Scorpion Archipelago – Temple Island – 31st October 1997
He had forgotten many things over the course of several millennia. Memory had become a soup; a sludge into which everything was stirred. From time to time, the odd thing bubbled to the surface. All that really mattered in the dark brew of his life was the k’ib.
Until recent events, he had long forgotten how he came to stalk this labyrinth, drawn to the torchlight only by the beating of the drums or the chanting of the acolytes offering obeisance and sacrifice. They looked so different from him. He had little memory of the man he was – until the brew had been stirred again he had even forgotten his original name – but at some distant point in his past he had become known as `Ak’ubal, because, like the night, men knew he was coming and dreaded his arrival. For him, the darkness in the tunnels was preferable to the horror in men’s eyes. He knew they feared him now as one might fear a loathsome, bloated spider that crawls forth to kill while others watch in morbid fascination. And despite his fearsome power, no one hated him more than he had come to hate himself.
Yet it had not always been so, and he had been reminded of that just hours ago – was it hours? – time had no meaning for him anymore. Something in the tunnel, as he responded to the calls of his acolytes; a feeling – perhaps a barely perceptible scent, so fleeting it might have been imagination – had taken his thoughts back into the light; and he had known the simultaneous joy and dismay of remembering; the danger of looking back.
It was almost too much to bear, though nothing could compare to the fire, which had flared from the ashes of his soul just days ago, as the acolytes had called him to the outer temple. He had stood blinking, weak like a child, in the daylight. For the first time since he abandoned the world outside, he was standing on the shore again. The smells and sounds had coursed through him with a power bordering on destructive. And the memories; of centuries before, confronting an army; facing them down; challenging a king who…
“…stands before you as your ruler and demands your obedience. The cult of the priests has grown too powerful and corrupt. I am here to set that right.”
He heard this address to the other priests as he stood in the shadows of the temple entrance, the gravitas of the words enhanced rather than diminished by the powerful, background surge of the eternal tide on which this army had arrived; and he felt the hesitation of the acolytes in the shuffling of their feet. Strong though they were in arm, they were weak in mind, relying on his leadership. None of his followers could boast his physical and spiritual strength. He had not allowed it. And now they were confronted by an army, four or five hundred strong as far as he could see, though for all their swords and finery he knew that they had not fought a serious battle in living memory – and to the people of those islands that meant a long time.
`Ak’ubal was merely waiting for his moment, like an actor wishing to make an impact by his entrance. He knew his appearance was baleful – some whispered he was already dead and such was his bond with the k’ib now, it was hard to tell whose heartbeat was the stronger. If a man cannot tell whether he is alive, then either he is no longer a man or he is dead.
“Where is Kaz’khar?” The name, uttered by the king, was alien to the high priest’s ears, but brought with it such a tsunami of memories and emotions that it threatened to overwhelm him. “Where is the man who would take my place?”
Word did get around. It followed in the footsteps of traitors.
“Here I am.” As he stepped out from the temple, he seemed to bring its darkness with him; a black wake. Deep in the shadows of his cowl his face remained hidden, except for a cruel, thin-lipped mouth. His followers parted before him like corn before the wind, and the opposing army rippled in expectation. He felt their uncertainty; smelt their fear – a scent all too familiar to him. But the king, nobility itself, stood his ground. The priest saw how his fingers flexed, sending ripples along his forearms, as though grasping already the hilt of his sword. They might have been equals in strength, for now, but there was no doubt that the k’ib gave with one hand and took with the other, and sometimes `Aku’bal’s body struggled to contain the dark strength he had been given. The king, on the other hand, seemed in rude health, though of course he owed that to the gift of blessed water bestowed by the priesthood. Perhaps it was true what they said about the water. It did not give, but drew on what was already there. However, though the man before him might be dangerous, `Ak’ubal knew he would win the day. Where was the sport in that?
