Monday, 3 June 2019

The First King of Men

And from our number shall rise a king, and his head shall be crowned with glass
-Enhelem prophecy
For the first time since he had shared his vision with his people, Fasika felt doubt, and he felt it keenly. The last few months had been a heady gallop across the desert, gathering followers and increasing their strength, all building towards the moment when he would lead his people towards their goal, to their shared destiny as masters of the realm. That moment had finally arrived: laid across the horizon like an emerald necklace, Fasika had finally set his eyes upon the verdant fringe of the Great River, not spied by Enhelem eyes since the days of his ancestors.
Fasika tugged his horse's mane, bringing it to a halt, and signalled for his party to follow suit. Only two others rode beside him. The wise-woman Beimnet was his most trusted adviser, and had been his guide since adolescence. Jehemen was much younger: barely out of adolescence himself, but a fine warrior and an honest man. Someway behind the trio massed Fasika's three hundred strong following, nearly half of whom were ready for war. Their dark skin had been painted in readiness for combat, each according to the custom of his clan, but the cries they issued were in unison:

Themeliseni metitenali! We have returned!

Fasika's gaze remained fixed on the horizon.

"It is just as my vision foretold."

Beimnet signalled for Jehemen to leave her alone with the leader. Without a word, the young man rode back to join his brothers and sisters in arms.

"If it is true, Fasika, why then is your face so pained?"

"Because I'm afraid. What if I'm wrong? What if my visions were false? What if I'm mad?"

Fasika cast his eyes to those of his adviser, eager to gauge her reaction. Beimnet appeared unmoved, her eyes remaining affixed to the thin green line demarcating the distant river. Fasika felt ashamed. Eventually Beimnet spoke:
"There is no madness, only idiocy: when the spirits speak to us they whisper, we must listen closely and untangle their words. But they spoke clearly and loudly to you. So you see Fasika, son of Fassil, you have been given a task: lead your people to their destiny!"

With fresh resolve Fasika hoisted his spear into the air:

"Izihi metitenali!"

Themeliseni metitenali! roared the army behind him, as together they bore down on their uncertain fate, galloping across the sands and invoking the spirits of their ancestors.

***

Beimnet eyed the river cautiously, expecting at any moment to be dragged into its indigo depths by a crocodile or worse. It was a fear tempered by unbridled delight: she had never seen so much water, and such luscious vegetation! It was proof, if proof were needed, that Fasika's calling was true.

Beside her, the young warrior Jehemen seemed only to exhibit caution. His spear was at the ready, and his eyes darted from side to side.

"We should not linger long. If the city is close, as the leader says, then the Other Ones may be planning an ambush.”

Beimnet fixed the youth with a firm stare, pausing for just long enough to unsettle him, allowing him to consider what he had just said. He began to nervously retract his statement:

“Of course, I didn’t mean...”

“Still your tongue. We will stay as long as the leader desire… but you are right to be cautious. We are in their lands now, and we know not what they may be plotting in that dark river or those tall trees.”

The two comrades shuddered when they looked back at the jungle. It was merely a thin strip of forest feeding on the wet banks of the river, but for these lifelong desert-dwellers it was dark and alien and scary. 

“Let the animals drink but stand guard. Let us cleanse our hands and faces, but do not bathe. I will speak with our leader.”

Jehemen assented, relaying the instructions to the horde as Beimnet negotiated the slippery path along the river bank to where Fasika, was waiting. Beimnet greeted him with a smile:

“So we are here already, Fasika. Now we are to follow this river north, are we not?”

Fasika nodded, and began to scratch into the mud with his spear.

“This line is the river. Here is north, here is south. There will be two cities. One is close, the other far.”

The leader drove the rounded end of the spear’s shaft into the mud.

“We will be there soon, and face our first true challenge: the old woman.”

“Then the master, then the maid?”

Fasika did not answer immediately, instead drawing the river opening out into an intricate network of a vast delta. He marked a second city with his spear-butt, where river met the sea.

“They will come for us in the second city. The maiden is their queen. We will take her crown and secure a land for our people.” 
  
“And you will wear that crown, Fasika, as has been foretold!”

The leader remained silent and returned to his horde, followed by Beimnet. She watched as he rallied his followers, more than a little proud. Fasika had been entrusted to her in his thirteenth rain: he had barely survived his coming of age ordeal, and was considered too weak to continue with his band. Yet Beimnet had sensed a power in the young man, and took him under her wing. In the years that followed her instincts were validated a thousand fold, as the sickly child had grown into a visionary leader. Truly the spirits were on his side.

