Othan has been tasked with the rescue of a nobleman’s daughter but finds himself in the clutches of an evil cult led by none other than the woman he was sent to find! Can Othan and his companions stop the wicked Mogala and her bloody minions!?
His wrists bound tightly behind his back, Othan limped through the billowing dust, cruelly prodded by the militiamen of Joluum. Blood clogged his right eye, so with his left eye alone he eagerly searched the jeering crowd for a sign from his companions, but found none.
With whips and kicks the militiamen drove him onward, into a sun-streaked plaza, toward a raw, circular pit wide enough to swallow an ox-team whole. The militia’s leader, a short, burly man with slits for eyes, jabbed him in the thigh with the butt of his spear. Othan collapsed to one knee. “I’ll remember that,” he grumbled, then braced for a lashing. It came.
Grinding his teeth, he arose again. Three more begrudging steps brought him to the edge of the pit, a deep hole in the amber clay without stair or ladder. Behind him was an arc of bristling spears.
The leader unwound a length of knotted, hempen rope from a knee-high dolmen, and dropped it at Othan’s feet. Smiling a wicked grin, he cut Othan’s bonds, then gestured toward the pit with his chin.
Without taking his eyes off his foes, Othan quickly crouched down and grabbed the rope with both hands. As he expected, the leader kicked. Othan toppled backward, but his grip held true, and he slapped belly first against the crumbly clay wall. Dangling like a Jessan acrobat, he dropped down knot by knot. Halfway down he ran out of rope.
He tried to land on his good leg but plopped onto the hard-packed floor like a bag of manure. Far above, the militiamen laughed and kicked dust at his upturned face. Othan spat the grit from his teeth and rubbed his eyes, which only made them burn more. When his vision cleared the grimacing men had made a space for a richly dressed woman, short and heavy in the middle, with a pointed face and nose. Unlike the sun-drenched and dusty militiamen, she was clean and strikingly pale. Othan stood transfixed as she glared at him with pride and contempt. An abysmal feeling roiled his guts. Then the world went silent – everything faded to gray but her pale smirking face. Jarringly, all his senses returned at once as the strange woman backed out of sight.
Othan spewed a lengthy and inventive tirade of curses interlaced with desperate prayers to each of the major Cults and all of the minor Cults he could think of. Out of breath and ideas, he looked about his new home and realized he wasn’t alone. Against the tawny clay wall sat a young man wrapped in a shawl of nearly matching color. He was small and smooth of face, with short, braided hair and mild features. He stared at Othan meekly, still as a lump of amber.
Othan asked, “No way out of here, huh?”
The man said nothing for an indeterminate while but eventually shook his head.
“I am Othan of Dix.” He raised his fist, wrist out, in greeting. Othan was twenty or so summers old, tall, with light brown hair and matching eyes. He wore only simple travel clothes, having lost his cloak and all his gear.
The smaller man replied with a soft, whistley accent, “I am Lazan. You are not of Joluum. Why are you here?” Small metallic plugs decorated his front teeth.
“I’m not sure.” Othan looked up to the rim for eavesdroppers but saw nobody. He moved closer anyway and lowered his voice. “I was at a tavern in the caravanserai. I asked the fellow next to me if they knew a young woman that I seek. He looked at me like I was a stone troll, and stormed off. I got about halfway into my palm wine when he came back with a half-dozen bruisers and attacked me. I could have taken them, but I had left my cudgel with my friends back on the Caravan Road.”
Lazan asked, “Who is it that you seek?”
“Her name is Mogala.” Lazan’s eyes lit up. “Was that her staring down at me?” He nodded solemnly.
Othan cursed. “I knew it. Her father is offering a thousand silver dnarls to anyone that can bring her back home to the city of Dix. That’s a lot of money. What do you know about her?”
Lazan blurted, “She is the high priestess of a most foul God!” then fluttered his fingers: a ritual Othan couldn’t recognize.
Othan cursed again. Old Gyhan, Mogala’s father, didn’t mention a rogue Cult. He slumped down beside his new cellmate. He had been imprisoned before, but by Constables, not fanatics.
“May I ask why you’re here?”
Lazan hesitated, staring at his bare feet. Without looking up, he whispered, “Mogala called a tournament to honor her master, the demon Jwam. I refused to fight, as I am a devotee of the true god Thanus, the Light of the darkening world.”
Othan had never heard of Jwam, but the cult of Thanus was one of the most powerful in the Land of Night and Day. The followers of Thanus ruled a great empire in the east and had a few temples in the mighty city of Dix, the navel of the spiritual world.
