Shades of Azmattia
by Slawomir Rapala
Table of Contents|
appeared in issue 217.
|part 3 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.
* * *
All night they rode without a moment’s rest, pushing the animals as well as themselves to their very limits. Livia proved a terrific companion; not once did she ask to stop or to pace down, not once did she even complain, though the fast and demanding trip must have been difficult for her considering the harsh day she had behind her.
After riding through the night, they halted when they saw the sun rising over the horizon. The horses needed to gain some strength, and the two riders needed to eat and redress Aezubah‘s wound.
It was a short rest, however, because the General intended to cover as much ground as possible before noon, when the sun would be at its peak and the heat unbearable. They would then hopefully be able to find some shade or, if they pressed hard enough, reach the natural labyrinth the old storyteller spoke of. After waiting out the hottest part of the day, Aezubah said, they would keep going right through the night again.
They ate some dry meat mixed with water and sprinkled with a bit of the salt that Livia found when she rummaged through the Tha-kian supplies. Then the pair headed south again, forcing themselves and their animals once more to set an arduous pace. They soon left the Trail of Death, which turned eastward towards the kingdom of Tha-ka and continued riding through the scorching Wastelands with no track to guide them.
No sign of life appeared around them and no sounds were to be heard other than the squeaking of the sand beneath their horses’ hooves and their own heavy breathing. Even the wind died and all that remained now was the silence, the sizzling heat, and the numbing monotony of the Wastelands.
Finally, some time in the afternoon they reached the point where the maze commenced. If they were to believe the old storyteller, this was the last thing remaining between them and the ruins of the ancient city.
They stopped in the shade of a tall cliff at the bottom of a canyon that dug deep into the desert. From here on, the flat surface of the desert ended and the earth was scarred with gorges the depths of which were sometimes impossible to measure.
After giving the horses some water, they let them loose and sank to the ground under the weight of tremendous fatigue. Aezubah undressed his wound, washed the dried blood and debris that had gathered under the cloth, examined it closely, and then covered it again, pressing the dressing tightly against it.
“How does it look?” Livia asked as she leaned against a rock and wiped the sweat of her forehead. The sun did not reach to the floor of the canyon, but the heat was already intense.
“I’ll live,” Aezubah shrugged it off.
They had barely talked since starting out. They had ridden fast and hard and kept to themselves during the trip, using the few short breaks to rest. But now, with almost a whole day to spare as they waited for night to fall, they had little else to do. Sliding the saddles beneath their heads, they lay down in the shade. Livia placed her shapely arm behind her head and looked up into the clear sky.
“Not a cloud to look at,” she said. “It’s like the world is dead.”
“It is dead,” Aezubah followed her gaze. “Nothing can survive out here.”
“It wasn’t always so.”
“Yes, I know.”
She closed her eyes. When she opened them again she turned to look at the man beside her. She studied him for a moment.
“What is it like where you come from?” she asked.
“Home,” she nodded. “Where do you come from?”
Aezubah glanced over, but remained silent.
“Where does the General come from?” Livia looked up into the sky again. “No one seems to know. Everyone’s heard his name, but no one knows the place of his birth. At one point or another he’s lived in all of the post-Azmattic Kingdoms on both sides of the ocean.
“Where is his home? Is it full of mountains so tall that their summits disappear in the clouds? Is it covered with eternal snow and ice? Is it home to the gods who are beyond the reach of any man?
“Or is it filled with impassable forests abundant in beasts of prey, bottomless lakes and rushing waters, waterfalls taller than anywhere else in the world? Or perhaps it is a scorching wasteland, much like this one, where nothing survives and where only the sun is always present?”
“Home is where you want it to be,” the General repeated her own words from the previous day.
“Wherever your home is, it is not here,” Livia said quietly. “Why don’t you go back? Why do you wander?”
Aezubah remained silent.
“What keeps you from going home?” Livia’s voice was low and pleasant. “You wander the dry Kingdoms of the South and you travel the lands of sand and sun, but this is not your world. I think your world is over and beyond the ocean. I think it’s the world of snow and ice, a world covered with mist, shrouded in mystery; a world where everything had its beginnings, a world older than Azmattia, olden than even the reptilian race. That is your world.
“What keeps you from going home, Aezubah, the mighty General? You say you look for gold, but you don’t know what greed is. What are you really looking for, traveller? Happiness? Where else can you be happier than in the land of your Mother? She is your Motherland. She gave birth to you, she raised, fed and clothed you, why do you leave her? Only a man with no heart abandons his mother and only a man with no soul leaves his Motherland. You are a righteous man and I’m sure you haven’t forgotten her.
“Why don’t you go back then? What has she done to you? A man with no home is like a dog with no owner. He wanders restlessly and finally dies, still longing, still yearning.”
Livia rose on her elbows and moved closer to Aezubah, who lay motionless with his eyes closed, listening to her words as they floated through the air. She thought he was beautiful as he lay in the shade, his eyes closed, his hair falling all about his aged and rugged face, his chest moving steadily beneath the black ring-armour as he breathed, his muscles living their own life, strong and beautiful, as if carved out of marble by a divine artist.
Her own breast moved quicker as her heart started to race, boiling her blood, sending pleasing shivers down to the small of her back. Fixing her glittering eyes on him and sliding her body across the sand, she moved closer. Never before had she met a man that seemed so noble and righteous, so honest and true, so strong and fearless, fearless almost to the point of audacity, and one who was so terribly lost at the same time, lost in himself, lost in this world, unable to find his place in it at all, searching and seeking for something he knew nothing of.
So eager was she to help him shed that which troubled him, and to ease his breath. So willing was she to help him find peace in her arms, so willing to help him find it in the warmth of her body, and in the taste of the love she could give him.
