Since she didn’t think any death around here would be quick or painless, however, she endured, hidden with the alcove.
“Don’t get silly, girl,” she whispered to herself. “Stay focused. Just stay focused.”
Focus – that was her father’s favorite piece of advice. His mantra. “A focused mind,” he would huff as they had sparred in the fencing hall, “is the best weapon – and the best defense.” Behind her father’s back, however, her mother would argue that a truly focused mind would have avoided violence to begin with.
Of course, her father and mother were night and day: he a robust crusader from the Northern Realms; she a tiny, porcelain princess from the Eastern Empire. Jade was an interesting mix of both. Her almond-shaped, green eyes and raven hair were her mother’s, while her stubborn disposition and inquisitiveness were an undeniable testament to her father. Jade missed them both dearly at times, but especially during times like this.
Sometimes she regretted having ever left. But the boundaries of home had become suffocating to the nineteen-year-old who had grown sensitive to the stares that either lusted for her because of her exotic appearance or despised her for the same reasons. So, with the help of her teachers, she had convinced her parents she needed to strike out on her own to hear, see, and touch the world she had only experienced through reading, memorization, and recitation.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time.
“Focus,” she whispered.
This chamber was much larger than the sanctum upstairs, much colder and, judging from the smell, much older. Fires burned in iron braziers set at each end of an altar in the center, but the light faded to an orange haze before it reached the walls. Four women in crimson robes swayed before the altar; their ethereal voices intertwined with the pulse of a hidden drum to create a dark, chilling dirge.
Opposite them was a beautiful woman clad simply in strips of scarlet silk and a golden mail caul that flowed down her back like finely braided hair. With a curved dagger, she carved intricate designs in the air above a disrobed, unconscious young woman. Watching over all was the bronze likeness of young god Kellemen, his face handsome and what some could describe as pensive. Jade thought he looked sad.
I guess the rumors weren’t rumors after all, Jade mused grimly, absently squeezing the pommel of her long sword.
Some said the youthful deity had originally been a fertility god, but for whatever reasons, maidens in Asmara adopted him as a protector of virtue and virginity. Who knew how sacrifice worked its way into their rituals? Maybe a carry over from the old fertility cults. No matter: human sacrifice had been proscribed in the Middle Kingdoms over a century ago, beginning here, in fact, in Dakhar, Asmara's capitol and supposed pinnacle of culture and learning.
Once more Jade’s gaze turned toward the arched doorway and the steps leading away from this madness. On either side stood two podgy men, each bearing the broad-bladed kilj that marked them as members of the Mihkil. They were an order of mercenaries from Ulan, distinguished not only for their loyalty and prowess but also for their ritual of self-castration. Men, it was said, were forbidden to tread upon ground hallowed to Kellemen.
Jade was good with a blade but not that good enough. Probably not good enough to take on even a single Mihkil.
“Shaet,” she swore under her breath.
Why had she ever spoken to those two merchants? She’d only meant it to be harmless flirting, hoping to win their affections so they would chivalrously offer to pay for a meal and a drink, but when they had offered to not only cover her bill but also pay her five thousand silvers – more than enough to get home – she had been the one snared. And all she had to do was to prove or disprove the existence of the Young God’s Tears.
According to rumor, the Tears were teardrop-shaped rubies secreted within the temple here in Asmara. According to legend, they had been shed by Kellemen himself on behalf of the suffering virgins of the world. Whatever the truth, it now appeared this wager would cost Jade her life.
Why hadn’t she lied about trying to find the gems? Why had she so frivolously wasted her last few coins in the first place? It seemed her life was caught in a current of why?
She glanced down at herself. At least the deep brown riding leathers she’d spent her last silvers on blended well with the shadows. That was one good thing.
She cast a cold glance at the so-called guardian of virgins-in-distress. If he protected, she thought bitterly, why wasn’t he helping – before she could finish the thought, a hand clamped over her mouth, and a powerful arm wrapped around her bare midriff, pulling her deeper into the darkness.
