THE HOUSE OF NHARAT



THE HOUSE OF NHARAT, by Garnett Elliot:

The Moon Goddess revealed her full glory against a night filled with scudding clouds.  From his vantage atop Nin Ursu’s mud brick walls, Ekkur could see the distant silhouettes of enemy bowmen.  They crouched among the fields surrounding the city-state, not quite close enough to loose their shafts.  Opposing them, a formation of Nin Ursu soldiers had assembled just outside the eastern gate, awaiting the order to charge.  Torchlight flickered off their spear-tips and polished copper helms.

“What game does our old rival, the city-state of Mashak play at?” Ekkur wondered aloud.  High Priest of the Sun, he swiped the air with a bull-headed mace more ornament than weapon.  “No one attacks at night.  And how can they expect to take a city with only archers?”

“Look there, master,” said Shemis, his young attendant.  He followed her pointing finger towards a far shadow, just beyond the invaders ranks.  Though his eyes were old, he could discern the outlines of a war-chariot, with a crowned figure at the reins.  Was it a general?  Or perhaps . . .

“I’ve heard rumors,” Shemis whispered, “that the sorcerer Gemel-Il is in league with Mashak–”

Her words cut short.  The bowmen began a roaring victory-chant, their voices hoarse with excitement.  Above them, a sinuous shape wound its way down between the clouds.

“By the Five Planets,” breathed Ekkur.

The spearmen massed near the gate let out a collective gasp, as a serpent thousands of cubits long landed among them.  Moonlight shone through coils of celestial blue.  Even before the spectral head could rise, men threw down their weapons and tried to flee–first towards the closed gate, then out to the fields, where howling Mashak archers cut them down.

From the walls above, a few brave defenders plied their arrows and spears against the shimmering giant.  But the shafts passed through as if striking mist.

“They’ve–they’ve somehow called down the Great Serpent from the night sky,” Ekkur said, finding the breath to speak.  A glance above confirmed his fear; darkness gaped where the slender constellation once lit the void.

The snake raised itself to half its length, head swaying, baleful eyes fixed on the gate.  Behind the creature, the bowmen of Mashak came swarming.  There were no troops left to bar their way.

With a triumphant hiss, the serpent’s massive head struck the gate like a battering ram.  Bronze-sheathed timber smashed to fragments and hinges groaned.  A second blow would sunder the gate completely.  The enemy archers pressed in close, eager for the chance to slaughter and pillage.

Heavy clouds rolled over the moon, blocking its rays and a portion of starlit sky.  The Great Serpent vanished quick as it had appeared.  Cries went up along the wall, mixed with prayers of gratitude.  The bowmen of Mashak ceased their advance.  Without the ghostly snake to awe them, the archers on the walls seemed to recall their purpose, and loosed at the invaders.

“They flee,” Shemis cried, leaning out over the parapet.  Only moments before the girl had been close to swooning.  Now her lips curled back in glee, watching the harvest reaped by Nin Ursu’s hissing arrows.  For his own part, the spectacle had left Ekkur pale and shaking.  Through a rent in the clouds he could see the constellation of the Great Serpent restored, its stars shining dimly.

“Why did it disappear so suddenly?” Shemis asked.

“A puzzle.  I sense Gemel-Il’s hand in this.”  Ekkur tugged at the silver shekel-weights woven into his beard.  “Such sorcery is beyond my understanding.  I fear, Shemis, we must call upon a certain individual.”

“Master?”

“Another sorcerer.”  He removed a golden cylinder-seal from his robes.  “Present this to the blind man who tends the king’s hawks in the southern tower.  The last cage there holds a seabird.  Free it.”

Shemis frowned, accepting the seal from the old man’s hands.  “This sorcerer . . . you’re not referring to . . .”

“I’ll take full responsibility with the Priest-King.  Go now.”  His tone made Shemis hurry from the wall.  Ekkur was left to gaze out in the direction of Mashak, wondering how soon his city’s sworn enemy would try again.

#

     Three days later a servant brought urgent word to the Ziggurat of the Sun, and Ekkur left in the middle of services with Shemis in tow.  They made for the emmer fields outside the southern portion of the city.  Among the nodding green stalks and sprawled bodies of Mashak archers left to rot, several workers had prostrated themselves.  Ekkur saw why.

Some twenty cubits away a man floated atop the gently lapping waters of an irrigation canal.  He stood, arms folded, sandaled feet braced against a little boat of willow reeds and skins.  High on his left hip rode a bronze war-knife with a hilt fashioned from gleaming lapis.  Upon his left shoulder perched an enormous vulture; a brutish, black-feathered beast with carmine eyes.

Ekkur bowed low, glancing sidelong to make sure Shemis did likewise.  “Great Harun,” he intoned, using his courtly voice, “whom the passing years treat as but days, and who rules the shining ocean that surrounds the disc of the world, we thank–”    “Ekkur, is that you?” the mariner said.  “When we met last you had wisps of hair on your chin.  Now you wear an old man’s beard, and the robes of a High Priest.”

“You perceive clearly, as always,” Ekkur said.

