Crypt of the Cobra
(Part Four -- Conclusion)
By C.L. Werner
About the author
THE DEAD OF THEIR GARMENTS and make of them a fire in the doorway. These
creatures are little removed from beasts and will not brave the flame.'
With these words, Sa-ank-met dismissed his companions and returned to his
As they busied about removing the torn and bloody clothing,
Grenulf spoke to his fellow prisoners.
'We must rest and regain our strength. It may be that
some opportunity may present itself to escape both the wizard's madness
and the blades of the goblins,' the mercenary whispered.
'Yes, to remain with him is to march into the mouth of
Hell,' Kascus returned, cutting a bloodied sash from the corpse at his
feet. 'Kormaz, you will stand the first watch while I and the Wehrlander
sleep. Wake me when you feel fatigued and I shall relieve you.' The hulking
Isicarite nodded in agreement as he put to flame the pile of garments he
had placed in the crypt's doorway.
'And Kormaz,' Kascus added, 'be as watchful of danger
from within as without.'
As they busied about removing the torn and bloody clothing, Grenulf spoke to his fellow prisoners.
'We must rest and regain our strength. It may be that some opportunity may present itself to escape both the wizard's madness and the blades of the goblins,' the mercenary whispered.
'Yes, to remain with him is to march into the mouth of Hell,' Kascus returned, cutting a bloodied sash from the corpse at his feet. 'Kormaz, you will stand the first watch while I and the Wehrlander sleep. Wake me when you feel fatigued and I shall relieve you.' The hulking Isicarite nodded in agreement as he put to flame the pile of garments he had placed in the crypt's doorway.
'And Kormaz,' Kascus added, 'be as watchful of danger from within as without.'
'Look,' he gasped; pointing to where Sa-ank-met and the scribe Azhid continued to translate the ancient spell book. A torch had been secured to the floor, throwing the figures' shadows upon the wall behind them. Grenulf's mouth dropped in horror at the terrible nature of one of the shadows.
For where the shapes of two men should be there was but one, the other belonging to no such man as had ever trod the earth. It was a gaunt shadow with a massive head and the outlines of that head were those of a reptile.
Kascus drew his sword and crept forward, his eyes fixed upon the bent form of Sa-ank-met. Grenulf watched the thief slink forward, watched him creep unnoticed to the Khemran's side and raise his blade. As the thief prepared to deliver the death blow, Grenulf gazed beyond the men and to the wall beyond them.
'Hold!' the mercenary cried, but already Kascus' sword licked out and the wizard's head fell upon the iron-paged book before him while his lifeless body struck the wall behind. The viper-headed shadow turned to face the only remaining human shade upon the wall.
Kascus looked at the scribe, Azhid, and the thief's sword fell upon the bloody floor with a cold metallic clatter. The scribe walked toward the Taliosian, the ancient form rising and becoming taller than ever it had been, even before age had made it bent and crooked. The old man's withered limbs grew leaner even as the muscles that lent them movement bulged with a new strength beneath the scribe's tattered robe. For a moment, Grenulf had the impression of inhuman, serpentine eyes gazing from the orbits of Azhid's face before that face was banished forever.
No more was the Isicarite scribe, Azhid. In his place stood a tall, lean creature, an inhuman evil from elder times. The hands which protruded from the folds of the tattered robe were covered by a black reptilian hide, red mottling like flecks of blood breaking up the snakeskin's darkness. The angular, wedge-shaped head of a serpent oscillated from side to side as its cold yellow eyes held those of the petrified thief, Kascus.
With an unsettling stride as much slithering as stepping, the cobra-headed monster casually glided behind the Taliosian. Then, with a sudden burst of violence, the head reared backwards as folds of skin in the neck expanded. For an instant, Grenulf had the impression of two gigantic eyes hovering in the darkness to either side of the open-mouthed snake-man. Then the cobra-like hood closed again and the viper's head struck the neck of the thief. Despite the darkness of the crypt and the distance separating him from the grim tableau, Grenulf could see the Taliosian's veins showing green beneath his swarthy skin as the serpent-man's venom was pumped into the thief's body.
The serpent-man let the dead body fall to the floor and slithered toward Grenulf. The mercenary held his sword before him, attempting to keep the blade between himself and the viper while averting its hypnotic gaze.
'Long has my soul rotted in limbo awaiting your coming,' the words escaped the scaly lips in a rasping voice in which was contained the utterings of jungle serpents. 'Long have I waited for one who would call my soul back from the black ages to inhabit a new body in a new time.'
Grenulf continued to face forward with his eyes downcast as the serpent-man moved slowly about the crypt. The creature's slow; echoing steps suddenly grew into a rapid frenzy as it attempted to strike the Wehrlander's side. The warrior's blade flashed out and the monster barely arrested its assault in time to avoid the sword's deadly sting.
