THE BLADE OF THE SLAYER
by Richard L. Tierney
Originally appeared in Pulse Pounding Adventure Stories #1, December 1986.
… by Heaven, which He holds, and the abyss,
And the immensity of worlds and life…
Homage he has from all—but none from me:
I battle it against him… till the great
Conflict shall cease, if ever it shall cease
Which it ne’er shall, till he or I be quenched!
And what can quench our immortality,
Or mutual and irrevocable hate?
— Lucifer, in Lord Byron’s Cain
A chill wind blew beneath gray skies, stirring the withered grasses and shrubs of the low ridge. Simon of Gitta brought his near-exhausted horse to a halt, gazed back intently eastward for a moment, then dismounted. His pursuers were not yet in sight, though he knew they could not be far behind—but up the slope, only a few hundred yards distant upon the horizon, jutted the silhouette of an odd-angled rock outcropping. With luck he could hide there, then steal away after dark toward the far plains of Sumer which lay hazily to the west.
Simon gave the horse a sharp slap on its right rear flank and it cantered wearily away at an angle, southwestward, down the hill. He began to hurry up the gradual slope, stepping from rock to rock whenever possible so as not to leave a trail, glancing frequently eastward, an anxious tension in his dark eyes.
Scarcely had he gained the rocks of the ridgetop before he saw them—the silhouettes of more than a dozen horsemen topping the horizon to the east. Quickly he eased himself down between two boulders, lips drawn back in an unconscious snarl, and watched them approach. His hand clutched for his sword pommel, gripped only empty air. He cursed softly, regretting that he had ever allowed his bandit captors to disarm him rather than fighting them to the death. True, he had later escaped those captors by means of the near-magical arts his Persian mentors had taught him; but now he was a fleeing animal, the hunters upon his track…
The horsemen galloped closer, their helmets, mail, and spear-points glinting in the late-afternoon light. They drew abreast of their hidden quarry several hundred yards down the slope, then passed—following the trail of his abandoned mount, which had already vanished down into the draw and was, hopefully, hurrying westward in quest of the lush pastures of Sumer. Simon drew a deep breath, brushed sweat-dampened bangs of dark hair from his forehead, then slowly stood erect. Some of his tension ebbed away; his angular features relaxed a trifle, and he even felt grateful for the cold wind that whipped his black locks and the dark cloak that wrapped his tall frame. For a moment he stood in silence, watching as the last of the horsemen vanished down the draw to the southwest, while the dimming light of the west limned his craggy, clean-shaven features.
Then, shouldering his light pack again, he continued on to the highest crest of the ridge, where the odd-angled rocks clustered most thickly. Here he would sup on the last of his meager fare, then continue on over the slope and down the next draw before his pursuers returned. Hopefully the abandoned mount would lead them on a long chase…
Suddenly his musings were shattered as a tall, dark-robed figure rose up from the rocks, scarcely a dozen paces ahead.
“Baal!” gasped Simon, again reaching instinctively for his missing sword. The dark figure began to move toward him. Grimly Simon crouched, assuming a fighting stance his hated Roman trainers had once taught him.
The figure drew closer. Simon, seeing the stranger more clearly, relaxed a bit. It was an old man, tall and white-bearded, clad in a dark greenish robe inscribed with the symbols of the Persian Magi. Yet Simon remained alert, recalling tales he had heard of wizards who lurked amid these western foothills.
“Ho, stranger.” The voice of the old man was nearly as thin as the cold wind. “Why come you here to the site of the City of the First Kingdom?”
“The—what?” Simon rose from his fighting crouch and approached the old man cautiously. “What are you talking about—?”
“And have you not heard that the spirit of the Great Slayer, who founded that city, still lingers about this ridgetop, waiting for unwary strayers?”
Simon glanced about at the numerous worn boulders, at the sparse dry grasses blowing under the chill wind. “Aye, I’ve heard such tales. But, surely, no city ever stood here—”
“The legend is true. No outsider is safe in this place. You must go.”
Simon barked a derisive laugh. “Unsafe? Didn’t you see that band of cutthroats riding by? They’re after my hide, by Baal! I rode here in hopes that the local legends would deter them, but obviously they’re not impressed. But don’t worry, old man, I won’t stay long—just until nightfall. Then I’ll steal away down the ridgetop before the bastards return to search for my horse’s missing rider. By dawn I should be well on my way toward the western plains.”
“Do not delay, stranger. Go now.”
“And risk having them return and spot me on the open slopes of this ridge? No! Besides, I need a short rest and something to eat.” Simon eyed the old man’s robe, noting the numerous mystical symbols emblazoned upon it. “Why are you so anxious to see me gone? Your garb proclaims you a Magus and a servant of Ahura Mazda. Are you and your fellow sorcerers hiding some secret here?”
“No secret that you would care to know.”
“Well, I don’t care about your secrets, I assure you. Hide me for an hour, and I’ll be on my way. Surely you must have a hiding place among these rocks—a cave, perhaps? An old man like you does not live perpetually exposed to winter winds upon a ridgetop.”
The mage nodded slightly. “Come, then.”
