Hralf and the Living Ziggurat of Doom

This tale of Hralf is rather different from the others, and comes with all due apologies to Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. Find the other tales of Hralf here.

Excerpts from Hralf and the Living Ziggurat of Doom, a Copperbook published by Copperbane Publishing, Old Peldentown, as preserved by the Interviewer. These excerpts are believed to be representative of the book as a whole, and indeed of the entire series. Readers should remember that the publisher bore a grudge against Hralf, and made every effort to represent him unfairly.

Hralf the Mighty looked back on the city of Caskendia from his perch on the crags, his upper lip curling with disdain. These effete city-dwellers scurried about like so many marekats in a burrow, their weak minds uncomprehending of the glory of honor retained, nor of the honor of glory acquired. They had no idea what it was to have a high and lonely destiny.

He would dally in such places, time and again, but their way of life was not for him, was not for any true Son of the Veldt. Marekats, the lot of them. But he, Hralf, he was a lion, and he would live and die as a lion.

He turned away from the city, his claws extending and retracting as he pondered his next steps. The toothsome barmaid at the Crag’s Foot Inn had related to him a traveler’s tale of a cyclopean temple in a swamp far to the west, all set about with mangroves and black water. None who had ventured within had ever returned—until now, he resolved.

Fame he would seek, aye, and renown, and greatly renowned he would be! Was he not the foremost warrior of this misbegotten age? He would do such deeds that all would look upon him and despair at their own incompetence and effeteness and lack of glory. He would seek adventures worthy of the Lords of the Rolling Veldt, and do himself all honor thereby.

The marekats could go on scurrying.

He set his face against the rising sun, and strode away. Clad he was, as always, in nought but a simple cloth about his loins, with a sack on his hip and his battle-axe on his back. Nothing more was required by a true Son of the Veldt, and nothing more was permitted by the Code of the Veldt. A lion stood on his own two feet and fought with his own hands, and disdained all belongings but what he could carry with him.

The mighty warrior stopped and sniffed the breeze. It was faint, but there it was, wafting to him from over the ridge: the scent of swordplay. The Hills of Harrowing were ill-famed throughout the land as the home of bandits and brigands. No doubt some lovely traveler had been caught on the road and was about to pay the last toll.

Hralf’s mane rose about his noble head, and he laughed. A mission had he, but he had time enough to put down any number of brigands—and reap any reward that chanced. He drew his battle axe from its sling on his back and hefted it in one massive paw. He smiled, and as the sun glinted from his fangs he leaped towards the ridge-line at a rate no merely human warrior could match.

Gaining the ridge, he cast his gaze down through the scattered pines at the altercation. The scene was easy enough to read for one of his skills: there a rich man’s coach stands stationary and askew on the dusty road. There the coachman lies sprawled across the box, dead with a crossbow bolt through one eye. There a bandit in greasy black leather holds the reins of the lead pair of matched grays. There by the coach two men in livery and armed with sword and shield square off against two bandits armed with poniards. The remainder of the gang gathers round them, laughing, shouting suggestions, and placing bets. There, among them, stands a giant of a man with long black mustachios. His arms are folded as he watches the fight with a critical eye.

And there, looking out of the carriage window, a damsel. Her hair is red; her gown is of the finest green velvet; her eyes are wide; and one hand is at her mouth as she contemplates her likely fate.

The great hero took all in this in with but a momentary glance, and leaped to judgment. Here, indeed, was one worth saving!

The Son of the Veldt glided down the slope like a hunter, moving silently with all the skill he had acquired in his lost youth.

As he neared he saw that the guards’ livery was stained with blood from many small cuts, and he scented on the air the bandits’ contempt and fiendish pleasure. The brigands were toying with the two men, and when they had tired of that game the men would die.

Hralf rose to his full nine feet, squared his brawny shoulders, and spoke. His voice was deep and loud, easily overcoming the jeers of the on-lookers and the clash of steel.

“I beg your pardon, ye gentlemen of the road, but I do not believe that I have made your acquaintance. I am Hralf, the Mighty.”

