That's right, Faithful Fiends, it's another tantalizing temple-buster
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
By Martin E. Stephenson
About the author
"Well, I guess we could get out of this place and spend this somewhere else," she says, holding up the bag of coins, "but I'd really like to get more."
"Put that away before we have to fight every would-be thief in this accursed city," murmurs the Vanuran, his eyes looking about to see if they are being watched.
"I've no fight with this Verim-seth," he continues, "but if he gets between us and the twin, we earn the extra. Deal?" She nods her head in agreement as she finishes binding the rolled bag under her belt.
"Can we get horses after this?" asks Tarajel. He ignores her.
They walk on through the narrow street, past the closed storefronts, vestibules and decorated awnings. The soft glow of copper lamps hanging from lattice covered balconies, lights the walkway. Except for muffled tavern voices and the faint sighs of bizarrely flowing music, the streets of Shardia are quiet, everyone having found a place to stay for the night, it being so close to curfew.
"Stick to the shadows, where you can," Rozak whispers, "the Mandricanth Temple is straight ahead."
Within a few moments they leave the narrow street and its closed bazaar, the walkway spilling out into an empty plaza. A hedge-lined concourse of dark stone leads across the square to a flight of broad steps leading up to a large square structure; a bulbous dome crowns its roof, a spiraling minaret stands at each corner. The whole building is fashioned out of polished black and dark-green marble. The arched portico at its entrance appears unguarded and open. A black cat steps from the shadows to their left and hisses at them before it bounds off across the plaza. "Great," Tarajel whispers to herself.
Stooping to hug the shoulder-high hedges as they go, they move swiftly across the dark pathway.
Suddenly, the short silhouette of a man steps from between a cleft in the hedgerow before them. Two more join him.
"My brothers, look who we have here," says a familiar voice. It's the Temple Guard Tarajel slashed earlier. His sword arm is bandaged, and they've replaced their lost scimitars. "Looks like we don't have to return to the tavern after all."
Rozak doesn't hesitate, wishing to end this quickly so that no alarm can be sounded. With blinding speed he's upon the speaker before he can vocalize a new taunt, impaling the guard's neck on his wide blade, retracting his sword from the dead man just in time to parry a downward thrust from the second guard. The Shardian whirls like a dust devil, his curved blade drawing a shallow line across the Vanuran's thigh. Rozak thrusts forward, spitting the surprised guard through the chest. He quickly retracts his sword and pounds its pommel into the dying man's face to quiet his moan. Rozak turns to see Tarajel wiping her long blade on the silks of the third guard as he dies in a gurgling death rattle. The Vanuran nods his satisfaction to the swordswoman, as he fingers the shallow cut on his thigh; it's nothing to worry about. They continue on.
Reaching the base of the wide marble steps, they stop, checking for movement ahead in the shadows of the arched portico. There is no door above, the entrance always open. During the day, many come to offer gifts and prayers upon the altar of the ape-god, Mandricanth, hoping for a return of virility, fertility or a curse upon uninterested love, but by night no one comes; the populace fearing the seductive powers of the mysterious Verim-seth. Swords drawn, the duo cautiously mounts the steps.
Passing through the black portico, they enter the temple's main chamber. An eerie green flame rises from a large censer, lighting the smooth black and jade walls. Rozak notices the lack of shadows in this place and curses under his breath. Past the unearthly flame, is a large black altar, and behind it, the graven image of the Mandricanth itself. The huge black marble beast is frozen in a posture of violence and hospitality; one taloned hand raised, ready to slay, the other forward and open, ready to accept. Large jade eyes reflect the glow of the censer's slowly dancing flame; a snarling grimace runs the length of its green-striped snout.
Tarajel catches her gasp as she looks up. The interior of the dome above is decorated with a mosaic of the same horrid creature extolling its sordid blessings upon a host of its naked followers; all locked in twisted spasms of agony and ecstasy as their demented god looks on. The worldly swordswoman feels the heat of a shameful blush across her face. "Curse this place," she whispers. Rozak cautions her with a finger to his lips.
With no other visible passages, they explore, discovering between the altar and the statue a set of marble steps leading down. The murmur of voices and moans rise up to them as the Vanuran silently leads down narrow stairwell.
They enter a second, smaller chamber; its floor lined with plush green silken pillows and red carpets. Another strange green flame dances at the center of the room. All about them are the writhing bodies of men and women lost in the drug of ecstasy; in their midst, on a cushioned dais, the figure of a man clad in long robes that match the colors surrounding him. At his feet a young woman, bound hand and foot with scarlet cord, lies naked before him. Both Rozak and Tarajel recognize her face immediately; it is Jyn-thia, the twin they have come to rescue.
"Are you Verim-seth, high priest of this temple?" asks the Vanuran, already knowing the answer.
