Tangled up in black silk sheets while lying between two very beautiful and very naked women was probably the best way to wake up, Bahram thought as he opened his eyes and stretched languidly. Of course, it would be even better if the two women weren’t sobbing quietly to themselves, trying not to disturb him; but, it was still a lot better than the way he used to wake up in some of his previous lives. In a bedroll on the ground, unbathed in days, waiting to kill a man just because he had stolen from others, or raped them, or killed them…honestly, as many lives as he had ended, all of the criminals started to blur together over the centuries.
Judging by the strength of the sun on his crimson curtains, the sheikh knew it was around 13th Bell or so. Bahram couldn’t remember the last time he had woken up with the sun like he used to do. “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” he muttered scornfully as he extracted himself from the sheets. He would have liked to have slept even longer, but his bladder was full and the water closet was calling his name. Besides, he really should send the two young women home before their husbands came looking for them. Not that they would say anything over his having “dishonored” their wives. No, like all the other cowards he dealt with, they would just bow and scrape and murmur some inane platitude about E’laa’hi and how it was the will of the Divine that he had sex with them.
Standing there, voiding the vodka and sharaab he had drank last night at the Ring while betting on the combatants, Bahram actually got excited thinking of the good news he was hoping to receive. After all, one lone duelist shouldn’t be a problem for his magi to acquire and “convince” to join him. Then, once he had taken back the money he lost when that bastard Arash had the nerve not only to not die but to win, the sheikh would let his men use what was left as target practice. Maybe he would give the body to his dogs. Did he even have dogs? He knew he had owned some, in one life at least, but he wasn’t sure if it was this one…no matter, he realized. If he didn’t have any he could always get some if he so wanted.
As he washed his hands in the sink, Bahram stared at himself in the mirror. To all appearances, he was an Aryan man in his 40s, whipcord thin, skin tanned and still slightly muscled. Greasy long black hair was unbound as it usually was, nearly concealing his black eyes and lips that always seemed locked in a sneer. His hawkish nose had no hair underneath it, nor did his chin. The Deva knew that most people feared or hated him, which was fine as long as they also gave him whatever he wanted. And they always did, in the end. If there was one thing he was sure he had learned after all these years, it was that those who took were always happier than those who gave. One saying he was sure didn’t come from his despised brother.
Just thinking of him made Bahram’s hands clench into fists. What was he calling himself now? Io, or something like that. Not even a proper Aryan name; their mother –if she was still alive- would have been so disappointed in her oldest son for turning his back on their culture. Of course, that would have been a first, him disappointing her. It was always Shaghad that caused her face to line from all the scowling, never Rostam. Always Shaghad that was told what to do, never volunteering Rostam. Always Shaghad that upset her, never Rostam.
With a snarl of rage, Bahram swept his arm out and wiped everything off the sink counter, trembling as the various empty bottles and jugs shattered on the ground. Gripping the edge tightly, the sheikh leaned forward and tried his best to control his anger. He hadn’t thought of their original names in years, why in the Hells would he today? Was there something special about today, some anniversary that he had forgotten, some important date that he had shoved down deep in his soul to bury, never to see the light of day again? Damn it all, why?!
Then, like the curtains had parted to reveal the sun, the light of truth illuminated his memories. It had been over seven lives ago today, the last time that he had talked to his brother. Unlike Io, Bahram never bothered to remember the names of his previous incarnations. They were the past, and he was the future. Why should he dwell on them like they were special? “Brother, I’m worried for you,” Io had spoken to him as Bahram pulled his falchion from the thief’s back (Bahram never bothered to remember any of his brother’s former names either).
“And why is that, my sibling? Are you not happy that we have put an end to the reign of thievery this unlucky soul had terrorized this region with?” Bahram said, pausing only to wipe his blade off on the back of the corpse’s shirt. After all, he no longer cared if it got dirty.
