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Authors: Katherine Kurtz

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BOOK: Tales of the Knights Templar
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The shopfronts gave way to houses, some of them three or four floors high, their foundations decorated with tiles, their roofs overlaid with brass. But here again the walls themselves were featureless, blank-sided as a set of child’s blocks. Thierry hurried past them, averting his gaze from their blind exteriors. Whatever force or agency had sealed this city up within itself was, he felt, still active, and still present.

At the center of the city lay the palace. Thierry made his way silently through a succession of courtyards mapped out by machicolated walls and overhanging turrets. At the center of the maze stood a great domed edifice flanked on four sides by spires of forge-tempered brass. Here, beneath a colonnaded portico, he at last discovered a doorway.

The doorway was fitted with a set of brass portals half again the height of a tall man. The portals were standing open and the gap between them was wide enough to have admitted a yoke of oxen. The floor beyond the threshold was of smoothly polished brass. At the center of the floor, dimly mirrored in its tarnished surface, stood an elevated dais surmounted by a canopy of brazen filigree.

Mounted on the dais was an altar. It had been made from a great slab of black granite laid across two lesser blocks of the same stone. Harsh light, falling through an unseen opening in the vault above, made a pool of brightness on the altar table. At the center of that circle of light stood an ornately finished casket of pure silver.

Thierry eased his way cautiously across the threshold. When nothing leaped out at him from the shadows, he set out across the floor toward the foot of the dais. As he started up the steps, his eye was drawn toward a dull glimmer of white lurking in the shadows beneath the altar stones. A closer look revealed that it was a human skull.

More bones were lying nearby. Thierry recognized a pelvis and part of an arm among the fragments of a shattered rib cage. The shank bones had been broken open and sucked clean of marrow. The rest of the skeleton showed the hungry marks of carnivore teeth.

Thierry sucked in a soft, hissing breath and cast a wary look around him. His straining senses could detect no other presence besides his own. Only slightly reassured, he slipped his sword from the sheath across his back. Gripping it firmly by the hilt, he leaned in to inspect the casket.

The casket had the look of a reliquary. The panels that made up its flat sides and peaked lid were densely overlaid with interlocking traceries of some arcane form of script. Peering more closely, Thierry discovered a keyhole concealed among the manifold whorls. Warily laying his sword naked before him on the altar top, he opened the amulet and once again took out the key.

The key fitted smoothly into the lock. Thierry drew a deep breath and gave it a turn. There was a sharp crack and a sudden sulfurous flare. Staggering back a pace, Thierry saw the crystal in the key’s headpiece burst explosively into flame.

Biting back a cry, he made a reflexive move to snuff it out. The fierce heat scorched his fingers and made him snatch his hand away. Engulfed in fire, the key began to dissolve. In mere seconds, there was nothing left of it but a puddle of molten slag.

The flame guttered and died. Thin tendrils of evil-smelling smoke leaked from the keyhole. There was a hiss, followed by a thin, metallic chime. As the tone dissipated, the lid of the casket sprang up and the sides fell away to reveal the object locked away inside.

It was a severed human head.

The head was that of a man. It was gaunt and bearded, the eyes closed, the skin sunburned and weathered to the coarseness of leather. Staring hard, Thierry wondered what power or charm could have kept it thus incorrupt. Even as he stared in bemused astonishment, the closed eyelids quivered and retracted.

Dark eyes stared wide, alight with the fires of some remote inner vision. The bearded lips writhed in an effort to speak. Thierry strained forward. A dry whisper made itself heard in the shadows of the vault.

Even now the ax is laid to the roots of the trees,
murmured the head,
so that any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

It was a passage Thierry knew from Scripture. Hearing the words, he realized the identity of the speaker. He stared in awe, knowing that in this severed head he beheld all that was left on earth of the man once known as John the Baptist.

Even as the prophetic import of this discovery sank into his mind, a huge shadow fell across his shoulder from behind. Thierry seized his sword and spun around. Out of the brazen fabric of the floor a noisome cloud of vapors was rising. Still growing and expanding, the cloud soared toward the roof. Following its progress as it rose, Thierry suddenly found himself gazing up into two compound clusters of hungry, lambent eyes.

