Sunday, March 6, 2011

Catacomb (Part 2 of 5)

© 1985 by Henry Melton

Lunae came to consciousness with the feel of her pack under her head as a pillow.  Her thief had left her stretched out comfortably, concealed behind the rocks that had protected him.  <TAKE INVENTORY> A quick survey of her pack and her person revealed only the ruby missing. Even her weapons were still in their places. She was puzzled.  Most thieves would have left her dead and sold her provisions back to the Wizard of the Gate.
<SMELL.  LISTEN> The smell of the thief was quite strong in the coffin-sized hidey-hole. He'd obviously spent considerable time waiting there for victims. She crawled from behind the rocks carefully. No one was in sight. A glance told her that the thief had cleared all three doorways and had obscured any footprints in the dust.
<STATE HOW I AM> The effects of the poison lingered in her system. She felt more tired than she ought, and quick motion was an invitation to dizziness. But it should wear off quickly. Her only question now was whether she should follow her thief in order to turn the tables on him and recover her ruby, or search out another treasure before her supplies ran out and she had to make for the Wizard's Gate.
Before she could shoulder her pack, the decision was taken away from her. A sudden wave of acid stench hit her. Out of nothingness stepped trouble. The dim light of glowstone was adequate, this time, to tell her quite enough: a Tor beast!
Adventurers into the catacombs perforce did business with the Wizard of the Gate to purchase their supplies, but more than gold pieces and bronze weapons were exchanged at the Wizard's market. Rumor and out right lies about the hazards and treasure in the catacombs were bought and sold as well. And nothing said about the teleporting half-man/half-beasts that searched the chambers was comforting. Some said Tor beasts were adventurers from another plane, given access by some other Wizard of the Gate, perhaps one of their own number. They were not animals. They walked upright and sometimes were known to use magic. They didn't use swords because they didn't need one.
<PLACE THROWING KNIFE IN THE LEFT HAND.  PLACE SHORT SWORD IN THE RIGHT HAND> She didn't attack. Armored like a beetle, with hands like the paws of a tiger, the Tor beast topped her five-foot height by six inches and outweighed her by at least two hundred pounds. The pelt--if it was a pelt--formed a half-dozen rings about his torso, and a ridge of bluish-black shag from one claw, across the shoulders, to the other.  The head was piggish, but the eyes betrayed an intelligent malevolence. Its growl as he spotted her was a deep bass that seemed to shake her insides. Nothing in the rumors she had heard told of how to kill one.
The Tor beast seemed to have no such worry. It turned and stalked towards her with the body-twisting gait of a bear. She threw her knife directly toward where a navel would have been, had the thing been born. The knife stuck, for an instant, before the beast shook it loose. The wound only made it more angry.
Lunae was moving up on the rocks before her knife had left her fingers. The beast was powerful, but she was much lighter on her feet. She picked up her pack by the straps and slung it at the thing's head.
Maybe the Tor beast walked slow, but there was nothing sluggish about the way it snatched the pack out of the air and ripped it wide open with its claws.
Her goods spilled out, and she felt sick as the beast, with all angry growl, ground her food supply and spare torches to mush and toothpicks.
Then the monster crouched and jumped ten feet in one motion, landing on the boulders just below where Lunae stood. She scrambled higher, using her sword to keep him at a distance. It didn't work. Its arm shot out, a blur. Then -- pain; she barely held onto the sword as the beast batted it aside. With the stench of the creature wafting over her and the sick feeling that her sword was bent, she grabbed the hilt with both hands and forced all her strength into a sideways stroke. Her sword twisted and slid out of her grip as the warped blade slapped rather than cut the beast.
The thing roared. She could almost feel the bone-shattering slap she knew the monster could give her.  But the slap never came. The moment of grace wasn't wasted. As well as she could with the ruined sword in her grasp, she rolled over the top of the mound, down into the coffin-sized pit where she had regained her consciousness.
The beast roared again.  She knew the monster would be down on her the instant it navigated the rocks.  The blade -- not that she had a second to actually look at it -- was in bad shape.  Both bent and twisted, it would never take the force of an attack, even if the beast could be tricked into falling on it. It would bend like a hairpin.  She gambled precious seconds in hopes of straightening the sword blade.  She wedged the blade halfway into a crack in the rock and shoved all of her slight weight against it. When the blade was far short of perfection, but perhaps usable, she pulled the sword loose and held it ready.
For a hurried breath or two, she waited. There was silence in the chamber.  Then the Tor beast growled, but it sounded ... weaker. Gambling again: <LOOK THROUGH THE CRACKS> The limited view gave a puzzling sight.  The thing was staggering, struggling to keep its balance.
Enlightenment hit.  The poison!  She looked to the chamber floor, where the fragments of her belongings were scattered.  Among the debris was a bit of metal that might have been the brass bottle smashed flat by a powerful foot.
What would the poison do to it?  A human would be dead the instant a drop touched skin.  Could the Tor beast shake off the effects? The creature was very powerful.  Perhaps it had protective magic.  If it recovered, she didn't want to be around.
But, there was always treasure.  Magical beasts often collected treasure themselves.  If her Tor beast died, she wanted anything of value it might have.  She hefted the sword in her hand.  Perhaps she could assist the poison a bit.
Shortly, the monster stumbled and fell.  She was up and over her rocky barricade in an instant.
