In the Nest of the Scorpion
by Dan Perez

Note: this story is copyrighted material, and may not be reproduced elsewhere on the web.

Red line

Morro, largest of the eleven Diurnian cities, dozed in the humid summer night, its northern and western walls cradled in a crook of the Stony River. Within the ruddy granite walls, the city's buildings huddled against each other, brooding over muddy streets and stinking canals. The moons Iurellin and Tangaril had not yet ascended over the knobby shoulders of the Red Mountains to the east, so darkness clung like black moss to the streets, alleys and waterways, its dominion challenged only by the timid light cast by the occasional candle, lantern or torch. In the far northwest corner of town, along the rambling Bastard's Boulevard, three beggars sucked at soured spicefruit rinds, and, upon hearing the soft tread of a bravo or other passerby on dark business, paused to intone the beggar's chant:

The droning syllables of the chant drifted in through the open window of a wattle and mud hut, upon whose dirt floor sat a girl, twelve summers old, and her brother, thirteen. They frowned into the dying fire, mirror images of each other: short and lithe, with small round faces and dark, unkempt hair, their eyes quick and bright.

As the beggars quieted, Snipe sighed. She glanced around the dark hovel, knowing that even if it were better lighted, there would be nothing to see. The landlord had taken the furniture that morning.

She turned to Ackel. "What now?"

"I'm thinking," he said irritably, staring into the dim flames. His dark eyes glistened. "You should be thinking, too."

"I am," she said. "But I don't like the thoughts. We're never going to get any money by morning. The landlord'll have us out of here just like the furniture."

"Six years father paid him for this little heap of sticks and mud, every week on time," Ackel said, his voice thick with disgust.

"He's gone now," Snipe said, curious at the detachment she felt. She hadn't cried since she and Ackel had laid their father's mangled body into its grave outside the city walls. "We've got to pay the landlord. We've got to eat."

"With what money?" Ackel cried, standing. "There's no work! Shall we take up begging? Maybe you can hire your body out at the Red House."

"There's work for you at the Red House, too, or hadn't you noticed?" she said sharply.

Ackel sighed and plucked at the coarse cloth of his shirt. "I wasn't serious. I'd work there before I'd let you."

"Very noble of you. No, there's got to be some other way. What about Uncle Ragas? Maybe he can help us."

"He's a thieving cutpurse!" said Ackel. "Father cursed his name a hundred times."

"So? Might a cursed footpad of an uncle help his niece and nephew?"

"I don't know where to find him. Do you?"

Snipe frowned. "No. But a thought comes into my mind--"

"What, steal to pay our debts?" Ackel said. "Father's ghost will curse us both."

"I'm sure his ghost would be much happier to see us toiling away at the Red House, then. Or maybe holding out our cups with the beggars in some foul alleyway."

"We don't know thieving," Ackel said. "And since we can't find Ragas--"

"Maybe we don't need to. What do you need to cut someone's purse-strings but a knife? We've both got knives."

Ackel paced in the gloom. The fire had given way to embers. "I don't like it. What if we're caught?"

"You're such a pessimist, Ackel. You'd look for lice on a newborn babe."

He snorted. "The penalty is slave work in the mines or quarries. And what if your knife slips and kills someone? Torture and death."

"I don't care. Stay here if you like, but I'm going out to cut loose a purse tonight. We'll have money enough for the landlord and to buy some food, as well. Fried rockhopper, maybe." Snipe smiled in the dark. Rockhopper was Ackel's favorite.

"All right," he said, his voice grudging. "The odds are better if we work together anyway."

Snipe and Ackel loitered in the shadows of an alley, watching the door of the inn across the street. Light spilled from the edges of the shuttered windows, along with the sound of voices and laughter.

"How much longer must we wait?" Ackel said.

"I don't know," Snipe replied. "Until someone leaves."

"Four people have left already!"

"Blood and piss," she hissed under her breath. Will you keep quiet? They were common folk, who likely had no more than a few claks among 'em."

"Iron money will pay what we owe," he said.

"If I'm going to risk slavery or death," she replied, keeping her gaze on the inn, "it's going to be for gold or silver. And an oafish oarman or laborer won't have that."

"Who will?"

