High Priests of America
Shaazgai, son of Shaazgai, was pretty and very young. But by virtue of his father’s reputation, the will of the gods and his own skill and diligence, he found himself among the shamans traveling alongside the great khan and his troops. He was the youngest man there that wasn’t a student, but he restrained his boastfulness and let another, much more prominent figure dominate the minds of his colleagues.
“Look at him, Magpie, he’s even worse than you are, a veritable peacock.” The greying shaman by Shaazgai’s side scowled at a figure poised self-importantly by the entrance to the great khan’s enormous ger.
Shaazgai turned to look at Teb Tengri, their official leader and doubtlessly the most pompous shaman alive. “I’m not half as bad as he is, Sibaguchu,” he argued softly. “I just like fine things.” He pulled a silver manicuring kit from a bag at his sash and started idly cutting his nails.
“Bah.” His companion gave the richly decorated implements a judgemental look. “This is exactly what I am talking about. You youngsters don’t know where to stop, you revel in excess!”
“Some excesses are more forgiving than others,” Shaazgai noted, giving Teb Tengri a look.
Sibaguchu nodded. “Oh, yes. His hubris will be the end of him.”
“Without a doubt.”
The matter of Teb Tengri settled and agreed upon, Sibaguchu now stared at him again.
“What?” Shaazgai asked.
“You really are a magpie, aren’t you? Come between us in the guise of a man.” Sibaguchu was looking at him very suspiciously.
Shaazgai sighed. “What do you want from me? I am accurately named. As are you, ‘bird-man’, you are not giving my kind any rest, are you?”
Sibaguchu snorted. “You may be a bird, but you are alright. Though some say you don’t bed your wife, and you gawk at Subutai like a mare waiting for courtship.”
“I do not!”
“I have eyes. I also like you, so I’m keeping this to myself, and you should too. I don’t think you should be aiming to get into his bed if you value your life.”
“I’d much rather get into his head. He’s the best general the steppes have seen.” Shaazgai scowled, annoyed. “How poorly you think of me.”
“I’m just old, and I’ve seen things. And you could make a far better leader than Kokochu. Love for shiny things and all.” The old shaman looked at him conspiratorially.
Shaazgai decided he had to poison Sibaguchu. The man knew too much, and could figure out even more, especially if he realized that Shaazgai purposefully allowed Teb Tengri — or Kokochu as he was also known — to lead the shamans gathered in the great khan’s employ. The truth was that Shaazgai would be better at Teb Tengri’s job, and despite Kokochu’s title of ‘Lord Cunning’, better at plotting too. He could see the chief shaman was burying himself deeper and deeper, trying to plot against the great khan. It was kind of sad to lose such a convenient patsy. Alas. All good things had to come to an end. Kokochu was only going to take credit for all his hard work with the spirits for so much longer.
“I am flattered by your trust,” Shaazgai said. “But one old man’s support does not give me the confidence to go against Kokochu. Especially now.”
Sibaguchu narrowed his eyes. “Faking cowardice? Do you think I’m blind? You have less fear of death than a baghatur. Fear of leadership, maybe, or of failure. But I won’t for a blink of an eye believe you fear Kokochu.” The old man shook his head.
Shaazgai underscored the mental note to get rid of the man. He was too perceptive. “It is not the will of Tengri that I lead the shamans.”
Sibaguchu studied him for a long time, then shrugged. “I suppose it is not. For now.”
Not for now, not ever. The best place to rule was not at the lead. It was in the shadows. Right now it was in Kokochu’s shadow. And when the man would fly too high on the wings of his pride and inevitably fall, Shaazgai would move into the shadow of his successor.
* * *
It did not take long for Kokochu’s overconfidence to get the best of him, and when it did, the once proud leader of the shamans got his back broken during a “wrestling match” with the Khan’s half-brother. Some said they saw Kokochu’s spirit leave the ger through the roof that night. There was much talk and agitation among the shamans on that account.
Sibaguchu’s end was much more prosaic. The old man took ill one day and swiftly passed away despite the best efforts of his good friend Shaazgai.
Being rid of those two, over the following decade, Shaazgai accompanied Genghis Khan’s forces on their campaigns against Manchuria and China. After Ghengis was satisfied with the conquest of the region, he turned his attention elsewhere. But Shaazgai lingered in Manchuria and did not participate in the invasion of Khwarezmia, as the conqueror Muslims now called Persia. He waited out the invasion for the next four years.
It was a tempting idea to go back to his homeland and watch the tyrannical Muslims be slaughtered by the invading Mongols. But the vision of Persia plundered twice, even if it was bathed in the blood of his enemies, was a depressing image. To once more see the hills and planes, the mountains, rivers and waterfalls, the ruins of his home that no current ‘civilization’ could hope to copy or reproduce… No, it was too much.
