The City on the Rock

Dala nodded, opened the door and walked inside as the rain pattered on the rooftop.

~*~

Who was this traitor? The question burned like fire in Salan’s mind.

Sword in sheath, he walked to the Guard Tower through the cool rain. The cobbled streets glistened in the wetness and the torches flared in the light wind. It was cool for Baradon. At last he walked up to the cedar double-doors of the High Tower: locked, as always. He fiddled with his key ring, found the right one and opened it.

The circular Tower was built of evenly-cut white stones. Cedar boards composed the floor, and there was plentiful space for rooms, closets and other necessities.  On the first floor, a fire burned in the hearth.

He hung his sopping wet cloak on the rack, turned around and found Kamal sleeping on the couch in front of the hearth. Was he in league with the shadaren? Only time would tell.

For a while Salan simply observed him. His mouth was wide open and he was snoring. Why had he truly followed him to that cave? Could he have known about the shadaren? Was he planning to betray him?

“Kamal!”

He woke with a start. “What?” He rubbed his eyes. “What, captain?”

“What do you know of the shadaren?”

The foreigner furled a brow. “Hmm?”

“You heard me!”

“They are hideous creatures who live beneath us. They corrupt everything they touch. Hamminids worship them. Some look nearly human. But they all have at least one deformity, and most have many. What else do you want to know?”

“You certainly know a lot about them, Kamal.”

“What are you trying to suggest?”

“Are you allied with them?”

“What?” Kamal scoffed. “That’s preposterous. I would never do such a thing.” He stood up from the couch and gripped the shaft of his long spear. “Why would you suggest this?”

“Why were you really at the cave?”

“I told you! I was in the prayer house, and I saw you…”

“Why do you know so much about the shadaren?”

“I’ve studied them, so that I can have an advantage against them. I study my enemies. It’s that simp—”

A fit of screaming began upstairs, and Kamal fell silent.

“What’s that?”

“That’s Darshan,” Kamal said. “He talks in his sleep sometimes.”

“Don’t move a muscle, or I’ll consider it a confession of guilt.”

Inside Darshan’s, someone beat a cowhide drum at a fast pace. A voice sang in a falsetto. The hairs on Salan’s neck stood on end as he listened.

 

Hana haba dula, sing

Of vile disease the only king

Hasa haba duba, lord

Prince of the dirty, unclean horde

Salan kicked open the door with one thrust of the foot, but Darshan didn’t seem to take notice.

He continued singing, unbothered, beating the drum wildly. He seemed enveloped in the music, undistracted. Salan drew his sword with a crisp, metallic ring.

How could his friend have done this behind his back? How had Salan never found out? He had never seemed a suspicious person, never a man capable of serving the shadaren by night. But it was true. He had hidden his secret well.

Darshan held up the shard of a shiny mirror. But the mirror did not show what was behind it; only two luminous eyes set in a black background. It was some kind of enchanted piece of glass, a magic instrument designed to communicate with the underworld.

“Where shall I spill my blood for you, master?” said the Tower Guardsman.

“Severah has been slain by that imbecile Salan,” said a strong though inhuman voice. “He has severed our contact with the city. For fifteen hundred years she climbed, clawing through the rock with her bloodied fingernails, through caverns, through tunnels, through pitch-black darkness and timeless vortexes. And it has all been in vain for her. Luckily I have a backup plan. I will yet destroy this city, this city forged by our enemies in time immemorial.”

“What must be done?”

“You are my backup plan, Darshan. When I met you in a dream, I knew your heart was one worthy of service. You will become me. With the mirror-shard, slit your wrist.”

“But…”

“It must be done!” the voice in the mirror said in a spinning vibrato.

Darshan hesitated, then obeyed and sliced open his veins. Blood poured from the wound, and in a great flash he burst apart. Flesh and blood spat across the room, and in place of him stood a hulking creature like an insect with a steely carapace, pincers, and bug eyes. There was a primitiveness in the creature’s form. Long had this shadaren—this shadaren—lived in darkness, awaiting a fool like Darshan to serve him. He glanced in the mirror, smoothing out an antenna with his pincers. He clicked his toothy jaw. “How beautiful you are. And except for one spot on your back, you are invincible. A god.” Suddenly he pivoted on his spindly legs to meet Salan face to face. He gasped, surprised.

The Tower Captain gulped and held out his sword, which shone in the candlelight.

“Do you really think you can defeat me? I am Armad-Iblis, lord of the pits.”

“I do.”

Salan thrust his sword at the fiend, breaking an inch into his hard carapace. When he pulled it out, the tip of his sword was covered in green slime.

The shadaren snipped at Salan with his pincers. He missed by less than an inch, then struck with his other pincer and grabbed Salan by the throat.

Picking him up, he shoved the Tower Captain against the wall hard. Salan lost his breath. “Do not test me,” said Armad-Iblis, “I will spin a web around you, and once mummified I will take you to my pits. I will beat you with sharp whips until, filled with pain, you envy the dead…”

A spear ripped through Armad-Iblis’s chest, and the great insect gasped and clicked his jaws. Kamal stood behind him.

“No!” said the fiend. His bug eyes dimmed and lost all luster.

Kamal pulled the spear out and the shadaren stumbled back. Salan pitched back his sword, swung, and decapitated the creature with one stroke. Blood stained the ground and the body fell lifelessly with a loud thump. Silence fell over the room, a deathly pall. The shadaren’s head spoke as it rolled around.

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