Fasika unfastened a snakeskin pouch from his waist,inside which were many small stones either, black or white in colour. 

“I ask the spirits to guide us in our endeavours: each warrior shall draw forth one stone. Those who draw a white stone will remain to protect those too weak to follow. Those who draw the black stone will follow me into the city of the Other Ones.”

Without further prompting, the most eager warriors had formed an orderly queue, and the snakeskin pouch was passed down the line. One by one the warriors withdrew a stone, but kept their hand concealed. Once again Beimnet felt a soft surge of pride, though this time it was not for her protege. Since they had begun this journey, her people acted with increasing cohesion. They were disciplined and organised in a way that was alien to the other tribes of the desert. More than one hundred fighting men and a handful of fighting women simultaneously held out a fist, turning it over and opening it to reveal their role in the next stage.

There were some disappointed faces: all who bore arms were ready to take this land by force. Yet they knew of the importance of duty, of protecting the future of their bloodline. Fasika had already begun to march into the jungle, his reduced retinue following closely behind. Beimnet spoke:

“Make camp, set watch, pray to the spirits that we succeed. We will send for you.”

The old woman quickened her pace to catch up with Fasika and Jehemen. Beimnet had seen many moons but was still strong and fit, and knew that her place was at Fasika's side. She skipped past the tribal warriors with nimble feet, joining the leaders in a vast clearing. An enormous tree had fallen in its side, tearing a hole in the canopy, bathing the whole area in golden light.

A figure slouched against the trunk of the fallen tree. The party came to an immediate halt: though they had not beheld his likeness before, there could be no doubt that the figure was on of their fabled foes, one of the Other Ones.

Its skin was pale grey, like the moon, and silver hair poured over its shoulders, sleek and straight as the mane of a horse. It was naked but for a simple cloth around his loins, yet its body was emaciated to such an extent Beimnet could not ascribe to it a gender. It was neither male nor female, nor anywhere in between.

Fasika signalled for the warriors to line the edge of the canopy, as he called on three warriors to join him and Jehemen. 

Beimnet had removed a small stone from her pouch, and was chanting almost inaudibly as she rubbed it between her fingers. It was a simple charm, but one which the wise-woman hoped would keep her allies safe. She watched as the approached the figure, weapons drawn. Ten paces from the figure, they halted.

“I am Fasika, son of-”

The creature gasped with the panic of one awoken from a hideous dream, the intake of air seeming to suck the heat out of the damp jungle air, sending  a shiver through all assembled. Fasika continued.

“...son of Fassil. I-”

The creature’s eyes flashed open, revealing two violet coloured pits, devoid of either pupil or iris. All hell broke loose.

To Beimnet, it was as though the ground turned to water: they were like leaves on a still pond, and the creature was a heavy stone that had been dropped into the water, sending them cascading in all directions as reality rippled before her eyes. She fell to the ground, and felt a sharp pain in her side. All around her, the air shimmered and vacillated, colours shifted and changed, the voices of men and women screamed out to her in agony. Blood trickled from her nose and eyes, gathering at her lips, and her limbs were weighed down by an invisible force of such power she was unable to lift herself to her feet.

Above the noise and chaos she heard the creature speak: it was at once a rasping whisper, and clear as the call of a hawk, cutting through the din and seeming to speak directly to her.

YOU BRING WITH YOU… MAGIC?

The pressure on Beimnet’s limbs relented enough for her to stand up, though she had to use her staff for support. For the first time in all her years, she felt her age. But she was not afraid.

“We come to fulfil the prophecy, to take your city from you.”

Beimnet tried to fix the creature with her wicked eye, but it was impervious. She could almost see her charm slide off the emaciated surface of its flesh as its violet eye-pits bore down on her. She suddenly felt overwhelmed by a powerful sense of deference, as though she was not worthy to gaze upon the entity before her. She cast her eyes askance, witnessing the chaos about her for the first time. 

The warriors of her band fought against invisible foes, against one another, or against animated trees, all in an oddly choreographed dance: it seemed as though the din of battle possessed its own music. She could not see Fasika. A powerful anger rose within her. With renewed intent she confronted the creature once again, slamming her staff into the ground with such force that the pain in her side griped and writhed. Through the bizarre maelstrom, her magic had carved an opening, and through it she issued a plea for help.

