I have heard stories, as no doubt you, my readers, have also, wherein the narrator or the protagonist, at some point in the midst of the tale, will chance upon some person or thing that bears, or will bear, great significance for the former, and he or she will experience some feeling of portent, some sense of inevitability, of doom or destiny. In my experience as one who has read or heard such stories, this feeling of precognition occurs more often than not; a man sets eyes, for the first time, upon the woman whom shall become his great love, or upon the man whom shall prove his deadliest enemy, and recognizes somehow the stranger as such; or else enters some new or strange place and knows, without being able to explain how he knows, that he will die there, before ever a threat has suggested itself. Such things of great importance whisper themselves to the soul, if all the stories are to be believed. One senses. One knows.
This so often happens in the stories one hears. In reality, though, when I chanced upon the perfect opportunity to experience such a portent, I felt nothing at all.
I had lit another torch and started to explore the room on the other side of the doorway, after calling to Oran and the others to wait for me where they were. This new chamber proved every bit as large as the previous one but, even lacking its own gargantuan Devil’s Hand, was far more cramped. I don’t know what I had expected; some sort of crypt perhaps, but this chamber resembled more a storeroom. Scattered over the floor and piled against the walls were all manner of bric-a-brac: statues, whole or in pieces; rusted armor and swords, spears, shields; pieces of furniture, tables, chairs, a bed; two chariots; a large harp; tapestries and rugs, rolled up or draped over something; rotten paintings still clinging like shrouds to their frames; chests, large and small; jars and bottles, baskets—and several large jugs, the sort described by the witch as that which I sought.
“How in the seven hells am I supposed to know which is the right one?” I cursed to myself. There seemed nothing else for it. I would have to bring back every damned one of them, something else for which the old woman had not prepared me!
Careful lest I twist an ankle, I began to scrabble over the trophies—as a Greek, I recognized these for what they were. This chamber constituted a trophy or tribute room. It put me in mind or Delphi, and the way my countrymen of bygone days would carry their own relics to enshrine there. I had heard as a boy that items brought home from the Trojan War were entombed at Delphi. This room in which I now found myself represented just such a place, I felt certain. But to what primitive, heathen god had they been dedicated?
I found my answer painted on the rear wall of the chamber.
The room, another rectangle, had no other door than the one through which I had entered. The side walls were bare, but the rear wall bore an elaborate fresco, occupying its entirety. The paint had long since faded, flaked away in places or yielded to lichens growing on the stone, but for the most part appeared intact and legible. I stared at it, but here where I should have experienced my portent, I felt nothing save the general sense of uncleanness I had experienced since entering the temple as a whole.
A central figure stood, as tall as the ceiling, with outstretched hands, and these latter ended with sharp-tipped, bloody claws in place of fingers. It stood with a host of dead men piled around its feet, these rendered in miniature; wore only a narrow loincloth which dangled between its legs. Its skin was a bluish gray in color, though it might once have been black. The most striking feature, though, was its head, or heads, for it had three. Three wolves’ heads, one turned to the right, one to the left, and one, the central one, staring straight ahead. Its teeth were rendered in a dull yellow color and dripped blood. The central head, which sported a black crown with narrow, jagged tines, seemed to smile. All six eyes—had the orange paint used for these somehow remained brighter than all the paint surrounding it, to still render the appearance of gleaming coals to these terrible eyes? To make them gleam in the dark? To make them stare, burning and hateful, with so much life?
The three heads put me in mind of Cerberus, the guard dog of Hell, but I discerned the true identity of the figure with ease enough: Lycanon. The scenes surrounding the figure bore this out. In one place stood Lycanon, slaughtering his own children, and again, serving this unholy sacrament to Zeus. On the opposite side, Lycanon transformed into a ravening beast, and in the lower corner, as the beast, claiming from among humankind a hapless victim. I could not know by what name the ancient people who had reared this unholy edifice called their awful god, but my own people had known him as King Lycanon. How far back into the dim past did Lycanon’s story extend? I wondered. And how far back went his curse?