"He will," Snipe whispered, nodding toward the inn. There, illuminated by the light from the open doorway, stood a tall man with skin the color of burnished leather. His long black hair was pulled back away from his face and fastened by a thin gold band, so that it hung like a horse's tail down his back. Gem-crusted gold and silver rings glittered on his fingers, and his great red overcoat was brocaded with golden thread. An overstuffed coin purse sat snugly at his hip. He paused briefly to shake his head and smile at another man who seemed to be asking him to stay. The tall man smiled, revealing even white teeth.

"I have no fear of robbers, my friend," he said. His voice bore a heavy, unfamiliar accent, but his speech was perfect. "And now," he continued, "I go. May Chithir clasp you to him."

"Who's Chithir?" whispered Ackel.


The man stepped outside and pulled the door shut behind him, then turned and strode off, his leather boots squeaking as he walked.

Snipe motioned with her knife for Ackel to follow, and she moved quietly out of the alley. The stranger had already disappeared into the shadows of the streets, but Snipe followed the rhythmic squeaking of his boots. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she saw him ahead, his coat fluttering behind him. A glance over her shoulder assured her that Ackel was behind her. Then the man turned down an alley she knew to be a dead end, and she nudged Ackel gleefully.

They turned into the alley, walking side by side. Ahead, the man walked until he came to the dead end. Snipe stopped and raised her knife as he turned. He took a step back when he saw he had been followed.

"I seem to be lost," he said. "Whoever designed these streets?"

"Hand over your purse," Snipe said, pointing with her knife for emphasis. "We don't want to hurt you. We just want the purse."

"Yes, of course," the man said. "I should have expected you'd want it."

The purse jingled enticingly as he untied it from his sash. Snipe couldn't help but smile. This is easy, she thought.

"Here it is," the tall man said, tossing the purse over to Ackel. "Take it, with Chithir's blessing."

"And give us those rings, too," said Ackel, his voice faltering. He's afraid, Snipe thought.

"Yes, of course. But they have been on my fingers for a long time. It will take me a while to twist them off. Open the purse and count your riches while you wait."

Ackel unlaced the purse. Snipe kept watch on the man, who had begun to twist at a large gold ring which adorned his left index finger.

"Ahkmit Chithir uhar assid," he murmured.

"What's that?" Snipe said.

"My native tongue," he replied. "Have you never heard Aramite?"


"Ah, good."

Ackel gasped as he opened the purse. Snipe glanced over at him. In the dim light, she could tell something was wrong.

"Ahkmit Chithir uhar mathid<.it>," the man said.

"Shut up!" said Snipe. She glanced at Ackel, who stood with his hands out before him, looking at the purse. "What's wrong?" she said. She reached out with her free hand and snatched the purse from him. Something -- several somethings scuttled quickly onto her. They were some kind of insects. She felt a whisper of tiny claws on the bare skin of her hand and shook it violently. The creatures clung tight, and she felt several burning stings. Before she could cry out, her arm muscles jerked and stiffened. A dreamy numbness spread quickly though her body. Breathing became an effort, a nuisance. She turned, her body protesting at the effort, and saw that Ackel had collapsed to his hands and knees on the dirt. She felt her own legs giving way, and she tumbled without sensation to the ground. As consciousness drifted away, she heard the squeak of boots and the man's voice.

"Ah," he said.

Snipe awoke, cold and shivering. She tried to move, but her muscles would not respond. She opened her eyes, and her surroundings, whatever they were, spun dizzily in her vision. She closed her eyes and took several deep breaths. Gradually, the shivering ceased and warmth suffused her. Hesitantly, she opened her eyes again.

Snipe gasped at the first thing she saw: a clear glass globe filled with hundreds of scorpions, each one pale green with sketchings of red and yellow. She had seen them before at the bazaar -- they were imported from the Great Desert and sold in tiny cages as curiosities. The scorpions seethed in a jumble of legs, bodies, pincers and segmented, stinger-tipped tails. Snipe suddenly recalled the tall man and his purse, from which had swarmed dozens of -- scorpions. It was said that the sting of one such creature was dangerous, and that those stung many times died writhing and screaming. Yet she was alive.

