Homblom spat and nodded toward the village. “Spoor shows ‘em going up in there, clear as the trail of a mounted army. It’s like they didn’t care about being followed, like they wanted to be found.”
Lyno Davir sucked his teeth as he surveyed the little hamlet nestled in the middle of the mountains in the middle of the island like a crow’s nest. The declining sun was yet warm on his cocoa-skinned face despite the obsidian storm clouds closing in from the east, but his nape was itching like someone was watching him – a bad sign. He didn’t much like Effir Homblom’s choice of words either; the gang they were chasing weren’t like a mounted army, they were a mounted army, albeit a small one. It was estimated there were about thirty of them; thirty lowlife pieces of scum drifting along the river of society like turds, staining the bed and sullying the waters.
They may have been scum, but they had shown they were crafty, Lyno thought as he chewed his mangled bottom lip. They had evaded his Sniffers – his trackers and their pet bloodhounds – for long enough to make it to this last little bastion, much to his irritation. He would have much preferred to catch them out in the open, surround them and force their surrender. Now, it was too late for that. Now, they would have to search this whole village carefully for their quarry, splitting their forces; he did not like it, but he saw no other way.
“Once we get inside, split up!” he shouted to his men; ten trackers with bloodhounds and a company of forty leather-clad soldiers. “We’ll find those Deaf Viper whoresons if we have to go door to door!”
His words came out slightly garbled – they had done ever since a young mutt had almost bitten off his lips during training years ago, leaving the flesh there forever ripped – but those under his command understood him. He patted that once-young mutt – now his own bloodhound, Ninzi – on the neck, feeling her short, bristly golden fur on his calloused palm, remembering the feel of her fangs on his face. His lips had healed poorly, but they had healed as well as they ever would a long time ago and he felt no pain from them anymore. He wore a thick, black beard now to help hide the wound.
The other trainers had wanted to put the dog down, but he had told them she had spirit, demanded to be allowed to train her. Her name meant Gold in an old Kwi dialect, and she had grown into a remarkable tracker, able to follow a man’s scent even when it was days old. He ruffled one of her big ears, making her droopy jowls shake and squelch. She leaned in to his hand.
Remounting his bay gelding, Lyno took out his pipe as they made their final approach to the village, packed its bowl with aromatic baui and lit it with a taper. The rider next to him – the leader of the soldiers in the company, although still subject to Lyno’s overall command, much to his aggravation – coughed and waved the bluish-white smoke from the pipe away as it blew in his face.
“Is that really wise before a perilous situation like this?” he snapped, his moustached, dark-skinned face pinched – as it always was – in general ill-naturedness. “Won’t it affect your cognition?”
Lyno bestowed on him a withering look, blowing more smelly smoke in his face. “I have put together the finest tracking company in the country, Lieutenant Omoora, and we have been hunting down criminals for more than two decades. Do not presume to tell me my business. I know what I am doing. Besides, this is the last chance I’ll get for a little smoke till the hooligans are captured, I should think. Be a shame to miss out.”
“D’you even know what these cursed monsters do?” Ikra Omoora hissed, his fleshy, pockmarked cheeks wobbling slightly in his vehemence. While a fit man, Omoora had the cheeks of a hamster, Lyno had always thought. “They’re goddamn slavers, rapists, murderers and thieves up there!”
“Slavers, rapists, murderers and thieves,” Lyno commented flippantly, pushing his dreadlocks out of his earth-toned face and turning back to the hamlet. “The usual sins then.”
“They’re not the usual sort of sinners at all, damn you! They’re Sorcerers, able to use their black arts to aid them in their lives of crime and mayhem. Black as those clouds coming in! People say they can conjure fire and lightning, summon demons from the Nether and control a man’s mind. They have sold hundreds of innocent young girls into slavery in Swash Isle in the biggest human trafficking ring this country has ever seen!” Omoora drew himself up self-importantly. The sun glinted on his bald pate. “I have a baby girl back home, you know. I dread to think of them taking her … I won’t let a single one of these wastrels escape with his life!”
“Our orders are to bring them back alive,” Lyno pointed out, feeling slightly snubbed as he did every time Omoora mentioned his wife and child. He knew Lyno had no wife or child of his own, so why was he always yapping on about them? Was he trying to make Lyno jealous?
