A fine sight we made when we disembarked at noon, striding down the gangplank of our galley and into the teeming throngs that covered every street and lane of the Black City.
In those days Salmu Alu was the greatest metropolis in the world, home to a hundred dark gods and their followers. Scarcely a day passed when a holy war did not erupt and swordsmen - even those as advanced in years as Varish Armeen and I - were in high demand. For years, warriors from all over the globe had flocked to the Black City and it was said that every man there had at least one old enemy.
"Six months," I said. "A year at most and we will be able to hang up our blades once and for all."
"As I recall, you said the same in Ninazesh," Varish Armeen replied. "And in Bathestun and Goden Tep before that. I fear your optimism may be the death of us, Ramish Kota." He had grown surly as his middle years approached, but he spoke without rancour nevertheless.
"Or perhaps it will be the making of us."
"We shall see."
I have known many cities, but have none compared to the splendour of Salmu Alu - her twisting towers and ebon minarets, her temple lined streets with idols on every basalt pillar and plinth, her lime and lemon groves that tried to, but could not quite, mask the stench of massed humanity.
It was in one of these groves that Varish Armeen and I stopped to finish our last flagon of wine - a good, strong vintage spirited away in lieu of wages from the cellars of the Sultan.
"So to which of the gods shall we offer our allegiance?" Varish asked.
"It matters little," I told him, "one is no better than the next."
We sat in the shade a while, talking back and forth, until the wine was reduced to bitter lees.
It was then that a voice called out to us across the grove:
"Ramish Kota, you son of a dog! I could scarce believe it when word came to me that you had reached the Black City. Praise be to the gods, for they have delivered you to my blade."
I looked up and saw a group of figures, six of them, standing no more than twenty feet away. Their leader I knew at once - Shullat Kutsa - for we had crossed blades before in Goden Tep when I ran with the Grey Company, and the scar he wore from temple to chin was my gift to him. He had been handsome once, and a great favourite of the ladies, but my stroke had twisted his face into a permanent, ugly, sneer.
“Truly it so that every man in the Black City has one enemy,” Varish Armeen said as he rose and dragged his sword from its scabbard.
"Aye. But I had not hoped to find my own so soon."
“It is written that no matter how far a man goes he can never outrun the sins of his past.” Varish said.
“My only sin was to let the pig live.” I pulled my own sword free with a soft, sweet note.
“You were ever soft-hearted, Ramish Kota, and I fear that one day it will be your undoing.”
Then we ran to meet them, howling our battle cries and whirling our swords like demons.
The fight was short and brutal – hack and slash with no quarter asked or given - I killed two men with as many blows and opened Shullat Kutsa's stomach with a flashing riposte. Beside me, Virash Armeen did the same work with cool efficiency until the only sound in the grove was the echo of steel upon steel and the startled cry of finches in the trees.
When our brutal work was done only Shullat Kutsa still lived, slumped against the trunk of a lime tree, holding his exposed guts against his stomach. He stared up at me and said:
“Do not let me die here, Ramish Kota, for the love of the Seven Gods do not let the Red Priests take me.”
I struck his head from his shoulders with a single blow.
“You see,” I said to Varish Armeen, “not so soft-hearted after all.”
I turned to see him crumple to his knees, a bright trickle of blood coming from his throat.
“I am getting old, Ramish,” he said, and smiled weakly. “There was a time when I would have avoided that blow.” He took his hand from throat and the trickle turned into a flood, the flood into a torrent: a torrent that took his life before I could reach him.
I held him for a long time, until the blood that covered us both cooled and congealed. “Forgive me, old friend,” I said as I cradled him in my arms, “To survive so many battles only to fall in a common brawl. The world is unfair.”
“The world is as it is.” A whisper, no more than that, but clear as a temple bell.
I was on my feet in an instant, blood smeared sword in hand, prepared for new danger.
Crimson robes among the trees, faces hidden by cowls. Two? Ten? A dozen? More than that?