With considerable effort, Snipe pushed herself up to lean on one elbow. She had lain on a heap of silken pillows, and the globe of scorpions sat on a pedestal next to her. At first glance it appeared she was in a tent: the walls were of tawny, close-spun cloth, and the same fabric gathered to a point overhead. Yet there were no poles or other visible supports. Then she glanced off to her side and saw a door set in one fabric-shrouded wall, and realized that she was in a room decorated to look like a tent.

Feeling stronger, Snipe knew the time had come to escape and try to find Ackel. She was, as far as she could see, unguarded. She made a final quick inventory of the room to determine if there might be anything useful. She spotted two heavy bronze braziers in either corner and a number of flickering oil lamps on iron stands. Fur rugs covered the floor. A chamber pot and basin of water sat in one corner. Her attention was drawn to a small, ornately carved table set by one wall. She eased off the cushions and moved unsteadily to the table. Its surface was carved with a stylized relief of scorpions interlocked in a geometric pattern.

Our captor certainly is single-minded, she thought as she reached out to open the drawer set in the table. She suppressed another gasp when she saw its contents: a strangely shaped object wrought of glinting gold. She picked it up by its handle, startled at the weight. It resembled the round flat griddles used by vendors in the bazaar, and yet that surely couldn't be its purpose. She turned it over and saw, set into the lustrous yellow metal, a disk of finely polished silver. Snipe saw her face reflected in the silver, as in a pool of water. She smiled at the novelty, then reached up to touch her nose and cheek, comparing the sensations of sight and touch the artifact offered.

Her smile faded as she remembered her predicament. Idiot girl, she thought. Are you this moved by a pretty bauble? She hefted the looking-griddle, as she supposed it might be called. It would make an excellent bludgeon.

She walked quickly across the room, hoping the door was unlocked. As she neared it, she was startled to see something move on the floor. She recoiled, stumbling back against the cushions. In front of the door, concealed against a dark brown rug, was a gleaming scorpion the size of a dog. It had raised its crablike pincers at her approach, and its tail curled forward, the cruel curve of its sting held ready. Snipe froze, her breath caught in her throat. Then the scorpion settled on the rug again, its six eyes catching the lamplight like black gems.

She relaxed, watching it carefully. She stood, but made no move toward the door. It remained still. Now what? she thought.

Before she could think of an answer, she heard movement behind the door. The scorpion rose on its eight legs and tensed its tail into a tight curve. Then Snipe heard the man's voice beyond the door. "Hissah!" he said sharply.

The scorpion moved aside from the door, which swung open. The man came into the room carrying a tray. He hesitated when he saw her, and his gaze moved to the golden artifact in her hand. He smiled a taut, strange smile at Snipe.

"Are you well?" he asked politely.

"Where's Ackel?" she demanded.

"Oh, is that his name?" The man looked aside for a moment and Snipe did, too. The huge scorpion plucked at the leather of his boots with its pincers.

"Yes, yes, here you are," he said, snatching a chunk of raw meat from the tray and dropping it. The pincers snapped it from midair, and the scorpion backed away with its prize.

"Are they not remarkable creatures?" he said, turning to Snipe. "She smelled the meat."

"Where's Ackel?"

"He's safe, I assure you," the man replied. "He is recovering from the effects of the sleeping venom, as you have already. I have brought food and drink." As he advanced, Snipe backed away, gripping the handle of the looking-griddle tightly. She moved around the heap of pillows, watching as he placed the tray upon them. The fragrance of odd spices and cooked meat reached her nose, but she stood resolute. The man touched his fingertips lightly to his forehead and smiled again.

"But we have not introduced ourselves. Sissik, I am not usually such a poor host. I am Alharik imal Butan, most humble servant of Sultan Kuumir Tuakak IV, exalted ruler of Aram. And your name?"

"Where are we? Why did you bring us here?"

"Please," he said. "Allow me the honor of addressing you by name."

"Snipe," she said.

"Ah," he said, putting his hands on his hips. "A short, sharp name. Most fitting."

"Where are we?"

"Snipe, you are in my quarters in the temple district of Morro. I have arranged this place to remind me of my homeland many leagues to the south and east of here."

"Why didn't you kill us? Why are we here?"