“Look at him, brother! He was just a child, barely 15 if even that! He had so much potential in him; with our words, perhaps we could have turned him from his dark path. And now, that potential is wasted, running out of him as a pool of blood on the ground.” Io was passionate, pleading with him and gesturing to the body (come to think of it, this was one of those times that Io had been female - if Bahram had ever been so weak as to be trapped in a female form, he couldn’t recall it).
Sheathing his falchion on his back, Bahram spun to face Io. “Look, the surrounding villages had asked us for help, since this thief,” and here he kicked the body, “had been stealing their food and they were slowly starving. So what if he was young? He was old enough to voluntarily commit a crime, and that makes him old enough to pay for it. You can’t believe if we had turned him over to the villagers they wouldn’t have ended his life, probably by hanging.”
“Maybe his family was starving as well. After all, a lot of these outlying villages haven’t exactly been welcoming to his people. I think they are called the…Liyudem, Liyudah, something like that. He may not have had a choice.” Io continued to plead the thief’s case.
“Of course he did,” Bahram said as he turned and walked away from Io. “He and his people could have stayed where they came from and left Padeshahi to the only real people that matter. It’s the other races like him that our ruining our way of life.” He heard Io running to catch up, and wasn’t surprised when his shoulder was gripped and he was spun around. His brother always did have a soft spot for the pathetic vermin that had infested their land.
“That is not the way of E’laa’hi and you know it, brother!” Io pleaded with him.
“Well, maybe I’m tired of following some stupid moral rules that make no sense anymore and just seem to give others advantage over us!” Bahram had shouted in Io’s face, and even now could still see the hurt in his (her?) big puppy dog eyes. By the Elemental Princes, even remembering it was still infuriating! “I’m tired of all of this, tired of pandering to my inferiors, and by the Hells I am most tired of you and your constant preaching. Maybe I need to be on my own for a while.” This next memory, however, still brought a smile to his face.
“You can’t mean that, brother. I admit, we have been going rather hard in these lives; if you need to take some time off to regain your focus, I’m sure E’laa’hi will understand.” Io had probably thought his words would have a calming effect on Bahram; he more than likely hadn’t expected the vitriol that then spewed from Bahram’s lips.
“E’laa’hi this and E’laa’hi that. I’m done with dancing to some invisible strings that pull me this way and that, I’m done with always doing what is ‘right’ just because you say I should, and by the Elemental Princes I am done with you!” And with those words, Bahram had pushed Io down, taken out his falchion, and stabbed his brother right through the heart while screaming for all the heavens and the world to hear. Even when the red haze had cleared, Bahram remembered not feeling the least bit guilty he had committed murder (that’s right, he now remembered he was a dervish in that life).
“Brother,” Io stuttered through blood-flecked lips. “Why?”
Leaning down on the blade, Bahram had spat in Io’s face. “Because now, you will go to be reborn somewhere hopefully far away from here, if I am lucky, and I won’t have to travel with a nagging prig anymore.” Up until that point, they had always managed to perish together, and were reborn close to each other and around the same time. Even though he despised E’laa’hi (and still did), Bahram remembered praying to the Divine that his brother would not be able to find his way back to him.
Whatever other questions Io had wanted to ask never were spoken. With a look of utter horror and shock on his (her) face, Bahram’s brother had taken his (her) last breath and died mere seconds later. The Deva even remembered that he hadn’t bothered to tend to the body at all, just took everything of value and left it out in the open for vultures and other carrion feeders to feast upon. He did recall thinking that maybe in death, Io would serve a greater purpose than he had in life, at least as far as Bahram was concerned.
Coming back to the present, Bahram used the small sink to draw some water and splash it on his face, rubbing away his memories of the past. Since he couldn’t travel back in time, there was no point dwelling there. Only the here and now mattered; even the future wasn’t important, since there was little he could really do to influence it. Besides, the new source of his powers had no use for a future, and if all went according to plan neither would anyone else.
