Rabu, 18 April 2012



by A.J. Cooper
I am called Marcellus the Bregantine. You may have heard tell of me before in the dingy taverns of the Empire. Once, I was an assassin for the regent Amaraeus, whom you now call your Emperor.  But those days are past. In these recent years, I am more honored – and detested – for my association with another.

The Avenger. That is what those who approve of Angrok call him. To others, and to most princes of the desert kingdoms, he is Angrok the Destroyer, an evil warlord from the north and usurper of kingdoms. Sometimes still, but not very often, I question which title best fits him.

Personally, I greatly admire Angrok, not for such a shallow a thing as his combat prowess – though it is indeed a matter of legend – but for his sense of justice and his unflagging confidence that his way is the correct one. And yet in these two years as his companion, I cannot say whether or not I am his friend.
We were walking through the barrens of Bajir sometime in the spring, as I recall. I was sweating heavily, but Angrok in his black scale armor and full helm was, as always, unbothered. His armor is engraved with crossbones and raises many questions; some even accuse him of worshipping the death god Lorken. Though Angrok is quiet and never speaks of religion, I doubt that accusation.

“How far to Bezakirah?” I asked, trying unsuccessfully to hide my distaste for the sun and dust. We were headed, or so I thought, to the famed market town because it was among the only settlements in Bajir that would allow Angrok within its walls. My master had no qualms with its sultan, Lord Hassan, whom he considered just and deserving of his powerful position.

Angrok said nothing for a few moments, and I was sure he was going to ignore me; but then he spoke. “We are taking a slight detour, Marcellus.”

We travelled the rest of the day in silence. Eventually the sea emerged on the horizon, a gentle blue underneath the clear sky. I could see a settlement in the distance. As I reflected on what our business might be on the coast, we of a sudden came upon a young girl who was sobbing and shaking underneath the shade of a palm.

Angrok walked up to the teary-eyed girl, his gilded warhammer strapped unthreateningly behind his back. “What is it, young one?” he asked as he knelt down beside her.

The girl, no more than a middle teen, looked at Angrok, tears streaming down her face. “I was to be sacrificed to Nekra, the spider goddess, but High Priest Yama said she did not approve of me because I was not a virgin. I was relieved, but Yama said I was to enter his harem instead and become his slave. When I refused and resisted him, he poisoned me and sent me into the desert to die.” She sobbed as she wiped away more of her tears.

“You seem hale enough,” I said.

“The poison is Blackheart venom. It works slowly, so slowly,” she said. I noticed her hands were shaking slightly.

Angrok’s response was calm and steady, masking the rage I knew was brewing underneath his passive demeanor. “What is your name?” he asked.

“Tiana,” she said.

“Then, Tiana, I will bring you Yama’s head before you die.”

We disguised ourselves in long black cloaks and walked into the coastal village, which itself had no protective walls. The citizens seemed to take no heed of us, but they seemed a bit unusual. They were grave and somber and sad.

The people, however, were the least of my worries. Spiders, some tiny and some frighteningly large, wandered the streets unbothered by the locals. The hairy, fanged arthropods climbed walls and nested in roofs, spinning webs wherever they wanted. The citizens avoided touching them; if a spider headed their way, they parted reverently.

“We should ask the locals where the temple is,” I whispered in Angrok’s ear.
The Avenger did not respond. Instead, he walked through the doors of an inn. Remarkably, few patrons populated the place. Like the rest of the city, it was crawling with spiders and the corners of the main room were covered in cobwebs.

On a dismal, deteriorating stage a man of gloomy disposition strummed a sitar. He sang of the genesis of the city; how the spider goddess Nekra mated with Prince Jezmi; how everyone who heard her song was a son or daughter of Nekra; and how each and every listener should serve their eight-legged masters with bravery and solemnity.
A woman wearing a black dress sat at a nearby table, facing the stage. Her leather dress was tight-fit, so teasingly tight as to accentuate her round, high breasts. As I eyed her I saw a spider web insignia embroidered on the shoulder. Angrok approached her and tapped her arm.

The woman recoiled at his touch. “What is it?” she sneered.

“Where may I make an offering? I come from Bezakirah to honor the spider goddess.”

The woman glared. “You’d do well to learn the customs of Khorthaire,” she said in disgust. “I am a priestess, a feeder of the hatchlings, and I am not to be touched by the unclean.” She paused for a moment and turned her head to examine me thoroughly. “What is your sacrifice?” she said quietly, flicking her eyes back to Angrok.

