Authors: Gary Gygax
“Look!” The servant’s tone was one of amazement, with a tinge of happiness.
Meleena turned toward the sound, and saw what had prompted it. There, a few feet away from her on the floor, in a tangled bundle of wrappings and a sigil-embroidered shawl, was a tiny baby. Its little arms were waving helplessly, and its legs were kicking as it let out a wail of distress. “This can’t be,” Meleena managed to say weakly. She had expected an infant to arrive, but not like this…
More than shock was affecting her now. Waves of sickness and excruciating pain were sweeping over her body. Nevertheless, she tried to reach the infant and see what was wrong. The instinctive desire was not strong enough, and blackness claimed her just after she got to her feet, before she could accomplish more than a single small step. She collapsed back across her bed.
The two black-clad watchers outside had heard a keening wind but noticed nothing else, for they were staying at a safe distance to avoid being detected. They were uneasy but remained still, eyes upon the house. Above the steeply angled rooftop of the building, however, another sentinel reacted quite differently. The slit pupils of the thing’s eyes widened as the roaring gust of air came sweeping toward it. Whatever the thing was, it gathered in upon itself, lambent eyes turning into mere slivers as the wind howled past and down. Then the thing expanded and followed. As the rush of wind shot off into the night, the fiery-eyed creature floated slowly down to where light glimmered from the cracks in the shutters covering a window.
“There, there, little one,” the servant girl crooned as she picked up and held the infant that had so suddenly appeared in her mistress’ bedchamber. “I am here to protect you. It’s all right now.”
A splintering crash brought another wail from the baby. The shutters of the high window broke inward as if struck by a giant hammer. The servant girl’s eyes grew round with terror, for in the gaping space where the shutters had been a moment before she saw a terrible visage, a thing barely discernible, with shadowy fangs and burning orbs that fixed her evilly. Without thinking, the thin girl dropped the infant on the bed so that it lay next to her unconscious mistress. Then the girl stood so that she was between the tiny baby and the awful thing at the window.
A fiendish laugh issued from the near-invisible monster that hovered there, a sound both mocking and anticipatory. It was followed by a hissing sound, a billowing, and then the thing was inside the chamber, slowly taking shape-bloated, reddish-black, ugly, with a mouth larger than the span of the thin girl’s shoulders. As the monstrosity formed, the girl shrank back but did not panic. Instead, she reached inside the neck of her smock and drew forth a silver object that hung from a leather thong. Without hesitation, she tugged, and a portion of the object came free. From the cylinder she had extracted, she shook out a spray of liquid. The stuff splattered over the creature with the huge mouth and the burning eyes, and wherever it touched the thing, flesh steamed and hissed and became insubstantial once again.
The thing voiced a nearly inaudible scream when the tiny shower hit it. Its evil eyes shut tight, and its great maw snapped open and shut convulsively as it shrieked its pain and agony. There was but a small amount of the liquid, though, just the single splattering. The monster recovered and reshaped itself once more. Now its eyes were more wicked than before, and it relished the way this confrontation would end.
Then, through the intervening space, the silver cylinder flew. The monster saw it and tried to avoid the missile. But, not fully corporeal yet, it was too slow. The silver tube struck the thing squarely in its leering face, and the malign visage contorted in agony at that blow. When it opened its eyes again, only the right one glowed with the evil fire of the nether planes; the left was a blank, black space.
The liquid and the cylinder were gone now. The thin girl stood unmoving. She had no more defenses against the creature. Strong, sinuous arms with taloned fingers reached out. Before she could move to avoid their grasp, or even utter a scream of fear, those fingers were upon her and tearing. A gout of red spurted forth, and the thin girl’s head sailed across the room while her lifeless body toppled to the floor in gory testimony to the rage of the. thing that she had dared to oppose. With fury and disdain, the creature picked up the body and flung it into a dark corner. Then, moving its talons greedily, the monstrous thing turned to where Meleena lay unconscious with the now-silent babe next to her. Despite the pain that continued to assail it, the creature gave voice to glee as its single remaining eye saw the pair. Its long arms stretched forth, ignoring the woman… intent on the child.
“Yeeeraagh!” The cry came from the thing, and it was very substantial this time, for the monster was fully formed now. The rusty-black body was being buffeted, the leathery folds of its gross, misshapen body were torn and rent, its bulk spun and wrenched by unknown forces it could not control or combat. The one-eyed thing tried to react, did its best to fight off the attack and reach the baby, for its ultimate duty was to rend the infant into shreds.
