Dorath Vur! City of greed, whose streets ran equally with filth and spices, coin and offal - Dorath Vur, the sweetly perfumed groin of the world. Its winds blew from the south and the sea this night, carrying the clean tang of salt waves and the sickly scent of beached idolfish alike, and through the winding harbor alleys stalked Faisha of Adorann.
Her frame was slight as a shadow, made to slip through the guarded places of the night. Tonight, though, as bold as a cat she glided along the cobblestones, caring neither for the tread of her tall boots of leather nor the song of metal upon metal as the twin scabbards she bore rang against one another. She made her way toward the lone district gate which remained open at this hour of the night, a gate unadorned and crumbling, flanked by oil lanterns which never remained lit - snuffed each night by vandals, by thieves, or others whose trade flourishes only in the dark.
"It would not be wise for a woman to enter the Skein alone," rasped a voice from the alley. She turned her head, allowing the moonlight to fall across her chiseled features, the long diamond of her face.
"Who whispers outside the night markets?" It was more command than question, the steel in her voice memorable to any with whom she had crossed paths or swords, and with a brief gasp the anonymous speaker scuttled into the darkness.
Faisha snorted, then passed through the gate into the Skein of Dorath Vur. Its twisting streets and stumbling stones had no rhyme to them, and from what had begun as a simple state of civic neglect the denizens of the Skein had spun a purpose - to bewilder and confuse both city guards and potential victims, they had created blind and boarded alleys, trapdoors hidden behind crumbling walls, and expanded the endless looming balconies and sky-road of the roofs of the Skein.
It was known of old to her, inasmuch as one could know the constantly shifting pattern of man-made chokepoints. Yet if any watched her steps, they gave her room. No challenge was thrown as she made her way through the Skein to a blue-stained door, above which was pinned the pickled hide of a two-headed rat.
She strode forward and hammered against the wood with her fist, heedless of the noise. She felt eyes upon her from some hidden vantage point within the building before the door opened, and the unsettling scent of certain herbs and exotic nicotianas rolled past her.
She pushed her way within, past the berobed man who had given her access, and scanned the room. The rafters of the ceiling were hung with skins and feathers; common fetishes of the strange, pale men of the Southern Claws, who lived alongside wild tribes of horned beast-men.
She turned to regard him. Pallid and glowering, with a ragged beard which showed gold and grey in the light of his many candles, and plaited hair oiled back from a broad, smooth forehead. A smoking hookah stood upon the stone table, with a book open beside it to a page filled with obscene sketches and strange, southern runes.
"There is a whisper upon these streets," Faisha began, "that one Vornak, Enchanter of the Southern Claws, offers a mighty prize for the performance of a certain deed. I am Faisha of Adorann, and I have come to claim that prize."
"You are not the one for whom I called." He grumbled as he moved to the table and seated himself. You are not Captain Fal-Atir. A kinswoman, perhaps, given the night of your northern skin, but where are the scars by which she is known? Whence the yellow turban holding the mane of the Lioness of the Seas?"
"Has she not come?" Faisha's smile was mocking. "Then she never shall. What cares Fal-Atir for the summons of some white southern grub, scratching a living from the cistern of Dorath Vur? The oceans of eternity call to her and those she calls her men, and where you offer a single treasure, she plucks an orchard from the sea."
"It was Fal-Atir I called to," he said, closing the book. "Fal-Atir, the famed pirate queen, not some so-called sword-sister. What claim has Faisha of Adorann to the treasures I will hold? What legends walk in her wake?"
"You have heard of the jewels of the Vatwa? Sapphires the size of a man's fist, guarded by demons of the eight hundredth hell, the bride-price of the androgyne Shothala?"
He pulled at the hookah. "Stolen on the night of a full moon, with Shothala screaming through hir milk-beard in ecstasies of rage for the fortnight beyond."
"Then know 'twas I who spirited them away, and I who gifted them to the witch-queen of Lost Aira when I discovered her hidden city. I am a shadow and a light upon the waters of the world, and if my legend is less known than others it is because my greatest deeds are done in darkness and silence. Like your own, enchanter - much like your own."
The southerner stirred with outrage. "You think to compare yourself to me? To Vornak? Why, with but a locking of eyes, I should pull you along as a farmer does his lowest mule," he hissed. "The strings of your thoughts and emotions, aye, all that you are would be mine to cut, tangle or unravel as I alone ..."
