Shades of Azmattia
by Slawomir Rapala
Table of Contents|
Part 2 appears
in this issue.
|part 1 of 5|
Dispossessed at an early age, Aezubah has wandered the world in search of vengeance. On arid mountaintops, remote glaciers and burning deserts he has conquered demons from the edge of creation, wicked sorcerers, and evil kings. As a General, he is beloved of all the warriors who follow him.
But his victories are never final; he goes forth again and again with nothing but his horse, spear and sword, in loneliness and solitude, seeking the treasure that always eludes him: peace.
The Wastelands of the South, scorching and dead,
Are filled with ancient remnants of dread.
It’s in these sands devoid of time,
That a forgotten god would be undone...
— from “The General’s Hymn”
North of Oyan, one of the most cultured and civilized cities of the known world, there lay an ancient trail, half-buried by the sands of forgotten centuries. Cutting across the burning desert, it headed straight into the heart of the archaic post-Azmattic Kingdom of Bandikoy. Flooded by the light of the scorching sun, the trail weaved through a dry and hostile wasteland, a lifeless region where nothing survived.
Hardly anyone had used the trail for eons now, ever since the fall of the Azmattic Kingdom at the end of the First Age of the Lords. Following the kingdom’s collapse at the hands of Northern barbarian hordes, the great cities of Azmattia turned to dust and the extensive irrigation systems once developed by skilled engineers — a remarkable web of ducts that thousands of years ago permitted this hostile land to flourish — was covered by the hot sands of the desert and hidden from human eyes.
The land turned barren over time and to this day people were still reluctant to venture into the southernmost parts of Bandikoy. Only slave traders used the trail when travelling between the west and east of the post-Azmattic world, leading legions of poor wretches to their terrible fates.
These dreadfully gloomy processions of exhausted and miserable slaves caused this long- forgotten trail to be named the Trail of Death. Human bones glistened amidst the dry sands and spoiled the perfect monotony of the Wastelands.
Few people dared to venture into the infamous Southern Wastelands. It was here that one could find ruins of ancient cities dating back to Antiquity, to the times when Azmattia ruled the civilized world, and even further back, when the human race was in its cradle and when reptiles slithered across these lands.
No one knew what remnants of those primordial times remained buried in the hot sands of Bandikoy. Few ventured here and of those who did, not many survived the terrible heat, the scorching sands, the slave traders, bandits and raiders, and all the still-sleeping and unknown evils of Antiquity.
Scattered bits and pieces of ancient stories and half-forgotten legends spoke of enormous treasures hidden in the ruins of the Azmattic cities, guarded by beasts and giants. Tales were told of cults of crazed madmen worshipping terrible creatures as old as the world itself, older than the race of men, older than the race of reptiles, creatures forged in the very beginning when earth itself was forming; freakish, immortal and god-like, mistakes made early by nature and life, long forgotten, buried in legend and myth, but far from dead.
Stories were passed that spoke of legions of wasted dead-men fighting terrible wars in silence, without a word or cry, killing each other in voiceless stillness, and quietly dying in terrible agony only to be reborn once more under the silver light of the moon; legions of warriors unable to cross over after suffering a horrible death on the sands of this cursed land. Having heard such stories from as early as they could recall, even the bravest now hesitated before venturing into the Wastelands.
On this day, however, a lone rider made his way through the Trail of Death, moving slowly in the scorching heat, relentlessly urging his horse into the very heart of the desert. He wore no shirt and only light ring armour covered his slim chest. His leather pants were torn off just above the knees, revealing darkly tanned legs and a pair of worn out half-tall soldier boots completed his outfit.
The rider was armed with a light double-edged sword crafted by the gifted blacksmiths of the wicked Kingdom of Surath. The weapon was sheathed now and fixed to the saddle along with a steel war-axe, where the man could reach them both swiftly and easily. He carelessly held a short spear in his right hand, and as he pressed forward his eyes carefully studied the surroundings, searching for anything out of place.
He was child of war, a soldier whose life began on a battlefield and was since filled with the hatred of men and with steel machinery of destruction. A lost soul skilled in the business of death who, if bothered by ghosts or beasts, men dead or alive, would not hesitate to draw their blood.
