“Where Gods Fear to Tread”

“Where Gods Fear to Tread”

Originally published in Swords Against Cthulhu anthology (Rogue Planet Press, 2015).


They came across the hut just before nightfall. Nestled in a deep gorge at the end of a narrow defile that snaked through the rocks, the place provided a strong defensive position against roving bandits and wild animals.

 No doubt that was why the apostates chose to make camp there.

Bahadur waited for cover of darkness before leading a group of men down the steep western slope. He chose the surest footed among their company: three of the Arabs and the Berber, Abd al-Qadir. The others he left to approach by way of the winding trail to the south. Ceren, the Turkish woman they’d hired to guide them up the mountain, covered them from the opposite slope.

The apostates hadn’t bothered to set out a watch aside from the three men guarding the trail. No one noticed Bahadur’s group scamper down the rocks and surround the hut. Bahadur climbed atop the roof and positioned himself above one of the hide-covered windows. After the others took their places, he whistled, doing his best to mimic one of the mountain birds common to the area. He placed one his daggers between his teeth and counted to ten. When he reached the end, he swung over the roof and went feet-first through the window.

He landed next to a bewildered man eating a bowl of soup. In one motion, Bahadur took the dagger from his mouth and drove it into the man’s throat. The others, six of them gathered around a small fire, stumbled over one another as they dropped their food and reached for their weapons. Bahadur drew his curved longsword and slashed the nearest one across the chest before the rest of the attackers burst inside.

The battle was brief and bloody. Two more apostates fell before they had a chance to fight back. The rest found themselves surrounded when Abd al-Qadir kicked the door in and joined the fight. He split one man’s skull with his axe while the Arabs overwhelmed the others. 

None of them attempted to surrender.

Bahadur wiped the blood from his sword as he examined the fallen bodies. The face he sought was not among them. One of the men yet lived, though his arm was badly cleaved. He would be lucky to last five minutes after losing so much blood.

Sliding his sword back into its sheath, Bahadur knelt beside him.

“Shahid ibn Zahir,” he said. “Where is he?”

The apostate grinned, blood dribbling from the corner of his mouth.

“He is beyond your reach. Both of you and your false gods.”

Bahadur turned to Abd al-Qadir.

“Cut out his tongue. Then stake him out for the wolves.”

The Arabs exchanged uncomfortable glances. 

“Apostate or not,” one of them said, “this is still a man of Arabia. It is up to Allah to decide his fate.”

“Allah can do whatever he likes with his soul when he gets ahold of it,” Bahadur said. “Until then, I’m not taking the chance that his master taught him to lay a curse upon us.”

The warrior scowled, but led the other Arabs outside without further protest. 

“You are right to fear the apostate’s sorcery,” Abd al-Qadir said. “There is no heart so black as the one that has known Allah for a time and then rejected Him.”

“Make it quick.”

Bahadur left the Berber to his work and stepped outside. The moon shone brightly enough for him to make out the band of men walking up the trail. He counted seven of them in all. Asad ibn Musin led the way, wiping the blood from his sword.

“Shahid?” Asad asked.

“No, but these were definitely his men. Looks like they’ve been here for a while, judging from the look of things inside.”

Asad sheathed his sword and scratched his beard.

“We must not delay, then.”

He looked ready to give an order when something next to the hut caught his attention. Bahadur followed his gaze and found Ceren standing there, her recurved bow still at the ready. She gestured to the small stable behind the hut.

“He was here.” 

Asad nodded to Bahadur, then turned to the group behind him.

“Petros. With us.”

A slender man shuffled by the others to stand alongside Asad. Instead of weapons, he carried a large satchel filled with scrolls and books. A large cross dangled from a leather cord around his neck.

The three men followed Ceren to the stable, which was too small to house more than a single mule. Ceren had left the gate ajar, but Bahadur could have guessed what was inside from the smell alone.

Asad pulled the door open. 

“Merciful Allah…”

Dried blood covered most of the ground, with partially frozen entrails and organs scattered about haphazardly. A latticework of human bones, partially suspended from the ceiling by threads, formed an archway large enough for the tallest among them to walk through.

Bahadur no longer wondered what became of the hut’s original occupants.

