Continued from Tales of Orcittia (II): The Huntress.
It is taken.
Olivia was sure of it when she entered the structure that she discovered was built like a small hippodrome cut in half, crescent corridors with high ceiling illuminated by loose balls of light floating here and there. Stairs led up and down, almost like a vertical maze with many niches, nooks and crannies to hide. This worked to Olivia’s advantage, as several times she had to dive into shadow to avoid hooded figures in twos and threes, dressed in black and blood red cloaks.
This was the strangest thing about this place. All of it was trembling with distant drums, occasional strange string music, as if instruments were badly tuned and a crowd cheering and chanting in language she did not understand. Olivia found the crowd, so to speak, as she was now looking through a peeping hole in one of the small nooks, empty of living things now, but with divans, carpets, censer, smoking scent of sweet myra, and jugs and goblets for wine, waiting for their masters to use them. Although barely, she saw a large body of red and black, swaying in a large round plaza, at least two hundred of them, all looking at a distance stage, where (Olivia couldn’t see from the hole very well) a figure was sitting, its profile turned to the crowd. To her luck, Olivia saw stairs being used by several cloaked figures on each side of the plaza. But before she could produce a coherent plan of action in her head, Olivia heard rushed footsteps echoing in empty stone hallways and she whisked away through the opposite threshold of where the steps were coming from. She wanted to move away silently, but the words spoken in elvish stopped her in her tracks. It was between a man and woman, she spoke with strange accent, that cut the usual, prolonged melodious vowels of elvish language short, making it sound chopped and boorish.
“Now, it must be now!” the male voice was rushed and interrupted by heavy breathing. Olivia heard noises in rapid succession: fabric torn, then clatter of metal and wood against the stone.
“The cer’moni- the le’ader” the woman spoke with accent and not without difficulty, as the sounds of clatter interrupted her.
“It’s our duty. Our duty!” the male voice proclaimed. Only clattering sounds and loud gasps followed. Olivia, although against her own will, bent around to look through the edge of the threshold. Her ability to see in almost complete darkness aided her in feeling her blood run cold from recognition: she didn’t recognise the elven woman with charcoal, glittering skin, white hair and a band of small white skulls (by the Goddess, were they new born skulls? No. This cannot be!) swaying from her neck all the way to the table she was leaning on. The elven man, older than the woman, she recognised from the court, a noble landed baron Ba’Acca, he owned several pearl farms and was wedded with a beautiful wife in delicate position with their third child. But here he was, grinding against this unknown woman, clearly from the nomad haren tribes that roamed the desert, his mouth open in ecstasy, both of their clothes ripped and on the floor. Olivia crouched down on the stones and moved like a cat, silently stealing the red cloak from the floor and slid back into darkness, leaving the couple to their vices.
What is going on here? One question kept repeating itself in Olivia’s head as she removed the protective scarf from her face and covered it again, this time with the hood of the blood red cloak that settled comfortably around her shoulders. She was covered from head to toe and hurried towards the direction of the plaza, where she calculated should be stairs leading down into the crowd. True enough, here they were and as she descended into the black and red crowd, her blood ran colder and colder while she made her way through the sea of people closer to the stage they were all looking at. The drums were loud here, echoing from the arched structure through the plaza full of figures, illuminated by countless balls of light above their heads, all of them turned towards a distant stage, some arms up in the sky, all bodies swaying to rhythmic pounding of drums – bam silence bam bam silence bam bam bam silence bam – and on it went, then occasionally interrupted by loud, screeching string instrument Olivia didn’t recognise, but it sent shivers down her spine – so otherworldly and intimidating the music was, but only to her, it seemed. The rest of the crowd appeared in trance, eyes opened or closed, all in ecstasy of the moment. Olivia recognised so many faces peeking out of their hoods that involuntarily she pulled hers tighter over her head: here was a young lady she saw on the way to the palace, another one, a tiefling she recognised from one of Sorin’s balls, another two Sun Goddess clerics, two human women, that served the Goddess in the palace temple, then there were Emperor’s advisors and members of senate and servants she saw around the palace. And many many more elves, tieflings, gnomes and humans that she didn’t know, all were there, all of different births and privileges, but side by side now, forgetting their differences in ecstatic trance of drums and scent of myra, sweat and sin.
