The Oracle of Sadoqua

Ron Hilger


"Black and unshap'd, as pestilent a Clod
As dread Sodaqua, Averonia's God."
- H.P. Lovecraft

"By the beard of Jupiter! I'll not return to Rome until Galbius has been found or avenged!" thundered Horatius as he strode forth from his military pavilion into the golden morning sunlight of the recently conquered province of Averonia, leaving a much intimidated courier stammering in his wake.

"B-but my l-lord, what shall I tell the senate?" The courier had been dispatched from the Roman senate with written orders that Horatius, First Lieutenant under General Julius Caesar's forces in Gaul, return immediately to Rome under the dictum disbanding Caesar's army. Horatius wheeled about,

"The senate will have to understand the importance of teaching these pagan savages the power and justice of Imperial Rome: I suspect Galbius has been captured or killed by the heathen Druids who infest this barbarous land. If the matter is not resolved, we invite open rebellion: I shall send half my men back under the command of Romulus, but I return with Galbius or with the blood of those responsible for his disappearance upon my sword. Tell THAT to the senate!"

Horatius signed the communique and dismissed the courier with an air of preoccupation, more concerned with his missing comrade than with the orders from Rome. After all, with luck he would be returning long before any response from an irate senate could reach him. The disappearance of Galbius, however, concerned him greatly. Aside from tactical considerations such as where Galbius could be and how to find him, Horatius was deeply concerned about the welfare of his friend. The two had been close as brothers ever since military training, when drunken brawls had taught them each to respect the other's fighting prowess. Together they had risen through the ranks to become officers while battling their way across Gaul under the ambitious General Caesar. Now it had been nearly two days since Galbius had disappeared after leaving on a scouting foray into the woods, and Horatius could not think of a more disquieting place in which to lose a friend.

Werewolves, vampires, and lamias were reputed to haunt this unfathomable forest, as well as the savage Druids who were rumored to be tainted with a dark strain of Hyperborean ancestry. He shuddered involuntarily and wished again that Galbius would return with some tale of amorous captivity in the clutches of an insatiable Averonian maid.

Having decided at last to organize a search, Horatius ordered a detachment of his cavalry to prepare their horses and weapons to accompany him through the ancient forest to question anyone they encountered in the area of Galbius' disappearance. As they rode along a well-travelled road through sunlit meadows filled with the raucous cries of birds and the colorful pageantry of myriad woodland flowers, Horatius felt his spirits rise, as one who has been too long idle.

All too soon, the amaranthine meads gave way to higher, stonier ground, and the trees grew thicker until they crowded out all but a few filtered rays of sunlight. They wound their way beneath the cool umbrage of enormous moss and mistletoe-encumbered oaks, and soon Horatius felt an ominous unease settling down upon him like an invisible shroud. The pagan Druids who dwelt here disgusted him, and their blasphemous sacrifices and heathen rituals filled him with horror and righteous indignation. The road soon reduced to a narrow footpath, and as a trailing vine of cobweb-covered mistletoe brushed his face, Horatius reflected that in such a primordial, god-forsaken place any number of pagan myths and monsters were likely to be found.

As the trail rounded a large outcropping of rock the soldiers unexpectedly came upon a scene which might well have been taken from some ancient myth. Two savage looking Druids sat upon large boulders on either side of a low, dark aperture at the base of a cliff, as if guarding it. The Druids appeared barbaric to an extreme. They wore long coarse-looking robes of mottled grey. Their dark hair was long and matted, as were their beards. Gnarled hands clutched long cudgels of oak, at the ends of which long, wicked-looking pieces of obsidian were firmly strapped at right angles, in the fashion of a scythe. But that which caught and held the attention of the formidable horsemen was a pair of the largest, most ferocious-looking felines the Romans had ever beheld. The great cats sat immobile as statues, one beside each guard. The upper canine teeth of these great beasts hung several inches below the lower jaw and their hungry yellow eyes were fixed on the newcomers. Having ordered weapons drawn, Horatius approached the larger of the two savages.

"We seek word of Galbius, second lieutenant of the Imperial Roman Army, last seen in this vicinity two days ago. Some of your people must have seen or heard of him. Tell us everything you know of this if you wish to live."