'Where your kind now rules, my people built towers and monoliths that touched moon and sun. We reached heights of science and sorcery which your kind shall never excel.' Mockingly, the serpent-man feinted a renewed charge at Grenulf's flank.
'We advanced too far and grew too content with our lives. Our ancient enemies had devastated one another in the Dragon War, and we had no cause for fear. We did not heed that apes that dwelt in jungle and mountain. We were unconcerned when the apes discovered flame and forged weapons of copper and iron. We did not recognize the lingering influence of our old foes. We did not understand our peril until our cities burned and our people died before waves of naked savages from jungle and mountain.'
Again the viper-headed creature struck at Grenulf. Grenulf's sword lashed out once more and the serpent-man retreated, its left hand gory and bleeding. The creature held the wound before its face, a blue, forked tongue licking at the blackish liquid. Then it muttered words in a language of hisses and the wound closed upon itself.
'But we did not pass,' the monster continued in its grim, rasping voice. 'We were masters of magic and illusion. We clothed ourselves in the guise of the barbarian creatures and walked among them unguessed. We were advisors to kings and priests, planning how the kingdoms of men might prosper, all the while planting the seeds for their destruction. In time, we grew bolder still and set the crown of the Khemran Pharaoh on the brow of one of our disguised kin.
'But then our ancient foes again showed their hand. A handful of elves, who did not pass from the world with the rest of their kind, calling themselves 'Sentinels', discovered our secret empire in the shadow of man. They dispelled our illusions, revealed us to the kingdoms of men, driving our slaves into revolt. In a short time, we were driven into the desolate realms forsaken by man. Here my subjects erected this, the last great burial vault of the serpent folk. As my life passed, I was entombed. My servants took poison and joined me in the netherworld to which our eternal souls fled. The least of our people, the guards and laborers, were left behind to fare as they might. Those pale beasts which now infest these tunnels are their degenerate descendants.
'The souls of my kind are eternal and we left means by which they might again become housed in flesh. When the wizard came here seeking after our secrets, the slave he employed to translate our language stumbled upon words of power which would allow one of our number to take over his body and drive his brute soul from it. I, Seegora-seti, last Emperor of the Black Kingdom fought the souls of my subjects and my ancestors, but mine was the most powerful and cunning and it was my soul which crossed the threshold.'
Seegora-seti lunged forward, the serpent-man's cobra-like fangs bared. Grenulf spun around, his sword's blade tearing through the monster's side, spilling black blood across the floor. The serpent-man retreated, healing the mortal wound as he had the cut upon his hand.
'Damn you, spawn of apes! Were it not for that accursed medallion you wear about your throat I would send your soul shrieking into the pits of Tarterus with my magic and feed your bones to the vermin of this place. But there be gods and powers opposed to my own and they protect you from my might!' Seegora-seti clutched at the wound in its side and closed its eyes in a spasm of pain. Grenulf strode nearer the monster, looking it in the face when the reptilian orbs abruptly opened once more, nearly catching the mercenary's own in their hypnotic gaze. Seegora-seti glared at the defiant Wehrlander.
'Enough!' the serpent-man roared. 'Let savage smite savage!'
Grenulf spun about as the reptilian horde burst into the chamber, responding to the summons of their ancestors' dread liege. The dwarfish creatures swarmed forward, copper blades gleaming dully in the dim torchlight. Grenulf looked upon the hissing host as they crept forward, their forked tongues flicking in and out of their scaly mouths, their blind eyes staring into the unbroken darkness about them.
As the first of the reptilian goblins closed with Grenulf, the warrior spun about, turning his back upon the sea of fangs and swords. With a powerful heave of his muscular arm, the freebooter threw his sword across the crypt. The point of the blade struck the gloating Seegora-seti between the eyes, sinking through the soft ophidian bone, transfixing the serpent-man's skull. One of the monster's black-scaled arms rose feebly to its head and trembled beside the hilt of the sword for a moment. The likeness of the serpent-man fled the body and the corpse of the Isicarite scribe Azhid toppled to the floor like a withered flower.
Their leader, their god slain, the snake creatures let up a great cry of terror, a sound Grenulf could liken only to the frightened chirp of a desert lizard and fled back the way they had come, retreating back into the black depths of the crypt.
Grenulf pulled his blade from the head of the fallen scribe and sheathed the sword at his side. The Wehrlander looked at the bloated, poison filled body of Kascus and the beheaded wreckage of Sa-ank-met and smiled grimly.
Filling his pockets with what gold he could carry, Grenulf quickly fled the chamber; anxious to leave behind him the dark, ancient world he had briefly glimpsed.
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