It has become needful for me, who am no wielder of the stylus of bronze
or the pen of calamus, and whose only proper tool is the long, double-handed
sword, to indite this account of the curious and lamentable happenings
which foreran the universal desertion of Commoriom by its king and its
people. This I am well-fitted to do, for I played a signal part in these
happenings; and I left the city only when all the others had gone.
Now Commoriom, as everyone knows, was aforetime the resplendent,
high-built capital, and the marble and granite crown of all Hyperborea.
But, concerning the cause of its abandonment, there are now so many warring
legends and so many tales of a false and fabulous character, that I, who
am old in years and triply old in horrors, I, who have grown weary with
no less than eleven lustrums of public service, am compelled to write this
record of the truth ere it fade utterly from the tongues and memories of
men. And this I do, though the telling thereof will include a confession
of my one defeat, my one failure in the dutiful administration of a committed
For those who will read the narrative in future years, and haply
in future lands, I shall now introduce myself. I am Athammaus, the chief
headsman of Uzuldaroum, who held formerly the same office in Commoriom.
My father, Manghai Thal, was headsman before me; and the sires of my father,
even to the mythic generations of the primal kings, have wielded the great
copper sword of justice on the block of eighon-wood.
Forgive an aged man if he seem to dwell, as is the habit of the old,
among the youthful recollections that have gathered to themselves the kingly
purple of removed horizons and the strange glory that illumines irretrievable
things. Lo! I am made young again when I recall Commoriom, when in this
grey city of the sunken years I behold in retrospect her walls that looked
mountainously down upon the jungle, and the alabastrine multitude of her
heaven-fretting spires. Opulent among cities, and superb and magisterial,
and paramount over all was Commoriom, to whom tribute was given from the
shores of the Atlantean sea to that sea in which is the immense continent
of Mu; to whom the traders came from utmost Thulan that is walled on the
north with unknown ice, and from the southern realm of Tscho Vulpanomi
which ends in a lake of boiling asphaltum. Ah! proud and lordly was Commoriom,
and her humblest dwellings were more than the palaces of other cities.
And it was not, as men fable now-adays, because of that maundering prophecy
once uttered by the White Sybil from the isle of snow which is named Polarion,
that her splendor and spaciousness was delivered over to the spotted vines
of the jungle and the spotted snakes. Nay, it was because of a direr thing
than this, and a tangible horror against which the law of kings, the wisdom
of hierophants and the sharpness of swords were alike impotent. Ah! not
lightly was she overcome, not easily were her defenders driven forth. And
though others forget, or haply deem her no more than a vain and dubitable
tale, I shall never cease to lament Commoriom.
My sinews have dwindled grievously now; and Time has drunken stealthily
from my veins; and has touched my hair with the ashes of suns extinct.
But in the days whereof I tell, there was no braver and more stalwart headsman
than I in the whole of Hyperborea; and my name was a red menace, a loudly
spoken warning to the evil-doers of the forest and the town, and the savage
robbers of uncouth outland tribes. Wearing the blood-bright purple of my
office, I stood each morning in the public square where all might attend
and behold, and performed for the edification of all men my allotted task.
And each day the tough, golden-ruddy copper of the huge crescent blade
was darkened not once but many times with a rich and wine-like sanguine.
And because of my never-faltering arm, my infallible eye, and the clean
blow which there was never any necessity to repeat, I was much honored
by the King Loquamethros and by the populace of Commoriom.
I remember well, on account of their more than unique atrocity, the
earliest rumors that came to me in my active life regarding the outlaw
Knygathin Zhaum. This person belonged to an obscure and highly unpleasant
people called the Voormis, who dwelt in the black Eiglophian Mountains
at a full day's journey from Commoriom, and inhabited according to their
tribal custom the caves of ferine animals less savage than themselves,
which they had slain or otherwise dispossessed. They were generally looked
upon as more beast-like than human, because of their excessive hairiness
and the vile, ungodly rites and usages to which they were addicted. It
was mainly from among these beings that the notorious Knygathin Zhaum had
recruited his formidable band, who were terrorizing the hills sub-jacent
to the Eiglophian Mountains with daily deeds of the most infamous and iniquitous
rapine. Wholesale robbery was the least of their crimes; and mere anthropophagism
was far from being the worst.
