In the coastal, tropical forests east of Thinhla, lost amid creeper-cursed and vine-entwined ruins of an ancient city—where orchids took root in crumbling courtyards and shifty-eyed chameleons swayed atop the slumping piles of primal ziggurats—there lay the toppled temple of Ahorra Izz, the scorpion-god, whose stone steps went down to caverns of forbidden treasure beyond all dreams of human avarice. Guarded to east and west by twin rivers no man had ever named, whose steamy banks crept with crocodiles and whose waters teemed with tiny, terrible flesh-eating fishes—and by jungles of hybrid vegetation voracious beyond any appeasement, whose spines and suckers were armed with potent poisons—the place would seem unassailable and the treasure of Ahorra Izz entirely safe from all outsiders . . . And yet—
At least one man had been there, had filled his pockets to brimming with brilliant red gems, and had survived to tell of that hellish hothouse of rotting ruins and vampire vegetation—but only at the expense of his freedom . . .
It was four long years now since Tarra Khash the Hrossak had stumbled half-dead into Thinhla. So thin as to be almost fleshless, full of a delirious fever, in his semiconscious nightmare he had gibbered and moaned of the treasure of the scarlet scorpion. And yet he was lucky, for if the scum of the city had found him in that condition—if his staggering feet had taken him into the city’s stews or fleabitten flophouses—then Tarra Khash would certainly have vanished; swiftly and silently removed, food for the great fishes that follow the galleys and split the water dorsally in Thinhla’s harbour. As it was, he collapsed outside the walled courtyard of a convent, where dwelled seventeen sweet sisters of mercy whose devotions were to Theem’hdra’s benevolent gods and goddesses. And there they found him in the dawn: life all but ebbed from him, a scarlet fortune bursting from his pockets like clots of blood frozen in some cold and alien hell.
For three months they tended and nursed him, returning him to life and flushing from his system poisons which would surely have killed a lesser man; and as the fever went out of him so his strength flowed back, and soon he was able to frown and question and ask for his treasure, that scarlet wealth of rubies wherewith his pockets had been stuffed. And all of this time his presence in the convent remained a secret; because the sisters were what they were, no one questioned the fact that they now paid for certain of their provisions with tiny red rubies. No one, that is, except Nud Annoxin, Thinhla’s fattest, richest and most loathsome jewel-merchant.
Such was Nud Annoxin’s interest that he set a spy to watch over the convent day and night; and when at long last Tarra Khash took his leave of the place and found himself a proper lodge in the city, then the secret watcher reported that occurrence to his fat and offensive master. Also the fact that Tarra Khash appeared to pay his way with rubies of a rare and flawless beauty . . .
Now the Hrossak was not a subtle man; little more than a barbarian, as were all the men of the steppes beyond the River Luhr, he was big, blunt, occasionally brutal, but above all, open as a book with its covers laid back. Another man endowed with Tarra’s wealth might have tried to keep his secret hid, might have purchased a large property and employed hirelings to guard him and hoard both. But Hrossaks believed in living and few men of the steppes would willingly pen themselves, to which general rule Tarra was no exception. Now that his health was returned to him he began to live as he had lived before, and life to Tarra Khash could only be poured from a bottle, gnawed from a juicy bone, or found in the purple-sheeted bed of a bawdy-house belle. Which was why he was the perfect subject for the wiles of one such as Nud Annoxin . . .
Waking up late one hot morning, in his tavern bed above the waterfront, Tarra stuck his tousled head out of his high, small-paned window, smelled nets drying in the sun and the salt breeze off the Southern Ocean, and licked lips dehydrated by yestereve’s alcoholic excesses. He remembered entertaining thoughts of a woman, and then of drinking to the idea until it became untenable, and finally of staggering back here under a reeling moon to climb corkscrew stairs to his horribly revolving bed. Now he laughed at such memories, then quickly groaned at the dull ache his laughter conjured up from the ghosts of his boozing.
