The Frigid Ilk of Sarn Kathool
The wizened and sagacious wizard Sarn Kathool had put behind him all the whims and errant passions of youth, and in his estimation it was time the Earth did likewise. He had seen an end to the warm spring days of Hyperborea’s juvenescence, and knew the coming age of glaciation would unavoidably end this early flowering of man’s innate capacity to fling forth what all agreed were the highest achievements of civilization (never counting those ruins of prehuman megaliths occasionally excavated from the ancient lava fields of Voormithadreth as anything more than the uncouth, accidental conglomerations of mindless ophidians). Humankind’s autumn was inarguably upon it; winter would be harsh for the species; and Sarn Kathool squandered no opportunity to instruct his captive acolytes and inform his squirming visitors that none but he were prepared for the grinding doom that at this and every moment bore down upon them from the northern reaches of Polarion: a demonic glacier.
The sage’s servants nodded mutely—even those who still possessed their tongues—while his voluntary visitors quickly found a reason to absent themselves, leaving the old mage, with his shocked white brows and thin ichthyic whiskers, lost in what they took to be rheumy recollections of a youth they supposed he fantasized as idyllic.
In this, however, Sarn Kathool’s peers were mistaken. His youth had been a harsh and in most respects miserable one, in which any advantage he had gained for himself came only with the greatest expenditures of energy, dedication, perseverance and the steadfast application of a ferocious intelligence. Much of the authority he now wielded was his by virtue of having outlasted his rivals. This was a source more of worry than of nostalgia, or even of pride; for the great colleges of arcane investigation were poorly staffed and even more meagerly attended, and no longer matriculated skilled gleaners of esoterica with anything like the force and variety he had taken for granted in his youth. Few graduated from the remote monastic eyries of the Eiglophian Mountains, and cold were the kitchens of the Mhu Thulan lamaseries.
Sarn Kathool had witnessed the near total decline of civilization, and of man’s civilizing urges, in the course of his lifetime—a paltry few generations on the scale of men less practiced at managing their mortality. And seeing now the relentless, remorseless approach of the glacial age, he felt that the burden was on him to arrest and if possible, reverse humanity’s declining course. The ice would be his unwitting ally—which was well, as it had come to Sarn Kathool from various accounts that those who opposed the advancing sheets of crystalline cold rarely profited thereby.
His plan was to embrace and accept the course of nature, and navigate to an ideal destination of his choosing, rather than allowing blind fate to steer the species. It had been foretold in multiple oracular utterances, and in his own febrile visions, that the great demonic glacier would level the rich Hyperborean landscapes like a razor dragged across a whiskered cheek. Where mighty mountains crumbled and gave way before the blinding advance of frost, flimsy human structures stood no chance. No monuments of the great Hyperborean kings would survive to dazzle distant ages beyond the ice’s reign; few memories would persist even in oral form.
But there was one thing Sarn Kathool relied on to survive the ravening chill, and that was man himself: vulnerable as an individual, but wily and adaptable as a race. Therefore he bent his still keen intellect on devising a scheme for the improvement of the species. The ice would give humankind the chance for reinvention. Sarn Kathool conceived a new beginning, a new race, with all the depravity, evils and ills of this degenerate age bred out of it for good!
No one understood better than Sarn Kathool the audacity and enormity of such a proposition, but his finances were equal to the endeavor. He planned to invest every last pazoor in his creation, and no matter the extravagance of the undertaking, he intended to use all of his resources to their utmost.
From the tip of his tower, set well back in the interior of Mhu Thulan, Sarn Kathool could peer out with a spyglass on a clear, still day and see the proud although abandoned spire of the sorcerer Eibon at the edge of the distant sea. Eibon had vanished from Hyperborea just ahead of a scourge of religious persecution cunningly avoided by Sarn Kathool, who diplomatically kept fanes to both Yhoundeh and Tsathoggua symmetrically installed in the depths of his own citadel.
He daily observed the rituals and offerings appropriate to each god, to ensure that no deity would thwart his aspirations. This also meant he could not count on either one for assistance. To prefer one over the other, to beg a favor of bat-featured Tsathoggua while spurning the elk goddess Yhoundeh, was to invite catastrophe. Therefore magic could play no part in his designs. He turned instead to the far more arcane study of technology, long out of favor in Hyperborea, even though its first seeds had sprouted there, as demonstrated by the occasional discovery of vast clockwork cities beneath the crawling sands of the aural reaches.