"I never kill unless I must, and in your case I was not so compelled. Truly, I could not kill such a one as you."

"What do you mean?"

"Forgive me. I am prone to babble, as the sultan often reminds me. It's just, just--" He trailed off, and his dark eyes clouded for a moment. His shoulders rose and fell as he sighed deeply. It made Snipe feel odd, that this tall, robust stranger would display such emotion before her.

He touched his hand to his forehead again, regaining his composure. "Sissik, I act ever more the fool by the moment. I will take my leave so you may eat in peace. I have but one question."

Snipe was still not sure how to deal with this strange man. "Ask."

"The mirror," he said, gesturing toward the looking-griddle in her hands. "I brought it with me as a memento. It is an odd coincidence that you, of all, should find it. Do you like it?"

"It's very beautiful," she said.

"Then as it was once hers, so is it now yours. It is my gift." Without another word, he bowed quickly, turned and left the room, pulling the door shut behind him.

Snipe moved around the pile of cushions, but the great scorpion had already moved to its post in front of the door again.

Snipe let several heartbeats thump by to make sure the man had gone. "Hissah!" she spat at the scorpion.

It did not respond.

"Blood and piss," she grumbled. Her stomach rumbled, and she turned to the contents of the tray. She ate the strangely spiced meat and vegetables hungrily, washing them down with water scented with zandil blossoms.

When she was done, she looked at her face in the mirror. "Now, Snipe," she murmured, watching her lips move, "you've got to figure out what to do."

She discovered the sealed window while checking the walls behind the fabric. She had to pull the table over and stand on it to closely examine the square portal. It had been completely filled in with mortar, but it was a shoddy job, and in Morro's summer humidity it had begun to crumble and crack.

"So and so," she said. Climbing down from the table, she removed one of the lamps from its iron stand, and then, carrying the stand, she climbed back up. She swung the stand hard and one of its iron legs smashed deeply into the crumbling barrier. She paused and looked toward the guardian of the door, to see if the noise had roused it. The great scorpion sat unmoving.

Snipe resumed her work. After several more swings, she succeeded in cracking loose a large section of the mortar, which she levered out and dropped to the floor. She pulled herself up and saw a glimmer of daylight through a crevice. She kept pounding, wiping sweat and grit from her face, hoping the thickness of the stone walls would mask the sound. Finally she smashed the last of the mortar from the opening. She pulled herself up and blinked her eyes in the bright light. Carefully climbing onto the sill, she gauged the drop to the cobblestones below. It was at least twenty spans, enough that she'd probably break both legs if she dropped from the sill. She looked up and saw that the top of the building was within reach. She turned so that she was facing the open window and the short section of wall above it, trying not to think about the consequences of slipping. She wiped the sweat from her hands and reached up to grip the stone parapet. Straining her arm muscles, she pulled herself up. It was much harder to climb up than she had thought, since the smooth stone edges of the window offered little purchase for her feet. On her first two attempts, her feet slid down the stone surface, and she had to begin again, despite her growing fatigue. She pulled hard, the muscles in her arms burning at the effort. Somehow, she managed to get high enough so that she could push instead of pull, just as she felt her pulling muscles giving out. She hooked a leg up over the parapet and rolled the rest of her body over the edge and onto the flat roof of the house.

Snipe lay there for short while, panting from the effort, her sweat cool against her face and arms. Then she stood, ignoring the violent trembling in her arms, and looked around. Away to her right rose the fat, squat towers of the overlord's castle and she saw the spires, turrets and minarets of numerous temples all around her. She moved across the roof, and stopped when she heard a sound. It was Alharik's voice, and it came from a large round skylight set in the roof. She dropped to her belly and crawled up to the edge of the bronze grate which covered the skylight.

She hesitated to peer in, on the chance he might look up and see her. So she just listened.

"--and for that reason I will tell you your fate. I have never cast this spell before, but it is said that when one summons forth the great demon Chithir -- he of the clicking claws and the sting that brings swift, sure death, he whose mission cannot not be stopped by mortals -- when Chithir arrives, he will demand a sacrifice."

