Two-Fisted Tales

Tales of Mystery and Adventure



Aye, me hearties! Pirates in peril! A rascally gang of seagoing scaliwags find themselves trapped in a tunnel with two ways out...but, as the song says, "Did you ever have to make up your mind?" A tough choice this one, where either way leads to devilish horror and a grisly demise...

Seen Through Mist
(Part 1)

By John Outram
About the author


"WELL, ONE THING'S FOR CERTAIN," said Kalden. "We won't be going back the way we came."

The dust was just settling as Kalden spoke. The stone block that had dropped a moment or two before fitted snugly into the passageway behind them, sealing the route back into the main temple. Jubal the Thief worked his fingers around the edge of the block and whistled softly.

"Perfect fit," he smiled. "They knew how to build traps, these old priests. I wonder if this one was to keep prisoners in or visitors out?"

Miranna brushed the dust from her skirt with an expression of distaste.

"Of course, the runners may be less clean than they were six centuries ago," Jubal continued. "If that block had come down as fast as it was meant to, there would have been eleven pirates under it."

Kalden grimaced. He had been warned against this raid on the secret treasure chambers of the Shrouded God, warned of the cunning and cruelty of the priests who had terrorised the Serrantian Isles for a century and a half. But Kalden Yolth, captain of the Sea Devil, was not a man to shy away from a challenge. Besides, he had brought with him a crew worthy of such an adventure: Hasting Goldhair, the tall Northron swordsman and fortune-hunter; Jubal, the self-styled master thief; his girl Miranna, a former temple girl whose taste for danger put the most intrepid rogues to shame; and seven of the boldest Jebbelite buccaneers ever to swing a cutlass.

They had started well, breaking into the treasure chambers of the Shrouded God and loading four sacks with gold and precious stones before the temple guardians had discovered them. Then, after a short skirmish, they had made good their escape into the catacombs of the ancient island temple, the stone walls echoing to their laughter and the angry cries of their pursuers. All in all, Kalden mused, a good day's work. Then a wrong turn had led them away from their escape route and deeper into the ancient catacombs, and to cap it all Hasting's feet had set off the deadfall trap that now confined them in an unknown corridor.

"On the positive side," said Jubal wistfully, "it has cut off the pursuit most effectively."

"Unless they know another way, or have a means of lifting the block, or there is a secret doorway through the middle of the block," retorted Miranna, who blamed Jubal for picking the wrong path. "In fact, while we wait for you to come up with a plan they may just tunnel through."

Kalden smiled. The love between Jubal and Miranna was ever strained by the trials of a thievish partnership, chiefly quarrels about the execution of a plan or the division of loot, but there was a fierce sense of loyalty that kept them together.

"More to the point, our torches will burn to nothing in less than an hour," added Hasting. In spite of his bold appearance, enhanced by his height, his blond beard and his magnificent jewelled swordbelts, the northerner was very uneasy in dark places.

"I have a plan," said Jubal unconvincingly. "If only I could think--"

"Hush, all of you," Kalden interrupted.

They stopped and listened. Apart from the crackling of the torches they heard nothing. Then Miranna, whose ears were sharper than the rest (for which reason alone Jubal loved her dearly), exclaimed: "The sea! I hear the sea! A long way off, but definitely ahead!"

They set off down the tunnel warily, until despite the tramping of their feet they could all hear the far off roar of breakers on the rocks. If they found an exit to the sea they should be able to reach the safety of their ship. Kalden tried hard not to think of cave openings in cliffs hundreds of feet above jagged rocks and savage waves.

They had not gone far before the tunnel divided. To the left the way led down steeply. To the right steps led upwards. The worn stone floor gave away no clues. This passage might have been in regular use by the savage priests or it might have lain unused for centuries. The sound of the sea appeared to be channelled down both branches.

"I have a plan," said Jubal. As the others waited expectantly, he plucked a coin from his pocket and tossed it.

"Heads!" he announced with a pleased grin.

"Now I understand how we got into this predicament, master guide," replied Kalden. "We should check both ways, to be safe. Hasting, take five men down the slope and have a look around. Jubal, you're coming with me. Miranna, stay here with the rest and guard the loot."

"That's right, leave the girlie behind," muttered Miranna as the sailors dumped their sacks at her feet, while Jubal quietly mocked, "I come, master, see how I come."