Harun leapt from the boat.  “And who is this boy with you?”     “This, ah, girl,” Ekkur said, patting Shemis atop her shaved scalp, “is apprenticed to me from the House of Scribes, though such is her wit that I keep her around as an extra pair of hands and eyes.”

Shemis blushed through her dusky skin.  “I am honored to meet you.”

“The honor is mine.”  Harun turned and said something to his boat; the little craft began floating away, against the canal’s current.

“He is a sorcerer,” Shemis whispered.  “And not unhandsome, in a strange way.  I was expecting someone . . .”

“Older?”  Ekkur whispered back.  “Not Harun.  He’s immortal, or close to it.”

“A god?”

“A hero, of sorts.  Present at the time of Creation, when the first wave struck earthly shore.  He comes to the aid of men, but always brings–”

“What are you two going on about?”  Harun said, drawing close.  His voice sounded more amused than suspicious.

“I was merely enlightening Shemis as to your noble origins.”

“Spare me the honorifics and explain why I was called out to this desert.”

Ekkur gestured towards the workers, reverently pressing their foreheads against the soil.  “The matter requires some privacy.”

Harun’s sea-green eyes glanced first at the laborers, then to the distant walls of Nin Ursu.  He ran a hand over his beard, which forked below his chin like the whiskers of a catfish.  “Secretive as ever, I see.”

“A necessity.”  Ekkur turned to address the field-hands.  “You will forget all you saw and heard.”

Cowed voices uttered their compliance.  Ekkur led Harun towards the city, knowing full well that tongues would be wagging in the marketplace before noon.

#

     “I would’ve liked to have seen the ziggurat at least,” Harun said, setting his clay bowl down with a thump.  “The last time I came to Nin Ursu it was by the King’s Gate, amidst a full procession and the beat of drums.  Now you hustle me through some side-entrance to this place.”  He gestured at the small chamber, furnished with crude teakwood chairs and hangings of antelope hide.

Ekkur hastily refilled his bowl with thick brown beer.  “I feared spies from Mashak might spot your arrival.  Listen, and I will relate the events of three nights ago.”

Ekkur told him about the celestial serpent, and the rumors linking it to Gemel-Il of Mashak.  Harun drained a second bowl as he listened.

“Calling down the very creatures of the zodiac, eh?” he said.  “By the Leviathan’s teats, that sounds like potent magic.  But I’ve never heard of this man, Gemel-Il.”

Ekkur shrugged.  “There’s not much known.  A sorcerer, it’s presumed, and high in favor of the Priest-King of Mashak.”

Shemis, who had been sneaking sips of beer while her master spoke, blurted:  “He has a tower that reaches for the heavens!”

“Has he now?”  Harun drew his war-knife and inspected the edge.  “It would seem the first order of business is to learn more about Gemel-Il.  A trip to this tower, perhaps . . .” Ekkur nodded.  “And quickly.  I do not know why the star-snake vanished as it did, but I suspect Mashak’s forces will return once they’ve recovered.”

“I’ll need a disguise,” Harun said.

“And your, ah, companion?”

Harun glanced at a nearby teakwood chair where the vulture perched.  It hopped from one scaled foot to the other, as if bored.  “I’ll have him see what he can spot from the air.”

“Wasn’t he a cormorant, the last time we met?”

Harun shrugged.  “He was a gull this morning.  But I suppose a vulture suits the climate better.”

“Master,” Shemis said, emboldened by beer-sips, “let me accompany Harun to Mashak.  I know the city from my time there as a slave.”

Ekkur considered.  “It will be dangerous . . .”

“We’ll find a disguise for her, too,” Harun said.

The priest bowed deeply as his old joints would allow.  “May the Bull of the Sun bless you and follow you both.”

#

     Harun contrived that he should be a traveling merchant, and with Ekkur’s help secured a cartload of shining obsidian.  The priest also found a pair of merchant’s cloaks.  As soon as he donned the garment, Harun’s face changed.  His nose lengthened and hooked, his skin turning a burnt-bronze color while his eyes darkened.  Shemis gaped at this overt magic-working.  “Your disguise is a bit more mundane,” Harun said, speaking in the thick accent of the Southern Tribes.  He turned to Ekkur, who produced a square-cut wig made from onager hair.

The wig fit her bare scalp easy enough.  Dressed in a cloak of her own, the kohl rubbed away from her eyes, she transformed into a boy apprentice without the use of magic.

“Is it safe to travel,” Harun asked, “given the city-states are at war?”

Ekkur laughed.  “Even open hostility fails to cut off the flow of trade.  Greed is the true ruler, in the Land Between Two Rivers.”

He bid the pair farewell as they joined a caravan headed east for Mashak.  The vulture followed far above, a black speck against the dome of the sky.

It was two day’s journey past cultivated fields and date groves before Mashak’s walls loomed in the distance.  Harun directed their onager-drawn cart through the Gate of the Moon, flanked by enormous winged lions.  Where Nin Ursu was built from mud brick enameled in reds and yellows, her rival favored blue and white.  A slender tower, rising even taller than the ziggurat complex at the city’s center, dominated the skyline.  “An observatory,” Harun said, as they pushed through the throng towards the marketplace, “or I’m a fool.”

