The Thief of Joy and Light
by Danielle L. Parker
Table of Contents|
Part 3 appeared
in issue 140.
It was a clear night when the Earthman again returned to the vicinity of the Pestilent Pilgrim. The air, though humid, was cool and reasonably pleasant; for once there was a break in Fzil’s nearly eternal soft rain. He arrived early, and lodging his powerful body into the cover of a shadowed alcove nearby, he watched keenly for the arrival of his ally. Blunt rarely had difficulty spotting him, even in the mostly Aspian crowds thronging Fzil’s streets. The loose hood and robe never entirely concealed Kzirth’s aristocratic golden scaling, or a height notable even among the lanky forms of his kind. Indeed, in due time Blunt’s sharp blue eyes noted a towering figure in a loose black robe striding arrogantly among the crowd. Kzirth, with a comprehending flicker of his yellow eyes, turned silently aside into his same shadowed recess. There the Aspian paused and inclined his cobra-like head in silent greeting.
“Do you have the vials?” the Earthman murmured. Why did the yellow orbs stare so tonight, distant and slightly fixed, as if they saw through and beyond him to some far-away scene? Blunt’s half-veiled blue eyes studied his confederate with a new caution. There was something different about this Kzirth... though he could not put a finger on that difference yet. He sniffed the air thoughtfully. What was that tantalizingly faint scent? It was an acrid odor he had never associated before with Kzirth, something bitter and throat-catching... yet, strangely familiar.
“I do.” The Aspian withdrew his hands from his loose sleeves and displayed two small bottles upon his narrow palm. “Anoint yourself with the effluent in the blue bottle; drink the contents of the red one in order to disguise your breath.” But as Blunt reached to take them, Kzirth closed his fingers about the vials and made a sharp averting gesture. “Ssstop!” he hissed warningly. “Tonight, I dare not let you take them from my hand. Come no closer, Captain!” And the Aspian bent and swiftly deposited the vials at their feet.
The Earthman glanced down in sudden suspicion. That scent... yes, he had breathed it only last night! It was the smell of that scorching drop of poison... Kzirth had once more tucked up his hands, but the loose folds of his sleeves could not entirely conceal the enormously dilated poison sacs that hung at his wrists. They swayed there, newly bloated and swollen, monstrous udders of killing venom.
The Aspian, following the direction of his gaze, bowed sardonically. “Yes, Captain,” he murmured. “It is as I feared. Today, the Challenge was issued. Tomorrow, in the holy abode of Aztot the Fertile Obscenity, Champion and Challenger will meet... and fight to the death!”
“Then you...” Blunt ventured in grim comprehension. “You...”
“Yes,” Kzirth said, and laughed in the fluting Aspian way. “I am the Champion. Did you not guess? We may meet again, Earthman, or we may not. Tomorrow, at the eleventh hour of the night, both our fates will be determined. Ah, if the fight were only against my kinsman, I would not meet him with fear. But I believe Tzek, though of my own mother’s brood, to be one of those depraved ones who have solicited Lziren’s aid. I doubt not that it is against Lziren’s foul strength I shall fight tomorrow. May Kavi aid us both!”
And with a deeper bow, he turned and departed abruptly. The Earthman, staring after him, saw the lamplight strike bright upon his metallic scales, causing a brief sun-glitter upon the darkened street...then the Aspian strode swiftly into the shadowy throng, parting their way with his characteristic disdain, and could be seen no more.
Jim Blunt bent to pick up his vials. “By Kavi’s stinking breath,” he whispered, “there goes a brave man... even if he’s a snake!” He stood up, shaking his head in reluctant admiration. “And no charnel-loving horned viper will get the best of an Earthman,” he vowed silently, and laughed savagely as he passed beneath the lamplight in turn.
