The High Priest of the Faithless
Tripods were found and erected, their brassieres set ablaze, and the altar chamber took form. Ripples radiated from their ankles, the crests glinting like jewels as they moved through the shallow water. Xandr was overcome with an awful sense of recognition as the tomb-like chamber met his eyes. Shattered bits of marble, green with algae, were all that remained of Sargon and his seashell chariot of life-sized whales. When he closed his eyes, he could see what it had been—a glorious work of art in gleaming white. But in his mind’s ear, the voices of the dying still echoed, Aeneas and Diomedes, who had given their last breath in battle beneath that idol, by the lip of the sacred pool.
“There,” he said to Cambses, “the idol was there, as was the altar, but I do not know what we can hope to find.”
From raven form, Emma made herself known, and everyone looked on, baffled. “Something is terribly wrong, it’s a wrongness I can’t describe . . . all the city’s sorrow is focused here. It both emanates and drains from this place, like a . . . a maelstrom. It’s as if the temple is drawing the surrounding sorrow, only to unleash it back out in a torrent of ill will.”
Cambses rushed at her, his sword quivering under her chin, as though driven mad. “You should have stayed on the ship!” But already the men were beginning to murmur, of their deepest, superstitious fears. Before she could react, Xandr drew forth Emmaxis, striding between them. “Calm yourself, Captain. These ruins have unnerved you, all of us for that matter; that is all she is trying to say.”
The two men, Xandr and Cambses, approached the center of the shrine with caution. Thelana took the rear guard with Archimedes and Emma. The other eight, dreading what they might find, remained further back, hands tight about their spears. An immense head met their gaze, lying on its side like a sleeping giant; its handsome features were half-submerged so that part of its nose, lips, and left eye were but a reflection mirrored in the still water. In view of this face, there was the altar, a black slab rimmed in gold circular patterns of Ionik design.
“If the scrolls are here,” said Cambses, “they should be placed there, below the topstone. Archimedes, come with me!”
The Hedonian and the old sailor trudged to the black form, but in doing so, something was disturbed. All warmth went from the room. Rising straight from the dark water, as though brought up by some invisible pulley, a tall, gaunt shape cast its shadow across the face of Sargon, which in the dim circle of burning tripods proved vaguely human. Archimedes shook with terror, yet he was somehow drawn to it, the water beneath his shuffling feet like a black undulating mirror. Xandr stood frozen, watching the tapering bishop’s miter and the soiled gray tatters, which were once so white, billowing like silk in a whisper of wind. The face was pallid, and as the light played across the clefts and nodes of the remaining bone and sinew, the truth of it could not be denied, for it was the High Priest Urukagina himself, the flesh of his face hanging loosely from his skull like the threads of his robe, and in its skeletal fingers was a long staff, crowned by a small symbol, a gold trident in a circle.
Cambses and Xandr drew their weapons as Thelana’s fingers fumbled for an arrow. Emma chanted to give them protection, but behind her the naval warriors recoiled, hiding beneath their shields, palms sweaty at their spears, greaves clanking fretfully against the clasps of their sandals. With uncanny swiftness and a purposeful gait unlike the drowned, the corpse moved toward Archimedes, who stood trembling, but curiously still. Bony thumbs pressed against the old sailor’s eyelids, as if the High Priest intended to blind him. What happened instead was far worse than any could have imagined. Powerless to help their shipmate, they watched, as Archimedes’ beard grew long and ashen, his face yellowing like parchment, becoming increasingly wrinkled and brittle, until the skin peeled off him in flakes. By the time the priest released him, what was left of Archimedes dipped beneath the shallow water, his body aged to a lifeless husk that crumpled in paper thin layers about his skeleton.
Emmaxis felt long and heavy, its lust for slaughter absent, but Xandr pressed on. “Urukagina!” he called out.
The thin gray form shrank away, appalled by the name, and then it gave reply, a high-pitched whine tainted with something distant and otherworldly. “I am not he, but what remains of him.”
Cambses’ eyes were like eggshells, his pupils receded to inkblots. Sweat drained from his helmet and down his chin. His gladius felt loose in his palm. This was a thing unprepared for, inconceivable; it unfastened the knots of his brain. “He is not our priest!” he blurted. “We do not owe it allegiance; it is but a puppet of bones and sinews that makes a mockery of Sargon! Batal . . . do you see it? Seize the staff!”
The priestly figure accosted them, appearing not to walk, but moving through some form of locomotion that defied logic or description. Xandr and Cambses met the apparition with flashing steel, water raining from Emmaxis as it came up out of the water and down again. But the foul thing possessed an uncanny swiftness, and was so terribly emaciated that the two men could only guess where the points of their weapons might strike effectively. It was like dueling a silken sheet in a windstorm; they could but hope to shred it into strips of cloth. Rarely did the priest retaliate, and even when doing so, it only seemed to want to touch them with the tips of its icy fingers, which the two combatants did not dare risk, lest a single caress steal years from them, or worse, rob them of whatever vitality they still possessed.
All the while, Thelana’s arrow sat idly against her bow, for the cursed creature shifted too suddenly, so that she feared hitting one of her own. Behind her, the oarsmen rounded the black altar, and after much discussion, the two bravest hurled down the slab cover. It shuddered and split as it struck the ground and she watched a man lean in, pulling forth a pair of cylinders.
