The roguesby Mark Rosenfelder
On a lonely jungle road, half-overgrown, two travelers trudged ahead, already muddy and weary from a long day’s march, and with little prospect of reaching any soft bed that night. They carried their bows in their hands, not so much for fear of the reported bandits, but as their sole hope of having meat in their evening meal, since they were heartily sick of né porridge.
They were mostly quiet; what words they exchanged were mostly small jokes meant to maintain each other’s spirits.
The heat was intense, and would not abate till sundown, still more than two hours away. The taller of the two, whose coppery skin, long black hair, and prominent nose hinted at origins in the colder barbarian lands of the west, had stripped to the waist. The smaller one, with the ruddy skin, short hair, and large eyes of the native Lé, was clad in nawr leather from shoulders to thighs— seemingly overdressed, except that nawr hide, with its many pores, makes surprisingly cool garments.
They stunk of sweat and jafa, the bitter-fetid herb which protected against most of the insects zizzing past them, though they still had to fend off the larger ones with irritated gestures.
“This is barely a trail,” complained the tall one, Fánao.
“You don’t find lost treasures by major highways,” pointed out Ŋar.
“Sure you do,” protested the barbarian. “Money is made and lost where the people are.”
“Not this time.”
“Whereas,” said Fánao, who enjoyed using educated language, “this place has no evident population, not even spirits.”
“Shut up,” whispered the other, stopping suddenly.
Instantly alert, Fánao did the same.
Ŋar stood and listened, eyes closed, like a cat teasing out the scent of prey.
After a time, they moved forward, but slowly and silently now. Soon enough Fánao could hear it too: voices up ahead— human voices. The voices were angry; and they heard a clink of metal. They hurried on, swift and noiseless as jaguars.
The sudden sunlight was almost blinding. A small river crossed the road here, and just to the west it swelled into a wide pond, choked with rushes and truca reed, but allowing in the sun.
On one edge of the pond, a man and woman were engaged in a deadly fight.
The man was thin and wiry, but one would go far wrong thinking that he was therefore weak; the people of this region were small in stature but hardy and muscular. He was past his first youth, but his hair was untouched by gray; he had a wispy moustache. He wore only a loincloth and reed sandals, and was armed with a small knife.
The woman was dressed in rags, tied together with rope; she and they were both so filthy that it was hard to say which parts of her were clothed. She was barefoot, and her hair was close-cut, perhaps a finger’s width long. She brandished a thick wooden staff, and hissed and cursed at her attacker.
The man darted forward with the knife; she slapped him back with the staff. It was long enough to give her some protection, but it had already failed her at least once: her free arm was gashed and bloody.
“Forget surprise,” said Fánao. “Let’s go.”
The two stepped out of the shadows, stamping feet and clattering bows; the fighting couple froze. The woman stared at the two intruders with a mixture of fear and hope; the man simply stared.
The woman turned back to the man and moved her hand to her rope belt, in a cradling gesture; the man, with a fearful look at the intruders, slowly advanced toward her. Ŋar’s sling whirled for a minute in the air, and a heavy stone flew through the air, unerringly finding its target.
The woman collapsed senseless into the mud. The man backed off as the intruders advanced, fear in his eyes, knife still ready.
Ŋar strode over to the fallen woman, turned her over, and checked her belt.
“Darts?” asked Fánao, with mild interest.
In answer Ŋar held up a handful of the tiny, cruel weapons, then tossed them down next to their owner. “Poisoned. Kleh juice, from the color.”
“You’re lucky to be alive,” Fánao told the man.
“I am, I am,” he stammered. “I’m very so grateful to you women.”
He seemed to remember suddenly that he was holding a knife and tensed to fight; he quickly slipped it into a sheath on his belt and held his hands politely together in front of him. It made him look older and helpless.
Fánao planted herself a few feet away, resting her bow against the ground like a walking stick. “What happened?”
“She were after my rat,” said the man, meekly. He spoke the local patois; they had spent enough time in the area that it no longer seemed difficult.
With placating gestures, he advanced past her— stealing a quick glance at her naked breasts as he passed— and led her along the edge of the pond. A short distance away, he pointed to a large dead rodent half-in, half-out of the water.
“That’s your rat?” asked Fánao.
“It is my rat,” the man answered defensively, misinterpreting her meaning. “They are my trapping grounds here, and the trap it has my mark. I caught her trying to steal it to me. But my trap it is, Princess, I go show you.”
Fánao laughed, and held out a dismissive hand. “I’m sure it is. It’s certainly not our rat; we’re just passing through.”
She walked the short distance back to where Ŋar was still examining the other woman’s body. The man gathered up his rodent— a swamp rat the size of a chicken.
“Perhaps you go join me for supper, Princesses,” he said, with a sudden unctuous eagerness.