All eyes turned to him in shock, for they were so lost in their play that none had noted his approach. The lady’s eyes widened further, revealing themselves to be the blue of the sky at midday. He kissed his hand to her as hope suffused the faces of the two guards. The bandit chieftain eyed him consideringly and drew his sword, a wicked spike of honed steel.

Hralf the Mighty raised his battle axe, famed in song and story. Its was head no product of the smith’s craft, being a slab of sky-iron to which a crude edge had been given. Its shaft was larger around than a strong man’s wrist. Any of the men who lived in this land would struggle to wield it with both hands and all their strength, but the warrior of the veldt spun it lightly in one paw.

The bandits facing the two guards took their hopes and their lives with quick thrusts of their poniards, and turned to face him fully, holding their weapons before them.
Hralf laughed a massive bellow of a laugh. “I was about to inquire whether you would like to become part of my saga, but already I am answered.” Smelling their fear, for he towered over the greatest of them, even over their chieftain, he extended his claws.

“BONES BROKEN AND BLOODIED!” he roared, his deep voice shaking the carriage, and leaped.

Their weapons and their flimsy leather armor were of no avail, for his axe, an heirloom of his tribe, hewed them like saplings in the Forests of Lithmore. The chieftain saluted him with his last breath.

“Never before have I met such a one as you, who could best me in a fair fight,” he panted, grimacing in pain. “May my curse, the curse of Wrathgar the Black, follow you all the days of your life!”

Extending one claw like a stilleto, Hralf granted him the coup de grace. The man had fought well—as well as could be expected. To the curse he paid no mind. A lion was above such things, and a Son of the Veldt had no regard for them. The curse would just have to stand in line and take its chances.

He scented motion behind him. Rising from the chieftain’s corpse he turned and regarded the lady, who had dismounted from the carriage and was approaching him. He watched her with pleasure as she stepped nimbly among the dead, raising her skirts to keep them free of the blood of the slain. She was as lovely as he had hoped.

“My thanks, mighty one,” she said. “I am the Lady Matilda.” She gave him an appraising look up and down, and smiled broadly, showing him her even white teeth. There was a challenge to meet, by all the Gods of the Veldt! “I am most grateful for your timely aid. And who might you be? I would know the name of my savior, the better to show my gratitude.”

“Know, then, that I am Hralf the Mighty, the last of the Lords of the Rolling Veldt. I seek glory and fame wherever it may be found. Aye, and damsels fair.”

Lady Matilda curtsied, bowing her head on her slender neck.

“Have you the skill to drive a couch-and-four?” she asked. “Should you choose to bring me to my destination, I shall be more grateful still.”

Hralf studied her with a keen eye. There was a twinkle in her eye and promise in her scent.

“And where are you bound, so ill-escorted?”

“My country estate, Ravenwood. It lies but two days journey hence.” She indicated the direction with a nod of her head, her eyes never leaving Hralf’s.

Hralf nodded, his mane swaying about his head. “Very well,” he said, and turning to the horses he cut their reins and sent them scattering to the winds.

“But what are you doing?”

“A Son of the Veldt walks on his own two legs; he does not ride on any contrivance of men. And you will find that I can bear you thither in greater comfort without it.” And so saying, he opened his sack, and taking her gently by the waist he kissed her soundly and bundled her within.

The lady taken care of, the mighty one surveyed the scene with care, picking over the corpses and emptying their purses; for a lion must live! He did not neglect the interior of the coach, and tucked a selection of Lady Matilda’s belongings into the sack with her; and then he strode onwards toward his goal. It had been a pleasant interlude, but his fame awaited.

Sunset found the warrior on a bluff overlooking a black and dismal swamp. In the far distance he could espy a massive form, black and sloping, that rose above the twisted mangroves of the fen. The blood quickened in his veins, for now at last he saw his destination. He stood and pondered it for long moments, mentally tracing a path through the black waters.

