Runam Jaal Baagh scrutinised the Sorcerer’s tower across a field of palm-dotted hibiscuses, a wide swathe of pink. He had done so from every angle. Now, from his vantage point on the edge of the forest, where the foliage hid him from prying eyes, he assessed how to make his approach.
He scratched his neck where the fur lining his boiled leather cuirass caused him to itch; the blistering sun did not help, making streams of sweat slick their way down his cocoa-skinned face. The two-foot-tall monkey perched on his shoulder squeaked as he moved, clinging to his armour with dextrous hands and feet. Unlike the monkeys of Shala’Hyddin, Ishambrian monkeys had only two arms. Called a golden langur by Ishambrians, this particular primate had a thick, feathery, creamy-white coat that made it resemble a spirit when it flitted through the trees at high speeds, its pitch-black, leathery face lost in shadow.
“Hush, Bandar,” whispered Runam, petting the little creature who had been with him for years now.
His arms and legs were cooking beneath the leather vambraces and greaves, but besides the armour he wore only a hide loincloth in an attempt to remain cool. He had even foregone a turban; his long, curly dark hair was tied up in a topknot. A gust flitted by, like a cool hand on his brow.
He stroked his oiled, black forked beard, wondering if he would enjoy the breeze more without it, but it had been a part of him now for over a decade and he would not part with it. Birds twittered all around him, their chirpy chatter causing concentration to elude him momentarily. He swatted at a bumble bee as it bumbled by, his round face darkening; an effect accomplished by the tensing of his strong jaw and the lowering of his bushy brows. His cheeks were pitted and scarred, like the rest of his six-foot, muscular frame.
The tower before him stretched impossibly high into the sky like a ribbed finger accusing the Gods, some two hundred feet tall and black as tar, its ribs formed by repeating wide eaves. The morning sun cast the tower’s shadow hundreds of feet across the pink fields, like a dark doorway in the ground. There were a few small windows, but not many, seemingly placed at random. Only one obvious way in beckoned; the lone black iron doorway at ground level. There were no guards. Only a few unarmed men and women wandered around, picking flowers and herbs and smoking baui – servants, Runam knew, who had followed their master, the Sorcerer, to the tower to tend to his earthly needs. They had set up a tiny village near the tower – but not too near. Even they had a healthy fear of their master and his corrupt creations.
Setting his broad shoulders and raising his chin defiantly, Runam did what he always did when he was hired to solve a problem. He strode straight at it, fingers itching for his scimitar. Still clinging to him, Bandar squeaked as he moved. Avoiding the tower’s shadow by some natural instinct, Runam trampled the hibiscuses as he crossed the field and soon his black leather boots were strewn with pink petals. He could smell their sweet scent as he crushed them. The villagers were not warriors; they did not seek to bar his way, but rather fled at the sight of him, leaving him to their master’s vindictive mercy.
Runam tested the door’s iron handle and found it unlocked; it creaked open easily with a hefty push, and mercenary and monkey crept into the darkness beyond. Runam had not gone far down the wide stone corridor that greeted him when he heard another creak and then the door slammed closed behind him. He dashed back to the door, praying to Shing Fwong Muwong, the God of Mischief, but his prayers went unanswered. It seemed the door could only be opened from the outside; he was locked in.
“Well,” he muttered, “it seems the only way is forward, Bandar.”
The little langur squeaked nervously, but leapt down from his shoulder to scamper along the flagstones. Runam had no need of a torch when Bandar was around; enchanted by some of the most powerful Wizards in Quing Tzu to glow in the dark, the langur shone like a little white flame – or a spirit – whenever dusk set in. Now, in the tower’s pseudo-twilight, the effect was much the same. The blazing monkey bravely led the way, banishing the shadows; Runam had trained him to be fearless from a tender age. The training had not stuck.
Seeing no sign of stairs, the mercenary continued on until he came to a wide chamber whose floor was hidden by murky greenish water of indeterminate depth. The langur’s radiance caused the whole chamber to reflect the little lake’s algae colour, so that it appeared as if moss was growing on the walls and ceiling.
“Eurgh,” said Runam, wrinkling his nose at the stench of the stagnant water. Bandar approached the water in hops and jumps. “Stay back, Bandar.”