“What do you make of it, Petros?” Asad asked.

“Madness. But madness with purpose.”

Asad spat upon the ground.

“Blasphemy, that’s what it is.” He reached for his sword.

“No! Do not touch it!” Petros said. “We cannot know what evil we might unleash.”

Bahadur looked at the bloody ground. If he focused intently enough, he could almost make out a pattern in the entrails and organs.


He shook his head and backed away, wanting nothing more than to put plenty of distance between them and that accursed site.

“There’s nothing more to be done here,” Bahadur said. “We should move on.”

“Aye,” Asad said. “Tell the men to take nothing from this place.”


They made camp a mile up the trail. A few of the men wanted to light a fire to fend off the bitter mountain cold, but Ceren warned them that the light would be visible for miles. Discouraged, they wrapped themselves in heavy blankets and huddled close to one another on the hard ground. 

Bahadur took the first watch. After an hour, Petros got up and shuffled over to join him. Although the two men had travelled together for some time, they had never spoken away from the company of the Arabs.

“You should be resting,” Bahadur said.

Petros shook his head.

“I find it difficult after seeing that bloody business below.”

Bahadur shared the sentiment. Tired as he was, there was a reason he’d volunteered for the first watch.

“A foul thing, no doubt. And one best forgotten.” He spoke the words with certainty, but he doubted his ability to heed the advice. The grisly archway loomed over his every thought. Sometimes, he saw the ghost of a figure flutter across the threshold. 

“Truly,” Petros said, “but such evil has a way of lingering in the mind long after it passes from our presence.”

Bahadur saw him fidget with the cross on his necklace.

“You think your god unable to protect you?”

“The Lord no longer holds sway over this place. There is a heaviness in the air, some dreadful presence. The Arabs sense it too, even if they will not voice their doubts. I expect even a heathen such as yourself can feel it.”

In truth, Bahadur had felt uneasy since they first entered the mountains. He hadn’t seen a fire temple since they passed through the villages east of Samarkand three weeks ago. Although he’d never been especially devout in his faith, Bahadur didn’t like the thought of travelling through unfamiliar land with no sacred flames to keep the darkness at bay.

“Even the Turks have little love for this country.”

The wind picked up slightly as Bahadur spoke. Petros shivered.

“Small wonder.”

“This Shahid ibn Zahir,” Bahadur said, “did you know him?”

Petros shook his head.

“He abandoned the faith before I arrived in Merv. Asad sent for me to decipher the writings he left behind. He knew of my familiarity with the Sasanid heresies of old.”

“What did you find?”

A sharp gust of wind swept through the encampment. Bahadur raised his arm to shield his face.

“Strange things,” Petros said. “There was a great deal of correspondence with a relative of his in Damascus, an Abd al-Azrad. It seems this relative possessed an uncommon interest in ancient things best left forgotten. At some point, he sent a rare book to Shahid written by a Greek officer in service to Alexander I of Macedonia. Shortly thereafter, Shahid used his political sway to secure a military position in the Transoxania campaigns.”

“What’s in the book?”

Petros shrugged.

“I cannot say, but I know of only one copy in existence. He took it with him when he renounced his faith and fled Merv. The correspondence made repeat mentions of a key and a citadel built long before the Greek invasion. I do not know if the two are related, but he surely means to find at least one of them here upon this peak.”

The wind picked up again, this time swirling around them and disturbing the fallen snow. Bahadur felt something brush past him, something more substantial than a mere gust of air. Spinning around, he reached for his sword and scanned the surrounding area intently. He found no sign of intrusion, but a faint odor hung in the air that had not been present moments earlier. It smelled like wet ash.

“What is it?” Petros asked.

Bahadur sighed and rubbed his eyes. The wind died down a bit, but still seemed to pick up in irregular gusts that came from different directions each time.

“Nothing. Gone too long without a good night’s rest is all.”

Petros chuckled.

“As have we all. Now that we follow in Shahid’s footsteps, I do not expect us to sleep soundly until long after he is dead.”


When Bahadur woke up the next morning, he learned that four members of their company had vanished during the night.

There was no sign of a struggle, no footprints leading away from the camp. None of the men who took a watch shift during the night recalled anything unusual occurring.

