High Priests of America

Chapter 1

⚞ ♝ ⚟

1188, Mongolia

For failing in the service of his dark god, the Persian sorcerer was given four lifetimes of punishment.

Three long, arduous lives he spent as a slave to cruel masters. In the fourth life, thinking he had escaped his god’s scrutiny, he found respite in the arms of another. But this proved to be the harshest punishment of all, for one day the man he loved was taken from him forever.

And he still had many years to suffer, alone, surrounded by mementos of the love he lost, now a slave to the family of the one he loved.

When death finally came, he welcomed it. And it was without relief that he awoke in a new body, in an unfamiliar land, that seemed as cold and harsh as the one he had left behind.

The sky was dark, and his Master spoke to him then. His punishment was over. It was time to get back to work and sow chaos in his god’s name. But before making any grand plans, this time he was to ask his Master’s permission. He agreed. He had no plans. He had no will to live. He had no right to die, his Master said. His life was not his own, it belonged to his god. And if he squandered this gift of life eternal, his Master promised him a lifetime of such abuse, he would regret ever being born.

With that the darkness left him in a snowy forest lit only by the full moon and stars. The frost was biting, but he was used to the cold from his previous life, and so he wandered through the forest, half-heartedly looking for shelter, for any sign of human presence. Time had no meaning. Everything had no meaning. He walked and walked for hours, and as he began to lose feeling in his fingers and toes, he felt no fear. No pain. Just emptiness. Even his Master’s threats rang hollow.

As the pale light of morning appeared on the horizon, he sat down leaning against a tree and closed his eyes.

When he opened his eyes again, it was dark.

He was burning up. There was a pounding in his head. No. The pounding was external. Someone was screeching. He could not make out the words. He was ready to welcome death, but when oblivion came, it was only temporary. There were images of monsters floating behind his eyelids. When he opened his eyes, he saw a woman with ribbons over her face looking down at him with a reassuring look. The monsters and the woman, the voices and the drum beat came and went as he drifted in and out of awareness over the course of what must have been several days.

It had actually been ten days. The woman told him that, when he finally revealed that he could understand her. It took him awhile to get there, but this was not the first foreign tongue he’d had to learn through exposure, and she was eager to teach him. At first, he did not play along and said nothing even when he began to comprehend her. He was only accepting her care and hospitality because on some animalistic level he still wanted to live. However, he was unwilling to act civil and spent his days silently watching her and the people who came to visit her tent. But after a while even being depressed and silent grew boring.

So one evening, when the woman came back to her tent, she caught her patient wearing her earrings and staring at his reflection in a polished metal pot. The healer laughed. She did not try to take the earrings away and instead gave him a good look, clasped her hands together and called him “uglee shaazgai!”

“Yaakh gej?” he said. What?

She gasped in surprise and delight and happily spent the evening teaching him the words for everything in her home. Before they went to sleep that night, he asked, more confidently, “What did you call me?”

“I will show you tomorrow,” she replied laughing.

Early the next morning, she took him outside and led him towards the forest where she had found him. In one of the trees she pointed out a bird with bright blue wings, a light brown body with a white breast and something like a black cap on its head. “Shaazgai,” she said. “Uglee shaazgai.” She picked up a small blue feather and showed it to him. “Uglee.”

“Uglee?” He pointed up at the blue sky.

She shook her head and pointed at the bright red coral beads decorating her coat. “Uglee.” She showed him the feather. “Uglee.” She pointed out the colorful ribbon trimming of his shirt.

He nodded. Bright or colorful or pretty. Something like that. Not the worst thing to be called at all. “Uglee Shaazgai,” he said affirmatively and pointed at himself.

She laughed and clapped, then eagerly led Uglee Shaazgai to meet the rest of her tribe. Collectively they shortened the name to just Shaazgai.

They thought he had lost his memory, and in a way, that was exactly what happened. Whoever this good-looking young man had been, his memories were gone. Another was in his place, and this other knew very little of where he was or what these people’s customs were. But he learned quickly. Soon he knew everyone in the tribe of the reindeer breeders. The shamaness that had initially rescued him took him as her pupil. He had a place among these people. And his Master, what ever his plans could be, did not come calling.

* * *

Shaazgai existed among the deer breeders for a while. How long that was, he could not tell. He did not care.

Days dragged by, meaningless but busy. Nights stretched on and on, cold and lonely, filled with the same longing he’d grown used to over the last fifty years. There was a hollowness in him that he knew would never be filled. It had not been there before, back when he still lived in his homeland. What a carefree time that had been. He’d just gained his eternal youth and beauty. Just learned to bask in and exploit the benefits of both. Then he made one fatal mistake in his machinations and paid for it with two hundred years as a slave.

But worst of all, despite all the hurt, humiliation, betrayal and misery of his enslaved existence, he’d managed to fall in love. He never loved before. And now he resolved he would never love again. It hurt too much. To love and lose. He wished he’d never felt a thing. Perhaps, it would have been better to just be mistreated for another sixty years and die filled with hatred and spite, not loss and longing.

In his dreams he still saw Sven. Every other morning he woke and looked to his right to see if he was there. But he never was. And he never would be. And yet his mind would never let the man go.

