My name is Josh Reynolds and I’m a professional freelance writer. In addition to my own work--a full list of which can be found here--I have written for several tie-in franchises, including Gold Eagle's Executioner line and Black Library's Warhammer Fantasy line. I have also written numerous non-fiction articles and reviews.
THE VOCIFEROUS KAI
The sun was setting over the Square of Brass Stones in the city of Posqu and bells jangled discordantly as street preachers and self-proclaimed high priests shouted for the souls of the faithful. Braying sages, clad in hair-shirts and bearing placards, accosted penitents, and seers sold ten-a-penny prophecies to the desperate. Wooden gods were carried on sticks through the cramped square by howling phlegmatics and the crystal-masked servants of the Passion Mothers watched the crowd from the sidelines, making note of which temples the palanquins of the city’s aristocracy moved towards. The unwashed masses flowed in and out of the lesser temples beneath the unseeing gazes of idols and eidolons, seeking either solace or satisfaction.
The great bronze bell atop the domed temple of the Vociferous Kai joined the cacophony, summoning the faithful to worship at the feathered seer’s altar. The domed temple, like the others which clustered about the Square, crammed together like rats in a sack, was a tangle of stone and wood. It had grown out of the guts of the City of Rainbow Towers like a tumor in the wake of the Great Drought. When the dusty rituals of the Passion Mothers had failed to provide water from the dusty canals and cisterns of the city, many streets had sprouted sudden buboes of wild religion, centered on unlikely gods.
Kai the Voluble was among the unlikeliest and most popular of these. Men wept when Kai spoke, it was said. The walls shook, and time became as clear as water. Every dusk saw new adherents flock to the domed temple with its great bell.
This dusk, however, was different.
Inside the temple, shouts of alarm echoed through the curved corridors as bird-masked, feather-robed temple guards raced to apprehend a pair of intruders who had only moments before entered the oracle’s inner sanctum through the main doors without so much as a cursory donation. Even worse, the intruders had summarily breached the holy circle and toppled several of the great smouldering brass braziers which had filled the chamber with scent of sacred incense, and briskly dispatched the priests set to ensuring that the braziers were always burning.
The two men—one big, one little—had made it to the dais before the first guards reached them. At the top of the dais sat the thin brass and silver perch of the Puissant and Eternal Kai, who flapped his oddly hued wings in dismay, and squawked loudly as his caretakers rushed to his defense and died, one after the next. Feathered robes, beaked masks and ceremonial talon-gauntlets that had shed the blood of a thousand sacrifices were little match for long blades and deadly intent. Both of which the two bravos had in abundance.
Vash, the big man, and Vetch, the little man, were a study in contrasts. The former was as tall as any southern grandee and clad in the long mail coat and heavy helm of a Khwarzmite lancer, while the latter was short and stocky and dressed in a rattle-trap of armour skived from corpses of various nationalities. As sell-swords, they weren’t worth much, but they earned every penny through a daring combination of audacity and a distinct lack of moral fibre. Both qualities were much on display as they sent Kai’s followers to their eternal reward, one after another. It was easy work, and both men enjoyed it.
“This is going well,” Vash said. The bejewelled sabre in his hand carved a red arc through the neck of another temple guard, dropping the unfortunate warrior in his tracks. The body rolled down the steps of the ornately decorated dais to join the others the big man had similarly served. The sabre was a thing of deadly beauty and it suited Vash, with his manicured nails, oiled and curled beard, and delicate, carefully inked tattoos, right down to the tips of the curly-toed boots of tarasque-skin he wore. “Easy, even as I said—the simplest plan is always the best,” Vash said. “Why over-complicate matters with unnecessary scheming, after all? Efficiency, thy name is me. Our client will be pleased, and we’ll have added another successful job to our tally.”
“Less talking, more hewing,” Vetch grunted. As he fought, the profusion of charms and amulets he wore about his thick neck rattled and bounced. The broad, serrated blade he carried bit into the top of another guard’s skull. The sword was a brutal thing, built for sawing and hacking, like all the tools of the people of the Northern Floes. Vetch yanked the dying guard forward and booted him in the chest, ripping him free of the sword’s bite and sending the corpse pirouetting down the dais. Another guard stumbled away from the descending body, lost his footing in the blood that now coated the steps, and fell backwards onto Vash’s blade.