The brutes exchanged a series of low, guttural remarks, punctuated with vigorous gesticulations. Finally, they lowered their weapons and the larger Druid spoke, his poor Latin almost indecipherable beneath his heavy accent.

"The guardians of Sadoqua are at your service. We know nothing about this man you seek, but you stand at the doorway of the Fane of Sadoqua. The people of Averonia are wont to consult the oracle within for answers to questions that defy even the wisest sage . . . . for a small fee." The Druid added slyly, extending a crude wooden bowl in which rattled a few small coins and nuggets of gold.

The Druid smiled malignly at the soldiers' watchful wariness of the great feline guardians.

"You have nothing to fear," the Druid said scornfully. "These are here to guard against dangers far greater than yourselves."

Horatius glared at the Druid, then suddenly knocked aside the bowl with his blade, scattering the contents.

"Tullius, Florian, come with me." ordered Horatius,"the rest of you watch these two heathens. If we return not after a count of one thousand, kill these so-called guardians and come to our assistance." He then turned and, with his sword before him, disappeared into the dark opening followed closely by his two picked men.

The three Romans shuffled forward slowly into the gloom, letting their eyes adjust to the tenebrous interior of the cave. Horatius distrusted the Druids, and suspected they might be hiding something. Perhaps Galbius, perhaps an ambush. As they made their way through the musty tunnel, the blackness slowly gave way to a dull, diffused light, and a noisome odor now began to permeate the air. Horatius perceived that the light ahead appeared to be shifting about in an eerie manner regarding which he did not feel entirely comfortable.

He now recalled stories and rumors that circulated in Rome and Greece about the barbarous northerners: that the Druids were reported to make human sacrifice to the daemon Taranit and to nurture the ancient cults of the Old Ones. The worship of the toad-like Tsathaggua and the spider-god Atlach-Nacha was confirmed by the Greek historian Hecataeus, who brought back and translated a copy of the notorious "Book Of Eibon" from northern lands. In his book "Peri Hyperborean" Hecataeus describes the evil effect of Hyperborean culture on subsequent northern tribes. Horatius was compelled to mutter a short prayer to Mars, god of war and soldiers to grant him victory over the many loathsome creatures he imagined while moving cautiously towards the wavering light.

Soon they found themselves in a grotto rifted from floor to ceiling, The light which fell through a great fissure in the roof was partially obscured by clouds of foul vapors rising from the chasm at their feet. At the very brink of the abyss, chained to an immense black altar-stone, was a hideous creature which appeared only vaguely human. The thing was almost covered with coarse black hair, except on its pale underside. Its head seemed to rest directly on its shoulders with little or no neck at all. The facial features, also, were seemingly nonexistent, save for its insanely staring eyes and toothless, slavering maw.

The Romans heart quailed at the abominable sight before him and he grew somewhat unsteady from breathing the fetid vapors. Yet Horatius summoned his courage and addressed the fearsome oracle.

"The Druids have bidden me consult the Oracle of Sadoqua concerning the fate of my lost friend Galbius. Answer then, if you are the one of whom they speak." A cloud of roiling vapor engulfed the oracle and as it cleared the monstrosity began to speak in half-articulate Latin.

"The fate of Galbius is before you, as is your own. As yet your friend lives, but it is decreed that he shall die before this very altar before the setting of the next full moon."

Strangely disturbed by something about the creature's voice, Horatius pressed the oracle for greater detail. Suddenly, a shaft of sunlight pierced the reeking cloud and fell briefly on the figure before him. Horatius was shocked to imagine a distorted, impossible resemblance to the lost Galbius.

"Galbius?" he whispered uncertainly. "Can it be you?" The oracle cackled with laughter.

"Galbius is not here, and I have been the mouthpiece of Sadoqua, who reposes in eternal slumber at the bottom of this abyss, for a thousand eternities."

Horatius and his subordinates glared incomprehensibly at the squat obscenity, which now half crawled and half dragged itself into the dark recesses behind the altar-stone in apparent forgetfulness of their presence.

The Romans left the creature and soon emerged from the cavern, blinking in the strong light of noon as they mounted their steeds and prepared to depart. The great tawny cats still sat immobile, Horatius urged his mount forward and regarded them thoughtfully.

