Player: Larry |
Race: Human (Abishaim)
Class: Barbarian 4 / Fighter 4 / Warlord 1
Alignment: Chaotic Good|
Weight: 185 lbs.
| ARMOR WORN|
Bracers of armor +3, amulet of natural armor +3, ring of protection +2
|STR||17/21||+3/+5||FORT||+10||+13||Base Attack: +9/+4||+1 domineering heavy poleaxe|
+1 fear burst short sword
belt of giant strength +4
bracers of armor +3
amulet of natural armor +3
ring of protection +2
sandals of the shifting sands
vial of antitoxin
|DEX ||14 || +2 ||REF ||+2 ||+4 ||Initiative: +2
||CON ||16 || +3 ||WILL ||+4 ||+4 ||Speed: 40 ft.
||INT ||10 || +0 ||BASE ||MOD
||WIS ||6 || -2
||CHR ||14 || +2
Move Silently 3
Speak Language (Abishaim)
Weapon Focus: Poleaxe
Talqavist's Blessing: ferocity|
Languages: Common, Abishaim
+4 racial save bonus vs. acid and electricity
Uncanny dodge (Dex bonus to AC)
Trap sense +1
Cure serious wounds (3d8+13) x2
Protection from energy (130 minutes)
Sheltered vitality (13 minutes)
He spent two days looking for the telltale signs of the herd before he finally caught sight of the dust. The last three days he followed at a distance monitoring their movements.
Mabul checked his last water skin. Only a few drops remained. He would have to make contact with them today or face the thirsting death of Kubi-Algi. He wasn't sure why he hesitated, perhaps fear of the unknown, or just plain fear. His knuckles whitened in a death grip around his glaive, remembering how he had come to possess it: the last time he had been afraid.
"Focus," he said to the surrounding dunes in an effort to dispel the horror of that memory.
He moved closer to the herd, crawling over the tops of dunes to avoid being seen. He was close enough to hear their muzzled hisses, and the houts of the handlers. Mabul couldn't make sense of the words he heard. It had been too long since he had heard or spoke words like these. But they sounded mundane and unaware of his presence.
He came over the last dune to see the herd of giant lizards, called bastanaks, hissing agitatedly. Then, from out of the sand, he saw it come, a whirlwind of red pincers and hard carapace: a giant scorpion.
The handlers reacted quickly, mounting their lizard-steeds and moving them to avert the insect. Mabul watched this dance with death, fascinated by the movements of the scorpion and the lizard-riders. He studied the hard skin of the monstrous insect, as first one spear, then another, glanced harmlessly off its carapace. A handler was shorn in two by its pincers while his mount was repeatedly stung. The screams of the bastanak, writhing in agony, masked all other sound.
The study of his opponent was gone from Mabul's mind in an instant. In its place the heat of the blood rage was taking over. These were nomads! These were his people! To someday return to them had been and still was his only hope of salvation. With a blood-curdling cry that sent the herd into a greater frenzy, Mabul threw off his cloak and brandished the glaive, its blue-black blade glinting in the sun. He could feel the fury pulsating from the weapon as he charged down the dune to enter the familiar dance. Leaping over the bloody torso, he landed upon the now still bastanak of the fallen nomad. The other nomad was keeping the scorpion at bay, but struggling. Mabul rushed in, his body in full fury, blood pounding in his chest and temples. Only distantly did he see the nomad's spear fly true to hit the scorpion in one of its many eyes. The beast thrashed its head, reacting to Mabul's new position. With venom dripping, the stinger rushed forward to where Mabul had intended to halt his rush. With the reflexes of the pit, Mabul dropped into a roll, the stinger missing him by a hair's width. Mabul came to his feet quickly, turning in time to see the crushing death of a pincer lunge towards him.
His glaive shot out and down, eager to spill blood: the severed right pincer fell to the sand and lay reflexively clutching nothing. Blood and ichors from the appendage splattered the pit fighter, and only a quickly raised arm shielded his eyes from the spray. The remaining pincer shot forward and down at Mabul's head.
Despite its wounds this beast was a formidable opponent, one that Mabul was rapidly learning to appreciate. With no time to counter attack, Mabul shifted his weight low and used the glaive to parry the deadly claw. He turned quickly to ward off the tail following the pincer strike. Only too late did he realize his error, with the glaive high for the anticipated stinger he could do nothing but take the full force of the scorpion's charge. The force of the charge threw Mabul's stunned body into the path of the lunging left pincer. Racing to find the flaw in his tactic, he fell into another roll to avoid the oncoming pincer and catch his breath. Now directly in front of the beast, he clasped the glaive in both hands low on the shaft, thrusting up and in, impaling the beast through the head, nearly tearing it from the body. His mind clouded from breathlessness and rage, he did not see the venom-tipped stinger come down from above. It pierced his thigh, the delivered venom mingling with his rage. He fell to the ground, as one stricken with palsy.
"Erach nal ish Nilzabar?" he heard the nomad say as unconsciousness took him.
He saw his father dying, telling him to run with his last breath, only to choke on the froth in his mouth. And then it would begin again. Over and over Mabul relived his personal torments until it became a steady vision of horrific death. At times he would wake to the face of a beautiful green-eyed woman, a nomad perhaps, forcing him to drink from a bowl made of bone. Other times she was a wizened crone with no pupils, her face drawn and wasted like leather left in the sun.
"Erach nal ish Nilzabar?" she would say, as though he should master a reply. Then the dizziness would return and he would return to his nightmares.
Eventually the fits became sleep. Mabul awoke, much to his disappointment, to the face of the old woman. She was far worse than he remembered in dreams. Her eyes were not without pupils, they were simply white with what appeared to be clouds moving across their orbs. Her hair fell in greasy gray patches beaded with carved bone. Her skin, though dark like his, was dry and brittle looking, as though to touch it would cause it to crack and peel away. She leaned close to him to stare into his eyes. Mabul could see inside her ragged reptile skin tunic. Wrinkled folds of skin hung from her chest like rotten wineskins where her breast should have been. Her hands moved to touch his brow, but they looked like no living hands. They were skeletal, crooked and wasted, the skin yellowed and hanging from them in folds. The nails were twisted and thick almost like the talons of some giant bird. As she touched his brow she spoke with lips cracked and thin. Her teeth were yellow, and those not rotted away were filed to points long ago. Her tongue was pierced through with bone.
"Erach nal ish Nilzabar?" Her breath had the cold soulless stench of death upon it. She waited, white eyes studying him.
"Erach nal ish Nilzabar?" she said again.
"I do not understand." Mabul searched his memory in vain trying to recall the language of his people. How it could be so utterly lost to him was a mystery.
"Do you... understand... me, warrior?" he heard a woman speak from beyond the limits of his vision.
"Yes, I do."
"Narahma ish rascia Yaranook." Said the witch.
"She asks if Nilzabar... sent you."
Just as the old woman appeared worse, so this new woman appear lovelier than he remembered. Her green eyes shone brightly against her dark skin. Raven black hair fell loosely about her shoulders. Her figure hardly hidden beneath the cloth robe she wore, ample bosom seeking release at the neckline. How could that foul name pass so easily from her beautiful lips? It couldn't be that such ugliness could come from such beauty. Nilzabar was a poison word to Mabul, a poison that no beauty could mask.
"Nilzabar?" Was all he could reply in that moment of rapture.
"Did he send you?" she repeated again through silken red lips, full of life.
Her interest piqued by his repetition of the hated name, but he could not be sure if it was out of fear or wonder. "Are you hurt... no, pained?" she asked with concern.
He needed time to think, to decide what to tell her. All this time he had envisioned his return to the nomads as salvation, a final escape from Nilzabar.
"Rest now... we will talk more." She took the bowl from the old crone who had thankfully pulled back, and offered him a drink.
The cool liquid was sweet on his tongue but burned his throat. He coughed from the discomfort. Mabul heard the two women speak more in their native tongue, but his body could no longer remain conscious and he again slipped into the blackness of sleep.
Mabul opened his eyes and looked dreamily upon that beautiful face. The pain in his chest and leg had subsided greatly.
"How long?" He asked, his voice hoarse with sleep.