Shaazgai reluctantly climbed out of his bed under the cheerful barrage of nagging from his shaman mentor. The woman talked on and on. She served him breakfast, he mechanically ate it and helped her clean up afterwards.

All the while he watched her from the corner of his eye. She was always nice to him, and so was everyone else here. He was very pretty in this life, and pretty people were well-liked. He always knew that, but the lifetimes as an ugly worthless slave had cemented that knowledge. However, good looks were not a panacea, and beautiful men and women were backstabbed just as much as the ugly ones. So he kept an eye on the shamaness. Especially when she made their drinks. She knew of herbs and roots and other substances that could make a man delirious, and she often looked at him with an almost wanton spark in her eyes. Apathetic as he was, he did not want to get drugged and forced to copulate with a woman. So he watched her. And maybe she saw it, because she never tried anything. But she could. So he kept watch.

When he was not learning the craft from the shamaness or helping her with chores, Shaazgai often found himself in the company of the tribe’s blacksmith, Jarchigudai. The man was hard-working and quite smart for a deer-breeding nomad, and despite a lack of a carnal spark between them — or maybe precisely because of its absence — Shaazgai enjoyed spending his time around the man.

It was from Jarchigudai that he first heard of Temujin. Jarchigudai spoke with admiration of the rising warlord, one of his sons had already gone to join Temujin’s army. Another was eager to follow, but too young to leave just yet and already too good at the craft for his father to let him go. It was this younger boy, Subutai, that finally got Shaazgai interested enough to snap out of his apathy.

Drawn through sheer boredom into observing the games of the tribe’s youth, Shaazgai was impressed by Subutai’s intellect and tenacity. If Temujin was at all worth his salt, he could make a formidable ally of the smith’s son. That is if Subutai was ever allowed to leave. With how things looked on his father’s end, Shaazgai highly doubted it. The smith needed someone to pass his craft onto. He would not let his son go. Perhaps he would even plot against him leaving and arrange for an accident, something that would cripple the boy enough so that he could not fight, but could still be a smith…

Shaazgai did not like the thought of that, but he could not ignore the possibility. Betrayal was everywhere. And people either pretended it was not so to lower your defenses or were the gullible victims of deceit.

It was not that he cared about Subutai. The boy was just another mortal fleshbag, who would age, die and rot, like everyone else did. But he had… potential. He was a bright spark in a bog of mediocrity. He could achieve so much more if he was given a chance to lead people, to wage war. He was a leader, a strategist, a schemer. He had the brains for so much more.

Intrigued to see if his hunch about Subutai’s potential was correct, one night Shaazgai cast carved bones to see Subutai’s fortune should the boy leave home to join Temujin’s side. The bones presented a seemingly random pattern with no obvious meaning. Shaazgai committed it to memory regardless, and mildly disappointed he went to bed.

He woke with a start before sunrise. He snuck out of the shamaness’ home in the darkness of the night, found a secluded spot outside the village and pleaded for an audience with his Master. Then, with his god’s approval, the sorcerer ran to the blacksmith’s ger. Jarchigudai cursed him for waking his family in the middle of the night, but Shaazgai just shoved him aside and hurried to the boy whose fate he now finally understood. He grabbed the half-awake Subutai by the shoulders and said, “You must go to Temujin and make war in his name! The Heavens revealed to me your path: you will traverse this land and the lands South, East and West from here, you will lead armies, and you will conquer. You will cut down more foes than there are trees in the forest, and you will bring heavenly glory on your name.”

Subutai’s eyes shone, for in his heart the boy knew that was true.

Then the shaman turned to the shaken Jarchigudai and his wife and said, “You must let him go now! Temujin waits, but he will not wait forever. Go, Subutai! Such is the will of Tengri.”

And so before sunrise, at the age of fourteen Subutai left his home to join the army that he would one day lead.

Shaazgai watched him go, his heart racing for the first time since he woke up in the forest of the deer breeder tribe. In his dream he had seen the pattern that the bones had shown to him. It was the land he was in and the lands far beyond that he had watched from a bird’s eye view, soaring on the wings of a carrion bird. The lands down below were soaked in blood, united through bloodshed and conquest. As he watched it from above, the dark crimson was spreading, seeping out further and further as the nomad empire grew.

If what he had heard of Temujin was true, here was a man that could unite and organize the warring nomad tribes, and through this order and unity bring darkness, destruction and chaos to the rest of the continent as he wrangled it into submission. And Shaazgai was going to help him. With his Master’s agreement.

Sending Subutai to Temujin was just the beginning.

* * *

(Music)

Several years later.

The brown steppes spread out below them as far as the eye could see, like tarnished gold encrusted with aquamarines — the lakes reflecting a perfectly blue sky. Snow crunched under their feet, treacherous ice-clad rocks shifted, threatening to send the two men tumbling down. His companion cursed under his breath, then laughed at his own clumsiness. The shaman wished he could share in the joviality, but his heart was as empty, cold and lifeless as the peak they were ascending. There was nothing left for him but his purpose, and although the climb was ardorous, and often he had to rely on his companion to make progress, he felt no kinship with the man.

“Hey, slow down, magpie, not all of us have wings!” His companion laughed from below.

