“The Weird of Ironspell” by John R. Fultz
Illustrations by Alex Sheikman
6. The Tomb of Azazar
The crypt lay on an uncharted isle off the wild coast of southern Mydrithia.
A triple-sailed war galleon dropped anchor in the narrow cove, but only five men came to shore. If there had been any living sentinels watching from the jungle depths, they would have counted only two of the group as human men. The other three were strangelings: two tall Amurions bearing longbows and a gaudily garbed gnome. They stood on the wet sands and surveyed the wilderness that smothered the slopes of a dormant volcano. There was no sign of civilization old or new in this ancient haunt of green shadows.
Ironspell ran a hand through his shaggy black beard and stared into the jungle, looking for invisible signs. Tumnal pulled the rowboat inland and hid it between two jutting boulders.
This desolate chunk of earth bore the stink of long-buried sorcery, of that Ironspell was sure. But it was a reek that had fooled him before.
“Are you sure this is the place?” asked the gnome, dusting sand off his vermillion robes with a gnarled hand. “Looks nothing more than a place for a good shipwreck.”
Ironspell spat upon the brown sand. “It’s here. Somewhere…”
Tumnal returned and broke out a flask of wine, offering each man a sip. The Amurions refused (they never drank) but the gnome called Grobos quaffed greedily at the bottle. Ironspell took a hearty swig.
“What exactly are we looking for?” Tumnal asked. His loose-fitting garb and jaunty hat gave him the look of a weary pirate, a stark contrast to the brawny, black-mailed warrior whom he followed. The Amurions turned their pointed ears toward the forest depths, perhaps listening to the hidden language of prowling beasts. Grobos watched the blue sky in gnomish silence.
Ironspell scanned the jungle and stalked into the emerald gloom. His companions followed, drawing blades and nocking arrows.
“Thirty years ago…the first time I slew Azazar,” Ironspell said, “certain demons carried his body here, where they built a tomb for his remains. At the heart of this tomb lies the secret of his power…a Soul Stone that serves as a vessel for his…immortal essence. Each time I kill him, his spirit flees back to the cursed gem. His demons then provide a fresh corpse to inhabit, and he walks the world again. We find the tomb, we find the stone. We put an end to Azazar.”
“The Oracles of Yom told you this?” Grobos asked.
“As well as how to destroy the Soul Stone?”
“There…” Ironspell pointed out a desiccated skull nailed to a palm tree. “The path begins here.” He stalked into the jungle, drawing Runesblood in a glimmer of silver and scarlet. Grobos looked at Tumnal and the thief shrugged, drawing his own blade. The strangelings, Antestus and Marim, were used to following Ironspell without question. They pointed their bows into the foliage and strode after him.
The cries of jungle birds filled the steaming air as wilderness swallowed up the searchers. Ironspell hacked a path through the underbrush with Runesblood until he found a second decayed skull, this one perched atop a thick pole. It had been dipped in gold that had long ago tarnished to unhealthy green in the jungle dampness. He grunted a confirmation of his instinct. This was the path to the Tomb of Azazar.
For ten years he had searched the world, roaming the kingdoms of East and West like a vagabond, always in search of Azazar’s trail, with Tumnal his constant companion. His road was littered with the dead and undead. Seven times he broke the forces of dead armies risen to assail living kingdoms. It was a stalemate: Azazar’s earthly empire could not grow while Ironspell lived to smash it again and again. Yet always the Undying One evaded him, staying well-hidden.
There had been no sign of Tyneus, Ironspell’s abducted son, since Azazar flaunted his existence in the Bleak Realm just before that dark world had perished. He did not know if the boy still lived, but if so he was surely a man by now. Yet what kind of a man could he be, raised by a force of evil, an avatar of Death itself? No matter, Ironspell told himself. He would find his son and redeem him by ending Azazar. His entire existence revolved around these two goals. A father could do no less for his own blood.
Ironspell did not pray to the gods of men that his son still lived. He had forsaken those gods a decade past. The power of a forgotten beast-god gave him strength and cosmic insight that served him well. Now at last he had uncovered the secret of Azazar’s immortality and assembled his most trusted allies for the final confrontation.
Deep in the heart of the jungle they found the entrance to the tomb. A monolithic skull of basalt blocks yawned upon a tangled hillside, and its maw was the mouth of a great cavern sealed behind doors of slime-encrusted iron. Poisonous serpents slithered from the great skull’s eyes and fell upon the searchers, but the arrows of Antestus and Marim flew fast and in great number, killing the snakes before any could bite. Tiny Grobos pushed against the tomb doors with his great strength, and they groaned inward. A cloud of noxious poison wafted out, but Grobos called up a wind to scatter it across the island.
