by Den Valdron
I picked up a stick and angrily clouted Aspar Aguus across the face with it as hard as I can.
“How dare you?” I snapped. “How dare you profane my holy presence.”
Standing on the deck, surrounded by Orgus and Red officers, the great monster looked utterly stunned. His companions, seemed outraged. Please don't kill me, I thought. I'd known from the moment I'd seen him and his lieutenants marching up on the deck, eyes full of fire, postures fierce and erect, that they were going to be trouble. They'd made a bee line straight for me, which meant that the next things out of their mouths would be some sort of demands or speeches. Here I was surrounded by the officers of Admiral Latta's fleet, who took me as some sort of Holy personage. The last thing I could afford was to be hectored by smelly tusked barbarians.
Aguus glanced around, his eyes flashing angry and then thoughtful. We were on the deck of the Admiral's flagship, still skirting the edges of the Jagged lands. From time to time, a strange gust of wind would come roaring out of the canyons and lift or drop a floating battleship, shaking it like a toy. He seemed to calculate the situation.
He knelt. I felt a wet flush of relief.
“Holiness,” he boomed, “forgive my impertinence.”
“You are forgiven,” I replied in a kindly manner. “Your kind knows no better.”
But he and his lieutenants had come up here for a reason. There'd been something very purposeful about their stride, something was up.
“You have come to report on the cleaning of the staterooms?” I demanded.
Aguus blinked, in slow surprise.
“Yes, Holiness,” he replied. Behind him, his lieutenants grunted with irritation, but they were smart enough to hold their tongues.
“Well, report,” demanded.
“The uhh, stables...”
“Staterooms,” I corrected.
“Yes, the staterooms, are being cleaned as we speak,” he said.
“And the passageways.”
“And the decks?”
“Are polished,” he replied.
“We are pleased,” I replied. “You may be go.”
Again, a blink of surprise.
“Tell your people I will reward them with a sermon tonight,” I told him.
“Tonight?” There was something in his tone which suggested that a considerably faster conversation would be desirable.
“You will attend me, after I finish here,” I said, “to discuss the details of the sermon.”
A small nod.
The Orgus departed, all around me, the red officers and captains grinned with pleasure at the timely humiliation of their unwanted guests. My standing with the officers of the fleet had improved. I returned to discussions of strategy and tactics with renewed vigor. But my mind was elsewhere.
Something was up, it seemed.
“You must halt the fleet,” Aguus ordered me privately. “We must disembark.”
I wanted to hit him again.
“You, me and Orgus.”
“Why? And why me?”
“It is forbidden to tell you.”
“Oh,” I said, “well, that's going to work so well. I'll just go to the Admiral and tell him to land all his ships. The Orgus want to take a walk. But they won't say where.”
“Yes,” he said.
“No,” I replied. “I can get the fleet to do what I want, but it is not easy or simple. There's a price each time.”
“But you can do it.”
“Tell me why?”
Aguus turned away.
“Listen to me,” I snapped, “my position here. Which means your position here is precarious. I'm not going to take a risk without knowing why?”
The big warrior grunted angrily, and slammed his fist against a bulkhead. My heart surged, after all this time, the creature was still dangerous and unpredictable to me. But I gave no sign.
“Well,” I demanded.
He seemed to think it over.
“We of the Orgus,” he said finally, “our world revolves around the Temple of Skulls, where the great Jeddak Heddo Lettus holds court.”
I nodded. I'd been there. I'd been sentenced to death there. I had no intention of returning to the Court of that maniac.
“But there is another sacred place. Megas Ark.”
The name didn't mean anything to me. But then, few things did.
“What is Megas Ark?” I asked.
“A fortress,” he replied. “A sanctuary, a refuge for the Orgus people. For centuries we have reinforced and provisioned it, against the day when our enemies prove too strong to defeat in battle, and we must flee.”
“The Orgus flee a battle?” I said. “I can't imagine that.”
“We can,” he replied. “Your own histories must be full of brave warrior nations who stood firm against overwhelming enemies and died to the last man and woman. The Orgus are strong and fierce, but the world is vast and implacable. The Great Jeddak decreed that we must survive where others die.”
“I see,” I said. “and where is Megas Ark?”
“It's location is forbidden to outsiders, even its name cannot be spoken. None who are not of the Orgus may know of it.”
“But you want to bring me there?”
Mmm hmmm. This was worse than the temple of skulls.
