Shades of Azmattia
by Slawomir Rapala
Table of Contents|
Part 3 and Part 4
appeared in issue 218.
“What are you going to do?” Livia had tears in her eyes.
“Silence, both of you!” Akhbar frowned.
“What are you planning to do to us?” Aezubah’s voice was low and dangerous. In response, one of the thugs put the edge of a sharp blade to his throat and pressed it down gently, drawing out a drop of blood. The General’s solemn face twisted into a pained grimace.
“Father Akhbar told you to shut your mouth, so do it!” the man hissed.
Aezubah bared his teeth again in a terrible grin and pierced the man with a cold stare, but said nothing more. They all started towards the exit with Akhbar leading, the two prisoners being led in the middle, and the rest of the men following them. Once outside of the Palace, out of the smoke-filled rooms, Aezubah and Livia breathed easier. The day was just beginning to wake and the sun was still low on the horizon. The ruins of the city were mostly hidden in the shade of the tall cliffs surrounding them, and the sands were cool.
Aezubah and Livia exchanged no words; there was nothing to say. Their situation was hopeless. Livia had tears in her eyes, convinced that they were going to a terrible, painful death. Aezubah wanted to put his arm around her and wished he could somehow cheer her up, maybe tell her that everything would be all right, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it, because he wasn’t sure of that himself. Deep down inside, General Aezubah prayed to his gods, whoever they were, asking for a quick and painless death, a death he would be able to bear like a man.
Urged on by the thugs, Aezubah and Livia were led through the ruins of the city, down the main road, through an opening that once served as a gate, and up the slope to the floor of the gorge that led them to the city the previous night. A faint gust blew between the tall cliffs, carrying with it bits of sand that got into their eyes and nostrils and made breathing difficult.
After walking several hundred paces down the gorge, the group halted at Akhbar’s gesture. Nothing was said. Impassable cliffs of indescribable beauty, coloured with all the shades of rainbows and shimmering in the light of the rising sun, surrounded them on all sides now, taller than the eye could see, reaching high up into the perfectly blue and cloudless sky, higher than any man or creature could climb, higher than any bird could fly.
Aezubah looked up and around with suspicion, sensing that there was something wrong here, that this part of the gorge held something unnatural. An ancient evil dwelt here and its aura saturated everything the General touched. But he heard nothing but the soft chime of the wind blowing through the canyon. The only thing that caught his eye were several large cracks high up in the walls of the gorge, about halfway to the top of the cliffs. The openings appeared to have been chiselled into the stone.
Everyone stood motionless and in silence. Akhbar gestured his men to form a circle around the two prisoners, leaving them in the middle of the clearing, atop a small sand dune. Half a dozen thugs tied the prisoners’ hands behind their backs, then joined their ankles together and then forced them to the ground.
Aezubah said nothing; he realized he would be wasting his breath. As soon as the thugs stepped back, he focused on breaking free of the ropes. Livia was weeping silently on the ground beside him, already resigned to her fate, whatever it was to be. But he was the General and he would struggle until the very end, until his lips would part to breathe for the final time. Even if he had already offered his stained soul up to the gods, he would not surrender to his fate.
Akhbar took a few steps into the circle and drew his hood back, revealing his dry and withered face, a face so ancient in the morning sun that even Aezubah gasped in disbelief. He thought it impossible that the old man still lived, as aged as he clearly was, more akin to a corpse than a living being. There he was, though, standing before them, his arms held out and up, his long, white hair blowing in the wind, his eyes burning with incredible intensity.
An eerie feeling overtook Aezubah and he shivered uncontrollably. He glanced over at the girl and saw her face was pale and that she was near the point of losing consciousness. She pointed to the ground with her teary eyes and Aezubah cursed, only now realizing that the place they were seated in was littered with polished white bones, human bones, half-buried and glistening in the sand. Something had feasted here, many times.
Akhbar closed his eyes in the meantime and hummed a strange tune in a language that neither Aezubah nor Livia were familiar with. It hardly sounded like a human tongue. The old man’s face slowly turned ashen as he looked up toward the sky, still humming and hissing, as if calling something to come out. The rest of the men soon joined in the vile song.
“What are they doing?” Livia whispered, her eyes frantic and terrified.
“It looks like some sort of a religious ceremony,” Aezubah’s voice remained strong and he studied the men closely. “They’re calling something out.”
“Calling what out?”
“Their god,” Aezubah looked around uneasily. “I’d rather not guess what it is, but this place is so ancient... who knows? Something could have survived out here in the wasteland. If they worship this creature, whatever it is, they may also help keep it alive by feeding it.”