Olivia moved through the crowd with agility, unstopped and unrecognised. She paused only twice, once, when her attention was caught by pale red light, coming from the corner of the plaza: there, two figures cloaked in deep royal purple, holding ornate wooden staffs with white gems on their tops, murmured incantations to a circle full of runic symbols that lit up in quick succession as more cloaked figures materialised in the centre of the circle and joined the crowd. Strange as this was, Olivia now had an answer to how these people got here without any means of transportation, but more questions arose and sudden dread went through Olivia’s mind of how to find the origins of these teleportations, as they could be done from anywhere without any trace. Those plans were interrupted by three more cloaked figures emerging from the light and she had to continue her swim through the crowd as to not arouse suspicion.
The second time she stopped was for much longer and against her will, for she was paralysed by the horror that was in front of her. Olivia dived through the crowd to find herself in a small clearing where over dozens of heads she could see what she thought was the stage. Only it wasn’t a stage, but a weathered, rectangular stone with many symbols unknown to Olivia (Here’s the altar, I guess) and surrounded by eight wooden spikes, full of animal and humanoid skulls impaled on them, however, she didn’t pay much heed to the symbols or skulls, for that wasn’t the most gruesome thing she saw: what was on top of the altar that kept her staring with horror in the sea of admiration.
That figure she saw sitting profile to the crowd was nothing else but a tiefling woman with voluptuous black hair and same necklace of skulls between her perky brests, moving up and down in copulation with a…creature, a man by the look, but hellishly red skin, lips black as night, eyes flaming orange fixed on the female on top of his loins, hand with long black nails, digging into the woman’s neck. Olivia stared at the scene, realising in horror that the tiefling woman was familiar too, she even spoke with her many times, liked her even, the young maiden Lulu Wingithos, from a very respected wine merchant family, usually elegant, flirty and desired by many grooms-to-be, but far from it now she was all naked, seemed dazed, eyes dilated, as if seeing bright light, mouth open, saliva spattering down her cheeks, slender hands gripping the large, red muscular arm of the humanoid creature defiling her for all to see, those hands looked weak and shrivelled against its. As Olivia observed the macabre scene, the drums got louder and louder, rhythm faster, until the tiefling woman let out a haunting shriek from her choked throat that nearly broke from that strong arm tightening as the guttural sound from the male creature was followed by a loud chant of the crowd with words, spoken again in language Olivia couldn’t understand and it drowned out the drums which fell silent almost immediately. Her thoughts were frozen, her eyes fixed on Lulu as the creature moved her from top of himself, holding by the neck and dropped her, barely conscious and spasming, to the floor next to the altar and two purple-cloaked figures carried her away from Olivia’s sight. She didn’t even have time to think of ways to rescue poor Lulu, when the creature stood up, towering over highest humans and tieflings she knew, his loins covered by an improvised kilt, but more shockingly, as he stood up and extended his arms towards the crowd, as if a father inviting his children, a pair of leather wings (Sun Goddess, light my path!) extended on his back and twirling, heavy red tail fell down and hung around his shins, moving in tandem with his speech in perfect elvish:
“Brothers and sisters!” he addressed the crowd in deep, thundering voice that waved through the cloaked attendants, compelling their minds to listen “you just witnessed another soul joining the Inamorata. In our next gathering, she will be ready to please your souls!” a forest of hands grew into the air, some of them releasing balls of fire in the air, others simply fluttered their palms, a wind-like sough filling the plaza as the crowd made their murmurs in tandem. This happened every time the hellish creature spoke from the stage, altar behind him.
