The Demons of Khemas, free sample, 4. chapter

8 May

I am going to speed this up a bit, and add one more chapter. So, this is chapter 4, and chapters 5 and 6 will come up tomorrow and the day after.

 

 

Chapter Four

“Alright. Mukasji, will you wait here, in the Courtyard?” Mambi asked, her voice brisk and businesslike.

“Pa said I should stick with you.” Mukasji’s voice was sullen.

“You could,” Tikka said, her voice taking on the overly patient maiden aunt tone she knew Mukasji hated more than anything in spite of her resolution to, for once, try and say something to the young man without trying to irritate him.

Well, what the hell. She had been speaking to him in that same way for so many years that if she suddenly changed her style the guy would probably become suspicious enough that he’d stick to her heels like a leech for the rest of the time they’d spend in the city. And that she did not want.

“But we are not going to stay together. We have all come here for different reasons, so we are each and every one of us going to visit different parts of the temple. You can’t follow every one of us, so it would be best if you stayed in the yard here. That way it will be easiest for us to find each other again.” Tikka affected a serene countenance and fluttered her eyelashes at Mukasji.

He glowered back, but, after a moment, nodded. As the women separated and started towards different parts of the huge temple compound Tikka suddenly wondered how much Mukasji really disliked her. She had been able to drive him nuts almost from the beginning, and she had been doing it for several years now.

It would be no wonder if ‘dislike’ would be too mild a term for his feelings towards her. It was probably far more likely that he hated her.

Maybe Mambi was right. Mukasji couldn’t help being the way he was, but he might actually be a bit easier to live with if he were to be treated with a bit more kindness by the hired help. At least by the hired help. His father was the one whose behavior, maybe, could have made a real difference, but Tikka was dead certain Jick would not change the way he treated the son he was so badly disappointed with.

Tikka smiled and made her decision. All right. She would at least try it, once they got back to the tavern. For a while anyway. She didn’t harbor any real ill will towards Mukasji, and the fact was that the thought that the young man might very well actually hate her did disturb her.

But that would be once they got back to normal.

Right now she wanted to concentrate on other things. Like trying to find out what was going on with the Monkey God’s temples.

There was brisk commerce of all kinds going on in the temple area. The Fertility Goddess’ temple was more than just one temple, it was a collection of different sizes of buildings and yards between them. Most of the buildings were quite grandiose. This Goddess had one of the biggest group of worshippers in the city, and it showed. Children, having them or not having them, were, after all, among the things most people did care about. And the case was even more so with their sex lives. The temple did sell spells for both, for all purposes.

What Tikka looked for was something a bit different. One of the services the temple provided was counseling. If you wanted to talk about something, and that included pretty much anything, you could come here and search out what was called the Temple of Advice. There the temple servants would listen and offer that advertised advice. Which, occasionally, might even be useful, from what she had heard, although Tikka had always supposed the main benefit was to have somebody listen to you and to pretend that whatever you were telling was important. Not everybody had friends or family for that, and, besides, the temple offered strict confidentiality, one enforced by spells which had been verified by outside operators. This was one of the services that were actually free here, at least for the occasional single consultation. If you thought you needed to do that on a daily basis, or for several times in a row, well, now that was a different matter.

Tikka didn’t put much faith in the temple servants’ ability to provide good advice. But she was fairly sure they would be more than willing to provide her with plenty of malicious gossip about the temples of the rival sect.

The Temple of Advice turned out to be easy to find. Like most of the building inside the temple compound it was built of marble or some such stone, and decorated with the gilded statues of the winged Goddess and her bird consorts. This was not the only goddess in the city who was associated with birds, and not the only one whose special emblem was the dove, but she was the best known. When people wanted to differentiate this goddess from the other two Fertility Goddesses they called her the Dove Goddess.

Tikka had always wished all these gods and goddesses of the plains would have some sort of individual names, like the ones her grandmother had worshipped. Well, actually they did have them, supposedly anyway, but the local idea was that those names provided such power for the ones who knew them that only the high priests and priestesses of each sect knew them, and gave the knowledge only to their successors. For everyone else they were just the Fertility Goddess (one of them), or the Monkey God, or the War God (one or the other of them). The locals didn’t seem to have any problems telling all these deities apart, or knowing of which one somebody was talking about, but for outsiders like her the whole system seemed more than a bit confusing.

