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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Sekhmet and the Sorcerer

Category: Short Story

I have not slept, as humans’ sleep, for nearly fifteen hundred years.

I must stop from time to time to rest my brain. My vestigial human mind requires this, to process the information it has accumulated. After a time, if I ignore this requirement, I begin to lose my sanity, experiencing increasing periods of intense hallucination. I can manage much longer periods of activity than a human, decades rather than days, but the necessity of the process is implacable.

These periods of rest involve a retreat from physical reality, and during these episodes, I am unaware of the outside world or the flow of linear time. As I roused from the last dormancy,  I sensed demon spore in my chambers. I recognized it at once and my heart sank. I understood that my sanctuary had been at last discovered—to survive I would have to abandon it.

Sorcery is a lethal art, one that leaves few alive. Any practitioner that survives learns to seek the protection of concealment. To focus our will and direct our spells, we must steal the power of demons. Hell takes exception to such thefts, in a very personal way.

I have many demonic enemies, yet one has hunted me with inexorable patience throughout time, a female succubus named Sekhmet—the translation from the old tongue meaning ‘One of Power’.

I summoned and bound her once, long ago, in order to take from her the power of seduction. Youth and ignorance led me, and it was a grave error. I did it for the simple purpose of bedding a human female, which proved to be foolish indeed, for once I had her she lost the appeal that led me to risk such a thing at all.

The Succubae are immortal, and most vindictive among demon kind. A wiser sorcerer would have refrained from the risk, and the waste of such power to gain so little. It is a human failing that the heat of the loins can bring one to such penury, but it has always been thus for me.

When I must stop and rest, I am most vulnerable.

Early in the first century of my power, I gained the affection of a pharaoh, who rewarded me with a fine residence and many slaves. The structure included an ancient vault, buried in the sands of Mesopotamia. It is there that I withdraw when I must, safe beneath the solace of burning sand, deep in a cool subterranean labyrinth.

The surface buildings have long weathered away, returning to the sand that birthed them, yet the crypt below I have kept in good order, and concealed by many spells.

The work of millennia is stored there—scrolls, books, tablets and in keeping with the times, an impressive array of electronic machinery. The computers and archival systems of modern man are useful.

I am never as content as when I am below ground among my possessions. The smell of musty parchment, the withered spiced flesh of old lovers and companions I have kept wrapped and clean in the manner of the Egyptians, the presence of the ancient stone of Isis—these things comfort me in my isolation.

The catacombs that surround my inner chamber contain thousands of mummified cats. I summoned them from the abyss of death, and bound their undead spirits to the bones they left behind. Thus, I am apprised of anything that penetrates my lair, for the spirits are watchful. They raise their ghostly voices in warning when something untoward enters my demesne.

So it was, when I opened my flesh eyes, I realized that something had violated my stone womb during the suspended state. A cacophony of feline yowls warned me that something was wandering the long tunnels and rooms of my realm unhindered. There lingered on my tongue and in my nostrils the faint, unmistakable tang of sulfur, coupled with an undertone of the poisonous fire lotus.

Sekhmet was here.

A stab of impending loss gripped my belly. I could flee, yes, but she would linger here, among my things, desecrating them at her leisure. Eons of work, the mummified bodies I cherished, even the protective spirits of the cats I personally slew and embalmed as wards to guard my senseless flesh, all would be destroyed.

I lay quiescent for a time, listening, but I heard nothing other than the clamor of the cat spirits, wailing their distress over the presence of an intruder.

A sense of weariness overtook me.

The tear ducts of my ancient eyes stung like salt in a cut, but I had long ago lost my human tears to desiccation. Indeed moisture had become my enemy—it dissolves my flesh as easily as the rain melts dust.

The air of the chamber thickened with a current of power. I sat up in haste, drawing my robe over my head. Particles of flame licked the corners of the entrance, seeping through the cracks of the stone door that sealed the room.

As I watched, they drew together across the breadth of the rock toward the center of the portal. I managed to throw myself to the floor, behind the sarcophagus I used to shelter my body, a moment before the particles connected. The door exploded with a deafening roar, spewing shattered stone into the room.

The marble and gold of my coffin protected my flesh from the onslaught, but the exquisite features that mirrored my own, carved centuries before by an artesian stone shaper, disintegrated in the blast.

A small moan escaped me.

I peered around the edge of the casket, and blinked as clouds of dust billowed in the air. They began to settle, and the form of a female grew visible beyond them.

The first to be evident were her eyes—large black ellipsoids with no white or pupil. Then a gleaming fall of rippling hair, trailing to the floor in midnight waves, burnished with deep azure highlights.

Lips of carmine and blood, breasts as sweet as fresh peaches, skin as smooth and shimmering as polished white marble, the slender legs of a cheetah, and a waist so narrow it reminded one of the great mud wasps that linger in the alcoves of shops and marketplaces. Slender wrists and ankles ended in clawed talons, sharp enough to eviscerate flesh.

Her vestments bore the symbol of a hell lieutenant, and glittered with onyx and platinum chains, each link sculpted from the face of a victim. Despite a suffocating panic, my loins stiffened, stirred by her beauty into a painful, unwelcome lust.

Her glittering stare met mine, and she hissed at the sight of me, her mouth bracketed with powerful curved fangs.

“Amun,” she purred, and licked her lips.