Kalden ignored them both and drew his scimitar as he started up the steps, going as quietly as his boots and mailshirt would allow. Jubal came behind in his silent buskins, his long dagger in his favoured left hand.

"Let me go first, before you blunder into anything," suggested Jubal. "You come behind with the torch -- give me three or four yards start."

Kalden smiled and let Jubal take the lead.

"Come straight back if you run into trouble, little man," he advised.

Jubal grinned: "Don't I always?"

Though Kalden was only a couple of inches taller than Jubal, he was a good deal heavier in build and made much of their physical differences. Jubal took it in good spirit, holding that it was an advantage to tread lightly and present a smaller target. Jubal's stealth and Kalden's swordsmanship made an effective team of the two friends.

They found themselves at the opening of a large cavern, shelving down by steep ledges in which a thick, greenish mist swirled. A faint light permeated the mist, revealing the shapes of strange, giant mushrooms sprouting among the rocks. An exotic smell hung in the air, a scent of honeysuckle and all spice with an uncomfortable hint of rotting flesh. Jubal crept forward, sheltering among the rocks and cave fungi as much as possible. Letting him move ahead as planned, Kalden set down the torch and followed more boldly. Jubal hissed once and he froze. Kalden followed his gaze into the mist. Small shapes were moving among the shadows at the far side of the cavern.

"Set's teeth! What are they, Kalden?"

Kalden did not know. From among the mushrooms trooped half a dozen stunted figures in robes of brown homespun. In the shadows beneath each hood lurked a face from a nightmare, a goblin visage that was all wrinkled grey skin, bloodshot eyes and a gaping, shark-toothed maw. Each stood no more than four and a half feet high, but carried a wavy-bladed dagger dripping with yellow venom. They drew back fearfully at the sight of the two men, jabbering in some unknown tongue and waving their daggers threateningly. Kalden jumped down at them, brandishing his scimitar fiercely, and they turned and fled back into the mist.

"Do you think I scared them off for good?" asked Kalden with a touch of pride in his voice. He peered through the mist, but could not see more than a few yards ahead.

"More likely they've gone for reinforcements," replied Jubal. "Maybe we should do the same. I don't like this cave. What with this mist and those mushrooms, there are too many chances for an ambush. Let's go back and see what Hasting and the lads have turned up."

Much as it rankled with Kalden to retreat from a fight he felt he was winning, he saw the sense of his friend's suggestion. They retraced their steps hurriedly to where they had left Miranna, arriving just as Hasting and his party came hurtling up the other corridor, pale-faced and breathless. They were jabbering excitedly, some of them shaking with obvious terror.

"It was a vision of Death himself!" Hasting exclaimed.

"Two deaths!" piped one of the sailors. "One lurked in the shadows of the grave while the other came to claim our souls."

"What in the Nine Names of the Fiend are you babbling about?" asked Kalden. "Try to talk sense, Hasting! What's this about death and graves?"

"We followed the passage down to a great chamber filled with ancient, broken tombs. There was a sea mist in the place, but we could see a huge, black altar behind the grave stones, to what gods I cannot say. As we entered the chamber we saw a figure creeping among the stones and I swear to you, Kalden, it had no flesh on it at all! It was a bare-boned skeleton, dead a century at least, and yet it lived and hunted among the graves for something!

"Then another skeleton came out upon the dais of the high altar, robed like a priest and carrying a scythe. It was Death himself, coming to claim us, or some vengeful spirit sent by the Shrouded God!"

Kalden stroked his moustache thoughtfully. "I've heard of such things before, though not seen them with my own eyes. What do you think, Miranna? You served priestesses once. Do you know of such things?"

"I know priests use tricks and illusions to terrify the ignorant and weak minded," she replied with a scornful glance at Hasting. "Did you set off any tripwires? Could the skeletons have been suspended from the roof of the chamber, like puppets?"

"I tell you, I know what I saw!" shouted Hasting, drawing himself up to his full height. At over six feet, he was the tallest of the party and the most impressive looking. He drew his long, straight-bladed sword and swore by it in the northern fashion: "By this blade, I am as brave in a fight as any man! But I cannot fight devils from the underworld. We must go the other way, for I will not go back in that chamber of the dead."

"That may be easier said than done…" said Jubal, and with Kalden's help he explained what they had seen in the upper cavern.