Simon followed him a short distance to a huge fractured outcrop surrounded by many toppled boulders, then into one of its narrow fissures. Just before they entered Simon glimpsed a large vulture, perched atop the outcropping, watching them with a beady eye. Uneasily he wondered why the bird did not fly away, then realized that it was no doubt the old man’s familiar—for Simon knew that many Persian Magi kept such birds, sacred to Ahura Mazda, as servitors.
After a few paces the twisting crevice ended at a black hole that slanted shallowly downward. They entered, and Simon noted that the walls and ceiling of this narrow passage, though extremely pitted, were straight and regular as if artificially carved. Beneath his feet were stone stairsteps, so worn and curved in the middle that they formed almost a chute upon whose surface he had to proceed with caution. Then the gray daylight faded, but ahead Simon caught the dim gleam of torchlight. In another moment he and his aged guide had emerged into a small room carved from the living rock and meagerly furnished with a cot, a wooden table, and two stools. Upon the table, gleaming in the light of the single wall-bracketed torch, stood many vials, bottles, and mixing bowls, while beneath it in the shadows rested a box full of scrolls. Nearby stood a brazier upon a bronze tripod, and against one wall a small cabinet whose open door revealed many more bottles and vials.
“Sit, and eat,” muttered the old man, clearing a corner of the table. “Then you must go. My spells protect me from the Slayer’s spirit, but they will not protect you after darkness falls.”
Simon snorted derisively as he set down his pack. “Ha! You are hiding something. I’m not an ordinary outlander to be easily fooled by such tales, old man. Look.” He let his dark cloak fall open and slip from his shoulders to the floor. “You see—I, too, have been trained in magical arts by Parthia’s very own Magi.”
The old man peered closely at the red-brown tunic emblazoned with yellow symbols, some of them similar to those on his own robe. The man who wore it was young, tall and lean, hard-muscled. He wore a leather sword-belt, but the scabbards for sword and dagger were empty.
“Aye, I know you now,” said the oldster, his manner becoming a bit less suspicious. “You are Simon of Gitta, a pupil of the Archimage Daramos. I saw you several months ago, when I and several other priests of my order visited Daramos in Persepolis. Daramos mentioned to us that you were his most accomplished adept.”
Simon, too, relaxed a bit more. “Thank you. But your memory is better than mine. I recall your visit, but not your name—”
“I am K’shasthra, priest of the Order of the High Guardians. At least one adept of our Order is always stationed here to guard the secret that… that for now must be kept from mankind. We have kept guard thusly for nearly two years. So much I may reveal to you, who have already been initiated into many secrets of the Magi. Perhaps I shall tell you more—but only with the understanding that the outer world must never know, until the Order has decided that the time is right.”
“I see.” Simon placed his small bundle of rations on the table, then sat down and unwrapped them. “And so you have no doubt spread these tales of the ‘Slayer’ to frighten off unwanted visitors?”
“We did not invent the legend,” said K’shasthra, “though I admit that we have revived and enhanced it of late. The Great Slayer’s spirit does not truly prowl here—but we have seen to it that a few venturesome, prying ones have vanished, to turn up later as unmarked corpses near the closest caravan trails. Of late we have not had to use such tactics; you are the first visitor to come here for many months.”
Simon felt a tingling along his spine. “And had I been an ordinary outlander—?”
K’shasthra smiled thinly. “It is well that you revealed to me your identity when you did.” He turned away and rummaged amid a shadowy bundle of blankets near the cot. Simon scowled with dark understanding. He of all people knew what powders and poisons could be used by the Magi to induce death with no apparent cause.
The old man returned and set bread, dried meat, and a flask of wine on the table. “Do not be disturbed, Simon. When you learn more, you will understand why such extreme methods were necessary. What we do is for the good of all mankind.”
Simon nodded, but when he ate it was from his own rations, washing down each dry mouthful with a sip from his own waterskin. Not until the old mage had eaten several bites from the loaf and the dried meat, and taken a few swallows from the wine flask, did Simon join him in sampling this more palatable fare. K’shasthra smiled again at the suspicion in the young man’s dark, deep-shadowed eyes.
“Have no fear, Simon. I swear by Ahura Mazda, and by his fire-servant Atar, that I intend you no evil. But tell me how you happen to come—and in the cold of winter at that—to this desolate ridgetop.”
“I joined a small caravan journeying from Persepolis to Susa. We were attacked last evening by more than a score of bandits, and I was captured.” Simon’s gaze became somber, introspective. “They left me bound to die upon a snow-slope in the cold; that was in punishment for having fought them well enough to leave several of their number dead. I had to watch while they murdered all the men and children; then they raped the women and slew them also. But in the night I slipped my bonds and stole a horse from the very edge of the bandits’ camp, leaving two more of their guards dead behind me. Too bad I had no time to snatch their weapons!—the rest were instantly after me like a pack of wolves—but at least there were a few provisions bundled in a cloak on the horse. I gave the bastards the slip, but they weren’t long in getting on my trail, and ever since dawn they’ve been slowly gaining. I suppose they know this region intimately—and your ‘Slayer’ legend doesn’t seem to impress them.”
