Two-Fisted Tales

Tales of Mystery and Adventure

That's right, Faithful Fiends, it's another tantalizing temple-buster featuring
 those two sword-wielding rogues, Rozak and Tarajel!   If you liked The Storm in the Jewel, you'll love this frenzied little foray!  This time out, our two heroes may have bitten off more than they can chew, 'cause they're the ones who are going to get chewed when they enter the...

Temple of the Mandricanth

(Part One)

By Martin E. Stephenson
About the author

ROZAK SITS IN THE SHADOWS at the back of the tavern as he watches the fight, nursing a mug of thick Shardian wine, his legs resting on a crudely crafted wooden table.  The smoky tavern air is a mixture of wine, ale, burnt meat and sweat.  He doesn't wish to be bothered and despite the noisy crowd of traders, merchants, thieves and drunkards, no one does.  It's close to the curfew hour in the city of Shardia, and everyone is taking shelter.

He is a Vanuran; native of a land of rolling green hills, dark mist-filled forests, Vanura.  A land where jade-eyed, fair-skinned women dance naked with sprites in the woods, where bold, fearless men take pleasure in the sport of battle.

Big, but not overly; wide, but lean; bound with corded muscle.  Travel tanned, he bears the scars of fierce battle and narrow escapes.  Long dark hair is pulled back in a tail, a touch of gray at his temples.  He wears short leather breeches and soft boots, a sword the length of his forearm hangs in a simple scabbard at his belt.

His companion, Tarajel, is at the center of a cheering crowd; dagger in hand, circling her opponent in a dance of cat-like grace, her long brown hair framing a wide face set with dark, almond shaped eyes.  She is beautifully dangerous, her figure lean and strong.  Clad in dark leather from neck to thigh-high boots, a leather and tortoiseshell cuirass is bound across her chest and back.  She wears the long sword of a Southern Raider.

Her adversary is a dark, hawk-nosed little man, a native Shardian; he wears the dark-green silks of a guard from one of the many nearby temples located here in the sprawling trade center.  The decorated hilt of his scimitar remains in its decorated scabbard, but a serrated bronze dagger bounces from hand to hand.

Two of his brethren stand nearby, at the edge of the growing throng.  The black and red medallions they wear across their shiny vestments note them as belonging to the cult of the Mandricanth, the ape-like god of pleasure and pain; one amongst the pantheon of deities these strange people worship.  They often frequent the city's taverns and bazaars, looking for fresh recruits to join them in their sordid rites, often waylaying the naïve.  The locals turn a blind eye to such behavior; the Temple of the Mandricanth and its high priest, Verim-seth, is known to contribute much to the Shardian treasury.

"Southern bitch," he shouts, "how dare you strike a Temple Guard!"

"I'll strike anyone, who touches me without invitation," Tarajel answers coolly. "Even a well-dressed dog like you."

The guard's face flushes with embarrassed rage as he lunges at her, dagger first.  She sidesteps, her blade flashing along his silken sleeve, drawing a crimson line the length of his extended arm.  The momentum of his thrust pins his dagger into the edge of a table.  The mixed crowd cheers, except for his fellow guards, who stand watching, surprised at Tarajel's speed.  The guard spins, grabbing his arm, his teeth clenched in pain and anger.  The enraged little man draws his scimitar, leaving his dagger planted in the wood; his two cult brothers do likewise and join him.

"Oh, so you want to play rough?" Tarajel taunts as she draws her sword.

"Let us disarm her, and take her to our master, Verim-seth," growls the wounded guard to his fellows.  "Perhaps she will know respect when is he is done with her."

Scimitars drawn, the fancily garbed trio begins inching toward the swordswoman, side-by side.  All eyes follow as she slowly backs away, her long blade poised like a venomous serpent ready to strike.

There's a heavy thump, and two of Tarajel's attackers stagger forward holding their heads, their scimitars clanging on the slate floor.  Both slump into the crowd, stunned, but not unconscious.  Tarajel's wounded aggressor turns to see the Vanuran standing behind him, a wooden bench grasped in both hands.

"This was your fight, wasn't it?" asks Rozak.

Before he can move, Tarajel knocks the guard's curved blade from his hand.  Rozak steps between the swordswoman and her assailants, and stands on their weapons.  "I suggest you leave before I change my mind and let her cut you three to pieces."  The trio staggers away towards the tavern's entrance, pushing open the brass and oak door.  The last out turns and spits at the floor in safe defiance.

"This is not over, foreigners!" he shouts as he disappears into the lantern-lit glow outside.

With the action over, the crowd quickly dissipates, going back to the business of eating, drinking and carousing.

Tarajel strides over to her Vanuran friend, sheathing her sword in one fluid motion.  Her smile is gone.

"Northman, why must you always interfere with my business?" she asks, a fiery tone of spite in her slightly accented use of the common tongue.  She always calls him "Northman" when she's grumpy, even though he has explained to her a hundred times that he isn't from the icy fiords of Northland.  It's "Rozak" when she is thankful, or well pleased, "Northman" when she is in a mood.  "I'm not a Northman, I'm Vanuran," he grumbles.

"Oh, don't go changing the subject now, Northman.  I could have easily taken all three of those pompous dogs!"

"And a Royal Patrol would be all over us within minutes," says Rozak.  "I suggest we finish our wine and leave this place," he continues.  "I believe that bunch holds enough sway that they might be able to make good on their threat."

The swordswoman stomps her heel on the floor, bites her lip and walks away to finish her mug.  Rozak follows her to the table, pulling a coin from the change pocket at his waist and tossing it to the tavern keeper.  The fat little gray-bearded man catches it in mid-air, and hurriedly trots away to tend to some of his other, less dangerous looking patrons.

