As Kordek Axehand came around the last curve of the River to the north of Bearfang Bay, he could see that the main gate leading through the city wall was jammed with a sherdak caravan.
The huge free range sherdak, big as hill-forts, were docile enough after what must have been twenty days on the trail down out of the eastern mountains, but the city's gates had not been built with such enormous creatures in mind. They could only move through one at a time... but as each of the stinking hairy cottage sized beasts represented a fortune in ivory and savory stew meat (even discounting the value of the trade goods that the caravaneers had thriftily loaded onto the sherdaks' backs), the officer in charge of the gate was going to give the caravan priority for as long as it took to get it all inside... since the toll charged would be proportional to the caravan's value, and his wages came directly out of those tolls.
Axehand muttered an obscenity, but not out loud; as a mixed race mongrel who generally cursed by his northern father's northern gods, uttering such an oath audibly would only attract even more undesirable attention than he normally got for his dusky skin tones and dark, subdued hair and eye colors. It was hard enough finding work in the frigid Icelands as it was without people questioning his faith in the locally revered Winter Gods... although, sure as Giants should be skinned and Frodds needed whipping, the Winter Gods had never shown much concern for him. Or any at all, really.
"Balls of the Killing Frost," Gafeq the Sunfingered said from to his left and downward. "We'll still be waiting outside that snow-cursed gate when Uthar Twelve Heads returns from his tomb to reclaim the Ice Blade."
Axehand merely grunted a response. Gafeq was the smallest trueblood Sothark that Axehand had ever heard of, standing barely five spans in height, but he spent every waking moment trying to make up for his diminutive physical stature with bluster and volume. Axehand paid scant attention to what the little man said, though, because usually, Gafeq's words were at best pointless and at worst meant to distract from what his hands were doing... which was, quite often, quickdrawing a hand axe or two and throwing them, with a skill and dexterity nearly the equal of a Frodd's.
Gafeq was equally adept with a lock pick or a handful of chacal dice; he could reliably get numbers off a scattering of honestly carved 4, 6, 8 and 10 sided ivories that other, less gifted players would have trouble obtaining from a loaded set.
Plus, his very lack of stature let him gain access to narrow shafts and tiny chambers that larger thieves could never squirm into. Gafeq was, in fact, the most effective thieving partner Axehand had ever taken... but anytime not on an active sneak, the man simply never shut up. He even cursed, threatened, and snarled insults in his sleep... or so Axehand assumed, from the belligerent tone. Axehand spoke six languages fluently... about par for the course for a Riverish mercenary... but Gafeq's sleep-speech was incomprehensible to him. Which might have made a more curious man wonder... but the Axehand had learned the wages of curiosity in his youth, and was happy he hadn't paid in full on that occasion. Now he kept his nose firmly in his own cup's dregs and left other's business to them.
"We can circle around to the East Gate," Axehand offered, after their shaggy southern ponies had each taken a dozen more clomping steps. Axehand was a formidable warrior, either with the axeblade he had strapped to the stump just below his left elbow, which he wielded in lethal combination with a standard mercenary's round shield on his right arm, or with the witch-stave he currently had strapped, along with a bundle of shorter, oddly fletched sticks, on his back... but outside of combat, he tended to chew his thoughts over very thoroughly before he spoke them. It was his Sothark mother's blood coming out, no doubt. The Sothark were a comely race, and strong as the ice on the River in winter, as the saying went... but they had never been described as quick witted. Not even by their own skalds.
"Fugger that," Gafeq said, shortly, "it's still a good shadow-arm to the fox-gnawed city walls and circling like that will add another one before we're even inside, much less can find a place to warm our balls." Gafeq looked every knuckle length a Sothark... for all that there just weren't many knuckle lengths of him to look at... with his stiff mane of metallically shining golden hair, baby smooth cheeks, moonlight pale skin and facial features so cleanly etched as to be very nearly pretty... but native Sotharks didn't mind even the worst cold very much, while Gafeq seemed almost as sensitive to it as a northerner. That, plus his odd, grey blue eyes, and, well, his stature, sometimes made Axehand wonder if Gafeq were a mixed blood, like himself... but, again, he tried not to be curious about what wasn't his business.
"Can't be helped," Axehand said, shrugging. "We wait at the North Gate, it will be the middle of the night before the last of those beasts gets through..."
Gafeq's chiseled facial features suddenly lit, and Axehand tensed; he knew that look... Gafeq had, once more, been possessed by that inner devil that seemed to rise up in him at random intervals, more and more often since the two of them had decided to wend southward after their brief, disastrous stint in Captain Gargull's mercenary company had ended so ignominiously in that underground murder maze.