K’shasthra frowned thoughtfully. “That would be Gutakh and his Mailed Raiders. I’ve heard of their bloody deeds, but never have they or any other bandit gangs ventured this far from the caravan trails. I saw but sixteen horsemen pass here, Simon—evidently you thinned their ranks considerably. No wonder they burn for revenge! Daramos has obviously taught you well.”
“He taught me escape artistry and many other things,” said Simon, his eyes more darkly brooding than ever, “but it was the Romans who trained me to fight and kill. They plundered my home in Samaria slew my parents and sold me into the arena, where for two years as a gladiator I entertained them by spilling blood.”
“I remember the story now,” said the old man. “Your first mentor, Dositheus the Samaritan, helped you escape and brought you here to Parthia to study under his own former mentor, Daramos. That was four years ago, was it not? And why do you now journey toward Susa, braving bandits and these wintry foothills?”
“I go to Rome.”
“Ah.” K’shasthra nodded. “I understand. You feel that your arcane studies here have given you greater powers, and now you would return and use those powers for—revenge?”
Simon did not reply, but a deep hatred glowered from the torchlight-shadowed pits of his eyes.
“I understand well,” the mage went on. “Your feelings make you worthy of our Order’s confidence. You shall learn the secret that we have not confided even to Daramos or Dositheus—and then you shall learn even greater skills and powers, that you may aid us in our plan to bring benefit to all mankind.”
“Aid you?” Simon shook his head. “No, I’m not interested in your secrets and plans. I must go to Rome.”
“And so you shall, if you wish—but if you decide to join us in our cause, your power and vengeance can be all the greater. Do not adamantly refuse me before you know what I offer. Come, Simon, follow me.”
The old man had risen while he spoke, and now he took the torch from its bracket and moved toward a corner of the room where a tattered blanket hung. Simon rose also, then scowled with surprise as K’shasthra pushed the blanket aside, revealing a tall black aperture perhaps two feet wide.
“Come—follow,” the mage repeated.
Simon did so. The blanket fell back into place behind them and the torch revealed a narrow passage. After a few paces they began to descend another stairway, this one longer and steeper but less worn than the last, and curving slightly to the right. After what Simon estimated to be about a quarter-turn, the passage abruptly opened into a large empty space. The light of the old man’s torch feebly illuminated a vast chamber which appeared to be circular and domed.
“Wait here, near the wall,” instructed the mage, who then began to walk around the huge room, lighting a wall-torch every few yards. As the illumination increased Simon became aware of a wide, circular pit whose edge was about thirty feet in from the wall. It seemed to be filled with dark water nearly to the rim.
“This was the water-storage chamber of the City of the First Kingdom,” explained K’shasthra as he completed the circuit. “It is all that remains of that place, save for my chamber and the wind-worn boulders you saw atop the ridge.”
“Gods!” muttered Simon. How many thousands of years would it take for the wind to thus reduce the stones of—“An entire city?”
“By today’s standards, more like a small town. Actually it was a walled fortress, founded by the Great Slayer in his lust for dominion. He made it his seat of power here in Elam, his First Kingdom, and it was here that he gathered and trained his first armies. Then, in his lust to extend his power over all men and all gods, he marched forth into Sumer and waged the wars that ended in establishing his First Empire.”
A prickling crawled down Simon’s spine as understanding began to dawn. His throat suddenly felt dry. He dared not speak.
“But in time he came under the curse of the world-creator Omldom,” K’shasthra went on, “—that greatest of the Primal Gods who fashioned the First Men to serve them. For the Slayer excelled all men not only in arms, hunting-skills and warfare, but in blasphemous pride and defiance as well. Though he founded nations and built many great cities, erecting in them great towers and temples to himself, this was not enough. Eventually he delved into mighty sorceries and spiritually ascended to the sacred realms of the gods themselves, taking by storm a portion of the Tree of Life itself—the blessing and curse of a millennium-spanning longevity.
“For his rebellion the Slayer, though he reigned long, was finally deposed by his rebellious followers and doomed to wander over the earth, hating and slaying, forever fomenting new wars and rebellions, spreading new hatred and death. Since then he has many times gained and lost the reins of power. He founded Kalakh and Uruk and many other cities. He has ruled in Sumer and Akkad and Assur under many names; he has won and lost many lesser kingdoms during his god-cursed wanderings. Once, ironically, he was defeated by a king who ruled this very land which was the Slayer’s first kingdom.”
“You mean,” gasped Simon, “—this place was—the Eyrie of Elam? And that your ‘Slayer’ was even him who warred with Chedorlaomer the King…?”
“I see that you have read Ostanes as well as your own Samaritan legends,” said the wizard. “The tales of many vanished races—all of them more or less inaccurate—have called the Slayer by many names, have even on occasion made him out to be a god or semi-divine hero. To the Sumerians he became the war-god Nimurta, while the Babylonians confused some of his exploits with those of their legendary wanderer-king Gilgamesh. For to this day the Slayer does wander—cursed and vengeful, mortal yet undying.”
