Classic Lovecraftian horror from one of the masters of the form, British Fantasy Award-winner Brian Lumley.
Sorcery in Shad
Pity the poor lamia! Mighty Orbiquita, she who damned to death countless men for merely looking at her, she who slew with impunity any who dared breach the walls of her fabled castle . . . Orbiquita has fallen in love--and with a barbarian Hrossak!
Tarra Khash, he is, who saved a lamia's life and made her long to be human again. Tarra Khash, who with the help of the last survivors of an alien race, overthrew a god and saved an entire city thereby. Tarra Khash, who has adventured far and wide through the Primal Land, searching for treasure, for wine, women, and song.
Tarra Khash, who has fallen into the clutches of the slave Cush Gemal, who was once an ordinary man but who has become the foulest of sorcerers, Black Yoppaloth. Like all sorcerers, Black Yoppaloth craves immortality, and believes he stands on the brink of achieving it. Then his evil power will be unrivaled and he will control all of the Primal Land.
Only Tarra Khash stands in his way. Tarra Khash--and, though he does not know it, his friends and allies: she who was once the lamia Orbiquita; the alien Amyr Arn; a slumbering, ponderous yet powerful moon god; and the magician Teh Atht, who must choose between immortality and saving the Primal Land!
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Brian Lumley is the author of Necroscope; Necroscope: The Touch; Khai of Khem; the Titus Crow books; the first two volumes of the Primal Land, The House of Cthulhu and Tarra Khash: Hrossak; and many other novels of horror and adventure. His short fiction collections include Harry Keogh: Necroscope and Other Weird Heroes and Beneath the Moors and Darker Places. Brian Lumley lives in England and visits the US on a regular basis.
"Your gold or your gizzard!" a hoarse, desperate voice called out through sooty twilight, from bushes at the foot of the bottleneck up ahead, where the pass cut through a stony cleft. "I can slit either your purse or your throat, so take your pick---only quick now, 'cos my finger's itchy on the trigger of this crossbow!"
"Hold!" the lone camel rider sent back a shout, reined in his jittery beast. "Now hold there, friend!" He made a dusky silhouette against the indigo sky with its first fistful of stars. And he'd have made a fine target, too, if his ambusher had a crossbow! That wasn't the case, but no way the rider could know it.
"Put up your hands," the would-be thief now commanded, "so's I can see there's no weapon in 'em."
"What?" his intended victim replied. "And would you really take a man's life for nothing? Highwayman, you've picked a wrong 'un tonight, I'm afraid---where loot's concerned, anyway. Man, I'm broke! So stay your hand on that weapon. I've a loaf we can share, if you like, and a skin of passable wine. But that's all . . ."
The ambusher's ears pricked up: he was starving! And there was something in this lone wayfarer's voice, too. Memories stirred, of a time not too far past in Chlangi the Doomed . . . "Who are ye, sitting there so nice in my sights?" he hoarsely inquired.
Astride his camel, the Hrossak tried to locate the other; no good, he was a shadow in the darker shadows of the bushes. But where- and whoever he was, his voice had seemed strangely familiar. He could be any one of a dozen brigands the rider had tangled with along his mazy way.
The steppeman had put his hands up on the other's barked instructions; but behind the right one, hanging down along his wrist from a point trapped between index and next finger, a balanced knife poised for swift release. Only let him get a precise fix on his ambusher's whereabouts, and---
"What's your name, I said?" the furtive owner of the gruff voice once more demanded.
"I'm a Hrossak," the rider replied, shifting a little in his saddle. Was that a movement there in the bushes, by the bole of that gnarly tree? Aye, it was that---the outline of a crouching man! "Khash, by name, after my father, naturally," he continued, letting his throwing arm drift back a little, "---though the gods alone know why, for he never had any either!"
A gasp from the gloom. "Tarra Khash!"
Tarra threw himself forward and out of the saddle, threw his knife, too. Only at the last, hearing that gasp and the other speaking his name, had he managed to deflect knife's flight---else the lurker in the bushes were a goner. Then he was rolling in dust, hurling himself headlong into the blackest shadows, snarling his rage in the darkness even as he snaked the curved ceremonial sword from its scabbard strapped to his back.
