The Shadow Kingdom/Chapter III
Chapter III: They That Walk the Night
The moon had not risen when Kull, hand to hilt, stepped to a window. The windows opened upon the great inner gardens of the royal palace, and the breezes of the night, bearing the scents of spice trees, blew the filmy curtains about. The king looked out. The walks and groves were deserted; carefully trimmed trees were bulky shadows; fountains near by flung their slender sheen of silver in the starlight and distant fountains rippled steadily. No guards walked those gardens, for so closely were the outer walls guarded that it seemed impossible for any invader to gain access to them.
Vines curled up the walls of the palace, and even as Kull mused upon the ease with which they might be climbed, a segment of shadow detached itself from the darkness below the window and a bare, brown arm curved up over the sill. Kull’s great sword hissed halfway from the sheath; then the King halted. Upon the muscular forearm gleamed the dragon armlet shown him by Ka-nu the night before.
The possessor of the arm pulled himself up over the sill and into the room with the swift, easy motion of a climbing leopard.
“You are Brule?” asked Kull, and then stopped in surprise not unmingled with annoyance and suspicion; for the man was he whom Kull had taunted in the Hall of Society; the same who had escorted him from the Pictish embassy.
“I am Brule, the Spear-slayer,” answered the Pict in a guarded voice; then swiftly, gazing closely in Kull’s face, he said, barely above a whisper:
“Ka nama kaa lajerama!”
Kull started. “Ha! What mean you?”
“Know you not?”
“Nay, the words are unfamiliar; they are of no language I ever heard — and yet, by Valka! — somewhere — I have heard—”
“Aye,” was the Pict’s only comment. His eyes swept the room, the study room of the palace. Except for a few tables, a divan or two and great shelves of books of parchment, the room was barren compared to the grandeur of the rest of the palace.
“Tell me, king, who guards the door?”
“Eighteen of the Red Slayers. But how come you, stealing through the gardens by night and scaling the walls of the palace?”
Brule sneered. “The guards of Valusia are blind buffaloes. I could steal their girls from under their noses. I stole amid them and they saw me not nor heard me. And the walls — I could scale them without the aid of vines. I have hunted tigers on the foggy beaches when the sharp east breezes blew the mist in from seaward and I have climbed the steppes of the western sea mountain. But come — nay, touch this armlet.”
He held out his arm and, as Kull complied wonderingly, gave an apparent sigh of relief.
“So. Now throw off those kingly robes; for there are ahead of you this night such deeds as no Atlantean ever dreamed of.”
Brule himself was clad only in a scanty loin-cloth through which was thrust a short, curved sword.
“And who are you to give me orders?” asked Kull, slightly resentful.
“Did not Ka-nu bid you follow me in all things?” asked the Pict irritably, his eyes flashing momentarily. “I have no love for you, lord, but for the moment I have put the thought of feuds from my mind. Do you likewise. But come.”
Walking noiselessly, he led the way across the room to the door. A slide in the door allowed a view of the outer corridor, unseen from without, and the Pict bade Kull look.
“What see you?”
“Naught but the eighteen guardsmen.”
The Pict nodded, motioned Kull to follow him across the room. At a panel in the opposite wall Brule stopped and fumbled there a moment. Then with a light movement he stepped back, drawing his sword as he did so. Kull gave an exclamation as the panel swung silently open, revealing a dimly lighted passageway.
“A secret passage!” swore Kull softly. “And I knew nothing of it! By Valka, someone shall dance for this!”
“Silence!” hissed the Pict.
Brule was standing like a bronze statue as if straining every nerve for the slightest sound; something about his attitude made Kull’s hair prickle slightly, not from fear but from some eery anticipation. Then beckoning, Brule stepped through the secret doorway which stood open behind them. The passage was bare, but not dust-covered as should have been the case with an unused secret corridor. A vague, gray light filtered through somewhere, but the source of it was not apparent. Every few feet Kull saw doors, invisible, as he knew, from the outside, but easily apparent from within.
“The palace is a very honeycomb,” he muttered. “Aye. Night and day you are watched, king, by many eyes.”
The king was impressed by Brule’s manner. The Pict went forward slowly, warily, half crouching, blade held low and thrust forward. When he spoke it was in a whisper and he continually flung glances from side to side.
The corridor turned sharply and Brule warily gazed past the turn.
“Look!” he whispered. “But remember! No word! No sound — on your life!”
Kull cautiously gazed past him. The corridor changed just at the bend to a flight of steps. And then Kull recoiled. At the foot of those stairs lay the eighteen Red Slayers who were that night stationed to watch the king’s study room. Brule’s grip upon his mighty arm and Brule’s fierce whisper at his shoulder alone kept Kull from leaping down those stairs.