He met with the market overseer, and struck a deal to rent space alongside an importer of sandalwood oil.  Shemis helped to lay out pieces of unfinished obsidian, glittering in the afternoon sun.  People crowded over to look.  Lookers became buyers, and Harun haggled as if born to it.

“Take over for me,” he whispered to Shemis, after the crowd had thinned somewhat.  “It’s time I started digging.”

He ambled to his neighbor’s stall.  The oil merchant, a plump older man, gave him an affable nod.  “Ho brother,” he said.  “New to the market and already the shekels are flying your way.  You must tell me your secret.”

Harun leaned close.  “Never give the gullible a fair deal.”     They both laughed.

“I was here in Mashak years ago,” Harun said, nodding at the tower casting a slantwise shadow over the marketplace, “but I don’t remember seeing that.”

The merchant grinned.  “A local success story.  The tower belongs to Gemel-Il, chief advisor to the Priest-King.”

“I’ve heard his name, but . . .”

“He used to rent a tiny space not ten cubits from where we stand.  A poor astrologer, casting horoscopes for a living.  I’d lend him money to buy beer.  One day, he packed everything up and disappeared.  Went off to the great Sandy Wastes to die, people said.  But he returned months later, near-starved and babbling about ruins amidst the sands.  He demanded an audience with the priest-king.  The palace guard turned him away, naturally.”

The merchant’s voice dropped to a whisper.  “Then something happened.  The very stars above the city turned blood-red, and crawled from their fixtures.  Gemel-Il claimed responsibility.  Stricken with fear, the king agreed to speak with him alone.  No one knows what passed between them, but now, Gemel-Il has a throne alongside our ruler . . .”

Harun felt the nape of his neck burn.  He glanced behind him, but saw only the press of market-goers.  Had someone been watching him?  Listening?

“Perhaps I spoke too much,” the oil merchant said, noticing Harun’s sudden unease.  “The people of Mashak are paranoid about strangers.”

“I thank you anyway, brother, for indulging my curiosity.  Good business to you.”

#

     As evening drew near the marketplace began to close.  Vendors disassembled their stalls and rolled up blankets.  Harun told Shemis to keep selling a little longer, while he had a closer look at Gemel-Il’s tower.

Failing light cast the structure in shadow.  Harun saw no windows as he approached.  His eyes seemed to deceive him; the closer he thought he was getting, the more the structure appeared to recede into the background.  He wondered if there was subtle magic at work.

A black shape came winging down from the skies.  The vulture swooped low, so close he could see its pinion-feathers.  It croaked thrice and flew up again to circle.

Three croaks meant danger.  Harun felt for the war-knife hidden beneath his robes, before hurrying back to the marketplace.

A crowd had gathered there.  Torches flared in upheld fists.  Harun pushed his way through, but rough hands seized him from several directions.  He began to utter a name, potent from the time of Creation.  Someone cuffed him across the face before he could finish.  His concentration faltered; the power he’d tried to summon faded as the crowd kicked, prodded, and shoved.  He fell into a cleared circle around his stall.

Two bearded spearmen held Shemis between them.  Her wig had fallen askew over her forehead, so that only one wide eye peeked out.  Harun rose to his feet, swaying.  Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth.

“So this is the outlander,” rang an impassive voice.

Not far from Shemis, a bronze-wheeled chariot drawn by four massive onagers stood.  A tall figure with stooped shoulders and protruding eyes held the reins.  He wore robes of white samite, and the cylindrical crown atop his head almost succeeded in giving him a regal presence.

“You arrive in Mashak,” he said, “a foreigner, baldly asking questions about me in the marketplace.  I say you’re a spy sent from Nin Ursu.  The stars warned me of your coming.” Harun wiped blood from his mouth.  “If you’ll but allow me to–”

Gemil-Il nodded.  A spear-butt snaked out and struck Harun just above the stomach.  He collapsed, gasping.

“No explanations are necessary.  All lies, I’m sure.”  Gemel-Il gestured with his hand and a throng of market-goers stepped to one side, revealing a corpse sprawled on the flagstones.  One look told Harun it was the oil merchant.  His throat had been opened and allowed to bleed out like a sacrificial beast.

A cold smile lit the astrologer’s face.  “Your fate will be decidedly less pleasant.  Or quick.
So fare spies in the city of Mashak.”

Gemel-Il snapped the reins and his chariot rumbled forward.  People leapt aside to avoid being crushed by the bronze wheels.  A spearman leaned down over Harun’s prone body, feeling among his robes, and tore away the lapis-hilted knife with a shout of triumph.  Harun tried to struggle upwards, his mind reeling through incantations that might yet save him and Shemis.

A sandaled foot crashed against his chin.  He saw no more.

#

     Blazing sun burned his eyes.  Something hot and smelly heaved beneath him.  His wrists ached and his throat raged for water.  It took several long moments to work out someone had bound him to the back of an onager, face-up against merciless desert sky.

He willed his tongue to move, trying to call for Shemis.  A dry sound rattled out.  On his second attempt he was rewarded by a mewling cry coming somewhere to his left.  The girl lived, then.  He permitted himself a grim smile before blackness once again overwhelmed his senses.

