Death’s Mask

Finally began my latest tale… a Grimdark Fantasy to allow me to work through many of the pessimistic themes I’ve been studying for so long this year. Just a snippet from the opening…

Death’s Mask

My first thought was, he lied in every word…
—Sayings of the Outcasts

Watching over the world like an indifferent god, the sun treats the impermanence and fragility of human lives with utter indifference and contempt.
– Book of the Nine

I studied his malicious eyes, seeking in that hoary darkness some sign of deceit, death prone maggot of the lower streets; this cripple, beggar, thief was known to me from womb-days past. We were both of the corruption, born of shadows and broken stones, creatures of the towers long hiding. Even now as I stretched my neck upward to the harsh steel sky where the bone moon shed her skin like a defrocked maiden I listened to the old man as he croaked his tale.

“We know these things. We do! We seen these things, and more; oh yes, we seen too much. We did. They came you know. The ones who do not speak. They came…”

He rambled on in that curved tongue like a swarthy rat chirping from its hole in the wall. I let him go on; it mattered not, I’d heard it before. I knew the tale. I knew where it was going. We both did. And, yet, I let him go on as he must; it was all he had left. These old tales; old illusions. How many deceptions we all live by. We all tell ourselves it’s truth we seek, when what we truly seek is a great lie against the world. We don’t want to know the truth. The truth kills, maims, tears us from our self-deceiving lies; our past. Most of all we don’t want to know that past… the pain is too real.

The cackling laughter of his pursed lips and rank throaty lisp made me want to puke. The cheap wine and cheese rotting in his flesh flowed freely from his cankerous wounds; the stench of it slipping out, swallowing the narrow alleyway in a yellow fog. Standing there in his mangled rags, clumped up against the black stone walls, his staff etched like a broken promise we both knew he’d never keep, I almost felt pity for him but knew better of it. Knew he deserved only one thing from me: a knife’s epitaph. His skull-like laughter breaking with each foul breath trailed into the market just beyond the alley’s shadows where others were beginning to stir and hawk their wares. I threw a coin at the rag-man just far enough out of reach so he’d have to bend and twist away. We both knew what was coming; he pretended the coin would save him. I made it quick. He fell back almost surprised. His puffed gelatinous mustard eyes turned black as opals, then shading to white as his body spent the coin in the rivulets of the sewer below us…

***

“The neteru rule in the hidden spaces, the frightful realms.”

—The Book of Dyzan

Magister Sol’na waited in the alcove, a slight breeze flowing in from the city’s dispersing shadows as the blood soaked sun rose above the desert rim. Here high above the silent roofs of the inner city he could think clearly. He waited for his novitiate, Jeb’l to arrive with the kahv he loved so much; it’s aroma reminding him of the cinnamon musk of those young cenobites in the Zar’q Quarter. Fond memories that were no longer his to enjoy, not since he’d ascended to Hierarch over the palace synod. He sometimes wondered if it was worth it; his ambitions in excess of his fleshly proclivities. “Balance is the beginning of simplicity; guard the mind of those excessive joys that would entrap it.” So went the catechism. He hated the catechisms.

“Magister,” the boy’s soft voice whispered.

Sol’na turned, the boy’s lithe body glistening in the rising sun’s rays. The boy’s golden-brown eyes danced wildly. Sol’na sat without moving, forced the boy to stand there still and silent for a few moments. He wanted to do nothing but contemplate the boy’s physique as if Orterian had descended upon his tight body and were even now replacing the delicate flesh with a god’s distinct softness. The old man did not allow himself to touch such perfection; he knew better, it was better to dream of adventurous expectancies than it was to consummate them. Lecher that he was he slid his tongue out slowly and buttered his dry lips. The sound of the Mu’ad in the far towers crying out the morning prayers in song awakened him from his lecherous thoughts. He waved to the boy to serve the kahv, watched as the boy delicately enacted the rituals of ablution and purification: setting the tray down and washing his thin elongated hands, then singing the gallai as he passed the petals of elderwei, lavender, and hibiscus into the infusion bowl of honeyed syrup. Then he gently lit the candle, dipped the silver spoon into the syrup and infused the pot, lifting it then and pouring the liquid bronze kahv. He sprinkled fragrant petals onto the bright fiery liquid, tapped the side of the cup to set them in a circular motion, then handed it to the Magister.

