Marduan studied the horizon, sensing the signs of a coming storm. The clouds rolled in a sky turned a tawny hue, capricious breeze played with his robes, and the air smelled sour, almost metallic.
Hadaar is so close, perhaps…
He studied the ominous sky. A distant whine and bluster tickled at his ear, and the wind twirled the sand on a nearby dune. Marduan shivered.
No, I should make camp. The Eldritch Wasteland is no place to be during a desert sirocco. Too many unwary souls are already buried beneath these sands.
He moved east, to a nearby, elevated rocky outcropping that would provide some protection from wind. He erected his sleeping tent, securing it firmly within the cluster of the rocks. Then stored his provisions and supplies under a covering of stones and the sledge he used for transport. He wrapped his head and face against the soon-to-be blowing sands, tucked his water bags under his robes and crawled into the tent to wait.
Within the hour, he heard the first patter of sand against the canvas, and the first fingers of wind plucked at the tent. His heartbeat quickened, racing with the ever-increasing tempo of the storm, until the pounding in his ears was drowned by the screaming howl of the gale outside.
He crouched, arms encircling his knees, as the tempest of the desert whipped at the slight fabric of the tent in an effort to breach its meagre sanctuary. The furious zephyrs wailed death in his ears as he closed his eyes, and folded his lips around a prayer.
“In the name of Arakaash, Spirit of Hadaar, warden of your people, I beseech you, guard me from all harm. Defend me, your faithful servant, from peril and deliver me from death.” Sweat dripped from his brow, induced from the sweltering heat inside the tent. “I humbly ask for your Shield of Light, Arakaash, Spirit of Hadaar, and safe deliverance from this storm.”
An echoing roar of sound froze more words, leaving them silent on his lips. From the depths of that screaming wind, a shrill yowl rose and Marduan shuddered.
“It’s just the wind, or some poor unfortunate creature. It’s not—”
He clenched his jaw against such thoughts, against the stories told to him by his grandmother, of the otherworldly Storm Ghouls. But they crept like strangling vines, up from the dark corners of his mind. Lurid, cautionary tales of creatures skulking in the gales and sands of the Eldritch Wasteland. Shrivelled horrors hunting, waiting to steal a man’s wits and soul, and leave him an empty husk.
Stop it. He chided himself, and smiled. They were silly tales to frighten boys.
Yet, he opened his eyes, staring at the bouncing canvas of his shelter. As he looked, without warning, the side of the tent ripped open, bluster and sand pouring through to pervade the air around him.
Fear urged him forward, and he scrambled on hands and knees, his fingers clutching the flapping bits of tent. With stinging eyes and stifled breath, Marduan pulled a sewing kit from the folds of his robes, and struggled to repair the rupture. To close the perilous gap and shut out the storm.
Then, with but a glance into the gusting, raging air outside, his hands stilled and his body stiffened. His needle and supplies fell, tumbling against stone and dirt. The wind ripped at him, tore the gashed fabric even wider, but he did nothing. Sand abraded his flesh through the protective cloth, but he felt nothing. His whole being stood transfixed by the figure riding the storm, at its clawed hand reaching out to touch him...
A caravan going to Hadaar spotted Marduan a day later, wandering aimlessly along the edges of the desert borderlands. When the outriders reached him, they saw a madman, skin red with sunburn, lips cracked from thirst. He started crawling through the sand, mumbling in a disjointed manner.
“I didn’t understand, I didn’t understand. Forgive me, forgive me Divine One. You are all, they are all. Bless your servants, for they are coming.” The words spilled from Marduan’s mouth repeatedly. “Bless the servants of the Divine One, bless them, they are coming.”
One of the outriders reigned in his horse and dismounted to give aid to Marduan. Then Marduan turned over onto his back and looked up at the man.
The man gasped, backing away while crossing his chest in a warding sign. “By Arakaash, you’ve been marked! You’re one of the cursed!”
Marduan reached towards him. “Come see the Truth, I spread the word. They’re coming, they’re coming.”
The outrider jumped back. “Get away! Stay away from me! You’ve been marked by a servant of the Exiled One! Marked by a Ghoul!”
“Yes, yes, marked forever! Marked by a Storm Ghoul! Praise the Divine One!” Marduan laughed, rubbing at his face, its skin now scarred with claw marks. The gift from a servant of his new Master.
The outrider clambered back atop his horse, ready to flee, only to find his way blocked by his comrades. Marduan watched their confrontation with a foolish smile plastered on his face.
“Where are you going? We came to give aid.”
“Not to him! He has been cursed! Leave him to the desert!”
“What? No! We cannot leave him here. We don’t abandon men to the desert!”
“He’s not a man, not anymore! He’s been marked!”
“Nonsense and superstition! He is hurt. We do as ordered!”
“Barys is correct. We take him to the caravan, let the overseer decide.”
Marduan let them bundle him on to a horse, and then into a pallet on the floor of an open caravan wagon. He heard voices arguing, and then a commanding voice.
“We take him into the city. One more raving mad fool wandering those streets will do no harm.”
Marduan chuckled softly. If they only knew, Divine One, if they only knew.
He let out a sigh as the wagon jostled and began moving.
Soon they approached the city of Hadaar. Marduan raised his head and smiled as the caravan carried him through the grand arched gateway. The Divine One would be pleased. He laid his head back down upon his sickbed and closed his eyes, listening to the wheels of the covered wagon take him to his destiny.
In the darkness, the Divine One severed the link with Marduan and sighed, a quiet sound satiated with relief. Her chosen arrived in the city with no difficulty.
“In a little while I will be free. Free.” Outside her prison, she heard the wailing of the Storm Ghouls. “Patience my children, patience. Our time is nearly here. Arakaash the Betrayer will pay for his sins.”