“Tonight, we feast our bodies that will feed our souls with pleasure and prepare us for eventual passing, besotted and full of joys of this world, unashamed, like those kneeling and breaking their backs at that imaginary sun whore!” the murmur grew louder as the creature lifted his index finger up at the sky “is she superior? Is she all-knowing? Is she even real? NO! The only thing that is real is you, your tired, thirsty souls, condemned to be unfulfilled for all your lives until you breathe your last breath, full of regrets of things you haven’t done, of power you held, but let go. I say NO! Seize the moment! Drink to full from the time allotted to you and release your souls from chains of moralising whores and their chained pups, those royals in their palaces, kissing the golden feet of this fake sun idol while their souls wither and die without freedom!” the drums started beating again, slowly at first, but gaining pace and Olivia finally saw the musicians, far behind the altar, on top of a real stage, all in purple cloaks, but she could see their elvish and human silhouettes peeking through the fabric as they played their instruments.
“Tonight, as every such night, take what belongs to you, feast and dance and lay with who you want and let your souls be free of chains of corruption and temperance! Drink the time away and let go of YOUR SOULS!”
Several things happened at once after those last two words. First, Olivia felt as if a warm wind passed through her, followed by a suffocating smell of freshly burned pitch. She had to cover her mouth to not start coughing, but at that moment she noticed that no one else seemed to have noticed: everyone around her had their eyes closed, their arms up high, swaying left to right slowly, like reeds in the wind. Immediately Olivia felt heat at her hip, she gripped the silk pouch, attached firmly to her belt – the gem she was carrying from her father was hot, she could barely keep her hand on it. Then, seconds after the heat started, she felt eyes on her, drilling at the top of her head. She looked from under the hood and met the red humanoid creature’s stare, straight at her, hellish anger burning in his eyes and she remembered poor Lulu’s neck with black nails digging into her skin, then her spasming on the floor, just for half a second the memory lasted, but it was enough and as the creature leaned to whisper something to another purple cloaked figure below him, then, without turning back she dove into the crowd, going straight for the back and keeping low.
The creature whispered something unintelligible to the purple figure and it turned to see one red cloaked figure move among hundreds of still ones, this figure signalled other two to follow. The red creature licked his black lips with sharp, pointy tongue, smile reaching his burning eyes, he then snapped his large fingers and the crowd moved into itself, everyone suddenly caught by unknown force to grab, kiss, lick and bite each other
Olivia’s heart was racing, but she kept herself steady as the crowd moved in, several hands tried to catch her by shoulder, neck or breast, but she was agile and sweaty from sheer horror she saw on the altar, so all hands slipped past her wet skin when she escaped the closing crowd and reached the first arch facing the plaza. Without hesitation, she jumped up, caught the top of the arch, pulled herself up and disappeared into the darkness of the inner corridors. Olivia pulled the fluttering cloak away from herself and sprinted up the stairs and towards the exit. Up, up, straight, up again, straight, there! She saw the sand creeping onto the plain stone floor inside, caught a glimpse of starry night sky and even smelt the fresh dry air. But just before she stepped through the threshold, she saw two purple cloaked figures between her and her mare rearing in the distance, but the bridle wouldn’t allow her to escape.
The cloaked figures, one being quite short and other large and tall, had staffs with gems in them gleaming with pale red light. Olivia stayed in the shadow of the threshold, holstering her bow and reaching for an arrow, but before she could take it from the quiver, a ball of fire erupted from the staff of the shorter figure and she by-stepped it just by a second, but then the larger figure sent a string of crackling lightening at her and Olivia was forced to duck down, but it bought her time and she pulled an arrow and shot it without hesitation, knowing it hit when she heard a loud, feminine shriek coming from the shorter adversary on the right when her arrow pierced her shin, but then again she didn’t have time to admire the shot as the larger adversary dropped his staff and threw two knives into the narrow threshold, of which one slit open Olivia’s upper arm. She repressed a cry of pain when she saw that both were in fact human and couldn’t see her in the shadow, but could certainly hear her. Ignoring the pain she let go another arrow, this one hitting the shoulder of the larger enemy, but then she had to duck again as the woman sent another ball of fire, this time aiming low, but Olivia was slender and attached herself to the ground she could only feel the heat of the ball over her shoulder blades. She heard heavy footsteps coming towards her and saw the large man running with an arrow in his right shoulder and this was the moment when Olivia gripped her bow tighter, took out her dagger she used for skinning the oryx and at the moment when the man leaned over her to restrain, she ran the knife through the front of his ankle and well before he could even scream, pushed the arrow deeper into his shoulder and as he instinctively leaned backwards from pain, slashed his throat, blood dripping over her face. Olivia rolled from under the large man just before he collapsed and for the moment, in the slim light of the fires, she saw a human man of pale skin and blue, now glassy eyes, paling even further in his death. There was a humanoid skull tattooed on the side of his shaved head.