Sol’na who’d watched the ceremony without speaking, received the brew in the prescribed manner, then gently tipping his chin down took a small sip of the fiery brew. Closing his eyes he allowed himself to savor it’s liquid warmth – scenting the commingling of flowers, honey, and syrup awakening in him a short burst of ecstatic bliss as the hallucinogenic fumes circulated freely from the incense inflamed bronze burners, releasing yet further images of a more sensual history within his eunuch darkened thoughts. He sighed. Then he opened his eyes, dismissively gestured the boy away with a wink, and turned back toward the squat red phallus of the bursting sun rising above the Mazedahk Temple and harbor complex.

***

I pulled the corpsemeat of the old spy farther into the alley’s shadows, searched its pockets for the message I’d come for and found it in an small inner sleeve. Cut it out and shoved the carcass into a corner, poured the liquid dram of sorghum over its head, to lure the rats out of their hiding places; they would take care of the rest. I headed back out the way I came in, down through the stone tunnels of the inner city’s ancient labyrinths.

Life has never been easy in Abyssos. City of the Dautharii. Citadel of the Drakomeisters: Dragonlords, and Keepers of the Malek Ta’dur. I was incubated in the pits, the labyrinths below the ancient towers. My kind are part of the shadowclans; the untouchables who go unseen: assassins, filth-cleavers, death-merchants, spittle-mongers, and corpse-eaters. I’m of the Sindar Clan, an albino with the nightweave assassin guilds, our pale wraith-spun bodies cleave to the darkness and shadows not out of fear but out of malevolent pride. Unborn vat-murkers we do what we were gene-altered to do. Nothing more; nothing less. Nameless and free we do no man’s bidding but the Kraz – our Archon, the unknown One who serves the Great Malzrune.

Among my own kind I am known as Khandi Mayk, Son of Korvak. I wear the Death Mask of our Clan and Guild. People fear us like the darkness itself. I live in the wraith-kin warren deep within the bowels of the old mining tunnels that had been the source of the city’s vast wealth during the reign of Zurvestii the Great. Now it was just a dead space where the dregs of the city and its untouchables melded into the shadows like worms from the Hel worlds of the Unknown Realms.

As I arrived Rurik gave a shout out: “Where you been, Khandi? Gluptik’s been looking for you.”

I nodded. Didn’t say a word. None was needed. Most of my kind live in silence; loners and indifferent to company of friends and family alike, living like Tegiz monks in our hollowed out crypts.

Gluptik is our Heptarc. We don’t have leaders per se, only this unwritten system of shared power. Kraz held the basic power of the clans as great shaman; a dark seer who could tap the Unknown. Through him we had access to the Unknown Ones – the archontes from whom we received our missions and teachings of the dark ways. Gluptik had been crippled in a fall and became the darkrunner for our coven, handing out assignments and pay. Our social arrangements were informal at best since for most of us there was jiw’a – the Mentat’s Gift; a form of communication we shared collectively through the bio-sync implants grafted onto our brains at birthing. Through discipline we’d learned over the millennia to quieten the effects of this hivemind. Legend had it that in the early years many of our kind had gone mad from the collective’s incessant chatter; the merciless subvocals that weave and unweave our collective mentations. The magickal forms of our dark arts reside in the Hivemind. Because of our powers of mental concentration, the cold intelligence of our artificial systems the human enclaves built dampeners to bind us to a world of singularity and solitude. Now our clans who had once ruled the Anaretic world were prisoners shaped to its darkness; the laughing stock of human ridicule and enslavement. To say we are oppressed is to say we are silence manifest; hell could not be worse than a mentat closed off from the Hivemind.

I smelled the stench of him before he spoke: “Khandi, we’ve received new orders.” He handed me the message. The parchment was sealed in blood and wax with the Synod’s Seal . Gluptik’s eyes were watery and gelatinous, his death mask unable to hide the worried look in his half-blind jaundiced eyes. I knew what he wanted. I handed him the note from the old spy. He gazed at it, then at me, nodded. I saw the tension in his body release itself, his white oily flesh rippling as he grinned, then laughed: “Good! Kraz will be happy!” Gluptik was a fool, but a gentle one. I grabbed my pack and headed to my quarters. I needed privacy.

