The Court of the Crystal Flame

James Ambuehl

1Satampra Zeiros looked back and squinted into the desert sun, staring off into the distance. The dust-clouds billowing high into the sky told him that he had not yet left his pursuers behind. "By thrice-damned Voothra!" he spat aloud, and urged his mount to run even faster.

To say that thins had not gone well for the master-thief of all Hyperborea in his latest of capers would of a certain be an understatement. True, he had entered the Shrine of Voothra well and good, and had hidden in the shadowy alcoves until the Acolytes had finished their worship-services to the lizard-god and had again retired to their private bed-chambers before making his move. And make it he did, emptying the bulging coffers (for Voothra was the god of luck, and the vilage of Gharun-Zaae truly had need of that commodity in these days of unrest and political intrigue) into his belt-pouches and then preparing his rope-and-grapple device to make good his escape from one of the high open sky-lights of the sanctum. But then, as always seemed to happen with old Satampra Zeiros . . . the unexpected happened! Old Voothra, he of the long-limbed snaky tendrils, began to move of his own accord — this was no mere idol!

Wearily, the master-thief prepared to do battle with the now-awakened lizard-god — but no warrior was he! Lamenting the present lack of a strong of a strong young companion such as the poor late Tirouv Ompallios, or even Vixeela (ah, beautous Vixeela! Where had she gone to, lo, these many months since their robbing of the the temple of the moon-god, Leniqua?), een Vixeela was a far beter combatant than he! But having to do without the aid of either of these, or any others for that matter, old Satampra thought to bring out a pinch of the Dust of Gheezix, whereby to control the reptilian monster. But mis-judging the dosage required for such a task, or merely forgetting just how long ago he had cooked up that batch of the Dust, the use thereby had a most unexpected side-effect: the monster-lizard fell to the flags stone-dead!

And just then the master-thief bethought himself he heard the unmistakeble sounds of the returning Acolytes of the now-dead Voothra!

With a few well-placed muttered oaths and curses alike, Satampra Zeiros did reach down to pick up the monstrous lizard's corpse — which, was surprisingly light, considering its prodigious size! — and proceeded to pitch the luck-god on its pedestal once again — but this tme with he, Satampra Zeiros, hidden beneath the ring of tentacles which skirted the monster's waist. But stand it would not, so that the master-thief was forced to hold it up thereby.

Now when the Acolytes of the luck-god again entered the Shrine of Voothra — surely drawn thereto by the sound of the monster-lizard's mighty crash to the stone-flagged floor! — they were astonished to see that all was as they had left it a short while before; nothing seemed in the least out-of-place! Yet, Satampra Zeiros prayed to all the gods of Hyperborea that they would not think to unlid the coffers and check upon their contents — and indeed, two of the Acolytes began making their way to do just that — when the mighty Voothra, lizard-god of luck of Gharun-Zaae spoke unto them!

And this mighty bestial roar served to halt the pair of Acolytes in their tracks, aye, and the others stopped what they were doing as well, and as one the Acolytes of Voothra began to page through their ever-present prayer-books, perhaps in search of a translation of that mighty belch of gutteral rumbling fury — for surely so prodigious a sound bespoke of ubridled, monstrous anger!

And the master-thief, Satampra Zeiros, bethought of himself that perhaps he shouldn't have eaten ALL those Poozka-bird eggs, for surely they did give him gas, even as the merchant who had peddled them had warned they might. And then, of a sudden, one of the Acolytes gave voice to his great concern:

"Brothers of Voothra! We are deceived . . . for is not the Lizard-God of Luck also known as 'The Mute One'?"

The jig up, as they say, Satampra Zeiros' embarrassing flatulence exposed, the wiry old thief heaved the mighty reptilian carcass full upon his foes and fled full-tilt out the door of the Shrine of Voothra . . . the Acolytes of said god hot on his heels!

And, of course, it had been no great feat for the Acolytes of Voothra to raise up an impromptu military contingent to utilize in the pursuit of the old thief (though Satampra Zeiros did wonder what the soldiers' reactions would be when they found out that their god of luck had expired; they were wastefully out-of-luck, he had chuckled to himself.