The robed figure rises from his seat, gesturing in the air, strange words babbling from his angry mouth. His face is old, yet young all at once, his frame slight, yet strong in appearance. None of his guests seem to notice the intrusion. The priest reaches down and grabs a handful of Jyn-thia's long reddish hair, jerking her to her feet, as more of the strange dialect flows from him. The room begins to sway about the sword-wielding intruders as they listen, a warm rush of pleasure coursing through their senses, pulling them down into the sea of flesh.
"So beautiful," Tarajel murmurs.
"Yes," Rozak agrees. They slowly lower their blades, dragging them behind as they approach the beckoning priest.
An image arises in Rozak's vision; Agellon is seated before him at the tavern, his mouth moves. "Seduction," he says.
Shoving the bound girl aside, the Vanuran raises his sword behind him in a long curving arc, then brings it forward with lightning speed, Verim-seth's surprised head toppling to the carpeted floor, a crimson fountain lifting from his ruined neck. Shrieks of horror and panic fill the room as its occupants abandon their lustful acts, pressing against the far walls in fear and shame. Tarajel rebounds from her daze and cuts the cords binding Jyn-thia, then covers her with a flowing red rug. The girl stands, fully alert. "Many thanks!" she cries tearfully.
"Thank us when we get you out of here!" shouts the swordswoman.
"Can you run?" shouts Rozak at the girl. He holds Verim-seth's dripping head by its hair. She nods a "yes," and all three run toward the steps.
Behind them, amidst the panicked screams, there is the grating of stone on stone, the metallic squeal of unseen hinges, and all eyes turn to see the source; a huge portion of the polished wall sliding open at the back of the chamber. A deafening roar echoes through the room. It stoops as it enters from the darkness, huge and terrible, twice as large as the graven likeness in the chamber above, yet real and present, black fur and green flesh, onyx-black fangs and talons. The Mandricanth. It's master, Verim-seth had been calling it forth as Rozak took his head.
The huge ape-demon shambles across the floor after the fleeing trio. In panic, one of the cult members runs towards to the stairwell. The Mandricanth reaches out with a taloned claw, intercepts him, and then flings the disemboweled body aside with a wet slap against the chamber wall.
Tarajel and Jyn-thia reach the stairwell first, followed by Rozak, high priest's head in hand. The swordswoman hesitates, pushing the rescued twin ahead. "Go! Go! Go!" she urges as the beast swiftly approaches. Rozak rushes past her, the girl just ahead of him, stumbling up the polished stairs. As she turns to follow her companions, the Mandricanth's hideous face fills the entry to the stairway behind her, its slavering mouth open and screeching in primal frustration; it's too large to follow up the narrow passage.
Tarajel makes three steps before she feels the rake of the beast's claws down the back of her calf. She spins, slicing across the ape-demon's giant palm, which it quickly retracts, shrieking insanely. She continues up the steps, ignoring her wounds, meeting Rozak on his way back down. "No, just go!" she yells, turning him around. Behind them, they hear the horrifying screams of the Mandricanth's worshippers, the wet sound of violent death. Without looking back, the trio flees the temple, rushing down the steps, and into the night.
He looks at their patron's twin. "We must stick to the darkness as we go…be silent," he warns her. "Soon you'll be with your sister's Messenger, Agellon."
Within moments, Rozak and Tarajel and their client's twin, are hiding in the darkness outside the tavern, where their evening began. From the shadows across the street, the familiar dark robes of Agellon float into a lantern's light. The Vanuran steps forward to meet him.
"Balance of our pay first, and the bonus for this," says Rozak, holding his gruesome prize up for inspection. Agellon hands him a leather sack, round with coinage in exchange.
"My employer anticipated that you'd deliver this," the Messenger says in his otherworldly tone. "And the Mandricanth?"
"Wounded, but still alive, unfortunately for those folks we left behind," the Vanuran answers with a grimace. He opens the sack, inspecting its contents. "We'll count it later. It's been a pleasure doing business with you." He turns and motions towards the shadows behind him. Jyn-thia runs forward, hesitates as she approaches the Vanuran, then continues; letting herself become engulfed in the unseen folds of Agellon's lightness robes. With a swift gesture of the Messenger's hand, they disappear, like smoke, into the darkness of the Shardian night.
"Damn!" Rozak bellows at the sky, forgetting his caution.
"What, Rozak?" Tarajel asks, as she approaches.
His hands are empty; the bag of coins is gone. Tarajel gasps, than feels for the rolled coins beneath her belt. They're gone, too.
"No!" she screams. "No!"
They stand there for a moment, mirroring each other's blank expressions. Rozak looks down at the cut across his thigh; Tarajel touches the stinging wound on the back of her calf. Somewhere close by, the sound of horse's hooves pounds the dusty street, signaling the approach of a Royal Patrol.
"We'd better get inside," suggests Rozak. Painfully, they both limp toward the tavern's entrance. "It was your idea to accept this job," he adds.
"It was not."
"Yes, it was."
As the argument continues, the tavern door closes behind them.
Click for the Part One
Table of Contents
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
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