Besides, such a venture would not sit well with his Master. The first such invasion that Shaazgai had orchestrated centuries ago was what brought the lifetimes of punishment upon him. Thankfully his Master had explicitly granted him permission to aid the Mongols and appeared pleased with the results.
Despite his good standing with his Master and the overwhelming success of the Horde, Shaazgai found himself sliding slowly back into the misery he’d barely crawled out of after landing on these steppes. The visions of his plundered and twisted homeland would have only accelerated that descent. So he kept his distance until he had heard that Persia was fully subjugated, and that Subutai and Jebe were now leading their forces against Turkic nomads to the North. Eager for a proper distraction from his malaise, Shaazgai rode like mad to join that campaign and the subsequent incursion into Rus.
Rus proved interesting.
After years spent in Manchuria and in the steppe, among men of dark hair and eyes, Shaazgai found himself fascinated by the pink faces and light hair of the soldiers of Rus. When the battle at Kalka river was won, the Rus leaders tricked and captured, and none of the wounded Mongols needed his medical attention anymore, the shaman spent a while on the battlefield, walking over and between the countless corpses of the Rus warriors.
They looked so much like the Norsemen. Light of hair and eyes, meaty and pink of the flesh. Many times he would kneel on a corpse and pull a dead man’s helmet off to inspect the hair, admire the blue dead eyes, staring glassily at the heavens. During one of those inspections the man he knelt on groaned weakly, and Shaazgai recoiled. He knocked an arrow on his bow and prepared to shoot the wounded warrior in the face, but a quick look over him convinced Shaazgai the man was too wounded to pose any real danger. A lock of red hair sticking out from under his helmet made Shaazgai’s heart beat faster. The shaman put away his bow and called out to a couple of Mongol soldiers currently looting one of the richer looking Rus dead. He told them to take the dying Russian to his ger for questioning. The soldiers hurried to follow his orders, both out of superstitious fear, and so they could resume their looting sooner.
Shaazgai followed them to his nice big ger, that his wife and sons had put up while he’d lingered at the battlefield.
“Get out, I have work to do,” Shaazgai said sternly, and his family quickly scrambled outside. The two escaping pre-teen boys watched their shaman father in awe. One of them was going to be his next incarnation, but he hadn’t chosen which one. They were both turning out quite handsome. But now Shaazgai hardly noticed them, as soon as he was alone with the captive, his entire attention was on the Russian.
Shaazgai removed and discarded the man’s armor and tied the man up. Even though the fallen warrior seemed to barely register what was happening, one could never be too cautious. Shaazgai bolted the nicely painted wooden door to his ger, and kneeling next to the Russian’s head, carefully removed the pointy helmet.
Red hair spilled out, and Shaazgai gasped softly. The hair was shining with sweat and sticking to the man’s scalp, even so there was a lot of it, and Shaazgai could not resist running his fingers through the red locks. The man blinked hazily. He stared into the ceiling for a while, then his eyes slowly focused on Shaazgai. He said something. Shaazgai did not know the language, but tried to repeat the words just for fun. The man frowned and did not try to speak again.
Shaazgai looked over his prize. The man had lost a lot of blood. Both of his arms appeared to be broken, likely the result of an unfortunate fall from his horse. The horses of the Russians were bigger, but apparently clumsier. Generally the way the Russians had made battle was a tactical disgrace. They looked much like the Norsemen, but they couldn’t compare martially. A part of Shaazgai knew the Norsemen too would fall in a battle with the Mongols, but he ignored that rational observation.
The shaman spent a moment just caressing the man’s hair and face, and his prisoner relaxed. Then Shaazgai retrieved a small vial from a well-hidden box in the chest with his belongings. He uncorked the vial and let a few drops fall into one of the man’s open wounds. He squeezed the skin a little to make the cut open enough to let the liquid in. The Russian groaned and said something again. Shaazgai repeated that too. He imagined it must have been something along the lines of ‘stop’ or ‘why are you doing this?’, but his victim would figure that out as they went.
He checked the pulse on the man’s neck. It would do. The poison would take maybe ten minutes to kill this one, so he had a minute or two to undress in peace. He so hated sweating unnecessarily in his clothes. Shaazgai took off his clothes and put them aside.
He straddled the Russian, naked. Now he got the man’s attention. The Russian was staring at him, confused. Shaazgai smiled at him, then undid the man’s sash and pulled his pants down. The man began to speak, but then cut off with a hiss, when Shaazgai’s hands began to stroke him. He was already growing hard. Shaazgai bit his lip, feeling his own flesh harden with anticipation. The Russian said something, he repeated it. That seemed to frustrate the man, and he weakly struggled against his bonds, but that only made him grunt in pain.