There was a short line standing in front of the building’s single door. Tikka took her place in the end of it and settled down to wait. She didn’t need to wait long. The line was moving briskly, and one by one the people in front of her disappeared through the open doorway.

When it was her turn she found a young woman waiting for her. The girl smiled and motioned for her to follow, then took her to down an aisle lined by low, decorated wooden partitions which had doorways with heavy curtains on them at regular intervals. Soft voices drifted from the cubicles, a few times interrupted by a raised voice – and the voice of the temple servant trying to soothe the customer, and to make her or him speak more quietly – by sobs, once by a giggle.
Finally the girl guiding her stopped in front of one and parted the curtain for Tikka to enter.

On the other side was a small, roofless cubicle with two comfortable looking chairs and a low table with a clay pitcher of, probably, water (one the things the temple was famous for, a well with water which was always perfectly safe to drink) and wooden cups. Tikka could hear the low murmur of voices from the cubicles on both sides. But she could not make out the words. She had not been able to do that even with the couple of loud voices they had passed on the way hear.

Spells.

“And what is it you wish to talk about, my child,” the girl said in a soft voice once they had seated themselves.

Tikka had to struggle to keep her face serious. The girl seemed not even quite out of her teens, possibly three, maybe four years younger than she herself was. She wondered if the girl would address all of her clients as ‘my child’, no matter what their age. Maybe it was because of her position as a counselor, or just because she was member of the temple staff. “I have a problem with one of the gods in the city. Or with his temples, anyway.”

“Go on.”

That sounded encouraging. Tikka had been a bit worried that perhaps there was some sort of an agreement between the temples. ‘Don’t talk badly of me inside the city walls and I won’t talk badly of you there either’ sort of thing, since they were supposed to get along in the city. “It’s the Monkey God. His temples scare me badly. I wish to know… could there be a real basis for my fear, or might it be only something that is in my head.” Well, now she’d see. If the girl would just give her some sort of generalized babble about ‘how we all have our problems’ she would cut this short and try to find some other source for information.

The girl looked at her for a moment, her face serene, and Tikka tried to keep on looking worried. Which wasn’t hard for her to do. All she had to do was to think about Grath. Then the girl nodded. “You are not from the city, are you?”

Tikka nodded.

“There are stories about that God…”

Tikka settled down to listen.

***

The temple servant’s tale:

In the beginning of time, when people were just savages living in the wild, a man was called to this place on the plains, by the two rivers. He saw that this place was good, and he settled here, and in time other people joined him. They still made their living by hunting and by gathering of all that they could find growing free in the land, but now they always returned to this place. And now, sometimes, some of them could hear somebody, or something, talking to them in their sleep. The voice, and in time, the voices, started to teach them. And the people were taught how to build shelters, and how to tame animals, and then, how to plant seeds so that they would know there would be food growing there the next season.

There were many voices. The people who heard them trusted them, and listened to them.

In time the people stopped most of their wanderings and settled here permanently, growing their food and herding their animals in the plains around the area where they built their settlement. That settlement grew. The people chose one of the talkers to the Spirits as their king, and first he, and then for a long time his descendants, ruled what was now a city, and the place prospered under their guidance.

Buildings were put down on the places where the Spirits could be heard. Now they were called gods, and goddesses. The kings named other people who could hear them as caretakers for these new temples.

Sometimes one of the kings would hear new voices among the old ones. When that happened that king would order a new temple to be built. The belief was that all the voices the king could hear should be accepted. But people would not worship all of them equally. Some chose this one, others that one as their special god or goddess, or a few, and sometimes they had clashes over what the gods said as how the world worked. Even whether all of the gods were as real. But the king always made sure those clashes did not lead to fighting inside the city. Inside the city all gods were respected. And the kings, but only the kings, paid homage to all of them.

One day one of these new voices was the one we call the Monkey God.