"Fugg there isn't," Gafeq grinned, savagely. "We'll head down to the Riverside and flag down a boat. We've got gold, and there's some of that good Northark blood rum still in my pack. That'll buy us passage the last hundred masts or so to the port, and the waterfront will have taverns willing to put us up."
'Head down to the Riverside'... the road along the River here, like nearly everywhere, was raised a good hundred or so spans above the usual water level, to forestall the sudden floods which were not at all uncommon along that particularly treacherous waterway. The slope leading down to the strip of mud running alongside the mostly thawed high summer River was deceptively gentle looking, and coated in thick, shaggy grey and silver wintergrass, which looked as if it would give their ponies good footing... but Axehand wasn't fooled. He had grown up in the South for 12 long years, before running away from the slaughterhouse his grandmother had sold him to and joining a northbound mercenary company as an apprentice... and he knew that the tops of the wintergrass concealed deep, ancient layers of slick, icy hoarfrost that even the summer sun never touched. An expert horseman on a demonically well trained mount might get down that slope without both man and horse collecting broken necks on the way; Axehand had been an indifferent rider even when he'd still had all ten fingers to put on the reins.
But by the time Axehand cleared all that through his admittedly slower than average brain, the Sunhanded had already dug his heels into the sides of his pony and headed the dumb beast down the slope. With a whoop, yet, as he careened to his almost certain doom...
"Samaqel take you for a pissheaded monkey man," Axehand swore, unconsciously echoing one of his hated grandmother's favorite curses, one she had generally reserved for the few darker skinned folk that Sotharks ever saw this far south, like Axehand's father, or Axehand himself.
He could continue on up here, by himself, safe as a man could be, riding alone along the River towards a city where the only people he knew were the half kin who had sold him into slavery more than a Great Cycle before... for all he knew, the Samaqel sniffers had put out a reward for him, that's how spiteful they were.
"Yaaaahhhhh!" Axehand shouted, putting his own heels into his mount's ribs, and starting after Gafeq. He might not die... and anyway, if the little grack-nuzzler did fall and break his neck, there were three butter yellow gold coins in his pouch and a beautifully forged throwing knife hidden in a sheathe up his sleeve that Axehand wanted to take off his corpse...
Gafeq heard the big booby thundering along down the slope behind him, and allowed himself a tight smile. They were safe enough, this wasn't where the either of them died. In fact, he felt so secure in that remembered knowledge that he closed his eyes as the horse juddered beneath him down the treacherous slope...
* * * * *
...and opened them again to hear the boy calling his name... his name here, at any event. "Sheqra!" the little cretin was screaming, as if he wasn't a bare four spans away. "Sheqra, the path ends just there -- !"
"I see it," Sheqra... who in other times, and other places, had other names, one of which was, or had been, at one time, Gafeq the Sunfingered... growled. "I'm not blind."
He had not traveled this path for nearly sixty years... but that was the point, that was why he was traveling it now. One had duties, however unpleasant they might be... duties to oneself, and duties to one's god. Or demon. Whatever...
"Stay back, now," he told the boy. "That clearing is my goal; my business there is private. I'll be back in a shadow-finger, maybe less, and you can guide me back out of this hellhole."
Sheqra really didn't need a guide to help him find the clearing; he knew these woods as well as most men's tongues knew the inside of their mouths... but there was more to contend with here than simple geography. This kid, hired back in Jennaru for a shaving or two of gold off one of his few remaining coins, had Jikki blood, and the Jikki were the dominant Northark tribe in this patch of jungle. With a distinctly recognizable Jikki guide, he need only contend with the wildlife (dangerous enough, certainly) and take care not to drink rot-water or try to burn wood infested with corpse-moss... beginner's mistakes he hadn't made in centuries. But without a Jikki guide, he might as well have just decapitated himself and tossed his head into the jungle to save the local tribal hunters the trouble.
As it was, though, they'd been unmolested... although Sheqra was mortally sure they'd been silently tracked and intently scrutinized for several shadow-arms at least twice during the journey out here. He'd felt the distant, calculating eyes on him. It was a knack you picked up, after you'd lived your first hundred lives or so...
No one would be watching them now, though... this particular clearing, at the bottom of a deep, circular, gradually sloping crater, along with the terrain for half a day's march in every direction, was taboo. Not that there was anything inherently more dangerous in this section of the jungle than any other, but the deep crater was uncanny seeming, and hunter/gatherer/cannibal tribes lived too close to the edge of survival to willingly enter any area that raised their hackles.
