This week’s challenge: To Behold the Divine. I took the opportunity to get Liam the Black back out there, even for a non-canon story, to explain a little bit more where he comes from and why has little patience for gods, spirits and other such hoodoo. Maybe not quite what the challenge was calling for, but given my current state of mind it was good to write something, maybe even especially because a Liam the Black story was just rejected. Comments and such are welcome, as always.
Liam the Black sat cross-legged by the fire, cloak pulled tight around his body against the desert wind whipping around his body. The flickering light glinted off the bare blade of the knife resting on his lap. The camels nearby bellowed to each other near the wagon.
Khorshid, the merchant and Liam’s current employer, shuddered under his robes. “Bad night to be travelling. Shedu fly on winds like these.”
Liam looked up at Khorshid, studied the man’s weather-worn face, marked the drawn lines of worry etched on his brow. “Shedu?”
Khorshid drew his body more into himself. “Winged demons. Look like bulls, but with human heads. Teeth of iron. Hooves of basalt.” He made a sign Liam recognized, meant to protect against evil. Khorshid reached into his robes and produced a small clay amulet. “Lucky for me, I have protection from Sybaris. What protection do you carry?”
Liam shuddered at the name of the snake goddess, his most recent interaction with her priesthood necessitating him leaving Dariza, that oasis of culture and refinement in the middle of the harsh desert so far from his home. Liam held up his knife in answer to Khorshid.
“You’re a strange man, you know that? How far from home are you?”
Liam shook his head. “Further than I ever planned to be,” he replied.
“And you carry no symbol of your god?”
Liam hawked and spat into the flames. “My people have no god. No goddess either, before you ask.”
Khorshid wrinkled his nose. “Are you one of those strange people who do not believe in them? I have heard of such, but never figured it to be true.”
Liam smiled, the flames reflected in his green eyes. “Oh, we do not dispute that the gods exist,” he said. “That would be like denying that water is wet or that sand gets into… well, everything. They say when the world was young and new formed, the gods and goddesses took people for their own. One such, their name forgotten, approached my people, demanded sacrifice and worship in exchange for their patronage.”
Khorshid nodded, his eyes growing distant. “I’ve heard the same story. Sometimes several of the gods banded together, enforced their will upon a people. Some were benevolent… some less so.” He smiled. “Luckily for my people, we have some of the more benevolent ones, and they drove their enemies into the barren wastes where they remain.” He glanced up at the sky, listened the wind howl around them. “And that’s where they remain.”
Liam snorted. “To hear my teacher tell it, my people weren’t so lucky. We ended up with one of the more brutal goddesses. She demanded blind obedience and a steady supply of victims, chosen from our strongest youth. She was cruel, and arbitrary, but she kept our enemies at bay for she was jealous. No one was going to break her playthings but her.”
Khorshid frowned. “But it is man’s lot to bend to the will of the divine. I feel sorrow for your people, but what can one do against divinity?”
Liam toyed with the knife in his hand, ran it lightly down the length of his tanned arm. “They plan. They dissemble. They plant a knife in the bitch’s back, bind her, and strip away everything that makes them divine. They hang her corpse as a warning. We kill the loyal priests and quarter them. We teach our youth magic and how to battle spirits. We learn to recognize the divine and protect against it, without relying on the whims of divinity.”
Liam opened the bag near him, pulled out a small clay pot. He worked open the lead seal, dipped his fingers into the black paint inside. He drew an eye on his forehead, a black circle on his left arm, a scorpion on the back of his right hand.
“What are you doing?” Khorshid asked, eyes widening with uncomprehending horror. “You are a warlock! If I knew that I would never have hired you. I should have known you were bad news when you didn’t try to bargain for your wage.”
Liam chuckled. “Not my fault you were greedy, Khorshid. But lucky for you I know a bit of magic, because I don’t think that amulet is going to aid you. And you paid me for protection, and that is what I’ll provide.”
Khorshid narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean?
Liam pricked his finger, smeared blood across the design on his eyes. The drawing blinked, looked around. “You should get in the wagon, Khorshid. The spirits are getting closer, and there’s something big coming with them.”
