I stand near the aquamarine shoals and gaze at the white stone Lighthouse of Varkir; the shade of palms falls over me and affords some protection from the blistering suns. A collection of tents, huts, and shelters sprawls through corridors covered in white arches. Hanging above me are tapestries identifying the names of the different hallways that comprise this grand bazaar.
“Does this place have a name?” I ask Talen.
“It’s the Varkir Souk,” he says. “It’s one of the largest because of Varkir’s position on the shipping lanes. Varkir’s a great port. If you linger in the coffee shops you can find out the current events in every corner of the world.”
“I don’t much drink coffee,” I say.
Talen shrugs. “You might want to give it a try. It’s thick and sweet; you might like it.”
He and I negotiate the myriad shops bypassing vendors hocking enchanted amulets and food kiosks brimming with the exotic scents made by foreign herbs and spices. We arrive at an outdoor plaza adjacent to an oasis of palms, ferns, and fruit trees.
I see so many faces talking, arguing, and bargaining for melons, grains, hashish, and other things that the din lulls me into a false security: we move unnoticed. The refugees from Soulwarden (now a week’s journey to the north) are still flowing into Varkir and have been for a couple days now. They occupy most of the tents on the outskirts of the city and near the entrance to the park where Talen pauses to peel a grapefruit.
“What are we looking for exactly?” I ask Talen.
“One second,” he says, dividing the fruit into sections and offering me some.
I swallow a slice, it tastes quite refreshing.
Talen and I both wear linen robes; turbans crown our heads. We bought our outfits from a tailor on our first day. Talen thought it best to try and blend-in even though our ivory skin is easily spotted here. While we’re out scouting the city for a means to contact the church, Angelaria’s in a house of healing getting treated for the crimes the Timeron knight, Mordred, inflicted upon her. That and she’s getting some much needed rest.
I hope she’s doing okay.
What happened to all of us in Soulwarden was nothing short of nightmarish, and I’m choosing to overlook the manipulations, the backstabbing, and the coercion. In a way, I’m no better than her. I promised to pay her back for the gold I cost her when Talen and I botched her job back in Clothol. By not keeping that promise, I brought a whole world of hurt down upon myself. I’ve no one to blame really. But there’s a lesson here: always keep your word. Because I failed in doing so, I can’t blame Angelaria. This is especially true since she saved Talen and me from a wall of lava. Not to mention that she never said anything about us to her captors. That’s two things in her favor. I’d be a fool not to forgive her.
Before Talen speaks, a call to prayer rings out over the city. I’ve heard this sound five times a day since we arrived.
I listen in reverence to its melodious, almost mournful sound. Many of those around us pause and unroll small carpets upon the ground. Before long, they supplicate themselves, bowing to the distant east where the suns break the horizon each morning.
“Should we be doing that?” I ask.
“To fit in?” Talen asks, inspecting a slice of grapefruit. He quickly eats it and then moves into the park, which grows around a large pool filled with reeds. Luxurious ferns and palm trees reach toward the sky. Colorful birds flit from branch to branch and alight upon limbs bursting with foliage and white flowers.
“Yes. To fit in,” I answer, dogging his heels.
He shakes his head. “No. Do you see an obelisk anywhere?”
The heady scent of perfume from all the flowers teases my nostrils. “What’s an obelisk?”
Talen blinks and swats a bee away from his face. “It looks like a pillar but has a pointy top. Kind of like a pyramid only upright with flat vertical sides. They’re built to celebrate Arioch who--”
“Rides the chariot of the suns across the sky each morning. Yes, I know,” I say, “I’m not that thick. I know a few things about the gods.”
“Did you know that song we hear five times a day is for him?”
I shake my head. “I didn’t know that actually.”
Talen claps me on the shoulder. “Well you’ve learned something then; I think I see it. Let’s go this way.”
Talen and I emerge from under a growth of ferns that towers over the glen. Near the toe of my boots lays a ring of blue stones and a statue of a hawk-headed god. “Arioch,” Talen mutters. “But over there…that’s an obelisk.”
I follow his finger and see a twenty-five foot tall by six-foot square monolith jutting from the sands of the park. It has writing on every surface; it’s some kind of ancient hieroglyphic that I of course can’t read.
Talen strides up to the base. I look around to see if we’ve drawn any attention to ourselves. But we stand alone in this cool and shaded area despite the fact that many footprints indicate much traffic at all times of the day and night.
“There’s the symbol!” Talen exclaims. “Third row down from the top and almost obscured by the cartouche of Arioch.”
“A dagger lying in a pool of blood,” I murmur. “What does it mean?”
He raises his eyebrows. “It’s the symbol of Tethyr.”
I roll my eyes. “I know it’s the symbol of Tethyr.”
“Then why did you ask what it meant? Oh,” Talen says, thinking of something else to say. “Luminara and I had discussions when you were…well…sleeping. Part of that involved the secret network for the Gray Warder that’s in place around the world.”
