The Necrolatry of Psorg-Kašger

Simon Whitechapel

In a sense, it is fortunate that the story I must now relate should be so largely a thing of undetermined shadows, of half-shaped hints and forbidden inferences.

     Clark Ashton Smith, "The Nameless Offspring" (1932).

Two black sarcophagi were trafficked south one spring to the bazaar of Švuk-Pnaor, reft from some fresh-discovered tomb of the wastes, and were purchased for his experiments by the alchemist Dyokna-Wemk, who supposed before he opened them that they comprised parent-and-child or guardian-and-ward, for they differed only in size (albeit greatly) and in the silver cartouches affixed to their gleaming black enamel, the larger being nominated Kšekr-Adivd and the smaller Tsarel-Adivd. Though the shared half of the names seemed support of his hypothesis, it proved false: the lids of both cases, chiseled loose, swung back each to disclose an adult, but the squat and pyknic mummy of Tsarel-Adivd had been almost short enough, in life, for a dwarf of the royal jesters, and the lean and stringy mummy of Kšekr-Adivd almost tall enough for an officer of the royal shoulder-guard.

Or so men of the city watch read in the final and incomplete notebook of Dyokna-Wemk, wherein he had recorded the mummies' data on the day of their purchase and unlidding. The alchemist had disappeared shortly thereafter and the mummies with him, and his anxious creditors, hitherto paid always in full and aforetime, had reported the matter to the civil authorities. But no trace of the alchemist was uncovered and, never a prominent figure among the many thaumaturges and famuli of Švuk-Pnaor, he had been almost forgotten by the time a soi-disant heir came forward in the late summer of the following year. This worthy, accompanied by a servant little taller than a child, visited the chambers of the city's archiscribe, wherein he produced a scroll granting him ownership of the home and goods of his uncle (for so he named Dyokna-Wemk).

"A year since," he said to a deputy in a voice scarce louder than a whisper, but reaching the ears of the archiscribe's quill-wielding minions with a dry and spidery insistence, "my uncle wrote to me in my house upon the coast, informing me that he meant to travel east in search of certain alchemical formulæ, whose nature he vouchsafed not, knowing, as he did, that I am no student of these matters.

"Yet he foretold the dangers of his search and enclosed the scroll ye have there, wherewith I was to claim his home and goods should he return not therefrom within a year. He hath returned not within the year and so I have traveled from the coast to claim that wherewith he endowed me. Compare, I pray, the signature and seal with those of his permit of residence and other sundries in your scrollery and ye will see that both are authentic. But to oil and expedite the workings of your bureaucracy" - hereat he signaled to his servant, who trotted forward fumbling beneath his robes - "I surpass the customary fee."

And the alleged heir, having received it from the hand of his servant, placed a soft-chinking bag of black leather on the table of the deputy, who nodded acknowledgment and promised to see to the matter forthwith. Nor, when he had had man-and-servant shown out and had inspected the bag, did he fail to match his word, for the silver coins he had shaken forth, though of oddly archaic mode and superscription for all their fresh-minted appearance, were of unmistakable quality and value. Wherefor, though he had been disposed to prejudice by the duskiness of the skin he had glimpsed beneath the claimant's hood and by the wafting of dry alien spices from his robes, he despatched no fewer than six underlings into the scrollery to retrieve comparators for the testament left with him by the heir (whom he already mentally disencumbered of dubitative epithets). On the following day the claimant again visited the chambers of the archiscribe with his servant, to be greeted by no less than the chief deputy and informed that his claim was well in train. Knowing that it had already been settled in his favor, he natheless nodded and left a second bag of silver coins, returning again next day to leave a third bag, leavened this time with gold.