The shaman sneered. “Judging by your pace you have no feet either.”

The man laughed again. “I might as well have none. A man without a horse under him is incomplete. That you do not feel this way proves again that you are no man but a bird!”

The shaman rolled his eyes and did not respond, but he halted his ascent and waited for Khenbish to catch up. Khenbish was about the same height as him but stockier and hairier by far. His red cheeks seemed fuller too, but it was merely because of the grin that seemed to never leave his face. Even now in the biting cold he showed his teeth to the shaman as he crossed the remaining distance between them.

“How much higher, magpie? Are you taking us into the Heavens themselves?” Khenbish laughed and shook a warning finger at the shaman. “You must not forget a lowly black shaman cannot appeal to Tengri. Surely your dark masters would not forgive such a betrayal.”

“Are you saying,” the shaman asked mockingly, “that nobody knows more about the work of a shaman than I do?”

Khenbish, whose name meant ‘nobody’, laughed. “Nobody knows everything about everything!”

“So I’ve heard, but that is not the reason I wanted nobody with me on this track.”

“M? What am I doing here then?”

“Carrying the heavy things,” the shaman sneered and continued to climb the steep snow-splattered slope. “The heaviest of all being your clumsy, wingless, footless body.”

Khenbish laughed, satisfied with that answer.

The shaman’s half-hearted smirk faded, replaced by the same focused frown. Joking around with his mule was as much a calculated step up this mountain as any physical movement. He needed the man to be happy and carefree, cracking jokes and being a nuisance. Khenbish was a capable warrior, and the more off-guard he could be caught, the easier the final step of their journey was going to be.

The sun reached its zenith when they ascended the highest peak.

Ovoo, a ritual heap of stones, waited for them at the top, sprinkled with snow. A few blue ribbons waved in the wind, tied to branches sticking out from between the stones. It was customary to circle the ovoo to ask the spirits for guidance on their journey, but seeing the shaman was not performing the rite yet, Khenbish did not hurry to do so either. Instead he looked out upon the steppes and gave another merry laugh. “Ah the people and the horses are hardly the size of a grain of sand from here! I could soar like an eagle and catch a bright red dhole, skin the beastie and make a nice red hat for my bride.”

“Doubtless, she would have loved nothing more than that,” the shaman replied dryly from behind his back. “But being a wingless heavy thing that you are, I fear you cannot fly. So kindly step away from the edge before you fall to your death.”

“You are right, magpie. It’s too high and too bright out here for me. Too glittery — perfect for you.”

Khenbish laughed and turned around taking a few steps towards the center of the mostly flat area of the mountaintop. He stopped, puzzled by the bright glint of metal, reflecting the sunlight unpleasantly into his eyes. It took him a moment to make out the bow in the shaman’s hands, an arrow knocked, aimed at him.

“Magp-”

The shaman loosed the arrow. It zipped through the air and sunk into Khenbish’s chest, piercing his heart. Two more arrows pierced it before he fell lifeless face-forward into the snow.

The one the Mongols called Shaazgai carefully put his bow back into its leather case. He walked over to the fallen man and rolled him over, cringing at the broken arrows. No matter. Three broken arrows were a price he was willing to pay. 

Shaazgai removed a knife from the sheath tied to his sash and knelt beside the dead man. He removed his gloves and rolled up his sleeves. He set to work.

When he was done, he dragged the corpse to the opposite side of the slope, making a wide arc around the ovoo, and pushed the body over the edge. It fell like a heavy rag doll, rolling and flailing as the sharp rocks tore at its clothing and flesh alike. Shaazgai did not stay to see where it landed. Instead he used some snow to clean his hands, collected what blood-stained snow there was and cast it off the mountain top as well.

The snow shone pristinely white under a perfect blue sky. 

Shaazgai knelt in front of his prize that rested on a spread out sleeping bag. He couldn’t have worked as diligently as he’d liked to, his fingers had been growing numb from the cold. This had to do.

He lifted the flayed face and feeling but a slither of disgust, pressed the inside against his own skin. He adjusted it and then tied the straps he had sown into the skin, affixing it in place. This morbid disguise would not have worked on any living person. But it was not the living he was trying to fool.

Shaazgai put his headdress on, letting some of its braids decorated with strings of beads and feathers fall onto his stolen face. He freed his drum from its large leather case. It was perfectly round and beautiful, completely black, made of the skin of a wild mare. 

Now he was ready to ride his dead mare, wearing a dead man’s face to battle the ancestors of this clan. And when they would fall slain at his feet — as they always did — before fading into nothing, they would curse the one that killed them — nobody.

A name given to Khenbish to protect him from evil spirits did nothing to protect him from an evil man. But it would serve the evil man very well indeed. Such was the cruel irony of life.

Shaazgai began to beat his drum.

* * *

The beat of the drum morphed into the beating of hooves.

Shaazgai rode his pitch black mare through a sea of fog. The further he went, the brighter and more opalescent the fog became, until the translucent veil that only hinted at shapes and spaces was replaced with the blinding brightness of the upper world.

They emerged from the fog on a plain of white. The mare left no hoof prints as it ran. Even if it did, the bright light of the upper world would have made them nigh impossible to see. Seven suns, some said. Shaazgai cared not to count.

