Sala awoke to the nighttime sounds of the forest. The crickets were chirping, and occasionally the hoot of an owl echoed through the darkness. Silvery moonlight shone down, illuminating the clearing in which she lay. Out of reach she could see the sleeping form of the ancient priest who had kidnapped her. He was dressed in a hooded red robe, and clutched his walking stick even in his sleep.
She turned her attention to the rope that bound her hands together. It was in turn tied to the leg of an enormous statue which was half again the height of a man, and carved in the form of a warrior, with intricate detail etched in the armor and muscles. The face was a smooth featureless surface. Every time she gazed upon it she felt unnerved and her stomach clenched upon itself. She thought back to the beginning of this horrible ordeal, just a few days prior …
Broken mud-brick masonry crashed down upon her, shocking her out of a deep slumber. She tried to scream, but no sound came out. That was what so disturbed her: the utter silence of it all. Her mind felt muddled, as if her senses were wrapped in a thick wool blanket. The great statue strode into her father’s home through the breach it had smashed through the wall. It gently lifted her off her sleeping mat and bore her away in its massive arms. She drifted in and out of consciousness, sometimes feeling the hard thumps of the statue stepping though the plowed furrows as it carried her across the fields of grain, away from the village of Gorod, and to where farmland met trees. It was hard to see anything by the starlight except the even darker edge of the forest.
She was set down at the edge of the woods, where an old man waited for her. While the stone giant held her in place, the red-robed ancient produced an amulet, in the form of a sunburst, from beneath his robes. He waved it slowly over her head and before the giant’s face, all the while mouthing some strange silent prayer. All at once Sala was able to hear the sounds of the forest, and she felt the clarity of her thoughts return as if a fog had lifted. Her heart shriveling in dread, she screamed her terror with such force that her throat burned raw, and the old man stepped back as if slapped.
“Parado!” he said, then paused a moment, and then continued, “Stop it.” His voice was harsh, like scraping a rusted piece of iron. “They …” he pointed towards the village. “They are too far to hear. My ears hurt; be silent, or we will tie your mouth,” he said, slowly and uncertainly, as though having difficulty wrapping his tongue around unfamiliar words.
“Why are you doing this?” she wept.
The man gently caressed her cheek with the back of his hand. “I am sorry, child. All is at risk. I bear you no malice. I only do what I must,” he said. He then gestured to the giant and said simply, “Taelda.”
The stone giant picked Sala up, set her in the crook of one arm, put the old man in the other, and marched into the forest, towards the mountains.
“Who are you?” Sala asked.
“I am Zaladris, the last priest of Gow. Sleep child; we have far to go.”
The stone giant, or “Servant of Gow” as Zaladris called it, marched tirelessly through the night and much of the next day. They only stopped briefly a few times over the next two days. Zaladris showed no interest in speaking to her as they traveled. When she tried to question him, he only gave her a sad little smile, and refused to discuss anything further. He kept both of them fed with dried fruit and shared water from his flask.
The journey had fatigued the old man, though. She could see that he was badly worn out. Sala had been surprised that a man of Zaladris’ advanced years had even been able to attempt the task of abducting her. If it were not for his control of the Servant, he never would have been able to make the journey.
Sala interrupted her reverie to try once again to free herself. She tugged on the rope that tied her hands together and to the leg of the Servant. Her pulls only served to tighten her binding, and with her wrists bound, she was unable to work the knots. Annoyed, she pulled the line taut and bit down on it. She hoped to chew through it while her captor slept. She had barely begun when a burning sensation tore through her mouth. Sala couldn’t stop herself from groaning in pain as she rapidly panted, trying to cool her tongue.
She saw the old man looking at her, his eyes twinkling with mirth. “The ropes are soaked in enflama pepper squeezings. It keeps the rats from chewing them.” He tossed his water flask to her, and settled back to sleep.
Sala flushed her mouth with the water and savored its coolness. After a few menes the heat on her tongue receded, allowing her to relax. She lay back down and stared up at the luminous disc that was the moon Nochturon. “How am I to escape this madman?” she mused silently. “There must be a way!”
A sleepless night would do her no good though. Sala resolved to get some rest. Perhaps an opportunity would present itself tomorrow. She spared a thought for Gorod, her village, her family, and Elton, her betrothed. Would she ever see any of them again? She and her captor had come so far, so fast. Even if she managed to escape, could she find her way home? Filled with trepidation, she gradually drifted into a fitful sleep.
Sala shivered against the cool morning air as she and Zaladris rode the statue up the mountain paths. Fortunately the old priest had cached some woolen blankets along their route. He had taken care to wrap one around Sala’s shoulders so that it would stay in place, even though she could not hold onto it with her hands tied. They forded a fast-running stream that rose waist high on the Servant of Gow. The water was flowing so swiftly that even the massive stone servitor had to move gingerly to keep from losing its footing. From there, they followed the river gorge up the slope for much of the day. Leafy trees gave way to evergreens, and soon even these dwindled in number, until little but hardy shrubs grew. Zaladris grew more animated as a small cluster of buildings hove into view.
As they came closer, Sala realized that the buildings were little more than ruins. A forty-foot hemlock tree grew out of the center of one, while the rest were either falling over, or were nothing more than the forgotten stone circles of ancient foundations. The one exception was a moderate-sized cottage with an ivy-covered thatched roof that stood near the edge of the remains of the settlement.
