(A chapter from The Whispers of Altuas)


James Ambuehl

It was a slow night in the Golden Flagon Inn on the outskirts of the Altuan bordertown of Ikaar when the youth Merkul made his proposition. All in attendance were stunned despite their drunken lethargy, for this golden-haired youth was scarce aged enow to attend the Golden Flagon -- and yet he had just uttered a wager even a full-grown man in his prime would be a fool to suggest undertaking. None but the foolhardy would dare to loot a tomb at night in Altuas -- especially the tomb of a wizard!

Orso, the old barrel-bellied innkeeper sloshed more of his ale upon himself than in the mugs of his five sole patrons as he finally choked out a reply.

"Ye be daft, lad! Why, pokin' 'round in boneyards late at night is bad enow, what with th' Ghouls an' Night-Gaunts 'n' things less pleasant snackin' ther'bouts. But raidin' th' tomb of a wizard! An' not jest any wizard, mind ye, but old Vazathu himself!" The innkeeper shuddered. "Nay, I'll not take yer bet, boy!"

"Orso's right, lad," echoed Kanig, a one-time mercenary, now naught but an old scarred soldier, his wars all but forgot. "That Vazathu was a bad one. 'Tis said he called out to the heavens in their seasons and worshipped star-born devils. Many a virgin maiden was sacrificed within the walls of Vazathu's tower, and when his fortress was finally stormed it took a small garrison to bring him to justice. He called up an army of things from the very Pit itself! Things Altuas had never seen the like of afore . . . or since, thank the Elder Gods. I know, I was there." He paused to swig from his flagon. "Losses were great on both sides, but especially ours. Oh, some of them horrors would bleed when cut a-right, but those spongey, ropy things just would not die!". The former-warrior looked pointedly at the stump of his left forearm, then drifted off into his cups, but the look of horror upon his face spoke volumes.

"But Vazathu is dead!" objected the youth. "Surely there can be naught to fear from a long-dead wizard?"

"'There be Some that do not Die! 'The Outside Ones be the Sowers of the Seeds of Deception, and take for Their own naught but a Semblance of death . . .' That's from the Book of Non Amya, the book of the mightiest Altuan wizard, said to rival even great Eibon of Hyperborea himself in his knowledge of Demonology and Elder Lore," chimed in the tiny scholar known as Paroth. He blinked owlishly, obviously pleased with his own contribution to the conversation.

"All this talk of old books and older Gods is boring me to tears!" cut in Kelo, the merchant. "I, for one, shall take your offer, young Merkul, and I offer in the bargain three hundred coins . . ."

"Three hundred!" shouted the youth. "Of course, I was merely jesting before, but for such a fee I shall certainly do it! I would do it for half as much, in truth -- and indeed have done more than my own share of tomb-looting for much less afore -- but your fee shall suffice quite well, Kelo." The youth stood and donned his helmet and belted on a sword seemingly too big for him to carry, much less wield. Turning to the table anew, he drained his overflowing flagon in one fell swoop and then shouldered his pack. He stifled the wild objections with a final utterance before heading home to gather his supplies for the task at hand. "Fear not, Kelo, I shall bring you back the wizard's head as a trophy!" And with that he was out the door and into the cool, dark night.

* * *

The gibbous moon lit the roadway but dimly. Still, he could just make out the shapes of the burial vaults ahead and to his right atop the hill. Cresting the hill, he dismounted and lashed the zoan to the wrought-iron fence of the cemetery gates, then drew his mighty sword and pushed upon the gate. It swung open slowly, its rusty hinges protesting loudly. Relieved that no Ghouls or kindred horrors rushed out to attack him, he cautiously stepped inside the burial grounds.

There could be no doubt upon which mausoleum was to be the wizard's, for it stood alone in the shadows, far apart from the others, sinisterly beckoning. It appeared to be laid with bricks of gneiss or obsidian, so dark was its hue, and it stood low to the ground, squatting like a fat, repulsive toad. And from where the youth stood it appeared to have two eyes winking evilly in the pale moonlight!

As he drew near he saw that the eyes were windows, and they seemed to be lighted from within; but at the last the youth decided that it was naught but the reflection upon the crystal panes of the pale, nighted orb that was the moon.

Merkul shouldered the heavy stone door aside with no little difficulty, and had begun to step inside when he was swarmed by a sudden flurry of madly-flapping black wings. Night-Gaunt! his thoughts screamed as he frantically scrambled aside. But it was naught but a flock of bats. The door slammed to behind him after their egress had abated. Sheathing his sword, he drew forth tinder and torch and lighted it. There before him stretched the long stone sarcophagus of the wizard Vazathu.

Merkul placed his torch in one of the many wall sconces, then unslung his pack and therefrom drew a heavy mallet and several iron spikes. Swiftly he set to work, driving the spikes between the lip of the sarcophagus, thus breaking the seal. This task done, he levered the lid back with a stout prybar he did bring for just such purpose, the while a noisome stench of corruption welling forth, nearly driving him back outside into the night air once more. But his tenacity was well rewarded, and Merkul looked at last upon the lich of Vazathu.

