War of the Magi: Azrael's Wrath (Book 2)

BOOK: War of the Magi: Azrael's Wrath (Book 2)
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War of the Magi:
Azrael’s Wrath

 

 

 

by

 

Joseph Robert Lewis

 

War of the Magi series:

Raziel’s Shadow

Azrael’s Wrath

 

Special thanks to Eileen, Jeanne, Todd, and Willow

 

Copper Crow Books

Copyright © 2013 Joseph Robert Lewis

Cover by Laura Sava

Edition: December 2013

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from Joseph Robert Lewis.

Chapter 1
Iyasu

Iyasu saw the huge wildebeest standing alone in the center of the trail, fenced in by the leafy walls of the young forest, and he knew that he was about to die.

It’s about time.

And then the torrent of nightmares in his waking mind, the visions of blood, the screams of the innocent, the dripping blades of the guilty, the dull eyes of the killers, and all the horrific memories he could never escape, they all vanished as the young cleric gazed at the wildebeest. For the first time in days, his mind was quiet and calm.

Gored. Kicked. Trampled.

It’ll be horrible. It’ll be painful, agonizing. And I could lie here on the ground, alone, for hours or even days before I bleed to death.

I suppose that’s fair.

It was midmorning and the sunlight fell in brilliant golden shafts through the tall, slender trees waving gently in the cool breeze. His belly gurgled loudly and he winced, and that’s when he noticed how perfectly still the animal was.

Wait. Something’s wrong here. Very wrong.

It looked like any other wildebeest with its large torso resting on its thin legs, its hairy tail hanging at its rear, its long heavy head hanging at its front. A stiff mane of black hair stood erect on its spine and a pair of hooked horns speared upward just above its wide ears. It looked perfectly common. Almost.

Those eyes. I know those eyes. Not alive, not really. Dim and cold, and hungry. The eyes of a dead thing that doesn’t know it’s dead. One more monster loosed into the world to cause just a little more suffering and death.

But then, aren’t we all?

Iyasu sighed and looked up at the waving leaves overhead.

The world looks so different now, and yet it’s exactly the same. The darkness still swallows us up even after all the demons are gone. I guess something else took their place. Things like me.

Maybe we’re all monsters now.

He looked down at the wildebeest again.

But what sort of monster are you?

He didn’t need to control his breathing or focus his thoughts to summon his gift, nor did he call upon his patron angel Arrah to grant him her holy grace. It was always there. The sight. The sight came so naturally to him now that he no longer thought of it as something different or special. The blessing of the angel had simply become the way he saw the world now, every waking moment of every day.

He saw
everything
.

Glancing at the path, Iyasu saw both the fresh and ancient tracks of hundreds of animals, great and small. He saw the ragged edges of the leaves where the ants had been at work, and he saw the lone drops of water in the bark of the trees where the morning dew had managed to escape the heat of the rising sun. He saw the edge of a boot print in the dirt made two weeks earlier by a man carrying a heavy bag, hurrying down out of the mountains of Rumaya.

What was he running from, I wonder?

The young cleric saw everything around him, and where it came from, and where it was going, and why. The visible world was a chorus of voices, some whispering and some shouting at the history of this object or that place, all plain as day for him to read and to know.

But never to forget.

The wildebeest’s ribs expanded as it inhaled, and its flesh shifted ever so slightly in the pale sunlight, revealing to Iyasu’s keen eyes the tiny reptilian scales beneath the hair where its skin should have been.

Oh. I see you now.

The young man shifted his foot and very firmly stepped on the end of a twig. The little crack of the dry wood felt as loud as a thunderclap in that stillness, but the animal in the road did not even twitch an ear.

Not even a glance? So patient. So docile.

Iyasu nodded.

You hunt predators, and this body is the bait. You wear the flesh of a wildebeest to look like prey to lure them in. And you stand there, looking helpless, until some great hunter comes in for the kill, and that’s when you strike, isn’t it?

Well… I’ll play your game.

Iyasu took two steps toward the animal, and its head began to rise, turning to face him, its huge black eyes widening, though not in fear.

Something moved among the trees, and without looking Iyasu knew it to be a lizard darting down into the underbrush to hide, and he knew the lizard was hiding because something much larger was about to come charging down the trail. Something dangerous.

“No, stop!” Iyasu called out, raising his empty hands to the forest.

A dark figure burst from behind a wall of leaves and fell upon the wildebeest with a gleaming weapon. It was a small curved sword like the ones carried by Qumari mercenaries, and the blade sank deep into the creature’s neck as the man landed on the path. The animal collapsed to the ground in a silent heap of muscle and bone, and lay still.

Iyasu looked away as he took a step back and covered his mouth with his hand. The scent of death rolled over him, the odor of old rotting meat and decaying wood wafting up from the deep wound in the animal’s neck. He exhaled sharply and shook his head, looking up to the sky as he shouted, “You didn’t have to kill it. It wasn’t hurting anyone. I knew what I was doing. You didn’t have to kill it!”

His voice rose with every word as the heat welled up in his chest and a maelstrom of angry, shameful memories tore through his mind’s eye. “It didn’t have to die, there was no reason for it!”

“Actually, there was. It’s not a wildebeest. It’s a catoblepas,” the man said cheerily as he wiped his sword clean. “It’s got so much venom in its breath it could kill a herd of real wildebeests with one good sneeze. I’ve heard people say that if you look into its eyes, a catoblepas can turn you to stone, but what do they know? It’s their breath that’ll kill you. Of course, Ven says that my breath is almost as bad in the morning, but she hasn’t died yet, so it can’t be that bad, can it?”