Faisha's blade was out, pressing hard against the pale throat beneath the thornbush beard. He had seen no hint of the threat until the steel was in place. "Speak of it again, and you'll never wake another day, sorcerer. No matter what supernal horrors you have faced, you have not known fear - true fear - until you have seen me in a rage."
Vornak's cold, blue eyes traced the contours of her face, calculating and precise - yet she marked the tremor in his bristling brows, and felt him suppress a swallow though the hilt of her knife.
"Now," she purred, taking up the hookah's pipeline with a grin, though not releasing her hold on the man, "tell me of this Dondalo, and the treasures with which you would part to see your plan carried through. By Mhor, you've no fetch to defend you, no demons at your command, or my blade would be at them by now. Yet my sisters of the shadow claim your knowledge of magic, and of the ways of diabolists, makes up for your sorcerous ... impotence."
Vornak backed slowly from the blade, eyes still casting across her face but never quite meeting hers. His voice was cool now, thoughtful. "Have I, then, no demons at my command? Or do I simply choose with care the time and moon in which I call them forth? I will trade no more barbs with you, but tell you this - your blade is quick and your daring clear, and so shall I send you to Dondalo's caverns in place of Fal-Atir, where you shall reap the reward she spurns.
"Listen well," he said, and made a pass above the water-pipe with his left hand. The clouds of vapor parted to reveal an image of a cleft in a mountain pass, and within that cleft, a strange and perfectly spherical shape of stone. "And understand that Dondalo's magics were of the darkest and most foul kind."
"No! Dondalo sought not merely to cheat Death. Come, are we all necromancers? For what mortal breathes, and makes that not their aim? No, Dondalo sought to become a worm in the heart of every mortal soul, to take root within all that is. He would apprehend their beginnings and their ends - yes, yes! Not merely of souls, but of the universe, and of all things. He would place his hands upon every spirit of the world from time's beginning to its ultimate end, and stroke the flanks of the terrible beast of Creation, which encompasses all of life itself." His eyes glinted with a queer light.
"And so he took up the drug Li-Hao, harvested since the dawn of time only by those ants of the Western jungles who move throughout eternity as a single beast. He found Li-Hao, and harvested it, ground it and smoked it - and he succeeded, Faisha. What he saw ..."
A smile crossed his thick lips, baring his teeth like a wolf in lambing season beneath the thickness of his beard as he laughed. "Ha! Ha! It drove him mad. Drove him from his mind and his power alike, sent him screaming into the wilderness where he created a new fortress - the only fortress which could ever bar those which hunt him through the wild territory of time itself.
"Agents of those hunters have come to me in dreams. Strange cloaked men with strange hungers in their smiles, men of a place not unknown to me - the plains of Leng, which the likes of you shall never view without the aid of some dark mystery."
"Should I care to?" She asked, unfazed by the mage's oiled tongue. "Leave your threats of cloaked men to wet nurses and their babes. Come to this fortress, and to the treasure within."
"There lies a great treasure for you - a blade unlike any other, the blade with which Dondalo carved his very fastness within the mountains. A blade before which stone is as clarified butter, and before which flesh is a mere whisper. Does that not tempt you?"
Her eyes turned to slits, sensing some jape. "You claim a sword to cut through stone?"
"Through stone and more, though sword it is not." He held up a hand, tracing a circle in the air. "But a chakram. Think of a ring or wheel, the size of a grown man's head. A weapon born of the high mountain places made to hurl against one's foe - or, for the Ring of Dondalo, to carve through a mountain itself. For his fastness is made circular, of the stone of the mountain, round and perfect as a single pearl within which he resides, alone and gibbering with fear, against the time when those who hunger for his soul should find entrance to the prison over which he alone is king."
Her eyes went to the image of the perfectly curved mountain. "Such a thing," she agreed, "would open many doors closed to a thief of common means. But if this Dondalo wields the weapon today, will it not be turned against my own neck the moment I seek to enter his fastness?"
"Undoubtedly - should he see you," said Vornak, his voice taking on an edge. "Yet are you not Faisha, who spirited away the treasures of Shothala? Remain concealed and seize the blade, and you shall earn the coins of your reward indeed. For the task you will carry out is simply to carve a symbol within the walls of Dondalo's s sanctum, and then ... well," the feral smile returned. "Then you shall return to Vornak of Dorath Vur, with whom the men of Leng will have delivered payment for your deeds."
She studied him carefully. "You are a bawd of mysteries, methinks ... but such a treasure would be welcome. Show me this symbol, enchanter; and what mystic signs must be cut in the stone above Dondalo's head, and I will seek the mountain fastness and bring it low."