"I think perhaps these beasts permit all to pass within, yet stand ready to devour those whom you would not have escape. If I discover you have been less than completely honest with me, your heads shall be set on pikes down at the crossroads to proclaim your dishonesty and insolence before all the countryside. Without awaiting a reply, the commander wheeled his horse about and signaled for the company to ride on.

The soldiers.continued their search through the forest, the trees crowded still closer together as if trying to choke the trail out of existence. As they rounded a bend, Horatius caught a fleeting glimpse of something ducking behind a tree a short distance off the trail to their left. Signaling a halt, he dismounted and plunged through the brush towards this mysterious apparition, several of his men close behind him. They soon found Horatius standing beside a huge, moss-covered oak with a young peasant girl struggling in his iron grasp. He studied his catch with undisguised delight. Shoulder-length chestnut colored hair surrounded a fair, blushing complexion, accented by her large hazel eyes. She wore a simple homespun dress that did little to conceal her youthful charms, though she had yet to achieve her fullest curves. Horatius waved away the men who had, understandably, begun to gather around her and reassured the girl in the Celtic dialect of the Gauls.

"Do not be afraid — we mean you no harm. We only seek news of a missing comrade." He then described Galbius and asked if she had seen or heard of him. She shook her head slowly, glancing anxiously around her.

"I cannot say, . . .Please let me go, " she pleaded urgently. "The Druids must not see me talking with you!"

"My friend Galbius," he repeated firmly. "Have you seen him?" She hesitated momentarily, then whispered close beside his ear. "I have not, But I will ask my people about him. Meet me this evening after moonrise in yonder meadow and I will tell you what I have learned." Without awaiting his reply she sprang lithely away through the trees. Two of his men leaped into pursuit, but held back at his command.

"Wait. Let her go. She may yet prove useful." he added thoughtfully

That evening Horatius set out alone to keep his woodland tryst. He had debated with himself the wisdom of going alone. Indeed, he had thought of little else all day, but something about the way she had clung to his arm while she whispered to him, some unspoken promise in her eyes, had decided the matter for him.

He made his way silently along the path, his sword and shield strapped to his back so he could walk unencumbered through the gloom of the nocturnal forest. He had left somewhat early so as to arrive first in case of a trap or ambush. He did not expect deceit, but such preparedness had saved his life on more than one occasion. The oaks closed around him, shutting out the stars and cutting off the breeze, making the air musty and stifling.

He began hearing slight noises-- twigs snapping and night-birds calling, he even thought he heard voices rising and falling in rhythm to drumbeats in the distance.

Suddenly he noticed a soft glimmering through the trees on his left and, making his way with great stealth, he crept through the brambles until he came upon a large, moonlit meadow. The full moon was just peering over the tops of the branches, filling the glade like a silver basin with soft pearly light and illuminating the great trees of the forest like giant granite monoliths or lofty snow covered peaks encircling the glade. The entire scene before him was bathed in soft moonlight, save only the pitch black band of shadow under the trees, which even the noonday sun could not penetrate. Then, moving to a place of optimal surveillance, he noticed several shadows moving strangely about in the glade. Cursing, he drew his sword and crouched behind a large oak, berating his foolishness in coming alone and envisioning a grisly death upon some blood-stained altar of these vicious and degenerate people. But the shadows moved no closer. They seemed to be moving in circles, reversing directions and shifting patterns, He watched, enthralled by what he now perceived to be dancers, although he could make out none of their features.

A small noise close by brought him instantly to a defensive position, his sword and shield raised menacingly. He discovered the peasant girl standing close beside him, and he marked the uncanny silence of her approach.

"Beautiful, aren't they?" she murmured as she knelt down next to him. Horatius regained his composure as he noticed the girl was, in fact, alone, but decided to keep his sword in hand for the present.

"What are they?" he returned, "and who are you, who managed to steal so close without my knowledge?" She smiled, her teeth gleaming in the moonlight.

"My name is Selena, and they are the folk of the forest, whom you will likely scared away with your boisterous whispering. As for my quiet passage, I have that skill in woodcraft shared by all those who live within the shadow of the forest." She contemplated the Roman a moment before continuing.

