The City in Shadows
Part Three – Fragile Accords
Emir Barazi let fly a string of mellifluous curses as he watched his prey slip away once more, this time into the runs of the unexpected city. The long chase of many days deep into the inhospitable wastes of the desert had drawn on for far too long, and he wished simply for it to be brought to an end. Having to hunt for the fugitives through the city would only serve to delay matters further.
Kharjii, and those that remained with him, could not be allowed to live, though. Only he remained that had risen in the rebellion, and for that the example of his death would be a warning to any one else who contemplated another insurrection, delivered in terms of such exquisite cruelty that it could not be ignored.
The eerie sound of cackling laughter took up echoing from behind them. Barazi half turned in his saddle to settle a dark eyed glare upon the pack of a dozen hyenas that were following in the wake of his men. The scavengers had picked up their trail at about the same time they had entered the block rock plains, lurking just far enough away so that they could scattered if approached, yet not too far that they could be shaken loose. Persistently they clung to the trail, all the while their bursts of cackling laughter playing at nerves.
What the hyenas scavenged upon was a matter that Barazi did not wish to dwell upon. Out there, nothing lived, not that he could see. The hyenas had to eat, and for a pack of the size that followed them, substantial prey would have to be caught and eaten regularly. What they normally ate wouldn’t matter, for soon they would have scraps aplenty upon to gorge upon.
As they reached the walls of the city, they reined their mounts to a halt. Barazi shaded his eyes with a hand as he stared up at the imposing, weathered walls of black stone and the gaping gateway that led on through. A moment of doubt assailed him, and he almost considered halting and turning about, leaving Kharjii to the city. Something about the place lent itself to the notion that it would devour those that entered it. Barazi shook the feeling aside, taking a grip on the hilt of his sabre for extra reassurance. No matter the danger that may await them, he felt secure in his skill at arms, which few could match.
“Remain vigilant,” Barazi ordered his men. “They will seek, no doubt, to ambush us within, like the cowardly dogs they are. Remember, I want Kharjii alive. The rest, you can deal with them as you will. I have no need of any other prisoners.”
All around came the whispering ring of drawn steel. With weapons in hand, the band rode slowly through the arched doorway. Beyond it, in a black cobblestone courtyard upon which a film of sand rested, the footsteps of their prey led first to a well, and then from there away deeper into the city.
Barazi rode across to the well, leaning aside in his saddle to inspect it closer. No water could be seen, though curiously the sides of the well inside were moist.
An echoing cackle sounded once more, the hyena pack having followed them even into the city.
“Cursed beast,” one of the riders snarled. Swiftly he sheathed his scimitar then removed a horsebow from a quiver slung from the saddle of his horse. An arrow was notched to it and he drew back the string, making to aim. Before he could loosen the shaft though, the hyenas scattered, running for cover in the surrounding shells of buildings, all the time cackling incessantly.
“That is unnatural,” the rider stated, easing off on the arrow and lowering his bow.
“This whole place is unnatural,” Barazi added. A pall hung about the city unseen but felt, from which skeins of doubt wormed into their hearts, of a sense of foreboding that could not easily be shaken. It seemed even to afflict their mounts, for the horses pawed at the ground and tossed their heads, while each rider could feel their mount tremble with nervous energy beneath them.
Barazi led them riding forward, out of the pale glow of the setting sun, and into the long shadows cast by the tall buildings around them. As they did so, the laughs of the hyenas abruptly cut out, only to be replaced by another sound, a chilling, haunting wail that froze them to their marrow. Horses reared at it, trying to break free of the control of their riders, to flee in wild panic. The noise echoed through the hollow buildings, assailing them from all directions.
From the nearest skeleton of a structure, a figure emerged, a flash of movement that scurried through the shadows to swiftly vault onto the back of the nearest horse, bearing the rider to ground, to set upon him clawing and biting. The man screamed as he sought to fight off his attacker. Other figures also emerged, always staying in the shadows, men, or so Barazi first assumed. A closer look revealed them to be anything but.
Once they may have been men, even residents of the city itself, but now they were of a degenerate appearance, wiry to the point of skeletal and grey skinned, clad in wisps of rags, their hair lank, what little remained of it. Nails sprung from their hands like claws and their teeth had been sharpened to needle like fangs. In their eyes burned malice and hate, and hunger. The one who had taken the rider to the ground buried its teeth deep into the man’s neck even as claws lunged into his chest, ripping open flesh in an appallingly frenzied assault.
They were ghouls, corrupted cannibals that, according to legends, came out at dusk to fall upon men and devour them. Barazi cursed as all around him fell battle erupted, riders trying to fight off the monsters that swarmed them, all the while trying to keep their terrified mounts under control. Whispered tales told around campfires by the men of the deserts spoke of some ghouls being able to assume the forms of hyenas to stalk their intended prey during daylight hours, tales that Barazi now saw confirmed before his eyes.
“Ride now!” Barazi yelled, his scimitar slashing downwards just as one of the ghouls leapt for him. The blade cut deep, half severing the creature’s head. He kicked his horse forward, the hooves of the beast clattering across the cobblestones as it broke into a gallop, careening away towards the heart of the city. Not all his men were able to escape the ambush and follow him, the bodies of a half dozen left where they had fallen for the ghouls to descend upon in an orgy of frenzied feeding.
