BEYOND THE GATES OF DEATH
Third Blade : Al-Amaud
The day after
Lomstat Wolf was wandering in the streets of Zaïran-jan, after having spent the night on the sewers, as it was the surest way to escape the strange Fur he encountered last night. Fortunately, he was right, but he was now carrying a definitely unpleasant scent with him... Passers-by, even Humans, despite their poor smelling, tend to avoid him. It suited the Folf just fine, as he wanted to be left alone for a moment. Unfortunately for him, it was a market day in the city, so he had to take the tiniest streets to arrive to his destination: The Caliph’s Palace. Lomstat knew perfectly that he wouldn’t be allowed to enter the Palace by the main entrance, because, one, he hasn’t been invited, two, he smelled too awful at the moment to be granted the access... So, he reached the rear of the Palace, and looked for fissures in the wall. He could have used his wings to simply fly on the top of the wall, but he wanted to remain stealthy, and so has decided to climb rather than to fly. After having climbed the dry, almost burning stones, under the harsh sun of the Burning Sands; Lomstat finally reached an opened window. He leapt inside the Palace, and quickly moved inside a patch of shadows, in order to conceal himself. It was a good move, as, a few seconds later, some guards patrolling the corridors arrived. They didn’t notice Lomstat, however. After all, a trained Assassin is supposed to go unnoticed when working... After the guards have left the corridor, Lomstat raised himself, and moved swiftly but silently in the nearly labyrinthine corridors. Lomstat reasoned that, in this hour of the day, the Caliph would surely be in the Inner Pool of the Palace. Lomstat, as a good Assassin has already visited the whole Palace, to discover the secret entrances, the treasure rooms, and so on... After having moved through the well decorated corridors, Lomstat finally reached a great brass door. He glanced at his right, then at his left, and, seeing no one, he opened silently the door and entered swiftly, closing the door behind him, without a noise. The Folf was lucky, as no guards were on the room... The Caliph has always preferred taking his baths alone. The Folf looked around... The Inner Pool was constituted of a huge, circular pool carved in marble. Several columns, zaïrani style, were making a kind of stone forest all around the pool. An orange-pink stone forest. Lomstat moved forward, automatically hiding behind each column, until he reached the final line of columns. He quickly glanced toward the pool full of water, and saw the fat Caliph bathing nonchalantly. This image evoked to the Folf some kind of whale lost on a shore... The Assassin approached silently, and kneeled at the edge of the pool, thinking that the smell of the Caliph was really poor...
-“Hello, your majetsy...”
The sudden jump of surprise of the Caliph made Lomstat smiling a bit. The bag of fat removed the cloth he had on his eyes, and looked at the Assassin. When he recognized him, the Caliph get really afraid...
-“Whatever they have paid you, I’ll offer the double!!!”
Lomstat smiled frankly, and was tempted to play along with the Caliph. But the memory of the wolf made him stopped.
-“You misunderstood, your majesty. I’m not here to kill you. If I’m here, it’s to ask your highness to help me...”
The Caliph regained his composure, and tried to restore a bit of his dignity. He even returned to the ‘We of majesty’ he had dropped before.
-“Yes, sure, we are truly grateful for what you’ve done. How can we of any help?”
-“Well, your majesty, last night I’ve been attacked by some kind of rogue magician...”
-“This is intolerable! We shall call in the Guards and punish this fool that dared to attack a trustworthy citizen of Zaïran-jan!”
-“No, no, no, your majesty, I don’t think the Guards could do anything against him. You see, this magician has reanimated the corpses of five thugs I’ve killed...”
-“Whatever. The magician, a wolf, by the way, has reanimated their corpses, and they attacked me. I’ve succeeded in destroying them definitely, and then, the wolf said that he would kill me. I was wondering, your majesty, if you could allow me to look into your library, in order to find some clues about this magician...”
The Caliph seemed to think about it for a while.
-“Hmmm... A magician Wolf, that raises the dead... We dare to think that it might be a Necromancer...”
-“A rare kind of magician, specialized in death related magic. We are sorry, but our library has no book or scroll on this topic...”