And so it was that the master-thief found himself now in pursuit by a veritable league of blood-thirsty soldiers! His mount hard-put to run any further, his next course of action unknown to him, Satampra Zeiros was considering the option of surrender — though his own life would surely be forfeit in the bargain — when a scrap of lore from the writings of the wizard Byd Praenos came unbidden to his mind, a frightening tale concerning the ancient and spectre-haunted ruins of Yongras! It was a harrowing tale indeed, but what choice did the master-thief have? So deciding his course, Satampra Zeiros turned his lathered mount toward Yongras, which he judged to be not too far from his present point. Just how far, he was uncertain, yet he remembered that the wizard called Byd Praenos had said in his Chronicles of Cron'drof: "If needs ye find Yongras, then find her ye shall — or she shall find ye!"

Chilled by this enigmatic passage, yet strangely intrigued by it as well, the exhausted master-thief rode on in search of Yongras. It was just after passing over three more dunes and topping a fourth that he came to a hill overlooking the ancient, sand-choked ruins: and he knew by her tangled alien masonry that of a certain was this spectre-haunted Yongras!

The master-thief uttered a prayer to his sundry gods, then entered.

* * *

In the soldiers' camp spread out in a nearby oasis the men were grumbling amongst themselves. Tired, sore and sun-burned, they questioned why so many of them needs go after one lone thief, and a doddering old fool at that!

"Nay!" bellowed their commander, a grizzled old veteran called Captain Gaulteron. "Satampra Zeiros may be old, but he is of a certain no doddering fool! He has been a thron in the side of all the governmental seats of power this side of Uzuldaroum for far too long a time!" He spat for effect into the sand at his feet. "And it is up to us, all of us, to put a stop to him once and for all!"

"Yes, sir," protested one soldier: "But what exactly has this old thief done?"

"Nay, Trooper Kuthos — is that your name? Aye, lad, so it is. — The question, Trooper Kuthos, is not 'what has he done?' — but rather, what hasn't Satampra Zeiros done?" He spat again, and looked the fair-haired youth straight in the eye. "And I'll tell you wat Satampra Zeiros 'hasn't done' young Trooper Kuthos: he hasn't escaped us, or our justice this time!"

And at that he ordered the men to pack up camp, to mount up and prepare to ride once again.

* * *

Abandoning his exhausted mount at the unbarred gate, Satampra Zeiros entered on foot into ruined Yongras. Once a great city of unrivalled architecture of a style unknown and lost to us when Hyperborea itself was new, its once-great columns and arches lay toppled in the cruel desert sun. Yet here and there structures of a like seldom seen before yet stood. Domes, ziggurats, long cylindrical tubes, the buildings of Yongras seemed to follow no single style at all, but rather a lunatic mish-mash of same. Maze-like, there seemed to be no order to the layout of Yongras, yet the chaotically-displayed city beckoned to the master-thief to explore its mazes and squares and alleyways alike. No flora seemed to grow in Yongras, no wind blew, and yet there was a sound -- like the high-pitched keening of a mournful wind, seductively drawing the master-thief on.

Then as suddenly as it had begun the rising and faling howling stopped -- and Satampra Zeiros could bear no more. Exhausted to no end, the master-thief entered a low, squat building and rolled his cloak out onto the sandy floor, then stretched himself out onto it and fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

* * *

In the crimson glow of the setting sun the guide gestured to Captain Gaulteron that the quarry had indeed entered the forboding city stretched out before the contingent, and two by two the soldiers dismounted and made their way through the city-gates. Leaving half a dozen men to stay with the mounts and guard the gates, Gaulteron promptly divided the remaining troops into 6 groups of 5 men each, and spread them out to scour the city thoroughly.

Young Alu Kuthos, the lad who had dared to question the Captain afore, was chosen by Gaulteron personally as part of his own entourage: "I want you to see why the Captain gives the orders, Trooper Kuthos," he explained, "and why it is yours to but follow them to the letter!" So saying, he gestured for the six squads to move steadily forward.