I could not tell, for their forms shimmered in the late afternoon light, flickering like the images glimpsed at the height of a lightning storm, and I knew that the darkest sorcery was at work here.
“Os Ogarot claims these men,” I could not tell which of the forms it was that spoke. “Their souls are His for the harvest.”
“You will not take my friend,” I said, but even as I said it the air around me grew thick and black, as though the sun itself had begun to fade.
“Os Ogarot claims these men,” the voice said again in its hateful litany. “This place is His, these souls are His.” Then another word was uttered, a terrible word the like of which I hope never to hear again.
A great pain seized my heart as though it was grasped by a mailed fist and I fell to the ground, sword skittering from my nerveless fingers. Crimson shapes swirled past, the hems of their robes brushing against my face.
Then the thickening darkness reached out and I knew no more.
The moon was high when I awoke. Alone, with not even the dead for company, but at least the darkness was natural now although my head and mind still felt fogged as though I had taken too many draughts of darkseed wine.
Around me, the ground was stained with blood. Of my friend Varish Armeen there was no sign. I staggered to my feet, using my sword for support as an old man might use a cane, my strength gone for the moment.
Out through the grove and back into the streets, my vision swimming still but clearing with every heartbeat and the power gradually returning to my leaden limbs.
Even at this hour – I judged it some time after midnight since the sliver of a crescent moon rode high in the star-speckled sky – the streets of Salmu Alu were crowded.
I found a small tavern and drank three glasses of thin red wine, one after another, until my hands ceased to shake and some semblance of reason returned.
“You looked as though you needed that, friend,” the tavern-keeper said. He was a big, florid-faced man, who carried his belly before him like a bass drum. He wore loose blue silks, his hands were adorned with many rings and a small silver talisman hung at his throat.
“That and more after what I have seen tonight.” I held out my glass to be refilled.
He shrugged his massive shoulders and poured more wine. “Aye,” he said. “there are many strange sights upon the streets of the Black City.”
“And in her groves. Tell me, friend,” I said. “What do you know of the Red Priests?”
His professional smile dropped away as soon as I spoke. He turned his attention to a rack of already clean tankards and began to polish them. “Nothing,” he said. “I know nothing of them.”
“You lie, friend,” I said, and loosened my sword an inch from its scabbard, the threat unsubtle but clear. “They have taken my comrade. Or his body at least.”
“Then he is gone and that is all there is to it.” He spoke the words softly, with an edge of both fear and reverence in his voice. “Os Ogarot has claimed him.” He made a swift protective sign and put a hand to the talisman at his neck.
“I will claim him back.”
He laughed, but it was a small, bitter sound.
“Then you will die and Os Ogarot will eat your soul, for none but the Red Priests and the dead may approach the Hidden Temple.”
“This Os Ogarot,” I said. “What nature of creature is it?”
He made the protective sign again. “Os Ogarot is the darkest god of Salmu Alu,” he said. “Older than the city itself, some say. Souls are his sustenance – the souls of the unburied dead are his by right – and the Red Priests are his harbingers. Both more and less than men they are, for they move between the worlds even as their god does.
“If you are wise then you will forget your comrade, for all that he ever was will soon be gone from this world.”
“He is my sword brother,” I said. “Do you understand what that means?”
The innkeeper nodded, his jowls wobbling. “Aye, friend, I do. I was once a soldier too, in the days before my appetite for ale outstripped my appetite for slaughter.” And for a moment I could see past the fat man to a glimpse of the proud young bravo he had been years ago. “I know the oath of loyalty you have taken, for I took it once myself.”
“Then will you help me?” I asked.
He hesitated for a long, long moment.
“Not I,” he said at last. “For it is not within my power, but I can take you to a man who may be able to assist you.”
The innkeeper, who went by the name of Fahran Shabon, took me to a curiously empty street in the southern quarter of the city. Here the buildings did not challenge the sky as they did elsewhere in Salmu Alu and the flagstones were cracked and dirty. The houses boasted no more than five or six storeys and were of unimpressive, if functional design, being little more than rectangles of stone with windows at seemingly irregular intervals.
