by Slawomir Rapala
part 1 of 4
Fear not what dwells within your heart,
Or what you see that lurks about,
Fear not when beasts of prey draw near,
But him! - oh, him you should fear!...
He slays in his sleep, through fires he walks,
— from “The General’s Hymn”
The damp chamber was illuminated only by the light of several torches fixed high over the heads of two dark figures who stood in its dark centre. They were both cloaked in long black robes that covered them whole. Their long and pale faces were hidden in shadows, all but for the unblinking and cunning eyes that peered from beneath the hoods drawn far over their tall foreheads.
“You are a fool!” one of the two figures whispered in a strange and feverish voice. “We don’t have the strength yet, we have not the magicks to accomplish this! Sonya forbids it in her commandments, it is too early! We must uphold peace!”
“No! I will no longer betray my heritage!” the second shadow replied sharply and his eyes glared dangerously as they pierced the man before him. His voice was even more peculiar than his companion’s, nasal and low, and accompanied by a vaguely familiar sound, as if someone nearby turned the crumbling pages of an ancient manuscript. Stranger still was the fact that the figures’ harsh voices hardly echoed off the damp walls at all, as if concealed within this unwelcoming cavity chiselled in the womb of the earth and enclosed by moist walls dripping with foul-smelling sludge. Soiled water trickled from the ceiling and formed dirty streams running alongside the walls before disappearing in the darkness of the corridor that extended from the chamber and led further into the centre of the earth.
The first of the two shadows stood silent for a moment, his long arms hidden in the deep pouches sewn into the robe that hung loosely on his thin and fragile frame, and seemed to be gathering his thoughts. He spoke finally:
“Hsu-Ssin, you must listen to me.” His voice was much calmer than before, but an attentive audience would easily note that it still failed to conceal much of the anger, as restrained as it was, that lurked behind his whispers. “Yitia is on the verge of a breakdown. We are being infiltrated by the Northerners, the vile creatures that they are, curious and heavy with arms. Yitia must use its magicks now to conceal herself, to remain hidden in the marshes that protect her, not to wage war. We must disguise ourselves against the humans, don’t you see?”
“No!” the other of the robed figures thundered and his voice rose to the ceiling. The flames of the torches flickered as a gust of wind passed through the chamber. The first of the shadows cowered back in fear, retreating further into the blackness of his garment.
“We have hidden long enough! We have concealed ourselves for eons now, while the earth was overrun by those puny creatures. It must end! True order must be restored and I will do it! I will be Pan within a fortnight and Yitia will unleash her power. The world will tremble beneath us once more!”
“Sonya forbids it,” the first figure whispered again, swaying under the strength of the other’s words. There was resignation in his voice because he knew already that he would not convince the Hsu. “It is too early...”
“You forget your place, Shia-Smohc,” Hsu-Ssin’s eyes narrowed and fixed upon the creature before him. “As Pan-Ssin, I will speak to the goddess!”
Silence followed. Shia-Smohc’s forked tongue moved quickly between his dry lips, moistening them over and over, while he tried to think of an argument, any argument that would, in his mind, prevent the terrible doom hanging over the Kingdome. He could not.
“We will all die,” he whispered finally.
“We will live, Shia,” Hsu-Ssin’s long face twisted into a mockery of a smile.
“You will live, for you will have the magick when you are Pan. The rest of us will die at the foul hands of the two-leggers.”
“Perhaps then you should embrace death. I am not a fool and I know that sacrifices will have to be made.”
“Not by you,” the Shia spoke under his breath, but loud enough for the Hsu to hear. His hand rose swiftly and he slapped the Shia with such savage force that the poor creature staggered back and was forced to lean against the moist wall. Water that dripped down the stones wetted his robe, but he remained unmoved, allowing the garment to grow moist and thick with it. His eyes fixed on the Hsu as he touched his cheek. A red stain marked the spot where his master’s hand fell.
“You forget your place, priest!” the Hsu hissed with anger. “I will be Pan and if I wish, you will all die at my beckoning!”
Leaving these last words hanging in the air, Hsu-Ssin turned and retreated into the darkness, disappearing amidst a swirl of black cloth that enclosed him when he set his robe in motion. Shia-Smohc looked on for a long time, his own garment already wet with the foul water seeping from the marshes above. His eyes were now only narrow slits through which nothing else escaped but hatred and fury.
“Then you shall die, too, Hsu,” he whispered into the darkness before him. He then pushed himself away from the damp wall and quickly disappeared in the darkness, slithering away into the corridor that led into the depths of the earth, far beyond the reach of human gaze.
* * *
The Yitian dungeons were a silent tomb where none but the bravest ventured, governed by dark magicks much beyond the reach of average citizens. Silence was interrupted only by drops of water that from time to time penetrated their thick walls from the world above, and fell to the stone floor. Chains rattled quietly sometimes in the distance, as one of the poor wretches slid his wasted, bony frame across the wet stones in search of a more convenient position in which to wait for the inevitable death. No one ever left the dungeons and all who entered were entombed alive, waiting for the soothing touch of death to salvage them from a fate so horrible that no eye looked upon it without a shudder.
Amidst the darkness, the silence, the magicks and the death, a small figure stood, wrapped in a long gray cloak, the tails of which dragged behind it as it slithered across the floor. Chi-Issl’d spent his whole life minding the dungeons and learning the art of magicks that bound them, and he felt most alive and at home when in them. The moist walls of the tomb were not threatening, but protective, as they kept all prying eyes away from the dark secrets that Chi-Issl’d carried. He kept company with the dead and he was as the dead himself. The world above frightened him and sent shivers running down his protruding spine, so as to almost pierce through his pale skin. The very thought of venturing to the surface sent a wave of cold fear rushing through his already cool veins and quickened the leisurely pace of his heart. The world of men was not his.