But a spinning circle of bodies kept the thing from its goal. Shapes that moved in blinding speed, forms that were blurred but held weapons that sliced and gashed the thing mercilessly, were always before it. It could not remain still, let alone advance upon its intended victim. The monstrous beast was spun and turned, driven backward, and all the while slashed and torn. In moments the battle, such as it was, was over. The nether-plane thing rotted and decomposed into a slime, which itself vaporized. One burning eyeball rolled, flickered, and went out. Where it had been there was a charred mark on the floor, nothing more.
The awful sounds of the struggle awakened many of the other residents of the area. But even before the first of the neighbors’ lamps were sputtering alight, the two dark-clad men were racing toward the house. They arrived at the door to Meleena’s dwelling, kicked it in, and entered with drawn swords.
“I don’t see no gods-blasted brat!”
“Ain’t even the bitch here,” his companion said, peering under the bed.
“Somebody was here, fer sure,” the other one remarked, noticing and pointing to a pool of blood on the floor.
“Only if they had wings, pal. No couple of wenches could get out that way with a squawling brat in tow.”
They looked blankly at each other. Then they heard sounds from below. “Looks like we’d better take off. We’re already In it deep… What in the hells are we going to report about this?”
“Bugger it! Let’s get moving. It ain’t our fault if the misbegotten daemon they sent screwed things up… or didn’t. All we were supposed to do is watch the entrance and kill ’em if they tried to get out that way.”
Still bantering back and forth, the two men slid over the window sill and away into the darkness. The climb down was easy for them, and the two were already away when the first head poked into the room to discover what the matter was all about. Save for the gory mark and the mutilated body of the girl that was discovered in a dark corner, the mystery had no clues, and those who were interested could only speculate about what had occurred.
The lightless temple, the place where vile and degenerate and wholly evil folk came to pay homage to Nerull, was still and dark that night. Since that condition was usual for the place, no passerby who dared to look would have noticed anything out of the ordinary. But no one passed by anyway-not after dark. This place was shunned by all who walked abroad after nightfall. Even the humans and humanoids who considered themselves among the “faithful” normally stayed well away after sundown, for they were afraid of being sacrificed to the evil deity they professed to venerate.
But every rule has an exception. Tonight there was a stream of traffic to and from the place. Rushlights flickered and cressets flamed deep within the cursed place. In the maze of passageways and rooms below the temple, there was certainly life and light.
Colvetis Pol eyed the two figures who stood before him. “That is the sum total of your report?” The maroon-robed cleric put the question forth as if he were disgusted at having to ask.
“Both apprentice and babe were blasted by the crazy old fart of a mage. Took care of our work, so to speak,” Alburt added with a conspiratorial wink. He didn’t fear this silly priest, and he was intent on letting Colvetis Pol know that.
“And you, Slono Spotless? Have you nothing to add?”
The smaller assassin wasn’t as cocky as his mate. After all, clerics were spell-weavers, too. They had unnatural powers, and their sort was never to be trusted-or taken lightly. Slono wrinkled his brow, thinking hard. “Nope,” he finally said. “Jus’ like Alby tol’ ya, we checked out everything real careful. Only took us a couple of minutes. Wanno was stone dead, that asshole apprentice of his gone to flinders, and the kid blasted too. We buggered outta there quick as ferrets and come right here to tell you.”
“And now we want our coin,” Alburt added to his comrade’s statement. “The job’s all done, and you owe us another fifty orbs.”
“Is that so…?” Colvetis Pol asked, allowing the query to trail off as if it weren’t really a question at all. “You saw the child blasted and came here right away to tell me, is that right?” The words were like little darts aimed at the two assassins.
“Well, we sort-”
“Shut yer yap, Spotty!” Alburt glared at the smaller man, then turned to face the priest with a belligerent expression plainly written on his flat, hard-lined face. “We did as we said, and that’s that. Both the mage and the kid are dead, as contracted for. Now hand over our gold, or else.”
The cleric’s robes rustled as he made a small gesture. An arras covering the far wall swayed, and several men emerged from the area that the hanging screened from view. Alburt and Slono Spotless were shaken at this, for among these arrivals was the master of their guild. “You heard their own words,” the great priest of Nerull said flatly. “Your servants are quite unreliable.”
The chief of all assassins in Greyhawk was pale. His pallor was partly due to rage, partly fear, and the combination was evident to any observer. “I heard, Lord Pol, and I will make amends.”
“Not to me,” the priest said with a sly smile.
The master of killers looked sideways at a cloaked figure beside him, involuntarily moving away from it as he did so. “No, Lord Pol…” he murmured.
