Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Crypt of Darkness

by Kirk Straughen


The night was cold and still. The stars and Moon of Rings -- distant lamps hung upon the roof of heaven. They shed their pale light upon the Necropolis of Akoon, wrapped in its blanket of mute silence and purple shadow.

Tall and time worn were its obelisks, softened further by snow that dusted their granite forms and gathered in deep drifts about each base that marked the icy crypts in which lay the city's ancient dead.

Movement disturbed the quietness of this somber solitude -- the crunch of booted feet upon the glittering snow as two figures clad in heavy furs struggled towards their goal.

Naewis cursed the biting cold as he trudged along. The tall Xubwean was from the balmy Southern Lands. As black as polished onyx was the man, and blacker still his mood as he gazed upon the woman that he must follow.

Jalala turned and met his brooding stare. Her face was a pale oval within the fur lined hood of her heavy robe. She met his hostile look, and he saw quiet mockery within her glowing, emerald eyes as she brushed back a strand of silver hair that had escaped her cowl.

"Hurry, slave," she called. Her voice was vibrant, and in it all the passion and cruelty that is Woman. Naewis cursed himself as desire came upon him, and with a muttered oath he surged through the clinging snow to her side.

He stood there, a massive primal figure, hate and lust written plainly upon his handsome visage. Jalala's eyes, glowing with the emerald fire of sorcery, regarded him with mild amusement, knowing that he wanted her but was helpless, held in check by her dark magic.

Suddenly, she stood nude before him. He drank in the slimness of her form, delicately molded, infinitely desirable. He reached for her, goaded by unquenchable desire, an animal sound rumbling deep within in his throat.

Jalala laughed. Tendrils of light sprang from her eyes, ensnared the lunging man in coils of emerald force. Naewis struggled against the web of power. His mighty thews swelled; his face contorted by the effort. Head flung back, he howled in frustration and utter rage. He could not move an inch.

The binding forces vanished. Naewis collapsed upon the snow. He lay there, breathing hard, muscles trembling. The girl looked down upon him, clothed once more, and smiling cruelly with the pleasure of her game. Abruptly, she signaled for him to stand.

They continued in silence, more swiftly now, the passive mask of the giant belying smoldering passions, blacker than the dusky night. Again, his dark eyes focused on the slim figure of the girl -- as beautiful as she was proud and cruel. Ah, but if he could find a way to circumvent her magic ... He smiled evilly, and became lost in gloating fantasies...

At last they arrived at their goal -- a soaring monolith, black and ancient. Hieroglyphs of sinuous form, worn almost to nothing by Time's abrasive hand, snaked across the sullen, rearing stone.

Jalala cursed vehemently. The aeons old crypt at its base had been violated, its massive slab of sealing stone pushed aside. Naked steps stood revealed, leading down into a pit of sinister darkness.

"Damn my brother for a fool," she spat. "Disturbing Nagar's grave. This outrage could bring the Order's wrath upon his head."

I hope it does, thought Naewis. Akoon, city of sorcery, ruled the frozen North, and even the distant Southern Lands must pay tribute to her cruel Magician Lords in slaves and gold, as the presence of the brooding giant clearly testified.

At Jalala's command Naewis doffed his rucksack, and as she rummaged through its contents he gazed upon the distant city. Moonlight glittered upon its gilded spires, setting the myriad jewels that graced its domes sparkling with pellucid radiance. A fairytale metropolis glistening in the snow, but one built with the blood and suffering of countless Southern slaves.

The man grimaced, was tempted to spit in its direction, but Jalala's voice broke through the darkness of his thoughts, and Naewis decided not to press his luck.

"Take these," ordered the girl as she handed him both sword and glow-rod. "You first. Call my brother's name. I shall follow close behind."

Naewis descended. "Jal, are you there?" he called. From the darkness, only trembling echoes answered.

The glow-rod's golden light drove back the shadows as man and girl descended. Fear touched both of them. The air was thick with magic. Even Naewis could sense it, brooding and unseen in the darkness -- Jal‘s necromancy, or something fouler still?. Both wanted to turn back, but were unable -- Naewis because he was a slave; Jalala -- because she was too proud.