The Servant ground to a halt in front of the lone cottage, and set its burdens down. Zaladris gently unbound Sala’s hands and urged her, at knife point, into the building. He then barred the door from the outside, locking her in.
Sala looked about her new quarters. She quickly determined that there were only three rooms: a common room in front, an adjoining pantry, and a bedroom in back. The windows let in some light through cracks in the shutters, which were barred shut from the outside. The flagstone floor ensured she could not dig her way out, just as the stone walls were also impervious to her efforts.
The common room had a table and some rough stools. When she sat on one, it wobbled badly. The table was worn and had a wooden bowl of fruit set in the middle. The bowl was canted to one side where it was perched on the uneven seam between two wooden table planks. Against the front wall, beneath the window was a low bench with a few cushions thrown on it. It sagged in the middle and settled with a groaning sound when she put her weight upon it. Sala noted too that the walls were devoid of decoration. Even a peasant hut would have a bundle of wildflowers displayed, she mused.
To one side was a pantry, which was filled with foodstuffs. Herbs hung from the rafters and full barrels of potatoes and beets stood on the floor. Its shelves were stacked with small earthen jars. Closer inspection showed them to hold all manner of fruit and vegetable preserves.
In back, the bedroom held a comfortable-looking straw bed, which was finer than the sleeping mat to which Sala was accustomed. At the opposite end of the room, beneath the window, was a shelf built into the wall. There were arrayed several objects which aroused Sala’s curiosity. A colorfully patterned cloth covered the smooth surface of the shelf, and upon it sat a blue and black pottery vase, a small wooden figure, and a pallid white orb.
Sala examined the wooden figure; it was a duplicate of the stone statue standing outside, except in scale, even to the disturbingly blank space where a face ought to have been. The orb was heavier than she expected, and when she looked more closely, it appeared very much to be in the image of the full moon Nochturon. It even showed the pattern of light and dark that she was accustomed to seeing. She hefted it, feeling its weight. It was the size of an apple and perhaps twice as dense. Maybe she could hurl it at the old man. The cloth was an abstract mixture of bright colors with fringed edges. Sala didn’t know what the pattern represented, and when she picked it up for a closer look, she overturned the vase, spilling its contents to the floor. She wrinkled her nose in disgust from the odor of the brownish sludge. It smelt like the butcher’s yard shortly after a slaughter.
As the sun set and shadows swept across the ruined settlement, the old priest allowed Sala to emerge from her cottage prison and take a seat on a rough stone bench next to the cook fire. She accepted a haunch of roast rabbit and some vegetables that Zaladris had fried for both of them. She was unbound, but the old priest did not trust her with a knife with which to eat her supper. He had warned her that if she tried to run off, the Servant of Gow would simply bring her back again. She meekly sat by the cook fire with Zaladris and ate quietly.
“You deserve to know why you are here,” the priest stated flatly with his strange, thick accent. He stared into the fire, not looking at Sala for long menes. She began to wonder if he had fallen asleep, when he finally spoke again in the cadence of a sermon.
“Long ago, when the world was young, and men were but feuding tribes, the gods themselves came to blows. Amante, the god of love and beauty, came to love Alana, the goddess of the night, and of the moon. She however only had room in her heart for Gow, the protector, the noble lord of all who are honorable. Amante could not accept this, and sought to woo Alana, bringing her gifts and using all his divine wiles to seek a place in her heart. She denied him, and betrothed herself to her beloved Gow. This Amante could not bear. Filled with anger, he went to his mother, Erida, the goddess of death, and his sister Moire, the goddess of the sea, to beg their help. His mother doted upon him and could deny him nothing, while his sister was envious of Alana’s beauty. Together they decided Amante and Alana would be wed by trickery and force.
“Amante’s mother disguised herself as a mighty sorceress, who was powerful enough to threaten the gods. Gow the protector was sent to destroy her. While Gow was deceived, Amante went to Alana, and carried her away. With the help of his sister, Amante hid Alana in a secret place where even the gods could not find her. Gow was stronger than Erida could have imagined, and utterly destroyed her sorceress form. He took from her the Moon-Jewel and the Star Mantle, her symbols of power. Terribly wounded, Erida crept back to her husband, the lord of the gods, who healed her, but made her forswear further acts against his son, Gow.
“Gow returned from battle and sought his love Alana. He scoured the heavens and searched the land but found no trace of her. Desperate, he sought his father’s counsel. Contrite from her defeat at her stepson’s hands, Erida, told where Amante had hidden Alana. She was in the caves by the castle of the sea goddess. Enraged, Gow flew there, where he found his beloved Alana and her captors. Amante and Moire battled to keep the goddess of the night in their dominion. Gow warred upon them, shattering the castle and stirring the seas into a terrible storm. Gow’s might was matched by Amante’s wiles and Moire’s power. Their battle raged for d ays and spanned the sea and the land. While her captors fought Gow, Alana broke free from her watery prison. The clamor of combat drew the goddess to her beloved’s aid. She seized the Moon-Jewel from Gow and hurled it at Moire, striking her down and making the sea-goddess and her domain ever subservient to the moon. Gow gained advantage on Amante, and struck a mighty blow to Amante’s face with his sword of flame. The god of beauty became, with that one ringing blow, the most hideous monster.