It was in the early evening the next day that an unusually tall and sinewy Amby in characteristic blue robes joined the throngs of Lziren’s worshipers. Blunt spotted, among the press, a few slighter bluish forms in similar garb, and made sure that he stood well apart. Singing, somewhat more hoarsely than it was usually wont to be heard, the bird-like tune of Ambysian ritual mourning, he waited patiently until the great doors were once more closed.
Once again the chorus of wordless hissing filled the hall and swelled like the sting of a fatal bee in his ears; as Lziren’s fiery orbs opened upon the hall, the Earthman’s tall form swooned to the floor with the rest of his supplicants. It was not his intention to fight the crushing pall that fell upon him this time, but there was something stubborn in his spirit that would not allow him to utterly yield, in spite of that pragmatism. Thus he came to consciousness finding he had sunk to his knees like a woozy prizefighter but no further, and promptly allowed himself to collapse face forward.
It was not perhaps a wise move, for something vaguely bovine in appearance immediately crushed his out-flung arm with its careless hoof... vowing, vengefully, to investigate first hand the quality of its steaks one day, Blunt endured. It was a long wait before the dead wagon’s creaking wheels could be heard, and he received more than one blow from those careless of the dead that remained behind in final homage to Lziren.
But at last, through the thin wedge of his slitted eyelids he glimpsed a great wheel rock to a halt perilously near his head. Something snaked about his neck, and a similar hook lifted his knee. These efforts were not quite successful, for the acolytes found the Earthman unexpectedly solid of body; but with a third to assist, his supine form was at last flung upon the heap of quiescent bodies.
There was great danger in this, because more than one of those bodies was Aspian. Out of the corner of his eye, Blunt could see a thin, scaled limb whose great claw was still voiding poison in its death spasms. As the cart moved that limb swung gently to its motion, its spewing venom darkening the coarse fabric of his sleeve and bringing that glistening digit repeatedly closer and then further away... The captain watched its to-and-fro arc with a grim fascination.
But then another body, of a different sort, was flung aboard, crushing them both in its melancholy stink, and the arm was stilled. The cart moved ponderously on. It had been a moving and fruitful service for the worshipers of Lziren, it seemed, for another body was lifted above them, and then another... the entire pile swayed alarmingly upon the low flat cart, while the Earthman labored for breath beneath its press.
At last the vehicle swung in a new direction and set off more purposefully. Blunt, shrouded in darkness and the suffocating weight of the dead, could see little. But they traveled for some distance through dark corridors of stone, sometimes tunnels that dripped water menacingly from their ceilings. And all the while, the charnel odor of the dead grew more potent.
At last, when the reek was almost beyond even the Earthman’s stoic endurance, the cart stopped. Blunt strove carefully to free his hands and win a glimpse of his surroundings. There was an odd clank and jangle, as if metal chains were being handled; then the screeching protest of winding metal, and then... then, as the Earthman, alarmed, struggled in sudden desperation to free himself, the entire cart plunged forward, tilted, and shed its load into a reeking chasm.
It was a bad moment in the life of James Sherman Blunt. Hurtling into a bottomless darkness with the dead for fellow travelers and the decayed below, he might have screamed. But if he did, the sound of the retreating chains, cranking the cart back and to a horizontal position, covered any cry that tore from his throat. And when, a few seconds later, his fall was arrested with a force that smote the breath and nearly the heart out of him, he had no chance to scream again. For he might have been on the upper surface of that load, but when the hurtling fall ceased, Blunt had time to dourly reflect that he could have managed matters better... much better. For every body upon that cart, it seemed, now lay atop him, and beneath him... beneath him...
It was the feel, the smell, the threatening madness of that which goaded the man, wedged crazily upside down in the heap, to claw his way wildly upwards. How deep the chasm was, and how many centuries of burials lay beneath him, he dared not imagine, but no drowning man ever fought his way more desperately to the surface than Captain Blunt. In the pitchy blackness he struggled upwards, feeling with dread any cold, scaled limbs he encountered, for fear of those bulbous, still deadly claws. It seemed to him a time without end, with his sanity on an ever-stretching thread. But at last, at last, his groping, desperately striving hands felt air... tainted air, pestilent air, air as infectious with death as he had ever breathed. But as the man heaved his torn, stinking body atop the charnel heap, it was the air, perhaps, of freedom, and thus as sweet as any he had ever drawn.