* * *

The first group covered their ground quickly . . . perhaps too quickly. For they had not been aware of what had been following them until Lieutenant Ylran heard the dull 'thwap' and saw the soldier next to him fall face forward, a queer, quivering flattish thing sitting atop his back, pulsing nauseatingly. And where its tube-like projection had entered the man's back the pinkish mass of jelly-like horror began to exhibit a healthy ruddy glow suffusing its body. Revolted, Lt. Ylran hacked it, and its yet flailing prey — to bloody ribbons with his sword. Then, as he yelled an alarm, two more men in his squad fell prey to the things as they rained in on them from above in deadly floating arcs. Thinking quickly, Trooper Berdoz suggested using fire to combat the things, and torches were quickly brought to bear. The monsters were burned to blackened crisps, but not before yet another man of the party fell, leaving only Berdoz and Lt. Ylran. Shaken, the pair moved on, reluctantly resuiming their search.

And noe of the other squads heard aught of their screams as they entered another building — only to have the sticky, spongey 'ceiling' fall upon them and devour them utterly!

* * *

Not so Satampra Zeiros, for he was rudely awakened by those screams, and he sat bolt upriight. Alarmed now, knowing that he was not alone in Yongras, the master-thief drew to him his pack of provisions. Drawing out a small handful of Zothau-weed mixed with Qualk-root, he began to devour it hungrily. Thus fortified, he slowly got to his feet and stretched his lean torso, arms high overhead.

Sensing someone behind him just then, the wiry thief turned of a sudden . . . but beheld nothing.

Shaking his head, he drew to him his cloak once more and emerged from the shelter into the full Hyperborean mid-day sun.

* * *

Liuetenant Beldraq's squad ran headlong into Sergeant Zuth's. It seems that the former were fleeing from a monstrous segmented many-leged worm! And so prodigious a monster was it that it devoured both groups of frightened men then and there . . . shooting forth sticky tentacle-nooses and drawing the screaming, struggling prey onto its massive bulk, there to be stuck fast. And ere long the writhing man-flesh was subsumed diretly into the skin of the monster, thereby increasing its bulk yet more — and the now-fleshless skeletons clattered to the ground.

* * *

Again Satampra Zeiros felt eyes upon his back, and turned lithely once more — yet again there was no one there! Shrugging, the old master-thief made his way over to a fountain of crystal-clear water, obviously a catch-basin for rainwater, and made to drink therefrom. But ere he could drink a drop, he spied a reflection therein. And turning once more, he finally laid eyes on his visitant.

* * *

Spectre-haunted Yongras? It should be called monster-haunted Yongras! thought Alu Kuthos as his squad came yet again upon more mangled and curiously-transformed bodies of his compatriots. These two were Troopers Galos and Othren, their bodies having been wondrously and horrificly transmuted into a fleshy pink column — and the youth was hard-pressed to tell where the one body ended and the other began!

"Ah, Trooper Kuthos. Admiring old Satampra's work, I see," the Captain said as he entered the domed structure to partake of the grisly scene.

"But --" protested Alu Kuthos, "H-how could he — he have done such as this? Satampra Zeiros is no wizard — is he?"

"Who's to say, boy," began Gaulteron, "someone or somehting has been mangling and mutilating my men! And who else is there to be found in all of Yonras?"

Who indeed, thought the youthful soldier — who indeed?

* * *

The richly-decorated raiments of the figure took Satampra Zeiros off guard. "Who —?" began the master-thief.

"I am called Pwen Vanool," answered the figure, "one-time ruler of all Yongras — before the Curse of the Crystal Flame!"

At this Satampra Zeiros must have looked baffled, for the man called Pwen Vanool went on by way of explanation.

"Have you heard aught of the daemon-gods known as the Great Old Ones, my friend? Ah, I see by your battle-scars (the richly-garbed figure gestured to the stump of the master-thief's missing hand) and, too, by a certain look in your eye that you have had a run-in with one of these awesome beings."