On his fourth visit he received the news that his claim had been successful and that he might enter into possession of his uncle's home and property so soon as he wished. The near-unprecedented speed with which the archiscribal mill had turned for this outlander, grinding his corn to a finest flour, excited whispers that were running still when the heir, Psorg-Kašger by name, ended what he seemed to regard as a mensual probation in the city and began to weave his own threads into the web of its affairs. His uncle's house, stripped of its alchemic impedimenta and library and re-decorated after the latest and most costly fashions, was thrown open to the haut monde of Švuk-Pnaor, who crowded to its doors like wasps to a crushed pomegranate, taking their lead from the Lords Ukreu and Avikka, then reigning arbitri elegantiarum.

Yet it was apparent to some that Ukreu and Avikka, for all their assiduity of attendance at Psorg-Kašger's soirées and feasts, wore only the masks of plaisance and hilarity thereat, as though neither attended by choice or liking for their host. And indeed, when Psorg-Kašger was well-stablished in his own right among the great of Švuk-Pnaor, neither was seen again beneath his roof, wherefor both lost their own position, being said to have provoked the displeasure of the new-comer. For by then the displeasure of Psorg-Kašger was little less puissant in Švuk-Pnaor than an anathema of one of her second-ranking sects, nor did its puissance wane with coming months. The whispers that had surrounded his initial habitation ran and ramified, telling now of how he maintained a corps of paid informants throughout the city, draining scandal and gossip into his tanks from the households of all his most important guests and not a few of the middle and lower ranks.

Falls from grace, exiles, and suicides were attributed more and more frequently, and with more and more plausibility, to distillations from his tanks, let fall into this, that, or another pool of one marked down for destruction; and invitations to his house became more eagerly pursued than ever, for all had come to fear his enmity and most to seek his favor. Thereby his influence ran deeper and wider still through Švuk-Pnaor, till a counter-active conspiracy sought to desiccate it at source. Švuk-Pnaor had long been famed for the skill and subtlety of her poisoners, of whom Psorg-Kašger was perhaps the latest and even greatest, though he struck down his victims with poisons of the pen and tongue, not those of the garden and jungle such as the conspirators sought to turn against him. But they were baffled in their initial attempts by their target's personal frugality and abstemiousness.

For, freely as wine washed and trolleys trundled at his feasts, he himself had never been seen to take more than a shallowest sip or scantiest nibble from the sweetest goblet or most flavorsome dish, nor did he seem to repent of his missed opportunities in his private hours. His cooks and vintners, for all their skill and experience, were unemployed on his own account, and it was concluded that, knowing Švuk-Pnaor's reputation of old, he had made close-veiled and impenetrable arrangements for the aliment of himself and his mute but dedicated servant. Herewith the conspirators set in train a plot of ambush, whereby Psorg-Kašger's routes were mapped and a site selected whereat he could be showered with darts steeped in the deadliest and most swift-acting of poisons.

The ambush was an entire success, save, alas, in its intended fruits: Psorg-Kašger, traveling in a black palankeen, was tipped forth with his servant by collision with a carefully-trained horse, and the two were duly showered in darts by assassins crouched on overlooking roofs, till each was porpentined with sufficient to slay a hippogriff (proverbially tenacious of life in the tongue of Švuk-Pnaor). And indeed, each was seen to stagger as he was helped back into the righted palankeen by its bearers, before these latter rushed their master and compeer off for entirely futile medicament. Or so the assassins and the hiring conspirators thought it, till the word fell upon their stunned ears at even that the black palankeen of Psorg-Kašger had been seen returning to his house and disgorging master-and-servant alive and upright in its courtyard.

On receipt of this news the conspirators speedily made arrangements for flight, driven thereto by the uncanniness of the survival and certainty of a response, but before dawn all were in custody of the royal guard, arrested à la maison in the midst of their preparations for flight or in disguise at the city-gates as they sought egress. Psorg-Kašger had, it was now mooted, traveled direct from his physician's to the palace, where he had requested and obtained an audience of the king whereat he produced a handful of the darts discharged against him and begged the king's aid in worming out and caging the offenders. Whether his espionnage had granted him some secret du roi, of which he dropped an innuendo at the audience, or the king was persuaded by his husky eloquence alone, the aid was readily granted and the conspirators soon in custody.