“Feeding it?” Livia’s face paled even more. Aezubah noted how beautiful she was in the fear that overwhelmed her.
“Sacrifice,” he replied with a grim smile and pointed to the bones at their feet.
“You mean?...” she hesitated before asking the question.
“Yeah,” Aezubah nodded. “Look...”
The hiss escaping Akhbar’s lips took on hypnotic qualities. The terrible song, hummed by several dozen men, was becoming stronger and louder. Aezubah shook his head but the strange melody was forcing its way into his brain, dulling him and making him drowsy. He fought the fatigue that suddenly overtook him, realizing now that it was probably its purpose to dull the prisoners, so that they would not fight against whatever it was that Akhbar and his men were urging to come out.
Aezubah looked over at Livia again and saw her head dropping, her eyes closing as she succumbed to the terrible spell of the wicked song. He fought to stay awake even harder now, realizing just how helpless the girl was.
He noticed the men surrounding them were not immune to the effects of the song and all of them, including Akhbar, now seemed to be in a deep trance, motionless and still, their faces pale. But they continued to sing at the top of their lungs.
Aezubah was the only one still fighting against the spell, the only one still moving in the terrible stillness that enveloped the entire world. Recognizing that this was his last chance to break free from the ropes, Aezubah shook the rest of the numbness off his mind and started to twist his hands, rubbing his wrists together, trying to untie himself or rip off his bonds.
Twisting onto his side and desperately trying to break free, he inadvertently looked up into the sky. He halted, paralysed by a mixture of bewilderment and fear.
There was movement high up on the walls of the gorge. Something was moving beside one of the openings he noticed before. He couldn’t quite make out what it was, it was still too far up the wall, but it was coming down fast, sliding down the rocks and cliffs, slithering down toward the ground, drawn by the hiss and the hum of Akhbar and his men.
Soon it covered half the distance and Aezubah could see it now. His face turned ashen at the terrible sight of an ancient creature, so old that it had lost all hair on its slithering body, so old that its glistening skin had turned white with age. An archaic, giant beast that must have witnessed the rise and fall of the reptilian civilization.
Larger than any snake Aezubah had ever seen, covered with withered skin that bound its ancient body, the monster moved quickly down on its short, stubby legs, clinging to the rocks with its razor-sharp claws, shifting its body from stone to stone, its small beady eyes locked on Aezubah’s.
The General closed his eyes and opened them again, but the appalling creature was still there. It drew closer and was coming fast, its snout wide open and lined with several rows of sharp little teeth, ready to engulf its prey and grind it down to bits. Aezubah could already smell the repulsive odour escaping the creature’s open jaws and it made him feel sick to his stomach.
Livia lay unconscious next to him. Akhbar and his men encircled the small mound, but they were all lost in a deep trance, still humming the terrible song. The creature hung low above him now, ready to leap forward and to tear his head off. It screeched triumphantly and so powerfully that the walls of the cliff shook and several loose stones tumbled down from the top. The beast slid a few more paces down, readying its giant body to hurl toward the top of the dune where the two prisoners lay tied together.
“Help me,” Aezubah clenched his teeth and thought back to all the gods whose names he could remember, “Help me to kill this monstrosity, a living mockery of you!”
As if in answer to his plea, the creature roared again and its deafening shriek struck agony into Aezubah’s mind. At the same time, however, it stirred his body into action. He pulled violently on the ropes that held his hands, pulling at them in an act of final desperation. His body surpassed its own limits; the bonds broke and his hands were free.
The creature slithered almost all the way down now and stopped, looking at Aezubah with its dumb and empty gaze, a gaze that was filled with nothing but hunger and hatred. The General pulled hard on the ropes binding his ankles. The creature roared for the last time and then hurled forward, screeching at the top of its lungs and raising clouds of sand and debris with its disgustingly sweet and hot breath.
In this last moment, Aezubah managed to free himself completely. He rolled off the mound, avoiding a murderous blow to his head. The sharp claws only grazed his bare back. Staggering to his feet, Aezubah eyed the nearest of Akhbar‘s men. He leapt towards him on still unsure legs and tore the sword away from his hand. The man did not move, gazing up with a blank and empty stare.
The General paid no attention to him. The only thought in his dazed head was that atop that sand dune, an unconscious girl lay only a few paces away from a hungry and terrible creature. Gripping the hilt of the sword tightly in his hand, Aezubah started back up the mound to meet the monster.
He stopped dead in his tracks, and a savage cry tore from his breast, an inhuman cry of disgust, pain, and hatred. Livia’s maimed and mangled body was disappearing between the creature’s gaping jaws, as the beast shoved her in with its stubby fingers like a piece of meat. The girl’s only blessing was that she had remained unconscious and never felt the hundreds of razor-sharp teeth grinding her down to nothing...