“The Temple of Thanus couldn’t protect you?”
Lazan grimaced and his eyes opened wide. “They were expelled!” Fluttering his fingers again he muttered a quick mantra. “For three moons there has been no rain, and the heathens blamed Thanus. The old demons worshiped by our grandfathers awoke – Jwam the worst of them all. Mogala and her heathens stormed the Fane of Thanus, and now they use it for their unholy rites!”
Othan smiled. He saw in the young man a potential ally. “So she threw you in here because you wouldn’t fight?”
Lazan shook his head, a distant look in his tender eyes. “There is more. The fights were not meant to be lethal, but the man set to face me is a brute, a true wildebeest. I tried to flee, but they caught me hiding in a caravan.” By his thin neck, small hands, and demeanor it was clear to Othan that he had never truly fought another.
Lazan continued in a tearful voice, his face crinkled. “I have known Trez since we were children. He was a bully then and is a bully now. He promised to kill me to honor Jwam and win the heart of Mogala.”
Othan stood up and gingerly limped the perimeter of the pit, rubbing his sore leg. “What are they going to do with you?”
“Now that Thanus has been cast out, there is no hope for justice here. So I wait for his avatars to come from the east to drive out the false gods.” He looked up at the sky. “I pray nightly to the Eye of Thanus, though I can’t see it from this awful hole.”
Back home the bright orb is known as the Beacon Moon. Unlike the true moon, it didn’t wax or wane, or travel the night sky at all; the faithful claimed it hovered unchanging high above their great temple.
Lazan added, “You too should expect no mercy.”
Othan sat right next to Lazan, ignoring the little man’s obvious discomfort. He whispered, “I don’t plan on being here much longer. Right now my friends are plotting my escape.” Othan’s stomach quivered for lack of confidence. “I can get you out too if you promise to help us.”
Lazan looked up. “Do not jest with a desperate man. I will do anything to bathe once more in the Light of Thanus. What is your desire?”
“Help me capture Mogala.”
Lazan slumped, but he didn’t say no.
Othan had dozed, and awoke shivering during the night’s darkest hour. The air was crisp, the night silent. Stars shone coldly but bright through a cloudless sky. How Lazan could sleep, he couldn’t imagine.
Othan paced about for warmth. After his third lap, he noticed that he could no longer see his sleeping companion. The stars seemed dimmed, like those above the hazy skies of his home city. Then his nose caught a faint odor, like a brush fire or burning jute. Distant shouts broke the evening silence. Othan grinned. He shook Lazan awake.
“They’re coming. This could be your only way out, but it is not without cost. You must help us.”
Lazan swallowed dryly and sighed. “I will go. By Thanus’s will, I will earn my freedom.”
Othan snickered. The thickening smoke in the plaza above nearly extinguished the remaining starlight. Coarse yells from all directions reverberated through the pit. Through the clamor Othan recognized the distinct whistle of the Wallowwink bird, a signal used only by him and his companions. Soon after, the knotted hemp rope fell into the pit from above.
Othan pulled himself up into the smoke-filled plaza. Aletta stood waiting with her scimitar drawn, dressed entirely in form-fitting grey, with grey clay covering her face and hands and hair. In the billowing miasma she looked like a restive ghost.
“Come on, Hamil is hurt!” Aletta shouted, handing Othan his steel cudgel.
“Not yet!” Lazan struggled feebly to climb the rope. “I made a friend. We have to pull him up.”
“What? They’re coming, Othan!”
“He can help us. He told Lazan to hold on tight as he dug in his heel and started to pull. Aletta growled in frustration as she crouched beside him to help. Together they heaved, wrapping the rope’s slack around the stone dolmen. Just as Lazan’s hand reached the lip, Aletta cursed and let go as she sprung to her feet. Othan nearly hurtled forward under the weight of Lazan, but he caught his footing at the very edge of the pit. A span to his right Aletta battled noisily with a Joluum militiaman. Othan gave the rope one last great heave. Lazan flopped out, while the militiaman tumbled in with a wail.
Under the cover of smoke, the three plunged into the narrow alleys of Joluum, Lazan at the lead. With just the filtered starlight to guide them, they stumbled about, scraping their fingertips against seemingly identical cubes of colorless plaster. Finally, they clambered over the low berm that separated the town from the now barren cropland beyond.
