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Siege Machine

September 9, 2017




The sand was a dry, scorching ocean beneath him. The blanket upon which he lay did little to diminish its heat and the sun above seemed to push him down into the dunes with its weight. He could not move to relieve his discomfort for the caravan approached. At this distance it was unlikely he would be noticed but amongst the complete stillness of the desert any movement was like a scream amongst silence.

Through narrowed eyes he watched it come out of the heat haze, it shimmering outline growing more distinct like a stone under settling water. At its head and rear were camels upon which sat two of the Shah’s private guard. Their scimitars shone like polished mirrors. Between them the wagon moved like a beetle crawling across the sands, dragged onwards by two more camels. Three soldiers with pikes clung  to its the wooden sides of the wagon, their heads flicking this way and that like nervous atrium birds.

He looked from the caravan to its destination that lay half a kilometer ahead of the procession. A small, sandstone building at the end of a deep valley of sand dunes. A single doorway was cut into its front and the shadow inside was as deep as any for miles. Watching it from his stark and burning position it held a grim temptation. In another place it could have been inconspicuous, blending in with the desert sand. But here in the depths of such sparse, uninhabitable geography, so far from anything approximating life, its mere existence was pregnant with menace. Man is a guilty cur and in isolation he commits his foulest act and no place could be more remote from witness than this parched wasteland.

The caravan was drawing near now and Siba, perceiving that the soldiers’ attention would now be fully on the building, allowed himself to shift his position. The hot fibres of the blanket seemed to be embedded in his skin. He tensed his aching muscles without taking his eyes from the caravan.

It happened all at once. A scream cut clean through the baking air and a pale figured flitted over the brow of a dune and skimmed down its face. Siba froze, his mind in a whirlwind trying to piece together sensation and relate it to his own actions.

The scream had come from the wagon. From inside the wagon The soldiers were not aroused and continued their anxious but controlled vigil. The girl. Perhaps she had been drugged, the perfume of some noxious black lotus or seed only now releasing her. Perhaps her blindfold had slipped and she now saw the grim reality of her destination. Perhaps she cried out to Gods that dare not enter these wastes. No matter. Her screams were swallowed by the stifling air.

The figure that still careered unseen down the dunes had not made this noise, Siba knew. In fact this figure made no noise whatever. Its position was such that, even if the soldiers had looked in the exact direction, their vision would have been ruined by the glare of the sun. As it reached the midway point between the ridge of the dune and where it levelled off the figure threw itself to the ground and, in a flash of sunlight, seemed to disappear. As his vision settled Siba recognized the trick that had been played. The figure had pulled across itself a cloth. The same colour as the desert sand, it was even shaded and detailed in such a way as to blend in with its situation. He smiled nervously. A fox could be no less cunning.

The caravan had drawn to a stop now and Siba watched the elite guard dismount and approach the wagon. The soldiers hopped down from the sides and, joined by the driver, formed a loose perimeter. One of the guards disappeared inside the wagon and the girl appeared moments later, pushed through the flap in the canvas. She stumbled in the sand, a beautiful, brown figure. Her garments were almost sheer and her hair hung down to the small of her back. As she regained her footing she looked in turn to the guard who stood before her, the one behind and each of the soldiers who, ignoring her whimpering, scanned the various horizons before their posts. And she bolted.

Siba’s heart was heavy in his chest. The girl’s feet pounded at the shifting sand and her arms flailed. The guards did not even move, at first. She fell and picked herself up again. Her light clothes were sliding from her smooth figure. It was a tragedy. Like prey, split from the herd and singled out by the pack, there was something of the desperate jerks and turns that an animal in flight will make to buy itself mere seconds of life as the predator snaps at its heels. Circles drawing ever tighter until death.

She was heading toward the sun. Siba wondered whether this had any significance. That in an empty expanse she chose to race towards the only expression of life that did not threaten her. He realized that, given long enough leave, she would collide with the figure lay sprawled and hidden on the dunes. In time one of the guards went after her in long strides, barely jogging. Her screams reached a crescendo as he closed and, when he came upon her, tumbling amongst the waves of sand and trying to scramble to her feet, he lifted her with one hand and, with the other, struck her full in the face with the pommel of his sabre. She fell to her knees, his hand still wound into her hair. One of the soldiers spat into the ground. The guard guided her, quietly sobbing, back to the caravan.

