Released on September 8, 2019, this story continues the tale of Nimba. It is set during the events of The Yoga Trilogy, which is a new one for me. It’s also got magic and Ifrit and miracles and suspense. I thoroughly enjoyed writing it. I hope you like it!
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Ali crossed from the beaded doorway of his office to the large trunk hidden behind his desk. Retrieving a key from his pocket, he bent and slid it into the lock. Smiling, he turned the key and raised the lid.
Within the chest lay several pounds of jewels. Topaz, emeralds, sapphires, rubies, diamonds, opals, - there was seemingly no end to the hoard. They were each cut expertly into shapes as diverse as the selection. Some were perfectly-faceted spheres, some oblong ovals, some pyramidal, beautiful prisms all. Ali put his hand, adorned with so many rings, into the mess of treasure and retrieved a single gem.
It was a ruby, and several degrees larger than the rest of the jewels. It glimmered in the sunshine streaming in through the window of his office. Unlike most of the rooms in the Black Mamba, there were black bars on the windows.
The whoremaster clasped the gemstone to his chest and grinned. Then he stood, closed the trunk, and crossed to the entrance again. He poked his head out. Hafez and Nasir nodded back to him.
“Keep the Gods-damned rabble away from this corridor,” he growled in Erifracian. “I am going to speak with the Ifrit.”
The men nodded to their boss and moved to comply. Satisfied, Ali turned back, letting the beads cascade behind him as he found his place in the center of the room. He then produced a piece of white chalk from his pocket and bent to draw on the black stone of the floor. A few moments later and the pentagram was complete.
Ali suddenly felt warm. His turban, scarcely more than a bundle of multi-coloured cloth, rarely bothered him in spite of the oppressive sun that always seemed to be shining in Tunuska. He wiped the sweat from his brown and removed it, placing it down on his desk next to an inkpot with a black quill sticking up from it.
It was fear, of course. Ali had been communing with the Ifrit for a decade, but he always felt the wave of anxiety that preceded a conversation with his Master. He consciously steeled himself and raised the ruby.
A few quick rubs of the large facet on the side, and suddenly a smell of brimstone pervaded the chamber. Moments later, the floor beneath the pentagram began to crack and sputter steam and smoke. A nauseatingly liquid thread of fire was the first indication that the Ifrit was on its way. Moments later, the enormous creature stood silently before its slave.
“Ali,” hissed the malevolent mass of fire, “where is the girl? You disappoint me.”
“Ah, yes, well, my Lord, it is just that-”
“It is just nothing, you sniveling wretch. I instructed you to fetch me an Atikan princess and you returned with naught but low-born village cunts.”
“There is no longer any Kingdom in Atika, my Lord! By luck, it seems that my men have brought me the next best thing: the daughter of the Leader of the Human Tribe. Her people are tasked with protecting the Heart of the Land-”
“Do not use that name around me!”
“I apologize, my Lord,” said Ali, bowing his head in fearful contrition. “But she is as close to an Atikan Princess as you will find in this time. I complied with your wishes, my Lord.”
“You disgust me,” said the Ifrit. “Very well, slave. Bring her to me, on the night of the Solstice. We shall see if there is anything of worth in her line.”
Ali inclined his head once more. With that, the sulfuric stink fled, as did the Ifrit and any trace he had been in the room. Including the chalk-drawn pentagram.
The whoremaster sighed, sat down in his chair, and waited for his heart to cease its galloping. It was not a short wait.
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Nimba turned from the window, her eyes wide. She knew that magic existed – it was how Master Libélula helped to heal the people of the Tribe and command the spirits of the jungle. But to see that great being of fire, how it seethed power and malevolence. The reality that her own harsh Master was the slave of another creature was a cold comfort, given the fact that Ali had just agreed to offer her up to the Ifrit as some sort of tribute.
Nimba had to escape. Now. She finished her the duties which brought her outside – scrubbing a bundle of sheets in the spray from the little outlet from the aquifer which ran the length of Tunuska. It was there that she had been attracted to the little barred window by the noise. She nearly tumbled from the crates she had climbed onto when the creature appeared in Ali’s office. Instead, she managed to keep it together for long enough to eavesdrop, before going back to her washing.
