“Undertow”—A Horror Story by the Late Great Karl Edward Wagner, 1977

Undertow

Karl Edward Wagner, 1977


Originally published in the horror anthology Whispers #10, ed. by Stuart Davis Schiff, August 1977. It has also been anthologized in The Year’s Best Horror Stories VI, ed. by Gerald W. Page, 1978; and two Stephen Jones anthologies: The Mammoth Book of Frankenstein, 1994; and In the Shadow of Frankenstein: Tales of the Modern Prometheus, 2016.

– Prologue –

“She was brought in not long past dark,” wheezed the custodian, scuttling crab-like along the rows of silent, shrouded slabs. “The city guard found her, carried her in. Sounds like the one you’re asking about.”

He paused beside one of the waist-high stone tables and lifted its filthy sheet. A girl’s contorted face turned sightlessly upward—painted and rouged, a ghastly strumpet’s mask against the pallor of her skin. Clots of congealed blood hung like a necklace of dark rubies along the gash across her throat.

The cloaked man shook his head curtly within the shadow of his hood, and the moon-faced custodian let the sheet drop back.

“Not the one I was thinking of,” he murmured apologetically. “It gets confusing sometimes, you know, what with so many, and them coming and going all the while.” Sniffling in the cool air, he pushed his rotund bulk between the narrow aisles, careful to avoid the stained and filthy shrouds. Looming over his guide, the cloaked figure followed in silence.

Low-flamed lamps cast dismal light across the necrotorium, of Carsultyal. Smouldering braziers spewed fitful, heavy fumed clouds of clinging incense that merged with the darkness and the stones and the decay—its cloying sweetness more nauseating than the stench of death it embraced. Through the thick gloom echoed the monotonous drip-drip-drip of melting ice, at times chorused suggestively by some heavier splash. The municipal morgue was crowded tonight—as always. Only a few of its hundred or more slate beds stood dark and bare; the others all displayed anonymous shapes bulging beneath blotched sheets—some protruding at curious angles, as if these restless dead struggled to burst free of the coarse folds. Night now hung over Carsultyal, but within this windowless subterranean chamber it was always night. In shadow pierced only by the sickly flame of funereal lamps, the nameless dead of Carsultyal lay unmourned—waited the required interval of time for someone to claim them, else to be carted off to some unmarked communal grave beyond the city walls.

“Here, I believe,” announced the custodian. “Yes. I’ll just get a lamp.”

“Show me,” demanded a voice from within the hood.The portly official glanced at the other uneasily. There was an aura of power, of blighted majesty about the cloaked figure that boded ill in arrogant Carsultyal, whose clustered, star-reaching towers were whispered to be overawed by cellars whose depths plunged farther still. “Light’s poor back here,” he protested, drawing back the tattered shroud.

The visitor cursed low in his throat—an inhuman sound touched less by grief than feral rage.

The face that stared at them with too wide eyes had been beautiful in life; in death it was purpled, bloated, contorted in pain. Dark blood stained the tip of her protruding tongue, and her neck seemed bent at an unnatural angle. A gown of light-colored silk was stained and disordered. She lay supine, hands clenched into tight fists at her side.

“The city guard found her?” repeated the visitor in a harsh voice.

“Yes, just after nightfall. In the park overlooking the harbor. She was hanging from a branch—there in the grove with all the white flowers every spring. Must have just happened—said her body was warm as life, though there’s a chill to the sea breeze tonight. Looks like she done it herself—climbed out on the branch, tied the noose, and jumped off. Wonder why they do it—her as pretty a young thing as I’ve seen brought in, and took well care of, too.”

The stranger stood in rigid silence, staring at the strangled girl.

“Will you come back in the morning to claim her, or do you want to wait upstairs?” suggested the custodian.

“I’ll take her now.”

The plump attendant fingered the gold coin his visitor had tossed him a short time before. His lips tightened in calculation. Often there appeared at the necrotorium those who wished to remove bodies clandestinely for strange and secret reasons—a circumstance which made lucrative this disagreeable office. “Can’t allow that,” he argued. “There’s laws and forms—you shouldn’t even be here at this hour. They’ll be wanting their questions answered. And there’s fees…”

With a snarl of inexpressible fury, the stranger turned on him. The sudden movement flung back his hood.

The caretaker for the first time saw his visitor’s eyes. He had breath for a short bleat of terror, before the dirk he did not see smashed through his heart.

Workers the next day, puzzling over the custodian’s disappearance, were shocked to discover, on examining the night’s new tenants for the necrotorium, that he had not disappeared after all.

– I –

Seekers in the Night

There—he heard the sound again.

Mavrsal left off his disgruntled contemplation of the near-empty wine bottle and stealthily came to his feet. The captain of the Tuab was alone in his cabin, and the hour was late. For hours the only sounds close at hand had been the slap of waves on the barnacled bull, the creak of cordage, and the dull thud of the caravel’s aged timbers against the quay. Then had come a soft footfall, a muffled fumbling among the deck gear outside his half-open door. Too loud for rats—a thief, then?

Grimly Mavrsal unsheathed his heavy cutlass and caught up a lantern. He catfooted onto the deck, reflecting bitterly over his worthless crew. From cook to first mate, they had deserted his ship a few days before, angered over wages months unpaid. An unseasonable squall had forced them to jettison most of their cargo of copper ingots, and the Tuab had limped into the harbor of Carsultyal with shredded sails, a cracked mainmast, a dozen new leaks from wrenched timbers, and the rest of her worn fittings in no better shape. Instead of the expected wealth, the decimated cargo had brought in barely enough capital to cover the expense of refitting. Mavrsal argued that until refitted, the Tuab was unseaworthy, and that once repairs were complete, another cargo could be found (somehow), and then wages long in arrears could be paid—with a bonus for patient loyalty. The crew cared neither for his logic nor his promises and defected amidst stormy threats.

Had one of them returned to carry out…? Mavrsal hunched his thick shoulders truculently and hefted the cutlass. The master of the Tuab had never run from a brawl, much less a sneak thief or slinking assassin.

Night skies of autumn were bright over Carsultyal, making the lantern almost unneeded. Mavrsal surveyed the soft shadows of the caravel’s deck, his brown eyes narrowed and alert beneath shaggy brows. But he heard the low sobbing almost at once, so there was no need to prowl about the deck.

He strode quickly to the mound of torn sail and rigging at the far rail. “All right, come out of that!” he rumbled, beckoning with the tip of his blade to the half-seen figure crouched against the rail. The sobbing choked into silence. Mavrsal prodded the canvas with an impatient boot. “Out of there, damn it!” he repeated.

The canvas gave a wriggle and a pair of sandaled feet backed out, followed by bare legs and rounded hips that strained against the bunched fabric of her gown. Mavrsal pursed his lips thoughtfully as the girl emerged and stood before him. There were no tears in the eyes that met his gaze. The aristocratic face was defiant, although the flared nostrils and tightly pressed lips hinted that her defiance was a mask. Nervous fingers smoothed the silken gown and adjusted her cloak of dark brown wool.

“Inside.” Mavrsal gestured with his cutlass to the lighted cabin.

“I wasn’t doing anything,” she protested.

“Looking for something to steal.”

“I’m not a thief,”

“We’ll talk inside.” He nudged her forward, and sullenly she complied.

Following her through the door, Mavrsal locked it behind him and replaced the lantern. Returning the cutlass to its scabbard, he dropped back into his chair and contemplated his discovery.

“I’m no thief,” she repeated, fidgeting with the fastenings of her cloak.