After a brief search, Asad sent Ceren to scout the surrounding area for any trace of the missing men and ordered the others to prepare to continue up the trail. Then he pulled Petros aside and had an animated discussion with him. 

Bahadur watched the conversation closely, though he stood too far away to hear what was said. Abd al-Qadir joined him, grumbling loudly as he pulled his pack over his shoulder.

“We should never have brought that one with us,” the Berber said.

“Petros? Seems harmless enough.”

“He knows much, but says little. Asad ibn Musin is a fool to trust such an infidel.”

Bahadur laughed.

“What about an infidel like me?”

Abd al-Qadir glared at him.

“That is different, Bahadur Sampour. We have faced battle together, spilled blood together. Your heathen courage is beyond doubt, even if you disgrace your family by selling it to the service of another.” 

The remark carried just enough truth to sting him. He thought about asking whether it was less disgraceful to take money from one’s conquerors than it was to become one of them, but the morning was going badly enough without starting a brawl.

“We all have to serve someone,” he said.

The Berber smiled.

“On this, my friend, we agree.”

Asad was still arguing with Petros when Ceren trotted down the hillside trail to rejoin the group. She skirted around the argument and approached Bahadur instead.

“I’ve found something you should see,” she said, using her native Turkish tongue so only Bahadur would understand. His grasp of the language was not strong, but he knew enough to hold his end of a conversation. 

Whatever she’d found, Bahadur realized, she didn’t want the Arabs to know about it.

“Best see to your prayers,” he said to Abd al-Qadir. “You may not have another chance before nightfall.”

Leaving the Berber and the others behind, Bahadur followed Ceren through the stunted cluster of trees west of the encampment.

“What is it?” he asked. “Why the secrecy?”

“The kneelers are frightened enough. They may be brave in battle, but they tremble at their shadows beneath the moon in this country.”

She led him over a small hill and around a formation of sharp rocks before she stopped.

“Here,” she said, pointing to an impression in the snow.

At first, Bahadur thought some animal had slept there, but he saw no tracks around the spot. The center of the impression was about the size of a man’s chest and torso. Seven thick spokes, each one as long as a javelin, radiated unevenly from the center. Looking closely, he saw that the impression’s edges were sharp and distinct, as if created by a single, swift downward motion.

It had all the characteristics of a footprint.

“What do you make of it?” he asked, trying his best to hide his discomfort.

The Turk shook her head.

“My people tell stories of foul creatures that stand watch over this mountain. They are said to be one with the winds, and no blade forged by man can harm them.”

Bahadur shivered.

“What lies up the trail?”

Ceren looked off to the north. The mountain ridgeline loomed over the countryside like the spine of some slumbering behemoth.

“The peak,” she said. “And the fortress.”

Her last word stuck in Bahadur’s mind. He wondered why anybody would bother erecting fortifications in so desolate a place.

“Petros said something about Shahid searching for a citadel in this country. Could they be the same?”

Ceren shrugged.

“Perhaps. It is an forbidden place, only ignorant foreigners dare approach it.”

“Do any return?”

She looked at him like he was a child asking what would happen if he put his hand in a lion’s mouth.

“We should get back,” she said. “Say nothing of what you’ve seen here.”

Bahadur took one final look at the bizarre print before turning and following Ceren back to the encampment.


The weather turned against them as sunset approached, with heavy snowfall obscuring the path ahead and strong winds threatening to cast them off the mountainside. One of the Arabs lost his footing on a narrow pass and tumbled to his death. The company paused long enough to offer a prayer on behalf of the dead man before pressing onward.

They caught a glimpse of the fortress in the last few moments of daylight, jutting out from the rock like a purulent boil below the mountain’s peak. Much of the outer wall had crumbled away to expose the smooth black stone behind. Only one of the towers remained erect, the others having toppled some time ago. The great iron doors had rusted off their hinges, and much of the doorway had crumbled over them. Even in the dying light, Bahadur could see the gaping maw beyond the entrance that led into the heart of the mountain’s black rock. A large tent stood just outside the outer gate, hemmed in on all sides by the deep snow.