Taking a deep breath and gathering up her bundle, Nimba walked back into the Black Mamba. She needed to find Ellamby. It was daytime, so it was likely that her friend was resting from the previous night’s ‘events.’
They had been trying to figure out what had happened to Rino, Ellamby’s lover and another of Nimba’s childhood friends who was abducted from their homeland of Atika with them. That investigation had prompted the pair to learn Erifracian as quickly as possible, but they had intuitively known to keep their learning a secret from Ali and his men, those bloodthirsty creatures bearing scimitars who were seemingly everywhere the girls turned.
Nimba was a quick study, and it was through seemingly disinterested pillow talk with the more loquacious johns about what was going on in Tunuska that she learned the tongue and learned about the politics and geography of her environs.
It was probably a good thing that Nimba had just decided to flee. Those strange men from the north, the ones with yellow dragons on their chests, had come just a couple of days before. The one who had been ‘assigned’ to Nimba had been kind, and refused to have sex with her. It was a refreshing experience, though she so wished to have been able to hear him speak of the wider world. Unfortunately, his tongue, Thrain, was something that she was completely unfamiliar with.
A bizarre event had occurred, after this man who wanted only to change into a newly-purchased suit of cuir d’arbalest had left her room. Nimba had felt a strange sensation of import about him. She could not explain it, but their Fates were intertwined and she knew that she would meet him again.
And then the City was thrown into disarray. Nimba overheard the Mamba Guards speaking. King Revanti had declared war on Thrairn, the country in the north from which those men had come. Several of these Knights with the yellow Dragon were killed on the waves just outside the harbour. There were whispers of a Mage, a man who commanded lightning.
The City was on high alert, it seemed. But Nimba was prepared to wager that a pair of black women from Atika was not the type of spy for which the Tunuskan City Guard would be keeping an eye out. Whether or not they found Rino, this country, preparing for a great northern invasion, would let the girls slip on out of Tunuska.
To where? Neither of Nimba nor Ellamby knew how to sail. But they did know how to navigate the jungle. And, if Nimba had heard correctly from one of her ‘clients’, all they had to do was head due south and they would eventually find themselves crossing into the rainforests of their homeland.
Whatever Ali had planned with that evil fire being, Nimba would be long gone before she became a part of it.
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“They’ve escaped, Master.”
The Mamba Guard, a man wearing a cuir d’arbalest breastplate painted with an inverted white pentagram and a black snake slithering down towards his belly, looked to the other similarly dressed man next to him. He nodded to him, and then the speaker swallowed hard before addressing Ali again.
“The two Atikan girls. Nimba and…” The man trailed off.
“Ellamby,” said Ali through gritted teeth. “Well?”
The Guard looked to his fellow again before speaking. “Well, what, Master?”
“Do you have any fucking leads, you Djinn-damned desert rat?”
The other Guard, the man who had remained silent up until this time, cleared his throat and spoke.
“There is only one place they would have gone, Master. Atika. We will check the Harbour and speak with the camel merchants.”
“They will have to pass through the swamp if they have taken the overland route, Master. Certainly the snakes or fever will claim them before they manage to make it through to the jungle.”
“If those girls die, it shall be your hides that I deliver up to the Ifrit.”
Both men gulped back terror.
“Do not involve the Tunuskan Guard. Revanti may be planning to set sail for Isha, but I will feed my own flesh to the Demon before I let you cock this up. Do not forget the Blessings our Lord has bestowed upon us.”
With that, Ali’s eyes became as fire and a gout of flame erupted from his fingertips, billowing towards the whitewashed walls next to the men. It came so close to the Guards that their eyebrows were singed off. The wall glowed orange where the flame struck it for a moment, before cooling to leave an enormous black scorch mark.
