The Seven Jewels

by Rev. Joe Kelly
read from the beginning

part nine.

An indeterminate period of confusion washed over Luo. It might have been a moment or a millennium. There was no sense of space or time, only confused images, jumbled sensations of paradise, as though fragments of another’s dream intruded upon him.

Gradually, the images, and his thoughts, resolved into a gorgeous room of silken upholstery and hangings, all, it seemed to Luo, a vibrant blood red. Or were they deep indigo, or delicate mauve? Curious… he could not tell. All he cared about was that she was there.

He was moved to tears by the sight of her face. As beautiful as he remembered her… moreso, even. Her hand moved across his bare chest, her eyes glowing with adoration. She was alive again.

No. She was dead.

Luo’s mind resisted its own cynicism a moment. She must have returned, by the grace of Tengri… but Tengri was as false as all the other Gods. The demon had told him so.

But could the demon not have lied?

No. He had woven the spell too tightly.

But surely, some force had returned her to him–

NO! No, she was dead–and the comforting thoughts, the sweet, warm lies, even the face of his beloved–they did not come from him, but from an intruder into his mind!

Luo began to jerk awake; the phantasm of the dream shimmered, grew indistinct. It clung to him like a spiderweb sticking to his flesh. It tried desperately to draw him back down into its warmth like the hot, sucking mud of a bog. Luo fought. He struggled. In his frazzled and spell-addled mind he summoned all his Kan mesmeric powers, and he fought, fought, as a man swimming to the top of a deep and freezing lake.

And as the vision disintegrated and collapsed, he broke through.

The hand that caressed his flesh was drawing symbols on his body. It belonged to a handsome, curly-haired youth with healthy bronzed skin, whose onyx eyes were as deep and empty as the Outer Dark. The air was heavy with the smell of frankincense and musk; scented oils dripped from the youth’s locks. The light all around was an eerie rosy-golden.

The youth was chanting, but his voice did not belong to a healthy young man: it was deep, bassy and hoarse, heavy with ancient blasphemy and cynical evil and death. He led the chant, and others around him responded, in a mysterious, droning tongue that seemed thick with the very centuries.

The youth moved to paint Luo’s face, and halted. Recognition and alarm flickered in his eyes–the sacrifice was awake!

Luo drove a big fist into the youth’s jaw and sent him flying.

He leaped from the altar that he and Alruf lay upon even as the boy rolled nimbly to his feet. Other youths, men and women, stared at him incredulously a moment. Luo’s scalp braid whirled about him as he looked for a weapon. His sword–it lay in a corner. He dove and grabbed it as he rolled back on his feet.

As he came up he heard a hideous, gurgling growl rumble from the youths, men as well as women, a sound that was as grotesquely rotten and batrachian as their ugly god. The young man he had hit snarled at him. He should have been missing several teeth, as hard as Luo punched him, but they remained perfect pearly whites.

The boy drew a jeweled bronze dagger with a rapier-thin blade and gurgled, “Die, worm.” As one the others drew their own narrow bronze daggers and advanced on Luo.

The big northerner charged the leader, and avoiding a clumsy thrust from the dagger, he slashed his arm clean off. Luo blanched: no blood came from the stump. There was only corpse dust beneath the skin; a film of the stuff stuck to his sword.

Luo swung for his head, and the youth ducked, grabbing his arm as he did. He backed off from Luo, and the northerner followed–and halted in dismay as the youth calmly replaced his arm. He wielded the dagger as if nothing had happened.

The others were closing ranks about them. Fighting down his rising panic, Luo charged the leader of the group again, and again avoided his awkward stab to whip his sword through the youth’s neck. The head rolled off, but the body did not fall.

“Shit!” Luo danced through the slow-moving ranks, nimbly avoided the clumsy thrusts. The leader had picked his head up and he now calmly replaced it as if he was putting on a fallen helmet.

From the altar, Alruf, the damn fool, was groaning. “What… where am I?”

Luo hollered at him, “Get up, you damned fool! Get up and fight–it’s our lives or theirs!” With an explosive leap he charged through the ranks as they closed again, slashing through one man’s torso with what should have been a disemboweling blow. Fine raiments hung ruined from his body, but the hole in his clothes revealed not so much as a scratch on his smooth skin.

Alruf, finally awake, rolled from the altar and dashed to grab his backsword. He halted with the blade in hand, and stared in awe and horror as Luo sliced off two men’s arms, watched as the bloodless limbs fell to the floor still gripping their thin blades of jeweled bronze, and the arm’s owners calmly bent over to pick them back up. And the rest came inexorably on, even as Luo leaped through their ranks yet again in his desperate attempt to disorient them.

