Thirteenth-Jaguar-Sun did not like the smell that lingered in the air.
It was like the smell of the great temple fires that burned at the foot of the temples to Child-of-the-Bloody-Moons when the winds shifted and blew their black smoke down over the city: it was the charnel smell of flesh taken by flame, the smell of sacrifice, of bodies given over to the eternal fires by the priests.
He was tempted to say a prayer of thanks and praise to the Jade King, but restrained himself, for this was not the smell of the holy flame conquering death, and so a prayer would have been blasphemy. The smell was more ashy, more salty and dry, and not so greasy, and it was only a hint, not so overwhelming as the sacred stench of corpses burnt in offering to the gods. But it was still enough to coat his tongue and throat unpleasantly.
Thirteenth brought the fingerbone-spout of a shapeless waterskin to his lips and swished the warm, leathery-tasting water around in his mouth. The taste and smell combined to hint of something only vaguely recalled, but forcefully unpleasant, and he gagged and snorted to clear his nose, spitting the memory out into the sand.
Trying to drive the last of the unpleasant sense away, he drew the back of his hand across his frowning mouth. What most disturbed him was his inability to identify the source of the odor. It seemed almost as though it was a part of the land itself, soaked into the very ground; even the light breeze blowing little puffs of dust across the barren landscape would not take it away.
He wondered if it were the smell of the forbidden lands.
Kneeling in the hot sand atop the dune, he eyed the terrain ahead warily. Red, broken rock littered the sandy ground as it gradually rose towards a series of broken hills, dominated by a small, particularly spire-like butte in the foreground; an empty, wind-swept waste of sand and rock, which tales populated with monstrous beasts and evil ghosts.
When the hills began to look uncomfortably more like the broken teeth of hungry giants than proper rock-and-dirt, Thirteenth turned and slid back down the shifting golden sands of the dune with a sussurant whisper.
For the hundredth time that day, he found himself hating the damn sand — gritty and abrasive, getting into everything, especially into places it shouldn’t properly or comfortably be. How much more he would have preferred patrolling the cool grasslands with their wide, crooked shade trees and shallow watering holes in the Sun-Blessed Land of Jade around the Glorious City of Pearl!
But if the rumors of a lost oasis in the area proved true, locating it would bring his house great fortune and fame. Perhaps even a place as one of the esteemed Order of the Jade King’s Serpents.
He shook the thoughts off; daydreams would only get him killed out here.
The others stood waiting for him in the temporary camp below, two other Jaguars — Fourth and Eighth — and his too-young nephew, Fourth-Eagle-Sun, who should have still been tending animals with his mother, not fighting monsters in the scrubland deserts that ringed the more gentle lands of his home.
Above them towered one of the dozens of stone monoliths warning men away from the forbidden wastelands ahead, carven with furious-eyed heads of the sacred beasts of the Jade Kingdom. Some of the beast-heads had been buried beneath drifts of sand, so he had ordered his men to clear it. Though it would be buried again in the next dust storm, it gave his men something to do while they waited; and as it showed proper respect to the Jade King, none would dare complain at the work.
Seventh Thunder was still scouting the other side of the butte and would not return for another handspan of the sun across the sky. They would make their plans to move forward only when he returned: you did not want to be surprised by the beasts of the forbidden lands that sometimes roamed out of the desert — much better to surprise them.
When the sun had eaten up two fingers more than a handspan in the sky, Thirteenth had grown edgy, and had the others clear away signs of their makeshift camp in preparation to track down Thunder. But Thunder returned before Thirteenth could give the order to move out, slipping into their temporary camp with considerably less noise than his family name and badly startling the young Eagle.
The other two Jaguars gave one another grimly amused grins at the youth’s startled reaction while Thunder ignored the child and gave his report of the terrain around the butte to Thirteenth.
“Nothing we need to worry about. This place is more barren than the forbidden wastes.”
Thunder had been in the forbidden lands once, on the command of the Jade King, and come back a changed man, haunted, quiet, abrupt. He had never spoken to anyone of what he had seen or what had happened to him out there.
Whether that was a command from the Jade King, or the mental after-effects of the venture itself was an unanswered question, though perhaps it was both.
Thirteenth gave the command to move out, his almost half-dozen climbing the dune and trudging down the other side, moving towards the broken hills at the edge of the forbidden lands. Thirteenth thought uncomfortably again of the broken hills as giant’s teeth, and that he was marching his men straight into their waiting maw, ready to bite and grind, to chew them up.
The ground swelled, rising towards the butte, and they walked upon the solid bedrock, swept clean of all sand and smoothed by the wind. The others trailed after Thirteenth and Thunder in a long, loose formation as they traversed the rocky ground, the peculiar butte passing on the line’s right and with it, the blazing sun passing behind it, casting them into its cool shadow. Thunder nodded towards the butte and jogged towards it, spear slung low, dark eyes watchful.