In his youth he would have leaped over the cliff, cutting through the black water and swimming through the night, heedless of dangers—for truly there could be none in the swamp more dangerous than he. But this was a quest for honor, and as a Son of the Veldt he would seek honor by the light of the Burning Sun, shrouded though it might be by the mephitic vapors that rose from the stagnant pools.

Therefore, it was time to make camp. By the Code of the Veldt, a Son of the Veldt needs nothing but his arms, his loincloth, and his belt-sack; and it was to this latter that he now gave his attention. Reaching deep within he withdrew a tent, which he pitched; the makings of a fire, which he started, striking sparks from the flint with one steely claw; and the makings of dinner, which he suspended on a spit over the fire. The cave bear had been a worthy opponent, and now he would draw strength from its succulent flesh. Then he withdrew two stools, placing them side by side; and lastly, he plucked out the Lady Matilda and set her lightly on her feet.

“I trust that you found everything to your satisfaction?” he said, offering her a platter laden with slabs of bear meat, charred and bloody.

The Lady Matilda had let down her hair, and was now clad in a gown of delicate satin; she looked altogether beautiful as she perched delicately on the stool he indicated with a sweep of his paw.

“Yes, indeed I did,” she said. “So spacious, and so comfortable and so well equipped. Though I found it to be surprisingly luxurious for a warrior of your appearance.”

“It is not my taste that must be consulted,” said the warrior in turn, “for I do not frequent its confines myself. But my honor requires that none who visit my Harem of Holding have any grounds for complaint.”

“Assuredly I have none,” said the lady, and taking the flagon of wine he poured for her began to consume her meal most daintily.

“And what are your plans,” she asked at length, “for even in this darkness I can see that this is not the path to Ravenwood.”

Hralf waved a paw to the west.

“There below, though you cannot now see it, lies a marsh of great extent, a place of no doubt treacherous footing and vile and slimy beasts. Beyond that, surrounded by the bog, lies the many-stepped tomb of the wizard Thoth-Angarngi, where I shall seek glory and fame. There tomorrow we shall go.”

The Lady Matilda grew alarmed, her eyes narrowing and her mouth forming a thin line.

“Oh, but we mustn’t,” she cried. “For those are the Marshes of Mourning, a name of ill-repute through this land! The mud is bottomless, it is said, and through the ooze swim the Lurkers in the Depths, waiting to devour any who venture there. Please, bring me to Ravenwood instead, and all of my riches shall be open to you.” And she leaned towards him on her stool and put one delicate hand on his knee.

“You have eaten your fill?” asked the mighty one.

“Of food, yes,” she said, gazing up into his eyes.

“Very well,” he said. He rose and took her by the waist. He kissed her long and well; and tucked her once more within his belt-sack.

Venturing to the edge of the bluff he stood for a time, listening to the night sounds and smelling the air; and scenting no kind of threat in this lonesome spot he returned to the fireside. He quaffed the last of the wine and then, entered his solitary tent and composed himself to sleep, knowing that he would wake instantly should any danger approach.

Hralf poled the skiff with long strokes, speeding it across the thick and murky waters of the Marshes of Mourning. Effortlessly he followed the path from open water to open water that he had marked from atop the bluff. Not for him the parchment maps of men and elves, so meaningless in the trackless grasslands of the Veldt. A true hunter knew his quarry and his path, and followed inexorably however that path might twist and turn, and however fruitlessly the quarry might seek to evade him.
He chuckled deep in his throat. He did not think that today’s quarry would be able to run far.

The pole was specially made, wrought with a broad disk of bent wood and hide at its base to push firmly against the oozing mud, yet pierced so as to move freely through the water. By its aid he had come far since embarking in the morning—as had one other. He had scented it trailing him, the hunter hunted, even through the dark waters that separated them. He had noted the bubbles, the upwelling of water, the sudden stillness that came upon the marsh in its wake.

So far he had succeeded in staying well ahead of it; but who knew what threats might lurk ahead as he drew closer to the Tomb of Thoth-Angarngi and its unknown dangers? Well he had learned at his mother’s knee to defeat his enemies in detail, and to never leave a deadly enemy behind him.

