Blades gleamed in the infernal darkness, rallying cries echoed through laneways and avenues, all but lost in the roar of the flames and the crash of falling towers.
From the gates of the Great Temple - sitting in magnificent isolation above the city - Halvari, High Priest of Baal-Rethok, watched as ancient Sardess burned, vanishing building by beautiful building into the inferno. From the streets below he could hear the sound of steel upon steel and, faintly, the cries of dying men.
In the square before him stood a phalanx of The Host, five hundred strong, resplendent in vermilion armour, armed with sword, shield and spear. The last line of defence should their comrades below fail to stop the onslaught.
He turned and walked back into the Temple. As his entrance Baal-Rethok stirred and opened a hundred of its thousand eyes. Halvari could see himself reflected minutely in each obsidian pupil – an old man dressed in white, his beard and hair dyed the same colour. He looked insignificant, even to himself. But he could show no fear, not now, and not before his god.
“The day has come, Lord,” Halvari said. “Kharchadour is here.”
Baal-Rethok blinked its many eyes. The movement slow and languid, each of the eyelids made a tiny sound of its own, like a boot pulled from mire.
“I beg of you to strike him down, wipe this abomination from the face of the earth. I ask it in your name, Lord.”
The god made no reply, but shifted on its bed of bones, crushing human skulls beneath its bulk and its beaked mouths opened and closed with a series of sharp snaps. Baal-Rethok was hungry.
“Please, Lord, please.”
The bloated creature took a great breath and for a moment Halvari believed that the god would speak. At last, perhaps, Baal-Rethok would reveal its secrets. But no - only a fetid blast of wind escaped from its mouths.
From outside, a great roar shook the night, torn from the throats of the Host. Louder still, the rhythmic clash of spear against shield as they prepared for battle. Five hundred fanatics trained from birth, their devotion to Baal-Rethok complete and absolute.
Five hundred against one man.
But then, Kharchadour had killed twice their number at Amaleth, and three times that in fabled Ul Bathur.
A flash of light, as bright as the noonday sun, swept through the Temple: the stink of roasting flesh and the screams of burning men followed it.
Kharchadour had reached the square.
Fight then, Kharchadour, as you have fought for these last decades.
Ignore the pain in your limbs, the ache in your soul, the scars that decorate your body and the blood that flows freely from a myriad of wounds.
Your sword is in your hand, rising and falling, sweeping in a butcher’s arc. Star-forged metal that cuts through flesh and bone and armour with hideous ease, through a forest of spear-shafts as if they were no more than twigs.
There is a flood of crimson beneath your feet, the flagstones treacherous. And still your blade moves, weaving through the Host. They are only men, after all.
To the left and right a white-hot sheet of flame. Burning warriors, dying warriors, beating with melting hands at the phosphorous that clings to them. You threw the globes with unerring accuracy, knowing where best to sow flaming confusion.
You are within the Host, moving towards the steps of the Great Temple. The red-clad warriors are all around you, their spears useless in such close confines. A Host may fight another Host, but their tactics are ineffectual here and now.
From the scabbard at your right hip you drag another blade – one of simple steel, but as sharp and deadly as the Star-Sword – holding both as though they weigh no more than knives. The light glimmers upon them, trailing the echo of fire.
Slash and parry, thrust and riposte. Fight in the only way you know, with all the fury and skill at your disposal. Do not think of your opponents as men, but as mere obstacles to be cleared from your path. Do not hear their cries or watch them fall, do not think of their wives and children.
A spear-point strikes your shoulder. The wound is deep, grating against bone, but you do not feel the pain. Or rather, you do not allow yourself to feel the pain.
The spear-man dies, his head struck from his shoulders, disappearing into the flames. With a fierce cry, torn from the bleeding place that is your soul, you renew your assault, killing a dozen in as many heartbeats.
They fall away now, these once proud fanatics, faith and order forgotten in the face of your relentless attack, but still you hack and slash at their exposed backs.
This is not the time to show mercy.
And then you stand before the steps of the Great Temple.
The way is open to you.