“The builders of this tomb have no doubt placed many wards within,” said the gnome. “This will be a deadly search.”
Ironspell nodded. “It always is,” he said, and walked into the musty darkness. Runesblood shed a silver-crimson light, and the companions trod directly into the throat of the great skull.
Poor Marim was the first to die. The wide entrance corridor was painted with fantastic scenes of death and torture. At its end, a great blade slid soundlessly from the wall and lopped off Marim’s head. Antestus wept for his dead cousin, said an Amurion prayer over him, and took his quiver of sacred arrows. They wouldn’t be able to bury him until they returned from the depths of the tomb. Antestus knew this, and asked for nothing else. Grobos found a hidden door at the hallway’s end, and Ironspell smashed it with a kick of his booted foot. This loosed a volley of flying darts from the walls, but Grobos sang them into the shapes of moths that fluttered harmlessly out into the jungle and died.
They marched deeper into the bowels of the tomb, avoiding deadfalls that yawned suddenly beneath crumbling floor tiles. They found themselves in a labyrinth of dark stone, lost and directionless, with no choice but to wander the winding halls until they found some new way they had not yet discovered. A monolithic block of marble fell from the ceiling, blocking any chance of retreat and smashing Antestus to a gory pulp.
Only the strangeling’s right hand survived. Tumnal pried a golden ring from the dead man’s finger, ignoring the twisted frown of Grobos. “To remember him by…” said Tumnal, justifying his thievery. Ironspell had long ago learned to ignore such callous behavior from his comrade. Even Grobos’ great strength could not lift the massive block, so they wound deeper into the death-maze.
After hours more of searching, Grobos’ frustration got the best of him. He began holes in the maze walls. In this way he discovered a hidden chamber lined with mosaics of opal and pearl, where a dozen sarcophagi lay about a statue of living iron. Ironspell avoided the guardian’s great axe, but Runesblood could not cleave the giant’s metal skin. Tumnal eventually kicked the back of the guardian’s helm, knocking it to the floor which burst apart beneath its weight. The golem tumbled into the endless dark beneath the chamber.
“Better him than us, eh?” Tumnal said.
Ironspell explored the jeweled coffins. As he pried off a great lid, the mummy inside reached for his throat. He sang to it and the mummy burned, thrashing and moaning until it was no more than grave dust. So it went with each of the sarcophagi. This was not the burial room of Azazar, only a decoy. Tumnal pried several large opals out of the walls while Grobos studied the ancient script carved into granite pillars.
“Fascinating,” the gnome muttered. “It says here that each of these dead ones was a king who served the Devil Queen of Dylestus in ages past.”
“That proves it,” Ironspell said. “Azazar’s homeland was Dylestus. His burial chamber lies deeper within.”
Along dusty corridors and crumbling hallways the search continued. Tumnal fell into a pit lined with upraised spikes. He landed on his feet like a cat between their rusted points, suffering only a shallow gash along his left thigh. The venom on the spikes had long ago dried and lost its potency, or he would have joined the Amurions then and there. On the floor of the pit lay the moldering bones of an unfortunate grave-robber or architect who had mapped part of the tomb before perishing here. The faded parchment led them into a deeper network of undisturbed chambers.
They entered a great hall of opulent splendor where living skeletons laughed and danced in the manner of a royal court. The skeleton kingdom went about its endless celebrations before a raised seat of ebony and crystal, where lay the bones of a long-dead child king with a jeweled crown. The skeleton folk took no notice of Ironspell, Tumnal, or Grobos, who walked among the necromantic festivities as if they were ghosts gliding through a living king’s realm.
The experience seemed to haunt Grobos, who was unnerved by the travesty.
“Why do they mimic the living so?” he muttered as they walked away from the child king’s hall of dancing bones. “It’s blasphemous…”
“Perhaps they think they are still alive,” said Tumnal.
“Does that not make it a worse horror?” said Grobos, tugging at his short beard.
“Calm yourself,” said Ironspell. “Not all the hazards here are physical. This place is meant to shatter the soul as well as the body. Put it from your mind.”
But Grobos did not seem able, and he muttered curses to himself with every step thereafter, his stubby hands trembling and unsteady. Ironspell had no time to worry about his companion’s state of mind, or to honor the two who had died this day. Azazar’s stink was heavy now between the winding halls. The Soul Stone must be near.
They descended a wide stairwell marked with golden skull sigils. At its end lay a great vault supported by columns of black stone. The gleam of scattered jewels refracted Runesblood’s glow, and they found a single onyx sarcophagus lying amid a heap of rubies, emeralds, agates, and precious stones unknown. The golden skull insignia upon the black lid was unmistakable. Here was the casket of Azazar.
“Gods Below,” Tumnal swore. Ironspell’s eyes drifted from the black sarcophagus, and he too almost swore.