For a time they stood in silence, just the whistling wind and whipping waves as backdrop to the challenge. A guttering flame, which might have been Kaz’khar’s soul, kindled at the sound. Then, to the astonishment of all, the high priest bent a little at the waist and made obeisance, before saying:
“Our lord is most welcome. Too long has he stayed away from the holy ground.”
“Ground stained by too much sacrificial blood,” growled the king. “And were that not enough, word reaches me of insurrection and ambition, combined with a secret so powerful that it makes a mockery of your so-called divinity.”
The high priest had straightened during this pronouncement. “Ah yes, where is the maggot they call Ta’rhik?”
“A maggot, as you call him, that tired of feasting on human flesh, rejected the corruption of the priesthood and remained loyal to his king.”
“The very same.” The contempt in ‘Ak’ubal’s voice was almost slime-coated, so thickly did it issue from his throat. “But a maggot nonetheless, as you concede.” He saw the king’s jaw muscles clench at this deliberate and disrespectful misinterpretation.
“This can still end peacefully.”
The priest pointed with a bony, but powerful hand towards the king’s men. “Easy to say, with an advantage of ten men to one priest. But we do not stand here seeking a fight. We are unarmed.”
“You lie. I would wager your swords have newly seen the whetstone, and were we to look below that grey-cowled robe of yours we would find armour. Indeed, were we to search this island, we would find the accoutrements of war.” The king allowed the scowl to fall from his features for a moment. “But, put that all to one side and we can still exist alongside each other. Give me the k’ib.”
The man once called Kaz’khar did not waste time with denials. “I see Ta’rhik has advised you well, and doubtless he has told you where the k’ib is kept.” He turned his body, bowed again slightly and gestured towards the temple with one arm. “Go seek.”
The king’s face betrayed indecision for the first time. “Bring it to me.”
“I will not, for the lack of trust shown in me.”
It had been a clever move by the priest, for his king, so confident and strong to this point, could not allow himself to appear in any way unmanned. He squared his shoulders. “Then stand aside. I fear not the ghosts and demons with which you seek to terrify our people.”
‘Ak’ubal looked at him, and the king caught brief sight of a pair of hooded eyes that bulged and gleamed as if they had spent too long in darkness. “They are not to be feared,” was the priest’s ambiguous response.
The king beckoned to his captain. “Ready the men. Bring half and leave half here to prevent anyone escaping.”
Suddenly the voice of the high priest boomed out, and he saw the impact of it on all who heard. The soldiers saw his ancient, scornful eyes looking out from beneath his cowl and they were afraid. “No man save the king may enter our temple. Death to all that do so.” He saw the soldiers hesitate. Their fears, beliefs and superstitions ran too deep. Now `Ak’ubal could see the cornered look in the king’s eyes, though the latter was not beaten yet, and took the advantage that he thought he had still.
“Very well. Captain,” the soldier straightened, “ensure no man…” – here he looked at the priest – “…or creature follows me.
“My lord.” The soldier nodded his obedience.
With that the king drew his sword, and with a set jaw that could not mask his trepidation, he strode into the temple. The soldiers watched till the last glints of daylight off his crown disappeared.
Morning turned to afternoon and then to dusk. With the failure of their king to reappear, the soldiers’ courage started to fail them, though they did not desert their posts. `Ak’ubal knew this and waited, watching unease go rotten and turn to fear. He knew their resolution was straining against its leash and pulled the fraying rope tighter, instructing the priests to strike up the peculiar, skin-crawling ululation that was the preparatory chant for sacrifice. No man dared bid them be quiet. It grew colder. At last, as the sun started kissing the ocean, the high priest turned to the soldiers. “Your king has entered a labyrinth in which he is doomed to wander forever, unless I deem it otherwise. You know by now, in your hearts, that he will not return.” He pointed past them. “I bid you look your last upon your home and the sun, for you will see neither of them again.”