No, he decided, she probably wasn’t—not that there was much aboard a decrepit caravel like the Tuab to attract a thief. But why had she crept aboard? She was a harlot, he assumed—what other business drew a girl of her beauty alone into the night of Carsultyal’s waterfront? And she was beautiful, he noted with growing surprise. A tangle of loosely bound red hair fell over her shoulders and framed a face whose pale-skinned classic beauty was enhanced rather than flawed by a dust of freckles across her thin-bridged nose. Eyes of startling green gazed at him with a defiance that seemed somehow haunted. She was tall, willowy. Before she settled the dark cloak about her shoulders, he had noted the high, conical breasts and softly rounded figure beneath the clinging gown of green silk. An emerald of good quality graced her hand, and about her neck she wore a wide collar of dark leather and red silk from which glinted a larger emerald.

No, thought Mavrsal—again revising his judgment—she was too lovely, lieu garments too costly, for the quality of street tart who plied these waters. His bewilderment deepened. “Why were you on board, then?” he demanded in a manner less abrupt.

Her eyes darted about the cabin. “I don’t know,” she returned.

Mavrsal grunted in vexation. “Were you trying to stow away?”

She responded with a small shrug. “I suppose so.”

The sea captain gave a snort and drew his stocky frame erect. “Then you’re a damn fool—or must think I’m one! Stow away on a battered old warrior like the Tuab, when there’s plainly no cargo to put to sea, and any eye can see the damn ship’s being refitted! Why, that ring you’re wearing would book passage to any port you’d care to see, and on a first-class vessel! And to wander these streets at this hour! Well, maybe that’s your business, and maybe you aren’t careful of your trade, but there’s scum along, these waterfront dives that would slit a wench’s throat as soon as pay her! Vaul! I’ve been in port three days and four nights, and already I’ve heard talk of enough depraved murders of pretty girls like you to—“

“Will you stop it!” she hissed in a tight voice. Slumping into the cabin’s one other chair, she propped her elbows onto the rough table and jammed her fists against her forehead. Russet tresses tumbled over her face like a veil, so that Mavrsal could not read the emotions etched there. In the hollow of the cloak’s parted folds, her breasts trembled with the quick pounding of her heart.

Sighing, he drained the last of the wine into his mug and pushed the pewter vessel toward the girl. There was another bottle in his cupboard; rising, fie drew it out along with another cup. She was carefully sipping from the proffered mug when he resumed his place.

“Look, what’s your name?” he asked her.

She paused so tensely before replying, “Dessylyn.”

The name meant nothing to Mavrsal, although as the tension waxed and receded from her bearing, he understood that she had been concerned that her name would bring recognition.

Mavrsal smoothed his close-trimmed brown beard. There was a rough-and-ready toughness about his face that belied the fact that he had not quite reached thirty years, and women liked to tell him his rugged features were handsome. His left ear—badly scarred in a tavern brawl—gave him some concern, but it lay hidden beneath the unruly mass of his hair. “Well, Dessylyn,” he grinned. “My name’s Mavrsal, and this is my ship. And if you’re worried about finding a place, you can spend the night here.”

There was dread in her face. “I can’t.”

Mavrsal frowned, thinking he had been snubbed, and started to make an angry retort.

“I dare not… stay here too long,” Dessylyn interposed, fear glowing in her eyes.

Mavrsal made an exasperated grimace. “Girl, you sneaked aboard my ship like a thief, but I’m inclined to forget your trespassing. Now, my cabin’s cozy, girls tell me I’m a pleasant companion, and I’m generous with my coin. So why wander off into the night, where in the first filthy alley some pox-ridden drunk is going to take for free what I’m willing to pay for?”

“You don’t understand!”

“Very plainly I don’t.” He watched her fidget with the pewter mug for a moment, then added pointedly, “Besides, you can hide here.”

“By the gods! I wish I could!” she cried out. “If only I could hide from him!”

Brows knit in puzzlement, Mavrsal listened to the strangled sobs that rose muffled through the tousled auburn mane. He had not expected so unsettling a response to his probe. Thinking that every effort to penetrate the mystery surrounding Dessylyn only left him further in the dark, he measured out another portion of wine—and wondered if he should apologize for something.

“I suppose that’s why I did it,” she was mumbling. “I was able to slip away for a short while. So I walked along the shore, and I saw all the ships poised for flight along the harbor, and I thought how wonderful to be free like that! To step on board some strange ship, and to sail into the night to some unknown land—where he could never find me! To be free! Oh, I knew I could never escape him like that, but still when I walked by your ship, I wanted to try! I thought I could go through the motions—pretend I was escaping him!

“Only I know there’s no escape from Kane!”

“Kane!” Mavrsal breathed a curse. Anger toward the girl’s tormentor that had started to flare within him abruptly shuddered under the chill blast of fear.

Kane! Even to a stranger in Carsultyal, greatest city of mankind’s dawn, that name evoked the spectre of terror. A thousand tales were whispered of Kane; even in this city of sorcery, where the lost knowledge of prehuman Earth had been recovered to forge man’s stolen civilization, Kane was a figure of awe and mystery. Despite uncounted tales of strange and disturbing nature, almost nothing was known for certain of the man save that for generations his tower had brooded over Carsultyal. There he followed the secret paths along which his dark genius led him, and the hand of Kane was rarely seen (though it was often felt) in the affairs of Carsultyal. Brother sorcerers and masters of powers temporal alike spoke his name with dread, and those who dared to make him an enemy seldom were given Ion., to repent their audacity.

“Are you Kane’s woman?” he blurted out.

Her voice was bitter. “So Kane would have it. His mistress. His possession. Once, though, I was my own woman—before I was fool enough to let Kane draw me into his web!”

“Can’t you leave him—leave this city?”

“You don’t know the power Kane commands! Who would risk his anger to help me?”

Mavrsal squared his shoulders. “I owe no allegiance to Kane, nor to his minions in Carsultyal. This ship may be weathered and leaky, but she’s mine, and I sail her where I please. If you’re set on—“

Fear twisted her face. “Don’t!” she gasped. “Don’t even hint this to me! You can’t realize what power Kane—

“What was that!”

Mavrsal tensed. From the night sounded the soft buffeting of great leathery wings. Claws scraped against the timbers of the deck outside. Suddenly the lantern flames seemed to shrink and waver; shadow fell deep within the cabin.

“He’s missed me!” Dessylyn moaned. “He’s sent it to bring me back!”

His belly cold, Mavrsal drew his cutlass and turned stiffly toward the door. The lamp flames were no more than a dying blue gleam. Beyond the door a shuffling weight caused a loosened plank to groan dully.

“No! Please!” she cried in desperation. “There’s nothing you can do! Stay back from the door!”

Mavrsal snarled, his face reflecting the rage and terror that gripped him. Dessylyn pulled at his arm to draw him back.

He had locked the cabin door; a heavy iron bolt secured the stout timbers. Now an unseen hand was drawing the bolt aside. Silently, slowly, the iron bar turned and crept back along its mounting brackets. The lock snapped open. With nightmarish suddenness, the door swung wide.

Darkness hung in the passageway. Burning eyes regarded them. Advanced.

Dessylyn screamed hopelessly. Numb with terror, Mavrsal clumsily swung his blade toward the glowing eyes. Blackness reached out, hurled him with irresistible strength across the cabin. Pain burst across his consciousness, and then was only the darkness.

– II –

“Never, Dessylyn“

She shuddered and drew the fur cloak tighter about her thin shoulders. Would there ever again be a time when she wouldn’t feel this remorseless cold?

Kane, his cruel face haggard in the glow of the brazier, stood hunched over the crimson alembic. How red the coals made his hair and beard; how sinister was the blue flame of his eyes… He craned intently forward to trap the last few drops of the phosphorescent elixir in a chalice of ruby crystal.