“We’ll be glad to,” said Ŋar, heartily.
The man smiled and nodded, with an uncertain politeness. “My home is this way, some distance,” he said. He pointed, not down the road, but along a trail by the river’s edge.
“Just a moment, sonny,” said Fánao. Switching to Kemic, she said, “What are you thinking, you idiot? Are you after the rat, or the trapper?”
Ŋar laughed. “He’s way too old and bony for me, but my granny taught me never to turn down meat.”
“Is it fair that we save him from losing his rat, only to eat half of it ourselves?”
“We saved his life,” Ŋar pointed out.
“And what do we do with this hussy? Cut her throat?”
“No need to be so rash. We should talk to her.”
Fánao sighed. “Tie her up, then.”
Roasted and served with yam and pith of streff, the swamp rat was quite edible, though the diners of the city of Janse would have swept it off their tables and demanded something less greasy and gamy.
They sat in the hide tent that was his home, and learned what there was to know about the man: his name was Trar; his mother was a farmer, but too poor to feed all her children, so that he had come here to support himself. No woman had chosen him for her husband. He had never seen the woman who attacked him before, nor anyone like her.
More to the point, had he heard of an abandoned temple in this area? He had seen nothing, but he had heard of it— no good things. The ghosts of the priestesses still haunted a certain region a day’s travel to the south. He had given it a wide berth, as any decent man would. He didn’t think that ghosts could travel far; but in their own place, the ghosts of an evil god were capable of anything. And she was an extremely evil god, this Kâ. He said the word only once, in a low whisper, and immediately countered it with the hand-signs of three benevolent goddesses.
They left the man a few bronze coins to pay for the dinner, shushing his obsequious gratitude. They walked back to the road, thinking of just what they wanted to ask their prisoner.
The woman was still slumped next to the tree Ŋar had tied her to. Ŋar advanced to look at her in the fading light, and swore furiously.
“You overgrown uncivilized defiler, didn’t I say not to cut her throat?”
Without another word, Fánao came closer, examined the woman’s bloody neck, and immediately looked around, in case the killer was nearby. Seeing nothing, she turned to Ŋar and barked, “What do we know? Start with her.”
“A thief— high class, possibly for hire, disguised. Cleaner in the parts hidden by her clothes, just the opposite of a real beggar. Gang tattoos, some Jansene, but the more recent ones are Maura. Darts, spinners, blowpipe, picks, and the stick has a steel core.”
“What was she after? Us?”
“Not likely, since she was ahead of us.”
“There’s not much else in this area.”
“Except what we’re after.”
“I don’t like that,” said Fánao. “We had to break into a nunnery to find the book that described the Heart.”
Even then, the book hadn’t been in the library, but in the cellar, propping up a cask of bausa. And it had said nothing about the location of the temple; that they had learned from the last priest of Kâ, in a far city, just before his death.
“Now we’ve got competition,” continued Fánao. “And if she was hired, they may have hired more.”
“Maybe that’s who killed her— another hired thief who decided not to share with the boss.”
“Maybe. But it’s safer to assume that it’s a third party entirely.”
“At least our enemies have enemies. Maybe one of them will be on our side.”
“In this matter, nobody is on our side,” Fánao pointed out. “Now, the killer. What do we know?”
“Not much. Edged weapon. Not a ghost, at least. And more quiet or more competent than an experienced thief.”
“Not much sign of struggle,” said Ŋar, indicating the ground around the dead woman’s body. “Even tied up, our thief could have fought back. It looks like the attacker snuck up unperceived, killed her, and ran away.”
“She was asleep, maybe.”
“An hour after we left her? No.”
“Let’s see the tracks.”
Ŋar indicated a set of new tracks, the prints of truca sandals, slow and cautious as they approached, sure and quick as they retreated.
“Truca sandals,” commented Ŋar. “A woman or a monk. A little heavier than me.”
Fánao studied the tracks, then started following the retreating sandal prints, which led back to the road.
“What do you know, they’re going our way,” she muttered grimly.
They left the body; swamp animals would very likely dispose of it before it could trouble the trapper, Trar. On a whim, Fánao took the steel-cored staff.
The next day was cooler; but the two companions found it oppressive nonetheless. Their expedition seemed less of a lark, now that they knew that others had the same goal, and were willing to kill for it. They spoke in low voices and tried to move silently, and found themselves stopping at every every sharp noise or animal’s cry.
For the first part of the morning they could see the sandaled tracks, and even take note of a detour: the tracks left the road into the jungle, and returned close ahead, slightly heavier and dripping blood: their rival had taken time to find and slay some animal.
“Not thinking of being followed,” commented Fánao.
“Or not worried.”
“Doesn’t know we’re on the case, then,” said Fánao, with a grim smile.