She immediately fumbled for her sword but couldn’t free it from its scabbard before she thudded against her captor’s solid chest.
“Do not turn around,” a voice whispered in her ear. “Do you understand?” He spoke Trade-speak, the common tongue used throughout the Middle Kingdoms.
Jade nodded tentatively, expecting the worst, however worse that could be at the moment. On the bright side, he couldn’t be Mihkil. She would have been dead already. And, she couldn’t help but notice, this body was much too firm for a eunuch. On the other hand, this person may be after the Tears himself, and if he was a guild-thief, she could be in very serious trouble. The guild was extremely territorial.
If she got out of here alive to get in trouble, that is.
Captor and captive watched in silence from the shadows as the women continued singing their bone-chilling song.
Finally, he spoke. “It’s the song of Kellemen, about his first sacrifice, about the Kirian peasant girl.” His voice quavered as he whispered. “This part tells of his death, cradled in the virgin’s arms.” He listened more, and then snorted disgustedly. “They say they must repay his blood with blood. Utter madness! What do they know about why he gave his life?”
Kellemen died over and over – a perpetual martyr – if anyone could believe myth. Jade didn’t. She didn’t like the way religions thrived on suffering, and here among “The Land of a Thousand Gods,” she had seen a lot in the way of suffering.
“Little time remains,” he said, guiding her to the shadow’s edge. “I must stop them.”
The priestess faced the idol and, presenting the dagger like an offering, recited a something in a voice that didn’t sound quite human. The drumbeat altered to match her unnatural cadence. The acolytes writhed and contorted like women possessed.
He gently turned Jade around. “Help me,” he said. “Please.”
As orange fingers of light from the nearest brazier stretched into the alcove, she caught a glimpse of his face. His hair was blacker than hers, and his bronze complexion was flawless. Ageless. His eyes were a striking ice blue – very unusual for this part of the world – and as she peered into them, she immediately felt a connection with him – as though he also knew what it was to feel displaced. There was something else, something she couldn’t quite understand. The depths of his eyes were unlike any she had seen, deeper even than those of her wizened tutors. It was as if life had filled him with a profound wisdom and an equally profound sadness.
Without knowing why, she said, “Sure.”
His grip on her immediately relaxed. “Disrupt the service. Free the girl. I will hold the guards so that you both may escape.”
“You can’t fight those –”
“Do not worry about me,” he snapped. “I will do what must be done.”
The soft ring of his blade leaving its sheath caused doubt to weigh in her stomach like a rock, but his eyes – they would not let her back down.
“May the gods bless you,” he whispered. He smiled, but his smile wasn’t very convincing.
She grunted sourly and drew her sword.
She was about to ask him where she was fleeing to after she released the girl, but he had already bounded into the hall, roaring like a lion. She didn’t even know who the girl was or why he had to save this particulary one, but on impulse, Jade followed, springing toward the altar, howling madly.
As planned, the ceremony halted. But only briefly.
The priestess quickly directed the blanched-faced acolytes to place themselves between their attacker and the sacrifice, and from beneath their robes, each drew a long, narrow-bladed dagger.
“Well, shaet” was Jade’s only thought before the fighting began.
With feline grace and alacrity, she sidestepped an awkward thrust then hit her assailant in the back of the head with the flat of her blade. By the time the woman had collapsed, Jade was pounding the pommel of her sword against another’s temple. The acolyte flailed wildly as if trying to maintain her balance before toppling backward. Neither got up.
Not trained to fight, Jade thought. That was one good thing.
Suddenly, she found herself facing the doorway. It was unguarded! Her heart raced at the prospect. All she need do was run to be free and safe from this madness, and who would blame her? Who would know? Her parents would only care that their daughter had returned home.
Nearby, the handsome stranger battled the Mihkil, but it did not resemble any fight she’d ever seen. Their movements were flowing and flawless, more like an elegantly rehearsed dance.