He had labored sleepless hours over the glowing liquid, she knew. Hours precious to her because these were hours of freedom—a time when she might escape his loathed attention. Her lips pressed a tight, bloodless line. The abominable formulae from which he prepared the elixir! Dessylyn thought again of the mutilated corpse of the young girl Kane had directed his servant to carry off. Again a spasm slid across her lithe form.

“Why won’t you let me go?” she heard herself ask dully for the… how many times had she asked that?

“I’ll not let you go, Dessylyn,” Kane replied in a tired voice. “You know that.”

“Someday I’ll leave you.”

“No, Dessylyn. You’ll never leave me.”

“Someday.”

“Never, Dessylyn.”

“Why, Kane!”

With painful care, he allowed a few drops of an amber liqueur to fall into the glowing chalice. Blue flame hovered over its surface.

“Why!”

“Because I love you, Dessylyn.”

A bitter sob, parody of laughter, shook her throat. “You love me.” She enclosed a hopeless scream in those slow, grinding syllables.

“Kane, can I ever make you understand how utterly I loathe you?”

“Perhaps. But I love you, Dessylyn.”

The sobbing laugh returned.

Glancing at her in concern, Kane carefully extended the chalice toward her. “Drink this. Quickly—before the nimbus dies.”

She looked at him through eyes dark with horror. “Another bitter draught of some foul drug to bind me to you?”

“Whatever you wish to call it.”

“I won’t drink it.”

“Yes, Dessylyn, you will drink it.”

His killer’s eyes held her with bonds of eternal ice. Mechanically she accepted the crimson chalice, let its phosphorescent liqueur pass between her lips, seep down her throat.

Kane sighed and took the empty goblet from her listless grip. His massive frame seemed to shudder from fatigue, and he passed a broad hand across his eyes. Blood rimmed their dark hollows.

“I’ll leave you, Kane.”

The sea wind gusted through the tower window and swirled the long red hair about his haunted face.

“Never, Dessylyn.”

– III –

At the Inn of the Blue Window

He called himself Dragar…

Had the girl not walked past him seconds before, he probably would not have interfered when he heard her scream. Or perhaps he would have. A stranger to Carsultyal, nonetheless the barbarian youth had passed time enough in mankind’s lesser cities to be wary of cries for help in the night and to think twice before plunging into dark alleys to join in an unseen struggle. But there was a certain pride in the chivalric ideals of his heritage, along with a confidence in the hard muscle of his sword arm and in the strange blade he carried.

Thinking of the lithe, white limbs he had glimpsed—the patrician beauty of the face that coolly returned his curious stare as she came toward him—Dragar unsheathed the heavy blade at his hip and dashed back along the street be had just entered.

There was moonlight enough to see, although the alley was well removed from the nearest flaring streetlamp. Cloak torn away, her gown ripped from her shoulders, the girl writhed in the grasp of two thugs. A third tough warned by the rush of the barbarian’s boots, angrily spun to face him, sword streaking for the youth’s belly.

Dragar laughed and flung the lighter blade aside with a powerful blow of his sword. Scarcely seeming to pause in his attack, he gashed his assailant’s arm with an upward swing, and as the other’s blade faltered, he split the thug’s skull. One of the two who held the girl lunged forward, but Dragar sidestepped his rush, and with a sudden thrust sent his sword ripping into the man’s chest. The remaining assailant shoved the girl against the barbarian’s legs, whirled, and fled down the alley.

Ignoring the fugitive, Dragar helped the stunned girl to her feet. Terror yet twisted her face, as she distractedly arranged the torn bodice of her silken gown. Livid scratches streaked the pale skin of her breasts, and a bruise was swelling out her lip. Dragar caught up her fallen cloak and draped it over her shoulders.

“Thank you,” she breathed in a shaky whisper, speaking at last.

“My pleasure,” he rumbled. “Killing rats is good exercise. Are you all right, though?”

She nodded, then clutched his arm for support.

“The hell you are! There’s a tavern close by, girl. Come—I’ve silver enough for a brandy to put the fire back in your heart.”

She looked as if she might refuse, were her knees steadier. In a daze, the girl let him half-carry her into the Inn of the Blue Window. There he led her to an unoccupied booth and called for brandy.

“What’s your name?” he asked, after she had tasted the heady liquor.

“Dessylyn.”

He framed her name with silent lips to feel its sound. “I’m called Dragar,” he told her. “My home lies among the mountains far south of here, though it’s been a few years since last I hunted with my clansmen. Wanderlust drew me away, and since then I’ve followed this banner or another’s—sometimes just the shadow of my own flapping cloak. Then, after hearing tales enough to dull my ears, I decided to see for myself if Carsultyal is the wonder men boast her to be. You a stranger here as well?”

She shook her head. When the color returned to her cheeks, her face seemed less aloof.

“Thought you might be. Else you’d know better than to wander the streets of Carsultyal after nightfall. Must be something important for you to take the risk.”

The lift of her shoulders was casual, though her face remained guarded. “No errand… but it was important to me.”

Dragar’s look was questioning.

“I wanted to… oh, just to be alone, to get away for a while. Lose myself, maybe—I don’t know. I didn’t think anyone would dare touch me if they knew who I was.”

“Your fame must be held somewhat less in awe among these gutter rats than you imagined,’’ offered Dragar wryly.

“All men fear the name of Kane!” Dessylyn shot back bitterly.

“Kane!” The name exploded from his lips in amazement. What had this girl to do…? But Dragar looked again at her sophisticated beauty, her luxurious attire, and understanding dawned. Angrily he became aware that the tavern uproar had become subdued on the echo of his outburst. Several faces had turned to him, their expressions uneasy, calculating.

The barbarian clapped a hand to his swordhilt. “Here’s a man who doesn’t fear a name!” he announced. “I’ve heard something of Carsultyal’s most dreaded sorcerer, but his name means less than a fart to me! There’s steel in this sword that can slice through the best your world-famed master smiths can forge, and it thrives on the gore of magicians. I call the blade Wizard’s Bare, and there are souls in Hell who will swear that its naming is no boast!”

Dessylyn stared at him in sudden fascination.

And what came after, Dessylyn?

I… I’m not sure… My mind—I was in a state of shock, I suppose. I remember holding his head for what seemed like forever. And then I remember sponging off the blood with water from the wooden lavabo, and the water was so cold and so red, so red. I must have put on my clothes… Yes, and I remember the city and walking and all those faces… All those faces… they stared at me, some of them. Stated and looked away, stared and looked compassionate, stared and looked curious, stared and made awful suggestions… And some just ignored me, didn’t see me at all. I can’t think which faces were the most cruel… I walked, walked so long… I remember the pain… I remember my tears, and the pain when there were no more tears… I remember… My mind was dazed… My memory… I can’t remember…

– IV –

A Ship Will Sail…

He looked up from his work and saw her standing there on the quay—watching him, her face a strange play of intensity and indecision. Mavrsal grunted in surprise and straightened from his carpentry. She might have been a phantom, so silently had she crept upon him.

“I had to see if… if you were all right,” Dessylyn told him with an uncertain smile.

“I am—aside from a crack on my skull,” Mavrsal answered, eyeing her dubiously.

By the dawnlight he had crawled from beneath the overturned furnishings of his cabin. Blood matted his thick hair at the back of his skull, and his head throbbed with a deafening ache, so that he had sat dumbly for a long while, trying to recollect the events of the night. Something had come through the door, had hurled him aside like a spurned doll. And the girl had vanished—carried off by the demon? Her warning had been for him; for herself she evidenced not fear, only resigned despair.