Before mid-day it began to rain— a steady tropical downpour that continued for hours. The tracks were washed away. Still, they had clearly been following the road, and so the two continued on.
They stopped mid-afternoon for a meal of né porridge, insipid enough that a stew of swamp rat and vegetables was an invidious memory.
“You know, that fight we stumbled into,” remarked Fánao. “What if they weren’t Bé?”
“What are you talking about? Of course they were Bé. Lé, even.”
“Imagine them in far southern dress, then. What would you have done?”
Ŋar thought a moment. “I see what you’re after,” she said. “Outside the Bé, it would have looked like the man was attacking the woman. I’ve seen that, in fact— in Uytai, or Qapalahta.”
“And what would you have done?”
“Knocked them both out, maybe,” grinned Ŋar.
“Men can be formidable fighters,” said Fánao, argumentatively. “They can be ruthless, and enormously strong.”
“So can a nawr ox,” said Ŋar. “Yet we don’t make them warriors.”
“You Lé are too narrow,” said Fánao. “In Môlosou, they give the men swords and use them for defense, or even as forward infantry. You wouldn’t want to get within reach of their swords.”
“You wouldn’t want to get near a nawr’s horns, either.”
“But still, if you go right up against a Môlo swordsman—”
“I wouldn’t, any more than I’d jump in front of a nawr. But you would, I’m sure. Who would be the surer bet in that case? I believe my silver would be on yourself.”
Fánao laughed; she certainly wasn’t going to object that she would be unable to best a Môlo swordsman. She had; more than she could count.
In the half-light of dusk, they rounded a bend in the road and came upon a terrifying sight: a bone-white face ten feet above the ground, with deep glittering eyes, a mouth glistening with inhuman teeth, and wild-looking hair waving in the wind. A shrill keening whistle rose into a shriek and died away, accompanied by a dry rattling sound.
They stood staring at this apparition for five full minutes, unsure what attack might come or how to prepare against it.
Finally Fánao laughed. “This is no creature,” she said, and boldly advanced.
Indeed it was not. Coming closer, they could see that the head was a carved stone mask atop a stone pillar; the hair was rope; the eyes were inset with fragments of glass to catch the light. The sound was made with a cunning carved pipe, while the rattling sound was made by garlands of dried seed-pods, both agitated by the wind.
The pillar was carved with stylized representations of skeletal arms, ribs, and clawed feet, and ancient runes reading KÂ: MISTRESS OF BETRAYAL.
“There’s a nice warning,” said Fánao.
“I wonder if it was put up by the priestesses, or by the neighbors,” said Ŋar.
Fánao snorted, and headed down the road, until Ŋar stopped her with an arm on one shoulder.
“They’ve rerouted the road,” said Ŋar. “Probably went too close to the temple.”
Indeed, the road now turned off to the right, westward. Continuing its original direction was a rough trail which headed into the jungle.
Fánao examined the bruised branches and disturbed weedy growth on the trail. “As a bonus, someone’s been here, not many hours ago.”
“Let’s go, before it’s all gone,” said Ŋar.
They had to proceed slowly on the trail, with not a few arguments on the correct direction, and when the light failed entirely they felt it unwise to go further, possibly losing their way entirely. They ate a scant meal of né and soon fell asleep.
Their dreams were troubled. First came ordinary nightmares: dreams of marching endlessly through the jungle; attacks by killers brandishing knives at their throats; desperate flights from unknown monsters. Then there were vivid and troubling dreams: Ŋar dreamed of walking endlessly through the temple with Fánao. Then she saw that Fánao already had the treasure in her pack, though she was pretending to search for it; angered, she grabbed the pack and pushed her friend into a chasm. Then, as she was leaving the temple, gold and silver and emeralds in hand, she stumbled and with her foot, crushed the already decomposing skull of Fánao.
For her part, Fánao dreamed of falling in with nameless thieves dressed in rags, and pretending to be one of them. To convince them that she was of their organization, she found herself fighting Ŋar with a sword— Ŋar was for some reason dressed as a Môlo swordsman— and chopping her head off. Her new companions now treated her as a leader, and with their help she penetrated the temple and stole the treasure, before killing them and making off with it alone.
And then, even more horribly, each dreamed much the same dream, fully aware of the temptation to kill and determined to resist, and this time it was her companion that initiated the violence, attacking so brutally and skillfully that she had to be killed in self-defense.
They woke before dawn, feeling little rested, yet not eager to return to sleep.
Fánao caught an almost wary look from Ŋar in the dim pre-dawn light. “Bad dreams?” she asked, with a wan smile.
“The same as yours, I think,” said Ŋar. “Nothing but foolishness.”
“It’s the ghosts,” said Fánao, with sudden anger. “Cursed undead devils! I hate things sending me dreams.”