The smoke thinned rapidly on the flat, dusty plain. They dashed briskly through a field of withered seedlings, toward a range of low hills. When the shouts of the militia were too distant to be discerned, they stopped in pebble-strewn wadi to rest and drink from Aletta’s waterskin.
“Who’s your friend?” she asked, between strained breaths.
Lazan was too exhausted to speak. “An enemy of Mogala’s” Othan answered. “He will help.”
“Doesn’t look like much,” she added. Aletta was young and thin of limb, and even shorter than Lazan, but in prime fighting form. Beneath the layer of clay her hair was ruddy brown and her skin olive-hued.
“Where’s Hamil?” Othan asked.
“We found a refuge just past the next ridge.” Aletta looked at Lazan, who lay wheezing on his side. “Is he going to make it?”
“He’s just out of practice.” Othan helped his new friend rise to his feet. Aletta took the lead as they entered the wild and flinty southern hills. They crossed a vale by way of a crumbling brick aqueduct, which ended in the ancient ruin of a springhouse, now completely dry and thoroughly picked over.
Hamil emerged from behind an overturned pillar, clutching his right arm. He was the youngest of the four, with the smirk of a petulant teenager.
“Who’s that?” he asked, pointing to Lazan with his good hand. Before Othan could respond, Aletta blurted, “Othan’s making friends again.”
They planned their assault from the shelter of a wadi, the languid town of Joluum sprawling out before them. The homes that seemed colorless by night glistened in pastel hues beneath the morning sun. Vapor wavered above the lazy Gab River, which was so low that barges were glued at odd angles to its muddy banks. Beside the Caravan Road loomed the tall, pillared galleries of the caravanserai. Militia patrols in threes or fours stalked the road and berm that ringed the town.
Lazan pointed to a tall square building of stone and adobe that towered above the central plaza. “That is the Fane of Thanus, where Mogala made her wretched den. It sickens me to think of what it has become.”
“Can you get us in there unseen?”
“If we can get past the militia. The rest of the town will be in the plaza for the tournament. I served the Rector, before the awakening of Jwam. There are two ways into the Fane.”
Othan smiled, congratulating himself for having helped the little man escape. A plan already flitted about in his mind. A simple plan. “I got it,” he blurted. To Aletta he said, “You and Hamil drive off the patrol and we will sneak in and grab her.”
“Not a chance. Last time you got caught in a heartbeat. I will go with you.”
“All four of us can’t sneak in, and Hamil is hurt. He can’t be left alone.”
“I’ll be fine.” Hamil retorted, rolling his arm with a cringe.
Othan hushed the young man. “With Mogala’s fights and the search for us, the militia is stretched thin. We simply sneak in and sneak her out. If we’re caught, I’ll threaten to slit her throat. They will let us go but pursue us. Once back here, you two ambush them.”
Her arms crossed, Aletta glowered like an unruly child. “I already saved you once on this ill-fated journey. What makes you think I’ll do it again?”
“You have it all wrong, my doe. I am so appreciative of your brave rescue that I couldn’t bear to put you at risk again. I blundered this mission, so I want to fix it myself.” Othan beamed behind a cocky grin.
She peered off into the distance, tapping her foot. “You expect me to believe that?” she asked, her arms crossed over her chest.
Othan chuckled, shaking his head. “No. But someone has to get rid of that patrol. Any better ideas?” Hamil shook his head, then Lazan, then finally Aletta.
She and Hamil departed first and were soon sighted. When the patrol gave chase, Othan and Lazan crossed the abandoned fields. Keeping low in the parched irrigation ditches, they reached the berm unseen.
Once in the city, all roads leading to the plaza burst with posturing athletes, revelers and laborers toiling under burdens. Young men cheered and play-fought, while their bearded fathers walked solemnly, playing cymbals and chanting a harsh and guttural mantra. Via narrow, underused alleys, Othan and Lazan bypassed the crowds and made it the rear of the Fane of Thanus. The tall square building of cut sandstone was windowless, and except for vulgar graffiti, unadorned. Lazan pointed to a humble plaster shack built onto the side of the temple and mouthed “The Rector’s quarters.” Desiccated plants hung from the roof, and cracks in the plaster exposed the adobe bricks beneath. The single room within was strewn with broken wood and pottery. Dung was smeared across the walls and moldered in a pile atop the Rector’s simple pallet.
Once within the splintered doorway Lazan spun around, dumbfounded. Tears rolled down his cheek at the sight of the hearth, stuffed with the charred remains of sacred inscriptions. He bit back a moan. “They will be punished for this.” With a creaking voice he mumbled, “The Avatars will come. The Avatars…”
Othan gripped Lazan’s narrow shoulders with both hands. “Let’s punish them ourselves, friend.”
