swept Maug into his arms, preparing to flee rather than fight against impossible numbers. He planned on traveling east, hoping to leave the swamp and soldiers behind.
"Not that way," said the remaining priest whose life had been spared. "Follow me."
Sandorval sneered. "I should trust you?"
"Yes," replied the priest. "I seek escape as well. I never desired any part of this madness."
"If you're lying," said Sandorval, "I will send you to whatever hell you recognize."
"Just follow," spoke the youth with great urgency.
The swordsman, the cleric and the boy fought their way through the steaming morass of the swamp for what seemed like hours. They were cut and scratched by thorny brambles, bitten and stung by insects and had a very dangerous encounter with a six-legged Idanja viper. Fortunately, these animals were rare and Sandorval managed to drive away the single beast that had confronted them.
Along the way, during brief respites, Sandorval learned that it was Nyarlathotep's disciples who sought the silent, blond-haired boy, now in his charge. It was Carlysle, the turncoat cultist, who volunteered the information along with his express desire to be free of the unholy order.
Carlysle knew of a place within the swamp that could possibly provide refuge from the The Dark Man's pursuing soldiers. The drawback to this plan was the ominous reputation associated with the site. The place of stones as he called it might in fact be more lethal than the soldiers who were tracking the them.
"By the head of Bhorna," Sandorval groused, "we face certain death if those louts following us are not deterred by its shelter. That is, unless you or the lad possess powers you are keeping from me."
"No powers that would save us," said Carlysle, looking apologetic.
"Damn," muttered the swordsman, "I was hoping that perhaps you knew a few tricks that would save our necks."
"Unfortunately not," Carlysle replied with a weary sigh of resignation.
It was almost evening when the trio of fugitives arrived at the place of stones. The marshy ground had grown more substantial for the last hundred yards and fewer tall reeds blocked their view of what lay ahead. The place of stones was a massive jumble of stone blocks, some resting singly while others were stacked upon each other in what appeared a random and precarious manner. Carlysle attempted to explain to Sandorval that based upon his reading of manuscripts in the Dark God's temple, that there was indeed a method to the apparent madness.
"I hope there is more to this pile of rubble than meets the eye," said Sandorval. "Those soldiers are close on our heels and I'm too near exhaustion to make much of a fight should it come to that."
A steel-tipped arrow, as if to punctuate his statement, whizzed within inches of Sandorval, ricocheting off a stone in a shower of sparks. Maug's eyes widened and a look of quiet desperation crossed the cleric's face. "Quick!" said the cleric, "to the inner entrance."
In moments, the three figures were relatively safe behind the outer perimeter of stones. Only a handful of arrows followed the first projectile. Sandorval bade the former priest and the silent boy to remain concealed as he peered over a large stone to observe the actions of their pursuers.
"What do you see?" Carlysle whispered.
"About fifteen very weary men," Sandorval answered with a grim laugh. "There's no need to whisper, they know we're here."
Carlysle struggled to his feet, taking his place beside the swordsman. Reaching into his robe, he withdrew an oval glass. Holding it at arm's length, he brought the object closer to his face. He finally seemed to have the object at an optimal position and smiled wearily as he peered at the group of soldiers.
"We're safe, at least from them," said Carlysle. "Garrock is in charge and would not dare approach nearer. He's a superstitious old woman!"
"I understand that he has reason to fear this place, as do we all," Sandorval answered.
"Yes," Carlysle replied, "but at least we have the possibility of escape."
Sandorval looked at Maug, curled up and sleeping in shadow at the base of a stone. "We best find the means soon. The boy is almost done in."
"Indeed," said the cleric. "Let us waste no more time."
Sandorval woke Maug, giving him the remainder of the water in the bag he carried. Carlysle gazed at the swordsman with a puzzled expression on his ascetic face.
"What do you see holy man?" asked the muscular figure in a tone of contempt.
The robed figure furrowed his brow in contemplation and replied. "I see a mystery."
"There is no mystery here," Sandorval grumbled. "I am a simple man with no hidden motivations. I desire my freedom and food to eat. Nothing more."
"Oh, there's a mystery," replied the cleric. "You could have given the boy to the dark priests and spared yourself this predicament. In fact, you would have been rewarded greatly for your cooperation."
Sandorval sneered in disgust. "What kind of man would I be if I willingly gave the boy to sodomizers of children? I would slit his throat before condemning him to an existence with those pigs."
Carlysle looked at Sandorval with a pained expression and said, "Is that what you think I am?"
The swordsman looked perplexed and replied. "I am not sure what you are, boy. But you would now be lying dead if I believed you to be as the others."
Carlysle smiled at Sandorval. "You are no simple man, swordsman, and for that the boy and myself should be thankful. Now, follow me and let us see if this place indeed holds the key to our escape."
