Prose Header

Root Causes: A Tale of Zodom

by Stuart North

Part 1 appears
in this issue.


It was nearly midnight when I came to the station. The guard looked up as I approached. “Yeah, whaddya want?”

“Where’s Anur?”

“That’s ‘Captain Anur’ to you.”

“Fine. Captain. Where is he?”

“Out back, interrogating some suspects. And I’m sure as Shem he don’t wanna see you.”

I drew out my purse and jangled it.

“Five minutes,” he said.

* * *

Anur was about done when I got to the torture chambers. He saw me, rubbed the blood off his hands, and drew me over to one side. “What are you doing here?” he hissed. “I told you never to see me during working hours.”

“I need a favor.”

A muscle writhed in his jaw. “Speak.”

“Do you still have that prisoner? The seven-footer with the scar?”

“The one you helped put away? Yeah, we have him.”

I laughed nervously. “Well, turns out he was the cousin of my local quirit dealer. Or second cousin. I forget. Anyway, bottom line is that the irritating fellow now refuses to do business with me till the prisoner is released.”

“That man is a multiple murderer.”

“I know. And I wouldn’t ask you otherwise, but you know how hard quirit juice is to come by these days. And,” I added, “I’d hate to deprive you of my weekly visits...”

Anur stared at me with knives for eyes. I wasn’t sure how much of his anger was his own, and how much the quirit rage that afflicts all addicts.

“One of these days you’re going to go too far,” he growled.

“So you’ll do it?”

“Fine. Murgog!” His rotund jailer waddled over, red-faced and bleary-eyed. There were dried sweat stains radiating from his armpits in concentric tidemarks. Clearly a man who took pride in his appearance.

Anur made to leave.

“One more thing,” I said.

“Shem’s tits! What now?”

I dropped my voice low. “I’ve just this minute overheard some business going down at the House of Dreams tonight. Special business, if you get me. Anyway, just thought you’d like to know, is all.”

“Fine, fine, now if you’ll excuse me...”

He disappeared inside the cell and slammed the door. A few seconds later I heard the screams begin anew.

* * *

The dungeon was dark and smelly. Much like the alley in fact. We came to the last cell at the end, and Murgog rattled the bars.

“Wake up, ya pussbag!”

There was the sound of clinking chains, and a gigantic figure loomed up in the gloom.

“Hey, Olavic,” I said, “remember me?”

The prisoner said nothing.

“Seems he remembers you just fine,” sneered Murgog.

“Olavic,” I said, “how’d you like to be free?”

Again, the prisoner said nothing.

I cleared my throat. This wasn’t going well. “Look,” I said, “I’m sorry about before. But your cousin, Nemon, you remember him? He told me to bail you out. So here I am. Do you understand?”

I held out the bag of coins and said in flawless Hattati, which I knew Murgog would not understand: “There are two hundred marduks here. If you agree to do as I ask, this bag and free passage out of Zodom. If not, you can rot in that pen."

“What did you say?” asked Murgog.

“I just repeated what I said.”

“Never knew you spoke foreign, Bandar.”

“I speak in many tongues.”

Olavic stirred. “What do you want me to do?"

"Ah, you talk after all. Well, my hirsute friend, I wish you to help me impersonate a man: Nanuphari. Do you know who that is?"


"And do you understand the risks you’ll be taking?"


"Then do I have your blood oath as a Hattite brother of the plains that from now till sunup you'll do as I say, when I say, and harm no hair on my head, nor flesh on my bones? Say, 'I so swear'."

"I so swear."

He bit into his hand and approached the bars. I held out my palm, still oozy with blood. As he went to take it, his other hand shot out, quick as a cobra, and caught me by the pate.

“Oi!” said Murgog, springing up.

"Know this," hissed Olavic. "If you betray me, I'll crush your skull like an egg. And I'll do it neat, so's I won't break the skin. I won't even mess up your hair, just like you asked. You'll be a perfectly presentable corpse with a head full of ooze where your brains used to be. And I'll do it all slow, the better to savor the moment for the both of us. Got that?"

I nodded, or tried to.

He let go.

“It’s all right,” I said to Murgog. “Only a little misunderstanding. Can you release him now?”

“You’re crazy,” said Murgog, turning the key in the lock.

“No,” I mumbled. “Just a pedantic respecter of badly worded oaths.”

* * *

Sumet’s thugs kept their respectful distance. I saw them slinking about in the shadows of the prayer grounds like hungry wolves.

“Olavic,” I said, “I’ll need to be on your shoulders when we enter the temple.”

