tagSci-Fi & FantasyDemon Child Ch. 20

Demon Child Ch. 20


Demon Child: Chapter 20

A new Aga Khan.

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The regiment was surrounded by the growing mass of people. As a single being, they moved as if in a trance, their eyes locked upon the scarlet temple in the distance. They raised their voices as one, a boundless, pervading melody that pulsed through Aylanna's body and spirit. It was a call and an exaltation that poured into her heart.

The crush and flow of the crowd was irresistible. There was no option but to be swept along as the worshipers surged onward. One by one, the Twisted Dagger warriors became separated from the column, slipping from the backs of their mounts, their faces taking on the rapt expressions and their voices lifting up in the mind consuming chorus. Aylanna fought to stay close to Jhardron, struggled to keep her mind clear but there was no fighting the overwhelming numbers or the hypnotic seduction of the song.

There was no fear, no sense of danger. Instead there was a pervasive sense of joy and anticipation. Something was calling her and she was compelled to answer that call. Soon all she was aware of was the sensation of being carried along, her awareness expanding until she lost all sense of herself. She merged and became one with each and every one of the worshipers.

There was no memory of slipping from the back of her stallion. Faces would swim into her vision and then disappear. Bodies jostled her, but hands reached out to steady her and she found herself doing the same, instinctively helping the others along, unaware that she too hummed and sang the same song that reverberated through them all.

As they drew closer to the temple, the press did nothing but grow tighter until finally at the very base of the temple the crowd could not move forward another inch. The pyramid seemed to reach the sky, a series of wide tiers that rose up and up, forcing her to tip her head back as she looked up. The sense of waiting, of pent up anticipation surged up and over her and the sea of supplicants stopped singing as one. It was as if the entire world was holding its breath.

There was a movement, a figure dressed in pristine white appeared in an open archway and then another and another. Dozens of identically dressed priestesses filed out and stood along the lip of the lowest tier. As one they raised their arms up to the sky, their voices in unison, intoning the ancient invocation of Pan'Shash'Sha'Am. Their song celebrated her return to her home, thanked her for the gift of her tears and begged for her love and her gift of fertility for all her children. With each line, their words were repeated and reflected by the throng.

Gradually the timbre of the incantations began to change, transforming from joy and welcoming of the goddess's return to something more desperate. A charged, pleading, imploring cry rose up. The priestesses abruptly tore away their white robes and stood proud and nude in the sunlight. They began to call out to Jha'Mak'Tah, begging him to join the goddess. And as they cast their clothing down and their pleas up toward the sky, the mood of the horde transformed, the tension of anticipation reached a crescendo and a wave of palpable sensuality crashed through the press of flesh.

Male supplicants began to scramble up the staircases and once they reached the assembled priestesses, they threw themselves upon the waiting women in a mindless mating frenzy. Those that could not reach the stairs turned toward the nearest female form and they were met with willing arms. Within seconds the whole of tableau was a mass of writhing bodies. Aylanna had no memory of pulling her dress from her body or who it was that she pulled down upon her; she was not mating with any single man, any one woman, she was connected to the all.

There was no sense of the passage of time. There was no knowing how long the orgiastic trance of the goddess compelled them to reenact the first primal act of mating between god and goddess. It was long after dark when one by one; a spent individual would untangle themselves from the dazed, somnolent carpet of bodies and make their way back home. By morning light only a small number remained, some still limp upon the ground, others sitting watching the new sun rise up and reveal the trampled grass littered with discarded clothing. A few white clad priestesses wandered from one person to another, checking on their health and urging them to go home.

When one knelt down and gently touched her forehead with a blessing, Aylanna blinked and shook her head, trying to clear the fog from her mind. Still bemused she blurted out, "What... how..."

"It was the Saturnalia, the greeting of the new sun and the first day of a new year. All are caught up in the frenzy of the goddess and her lover. It was a potent omen that the goddess chose to return now at this time of upheaval in our land. And you are the strange being that a certain warrior has been seeking after half the night. Come, let me help you stand." Aylanna blinked and groped clumsily for her crumpled dress lying nearby in the sodden grass. The priestess smiled gently and helped her to pull it over her head. "We should hurry, the young man that seeks you was very anxious, something about the council."