“You don’t really think that’s going to happen, do you? You’re not green, Lyno.”
Lyno shook his head; far from green, he was forty years old and starting to feel it. Omoora on the other hand was a twenty-five-year-old zealot, whose religion was law and order. How he was already a lieutenant, Lyno was not sure. “No, I’m not. And no, I don’t think it’ll happen. We’ll probably have to take their heads back as proof we killed ‘em.”
“That’s more like it,” Omoora grunted, smoothing his moustache.
If only to seem like he was doing something so Omoora would leave him alone, Lyno glanced back at his mounted company. His ten trackers were easily differentiable from the soldiers not only by the dogs they held on long leashes but also by their ragged, green flax garb, dreadlocks and hunched, animal-like postures. The soldiers meanwhile wore uniform ochre, hardened leather vests, helmets, bracers and boots as well as tunics and trousers of wool; their dark hair was neatly combed and they sat upright in the saddles.
“Be on your guard, girls and boys,” Lyno said, voice deep but words slurred. “Nothing worse than walking into a viper’s nest.”
He kept on smoking until the inky clouds had blotted half the sky and the company was in the shadow of the village entry. It had a surprisingly impressive entryway for such a small population centre; a grand, stepped, white stone arch awaited them at the end of a wide passage between knee-high grey walls lined with little cypresses. Under the arch, a grand black iron door stood wide open. There were no walls around the rest of the village, so the arch seemed superfluous, although Lyno suspected it was more of a decorative piece, since it was had evidently once been brightly painted at the top with bands of colourful scrollwork just under the tiered eaves, though now the artwork was faded. A faintly familiar symbol was scrolled above the gate in a circle; it tickled at Lyno’s mind, but he could not place it. It occurred to him then that the houses in the village were not the standard wattle or mud huts that still permeated a great deal of Chilpaea; these were of wood and white stone, less than a hundred of them, all chipping and crumbling with age. Most had tiled roofs; some had no roofs.
“This is no ordinary village,” he said slowly, feeling his nape itch again. “This must have been a monastery or some sort of religious centre once, I think.” Houses of worship were prioritised for construction in stone in Chilpaea. “What did you say this place was called again?”
“There was just a dot on the map marked Waddi-waddi,” said Omoora.
“Waddi-waddi.” Lyno frowned; Chilpaea was full of places with strange names, but that was one of the oddest he had heard. It rang a faint bell of recognition in the back of his mind, somewhere amid the dusty archives of his past.
The closer they came to the hamlet, the more Lyno Davir’s neck itched. The place – which had seemed calm at a distance, as most did – now loomed up directly in front of him eerily silently, a village of ghosts and whooping wind channelled through narrow streets. He ordered his men to dismount by the arch, and they tethered the horses to the cypresses. The geldings rolled their eyes and reared, whickering and snorting in dismay, inconsolable. That sent a cold trickle down Lyno’s spine; the horses could sense it too. Something was wrong. He grabbed his six-foot spear from where it was strapped to his saddle, and the other trackers did the same. He touched his nunchakus at his belt just to check they were still there.
“Split up! Search the place! Holler if you find anything. Meet at the big building at the top.”
Lyno almost called it a temple, for that was what it resembled. Made of darker, more orange stone, it was one with the village and yet stuck out like a swan among ducklings at the back, where it rose with the land.
“Homblom, Thacha, five of you soldiers – with me,” Lyno said, and the eight of them strode under the arch and off down a street to the east, led by their bloodhounds straining at their leashes. Lyno felt a bone-deep chill as he passed under that threshold, far worse than any shade should have been able to inflict. He felt as if he were passing into the mouth of a great, sleeping Demon without realising it.
It seemed as though the bloodhounds knew where to find the Deaf Vipers – all of them were pulling one way – but Lyno was taking no chances. Perhaps Sorcerers had a way to fool the dogs’ noses, he thought; he would play it safe and search the entire village. He did not want enemies sneaking up behind him. So, he and his four accomplices roamed the streets, kicking in the doors of houses and finding every building empty despite looking as if it were recently occupied. Furniture, food, beds and waste all suggested people had inhabited these houses up until very recently; where they were now, Lyno was not sure. His nape itched.