Food, that was the answer! The Hrossak cursed himself for a fool. All of that drinking on an empty stomach. Well, he could remedy that: not the hangover but the emptiness, at least. A hearty breakfast would do the trick, washed down with a draught or three of good ale. Tarra grinned as he dressed and thought back on his life; but as his thoughts took form so his grin faded, and he grew remarkably philosophical for a Hrossak. There once was a time when he would drink for the hell of it, but since leaving the convent he seemed to drink only to forget . . . to forget the horrors he had known in the temple of Ahorra Izz!
And yet even now he could not be sure whether it had been real, or whether he had dreamed it all. He had certainly not dreamed the treasure of the nether-caverns; no, for the pockets of his wide belt were even now full of perfect rubies large and small; but what of the rest of it? Tarra Khash shuddered as he sat down on his bed to roll up the sleeves of his shirt and the wide-cuffed bell-bottoms of his trousers, to peer yet again at the dozens of tiny white scars which marred the bronze tan of his calves and forearms . . . And suddenly his hunger abated somewhat as a renewed desire for strong liquor rose up in him like a tide.
Now naïve as the Hrossak was, he was not so dumb as to dwell on the seamy side of Thinhla without taking certain precautions—not while he was master of so much wealth. Eventually he intended to board a ship bound for Grypha, make his way up the Luhr and so back to the steppes; but for now he was satisfied to recuperate in his own way, to convalesce in a manner befitting his near-barbarian status, and Thinhla had more than enough amusements and diversions for a man of the Steppes of Hrossa.
As for his precautions: they were simple enough. This garret room, for instance: unassailable from the outside, it looked down precipitously upon the wharves. And its stout oaken door, double-barred and bolted—with a padlock whose single heavy key Tarra wore around his neck—would admit no one he wanted kept out. And so, no matter how drunk, he felt perfectly safe to sleep here; and awake—why!—who in his right mind would tackle a grinning Hrossak with arms like a bear and a wicked sabre sharp as a well-honed scythe?
As he left the tavern and made his way into the backstreet away from the wharves, Tarra came around a corner and bumped (by accident, apparently) into a fat, jolly-looking man who caught hold of his brawny arms to steady himself. This was Nud Annoxin—wearing a very false aspect—who had made a covert study of Tarra’s habits and quite deliberately chosen this morning to place himself in the Hrossak’s way. Now the fat man unhanded Tarra and bowed, as best his belly would allow, before introducing himself.
“Nud Annoxin,” he informed, holding out a pudgy hand. “My pardon, sir, for almost tripping you; but dreaming of a hearty breakfast and a gallon of ale, I was not watching my way. I’ve just returned from a profitable business trip in the hinterland—but a dry affair and almost completely void of victuals—and now I hie me to my favourite eatery. You’re a steppeman, I see. Perhaps you have an appetite?”
“Aye,” Tarra grunted, “I’m a Hrossak—and a hunger on me, certainly—and something of a thirst to boot!”
“Then say no more,” said Nud with a nudge and a wink. “Come, be my guest. I dwell not far from here; and no finer wine cellar in all Thinhla.” And he took Tarra Khash by the elbow.
The Hrossak shook himself free and looked momentarily suspicious. “Your favourite eatery, you said.”
“Most certainly!” cried Nud, standing back. “My own house, I meant, whose kitchen is that of a veritable king of gourmets!” He patted his stomach. “Can’t you tell? But come, will you be my guest? And after we’ve eaten, perhaps my dancing girls may entertain . . . ?”
That last did the trick, for now the jewel-merchant had offered all three ingredients in the Hrossak’s ideal brew of life. Tarra grinned and slapped Nud’s meaty back, which made all of his flesh tremble like so much jelly, then bade him lead the way and gladly followed on behind.
Four long years gone by, but the Hrossak remembered every detail of that first meeting as if it were yesterday. More clearly, in fact, for there had been precious little in between to dilute or dim the memory. Only this deep damp well of a cell and his nightly, self-imposed task of cutting hand- and footholds in its walls, which were too far round in the circle to climb as a chimney.