Within seconds the blue sky was almost black with birds, all of different kinds and shapes and sizes, noisily calling and screaming as they funnelled through the invisible crack in the creature’s magic, filtered through and swarmed about it like enormous hornets, pecking and clawing and scratching. The creature’s white flesh was obscured by thousands of feathers of myriad hues, and it released a peculiar cry: not pained, not in anger, but a musical note of such jarring pitch that almost at once, the chaos abated.   

The humidity returned to the air. Dead birds fell from the sky. On the ground, fallen warriors moaned softly, too weak to get back on their feet.

The creature spoke:

THE CITY WELCOMES YOU

It raised its hands and the dense jungle undergrowth began to shrivel rapidly, withering and dying, revealing stone structures which may had been hidden for many hundreds of moons. Behind the creature, behind the ancient fallen tree, Beimnet beheld the weathered sandstone steps of a vast pyramid. 

COME WITH ME 

Beimnet glanced around her: there was still no sign of Fasika. She called his name, but her voice was cracked and weak. The creature seemed to smirk before turning away from her. It did not so much walk as drift, much like a fine cloth sheet ghosting over the desert sands. The compulsion to follow was great, and soon overpowered her desire to see Fasika safe and well.

While the creature’s feet never seemed to leave the ground, neither did it walk, and trying to understand how it was that it propelled itself forward induced such nausea in Beimnet’s gut she had to look away. Yet gazing upon it uncritically, regarding it purely as a thing that existed in the universe, Beimnet was overcome with joy. Somehow this ancient creature was beautiful, but when her mind attempted to grasp what it was that made it so the cognitive dissonance was sickening.

It came to a halt atop the pyramid. 

WE BUILT THIS CITY WITH OUR HANDS, FULL OF PRIDE AND HOPE

Beimnet strode up the steps, and was afforded a glimpse of the vista above the canopy. She could see the river snaking in front of her, and disappearing into the horizon, a thin blue line flanked by green in an ocean of yellow. Suddenly, Fasika’s promises of fulfilling destiny and ending suffering seemed very far away. Beimnet felt small.

“What is our purpose?”

TO PLAY YOUR PART, AS I HAVE MINE

The creature turned, its wholly blue eye-pits weeping sapphire oil. For the first time, Beimnet realised that whenever it had spoken, its mouth had remained shut.

YOU WILL TAKE THE BOAT TO OUR CAPITAL AND RECEIVE YOUR CROWN

A sudden surge of raw fury coursed through Beimnet’s blood: this demon had slain the only people she had ever loved - the only people she really knew. Its promises were meaningless; it had not been her destiny to wear the crown, that one was scattered across the forest floor.

She drew her bronze knife from her belt and charged the creature, cursing its eyes and promising eternal torment for its soul.

Beimnet’s intentions were almost immediately thwarted: before she could get within stabbing distance, its left arm had shot out and grasped her neck. Though withered and thin, it possessed uncommon strength, and Beimnet was hoisted into the air. Her arms and legs flailed pathetically; occasionally, her knife would scratch at the creatures alabaster skin, leaving purple-black scratches on the surface, but never seeming to break through.

It held her there for a minute or more. The pressure on Beimnet’s throat was not enough to prevent her from breathing, but it was a struggle to do so. It looked upon her in disappointment.

I HAVE PLAYED MY PART, CHILD. WILL YOU NOT PLAY YOURS?

The old woman, in spite of her struggles, managed to strike true: her bronze blade sinking between the bones of the creature’s forearm. Beimnet was almost as shocked as the creature, and they both exchanged an incredulous glance for a second or two as Beimnet withdrew the blade, the blue-black blood of the creature catching in the dying sunlight as it arced between them. Her victory was short -lived, however, and with new resolve she felt her throat close, as its grip tightened. She dropped her bronze knife to the ground

VERY WELL, YOU LEAVE ME NO CHOICE

Holding her in front of itself, as though she were but a child’s toy, the cursed entity carried her by the throat down the opposite side of the pyramid towards the water. Beimnet merely saw the steps of the pyramid with the sun setting behind: it was the sound of the indigo river lapping at its banks that alerted her to its presence. But sound and vision were growing dim, no longer was she able to draw breath.

TAKE THIS BOAT TO THE CAPITAL. THERE YOU WILL-

The creature stopped short, paused, then coughed. A second cough was followed by a torrent of purple-black blood, and Beimnet fell to the ground. She gasped, a fish out of water clinging to life. The creature fell beside her, a spearhead protruding from its chest.

