“Thousand Young” by Andrew Kaye
I was once a Champion of the Msakahari. I was Death.
While my braids still chatter with the tallies of my kills, my armor no longer thrums with battlefield magic, and my swords no longer sing their sad songs. I am older now, and wiser. A wife. A mother. A survivor. To many, it was not supposed to be this way.
A Champion is Death, and to Death she must return. But I survived my years of servitude to the Sage Council. They discharged me with disgust, as if every breath I took was in defiance of their rule. They discharged me…and then forgot me.
I fell in love, got married, gave birth to a beautiful daughter. My armor gathered dust in the corner of my home. My swords decorated my hearth.
I thought I was done with tallies and magic and the singing of sad songs.
The wasting sickness struck suddenly. Hundreds afflicted, the youngest often unable to fight it off. I saw so many lives lost. So many tiny bundles waiting to be buried. It was more than a mother could bear.
The Sage Council did not know how to react. They were unaccustomed to threats that could not be stopped by warriors and steel. They murmured behind their heavy masks, wrung their hands with worry. They told the city they would find a cure. But I could sense the emptiness of their words. They were hiding the truth from Msakahar, but they could not hide the truth from me.
I went to the Living Volumes for guidance.
I met with Danuwa, my old teacher. The familiar words of the Third Tactical Epistle were inked in neat, blue-black lines upon her skin. She smiled when she saw me, verses four through eight creasing on her cheeks. But the verses fell when she saw the iron in my eyes.
“The sages claim to be looking for a cure,” I said, my voice hard with anger. “Why would they say such a thing when a cure already exists?”
“And how would you know this, Chioma?”
“Because my great-grandfather was a sage. Before he died he told me of a spring in the mountains that flowed with healing water. It could cure any illness. Heal any injury. The sages know this, yet they do not send Msakahari to retrieve it, even as their own grandchildren sicken and die. Tell me, Danuwa, was my great-grandfather wrong? Does this cure really exist? Or has motherhood made me over-hopeful?”
Danuwa sighed. “Is Asabi among the afflicted?”
My face tightened. Asabi. Such an energetic girl. Always smiling. But she was listless now, so weak that on some days she could hardly sit up in bed. Her eyes, once bright, were pale and discolored, and her skin had grown mottled with gray-brown.
Danuwa placed a hand on my shoulder. “Your daughter is a strong young woman. She will likely recover.”
“If I lose her, I lose part of myself.” My voice trembled more than I expected, and my eyes grew hot. “And what of the other children? How many Msakahari will have their sons and daughters mourned by the bone choir before this disease runs its course? How many parents will be left incomplete? But the healing water…please, Danuwa. Tell me it is real.”
“It is real, Chioma.”
“Then Ndulu and I will go to the mountains.”
“The sages are old fools,” Danuwa said in a low whisper, “but they have their reasons for keeping the spring a secret. One sip of the healing water will indeed heal any illness or injury. But if a healthy person were to regularly drink the water, they would be granted great power—strength and endurance beyond that of normal people—and have their mind twisted unalterably.”
She went to a locked cabinet and withdrew a slim book. She turned its pages as if afraid to let her fingertips linger too long upon them. “Two days east of Msakahar is a narrow spur of the mountains—sheer surfaces, as if the bones of the world were hacked with an axe.” She set the book on the table and pushed it carefully toward me. On one page was a picture of an obscene opening in the mountainside, and on the other, strange words in a language I had never seen before. Just the sight of them made me lightheaded.
Danuwa regarded me carefully. “That is the entrance to a shrine, Chioma. A so-called ‘broodshrine’ to an ancient goddess known as the Great Mother. And from the center of that shrine bubbles the healing water.”
“The Great Mother? I have never heard of such a goddess.”
“She was long ago abandoned by sane folk. The broodshrine is said to be empty, but who knows what power hangs above that place? What ghosts haunt its corridors? What traps lay forgotten in its halls? If you and your husband travel there, you might not make it back alive.”
Danuwa closed the book and locked it up once more.
“I did not think the Volumes kept books of paper.”
Danuwa sagged. “When that book came into our possession, we transferred the words onto living flesh, as is our custom. But the bearer of those words quickly went insane. Only a few weeks later, we found him in his chamber, flaying himself with a knife as he babbled in an incomprehensible tongue.