“Amante went to the lord of the gods, begging justice, but the lord, knowing Alana had truly been the one wronged, denied him. Rather he chose for Alana to mete the punishment for Amante’s crime. The moon goddess declared that Amante would forever wear a mask, to hide his shame and his hideous scars, and that he would never again be the ruler of love, for he knew nothing of it. Further the lord of the gods declared that Erida would never again hold the Moon-Jewel. Instead it would become Alana’s dowry, giving her some power over the seas and the rivers so that Erida and her daughter would never forget the wrong they had done.
“Amante wore his mask, but raged against Gow ever after, always blaming the protector for his ruined face. In time Gow forgot about Amante, having no interest in listening to the fallen god’s impotent bleating. Amante did not surrender his vengeance, though. He stole into the home of Gow’s brother, Gaoth, the god of chaos, and seized his scepter. Amante used this wand to pass a curse on the world. Since no worshipper could look upon his face again, then no longer would any mortal look upon the face of Gow! He cast the mighty curse down upon Makdiar, and all who were near an image of the protector where his face was visible suffered terrible plagues and misfortune. The ground shook; clouds of locusts brought famine to the people. Gow’s own worshippers desecrated those images of Gow that survived the horrors of the time of troubles. So it was that the face of Gow left the world. That is why no image of Gow has a face, not even the Servant of Gow,” Zaladris concluded, pointing at the statue.
“So, anyone who gazes on an image of Gow’s face becomes cursed?” Sala asked.
“Worse. When an image of Lord Gow has a face, all who are in its region suffer from Amante’s wrath.” Zaladris continued, his voice rising and his eyes rolling wildly, “At first it seems as simple misfortune. As time passes though, spilled tea becomes a scalded lap, to raging storm, to drowning flood.”
“That’s a fascinating story,” Sala said, “but I don’t understand what it has to do with me. I’m just a baker; I’ve nothing to do with the affairs of strange gods. I’m subject to Cahleyna, none other.”
“Your false god is of no concern to me. The true gods are those of Beinison. I care naught for others,” Zaladris replied with annoyance. “I am the last legitimate priest of Gow, the keeper of the one shrine that preserves the face of Gow in the realm of men!” he said with rising vehemence.
Cowed, but not defeated, Sala interjected, “You just told me there were no images of Gow’s face, that they’re all cursed.”
“Yes,” he said, deflated, “it is true.” The old man lapsed into silence. He closed his eyes, lowered his head, and massaged the bridge of his nose for a few moments. “My lord’s statue is cursed, but there is a warding that keeps the monstrous evil of Amante’s curse at bay.” Zaladris paused and stirred the fire until it was blazing again.
Changing his tone from that of a temple priest instructing his students to one like that of the village graybeard telling a tale, Zaladris continued. “Long ago, this last and most skillfully crafted idol of Gow rested in his prime temple in the imperial capital, Cabildo. His majesty, Eireik Blortnikson, had just united the Beinison Empire under his imperial aegis a few years before. But then the curse fell and the time of troubles came. The empire was struck by famine and outbreaks of pestilence. The people wailed in their despair, and the empire came to the brink of destruction. The statues of Gow in the hinterlands were all … defaced, and peace came to those lands. But the statue in Cabildo was the finest avatar of our nation’s patron deity, so the priesthood could not bear to allow it to be destroyed .
“In desperation Emperor Eireik called upon the mightiest mages of the land and offered a great reward for our succor. Finally the unbeliever Mon-Millia, a wise and learned magus, came to Cabildo to take up the challenge. He arrived with a wagon loaded with magical tomes and enchanted devices. The priests were scandalized when he drove directly into the temple, horses and all. He sent everyone from the temple, and sealed the doors. It is said he studied his tomes and tried many spells.
“After several days the disasters ceased, and Mon-Millia emerged, announcing that the curse had been placed under a warding. The magus showed the priesthood that the statue was unharmed. He told them that the curse was very powerful, and that the warding had to be maintained, else the spell would fail against the curse’s divine strength. He instructed the priests of Gow in the ceremony and method of servicing the idol, and then he collected his reward and departed the known lands.
“Even though the idol was now safe, the emperor still feared its curse. Over the objections of the faithful, Emperor Eireik ordered it taken away from the city and that it be loaded aboard the empire’s fastest vessel. So that it might never threaten Beinison’s coasts, the emperor commanded that it be sailed around the Cape of Wudamund and hurled into the depths of the great Cirrangill Sea.
“That very night, the priesthood of Gow seized the idol and their relics: the Servant of Gow and the Moon-Jewel. They assembled a caravan and left the imperial capital under the cover of darkness, bound for the wilderlands to the north. They finally settled here, on this remote mountain where the emperor would never find them, and where they could protect the last idol, undisturbed.”
Zaladris paused and met Sala’s gaze. “I am the end of the line of the priests of Gow. Even though we have been faithful my people have had fewer children with every generation, until they finally died out.”
“I still don’t see what this has to do with me,” Sala said plaintively. “Surely you don’t think you can make me a Gow priestess? I have my own goddess.” Another thought occurred to her, and she flared in anger. “And don’t think you can force me to bear you a child. I’d rather die,” she said defiantly.
“No, young one,” he said mournfully, “I’m sorry, it is much worse than that. If I cannot continue to placate Amante’s curse, the consequences are beyond imagining.”
Sala began to feel the grip of fear again. The old man had started to seem harmless, even kindly, in spite of having kidnapped her. Now his talk was scaring her.