Aylanna's legs trembled with weakness as she trotted along behind the priestess. Curious she looked at this new person more closely. Her head was shaved, a short stubble of grey turning her smooth black scalp ashen. She was older, thick through the body, wearing a simple white shift. Her only decoration was her massive bead necklace that showed her long service to the goddess. They did not approach the pyramid, instead the older priestess took off at a determined pace toward the confusing mound of squares and windows that made up the court of the Aga Khan.

It was the first time Aylanna had really looked at the court of the Aga Khan in the clear light of day, unobscured by clouds, mist or rain. It looked more like a mound of rubble than a building. She made a pained face; the outside of the despicable place reflected the convoluted plots and machinations that pervaded every action of its devious inhabitants. Without thought she cleared her throat and spat.

It was not Jhardron that stood impatiently beside a line of tethered stallions, it was Jhu'kresh. The second in command visibly relaxed as soon as he saw her, beckoning to her urgently. "Ha'akh, you are summoned by the council. We must hurry."

His urgency was obvious but as she tried to mount the tall stallion, her weak and wobbly legs failed to lift her up. He grabbed her about the waist and nearly threw her up into the saddle. He grabbed the lead rope and kicked his mount into a headlong gallop toward the court. In minutes they were inside and Aylanna was pulled from the saddle and literally running through the maze of hallways. There was no time to speak, to ask a single question, to even think about what may lay ahead of her.

As she was hurried through the meandering corridors, Aylanna could not help but notice the strange absence of guards. The Court of the Aga Khan was deserted, the hallways were strangely empty, no sentries stood at the doorways. There was not even the usual sense of perpetual watchers. The first people she saw were a pair of priestesses that stood beside the entrance of the great meeting chamber but they did not challenge Jhu'kresh or Aylanna as they passed through.

The vast great meeting chamber of the Aga Khan stood nearly empty. A semicircle of chairs stood in the center, all but one the chairs were occupied by mature warriors in their finest gilded armor. Aylanna recognized Jha'hamatla and next to him, Kah'matlah head of House Broken Spear. She counted quickly, ten chairs and one larger one obviously reserved for the Aga Khan that stood empty. A few servants hurried to and fro, a small group of guards and warriors stood to one side. Her eyes searched every face but Jhardron was nowhere to be seen. Jhu'kresh pushed her to stand in a corner and moved to whisper rapidly with one of the watching warriors.

A withered and remarkably tiny woman in a simple pristine white dress stood in the center of the circle. Aylanna's eyes widened with respect at the mass of gold that hung around the priestess's neck. She was speaking in a hoarse ancient rasp, "We cannot postpone this council for another day. The Saturnalia has already delayed us too long."

One of the Khan Lann, a man Aylanna had never seen before, stood up, his voice loud and just slightly belligerent. "And who has called this council? Where is the Aga Khan?"

The priestess held up her hand. "I called this council to discuss precisely this subject. Where is the Aga Khan? He lies in his chambers, neither alive nor dead. It is an omen and a mystery. Now I respectfully ask that House Adamant to please sit."

Something buzzed in Aylanna's ear and she restlessly waved her hand about her head to chase away the nagging insect, staring with fascination at the scene. The warrior nodded and spoke again in the same loud voice, "Yes, House Adamant will sit but we demand to know what has happened." And as he moved to sit, two other of the seated Khans voiced their unity with his statements with low harrumphing hear-hears.

The high priestess slowly turned, looking at each seated Khan in turn. She lifted her arms and began to formally invoke the name of the goddess, "Mother, you chose to come back to us now. You came to lead and protect us at this time of great peril. Please let your loving hand guide us on the correct path, fill my heart with your serene wisdom, let my words be your words." She lowered her arms, her voice low and vibrant, "It is the goddess that calls this council. This land is her land and you are her children."

"Without a leader, without an Aga Khan, it is a matter of time before the houses turn upon each other. Come, my children, come look upon your leader. I leave it to you to decide if he lives or if some evil magic prevents his departure to join Jha'Mak'Tah. He lies nearby. Come, join the vigil." Without a backward glance the tiny form of the priestess turned and marched toward a curtained doorway.

