Every Cursed Night

Clouds blanketed the sky, rippling bruises in the twilight. The city Darrhyn below, sprawling along the bend of a wide river, was draped in the resultant shadows, pierced only intermittently by the remnants of the day’s sun. Hurried figures passed from street to street in certain of its quarters to light the lamps, while others were left to what the night would bring. Along the city’s great wall the beacons in the towers were struck, signaling the changing of the Watch. The new quadras marched up tower stairs, the soldiers heading out to pace the ramparts, looking into the final glare of the sun as it cast the scrub of the desert in oranges and reds.

Within one of the watchtowers five men squinted in the lamplight at a just-overturned cup, none of them speaking. Above them the sentinel on duty was singing an academy song about a woman so light in her manners that she would invite any man to sup with her.

Call,” the dealer said as he removed his hand from the cup, its contents still a mystery.

The youth to his left exhaled slowly as he eyed the cup. “Even. Five kenir,” he said, the flames of the beacon above them snapping as more oil was added.

Odd. I’ll see you, Husem,” the man beside him said, and the youth grimaced. “You’re too young to be a gamester, I think.”

He had a face gone thick with age and a long scar that ran from his chin up to his ear, just above the line of his jaw on one side. When he grinned, as he was doing now, it had the effect of creating what seemed a double smile on that half of his face.

He lacks ability,” the dealer said.

Short on talent as well,” the man said, to the laughter of everyone but the youth. The others at the table followed through with their bets, all odd.

Masiph id Ezern bit his lip. “I hope this is all above board,” he said, staring at the dealer whose hand had strayed back to the cup.

I hope so too,” the man, Achelluth, said. “Someone short on talent and without ability certainly can’t handle the underboard of life.”

Masiph bit his lip again, not replying, and the dealer pulled the cup away, revealing two dice—a four and a three. There were whoops from around the table, but he did not look up, his eyes fixed on the dull bones whose pips had betrayed him again.

That’s it. I’m out,” he said, pushing the last of his coins across the table. “I’m getting some air.”

Neither the coin nor the stamp for it, Husem,” Achelluth called out, the white of his scar almost gleaming. “You haven’t run through your allowance already, have you?”

Hardly. I have better things to spend it on than at this table.”

Well, at least you are wise enough to know you will be spending it here,” Achelluth said to more laughter. Masiph just nodded and walked out the door.

He wandered from the tower, stopping just outside the glow of the beacon to lean against the ramparts. It had been a cool day, given the rains could not be far away, and now that the sun was nearly set the night brought a chill. One of the two men on patrol on this stretch of the wall passed by, and they greeted each other. Masiph reached into the folds of his robe for the pouch that held his aslyn and put a quid in his cheek.

Quiet night,” he said, as the soldier passed back in the other direction.

Every cursed night is quiet, Husem.”

Masiph smiled, starting to work at the quid, as he stared idly at the veil of the night descending upon the desert. Here, so near the Eresnan River, it was a green desert—the short grass and sage brush that was its hallmark, plentiful and vibrant in color and scent. Once the rains began there would be even more as other plants began to flower. It was something he was curious to see, for though he had lived in Darrhyn his entire life he, like so many others from the city, had not set foot outside the western wall. When he had travelled it had been east into the Ferryen Plains, or down the Eresnan where the desert, so near, was safely kept from sight by the trees that lined its banks. To most Darrhynna, the desert was worthy of no more than a wary glance to the west and a scuff of a boot heel at the earth when talk turned to the Shadow Men.

Masiph had joined the Watch at the beginning of the dry season, five months ago, over his father’s objections. For once Ibrazol had relented, though it had not felt like a victory as Masiph had expected. It felt like his father had in some way outmaneuvered him again, achieving his desired end in allowing his son this. Perhaps he had. Masiph never could tell what his father’s thoughts were and was still not clear on his own feelings now that he had achieved his desire. The work itself was tedious—a few weeks on, a few days off, and always a quiet night.