“Now that’s just embarrassing,” the latter said. He patted the dying guard apologetically on the shoulder. “Don’t worry neighbor, I won’t tell a soul.” He ripped his sabre free and kicked the twitching body aside. He looked around. Blood and brain matter dripped from the high-peaked, gilded helmet he wore and his crimson mailed coat had grown several shades darker. “Is that it?”
“It’s shameful is what it is,” his companion grunted. He looked around and ran a scarred hand through his plaited hair, his fingers scraping at the gore that was already drying there. “There were barely more than a dozen of them.” He wiped his blade clean on the leg of his trousers and slid it into its walrus-hide sheath.
“That was plenty, if you ask me.”
“In my land, the temples of the greatest gods are guarded by the beasts of ice and snow, and hundreds of warriors,” Vetch said, clicking his filed teeth together in a disapproving manner. He looked around. The main chamber of the temple was empty of decoration, save for the ring of braziers that had surrounded the dais and filled the air with confrontational incense, and the strange chalk ring marked upon the stones around the base of the dais. The ring had been smudged and breached in a dozen places by falling bodies and spreading blood.
“Truly yours are a pious folk. Quit complaining and get the bird,” Vash said. “We need to get out of here before that bell finishes ringing.” He pointed his blade at Vociferous Kai. The bird flapped its wings. Eyes like yellow stones eyed the two men without rancour. For a god, it was remarkably unprepossessing. It looked like any other bird one might find in the southern jungles, all fluffed, pale chromatic plumage and unpleasant noises; except most birds weren’t venerated as deities by idiots.
Too, most birds weren’t targeted for assassination by the servants of a rival god—in this case, the Abominable Voq, a marmoset who could predict the weather and whose congregation had shrunk drastically when Kai had appeared. The Abominable One’s servants had promised a fine sum to the duo for the immediate wringing of the feathered upstart’s neck. While Vash was normally leery of taking on clients with either political or religious motivations, it had seemed like an easy enough task.
“You get the bird,” Vetch said, eyeing the animal warily.
“Don’t tell me you’re frightened of a glorified chicken,” Vash said. “Just go break its neck so that we can go get our money from that marmoset.” The dull echo of the bell rolled down into the chamber. It pealed one hundred times to summon the faithful to witness the day’s sacrifice. By Vash’s count, they had thirty-two strikes to complete the job and get out. The bird fluffed itself up, and twisted its head around at an odd angle, as if listening to the bell. It clicked its beak.
Vetch licked his lips. “I’m not frightened. But if it’s a god...”
“It’s not a god, it’s a bird. Just like Yams the Serendipitous isn’t a god no matter how many times his followers set people on fire and claim it was his doing,” Vash said, in growing exasperation. Vetch was as superstitious as any northerner—put a mortal enemy in front of him, and he’d happily butcher his way to victory; but anything that smacked of the unnatural or eldritch took the wind right out of his murderous little sails.
And the Vociferous Kai was, by all accounts, an unnatural and eldritch being. Found in a long-deserted jungle ruin by explorers who witnessed its wondrous divinity for themselves and duly brought it back so that others might bask in the rapture of Kai, who had purportedly seen civilizations rise and fall, though how anybody knew that to be the case, no one had said. Such trivialities seemingly made no difference to the faithful. Vash, however, had been to university, and knew that there were only one hundred and six gods, and none of them were a small white bird with funny plumage.
“You’re sure it’s not a god?” Vetch said dubiously. “They say it reads the future in the entrails of men.” He peered at the bird, which eyed him back. It didn’t look particularly interested in entrails. If it had been some form of hawk or buzzard, perhaps, Vash thought he might’ve been able to give credence to the stories.
“Would a god have shit itself the way that bird just did?” Vash said, gesturing towards the white mess that now ran down the engraved perch. He wondered if the incense that permeated the chamber was for hiding the stink of bird droppings, rather than to obscure the stench of spilled blood.
“Otor the Foetid—’ Vetch began. He fingered his amulets nervously.
“Otor the Foetid is, in fact, a lump of dung someone has drawn a face on. Just like that is a bird that people pretend can foretell the future. Besides, if it could gut us, it would have by now, don’t you think? It’s no more a god than our client is. Now be a helpful savage and go throttle it.”
“Why don’t you do it then, if it’s just a bird?” Vetch said.