Their execution at the end of the week, with six or seven innocent nobles who by clumsy inadvertence or cunning design had been swept up with them in the net, capped Psorg-Kašger's climb to pre-eminence in Švuk-Pnaor; and thereafter he dropped all concealment of his machinations, letting the extent of his files and ubiquity of his informants become known and striking ever more viciously at any suspected of harboring him ill-will. Nor, riding high in the king's favor, did he dissimulate any longer the cult he followed; and the shrine beneath his uncle's house was thrown open to his guests and sycophants. Had its rites and liturgies become known earlier in Psorg-Kašger's habitation of Švuk-Pnaor, they had no doubt crushed all hope of his advance therein, for they comprehended a foulness and abnormality alien to even the most declivitous of Švuk-Pnaor's natal sects, and unmatched even in sects imported from the south and east.

For Psorg-Kašger worshiped not merely Death, as many sober and respectable theologies prescribed, but Decay and Decomposition, and the hebdomadal sacrifices on his altar would lie there the full succeeding week, brought to swift-reeking putrefaction by a permanent fire in the altar's interior. Wherefrom his shrine droned more loudly than any: not with the prayers of shaven-polled priests, rather with the flies flocking to the ripe pungence of its offerings, which (namely the flies) Psorg-Kašger suffered none to molest on pain of his most immediate and severe displeasure. Nor did he fail to ask the king's permission to build and staff new shrines in the city, whose business he oversaw with undiminishing regularity and care. The pale and tattered robes of his priests, tinged red and purple as with incipient decay, became a familiar sight in the city, and more and more he arrogated to himself the supervision of her morgues and funeraries, spending much time closeted alone, save for his his near-dwarvish servant, with fresh-arrived corpses, particularly of the prematurely fallen or slain.

It was noted with increasing horror, indeed, that the interest of Psorg-Kašger in a fresh-faced belle or beau among the living would oft be succeeded by the youngster's death by mysterious disease or secret violence, and that the youngster's grave would not lie inviolate a fortnight beyond interment. Nothing warm shared Psorg-Kašger's pallet, it had long been known, but what tales of foulness could that mute servant of his tell, were a tongue to be found and loosed in his head? The sepultural precautions of families mourning untimely loss became ever more elaborate, till brazen sarcophagi and triple-weighted gravestones were standard équipage for the juvenile defunct. Those few who dared to petition the king against the necrolater's crimes, voicing their suspicions to his chamberlains, set a horrid example to the city, for all were arrested and oublietted without delay under Psorg-Kašger's personal supervision.

Yet 'twas one whom he had raised to high office with himself, that physician to whom he had been carried on the day of the attempted assassination-by-dart, who unveiled his fatal secret to the most pertinacious and cunning of his enemies. The physician, Hisi-Mgoipho by name, was bracketed with the Lords Ukrea and Avikka vis-à-vis his sponsor, for he too, beneath a mask of pretended friendship, was said to be most reluctant of attendance at the necrolater's house. Nor were those who whispered the thing unprepared to hear that he had followed the final example of Ukrea or Avikka, committing felo de se like the one or fleeing into exile like the other. And aye, 'twas the example of Ukrea he followed, mixing and swallowing a heavy dose of aconite one night of high-winded summer. Yet as the poison mounted in his body, rising in slow but irresistible tide from his feet to the brain-lamp in the bowl of his skull, he repented of his decision to tell none of the impetus to his self-slaying. He called for quill and parchment and scribbled a note, begging an old but lately neglected friend of his to attend his death-couch ere the end.

The friend, Abiu-Iepvic by name and alumnus of the same school of medicine, was woken from sleep by the note, having struggled two vain and unresting days to rescue the latest of Psorg-Kašger's youthful favorites, but the words he read served more effectively than a douche of ice-water to strip the sleep-mists from his brain. One phrase thereof alone would have brought him hurrying to Hisi-Mgoipho's couch: "I must tell of Psorg-Kašger and his evil." And so Hisi-Mgoipho told when Abiu-Iepvic reached him, while the pulse of the wrist Abiu-Iepvic tested ever and again grew thinner and slower, dwindling to ultimate syncope. Hisi-Mgoipho spared himself not in the telling, describing the evil he had done in Švuk-Pnaor, the inheritances he had advanced, the abortions he had procured, the insanities he had falsely certified or genuinely induced.