"You have journeyed near death for four suns." Her hands traced the aged scars upon his chest and face. Her touch was the touch of fire, like the sun, and yet it was the touch of cool spring water. "Though," she paused delicately, feeling the long whitish scar near his left shoulder. "You have made the journey before?"
"I know death." He replied to her veiled inquiry. He said it matter-of-factly as though speaking of a friend.
"Who are you?" he continued, hoping to ward off more questions about Nilzabar.
"I am Saratha my... husband... died in battle," she answered. "The Tharach' nul, the scorpion, took his life."
Mabul felt a sudden pang of guilt for not moving quick enough to save this woman's mate. "I am sorry," was all he replied.
"It is The Way."
So casually said, it pained Mabul. Not a physical pain but a wound of the soul. This is what he had struggled against since leaving the pits of Argentammn, a hopeless submission to the cruelties of life. The Way was just a shortened form of The Way of Nilzabar. In its true form it was the ritual mantra used at every ceremonial slaughter he had witnessed or been a part of. Life is illusion! We are already dead! Death is real! May our death serve to nourish Nilzabar!
And so Nilzabar was ever present.
"Am I to live?"
"You are well, but not cured... not yet."
"Yes, Yaranook will not cure you yet. She wishes to know you first."
Mabul could see the suspicion in her deep green eyes. "How is it you can speak to me?" he asked, deflecting the questions that were sure to follow.
"We are traders... of basuril. We know your tongue."
"You are Rahim... Nomad... how do you not speak?" she pressed.
"I was taken captive very young. I've forgotten the words." He lied. He was beginning to remember some of them now, after hearing them spoken aloud. Still it was not enough, and it was probably better to keep such knowledge to himself.
"Basuril?" he repeated in an effort to keep her talking.
"Later, Yaranook comes and she will decide."
So there it was: how many times had he fought death only to end here among his own people, believing them to have medicine for his soul, yet Nilzabar had tainted even them? In that moment Mabul wished to die. In full knowledge of what that death would holdeternal servitude to Nilzabarhe wished to die. There was no peace, no salvation, only certain death and eternal torment beyond this life. Why prolong his miserable existence any longer? There was no hope, it was simply The Way. When the crone came next, he would tell her that he hated Nilzabar, that he was no servant of the death god. Then she would let him die and he would face the next life of torment. After all, this life was illusion, just as Saratha's beauty was an illusion to cover the rot within her soul.
He scanned the tent idly. It appeared to be made of reptilian leather, supported by sun bleached bones slung together with sinew. They were so intricately arranged as to admit not a single grain from the windblown sand. Dried plants hung from the struts in places, and piles of bones littered the floor. Saratha sat near the opening, sewing a piece of leather into what seemed a small tunic, small enough for a child. He watched the woman at her labor, still stricken by her beauty, unable to resolve that beauty with the ugliness of Nilzabar. It is The Way, he thought to himself, as the flap of the tent eased back and the desert sun flooded in. The crone entered.
The two women spoke for some time. Mabul ignored them, resolved to end it here. Something whispered in his mind but he could not recognize it. Just another of the countless dead, begging for mercy, he thought.
The two women, their conversation over, moved beside him.
"Erach nal ish Nilzabar?" Yaranook asked him, Saratha repeating it for him in his own tongue.
A simple question. It deserved a simple answer. Perhaps the witch would grant him a simple ignoble death. He knew better though. He had seen the torment that heretics were put through before their final release. No matter, Mabul refused to play this game. Nilzabar could have what he wanted: the death of Mabul the hopeless fool.
The whisper of another voice, Sister's voice, returned to his conscious mind. Yes, I am sent by Nilzabar, she said. Your life is poison to Nilzabar, Mabul.
He truly was a fool. How close he was to nourishing that hated god.
The two women instantly fell to their knees, foreheads to the ground, chanting. Mabul knew by the way it was spoken that they were reciting the mantra. Life is illusion! We are already dead! Death is real! May our death serve to nourish Nilzabar!
"Forgive me, Sister," he mumbled as the two women continued their worship.
Saratha had told him that he would be healed, but he was still not cured. When he was strong enough to walk, she guided him through the encampment on short walks. He would ask her questions regarding the Rahim, as she called them, some of which she answered, others she deflected. The overshadowing influence of Nilzabar was evident throughout the camp, if one new how to look for it (and Mabul did). T he totem in the center was carved with illustrations of ritualized death, similar to those undertaken in the great temple, and the pit, where Mabul had acted out so many of the depicted scenes. Mabul had come to recognize the same ruthlessness in these people as was possessed by his captors in the king's city. Every one was striving to advance themselves within their small world. Mabul's honored status made him a notable prize: a rahim who had escaped, an Abishaim with caste. The women of the clan would lustfully study his body while flashing knowing looks at one another. The men seemed all too eager to challenge him like young bulls, ready to exert their dominance.
Even Saratha was enamored with him, his almost constant presence with her no doubt giving her an edge over rivals despite her recent loss. He had come to know that Saratha had a child, a boy, not three months old. She spent almost no time with the child that Mabul could tell and refused to answer questions regarding him. Because of her ability to speak the common tongue, she was a trade talker, a high position within the clan. She and her former husband were the only ones who could speak it. Her position was high enough that she could choose from any man within the clan, and none could refuse her. Mabul sensed that she would soon choose him.
When asked again about basuril, she led him to a small tent wherein a dozen women sat cross-legged around a copper basin, the coals beneath it glowing hotly. Each woman cast spittle into the vat, in turn, their discharge green and brown with chewed herbs. Yaranook watched over the women, occasionally stirring the concoction with a long bone ladle.
Once outside the tent, Saratha explained, "We produce a liquid we call basuril. It is made from the venom of the giant scorpion, lizard blood, the spittle of clan women during our moonflow, and a mixture of herbs. The exact mix Yaranook guards closely, for it is all we have to trade."
"You trade it?"
"Basuril has many uses: it is poison. The warriors use it to bring death. But it can also bring visions. The Abishaim call it two-step poison, for a man poisoned is not likely to take more than two steps before dying.
Mabul had heard of two-step poison. It was a favorite among assassins for its quick and certain death. It was also used by the lanistae to drug combatants in pit fights. "You said Abishaim. Are we not all Abishaim?" asked Mabul.
"Maybe once we were. The Abishaim have caste. We have lost it."
"Saratha," came a voice. Mabul looked back at the tent and saw Yaranook emerge, white eyes staring at Saratha.
"I must go and speak with her," Saratha parted. "I will come to your tent later, Mabul." She kissed him on the cheek. The brush of her lips was like the cool touch of death's hand now that he knew her heart.
There was no affection in it. He knew it was for the women who pretended not to be looking. Not for him. The thought was tempting nonetheless; she was beautiful, but Mabul knew that within her was the rot of Nilzabar's taint. He watched her go with feigned interest as she smiled back at him coyly, sinisterly, like a predator enticing its prey before the kill.
Mabul wandered the encampment for a while, flashes of memory invading his thoughts of escape. Since coming here he remembered more of his childhood than he wished. His own clan was no better than these people. All his hopes of finding peace with them were now crushed to dust and carried away on the desert winds. There was really no place left for him to go. While he still felt the need to survive and live, if only to spite Nilzabar, he had no idea where to go or what to do. Perhaps he could make Saratha see the error of The Way. Perhaps even take her as his mate and leave the desert forever. Perhaps he could outrun the hand of Nilzabar in time.
His wanderings brought him to the bastanak herd. Even now, the great beasts were basking in the afternoon sun, gentle hisses coming from their muzzled snouts. At first he thought he might be able to steal one and ride it to freedom. But that would not cure the poison still running through his veins. He needed to be cured first. He needed to convince Yaranook to finish the cure. He was weakened and his mind was cloudy: that could only be from the poison.
Returning to his tent, unsure of what to do without his lovely guide, he found Saratha and Yaranook waiting for him. The ugliness of the old woman was exaggerated by Saratha's comeliness. He looked at the old witch, barely able to hide the disgust he felt for her. He had seen women like her before: the Severed Ones.
Around the barracks and in the pits of the necromancer king they could be found, women who had ultimately prostituted themselves to Nilzabar. They willingly gave up their own fertility through ritual magic and knife. Some of the other fighters had sought the Severed Ones' magic. Mabul never had.