The monkey stepped back just in time to avoid enormous jaws snapping shut on its comparatively frail little body as a monster lurched up out of the gloomy pool. Runam gasped at the sight of the beast, for it was as nothing he had ever seen; a creature of blackest nightmare. Resembling both a man and a crocodile, it had arms and legs terminating in great black claws on which it scurried and a long tail. Its whole body was covered in thick, green ridged hide like that of a crocodile. Its manlike face, partly curtained by dark human hair, had been distorted until it had a long snout complete with a set of huge sharp teeth. Gnashing its jaws, it advanced on Bandar, who scurried backwards frantically, yipping.
Runam took a step and launched himself onto the monster before it could catch and eat his monkey, landing on its back. Wrapping tree-trunk-legs and beefy arms around the creature, he wrestled it back away from Bandar with his bare hands. He was about to plunge into the water alongside it, to drown it, when he noticed two more of the crocodilian beasts slinking up out of the murky water and cursed.
“Yama’s ghostly balls!”
Still grappling with the first beast, he rolled away from the others, punching at the crocodile-man’s head all the way. When the creature finally slumped in his arms, dazed, he released it and rolled to his feet, wet all over. His scimitar rang like a bell as he withdrew it from the broad leather-bound sheath on his back, and he felt a tingle run through his entire body at the feel of it in his hands. It flashed in the langur’s light, opalescent fire. Four feet long in total, the weapon was massive with wavy quillions and a curved, toothed blade several inches wide where it widened toward the tip. Made of legendary lazarinthian, it had been imbued with the soul of a Demon by the Wizards in Quing Tzu, giving it the power to remain eternally sharp and to cut through magic like gossamer. He suspected it also slightly augmented his natural speed and strength. The Wizards had warned him, though, to be vigilant; possessed weapons had been known to corrupt and even entirely absorb the souls of their wielders. A nine-inch curved bloodwood dagger rested at his hip on a wide leather belt, enchanted to cut through anything like butter when activated with a secret word of power.
The scimitar hummed a wicked dirge as it clove down into the thick, ridged hide on the crocodilian’s neck. Sharp as a razor, it yet took two strikes for the blade to chop through the tough hide and find softer flesh beneath. As soon as it did, red blood welled up in the wound and gushed over the floor and into the murky pool. The fight quickly went out of the crocodile-man after that, the stench of his death adding to the nauseous aromas of the room.
Its fellows scurried toward Runam together, however, and he wavered between them, pointing his scimitar first at one and then the other, waiting for one to attack first and thus become the obvious target. Bandar cowered behind the mercenary, wise enough to stand slightly to his side so that the little monkey’s light still illuminated most of the chamber and did not cast Runam’s foes in shadow. The two crocodile-men halted in their tracks, side by side, studying the mercenary before them, and Runam swiftly grew impatient with the wait.
With a roar that would have put a lion to shame, Runam barrelled at the crocodilians, scimitar sweeping out low. Both creatures scuttled back rather than have their faces torn in twain, but one scuttled a little faster and a little further than the other. At last, thought Runam, an obvious target. Focussing on the closest foe, he leapt up high and came crashing down on it. His scimitar cracked a flagstone as the crocodile-man threw itself aside, knocking his leg and almost making Runam lose his equilibrium. In that moment of loss of balance, the second crocodilian tried to take a bite out of Runam’s leg and the mercenary quickly yanked it out of range, slicing at the closest foe even as he did so and laying open its flank.
He had thought the hurt crocodilian would slow down and eventually die after that, but it seemed to know death was reaching for it with bony hands and chose to die fighting. It leapt for Runam, practically impaling itself upon his scimitar, its blood spraying over the mercenary, sticky and warm on his flesh. He staggered back, almost borne to the ground, but with muscles rippling he managed to shove the beast’s bulk off him.
The second crocodile pounced at him then, and Runam slid to one side, scimitar singing out to rip through hide and flesh and leave a long red trench down the creature’s back. It mewled and scurried toward him as best it could, but he leapt on it, pinning it to the ground before twisting his blade viciously and pulling it free amid a red fountain.