“To this day?” Simon shook his head. “Such cannot be. Besides, there are legends of his death. Some say he was slain by King Esau of Edom, others that he died lingeringly as insects ate into his brain…”
“Aye, the legends are many and contradictory—mere wishful thinking on the part of those who composed them, no doubt. Yet nowhere but in the centuried book of Ostanes, once Persia’s greatest mage, have there been recorded traditions that are at all close to the source—and even these traditions date from many centuries after the Slayer began to stalk the earth. Surely you recall from Ostanes, Simon, how that rebellious one invoked monstrous ancient beings—Kutugha, Rebothoth and Great Tukultu—to aid his in his assault on their enemies, the Primal Gods? And surely you must also remember these lines derived from the impious pre-Sumerian poet Naru-nimurut?” So saying, K’shasthra began to recite from memory in an ancient Persian dialect:
“Great Omldom, the star-throned, chose to shape
An earthly race, fashioned in his own form,
To worship his in cringing servitude.
These fecund lice soon swarmed through all the lands,
Then died by droves at their fell Master’s whim
In earthquakes, floods and cataclysms vast
Whose thunders were the echoed laughter of
Great Omldom and all the Primal Gods.
Yet one survivor, in defiant hate,
Rose up and vowed to serve no gods so vile.
No insect he, in cosmic mire a-writhe,
But a fierce tiger filled with hellish wrath!
Freedom he grasped, defying the mad gods.
Leading his conquering armies through the lands,
Founding great cities, building nations vast,
Slaying the great gods’ fawning servitors,
Rearing huge towers upon whose lofty heights
His own great stone-hewn image stood upright,
Worshipped as Deity, with sword upraised—
A brazen finger at the throat of God.
And finally, with sorceries unmatched,
He stormed the throne of Heaven and stole its prize—
Knowledge and power withheld by gods from men.
Now in huge wrath Great Omldom recoiled,
Seeing his mirrored arrogance and pride
Within his own created, cherished thralls.
Then the defiant one who cursed in rage
To endless wanderings and constant strife…”
“Enough!” Simon gestured impatiently. “Yes, I’ve read it. It’s an old Persian variant of a poem reputed to have been composed thousands of years ago in a tongue now forgotten. But surely you can’t expect me to believe that—?”
“Believe only what you see, Simon,” said K’shasthra. “Come—let us look into the pool.”
He moved slowly forward behind the wizard, curious yet at the same time strangely reluctant. K’shasthra stopped at the edge of the pit, held his torch out and leaned slightly forward, peering down. As Simon drew near the edge of the wide pool, which was perhaps forty feet from rim to rim, he was surprised to realize that the dark substance filling it could not be water, for it held no reflection at all, neither of the torches nor of the surrounding walls. Moreover, its surface had a hazy aspect, as if it mingled slightly with the air just above it. Nearby, just beneath that surface, was a small platform from which a stone stairway began to spiral downward along the curved wall.
“Look down, Simon, and tell me what you see.”
Keeping a distance between himself and the mage, Simon knelt and peered over the edge of the pit. Despite the dark vapor that filled it, he was surprised to find that he could see clearly to the bottom—a depth about equal to the height of three tall men. In the middle of the circular floor was a raised rectangular dais of stone—and upon it, pale in contrast to the surrounding darkness, lay the body of a man.
“What do you see, Simon?”
He could not reply. A strange fascination had gripped him. The man on the dais seemed tall, though Simon could not be sure because of its powerful;, well-proportioned muscularity. It was not the massive build of a wrestler or a dwarf; rather, it suggested the godlike solidity of a mighty Hercules. The torso and upper thighs were cased in a sleeveless tunic of tight-fitting Persian mail over which was laced a ragged leathern vest; the mighty limbs were bare, save for stout sandals whose thongs criss-crossed the lower legs. About the waist was cinched a wide sword-belt from which a long sheath depended, angled so that it lay partly beneath the tall muscular body. From this sheath protruded the handle of a sword that seemed, from the little that Simon could see, to be of archaic design.
But it was the face that held Simon’s fascination most intensely—the dark, hook-nosed arrogant face that even in death seemed tensed—or ready to tense—into a snarl of menace. Blue-black shoulder-length hair and a curling black beard framed those menacing features…
Simon suddenly felt a strange fear—what if those death-closed eyes should open?—and immediately drew back from the pit.
“That is the Slayer,” said K’shasthra calmly. “For thousands of years he has wandered over the earth in many guises—nomadic hunter, brigand, warrior, conqueror and king—spreading his hatred and evil among men. Many kingdoms and empires has he founded, ruled and lost, but always he somehow rises anew to power under another name. He has led brigands and rebels, forged armies and commanded conquering hosts. Always he stirs men up to commit pillage, rapine and war, to overthrow any power but his own—even that of the gods. Such is the scope of his superhuman evil.
“But two years ago we of the Order of the High Guardians, resolving to purge humanity of the Slayer’s curse, drew him here to this region by means of spells and illusions, and then trapped him in this pit.”
“But…” Simon found it hard to speak. “How…?”