"Mabul, Yaranook has decided how you can prove your worth: you must fight in the Karan’ Moor." Saratha said it with authority, but she was careful to say it was to Yaranook his worth must be proven, not her.
Mabul predicted easily the test before him. "What is the Karan' Moor?" he asked, his tone indicating resignation, a tone he had developed well with his masquerade as an agent of Nilzabar.
"If Nilzabar has sent you it can only be for the Karan' Moor. There is no need to test us," she replied angrily.
"In the name of Nilzabar, I will test you in any way I see fit, woman." There was nothing for it but to press what little advantage he had over her and the witch, despite the bile that rose in his throat at the invocation of Nilzabar's name.
Somewhat subdued by the anger and force in his voice, she recited the details for him. "By decree of Nilzabar, all men of the clan must compete in ritual combat during the Karan' Moor: The Blood Moon. Tomorrow night the moon will rise full and red. It will remain so for three nights as a testament to the power of Nilzabar. From nightrise till dawn for two nights all men will answer the call of any challengers. On these nights, you fight until yielding. It is not for death. The third night the victors fight to the death until one remains: he will be honored the Karan' Sul, the Blood Guard, for the coming year."
How like Nilzabar, Mabul thought, to let the blood flow freely for days, combatants lingering near death before the final frenzied slaughter.
The lives of twenty or so men now stood between him and his cure, Mabul thought, calculating the possible number of fights that now lay before him. A small matter. He had long since lost count of the men he had killed, that he might live.
"Yaranook will finish the cure, if I kill?" he asked. Even as he spoke he wondered when the slaughter would finally break his will to live. He had come close already.
"Yaranook will finish the cure if you are victorious," she corrected.
"It will be as you say," he nodded to Yaranook. The witch grinned wolfishly with rotted, sharpened teeth, spittle stringing from her upper lip as she consented and left the tent.
He looked again at Saratha. She undid the laces of her robe seductively, conquest in her eyes. As Mabul had suspected, she had her own test for him to prove his worth.
"Here, drink this. It will not cure you, but it will restore your strength for the Karan' Moor."
Mabul took the proffered bowl and drank the liquid, disregarding the taste.
"Your weapons are here." She pointed to his sword lying across his pack and the glaive leaning ominously against the centerpost of the tent, the blade reflecting the dim lamplight in evil shades.
"I will find you later to help prepare for the Karan' Moor." She told him drawing back the flap of the tent.
Mabul watched her leave as sunlight flooded the interior of the small tent.
Mabul rose and rummaged through his belongings. Everything was there. He could run but without the cure he would die. Lying next to the pack, neatly folded was a new loincloth made from the hide of a bastanak. He picked it up studying it closely. The scales shimmered with the light of the solitary lamp. It fit and probably held some ritual significance that he was unaware of, so he left it on.
Mabul left the tent and the stench of his coupling with Saratha behind, feeling only disgust in the pit of his stomach. The encampment was bustling with the preparation for the coming nights rituals. Most of the work was being done by the women under the watchful eye of Yaranook. Around the central totem, bone stakes were driven into the sand in a large, roughly circular pattern. Each of the stakes was intricately carved with grisly depictions of death. Some he recognized, others were beyond his comprehension. One in particular caught his attention: It was freshly carved while the others showed various ages. The carving on this one depicted a glaive wielding warrior defeating a giant scorpion. Obviously this was some totem meant to represent him. The others likely represented his fellow combatants.
This was similar to the oil soaked banners used to identify combatants in the pits. The banners were used to light the fire that would consume the fallen, once the voratorthe voice of Nilzabarproclaimed a victor. If these had any use beyond identification, he couldn't tell. He moved throughout the camp at a lazy pace, stopping to watch the men he passed, studying each one at length and making sure to catch their eyes before moving on to watch another. To Mabul's eye, the men fit into one of three groups. Most were scared and trying to hide it. These he would force to yield quickly with as little blood spilt as possible to win their submission. The second group had the look of indifference in their eyes. They were dangerous. They possessed the same look Mabul often saw in his own reflection; they had killed before and easily. Fortunately this was a small group. The last group had anger and need for violence in their eyes. They were dangerous but not overly so; they were too eager to spill blood. They would make mistakes. These he would bleed. Mabul knew how to bleed an opponent, steadily weakening their strength until they were forced into yielding. Most would die from their wounds, but not in the pit. With luck, the horror of it might put some fear into the true killers.
Something tugged at his conscious mind, something within the camp was wrong. He couldn't place it.
Shortly before sunset Saratha returned to the tent, where Mabul had finally retired. He barely noticed her.
"Mabul, are you well?" Saratha asked with what seemed to be true concern.
"I am well." He replied, breaking the trance.
"Do you feel better?"
He hadn't thought about it today, his mind occupied with the matter at hand. But he did feel better. He felt no trace of the poison or the symptoms that had plagued him.
"Yes, I am well enough to fight." He knew that was what concerned her. The camp certainly knew that she had spent the night with him, her rank was tied to his now.
"Who will you challenge first?" she asked, a wicked elation evident in the tone of her voice.
"None are worthy," he stated flatly, playing the part he had become accustomed to.
"But you must!"
"They will challenge me."
"You must choose! It is The Way."
Mabul tired of this game. Three nights and a number of deaths lay between him and freedom.
"Mabul, please, you must choose. Do not dishonor me so."
At least she spoke the truth; it was her honor at stake not his. He reviewed the images of the men he had watched throughout the day, deciding how best to proceed without too much death. Then it occurred to him: the men were all young, there were no elders. He realized that, saving the witch, there were no elder women either.
"Where are the elders?" he asked ignoring her pleadings.
"Now is not the time for your tests," she responded quickly.
"I will know the answer, woman, or I will not choose."
"The Way of Nilzabar is not easy. The strong must survive," she answered in resignation.
"I know this," spat Mabul, "but where are the elders of your clan?"
Like a parent repeating an answer to a child for the hundredth time, she replied, "When the death wind comes from the east at summer, the elders gather and flee the sun."
"Flee to where?"
"Arach' Yul, the oasis by the sea."
Mabul's mind was overwhelmed by the memories crashing in on him. His own grandmother, the woman he had often seen in his dreams, had fled the sun to journey to Arach' Yul. The elders left, so the young and the strong could survive the scarcity of the summer months. The clan was forbidden to say goodbyes to them. They were already dead. He had tried to run to her as she walked away into the setting sun, but his father's firm hand stopped him. He remembered vividly the beating he received for dishonoring his family. It was, perhaps, the strongest memory he retained of his childhood.
"Mabul, will you choose now, please?"
"Who is the Karan' Sul?"
Sarata beamed with pride or maybe it was ambition. Mabul didn't really care. These were his people, but after he was cured, they would be no more.
Yaranook spoke the words of ritual, He knew them by tone if not the actual words. She paused at certain points, the assembled Rahim filling the silence with the familiar mantra to Nilzabar: Life is illusion! We are already dead! Death is real! May our death serve to nourish Nilzabar!
Mabul watched in silence as these people, as every person he had ever know, pledged their loyalty in life and death to Nilzabar. He spat disgustedly. Some looked in shock at him as he stood there, the dry desert sand hungrily soaking up his spittle. They were the scared ones. They were no concern to him. The Karan' Sul looked straight ahead unconcerned with the warriors assembled to bring him down. Oh yes, Mabul would require the fury to best him. The fury would require him.
With the rituals performed, the moon full and red in the eastern sky: the Karan' Moor began. Mabul watched, disinterested, as each fight brought more of the same. The first combatants seemed to be made up entirely of the scared ones. Mabul realized after the third bout that it was fixed. These men were fighting to save face, nothing more. Few if any would make it to face him or the Karan' Sul.
The night wore on as Mabul sat just outside the ring, his carved stake in front of him. As each fight ended, the victors stake was removed. If nothing else, the pattern of holes in the makeshift ring belied the farce that was the first night of Karan' Moor. As the moon began to set, the mock combat ended. Yaranook pronounced it good, at least that's what Mabul thought her pronouncement was. Sixteen men were declared victor and would fight again the next night.