This in spite of what one could hear walking the streets. To listen to the talk there was to believe that the Imperial city’s very existence was precarious, given its location in that nebulous region near the Empire’s border where the desert began. And the desert was the creatures’ domain. Never mind that the Shadow Men, even as they were conquering the desert, shattering the Empire a hundred years ago, had never dared an attack on Darrhyn and its fabled great walls. None had in the five centuries it had served as capital of Renuih.

There had been a raid a week ago in Fardun, little more than a day’s journey southeast—the first of the season, and earlier than usual, given the rains had not started. Strangely, the fact that it was an unimportant farming village seemed to lead to even more anguish among the populace. There was no sense to it, but why did there have to be? It was the creatures, after all. They were without reason and purpose, moving like common beasts with the seasons, content with the barest of existences on the rock and scrub of the desert.

In the streets talk turned to conspiracy and invasion. This was the only tangible result of a Shadow Men raid. That afternoon Masiph had heard that the shadows were gathering near Ghehel and were working to rebuild the Nasuila Bridge to use as a gateway to strike at the heart of the Empire, cutting the Ferryen Plains off from the capital and the southern provinces. At any given moment in the rainy season Darrhyn was a day or hours away from a massive army of the creatures materializing at its gates. In a week, maybe less, it would all be forgotten—until word of the next attack arrived.

We live in an age diminished, Masiph thought, the shadows of greater days. Before the fall of the desert, even during that desperate struggle to maintain their hold in that realm, the denizens of this city would never have cowered at the mention of a mere raid by the creatures. The thought would have been laughable. Now those who had to memorize their invocations, and even some of their betters, spoke of the Shadow Men as the natural inhabitants of the desert. Generations of Renians had known no other life but that of the desert—and that included his own family—yet that seemed to be almost forgotten now, or at least dismissed.

What’s the thought this evening?” Nustef id Illied said to him as he stepped out of the tower. The Nohritai was older than his fellow nobleman, with narrow features and a heavier green tone to his skin than was usual for those from Darrhyn.

We can only bear a life of fear so long,” Masiph said.

Heavy things indeed, especially for someone with no marrow in his bones,” Nustef laughed.

Where else do you find the pox but in the bones?”

The voice of experience, perhaps? Are you preparing lines for your chronicle?”

I don’t think so. The historians just put whatever words they want into the mouths of whoever anyway. Husem Azyereh was illiterate, I’ve been told.”

Really?”

Yes. He was not a favored cousin.”

More laughter. “Fair enough, I suppose. I always forget that he had a life before he became the Ad Eselte’s Vazeir.”

Someday though,” Masiph said, “we’ll have to do something about the shadows or we’ll be nothing more than carrion for them to feast on. Better to act now than to be put to the squeak later.”

You shouldn’t listen to what you hear in the drinkeries. It only bothers the blood.”

The drink or the talk?” he said.

I wouldn’t know these things. I lead a pious life, as my ancestors and the sage Delth proscribe.”

Masiph spat over the wall in response and Nustef smiled. “Talk to Our Most Benevolent One. Don’t you have his ear by now?”

Oh yes, I join him daily for his constitutionals and we discuss all the important matters of the Empire in between verses.”

Does he really go walking about every morning?”

Masiph shrugged. I would be the last to know.

Nustef took his own quid out, putting it in his cheek, and the two of them chewed in silence. There was a small copse near the wall that was filled with dahrrynna birds, the capital’s namesake, and their animated calls as they roused themselves for an evening of feasting on insects drowned the air. This was the scene that faced them every night as the sun slipped below the horizon, and that familiarity and the calm that now settled over the day’s end was seductive.

Masiph felt strongly about what he said regarding the creatures. It was an easy thing to be passionate about, given no one was so derelict of their senses as to invade the desert. A byproduct of the restlessness of youth, his father would say in that dismissive tone which burned his ears. That his father, and no doubt that useless philosopher Ad Eselte, frowned upon his views only served to confirm them even more firmly in his mind. Something would have to be done, if only because no one else seemed to think that was the case.