At first the voice of the Monkey God didn’t make much sense. But the king who ruled then was a persistent man, and he kept on listening, trying to understand. And slowly he did.

The people had, from the beginning, given the voices gifts, in exchange for their guidance, and as a show of gratitude. The voices had accepted these gifts, and had sometimes told what they preferred as gifts. But it had never been real trading in the sense that the people would have had to give in order to get. It had always been more like the exchange of gifts between friends, or between a parent and her children. And what the voices had given had always been mostly just advice how to do things. Some of that advice had been how to use the power of the place for magic, but they had never traded for that power itself.

But that was what the Monkey God said it wanted to do. It wanted sacrifices, and in exchange for them it would give power.

That first king who heard it didn’t buy that bargain. He had a temple built for the god, but he didn’t order any sacrifices to be made there.

A few generations passed. And the city found itself in trouble. There were people around it who wanted its riches, and now, often, the city found itself at war. And at a very troubled time one of the kings finally listened to the Monkey God. He gave it what it wanted, and in exchange it gave him the power to drive away the enemies of the city.

For a while all seemed good. But the Monkey God kept on demanding its sacrifices. Some of them were animals, but more and more of them were people.

It wanted blood.

The king obliged. And in time it could be seen that the king was changing. He changed in character. In time he started to change in his appearance.

That was the time when the Monkey God was given the name it is called now. For that king started to resemble a big monkey. He grew hairy, and his eyeteeth turned into fangs, and he started to grow a snout, and a tail, and his forehead got lower.

That was when several of the temple high priests and priestesses consulted with their own deities, and what they found out was that the king was being taken over by the Monkey God.

That was too much. The sacrifices had been bad enough, but the people of the city did not want to be ruled over by this god too. So they rebelled. The rebellion was led by one of the temple priests. He was the high priest of our Dove Goddess.

They killed the king. But it turned out the Monkey God was not that easy to get rid of. In the end the high priest had to save the city by a final blood sacrifice.

He sacrificed himself. And his blood sealed the Monkey God inside its temples. The temples were kept, and people still worship that god, because as long as the god is contained the power it gives in exchange for the small blood sacrifices people give it is good for the city.

But it has to stay contained.

***

“And that is the story of the Monkey God. And that is perhaps why you fear his temples. You have some of the gift.” The girl looked at Tikka, her eyes wide and eager. “That gift is a precious thing. You could come and study here. Our temple always needs people who have it.”

Tikka shook her head. “Uh, I’d have to think about that. And I have never had any other indications of being in any way out of the ordinary, except that one thing. Just the fear, and the feel there is something bad in those temples.” A bit of a lie perhaps, but she had no wish to become a temple servant, and didn’t want to hear any more recruitment speeches.

“That is sometimes the way it is. But even just one thing means you have it.”

“Yes. All right. Well, one thing, I have never heard anyone speaking about any of that tale before. Not that I have all that much time to chat with my co-workers about religious matters or anything, but it sounds like something that should be common knowledge and something people would like to talk about. All I have ever heard in connection with the Monkey God is that he’s the god who gives you raw power, so you go there if you want to perform some magic, or have somebody perform some magic for you, and want to make sure it works. So…?”

The girl nodded. She had kept that same serene composure on her face most of the time, no matter what she had talked about. It was starting to get on Tikka’s nerves. She supposed it was something these temple servants were trained to do, but she kept on wishing the girl would do something with her face. So far the only moment she had slipped a bit had been when she had told Tikka that she would be accepted here as a student. “That is because the people believe the Monkey God can give them trouble if you talk badly about it.”

“Well, can it?”

“Perhaps, sometimes. But not here. Its power is limited. It can’t do anything inside the power circle of another God, or Goddess. Not even the minor ones.”

Tikka nodded. Maybe the girl was right. She had not felt the usual oppression after she had entered the premises of this temple. But she was fairly sure that the limitation was only inside the temples. Everywhere else, inside the city walls, that oppressive feeling existed to her. Which presumably meant the Monkey God was present everywhere else.

Well, she wasn’t quite sure whether she had gotten what she wanted, but she had gotten at least something. Time to go.

She thanked the girl and left.