There was a silence, and Snipe was afraid that Alharik had sensed something, but then he continued, his voice softer. "It grieves me that it must be you, little one, and yet there is no time to prepare another. The stars are aligned and Chithir will not wait. Revenge against your potentate, who cheated my master, will come tonight with the casting of this spell -- or never. As sultan's sorceror, I am bound to my duty. And yet, there is Snipe. So like my little Mehmet she is. Mehmet, ayih, Mehmet -- drowned in the slipsands before I began my journey here.

"Fear not for your Snipe, little one. She will be spared. I will take her as my daughter when I return to Aram. She will never know your fate, and together we will search the streets for you until her grief is sealed. She will have everything I can provide. Go to your death bravely, armed with that knowledge."

Snipe heard the muffled protest then, of someone gagged, and the tenor of the voice affirmed what she had guessed already.

Snipe lay next to the grate, trying to think. But her thoughts were too jumbled -- contaminated by swirling fears, doubts, and strangely, a sense of sorrow for Alharik: for his loss. Why feel for him so? she questioned herself angrily. He plans to kill your brother and deceive you. But still--

She pressed her hands to her temples, as if to squeeze out the contradictions. A coherent thought surfaced: the most important thing was that she had to stop him from sacrificing Ackel. That was a certainty, and she clung to it. She wriggled away from the grate, then stood. She saw that there was no way down from the roof, and no other roof was close enough to hazard a jump. Back to the window and my scorpion's nest, she thought gloomily.

The climb back down was easier, although her arms trembled perilously as she lowered herself. Once inside, she stuffed a large pillow into the window opening to hide its presence and rearranged the wall cloth to obscure any sign that she had escaped. She brushed the mortar dust from her hair and clothing as best she could, then washed her face and hands in the basin. The great brown scorpion lay unmoving in front of the door. Snipe settled on the cushions and tried to ignore the constant skittering of the scorpions in the glass globe as she thought.

After hours, it seemed, Alharik returned with another tray of food. He set two cushions down on the floor and placed the tray between them, and beckoned for her to join him.

Snipe watched him carefully as sat he crosslegged on the floor across from her. He smiled and sampled a bit of fragrant meat.

"Your face betrays an unasked question," he said. "Ask it."

"All right," she said. "How is Ackel?"

"Alas, still asleep. Some are affected more strongly than others by the sleeping venom. I am sure he will awaken by tomorrow, and you can be together."

"Why can't I see him now?"

"He should not be disturbed. You will be reunited tomorrow, I assure you."

She nodded, letting it go for now. "Why do I have to stay cooped up in here?"

"I am the sultan's sorceror," Alharik said. "I have a very important spell to cast tonight, and I must not be disturbed. Tomorrow--"

"What kind of spell?"

"I cannot say."

"So Ackel and I can just leave tomorrow?"

"Sissik! So many questions. And still, I bade you ask, yes? So. I want to invite you and your brother to journey with me to the Great Desert, to the magnificent palace of my sultan. You shall not want for anything. I will treat you like my own. This city is no place for children."

"You never even asked about our parents."

"Ah. I assumed that worthy parents would not allow their children to become robbers by night. Or do you not have parents?"

Snipe felt a strange tug of emotion. "Both dead," was all she could manage.

"I thought so. Then come with me. I will not mislead: the desert can be a hard journey for water-country people, but you will find it beautiful, still. We have a proverb: Never to see the desert afire at sunset is never to have seen."

"What if we decide not to go?"

He sighed. "I can only ask," he said softly, looking aside as if he were embarrassed. "But I tell you: it is my heart that asks, humbly, for you to join me. To live in Aram as my honored child."

"You mean children."

"Of course," he said, too quickly. "You and Ackel, both. Do not answer now. Sleep with it in your heart tonight, for it is there that matters of truth are decided. You will decide rightly, I am sure." He stood. "I will not see you again until morning, when my spell is done. Good night, Snipe."

"Good night."

Alharik bowed and left.

A short while later, Snipe stood behind the pile of cushions, the reassuring weight of the iron lamp-stand in her right hand. She selected a small pillow with her left and tossed it at the brown scorpion. Its pincers snatched the pillow from midair and brought it down the floor, holding it there as the scorpion's tail arched over its back. As the stinger buried itself in the pillow, Snipe moved slowly around the pile of cushions, then selected a larger one, nearly as large as the scorpion's body. The creature shook the first pillow with its pincers and tossed it away.

