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The Sarcophagus of Yiolh-Ngwehh


Simon Whitechapel

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Many times from the shadows Thaan-Phromg had gazed on Yiolh-Ngwehh,


high-priest of the Thorn-God, and envied with bitter envy the huge jewel, dark as
clotted blood, that hung on a chain of moon-pale silver around the high-priest's
neck. And many times Thaan-Phromg had brooded with saturnine concentration
over blasphemous pre-human manuscripts, blotched by age and fungus and the
usage of a thousand previous followers of the left-hand path, searching for ways to
translate his hatred and lust for the gem into apposite nigromantic schemes, and
find power enough to penetrate the sorcerous armour of Yiolh-Ngwehh's tenebrose
wisdom, and send the high-priest sailing on the river Isth to the Sea of the Dead.
But always his schemes failed, and it seemed to him that Yiolh-Ngwehh's cryptic
smile grew daily more mocking, as though the high-priest knew of his consort with
things human and unhuman, dead and undead, and felt at this no more than an
amused contempt. And so daily Thaan-Phromg was spurred to greater extremities
of hatred and envy and action.
In the cool season there came to his dwelling on the outskirts of the great imperial
metropolis of Yihh a camel-rider anonymous in dark robes and deep hood, and
perhaps not even human, or even alive in any healthy sense, for there was a
strange quality to the few words that the camel-rider spoke, as though it were not
tongue nor lips that framed them. But Thaan-Phromg gave to the camel-rider,
seemingly unconcerned by this oddity of diction, a heavy purse of lustrous silver;
and the camel-rider gave to Thaan-Phromg a twist of yellowed parchment in which
were three grey and desiccated seeds.

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Then came a hiatus of a week-and-a-half during which Thaan-Phromg's impatience


allowed him no sleep or quietness, until the moon had waxed to her lambent
fullest above the flat rooftops of Yihh. And at this time Thaan-Phromg planted the
seeds in a silver pot traced with hierophantic ideograms and watered them with
sour blood. Then waited.
The cool season went and there came the furnace days of summer, when the sun
hung hour on hour in a cloudless sky till the broad back of the river Isth had
shrunken at last almost to leaping width, and dogs and men went mad and died in
the streets with a scanty foam on their lips. And the three grey seeds took root in
their pot and grew. Summer waned and the rains were signalled far-off in thin
thunder and dwarvish darting of lightning on the distant slopes of the eastern
mountains. Then the seeds put forth stems and became seedlings; and soon in
their turn the seedlings put forth leaves and corpse-pale buds. Far-off the rains
began to fall and the river Isth swelled, yellow as poison with silt, and the people
of the imperial metropolis of Yihh could see carried by in its waters the bodies of
many drowned things, some human, some animal, and pale-leafed trees turning
heavily in the flood, and other things, huge and half-submerged, which gave the
children troubled nights, and confirmed for their elders the dreadness of the
syllables of the word that in the language of Yihh signified "up-river".
And when the rains had gone and it was again the cool season, Thaan-Phromg
carried the budding plants in their silver pot to the roof of his house, whence at
other times he was wont to watch the turning stars, and exposed them to the light
of the same moon in whose fullness he had planted them a year before. And in the
silvered hours of night the corpse-pale buds opened and released subtle charnel
scents onto the air, of which Thaan-Phromg, cross-legged in the posture of a
mystic, breathed his full. And in this wise he came to acquire the knowledge to
achieve his aim, though not to fully reckon the consequences.

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A month later it became apparent to the worshippers and acolytes in the Temple
of the Thorn-God that the high-priest Yiolh-Ngwehh sickened with some tabefactic
malady. Soon he was barely able to perform the traditional rites, and many times,

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had it not been for the quick hand of an acolyte at his shoulder or elbow, he would
have fallen in the performance of the duties of his office. And in time he took to
his khio-straw pallet.
During the weeks of his final decline, physicians were summoned from
ever-greater distances, but all of them left his pallet-side saying they could not
help him, save by palliating his suffering as he died. At length, in no small agony
despite the best efforts of the physicians, he died, and the preparations for his
funeral began.

Spon sore d Li nk s
Graphic Classics: H P
Lovecraft
The master of gothic
horror presented in
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Boyd's review: "Contains
the most inspired
illustration of Lovecrafts
work I have ever seen".

