Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem
Her Devotion Rewarded
Ibrahim didn't see any point in needlessly romanticising his life. He was a bandit, a scourge of the desert canyons of Persia. Honour was not an affliction he suffered from; nor was pride. Neither gave him food to eat or water to drink, or money to feed his baser appetites. Those came from the caravans he plundered and the travellers he robbed. He didn't do it because he had any love for it, for who could love a life spent sleeping on sand, huddled under rocks for shelter, and spilling blood simply to survive. He did it because he knew no other way to live.
Mostly, he preferred to work alone. Accomplices complicated things. They all wanted their share; the worst of them wanted his share too, and would pay him a knife in the back to get it. Besides, larger groups needed bigger jobs, and bigger jobs meant more ways to earn yourself interesting new orifices. There was less danger to a solo jaunt; whether it be working as a cutpurse in a crowded bazaar, or mugging pilgrims off the beaten path, he always got by and rarely ever had to draw his blade.
Sometimes, it was a lonely existence, especially when he couldn't get to town to buy himself some company for fear of the guards seeing him and taking his hands. That was pretty much his situation now. They had chased him through the streets after an overprotective noble had ended up getting his fingers cut instead of his purse, and he had been forced to quit the place as soon as it was safe. That had ruined his plans for the evening, and the foreseeable future. He'd had no choice but to make the journey to the next town along the trail, miles of inhospitable wasteland between there and here.
With any luck, the guards of the neighbouring town would be none the wiser about his deeds; that was primarily why he resisted the temptation to make a name for himself. It was always much more healthy, and much more rewarding, to be anonymous, especially to the guards. Others liked to be known for their deeds, but Ibrahim knew that notoriety was a double-edged sword that cut both ways. He was a thief and a murderer, a liar and a swindler, and a bagful of coins would buy you a dozen of those; that was just the way he liked it. He was no one of any importance, except to the people he robbed, and he usually made sure they never had a story to tell.
He was halfway to his destination, and half-starved, when he came to the oasis. He decided to bed down for the night, but before he slept he waited in the undergrowth at the side of the trail. It had been too long since his last meal, and he was hoping to see some traveller or another stop to drink at the pond there. Hopefully, they would have some food to share with him.
It was times like this that he wondered how anyone could favour the bandit's life. Anyone who'd seen as many sleepless nights on empty stomachs as he had endured, and felt the blistering heat of the desert by day, would likely think twice before choosing it.
On that night, hiding beneath the shrubs, hand gripping his dagger, he saw the soldier. It staggered past him, the moonlight revealing tattered, bloodied clothing and the gleam of tempered metal, sticky with dried gore. It was clearly injured, hunched low over injuries that looked too numerous to count, but it also seemed to be clutching something in its arms, holding it tightly, almost possessively, to its chest.
Ibrahim had always prided himself on his instincts; he knew when he was on to a good thing, and he knew when it was best to cut and run. In this instance, something was definitely wrong; he could feel his hackles rising, his stomach lurching, his feet itching to flee. But he overruled them. He didn't usually attack soldiers; they tended to know the sword better than he did, and he knew never to fight a battle he couldn't win. This one was wounded, however, and carrying a lot of very fancy equipment, including an ornately-carved Ram Dao strapped across its back.
Even if it didn't have food, it had enough weaponry alone to keep him in wine and women for a good long time.
The soldier stumbled up to the oasis and fell down clumsily at the bank, still gripping whatever object it held at its breast. It knelt and peered into the water. For a moment, he thought he heard it utter a plaintive moan, deep and melancholy. Then, it lowered the bundle of cloth it held, uncovering it to reveal something that shone with an inner fire of searing crimson. That clinched it. Whatever the figure held that glowed like a star plucked from the sky, Ibrahim wanted it.
He crawled out from his hiding place, taking care to make as little noise as possible, and crept towards the kneeling figure, palming his blade until the crucial moment. He could easily play the affable traveller if his mark turned around before he could get close enough, and then slit its throat in the night. With his eyes, he marked out a likely spot, just to the left of the Ram Dao, where a dagger would fit quite neatly between the ribs.