Or had some of his men returned to carry out their threats? Had too much wine, the blow on his head…? But no, Mavrsal knew better. His assailants would have robbed him, made certain of his death—had any human agency attacked him. She had called herself a sorcerer’s mistress, and it had been sorcery that spread its black wings over his caravel. Now the girl had returned, and Mavrsal’s greeting was tempered by his awareness of the danger which shadowed her presence.

Dessylyn must have known his thoughts. She backed away, as if to turn and go.

“Wait!” he called suddenly.

“I don’t want to endanger you any further.”

Mavrsal’s quick temper responded. “Danger! Kane can bugger with his demons in Hell, for all I care! My skull was too thick for his creature to split, and if he wants to try his hand in person, I’m here to offer him the chance!”

There was gladness in her wide eyes as Dessylyn stopped toward him. “His necromancies have exhausted him,” she assured the other. “Kane will sleep for hours yet.”

Mavrsal handed her over the rail with rough gallantry. “Then perhaps you’ll join me in my cabin. It’s grown too dark for carpentry, and I’d like to talk with you. After last night, I think I deserve to have some questions answered, anyway.”

He struck fire to a lamp and turned to find her balanced at the edge of a chair, watching him nervously. “What sort of questions?” she asked in an uneasy tone.

“Why?”

“Why what?”

Mavrsal made a vague gesture. “Why everything. Why did you get involved with this sorcerer? Why does he hold to you, if you hate him so? Why can’t you leave him?”

She gave him a sad smile that left him feeling naïve. “Kane is… a fascinating man; there is a certain magnetism about him. And I won’t deny the attraction his tremendous power and wealth held for me. Does it matter? It’s enough to say that there was a time when we met and I fell under Kane’s spell. It may be that I loved him once—but I’ve since hated too long and to deeply to remember.”

“But Kane continues to love me in his way. Love! His is the love of a miser for his hoard, the love of a connoisseur for some exquisitely wrought carving, the love a spider feels for its imprisoned prey! I’m his treasure, his possession—and what concern are the feelings of a lifeless object to its owner? Would the curious circumstance that his prized statue might hate him lessen the pleasure its owner derives from its possession?

“And leave him?” Her voice broke. “By the gods, don’t you think I’ve tried?”

His thoughts in a turmoil, Mavrsal studied the girl’s haunted face. “But why accept defeat? Past failure doesn’t mean you can’t try again. If you’re free to roam the streets of Carsultyal at night, your feet can take you farther still. I see no chain clamped to that collar you wear.”

“Not all chains are visible.”

“So I’ve heard, though I’ve never believed it. A weak will can imagine its own fetters.”

“Kane won’t let me leave him.”

“Kane’s power doesn’t reach a tenth so far as he believes.”

“There are men who would dispute that, if the dead cared to share the wisdom that came to them too late.”

Challenge glinted in the girl’s green eyes as they held his. Mavrsal felt the spell of her beauty, and his manhood answered. “A ship sails where its master wills it—may the winds and the tides and perils of the sea be damned!”

Her face craned closer. Tendrils of her auburn hair touched his arm. “There is courage in your words. But you know little of Kane’s power.”

He laughed recklessly. “Let’s say I’m not cowed by his name.”

From the belt of her gown, Dessylyn unfastened a small scrip. She tossed the leather pouch toward him.

Catching it, Mavrsal untied the braided thong and dumped its contents onto his palm. His hand shook. Gleaming gemstones tumbled in a tiny rainbow, clattered onto the cabin table. In his hand lay a fortune in rough-cut diamonds, emeralds, other precious stones.

Through their multihued reflections his face framed a question.

“I think there is enough to repair your ship, to pay her crew…” She paused; brighter flamed the challenge in her eyes. “Perhaps to buy my passage to a distant port—if you dare!”

The captain of the Tuab swore. “I meant what I said, girl! Give me another few days to refit her, and I’ll sail you to lands where no man has ever heard the name of Kane!”

“Later you may change your mind,” Dessylyn warned.

She rose from her chair. Mavrsal thought she meant to leave, but then he saw that her fingers had loosened other fastenings at her belt. His breath caught as the silken gown began to slip from her shoulders.

“I won’t change my mind,” he promised, understanding why Kane might go to any extreme to keep Dessylyn with him.

– V –

Wizard’s Bane

“Your skin is like the purest honey,” proclaimed Dragar ardently. “By the gods, I swear you even taste like honey!”

Dessylyn squirmed in pleasure and hugged the barbarian’s shaggy blond head to her breasts. After a moment she sighed and languorously pulled from his embrace. Sitting up, she brushed her slim fingers through the tousled auburn wave that cascaded over her bare shoulders and back, clung in damp curls to her flushed skin.

Dragar’s calloused hand imprisoned her slender wrist as she sought to rise from the rumpled bed. “Don’t prance away like a contrite virgin, girl. Your rider has dismounted but for a moment’s rest—then he’s ready to gallop through the palace gates another time or more, before the sun drops beneath the sea.”

“Pretty, but I have to go,” she protested. “Kane may grow suspicious…”

“Bugger Kane!” cursed Dragar, putting the girl back against him. His thick arms locked about her, and their lips crushed savagely. Cupped over a small breast, his hand felt the pounding of her heart, and the youth laughed and tilted back her feverish face. “Now tell me you prefer Kane’s effete pawings to a man’s embrace!”

A frown drifted like a sudden thunderhead. “You underestimate Kane. He’s no soft-fleshed weakling.”

The youth snarled in jealousy. “A foul sorcerer who’s skulked in his tower no one knows how long! He’ll have dust for blood, and dry rot in his bones! But go to him if you prefer his toothless kisses and withered loins!”

“No, dearest! Yours are the arms I love to lie within!” Dessylyn cried, entwining herself about him and soothing his anger with kisses. “It’s just that I’m frightened for you. Kane isn’t a withered greybeard. Except for the madness in his eyes, you would think Kane a hardened warrior in his prime. And you’ve more than his sorcery to fear. I’ve seen Kane kill with his sword—he’s a deadly fighter!”

Dragar snorted and stretched his brawny frame. “No warrior hides behind a magician’s robes. He’s but a name—an ogre’s name to frighten children into obedience. Well, I don’t fear his name, nor do I fear his magic, and my blade has drunk the blood of better swordsmen than your black-hearted tyrant ever was!”

“By the gods!” whispered Dessylyn, burrowing against his thick shoulder. “Why did fate throw me into Kane’s web instead of into your arms!”

“Fate is what man wills it. If you wish it, you are my woman now.”

“But Kane…”

The barbarian leaped to his feet and glowered down at her. “Enough snivelling about Kane, girl! Do you love me or not?”

“Dragar, beloved, you know I love you! Haven’t these past days…”

“These past days have been filled with woeful whimperings about Kane, and my belly grows sick from hearing it! Forget Kane! I’m taking you from him, Dessylyn! For all her glorious legend and over-mighty towers, Carsultyal is a stinking pesthole like every other city I’ve known. Well, I’ll waste no more days here.

“I’ll ride from Carsultyal tomorrow, or take passage on a ship, perhaps. Go to some less stagnant land, where a bold man and a strong blade can win wealth and adventure! You’re going with me.”

“Can you mean it, Dragar?”

“If you think I lie, then stay behind.”

“Kane will follow.”

“Then he’ll lose his life along with his love!” sneered Dragar.

With confident hands, be slid from its scabbard his great sword of silver-blue metal. “See this blade,” he hissed, flourishing its massive length easily. “I call it Wizard’s Bane, and there’s reason to the name. Look at the blade. It’s steel, but not steel such as your secretive smiths forge in their dragon-breath furnaces. See the symbols carved into the forte. This blade has power! It was forged long ago by a master smith who used the glowing heart of a fallen star for his ore, who set runes of protection into the finished sword. Who wields Wizard’s Bane need not fear magic, for sorcery can have no power over him. My sword can cleave through the hellish flesh of demons. It can ward off a sorcerer’s enchantments and skewer his evil heart!