“Even the Great Slayer had his human weakness. Once in his remote youth he loved a woman—Inanna by name—by whom he sired the line who ruled the First Kingdom he founded. Inanna shared his pride and love of dominion, and when at last the Primal Gods slew her for her iniquity, her lord caused her name to be deified. Now we of the Order, by means of magical rites culled from books far more ancient than even that of Ostanes, were able to project into the Slayer’s dreams the ghostly beckoning form of this woman, and to we drew him back to this region—and eventually, with the aid of certain of his fellow-rogues who betrayed him, even into this pit. Then we cast the spells that bound him, and released into the dry cistern the deadly murk that now surrounds him. Look, Simon.” K’shasthra knelt and thrust his torch into the dark substance that seemed neither gas nor fluid; immediately the flame dimmed and expired. “No creature can breathe therein. No one can approach nor rescue him.”
Simon found his voice. “But—why?”
“So that mankind may know peace!” The mage stood erect, eyes glaring. “So that there will be no more slaying, no more slaying in war, no more of the madness of violence which this rebel against the Primal Gods has brought upon the earth!”
Simon laughed as the fascination that had held him broke. “Such nonsense! Even if this dead man is who you say he is—which I don’t believe for a moment!—what have your efforts gained you? During the two years you say he has lain here the world has had no relief from violence and strife—from wars, from pillage, from bandit-gangs such as the one which pursues me. Moreover, Rome itself—the greatest center of earthly evils—has seen two of the most monstrous and murderous purges the world has ever known, the first instigated by its prefect Sejanus, the second by the mad emperor Tiberius. During the latter, my own Helen was slain—”
His dark eyes blazed; his fists clenched as he choked on his emotion. K’shasthra nodded slowly, a knowing sadness in his eyes.
“You will aid us,” he said. “You understand. You will help us free the world of this age-old curse of hate and evil.”
Simon took a deep breath, forcing his mind back to calmness. “You haven’t answered me. If the dead man in this pit is truly the cause of all war and strife—?”
“He is not dead, Simon. Nor does he even sleep. He is merely… suspended. Even now, I think, he is aware enough to hear every word spoken in this chamber.”
Simon shuddered—then threw off his fear with an angry gesture. “Aren’t you going to answer my question, K’shasthra? Why is there still violence upon the earth?”
The old mage shrugged. “The Slayer has spread his evil throughout the lands for many thousands of years. Can we expect that evil to subside so abruptly? It may take many more years—”
“And another thing,” pressed Simon, “why keep him alive at all, if he’s as evil as you say? Is he a god who cannot be slain?”
“No, he is as mortal as any other human, though probably the greatest warrior who has ever lived. The curse of that which he impiously stole from the Primal Gods has withheld from him the peace of a natural death, but only his fighting-prowess and an instinct for survival have kept him alive during these many long centuries.”
“Then I ask again: Why keep him alive?”
K’shasthra stood taller, eyes burning fanatically. “So that when humanity finally ends its madness and subsides into world-wide peace, we of the Order may show them the originator of their former wickedness—and enjoin upon them the paths they must follow in the future lest that scourge be loosed upon them anew. And should they choose not those paths, there is a way to waken the Slayer!”
Simon almost cringed at the madness in the priest’s rheumy old eyes and rasping voice. “In other words,” he said, keeping his own voice steady with an effort, “you and your fellow sorcerers hope to subjugate mankind to your will.”
K’shasthra scowled darkly. “I sense that you have a false and perverted attitude, Simon of Gitta. I had hoped that you would understand. We of the Order wish only to benefit humanity…”
At that moment Simon heard a scrabbling of claws on stone, a fluttering of feathers—and in the next instant was astonished to see a large vulture, evidently the wizard’s familiar, come waddling in through the narrow doorway from the stairs. It craned its neck toward K’shasthra, croaking several times while flapping its wings.
“Ormu, my familiar, calls me,” muttered the wizard. “I forgot that I’d left an important magical brew fermenting. Stay here, Simon; I shall return very soon.”
So saying, the old man hurried out of the chamber, the vulture following him in grotesque, waddling haste.
Simon stood unmoving for several moments, listening to K’shasthra’s soft footfalls fading away up the stairs. Suspicion stirred within him; though the old wizard’s reason for leaving had been given with quick and plausible smoothness, he could recall nothing in the chamber above that suggested preparations for a “magical brew.”
Thus, after the sounds of the mage’s ascent had faded entirely, he entered the door and began to creep silently up the dark stairs.
As he neared the top he began to hear a voice speaking in hushed tones—the wizard’s—and as he stole along the short passage toward the blanket-draped door Simon began to hear the words clearly:
“… yes, yes, he is here, and you may have him, for he has proved useless to the Order. But you should not have come here. Haven’t you been told the rules of the Order often enough to—?”
“Shut up, old rock-lizard!” snarled a coarse voice. “We’ve followed your rules till now, but there’s a limit. The bastard’s killed seven of my men, and by Ahriman!—we’re going to make sure he takes at least that many days in dying.”
