Tale Number Two: Tomb Baiter
This tale, my dear Aurena (said the basilisk) is no fancy, for it happened to a good friend of mine.
Roderrin was a merchant; I knew him in his younger days, when he was still learning his trade. He was a nomad then, always in search of the next profit. He also, let's say, had a weakness for the ladies; many times he was chased from one world to another by an irate husband or lover.
After a particularly disastrous affair (involving a princess, her maid, the maid's horseman lover, an enchanted phallus, and the princess's father, an evil sorcerer-king) Roderrin found himself fleeing yet again, losing all he had in the process: his cargoes, his reputation as a trader, and almost his life. He fled across more than a dozen worlds, each increasingly remote, until he came to Voorloren, a dying planet far from the usual extraplanular routes. Cities once clustered on its surface dense as flies on rotted meat; now they lay bone-dry and scattered, marooned by the basins of dry seas, or on wind-scoured plains once lush and fertile. Its great civilizations had long fallen, its people degenerated. Even the sun had been sapped of its vitality; it hung huge and red in the cracked bowl of the heavens, a bloated bloody orange filled with poison; the talk among the natives was that one day it would sputter out like a spent lamp, and they would have to spend the rest of their days stumbling about in the darkness.
Here was where he hoped he might rest and recoup his personal and professional losses. He had a few pieces of gold left so he procured a room in an inn and went henceforth down to its tavern.
The place was full of the dust of better days, its clientele even more so: bitter men, hard-eyed strumpets, rogues, refugees, rakes, all come for the same reasons he had: exile or escape. Others looked fresher, their clothing unsullied by the blowing grit that plagued this world. Faces hopeful, they sat hunched over maps, backs and waists bristling with weaponry, as tired barmaids circling round them, attending to their murmuring; professional adventurers, Roderrin guessed, knowing the type. Scattered among them were natives who moved with the oily ease of snakes, measuring the visitors with mercenary eyes.
Roderrin ordered a drink. The liquor, like the world, was unfathomably old, tasting of the dry resins of mummies.
One of the natives soon approached his table. She was young, dressed in tight leather trousers and a halter that accentuated her trim midriff. Pretty, she, but in an unusual way: her cheekbones high and sharp, her lips shapely, but small. In her halter she carried a pair of firm, ripe, smooth-skinned breasts, the female treasures conniving to burst free from the leather that constrained them. A hint of a nipple was seen, a tawny blush the girl covered with a quick adjustment from her hand. "Excuse me. Are you new here?"
Her voice was musical, neither high nor low. He decided to ignore her physical charms, admirable though they were, until he knew more of the local customs of this place. "Yes," he said simply, waiting for another cue.
She took in the bedraggled condition of his tunic and cloak. "From the portal?"
"The portal," he said. Magical conduits existed on every world, but only magicians, or those with expensive magical keys, had the power to use them.
"Ah," she said. "You've come for the tombs."
He arched his brow at her. "I have?"
She smiled, indulgent, but opportunity gleamed in her eye. "You really are new here... let me explain. Centuries ago, when my ancestors ruled this world, they used a particularly wasteful form of magic that drained the planet's life essence, and their sun's. Being magicians, they moved on to exploit another world, leaving tombs of their predecessors behind. They built them to last, as their cities were not." She leaned forward so the strings of amulets and ancient beads she wore swung over her breasts. "These tombs contain many riches..."
"How is that you are still here?" he asked.
"When the bulk of the population moved on, they left their undesirables behind," she explained. "For centuries we have eked out a living here, acting as guides and scouts for the adventurers who visit this world and loot the booty of the dead."
"Tough luck on your forebears," he said.
"Yes," she said, smiling in a not-nice way. "Isn't it."
"Since you surely kept some of this treasure for yourself," he said, "why have you not leave this dead-end world for a better place?"
"Because I would lose my livelihood, and what I like to do best. Besides, this is my world, and my home. I will stay here until the sun sputters out, and then, I suppose, I will sputter out too." She put her hand on his arm, the slight touch a promise of more intimate ones. "Besides, it is not so bad..."
Roderrin was tempted, but he had sworn off female flesh since the vigorous exercises the princess and her maid had put him through, which had left him quite sated, not to mention sore. "I'm afraid I have no use for a guide," he said. "I'm a merchant by trade."