It will readily be seen, from this, that the Voormis were a somewhat
aboriginal race, with an ethnic heritage of the darkest and most revolting
type. And it was commonly said that Knygathin Zhaum himself possessed an
even murkier strain of ancestry than the others, being related on the maternal
side to that queer, non-anthropomorphic god, Tsathoggua, who was worshipped
so widely during the sub-human cycles. And there were those who whispered
of even stranger blood (if one could properly call it blood) and a monstrous
linkage with the swart Protean spawn that had come down with Tsathoggua
from elder worlds and exterior dimensions where physiology and geometry
had both assumed an altogether inverse trend of development. And, because
of this mingling of ultra-cosmic strains, it was said that the body of
Knygathin Zhaum, unlike his shaggy, umber-colored fellow-tribesmen, was
hairless from crown to heel and was pied with great spots of black and
yellow; and moreover he himself was reputed to exceed all others in his
cruelty and cunning.
For a long time this execrable outlaw was no more to me than an horrific
name; but inevitably I thought of him with a certain professional interest.
There were many who believed him invulnerable by any weapon, and who told
of his having escaped in a manner which none could elucidate from more
than one dungeon whose walls were not to be scaled or pierced by mortal
beings. But of course I discounted all such tales, for my official
experience had never yet included anyone with properties or abilities of
a like sort. And I knew well the superstitiousness of the vulgar multitude.
From day to day new reports reached me amid the preoccupations of
never-slighted duty. This noxious marauder was not content with the seemingly
ample sphere of operations afforded by his native mountains and the outlying
hill-regions with their fertile valleys and well-peopled towns. His forays
became bolder and more extensive; till one night he descended on a village
so near to Commoriom that it was usually classed as a suburb. Here he and
his feculent crew committed numerous deeds of an unspecifiable enormity;
and bearing with them many of the villagers for purposes even less designable,
they retired to their caves in the glassy-walled Eiglophian peaks ere the
ministers of justice could overtake them.
It was this audaciously offensive act which prompted the law to exert
its full power and vigilance against Knygathin Zhaum, Before that, he and
his men had been left to the local officers of the country-side; but now
his misdeeds were such as to demand the rigorous attention of the constabulary
of Commoriom. Henceforth all his movements were followed as closely as
possible; the towns where he might descend were strictly guarded; and traps
were set everywhere.
Even thus, Knygathin Zhaum contrived to evade capture for month after
month; and all the while he repeated his far-flung raids with an embarrassing
frequency. It was almost by chance, or through his own foolhardiness, that
he was eventually taken in broad daylight on the highway near the city's
outskirts. Contrary to all expectation, in view of his renowned ferocity,
he made no resistance whatever; but finding himself surrounded by mailed
archers and bill-bearers, he yielded to them at once with an oblique, enigmatic
smile—a smile that troubled for many nights thereafter the dreams of all
who were present.
For reasons which were never explained, he was altogether alone when
taken; and none of his fellows were captured either co-incidentally or
subsequently. Nevertheless, there was much excitement and jubilation in
Commoriom, and everyone was curious to behold the dreaded outlaw. More
even than others, perhaps, I felt the stirrings of interest; for upon me,
in due course, the proper decapitation of Knygathin Zhaum would devolve.
From hearing the hideous rumors and legends whose nature I have already
outlined, I was prepared for something out of the ordinary in the way of
criminal personality. But even at first sight, when I watched him as he
was borne to prison through a moiling crowd, Knygathin Zhaum surpassed
the most sinister and disagreeable anticipations. He was naked to the waist,
and wore the fulvous hide of some long-haired animal which hung in filthy
tatters to his knees. Such details, however, contributed little to those
elements in his appearance which revolted and even shocked me. His limbs,
his body, his lineaments were outwardly formed like those of aboriginal
man; and one might even have allowed for his utter hairlessness, in which
there was a remote and blasphemously caricatural suggestion of the shaven
priest; and even the broad, formless mottling of his skin, like that of
a huge boa, might somehow have been glossed over as a rather extravagant
peculiarity of pigmentation. It was something else, it was the unctuous,
verminous ease, the undulant litheness and fluidity of his every movement,
seeming to hint at an inner structure and vertebration that were less than
human—or, one might almost have said, a sub-ophidian lack of all bony frame-work—which
made me view the captive, and also my incumbent task, with an unparallelable
distaste. He seemed to slither rather than walk; and the very fashion of
his jointure, the placing of knees, hips, elbows and shoulders, appeared
arbitrary and factitious. One felt that the outward semblance of humanity
was a mere concession to anatomical convention; and that his corporeal
formation might easily have assumed—and might still assume at any instant—the
unheard-of outlines and concept-defying dimensions that prevail in trans-galactic
worlds. Indeed, I could now believe the outrageous tales concerning his
ancestry. And with equal horror and curiosity I wondered what the stroke
of justice would reveal, and what noisome, mephitic ichor would befoul
the impartial sword in lieu of honest blood.
