“Here, Gudo, let me hold the candelabra.”
The voice came from out of the darkness. A deep voice. A powerful voice of measured resonance. A calm voice. A voice only a god could command in such a dreaded place.
Two creatures — queen and slave — stood clutching each other in terror in the middle of a brightly illuminated sphere of candle light. Surrounding them was the eerie shadows of a shunned place. A place of many dark secrets kept. A place where terror lived.
Just beyond their vision footsteps — slow and measured — moved away from them. They heard the slight clink of steel weaponry clanging against weaponry. They heard the flapping sounds of night creatures flying through the darkness above their heads. They heard the moans. The deep, almost imperceptible moans of something . . . unnatural . . . drawing them deeper and deeper into the forbidden wing.
And now — the voice. It was too much for the portly, treble-chinned slave to endure. An effeminate, high-pitched scream escaped from his lips as the painted eyes of a palace slave rolled up into his head. He legs collapsed outward and as he dropped to his knees, the hand holding the candelabra beginning to fall to the floor. But just before he pitched forward onto the white and black marbled floor of the palace wing, the image of a gloved hand and the hairy arm of a man came out of the wall of blackness and took the candelabra from the unconscious form as he feel to the floor.
Shonja — Empress of the Akkamaedian Empire — tried to catch the slave as he fell to the hard marble palace floor. But the slave was too heavy. He fell at her feet as she turned and, with a long steel blade of a finely wrought dagger in one hand, faced the hand holding the candelabra with fire and determination in her beautiful eyes.
She was stunning to behold. Dressed in layers of translucent white linen, long black hair flew around her shoulders as she turned to face this unseen menace. A flashing glimpse of her ample bosom, matched by a glimpse of a sculptured leg and muscular thigh, was known to make men strong of heart falter with desire. Many considered her the most beautiful woman in the empire. But all knew here as Queen — wife to the new Hobai-clan Emperor Timure.
Flashing green eyes lit with fire and fury she stood, feet apart, holding the long blade of the thin dagger with a practiced, dangerous ease. There was no doubt she knew how to use it. There was no doubt she knew how to kill. There was no fear. No hesitation. She would fight whatever demon faced her and die as the Queen and Hobai kinsman she was before she would leave the slave to face his fate alone.
Standing over the prostrate form of the fallen slave she saw the barest outline of a figure standing just beyond the source of light. A tall creature — a man — dressed in the dark wine-red tunic of a IVth Cohort centurion. Across his right shoulder and covering his right arm was the wine red fold of a horseman’s riding cape. His bare legs wore the bronze sheaves of a warrior, as his wide feet were sandaled with the plain but durable leather of a legionnaire.
Unlike the fallen slave who had held the candelabra with a hand that shook violently from his fear this man’s gloved hand was as steady as rock itself. Lifting it higher up the centurion stepped closer to the woman in front of him, a wicked smile of sheer mischief playing across his thin lips.
“By the gods, Gammon Xerxes. You scared half a year’s growth out of me with that trick of yours.”
Shonja lowered the blade of her weapon slightly and relaxed minutely — but her eyes were filled with fire and fury and they were aimed directly at him. An easy, boyish roll of playful laughter escaped from his lips as he stepped completely into the light to reveal himself.
“Cousin. You know I could not help myself. Poor Gudo was about to faint anyway. I had to take the candelabra from him before he swooned.”
Blond, curly hair — uncombed yet clean and manly to behold. Brown eyes flashing with mirth and the light of mischievous youth. A wicked, seductive smirk on his lips, creating dimples deep enough to make the hearts of a frigid nun to melt with a desire to pull him to her breast to caress. This was Gammon Xerxes. He moved with a warrior’s grace — a desert sandman’s silent ease. Indeed, he was both warrior and sandman.
He was blood relative to both Queen and Emperor. Blood relative and, as fate would have it, a sandman of unique talents. He was Wo’rishu. A Mage of the Wo’rishu sect of magic. Here by imperial command. Here by an oath of fealty sworn by him to his blood kin cousin, Timure. Here to protect his Hobai kinsmen from the dark magic legend and history told would haunt any tribesman from the Great Walking Sands if they again acquired the emperor’s throne. As Timure and his queen only recently claimed.