There was a voice: it was Fasika. Beimnet could he that he was being reassuring, that the intention behind his words was to let her know she was safe, but she could not make them out precisely. They were like a warm blanket. Her throat felt much better, but the earlier pain in her side throbbed with greater intensity. 

“The head.”

The wise-woman heard the voice of the Jehemen, the young warrior. She felt proud. Her protege and his protege, the greatest hope of her people, had both made it through. The Enhelem would be restored. It was all as had been foreseen.

There followed a hideous pounding from right beside her, sounds of meat and bone and stone, and she knew that the formidable creature that had wrought such havoc was no longer a threat to any of her people. Yet it was cold comfort, for a fresh terror clutched at her heart. In the fading light, she had glimpsed a vision of something terrible: not here, not now, but soon. Beimnet groped the air for her son, desperately willing him to her side. She felt her rough skin against his smooth shoulders, and for a moment was reminded of how the creature had moved, like a fine piece of cloth gliding over the desert. Soon enough, everything was turning into a reflection or an echo of everything else, and she was struggling to hold onto a coherent reality.

“Take the boat.”

The words issued from her mouth like pebbles: heavy, but definite; solid. She immediately felt his understanding. Fasika knew that part. This was good.

“Take the boat.”

Beimnet had meant to try something else but it had not worked: she had got that part right, the three words had been done, she did not need to utter them a second time. No, there was something else. 

She saw the cloth again, only this time it wasn’t gliding across the desert sand, it was falling from her hands. It was slipping into the river. Beimnet no longer knew what she wanted to say, nor why, but she tried it again anyway.

“Take. The. Boat.” 

Still the words would not come. Instead, a single black marble popped out of her mouth, falling to the stone floor. Fasika scooped it up hurriedly and placed it in a pouch at his waist. He pulled his mentor to his chest. The old woman released a long, rasping exhalation and Fasika felt her grow lighter, expressing the unburdening that was the wise-woman’s soul slipping into nothingness.  

Fasika stifled a tear, knowing that Jehemen was watching him: he needed to be strong amidst this chaos, to inspire the one he had chosen, just as Beimnet had inspired him: she had been the strongest person he had ever known. She had stood up to one of the Others and had outlived it. In return, she had been reduced to a brittle husk. Her skin, though old, had once been a rich shade of deep burgundy: the brief moments with the creature had turned it dry white, cracked and cold like chalk. 

The leader placed a kiss on the dead woman’s forehead.

“We will meet again, mother.” 

Fasika knew it was not true; nonetheless, those were the words that came out. He stood up, and stepped on to the boat, followed by Jehemen.

“"Izihi metitenali!"”

 * * * 

Jehemen shivered. The vast orange sun was setting behind them, but it was not the cooling of the air that chilled his bones. It was the spectacle before him: fish were leaping from the river, onto the boat, just as the day began to die. It was the third evening in a row that it had happened, and while he was grateful that the fish were sacrificing themselves that they might not starve, he mistrusted whatever charm compelled them to do so. Fasika placed a hand on his shoulder to comfort him.

“Do not be afraid, Jehemen: the spirits provide for us because we follow the true path. It is not our destiny to starve. Our destiny is to claim the crown.”

Jehemen said nothing, but nodded. He began to prepare the fish for their evening meal, just as he had done for the two preceding nights: gutting the with a sharpened flint, throwing the entrails to the birds, and grilling the remaining flesh over the strange, violet flame that burned continuously at the back of the boat. Fasika sat calmly watching the stars come out at the prow of the small vessel.

Neither man had travelled by boat previously, but Fasika was far more comfortable than his younger charge. To Jehemen, everything about it was alien and terrifying, even the very act of travelling on top of the water via a mutilated tree. But it was the sorcerous nature of their craft - the everlasting violet flame, the self-piloting barge, the regular supply of flying fish at supper - that chilled his bones. Everything reminded him of the hideous creature they had encountered at the city in the jungle, everything reminded him of Beimnet’s corpse, desiccated and white atop the pyramid. The creature had destroyed her and maybe all of Jehemen’s comrades before Fasika was able to end its rampage, and now they were heading to a city where more of them were to be found.

“It wanted us to go there… to take the boat.”

Jehemen had not intended to speak out loud; the words had simply fallen out.

“Yes.”

Fasika said nothing for a while, instead taking a piece of grilled fish and popping it into his mouth. He chewed for a while, as Jehemen watched expectantly. 

“The fish is very well prepared. You have learned how to cook quickly!”