The skiff glided into a wide spread of open water, the mangroves black and twisted on their stilted roots on all sides. Hralf nodded. This would do.

He pulled the pole from the water, swirling it to remove the mud and filth, and wiped it clean and dry with a fresh rag before tucking it back into his sack. Turning stern-wards he observed the ripples on the surface of the water, ripples that showed the progress of something massive below. He smiled in satisfaction: it was time to prepare for battle.

He cracked his knuckles. He slid his battle axe from its sling and put it in his sack, pulling out instead a knife as long as a tall man’s arm.

“BONES BROKEN AND BLOODIED!” he cried, and placing the knife blade between his teeth dove mane-first into the water.

A high-pitched hooting assailed his ears as the watery ooze closed in: the fiendish sound of his enemy’s anticipation and delight at his coming. His eyes clenched tightly shut, his exquisite sense of smell useless, the warrior perforce relied on his hearing to guide him toward the vast bulk of the Lurker in the Depths. The thick water pushed at him at the thing’s approach, but he swam ever on toward the insistent hooting. The pulses of sound struck his body like flung mudpies.

The Lurker lunged forward, and Hralf heard the creak of its mighty jaws as they extended and then closed about him. Drawing in his arms and legs he turned in place, lithe as a fish despite the thickness of the ooze, and planted his hands and feet just inside the rows of razor sharp teeth above and below him.

The jaws struggled to close, inch by inch; the muscles of its mouth and throat struggled to suck him down into its gullet; but he dug all eighteen of his needle-sharp claws into its gums, and as the beast recoiled he extended his limbs, pushing those jaws open further and further until with a great crack the jaw bones snapped out of their sockets.

The Lurker thrashed, throwing Hralf this way and that, but he held on, anchored by his claws sunk into the creature’s fetid flesh, his heart pounding, his lungs aching with the need to take a breath. Still he held on, until, finding his moment at last, he seized the knife in one massive hand and drove it with all his mighty strength through the roof of the thing’s mouth and into its fevered brain.

The thing spasmed around him, spewing him forth in a gush of ooze, and then went still. He abandoned the knife in its brain case and swam away from the cooling body with wide strokes of his arms and legs.

His mane broke the surface with a splash, and he took in a mighty gust of air. He trod water there until his heart had calmed, and then, clambering into the skiff, he retrieved his battle axe and his pole and sped on his way, still dripping with water and mud. Scavengers would be coming; it wouldn’t do to remain.

This was the first of the challenges he would face on his path to the Tomb; it would not be the last. He pondered for a moment, then patted the sack on his hip. He should have all the knives he would need.

The Tomb of Thoth-Angarngi lay before him, giant-step by giant-step of cyclopean black stone rising up into a ziggurat that squatted ominously on the surface of the marsh like a monstrous toad on a lily pad in the lake of Quan Bi. The mangroves that teemed elsewhere approached the tomb no nearer than a weak city-dweller might throw a stone, but the tomb itself was overgrown with vines and a shaggy gray-green moss.

Hralf guided the skiff up to the stone apron that lay before it, and stepped lightly ashore in the red light of late afternoon.

It was time to make camp. He would be safe enough here, for he had left a trail of death and terror behind him. If any Lurkers remained they were huddled in the depths of the ooze, quaking at the memory of his scent in the black water.

Still, one must maintain standards. Extending his claws he tore the encumbering moss from a wide area of stone, tossing the remains into the swamp, and then washed down the stone with fresh water from his sack. He then similarly cleansed the skiff and marsh-pole, wiping away the excess water with clean rags. A Son of the Veldt took good care of his weapons; that was the Code, and here in the Marshes of Mourning the skiff and pole were better weapons than any other—and besides, he preferred to keep the interior of his sack neat and tidy. Once they were fully dry he stowed them away. He would need them for his return, and he would not chance losing them to some passing creature or unseasonal storm, for what truly was unseasonal in so ill-omened a place as this?

