A Seusea and the Four Gladiators tale. In this story, Horoth encounters the abhuman.
Horoth brought their drinks to the table, and seated himself. Beyond the thin walls of the inn, a cold wind raged, rattling the window shutters, and causing flutters in the fireplace. Winters in Sirasau were bitter, and Horoth, like his companions, longed for warmer climes.
‘So what went down in Girkent Miel?’ Bosvaran asked. ‘It’s apparently more scintillating than anything we’ve all encountered, according to you.’
‘That it is,’ Horoth concurred.
‘Out with it, then.’
‘All right. For the benefit of our lady friend, Girkent Miel is one of these shitty frontier towns that serve no other purpose than to cater for people who can’t wait to get their business done, and be gone. It’s a place in western Mynatan, hard up against the Chain where the road crosses over into Oloi. It’s halfway between Hiani and Maepes, two equally shitty places.’
‘I think I’ve heard of it,’ Seusea said. ‘What brought you there?’
‘I was chasing a Nain slaver, whose name escapes me. I caught him in Girkent Miel, and handed his ass over to the Hanse official who commissioned me. I was about to head north when I met this…oh well, I’ll tell you what I met.’
‘The bloodsucker!’ Quoone said.
‘Bah, she was more than that. Anyhow, I paid up at the joint I was staying in, and went to catch a northbound caravan. It was there I met her.’
‘I need to interrupt before you get going,’ Jorad said. ‘Seusea, Horoth has been blessed with a strange ailment. He can sense the dead that walk. Like a bloodhound can sniff out its man, Horoth can sniff out the undead from miles away.’
‘I was getting to that,’ Horoth said. ‘Like your thing with magic, Seusea, this is something I have within me, and no sage has ever been able to explain it. I don’t so much smell them as get a feeling for them, like a buzzing in my head. It’s a talent that’s saved our asses a few times. There’s lots of dead stuff that lurks in the corners of the world.’
‘Like that tomb we found in the Khuyor,’ Quoone said. ‘Whee, was there some vile shit there?’
‘Yes, like that place. Thinking of that still gives me the shakes.’
‘That’s a tale to tell some time,’ Seusea said.
‘No thanks,’ Jorad said. ‘I don’t get frightened often, lass, but we got scared enough for twenty lifetimes in that hole. As a wit once commented, some things were never meant to be disturbed.’
‘The place just oozed fucking fear,’ Quoone said.
‘Right you are,’ Horoth said. He took a large mouthful of his drink, and sighed. ‘Okay then, I was in Girkent Miel…’
‘I say it’s a shitty town, and it is. It claims it’s independent, but it’s one of Kilvisti’s pawns. The Hanse have their fingers in everything around that part of Mynatan. So, money talks, like it does in most parts, and if you have none, Girkent Miel is a cruel place. Lots of Oloii find their way over the Chain, after being caught up in some kind of strife in their homeland. The town is surrounded by these dingy, dirty camps where everything is for sale, and cheaply. There are more whores and touts than there are insects. It’s a shame because the Oloii are a pretty people, and proud, and to see them bending over a barrel for a few blunt is one of the tragedies of our world.
There was one girl there, a striking slip of a lass with hair whiter than Seusea’s. She should’ve been a chatelaine for some satrap, or a dancer in a high Gajasi establishment, not whoring for scraps and cast-offs.
She caught my eye, and raised an eyebrow. I signalled that no, I’m not interested, but thanks for considering me. Then her pimp gets in my face. This oily turd was a Hanse functionary, some merchant’s lickspittle; the type with a quick, fake smile, and always willing to cut you a profitless deal. He’s there moaning at me, haggling the price of this pale angel, making all kinds of glib inducements. I’m walking away, but he’s harrying me, his hands and mouth going forty to the dozen.
I stop and tell him to walk the other way, and that’s when I notice a buddy of his feeling about on the straps of my pack. These fuckers thought they could game me.
I broke the arm of the potential thief, and laid the tout out on the ground, minus his front teeth. I tell you, you’ve never seen such a huge and grateful grin, like the one that girl gave me. She’s up to me now, begging me to take her with her. Oh, and take my little sister too. She’s only eleven and too young to be whoring.
