Assur of Babylonia
voyages to an alien world in...
by Kirk Straughen
About the author
The Sorcerer's Tower
ASSUR CROUCHED IN THE SHADOWS
of the high wall that surrounded the tower of Amnon-Nur, Master
Sorcerer of Babylon, cursing himself a fool for the hundredth time.
It was unbecoming for a member of the King’s Guard to be engaging in such foolhardy escapades, but he had accepted the challenge, and to retreat from it now would entail an intolerable loss of face.
True, he had been drunk at the time he agreed, and flushed with the false courage of wine, but he knew that was immaterial in the eyes of his comrades who would forever condemn him as a coward and a braggart if he failed in his undertaking. Indeed, at this very moment they were there, hidden in the distant shadows, their sharp eyes upon him.
“Well,” he thought, “at least they let me choose a night when Amnon-Nur would be closeted with King Namu-Enna, discussing matters of state,”
Encasing Assur’s strong hands were a pair of dragon’s claws. These were gauntlets armed with bronze talons used for scaling walls, and strapped upon his sandaled feet were other claws to grip the slippery stones.
“Time to go,” he thought, checking his equipment for the final time.
Flexing his lithe body he began the ascent, driving the talons into the joins between the granite blocks of the wall, slowly levering himself up its smooth height. After what seemed an age he mounted the crenulations, and descended into the sorcerer’s secret abode.
Looking around warily, Assur found himself in a garden, and was strangely moved by its unearthly beauty. The plants glowed with wan luminescence – deep reds, sultry purple, others vivid yellow. Flowers there were, but what weird blooms – soft sounds, like birdsong, issued forth from their trumpet throats. A gravel path of white stone spiraled about the enclosure, leading in lazy circles to the massive cedar door of the square central tower, doubtless locked.
The quietness of the night was suddenly broken by the crunch of naked feet upon the path. Assur turned quickly, gasping at the sight that met his startled gaze. Before him stood a creature, an uncanny blend of man and lion – a weird mutation wrought by strange sorcery. Its coarse mane bristled, powerful muscles tensed beneath its tawny hide. The leonine face twisted into a bestial snarl.
With a coughing roar the guardian sprang at him, wicked talons extended, an arm swinging at his head. Dodging aside, Assur raked its flank with his dragon’s claws as it hurtled past. Death, a grim spectator, seemed to mock him from the shadows.
Again the thing came at him, more animal than man. Lashing out with his foot he shattered its knee sending it crashing to the sward where it lay, limbs wildly thrashing, roaring in pain. Seizing a large rock from the border of the path, Assur hurled it at the beast, crushing its skull. It gave one final convulsive twitch, and then lay still. He looked upon the broken form – the spawn of dark magic – with a mixture of pity and revulsion.
Tearing his gaze from the corpse, he looked quickly about. The grounds were deserted, and all lay quietly bathed in moonlight. Assur’s gaze swept up the tower’s dizzy height. His throat went dry at the thought of the climb ahead to the balcony far above. Despite the dangers, he felt he had no choice but to continue. Breathing deeply, he began the second ascent.
Up and up he went, muscles aching with fatigue. Several times he slipped, barely saving himself with a desperate clawing grasp. One fatal error and he knew he’d be splattered to red ruin on the hard earth far below.
“Don’t look down,” he thought. “Keep going. Up and
up. Nearly there.”
Muscles trembling, he finally grasped the balcony and, with his last strength, hauled his quivering body over the ornate rail to collapse upon the tiled floor. There he lay, panting like a spent hound, wondering if he would live to greet the rising sun.
After a time, Assur climbed to his feet and leaned on the rail, waving to the hidden watchers in the dark. Babylon was spread out before his gaze, its buildings whitewashed with moonlight. The gentle night breeze cooled his sweat-streaked body, and bore to him the scent of jasmine from the hanging gardens. Beyond, the ziggurat reared its massive bulk heavenward to touch the star gemmed sky.
Turning, he looked at the wide doors opening onto the balcony of the sorcerer’s tower. Assur well knew Amnon-Nur did not take kindly to trespasses, and that more than one would-be thief had met a grisly end for daring to invade the sanctity of his abode.
"No use delaying," he thought. "Best get this done as quickly as possible."
Stepping across the threshold, Assur entered the Sorcerer's apartments. Diffuse light from an indeterminate source illuminated the spacious room. Shelved scrolls lined the walls from floor to ceiling, and all around were thaumaturgic engines of brass and crystal spheres, rods and cones, softly humming with inner power.
“Here is real sorcery,” he thought. “Not the mummery and slight of hand employed by mountebanks – those charlatans who infest the market square.”
Assur, having fulfilled his pledge to enter the apartments of Amnon-Nur, was now eager to depart. But when he turned to leave, he found the way blocked by a dark shape silhouetted in starlight. It glided with ominous silence from the balcony into the room. Cold fear clutched his heart, for the room’s illumination disclosed the features of the sorcerer – gaunt and dark, eyes as cold as ice and hard as death.
Thinking that his hour had come, Assur chose to die a manly death, and with this in mind he made a desperate lunge at Amnon-Nur. But, before his clawed hands could close about his adversary’s throat, the sorcerer raised a crystal rod and depressed a stud upon it. A violet ray sprang from its tip, bathing him with searing radiance.
Assur convulsed violently. He fell to the floor writhing in agony, his body wracked by intolerable pain. Merciful oblivion came quickly, enfolding him in its dark embrace...
On to Episode 2 :Voyage to the Moon
Swords Across the Void and the character of Assur are 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.)