“Such is the power of the old gods, Chioma. They may have been forgotten, but they are still formidable.”
There were no ghosts at the broodshrine. Ghosts do not shoot arrows.
Ndulu and I took cover behind the tall rocks at the base of the cliff face, the arrows plink, plink, plinking like the probing beaks of birds. I stole a glance toward the shrine’s entrance, but quickly withdrew as an arrow hissed by.
“Patience,” Ndulu said. “The more you squirm, the longer you will have to wait.”
“You should have been done ages ago. They will be out of arrows before you have my armor on.” I felt him give a hard, playful tug at the laces under my right arm. I grinned. “That side is tight enough,” I said, pulling aside my hair. I fingered at the pale cowry shells tied into the braids. “Do up the back next, Ndulu, and quickly. I can feel the archers growing bored.”
The entrance was just as Danuwa had showed me: an opening in the rock one hundred feet up, accessible only by handholds and ledges carved into the cliff face. But there were people here, or at least things with the shapes of people, and as long as they held the opening it would be impossible to climb inside.
But I was once a Champion of the Msakahari.
The leather armor I wore over my mail shirt had whorls and waves picked out in copper from my chest to my knees, and helped focus the unsubtle magic of the Champion caste. I had not forgotten how to harness that magic. And a good thing, too. It was the only way Ndulu and I would get to the shrine. The only way we would get to the cure.
He kissed me, his lips lingering. “You are ready.”
The symbols glowed like embers. A cloud of blue-gray energy billowed from my feet into a wavering sphere of magic around my body. “I will call you when the path is clear.”
Ndulu laughed. “Must you boast, Chioma? You could leave a few for me!”
I rounded the rock. Ran toward the cliff. I did not have much time. I could not maintain the magic forever.
Archers loosed their arrows. Rocks were thrown. But the moment these missiles hit my barrier they lost all momentum and clattered harmlessly off my body. Once they realized their ranged weapons were not working, the figures in the entrance came to meet me.
Only they did not climb down the ponderous handholds and ledges. They jumped. A hundred feet up, and they jumped, landing like cats onto the rocky ground.
They were human. Looked human. But I had never seen any human leap from such a height, not even fellow Champions. There were both men and women among them, each tall and lean-muscled and armed with simple clubs and spears of wood and horn. They wore nothing but goatskins and animal bones, with loose masks hiding much of their faces. And from within those masks, I could see their eyes glow golden, like sunlight striking amber.
The sight was unsettling, but I would not be deterred. Today I fought not for the whims of the Sage Council, but for the children of my people. For Asabi. Had I not fought foes more numerous? Had I not sang each of them an elegy in flashing steel? I was once a Champion of the Msakahari. I was Death.
I picked the fastest of the oncoming warriors and began my sad song.
I held my swords waist-high, crossed, the blades like a scorpion’s pincer. The goatskinned warrior leapt, club raised, ready to strike my head. My barrier slowed him at the last second. My swords slid. Metal on metal. Metal on meat. Snip and cough, a burst of blood, a burst of innards. I jumped away from the pieces as they streamed to the ground. Continued my charge. There were more warriors to fight. More work to be done.
They came from left and from right, but I had a blade for each. I whirled. A blade for the gut, a blade for the arm. Arc of blood here, severed limb there. My braids rattled with every kill, and I laughed, remembering mighty battles with long-dead foes. Dodge, pivot, spin. These were strong ones, I could feel it, power radiating off of them like the shimmer of a mirage. Step, pivot, strike. Two strokes for one man, upper chest, ribs splitting. Two strokes for one woman, right shoulder, crook of neck, grunt and spray of red. Hiss, rattle, spill. My feet pounded across the ground.
I impaled the last of my attackers with a blade in each lung. He sputtered and soaked his mask. I watched as his eyes flickered and dulled, then put a foot to his belly to push him away. He fell at my feet with a limp thud.
I had killed eight of the goatskinned warriors in those few short moments, but my swords’ song was not yet over. I quickly wiped the blood from my blades and sheathed them. Put my fingers to the rock. Began to climb. I looked up at the broodshrine’s entrance, where the silhouette of a single warrior looked down at me with what I hoped was worry.