Visibility worsened after the sun dipped below the horizon. The wind proved too fierce for torches, but Asad insisted that they push ahead. Ceren traced an agonizingly slow path toward the fortress, finding her way more by feel than by sight. Once they reached the outskirts of the ruined towers, the wind finally died down. After enduring the roaring gusts for several hours, Bahadur found the sudden stillness unsettling. A few of the Arabs lit torches and the group proceeded toward the fortress gate.

The tent was large enough to sleep half a dozen men comfortably, but judging by its tattered condition, it had not been occupied for some time. Bahadur peered inside and found no signs of a struggle or sudden flight. The tent reeked of wet ash.

Asad stood before the crumbling fortress gate, his hand gripping his sheathed sword.

“Perhaps a storm drove them inside.”

Bahadur exchanged a glance with Ceren. The wind picked up again, though much of it seemed to swirl above them.

“Or they fell victim to whatever took our own men last night.”

A strong gust of air threw up a cloud of snow and extinguished one of the torches, cutting their visibility in half.


Before Asad could finish, one of the Arabs screamed.

Bahadur turned in time to see the shrieking man lurch upward and vanish into the darkness. Another blast of wind hit them, this one strong enough to knock them to the ground. The remaining torch went out with a pathetic flicker.

Before the darkness enveloped him, Bahadur saw a bulbous mass of writhing flesh swoop down from the sky and ensnare another man with its misshapen tendrils.

He scrambled to his feet and ran blindly through the dark. More cries went up around him, but the attackers made no sound. Amidst the confusion, he heard Petros call out in a language he didn’t understand. When the scribe finished, a great burst of light as bright as a dozen torches illuminated the area, allowing them to see their monstrous attackers in full.

They did not so much fly as drift through the air, undulating sporadically like a twitching mass of ooze and worms. The things seemed to blink in and out of sight, each time reappearing in a slightly different shape. When they landed to attack, they balanced upon a single, ropy stalk that left behind a spoked footprint. They had no eyes or even mouths, nothing to even give the impression of which end was the front and which the rear. Nor did their movements suggest a proper orientation, as they darted first one direction, then another without bothering to turn around.

Petros stood a few yards away, holding aloft a pendant that radiated a brilliant, silver light. The light did not faze the writhing monstrosities. They continued to pounce on the fleeing men, snatching them up and disappearing into the sky.

“Run, you fools!” Petros said. “Get inside!”

Bahadur ran for the crumbling doorway, fighting against the swirling winds. Before he could reach the safety of the citadel, one of the things swooped down at him, spilling forth a mass of grasping appendages to seize him. He managed to duck away, draw his sword and slash at the tendrils. The horror flickered just before he struck its flesh and the blade passed through harmlessly as if cutting empty air.

Abd al-Qadir shoved him toward the fortress before the nightmare could lunge at him again. The Berber tried to follow, but the foul creature’s limbs coiled around his neck and torso before he could get clear of its reach. He managed to let out a single scream before the tendril tightened around his windpipe. The skittering thing vaulted skyward with its prey, vanishing into the blackness above.

Bahadur dove through the gaping hole cut into the mountainside, joining Ceren, Asad, and Petros. He looked back to see if the flying things were giving chase, but the light from Petros’s medallion did not extend far beyond the entrance. The wind died down again, but the stench of wet ash still hung in the air.

“Quickly,” Petros said. “They could return at any moment.”

“What are those things?” Bahadur asked.

“Demons, no doubt,” Asad said. “Called forth by Shahid’s sorcery.”

Petros shook his head.

“Something far worse, I fear. And much older.”

“What does it matter?” Asad said. “We must find the apostate and end this madness.”

Petros followed Asad deeper into the mountain, his medallion still shining brightly enough to illuminate their way. Bahadur and Ceren trailed behind them, weapons drawn and ready. The corridor leading into the black rock was far too large to have been cut by human hands, but its surfaces were too precise to have been formed by natural means. At first, Bahadur wondered if some long vanished race of giants dug the passageway. Later, he came to suspect that the mountain itself had been constructed by some monstrous power. Perhaps it once loomed alone over the land, a terrible and lonesome obelisk of black stone casting its wicked shadow over man and beast alike before the mountains piled up around it, concealing its loathsome nature beneath tons of rock.