His eyes were on the horizon, and soon he spotted the one he had come here for. A spirit in the shape of a man, dressed in hides much like him, but older and wearing his own face, stood proudly and defiantly in his way. At first he seemed far away, but within a dozen hoofbeats the mare reared, less than a foot between it and the old man.

Shaazgai reined his horse in and looked down on the spirit blocking his path.

“Move,” he said with a great measure of disdain.

“How dare you, a pathetic black shaman, talk to me this way?” The old man scowled. “How dare you show yourself in the realm of nobility and grace? You forget your place, insolent dog. And your black masters will punish you dearly for it. There is nothing for you here. I refuse to teach one such as you.”

“Ha ha ha,” Shaazgai laughed. A theatrical, rehearsed laugher. Mocking and joyless. “I did not come here for you or your lessons, old man. You’re nothing but dirt. The ones I’m here to see are the spirits whose boots you lick. Ulgen, Yesun, Kulug and their lot. I’ve heard they’ve grown so weak that they only stay up in this realm because of you letting them dangle in turn off of your shriveled dick.”

The old man grew almost as white as the surroundings, then turned blood-red with rage. “I should strike you down for speaking this way of the venerated ancestors of my clan, but a quick death would be too light a punishment for such blasphemy-”

“Oh, stop babbling already, or are your ancestors so feeble they cannot even move? Do I need to build a ger to wait for them to shamble here?”

As if in answer to his question, ethereal outlines of mighty men appeared behind the red-faced old shaman. The outlines turned into forms, and soon the shining spirits of the clan’s ancestors looked at the intruder with an air of uncontested superiority. 

“This worm, forefathers, dares speak ill of you.” The old white shaman bowed low to the spirits and pointed towards Shaazgai. “This ruffian’s name is Khenbish, and it is an accurate one, for he is a mere nobody, and his trickster name will not save him from the price of his insolence.”

Shaazgai waited for the old man to rise and then nudged his horse forward with his heels. The white shaman turned to him in surprise and right on time, as the sole of Shaazgai’s boot slammed into his face. The man fell over, and the spirits parted with gasps of outrage. The fallen old man lay between them stunned.

“This insult will not stand!” the biggest of the warlike spirits — Yesun — shouted.

“Why, I think it will.” Shaazgai hopped off the horse as it turned into black smoke. He grabbed the smoke, and it formed back into his drum. “It will stand. Like I do. And you will fall. Like he did.” He pointed at the fallen white shaman with the beater he pulled from his sash. “Strike me, Yesun, if you can!”

Yesun stepped forward. His bow was in his hand, and as he drew the string an arrow formed out of light, ready to fly. He loosed the arrow, and it zipped through the air, striking the insolent trespasser in the shoulder.

Shaazgai staggered, but did not fall. The arrow dissipated into steam, and he shrugged that shoulder, flexing it as if the blow had merely made him sore. “Is that all you got?”

All of the spirits drew their bows.

By the time they were done with him, he knelt on the white soil, cold sweat beading on his skin. They looked down at him, equally exhausted, but victorious. The unwanted black shaman was defeated. He looked like an inverse porcupine, most of his front riddled with arrows. They clanked beautifully as his chest rose and fell heavily, labored breaths steaming between the arrow shafts sticking out of his stolen face.

“That will teach you to stand before the ancestors unbidden!” The white shaman, now back on his feet and with his ego restored, spat on his adversary. “When you’re done dying, the black ones will surely offer you an equally warm welcome in the lower world.”

“Ha.”

The white shaman recoiled, as if the steam of Shaazgai’s breath burned him. Then he continued moving back as the black shaman rose slowly to his feet. The arrows clinked and shattered as they collided with each other. The steam coiled around him as they faded into non-existence.

The spirits of the ancestors looked as alarmed as their lackey.

Shaazgai grinned at them. “My turn now.”

* * *

They fell one after another, until the white soil was littered with the corpses of the once mighty warriors. As they died, shocked and frightened, under the blows of the shaman’s beater that broke their swords and their bones alike, they screamed and cursed the one that they thought killed them — Khenbish — nobody.

Shaazgai stood over the fading forms of the fallen men. In his shadow, that somehow still formed in this brightest of realms, the elderly white shaman  —  now red and black and blue  —  lay whining like a beaten dog. And beaten he was, but not enough.

Shaazgai lifted his beater and struck the man on the head again and again, until his skull cracked. And then some more.

“That’s not what it’s for! It’s not how it’s don-” the man tried to protest, but ended up just screaming instead, until Shaazgai hammered his nose deep enough into his face to penetrate the brain.

Shaazgai got off the dead man and stood alone on the white plain. His ceremonial coat made of hide was splattered with blood. But just like the arrows the blood now dissipated. The upper world was ethereal like this. Very convenient. He looked around himself and was pleased to see that he would not need to get rid of the bodies. They were fading already. But before they vanished completely, he had to collect the spoils.

* * *

As he came out of the trance, Shaazgai all but fell into the snow. He felt sick to his stomach and drained of all his strength. His bones ached, but that was just a phantom pain. Khenbish and his misleading name had taken the brunt of the assault. Somewhere out there what was left of the man’s spirit had surely faded into oblivion, just like his ancestors.