Now Alburt was becoming more than uneasy. No longer belligerent, the big assassin was close to panic. “Wait! I was only covering for Spotty. It wuz him who futtered up things, and that’s so. The stupid little bastard blundered right into the geezer’s runes, and-”
“Rot yer tongue, you big bag o’ shit!” Slono was not going to go down without a fight. “You were the top dagger, Alby, an’ you tol’ me to go and orf the kid whilst you was checking things out. You took all the loot, too!” The last accusation was the most damning one the little assassin could think of.
A hollow, rasping voice came from the cloaked figure, cutting through the air inside the stone vault where the scene was transpiring. “How long was it after the infant vanished before you came back here?”
“Maybe a half hour,” Alburt stammered out, but almost at the same time Slono also spoke.
“About an hour or so,” the smaller man blurted.
The raspy voice sounded again. “Was it a half hour or more than that?”
“Longer… I guess,” the big assassin admitted, with a murderous look at Slono.
“So,” the strange voice choked out. The figure lurched suddenly, and then, without seeming to traverse the intervening distance, it was standing before the two assassins. Hands covered with rotting flesh shot out of enveloping sleeves and clamped firmly upon the two heads. Alburt was held by the forehead, Slono Spotless atop his pate. “For your actions I give you my special blessing,” the figure said. Then it seemed to convulse again and was suddenly standing back where it had been before. Both Alburt and Slono stood dumb. Then they began trembling as if with the ague.
“No… please…” Alburt whimpered. Then a fit of coughing wracked his big frame and he was unable to speak further.
“Had you reported at once, as you should have,” the sallow-skinned priest of evil said slowly, making certain each word got through to the two assassins, “none of this would have happened to you. I-we-could have known what device was used to remove the child from our ken, and the matter would be a simple one to correct.”
“Dispose of those two carefully, priest,” the hooded figure said in its sickness-tinged voice. “Their infestation is one which could be spread to many weakling humans.”
The maroon-gowned cleric shrugged in indifference. “What is a little disease to me? Still, there are some hereabouts who might be affected.” He stared at the slowly dying assassins thoughtfully for a moment and then said to them, “Remove yourselves to the tunnels and sewers below. You have but a little time left to live, and there is no sense in befouling this place.”
Alburt fell to the floor, blubbering and pleading for mercy. He knew that the priest could remove the plague that was slaying him as easily as the assassin himself could snuff out a life. Slono reacted in a different manner. Despite the terrible disease that was filling him with deadly weakness, the small murderer proved true to himself. Cursing all present, Slono managed to snatch out a handful of wickedly tipped darts and hurl them, broadcast, at those who were serving as the tribunal condemning him to death.
One struck the strange figure, the feathered butt of the dart alone visible, the remainder out of sight within the facial opening of the shadowing hood. The thing reached inside its hood, pulled out the missile, now lacking its metal point, and displayed the headless dart before the gaze of the dying Slono. “Fool! Poison is as honey to me,” the figure said with a laugh as it slowly chewed up the metal and swallowed it.
One struck the wall near the hooded creature and fell harmlessly to the floor. The thing bent down, picked up the dart by its tip, and with a deep chuckle casually flung it back the way it had come.
One sunk its length into the fleshy thigh of the wizard who served Nerull’s house in Greyhawk. That worthy shrieked in pain. “Neutralize this venom,” he called, seeing the reddish flush spreading from the puncture, “else I shall be felled and no use to you!”
One poisoned dart struck the arras and hung there.
One grazed the clean-shaven head of the priest,-leaving a bloody trail on Colvetis Pol’s shining, yellow-tinged scalp. “Be silent, Sigildark,” he called to the mage, “and I shall tend to you in due course.” Even as the priest spoke thus, he was preparing to treat the injury done to him by the missile. Above all, his own life was the most important concern.
One ricocheted off a stone pillar and buried its nose in a nearby chair.
And, scant seconds after he had initiated the attack, Slono Spotless became the only real victim of the outburst as the dart hurled by the otherworldly thing buried itself in the assassin’s chest. It was a cleaner death than that which he would have experienced soon anyway. In the end the small murderer proved to be a bigger and better man than his compatriot Alburt.
Within minutes Colvetis Pol treated the venom in his own system and that of the mage Sigildark so that its toxin was harmless. The corpse of Slono and the gibbering, near-corpse of Alburt were hauled off to a cistern and unceremoniously dumped therein, to be carried off into the labyrinthine system of ducts beneath the city. Rot and rats would soon leave nothing but bare bones. Of course their valuables were first removed. One of the guards found the chrysoberyl ring hidden in Slono’s boot. It was hidden in a hollow heel, so he didn’t see any reason to mention it to anyone.
“The guild will make amends for this, my lords,” promised the city’s chief assassin as his former minions were carted from the chamber.