Zaladris looked at her, the light of the cook fire revealing the intensity in his face and dancing in his staring eyes. “I must make the ritual of the intercambrino … um, the transference. I must take your life to extend my own that I may serve my god and safeguard this land.” Seeing the horror on her face, he quickly continued, “It’s for everyone’s good, girl. If I do not do this, everyone will suffer. The curse will return and, in time, it will sweep across all the lands you know, bringing misery and death. For a thousand years this warding has been kept. I must not fail now!”
Sala stood, thinking that perhaps she should run for her life. The giant statue didn’t seem so fast. Then she gasped as the old priest gripped her wrist with enough strength to make her feel pain. She tried to pull away, but Zaladris twisted her arm behind her back, and she soon found herself locked within the cottage again. Sala looked around at her prison’s walls, and wondered how she could possibly escape. In desperation she hurled herself against the door, but was rewarded only with bruises. She used the stool to beat against the shutters furiously. They rattled with each blow, but they were stoutly made and well barred from the outside. Her shoulders burned and her hands stung from the effort.
Pausing a moment to think, Sala pondered her avenues of escape. The flagstone floor and rock walls were impossible to dig through, and the door and shutters were too stout for her to break. Sala looked upward to pray to Cahleyna for succor. As she began her prayer, she noted the ceiling was made of thatch. After finishing her devotion, she moved the stool to the back wall of the cottage in the pantry. She stepped up and stretched to reach the thatch. It was just out of her grasp. She could touch it if she jumped slightly, but that threatened to overturn her support and send her tumbling to the floor. The longest tool she could find was an old, stained, wooden spoon with a handle that was so worn that it shone. Sala jabbed the straw ceiling in several places. Everywhere she tried, she met with resistance. It took her a full bell to dig a hole through the thatchi ng in one spot, where she found the roof was woven tightly together with gnarled vines of ivy. Many of the branches were thicker than her thumb. Perhaps she could have chopped through them with a hatchet. She was certain that a spoon was not adequate to the task.
For a moment she allowed herself the luxury to imagine that Elton, her fiance, would come for her, but she dismissed that thought. What chance was there that a village stonemason would challenge an insane hermit wizard? “None at all,” she thought. “None at all.”
Elton’s heart pounded and he labored to breathe. He dragged his sleeve across his brow to mop up the sweat of his effort. In many places he had been unable to discern any sign of tracks from those who had taken his fiancee from her bed. Often even his companion, Urtose, the village idiot, had been baffled, despite his trailcraft. Bruce, however, rarely hesitated and strode confidently through the woods and into the mountains. The gigantic beast-man was half again as tall as a human and covered in fur. The series of growls the Kushago used to identify himself were unpronounceable by the stonemason and the idiot, so they had settled on calling him “Bruce”. His long strides made for good speed, forcing the two villagers to struggle to keep up.
Just three days ago Elton had been starting a normal day watching over his master’s apprentice stonemasons. Xakim, the father of his betrothed, Sala, had interrupted him. She’d been taken by someone who’d been able to smash through the wall of her home. To Elton’s dismay, none of the other villagers of Gorod had been willing to help seek her rescue. None but Urtose, who had joined him at the forest’s edge. Elton had wrongly believed that a Kushago had kidnapped Sala, because of the giant footprints leading away from Gorod. He had been shown his mistake when Urtose had summoned Bruce to rescue him from being buried in a landslide. Elton had accepted the beast-man’s help gratefully, and they had resumed the hunt.
It wasn’t long before the trio had climbed high above the forest, and followed a little-used path into the heart of the mountains. The mason noted the growing agitation of the Kushago, and his hopes began to rise that perhaps they were drawing near to their quarry. He thought it was likely that Bruce’s rapid pace had made up for his and Urtose’s slow march through the forest. Shortly before midday they reached the edge of a fast running stream, which flowed down a ravine, and then turned across its mouth. The stream’s surface frothed with the speed of its passage.
Elton stepped up to where Bruce stood on the bank, hesitating to enter the water. Puzzled by the beast-man’s reticence, he knelt down to dip a cup into the stream for a cool draught. He gasped as his hand was immersed in the stream. The cold of the runoff was biting, and Elton could scarcely imagine trying to wade through it. He was certain they would be swept away if they tried. He looked at Bruce with new respect; the Kushago had known the danger without even touching the chill water.
“A bit nippy, it is,” Urtose said. “From the snow melt, aye, might freeze us in an instant.”
“We have to find a way across. We can’t let this delay us. Perhaps if I enter upstream, I can swim across before I’m washed too far?” Elton asked.
“Heh, heh, ye got to get out of the village sometimes, rock buster. That cold? Ye wouldn’t be able to move for more than a few deep breaths afore ye were froze. Nay, there must be a better way,” Urtose replied.
The mason sat on a small boulder to ponder the situation. Ideally a fallen tree could bridge the small river. The only one he had seen was already too rotted to use. Unfortunately he had not brought an ax with him. Maybe he could cut a tree down with Master Oramond’s sword? He abandoned that idea, but it occurred to him that he had packed his mason’s tools; out of habit, he supposed.
Elton rose and studied the edges of the ravine where the stream had run hard into a stone outcropping and abruptly turned, cutting off the gorge. With the practiced eye of a man who was intimate with rock, he found a fault and traced its path. Satisfied with what he had found, he fetched his hammer and chisel from his bundle. Checking his placement twice, Elton set the chisel against stone and raised his hammer.