The assembled Khan Lann stood and after an odd bit of jockeying for position, followed. And as if drawn along by a magnate, Aylanna slipped into the rear of the column. The room was small and crowded. In the center was a narrow platform with the shriveled shape of what was once a man lying under a blood red coverlet. The face of the Aga Khan was slack and empty, his eyes closed, his mouth sagging open. Several priestesses dressed in white stood around the bed, other women, Aylanna recognized the wives of the Aga Khan sat in a row by the head of the bed. Nearly a dozen other figures stood about the room and Aylanna's heart jumped when she spied the figure of Jhardron. After the council entered the room was packed elbow to elbow. Aylanna squeezed into the back, her vision blocked the others.

The air in the room was thick, oppressive with the scent of incense and below that the decay Aylanna had come to identify with the Aga Khan. The buzzing of flies was louder here and her skin itched as if something was crawling on her. She swatted impatiently again, wondering why the presence of the insects did not seem to disturb the others. She looked around peevishly but to her frustration the sound faded and she could not find the tiny invaders.

One by one the Aga Khans approached the motionless form of the Aga Khan, staring down at him. Again the Khan Lann of the House Adamant spoke up, "He is alive?"

"He is not dead. But I leave it to the council to decide if he yet lives."

"How can a man not be dead and yet not live?"

Aylanna had no intent of speaking; and the words that issued from her lips surprised her almost as much as it did the others, "His spirit refuses to leave this place. It lingers still. Something holds it here, something it has yet to do."

The high priestess whirled to seek out who had spoken and the crowd seemed to part like a curtain between the two. As the way cleared, Aylanna felt herself drawn forward, moving without conscious volition to the bedside, her hands reaching out to touch the Aga Khan. Someone hissed and muttered, a hand moved to block her but the high priestess spoke sharply, "No, the goddess moves within her."

The spark of life within the Aga Khan was so feeble as to be almost undetectable, but it was there, deep within, a feeble flicker that refused to die. She reached further, sinking deeper and knelt, laid her cheek upon his chest. Gently she reached out to that final fragment of life and cradled it with hers, focusing all her energy on sustaining that spark, fanning it with the warmth of her spirit.

She was not conscious of her spirit slipping free but when she stood and looked down, she looked down upon her own form, still huddled over the fragile form of the Aga Khan. For an instant she almost did not recognize herself. Her skin was smeared with mud and grass stains, her hair was a serpentine snarl of dirt, curls and grass, and her dress a sodden, crumpled sack. She did not look quite human. A tiny dry voice, the last rational part of her, wryly observed that she very much did look like a witch or a monster.

Slowly she rose up, turning and looking about the room. The watching figures seemed insubstantial, strangely shadowy. The Khan Lann of House Adamant was speaking, waving his arms and pointing, she could see his mouth moving, see others responding but she could not hear their words. In fact the only sound she could hear was the strange buzzing. It seemed to only get louder, but now there was a hissing, whispering modulation, words just beyond her comprehension. A prickle of apprehension made her whirl about as she realized that it was not the hum of insects that had been nagging at the edge of her hearing. Another spirit haunted the room.

Without lips or voice she called out, "My Khan, can you hear me?"

The room seemed to fade, a dark fog oozing up from the corners of her perception, a miasma that swirled and boiled up like the restless sea. It pushed at her, swept over her and pulled her down into its depths. Fearfully she fought it, struggling, thrashing in panic. She had no awareness of the hands on her convulsing body, lifting it up and away from the still form of the Khan.

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Jhardron had been so lost in his thoughts, his eyes locked on the lifeless form of the Aga Khan, that he had been hardly conscious of the entrance of the council. He had not even recognized the demon's voice when she had spoken her fateful words. It had not been her voice; it had been deeper and strangely hoarse. Only when she had moved to the Aga Khan's bedside had he even realized she was in the room. She had been a sight, her crumpled dress and body smeared with dirt and grass, her strange fiery hair somehow transformed to a nest of snake like tendrils.