“Nyet,” Shaazgai said. One of the few words he knew of the other’s language. “Nyet.” He placed a palm on the man’s chest, gently pushing to make him understand that he should stop writhing.
The Russian looked outraged, but did not continue his struggle. Shaazgai tilted his head, then crawled over the man to linger just above his face, he made sure the Russian had a good look at what he was trying to refuse so unwisely. Then he moved back into the man’s lap and after some preparations slid the man’s dick inside himself. He hissed with pleasure, and this time the Russian joined him. What a way to go, the man had to be thankful, really. Shaazgai began riding him and soon heard the familiar word ‘nyet’ even as the man under him turned red on the face and grew rock hard in the nethers. Shaazgai smirked.
“Nyet?” He chuckled, then descended forcefully, eliciting a groan of clear pleasure from his captive. Now Shaazgai himself was panting and red on the face. The blush was spreading over his chest and abdomen. He looked the Russian in the eyes, stopped moving and playfully said, “Nyet?”
The man seemed to think a moment, his mind still not clouded with poison. He had to know he was going to die. His wounds were too much, and the Mongols had no reason to keep him alive. On the other hand, there was that whole honor business and some silly gods he probably worshipped.
“Nyet,” the Russian stubbornly insisted.
Shaazgai snorted, then continued riding him with even more vigor. The next time he paused, he again asked, “Nyet?”
And the man replied in a tormented moan “Dah… Dah.”
Shaazgai chuckled and rode him into oblivion.
After both of them were sated, the Russian soon foamed at the mouth and expired, just as hard as when they’d started. Sweat beading on his hot skin, Shaazgai rested naked beside the man he killed. He was still warm, and if not for the contorted expression and erection, one could imagine he was just asleep. Shaazgai snuggled up close to the warm corpse and closed his eyes. The man smelled like blood and sweat, with a little less savory scents mixed in, but that was exactly how his Norseman had smelled when he would come back from a raid. He would then wash of course, the Norsemen were big on hygiene, but sometimes they’d made love before that, and the grime of battle had become an almost romantic thing to Shaazgai.
It was so easy to imagine he was back in the North with Sven, and for a long while he just lay there, doing precisely that. The dead man was muscular and tall, and it would take a while for his body to grow cold. But it would. He was dead after all. Just like Sven.
Shaazgai opened his eyes and stared blankly into space, feeling hollow and aimless. No matter how many men he rode, no matter how much they looked like him, his lover was dead. Gone. Forever. And he would live an eternity now, never seeing him again. Shaazgai blinked quickly not to let the tears escape his eyes.
The warm, pleasant afterglow was gone and all that it left him with was depressing nostalgia. And a kind of nostalgic depression. He remembered how dead inside he had been when he first woke in the Northern region of this land. He’d felt so apathetic, he had barely survived his reincarnation, despite the warnings of his Master that an early death would lead to another life of punishment. He simply couldn’t care. He knew there were worse things. There was torture, there was brutal violence and horrible, disgusting diseases. But he could hardly force himself to earnestly fear these things, or to care at all. He would have died if the shaman of the deer breeders had not taken him in. She had nursed him through what she later called his initiatory illness, took him as an apprentice and taught him her art. It was through her that he was introduced to the spirits of the steppe people. She saw potential in the beautiful young man she’d sheltered, but she failed entirely to see what that potential was for. Shaazgai thanked his teacher by making her death quick, relatively painless and early, so she never got to see what this promising young man would unleash upon the world. Arguably, she could have been proud of Shaazgai’s assistance to the Great Khan. But not if she knew what his long term plan was.
Shaazgai sat up, wiped the remainder of his sweat with a rag, then dressed and tidied up the once more flaccid corpse. He opened the door, and his wife eagerly crept in.
“Oh, a handsome one,” she whispered, looking at the dead Russian. “Such colorful hair.” She turned to grin at Shaazgai. “You’ll sleep well tonight, I reckon.” She stepped up and slapped him on the arse.
Shaazgai jumped a little and gave her an outraged look. “Sometimes I ask myself why I married you.”
“Only sometimes?” she said with exaggerated surprise. “You must be getting old, Magpie. Though, I can’t tell, you’re as pretty as when we first met. Wish that were me.”
“Yes, you’ve aged horribly,” Shaazgai said honestly.
She only laughed. “The feast has already started. They buried the leaders of the Rus army alive under general Subutai’s victory platform. Come join the feast, before they’re all dead.” She tugged on Shaazgai’s sleeve.
“Alright,” he relented and followed her outside.