He kicked and stabbed at the water for a while to ensure there were no more strange crocodilians lurking in the murk. When he was sure the water was empty, he sheathed his blade and began to wade and then to swim across the room. Jaws snapped on the edge of his boot, narrowly missing taking the appendage clean off, letting him know that he had been mistaken.
Turning upside down and dodging the hungry jaws, he wrapped his arms around the neck of the beast that had tried to bite him and – praying that, like crocodiles, these bizarre beasts needed air to live – he held the creature underwater. It gnashed its teeth at him and clawed at him in vain, but its strength quickly drained away and its movements slowed like slurring speech. Eventually, peace reclaimed it. His blood staining the green water red, Runam swam across the rest of the room and then swam back again to pick up Bandar, who refused to swim, shaking his head and squealing softly when beckoned. With the monkey perched on his head, clinging to his topknot, Runam swam back to the far side of the flooded chamber again and pulled himself up out of the water. Dripping on the flagstones, he opened the black iron door in front of him and found a spiralling stone staircase.
The steps did not last long before giving onto another corridor at the end of which was another large flagged chamber. Bandar refused to go into the room first this time, hearing growling emanating from within, so Runam took the lead, squinting into his own shadow. The growling intensified as he moved forward, and his fingers tightened on his scimitar hilt, the leather-bound grip comfortable and familiar. He thought he could feel the Demon writhing within, gleeful in battle as always.
He had heard of the creatures he next encountered in dark legends from around the world – were-jackals. Looking like jackals, but upright like men, it was said they were once human Sorcerers who had imbibed the souls of jackals and transformed into nightmarish creatures swayed by the moon. Runam could well believe the legends as he stared into the cunning, tawny eyes of a were-jackal.
Its wet black nose twitched as it snarled, its long snout opening to reveal sharp yellow fangs. Covered from head to toe in fur mottled brown, black and red, some eight were-jackals padded upright toward the mercenary like humans on the hunt, albeit with something of the beast in their hunched stances. Their growling was certainly reminiscent of their namesakes, and their hands and feet glistened in the langur-light with sharp claws. They stank like wet dogs, and the smell of their faeces – clearly visible in one corner – made the mercenary gag. The monkey, who had finally sidled in to illuminate the chamber, stuck to the wall by the doorway like a limpet, quivering.
Runam twirled his scimitar, grasping the mighty weapon with both hands and brandishing it before him. “Come on then! Who wants some metal in their gullet?”
The were-jackals spread out and jumped on Runam from three sides at once, but his blade blurred through the air and two fell dead before they could strike, bones cloven. The rest hit him hard, staggering him and sinking their teeth into his armour – and some into his flesh. He grunted at the searing pain and used both pommel and fist to lay about him left and right until he had concussed most every beast gnawing on him. As soon as he had enough space, his scimitar rang out again, chirping cheerfully as it sawed through bone and flesh, spraying the walls with arterial fluid that trickled down like macabre rain.
The Demon in the blade laughed, and Runam realised with a start that he too was laughing aloud as he mowed down warped beast after warped beast, their blood soon dyeing his armour crimson. In only a minute or two, all the were-jackals lay dead or dying, skulls sundered or bodies split from hip to hip or shoulder to sternum. Their dying gasps and Runam’s panting were the only sounds to break the stillness, the iron attar of their blood the only scent.
“Come, Bandar,” wheezed Runam. “There must be more stairs ahead.”
Skipping daintily through the bodies, afraid to touch them or their entrails, Bandar bounded up onto Runam’s shoulder to be carried up the next staircase, which they found through the next black door. At the top of the staircase, the corridor and chamber motif was repeated.
“I’m starting to smell a pattern here,” Runam murmured. “This whole tower must be full of were-beasts, Bandar. Those were were-jackals back there, and those must have been were-crocodiles on the ground floor. Imagine having your soul mixed up and mangled with that of a crocodile.” He juddered, before remembering it was perfectly plausible that his own soul was intermingling with that of the Demon trapped in his blade. He grunted, “Huh, well imagine such a thing being forced on you, anyway. It was not the same with me and my sword. I chose this. I wanted the power.” Bandar squeaked liltingly, and Runam smiled down at him for a moment. “We’ll be ok, Bandar, you’ll see. We’ll just grab this Sorcerer’s jewel and be gone before he even knows we were here.”