"Yet one more evil than I came in time, O Abiu-Iepvic," he whispered into Abiu-Iepvic's positioned ear. "Yea, more evil than any warm-blooded habitant of the city: this man - ha! - of the coast, Psorg-Kašger. And gathering my misdeeds into his hands by his espionnage, he forged massy links of them and chained me to his purpose. Yet I sought a means to escape him, spying out his ways as he had spied out mine. But I could nowise penetrate his arrangements for food and water, which he must consume, so I thought, in strict seclusion and secrecy, and my receipts for poison were consulted only on his behalf, not in his despite.

"But if I could not destroy him by introducing to his body an element antagonistic to life, mayhap I could by depriving it of one thereto essential. Aye, I had learnt of his extreme horror of fire - remember it well, my friend, his horror of fire - and that because of it he sleeps in the house of Dyokna-Wemk - who was no uncle of his, nor ever could have been - in a chamber iron-walled and iron-doored. And so I thought to suffocate him as he slept in company with his near-dwarf, by bribing a servant of his to seal the air-holes and secure the door from without. And 'twas done, after a fashion, but not as I had schemed, for on the morning after the night of the designated assassination, the near-dwarf servant of Psorg-Kašger came to me and gestured his request for my attendance on his master. Thinking that Psorg-Kašger was dead and the near-dwarf survived the sleep-chamber only through his smallness of frame, I hastened to comply, but when I came to the house of Psorg-Kašger I found the chamber still sealed. And when 'twas unsealed, who should step forth but Psorg-Kašger?, unharmed by an airless night and begging me in a sardonic whisper to attend him who had passed that night with him.

"And entering the chamber I found the servant I had bribed stretched blue and dead on the floor. Aye, Psorg-Kašger had penetrated the plot, despite all our precautions, and on the designated night, as later I learnt, my co-conspirator was ordered into the iron sleep-chamber with him, while Psorg-Kašger's near-dwarf remained outside. And 'twas the near-dwarf who sealed the air-holes and secured the door from without. Yet that which had slain my co-conspirator had left Psorg-Kašger unscathed, and I shook with horror and dread as I straightened from his corpse, expecting to see the door slam as I turned to it, sealing me within to share his fate.

"But Psorg-Kašger suffered me to leave the chamber, judging that my thraldom was sealed by the prodigy of his survival and that I would seek no longer a means against his præternatural vitality. And he judged aright, for thenceforward I was the easiest of his tools in Švuk-Pnaor, as I had long been the most powerful, conniving with him again and again to bring down his foes. 'Twas to me he and his near-dwarf came after the attempted assassination-by-dart, having feigned the first symptoms of the poison, that by my pretended cure I might be a sharper and stronger tool yet in his hands.

"For I cured him not, O Abiu-Iepvic, I swear it, as I swear he passed that airless night with no slightest harm. Poison and deprivation of air have no power on his frame, and if he were sectioned by blades, pulverized by hammers, the fragments would re-unite and walk the face of earth as before. One natural weapon alone he fears, O Last Hope of the City, and that is fire, for fire alone hath the power to annul the magick whereby this monster defies the laws of time. Have you guessed his true nature and origin, hearing my words? Aye, but lean closer still, that I may confirm them and tell how the monster was loosed upon us by the impious arts of self-dooming Dyokna-Wemk."