It is needless to record in circumstantial detail the process by
which Knygathin Zhaum was tried and condemned for his manifold enormities.
The workings of the law were implacably swift and sure, and their equity
permitted of no quibbling or delay. The captive was confined in an oubliette
below the main dungeons—a cell hewn in the basic, Archean gneiss at a profound
depth, with no entrance other than a hole through which he was lowered
and drawn up by means of a long rope and windlass. This hole was lidded
with a huge block and was guarded day and night by a dozen men-at-arms.
However, there was no attempt at escape on the part of Knygathin Zhaum:
indeed, he seemed unnaturally resigned to his prospective doom. To me,
who have always been possessed of a strain of prophetic intuition, there
was something overtly ominous in this unlooked-for resignation. Also, I
did not like the demeanor of the prisoner during his trial. The silence
which he had preserved at all times following his capture and incarceration
was still maintained before his judges. Though interpreters who knew the
harsh, sibilant Eiglophian dialect were provided, he would make no answer
to questions; and he offered no defense. Least of all did I like the unabashed
and unblinking manner in which he received the final pronouncement of death
which was uttered in the high court of Commoriom by eight judges in turn
and solemnly re-affirmed at the end by King Loquamethros. After that, I
looked well to the sharpening of my sword, and promised myself that I would
concentrate all the resources of a brawny arm and a flawless manual artistry
upon the forthcoming execution.
My task was not long deferred, for the usual interval of a fortnight
between condemnation and decapitation had been shortened to three days
in view of the suspicious peculiarities of Knygathin Zhaum and the heinous
magnitude of his proven crimes.
On the morning appointed, after a night that had been rendered dismal
by a long-drawn succession of the most abominable dreams, I went with my
unfailing punctuality to the block of eighon-wood, which was situated with
geometrical exactness in the center of the main square. Here a huge crowd
had already gathered; and the clear amber sun blazed royally down on the
silver and nacarat of court dignitaries, the hodden of merchants and artisans,
and the rough pelts that were worn by outland people.
With a like punctuality, Knygathin Zhaum soon appeared amid his entourage
of guards, who surrounded him with a bristling hedge of bill-hooks and
lances and tridents. At the same time, all the outer avenues of the city,
as well as the entrances to the square, were guarded by massed soldiery,
for it was feared that the uncaught members of the desperate outlaw band
might make an effort to rescue their infamous chief at the last moment.
Amid the unremitting vigilance of his warders, Knygathin Zhaum came
forward, fixing upon me the intent but inexpressive gaze of his lidless,
ochre-yellow eyes, in which a face-to-face scrutiny could discern no pupils.
He knelt down beside the block, presenting his mottled nape without a tremor.
As I looked upon him with a calculating eye, and made ready for the lethal
stroke, I was impressed more powerfully and more disagreeably than ever
by the feeling of a loathsome, underlying plasticity, an invertebrate structure,
nauseous and non-terrestrial, beneath his impious mockery of human form.
And I could not help perceiving also the air of abnormal coolness, of abstract,
impenetrable cynicism, that was maintained by all his parts and members.
He was like a torpid snake, or some huge liana of the jungle, that is wholly
unconscious of the shearing axe. I was well aware that I might be dealing
with things which were beyond the ordinary province of a public headsman;
but nathless I lifted the great sword in a clean, symmetrically flashing
arc, and brought it down on the piebald nape with all of my customary force
Necks differ in the sensations which they afford to one's hand beneath
the penetrating blade. In this case, I can only say that the sensation
was not such as I have grown to associate with the cleaving of any known
animal substance. But I saw with relief that the blow had been successful:
the head of Knygathin Zhaum lay cleanly severed on the porous block, and
his body sprawled on the pavement without even a single quiver of departing
animation. As I had expected, there was no blood—only a black, tarry, fetid
exudation, far from copious, which ceased in a few minutes and vanished
utterly from my sword and from the eighon-wood. Also, the inner anatomy
which the blade had revealed was devoid of all legitimate vertebration.
But to all appearance Knygathin Zhaum had yielded up his obscene life;
and the sentence of King Loquamethros and the eight judges of Commoriom
had been fulfilled with a legal precision.