The other guard took her free arm and the three headed towards the low building. Even the guards, the Shah’s coldest, battle-hardened acolytes, stepped slowly towards it. They were here to deliver the girl, their return was not guaranteed if things went wrong. They would each have left instruction with their eldest sons and been bathed and anointed for final passage by the Shah’s sorcerers in case of accident. If their wives, their comrades, their Shah even, could have looked into their faces as they walked in solemn silence these people would perhaps not have recognized them. There would have been a cast in the eye that none would ever have seen there before. The dew of sheer terror.


The unassuming building was like the head of a snake, peering above the sands. A venom filled pit. It was no traders rest or blighted farm house or any of the other things that it appeared to be. It was the entrance to a stepped pyramid that slithered down into the bowels of the dunes. Swallowed by the sands for as long as folk memory was retained, its architects were forgotten. Whatever it may have been once, temple, tomb or cache, now it belonged to the Shah. Siba did not know whether the chill of evil that seemed to fill the air at its mention emanated from some elemental force from its past or the mundane and earthly cruelty that lived in it now.

The girl fell to her knees before it.  The moan that escaped her was like that of a jackal dying in a trap. Blood ran down her nose and fell onto her lip. The guards hauled her to her feet and dragged her into the shadow.

Siba narrowed his eyes and looked at the three soldiers and the driver who stood in the valley below. He looked to where the figure hid on the dune opposite. His plan had always been to allow the caravan to leave and to follow the girl into the depths, but now… If only he could know for sure the intentions of this new element. He himself was a formidable fighter, with a fair wind even the three soldiers could perhaps be slain. But the elite guard presented a greater challenge. He would never think to tackle them alone. These were men who could drive back whole legions if they could get their back to a wall. If he had the strangers aid though…. No novice would follow into a damned place such as this. The sooner he could get to the girl the more of her there might be to bring back to the village.

The figure on the opposite dune moved. Pulling back the cloth that had covered him he raised himself to a crouch. Siba looked to the soldiers below. One of them had discovered a black snake sliding its way towards the group and called out. They were surrounding the creature and jabbing at it with their pikes whilst the wagon driver stood on and watched. Siba wondered how, from his hiding place, the figure had seen to know that the watch’s attention was turned. Now the figure wound down the dune with the same lethal grace as the black snake at its base and, like that creature, seemed to possess the ability to lay waste to these dull soldiers with a mere twitch of his will, if he so chose.

The soldiers were called to attention by the sound of clattering metal in the building. They edged away from the snake which ceased its rearing poise and slid off into the expanse of the desert. One of the elite guard was seen in the doorway, leaning heavily on the stone. One sabre was in his hand and another was hanging from the sash about his waist. The sound of it clattering and scraping on the sandstone rang in the hot, dead air. Siba looked to where the mysterious figure had been descending the dunes. It was gone. Scanning the area he found no sign of the sand being in anyway out of place to indicate the figure employing their ruse.

The remaining guard staggered out onto the sand. His clothes and hands were bloody and he limped as he walked. One of the soldiers came to try and steady him and the guard, with one hand, grabbed the man by the shirt front and threw him to the sand. Turning back to the building the guard drew the sabre that hung loose at his side. As he pulled it free blood slid from the metal and flew through the air in an arc. He stood, pointing his sword at the building. The driver of the wagon was an older man and he came, placed a gentle hand on his shoulder and whispered something in the guard’s ear. The guard pushed him aside and walked towards the building. The old man shouted something that Siba could not make out. Just short of the doorway the guard stopped, plunged the sabre into the sand and wrapped about its upright handle a sash that he drew from within his shirt. He yelled something into the shadow, spat violently into the sand and turned to walk away.

Siba watched the caravan disappear into the haze from which it had emerged. The now unmounted camel of the guard who had not returned from inside the pyramid loped along on a tether behind the wagon. The silence in the valley was like the coil of a snake; Siba felt his breath being drawn by its weight. The sash on the end of the sabre fluttered in a listless breeze. Slowly, Siba began to get to his feet and began to head down the dune.

He stopped as, amongst a pile of boulders in the valley floor, there was movement. Siba pulled his sword.

In a flurry, one of the boulders disappeared and in its place was a man. In one of the man’s hands was the head of a black snake, held by the neck. The rest of its body was coiled around his outstretched arm. In his other hand was a large cloth. Siba smirked; it was like the finale of some cheap conjuring trick that the “gurus” in the market would perform for coins.

The man lay the snake down on the sand and released it. It wound its way off in the direction that the caravan had headed. The man looked up to where Siba stood atop the dune.

“Idiots. If they had left the poor creature alone he would have quite ignored them. And perhaps he wouldn’t have come looking for shelter amongst the rocks” he said.