For long moments the silence and the light were absolute. Terrifying in their intensity, wiping away all thought and feeling. Then, as though he woke from a dream, Halvari’s senses returned. He could hear moans from the square and a high-pitched scream suddenly curtailed.
Baal-Rethok shifted again and reached out with multi-faceted limbs, stirring the bones beneath it as it searched for a morsel of food.
The god was not used to hunger. Why should it be? Halvari and the other priests had kept it well supplied with human flesh, as their brother priests before them had done. It was a small price to pay for the knowledge that the god would give them – a few thousand lives here and there, plucked from the teeming hordes that infested Sardess.
Yet the god had never spoken in all these years.
Halvari had been a young man, little more than an infant, when he had been pledged to the god and had served it faithfully throughout his life. Seventy years of servitude. Seventy years of sacrifice. Seventy years of waiting.
And how many more years before that? How many priests and acolytes had tended to the needs of the god?
In his darkest moment, when he lay alone in his chambers - listening to Baal-Rethok as it wheezed and gasped, slithered and snapped – he had allowed himself to doubt.
What nature of god did he serve? What were the words that Baal-Rethok would speak? The prophesies and ancient scrolls did not say, though he had scrutinized them time and time again searching for some fragment that might enlighten him. The references they made - to fire and blood – were oblique at best, and in the end there was only faith, faith that his life and the lives of others had not been wasted.
But now, as he heard footfalls on the Temple steps, his doubts and fears returned.
He looked again to his god. Baal-Rethok had opened all its eyes now, the hundreds of mouths gaped and snapped, sinuous limbs moved in intricate and unfathomable patterns.
“Step aside, Priest.”
Kharchadour was there. Standing beneath the high archway that led to the Temple proper.
He was a tall man, dressed in blood-soaked grey. An ivory mask covered his features. His swords were sheathed but his right hand hovered over the hilt of a long blade at his hip.
“You are not welcome here,” Halvari said. “Not you or any of your kind.”
A low, bitter, chuckle rose from Kharchadour’s throat. “There are no others of my kind,” he said. “Nor have there ever been.”
He lifted the mask and the priest saw his face for the first time.
The warrior had been human once, but time and ancient magic had transformed him into something both more and less than that. His skin was mottled and scarred, in places scaled like that of a snake, and his eyes glittered with the malevolent light of madness.
“Return to the hell from which you came, Kharchadour,” Halvari told him.
“Hell holds no terror for me,” Kharchadour told him, “For I killed its lords long since.”
Aye, Kharchadour, you slew the Lords of the place called Hell. And the Lords of Heaven besides. What manner of creature – man, god or demon – has not fallen to your blade?
All that blood. Has it stilled the fire within your breast? Has it brought you one ounce of comfort or helped to ease your pain?
But one day it may.
The Last God is before you now, a ponderous, idiot thing that reeks of rotten flesh. There is no glimmer of intelligence or understanding in its eyes, only the brute cunning of its kind.
Your hand is on your sword, the nameless blade you took from the still twitching fingers of Arayan Ara at Mag Turede. He was a strong man, Arayan Ara, a good and fierce warrior, but he died anyway, his head torn from his body by an avatar of the god Vanagan.
“It was made from the same metal as the chariots that brought the gods to earth - forged in heaven and tempered in hell,” Arayan Ara told you once. “A blade capable of killing the gods themselves.”
Capable, certainly, of killing Vanagan’s avatar with one stroke, but not of turning the tide of battle. Not that day.
You were a young man then, Kharchadour, in the service of the god that men called Tammud, and your devotion was strong. But you were twice betrayed. The priests had given their blessing and promised you victory. Not only Arayan Ara but hundreds of others died in the choking mud of Mag Turede. It was a slaughter, not a battle.
The second betrayal was worse. The priests told you that your family would be safe, for Tammud protects all those who serve her. But the god had hungered, as gods will, and the women and children of the defeated warriors were given to her as nourishment, for their tears were sweet.
Your soul died that day, Kharchadour, to be reborn as a thing of ice and fire. You slew Tammud in her stinking pit and washed in her blood.