“Where in the name of Mzee Lou’s titties is everyone?” Homblom mumbled.
“Do not take the martyr’s name in vain,” Lyno said quietly, more from habit than any real concern.
“Sorry, but … this is weird, right?”
“Yes. This is weird.”
They continued their silent patrol through the streets, not finding a single soul until they heard a noise. It began as a faint vibration, a deep humming that made their ears tingle and their bladders loosen. As they progressed to the east side of the village, away from the big building where they had agreed to meet, the droning grew louder; a distant deep pealing as of bells, and yet something told Lyno no bell could make such a sound. It had an eerie, otherworldly feel to it that set his hairs to standing on end. Somehow he knew what it was before they could make out the words. It was someone speaking – not shouting, but speaking incredibly loudly. As they drew closer to the unseen source of the sound, it became clearer that the words were being repeated in a loop – alien words with a lot of fricatives and sibilants nothing like the loose vowel-loving rhythm of Kwi, words known to nobody in the company. It was a mantra.
Lyno felt his gut tighten, and his knuckles turned white where he gripped his spear. He had heard tales in his youth, of course, of Sorcerers and their spells, which often took the form of a chant, repeating evil, eldritch words over and over until the very fabric of reality folded to the caster’s will; but he had never thought to hear such a thing. He had never dreamed such a thing truly existed; even when he had taken on this mission, he had assumed this gang consisted of a bunch of skilled con artists who had tricked gullible fools like Omoora into believing they were Sorcerers.
He had thought to find the gang holed up, smoking opium and doing card tricks. The idea that they might truly be Sorcerers almost sent him running. He steeled himself, though; he could not let his men see him look weak. They needed to imagine they were being led by a man who knew what he was doing, even if, in fact, he was starting to wonder if he did at all. How in the name of the Gods was he supposed to fight magic with a spear?
He tried to convince himself they could not possibly be Sorcerers. This lasted only until he rounded the next corner and saw a sight that made his eyes bulge and set his knees to wobbling.
He had finally found the villagers. They were all together in a pebbled yard in a grand, creepily silent cavalcade, walking slowly in concentric circles around a shining, blue-purple crystal the size of a wagon that flared brighter every few seconds, pulsing like a heartbeat. Lyno was not sure, but he thought he detected a faint humming emanating from the giant gem. Incongruously, a tall pole festooned with hundreds of festive little banners stood abandoned to one side of the yard, fluttering in the wind as if seeking lost attention. Overlooking proceedings from their vantage point atop a raised porch in front of a flaky, old, white stucco house were the Deaf Vipers. It seemed as though their numbers had been exaggerated, Lyno thought. There were just over a score of them, all dressed in black robes that billowed in the unnatural breezes that wound around the area, their faces hidden by hoods. The mantra, however, was clearly coming from them; they were all droning the dire dirge in tandem.
Lyno stared vapidly for an instant, caught unawares by the strangeness of the scene. The pulse of the crystal was hypnotic, and as he watched, he thought he saw the giant gem growing. He blinked and rubbed his eyes with his off-hand and looked again; standing still, he focussed his eyes on a spot in the sky between the crystal and the onyx clouds; gem and cloudbank worked as one to blot out the spot he had chosen. He had been right; as impossible as it seemed, the crystal was growing just as fast as the tempest was rolling in, at the same pace as the crescendoing chant. It was almost the size of a small house now. It struck him then that all three were linked; Sorcerers, gem and storm. He could not explain the bizarre circling actions of the villagers; he remembered Omoora’s words, saying the Magicians could ‘control men’s minds’ with a shudder. He felt like spiders were crawling all across his skin, and his nape burned.
He was about to suggest they back away and creep around to come at the Sorcerers from the side when one of the soldiers – evidently overcome by his fight or flight reflex – hefted his scimitar high above his head, let out a flinch-worthy scream and charged at the sinister figures in black head on. The man’s four companions were only a step behind him. Lyno could not blame them in a way; the tableau laid out before them was wrong to its core, and he too felt the urge to scrub it clean with steel and blood. The difference was he did not intend to get himself killed in the fixing of it.
“Ah, bollocks,” he growled, seeing the soldiers go. He turned to his trackers. “Come on, boys, the element of surprise is all pissed away now. Might as well get involved, eh?”
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