And yet Nud Annoxin had delivered all he promised—much more, to tell the truth. There had been food all through the fore and afternoon, and drink by the flagon—a deluge of drink—until Tarra’s head swam in it like a fish in blinding, bubbly, sparkling shallows. And dancing girls (Annoxin’s “daughters,” the fat liar said, though Tarra had doubted it) and more food and wine. And Nud had grown merrier (or had seemed to), telling the story of his life to Tarra Khash; and oh!—they had become fast friends.
Until Tarra too told his tale: the story of how, wandering east of Grypha, he had paused to cast a line in the Bay of Monsters; and of the large fish he caught, and the greater Roc-bird that caught him and fish both; of the journey westward clutched in terrible, rib-cracking talons, until the Roc’s nest of five hunger-crazed chicks big as lions was sighted atop a jungle-girt crag; then of stabbing his feathered captor, and of falling to the jungle’s verdant floor cushioned by the carnivore’s carcass; and finally of stumbling upon the lost city and the discovery of the temple of Ahorra Izz, its stone steps descending, the caverns of rubric-glowing riches . . . and—
And there the Hrossak came to his senses—or what was left of them—but far too late. Drugged, he lay supine upon Nud Annoxin’s couch; and the fat merchant, sober as a judge, dragged from him the whole story in most minute detail; all the while forcing resistless potions down his throat, until the words poured from him and left him empty, unconscious, and doomed to dwell for the rest of his life in the deep, well-like dungeon wherein Nud’s eunuchs then tossed him.
As to why Nud had not simply killed him: he was not happy that Tarra had told all. If the jungles were so dire and desperate, the swamps so full of foot-long leeches and the rivers a-leap with needle-tooth fishes, how then was the Hrossak come all these leagues to Thinhla? And all alone and unaided. Better to keep him in a deep dungeon and milk the whole truth from him bit by bit. For Nud was not satisfied with the rubies stolen from Tarra’s belt; he wanted more—he wanted the entire treasure of the scarlet scorpion!
And so time passed, months growing into years, and Nud Annoxin going often to peer into the well-cell’s deep throat, to coax and cajole Tarra Khash and drag from him bits of information, some of which even Tarra thought he had forgotten. But in the stillness of long nights, when only the cheeping of rats disturbed the silence, then the Hrossak chipped at the rotten mortar of his circular cell wall and slowly formed his life-ladder; and he swore a grim vengeance on the fat jewel-merchant, when at last his fingers should reach the rim and haul him up from hell . . .
“Tarra?” came nud’s greasy voice one late afternoon, echoing in his captive’s subterranean sinkhole and sending the rats scurrying. “Tarra, are you listening?”
“What else have I to do, fat dog?” And Tarra looked up to see Nud’s rim-peering face high overhead.
“My friend, I have a flagon of fine wine, a fresh loaf of bread and a wedge of cheese. Aye, and a question, too.”
“First the wine, the bread and the cheese,” answered Tarra. “Then the question.”
“And you’ll answer truthfully?”
“As best I can, though for a fact I know that when you’ve done with me you’ll simply let me rot down here.”
A bucket was lowered with the aforementioned fare, while Nud tut-tutted and denied Tarra’s charge, saying, “Come, come, old friend, let’s not speak of tomorrow. Have I not promised that when my hirelings return with treasure and a well-marked map, that then I’ll set you free? But until one or two such really do return, and until I have the map to hand and a portion of the treasure to prove it—”
“I stay where I am, eh?” said Tarra softly. “Well, it’s my belief that when you have the route and a small sack of ruby-shards, then you’ll send me down a flagon floating with poison. Either that or you’ll block up this hole entirely.” And then he gave himself up to the food and drink, for Nud had not fed him for a day or two.
Finally, when the chomping and swilling ceased and Nud heard only the Hrossak’s low breathing, he called down: “Listen, and I shall tell you of my progress, which previously was far too slow . . .”
Now Tarra Khash had heard most of this before. He knew that Nud liked the sound of his own oily voice, and that he reiterated mainly for his own benefit, and so sighed as he resigned himself to the jewel-merchant’s monologue. Anyway, he had nothing better to do, and it amused him in a grim sort of way (as much as he might be amused in this rat-infested hole) to learn of Annoxin’s many trials and not so many tribulations.
