by: Alec Peterson
Fear of things invisible in the natural seed of that which everyone in himself calleth religion.
~ Thomas Hobbes
“Mistress, it is madness!” Inyi cried out. “You will be put to death if you are discovered, made to suffer in this life and the next!” She threw herself between her mistress and the doorway to the other room.
Mistress Inu-Shia whirled upon her atwa. Her head servant’s eyes were wide and red with tears as she cradled the body of her dying child. “To do nothing would be madness! And no mother could do such!”
Shoving the old woman to the ground, Inu-Shia raised her hand and spoke the words in the ancient language of magic. The great door made of black, cast iron unlocked and swung open revealing a pane of crystal that reached from the floor to the ceiling. The smokey texture cast no reflection save for the cloudy blur of tear-stained face, her once luxurious hair matted and tangled; she looked more like a wild animal than a noblewoman.
“Hold on Ebou,” she whispered to the bundle of skin and bones in her arms. Her breasts had long since run dry of milk, and she had done her utmost to provide food for her child, going without eating herself many times to do so. But as the famine that gripped the country of Nevaraak grew more and more relentless, it required correspondingly more and more resources to acquire any kind of healthy food. She had made the mistake of buying bread from a vendor that had sworn to the demon lords themselves that it was safe and fresh, only to discover that a type of mold that caused nightmares and vomiting had taken root in the grain it had been made from.
Now as she locked the heavy door behind her to muffle the cries of her servant, Inu-Shia was faced with an impossible decision: to sacrifice everything, even her life, for the sake of her child by seeking out that which is forbidden.
Shifting her son’s weight to her other arm, she reached inside the canopic jar mounted near the crystal pane. Once filled with asps, only a single serpent remained; the rest had been eaten. It hissed weakly and sank its fangs into her dark-skinned hand, but her orcish heritage had long since rendered her immune to its venom. That, and her deep-set, yellow eyes were the only indications that her bloodline contained the blessings of the people of that noble race, the children of Kalkuloroc.
Biting the head off the snake, she smeared its blood against the crystal before devouring the rest with a guilty pang, knowing that her dying child would not be able to digest it himself. Removing a clay tablet from beside the now empty jar, she spoke the final words and the smokey crystal dissolved, revealing a shimmering gateway.
Stepping through it without hesitation, she emerged in the jyo quarter of Nevaraak Prime, that place in the city where only the untouchables were permitted to dwell. The city itself writhed like a living thing; the magic of the planar engineers allowing the architecture to grow in any direction or form free of any physical or natural constraint. Above her head, an entire portion of the city rolled up upon itself. If she squinted, she could see the people walking above her head, calmly going about their business even as the ground below their feet and above her head continued to bend.
Only a single beam of light entered the spherical city, and it was centered upon the great temple of Heliosthrax, master of the Nevaraak people and ruler of the Nine Hells. A massive obsidian statue carved in his likeness from the burning mountain that had once been in its place, peered this way and that from its throne, the light from its glowing eyes serving as illumination for the center city. The beams of light shining from it struck enormous, polished mirrors that reflected its radiance to all parts of the city.
Except here. This part was left to be forgotten in darkness. Yet it was in darkness that the only ray of hope for her son remained.
Moving through narrow alleyways that double backed upon themselves and ascending staircases that reversed direction and gravity a half dozen times, she finally found herself before a small hut, carved into the back of a hidden stairwell. From any angle, it appeared to be nothing more than a random collection of rock and debris. The optical illusion was nearly perfect and had she not known its precise location, she, as well as any of the guards who would have sought out its sole inhabitant, would have never seen it.
“Are you the doctor?” she asked upon entering, pushing aside the ragged tapestry that served as the only door.
The man before her was short and thickly built. Like her, he had a dusky complexion. Unlike her though, his eyes were a dull brown, delineating that he carried no blood within him save that of the race of man. His hair was dark, and his beard tapered to a fine point. He resembled more a vizier than a heretic.
“Be silent!” the man hissed at her, and it was only then that she noticed he was not alone. He was sitting and tending to an emaciated looking man who lay still upon the floor, blood oozing from a wound to his side. Speaking words in a language the noblewoman did not recognize, the bearded man’s hands glowed a faint green. Even as she watched, she saw his face become thinner, more gaunt, as his patient’s wound began to close and heal over, taking on the appearance of scar tissue.