Iyasu looked over at him.

Ven?

The stranger was a young man, only a few years older than Iyasu himself, and besides the Qumari sword and belt, the man wore heavy cotton trousers and a cotton shirt dyed many hues of green and blue. Iyasu squinted at the side of the man’s face, trying to see the true lines of it behind the thin beard and the shadows.

“Zerai?” Iyasu nearly choked on the name as a flicker of happiness shattered his anger. “Zerai, it’s me, it’s Iyasu. Iyasu Sadik.”

The man in green turned with a look of confusion, and he stared at the younger man for a moment. Then he leapt up to embrace him. “Iyasu! My God, it is you, it’s really you!”

They stepped back to look at one another again. Zerai grinned and shook his head. “I didn’t recognize you at all. I mean, look at you, you’re almost as tall as me now. What’s it been? Five years?”

“Six and a half.” Iyasu nodded and took a few steps away from the dead catoblepas to move upwind of it. “It’s so good to see you again. You have no idea.”

“Are you alone?” Zerai leaned to one side to peer down the path behind him.

“Yes, I am.”

Zerai frowned at him. “Did you lose your escort?”

“I didn’t have one.”

“Didn’t have…? Is that supposed to be funny? Listen, kid, the demons may be gone but that doesn’t mean Rumaya is a safe place for little clerics to take strolls in the woods. And I can’t believe the ministers in Shivala just let you sail off across the sea all alone. What’s going on?”

Iyasu exhaled slowly as he gazed at his old friend. He started to explain, but not a single sound managed to escape his lips.

Later.

The seer nodded down at the strange animal at their feet and asked, “So Raziel is letting his clerics make these monsters again? Has he already forgotten the mistakes he made before the fall of Rumaya?”

“What, these?” Zerai nudged the catoblepas with his boot. “They’re not new. They’re old, very old. With the Mavenga Line gone and Rumaya green again, all sorts of things have started coming home, including these rotters. Raziel says they were made by the ancient clerics and scattered out into the world before the Mavenga Line sealed the demons away, so now they’re coming back. All sorts of strange things are wandering these hills now, so we have people patrolling the roads all the time for them.”

“What people?”

Killers. It’s always killers.

Zerai shrugged. “People like me. Hunters. Trackers. Demon-fighters. People who managed to survive when the ghuls and ifrits were roaming around.”

“Well, then I’m glad I came across you instead of one of them,” Iyasu said quietly. “Before I recognized you, I was ready to tear your head off.”

“Yeah, I noticed that. Couldn’t you see that this thing was dangerous, O master seer?”

“Of course I could see—!” Iyasu snapped his eyes shut and shook his head. When he looked again, he gazed dully at the creature, at its pale green scales, narrow tongue, and the strange shape of its eyes. “It’s a viper twisted into the shape of a wildebeest. A true wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

“Something like that.” Zerai looked at him thoughtfully. “Listen, we should get back to the city. I doubt we’ll see anything else on the road today, but I don’t want to take any chances with you here. No offense, but you don’t exactly look like you’ve been training to kill monsters lately.” He paused and turned to look at him. “Speaking of which, why are you here?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Then it’s going to be hard for me to help.” Zerai smiled.

“Don’t assume you can,” the young seer said with a harsh edge in his voice.

“Hey, kid.” Zerai took his arm and gently forced him to look him in the eyes. “Want to try that again? What’s going on?”

“Nothing. Trouble.” Iyasu’s gazed wearily at the falconer. “More trouble, out there in the world. Suffering. Fear. Death. The usual.”

Zerai raised one eyebrow. “Demons?”

“No, it’s much worse than demons.” Iyasu started walking up the road. “Politics.”

“Politics? In Shivala?” Zerai strode after him.

“No, not in…” The young cleric sighed. “I’m sorry, but it’s a long story. I’d rather only tell it once. Is it much farther to Naj Kuvari?”

“Two hours or so.” The hunter forced a brief grin. “I think I can wait that long.”

Together they hiked up the steep paths of the Rumayan highlands, ascending to the broken ridge that carried them on the last leg of the journey to the slopes of Mount Shokath and the ancient city in its shadow. Iyasu glanced left and right, noting the contours of the land and reconciling them with the memories he had from the last time he had walked into this country.

Where everything had once been a dry and dusty wasteland of pale, brittle grass and spiny, leafless trees, now there was a lush, green paradise aching with young life, with blossoming flowers and ripening fruits, and with the endless chorus of birdsong, insects, and chattering monkeys. Life had returned to Rumaya, and in only six short years the deadliest mountains in the world had been transformed into a soft and fragrant jungle.

As the midday hour neared, Iyasu spied the walls of Naj Kuvari rising above the treetops, even though the walls were so thoroughly cloaked in vines, leaves, flowers, and fruits that the stoneworks were all but invisible. Zerai led the way along a narrow footpath beside the ancient wall until they came to a small gateway and passed inside.

Here the city was a bit more familiar, and more conventional. The streets were paved, the houses built from baked bricks and cut stones, and wooden doors and shutters hung properly in every opening. Yet the roofs were draped in living greenery, and vines dangled down at every corner and near every window to offer passersby a few sweet berries, flowers, or small honeycombs.

Iyasu saw other signs of life in the streets and in the buildings, from faint footprints and cart tracks to the muffled sounds of voices, and as they walked through the quiet city he occasionally glimpsed people in the distance, standing or sitting, talking or doing nothing at all.

“So peaceful,” he whispered.

Zerai nodded.

“How many?”

BOOK: War of the Magi: Azrael's Wrath (Book 2)
2.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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