The icy wind whipping through the brown, sheer-walled chasms of the Kezankian Mountains seemed colder still around the bleak stone fortress that grew from the granite flank of a nameless mountain in the heart of the range. Fierce hillmen who feared nothing rode miles out of their way to go around that dark bastion, and made the sign of the horns to ward off evil at its mention.
Amanar the Necromancer made his way down a dim corridor that violated the very heartstone of the mountain, followed by those no longer human. He was slender, this thaumaturge, and darkly handsome, his black beard cropped close; but a vaguely serpentlike streak of white meandered through his short hair, and the red flecks that danced in his eyes drew the gaze, and the will, of anyone foolish enough to look deeply. His henchmen looked like ordinary men, at first glance and from a distance, but their faces were vaguely pointed, their eyes glinted red beneath ridged helmets, and their skins bore reptilian scales. The fingers of the elongated hands that held their spears ended not in nails, but in claws. A curved tulwar swung at the hip of every one except for him who marched close behind Amanar. Sitha, Warden of the S'tarra, Amanar's Saurian henchman, bore a great doubleedged ax. They came to tall doors set in the stone, both doors and stone carved with serpents in endless arabesques.
"Sitha," Amanar said, and passed through the doors without pausing.
The reptiloid warden followed close behind, closing the massive doors after his master, but Amanar barely noticed. He spared not a glance for the naked captives, a man and a woman, bound hand and foot, who lay gagged at one side of the column-circled room. The mosaicked floor bore the likeness of a golden serpent, surrounded by what might have been the rays of the sun. The mage's black robe was wound about with a pair of entwined golden serpents, their heads finally coming over his shoulders to rest on hischest. The eyes of the embroidered serpents glittered with what would not possibly be life. He spoke.
"The man, Sitha."
The prisoners writhed in a frenzy to break their bonds, but the scaled henchman, muscles bulging like a blacksmith's, handled the man easily. In minutes the captive was spreadeagled atop a block of red-streaked black marble. A trough around the rim of the dark altar led to a spout above a large golden bowl. Sitha ripped the gag away and stepped back.
The bound man, a pale-skinned Ophirian, worked his mouth and spat. "Whoever you are, you'll get naught from me, spawn of the outer dark! I'll not beg! Do you hear? No plea will crack my teeth, dog! I will not ... ."
Amanar heard nothing. He felt beneath his robe for the amulet, a golden serpent in the clutches of a silver hawk. That protected him, that and other things he had done, yet each time there was the realization of the power he faced. And controlled.
Those fools of Stygia, those who called themselves mages of the Black Ring, had so condescendingly allowed him to study at their feet, confident of his worshipful admiration. Until it was too late, none of them knew the contempt that festered in his heart. They prated of their power in the service of Set, Lord of the Dark, yet no man of them dared so much as lay a finger on the dread Book of Typhon. But he had dared.
He began to chant, and behind the altar a mist formed, red and golden, as a mist of flames. Beyond the mist blackness stretched into infinity. The Ophirian's tongue was stilled, and his teeth chattered in their place.
It was said that no human mind could comprehend the terrible knowledge contained in the book, or hold a single word of it without madness and death. Yet Amanar had learned. But a single page, it was true, before the numinous powers of it, wrenching at his mind, turning his bones to jelly, sent him grievously wounded and howling like a dog out of the city of Khemi into the desert. And in his madness, in that waterless waste beneath a burning sun, he had remembered thatpage still. Death could not come near him.
In the mists, from the mists, a shape coalesced. The Ophirian's eyes bulged in silence-stricken terror. The woman screamed into her gag. The golden head that reared above them in the swirling vapors--neither quite serpent nor lizard--was surrounded by a halo of a dozen tentacles longer than a man. The serpentine, golden-scaled body stretched back into the darkness, on beyond the reach of eye to see or mind to know. A bifurcate tongue flickered between fangs, and eyes holding the flames of all the furnaces that ever were regarded Amanar. Greedily, the mage thought, and fingered his amulet once more.
Across the sands he had stumbled, burning, drying, thirsting, remembering that page and unable to die. At last he came on Pteion the Accursed, fearhauntedruins abandoned in the days of dark Acheron, before Stygia was aught but a stretch of sand. In the nameless, forgotten cavern beneath that city he had found Morath-Aminee, bound there for rebellion against Set when those who now called themselves men walked on all fours and rooted beneath stones for grubs. With his memories of that page--would they never stop burning at him?--he found the means to release the god-demon, the means to keep it in rein, however tenuously, and the means of his own protection. He had found power.
"Morath-Aminee," he half-chanted, half hissed. "O Eater of Souls, whose third name is death to hear, death to say, death to know, thy servant Amanar brings these offerings to thy sacrifice."
He held out his hand. Sitha placed a golden-hilted knife, its blade gilded, in his grasp. The Ophirian opened his mouth to scream, and gurgled horribly as Amanar slit his throat. At that instant the golden tentacles of the god-demon struck at the man on the altar, clutched him where he lay amid the spreading pool of his own blood. The tentacles avoided the proximity of Amanar.
"Eat, O Morath-Aminee," the mage chanted. He stared into the eyes of the sacrifice, waiting the proper moment.
Horror grew on the Ophirian's face as he realized he was dying. And yet he did not die. His heart pumped; his life blood poured from his ruined throat, the rubiate liquor flowing over ebon marble, channeled to the golden vessel at the foot of the altar for later necromancies. But he was not allowed to die.