Each eye contained a pupil of fire. Faceted one to another, they glittered like jewels of flame. A slot of a mouth gaped open like a furnace door, exposing a long red gullet armored on the inside with grinding scales. A tongue like a scourge flicked in and out between a double row of venom-dripping canine teeth.

The creature’s fiery aspect proclaimed it one of the greater
djinn.
Snarling defiance, Thierry planted his feet in a fighter’s stance. Out of the depths of the creature’s smoldering bulk rose a sibilant peal of laughter that set the air quivering. A deep contralto voice, thick with fulsome melody, spoke from the roof, using a language of darkness that penetrated Thierry’s mind with forced comprehension.

“Welcome, son of humankind,” it mocked. “Whatever treasure you came here seeking, be sure you’ve found more than you bargained for.”

Thierry left the dais in a single fluid bound. Sword gripped high in both hands, he swung the blade around in a whistling arc aimed at where he thought the creature’s underbelly might be.

The
djinn’
s response was a belch of flame and laughter that knocked him back on his haunches like a blast of cannon fire. Still brandishing his sword in front of him, Thierry said harshly, “By the Name that is above all names, I charge you to tell me how so sacred a relic as this comes to be guarded by so damnable a being as you!”

The
djinn’s
glittering eyes burned brighter. “The City of Brass is my fortress. Whatever lies within its walls is mine to do with as I wish.”

“Nevertheless,” said Thierry, “It was not always so. Answer my question, or I swear to you I will pronounce the Name by which you suffer.”

The
djinn
gave a malevolent hiss. “It will take more than the speaking of a name to save you, mortal.”

“Perhaps,” Thierry agreed stonily, “but it will cost you a painful reminder of the strength of the divine wrath.”

The
djinn’s
multifaceted eyes hooded themselves for a moment. There was a bristling pause before it capitulated and began to speak.

“The head of the Baptist was carried off into the desert by some of that prophet’s own followers. It was they who used divers mystic arts to keep it incorrupt, in order that it might continue to speak to them in this life. They believed that the Baptist was the One incarnate, and believed that the head itself held power to call down fire upon the world. Seeking refuge from that wrath, they wandered far and wide, and at last found the City of Brass here in the desert, where it had been built by the descendants of Cain in ages past, before the Deluge. Caring nothing for its origins, they occupied the city as their own and caused this temple to be made a shrine to house the object of their veneration.

“Their beliefs concerning the Baptist’s head were a blasphemy,” the
djinn
continued, “and for this sin the Almighty cursed them, sealing them up within their homes and leaving the Palace to the servants of His enemy. Thus did I come to make my home here, and here I feed upon the souls of those who come in search of the fabled head.”

Sudden hunger quickened the fire in the
djinn’s
jewellike eyes. Swift as an adder, it shot past Thierry, interposing its vaporous bulk between him and the doorway.

The young Templar stood his ground. “You may try to take my soul, demon,” he challenged, “if you dare.”

The
djinn
belched out another roar of laughter. Quivering with gleeful anticipation, it put out a tentacular arm and plunged it like a dagger into the young knight’s breast.

Thierry staggered slightly under the impact. There was a deep-throated sucking sound. Snarling and slavering in sudden bafflement, the
djinn
pressed in closer. Then all at once it recoiled with an anguished, ear-splitting howl.

Still howling, it tried to pull away, only to find itself held fast. As it continued to shriek and struggle, a sudden bolt of black fire billowed up out of Thierry’s chest cavity. Corrosive as acid, the flame ate its way up the
djinn
’s outstretched arm. Like some dark leprosy, it overwhelmed the creature’s body in a consuming winding sheet.

The
djinn
’s frantic thrashing grew weaker. Wholly enveloped by the black flame, it withered and shrank, dwindling down to human proportions. Thierry watched impassively as the creature writhed and moaned in throes of mortal agony.

“You should not try to take that which has already been bought by one greater than yourself,” he observed coldly.

“By Baphomet!” the
djinn
gasped through its agony.

“Aye, by Baphomet,” Thierry confirmed grimly. “Damned I may be, but you are twice damned for trying to take what is his.”

The
djinn
gave a final piteous wail. The black fire flickered and began to die away. The
djinn
’s ravaged form collapsed to the floor. Thierry came to stand over it, sword in hand.