An interminable period of jostling passed.  He opened his eyes and found himself upright, wrists and ankles bound as before, but this time his back was tight against a granite slab.  The sun’s red eye winked along the horizon.  Nightfall?  No, it was rising.  Dawn.  They must’ve traveled for some time to get to this place, wherever it was.

He saw walls of rough-hewn stone as far as he could crane his head.  Chisel marks in the rock.  A quarry, then.  Shemis was lashed to a nearby slab.  Her bare head lolled.  She still wore her robes, and Harun felt a surge of hope her boyish appearance had spared her any depredations by the spearmen.

“Shemis,” he said, his tongue thick.

Her head jerked up, eyelids fluttering open.  “You’re not dead, then.”

“Far from it.”

“Where are we?”

“A quarry.  Abandoned, I’d say.  We’ve been staked out to die.”

Shemis’s eyes narrowed against the dawn.  She looked like she wanted to spit.  “No thanks to you.  Ekkur told me you were a hero, but back there–”

“I’m as mortal as you are, for all my long years.  What would you have me do?”

“You didn’t fight.”

“I tried–”

“A glorious death would’ve been preferable to this.”  Shemis’s voice lowered.  “Ekkur said you had a reputation for misfortune.  Now I see why.  Nin Ursu has placed all its hopes on a coward . . .”

Harun allowed himself to hang limp from the stone slab.  “I’ve been called many things in my lifetime, Shemis.  Some of them true.  But ‘coward’?  No.”

She fell silent.  The sun rose above the lip of the quarry, baking both the stone and the two bodies bound there.

“In any event,” Harun said, his voice light with hope, “we’ll not be here long.”

Shemis snorted.  “Vultures will eat us, before we die of thirst.”

“Exactly.”  Harun scanned the horizon.  “I’m counting on them.”

#

     By noon the quarry felt hot as a clay oven, and Harun’s brain, addled by sunlight, had almost succumbed.  His throat felt so dry as to close in on itself.  He and Shemis had long since quit wasting precious moisture on talk.

A black dot appeared against the endless blue waste of sky, circling.  In moments another appeared.  And another.  Soon, a great flapping horde of vultures descended, beady eyes glinting, their feathers astir with lice.  They alighted on the stone slabs and all around.  The largest among them had crimson eyes, and cocked its head as if in greeting.

Harun laughed.  “You took your time.”

Shemis screamed as the birds swarmed over her.  Harun urged calm, but felt a spasm of doubt himself when the first beak began to gnaw at his leather bindings.  Up close, the vultures smelled of dust and fresh carrion.  He shut his eyes.  Another beak nipped at his wrist, as if playfully.

Shemis cried out once more.  Harun feared the ordeal would take hours, but the vultures, used to tearing at desiccated flesh, had the bindings weakened in moments.  He burst free.  “Away,” he called at the birds gathered around Shemis.  The girl’s sunburnt face paled when she saw him draw the lapis-hilted knife.

“But–that was taken away!  I saw a soldier do it, just before he kicked you.”

Harun grinned.  “And won’t he be surprised, when he reaches for it and finds an empty sheath?  This knife knows its master.”  He cut the already-gnawed bonds confining the girl.

“You’re Harun again,” she said, after stretching her limbs.  “Your face, I mean.”

“I kept the disguise up as long as I could.  If our captors saw me change form, I doubt if they would’ve simply left us here.  Thirsty?”

“What do you think?”

Harun hummed a sailor’s chanty as he paced along the nearest quarry wall, tapping at the stone with his bronze blade.  “Water, you understand, is never far from me.”  He stopped.  Tapped more intently.  “Aha.”  Without pretense, he spun and slammed the knife’s hilt against the wall.  Stone cracked.  Water dribbled out from the small indentation he’d made.  In moments, it began to flow in a tiny stream.

Shemis pushed him aside and pressed her mouth up against the stone.  He let her drink, reminding the desert-girl not to gulp for fear of cramps.  When she’d finished he took his turn.

“Can you conjure food the same way?” she said, wiping her lips.

“Sadly, no.”

“We must be lost in the Sandy Wastes.  Nin Ursu could be days away.”
Harun nodded towards the flock of vultures, still perched about the stone slabs.  “We’re not lost, as long as we have them to scout for us.  And I don’t intend on returning to Nin Ursu just yet.”

“Where then?”

He explained what the oil merchant had told him, regarding Gemel-Il and his desert sojourn.  “He must’ve stumbled across the ruins of Tel Idrih.  An ancient place, built by the Gods.  Doubtless he found something there.  He’s no sorcerer, Shemis, or he would’ve sensed who I was through my disguise.  He must be drawing his powers from something else.”

Harun knelt down next to the red-eyed vulture and whispered.  The bird bobbed its head.  “Go,” Harun said, “tell your brethren to scour the desert for sight of Tel Idrih.”  Wings flapped; as one, the flock of black and gray scavengers climbed into the sky, circled, and flew off in different directions.

“With luck,” Harun said, “the ruins could be close by.  If not . . .”

“And in the meantime?”

“We find shade and rest as well as we can.”

