Fury of the Faithful
By D.K. Latta
About the author
Katharzi'kan moved silently about his men, his sandaled feet as soft as leaves upon the stone. His cape of angry crimson was thrown back from his left shoulder to better expose his talwar. The drums had been voiceless for near two hours, their wafting cadence stilled, and the subsequent waiting made even the bravest shift from foot to foot.
He stopped beside a tall man whose graven features wore scars bleached colourless by the passage of time. The older man, called Athzir, glanced at him with dark eyes that scintillated in the torchlight. Katharzi'kan breathed shallowly and stared at the night, listening to the dull, disconcertingly muted sound of the gently lapping tide. Athzir placed a hand upon his shoulder.
"Go to your woman," he rumbled quietly. "Anticipation lays its clammy hand more heavily upon her breast than for you or I."
Katharzi'kan stared at his old friend wordlessly, them glanced unsurely again upon the water.
"You will hear the warning bell if we are attacked."
A shadow of a weary smile turned the younger man's lips, then his shoulders sagged. Sparing one last look at the concealing darkness, he whirled and left the battlement.
* * *
He parted the curtain and stared into the chamber beyond. The room was decked with radiant gold and silver furnishings, walls dressed in complex tapestries and soft silk curtains twisted lazily in the breeze emanating from the glowing torches. It was the finest room in the castle, yet it paled beside the alluring vision reclining upon a scarlet divan. She was as beautiful as a carving plucked from the most ambitious dream of a lovestruck sculptor. Her lips were full and red, her large, emerald eyes sparkled as she held a scroll spread between her hands; he knew she did not read it, though she tried. Her concentration was too harried at by her worry.
Her alabaster skin gleamed smooth and soft as silk, her long raven's hair woven as if from the very stuff of midnight. She was slender, yet her full breasts overflowed her decolletage. She wore a long, filmy white gown exposing shapely legs that tapered delicately to feet crossed as she lay stretched upon the cushions. Gold anklets glittered.
She espied him and instantly tossed aside her readings. Her bare feet padding softly on the marble floor, she ran and threw her arms about his neck.
"My love," she breathed into his ear, crushing him to her, "are they-?"
He stroked her black tresses and looked into her eyes. "No. I came merely to see to your needs, and to spend some time at your side." With a thumb he absently traced her perfect lips.
"Then love me," she said, a tinge of desperation to her words. She pulled him by the hand deeper into the room. "For I fear we may never have another night."
As he tumbled with her upon the divan's lush cushions, he said, "We will have many years to live and love and grow old, you will-"
"Hush," she said, silencing his hollow bravado with a kiss.
And as he freed her from her garments, unveiling every aspect of her incandescent beauty, memories came to him.
Six months previous rats in the hold of his vessel, The Squid's Repast, had worried their supplies down to nothing, while staying one step ahead of the cooking pot themselves. He had a cargo of inedible satin he had traded for in Caroual-Tenad, was still a day from home, and he and his crew had not eaten in five.
It was midnight when they came abreast the dark isle of Stagyiath. The sea was black as jet, yet glowed in spots with a weird phosphorescence. The strand was ivory in the moonlight and the uppermost tips of the jungle flowing up the acclivity was laced with the vaporous glow of the lunar face. A sweet floral fragrance wafted to him tentatively upon the light breeze.
A bird cawed from the shadows; otherwise the land was breathless.
"Fruits," suggested Katharzi'kan, leaning upon the gunwale. "Enough to dull our hunger."
Athzir scowled but said nothing. Stagyiath was rumoured to be the meeting ground of Shamoboh cultists, who worshipped their most ancient goddess with a zealotry unsurpassed. But it was the unknown, thought Katharzi'kan, that draped the cult in fearsome cloaks, the ignorance of their ways and ancient god. They dressed in ebon robes and tattooed their faces in chalk- white pigment, giving a follower the aspect of a death's-head; but as to their beliefs, or the true nature of their deity - these things remained a mystery.
He rubbed his jaw unconsciously. "We will launch a skiff," he said at last. "A small party to search for victuals. The place appears desolate enough."
"Aye," grumbled Athzir resignedly.
Six men landed upon the moist beach: among them Katharzi'kan and Athzir. They moved cautiously inland, bearing torches through the dense jungle. Dates, pineapples and berries they gathered by torchlight and in silence. It was Athzir who touched his shoulder at last, and glancing about them at the impenetrable darkness pressed beneath the eerie stillness, whispered, "We have enough to keep us on our feet."