Sandorval, Carlysle and Maug left the perimeter stones and cautiously wound their way into the interior of the bizarre structure. The stone blocks sat in such a manner as to leave gaps through which faint light entered the labyrinthine interior. Carlysle was in the lead since it was his purported knowledge on which their escape relied.
"Are you certain this is not some fairy legend that you read?" Sandorval asked skeptically.
Maug, stoic as ever, looked at Carlysle as if waiting on his reply.
"No, Sandorval. I'm not certain of anything. Still, there is more truth than legend in those hellish tomes I studied during my stay at Nyarlathotep's temple. I wager that it is more true than not."
"Let us hope so," Sandorval snapped, "since it is our lives which you are wagering!"
The three figures walked beneath and among the stones, eventually coming to a large open area. It appeared to be a place in which many people had once gathered to worship and engage in rituals. Torches lined the wall and some looked to be of possible use. Directly in front of the three was an arched entrance into a darkened passage. No light entered here and the old torches were soon tested and put to good use.
"Tell me again what we are looking for," Sandorval said.
He held a flaming torch in his left hand, allowing his sword-arm to remain free for any eventuality. Maug ignored the two men, seeming to study the glyphs etched upon the stone arch.
"The boy shows interest in the glyphs."
"Yes," Carlysle answered. "The three doors we seek will be found at this corridor's end."
"Three doors," the swordsman muttered. "And a choice to be made when we find them."
"Horror, oblivion or perhaps escape," said the cleric with resignation on his face.
"Stay close to the boy," Sandorval ordered. "I will lead the way until we reach the doors. Bhorna only knows what traps may be set for the unwary."
The former acolyte smiled at the swordsman, motioning him to proceed into the corridor.
Sandorval's keen senses were at a heightened state as the trio entered the tunnel. The flickering torch cast unlikely shadows, tricking the eyes into believing things were present that were not. He cautiously surveyed all within his field of vision. Though vigilant, his mind kept returning to an earlier conversation between him and the cleric concerning their options. They should eventually come to three doors and a decision would be required on how best to continue.
According to Carlysle, based on his reading of the ancient texts, one of the doors is a shortcut to one of several similar locations on Yhutran. If we chose the correct door then we might find ourselves many miles from our present location. Perhaps we would walk into a shaded glen or instead, into the oppressive heat of an arid desert region. Either way, our chances of survival would increase compared to our current situation.
Sandorval frowned, realizing that this random gamble was the best of their options. The other two doors purportedly offered less welcome fates. A second door, according to the cleric, led into a hellish domain that Otharion had perversely stocked with a hideous array of demonesque entities. A third and final door, if entered, offered complete and total oblivion, offering total cessation of the soul's very existence. Sandorval thought that the horror of this fate was somewhat debatable. When he considered the number of oppressed people, living in torment and misery, he could not help but wonder if they might not consider entering such a door to be a blessing. Well, I best leave such thoughts to the philosophers and religious zealots. Sandorval preferred life, such as it was, and would fight to remain among the living. Time enough to learn cosmic truths after one's death.
The trio walked in silence, finally arriving at their destination. At the end of the gloomy corridor were three massive stone doors with indentations in the hard surfaces.
Carlysle looked at Sandorval and said, "The indentations are where one places the hand to open the door."
"And what of the writing on each door?" asked the swordsman.
"There's the rub," replied the cleric. "If we could read the glyphs we would know which door to choose."
Carlysle turned to Maug and slowly spoke. "Can you read the glyphs on these stones? Our lives depend on making the correct decision."
Maug peered above each of the dark doors, giving no indication that he understood the meaning of the writing.
"I thought his ability to decipher such things is why he was sought by the servitors of The Dark Man."
"It is what I was told," replied Carlysle.
The boy continued to intently peruse the glyphs but Sandorval grew impatient. Carlylse muttered words of encouragement to Maug but was unsure how much the young lad understood. Sandorval and the cleric debated in the flickering torch-light as Maug continued to study the glyphs. Suddenly there was a loud clamor and it was apparent that Garrock and his men had determined to brave the place of stones at last. Sandorval shot a hard look at Carlysle who was now on the verge of panic.
"Damn that swine!" he cursed. "They must want the boy more than I imagined to follow us in here."
"Listen!" Sandorval hissed. "We've got to make a choice and make it now. They will be on us in moments!"
The loud sound of clattering weapons drew closer. The mercenaries of the priesthood were fast approaching the cornered trio. Sandorval heard their curses as they made their way down the gloom-laden corridor.
"We're going now!" barked the swordsman. "This door will have to do."
