by Slawomir Rapala
Table of Contents|
in issue 167.
|part 3 of 4|
“He was a day’s trek to the north of me,” the man gasped with exasperation. “He was to be mine within a day.”
Shia-Smohc said nothing and glanced at his acolyte who crouched in the corner of the temple and continued to beat out the hypnotic rhythm on a sacred drum. The priest motioned for him to stop. A deafening silence followed, during which the Shia watched the wretch before him with pity. The man’s naked, wasted body was chillingly pale against the black ashes from which Sonya’s altar was raised.
The priest weighed something in his mind, before replying: “Your vengeance is not of my concern, human,” his voice was cold. “I brought you here because I have a task for you. A task that will decide the lives of many, including your own.”
The man stirred, as if woken from a dream. The beat stopped and he was no longer slave to the stone. But he was no longer in a hurry to leave it, either. He raised his thinned frame into a sitting position with great effort.
“I am weak and my body is wasted,” he noted with indifference, as if not referring to himself at all. “Why?”
“The travelling you accomplished is a draining experience,” the Shia said with a mocking smile, which the man did not notice.
“And my clothes?”
“Earthly possessions have no meaning within the realm of magicks.”
The human swung his legs over the altar and lowered himself down until his bare feet touched the cold stone floor. He stood naked before the serpent. Noting another figure cowering in the corner of the hall, he asked: “Who’s that?”
“He’s never seen a human before.”
“Strange,” the man stretched slowly. He could feel strength returning to his body, surging through his veins with growing might. Feeling a tingling sensation in his arms, he flexed his rapidly expanding muscles, then looked questioningly at the serpent before him.
“My magicks are powerful, human,” the creature smiled. “You will have great strength before your task tomorrow.”
“Who are you?” the man disregarded the last comment.
“I am Shia-Smohc, the Wielder of Dark Magicks, High Priest of Sonya, and Guardian of her temple.”
“You walk on sacred ground, human.”
The man shrugged and made a few steps forward, testing his still feeble legs. Then he looked around the chamber, as if for the first time.
“Strange paintings,” he remarked.
“They are not paintings, human,” Shia-Smohc replied calmly. His long arms remained hidden in the robe’s deep pouches. But for the exposed serpent head, his frame was still cloaked by the black robe.
“It’s Sonya’s army, sleeping for eons, bound to her by the spells of ancient masters.”
“No,” the priest shook his elongated head. “But they will be some day.”
“I don’t understand,” the man shrugged. “But I care not.”
He wandered the temple in silence, observing the dragons decorating the walls and the ceilings, peering with fearless curiosity into their hateful eyes. He walked around the whole chamber in silence, his eyes resting on everything worthy of attention. He gazed longest at the altar in the middle of the temple. “Strange construction,” he remarked, but did not pursue the matter.
Shia-Smohc remained perfectly still while the human paced the cavity.
“What is this task you want me to do?” the man asked, when he finally returned to the serpent and stood before him, pale and naked.
“First tell me your name.”
“You don’t know? How did you know to take me, then?”
“I sought a stealthy warrior and I was guided to you.”
“I am Aezubah,” the man said.
“Forsaken,” the Shia remarked with some surprise.
“It is an ancient tongue,” the priest explained. “Your name is a variation of that word in a forgotten language.”
“Strange,” Aezubah replied.
“You didn’t know?”
“No,” the man leaned his back against the altar. A pleasant sensation that followed was almost arousing.
“The task?” he asked.
“You must kill someone.”
Aezubah fell quiet.
“Why?” he asked after a while.
“That is not for you to know,” the priest answered. “You task is to kill him.”
“And if I won’t?”
“You have no choice.”
“I can kill you and that shivering little pet of yours,” Aezubah’s voice betrayed no emotion and he did not move at all as he spoke. Nevertheless, Shia-Smohc realized that the man was not making a brash statement. He was dangerous. The priest made a strange gesture in the air, drawing a sign.
“You cannot,” he said with a small smile. “I wield too much magick.”
Aezubah remained silent, wishing that he had his sword with him. He would crush the serpent’s head with one motion.
“Reach out for me,” the priest urged him.
The man tore himself away from the altar in a blink of an eye and hurled his body at the serpent, his hands outstretched and reaching for his throat. The Chi jumped forward with a startled cry, but his aid, as meagre as it would have been, was not needed. Aezubah’s arms recoiled off an invisible wall that stood between him and his captor. He halted, mesmerized, and then slowly retreated to the altar. The serpent smiled, but then his features twisted in anger as he slowly neared the man.
“You are my slave, human,” he hissed venomously. “I can kill you or send you back, it is your choice.”
Aezubah shrugged. “I don’t care for this,” he said. “This is none of my concern.”
“I’m making it your concern,” the Shia replied. “I don’t care for you, human. You’re an assassin and useful to me as such. I need you to kill someone. Do it and walk free. Refuse or fail, and you will die, whether by my hand or not.”
“Then kill me now,” the man crossed his arms over his chest. “I won’t serve as slave to you or any of your kind.”
Shia-Smohc’s glared, but restrained his anger. He needed this human. “I will make it worth your while,” he said after a moment of silence during which he weighed his options.