“You’ve come unbidden, cousin. You knew?”
“Aye,” the grinning warrior nodded, half turning and lifting the candelabra higher over his head as he peered into the darkness in front of him. “I felt its growing presence last week. I felt it growing stronger with each passing hour. I suspected it would call for Timure tonight.”
“Tonight?” the beautiful woman repeated, her eyes filling with confusion. “Why tonight?”
“Tut, tut . . . the curse, cousin. The curse. Remember not our history lessons given to us when we were youngsters residing in the Blue Waters Oasis?”
The curse . . .
Two hundred years ago the Emperor Tulan commanded the Akkamaedian Empire. Hobai clansman from the deep and forbidden White Desert. A brilliant general. A masterful tactician. An astute politician. And unmistakably quite mad in the last two years of his rein. On this night two hundred years earlier, a night called the First Night of All Hallows Eve, when the moon called Gorsihu — Mother Goddess — and the smaller moon called Gamak — The Follower — both reached the highest vault in the heavens and looked down upon the blue and white enameled walls of Akkad, the curse had been given. A curse that doomed the last two Hobai clansman who claimed the throne to violent and bloody deaths.
“Two hundred years ago, when both moons bathed the palace walls of Akkad, the Emperor Tulan, in the madness of a jilted lover, killed the only daughter to his court mage with a bloody dagger. Her name was Soya.”
In the darkness both Shonja and Gammon heard the unmistakable sound of a woman’s scream. Soft the sound came as if from far, far away. But a scream unmistakable. A scream of terror.
Shonja leapt toward her cousin, her dagger flashing in the candle light, as she faced the unseen. Again, her eyes lit up with defiance and fury. Again, she was ready to fight to the death whatever evil stirred in the darkness around them.
“The emperor’s mage, a powerful magician by the name of Gralok, seeing his only child struck down by the mad emperor, could not save her. As she died, he too went quite mad. Leaping to the top of the balcony rail in the emperor’s quarters he plunged to his death in grief. But, before he leapt into the night he cursed the emperor — cursed the Hobai all — with the Korishu. Any clansman who dared to claim the throne would die from the monster called up from the pits of Hell. The Korishu.”
“And . . . ,” the empress began in a whisper of dread turning to stare at her kinsmen with beautiful green eyes. “The Korishu has risen again. It calls for my husband. It calls for Timure!”
At their feet, the outlandishly dressed and perfumed figure of Gudo stirred and pushed himself up into a setting position. With an effort, the portly eunuch came to his feet with one bejeweled hand pressed against his forehead as he turned and bowed to his queen.
“Forgive me, my queen. I . . . I am not a brave creature. Court politics and intrigues and have mastered. But . . . but magic! The Korishu! I . . . I have no defense for such dark ways.”
Shonja, desert kinsmen and Hobai long used to living among free-born clansmen who despised slavery in all its forms, reached out with a hand and gripped the effeminate creature by a shoulder and squeezed it fondly. A smile played across her beautiful dark lips as she stepped closer to the servant and kissed him on his forehead.
The city of Akkad was a world unto itself. A vast hartlot of mysteries and sins. The center of the empire. Here slavery flourished. Here the palace, nay the empire itself, relied on palace slaves to run the empire with efficiency and cohesion. Here, for generations, Gudo and his kinsmen had loyally served their emperors with unflinching devotion.
“Go, old friend. Go. Return to the safety of the outer palace. Gammon and I will find the emperor and rescue him. Go. You have proved both loyalty and devotion to me this night.”
Gudo bowed his head. But, made no move to leave. Gammon, dark brown eyes playing across the slave’s face, grunted and nodded.
“Nay, good queen. Your servant must stay with us this night if we are to free the emperor from this curse.”
“What?” Shonja muttered, surprise on her beautiful face as she looked first at the slave and then at her tall desert kinsman. “Gammon, play not tricks on me again this night. Explain yourself.”