She wondered how reliable what she had just heard was. If what the girl had said was true, and the Monkey God was something with power, and with power enough that it sometimes could actually do something to people anywhere in the city…

What kind of power would it have inside its own temples?

Even if it could not do something physical to someone there, it might probably be at least able to give a warning to the temple priests and guards that there was somebody on the premises who shouldn’t be there.

Somebody like a spy, or a thief.

And what if it could do more?

***

Tikka found all the others already waiting in the front yard, Mambi talking earnestly with Mukasji who was for once looking almost cheerful. Tikka gave him a good look before they noticed her and once again realized Mambi was right.

When the guy wasn’t looking sullen he didn’t look all that bad. And if he had been slimmer he might have looked pretty good. Now if something could be done about his behavior Mambi might actually have something there. There were moments when he did seem almost likable. And Mukasji had always seemed to like Mambi, apart from Jish way more than any of the other women she had seen him to interact with, and that included the occasional outsiders he sometimes shacked up with.

She grinned to herself and wished good luck to Mambi’s enterprise.

***

They returned to the Star Goddess’ guesthouse with no detours.

Tikka shared a room with the other girls, Mukasji slept in the men’s dormitory. So Mukasji would be out of her way. Now all Tikka needed to do was to persuade the two women that it would be all right for her to go out again alone.

Easier said than done. In the end the argument which worked was a lie. Tikka told her companions that she was going to check on Grath’s lodgings, and tried to give the impression that if she found him she’d see whether he’d want her to spend the night.

Well, she was going to look for Grath, and she would start by visiting his lodgings, and the last part didn’t take too much acting ability as it seemed to be a foregone conclusion as far as the other women were concerned.

They didn’t know her quite as well as they thought they did. She really liked Grath, but she would not risk getting pregnant by him, spells or no spells, the spells didn’t always work. He was a good man, and a good friend, and perhaps she was a bit taken with him, but he was a mercenary. She did not want to become a penniless widow at a young age, possibly one with several children if he lived long enough to get her pregnant more than once. Or spend half of her life looking after a cripple, which was were most of those men, the ones who lived, tended to end. He would not be able to offer her the security she craved.

But he was a friend, so she would do what she could to help him if he was in trouble.

The first thing she did once she had left the guesthouse was to go and look for a free temple servant inside the actual temple building.

The Star Goddess was the Goddess of Dreams. Tikka thought that should have made her a popular one in this city with its almost never ending noise. That was not the case, though. The Star Goddess had only a very modest temple compound, and the place was close to being deserted even this early in the night. She had no problems finding the informant she wanted.

What she wanted to find out was whether the old man, a servant of a different goddess, agreed with what the Dove Goddess’ servant had said.

And what she did find out was that in most particulars he did. Almost the only difference was that he contributed the final self-sacrifice, the one which had sealed the Monkey God inside its temples, not to some ancient high priest of the Dove Goddess, and somewhat to Tikka’s surprise, neither to some devotee of his own goddess, but to a nobleman. Some nameless count from that ancient king’s Court.

***

Tikka had no trouble finding Grath’s current lodgings. She had never bothered to ask where the man was staying, but Para, who had been following Grath around during the last couple of weeks, was there to help her. The place turned out to be a small inn, well off the major streets. But even if small and away from the bustle of the principal streets, it was still open when she reached it, a bit before midnight. Not that there was anything like a crowd inside. Jus two drunken men in one corner and one very bored looking bartender/inn servant, or for all she knew the inn keeper himself, behind the counter.

Tikka contemplated for a moment what approach to take, then decided the most obvious one would probably work best. Grath was a mercenary, after all. She fluffed her hair a bit and pulled the blouse down to offer a better view of her cleavage, nicely accented by the tight bodice, and tried to adopt a sultry expression.

“Good evening. What can I offer you?” The bartender’s voice was only slightly animated. Tikka decided she would probably not have a bright future as a Courtesan. Not that she had ever planned to become one.

“I’m looking for a friend of mine. He should live here. A big blond man with tattoos all over him.”

“And would you happen to know the name of this friend of yours?”