Khorshid stared at Liam for a moment, then hustled toward the wagon. As Liam watched, he buried himself under the tarp, pulling it down over his head. Liam rolled his shoulders, felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. The harsh stench of burning metal filled the air.
“You may as well come over to the fire,” he called out. “This is no night for lurking in the darkness.”
The figure that came into the light would have towered over Liam even if he had been standing. The legs bent the wrong way, and ebon feathered wings arched over the figures head and dripped foulness onto the sand. Great clawed hands grasped the air in front of it, and six pairs of eyes glowed with an internal light down at Liam. Where its clawed feet touched the ground, the sand turned black and foul with ooze.
The god of the wastes sniffed the air. “I don’t recognize your stench, manling.” When the god spoke, it’s small pointed teeth clicked together, a its long worm of a tongue snaked into the air.
Liam shook his head. “I wouldn’t expect you, too. I am a long way from home.”
The god sniffed the air again. “There is a smell on you, blood, but not human, not cattle, not…” The god trailed off, eyes rolling in its head. “Ancient, but fresh.”
“Will you sit at the fire with me?”
The god blinked all six of its luminescent orbs at Liam. “You offer hospitality?”
“We are mutual travelers in the wastes. It would be impolite of me not to.”
The god settled, somewhat clumsy, across the fire from Liam. “You know who I am?”
Liam shook his head. “No. But I know what you are. A god without a people. An unclean wretch driven out by your peers, forced to dwell on the fringes, used by the priests of the other gods as a warning and as a punishment.”
“I am Zamaltu!” the god shrieked, and Liam resisted the urge to cover his ears with his hands, instead sitting and watching until the god’s cry faded. “God of winds and diseases. Cast out by the others because they were jealous of my power. They grow fat on sacrifices while I hunger, and the hunger of a god is a terrible thing to bear.”
Liam switched the knife to his left hand, rested the blade across the scorpion drawn on his right hand. In the darkness, he could hear the stamp of hooves, the gibbering of voices as the shedu called to each other, waiting to see what their master would do. “And I’m Liam the Black.”
Zamaltu tilted its head, birdlike, and studied Liam. Its tongue lolled from its mouth, and its clawed hands opened and closed. “And to which god or goddess should I commend your spirit when I rip your entrails from your corpse?”
Liam frowned and he tapped the blade against the design on his hand. “You would break sacred hospitality?”
Zamaltu laughed, a hideous warbling cry that pierced the night. Liam wanted to cover his ears, wanted to block out the sound, but he forced his hands to be still as he endured the hideous crawling sensation the laughter invoked. “Hospitality? What does such a thing mean to one such as I? I say again, what god or goddess owns your pathetic worm of a soul?”
Liam smiled then and drew his blade against the scorpion design, reopening a cut he’d made countless of times before. His blood mixed with the pigment, and a hard black carapace spread out over Liam’s skin. He leapt over the fire, Zamaltu stumbling back, giving a squawk of surprise at being attacked. Zamaltu raked his claws against Liam, but could find no purchase against the shining black chitin. He opened his mouth to cry out, but he felt the hot sting of Liam’s knife dragging across his neck and pushed away, stumbling from the fire.
“You would attack me?” Zamaltu shrieked, raising one clawed hand to his slashed throat. “You think you can kill me?”
Liam stepped forward, the light shining off the magical carapace he wore. A segmented tail rose over his shoulder, the tip dripping venom onto the sand. “No, I don’t. But how badly do you have to be hurt before your shedu turn on you? Run away, little godling. You broke hospitality. Be glad the price for doing so isn’t higher.”
Turning, Liam walked back to the fire. He heard Zamaltu scramble to his feet, heard the beating of terrible wings as the forsaken god took to the desert air. After a while, Khorshid emerged from the covered wagon, his body still shaking.
“It is gone?”
Liam nodded, the carapace having since faded away. He fed a piece of dry desert wood to the fire, stirring it back to life.
“Even gods are capable of being afraid. Sometimes you need to remind them of that.”