“I hear we’re going to raid a few more towns before we turn back,” his wife whispered to him conspiratorially as they walked together through the camp towards the music and noise of the victory feast. “Promise me that you will let me have a pretty Russian girl for a slave. And I’ll keep telling everyone what a beast you are in bed and how the only reason I’m not popping out more kids is the will of Tengri.”
“You can have two Russian girls for all I care, as long as they help around the household.” Shaazgai shrugged.
“Oh, don’t worry, they will.”
He remembered then, why he married her. With both of them much more eager to sleep with their own sex, rather than each other, this really was a convenient arrangement.
* * *
Shaazgai stepped over the body of a Venetian merchant that was sprawled in the door to the small church and went inside. The slaughter of the Venetians was mostly over. There weren’t that many left after the smarter ones had fled to Caffa, thinking they would be safe there. Alas, fate had other plans for them. Shaazgai had other plans for them.
The small house of worship was modestly decorated, its walls bare, bereft of frescos or mosaics. What could have been carried away had already been plundered. Only bloodstains on the walls provided an occasional splash of color. Shaazgai passed the corpse of a priest and stepped behind the altar. There he knelt.
He breathed in deeply and suppressed a shudder. Then he bowed low, almost letting his face touch the floor.
“Master. If you would grace me with a moment of your time. Your humble servant has good news.”
He waited. Many years had passed since he’d last requested an audience with the Persian god of chaos, and there were many times before when Ahriman would not respond to him. But during the last century he had done so well, he hoped his Master would find a moment to hear him out.
His prayer was heard. Staying bowed, Shaazgai saw the daylight grow dimmer and then go out completely. The church was plunged into darkness, and the only mockery of light within it were unnatural teal and purple shadows that licked the blood-stained walls, swaying like a blasphemous negation of the holy flames of Ormazd.
Shaazgai knew this darkness well. He saw it in his nightmares, where a dark raging sea swallowed the one man he ever loved over and over and over again. He had angered his Master only once, and that was the price. Shaazgai would never forget, and no matter how well he served, he would never feel at ease in the presence of his Master.
“And what news would those be, Shaazgai?” inquired a familiar eerie voice that resounded right inside his mind and everywhere around him.
“The plague that has ravished the East, I’m bringing it to the Christians in the West. Jani Beg’s army will fall prey to it, and when it does, I will advise the khan to catapult the corpses into Caffa. From there, it is sure to reach Constantinople.” Shaazgai swallowed. “And earlier, I’ve also made sure a number of merchant caravans carried the disease-bearing rats down other trade routes. In case the siege of Caffa does not go as planned. The Christians will suffer the same fate as the rest of the world. This plague you have created, Master, will go down in every written history.”
There was a moment of silence. His Master liked to torture him in a variety of ways, one of which was to leave him hanging in uncertainty like this. Shaazgai held his breath, his stomach tying into knots. He knew he had done his best and hoped that Ahriman would be pleased, but he had thought the same back in Persia, when all he received in the way of reward were lifetimes of punishment. He could never trust his calculations after this, not where his Master was concerned.
“Ah, yes. You have taken great care of my most disastrous creation,” the dark god ruled mercifully at last. “Spread the Black Death far and wide in my name, and I shall be pleased.”
Shaazgai exhaled with relief and cautiously lifted his head just enough to see a pair of fancy shoes sticking out past the edge of the altar, right above his head. Ahriman always had the most luxuriously decorated footwear — doubtlessly in tune with the latest trends in India where most of the Zoroastrians now took shelter — and those shoes were all he ever saw of his Master. It was appropriate, of course. One could not expect to see more of a god one served. Kneeling at Ahriman’s feet was the right place for a sorcerer like him. Shaazgai felt trepidation looking up at his Master’s splendid shoes.
“My greatest thanks, Master, for keeping me safe from the fleas of your creation. If I understand your design correctly, they are the real hosts of the disease, not the rats.”
There was another torturous pause.
“How observant of you, Shaazgai. They are the more unexpected hosts, are they not? Humankind has been underestimating insects since times immemorial, but I have always known they carried a lot of promise. More promise for us, the forces of darkness, than for humankind, of course.”
“Yes, Master. The fleas were a particularly cunning idea…” Shaazgai shivered, remembering the ravages of the disease that he was spared solely because insects, being creations of Ahriman, did not bite him. He licked his lips, gathering courage for his next question. “Master, if I may, it appears I am done with the Mongols. There is no use for me to remain among them. May I… move on?”
His Master laughed. It was a chilling, whispery sound. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Well, I don’t know, Shaazgai, maybe. Convince me.”