Lazan stood up straighter and nodded, sniffing back a final tear.
In the rear of the room was a solid wooden door covered in ritual symbols, now scratched out with garden tools. Lazan whispered, “This door leads to the chancel of the Fane. They thought the Rector took the key when he fled.” He stepped on an overturned cupboard and grabbed the key from atop the door frame. “Simpletons!”
Lazan turned the lock over and slowly pulled the door inward. Just past the doorway was a thick curtain of grey linen, through which came the muffled sounds of shuffling feet. Crouching low, they pushed aside the curtain and peeked into the chancel, the temple’s sacred altar room. Though Othan had never seen a Fane of Thanus before, the desecration was clearly thorough: statuary was strewn about, tapestries were shredded. Dead toads hung from an oil lamp, and butchered bats wings were stacked on a table like griddle cakes.
Past the chancel was the dome, its oculus open to the sky, where the worshippers of Thanus once bathed in the light of what Othan called the Beacon Moon. At its center, a good ten paces away, Mogala leaned over a man lying prone and half covered in a linen sheet on a stone altar. The squinty-eyed leader of the militia reclined on a divan beside her.
Lazan backed into the Rector’s house and sunk down to the floor, his face in his hands. Othan gently closed the door and joined him. The young man looked deflated. With teary eyes he said, “That man on the divan. It’s Trez. The man I was to fight.”
“You may still get a chance,” Othan replied, but quickly realized his mistake as Lazan shrunk back more. Othan grabbed his shoulders. “Lazan, look at me. I will deal with him. You go after the priestess.”
“I’m frightened,” he whispered through clenched teeth.
“That’s normal. I am too, but we have to fight through it.” Othan handed him a hunk of sturdy wood that once held up a chair. “Mogala cast out your god and left you to die in that pit.”
Lazan took a deep breath and looked a little calmer. “You are right. I will fight, like the very Avatars.” He swung an awkward mock blow, his face an unimpressive snarl. Othan sighed. He regretted sending away Aletta, who was every bit as fierce a warrior as himself. They would have to settle for the advantage of surprise.
“When I spring, you run in with me and crack her over the head. I will handle your old friend.”
Othan carefully opened the door to peek once more through the curtain’s crease. At the altar, Mogala loomed over the prone man’s head, tools of strange design in each hand. Trez stood beside her, clean and oiled in a white toga. Drinking from a silver chalice, he watched her every move like a devoted pup.
Othan deemed it a good time to strike, but a strange curiosity held him back. Mogala pressed the tip of a long, thin wedge to the prone man’s shaved head, then with a bronze mallet, struck it with a sickening clack. Blood poured out like a bung and pooled on the altar slab. Mogala, strutting sinuously on her toes, put down the tools. With an outstretched finger, she delicately stirred the growing red puddle.
Trez mewled and prostrated himself before her, begging like a dog in a refectory. With a wicked upturned smile, she rubbed her crimson fingertip on his lips. Satisfied, Trez kissed her feet until she pushed him away. With a dumb, contented expression, he wrapped the still bleeding head with a crimson turban.
To Othan’s surprise, the man on the table awoke and unsteadily stood. Leaning heavily on Trez, he shuffled slowly toward the door. Trez quickly returned to recline at Mogala’s feet. Quiet reigned in the altar room, except for an eerie music with no apparent source, like an undulating hum.
The pair seemed at ease. Unsuspecting. Othan nodded to his trembling companion. With his steel cudgel in one hand and a fistful of Lazan’s tunic in the other, Othan dashed into the chancel, pulling his reluctant companion behind him.
The moment he entered the Fane, the priestess stood to face them, as if she expected their arrival. Pointing with a hooked forefinger, she uttered a single word. A sudden weight bore down onto his shoulders like an ox yolk. His knees faltered, and he plopped belly first onto the marble floor. With a yelp Lazan crumpled in a heap beside him. Othan tried to push himself up off the ground, but he felt like an anchor hung from the center of his chest.
Trez stood over them and laughed heartily. “It’s the heathen. And Lazan! What a happy surprise.” He wore a cruel grin, but his eyes were dull, as if under a spell. “I get to beat you to death after all.” Othan heard a dull thud, then Lazan’s cry of pain. His fear didn’t die, but it faded in favor of hatred for the witch and revulsion for her dullard devotee.