The barrier was very weak by the time I neared the top. But it was enough to catch the sudden spearthrust that shot toward my face. I tilted my head, let the spear slide harmlessly along my cheek. Then, with my free hand, I grabbed the shaft. Twist, yank. The spear fell one hundred feet, and the warrior backed away with surprise.
I pulled myself into the opening, drew my swords once more, and did not put them away again until they had stopped singing.
My armor smoked with residual magic. The air stank of blood and offal and ochre and ash. I heard nothing, saw no movement.
The entrance narrowed into a corridor that curled away into darkness, its smooth walls daubed with images familiar to anyone living in the savannahs and scrublands around Msakahar: gazelle and elephants and undertaker birds, hippos and crocodiles, humans of all sizes. But there were other images that seemed woefully out of place, shapeless tentacled creatures that looked as if they had been dredged from the salty ocean depths. They were monsters with no right to be among the proper animals.
The monsters seemed to writhe along the walls. The sight made me uncomfortable.
I looked down at the last of the fallen warriors. His eyes were…wrong. Like the glow I had seen only moments before, the eyes were indeed amber-hued. But the pupils were a stretched, oblong shape—familiar, but not human. They were the eyes of a goat.
I pulled the mask from the man’s face to find the flesh badly scarred. Around the goat eyes the scars were worst of all, deep starbursts of pale tissue. I backed away, disgusted. It looked as though his original eyes had been carved out. And then replaced.
But how was such a thing possible? I was so lost in my thoughts that I did not notice Ndulu climb into the cavern.
“You did not call for me,” he said, feigning a wounded tone. “I crawled from my hiding place once I heard the fighting stop.” He paused. I could sense an uneasiness in his posture, and he let out a troubled sigh. When he spoke again, his voice was more somber. “They are Msakahari, Chioma. Every one of them.”
I had not noticed that, either. But it was true. These were not northerners or nomads. They were Msakahari: tall and dark-skinned, with proud chins and braided hair and birthrite scars along their forearms. They had come for the water. The power it granted. But they never left. And their eyes…
Ndulu was thinking along those same lines. “Are they Champions?”
“I do not think so. I do not sense anything like a Champion’s spellcraft on them.”
“I do not think they have been trained even as Msakahari soldiers. No discipline. No leadership. Only chaos.” He kicked away the dead man’s club. It clattered noisily against the rocks. “They do not even use proper weapons. Not a metal blade among them.”
Then, as if our talking had awoken the walls, the pictures began to glow.
Ndulu groaned. “Do you think there are more warriors down there?”
“It depends on how big this place is. Probably.”
“If they were not alerted to our presence earlier, then they certainly know we are here now,” he said, unstrapping the axe from his back. His easy tone returned. “Save some for me this time, Chioma. When we get back home to Asabi, I want something to brag about.”
But I did not answer him. I was hearing voices. Hundreds of them, echoing in my head.
I did not know where the voices came from. At first I thought they were part of a spell laced within the walls. A trap. A deterrent. But Ndulu was unaffected. Either the magic had singled me out, or my own magical abilities had made me sensitive to the ancient power of the place.
The voices, I quickly realized, were chanting. I could not tell what language they were speaking, but it seemed…old, somehow. Like the tongue was from a different time. Like I should not have been hearing it at all. The words made my skin crawl, disoriented me, even made me sick to my stomach. For a moment, I struggled to stay on my feet.
I had to fight the urge to repeat those words, as if speaking them aloud would purge them from my head. But some sharper instinct told me that if I spoke those words, I would be lost. And so I filled my mind with thoughts of Asabi’s smile and of children laughing in the streets of Msakahar.
Ndulu could see my distress, his face taking on an alarming cast of its own. He grabbed me by the arm. His lips moved, but I could hear nothing but the ancient chanting. He tugged at me, urging me to follow. We walked hand-in-hand down that corridor, the faint blue light of the walls creating a world of shadows with glowing outlines. Ndulu only let me go when figures materialized in the dim blue gloom. Their eyes glowed.
I had to help my husband. The warriors’ strength was nearly comparable to mine, and Ndulu lacked the magic of a Champion. And so, with my thoughts firmly upon Asabi and the other children, I raised my hands and willed my magic forward. A curved wall of energy rose before us.