“Let Kane send his demons to find us! My blade will shield us from his spells, and I’ll send his minions bowling in fear back to his dread tower! Let him creep from his lair if he dares! I’ll feed him bits of his liver and laugh in his face while he dies!”

Dessylyn’s eyes brimmed with adoration. “You can do it, Dragar! You’re strong enough to take me from Kane! No man has your courage, beloved!”

The youth laughed and twisted her hair. “No man? What do you know of men? Did you think these spineless city-bred fops, who tremble at the shadow of a senile cuckold, were men? Think no more of slinking back to Kane’s tower before your keeper misses you. Tonight, girl, I’m going to show you how a man loves his woman!”

But why will you insist it’s impossible to leave Kane?

I know.

How can you know? You’re too fearful of him to try.

I know.

But how can you say that?

Because I know.

Perhaps this bondage is only in your mind, Dessylyn.

But I know Kane won’t let me leave him.

So certain—is it because you’ve tried to escape him?

Have you tried, Dessylyn?

Tried with another’s help—and failed, Dessylyn?

Can’t you be honest with me, Dessylyn?

And now you’ll turn away from me in fear!

Then there was another man?

It’s impossible to escape him—and now you’ll abandon me!

Tell me, Dessylyn. How can I trust you if you won’t trust me?

On your word, then. There was another man….

– VI –

Night and Fog

Night returned to Carsultyal and spread its misty cloak over narrow alleys and brooding towers alike. The voice of the street broke from its strident daylight cacophony to a muted rumble of night. As the stars grew brighter through the sea mists, the streets grew silent, except for fitful snorts and growls like a hound uneasy in his sleep. Then the lights that glimmered through the shadow began to slip away, so stealthily that their departure went unnoticed. One only knew that the darkness, the fog, the silence now ruled the city unchallenged. And night, closer here than elsewhere in the cities of mankind, had returned to Carsultyal.

They lay close in each other’s arms—sated, but too restless for sleep. Few were their words, so that they listened to the beating of their hearts, pressed so close together as to make one sound. Fog thrust tendrils through chinks in the bolted shutters, brought with it the chill breath of the sea, lost cries of ships anchored in the night.

Then Dessylyn hissed like a cat and dug her nails so deep into Dragar’s arm that rivulets of crimson made an armlet about the corded muscle. Straining his senses against the night, the barbarian dropped his hand to the hilt of the unsheathed sword that lay beside their bed. The blade glinted blue—more so than the wan lamplight would seem to reflect.

From the night outside… Was it a sudden wind that rattled the window shutters, buffeted the streamers of fog into swirling eddies? A sound… Was that the flap of vast leathery wings?

Fear hung like a clinging web over the inn, and the silence about them was so desolate that theirs might have been the last two hearts to beat in all of haunted Carsultyal.

From the roof suddenly there came a slithering metallic scrape upon the slate tiles.

Wizard’s Bane pulsed with a corposant of blue witchfire. Shadows stark and unreal cringed away from the lambent blade.

Against the thick shutters sounded a creaking groan of hideous pressure. Oaken planks sagged inward. Holding fast, the iron bolts trembled, then abruptly smouldered into sullen rubrous heat. Mist poured past the buckling timbers, bearing with it a smell not of any sea known to man.

Brighter pulsed the scintillant glare of the sword. A nimbus of blue flame rippled out from the blade and encircled the crouching youth and his terrified companion. Rippling blue radiance, spreading across the room, struck the groaning shutters.

A burst of incandescence spat from the glowing iron bolts. Through the night beyond tore a silent snarl—an unearthly shriek felt rather than heard—a spitting bestial cry of pain and baffled rage.

The shutters sprang back with a grunting sigh as the pressure against them suddenly relented. Again the night shuddered with the buffet of tremendous wings. The ghost of sound dwindled. The black tide of fear ebbed and shrank back from the inn.

Dragar laughed and brandished his sword. Eyes still dazzled, Dessylyn stared in fascination at the blade, now suffused with a sheen no more preternatural than any finely burnished steel. It might all have been a frightened dream, she thought, knowing well that it had not been.

“It looks like your keeper’s sorcery is something less than all powerful!” scoffed the barbarian. “Now Kane will know that his spells and coward’s tricks are powerless against Wizard’s Bane. No doubt your ancient spellcaster is cowering under his cold bed, scared spitless that these gutless city folk will some day find courage enough to call his bluff! And against that, he’s probably safe.”

“You don’t know Kane,” moaned Dessylyn.

With gentle roughness, Dragar cuffed the grim-faced girl. “Still frightened by a legend? And after you’ve seen his magic defeated by the star-blade! You’ve lived within the shadow of this decadent city too long, girl. In a few hours we’ll have light, and then I’ll take you out into the real world—where men haven’t sold their souls to the ghosts of elder races!”

But her fears did not dissolve under the barbarian’s warm confidence. For a timeless period of darkness Dessylyn clung to him, her heart restlessly drumming, shuddering at each fragment of sound that pierced the night and fog.

And through the darkened streets echoed the clop-clop of hooves.

Far away, their sound so faint it might have been imagined. Closer now, the fog-muffled fall of ironshod hooves on paving bricks. Drawing ever closer, a hollow, rhythmic knell that grew deafening in the absolute stillness. Clop-Clop Clop-Clop Clop-Clop CLOP-CLOP CLOP-CLOP. Approaching the inn unhurriedly. Inexorably approaching the mist-shrouded inn.

“What is it?’ He asked her, as she started upright in terror.

“I know that sound. It’s a black, black stallion, with eyes that burn like living coals and hooves that ring like iron!”

Dragar snorted.

“Ah! And I know his rider!”

CLOP-CLOP CLOP-CLOP. Hoofbeats rolled and gobbled across the courtyard of the Inn of the Blue Window. Echoes rattled against the shutters… Could no one else hear their chill thunder?

CLOP-CLOP CLOP. The unseen horse stamped and halted outside the inn’s door. Harness jingled. Why were there no voices?

From deep within the chambers below echoed the dull chink of the bolt and bars falling away, clattering to the floor. A harsh creak as the outer door swung open. Where was the innkeeper?

Footfalls sounded on the stairs—the soft scuff of boot leather on worn planks. Someone entered the hallway beyond their door; strode confidently toward their room.

Dessylyn’s face was a stark mask of terror. Knuckles jammed against her teeth to dam a rising scream were stained red with drawn blood. Dread-haunted eyes were fixed upon the door opposite.

Slipping into a fighting crouch, Dragar spared a glance for the bared blade in his taut grasp. No nimbus of flame hovered about the sword, only the deadly gleam of honed steel, reflected in the unnaturally subdued lamplight.

Footsteps halted in front of their door. It seemed he could hear the sound of breathing from beyond the threshold.

A heavy first smote the door. Once. A single summons. A single challenge.

With an urgent gesture, Dessylyn signed Dragar to remain silent.

“Who dares…!” he growled in a ragged voice.

A powerful blow exploded against the stout timber. Latch and bolt erupted from their setting in a shower of splinters and wrenched metal. All but torn from its hinges, the door was hurled open, slammed resoundingly against the wall.

“Kane!“ screamed Dessylyn.

The massive figure strode through the doorway, feral grace in the movements of his powerful, square-torsoed frame. A heavy sword was balanced with seeming negligence in his left hand, but there was no uncertainty in the lethal fury that blazed in his eyes.

“Good evening,” sneered Kane through a mirthless smile.