Far and wide he sent his scouts and acquisition experts, to retrieve volumes from the rare tome repositories of Mu and the archives of Atlantis; and gradually his own library, already overflowing with rare manuscripts of illuminated pterodactyl skin and vast books cased in yellowed horn of mastodon, became Hyperborea’s most concentrated seat of scientific learning. The incenses and enchanted braziers, reeking of tradition and ceremony, were put aside for strange polished lenses, outré fuming glassware, miles of curved tubing that kept the glasswrights of Commorium busy for years on end. Along with books and secret manuscripts, there flowed into his vast manse a steady procession of youths, bought from orphanages, salvaged from the streets, acquired from slave traders either by exchange of coin or the wholesale raiding and looting of transport ships. Multitudinous were the experts and specialists in Sarn Kathool’s employ, putting all their ingenuity to work on his behalf, while never suspecting the role they played in his grand vision of humanity’s great purification, preservation, and restoration, in hand with the great cold cleansing.
Fighters, merchants, mariners, moneylenders, healers, magistrates, sharp-dealers, assassins—all occupations figured in his plan. For at heart it was simply a matter of people. The Hyperborean people were his responsibility, and he felt it deeply; they were what he sought to preserve, after all; they were reason enough to persevere.
Sarn Kathool was a keen observer and lover of people; and in a way, late in his life, he found his true calling as collector and creator of the same. The techniques of breeding, the basic principles of hybridization and the concentration of desirable traits within a population, along with the elimination of those undesirable, were known to all but the most willfully ignorant. By such rules were fine aurochs bred into prized stock, through generation upon generation of gradual improvement. The ferocious dimetrodons, so popular as guardians of the wealthiest estates, had been bred through the ages for their lurid sails of toxic pigmentation and their loud sibilant bark. The same principles could be seen at work in human breeding. But never before had anyone thought to apply them with the relentless rigor and enthusiasm of Sarn Kathool.
He selected only the sturdiest females from among his growing stock, and those unworthy of refinement he established as their handmaidens and servitors. A similar program was instituted among the males, although toward an entirely different end. The males were set to fighting and rivalry, with all manner of duplicity and martial cunning encouraged, so as to thin the ranks as efficiently as possible and inculcate the most effective predators. The females were not set at each other in open combat, but the winnowing process was no less rigorous. Sarn Kathool reviewed them daily and received the reports of their overseers, in order to evaluate which possessed the most desirable demeanor, the greatest evidence of compassion—the qualities, in short, that one would wish the mother of the coming race to possess.
When the determination had been made, and Sarn Kathool had selected the most promising virgin, she was given a strong narcotic draught and carried immediately to his laboratory, where Sarn Kathool set to work at the heart of an extravagant mechanism fashioned of ranked lenses which permitted him to peer at the inner workings of the corpuscles and animalcules that drove the animate engines of fleshy creatures and vegetative life alike. More, the mechanism was an intricate manipulator of these cells, with meshed gears and serried levers declining into ever finer forms, so that the wizard’s gross physical gestures were translated across great chasms of scale, permitting him to flex a frail index finger and thereby score a precise incision over the surface of an organelle, deploying an edged instrument a thousand times as fine as an ice-flea’s proboscis. With a delicate touch, the ancient sage delved into the prenatal labyrinths of the chosen maid, and therein made infinitely delicate adjustments to the ranks of half-formed homunculi that waited to be summoned forth in service from their mother’s womb.
By methods of manipulation now as lost to us as the graven records of Sarn Kathool’s experiments, the maid was then induced to carry several of her inborn homunculi to term, to parthenogenetic birth, and the issue of this birth was then herself surrounded by her slightly less perfect sisters, and raised among only those influences certain to inspire the flowering of the finest feminine instincts. The girls were kept in secluded chambers, where every sensory experience was carefully designed in advance by Sarn Kathool, in accordance with a strict regimen of his devising. When this maid had ripened to the perfect and prescribed age, then just like her mother before her, she was brought to the workroom, where Sarn Kathool labored over her with pride and not a little dread, for great was his sense that time was running short, and deep was his fear that he would not complete his life’s greatest accomplishment in time to do the Earth any good.
For through all his labors, the demon ice advanced. From Polarion the blue green sheets crept at a rate previously inconceivable, singing with a low ominous moan that never faltered as the monstrous crystals formed. As the ice clawed ever closer to his tower, laying claim to all the cities of the realm, and began to sizzle and quench even the four blazing craters of Voormithadreth, the glacial sheets emitted weird emergent surges, casting subauroral flickerings brighter than the sun—so that even at midday, the summer skies surged and sang with a haunting glow that had been associated previously with none but the midnights of midwinter. Soon, he knew, it would all be midwinter—winter with no end, ice with no edges. And he bent himself to the minuscule razors and gleaming armatures with renewed dedication and purpose.