#

     They left the quarry at moonrise, stomachs empty as the expanse of gray dunes rippling into the distance.  Harun had tried to coax desert vipers beneath his knife for sustenance, but his spells failed.  He had little power over serpents.

“We make for that mountain,” he said, pointing towards a black mound in the distance.  “According to my feathered companion, the ruins are near the base on the southern side.”

“That’ll take days . . .” Shemis began.

“Most of the night.  If we’re brisk.”

They started walking, the vulture perched on Harun’s shoulder.  Blisters soon padded Shemis’s feet.  The desert night was cold, and winds howled down across the dunes, scattering fine sand like ash.  But the mountain loomed closer.  For his part, Harun seemed tireless.  He kept his strange eyes fixed on the towering silhouette as it grew larger, until the dunes gave way to rolling hills.

Laughter echoed in the distance.  Its abruptness startled Shemis, and she half-expected to stumble on an encampment of drunken nomads over the next hill.  But the laughter wasn’t human.

“Hyenas,” Harun said, drawing his blade.  “Look for some good-sized rocks to throw.”

They climbed a flinty hill with scrub growing at the top, Shemis pausing long enough to pick up several stones.  From this summit they could see down into the neighboring valley.  A tall statue of black basalt, solemn in the dwindling moonlight, stood vigil next to what looked like a giant hole gouged from the far hillside.  Shemis drew an appreciative breath.  The “hole” was in fact an archway, formed from three slabs of cyclopean rock.

“Tel Idrih,” Harun said.

Wordlessly, they climbed down into the valley.  Furred silhouettes with faintly gleaming eyes slunk alongside.  Harun stamped his foot at the nearest.  The hyena skittered backwards and turned tail.  “Can’t be too hungry,” he said.  “If they failed to eat Gemel-Il, I doubt if they’d attack us.”

From their new vantage at the valley’s floor, the true scale of the statue and archway became apparent.  Shemis looked up at the basalt figure.  It was a winged lion with a human head, not unlike the carvings flanking the Gate of the Moon in Mashak.  This particular statue, however, possessed an uncanny animation.  It seemed as if any moment it could break free of its pedestal and go flying from the valley.

Harun put his hand on her shoulder.  “Courage.  This guardian won’t harm us, though the vulture will have to remain outside.”  He shooed at the bird and it fluttered over to rest atop a boulder.  “Help me find some brush.”

Shemis spied a clump of weathered tamarisk and uprooted it.  Harun snapped off a branch.  As soon as he held it aloft the wood burst into flame, illuminating the archway and a set of worn basalt steps leading down.

#

     Their descent seemed to take longer than the trip overland.  Twice they rested and drank water summoned from the stone walls.  To Shemis it seemed they were traveling beneath the very roots of the mountain itself.  Their tamarisk-light should have long since extinguished, but the wood and leaves burned on, unconsumed.

Eventually, stairs gave way to a columned hall.  There was no way to perceive its true dimensions, beyond the little circle of light cast by the branch.  The air smelled crypt-stale.  A sheen of fine dust covered hexagonal tiles carved from red granite.

“So ancient, this place,” Harun said, peering first in one direction and then the other, “so vast . . .”

A woman’s wailing cry cut short his words.  It echoed off the columns.  Harun whirled, trying to gauge the direction the sound had come from.

“It’s a spirit,” Shemis said, the stubble on her nape standing up.

“A demoness,” Harun corrected.  “And a powerful one.  Placed here by the will of the Gods.  Come.”

More cries sounded.  Harun began to sprint towards their source.  They passed a mural painted in bright enamels; a procession of animal-headed figures emerging from a vast ocean or flood.  Just beyond the mural appeared a hallway of green marble.  Harun hurried down it, his fingers tight around Shemis’s wrist.  The phantom woman’s screams echoed louder.  Harun reached the end of the hall and stopped.

Less than a stone’s toss away, a woman writhed on the floor of a large chamber carved from black slate.  Bare-breasted, she wore only a girdle woven from black tresses.  When she turned to look up, both Harun and Shemis took a step back.  The head of a hyena rested on her slender shoulders, and her yellow eyes blazed like fresh-struck coins.

More terrible was the serpent wound about her naked thigh.  An asp with alternating bands of emerald and jet scales, it sunk fangs into an artery even as the woman’s clawed hands ripped and crushed its head.  The snake’s body slackened, drooped.  But where teeth had stuck an angry red welt appeared, swiftly turning black.  The she-thing howled.

“Nharat!” Harun cried.

In an eye blink, the woman’s form changed.  Now she was all human; a face lovelier than any queen’s, eyes shining like polished ebony.  Crimson lips parted.  “Come forward, sorcerer,” she husked, draping herself before the threshold.

Harun averted his eyes.  Shemis glanced past the reclining figure at an archway opposite, which opened onto a small shrine.  Panels of beaten gold covered the shrine’s walls.  Crammed into that space were a dozen figures of gods and goddesses, their bodies crafted from precious metals, adorned with shining tourmaline in a riot of blues, reds, and greens . . .