But before warrior and mage could answer from out of the darkness came the roar of a hundred voices. A roar of maddening terror. A roar which even made the tall warrior step back to shield his kinsman and queen with one arm as he drew his sword with the other. Frowning, the brown eyed mage half turned and glanced at his queen.
“The Korishu has sensed our presence. Hurry. We must reach the Emperor Tulan’s quarters before Timure finds them!”
Gammon leapt forward and began running toward the source of the unspeakable terror. Both queen and servant followed. Down wide marbled floors of black and white mosaic designs dulled by two hundred years of gathered dust the three ran. Past towering black and white marble pillars, each pillar scrimshawed in intricate designs of gold and silver wire they moved. Deeper into the abandoned hall of the palace they ran. Deeper into the gathering gloom and darkness of a long sealed tomb of an ancient Hobai emperor.
Above their heads formless black shadows soared. Ghostly forms flashed into partial view at the corners of their eyes. But every time they turned to peer into the darkness they saw nothing. Yet in front of them came the snarling, hissing sound of the retreating monster known as the Korishu. As they raced on and on into the darkness the foul smell of something rotten and unclean grew in their nostrils. Yet not once did they spy the fiend. Finally, after some minutes of mad pursuit, the blond haired mage slowed and then came to a halt. Lifting candelabra high over his head he peered into the darkness, turning around slowly in the process, eyeing the portion of the north wing of the palace no living mortal had seen for more than two hundred years. Both queen and slave, gasping for air, huddled close to the warrior and peered into the darkness as well.
They found themselves in a gigantic circular room. A circular room that had marbled walls hidden by the stunning beauty of woven tapestries ablaze in hundreds of bright and wonderful colors. Here and there suits of ancient armor — armor worn by warriors from many regions of the Akkamaedian Empire — stood silently gazing at them. And overhead the most stunning beauty of all. A high domed ceiling of bronze. Bronze panels etched with ornate designs of ancient hunters in a pastoral wonderland where wild game of all shapes and sizes gazed down at them with eyes made of diamonds and rubies.
“Tulan’s throne room,” Gudo the slave hissed, his eyes wide in both amazement and terror, as he stared up at the ceiling and then around him at the tapestries. “That means . . . through that door will we find the private quarters of the emperor.”
Both queen and mage stared in the direction the slave pointed toward. In front of them were bronze doors fifteen feet high. Bronze sculptures of two warriors, one Hobai and the other Tamal, standing with swords drawn and ancient shields at the ready to stop any who might intrude into the emperor’s quarters. Bronze sculptures cast by master bronze smiths long dead.
One of the giant doors was partially open. And in the fine coating of heavy dust which covered the mosaic marbled floors the unmistakable signs of some creature huge and terrible had just recently come this way.
“Timure may not have arrived yet, my queen.” Gammon Xerxes said, smiling suddenly with impish delight as he gripped his sword and took a step toward the opened door. “We must hurry and confront this beast if we are to save him from this curse.”
An imperious voice. A queen’s command! A voice that had long been trained and accustomed to being obeyed. Since childhood Shonja of the Blue Waters Oasis gens of the Hobai clan had been trained to someday become Queen. She had been groomed and tutored on how to shape her voice to match the steel of her will. There was no doubt her command would be obeyed. Obey Gammon Xerxes did.
He turned and faced the woman with the flashing eyes and stunning beauty and gazed directly into her eyes unflinchingly. One of the only kinsmen — next to Timure himself — who had ever done so and not faltered in the process.
“Explain yourself, Gammon Xerxes. Why must a loyal slave follow us into the lair of this monster? And what meant you when you said we could free Timure of this curse?”
Behind Gammon’s back came a strange and unsettling sound. It was like bronze ripped and torn to shred by the hands of a god. Shonja’s eyes widened in terror. Gudo screamed as Gammon turned and stared at the bronze doors in front of him.
Hobai and Tamal warriors cast in bronze were coming alive! In halting, jerking movements fifteen foot tall bronze warriors were pulling themselves from out of the bronze of the doors! As they tore themselves free, their faces contorted in masks of horrific pain. Yet they griped their weapons and turned to face Gammon, raising their shields as they prepared to do battle.
