The Thief of Joy and Light
by Danielle L. Parker
Table of Contents|
Part 1 appeared
in issue 138.
The milky string of stars and fiery dust called the Outer Rim swirled like cooking candy; against the glory of their incandescence, something dark moved, cradling a smaller form against its belly like a boa coiling prey. Reality folded; and through its indescribable absence a shadow slipped, an ombre predator hugging a silvery wart with a blood-shot piggy eye glaring on its blunt bow...
Jim Blunt braced his shoulders against the stone at his back, his intent gaze stabbing the shrouded corners of his refuge. In his slightly raised left hand, half-concealed by the tense curve of his fingers, was a flat small weapon. It was not as deadly as the other, the one whose ever-chilled metal and weight numbed his naked thigh beneath the lank Aspian robe. But it was silent. And even here, on mad Fzil, world and city, crazed theme park of theology, it was prudent to do murder silently.
But the six thieves who had set upon him surged past the narrow mouth of the alley, ululating their pain and rage and thirst for revenge. One of those stick-thin figures carried aloft an oddly crooked limb, and glimpsing that, Blunt allowed himself a wolfish smile. He flexed the fingers of his right hand as he straightened slowly from his crouch. Those strong digits had snapped the thin wrist that had lewdly insinuated itself into the folds of his robe, searching for the wealth a prudent visitor might carry in such hiding. Well, perhaps these particular — whatever, for Blunt had no name for their species — would think twice before trying to grope an Earthman’s crown jewels again.
Silence fell. Blunt allowed his eyes to roam cautiously over his new refuge. It was very narrow. His outstretched arms could have almost touched the buildings framing each side. They were indefinably old, those buildings, whose stones were gray as dust in the wan light of Fzil’s deformed moonlet. Beneath his boots Blunt felt an uneasily shifting debris; years of uncaring accumulations lay underfoot, as well as an odor as foul to Blunt’s usually unfastidious nostrils as an unventilated hog farm. And something, or someone, lay a few meters away under a cheap plastic covering. As Blunt studied it, its hidden occupant arched itself as if to vomit. Then it slowly subsided and lay still, though Blunt continued to regard it with a suspicious eye.
But except for the — thing — beneath the coverlet, he seemed to be alone. And lost. As the grim realization of that sank in to him, Blunt allowed himself to breathe an inventive profanity. In spite of his careful study of the maps provided by his newly acquired viperine ally, he had lost his bearings in the fight and its heated pursuit. Fzil was too old, too convoluted, too decayed to ever comprehend in its entirety. Somewhere out there lay that busy street, thronged with its pilgrims and priests, its thieves and hucksters that he had quitted so precipitously. But where, Blunt now had no idea.
A cloud moved over the misshapen moon, obliviating the light like the blow of a pugilist’s fist. The tall Earthman stiffened. Now in the darkness he could hear a sinister, sly rustle, a warning that thrilled every nerve in his body. Even one as hardened as he found a peculiar horror in the thought of that... thing... beneath the filthy tarp coming upon him in the dark and sliding unwashed, lice-ridden strangling arms about his throat...this was no place for a lone Earthman. Putting his free hand upon the strangely greased surface of the stone to guide his steps, Blunt crept cautiously away.
Fzil, like most worlds favored by Aspians, was humid. Water dripped steadily from the overhanging eaves that Blunt passed beneath. Though the clouds shredded and yielded an occasional glimpse of his surroundings, those views were not comforting. And something seemed to ooze out of the old stones, a palpable presence that seemed to watch, baleful and jealous, the distant flash and color of Fzil’s younger gods. Blunt glanced about in sudden tense comprehension. Yes, by chance — perhaps by chance — he had fled into the oldest part of the ancient city, where the old gods, envious and sour, sank into a decay and slime like the filth at his feet.
Now suddenly the Earthman found himself in another narrow street, as deserted as the first. There were doors, here and there, some barred fiercely from the outside, as if their owners had tried to trap forever whatever lay within. One door stood ajar, and as Blunt passed, his flat small weapon lifted in prudent preparation, he saw red eyes in a triangular configuration watch him from within. But the watcher remained still; only its crimson eyes followed the intruder, floating like coals in the deep obscurity of their habitation.
Many deserted and twisted streets yielded at last to another, broader thoroughfare. Here and there torches stood thrust into angled posts, illuminating a way whose stones seemed softened with the passages of thousands of years. Down the sunken center ran a thin drool, and on each side, avoiding the evil ditch, passed intermittent swift figures hidden in cowls and robes of Aspian style.