"Ah," she said. "That explains your vehicle..."
He'd stolen the magical air-car in Yfakka, piloting it at full speed through the portal to escape his pursuers. He was surprised she was that observant.
"Perhaps we can be partners," she suggested. "I've long sought a trader to act as my agent. Strange and rare items come out of the tombs... I find many of them myself. I know they could fetch a high place on other worlds. "
Roderrin considered. It was not such a bad idea. "Why don't you show me what you've found. My name is Roderrin, by the way."
"And I'm Naraseena," she said. "Come. I'll show to you to my home."
They left the inn like two lovers. Naraseena shrouded herself carefully against the dust, and suggested that he do the same: the blowing clouds hid even the sun, casting the abandoned bazaar in a dull red glow. They turned down one street, then another. Many houses were abandoned, and many more nearly so, but a surprising number were lit from inside, showing ample evidence of habitation. This world was dying, but it was not dead yet. Life hung on here, and hope. Or perhaps stubbornness. He even heard the cries of children.
Finally, Naraseena's modest cottage. Inside she lit the lamps. It was not as poor as it looked from the outside. She'd decorated it well with imported goods... carpets, carved furniture... but other items had come from Voorloren itself: ritual objects, ancient weapons, masks, fetishes, vessels. "These are all from the tombs," she said, sweeping her hand. "A small sampling of what we might sell. My clients usually take the more valuable items, though."
"What is that?" he said, noting a bulky item behind a drape.
"A statue." She pulled off the covering. Roderrin caught his breath. The statue was female, exquisitely lovely. "I found it in one of the tombs. I find many of them, actually, but am unable to bring them back. You need a cart or other contrivance for that."
An idealization of the deceased, he guessed, as the sandstone nude had the smooth musculature of youth. She stood caught in the act of turning, a pensive look on her face, fresh as if carved yesterday. He'd have no trouble selling it, that was sure. It would probably fetch a far higher place than the other antiquities. "Are such treasures commonplace in these tombs?"
"That, and more," Naraseena said. She said that the dust had buried whole cities of the dead, with concourses, arenas, slave markets, parks: the ancient Voorlorens believing that every sentient being, no matter how humble, deserved a resting place for his or her remains. They were a materialistic civilization, so they stocked these tombs well with items for the afterlife. They were a cautious people as well, and untrustful. Many tombs were guarded by magical traps.
"You can get around these traps?" Roderrin asked.
"Yes," she said. "With my body, my mind, and my specialized tools."
"What about your clients?" he asked.
"Some are not as lucky as I," she admitted. "It's a professional hazard... fatalities are unavoidable, in my line of work."
"You bring the bodies back, of course."
He had surprised her. Her eyes widened, her mouth stumbled on a word; then her poise sprang back, as a ready reply came to her lips. "Of course. If I can... do you think I am uncivilized?"
"No," he said, but something about her tone troubled him. He would have to ask around in the inn, later, to see exactly how trustworthy she was. In the meantime, he might dally. "Have you a lover, Naraseena? Some jealous husband?"
"No, and no," Naraseena smiled, pouring him yellow wine from a silver carafe. "Though it gets boring here, I'll admit. Come. Let's drink to seal our new partnership." He accepted with grace, sensing the direction this was going in. Not long after they retreated to the privacy of Naraseena's curtained bed, which received a good pounding before the night was over.
The next morning they worked out their agreement. Roderrin would take the salvaged booty to Alumannes, a prosperous world two portals over, to sell in the market towns there. In ten days he would return to Voorloren and Naraseena would have more loot for him, the cycle continuing indefinitely.
"I have only two suggestions," Naraseena said. "First, you must cover the goods in your vehicle, let no one from the town see what you are taking away. Secondly, tell no one you are working with me."
He understood the first--thieves abounded even on dying worlds like this--but not the second. "Why?"
"The other guides are envious," she said. "There are deep rivalries among us; no one likes a competitor who is more successful than they. If they knew I had an agent, they would try to kill me, or at the least ruin me."
Her fears sounded valid enough. He assured her he would not betray their partnership. Happy at the deal he had struck, he activated his mage-key and piloted the air car through the portal. In a few hours he reached the warm sweet air of Alumannes.