“Don’t look,” said Harun.  “She’s bound inside that chamber, both prisoner and guardian.  She’ll try to–”

But Shemis was already stepping forward, entranced by the gleaming gemstones.  Nharat sprang the moment her bare foot touched the slate floor, locking clawed hands around her ankle.  Harun’s war-knife whistled down.  No blood spurted when it struck the demon’s wrist, but foul-smelling smoke billowed from the wound.  Nharat recoiled; Harun seized Shemis by the shoulders and pulled her from the creature’s grasp, back into the hall.

Nharat reached for them, clawing.  Her fingers met unseen resistance.  She was hyena-headed again, tearing at the air between them, trying to press her sleek body forward, but unable to leave the slate chamber.  Just as she finished grating her teeth in frustration, the headless serpent wrapped around her thigh wriggled with sudden life.  A new head appeared, growing swiftly from the stump, and sank bared fangs into her leg as before.  The wound Harun had inflicted closed up, while a fresh blot of blackening venom spread across Nharat’s skin.  Her screams were near-deafening.

“Poor Nharat,” Harun said, his voice devoid of sarcasm.  “For her crimes against the Gods she’ll remain here eternally, her only companion an undying asp.”

“Fool of a sorcerer!” the demoness cried.  “Did you come here to mock?”

“Not I.”  He watched dispassionately as she tore the serpent’s head free once again.

“What then?”

“I would help you, if I could.”

The dark eyes narrowed.  “Could you break the spells laid across this threshold?  I doubt it.  Though you do have a potent strangeness about you.  A familiarity . . .”

“I cannot undo such a working.  Nor would I attempt to do so, given your taste for human flesh.”

“You speak plainly enough, I’ll give you that.”  Nharat rose to her clawed feet, facing him across the archway.  “The one that came before you had a habit of twisting his words.”

“Came before me?  Do you mean Gemel-Il?”

“I mean that pop-eyed starveling, a sun-maddened excuse for a man who crawled his way down here and claimed he knew the words to set me free, glimpsed from the Sacred Stela, were I but to procure for him one treasure from yonder chamber.”  She nodded at the gold shrine behind her.

“And you believed him?”

“After uncounted centuries, what choice did I have?  Even demons can hope.”  The asp’s head was growing back again.  She severed the new one before it had a chance to bite.

“What treasure did he seek?”

“And how is that your business?”

“I offered to help.”

“To bargain, you mean.”

Harun shrugged.  “Unlike Gemel-Il, I keep my promises.”

“Perhaps that is so.”  Nharat’s voice grew hushed.  “He asked for the Clay Tablet of the Heavens.  I tricked him, of course.  Only gave him half of it.”

“That was enough.  He’s used the Tablet to carve a position for himself in the city of Mashak, and threaten his neighbors.”

“Hah.  A petty waste of power.”

“What if I pledged to return the Tablet?  Would you help me defeat Gemel-Il?”

She folded her arms over furred breasts.  “Why should I care about your struggles?”

“I could also bring you . . . something else.”

Her eyes fixed hungrily on Shemis.  “Speak on.”

“A moment.”  Harun turned to his companion.  “Go out and wait in the columned hall.  This is the only demon haunting Tel Idrih, and I would not have you listen as I debased myself, dickering with it.”

#

     When he appeared again, he was carrying a broad clay slab beneath one arm.  “We have to hurry back for Nin Ursu, if what I fear is correct.”

They climbed the basalt stair and began a tortuous ascent.  Though Shemis had access to plenty of water, her stomach felt empty as a virgin’s womb.  Hunger, and the exhaustion of an all-night march caused her legs to tremble with each step.  Harun pushed on, drawing from some spring of terrible will.  Twice Shemis nearly swooned, and twice he caught her, carried her until she could walk again.

Evening light filtered over the hills by the time they reached the surface.  The vulture waited, perched atop the boulder from before.

“We spent the day down there,” Harun said.  “And we are in no shape to walk any further.  I fear we must risk somewhat, ah, unconventional travel if we’re to return to your city.”

Shemis noticed he was staring up at the winged statue.  “You don’t mean . . .”

“I think I remember the words.  You may look away, if you wish.”

A string of harsh, halting consonants escaped his throat.  The basalt statue started to move, and Shemis shut her eyes as recommended.  She heard a grating sound, like stone grinding against stone, and the flutter of enormous wings.  A sudden wind almost knocked her off her feet.  She felt Harun’s hands beneath her armpits, hauling her bodily into the air.  Then the sensation of rough feathers beneath her legs.

“Hold tight to me,” Harun whispered.

Wind roared around her ears.  She had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, as if she’d just leapt from a great height.  When she cracked her eyes she saw the desert valley whirling away beneath her, and shut them just as swiftly.

#

     “We draw close.”

Harun’s words prodded her awake.  Incredibly, she’d fallen into a doze.  Exhaustion from her desert march, and the trips up and down Tel Idrih’s endless stairs had exacted their price.  Now it was full night.  She sat straddling the winged lion’s enormous back, both arms curled around Harun.  The silver of the desert plain unrolled beneath them, while above swam clear black sky, alive with stars.

In the near distance loomed the tower-lined silhouette of Nin Ursu.  Despite all the wonders she had seen so far, Shemis let out a gasp.