He flicked the cloth to dislodge the sand. Siba saw that, whilst it was patterned after the dunes on one side, it was patterned after the rocks on its reverse.

“Ingenious, isn’t it?” the man said observing Siba’s gaze. “So simple an idea. I procured it from an abandoned ziggurat many years ago. I’ve never seen anything like it since. It makes one wonder what other lost arts might be buried in all the ruins of the world, eh?”.

Siba did not respond. He looked to where the blur of colour that was the caravan could still just about be seen on the horizon.

“They won’t hear us at this range” said the figure, though he began to walk towards the bottom of the dune upon which SIba stood. Siba’s hand tensed on the hilt of his sword and the man stopped.

“I take it you’re here for the girl?” said the man.

“And you?” Siba replied.

“I’m not here for the girl” he said. And with that he turned and went to sit on the rocks. Siba came down the dune slowly his sword twitching imperceptibly in his hand. He was within 10 feet of the man who was rummaging through a knapsack that he carried.

Siba would not have been able to place his nationality. His skin was too pale and his hair too light to be from a desert land. He wore the local dress, though it was faded and drab. He wore a thick cloth tied about the bottom half of his face. It muffled his voice somewhat though he spoke the language with a perfectly affected accent. His eyes were keen and blue as apothecary glass. They stuck out of dark smears that Siba had at first taken to be dirt and grime but that he now saw was some kind of paint or pigment.

“Your name?” Siba said.

“Craid” replied the man.

“And if you’re not here for the girl, Craid”, Siba said, levelling his sword at the man, “then why are you here?”.

The man Craid pulled a dark snuff mixture from a small leather pouch and put a little to each nostril.

“You know what’s in there?” he asked.

“I’ve some idea”.

“Say it out loud”, said Craid, “It’ll make you feel better”.

“They say it is one of the Velgorkesh. A gift of their fleshwork from the tribal elder to the Shah. They say it has been in the dark so long its skin has turned as pale as a spider’s silk and that it it can follow a man in the pitch black by the stink of his fear”.

A shiver racked Craid’s shoulders as he took the snuff and he closed his eyes.

“I’d say that’s not far from the truth”, he said, at last. “Do you aim to kill the thing?”.

“They say it can’t die” Siba replied.

“Now that’s definitely not true”, said Craid, his eyes opening once more, “there’s nothing in this world that can’t die. No matter how twisted its flesh, it is still flesh. Always these things are only ever flesh”.

Siba looked to the shadow of the doorway.

“And yet you are still afraid?” he said.

Craid stood up from the rock.

“Who wouldn’t be? That things like that can exist and yet still die. What chance do any of us have?”.

He snorted laughter, rubbed the top half of his face and headed towards the doorway.

“Come on, SIba, we’ll kill the thing or choke on its blood. Isn’t that what brave warriors say before they go to choke on a things blood?”.

Siba watched Craid walk towards the entrance to the dank crypt. His arms, hanging loose at his side, were lithe but knotted with ropey muscle. All over they were patterned with a network of tiny scars like thorns in a briar. He walked as casually as a merchant amongst his wares. Siba thought he heard him chuckling to himself in the still desert air. Tightening his grip on his sword, he followed him. The sash that flew at the end of the sabre in the ground fluttered behind them.


The black air inside the tomb seemed to be settling as they stepped inside. It swam and wrapped around them like swathes of frayed cloth. There were black spots of blood in the sand by the doorway. The walls were plain and the floor bare. The stairway that began to wind down into the earth was almost impossible to see in the inky darkness.

Siba came up behind Craid as he was lifting two torches from his knapsack He laid them down in the sand and dowsed their linen bound heads in oil from a bottle. Taking flints from the bag he poured sparks onto the torches until they caught. Straightening up and handing one to Siba he said;

“We have about 1 hour of light. Don’t let it go out. It’ll be as black as the Pit down there”.

“How does the thing see, then?” asked Siba.

“I doubt that it does. The dark would have robbed it of its sight after all these years. The Velgorkesh might have opened the lenses of its eyes when it first went down to allow it to learn its labyrinth but that, in itself, would have left it blind in time.”

Siba spat in the sand. “They are godless animals”.

“No”, Craid muttered, heading towards the stair, “they are neither. No creature but a man with a God to please would do the things they do”.

“It is a devil that they worship, not a God. They are beasts howling at a moon” Siba scoffed.

Craid sighed, “You shouldn’t excuse a man his crimes by excusing him of this humanity, my friend. If you want to find a demon down there instead of a man then throw your sword away and remember your prayers”.