The young man was just a little disappointed. He had hoped Fasika had something more to say some wise words or else something to comfort him. In place of that he was merely confirming Jehemen’s worst fears, that they were walking into a trap. Jehemen wrestled with his conscious a while considering whether he should press the matter further. It was a little disrespectful of his elder, but was it not his duty to provide counsel now that Beimnet was gone?

Beimnet. Again his mind raced back to the image of the formidable woman held aloft in the air like a frail antelope. She had been the most powerful of the Enhelem, her magic was feared by all the tribes, and yet she had been no match for the Other One.

A gentle burning sensation seemed to spread over his forehead and Jehemen looked up from his lap to see that Fasika was staring at him intently, a broad grin on his face:

“It wanted us to take the boat, but so did Beimnet. They both knew their fate, as I know ours. And it will soon be upon us.”

They spoke no further that night. Fasika thanked the spirits for his meal and passed into a deep meditation at the prow of the boat while Jehemen did his best to fall asleep, staring up at the vast sky above him. Resplendent with a thousand stars, the cloak of night provided him with the comfort he was seeking, as he recalled his mother telling him that each star was a god looking down upon him. He had always taken it to mean that he had better behave himself, since the gods were always watching. He now realised that his mother had meant for him to think of those one thousand eyes not as spies but as protectors.

***

The morning sun woke Jehemen abruptly. Fasika was still sat at the prow, apparently having fallen asleep in meditation. The young man stepped forward tentatively, gripped by a morbid fear that his leader had died during the night. Before he could make sure, Fasika addressed him:

“We will be there soon. There will be two white horses.”

“At the city of the Other Ones?”

“At the greatest city the world has ever known.”

As usual, the banks of the river were fringed with a thick layer of tall grasses and reeds, giving way to the narrow yet dense strip of jungle that divided the river from the desert either side of it. Crocodiles glided in and out of secret nesting spots between the reeds, oblivious to the passage of the enchanted barge and its two occupants. The lazy motion of the reptiles was curiously soporific, and as he watched them Jehemen drifted into reverie, trailing his hand in the dark blue water.

Jehemen’s reverie was short lived, its end signalled by a sound of such violence that the two passengers felt their blood run cold. It was like a thunder crack, only louder, and accompanied by a sudden brilliant flash of light, like a ball of fire erupting above the canopy of the forest lining the shore. They had barely drawn breath when it happened again, and again and again, until finally a fifth explosion, mightier than all preceding it, signalled the end of whatever had passed.

Fasika pointed towards the forest, from which now arose several columns of thick smoke climbing into the air.

“Therein lies the city. We must go.”

The young man looked upon his master with incredulity, but already the boat had steered itself a course toward the river bank, where amidst the reeds Jehemen spied a stone jetty. He steeled himself: now was not the time for equivocation, now there destiny was upon them.

Once they had alighted the boat, Jehemen and Fasika were able to discern the remains of a stone path. Cracked and partially smothered by undergrowth, it snaked into a dense jungle. Two white horses stood where the path met the tall trees and dark interior of the forest.

“As you envisioned, dear leader.”

Fasika said nothing, approaching the nearest horse gingerly. With a few reassuring clicks and unthreatening motions, he had the steed eating some from his palm. It was a mare. Behind it, its mate stirred restlessly. 

“Come, Jehemen! Claim your steed!”

Jehemen approached, but as he did so he became aware of a rising sensation of nausea. Simultaneously, a figure appeared to levitate from a patch of undergrowth behind his leader. He called out a warning too late to alert Fasika, who found himself in the strangling grip of an Other One.

WHAT ARE YOU?

The creature’s violet eye-pits burned with an incandescence as it interrogated its victim, hoisting Fasika into the air that it might better peer into his eyes. Jehemen charge forward with his spear, impaling the milky-white creature through its left flank. While its long, silver hair waved rhythmically in an intangible breeze, it remained unmoved. 

WEAK

Fasika’s arms flailed at his sides, attempting to locate Beimnet’s knife he had tethered to his waist. Jehemen withdrew his spear, sending a fountain of violet-black blood spraying in all directions, yet seeming not afflict the creature at all. It was cloaked in a robe of ivory, now stained with indigo, flapping in the same intangible wind that likewise caused its hair wave. Though the creature was oblivious to his attacks, Jehemen saw no other option than to try again, and with a mighty heave he thrust his spear a little higher, aiming for the lower part of its rib cage. The young man thrust with such ferocity his spear emerged from the other side.