"Aye," Katharzi'kan agreed, then stopped. "What is that yonder?" He indicated a streak of whiteness glimpsed through the dark branches and ancient boles.
Athzir frowned. "I know not and care less. Let us be away from here."
"Lead the men back to the beach and await me." He grinned at his friend. "I, at least, am curious to see something of these cultists and their deity."
Athzir frowned even deeper as, without a torch, Katharzi'kan slipped soundlessly away. In moments the shadows had consumed him entirely.
Katharzi'kan let moon and starlight dress his path in guiding golden icing. Even then he moved as much by feel as by sight. Always ahead, like some ivory treasure dangled before a slave to avarice, flashes of a whiteness led him deeper into the woods. And always he was surrounded by sound- consuming silence.
He came to a clearing and hesitated before the last branches strung lattice-like across his path, still gleaning only an inkling of what lay beyond. His step faltered, for just a moment, as he realized how far he had come in this alien place. He inhaled deeply of the sweet air. Then, in a rustle of leaves, he squeezed through.
The whiteness he had espied revealed itself to be a lone fluted pillar, canted drunkenly and standing to one side of the open ground. Small, hand- fashioned stones rose like grave markers amid the tall grass. There was the remnants of a wall that might once have enclosed the clearing and in the centre of which was a small building, like an open crypt, its interior draped in shadow. He could not identify the glyphs upon the markers, but the place reeked of antiquity. He remembered another tale he had heard, that the followers of Shamoboh had merely resurrected, or, at least, adopted the trappings of, a much older religion. In addition to the untrimmed grass and the cracks lying like webs upon the stones and pillars, wild creepers and vines hungrily covered most of the rock and plaster structures, like spindly tendrils of some beast unknown to the mind of man.
The grass rustled as he strode forward; a brazen interloper upon this hoary glebe. He approached the shrine, an unfamiliar shiver rushing up his spine, but bull-headedly determined to glimpse Shamoboh. A pedestal sprouted between the walls, nestled among the shadows. Upon it there was nothing. Even the likeness of their unknown goddess had long since vanished, no doubt stolen by pirates centuries ago - if indeed it had ever existed.
He tried to imagine the ebon-cloaked figures with their eerily marked faces kneeling before an empty temple in this long-deserted hallowed ground. To what did they believe they were praying? To what were they praying? He shuddered, then whirled as branches parted noisily behind him. He reached for his puny dagger, then stopped.
A naked woman emerged from the bush and, seeing him, froze. Then she peered more closely and sobbed in desperate relief. She ran to him, and he stared, made dumb by the sudden materialization of this pale apparition on an island he had thought temporarily deserted. As well, her beauty, clothed only in the brilliance of moonlight, dazzled him momentarily. Then she was in his arms, trembling.
"You're not one of them," she gasped, glancing furtively about her as might a wild animal. "So I beg you: help me!"
"One of whom? Steady girl, and tell me who you fear."
She looked at him, jet hair cascading wildly about her face, green eyes brimming with desperate supplication. "The followers of Shamoboh. I am their prisoner and slave. They keep me as a part of their rituals. Please, do not let them retake me - kill me if you must! I have no money but-"
"Nor need you any," he interrupted. "No man of honour can do less than see you off this island and consider himself well paid just for the doing." He took her soft hand in his and started for the brush, belatedly realizing she was terrified of more than the distant possibility of a threat. Amorphous shadows pulled free of the stygian darkness infesting the trees. Harsh voices mumbled unnaturally as bone-white visages stared out from ebon cowls.
Katharzi'kan scooped up a dead branch lying upon the ground, his knuckles burning white with the grip. "Stay close, and pray if you have a god to pray to." He swung and knocked the closest cultist off his feet, and bloodied the face of another as he flung his arm back again. Clutching her hand, he ran through the momentary gap, and they plunged into the forest, the greenery swallowing them instantly.
"I have a skiff and men down on the beach," he gasped as he ran. "Have the cultists boats?"
"Not on this side of the island," she said breathlessly.
"Then we will make it," he said with forced confidence. Behind them he could hear the snapping of branches, the pounding of feet on soft earth - some closer than others. He whirled and brought his stick down upon the head of a robed figure almost on his heels, sending the man sprawling dazed to the dirt. He made to strike again, but she stopped him with a hand upon his wrist.