“They’re the glib words of a coward, if you ask me” Siba growled.

Craid knelt in the sand before the stairs. He pulled two knives from his bag and a bottle of a milky liquid.

“Stand back” he said.

He fastened the cloth about his nose and mouth tighter and, pointing their tips down, dowsed the knives with the liquid. Even from a distance the sharp smell of the stuff made Siba wince. Craid patted the knives down in the sand until he was happy none of the liquid could run down their blade. Putting on a leather glove he took some of the sand that had been soaked by the poison and stuffed it into a pouch which he put into his knapsack. The glove he pulled inside out by its rim and tossed into the darkness.  

He stood up and looked at Siba.

“What is the girl to you?”.

Siba weighed his sword in his hands and looked down at the floor.

“Nothing. The lover of a friend. He has sent me in his stead, against his will. The Shah must pay for what he has taken from us. Our people” he said

Craid’s eyes betrayed the smile that crept under his mask.

Nothing”, he said.

He turned and began to head down the stone steps.


The pyramid was a labyrinth of empty rooms and hollow passages. Widening here and tightening there they coiled deeper and deeper into the earth. The still air became rank as the torches burned away the sand particles that hung in the air. Craid led the way, following footprints and the marks of something being dragged that had been left imprinted in the sand on the stone floors. The flickering light from the torch’s flame disclosed the strange symbols that adorned the walls. As they threaded deeper into the pyramid these symbols became more numerous as they became more arcane.

Some of these Craid recognized as similar to the glyphs he had seen in alchemical texts though these were both more primitive and, yet, more suggestive. What had seemed like random shapes and lines on parchment were exposed, here, as the remnants and interpretations of much older and more suggestive forms. The acts and figures depicted were both cruelly recognizable and nightmarishly obscure as they danced in the light cast by the flames.

Siba pulled his light desert clothing about him.

“It is freezing in here” he complained.

“We’re about 300 feet down, I’d say” Craid advised, “A long way from the sun”.

“What could ever have lived in such a place? Even before it was buried”.

Craid looked back over his shoulder.

“Judging by what I can make of these writings, I don’t think very much lived down here for long. There doesn’t seem to be any names recorded, not even whomever had the place built. The only thing that gets repeated is something called the black wind”.

Siba let out a little moan.

“What was this place?” he whispered.

“I suspect the same thing it is now. A hoard. With some sick force inserted into it as guardian. Whatever the fashion was 1000 years ago”.

Craid stopped and chuckled. Holding up his torch to the lunatic scrawling on one of the walls, he directed Siba to read it.

“You see? You should make this one out, it’s near enough your tongue”.

Siba peered hesitantly into the light.

“Something about time or ages?” he ventured.

Craid’s bright eyes shone like a cat’s.

It will come again” he laughed.  


They found the guard at the end of the long room, his twisted body appearing out of the blackness like a phantom as the torch light fell upon it. It had been abandoned in a bloody heap at the top of a set of stairs that slunk down into the blackness. Siba tipped it over with his foot, searching for some sign of what weapon had been used. The face was a mess of battered, tormented skin and shards of bone. Siba got down on his haunches.

“There are no puncture wounds” he observed.

Craid did not reply.

“Craid, I said there are no puncture wounds” Siba repeated, turning his head.

Craid was stood quite still, his eyes looking down and away and his head slightly cocked.

“What is it?” Siba whispered.

Slowly, Craid began to pull one of his daggers from its scabbard.

The gruesome body let loose a wet, choking cough that echoed in the black chamber. Siba tumbled back in shock, his sword at his side and the flaming torch borne in front of him.

By Waad…” Siba spat, getting to his feet.

The figure on the floor writhed weakly. Twisting like a worm pinned into the flagstone it made noises that were of flesh but not of mind. Placing a foot on its chest to hold it, Craid bent over and thrust his knife into its neck again and again. He stepped away when the thing had stopped moving, flicking the blood off his knife where it spattered on the cold stone.

“They’re down one level”, he said, “I can hear the girl”.

“I need to know what you’re here for” Siba whispered.

Craid seemed to chew the idea over as he holstered his knife.

“There’s enough gold down there to sink a galleon”, he started.

“So you’re a thief?”.

“Of a sort. I’ve no interest in the gold though. And neither does the Shah. I’m here for what he’s hiding amongst it. And, of course, the gold my employer has promised for its retrieval”.

“And this treasure is?”.

“The Heart of Nammu”.