"I hope you can forgive my mysterious behavior this morning, but I have good reason to fear the sorcerous Druids should they suspect me of helping you. I have heard they regularly sacrifice those they suspect of treachery in a most brutal and bloody manner."

"True—they are savage devils of the Pit." agreed Horatius, "but what of Galbius? Have you learned of his whereabouts?"

"I fear to answer that question, my lord," whispered the girl, avoiding his gaze with downcast eyes. "I will not lie and say I know nothing for I have learned that your comrade is already beyond all. mortal assistance. You cannot help him:" She quickly continued, "And I fear that once you discover the whole truth, your anger will lead to your undoing," The girl glanced shyly up at the Roman before continuing. "Then I shall see you never again."

Horatius reached out his hand as if to caress her cheek, and gently tilted her face towards his searching eyes.

"And what if I promise to return to you once I have beheld the fate of Galbius with my own eyes?"

"Promise me instead a few hours of your time. Escort me about this glade tonight as befits a lordly Roman officer, and tell me tales of Rome with its paved streets and marble statues. Tell me of your people and how they socialize and their manner of dress. Tell me of your armies that rule over half the world, let me feel the glory of this Rome I hear such splendid rumor of, make me unafraid of the cruel Druids you would have me betray. Do this for me and then I will gladly tell you all I know of your friend."

Horatius decided her proposal was an attractive one and accepted, partly because of her considerable feminine charm, and chiefly because he had no alternative — the girl was his only hope thus far.

"And what of these strange folk who dance in the moonlight?" returned Horatius, Surely they will resent our intrusion upon their festivities. Can we be sure of our safety amongst them?"

"We have nothing to fear from these shy and innocent creatures." Selena assured him. "It is more likely that they will flee if we approach them too directly. Therefore, let us stroll slowly along the edge of the glade, close to the shadow of the trees so we do not disturb them, for their dance is very beautiful to watch."

Horatius could think of no objection as she took his hand and led him along the perimeter of the moonlit meadow, plying him with questions about Rome which he answered with great pride and enthusiasm. as they picked their way through the boulders and moss-covered branches strewn along their path, the Romans' eyes constantly returned to the weird ceremony, which seemed to stir within him a strange and blasphemous curiosity — almost a desire to join the pagan celebration. The singing and chanting grew louder as their path drew nearer to the revelers, and Horatius began to notice strange abnormalities in the figures of the dancers, bizarre glimpses of horns and hooves, wings and tails, uncertain in the pale moonlight.

"Shades of Dis!" exclaimed the Roman. "I cannot tell if these beings are daemons on a dark errand from the netherworld, or only peasants in costume for some festival of Bacchantes."

'Nor can I tell you for certain, but I do not believe they are evil, One night I attempted to join in their dance, but although I approached slowly and spoke softly to them, they all fled silently into the forest."

Horatius paused and, taking the girl swiftly into his arms, he replied "I do not how any creature, man or beast, could be afraid of such a gentle and beautiful young maiden." He then bent his head and attempted a kiss, but she slipped away demurely and called teasingly from the protection of the woods.

"And I thought you were a gentleman! It seems I have more to fear from you than from yonder 'daemons from Dis!" She then vanished between the trees, leaving only her silvery laughter lingering in the air.

Horatius plunged into the woods in pursuit and soon they were alone in a grassy moonlit bower, lying comfortably in each other's arms,

"I have heard that in Rome the women do not work, but stay home and invent new ways to please their lovers." Selena whispered. "Is this true?"

Horatius nodded and replied. "Perhaps you would like to return to Rome with me to await my return in the evenings?" As the conversation ceased, he could only assume that she would indeed be receptive to his proposal.

Later on, as the lovers walked about in the now empty glade, the full moon striding down from its zenith. Horatius explained his determination to find or avenge Galbius quickly, before his return to Rome.

"For I grow weary of this savage land filled with pagan horrors, and would gladly return to the quiet groves of my villa." He kissed the back of her neck, and continued softly. "There you would be clothed in silk amid the luxury of Rome. Tell me, then, what do you know of Galbius?"

"First I must know if you questioned the Druids who guard the cavern of the oracle, and their answer, if any."

