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Brak the Barbarian ? The Mark of the Demons
Two Brak the Barbarian Adventures
By John Jakes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1968 Exeter Limited Partnership
All rights reserved.
THE UNSPEAKABLE SHRINE
The stars are trailing clouds of sin
While heroes drowze and dream.
As temples crack and tumble in,
Mad holy men blaspheme.
Behold the soul's dark night begin—
Yob-Haggoth rules supreme!
The Vision of Nestoriamus
"God is dead!"
Tittering and drooling, the craze-eyed mendicant rattled his copper bowl and blocked the narrow street. Filthy hair hung to his shoulders. His teeth were rotted brown stumps. Gaining no immediate response from the huge, brawny barbarian whom he had chosen to stop and importune, the mendicant whined all the more insistently.
"God is dead, the abominations be praised! A dinsha for this most deserving and humble of the Dark One's spawn...."
"A coin?" said the barbarian. "Beg elsewhere."
"One coin only, barbarian."
"Get away from me."
"Only one, lord and master...."
"I said get away."
A gigantic nausea filled the belly of the strapping stranger whose way the mendicant blocked. Smells of offal, of drugs, sweet sputtering torchwood, narrow thoroughfares that still managed to exude a stink despite the crispness of the frosty air, all mingled together in the nostrils of the big man, making him want to choke, or curse, or both.
He had walked through the wall gate of Kambda Kai at chill sunset, and had been wandering wonderstruck in its riotous streets for the better part of this night Everywhere he had seen nothing but squalor, sharp practices, licentiousness. If this were the dazzle of the great civilized kingdoms that lay between him and fabled Khurdisan, then he had erred in taking the southern road out of the high steppes, the wild lands of the north.
The mendicant refused to be put off: "Just one lowly dinsha, outlander. One poor coin, and in return I will direct thee to a certain house where most delicious spectacles are performed in honor of the Dark One, Yob-Haggoth, who has banished the Nameless God. If you but know the correct word to tell the doorkeeper in that house, you will see amazing things, such as enchanted hill goats, and young, plump maidens who turn into ..."
"I have no taste for that kind of depravity," growled the barbarian. His right hand dropped toward the haft of the huge broadsword at his waist. "Stand out of my path."
The mendicant's eyes flickered. He glanced right and left, as though seeking assistance. The narrow way of frowzy shops was quiet. Just ahead, where the street became a slop-strewn stair and rose half the height of a house-storey, revellers could be seen on the upper level They raced back and forth across a square under the frosted blue light of links hung in walls.
Said the mendicant, "It's clear you don't have the proper respect for citizens of the Ice-marches, friend. A foolish attitude. Most foolish."
"I know nothing of this country you call the ice-marches," replied the barbarian. "Nor do I believe I want to know more. I am passing through on a journey. Now will you let me by?"
So saying, he withdrew the broadsword from its plain beaten scabbard just enough so that the mendicant flinched backward a step, uncertain as to whether the barbarian meant to draw out fully and gut him. The big stranger's lips skinned back over his white teeth and with a ghoulishly friendly smile he added: "If you do mean to balk me in my journey, beggar, say out plainly. Then we shall see what can be done to change your mind."
The mendicant muttered epithets in an unfamiliar tongue. But a rumbling laugh built within the brawny chest of the barbarian, for he had worked round a step or two so that the scrofulous beggar was now backed against a shadow-stepped corner between intersecting walls.
The mendicant seemed to hunch in fright cowed by the figure before him: the bigger man plainly was an outlander, a huge, yellow-headed giant whose hair was plaited in a single long braid that hung down his back. A glossy fur cloak and cowl around the barbarian's shoulders reflected the torchglare dimly. The big man was naked save for this fur and a garment of lion's hide about his hips.
The tense scene held a moment longer, the barbarian in a wide-legged stance that indicated he was ready for the worst. The mendicant's face changed. It became fawning.
"May Yob-Haggoth smooth my tongue for the proper apologies," he whined. "I did not recognize in your honor a man of such stout purpose. Of course you are free to go on your way. I will seek out another newcomer to the city of Kambda Kai to fill my humble bowl."
With those words he raised his beggar's cup, as though to show it to the barbarian. But in so doing, he suddenly cackled with laughter, snapping his wrist hard.
Coins flew. The dinshas struck the barbarian's cheeks and eyes, startling him. The mendicant squealed and darted around him, strident breath clouding in the sharp night air. The barbarian spun as the mendicant raced toward the stairs at the street's end and let out a high-pitched cry: "We'll see how arrogant you are with the magical blind boys, clod." Waving his arms, he howled, "Ho, Darters! Ho, down here in Sweetmeat Alley. Ho, a stranger!"
And in the blowing murk at the top of the stairs, a company of small, lithe figures who had been racing past wheeled into sight.
The yellow-headed barbarian slid over so that his back was against the wall of a building along the street. In an upper window across the way, a young girl looked out, sleepy-mouthed, dream-eyed. She noticed the uproar below as the dozen or more filthy boys screeched and squealed down the stairs. Raising a drug pipe to her pink lips, she turned away inside, indifferent. In the night there was the beat of timbrels, the clap of hands, the shriek of mindless laughing.