“There is a way to kill the curse, Shonja. Two ways, to be truthful. But before we discuss this I suggest we run. Run this way!”
The Wo’rishu mage danced to one side as the Tamal giant swung his gigantic bronze sword toward him. The blade sailed over Gammon’s head as he turned and gripped Shonja by an arm and almost threw her bodily through the now shredded bronze door and into the emperor’s quarters. Behind him Gudo screamed a warning. Turning, the mage saw the sword of his bronze Hobai kinsmen descending down upon his skull in a killing blow.
He threw a hand up as if to rip the giant sword from the bronze warrior’s grasp. As he extended his arm fully the tips of his fingers began to glow in a blaze of searing white light. White light from each finger merged into one thick beam and the beam flashed upward toward the descending bronze blade. When blade and light touched there was the roar of a thousand waterfalls and the blade vaporized into a swirling white steam.
“Run!” Gammon yelled at the slave as he backed away from both bronze warriors and shielded the fleeing slave from their wrath. “Run and find your queen!”
The Tamal warrior screamed in rage and lunged at the throat of the Wo’rishu mage. But Gammon’s fire-tipped fingers waved again. Again bronze vaporized in cloud of swirling steam.
“Silence your hearts will be!” screamed Gammon in the imperial inflexion as he aimed his hand toward the bronze warriors. “And in this silence your souls shall be free!”
Before his eyes bronze turned to the translucent color of glacier blue ice. Cracks appeared in the ice, first one or two in each, and then both warriors disintegrated into thousand pieces of ice raining down upon the black marble floor.
Moments later Shonja ran into his arms and hugged him close to her.
“Wo’rishu magic is superior to the dark magic of the Malage.”
The imperial mage of the court two hundred years ago practiced the dark arts of the Malage. Powerful magic. Terrible magic. Magic never encountered before by a Wo’rishu mage.
“Perhaps, perhaps not,” Gammon said, pulling himself away from his cousin and turning to look behind him as if to make sure nothing made of bronze followed them. “But we must hurry if we are to save your husband.”
“How? How do you end this curse against the Hobai?” she yelled as she began running after the Wo’rishu mage rapidly disappearing into the darkness ahead of her.
On they ran through magnificent rooms of grandeur and wealth. But shortly they passed through the doors of a set of rooms and entered what was without question the private sleeping quarters of an emperor. As they entered their eyes all turned toward the horrific sight directly in the middle of the room. A sight when made Shonja gasp in terror.
Floating in the air seven feet above the carpeted floor of the room, with arms and legs outstretched as if he had been lashed to an executioner’s cross, was the bloody and mangled form of the Akkamadian emperor. Held in the air by unseen forces, Timure twisted slowly around as if on a cooking spit, his royal robes ripped to shreds, his outstretched arms and feet dripping long streams of blackened blood in the semi-darkness of the room.
“Timure!” Shonja screamed, taking a step toward her husband.
Gammon pulled her back to his side as he gazed at the sight of his beaten and battered kinsmen hanging in the air.
“There are two ways to kill a Korishu, my queen.”
Shonja tore her eyes from the form of her unconscious husband and stared at her kinsman. But Gammon’s eyes were not on the floating from of the emperor. Instead he was staring to one side, toward the opened doors leading out onto the emperor’s balcony where, in the brilliant silvery moonlight of Gorishu and Gormak, stood the portly form of the slave Gudo.
“Either the Korishu kills the last Hobai kinsman who has claim to the throne. Or the one who first summoned the Korishu must die.”
“The one who summoned the . . . ,” began the queen, confused, as she turned to stare at her loyal slave. “But Gralok died two hundred years ago.”
The handsome but grim faced Wo’rishu smiled mirthlessly and shook his head no, his eyes never leaving the silver lit form of a confused looking palace eunuch. And then, silently, he nodded his head toward the slave in a silent gesture for his queen to look again.
