Author: AJ Cooper
These stories originally appeared in “Fear and Trembling” in 2010.
I am called Marcellus the Bregantine. You may have heard tell of me before in the dingy taverns of the Empire. Once, I was an assassin for the regent Amaraeus, whom you now call your Emperor. But those days are past. In these recent years, I am more honored – and detested – for my association with another.
The Avenger. That is what those who approve of Angrok call him. To others, and to most princes of the desert kingdoms, he is Angrok the Destroyer, an evil warlord from the north and usurper of kingdoms. Sometimes still, but not very often, I question which title best fits him.
Personally, I greatly admire Angrok, not for such a shallow a thing as his combat prowess – though it is indeed a matter of legend – but for his sense of justice and his unflagging confidence that his way is the correct one. And yet in these two years as his companion, I cannot say whether or not I am his friend.
We were walking through the barrens of Bajir sometime in the spring, as I recall. I was sweating heavily, but Angrok in his black scale armor and full helm was, as always, unbothered. His armor is engraved with crossbones and raises many questions; some even accuse him of worshipping the death god Lorken. Though Angrok is quiet and never speaks of religion, I doubt that accusation.
“How far to Bezakirah?” I asked, trying unsuccessfully to hide my distaste for the sun and dust. We were headed, or so I thought, to the famed market town because it was among the only settlements in Bajir that would allow Angrok within its walls. My master had no qualms with its sultan, Lord Hassan, whom he considered just and deserving of his powerful position.
Angrok said nothing for a few moments, and I was sure he was going to ignore me; but then he spoke. “We are taking a slight detour, Marcellus.”
We travelled the rest of the day in silence. Eventually the sea emerged on the horizon, a gentle blue underneath the clear sky. I could see a settlement in the distance. As I reflected on what our business might be on the coast, we suddenly came upon a young girl who was sobbing and shaking underneath the shade of a palm.
Angrok walked up to the teary-eyed girl, his gilded warhammer strapped unthreateningly behind his back. “What is it, young one?” he asked as he knelt down beside her.
The girl, no more than a middle teen, looked at Angrok, tears streaming down her face. “I was to be sacrificed to Nekra, the spider goddess, but High Priest Yama said she did not approve of me because I was not a virgin. I was relieved, but Yama said I was to enter his harem instead and become his slave. When I refused and resisted him, he poisoned me and sent me into the desert to die.” She sobbed as she wiped away more of her tears.
“You seem healthy enough,” I said.
“The poison is Blackheart venom. It works slowly, so slowly,” she said. I noticed her hands were shaking slightly.
Angrok’s response was calm and steady, masking the rage I knew was brewing underneath his passive demeanor. “What is your name?” he asked.
“Tiana,” she said.
“Then, Tiana, I will bring you Yama’s head before you die.”
We disguised ourselves in long white cloaks and walked into the coastal village, which itself had no protective walls. The citizens seemed to take no heed of us, but they seemed a bit unusual. They were grave and somber and sad.
The people, however, were the least of my worries. Spiders, some tiny and some frighteningly large, wandered the streets unbothered by the locals. The hairy, fanged arthropods climbed walls and nested in roofs, spinning webs wherever they wanted. The citizens avoided touching them; if a spider headed their way, they parted reverently.
“We should ask the locals where the temple is,” I whispered in Angrok’s ear.
The Avenger did not respond. Instead, he walked through the doors of an inn. Remarkably, few patrons populated the place. Like the rest of the city, it was crawling with spiders and the corners of the main room were covered in cobwebs.
On a dismal, deteriorating stage a man of gloomy disposition strummed a sitar. He sang of the genesis of the city; how the spider goddess Nekra mated with Prince Jezmi; how everyone who heard her song was a son or daughter of Nekra; and how each and every listener should serve their eight-legged masters with bravery and solemnity.
A woman wearing a black dress sat at a nearby table, facing the stage. Her leather dress was tight-fit, so teasingly tight as to accentuate her round, high breasts. As I eyed her I saw a spider web insignia embroidered on the shoulder. Angrok approached her and tapped her arm.
The woman recoiled at his touch. “What is it?” she sneered.
“Where may I make an offering? I come from Bezakirah to honor the spider goddess.”
The woman glared. “You’d do well to learn the customs of Khorthaire,” she said in disgust. “I am a priestess, a feeder of the hatchlings, and I am not to be touched by the unclean.”
She paused for a moment and turned her head to examine me thoroughly. “What is your sacrifice?” she said quietly, flicking her eyes back to Angrok.
The Avenger looked at me.
She bobbed her head and proceeded to give us directions, instructing us that we would have to wait until High Priest Yama concluded the ritual feeding of the Nest Mother. No one, not even a temple attendant, was allowed into the temple during the weekly sacrifice. We set out at once.
A guard with an axe stood watch in front of the door. As I approached, I swabbed my dagger with basilisk venom, the deadliest kind I had on hand. Then I hailed the guard.
He was an unfriendly sort, as it seemed everyone in this city was. “What do you want? Temple’s closed,” he grumbled.
“Someone’s climbing the wall in the alley shade,” I lied.
He made for the alley and walked into the darkness. “Hey, I don’t see any –”
My dagger connected, the poison killed him before he could finish the sentence. I wiped off the venom and blood and threw the gauze in the alley. “I’ll open the door,” I told Angrok, shoving my dagger into its sheath.