A pair of gargantuan figures attacked her city-state, their flesh glowing the same ghostly blue-white as the Great Serpent’s.  The first, a muscular giant with the head and curling horns of a ram, was already within the city’s walls, tearing at the Ziggurat of the Sun.  Taloned hands raked the mud-brick temple.  No less horrifying was the second celestial titan:  a scorpion the size of a small mountain, its armored body reaching above the West Gate, sweeping archers from the battlements with its pincers.

“As I feared,” Harun shouted over the rushing wind.  “Gemel-Il’s first attack was thwarted by cloud cover.  Tonight, nothing blocks the stars’ influence.”

“The Tablet of the Heavens,” Shemis cried.  “We should–”

But Harun’s attention was locked on the ram-headed giant, eagerly destroying the holy edifice.  His face darkened with rage.  He snarled something unintelligible to their mount, causing it to tuck in its wings.  Shemis’s stomach threatened revolt as they plunged into a steep dive.

Harun drew his war-knife and held it high.  He chanted a litany; the dagger disappeared with a flash, replaced by the sickle-shaped blade of a great khopesh, dripping white sparks.

The winged lion angled straight for the ram.  A single huge eye swiveled towards them, just before Harun struck.  The hooked sword ripped into the giant’s cheek, tearing star-flesh with a terrible screeching that echoed across the plane.

“Another pass!” yelled Harun, exultant.  The winged lion climbed, wheeled, and prepared to dive again.  Talon-tipped fingers reached up out of the night.  The lion veered to one side, avoiding the ram’s clumsy grab.  But the buffet of air was enough to send it tumbling head over hindquarters.  Harun and Shemis clutched at shoulder-feathers, lest they fall off into spinning blackness.

The lion hurtled past the city walls.  Beating its wings, it tried to right itself and gain altitude.  Shemis saw the titan scorpion go shooting by to her right.  Its curved stinger arched above them for a frantic moment, and then they were out over the patchwork of cultivated fields.

Harun regained control of their mount.  He guided it down, towards a hill crested with shadowed date palms.  Sliding beneath them came rank after rank of spearmen dressed in bronze corselets, looking small as children’s toys from the air.  Mashak’s army had returned.  They waited in the fields for their monstrous cohorts to blunt the city’s defenses and throw wide the gates.

“You were right,” Harun said.  “I doubt if even the Sword of Shepsu could stop these creatures.  We must try to evoke the Tablet’s powers.”  His shining khopesh was a bronze knife again; he returned it to its sheath.

The lion circled the hill before setting down.  Mashak’s army lay half a league away, and the hill’s elevation provided a good view of Nin Ursu.  Harun’s voice cracked the strange words he’d uttered before Tel Idrih.  The winged lion became a statue, crouched beneath the date palms.  They slid off its stone back onto the sand.

Harun un-tucked their half of the Tablet from his belt.  The face depicted a bewildering array of dots, bordered by a wave motif.  He squinted at the characters.  “If that’s writing, it’s none I’ve ever seen before.”

“Didn’t Nharat explain how the Tablet works?”

“Some things are beyond even the knowledge of demons.  You’re a scribe–what would you do?”

“Well, if I wanted to make any marks I suppose I would wet the clay first.”

In the distance, the giant scorpion sheared through a gate-tower with its claws.  “No time for that.”  Harun drew his knife.  “Here’s your stylus.  What next?”

“Hmmmm.  Let’s assume the dots are stars, and this half of the tablet represents a portion of the night sky.  I wonder which portion . . .”

Now the ram-headed giant was kicking at the walls from within the city, sending men and mud brick flying.  Harun swore in exasperation.  He seized the Tablet and held it up to the sky, squinting first at the patterns in the clay, then the stars overhead.

“I think I see Archer,” Shemis said, pointing at the tablet.  “There’s his bow.”

“And there’s the Water Bearer.  Both constellations are above us right now.  But how do we summon them?”

“An incantation?”

“There are thousands . . .” Harun rubbed his jaw.  As he pondered, the walls of Nin Ursu shivered under combined assault.

“Give me the Tablet.”  Shemis used Harun’s knife to scratch lines between the stars forming the Archer.  Above, the night sky squirmed as if alive.  A cluster of stars flared and then disappeared like a snuffed flame.

A new titan appeared.

This one straddled the base of the hill.  Shemis saw first a sandaled foot and muscular calves, then legs tall as an obelisk.  The Archer towered above them, holding in one hand a massive bow formed from star-radiance.  His flesh shimmered silver-white.

“Command him,” Harun urged.  “Have him draw those two monsters from the city.”

Shemis looked out across the plane at Nin Ursu, where the massive insect was still engaged in sweeping the walls of defenders.  “The Scorpion!” she shouted.  “Shoot the Scorpion!”

The Archer’s face registered no emotion, his features frozen as a statue’s.  But he plucked a gleaming arrow from his quiver and fitted it to the bow.  Sinews flexed; the brilliant shaft sang true, to sink its head between the armored plates along the Scorpion’s back.  Almost immediately, the creature quit the wall and came scuttling towards its attacker, moving swiftly on ghost-quick legs.  The Ram vaulted over the wall as well, clutching a marble pylon like a club.

“Two against one,” Harun said.