Lomstat was disappointed, he hoped to find at least more info on his opponent.
-“However, we think of a place in which you could find what you wanted to know.”
-“Really? What is it?”
-“The Keep of the Order of the Eagle Claw, also known as Al-Amaud, ‘The Eagle
Nest’... They have the most famous library concerning Magic in all the Burning Sands. You should go there.”
-“Great. I’m really grateful, your majesty. How can I reach this Keep?”
-“It’s not that simple... The Keep is placed in a no man’s land, between multiple kingdoms... The Order of the Eagle Claw has pulled out every one that didn’t belong to their Order. They’re fierce warriors and truly good assassins... They’re feared in all the Burning Sands... However, they are caravans, that go to the Keep, once a month. The next caravan shall quit Zaïran-jan today, we believe. If you want to reach Al-Amaud quickly, you should go now.”
-“Thank you. Thank you greatly, your majesty.”
With that, Lomstat left the Caliph, and get out of the Inner Pool as he entered it: swiftly, silently and unnoticed. The Caliph reassured to see the Assassin leaving the place, resumed his bath, replacing the black cloth over his eyes. Something like 10 minutes has passed, when the Caliph felt something strange, something that sent chills run down his spine, despite the hot water he was bathing in. Scared to death, he slowly removed the cloth from his eyes. He saw, at first, two black boots. Then, raising his gaze, he saw an armour made of metal and bones, and then, the white and blank gaze of the Necromancer Wolf. The Caliph whined in fear, and moved a bit in his water, splashing drops of water everywhere... He began to scream in order to call the Guards, but the Wolf raised one paw, and closed his fist, and, suddenly, the Caliph took his paws to his throat, his tongue spurting out of his muzzle under the magical strangle.
-“Stop it now, and I’ll release my grip. Understood?”
The Caliph nodded in agreement, as best he could. The Wolf opened his fist, but kept his paw raised, just in case of. The Caliph breathed heavily a few times, trying to catch back his breath.
-“An Assassin has visited you. Correct?”
The Caliph nodded again, not because he couldn’t speak, but because he didn’t dare to.
-“He has left, now. Where will he go?”
The Caliph looked at the Necromancer. And then, finally decided that his life worth much than the one of an Assassin...
-“He departed to Al-Amaud... The next caravan goes today...”
-“Hmmmm... Al-Amaud... Where it is placed?”
-“Somewhere... Somewhere in the Blackrock Mountains... I don’t know more...”
The Wolf looked at the Caliph a few moments, before letting his paw rest on his flank.
-“Yes, you said true... So, I shall follow this trail...”
The Wolf then stepped forward, getting closer to the afraid Caliph, who whimpered violently under the blank gaze of the Necromancer.
-“Caliph, there is someone who wants to talk to you...”
The wolf closed his eyes, and murmured a few incomprehensible words... Suddenly, a cold breeze blew in the Inner Pool, and all lights seemed to get weaker. The Caliph observed this increasing fear. And, out of nowhere, a ghostly face appeared in front of the Caliph.
-“R... R... Raïsha?” The Caliph muttered.
Soon, the whole body of the weasel appeared, in some ghostly shape. This first apparition was soon followed by another one. And another one. And another one... The Caliph looked at each new apparition, letting each time a frightened scream out of his lips. After a while, a whole assembly of ghosts was gathered around the Caliph. And they began to whisper, to mutter, to cackle, although the Caliph could not understand what they were saying. But each word was adding an ounce of angst inside his soul...
-“They have all come, Caliph. All those you murdered, all those you tortured, all those you raped. They have all come... For you.”
With that, all the ghosts began to approach the Caliph, who shivered from all his body. And they touched him, with their cold, skeletal hands and paws. The Caliph shrieked in horror, screamed with angst, howled with total fear, as all the ghosts continue to touch him slightly... The guards, hearing the Caliph’s screams arrived quickly, but found the bras door closed, and not letting itself being opened By any one. His eyes still closed, the Necromancer was using the help of some ghosts to make the door impossible to open. Then, the Wolf raised his paw, letting his claws to shine a bit at the eerie light of the Inner Pool. And the Wolf dived his paw on the Caliph chest, piercing his heart, his eyes still closed… The Caliph gasped, and blood dripped out of his muzzle...