For all the contemplation on my part, however, I did not even so much as shudder. Here, before me, stood my destiny, my origin and ruin, my life’s struggle and my death. And I felt nothing. Perhaps, when one’s every moment, sleeping or waking, carries some weight of a sense of doom, one becomes numb to it. Or at least inured.
I turned away from the blazing eyes of Lycanon and continued my search of the room. I had no way or reckoning time but I know it took me hours to search through all the tributes to gather together all the jars and jugs. To make certain I overlooked nothing I broke open every basket and every chest. I emptied one large basket of its contents, what appeared to have been some kind of fruit, now only shriveled husks, and filled this with all the jugs and jars. A second, smaller basket I filled with coins and jewels, as these were there for the taking. A third basket so filled would have presented too heavy a burden to transport, besides which I did not expect to have too much use for riches, living amongst the Marmorca.
I bound the baskets together with a rope and returned to the doorway.
“Oran!” I called.
“I have what we came for, or I hope that I do. I’m going to throw you a rope so you can drag the baskets over to you.”
I knew I could never hope to dodge the Devil’s Hand burdened with any load. I theorized that the hand would only attack a living being, that it would not respond to any lifeless objects being dragged across the floor near it. I hoped it would not, but had no choice at any rate.
“Tell me, old woman,” I had asked the witch before our departure from her hut, “as you say your soul is imprisoned within this vessel, why do you not simply have me smash it? Would this not free your soul from its captivity? Must you break it yourself?”
“I have to see it,” the old woman had told me, “to know that you are telling me the truth. You could lie and tell me that you had broken it, but how would I believe you?”
“Would you not feel your soul returning to you?” I had asked her, but she’d only cackled in response.
I would take the risk and damn the consequences. If the giant hand smashed the jars I would bring the old woman the shards for proof.
Had I not been occupied with such thoughts, and intent on hurling the rope far enough past the hand for Oran to retrieve it in safety, I might have heard the attack coming.
Among the trophies in the shrine room had lay one large chest, which had contained several dead animals, with all these bound up in wrappings the way I had heard the Egyptians always embalmed their dead. Two animals that looked like cats, one small crocodile, two things that might have been birds, and one larger than the rest that looked almost manlike, perhaps the body of a child, but hideous in appearance. I did not recognize this last thing at the time, but in the time since I have learned more of the flora and fauna of the world and I know now that it was a baboon.
A dead baboon. I know this beyond all doubt.
A dried-out, lifeless carcass, bound in bandages. Dead, of a certainty.
Yet it moved.
The damned thing made no sound, save the scuttling of its paws on the floor, as it leapt on me. I turned in time to catch the attack on my chest instead of my back. I fell back and hit hard, the impact driving the breath from my lungs. I had scarce enough strength to keep the revenant’s long, curving teeth from my throat.
The horror I felt in wrestling with the dead thing in such a place as this vile temple dedicated to the worship of Lycanon lent some fire to my limbs and I managed to roll the thing off me. It did not, as a matter of fact, weigh that much. I have read in the years since that the Egyptians, in their mummification process, remove all the viscera from their dead. Had whoever so embalmed this baboon also hollowed out its carcass? Whatever the case, I sought to fling it off me, but it clung to me, carried me with it. I rolled on top of it, broke its hold on me.
I did not see the Hand move, but I heard it. I daresay I felt the movement of the air. I leapt off the baboon an instant before the Hand, curled into a fist, crushed the desiccated flesh and bone of the mummy to bits and powder.
Alas I could not get to my feet in time to get out of the way. The Hand grabbed me. I felt the crush of its embrace for an instant as it scooped me up off the ground and lifted me high. Then, before I realized what it intended doing, it hurled me across the room and into the wall.
I felt the impact. I cannot describe the force. Being run down by a team of charging horses must of a surety pale by comparison.
I felt the impact. Then I felt nothing.