The warriors attacked with such strength that I could feel them strain against the barrier. But I could also feel them go limp as Ndulu made one killing blow after another. Bones crunched. Eyes faded. Bodies fell.
Working together, we pressed on through the corridor, around one twist, then another. Soon the ghostly glow of the walls was replaced with sunlight, and the chanting voices faded into the gentle bleat of goats.
“I do not understand,” Ndulu said. His brow was slick with sweat, and he breathed heavily. He looked as exhausted as I felt. “Is this…is this a shrine?”
“It must be,” I said. But it was unlike any shrine I had ever seen. It was exposed to open air, yet we were still clearly in the mountains—rock walls extended all around us, but a huge, jagged hole high above made it look as if the mountaintop had been sliced off. Bright, brilliant sunlight shone down onto a wide field of close-cropped grass and gnarled shrubs with dark, wrinkled berries. But at the other end of the field, steps led to a round altar of curiously carved stone, with a spring bubbling at its center.
A man sat at the edge of the altar. He did not look like a threat. A priest, more like, wrapped in a goatskin cloak and crowned in polished horns. He carried a staff, but nothing else.
Between him and us were the goats.
Hundreds of them. Hundreds. A thousand black goats chewing at the grass. They warily eyed Ndulu and me but continued eating as if we were not worth their consideration.
Ndulu scraped his axe clean on the bottom of his boot. “This place is more farm than shrine.”
“It does not matter what it looks like. My great-grandfather spoke of a spring, and there it is. I will take what we need from it,” I said, and Ndulu nodded and handed me a leather canteen. “Stay here at the entrance. Warn me if more warriors visit us while I speak to that priest.”
The goats moved silently out of my way.
The priest was not Msakahari. His body was too thick, his hair too thin, and his skin had too much gray in it. He did not look up at me as I approached, but he held up a hand and said, “Greetings, Chioma, Champion of the Msakahari!”
I did not let his familiarity phase me. I stepped up onto the altar. “I take it you are the priest of this shrine?”
“This shrine needs no priest,” he said, “only someone to mind the Mother’s children. I am the goatherd. And these,” he motioned expansively, “are my charges.”
“I have come for the healing water,” I said. “The children of Msakahar are dying of a disease we have no cure for. All I ask is for one canteen’s-worth, and I will be on my way.”
“I have heard of the Msakahari’s plight. But this water is only meant for the followers of the Great Mother.”
“Your goddess holds no interest to me.”
“Ah! Yet she has much interest in you.” He looked up at me then. He too had the amber eyes of a goat. “Ordinarily she would be furious if someone slaughtered her followers as you and your husband have. But you are a Champion! Never has a Champion visited this shrine, only those who long to be one. The Great Mother desires your adoration, Chioma.” He paused, grinning distractedly, as if listening to a nearby whisper. “She will allow you to take the water you need. Fill your canteen, give it to your husband. Let him deliver it to Msakahar. But you must stay and pledge yourself to the Mother.”
I growled at that, and stuck the tip of one of my blades under his chin. I could feel him tense. “Or I could kill you and take the water without your permission,” I said, feeling my anger transform into magical feedback that crackled along my armor. “How dare you try to bargain with me! In my lifetime I have killed more men than you have goats, and I have no problem adding one more cowry to this afternoon’s tally.”
“You threaten me? The Great Mother’s Chosen? The Herder of the Thousand Young? Iä! Iä!” he shouted passionately, his speech devolving into words frighteningly similar to those that had echoed in my head not moments before.
I could feel a powerful energy building up in the shrine. The priest’s body relaxed, and a smile crawled across his face.
“You should not have threatened me,” he said coolly. “And you should not have rebuffed the Great Mother’s invitation. You have angered her, Champion.” He spoke that last word like an epithet. “You will not get out of here alive.”
Ndulu shouted a warning. Sudden movement caught my eye. One of the goats nearby collapsed into spasms, eyes rolled back, mouth frothing. Then its skin split open and fell away, revealing not the expected mound of muscle and bone and bloody tissue, but a pale green, fleshy substance pocked with bulbous golden eyes. It shook free of its goatskin shell and rose into the air to hover by the spring.