Startled despite Dessylyn’s warning, Dragar’s practiced eye swiftly sized up his opponent. So the sorcerer’s magic had preserved the prime of his years after all… At about six feet Kane stood several inches shorter than the towering barbarian, but the enormous hands of muscle that surged beneath leather vest and trousers made his weight somewhat greater. Long arms and the powerful roll of his shoulders signaled a swordsman of considerable reach and strength, although the youth doubted if Kane could match his speed. A slim leather band with a black opal tied back his shoulder-length red hair, and the face beneath the close-trimmed beard was brutal, with a savagery, that made his demeanor less lordly than arrogant. And his blue eyes burned with the brand of killer.

“Come looking for your woman, sorcerer?” grated Dragar, watching the other’s blade. “We thought you’d stay hidden in your tower, after I frightened off your slinking servants!”

Kane’s eyes narrowed. “So that’s… Wizard’s Bane, I believe you call it. I see the legends didn’t lie when they spoke of the blade’s protective powers. I shouldn’t have spoken of it to Dessylyn, I suppose, when I learned that an enchanted sword had been brought into Carsultyal. But then, its possession will compensate in some part for the difficulties you’ve caused me.”

“Kill him, Dragar, my love! Don’t listen to his lies!” Dessylyn cried.

“What do you mean?” rumbled the youth, who had missed Kane’s inference.

The warrior wizard chuckled drily. “Can’t you guess, you romantic oaf? Don’t you understand that a clever woman has used you? Of course not—the chivalrous barbarian thought he was defending a helpless girl. Pity I let Laroc die after persuading him to tell me of her game. He might have told you how innocent his mistress—“

“Dragar! Kill him! He only means to take you off guard!”

“To be sure! Kill me, Dragar—if you can! That was her plan, you know. Through my… sources… I learned of this formidable blade you carry and made mention of it to Dessylyn. But Dessylyn, it seems, has grown bored with my caresses. She paid a servant, the unlamented Laroc, to stage an apparent rape, trusting that a certain lout would rush in to save her. Well plotted, don’t you think? Now poor Dessylyn has a bold defender whose magic blade can protect her against Kane’s evil spells. I wonder, Dessylyn—did you only mean to go away with this thickheaded dolt, or did you plan to goad me into this personal combat, hoping I’d be slain and the wealth of my tower would be yours?”

“Dragar! He’s lying to you!” moaned the girl despairingly.

“Because if it was the latter, then I’m afraid your plotting wasn’t as intelligent as you believed,” concluded Kane mockingly.

“Dragar!” came the tortured choke.

The barbarian, emotions a fiery chaos, risked an agonized glance at her contorted face.

Kane lunged.

Off guard, Dragar’s lightning recovery deflected Kane’s blade at the last possible instant, so that he took a shallow gash across his side instead of the steel through his ribs. “Damn you!” he cursed.

“But I am!” laughed Kane, parrying the youth’s flashing counterattack with case. His speed was uncanny, and the awesome power of his thick shoulders drove his blade with deadly force.

Lightning seemed to flash with the ringing thunder of their blades. Rune-stamped star-metal hammered against the finest steel of Carsultyal’s far-famed forges, and their clangor seemed the cries of two warring demons—harsh, strident with pain and rage.

Sweat shone on Dragar’s naked body, and his breath spat foam through his clenched teeth. A few times only had he crossed blades with an opponent his equal in strength, and then the youth’s superior speed had carried the victory. Now, as in some impossible nightmare, he faced a skilled and cunning swordsman whose speed was at least his equal—and whose strength seemed somewhat greater. After his initial attack had been deftly turned away, Dragar’s swordplay became less reckless, less confident. Grimly he set about wearing down his opponent’s endurance, reasoning that the sorcerer’s physical conditioning could not equal that of a hardened mercenary.

In all the world there was no sound but their ringing blades, the desperate rush of their bodies, the hoarse gusts of their breath. Everywhere time stood frozen, save for the deadly fury of their duel, as they leaped and lunged about the bare-timbered room.

Dragar caught a thin slash across his left arm from a blow he did not remember deflecting. Kane’s lefthanded attack was dangerously unfamiliar to him, and only his desperate parries had saved him from worse. Uneasily he realized that Kane’s sword arm did not falter as the minutes dragged past and that more and more he was being confined to the defensive. Wizard’s Bane grew ragged with notches from the Carsultyal blade, and its hilt slippery with sweat. Kane’s heavier sword was similarly scarred from their relentless slash, parry, thrust.

Then as Kane deflected Dragar’s powerful stroke, the youth made a quick thrust with the turning blade—enough so that its tip gashed diagonally across Kane’s brow, severing his headband. A shallow cut, but blood flowed freely, matted the clinging strands of his unbound hair. Kane gave back, flung the blood and loose hair from his eyes.

And Dragar lunged. Too quick for Kane to parry fully, his blade gored a furrow the length of the sorcerer’s left forearm. Kane’s long sword faltered. Instantly the barbarian hammered at his guard.

The sword left Kane’s grip as it clumsily threw back the star-blade. For a fraction of a second it turned free in midair. Dragar exulted that he had at last torn the blade from Kane’s grasp—as he raised his arm for a killing stroke.

But Kane’s right hand caught up the spinning blade with practiced surety. Wielding the sword with skill scarcely inferior to his natural sword arm, Kane parried Dragar’s flashing blow. Then, before the startled barbarian could recover, Kane’s sword smashed through Dragar’s ribs.

The force of the blow burled the stricken youth back against the bed. Wizard’s Bane dropped from nerveless fingers and skidded across the wide oaken planks.

From Dessylyn’s throat came a cry of inexpressible pain. She rushed to him and cradled Dragar’s head against her lap. Desperately she pressed ineffectual fingers against the pulsing wound in his chest. “Please, Kane!” she sobbed. “Spare him!”

Kane glanced through burning eyes at the youth’s ruined chest and laughed. “I give him to you, Dessylyn,” he told her insolently. “And I’ll await you in my tower—unless, of course, you young lovers still plan on running off together.”

Blood trailing from his arm—and darker blood from his sword—he stalked from the room and into the night mists.

“Dragar! Dragar!” Dessylyn moaned, kissing his haggard face and blood-foamed lips. “Please don’t die, beloved! Onthe, don’t let him die!”

Tears fell from her eyes to his as she pressed her face against his pallid visage. “You didn’t believe him, did you, Dragar? What if I did engineer our meeting, dearest! Still I love you! It’s true that I love you! I’ll always love you, Dragar!”

He looked at her through glazing eyes.

“Bitch!” he spat, and died.

How many times, Dessylyn?

How many times will you play this game?

(But this was the first!)

The first? Are you sure, Dessylyn?

(I swear it!… How can I be sure?)

And how many after? How many circles, Dessylyn?

(Circles? Why this darkness in my mind?)

How many times, Dessylyn, have you played at Lorelei?

How many are those who have known your summoning eye?

How many are those who have heard your siren cry, Dessylyn?

How many souls have swum out to you, Dessylyn?

And perished by the shadows that hide below,

And are drawn down to Hell by the undertow?

How many times, Dessylyn?

(I can’t remember…)

– VII –

“He’ll Have to Die…”

“You know he’ll have to die.”

Dessylyn shook her head. “It’s too dangerous.”

“Clearly it’s far more dangerous to let him live,” Mavrsal pointed out grimly. “From what you’ve told me, Kane will never permit you to leave him—and this isn’t like trying to get away from some jealous lord. A sorcerer’s tentacles reach farther than those of the fabled Oraycha. What good is it to escape Carsultyal, only to have Kane’s magic strike at us later? Even on the high sea his shadow can follow us.”