"Leave him be," she said. "It is escape I want, not revenge." Suddenly her eyes flared as she peered past him at the shuddering flora. "Please! We must be away." She turned and her lithe white body flickered and disappeared into the darkness. Katharzi'kan raced after her, the blood pounding in his temples. Suddenly they were on open ground and half-tumbling down an incline. Soft sand cushioned their clumsy efforts, and as he looked up, a grin broke his features. The skiff and five silhouttes stood waiting by the shore. Athzir stepped forward, eyes wide on seeing his friend's inexplicably frantic return, and with a naked woman to boot.
"No time," gasped Katharzi'kan, hoisting the beautiful women into the boat. "Cast off. Cast off!"
Black enshrouded figures burst from the brush and washed down the acclivity like the vanguard of a hellish army. Athzir uttered a startled curse, then heaved the skiff into the lapping water. Splashing noisily, he leapt onboard, the other sailors flinging themselves likewise. Athzir punted away from the shallow water as two men slipped behind their oars and sent the light craft whizzing out upon the glassy water.
The cultists hit the water in a noisy rain of flesh and cloth but, though only seconds had transpired, the small craft was already beyond their reach.
Katharzi'kan unhooked his cape and draped it over the woman's nude body. She shuddered, then touched his hand with her fingers and managed a frail smile. Then she looked away darkly. "They will not let me go gladly."
"Mayhap they will think it easier to find other prey."
"You do not know them. They will not be deprived so easily."
"Aye," agreed Athzir grimly. "The fanatic is driven by his beliefs as we are the air we breathe - he is a veritable prisoner of them."
Emboldened by their narrow escape, Katharzi'kan said, "Have you seen Shamoboh? Her likeness?"
Head bowed, the woman quietly said, "I have never actually looked upon her, but they have. And what I have seen reflected in their eyes chills me more than you could know."
Athzir stared at her, stunned. "Then Shamoboh exists? A corporal manifestation?"
"Aye." She began to tremble.
Katharzi'kan put an arm around her and held her comfortingly to him. Then he glanced at the dark island. Perhaps their escape had been narrower than he had imagined.
* * *
She spoke little of her incarceration after that and he did not press her. He offered her a room at his castle upon making port, at least until she had her own plans in order. By the end of the first week they were lovers.
When she was joyful, Katharzi'kan's heart was as light as a breeze. Her radiant smile seemed almost to sparkle off the very walls, to make even the sun seem drab, and her laughter was as the sighing of the wind. And all was blissful...
..but always there were rumours that the cultists of Shamoboh were being seen with greater and greater frequency in mainland cities - and that they sought a raven-haired beauty. Then after six months of heaven, the rumours ceased, and the drums began, echoing from some unknown place over the swells. The cultists no longer sought their prize. They had found her.
Katharzi'kan woke groggily to an bell clanging foggily in his head. His cheek rested on Anaczeriss' smooth belly, his arms wrapped about her naked hips. He shook his head, realizing that they both had dozed.
And again the bell was sounded.
With a curse, he flung himself to his feet, dragging on his clothes as Anaczeriss sat up, startled. "What?"
"The attack has begun." He buckled his belt, then kissed her hungrily. "Do not be afraid," he said as their lips parted, then he ran from the room.
Moments later, bared talwar in hand, he burst out into the starlight and the frenzied roar of battle washing over the seaward battlement. Black-garbed forms surged over the walls, blades glinting in the lambent glare of torches. His men met them, and the clang of swords ladened the warm night air with sanguineous portent. Already men lay bloodied upon the stone, both white- faced cultist and his own loyal defenders.
He leapt into the thick of it, swinging his blade and slicing black cloth. Though a merchant, and his men sailors and attendants, they had bearded enough pirates in their day that the skills of war were not unfamiliar to them. Old Athzir shouldered up beside him, puffing in great gasps, his clothes darkly wet. Katharzi'kan spared him a worried glance.
"Not my own," the older man said, gesturing at the blood, "not mainly. They were upon us before we knew it. I am sorry." He blocked a cultist's blow and retaliated with a swing that sprawled the man upon the ground.
"No regrets," Katharzi'kan yelled, dueling with a stony-visaged cultist. "Just drive them over the wall!"
"Aye!" said Athzir. "Aye! Send them back!"