Within moments, the other man had been healed completely whilst the doctor looked as if he himself hovered at death’s door.
The patient awoke then and spat in the doctor’s face, “Heretic!” He touched his thumb and ring finger to his eyelids in a gesture meant to ward off evil. Then the newly healed man fled into the darkness of the streets beyond.
“You’re very welcome.” The doctor sighed wearily, though whether it was from his efforts to heal the man, or the from of the man’s gratitude was anyone’s guess. He raised his head to look at Inu Shia with an expression of bitter amusement. “Hello, I’m the doctor, Narl-Shu.”
“I don’t care,” Narl-Shu cut her off. Staggering to his feet, he coughed violently and looked more like a man in need of healing himself than one capable of saving her son’s life. Catching her questioning glance, his face twisted into a wry frown. “Magic comes with a price. To mend the body, one must be prepared to suffer in the body. He shifted his attentions to a large, leather-bound tome. Carved upon its surface were skulls, lilies, and other symbols that the noblewoman did not recognize but filled her with a deep dread.
It was at that moment that Ebou gave a soft shudder, sighed, and then died.
“Please!” Inu-Shia cried out as she held Ebou’s still form to him.
Cursing in a language she did not know, Narl-Shu took the boy’s body in his arms and brought his hand to his temple, swatting away the flies that had gathered upon his distended belly and brow. “He’s eaten poisoned food.” He glared at the woman. “Next time, pay full price for food that isn’t lethal.”
Unused to being spoken to in such a fashion, the noblewoman bit back a retort that would have no doubt ended any hopes of this man saving her child.
Bringing his hand up and down the length of the boy’s body, he began to chant; the green glow returning to the room, giving it an unearthly feel. Touching every point of him Narl-Shu worked his magic upon Ebou and—
And suddenly the tapestry was ripped free as armed men clad head to toe in golden armor stormed in. “By order of the divine rulership of Heliosthrax, I place you under arrest for sacrilege.”
Necrobane. Elite guards and hunters of heretics.
“No wait!” Narl-Shu cried out, “I can sav—” the rest was cut off as he was clubbed to the floor with the butt of the guardsman’s spear.
nu-Shia wailed in dismay only to fall silent as Inyi entered the room flanked by guards. “I am sorry mistress,” she wept, “I had to save you from yourself.”
“You have been found guilty of crimes against the natural order,” the judges intoned in unison. Kneeling in chains in the Onyx Courts, Narl-Shu only glared up at the masked men. Created in the form of a semi-circle and flanked by titanic effigies dedicated to the various demon saints of law and justice, the Onyx court had been carved into the living stone of the Temple of Heliosthrax and served to judge the most heinous of crimes. “Only our lord Heliosthrax may claim dominion over life and death and mend flesh and bone. To all others, it is sacrilege and can only be punished by the Hado Vai; the accursed death to be suffered in this life and the next.
Narl-Shu said nothing in his defense. There was nothing to say nor was he even asked to speak. He was guilty. They knew it and he knew it. And he knew that if he had to, he would do it again.
“Knowledge belongs to all,” he hissed instead. “Perhaps if those who ruled understood that, we would not all be starving to death!”
A guard moved to strike him. “Hold a moment,” a voice—a foreign voice—called out from the darkness of the table. Focusing, Narl-Shu saw a man in plain dark robes, his face hidden not by the great masks the judges wore, but by the shadows and the hood of his garment.
“This man’s crime is that he cast magic that made use of powers reserved only for the divine and his agents?”
“Yes, shiyuf,” the lead judge spoke, addressing the foreign man not just as a social equal but a lord. “Only those blessed by our lord and master are permitted to serve as instruments of healing.”
“What if he were not guilty of healing, but instead, a separate crime entirely?”
Narl-Shu looked as confused as the judges sounded to be by this line of questioning.
“The oldest form of magic dealt not with flesh and bone, but life and death,” the foreign voice explained. “The book from whence you cast your charms, where did you find it?”