“The Mongols have succumbed to Islam and are thankfully beginning to quarrel amongst themselves,” the sorcerer rushed to explain. “There is no reason to aid them in another global conquest, which hardly seems possible anymore. I’d like to focus instead on spreading the disease. I was thinking I would go to Constantinople, see how the plague plays out there.”
Wisps of shadows flowed down from the altar. Moments passed.
Finally something changed. The god of chaos shifted, changing the way his feet were crossed. Shaazgai watched the shoes hopefully.
“Hm, a blow right to the heart of the Byzantine empire is an enticing notion…” Ahriman mused. “I suppose I could allow it. Yes, I will let it come to pass. Let us see how their god deals with that new dilemma. You may go forth and oversee the spread of Black Death from within Constantinople. Then, you will stay there until I permit you to leave.”
“Of course, Master. I will do as you command.”
“Do not forget yourself, Shaazgai,” Ahriman added ominously as the tip of one of his shoes twitched just a little to emphasize the importance of what would follow. “Make sure to put your presence there to good use. Don’t get too cocky and remember to always attribute the chaos right to its very source. Me.”
Shaazgai bowed low to the floor again. “Yes, Master. Always.”
⚞ ♗ ⚟
1453, Cusco, The Inca Empire.
The spidering web of veins on the lungs of the sacrifice read the same prophecy again. Death of silver. Death of gold. The high priest of Inti knew that the death was not his, nor was it coming soon. Yet it still made him grow ponderous.
The priest touched his bloody hand to the face of one of the golden idols. As the blood of the white llama mixed with that of the countless past sacrifices, he let his eyes wander. Wherever his gaze turned, gold glimmered. Way too much gold than necessary, but he got used to it by now. He still remembered when the walls of this temple had been bare stone and the only ornament was the sun disk at its far end. It had been like that for the longest time. Peaceful. And then came Pachacuti, that vexing young visionary, and changed everything. He replaced all the crockery and wood implements with those of precious metals, embellished the walls with bejewelled sheets of gold and most of all, he disinterred the previous rulers, clad them in likewise opulent ornaments and sat them on a bench in the temple. The Inca’s interventions into the life of the House of Sun were infuriating. And the high priest knew he only had himself to blame for all that.
He had always had a certain degree of insight into the vague ripples of the future, and he could have nipped Pachacuti’s life in the bud. He could have done that, but he had not. Instead he had chosen to advise the boy, assisted him during the siege of the city, and secretly lent him power to prove himself in battle. He had been the one to place the golden fringe on Pachacuti’s head and made him Inca against the will of the boy’s father.
Yes, the high priest of Inti had brought this plague upon himself, yet his regrets were rather few. In fact, he felt pride as he watched the youth turn into a man and achieve more than any Incan lord had before him. And not only because Pachacuti was a great enthusiast of the sun and furthered the cult of Inti far and wide. The priest had to reluctantly admit that he was simply fond of Pachacuti, that is, whenever the man left the House of Sun alone. Luckily the recent bout of upgrades to the temple had passed and the ruler’s conquests and endless ideas on how to improve his growing empire kept him busy. For the time being the high priest and his temple were left in blessed peace.
His temple… when had he even begun to think of it that way? He had first arrived here as a captive long, long ago when the god he had pretended to serve at that time was taken hostage during one of the early conquests in the valley of Cusco. He came as an enemy and stayed out of spite, taking over the body and spirit of the conquering lord’s brother, a discarded heir with an ugly face who had been the high priest of Inti in those days.
That man had been dead for over a century now, and the corpse of his brother sat on the bench with the other dead rulers, but the captive was still here. He wore a new body now, but it was still that of a high priest of the Sun.
Interestingly enough, sun deities were definitely not his first choice. Despite his concealed name being that of the one wrapped in blazing light, the sun never sat too well with him. Blaze missed the old times. The days of flames and dancing shadows, days spent in the heart of the forest, eye to eye with beasts and plants, one with the earth and buried bones, one with the wind and rain. He missed the life of a simple shaman, rich in experience but not in treasure. He often regretted he had not gone for Viracocha instead. Posing as a servant to the rain deities like back in Teotihuacan, would have been his preference, yet in the end Blaze resolved he had chosen wisely. Viracocha was far more than just a rain god, and putting himself between a nation and its creator deity posed too much risk. So he settled for Inti, the creator’s son.
What he had here in the House of Sun, was a convenient arrangement. Inti was an influential god, and his service turned out easy to both insinuate oneself into and stay in. Blaze had never been in the center of worship on such a scale before. One third of the empire belonged to the Sun god and his priests now. There was a lot of power flowing through the high priest to Inti everyday, and retaining a part of it was almost too easy. Such convenience was hard to come by and just as hard to abandon. So generations had passed, and Blaze was still there. He had never planned on lingering for so long. Having stayed in Cusco out of malice, possibly to orchestrate the fall of the city, he had instead overseen its growth into a glorious empire.