Simon’s scalp prickled as he recognized the voice of Gutakh, chief of the Mailed Raiders. He did not need to approach the curtain and peer through it to picture the bandit’s scarred, sadistic face framed by its bristling dark beard, the narrow eyes that scowled or gloated mercilessly beneath thick eyebrows and steel helm. The soft clinkings of armor and blades told him that several other men must be standing in the small chamber as well.
“Hush, you oaf!” hissed K’shasthra. “I’ve left Simon of Gitta in the chamber below—”
“And just what else is in that chamber?” growled Gutakh, though in a lowered voice. “Gold, perhaps? Gems?”
“No. And in any case, Gutakh, the Order has well paid you and your fellow outlaws to terrorize this region, to help insure that men will shun it. You have no cause to demand more.”
“Oh, don’t we?” There was a sneer in the bandit’s voice. “I’d say we have good cause indeed. The loss of seven good men demands a great deal of compensation. You must have a lot of loot hidden around here, old wizard…”
Simon backed slowly away and crept down the stairs. Behind him he could hear the voices rising in more animated argument, but he had heard enough. He must immediately find a way out of this place.
Back in the great domed chamber, however, he realized that escape was impossible. The entire wall was one smooth circuit of seamless rock. A glance into the pit quenched the slight hope that he might have overlooked an exit down there. Besides, who could live in the smothering vapor surrounding the mighty-limbed, hard-visaged man who lay entombed therein…?
Suddenly a wild yell rang distantly from the stairway door—the voice of the wizard, high-pitched in anger or terror. It was followed by the sounds of strange cracklings and hissings, then the screams of several men. The racket lasted only a few seconds; then silence returned.
“Baal!” muttered Simon, sweat dampening his brow. He realized that the argument in the chamber above must have escalated into violence. Doubtless the wizard had defended himself with some sort of magic before being slain. Soon Gutakh and his bandits would be coming down the stair. Simon cursed again, hate blazing in his shadowed eyes as he scanned the torches on the wall. They would make poor weapons. Gods, for a sword!—a blade with which to take at least some of his enemies with him—
Suddenly the memory hit him: the handle of a sword, protruding from the scabbard of the man who lay supine in the pit!
He used a precious minute to take several deep breaths and hold them, letting them out slowly, calming his mind in the way that his great mentor Daramos had taught him. Then he deliberately stepped off the rim of the pit and on to the stone platform perhaps a foot down. The thick vapor swirled about his ankles, imparting a slight chill to his flesh; yet it was not as dense as water, nor even wet—something midway between liquid and airy substance…
Drawing one last lungful of air, Simon purposefully moved down the narrow stairway, felt the vapor close over his head. Despite the dark quality of the medium through which he moved he could see quite clearly—in fact, the flesh of his arms seemed more pale than usual by contrast. The sound of his feet on the stone seemed greatly muffled, and he wondered if he would be able to hear the approach of Gutakh and his bandits while he was in the pit…
Then he was at the bottom, approaching the man who lay on the dais of carven rock. Surely the man was dead—there was not the slightest sign of breathing or other movement. Perhaps the vapor contained some mummifying property, for there was also not the slightest sign of decay. As Simon drew close the induced calm of his mind was slightly disturbed by an involuntary awe, a tingling fear. Those hawk-like, somewhat Assyrian features, framed by curling black hair and full beard, seemed to connote dignity and intelligence along with ruthlessness and an iron will; there was in addition a slightly goatish, almost unhuman cast to them. The body, now seen up close, was much taller than even the tallest Persian warrior’s, and massive in proportion. Uneasily Simon recalled those tales of semi-human giants who once roamed the earth, and found himself wondering what would happen should those mighty limbs begin to stir and flex…
Snuffing the thought, he gripped the sword’s handle and tugged. It slid easily from its sheath despite the weight of the body that lay partially upon it. Simon noted briefly that it was of an ancient design, having only a small guard and a wide, tapering blade—yet that blade was as bright as the best Persian steel and the entire sword was large enough to be wielded two-handed.
Without pondering these anomalies, he strode back to the stairway and ascended as rapidly as he could without setting his heart to pounding. As it was, his lungs felt near to bursting as he neared the top of the pit. He dashed up the last few steps and exhaled explosively as his head broke the surface, then frantically gulped in clean air as the heavy vapor swirled about the base of his neck.
Immediately he heard stomping footfalls, cursing voices, and the echoing clink of metal. Men were rushing from the upper stairway into the great domed chamber! Simon crouched back, forcing himself to breathe more shallowly, his face barely above the surface of the vapor; he did not dare to peer up over the rim.
“Find the dog!” bellowed the voice of Gutakh. “He can’t be far.”
“There’s no place to hide in here,” yelled a man closer to Simon. “Wait—I see stairs going down into the pool. There’s a platform just under the rim—”
A bearded face appeared over the edge—a hard, brutal Persian face topped by a steel helmet. Even as the man’s eyes widened Simon swung the blade, neatly lopping the head from its owner’s shoulders. As the decapitated corpse toppled after its head into the pit, neck arteries spurting crimson jets, Simon sprang erect and leaped into the midst of his foes, roaring with rage. Steel clashed furiously, cries of fear and anger echoed, and another bandit went down with a cloven skull beneath the great blade.