The ancient goods sold quickly. He rented a room in the marketplace to do future business in and enjoyed his earnings; soon it was time to return to Voorloren. He supposed he could have never returned, the profit he'd made healthy enough to live as a fugitive for a while. But the bitter red dust and easy gold of Voorloren had ensnared him; he was curious to see what other objects Naraseena might have for him, and what secrets they might be holding. So he returned, on the exact day and time he said he would.
Naraseena gave him a passionate welcome and showed him her latest treasures. "There are more statues, too," she said breathlessly. "They're still in the tomb where I found them, six hours' ride from here in the Kuzmari Dunes... can we use your vehicle to retrieve them? We use yippas here, but they can't carry heavy items such as statues."
"Of course, " he said, and after a round of vigorous lovemaking they were on their way to the outback. Drifts of red dust unfurled below them, alternately hiding and revealing petrified forests; they passed alkali lakebeds crusted with salt, and jagged cliffs and dry canyons with nary a drop of water, or sign of life. It seemed impossible that a great civilization had ever existed here, or that people lived here now. But Naraseena did, and she guided him like the native she was until they reached a five-sided crumbling pyramid half-hidden in the sand. The entrance had been freshly excavated and inside were the marks of at least three pairs of boots in the dust. Naraseena led him through the twists and turns, warning him of expertly hidden traps at every other step, until they came to a chamber tiled in pale stone with a skylight far above. The ruddy sun sent down a beam of light on two figures, of solid granite this time... heroic males in contorted positions, arms outstretched as if fighting invisible enemies. They looked at once amazed and terrified. Again Roderrin was impressed with the realism of the work.
"A fortuitous discovery on your part," he remarked on the way back. "What of your clients? Did they take their shares and leave satisfied?"
"Oh, they were very well satisfied," she said, her eyes wandering to the semi-erect organs of the naked statues. If she had made a joke, he didn't get it.
He covered his precious load from prying eyes and returned to Alumannes. Again the statues and other items sold quickly. The profit was more than twice what he'd made on the previous trip. Yes, this was a very lucrative line of work indeed. Again he waited ten days, and returned.
Thrice more the cycle repeated itself. The looted goods varied... sometimes fine, sometimes damaged, sometimes valuable, sometimes incidental... but the statues were always the same. He guessed that style of sculpture had once been standardized around the planet, for they all looked carved by the same talented hand... the nudes uniformly hard-bodied and youthful, of various contorted positions that bespoke surprise or bursts of athletic activity... even sexual enjoyment, in one or two cases. Oddly enough only Naraseena seemed able to find them. The other guides returned with bizarre winged reptiles, demons, friezes of plantlife, satyrs... but no people. She told Roderrin she had secret knowledge of such locations she kept from the others, and exhorted him to do the same.
His stays at the inn in town were brief. Following Naraseena's warning, he did not socialize with her in public. He did not want to put suspicion on her. But he did hear certain things of her, six months after their enterprise had begun.
"I wonder how many of them will return this time." the innkeeper said as Naraseena cased another adventuring party not three tables away.
Roderrin was engrossed in a meal of stringy local fowl and did not understand the comment. "Who?"
"Those newcomers Naraseena is talking to. Her clients are prone to accidental deaths. Last month, it was a cave-in, she said. No bodies to retrieve. Before that, it was an attack by sand demons... no witnesses. If you ask me --" he lowered his voice, "She's bumping her clients off, and keeping their loot for herself."
Roderrin's freshly masticated meal froze in his throat. Naraseena had always told him that her clients had left intact, their arms full of booty. "Surely she can't have killed everyone?" he said. "If that is true, she wouldn't be able to get clients at all. Her reputation would precede her."
"True," the innkeeper said, conceding. "Old Horslips, he got off well, with a handsome hoard. And the Starcomb sisters, they've been back to Voorloren several times. Nothing's ever happened to them. Real bitches, though. Witches, too, going by their looks." He shuddered, rubbing his glass. "Ah, forget I said anything.
Roderrin simpered politely, but a doubt had been seeded in his mind. He made up his mind to quiz Naraseena about it, and did, the next time they were alone. "What happened to your last two clients?"
She looked surprised. "How did you...?"
"I heard talk," he shrugged. "They were killed, their bodies lost."