They rode hard, not caring where their flight took them, careening through streets where nothing but the wind had trod for many a year, by the fading relics of past glories. Delicate spires clawed skywards, while walkways led off into small courtyards where desiccated fountains sat and once plants had blossomed. The colonnaded facades of majestic buildings lent a grandeur to the scale of the city, if one now but a forgotten memory. All thoughts of those that they pursued had been cast aside and instead all focus was now upon surviving the horror that ha sprung up in the city.
As the fear of pursuit lessened, for no signs of the ghouls had arisen since the ambush back at the entrance to the city, they slowed down their wild flight to take stock of their surroundings and consider future actions. Ahead, rising dominant over the skyline of the city, all other buildings seemingly insignificant in comparison, they could make out a vast domed roof of back stone, right at the heart of the city. Despite their flight, they soon discovered that they had not fact lost the trail of Kharjii’s men, for along the sandy street ahead they could make out footsteps, headed for the domed building, and these they followed.
The minutes passed by as they let their mounts walk to recover, all the while watching the buildings around them, half expecting at any moment to see the ghouls appear. None came and at last they arrived at a vast courtyard that had once been graced by flowing fountains and gardens in which rows of statues stood. Now all that remained were silent monuments, driven sand, the withered, petrified remains of trees, and the memories of parades and spectacles. The last of the day’s sunlight played across the courtyard and the shadows closed in around them.
A massive complex dominated the courtyard, constructed all of black stone, whose purpose was not readily apparent. If it had been temple or palace or mausoleum, it gave no indications. Once much of the roof had been tiled, the tiles of the colour of red blood, sloping up towards the dome that sat at the heart of the structure. Many of the tiles had slid free over the years, to cascade down to the ground and shatter where they had fallen.
Steps, broad and statue lined, led up from the courtyard to the front of the complex, an entrance just visible there in the growing darkness of the evening. Upon the steps fallen bodies could be seen. Barazi frowned as he angled his horse towards the steps and the bodies, scanning the surrounding area for any signs as to what had transpired. Closing in on them, he could see that the bodies were those of more of the ghouls that they had met at the entrance of the city, seemingly cut down as they had scurried up the steps towards the entrance to the complex.
Puzzled by the sight of the dead ghouls, he stopped his horse, out in the last light of the fading sun. Around him his men spread out, their weapons at hand, staying alert for any signs of danger, an air of uneasy wariness about them.
“It would appear that we are not alone in having encountered the ghouls,” Barazi stated, “No doubt Kharjii and his dogs have met them as well.”
“We should leave them to each other,” one of the riders suggested, wanting noting more to do with the accursed city or its denizens.
Barazi shook his head, no matter how tempted he was by the suggestion. “No. I want Kharjii alive and in my hands.” He waved his men on and began to ride up the steps of the complex. As he did, from the shadowed recesses of the entrance to the building, an arrow came arcing through the air to land nearby, yet still far enough away to show that it had been a mere warning shot and not one directed at them. The entrance, now that he looked at it, had been partially barricaded with the shattered remains of statues that had been toppled over, piled haphazardly high.
“Not one step closer, treacherous cur,” a warning voice barked out, one that Barazi knew to be Kharjii’s.
“Still alive then, I see,” Barazi replied calmly. “For now,” he added, and there were ominous tones in those words.
“Still alive,” Kharjii agreed, “But you I could have killed already had I so wished.”
“And yet you didn’t,” Barazi retorted. “Why is that, I wonder?”
A short silence followed before at last Kharjii spoke up, with great reluctance. “Against my better judgement, I was persuaded otherwise.”
“A wise choice, given the circumstances, I feel. You find yourself in a most precarious predicament here, do you not? On one side you have the ghouls hungering for your flesh and blood, and on the other you have me, with no means of escape to be had.”
“You are not exactly in an ideal situation either,” Kharjii countered.
“True, but it is better than yours. I have more men, and horses besides. I could simply depart, should I so desire, leaving you to your much deserved fate and the unholy mercies of the ghouls.”
“Then why have you not?”
“Call it my merciful nature.”
“Mercy? From you?” A short, mocking laugh sounded, deriding the idea. “I would rather take my chances with the ghouls than to depend upon your mercy.”
Barazi sighed, his expression one of a man unjustly maligned. “You misjudge me greatly,” said he. “Nevertheless, I have a proposal. Would it not be wiser, given the circumstances, for us to band together this once so as to survive the night? Together we stand a far better chance than apart.”
Barazi could hear he sound of voices following his offer, coming from the entrance to the complex, though not the words being spoken.
“Wiser, perhaps, in normal circumstances,” Kharjii replied after a considerable debate. “These are not, yet I am willing to consider it, albeit under one condition.”
“And what, pray tell, is that?”
“Once the night is through, if we even survive, and the threat has been dealt with, we head our separate ways and you swear an oath to no longer pursue me, or mine.”
“You demand much for one in your position,” Barazi responded, a scowl darkening his features.
“A position more secure than your own at the moment,” Kharjii pointed out. “Do we have an accord?”
Barazi did not immediately reply, instead taking a moment to once more look around their surroundings. The sun was but minutes from sinking out of sight, and with it shadows would cover the entirety of the courtyard. Already, at the edges of it, he could make out the lurking forms of ghouls, dozens of the ravenous creatures, growing in numbers, waiting for the sun to be gone. Once the shadows hit they would come swarming in with claws and rending teeth, and the feeding would begin. Flight would prove of scant hope.
“It appears that I have little choice. We have an accord.”
Previous Part Next Part