“Silent, Kull! Silent, in Valka’s name!” hissed the Pict. “These corridors are empty now, but I risked much in showing you, that you might then believe what I had to say. Back now to the room of study.” And he retraced his steps, Kull following; his mind in a turmoil of bewilderment.
“This is treachery,” muttered the king, his steel-gray eyes a-smolder, “foul and swift! Mere minutes have passed since those men stood at guard.”
Again in the room of study Brule carefully closed the secret panel and motioned Kull to look again through the slit of the outer door. Kull gasped audibly. For without stood the eighteen guardsmen!
“This is sorcery!” he whispered, half-drawing his sword. “Do dead men guard the king?”
“Aye!” came Brule’s scarcely audible reply; there was a strange expression in the Pict’s scintillant eyes. They looked squarely into each other’s eyes for an instant, Kull’s brow wrinkled in a puzzled scowl as he strove to read the Pict’s inscrutable face. Then Brule’s lips, barely moving, formed the words: “The—snake—that—speaks!”
“Silent!” whispered Kull, laying his hand over Brule’s mouth. “That is death to speak! That is a name accursed!”
The Pict’s fearless eyes regarded him steadily.
“Look, again, king Kull. Perchance the guard was changed.”
“Nay, those are the same men. In Valka’s name, this is sorcery — this is insanity! I saw with my own eyes the bodies of those men, not eight minutes agone. Yet there they stand.”
Brule stepped back, away from the door, Kull mechanically following.
“Kull, what know ye of the traditions of this race ye rule?”
“Much — and yet, little. Valusia is so old—”
“Aye,” Brule’s eyes lighted strangely, “we are but barbarians — infants compared to the Seven Empires. Not even they themselves know how old they are. Neither the memory of man nor the annals of the historians reach back far enough to tell us when the first men came up from the sea and built cities on the shore. But Kull, men were not always ruled by men!”
The king started. Their eyes met.
“Aye, there is a legend of my people—”
“And mine!” broke in Brule. “That was before we of the isles were allied with Valusia. Aye, in the reign of Lion-fang, seventh war chief of the Picts, so many years ago no man remembers how many. Across the sea we came, from the isles of the sunset, skirting the shores of Atlantis, and falling upon the beaches of Valusia with fire and sword. Aye, the long white beaches resounded with the clash of spears, and the night was like day from the flame of the burning castles. And the king, the king of Valusia, who died on the red sea sands that dim day—” His voice trailed off; the two stared at each other, neither speaking; then each nodded.
“Ancient is Valusia!” whispered Kull. “The hills of Atlantis and Mu were isles of the sea when Valusia was young.”
The night breeze whispered through the open window. Not the free, crisp sea air such as Brule and Kull knew and reveled in, in their land, but a breath like a whisper from the past, laden with musk, scents of forgotten things, breathing secrets that were hoary when the world was young.
The tapestries rustled, and suddenly Kull felt like a naked child before the inscrutable wisdom of the mystic past. Again the sense of unreality swept upon him. At the back of his soul stole dim, gigantic phantoms, whispering monstrous things. He sensed that Brule experienced similar thoughts. The Pict’s eyes were fixed upon his face with a fierce intensity. Their glances met. Kull felt warmly a sense of comradeship with this member of an enemy tribe. Like rival leopards turning at bay against hunters, these two savages made common cause against the inhuman powers of antiquity. Brule again led the way back to the secret door. Silently they entered and silently they proceeded down the dim corridor, taking the opposite direction from that in which they previously traversed it. After a while the Pict stopped and pressed close to one of the secret doors, bidding Kull look with him through the hidden slot.
“This opens upon a little-used stair which leads to a corridor running past the study-room door.”
They gazed, and presently, mounting the stair silently, came a silent shape.
“Tu! Chief councilor!” exclaimed Kull. “By night and with bared dagger! How, what means this, Brule?”
“Murder! And foulest treachery!” hissed Brule. “Nay” — as Kull would have flung the door aside and leaped forth — “we are lost if you meet him here, for more lurk at the foot of those stairs. Come!”
Half running, they darted back along the passage. Back through the secret door Brule led, shutting it carefully behind them, then across the chamber to an opening into a room seldom used. There he swept aside some tapestries in a dim corner nook and, drawing Kull with him, stepped behind them. Minutes dragged. Kull could hear the breeze in the other room blowing the window curtains about, and it seemed to him like the murmur of ghosts. Then through the door, stealthily, came Tu, chief councilor of the king. Evidently he had come through the study room and, finding it empty, sought his victim where he was most likely to be.