It was not enough. The fire still burned, the ice still scalded.
The God-Slayer was born.
Now you stand before Baal-Rethok, last of the star-spawned abominations that men have worshipped for too long.
And your sword is in your hand.
“Have you no words then, Priest?”
Halvari, transfixed by the God-Slayer’s deformed face, took a long moment to reply.
“Your kind always have words. You threaten, you implore, you promise damnation or salvation. I have heard them all over the decades. What are yours?”
“Will it make a difference?”
“No. But speak them anyway.”
“What would you have me say?”
Kharchadour smiled. And his smile was ghastly: a predator baring its teeth before striking.
“Tell me that you have served Baal-Rethok for your entire life, waiting for the moment that the god would speak, just as the Priesthoods of other gods have waited. Tell me that when Baal-Rethok speaks he will reveal the wonders of the universe. Nothing will be hidden from us then, we will be as the gods themselves. Tell me that the death of the Last God will not bring Nerita, Jaim and Calder back to me. Tell me that their deaths were noble and necessary.” His voice rose in volume and intensity. “Tell me something!”
“All that you say is true,” Halvari said. “But there is more if you would listen.”
Kharchadour took a step forward, his gaze moving between the priest and the now immobile bulk of Baal-Rethok. The god was staring at him with each of its thousand eyes, as though the power of its stare would be enough to stay his hand. But the god had no such power, he knew, for he alone of all men truly understood what the creature was.
“I would listen, Priest.”
“The world needs its gods. For without faith, without order and worship, we are nothing more than animals.”
“You are a fool, Priest. You and all those like you. A lifetime of waiting and devotion and you do not even know what it is you serve.”
“I serve my god.”
“You serve a beast. Nothing more.”
Tammud. Resting in her bone pit.
Somewhere within the pit lay the remains of your wife and children. Nerita, the woman you loved more than life itself, Jaim and Calder, the girl and boy who brought sunshine into every day.
The temple guards had not expected your assault. You killed a dozen of them in mere moments. You were swift and strong, you had your rage and Arayan Ara’s sword.
Tammud mewed as you approached. She was a small god - no larger than the house you had shared with your family – her surface covered with dozens of tiny, puckered mouths.
Her skin broke at the first sword stroke, splitting like an over-ripe melon. Her blood, hot and pungent, splashed across your arms and chest. You struck again and again until Tammud was a steaming pile of flesh at your feet. Her blood covered you – it was in your hair and eyes, your mouth was filled with the bitter copper taste of it.
And with the taste came understanding.
You saw the arrival of the gods upon the dull earth, hurtling from the depths of space, ravenous and eager. You saw how foolish men mistook these beasts for gods, convinced that the creatures held within them the secrets of eternity.
Temples rose. Sacrifices were made.
But they were not gods. Rather, they were unthinking animals, driven by the need to feed. They held no secrets, no truth.
Her blood gave you power, it fuelled your strength and rage. And as you wallowed in gore you made a vow to wipe these creatures from the world: to turn their own strength against them. You sought them out in the cities and jungles, on the freezing plains that men called Hell, on the sun-kissed fields they called Heaven. And with each death your power grew. Just as your humanity faded.
How many lives have you claimed, Kharchadour? Do not think of it. Think only that your crusade nears its end now and that with the death of Baal-Rethok you will at last be free to lie down and rest.
Kill, then. Kill and know peace.
Baal-Rethok shivered, a wave that began at the tip of its limbs and ran through its entire body. Then a fissure began to appear, widening rapidly. A foul stink rose from it, sharp as ammonia.
The god may have lacked intelligence, but nature in all her dark ways had provided it with ways and means of defence.
Something wriggled free from the split. A blind, mewling thing that gnashed dagger-long teeth and flicked mucus from razored fingers. It stood on two legs, scenting the air, its crude form all the more repellent for the fact that it was shaped like a man.
Another followed it. Then a third. And fourth.
“What will you do, Kharchadour?” Halvari squealed triumphantly. “Now that you face the might of the Last God.”