“Sure,” I replied, “drag me off to the super-secret, hidden mystery sanctuary that no outsider is supposed to even know exists. Fat chance of getting out again. Well, I'm not stupid, and I'm not going.”
“I must,” he snapped. “I must bring you. I promise that I will release you when...”
“When ...” he paused, looking for words. He turned away, and his voice, when it came, came softly. “When I have disgraced myself, and am no longer worthy of the Orgus.”
I blinked. That didn't make a bit of sense. I could not fathom the creatures mood, he seemed to shift fluidly between rage and despair and grief. And what was this sudden talk of disgracing himself and being no longer worthy. From my contacts with the Orgus, I'd come to appreciate that their Jeds were ranked somewhere close to demigods among them, and that Aspar Aguus, among the Jeds, was a near legendary figure. What was bringing this on?
Then it hit me.
“When I found you,” I said, “chained to the rocks near a dead body, a dragon on its way....”
“We were to meet in truce,” he replied, “we three Jeds, the greatest of Heddo Letus chosen, to ponder and argue the problem of Markath Khan and settle upon a strategy we might recommend to the great one. We were to come alone, each bringing no more than one bond man, to debate the fate of the Orgus.”
“It was safe, you see.” He said. “For by the law of the Great One, no Jed may slay another Jed.”
“But it wasn't safe,” I said. “They'd found a way around the law.”
He nodded, in that Orgus way they had, his tusks clicking.
“What is at Megas Ark,” I demanded. “Who is there?”
“Mattlass Kay,” he replied, “the greatest of Heddo Lettus creations. Greater than I by far. He holds Megas Ark, where the Great Jeddak now resides.”
That seemed like two good reasons not to go there.
“I am going to go there,” he said, his voice choking with emotion, “and I am going to murder him with my bare hands before all, and when it is done, I shall be finished and outcast.”
A third good reason not to go.
“Well,” I said diplomatically, “good luck with that. Where should we be dropping you off.”
“You will come with me,” he said. “You must bear witness to the end, as you bore witness to the beginning. It is only through you that I have lived to seek this vengeance.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “Really, I appreciate this. I'm touched. I had no idea I meant so much to you, but I am kind of tied up with engagements. Perhaps you could go on ahead, and I could drop by later...”
“You will come with me,” he said flatly, “or I will expose and disgrace you to these Red men, and you will be dragged back to Markath Khan in chains. Or you will die among them.”
My blood ran cold. I could tell that he would do it too. The Orgus are not ones for subterfuge at the best of times, and there was no sign of a bluff here.
“But then you'll die too,” I replied, my final gambit.
His eyes took on a far away look.
“I've been dead all along.”
In the end, it was less difficult than I anticipated.
Around noon the next day, I was stricken with a fit from the God. I halted in mid-sentence, leaped to my feet, my body stiffening, eyes rolling up. Then I pitched back into the arms of a suitably muscular crewman.
Even as he lowered me to the deck, the howling and tremors commenced, building up into a full scale epileptic fit. A bit of food mash I'd tucked away and palmed into my cheek an instant before gave me a very nice foam at the mouth, and I finished up with some speaking in tongues. After about fifteen minutes, once I'd gathered a suitably concerned audience, I let it subside.
They hadn't pitched me over the deck in terror. Good sign, I thought. In the old Az-Lium theatre, persons receiving religious visitations often conveyed this through seizures. Also, I'd used the technique to extricate myself from particularly unsuccessful dates. Although one suitor turned out to actually like that sort of thing, and we ended up going out for a few months.
I'd hoped that the Thern faith had some similar tradition.
“Is she all right?” someone said with desperate concern.
“Bring water!” Admiral Latta shouted.
I was surrounded by solicitous faces. I kind of liked it. Perhaps I should pitch fits more often. It was always a show stopper.
“A vision,” I whispered weakly. They all leaned in closer to hear. I definitely liked it. I played up my weakness and coughed delicately. “I have received a vision from Iss herself.”
“Issus?” someone corrected. Always a goddamned nitpicker in the audience!
“Iss and Issus,” I grunted, “are one. The vision....”
I swallowed, dragging out the moment, pretending to gather my strength. Someone offered water, I sipped it gratefully.
“The Orgus must leave the fleet!” I announced.
There was an intake of breath. I knew this would be a welcome revelation.
“The Orgus must venture into the Jagged Lands, through the valley of Korokos Urus at the will of Iss... Issus.”
“And I must go with them!”
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