“What are ye doing rock-buster? The sun got to ye, has it?” Urtose interrupted.
The mason glanced over at the idiot, mirth in his eyes. “I’m fine, Urtose, I just thought I’d bust some rocks.” He turned back to his task and struck the chisel with one of his hardest blows. A crack now ran from the ground and up the stone to well over his head. Elton smiled, pleased that the shear line had been exactly where he thought it was. He struck another blow, and a pillar of rock broke away from the lip of the ravine. Elton felt as if time slowed down while he watched it fall across the stream. He held his breath and hoped the stone would hold together when it landed, and not crumble into the river.
The column bounced twice when it landed. To the mason’s relief it stayed in a single piece, forming a narrow bridge across the water. Gingerly they crossed it, Elton first, followed by Urtose, with Bruce at the rear. The stone shifted and threatened to break apart under the Kushago’s weight. Several pieces fell into the stream and discernable cracks were left near the center, but it held. The mason checked the bridge and was relieved that it looked to be holding firm. It would be in place for their return trip.
“Straight,” Elton said, “We’d best have our lunch now. I’d prefer to have a full belly when we climb this ravine.” He packed away his tools, marveling at how lucky he’d been. The stone bridge had worked better than he could have ever imagined. Cahleyna must be smiling upon him; surely he could not fail his lady now.
Sala watched the dawn break through the slits of the shutters to her prison. The glow in the eastern sky grew as she considered what the day might bring. During the journey from her village, the old priest had always made a point to stop and pray during sunset. She thought it was curious that he prayed with his back to the light, though at the time she had been too frightened to think about it. While she pondered this, she continually probed every part of the cottage for a weak point that might enable her to escape the building.
By noon she was despairing of any chance of escape. The small building was rustic, even by her standards, but very robust. While searching, she’d had time to think and as the bells passed she became more certain that sunset was to be the time of her execution. It made sense to her that a significant ceremony and Zaladris’ holy time should coincide. That would only give her the afternoon then, to think of a plan.
Sala considered and discarded many ideas over the course of the day. Some were impractical, others impossible, and a few were merely unlikely. “He’s an old man,” she finally thought. “Certainly I can outrun him. If I can hit him with something, get a few moments’ head start, surely that will be enough to get away?” Sala sighed in resignation. “It’s not a great plan, but I have to try,” she thought. She closed her eyes for a moment, and considered the Servant of Gow. The statue would be certain to pursue her. It was slow, but tireless. How could she defeat it? She decided that she had to hope to get enough of a head start that she could obscure her trail before Zaladris ordered the servant after her. Sala composed herself, looked skyward, and said a prayer to Cahleyna, asking for a blessing in making good her escape.
She then searched the cottage again, seeking a weapon. She rummaged through each room, overturning furniture and tearing apart anything that might conceal something useful. After ransacking the pantry, and partially dismantling the kitchen table, she found herself in the bedroom. The small urn and the wooden warrior were of little use to her, but the white opal fit her hand just right, and seemed like it might be useful as a small missile, or if she were fortunate, she could use it to bash the priest in the head. Sala looked closely at the gem, which did truly look like an image of the moon. She speculated that this must be the Moon-Jewel the old priest had mentioned. A smile twitched at her lips at the thought of doing in her abductor with one of his own holy relics. Carefully, she secreted it in her clothing, where she would be able to reach it when an opportunity came.
After putting away the jewel, Sala noted something else that stuck out from beneath the shelf: a book. She pulled it out for a better look. It was leather bound and had a feeling of age to it. Opening the book showed pages of spidery handwriting. Though she had never learned to read, Sala paged through the book, curious, looking with interest at several diagrams and pictures that were within. The book was only half filled, but it was the last written part that was the most frightening. The page before the last had a crudely drawn picture, which showed what looked to be a robed man, holding a heart aloft. Before the man laid a body with a hole gashed in its chest, and a spirit, which was rising out of the body and diving into the priest. Sala shivered; surely this was what Zaladris had in mind for her. Angrily, she tore the last two pages out of the book. She held the crumpled pages tightl y in her left hand. She resolved that these evil notes could be used no further, and that they would be destroyed.
Sala woke up with a start. She grumbled to herself at having fallen asleep while waiting for the afternoon to while away. It was only the rattling of the front door when Zaladris had entered the cottage that had awakened her. A quick glance through the shutters confirmed that sunset was near; it must be time.
“Come girl, we have a ritual to attend to,” said the priest.
“I … I don’t think I want to,” replied Sala. “Why don’t you go without me?”
The priest moved forward into the cottage, leaning heavily on his walking stick. He paused to survey the wreckage of his home and shook his head. “Such bravery to the end. You have great spirit, girl. Gow will be pleased with the offer of your essence.”
Sala looked directly into the old man’s eyes. “Killing me is evil, master priest. Please, just come back to my village. We will treat you as an honored elder. We would welcome you with a feast and our finest ale.” Sala moved closer, surreptitiously feeling for the Moon-Jewel hidden in her clothes.
“I’m sorry, child,” the priest said as he flicked his wrist and threw a golden powder in Sala’s face.