Proudly but modestly I received the applause of the waiting multitudes,
who bore willing witness to the consummation of my official task and were
loudly jubilant over the dead scourge. After seeing that the remains of
Knygathin Zhaum were given into the hands of the public grave-diggers,
who always disposed of such offal, I left the square and returned to my
home, since no other decapitations had been set for that day. My conscience
was serene, and I felt that I had acquitted myself worthily in the performance
of a far from pleasant duty.
Knygathin Zhaum, as was the custom in dealing with the bodies of
the most nefarious criminals, was interred with contumelious haste in a
barren field outside the city where people cast their orts and rubbish.
He was left in an unmarked and unmounded grave between two middens. The
power of the law had now been amply vindicated; and everyone was satisfied,
from Loquamethros himself to the villagers that had suffered from the depredations
of the deceased outlaw.
I retired that night, after a bounteous meal of suvana-fruit and
djongua-beans, well-irrigated with foum-wine. From a moral standpoint,
I had every reason to sleep the sleep of the virtuous; but, even as on
the preceding night, I was made the victim of one cacodemoniacal dream
after another. Of these dreams, I recall only their pervading, unifying
consciousness of insufferable suspense, of monotonously cumulative horror
without shape or name; and the ever-torturing sentiment of vain repetition
and dark, hopeless toil and frustration. Also, there is a half-memory,
which refuses to assume any approach to visual form, of things that were
never intended for human perception or human cogitation; and the aforesaid
sentiment, and all the horror, were dimly but indissolubly bound up with
these. Awaking unrefreshed and weary from what seemed an aeon of thankless
endeavor, of treadmill bafflement, I could only impute my nocturnal sufferings
to the djongua-beans; and decided that I must have eaten all too liberally
of these nutritious viands. Mercifully, I did not suspect in my dreams
the dark, portentous symbolism that was soon to declare itself.
Now must I write the things that are formidable unto Earth and the
dwellers of Earth; the things that exceed all human or terrene regimen;
that subvert reason; that mock the dimensions and defy biology. Dire is
the tale; and, after seven lustrums, the tremor of an olden fear still
agitates my hand as I write.
But of such things I was still oblivious when I sallied forth that
morning to the place of execution, where three criminals of a quite average
sort, whose very cephalic contours I have forgotten along with their offenses,
were to meet their well-deserved doom beneath my capable arm. Howbeit,
I had not gone far when I heard an unconscionable uproar that was spreading
swiftly from street to street, from alley to alley throughout Commoriom.
I distinguished a myriad cries of rage, horror, fear and lamentation that
were seemingly caught up and repeated by everyone who chanced to be abroad
at that hour. Meeting some of the citizenry, who were plainly in a state
of the most excessive agitation and were still continuing their outcries,
I inquired the reason of all this clamor. And thereupon I learned from
them that Knygathin Zhaum, whose illicit career was presumably at an end,
had now re-appeared and had signalized the unholy miracle of his return
by the commission of a most appalling act on the main avenue before the
very eyes of early passers! He had seized a respectable seller of djongua-beans,
and had proceeded instantly to devour his victim alive, without heeding
the blows, bricks, arrows, javelins, cobblestones and curses that were
rained upon him by the gathering throng and by the police. It was only
when he had satisfied his atrocious appetite, that he suffered the police
to lead him away, leaving little more than the bones and raiment of the
djongua-seller to mark the spot of this outrageous happening. Since
the case was without legal parallel, Knygathin Zhaum had been thrown once
more into the oubliette below the city dungeons, to await the will of Loquamethros
and the eight judges.
The exceeding discomfiture, the profound embarrassment felt by myself,
as well as by the people and the magistracy of Commoriom, can well be imagined.
As everyone bore witness, Knygathin Zhaum had been efficiently beheaded
and buried according to the customary ritual; and his resurrection was
not only against nature but involved a most contumelious and highly mystifying
breach of the law. In fact, the legal aspects of the case were such as
to render necessary the immediate passing of a special statute, calling
for re-judgement, and allowing re-execution, of such malefactors as might
thus-wise return from their lawful graves. Apart from all this, there was
general consternation; and even at that early date, the more ignorant and
more religious among the townsfolk were prone to regard the matter as an
omen of some impending civic calamity.
As for me, my scientific turn of mind, which repudiated the supernatural,
led me to seek an explanation of the problem in the non-terrestrial side
of Knygathin Zhaum's ancestry. I felt sure that the forces of an alien
biology, the properties of a transtellar life-substance, were somehow involved.