The last Renian force to invade the desert in an attempt to reclaim their birthright had been led by a cousin of his father’s, Waleen, ten years before his own birth. Two hundred sons, the flower of the Darrhynna youth, had joined him, dazzled by his speeches calling for a crusade to purify the desert of the black scourge, to resurrect those ancestors lost there and restore the empire whole. The result was predictable: a laughable disaster guided by a mad fool. Most failed to return and those who did were ruined, never to be whole again. Masiph had seen a few of them on visits to other Nohritai homes, balding men who walked about like children, unsure of each step.

Such a catastrophe had the effect of ensuring that no Ad Eselte or Nohritai would propose a war against the Shadow Men for generations. Still, Masiph admired Waleen his madness. His cousin, he thought, probably had felt much as he did the echo in each step of his life. If a cauldron of blood in the desert was necessary to drag this plain into a new age, then let it come.

He’s a poet,” he said, breaking their silence. “He has the pouting lips for squeaking after all. Certainly no stomach for war.”

Probably he’s too concerned about self-important Nohritai who think they know better than him how to run the empire.” Nustef said.

A clanging bell down the wall stifled Masiph’s reply. Just as it started to ring it dropped silent, leaving a dimming tremor of sound in the air before it began again in earnest. Both of them stood confused, unsure of what to do. The ringing stopped and did not resume, the darrhynna continuing their chatter, oblivious of this brief disruption, the alluring stillness holding

from Realm of Shadows: The Quiet of the Night

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The Birth of a God

The Minotaur was never to return to Colosi again. After his flight from the empire, assisted by the sibyls of Hizen, he wandered aimlessly for a time in those barbarian lands so feared throughout the empire. He stayed clear of any towns and off any roads, remaining hidden in the wild lands, forested and mountainous, that the barbarians spoke of with awe and fear, for it was said they were inhabited with spirits and monsters. At last, tired of his wandering, and having no other place that he wished to go, he settled in a large cave. Its darkness, he felt, suited one who would pass his existence in obscurity forever more.

At first he would leave the cave daily to forage in the nearby wilds for what food he could find, mostly roots and berries, but as the seasons turned to autumn and then winter he rarely strayed outside his makeshift home. He ate less and less, growing so thin that his ribs showed through his coat, which had a ragged winter growth. He cared little, for it seemed to him inevitable that he would die here, and he saw no need to prolong this terrible misery. Instead, he feverishly plotted his revenge against Barthil Vulgih and those of his family who had conspired against him, imagining his triumphant return to Colosi to face his accusers on the sands of the pantheon.

Such dreaming was made all the worse for the fact that he knew such a thing could never happen. His life there was gone, replaced by this damp and miserable place. Still, it gave comfort to the long solitary days while hunger gnawed at his belly and mind. Soon enough, he imagined, he would be free of this realm, taken across that final river to the underworld where he would pass all eternity. That release was not to be granted him yet though.

In the months that he spent in his cave the Minotaur had not escaped the notice of local barbarians. Hunters were often seeking game in those forests and more than a few caught a glimpse of this strange beast, whose miraculous appearance they reported to their villages as proof of the place’s mystical powers. A few even trailed him back to his cave, a place that, unbeknownst to the Minotaur, was already considered a holy place of great power. As knowledge of presence spread among the barbarians they began to bring offerings to the mouth of the cave, especially if their hunt had been successful. It was felt, even among those who did not give much credence to these things, that good hunting would come to those who made whatever spirit inhabited the cave happy.

Little did they know that nothing could have mended the Minotaur’s heart at that time, so deep and absolute was his sorrow. He heard the coming and going of the hunters, their whispered invocations as they left their offering, but it never occurred to him to show himself to them. He did avail himself of their offerings, drinking the cups of wine and the hearts and tongues of the beasts they had killed. This only served to add to the power they ascribed him. By winter’s end even barbarians who did not hunt in the area began to make the journey to the cave to leave an offering to ensure that he was not angered.