“I don’t care for gold now.”
“No, not gold,” the priest’s hideous face was for a moment illuminated with an almost a pleasant smile. “But everyone can be bought, no?”
Aezubah said nothing, but looked at his captor with interest. “What then?” his curiosity finally prevailed.
“I will show you where the man you seek is.”
“I know where he is,” Aezubah scoffed. “You cannot buy me.”
The priest waved his arm and an image appeared between them. A tall man in full armour sat atop a horse surrounded by thousands of troops. A dark, sky-scraping castle loomed behind him. Snow-capped mountains were seen in the background. The image was so clear that Aezubah could easily distinguish the man’s features. His fists clenched and he bared his teeth in a vicious snarl. The priest waved his arm again and the image disappeared, leaving behind only a cloud of smoke. “He is in Arynos raising an army for two years now.”
“I thought he was in Lyons.”
“You were wrong.”
“But I tracked him!”
“He is a Sorcerer,” the priest dismissed the man’s last comment. “He is waging war against the Vikings of Arynos.”
“Power. What else?”
Aezubah’s gaze was fixed on the spot where he saw his nemesis.
“I want him,” he said finally.
“Kill the serpent and you are free to seek the Sorcerer. I will help you on your way.”
“Then the serpent will die,” the man’s eyes reflected such cold determination that even Shia-Smohc for a moment felt unsettled. He quickly regained the poise he had perfected for centuries. A Wielder of Magicks trembling before a human?
“Good,” he said. “Chi-Iss’ld will take you tomorrow to the presentation of the Hsu. You will remember his face. After that you have one day to kill him.”
“I will need clothes and weapons.”
The Shia gave him a long and mocking look. “You will have a knife, that is all.”
“And my clothes?”
“Slaves don’t wear clothes in Yitia.”
* * *
Night befell the Yitian swamps and plunged the serpent city into darkness that was not illuminated by any fire or light. Darkness and silence prevailed in this gloomy Kingdome where only the dead were to find peace. Thick fog rose over the marshes and then slowly descended onto the city, hiding its illogical shapes and crazed structures that defied conventional wisdom. Misshapen buildings rose from the thick sludge and seemingly hovered in the air, as if suspended by the hand of a giant. It seemed impossible that the structures stood at all and, Aezubah reasoned as he stole along one of the city walls, their foundations must run deep into the earth or, he corrected himself with a bitter smile, they were held in place by the dark magicks of their inhabitants. Mad architects designed the city, he concluded as he watched the fog conceal the remaining of the buildings, reducing the visibility to almost nothing. The assassin smiled and for the first time he thought kindly of the Shia and of the power he wielded.
Aezubah crouched by the wall and spent the next few moments spreading the sludge and the mud over his naked body, so as to blend in with the gloomy and depressing surroundings. From a pouch he carried along with a long knife, he dug a handful of ash and rubbed it into his face, leaving only his eyes unconcealed. He then dug a small hole in the soft mud and carefully covered the pouch with it, burying it from the keen eyes of the Hsu’s sentries. He placed the sharp blade between his teeth and looked up. Though he could not see it for the fog he knew that high above, there hung the edge of the elaborate roof that crowned the Hsu’s residence.
Without any hesitation, Aezubah gripped the first stone of the wall before him and hoisted himself up. Skilfully seeking out cracks and protruding stones that he could cling to, he quickly ascended the fifty or so paces that separated the roof from the ground below. Showing great strength and agility, the assassin threw his arms towards the edge of the roof and for a moment allowed the whole weight of his body to be suspended. Below him was fog and nothing else, an empty abyss that reached out to claim him, and for a moment Aezubah felt his head spinning. He fought through the nauseating feeling and then with one swift motion he pulled himself up and leaped to the top of the building. His bare feet landed with a barely audible thud and he crouched immediately, scouring the nearby surroundings, as limited as they were. He thought he heard sentries whisper nearby, but saw nothing, as even his keen eyes could not penetrate the thick fog.
The whispers, imaginary or not, were followed by a distinct slithering sound that Aezubah knew could be nothing else but a sentry shifting his serpent body. Lowering himself completely to the ground, the assassin waited. Two guards, clad in a strange armour designed to fit their thin and twisted frames, passed a few paces away without seeing him. His naked body, covered with mud and sludge, merged with the stone and rendered him invisible to all eyes.
Aezubah waited for a long time before deciding to rise to his feet and continuing towards the Hsu’s sleeping chambers. Even then, though, he moved only a few paces at a time and then rested his body against the ground, listening and gazing into the thick fog that surrounded him. Several times he was forced to wait for the sentries to walk by and he waited long, always sensing a trap.
The moon, though invisible behind the heavy mist, must have travelled much of the sky by the time that Aezubah finally reached the doorway leading into the building. He stole silently inside and pressed his body against the wall, waiting. Here the fog would not protect him and he had to rely on his skills. Seeing and hearing nothing suspicious, he slowly descended the steps and entered a long corridor that zigzagged through the residence. As the Shia assured him, the Hsu’s chambers were located along the right wall of this hallway. But, the priest cautioned, they were always guarded, as the Hsu trusted no one.
Copyright © 2005 by Slawomir Rapala