Shemis nodded, already joining the stars that formed the Water Bearer.  In a flash of spectral light she appeared alongside the Archer, coldly beautiful, an enormous porphyry urn tucked against her rounded hip.

“Now the Bull.  And the Owl.  Quickly, before Gemel-Il summons the Twins . . .” Harun’s voice broke off when he saw the tablet’s face had gone blank.  Evidently, there were limits to how far the celestial forces could be strained.

A second arrow found the Scorpion as it charged, this one striking the top of its bony head and glancing off.  The creature slowed from the impact.  But the Ram came bounding on, swinging his makeshift club in murderous anticipation.

At a nod from the Archer, the Water Bearer knelt and tipped her urn.  The swirling, churning mass of a great deluge poured forth, foaming over the plane, drowning emmer fields–and doubtless parts of Mashak’s army, arrayed between the opposing forces.  Surging currents pushed the Scorpion to one side.  The Ram slipped and fell, dropping the pylon.  It shattered into a thousand marble fragments.

The Archer took careful aim.  A third arrow lodged itself in the Scorpion’s leftmost eye.  A seemingly mortal wound, but the gargantuan insect, with the vitality of its kind, skittered across the waning flood and sunk its barb deep in the Water Bearer’s shoulder.  The maiden’s face contorted with silent agony; she fell across the Scorpion.  Both figures faded from sight.  Moments later their respective stars winked once again in the sky.

Meanwhile, the Ram had closed with the Archer, who had just enough time to hurl down his bow before taloned fingers seized his throat.  He gripped the Ram’s thick neck in return.  Thews straining, both giants struck the ground with a thunder-swollen crash.  The earth beneath Shemis and Harun shook so violently they fought to keep their feet.  Sections of Nin Ursu’s walls crumbled and fell away.

The two titans rolled together in their struggle, first the Ram seeming to gain advantage, then the Archer, until dust swirled thick around their locked bodies.  When it cleared, both adversaries were gone.  A glance above showed they, too, had returned to their places in the firmament.

Stillness settled over the fields.  For a long moment, Shemis and Harun could only gape at the destruction.  Flames began to lick over the top of Nin Ursu’s remaining walls.

“Is it over?” Shemis asked.

“Not quite.”  Harun gestured towards the base of the hill, where the broken army of Mashak was already limping past.  Like the countryside, the bronze-clad soldiers had been battered and flooded by the clash of giants; they fled in full rout, swift as their wounds allowed.  Near the head of their disordered ranks raced a lone chariot drawn by four onagers.  The driver lashed the beasts on, trampling those not canny enough to avoid his cart’s wake.

“Some cowardly general of Mashak,” Shemis said.

Harun shook his head.  “I recognize that cart.  If my feathered companion followed us swiftly enough from Tel-Idrih . . .” He cupped both hands around his mouth and uttered a long, croaking call.

From the darkness above came an answering shriek.  A black shape swooped down on the lead onagers, wings flapping, claws outstretched.  The war-cart skidded to a halt, slewing to one side and almost tipping over.  Harun bounded down the hill towards it.  Gemel-Il stood at the reins, his face white with panic.  When he saw Harun charging he called for his troops.  But the dispirited soldiers, intent on fleeing, made no attempt to protect him.

Harun leapt.  He was over the chariot’s side in a moment, pressing his knife against the astrologer’s throat.  “So you’d cheat the demoness Nharat, eh?  A reckoning is in order.”

He bound Gemel-Il with strips cut from his samite robe, while the Mashak army continued to stream past.  Harun found the other piece of the clay tablet lying near the cart.  He seized this, and began prodding Gemel-Il towards the date palms.  “Your weight thrice-over in silver,” the astrologer said, “if you’ll but free–”

“Quiet.  The time for haggling is past.”

Wings fluttered overhead.  The black bird settled on Harun’s left shoulder.  Instead of a vulture, it bore the sleek profile of a desert hawk.  But the carmine eyes were the same.

“Punctual as ever.”  Harun turned his attention to Shemis, rushing towards them from the hilltop.

“You captured him!” she cried, near-breathless.  “We must find Ekkur–if he still lives.  Surely, the Priest-King will receive you as a hero now.”

“No,” Harun said.

“No?”

“I have a bargain to fulfill in Tel Idrih, before this night is over.  Your masters would doubtless want Gemel-Il for their own purposes.”

“But what about you?  Where’s your hard-won glory, when your deeds are done like the wind in the night?”

Harun grinned.  “A strange question, coming from a scribe.  I was hoping you might record what happened, with one provision.”

“Which is?”

“You include the part you played.”  He bent and kissed Shemis atop her bare head.

“Now, come you,” he said to Gemel-Il.  “There’s a certain demoness waiting who longs for your company.  Perhaps you can keep her entertained for a while, in her house of slate.”

So saying, Harun led his groaning captive up the hill, to the shadow of the winged lion.

____________________________________________________________________

  Garnett Elliott lives and works in Tucson, Arizona.  His fantasy-themed stories have appeared or are slated to appear in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Swords and Sorcery Magazine, The Eldritch Dark, and Libram Mysterium, a soon-to-be released anthology influenced by “Appendix N” fiction.

 


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