It was why he had hired his guide in the city, from someone of Jikki blood, rather than an actual jungle dwelling tribesman. An actual jungle dwelling tribesman wouldn't have come anywhere near this place. Plus, the bushmen were unpleasantly xenophobic, anyway.
He strode out of the deep shade cast by the interlaced leaves of the jungle canopy a hundred feet overhead, into the viciously hot, bright Northern sunlight. He could remember when this had all been an arid wasteland, and when the frigid icelands of the Second Kingdom, and the latter half of the First, had been luxuriant jungle, like this. Everything changed, over the centuries and millenia and even aeons...
...except, he reflected ruefully as he regarded his shadow, stretching away from his feet a not particularly impressive distance... that he was always so gods damned short.
Never mind. Finish this business for this generation and get the fugg back out of this hell-cursed jungle. Find a good inn back in Jennaru... Token's, for preference... and take a long hot soak and dive into a soft bed with softer company... now that was something to look forward to.
He might have another forty years before this particular body gave out... and once he'd paid this installment on his debt, he could even make a few friends, too.
But first he had to knock this nonsense out.
Twenty masts away, at roughly the center of the clearing, he could see it... a whitish grey pile, roughly pyramidal in shape, about a mast square at the base, and half a mast high. It looked no different than it had last time he'd set foot in this accursed clearing... no, that wasn't correct. A whitish grey lump sat on the tan, barren ground about three spans from the main structure.
One of the skulls had been displaced and rolled a distance away before it had stopped.
Weather could have done it... the torrential downpours that caused River College scholars to call this noisome hellhole a 'rain forest' could have easily flattened the entire pile over the course of one summer. But it hadn't; rain, for whatever reason, did not fall on this clearing. Which was probably why nothing grew there.
Also, he'd never known anything to disturb the skulls, once he laid them to rest. Nothing natural, anyway.
No, this would be something else.
Sheqra's keen eyes... the same ice chip blue grey as always, lifetime after lifetime... peered and prodded at the grisly bone pile from the edge of the clearing, just outside the jungle's shade.
And, just as he was about to stop looking and start, slowly, forward... he saw it.
Now... that was a significant problem...
* * * * *
The inn had no name, at least, not as far as Axehand and the Sunfingered were concerned... there was some kind of faded blur on the worn, wormy wooden sign hanging outside the door, but it might well have been painted shortly after the founding of Bearfang Bay, several thousand years before.
The natives (mostly Sotharks, of course) who lived in the neighborhood doubtless called the inn something... but to Axehand and the Sunfingered, it was just 'the inn that was marginally warmer than it was outside'. Or possibly 'the inn where the fleas in the blankets were only outnumbered by the holes in the blankets'.
Not that that last mattered; they were veteran mercenaries and their sleeping furs were first rate... water tight, capable of being compactly rolled, remarkably warm for their lack of bulk... you could even smother a campfire or two with them, if you had to, before they became completely useless.
Axehand could still feel every jounce, bounce, bump, and bang of that mad dash down the Riverbank to the muddy strip of shore, and could not believe that neither he, his horse, nor Gafeq nor Gafeq's horse had ended up in the muck with broken necks.
But Gafeq had been correct; a ship had hove into sight perhaps ten shadow-fingers after they had started plodding along the sodden dirt strip running next to the River, and in response to Gafeq's frantically waved arms, had dropped anchor and sent a long boat over for them.
It had not occurred to Axehand until that moment that they would, perforce, have to abandon the ponies, but the stupid gits would not get into the boat and even if they had, there was no way to get them up to the ship's deck. So the two of them had stripped everything worth anything off the horses, loaded it all onto the boat, and then, after paying over a whole gold coin to the Chief of Deck in command of the longboat, sat and rowed the boat their cursed selves back out to the ship, while the Chief of Deck and the two junior deckers he'd brought with him lounged idly against the bulkheads, spitting over the sides and loudly criticizing their oar handling.
But they'd been in Bearfang Bay twenty shadow-fingers later, and here in this nameless fleapit ten shadow-fingers after that, without passing through any gates at all.
Axehand had forgotten how flat his purse was; when he'd reached into his beltpouch to get some dust to pay for the room, he'd come up with not even a sparkle. He'd just been wearily resigning himself to spending a cold night in an alleyway wrapped in his furs when Gafeq had cut two pie wedge bits out of an already rather badly clipped gold coin and handed them to the toothless slattern behind the wooden plank bar.