Almost a dozen dried tongues lay on the sleeping bag in front of Shaazgai. He collected them gingerly into a small sack and hid it in his clothes. It was a good haul and very worth the trouble.

That taken care of, Shaazgai picked up some snow and breathed on it until it melted, then used the water to help peel Khenbish’s face off of his own. He neatly folded the face mask and put it into one of his sash pouches.

When he was almost done packing, he noticed red dots in the snow that had not been there before. He licked his lips and tasted iron. A nosebleed was all that this clan’s ancestors had managed to give him. 

He was getting good at this.

* * *

Shaazgai spent several days hardly leaving his ger. His pride over an easy triumph had been premature. As soon as he’d descended the mountain and reached his home at the edge of the settlement, he felt deadly tired. And after his head touched the bedding, he found himself unable to consciously do more than stumble outside to relieve himself once a day when his need truly pressed him. He drank very little and ate nothing. On the morning of the fourth day he finally awoke in the true sense of the word, ate the few remaining strips of dried horse meat and drank all the airag he had. Then he tidied up, hid Khenbish’s face and the sack with the tongues under his everyday bright blue deel and ventured outside.

As he came out of the ger, his eyes were unpleasantly assaulted by the bright sunlight, and it took him a moment to adjust. His ger was on the smaller side, and the opening at the top was appropriately narrow, so it was always quite dark inside. Carting and assembling a proper ger while living alone was a pain. He’d tried that. Downsizing had been a good idea.

When his eyes finally adjusted to the outside, he noticed a big dark object hanging by the cloth door of his ger. He stepped over to inspect it. A dead magpie was pinned by an arrow to the wall. So, someone had seen Khenbish leave with him and connected the dots. Oh well. His work in this tribe was almost done. If he’d outstayed his welcome, he was more than ready to leave. He only had a few more things to take care of and provisions to gather for the long track ahead, and he would be out of their hair.

Shaazgai looked for a while at his dead namesake. Rather than feeling threatened by the gesture, he found himself considering how long the bird had been dead, and if he could still try to cook and eat it. He ruffled the feathers and found maggots already squirming in the wound on the bird’s chest. He sighed and turned away from the bird, leaving it on the wall of the ger for now. He crouched and studied the tracks on the ground. Most of them were his own, but another set of fresh ones leading back towards the rest of the settlement had to belong to the bird’s killer. Shaazgai studied the stranger’s footprints for a long time, memorizing their size and shape. When they were burned into his memory, he carefully removed the bird and the arrow and took them inside.

If they did not want him here anymore and had the gall to openly show that, he would not risk lingering for longer than absolutely necessary. After all, he had a lot of work to do in other tribes. But he needed provisions before he could leave. And the insult of the dead magpie required an adequate response. When he had the response ready, he placed it in a small pouch on his sash and left his ger, heading towards the village proper.

It was midday, and the tribe was busy with their everyday lives. Women were milking the mares, while a few young men strapped the hide bags filled with the milk to the saddles of their horses – several hours later there would be fresh airag. Shaazgai made a mental note to drop by later and collect his share. As he passed them he gave the feet of the group a cursory look. None seemed to match the footprints by his home. Satisfied, he continued on his way, until he reached a big, freshly whitened ger with brightly painted wooden doors. He did not approach that ger, but made sure to loiter outside, making smalltalk with a young woman whose child he had healed just last week. The kid was playing nearby, in the company of a few other brats, play-fighting to his heart’s delight. It was hard to believe just recently the boy was on his deathbed. Now his grateful mother invited the shaman inside and eagerly offered him cheese curds and yogurt, the least she could offer in gratitude for her son’s miraculous recovery.

Shaazgai gratefully accepted the gifts. He ate the yogurt right away, much to his hostess’s delight, but kept the cheese for later. Then he moved their conversation back outside and made sure to stay within sight of the bigger, fancier ger as he inquired about the health of the brat. The young mother prattled on, and he feigned interest. Finally, his patience paid off, and a youth came out of the big bright white ger, saw him, darted inside and came back, hurrying towards him.

The boy bowed to him and politely asked Shaazgai to follow. The shaman did.

When they entered the ger a pang of longing for the finer things in life pierced Shaazgai’s shriveled heart. Despite their age, the multitude of colorful carpets that covered the floor and walls still looked lovely with their bright patterns, especially where the sunlight hit them. And even prettier than the carpets were the clothes and the headdress of the older woman that greeted him. Wrapped in silks and dripping with silver and pearl, Narangerel smiled brightly at the sight of the guest. She dismissed her grandson and invited the shaman eagerly to the low table.

“Such an honor and a pleasure to have you here today, wise Shaazgai,” she said, setting down an ornate pot of milk tea on the table.

“The pleasure is all mine.” Shaazgai smiled, as he watched her every move.

She poured the tea with a ladle into two painted china bowls. If she had poisoned the tea, they were both going to die. But he didn’t expect her to. And even if she did kill him, that never stopped him before.