Bahram could still recall the moment he found a new way, a new path. In fact, it was one of the few memories from that period of his existence that he enjoyed revisiting. It had been after that life had ended –at the hands of some villagers who had overwhelmed him after he didn’t take no from the nazim’s daughter as an answer- and he returned from the Lost Times. Usually, after he returned to life, he could recall faint voices that Io had claimed to be the Yazata talking to them while their spirit rested. But not this time. No, this time he could perfectly remember hearing a voice that sounded like oil sinking into sand, unctuous and slow, as it told him that he didn’t have to be beholden to E’laa’hi if he didn’t want to. There was another way.
Ignoring the feeling that he was needed to the south and that was why he had come back, Bahram remembered travelling for many days to the west. Since he hadn’t followed the vague instructions that Io had said was E’laa’hi making its will known, there had been nobody to meet him and to cloth and arm him. Instead, he remembered ambushing a lone traveler, killing him before taking his belongings and stealing his horse. He never bothered to stop and take care of the mount; when it died, he just stole another, and so on and so forth.
Finally, after travelling non-stop for over a week, Bahram had arrived at a set of hills that were covered in thorn bushes, making it impossible to climb them. Circling around the set of hills twice, he discovered a small path that led through them. Realizing it was too small for him to proceed riding, Bahram had dismounted and tied the horse to a nearby twisted tree, nearly petrified from its time in the harsh sun. If it was still there when he came back, fine; if not, he would find another way back to civilization.
Following the path was not without its hardships, however. He could still feel the thorns digging into his skin as he walked, almost as if they were thirsty for his blood. Bahram had not given up, though. No, he had persevered until he finally arrived at the center of the hills, and faced a deep dark hole that looked like it ate every bit of light that entered its mouth. But he knew that this was where that strange voice had told him to go, and as much as he hated being ordered around, something inside him said it was worth it. Only swallowing once or twice to work up his nerve, Bahram had entered the cave.
He may as well not even bothered lighting a pitch-soaked torch, because the deeper Bahram had went in the cave, the torch provided less and less light. And, to make matters worse, the ceiling of the cave had gotten lower and lower until finally Bahram had been crawling on his belly, one arm holding the ineffective torch in front of him as he pulled himself along with the other. The floor felt slick, and his feet seemed to give him little purchase on the ground as he tried to push himself further. The walls began to close in the deeper he went, and eventually Bahram was in a passage that was barely wider than his body, just struggling along.
When it had almost felt like Bahram had made a mistake in coming here –not that he had had any idea how to get back out- the passage finally opened up again and without warning the floor gave out and he tumbled head over heels down a steep slope. When he finally came to a stop, the torch had burnt out and his arms and legs were covered in stinging cuts and blood soaked wounds. Once he felt he wasn’t in any danger from his injuries, Bahram had raised his eyes and looked around. What he found took his breath away.
In the center of the cavern was an undulating pulsing glob of pure darkness, darker than a starless night, darker than oil, darker than his own soul. During his journey here, Bahram had realized that he was done being ‘good’ like his brother. Instead of giving, he was damned if he wasn’t going to start taking from now on. And he just knew that this liquid piece of midnight was going to help him.
“Welcome Shaghad,” it had spoken into his mind, its voice feeling like it was coating and staining everything he was, rifling through his memories like a stranger sniffing through a woman’s drawer. “I have been expecting you.”
“What are you? Who are you? And how do you know my name?” Bahram had shouted out into the cavern, as if hearing his own voice reminded him that this wasn’t some kind of twisted dream, that it was all too real. “How are you speaking to me right now? I am addressing the giant blob of ink that’s floating in front of me, yes?”
“You are, yes; I am using my presence to speak directly into your mind, having no body to generate a voice and not needing one. As to what I am, you may call me Zavaal.”
Hearing the name drove Bahram down to his knees, his vision wavering as if reality itself was rejecting something so profane. Slowly staggering up, hands clutching his aching head, Bahram said to it, “What does that mean?”