His body tensed when more than one person moved to put hands upon this apparition, this creature that appeared to possibly threaten the vulnerable body of the Aga Khan. Somehow the idea of another touching her, hurting her was intolerable and he lunged forward only to be halted by the high priestess's words. He stood over her, staring down at her. At first she did little, just stood, placing a hand upon the fleshless breast bones over the Aga Khan's heart, but then she seemed to sag, slowly collapsing to her knees, her face falling forward.

Jha'hamatla spoke up, his voice solemn and formal, "How long has he lain thus?"

The high priestess did not take her eyes from the strange scene before her. "Eight days."

"Will he waken?"

"The Aga Khan's condition is a mystery. A normal man, so afflicted would not have lived past three days and yet he lingers. I have no knowledge of any disease that would debilitate and yet sustain." The high priestess pointed at the still form of Aylanna. "This creature stated that his spirit lingers because it has a task yet to fulfill. Perhaps she is..."

The high priestess stopped staring in sudden shock. No longer still, Aylanna's body tensed and then her arms and legs began to thrash. Her head began to shake and bang against the body of the Aga Khan so violently that a dull thumping from his hollow chest was audible through the room. Instinctively the high priestess reached to hold the girl still, to protect both her and the Aga Khan from the sudden fit of convulsions that wracked her body. Other hands reached and helped pull the two apart, lifting the girl up and away.

"Hold her, keep her from hurting herself." The high priestess's eyes met the dark and stormy visage of the boy that rumor had named the bastard son of the Aga Khan. He did not speak, just clutched the mindlessly struggling girl to his chest, his expression warning all others away.

And, as he held her, her movements became less violent, her arms and legs twitching rhythmically and her breathing slowing. Her lips were moving, a breathy whisper over and over, "A warrior is in control. A warrior is in control."

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The sea of darkness pulled her down and swept her away. Swim, she had to swim. What was it? Jhardron had said it so long ago, a life time ago. 'Don't let your fear weigh you down'. That was it. She had to stay calm. She must not panic, must not surrender. Over and over she repeated the words of a warrior, "A warrior is in control." And as she spoke, she began to still, to feel weightless and to float upon the surface of the maelstrom.

As she floated it was as if her calm communicated itself the storm. And as she hung there, weightless, peaceful, the face of the Aga Khan, hollow and jaundiced rose up beside her. His eyes were crazed and terrified, but his words were familiar, "I know you. I remember your promise."

Oddly calm, she reached out to him, "My Khan, you are lost, let me help you find your way."

Childlike he took her hand, his voice confused, "Where are we going?"

"You have left something undone. You have one last task to complete before Jha'Mak'Tah will welcome you on the battlefield. The council has been convened, they await you. Come, come back to us. I will show you the way."

Never before had she traveled so far from herself. This was not distance or time; it was as if she had walked too close to the plane of the unliving. It took great focus, great strength and a profound determination to struggle back toward the light. Carrying the spirit of the Aga Khan with her was like dragging a great weight up a steep hill.

Their destination was only just out of their reach, a light in the distance but it took a life time to get there. Over and over the Aga Khan seemed to pull away, to forget and question who she was, where they were going and she had to plead with him that he must return, that this was the only path that led to peace and the embrace of his god. To falter or turn back meant an eternity of madness wandering lost in this netherworld of darkness. Slowly the walls of the court seemed to form around them, the shadowy forms of the onlookers imperceptively growing more substantial.

They stood together, hand in hand looking down at the scene. Gently, Aylanna urged the Aga Khan forward, but he hesitated, "Am I dead?"

"No, my Khan, not yet, but soon, I promise. Soon your suffering will end. Look, your council has gathered to hear your last words, the high priestess and your son. Come, do this one last thing for your god and your people. Give them the gift of your son to lead them. Come, it is easy, as easy as putting on an old familiar robe, just reach out..."

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Simultaneously both her and the Aga Khan's eyes opened. Filling her gaze was the worried face of her beloved, but beyond her there was a hiss of sudden surprise as the skeletal figure of the Aga Khan sat bolt upright. One of the dark clad wives shrieked and actually slipped from her seat and fell to the floor. His cracked lips moved and he tried to speak but the only sound was a croak and he coughed weakly.

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