“There shall be a return to the old ways, men. The ways of fire and ice, of blood and steel. We shall become as we were in the time before this Yaruz and his pacifist camel shite destroyed the minds of the proud Erifracian people.” Ali grinned at his Soldiers. “No longer bent to a foreign King, we shall have an Emir once more, Djinn and Ifrit will roam the dunes, and our only reminder of the peace-loving Yaruzian cunts will be heads on pikes outside of the Palace.” Ali’s face hardened. “But we will need the Ifrit’s help, and he desires an Atikan Princess. You fools just let one escape.”
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The flight to the edges of the swamp was surprisingly easy for Ellamby and Nimba. They took a few minutes to look for Rino before buying a camel with the gold they had stolen from one of the more well-off johns, but Tunuska was so big that they simply wandered for a little while before feeling the heat of their escape lick at their heels. Ali would be looking for them, they both knew. And to be caught, well… It was better to simply not think about it.
Going south meant first passing through a scrubland, with low bushes and trees bent as if by the hand of some enormous God. Instead, they soon learned why most of the people leaving Tunuska and going in their direction wore head scarfs. The wind whipped up by the time they were an hour along the road, bringing with it dirt and small pebbles.
But it did not last, and the worst the women were left with was a wind lashed face and eyes that took some time to stop watering. Before the day was out, they had arrived.
“How shall we cross that?” Ellamby asked, pulling a saddlebag off the camel. There was a strange smell on the air, like rotting vegetables blended with a mineral that neither had ever come across before.
The swamp itself seemed created from a mixture of grasses and branches that were poking out of a morass of brown water. Every now and then a bubble would rise to the surface and pop, sending more of the potent miasma into the air. The scent was not unpleasant, nor was it pleasant. It simply was.
“There,” said Nimba, pointing to a little hut far in the distance to their right, a building erected right on the edge of the water. Above it, a sign was hanging. Upon it, something was written in Erifracian, which neither of the girls knew how to read.
“I will bet you one of those dinars that you took from Hakim that they rent boats there.”
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“What are two Atikan girls doing so far from the City, hmm?”
“Please sir,” said Nimba, “we wish only to rent a boat.” The young woman’s hand went involuntarily to the hilt of the dagger she had lifted from Hakim, hidden beneath the folds of her clothing. She did not want to have to kill this man, but she would.
The man, who looked to be rather aged, did not seem threatening. He had a white beard and eyes that were so blue they bordered on purple. On closer inspection, they almost certainly were purple. He smiled and nodded at Nimba’s response.
“Only looking to be friendly,” he said in perfect Atikan. “My name is Lykander. You are lucky,” he added, “if you had arrived a day earlier you would not have found anyone here. I just arrived back from a Pilgrimage. In Honour of Yaruz.”
The man pointed up to a decaying painting that was hanging above his head on the wall behind him. On it, a man in a turban sat cross-legged on the ground before an oasis. He was looking directly at the person who had created the portrait. His stare was unnerving. Nimba had to look away.
“Please sir, the boat,” added Ellamby.
“I can see that you have no wish to speak of Holy things, my friends. I will not force you. But you would do well to consider the choices in your life that have found you pursued across a foreign land.” Lykander put his palms up in mock surrender. “Do not ask me how I know these things – I would not be able to tell you. Just as I would not be able to tell you how I know that your name is Nimba and yours is Ellamby. You are daughter to the Chief of your Tribe and you are lover to a man named Rino. A man whom you have left behind.”
The women looked to one another. Nimba produced the blade, but the hand that held it shook erratically with fear. Ellamby’s mouth moved, trying to form words.
“Surely you have seen Master Libélula weave magic,” added Lykander. “Are my Miracles of Sight so strange to you? I will not harm you, Nimba, you can lower the knife.
“Who are you?” Nimba eventually asked, after complying with the man’s suggestion.
“I am nothing more than a Priest of Yaruz, a Servant of the Eternal One.”
“Ali mentioned you,” Nimba blurted out. “At least, your Priesthood. He wishes to put an end to Yaruzian worship, to bring the Djinn and the Ifrit back, to return Erifracia to something terrible and bloody.”
Lykander nodded, his expression unchanging.
“You know this man means your religion harm?”