They fought for a timeless spell, the warmth of the air harrying them, till sweat mingled with blood and stretched their clothes about their bodies. Katharzi'kan bore a gash across his left thigh, and another bleeding rent from hand to elbow, but he was scarcely conscious of his wounds. One thought only pushed him on: Anaczeriss' safety. Then he spied cloaked shapes slide stealthily through the melee and disappear through the doorway leading to the castle's heart. Katharzi'kan gave chase.
He flung himself upon the backs of two of the descending figures. With a groan and a cry, three bodies tumbled down the stone steps in a tangle of limbs. He staggered to his feet and waved his blade warningly about him as shadow blobs closed in, a half-dozen bone-white faces glaring at him. He parried, and spilt dark blood, but then something hit him across his head and he stumbled, warmth rushing down his cheek. He swung blindly. A cultist slipped inside his flailing guard and struck an ill-aimed blow that brought the flat of a sword across his crown. He slumped unconscious to the floor...
"Katharzi'kan? Katharzi'kan! Can you hear me?!?"
He opened his eyes, thunder pulsing shudderingly in his head. He stared up blurrily at a craggy face. "Ath-Athzir?" he croaked.
"The cultists have retreated to their feluccas and are on their way to Stagyath by now. Katharzi'kan," he stopped, his words choked, "I have failed you."
Dawning horror filling him, he clumsily pushed away from the big man and stumbled to his feet. "No," he hissed, refusing to believe.
"When they retreated, I counted us favoured. Then I found you unconscious and ran on to your chambers. Anaczeriss is gone."
Leaning wearily against a wall, Katharzi'kan's eyes sparkled angrily. "We must follow, then. And tonight."
It was not, of course, quite so easy. Wounds needed tending, weapons replacing, and Katharzi'kan's swiftest ship first had to be loaded with light landing vessels. In all, it was two hours ere they set out to reclaim the stolen Anaczeriss. Two hours behind, and a day's journey before them. He related Anaczeriss' tale to his men, her claim that something dwelt upon the island, whether true god or no, that was worshipped by the cultists. Yet, to a man, not one declined to accompany him.
They cut across the salty blue throughout the following day, leaving a foaming trail in their rear. A dark cloud of doubt shadowing them.
It was night again when a dozen small craft road the tide up onto the sandy strand, and a score and a half of armed men crept stealthily up the slope to slip like dispelled dreams into the all-embracing darkness of the bush.
The rekindled echo of the drum washed cavernously over the island.
Katharzi'kan's wounds were a melange of varied aches burning beneath his bandages, but he ignored the pain. Leaning against a furrowed bole, he gently parted two branches and peered beyond. The cultists were in the clearing, two score robed parishioners kneeling before the tomb-like shrine. A lone figure to the side pounded on a skin drum. The moonglow hit the little structure directly from above, smothering its interior in the inkiest of shadows.
When Katharzi'kan had viewed it, six months previous, it had been vacant. Yet the cultists prostrated themselves as if their ancient deity truly inhabited that dark smear of shadow.
For a moment, he found himself waiting breathlessly for some otherworldly shape to ooze fourth, undulating its cosmic obscenity upon the overgrown turf. Then he shook himself from his morbid imaginings.
He roared an inarticulate battle cry and plunged through the branches, his men screaming and yelling on his very heels.
The cultists leapt to their feet, shocked to have been pursued to their very sacred heart. Some brandished blades, others, perhaps less devout, broke and ran in a momentary panic. Katharzi'kan and his men fell upon the worshippers who remained, demonstrating the same mercy and compassion the cultists had shown them the previous day - which was little. Screams shattered the preternatural stillness, the clang of steel upon tempered steel, the thud of feet, all disgraced the holy place. Katharzi'kan hewed his way through his foes, advancing upon the small temple, feeling a knot in his belly as he observed no sign of his beloved.
Then he stopped.
Athzir stumbled to his side, his blade soiled red. "We have put the run to them, but they will be back I think. Where is the girl? Have you seen any tra-" His word dropped from his lips as he saw the look of horror twisting his young friend's features. He followed Katharzi'kan's gaze but, not having observed the temple's emptiness months before, thought nothing of the statue therein of what was presumably Shamoboh. He scowled as he studied the ivory- coloured carving of the naked, beautiful goddess more closely. Then his features paled visibly.
He had believed fanatics to be prisoners of their gods. But, it seemed, the reverse was also bitterly true.
Table of Contents
The Fury of the Faithful is copyright 1996 by D.K. Latta. It may not be copied or used for
any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously,
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