The City in Shadows
Part Five – Bet-Ashur
Through the long halls of the mausoleum they ran, where no living soul had trod for years beyond remembering. Along empty corridors they tracked their prey, the soft glow of Blade’s arcane illumination bathing murals and mosaics upon the walls depicting scenes best left forgotten. Gaping doorways opened up into chambers silent and dark, but these they paid scant attention to, intent only on following their comrades and those who had taken them.
Deeper they plunged into the mausoleum with weary step and laboured breath, becoming lost in the labyrinthine ways of the vast construct, until abruptly, unexpectedly, they came upon a colonnaded hall. The dark, square structures flanked a towering entrance into another chamber. From within it there came a flickering, pallid scarlet light, the glow of which made the walls appear as if they were bathed in flowing blood. It came from no flame; only an origin unnatural could have produced such radiance.
Peregrine barely halted in her forward momentum as she dashed between the columns, though the entrance and into the chamber. While within her soul there lurked a deep distrust of all things aberrant, her fierce nature was not cowered by such displays.
The chamber that she entered was at the heart of the mausoleum, beneath the great domed roof. Directly below the highest arc of the dome sat an immense stone sarcophagus, the lid of which had tumbled to the floor, far too large for any one man to lift. Pictograms and glyphs had been engraved across the surface of the sarcophagus though there was not the time to examine them. The sarcophagus itself lay empty but for dust and webs.
Ghouls lurked around the fringes of the chamber, and more stood before a black stone altar of the far side of the chamber from where Peregrine had entered, upon which their victims, the men abducted, had been stretched. A tall figure in tattered hooded robes stood behind the altar, a knife of jagged black obsidian in hand. Behind Peregrine, the others entered the chamber, coming to a halt at the sight that lay before them.
“It is well that you have come freely to offer yourself to me,” came a voice from the depths of the hood, in tones of sepulchre doom. The knife held plunged down, burying to the hilt in the heart of one of the victims. “It has been long since so many sacrifices were offered up to me, to renew me.”
He turned to face them and a cold fear swept across the gathered warriors, a chill that rooted them senseless and unmoving. A palpable evil emanated from the figure, one soaked in the misery of others, and of terrible purpose. The figure was that of no man, for it was skeletal in form, and from within empty eye sockets glowed a baleful scarlet light that seared into their minds as it swept across them. He extended a bony hand their way. “By your exquisite deaths shall Bet-Ashur once more walk the world of the living, and all shall tremble before him. Bring him to me, my servants.”
The ghouls crept forward from their hiding places, withered lips curled back to reveal their needle sharp teeth, cackling as they came. Foremost of the group as she was, they advanced upon Peregrine. As the first reached out to lay clawed hands upon her, she exploded into unexpected action. The fear that had gripped at her heart had been as for the rest, yet she was no lowland city dweller, but a daughter of the wild hills.
Her scimitar swept down, severing the clawed hand before the course of the swing reversed to run through the howling creature. Peregrine’s sudden defiance, unforeseen as it had been, sparked something deep within the other warriors. They began to shake aside the paralysation that had afflicted them, even as the ghouls began to strike. Beneath the glows of scarlet and bronze, one from the light of Blade’s orb, the other from the fabric of the very chamber itself, a fierce clash erupted, of men struggling with desperate resolve to survive the fate they could see spread upon the altar before them.
As his rapier snaked and thrust about, Blade called out to Peregrine who, as usual, stood at the heart of the battle “Bet-Ashur is they key. Should he but fall then the rest will be vanquished.”
Peregrine grunted a response as a flailing claw caught her across the cheek. The blow left three bleeding cuts behind. A vicious kick shunted the ghoul aside as she pushed on, headed towards where Bet-Ashur stood near the altar. Blade’s sword whispered home into the fallen ghoul, sliding into its heart before he too followed after her.
Bet-Ashur snatched up the obsidian knife that was sheathed in the heart of his victim as they approached. “Your suffering shall be prolonged for this insolent defiance,” he promised in menacing, sibilant tones.
Peregrine laughed in open defiance of the deathless prince, a fey mood upon her. “I have defied worse than you before this day, and will do so again.” Her eyes blazed with the fell lights of her proud people, un-cowered.
A snarl erupted from Bet-Ashur and he lunged at her, the black knife striking with the speed of a lashing cobra. Swifter still was Peregrine in response, for growing up in the Aedring hill country, beset as it was with predators, foes and dangers, such speed had been needed to simply survive. Her blade met the knife, twisting it aside with one fluid motion before she slammed her forehead into the skeletal face.
Bet-Ashur staggered back from the blow, and snarled once more. “Insolent peasant, you dare to strike me? I shall have you flayed alive for such insult, your skin peeled slowly from our body and fiery salts rubbed into your exposed flesh. Not in ten thousand years shall any suffer as you will suffer.”
Peregrine laughed again, for she was gripped by a wild mirth, and more, she sensed that such a response would further enrage Bet-Ashur. Pride, and hubris, they were as much a weakness to be exploited in a foe as any rent in the armour.