In another moment he crashed through brittle bushes, found a boulder and slid himself over to its safe side, there came to a crouching halt . . . Close at hand, a wheezy, frightened panting. The Hrossak listened, grinned a humourless wolf's grin, called out: "And now it's your turn, friend. Seems you know me, which might or might not be a good thing. So in the dozen or so heartbeats you've left to live, best tell me who you are. That way I'll be able to say a few words over you, to let the gods know who I'm passing their way."
"Stumpy," the unseen other gasped at once. "Stumpy Adz, great lump! So called for a missing right hand---aye, and very nearly an ear, too! Come free me, quick! I daren't move my head for fear I slice my neck!"
Tarra took his first real breath in what felt like hours, lofted his scimitar and sheathed it unerringly in its scabbard, so that its jewelled hilt stood up behind his left shoulder where it curved into his neck. He put a hand on the boulder and vaulted it, glided soundlessly into the bushes and up to the twisted bole of the gnarly tree. And sure enough there stood Stumpy Adz, his head immobilized between a rough branch and the long, thin, razor-edged blade of Tarra's knife where it pinned his tatty collar to the bole.
"Old fool!" growled Tarra, snatching his knife free---but minding it didn't cut Stumpy's leathery flesh. "Some desperado you---hah! And what if it hadn't been me at all but some nighthawk, eh? And what if he really did have a crossbow? Indeed, a miracle of coincidence that it is me! Now what's this all about? What, you, a highwayman? At your age? And why the hell anyway? The last time I saw you, in Chlangi, I gave you gems to last a lifetime . . ." Eyes growing accustomed to the dusk, he glowered at the other, noticed his scrawny, down-at-heel condition. Stumpy was thin and bent as old Gleeth the crescent moon where he rode above the ridge.
"First you'd try to skewer me," the old man grumbled, gingerly fingering his unmarked neck, then sighing his relief when his fingers came away clean, "and now you'd have me talk myself to death---if you don't beat me to it! Well, I'll cut it short, Tarra Khash: hard times, my friend, hard times---which called for harsh measures. I knew I took a chance, but better dead than marooned out here, miles from anywhere, and slowly shrivelling to bones!"
Tarra noticed Stumpy's leanness, couldn't mistake his trembling, which wasn't alone reaction to his narrow escape. He whistled for his beast, which came at the trot. "Are you hungry, Stumpy Adz?"
The other groaned. "Hungry? I could eat the saddle right off your mount's back! Or you can keep the saddle and I'll wrap my gums round the camel instead!"
Over his own shock now, Tarra grinned. "Well, you fed and sheltered me once when I was in need," he grasped the other's frail shoulder. "So I suppose it's only fair I return the favour. Where can we make camp?"
Stumpy wearily led him to the face of the cliff, showed him a shallow cave---more a scoop out of the rock---where a great boulder had rolled free in ages past. Indeed the very boulder lay shattered now, a broken wall of jagged rock fronting the cave, which should shelter their fire and hide its light. "I was going to sleep the night here," said Stumpy. "With a little luck I'd wake with the morning, and with a great deal of luck I wouldn't!"
Tarra tethered his camel, started to gather up dry sticks and dead branches. But:
"Who needs a fire?" Stumpy muttered. "I've got my own, burning through the wall of my stomach! Stop torturing me and give me some food."
"Don't you want to see what you're eating?" Tarra frowned at him, struck hot sparks from his flint. The tinder caught at once.
"Just lead me to it and let me touch it," Stumpy grunted. "If it's edible I'll know it---and then stand well back!"
Yellow firelight flared as Tarra took down a saddle-bag. He opened it, produced apples, dried meat, a little cheese. Stumpy, hands shaking with hunger, seated himself upon a flat rock and fell to it. There were tears in his one good eye (the right one) as he got his few remaining teeth working on a piece of meat.