Still fighting, Xandr and Cambses were drawn into the shadows, and only then did they realize their folly, as the being against which they struggled became more animated, the empty sockets of its eyes glowing with an inner flame. “Look closely, Xandr, for you shall someday be as I am.” It cackled horribly, and a wave of despair clutched at Xandr’s heart like an invisible hand.
“What are you!” the Ilmarin cried, and faltered, as his sword become suddenly heavy.
“There is no rhyme or reason; I simply am, and am no more.”
With its attention drawn to the Batal, Cambses swung his gladius at the back of its neck, certain the corpse could not see him, but the unholy staff repelled the blow, the edge removing the headpiece from the shaft. With a covetous glare, the Hedonian snatched up the trident symbol and shrank quietly from battle. Seconds passed before Xandr became aware of his absence. Whether his ally was struck dead in the shadows or ran off, he could only guess. Undeterred, he gathered up his courage and strength, Emmaxis tearing through the gray robes, through bone and tissue like brambles, but to no avail.
“I killed you once,” he shouted, “I will do so again!”
“You murdered a high priest of Sargon,” the voice replied, “you peeled mine eyes to the truth; I saw the empty void, and I led my city to the new faith, to the nothing that is. Only the faithless see.”
The words came plainly, but were senseless, or so he hoped. As the priest continued to rant—or was he preaching?—Xandr was overcome with the sick feeling that comes with awful realizations, for the priest’s words seemed to possess some aspect of truth, of terrible truths no mortal was meant to hear. “You’re insane!” Xandr cried at last.
With Cambses removed, Thelana and Emma scurried into the ring of light. Finding her mark, the archer loosed her shaft, but it passed through the filmy robes without resistance. The sorceress came next, her dark trappings and raven black hair swallowed by the gloom.
“Ye gods!” she gasped, for she looked with different eyes at what had been Urukagina, and what she saw was an absence, a thing that existed apart from the substantive reality around them, its presence known only through the luminescent swarm—its event horizon—giving it form and dimension. “It is like a black hole,” she muttered, “trapping all the light. Alas, Nabonus and Archimedes is among them, lost souls like captured fireflies.”
The tip of Emmaxis fell with a heavy bell tone, and the priest’s miter dissolved into the earth through the cracks of the tiles, leaving the priest bald and more hideous. “Damn it, Emma!” Xandr groaned, as what-had-been-Urukagina grazed his rising beard hairs, “Start making sense!”
“His power grows from despair,” she responded. “He is the cause of all this, the focus of the sorrow. Only a priest of Hedonia can give the final rites of burial, can let the spirits pass to the next plane. This, Lich of Urukagina, is abusing his priestly authority; he’s not letting them go.”
“Xandr . . .,” Thelana murmured anxiously, “my arrows aren’t helping, and neither is your sword. Cambses got what he wanted; let’s fly!”
In that instant, Xandr found his opportunity, driving Emmaxis to the hilt through the lich’s sternum. But in following the stroke of the sword, he came within reach of the High Priest, who, with skeletal fingers, hooked Xandr by the throat and thumbed at his eyes. Already, Xandr could feel the change, the fringes of his beard whitening.
“Let me show you, and you will know,” the lich of Urukagina said to him. “Let me peel back your eyes–”
He struggled to tear the arms away. They were lean as branches, but possessed an incomprehensible strength, or seemed so, the Batal’s own strength waning as great age weakens a man. Finally, Xandr looked about him, seeing only Emma in the glow of the fire, and the silhouette of Thelana behind. “Cambses!” he shouted. “Where is he?”
Thelana looked about also, but saw no one. With none left to help her beloved, she snatched up a flaming brassiere, spun it overhead like a sling, and tossed it into the face of the lich. What-had-been-Urukagina let out a horrid shriek as embers danced about its robe, and Xandr pulled free. With Cambses’ betrayal, his fear turned to rage, and he hurled himself at the corpse’ back, snatching at the skull, groping at empty eye sockets and loose knit jaws. But it was not the power of his limbs that overcame the abomination, but his courage, his insatiable zeal for good, and the pure vitality that radiated from him, channeled through the conduit of his rage. Remembering Emma’s words, he let himself laugh like a drunken barbarian, and it echoed from the high angled walls and parapets of the unholy shrine, and the High Priest of the Faithless shriveled in his clutches, till the skull came apart in his hands, no more animated than any unearthed from the grave.
In their triumph, Thelana turned her attention to the nearest candelabra stand, tossing it javelin-like toward the entrance. It landed, its oil wicks wafting to smoky ribbons, the lingering flare revealing a contingent of men filing into the niche behind the sliding barrier.
“Don’t leave us!” she shouted, half threateningly.
“I am sorry,” Cambses sounded with sincerity, his face a broken mask of light and shadow in the gloom. “But, no one must know what has transpired here, least of all foreigners.”
“Stop him!” Xandr groaned, but already the wall was rumbling to a close. With a tremendous leap she made for the exit, but a flank of spear-points stopped her short. “We had a pact, Cambses!” she cried. “There is no honor among you Hedonians! You’re nothing but deceivers!”
“No, Thelana, I love truth, and honor. But I love my country more.”
She rolled to a crouch with an arrow nocked to her bow. It sailed low, skewering a bootstrap to a calf muscle. The man folded in agony. Thelana cursed. It was their captain she was aiming for. By the time she got a second arrow, the shutting of the wall resounded in their ears, and as the candelabra rolled about the dank floor, the last of the burning wicks smothered, shrouding them in complete darkness.
Escape to Chapter 13