What gave him some hope of success was the progress he had made with the males of the experiment. In contrast to the maids, he selected the finest fighters, the most wicked and deceitful, and from them removed their half-formed homunculi. Ice here played its first role as partner. For upon removal from the male fighters, he placed each homunculus in a crystalline vial, which itself he set in a block of ice hollowed for the purpose of preservation. Here it waited in a frigid stasis while he summoned one of the rejected maids and prepared her womb to receive the warrior’s spawn. The maiden’s own progeny were scoured so that there could be no possibility of contamination, and then the male homunculus was implanted. Unlike a child conceived by normal means, the offspring of these efforts were not a mixture of mother and father. The males were purely male—bred for speed, size, aggression, violent disposition, tenacity, utter fearlessness, ruthlessness, cunning. Sarn Kathool knew which qualities he wished in a protector, and such were these. For Sarn Kathool’s plan was deep and complex, and extended through the ages. He had few illusions about the world that was likely to greet his progeny.
As the ice thickened around the base of his spire, his shipments of new subjects slowed to a trickle and then failed completely; but he scarcely noticed, for by now he was fully stocked on specimens; he had all he needed. He was many generations into his plan, locked in a deadly race with the advancing glacier, which moved with a restlessness that betrayed its demonic spirit, closing white claws around his tower like an evil god seizing Earth’s last scepter.
His daughters, the mothers of all future men, were pure and noble and worthy—worthy to receive the final gift that he would give them. They were the ideal bearers of Sarn Kathool’s own seed—for this it was that he intended. Parthenogenesis only to a point, and then a final conjunction, in which his own homunculi would make the short journey from Sarn Kathool’s loins to the waiting womb and the receptive, incomplete homunculi of the perfectly created maiden. And in her womb, their offspring would sleep, utterly frozen, the glacier’s greatest power used to thwart and undermine its depredations. And in the ultimate thaw, whenever after unaccountable ages it would come, that child would commence to grow…and Sarn Kathool himself, merged with this specimen of perfect motherhood, would live and lead the way in that future age—the first of a perfect breed that he himself would continue to refine after its creation.
But still he feared, for he knew his own vulnerability. He easily pictured what could befall even the most carefully concealed tombs of the great kings. The vast estates of the dead that skirted the edges of Commorium were a waste of plundered crypts—and in all the eons of ice that lay ahead, there was no telling what manner of greedy cold wretches might come in search of the fabled lair and resting place of storied Sarn Kathool. Therefore, the warriors, bred to protect the mother and her handmaids—and to do so with all their wiles, with every trick of ruthlessness and cunning their vicious nature could devise. Any thaw, any disruption to the frozen vaults sufficient to disturb the maiden’s rest, would also stir the warriors, and in this way bring on the certain death of any violator. But Sarn Kathool could not shake the foreboding, sharpened by the incipience of ice, that this was not enough—that the maiden herself had need of innate defenses.
After much consideration, and convinced of his design’s foolproof nature, he began to make certain alterations to the maiden homunculi, although nothing that could express itself without the proper triggering conditions. In the presence of threat, at the danger of rape for instance, the maiden mother would find herself possessed of all the cunning strength and violent power necessary to exterminate her assailant. It pained him to compromise the creature’s innocence, but dark ages lay ahead. What if the warriors did not wake? What if the maiden was left alone and at the mercy of her violators? Who would protect the sanctity of Sarn Kathool’s homunculus then?
No, the female must be permitted some subtle yet potent means of defense.
And so, more generations of maiden mothers were bred, refined, and from their selfsame stock bred again. Within the wombs of his select matron, a lineage of perfect mothers waited as if queued to receive the seed of Sarn Kathool, prefiguring the perfect race that one day would venture forth. While this program wended on, Sarn Kathool neglected not the furtherance of the warrior breed, and with all he learned from his practice on the maidens, the male lineage was also improved. From the inferior yet no less fertile wombs of the subsuperior parti-matrons, he hatched males of inarguable ferocity, continually eliminating the weak or hesitant, honing the protector until he felt he had a specimen that could protect his mother from any future harm, no matter how unimaginable.
At last there came a stretch of howling whiteness, a plunge of temperature so cold and penetrating that its menacing ache could be felt in the deepest vaults of Sarn Kathool’s redoubt. On what promised to be the last morning of Hyperborea’s fleeting age of glory, the old mage, weary beyond belief yet elated by his success, mounted to the highest turret of his grim frost-locked citadel and permitted himself a final glimpse of the world he had labored so strenuously to save. The program had cost him the final centuries of his life, and in that time he had scarcely allowed himself to be distracted by the encroaching of the glacial horror that had claimed the Earth while closing around him slowly, as if saving Sarn Kathool for last.