Her hand faintly touched his rugged face and the General opened his eyes to find her lips right next to his, her firm breast pressed hard against his armour, to find her willing and wanting, aroused, biting her lip down, her burning gaze fixed on his.
“What keeps you from going home? What can keep an untamed wolf like you away?” she whispered as she offered her full red lips to him, eager to touch him, eager to feel his strong hands all over her body, ripping her dress off, eager to feel him take her with force and passion.
“My home is here,” Aezubah looked into her eyes and placed his hand on his heart. “Her name is Vengeance and her sister is Hate.” He shook his head and added, “You don’t know me.”
He closed his eyes again. The burning desire in Livia’s eyes faded as she slowly moved away from him.
The General slept.
* * *
Neither one of them spoke after they rose from their rest late in the afternoon. They mounted their horses and entered the maze, using the map given to Aezubah by the old storyteller to find way through the maze where each wrong turn brought them face to face with either a deadly drop or a sheer cliff reaching into the sky.
It was late night when Aezubah finally found the right way and they could hasten their horses, guided by the silver light of the moon pinned to the sky high over their heads. After another swift ride, this one on the floor of a deep ravine, they came to a place where the gorge sank deeper, and here they stopped.
Looking down the slope they saw the ruins of an ancient city, half-buried in the sand. They saw no trees; in fact, there was no life whatsoever amidst the ancient stones. Half-ruined houses, most of which had lost their roofs, had sunk into the ground; all had empty openings where the windows used to be.
Several badly damaged roads criss-crossed the city amid dunes upon dunes of sand blown in by the wind over the past several thousand years.
The only striking feature of the ruins before them was the remains of what must have been a palace, immense at one time, situated at the very back of the city. It had been badly eroded over time, but it was nevertheless a magnificent sight for the weary eyes of travellers who had seen nothing but sand and rock for the last few days.
Aezubah and Livia slid off their horses and looked down the slope for a long time, marvelling at the sight that had so suddenly appeared before their eyes. Flooded by the light of the moon that hung low on a sky illuminated by thousands of stars, the entire city was haunting and beautiful at the same time.
“So the old Bandikoyan wasn’t lying after all!” Aezubah appeared excited. His leg bothered him, but he hobbled quickly to the very edge of the slope and studied the ruins. “The lost city does exist!”
Livia lacked his enthusiasm. “Let’s just hope that the old man wasn’t lying about that spring, the one that supposedly keeps this place breathing. It doesn’t look like anything can survive here any longer than out in the open desert! Our water’s low.”
“It must be here,” Aezubah replied, climbing back on his horse with some degree of difficulty. “Best get down there while the moon is still up.”
They slowly descended the slope and entered the silver remnants of the ancient city following one of the ruined roads, one that seemed to be of principal importance and led through the entire settlement. Looking around in astonishment they made way through the haunting ruins, admiring the beauty of the archaic buildings. Only fragments remained, but they could still serve as an example of the great culture, wisdom, and skill achieved by the unknown architects.
Remains of brilliantly chiselled statues, suspended bridges and overpasses, carved decorative stones, enormous houses and villas, tall and slim towers reaching the sky; all of these were pieces of another time, another world, another history, and another race of beings that had walked the earth eons ago. Aezubah was most surprised by the remnants of ancient fountains, canals, and ducts, all of which proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that long time ago this place had indeed flourished and bloomed.
The city was large, much larger than it had appeared from atop the slope. But they wasted no time stopping and made their way towards the palace. They halted at the massive front steps, wide enough for a whole legion to march upon, and here they slid off the saddles. They gazed at the immense structure with awe. It appeared in better shape than any other part of the city. Its thick granite walls were more durable and could resist the damaging effects of time.
A few paces away from the steps they noticed a small hole in the ground. It was filled with yellowish water.
“There’s your spring,” Livia sneered.
“It’s better than nothing,” Aezubah walked his horse over to the waterhole.
“You did mention something about fresh water.”
Aezubah shrugged. He tied the hind legs of his horse, leaving the animal just enough rope to move around, but not enough to wander off. Livia followed his example. Walking back toward the steps, Aezubah kept his hand on the hilt of his sword and studied the surroundings closely. He hesitated before heading to the entrance and looked around again, trying to pierce the darkness with his keen eyes. The silver light of the moon could not penetrate every shadow.
“What is it?” the girl asked as she approached him. The General glanced at her and noticed that she had plaited her hair. For a moment he admired the way the heavy braid wrapped around her slim neck. She was beautiful.
“It’s nothing,” he said as he started up the stairs.
He was lying. Several times as they rode through the city, Aezubah had heard the shuffling of feet around them, and his trained ears picked up an echo of a few muffled words. From the moment they entered the ruins he had the impression that they were being followed, as if a group of creatures studied them just as he and Livia were studying their surroundings.
The skulkers hid in the dark shades of the ancient city and followed their every step and stride but always remained hidden. Aezubah could feel their invisible stares glued to his and Livia’s backs as they walked up the stairs.
And if even for a moment he thought he was imagining things, all he had to do was look closely at the structure that they were about to enter. Unlike the rest of the city it was clearly cared for, and this was the reason it had not yet collapsed altogether and not been obliterated by the vicious hands of time.
He and Livia were not the only living beings in the city, he was sure of it. The storyteller was wrong. Someone or something — possibly many of them — survived in this wasteland. Peering through the gaping hole where the door used to be, Aezubah noticed that the floor of the hall was nearly free of any debris. Someone has been keeping the building clean, he thought.
“We need light,” Livia decided.
Copyright © 2006 by Slawomir Rapala