The creature, Fasika, and Jehemen’s spear all fell to the floor. The older man struggled to detach himself from the creature’s strangling grasp, even though it was almost certainly dead. He struggled to issue the warning to Jehemen:

“The head!”

Taking a flint knife from his waist, Jehemen began to cut at the creature’s neck. Its flesh felt as delicate as the petals of a flower, easily tearing at the keen edge of his blade. Black blood poured everywhere as he severed the major blood vessels, and he felt compelled to look away. His gaze fell upon the fading violet light in the creature’s eyes, and a face that was at once feminine, ancient, and beautiful.  Without looking, he cracked through the bones of its neck as though they were the shell of an egg, and the violet  light was extinguished entirely.

With its head separated from its shoulders whatever strength it had left in its grip vanished, freeing Fasika at last. He looked upon the gruesome trophy with surprise, noting the lines and its face, and its feminine aspect.

“The crone.”

“That’s what I thought,” said Jehemen, “but what of the first creature?”

“I think that was the master. My interpretation of the vision is maybe confused; but the last one will be the maid. The last one will be their queen.”

Taking leaves from the undergrowth, the two men cleaned themselves of the creature’s blood as best they could.  The two horses had not moved for the duration of the skirmish, and the mare had been painted by the spray from Jehemen’s second strike. In deference to his elder, Jehemen had gone to mount the sullied beast, but Fasika had forbidden it, taking the mare for himself and allowing the younger man to ride the unmarked stallion.

As they entered the jungle, they were both aware of the dead silence that greeted them. Though dwellers of the desert, they knew of the verdant areas near to their watering holes as places of mysterious and frightening noises. The droning of insects and the ghostly calls of monkeys and birds held a special place in their folklore. They were the calls of nature spirits, and should be respected as much as feared. But here they were absent, and the two men found this far more frightful.

Now and then signs that this jungle had grown over the top of a city were apparent: aside from the path, the occasional statue or edifice could be glimpsed through the dense vegetation, but it was not until they came to an open square that they could be entirely sure they were in the right place. Jehemen blinked as the bright sun revealed its noontime glory, unobscured by the jungle canopy. Across a vast paved square, lined with structures of brick and stone, he spied a column of smoke rising from a large building at the far side. Granite steps, many hundreds of yards across, rose up from the square to a broad peristyle supported by fat, cylindrical columns. Behind the columns, a set of huge wooden double doors marked the entrance to what he assumed was the palace. 

Fasika was already riding his horse ahead of him. Jehemen followed, the fall of his horse’s hooves echoing around the silent plaza. As the young warrior surveyed the area for possible threats, he spied the body of one of the Others lying on the ground in a pool of its own blue-black blood. The body was covered with flowers that seemed to be growing from its wounds.

Neither man had beheld steps before, and so neither thought to dismount, treating it as they would a steep bank or hillock. Side-by-side, they ascended, the heavy wooden doors swinging open silently as they approached. They entered the palace.

Jehemen gasped as he beheld the interior. The hall was vast, many paces deep, and with a ceiling as high as the canopy of the forest. Stone columns shot out of the ground towards the vaulted roof, arching high above him like the ribs of some giant animal, and at the far end an enormous window of stained glass cast coloured light into the hall.

The awestruck warrior followed that coloured light down from the window to the hall itself, where a table shaped like a broken ring was laid for a feast. At its head a pale figure sat in a magnificent silver throne. Though scores of high-backed wooden chairs were set at the table, only a scattering of figures occupied them. Some slouched lazily in their seats, others slumped forward in the uneaten pile of slowly rotting food that covered every inch of the table’s surface. Jehemen counted seven such figures, each bearing the deathly white complexion of the creatures they had fought before, and each possessing the same burning violet or magenta eyes and long silken hair. Jehemen shuddered: they had arrived at the court of the Other Ones.

Not one of the Others acknowledged their presence.

Jehemen followed his leader, still mounted, through the break in the ring, directly towards the figure in the silver throne. The only sound was the steady clip-clop of their horses hooves. Jehemen readied his spear and rode up to Fasika’s side, so they could flank the figure in the throne.

Its long silken hair was as blue as the great river, and as before it fluttered and waved in a breeze that neither of the tribesmen could feel. Its gaunt, narrow face was more grey than white, and its eyes burned with an orange-pink light. It slowly turned its gaze towards them as they approached, saying nothing.

“I am Fasika, son of Fassil, leader of the Enhelem.”