The same thing began happening with the other goats.
They were dragged toward the original blob by an unseen force, skin bursting, heaps of green flesh joining one to another. I lashed out at the goatherd priest, scoring a shallow wound across his chest. He howled, clutched at himself, and scuttled away from me like an insect. But the goats continued to split and reform; he was not responsible. This was no spell. This was something much, much worse.
“What is going on?!” I demanded.
“The Mother of the Thousand is coming,” he cried. “The Mother is born of the Thousand!”
It was true. The Great Mother was growing larger with every new addition, until she was an immense nest of tentacles and bundled eyes. She was a monster from the cavern walls, a monster now given flesh. Cries of “Iä! Iä! Shub-Niggurath!” began boiling from the goatherd’s throat.
I was once a Champion of the Msakahari. I had slain many foes. But nothing had prepared me for a fight with this creature.
I would take the water and run.
Two steps, then three, and a tentacle snared me. It yanked at my ankle, jerking me backward. I whipped around to strike it. Hesitated. Something was wrong.
The moment the tentacle touched me I felt more than just damp pressure around my ankle. I felt thoughts. The Mother’s thoughts. Disjointed. Unclear. But hers. Phrases in incomprehensible language. Images of otherworldly cities.
With horror, I realized she was trying to communicate with me.
Only when another mass of green pulp was added to her tentacular bulk did the Mother’s thoughts become coherent—and only for a moment. I heard a voice. A voice like a summer storm or a chill wind. Join me.
I shook the thoughts away. Struck. The tentacle was thick and rubbery, but my sword sheared through it easily enough. And though the blood ran thick from the wound, it did not last. The severed flesh was drawn back into place, rejoining with the Mother’s body.
Another tentacle shot out—thick as my arm and glistening with pale pustules. It hooked me by my waist as another snaked around my chest, pinning my right arm against my side. I did not have the energy to defend myself magically, but I tried all the same. My armor crackled weakly. A few sparks, then nothing. And the tentacles were squeezing, squeezing.
Join me or perish.
I became aware of Ndulu shouting, running toward me with his axe drawn. He was hacking at the goats as he passed, butchering them one by one. But where his axe drew blood the skin split, and out tumbled more green pulp.
Children. That is what the goatherd priest called them. And suddenly I knew how to defeat the Great Mother. Because a mother that loses a child loses part of herself.
“Ndulu!” I shouted, even as the tentacles squeezed tighter. “Ndulu, stop! Every goat that joins her body brings her closer to being whole! The only chance we have is to prevent her from fully forming!”
“Then what should I do?”
“Take one of the goats!”
He smiled at me. I managed to grimace in return. He dropped his axe and scooped one of the goats up in his arms. It bleated angrily, kicking its legs, struggling. But Ndulu held it tighter. And ran.
I watched with satisfaction as he disappeared back into the corridor. I could feel the Great Mother’s rage. Her despair. And I could hear her. Terrible. Unintelligible. So loud I thought my head would burst.
In her confusion, she released me.
She flailed. Fought. Lashed at me like a dozen whips. Swish and smash. Dodge and slash. She was slowing down and her strikes were easy to avoid. And I struck back. Chop and scissor and hack. First one limb gone, then a second, then a third. The tentacles spurted black blood, flopping like wet worms on the altar steps. They did not rejoin the Mother.
The apotheosis of goats slowed. Stopped. The Great Mother began falling apart in fist-sized chunks, steaming and bubbling as they hit the ground. The air stank of saltwater and cooked meat and burning goat hair. And with this grisly scene before me, I calmly cleaned my swords, sheathed them, and approached the spring.
The goatherd priest stared at me with wide, horrified eyes. “What they say about the Champions is true,” he whimpered. “You…you are Death!”
“I stopped being a Champion a long time ago,” I said, filling my canteen with healing water. “I am a Mother of the Msakahari now. I am Life.”
|Andrew Kaye is a writer, editor, and cartoonist from the suburban wilderness of Northern Virginia, where he lives with his wife, his four children, and a large empty space in the basement that should probably be filled with a robot or something. You can find him lurking in his usual haunt on Twitter @andrewkaye.|