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Keith Francis Strohm

The Tomb of Horrors

PROLOGUE

He measured time in bursts of pain.

This one pulled Kim from sleep with terrible insistence, like a lover who would not be sated. He tried to scream when the forge-heated blade licked across his stomach with its razor tongue, but he managed only a feeble gurgle. The joints in his shoulders had long-since popped from the weight of his body, and breathing was difficult. Thankfully, he could no longer feel the fiery kiss of the steel nails holding his wrists and ankles to the wall.

Agony flared again. He felt the bruised muscles of his inner thigh shred beneath the blade’s touch, and this time he forced out a scream. Hedid not waste time begging for mercy. There would be none. He simply screamed until his throat bled.

It wasn’t until the cloying scent of incense nearly chokedhim that he realized the pain had faded into a dull throbbing, an ever present caress. He must have lost consciousness. Soft voices raised themselves in a whispered chant. Though the harsh language was unknown to him, the urgent cadences were horrifyingly familiar. He felt lightheaded as the chant gradually grew louder. A filmy layer of gauze had wrapped itself around his thoughts; he shook his head in a vain attempt to clear it, though he knew there was no hope. He wanted to cry, but even this was denied him. The first thing that the black-cloaked bastards had done was pluck out his eyes-leaving him in darkness.

But not alone.

Something Else brooded silently in the darkness with him, a Presence that lurked in the vast wasteland of his nightmares. It watched him, waiting for the right moment. He could sense it growing stronger now, could feel it slide across some vast distance, drawn by the twisted words of the ancient chant and the intoxicating offering of his pain. He gasped once as It entered his mind.

His last thoughts were of his wife and children, then the will of the god took him.

The screams of the crucified seer shattered night’s dark silence. Caught and magnified by the broad hills of the Fellreev forest, the sound rang out across the monastery’s ancient grounds, an unholy call to prayer.

Durgoth Shem answered.

With a soft exhalation, the balding cleric gathered up the fragments of parchment lying in front of him, careful lest the already ancient and decaying vellum crumble beneath his touch. Needles of pain stung his fingers as they came into contact with the remains of the book. He grimaced but accepted the pain, as he accepted all of the Dark One’s gifts, with hope and something ofa deep hunger.

The sensation intensified, and Durgoth nearly gasped at the force of it. He could feel the flesh of his fingertips blistering beneath the assault, and then, just as suddenly as it had occurred, the pain disappeared. He rose gingerly from his seat upon the floor. Knees stiff from long hours of meditation cracked and groaned. Durgoth regarded the tome with a thoughtful scowl as he placed it carefully behind two loose stones in the ruined wall. Purple runes splayed across a cracked leather cover he suspected had been fashioned from human skin. The ancient symbols writhed before his eyes, slithering and bending like serpents. Long accustomed to the dark book’s power,he concentrated until the runes settled into a familiar pattern.

So much had happened since the day he had found the Minthexian Codex in the dank chambers hidden deep beneath the monastery. Before that, he had been nothing more than a fugitive, a once-proud Hierarch of the Horned Society whose power was shattered the night Iuz and his host of fiendish servitors breached the Society’s citadel and scattered its leaders tothe corners of Oerth. The memories of those years, spent living like an animal, an object of scorn and derision to all he met, still ate at the cleric.

But power does call to power, and it was such a call that led Durgoth to the ruins of this monastery where, in its crumbling stone and rotten timber, he had unearthed the book and discovered a god of truly awesome power. Other, weaker men called the codex by its common name, The Book of Nine Shadows, but he knew that the roots of its true strength went beyond darkness to the heart of Nothingness itself. Long were the months that he wrestled with the secrets contained within the Minthexian Codex, until he had finally pierced its veil of mystery. Harnessing the power of its ancient rituals, the cleric built a place of refuge, a sanctuary from the predations of the Old One and his pet demons. In time, others came to the monastery’sdesecrated grounds, drawn by the power he had unearthed and the dark dreams of a god. Now, after the long tread of years, he was about to set in motion a plan that would shake the foundations of the multiverse. Not for the first time, he wondered if the screams of the gods would be more satisfying than the tormented cries of the mortals who worshiped them.

Such idle speculation would have to wait, he realized, as the sweet song of the crucified seer’s pain surrounded him with its intoxicatingmelody. It was almost time. Placing the stones carefully to seal the codex’shiding place, the cleric bowed once, palms pressed together, and uttered the words to a prayer he had learned from his studies of the dark book. A blue glow circled round the area of the wall before him and then faded away. Satisfied that his mystic protections would hold, the cleric snubbed out the last thick bar of burning incense on the makeshift altar he had created for his private meditations and gathered his heavy black robes about him. With a sigh of anticipation, he turned to leave the room, only to find his way blocked by a shadowy figure.

“It has begun, my lord,” the figure intoned in a raspy voice.

Durgoth cursed silently as he recognized the familiar tones of Jhagren Syn. Hoping that the room’s dim light covered his startled reaction,he spoke harshly into the darkness, “Jhagren, I left strict instructions that Inot be disturbed until my meditations were complete.”

“Yes, blessed one,” the man replied. The words were simple,almost uninflected, like most of the speech that came from this man. They neither betrayed guilt nor asked forgiveness, and like the speaker itself, they offered the cleric no key to unlock its secrets.

Of all the people who had found their way to the dark monastery, Jhagren Syn stood apart. The others stayed for reasons Durgoth easily understood-they lusted for power, they craved the Dark One’s touch, and some,the cleric admitted, were simply mad, consumed by their own dark demons. Jhagren, however, was different. Though his skills and sharp mind quickly distinguished him as a man of true usefulness, the monk’s motives remained amystery, and Durgoth hated mysteries. For what he could not understand, he could not control.

And what he could not control, he feared.

As if sensing the dark cleric’s thoughts, Jhagren stepped out of the shadows.Flickering candlelight washed over his pockmarked face, revealing a thick nose and full mouth.

“The god has come, blessed one,” the monk said. “Even now theseer speaks words of prophecy.”

Ruddy, olive skin stood out even darker in the illumination, and to Durgoth’s sight, the deep red robes of the Scarlet Brotherhood flowedaround the man like a cloak of blood.

The cleric nodded curtly, his frustration almost forgotten in light of his advisors message, and motioned for his companion to follow. The two walked across the monastery grounds in silence, surrounded by tumbled stone buildings and burnt timbers, the echo of history. Durgoth sniffed the chill winter air and surveyed the ruin. Centuries of dedicated prayer, lives lived and lost in service to an ideal, a holy cause, still offered no protection against death and decay. Only entropy, he thought with some satisfaction, held any constancy.

When they finally arrived at the remains of the monastery’ssanctum, which stood lost and alone at the center of the ancient compound, the dark ceremony was in full sway. Twelve black-robed figures knelt in a circle, silver- wrought censors cupped between both hands. Thick plumes of incense rose from them, swirling in dark clouds around the ragged gaps in the stone ceiling, and the air vibrated with the layered harmony of chant.

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