He thought he heard the walls laughing at him at that, although it could have been the Demon. He heard nothing as he entered the chamber at the end of the passage with Bandar a step behind, but a strange aroma filtered through to him. Even Bandar’s radiance could not penetrate to the far side of the room, and there in the shadows Runam heard hissing and saw something shift, uncoil.
“Yama take me!” Runam whispered. “It’s a snake!”
It proved to be more than one snake as sinuous, scaly forms burst from the shadows, hissing and slithering toward him with frightening speed along the walls and floor. Some had humanoid limbs sticking from their serpentine frames which helped them scuttle along like centipedes missing a few legs, while others were limbless, seeming to have become almost entirely ophidian save for a moustache here or a human eye there. They were larger than almost any snake Runam had ever seen, barring the giant anacondas of the Ishambrian swamps.
When they came within range, the were-pythons coiled up and then sprang at him in an explosion of movement. His scimitar flashed left and right, lopping off scaly head after scaly head until fang-filled skulls littered the flagstones by his feet. Some, however, managed to wrap themselves around Runam’s legs and then began to rapidly coil higher as he continued to behead those still trying to latch onto him. He knew pythons were not venomous and prayed the same held true for were-pythons; the real danger, he knew, came from constriction.
He felt like his ribs were going to break, his stomach collapse in on itself, as the pythons around him started to squeeze the life out of him. Continuing to stave in ophidian skulls with his possessed scimitar, Runam tried his best to ignore the snakes crushing him and to sip in only shallow breaths, knowing that each time he exhaled his body compressed and the serpents wound a little tighter. He thanked the Gods that none of the serpents had attacked Bandar; he would hate to have to fight these monsters in the dark. As it was, he could see enough that his every strike was unerringly accurate, slicing through scales and the flesh beneath.
Only once every other snake in the room had been dispatched could he finally focus on those squeezing him to death. With his vision tunnelling, the light fading, he carefully sliced open the coiling creatures without doing the same to himself; and as the last of them fell away in its death throes, he gasped in a deep breath, his head swimming. Falling to his knee for a while and simply inhaling and exhaling until his vision returned to normal and his head stopped pounding from air deprivation, he then planted his sword tip and pushed himself to his feet with a growl.
He made for the door in the shadows at the far end of the room, Bandar on his shoulder. Runam did not blame the langur for not wanting to take the vanguard; this tower was seething with abominations. He stole up another staircase and along a corridor to the stone chamber on the next level. There, as in the snake pit, bones with traces of meat still attached littered the room, clearly recently gnawed. The smell this time was that of rancid meat – presumably stuck in the teeth of whatever monster lurked within, Runam thought as his spine betrayed him by permitting a shiver.
That was his last thought before a monster materialised from the shadows like a Nether-born figment, roaring and clawing and biting. Runam dove to his left, the golden langur clinging to his hair and armour as he rolled. Expecting to roll to his feet, his stomach lurched and dropped out of him as his feet found no floor and he plummeted instead.
He fell for only a split second before he landed jarringly, his legs buckling beneath him and pitching him and Bandar to the floor. His scimitar clattered to the ground. He saw then that he had not fallen through a trap door as he had suspected – not a normal one anyway – for he was not in the chamber below the room in which he had faced the were-lion, nor was he on any other level of the tower he had bypassed somehow. By Bandar’s light, he saw that he was in a crudely carved cave with a slabbed ceiling overhead.
There was no visible way out save for a grate in the ceiling, its bars too high to reach and too narrow to squeeze through. Bones carpeted the cavern, strewn over every inch. Some were ancient, bleached white by time, while others still had rotting shreds of flesh clinging to them and stank of putrefaction. He suspected he had somehow been caged beneath the tower by means of a magical trap door, and he screamed at the grate in the ceiling for a moment in sheer frustration. He caught a flicker of movement in his periphery as a shadow shifted slightly.
“Come out!” Runam barked in deep, commanding tones, snatching up his scimitar and spinning to face the shadow, realising a figure was hiding behind a rocky finger jutting up from the uneven floor.
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