Bet-Ashur held up his free hand, skeletal fingers curling around into a grasping ball. A resonant sound issued forth from him, all discordant edges that flayed at the fibres of being and sent chill tremors through the bones. Around that grasped hand, wisps of cold light began to form, frozen radiance that brought a chill to the air.
Blade’s rapier lashed out, whipping at the hand about which sparks of ice began to flare and flicker. “Ware the touch,” barked he, “For it brings death couched in winter.” A jaunty tune escaped his lips, a remembrance of sunlight and summer’s warmth, in an effort to counter the spells of Bet-Ashur, but a vast gulf existed between the pair in terms of skill, and of experience. He had about as much chance of turning back the sea as opposing Bet-Ashur, and yet the Baktheri prince could not ignore such a blatant challenge to his prowess, and so he turned his attention upon Blade, bearing down upon him with the full fury of his unearthly gaze.
It struck Blade in full might, and the man felt his body beginning to freeze beneath it as his will withered before the gaze like a reed in the flames. The tunes died upon his lips and the magic faltered, along with the bronzed orb that hovered above, deepening the shadows of the room.
”Strike now,” he croaked, straining to get the words out through a tight constricted throat, straining with every last fibre of his being.
Peregrine needed no other encouragement, and she let ring a warcry as she flung herself forward, her scimitar describing a glittering arc through the air as it descended towards Bet-Ashur. It struck the deathless prince upon the shoulder, and bounced clear. It had been as if striking a statue of stone. The reverberations of it lanced through her arm, stinging at her fingers.
Yet it had not been without merit or results, for the obsidian knife fell from Bet-Ashur’s grasp and the arm fell down at his side, unmoving.
An outraged hiss escaped between Bet-Ashur’s teeth. “Villainous knave! Spawn of dogs! Your people shall suffer for this, down to the very last. I shall hunt them down, each mewling child and feeble greybeard, until none more remain and the name of your kind is but a whisper on the wind that will be forgotten.”
“Many have threatened us thusly,” Peregrine responded, her head held high, “Yet we are still here. The time may yet come that we die and our name goes down in ruin, but we shall do it as a free people, and proud.”
Bet-Ashur lunged at Peregrine with his icy shrouded hand, trying to grasp her about the throat. She slipped aside with the grace of a tigress, hewing down at the arm. Once more the ringing blow stung her arms, but it had been met by a cracking sound, and Bet-Ashur’s arm dropped.
Blade shook himself free of the stupor that had overwhelmed him, Bet-Ashur’s concentration broken by Peregrine’s bold assault upon him. The deathless prince may have been hindered, yet he remained still an opponent most formidable, not to be taken lightly even when thus impaired. He knew that his rapier would have little effect upon Bet-Ashur, and his magic of limited use as well.
The prince had dropped his sacrificial obsidian knife, though, and this Blade reached for as Peregrine distracted Bet-Ashur, with whipping blows and stinging words, enraging him yet further still. Blade’s hand closed around the hilt of the knife and a momentary sting touched his hand, and his memories, as dark energies within it surged. Ignoring the pain that locked his fingers tight, he stood and with silent resolve, manoeuvred behind Bet-Ashur, there to stab at his broad back.
The blade slid home, plunging through bone with ease.
An agonised, incredulous wail came from Bet-Ashur, one of utter disbelief that such a thing should happen to him. He stood for a few moments before simply crumpling to the floor, his bones mouldering away to dust even as they watched and his robes fraying into nothing.
A change swept across the chamber upon the death of Bet-Ashur. The ghouls, locked in fierce combat with the beleaguered warriors belonging to Kharjii and Barazi, were reducing to gibbering beasts. They fled in blind panic, leaving behind the survivors of the clash, and the dead. Fully half the men that had come into the city of Al-Arria lay slain, and many more bore wounds upon their bodies.
For a short moment relief was writ large upon the faces of those that had survived the ordeal, ye it did not take long before a subtle shift came across them. Men sidled aside to join their companions, and soon Barazi and Kharjii and their men faced each other across the chamber with drawn weapons at the ready. An uneasy feeling hung between them, both sides waiting for the other to act.
Peregrine strode out between the two groups as they faced off, and something fell from her hand that she had recovered from the dust of Bet-Ashur’s body. It hit the ground and bounced with the sound of metal upon stone. All eyes were drawn to it, to a golden ring set with a red gemstone that caught up the crimson light of the chamber.
“It appears that there are trinkets here to be had, as the tales say,” she told them. “We could fight, or we could depart our separate ways with riches enough for the time.”
Barazi glared at Kharjii, and Kharjii stared back with an iron gaze. Then Barazi lowered his weapon and a wry smile came upon him.
“I gave my word,” announced he. “I will not have it said that Emir Barazi is a man who does not honour his word. You are free to depart, Kharjii, but if we meet again I shall not be so gracious.”
Kharjii laughed as he sheathed his sword. “We shall met again, Barazi, have no doubt, whether it is this year, or the next, or the one beyond that. We still have much to settle, you and I.”
“Then come when you are ready and I shall await you beside the waters of the Lake of Khudir.”
And Fianna did laugh and shake her head. “This could all be settled in the here and now, yet you men of the cities have such strange notions of honour. If that is the way you wish it, then so be it, but as for me, I shall drink to the dead and of days yet to come.”