"Are you insinuating that I killed them?" she said angrily. He nodded, weakly. She snorted. "For your information, my accident rate is no more and no less than any of the other guide's. And if you doubt me, ask anyone in the inn. They'll vouch for my competence."
He went off in a huff, and did; but the old freebooter and witchlike sisters only had praise for Naraseena's services. The other guides, though less enthusiastic, said that they, too, had seen clients of Naraseena's return alive. They conceded her fatalities were high, but that was because her clients insisted on traveling to the more dangerous unexplored tombs.
Roderrin ordered a glass of strong rotgut, confusion playing at his mind. There would be no sweet solace with Naraseena tonight. He had questioned her professionalism; she might abandon him for another hungry merchant with a convenient means of transport. He was as good as gone, both from her life and from her bed.
As he brooded with his head in his arms he saw her enter the inn. She had with her yet another new client, a young woman with distinctly pointed ears... elven ears, in the language of some races. They sat together at one of the tables and began to talk. The elven adventurer leaned forward eagerly, absorbing what Naraseena was saying; Naraseena in turn brought out a kidskin map and unfolded it, pointing. Coins glinted from the elve's drawstring purse as a deal was struck. Naraseena placed her hand over the elf's, her eyes shining, and brushed the elf's fair white hair back from her face.
Roderrin watched them like a jealous he-cat, only his eyes visible above the sleeve of his tunic. He'd long known Naraseena used her physical charms to call attention to herself, and her services... many times her tightly bound, bouncing breasts, so near yet so far, had sent him into paroxysms of agony as she displayed them for another. He was not a possessive man, he and she had never demanded exclusivity of each other... yet she had never dared proposition clients like this, when she knew he was watching.
Roderrin dropped his head. He was drunk, and jealous; it was probably nothing. He left the next day feeling sorry for himself, sorry he'd accused Naraseena, to keep his end of the bargain in Alumannes.
He returned ten days later, richer as always. The gossip at the inn (which he now paid mind to listen to) was that Naraseena had led three parties in the time he'd been away, two of which had been successful, the other not. The fatality was the elven woman. "She fell into a trap," the innkeeper said, shaking his head. "A pit opened beneath her. She was gone before Naraseena could save her."
"Oh," Roderrin said. He returned to Naraseena's cottage.
She greeted him with a kiss as if nothing was wrong; indeed, she'd forgotten their argument had ever taken place at all. "Look at what I have for you!" she said, sweeping her hand at the booty. "There's another statue too, an amazing find, really..."
He took her to the tomb. It was a cone-shaped marble structure, suspiciously empty as all her favorite tombs were; again, there was the lifelike statue in the center of the floor, a slim young female with her legs braced apart, her arms up as if to fend off an impending doom. Her mouth was open in alarm, her long hair whipped back to reveal one of her ears.
"You are right," he said. "She is a find."
Naraseena grinned at him and went to prepare the winches.
Roderrin studied the statue's face. It looked familiar... where could he have seen her before? He inspected the features more closely, noticing that the carving of the exposed ear was subpar, not up to the standard of the rest of the work. A series of tiny chisel marks was visible around its edge.... as if something had been carved off, and recently. The marks were fresh.
Then it came to him. The elven girl! The client he had seen Naraseena entertaining in the inn. She was here, standing before him, an alabaster statue with a scream frozen on her pretty face, her most distinctive identifying mark removed.
Naraseena had done this. And all those other statues, the ones so odd in their minutely detailed bodies, had been her clients also... clients lost on one pretext or other, and become her booty. Booty he'd sold in the marketplaces of Alumannes.
He felt nauseous, but said nothing, hoisting the statue into his air car and covering it with canvas. He might have words with Naraseena later, or not. But first he had to find proof.
He took the goods to Alumannes as normal. This time, instead of selling the statue, he showed it to a wizard of his acquaintance.
Erist was a very old fellow, and not a good wizard, but he knew enough to tell an enchantment from a cantrip, and a victim of magical foul play from one deceased by normal means. He stared at the naked elf long and hard, examining her stony flesh with callused, spell-worn hands. "Live stone," was all he said. "Looks like she was transformed, and not four days ago... where did you get this? Was she some gorgon's victim?"
"No," Roderrin said. "She was transformed some other way, a magical device, perhaps."