Shaazgai eagerly lifted the bowl and sipped the drink, relishing the smell of tea. Suutei tsai was an acquired taste, especially with the odd combination of milk and salt, but he thoroughly enjoyed it by now.

“Please, treat yourself,” the woman set a bowl of dried fruit on the table.

Shaazgai had to make an effort not to show how excited that got him. If he was going to die today, this would have been worth it. Learning the ways of these nomads, playing by the rules of their little gods, going around unwashed through the long cold winter — it was all suddenly eclipsed by the simple delight of dried fruit. He carefully picked a wrinkly date and studied it.

“My nephew got these from a merchant far to the South,” Narangerel said. “They don’t look like much, and I don’t know what they are called, but they are safe to eat and quite flavorful!”

Of course they were flavorful, they were dates. Shaazgai kept his expression neutral as he turned the date over in his fingers and finally took a bite. He closed his eyes and this time let his delight show. When he opened his eyes, the old woman was watching him like a hawk. Oh, so had she poisoned the dates? Clever woman… No, that was not the look of an achieved vengeance. She was devouring him with her eyes in an entirely different way. Interesting. Shaazgai chewed on the date, then said, “You spoil me with your kindness. A lowly black shaman such as myself does not deserve such graces.”

“But you do.” She smiled, then her expression soured, and she looked away. “You have done a lot for our clan in the short time you’ve been here, yet some ingrate has spread rumors about you, that are absolutely untrue. They say you led Khenbish away, and now he is gone for three days, and no one knows where he is.” Narangerel cupped her bowl of milk tea and blew on it. She looked at Shaazgai again, this time looking bitter. “Such nonsense. A shaman is a healer and helper to the people, I know you to be innocent. But I wonder if you could speak to the spirits and find my son?”

Shaazgai let the lingering taste of dates stir the memories of his lost home, to appear genuinely somber as he spoke lies. “I tried, my good hostess. I’ve spoken to the spirits for long hours after I dreamt of your plight, but the spirits could not give me an answer. Your son’s name of ‘Nobody’ is quite troublesome when making this kind of inquiry.”

“Ah…” The woman nodded. “It is true — a trick name that one. It kept my Khenbish from falling ill like his older brothers did, but now its protection is doing me a disservice. Thank you for trying.”

“I wish I could do more.” Shaazgai nodded back. “The rumors you heard are based on truth. I did travel with your son up the mountain, and he helped me on my way. Yet when I went higher, we parted ways, and I had not heard from him since.” He couldn’t bring himself to say he hadn’t seen him, not with Khenbish’s face sitting snugly hidden under his robe.

Narangerel watched him with sympathy, unaware of her lost son’s proximity. “Thank you for trying to find him, and for looking out for our clan. I will pray to my husband’s ancestors for Khenbish’s swift return.”

Shaazgai nodded. “I will pray too.”

Narangerel drank some of her tea.

Shaazgai treated himself to a few more dates and a dried apricot. His stomach rumbled audibly. The woman smiled and rose to her feet.

“Ah, where are my manners, I ask so much of you, and I have only offered you tea. I am a poor hostess, I hope you can forgive me.” She walked over to the small fire at the center of the ger and brought three pots to the table one after another and opened each, revealing meat, dumplings and a hearty stew.

The smell made Shaazgai’s stomach rumble louder.

“I apologize,” the shaman laughed.

“No need to, it’s all my fault.” Narangerel put a bigger bowl in front of him and poured him some stew. “Please, treat yourself.”

“Thank you.” Shaazgai pulled his knife and chopsticks from the sheath at his sash and laying the knife on the table treated himself to some dumplings first. He was pleasantly surprised that some of them were with mushrooms — finally something that did not come from a horse. “You truly are treating me to a feast.”

“Nothing less for the best shaman we’ve had in generations!”

Or rather the most attractive one, Shaazgai thought with amusement as the older woman kept devouring him with her eyes. He ate elegantly, untroubled by the implements that just recently caused him confusion and distress. He had practiced eating with chopsticks extensively while alone in his ger for occasions such as this where he had to put on a show. It wasn’t enough to be beautiful if one was graceless.

“I’m afraid, I am not a great guest, however,” Shaazgai said apologetically. “I will have to travel soon, and I am not sure yet when I will return. The spirits told me of a clan further down South whose shaman has grown too weary and frail, and they require my assistance.”

Narangerel looked unhappy. “But you’ve only been among us three months. Can’t you stay for longer?”

“I would love to. Your hospitality is unrivaled, and your people are generous and welcoming, but what kind of shaman would I be if I ignored the call of the spirits?”

She relented. More than that, she promised him provisions and help packing up. He tried to play humble at first, but put on a show of giving the food longing looks at the same time, and she all but forced him to accept a whole bag of cheese curds and promised him several bags of airag for his journey.

And that wasn’t all. When he thanked her and stood up to leave, she told him to wait and skittered off to a chest, then came back bringing long silver earrings with lapis lazuli inserts.

“My late husband gave me these, but I always looked better with bright red corals. I’ve heard that your name is accurate when it comes to jewelry.” She offered the earrings to Shaazgai.

“I couldn’t… It’s not appropriate for me-”

“Yes, you can, your ears are pierced,” she said with a knowing smile. “Try them on, please.”