Mabul, with eyes heavy from boredom and lack of sleep, made his way back to his tent to sleep the day away. Fortunately, Saratha was nowhere in site.
The second night began the same as the first. The ring was smaller than before; the stakes of the victors filled the holes around the smaller circle.
The first victor from the night before was ushered into the ring by Yaranook. She spoke to him directly, it sounded like the word for "choose." So there was a hierarchy to the challenges, and the first night was conducted to separate out potential victors. He scanned the remaining warriors carefully, resting his gaze briefly on Mabul and then the Karan' Sul. It had the desired effect. The crowd quieted each time, but in the end he chose some one else. Mabul recognized the newcomer as one of the angry ones. This fight would be worth watching.
As soon as Yaranook left the ring the angry one rushed his challenger, quickly overpowering him and driving him to the ground. To his credit the challenger rolled left just as the spear broke the sand. He scrambled to his feet, bringing his bone club to a defensive position. The angry one feinted left, then right, his blows deflected easily by the thick thighbone of a bastanak. It continued this way for a time, spear attack, counter attack, minor cuts and bruises the only real damage, until the challenger tired from wielding the heavy club. The angry one's spear came in low to the belly. Festooned, the challenger collapsed and the angry one howled. Yaranook intervened as the victor removed the fallen's stake and drove it into the sand behind his own.
Mabul watched as another victor from the previous night entered the ring. The new warrior scanned the remaining men, settling his gaze on the current victor. The crowd let out a hiss as he challenged the winded warrior. Apparently there was some dishonor in not challenging a fresh opponent. The tactic was true, Mabul understood.
The second night continued as it had begun. Mabul and the Karan' Sul were occasionally challenged and true to his word Mabul bled the eager ones and mercifully forced the scared ones into yielding quickly. To his surprise, Mabul watched as the Karan' Sul applied the same tactic to his challengers. As the moon set on the second night there were thirteen victors, including Mabul and the Karan' Sul. Twelve deaths stood between him and freedom.
The third night began as the other two. The only difference was the sacrifice of a young bastanak, to whet the bloody appetite of Nilzabar. At least it wasn't a child, Mabul thought to himself. The challenges began with the last victor of the previous night and continued until the sand was sticky with spilt blood and the air was thick with stench of death. There were three now, Mabul, the Karan' Sul, and the last of the indifferent ones.
The Karan' Sul had fought most recently but his prowess was well known among them. Mabul was rested, and so he prepared to be challenged. Finally, the man chose the Karan'Sul. The crowd let out a collective gasp. By choosing The Karan'Sul over Mabul, the man had shown his fear of Mabul to be greater than that of the man challenged. He had dishonored himself and, more importantly, he dishonored the Karan'Sul, a fact not lost on him as he rose to meet the challenge.
The fight was slow as the Karan' Sul exacted his vengeance. Mabul could only watch with the warrior eye as he realized that the Karan' Sul had deftly hidden his true prowess and was, even now, in the heat of rage, refraining from letting too much show to Mabul, who would next lock wills with him. The Karan' Sul took only minor cuts from his opponent, while his falchion dealt back double in quantity and severity. The man was bleeding to death and knew it. After what seemed an eternity, the man stumbled going to his knees. He pushed himself up, using his last bit of strength to face his opponent with eyes wide open. The falchion made a swift upward arc cleaving into the left side of the man for two handbreadths before curving out to deeply score the man's chest all the way to the shoulder, completing its fell arc. He tried in vain to hold his viscera in the open cavity that was know his left side, but in the end he only slumped forward, face first into the blood drenched sand.
The crowd screamed and cheered for the Karan' Sul as Yaranook proclaimed him victor. Now there were two.
The Karan'Sul casually beckoned Mabul to join him the ring. Yaranook nodded her assent and stepped outside the bone stakes. Mabul took in everything about him as he moved to face his latest opponent. He wasn't winded despite the prolonged battle. The blood from several minor wounds on his arms and legs had already begun to dry. In his eyes smoldered the madness that accompanied bloodlust, the same bloodlust Mabul had often felt. This would be no quick victory for either man. This was a test of wills. For the Karan' Sul this was about honor and rank. For Mabul it was about eternal torment if he should fail. They stood there studying each other for a time while the crowd sat motionless and silent, awestruck by the sight before them, both men waiting for the other to make the first strike. Mabul held the glaive in both hands, blade to the right, drinking in the awesome fury emanating from it. His blood boiled waiting for him to submit to the rage within him. The full red moon overhead washed it all in the hues of blood.
Slowly they began to move, circling each other stepping forward and back, testing, prodding. Mabul had to bleed him, to wear down his strength before committing to the attack. The glaive was well suited for that. The Sword of Nilzabar no more, this glaive was now the Sword of Mabul, the sword of pain and retribution for all the injustices and cruelties heaped upon him by the god of death. He unleashed the fury of his life. The glaive leaped forward eager to taste more blood: a scratch to the shoulder as the falchion deflected it high; a step back, the blade high, meeting the falchion with a clang, breaking the silence of the blood-washed night. The blades rang constantly as the two men struggled. High, low, left, right, feint forward, step back, Mabul moved around the ring, keeping the Karan' Sul at length. Half a dozen wounds bled freely, but they were matched blood for blood on the Karan' Sul. The patterns were never the same, neither opponent falling into a fatal rhythm. Mabul took the first serious wound to the left shoulder as he stepped back. Only his swift movement with the strike had prevented the shattering of bone. His answer left a gash running across the thigh of his opponent. And so they fought, trading wounds and blows as the westering moon slowly made its way across the sky.
Mabul tired. The rage was dissipating. He felt it more than recognized it. The Karan' Sul had repeated an attack sequence, something that Mabul dreaded happening to him. It was common in prolonged fights to fall into an unconscious rhythm, as the body and mind began to tire. Mabul waited, again the same pattern and yet again. He had his opening; it was time to go on the offensive. Thrusting out with the glaive, flipped and now held in his left hand, Mabul sliced cleanly through his adversary's right calf, scoring muscle and sinew, and breaking bone. The Karan' Sul, off-balance and unable to support his weight, crumbled to the sand. Mabul was quick to his feet, the glaive spinning overhead to come down on the extended arm of the Karan' Sul, severing it just above the elbow. The falchion fell to the sand in a wash of blood. The glaive, its thirst for blood not sated, came again at the prone nomad. The Karan' Sul shielded his head with his intact arm in feeble defense. It did not matter. His shield arm and head soon lay cloven beside his sprawled body.
Covered in blood and the grim contents of his adversary's skull, Mabul eyed his victim. Exhausted, Mabul stood silently in the aftermath of his rage, while the crowd chanted and Yaranook laid the ceremonial glaive at his feet. He picked it up and held it for all to see. To the chants of "Mabul! Mabul!" he was led from the ring back to his tent. Once there, Saratha and Yaranook ministered to him until he fell into a dreamless sleep.
"The Karan' Sul awakes," she said with obvious pride.
"Am I well?" Mabul was eager to leave and put this place behind him.
"You are well," understanding fully what he meant.
Mabul rose and scanned the tent for his things. Seeing them near the entrance he moved quickly to gather them up.
"What are you doing, Mabul?"
"Leaving," he grunted.
"You cannot. You must take part in the ceremony tonight and I have something yet to show you."
She was obviously concerned, but Mabul cared little. He was sick of the Rahim, of Argentammn and the Kubi-Algi. He had to leave the desert, of that he was certain.
Saratha blocked the entrance, standing between Mabul and freedom. "No please, I beg you, come with me first. I will honor you as you have honored me" she pleaded.
Saratha had been good to him in her own way. It was not her fault that Nilzabar's hand reached her too. Since she had cast his lot with his, his abrupt departure would likely cause her to lose face with the clan. He felt he owed her this one request before he left.
"Show me," he said as he dropped his things to the floor.
She led him through the quiet camp. It was early in the day; most of the clan likely still slept. They moved past the circle where only hours before a dozen men had gone on to find the true Way of Nilzabar. The sand was stained deep with the blood of the fallen, already the sun had dried it to deep reddish brown, soon the winds would carry it away, leaving no trace of the violence that had happened here. How much blood could Kubi-Algi hide before the sand turned red forever? Mabul wondered morbidly.
They came to Saratha's tent. He followed her inside.