The tomb of Nagar seemed to close about them like a giant's fist. Two thousand years ago the ancient sorcerer had been flayed, then buried alive within this crypt by his heartless peers, who sealed it with potent spells that bind the souls of men. And his crime? None knew for the records of that dark and ancient deed had been expunged.

They reached the bottom step. Icy stillness reigned in utter darkness, and the gloom was thick with unseen things that chilled the blood. Like monstrous spiders, they seemed to hover at the edge of vision, just beyond the circle of the glow-rod's light.

Jalala looked about. The girl was sheathed in emerald fire -- a shield against the force of blackest magic -- and yet she was afraid. Her eyes touched the huge Xubwean. He stood slightly crouched, alert and ferocious as the terrible nubix of the Southern jungles. His presence was somehow comforting, and she felt ashamed that this savage could ease her terror.

"Over there," came the girl's harsh command. "I think I see something."

Naewis advanced, sword before him, glow-rod held aloft. They came upon a body -- a twisted, mangled thing of utter horror. Jalala quickly turned her head away, collapsed on all fours, retching. Even Naewis who, as a slave had seen much death, paled at the sight.

Jal had sought to rouse Nagar's spirit with his necromancy, and thus learn the dark secrets of the ancient sorcerer. But no harmless incorporeal shade could wreak such havoc upon a man. Fear's dread hand closed upon Naewis with the terrible realization that some potent and malefic thing dwelt within the icy crypt.

A presence made itself felt in the darkness. Jalala's head snapped up. Both man and girl beheld the Abomination as it materialized within the light. It stood there -- a thing of utter ghastliness that froze them, like medusa's stare, with its awful presence.

Its man-like body was composed of woven shadows that defied the light, and from its frame a dark aura, blacker still, seemed to emanate -- as if all man's deepest fears were manifest in its horrid form, and from it spilled in icy waves of coldest terror. Then, to culminate this nightmare manifest, a source less voice did speak -- the voice of Nagar, strange and sinister.

"I was foully tortured and my enemies, with blasphemous rites, did mock me further by burying me alive within this tomb." For a moment mad laughter bubbled up from the depths of surrounding darkness, then it continued more calmly, in saner tones.

"But I survived, and with subtle magic did build a new undying body. Oh, how I've brooded in utter darkness, plumbing the depths of magic, blacker still, as I waited for some grave robber to break the seals of power. And now, after what seems eternity, I am free at last."

Jalala slowly stood, mounting anger burning away her fear. She cursed the thing, named it the killer of her brother. Naewis was caught between conflicting thoughts: to flee and save himself, or to stay and aid this girl whom he both hated and desired.

Suddenly, the thing drifted before the stairs cutting off escape, and the matter was settled for him with absolute finality. Though faceless, the thing seemed to focus upon Jalala, noted her blazing aura of emerald flame, and to her horror the girl felt it somehow leered at her.

"Do you know child, why my brother sorcerers feared me, tried to kill me? It was because I was on the verge of perfecting a spell that would drain all magic from a wizard, and leave him nothing but a mortal man."

Then, with sardonic cruelty: "Here, let me demonstrate the realization of my efforts."

Its body shimmered, spewed forth darting streamers of ebon force. Jalala's nimbus flared. From her glowing eyes sprang spears of blinding of light. Naewis leapt clear as darkness and light collided in hissing sparks of dripping flame and leaping prominences of raging fire.

Behind Nagar he madly dashed, rammed the sword deep within the horrid being as flaming bolts crashed all about in narrow misses, showering him with chips of smoking stone.

The thing laughed at him as he stumbled back -- his weapon had no effect. Jalala screamed. Her aura, swathed in midnight shadow, flickered out. She collapsed upon the floor. Again, in utter desperation, Naewis threw himself upon the thing -- it was like trying to wrestle with a ghost.

Phantom hands formed from the coiling energy it vomited forth, latched upon him; hurled him across the crypt with stunning force. Naewis tried to struggle up, but was unable. His great strength was no match for the power of Nagar's dark sorcery.