“You believe in the ghosts, then?”
“No, not any more than I believe in that statue of Kâ.”
“We’ll see worse than both before this is over, I’ll wager,” said Fánao. “Let’s be on our way.”
All morning, as if the physical elements wished to prove themselves as able to cause misery as the spiritual, they were soaked with torrents of rain, and had to pick their way through a tangle of overgrown vines and thorns, through mud that resisted every tired step.
By mid-day, it became easy to follow the trail. They felt a sense of dull, oppressive dread; wherever they were least inclined to go, that was the way.
Fánao stopped, panting slightly, staring ahead at the trail.
“It is difficult,” suggested Ŋar.
“It isn’t that,” snapped Fánao. “It’s time to arm.”
“You got an extra chain shirt for me? I forgot mine.”
Fánao just shook her head. She rooted around in her pack and took out a red cord, to which was attached a sort of lozenge wrapped in red cloth; she tied it around her head so that the lozenge was on her forehead. She took a small bottle, shook out a few drops of an oily substance, and touched them to her chin, to her chest between her breasts, and to her groin. Finally she put on a gold necklace, first kissing the small token attached to it.
“What in the name of ancestors, gods, and my knobby old grandmother are you doing?” asked Ŋar.
“Insurance,” explained Fánao.
“You stole those things from the nunnery,” complained Ŋar.
“Do you believe in that rot?”
“I got some for you too. Want it?”
Ŋar thought for a moment.
“Sure,” she said.
When they came to the temple, it was already late in the day. The sun was already below the trees; the stones, green and gray with moss and lichen, were shadowed and gloomy, except for one tower which thrust defiantly skyward and caught the last afternoon rays of sun, like a dying torch held aloft by a corpse. It had once had a twin, but that had collapsed, caving in a side building.
The temple was enormous, a complex of buildings that must have once bustled with energy. In its day, it had made the name of Kâ feared throughout half the continent. There were outbuildings now crumbled into ruin, or turned into pools; caved-in cellars that made black square pits in the ground; cloisters reduced to a line of pillars like giants’ teeth; stairs that led to nowhere.
Where the walls were not obscured by vegetation, carvings could still be seen: grimacing skulls, laughing demons, strange animal gods, images of tortures and sacrifice.
They penetrated into the main building, entering by a door under the remaining tower. Inside they had to wait for their eyes to adjust to the near-blackness. The air was musty, with a sharp moldy smell, and hints of blood and smoke.
“What?” whispered Fánao. Ŋar hushed her.
Help me, came the voice again, if voice it was. It did not seem to issue from vocal cords, but rattled in their ears like brittle parchment, or the skitterings of insects.
They looked around, but the corridor was empty and looked as if it had been so for a hundred years. There were statues and niches along the walls, but none big enough to hide a human being, and the floor was thick undisturbed dust. Nonetheless they heard the voice again: Travelers, help me.
Ŋar edged forward, silent, catlike. There was a skull on the floor just ahead of her; she made to shove it away with her foot when the voice rattled shrill in her ear: Tread not on me!
“It’s the skull,” said Fánao.
Ŋar kneeled down to look at it. It looked like any other skull, grinning but utterly lifeless. It had lost its jaw.
Do me a boon, said the voice.
Ŋar waited a moment, half expecting it to read her thoughts. Then she said, quietly, “What do you want?”
Restore me to my place.
“What is your place? Where do you ghosts go?”
Above ye, on the wall.
Ŋar looked up; now she could see that there was a sort of sculpted mannikin in a niche on the wall, with real arm bones cemented to its sides. It was one of a long line of sculptures; about half of them had skulls as well.
Shrugging, she picked up the skull and placed it on top of the sculpture. She had no cement, of course, but there was some friable material on the top, and by scraping some of this off she made its perch stable enought that it would remain there solidly enough.
“There you go,” she said. “Now who are you?”
My name was lost with my flesh, said the voice. She almost jumped; the voice now seemed to come from the skull; it even moved slightly, though perhaps it was simply a rocking motion from her setting it in place. I am a priestess of Kâ: there is given to us no final rest. We will remember you; few do us boons.
Now it was silent, and said no more, though they waited there for some more minutes. They moved on.
The corridor led to the main sanctuary. This had once been a grand chamber, more than fifty paces wide and three times that in length; but the roof had collapsed, and now the floor was a scrim of tiles and rotted beams, already invaded by vines and small trees, and smelling of rotted vegetation and stagnant water. A clear corridor ran along each side of the room, protected by overhanging arches.
Fánao pointed to the floor of the corridor. A line of footsteps, very recent, showed in the dust. Thought the imprint was not so clear as in the jungle mud, they seemed to be made by the same truca sandals they had been tracking. She smiled grimly.