A night-breeze flickered through the shutters of Vornak's rooms, setting the feathers, wands and skins to briefly sway as the tallow candles guttered. "Aye, I think you shall. The symbol requires no great learning - a mere triangle, its apex pointing to the center of the earth. Thus," he said, tracing the symbol on the table before him.
"What game is this," she spat. "No sigil this, but a child's rune to trace in dust!"
"One which will perform the final task," said Vornak, reaching within his voluminous robes to scratch at the hair which covered his chest. "And ... I will add that the method of Dondalo intrigues me. Should you find that Dondalo still carries a vial of the drug Li-Hao, bring it back to me if you would double the coin promised to Fal-Atir - the coin which will now belong to Faisha of Adorann."
Faisha rode north for five days along the Dor River, sleeping in small-town inns before turning her steed west, into the uplands and black vineyards of Mir, riding steadily before reaching the broken foothills of Tath. Here her pace was slowed, but her aim never dimmed, pushing her mount to its daily strength on the reduced grasses and fodder of the highlands, feeding herself on paca and quails shot from the saddle and roasted over low coals come evening.
Twice she sighted the red or yellow flags of highland riders, clad head to foot in hardened leather and steel. These wild and reckless men she avoided, not from fear but from wisdom. Faisha had no time for those who would turn from their goals in search of some temporary aim or needless quarrel, and with such a prize at the end of her sight she climbed until the horse's breath grew shallow, and her own came forth in clouds in the chill of the heights.
Only then did she slow her pace, eyes seeking ever for the sign of Dondalo's fastness, the rounded peak Vornak had shown to be both roof and entrance. In the parting afternoon mists of the thirty-second day since leaving Dorath Vur she sighted the strangely formed dome, and that day she spent in gathering roots, tubers and further small game. Well-fed was well-prepared, and with a belly filled with thick stew she drifted into slumber.
Strange were the dreams of Faisha, so near her quarry. She saw a man, long and skeletal, with a sallowness cast across his olivine complexion, his cracked and ivory fingernails inches in length and twisted upon one another. Alone he sat in a sunless sphere, eyes closed, levitating above the surface in an uncanny manner. Here alone could he sit, for there were no furnishings within this eerie place, nor windowsill or doorstep on which a man might rest his bones.
At the edges of that sphere, too, shadows drifted in her dream - long and lean phantoms, athirst for something unspeakable. Something of their shape suggested the coursing hounds of noble hunters, but there was much of the sluggish serpent as well, an abhorrent blend of endless hunger and endless patience ... strangely lucid despite her slumber, she thought then to approach, to inspect the queer creatures. For was this not but a dream?
Then the words of Vornak rang through her mind, how he had been visited by certain men of Leng in dreams of his own, and she wrenched one eye open and into the gloaming light before the dawn, emerging from those strange lands of dreams lest she, too, bring some unwelcome guest upon her.
She spilled water from the skin and splashed it against her face, gasping with the horror which had gripped her slumber. What evil lay in the fastness of Dondalo, to haunt one through their dreams? And then, too, what mattered it to her? There was treasure of coin and blade to be won, and she had not quailed from a dream since she was a milk-blooded child resting on cushions in Adorann.
She tossed her head with a snort, and checked her blades. The solidity of steel brought a measure of calm to her mind, settled her once more into the world of flesh and blood and sinew. The fastness of Dondalo lay ahead, and within it lay treasure worth any nightmare's bill.
The walls of the fortress were immaculately curved. All trees, all heather, every blade of grass had been stripped from its soil. Faisha marveled at the sorcerous weapon which could carve a jagged peak into a perfect dome. She saw no track of goat, hear no birdsong, around the sculpted fastness. It was as though the hand of some great old god had come to scour all that was natural from the world.
Yet in the center of that dome, a further curvature spoke of something more. Faisha took climbing-claws from her kit of tools, walking completely around the dome to mark some score or flaw which would ease her purchase and her climb. Finding no such easement, Faisha turned instead to the mountain alongside the fastness, climbing along its many handholds until she could see the fastness from above.
Vornak had not lied - there was an opening like a sphincter atop the mound. Curved like the rest, the thick lips of rock forming the toothless circle of a mouth, a perfect circle in the center of this perfect dome.
For an hour she waited, still as stone, listening for any sign of life emerging from that unnatural portal. Then, with a swiftness that belied the patience she had shown, she drew forth a stake and hammered it into the mountain, bound a silken rope around it, and stood to peer within.