“But we might escape him,” murmured Dessylyn. “The oceans are limitless, and the waves carry no trail.”

“A wizard of Kane’s power will have ways to follow us.”

“It’s still too dangerous. I’m not even sure Kane can be killed!” Dessylyn’s fingers toyed anxiously with the emerald at her throat; her lips were tightly pressed.

Angrily Mavrsal watched her fingers twist the wide silk and leather collar. Fine ladies might consider the fashion stylish here in Carsultyal, but it annoyed him that she wore the ornament even in bed. “You’ll never be free of Kane’s slave collar,” he growled, voicing his thought, “until that devil is dead.”

“I know,” breathed the girl softly, more than fear shining in her green eyes.

“Yours is the hand that can kill him,” he continued.

Her lips moved, but no sound issued.

Soft harbor sounds whispered through the night as the Tuab gently rocked with the waves. Against the quay, her timbers creaked and groaned, thudded against the buffers of waste hemp cordage. Distantly, her watch paced the deck; low conversation, dimly heard, marked the presence of other crewmen—not yet in their hammocks, despite a hard day’s work. In the captain’s cabin a lamp swung slowly with the vessel’s roll, playing soft shadows back and forth against the objects within. Snug and sheltered from the sea mists, the atmosphere was almost cozy—could the cabin only have been secure against a darker phantom that haunted the night.

“Kane claims to love you,” Mavrsal persisted shrewdly. “He won’t accept your hatred of him. In other words, he’ll unconsciously lower his guard with you. He’ll let you stand at his back and never suspect that your hand might drive a dagger through his ribs.”

“It’s true,” she acknowledged in a strange voice.

Mavrsal held her shoulders and turned her face to his. “I can’t see why you haven’t tried this before. Was it fear?”

“Yes. I’m terrified of Kane.”

“Or was it something else? Do you still feel some secret love for him, Dessylyn?”

She did not reply immediately. “I don’t know.”

He swore and took her chin in his hand. The collar, with its symbol of Kane’s mastery, enraged him—so that he roughly tore it from her throat. Her fingers flew to the bared flesh.

Again he cursed. “Did Kane do that to you?”

She nodded, her eyes wide with intense emotion.

“He treats you as a slave, and you haven’t the spirit to rebel—or even to hate him for what he does to you!”

“That’s not true! I hate Kane!”

“Then show some courage! What can the devil do to you that’s any worse than your present lot?”

“I just don’t want you to die, too!”

The captain laughed grimly. “If you’d remain his slave to spare my life, then you’re worth dying for! But the only death will be Kane’s—if we lay our plans well. Will you try, Dessylyn? Will you rebel against this tyrant—win freedom for yourself, and love for us both?”

“I’ll try, Mavrsal,” she promised, unable to avoid his eyes. “But I can’t do it alone.”

“Nor would any man ask you to. Can I get into Kane’s tower?”

“An army couldn’t assail that tower if Kane wished to defend it.”

“So I’ve heard. But can I get inside? Kane must have a secret entrance to his lair.”

She bit her fist. “I know of one. Perhaps you could enter without his knowing it.”

“I can if you can warn me of any hidden guardians or pitfalls,” he told her with more confidence than he felt. “And I’ll want to try this when he won’t be as vigilant as normal. Since there seem to be regular periods when you can slip away from the tower, I see no reason why I can’t steal inside under the same circumstances.”

Dessylyn nodded, her face showing less fear now. “When he’s deep into his necromancies, Kane is oblivious to all else. He’s begun again with some of his black spells—he’ll be so occupied until tomorrow night, when he’ll force me to partake of his dark ritual.”

Mavrsal flushed with outrage. “Then that will be his last journey into the demonlands—until we send him down to Hell forever! Repairs are all but complete. If I push the men and rush reprovisioning, the Tuab can sail with the tide of another dawn, Tomorrow night it will be, then, Dessylyn. While Kane is exhausted and preoccupied with his black sorcery, I’ll slip into his tower.

“Be with him then. If he sees me before I can strike, wait until he turns to meet my attack—then strike with this!” And he drew a slender dirk from a sheath fixed beneath the head of his bunk.

As if hypnotized by his words, by the shining sliver of steel, Dessylyn turned the dagger about in her hands, again and again, staring at the flash of light on its keen edge. “I’ll try. By Onthe, I’ll try to do as you say!”

“He’ll have to die,” Mavrsal assured her. “You know he’ll have to die.”

– VIII –

Drink a Final Cup…

Spread out far below lay Carsultyal, fog swirling through her wide brick streets and crooked filthy alleys, hovering over squalid tenements and palatial manors—although her arrogant towers pierced its veil and reared toward the stars in lordly grandeur. Born of two elements, air and water, the mist swirled and drifted, sought to strangle a third element, fire but could do no more than dim with tears its thousand glowing eyes. Patches of murky yellow in the roiling fog, the lights of Carsultyal gained the illusion of movement, so that one might be uncertain at any one moment whether he gazed down into the mist-hung city or upward toward the cloud-buried stars.

“Your mood is strange tonight, Dessylyn,” Kane observed, meticulously adjusting the fire beneath the tertiary alembic.

She moved away from the tower window. “Is it strange to you, Kane? I marvel that you notice. I’ve told you countless times that this necromancy disgusts me, but always before have my sentiments meant nothing to you.”

“Your sentiments mean a great deal to me, Dessylyn. But as for demanding your attendance here, I only do what I must.”

“Like that!” she hissed in loathing, and pointed to the young girl’s mutilated corpse.

Wearily Kane followed her gesture. Pain etching his brow, he made a sign and barked a stream of harsh syllables. A shadow crossed the open window and fell over the vivisected corpse. When it withdrew, the tortured form had vanished, and a muffled slap of wings faded into the darkness.

“Why do you think to hide your depraved crimes from my sight, Kane? Do you think I’ll forget? Do you think I don’t know the evil that goes into compounding this diabolical drug you force me to drink?”

Kane frowned and stared into the haze of phosphorescent vapor which swirled within the cucurbit. “Are you carrying iron, Dessylyn? There’s assymetry to the nimbus. I’ve told you not to bring iron within the influence of this generation.”

The dagger was an unearthly chill against the flesh of her thigh. “Your mind is going, Kane. I wear only these rings.”

He ignored her to lift the cap and hurriedly pour in a measure of dark, semi-congealed fluid. The alembic hissed and shivered, seemed to burst with light within its crimson crystal walls. A drop of phosphorescence took substance near the receiver. Kane quickly shifted the chalice to catch the droplet as it plunged.

“Why do you force me to drink this, Kane? Aren’t these chains of fear that hold me to you bondage enough?”

His uncanny stare fixed her, and while it might have been the alchemical flames that made it seem so, she was astonished to see the fatigue, the pain that lined his face. It was as if the untold centuries whose touch Kane had eluded had at last stolen upon him. His hair billowed wildly, his face was shadowed and sunken, and his skin seemed imparted with the sick hue of the phosphorescent vapors.

“Why must you play this game, Dessylyn? Does it please you to see to what limits I go to hold you to me?”

“All that would please me, Kane, is to be free of you.”

“You loved me once. You will love me again.”

“Because you command it? You’re a fool if you believe so. I hate you, Kane. I’ll hate you for the rest of my life. Kill me now, or keep me here till I’m ancient and withered. I’ll still die hating you.”