As word of his imagined dominion spread, mystics and other sorts who claimed to have been touched by the barbarian gods began to journey to the cave to prostrate themselves there, chanting prayers and singing songs to his glory. None of these he understood, for the harsh barbarian tongue was unfamiliar to him. He ignored these penitents as best he could, slipping out of the cave under the cover of darkness to take the offerings and then retreating back within his claimed realm to feast. Few of those who came to make offerings had seen him, but the stories of his fearsome size from those who had were enough to engender awe.

Inevitably one of the penitents summoned the courage to confront the god of the cave. He was from a nearby village and said, by those who lived there, to have been touched by the gods, for he often had fits and fainting spells where he would rave madly in some tongue no one understood. The villagers called him Velthar the Sufferer and they feared him, unsure whether he was possessed by some demon come to torment them or a messenger of the greater path. He had no such doubts and when he heard of the creature in the cave that had brought such prosperity to those hunters who had made offerings this past winter, he went to there to chant and pray with the other penitents. Unlike those others, who came with offerings and paid their obeisance for a few days and then went on their way, he stayed on, praying and offering himself and his undying service to the being hidden within.

Weeks he stayed and still he received no sign that the creature was even aware of his existence. His faith was strong though and he remained, subsisting on what the forest offered, never once tempted by the many offerings left for the Minotaur. One night, as he lay awake, unable to sleep, just above the mouth of the cave, he saw through the branches of the trees above him a shadow pass over the moon blotting it from the sky. He watched, wondering if he were witnessing the end of all times, the sky growing dark, casting a shadow across all the lands in existence. Even as the darkness seemed absolute the shadow passed on and the moon gradually reappeared and he understood that it was a sign from the god within the cave intended for him alone.

Without hesitating he rose to his feet and entered the cave and was swallowed by the darkness within. He went slowly, crawling on his hands and knees, both to demonstrate his servility to the god and because he could not otherwise know where he was going. The floor of the cave was damp and cool, the smell of moss and earth heavy in his nostrils. At last he sensed the passage opening up into a deep cavern which seemed to him as though it had been untouched for untold ages. Here he felt the presence of the creature, could smell it in fact, a mixture of damp hair and the rotten breath of one who has been eating raw meat. He imagined that he could make out where the creature slumbered and he faced it crouched as he was, not daring to come any nearer. There he remained through the night.

The Minotaur had heard the man’s scuffling approach into the cavern, but he did not stir from where he lay, waiting to see what he would do. It had been, he knew, inevitable that one of the barbarians should at last gain the courage to confront him. His only hope lay in the fact that in the darkness of the cave the man would not realize his blind state and the advantage he held. When the barbarian did nothing, staying crouched where he was at the cavern’s opening, the Minotaur was not sure what to think. Was he blocking the way, preparing himself for the battle to come? The Minotaur could only assume this was the case, that here at last was a barbarian brave enough to confront the creature who was terrorizing the land and demanding such sacrifices as they were giving him. He had only known fear in his dealings with others, so it never occurred to him that the barbarians might be worshipping him.

Now that they had sent a champion to strike him down he both feared and welcomed it. Here was the ending that he had longed for through that long winter, and yet now that it had at last arrived he found he no longer wished to perish. The force of life had returned to his heart. As meager and pathetic as this existence was, living upon the sufferance of these savages, it was not something he was willing to surrender. So he decided to await for this protector of the barbarians to launch his attack. The darkness would be his ally and he would make this man come to him.

Morning came with neither of them having slept, the barbarian awaiting a sign from his chosen god, the Minotaur expecting an attack and a battle to the death. The Minotaur was the first to rise, the old wounds he had suffered in the pantheon and at the hands of the imperial guard, aching from too long spent on the cold and damp stone of the cave. He rose to his feet with the slightest of grunts and then moved silently deeper into the cavern where the stone formed a pool filled with water that came dripping from above. He drank his fill there and then went deeper yet into the darkness to relieve himself.