“More than three years agone,” the fat man began, resting elbows on rim and many chins in cup of flabby palms, “you told me your tale of the rogue Roc, of its death under your knife, of your fall to forest floor and subsequent discovery of ruins, temple and treasure. Since when, little by little, by one persuasion or another, you’ve remembered your route out of that place and other things important to my plan; and I, by use of certain hirelings—many hirelings, in fact, and well paid to boot—have attempted to retrace your steps.
“I asked you, you’ll recall, how you crossed the nameless river and where. And you replied near its mouth, where the water was salt from the Southern Ocean; for the terror-fish are of a fresh-water species and not much given to swimming in brine, likewise the crocodiles.”
“All true,” replied Tarra, stifling a sigh. “Including the curved, giant palm-leaf plank I used for boat.”
“I was coming to that,” said Nud, annoyed, “but let it pass.” He paused for a moment before once more taking up the tale.
“Well, I sent out three men and they crossed the river at place and in manner prescribed—and one came back to tell of the death of his mates from fever, himself expiring within a day and a night. Now you, too, were taken by fever but survived. How? Your strong Hrossak blood, I supposed. Should I next employ Hrossaks? And where to find such, for you’re a rare breed west of the steppes.
“What say Yhemnis? Ah! Now there was a thought. Yhemnis: black as pitch, born and bred in jungled Yhem, whose blood must taste singularly sour on the tongue of the fever-fly, for he rarely sips it. And so I found me four frizzies, bent them to my will, gave them directions and sent them forth. But what if they should fail to return? How should I know what became of them? And how might I follow their progress?”
“How indeed?” the sunken Hrossak sighed.
“Why!—by enlisting the aid of Thinhla’s master-mage, Hatr-ad of Hreen Castle!” Nud enthused. “For in his shewstone he could surely see afar, through river mist and jungle leaf alike. Aye, and expensive the hire of his talents, I might add—but worth it, I expect, in the long run . . .
“Now then, it had also occurred to me to put it to you, you’ll further recall, how come the vampire vines, noxious orchids and poisonous plants in general had failed to fetch you down. And after some small starvation you had answered that when you fell with Roc through jungle roof, your crash was brake by bush whose thickly clustered black berries besmeared you head to toe in their smelly juices—”
“—Whereafter none of the viler vegetation bothered me at all,” Tarra quickly finished.
“Just so,” Nud sniffed, a trifle miffed. “And so I instructed my blacks that when they came to the place of lethiferous leafage, there they must seep themselves in the fruit of the black berry bush before proceeding farther. Which they did, for Hatr-ad saw it in his sphere. After which he saw them no more . . .”
“The swamps,” Tarra knowingly nodded.
“Indeed, the swamps,” purred Nud, “whose sucking depths you’d omitted to mention, or mentioned merely in passing, placing more emphasis on their inhabitants—leeches who’d sluice a man dry in a trice. And so it went, the perils and protections, banes and balms; and all extracted most tortuously—and expensively—from caged and crafty Hrossak. Oh, you gave up the tale in outline most willingly—and at our very first meeting at that—since when, in respect of fine detail, a more reticent rascal I’ve yet to discover. But for all that, still your days are numbered, Tarra Khash.”
Tarra’s ears pricked up at that and his mind began to race. Nud’s voice was far too soft and his threat had sounded imminent, and still a few handholds to scrape before rim be breached and vengeance wreaked. Tarra’s mouth grew a little dry and he damped it from the flagon before carefully choosing his next words, which were these:
“So, my end draws nigh, hey? You sound most sure of yourself, Nud, who came with a question which yet remains unasked. And when you do ask it should I answer, whose fate would seem hung upon that very thread?”
“This time,” answered Nud, “the answer is not imperative. Your words may save a future life or two, no more. And certainly not mine, for I shall never journey in yonder jungles, be sure.”
“Then ask away,” said Tarra, mind alert as he sought a way to extend his life, at least until he could snuff out Nud Annoxin’s.