Erist frowned, his eyes traveling over the statue again. "It does seem to have that signature... if true, only the same device could untransform her. Or a spell from a wizard mightier than I."
"Can you keep her until you meet such a person? " Roderrin said, feeling partially responsible for the elf's fate.
Erist nodded, reassuring him he would take good care of her. Roderrin returned to Voorloren. He had the premonition it would be for the last time.
He was five days early for his meeting with Naraseena; the perfect time to spy on her unawares. He disguised himself and snuck off through the streets, coming at last to her hut. He peered in through the shutters. He was surprised to see three burly men sitting before the fire drinking beer in a familiar way. They were armored, their weapons piled in a corner. Barbarians from Fangaurd, he guessed, and brothers by their likeness and the casual way they joked. Too casual... he recalled their banter from the times he'd spent in whorehouses with others of their ilk, all of them waiting for service from the madam.
A horrible feeling crept over him. He crept around the corner to peek in the next window. There, pumping away on the bed, was the fourth member of the barbarian party, his pelvis wedged between Naraseena's ecstatic thighs. Glorious cries warbled from her throat as she clutched his back, which bore love-marks from her fingernails. The condition of the bed indicated she had performed a similar sex act at least twice before this one.
So that was how she gained the trust of her clients... and how she lured them to the trap that turned to them stone. And how, most likely, she'd gotten them to disrobe for it.
His heart felt sick. He and she had never talked of undying love, but when betrayal happens, it hurts, especially at that magnitude. Four straw-haired, dirty-nailed barbarians, four!
He returned to the inn, asking questions.
The next morning he followed the party as they went out, his air car riding low to the dunes at a safe distance. Fortunately by then it was colored the same reddish-orange color as the dust. He wasn't too surprised to see Naraseena head for a tomb complex they'd visited before; she'd found many of her finest statues there. Or claimed to have found them...
He trailed the party as they entered, keeping many paces behind. Stealth was second nature to him from his long years of extramarital affairs. Nether she, nor anyone else in her absurdly armored party, suspected. He heard their footsteps echo through the halls, her voice ring dramatically as she warned them of the deadly and elaborate traps. She made them press themselves against the sides of the galleries, keep to the middle of floors, count every third tile they passed. Roderrin walked freely. He knew no such traps existed.
Finally she had them split up, giving dire warnings of giant scorpions and the like. Each went down a separate hall, as did she. Roderrin followed her until she came to a small skylit chamber. She glanced around, then took a small object like a crystalline pine cone from the pouch at her belt. It was a container of some sort. Businesslike, she sprinkled its contents in a ring on the floor, enclosing an area some three paces round. The powder glittered like diamonds as it descended, blending into the tiles so it was scarcely visible.
Roderrin knew little of magic, but if Naraseena was setting an enchanted trap the tombs were most likely the source of it. It must have been the find of a lifetime to stumble across the small scrap of sorcery she had... a vial of dust that turned its victims to stone. Who had made it, and for what, he couldn't begin to guess. But she had found it, and figured out its use, and put it to work... creating life-sized works of art that her clients were never interested in, but she, with a partner's vehicle and connections, was. It had been the perfect operation. And her perfect doom.
When the circle was complete she nodded, mentally fixing its position to herself, and went off to fetch the first of her victims.
Carefully Roderrin approached the ring of pale dust. He put on his gloves. Holding his breath, he scooped it up into his palm. When he remained mobile, his flesh its normal tan color, he stood. Closing his fist, he followed the route Naraseena had taken.
He found her as she marched grimly marched from room, seeking a victim, or victims, for the noose she had set. She was dangerous, he knew. She always carried knives, often involving them in love-play in bed; if startled, she could react badly. But he had the upper hand. "Naraseena!" he called.
She whirled at sound of his voice, spooked; then registered his presence at the far side of the hall. "Roderrin?" She was alarmed, but suspected nothing. She even seemed relieved a little. "What are you..."
"No time," he said, shaking his head. "I came here to warn you. We must leave here... immediately."
