The Curse of the Golden Skull
Robert E. Howard
[(Circa 1928?) Originally appeared in The Howard Collector #9, Spring 1967.]
Rotath of Lemuria lay dying. Blood had ceased to flow from the deep sword gash under his heart, but the pulse in his temple hammered like kettledrums.
Rotath lay on a marble floor. Granite columns rose about him and a silver idol stared with ruby eyes at the man who lay at its feet. The bases of the columns were carved with curious monsters; above the shrine sounded a vague whispering. The trees which hemmed in and hid that mysterious fane spread long waving branches above it, and these branches were vibrant with leaves that rustled in the wind. From time to time, great black roses scattered their dusky petals down.
Rotath lay dying and he used his fading breath in calling down curses on his slayers -- on the faithless king who had betrayed him, and on that barbarian chief, Kull of Atlantis, who dealt him the death blow.
Acolyte of the nameless gods, and dying in an unknown shrine on the leafy summit of Lemuria's highest mountain -- Rotath's eyes smouldered with a terrible cold fire. A pageant of glory and splendor passed before his mind's eye. The acclaim of worshippers, the roar of silver trumpets, the whispering shadows of mighty and mystic temples where great wings swept unseen -- then the intrigues, the onslaught of the invaders -- death!
Rotath cursed the king of Lemuria -- the king to whom he had taught fearful and ancient mysteries and forgotten abominations. Fool that he had been to reveal his powers to a weakling, who, having learned to fear him, had turned to foreign kings for aid.
How strange it seemed, that he, Rotath of the Moonstone and the Asphodel, sorcerer and magician, should be gasping out his breath on the marble floor, a victim to that most material of threats -- keen pointed sword in a sinewy hand.
Rotath cursed the limitations of the flesh. He felt his brain crumbling and he cursed all the men of all the worlds. He cursed them by Hotath and Helgor, by Ra and Ka, and Valka.
He cursed all men living and dead, and all the generations unborn for a million centuries to come, naming Vramma and Jaggta-noga and Kamma and Kulthas. He cursed humanity by the fane of the Black Gods, the tracks of the Serpent Ones, the talons of the Ape Lords, and the iron-bound books of Shuma Gorath.
He cursed goodness and virtue and light, speaking the names of gods forgotten even by the priests of Lemuria. He invoked the dark, monstrous shadows of the elder worlds, and of those black suns which lurk forever behind the stars.
He felt the shades gather about him. He was going fast. And closing about him in an ever nearing ring, he sensed the tiger-taloned devils who awaited his coming. He saw their bodies of solid jet and the great red caverns of their eyes. Behind hovered the white shadows of they who had died upon his altars, in horrid torment. Like mist in the moonlight they floated, great luminous eyes fixed on him in sad accusation, a never ending host.
Rotath feared, and fearing, his curses grew louder, his blasphemies grew more terrible. With one wild passion of fury, he placed a curse on his own bones, that they might bring death and horror to the sons of men. But even as he spoke, he knew that years and ages would pass and his bones turn to dust in that forgotten shrine before any man's foot disturbed its silence. So he mustered his fast waning powers for one last invocation to the dread beings he had served, one last feat of magic. He uttered a blood-freezing formula, naming a terrible name.
And soon he felt mighty elemental powers set in motion. He felt his bones growing hard and brittle. A coldness transcending earthly coldness passed over him and he lay still. The leaves whispered and the silver god laughed with cold gemmed eyes.
Years stretched into centuries, centuries became ages. The green oceans rose and wrote an epic poem in emerald and the rhythm thereof was terrible. Thrones toppled and silver trumpets fell silent forever. The races of men passed as smoke drifts from the breast of a summer. The roaring jade green seas engulfed the lands and all mountains sank, even the highest mountain of Lemuria.
A man thrust aside the trailing vines and stared. A heavy beard masked his face and mire slimed his boots. Above and about him hung the thick tropic jungle in breathless and exotic brooding. Orchids flamed and breathed about him.
Wonder was in his wide eyes. He gazed between shattered granite columns upon a crumbling marble floor. Vines twined thickly, like green serpents, among those columns and trailed their sinuous lengths across the floor. A curious idol, long fallen from a broken pedestal, lay upon the floor and stared up in red, unblinking eyes. The man noted the character of this corroded thing and a strong shudder shook him. He glanced unbelievingly again at the other thing which lay on the marble floor, and shrugged his shoulders.
He entered the shrine. He gazed at the carvings on the bases of the sullen columns, wondering at their unholy and indescribable appearance. Over all the scent of the orchids hung like a heavy fog.
This small, rankly grown swampy island was once the pinnacle of a great mountain, mused the man, and he wondered what strange people had reared up this fane -- and left the monstrous thing lying before the fallen idol. He thought of the fame which his discoveries should bring him -- of the acclaim of mighty universities and powerful scientific societies.
He bent above the skeleton on the floor, noting the inhumanly long finger bones, the curious formation of the feet, the deep cavern-like eye sockets, the jutting frontal bone, the general appearance of the great domed skull, which differed so horribly from mankind as he knew it.
What long dead artisan had shaped the thing with such incredible skill? He bent closer, noting the rounded ball-and-socket of the joints, the slight depressions on flat surfaces where muscles had been attached. And he started as the stupendous truth was borne upon him.
This was no work of human art -- that skeleton had once been clothed in flesh and had walked and spoken and lived. And this was impossible, his reeling brain told him, for the bones were of solid gold.
The orchids nodded in the shadows of the trees. The shrine lay in purple and black shade. The man brooded above the bones and wondered. How could he know of an elder world sorcery great enough to serve undying hate, by lending that hate a concrete substance, impervious to Time's destructions?
The man laid his hand on the golden skull. A sudden deathly shriek broke the silence. The man in the shrine reeled up, screaming, took a single staggering step and then fell headlong, to lie with writhing limbs on the vine-crossed marble floor.
The orchids showered down on him in sensuous rain and his blind, clutching hands tore them into exotic fragments as he cried. Silence fell and an adder crawled sluggishly from within the golden skull