With the spirit of the true investigator, I summoned the grave-diggers
who had interred Knygathin Zhaum and bade them lead me to his place of
sepulture in the refuse-grounds. Here a most singular condition disclosed
itself. The earth had not been disturbed, apart from a deep hole at one
end of the grave, such as might have been made by a large rodent. No body
of human size, or, at least, of human form, could possibly have emerged
from this hole. At my command, the diggers removed all the loose soil,
mingled with potsherds and other rubbish, which they had heaped upon the
beheaded outlaw. When they reached the bottom, nothing was found but a
slight stickiness where the corpse had lain; and this, along with an odor
of ineffable foulness which was its concomitant, soon dissipated itself
in the open air.
Baffled, and more mystified than ever, but still sure that the enigma
would permit of some natural solution, I awaited the new trial. This time,
the course of justice was even quicker and less given to quibbling than
before. The prisoner was again condemned, and the time of decapitation
was delayed only till the following morn. A proviso concerning burial was
added to the sentence: the remains were to be sealed in a strong wooden
sarcophagus, the sarcophagus was to be inhumed in a deep pit in the solid
stone, and the pit filled with massy boulders. These measures, it was felt,
should serve amply to restrain the unwholesome and irregular inclinations
of this obnoxious miscreant.
When Knygathin Zhaum was again brought before me, amid a redoubled
guard and a throng that overflowed the square and all of the outlying avenues,
I viewed him with profound concern and with more than my former repulsion.
Having a good memory for anatomic details, I noticed some odd changes in
his physique. The huge splotches of dull black and sickly yellow that had
covered him from head to heel were now somewhat differently distributed.
The shifting of the facial blotches, around the eyes and mouth, had given
him an expression that was both grim and sardonic to an unbearable degree.
Also, there was a perceptible shortening of his neck, though the place
of cleavage and re-union, midway between head and shoulders, had left no
mark whatever. And looking at his limbs, I discerned other and more subtle
changes. Despite my acumen in physical matters, I found myself unwilling
to speculate regarding the processes that might underlie these alterations;
and still less did I wish to surmise the problematic results of their continuation,
if such should ensue. Hoping fervently that Knygathin Zhaum and the vile,
flagitious properties of his unhallowed carcass would now be brought to
a permanent end, I raised the sword of justice high in air and smote with
Once again, as far as mortal eye was able to determine, the effects
of the shearing blow were all that could be desired. The head rolled forward
on the eighon-wood, and the torso and its members fell and lay supinely
on the maculated flags. From a legal view-point, this doubly nefandous
malefactor was now twicedead.
Howbeit, this time I superintended in person the disposal of the
remains, and saw to the bolting of the fine sarcophagus of apha-wood in
which they were laid, and the filling with chosen boulders of the ten-foot
pit into which the sarcophagus was lowered. It required three men to lift
even the least of these boulders. We all felt that the irrepressible Knygathin
Zhaum was due for a quietus.
Alas! for the vanity of earthly hopes and labors! The morrow came
with its unspeakable, incredible tale of renewed outrage: once more the
weird, semi-human offender was abroad, once more his anthropophagic lust
had taken toll from among the honorable denizens of Commoriom. He had eaten
no less a personage than one of the eight judges; and, not satisfied with
picking the bones of this rather obese individual, had devoured by way
of dessert the more outstanding facial features of one of the police who
had tried to deter him from finishing his main course. All this, as before,
was done amid the frantic protests of a great throng. After a final nibbling
at the scant vestiges of the unfortunate constable's left ear, Knygathin
Zhaum had seemed to experience a feeling of repletion and had suffered
himself to be led docilely away once more by the jailers.
I, and the others who had helped me in the arduous toils of entombment,
were more than astounded when we heard the news. And the effect on the
general public was indeed deplorable. The more superstitious and timid
began leaving the city forthwith; and there was much revival of forgotten
prophecies; and much talk among the various priesthoods anent the necessity
of placating with liberal sacrifice their mystically angered gods and eidolons.
Such nonsense I was wholly able to disregard; but, under the circumstances,
the persistent return of Knygathin Zhaum was no less alarming to science
than to religion.
We examined the tomb, if only as a matter of form; and found that
certain of the superincumbent boulders had been displaced in such a manner
as to admit the outward passage of a body with the lateral dimensions of
some large snake or musk-rat. The sarcophagus, with its metal bolts, was
bursten at one end; and we shuddered to think of the immeasurable force
that must have been employed in its disruption.