When he'd tried to thank the Sunfingered, though, the obnoxious fellow had just waved one badly blistered hand. “Not that you intended to, you great lumping luggoon,” he'd brayed, “but you did save my life in that Sottle murder maze. So this will square us.”
Axehand had wanted to retort that he had so intended to save Gafeq's life; what, did the Sunfingered think he had just sort of accidentally tied his rope off around a beam and dropped the end to him in that pit of stakes? But, then, the Sunfingered had saved him, too, by triggering the trap door in the first place. Gafeq was small enough to fall between the stakes; Axehand would have been impaled six different ways.
And then he'd wanted to ask, if they were square now for the price of a scaly, Samaqel cursed inn room, did that mean the Sunfingered only valued his life at a bit?
But it took him too long to come up with the retort. By that point, the Sunfingered had dropped his pack and furs in one corner of their cold and tiny room, crowed something about 'stripping the varnish off those lubbers playing in the corner', and gone back downstairs again.
Not Axehand, though. An axeblade strapped to your wrist-stump was good for many things, but not dealing chacal cards or throwing dice. Anyway, he was tired... and a quiet room to sleep in was a rarity when you kept company with the Sunfingered. Gratefully, the enormous half breed warrior rolled himself up in his furs and fell into a deep, snoring slumber.
Outside the chamber, Gafeq the Sunfingered had paused. Now he heard the rockfall rumble of the Axehand's snores start up... and smiled. He had had little fear that the Axehand would seach his pack if he left it behind... the fellow was without a doubt the most trusting and least curious person Gafeq had ever met... but it was good to have his speculations confirmed. Had the Axehand gone into the pack, Gafeq would have had no choice but to kill him... it would have been impossible to explain the four polished skulls he was carrying, each well wrapped in a thick cloth to keep them from coming to harm or clattering noisily together as he traveled.
And had Gafeq been forced to kill the Axehand, then he would have been faced with the prospect of spending seasons, perhaps even cycles, befriending someone else. Establishing trust with a Riverscum to the point where they would willingly follow you into a dangerous situation... it took time.
Once again, Gafeq cursed the luck that had sent him hurtling to the bottom of that staked pit. After the Axehand had fished him out with that spearhead through his calf, he'd needed the big ninny to carry him back out of that Sottle wizard's murder maze.
The Sottle had been happy enough to turn over the skulls of the other four when Gafeq had limped back to his maim den the next day while the Axehand was sleeping; Gafeq had paid him enough for the use of the subterranean murder maze, and he had specified at the time that he would require the heads of the men who died. The rotund little zerf sniffer had been curious... you could see it in the surprisingly green eyes nearly buried in the folds of butter-yellow fat on either side of his rounded yellow nose.
All Sottles were wizards of varying strengths, depending on how much power they'd been born with; doubtless this one thought Gafeq must be working for some necromancer, and wondered exactly what sort of incantation the skulls would be used in.
Had the obese little boylover known the truth, he might well have died from terror. Thinking that, Gafeq had nearly told him... a stinking Sottle, writhing at his feet with fatal heart-shock, would have provided the only enjoyable moment in the whole bomba-witted escapade. But, then, some of the ittle butterballs were surprisingly resilient. And the last thing Gafeq needed was rumors of his blessing, and its conditions, getting around... especially around a city full of sorcerers such as Sottli Ban.
If only Axehand had fallen into that pit... if only Gafeq had currently had the skulls of five people who had trusted him, and followed him willingly to their deaths, that he had not killed himself, in his pack... he could have already been thirty days north of Sottli Ban, on his way back to a certain hilltop above the overgrowth west of Jennaru. But luck had not been with him; the other four members of Captain Gargull's crew he'd convinced to break in to the Sottle's basement looking for loot had all fallen, but Axehand had not. And Gafeq couldn't just kill the lunk himself, that was forbidden by the terms of the bargain.
Well, he'd have another opportunity to get the idiot killed soon enough, no doubt.
* * * * * *
Yes, Sheqra noted to himself, mind back in the present again... yes, there was definitely something there... something had nested in the pyramid of skulls.
Something very nasty. As he watched, what appeared to be the tail of an ink black boa constrictor... slipped, just for a second, out from between two of the several hundred skulls on the pile. Waved lazily in the sweaty, feverish jungle air for just a second... almost as if it were a tongue, tasting... and then, just as quickly, withdrew back into the crude pyramid.
Tentacles. He HATED the tentacles.