It took a moment for the condemned man to realize he was being addressed directly. “It has been in my family for—”
“You’re lying,” The voice shifted focus, “I was mistaken, you may do with him as—”
“Wait!” The doctor sighed, then said, “I stole it. A merchant caravan passed through the jyo quarter.”
“Impossible!” A different voice, one of the judges, decried, “Foreigners are forbidden from entering!”
“So are the nobility!” Narl-Shu snarled back. “And yet that doesn’t seem to stop them from harvesting my brethren for their blood or flesh for their foul rites!”
“A merchant,” the foreign voice cut in, “a purveyor of ‘strange and exotic goods’ perhaps?”
Narl-Shu blinked in surprise. “Those are the very words used yes.
“That was no merchant, but the enemy that I have been hunting. An agent of chaos and madness,” the voice paused as if weighing the next words carefully, “as well as a graverobber and necromancer.”
“Blasphemy!” the judges cried out as one. The doctor could practically feel their fury and even his defiance quaked before it. Necromancy was the most profane of sacrileges in Nevaraak. Desecration of the honored dead was a crime without equal amongst his people.
“You have not been healing the sick, Narl-Shu,” the foreign voice continued unperturbed by the wrath surrounding it, “you have been raising the dead.”
Narl-Shu felt the last of his courage flee him as he dropped his head to the floor. “Forgive me! I did not know!”
“You will be made to suffer as none before you has!” one of the judges cried out, others quickly joining him.
“Whatever this man’s punishment is to be, must wait,” the foreign voice spoke. “We have more pressing matters. The magic used to resurrect these poor souls carries a terrible curse with it: an unholy hunger for living flesh. And worse yet, it is contagious. The people that have been afflicted with this man’s magic must be found and destroyed before it is—”
A scream cut through the charged air of the room. “—too late.”
The massive doors to the court swung open as golden-clad Necrobane flooded the chamber. “My lords, there has been a murder.”
“The servant is no doubt dead,” the foreign voice stated simply.
“Torn to pieces, and parts of her appear to have been…gnawed upon.”
“What are we to do, D'qiarsea?” the assembly cried out.
Narl-Shu thought he was past the point of any further shock. He was mistaken. The ancient word for ‘warlord’ had not been used in his lifetime or that of his mother’s, or his mother’s mother, as far as he knew. To hear it used here meant that he was in the presence of august and altogether terrible company.
“Seal the temple,” the D'qiarsea commanded with an authority that was unquestionable.
“This disease must not be permitted to spread to the city. Seal and purge the jyo quarter in fire if necessary.”
“Hundreds of people will die!” Narl-Shu cried out, as his mind attempted to grasp the scale of the disaster he had unwittingly unleashed.
“Yes, they will,” the D'qiarsea answered flatly. “But an infinite amount more will die if this curse is permitted to escape not just the city, but this very plane. This is a pestilence that has the power to end not only our word, but all worlds connected to ours.” The voice shifted focus to its colleagues, “If you wish your city to survive until the dawn, you must follow my instructions exactly.”
“We will do as you command,” the judges declared. “Save our lands!”
“I intend to,” the D'qiarsea replied with a calm coldness that would have frozen the warm air around them. “In the meantime, we must contend with something far more dangerous than a mindless undead: a mother’s love.”
Forced to his feet, Narl-Shu was prodded forward into the darkness beyond the courtroom.
He could taste the coppery scent of spilled blood on his tongue as he took in the scene. The old woman had been torn to pieces. And a cursory examination confirmed what had been said: the meat had been stripped from her limbs and was nowhere to be seen. Even from this distance though, the doctor could see teeth marks upon bloody bone.
Narl-Shu whirled to face who he presumed was the D'qiarsea; the thick shadows of the courtroom that served to both intimidate those brought for judgment and preserve the anonymity of the judges had done the same for him. He was a tall man, lean but not starving which clearly marked him as a man of means. His face remained concealed by the cowl of his hood but he moved with a quiet competence that reminded the doctor of a stalking animal.
“It’s as you said. Butchered and eaten.”
“Nothing new to add?” the hooded man sounded almost disappointed. “No further insights?”
Fighting the rising tide of bile trying to force its way up his throat, Narl-Shu looked closer before realizing what the hooded man was talking about “Her eyes have been closed.”