They followed. The footsteps led out the back of the sanctuary, down a set of stairs, into catacombs barely illuminated by light falling through gaps in the ceiling.
Along one dark corridor they met another ghost, which was muttering curses and imprecations. They found its skull too; it had been smashed to pieces.
Ye have blinded me. Ye crushed me, the voice of the skull was saying, as they passed. I am Kâ’s priestess. Ye blinded me. We will remember you. We will remember.
The tracks descended another level. They were in almost complete darkness; they could only dimly make out the shape of the corridor. Fánao removed a small stone from a clip in her hair; it was a glowstone, which absorbed sunlight during the day, and in the darkness emitted a weak green glow, barely enough to illuminate a small area around it. Shielding the stone with her hand, so that it could not be seen, she bent over and used it to light the dusty floor.
They followed the tracks, but they soon became confused. At the next intersection the tracks were joined by another set of the same sandaled prints, and later on by other sets, and a new, larger set of bare feet. Evidently there were at least two people here, and they had spent a good deal of time moving round and round these dark cellars.
It was impossible to follow the footprints as a trail; the two companions simply began to explore the cellars for their own part. Fánao led the way, cupping the glowstone in her hand against the wall. They passed through storerooms now a riot of ruined goods, crypts jagged with bones arranged in macabre, intricate patterns, rooms flooded with stinking water, cells with iron bands on the walls, some of which still restrained skeletal arms. Sometimes they came upon a chink in the ceiling which let in light from the cellar above them; in the greater darkness the shaft of light was almost blinding.
The cellar was not silent; there was a ceaseless skittering as of small insects, chirrups of crickets; there were splashes of water or aquatic life in the drowned rooms. Fánao’s glowstone revealed too many lizards to count, and once a snake, black with bright gold bands, crossing their path quickly and indifferently.
Always the corridor showed recent tracks, either the truca sandals or the bare feet. They found only one other staircase; it was untrodden. Their rivals were still down in the cellars with them.
Ŋar’s sense of direction was unerring; at any moment she was confident she could find either of the staircases in a few minutes, even without light. They had not opened closed doors, but from the layout of the corridors she believed that none of these were large. Only one area, in the center of the cellar, remained unexplored. They took the corridor which led into it.
To their surprise, they found that it was well lit. They stopped to look. A torch was stuck through a ring in the wall; about thirty yards away they could see another one.
“Someone thinks they’re being clever,” snorted Fánao. “Thinks she’ll see anyone who’s coming; instead, she’s blinded herself.”
“Himself,” said Ŋar, stringing her bow.
Fánao looked; halfway between the two torches was a huge stone portal, and in front of it was a man. He was barefoot and dressed in the robes of a begging monk, but paced back and forth in front of the door with the nervous energy of a thief, and carried a sword, which glittered with cold beauty in the torchlight. He was larger than the trapper, though not by much; Fánao was probably taller. He had not noticed them. Fánao’s analysis seemed correct: if he looked in their direction, all he would see would be his own bright torch.
Fánao strung her bow with a single quick, practiced motion. “What do you say?” she whispered. She made a gesture of flicking two middle fingers forward. “Two seconds and he’s dead.”
“And his companion inside is warned,” Ŋar said. “Patience. Some minutes, and we can take care of them both.”
They waited, bows ready but loose in their hands, motionless, like cats waiting for a mouse to bolt from a hole. The man paced back and forth, looking from time to time at the torches, but more often staring impatiently at the door. Sometimes he kicked at pebbles on the floor, or cursed to himself, or swatted at insects, heedless of the noise he was making.
Fánao and Ŋar began to feel that they were not alone, but not with human companionship. The sense of dread from the trail had returned, and now deepened into gloom and despair. Their cheerful assurance disappeared: they no longer felt that they would escape alive from this dark dungeon; or worse, perhaps, they felt that only one of them could. Their dreams of the previous night returned to them, as waking nightmares. They could not look at each other; sweat poured down their faces as they tried to concentrate on the physical reality before them— the torch, the walls, the pacing man— instead of the horrible temptation to do each other harm and hoard what the treasure they might find alone.
The goddess awaketh, they heard. It was the voice of the skull.
They forced themselves to look around, expecting to see the strange statue walking on its tiny stone feet, swinging its bone arms. It was not there, but they felt the presence of the ghost.
Kâ awaketh. Ye are not safe here.
Though they could not see it, they felt it passing by them, and pausing.
Some power hath a priestess of Kâ. It is my boon to you, as return for yours to me. But the goddess hath far more; it were better that ye flee.
And it was gone. But they felt a lessening in the affliction of mind which had beset them. They could still sense it, but it was easier to master.