When he returned the barbarian was speaking. He had not, as near as the Minotaur could judge, moved from where he had lain the entire night. He had raised himself to his knees and was repeating the same group of phrases again and again, almost in a song. The Minotaur listened for some time, not moving, and then realized that the man was praying. Was he praying for strength, for his gods to aid him in the battle to come, or was he in fact praying to him? Was he a god to these savages? The thought almost made him laugh aloud given what he had been reduced to, but the longer he listened to the barbarian’s repeated chants, and the more time that passed without the man raising a weapon against him, the more he came to realize it was true.

He was unsure how exactly to handle this situation. How does one act a god when one is most assuredly not? The Minotaur had no idea and he feared what might happen should this man, and some of the others who slept beyond the cave, who he had assumed were guarding against him coming forth, determine he was not in any way holy and divine. The wrath of the pious scorned was legendary throughout history and he had no desire to be on the end of their swords. At the same time he could not hide from these men, nor did he have any wish to flee and start somewhere again when he had established a life for himself here, meager as it was.

Hardly knowing what he was doing, but realizing still that this very well would determine his path for the coming days and months, the Minotaur walked towards the penitent barbarian. The man ceased his chanting as the Minotaur came to stand over him. The Minotaur could sense the fear that was coursing through the man’s veins. He could almost see him cowering on the cavern floor. He stayed standing above him for a long time, as long as he dared, letting the tension blossom into terror. At last, when he felt the man might flee, he leaned down and touched his brow with his hand.

from The Oracle’s Mortification

An Encounter With A Stranger

My luck did not hold for it never does.

On one such occasion ten of us gathered, with four or five always at a table in our cards, while the rest mingled about talking and drinking. Aside from myself and the generous Don Antonio, there was the treasurer Lope de Alcedo and several friends of his, including one strange looking fellow I had never set eyes upon before. He was dark haired and dark skinned but with the most piercing blue eyes I have ever seen. I sat at the table most of the night, as was my habit, and acquitted myself well, accumulating a generous pile of reales. Several times, especially as I began to take the treasurer’s coin, I caught the stranger gazing at me from the corner of the room when he thought my eyes were on my cards.

I wondered at his interest and, deciding that it could hardly be friendly, I made a great show of getting full in my drink, talking loudly and unsteadily, all the while keeping a careful eye on the man. Fortune stood by me that night and I kept up my winning ways, which led to much dark muttering by Don Lope and the others at the table. This kept on for some time, as we played deep into the night, the others cursing me and their ill luck, the hours growing heavy on everyone’s faces.

My mood, which had been as bright as my fellow players’ had been foul, turned ugly when, after losing a hand, I reached into my purse to pay into the pot and found it lighter than it had been. Though I had no proof, beyond my own native instinct, I immediately turned and locked eyes with the blue eyed stranger. He returned my gaze, the smallest of grins touching his lips. I marveled at his ability to steal up beside me and take the coin right before my eyes where it sat on the table. Had the others noticed? Unlikely, they were all too consumed with me and their own gloom with the play going against them.

I had no sense of when or how he might have pulled his trick. As I have mentioned to you before, all my senses are very keen and on this night, though I had been acting quite the drunkard, I had taken only a cup or two of drink. And yet he had slipped past my guard, stealing right from under my eyes, without my even noticing.

I vowed then, as I paid out my debts and settled into the next hand, that I would not allow him to succeed in his game again. I slipped my dagger out from my belt and kept it in my lap, my left hand clenched around it, within easy reach of my purse on the table before me. And there I kept my eyes, even as I played on through the next hands, never glancing again towards the newcomer, though I knew he was watching me like a falcon studying its prey from afar. I know only too well the charlatan tricks that can be played, the deception of appearances, where one is there and then not there. No fool am I, I recognized a fellow traveler.