There was a pause. Jehemen braced himself for the maelstrom that had followed the uttering of those words last time they had been said to one of the Others, but it did not come. Fasika continued:

“I have come to fulfil the prophecy; to take this city from you, and to claim your lands for my people.”

Jehemen looked around the room. Two of the Other Ones had started to watch, though neither had yet got up from their seats. Fasika dismounted and, letting his spear drop to the ground, drew Beimnet’s bronze knife from his belt. 

“Surrender your throne now and I will allow you and your people to leave your city unharmed, but leave you must: take your great ships and travel over the horizon, never to curse this land again!”

No response came, least not verbally: the creature merely sighed, and let its head fall to the side. Jehemen felt its expression to be somewhere between adolescent petulance and elderly indifference. Fasika approached the creature, grasping its hair in his hands and pulling its head taught, like a marionette. He placed the bronze blade to its throat. As Jehemen looked around, he could see that all of the Other Ones were watching now, though till none had arisen. He leaped from his horse, spear in hand, and stood ready for battle.

“Have you no final words for your people?” 

Fasika’s voice echoed around the silent hall. It was powerful, but even loyal Jehemen doubted that the confidence it exuded was real. His leader’s eyes were wide with fear. 

In contrast, when the enthroned creature finally spoke its voice was soft and gentle... yet unafraid.

“Your language is ugly, and your demands are tedious.”

Fasika immediately drew his blade across the creatures throat, but unaware of the brittleness of their form, was shocked when his blade sunk so deeply through its flesh, and released his grip upon its hair in horror. The half-severed head flopped forward in a torrent of indigo blood. Jehemen’s jaw dropped as the assembled Others rose to their feet... and applauded.

Jehemen’s grip tightened on his spear, and he looked to his leader for instruction. Fasika seemed confused by how things were unfolding, yet he soon showed great resolve, taking the dead monarch by the hair once again and finally separating its head from its shoulders. He held it aloft, the court still in standing ovation.

“Behold! The head of your maiden queen! Your lands now belong to the Enhelem!”

The applause was soon accompanied by laughter, and that laughter swelled until the guffaws of the court of the Other Ones were almost deafening. The sound caused Jehemen’s blood to boil, and an animalistic fury rose within him. Without consulting his leader, he charged the nearest of the Others and drove his spear deep into its chest. 

Its laughter now silenced, he moved on to the next. His spear sunk deep into its heart, ending its life. The laughter was a little quieter now, but had not yet abated, and so he continued. Not one of them offered the least resistance, nor did any attempt to flee. 

By the time he had slaughtered his fourth Other, he looked up to see that his chieftain had been doing just the same, taking his bronze knife to the throats of the three other courtiers. The laughter had vanished, and the two men were left breathless, both covered in the blood of their foes. Fasika was still holding the queen’s head in his left hand, it swayed from side to side, still wearing its expression of ennui.

Jehemen looked at its face. Though its features were quite unlike the handsome Enhelem, it did not bear the same feminine grace of the crone, nor the androgyny of the master. Instead, it was masculine: delicate, yes, but almost certainly male.

“Elder Fasika, this is not the maid.”

The elder held the head in front of him to examine it, noting how light it felt compared to the many human heads he had removed. He looked into its black eyes, orange-pink light now faded, and cursed. It sailed through the air as he cast it upward, smashing through the glass of the enormous window above them, leaving a neatly punched hole through which pure golden sunlight filtered, beaming directly onto the throne.

The young warrior looked on the throne with a curious feeling. Something stirred within him, something akin to desire, but faint and weak, and smothered by his own exhaustion. He looked to his leader, whose eyes were similarly transfixed by the ornate silver chair, a chair he was supposed to now occupy.

 “I don’t understand,” he said.

There came an enormous crash, as an explosion sounded from outside. The huge window caved in, sending a shower of coloured glass on to the two men below. The shards were as thin as blades of glass, yet razor sharp, and Jehemen felt them slicing into his skin all across his body, at his temples, the back of his neck: he reeled in agony, falling to his knees.

Beside him, his leader had collapsed onto the ground. His throat had been sliced open by a shard from the window, and he was gurgling in is own blood on the floor. He held a black marble between the fingers of both of his hands. It was the one that had emerged from Beimnet’s mouth, and he held it aloft with a look of purest terror.

Jehemen turned to see a towering figure, one of the Others, draped in a vermilion mantle and a brilliant mane of jade-green hair. It waved its hand, sending Jehemen skidding across the floor. It spoke softly, as the king had done, but beneath the melodious timbre rasped an almost subsonic descant, like metal being dragged across stone.