Because of the way in which the case overpassed all known biologic
laws, the formalities of civil law were now waived; and I, Athammaus, was
called upon that same day before the sun had reached its meridian, and
was solemnly charged with the office of re-beheading Knygathin Zhaum at
once. The interment or other disposal of the remains was left to my discretion;
and the local soldiery and constabulary were all placed at my command,
if I should require them.
Deeply conscious of the honor thus implied, and sorely perplexed
but undaunted, I went forth to the scene of my labors. When the criminal
re-appeared, it was obvious not only to me but to everyone that his physical
personality, in achieving this new recrudescence, had undergone a most
salient change. His mottling had developed more than a suggestion of some
startling and repulsive pattern; and his human characteristics had yielded
to the inroads of an unearthly distortion. The head was joined to the shoulders
almost without the intermediation of a neck; the eyes were set diagonally
in a face with oblique bulgings and flattenings; the nose and mouth were
showing a tendency to displace each other; and there were still further
alterations which I shall not specify, since they involved an abhorrent
degradation of man's noblest and most distinctive corporeal members. I
shall, however, mention the strange, pendulous formations, like annulated
dew-laps or wattles, into which his knee-caps had evolved. Nathless, it
was Knygathin Zhaum himself who stood (if one could dignify the fashion
of his carriage by that word) before the block of justice.
Because of the virtual non-existence of a nape, the third beheading
called for a precision of eye and a nicety of hand which, in all likelihood,
no other headsman than myself could have shown. I rejoice to say that my
skill was adequate to the demand thus made upon it; and once again the
culprit was shorn of his vile cephaloid appendage. But if the blade had
gone even a little to either side, the dismemberment entailed would have
been technically of another sort than decapitation.
The laborious care with which I and my assistants conducted the third
inhumation was indeed deserving of success. We laid the body in a strong
sarcophagus of bronze, and the head in a second but smaller sarcophagus
of the same material. The lids were then soldered down with molten metal;
and after this the two sarcophagi were conveyed to opposite parts of Commoriom.
The one containing the body was buried at a great depth beneath monumental
masses of stone; but that which enclosed the head I left uninterred, proposing
to watch over it all night in company with a guard of armed men. I also
appointed a numerous guard to keep vigil above the burial-place of the
Night came; and with seven trusty trident-bearers I went forth to
the place where we had left the smaller of the two sarcophagi. This was
in the courtyard of a deserted mansion amid the suburbs, far from the haunts
of the populace. For weapons, I myself wore a short falchion and carried
a great bill. We took along a plentiful supply of torches, so that we might
not lack for light in our gruesome vigil; and we fit several of them at
once and stuck them in crevices between the flag-stones of the court, in
such wise that they formed a circle of lurid flames about the sarcophagus.
We had also brought with us an abundance of the crimson foum-wine
in leathern bottles, and dice of mammoth-ivory with which to beguile the
black nocturnal hours; and eyeing our charge with a casual but careful
vigilance, we applied ourselves discreetly to the wine and began to play
for small sums of no more than five pazoors, as is the wont of good gamblers
till they have taken their opponents' measure.
The darkness deepened apace; and in the square of sapphire overhead,
to which the illumination of our torches had given a jetty tinge, we saw
Polaris and the red planets that looked down for the last time upon Commoriom
in her glory. But we dreamed not of the nearness of disaster, but jested
bravely and drank in ribald mockery to the monstrous head that was now
so securely coffined and so remotely sundered from its odious body. The
wine passed and re-passed among us; and its rosy spirit mounted in our
brains; and we played for bolder stakes; and the game quickened to a goodly
I know not how many stars had gone over us in the smoky heavens,
nor how many times I had availed myself of the ever-circling bottles. But
I remember well that I had won no less than ninety pazoors from the trident-bearers,
who were all swearing lustily and loudly as they strove in vain to stem
the tide of my victory. I, as well as the others, had wholly forgotten
the object of our vigil.
The sarcophagus containing the head was one that had been primarily
designed for the reception of a small child. Its present use, one might
have argued, was a sinful and sacrilegious waste of fine bronze; but nothing
else of proper size and adequate strength was available at the time. In
the mounting fervor of the game, as I have hinted, we had all ceased to
watch this receptacle; and I shudder to think how long there may have been
something visibly or even audibly amiss before the unwonted and terrifying
behavior of the sarcophagus was forced upon our attention. It was the sudden,
loud, metallic clangor, like that of a smitten gong or shield, which made
us realize that all things were not as they should have been; and turning
unanimously in the direction of the sound, we saw that the sarcophaghus
was heaving and pitching in a most unseemly fashion amid its ring of flaring
torches. First on one end or corner, then on another, it danced and pirouetted,
clanging resonantly all the while on the granite pavement.