When he came next to lighten my purse I was well prepared for him. As he reached out, making a show of passing by the table, I brought my dagger down upon his hand, the blade gouging right through his flesh and lodging itself in the table trapping the stranger there. He let out a yell that quietened the room and I leapt up from chair, snatching my purse from the table, calling him a devil and a thief.

My strategy was poorly thought out though, for he was a friend of Don Lope, the treasurer, as were most of those there that night. My only friend in the place was our host Don Antonio and he did not dare risk his friendship with the treasurer over someone as inconsequential as me, a decision I cannot blame him for. He did step forward and plead for peace, to no effect, as Don Lope and his friends drew their rapiers against me.

I drew my blade as well, thinking only of how I might engineer an escape with my vitals intact. Before the mob could come at me I brought my rapier down upon the stranger’s still-trapped hand taking off two of his fingers. He snarled at me, more like a beast than a man in that moment, and then pulled my dagger free and came at with the rest of them. Though I parried furiously I was unable to stop them from raking me with their blades. I managed to fend them off only enough to allow me to exit the house, little good it did me, for I was still menaced at all sides by Lope de Alcedo and his companions.

Leave his guts on the street, Don Lope said to his friends, his voice heavy with drink.

I shall still have more stones than the lot of you, I told him with a sneer. You are as unpaved as any village.

This caused a general uproar among the half dozen or so men brandishing their weapons in the darkness. They were advancing upon me when Don Antonio, Lord bless him, came round the corner with the Alcalde of the city, who he had roused from his bed at that late hour. That man called a halt to the proceedings and had me arrested, calling on all the others gathered to follow him to give their statements as to what had occurred.

Strangely, the newcomer with the blue eyes was nowhere to be seen among those who trailed behind me and the Alcalde, cursing and muttering at their poor luck in being unable to finish their task. I, of course, was infinitely grateful that they had failed in that, but something else was troubling me. I was certain that the stranger had come out with the rest of the mob in pursuit of me as I had made my feeble retreat, but at some point in between the ensuing scrum and the arrival of the Alcalde he had vanished. If his fellows had noticed they made no comment on it, either among themselves or to the Alcalde. Where then had the man gone, and to what end?

I had plenty of time to dwell on that, for I was thrown into jail, clapped with irons, and set in the stock. I passed a cold and miserable night, bleakly pondering the terrible state I now found myself in. The next day the sun rose and with it came my friend Don Antonio, as true a gentleman as one could wish for, and my master Don Tadeo, who spoke with the Alcalde, a man he knew, and had me let out of the stocks and irons. The Alcalde would not free me, though, for the witnesses had all sworn statements against me.

Surprisingly, no mention was made of the stranger, the harm that had come to him, or the theft which had precipitated all the events. It was as though he had never been present. I protested to the Alcalde that I wished to press charges against this man, but he waved me away. Neither Don Antonio nor I knew the man’s name and the Alcalde had not seen him when he’d come upon the scene, so for all intents and purposes he did not exist. The charges against me had nothing to do with the stranger. It seems that in the scuffle that had broken out I had, while making my frantic defense, landed a blow on the face of one Mendo de Quinones, which required some seven stitches.

As they were unable to secure my release, in spite of their many and considered pleas to the Alcalde, both Don Tadeo and Don Antonio left me to my fate in the jail, promising to return with what help they could muster. In spite of their cheerful bravado at our parting, I knew my situation was bleak. Neither of my friends had the standing that Lope de Alcedo did in Cuzco and that, combined with the fact that all the witnesses spoke against me, meant I was almost certain to be facing a penalty, no doubt a few years with the army in Chile battling the savages that roam there.

So began my first spell of imprisonment, though it would not be my last. At the time, the specter of unending days lying before me, filled with poor food and miserable conditions, as the case ran through its gauntlet of appeals, left me in a state of dread and despair. Those nights did not pass easily. Neither do these nights before me now, though I have had ample time to grow accustomed to them.

from The Accursed Necropolis