Tarra squatted down by the fire, warmed his hands, bit into an apple. He'd eaten earlier---a rabbit, taken on the plain with a well-aimed stone---and wasn't so hungry. But to watch Stumpy Adz going at it . . .
"How long?" Tarra asked.
"Four days," the grizzled oldster mumbled around mouthfuls, "maybe five. I've dreamed of this for so long, it's---umf!---hard to say if I was awake or---umf!---sleeping. Tarra, but this is good! Er, didn't you mention wine or some such?"
The Hrossak put on a surprised expression, shook his head. "No."
"Yes you---umf!---did!" Stumpy was indignant. "When you thought I had you in my sights, you offered me---umf!---half a loaf and some passable wine."
"But you didn't have a crossbow," said Tarra.
"What difference does that make?" Stumpy scowled.
Tarra shrugged. "Well, neither did I have the wine!"
But as Stumpy groaned his disappointment, so the Hrossak relented. He took out a small wineskin from the saddle-bag, uncorked it and took a swig, passed it over. Stumpy held up the skin, expertly squirted a quenching stream into his gaping maw. "Hhh!" he said. And, "Ahhh!" again. Tarra reached out, neatly separated him from supply.
Now the Hrossak tossed his apple in the direction of the tethered beast, ate just a bite of cheese, took another pull at the skin's tube before plugging it. "Eat first," he told Stumpy, "and then I'll let you wash it down. But don't make such a pig of yourself that you get the cramps. There's water in the other pack for later." Then he said no more but let the old man get on with it.
While Stumpy wolfed his food, so he looked Tarra up and down. What he saw was this:
A big-hearted man, open as a book; an inveterate wanderer, with feet which wouldn't stop itching while yet there remained a hill unclimbed, or view unviewed; a great adventurer---the latter not so much by inclination as by accident. For troubles, trials and terrors, in forms numerous as the fingers on his hard hands, had seemed to dog the Hrossak's heels since the day he'd left his steppes. With one adventure leading into the next, sometimes it had seemed he'd been born under a cursed star. Or perhaps a lucky one? For here he was hale and hearty, come through it all with scarce a scratch.
Tarra Khash was young, maybe twenty-five or -six, and bronzed as the great idols of jungled Shad. They weren't much known for their guile, these steppemen, which meant he'd most likely be trustworthy; indeed in Chlangi, Stumpy had discovered that to be a fact. And it was of old repute that once a Hrossak befriends a man, then that he's his friend for life. But on the other hand, best not to cross one; their memories were long and they didn't much care for scores unsettled.
As for the physical man himself: he was a tall one, this Tarra, and for all that he was lean and narrow in the hip, still his muscles rippled under the clinging silk of a dark shirt and the coarse weave of his tight, calf-length trousers. Hair a dusty, tousled brown, and eyes of a brown so deep they verged on black; long in the limbs, with shoulders broad as a gate; strong white teeth in a mouth never far from a grin . . . aye, he was a likely lad, the steppeman. But in no wise a fool, and ever growing wiser in the ways of the world.
Tough? Oh, he was that all right! That curved wand of death he wore across his back, for example: the merest silly sliver of a sword when Stumpy saw it last. For all the hilt's pretty jewels, it hadn't been much to mention as a weapon. Ah! But didn't it hold fond fighting memories for the Hrossak? It must, for he'd risked his life for it! King Fregg Unst I of Chlangi had stolen that from him in Shunned City; and Tarra, against all odds, had taken it back! And what of Fregg now? Best not ask . . .
No rings adorned Tarra's fingers, nor the lobes of his ears. There were thieves in Theem'hdra who'd take a man's entire arm just for a gemstone in a ring on his smallest finger! Stumpy's eyes went lower, to Tarra's soft leather boots where they came up almost to his knees---and the sheath stitched into the outside of the right-hand boot, which housed his throwing knife. Aye, and with that he'd be deadly accurate! Too true, thought Stumpy, fingering his neck again.