Amanar heard in his mind the satisfied sibilation of the god-demon feeding. The Ophirian's pale eyes filled with desolation as the man realized what was being taken from him besides his life. The mage watched those eyes become lifeless though yet alive, empty windows on a soulless depth. With care he made a precise slit in the twitching chest. His hand poised above it, and he met the Ophirian's despairing gaze.
"Thank me for the release of death," he said.
The Ophirian's lips labored to form the words, but no sound emerged. Only horrendous bubbles in the diminishing flow of blood from the chasm that had been his throat.
Amanar smiled. His hand thrust into the slit, caught the pulsing heart, and ripped it free. It beat one last time as he held it before the Ophirian's eyes.
"Die," the mage said. The god-demon released its hold, and the husk on the altar slumped at last in death.
Sitha appeared beside the mage with a golden plate, on which Amanar placed the heart. That, too, had its uses in his magicks. He took the linen cloth the reptilian offered, and wiped his blood-stained hands. Sitha turned away.
"Amanar." The god-demon's susurration rolled against the walls. "Thou useth my sacrifice, soulless one, for thine own pleasure."
Amanar glanced hurriedly about him before answering. The woman writhed in her bonds on the edge of insanity. She heard nothing beyond the shrieks her gag choked back. Sitha continued out of the sacrificial chamber as if he had not heard. The S'tarra had little capacity to think for themselves, but they could obey orders. Sitha would place the heart in a golden bowl prepared beforehand with spells to keep its contents fresh. Only then would he be able to consider anything else, if his soulless mind were ever capable of considering anything.
The mage dropped his head on his chest and bowed in his most humble fashion. "O, great Morath-Aminee, I am but thy humble servant. Thy servant who freed thee from the bonds set upon thee by the Dark One." Gods and demons could not forget, not as men forget, but oft did they prefer not to remember debts in their dealings with men. The reminder could not be amiss.
A golden-scaled tentacle reached toward Amanar--it was all he could do not to flinch away--then jerked back as if from a great heat. "Thou wearest the amulet still."
"O Most High among the Powers and Dominions, this one is so insignificant beside thee that thou mightest destroy him without noticing such a speck in thy path. I wear this merely that thou mayst be aware of me, and spare me to thy service and greater glory."
"Serve me well, and in that day when Set is bound where I was bound, in that day when I rule the Outer Dark, I will give thee dominion over my herds, over those who call themselves men, and thou shalt bring the multitudes to my feeding."
"As thy word is, so shall it be, great Morath-Aminee." Amanar became aware that Sitha had returned with two other S'tarra. The necromancer flicked his hand in a summoning gesture, and the two scurried toward the bloodstained altar, dropping to all fours as they came near the black marble slab. Their eyes did not rise to the god-demon towering over them as, halfgroveling, they unfastened the sacrifice and bore it away.
A different tap jerked Amanar around to stare at the tall cavern doors. No one dared disturb these ceremonies. The tap came again. He twitched as the voice of the god-demon hissed in his mind.
"Go, Amanar. This concerneth thee most vitally."
He glanced back at the great golden serpent-shape, rearing motionless above the black altar. The flame-filled eyes watched him with--what?--amusement? "Prepare the next sacrifice, Sitha."
The bound woman spasmed in ever greater frenzy as scaly hands lifted her from the tiled floor. Amanar hurried from the chamber.
A Turanian with a pointed beard stood eyeing the S'tarra nervously, his slight plumpness and loose yellow robes contrasting sharply with the empty red eyes and ring mail of the guards. The man craned to look beyond the mage into the sacrificial chamber, and Amanar closed the door firmly. He had few human servants who could be trusted beyond the Keep; it was not yet time for them to learn what they served.
"Why have you left Aghrapur, Tewfik?" he snapped.
The plump man put on a fawning smile and washed his hands in front of his chest. "It was not my fault, master, I beg you to understand that."
"What do you babble about, man?"
"That which you set me to watch, master. It is no longer in the strongrooms of King Yildiz."
Amanar blanched. Tewfik, taking it for rage, cringed, and the S'tarra guardsmen stirred uneasily, but the thaumaturge was quaking inside. He gripped the Turanian's robes with iron fingers, pulling the man erect. "Where is it now? Speak, man, for your life!"
"Shadizar, master! I swear!"
Amanar glared at him and through him. Morath-Aminee had known the import of this message. The god-demon must know of what was now in Shadizar. A new hiding place must be found, but first he must secure within his power that which was gone. That which must be kept from Morath-Aminee at all costs. And to do that, he must risk bringing it within the very grasp of the god-demon. The risk! The risk!
He was not aware that he still carried the sacrificial knife until he slid it into the Turanian's ribs. He looked into the face that now stared open hate at him, and felt regret. Human servants were useful in so many ways that S'tarra could not be. Too useful to be thrown away casually.
The mage felt something thump against his chest and looked down. Jutting from his black robe was a knife hilt from which Tewfik's hand fell away. Contemptuously Amanar hurled the dying man from him. He plucked the knife free, held up its bloodless blade before the man on the stone floor, whose mouth was filling with his own blood.
"Fool," Amanar said. "You must kill my soul before mortal weapon can harm me."
He turned away. The guards' desire for fresh meat would dispose of what remained of Tewfik. If Amanar were to have the time he needed, Morath-Aminee must be kept satiated. More prisoners must be brought. More sacrifices for the Eater of Souls. He reentered the sacrificial chamber to attend to the first of these.
Copyright © 1995 by Conan Properties, Inc.