|Previously...Having fought off the pirates, Zen is betrayed by the mutinous crew who throw him overboard. Then Thanax, leader of the mutiny, turns his lustful attention to Linis...
chapter seven: dark conspiracy
Come on, came his scornful thought. Where’s your vaunted strength? Heave!
He surged aloft, the blade bending dangerously, close to snapping; the open windows so near and yet so far – what fate, cruel or kind would play its hand? Again the girl’s scream rang out, spurring him to reckless haste. A dagger snapped and he swung dizzily for one eternal moment as the other blade began to bend. Then with a desperate clawing grasp, Zen clamped one sweating hand upon the ornate sill.
With a surge of strength he hauled himself through the window, tumbled to the floor. Thanax turned, alerted by the sound. With a curse of disbelief he cast aside the weeping girl, drew his dagger, pounced upon the fallen man.
Linis gave a warning cry, saw Zen roll aside, the plunging blade strike wood not flesh. Both men leapt to their feet, Thanax stabbing viciously. Zen caught his wrist, sent his foe reeling with a smashing fist to the jaw.
The Etruan closed; Thanax regained his balance, lashed out with a kick. The blow struck Zen’s groin, felling him instantly. With a shout of triumph Thanax snatched up his dagger, fell upon Zen intending to slit his throat.
Like a tigress, Linis sprang at Thanax, slammed her blade into his back. With a roar of pain he dropped his weapon, reared up, threw her off, turned upon her - a wounded beast. Zen fought his way through a sea of pain, staggered upright, saw Thanax lunge at the girl, hot rage blinding him to all else. Both fall in a tangled heap, the captain's brutal hands locked about her throat.
Zen stumbled to the struggling pair, Thanax’s blade in his hand, rammed the dagger to its hilt. Thanax stiffened, died. The Etruan hauled off his corpse, then collapsed with a groan to hands and knees beside the gasping girl.
“You’re injured,” cried Linis, as she struggled to support his sagging body. The thought of him in pain sent strange emotions coursing through her. Her eyes widened in surprise. Could it be…?
Zen turned worried eyes upon the girl, fearing for the worst, wondering if he dared ask such a thing.
"I'm unharmed," she said, sensing the unspoken question in his gaze.
The sound of tramping feet – men alerted by the clamor – jarred them back to awareness of their peril. The pair tensed; Talos burst in, marines in his wake, swords drawn. The seamen’s faces hardened at the sight of Thanax’s bloody corpse, and with angry cries they advanced upon the couple.
Both ran for the window, Linis flinging the last grenade among the seamen. “A parting gift,” she cried, as they leapt through the casement, diving to the heaving sea below.
Pandemonium erupted. Men scrambled for the door, consumed by panic, tearing at one another in desperation. An explosion rocked the ship, blasting the stern windows to whirling fragments, peppering the sea with their smoldering debris. Leaping flames engulfed the cabin, spread ravenously over tarry timbers. With appalling rapidity the vessel became a floating pyre.
From a safe distance Zen and Linis were treading water, watched the burning ship. The man looked at his companion, questioningly.
“It was an incendiary grenade,” she explained, and then more simply: “One that contained pent up fire.”
“I see,” was all he could think to say.
“How came you through the window?” she queried, hoping to keep up conversation as distraction from the screams of burning men, and the knowledge she had caused their end.
Zen grunted. Falling for Thanax’s ruse had left him feeling like a fool, and he wasn’t eager to elaborate. Indeed, if it weren’t for sail-filling winds, the spinning screw would have slashed him to ribbons when he swam beneath the keel, grasped the rudder, and climbed aloft by dint of strength alone.
If I was as smart as I am strong, he thought, I’d never have fallen for that ploy. Then aloud: “The shore isn’t far,” he said, avoiding her question. “We’d best start swimming before other survivors, bent on vengeance, pursue us.”
They had escaped, but what other dark conspiracy lurked before them?
Night crept in, drawing curtains of darkness across the sky, then lit lamps of stars, and laid his dusky body upon the couch of the world. Thurim rose, sailing the tides of heaven, cast her rays upon the globe and caressed with gentle moonbeams her lover, Night.
Etru slept, enfolded by evening's warm duskiness, night’s solitude broken only by a lone figure pacing the temple’s courtyard, head bent and deep in thought.