When he was still several feet away, the soldier did turn around and, with the moon high, the bandit saw exactly what it was that he was approaching.
It had once been a man, but no longer. Its flesh had withered, sapped of its vitality, turning dry and ragged upon the bone. Its clothing hung in loose tatters from its emaciated frame. Open wounds that did not bleed covered its torso; the broken shafts of arrows protruded from between its ribs. The stink of dry rot rose from it in a miasma that caused the air to shimmer, making him retch. Its face was a ghoulish mask, with sunken cheeks and lips pulled back from a skeletal grin; the black turban it wore had come unfurled, drooping around its speckled, hairless head. Within its eye sockets, a riot of flaming scarlet roiled, seeming almost to pierce his very soul.
He let out a wordless scream, practically gagging on his terror, and then ran away.
At first, it seemed that the creature hadn't even bothered to stand, let alone give chase. He realised that, in his desperation to flee, he had dropped his knife and, for maybe the first time since he had been a child, he was unarmed. In that instant, it didn't matter; he just wanted to escape, to run as fast and as far as he could. But it had burned its image into his mind's eye, and he didn't imagine he would ever be able to forget, even given all the alcohol and opiates in Persia.
Unfortunately, his fanciful imaginings of living with his memories of the demon came to a crashing halt, as something sharp sliced through the meat of his thigh. He screamed again and crashed onto his face on the sand-caked trail. Crying out in agony, he clamped his hands around the hole in his leg, the wound deep enough to touch the bone beneath and already filled to the brim with blood. Crimson was gushing from the injury, drenching his fingers and his palms, staining the ground red.
He lay, thrashing, until the ghoul came for him, clutching in its hands a bundle of circular rings of razor-sharp metal, Chakrams, one of which it had apparently thrown at him. It loomed over him, eyes glowing in the darkness, hanging the throwing discs from a metal thong on its belt. He quivered and trembled and pleaded and begged, prayed to Allah and swore oaths to every prophet his meagre education had ever taught him existed.
Instead of his salvation, however, he saw only the blade of the Ram Dao as it swung down towards him and cleaved off his head, silencing him forever.
Ahmed was a warrior by nature and a guard by trade. Of all the vocations for a trained and experienced swordsman, there was none more noble than the guard, in his mind, at least. Some were soldiers, and made war at the behest of their kings, none knowing how just, or potentially ignoble, their cause. Others were bandits, and made their livelihoods as petty crooks and highwaymen; they themselves knew that they had no honour.
Others still considered themselves adventurers, pursuers of fame and fortune, and the affections of beautiful maidens the world over. It was this last walk of men that he despised most. They did not understand the solemn responsibilities of duty; they did not understand duty at all. In that way, they were less men and more children, ever refusing to accept the reality of the world that surrounded them, just like that wastrel, Karim.
Ahmed had seen that man many times, courting the lovely daughter of their feudal lord, who lived in the palace at the centre of their township. Many travelled from far and wide to behold her legendary magnificence but of all the lady's suitors, he was the most ardent, the most fixed and obsessed. Karim had come to see her time and again, at first weekly, with many gifts, and then daily, with naught but professions of his undying love.
This man, above all, was the worst of them, with no duty or higher purpose to occupy him, that he could spend hours pursuing the affection of a woman who cared nothing for him, nor any man.
Regardless, he had departed months ago and never returned. Perhaps he had finally found his purpose.
Ahmed's purpose was clear; he was a sentinel, standing between the people of his township and the dangers of the wastelands beyond. It was a good purpose, he reflected, full of merit and fulfilment. He wanted for nothing; the lord gave him food and accommodation, and a small wage, as he did for all the guards of the town. When he married, the lord would give him a house of his own in which to raise his children.
For as long as he lived, he did so with the surety that his lord would always provide for him, even if his body succumbed to the ravages of age. If he died, his sacrifice would be rewarded, his family well-kept, and his name remembered, not by history, nor by strangers far and wide, but by the people he had served and who mattered to him.
He strode the trail that bisected the township, separating the dwellings from the tavern and market stalls that surrounded it. Their community was a small, close-knit affair, familiarity marred only by the occasional passing stranger. His people nodded at him as he passed, smiling in recognition of their protector. He was an attractive prospect for many a woman, or would be, when he finally decided to marry; for now, however, his devotion lay, first and foremost, with his duty.
