Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Culpug the Cavelord and the Nameless King

by Michael Panush


The line of the caravan meandered with slow purpose across the white sands of the desert. Dozens of beasts of burden, heavy with wares to sell at the lucrative southern markets, trudged along with their owners close at hand; pilgrims heading to the numerous holy sites and simple families marching on to a fresh start further south followed in their wake. But to reach the bountiful south, they had to cross the unfathomable bleakness of the deep desert.

No animal larger than a rat could live there; no plants grew save in the fabled and rare oases, and the dunes rose and fell like an endless chain of mountains and valleys in the beating sun. A man lacking in water or adequate supplies could be feverish by afternoon, food for the vultures by nightfall and but bleached bones by the following day's sunrise.

And yet, it was not only the harsh environment of the desert that threatened the caravan, but those who dwelled in it. Great armies of bandits resided in the wastes, moving from oasis to oasis and falling upon the rich caravans that drove through their land. Needless to say, the Kindred of the Sands, as they were called, had no food or lodgings available for prisoners, and so prisoners were not taken. They would pillage the goods transported by the caravans and sell them for a rich profit to southern merchants who had more greed than scruples.

It was for this reason that the caravan employed several guards, men equal in ferocity and skill to the desert-born bandits. Most of these guards were little more than hired thugs from the southern cities, but in this caravan there was one who stood out like a shard of black obsidian on the white desert sand. He was not of the lean desert dwellers, nor of the fat valley tribes, or the ever-hungry swamp folk. He was of the bold and terrible race that was known to all as the Mountain Clan. He was tall, lean and well muscled. Despite the desert's heat he wore a shirt and trousers of crudely-worked hides still thick with fur, and a good cloak around his shoulders. His face was half-covered by a thick beard and framed by unkempt curly hair and his keen eyes regarded every dune with suspicion. He was a long way from home.

Among the Mountain Clan he was known as Culpug, called Cavelord for his heroic actions in countless battles with beasts and men.

He carried his weapons openly, a long spear in his hand with an ivory head carved from the tusks of the great mammoths that lived in the high mountains. He also carried a sturdy bow and a quiver of arrows on his back, and on his belt, a pair of curved sickle blades, made to resemble the teeth of the, the most feared of all mountain beasts, the saber-tooth.

Culpug looked at the large camels, great beasts which towered above him, and noticed the way their long-lashed eyes flashed around the dunes. He looked at the well-trodden path the caravan followed, packed hard by the passage of countless feet so that the eternally drifting sand never clung to its surface, and saw that it wound between two large dunes, massive mountains of sand that could hide an army in their shade. He felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. Culpug ran towards the middle of the caravan, to a large camel with a silken palanquin on its hump. He tapped his spear on the curtains and they were opened by a hand swaying with fat.

Gushan Bulgebags leaned out from under the silken curtain. He had a thin black beard, elegantly trimmed, and wore a silken robe and turban topped with a large red jewels. "Ah, Culpug. My mountain savage." He smiled. "For what reason do you disturb me from my, uh, pleasures?" From within the palanquin, feminine voices came in a giggle.

"Friend Bulgebags, I believe trouble lies heavy on the road before us," Culpug said, pointing with his spear point. "The animals sense it, and so do I. Those two dunes are a perfect place for an ambush. I suggest we find a better route."

"But that will take time!" Gushan Bulgebags whined. "We must reach the southern cities in time for the market day. This is the quickest route, and will grant us the most profits. To reach another road, we would have to double back -- and to cross the dunes..." He shook his head. "You worry to much, Culpug. But that is your nature. You are used to life's hardships, and have no way..." he paused, caressing one of the girls behind his silken curtain, then continued "...to appreciate its pleasures."

Culpug snorted and walked away, his spear gripped tightly in his hand. "Mountains crumble," he whispered, repeating the ancient curse of the Mountain Clan. He walked forward with the caravan, his alert eyes fixed on the two large dunes flanking their path.