Yiolh-Ngwehh had been a man high in the service of a powerful deity: he was
awarded by the authorities of the imperial metropolis of Yihh funeral rites that
differed little in expense and extravagance from those of a prince of the royal
blood. Towards dusk some weeks after his death, when the long process of
mummification was complete, thirty-seven professional mourners, ululating
weirdly and gashing their bare breasts and forearms with knives of meteoric iron,
preceded his bier as it was carried to the banks of the river Isth; and many
hundreds of the plebian of the city crowded in curiosity and fascination close
behind.
But amongst the ranks of the funeral procession Thaan-Phromg was not to be seen.
The bier came to the river Isth and was carried out onto a temporary jetty, at the
end of which, bucked and tugged by the current, was a slim ship built of dark and
glistening wood. This, with no steersman save the tutelary spirits of death, was a
ship of the dead: an honour vouchsafed to a rare few in a generation.
A rich and ornate sarcophagus, carved with symbols of dark thanatic inport and
gaping its charnel greed with open lid, rested within the ship; into this, with some
difficulty, for the river was flowing with unseasonal strength, and the ship
shuddered and jerked unceasingly, the mummified corpse of Yiolh-Ngwehh was
carried and laid. Priests from the Temple of the Thorn-God clustered close at
every stage, swinging reeking censers of beaten silver and muttering apotropaic
spells under their breath, for it was well-known that Yiolh-Ngwehh's death had

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found no natural cause, and there were distinct possibilities that the same
superlunary elementals that had drained away his life hovered yet around his
corpse.
At length the necessary rites were complete; darkness was falling. The
sarcophagus was sealed with wax, and the bonds that held the ship to the jetty
were loosed. For a moment the ship hung motionless on the rush of the current;
then the river seized it, and in a few swift seconds, to the deep sounding of
temple horns and a renewed outburst of ululation from the professional mourners,
whose thoughts were already turning to the salves and unguents with which they
must shortly dress their open wounds, it had vanished downstream into the dusk.
And Thaan-Phromg had been seen by none.
For Thaan-Phromg waited on the river Isth beyond the southern outskirts of the
imperial metropolis of Yihh, crouched in the cover of a thick band of ngalh reeds
in a coracle of tanned crocodile hide. For many minutes there had come to his ears
only the swirl and chuckle of the river and the croaks of mhraq, returning to their
roosting sites from the city's graveyards; now, suddenly, dim but clear, he caught
the distant outcry of the temple horns and the cries of the mourners, and he
gripped his paddle, knowing that he must shortly act with speed and decision. And
the ship came sliding uncannily out of the dusk, and Thaan-Phromg left the cover
and protection of the reeds with three deep smooth strokes of his paddle, and was
mid-river and racing in the ship's wake. Then came some moments of anxiety in
the waxing light of a sickle-blade crescent of moon rising in the east, charging the
foam-flecked waves of the river with lucent silver; twice the rim of the coracle
dipped chest-hammeringly close to the level of the river as he steered the craft to
the hull of the ship, and, indeed, when at last with a prodigious leap he half-threw
himself into the ship, the coracle capsized. But Thaan-Phromg paid no heed, for
after an instant of struggle he was aboard the ship, and his brain was filled with
the thought that the dark jewel of Yiolh-Ngwehh must shortly be his.
He waited some moments to calm his racing heart and then stepped to the
sarcophagus. And here scholarly curiosity held him inactive for a time, for the

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englyphments on the sarcophagus of Yiolh-Ngwehh were like none he had ever


seen, though he had read in very many human and pre-human texts. Indeed, such
was the uniqueness of these englyphments that he paid scant heed to the
singularly smooth passage of the ship in which he sailed, though this rode the
turbulent surface of the river Isth with the grace of the swans of Queen Sphalaghd;
then he was working at the waxen seals of the sarcophagus with a small knife and
shortly was lifting the lid to the faint, smooth crepitation of jheorr-ivory hinges.
Upon the breast of Yiolh-Ngwehh grew a flower, a wide black bloom on a short
stem of leprous palidity that sprang from the cerements of the corpse; ThaanPhromg wondered to see it, and fought to subdue a crawling of disquiet that sight
of it awoke in his belly. The petals of the flower were broad and black, each
faintly streaked with a line of phosphorescence that had brighter display in the
oval staminifer, which cast the interior of the sarcophagus into darker shadow by
the strength of its unflickering yellow light, just as the heavy and acrid scents of
mummification were submerged in a stench of ripe, wet decay that also seemed to
flow from the flower. The moon-pale chain of the jewel for which Thaan-Phromg
had risked so much lay, he saw with a sudden grimace of distaste, looped around
the stem of the flower. He reached to disentangle it, and shivered with nausea as
his fingers brushed the stem. An instant passed, and then his body stiffened with
paralysis; he spoke his last word, the first word of a spell of warding that sounded
on thunderously in his brain though his lips and tongue and throat refused to give
it audible shape. Only his eyes were free of the paralysis, though not free to the
extent that he wished, for they would not close and free him of the sight of the
things that followed.
The staminifer of the flower revealed itself to be a mass of charnel-maggots that
one by one crawled in tiny mocking spirals down and around the stem and onto his
hand; each, as it touched his skin with a minute kiss of moist, chill decay,
conjured vomit into the locked chamber of his throat. He could not breathe, but
could not die, could only watch and endure. The maggots climbed the rich silk of
his sleeves, weaving thin trails of glowing slime into the scenes from the life of the