“When E’laa’hi created all that exists,” and here Bahram remembered the oily blob forming sharp spikes around itself as if it was angry and jealous and maybe even a little afraid, “it generated a light so bright that everything it touched and imagined came into being. But, as you know, all light by its very nature creates a shadow of some kind. I am that shadow.”
“Again, what does that mean? And what do you want with me?” Bahram has said once more, still clutching his head and looking at the blob through clenched eyes.
“What I am is decay: the natural state of everything collapsing. No matter what E’laa’hi does, all of its creations eventually fall apart. And they do that because like weeds that grow in between stepping stones, I have insinuated myself into all of creation.” Here it paused for a second, as if it was gathering its thoughts. “As to what I want and what I want from you, it is simple. I am tired of this world, tired of feeling inferior because I can only corrupt and never create, and tired of following someone else’s rules. Aren’t you?”
The pressure inside Bahram’s head had nearly driven him to his knees again, but the words it had said reverberated around his skull, seeming to grow louder and louder with each bounce. He had known that if he didn’t make the right decision that this life was going to end. Sure, he could defy this thing, let it end him, and be reborn knowing that he had kept the world a little safer. Or, he could do what he wanted for once. Even though the pain was excruciating, Bahram kept on his feet, looked at the center of the blob, and said, “Damn right I am, Zavaal.” This time, all of reality didn’t seem to twist upon itself when he said the name out loud.
His musings were interrupted by a knocking on his door, and as Bahram came back to the present he realized that it had been going on for a while. His curtains no longer glowed from the sun, and the constant tapping on the glass indicated it was pouring down rain. “I’m coming!” he shouted out, and the knocking stopped. Hopefully, it was his magi with that bastard Arash in their clutches. Stepping out of the water closet, Bahram paid no mind to the cuts that his feet accrued walking on the broken glass and pottery. With just a word, his wounds healed themselves and he no longer left bloody footprints behind as he went to the door.
Passing by his bed which seemed very quiet and still, he looked what was on it and clicked his tongue in exasperation. The two women had chosen to take their own lives, slit wrists with some of the shards from the water closet giving truth to how they had done it. It had probably never occurred to them to try and attack him when he had been enraptured in his memories. Not that it would have done them any good to do so. The only change to the outcome would have been his killing them instead of doing it to themselves. Bahram was really annoyed. He had especially liked those sheets.
Putting the matter off for the moment, he went over and flung open the door. Standing there, looking quite nervous, was one of his magi. Bahram never bothered to learn their names, since they were just tools he used, so he had to settle for simply saying, “Well? Speak up, man. Where are your brothers and that insufferable duelist?”
“There was a problem, honored sheikh. He…he…he managed to defeat the four of them and get away.” The magi stood there after he spoke, wringing his hands and sweating up a storm. It was obvious he had heard of what happened to the others who had brought Bahram bad news, and was wondering if it would happen to him.
Sometimes, Zavaal would help Bahram do things like read minds and whatnot, but this was one of those times that he didn’t need its help to figure out if the magi was telling the truth. He also didn’t need it to provide some form of punishment. Drawing on the connection he wove to each magi he employed, Bahram simply said, “Open the bedroom window, grab the two bodies off the bed, and jump out to your death carrying them.” Since they were seven stories up in the tallest inn in all of Amol, the fall would be fatal. Unable to resist, the magi’s gaze became glassy-eyed and he followed the sheikh’s instructions to the letter.
Sighing to himself about the incompetency he was forced to deal with, the Deva closed the door and walked back into the bedroom. After he went over to the window and closed it, not only to stop the rain from coming in but to block out the screams of people as they stumble upon the bodies, Bahram went over to the table and poured himself some more sharaab. Slowly sipping it and enjoying the smooth flavor, the sheikh realized that he was probably going to have to get his own hands dirty taking care of Arash. A huge grin nearly split his face in two at the prospect. Finally, some real entertainment while he did his best to destabilize society and to further along his and Zavaal’s plans. It was turning out to be a great day after all.