From where he stood, it was no longer possible to see the peak of Eibon’s lofty tower, for it had long since been buried beneath the hungry blue-green waste. Weird lights glowed through the ice at that spot, and that was the only clue that Eibon had ever existed. Wherever else Sarn Kathool looked, there was not even a memorial glow. All the works of man were locked in ice. The glacier itself possessed a demonic soul, a spirit that remorselessly sought the extirpation not only of Sarn Kathool, not only of all intellectual accomplishment, not only of Earth…but of all. The fiend’s disregard for the greatest of minds was the ultimate insult to Sarn Kathool, and yet he had met it full on. His victory was a feat to be flung in the demon’s howling maw. It had not defeated him, nor would it outlive his progeny.
As if sensing his moment of gloating as a challenge, the winter-thing sped at him, wielding an ice-edged sword of wind—the blast that through some irony would come to be known as boreal, even though through all the ages of Hyperborea’s existence that phrase had evoked balmy cosseting breezes and green, sweet-scented zephyrs. Sarn Kathool cringed back inside and sealed the outer portals. Frost burned through the walls, rendering them searing to the touch, turning the lush and colorful arrases hung there to brittle grey wafers that shattered at a breath.
He turned to the spiral stairs and wound his way quickly down into the depths, and the cold chased him, icing over the steps as he descended. There could be no return. The passages were choked with crystals of ice; his very exhalations solidified and fell crashing around his feet, while the air in his chest threatened to transform into sharp shards that would stab his lungs from within. The demon howled! And Sarn Kathool repressed a youthful exuberant laugh, so narrow was his sense of escape. A joyous exhilaration quickened his steps.
And then he was in his final chambers: His workshop, his lair, and in the last and deepest room, the nuptial laboratory. It crossed his mind that the laboratory was perhaps a degree warmer than it ought to have been—as if the ice had not yet reached these depths; as if it had exercised restraint. As to why the uncalculating ice might have let a spark of warmth remain, his suspicion was so faint that he scarcely troubled with it. It was time to put aside all thoughts of restraint.
His maiden bride awaited, locked in artificial slumber. He gazed upon her beauty and saw that he had created perfection. A suitable mother in some distant age, but for now an irresistible and alluring mate. She had been prepared for him by her handmaids, themselves now locked away in secure adjacent galleries to which the demonic cold had been cleverly diverted. The warrior breed had also been frozen into their holding cells; with the chiefest of them, and her most perfect protector, cast into stasis in this same chamber, nearest to wake should she require protection.
All was utterly, completely still. The demon’s howl was inaudible.
Sarn Kathool despite the elderly gasping that his hurried plunge had elicited, felt a youthful quickening in his blood. And as he beheld his maiden matron, primed to receive him, the quickening came to a point.
Erect, flush with his life’s masterwork and the pride of his achievement, he advanced on his maiden receptacle, the vessel who would carry him into whatever future awaited, and entered her like an old man easing himself gingerly into a rocking boat.
That was not quite the last sensation he felt, nor quite his last awareness of existence. For although his spine broke instantly, there was enough life left in his eyes to see the grinning face of the warrior protector as his fierce creation twisted the wise old head entirely backwards on its neck; and with another half-turn, continuing the revolution, he was able to gaze into the wide-awake eyes of his no less ferocious maiden-but-not-mother, who was pleased beyond measure by what she saw in his expression. And even as their laughter rose in his ears, and as the obscene noises of their twinned passions commenced, to intimate exactly what form of race he had visited upon the future as the mother and father of mankind’s newest iteration, there came a storm of deafening white sound flooding his awareness, boastfully and wordlessly, mindlessly gloating— informing him how in all ways he had failed: the insane, incomprehensible, and purely witless tittering of the ice.
* * *
“The Frigid Ilk of Sarn Kathool” copyright 2014 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in Deepest, Darkest Eden: New Tales of Hyperborea, edited by Cody Goodfellow.
An invitation to write story set in Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea was an irresistible invitation to reread Smith’s original stories. Sardonic, exotic, hilariously dark, the people who say Smith’s prose does not stand up to re-reading as an adult are frankly not to be trusted with even a dull letter-opener. Sadly, I believe the press that put out this collection met its demise soon after, in pure Klarkashtonian fashion, but I still hope someday I’ll have an excuse to play for an afternoon in the only world of his I love more: Zothique.