The passageway sloped gently upward until it ended at a massive, stone door. Taller than several men, it had been pried open just wide enough for one person to squeeze through at a time. Hushed, rhythmic voices carried through the opening. 

“Bahadur, with me,” Asad said. “Ceren, cover us.”

Bahadur followed the Arab through the opening.

The great door led onto a huge balcony that overlooked the entire mountain range. A series of ancient columns looked to have once supported a roof, but the balcony now stood uncovered beneath the vastness of the sky above. The mountain’s peak vaulted up directly over the entrance, casting its shadow over the floor. Two rows of braziers ran down the center of the room, filling the area with an orange glow. Strangely, the air felt still. Despite the altitude, there was no trace of wind.

At the far end of the balcony, a group of seven figures clustered around a circular stone archway. Facing the eastern horizon, the archway framed the faint spears of moonlight puncturing the snow-bloated clouds. The figures wore black robes trimmed with red and silver symbols. One of them carried a crooked staff, which he held aloft before him.

Asad strode forward.

“Shahid ibn Zahir!”

The robed figures turned, but shadow concealed their faces. Each one carried a long, curved blade that looked like a cross between a sword and a sickle. The figure with the staff turned last. Something seemed to move just beneath the shoulders of his robe.

“Asad ibn-Musin. You are a long way from Medina, old friend.”

“You no longer have the right to name me friend, apostate.”

“A pity, then. I had hoped to let you live long enough to see me step across the great threshold. But I suppose your simple mind never saw far beyond childish displays of violence.”

Shahid waved at the robed figures before him.

“Kill them.”

The figures threw back their hoods to reveal faces marred by bulbous growths that shimmered with bluish-green light. They rushed forward with frightful speed, snarling like wild animals. Asad and Bahadur braced to meet them when three of the attackers suddenly vanished and rematerialized behind them. 

Bahadur spun around to swat away one attack and duck beneath another. The third blade struck his chest, but glanced off his armor. Shifting his footing, Bahadur shoved the nearest figure aside and slashed at the apostate behind him. His blade cut through the black robe easily and splayed the figure’s torso open to spill his entrails onto the floor.

One of Ceren’s arrows whistled through the air and lodged itself in another attacker’s throat. He fell to his knees choking, and Bahadur lopped off his head with a sure-handed slash.

The remaining figure feinted right before shifting to strike from the left. Bahadur raised his sword to parry the blow, already planning to land his counterattack. Then the air around the figure shimmered, and his blade passed through empty air. Pain shot through his left side as the attacker reappeared behind him and slashed at the gap in his armor.

He smashed his elbow into the figure’s face, breaking several of the colored boils on the man’s skin. The foul smelling liquid splashed all over his sleeve, mixing with blood and spittle. Howling, the apostate vanished again and reappeared to Bahadur’s left. This time the teleportation was imperfect, distorting his face so that his mouth replaced his left eye and his broken nose sprouted from his chin. Bahadur took advantage of the wretched soul’s confusion and drove his blade through its heart.

Asad had dispatched one of his attackers and Ceren’s arrows had taken down another. Bahadur rushed over to help and hacked the last assailant across the chest when he teleported to avoid one of Asad’s blows. The Arab nodded in thanks, then turned back to Shahid.

“Surrender, blasphemer, and I promise to grant you a swift death.”  

Shahid pulled his hood back. As he did, two snakes, each one as wide as a man’s arm, rose up from his shoulders. A large silver key dangled from the apostate’s neck.

The clouds parted enough for the moonlight to shine through the archway in full. Behind Shahid, Bahadur could make out the silhouette of a huge, robed figure.

“You and your false god’s promises mean nothing to me,” Shahid said. “Soon I will take Tawil At-‘Umr’s outstretched hand and pass beyond the threshold to become more than anything your pitiful faith can offer. He is the gate and the key, and I will be rewarded beyond measure for guiding him out of the cold abyss between all that was and all that shall ever be.”

Ceren loosed an arrow at the apostate, but one of the snake heads darted out and caught the projectile in its jaws. Shahid laughed and struck his staff against the stone floor. Blue sparks crackled along its length.

“The elder beings that guard this place cannot stand against my power. What chance does that give you?”

