by The Digital Mage (7 Dec 94)
The leather bites deeply into the flesh of my hands as I grasp the reigns with a fierce hold. I know not how to ride and the beast I sit upon must sense it. My thighs press tightly upon the flanks of the horse and my arms are locked tight into my chest, I am buffeted up and down with every stride of my mount, my stiff frame not able to maintain contact with the saddle.
I raise my head, my vision is narrowed, my eyes as slits to protect them. The cold mountain wind blows harshly against my cheeks, I feel the chill penetrate beneath the upper surface of my skin, no protection from the elements tonight. I see the dark vague shape of the rider in front, silhouetted they are one -my Sire has command of _his_ steed, Yes?
No sound can be heard above the howlings of the gale, the hoof falls of the horses only occasionally reaching my ears -and then only as if distant, far away. But the gale, oh the gale roars with a voice tonight, a vicious taunting vocal of maliciousness. The calls, the cries, unable to hear all, just half caught sounds escaping the lips of the dead; however the tone is unmistakable, as if spat from the mouth like a vile poison wishing the listener ill. As if in hateful frustration and joyful relief following their release from the silence, the Banes shriek louder and more spiteful evils in my mind.
I find my eyes shut closed, my face contorted in a silent scream, and a crimson veil seeps over my sight as I begin to weep. A maelstrom in my mind, of sounds that deafen me, deafen even my own thoughts so that no escape can be sought. I release a cry of anguish from my jaws, but the sound is lost amidst the storm. I fall into a whimpering, and as if in mocking, the wind dies down so that I may witness the pitiful moanings that gain release from my cracked lips.
The black mare beneath me seethes with a power that verges on the unnatural, its strength is lent to it by my Sire, channeled to it in the medium of my Sire's blood, instilling in it loyalty to him as well as the potence of a kindred's vitae. It follows on in the wake of Zahib with greater discipline than even the greatest trained mortal animal, follows to the site where I must undergo whatever condition my Sire has set for my acceptance back among the ranks of the Assamites. The council of three, the triumverite -amongst them my Sire- have agreed this as an acceptable penalty for my transgressions. If I am to truly reclaim my heritage then I must see this through as I saw through the test of loyalty, the test of skill, and the test of mercy. I still bear the scars from those tests -can this be any worse?
My mount falters forward as it begins the last descent of the mountain side, but amidst my inner turmoil I have ceased concern over my physical safety and my body is relaxed, instinctively I lean back into the saddle and retain my seating. We have ridden since nightfall, fast and furious so as to arrive at wherever we are destined for, in time for the "condition" to be imposed before the dawn. We now fall upon level ground and our speed gathers still further.
The Banes return to their screamings as the first crack of thunder reaches my ears.
Evil. Unclean. Foulness that you are, scarred, no family -a silly fools dream. You are kindred, dead to the mortals. They are the kine, your cattle to feed upon as you will, to slaughter. You have no sister, no lover, no parents. They were torn from you when Zahib passed his poison into you. You are a killer the Beast has overtaken you, pretend to be in control -you are in the Abyss never to escape. Your victims will haunt you one day, as we do now. Remember the suffering, the screams, the lives taken, the children, the babies; your doing, your doing, your doing, your doing....
My face is scarlet, a masque of blooden tears. I sit hunched in my saddle, once more crying over the words of the Banes and the truths that they speak. I wish more than ever now that I had brought the spirit doll, the ward against the Banes, the gift from my past, the new found comforter. But it is left in Alamut with Kahl and I suffer the memories of my atrosities, with no shield to hide behind -it breaks my so fragile resolve.
It is now that we arrive.
I find the mare has drawn to a halt, looking up I see Zahib begin to dismount. Through the redden haze which clouds my vision I look around. The ground around is of stone and rock,devoid of any plant life be it shrub or tree. Cliff walls rise up around us offering seclusion, and no easy route of escape, Yes? A light covering of snow clings to the outcroppings of rock. A barren wasteland, devoid of life -even our own.
The all too familiar tones of Zahib's voice carry to my senses. A grating sound like a blade being drawn across a stone, it delivers with it a feeling which forces a shudder to spasm through my body; and something more, something beyond the words or even the sounds, an intangible something, undescribable in nature, which awakens an even deeper dread within me -an ominous....knowing.
"Come Ashtaroth, dismount and follow."
Once the words have been spoken, Zahib steps into the shadow of the cliff walls, deeper into the recesses of the ravine, his crooked ebony finger curls inward beckoning me on. I hesitate, my mind full of concerns, fears, suspicions and the dread. Yet I have no choice, I dismount and tread in the footsteps of my Sire.
Two, three then four steps and I am within total darkness, the moon unable to seep between the walls of the cave. I see two redden orbs staring from the darkness, and as if in reply to an unspoken command I urge the Gleam of the Red Eye to come upon me. A mist passes over my vision then clears, and I see the distinct contours of the cavern's walls, tinged with a crimson hue. And I see my Sire staring back at me.
Once more he beckons me on, and as I did so many times in the past I follow on, blindly obeying his command -is it through fear? I hear only silence except the crunch of loose gravel under the sole of my shoe. The only sight I share is that of the back of my Sire, and on the periphery of my vision the stone walls. I breath deeply, inhaling the aroma of this place. My mouth turns down in a the beginnings of a grimace; there is a dampness here, like smell of freshly dug earth, and a mustiness of stale air.
Then I am disturbed, shaken from my olfactory exploration by the sound of something slithering nearby. I halt, and realise also that my Sire has already done so. I hear the grating tones of Zahib once more, but he does not turn around to address me, and by his words I realise his message is directed to another -as yet unseen by me.
"We are here. You know of your payment, you have a task to perform -we should waste no time."