Stopping at the town's midpoint, he turned his gaze upwards, shielding his eyes from the scorching afternoon sun with a hand. He turned his back to it and looked upon the splendour of the lord's palace. It was a marvel of modern construction, white painted brick finished with delicate gold ornamentation, a far more extravagant dwelling than any other in town. Silk curtains in vibrant shades of lilac, azure and emerald green hung in the wide windows that overlooked his land. It was truly a home worthy of a noble family.
On occasion, he could be seen watching over his people from the balcony; at other times, his daughter would sit upon the upper tier and enjoy the attention of her admirers. Recently, however, she had become reclusive, and had not been seen in quite some time. As such, there were many unfulfilled travellers currently occupying the tavern, adamant that they would not leave until they had glimpsed her beauty.
Much as he hated their kind, it was good for the town, and its merchant vendors, that they, and their money, stayed.
Aziz, the youngest of the guard cadre, wandered over from the direction of the palace, hand resting on the hilt of his scimitar. His eyes were turned skyward, and Ahmed looked around to see what was drawing his attention away. A plume of smoke was rising, bisecting the pristine blue of the sky above.
"Trouble," the younger man said, "bandits, maybe?"
His colleague smirked at that. The boy was still young and impetuous, eager for problems to solve and dangers to repel. The most important thing about their duty was to allow the townsfolk peace of mind to live their lives without fear. He would learn, in time.
"Don't get your hopes up, boy," he responded, stroking his beard thoughtfully, "a campfire, I think. Yes, likely that and nothing more. Probably just a caravan stopped to rest and take on water."
Even as he spoke on, however, he doubted his own words. It was unlikely that travellers would settle and make camp at that time of the day, while there were still hours of daylight left, particularly so close to their settlement. The size of the murky, undulating pillar alone was enough to dispel any thoughts of it being a campfire. The boy may have been right.
"Perhaps we could ask him," Aziz said, aiming a finger along the trail as a dark horse bearing a black-clad rider galloped towards them.
He rode like a man possessed, travelling cloak billowing out in his wake. His right hand clutched at his reigns; the other was clamped to his torso. A shroud hid his features, revealing only dark eyes that were wide with fright and urgency.
Ahmed's feet shifted on the gritty trail as he braced himself to leap aside, but the robed man in the saddle reigned in his charger at the very last moment. It reared up, front legs kicking wildly and scattering the two guards. Passers-by stopped to watch the spectacle, so uncommon were such disturbances.
"Marshall your forces, guard," the new arrival barked, voice tight with fear that could not be seen on his shrouded features, as he aimed a gloved finger at Ahmed, "a terror comes upon you. I must warn your lord of its approach."
He spurred his horse onwards before they could mount any objections. Aziz seemed stunned by the stranger's sudden warning and abrupt departure, but his superior simply drew his blade. He knew the reason for the man's haste; something had dealt him a mortal wound, his clothing slick with blood that only a honed warrior's eye would have noticed against the dark material. But even if he had not perceived that detail, the portents of his words rang true in his ears.
He was a swordsman, the scars on his bare arms and around his eyes made that clear, and to see a hardened fighter like the black-clad man so terrified alarmed him greatly.
Unhooking the bell from the sash around his waist, he pulled loose the cladding from the clapper and rang it loudly. The noise summoned the other guards, and a horde of onlookers whom he brusquely ordered to return to their homes. Few of them obeyed, not wishing to miss the scene as it unfolded, but he was afraid that this situation might be more than interesting. He did not wish to see them hurt, but if they would not heed his warnings, then they invited this unseen danger upon themselves.
"What in heaven's name is that?" Aziz asked, as a great cry went up ahead of them, the sounds of dozens of voices raised in a discordant yell.
Ahmed could give him no answer. It sounded like bandits, but something in the noise sounded wrong. There were no words, he realised, only screams of rage and fury. There was something untamed and wild in the uproar, something that made his skin bristle with gooseflesh. Suddenly, for the first time in his life, he felt an overpowering urge to flee and save himself. His training held the impulse in check, however, and he drew his sword, ready to face the oncoming horde.