“Let me first tell you how far we have come,” answered Nud. “Seven sorties now I have sent against the river, jungle, swamps and hideous herbage, and six of them disappeared forever from the world of men. Ah!—but of the seventh party—one survives! And he, too, has visited the temple of Ahorra Izz. Moreover, he went down into the subterranean sepulchre and returned therefrom to the upper world! Hatr-ad saw it in his shewstone, though some dire magic kept him from penetrating the caverns themselves. Four descended and one climbed back, pockets abrim with scarlet fire; and even now that one retraces his steps, returning to his grateful master with well-marked map and fortune in gems . . .
“Very well, my question is this: what of the other three? What is it lurks beneath the scorpion-god’s shattered temple, which blots out three and allows a fourth to live?”
After a long moment, weighing his words most carefully, finally Tarra Khash answered, “Two things I experienced in those shadow-cursed caverns. One of which was real, for I shall carry the scars forever . . . the other of which—”
“Yes?” pressed Nud Annoxin.
“—Of which I will not speak. Not yet.”
Now it was Nud’s turn to sigh. “I can starve it out of you,” he softly threatened.
“That will take some little time,” Tarra answered, “for before ever I speak again—even of the first temple-hidden terror—I shall have from you a further flagon, loaf and cheese-wedge.” And with that he fell silent.
Up above, Nud ranted and raved a while, threatened, pleaded in the end, then sent for the Hrossak’s specified victuals. And only when he had those things in his great hands did Tarra tell of the first terror.
“Scorpions,” he said.
“Scorpions?” (Suspicion and surprise, and the vision of a fat face frowning in confusion, causing Tarra to smile a very little).
“Certainly! In the treasure-caves of a scorpion-god, what else would you expect?”
“The scars you spoke of!” Nud now gasped. “I saw them on your calves and forearms when you were stretched helpless on my couch: white pinches against the tanned leather of your limbs!”
“Scorpions,” confirmed Tarra Khash. “Scarlet scorpions, and lethally venomous. The caverns are acrawl with them!”
“Liar!” cried Nud in another moment. “A hundred stings you suffered, according to those scars, and yet you live? How so?”
“I am immune!” whispered the other. “The grey cousin of the scarlet scorpion is not unknown on the steppes, where as a child I was stung nigh to death. I was legend as a lad, renowned for the number of stings I’d taken, which should have killed but merely sickened; until in the end I took no ill at all but won many a bet by courting the scorpion’s barb. Immune, Nud, aye—and the minions of Ahorra Izz killed me not, though for a fact my scars declare their determination! And there’s this lad, you say, escaped arachnid’s ire when three for sure succumbed? Perhaps he too is immune. Valuable, that one, Nud Annoxin.”
“Immune!” and now Nud slapped fat thigh, “You think so? The dear lad!”
“Perhaps,” Tarra grunted, “and perhaps not. For there was that other thing I saw—or think I saw—in the ruby caves . . . but of that I will not speak. Not now.”
“Speak!” cried Nud in sudden rage. “Speak now, I command it!”
“No,” the answer echoed from below, and in deep gloom the Hrossak shook his head. “Since your sole surviving hireling is three-quarters way home by now, you’d best ask it of him. If he makes it. But if you really cannot wait . . . why, then you must starve me!” And he chuckled, albeit grimly, as he hugged his wine, bread and cheese—small but precious provender—to his bosom . . .
That night (Tarra could tell it was night from the descent of darkness most utter; also from the silence which settled over and reigned in the vast and high-walled house of Nud Annoxin), the Hrossak climbed his prison’s funnel to the topmost extent of his hand and footholds, and working longer and harder than ever before he probed and picked and gouged, with only his horny fingers as tools, until faint stirrings were heard overhead and the grey half-dark which was day seeped down once more into his cylinder dungeon. Then, fearing that Nud’s eunuchs might find him where he clung like webless spider to wall and discover his four-year secret, he climbed down again to the bottom, curled up in nitrous damp and at once fell asleep.