Sala recoiled, shutting her eyes and coughing. After several sneezes she found herself leaning against the wall, but still standing unsteadily. She felt detached though, as if the world was merely something she watched. Even when Zaladris took her arm, she was only an observer, and had no will to resist him.
The priest guided her from the cottage and out of the ruined village. She was taken to a nearby worn path that lead out of the settlement. It went further up the mountain ravine though the sparse woods. There was only a short walk before they came to the mountain stream, and then to where the path stopped at a vine-covered rock face. The priest then pulled her into the entrance that was there and led her underground. The setting sun shone directly into the cave, enabling Sala to see deep within, where she could make out something glittering at the end. Inside, the footing was somewhat uneven, but worn smooth from centuries of use. Two dozen paces brought them to the end, which widened into a semi-circular chamber. There was something in the center she couldn’t quite see, the light being obscured by their shadows. When they stepped aside, light streamed in and illuminated the object that had sparkled. In the center was the strangest statue Sala had ever seen.
There was a rough pedestal of similar construction to the ruins of the settlement surrounding the monk’s cottage. Atop that was what Sala assumed to be the statue of Gow that Zaladris had described. Its base was of a polished gray stone, while the statue itself was the darkest black she’d ever seen. Its ruby eyes scintillated in the rays of the dying sun, and its teeth were bone white. The figure sat tailor style with a silver sword across its lap. Its face was turned skyward, and its mouth was open as if screaming in rage, or perhaps agony.
Zaladris guided Sala into a prone position on the cave floor in front of the idol so that she was lit by the rays of the sun beaming in. He drew a dagger from his belt, jerking it from side to side to work it out of its sheath. The pommel was golden, and its blade was polished bronze. Rather than being straight like ordinary knives, the blade undulated from the quillons to the point. Zaladris began waving the knife over her, and started a song in a strange language. Sala couldn’t help thinking that he had a lovely singing voice.
Elton, Urtose, and Bruce charged up the ravine at an exhausting pace. The Kushago was eagerly on the scent, obviously excited. It took them most of the afternoon to march up the ravine and the sun was setting as they reached the old settlement. Bruce led them through the ruins and past the remains of collapsed building with a large tree growing through it. They followed the trail until they reached a small, well-maintained cabin. In front of it burned a small cooking fire. Next to the front door stood a gigantic statue of a warrior, except instead of a face there was only blank space. Elton stared at the statue for a moment, admiring the detailed craftsmanship in its carving. The blank spot where a face should have been puzzled him. He was uncertain whether the statue had ever had a face, or if it had been chiseled off, and the r emainder polished.
Bruce sniffed around the area for a few moments, giving particular attention to the small house. A brief look inside informed Elton that the place was a shambles; debris was strewn everywhere. He watched the Kushago explore the perimeter of the settlement. Bruce bent over at spots, and sniffed there. Abruptly, he caught the scent and dashed to the beginnings of a path that led into the stunted trees and further up the ravine. Elton and Urtose leapt into pursuit. The Kushago’s single-minded focus made Elton certain that they were almost upon their goal. He clenched his jaw and redoubled his pace to keep up with Bruce. Despite his shambling gait, even Urtose managed to keep up.
The path led to a fast-flowing stream, the parent of the one they had crossed that morning. From there they followed another path to the ivy covered cliff wall. Quickly they spotted a low cave entrance, from which they could hear a voice raised in song, though they could not understand the words. The cave entrance looked to be too small for Bruce, and he appeared nervous anyway. The Kushago edged back from the cave, shaking his head.
“He don’t like something in there,” Urtose gasped. The long day’s climb, and the rush up the path had taken the wind out of him.
Elton drew his sword and took a few deep breaths. “This is my fight. Sala is in there, and I will see her free!”
He ducked into the cave and, hugging one wall, quickly made his way down to the end, where he could see the prone form of his lady, and standing over her, an old bearded man in a red robe who was brandishing a strange-looking dagger while singing an otherworldly song.
Zaladris’ throat began to burn as he approached the end of his song. Tears flowed from his eyes at the thought of slaying this young girl. He had done this once every century for the past three centuries, and still the guilt never left his heart. If he passed on, the warding against the curse Amante had inflicted on Gow’s faithful would fail, and the consequences would be calamitous. He had long sought another way, but there had been only failure. With his people long gone to dust, there was no one to apprentice, no one who would be loyal to Gow. So once again he had to harden his heart, and follow his duty.
The priest thought he caught a hint of movement in the glare of the light streaming in. A man stepped forth and raised a sword that was blazing red, as if aflame with the light of the setting sun. “Lord Gow?” Zaladris whispered in awe.
In answer, the man bashed the old priest in the head with the flat of the blade.
Elton watched the old man stumble back and grab the ugly statue for support, blood streaming from his scalp. Elton cursed himself for the poor strike, and steeled himself to attack again. He leaped over Sala and thrust the blade at the priest. This time he ran the sword clean through the old man. As the priest fell, Elton tugged the sword free. He glanced askance at the strange statue. Had its mouth opened? “No matter,” Elton thought, and turned to his lady.
Urtose was already ministering to Sala, and Elton knelt down beside them. “Does she live?” asked the mason, worry in his voice.
“Aye, she be living. I don’t like the look in her eyes though. Best we get her fresh air I’m a-thinkin’.”
“Straight,” Elton agreed. “Take my sword. I’ll carry Sala.” The mason gathered the girl in his arms, and bore her out of the cave. “Back to the fire; it isn’t far.”