####

Gushan Bulgebags leaned out of his palanquin and stared at the two dunes as the caravan passed through them. His great camel did seem a little agitated, but he ignored it. Another path would have meant another day traveling and would have halved the profits of the caravan drive and one did not grow fat without taking risks. Gushan stroked his thin beard and looked at the dunes. His camel was in the center of the caravan, the safest spot, with several guards around him on foot and on horseback, but somehow he still felt vulnerable.

"Come back, Gushan..." one of his serving girls whispered, but the merchant raised a hand to silence her. He looked at the white slopes of the sand and his eyes widened. The sand was shifting, moving, like a great dust storm was sweeping it. But there was not even a breeze in the air. The sand moved on both dunes and Gushan began to panic.

He leaned out of the palanquin and shouted to his guards. "Defensive positions!" he cried. "Draw steel! We are under attack!"

Before the caravan guards could even comprehend Gushan's outburst, the Kindred of the Sands struck. First, a flurry of arrows winged down from the sky. They struck deeply in Gushan's camel, and the great beast fell with a loud moan. Gushan and his women tumbled out onto the sand. Then, warriors in ragged multicolored robes and black veils erupted from the dune. They wielded wide-bladed spears, lethally curved scimitars and heavy clubs.

One warrior wore no veil and his mane of ragged black hair and thick beard was quite visible, as was the empty socket where his right eye should have been. He carried a scimitar with a jewel-dappled hilt in each hand, and he raised both blades high as his warriors ran down to the caravan. "Despair, O travelers! Beg for mercy, beg for a swift death! The sands will hide your corpses for eternity! Despair, for Kaveem the One-Eyed Jackal will claim your treasure and your lives!"

Gushan felt his heart grow cold. He grabbed a curved dagger from his belt and put it to his throat, and many of the other travelers prepared to do the same. A short death at their hands would be a mercy indeed, for Kaveem the One-Eyed Jackal was the cruelest of the Brethren of the Sands, a murderous bandit fond of enslaving and tormenting those he captured until death claimed them. Rumor said he left his victims blind and skinned in the deep desert, and watched from far away as the sun and scavengers took their course. Gushan held the dagger above his heart and closed his eyes. When he tried to drive home the knife, a grip of iron stayed his hand.

Gushan Bulgebags looked up and saw Culpug the Cavelord standing above him, one hand on his spear. "Hold, Bulgebags," Culpug said. "While we still have breath in our bodies, we have a chance at victory. I have a wife and a young son on the northern slopes, and I will see them again."

"B-but this is Kaveem the One-Eyed Jackal!" Gushan cried.

"It matters little to me," Culpug said. "My spear has pierced the hides of wooly rhinos and lunging saber-tooths and it will slay this One-Eyed Jackal." He turned away from Gushan and walked towards the charging desert warriors, his spear poised.

A bandit in a red robe wielding a long curved blade spotted the odd Mountain Clansmen and ran forward, his blade held high. He swung down, but Culpug swiftly dodged the blow and drove his spear straight through the bandit's chest. As the red-clad warrior died, Culpug freed his spear and cracked the handle against another bandit's head, then spun the spear around and slashed his throat with the point. He leapt away from a thrown javelin and hurled his own spear at the charging bandits. It drove through one, tore into a second, and projected out to skewer a third.

Culpug drew his sickle blades and held them aloft. "Come on then!" he shouted. "You'll not find me easy prey!"

The Kindred of the Sands swept around him, but he remained rooted like one of his great mountains in the midst of a windstorm. The other members of the Caravan took heart from his stern defense, and they rallied against the bandits. Gushan plunged his curved dagger into the heart of a charging desert warrior. The other guards ran to action, battling the bandits on both sides of the narrow path. Even the weak pilgrims fought, striking bandits with their heavy staves.

But they were outnumbered and overmatched. The bandits cut them down in single combat, and then the archers appeared on top of the dunes and hurled down volley after volley of lethal feathered shafts. The women and children of the caravan hid in the shadow of the pack animals and cried as their menfolk fought and died.