Simon dodged frantically as a dozen blades sought his flesh; one ripped his tunic and gashed his side, but then he was beyond his enemies and whirling, back to the wall, to confront them anew. As they paused he grabbed a torch with his left hand, snatching it from its bracket.
“Alive!” screamed Gutakh furiously. “Take him alive!”
The crowd of bandits surged in as one man. Simon thrust savagely, the point of his great sword plowing through the links of the nearest bandit’s mail-shirt, lodging between ribs. In the same instant another Persian struck Simon hard on the forearm with a stave, numbing his hand. Snarling, Simon rammed the torch into the man’s face, sending him reeling back, howling, with beard ablaze. But then the rest again surged in relentlessly, beating Simon to the ground with fists, clubs, and sword-pommels.
“Good lads!” yelled the bandit chief, advancing. “That’s right, hold him down—at least four of you. Remember what old K’shasthra said—the bastard’s gladiator-trained! Good—now, spread-eagle him.”
Gutakh drew a dirk from his belt and stood over Simon, who struggled futilely against the six bandits who held him pinned upon the stone floor. For a moment two pairs of eyes glared hatred toward one another.
“Well, Simon of Gitta,” snarled Gutakh, licking his thick lips, “you’ve now cost me ten of my men. But you won’t die as quickly as they did, by Ahriman! For a beginning, you’re going to find out whether you like the taste of your own gonads.”
The dagger-point started slowly down. Following its motion with sick fascination, Simon was only vaguely aware of the sight beyond it: the bandit with the singed beard, kneeling at the edge of the pool under the mistaken impression that it contained water. Then the man suddenly cried out:
“Hey, Gutakh, there’s someone else—”
The bandit’s voice choked off abruptly as a large hand shot up and clamped on his neck. In the next instant it ended with a muffled crunch of bone and a clatter of steel—and in the same moment a towering form stepped up out of the vapor-pool and strode purposefully forward, a Persian sword in its right hand and a dirk in its left.
Gutakh whirled, snarling—then suddenly gasped and paled. “Gods of the Hells!” he shrieked. “It’s—”
“So, Gutakh, we meet again!”
The voice of the mighty black-bearded warrior was a reverberating growl of menace, his grin a straining rictus of hate. And his eyes, black and glaring— For an instant Simon felt a surge of irrational terror, the terror of nightmare, for never had he seen such terrible hatred as that which blazed from the eyes of the Slayer—
The Slayer, risen anew from the pit, lusting for blood—
“I might have benefited you and your gang, Gutakh. You should not have betrayed me into the hands of the Order!”
“Get him!” screamed the bandit-chief. “At him—all of you!”
Four of the men holding Simon leaped up to join Gutakh and the rest; the other two slackened their grips slightly, indecisive. Simon adroitly slipped free from them, driving his stiffened hand into the throat of one while twisting away from the other. The first went down, strangling and gasping; the second drew his dagger and lunged. Simon rolled away, barely evading the blade, and came smoothly to his feet in a fighting stance. Behind him he heard the clash of steel on steel, the thud of heavy blows on flesh, the shrieks and curses of raging and dying men.
“Die!” screamed Simon’s assailant, rushing in and slashing.
Again he barely avoided the blow, then charged and grappled the man. They went down together, Simon’s hand locked around the Persian’s dagger-wrist, and for a moment wrestled precariously near the brink of the pit. Simon snarled as he felt the fingers of the bandit’s left hand gouging into his face, groping for his eyes. Quickly he achieved an arm-lock and rolled his weight into it; the bandit shrieked as his right elbow crunched and cracked backwards. Immediately Simon broke free and shoved his foe with both feet, sending him howling over the edge of the vapor-pool.
Snatching up the fallen dagger, Simon leaped to his feet. The knot of embattled men surged between him and the doorway; even as he watched, another Persian went down screaming, mailed sword-arm flopping loosely, half-severed. Four other bandits lay dead already, gashed hideously and staining crimson the stone floor. But the remaining few were pressing the Slayer hard, driving him back against the wall.
“Kill him! Kill him!” screeched Gutakh.
Simon rushed forward and thrust at the nearest bandit, but his foot slipped on the blood-slick stone, throwing him off balance; his dagger point was turned by a mail shirt. Immediately the bandit whirled and swung his sword, but Simon was already beneath the blow, driving forward and crashing together with his foe into the melee, thrusting his dirk up beneath the mail-shirt into the Persian’s groin and belly. He heard the Slayer roaring a war-cry in an unknown tongue, felt blood spatter on him as more foes sprawled mortally gashed—
There was a final ring of steel, a final shriek of fear and pain—then silence. Sitting up in a welter of bloody carcasses, Simon saw that only two men remained standing—Gutakh and the Slayer. Gutakh was clutching his right wrist, his brutish face twisted in agony; nearby lay the hand that had been attached to that wrist, its fingers still gripping the sword handle.