“Whatever killed her isn’t mindless.” Narl-Shu looked back over his shoulder, “A mother’s love.” Getting to his feet, he straightened his back with purpose. “I know where to find the creature that did this.” The trail of blood vanished into the dark in the direction of the catacombs that lay far beneath the ground. Together the two men moved through the oppressive dark of the tombs.
It was the sound of weeping that alerted Narl-Shu to the presence of the creature; a piteous broken sound. Turning the final corner, Narl-Shu saw Inu-Shia sitting on the floor, her back turned to them all. “I knew you would find us,” she whispered. “Part of me hoped you would.”
Narl-Shu moved to comfort her when the hooded man’s voice stilled him, “No, there is nothing that you can do for her.”
“He’s right.” The woman smiled sadly and turned to face them. She cradled her child to her chest but as the light spilled upon them, a scene presented itself to the doctor that would haunt him the rest of his days.
Her robe had been opened and her chest had been stripped of large tracts of skin, the exposed muscle was slick and dark. And even as he watched, the thing that had been a child, bit into its mother’s body and tore away a small mouthful of flesh. “He’s so hungry,” Inu-Shia informed them, as the last light of sanity faded from her eyes.
Wordlessly, the hooded man handed Narl-Shu a sword. “They’re your wards, doctor.”
Gripping the sword, his resolve threatened to fail him as he brought the sword up over his head and then down.
And then no more.
The gory instrument of mercy fell to the ground with a dead thud and Narl-Shu followed as he became violently ill.
“There is a final matter to address: punishment for the one responsible for this,” the D'qiarsea intoned.
Narl-Shu was back in the chambers of judgment. They hadn’t even allowed him to wash the blood from his clothes nor did he particularly care any longer, pushed so far past the point of what he had ever known or experienced.
“His life is yours,” the assembly replied. “Do with him what you will.”
Narl-Shu’s face was drawn but composed. A man facing his death and determined to face it with dignity.
“His mistake lay in the best of intentions, only to bring about the worst of consequences. And so, his punishment should be both more severe and more merciful. Consign him to the earth and let him contemplate this matter as he awaits his final reward to be granted in his next life.”
Narl-Shu had soiled himself twice in the confining dark of the sarcophagus he’d been entombed within. He found himself oddly embarrassed, as if being buried alive had somehow returned him back to a point where such menial concerns held weight. His breath came in short rasps now. He’d run out of air soon and then the indignity of his death would be complete. He hoped with all that he had that he had done enough good in this life to be welcomed by his ancestors in the next—
A single sound resonating through the entire length of his body filled him. Scraping, digging, clawing, jarring movement and then an explosion of light and sound as the lid was pried away.
Narl-Shu glared up at the D'qiarsea. “Why?”
“I see a use for you. You’re a man of conviction. Men of conviction are rare things during these darkest days.”
“There never was the threat of a plague of undead was there?”
The hooded man’s tone took on a note of warmth, “Of course not. A half dozen infected creatures could not hope to spread their curse fast enough before the Necrobane of your city destroyed them. Even as we’re speaking, the people of your quarter are being purged of the hungry dead. As I understand it, there’s a great many innocent people suffering in the process.”
“Then why—” and then Narl-Shu understood. “They gave you the power to do whatever you deemed necessary.”
“Fearful men tend to make mistakes. The power that the courts have awarded me will allow me to further my own goals without their tedious oversight,” the note of warmth fled, “and before you work yourself into a fit of self-righteous fury, remember that I am not the one that has orchestrated this atrocity…” the man pushed back his hood and Narl-Shu’s blood ran cold, “…I’m merely the one putting it to its best use.”
The man’s eyes were two pools of shifting stained glass. They glowed faintly in the dark as they dissolved into shades of yellow and red, at one moment forming a resemblance to human eyes and the next dissolving into geometric fragments that seemed to stare past the other man into a world that he neither knew nor understood.
“What in the name of the spirits are you?” the doctor whispered.
“Would you like to find out?” the man offered his hand down to Narl-Shu.
A beat. And then a decision was made. Narl-Shu took the other man’s hand and found himself hoisted out of the sandy grave, reeling from the sudden movement. The man with the glass eyes was clearly stronger than he looked.
“Come then, Narl-Shu. We have work to do.”