Culpug the Cavelord fought on, hacking off the head of a bandit, slashing open the chest of another, and still his curved blades did not slow nor falter.

Kaveem the One-Eyed Jackal watched Culpug with interest and stroked his mangy beard. "Yes," Kaveem whispered. "He would be perfect." Kaveem raised his hand and the bandits left Culpug's side, making way for their leader. The One-Eyed Jackal approached Culpug, drawing both of his jewel-hilted scimitars as he approached. "You're not from around here, I believe!" he snarled. "You are a child of the mountains, are you not? Stony-faced, dim-witted and without any knowledge of the ways of civilized men?"

"I am indeed," Culpug agreed. "And it will be the pleasure of this child of the mountains to cleave the insults from your lips!" He ran towards Kaveem, his sickle blades poised. He swung down with both curved blades, but Kaveem's scimitars flashed.

One sword blocked both sickle blades, the other slashed Culpug's exposed cheek. Culpug stepped back, then lunged forward with both knives. This time, he stopped one of the scimitars and when Kaveem raised the other, Culpug twisted his knife around and slashed Kaveem's wrist.

The blade fell from the Jackal's hand.

With a howl of rage, Kaveem let out a furious range of blows, thrusts, stabs and swipes. Culpug's sickle blades become a blur. He blocked the blows, then placed his free sickle blade at Kaveem's throat. "One more move and I will deal your death-wound," Culpug said, pressing the blade against the neck of the One-Eyed Jackal.

Kaveem laughed. "Fairly played, mountain child. But look around you, and see that I would not walk the wastelands beyond life alone!"

Culpug looked around. The archers of the Kindred of the Sands stood around them, arrows on their bows. They could fill Culpug with shafts in a second. Culpug did not remove the blade from Kaveem's throat.

"Perhaps we can strike a bargain, mountain child," Kaveem said. "There is something I need done, and I will not sully my hand with its doing. Perhaps you would care to do it for me? In return, I will see you and every man, woman and child in this caravan safely to the desert's edge."

Culpug looked around the caravan, into the terrified stares of the survivors. He looked at Gushan Bulgebags, and saw the wealthy merchant's head bobbing up and down. He dropped both of his sickle blades in the sand.

"Excellent choice, mountain child!" Kaveem laughed. "Now, all of us will go to the grim oasis, and I will tell you what needs doing!"

####

They trudged through the desert for some time, long enough for the sun to complete its circuit of the sky and vanish under the horizon. The moon rose, bathing the white sands in whiter light, while the stars twinkled above like a thousand guiding lanterns. A cold wind blew across the desert, and Culpug the Cavelord pulled his cloak tight. The caravan walked across the empty desert, their heads bowed. The bandits walked on each side of them, their weapons held at the ready in case any members of the caravan tried to escape. They had no need. The open desert would slay a man as surely as a blade.

Gushan stepped over to Culpug. "That was a brave thing you did, friend Culpug," he said. "It shames to think no one will ever know of it."

"You don't think we have a chance?" Culpug asked.

"I do not," agreed Gushan. "The One-Eyed Jackal is merely toying with us. He will surely present you some impossible task that will humiliate and then destroy you. Then he will destroy us."

"What you say is possible," the Cavelord said, shaking his head. "But I have a wife and child waiting for me in the northern slopes. To see them again, I will do the impossible."

In time, they reached an oasis, a pool of deep water standing between a swath of green grass and swaying palm trees. The oasis was shaded by a great stone slab that reared out of the sand like a saber-tooth about to pounce.

As Culpug approached the great stone, he saw that it was no work of random nature, but a man-made building as large as the great palaces of the southern kingdoms. It had been covered with intricate carvings, showing chariots charging, ranks of spearmen and swordsmen behind them, all below the statue of a stern-faced noble in a small alcove, a great crown on his head and a crook and flail crossed in his hands. A sneer of cold command emanated from his granite features.

An archway promising entry into the building -- a temple or tomb, Culpug guessed -- was blocked with a large boulder. At Kaveem's signal, his bandits began to work at pushing the boulder away, clearing a path into the stygian darkness within.