Satampra Zeiros nodded, and after introducing himself to the former ruler, he told an abbreviated version of his tale concerning the unfortunate fate which led him to lose said limb — to say nothing of the dissolution of the less-fortunate Tirouv Ompallios, one-time partner and colleague of the master-thief.

"Ah, Tsathoggua!" breathed Pwen Vanool reverently. A terrible god indeed. Yet perhaps more terrible still is the Crystal Flame, else known as Koth-Uggha. It comes from another dimension than our own, and brings along with its visitations certain other beings, aye, monsters more like, and sets them up in its newly-chosen court, to lord it over them as it sees fit.

"Once, Satampra Zeiros, Yongras was a fertile, flourishing city, with wondrous gardens and awesome game preserves nearly fit for fairy tale alone. But then . . . Koth-Uggha came."

"But how?" asked the master-thief, not knowing what else to say.

"I am afraid you are looking at the reason, my friend," stated the man matter-of-factly. "You see, in my brash, hot-headed youth I fancied myself a sorcerer of sorts. And taking the great Book of Eibon in hand, I found therein the formula to . . . well, you see the results of my folly spread out before you." The man gestured with a sweeping arm to the desolation all around them. "My city is ruined, my people are dead, and yet my evil legacy lives on, enchained at the last by myself -- utilizing great Eibon's mighty ensorcellments. The Crystal Flame lies beneath the Star-Sigil in its five-sided temple in the heart of this sprawling necropolis. Yet, as Eibon himself warned: it may someday . . . escape!"

Satampra Zeiros was stunned. Would man never learn his folly at thinking himself worthy of communion with the very gods themselves?

"But how did you --" began the master-thief.

"Survive?" asked the regal figure. "Why, haven't you guessed, Satampra Zeiros? Who better to rule spectre-haunted Yongras than — a spectre himself!" And at that last the figure of Pwen Vanool vanished from view, leaving a shaken Satampra Zeiros alone once again with only his own thoughts for company. And those thoughts were not wholesome comforting company just then.

* * *

"Captain Gaulteron," began the youth called Alu Kuthos, "we have searched all night and all day, yet no sight have we seen of the one called Satampra Zeiros? Excuse me for saying this, sir, but can we not merely cut our losses and abandon this foolish quest? I, and aye, the other men too, feel that we --"

"Wait! Look you, Trooper Kuthos — aye, and ye others too! For there before us stands a building which would surely house one such as Satampra Zeiros!" The Captain pointed ahead excitedly. "See how tall she stands in the fading sun, virtually untouched by the ravages of time? Aye, we shall find our quarry at last — in yonder five-sided structure!"

And so saying, the squad marched ahead confident at last that they were near the end of their quest.

* * *

Shaken yet by his experience, yet surely the wiser for it (for what was the purpose of life, reasoned Satampra Zeiros, if not an ongoing learning experience?), the master-thief cautiously made his way out into the city streets once again. Too, he heard that mournful keening wail rising and falling on the air. Curious now (for if Satampra Zeiros ever had any fault it was surely his undying curiosity!), he began to follow its course.

He noticed, too, that the course was leading him round-about into the heart of Yongras. Turning this way and that through a mazy spiral of alleyways and courtyards, the master-thief came at last to a building the like of which no other had exhibited in all of Yongras. Towering and black, of smooth, uncrumbled stone, it seemed to be shaped like a monstrous pentagon. And remembering the apparition, Pwen Vanool's words, Satampra Zeiros felt certain that this was indeed the Temple of the Crystal Flame!

Too, the keening pitch seemed to emanate therefrom — and steeling his nerves, the master-thief drew himself up to his full height and entered.

What he found therein was — horror! All about the expansive marbled floor lay the shrivelled, wasted, curiously-shrunken bodies of soldiers. Yet one still lived — though he was near-catatonic in a state of shock: the one called Alu Kuthos.

Yet what lay beyond the mangled soldiers was yet more horrifying still! Towering there in a monstrous fire-pit, as if lording ot over all, danced a colossal blazing entity that could only be called Koth-Uggha, the Crystal Flame!