You never got tentacles in the cold. He should have built the Samaqel sucking cairn in Sotharka... but when he'd placed the first five skulls, however long ago it had been, on the ground here, the place had been pleasantly cool. Nothing but rock and dirt and a few scraggly, deep rooted bushes that almost never bloomed. He had actually climbed up a long, steady slope over the rock and gritty sand to get here; this place had been elevated nearly five masts above the level of the River... although he hadn't thought of distance in terms of 'masts' back then, any more than he had measured time in terms of how long it took for a shadow of a certain length to be produced by the movement of the sun across the sky. Back then he had still been in his very first lifetime. The arid steppes he and his tribe had wandered had been called, by them, Agorim. The newly flayed skulls he had carried in his arms, in obedience to the instructions he had received from the Rider in his dreams, were those of his two young wives and the babes they had had by him, which they had carried in their arms trustingly enough, as he had led them to the crack in the rock where the pit vipers nested. He had carried his and J'larra's two year old son himself, so she would have a hand free to aid in the climb...
But that had been two cataclysms and... twenty thousand cycles ago?... Something like that. The Samaqel had buried the River deep when It had brought down wrath and ruin on the Second Kingdom, much deeper than the relics of the First Kingdom had been buried by its own catastrophic deluge. The cities It had constructed afterward to house Its feral herd members (those few who had survived) were separated from their Second Kingdom counterparts by four hundred feet of iron hard dirt - most of which was full of labyrinthine sewer pipes, draining the effluvia of millions away into the lowermost currents of the River itself.
There were other things... things both terrible and wondrous... lying in the stinking darkness of those levels upon levels of intricate piping underlying each Riverish city, and while no living mortal could claim to know each sewer warren well, Sheqra knew them better than anyone else. But Sheqra knew everything better than anyone else. Others might reincarnate (precious few; most Riverscum went to hell when they died and stayed there for all eternity, but some, like the Jeopards, the Giants, and the Ulvane, had made special bargains with various gods... or demons... and gotten a special dispensation) but Sheqra was the only one he knew of who remembered all his many, many, MANY past lives in detail... and who could, with a mere effort of will, send his soul flowing backwards and forwards along the great river of time itself, to reinhabit any of his bodies that he might choose, at any given moment.
It was like every moment of history was simply one long 'today' for Sheqra. He had priceless, long lost historical knowledge locked up in his brain... more specifically, in his soul... that the scholars of the River College, or the Temple of Knowledge, would pay vast sums for. (They had in the past, and, he knew, they would in the future... which was how he planned to raise a stake to pay for his stay at Token's, when he reached Jennaru again.)
Still, no time to philosophize at the moment. Now, he had THIS thing to deal with.
Turning back into the forest, Sheqra began to issue instructions to the Jikki kid who had guided him out here.
After another twenty shadow-fingers, they had enough limbs gathered. Each was a small dead bough that had fallen at some point in the last ten Great Cycles or so onto the forest floor... long enough to collect a good coating of corpse-moss, but not long enough to be fully buried under other deadfalls.
“Ehhhh, good scum,” the Jikki lad started ('scum' is not an insult on the modern River, and has not been since the fall of the Second Kingdom... contemporary Riverish are proud of their lack of civility, and 'scum' is the closest they have to a common honorific, much the same as 'sir' or 'ma'am' might be used in other human societies) “you know if you put corpse-moss in a fire...”
“I know,” Sheqra said, with the patience of a soul whose first physical incarnation in the World had been born in a land so long lost to history that even scholars at the River College had never heard of it. “That's what I want it for.”
Dropped in a campfire, corpse-moss would smolder a bit and give off an odd stink... which was the only warning you got. If you had no clue what that weird, faint, sort of flatulence-like odor was, and left the corpse-moss impregnated bough to burn, within ten or twenty shadow-fingers at the most, your campfire would abruptly explode... usually with force enough to kill anyone sitting within a few feet of it.
Sheqra didn't mind blowing the pyramid of skulls into scattered bits, mostly because he knew he couldn't. The Samaqel had flooded the River valley halfway up the sides of its neighboring mountain ranges once, then blasted it down to its bare bedrock a few thousand years later and built it all up again afterward, taking ten thousand years to do it... and this particular clearing, with its steadily growing pyramid of skulls, had gone unscathed by all of that. The very ground level of the River itself and the valley surrounding it had risen nearly four hundred feet... so now, what had once been an arid hilltop was at the bottom of a deep, sloping crater, at the center of which was this same pyramid of skulls.
If the worst of the Samaqel's wrath had been unable to touch this place, there was nothing Sheqra could do to disturb it. Except add to the pile, of course. That was his duty.
