The Sleepers of the Marsh
Part Three – The Dark Song
Ahknetsos stood upon the shores of the marsh, staring out at the ever present mists that forever shrouded his destination, denying him that which was rightfully his, the ancient lost city of Khatner. All attempts to reach it had been thwarted by the mists and the marsh, by the foulness that clung to the land and the insidious villagers who had opposed at every turning. The arrival of the two foreign mercenaries had been the tipping point. He looked aside to his brother, Khetemene, then to the third man standing with the pair.
Renkheqen was a tall man, and gaunt to the point of being skeletal, his dark eyes sunk into hollows yet at the same time being penetrating and possessing a cruelty unmatched. He was bald, his skin bronzed as was common to the people of Metsheput. He had a long beard, stained red and braided. Bells hung in the beard, ones that tolled as he moved, sounding far deeper and sonorous than their size should have. He wore only a plain grey robe, belted with a simple rope, and leather sandals were upon his feet. In his bony right hand he clutched a gnarled wooden staff. Dangling from it were a number of thin metal bars, of a variety of metals; gold and silver, iron and copper and bronze and more, of types known and unknown. He had wrapped around his left fist a length of rope from which dangled a device that was both bell and censer, curls of aromatic smoke
rising up from it.
“This is the place we told you of,” Ahknetsos told Renkheqen. The gaunt man slowly nodded.
“It is protected you say.” When he spoke, the voice sounded like the rustle of old, dry parchment.
“The marshes see to it.”
Renkheqen turned his gaze upon Ahknetsos. The Metshuputi swallowed hard under the withering gaze. Hardened as he was, the gaze seemed to pierce right through him, to read his inner most thoughts so that he felt exposed before it. “The marshes? You had best not be wasting my time bringing me here.”
“We aren’t,” Ahknetsos assured him. “Bring forth the prisoner.”
Four of the Ishmarite mercenaries that followed the brothers dragged a bound man between them, another of the mercenaries.
“Ajmah, I am disappointed in you,” Ahknetsos told the bound man. “After the trust that I showed to you, to be betrayed in such a manner is unforgivable.”
“It will not happen again, I promise,” Ajmah responded.
A cruel smile played across Ahknetsos’ lips. “No, you won’t. Throw him into the marsh.”
All colour departed from Ajmah’s face at the pronouncement. As the four mercenaries began to drag him towards the edge of the marsh, he began to cry out and thrash about in desperation, attempting to break free of the restraints upon him. Ahknetsos stepped forward and drove a fist into his head, stunning him, leaving him to fall limp in the grasp of those that held him. They lifted him up, each taking hold of a limb and swung him out, tossing him into the waters of the marsh.
Ajmah had time for one last soul-rending scream before he landed in the marsh. Half crawling, slipping and sliding as he did, he tried to splash back to the shore. Then the waters stirred around him, bubbles rising to the surface, and he disappeared beneath the surface as if dragged under. He broke the surface again, gasping for air, only to be dragged under a second time.
Renkheqen watched on with eyes as cold as the pitiless ice of the north, indifferent to the struggles of the victim. He watched as weeds rippled through the waters to wrap about the unfortunate Ajmah, dragging him down further yet. He watched the man struggle with futile desperation, trying to tear free from the entanglements, straining to reach the surface. He watched as at last the man finally went limp, his eyes clouding over in death. Only then did any hint of emotion appear on his gaunt face, a smile emerging, though one amused and cruel, followed by a laugh that could have come from a vulture.
“Fascinating. I see now why you requested my services. You agree to the price?”
Ahknetsos nodded readily. “Yes, yes. You shall have twelve children delivered up to you upon the completion of your work.”
“Good. Now remain quiet and observe.”
Renkheqen sat down on the muddy ground at the edge of the marsh, folding his legs beneath him. With one end of the staff he scraped marks into the soft ground, forming a pattern of sharp edges. In the centre of it he set down the censer he had carried, and with his free hand he wafted smoke from it towards his face, breathing it in deeply. Taking two of the metal bars that were attached to his staff, one of iron and the other of brass, he struck them together. They rang with a deep and discordant sound that swept outwards like a wave of wind, the reeds swaying as the sound washed over them and the waters of the marsh rippling. The sound of it drove into Ahknetsos’ skull and lanced into his mind. He shut his eyes tight as flashes of dark images flickered before him, of flames and death and creatures too terrifying to put a name to. Icy tendrils of fear grasped at his heart and he shivered as a feeling of nameless dread took a hold of him.
Then Renkheqen began to sing, and it made the ringing sound like the sweetest of melodies. Deep and dark it rang out, and to Ahknetsos it seemed another voice sang along with it, whether also from the wizard or from some other unseen singer he could not say, and not did he wish to know. The two songs both clashed and complemented the other, each sounding a tune of their own that came together before drifting away again in a chant that went beyond mere words and into emotions.
In front of Renkheqen, a pair of footprints appeared in the centre of the symbol he had traced out, burning into the soil and sending curls of smoke rising into the air. Of what made then there was no sign. The footprints began to walk forward, into the marsh, leaving behind a trail of smoking steps on the surface of it, regardless of the water. Slowly they advanced, picking out a path through the marsh, one that led safely into it. At times a weed would snake up from out of the water to make a grab at some invisible thing, only to burn and fray and plunge back down beneath the surface.
The footsteps reached the mists that shrouded the marsh and entered them. The mists began to burn away before them, opening up a view of the marsh beyond, and with them the first signs of the drowned city that lay within them.
Abruptly Renkheqen’s singing came to a halt and he rose back up to his feet, gesturing towards the marshes with a bony finger. “The way is now open.” he intoned, a malicious smile on his vultured face. “If you wish to enjoy the spoils it is best to go now before it closes again.”
With barely a moments pause Ahknetsos barked out commands and the mercenaries began to push forward, readying their weapons as they did. Plunging into the marsh, they followed the smouldering footsteps, heading towards where they did. Behind them they could hear Renkheqen’s hollow laughter echoing out across the waters.
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