When I returned to my cell I closed the curtain, not that it mattered; I had nothing to hide from my kind. Yet, this was no ordinary mission; nor was a parchment soaked in the blood of a synod member something to be taken lightly. I sat down at my desk, shifted my writing papers and inkstand to the side, then carefully unsealed the parchment. Turning up the lamp on the stand I was able to see in scarlet blood ink one word: Sol’na. The Magister? Who would want Sol’na dead? Missions of this sort were always handled delicately by Kraz. So if this was the mission who was I to question the why? I was a doer, not a questioner; or, at least I like my masters to believe such was the case. But Sol’na, he was harmless; a fool and a sensualist lecher at best. He’d not shown any signs of power mongering. Who had he crossed for the synod players to draw lots down on him? This was no time for me to second guess things; my job was clear: assassinate the most powerful person in the Kingdom besides the King.

***

He woke up in the night in a full sweat, the lingering memories of the shadowdraj wrapping him in its ancient darkness. Then he felt chilled to the bone, a draft slinking in through the worn drapery like a curse. Instinctively he reached out for his sword knowing something was there in the darkness. A hand clasped him in its iron claw before he reached that sword: “No need for blood my old friend.” The voice was familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it.

“Orrin is that you,” he whispered cautiously as he struggled to free himself from the powerful grip.

“Did you expect a ghost?” The man laughed.

“It is you, isn’t it, Orrin… you old dog! What the hell brings you back to the shadows?”

“I’ve business with the Synod, and I need you’re help.” The man released his grip, and lit the lamp on Khandi’s desk. Khandi thought of Sol’na, and wondered if there was a connection; but kept his silence.

Orrin Ironfist and I go way back. We fought against the Scrag’z during the Krait Wars. An ugly episode both of us would rather forget. Too many innocents, women and children died in those ungodly battles. But through it all Orrin and I had held fast to our old ways, harming only those that deserved harm; and, trying our damnedest to help the oppressed and innocent. We never did a good job of that either, but we tried; that’s more than most of the bloodsuckers we fought with and against. The world is not a nice place, and we’re not nice creatures, either. Yet, instinctively Orrin and I had a sense of weird justice, call it compassion if you will. We were both pessimists at heart, realists of another stripe. Both knew how wicked the world is, how dark and malevolent the the force that seems to hold sway over human kind. And even though I’m only partly human I sense this malevolence everywhere, like a parasite it seems to hunger and roam the wastelands of our wars gulping up the dregs of death like a monstrous force full of hate and bitterness. There are priests of the dark religion that hold the belief that there is a god of hate, a malign agent of despair and aggression whose hidden presence is revealed in the indifference of the world; the maggoty upswing of all life, the rotting filth of carcasses that send out a stench into existence like a stain that cannot be cleaned. Do I believe in these old tales? I neither believe nor discount them. I know something malevolent exists because of the pain and suffering I see in the faces of children and women; the tears of sorrow and loss. No one has to tell me there is a good God when all I see is despair.

Orrin sat down in the bone chair I kept in the corner. He’s a big boned man, dark bushy beard; black eyes that almost light up my dingy hovel with their sparking vitality. His hands are thick and heavy sticking out on muscular stumps that even the bears down at Luper’s ring wouldn’t dare tangle with. He always wore that old leather smock with the elf-fur lining; had stump boots made out of the same material, latched up with snow-leopard trim. Instead of leather pants he wore the lighter poonji fabric that when tightly woven was stronger than blackened-valyrian steel. I never knew what he truly looked like under all those interlaced tattoos that covered his flesh from stem to stern. Every town, village, or city we’d hit back in the day he’d seek out a Qizilchoqa fleshcrafter. Always looking for some unusual design. He actually believed that if he was able to imprint the secret of time on his body he’d find a way out of this tomb of a life. I used to kid him about it, say: “It’s a labyrinth, Orrin, no way out of this hellhole; go in one gate you’ll just end up back in the same place over and over and over again.” He’d just look at me perturbed like and say: “You don’t know nothin’ about Time; Time’s a god… and with all god’s you just need to have the right key. I’ll find it someday, you watch me.” So as usual I was sitting there watching his sorry ass with his shit eating grin, and war-torn eyes looking at me half-serious, half-laughing as I said:

“You ever find that key yet, Orrin?”

He’d come out of that chair if I hadn’t thrown him a bottle of uziingji wine I had stashed under my bed. As was he gave me one of those sour looks, but didn’t say a word. Instead he took a big long swig of that sweet wine like it was water from paradise itself.

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