Now Tarra Khash was not normally much of a one for dreaming (his sleep was usually much too shallow, from which he would rise up in a trice) but on this occasion he slept like a dead man. It was the sleep of exhaustion, of the culmination of four years of contained loathing and revenge lusted after, and it was a sleep well deserved. For Tarra knew that in the next night he would finally breach the wall, then that he would find the fat man in his bed and let out his life in a stream scarlet to match any flood of red-glowing jewels.
And so he dreamed, but not of escape, not of vengeance. No, he dreamed of his visit to that forbidden, jungle-drowned fane of Ahorra Izz, and of what had transpired—or what he had thought transpired—in those vasty vaults beneath. It could of course have been, probably had been, the fever. But—
There had been the stone steps leading down, festoons of smoky cobwebs like the ropes of some death-ship’s reek-shrouded rigging, great piles of dust centuries sifted and vaulted ceilings furred over with the myriad clustered forms of Cynonycteris, the bat of the mastabas, whose glittering eyes were sinister scintillant. And at each landing stood a carven stone scorpion, once scarlet, whose ancient paint had fallen like flakes of rust; and each successive idol larger than last, until at lowest level the likeness of Ahorra Izz stood half as tall again as Tarra Khash, with massive rubies for eyes and a curved, high-swaying, scythe-like sting of a silver metal whose secret was surely lost to time immemorial.
In his dream Tarra paused and stared up at the ruby eyes of the idol, and at the great sting which formed, even as he watched, a pearly liquid globe, big as his fist, to fall with a splash from wicked tip to dusty, flagged floor. In the genuine arachnid this droplet would be venom, but in its massive likeness of hard stone and unknown metal . . . surely moisture seeped from the high ceiling? What else, possibly? Whichever, Tarra paused not but passed on; and with his head feverishly aswim, finally he came to red-glowing cavern. Almost volcanic, that inner glow; and now the Hrossak saw what appeared to be an actual crater brimming with fiery lava—and walls all aglow with a moving warmth as of coals under a bellows—and all without slightest trace of heat!
Only then, dreaming, did he know the source of the ruddy light—just as he once had known it in reality. For the crater-like depression of the floor was in fact a huge and sunken bowl—and the contents of the bowl were myriad rubies, ranging in size from pin-head to pigeon’s eggs! And all around the walls dusty, inward leaning mirrors of bronze, reflecting and heightening that Tartarean rubescence.
At that point Tarra’s sleeping figure moaned most piteously at the bottom of his prison pit. For even dreaming he knew what would next occur, as indeed it had occurred four years ago—with one small difference. This time, alerted by a sudden and gigantic scuttling, knowing what he must see entering the treasure cave behind him, Tarra lifted feverish eyes to that mirror which faced the cave’s entrance, and saw—
Yes, certainly, Ahorra Izz the scorpion-god!
But more, he saw himself—or should have. Except that the man who gazed back from burning bronze was not Tarra Khash! Another, this other—a stranger. And now the Hrossak remembered all of his previous visit to that cursed cavern: how that great stone statue come to life stood over him—scarlet and quivering with rage—its mighty stinger poised, adrip with pearly poison. And how in that moment he had felt upon his naked forearms, upon his legs from knees down where breeches hung in tatters, a hundred tiny stabs from scarlet miniatures of monster, and knew the cavern crawled with scorpion horde. Then—
“They harm ye not, my little ones,” had come the clacking voice from morbid, mandible mouth. “Your flesh puffs not, but merely twitches at their barbs; your blood drinks their venom with a rare thirst! Who be ye?” And the massive stinger had poised itself above Tarra’s broad back.
“Tarra Khash,” answered the Hrossak, turning to face the monster-god, Ahorra Izz himself, where he blocked the entrance. “A man of the steppes, whose friends the grey scorpions are. And many the playful sting I’ve known, which never harmed me, nor I your scorpion minions.”
“Is it so?” had come the horridly clacked question.
“Indeed,” Tarra had answered, delirously snatching up a handful of livid, living death. “See?” and he grinned as a half-dozen stingers stabbed and stabbed again. “It is our game, you see, in no degree malicious.”
“Who sent ye?” the demon then had clacked, his poised and needlessly poisonous scythe visibly retracting somewhat, relaxing.