But they seemed of a kind, these silent wayfarers! The Earthman, lounging in the mouth of his vile alley, appraised those forms thoughtfully. Kzirth had shone with the sinister magnificence of a golden cobra, but these — these mute servants of Lziren were like true pit-vipers, ugly and potent with threat. Beneath their cowls glowed pitiless red orbs shot with yellow veining; snouts of coarse black scales lifted as they passed, testing the air for his alien scent with flickering black tongues.
Drawing up his hood, the Earthman joined their silent stream. By virtue of their unusually short and thick stature, his human shape was not especially remarkable: still, no man might imitate the smooth glide of their steps. But none, it seemed, offered him harm; Blunt and his new guides passed beneath the torches in mutual silence.
It was not long before many others, of diverse kinds, joined the growing throng. An Aspian passed him with madly fixed green orbs, the poison sacs on his wrists flapping loose and empty: less than an eunuch among his kind. An Amby, deceptively human-like in face and form until the light revealed its blue skin and hair, passed him crying its ritual song of mourning in a voice like a stricken bird. Soon, the sick, the suicidal, the bereft, and the mad of many species thrust past the Earthman, threaded here and there by the cold presence of Lziren’s viperine priests.
Like a great tide the diseased throng crested onward, and Blunt, lifting his gaze, saw before him a great gaping darkness. Huge torches blazed on each side of those massive stone portals, yet nothing within could his straining eyes glimpse, as if life and light had no place beyond those tall piers. And then, helplessly caught in the powerful current, the Earthman too was carried across Lziren’s threshold.
Instantly intense cold and stifling breathlessness fell upon him. The rush of bodies that bore him forward seemed to falter and congeal in its icy grip. Blunt felt something snag his arm. He turned with a tiger’s snarl and his hand flashing upward — but it was only the crook of a long pole, wielded by a priest impassively arranging the stunned flock of Lziren’s worshippers.
Jim Blunt allowed himself to be guided to the side. He found, as his vision adjusted, that he stood at the back of a great, dim hall, with a vast arc of stone high above him. It was as if a great, fossilized rib cage, smoked and bespattered by the millennium, formed the distant ceiling. Far ahead, at some inexplicable distance, was the head of a great viper. It was a countenance much like that of its priests, and yet here immeasurably more revolting. The snout bore curved twin horns like claws, and a yellowish mist wafted from the tips; a great stone tongue rippled from the lipless mouth. And beneath its cloudy lids glowed the only light in the hall — Lziren’s slumbering eyes.
For almost an hour, as the Earthman waited in growing discomfort and impatience, worshippers poured within, arranged with remorseless efficiency by the priests. At last the great portals were heaved closed. Faintly he heard outside a chilling wail, a mingled lost, forlorn cry out of many throats, and even more faintly, a muffled, desperate beating, as of pleading fists, upon the great stone doors.
Slowly, slowly, a soft, wordless hissing began and filled the vast hall. As the Earthman watched intently, the cloudy membrane over those great orbs began to smoke and flare into small gouts of fire... and at last, Lziren’s naked orbs looked down upon his supplicants.
At first there was only fire in those eyes, which were as huge as shields and mottled by sulphurous veins of yellow. And then... as the Earthman flung up his arm to shield his vision, something looked out of those orbs, something that held despair, sadness, grief and an unnatural, frenzied ecstasy... something that settled slowly and heavily upon them all, like a suffocating shawl.
In horror, the Earthman found his hands stirring restlessly, as if they had gained a mind of their own... he felt his nails pluck slyly at his own flesh and his thumb press upon his flinching eye, and with a shudder of revulsion, he clenched his wayward fists.
For a time he could not measure, he endured. Then, at some point, as if he had found air at last after rising from the deep ocean, he became aware again that the great red orbs had closed, and an eerie silence surrounded him. He, almost alone, stood above a sea of bowed forms. The sac-less Aspian too stood nearby, his mad green eyes fixed upon some private torment. Four priests were pushing open the portals, and slowly, slowly, those of the worshippers who yet lived rose and streamed outside. But many did not rise, and as Blunt watched, he saw a long low cart moving among the crowd, collecting those who would never rise again.
“You are of a strange kind.”
Captain Blunt turned his head sharply. One of the priests regarded him impassively, his arms folded beneath the sleeves of his robe. His red orbs were clouded with age. The old priest’s forked black tongue flickered, testing his scent.
“An Earthman,” he replied defiantly in the same sibilant Aspian the priest had used. “You’ll hear more of us, someday!”
“I know not the name,” replied the old priest, unmoved by his impudence. “But you have not the proper spirit for a worshipper of this god. Come not again to this place.” And he continued to watch, as emotionless as the dead thing at his feet, as the Earthman went out through the great portals with a scowl.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2005 by Danielle L. Parker