Then he pitched his tent and made his fire; and in the fire’s glow he cleansed himself with pure water and brushed out of his fur and mane the last evidence of the day’s battles.

Clean and dry, he withdrew a baby roc from the sack. Wringing its neck he plucked it and set it to roast over the fire, basting it with fresh butter and the herbs of the Veldt. He broached a cask of fine wine, and filled a flagon for himself. At last he settled onto his stool, and having eaten and drunk his fill reached once more into the sack—but Lady Matilda had gone.

He nodded, unsurprised. He had been assured that none could escape his Harem of Holding without his aid, nor had any of his guests ever done so…not that he had given any of them reason to try. There were too many antelope on the veldt to hold one who was unwilling.

Yet Matilda had gone, as he had expected. He had noted, if the bandits had not, the fate of the lady’s two guards. On being struck down they had collapsed in unkempt heaps; and by the end of the battle little remained of them but bones and bloody cloth and corruption. They had been uncanny.

So was the Lady, or his nose was no judge, for the scent of sorcery rose all about her. Wizards were not to be trusted, no matter how lovely. Still, he had brought her with him. Hadn’t his mother taught him to keep his friends close, but his enemies closer?
He had no friends but those of the moment; no enemies that he would not bring ever closer to death.

Perhaps he would see the sorceress again; perhaps he would not. It was all one, though he would have liked to review the events of the day to a respectful and attractive audience.

He put her to the back of his mind and settled down for the evening, sipping his wine and pondering the next step of his hunt.

In the morning the warrior rose, and scented the air; and scenting nothing but scavengers feasting in the distance, as well they might, he struck camp and began to look for a way into the tomb. An hour’s search revealed no entrance at ground level; tear though he might at moss and vines he found nothing but impenetrable black stone carved into disquieting patterns. And so he began to climb, necessarily using the vines as his stair for the cyclopean blocks rose more than an arm’s length over his head.

On the second level he found a ramp, much overgrown yet still passable to one of his strength, and following it strode carefully through the dank vegetation. Each step raised a cloud of spores and the stench of corruption.

The path wound around and around the structure, leading ever upward, ramp to ledge to ramp, past row after row of the same black stones, their blasphemous carvings blessedly shrouded from view, until at last he came to the summit, where he found a plateau, broad and deep.

The plateau, or platform, had been scraped free of vegetation as by some mighty hand. In its center, invisible from below, sat a smaller structure. Massive stones rose from its roof like teeth, and its portal was blocked by a monstrous disk of stone, chocked on either side by smaller stones.

Hralf circled the platform, giving the structure a wide berth, and verified that none but he walked there. He was alone, and what he sought lay within.
Removing the stones that held the stone disk in place, he placed one shoulder against it and began to push.

None but a Son of the Veldt could have moved it singlehanded, and but few of those. But Hralf, last of his tribe, was mighty among his ancestors, and his strength was enough—just. Bones creaking, legs straining, heart pounding louder than it had even during his battles with the Lurkers, he heaved—and the disk moved, mere inches at first, and then feet, until at last the portal lay open.

“I shan’t be needing this again,” said Hralf to himself, and continuing to push, more easily now, he sent the disk rolling across the platform. It hung for a long moment at the brink; and then went crashing down the levels, rending the overgrowth, until it sank into the bog with a splash and a gloop.

Returning to the portal he peered within. The passage split around an upright stone that blocked his view; but from around the stone came the flickering light of torches.

Hralf shook his head, for the torchlight could mean naught but ill. No torch lit by human hand should be burning in this remote and inhospitable place. Only a seeker after fame would come here, one such as himself—or perhaps one who had never left. It was never wise to underestimate the power of wizards, no matter how easily their skulls might split at a single blow of his axe.

He withdrew a small mirror of polished silver from his sack, and standing by the edge of the upright stone used it to peer at the interior.