The high priest sighed. Of course, he still had wrought his fair share of intended havoc here. Blaze walked across the temple and stopped in front of the ornate bench, looking mockingly at the richly adorned mummies of the previous Incas sitting in front of the sun disk in their golden masks and headdresses. He had known several of these men personally. He had even been a brother to some. In life he tolerated them, but in death he had no such intentions. Their corpses were revered as holy, each of them appointed their own followers, servants, and even lands. People came to them to seek guidance, and Pachacuti threw festivals in their names. But the bodies of these ancestors were just as dry and hollow as they looked to be. Their spirits were long gone, all courtesy to Blaze, who made all too sure they would not meddle with his plans in their afterlife. Pachacuti had no notion of this, and he never would. The sun god knew of course. Inti knew of many of his machinations. But it was too late now. Blaze helped Inti’s religion flourish into what it was, and rather than a foe, that made him an ally. Furthermore, striking down the high priest of so many generations meant a stab right to the heart of the faith and the worship, and no god had ever wanted that.
But even though he knew the sun god would not strike him down, Blaze thought that perhaps it was still the time to retire. Inti was welcome to try and stop him. The high priest looked challengingly at the huge golden sun disk mounted above the altar, but the face of the sun stayed silent. And so he turned away from the visage of the god he leeched on, and from the indifferent husks of dead rulers clad in gold, and he left the sun room. Crossing the length of the temple, he went out into the fading afternoon.
From the courtyard arrayed with golden statues, Blaze beheld the city in the valley and the well too familiar hills as dusk swallowed the dying rays of the sun. It was an evening, just like any other, and nothing spelled the approaching disaster foretold by the pattern of veins on animal entrails. He had grown to like this place, but it was time to leave it and seek another. He had already cast bones into flames and read the vague hints of the future in their charred cracks. He knew he would head North, through the mountains and jungles, all the way to the great city of temples and pilgrims. There he would stay until he beheld a rising star, made a friend and a foe.
Blaze knew that the golden death would come there too, but when it did, at least it would not feel as personal as it would if he had to witness its arrival in the Inca empire. History had to run its course, but he did not wish to see what he helped build crumble.
And so he would leave and remember the empire the way it was today. At its pinnacle, with its energetic, restless ruler who still had many years ahead of him. Pachacuti’s life was in full bloom now, and he would build and accomplish many wonderful things. He would conquer many lands and give life to a multitude of children, and the long shadow of the nearing disaster would never cloud his vision. He did not need Blaze anymore, and Blaze did not wish to stay here to see the man he grew to perceive as his own son wither and die.
Yes, it was the right time to go.
* * *
Having shed the body of the priest of Inti, the being known as Blaze found another, younger and more fit for the journey ahead. And then he left the valley of Cusco, never to return.
⚞ ♝ ⚟
The captain of the Italian ship looked in surprise at the nobleman standing in his quarters. The man’s nationality was hard to pin down. Turkic features mixed beautifully with European ones, stunning slanted blue eyes pierced the Italian with their intensity. On the desk between the two men a massive bag of gold coins sat alluringly.
“Let me make sure I understand correctly. You desire to claim passage on my ship when the evacuation happens? But what evacuation? I have not heard of one. Last I heard, the proud people of this city stood together in the face of the siege.” The captain looked covetously at the sack of gold. It was a fortune, but it was not enough money for him to risk his reputation and escape the port alone.
The nobleman seemed to read his mind. “More people will come to you, in secret, seeking passage. Before the night is done, your ship will be full. All I ask is that my family is given priority and the best quarters you have.” The blue eyes narrowed. “If this payment is inadequate, there is more where that came from. Deliver us to safety, and you will be able to retire. Maybe marry into nobility.”
The captain gaped at him in surprise. “Who are you, my lord? I don’t believe we were introduced.”
The blue-eyed foreigner lifted one finely manicured hand so the captain could see the crest on his signet ring. “I would prefer my name to remain a secret between us.”
The captain’s eyes opened wide at the sight of the ring. “Yes, my lord! Of course, my lord! What an honor it is to meet you face to face lord-,” the captain cut himself off. To cover his near slip-up he jumped to his feet and hurried to bow several times before eagerly opening the door for his esteemed guest. “Would you like to see what we have available? It doesn’t look like much, but we can make sure you lack nothing, though it would be hard to arrange on such short notice-”
“I don’t need luxury as long as the cabin is clean, spacious, and you point my porters to it, so they can start loading our belongings.”
“Of course, my lord! Of course! It’s this way.”