The great stone monument seemed to cast a dark spell across the rest of the oasis. The water was dark. The palm trees were heavy and leaned downwards like mourners; the only birds that flocked in their branches were squawking crows and ravens. Some of the pilgrims made the sign of their god and bent down, praying to be taken from this unholy place.

Kaveem walked over to Culpug and pointed to the monument. "Tell me, mountain child, have you heard of the great empires which once ruled these deserts?"

"I am new to these lands," Culpug said. "I know not their history."

The One-Eyed Jackal grinned. "Then I shall tell you. Long before your kind had discovered fire and the fashioning of tools, great nations rose in these wastelands. They built massive stone monuments and the techniques with which they worked are now lost. Their armies conquered nearly all the world and they left their tombs and temples strewn about the earth." He looked back at the great carved stone. "Perhaps the ways of men were not responsible for these creations. Perhaps they were gods walking upon the earth, or travelers from across the stars who shared their secrets with this ancient empire." He turned back to Culpug. "But then, for no known reason, their empire fell. Their great cities were abandoned and their nation burned around them. Even their name is lost of the dust of history. Only their ruins remain."

"And you think there is something within?" Culpug asked.

"Yes!" Kaveem slapped his back and laughed. "The only thing more legendary than their power and building abilities, was the great troves of treasure gathered by this nameless empire. Great piles of gold, jewels the size of skulls, artifacts fashioned from pure electrum." Kaveem smiled. "They believed that their treasures would be with them in the afterlife, and buried them alongside their dead kings and generals."

"Why haven't you claimed the treasures inside this tomb?" Culpug asked.

The bandits pushed away the boulder blocking the entrance, and it rolled away with an ominous groan. The darkness inside reminded Culpug of the yawning mouth of some predator.

"The treasures are not lacking for company." Kaveem pointed inside the tomb. "I have sent men inside to reclaim the gold and jewels. None have returned." He grinned. "Perhaps there is some beast within, a demon out of legend, that gobbles my men and swallows their bones. Perhaps there are traps set about the tomb, which impale and gut intruders. Perhaps the dust itself has turned poison within the tomb and all who breathe it die." He shrugged. "The Nameless Empire must have worked powerful magic and cursed those who try to rob their dead."

"And you want me to go inside?" Culpug asked.

"So I do." Kaveem nodded to his men, and they wrapped a stout stick with rags soaked in pitch and set it alight. "Here is the bargain. You will go inside the tomb. If you return, with proof that you have reached the treasure within, you and all the people in this caravan are free to go. If you do not go, I will slay them to the last screaming child." Kaveem held out his hand. "Do we have a deal?"

Culpug frowned in thought. Even if he perished in the attempt, entering the tomb would buy a few more hours of life for his companions. "We do," he said. "But do not harm my companions until you are certain I have failed."

Kaveem smirked. "Your torch should last until sunrise," he said. "If you do not return by then..."

Culpug held his spear in one hand, the torch in the other, and walked towards the darkness. He breathed in deeply, the last breath that would not be the stale air of the tomb, and entered the tomb. For those around the oasis, the light of Culpug's torch faded and after a time, the sounds of his footsteps faded as well.

Kaveem's smile seemed to grow. He pointed to his bandits. "Take positions outside the tomb. When he emerges, kill him." Kaveem turned back to the terrified caravan. "These will be your last moments on the earth. Make them pleasant."

####

Culpug walked into the entrance of the tomb, his torch held high. The light it cast on the walls revealed that they were covered in paintings, scenes of hunting, battle, and daily life. The lord of this tomb was seen time and time again, leading his men into battle on an armored chariot, sitting in a throne in a towering palace, enjoying the company of vast harems, and ruling the great and Nameless Empire. Sculptures of strange gods and demons loomed out at Culpug from the walls, men with the head of animals, women clutching feathers and curved blades and creatures that defied all description. He shook his head at their strangeness.