Sabu laughed. “Have you seen the “gold” he’s promised you? You might be risking your life for a bag of rooster feathers or whatever else his unsettled mind is telling him is a fortune.”

“He’s crazy all right. I rarely find myself working for the sane, I’m afraid. But not crazy in that way”. Craid replied.

“The Heart of Nammu? But it’s a tale?”.

“I thought so too”.

Siba looked into his keen eyes. They glittered like quartz in the torchlight.

“How did the Shah come to have it?”.

Craid looked to the dark stair heading down.

“They say an old man came to the Shah many years ago, at a time when he had only recently taken the throne. He claimed to be of his family. Of course imposter relatives are nothing of note for a monarch, especially in the days of his ascendency, but there must have been something in the old man as he was not run out, or worse, as most might have been. Perhaps it was the resemblance people said they could see, though the man looked more like one of the hill tribesmen than a member of the refined royal blood. The old man was taken in and bathed and dressed and allowed to feast with the new Shah. When he was pressed for the depth of their relation he could name numerous of the Shah’s kin, ancient and far reaching, but was evasive about where he belonged on the family tree.

The Shah was softer back then, not yet coarsened by the trials of rule. He allowed the old man, his purported relative, to live in the palace and by night the old man regaled him with a series of tales about the family’s illustrious past. The stories entertained the Shah, appealing to his vanity by way of his antecedents victories and great feats. In time, though, he grew weary of the old man’s recollections. Perhaps he suspected the old man was creating fables that would keep him his place amongst royal comfort? A vain man’s ego is as thin as a starving dog, twice as hungry and just as unpredictable. The shah made a pointed question of just how the two, so subtly similar and yet so far apart, were related. The point, I believe, was at the end of one the elite guards spears at the old man’s throat. The man made his confession. His relation to the young Shah was quite direct, in its way. He was his great, great, great, great grandfather he claimed. Now, on the pain of death, the Shah demanded that no more games be played. How could a man live who could claim such antique lineage? And in answer the old man opened the fine silken garments that the Shah had bestowed on him in exchange for his reflections and histories. Embedded in the pale and dusty skin, above where the man’s true lifeblood once beat, was the Heart of Nammu. As black and cold as a desert sky”.

Siba’s mouth hung slightly open and his brow was knit tight. His eyes were wet in the torchlight.

“Where did the old man find it?” he asked.

“He told the Shah, his purported descendent, that the stone had been found in a cave in their ancestral hills. For, though a great man of his own kind at one time, the old man had not lived in a palace surrounded by servants as the Shah did, but had been the chieftain of a large village. In the cave they had found a hermit sheltering. He had no food. No water but that which ran down the cold rocks. His body was like a corpse animated and yet he still lived. The cave walls were adorned with strange patterns and symbols marked in blood and soot. Crude paintings of beasts, structures and figures that the men did not recognize. And all the time the hermit, though robbed by time of sight and language, clutched his bitter heart with jealousy”.

“So how did the old man, the Shah’s relative, find himself under the spell of the Heart?” pressed Siba.

“Who knows”, Craid said, his voice losing some of it’s muffled portent, “envy, weakness or curiosity? No matter”.

“And yet the Shah has taken it upon himself to bury it amongst a ruin from which it might never escape?” Siba asked.

“The Shah is yet young, or perhaps only not so old. He sees the terrible cost that the jewel effects on a body in exchange for its powers. Perhaps he imagines a future where he might be tempted to touch it to the bare skin of his chest. Or, even, he has planned for the same and wants to ensure that no-one else can avail themselves of its gift before he can”.

“And the old man? The Shah’s relative? What became of him when they relieved him of the jewel” Siba asked.

Craid bent down and scooped a handful of stray sand from off of the flags. Standing up he let it fall through his spread fingers.  

“And your employer wants this for himself?” Siba said, a look of disgust on his face.

It will come again” Craid replied.


The steps that lead down to the lowest level of the pyramid were longer than any that Craid and Siba had yet descended. The air on the higher levels was musty and stale but, as they went further below, it became tinged with a wet, earthy miasma that turned the stomach of them both. The walls were tight on the stair and they passed down in single file. They had left one of the torches still burning and wedged into a crack in the stones above. Craid had proposed that, though probably blind from years in the darkness, what they were facing could still be sensitive, perhaps especially so, to the light of the torches. Perhaps even to their heat. Siba followed at a distance and with a light step after the faint light that Craid held up ahead.