Vash waggled his long, delicate fingers in Vetch’s face. “Do these look like the hands of bird-throttler?” Vetch snapped at Vash’s fingers irritably.
“You’re scared,” he said.
“No, I simply have my dignity. Besides, you owe me.”
Vetch looked at him suspiciously. “What?”
“Last week? The urchin with the limp and the apple-peeler—did I not brain the little beast while he was trying to carve out your kidney?” Vash said. “You owe me one. Now go pluck that chicken. We’ve only got a few peals left, and I’d rather not have to fight my way out of this glorified nest through a horde of bird-worshipping fanatics.”
Vetch grimaced, but nodded and stepped towards the Vociferous Kai. He raised his blade. The bells fell silent. Vetch froze. “I thought you said we had ten more,” he said accusingly.
Vash winced. “I must have miscounted.”
On its perch, the bird fluffed itself up and blinked. Then, with a little hop that put it out of Vetch’s reach, it opened its beak and spoke. The chamber seemed to quiver with anticipation as a voice as vast and as deep as the toll of the bell above spoke words which hung on the air like dollops of molten lead before fading, leaving behind only pain in their wake. Vetch staggered back, clutching at his ears.
Vash lunged past his partner, raising his blade. Kai squawked and something pale and ropy and foul rose from beneath its ruffled feathers like agitated maggots. Polyps of glistening matter shot from the bird’s twitching form, and struck at Vash like a nest of adders.
He fell back with a cry of disgust, hacking at the tendrils. He lost his footing on the dais and rolled down to sprawl on the floor. He’d lost his sword in the fall and he could only gape in horror as the bird spread its wings and rose into the air. More tendrils had burst from within its concealing plumage and horrible, leech-like mouths formed at the bulbous end of each pseudopod. The mouths spoke as they descended towards him, and his head pounded with the agonizing pressure of their words.
One of the tendrils curled about his boot, almost lovingly, even as it continued to speak. In his head, shattered images surfaced from the red haze of pain like the fins of circling sharks, and he heard the voice of Kai, who spoke to him, even as it had spoken to those who had found it and brought it to a new land, and to the inhabitants of the ruin where it had been found and a hundred-thousand similar such ruins before that. The Vociferous Kai, the voice said, came and spoke and took its due until there were none left to hear and none left to take. Vash groped for his sword, trying to ignore its voice.
He caught the hilt even as a brazier, trailing embers, struck the Vociferous Kai like a javelin. The babble of hideous voices spiralled up into a wail as feathers caught fire and the bird tumbled to the dais, knocking over its perch. It screamed and writhed as the flames spread. In moments, the abomination was enveloped in crackling flames. Burning polyps flailed blindly, smashing at the dais and scooping up the corpses of its guards to be flung across the room.
Vetch tugged Vash to his feet and half-carried him towards the doors. Behind them, the Vociferous Kai screamed and screamed as it flopped down the dais, dying, but determined to catch them. Vetch dragged Vash through the doors and froze as he saw the crowd of worshippers heading for them. The crowd came to a milling halt as those in the front saw the two sell-swords.
“This looks bad,” Vash said. Vetch grunted. A savage murmur ran through the crowd as they took note of the blood that covered both men, and the bodies that lay in the doorway. A few took hesitant steps forward, groping for knives or balling their fists. Vetch gave a sharp-toothed grin, and raised his blade. Vash followed suit, though his head still ached with the echoes of Kai’s voice. Both sides hesitated, waiting to see what the other would do. But before the stand-off could be broken, Kai, burning and screaming, lurched on polyp paws through the arch of the door. There wasn’t much of the bird-husk left, save a few pathetic pinfeathers. But the snapping beak was still in place.
“That looks worse,” Vetch said.
The crowd, as one, gave way before the fiery horror. People were trampled as panic set in. Vetch and Vash seized the opportunity and thrust themselves into the crowd, as the Vociferous Kai, in its death-throes, fell upon those of its would-be congregants who were too slow to escape.
Smoke was boiling out of the main entrance of the domed temple and filling the Square of Brass Stones when Vetch and Vash stumbled out, coughing amidst the tide of panicked humanity. Wheezing, Vash looked back over his shoulder at the inferno now raging within and said, “Well, I’d say that’s another job well done, wouldn’t you?” He looked at Vetch, who was glaring at him and said, “What?”
The little man spat. “I told you it was a god.”
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