Two-Fisted Tales

Tales of Mystery and Adventure

The Crypt of the Cobra
(Part Two)

By C.L. Werner
About the author

IT STOOD HALF BURIED IN THE YELLOW SANDS, its black surface pitted and weathered by the centuries. Like a gaping maw, an opening yawned at the men who stood before the megalithic structure, challenging them to violate the crypt's eon-old serenity. High above the diamond-shaped structure, the desert sun beat down upon the earth with unrelenting fury.

Grenulf looked at the lost tomb, an uneasiness crawling along his spine as he did so. The blond mercenary had journeyed across the trackless wastes of Sythia to find this place. He had fought slavers while half-dead with thirst and armed with no more blade than the knife given to him by Kascus. Grenulf fingered the sickle-shaped sword in his bronze hands and reflected how much better such a blade made him feel. A gift from a slaver, Grenulf's knife protruding from the bandit's shoulders. A fair exchange, Grenulf mused with the grim humor of a Wehrlander, but perhaps the mercenary had taken advantage of the slaver's generosity. Grenulf fingered the small golden fetish hanging from a silver chain about his neck, even as it had adorned the silk clad desert hawk before him. The fetish was some ancient goddess, or perhaps long forgotten elf queen. An impotent deity, in any event, Grenulf decided, since the slaver's devotion had certainly not spared him the impaling thrust of the freebooter's blade. Or perhaps, like Grenulf, the slaver had merely kept the ornament because of its material value.

Grenulf returned from his musings and looked again at the tomb. His flesh crawled with a nameless dread. Surly no human hands had reared this megalithic horror. No man's mind, however mad or foreign, had ever conceived such angles and cast them in black volcanic rock. The Wehrlander's face grimaced as he thought of what strange creatures had built this diamond-shaped abomination, this alien horror which was clearly aped in the pyramids of Khemran. Grenulf's eyes turned to the ancient scribe Azhid who, under the watchful eye of Sa-ank-met, was copying the characters chiseled into the stone above the crypt's door. When he had finished, Azhid would translate the inscription for the sorcerer. Grenulf silently gave thanks to the gods that he was unable to derive meaning from such a script as the crawling hieroglyphics written upon the tomb.

Azhid finished writing and stared long at the words which he had written. Finally, in a subdued whisper, he spoke to Sa-ank-met. The Khemran's face spilt in a crafty smile and he turned to Kascus and the Isicarites who lie upon the sand impatiently waiting for the scribe and sorcerer to finish their examination of the doorway. There were but ten Isicarites now, the others having fallen to thirst, sun and slaver while far from the tomb. What remained was an unsavory rabble of rippling muscles, cruel eyes, and greedy hearts. Now armed with blades and armor wrested from the slavers and bandits they had battled upon the long road from Isicar, the criminals were fast forgetting their debt of gratitude and Kascus was increasingly hard pressed to keep them in line. Only their fear of Sa-ank-met's magic had kept them from deserting thus far and Grenulf considered it more than likely that even the Khemran's magic could not force them to abide by the shares agreed to months past in the dungeons of the Sultan.

'Know Ye the face of Seegora-seti, last Emperor of the Black Kingdom. From death comes life, from life - oblivion. Crowns may rust but thrones remain.' Sa-ank-met quoted the inscription above the door in his dry rasping voice. The words made Grenulf even more uneasy. No King of men would have such an epithet, betokening neither a chronicle of his glories nor an anathema-ridden curse upon defilers of his grave. And yet, the Wehrlander felt that there was indeed a curse here, hidden by some mocking subtlety of the crypt's builders.

'An emperor!' exclaimed Kascus, rising from the sands. He turned to the Isicarites, many of whom had followed the thief's action and leapt to their feet. 'An emperor!' the Taliosian continued to laugh. 'Thrice the fortune of any king! That is what should be buried with any emperor worthy of the name!' The Isicarites mumbled excitedly amongst themselves while Sa-ank-met continued to watch them, still wearing a cat-like smile.

Torches were lit and the men began to enter the yawning opening and descend the short, narrow steps beyond. The Isicarites at the head of the column of thieves stumbled upon the strange stairway, clutching the walls to steady themselves. How strange were these stairs, thought Grenulf as he carefully descended behind Kascus and the Isicarites. It was certain that they were not built for any human foot.

The walls of the stairway were crafted of regular blocks of the same black stone as the exterior of the tomb. The flickering light from the torches revealed that there were pictures and writing chiseled into the walls but, after a moment's glance at the ophidian shapes and slithering script, all turned their heads from studying the walls, all save Azhid whom the Khemran forced to look upon certain inscriptions which the wizard found aroused his interest.

The narrow corridor descended for hundreds of feet into the darkness beneath the desert. Far above them, Grenulf felt sure, the sun was setting, the moon was rising, and the unholy powers of evil were awakening to revel in the night. He had seen naked savages in the steaming jungles of Koth pray before gargoyle idols and marveled as wooden lips moved in response. He had seen a wizened orc shaman in the ash wastes of Visidal pull off his skin as though it were a simple robe to race across the wastes upon four lupine feet. He had seen many sights which would haunt a less stalwart heart to the grave yet never before had Grenulf experienced the sort of terror which now plagued him. It was not the darkness, nor the horrible sensation of being buried alive which was beginning to cause the Isicarites to slacken their pace and look longingly over their shoulders, nor was it the faint reptilian stench which clung about the black depths like an atmosphere of evil. No, Grenulf could not say what had caused him to mumble silent prayers to unnamed gods and it was that which caused him all the more terror.