It was General Aezubah who three days before had for the final time left Oyan, a city full of life and culture, of great libraries filled with thousands of volumes written by the ancients, and of beautiful palaces and sacred temples. He had spent his days in the misty darkness of capital’s pubs and inns, drinking and whoring alongside other drifters and swords-for-hire, aiming to forget the atrocities of the two-year campaign he had recently waged in Estrata.
Within a short time, however, he grew tired and restless of the lifestyle and commenced a search for a more interesting means of spending time. Bandikoy has changed much, unfortunately, and it was now an unappealing kingdom to a warrior like himself, a kingdom more peaceful than any other.
It was a kingdom with no warring fractions and without deadly assassins plotting to kill the Monarch, ever since years ago the General himself quenched the last of the rebellions that threatened the Dynasty.
His reward was banishment, his payment was hatred, and his legacy was fear. Today, his mercenary sword was rendered useless in this place of order, a place of culture, a place where civilization flourished.
Just as he prepared to travel further east in hope of reigniting his old friendships there, an old Bandikoyan street storyteller, a man half-blind and dry came to his aid. In exchange for food and a few pieces of copper, the old man told him one of the legends of King Naluu, the last king of Azmattia who ruled before the coming of the Northern barbarians.
This last of kings in a long line of powerful rulers of the archaic world was allegedly wealthy beyond any measure and was left with an Azmattic treasure, the secret of which was passed down through centuries from one king to the next. It was the treasure accumulated over thousands of years by the Azmattic troops during their explorations and plunder of strange lands.
Warned of a coming threat, Naluu hid the Azmattic fortune in the ruins of one of the ancient reptilian cities, the remnants of which were hidden in the then flourishing jungles of southern Bandikoy. Only days later, after rising in the cold and misty mountains of the North, waves upon waves of barbarians flooded Azmattia,.
King Naluu died defending his home and his people, and his once powerful Kingdom was forced into submission by the barbaric hordes. The people of Azmattia were butchered, sold into slavery, or sacrificed on the altars of the bloodthirsty Northern and Viking gods.
Azmattia disappeared forever. The First Age of the Lords ended and the Second Age came, the age of slavery and cultural disintegration, known forever as the Dark Years. A long time passed before the Southern peoples mobilized enough strength to fight their Northern masters, before they forced them out of their land and back over the ocean, back to their mountains, their ice and their snow.
The Third Age of the Lords came and new Kingdoms rose in both South and the North. At the same time, though, many things vanished or were forgotten, while many others became legends, myths and songs passed on through generations of peasants.
The Northerners, always hungry for more power and wealth, never found Naluu’s treasure, although they had searched for it for hundreds of years in every land, city, town and village. The one part of the Southern Realm they had no will to enter was the region of today’s southernmost Bandikoy; there was an evil aura and an ancient fear that surrounded the land. Over time rivers dried up and forests disappeared. A scorched wasteland was all that was left, and no one knew what secrets were buried beneath it.
The aged storyteller secretly confessed to Aezubah that one of his ancestors had long ago discovered the place where Naluu hid the treasure from the greedy hands of Northern invaders. Along with his young son, this ancestor allegedly travelled further south than anyone before him, made his way through the Wastelands and reached the ruins of a forgotten reptilian city. There, in the remnants of an unholy temple, he found the wealth.
He was killed by one of the primordial beasts guarding the riches, one of the three terrible creatures bound to the gold by the magic of King Naluu and forever sworn to protect it. The treasure remained untouched, a fortune that would make any earthly man richer than the gods themselves.
Although the storyteller’s ancestor died in the ruins of the city, his son miraculously managed to escape and returned to the land of the living. But his mind was crazed by what he had witnessed; the ancient magic spells of the guardian beasts had disturbed his wits. He soon died, but not before confessing all to his family.
Many tried to find the ruins over the years, but all failed and never returned. Now the storyteller was the last of his line who knew of the secret, but being too old to search for the ancient city himself, he wished to pass the secret to someone else, someone who would undertake the journey, find the treasure, and honour the memory of his ancestor.
Bored and restless, Aezubah was easily excited by the possibility of finding an enormous and legendary treasure, and hardly needed convincing. Taking with him a detailed map that was to help him find way through the Wastelands and into the ruins of the reptilian city, a map scribbled on an ancient parchment and given to him by the old storyteller, the aging General swiftly gathered up his few belongings and set out on his way.