I say, no lass, I live a dangerous life, and going with me would lead to your grave, and she says to me, oh and what I’m doing now won’t? Yeah, she had a point, and I’m there mulling it, when a dozen or so of the tout’s mates all come streaming down the road, flourishing cudgels and axes. Worse yet, the town’s militia have their crossbows aimed at me. The message was clear: begone.
The odds of being a hero weren’t in my favour at that moment, so off I went, followed by this desperately pleading young blossom.
You know, since the four of us won our freedom in Ornmia that day, we’ve tried to right the wrongs of the world in our own particular way. Liberate the helpless from slavery, rescue the maidens from the tyrants, that sort of thing. Help Societor lasses like Seusea avoid the clutches of sorceresses, but I’ve never taken a reluctant whore under my wing. It’s not that I don’t care, but my life isn’t one I’d want to share with the misbegotten and downtrodden. I’d only get her killed.
A hundred yards down the road, things become quiet, and I give a look to see why. Some rough lads have gotten hold of her, and are pulling her back toward the camp. A couple of militiamen are watching me hawk-eyed, waiting for me to get quixotic and go follow her.
I don’t follow. There’s no point. If I’m going to throw my life away, it won’t be at Girkent Miel, I can tell you.
With that sad, but all too frequent episode behind me, I keep heading up the road to the caravan. That’s when my senses kicked in. It’s like a shrill keening in my head, and that gets louder as I get nearer to the source.
This one is strong, and I know there’s something potently dire up ahead. It’s falling night too, and I don’t need to tell you folks that’s when it’s their turn to play. I was thinking by then that maybe I should about face, and spend another night at that lice-infested tavern. I’m brave – at least I think I am – and I can handle myself in a scrape, but to fight one of the undead at night was tantamount to suicide. My talent gives me certain immunities to them, but not against their raw, feral strength.
If I missed the caravan that night, so be it. There would be others.
Then came a different line of thinking. What was something like this doing so close to town? The answer came soon enough. Up ahead, I could see the cressets and lanterns of the caravan, and the shadows of men milling about a campfire. The wagons of the caravan were arranged in a semi-circle about the fire, and one of those wagons was covered in a heavy black tarpaulin, a little aside from the others. Notably, none of the caravaneers went anywhere it. They avoided it like it was toxic.
The buzzing was a din now, and the origin of it was inside that wagon. I sauntered into the light, and a bunch of cautious eyes watched me go up to the caravan leader. We exchanged a few words and I handed over some Hanse coins, and received my billet. That settled that.
But I would get no peace, not with my senses going off like a temple klaxon. I’m sitting by the campfire listening to the small talk of a dozen men, while my mind is screaming. Finally, I plead that I need to piss, and I go for a wander.
I head around the rear of the wagon, away from the light. Whatever is inside knows I’m there now. I can feel a subtle pressure in my mind, and I’m being probed and judged. This is no tomb guardian or stranded corpse. This is something else, and it’s something that hungers, thirsts and hates.
I kneel beside the wagon, and push myself under the tarpaulin. It’s a prison carriage, I can tell that straight away. A stoutly made thing of reinforced wood and iron, with small barred windows. The presence in my mind is urging me to come to one of those windows. I should be shitting myself empty, but I’m calm. Strangely so.
I’m at the window, my nose pressed up against the iron. I can’t see what’s within – it’s darker than dark in there, but I can feel her. She’s in there, and I know she can see me plain as day. I sense the power of her scrutiny.
‘A curious one, you are,’ she whispers. Like fingers on a chalkboard, it was, a clawed voice that tore at your very animus. There’s a soft sound, and then she’s at the bars. I can’t see her – I never saw her wholly – but she was inches from me. We’re almost touching. To be close to her is overpowering to the senses. It’s as if you’re being eaten, and ravenously loving every second of it. There’s no place she left untouched, mind or body. Despite the warnings in my head, I lean against the bars, letting myself get enfolded by her. She smells of jasmine, but there’s a hint of death there; an underlying corruption. ‘You are a strange man to resist me. Tell me of yourself.’