The puddle of clear water nestled in the lee of the butte was hardly the sprawling oasis he had expected; it would provide barely enough water for a few travelers to slake their thirst every few days, and run dry pushed more than that.
The group of warriors gathered around its edge, leaning on spear or sitting on the rocky ground, except Fourth who stood cooling his feet as much as one could in the shallow water, sharing a freshly-filled waterskin with a thirsty Eagle and laughing over some shared wit Thirteenth had missed.
“This is nothing but a draw for the terrors of the forbidden lands,” Thunder had remarked upon surveying the puddle, and his words were quickly proven true.
The thing came at them from some hidden crevice in the rock wall of the butte above and behind, leaping down among them in an instant. It hurled Fourth from the waters with its roaring, lashing charge, splashing the contents of the puddle across the dusty rock and splashing Fourth as well, in bright crimson.
Thirteenth rushed forward, swinging his spear haft to catch the black thing in the belly and send it sprawling backwards. It was then Thirteenth saw it was no beast they faced, but a man, clothed in unnatural black flames that caressed their carrier’s flesh, now doused down to unburned skin where the water had touched.
The man clothed by the fire gasped, momentarily stunned, his startling blue eyes wide in fear and terror as Thirteenth’s razor-sharp obsidian spear-tip snapped to his bare throat.
Flames still clung to his skin where the water had not touched. Thirteenth kicked more water over him, mostly over his face, and the flames died where the water touched them. The man sputtered, face registering annoyance alongside healthy fear.
Other than the inexplicable flames, the man looked to be a typical scrubland peasant, a herder or farmer, his brown face tanned and lined deeply by sun and wind, his plain waistcloth dirty and torn, his stone jewelry cheap and crude.
“Fourth is dead,” Eighth reported from where he crouched over the other’s limp body, checking for a pulse, listening for breath. Thirteenth did not glance away. The others held their spears ready, pointed towards the attacker, eyes focused and hard.
“Warlock,” Thirteenth spat and lifted his spear to plunge through the man’s chest…but the man moved faster than Thirteenth could have guessed, faster than a man should have been able.
A hand batted the spear aside and the man rolled away, somehow spinning up into the air to become a black shadow against the blue sky, twisting so as to land on his feet.
Thirteenth changed the direction of his thrust, stepping into it and lunging. Thirteenth could see the will of it in the man’s eyes: a spike of black flame consumed the man’s hand as he lashed out in response, intercepting Thirteenth’s lunging spear, deflecting its sure course and shattering the shaft like rotten wood, the pieces exploding in a dozen directions. The unnatural flames licked Thirteenth’s hands, a sickening touch that seemed to eat his life away, leaving hands cold and numb.
He scuttled back and dropped into a defensive crouch at the edge of the puddle, eyes boring holes through the warlock as his unfeeling hands clumsily drew his bronze machete and tried to maintain a grip. The rest of his team had circled around now, trapping the man between the rock face and a trio of obsidian thorns.
The warlock’s brilliant blue eyes threw cruel, desperate looks left and right. His fists were up before him; he held discs of whirling black shadows that wavered like flame, and he screamed, a lost, furious sound that reminded Thirteenth of a rabid animal.
The desert heat drew the moisture out of the man’s clothing and off his skin, and where it dried, the black flames surged up, crackling and searing the air.
Suddenly, he lunged right, towards Thunder, hurling the black discs of flame into the rock at the warrior’s feet. The ground exploded, spraying tiny red chips everywhere. Thunder screamed, stumbling, and grabbed at his bleeding eyes with one hand, experienced enough to keep a grip on his weapon. The warlock had already dodged back to the left, coming at the young Eagle, who was too surprised, too slow to do more than try to reposition his spear.
But the warlock was too fast, moving right around the deadly tip like a striking serpent, up along the shaft, and Eagle was lifted up by a darkly flaming hand. The boy shook and screamed, was viciously hurled away to meet Eighth’s cast spear and bring it down, embedded in the wrong target.
Eighth swore a curse and grabbed at his own bronze machete.
The warlock was up against the rock wall, and then it was gone, the flames rushing up the cliff-face as though it were made of oil, leaving dust and rotting rock behind. For a long, tense moment the three of them waited, but the warlock did not reappear.
Dropping his machete, Thirteenth rushed to Eagle’s side and lifted his too-light body out of the blood-fouled puddle, almost dropping it in horrified surprise. The skin was burned black where the flames had touched, and broken like wood charcoal, but worse, the face and skin were pale, sallow, shrunken around the bones, dried and pulled back as though the body had lain cold for an age. The body reeked of dry, ashy charnel.
He laid his nephew’s body on the dry ground and with still numb hands fumbled Eighth’s spear out; the warrior refused it as blood-cursed and Thirteenth tossed it aside.
Copyright (c)2007 Raven Daegmorgan