And beautiful this demon-god was, shimering in a colorful multi-facetted dance of power heretofore unimagined. The air virtually crackled with the effervescent energy ofthe wondrous alien being. And the master-thief noticed, too, that in time to the entity's weird, seductive dance the keening wail rose and fell in pitch.

Then Satampra Zeiros felt the urge — nay! the compulsion! — to venture nearer that weirdly-dancing living flame, even to hurl himself bodily into its licking tendrils, to join with the entity therein in some sort of unholy communion! Indeed, he had already begun to take a step forward when he heard his name cried out!

"Nay, Satampra Zeiros!" the youthful voice rang. "Do not venture any closer, wizard! It — it lashed out and devoured the life from them whose bodies you behold stretched upon the floor!"

The demon-god's spell broken, the master-thief shaken from his trance at last, Satampra Zeiros blinked rapidly, to ar his head, and turned to see the youthful surviving soldier standing at his side. At his glance of acknowledgment the youth slowly drew out his sword and held it reluctantly at the ready.

"I do not wish to slay you, wizard," he began, "yet I, Alu Kuthos, shall not hesitate to do so should the need arise — though your curses, and aye, mayhap your own sundered body folow me around all the days of my continued life!" The young soldier tried to sound brave, yet he looked unsure of himself.

"Put away your sword, boy," replied Satampra Zeiros wearily. "I know not what they have told you, but I am surely no wizard!" He smiled wanly. "Yet, if you would be so kind as to avail me your aid, I think that we may yet be able to do some long-awaited magick here this night."

"Aye, for I have had enough of soldiering to last me a lifetime," replied the youth. "And anyway, I'll not stay in this monster-haunted citadel . . . alone!" Alu Kuthos put up his sword and asked the older master-thief what he would have of him.

"Think you, Alu Kuthos, that this daemon-flame is fairly quiescent now, having been sated for the most part?"

"Aye, " answered Alu Kuthos slowly, a nervous look crossing his features momentarily. "It of a certain must be, for it regards us not . . ."

"Then take you off your boots, even as I am doing now."

So doing, the pair crept forward in stocking-feet toward the mighty, lazily-dancing flame. Once in dangerous proximity to the entity, the master-thief gestured to a series of sigils set in the floor at intervals around the circumference of the great fire-pit which housed the entity from the stars called Koth-Uggha — a curious star-motif inset with an eye-and-pillar-of-flame design — and he directed the youth to use his sword-haft as a hammer with which to break them. Thus saying, the pair made their way stealthily about the circle in separate directions, one clockwse, the other counter-clockwise, and began hamering and pounding the stone star-sigils to flinders. Having completed this task without incident — though once a tendril of jewel-facetted flame did stretch lazily toward the youth, Alu Kuthos having to duck and crouch there a moment until the monstrous alien limb again retracted (and he had felt the heat therefrom, the youth's strong young back becoming intensely sun-burned, so that it had begun to blister and peel!) — Satampra Zeiros then directed of the youth: "Run!" And the pair did just that.

Having gained at last the temple door, the pair heard a mighty high-pitched roar, and standing upon the temple-steps, turned to view the unearthly spectacle which met their eyes: freed from its magick-enforced yoke of captivity the mighty Crystal Flame called Koth-Uggha shot impossible fast into the night sky and sailed directly toward the heart of the stars and winked out of sight in the starry void.

And just then it was that Alu Kuthos was struck from behind — his head reeling from a mighty unseen blow — and the youth lost consciousness.

Turning, the master-thief beheld the form of a bloody and beaten army Captain, which unfortunately held him at sword-point!

Murder was in the Captain's eyes. "I'll deal with that traitorous dog in a moment, but for you . . . you may have beaten my army, wizard, but you'll not defeat Gaulteron quite so easily!" he spat in defiance.