He sighed with feigned disapproval and carefully put the earrings in. He pretended to struggle for a little while, as if the holes in his ears were not regularly used. When he was done, Narangerel clasped her hands and looked at him in adoration. “They do look great on you! The color blue suits you so very well!”

She walked over to the chest and came back with a little mirror.

Shaazgai saw his reflection in the small mirror, and his heart skipped a beat.

He was gorgeous. The woman was absolutely right, these earrings wouldn’t have looked half as good on her wrinkled wind-worn face. But they looked great on him. Shaazgai watched himself in the mirror mesmerized. He wanted to ask her to give it to him, but that would be very inappropriate, and he did have his knife to admire himself in. But the mirror was a massive temptation. The sight of himself, especially so beautifully adorned and framed, made Shaazgai’s thoughts dive into the carnal. But this was not the time or place. He repressed thoughts of himself naked and focused on the woman’s disgustingly imperfect face. He forced a most grateful smile on. He had to thank her for the mirror- for the earrings.

“Thank you so much, the earrings are beautiful,” he said. “I will treasure them as a keepsake and fondly remember how kindly you always treated me.”

“Don’t just remember, please, do come back,” Narangerel implored. “Now, I’ll go see to your provisions. My nephew and his men were planning to go hunting, maybe I can secure some game for you as well.”

“You are too generous.” Shaazgai took the earrings out of his ears and carefully placed them in a finely embroidered satchel on his sash. The sash and satchel were also both gifts from Narangerel. Shaazgai congratulated himself internally. This whole thing was finally picking up. All he needed now was to find a similarly convenient patron in the next tribe, and then the next, and by the time his trip around the clans was done, his sash would be decorated better than a nobleman’s.

It was inappropriate for a shaman to be this overtly materialistic, but he didn’t care. He left Narangerel’s ger, happily crossing the airag concern off his mental list. This woman would get him everything he wanted. And more. It sure paid to be beautiful.

As he walked back through the settlement, he scanned the ground looking for the magpie killer’s footprints. Then he saw the feet themselves. He followed the boots up to the trousers and the deel and finally met the eyes of the man who had killed the magpie. There could be no mistake. The man was glaring at him openly, then looked away as their eyes met. Good, so he was afraid. Shaazgai walked towards him slowly. This was Tseren, Khenbish’s good friend and the most likely source of the rumors about his disappearance. As he walked closer, Shaazgai could see Tseren shift nervously. The man had not expected Shaazgai to trace the magpie back to him.

Shaazgai stopped in front of Tseren, and the group of men parted, letting the shaman single Tseren out. When Tseren tried to move away, Shaazgai pointed a finger at him. “Tseren, son of Oyuun, I come to you bringing an omen from the spirit world.” Shaazgai made sure to put on an appropriate air of foreboding as he spoke. “You cannot run from your fate.”

Now the other men recoiled as if burned, while Tseren looked at him with a mix of fear and anger.

“What do you want from me, Shaazgai?” Tseren snapped. “Will you lead me away and stab me in the back like you did with Khenbish?”

“You insult my wisdom and flatter my martial prowess at the same time,” Shaazgai said calmly. “But no matter. I am not here because of Khenbish, I am here, because a spirit spoke to me about you, Tseren.”

Tseren looked uneasy, but did not try to back away anymore.

“A spirit in the shape of a bird told me there is great danger ahead for you. Suffering beyond your worst nightmares,” Shaazgai spoke gravely, but without malevolence. People were watching. And Tseren would perceive this as a threat anyway. The shaman reached into a satchel at his sash, and Tseren took a few steps back. Shaazgai held up a talisman of bone decorated with blue feathers. “The spirit wanted you to have this, to keep you safe from those evils. It would be unwise to refuse its offering.”

Tseren gaped in terror at the charm in front of him. He looked at Shaazgai in disbelief. Then at the talisman, then at Shaazgai again.

Shaazgai extended the talisman to him, but Tseren recoiled and shook his head violently.

“Tseren, take it, he’s our shaman, he won’t hurt you,” one of the other men said.

“I will take it, if Tseren won’t! Never enough protection!” Another young man chimed in.

Tseren’s eyes moved wildly between Shaazgai and the remains of the magpie he had left on Shaazgai’s wall, now made into a charm of feather and bone. Finally he snatched it from Shaazgai and stormed off without a word.

Shaazgai watched him go, then made smalltalk with the remaining men.

That evening Shaazgai returned to his ger with bags of provisions, dry sheep dung and airag. He closed the cloth door very well behind him, then used what little dung he had left from before to make the fire. He pulled Khenbish’s face out and cast it into the flames, and as it burned — smelling more delicious than human skin had any right to — Shaazgai retrieved his drum and knelt by the fire, starting to beat it. This time he was going down, and his dark ger was the perfect place to do so.

The sweet smell of the burning skin mixed with the smell of wet earth as he descended into the darkness of the lower world. The passage was narrow and claustrophobic. But Shaazgai had grown quite used to narrow and claustrophobic with his tiny ger. The descent was easy, perhaps too easy. After some resistance the barrier between the worlds gave way, and he heard the snarling of beasts. Tiger, man, bear and dhole devoured each other in an endless bloody cycle. Shaazgai rolled his eyes. This was supposed to be the terrifying trip to the lower world his black shaman mentor had warned him about. But the natural ferocity of wild beasts had nothing on the inventive cruelty of man. And the black spirits that he came here to visit were far not the worst mankind had to offer, despite what the steppe people thought of them.