It turned toward Snipe, and a chill rattled through her as she saw the tiny black eyes regarding her. She threw the larger cushion at the scorpion, aiming it so it sailed out over the wide, brown body. The scorpion reared and grabbed the pillow. Snipe rushed in at it, gripping the stand like a battering ram. She caught the cushion with the pronged legs of the stand, and pushed it hard against the scorpion. It emitted a loud hiss. The barbed tail flicked forward over the cushion, but fell short, thanks to the length of the stand. The scorpion struggled, its claws trapped in the fabric of the cushion jammed against its body. Snipe leaned hard against the lamp-stand. The tail struck frantically now, searching blindly for the scorpion's foe.

"Now what do I do?" she muttered breathlessly. The scorpion was effectively at bay, but it was also wedged against the door, and she couldn't get out. If she backed away, she was sure the angry creature would attack. Whatever she did, it would have to be now, while the scorpion was at a disadvantage.

The stinger jammed into the pillow and shuddered as the tail pumped venom into it, the cloth growing wet with the fluid. Snipe saw her opportunity and lunged forward, dropping the stand. Her hands caught the tail just above the stinger, as the latter slipped free of the pillow. The tail jerked in her grasp, but Snipe clutched it tightly. She fell with her weight against the pillow, hoping to crush the scorpion.

Pain blossomed in her ankle, and she cried out. The scorpion had worked one of its pincers loose and grabbed her. The pillow bucked violently as the creature tried to free itself, and Snipe kicked with her free leg, desperately stuggling to remain in control. Clenching her teeth against the throbbing pain in her ankle, Snipe pulled the tail down. Its muscles swelled, resisting, but she had leverage, and forced the stinger down, further and further until it scraped the segmented brown carapace near the base of the tail. Venom leaked out of the curved stinger as the tail contracted. The scorpion rocked back and forth now, threatening to shake Snipe loose, its pincer squeezing her ankle all the while.

Grimacing at the pain, Snipe blinked tears from her eyes and forced the tip of the stinger under the edge of an armored segment, pushing the stinger deep into the soft tissue. The scorpion heaved hard, its tail straining, and Snipe felt herself slipping off the pillow.

At that moment, the creature slumped back against the door and its tail sagged limply in her grasp. Snipe rolled off the cushion and pried the pincer loose from her ankle, which was wet with blood. Gasping for breath, sweat dripping from her face, Snipe examined the wound. The pincer had broken the skin on either side of the ankle, but it hadn't been strong enough to tear the muscles or break the bone. The flesh was tender, though -- she'd be badly bruised. She stood, testing her ankle. It hurt, but not too badly. She tore a strip of cloth from one of the walls and bandaged her ankle. Then she pulled the dead scorpion from its post in front of the door and eased the door open.

Her room opened onto a hallway, lit at intervals with oil lamps set into alcoves. Snipe moved as quietly as she could down the corridor, trying to keep her bearings. She remembered from her expedition to the roof that the room with the skylight was at the opposite end of the building from her room, so she knew she needed to move in that direction. The hallway took a turn to the right, and she followed it, pausing before a pair of tall bronze doors set into the stone wall. She pressed her ear to the cool metal and heard a muffled sound: a low voice, rising and falling in volume as it chanted. The spell, she thought.

Snipe examined the doors. No peepholes or windows, no gap through which she could get a look at the room beyond. Blasted fates, she thought. Nothing to do but go on in. She reached up and tugged at the handle of one of the doors. It didn't budge, and neither did its companion. Locked, or barred from within. She sighed and glanced back down the hall. More exploring, and too little time for it.

She followed the hall as it wound around the outside wall of the huge chamber. The spell-chamber apparently occupied the bulk of this floor, with a few rooms like the one she had been kept in clustered at one corner. Then Snipe discovered a small wooden door set into the chamber side of the hall. She tried the door and it opened to a dark room. Above and directly ahead was a small window through which lamplight spilled: the spell chamber. Snipe felt the whisper of a breeze against her cheek and glanced off to the right. Another, larger window, this one barred, gaped in one wall. It framed the darkness of night, and Snipe moved to it. The early evening fires of Morro glittered against the waters of the Basin, and heat lightning flickered silently through the clouds above the overlord's castle.