Sadur, High Priest of Mamax, bore a sour grimace upon his vulpine countenance. Everything had gone so well – the disappearance of Lord Zen, swallowed up by Night Demons as punishment for his blasphemies (had not the god spoken so?).
The High Priest turned, looked at the hideous idol, grinned. Who dared question a divine utterance? Who dared question the god’s chosen – the priests who interpreted such things?
But then things had gone wrong, terribly wrong – before he could appoint a more compliant Lord (chosen by the will of Mamax, of course) whom he could manipulate, a sphere had floated down from the morning sky, throwing the city into wild tumult with its weird arrival as it landed in the palace grounds.
The Lord’s Council, who could act in the ruler’s absence during emergencies, moved quickly – the streets were flooded with militia, order was restored, the sphere surrounded. A tense wait ensued.
An age seemed to pass. Then, suddenly, a circular door appeared upon the sphere. A ramp descended, the portal opened, a figure stood in silhouette. The guards tensed, spears leveled, crossbows raised. A murmur ran through the councilors, peering expectantly from behind the hedge of blades.
Into the light the figure stepped – a man-like thing of glittering silver. Rays of light sprang from its arms; strong warriors fell before those pallid beams – flattened like reeds before the tempest’s fury. The Council was captured in one fell stroke, paralyzed by the thing’s occult radiance, and now it occupied the throne, an arrogant tyrant impervious to mortal weapons.
Sadur brought his mind to the present, continued his angry pacing. He really didn’t care who ruled – man or monster – so long as the Lord was amenable to Temple influence, but all his attempts had been rebuffed by the being with insolence and mockery. And tomorrow at sunrise he must conduct the coronation ceremony that would bestow the title of Lord upon the thing.
The situation is intolerable, thought Sadur, vehemently. Already, some among the population are worshipping it as a god. If this continues the priesthood will lose its influence. I can’t allow that. I won’t allow that!
But what could be done? Was the thing a divinity? No, it had earthy tastes, especially for pretty slave girls (if the gossip of those silly chattels had any substance), and the weird skin was more like armor, albeit of a strange design, than the stuff of the spirit world.
Could the thing be a dasan of some kind? The High Priest grew thoughtful at that idea. Magic could overcome magic, and as chief hierophant he was privy to arcane knowledge from the Age of Sorcery. But dare he unleash the Forbidden Power?
Sadur pondered for a moment the frightful thing he planned, the risk of Heaven’s wrath for his audacity. But the lust for power banished all such considerations, and he thought: Let the world tremble before my sorcery, let these fools cry in terror. Before tomorrow’s end all will know that I am master and they but worthless slaves.
His resolve having hardened, the High Priest looked furtively about to ensure he was alone, then crept stealthily to the idol’s back, and depressed a hidden stud upon the thing. A seamless door swung open revealing stairs that fell away into yawning blackness. Sadur descended into the hidden crypt beneath his monstrous god, his soft laugh a paean of dark triumph.
Midnight in the palace grounds: Zen and Linis crouched among thick shrubs, nostrils tingling from the scent of fomis blossoms. Their luck had changed, or so they thought, having discovered an abandoned hunter’s camp complete with sailing boat and other useful things. It had leaked appallingly, true, but Zen’s seamanship and tenacity had gotten them at last to Etru.
Through the city's noisome sewers they had crept, fighting off the slimy horrors of the tunnels with blazing flambeaux, emerging at last from a manhole concealed within the bushes. Now, before them loomed the exploration module’s bulk – a dull white blob against the backdrop of the star strewn sky. Linis had been correct in her guess of where Vay would land; this and Zen's knowledge of the city seemed to have assured success.
"Do you think you can gain entrance?" whispered Zen.
Linis nodded. "Each craft's lock is keyed to all crew's voice patterns. The door will open at my command."
"Vay may be inside, and I’ve only this extinguished torch for a weapon."
"It’s a chance we'll have to take. Without access to the equipment within, we have no chance of defeating him."
Suddenly, a sliver figure stood forth from the depths of shadow, hidden sensors having warned Vay of their presence. "And you'll not get that chance," he cried.
This story is copyright by Kirk Straughen. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)