He came with upraised dagger, walking silently. A moment he halted, gazing about the apparently empty room, which was lighted dimly by a single candle. Then he advanced cautiously, apparently at a loss to understand the absence of the king. He stood before the hiding place — and “Slay!” hissed the Pict.
Kull with a single mighty leap hurled himself into the room. Tu spun, but the blinding, tigerish speed of the attack gave him no chance for defense or counterattack. Sword steel flashed in the dim light and grated on bone as Tu toppled backward, Kull’s sword standing out between his shoulders.
Kull leaned above him, teeth bared in the killer’s snarl, heavy brows ascowl above eyes that were like the gray ice of the cold sea. Then he released the hilt and recoiled, shaken, dizzy, the hand of death at his spine.
For as he watched, Tu’s face became strangely dim and unreal; the features mingled and merged in a seemingly impossible manner. Then, like a fading mask of fog, the face suddenly vanished and in its stead gaped and leered a monstrous serpent’s head! “Valka!” gasped Kull, sweat beading his forehead, and again; “Valka!”
Brule leaned forward, face immobile. Yet his glittering eyes mirrored something of Kull’s horror.
“Regain your sword, lord king,” said he. “There are yet deeds to be done.”
Hesitantly Kull set his hand to the hilt. His flesh crawled as he set his foot upon the terror which lay at their feet, and as some jerk of muscular reaction caused the frightful mouth to gape suddenly, he recoiled, weak with nausea. Then, wrathful at himself, he plucked forth his sword and gazed more closely at the nameless thing that had been known as Tu, chief councilor. Save for the reptilian head, the thing was the exact counterpart of a man.
“A man with the head of a snake!” Kull murmured. “This, then, is a priest of the serpent god?”
“Aye. Tu sleeps unknowing. These fiends can take any form they will. That is, they can, by a magic charm or the like, fling a web of sorcery about their faces, as an actor dons a mask, so that they resemble anyone they wish to.”
“Then the old legends were true,” mused the king; “the grim old tales few dare even whisper, lest they die as blasphemers, are no fantasies. By Valka, I had thought — I had guessed — but it seems beyond the bounds of reality. Ha! The guardsmen outside the door—”
“They too are snake-men. Hold! What would you do?”
“Slay them!” said Kull between his teeth.
“Strike at the skull if at all,” said Brule. “Eighteen wait without the door and perhaps a score more in the corridors. Hark ye, king, Ka-nu learned of this plot. His spies have pierced the inmost fastnesses of the snake priests and they brought hints of a plot. Long ago he discovered the secret passageways of the palace, and at his command I studied the map thereof and came here by night to aid you, lest you die as other kings of Valusia have died. I came alone for the reason that to send more would have roused suspicion. Many could not steal into the palace as I did. Some of the foul conspiracy you have seen. Snake-men guard your door, and that one, as Tu, could pass anywhere else in the palace; in the morning, if the priests failed, the real guards would be holding their places again, nothing knowing, nothing remembering; there to take the blame if the priests succeeded. But stay you here while I dispose of this carrion.”
So saying, the Pict shouldered the frightful thing stolidly and vanished with it through another secret panel. Kull stood alone, his mind a-whirl. Neophytes of the mighty serpent, how many lurked among his cities? How might he tell the false from the true? Aye, how many of his trusted councilors, his generals, were men? He could be certain — of whom?
The secret panel swung inward and Brule entered.
“You were swift.”
“Aye!” The warrior stepped forward, eyeing the floor. “There is gore upon the rug. See?”
Kull bent forward; from the corner of his eye he saw a blur of movement, a glint of steel. Like a loosened bow he whipped erect, thrusting upward. The warrior sagged upon the sword, his own clattering to the floor. Even at that instant Kull reflected grimly that it was appropriate that the traitor should meet his death upon the sliding, upward thrust used so much by his race. Then, as Brule slid from the sword to sprawl motionless on the floor, the face began to merge and fade, and as Kull caught his breath, his hair a-prickle, the human features vanished and there the jaws of a great snake gaped hideously, the terrible beady eyes venomous even in death.
“He was a snake priest all the time!” gasped the king. “Valka! What an elaborate plan to throw me off my guard! Ka-nu there, is he a man? Was it Ka-nu to whom I talked in the gardens? Almighty Valka!” as his flesh crawled with a horrid thought; “are the people of Valusia men or are they all serpents?”
Undecided he stood, idly seeing that the thing named Brule no longer wore the dragon armlet. A sound made him wheel.
Brule was coming through the secret door.