The words of his demonic master echoed in the depths of his mind.
“The Almighty One has cheated you of earthly happiness. If you will do me service, I will ensure that all you desire is placed within your hands. Among the most militant of my adversaries are the Knights of the Temple, whose appointed mission is to bring a new order to the warring nations of the world. Should these holy knights succeed in uncovering the secrets of the Temple, they will have the means within their grasp to banish the evils upon which I feed: poverty, injustice, cupidity, and despair. Join the fellowship of these Templars, corrupt them with blasphemies, and you will have had your revenge on the One who scorned you and yet would elevate them.”

“My lord Baphomet,” he intoned to the surrounding air, “I now see your will in all that has transpired. The Baptist’s head, sorcerously preserved, which you have delivered into my hands, will give me the means to bend the Templar Order to your will. Those who submit will reap the world’s wealth and the rewards of earthly pride. Those who resist will see their virtues set at nought. So shall the Order become your instrument and devour the very heart of Christendom.”

He paused and looked down at the charred, foul-smelling form of the
djinn.
“One more thing remains to be done,” he murmured.

So saying, he raised his sword high above his head, and with a single downstroke struck the
djinn
’s head from its still-twitching body.

Dusk was gathering over encampment at Ra’s al-Ma’ as a tall, robed figure mounted on a ragged hill pony rode slowly through the ranks of the Saracen host and at last drew rein outside the entrance to Saladin’s silken pavilion. Thierry de Challon remained seated in the saddle while a servant ran to inform the great commander of his presence. Saladin himself emerged a moment later.

“We meet again, sir knight,” he observed, “against all expectations on my part. What news do you bring back from your travels?”

For answer, Thierry thrust a hand into the bag that was hanging from his saddlebow. When he drew it out again he was holding a severed head by a hank of coiled snaky hair. The dead face was a monstrous parody of human features, a swollen tongue protruding from between sharp fangs.

“I have brought you this from the City of Brass,” Thierry said, and let the head drop so that it thudded to the ground at Saladin’s feet.

Only a visible effort of will prevented the Commander of the Faithful from recoiling before that grotesque, inhuman visage. He gave a slow nod, acknowledging that this was indeed a hideous wonder such as he had dispatched Thierry to bring to him.

“And what is that you are carrying under your cloak?” the Saracen leader asked curiously, indicating the outline of a casketlike object strapped to the back of the Templar’s saddle.

“Of what concern is that to you?” Thierry countered. “You swore that when my mission for you was completed, I should return to my Order in Jerusalem unmolested.”

Saladin acknowledged the reminder with a shrug. “I did so swear,” he agreed, “by the Prophet himself. Do you still have the key I gave you?”

“It perished and cannot be returned,” said Thierry. “The amulet I will keep for the time being, as a sign of your protection. Once I rejoin my Order, I will arrange to have it sent back to you.”

“There is no need,” said Saladin with a fleeting smile of little mirth. “You may leave it for me in the Temple at Jerusalem. Go, then, warrior, and prepare for that battle.”

Thierry nodded tersely and reined his horse around. As he did so, the eyes of the
djinn’s
severed head rolled open. The blackened lips writhed. A voice dry as tinder issued from between the creature’s carious teeth.

“The fire is waiting, Templar,” it hissed after him, “for you and all your brethren. Only time stands between you, and it grows shorter.”

Thierry did not look back. His face set toward Jerusalem, he rode steadfastly on, carrying with him the head of John the Baptist and the destiny of the Templars.

INTERLUDE ONE

No evidence has ever been found to suggest that the Templars did, indeed, worship the head of John the Baptist—or, indeed, that they worshiped a head at all—though this was among the variations on the charge of idolatry, which certainly figured in the Templars’ downfall. Nonetheless, there still exists today in the regions around Baghdad a remnant of a Gnostic sect known as the Man-daeans, also called Nasoreans or Christians of Saint John, which arose in the first or second century. Their teachings were akin to those of the Manichaeans, and St. John the Baptist figured prominently in their writings. (The original Mandaeans were probably disciples of John the Baptist, who
did
have his head, at least for a time.) Given this factual snippet, we might well postulate that today’s Mandaeans represent a splinter group left behind by those heretics who fled to the City of Brass, perhaps taking with them the head of John the Baptist. Such a relic would have been in keeping with what many believed to be part of the Templar treasure.

BOOK: Tales of the Knights Templar
4.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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