He looked up. The deep pit was vertical, cut out of stone and, here and there, loose soil. There was a faint hint of diffuse light above of him, which seemed to terminate in an overhead cone of some sort... a hollow metallic cap, of what, he could not tell. There was no sign of the dead-wagon, only a glimpse of the outline of a now closed and firmly barred iron door where it had ejected its load, halfway up the wide shaft.
The Earthman drew his knife with grim resolve. Crouched awkwardly upon the unstable mass, he approached the side of the pit. He felt the sides with a sinking heart; the soil felt loose and friable; his first scrabble for a finger-hold only scraped free a trickle of earth and pebbles upon his upturned face. Raising himself to his full height, he felt along the wall for a more solid purchase. Rock at last met his searching fingertips, and he stabbed the knife deeply into a crevice with all the might of his powerful arms. If it would hold... if it would hold...
Twice his knife broke free and he slipped, clawing desperately with his newly broken nails. But Jim Blunt had a grim determination not to fall back into that pit at any cost. One of his fingernails ripped excruciatingly free, and the sleeves of his robe split across his straining biceps. But at last, immeasurable minutes of struggle later, his questing fingers felt a metal surface. He reached for it with one hand, then, gripping the knife between his teeth, with the other, and drew himself painfully up.
It was a scanty edge of metal. In the inky black air he could not see its form, but as he looked up, he saw more clearly that dim, cloudy light above, two diffuse spots, it seemed now, separated like strange cold eyes.
Above him now the structure, whatever it was, curved inward. To his horror, the Earthman hung over the pit itself as he climbed. Even Blunt’s fierce soul could not endure the thought of falling alive into that depth; he heard his voice, ragged with dread and effort, whispering almost unconscious imprecations and prayers as he struggled upwards.
But fortunately, it seemed the inside of the strangely capped structure had never been smoothed. His desperately seeking fingers found, here and there, small indentations and abrasions. Centimeter by desperate centimeter he progressed upwards, toward the twin glints of light above. And at last, as the cold pale light bathed his perspiring face, his fingers found another ledge. It was the coarse lip of the mysterious light source itself. He drew himself up with burning arms and looked urgently outwards.
He was behind a great orb of an iron-wrought Lziren, looking out through a thin, phosphorescently gleaming membrane and the hollow head of the idol. Only it was not the great hall that he looked down upon this time. This image was clearly smaller, and as Blunt peered out, pressing his own eye to what seemed to be a filmy barrier, he saw it was a much smaller room as well. There was a round stone pool of some kind below, filled with a dark, opaque liquid that could, perhaps, be water. And the high priest of Lziren stood silently facing him.
Blunt dared not move. But it was apparent, as he crouched tensely on his thin support, that the priest’s whole attention was focused on that still pool. There was a tense expectation in the old priest’s hunched and prayerful posture. The watching Earthman hesitated, his fist clenching wildly. He felt an increasing urge to action, an instinct that told he had to move now.
But perhaps it was too late. Something was stirring in that dark pool. A great, thick, endless loop rose out of the black liquid and coiled with unnatural smoothness around the stone lip. On and on it went, until it had wound itself around the entire circumference; and yet, more scaly coils clearly lay in the roiling waters. Slowly a head, a true viper head, raised itself from the center of the depths, and regarded its Aspian cousin with its reddened, yellow-shot orbs.
The old priest cried out in ecstatic, hissing Aspian, “Great Lziren! Tonight, tonight you will triumph! Kavi’s whirling arms will be crushed in your great jaws! Aztot will writhe to your kiss of death!” And he made obeisance in the Aspian way, holding out his thin hands with the poison claws held downward in fervent worship.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2005 by Danielle L. Parker