The true horror of the situation had scarcely seeped into our brains,
ere a new and even more ghastly development occurred. We saw that the casket
was bulging ominously at top and sides and bottom, and was rapidly losing
all similitude to its rightful form. Its rectangular outlines swelled and
curved and were horribly erased as in the changes of a nightmare, till
the thing became a slightly oblong sphere; and then, with a most appalling
noise, it began to split at the welded edges of the lid, and burst violently
asunder. Through the long, ragged rift there poured in hellish ebullition
a dark, ever-swelling mass of incognizable matter, frothing as with the
venomous foam of a million serpents, hissing as with the yeast of fermenting
wine, and putting forth here and there great sooty-looking bubbles that
were large as pig-bladders. Overturning several of the torches, it rolled
in an inundating wave across the flagstones and we all sprang back in the
most abominable fright and stupefaction to avoid it.
Cowering against the rear wall of the courtyard, while the overthrown
torches flickered wildly and smokily, we watched the remarkable actions
of the mass, which had paused as if to collect itself, and was now subsiding
like a sort of infernal dough. It shrank, it fell in, till after awhile
its dimensions began to re-approach those of the encoffined head, though
they still lacked any true semblance of its shape. The thing became a round,
blackish ball, on whose palpitating surface the nascent outlines of random
features were limned with the flatness of a drawing. There was one lidless
eye, tawny, pupilless and phosphoric, that stared upon us from the center
of the ball while the thing appeared to be making up its mind. It lay still
for more than a minute; then, with a catapulting bound, it sprang past
us toward the open entrance of the courtyard, and disappeared from our
ken on the midnight streets.
Despite our amazement and disconcertion, we were able to note the
general direction in which it had gone. This, to our further terror and
confoundment, was toward the portion of Commoriom in which the body of
Knygathin Zhaum had been intombed. We dared not conjecture the meaning
of it all, and the probable outcome. But, though there were a million fears
and apprehensions to deter us, we seized our weapons and followed on the
path of that unholy head with all the immediacy and all the forthrightness
of motion which a goodly cargo of foum-wine would permit.
No one other than ourselves was abroad at an hour when even the most
dissolute revellers had either gone home or had succumbed to their potations
under tavern tables. The streets were dark, and were somehow drear and
cheerless; and the stars above them were half-stifled as by the invading
mist of a pestilential miasma. We went on, following a main street, and
the pavements echoed to our tread in the stillness with a hollow sound,
as if the solid stone beneath them had been honeycombed with mausolean
vaults in the interim of our weird vigil.
In all our wanderings, we found no sign of that supremely noxious
and execrable thing which had issued from the riven sarcophagus. Nor, to
our relief, and contrary to all our fears, did we encounter anything of
an allied or analogous nature, such as might be abroad if our surmises
were correct. But, near the central square of Commoriom, we met with a
number of men, carrying bills and tridents and torches, who proved to be
the guards I had posted that evening above the tomb of Knygathin Zhaum's
body. These men were in a state of pitiable agitation; and they told us
a fearsome tale, of how the deep-hewn tomb and the monumental blocks of
stone that were piled within it had heaved as with the throes of earthquake;
and of how a python-shapen mass of frothing and hissing matter had poured
forth from amid the blocks and had vanished into the darkness toward Commoriom.
In return, we told them of that which had happened during our vigil in
the courtyard; and we all agreed that a great foulness, a thing more baneful
than beast or serpent, was again loose and ravening in the night. And we
spoke only in shocked whispers of what the morrow might declare.
Uniting our forces, we searched the city, combing cautiously its
alleys and its thoroughfares and dreading with the dread of brave men the
dark, iniquitous spawn on which the light of our torches might fail at
any turn or in any nook or portal. But the search was vain; and the stars
grew faint above us in a livid sky; and the dawn came in among the marble
spires with a glimmering of ghostly silver; and a thin, phantasmal amber
was sifted on walls and pavements.
Soon there were footsteps other than ours that echoed through the
town; and one by one the familiar clangors and clamors of life awoke. Early
passers appeared; and the sellers of fruits and milk and legumes came in
from the country-side. But of that which we sought there was still no trace.