The silence was as choking as the darkness but, as they grew closer, a whimpering sound began to weave through it. Siba took it for the girl and his heart twisted like an insect caught out of the shade and scorched by the midday sun. Amongst the blackness, nightmare images rushed in to fill the void left in his mind. As they drew closer the sound became clearer. It was not the girl at all. The pathetic whimpering was more like a wounded animal. It could only have one source.

As they reached the bottom of the stair Craid crouched down on the sand floor of the pyramid’s lowest level. He held out a hand to slow Siba as he came close. Siba crouched down next to him as Craid put a finger to his own lips and directed Siba to look with a twist of his head.

Siba watched a monument of tormented flesh, as white as a fish’s belly, bent over an altar in the middle of the vast chamber and weeping like a child. The sound it made was inhuman. The form that it issued from was vast, its shoulders were like a plateu of muscle, it’s legs like the trunks of a cedar. But, around its middle, it was starved. The skin sagged and the curve of its ribs could be seen poking through. Siba looked to Craid who mouthed “The Heart” and gestured towards his own stomach. A look of disgust swept over Siba’s face. The gem could substitute the energy in a man’s stomach as well as the blood and movement of his heart. And where better for the Shah to hide his family’s grim token? Its guardian could not have it snatched from under its lusterless eyes by the wily. One would have to confront and overcome the tragic creature to obtain The Heart. And it would sustain the pitiable thing until its heart gave out down here in the dark. No food, no water would be necessary. He could spare his men from having to descend into the stone abyss for the most part. It would only need one thing. For, though racked in the flesh by its tribes strange arts and the work of the stone it had still, once, been a man.

Craid passed the torch to Siba and began to slink towards the outer reaches of its light and towards the figure at the altar. Despite his best guess, the Velgorkesh did not seem to recognize the light of the torch, though it fell on the thing. Siba watched Craid walk in a crouch. He moved like a spider in the gloom, silent and swift as a plague. Siba’s breath was caught as he watched Craid close the distance to the creature which still wailed and sobbed at the altar.

As the Velgorkesh shifted he saw the girl upon the altar and his hand flicked instinctively to the hilt of his sword. Her naked, brown skin glowed in the faint light of the torch. The creature at the altar reared up, its huge arms aloft. He heard the girl cry out. Craid froze, his dagger swaying in the still air like the forked tongue of a snake. And then hell broke loose in the roots of that cursed, abandoned place.

Siba had called out. He had not been able to keep silent. As the twisted hands of this creature, this destroyed image of a man, had been raised above the girl he had seen everything for which he had fought, suffered and lost about to be taken away and he had, beyond his will, tried to draw its frightful attention upon himself. The Velgorkesh had whirled around, roaring. And now Siba saw fully what the emptiness and cruelty of its people, of any people given sufficient abandon, had wrought upon its frame.

The eyes were as white and blurred as summer stars. They twitched in the pale, scarred flesh into which they were set. There was no hair on the thing’s head, the scalp had been ritually burned. The lower half of its face was sealed within some metal trap, jagged and bolted into the bone around its jaw. All over its naked body it bore the fleshwork of its creators. It was scarified with their runes of power and rage. Its fingernails had been torn out, replaced with shards of coloured glass that the skin had grown over and held in place. One of its legs was more iron than meat, the metal red with rust and blood. The thing drew a club from behind the altar, a length of stone from which a metal bar jutted at one end. It heaved the thing above its head and swung out into the darkness, screaming like a djinn before a glass.

Craid moved in. The Velgorkesh, its senses now appearing more painfully sharp than either Craid or Siba could have imagined, swung with the club. Craid ducked and rolled away, reaching into his napsack. Siba dropped the torch and came forward with his sword. He struck out at the thing but his blow was blocked. Craid shouted to SIba to step back and, with a gloved hand, hurled a handful of the poison laced sand square in the creature’s face.

The thing wheeled back, howling and tearing at its eyes. Craid lashed out like a sprung snare but was caught by the blindly reeling arm of the Velgorkesh and the toxic dagger was knocked from his hand and driven point first into the sand, inches from Siba’s foot. Siba stepped aside and slashed a deep cut into the creature’s back with his sabre. As it leaned back, its arm reaching around to clutch at its wound, Siba watched Craid leap up and onto the things shoulders in what seemed like a single bound. With the weight of his body directed down through his knee into the back of the Velgorkesh’s neck he forced the thing to tumble forward towards the altar. As its face struck the stone with a crack that echoed in the wide chamber Craid sprang away and lunged for his dagger.