The reply could be said to be of words, but my only perception of it is as a hiss, one long exhalation rasping between half opened lips.
"I know of my payment, where is the boy?"
In answer to the question, Zahib steps aside and I see the figure. A male, short of stature and aged in years. His skin is swarthy and wrinkled. A simple robe of dark brown adorns his body, his hands lost in the sleeve of the opposite arm. And from beneath his heavy brow stare his eyes...his eyes, unable to look away, they hold something within them, a knowledge of old, a lore of great power. His eyes, captivating, entrancing almost; and as the realisation dawns upon he speaks.
"Hmmmm, as you say Zahib we must make haste, no?"
As if replaying the scene that passed only moments earlier, he too turns and beckons us to follow deeper into the darkness. I trail on behind Zahib, my Sire.
Although we head still further into the cave, I sense that we are ascending also. The walls around us now force us to crouch slightly as we proceed. I know not how the stranger sees as I perceive no glow emanating from the sockets of his eyes -but then I do not look on too intently, for fear of entrancement.
The silence gives way to a low rumbling, at first I am unsure as to its origins but then the passage grows lighter -imperceptably to most- but definitely lighter. And as the rumbling grows louder, so the passage becomes more illuminated, and so teh more we ascend. Finally I see the pale blue opening from the tunnel, with a few more steps I stand once more under the open sky. The storm clouds growl like the belly of a hungry god. We stand aloft the cliff walls high above the plain. The rock here is smooth, flat all except a single boulder, irregular in shape, and about two yards in diameter. A rope lies at its base, coiled like a....mmph, I smile at my own metaphor....like a snake, Yes?
I turn to my Sire and then to the Setite who motions me to approach the rock. I do so after a moments pause. I revolve to turn my attention once more upon my Sire. I find a blade in his hand, and it drips with the blood of his wrist. No, he cannot mean to kill me here surely? The elders would not allow it; but then who is to stop Zahib to tell any story he liked to justify his slaying of me? I step backwards slowly but find my retreat blocked by the boulder. Zahib steps towards me and I recoil back against the rock, my back and arms plastered to its rough contours. Zahib smiles at the effect upon me.
"You have no need to worry Ashtaroth, I do not intend to give you the final death. This is merely to quieten your protests, and from the scar which travels from your neck to your heart, you realise the wounds will score as deep upon you as upon any mortal."
I feel my left wrist grabbed and I look sharply round to see the Setite ready to bind my arm. Before I can pull back my limb I meet his gaze and am lost. I feel my other arm taken but I cannot pull myself from the stare of the Setite. Within seconds I find myself pinned to the boulder, my back arched my chest thrust forward -vulnerable to even the simplest attack. But one does not come. My Sire steps back and speaks,
"Proceed with your magicks, snake."
The Setite once more meets my gaze, and I am unable to resist. He lowers his head and his eyes almost disappear beneath his brow. A hissing begins to emit from his mouth, a sound that seems to rise from the very pit of his belly to spew forth into the cold night air. The hissing begins to take form and evolves into a chanting. The words are alien to me, he speaks in a different tongue.
As if in response to the growing volume of the Setite's oration the thunder grows louder also. It seems to fall in rhythm with the words, punctuating the sentances. His right hand rises, his sleeve falls away to reveal a hand with fingers which seem to sprout forth talons, the nails grown long and cut to sharp points. His fingers curl around the neck of my own robe and with a swift pull down rips it so that my upper body is left naked. He releases the torn fabric and places the tips of his fingers upon my body.
I feel the five digits press sharply against the left side of my chest. Like knives they press against the skin. A change of tone in the Setites voice and his hand sharply revolves, I look down to see the red scratches form a circle upon my darkly tanned pectoral. The chanting begins building to a crescendo, and as it does so lightning arcs across the sky with the accompanying roar of thunder.
The skin is pierced with a violent thrust forward, I let forth a scream which reverberates through my entire body and echoes in the sky. My body flinches from the pain and my arms rasp across the rough stone causing the skin to be torn away.
And five rivers of red begin to wind their way down the valleys of my torso.
My body on fire, more than just the pain from the Setite's nails. I feel a fire spread through my body, a creeping agony that wracks my body. The chanting quickens in pace and the hand revolves back scoring deeper into my skin.
Another cry escapes from my mouth, as the pain sears through my body.
The wind picks up now swirling around us, howling shrill and long. And the chorus grows stronger. I throw my head from side to side, my face screwed up tight, desperately trying to free myself from the hurting.
The nails bite deeper.
I hear them now. The Banes call out too. An overlapping repetition of curses, insults, tauntings, and temptations that whirl around in my head as the storm does outside of my body. My hair blown back, the blood spreading faster across my body, my head raised to the heavens and the sky alight with fire.
An agony so exquisitely painful my screams can be heard above all, above the thunder, above the wind, above the rantings of the Banes, and above the chantings of the Setite.
And then he touches my heart. As if in shock my mouth ceases its screaming and I look down unbelieving. A look of panic, of uncomprehending spreads across my features. I feel his hand inside me, I feel his fingers press forward and close around my heart. I feel his knuckles press out against the inside of my chest, and I feel too his palm caressing the organ which is my heart.
Slowly, he begins twisting his fist tearing my heart from its moorings in my body. My chest rises and falls rapidly, my breaths come fast even though I have no need for them. Now I feel the Setite begin to withdraw his hand. The sounds of the elements now deafen me and I shake my head with disbelief, staring at the bloodied arm of the Setite. I see now the fist pulled from my torso, I see the piece of flesh that is my heart lying within. And as if in triumph the Setite holds it aloft.
The report of the thunder is the last sound I hear before I fall unconscious.