“Hold!” Upon the arm upthrown to halt the king’s hovering sword gleamed the dragon armlet. “Valka!” The Pict stopped short. Then a grim smile curled his lips.
“By the gods of the seas! These demons are crafty past reckoning. For it must be that one lurked in the corridors, and seeing me go carrying the carcass of that other, took my appearance. So. I have another to do away with.”
“Hold!” there was the menace of death in Kull’s voice; “I have seen two men turn to serpents before my eyes. How may I know if you are a true man?”
Brule laughed. “For two reasons. King Kull. No snake-man wears this” — he indicated the dragon armlet — “nor can any say these words,” and again Kull heard the strange phrase; “Ka nama kaa lajerama.”
“Ka nama kaa lajerama” Kull repeated mechanically. “Now, where, in Valka’s name, have I heard that? I have not! And yet— and yet—”
“Aye, you remember, Kull,” said Brule. “Through the dim corridors of memory those words lurk; though you never heard them in this life, yet in the bygone ages they were so terribly impressed upon the soul mind that never dies, that they will always strike dim chords in your memory, though you be reincarnated for a million years to come. For that phrase has come secretly down the grim and bloody eons, since when, uncounted centuries ago, those words were watch-words for the race of men who battled with the grisly beings of the Elder Universe. For none but a real man of men may speak them, whose jaws and mouth are shaped different from any other creature. Their meaning has been forgotten but not the words themselves.”
“True,” said Kull. “I remember the legends — Valka!” He stopped short, staring, for suddenly, like the silent swinging wide of a mystic door, misty, unfathomed reaches opened in the recesses of his consciousness and for an instant he seemed to gaze back through the vastness that spanned life and life; seeing through the vague and ghostly fogs dim shapes reliving dead centuries — men in combat with hideous monsters, vanquishing a planet of frightful terrors. Against a gray, ever-shifting background moved strange nightmare forms, fantasies of lunacy and fear; and man, the jest of the gods, the blind, wisdom-less striver from dust to dust, following the long bloody trail of his destiny, knowing not why, bestial, blundering, like a great murderous child, yet feeling somewhere a spark of divine fire... Kull drew a hand across his brow, shaken; these sudden glimpses into the abysses of memory always startled him.
“They are gone,” said Brule, as if scanning his secret mind; “the bird-women, the harpies, the bat-men, the flying fiends, the wolf-people, the demons, the goblins — all save such as this being that lies at our feet, and a few of the wolf-men. Long and terrible was the war, lasting through the bloody centuries, since first the first men, risen from the mire of apedom, turned upon those who then ruled the world.”
“And at last mankind conquered, so long ago that naught but dim legends come to us through the ages. The snake-people were the last to go, yet at last men conquered even them and drove them forth into the waste lands of the world, there to mate with true snakes until some day, say the sages, the horrid breed shall vanish utterly. Yet the Things returned in crafty guise as men grew soft and degenerate, forgetting ancient wars. Ah, that was a grim and secret war! Among the men of the Younger Earth stole the frightful monsters of the Elder Planet, safeguarded by their horrid wisdom and mysticisms, taking all forms and shapes, doing deeds of horror secretly. No man knew who was true man and who false. No man could trust any man. Yet by means of their own craft they formed ways by which the false might be known from the true. Men took for a sign and a standard the figure of the flying dragon, the winged dinosaur, a monster of past ages, which was the greatest foe of the serpent. And men used those words which I spoke to you as a sign and symbol, for as I said, none but a true man can repeat them. So mankind triumphed. Yet again the fiends came after the years of forgetfulness had gone by — for man is still an ape in that he forgets what is not ever before his eyes. As priests they came; and for that men in their luxury and might had by then lost faith in the old religions and worships, the snake-men, in the guise of teachers of a new and truer cult, built a monstrous religion about the worship of the serpent god. Such is their power that it is now death to repeat the old legends of the snake-people, and people bow again to the serpent god in new form; and blind fools that they are, the great hosts of men see no connection between this power and the power men overthrew eons ago. As priests the snake-men are content to rule — and yet—” He stopped.
“Go on.” Kull felt an unaccountable stirring of the short hair at the base of his scalp.
“Kings have reigned as true men in Valusia,” the Pict whispered, “and yet, slain in battle, have died serpents — as died he who fell beneath the spear of Lion-fang on the red beaches when we of the isles harried the Seven Empires. And how can this be. Lord Kull? These kings were born of women and lived as men! Thus — the true kings died in secret — as you would have died tonight — and priests of the Serpent reigned in their stead, no man knowing.”