As the Cavelord walked deeper and deeper into the tomb, the air seemed to stick in his throat. He walked down a stairwell and realized that he was completely underground. When his torch flashed across the floor, he saw several skeletons lying in the tomb. They wore the robes of the Kindred of the Sands, and Culpug realized these must be the men previously sent by Kaveem.

Carefully, Culpug examined the desiccated corpses. Their weapons lay next to them, covered by dust and cobwebs. No marks of violence appeared on their corpses, and the bodies were all in a relaxed, sitting position, staring at the paintings on the wall. Culpug looked back from the hollow eye sockets of the bodies to the walls of the tomb. It was as if these men had simply sat down, stared at the paintings, and wasted away. Culpug shook his head and headed deeper into the tomb.

His torch flashed light against the walls of the tomb, but no gold or jewels gleamed back at him. There were only cobwebs, stone statues, and the paintings in the corner. Culpug found his eyes lingering on the paintings more and more. They were beautifully drawn, so well that the reeds in the hunting scenes shook and twisted in the breeze. In the scenes from the palace, Culpug could make out the tiniest details in the piles of tribute standing before the king of the Nameless Empire. In the scenes of the harem, Culpug found the beauty of the exotic women reclining on silken couches and cushions to be as alluring as if they stood before him then and there.

"Mountains crumble," Culpug whispered. He looked back to the tomb and continued walking. The air was very heavy and thick now, so stale that he felt that he was breathing through an oil-soaked cloth. He did not notice that his torch had turned from red to a bright, blazing green.

Soon he came to a great chamber, far underground that was the last room in the massive, empty tomb. Inside was a large stone case, coated in paintings and carvings. Culpug's eyes widened when he saw the tremendous detail of these paintings. They showed the lord of this tomb, and Culpug could swear that the cold eyes of the Nameless King gazed into his own and that his mouth opened and words came out.

"Welcome to my empire," the Nameless King seemed to whisper. "Witness my glory."

Culpug not believe what was happening, but his eyes remained fixed on the Nameless King's cold face.

The King emerged from his sarcophagus, a great figure towering far above Culpug's head and dressed in robes studded with stars. The Nameless King carried his crook and flail in his hand. These symbols of command were so bright that Culpug had to hide his eyes behind his hand. The towering figure of the Nameless King bore a crown on his head, a tall cylinder which was covered in shining rubies, bands of gold, silver and electrum. It was decorated with images of hissing serpents, lumbering elephants and even stranger beasts. The beasts moved around the crown, roaring and hissing at Culpug as he bowed before the Nameless King.

"O King," he whispered. "Where is the treasure that should decorate your tomb?"

"It is there, Culpug," the Nameless King whispered, his voice like the rustling of a desert wind. "Merely look and you shall see it."

Culpug looked and he was amazed. Where he had sworn that only dust and cobwebs had been, now vast piles of gold and jewels gleamed in his torch's emerald light. There were jewels of all colors and sizes, as big as Culpug's closed fist and shining brighter than the sun. The jewels were prisons, and tiny animals and people sat within them, pounding on the doors of their miniature jails. The walls were coated with gold and silver plating, and the artifacts of the Nameless King sat around, waiting to be used. There was his chariot, its driver still at the reins and its horses snorting to be let loose. There were the Nameless King's hunting weapons, his arrows tipped with head of gold, his spear carved from the richest wood. The furnishings of his palace were there as well, golden lounging chairs, a high-backed throne and streams of sweet incense.

The Nameless King and Culpug sat next to each other on cushioned thrones, surveying the entirety of the Nameless Empire. Culpug saw where the chariots and armies of the Nameless Empire had raided south, conquering everything they saw. He saw the tall mountains and canyons, carved by roaring rivers over endless centuries. He saw rivers long since dried and fertile fields that grew both sides of the rich waters.

He saw all the subjects of the Nameless Empire, bowing before him and offering tribute in return for the simple right to live. There were men with black skin, men with yellow skin and thick beards, men in striped robes with pointed ears, men with the heads of dogs, men with gray skin, round, bulbous heads and bulging black eyes and men with no heads, only faces within their chests. Culpug's eyes widened as he saw the strange people marching in front of the throne, bowing down and heaping mountains of gold, armies of slaves, forests of rich wood, and chests overflowing with precious stones.