Kalden and Jubal were convinced that the reality of ambush with poisoned knives in the mushroom forest represented more of a threat than illusionary ghouls in the grave chamber. But Hasting remained adamant that the little goblin men could at least be fought with real weapons, whereas no weapons could be effective against those already dead. The northman's superstition seemed to be shared by the sailors, who had plainly been scared out of their wits by the vision of Death.

"How close was each to the sea?" asked Miranna. "Or didn't you think to look or listen?"

Strangely, none of the men remembered sight or sound of the sea in the grave chamber, and Kalden had to admit that in his eagerness to pursue the goblins he had forgotten to listen for the sound of waves in the cave with the green mist.

"I have a plan…" Jubal began.

"So do I," interrupted Kalden.

He had already decided to send two more scouting parties to check in either direction. He and Shauri, the third mate and boldest of the crewmen, would attempt the grave chamber, while Jubal and Hasting led five others up the steps to the mushroom cave.

"And I'll stay here minding the treasure," muttered Miranna to the last crewman, who neither dared to face skeletons nor goblins. "It would serve them right if they came back and we weren't here…"

***
KALDEN CAME TO THE OPENING AT THE END of the sloping passage. A greyish mist shrouded his vision, but the pale light he had seen in the mushroom cavern lit this chamber too. There was a charnel smell of centuries-old death, and all about the cracked and scattered remains of tombs long ago broken and emptied by grave robbers… or worse. An altar of black basalt loomed on the far side of the chamber. He set aside his torch again and urged his companion to draw steel before they stepped forward.

Out of the mist came first one skeleton, then another and another. Shauri gasped and cursed, but his nerve held and he did not run. Kalden's own heart pounded but he stood firm, looking for wires or gadgets that might be used to give a semblance of life to ancient bones. He saw none, and there was no time to question the reality of the figures that slowly surrounded them. These dead bones walked, their skeletal hands clutching axes, knives and cutlasses, their grinning death's head jaws clamping excitedly.

The nearest skeleton, a towering figure armed with a bronze sword green with verdegris, sprang forward with an animation no wires or trickery could imitate. It was all Kalden could do to raise his scimitar in time to parry a downward slash that would have split his own flesh-covered skull. As he locked blades with that opponent, whose bony limbs were surprisingly strong and who held his ground as if his bones weighed as much as lead, he saw a bony fiend coming at him on either flank while Shauri the third mate was beset by two more skeletons.

Thinking quickly, Kalden shifted to the left to keep his first adversary between him and the newcomer on the right. He drew his dagger with his free hand and used it to block a cutlass blow on his left, then tried to snap a devilish shin bone with a vicious kick to the front. The leg he struck felt decidedly solid, but he forced the sword-wielding fiend to drop back a pace, allowing Kalden to force down his guard.

Thinking that a dagger thrust into an empty rib cage would have little effect, he used the pommel of his scimitar to strike a ringing blow on the gleaming skull. A red flame sprang into the monster's empty eye sockets, but the blow seemed to have done the trick, for the bones clattered lifelessly to the ground. He chopped through an axe haft to his right, feinted a thrust to the left and then kicked the disarmed creature's legs away with a sweeping kick. But the skeletons came on relentlessly. Two more jumped into the places of the monsters he had felled, while Shauri was still desperately parrying the blows of the pair he faced.

"These are grim odds, Master Kalden!" shouted the mate.

"Well, they won't get better until we make them so," replied Kalden through gritted teeth. He launched himself into a desperate attack, feinting left again and then switching his attack to his right, whirling the scimitar in a glittering web of steel. A glancing blow to the naked tibia disarmed that fiend.

Then there were only two facing him. Instinctively he thrust with his dagger at naked ribs, whether or not there were vitals beneath to be struck -- in any event, the blow was parried, but he used his shoulder to send that opponent sprawling. Again he found the bones he struck were decidedly heavy, but Kalden had barged down men twice his own weight with that manoeuvre and even a heavy skeleton went flying. He turned to cut down the last, and saw that the bony fiends had had enough. All seven had turned tail and were scrambling back towards the unholy fane as fast as their rattling bones would carry them.
Through
Kalden let them go. Shauri was down on his knees, having taken a dagger thrust to the shoulder, and Kalden doubted he could chase down all seven by himself. He had managed to fend them off, disarmed a few, but none were destroyed. It was possible that Hasting was right, that the undead monsters could not die...

Click for the Conclusion






Table of ContentsPulp and Dagger icon


Seen Through Mist is copyright John Outram. 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!)