The God-slayer did not answer. This night’s battle had cost him dearly, his limbs like lead, his mind fogged with distant pain. He closed his eyes for an instant, marshalling his stolen – alien - power.
Then he leapt to the attack.
As did the godlings.
Steel met tooth and claw. Gouts of thick, red blood spiralled into the temple’s gloom and the watching priest could not tell who bled more – the god-slayer or the godlings he fought.
Claws raked the front of Kharchadour’s tunic, cutting deep, the wounds so fierce that he screamed with pain. But his sword continued to weave, hacking great gobbets of flesh at each stroke. Strong jaws clamped to his free arm and he could feel bones splinter under their pressure. He struck with the pommel of his blade again and again, shattering the godling’s skull until the terrible pressure was released.
Kharchadour’s left arm hung limply by his side, blood flowed freely onto the flagstones. But he held his sword in an unwavering grasp, watching as the three remaining creatures circled him, alert for their next attack.
It was swift when it came. But Kharchadour was swifter still. With a furious downstroke he split a godling in two - the separate halves still twitching as they fell – then reversed the blade to skewer another as it pounced.
The third careened into him and both went down upon the temple floor, a tangle of thrashing limbs and claws. Beyond them, Baal-Rethok had begun to move again, opening and shutting its mouths in a fractured rhythm, raising itself slightly as if to see better.
A crash and a crack, like an oak struck by lightning, then all movement ceased.
And from the crimson drenched floor a figure rose, pulling great breaths of air through its mouth, its eyes burning with unquenchable hatred. At its feet the shattered body of the godling.
Kharchadour. Triumphant and terrible.
You have known pain like this before, God-Slayer. Ignore it.
Lift your sword to strike once more. Force your leaden limbs to obey. Remember the faces of your children and your wife, let that memory give you the strength you need.
Baal-Rethok is before you. Strike now.
The beast squeals and tries to lift itself from the pit. But long years of sloth and its own ponderous bulk hold it in place.
You fall upon it, plunging your blade deep into the spongy pliant flesh. The god rises to meet you, wrapping you in its squalid embrace, mouths snapping, limbs flailing.
Strike again, deeper and deeper into the core of the thing, kick and punch and bite, use your sword to dig the rotten heart from it.
And see again that which you slay.
Watch as Baal-Rethok and thousands like it sail on cosmic winds in search of new worlds. Listen to the laughter of the universe as it mocks both you and them.
And it is done. Baal-Rethok lies beneath and around you. The last of its thousand eyes close.
What do you feel, Kharchadour, now that your quest has ended?
For now you must face the truth of what you are and what you have done.
Have you saved the world or damned it?
Halvari watched as the God-Slayer rose from the mire. His scaled skin glittered in the pale torchlight, his eyes burned with feverish intensity.
“What will you do now, Kharchadour?” the old priest said. With the passing of the Last God, it seemed to him that a void had opened in his breast. The years of devotion counted for nothing, Baal-Rethok and his kind had vanished from the world. Taken by the hands of a madman.
Halvari began to laugh as a new – stronger – truth dawned on him.
“What will you do now, Kharchadour?” he said again, and made a holy sign as he spoke. “What will you have us do?”
Kharchadour shook his head. A great spray of blood – his own mixed with that of the Last God – splattered on the floor.
“Speak sense, priest.”
“You took the gods from us, Kharchadour, and something must replace them. For what are men without gods, what purpose do we serve? How do we face the cold certainties of the universe without guidance?”
“We must look to ourselves.”
“If the old gods could not give us answers, then perhaps the new god will.”
“There are no gods, priest, there never were.”
“You are wrong, Kharchadour, we created them once before and we can create them again.” The priest knelt and, reverently, dipped the hem of his robe into the still-warm pool of blood. “This is his symbol and he shall lead us.”
Kharchadour pushed past him and stumbled out onto the temple steps.
Before him, Sardess continued to burn, his own splendid creation.
“From fire and blood he is born,” Halvari said, his words were whisper soft but their echo grew in intensity as they rebounded from the walls of the temple. “The great god Kharchadour.”
A whisper now, but soon it would be loud enough for the world to hear.
© October, 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.