With that he cast back his cowl and every man fell back, even his acolytes. He knew what he had revealed by throwing back the curtain. “Now I know why I no longer wish to see my reflection,” he whispered to himself and sent forth a laugh that all present wished he had not; a sound that, in itself, would render an island uninhabitable for centuries. Had there still been birds in the trees on Temple Island, they would doubtless have fled in a flurry of cries and beating wings. Though he wore no armour – the king’s guess had been wrong, unaware that the high priest knew no fear – he carried a sword, which he drew now. It seemed to blaze red in the sunset. He looked across at the other priests and nodded once. They too threw off their robes to reveal shining breastplates, vambraces and swords. At another signal from `Ak’ubal they set upon the cowering army, who fell back, defeated without striking a blow. The surf boiled red as the priests hacked, slew and hacked again. One of them turned to the high priest, though he averted his eyes as he spoke.
“Shall we capture some for sacrifice, my lord?”
`Ak’ubal stared ahead. “No. Kill all. We shall reap the harvest elsewhere.”
Not a single soldier was spared – a blessing, had they but known it. Those bodies that did not float out to sea were hurled into some of the boats in which they had sailed across. Now the high priest addressed his acolytes, who stood blood-stained and proud, full of energy despite being fifty men who had slain five hundred. “Load the ladders and yourselves into the other boats. How perfectly has that traitor Ta’rhik done our bidding for us, ensuring we now have a fleet in which to make our crossing? As soon as you are in deep water, hole the boats with the bodies and let them sink.” He raised a finger, to take pause for a moment. “Except the captain. Keep his head to display to the people. Show them the price of disobedience. Let it be the last lesson they learn as free citizens. Then round up every man, woman and child you can. Load them in the boats and bring them here. Those for whom there is no room, let them live in their doomed city…for the moment. Bring all provisions you find; we will feast well.” He gave that chilling laugh again, before his expression changed and he looked over his shoulder. “Oh, and post two men at the door of the temple, lest our former ruler should, by some chance in a million, ever find his way out again.” He smiled, revealing startling white, sharp teeth. “And now, I have hunting of my own to do.”
With that, the high priest returned to the temple and plunged into the darkness of the labyrinth. First he had returned to the inner sanctum to reassure himself that the k’ib had not been taken, though he suspected he would have felt that in his obsidian heart. Then he stalked the tunnels.
That had marked the start of a timeless hunt.
A part of him had grown almost to pity his adversary. There had come a time when he found his quarry’s armour, discarded like a snake’s skin, no longer of any use, just a noisy hindrance. `Ak’ubal had called into the darkness:
“Why do you still run; still hide? You are trapped in this lightless world, with no torch to offer hope, no food to sustain you and no hope of dying as long as the power of the k’ib chooses to keep you alive – if this can be called a life.”
That was when, almost on a whim, he had discarded his own torch. Had he wanted to even the odds? Perhaps his life would have ceased to have meaning if he no longer had a prey to stalk. Whether the irony of those final words occurred to him now – could this be called a life – he did not know. His thoughts wandered a mind every bit as twisted and dark as the labyrinth.
His eyes had grown accustomed to the dark, as did, he assumed, the king’s. At last, the high priest himself had become lost in the ways of the labyrinth, or rather, became one with its shadowy confusion, as his obsession cast a veil across what remained of the dim light of his humanity. Now even his priests avoided him, but they too were lost souls, knowing no other way than to obey him; he had replaced their gods. So they summoned him ritually, like some demon of the underworld, their chanting his only guide through the tunnels; their obedience so blind that, knowing his hunger now was only for human flesh, they sacrificed their own. The harvest of citizens had long ago dwindled to nothing and even those who had been kept in perpetual slavery to work the barren land or fish the sea had gone. Now the chosen victims, drugged with amala, took the step that he could not, and ended their ancient misery.
That desperate, decaying relic of a way of life had breathed again, when the acolytes brought flesh and blood from the new world, and he had felt some strength return to the part of him that might be mortal as he feasted.