As the man collapsed, the woman with an arrow in her shin shrieked and said something in language Olivia didn’t understand, but was sure wasn’t the same as the crowd was chanting. She then proceeded to hold up her staff and whisper something and Olivia felt strangely unable to move from her position over the collapsed man, no matter how much she struggled, the invisible bonds that kept her arms and legs together seemed to only get more painful. The cloaked woman stopped the incantation, bent down and pulled out the arrow from her leg with a loud cry of pain, then dropped it and walked over towards where Olivia was struggling. As the woman walked closer and pulled down her cloak, Olivia noticed similar features – pale skin, blue eyes, similarly shaped wide nose, skull tattoo on shaved head – as the man she just slew. The woman came close to her, so close she could count freckles on her nose, and spat in her face.
“You dead will bi enough not, sneeky lyttle bytch” she said in broken elvish and Olivia immediately felt the restrains tighten against her skin, pressuring her bones to the point where she felt they might break. She still had the blade in her hand, dripping with blood. Through a mist of pain and with as much strength as she could muster, she rotated the blade several times as her wrist allowed and threw it towards the direction of the woman. The foreigner was very close and shrieked in pain as the dagger clipped her right thigh. Olivia immediately felt the restrains release and as that happened she moved swiftly, taking out the arrow and shooting it point blank at the woman’s eye. The body fell on the side with a thud, blood soaking into the sand. Olivia looked down at the body for a second, her head empty, then took her dagger from the sand, hung her bow around her shoulder and mounted her mare. Only ten minutes later five more purple cloaked figures came and collected their dead. One stayed until the ever shifting sand covered the hove prints.
Olivia didn’t remember well how she returned to Palmira rest, or how she changed her horse, only some sound and feel of cold water running down her skin and pain when white cotton cloth went over where the wound was smiling at her. She vaguely remembered giving some coins to the women that helped her clean up and without answering their questions and pleas to stay, she mounted another horse and rode. And she rode not as fast this time, dazed and confused, wondering if all that really happened. It took her four days this time to reach the capital again and by the end of the third day, she had a pretty good idea of the sequence of events and memories of people that she recognised there were now clear in her head. She knew what she was going to tell the Emperor. It was clear and because he sent her, he’s going to believe her and end that madness, hunt down that red creature and execute him for hubris, treachery, treason and thousand other crimes. Perhaps she could even help poor Lulu yet.
But when she reached the top of a ridge from where Orcittia could be seen in the distance, in the middle of the day, in the blazing heat of the Sun Goddess, her heart grew cold again and her mind tumbled into obscurity. Every tower was producing black smoke and it was so thick already the city was covered in grey smog. There were sounds of horns crying, making the city look like a large wounded animal, bellowing under a cloud of darkness. Then, Olivia saw the lighthouse, the never sleeping beacon of hope and home, go dark and a stream of black smoke from it too took into the sky, joining into the black crying chorus. The golden city of white homes, grand palaces, conceived, birthed and blessed by the Sun Goddess herself, was weeping black, for no rain ever weeped for it.
“The Emperor is dead! Long live the Empress!” a young elven lad recognised her without her scarf and people around her, on horses and camels, with mules and crates, barefooted and richly dressed, bowed to her on the sides of the road, as she made her way slowly into the city.
Sleep well, papa. An old saying, blasphemous in this day and age, came to Olivia’s head before she entered the city through the Pilgrim’s gate, people humbling themselves before her. Olivia Solvegitos looked behind before she crossed the threshold, to the golden sands of the desert, feeling that she would never see them the same way again.
She never did. But her great hunt still began.
Author’s note: Orcittia is a fictional empire I’ve created in my head, set in a fantasy world also created in my head. If you find any name, person or location familiar, it is only by chance. This world has little to do with the real one.