A bolt of lightning shot from the staff’s crooked head, streaking between Bahadur and Asad to strike Ceren. The blast flung her back against the stone door, and her body dropped to the ground convulsing.

Asad charged the apostate, but Shahid easily dodged the attack. One of the snake heads snapped forward and sank its fangs into the Arab’s arm. Before Asad could hack at the serpent, the other head struck at his exposed neck. Blood gushed from the puncture wounds as the snake shredded his flesh with rapid succession of bites.

Shahid tossed the Arab’s limb body aside with a mirthless chuckle. Then his gaze, and those of the bloody-mouthed snakes, turned to Bahadur. The silhouette in the archway had grown larger, shifting now between the robed figure and a bloated, inhuman shape of roiling chaos.

“You are not familiar to me. What is your name?”

“I am Bahadur Sampour Bukhari.”

The apostate shrugged.

“No one of importance, then. Fool though he was, Asad ibn Musin was a man of great renown. Tales will be told of his life and his passing. Men like you, however, die forgotten deaths in the dark corners of the Earth. There will be no songs in your honor.”

Shahid struck the staff against the floor.


Lighting leapt from the tip of the staff toward Bahadur, who threw up his free arm in desperation. But when the bolt reached him, it did not burn him. The mixture of bluish-green liquid smeared across his sleeve absorbed the crackling energy and reflected it back to its source, causing the staff to explode in Shahid’s hands.

Bahadur seized his chance, charging the reeling sorcerer. He hacked one of the snakes from the apostate’s shoulder and sliced off most of the other head’s mouth.

But before he could land a killing blow, a great burst of light flooded through the archway, almost blinding him. Shahid found his balance, shoved Bahadur to the ground, and kicked his sword away.

“Wretched fool!”

The sorcerer drew a dagger from his belt and knelt down, pinning Bahadur to the floor with his knee. He pressed the blade against Bahadur’s neck. 

Bahadur’s vision came back into focus just as a faint breeze swept over his face. Shahid’s eyes widened.


The wind hit them with the fury of a howling blizzard, throwing the sorcerer off Bahadur and all but pinning both men to the ground. Glancing at the sky, Bahadur caught glimpses of flickering, black shapes undulating toward them. They fell upon Shahid seconds later, hoisting him into the air as he shrieked with terror. The shapeless terrors set upon him with a ravenous hate, ripping his body apart inch by bloody inch. 

The wind relented as the creatures tore at the sorcerer, allowing Bahadur to get to his feet. As he stood, the silver key that had hung from Shahid’s neck clattered to the ground nearby.

“Bahadur! The key! Get the key!”

Bahadur had nearly forgotten about Petros. He turned to find the Christian rushing toward him.

“The key!”

Bahadur snatched the silver key off the floor. As his fingers closed around it, he felt a wave of heat course through his body. The wind picked back up, nearly pushing him off his feet again. Glancing up, he saw a few of the flying things break away from the pack and dive toward him.

Petros reached him then and pulled him toward the archway.

“Give me the key,” he said. “Now!”

Bahadur handed the key over, then looked through the glowing archway before them.

When he saw what lurked upon the threshold, he almost stopped where he stood and let the winged horrors take him.

“Hurry,” Petros said.

Reluctantly, Bahadur followed him through the archway, into the waiting embrace of the pulsating abomination beyond.

Bahadur closed his eyes and screamed.


When Bahadur opened his eyes, he found himself lying upon a mat of blood and frozen entrails. He sat up, stifling the urge to vomit as he breathed the rancid air. An archway of latticed bones stood just behind him, suspended from the ceiling and walls of the small stable with thread.

“He is the gate…the gate and the key…”

The voice startled him.


Bahadur found Petros huddled against the far wall. Patches of his hair had gone shock white, and his eyes no longer matched in color. He clutched the silver key close to his chest.

“The lurker…the key…the threshold…the threshold…Yog-Sothoth.”

Bahadur tried to talk sense into him for the better part of an hour. Finally, he gave up and pulled the mumbling scribe out of the stable. Before they set off down the mountain trail, Bahadur ripped the bone archway down and scattered the pieces.

He burned the stable to the ground.