It was three days now since he had left Oyan and Aezubah was nearing the point where the Trail of Death turned eastward and disappeared in the moist forests of the Tha-kian Kingdom. Aezubah was to leave the Trail here and to continue south until he reached a maze of deep canyons, high cliffs and bottomless gorges. The ancient map was to help him find way through this natural labyrinth and into the ruins of the reptilian city, a city hidden in the sands beyond the treacherous maze.
It was growing dark when Aezubah halted in the shade of a few giant rocks scattered on the desert within a short distance of one another. He reached for the water sack fixed to his saddle but stopped his hand in mid-air as the silence of the Wastelands was suddenly broken by a fearful cry. The General snatched his sword. With the bare blade in one hand and the short spear in the other, he glanced around.
A short distance away from where he had halted, perhaps at a spear-throw, a group of riders surrounded a young woman. Laughing and shouting, the men circled the defenceless girl, pushing their horses up against her and forcing her to the ground. She stumbled forward with another cry and then collapsed into the sand, exhausted.
Tears streaked her pretty face as she looked up at her assailants and pleaded with them. Her short dress was torn and dirty; it hung on only one shoulder strap and barely covered her full breasts and round hips. Even from where he stood, Aezubah saw the features of her graceful face as if chiselled by a divine hand, and could also see the fair colour of her hair.
In this land of black-haired and olive-skinned beauties, her golden hair and fair complexion was uncommon. The General realized that he had before him a Nekryan girl, stranded far from her homeland.
Reacting to his first impulse, Aezubah tugged his horse and started forward at the small group of men. There were four of them, all tall and muscular, scarcely dressed because of the heat, but all armed to the teeth. Aezubah easily recognized them as Tha-kians by their long black hair that they kept tied in long ponytails falling down to the small of their backs.
As soon as the General left the safety of the rocks, the men spotted him. One of them shouted and turned in his direction. The remaining Tha-kians stayed back, quickly formed a line and faced Aezubah with bare swords in hands. One of them reached down, grabbed the girl by her hair, pulled her up to her feet and held her fast.
The first of the Tha-kians in the meantime had reached the halfway mark between himself and Aezubah and stopped his horse abruptly. He raised his hand to greet the fast approaching stranger, but the General did not even slow his beast.
Passing the man in full gallop he thrust forward the spear-wielding arm and drove the point through the man’s midsection, sending the Tha-kian out of the saddle and high into the air with the sheer force of the blow.
The others watched in stunned silence as their leader soared over the galloping stranger before plunging to the ground lifeless and bloodied, clutching the broken spear-shaft. Aezubah did not look back, though he heard the painful cries.
Without slowing his horse, he rose in the saddle and like a vicious sandstorm hurtled towards the Tha-kians. But they were not to be surprised. Demonstrating great discipline and training, they pushed the girl away and advanced towards the approaching Aezubah, urging each other on with hoarse cries.
Three razor-sharp blades glimmered in the setting sun. The aging General did not hesitate for a moment. He pulled hard on the reins of the galloping mount and forced him to leap into the group of dumbfounded Tha-kians. The squealing of the horses, the cursing and the shouting of men, the bodies of beasts and soldiers, all formed a terrible, chaotic scene.
Out of this terrible mesh of bodies and clouds of raised sand, Aezubah rose to his feet like a vengeful demon. He swung his blade hard, aiming blindly at the nearest foe. Blood splattered as the sharp blade cut clean through a man’s neck. The lifeless body tumbled to the ground while the bloodied head, its face twisted by a deadly grin, rolled over the dunes.
The horses now managed to scramble back to their feet and raced away one by one. Aezubah now had room to manoeuvre. He brushed the hair and sweat away from his eyes and spotted one of the Tha-kians rising with a sword in hand. The General moved in with grace, stepped on the man’s arm and pinned him to the ground with his blade.
The last of his opponents leapt back at this sight, far from the reach of Aezubah’s bloodstained sword. Two warriors, both soaked in blood and breathing heavily, threw threatening glances at one another through the blood and the sweat that poured over their eyes. The giant Tha-kian looked down at his slim and aging opponent with bewilderment.
“Who are you?” he circled the General, his broad chest heaving.
Excited by the smell of blood and the sight of death, Aezubah flashed a grin. Yes, he was a child of war. He swung his sword, shaking off the warm drops of blood. “When I split your head open, it won’t matter to you what my name is!”
Copyright © 2006 by Slawomir Rapala