“You were too slow. The master should be dead already.”

Jehemen picked himself up. He was weak, and his spear was nowhere to be seen, but he had to save Fasika.

“The maid was to kill the master, then the maid can take the crown. What went wrong?”

Fasika merely gurgled, his hands trembling as his life ebbed, but still clutching the black marble between his fingertips. The creature leaned over him, its hair and mantle billowing in a spectral draught as it brought its face close to Fasika’s. Its eyes burned as golden as the sun, and its skin was a pale yellow.

“What is this?”

The creature’s lips parted into a broad, wicked smile, revealing an immaculate array of flawless ivory teeth. As Jehemen readied his spear, he watched Fasika’s shaking hand force the marble into the creature’s mouth. Immediately, its head shot back and it howled in agony, Fasika’s arms collapsing at his side. 

Jehemen threw his spear at the figure: it sailed through the air and bounced off its side, the creature oblivious as its agonies continued. Blood vessels running beneath the skin throbbed and heaved and burst, as the golden light drained from its skin and purple-black welts spread across its body. The creature vomited on the ground, but no bile fell out, instead a vile stream of beetles cascaded to the ground, which immediately began to swarm over the creature’s body, gnawing at its skin. It collapsed to the ground beside Fasika, whimpering gently.

Jehemen ran to the body of his master, but he was too late. The Voice of the Enhelem was silenced: a man who had fought some of the greatest warriors of the desert had been slain by a piece of molten sand. It was not poetic, just pathetic. The young man placed his arms on the corpse and wept. 

A voice pierced the sound of his weeping.

“The crone was a witch, and a wicked one at that.”

It was the Other One, weakened but not slain. Jehemen turned in anger to strike it, but as he swung his fist, the creature raised an open palm, and he was instead thrown by an invisible force into the silver chair. He struggled vainly, for his body was entirely paralysed.

“Well, I suppose I got the ending I wanted, even if I had to resort to a handwave to make it happen.”

Jehemen gasped, the feeling returning to his body, his lungs able to draw breath once more. His hands and legs remained unresponsive, but he felt a tingling sensation pass over his body. 

“Just a pity you killed the audience before they had a chance to see it.”

The creature stood before him, a towering figure more than one head taller than the Enhelem’s biggest warrior. Its skin still crawled with insects, but they seemed to no longer want to feast on their host, instead creating an ever-shifting tableau of living body art . The blue-black welts were subsiding, and the golden light was returning to its skin. Silken jade-green hair cascaded over its shoulders, spilling on to the vermilion mantle that flapped in a ghostly breeze. It - she - was utterly beautiful.

“The maiden queen...”

It took all he had to utter those words, and the creature pounced on them immediately:

“No you fool! Your leader misread it! He was the master, the crone was that witch he had following him around, and you were supposed to be the maid!”

Jehemen shook his head, but could say nothing.

“Then, in the throne room, the master was to take the throne and the maid as his bride, only for the maid to then be overcome by lust for power and kill her suitor!”

The creature drifted close enough to the young man for her lips to be in front of his.

“It was to be the final lesson for what was left of our court. I would come in, crown the maiden with glass...” 

Her that, her fingers stroked Jehemen’s forehead, and he felt some of the shards still protruding from the top of his head, sticking into his skin like needles. Her voice dropped to a low murmur:

“...I suppose you are a maiden in one sense.”

Jehemen wept.

“You will have time for all of that later, boy. You know nothing of what is to come. You can write the story for now: tell your descendants of how you stole the crown from the Wicked Others, grow fat in your palaces, and weep when your ancestors grow sickly and decadent.”

“But know this: it is not this city which is cursed, it is all cities. Once you have entered, you can never go back. It grants great riches, but with those riches, great sickness. First of the body, then of the mind, and finally of the soul.” 

The figure turned, leaving Jehemen in his throne, crowned with glass. The strength was returning to his limbs. He considered making one last attempt on her life as she left, but he thought better of it: better to leave this accursed place for good, return to where his people had been left, make them forget any of this ever happened. He could tell them the Other Ones were too powerful, that they should be left alone, that the Enhelem needed to return to the desert and stay there.

But Jehemen was tired. He needed to rest. There would be time for that later, and the throne was comfortable. He felt his eyelids grow heavy, and felt sleep take hold of his exhausted body, just as he heard a familiar cry resounding from outside of palace…

Izihi metitenali!
Themeliseni metitenali!

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