Chi-Issl’d’s head snapped around at the sound of someone approaching and he peered into the darkness with a hint of fear. A tall shadow appeared beside him and the small acolyte breathed a sigh of relief when he recognized his master, Shia-Smohc. He tensed once more, however, upon noting the Shia’s grim mood and the thunders lurking behind his slanty eyes.
“What’s wrong, master?” he hesitated a question.
“We are doomed,” the Shia’s replied solemnly as he slithered by the acolyte and started descending the narrow steps leading deeper into the dungeons. Chi-Issl’d shuddered and stood motionless for a moment, transfixed with fear. But his master was already disappearing in the darkness amidst his flowing black robe so the small acolyte hurried after him. Only with great difficulty could he keep the Shia’s pace, having not yet mastered the art of levitation. Unlike his master who soared smoothly a hand’s breadth over the rugged steps, the acolyte was forced to descend them traditionally, shifting his small frame against the weight of his long tale. The pebbles spread over the steps slowed his pace and pained the delicate skin of his fragile limb.
They descended far into the dungeons and into a vast chamber that opened before them. Strange light illuminated the cavity, blue and intense, originating from a large structure erected at the centre of an otherwise empty space. The light shone brightly and stroked the smooth walls with its blue rays, revealing before the eyes of the Chi hundreds of awful images, so awful that they were almost beautiful in their monstrosity. Terrible dragons of all shapes and colours lingered on the walls and the high temple ceilings above them, painted by the skilled hands of dark magick-wielders eons ago. As they waited to be unleashed from the powerful spells that bound them, the horrible beasts guarded the sacred temple hidden deep in the underground of Yitia. Their cold eyes gleamed in the pale light and hatefully watched the two figures as they entered the temple.
The Shia halted in the entrance and lowered himself to the ground. Chi-Issl’d who followed a step behind, sighed with relief when he entered the chamber, as its floor was paved with polished stone that made travelling much less painful. He looked at his master, still puzzled by the solemn remark. “I don’t understand,” he whispered.
Shia-Smohc said nothing for a moment. His closed eyes and ashen face signified a pensive state of mind. Perhaps he was talking to the goddess? Few could accomplish the deed, but Chi-Issl’d knew that the Shia discovered the secret long ago and that he sometimes conversed with Sonya. His magicks were powerful and in the heart of the dungeons, where the sacred altar of the snake goddess was erected, the Shia’s power was a hundredfold.
The priest opened his eyes finally, but did not look at his acolyte. Instead, he fixed his gaze on the altar before him. It was a strange construction, dark and twisted as if designed by a crazed architect, whose logic and sense had gone astray. Raised from the ashes of the goddess herself eons ago, the altar bound her spirit to the temple and all who came within its vicinity trembled in fear as Sonya’s venomous words seeped into their hearts, cloaked them in darkness and forced them to their knees. No one could withstand her power, not even the Pan, despite the magicks he wielded.
“Hsu-Ssin will be elected Pan within a fortnight,” the Shia spoke finally, but Chi-Issl’d was not sure whether the words were addressed to him or to the goddess, whose mortal body gave birth to the appalling structure before them.
“His mind is already poisoned,” the Shia continued. “He’s ambitious and confident of his magicks. He will wage war on the humans and Yitia will fall.”
Chi-issl’d shuddered once more and cowered back in fear. The bleak prospect did not appeal to him at all, as he could already see the comfort and the security of his underground haven fading. “Is there not a chance?” his voice was breaking.
“No,” the Shia remained calm. “Sonya is not ready, not yet. Her power still grows and she needs time. If the Pan wages war, she will not aid and Yitia will be doomed. We are weakened by the eons spent in the marshes, hidden from the world. Our magicks are misused for ordinary things and our minds overcome with useless desires. We have not the strength to defeat mankind. Not yet.”
“You must talk to the Hsu, master!”
“I have,” Shia-Smohc replied. His hand rose to the cheek still stained red and his eyes glared with hatred. “He does not listen. He is corrupted.”
The small acolyte seemed paralysed by the calamity of the sudden revelations. His world was falling apart. How would he finish his studies if Yitia was to enter war? How would he learn the dark secrets? “How can we stop him?” he whispered.
“Hsu-Ssin must not be allowed to sit on the throne,” the Shia’s words were harder than the sacred stone before them. “Hsu-Ssin must die!”
Chi-Iss’ld shrank back, the strength of his master’s words almost breaking him in half. His long face paled even further and he slowly retreated back into the dark corridor from whence they came. “How?” his voice was breaking. “How can we kill the Hsu?”
The priest turned and watched his servant with pity. He remained perfectly motionless, his brows drawn together over his eyes and his gaze fixed firmly on the squeamish Chi, as the latter continued in a hushed voice:
“The Hsu is not to be taken lightly. He’s centuries old. He’s lived through many attempts at his life, the last one not more than a year ago, when a blade hurled from the crowd missed him by a hair. The one who hurled it is to this day screaming in the Hsu’s torture chambers. The magicks he wields are powerful. He commands demons and serpents alike and some say, he commands the dead as well. Some say he’s a necromancer. And bear in mind, oh great Shia, that the Hsu is not one man, but an army. The servants he commands outnumber those of the combined number of our temples’ acolytes. No one can come closer than fifty steps to him without being stopped by his mercenaries. And they are ruthless, cold-blooded creatures.”
“And are we not?” the Shia mocked him.
“He cannot be killed,” Chi-Iss’ld whispered.
“Have faith, brother,” the priest said. “We will not kill him.”
The acolyte looked up, his eyes full of surprise. “Who then?”
Copyright © 2005 by Slawomir Rapala