He saw them, charging forward in their droves along the road, peasants and warriors, men and women, old and young. They didn't resemble any bandits he had seen before; they were a rabble, some wielding blades and axes, others carrying farm tools, but all of them frenzied and bloodthirsty. Most of them wore clothing streaked with blood and dirt, as though they had already taken part in a terrible battle. He imagined it was whatever skirmish the lone swordsman had run from.
He turned to address his comrades in arms when he heard the beast bellowing again, and all words died in his throat. The rest stared on, faces stricken with terror, and he followed their eyes. As the mob surged towards them, a great monstrosity lumbered after them. It was fully twice the height of a man, and stood upon its hind legs, each huge stride bringing it closer and closer. Its skin was the colour of freshly spilled blood. Each of its three heads had eyes gleaming with murderous fury and maws filled with row upon row of razor sharp teeth. It was an abomination the like of which he had never seen.
But even as the creature drew nearer, even as some of his companions turned and fled, consumed by their fear, the horde fell upon them. Impending danger spurred his body into action, the well-honed instincts of his trade carrying him where his mind could no longer go, broken as it was by what his eyes were seeing.
He parried the lunge of the nearest attacker, a man wearing blood-spattered chain mail, whose face hung like a grisly death mask from his slack features, and sent him spinning away with a blow to the jaw. A woman in the rags of a pauper came at him with a scythe, eyes narrow and vicious, and he opened her from navel to throat, sending her corpse slumping to the ground. A third man, who looked as though he had taken a mace to the side of his skull, charged towards him, only for a swift slice to take off his head at the shoulders.
All around him, the sounds of clashing blades and raised voices swirled in a maelstrom of chaotic noise. He could hear his men fighting and dying; their screams filled his ears. Beyond the crowd, he saw the monster approaching, each pounding footstep shaking the ground beneath their feet, each ear-shattering bellow gnawing away at his resolve. In a matter of moments, it would be upon them, and it would destroy them all.
But he would not live long enough for it to reach him. Even as he spun to face a new enemy, he felt the point of a blade pierce his heart, sliding between his ribs and out of his back. He looked down to find himself staring into the beady, hollow eyes of a hunched, spindly-limbed creature, its beak-like mouth thrown open in a shrill cry of triumph. The colour of its flesh matched the beast that continued to march towards them, that same shade of incarnadine.
At its feet lay the shredded carcass of the man he had decapitated, split open, almost as though the creature before him had burst out from inside. As he looked around the battlefield, in the final moment before his death, he saw the corpses of their attackers split apart, revealing more of the bizarre monsters.
In need of a new host, the Bone Thief burrowed into Ahmed's torso through the wound in his chest, and the horrific agony of that violation was the last thing that he ever felt. All that remained in the husk of his body was the servant of Chattur'gha that had made his skin its own.
She sang to herself, the song that he had once sung to her. The words were beautiful, as was the melody, but neither compared to her love for the man that had captured her heart. Once upon a time, she had thought him foolish, just like all the others that had come to claim her hand, but then he had departed and she could think only of him.
It had begun as idle musings, a thought here and there throughout the day; she wondered whether he was thinking of her, where his travels might have brought him next. Eventually, he had appeared in her dreams, in place of the strange artefact she had once seen there, the one that she had thoughtlessly dispatched him to find. Now, her days had become a waking dream, where she only wished for his return, so that she could profess her love for him.
As the days became weeks and the weeks became months, she waited, forsaking all of her other admirers, even shunning the arrival of a nobleman who had asked to marry her. He was no different; he was not Karim.
"Karim," she muttered, and said the name over and over to herself; it was the only thing that served to soothe her sorrow at his absence.
One day, while she sat within her chambers, still waiting, she was roused from her thoughts of him by the sound of raised voices elsewhere in her father's palace. To her mind, this noise was an annoyance, distracting her from her lamentations. But, no sooner had she acknowledged it, than she was struck by the possibility that it may have been his return that had caused such a din. With this thought, she stood from the divan on which she had been reclining and pushed aside the silken curtains draped around her seat, hurrying to investigate.