* * *
When the Golden Horn faded on the horizon, Shaazgai told his frightened wife to take their children up on the deck and get some fresh air. He needed a moment of privacy and quiet so he could pray.
He knelt in the middle of the cabin, then prostrated himself flat on the floor, feeling the darkness pour in even though he couldn’t see it.
”What do you think you are doing, thrall?” His Master’s scathing words pierced his mind like poison daggers. “You were supposed to stay in Constantinople until you were permitted to leave!”
“Master, please, forgive me, I had to flee. I tried to reach you many times, but you did not respond.”
“I wonder why that would be, Shaazgai? I am not available at your beck and call — you are at mine.”
“Of course, Master! I loathe this act of disobedience, but this was my last chance to escape the invading Ottoman army! The Muslims would have killed or enslaved me and my offspring — surely those would be even less preferable outcomes. Constantinople is over, Master! The plague has decimated it, like it wrecked the rest of the world, as you have surely seen yourself.”
The room grew pitch black. “The Ottoman army and Black Death have got nothing on my wrath, Shaazgai. You ought to know it by now. Or do you need a reminder?”
The sorcerer felt the darkness crawling over him, squeezing tight, choking his body and mind, he could hardly breathe. Tears of horror welled in his eyes as he began to suffocate. Was this how his lover died? Shaazgai’s body shook violently as fear, misery and an animalistic need to survive overwhelmed him. He clawed at the tendrils of darkness choking him, but only grasped handfuls of his clothes, the darkness was intangible even as it choked him to death. He could be a great lord in Constantinople, but no matter how successful and powerful among the mortals, he was still just his Master’s slave. He could scheme to move nations like pawns on a chessboard, but he was merely a speck of dust compared to Ahriman’s omnipotence. Shaazgai remembered that. His god always made him remember. Finally the tendrils loosened their grip and let him take a breath. Still shaking, he whined, “No, Master, please, have mercy! I have a new plan, the fall of Constantinople can be a good thing for us. Please, let me explain.”
“You may attempt to do so,” Ahriman deawled. “But it better be utterly convincing.”
“With the Mongols quarreling…” Shaazgai breathed heavily, but spoke quickly between his breaths, “… and with the Muslims taking over Constantinople, the Silk Road is done for. Without the lucrative land route, the Europeans will set out to explore the seas. We are on the brink of massive geographical discoveries! I expect they will soon rediscover the land the Norsemen found centuries ago. And maybe more! New lands ripe for the taking, Master!” Shaazgai sniffed and stuttered through his tears. Sweat was running down his spine. “Send me there, Master, when they gather an expedition, let me go, and I will peddle your worship to the savages in the new lands better than any follower of Jesus peddles the cross!”
Slowly, torturously so, the darkness subsided.
“A whole new land, where followers of Yahweh and Allah have not reached yet? Why, call me intrigued…”
“Yes, the Norsemen told me enough of it that makes me believe it is no fable in the manner of Atlantis. It is real. And if that land is to be found again, I believe it will be soon. And when it is found, I will be there first. Before the others come in force with their crosses and their swords, we can reap a mighty harvest of worship for you, and you alone, Master. They won’t even know of Orm-… your adversary.” Shaazgai fearfully stopped himself from saying the name of Ahura Mazda, Ahriman’s light counterpart and eternal nemesis. “So they will worship you solely and with barbaric frenzy!”
His god laughed with dark satisfaction. “Well, who knew. Turns out that life of yours among the Vikings was not completely wasted after all!”
Shaazgai said nothing. Not only was there a lump in his throat and a heaviness in his heart, but he was deadly afraid. The shipboards under him creaked, and he felt sick with terror and pain.
When the darkness withdrew, he let himself go limp on the floor and wept.
⚞ ♗ ⚟
The man who was the high priest of Inti no more, travelled across the mountains and plateaus, heading North, towards the jungles. Where his human feet could not carry him, he flew as a bird or swam as a fish. He knew these lands and rivers well. He had traversed the two continents — not yet known as Americas — far and wide many times before.
As the highlands gave way to grasslands, Blaze advanced by land again, taking on his favoured animal guise. It was a shape from the distant past, from the times when mammoths still roamed this Earth. The few mortals who saw the giant black bear marked with patches of gray, hailed it a demon and fled from its sight. Blaze was pleased by that. This way, unbothered by men and jaguars alike, he could revel in the nature all around him. It was good to be in the wild again, away from the hectic affairs of an empire and the authority it carried, to be away from people who always wanted something from him. It was calm here, in the wilderness, and he took his time delighting in it.
After months of travel, his journey was still hardly begun. He had to go where the continents connected, and then even further North from there to where the cold winds blew from the dormant snowy volcano. The future he had read in the burnt cracked bones had no markings of urgency. He still had years, possibly decades, to make it on time to his fated destination.