“You should not have betrayed me to the wizards, Gutakh,” rumbled the gigantic warrior. His own sword clattered on the stone, and then his hand shot out and locked on the bandit’s throat. Tighter and tighter clenched the fingers of that mighty hand, the forearm-muscles bulging to the thickness of a normal man’s calf. The Persian’s face purpled as veins popped under the skin, and his eyes bulged horribly. Then there came a hideous, grinding crunch of vertebrae and cartilage.
Flinging away the bandit’s carcass contemptuously, the Slayer turned and confronted Simon, who wondered uneasily what was to come next. Never had he seen a fighter such as this man! Eight or nine bandits had attacked him simultaneously and he had killed all but one. True, his mighty chest now heaved from his great exertion, and some of that blood upon him was his own, oozing from a few slight cuts on his arms and face. That proved him mortal, at least. Yet Simon knew that if the Slayer chose to attack him, he stood no chance.
The massive warrior advanced and Simon crouched into a fighting stance, dirk ready. He felt himself cringe inwardly at the dark glare of hate that still smoldered in the Slayer’s eyes. The mighty figure stopped only six feet away, and for a moment the two blood-spattered fighters glared silently at one another.
Suddenly the Slayer’s black beard parted in a grin. Bending slightly, he held out his empty sword-hand and said: “By Nergal and all his fiends, man, put away that sticker! Aren’t you going to shake the hand of the man who saved your hide?”
* * *
An hour later they sat in the upper chamber partaking of the old wizard’s food and wine, having cleansed themselves with his store of water before binding up their slight wounds. In a dark corner lay the wizard himself, a sword protruding from his lean breast, while near him sprawled two of the bandits, their corpses oddly charred here and there.
“The old coot put up a fight,” growled the Slayer between mouthfuls. “Evidently he knew a few sorcerers’ tricks.”
“K’shasthra told me that you were responsible for all the warfare and violence on earth,” Simon commented.
The Slayer gestured contemptuously and rumbled a low growl. “Arrgh! Such blather! When it comes to strife and violence, humans need no help from me.”
“He also said that only one thing would revive you, but didn’t specify what it was. How did it happen?”
“You did it, fellow.” The herculean warrior held up his sword, the blade of which was now polished to its original brightness. “When you used this beauty to lop off that bastard’s head, it snapped me out of the spell just like that! Then I grabbed his sword and dagger, and ran up just in time to save your hide.”
“I see. Blood.” Simon nodded somberly. “But how did you survive the vapor of the pit?”
“The same way you did, of course. Held my breath.”
Simon took another swig of the wine. In spite of the giant warrior’s matter-of-fact manner touched occasionally even with a bit of grim humor, he did not feel easy in his presence. The smoldering hatred was always evident in those arrogant dark eyes, behind those dark regal features with their hint of the unhuman—hatred ever ready to burst forth again.
“Your sword,” said Simon, “—its design is ancient, yet it’s evidently of superior steel.”
The man nodded. “I forged it myself. After the Cataclysm many arts were gradually forgotten. There came a long period during which mankind lost the knowledge of working iron and steel. But I remembered, and eventually became adept at it.” He fondled the weapon almost lovingly, gazing into the mirror of its blade as if at dark memories. “I’ve had this beauty a long time.”
Simon’s uneasiness deepened. He rose, took a final swallow of wine, then donned a Persian sword-belt and cloak and picked up a bundle of provisions he had prepared. “We’d best be going. The wizard’s vulture evidently escaped and will no doubt be bearing news of this night’s events to other members of the High Guardians.”
The Slayer nodded again, rising also. “I see that you, too, know something about wizards.”
They left the chamber, carrying their provisions, and soon emerged from the rock-crevice into the cold night air. The wind had ceased, the stars were out and a nearly full moon was rising above the far-off snowy mountains to the east. Some riderless horses stood about on the ridgetop, grazing on the sparse dry grasses.
It took each of them but a few minutes to capture a mount for himself.
“I journey westward,” said Simon, “—to the plains of Sumer and beyond, eventually to Rome. Will you come with me?”
“No.” The Slayer gazed toward the distant mountains. “I go east. I want to pay a call on a few others of the Order of the High Guardians.”
“I see. You, too, seek revenge.”
They faced one another, an understanding hanging between them.
“I think that you wander under a bit of the same curse that drives me,” said the giant warrior, “and I see some of the same hatred in your eyes… Well, good luck, Simon of Gitta. May all your enemies know terror and death! And someday, mayhap, one of us may somehow meet the gods that have cursed us, and slay them also.”
Again their sword-hands clasped in a firm, strong grip.
“Good luck to you also, Slayer. But before we part, will you not tell me your name?”
The looming warrior, dark in silhouette against the moonlight, stood silent for a moment. This he laughed harshly.
“I think you already know well, Simon, the name your Samaritan legends have given me. But since you want to hear it aloud, it is—”
The syllable rang out, harsh as the clash of iron on stone in the cold night air. Again Simon nodded somberly. It was indeed as he had already known.
Then Nimrod—mighty hunter and warrior, slayer of nations, defier of Heaven—turned away and, mounting, rode rapidly eastward up the slope of the moonlit ridge, into the night.