The big man placed his meaty hand into the stone indentation of the middle door, tensing as it began to rumble and ever so slowly swing inward. Maug screamed something unintelligible, grabbed the cleric's robe and frantically shook his head no. Sandorval and Carlysle stared at the boy as he pointed to the door on the far right. It too began to creak and rumble, slowly opening inward as well. The first door opened about a foot's length and a noxious stench billowed from the darkened aperture. The second door continued open but the crack was still too small to pass through.
Carlylse and Sandorval looked into the dark fog of the first door and the swordsman hoped he would not need to use the weapon he had unsheathed. The two men and boy attempted to peer into the first door but couldn't see because of an oily mist, forming like some ominous fog. Loud disturbing noises issued from across the threshold causing Maug to cling protectively to Sandorval's leather belt.
The third door was sufficiently open for Maug to enter but the two men refused to send him through alone, into an uncertain situation. The mercenaries were almost upon them and the sounds issuing from the first doorway increased in volume. The noise sounded like huge beasts, engaged in mortal combat.
The first two mercenaries arrived on the scene only minutes before the trio's escape door was completely open. Sandorval stepped forward, his sword readied for combat. The arriving soldiers eyed him warily, trying to decide whether to attack immediately or await their compatriots. The nearest soldier, more foolhardy than his companion, took a wild swing with his sword that Sandorval sidestepped easily. The mercenary, thrown off balance, vainly assumed a defensive posture but screamed in pain as Sandorval's blade sank into the heavily muscled area between his neck and shoulder, stopping only when it struck the spine. The soldier emitted a ghastly moan and collapsed to the floor in a rapidly expanding pool of blood.
"Come on dog," Sandorval taunted, pivoting to confront the second of The Dark Man's hired thugs.
The rat-faced minion hesitated briefly but his indecision cost him dearly as Sandorval, with cat-like quickness, viciously thrust the point of his weapon into his opponent's mouth. The force of the blow sent the blade-point crashing through the back of the dead man's skull in an explosion of blood, brain and bone.
Sandorval turned to see Maug and Carlysle staring in horror at the resultant carnage of the brief fray.
"Did you have a better idea?" Sandorval snorted in disgust.
Carlysle started to stammer a reply but his words were cut off by a thick, snaky tendril, shooting forth from the entrance of the mist-shrouded door from which the wild cacophony emanated. Maug gasped in horror as Sandorval, without hesitation, clove the horror in two, jerking Carlysle from immediate danger. His sword arm was grasped by a second questing tendril, seeking to pull him into the unknown horror of what lay beyond the first stone door. Carlysle, like a man possessed, latched onto the writhing, grasping appendage, valiantly trying to pry the thing from the swordsman's muscle-corded arm.
During the grim struggle, Garrock and the remainder of his men burst onto the scene, freezing in their tracks upon seeing the weird scene that greeted their astonished eyes. Had they acted with haste they might have apprehended their quarry and beat a hasty retreat before calamity struck. As it was, their hesitation would cost them dearly.
Garrock finally gathered his wits and ordered his men to seize Maug and leave his two protectors if necessary. The nearest group of mercenaries moved forward as Sandorval used his free arm to withdraw a long knife from his belt, severing the restraining tendril in one fluid motion. Parrying a spark-inducing sword blow, he slashed a crimson gash into the face of his closest attacker. Another of Garrock's henchmen just missed connecting with Sandorval's head as the maddened swordsman slipped in the slimy fluid oozing onto the stone floor from the mindlessly twitching tendril severed moments earlier.
Carlysle rushed forward to aid his fallen comrade but Garrock's party had the advantage of numbers and the result of the conflict was a foregone conclusion. As he bent to grasp Sandorval's arm another oily tentacle passed over his head, wrapping itself around the head of a charging mercenary.
"Hack him free!" Garrock yelled to his remaining men.
Charging forward, the mercenaries clutched their weapons as numerous, wriggling tendrils shot forth from the fully opened door, grasping and clutching at every living being they encountered. Sandorval rolled away from the nearest appendage and bounded to his feet. He, Carlysle and Maug gazed in morbid fascination at the life and death struggle between Garrock's men and the writhing appendages.
The third door was fully open as well and Maug began to chatter unintelligibly, doing everything in his power to bring this fact to the attention of his guardians. He finally succeeded in drawing his companion's attention from the unholy combat. Maug frantically gestured toward the open door but the two men were reluctant to pass through the opening that appeared to lead into a void of inky blackness. It was becoming increasingly difficult to dodge and elude the monstrous tendrils wreaking havoc on The Dark Man's minions.