We stopped at one - no different from the rest as far as I could tell - and he said:
“Here you will find one Holam Gul, a dabbler in the dark arts. If the mood pleases him he may offer the help you need.”
“And if the mood does not please him?”
He smiled a crooked little smile with no humour in it. “Then at least your death will be a quick one.” He bowed once and hurried away, quickly lost in the dark, twisting streets.
I am not a man who is accustomed to fear, but something in the lines of that house - in the sinister shadows of its windows, the swish of the beaded curtain that covered the door – gave me pause.
The dark arts have never sat easily with me, although I had known necromancers while in service to the Sultan of Ninazesh, but the oath to a sword brother is a sacred thing, not to be tossed aside lightly, and so I entered the house.
A long cramped corridor lit at intervals with greasy tallow candles led to a cavernous room and there I found the sorcerer Holam Gul.
The room was filled with the paraphernalia of his trade – teetering piles of musty books, old entrails long since dried, an empty skull that served as a lantern, scattered jars of unguents and shimmering liquids – among which Holam Gul sat in splendid decadence upon a chair of human bones.
Like the others of his breed he was a tall thin man, his skin sallow, his face nothing so much as a living skull as though years of proximity to the dead had tainted him.
He wore a robe the colour of dried blood and a tight fitting cap of black silk upon this head, he smiled as I entered to reveal teeth that were startlingly white and healthy, his blue eyes glittered with some private turmoil.
“Have you taken a wrong turn, friend?” he said. “For I do not recall inviting you here.”
“Fahran Shabon brought me here,” I said. “I seek your aid.”
He cocked a thin, almost non-existent, eyebrow. “And what makes that fat fool believe that I will assist you?”
“He promised nothing.”
“And was wise to do so – I have no time for swordsmen or their difficulties. If you value your petty existence then you will turn and leave immediately.”
I did not move. “I wish to enter the Hidden Temple,” I said.
The eyebrow rose further, almost touching the brim of his cap. “You would seek the challenge the Harvester of Souls?” He chuckled slightly and shook his head to see such a fool standing before him.
“I would seek to find my friend, the Red Priests have taken him this night.”
“Then time would be of the essence,” he said but made no move. He studied me with those fathomless blue eyes of his, taking in the old, faded silks I wore, the long sabre at my side, its hilt worn smooth with use, the dagger in my sash, the flecks of grey in my hair and beard.
“When a man lives long enough,” he said at last, “he begins to lose his joy. The years become as one, the days grey and endless. These trinkets,” he gestured around the cluttered room with a bony hand, “might serve to provide a little colour from time to time but there are those occasions when even one such as I might crave a moment of genuine delight.” Another pause. He made a steeple of his fingers and rested his chin upon it. “And what greater delight than to tweak the nose of a god?”
“Then you will help me?” I said.
He nodded once. “It pleases me to do so.”
For the next interminable hour he moved around the room, thumbing through mouldy tomes whose pages cracked as he turned them, choosing and discarding jars and bottles, crooning a soft, monotonous, tune as he worked. In the end he was satisfied and returned to me with a small vial of amber liquid upon which were scratched a cluster of arcane symbols.
“Take this and drink it,” he said. “It will bring about the mien of death. The Red Priests will come for you. And after that.... after that who is to say?”
“I owe you my thanks,” I said.
Holam Gul smiled again and this time there was genuine amusement in it. “You owe me more than that, Ramish Kota,” he said “But now is not the time to claim debts.” He reached inside his robes and withdrew a small iron amulet. “One touch will bring you back,” he said. “If you survive this night then we will see what can be done to repay me.” He waved a dismissal and returned to his bone chair.
Outside, the sky was painted with the threat of dawn, streaks of red and grey chased each other across the fading night and a sullen moon gave way reluctantly to the nascent sun.