The black spirits weren’t a good-looking lot, but neither were the daeva he was used to, so Shaazgai stood calmly before the mildly deformed assembly of the lower world monsters and dead men. He opened the sack of tongues and offered it to the spirits.

“The voices of the ancestors, delivered as agreed upon, for you to do with as you please, on the condition that you wait until the end of summer before you act. Then your vengeance would be the most powerful.”

The monstrosities drew closer, tightening the circle around him. Shaazgai did not flinch. He let them inspect the goods. It did not take long until most of the creatures moved back, satisfied. Only the tallest, most wrinkly, boar-faced, glass-eyed wretch lingered. Shaazgai had noticed on previous occasions that the others treated the hag as their leader, and so he kept his disgust at her bare sagging breasts to himself. It was not easy to keep his composure when she stood so close and stared at him so attentively.

“Is something not to your liking, oh wise and gracious daughter of Erlik Khan?” Shaazgai did not know the monster’s identity for sure, but he guessed. He’d worked with the progeny of the local god of darkness before.

The hag clicked her tongue and grinned revealing hideously misshapen yellow teeth. “Everything is to my liking, mortal. A touch too much to my liking, you could say.” She was devouring him with her eyes. “We’ve never had a shaman quite like you. My brothers spoke highly of you, and you’ve delivered. But why are you doing this? Mutilating the ascended spirits of mortal nobles and white shamans — surely you don’t think Tengri will thank you for this when you die.”

“I am no servant of Tengri,” Shaazgai admitted.

“And yet my father did not send you.”

“He did not.”

“Who do you serve then, mortal?” The boar hag sniffed, drawing even closer, curious beyond measure.

Shaazgai struggled to keep his expression neutral as her strong animal musk and rotten breath washed over him. It would be unwise to insult her, particularly now. “I am a servant of another dark god, from a distant land. He sent me here as an envoy, bringing favors and gifts to you as he considers you his dark brethren.” Shaazgai bowed, hoping to at least partially escape the smell.

“What does your master want from us? Does he expect us to bow down to him?”

“Oh, no, no, no,” Shaazgai said readily, standing straight again. “Our lands are quite far away from each other, too far for any rivalry. But when the rumors of the formidable Erlik Khan reached us, my master simply had to extend a hand in friendship. After all, like attracts like.”

“Does it now?” the hag purred, seemingly no longer suspicious. She reached out a clawed, gnarly hand and ran her fingers over the side of his face. Shaazgai felt bile rise in his throat, but smiled charmingly as he forced it back down. Then she changed. Instead of a deformed, stinking half-animal, a beautiful maiden with pale skin and long night-black hair stood in front of him. She was completely bare and quite stunning, and the touch of her fingers was softer than rose petals on his skin. The stench was gone, replaced with the sweet and tangy aroma of earth and spices. She smiled at him, amusement playing in her dark eyes. “So… does like attract like, beautiful shaman?”

“Oh, it does, my lady,” he whispered, exaggerating his look of surprise. He honestly did not expect that. But he was only a little less disgusted by her advances now than he was before. Her breasts were still bare and her round hips were so excessively feminine he had to make an effort of will not to withdraw in disgust. At least the nethers of her boar form had been harder to make out in the dark. It was good, in retrospect, that none of her equally monstrous brothers had pulled this number on him, or he could have been tempted, but things being as they were, all he needed to do now was put on a show of struggling to resist her feminine charms — perfect, he could channel his disgust into the struggle.

He started by shaking his head and giving her a confused look, hiding his eyes, then looking at her anyway, as if infinitely tempted. “I… am not worthy… And as much as I am honored and flattered by your attention, lingering in the lower world could kill me, and my master would be very displeased. It pains me beyond words to leave the side of such an unrivaled beauty, but I must humbly beg your permission to return to the middle world while I still remember of its existence.”

She grinned, drinking in the sneaky glances he cast at her naked, beautiful form. He remembered the yellow tusks of her boar face and wondered if she would eat him if he stayed. It was likely. But he could not leave without her say-so. He needed these spirits’ cooperation.

After a prolonged silence, the daughter of Erlik spoke the words he’d been craving. “You may leave, but I hope you will visit us again soon.”

He bowed to her silently, and stayed bowed for a moment, as if he were mesmerized by what he could see of her at that angle. She laughed melodiously, and he straightened up and retreated looking bashful.

He was allowed to leave the lower world unobstructed.

When Shaazgai came to his senses in his ger, Khenbish’s face had turned to coals. The fire was dying and the bag of tongues he had brought from the upper world was gone. His work in this tribe was done. Tomorrow he would take apart his ger, load his belongings on his cart and move on to the next tribe. One by one, he would weaken the thirteen tribes opposing Temüjin, until the entirety of the nomads could be united under one great khan. And then, unified, these steppe people would bathe the continent in blood.

Chaos through order — that was his new strategy.