“Oh yes,” Tikka said and fluttered her eyeflashes. “He calls himself Grath.”

The bartender looked thoughtful for a moment. “Yes… we have a guest by that name.”

“Is he in?”

“No.”

Tikka was certain that both Mambi and Anya would have been on their way towards Grath’s room by now. She wasn’t all that good in these types of games. “He should be. Or at least he should come soon. We agreed to meet here tonight.”

“Well, perhaps you would like to drink something while you wait?”

The was no hint of any kind of flirting in either the man’s voice or his expression. Tikka sighed inwardly and leaned over the counter, exposing more of her cleavage, and tried to make her voice more husky. Perhaps he was an eunuch. Or liked men more than women. “But it would be so much nicer if I could wait in his room. I could make myself comfortable. He would like it better too when he comes back, now wouldn’t he? If there was something nice waiting for him in his bed…”

The man was looking into her cleavage, but by his expression he might as well have been trying to decide what kind of fish to buy. And finding them all too old.

Tikka sighed and stood up straight, then reached a hand into her cleavage and dug out the small purse she kept there. “How much?” she asked, her voice completely businesslike.

“Well, now…”

“That guy is not rich. Remember that.”

The bartender grinned.

It took several moments of haggling before they settled down to a price which Tikka could afford and the man would accept, and she was shown to the stairs on the back of the bar which led to the second floor rental rooms.

“He’s going to pay that back,” Tikka said under her breath as she was looking for the right door, the clumsy big key the bartender had given her held tightly in her fisted hand. “All the bloody things I’m doing for that ungrateful son of a bitch…”

She thought she heard a faint snickering in the air.

“Amusing. You think this is amusing…”

The room was small, with one tiny window giving out on the roof over part of the first floor, which was about twice as wide as this second one. Tikka eyed the window for a moment, then opened it a crack. If nobody came in after her and closed it, she might be able to pay other visits here without paying more to the staff by climbing up on that roof and coming in through the window.

“You know, the city guard here actually do patrol the streets during the nights. If you try that and get caught, it will mean at least a few days in the lock-up. And a good fine. Which Jick will have to pay,” Para’s voice whispered into her ear.

Tikka gasped, then closed her mouth and counted to ten before whispering back. “Don’t do that!”

“Do what?” Para asked, its voice innocent.

Tikka again counted to ten. This time she didn’t deign to answer.

There wasn’t much in the room. Some clothes, one pair of good boots under the bed, and a worn dagger underneath the mattress. No money or anything like that anywhere, but then only a fool would have kept anything really worth anything in their room. Even leaving those boots here was foolhardy, and Tikka was a bit surprised nobody had yet pilfered them. It didn’t look like Grath had intended to be away for long.

She kept some time trying to find any loose boards on the floor or in the walls, even if she doubted Grath would have been stupid enough to use that kind of place to stash anything. The staff of the place had to know most hiding places inside the rooms. At least she knew them all back in The Burned Oak.

“I don’t think we can accomplish anything here,” Tikka said into the empty air. “You have any bright ideas about what to do next?”

“You could leave some sort of a note here,” Para said. “Tell him to contact you when he comes back. If he does.”

“I don’t know if he can read.” Most people couldn’t. Tikka had learned because one of the few ways in which her mother’s noble half-brother had acknowledged the relationship had been by giving Tikka, and her sisters, the chance to study a few hours every week under the tutelage of the teachers of his own children. Tikka had been the only one of them who had actually taken advantage of that for more than a few years, and she had learned not only a bit more advanced mathematics, and to read and write, in two languages, but also something about geography and history and a few more subjects rarely encountered by anybody not of the noble classes. Not that any of those had done her much good. A servant wench only needed to know how to count money, or what the values of anything used in trade were.

“Oh yes,” Para said. “I didn’t think of that. Probably he can’t.”

“Yes. I guess I have to dole out a bit more to that charmer downstairs, and hope that if Grath does come back he will actually deliver the message.”

“You might also tell him that if Grath isn’t back when the time he has paid for runs out, you are the one he should send a message for. At least you can get his things out then.”