‘Not much to say,’ I answer. ‘I knew you were here.’
‘I felt your mind as you approached my prison. You are like a beacon to me. What is your name?’
‘Mine?’ She laughs softly, like the tinkling of a thousand tiny crystals. I shivered although it was far from cold. ‘I’ve no need for a name, as nobody who lives is there to call me by it. I had one once, but that is lost. You can give me a name if it pleases you.’
‘Sure. I’ll name you Juonte, after a girl I knew.’
‘Was she dear to you?’
‘In a way. I never got to know her properly.’
‘Ah, a regret, Horoth?’
‘One of many, yes.’
‘Juonte is a fitting name, I think. Although I could become dear to you, you will never know me.’
‘Why is that?’
There came a quiet little chuckle. ‘I’m unknowable, Horoth.’
I can’t accurately describe her voice, no matter how I try. It’s like a stately woman’s speech, but cast down a long, windy tunnel; amplified, echoing, sweet yet sinister. It could by turns charm a smile out of a statue, and then shred a consciousness into ribbons. Little wonder her captors kept away from the caravan. It was enough to put the fear of every god into a sane man.
‘What are these men going to do with you?’ I ask.
‘Oh,’ she says, contempt in her tone. ‘They will take me to a temple to the goddess Tutanai, where I’ll be ritually destroyed. Purified, as they term it.’ The pressure of her presence increases. My hands are white from gripping the bars. ‘Perhaps you can free me. I have no desire to burn in holy fire.’
‘I can do that, but they’ll only hunt you down again.’
‘I won’t be so careless this time, Horoth. The lock on this door is made of rhodium metal, and I cannot touch it. The hunter who took me is experienced in the ways of my kind, it seems. Free me, and I will grant you a boon. My word is my bond, and I know you will get little peace until you are far from me. If ever.’
‘These men won’t appreciate me liberating you, Juonte.’
‘I will deal with these men.’ Another tinkling laugh. ‘It’s the least I will do.’
I let her out. The lock broke easy from a twist of my knife. The tarpaulin slid away, and then something pushed past me into the night. My body and mind were brushed by a ghastly chill that stung with the promise of a terrible death.
She was right about being unknowable. Some things in our world defy all classification and depiction. Juonte is one of the undead, that’s for sure, but what she is? If Onnate or Ydrys know, they ain’t telling. She isn’t telling either. Onnate knows, I’ve asked.
I was standing there musing over why I’d freed her, when I heard the strident sound of men dying in a horrible fashion. Screams of horror and pure naked fear cut the night. Footsteps, running, and men lifelessly hitting the hard ground.
Fourteen caravaneers, and they had died as one. I gingerly crept around to the campfire, and saw Juonte’s handiwork. The men lay as husks, drained of blood and life, their eyes staring vacantly up at the twinkling stars. Hands frozen in dead supplication, faces wracked by fear and agony.
Juonte was off to one side, a vague yet menacing black shadow, deeper in shade than the night. I need to tell you guys that it was impossible to look directly at her. Whether that was some magic innate to her, or whatever it was, but every time I tried to face her straight, my eyes slid off, and I only could get impressions. I have to credit the witchhunter that originally snared her. How you would catch something like Juonte would be a herculean feat in itself.
But regardless of whether I could look straight at her, I knew she was there. Her presence was unmistakable, and not forgotten easily. In fact, I’ll never forget what it like to be near her. There’s nothing in this world like it.
‘Either I die here with these men, or you keep your word,’ I said.
‘If you die, it’ll be from your own folly,’ she says, that ineffable voice of hers piercing my heart with its diamond-edged ice. ‘I keep my word, Horoth. Name your price for my liberation.’
I told her about the Oloii girl and her sister in Girkent Miel. Juonte laughs shrilly at my chivalry, and then she’s away into the night, like a vast black bolt straight out of Hjoll. In the meantime, I’m among these dead men, taking things they no longer needed. They were all employees of the Hanse, most likely slavers in their spare time, especially from the coffles I found in one chest. Seeing that, I wasn’t too guilty about their deaths.