The creature turned around in silence. The metal trap that had held shut its jaw was shattered. It hung in ragged pieces and thick strands of blood and saliva hung from each point. Craid paused. Even a man such as Craid could only stand and stare. The thing reached up to the trap with its giant hands and took a firm grasp on the metal. It’s muscles bulged, the blue veins popping. With one heave the metal came away from the flesh and bone with the sound of an animal being skinned for leather. The creature emitted an unholy sound, like a sigh and a death rattle in harmony, as a gout of blood gushed onto the sand. Siba watched the black teeth sparkle in the pool of gore that was already soaking into the ground. The things tongue, cracked and oozing, rolled out of the throat and hung, twitching like a maggot, in the space that its lower jaw would once have occupied.  Siba felt the bile rise in his throat as the creature, now visibly aroused by a pain that would have killed another man with the shock, reached down for its club and held it across its glistening, blood stained chest.

Craid stuck out with his dagger as the thing was winding up the club but the Velgorkesh, seeming to draw some terrible reserve of strength from its agony, knocked him away with an elbow and, swinging the blunt weapon like it was a branch, struck him in the side flinging him out and into the dust. Siba flinched as he heard the crunch of bone giving way in his companion’s abdomen. Leaping forward, Siba thrust towards the thing with his sabre. As the metal slid into the grisly flesh of its chest Siba felt the point flick off bone and his hand was pulled loose from the hilt of his weapon.

Stumbling backwards he watched the creature move forward with him. Its huge upper body loomed over him with the sword still protruding from its chest. A hand lunged out of the shadow, as white and cold as a ghoul’s, and wrapped around his neck. It pulled him towards the thing’s face. The milky void of its eyes bore into his own and he saw what remained of its nose twitch as it drank in his scent. The tongue that hung from its face, coursing with blood, thrashed like something dragged from the bottom of the sea. Siba pulled a dagger from his belt and drove it into the things forearm. Its grip loosed momentarily and then tightened like a lock. It pulled back its lumpen skull and smashed it forward into Siba’s face. Siba flew out of its grasp and went rolling across the sand, blood sputtering from his mouth and nose.

The bright flash that had exploded before his eyes was extinguished and what remained was only darkness. As he had been sent sprawling across the ground he had rolled over the torch. The flame, now smothered by his body and the disturbed sand, had died. He lay choking on the sand in the abyssal blackness. As he caught his breath he stiffened his muscles and listened. He heard coughing, moaning and the shuffling of sands. His mind was reeling from the assault and he struggled to make sense of the input. It was the deepest part of his being, the part that was as at home swimming in the darkness as basking in the light, that told him what was coming. And it did so not via hearing or touch but by that which makes the snake’s flesh stir. He felt the creature looming over him and, despite the blackness, he felt its hand reach for his heart.

A light flickered in the corner of his vision. A figure hunched over a torch with flint in hand. He felt the creature move away. His chest felt like a great stone had been laid upon one side of it. He heard the girl whimpering in the dark. The spark of the flints continued to flash until they were swallowed by the shadow of the creature. With a roar the torch caught and the chamber exploded once more into dim light. The weight he felt in his chest seemed to be driving Siba into the very earth and his breath came in ragged gasps. He lay his cheek on the sand and watched Craid in the shimmering, golden glow of the torch.

Craid moved unsteadily about the sands with the torch held forward. One hand wielded a dagger, his arm tucked into his side. The shadow of the hulking Velgorkesh almost blotted out the light as it passed across Siba’s line of sight. Siba’s eyes sank and heaved like a man before the wave of sleep. With a bellow like a bull elephant the creature made its attack. It dragged its club behind its back and the pulled it into the air. Siba watched from where he lay on the ground. The moment seemed to have struck time numb and it persisted for an eternity upon Siba’s eye.

The creature brought its club down and it smashed the ground like a felled tree. Craid, even for his injury, still possessed the reflex and grace of a harrier and he ducked and rolled with an anguished shout. Lunging forward he twisted his wrist and plunged the knife up and into the creature’s exposed palate. The Velgorkesh dropped its club and rocked backwards, hissing like a snake. It reached to pull away the weapon embedded in its flesh but the strength seemed to have drained entirely from its powerful arms. Its fingers flailed at the hilt of the weapon. Craid crouched, one hand in the sand and one to his wounded side, watching.

For Siba, what unfurled before him took on the fanciful quality of a dream, the images caught between the rise and fall of heavy eyelids. The beast spat blood into the dirt as it staggered towards the ground. The poison that had entered its body was now coursing into the core of its wrecked flesh. Because Craid had been right; flesh was all it was. He, Craid, watched on like a wolf waiting for the blood to drain from a quarry.