Mogala stroked her servant’s muscled flank. Othan found her both ugly and beautiful at the same time, a clear sign of sorcerous illusion. Her down-turned breasts were only barely hidden by a white, diaphanous gown. Small, puckered lips smiled over crooked teeth, but her skin was smooth and fair. Her eyes were slanted, and like a parrot’s hugged the sides of her face.
“How dare you disturb me on this sacred day while Jwam gorges on his offerings?” Her voice was nasal and wavering. “Speak.”
Othan’s invisible burden lightened enough to roll to his side. For lack of a convincing lie, he decided on the truth.
“Your father sent me, to bring you back to Dix.” He hoped she would reminisce, and maybe even temper her cruelty.
Instead, Mogala glowered at Othan with defiant air. “My father is Jwam. Whoever sent you is a…” but before she could finish, Aletta bounded through the curtained doorway. With her upturned palm at her lips, she blew a cloud of fine white powder into Mogala’s face. Screaming, the priestess collapsed onto her rear, clawing at her eyes.
All at once the weight fell away from Othan’s limbs. Othan spun around and slammed his steel cudgel down onto Trez’s sandaled foot. With a howl Trez crumbled backward, while Othan shakily arose, cudgel raised high. Trez flailed about desperately for anything to block the descending blows, but found nothing. Othan pounded him until he moved no longer.
With a long creak, the door to the Fane’s ambulatory opened a crack. Everyone paused to see two militiamen peek meekly within. Aletta and Lazan sprung as one. Together they rammed the door shut with the weight of their shoulders; Lazan jammed his chair leg into the handle like a make-shift crossbar. Immediately the door shook, and shouts erupted from without. “This won’t hold long!” Lazan warned.
Meanwhile, the priestess crawled blindly on her hands and knees, chanting harsh and guttural words of power. Othan’s belly quivered, a feeling that he knew presaged the release of magical power.
“Shut her mouth!” Othan yelled, looking about for a gag. Aletta tossed him a torn piece of linen, which he shoved between Mogala’s teeth and tied behind her head. Just as he finished, a booming crash rattled the ambulatory door. Militiamen tore at the narrow slit between the door and the jamb, calling out hysterically for their master.
“Let’s go!” Aletta shouted. She tried to yank the priestess to her feet by her hair, but a broad clod of scalp tore away instead. The skull beneath was damp with crimson dew, yet no blood flowed. All three stared, eyes wide and mouths agape, as the half-bald Mogala clawed savagely at her gag, her nails cutting into her own flesh. She ripped off the gag, taking with it a flap of her cheek and a bit of lip. Othan jumped back. Beneath it was not sinew and gore, but another skin, purplish and mottled with yellow lumps. The exposed eye was as large as an auroch’s, with the vertical iris of a goat. She howled with the voice of a hundred roaring demons.
Suddenly, with a resounding crash, the chair-leg holding the ambulatory door broke nearly in two.
“Run!” Othan yelled. Lazan made it through the rear door, but Aletta stopped short—her ankle held tight by Mogala.
Othan bashed Mogala across the jaw with his spiked cudgel, sending teeth clattering on the marble like dice. Yet her grip held true. False flesh ripped away as he struck her forearm and elbow. Finally, with a sickening crack, Aletta broke free. Othan followed her out but nearly crashed into Lazan, who was rushing back into chancery. Lazan’s eyes were crazed, and he brandished Mogala’s bronze spike and hammer. Lazan stood over Mogala and cried, “The demoness must die!” He held the spike to her knobby, purple head and, in one great strike, drove it deep into her skull.
That very moment the ambulatory door burst open, spilling militiamen into the chancel. Othan met the first with a powerful kick to the chest, knocking him sprawling into his companions.Othan pulled Lazan through the curtained door, which Aletta slammed shut. All three held their breath, expecting the militiamen to throw themselves upon it, but for a tense moment, the door remained unmolested.
Ignoring all caution they departed the temple at a full sprint. The back streets of Joluum were deserted, for the townsfolk were crowded in the central square. Their chants for Jwam, rising in intensity, echoed through the empty streets as they fled.
At the ruined springhouse Hamil was waiting.
“Where’s the girl?” he asked.
Othan shook his head and sighed. “That wasn’t her.”
Kurt Magnus’s speculative fiction and sword-and-sorcery tales have been published in Sorcerous Signals, Anotherealm.com and Bride of Chaos. He lives in Chicago, with zero cats, where he works as an urban planner.