The low chanting resumed and Snipe recognized Alharik's voice. She hurried to the hall and got a lamp. Glancing about the room, she saw it contained a few chairs and a table, upon which sat a leather saddle. Propped in a corner was a large round shield, across which hung a sword belt and a long curved sword in its scabbard.

But the item that caught her attention was the bow. Her father had pointed out the militiamen with their longbows, and had even built her and Ackel small toy bows from sticks and string. But this bow was no toy. Her eye followed the graceful curves of the polished, wine-colored wood backed with strips of horn. A flat leather quiver of arrows fletched with red feathers sat next to it.

Snipe set the lamp on a chair next to the door, then moved the saddle to the floor and pushed the table next to the high window slowly, so as to make as little noise as possible. She climbed on top of the table and peered into the spell-chamber.

The huge room was cluttered with a bewildering array of items: clay jugs, iron pots, brass urns, coiled copper tubes and glass bottles filled with brightly colored liquids and powders crowded the shelves and tables.

At the edge of the room, near a large open window facing the castle, she saw a clear area. There she saw Ackel and Alharik. She nearly didn't recognize Ackel: he was strapped to a wooden stock, and his hair had been shorn away. He had been stripped to his loincloth, and every inch of his skin was flecked with tiny symbols, none of which Snipe recognized. Ackel was not gagged, but his head lolled forward and then back as though he were falling asleep, and his eyelids drooped, half closed.

Nearby, she saw Alharik, clad completely in bright red garments that shimmered in the lamplight. Alharik was dancing as he chanted, his precise, elaborate steps tracing a circle around a huge octagon incised into the stone of the floor. At the octagon's center was a low heap of dark powdery material resembling dirt or charcoal.

As he danced, Alharik swung a glittering silver knife in one hand, and Snipe saw that its broad, flat blade narrowed and curved to a hooked point: it was the shape of a scorpion's stinger.

Forking traceries of blue light sparked and chased each other across the heap of powder in the center of the octagon, and as Snipe watched, the mass of powder shifted, moving in a languid, dreamlike fashion.

Something about the appearance of the heap seemed oddly familiar. Snipe shook her head to try and clear it. Then she glanced out the window and shuddered. That's it! she thought. The dark clouds gathering over the overlord's castle, illuminated intermittently by a venous network of silent lightning.

Snipe peered into the chamber again. Alharik had completed his circuit, and now danced in front of Ackel's half-conscious form. The vicious curve of the knife flashed as it caught the light, and Alharik stabbed at the air in front of Ackel's chest, the sorceror's arm imitating the motion of a scorpion's tail. Snipe's heart jumped.

"Stop it!" she shouted through the window. She wanted to scramble through it, but the opening was too small.

Alharik continued to chant and dance, but his face turned to the window, and when he saw her, his eyes widened and he shook his head slightly, as if to say, "there's nothing I can do." He moved away from Ackel, but Snipe saw that he was merely continuing his dance -- beginning another circuit of the octagon.

Tiny branches of lightning flashed regularly through the shifting black powder, and Snipe saw that it had begun to take on an all too familiar shape. She glanced out the large window at the castle. The clouds above it mimicked the shape of the powder, the gigantic flattened body and segmented tail already discernable.

"No!" she shouted through into the chamber again, a sudden, urgent fear pulsing through her veins. "I won't let you do this!"

"Ikah muallah Chithir!" Alharik chanted, whirling on one foot and stamping hard with the other, slashing at the air around him with the dagger. His cheeks glistened, but he would not turn to look at her again. "Ikah muallah Chithir!"

Snipe leapt from the table and picked up the bow. It was unstrung, so she braced it against her body as she had seen the militiamen do. Then, putting her weight against the polished wood, she bent the bow and strung it. She tested the bowstring. It was difficult to pull back, yet another strain for her fatigued arms. But she could do it. She took the bow and the quiver and climbed back up on the table. An alarm trumpet sounded in the distance: it was the castle watch.