In the dim light, Mabul could see another woman gently rocking a swaddled child, cooing to it softly.
"He has no father, no name, no honor, Mabul."
He guessed what would come next from her as he stared down at the innocent, sleeping babe. Perhaps he could take her and the child with him. Once free of the desert she would come to see the error of The Way. He could teach her and the boy a different way, one where life mattered and was not just an illusion.
"Offer him to Nilzabar tonight during the blood rites. His blood will stay the hand of Nilzabar for a time. This will honor his father, you, him and me. It is The Way."
Mabul stood frozen, staring at the life that was offered to him.
"Tell the woman to go to her tent and rest," he commanded.
Saratha took the sleeping child from the woman and dismissed her. Mabul could only hope that the woman, whoever she was, would do as instructed.
"If I leave, will I be missed?" Mabul asked Saratha once the other woman had left.
"You are the Karan' Sul, sent by Nilzabar. You may do as you wish."
"Tonight if I am not there, the warriors will not follow?"
"You will be there Mabul, you must. It is The Way."
"Will they follow?" he demanded angrily.
"No. You are Karan' Sul, sent by Nilzabar. None dare question you now. "But you will not leave yet?" Her mounting concern was evident by the tremor in her voice.
"No I will not leave yet," He lied, his plan taking shape. "Wait here."
Mabul moved quietly back to his tent. It was late morning; with luck, the camp would sleep for several hours yet. In the South he could make out the dust cloud marking the herd of bastanak. Good, he thought, North it is. Mabul knew they were near the northern edge of the desert, three maybe four days before reaching the plains and fertile fields of Sol-Fatara. Perhaps there they could make a life, free from the shadow of Nilzabar.
Once back in his tent, he found three full waterskins and packed them. She had two in her tent; it would have to be enough. He found a sack with dried meat. Donning his brown linen robe, he shouldered his pack and with headed back to Saratha's tent with glaive in hand. She would be suspicious. Hopefully she wouldn't question him.
When he reached the tent she was there, the babe sleeping in her arms.
"You said you would not leave yet."
"I am not, I have something to show you, but we will return tonight." He hoped she would believe him.
"I will get my sister, wait." Her suspicion played across her face as she spoke.
"No the child will come too, it is The Way." Mabul's tone was clear; he was speaking as the messenger of Nilzabar, though it disgusted him to do so.
"As you wish, Karan' Sul," she replied submissively, deftly unwrapping the child and rewrapping the swaddling cloth. She tied it over her shoulder without disturbing his blissful slumber.
Saratha raised an eyebrow, but said nothing as she watched Mabul grasp the two waterskins hanging near the entrance and sling them over his shoulder; he hoped it would be enough. As they walked north, out of the camp, Mabul spoke a silent prayer to any god but Nilzabar that the child would not awake until they were far, far away.
The prayer was answered.
They had walked throughout the day and most of the night, until Mabul was certain that sleep would overtake Saratha. She had protested little as the afternoon wore into evening. She had known they would not return.
"It was The Way," he would answer in reply to her questions.
Her only response: a submissive nod.
When she could go no further they stopped. It was still hours before dawn. As she lay sleeping, Mabul watched her and the child breathing rhythmically. Such innocence and such guile, it was hard to believe. Mabul's eyes had grown heavy too. He had promised himself that he would teach her a better way. He would be a father to her child, though the kind of parent he could be was unknown to him. Sleep had taken him as he thought of playing with the young child, a smile on his face.
He dreamt of Argentammn, the pits and the sacrificial slaughter of children. In his dream he could hear the chant: Life is illusion! We are already dead! Death is real! May our death serve to nourish Nilzabar! It grew louder in his head as it was repeated. The children, the babies, were screaming. Then it was one voice chanting, one child screaming.
Mabul had awoken with a start. When he looked to his side Saratha was gone. Then he heard the chant and the screaming child but he was not asleep.
"No!" he screamed at Saratha, her naked body lit by the dawning sun of Kubi-Algi.
He ran up the dune, the desert sand clutching at his feet, slowing him. He was almost there.
"No!" he screamed again as the knife, his knife, plunged into the wailing babe.
"Why?!" He demanded, finally reaching her, clasping her head in his hands.
"It is The Way."
Her neck snapped easily, with just a twist of his hands. He could still hear the sound of breaking bone.
He gently lifted the lifeless child; blood oozing from the terrible wound, and wrapped it carefully in its dead mother's discarded robe.
Mabul walked two days and two nights before leaving the dunes and the death of Kubi-Algi, the dead child in his arms the whole time.
"Never again," he said to the cairn and the child sheltered within, as a tear slowly rolled down his scarred cheek. With the desert behind, Mabul made his way into Sol-Fatara, hoping against hope that he had finally passed out from under Nilzabar's shadow.
Saratha lay shriveled in the desert sun.
I have heard many a drunken philosopher say, “It is the nature of man to dream”. Is it? Is the core of who I am and what I can become or create defined by visions had in wakeful imaginings or while sleeping? Is the world such a simple place that if I dream it, it is so? Or if I do not it is not?
Do the horrors that are my dreams define me as well? What if the thoughts and deeds of my waking mind are no different than those that invade my sleep and imaginings? In the Kubi Algi it is so. To survive I have faced death and horrors beyond comprehension. But no longer, my body is free of the brutality of the pits, yet I am ever chained to them in my mind and my dreams.
Who I am is not measured only by what I have done or dream I can do, but by how my mind and soul comprehend those deeds and visions.
Perhaps I will find an answer to who I am and what I am to become. In truth, I hold no hope…
The rain beats down upon a small stone outcropping sheltering an unconscious warrior huddled in its lee, tiny rivulets of water find their way to every crevice and channel to fall incessantly down upon his enfevered body. Exhaustion, five days of deluge and fever have finally stilled the indomitable man.
Mabul was unprepared for the difference in clime from Kubi Algi. Neither his experience nor his raiment was suitable for traveling in weather such as this. His drenched cloak clings to his body like the funerary shrouds so common in the south.
His pack and his glaive lay now in the mud where he dropped them the day before as he crawled beneath the meager shelter the outcrop provided. He cared little when he dropped them. He cared even less now as his body and mind were racked with fever. He too, lay in the mud, water pooling in the shallow cleft around his head, his body convulsing and his eyes quivering quickly beneath their lids.
Mabul’s inner demons torture his unconscious mind, weakened with illness. Like the great carrion birds of the Kubi Algi they tear at their prey, his rational mind. They rip pieces of his memory out of context, twisting them into grotesque images of savagery and force-feed their macabre creations to his impaired mind until his body shudders uncontrollably at the visions within. As each convulsion passes he cries out in anguish that cuts to the soul. Not the anguish of physical pain that is transitory in nature, though certainly it is in part, but the aguish of a tormented soul, whose visions cannot be banished, justified or rationalized.
The early morning sun shines brightly in the eastern sky. The sand, blood red and sticky-wet in this version, is already warming beneath his feet, a harbinger of the hot day to come. Mabul is young. He and his father are searching for a bastanak, they are on foot and days from camp. It is his fault they are out in the open desert, his father scolds him relentlessly on this one point.
Images waver and resolve repeatedly. Some small kernel of his rational mind screams it is just a dream, but the cry is lost to the sound of galloping hooves as angry men on horses charge down a dune to ride him and his father down. He can taste the sand of the desert floor as he is flung out of the way of the riders. It tastes like blood. He tries to drag himself to his feet, the sticky-wet sand clutching at his body, drawing time out to an eternity. He draws his meager belt knife. It is impossibly dull and flimsy, the blade waving in the desert wind. He wills his legs to move, to take action to help his father who is struggling beneath a heavily corded net. He is untested in battle, young and afraid. He can’t move.
“HELP ME! Mabul!” The words scream in his fevered mind. He tries to run to his father but his fear and the living sand of his dream will not release him. He watches helplessly, no more than a boy, as the riders repeatedly drive their spears into his entangled father. One dismounts and moves effortlessly through the bloody sand to where his father lay, adding his own blood to the engorged desert from a myriad of puncture wounds.