So rapid were the series of events that they could have been no swifter had they been but a single action. The warrior at the very fore of the group turned to call back to Kascus. As the silk-clad man turned, his torch held aloft, a pale shape leapt from the darkness behind him, the gleam of metal in the shape's … hand? The Isicarite shrieked once, the small, pale thing upon his back, a suggestion of liquid darkness flowing from the man's neck as his torch fell and the horrible scene was devoured by the shadows.

Upon the stair, not a soul moved. Though there were yet a half-dozen torches among them, none of the Isicarites would advance and learn what manner of nameless death had claimed their countryman. The eyes of the criminals were round with fear as they attempted to penetrate the absolute blackness below them with their gaze. Kascus slowly crept through the ranks of the terrified men and removed himself from the forefront of the column. Preferring to battle a physical foe, be it devil or man, to the horror now filling him, Grenulf handed his torch to the retreating Taliosian and descended the steps.

Such was Grenulf. He was not a man possessed of superhuman courage, for fear struck him just as any man. But Grenulf was one who would not yield to his terror, but would rise against it and destroy it. The Isicarites might flee, but Grenulf would confront the horror upon the stair. If it could die, the mercenary would kill it, if it could not, it would be Grenulf who would die, but the Wehrlander would not flee.

Grenulf did not advance far beyond the reach of the torchlight before his veteran eyes spotted the white shape which leaped at him from a crouch several steps below. Grenulf held his sword before him with both hands and steadied himself as the hurtling form hit his body, impaled upon the blade by its own momentum. Grenulf looked at the pale shape, indistinct in the darkness. It was like a gaunt white baboon, though horribly dissimilar. A reptilian musk filled his lungs and Grenulf shuddered in loathing as he sought to push the cold, scaly thing from off his sword. As the mercenary half-turned to accomplish this, he was struck to the side and knocked off his feet.

His attacker's momentum carried Grenulf back into the ring of illumination cast by the torches of his fellow tomb robbers. The blond mercenary craned his neck to gaze upon the horror which raked his chest with long sharp claws. What he saw nearly caused the freebooter to cry out in terror.

It stood perhaps three-feet tall and was built in a debased, primitive, yet hideously human manner. It had two legs, two arms and a neck upon which the head was situated. Its body was covered in scales, however, pale white scales. The head was that of a monstrous serpent with a massive fanged mouth and malformed eyes which were as pale as the abomination's scaly hide. A purple tongue, the only part of the monster's body to betray any trace of color, flitted in and out from between its jaws. A long thin tail curled about Grenulf's leg while the snake-creature's legs straddled his abdomen. Long nails upon things hideously similar to hands tore ribbons of flesh from Grenulf's chest.

With a burst of strength born of loathing, the mercenary seized the snake-creature's frail arms and bent them back upon themselves with a loud snap. The monster wriggled in pain and unwound itself from Grenulf's body. But the Wehrlander's bloodlust had been aroused and, seizing the snake-creature, he lifted it over his blond head. Grenulf broke its back, hurling the quivering, dying mass of colorless reptilian flesh at the very feet of the wide-eyed Isicarites.

'These are no devils but vermin to be crushed beneath a woman's heel!' declared Grenulf angrily, appropriating a sword from one of the thieves to replace the one which lie below with a reptilian body impaled upon its blade.

Sa-ank-met pushed his way to the fore, his eyes alight with a fever of excitement. He knelt beside the dying creature and gazed into its sightless eyes. He touched the wedge-shaped head with a thin brown hand and drew his fingers down the white scaly hide. The monster attempted to rise, then fell and lay still forever.

Kascus, flanked by the largest of the Isicarites, cautiously proceeded further down the black stairs, passing the corpse of the first thing slain by Grenulf. Seven steps lower they came upon the extinguished torch and a great pool of blood. Of the Isicarite who had been attacked there was no sign. Kascus looked back at the remainder of the fellowship of rogues.

'Something has taken his body,' the thief declared in a horrified whisper. Grenulf cursed under his breath. He had bolstered the Isicarites' courage by insulting their pride. Now, Kascus would undo what the mercenary had done by showing his own fear.

The Isicarites spoke amongst themselves for several minutes and then began to ascend the stairs, Kascus in their midst. The lure of an emperor's hoard was not enough to make them brave the black halls further. As they began to retreat, the leading Isicarite stopped. Blocking his path up the stairs like a demonic steward of the Pit loomed the Khemran Sa-ank-met. The wizard's cat-like eyes met those of the thieves.

'Back, scum, back into the depths until I have found what I seek.' The wizard pointed imperiously with a claw-like finger at the lower darkness. But, though they still feared the Khemran, the thieves' fear of the darkness and the horror within was greater.

'You'll not stand in our way,' declared the lead Isicarite, pulling a jeweled dagger from a makeshift cloth scabbard. 'I'll die beneath the sun, where the birds shall eat my flesh, not in the earth like a worm.'

The sorcerer's eyes burned with an inner fire. Sa-ank-met slowly repeated the thief's words. 'You… will… die!' The Isicarite screamed once, the shriek echoing through the grim benighted halls, accompanied by the clatter of metal as the dropped dagger toppled down the stairs. The Isicarite's corpse fell at Sa-ank-met's feet, neither wound nor mark upon his body yet neither warmth nor life within it.

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The Crypt of the Cobra is copyright C.L. Werner. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)