“There is nothing that occurs in this world that is not the express Will of the Eternal One. If the Yaruzian Order must be broken to fulfill this Will, so it shall be.”
A pause hung on the air. Both the women looked at each other, the shocked expressions still evident, before returning to their strange host.
“Will you go without Rino?” Lykander asked, smiling. “He is your one true love, Ellamby. And Nimba, can you really expect to become the next Chief of the Human Tribe if you are prepared to leave your people to wolves in man’s clothing? The others that came with you are beyond saving, but Rino – his Salvation is your Destiny.”
“Chief of the Tribe?” Nimba said. “I am a woman, I cannot be Chief. Besides, my father is the Chief and a young man yet.”
Lykander simply smiled sadly.
“No,” said Nimba. “No, he will not die!”
“I cannot tell the future, Nimba. All I can do is act in accordance with my True Sight. There is a difference there. Take comfort in the fact that you need to survive and do not worry about your father.”
Nimba was uncomforted. “You know,” she said, “Ali needs me for some profane ritual with the Ifrit, a ceremony to restore the old ways. It is why we are pursued. If we get caught, the Yaruzian Order is sure to be in mortal danger.”
“Nimba,” said Lykander, his words aglow with patience, “if we were ever to decide against taking the right course of action because of our petty fears, I would say that the world belongs to men like Ali. You have not yet Seen, so I understand your reticence. As you are without experience, you must rely on Faith. Understand that you are more than this world, more than this life, more than everything there is. And yet, you are nothing. Learn to walk that tightrope and all will be well.”
“Ellamby,” Lykander said, turning from Nimba, “what say you? Will you go and rescue your Soul’s mate from the jaws of Hell? I can tell you where he is being held.”
Ellamby appeared terrified, still dumbstruck by the total irrationality of what was occurring.
“Ah, yes, the fear. Perhaps I can help.”
Lykander bent down and fetch something from beneath his desk.
“I could hardly be called a Maker of Miracles if I did not produce something tangible from time to time.”
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Rino looked up from his task. He had been cleaning a rusted scimitar, caked with blood and other fluids, when the Slavemaster interrupted him.
“You are a stupid little bastard, you know that?,” the Slavemaster inquired in his native tongue. He was dressed in the ‘formal’ wear of his position – a crown with two bull’s horns jutting from the side, cuir d’arbalest on his chest, thin brown pants on his legs, and a blood red kerchief tied around his arm. In his hand, he held a worn cudgel, the preferred method of securing compliance from the slaves.
Rino, still rather inept with Erifracian, simply nodded. It usually went better for him if he did.
“Hurry up with that Gods-fucked scimitar, and get on to cleaning up the tridents. There is another fight tonight, and I won’t have my Gladiators showing off dirty equipment. I want the steel to sparkle before the blood flows.”
With that, the man threw down a fresh tangle of iron wisps, the preferred scrubbing material in use by the slaves of the Charcoal Arena. It played host to an underground blood sport competition, a place where men fought each other to the death, while nobles and commoners placed bets on the fights and watched as their Champions survived or died in the brutal matches. King Revanti was well-aware of its existence, but chose not to interfere – many of his trusted Advisors and Guards were enormous fans of the place. The ceremonial sacrifice to the Ifrit was even overlooked, in spite of the official ban on the worship of the old elemental spirits that shepherded over the land in days long gone-by.
Yaruz, and his peaceful protestations of the never-ending war with Thrairn, were what ended the ancient feud centuries before. The Thrain people believed it had something to do with a Longbow, but the Erifracians knew the truth: Revanti’s ancestor, King Suleiman, had found God through Yaruz. He declared the war against Thrairn over and the worship of the Djinn and Ifrit to be at an end. He accepted the terms of the Thrain peace treaty as-is, a brutal compromise for the proud people. The Temples to the Ifrit were torn down and the Djinn went into hiding, where they eventually all died out. The mixed-race people who had Djinn ancestry were generally murdered and ostracized until there was sufficient dilution of the bloodline with human stock.