We went on, while the city continued to resume its matutinal activities
around us. Then, abruptly, with no warning, and under circumstances that
would have startled the most robust and affrayed the most valorous, we
came upon our quarry. We were entering the square in which was the eighon-block
whereon so many thousand miscreants had laid their piacular necks, when
we heard an outcry of mortal dread and agony such as only one thing in
the world could have occasioned. Hurrying on, we saw that two wayfarers,
who had been crossing the square near the block of justice, were struggling
and writhing in the clutch of an unequalled monster which both natural
history and fable would have repudiated.
In spite of the baffling, ambiguous oddities which the thing displayed,
we identified it as Knygathin Zhaum when we drew closer. The head, in its
third re-union with that detestable torso, had attached itself in a semi-flattened
manner to the region of the lower chest and diaphragm; and during the process
of this novel coalescence, one eye had slipped away from all relation with
its fellow or the head and was now occupying the navel, just below the
embossment of the chin. Other and even more shocking alterations had occurred:
the arms had lengthened into tentacles, with fingers that were like knots
of writhing vipers; and where the head would normally have been, the shoulders
had reared themselves to a cone-shaped eminence that ended in a cup-like
mouth. Most fabulous and impossible of all, however, were the changes in
the nether limbs: at each knee and hip, they had re-bifurcated into long,
lithe proboscides that were lined with throated suckers. By making a combined
use of its various mouths and members, the abnormality was devouring both
of the hapless persons whom it had seized.
Drawn by the outcries, a crowd gathered behind us as we neared this
atrocious tableau. The whole city seemed to fill with a well-nigh instantaneous
clamor, an ever-swelling hubbub, in which the dominant note was one of
supreme, all-devastating terror.
I shall not speak of our feelings as officers and men. It was plain
to us that the ultra-mundane factors in Knygathin Zhaum's ancestry had
asserted themselves with a hideously accelerative ratio, following his
latest resurrection. But, maugre this, and the wholly stupendous enormity
of the mis-creation before us, we were still prepared to fulfill our duty
and defend as best we could the helpless populace. I boast not of the heroism
required: we were simple men, and should have done only that which we were
visibly called upon to do.
We surrounded the monster, and would have assailed it immediately
with our bills and tridents. But here an embarrassing difficulty disclosed
itself: the creature before us had entwined itself so tortuously and inextricably
with its prey, and the whole group was writhing and tossing so violently,
that we could not use our weapons without grave danger of impaling or otherwise
injuring our two fellow-citizens. At length, however, the strugglings and
heavings grew less vehement, as the substance and life-blood of the men
was consumed; and the loathsome mass of devourer and devoured became gradually
Now, if ever, was our opportunity; and I am sure we should all have
rallied to the attack, useless and vain as it would certainly have been.
But plainly the monster had grown weary of all such trifling and would
no longer submit himself to the petty annoyance of human molestation. As
we raised our weapons and made ready to strike, the thing drew back, still
carrying its vein-drawn, flaccid victims, and climbed upon the eighon-block.
Here, before the eyes of all assembled, it began to swell in every part,
in every member, as if it were inflating itself with a superhuman rancor
and malignity. The rate at which the swelling progressed, and the proportions
which the thing attained as it covered the block from sight and lapsed
down on every side with undulating, inundating folds, would have been enough
to daunt the heroes of remotest myth. The bloating of the main torso, I
might add, was more lateral than vertical. When the abnormality began to
present dimensions that were beyond those of any creature of this world,
and to bulge aggressively toward us with a slow, interminable stretching
of boa-like arms, my valiant and redoubtable companions were scarcely to
be censured for retreating. And even less can I blame the general population,
who were now evacuating Commoriom in torrential multitudes, with shrill
cries and wailings. Their flight was no doubt accelerated by the vocal
sounds, which, for the first time during our observation, were being emitted
by the monster. These sounds partook of the character of hissings more
than anything else; but their volume was overpowering, their timbre was
a torment and a nausea to the ear; and, worst of all, they were issuing
not only from the diaphragmic mouth but from each of the various other
oral openings or suckers which the horror had developed. Even I, Athammaus,
drew back from those hissings and stood well beyond reach of the coiling
I am proud to say, however, that I lingered on the edge of the empty
square for some time, with more than one backward and regretful glance.
The thing that had been Knygathin Zhaum was seemingly content with its
triumph; and it brooded supine and mountainous above the vanquished eighon-block.
Its myriad hisses sank to a slow, minor sibilation such as might issue
from a family of somnolent pythons; and it made no overt attempt to assail
or even approach me. But seeing at last that the professional problem which
it offered was quite insoluble; and divining moreover that Commoriom was
by now entirely without a king, a judicial system, a constabulary or a
people, I finally abandoned the doomed city and followed the others.