I know by “sleeping” he means “suffering in drug rehab.” But Talen wants to sidestep that whole dark episode in our lives, and I don’t particularly blame him. It’s a difficult time in our relationship and truthfully, it’s had lasting consequences on me. For example, I’ve to struggle to eat, and I force myself to do so mostly out of devotion to Tethyr and the sacred responsibility I have to maintain my body as a vessel worthy of His power. I don’t tell Talen that I’m having these kinds of challenges. I know he blames himself for everything, and I don’t want to make it any worse.
“What kind of discussions?” I ask him.
“Mostly about you. But those that weren’t about you involved our church: how corrupt it’s gotten and what kind of support there is for assassins and thieves doing Tethyr’s work. In nearly every city of significant size there’s a small conclave of Tethyrites that stays connected to the topmost tier of our theocracy. That means Luminara, in case you’re wondering. They maintain a temple or some kind of gathering place to disseminate information. Each is near one of these things, but only if the structure is marked by the holy symbol of the Gray Warder. You follow?”
I nod. “Somewhere near here is an entrance, right?”
“Exactly. We’ve things to pass on to Luminara before we head west through the mountains, and we might learn things regarding our path forward.”
“Right,” I say with eyes flitting from pond, to branch, to tree. “So where do we begin looking?”
“Not where,” Talen says, “but when. We come back here when Valinas is full tonight.”
Valinas is one of the many moons of Wynwrayth. It’s called the “Blood Mother” because of its reddish appearance that harkens it to a droplet of blood torn from the heavens.
“Luminara said that the doorway would be visible to a true worshiper of the Gray Warder under the light of the blood moon. So we come back here tonight while Angelaria rests. We find it, get inside, and deliver our information.”
I nod. “It’s several hours before dark….”
He grins lasciviously, “I’m sure we can find something to fill the time, lover.” Then he kisses me, and his breath smells like fresh grapefruit. It’s quite nice. We go back to our room at the edge of the bay and make love most of the afternoon.
Night comes early.
Talen and I dress in black silk Shinobi Shozokus, and they cover us from head to toe. Then we wait.
After an hour, we take to the rooftops of the city to avoid the guard patrols that walk the Varkir Souk. We drop silent as cats from a three-story balcony and scamper across to the park, ducking the light of torches, and clinging to the shadows of benches, pillars, and walls.
The air quickly cools. The heat rising from the ground feels comfortable through my tabi boots. Above the highest palm trees, the midnight blue sky is filled with bright twinkling stars.
Near the obelisk, the blood moon rises just above the city wall. Its red light casts a long shadow on the far side of the monolith. There, in the black inkiness above the sand, I spot a doorway. Talen reaches it first.
“I love magic,” I whisper to him.
He nods and gets the door open using his fingers to ply at the outline, which we can now discern quite easily. It scrapes open sending a shower of sand pelting down upon smooth black steps. A flight of stairs descends before us, lit at the bottom by magical smokeless torches. The walls and ceiling are carved from some kind of ebony granite. At the bottom we find another stone door. The symbol of Tethyr is raised upon its surface, this time with a circle of red tile and molten silver poured into the shape of a blade.
Talen raps on it with his knuckles.
“What’s the password?” a voice querries from the other side.
“Bloodbane,” Talen replies.
“The password is the name of the sword of rogues?” I ask, voice barely a whisper.
He shrugs. “It’s important to more than just you. Although I’d like to see you wield it, people have lusted for its power for centuries.”
Another grinding noise and the door slides out of the way. There in front of me is a fellow peering out at us from a stone chamber lit by more of the smokeless torches. There’s a corridor that extends behind him. Some cells (currently empty) stand open, their iron gates free of rust. I also spot several large clay vases on one side of the room underneath shelves holding various statuaries. There are voices down this hallway: two men playing cards with a third? Despite this place being underground, the air’s fresh and cool.
“Come in,” he says. “Where are you from?”
The speaker has a short crop of whiskers about his chin, a bulbous nose that’s somehow too large for his skinny face, but bright black eyes.
Talen takes off his Shozoku mask and unwinds the cloth from around his neck and shoulders. He exposes the brilliant tattoo on his neck in doing so. I follow suit and note that the man’s eyes widen significantly. “You’re Tiburon and Hunter. We’ve heard of you.”
“In just three days?” I scoff.
The skinny man shrugs and offers us some water from a pitcher on a table. I accept but Talen defers. “News travels fast. What did you find in the preceptor’s manse? Anything of use to us? Is the church of Zandine our enemy now?”
“Yes,” Talen states, “on both accounts. Hunter found the demon responsible, but Tethyr abjured him on the night Tempest Mountain exploded.”
“Shame that happened,” the man says. “The explosion and not the abjuration, that is. I’m Luck,” he says extending his hand. I grip it firmly and then Talen does the same.
“I don’t think I’d ever play cards with someone named Luck,” I remark.