I found a grove some streets away from the house of Holam Gul and there I drank from the vial he had given me. The first notes of the dawn chorus rose from trees and rooftops, insects scuttled through the grass and across flagstones, adding their own fractured rhythm. It was there that I died.
Do you know what it is to die? No, of course you do not, few men do, but I will tell you.
Death is the absence of self, the draining away of every thought, emotion and dream. And it is cold, deeper than a winter chill on the desert, moving slowly through your limbs until no sensation remains.
I died. Yet I still lived, for the potion of Holam Gul kept me back from the absolute brink, anchoring me to the earth with gossamer tendrils.
It was then that the Red Priests of Os Ogarot came for me. I felt rather than saw them, their herald a shift in the air. Not shimmering phantoms this time but solid forms with a feral stink about them. Strong hands lifted my body from the ground and I heard again their terrible petition.
“Os Ogarot claims this man.”
I cannot say to where we travelled, or how long the journey took, but I know that others joined us.
In a teeming city such as Salmu Alu the dead are legion, they are to be found in her gutters and laneways, in great houses and hovels alike. Death takes many forms and those who are not swiftly on their funeral pyres are wheat for Os Osgarot's bitter harvest.
I came back to life in a charnel house. The dead lay all around, some on granite slabs, others heaped in unruly piles upon the earthen floor. I saw a nobleman in ermine robes entwined with a beggar whose face was little more than a red mass of sores, a painted harlot beside a bravo with his throat cut from ear to ear. A pale light infused the place, giving it the aspect of perpetual twilight
Rising from where I lay, I moved silently through mounds of the dead, searching for Virash Armeen, the task an all but hopeless one.
Then, from somewhere in the gloom, the stentorian boom of a gong.
The sound filled the air, a single note that grew louder and louder in defiance of nature, and at its voice the dead began to stir.
I drew my sword, but it was clear that the dead had no interest in me, their unseeing eyes focused on some distant point in that vast necropolis.
They began to move forward, drawn by the sound of the gong which had become a single, constant, note. So I followed them, becoming just another element in that ragged procession of the dead. We marched across a desert of grey dust that crunched beneath our feet and pulled at every step under a sky devoid of sun or moon or stars. Yet there was light enough to see, though the world around us lacked shape or feature, merely endless miles of sand.
At last we came within sight of a temple – a great edifice of black stone, carved into the likeness of a screaming human face, pillars fashioned into clutching fingers, and its maw a black, fathomless void.
The Red Priests stood upon its bottom lip – half a hundred of them, each one carrying a torch and a whip. Their High Priest stood at the centre upon a small dais, like a rotten tooth bulging from the mouth of the temple.
When he spoke his voice was that same hard whisper that I had heard before.
“From the Void It comes,
For the Harvest It comes,
Lord of the Otherworld
Called into this world.”
Behind him, the Void had changed, a subtle shift from absolute black to a grey gloaming. A bleak eye fluttered and opened, no more than a pinprick in the gloom.
Then another, larger, eye joined it and another, and another, each one greater than the one before, gigantic lips parted to reveal sharp teeth, so many that I doubt that there were numbers enough to count them. A tentacle, thick as a man's arm, crawled out across the bottom lip and into the waiting dead.
At its touch, each returned to sentience – only for the briefest of moments, but not so brief that they were unaware of their fate. Like a serpent it wrapped itself around them, then a single shriek, abruptly curtailed, came from each throat as not only the life but the very essence of each man and woman was forcibly withdrawn.
I saw their bodies crumble to mere dust – the same grey dust that comprised the featureless desert upon which we stood. Once, but only once, I saw a man break free from that necrotic embrace and run screaming back into the crowd.
The Red Priests were upon him in an instant, their whips snapping out to cut and entangle. They drew him back to his place and Os Ogarot continued its grisly work.
In those moments I came close to madness.
And then I saw Varish Armeen.
There was no colour in his face, only the paleness of death, his eyes were open, unblinking, the ragged cut on his throat lay open and dried blood covered his robes.