So, keeping to a safe distance in the bright sunlight – tentacle-things hated sunlight, Sheqra knew – he tossed corpse-moss laden tree limbs onto the skull pyramid for the next thirty or so shadow-fingers. He lit the final one with a Frodd lighter – handy things, those, one of the few things invented in his current lifetime that wasn't simply a recreation of some better, long forgotten artifact from the First or Second Kingdoms – and tossed it to land across three others.
Then he ran like hell was on his heels for the edge of the forest.
* * * * * *
There had been a guard with one of those new fangled Frodd missile thrower things at the top of the wall, but Axehand had replaced his axe with a cleverly articulated hook and strung his witch-stave (which in the north they simply called a 'bow', but which was despised as a coward's weapon in the south and so generally had to be disguised) before they had set out two shadow-arms before sunrise, so that had not been a problem.
He'd even been able to recover his stave-bolt, although Gafeq had grunted with disappointment at discovering the idiot guard had fallen off the wall on top of the missile-throwing machine and broken it.
But Gafeq still had his hand axes, so that was all right.
Now they were through the outer gate, across the first courtyard, past the unguarded inner door (it had been locked, but locks meant little to the Sunfingered) and well down the first hallway. The Axehand was the Axehand once again, having taken a shadow-finger to unstrap the hook, restore it to his beltpouch, and restrap the axeblade to his stump. Bows were all well and good, but for inside work, an axe and shield was best.
In the fashion they had worked out long ago, Gafeq led off down the hallway, with Axehand gliding along silent as a patch of burly darkness at his back. Gafeq held his very expensive adjustable lantern, its front shutter open to allow a bare flicker of light to escape, out in front of him. At the end of the passage, there was a set of elaborately carved and inlaid double doors; beautifully rendered images of men riding giant cats with huge tusks hurling spears at very recognizable sherdak decorated it.
Axehand snorted. “The woodcarver had quite an imagination,” he barely whispered.
“No,” Gafeq said, sounding odd... almost bemused, a fey state Axehand rarely saw him in. “No, that was carved from real life... but not for a very very long time, I grant you.”
Axehand wanted to snort and demand to know how Gafeq, hardly a scholar of anything but chacal cards, could possibly claim to know such a thing... but Gafeq was already oiling the hinges on the left door, then the knob, then easing it quietly open and eeling inside. The room beyond was utterly dark, except for the slight flicker of his hooded lamp...
Then he was whispering “All right, Kordek, it's all clear.”
And before the Axehand could really process the thought He never calls me Kordek, he had stepped silently through... and the halberd blade had slammed into his chest from the right side, slicing through his short ribs like they were thin spring icicles, and cleaving his heart in two.
A shadow-arm later, Gafeq had been at the docks, booking passage for the north with three of the five gold he'd gotten as a reward for luring the outlawed halfbreed and escaped slave Kordek to his death.
He also had his fifth skull, nestled safely into his backpack with the others.
* * * * *
From twenty spans into the jungle, lying flat behind the huge, rotting bole of a long fallen zuzu tree, Sheqra and the Jikki kid had heard a satisfyingly loud BOOM, followed by a pattering and rattling as what must have been a thousand or more skulls had fallen back to earth again, all over the clearing.
By the time Sheqra got back there, though, the skulls had reassembled themselves... with the only visible difference to the clearing itself being, chunks of some sort of black, thick ropelike material, along with splatters and pools of blackich ichor, were splattered everywhere.
Sheqra shook his head. He couldn't remember when it had started, but he thought it had been shortly after he'd killed that lunkhead Axehand, back in the Second Kingdom. Once every liftime he'd begun to be attacked by some sort of horrible monster. The first time, a giant ungula had wrapped its tentacles around the ship he'd been sailing northward on from Bearfang Bay and crushed it underneath him. Fortunately, he'd been aware that ungula react poorly to epsu, a spice made from crushed tufa bark that is a primary ingredient in Northark blood rum... so he'd made sure that his half full jug of Northark blood rum had preceded him into the ungula's maw, and then, while it had been writhing in systemic shock, he'd swum for the surface and then for the shore.
Giant ungula that devour ships and everything on them are an unfortunate fact of life on the River, so he'd given it little further thought after cursing the encounter thoroughly. But every generation since then, something had attacked him at some point after he'd assembled his five skulls, while en route to the pyramid to place them. A hideously overgrown dire wolf on one occasion, an infuriated black elephant on another... on a third occasion, a gigantic grawken, a carnivorous monster bird even larger than the ship he'd been riding on at the time, had swooped out of the sky and tried to pluck him from the deck.