One of the guards stumbled and fell, and the other was falling back. The young man lunged, leapt, and twirled as his weapon, weaving intricate patterns in an amazing display of skill and passion. She wanted to stay just to watch his every move. It was beautiful. As was he.
No, she suddenly realized, she wouldn’t desert him. She couldn’t. She fully understood that she was risking her life for this man she knew nothing about. This girl could be his lover for all she knew, or a relative. She may never know.
She didn’t even know his name.
Then out of the corner of her eye, she saw the priestess raise her dagger over the helpless girl.
“No!” Jade screamed and ran.
The two remaining acolytes tried to block her. She stabbed one in the shoulder and, spinning, slashed the calf of the other, but she was too late. She arrived only to watch the blade plunge into the captive girl’s chest.
Slowly, almost casually, the priestess withdrew the bloody instrument and began methodically splashing blood onto each side of the idol’s face. The girl’s life fluid rolled down the young god’s cheeks in crimson drops.
Jade bounded across the altar, grabbed the priestess’s shoulder and spun her around.
The priestess smiled spitefully. “Do what you will,” she said. “Kellemen has been served.”
Her declaration struck Jade as hard as steel, stirring something deep within her, something fierce. Something primal. Her nostrils flared, her chest tightened, her supple body moved to a pounding pulse inside her head. Without hesitating, she plunged her sword into the woman’s stomach.
The body stood several heartbeats after Jade pulled her weapon free. A look of astonishment had replaced the mocking smile, and it collapsed at her god’s feet.
Jade teetered on the edge of consciousness, her mind and body unfeeling.
Never had she taken a life before. The years of the training had paid off – she was alive – but it had not prepared her for the soul-numbing aftermath. The gore-stained weapon slipped from Jade’s weakened fingers.
As soon as her sword had clanged obscenely on the floor next to the dead woman, a shriek filled the tomb-like hall. Another acolyte had entered and was moving toward Jade, but her movements were languid and exaggerated as if time had somehow been altered, or as if Jade was living a surreal nightmare. The woman, gripping a dagger in both hands, took minutes to cross a space that should have only taken seconds; yet Jade could do nothing. Ever so slowly the woman neared. Ever so slowly, the blade descended.
“Stay focused!” a familiar voice shouted – nearly too late.
A blur appeared between Jade and slow-approaching death, something moving impossibly fast. In the next instant, Jade grabbed for her sword and thrust it forward. Jade’s sword sank into the woman’s soft abdomen. A heartbeat later, the acolyte’s blade sank to its hilt into the back of the man standing in front of Jade. Its tip emerged from the front of his chest, a hair’s breadth away from Jade’s. His face hovered a moment in front of hers. His expression – his eyes – seared into Jade’s memory and would long haunt her. It wasn’t fear or shock in his eyes. It was . . . surrender.
Time suddenly resumed its normal flow. The acolyte fell with a wet thud to the stone floor. The young man collapsed against Jade, his cheek already growing cold.
She eased him softly to the hard floor, placing his head in her lap.
Bloody spittle spattered his lips as his chest heaved for each breath.
“I didn’t stop her,” Jade said. “I failed.”
“No, child,” he whispered, smiling. “You served me well. She was the last . . . she was the last to keep the old ways alive.” His last breath was like a sigh of relief and his body pressed against her like a child comforted asleep.
Gently, she brushed the tears from his face then stared into her palm. She pulled his head to her breast with one arm, the other she held outstretched as if in offering or supplication. Raising her blood and tear-streaked face toward the heavens hovering somewhere beyond this dim place, she screamed at whatever gods may reside there.
In her open palm rested four small gems, teardrop-shaped and blood red.
© September, 2013 Jeffery A. Sergent
Jeffery A. Sergent has taught high school for twenty-four years and read science fiction and fantasy for nearly forty. He sponsor, edits, and contributes to Fantasm, his schools SF&F fanzine. He contributes to Nerdbloggers.com. He has published stories in the past, including "The Dragon" for Alienskin. His novel, Absent was published by Whiskey Creek Press.