The rot-blackened, shrivelled corpse was long, impossibly tall and gaunt, with skeletal claws sprouting from its lean spider-like fingers folded upon its bony chest. Too, the youth decided that were he to see the teeth hidden behind the hollow sunken cheeks and thin lips they would of a certain be pointed. The eyes of the sorcerer were deep-sunk, and the pate was nearly bald . . . such few strands as there were were thin and white, like worms. But what attracted the young graverobber's attention, as it were of great import, was the fact that the lich was clad in a rich red velvet robe and almost completely adorned head-to-foot with resplendant jewelry!

Upon its pipestem arms it wore golden bands, and about its waist was a leather belt inlaid with gemstones. Upon its bony fingers were sundry sparkling rings, and about its neck hung a magnificent transparent gemmed amulet of a most singular sort, it depicting an icy wheel with radiating bolts of ice, in the center of which a man-shaped icy being sat entrhoned beneath the characters "B'gnu-Thun." Merkul could not help but to shudder at this hoary alien name. For even in the bordertowns the people of Altuas had had occasion to hear the forbidden names of the very Great Old Ones themselves!

Still, not even the threat of those incomprehensible star-gods could keep him from his goal. With a desperation and determination scarce realized heretofore, the youth Merkul set to looting the shriveled mummy, with sure dexterous hands flying first to the lich, then to his pouches as he swiftly and expertly emptied the former and filled the latter. Once he tried to seize the amulet, but it was so cold to the touch it nearly frostbit his fingers. His hands being his livelihood in his illicit line of work, he would do well to keep them undamaged, he thought, and anyway he seemd to have more than enow treasure to live all of his days like a king! Even so, his greed got the better of him and he again became engrossed in his task . . . oblivious to the moment that the eyes of the mummy sprung open with an icy light and the corpse began to slowly but inexorably move with a life all its own!

Of a sudden razor-edged claws seized the youth and began to haul the frightened tomb-thief into the yawning sarcophagus. Screaming and flailing, Merkul fought back desperately, hauling backwards with all his might to keep from being drawn forth into the aperture. The lich sunk its fangs -- which were indeed sharp-pointed -- into Merkul's shoulder, and as the youth continued to pull back the lich was dragged with him. The corpse gave from its hold and flopped and clattered through the air like a sack of bones and slammed against the wall, then did fall in a pile. Merkul breathed a sigh of relief and began to turn away from the corpse . . . as the thing began to rise to its feet!

Round and round the vault the combatants flew, Merkul swinging his sword madly whilst the reanimated wizard used its claws and fangs to deadly effect. But neither gained sure purchase. The youth's torch was slowly burning down in the dank, nigh-airless tomb, the light now too dim to see even more than a shadow. Yet the combatants fought on.

In the heat of the battle Merkul began to feel light-headed and beclouded, and realized that the lich was trying to ensorcel him with spells! Verily, the shadowy outline of the mummy before him began to chant in a primal, unknown tongue. Wearily, he fumbled his sword from his grasp, and he heard it clatter on the stone-flagged floor. But when he stooped to retrieve it, it wasn't there! But naked terror forced him to quickly feel about for it and retrieve it before the thing resumed its physical attack. At last he found it and raised it aloft anew. In desperation he rushed forth and seized the thing by its now-helmeted head and began to hack and hew at its neck. To his amazement, the flesh parted much more easily than the leathery rot would suggest, and at last the corpse lay still. The youth seized his putrid trophy and stuffed it into a leather sack he had brought for just such purpose. An experienced tomb-looter despite his young age, aye, of a certain was Merkul well-prepared.

Gasping and retching, he emerged from the foul crypt, his sword in hand and his gruesome burden slung over his shoulder. He was exhausted, verily so, that he could not even feel his wounds, and decided they must be only scratches after all. He dropped to his hands and knees and strove mightily to catch his breath. After long moments he wearily rose to his feet, still dizzy and ill from his experience. He began to stumble to the cemetery gates, his feet and legs leaden. When he approached the gate he saw that the zoan was lying still, its body drained of blood. Too, he heard a flapping in the air as of great leather wings, and looking up caught a glimpse of something winged and faceless and barbed-of-tail in the near distance. Though disappointed by the fate of his mount, he was grateful that the Night-Gaunt had evidently gained its fill and would not attack him too as it quickly receded into the night sky. He would miss the zoan, but the walk back to the Inn would do him good -- mayhap clear his muzzy head and loosen up his heavy legs. He reslung his dripping sack over his shoulder, near-gagging at the stench, and stumbled off towards the Inn.

* * *

The patrons of the Golden Flagon began gagging as he entered the Inn once more, and shuffled toward their table.

"Look you, Kelo! I have the wizard's head, as I promised!" rasped the youth in a hissing voice as he displayed his gory prize.

But the patrons, aye, and the innkeeper too, merely gazed upon the form of the newcomer in stunned disbelief, then set to running and shrieking out the back door. For they had merely written their ambitious larcenous young friend off as doomed to failure . . . and then to see him return like this! For now it became quite clear that the last spell the crumbling lich had croaked had been one of mind-transference. Surely they did not expect young Merkul to return with the ancient wizard Vazathu's head -- but they expected even less to see the ancient long-dead lich of the wizard Vazathu stagger in bearing a gruesome trophy such as the freshly-dripping head of the fair-haired youth Merkul!


© 2006 Edward P. Berglund
"The Thing in the VAult": © 2006 James Ambuehl. All rights reserved.
Graphics © 1998-2006 Erebus Graphic Design. All rights reserved. Email to: James V. Kracht.

Created: October 28, 2006