"I did question the two savages," he admitted. "But they told me nothing. I even consulted their filthy oracle, but although I have a strange feeling the creature somehow knew the truth, the answer I received seemed little more than gibberish."

"But of course, you could not recognize the truth." Selena shook her head with pity. "I will explain, but you will not like the truth. The Druids worship the dread god Sadoqua, whom they believe sleeps eternally at the bottom of the chasm atop which the oracle is chained to his black altar. It is held to be true by local sages and sooth-sayers that Sadoqua is but a corrupt version of Tsathoggua, the god of ancient Hyperborea. The legends tell how this evil one abandoned that country after it was overwhelmed by glaciers and returned to the lightless abyss of N'kai where he still abides. Tsathoggua and others of the Old Ones first entered N'kai through a gate of foul sorcery which connects N'kai to a similar abyss located deep within the planet Saturn. So say the dark legends of the Druid religion which is founded largely upon the writings of the great Hyperborean wizard Eibon. The Druids believe the vapors rising from the abyss to be the actual breath of the slumbering Sadoqua. Because of the constant exposure to these noxious fumes the oracle is soon reduced to a monstrous condition in which he receives and relates the divinations of Sadoqua, who is said to know all things past, present, and future. This primal regression continues until the unfortunate creature dies, or is no longer useful as a medium, being too primitive to communicate.

"Because of the inevitably short life of the oracle, the Druids must search constantly for new victims to serve Sadoqua. Usually they choose from amongst the criminals and beggars who roam the countryside, but when these are scarce they will often abduct strangers who happen to be travelling through the forest. This undoubtedly was the fate of Galbius. The men from my village say that your friend must have fought well, for the remains of three Druids were found alongside the forest trail. The great wounds and cloven limbs of the slain Druids show that a heavy broad-sword, such as your own, was wielded against them by one who knew well its use. The foul oracle you spoke with was indeed Galbius, but his mind and body had already succumbed to the lethal respiration of Sadoqua." Selena attempted to pull Horatius into the comfort of her arms. "I am sorry for your friend, but can't you see there is nothing you can do to help him?"

Upon hearing these words Horatius felt a black rage rising within him. He shrugged off the girls embrace, desiring only the comfort of slaying the murderous Druids and dispatching the hideous oracle from the torture of its existence.

"If it is too late to save Galbius, then I shall at least honor our friendship by ending the misery of that witless ruin that was once my friend. Tell me the shortest route to the cavern." He demanded, his hand tightening on the hilt of his sword. Selena pointed the way and begged him to be careful.

"For if the Druids discover I have betrayed them they will carve my heart from my breast and devour it before my dying eyes. Such is their customary treatment of informers."

"Await me at my encampment and tomorrow we shall quit this barbarous land and return to Rome!" cried Horatius as he set forth on his errand of vengeance and mercy. He quickly found the path Selena had indicated, which showed up as a narrow, pale swath barely visible in the gloom. The Roman slowed his reckless pace and drew his sword as he realized his vulnerability. As a soldier, he had been trained to control his rage and use it effectively against his enemies. Now his tactical mind began to assert itself and he realized that by storming unprepared into a stronghold of his enemies he might achieve little more than becoming a meal for the feline guardians of Sadoqua. His wrath was too great to consider going back for reinforcements, but with caution and stealth he might still achieve his goal and possibly kill a great number of the enemy as well.

When he reached the clearing which surrounded the entrance to the cavern, the Roman peered cautiously around an outcropping of rock until he noted with grim satisfaction a lone Druid sitting in the wavering torch-light beside the mouth of the cave. The feline guardians were nowhere to be seen. The sentry had only enough time to bellow once before the Roman's sword cut off his scream and sent his head rolling across the ground, leaving a dark trail of gore in its wake. Horatius removed the torch and, thrusting it before him, entered the cavern of the oracle.

The first thing he saw in the dim torch-light was an obsidian-bladed scythe descending in an arc towards his chest. In desperation he whipped his sword beneath the falling scythe and was rewarded by a dull thud as his blade encountered the firm resistance of bone. The scythe fell harmlessly over his shoulder, the still-gripping hand and arm dragging horribly after. Horatius felt little emotion as he drove his sword through the Druid who lay writhing on the dusty floor. He uttered a mechanical grunt of satisfaction as another of his enemies died before him, leaving yet alive to wreak further vengeance.