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hero-god Qlao-Thwo of Thaan-Phromg's sect that were embroidered there, and he


felt them clustering, one added to one, in the twin pulse-hollows of his throat.
They seemed simultaneously to burn and to freeze, and their stench was a rusted
blade in his brain.
And then, very slowly, from their twin clusterings on his throat they made for the
planes and curves of his face, and he felt them, praying urgently and hopelessly
for insanity, invade the half-open oval of his lips, the twin holes of his nostrils, the
canthuses of his eyes, the whorls and passages of his ears. And then they began to
eat.
This was the first revenge of Yiolh-Ngwehh.
He waited some moments to calm his racing heart and then stepped to the
sarcophagus. And here scholarly curiosity held him inactive for a time, for the
englyphments on the sarcophagus of Yiolh-Ngwehh were like none he had ever
seen, though he had read in very many human and pre-human texts. Indeed, such
was the uniqueness of these englyphments that he paid scant heed to the
singularly smooth passage of the ship in which he sailed, though this rode the
turbulent surface of the river Isth with the grace of the swans of Queen Sphalaghd;
then he was working at the waxen seals of the sarcophagus with a small knife and
shortly was lifting the lid to the faint, smooth crepitation of jheorr-ivory hinges.
Within the sarcophagus of Yiolh-Ngwehh glowed the ten eyes of five watchful
aelurolami. Barely the size of cats, they were sleekly and glossily scaled, with
the faces of syphilitic courtesans; their thin, delicate bones were prominent
beneath their skin and one by one they hissed their thirst faintly at his wondering,
horrified face with narrow, fanged mouths. One crouched across the throat of
Yiolh-Ngwehh, over the blood-dark gem and silver chain, two crouched side by side
on his chest, one across his loins, and one across his knees.
Thaan-Phromg gazed at them in silence, one hand lifted still to the lid of the
sarcophagus. Then, with sudden decision, he abandoned all thought of the gem

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and turned to step to the side of the ship, whence to dive into the Isth and swim
to shore, for the eyes and the bite of the aelurolamia are things to flee at all
costs. Yet the precipitacy of his movement was suddenly clogged and stilled. He
looked back and could not restrain a cry of superstitious dread, for in some ghastly
post mortem reanimation, the left hand of Yiolh-Ngwehh had become hooked in
the waist of his robe. He met once more the eyes of the aelurolami and
wondered gladly at their motionless contemplation of his struggles as he turned his
knife to cutting himself free of the dead grasp of the high-priest. But he had
barely begun to cut the cloth of the portion that was seized when the hand moved
again, striking the knife from his fingers and gripping him by the wrist. The sharp
fingernails of the hand pricked his skin stingingly; he shrieked aloud and threw
himself backwards with all his force, slamming the lid of the sarcophagus down in
the hope that he might thereby sever the member that was held. But the
sarcophagus shut firmly without granting him the boon of amputation, for there
was a groove, lined with dark velvet, in the underside of the lid that fitted snugly
over his wrist, and the force with which he flung himself backwards was as nothing
against the solidity and heaviness of the sarcophagus itself.
He crouched beside it, heaving in vain to retrieve his hand from the interior. The
fingers of Yiolh-Ngwehh gripped his wrist with a chill, implacable strength, and
from the sting of the fingernails in his skin an aching paralysis had poured down
into his hand and up his arm almost to his elbow. He sobbed and swore and
gabbled the suddenly misremembered words of antithanatic spells. Then he was
silent and his eyes rolled upwards to pour the horror of his brain into the
star-pierced sieve of the heavens, for within the sarcophagus the end of his
paralysed little finger had been prickled with cold breath, and the finger was
enclosed in the cold chamber of an aelurolamia's mouth. As the teeth closed, in
the instant before they met through the slender bone of his finger, the skin of a
knuckle reported the sharp flesh-ridges of the palate of the thing; then came
through the wood of the sarcophagus the thin slurp of its famished sucking on the
spurting of his blood.