Yellow embers flickered in the depths of her eyes as she gazed at me, and behind her, the shattered lintel of the doorway melted into smooth unbroken stone. The chamber sealed against me—I was a prisoner.

Grimacing, I rose to face her, though I was careful to remain behind the protective bulk of the sarcophagus. I smoothed my robes, shaking the dust from them, as I watched her from the corner of my eye. She leaned back against the wall and gazed at me, a sinister smile playing along the lines of her lips.

“How did you find me?” I said, grateful that my voice held no tremor of fear.

She did not answer, but rather continued to stare at me, malice flashing in her eyes. A trickle of black blood ran down from a cut on my forehead along the side of my nose, and I swiped at it with a hasty finger, and then muttered a quick invocation. A glowing cerulean rune formed between us, suspended in mid-air.

Her eyes moved to the rune, studying it, and then her lips formed a soundless counter-spell. The rune flickered but held, and I could not help drawing a breath of relief.

The soulless gaze returned to me, and the power of that glance fastened onto my face with invisible claws.

I winced.

Hundreds of tiny drops of blood formed on my cheeks and forehead—they swelled from my pores, ran tickling down to blur my vision, and spatter the front of my robe and bare arms. The dry parchment of my skin burned from the contact of the moisture, and I gasped.

The pain was great.

I thought of the vials of powdered blood stored a few rooms away, but without time and preparation, I could do little of real consequence. The rune I summoned would not hold for long. A fresh wave of aromatic lotus surrounded me, and I felt my loin’s cramp in response. The agony of this forced me to hunch forward, my knees threatening to give way.

“Stop,” I demanded, forcing myself to straighten again. “I will not tolerate such torture.”

She tipped her head back at that, a snarling laugh bubbling up from her white throat.

“Oh but you will, sorcerer—that and much more!”

Lowering her head, she took a step forward. Blue flame erupted as she tried to advance, and licked her outline, streaming in tendrils from the sigil of protection I had summoned. I saw her flinch as the power found her, and she stopped once more. My thoughts ran in circles, as a blind rabbit before the hound.

Soon, it would fail, its protective power drained, and then she would be upon me. My mind reeled with a vision of my library of scrolls and precious documents, the reams of spells I had so carefully crafted and recorded, one long hand-written page at a time. The treasures of my long existence.

I drew my hands down my face and then brought them away, blistered and smoking, coating them with my ancient blood. Teeth clenched against the agony, I raised my palms toward her and muttered a guttural invocation. A spectral fog formed before me, a livid scarlet mist that sucked the blood from my hands and arms with ravenous hunger.

“Teturamka!” I roared, and traced the symbol of the unknown in the air before me.

The mist imploded—the power of it sent me staggering backwards to clutch at the wall. A howl of fury and pain rose in a vicious crescendo, and I fell to my knees, hands clapped over my ears. The summoning spell I used was ancient and forbidden, the text of it in old Sumerian hinting of unthinkable consequences if one invoked the summons, but I was not in a position to concern myself with that now.

Old fool that I am, I thought only of the protection such a invocation might provide.

I saw Sekhmet fall back a step from the creature—a hint of horror furrowing her brow as the mist gained substance. The swirling motes congealed and hardened, towering over her as a tree to an acorn. The high ceiling heaved and cracked as the upper body formed, and fresh chunks of stone rained down. I scrambled beneath the sarcophagus, and stared out from beneath its reassuring bulwark.

The thing drew a first growling breath, the deep inhalation of a giant, and then it roared. From my new vantage point, I had an excellent view of its feet and calves, as well as Sekhmet’s face, which now bore the stamp of genuine terror. She staggered back, clutching at the wall behind her, her talons scrabbling at the stone in a mindless panic.

She screamed out a spell. The graveled intonations of hell-speak summoned fresh tendrils of flame from the mute stone behind her. The supernatural fire rushed together in front of her heaving chest, then blazed up at the creature, enveloping it in a vortex of heat. At the same time, the portion of smooth stone she sealed the doorway with earlier shimmered and disappeared behind her, revealing the shattered entrance it covered.

She turned to flee through the opening.

Thick smoke poured from the monstrous being as the hellfire swarmed up its legs, and it uttered a second roar, choked with berserk agony. The enormous calves flexed, and a massive gory head appeared, armored in ruby scales and grey feathers that dripped a foul ichor, and ending in a gleaming tapered beak of iron, one mad yellow eye in the center of its forehead glaring at its prey.

The beak opened and the great head stooped towards Sekhmet, and in an instant, half of her upper body and all of her head disappeared. Her lithe form kicked and stumbled, then collapsed to the floor.

I could hear the splintering of bones as the monster worked the raw corpse down its terrible throat. My eyes fixed in horror on her torn remains, which now spilled a pool of green blood in a rapid torrent across the chamber floor towards me.

Succubae were immortal. Nothing I knew of could rend one so.

A massive hand appeared, knotted fingers clenched upon the edge of the sarcophagus, then the coffin rose, light as a dandelion dancing on a spring wind, to smash itself into gravel on the far wall. I looked up at the monster I had unleashed on the world. There would be such suffering and death. The innocent blood I had shed throughout the centuries to fuel my spells would pale in comparison. My withered heart wriggled like a tadpole in the hard bone of my chest.

It was a demi-demon from the bottomless pit, a feral titan of the void’s underworld. As the knotted hands reached for me, I suffered a moment of ironic despair.

Now I wished Hell had taken me.

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