The terrible noises issuing from the first door grew increasingly louder, prompting the trio to action. It no longer sounded like enraged beasts that struggled on the other side of the massive stone door but instead a high-pitched whistling blared a strange and discordant melody. The sound grew louder. It was difficult for the trio to see due to the oily fog filling the chamber. Between the curses and screams of the mercenaries, and the deafening whistling from beyond the door, rational thought was becoming impossible.
"We've got to leave here now," Carlysle yelled with a sense of urgency.
"Into that black void . . .," Sandorval said, unable to finish his statement before his voice was overwhelmed by Maug's scream of horror.
The two men stared at the doorway on which Maug focused. The entrance was blocked by a black, gelatinous mass that seethed and bubbled like some foul witch's cauldron. Tendrils issued from the mass and it was from this that the strange whistling emanated. The billowing fog permeating the area began to dissipate and it was clear that all but three or four of Garrock's men were beyond help. Sandorval watched the red-bearded leader rise to his feet from the gore-strewn floor and glare at the trio. The man appeared dazed and disoriented but still possessed enough clarity of thought to remember his mission. Quickly surveying the chaotic scene around him, his face filled with rage as he focused on Maug, who was wildly pulling at Sandorval's tattered tunic in a desperate effort to steer him to the second open doorway.
"You're the cause of this," Garrock bellowed, raising a small battle-axe and staggering toward the three.
The mercenary leader was nearly bowled over by one of the flailing tentacles but hacked it in two before it could inflict any real damage. Sandorval tensed, awaiting the enraged man's attack. He deftly balanced his blade, ready to parry any potential blow, but was taken aback as Garrock raised his arm to hurl the weapon. Sandorval stepped in front of Maug, praying to Bhorna that he could somehow avoid serious injury.
The gelatinous mass from which the tendrils projected began to slowly pass through the doorway. A couple of Garrock's men were yet alive but the creature would soon dispatch them as well. The creature's mass was in a constant state of flux as an insane variety of limbs, eyes and orifices formed, dissolved and formed again in an ever-changing cycle. The shifting horror oozed slowly into the chamber as its tendrils crushed the life from Garrock's men.
Sandorval ignored this, his attention focused on the axe of Garrock. The mercenary leader chose his moment to strike but before his weapon could be thrown he was blinded by an exploding crystal orb that Carlysle procured from inside his garments. The former cleric tossed the object at the feet of the man with great effect. The flash from the object lit the gloomy chamber, fully revealing the extent of the horror and carnage.
In pain, Garrock clutched his face. He moaned in agony and staggered blindly about the area, miraculously managing to remain standing as he drunkenly trod upon the corpses of his men.
"Seems you did have a trick up your sleeve," Sandorval said to Carlysle with a grim smile.
"But nothing able to stop that . . .," he replied, gesturing toward the shifting creature whose bulk slowly began filling the chamber. Its black, gelatinous body began absorbing one of the now dead mercenaries. It flowed over the dead man, slowly enveloping the corpse. To the trio's horror, it reanimated the slime-covered cadaver that rose up inside the viscous mass of the monster. The figure shambled toward the reeling, moaning Garrock. Its snaky tentacles formed obscenely elastic mouths that consumed the other corpses.
Garrock cried out, blindly swinging his axe in a futile attempt to continue the fight. Staggering over a fallen comrade, he somehow regained his balance. With a final desperate swing, his axe blade connected with the portion of the creature that had assimilated Garrock's former underling. The sharpened blade split the surface of the beast, creating a spray of black mist, cleaving the reanimated mercenary's head like a melon. Garrock laughed hysterically in triumph but his celebration was short-lived. The creature's bubbling, shifting mass quickly enveloped the man, extinguishing his mad laughter.
Carlysle and Sandorval watched this final act in stunned silence, caught completely unaware when Maug grabbed each of the men by their belts, pulling them into the black void beyond the threshold of the third stone door.
Sandorval awoke to the pleasing sound of children's laughter. He found himself in a large pasture of tall, gently swaying grass under a cloud-filled sky that partially obscured the three suns of Yhutran. Propping himself on one elbow, he nudged the young man he had come to know as Carlysle. The former cleric rubbed his eyes, starting in fear until realizing that he was no longer in peril. Sandorval placed a firm, reassuring hand upon the young man's shoulder and nodded in the direction from which the laughter emanated. Maug and two other children, apparently brother and sister, tossed a sand-filled leather ball as children will do. They were having a splendid time and Maug was truly happy, an emotion he had not experienced for some time.
Carlysle looked at Sandorval and spoke. "I think the boy will be fine."
Sandorval clasped his companion on the shoulder and grinned. "Carlysle, my friend, I think we will all be fine!"
The two men laughed, realizing that they and the boy had survived the first part of a strange journey whose final destination was still unknown. They had become friends and they were together.
For now, that was enough.
Created: October 28, 2006