But, to date, he'd survived each attack. And now, he'd survived the latest. Gods alone knew what he'd face on his next journey back here... but he needn't worry about that at the moment, and he wasn't going to.
Retrieving his pack, Sheqra took it and walked around the cairn a few times, selecting the best spot for new additions. Hmmpphh... that one, right there, that was the skull belonging to that great booby Kordek Axehand. He knew, because he'd notched an X in it before he'd set it up there, wanting to be able to tell it again in the future. Of all the skulls he'd set here, he took the most satisfaction in Axehand's... because Axehand had been so foolishly trusting, Sheqra had genuinely felt he'd been doing the man a service, luring him to his doom.
Or perhaps it was that of all those Sheqra had befriended and betrayed since he had first sacrificed his two young wives and the two babes they carried in their arms and the two year old son he had carried there himself, those long millenia ago, on a high hilltop that had long since become a deep crater... of all of them, Axehand had come the closest to making him feel... well... bad about it.
The man had not had to throw that rope down to him, when he'd fallen into that spiked pit. He could have simply turned around and retraced his steps back out of that long dead Sottle's maim den murder maze. He couldn't have known that Sheqra... Gafeq, then... would have faced a fate far worse than any other Riverscum, dying in that pit. For, having died before he could pay his tribute that generation, he would have been consigned forever to hell... and he had little doubt that the denizens of hell had been dreaming up special tortures for him as they waited, all these thousands of years.
The Axehand had had no idea of any of that. No, he had simply seen a comrade in need of help, and at risk of his own life, he'd tied off that rope and thrown it down, and then carried Gafeq back out like a child in arms...
Sheqra spit on the skull. And then, contemptuously, he put it back where he'd taken it from.
Then, slowly, he started arranging the five skulls he'd brought this time at the top of steadily growing pyramid. This one was Jennus, the young Northark mercenary he'd met as an apprentice aboard the Red Raptor. He'd seduced the boy first, then befriended him; they'd traveled together nearly ten years...
This was Lorali, the girl slinger... a female fighter, or “crimson”, as they'd started to call such women over the course of his last few lives, after that bitch of a mercenary Captain who had conquered Ona-Tengu and made herself the first Queen on the River since the fall of the First Kingdom. He would have liked Lorali a great deal, if he ever let himself really feel anything for the five he chose for sacrifice each lifetime. She'd had a merry laugh, and been a talented blasphemer when the chacal dice went against her...
This next skull had belonged to Footrust, a Sothark who had been fortunate enough to be born without the usual Sothark susceptibility to heat, but who had been forever cursed with toe rot whenever he had come much north of Sottli Ban. Footrust had never really liked Sheqra much, but he'd trusted him enough to go into that supposed treasure cavern with the rest of them, which had been stupid. But Sotharks were stupid; in the lifetimes he'd spent as a Sothark, he'd been somewhat dimwitted himself. Perhaps that was why he'd let himself become so sentimental about the Axehand.
These last two had been Romaine, brothers named Fjerka and Fjonso the Lightfingered. They'd taken the name because they were skilled thieves, or so they said. The name reminded him of how he'd been called 'the Sunfingered' by the Axehand, long ago, after he'd burned himself fending off that pot of boiling oil. Romaine rarely reposed much trust in outsiders, but they'd bonded with him and the other three over Ulvane bitter-root ale and a few thousand idle chacal hands. They'd followed him into that cave trustingly enough, too.
It was odd, though, the way the monsters had started attacking him after he'd betrayed Axehand to his death. Perhaps Axehand had laid a death curse on him... Sheqra had heard such things were possible, although in a few hundred lifetimes, he'd never seen any real evidence of such. Perhaps the evidence had been biting him on the ass... or trying to, anyway... for his last hundred incarnations...
This incident was the worst it had been so far... some hideous creature actually nesting on his chosen sacrifice site, waiting for him.
Frankly, this shit was getting old.
A death curse that would continue for several thousand years (not counting the Interregnum, when Sheqra... or, rather, Bakwet, the short Durshi he had been at that time... had lain in cold, frozen slumber for ten thousand years, like every other living creature on the River not either daemonic or Chaotic, just prior to the Samaqel razing it to the bedrock to clear it of those infestations once and for all), was a powerful curse indeed. Certainly the Axehand had had no sorcerous abilities... but... he would have at least met the Rider, in Hell, after his death... wouldn't he? Perhaps he'd struck a bargain, much like Sheqra had done, back in the beginning. A bargain that let him return to earth for brief periods, in monstrous form, while Sheqra was en route with skulls to the sacrifice spot, to attempt to take revenge on his betrayer.