Suddenly, the brass door was opened wide, and a Wolf cloaked in a black hood walked out of the Inner Pool. The cloak was flying in the air, due to a cold wind running through all the Palace; a wind that made the guards falling away, out of the passage of the Necromancer. The Wolf left the room, and, behind him, could be seen the dead body of the Caliph, on the edge of the pool, as his blood was slowly tainting the waters in red...
Fourth Blade: The Caravan
Lomstat achieved to find a place on the departing caravan, in exchange of one of the gems he earned from the Caliph. The Folf noticed that the price on this caravan was were really high, and the gem was enough for a simple place, but he soon know why: The caravan had several mages with it, and a tremendous amount of soldiers. He guessed that either the goods transported in the caravan were fairly precious, either that the travel in itself was quite dangerous. Or both... Lomstat didn’t bother to know more, and simply take his seat in one vardo of the caravan. The vardo on which he climbed was quite large, with cushions, and a brasero. It was obvious that it was built in order to sleep inside. The Folf secretly hoped that no one would climb in the vardo with him, as he wanted to remain alone with his thoughts... To his high displeasure, a few minutes before the departure of the caravan, a Fur who’s body and face was hidden under a deep blue robe entered the Vardo, and sat down in front of him, silently. Lomstat said nothing, as he didn’t want to engage a discussion with the newcomer, and thought about his plans… The Caliph said that the Order of the Eagle Claw was an Order of assassins… As an assassin himself, he thought that he might discuss with them more easily than the common mortals. And, if not, he may try to enter in the Order… After all, he might as well learn a few tricks… Lomstat’s train of thoughts was snapped by the newcomer soft voice, a bit twisted by the heavy dark blue robe:
-“Where are you going, sir? Do you follow the White Path?”
A bit puzzled by the question, and as he didn’t want to talk too much about himself, he decided to be as unpleasant as possible:
-“None of your business.”
-“I see… You know, this caravan passes by ten different places, before returning to Zaïran-jan… You should better know where to climb down…”
Lomstat thought for a while, wondering if he could reveal to this stranger where he’ll want to arrive… He didn’t know much about Necromancy, but he suspected the stranger to be a spy for the Wolf. But maybe was he a bit too paranoid?
-“You know the places the caravan might cross during the travel?” Lomstat casually asked to the stranger.
-“Oh! Certainly… The caravan will cross five villages… Lessee… Bagdanna, Lyzan-jhor, Razine, Salamatuk, Jinnada… Or Salamatuk before Razine? I always forget… After that the caravan will cross the Blood Sands, but won’t stop there…”
-“Why?” Lomstat interrupted, puzzled by the name.
-“Because it was a battlefield ages ago. There was a battle here leaded by two cruel Lords. It is said that the combats were so fierce that the sands remained red for many years… You see, here in the Burning Sands, we believe this to be a bad omen… We prefer remaining as far as possible from the memories of such hideous bloodsheds… After having crossed the Blood Sands, we’ll arrive to the Blackrock Mountains… Here, some Ama-iz-jaqtaari will wait for the caravan delivery…”
-“Members of the Order of the Eagle Claw. Singular ‘Ama-iz-jaq-taar’. Ama. Iz. Jaq. Taar… Assassins and warrriors. They are also said to be the best scholars in all the Burning Sands.” The stranger sniggered a little. “You see, with dislike big bloodsheds, but occasional assassinations isn’t as shunned… Sometimes, by killing the right person at the right moment, we can prevent wars…”
-“It’s a good philosophy” Lomstat simply approved.
-“Heh… The Ama-iz-jaqtaar, the Order in his whole, approved this, too… Well, after the Blackrock Mountains, we’ll stop at the four capitals of the four caliphdoms, that is to say…”
Lomstat didn’t listen to what’s followed, but did his best to look interested. He didn’t want the stranger to believe that only the Ama-iz-jaqtaar interested him… In the case he would be one of the Necromancer’s spy. Lomstat tried to remember the name the mage has given, but he had some difficulties… The Necromancer’s name didn’t really impress his mind. At one moment, the stranger asked him about his duties and job in the Burning Sands.