They watched the man pace back and forth a dozen more times, fling two more stones at scuttling insects, kick once more at some piece of wall that offended him; and then the door opened, and a woman came out, dressed in leather much like Ŋar’s, and truca sandals. She was laughing, holding aloft a huge sparkling blue gem.
“I have the Heart!” she exulted, loudly. “The Heart of Kâ! It’s mine!”
“Wonderful, my darling,” he replied.
They embraced, and danced around in their excitement.
“I got it, you understand,” she said, still holding him tightly.
The man seemed not to know what to do with this. “The old bitch will be happy,” he offered.
“Don’t you worry your head about that,” she said, soothingly. She still clutched the gem protectively in her hand, but caressed his back with her arm; her other arm curled round the other side, invisible to Fánao and Ŋar from where they stood.
He cried out suddenly; she held him tighter, still caressing. The two of them spun around suddenly, and now they could see that she was holding a knife in his side, jerking it through his flesh sickeningly, even as her other hand held him close to her chest. His own hands, already weakening, tried in vain to push her away.
Finally he slumped down, and she let him collapse onto the floor. His guts were a mass of blood; she pulled out her knife and kissed its bloodstained blade. “Goodbye, my love,” she said, in a voice which if they were blind would have sounded heartbreakingly sweet.
Fánao and Ŋar hesitated no longer; two arrows were loosed at the same moment, and they heard the soft thumps that told them that both had hit home. But the woman did not fall; with a quick look behind her she fled. They pursued.
As they passed the second torch they saw two arrows on the ground, still dripping with fresh blood. Perhaps the pain had maddened her to the point where she had the remaining strength to wrench them out. They expected at any moment to hear her collapsing to the ground. Instead she ran to the stairs and dashed up them.
They found her at the top of the second set of stairs, fallen backwards. One hand still clutched the bloody knife; the other was empty. But she had not died of the arrow wounds. A dagger protruded from her eye.
“It’s a dangerous neighborhood,” remarked Ŋar.
“It is,” said another voice.
They looked up. Ahead of them, in the clear space at the side of the sanctuary, stood a gray-haired woman in clerical toga. The Heart of Kâ, the size of an ox’s eyeball, gleamed at her breast; another throwing dagger was poised in her hand. They recognized her immediately; she was the abbess of the nunnery they had burglarized.
“Abbess Łáča,” said Fánao. “You didn’t seem the killing type.”
Her bow was in her hand, but not ready. However, Ŋar’s was taut, an arrow held ready to fire; they were in a deadly equilibrium.
“My good travelling tea merchants,” responded Abbess Łáča, conversationally, but without a hint of relaxation in the hand that held the dagger. “You didn’t seem the selling type. In fact— despite your admirable knowledge of varieties of tea, a lovely brushstroke to the portrait, I thought— I had a strong suspicion you were the celebrated Fánao and Ŋar, and I wondered very much what you found to interest you in my nunnery, which had no great treasures, at least since the despoliation of the last of the Barbarian Wars.”
“Sometimes there are spiritual treasures,” offered Fánao.
“There are indeed,” said the abbess, fingering the Heart. “You were careful to put the book back, but you couldn’t erase the signs of your passage, could you? And, as you may or may not know, a book which has been recently touched by human hands smells different than one which has laid in the dust for a century.
“A difficult book, maddeningly, wilfully obscure even; but the reference to treasure was clear, and if you two were involved, the metaphorical interpretation could be ruled out, could it not?”
There was no apparent signal; but Fánao dived to her left, just as Ŋar loosed her arrow. The dagger clattered on the floor just behind Fánao. But Ŋar had not correctly guessed the abbess’s throwing style; she had moved forward, and the arrow had only grazed one shoulder.
Nonetheless both companions were in the sanctuary now, slowly advancing; Ŋar had another arrow ready, while Fánao held the thief’s staff at an angle before her.
The abbess had had time to prepare herself as well. She held a third dagger in her hand, and now held a short sword in the other.
“Your first mistake,” she informed them calmly, “was in assuming that this forgotten volume, with its promises of treasure, would not be easily connected to the name of Kâ. It was evident, from the number of times you mentioned the east, that you were travelling to the west; and this is my homeland— I am very familiar with the legends of the temple of Kâ.”
“Betrayed by circumstance,” shrugged Fánao, lightly, taking another step forward.
“Betrayed by Kâ,” said the abbess.
She dashed, almost leapt forward. Ŋar’s bow twanged, but her arrow clattered uselessly in the debris in the center of the sanctuary. The abbess’s sword connected with Fánao’s staff, cracking it, but its steel core held. They exchanged blows, each fearsome swing parried by an expert countermove, darting about as if in a dance. Ŋar had another arrow ready, but bit her lip in frustration: the fighters moved about so quickly that she could as easily shoot her friend as her enemy. And the miasmic despair of Kâ, though not overpowering, still plucked at her; her mental eye showed her vision after vision of an arrow entering Fánao’s brain or heart.