She moved through room after room, in search of the source of the chaos she could hear. Now that she had come closer, she could clearly make out the sounds of metal clashing against metal, and voices raised in screams of pain and fear. Suddenly, her curiosity dimmed and she began to wish that she had never left her sanctuary.
But even as she turned to hurry back, she saw a figure standing at the end of another corridor, and her heart leapt into her throat. She hardly dared to believe that what she was seeing was the truth, but as he approached she knew that her eyes had not deceived. There, at the end of the hall, was Karim, as handsome as ever he had been, and in that moment, all questions fled away from her. He strode towards her, and she hurried to meet him, throwing herself into his strong arms.
"Karim, my love," she said, pulling herself closer and caressing his back with her own slender hands, even as he held her tightly to him, "I knew you would return for me. I had seen it in a dream. I know you have travelled far and toiled hard, but I desire nothing more than you now."
"I have brought the artefact, Chandra," he told her, his voice strangely dry and hoarse, "just as you asked."
"I could not care less for it," she insisted, "you are all that matters to me."
"Then consider it a gift. A reward for your devotion."
She sighed. He was an insufferably single-minded man, and had been when he had first come to court her. But she would not acknowledge his gift, not until he was able to see that she desired him, and only him. She pulled aside her veil, in absolute contravention of the proper etiquette, and pressed her lips against his. She pulled him into a kiss, deep and passionate, fuelled by a longing that had taken hold over the course of months.
But no sooner had she begun than her eyes snapped open. Her lips touched withered skin. Her tongue swirled through an arid cave and flicked across dry pegs. It felt as though she had eaten a mouthful of sand. The shroud slipped from her eyes, the illusion vanishing, and she saw the truth of what Karim had become, a husk of a man, dead, dried out, reanimated by some demonic force. Novas of unnatural crimson light blazed in his empty eye sockets.
She screamed and tried to flee, only for his skeletal fingers to catch her arm, biting into her flesh, bruising her with his grip. His other hand moved from the satchel at his side, producing an object the size of a human heart, wrapped in dirtied rags. As the cloth fell away, she saw what it was that it concealed, the artefact that she had seen in her dreams, a claw formed from glass, that glowed internally with a hellish red fire.
He pressed it to the bare flesh of her stomach, and it seared away her skin, hot as a branding iron. Her screams became desperate and painful, tears beading in her eyes as the object burned her, the pain travelling across her torso, down her legs, along her arms. Every moment of the transformation was agony and, as it crept the length of her neck, she knew that she was dying. He had returned as a vengeful spectre to take her life, no doubt enraged by the fool's errand she had charged him with.
Her slender features, the object of many a man's desires, warped and twisted, becoming a leathery death mask. Her eyes, that had captivated so many, sank into her skull, shrivelling, lifeless. Her head fell back, mouth open in a silent cry of pain and terror. The ghoul that had once been Karim held her upright, preventing her body from falling to the ground.
And then, in the next instant, her desiccated corpse twitched and convulsed, red light shining from her eyes and mouth. With a dry, raspy croak, her lungs filled with air and her head rose once again. Her left hand gripped the tattered clothing of her suitor as she pulled him close, the other clasping the artefact that he still held to her stomach. Their glowing eyes met, and the air sparked between them, lines of coruscating arcane energy dancing against their entwined bodies.
All at once, she understood. He had come back for her, to give her this gift, a gift of eternal life and absolute power. Without her eyes, she could see beyond the veil, where the mysteries of all existence waited to be seen. Without her frail flesh, she could be with him forever.
But the gift came in return for an obligation. Chattur'gha, the Great Being of Matter, was their master now, and they would pave the way for him, to defeat Ulyaoth, and his servant, the Lich, to destroy the family that would one day serve Xel'lotath. Once they had crushed his enemies, he would be free to move beyond the veil and into their world. Then, they could gorge themselves upon destruction, just as he would.
All of this lay ahead of them. For now, they were together, at the birth of an everlasting love that would span the ages.
He took her hand, and she allowed him to lead her out of the palace. Together, they razed it, and the township, to the ground. It was to be the first of many.