-“Hmmm... I offer my services to those that require them... Generally, it involves a high pay at the end...”
-“You’re some kind of mercenary, aren’t you?”
-“Yes, we could say that.”
-“Well... Will you accept a contract for the duration of the travel?”
-“Depends”, Lomstat answered suspiciously.
-“Hmmm... It’s rather simple. Will you protect a woman in this caravan?”
Lomstat thought about it for a moment. And then:
-“How much will you pay?”
-“Depends” The stranger replied, a hint of irony in his voice. “To be serious, I’ll pay 450 gold...”
-“We don’t have to continue this discussion...” Lomstat said, turning his head toward the window, showing how ridiculous the offer was.
-“... Plus twice this price once we’ve reached our destination.”
-“Which is?” Lomstat said suddenly interested.
-“A little village at the feet at the Blackrock Mountains. You’ll receive your gold, and then, we’ll let you continue your travel to your destination. We won’t disturb much more.”
-“At the feet of the Blackrock Mountains?”
-“... I accept you offer.”
-“Great. I’ll send you the woman you’ll have to protect, with a bag of gold, with the first part of your pay. She’ll be here in less than half a hour. Her name’s Jarana Iz-Azwan.”
The stranger then stood up and climbed down the Vardo, closing the wooden door behind him. Lomstat relaxed in his seat, pleased to be alone again. That’s when he noticed he didn’t succeed in smelling the scent of the stranger... Actually, he remember the smell, quite pleasant, something like wood, leaves and roses... But he didn’t discern any hint of Fur scent... Maybe the stranger was one of the few decadent Furs that was imitating the Humans by covering themselves with heavy non-natural perfumes... Or, he was a spy, hiding his scent behind an ‘odour mask’... In both cases, Lomstat cursed himself for having accepted this contract... At this moment, the Vardo door opened again, and a feminine voice said:
-“Oh... This is you my new bodyguard? They have told me to get prepared, but I’m tired of dressing with heavy gowns and robes that nearly prevent me from breathing or moving...”
With that, the person sat down in front of Lomstat, her emerald green eyes on him, dressed in a black leather armour, with simple cloth on it. Lomstat stared at her, in disbelief.
She was a human...
Of course, Lomstat screamed, saying that he was now refusing the contract, that he won’t never, ever be the ‘bodyguard’ of any furless freak, and so on... Jarana Iz-Azwan listenned to the Folf’s argument, and then simply took a bag on her backpack, that she had put on the Vardo’s ground after entering in, and sent it to Lomstat, who caught it in mid-air.
-“*Sigh* I’m disappointed to see that I found a racist Fur... Whatever... If I understood right, you’re some kind of mercenary? Okay... I’ll had 1000 gold coins now. And 2000 more when arrived. I’ll pay it myself. You’re okay with it, now?”
Lomstat stopped arguing, thinking about it. At the end of it, he may gain 4350 gold coins... Quite an amount... But he didn’t really need this money at the moment, as he still had some gems from the Caliph.
-“Go find someone else, Human.”
The woman looked at him for moment, angered. And then, she leapt at him, taking the Folf by surprise, pinning him to the ground. In a second, Lomstat felt the coldness of a dagger on his throat...
-“Let’s say this in another way: I HAVE to go to the Blackrock Mountains. I And you’ll go with me or you won’t go anywhere else. Get it?”
Lomstat looked into the green eyes of the woman, and seeing how determined she was, as another little gleam in it, he finally muttered:
-“I accept the contract.”
Jarana took away her dagger, and put it in her pocket, where she could reach it quickly. Lomstat stood up, a bit upset by how easily he has been bested. But he said nothing, sat down on the seat opposite of Jarana’s. He was still remembering the little gleam he had seen in her gaze. Something that prevented him from discussing too much with her.