Fánao was larger and slightly faster than the older woman; but the abbess was armed with two weapons, and Fánao had to devote a portion of her energy to defend against the dagger.
Infighting is difficult work, more so in the soul-sapping atmosphere of the temple. Fánao soon felt exhausted. Dancing about, dodging blows, swinging the heavy wooden staff— it was exhausting work, and she felt she couldn’t carry on much longer. Worse yet, she was underarmed: her staff was longer than the abbess’s sword, but it could only be used to bludgeon, not to cut. She had twice hit the abbess’s arms and once her left thigh, but these were less serious than the single cut she had received, in the left shoulder.
But the abbess was tiring as well, and wavered groggily at the end of one stroke. With a sudden rush of energy Fánao swung her staff at the extended sword, and knocked it out of the abbess’s hand. Her whole body was momentarily open before her; Fánao twisted the staff and thrust it forward, aiming for the spot just above the sternum. There was a horrible slipping resistance and a spray of blood as the staff pierced the abbess’s neck and came out the other side. The body slumped against the staff, almost pulling it out of her hands. Fánao collapsed with it; both bodies crumpled.
Disgustedly, Fánao disentangled herself and, still kneeling over the corpse, drew out the bloody staff and cast it aside.
Then she felt a pricking in her side, and froze. The blade slid from side to belly, pricking like a needle, not stabbing but communicating that it could do so immediately. Another confederate, she thought, hating herself for her carelessness in not noticing anyone approaching, and feeling a wave of anger at Ŋar for not stopping the intruder. Unless— horrible thought— the atmosphere of Kâ had triumphed, and the blade pricking her belly was her friend’s.
She looked down, and to her horror, saw that the blade was the throwing dagger, held by the abbess. She looked at the abbess’s neck; it was still bleeding, but, impossibly, seemed half-healed, as if she had received a serious wound there six months ago but had pulled through.
The abbess lifted herself up with the help of her other hand, never relaxing the pressure on the dagger, glancing at Ŋar to warn her, with a scowl, not to approach.
“You would normally expect, when you’ve killed a woman, that she would cease to be a threat,” she said. The staff in her neck had changed her voice; it was deeper now, and had a strangling, reedy quality. “And that was your second mistake: you knew nothing of the Heart of Kâ.
“You had no doubt heard, and scorned the knowledge, that Kâ was an evil goddess. Why do you think evil gods are worshipped? From fear?
“No. They offer power.”
Ŋar decided that, whatever the risk, the woman must be stopped. She began, slowly, to pull back on the arrow between her fingers.
Nay, she heard. Not yet.
Ŋar waited, though she cursed herself for taking orders from ghosts.
The abbess continued. “Kâ demands a terrible sacrifice, and offers a staggering reward. Not riches, as you ignorant cutpurses would imagine. Immortality.
“There are gods who offer power for murder; but murder is easy, and gains little. Kâ thrives on betrayal.
“I hired these thieves, and as I think you know, they betrayed each other, and I betrayed them. With each murder inspired by Kâ, Kâ gives a life. If I do not kill you yet, it is only because I am waiting for Kâ to lead you to betray each other.”
They understood now. They had killed the thief on the stairs— twice over. But she had taken the lives of two of her own confederates by betrayal, and Kâ had erased her two deaths. Only the third death— at the hands of her own employer— had truly killed her. But that death, that betrayal, had given the abbess the power to cheat death.
“I get it,” said Fánao. “Don’t you think it’s hard on your allies, though?”
“Too true, it is unwise to be a friend of an initiate of Kâ,” said the abbess. “But the rewards are unimaginable! I am immortal!”
She laughed. Now. Ŋar loosed her arrow— not directly at the abbess, but at the Heart of Kâ. The arrow struck the gem, breaking the gold strand that held it to the abbess’s neck; the gem rolled to the ground, and was lost in the debris . With an angry curse, the abbess made to dive after it; but stopped herself. It was enough, however: Fánao grabbed her wrist, then punched her hard in the side of the head.
The abbess pushed hard with the hand that held the dagger, but Fánao was stronger. And then the abbess’s grip relaxed, for Ŋar had approached and driven a knife into her heart.
The abbess collapsed; Fánao grabbed the dagger. This time they were ready. After a moment the abbess began to struggle again. “As many times as it takes,” Fánao told her, cutting her throat.
In fact it took four more deaths before the abbess was truly and entirely gone.
The companions immediately began looking for the Heart of Kâ, moving beams and tossing aside tiles and weeds until they saw the blue gem, which shone like a reflection of the stars now visible in the sky above.