The Avenger looked at me.

She bobbed her head and proceeded to give us directions, instructing us that we would have to wait until High Priest Yama concluded the ritual feeding of the Nest Mother. No one, not even a temple attendant, was allowed into the temple during the weekly sacrifice. We set out at once.

A guard with an axe stood watch in front of the door. As I approached, I swabbed my dagger with basilisk venom, the deadliest kind I had on hand. Then I hailed the guard.

He was an unfriendly sort, as it seemed everyone in this city was. “What do you want? Temple’s closed,” he grumbled.

“Someone’s climbing the wall in the alley shade,” I lied.

I got lucky. He made for the alley and walked into the darkness. “Hey, I don’t see any –”

My dagger connected, the poison killed him before he could finish the sentence. I wiped off the venom and blood and threw the gauze in the alley. “I’ll open the door,” I told Angrok, shoving my dagger into its sheath.
I scaled the temple, a sleek black building constructed of many towering spires. I kicked open the wooden shutters of a window until I cleared a way, then dropped down to the empty vestibule. I crossed to the entrance and opened the outer door for Angrok.

Once he was inside, we found our way to an interior room – the hatchery. The birthing chamber was immense and covered in sticky silken webs. Some strands were as thick as limbs on a body. I shut the door behind us and reinforced it with a solid wooden bar.

I produced a torch from my pack, lit the oil-soaked linen quickly with flint, and tossed it onto the immense network of silky webs. The flame began to grow, slowly at first. I noticed the frightening spider hatchlings, some dangling from the ceiling by their spinnerets and some crawling through the webs, their vicious jaws dripping with venom. Perhaps I would extract some later. I could also see a few human skeletons caught in the webs, a horrid fate I did not wish to contemplate.

Before long the entire birthing bed was burning. The little spiders hissed and writhed in desperation as the fire consumed them. The egg sacs were destroyed, and the baby spiders were killed long before they could become monstrous adults.

We heard pounding at the door. We had drawn the temple attendants. But they weren’t the only ones whose attention we had attracted.

A long haired man cast open the double doors which led to the Nest Mother’s chamber and came barreling out in terror. He drew a dagger and ran for us hysterically as he surveyed the smoking, blackened webs and charred spider corpses.

“What have you done?” he shrieked. “The babies! My poor babies!”

Angrok took a few somber steps toward him and pulled out his warhammer.  I carefully drew my crossbow, bolt already in place.

“Stand!” I ordered. The long-haired priest did just that. He was as much a coward as he was an evildoer.

“Yama,” Angrok said. “Is that your name?”

The priest nodded frantically. I was sure Angrok was smiling in pleasure behind his helmet.

“Death welcomes you!” Angrok roared.

He pitched back his hammer, swung hard, and sent Yama’s head, separated now from his body, hurtling into the wall. Angrok ran over and grabbed the grisly trophy by its greasy hair. I nodded in approval.

As the temple attendants began to break through, I noticed an open window at the top of the room. We quickly scaled the loose brick and watched the flames grow higher. The window overlooked a dark alleyway. We dropped down and surreptitiously walked out of Khorthaire. As we hurried off, I swore I heard the temple attendants weeping and cursing the dark-hearted outsiders, the men who had slain their eight-legged gods.
By now the sun had set. Angrok returned to Tiana holding the bludgeoned head of Yama in his hand. She was convulsing now in constant spasms. But she looked at us, her face unnaturally pale, and took the bloodied trophy in her shaking hands. For a brief moment, I saw a trace of a smile.

The little girl looked into Yama’s lifeless eyes as she shook, holding the head up by its blood-caked hair. She spat in his face and she cursed him. She threw the head on the ground and uttered blasphemies to the eight-legged gods of Khorthaire.

Angrok and I kept her company until her wretched death was almost complete. “Goodbye, Tiana,” I told her.
“Goodbye,” she said, her voice only a faint whisper. At that very second, she writhed, gasped, and shut her eyes. The eight-legged gods of Khorthaire had taken their prize, but they had lost their vicar in the process.
I put a hand on Angrok’s iron shoulder plate. “Sometimes you are a mystery even to your greatest friend,” I said.
Angrok’s answer was only silence. But in my heart, I knew that Angrok was indeed the Avenger and not the Destroyer, the man who crushed the wicked under his feet like a hammer of the gods.

© 2009 AJ Cooper
Original fiction debuting in Residential Aliens.

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