A beautiful woman stood before them. Her eyes were the purple of amethysts, her hair strands of woven gold that fell to her slim waist. In her perfect nudity, she glowed brighter than all the jewels of the sorcerer’s tomb. She opened rose-red lips and spoke in a voice soft as silk against a man’s ear.
At last you have found me, she said, and diamond tears glittered in her eyes.
Ironspell saw his dead wife, Tyarah, in all her living glory. Tumnal saw the Queen of Harlots, the goddess of lust herself, calling out to him. Grobos saw the girl he had once loved in his boyhood village, daughter of the wizard who had apprenticed him. A girl who had spurned his love but treated him kindly despite his ugliness.
“Daliris!” The gnome called out to her and she smiled. She had been stolen by barbarian raiders when she was only thirteen. Yet here she was…alive…in the most unexpected of all places. “My sweet Daliris…”
Grobos grabbed Ironspell and Tumnal by their ankles, tossed them across the chamber with his terrible strength. Then he raced to the girl’s side. “My love!” he cooed, embracing her.
Ironspell crashed against a pillar. The impact broke the enchantment set upon him. Tumnal lay unconscious nearby, where Grobos’ throw had cracked his skull against a tomb wall.
“Grobos! No!” Ironspell screamed a warning as the fallen Runesblood came flying back into his hand. But he was too late to save the gnome.
The she-demon wrapped her arms about the stunted wizard’s neck. Her serpentine tale encircled his body, squeezing with unearthly might. Ironspell heard the gnome’s bones cracking even as Grobos moaned in ecstasy. The warrior rushed forward, but the demoness opened her fanged maw impossibly wide and snapped her jaws about Grobos’ head, tearing it from his shoulders in a crimson spray. She spit it from her maw like a rancid grape.
Now she spat burning poison at Ironspell, wound her snaky coils about his legs, and conjured a sword of flame to parry the blows of Runesblood. Caught in the grip of her coils, Ironspell crooned an ancient magic which dazzled the demoness. He drove his blade into her reptilian heart, and she shrieked curses at him as she died. At length he pulled himself from her twitching coils and approached the black sarcophagus.
Tumnal awoke across the chamber, rubbing at his sore noggin, as Ironspell pried open the onyx lid. Inside, on a bed of crimson silk, lay a single diamond no larger than his thumb. Beneath the stone lay a bone-colored parchment inscribed with the ancient language of Dylestus.
He took the Soul Stone from the coffin and sang the spell taught him by the Oracles of Yom. The gem fizzled and cracked, falling between his fingers as a fine, white sand. But something was wrong…there was no release of spirit energy. Azazar’s soul was no longer housed here. The fiend had outmaneuvered him once again.
Ironspell screamed, falling to his knees among the scattered jewels…his bellow of rage shook the vaulted chamber’s roof. Dancing skeletons in a distant hall heard his awful cry and fell into jumbled piles of bones, never to move again.
Tumnal took the scroll from within the coffin and offered it to Ironspell. He knew somehow that the warrior could read what he could not. Perhaps there was some clue. Ironspell read the message in a voice heavy with pain, yet seasoned with a terrible hope.
Your son lives. He has grown mighty.
Come and claim him if you will.
He awaits you atop the Mountain of Sorrows.
–Azazar the Undying
He crumpled the parchment in his bloody fist.
Tumnal scooped up handfuls of the splendid, scattered jewels and stuffed them into the pockets along his belt.
“Where is this mountain?” he asked. He knew that Ironspell must go, that he had no choice. And that meant he, too, would go.
“The ruined kingdom,” said Ironspell. “My son waits for me in Dylestus.”
Next Week: The Moutain of Sorrows…
About the Author: John R. Fultz lives in the Bay Area, California, but is originally from Kentucky. He keeps a Virtual Sanctuary at: http://johnrfultz.wordpress.com His fiction has appeared in BLACK GATE, WEIRD TALES, and SPACE & TIME magazines, as well as the DAW Books anthology CTHULHU’S REIGN. His graphic novel of epic fantasy, PRIMORDIA, was published by Archaia Comics. He has new stories forthcoming in BLACK GATE, LIGHTSPEED, SPACE & TIME, and the WAY OF THE WIZARD anthology from Prime Books. In a previous life he made his living as a wandering storyteller on the lost continent of Atlantis.
About the Artist: Alex Sheikman is the incredibly talented creator/writer/artist of the samurai-steampunk-western-scifi comic ROBOTIKA, available at www.amazon.com in two fantastic graphic novels. Much more of his amazing artwork can be seen at http://sheikman.blogspot.com He has a brand-new sketchbook full of wonderful illustrations that readers can order directly from his blog site. Go order his books now–you’ll thank me later!