Kull cursed between his teeth. “Aye, it must be. No one has ever seen a priest of the Serpent and lived, that is known. They live in utmost secrecy.”
“The statecraft of the Seven Empires is a mazy, monstrous thing,” said Brule. “There the true men know that among them glide the spies of the Serpent, and the men who are the Serpent’s allies — such as Kaanuub, baron of Blaal — yet no man dares seek to unmask a suspect lest vengeance befall him. No man trusts his fellow and the true statesmen dare not speak to each other what is in the minds of all. Could they be sure, could a snake-man or plot be unmasked before them all, then would the power of the Serpent be more than half broken; for all would then ally and make common cause, sifting out the traitors. Ka-nu alone is of sufficient shrewdness and courage to cope with them, and even Ka-nu learned only enough of their plot to tell me what would happen — what has happened up to this time. Thus far I was prepared; from now on we must trust to our luck and our craft. Here and now I think we are safe; those snake-men without the door dare not leave their post lest true men come here unexpectedly. But tomorrow they will try something else, you may be sure. Just what they will do, none can say, not even Ka-nu; but we must stay at each other’s sides. King Kull, until we conquer or both be dead. Now come with me while I take this carcass to the hiding-place where I took the other being.”
Kull followed the Pict with his grisly burden through the secret panel and down the dim corridor. Their feet, trained to the silence of the wilderness, made no noise. Like phantoms they glided through the ghostly light, Kull wondering that the corridors should be deserted; at every turn he expected to run full upon some frightful apparition. Suspicion surged back upon him; was this Pict leading him into ambush? He fell back a pace or two behind Brule, his ready sword hovering at the Pict’s unheeding back. Brule should die first if he meant treachery. But if the Pict was aware of the king’s suspicion, he showed no sign. Stolidly he tramped along, until they came to a room, dusty and long unused, where moldy tapestries hung heavy. Brule drew aside some of these and concealed the corpse behind them.
Then they turned to retrace their steps, when suddenly Brule halted with such abruptness that he was closer to death than he knew; for Kull’s nerves were on edge.
“Something moving in the corridor,” hissed the Pict. “Ka-nu said these ways would be empty, yet—”
He drew his sword and stole into the corridor, Kull following warily.
A short way down the corridor a strange, vague glow appeared that came toward them. Nerves a-leap, they waited, backs to the corridor wall; for what they knew not, but Kull heard Brule’s breath hiss through his teeth and was reassured as to Brule’s loyalty.
The glow merged into a shadowy form. A shape vaguely like a man it was, but misty and illusive, like a wisp of fog, that grew more tangible as it approached, but never fully material. A face looked at them, a pair of luminous great eyes, that seemed to hold all the tortures of a million centuries. There was no menace in that face, with its dim, worn features, but only a great pity — and that face— that face—
“Almighty gods!” breathed Kull, an icy hand at his soul; “Eallal, king of Valusia, who died a thousand years ago!”
Brule shrank back as far as he could, his narrow eyes widened in a blaze of pure horror, the sword shaking in his grip, unnerved for the first time that weird night. Erect and defiant stood Kull, instinctively holdng his useless sword at the ready; flesh acrawl, hair a-prickle, yet still a king of kings, as ready to challenge the powers of the unknown dead as the powers of the living.
The phantom came straight on, giving them no heed; Kull shrank back as it passed them, feeling an icy breath like a breeze from the arctic snow. Straight on went the shape with slow, silent footsteps, as if the chains of all the ages were upon those vague feet; vanishing about a bend of the corridor.
“Valka!” muttered the Pict, wiping the cold beads from his brow; “that was no man! That was a ghost!”
“Aye!” Kull shook his head wonderingly. “Did you not recognize the face? That was Eallal, who reigned in Valusia a thousand years ago and who was found hideously murdered in his throne-room — the room now known as the Accursed Room. Have you not seen his statue in the Fame Room of Kings?”
“Yes, I remember the tale now. Gods, Kull! that is another sign of the frightful and foul power of the snake priests — that king was slain by snake-people and thus his soul became their slave, to do their bidding throughout eternity! For the sages have ever maintained that if a man is slain by a snake-man his ghost becomes their slave.”
A shudder shook Kull’s gigantic frame. “Valka! But what a fate! Hark ye” — his fingers closed upon Brule’s sinewy arm like steel — “hark ye! If I am wounded unto death by these foul monsters, swear that ye will smite your sword through my breast lest my soul be enslaved.”
“I swear,” answered Brule, his fierce eyes lighting. “And do ye the same by me, Kull.”
Their strong right hands met in a silent sealing of their bloody bargain.