But why would the Rider make such a bargain? Sheqra had kept his side of the bargain faithfully... five skulls per incarnation, representing five people he had gained the trust of and lured to their deaths. He'd been an excellent provider for the King of Hell... why would he set some such scheme in motion against him...?
But Sheqra could not kid himself. He had met the Rider, and bargained with him... and he'd had a few hundred generations of experience with human behavior. The Rider was not human, no... but he acted like one. And this was exactly the sort of cruel contest he would enjoy.
Well, so be it. Let the Axehand return as any sort of monster he wanted, unto the end of time. Sheqra was more than the equal of any beast, no matter how vicious or vast, as long as the brains behind the fangs, tusks, hooves, claws, or tentacles was as dimwitted as he remembered the Axehand being.
Sheqra had just reached this conclusion, and was feeling very satisfied with himself, when something heavy, sharp, and made of rusty iron slammed into his skull from behind. His last living emotion was surprise; after thousands of years of life, his instincts and awareness of his surroundings were both preternaturally sharp. Nothing living could sneak up on him... and spirited Undead could not venture out into daylight without burning to dust.
The tall figure stood in the bright daylight, polishing the blood off the rusty axe blade strapped to the stump just below its left elbow. The shadowcloak that protected it from direct sunlight had been difficult to obtain; it had raided two full hands of tombs in the Howling Moors before finding it.
But it had all been worth it.
The figure kicked the short body at its feet.
Then, finally... it walked over to the mound, and picked up a skull with an X notched on it... and placed it, carefully, on the stump of its neck, where the blade of his grandmother's chief guard had removed it, thousands of years before, after a trusted friend had betrayed him to his doom.
The promised transformation took only a moment. Then the headless revenant was gone... replaced by the once again living, mostly whole body of Kordek Axehand.
Kordek set to work. Over the course of the next hour, he reduced each of the skulls that his betrayer had so diligently placed there to a fine dust, then carefully, almost ritually, he scattered handfuls of the dust around the clearing, chanting a fifteen thousand year old funeral rite from his father's people as he did it. It was the best he could do for the poor wretches. He hoped it would give them some small measure of peace, wherever they might be.
Then he resettled the shadow cloak -- which he could probably sell for quite a lot of gold when he got to Jennaru -- on his shoulders and prepared for his trip back through the jungle. He wasn't overly worried about the Jikki; they were not his father's people, but he understood them... and for the last few hundred years, their occasional glimpses of him stalking this section of the jungle, waiting for Gafeq to show up, had instilled in them a very genuine terror of him. Which was just as well.
Kordek had no desire to kill anyone else, now that he had settled up with Gafeq... but that didn't mean he wouldn't.
He was never going to be an easy mark again.
* * * *
In Hell, the soul of the entity that had once been called, among many, many other things, Gafeq the Sunfingered, stared in disbelief at the images conjured by the Pale Rider standing beside him.
It was, he presumed, part of his eternal torture to know exactly who had bested him.
“But,” Gafeq/Sheqra/Bakwet/ad infinitum protested, “I killed the tentacle thing under the cairn! I'd never been attacked by two monsters in one incarnation before... you must have changed the conditions of the contest! To allow him to reincarnate so quickly in that headless form... and sneak up on me...!”
The grave-pale face beneath the chain mail coif regarded him with contempt. When the Rider spoke, it was in a voice like a cold wind from an abandoned tomb, breathy and sibilant and chill as death itself... which, of course, It was.
“He was always the headless wight,” the Dread God said, scornfully. “The monsters were simply his familiars. Each time you would finish gathering your heads, I would give him another one to use against you.”
“But... but... I beat the tentacle thing... and he HIT ME WITH HIS AXE!” Sheqra's soul protested. “It isn't fair...!”
“I imagine he felt he would only get one chance to strike against you in his true form,” the Rider said. “After that, you would have been warned... and protections against the Undead are, unfortunately, not difficult to obtain.”
Hell's newest resident would have protested further... but the mob of doomed souls gathered around the two of them was growing more and more impatient. Especially the five who were closest to the Rider and the new arrival, who resembled, in some odd, ethereal way, two extremely angry young women and three equally angry, very young children... with very, very long claws.
Without another word, the King of Hell mounted his pale white horse, turned its skeletal head, and rode off through the crowd.
There was always another newly arrived soul to tend to.
Behind him, the avid growls and vicious laughter began to be intermittently drowned out by screams...