With a horrible cry of rage, Aezubah darted wildly forward. The terrible blow he delivered would have severed a man in two, but the creature was stronger than anything he had ever faced before. The blade dug deep into the beast’s neck and cut down diagonally through its breast, wedging itself in its body. The monster staggered back with a shriek of agony. Its eyes locked with Aezubah’s again and the two stared at each other for a brief moment, peering into one another’s soul.
“Come down!” Aezubah’s hunger for vengeance was larger than life. “Come down and fight me!”
But the creature retreated up the cliff, bleeding profusely, the sword still wedged deep in its flattened chest. Then it turned around and started climbing back up the wall of the gorge, back to its cave. It bled horribly from the gash in its chest, and was clearly in pain. It moved more slowly than before, now and then letting out a painful screech that resonated off the walls and carried far into the canyon.
Aezubah stood atop the mound looking after the monster, his chest bare, and blood streaking down his back from the wound he had received in the struggle. Amidst the glistening bones, on the bloodstained ground, breathing heavily, enraged and fuming, Aezubah was not just the General. He was a god, and his kingdom was Vengeance.
Akhbar and his men were slowly coming out of their deep trance. Now that their god was defeated and was retreating into its lair, the spell was broken. Akhbar stood only a few paces away from Aezubah, shaking his head and looking around with blank stare, still unaware of all that had transpired.
“You’re going to pay for this!” Aezubah roared.
He dashed forward and snatched the old man’s arm. The blow he delivered with a closed fist tore Akhbar’s head off his shoulders and sent it rolling down the floor of the gorge. The lifeless, bloodied corpse dropped to the ground at Aezubah’s feet. The General roared again like a beast, but this time in triumph. Covered with the blood of his enemies he was a god, a vengeful demon, terrible and inhuman.
Then he heard a strange noise and quickly looked up. Realizing what was about to happen, he forced his wounded and paining leg to move and ran as fast as he could, as hard as he could, breaking through the circle of the men. The followers of the beast looked on numbly, still half-submerged in the hypnotic sleep and slow to realize the danger they were in.
Aezubah ran about a hundred paces and dove to the ground head first, hiding his face in the sand. In the very next moment the colossal body of the creature crashed into the ground, sending a massive tremor through the earth. A wave of sand lifted off the ground and raced towards the General with great speed, like the savage and rolling ocean during a storm. The creature, stricken by the rage-crazed Aezubah, had managed to climb halfway to its cave but then lost its grip and tumbled down, plummeting hundreds of paces to its death, crashing into the ground with tremendous force, killing itself and burying its followers beneath its primordial body.
Some time passed before the cloud of dust and debris settled and Aezubah stirred beneath the sand. He rose to his feet without haste, groaning painfully and clutching the reopened wound in his thigh. Slowly he dusted himself off the sand, stretched and groaned again. All of his joints ached and the fresh gash left by the creature’s claws across his back added to the pain.
Aezubah paid little attention to his wrecked body. He looked back at the sacrificial mound. He was astonished at the size of the creature. The sword was still wedged inside its broken body, but he made no move to retrieve it. The General looked for only a moment, then turned and slowly made his way back to the ruins of the city, limping as he went, helping himself with a walking stick that he picked up on the way.
He made his way through the ruins and back to the palace, where he found the horses near the waterhole. With a heavy heart and his memories burdened by the thought of the beautiful Nekryan girl, Aezubah turned her horse loose. The girl had offered herself to his care and protection and he had failed her. One more stain on his already blackened soul.
He sighed and climbed laboriously upon his steed. Then he remembered that he hadn’t eaten in almost two days; he thought of going back to the palace and searching for supplies.
“To hell with it!” Aezubah shrugged his shoulders. He had enough water to make his way through the desert and some supplies left in his bag. His only wish was to leave this godforsaken place as soon as possible.
Soon the ancient city buried in sand was left far behind him. He retraced slowly the path that had led him and Livia into this place outside the stream of time, his thoughts grim and his gaze stern. He thought about the girl he had failed to protect and whose young soul was now one more claimed by the Wastelands, adding to the legend and to the tragedy of this place.
And as he rode, words seeped into his mind, arranging into a hurtful whole:
She knew of me. I know so little of her.
She needed safety. I offered danger.
She spoke to me. I replied with haughty gestures.
She offered love. I, vengeance and hate.
She asked for hope. I gave her despair.
She died. I lived...
Aezubah halted his mount and looked back. No, he reflected. She lived, but I, not yet...
Copyright © 2006 by Slawomir Rapala