Since leaving the high steppes and coming down through the foothills across the border of this craggy land known as the Ice-marches, the barbarian had encountered no civilized places until he reached the walls of Kambda Kai. At first it had seemed a splendid city. But now, from all appearances, civilization was turning out to be little more than thievery, blasphemy and other depraved occupations. And it further appeared that he would be forced to fight a pack of children.
The boys formed a half-circle just up the street. They were ragtag, underfed, dirty-skinned waifs with straggly hair and pointed wolf's teeth. The big barbarian noticed with a start that something was amiss in their faces.
Where eyepits should have been, each boy carried two silver-crystal disks somehow embedded between eyebrow and cheekbone. Their fingertips, too, were made of this silver-crystal stuff, pointed, like needles.
"Our little acolytes of Yob-Haggoth," the mendicant spat, "are most efficient when it comes to disposing of outlanders who mock the Dark One's ways. At him, Darters!"
A boy somewhat taller than the rest stepped forward. The blind silver-crystal disks shone and winked with reflections of the smoky blue torches round about. The boy capered, a vaguely frightening little figure in his animal-skin breech clout. He executed a contemptuous bow.
"Honorable greetings, outlander," he piped. "Blessings on you and welcome to Kambda Kai, capital of the Ice-marches. A difficulty here?"
"One was just concluded," the barbarian rumbled, "and another is about to begin if you mean to quarrel. Be off, little boy, before I take this sword and whack your backside."
The Darter's pointed teeth glittered. Others in his company stirred, hopping from foot to foot, making an ominous hiss between their teeth. The silver-crystal disks of their eyes shone with strange luminescence. The barbarian's spine crawled.
That he, a grown man, should be forced to confront such a pack of underfed striplings somehow did not seem amusing. Rather, it seemed ominous. There was a sensation of great menace pressing near.
Perhaps it was the strangeness of this city, which he had expected to be so full of wonders. It was the first city he had ever entered in all his savage life. It had turned out to be a place of deceit, of shadows, of the sense of vileness whispering behind a thousand latticed, dark-lit doorways.
"We will forgive your crude tongue, outlander," said the boy, clicking his silver-needle fingertips together, "if you will answer but a question or two."
The big barbarian quickly decided it was better to delay them with talk than to launch against them with his blade.
The notion of swinging his broadsword at a company of children still did not sit well in his belly.
"Speak on," he rumbled.
"From where do you come?" the boy inquired, bobbing his head forward as if to listen closely.
"From the north."
"Where are you bound?"
"Into the south."
"Have you a name?"
"Among my people I'm called Brak."
He did not feel it was necessary to mention that he had been cast out by those people, cast out by his own kind. Yet even before that dark event, he had already decided to leave, for he had heard from a wandering shaman about the strange, rich, warm lands that lay southward. He had mocked the warlike gods of his own kind once too often, and had been banished, he set out.
His banishment was not entirely grim. He had a destination.
He was bound to seek his fortune in the warm climes of Khurdisan far southward, and was ready to be dazzled by the splendors of the cities and kingdoms which, the shaman said, lay between. He was ready to fight his way, if necessary, until he came to the great crescent-shaped land of Khurdisan that stretched, so the shaman told, nearly from the Pillars of Ebon in the west to the Mountains of Smoke where the world ended in the east.
Khurdisan. Khurdisan the golden. The name was music, and his constant companion. In Khurdisan, the shaman said, there was plunder, fat plunder for the taking. And golden sunlight, and gold-skinned girls.
And this was how, in a jingling, blue-lit street in Kambda Kai, hardly started on his quest, Brak the barbarian found himself already balked, face to face with a company of weirdlings who hissed between pointed teeth.
"One question more, Brak," the Darter boy said with another click of his silver-needle nails. "What god calls you to his throne?"
"I have been told there are many gods in the kingdoms between here and the south," Brak answered. "In this I find confusion. I know none of them. I bow to none."
With a malevolent little snarl, the Darter boy rushed close, his blind-eyed face upturned. "There is no god but Yob-Haggoth, outlander. We are his people. One of the needlelike-fingers waggled under Brak's nose. "If you will but fall to your knees and vow fealty to Yob-Haggoth who rules not only the Ice-marches but all the world, you may pass on."
Brak's pulses quickened with a fury. "I told you I bow down to no one, spindle-legs."
"Yob-Haggoth is supreme! Yob-Haggoth casts his dark and blessed mantle over all the world. Yea, over those who claim him and over those who do not. He vanquished the Nameless God in times gone by, and he is the king of all the good darkness. You will swear fealty to him."
Brak's patience had worn thin. He lifted his strong right hand and placed the palm against the forehead of the filthy-haired Darter boy, intending to thrust him away.
Just as his palm made contact, a ghastly tingling began, a sharp, stabbing pain which lanced upward into his shoulder and made him reel back panting against the wall.