Ŋar reached out for it, cursed, and dropped it. “Hot,” she said. She reached into her pack for a pair of gloves, put them on, and picked up the stone.
“Let me see,” said Fánao.
Ŋar turned toward her in sudden fear and anger. “I picked it up,” she said. “It’s mine.”
“We always divide evenly,” Fánao pointed out, hands held out placatingly, but with an edge in her voice.
“You can have anything else we find,” said Ŋar. “I want this.”
Be not fools, said the voice of the dead priestess of Kâ. Ye cannot possess a god.
“Not a god. Just her gem.”
In the gem is the goddess. Take it to your city, and Kâ will gain dominion over it, as she had dominion over this woman. Thousands will turn upon each other, and in dying produce an immortal.
“Gods pox it,” said Ŋar. “I knew something like this would come up. We had to rob a temple. What’s wrong with rich people?”
“So we have to leave it here?” asked Fánao.
Destroy it, on her own altar.
They were given no further instructions. They looked into the room: the altar was on a raised platform against the back wall. They made their way toward it, picking their way around encroaching vegetation, climbing over fallen beams. They climbed up on the platform and cleared the altar as best they could. It was carved deep with figures of demons, scarred by swinging sacrificial knives, its crevices still stained with blood. In back of the altar was an enormous statue of the goddess; they were rather glad that it was mostly hidden by overgrowing vines, showing only hints of its grinning teeth and deep malevolent eyes.
One more time the temptation washed over each of them: Destroy your companion before she destroys you. Take me for yourself. You will be immortal.
Shuddering, Ŋar placed the gem on top of the altar, wedging it in a crevice so it would not slip away. It was difficult to let go of it: it no longer felt hot, but cool and soothing. But then she remembered the sight of the thief in the cellar caressing and murdering her lover, and found the strength to let it go.
Fánao had found a large rock. She lifted it above her head and smashed it down on the blue gem.
The blow must have reached a weak spot in the gem; it shattered. And as it was driven into the crevice of the altar, the altar itself cracked, and as they watched fell apart into two pieces.
The spiritual miasma which they had struggled against all day wavered and dissipated; the effect was like a sudden drunkenness. They felt energetic and exhilarated.
There were deep creakings and rumblings, as if the blow had, impossibly, weakened the structure of the ancient building. There was a distant crash.
“Oh no,” said Ŋar, springing down from the platform, dodging and jumping into the cleared space, and disappearing out the back door.
“You god-pocked stupid rifter half-wit,” screamed Fánao. “Where are you going?”
She picked her way more carefully to the edge of the sanctuary, passed through the door, and stood at the top of the stairs, next to the fallen thief. She could hear the footsteps of Ŋar below her, and also alarming creaks and crashes. An enormous crack appeared in the wall of the sanctuary; the ground trembled.
“I’m not coming down after you, you idiot,” she shouted down the stairs.
But she walked down, holding a hand to the wall to steady herself. She could feel the whole temple vibrating. Another enormous crash echoed below her. There was no sign of Ŋar.
There was a choice of ways at the bottom of the stairs; Fánao pictured taking the wrong one, and wandering uncertainly and alone in the temple catacombs until they collapsed around her. She waited, wondering how long she could risk staying.
And then there was Ŋar, running toward her, with a feline strength and grace. “Get out,” she shouted, waving at the stairs, as if Fánao was the insane one.
They dashed up the stairs just as the back wall of the sanctuary crumbled into ruin. They had to move a table-sized block of stone blocking their way, then plunged down the corridor where they had encountered the skull.
When they came to its niche, it was empty— statue, bones, and skull had disappeared.
“I hope she’s at rest,” said Fánao.
They came out of the building, ran to the edge of the grounds, and watched as the great tower wavered, cracked, and crashed into the temple, raising a great cloud of dust. Pieces of rock chunked into the mud around them. Then there was silence.
They trudged through the jungle, using a torch now in order to follow their own footprints. They were tired, sweaty, covered in dust and grime. Fánao had a new bandage wrapped round her waist and another around her shoulder.
“What got into you?” asked Fánao. “Did you want to get killed?”
“We couldn’t take the gem, but I figured it couldn’t be the only treasure,” said Ŋar.
“So you ran down to see.”
“So was there anything?”
“It figures,” said Fánao.
Ŋar broke into a grin. “I’m lying,” she said, and pulled a small cloth out of her pack. She unrolled it; inside was a double handful of gems, gold, and silver.
Fánao laughed, and clapped Ŋar on the back.
“Is there more?”
“Probably, but we’d have to hire a troop of elcari to dig it out.”
“This’ll keep us in lads, liquor, and lodging for awhile,” said Fánao.
“It’ll do that,” said Ŋar.
They took the road to Janse.