A strange glow came from the place's heart, flickering witchfire-green in the depths of the earth. "No need for torch," she murmured, and bounded to the outer wall of the sphere. Her climbing-claws found purchase against the rock from this higher angle, and allowed her to work her way to the entrance - where she removed the claws, tested the rope, and lowered herself into the earthen mouth.
Hand over hand she descended with a practiced strength and skill, eyes cast ever downward - for her faith in her knots was complete, and she feared no interference from above. All her attention was on the glowing sphere beneath her feet, and the ever-growing shape within of some demi-human form.
It did not rise as she descended. It took no notice of her presence as she began to swing gently left, then right, then left again, using her weight as a balance and swing to bring her in an arc that would avoid the glowing sphere. She continued her descent, the circle she traced growing wider and wider as she moved, until the tips of her boots skimmed silent above the very rim of that sorcerous enclosure. Then, only then, did she loose her grip and land in front of the sphere. In the blink of a cat's eye her blades were out to see what she might face.
It was the figure from her dream, withered and emaciated. Jade-hued robes hung about withered flesh, crumpled in upon itself, and for a moment she though she faced some corpse preserved after the heathen manner of the west, embalmed in vinegar and suspended from unseen hooks.
The eyes, creased as the pages of some tome of ancient lore, flickered open to reveal fever-bright eyes which matched the hues of the robe. The lips parted, the voice creaking and hoarse from disuse.
"Woman of Leng," rasped Dondalo, "I give you one chance to leave me in peace. Take it. Leave, and live longer than shall I."
The ground beneath her feet was concave, making her fighting stance uncertain, yet she drew the blade regardless. "None of Leng, Dondalo. I have come to seize a certain prize, and if you would surrender it, I am content to let you die in your own hour and time."
The figure shook convulsively. "Time! Ha, aye, in my own time! Such is the joke of the gods ... to have seen all of time, all the hours of man compressed into a single moment, and to then be forced into a lightless prison !" The trilling laughter filled the spherical room. "What prize do you seek? Knowledge," he sneered, "beyond you? The last of my Li-Hao would I give freely to those it might curse, and may it curse your children's children!" He motioned toward a spherical vial on the floor, the sole item in the otherwise empty fortress.
Dondalo's s eyes glittered. "Or is it something more you seek? Something brighter and more deadly?" Beneath his robes, his right hand moved, and Faisha tensed, shifting her weight backward ...
Out it came, the shining moon of steel, and with a cry Dondalo hurled the chakram toward Faisha, aiming to cleave her head from shoulders! It was the play she had relied upon, and she shifted her weight by the mere width of a hand.
Vornak had not lied. The ring shot past her with inches to spare, and, in the absence of its target, struck the perfectly smooth wall with an unearthly reverberating song, burying itself in the stone as easily as a dancer's foot slipped into a boot of oiled leathers.
The ring of Dondalo had cleft the stone of the mountainside, and Faisha's blade swept upward to sever the strap which bound it to the necromancer's wrist! He howled with fury, springing to his feet as she seized the ring by its oddly curved handle and slashed a second line through the granite of the walls.
"No!" Dondalo stood on shaking legs, no longer accustomed to bearing even the frail weight of the skeletal sorcerer. "Wait - I forbid it, woman! I command you!"
Faisha's laugh was clear and clean in the eerie world of the sphere. "You forbid? You command? Never in my living hours, wizard - and your own living hours here come to an end!"
"Do not!" He shrieked, those obscene fingernails tracing mystic patterns in the air. His voice was filled with ecstasies of terror even as he sought to weave some spell of containment against Faisha. "Oh, do not - ia! Ia! Ia ftaghn!"
With a wild laugh, she slashed a third line in the stone, and the sorcerer's shriek rose into a howl of agony as the triangle was completed. Faisha turned, then, to see serpentine vapors trailing from his fingers. Though his cadaverous mouth gaped in fear, his eyes remained on the woman before him, and she saw that no good was meant from this final working of magic.
With less thought than instinct, she hurled the ring toward his hands - severing both at the wrists with a high-pitched trill of enchanted steel against dense bone, ending those motions of conjuration! The Ring of Dondalo embedded itself into the opposite wall, where his blood ran down the curvature of the dome.