"What is it with these accusations of wizardry?" began the master-thief, but just then the Captain charged at him, sweeping downward with his sword. Satampra Zeiros made to step back, and tripped on the temple-steps, his form tumbling back to come to rest upon his backside. Gaulteron's sword-sweep missed its target by a slim margin, but then the seasoned veteran checked himself and raised his sword high overhead, ready to swing yet again down upon the recumbent form of the master-thief, Satampra Zeiros.

Satampra Zeiros braced himself for the inevitable death-blow, raising his arm before his face in an ineffectual attempt to shield himself from the kiling stroke, and shut his eyes tightly. But after long moments when the expected death-blow never came, he carefully peeled his eyes open once more. The master-thief was alarmed to see the supine body of his foe stretched out before him on the steps, a long spear protruding from his back.

Assuming that Alu Kuthos was responsible, Satampra Zeiros turned gratefuly in his direction — but was surprised to see the form of the youth yet stretched out unconscious upon the floor! Then, raising his eyes before him once again, the master-thief beheld before him yet again the form of Pwen Vanool, one-time master of Yongras.

The figure spoke: "You have done me an honor, Satampra Zeiros, and for this, and much more, I thank you! The flame-daemon called Koth-Uggha has been returned to the stars once more as a result of your machinations, but alas, too late for me and mine. But you have doubtless spared your entire world, O Satampra Zeiros, for eventually the Crystal Flame would have grown strong enow to multiply itself and had struck out into the world itself. And though it may have indeed taken yet centuries more, time is of little essence to the Great Old Ones: They lie in wait eternally!"

And so saying, the spectral figure instructed the master-thief to look in a secret hidden panel beneath the now-flameless altar inthe quiescent fire-pit, thereby finding yet further reward! And just before the semi-transparent figure of Pwen Vanool winked out for the final time, one his way to his ultimate goal in the afterlife, the master-thief thought he could just make out behind the once-ruler along line of similarly-garbed and grateful people!

"Fare thee well, Satampra Zeiros!" floated Pwen Vanool's voice to the master-thief yet one final time . . . then Satampra Zeiros found himself standing alone once more.

"Fare thee well, Pwen Vanool," said Satampra Zeiros under his breath. Then, he went to rouse his newfound companion, the youth called Alu Kuthos. The pair then descended by way of the master-thief's rope-and-grapple device into the fire-pit and beneath the altar fund a coffer stuffed to the brimming with gold pazoors!

And, saddling their mounts at te now-abandoned city-gates (the soldiers left there to guard the gates had surely run off after viewing the spectacle of the Crystal Flame departing Earth — but Satampra Zeiros and Alu Kuthos had no way of knowing that!), Alu Kuthos asked of his newfound mentor:

"Why, O Satampra Zeiros, would anyone want to summon such a thing as Koth-Uggha? For the Crystal Flame brought naught but death and utter ruination!"

"You might as well ask, lad, 'Why did Pandar the Great scale the steep, craggy slopes of Mount Voormithadreth in the once-great, now ice-blanketed Eiglophians all those centuries ago? Or why so many savants seek out, and even dare to read Eibon's ancient book?' Because it's there, lad, and for no other reason — save perhaps to satisfy the burnng of Man's innate curiosity. And I suspect that is why the unfortunate Pwen Vanool summoned the Crystal Flame called Koth-Uggha to once-great Yongras all those aeons ago: merely to show himself that he could!"

And with that the pair shared an uneasy laugh, and nudged their mounts back into the desert and once more toward the more wholesome haunts of civilized Men.

* * *

Note From the Author:

This tale probably owes more to my readings of Robert E. Howard and countless Dungeons and Dragons campaigns than any actual Smithian content — but it Is based on a synopsis by Lin Carter (used with Bob Price's kind permission) for an unwritten tale . . . albeit a Conan tale rather than one of his own Hyperborean additions! I thought the idea was a sound one, and warranted fuller development. And I stuck in Koth-Uggha, an earlier incarnation of Derleth's Cthugha because he seemed to fit — and because I prefer to deal directly with the Great Old Ones in my own fictions. So here it is, the tale of the two thieves' first meeting! Hope you enjoy it and much as I enjoyed writing it!

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