Elton led the way down the path. Despite bearing the weight of Sala in his arms, the walk back to the settlement was easier for being downhill. Urtose and Bruce followed him down, stepping carefully behind him. Once they reached the cook fire he laid Sala down and bundled his cloak to serve as a cushion for her head. After giving her some water, the girl seemed to revive.
“He … he’s dead?” she asked.
“The old man? He’s won’t be troubling us anymore, I should think,” Elton said.
The three villagers and the Kushago spent the best part of a bell resting by the fire. Sala was at first frightened by Bruce, but relaxed when she had been assured that he had been critical in finding her. Still, being sniffed by the massive Kushago was something she found unnerving. They talked through the twilight as they related their tales to each other. Soon their only light was that of the dwindling fire, and the rising full moon.
Elton was sitting tailor style in front of the fire. He held Sala in his lap, his arms wrapped around her, and her head against his shoulder. Urtose had just added fuel to the fire in anticipation of raiding Zaladris’ larder for a meal, when they heard a voice cry out. The old man, soaked in blood, stumbled down the path, yelling in his strange tongue.
“Servatantos eg Gow, risotos,” the old man called out. “Slay them, but I need the girl, whole — now!” Spent, Zaladris fell to his knees, holding his belly wound, and trying to keep his guts from spilling out.
The giant statue began to move towards the villagers, its hands clenching and unclenching. Urtose dropped the faggot of wood he was holding and stared at the giant, slack jawed. Sala rolled out of Elton’s lap.
“It obeys him!” she shouted.
“What is it?” cried the mason in surprise. “How does a statue move?”
“It’s called the Servant of Gow,” Sala answered. Elton struggled to his feet and snatched his sword up from where it was leaning against a stone seat. He held the blade in front of him while motioning Sala behind. He had often attacked stone with a hammer and chisel, but never before had stone attacked him.
Urtose had recovered his spear, a gnarled stick with the end worn to a point, and charged forward. He stabbed at the Servant of Gow, but the point struck and skittered off to the side. Surprisingly fast, the statue whipped around and sent the idiot flying with a massive backhand. Elton backed away, keeping Sala behind him. He tried to think how he could possibly fight the thing. The mason recognized the stone of the statue as a sort of granite, tough to work in the best of circumstances. He doubted that his sword would even scratch it.
“We can’t fight it, Elton. It isn’t very fast. We have to run,” Sala pleaded.
“I’m not going to leave Urtose,” the mason said, his voice tight. The idiot had been invaluable and had saved his life after the rockslide. He was even, Elton grudgingly admitted to himself, a friend.
The servant turned from Urtose to advance upon Elton and Sala, but was intercepted by Bruce. The Kushago let out a guttural roar and charged the stone giant, beating it with his massive fists. For several moments the statue gave ground, the fury of Bruce’s attack driving it back. Soon though, the Servant of Gow recovered its balance and pressed its own attack.
Elton and Sala pulled Urtose to his feet, but he was hurt. His breathing was ragged, and he clutched at his chest. Elton suspected that Urtose’s ribs were broken. The mason had seen an injury like that before, when an apprentice had taken a tumble while quarrying marble.
The stone giant and the Kushago wrestled for long moments, until the statue managed to wrap its arms around Bruce. The Kushago tried to fight his way out of the bear hug, but the servant was unrelenting. There was a final sickening crack, and Bruce went limp, his head lolling back, lifeless. The servant dropped the Kushago’s carcass and once again moved towards the villagers.
Seeing he had no hope of fighting the monstrosity, the only option left to Elton was to flee. He and Sala grabbed Urtose and draped his arms over their necks, and rushed downhill as fast as they were able. Under normal circumstances they could run much faster than the stone giant, but Urtose’s injuries slowed them greatly. He was having difficulty breathing, and if he were not being helped, he would have fallen before even escaping the settlement. Staying just ahead of the pursuing stone giant, the trio of villagers fled away from the settlement and down the canyon, towards the icy stream.
Pain ripped through Zaladris’ body. He had lost so much blood; he didn’t know how long he would last. Agonizingly, the priest dragged himself to his cottage; he had to lie down in shelter, where no wandering beast would make a meal of him. Inside the cabin, he was appalled at the mess the girl had made. Too tired to move any further, he collapsed on the front room floor. He hoped the servant would return soon with the girl. He was certain that he would die of his wounds before long. His only hope now was to complete the ritual of the transference, if it wasn’t even too late for that.
So tired, Zaladris lay on the floor unmoving. He closed his eyes and let out a final rattling breath.
The villagers spent the rest of the night fleeing down the mountain. Elton and Sala carried Urtose between them, and would march as far as possible until the injured man cried out for respite. They would pause until the Servant of Gow was nearly upon them, and then they would retreat at the best speed they were able. They repeated this all the way down the mountain, their rest period getting shorter each time. As dawn broke they reached the mouth of the ravine where the stream they had been following crashed into the canyon wall and turned. It crossed the ravine, cutting off their path.
Elton and Sala were dragging Urtose along when they reached the small river. The tireless statue was drawing near again. Their progress had been slowed greatly by their near exhaustion. Elton was relieved to see that the stone bridge he had laid the previous morning was still in place.
“Sala, go across now! I’ll handle Urtose,” Elton barked.