‘What for?’ was what Tikka wanted to ask, but didn’t, not out loud. Why look after his things, because if he doesn’t come back he’s probably dead.

Only she didn’t really want to think about that possibility.

***

Back in the street Tikka figured it had to be getting on past midnight by now. And she had no idea what to do.

Or actually, she did have one idea. Only that was something she very much didn’t want to do.

“Para…”

“Yes?”

“The temple… that temple near which you last saw Grath. Could you take me to it?”

“Yes, if you want to I will. But are you sure about that? I mean, there isn’t much you can do. I can’t get inside of it, and you can’t search it.”

“I can at least take a look. I suppose it’s open all through the night, like most places this time of the year. I can go in and act like either a worshipper or just somebody curious, and take a look.”

“All right…” Para’s voice sounded doubtful, but after a moment’s hesitation it told her the directions.

There were still lots of people on the main streets, and there would be people on them all through the night. The city never really slept during these few frantic summer months. But most of the activity was centered on only a few streets. They were well lighted, but away from them there were torches and lamps burning only in front of the inns and the temples and the brothels, elsewhere, most of the time, people would have to carry their own if they wanted to see where they were going. And avoid stepping on whatever happened to be lying on the street. Horse shit, dog shit, human shit, puke, all kinds of other trash. Sleeping drunks. Sometimes knocked out or injured people, victims of the not infrequent robberies that happened here in spite of the city guards’ patrols. In spite of its reputation Khemas was a surprisingly safe place for a city of its kind, but that didn’t mean it was smart for anyone to go wandering outside the lit, and better guarded, streets without an armed escort. Unless you were armed yourself, and good enough with your weapons. And, preferably, looked so dangerous that most would-be robbers would leave you alone.

Tikka did not fit any part of that description. Under any normal circumstances she would not have tried what she was doing now. But there were two things which gave her the confidence to walk into the maze of the side streets in the middle of the night. One was that the moon was full, and would stay high enough to light the way for several hours yet, so Tikka could walk around without having to carry a light which would have attracted attention to her.

The other was Para. It would not be able to defend her very well, as it had pointed out when they had been planning this night back in The Burned Oak, but what it could do was to keep her away from any potentially dangerous spots and people. It was aware of what was around them, of all that was around them, no matter how well hidden from Tikka, and it steered her towards the safe routes. And if worse came to pass… it was capable of enough noticeable activity to at least distract any potential attacker, and, with a bit of luck, to even scare them well enough to drive them away.

Nevertheless, Tikka was still relieved when they finally came to the small Monkey God’s temple. Even if the place in itself was something quite scary. And even if she knew she’d have to do this part without any help from the ghost. Para would have to stay a good distance away if it wanted to stay lucid enough to be able to escort Tikka back to the Star Goddess’ temple.

Tikka did think she should be safe enough inside the temple for now. She did not intend to do any real snooping, she just wanted to get some sort of a general idea of what the place was like.

She still felt the need to keep on swallowing repeatedly, and she could feel goosebumps on her bare arms in spite of the warm air when she ascended the long, wide stairs towards the big doors which led inside the temple. The place was built of black basalt, and the numerous statues of monkeys lining the stairs and decorating the walls of the building looked more than ominous in the moonlight, and the feeble, flickering light from the two torches burning on both sides of the open doors did not help the general gloominess one bit. Rather, perhaps on purpose, the torchlight accented the threatening aspect of the statues. Tikka could have sworn those stone eyes followed her every move.

Even if it was not the statues, she knew something was looking at her. Or was aware of her being there.

She nearly stopped and turned back. If Grath had gone in there, and had been caught, and if he was still alive and held prisoner somewhere inside the temple now, what could she do to help him, really? She was just one woman, with some rudimentary training in unarmed combat and even more rudimentary ones in burglary or spying, which would have been the skills she would have really needed for something like this.

What could she hope to accomplish here?

Tikka really had no idea why she continued walking on. But she did. She didn’t stop.

She also thought that she really did, sometimes, have the tendency to act stupid, didn’t she?

Nothing answered that. Thank the gods for small favors.

She climbed the stairs, and, with no hesitation, entered the temple of the Monkey God.

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