The silver-crystal disks in the Darter boy's face glittered as he danced away. He laughed: "Ho, mates! I think we've found our mystical third this night. One believer—one who worships the Nameless God—and now this outlander, black in his unbelief. Before the sun rises, three bloods can mingle in praise of Yob-Haggoth."
Through this indecipherable harangue, Brak stood tensely, still agonized by the pain in his forearm. He tried to flex his fingers so that he might pull his broadsword free. The Darter boys were closer now, shuffling forward in a closing semicircle, uttering those foul hisses between their teeth. The boy whom Brak had touched raised his fingers, pointed, cried: "Take him, lads. Take him for the glory of the Dark One."
The Darters charged forward, blind eyes flashing.
Instantly Brak summoned what little strength was left in his right arm and hauled out his broadsword. The time for scruples had passed. The mighty iron blade winked out. In the narrow street, a deadly silence fell.
From the square at the top of the stairs at street's end, women cried out in abandon. Brak had a dim vision of a young girl sprawled prone and protesting on the back of a he-goat that was dragged along by a rope, the rope in turn being pulled by half-a-dozen revellers who filled the night with licentious howls. The evil sight was quickly obscured in the blowing smoke, but somehow Brak knew that the entire vile tissue of this city of Kambda Kai periled him now.
The Darters shuffled forward. They hissed, their silver-disk eyes glowing. Swallowing, Brak hefted his broadsword. He grasped its hilt with both hands to swing it around in front of him and hew a path free.
With an abrupt cry, the leader of the Darters leaped high in the air. He grasped a beam that projected from the storey of the house over Brak's head. The boy hung there, mewing and laughing and waving one arm to direct his fellows forward. Brak took a lunging step. Somewhere the mendicant laughed with revengeful pleasure. Brak swung the broadsword with all his might.
Up flew the hands of the Darter boys. From the tips of their silver-nail fingers, tiny spurts of silver light hissed through the air.
One molten droplet struck Brak's arcing blade and exploded with a shower of green and crimson sparks. Another stung against his shoulder, made him clench his teeth at sudden, violent pain.
He hacked the broadsword back and forth through the air, but it was suddenly enveloped by a rainstorm of those silver darts. Touching his blade, each burst into a star shower of sparks. Soon his vision was blinded by a phantasmal curtain of light beyond which he could not see.
Other droplets of the silver stuff pricked against his skin, bringing exquisite agony at every contact. Brak flung back his head, howling with savage fury.
The red tide of anger ran high in him now. He dropped his broadsword with a clang. He flung off his fur cloak and cowl, the better to maneuver. He bent down to retrieve the sword and stared into a dazzle of sparks that grew brighter, brighter, so bright that he could barely see the dimly glittering haft of his great weapon.
At last his fingers closed around it. The blade felt as heavy as the heaviest metal when he struggled to lift it.
The increasing rain of silver darts drove him back along the wall. He raged and cursed and yelled in his barbaric tongue, swinging his broadsword into the firestorm of exploding sparks which continued to spurt from the needle-fingers of the Darter boys. Dimly he sensed them closing in around him. He saw flashes of silver-disk eyes through the exploding patterns of light.
He was being crowded back and back, driven along the wall of the street like a goaded animal in a pen. Each time he swung the sword with his pain-lanced arms, it cut through nothing at all but more coruscations of fire. Rising in the noisy night of Kambda Kai he heard the hissing laughter.
All at once something hard gave beneath his straining back.
Turning, Brak staggered into what appeared to be a courtyard. He felt paving stones beneath his feet. He blundered ahead, eyes still smarting with the painful reflections of the darts of the boys. He nearly toppled into a scum-covered pool where a fish's skeleton bobbed.
Struggling to keep his senses, he whirled back around in a split second, lunged, and threw his mighty shoulder against the great basswood door that had opened in the wall. One of the Darter boys was just charging through. The slam of the door caught the boy by surprise. He shrieked.
Brak shouldered the door all the way shut. It would not close completely, for the Darter boy's right hand was thrust through the opening. The hand blazed with silver darts that shot away and illuminated the courtyard.
Brak steeled himself with the thought that these were not children but savage, magical creatures in children's form. He raised his sword arm while still leaning against the door. Mercilessly he chopped downward.
The Darter boy's arm was lopped off. No blood gouted, only a foul-smelling puff of saffron smoke.
From the street came furious hisses and a single insane bleat of pain. Brak was able to shut the door fully with one more mighty heave of his shoulder. He rammed the bolt into its socket.
Panting, his whole body tormented by the stings of the darts which had touched him, he closed his eyes and rested briefly against the rough door.
What madness was this? he wondered. How foul were these so-called civilizations, these fabled kingdoms and cities of men into which he had chosen to wander in quest of fortune? What pit-born demons haunted the world? All at once he bitterly regretted the circumstances that had driven him from the high steppes. He cursed the decision to bow to that fate and journey south.
But in a moment, his basically simple nature reasserted itself, and he realized he had no choice but to go forward. Taking a tighter grip on his broadsword, he started across the courtyard.
Excerpted from Brak the Barbarian ? The Mark of the Demons by John Jakes. Copyright © 1968 Exeter Limited Partnership. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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