The dismounted rider’s image shifts repeatedly, Saratha, Yaranook, the Karan Sul, a bearded devil and then back again to a faceless human. Saratha removes the net entangling his father and with a single clawed hand lifts him upright by his ripped and bloody tunic. Yaranook, with rotten yellow teeth, grins wolfishly at Mabul before the great falchion of the Karan Sul slits open his father’s belly.
But then it isn’t any of them that deal the deathblow. And they are no longer in the great expanse of the Kubi Algi. It is Mabul, full grown and wielding his heinous glaive, the Sword of Nilzabar. His father stands before him in the pits, trying desperately, hopelessly to hold together the torn remnants of his torso. Mabul holds the glaive that eviscerated his father, his glaive, as he watches the contents of his father’s shorn belly spill on to the blood stained stone floor of the ceremonial pit. Blood froths at his father’s mouth. He gurgles “Its your fault Mabul”.
He tries to protest, to beg forgiveness, but he can’t before he is jolted by the vicious retribution of his glaive. It is agony and ecstasy. The Sword of Nilzabar delivers a moment of pain and suffering to its wielder, a gift from the god of suffering. When it passes he screams.
The storm continues in the real world where Mabul’s infirm body lay, mirroring the tempest raging in his soul. The heavy drops of rain that fall do not disturb his less than blissful slumber. Instead, the infection coursing through his weakened body and fevered mind only spur the demons that infect his soul to become more incessant as they warp his memories to include the physical sensations of his present state. With the deftness of a spider they take hold of first one strand of memory then another to spin them into a grand distorted web of falsehood beyond his mind’s ability to discern. The sorrow and torment in his voice are overwhelming as another cry passes over his cold blue lips.
Mabul remains in the ceremonial pit, the sanctuary of Nilzabar. He is young but no longer a child. It is empty. The stone benches that surround this place of sacrifice are devoid of congregants. His mind balks feebly at the unseemly vision laid before him. Gone is the blood stained floor, every arcane and unholy symbol etched in the stone is fully displayed in obscene relief, save the raised containment ring along the perimeter of this basilica of suffering. The ring is shattered and broken unable to contain the vile creatures that are summoned on the foulest of nights. Gone also are the heavy hooks by which the children sacrificed are hung. It is pristine as the day it was first constructed. It is day, thought it is not bright. The smoky torches that typically provide dim light and cast sinister living shadows are unlit. The oily, pungent stench of rendered human fat, used to fuel the torches, is also absent.
“Is this how you would have it friend?”
Mabul shudders as a chill runs through him at the sound of a familiar voice behind him. As he turns he realizes that beyond the shock of the voice, he is cold, truly cold, another strange sensation only adding to his anxiety over this bizarre distortion of the place where he struggled for life, but found only death.
“Yes this is how I would have it be.”
Marsilus, Mabul’s only friend since his capture, nods knowingly. He surveys the empty pit, as though considering the implications of it. “Do you remember when last we faced each other here?”
Before he can respond he is assaulted by the images of that dreadful night. They had helped each other to survive that night, despite the Lanistae’s forbiddance. They fought viciously, slashing, tearing and crushing through their every opponent. The crowd went mad with the frenzy of the bloodletting, cheering them on to further destructive violence. Mabul felt the first early tendrils of madness that night; he had often wondered if Marsilus had felt the same diabolical spark. Then they faced each other, the blood and ichors of the night’s carnage changing their visage to that of summoned devils. The true consequences of their rebellion were now evident. From somewhere Mabul heard the low, raspy laugh of the fat, greasy Lanistae. Mabul knew then that he was doomed. Marsilus was quicker and stronger than him, only slightly but it was enough.
“You’re right friend, I was and still am better than you. Though perhaps not how you think.” The matter of fact way in which he interrupted Mabul’s thoughts covered well the menacing tone of his voice. “This dream of yours, a pit no longer used, devoid of its ability to contain Nilzabar’s ministers, all of it, that was the purpose of my sacrifice.”
Sacrifice? The word was tangible when spoken, it hung there between them for each to observe and consider. Mabul had relived that night often, awake and in dreams. He was ever uncertain as to how he had bested his friend. Marsilus waited as the full measure of its impact took root in Mabul’s slowed mind.
“Have you nothing to say now Mabul? Have you become that cold? Do you lack the fire of the living? Mine was but the first link in the chain of murders that has stripped you of your heart and soul. No wonder you are cold; you are empty, a hollow shell of a man. You were to take my sacrifice and use it to live, to become more than what we were, to do something, anything, to stop our masters. Instead you gain freedom and flee like a miserable cur. To what end do you run friend, to extend your life another day? Is your life now so precious to you that you easily dishonor my deed and the eternal torment that is now mine?
Mabul watches in stunned amazement as his friend is slowly transformed. All of his own ghastly imaginings of the torment that Nilzabar would inflict upon him at his death are now taking form on the face and body of his friend. From beneath the common loincloth steady streams of blood runs down the inside of Marsilus’ legs. Thin strips of skin are repeatedly sliced away from his body, though the source of the butchering is imperceptible, until all of his sinews and musculature are exposed in terrible detail. The same unseen butcher cuts eyes from their sockets. Muscles are separated from their connections to be reattached in crude disregard of form, twisting his body into a misshapen hulk hardly recognizable as human.
“NO!” It is not as you say.” Mabul screams in defiance, a subtle spark of irrational anger taking hold in his gut. “Every day I live denies Nilzabar sustenance, my life is as poison to him.”
“Fool!” The twisted creature that was once Marsilus hisses through flayed lips in return. “Are you so simple that you believe that just by living you somehow damage a god?”
“What else am I to do? I cannot stand alone against a god. I must live, to deny him his prize, even if my life means that another must die.” The force in his voice fueled by the growing fire of anger within him.
“His prize? Your life alone is worthless. You can and must stand against him, regardless of the consequences, that others will see and be encouraged to stand also. You are weak and afraid as you have always been. I will force you to see the truth of this if need be.” The distorted figure moves with intent towards him raising a misshapen appendage as though to strike.
Mabul’s glaive is up in an instant though how it came to be in his hands is unknown. “Do not threaten me friend.” Mabul speaks with uncontrolled anger, instantaneously losing himself to an all-consuming rage.
The twisted limb comes forward and down towards Mabul’s head. The glaive slices cleanly through it above what was once an elbow, swinging in a short arc to slash at the beast’s body. Again the blade digs deep, separating what suffices for the ribs and shoulders of this perversion. It is easy, too easy. He hacks and slashes at the foul demented creature until the repercussive pain of the Sword of Nilzabar quells his rage. Eyes focusing he looks down on the stone floor of the once pristine pit, expecting to see the severed limbs and gore of the warped creature that was once his friend.
Marsilus’ green eyes, clouded in pain, stare hauntingly at him. “As it was before, so it is again.” He coughs, the single gaping wound to his chest oozing frothy blood from the exertion. “What now Mabul? Will you run and hide?”
The last embers of rage are fully doused as he sees the familiar sight, that of Marsilus, prone and struggling for life as he had that night so long ago. Mabul bent low to take his friend in his arms, like he ached to do the first time but couldn’t. He tries to answer, to promise he will stop the slaughter, but Marsilus breathes his last breath before the words can pass through his trembling lips. He weeps for a time and then he screams.
The storm swells. Rain pelts the soggy ground in a final unleashing of nature’s wrath. Wind howls through the tress and whistles over the surface of Mabul’s insufficient shelter. The sound of its passing is like unto the demented babblings of the denizens of Carceri. It is the racket of wicked whispers, diabolical disclosures and infernal incriminations. These fiendish voices wind their way into his ears nestling deep within his psyche to brood. Their offspring molest the tattered shreds of Mabul’s mind and soul with their infestation, burrowing deep into frightful memories banished by consciousness to be recalled no more. They free imprisoned memories regurgitating them back into his subconscious where they are more susceptible to manipulative ministration.
His will and his strength are gone. His breaths are shallow and labored. Only basest instinct forces his body to breathe at all. He is near death; it hovers near him like a lover, gently brushing his lips with its kiss, caressing his burning brow with its hand. The word that passes over his lips almost imperceptibly is either a battle cry of survival or a resigned personal yearning.