She reached out again into the black void that kept her restrained and away from the world, searching for the edge where it touched the human existence.
She stretched out further, fingering the bare wisp of consciousness, the will of her chosen. Even inside Hadaar, her bond with him was strong. This time she would succeed. Every snapping frisson of energy in her aged bones imparted knowledge of impending victory. That thought carried a smile to her indigo coloured lips, a contented smile.
Soon, Arakaash, soon. Justice will come by my hand and you will be delivered into your retribution.
She sighed again, this time with sadness. Three hundred cycles of her life spent imprisoned, so he might reign in Hadaar unopposed. The Divine One shut her amber eyes against the festering anger rising in her soul, willing it down, dispersing it lest it contaminate her purpose.
I will not become you, Arakaash. I will not corrupt or damage. I will reclaim my city from the greed and violence you cast over it...
Marduan knelt in the city temple, a smile on his face as the statue of Arakaash towered in front of him, casting a long shadow. He stared at the likeness of the god, studying the bronze sculpture, its four massive arms, the beak, the hard, elongated eyes. No longer did he gaze in awe, now he felt only contempt.
You are nothing compared to the Divine One.
Done with his musings, he bowed before the altar, back bent, his head inches from the grey stone floor. He reached inside the sleeve of his robe and caressed the leather sheath attached to his wrist. He drew out the small knife nestled there and slid the blade across his palm.
A tiny giggle bubbled from his throat as the blood seeped from the deep cut and he watched his skin grow wet with the red fluid. Dropping the knife, Marduan gleefully dipped his finger in the crimson liquid and painted a streak of colour on the floor.
With stroke after stroke, he decorated the cold, grey stone, carefully crafting a glyph, a symbol of mystical power shaped from his life’s blood. In a raw red hue he constructed his gift, a connection to his goddess, weaving her path to his world. Finished, he pressed his injured hand to his chest and began to chant.
“Arisan, Arisan, Debauca, Debauca, Iloratorru! Arisan, Arisan, Debauca, Debauca, Iloratorru!”
Over and over, the words flowed from his mouth, the volume of sound rising with each utterance, until the temple reverberated with the boom of his voice. Marduan rose to his feet, still chanting, his body twitching and flung his arms up, towards the temple ceiling.
The glyph on the floor pulsed, in rhythm with Marduan’s voice, shifting against the surrounding air. It shimmered, glowed, alive with a scarlet radiance. It convulsed, spun half a turn, and then again in the opposite direction. Beneath it, temple stone transformed, as if converted to air and water both, swirling, revolving ever faster back and forth.
And outside, the air itself began to wail…
The Divine One screamed, a primal, haunted cry of triumph and elation. Before her vision, the dark veiled walls of her prison cracked, and ribbons of ruby light illuminated her existence. Howls rose in the wake of her fading shriek—permeating the desert and the streets of Hadaar—as the Storm Ghouls felt the barrier fracture. Sandstorms erupted around Hadaar; the Ghouls waited vigil for their God.
The Divine One reached out her pale hand and pushed against the barrier. It gave way and shattered…
Marduan danced in front of the altar, his arms flailing, laughing manically. Around him, priests and worshipers fled the temple as it shuddered and rumbled, its interior bursting in radiance. Before him, the statue of Arakaash rocked, a vast bellow surging outward from the stone, and it splintered apart as The Divine One re-entered the human world.
The force of those two events threw Marduan backward and he landed, broken and twisted, on the floor of the temple. Still, he lifted his head and smiled. With blurring sight, he beheld his Divine One facing the god Arakaash, who stood amongst the stone rubble of his image.
“So, Iloratorru, you finally broke free of my prison.” The harsh voice of Arakaash boomed across the open space and Marduan winced in pain at the sound.
“Yes,” a word spoken with a tone sweet as music, “I have come for my justice.”
Through the open doors raced screeching sandstorms fuelled by Storms Ghouls and engulfed the temple. Marduan cried out, burying his face in his clothing as the power of the sand pummelled his body. And then it was over. Marduan raised his head, but he was alone in the temple.
Sand and sound exploded out
of the city of Hadaar, soaring far into the desert, on the wings of the hoards
of Storm Ghouls and two warring gods. They landed atop a vast dune, on the
borders between Hadaar and the Eldritch Wastelands. For the first time in centuries,
these rival gods faced each other.
Arakaash thrust out his massive torso, a pair of arms resting on his hips, the other raised in defiance. He tilted his head, his green eyes flashing hate, the sun glinting off his golden beak. He dug his toe claws into the sand and roared, a jagged, abrading screech of war.
“I will kill you this time!”
Iloratorru, the Divine One, smiled and showed her fangs. She lashed her long sinewy tail, making tiny trails across the dirt and dust. Her skin flushed a deep sapphire, she unsheathed her claws, and she snarled.
“Bind him, my children!”
With bellow and scream, with howl and thunder, a thousand Storm Ghouls ascended from the desert, engulfing Arakaash. They fettered his arms, pinioned his legs to the earth, clogged his beak with sand. They besieged him, imprisoned him, holding him fast for their mistress.
She glided forward, tilted the head of her foe, and saw an emotion in his eyes. Fear. It gave her enormous satisfaction.
“Time for you to die, Arakaash.”
Iloratorru thrust her claws into his chest, with the weight and patience of her centuries long captivity behind the blow. She grasped the small heart of Arakaash and ripped it bloody from his chest. With a choking gurgle, a too proud god turned to dust, his ash carried away by the breeze. Iloratorru tossed the black lump of heart over her shoulder. It dropped into a hummock on the dune, to be buried by the windblown sand.
“It is over, my children. It is at last, over.”
Iloratorru, The Divine One, looked upon Hadaar, her city haloed by the fading sunlight, and went home.