The beast was on its back, still struggling against the powerful convulsions the poison was creating in its muscles.  Fighting against its own mutinous body, the Tor beast desperately grabbed at a black leather arm band that circled its left arm just above the elbow.  The creature's life or death fueled its determination.  If it could work the band's secrets, it might yet survive.
That's it! The Tor beast's magic is in that arm band! Lunae watched its struggles for an instant more, then danced in close for an opportunity to slash at the arm with her sword. It cut the monster's flesh, but not deeply. She did it again. And again.   Finally, arm and body were separated. She kicked the still twitching member out of the beast's reach and waited for the monster to die. Blood, looking black in the blue light of the chamber, squirted forcefully from the severed arteries. Quickly, it stopped.
The trained assassin normally held no qualms examining a dead body, but something alien in it chilled her as she stepped near. The stench, now so much stronger in the spilled blood, made it difficult to breathe. The feel of the body was like an upholstered leather chair which remained warm from the life of the person who had sat there. It seemed surprisingly soft.  Lunae expected hard, armor-like plate.
She searched the corpse for any natural or artificial pouches, pockets, or bags--anywhere the beast might have stored something of value. Within a minute, she admitted defeat. Logical. Any being who can teleport won't keep too many possessions on his body, since he can go get them in an instant.
As she felt the body, it grew softer by the moment.  When she noticed this curious fact, she quit instantly and backed away.
Starting at the beast's chest, the body quivered slightly. Then it began to liquefy. In the  light, her eyes could just make out thousands of sprouts, much like the fur on moldy bread. Tendrils of terribly rapid decay covered the body in half a minute. Slime from the rotting flesh dripped to the floor and formed a thickening flow to join the trickle of the spring.
In disgust, she turned from the sight to spot the beast's arm. It was whole. There seemed to be no sign of the decay that had already turned the body into an unrecognizable mound. Gingerly, she approached it. A cautious touch--first with the point of the sword, then with her hand gave the impression of teak wood covered with leather. There was no softness.  Quickly, before the decay could start, she slipped the arm band off the dead limb.
The band was made of flexible leather with a ridge of worked metal along both edges. It looks like silver, maybe. Almost the right size for a belt. It will sell.  Magic always sells. She eyed the claws. The arm, separated from the body, seemed to be spared the extremely fast decay. That might sell too, but I want no part of it!
The arm band slipped loosely over her shoulder like a coil of rope. As of the moment, it, her sword, and the pair of knives she had hidden in her clothes were her only possessions. What was not smashed was probably contaminated with the spilled poison. It would not be safe to touch for another day. With no supplies, no food, no torches for light, she might be dead by then.
The Wizard's Gate was too distant for her to travel without food, even if she could make the way in total darkness. There was really only one thing she could do: pursue her thief. Since he had spared her life, perhaps she could persuade him to give her provisions in exchange for some service. If not, perhaps she could steal from him what she needed to survive. Following him seemed to be worth the effort.
Yet the darkness still posed a problem. If only the glowstones could be used for lighting! But they were far too dim. Unless there existed a chamber lined entirely with glowstones like this one, the journey would have to be done in the dark.
She walked to each doorway and carefully sniffed the air. The stench of the beast covered everything, but her sensitive nose could still detect other scents.
"Judith! Supper!" Barry called from the base of the stairs up to her opened door.
Oh no! I must chase him before the scent gets cold.
"Just a minute! I've got to log off."
This was a horrible time to stop and search for a shelter. She grabbed a fist-sized piece of glowstone. Its light would be useless more than a few inches away, but it was the only light she had. With more desperation than confidence  she glided as swiftly as she dared down the length of the corridor. With her sword sheathed, she let the fingertips of her left hand feel for openings in the wall. She believed she was passing a dozen perfect shelters on the right-hand wall. Only two things were clear in the darkness: her time was running out, and thief's scent was tantalizingly present.
If she had only gone back, retraced her path toward the Gate, she would have known exactly where to shelter.  She imagined the crypt carved in the wall, where she had spent the night before her disastrous encounter with the thief. That would be ideal.
"Judith! It's getting cold." It was her father's voice this time.
"Coming!" If log off now, Lunae will seek shelter and attempt to fight off attackers like a dim-witted robot programmed and operated by the computer. Her only real chance for survival is for her to find shelter under her own power.
At that instant her hand felt a carved doorsill in the rock. Not knowing nor caring what creature might be waiting within, she pushed aside the stone doorway.  Groping about the room, Lunae found a foot-long stone slab that could be used as a deadbolt in order to seal the chamber from almost any terror that roamed the corridors. She dropped her glowstone and secured the door.
There was barely enough room to lie down in the closet-sized, cold rock crypt, but she didn't care.


John Petelle said...

Henry - thank you for writing this. Was my all-time favorite fiction piece out of Dragon magazine when it first came out, and this story made me long for this game to play for decades.

Henry Melton said...

Thanks, John. I appreciate it.

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