The vision of the hated arena of death that Mabul spent his formative years in is once again wavering, changing as his ever present demons seek to destroy his tenuous grasp on sanity. Mabul kneels to one side of the pit; his young but already scarred body is covered in ceremonial robes made from the skins of sacrificed infants. Sinister symbols are branded into the otherwise blemish-free flesh; they are all that adorn his grisly garb. In front of him, a golden goblet containing the lifeblood of yet another innocent waits for him to imbibe its essence.
The containment ring is intact. Its raised stone presses on Mabul’s bare feet as he kneels just inside the ring. There is a thick heavy smoke emanating from the torches that encircle the pit, its sweet stench is nauseating. The smoke is drawn downward to the floor where it rests a handbreadth above the surface swirling into a vortex in the center.
Directly across from Mabul and outside of the enclosure stands the Necromancer King in full unholy regalia. One hand, gaunt and skeletal is stretched out toward the center of the pit, careful not to break the barrier between worlds, while the other holds the still beating heart of a sacrificed infant. There is a flash of green light as the heart is dropped into a ceremonial brazier. A low droning chant pours forth from taut cracked lips; the words are vile and corrosive, charged with the darkest of perverse energies. The gathered worshipers echo certain words in obscene ecstasy. The foul incanting increases. As it strives for crescendo, the very air is electrified, crackling and sizzling in bursts of dark fire that appear in mid-air above the vortex and arc to one or another symbol etched on the floor.
The metallic taste in Mabul’s mouth combined with the sickly putrid stench of the torches and brazier cause waves of nausea to roll over him. Unnoticed by either the congregants or the King he wretches hopelessly to the side. He almost wretches again when he hears the one incanted word he recognizes and on cue raises the goblet to his lips and absorbs the innocence of the slain child, making him the focus of the soon to be summoned fiend.
The vortex of swirling charged smoke inverts becoming a towering pillar in the center of the ring. Unholy bursts of force roil just beneath the surface of the pillar. The pillar of smoke is stunning in its grotesque beauty. The swirling of the tenebrous mass increases until the random bursts of dark light become a single pulsating discharge. Rays of damnable power streak out in all directions to strike the floor. The face of the Necromancer King and the kneeling form of Mabul are illuminated in hideous contrast.
The smoke begins to recede in upon itself slowly twirling down the pillar and out toward the perimeter of the pit, revealing the now luminously pulsating etchings on the floor. In the center of the pit floor is a jagged circle of darkness. Tormented moans, wicked howls and feral hisses issue forth from the open portal between worlds. Mabul watches with maddening fear as a claw reaches through the portal to grasp the jagged edge in this world. Another talon pierces through the dark circle; this one holds the glaive that unbeknownst to Mabul will soon become both ally and enemy. The wet, scaly skin on the arms protruding from within the pit flex and shimmer in the sinister light emanating from the torches and glowing symbols. They reach out further, drawing their owner fully through the open gateway.
Had Mabul not already purged the contents of his stomach he surely would now. There is a certain horror about the summoned devil, of which the cruel glaive is only a lesser element, a horror that lay partly in its unnatural, crouching attitude, and the beastlike agility with which it moves. Curving talons gleam in the insidious light like the hooks of darkly tarnished metal that hold the night’s sacrifices. A grisly, snaking beard juts from its chin below snarling lips. Spiky teeth, longer than coffin nails, are bared in a wicked grin.
“Who summons me?” It hisses, spittle dripping from its fangs.
“I do, that you may take my sacrifice to your master, that Nilzabar may be nourished.”
“Is it willing?” The beast spits turning to glare at the kneeling form of Mabul.
“That remains to be seen.”
“Nice.” The barbazu hisses, its yellow eyes gleaming with the prospect of subduing the sacrifice. The hunched devil begins pacing the floor observing Mabul, much like the great jungle cats of the far south when stalking prey.
Rationality and madness, fear and rage grapple within him. What little remains of the captured Rahim boy struggles against the animal he has become, an animal birthed and nurtured in the pits. An audible voice within bids him embrace the madness that is this night, succumb to violent desire. It goads him to battle, to test himself against yet another opponent. Beneath the horrid robes he wears, Mabul releases his grip on the hilt of his short sword to loosen his kukri in its sheath. Sliding it out of its sheath he runs the cold steel blade across the top of his thigh hoping the pain will focus his mind. It fails.
The bearded devil halts its movement for a moment, to sniff the air through flared nostrils. Its eyes glare at Mabul’s leg as it licks its lips with delight, the serpentine tongue caressing its fangs. It drops the glaive, to the floor, as though deemed unnecessary.
In a last ditch effort to survive the remnants of rationality in Mabul’s mind, his core survival instincts, balk at the fever inspired vision playing out before him. In truth he has fought both these battles before in reality. The battle raging in Mabul’s dream mind reaches a frenzied pitch, and as it was so long ago, it ends with a snap. There is no Mabul, there is no conscious calculating of attack and defense, there is no warrior finesse, there is only the basest of animals driven mad by torment and violence and there is only survival at any cost.
Mabul rises, throwing off the vile robes and with clawed hands and a wild howl lunges toward the fiend intent on tearing it apart with his bare hands. Likewise the bearded devil, with horned wings unfurled, leaps into the fray. They meet over the still open portal with a thud, the force of Mabul’s leap driving both of them back to land on the arena floor. He quickly grasps the forearms of his opponent in an iron grip made all the stronger by the rage and madness boiling inside of him. They roll on the ground, a tangle of arms, legs, talons, tail and wings, each seeking an advantage. Having no hands free to grasp a weapon, Mabul, like the beast he has become, snarls and bites viciously into the scaly shoulder of the fiendish creature, barely missing its intended throat.
The barbazu, with frenzied, ferine agility breaks free and rolls away into a crouch hissing, spitting and raking the charged air with its talons. Its eyes are wild and full of anger; they mirror Mabul’s own eyes as they both circle the pit gauging each other. Crouching, again the fiend launches itself at Mabul, one vicious claw rakes his chest while the other seizes his upper arm, the talons digging deep into meaty flesh. It draws Mabul close, he can feel its hot rancid breath on his face as he struggles to break the grip on his arm. The devil’s grisly beard snakes out to puncture his cheek as though possessed of a life of its own. A momentary wave of nausea shivers through the maddened man’s body. But nothing can supplant the wild rage seething inside him and he growls at the beast as his free hand snatches the disgusting beard ripping it from the scaly chin. The devil roars in pain and fury clutching Mabul’s free arm and driving its moist forehead into his nose. There is an audible crunch as cartilage is crushed under the painful strike. The barbazu rends the soft tissue of his cheek to shreds with its razor sharp teeth. Heaving Mabul to the ground before retreating to assess its wounds.
Mabul laughs hysterically at the pain radiating from his facial wounds. Blood runs freely from his flattened nose, tattered cheek and the deep gouges in his arm. The pain only heightens the barbaric insanity of primitive combat. He glares rabidly at the creature, preparing to once again join battle. In the momentary pause that ensues the devil feints at a rush towards him but then sidesteps toward the hideous glaive previously discarded. Mabul senses, more than deduces the beast’s ultimate destination. Sword drawn and poised high he rushes forward. He reaches the glaive an instant after it is recovered by the barbazu, only to see the weapon and its wielder disappear before his eyes. Halting his forward movement he ducks low as the glaive slices the air above his lowered head from behind. He springs forward into a roll that rights him into a position of attack, only to find the devil no longer there. A roar to the left is the only indication of the beast’s new position. He turns and raises his sword to parry the expected blow. The weapons come together with a reverberating clang, metal to metal. He stops the lethal blow but the force drives him hopelessly off balance. He tries to regain his footing but the fiend suddenly appears directly in front of him glaive raised for a decapitating strike at his head. The blade races towards his neck. He cannot doge the sweeping blade. He drops his sword. Instinct alone speeds his hand to the broad flat blade of the devilish weapon. The power of his desperate slap is enough to drive the blade down into his already wounded arm instead of his neck. His body moves with the force of the strike. Bone and the hasty movement are all that stop the blade from severing his arm completely. He draws his kukri, spinning to the inside along the shaft of the brutal glaive, his wounded arm swinging limply. The primal warrior within, recognizing his waning strength and last opportunity, summons all his remaining might into a single blow directed at the fiend’s groin. The angled blade slides easily into the soft tissue it finds between the beast’s haunches. The devil hisses and bellows in agony. Mabul drives the blade deep, twisting so it angles upward. The beast, having loosed the glaive, flails wildly at the madman attempting to castrate and eviscerate it. Mabul heaves upward with all his weight. The blade glides easily through the scaly flesh. It catches for an instant on the beast’s pelvic bone, and then continues up to finally be stopped by the thick bone of the devil’s sternum.