Her pulse pounding in her ears, Snipe nocked an arrow on the string, then threaded the wooden shaft through the small window. She aimed the sharp steel triangle of the arrowhead at Alharik. She pulled back on the bowstring, and found that even exerting as much strength as she could muster, she could only draw the arrow back by half its length. It'd better be enough, she thought.

The string twanged dully as she loosed the arrow. It swished past Alharik, clattering loudly as it struck a large copper vessel. He glanced her way again, scowling this time. But he never wavered from his dance and the chant droned forth steadily from his lips.

As she prepared to fire again, Snipe saw the black shape in the octagon moving. Its eight legs flexed and it opened and closed its pincers listlessly, as though it were awakening from a long sleep. The tail slowly curled and uncurled.

Outside, the alarm horn from the castle blew an unceasing note now, echoing off the rooftops.

Snipe let fly with her second arrow, missing again in a clash of shattering bottles. Alharik did not look toward her this time, whirling at the far end of his circuit. The spell must nearly be done, Snipe thought. Hurry.

She drew the bowstring back, cursing the pain she felt in her arms, trying to steady her aim. The arrow narrowly missed Alharik's leg, and skittered across the stone floor.

Snipe heard screams and panicked cries rising up through the large window. The scorpion in the octagon had quickened its movements. Alaharik whirled and stamped, nearing the end of his circuit, drawing closer and closer to Ackel.

Snipe fired again, choosing a larger target this time. The arrow swished into the scorpion in the octagon, drawing a spray of black powder behind it as it passed through the creature. A great hissing sounded outside the window, as of a terrible storm wind. The powder-scorpion reared on its legs, its body convulsing.

"No!" shouted Alharik as Snipe fired again. Her shot, aimed at the scorpion, flew high and struck the sorceror in the belly. Snipe gasped as Alharik grunted and fell. The silver knife clanged to the stone floor. Inside the octagon, the black scorpion collapsed into a shapeless heap again. Snipe glanced hurriedly out the window and saw that the great scorpion-cloud was expanding now, losing its shape -- returning to normal. She sighed heavily and set about finding a way into the spell-chamber.

Snipe paused on the ladder and pushed at the wooden trapdoor above her head. With a squeak of rusty hinges it fell open and she climbed up. Alharik lay on his side a few feet away, his back to her. She glanced up to see if Ackel was all right, and saw that he was staring sleepily down at her.

"Snipe?" he said, his voice slurred.

"Are you okay?" she said, moving to his side.

He blinked. "Sleepy," he said.

"I'll cut you loose in a moment."

She bent over Alharik. A pool of blood had leaked out onto the floor around his wound and his eyes were closed, but she heard him breathing, a shallow rasping as his chest rose and fell.

"Go," he said weakly, his eyes still closed. "King's men -- here soon. Go -- in peace."

Snipe bit her lip. "I'm sorry," she said, the words sounding hollow to her. "I couldn't let you hurt him."

"Go, little one -- I join -- Mehmet now -- take mirror and -- remember--"

He exhaled, shuddered, and was still. Snipe rose, feeling suddenly exhausted of all strength and emotion. She picked up the silver knife and cut Ackel loose.

"I was going to save you," he said absently, staring at the symbols drawn on his arm and hand. "What's this stuff?"

"Shut up," she said, shoving the knife into her sash. "We're going."

Through sleepy eyes, Snipe glanced across their room at the inn. Ackel, his belly full, his skin scrubbed clean and a dark stubble of hair studding his scalp, lay snoring quietly beneath linen sheets on a real goosedown bed.

Her gaze moved to the table, with its single candle casting a rich glow over Alharik's brown leather money purse. You've got your gold and silver, she thought. Money enough for a while, at least. She didn't want to think ahead to the day when it ran out.

The heat of the summer night oozed through the shuttered windows and hung heavy in the silent air. In her own bed, Snipe blinked slowly, on the verge of slumber. She felt the weight of the mirror where it lay on her chest, but did not move it. She looked at the folds of her sheets, golden in the candlelight, and imagined parched, soaring dunes as she closed her eyes. Never to see the desert, she thought. Then sleep overtook her.

The End

Copyright 1996 by Dan Perez. All rights reserved.

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