"W-where is this place?" Culpug whispered.

The Nameless King smiled. "This is my dominion. Though death has stopped my empire, I dwell here amid splendor and glory for all of eternity." He put his great hand, dripping with golden bangles, one Culpug's shoulder. "Let me show you."

They walked amidst the greenery of the royal gardens and canals, and saw trees blooming in every possible color and flowers glowing with inward light. They saw reeds gently swaying in the current of the river, massive beasts wallowing through the dark mud. Culpug hunted with the Nameless King, sailing on a cedar barge down the gentle river. They skewered dragons and lumbering behemoths with barbed spears, and roasted and ate their sweet flesh in huge green fires.

Finally, they went to the Nameless King's harem, where they sat in pools of scented water dappled with rose petals and were caressed by dark-haired, dark-eyed beauties in shimmering, loose gowns. The harem girls danced before them and Culpug felt his eyes grow heavy as he heard the thump of the drums, the ring of the timbrel and the soft voices of birdsong. Culpug found his naked body being touched by the delicate hands of the harem girls and felt their soft lips on his own.

"How long will I be here?" Culpug asked the Nameless King as they surveyed his armies. Rank after rank of soldiers marched by, spears like forests and the earth shook from the rumble of chariots. War elephants marched next, followed by warriors in gold and silver armored, wielding heavy clubs and curved swords.

"For eternity," the Nameless King said simply. "You will stay with me, reliving my glories for all of eternity."

The thought hit Culpug hard. He thought of his loving wife, beautiful Mayna, and their laughing, curly-haired son Urven. He could not spend eternity without ever seeing them again. He stood up from his throne. "I must go," he said. "I have my family to think of. I cannot stay here, not for eternity." There was something else, too, another reason why he could not stay, but his mind seemed tangled in a silken net...

"You will grow used to it." The Nameless King's face seemed to change. His skin grew wrinkled and fell away, his eyes sunk into liquid and ran from his eyes, and the white of his skull peeked through as writhing grubs appeared in his flesh. His gown became tattered and his crook and flail became bent and gnarled. "The dead must grow used to it."

The great palaces, beautiful gardens, alluring harems and exotic world of the Nameless Empire vanished, replaced only by a dark underworld of flickering shadows before a vast lake of burning fire. Demons dwelled there, snarling baboons, hissing serpents, roaring crocodiles emerging from the flame.

Culpug stepped back and drew his sickle blades. "I am not dead."

"Yes." The Nameless King laughed, reaching out with his long, twisted fingers. "Yes, you are!"

The demons lunged forward, but Culpug was ready for them. He thought of Urven and Mayna and he gripped the sickle blades tightly. He buried one of the blades in the snarling face of a baboon monster, and then hacked apart a slithering serpent. The demons seethed around the Cavelord, burying him under a tide of claws, coils, fangs dripping with venom and eyes that burned with green fire. Culpug felt his breath stop in his mouth and he fell to the earth. He was drowning. Somewhere, above him the Nameless King laughed.

"No," Culpug whispered. "I am not dead!" He dug his hands into the ground and pulled. He ignored the horrendous injuries dealt to him and pushed himself along the ground, trying to drag himself away. He felt the ground under his fingers and knew that it was the dirt of the tomb. Slowly, the demons pulled away from him. The lake of red fire vanished, replaced once more by the grand palace and gardens of the Nameless Empire. The Nameless King stood above Culpug, human again.

"Come with me," he whispered. "Witness my glory." His eyes were two hollow holes studded with twinkling stars. "Don't let me be alone."

"No!" Culpug came to his feet and ran. He pounded up the stairs and through the hallways of the tomb, coughing and retching until he felt the clean desert air in his lungs. He leaned against the wall and breathed fitfully. "Mountains Crumble," Culpug whispered. "What was that?" He looked at the torch. It had fallen on the ground when he ran from the burial chamber and it was burning red again. Culpug picked up the torch.