He sighed and turned from her. His words were breathed into the flame. “You’ll stay with me because I love you, and your beauty will not fade, Dessylyn. In time you may understand. Did you ever wonder at the loneliness of immortality? Have you ever wondered what must be the thoughts of a man cursed to wander through the centuries? A man doomed to a desolate, unending existence—feared and hated wherever men speak his name. A man who can never know peace, whose shadow leaves ruin wherever he passes. A man who has learned that every triumph is fleeting, that every joy is transient. All that he seeks to possess is stolen away from him by the years. His empires will fall, his songs will be forgotten, his loves will turn to dust. Only the emptiness of eternity will remain with him, a laughing skeleton cloaked in memories to haunt his days and nights.

“For such a man as this, for such a curse as this—is it so terrible that he dares to use his dark wisdom to hold something which he loves? If a hundred bright flowers must wither and die in his hand, is it evil that he hopes to keep one, just one, blossom for longer than the brief instant that Time had intended? Even if the flower hated being torn from the soil, would it make him wish to preserve its beauty any less?”

But Dessylyn was not listening to Kane. The billow of a tapestry, where no wind had blown, caught her vision. Could Kane hear the almost silent rasp of hidden hinges? No, he was lost in one of his maddened fits of brooding.

She tried to force her pounding heart to pulse less thunderously, her quick breath to cease its frantic rush. She could see where Mavrsal stood, frozen in the shadow of the tapestry. It seemed impossible that be might creep closer without Kane’s unnatural keenness sensing his presence. The bidden dirk burned her thigh as if it were sheathed in her flesh. Carefully she edged around to Kane’s side, thinking to expose his back to Mavrsal.

“But I see the elixir is ready,” announced Kane, breaking out of his mood. Administering a few amber drops to the fluid, he carefully lifted the chalice of glowing liquor.

“Here, drink this quickly,” he ordered, extending the vessel.

“I won’t drink your poisoned drugs again.”

“Drink it, Dessylyn.” His eyes held hers.

As in a recurrent nightmare—and there were other nightmares—Dessylyn accepted the goblet. She raised it to her lips, felt the bitter liquor touch her tongue.

A knife whirled across the chamber. Struck from her languid fingers, the crystal goblet smashed into a thousand glowing shards against the stones.

“No!” shouted Kane in a demonic tone. “No! No!“ He stared at the pool of dying phosphoresence in stunned horror.

Leaping from concealment, Mavrsal flung himself toward Kane—hoping to bury his cutlass in his enemy’s heart before the sorcerer recovered. He had not reckoned on Kane’s uncanny reflexes.

The anguished despair Kane displayed burst into inhuman rage at the instant he spun to meet his hidden assailant. Weaponless, he lunged for the sea captain. Mavrsal swung his blade in a natural downward slash, abandoning finesse in the face of an unarmed opponent.

With blurring speed, Kane stepped under the blow and caught the other’s descending wrist with his left hand. Mavrsal heard a scream escape his lips as his arm was jammed to a halt in mid swing—as Kane’s powerful left hand closed about his wrist and shattered the bones beneath the crushed flesh. The cutlass sailed unheeded across the stones.

His face twisted in bestial fury, Kane grappled with the sea captain. Mavrsal, an experienced fighter at rough and tumble, found himself tossed about like a frail child. Kane’s other hand circled its long fingers about his throat, choking off his breath. Desperately lie sought to break Kane’s hold, beat at him with his mangled wrist, as Kane with savage laughter carried him back against the wall, holding him by his neck like a broken puppet.

Red fog wavered in his vision-pain was roaring in his ears… Kane was slowly strangling him, killing him deliberately, taunting him for his helplessness.

Then he was falling.

Kane gasped and arched his back inward as Dessylyn drove her dagger into his shoulder. Blood splashed her sweat-slippery fist. As Kane twisted away from her blow, the thin blade lodged in the scapula and snapped at the hilt.

Dessylyn screamed as his backhand blow hurled her to the stones. Frantically she scrambled to Mavrsal’s side, where he lay sprawled on the floor—stunned, but still conscious.

Kane cursed and fell back against his worktable, overturning an alembic that burst like a rotted gourd. “Dessylyn!“ he groaned in disbelief. Blood welled from his shoulder, spread across his slumped figure. His left shoulder was crippled, but his deadliness was that of a wounded tiger. “Dessylyn!”

“What did you expect?” she snarled, trying to pull Mavrsal to his feet.

A heavy flapping sound flung foggy gusts through the window. Kane cried out something in an inhuman tongue.

“If you kill Mavrsal, better kill me this time as well!” cried Dessylyn, clinging to the sea captain as he dazedly rose to his knees.

He cast a calculating eye toward the fallen sword. Too far.

“Leave her alone, sorcerer!” rasped Mavrsal. “She’s guilty of no crime but that of hating you and loving me! Kill me now and be done, but you’ll never change her spirit!”

“And I suppose you love her, too,” said Kane in a tortured voice. “You fool. Do you know how many others I’ve killed—other fools who thought they would save Dessylyn from the sorcerer’s evil embrace? It’s a game she often plays. Ever since the first fool… only a game. It amuses her to taunt me with her infidelities, with her schemes to leave with another man. Since it amuses her, I indulge her. But she doesn’t love you.”

“Then why did she bury my steel in your back?” Despair made Mavrsal reckless. “She hates you, sorcerer—and she loves me! Keep your lies to console you in your madness! Your sorcery can’t alter Dessylyn’s feelings toward you—nor can it alter the truth you’re forced to see! So kill me and be damned—you can’t escape the reality of your pitiful clutching for something you’ll never hold!”

Kane’s voice was strange, and his face was a mirror of tormented despair. “Get out of my sight!” he rasped. “Get out of here, both of you!

“Dessylyn, I give you your freedom. Mavrsal, I give you Dessylyn’s love. Take your bounty, and go from Carsultyal! I trust you’ll have little cause to thank me!”

As they stumbled for the secret door, Mavrsal ripped the emerald-set collar from Dessylyn’s neck and flung it at Kane’s slumping figure. “Keep your slave collar!” he growled. “It’s enough that you leave her with your scars about her threat!”

“You fool,” said Kane in a low voice.

“How far are we from Carsultyal?” whispered Dessylyn.

“Several leagues—we’ve barely gotten underway,” Mavrsal told the shivering girl beside him.

“I’m frightened.”

“Hush. You’re done with Kane and all his sorcery. Soon it will be dawn, and soon we’ll be far beyond Carsultyal and all the evil you’ve known there.”

“Hold me tighter then, my love. I feel so cold.”

“The sea wind is cold, but it’s clean,” he told her. “It’s carrying us together to a new life.”

“I’m frightened.”

“Hold me closer, then.”

“I seem to remember now…

But the exhausted sea captain had fallen asleep. A deep sleep—the last unblighted slumber he would ever know.

For at dawn he awoke in the embrace of a corpse—the mouldering corpse of a long-dead girl, who had hanged herself in despair over the death of her barbarian lover.

– End –


About the Author

47123B04-75B1-4E72-8E47-49DD8609FD6AKarl Edward Wagner (1945 – 1994) was an American writer, poet, editor, and publisher of horror and speculative fiction. He was born in Knoxville, Tennessee and was originally trained to be a psychiatrist. Wagner wrote numerous dark fantasy and horror stories that to this day are celebrated as examples of the highest quality in genre fiction. As an editor, he created a three-volume set of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian fiction restored to its original form as intended by Howard; and he edited the long-running and genre-defining The Year’s Best Horror Stories series for DAW Books.

Wagner’s publishing company, Carcosa, issued four volumes of the best stories by some of the major authors published during the period known as the “Golden Age of Pulp”. He is also well known for his creation of a series of stories featuring the character Kane, the Mystic Swordsman who appears in the story “Undertow” above.

BBC8DB43-B2B9-4FFF-97C1-4ED5422392BE

Read more about Karl Edward Wagner, here:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Edward_Wagner

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