However, I was most certainly a marked man in Girkent Miel, especially if bright minds correlated me to what went on here.
‘I have them,’ Juonte said, startling me from my endeavours. She’s talking into my mind, it turns out. ‘The two sisters, with the eldest as you described. What do you intend with them?’
I detected a bit of knowing mirth there, and I said, ‘They can have the money these lads possessed. They can make a better life for themselves somewhere.’
There was a long pause, then. ‘You are a remarkable man, Horoth.’
‘Some call it a moral streak.’
‘They called it rightly. I will be there presently.’
It wasn’t long before the Oloii girl, and a smaller version of her, crept out of the night and into the campfire’s light. Her eyes widened at the scene before her, but I led them away from the carnage before they could absorb Juonte’s ghastly handiwork fully.
‘Come with me to Hiani,’ I said to the girl. ‘From there you can go wherever you please.’ I handed her a large purse of money, probably enough to keep her and her sister in comfort for a good year.
‘I want to go to Gajasi,’ she whispers, hefting the bag in disbelief. ‘It’s where we were headed before…’ Her voice choked up. ‘Before things happened.’
‘Go to Gajasi from Hiani. I know caravans go that way. Use your smarts, and you’ll be good for the rest of your days.’
She opens up the purse and marvels at the gold within. Then she looks up at me. ‘Come with me!’ She grabs one of my hands. ‘Marry me! Be my mate.’
‘No to all three ideas, sorry,’ I said, as softly as I could. Although I can think of few sweeter things in the world than to have a beautiful Oloii girl by your side, it isn’t my destiny. ‘You’ve been given a second chance, lass, and a good one. Don’t squander it.’
The two girls began to shiver, and the youngest one burst into tears. Although I was mostly immune to Juonte’s presence, these girls weren’t. They huddled, hugging one another against fear and the night. The younger one gave a terrified cry, and both collapsed to the ground, grapsing each other for sweet mercy.
There’s a dark presence at my elbow. ‘I would have words with you, Horoth,’ Juonte says from behind me. ‘They will be safe here. There is nothing around to harm them. Come away, where I will not frighten these children further.’
I followed this darker than dark shadow away from the caravan. She stops in the middle of the road, and I do likewise, wishing I could see her for what she was. All I can see is a wall of ebon, blotting out all light. ‘Know that there is a bond between us,’ she says. ‘I will always know of you and where you are, and if you try, you may know of me, and where I am. I will not tell you where I dwell, but it is not far, and someone of your stripe will find it readily. It is best you come alone, as fear would grip and derange any other.’ She glides closer to me, and I’m stricken with this strange, maternal cloying, as if I was caught in the bosom of a vast, feminine power. A welcoming, but distinctly unsettling emotion, I can assure you. And that jasmine scent…
‘You spared me from an ignominious end, Horoth, and my gratitude is limitless. If you weary of the world and its ways, come to me, and we will share eternity.’ Something cold and seductive stroked my cheek, like petals from a frozen rose. ‘Come to me when it’s time. Farewell for now.’
‘I ended up taking the two girls to Hiani, and saw them off on their way to Gajasi. By Chon’s balls, I don’t even remember their names. Who knows how they fared? The older girl was a smart one once she was away from depravity, so I have faith they did all right. For me, I did my little part to improve the lives of two waifs who otherwise would’ve ended up dog meat in the Girkent Miel middens.’
‘And Juonte?’ Quoone asked, obviously fascinated by what he’d heard.
Horoth’s face fell. ‘When we’re close to Girkent Miel, I can sense her, and we exchange words, but little else. I won’t lie to you folks though. Those parting words of hers haunt me.’
‘To spend the rest of existence being with a shadow who desiccates men for a lark?’ Quoone said. ‘That would be something.’
‘Not quite how I would put it,’ Horoth said.
‘Perhaps you should visit her,’ Seusea said. ‘There is something there. Something you need to put to rest.’
‘Maybe on my dying day. If I go to her before then, I would never leave.’