“That I am certain of,” the priest replied dryly. “You will begin by sending two reliable men of utmost competence to this address late tonight,” he went on, handing the guildmaster a slip of parchment. “All they need do is watch a doorway for a woman coming out, with or without a babe. Both or either are to be slain should they emerge.”
“Consider it done, lord priest.”
“You may leave us now. See that your men go immediately to the place I have indicated.” When the man had departed, Colvetis Pol waved the guards out as well and spoke to the two who remained-the wizard Sigildark and the hooded thing from some other world than Oerth.
“Can we now be certain of success?” Pol asked.
The spell-binder took on a doubtful expression, cocked a thick eyebrow, and gave his head a small shake. The cloak-hidden figure spoke loudly in its hollow voice, however. “I will send one of my own trusted hounds to see that there are no further mistakes made. Mortals are bumbling and untrustworthy, while daemonkin are quite the opposite.”
At that the wizard seemed annoyed. “May I point out to you. Lord of the Pox, that it was I-a mere mortal-who discovered the whole web, who set his spies to work, and magically traced the skein of power which enabled the destination of the babe’s sending to be found!”
“We admire your work, Sigildark.” The voice of the priest was so sardonic that even the hooded creature from the nether planes gave voice to a ghastly chuckle. “The merit of your efforts is well known to Great Nerull… What more could you want?”
Sigildark, steeped in evil as he was, knew that the deity just named was but one of the avatars of the nether emperor, having a form somewhat less repugnant to humans than that of Infestix, for instance. “He knows, or will know, Pol, because you or Poxpanus there will so inform him. Honor to the Image, dedication to Tharizdun.”
Colvetis Pol made a hasty sign. “Be it graven.”
The daemon-thing too made a gesture of formal obeisance. “Each serves and will be measured by his Master,” he intoned In a dead voice. “But now let us deal with what matters remain.”
The priest nodded. “We need information, lord. We are reacting as you instruct, but we will prove more useful Instruments If we are told of things.”
“That is so,” the wizard agreed. “If you will share with us. Lord of All Pox, we can serve you, Nerull, and great Tharizdun better!”
“My liege has given me liberty In this matter, so I shall inform you as you request,” the nether-thing replied. “But for the sudden change of heart, the vile little sprat would be destroyed ere now. His own kith and kin it was who gave him and his parents over into our hands. Their reversal came too late to save the sire of the babe, and the dam too we found and expunged. They had not gone far from where they had left their cub for safekeeping, and our agents were hot on the trail. It was a petty dweomercraefter named Wanno who sought to confound the writ of Hades. You know him, Sigildark?”
“Yes. I knew him from our Society.” The mage said no more, for if anything, Wanno had been perhaps a more potent spell-worker than Sigildark himself.
“Please go on, lord,” Colvetis Pol urged.
“The sudden withdrawal of support from the cousins of the infant enabled his sire to elude our clutches for but a short time. It is passing odd, though,” and here the rotting, hollow voice and the bearing of the thing seemed all too human, “that no augury, no divination, not even of the lowest magnitude, could pierce the curtain which hedged the three.” The shadowed opening of the cowl swung to face the two, and priest and mage pulled back just a little. Yet the daemon spoke in a low, conspiratorial tone, imparting knowledge as if to equals. “Had we not been so close, all would have escaped. Much of the contest will be played out on the material plane, and some different, unknown force has aided those who oppose us…”
“I have detected nothing of the sort,” Sigildark stated flatly.
“Do be still,” Colvetis Pol admonished the spell-worker. “I have seen some slight change in certain castings,” the priest of evil said to Poxpanus. “When your hound has devoured the infant, will the interference dissipate? Or will it not?”
The daemon studied Pol. If ever was a mortal bound for lichdom, this one was. Ambitious, powerful, skilled, and dedicated to the malign might of Hades. Unlike the upstart Sigildark, a paltry factor, Pol had served on the highest councils of Nerull for decades. Poxpanus knew him to be two centuries old.
Although the man’s outward appearance had changed little in the last several decades, the daemon could see into the inner creature, and it knew that the spirit there glowed with unnatural light and black force. Pol drew upon the negative energies already, and soon enough the priest would pass from the status of a mortal human to that of an eternally undead lich-lord. All the better, for Colvetis Pol was a useful servant to Hades.
Poxpanus noted that the priest was studying him, even as he gazed upon the man. Pol had the power to see clearly in darkness, and no shadows or even dweomered darkness could prevent his vision from working. It made the daemon a little uneasy to realize that the assessment, the weighing, that was going on was mutual. “The interference will be weakened. That is certain. And what is weak can be made to disappear.”
“What if your hound should fail, lord?” The priest was not inclined to take Poxpanus at his word.
“That would be my failure, and such a condition is not possible,” the nether-thing said with hauteur.