Blaze was not in a hurry.
Where the terrain was easier, he walked as a man again. He fretted not poisonous snakes and perils lurking all around, for even if he died, he would just take on another shape. These lands were not his home, but they felt like one by now. He knew the properties of each plant and animal he laid his eyes on, and he could speak their names in dozens of languages. But there was nobody here that he could speak to, just nature all around.
This was good, Blaze told himself. People tired him. He needed to rest from them, and it was perhaps the only chance he would get to do so for centuries to come. He would spend ten years alone, no, twenty perhaps, he decided. Only then, he would move on.
Barely a year had passed when stumbling upon a tribe in need of a healer, he found an excuse not to stay away any longer. And once that had transpired and the tribe was no longer in need of his immediate assistance, Blaze resolved that he could as well get to Cholula early. After all, the rain gods had always been his favourite.
⚞ ♝ ⚟
October 8, 1492. The Atlantic Ocean.
Saltwater. Nothing but roiling saltwater stretching out horizon to horizon, spraying generously on the wind, splashing angrily against the side of the overcrowded, ill-constructed ship. Shaazgai wondered, if he spat now, would crystals of salt or iodine clatter onto the wet deck? He could swear his lungs were full of the stuff.
Behind his back the sailors were laboring to keep the ship afloat in the storm. The sighting of land birds the previous day and the pursuit of their flock earlier today seemed to lift everyone’s spirits, despite the weather. Everyone’s spirits but Shaazgai’s. He didn’t care about the birds. The birds failed to bring them to land after an hour and after a day. And in doing so they had failed him entirely.
And now they were caught in a storm. Again. He couldn’t tolerate this journey any longer.
It was either being crammed into a stuffy hole below the deck with the few other representatives of the Spanish crown, or watching the blue all-encompassing ravenous monstrosity lap at the ship’s sides in anticipation of its potential demise.
Wind, sea water and rain gushed over him, as his knuckles grew white from his deadly grip on the taffrail. The rope tied around his body offered little to no comfort. If the ship sank, it would only make sure he went down with it.
How could the Norsemen willingly go to sea again and again? His sight grew dark and something clutched onto his heart, his lungs, his whole ribcage. He was on the deck, his feet sturdily planted on the boards, despite the rocking of the ship, and yet he was choking, drowning. Dying in the oppressive cold even as his lungs burned. Was that how Sven had died? Or was his fate more merciful, and did he fall and break his neck before the sea swallowed him?
The darkness ravaged him until he could hardly stand, then dissipated, leaving him shaking, leaning heavily on the taffrail. His hands were cold and clammy, his manicure gone to oblivion. His clothes were wet from the rain and sour with sweat. But none of it could compare to the sheer dread of being out at sea, unable to escape the weather and his own thoughts.
“Master,” Shaazgai whispered. No response came. “Master,” he said louder.
He didn’t care if the sailors noticed or thought him insane. They had already been giving him looks, laughing at the milksop nobleman who woke every other night raving like a lunatic after less than a week at sea. A month in, on a stormy day like this — if he finally cracked, it wouldn’t surprise anyone.
“Master,” Shaazgai repeated again, in Avestan, and with an uncharacteristic boldness. “Master, I must speak to you.”
But the storm raged on, and Shaazgai’s master did not hear his servant’s brazen calls. Or maybe he did. Amidst this darkness and chaos, the sorcerer wasn’t even able to tell if Ahriman was there or not. But he continued regardless.
“Master, I need this journey to end. I cannot endure this any longer. It is not my place to make demands of you, but if you do not want to have a raving lunatic for a servant, you must see reason. Transport me to shore. Any shore. I will do everything to please you, but I cannot stay out here any longer!” By the end of his tirade Shaazgai was screaming. The sailors were giving him looks, but no one approached him.
He was screaming into the storm for nothing. There was no reply.
“It is such a minor favor I ask of you, master! A trifle. Why must you punish me by keeping me here? Have I not served you faithfully for centuries past?!”
“It really is not your place to make demands,” said a mocking imperious voice inside his mind. “But you are right. It is a trifle that you ask. Fine. So be it, Shaazgai. Feel free to end your life prematurely. This one time I will allow it. You will rise in a new body on the nearest shore. You will need to figure out your way from there.”
Tears welled in Shaazgai’s eyes and mixed with the pouring rain. “Thank you. Thank you, Master.”
He pulled a dagger from a sheath at his belt, cut the rope securing him to the ship, threw one leg over the taffrail, and before anyone could even call out to him, he slit his own throat, letting himself fall into the raging sea.