There was a small stone sarcophagus, perhaps two feet in length, on a platform in the middle of the room. Its rich carvings seeming to move in the wavering light of the torches. Behind that he saw a raised throne, and on the throne…a face he knew well. The stench of wizardry and rot wafted out around the stone, filling his head with dread.

“Come in, dear Hralf,” came Matilda’s voice. “Don’t skulk outside like a common thief. Having disdained the hospitality of my home of Ravenwood, you shall now suffer the hospitality of my tomb.”

And with that a force with a grip like a vise seized him and drew him within, leaving him huddled and breathless on the stones below her seat of power.

He calmly rose to his feet, and replacing the mirror in his sack he faced her; for the true Son of the Veldt takes every circumstance in his stride. Meeting her eyes, he noted that she had changed her attire yet again: her hair was plaited into a crown, her gown was as black as the stones, and her eyes shone red in the torchlight.

“Do you like what you see, dear Hralf?” she said in tones of mockery. “Would that you had taken what was offered when it was offered, for now it is too late. You have found my tomb, and you have killed my pets and guardians, and now you too will die.”

He felt the same arcane force start to take hold of his limbs, but a lion has no fear of wizardry, not when he has his wits about him. He crouched, then leaped upward onto the throne; and with one strike of the claws of his right hand tore her pleasant seeming to shreds.

Gone was the gown of black; gone was the fair skin of white; gone was the red hair so beautifully braided.

What remained was no human thing. Its head had a feline cast; the ragged fur clinging fleshless to tibia and femur and skull had once been orange mottled with black. The horror was blackened and shriveled, and there was a puckered hole gouged in the upper right of its chest through which he could see the severed ends of ribs and a noisome empty space.

The ragged thing rose to its feet. “Do you like me better this way, Son of the Veldt?” it hissed. It stretched out one boney claw, laughing; and as the claw began to glow with a scarlet light, Hralf pulled his axe from its sling and swung it in a wide vertical circle so that the slab of the blade, coming down from on high, split the undead fiend’s skull open like a dessicated melon. The arm fell, the red glow faded from its eye sockets, and as the remains crumbled into dust he scented a fiendish glee, and thought he heard the mocking laughter continue into some mystic distance.

Turning away from the remains he examined the rest of the room, which was featureless: no doorways, no stairs, no ladders, no pits: nothing but the torches and the throne and the sarcophagus. To this latter he turned his attention; here, nowhere else, might he find the treasure he sought. Yes, he had slain an undead wizard—but without proof, who would believe him?

Returning his battle axe to its place, he extracted a long, hooked bar of steel from his sack; and with its aid, he levered the lid of the sarcophagus away and onto the floor, where it cracked in two. Replacing the crowbar, he looked within, and frowned.
There was nothing of value inside—no gems, no riches, no artifacts of any kind, just a small oddly-shaped blob of dried flesh. An evil smell rose from it. He shook his head and let it lay. Little fame would he gain here, for dead enemies told no tales.

Not for the first time he pondered acquiring a sidekick for himself. The Harem of Holding was roomy enough, in all truth; such a one could well wait there against need, being extracted when glory beckoned.

Or perhaps he should find a new one for each adventure, to be set free at the end to spread word of his glory?

Still mulling, he turned and left the throne room for the cleaner light of day.

He stood in the wan sunlight and was considering his next destination when the stone under his feet began to quiver, and then to shake. He leaped toward the ramp down and was turning to descend when the entire ziggurat began to tilt beneath him, the ramp turning beneath him until it was almost level.

The mighty one dropped to the stone, spreading his limbs and clinging to the matted vines as the massive tomb continued to move and almost to leap. He was torn free, and as he hung in the air, holding on with the claws of one hand as the structure fell beneath him, he looked down; and far below he saw the spot where he had camped drop under the surface of the marsh.

He struck the stone and vines hard as they rose again, driving the air from his lungs and nearly pitching him over the edge to the next tier. As he clung there, struggling to regain his breath, he saw the stone apron re-emerge with a splash, sending a wave many feet high shooting out over the water.