“No one but fate,” cried Tarra, swaying with fever and unaccustomed dose of venom both. “Perhaps to let you know you still have worshipper amongst men—one, at least!”
The monster had nodded once, slowly, and his faceted jewel eyes had regarded the Hrossak strangely. Then: “Others have been here, Tarra Khash. Once in a hundred years, perhaps, one such will come, and sometimes two. Strayed wanderers and seekers after treasure, wizard-sent thieves, savages cast out from heathen tribes. But never a worshipper, until now. As for the others: their bones are dust. And now I am tired of visitors who wake me from my slumbers immemorial. Know ye this, Tarra Khash, that I may take whichever form I wish. E’en yours if I so desired. And from this day on if ever I be waked, then walk me forth for sure to seek him out who sent the wakener. As for ye—”
“Aye, kill me,” the reeling Hrossak had then prompted. “For if you don’t the fever surely will, or deadly jungle.”
Ahorra Izz shook his jewelled head. “Not I. Lay ye down and sleep, Tarra Khash, and when ye rise up eat of the food which ye shall find and drink of the sweet water. Then take what ye will of this ruby hoard and get ye gone . . .”
Then the Hrossak, falling to his knees and sending rubies flying, had offered up a loud cry—of thanks perhaps, perhaps a fevered shriek—a prayer?—and toppled sideways cushioned by the gems. And knew no more.
This had happened, and now, dreaming, Tarra Khash knew it had happened. But in his dream he was someone else, some other. And now the conversation went like this:
“They harm ye not, my littles ones, whose stings pierce not the leather which ye wear. My sting, however, will pierce mail and split the wearer to the bone! What say ye?”
And Tarra, who was not Tarra, fell upon his padded knees and babbled and screamed.
“Cease now or die at once!” clacked Ahorra Izz, and the screaming turned to sobbing and fitful, spastic grovelling.
“Who sent ye?”
“Nud Annoxin,” came the sobbing cry. “The fat jewel-merchant of Thinhla. He sent me. Spare me, spare me!”
“And did he also send the three whose unprotected ankles felt of my minions’ stings?”
“Aye, aye, ’twas Nud. Nud Annoxin sent us!”
“Man,” said the monster in another moment, “die!” And his stinger flashed forth and shattered skull through helmet, ripped breast through fine mail and leather, sliced trunk to groin through steely belt, leather breeks and all; and so Nud’s hireling fell in two directions.
Then Ahorra Izz looked down on what had been a man and his arachnid form shimmered as if seen through smoke; his outline changed, shrank; he became—
—The selfsame man whose halves now lay on blood splashed hoard! And this the dreaming Tarra Khash saw from two different angles, through bulging, separated eyes which glazed even as he started awake with horrified cry upon his well-cell’s slimy floor . . .
That had been at noon. At noon, too, had Hatr-ad espied in his shewstone the hooded hireling striding the plain at the edge of the coastal forest and heading straight for Thinhla. And Hatr-ad’s beady eyes had brightened as he recognised the man’s mode of dress and his shape, and he nodded eagerly and licked thin lips greedily at sight of the small but fat sacklet at the man’s belt. But then, when Thinhla’s mage (a mean magician, known better for dark than kinder magicks) might have winged a bat messenger on its way to the house of Nud Annoxin—just at that moment when he made as if to turn from his shewstone—something about the rapid approach of this lone survivor of all Nud’s expeditions arrested his attention, striking him at odds.
High in his turreted tower at Hreen Castle, the pallid mage frowned and gazed again down hooked nose into the swirling depths of his sphere, causing with his concentration swiftly gathering mists to draw back again from the conjured scene. Indeed, there was something odd about this survivor of Nud’s quest. Several things, most odd . . . His preternatural speed for one, who should by rights be exhausted from jungle-trekkings, river-crossings, avoidances of perilous plants and such. And yet he came on apace, his long, tireless, almost mechanical stridings most eerie to watch. Why, at this rate he would be here in Thinhla before the midnight hour!