Magic, too, had fled. Yaruz, like the Christ-man, spoke of direct experience of the Divine, a state of affairs that brooked nothing of magic. Sorcery became distrusted. Before long, magic was mere fodder for stories, rather than anything that even smacked of reality.
Still, men like the Slavemaster, who gathered up street urchins for ritual murder before the strange-mass of stone that was said to be a likeness of the Ifrit, dreamed of a day when the old Gods and magic returned. He had found an ally in Ali, the sadist in a rainbow turban. The men often found themselves imbibing poppy smoke from a hookah together, watching the spectacle of slaughter on the sand of the Arena from an alcove high above the rabble.
Usually, such meetings took place at night. On this day, however, Ali came bounding into the sandstone chamber where Rino was cleaning the dirty weapons.
“Tariq,” growled Ali, “we have a problem.”
“Ali, my friend,” replied Tariq the Slavemaster, “it is good to see you. But it is a bit early – the fights do not begin for several hours.”
“I am not here for the fights, Tariq. Did you hear what I said?”
“I did,” replied the Slavemaster. He hooked his cudgel onto his belt. “Now, please, tell me: what is the problem?”
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It could only be used in the moonlight. That is what Lykander had said. The women sighed when phial with the Blessing of Nyx began to glow brightly with azure light as soon as the sun dropped down behind distant mountains. Taking a single drop from the bottle apiece, per Lykander’s instruction, the women stole back into Tunuska.
Lykander had told the women how to get to the Charcoal Arena, but he did not warn them about how difficult it would be to sneak in past the three thresholds that acted as a security wall between the City and the unseemly doings within.
As it was, each of the prospective spectators had to offer up a password to a series of burly men with cuir d’arbalest and scimitars. They would then unlock enormous rusted iron doors that looked more a propos in a prison than leading away from the wondrous sandstone vistas of Tunuska. Mercifully, there were no ceilings in the open air corridors that led to the final entrance.
After a few false starts, the women managed to slip in along with a crowd of drunken men through the first two gates. At the third, a pair of Guards stood before the last gate. The women could hear the sounds of the crowd through the portal before them, but as it stood, neither could see where the other was.
Putting her life in the hands of chance, Nimba saw an opportunity to enter and took it. Moments later, she heard Ellamby cry out.
“What the fuck is this?” queried a gruff voice in Erifracian.
Nimba turned to see one of the men holding on to thin air. Ellamby called to her again. Nimba had been holding her stolen dagger at the ready throughout the shifting and shimmying she had been required to do to avoid touching anyone as she had made her way through the City. She did not think, she simply reacted.
A moment later a hole opened up in the flesh of the Guard’s and a gout of blood erupted, seemingly without cause. He let go of Ellamby and fell to his knees, the other Guard started to shout a warning, and then was similarly silenced.
“We have to move – now!” hissed Nimba. The plan to slip into the crowd of spectators unnoticed fell apart. They marched on into the building and as soon as they were out of the reach of moonlight, black flesh and tattered clothing rematerialized. The spell was broken.
“The slave quarters,” said Nimba, shuffling in past a pair of men in deep conversation. They seemed more interested in speaking about the price of Atikan mangoes than the fight to the death that was occurring on the sands before them.
The Gladiators were both from the north, that much was evident by the shade of their skin. One wielded a trident and the other had a scimitar and an oblong shield. The man with the trident was on his knees, one hand holding the haft of his weapon and the other planted on the ground. Right before the final strike from his opponent, the man tossed a handful of grey-black sand into his eyes and rammed his head into the sword-bearer’s chest. He was sent stumbling. A moment later and the trident was buried in his thigh. The man holding the trident immediately removed the weapon with a flick of his enormous arm.
It was evident to everyone in the stands that the large artery in the scimitar-wielder’s leg had been shredded. A torrent of blood pumped out onto the sand. Before he could die from ex-sanguination, the trident came down into his face.
Everyone in the Arena was rapt as the scene played out. The distraction offered Nimba and Ellamby the precious moments necessary to find a door leading into the bowels of the Arena. Grabbing her friend by the hand, Nimba grabbed the handle and used her shoulder to pop it open.
And then, her vision descended into darkness.
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