A massive form, close kin to the Lurkers he had slain, was momentarily revealed in the trough of the wave before the tomb rose over it and fell again, crushing it deep into the mud and ooze.

He gripped the vines more tightly, his claws scrabbling at the stone beneath, and as he could began to creep down the ramp. Perhaps if he could reach the bottom he could dive over the side and swim to safety before he was crushed in turn.

He had not gone many feet before the surface of the ramp began to undulate like the waves in the water so far below. The vines and moss were shredded and fell away, leaving the plain stone—if stone it was, for it was grown softer and more yielding, though still his claws could gain no purchase on it. The undulations began to run with purpose, rippling from below to above, tumbling him upwards, the edges curling to keep him from falling over the side even as the entire structure continued to plunge about like an enraged and ill-broken stallion. He was unable to stand or even to creep, and so, inexorably, the ripples bore him to the top of the ramp.

The portal gaped widely at him and seemed to shriek, piercing his ears. The teeth-long stones on the top of the tomb elongated and swayed like so many trees in a gale. And all around him the black pavers rose and fell and struck at him, bruising him and driving him toward the portal and the ghastliness that lay within.

The portal began to glow with a scarlet light.

No tale of his ancestors told him what to do in such a crisis; still, he remembered stories of undead sorcerers and their ways, and their zest for revenge on those who did them ill; and he remembered the withered blob of flesh in the sarcophagus. He ceased to struggle, and let the stones roll him within, where the throne, transformed, awaited him like a champing maw of stone. He waited his moment, and as he passed the sarcophagus he leaped atop it, clutching at its sides with his legs and one arm. The stones pummeled him from all sides, but could not prevent him from reaching within to take and hold the withered spleen that had once graced the wizard’s chest.
Take it he did, and held it, and squeezed; and as he squeezed the ziggurat gave a final leap and then stilled as though holding its breath in dismay. The transformed throne ceased to champ. The pummeling pavers sank to their places on the floor. The scarlet glow dimmed.

Hralf got down from the sarcophagus, and still squeezing held his clenched fist high as he strode across the canted floor. He eschewed the ramps but made his way swiftly down the giant steps, dropping easily from one level to the next, until he regained the apron of stone, still half submerged in the fetid ooze. One-handed he drew his skiff from his sack and leaped with it out on to the surface of the marsh; and as he glided away he tightened his grip on the spleen, and tightened it again until at last it vented a thick black ichor that oozed through his fingers and down his arm.

The ziggurat leaped into the air, revealing massive birdlike legs, before crashing down in blocks and shards of dying stone. The wave that followed propelled the skiff further on its way, and even before the warrior had found a clean rag to wipe the ichor from his hand the last of the fragments had vanished forever beneath the black water.

No sidekick would have survived that, thought Hralf sadly as he gazed at the spot where the tomb had been; then he shrugged, and retrieving the marsh-pole began to pole his way back to the wilds of civilization.

Washed, brushed, and well-fed, Hralf sat at table at the Will o’ the Wisp’s Wick in Marshbury. The great estate called Ravenwood was, he had determined, just a few miles away; and it seemed to him that a visit there might be rewarding, one way or another. Its former mistress surely had no need of anything that remained, nor did he believe that her retainers would have survived her demise.

Smiling to himself he called for another ale, and smiled again at the barmaid who brought it.

“I am not acquainted with you, am I?”

“No sir,” she said, taking in his tawny fur and mighty thews.

“I am Hralf, last of the Lords of the Rolling Veldt. Would you like to become part of my saga?”

“Why, sir,” she said, setting the tankard on the table before him. “I do believe I would!”

He took her in one arm as she settled on his knee, and began to tell her of his adventures in the Marshes of Mourning. She was a toothsome bundle; perhaps, were she so inclined, he would take her with him on his excursion to Ravenwood. Though he would tire of her in time, he knew, as he had tired of so many others.

And then once again he would be free, free to hew his way through the outskirts of the Empire, living according to the Code of the Veldt as every true Son of the Veldt must.

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