He stared uncomprehending at the crimson ruin of his arms, yet still the vapors rose and twisted toward Faisha, growing more solid by the second. She drew her own blades and faced the vaporous, serpentine forms he had called forth even as Dondalo turned with a start to the carven triangle, shrieking "Oh, dark Gods! They come ... they come!"
Faisha dodged a swift strike from the leftmost serpent, driving her main-gauche into its side, relieved to find that the creatures were now vulnerable as any creature of flesh and blood. She kept her eyes upon the writhing coils of the second.
Yet behind her, at the triangle, she sensed - rather than saw - those same lean forms she had encountered in her dream.
The air of the fastness grew foul and rank, as though the doors of some secret tomb were shifting to reveal its fetid contents. She turned swiftly against the serpent, bearing those dripping fangs alone in her mind, willing herself to avoid the sight of those phantoms which even now coursed around the flailing, screaming form of the necromancer.
Yet their weight pressed upon the very soul - the weight of a thirst that had begun before time itself, from the original wickedness which had split asunder world upon world. Dondalo fell to his knees, to the stumps of his wrists, grinding those wounds into the uncaring stone as though he would flense himself alive.
On all fours he beat his head against the rocks, no longer shrieking now but howling, a convulsive sound as of a mad dog beneath the lash of its master, a song of pain and fear and grotesque, eternal horror ...
Faisha could delay no longer. With two strikes she clove the diamond of the serpent's skull, seized the vial at her feet, and turned to flee from the cosmic terror of that fastness. The ring of Dondalo lay behind her, beneath the gibbering form of the maimed and ruined creature which once had been a man - the treasure she had been promised abandoned, though not forgotten, as she climbed through the egress into the clean and open mountain air.
From the mountains she sped, the hooves of her mounts flying at a gallop, away from that fastness of Dondalo which had become first a prison, then a madhouse, and which was now - would ever remain - a tomb. She fled as though those angular phantoms were at her very heels, and for three nights Faisha did not sleep, did not close her eyes, until finally exhaustion pulled her into slumber beneath the shelter of a stone outcropping in the highlands.
Vornak rubbed his hands together. "I am pleased, Faisha. I shall tell this tale when others seek to hire some sword."
"You will do no such thing," she said, shaking her head, "for I am done with the deeds of enchanters. What I saw beneath that cavernous dome has placed me on the side of reason alone. I will deal no more in magic, or those who trade in such. Your payment from Leng will be the last I receive from a runesman."
"And will you double that payment? Seized you the drug as you stole your way into his tomb?"
She presented the vial, shaking her head. "I will tell you only once, Vornak. I bear no love for you or yours, but take this not. Return it to Leng through your dreamtime tradesmen, and escape the fate of Dondalo - for we were never meant to journey through the strange eons of the worlds, or beyond those planes of dream. No mortal mind can bear it."
The southerner sneered. "No mind, save those chosen by a fate above the rest - an exceptional mind, a soul apart."
"So thought Dondalo."
"A blind fool!" Vornak scoffed, waving a hand. "Observe, Faisha. Sit and watch as I draw back the curtains of the unseen world!"
He flipped open the vial with one cracked fingernail and poured the contents into his hookah, puffing feverishly at the pipe. She remained standing, but watched as his eyes dilated and the whites of those queer blue eyes were consumed in utter blackness.
"Faisha ..." It was a whisper through thick, cracked lips. "I see. I see the marching of thousands of men across a field of mud and poppies. I see cockaded hats, lined before a strange blade which will harvest more heads than the bravest of warriors. I see ... I see the moon itself bearing a man's footprint, I see men travelling to distant stars, and I see the floor of the deepest ocean as the first life crawls from it ..."
Out of the corner of her eye in the gloom of his one-room abode, she saw the shadows thicken, and Faisha of Adorann scooped the chest of gold and gems into the crook of her right elbow. "Farewell, then, Vornak, enchanter. I leave you to your doom. Fare you well against those vicious hounds who were the fate of Dondalo."
With those words she vanished into the mists of the Skein, fled the home of Vornak as his laughter turned to a strange, mad sound that was more than half a howl.
© July, 2013 Ivan Ewert
Ivan Ewert is the author of Famished: the Farm, published in 2012 by Apocalypse Ink Productions. His second novel for AIP, Famished: the Commons, is scheduled for release in October 2013. His short stories have previously appeared in the anthologies Human Tales, Space Tramps, and the award-winning Grants Pass.
The world of Dorath Vur made its first public appearance in the anthology Beasts Within 3: Oceans Unleashed, though it has haunted his imagination for several years.