In the moonlight, the countenance and features of the effeminate slave began to change before her eyes. Where once had been the bald, heavily cosmetically painted servant began to drastically morph. Somehow the slave’s chins began to fade. The softness in the creature’s face began to harden. The shape of the eyes changed. The shape of his nose changed and hardened. As the light of the twin moons grew brighter, a cruel, vicious grin appeared on the creature’s lips.
“Everyone believes a Korishu is some kind of foul creature — a terrible and bloody monster with fangs and a lust to drink the blood of their victims. But a Korishu is far worse than that, my queen. Far worse.”
The creature that once was Gudo lifted a hand up and ripped from his chest most of the red and green silk of the Hobai from him as he stepped out of the moon light and entered the emperor’s quarters. With a powerful and confident stride, the thing stepped closer to the suspended Timure and glared up at the unconscious form with a sense of triumph radiating from his features. Slowly he turned and glared at the Wo’rishu and his queen greedily.
“A Korishu is a curse, my queen,” Gammon began, sliding smoothly in front of the wordless Shonja as his right hand began to glow a gathering white light. “But it is a curse made to the dark Malage gods to give the soul of the one asking his full revenge — to live for as long as there is a need to wreck vengeance on all who have wronged him.”
“But . . . but Gudo?” she whispered in disbelief.
“The slave you know as Gudo still lives, Shonja. He is still the loyal servant we’ve known since childhood. But his body has been taken over by the soul of Gralok. The Malage court magician has passed from one body to the next for more than two hundred years, waiting . . . waiting to exact his revenge on any Hobai clansman who claims the Akkamaedian throne.”
“As I will have it tonight, Wo’rishu,” the creature in front of them snalred in a voice not human. “For tonight with the death of both Timure and his queen I end the Hobai royal lineage. No desert sandman will again sit on the throne of the Akkamaedians after this night!”
The Korishu threw up both hands and pointed them at the Wo’rishu. A bolt of brilliant yellow light formed and shot straight at the blond haired mage. Wo’rishu magic finally confronting the dark magic of the Malage. The bolt of raw power almost slammed into the body of Gammon with its full force. But at the last moment the brown eyed mage brought his glowing white hand up, palm outward, and took the blow straight on.
“By the forces of the Guiding Light,
By the Will of Justice overcoming Might,
Tonight this Evil ends. Tonight the curse grows quiet!”
Power unleashed! Power of the damned poured from the hands of the Korishu. But power absorbed into the white shield projected in front of the Gammon’s glowing hand. Triumphantly the Korishu built his dark energy into a massive exhibition of power and strength. Gleefully he expected at any moment the white shield protecting Wo’rishu and Hobai queen to waver and then extinguish altogether. At any moment, he expected court mage and queen to be consumed by his yellow beam — to be incinerated completely before his eyes. But as seconds ticked by, and as he felt his energy begin to wane the Korishu’s expression began to change from triumph to disbelief! The Wo’rishu’s white shield continued to absorb his evil. Desperation over taking him, Gralok tried to break off his attack and flee. But he could not. Every time he tried to lower his arms and end his attack some unseen force gripped him forearms with a powerful clasp of strength, and kept them uplifted and aimed at the Wo’rishu.
The creature howled in furious disbelief!
Dark energy drained from his soul. Emptiness engulfed him. And then — in the blinking of an eye — the fiery pits of hell opened up before his eyes and the soul of Gralok began falling in that terribly long descent into eternity.
Where once stood the monster called the Korishu now stood the whitened and weakened form of the eunuch called Gudo — where once Evil held in mid-air the bloody form of the Emperor Timure, now silence reined. Both emperor and slave fell to the floor of the emperor’s quarters simultaneously.
With a scream of relief, the Empress Shonja ran to her husband and fell to her knees beside him. Gammon, watching his kinsmen kiss the slowly awakening Timure as she held him close to her, moved onto the moon lit balcony and turned to look at empress and emperor one more time.
An impish grin creased his lips as he lifted a hand up to his brow and saluted the two lovers.
“Your welcome, my queen! Your servant, my emperor!”
And with these words he leapt over the marble balcony railing and disappeared into the night as the light of Gorishu and Gamak merged into one eerie glowing sheen of blue-white incandescence.
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