The big tribesman hoisted me up like a child.

“Good. Now approach the portal.”

He stalked forward. I clamped myself limpet-like to his back and tried to do my best impression of a hump on a rather large man. We only had one pass, and the temple guardian spirit wasn’t apt to grant exemptions. But it could be fooled.

As we came within sight of the eye, a blue beam shot out. “IDENTIFY,” said a hollow voice.

I took out the amulet. “Hold this to the opening beneath the eye,” I told Olavic. “Carefully does it.”

A whirring and clicking sounded. It lasted a long time. My arms began to quiver with the strain and the effort of holding my nerve, and I prayed to Shem that that was just sweat in my breeks.

The whirring and clicking stopped. “ACCESS AFFIRMED,” said the voice. The portal rolled up.

My heart started beating again.

The garden beyond was deserted. I dropped to the ground, becoming my own me once again.

All about me, cedars and date palms rose above a mass of black undergrowth that rustled softly in the breeze. Water chuckled; the perfumed smell of exotic blooms hung heavy in the air. Small night birds shot like darts from tree to tree, and the chittering of some irritating creature came from somewhere nearby. Aside from that, there was no other sign of life.

“Seems luck’s on our side,” I muttered.

I looked about. “There, that tower over there is Nanuphari’s bedchamber. Hmm, seems he hasn’t left yet.”

A light glowed in one of the windows. As I watched, a skinny silhouette passed by.

“Huh? That isn’t Nanuphari. A servant perhaps. Come on.” The undergrowth masked much of our progress. We came to the main entrance of the temple unnoticed.

“Olavic,” I hissed, “from here on in it gets hairy. Anyone sees you, you act dumb, all right?”

He nodded. He was already settling into his role of sloth-brained barbarian quite nicely, which only goes to show how deceptive looks can be.

We entered the temple.

A row of braziers flamed silently between vast carven pillars that stretched back into the darkness. Everything was majesty and grandeur and gloom. Keeping hard to the shadows, we made our way toward the back of the hallway, where I could just make out the pallid glow of a marble staircase rising away to the upper levels.

There was no sign of a guard. Swiftly, we made for the chambers above.

Heavy drapes covered the walls, and the braziers of the lower level were replaced by less impressive but far more practical oil lamps.

From temple plans I’d once memorized for reasons long forgotten, I knew that Nanuphari’s bedchamber lay at the end of the corridor. I glanced up at Olavic and thought, One cell for another, my poor beast.

“Stay here. I’ll see if it’s safe.”

I stole down the corridor, wary as a fox, one hand fingering the hilt of my dagger. As I approached Nanupahri’s chambers, I realized that the air had grown heavy with incense and something else I didn’t like at all: a sharp, predatory smell.

The light I’d seen from the garden was gone. Heart beating like a quirit addict’s, I peered around the jamb of the door. Moonlight washed the room in silvery effulgence. A couch occupied one corner and a strangler plant the other.

Bronze lamp caskets hung from the ceiling like huge spiders with their legs drawn up, and a series of arches lined the walls leading out onto the balcony level beyond. It was an ordinary enough room, I supposed, but what with the moonlight and my heightened nerves, the whole place looked ghostly and unreal.

I waited around some more, looking for any signs of movement. I’d just decided the coast was clear and was halfway across the floor when the assassin stepped out of the shadows. He gaped.


“Aye, me.”

He drew forth a slim stiletto. “This wasn’t part of the contract,” he said.

“No, it wasn’t. But, because I haven’t broken any part of it yet, I won’t be affected by this.”

I held up the scarab. As I did so it wriggled, plopped out of my palm and fell belly up on the floor. From somewhere far off, I heard a terrible drawn-out scream.

The assassin heard it too. He tilted his head and smiled. “It seems our friend Nanuphari has met his doom. I was curious when he left earlier in that grey hood and cloak, almost as if he didn’t want to be seen...” He shrugged. “No matter. It was always going to get him, wherever he went.”

“So I gathered. But what are you doing here?”

“Can’t you guess?”

“I’ll give it a shot if it prolongs my life a few more seconds.”

He nodded. “It will.”

“Well then,” I said, feeling a chill rise up my back. “The way I see it is this: You couldn’t harm the priest directly. No one could, given the charms he’s worked upon himself. So you recruited a demon to do it in your stead, an Abyssal flesh-eater, which can only be summoned with the use of a dibbuk root and a strand of the person’s hair...”

“I didn’t ask you to spell out my entire night’s work. Get to the point.”