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One by one came the cold breaths on the tips of the remainder of his fingers, the
enclosure within the cold chamber of the mouth once, the lick of a dry, scalding
tongue then the meeting of sharp, icy teeth and the famished sucking on his
blood. He hauled upon his arm as though upon an anchor-chain, barely feeling the
breaking of muscles and sinews in the pain of the feeding of the aelurolami, but
his exertions were in vain. The creatures crouched within the sarcophagus would
feed unto death.
This was the second revenge of Yiolh-Ngwehh.
He waited some moments to calm his racing heart and then stepped to the
sarcophagus. And here scholarly curiosity held him inactive for a time, for the
englyphments on the sarcophagus of Yiolh-Ngwehh were like none he had ever
seen, though he had read in very many human and pre-human texts. Indeed, such
was the uniqueness of these englyphments that he paid scant heed to the
singularly smooth passage of the ship in which he sailed, though this rode the
turbulent surface of the river Isth with the grace of the swans of Queen Sphalaghd;
then he was working at the waxen seals of the sarcophagus with a small knife and
shortly was lifting the lid to the faint, smooth crepitation of jheorr-ivory hinges.
The sarcophagus of Yiolh-Ngwehh seemed empty. In the ngalh-papyrus cloth with
which its floor was lined there was not the faintest trace of an impression to
indicate that a corpse had lain there; Thaan-Phromg leaned forward to peer into
the shadowed corners of the interior, and lifted forward his knife, meaning to slice
into the flooring and see what might be beneath. But as he did so, he was
overtaken by a luxurious wave of lassitude, which overwhelmed the avarice with
which his brain was filled like a blood-warm tide of the southern oceans; there
seemed, on a sudden, no more desirable state than sleep, and no more desirable
place in which to pursue sleep than the interior of the sarcophagus, despite the
heavy scent of the preservative oils with which the wood and linings of this were
soaked.
He lifted limbs that seemed heavy and loose as semi-molten wax and climbed to

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lay himself within. The flooring, intended for the insenseate dead, was rough
beneath his cheek, but he paid small heed of this in the swift slow instants in
which sleep was overwhelming him.
Sleep came, and then was dispelled in an instant by the heavy crash of the
sarcophagus lid as it slammed over him, sealing him in alive. Consciousness
returned in its entirety; he grunted with fear and fright and lifted his hands to the
underside of the lid and pushed with all his strength. The lid did not move, and he
was disconcerted after a time by an impression that the cloth-lined wood against
which his hands rested was gradually growing cold and moist, and altering in both
texture and form. The heavy narcoleptic smells of oil and unguent within the
sarcophagus was invaded by a cool stench of preserved flesh, by sharper stenches
of arrested decay; the space in which he found himself seemed to alter, to grow
wider and higher, and he plucked his hands from the underside of the lid with a
cry of disgust, for the transformation there was now unmistakable, and was
matched by a simultaneous transformation in the sarcophagus floor, which had
taken on a fleshy elasticity beneath his shoulders and back.
There was now space for him to crouch upright, and he did so, the skin of his left
palm crawling with distaste at the feeling of the surface on which he rested it. He
reached out to the right and his hand struck a rounded and polished surface of
stone or crystal. He turned, lifting his left hand and explored to either side of this,
and encountered similar surfaces, which resembled large pieces of polished stone
set side by side and one atop another into a wall of some smooth, faintly moist
leather. He moved forward, fighting a desire to withdraw his hands from their
exploration and wipe them copiously on his robe. His skin crawled, as though with
the heavy, hirsute bodies of sanguinivorous parasites, and his stomach alternately
and irregularly tightened and loosened with nausea.
He discovered that the space in which he found himself was ringed, before him
and to left and right at least, with the curious polished surfaces, which were not,
however, entirely regular in formation: those to left and right, admittedly, seemed
identical, rounded and grooved, but those before him seemed more like flat slabs

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of stone set upright. Four of these, in twos to each side of a row of square,
close-set slabs, took ditriangular form, the downward-pointing apex of one
triangle-half of each pair meeting the upward-pointing apex of the other. He found
that the polished surface of the stone was not so smooth and featureless as had
first appeated. Rather, it was minutely marrred and pitted and knobbled.
The air within the space was growing gradually thicker. He twisted from his
exploration of the regions to the front of it and crawled on hands and knees
towards the higher, wider space that some sense told him was behind. The surface
on which he crawled, the cool fleshy elastic substance, seemed, like the polished
stone with which the space was ringed, to have acquired greater definition
greater reality with the passage of time. Its texture was a curious mixture of the
firm and the yielding, a kind of wooden gelatinity, and its surface was covered in
regular and closely packed minute bumps. As he crawled he sensed the lifting of
the roof above him. A moment after this, the surface on which he crawled began
to slope sharply downwards. He stopped and spoke into the darkness, trying to
judge by the echo how large the space was into which he was facing, but the word
he spoke was swallowed by the darkness, leaving him with no clear impression of
what lay before him.
He twisted again and crawled back to the place he had occupied before. The air
was perceptibly thicker, and there was a light, inspissating sediment of pain at the
base of his lungs. Soon, he would be unable to breathe, but he knew he would not
die. He squatted, arms clasping his shins, as many years ago he had squatted in the
shadow of the awning of his father's stall in the market of the imperial metropolis
of Yihh, and waited, living, for the mummified corpse of the high-priest to rot.
This was the third revenge of Yiolh-Ngwehh.
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