Another moment or two and Os Ogarot would claim him.
I sprang forward, and as the creature reached for his legs I struck.
There is little that good Calgorum steel will not cut. My blade sank deeply into the tentacle and a spray of dark blood, so black that it appeared almost blue in that strange light, showered the sand around us.
A pitiful mewling, all the more terrifying for its thin cadence, came from somewhere in the temple. I struck again and the limb parted, one portion writhing on the sand, the other retreating back into the darkness, leaving a stinking trail in its wake.
“Blasphemy!” That hard whisper, but with all the intensity of a scream.
The Red Priests surged forward, eyes glittering beneath their cowls, whips cracking the air. I tumbled beneath one lash and killed its owner with a single upward thrust. A second died with a furious dagger slash and as he crumpled the cowl fell from his face.
His face was a corrupt and inhuman mass of scales like the skin of a plague victim, his mouth a beaked ridge that clacked and snapped as he fought against death.
A whip cracked against my arm, wrapping around wrist and blade, the butt of a flaming torch thudded against my skull and I fell to my knees, senses reeling
“Hold him!” the High Priest ordered, and my limbs were seized by strong hands, sword and dagger wrestled from my grasp.
“You dare to interrupt the Harvest,” the High Priest said and there was something like glee in his voice. “Your death will last eternities while Os Ogarot feeds on your bright and dripping soul.”
And in the void the Harvester of Souls smiled.
I struggled and cursed but those inhuman hands held me firmly and as I watched a cluster of worm like tentacles worked their way from the darkness.
Around us the dead stood silently, patiently.
“Varish Armeen!” I called. “If you were ever my friend aid me now.”
He may have been made from marble for all the good my words did, but still I called out to him.
“Comrades, we swore. Comrades to death and beyond. Were your words hollow then, Varish Armeen?”
Something in his eyes, the merest flicker of recognition, acknowledged me and the fingers of his sword hand moved, no more than a ripple, towards the hilt of his blade.
The cluster of malign tendrils had almost reached me, twisting in the sand at my feet. I am not ashamed to say that I screamed then - the wordless howl of the damned – screamed louder when they touched my calf..
The pain was absolute, exquisite, the flesh dying where Os Ogarot caressed me
“Varish! In the name of the Seven Gods help me!”
And this time my words galvanised him into action. He moved as much by instinct as design, it seemed to me, but twenty years on battlefields all over the kingdoms of Jendia had forged him into a warrior with few equals.
His blade carved a bloody path through the Priests that held me, even the sting of their whips did not slow him.
He reached the High Priest and struck a blow that cleaved the man in two, so powerful that his blade cracked the very dais upon which he stood.
The numbing agony in my leg vanished as Os Ogarot released me and turned its attention to Varish.
For the briefest of moments our eyes met, he nodded, slowly and stiffly. And then he was gone, plunging into the dark maw of Os Ogarot, his sword a flash of silver against the void, hacking and cutting as he fell.
Thin screams filled the air as man and god fought. And for all I know, they fight still.
The end of this tale shall be as brief as its beginning.
Holam Gul was true to his word, one touch and the iron amulet returned me to the streets of Salmu AluThe past decade I have worked in his service, for even a lame swordsman can have his uses. Yet I know that the days left to me are few and the time will come when my blade is not swift enough or the opium I take nightly to quell my nightmares will no longer bring blessed oblivion.
Will I walk that grey desert once again, unseeing and unfeeling, into the vengeful embrace of Os Ogarot?
No. Before I allow that I will lie upon my pyre, light it with my own hand, and allow the flames to claim me. .For Os Ogarot never will.
© June, 2013 James Lecky
James Lecky is a writer and actor from Derry, N. Ireland. His short fiction has appeared in various publications both online and in print including Sorcerous Signals. Aphelion, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Heroic Fantasy Quarterly as well as the anthologies Emerald Eye and The Phantom Queen Awakes.