Hatr-ad remembered Nud speaking of this one: who rubbed himself with ointments against insect bites and took with him upon the quest an assortment of protections against every possible eventuality lethal. Aye, a professional he, and rightful survivor. And the miles flying beneath ceaselessly striding legs, and noon sun striking hot on him; for which reason, doubtless, he had put up his hood against its furnace glare.
Hatr-ad frowned harder yet, his concentration growing as he drew the striding figure closer, closer, until the shewstone was filled with cowled head, until he could peer into the shadows beneath that cowl—at glowing ruby coals that burned for eyes in a face mottled grey and vacuous as that of a dead man! The strider was a dead man!
Then, before the mage could make another move, his ears seemed to ring to a clacking, imperious command, cold as northern snows. “Begone, watcher! Get ye gone from me—lest I seek ye out also, e’en as I seek Nud Annoxin!”
At which Hatr-ad shrank back at once from his sphere and let its misty drapes fall. And shaking in every limb he descended from his aerie and set about renewing the magickal protections about Hreen Castle. He put his familiar demons atop the battlements, and he locked himself in a deep and secret room for the remainder of that day and two more . . . None of which was ever brought to the attention of Nud Annoxin.
At the eleventh hour a striding stranger approached the east gate and entered into the torch-flickered shadow of its arch. The guard commander might normally have stopped him, and indeed had approached him so to do; but there was that about the cowled stranger which forbade any real interference, and in passing his cold hand pressed into that of the sergeant something hard and glittery in the dark, which later proved to be a priceless ruby; so that the question of the stranger’s entry into Thinhla did not arise.
And at the gate of Nud Annoxin’s high-walled house a similar scene, where eunuchs who had been ordered to keep watch for the lone quester’s return now found themselves recipients of riches. And into Nud’s house the stranger strode, all unannounced, to the very door of the jewel-merchant’s private chamber . . . where he rapped with deathly knuckles upon heavy oaken panels.
Ever since the first hour of utter dark, Tarra Khash had worked on the high walls of his prison. Stuck like a fly to curving surface, he frantically clawed at crumbling mortar; a nameless urgency drove him constantly to take risks. Such was the violence of his attack upon the wall that on several occasions he nearly shook himself loose from his precarious position, which would almost certainly be a fatal occurrence. But finally, somewhere between the eleventh and twelfth hour, he was able to thrust an arm upward until bloodied fingers found the rim.
A matter of moments to haul himself to freedom, seconds to let his senses soak up the faint feelings of the night, minutes to discover a room with jewelled ceremonial swords upon its walls and to take one . . . and at last, silent as a shadow, he crouched with murderous intent before the door of Nud’s own room—which stood open! Even as he paused in momentary indecision, Tarra’s foot touched something fallen to the floor. A pouch or sacklet, of the sort used for jewels or nuggets—except that the contents of this one were already fleeing its loosened neck: scarlet scorpions, their stingers rampant and deadly!
The scorpions alone would not have sufficed to stop Tarra, but there was more. A dim light within the room threw shadows into the corridor. The Hrossak saw the shadows and in the next moment heard voices, one being Nud’s—babbling, disbelieving, gasping for breath—the other . . .
Oh, Tarra Khash recognised the other! Its clacking notes were unmistakable; and the Hrossak’s scalp crawled as he drew back with silent snarl from the open door. Then: one shadow expanding, elongating, changing; and the other, fat and human still, falling into a kneeling position, hands raised in supplication. The Hrossak paused no longer but turned to flee. He went, knowing now the source of that earlier urgency, knowing also that he was too late, that Ahorra Izz himself had beaten him to the prey.
Confirming his thoughts, as he vaulted a low balcony out into the spacious gardens, he heard a mighty swish as of a giant’s scythe and a great tearing of flesh—and Nud’s rising scream cut gurglingly off at zenith. Then, horror riding upon his ragged back, Tarra was climbing the wall. No thoughts of gems or thievery this night. Only of flight. He had the jewelled sword and that was enough. He wanted nothing more. Not from this house.
Not from the cursed and fear-crazed house of Nud Annoxin . . .
Copyright © 1991 by Brian Lumley