As he hoped she glanced worriedly behind her, and followed. She did not know what he knew, only her own guilty complicity; he kept far ahead of her, so she wouldn't ask questions. "Run! Hurry!" he called. She chased him through chamber after chamber, retreating further and further into the maze... very far from the cleanly picked halls she'd abandoned her clients in. This was true explorer's territory, cobwebbed, collapsed, not the pretty stage she'd chosen for her tricks. The columns arched like snakes, the niches yodeled; the painted figures on the walls danced in the torchlight, their hands and feet whirling. Down steps and through funerary galleries they went, violating the dust of ages, which rose around them stinking of decay. Skulls and bone made an appearance, the slightest touch or kick dissolving them to powder. Impotent ghosts pressed forth from their crypts, mewling at the violation, but Roderrin ran on, coming at last to the final tomb, a square abandoned crypt with a frieze of fossilized dancing girls on the wall.
He let her catch up to him. Angry, she caught him by the shoulder. "What the hell are you..."
"This, Naraseena!" He opened the palm of his gloved hand and blew the dust in her face.
She shrieked as she registered her plot had gone terribly wrong, and tumbled backward into the wall. To his amazement the sandstone parted like liquid to receive her, the pool vertical rather horizontal. She opened her mouth to shout for help, but liquid rock poured inside, gagging her. Indeed, the whole wall was alive, a pulsing, viscous thing that tendriled around her, flowing like thick mud over her body and limbs; with horror he saw it suck her in completely. She bobbed under the surface of the wall for a second, then clawed her way back to the air, now coated completely in the liquid rock. Her motions slowed as her prison hardened. Her blind eyes turned toward him, mouth opening as if to plead for rescue.
The rock seized up with a final shudder, sealing her half in, half-out of the sandstone wall.
The chamber was silent. The dancing girls had a new addition to their ranks, a wailing figure in discordantly modern dress, limbs akimbo as if trying to escape.
Roderrin shone his torch away, leaving his lover, and the frieze, to the greedy darkness of the tomb.
He returned to the upper levels. The barbarian brothers, alarmed by the abandonment, demanded explanations. He didn't tell them how narrowly they'd escaped being statuary. He said only that Naraseena had run into an emergency and sent him to give them a lift back to town. No gratitude came from their ranks, but then, he hadn't expected any.
So ended the career of Naraseena the Tomb Baiter. Roderrin thought about leaving her there, to decorate, with irony, the place where she had ensnared so many others; there she would wait until the sun of her world went out for good, plunging both the tomb and the planet into irrecoverable darkness. But that was too poetic a fate, and a waste of a fine sculpture. So he chipped out her section of wall one night and took her back with him to Alumannes, where he had a long and successful career. But he never sold her. She decorated his living room for many years, and later, mine. I wonder if she is still there, in the palace where I spent my youth. A most fitting decoration for a young man of my interests, when I was still innocent, and free...
* * *
The basilisk let out a sigh like steam from a kettle, coiling about her loosely as if seeking solace.
*What is that matter?* Aurena asked. She spoke not out of compassion but fear; fear that the creature would, in its melancholy, decide its games were no longer enjoyable, and break her to pieces the same way it had broken the other statues. *
*It's nothing,* the creature replied. *I feel old, is all. My friend is long dead. So is everyone I knew.* It sighed again. *Only I am still alive.*
Aurena didn't want to encourage the creature's depression, yet she had to keep it talking, and interested in her, if she hoped to escape. *How old are you?*
*I am...* the basilisk began, then halted, its tail swishing in an irritated way. *Very old. Do you know the valley where I dwell was in the mountains once? Over millennia, the river wore it away. As I slept here, tired of the tedium of previous life. There is only so much killing a basilisk can do.*
Aurena didn't know what to say to that. To agree might provoke it, to deny it, anger. *Perhaps I can cheer you,* she said, a stab in the dark.
The creature opened one of its enormous yellow eyes; she saw her stony face reflected in its surface. The pupil contracted to a slit. *How can you do that?* it said in a sarcastic way. *Turn yourself back to flesh, so I can enjoy petrifying you again?* It seemed to have forgotten about its goal of tormenting her with its stories.
*You are not the only one who knows stories,* she said. *I know some myself.*
*Really,* the basilisk aid, half mocking, half interested. *Are they in theme with my interests?*
*One is,* Aurena ventured, thinking back to the tales of her youth. *Would you like to hear it?*
*Yes,* the creature hissed. Its tongue flicked over her lips. *But if
I don't find it amusing, my sweet Aurena, your head will soon be separate
from your body, and batted across the floor by my tail.*
To be continued...
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