The Abomination glided forward, advanced upon the wide eyed man. Naewis lurched up. There was no escape, but even so he was determined to die upon his feet. Manly thoughts, true, but nonetheless sickening fear coiled inexorably about his soul as the thing closed upon him.

Naewis tensed. The Abomination stopped. It spoke.

"A man of the Southern lands, as was I, though you wouldn't know it now."

Mad laughter, cruel and chill, burst all about from the shadows at this dark jest, licking the Xubwean‘s spine with its awfulness. Then, bleakness seemed to come upon the thing as it again spoke in grim soliloquy.

"In the South I was an outcast -- a freak like these Akoonians whose mental powers enable them to manipulate the very fabric of reality. I came here seeking acceptance from my brother sorcerers, but instead was met with prejudice and base treachery ...."

Silence descended for a moment, then it focused upon the tensely watching man, and in its eyeless gaze was it envy that Naewis sensed?

"Ah, but I see my words mean nothing to you," it sadly said. "I'll let you live, and the girl, for plainly you desire her, and the thought of this chit being your slave amuses me."

Again it laughed -- a bitter sound filled with shattered dreams and all the desolate loneliness only misfits truly know.

Then, for a final time it spoke: "Only vengeance, dark and sweet, is left to me. And when I'm done, through self-destruction, I'll find the blissful peace that I so crave. Farewell dark brother, and may you find the happiness that was denied me so."

The once-man's body shimmered, became a thing of wavering smoke and shadows. It shot forth from the crypt in a storm of red flecked darkness, and mounted heaven on wings of sable mist.

Jalala moaned, the soft sound stirring the wondering man. A chip of masonry struck his shoulder. A larger piece crashed mere feet away -- the hammering bolts of the magic duel had weakened ancient and crumbling stone.

Naewis ran forward, swept the trembling girl within his arms as larger blocks began to fall in a deadly rain. Choking dust filled the air as he dashed madly for the stairs. Rocks crashed down all about. One struck his head a glancing blow. He reeled, nearly fell.

The glow-rod went out, crushed beneath tumbling stone. Jalala cried in terror, clung to him. In the sudden gloom Naewis tripped upon the lowest tread, cursed. The tomb was caving in as he staggered up the stairs, blinded by darkness and clouds of billowing dust.

Coughing violently, he stumbled into the moonlit night, gasping air. A cracking sound drew his eye. Looking up, he glimpsed the crypt's mighty obelisk falling on him like the mace of a vengeful god.

Jalala screamed. Naewis leapt. The obelisk crashed to earth. Silence ...

Slowly, Naewis levered himself off the girl. No sorcerous power lurked within her emerald eyes, only terror with the realization of her utter helplessness. Their eyes touched, and the thoughtful man was strangely moved -- not by hatred, nor by lust; but by compassion.

Perhaps, he thought, the loss of her powers is a greater punishment than any I could inflict upon her.

The sounds of shrill and distant screaming drew the couple's startled gaze. A pall of sorcerous darkness hung upon Akoon, and Jalala began to weep at the sight of Nagar's bloody vengeance. She did not resist as the giant Xubwean gathered her in his arms, nor when he gently wiped away her tears.

"Your people's reign of tyranny is ended," he quietly said. "But you are safe for I shall not repeat the error of their ways."

Then he kissed her, and in his lips Jalala found an unexpected tenderness that moved her deeply.

Slowly, he stood, cradling the wondering girl; then turned his back on the frightful scene, and with sure steps marched towards the lights of a secluded peasant cottage. The man smiled to himself as he walked, for he knew winter was drawing to a close, and the Southern Lands would beckon soon with open roads, warmth and light, and the promise of a new beginning.

THE END


© 2009 Kirk Straughen

Bio: Mr. Straughen takes his inspiration from the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs (of Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, etc., fame), Otis Adelbert Kline, and Leigh Brackett, stalwarts of the golden age of pulp fiction...

E-mail: Kirk Straughen

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