The northerner howled with frustration and rising panic. “Grab a torch–anything that burns! Maybe we can burn these corpse-men!”

Several of the undead monsters chuckled ominously. Alruf shook his head as Luo joined his side. “I don’t think that’s going to work! These damned things are protected by some kind of spell!”

Some kind of spell–damn him, he should have guessed! The light in the chamber was being reflected off the mirror. The mirror that must face the sun. Would these things go back to sleep when it passed?

To hell with that–there was a simpler solution. Luo whirled about, and whipped his sword into the mirror.

The undead youths had a moment to scream in horror before the glass burst. Their youthful visages flickered and vanished, and the living corpses fell to their knees, rolled onto the floor, twisting and contorting in agony. They were still alive, though not for long. Their bodies rapidly crumbled and disintegrated, their raiments rotted away, even as their desiccated faces twisted in pain, their mouths gaped in silent screams, as the countless centuries caught up with them all at once. Within moments only dust and crumbling bones lay upon the floor.

Alruf eyed the piles of dust with disgust as Luo gingerly retrieved his sword from the shards of glass. He found the sack of jewels, as well; they had been left next to the idol. Luo chuckled as he shook them about in the sack. The power, unfortunately, had been in the mirror; no thrill tinged his blood as he held them. But such gigantic gems would fetch a great price, magic or no.

Suddenly, Alruf burst into loud, bellowing laughter. Luo looked at him in confusion. The Wose answered his puzzlement with a grin: “The dreams of fools! They sought to defy death–but no man can defy his destiny! No man can cheat the Rota Fortunae!” He turned to the piles of dust. “Thus, the fools’ end. Shadows and dust.”

“Oh, shut up.”

It was Alruf’s turn to look puzzled.

Luo walked up to him as he spoke. “I’m tired of listening to your pompous talk. I’m tired of your street beggar’s philosophizing.” He halted before the big Wose; as big as Alruf was, as big as he tried to make himself as Luo stood before him, he could not match the northerner in size or stature.

Luo nodded. “You want to fight? Let’s be done with it. I’m done listening to you.”

Alruf snarled, “Fine.” He stepped backwards, keeping both eyes on Luo as he grabbed his saddlebag filled with gold and swung it heavily over his shoulder. “I’m tired of listening to you myself. Let’s–”

A very loud and alarming crack interrupted him. Both men looked up to see the dust falling from the cracks that were spreading and splitting all through the ceiling.

They looked at each other in horror, and turned and raced for the exit as the deafening cracking was followed by an even more ominous grating rumble.

Luo bounded through the rear chamber, sprinted past the giant, grotesque idol, as the rumble became a crashing boom. He leaped through the front gate as the whole of the temple collapsed about him, as giant and ancient pillars fell with explosions that rang his ears and shook his guts.

He and Alruf halted for a moment, panting, just long enough to see, to their horror, that the whole of the ancient edifice was collapsing as well.

Both men turned again and ran in a blind panic as the whole side of the butte sloughed off and poured down towards them as a gigantic avalanche of boulders and dust. The roar of smashing rock filled Luo’s ears as he charged through the ancient city, as he felt the crushing death tickling his back as it buried the pitiful remains of the city beneath a final carpet of dead rock. Chancing a glance back, he saw a cursing Alruf far behind him, rocks falling and rolling all around the Wose. Luo cackled, despite the terror: the fool had been weighed down by his gold, even as Luo escaped with a far greater fortune.

And then a rolling cloud of dust and debris enveloped him, and Luo could see no more until, legs pounding, lungs choked with the dust, he sprang up the ruined walls and leaped off the top. Behind him, at last, the avalanche rolled to a halt.

Panting and sweating, Luo wiped the sticky dust from his forehead and looked around. Alruf was nowhere to be seen. He lay somewhere beneath several tons of rock, buried with the gold that he had stupidly clung to.

Luo chuckled. And Alruf had called him a fool.

A snorting off in the distance attracted his attention. His mare was walking towards him. Her ears were back; she was still spooked by the avalanche. But she had returned to him with the dogged loyalty of a Kan mare. He rubbed her snout appreciatively, cooed thanks to her for not running off, and mounted her, swung her in the general direction of Amul and set her to a trot. As he rode, he fingered the jewels in their sack and grinned to himself. Not a bad outcome, all in all.

on to part ten.

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