The first sighting of the huge bird some moons ago had thrown the priests into a state of terror, and he had demanded to be told if it ever came again. When it did, two days ago, he was not scared. He had witnessed man’s progress through the eons; knew that an unfathomable length of time had passed since his people reached these islands and that man would have moved on in his thirst for knowledge, whereas the priesthood had stood still, trapped by its old ways and an ancient, vast ocean. `Ak’ubal had long ago ceased to be wise and had become one with the shadows – dark with knowledge. He was not afraid; as he watched through the distant-eye that one priest had brought back from a trading trip, he saw men and women disembarking from the bird – clearly some sort of flying ship. Astounding! Man had grown great. Then, as he had watched them reach the shore in their strange boats, he had at last felt a frisson of fear. Who were these people? One thing he knew; where man goes, man follows. Part of him longed to join them, but this new age of magic would hold no place for the likes of his priesthood. His only chance – their only chance – was to kill the new invaders and keep safe the secret of the lost kingdom, and the k’ib.
That very night he had sent two scouts in one of the two remaining boats – the fleet they had acquired after the defeat of the king had long since rotted, as the priests knew little of the sea and the upkeep of boats. To his dismay, the scouts returned to the temple with one of the new settlers as captive.
“This will betray our presence,” he had rasped in the whisper that he knew filled the other priests with fear.
“We had no choice, my lord,” they had quivered in response. “He woke even as we entered the camp, and would have roused the others.”
He had gestured for them to drag forward the prisoner, who had already regained consciousness and struggled, though his puny body had been no match for the acolytes. There had been such terror in his eyes as `Ak’ubal had leaned towards him and said: “Who are you?” No response. “Why are you here?”
A helpless, horrified shaking had met both questions.
“Should we use him, my lord, as bait to bring in the other fish?” asked one of the other priests.
“No.” The priest considered something. “Did the others see you?”
“No, my lord.”
“Then they will not know where he has gone. We will take them one by one.”
“They may post guards now.”
“There are six of them; two of them women, one an old man, but I do not doubt, as they have mastered the art of flight, that they will have weapons of great power beyond our understanding, so we should be cautious. Let us hope, when they discover this one missing, that they think their enemy is around them on the island of the citadel. Let them turn their backs to the sea.” `Ak’ubal had stared at the prisoner and seen him quail, before looking back at his brotherhood. “For now the fate of this man shall be that of all first captives in our history of combat. The gods demand it.”
He had seen the wolfish grins spread across all the faces in the flickering torchlight as they remembered what this meant, and then a chilling ululation had issued from their throats.
Two more of them had come forward, stripped the prisoner, and then seized his legs so he was held spread-eagled on the ground, while another acolyte had come forward with a stake the length of two men. In reality, `Ak’ubal did not know whether this part was indeed demanded by the gods, but it had become his preferred method of sacrifice. He seemed to draw strength from the victims’ prolonged agony; the slow death that ensued as a mighty hammer drove home the stake, impaling the unlucky captive upwards between the legs. Done skilfully, it had been known for the wretch still to be alive when the first limb was ripped away. This captive had not been made of strong stuff and had died early in the act. As for the other priests, he suspected they watched with a mixture of relief and despair. The priesthood had once been one hundred strong. The full moon still required a sacrifice and a few years before, they had run out of victims from the dungeons – not that those unfortunates made much of a meal centuries after their capture. This sacrifice was a reminder to the watchers of the fate each had escaped for the moment, but would be theirs in the fullness of time.
And then a remarkable thing had happened. The high priest had felt new life and power surge through his ancient body as he had ripped off the victim’s arm and consumed this foreign flesh. And he had seen the truth; the error of his belief that these new settlers should be killed. Fresh blood was needed to save the priesthood from extinction. And not just in their stomachs; more important – in their veins. New flesh was needed to yield; not to the knife or impaling stake, but to his body and will, so that he could cease to be `Ak’ubal, and become Kaz’khar, high priest of a proud movement once more. Otherwise, there was no escaping the fact that the priesthood was dying, even were it to abandon its ancient, cannibalistic practices, which judging by the bloodstained mouths around him now was not about to happen.