Sala gingerly walked across the narrow span, nearly losing her balance twice, when the makeshift bridge shifted. Reaching the end, she leaped lightly ashore.
The mason ducked under Urtose’s arm, and then stood straight, draping the man on his back. The idiot’s body weighing him down, he started to carefully cross the makeshift causeway. As he reached the middle, the bridge began to sag and buckle. He could hear the underside cracking and dropping stones splashing into the water below. The mason tried to dash the remainder of the way across before the stone slab broke, but he was not quick enough. Elton was nearly to the other side when the span broke in the center, dumping him and Urtose in the icy water.
The mason heard Sala’s scream as he plunged into the stream. He couldn’t help crying out from the cold smashing into his body like a great hammer blow. He was barely able to keep his grip on the unconscious Urtose as the fast rushing water carried the pair several yards downstream. Sala dove forward on the stream bank and extended her arm out to the river. Elton grabbed her by the wrist and she grunted as his progress downstream was halted with a jerk. He could see the agony in her face, but she held on to them against the power of the stiff current. Elton pulled himself along her arm until he could switch his grasp to a tree root jutting from the bank.
Sala struggled to her feet and helped Elton pull himself out of the water. Together they were able to drag Urtose ashore. Elton could only lie gasping. The cold had numbed his limbs and sapped the energy from his body. He was able to rest for a few menes before the giant reached the far shore.
“Maybe the stream will stop it,” the mason rasped. “It will have to go find a ford to cross.”
“No,” said Sala bitterly. “It was able to wade though when it brought me here.”
“Ol’s piss,” Elton groaned. “I don’t think I can go much further. I’m afraid we’re not going to escape.” He didn’t want to admit his despair after coming all this way, but he was out of ideas, out of allies, and too tired to continue.
Anger and frustration painted Sala’s face, and her hands were balled up into fists. “No, I think there may be a way.” She reached into her clothes and pulled out a whitish object, a little bigger than her fist. She showed the pallid orb to Elton, who noted that it was a fine example of opal.
“An opal?” he asked. “How can this help us?”
“That monk told me a story. He had said that Gow used a Moon-Jewel to destroy the goddess of the sea. Maybe it has some power,” she said.
“How can a simple opal destroy a god?” he asked. “It can’t be anything more than a legend.”
“And how can a stone monster hunt us? How can a beast-man sacrifice his life for us? It’s our last hope.”
She had a point, Elton realized. He had seen so many impossible things already this sennight. Maybe this would fall in his favor too.
Elton tried to stand, but couldn’t get his numb legs to obey his will. He looked up at Sala and saw her staring defiantly at the charging statue.
“Curse you Gow, curse you Amante, Zaladris! Curse you all!” she roared. The baker’s daughter reared back and hurled the milky orb with all her might. The jewel arced over the water and hit the Servant of Gow square in the chest. The Moon-Jewel rebounded from the Servant’s torso and fell harmlessly into the stream. The statue paused briefly, as if it were puzzled, then stepped forward, returning to its relentless pursuit.
“Cahleyna preserve!” Sala cried in anguish. She stood helplessly, staring at the statue. Then she pointed at the water. “Elton, look!”
Elton looked where she was pointing. About where the orb had sunk into the water, a silvery glow was appearing.
The statue stepped into the stream, directly upon the glowing spot. It rested its weight on that foot and swung the other forward. It stopped in place, looking down where it was standing. The water roiled and bubbled around the statue and steam rose, obscuring it from view.
From his vantage point on the far shore, Elton could see the Servant of Gow become enveloped in mist. The Servant looked as if it were struggling to get free when it was pulled straight down beneath the surface of the water and was replaced by large jet of steam.
For a mene, all was quiet, and then where the statue had disappeared, a whirlpool formed, and it grew. It spread until it reached the shore, which collapsed into a sinkhole. It was a growing sinkhole. The ground shook, and portions of the ravine broke apart. The crashing of falling boulders echoed through the ravine.
His body feeling as if it were being pricked by thousands of needles, the mason forced himself to move. “I don’t like the looks of this. Best we get as far away as we can.” With Sala’s concurrence, they took the unconscious Urtose’s arms, and dragged him away from the growing hole.
Some menes later, the ground beneath them had calmed, and the forest was quiet once more. Elton and Sala sat enjoying a quiet embrace, their legs dangling into the huge lopsided crater that had appeared where the Servant of Gow had met its end. On the high side, a long stone’s throw away, the rushing stream had become a waterfall, its mist forming a pale rainbow under the light of the early morning sun.
“I think it is ended,” Elton sighed.
Sala leaned her head against her beloved’s shoulder. “The old man spoke of a curse. What do you suppose will happen?”
“Happen?” he answered, “Very little I think. Curses are tales for children. Nothing more.”
Her gaze met his. “Like walking statues, wizards, and jewels that make giant holes?”
Elton looked away for a few menes, lost in thought. “Let’s go home. I think it’s best not to mention all this to the others. There’s no need for the village to think us mad.”
In a cave, on a mountain, far away from human settlement, a strange idol closed it mouth. A rat in the cave feeding on a grasshopper might have noted a malignant glare in the idol’s eyes, were rats concerned with such things. Rather it chewed obliviously on its meal. Above it a stalactite that had been held fast in the rocky ceiling for a millennium fell loose and plummeted to the floor. The rodent died under the crushing stone, the first victim of the now unbound curse of the black idol.
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