And Abiu-Iepvic leant closer still, learning at last all that remained to be told of Psorg-Kašger, ere the poison mounted to the brain of Hisi-Mgoipho and his whispers were silenced for ever. Grim was the visage of Abiu-Iepvic when he left his once-friend's house, and grimmer still his thoughts, but grimmest of all seemed the future, for Hisi-Mgoipho was deep in the counsels of Psorg-Kašger and had adumbrated the necrolater's plans for bringing not merely the kingdom of Švuk-Pnaor but all circumjacent lands under his dominion for not merely decades, nor yet centuries, but incomputable millennia. He waited only a certain conjunction of planets in a constellation long-feared for its maleficence, whereby he could culminate a train of most puissant spells; and the conjunction was not more than a fortnight hence.

So what to do? The destruction of Psorg-Kašger was wished most fervently by many in Švuk-Pnaor, but they lay like dry reeds scattered on a pavement, useless in their disunity to bear an ax-head and strike a telling blow at their common foe. Psorg-Kašger had the king and army in his keeping, had informants in every great household and spies on every street, and would know within a day of any but the smallest conspiracy against him. And what but a grand conspiracy could hope to succeed? Hisi-Mgoipho had believed, indeed, that he had allowed the dart-assassination to proceed in secure foreknowledge of its failure, wishing to add a further strand to the web of fear by which he bound Švuk-Pnaor down. Yet did the web once snap in any strand, Abiu-Iepvic was sure it would snap in all by a general uprising against the necrolater and his priests. And again and again his mind returned to that emphasis of Hisi-Mgoipho on Psorg-Kašger's horror of fire - "for fire alone hath the power to annul the magick whereby this monster defies the laws of time".

His conspiracy, when he set it in train later that very night, knowing how narrow the days had shaved to the spells of conjunction, was small and close-lipped enough to evade the vigilance of Psorg-Kašger's agents, yet staffed by men more cunning even than they: the priests of Švuk-Pnaor's oldest sect, who had long sought the means to move against their rival and his blasphemies, but found none till Abiu-Iepvic came with news of that sole vulnerability. Spurred on by thoughts of how swiftly and cruelly Psorg-Kašger would move against them when once final power was his, they had arranged a second ambush within the week. Had its weapons been darts again or some other standard weapon, Psorg-Kašger's spies had certainly learnt of it, but their master had ordered no special watch kept over barrels of oil, lest his enemies be alerted to his pyrophobia and divine therein the key to his destruction.

Wherefor the palankeen-bearers of Psorg-Kašger trotted down the Street of Dove-Sellers, carrying the necrolater to inspect the district's fresh-stocked morgue, with no eye for the roofs beneath which they would pass, nor any thought thereof till the first barrels fell crashing about them. Shatter-staved on the flags, the barrels released their heavy loads of yellow oil in surging floods and the palankeen-bearers were sprawling and slipping on the instant, letting the palankeen fall to become the mark for further and unlidded barrels. Scarce five drops of the clepsydra had fallen since the ambush began, but its success was half-complete: Psorg-Kašger and his near-dwarf were floundering forth from the palankeen, drenched each in most flammable oil. And did the near-dwarf cry out as the ambushers hurled down bundles of blazing straw, abandoning his muteness in that last moment before destruction was upon him and his master?

Aye, mayhap, but as fire roared up about the pair, seizing on them greedily for the desiccated faggots they were, they abandoned not thoughts of escape, rather fleeing back along the street even as they blazed, as though to reach the house of Dyokna-Wemk, wherein, Abiu-Iepvic later speculated privatim, they sought the shelter in extremis of two sarcophagi of gleaming black enamel, one large, one small. The near-dwarf collapsed long ere he reached the certain house and putative sarcophagi, but Psorg-Kašger, with longer stride and greater will, mayhap, made and passed the threshold ere he collapsed, setting sufficient arrases and carpets aflame in his passage to ensure the destruction ad ejus memoriam of the house and many of its neighbors. And when the folk of Švuk-Pnaor came to pick over the ruins, red-handed and weary from the slaughter of his necrolatrous priests, no trace could be found either of the hierarch Psorg-Kašger or of the files wherefrom he had distilled his venoms and spun his webs.

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