He had risen from his throne, after they had made their lengthy obeisance to the altar, and said: “Hear me my priests; this – ” here he gestured towards the half-eaten corpse, “ – has tasted good. The gods are pleased. Can you not feel the new power inside us?” There had been a murmur of consent. “This race is strong. We must breed with them. Let us think on how best to bring them, impregnate the women, and make the priesthood strong again.”
An old, long-forgotten beast rose within him as he pictured the women spread-eagled and being impaled, but not by some sacrificial stake.
However, at this moment it was his anger that needed appeasing, having discovered that two priests, seeking to satisfy their own desires, had returned to the island of the citadel without his knowledge to capture one of the women. Another of the acolytes, doubtless wishing for favour in `Ak’ubal’s eyes, or hoping to postpone his own death, had informed him, and for the second time in two nights, the high priest found himself summoned from the labyrinth. His bitterness – he knew no other state of mind now, only degrees of rage – deepened with the late arrival of the two guilty men, whose tardiness merely confirmed their shame. They quailed before him now.
“Fools, why did you float a decoy?” he demanded, still hiding the full extent of his rage, after the priests had sought to explain their actions, claiming, of course, that they had tried to capture the woman for him.
“They had posted guards, my lord?” The two men shook.
“Now they know the threat lies across the water from them, not on their own island. You have betrayed us. They may come with their weapons.”
“But we would have succeeded, my lord, had we not been disturbed by another of them emerging from the trees. But he did not see us; their weak eyes cannot pierce the darkness. Are they truly to be feared, mighty one? Would a master race still sleep in tents? Nor did we see boats, my lord. They cannot follow us. ”
`Ak’ubal rose from his throne and descended the steps. “I bade you only to think on how best to seize the women. Clearly your minds have grown weak and are no longer capable of thought. And I have seen their boats. You would call me a liar in this gathering? Do you truly believe that they are not to be feared; that I am wrong?”
Both priests shook their heads in vehement denial and their eyes flickered around, not daring to look at his fearsome face, while doubtless also seeking in vain for an escape route. “No, my lord,” said one, “we beseech you.”
“But I know your plots. You took one of the women for yourselves, and would fill her with your seed in the hope of supplanting me with your own line. Where have you hidden her? Why were you late when all were summoned here?”
“Please believe us,” said the other. “We only…we were ashamed of our failure and feared to show ourselves.”
`Ak’ubal placed his hands on the first priest’s shoulders. He moved them inwards, almost caressing the man’s neck. “Calm yourself,” he said, and then with a sickening, tearing sound pulled upwards, removing the head. He looked at it and said: “Do not lose your head.”
The other priest started jabbering and backing away, but he found no escape through the acolytes, who pushed him forward again to his fate. When he had finished, the high priest placed the two gruesome trophies on either side of the k’ib on the altar. The eyes of the two victims continued to move and the mouths to speak, such was the power of the k’ib. This gruesome show could last for an hour or more and never failed to amuse `Ak’ubal, but its primary purpose was to serve as a warning against disobedience.
However, this night he wanted more than amusement and he addressed the others: “In the belief that you are all equal fools I will go with you tonight and seek the woman these traitors have hidden. If we do not find her then…” he put out a hand and touched the k’ib, in which the pulsing appeared to strengthen, “…our beating hearts will, at next moonrise, make their first journey across water since the day of our arrival on this shore. Once again, it will signal a new beginning.”
The priests turned at his signal and filed from the inner temple through the lower tunnels that led to their cells and onwards to the cliffs on the opposite side of the island; they had been built as an escape route should the population of the citadel have ever realised that five thousand people could end the reign of one hundred priests. But `Ak’ubal waited behind, looking at the k’ib pulsing beneath his fingers. It sharpened vague memories already awakened by the taste of new flesh.
Then he looked up. There it was again; the presence he had felt earlier in the tunnel when he had been summoned; smells he could not recognise, mixed alluringly with some that he could. It disturbed him. He would be alert tonight, watching, waiting – more Kaz’khar than `Ak’ubal – strengthened by fresh blood and new purpose, for the first time in…he cocked his head, but time betrayed his memory once more.