In the half light Siba saw that the cloth around the lower half of Craid’s face had fallen away. He swallowed hard and tried to clear his swimming consciousness. What the veil had hidden was a rent in humanity no less severe than that of the creature’s. From the nose downwards the skin of Craid’s face was almost entirely annihilated by what must have been fire or vitriol. The bare and blackened muscle and tissue could be seen working like an automaton’s gears as he panted through teeth that were  exposed and stuck in a permanent gritted, sneer.

The creature was writhing on the sand in its death throes. Blood flecked foam was pouring from the cavity of its mouth as it lay on its back. Warily, Craid moved closer. Placing his boot on the butt of the knife he paused as the creature’s great hands wrapped weakly around his shin. The hands fell away as he drove his foot into the knife, sliding it into the thing’s brain  like wind through a dune.

Siba’s own eyes were pulling closed when they met Craid’s. Sticking the torch in the ground, Craid pulled a cloth from inside his shirt and wrapped it about his face. His eyes smiled conspiratorially as he walked towards where Siba lay stricken.

“I suppose down here is as safe a place as any to hide a secret, eh?” he said.

Siba coughed and spoke. His voice had a faint, far off quality that stilled his heart.

“How bad is it?” he asked.

Craid crouched down. His brow was knitted across his forehead.

“What do you want me to do about the girl, Siba?” he asked.

Siba closed his eyes. Where the weight on his chest had been he now only felt a spreading cold that cracked and groaned like a field of ice under the sun.

“There’s a village up in the hills. Near the Shesauu lake. There’s… if I could…”.

Craid placed a steadying hand on his arm.

“I’ll find it”.

“But… Craid….”.

“I’ll find it. I promise you”.

Siba opened his eyes once more.

“What about The Heart?”, he said.

Craid went over to the where the fallen creature lay in silence. He pulled Siba’s dagger from where it was still embedded in the thing’s forearm. Tentatively, he made a shallow cut in the flesh of its belly. Emboldened he drove it into the meat and gouged an opening. Rolling up his sleeve he thrust his arm into the wound and began to dig around in the viscera. The veins bulged on his lithe arm as he tensed and, with some difficulty, tore loose the stone. The skin and flesh that had been supported by the Heart’s strange properties melted into gelatinous liquid and sank into the earth as it was removed. Siba choked on the acrid stench that emanated. Craid held the jewel, dripping with gore, to the firelight. Though barely greater in size than a pebble its dense black surface seemed to swallow light like the sea drinking a river.

“Craid… check on her… please…”.

Craid looked to the wounded man. He wondered if any but this poor ruined girl, betrothed to another, would mourn him when he was gone? Turning the light of the crackling torch to the dais in the middle of the chamber he saw the girl beginning to climb down unsteadily. He walked over and attempted to help her. She whipped away from him in horror and tumbled to the sand, beginning to crawl away.


He heard Siba’s weak call in the darkness and walked to where he had left his bag. Coming back to the girl who still struggled in the sands he wrapped the patterned cloak about her naked form. She collapsed, weeping, into the dirt as the cloth enveloped her bare skin. Bringing her to her feet he began to lead her to the stair that they had descended to this monstrous place. They stopped by Siba. His lips were twitching weakly as if he was trying to speak. His eyes shone like wet stones in the amber light. And then they both were still. The girl did not seem to notice that Siba was even there. Craid wondered whether this was a tragedy or mercy. He wondered, once again, what it was that made the difference.


Stepping out of the unassuming building and into the balmy desert night, Craid assessed his options. His horse was half a day’s walk away, where he had abandoned it to begin shadowing the caravan. He should have found out from Siba where he had stowed whatever transport method he himself had taken. He looked up at the vast sky, bruised purple and shot through with hot, silver starlight. The sun’s heat would be dying in the sands and the desert would soon be an icy tomb. He wondered whether the girl would make it.

She stood in a daze gazing blankly at the sabre stuck into the ground and the cloth that now hung limp in the still night air. The blanket began to slide from her shoulders but she did not reach to grab it and it drifted to the ground. Craid looked at the gentle curve of her hip. A thin trickle of blood ran down her thigh. He looked back to the open sky. His eyes still averted, he picked up the blanket and wrapped it about her until her hands grasped and held it meekly. Placing a gentle hand on the small of her back he stepped forward and she followed with the ease of driftwood floating across still water. Like this, they walked out together into the desert night.



From → Story

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