"A dream," he whispered. "A waking dream, brought on by the strange, ancient air in this cursed place." He gripped the torch tightly and headed for the exit of the tomb. "Just a dream," he whispered. He looked up and saw moonlight and the stars through the tomb's entrance and rarely was a sight sweeter.

####

When Culpug emerged from the tomb, he was not surprised to see the archers staring at him, their arrows ready to fly. Kaveem the One-Eyed Jackal stood next to them, smiling at Culpug. "I'm afraid I may have been a bit hasty in making that deal," the One-Eyed Jackal said with a laugh. "Here is another bargain. I will kill you and then kill everyone in the caravan. But you can prolong your death by telling me what you found in the tomb."

Culpug looked at the archers and then at Kaveem. He stared at the men, women and children of the caravan. Slowly, he looked back into the yawning mouth of the tomb and then at the frozen sneer on the Nameless King's face, resting in its carving above the tomb's entrance.

"Tell me what you saw!" Kaveem demanded. He nodded to his archers. "I will pin your legs to the ground unless you talk!"

"I saw mountains of treasure," Culpug whispered. He looked into the eyes of each archer as he talked. "Enough to build an empire from the desert. Enough to build a paradise." He pointed into the cave. "If someone just ran in there, they would become the most powerful man in the world, and would not have to spend their lives licking the boot heel of some jackal!"

One of the archers licked his lips. "Are you certain?" he asked. "What about the guardian?"

"There is no guardian." Culpug turned to Kaveem. "There are no booby traps. The men inside were killed by Kaveem's own scimitars! He lied to you, his faithful warriors, so he could keep the vast treasure for himself!"

"Lies!" Kaveem the One-Eyed Jackal turned to his archers. One by one, they trained their arrows at him. The other bandits drew their blades and clubs and moved behind the archers, waiting for something to happen. Kaveem looked from one bandit to the other. "You cannot do this!" he cried. "You are my men! You are--"

A single volley of arrows flew towards Kaveem the One-Eyed Jackal, riddling him with shafts. He sank backwards, gasping in pain as he fell to the sandy ground. He looked up at the tomb and stared at the face of the Nameless King, before his eyes glazed.

The bandits looked back to Culpug. The Cavelord stepped away from the tomb and pointed into the entrance. "Vast treasures," he repeated. "Just waiting to be claimed."

As one, the Kindred of the Sand rushed forward. They fought and pushed each other to get into the tomb first, trading blows with club and blade. Several of the archers were knocked down by the other bandits, and trampled to death as the Kindred of the Sand poured into the tomb. Their footsteps pounded down the stone steps of the tomb, and in time even those faded. Culpug looked back at the oasis. Every bandit had disappeared into the tomb.

Gushan walked over to Culpug and slowly looked after them in the tomb. "I could have some of my men push the boulder back over the entrance and lock the bastards inside," he suggested.

Culpug shook his head. "Do that and I will kill you. These men are bastards, but they at least deserve a chance at escape."

Gushan Bulgebags nodded. "Well," he asked. "What was in the tomb? Was it gold, jewels, or some demon or deadly trap?"

"It was terror," Culpug whispered. "Terror beyond imagining."

"What was it?" Gushan asked again.

Culpug looked into the mouth of the tomb. "What every man desires, but what cannot be his until he ceases to be a man. Now let us leave this place without further delay."

The caravan swiftly gathered supplies from the shaded oasis and set out into the desert for the southern cities, never to enter the realm of the Nameless King again.

THE END


© 2008 Michael Panush

Bio: Michael Panush is an eighteen-year-old student in Sacramento. His stories have been published in Alien Skin, Demonic Tome, and the Tiny Globule. This story is one of a number of tales featuring Culpug and his ancient world. His newly-self-published novel, Clark Reeper Tales: The Truthful Telling of the Adventures of the West’s Wildest Bounty Hunter, is now available from Amazon.com.

E-mail: Michael Panush

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