That makes the man grin. I see he’s missing one front tooth. “That’s why I’m answering the door for you fellas and not playing poker with my mates. I’ll send what you just told me up the line. Truthfully, we suspected as much. That witch Kahket has been cozying up to the Timeron army for so long, we wondered if Zanda had somehow gotten embroiled in the Valion war. It looks like now we have our answer. Just between you and I, as we tend to be Valion supporters I thought it was just a matter of time before we found ourselves at a crossroads with the Israfil of Zanda. I can tell you from experience you don’t want to be on the bad side of the israfil. But I guess at this point it’s all spilt milk. No use crying over it.” He pauses a second to scratch his chin. “Where are you fellas off to once you leave Varkir?”
“West,” I say, “into the Icewall Mountains.”
“We’re going after the sacred sword,” Talen finishes.
Luck sits down in a chair regarding us both with sparkling eyes. “There’s been plenty that have gone after that sucker quest, some more experienced and much older than you boys. Have you got all the pieces? Rumors say Constantine holds two of ’em and he ain’t the kind to share.”
“Constantine’s dead,” I say. “I killed him after the Guildhouse of Assassins fell down around our ears. It happened shortly after Zandine appeared and then transformed into flesh before our eyes.”
“Kahket used some kind of potion,” Talen adds. “Even Tethyr seemed to be helpless to do anything.”
“I’ll be damned,” Luck states. “Constantine dead and now this as well? Don’t get me wrong, son. I shared no love for the Nightshade, but I never thought a boy like you could get the better of him. All the more power to you, for he was as wicked as they come. I just hope you made sure he was good and dead before you left. Otherwise, I guarantee he’ll come after you. He’s not the forgiving type.”
“Trust me,” I say, “I made certain of that. I can tell a corpse from a living, breathing man.”
“So it’s true,” Luck says, switching topics. “A real flesh and blood god now walks the earth. This is bad, boys. Very bad. No wonder Luminara wants you to find the sword. She must have a lot of confidence in you.”
“Why’s that?” I ask. “I-I mean, I didn’t know she really supported my quest.”
“Bloodbane’s the only thing that can kill a flesh and blood god,” Luck says. “Maybe she plans on having you do just that, once you got the right equipment to make it happen.”
“Fascinating,” Talen says. “Actually, I’ll go ahead and take a glass of water. My throat’s parched.” Luck grins and pours some cool water into a clay cup and hands it to my boyfriend.
“So, you think I can kill a god?” I press.
Luck smiles. “If it’s flesh, it can bleed, right? I’m no expert on divinity, but I’d wager that’s exactly what’s in store for you if you manage to retrieve the ‘sword of rogues.’ I’d love to be young again and to have that chance…to make a name for myself and get all the perks that go along with that.”
“What kind of perks?” I ask.
Luck pours himself a glass and wets his throat. “Oceans of fresh young pussy,” he says.
I giggle and hold out my clay cup. Luck quietly refills it. “I’ll drink to that,” I say. I tap my cup to Talen’s, and we both have a swallow in appreciation of my toast.
“You boys need to be careful once you leave Varkir,” Luck adds. “Head straight for the Stairway to Heaven and don’t deviate from that path. The Icewall Mountains are crawling with war ghuls unleashed upon the Valion knight strongholds by the Israfil of Zanda, most likely at the behest of the Timeron knight armies led by General Calisto. There’s been black magic going on in those mountains for months. The accursed israfil have raided sacred barrow mounds from here to Bakora to mine corpses to transform into those monsters.”
“What’s that?” Talen asks.
“What’s what?” Luck replies. “The Stairway to Heaven or the war ghuls?”
“Both I suppose,” Talen replies.
“The war ghuls are carnivores raised from human dead through magic so foul it sours the soil for a thousand years. They can mutate their bodies and combine bones, flesh, and sinew to create longer limbs and stronger muscles. Bands of them roam the mountains terrorizing villages and drawing the Valion knights down from their strongholds. As awful as that sounds, however, word is that something even darker happened up there in the last few weeks…something so terrible no one dares speak of it. Whatever occurred happened near one of the Valion keeps that overlooks the pass through the mountains. The war ghuls won’t dare climb the Stairway after that. They shun it in fact. For whatever reason, if you get caught by a pack of ’em, it’s best that you make your way to the top of the Stairway and hope for the best. I don’t care how skilled you are, an entire pack of war ghuls will finish you in ways I care not describe.”
“And what exactly is the Stairway?” I ask, trying desperately to ignore the chill that’s just thrummed down my spine. “You promised to explain that.”
“It’s a waterfall, largest one you’ve ever seen. It lies due west of here three days into the mountains. Follow the trails alongside the River Morgoth. You’ll know it when you see it. Damn thing rises so high that it definitely earns its namesake.”
I look to Talen. “Shall we leave in the morning?”
“Angelaria says she’ll be ready by then,” he replies, handing Luck an empty cup.
I hand mine to Luck as well. “Tell Luminara I’ll be in touch when I have the sword,” I say.
“I’m sure it goes without sayin’,” Luck says, “but I’ll forward your word to the high priestess. And may Tethyr’s speed be with you both. I think you’re going to need it.”