Hastening to the black altar, he found it engulfed by the reeking mist which soon dissipated enough to reveal only an empty, slimy shackle lying in a puddle of unmentionable filth.

The Roman cursed aloud, having been thwarted in his quest to render Galbius the final service of releasing his tortured body and Soul from the noxious will of Sadoqua. Unwilling to accept defeat, Horatius held the torch aloft and searched about, hoping to find the pitiful oracle hiding in some crevice when once again the rank, obscuring mist began to issue forth from the depths like some maleficent ethereal tide. He held his breath until the cloud subsided, then he peered cautiously over the edge into the abyss. There, not a foot below the edge of the cliff, crawled a huge slug-like creature glistening in the torchlight that could only be the transformed Galbius. Horatius thought he recognized the insanely staring eyes, although they now protruded above the body on gently waving stalk-like appendages. The thing was sliding down the sheer wall along a well-slimed trail which ended, he imagined, in the batrachian jaws of Sadoqua. In horror, he plunged his sword again and again into the quivering mass until it finally released its hold and fell silently into the yawning pit. As the Roman straightened from this grisly task, he was struck savagely on the head from behind. A hot, spreading numbness swept over him as he sank down into oblivion.

When Horatius regained consciousness, he was first aware of sharp throbbing in his head and a burning asphyxiation in his throat and chest. He could see or hear nothing and his mind seemed strangely disoriented. He struggled to his knees and became aware of the heavy chains about his waist and ankles and noticed for the first time the abominable stench and slime in which he knelt. Dimly he recalled the events which had led to his capture and he reached out in the darkness and felt the stone altar to confirm his fate. With dreadful irony he now recalled the prophecy of Sadoqua: "The fate of Galbius is before you, as is your own." In this pitiable state he struggled against his bonds until he thought of his friend Galbius, and with what fluid ease he must have escaped these very chains. Horatius screamed and cursed his rage and frustration into the baleful abyss until, slowly there arose from the stygian depths a vast chuckling, such as a god might utter during an amusing dream. Horatius continued to scream his fury and horror until, wearied from his exertion, he ceased, and realized he no longer recalled why he screamed.

The following evening, having waited the long day through in the encampment of the Romans, Selena slipped away and set her face toward the cavern of the oracle, desperate to learn the fate of her new love. Although filled with terror, she strove to appear at ease as she told the Druid guardians of her desire to consult the oracle regarding a matter of the heart. She thought she glimpsed a knowing leer on the face of the guard who stepped aside to permit her entry, but she refused to allow herself to be frightened away when so close to learning the fate of Horatius. Shuddering at the sight of the great pools of congealed blood within the grotto's entrance, she fixed her eyes ahead and continued on. At last she came to the great black altar and its hideous oracle.

It squatted in semblance of an immense, boneless toad, tethered to the stone by massive rusted chains. Its bulging eyes stared up at her uncomprehensivley, its slavering lips muttered soundlessly to itself in the dreams of its delirium, yet still could Selena discern the familiar features of her missing Horatius. Stricken to her soul by a crushing horror, the girl yet found the strength to speak.

"Horatius, my lord!" she whispered, still fearful of the nearby Druids. "Is it truly you? Do you not remember me?" she sobbed.

The creature fixed its huge, unblinking eyes upon the girl and gave reply.

"Horatius is not here, and I have been the mouthpiece of Sadoqua, who knows all things past, present, and future, for a thousand eternities."

And then, in its madness, the oracle was seized by a fit of insane tittering laughter which grew in volume until the cavern echoed with its mindless reverberations. Selena was paralyzed by the extremity of her fear as she heard, unmistakably, the addition of another hollow, rumbling laughter which seemed to rise up out of the black abyss on the surging clouds of foulness. At last she found refuge in shrieking flight, which ended abruptly in the waiting arms of the Druids, whom she had betrayed.

Foot Note

1See "The Black Book of Clark Ashton Smith" item #48. Arkham House, 1979. Edited by Donald Sidney-Fryer and Rah Hoffman.

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