Just then the brass hinges of the entrance squeal, a rush of cold pushing through the thick warm air of the tavern, raising hairs on the nape of every neck within.  In the shadowy doorway stands a tall figure; shrouded under a black hood and robe that just meets the floor.  Only the thin pale lips and equally pale chin of a man are visible beneath its hood.  The figure seems to float into the room rather than walk, as several hands in the room reach for talismans and amulets.  Rozak and Tarajel's hands are on their swords.  With a flowing wave of his black gloved hand, the air chills again and the heavy door behind him closes, as if shut by phantoms.

In the ever-strange city of Shardia his kind is not unknown, just shunned.  Rozak has seen his type before.  He is of the Guild of Messengers; one, whose powers are born with him, focused and trained at an early age and sold for use among the city's elite.  Usually his kind is put to the type of employment that their guild name refers to, the communication of information without the use of scrolls or tablets.  Their arcane powers and appearance do much to afford their safe passage, and it is said that strange and sinister weapons lie beneath their dark robes.  Gloved hands open in a gesture of peace, the robed figure approaches Rozak and Tarajel. Furtive glances from the other tavern-goers follow him.

"This requires caution," says the Messenger. He gestures with his hand again and the boisterous room becomes silent.  Everyone and everything, every action in the room stops, frozen in time.  Wine being poured hangs in mid-air, a moth flitting about a copper lantern does likewise.  Rozak and Tarajel's actions remain the same, as does the movement of their uninvited guest.

"My name is Agellon."  His words don't match the motion of his lips; his voice is like many whispers, yet sharp as a knife's edge.  "I've an important message for you, from my employer…who wishes to remain nameless."

Tarajel shifts away along the bench from the mysterious figure, noting the absence of light on the material of his robes.  She can't make-out any folds in the cloth, as though it is made of a starless night sky.  Rozak snarls his nose, but relaxes, putting his boots back upon the table, pretending to be unimpressed.

"My employer…your would-be patron, noticed your entrance to Shardia.  My employer noted your weapons and lack of company, suggesting that you might be…professional…adventurers…yet…unemployed," the strange voice continues, answering their unasked questions.

"Well, you go tell your…" Rozak starts.

"How much does it pay?" interrupts Tarajel, ignoring her partner's glare, and temporarily forgetting her disdain for magic.  "And what do we have to do?"

Rozak rolls his eyes at her, grunting his displeasure, but it goes unnoticed.

The messenger reverently pulls his hood back just enough to reveal his face, a countenance of white, almost translucent flesh, small, almost sprite-like features, yet fully male.  His eyes are as black and as lightless as his robes.  Tarajel and Rozak stiffen, half unsheathing their swords.

"You've no need to fear me…here is my employer's message.  You will be able to communicate as if she were here with you."  His voice is reassuring and the two relax. And another unasked question has been answered; his "employer" is a woman.  His face begins to shimmer as if made of water and smoke.  For a moment there is nothing there within the black void of his hood, then the smoky water returns, reflecting the beautiful face of a young woman.  She begins to speak, her voice soft, yet noble.

"Thank you for receiving Agellon, I know his appearance is strange and this is unusual for you.  I assure you neither he nor I mean you any harm."  Both Tarajel and Rozak are captivated.  "I have a twin sister, Jyn-thia, who has been seduced by the evil pleasures of Verim-seth, the high priest of the Mandricanth worshippers.  A month has passed since she entered his accursed temple."  The movement of the exquisitely feminine face pauses, then wrinkles with sadness and worry.  "I propose you enter that perverted place and retrieve her for her own safety."  Rozak and Tarajel exchange glances then return their attention to the phantom face.  "Of course you will be rewarded handsomely, and more so if you kill that fiend, Verim-seth, and his ape-demon."

The last part of her offer catches the duo's attention.

"Are you saying that this Verim-seth's god is real?" asks the Vanuran.  "A flesh and blood creature or something conjured up by sorcery?"

"I know not how it came to Shardia, but it is real enough," answers the face in the hood.  "The few that have escaped enslavement within the temple's sordid walls describe seeing a giant and horrible ape-creature, covered in hair, but manlike; a creature that devourers Verim-seth's lovers as sacrifices, once the priest has used them up."  The woman's face looks directly into Rozak's eyes.  "Now do you understand my urgency?"

"What about the payment?" interjects Tarajel.

"Five hundred Shardian goldpieces, half now, half when my sister is returned."  Her face ripples like a pool disturbed by a thrown stone.  "You must decide quickly; Agellon, my Messenger, weakens."

The two adventurers look at each other with raised brows.  They've decided, but before they can say anything the ghostly woman speaks again.  "Another two hundred gold pieces for the head of Verim-seth, double that for the death of the Mandricanth."

"We'll go tonight," they answer in chorus.

"Very well," says the voice as the Messenger's strange visage returns.  "Beware Verim-seth's sorcery…it is the magic of…" Her voice is gone, replaced by that of Agellon's alien tone.  "Seduction," he finishes.

Agellon pulls his hood back over his face and produces a well-oiled leather bag from under his robes, placing it on the table.  "Half now, half later…"

Tarajel grabs the bag and peeks inside, smiles then puts it away from plain view.

"I'll await nearby for your return to this tavern," says Agellon.

With that, the messenger drifts away towards the already opening door.  As he disappears through the portal, normal time and actions return.  The confused tavern keeper is nervously wiping his hands on his apron as he approaches the Southern Raider and her Vanuran friend.

"Please," he whines daringly, "for your own good, and mine, please leave."

Click for the Conclusion

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Temple of the Mandricanth is copyright Martin E. Stephenson. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)