The two combatants topple to the pit floor in a spray of blood and entrails. Mabul yanks the kukri from the wounded carcass of the beast. He glares viciously into the clouded but still-aware eyes of the dying devil. The kukri clatters to the ground as Mabul reaches into the gaping wound of the vile servant of Nilzabar. Finding its black heart, he tears it from its rightful place and holds it high for all to see. The previously silent crowd gasps with ecstasy at the gruesome sight. Some faint with rapture as he bites deep into the organ tearing a piece from it. He throws the remainder of the heart high into the gathered worshipers, where they fall on it like ravenous beasts, smearing chunks of it across their semi-nude bodies and falling into savage sensuality, violent intercourse.
The voice within bids him take the glaive as his prize. There is no resistance to the suggestion. He lifts the glaive from the ground. He can feel the dark, sinister power of Nilzabar pulsing through it. Heeding the voice again he hacks at the felled devil with his newly won possession. With each cut the glaive delivers a shock of sweet excruciating pain. He laughs manically at the jolts. As he removes piece after piece of the carcass, he kicks them into the still open portal to Carceri, reveling all the while in the retributive agony of the Sword of Nilzabar. Finally, he removes its head. He kicks the torso through the gate and holds the head before him, he spits in the lifeless face of the hand of Nilzabar before dropping it too through the portal.
The crowd momentarily ceases their fierce and lecherous couplings as the Necromancer King speaks.
“Our god is slaked and well. Save your freedom victor, what would you have me do for you?”
“Give me women.” He speaks aloud, but inside he screams an altogether different request of the wretched King.
The worst of the storm passes. The wind is light and the rain soft. Mabul still lingers close to death, his mud covered body shudders constantly with chills. His broken mind continues to relive the horrors of his life. He dreams of the combats that followed that fateful night, most are but twisted memories of the truth, remembered through the lens of madness. He dreams of the many women that followed those days, perhaps years, of slaughter and how he killed all but one at the behest of the voice. To her, his mind clings believing her to be salvation now as then. Her refusal to service him, her stubborn instance that the voice he hears is imaginary, her subtle instance that their lives are poison to the god of suffering, all this and more filter in an out of his delirious visions.
A short distance away, a dog barks…
“What is it girl?” Dasari asks his noisome companion.
The black and gray spotted dog barks incessantly, keeping the short line, tethering her to the wagon bench, taut.
“We don’t have time for this girl. We’re already behind on a count of the storm.”
Betu ignores her master’s reasoning and continues to bark all the louder, straining against her tether.
“If you get all muddy chasing Elai knows what, I’m not letting you sleep in the wagon.” He scolds, reaching down to give her a soothing pat on the head.
When is hand is close Betu grabs hold of his sleeve, tugging relentlessly.
“Alright, alright, but you better be keeping up with me.” He complains as he undoes the line from her collar. She leaps form the bench and bolts immediately off into the surrounding trees and rocks. “You’re sleeping outside in the mud and cold tonight!”
Dasari snaps the reins to get his mules moving again. The beasts lean into their burden. Slowly but steadily the wagon, Dasari, and Betu’s traveling home, begins to move through the sucking mud. Betu barks in the distance, Dasari grumbles atop his bench.
Suddenly, Betu begins howling a short distance away. Dasari stops the mules again. “I need to get a cat.” He mumbles climbing down from the wagon to slosh in the mud.
Following the sound of Betu’s howl as he slogs through the mud he stumbles, landing face first in the mud. He pushes himself up to a sit and wiping mud from his face and eyes he spies a glint of dark metal peeking out from the muck. He reaches out wiping the mud away to reveal a sinister barbed blade mounted to a dark wooden shaft. He gasps, his hand recoiling at the sight of the devil blade. “Oh dear Elai.” He hurries to stand and get to Betu, who continues her mournful howl, but finds his feet tangled in the straps of a mud-covered pack. Removing the ensnaring straps he rushes to his feet and runs toward the howling dog. Bursting through rain soaked brush he spots her sitting and howling by a stone outcropping.
Upon seeing her master Betu stands and runs halfway to him and then turns back to a mud covered lump at the base of the rock. She begins tugging at mud covered cloth revealing exposing an unconscious man.
“Elai protect us.” Dasari entreats, scanning the surrounding wood and slogging ever closer. “That’s a good girl Betu”. He says reaching down to take hold of her collar when finally draws close. The man lying in the mud is a horrible sight; his skin is pale despite his natural color and the mud, his entire body is covered in scars marking him as a warrior and apparently not a very good one. Dasari kneels placing his ear near the man’s mouth hoping he still breathes. He can barely feel the short shallow breaths of the near-dead man.
“What have you gotten us into girl?” He mumbles standing and staring at the fallen man. A moment of indecision passes before he kneels again and checks the man for wounds. Finding nothing save clammy skin and burning brow, he doffs his robes to cover the man. Once bundled in the warm robes, Dasari lifts him over his shoulder and stumbles back toward his wagon carrying the heavy burden and whispering prayers to Elai.
Days go by while Dasari ministers to Mabul. Mabul drifts in and out of consciousness oblivious to his the activity around him. After a week he wakes long enough to eat before falling back into healing sleep.
Mabul’s eyes open, coherently noticing his surroundings for the first time. He sits up with a start at the unfamiliar place, dizziness and nausea forcing him to lie back slowly. A door opens, light pours in from the outside, momentarily blinding him. A figure moves through the door. Instinct drives Mabul’s hand to where his kukri should be. It isn’t.
“So you have decided to join the living again, none to soon I would say.”
Mabul fumbles beneath the heavy fur blankets searching for his misplaced kukri. Failing to find it, he rasps through cracked lips and hoarse throat. “My possessions?”
“Dear Elai!” Dasari exclaims rolling his eyes.“ The man awakes from the dead and all he can think to ask is for is his gear.” He continues.
“My apologies, where are my possessions.”
“Relax friend, they’re all right hear, well, that is, everything I could find in the mud and not your nasty blade, I won’t be touching that vile thing and if you’re smart you’ll leave it where it lies.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Dasari, and you friend?”
“Well Mabul, you are a lucky man. If Betu hadn’t found you when she did, I dare say you’d have no need to for your gear.” Dasari moves with ease through the cramped quarters, talking while mixing herbs in a wood cup. “Drink this, it’ll get you on your feet.”
“No need for thanks now, you had a need I could provide for, it was only right.” He comments offering the concoction to Mabul.
“Awful.” Mabul coughs after swigging the foul medicine.
“Well, just because its good for you doesn’t mean its good to you.” He quips. “You get some rest, Mabul, we’ll talk more later.”
And talk they did the next day, mostly about nothing in particular. Dasari has an easy way about him, making Mabul relax from his usual wariness.
“How you feeling Mabul?”
“I hate to heal and leave but I am eager to get on my way, I am late people are waiting on me.”
“I am sure you do. Now I have a favor to ask. I was on my way to Atân, that’s a cloister a few days from here, to take something to their garden. If you could take it for me that would give me back most of the time I lost. Now if you say no I understand so don’t think you have to or anything.”
“I’ll do it, what is it?”
“Just a plant they’ve been wanting for a while, I happened to come across one and thought it be a noble deed and all to bring it to them.”
“Yeah well, I know it’s not anything special, like some holy artifact or something, but it’ll look nice in their garden and if you could take it for me it’d make me and the monks happy.”
“I’d be honored Dasari.” Only the faintest trace of sarcasm colors his reply.
Later, Mabul pets Betu, waves to Dasari, shoulders his pack and glaive...
“You should bury that thing and walk away Mabul.”
“Not yet, friend.”
Mabul cradles the potted plant in one hand, his glaive in the other, as he makes his way east to Mt. Faratsu and the Monastery of Atân.