For his part, Tarra had likewise been looking Stumpy over. The old lad was a failed thief, as witness his stump for right hand. They were hard on light-fingered types in certain parts, and even harder in others. This had probably happened in Kl?hn, a fairly sophisticated city. In Thinhla they'd have hanged him, and in Khrissa pegged him out on the frozen mud-flats at the mouth of the Marl with the tide rising.
Stumpy was tiny, old, gnarly as the tree Tarra's knife had pinned him to; but he'd been a fighter, too, in his time. Now he wore a patch over his left eye; or rather, he wore it over the empty socket. Grizzled and brown from all weathers, white-whiskered and with a couple of snaggy yellow fangs for teeth, he looked like some sort of dwarfy pirate! But Tarra knew that despite his telltale stump, eye-patch and all, still the oldster had a good heart. And a far too-healthy appetite!
"What are you gawping at?" Stumpy growled now, wincing a little and holding his belly.
"Cramps?" Tarra inquired.
"Likely," Stumpy grimaced again. "I suppose I ate too fast."
"Warned you," the Hrossak nodded. "All right, sit still and I'll see what I can do." He brought a blanket from his beast's back, spread it over Stumpy and tucked him to his chin, then picked him up gentle as a child and put him in a spot close to the fire, with his back to a warm sloping rock. Then he brought him a sip of water.
"But no more wine," he said, "for that'll only make it worse. It's your guts complaining about neglect and ill-treatment, that's all. So just rest easy for now and tomorrow you'll be all right."
It was night now and the sky aglow with stars, and old Gleeth riding high like the blade of a silver scythe. Tarra sipped wine, chewed on a morsel of meat, waited until the fire's warmth worked through to Stumpy's bones and softened them up a little. Finally the old lad stopped grimacing and groaning, vented a ringing fart and a somewhat gentler sigh, and:
"I suppose you'll want to know how come I'm here, penniless and all, after you left me rich just a four-month gone in Chlangi?"
"In your own time, Stumpy," said Tarra. "Tomorrow will do, if you're not up to it now."
"Oh, I'm up to it," the other growled. And in a moment: "Well, it was mainly the fault of that lass Gulla!"
Gulla was Stumpy's daughter, whom Tarra had met in Chlangi---but only "met" there, and that was all. He remembered her now and winced a little, but not so much that Stumpy would notice. She'd been a big girl, right enough: comely about the face but built like a fortress. It had bruised Tarra's ribs just looking at her! He'd considered himself lucky to escape unscathed.
"So," Stumpy continued, "she reckoned it was coming up to her marrying time, and she didn't much fancy the local stuff. Couldn't blame her, really. Pickings weren't much in Chlangi, unless she'd settle for a pockmarked pirate or warty son of mountain scum out of Lohmi; Fregg's lot were a right old riff-raff, as you'll doubtless recall. Anyway, I'd waited around until then---you know?---to let it be seen that I was still just poor old Stumpy, who never had two buttons to rub together. For if that gang of yeggs and sharpers had suspected for one minute that I'd been with you against Fregg that night---that I'd helped you, and been well paid for it---well . . ." he shrugged and let it tail off.
"Oh, they wouldn't give a toss for Fregg, but gemstones are something else again! And me with a king's ransom buried under my dirt floor, eh?" He chuckled, then asked: "Incidentally, what did happen to Fregg? They never found him---not that anyone looked too far! But unlike him to run off and leave his long-accumulated treasure-trove bursting at the seams like that, all for the taking. And his old runecaster, too, Arenith Han: they reckon he was less than mincemeat!"
Tarra nodded. "Lamia got 'em," he said, but very quietly, and glanced narrow-eyed all about in the shadows beyond the fire's light. "Orbiquita! She had a grudge against both. Settled it there and then. But for Orbiquita, I'd likely be there now---broken bones in a shallow grave . . ."
"She took scum like them and not you?" Stumpy wriggled bushy white eyebrows in undisguised inquiry. "Funny! I thought she was supposed to lust after hot young bloods like you?" He shrugged again. "Anyway, I'd heard as much: that it was Orbiquita got 'em. And she didn't just take them two,...
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