“I will. You snuck into his chambers with the intention of witnessing the deed in person. Why? The satisfaction of it? Maybe, but you must have gone to a lot of trouble to obtain a temple key.

“And why an Abyssal flesh eater? There are other, cheaper demons you could have used. The thing is, their kills are almost invariably messy.

“An Abyssal flesh-eater, on the other hand, is curiously neat in its feeding, and always leaves the victim’s garments in a pristine condition, in this case the priest’s mask and robe. Which leads me to deduce that you were attempting to replace him. Though with whom I have no idea. Not you certainly. You’re far too short.”

The assassin was chuckling. “Am I?”

And then I realized that he was taller than I first thought. Much taller. As tall, in fact, as Nanuphari. And his face was the spitting image of Nanuphari’s as well. I blinked.

“I wondered what that smell was,” I said. “You’re a lizardman.”

“And now you know, human, it’s time for you to die.” He advanced upon me.

“Olavic!” I yelled.

Olavic came bounding in. The lizardman hissed and leapt at him. Olavic socked him across the jaw. He fell to the floor with an odd bouncing motion. His arms sprawled to one side and his tongue lolled out a foot from his cavernous mouth.

“Well done!” I said. “He’s out cold. But quickly now; someone will have heard that yell.”

Already I could hear cries and the patter of feet.

I looked about for the priest’s mask and robe. They’d been tossed onto a chest in the corner. Quickly I flung the billowy robe over Olavic’s leather jerkin and hose, attached the mask to his face.

A moment later three guards burst into the room. “Highness,” said one, “we heard a cry.”

“Where were you, you curs?” I admonished. “Can you not see, your beloved High Priest has just narrowly survived an assassination?”

“Who the bull turds are you?” said the guard.

“Never mind! Look ye, look upon the face of the would-be killer!”

I pointed to the floor where the now slowly writhing body of the assassin had returned to its rightful shape and appearance. They shied back.

“A lizardman! Here in the temple!” They thrust at it with their spears. It stopped writhing and went quite still.

“Good,” I said. “Now make haste and search the temple grounds. The assassin can’t have worked alone.”

They hesitated. The one who’d addressed me sneered. “We don’t take orders from servants.”

“Fools! Can’t you tell that your High Priest is in shock?”

Olavic nodded and waved his hand feebly.

“Well, we...”

“Go!” I said.

They went.

“Shem’s tits!” I said, slumping to the floor. “That was close!”

Olavic went to remove the mask.

“No,” I said. “Keep it on. At least for a little while longer. There are some loose ends that still need tying up.”

I went to the window. Below me, lanterns fanned out through the dark like soft stars from a wizard’s wand. I thought of Sumet’s henchmen, and smiled.

* * *

The rest of the night was spent cleaning up the mess I’d left behind. According to reports from the House of Dreams, a strange tentacled thing had appeared in Sumet’s private quarters and consumed a tall stranger that was present there. Who the stranger was no one knew except Sumet, and he was in custody on suspicion of attempted murder. By the time he was released, his testimony didn’t much matter anyway.

For the few hours following Nanuphari’s near-death experience, no one could get a decent word out of him. It fell upon me, as official interpreter, to divine what he meant with his nearly unintelligible grunts, which he was quick to verify with nods and gestures or, conversely, thumps on the head.

Generally the conversation regarded the prosaic business of recounting the night’s events, though the dismantling of the kifwa dens, whose increasing power had allowed a dangerous criminal underclass to grow unchecked, was once or twice hinted at...

Anur, I think, suspected the truth. But amongst the various priestly gruntings was also included a healthy donation from the temple coffers to the city watch, for the swift round-up of the perpetrators.

The High Priest, finally deciding that the best cure for his frayed nerves was a solitary visit to the Shrine of Verity some three miles from the city walls, left at sunup and was never heard from again. Presumably he went mad and fled naked into the desert; only his robe was found, smeared and tattered, hanging from the leaves of a thorny shrub.

The solid gold mask was never recovered.

As for the assassin, who knows what he wanted? Power, obviously, though for himself, for his guild or his squamous kinfolk no one ever found out. Not that it would have made much of a change to have another snake in charge of the temple. So long as they left me alone.

But that hadn’t been the case. The endless regulations, the heavy subsidizing of the kifwa dens, it was all getting a bit too much for a lowly potion dealer to deal with.

And as I said, or thought I said, to the nameless assassin that night in the distant past, as he stood appraising my putrid little place, which is now neither putrid nor little: “One does what one must.” I did, and now my story has been told.

Copyright © 2016 by Stuart North

Proceed to Challenge 680...

Home Page