Manfred and Kris bid him goodnight and left. Jhamed fidgeted on the chair. “The thing I don’t understand is why Chaos wants to turn against Gadiel. He seems to be their greatest ally.”
“From what I have seen, even the gods don’t trust each other and they most certainly don’t trust Gadiel.” Simon yawned. He heard Jhamed start to say something but he couldn’t keep his ears and eyes open. When he next opened them, a naked Txazop was sitting on the end of his bed. Jhamed was nowhere to be seen.
They crossed a muddy, foul-smelling river by a rotting wooden bridge. It seemed to Simon that it would collapse at any moment and cast them into the ugly waters below. They made it across safely, however, and entered a strange garden. If there was an antithesis to Elvenhome, this was it. They entered an area canopied by trees. These trees seemed old and diseased. The leaves were pale green and mottled with ugly yellow and brown blotches. The trunks and branches looked rotten and carried stinking brown fungi that released foetid spores into the air. A few half-dead vines drooped like dusty ancient curtains in a long-abandoned house. The ground beneath the trees was dank and infertile. A few straggling weeds competed with enormous toadstools to colonise the slimy earth. “Welcome to the Garden of Shamash,” Txazop said. The Singing God did not look well. His body was pockmarked with weeping black sores that exuded an obnoxious odour that was both sweet and foul at the same time. It brought to mind the only time he had eaten durian fruit in a Malaysian village. Simon looked at his own body, but found it in good health.
“Shamash is the God of decay, disease and physical corruption. His garden once stretched to the Serpent’s Maze. He had a secret plan to take over and corrupt Zeench’s domain. Of course, Zeench knew it was coming and thwarted him. They have been deadly enemies ever since. He doesn’t get on well with Kharmeth either; he feels that Kharmeth steals too many healthy bodies before disease and corruption have had time to set in.” They passed out of the trees, into a weak sunlight that illuminated a series of oily foetid pools of black water that bounded a path leading to a wreck of a wooden house. The sky hummed with the noise of a million black flies, while their feet squashed a thousand fat maggots with every step. The house seemed to be within seconds of crashing to the ground. The timbers were all rotten, and the joists were lying at strange angles. The roof had lost most of its tiles and the windows were all broken. The front door was hanging off its hinges. They squeezed through the gap, without touching the door, and entered the house.
The room was empty, but for two things and two people. An enormous cauldron stood on a fire in the middle of the room. The sight of it immediately made Simon think of Freda. Rather than smoke, it seemed to exude coldness and absorb light, so that an impenetrable blackness surrounded it. A grotesque being stood behind it, stirring the pot with a rotten tree branch. He was about the same size as Simon in height, though perhaps four times his volume. He was naked too and the folds of fat hung from his belly to his knees, obscuring everything beneath. His head was almost bald, just a few straggling hairs hung from his head to below his deformed shoulders. He turned and smiled as they entered and his few remaining teeth were black and rotten. His face was putrid with boils that oozed yellow pus, which ran down his face and dripped into the cauldron. Had Simon not been told Shamash was a man, he would have thought the opposite. Two enormous man boobs dangled from his chest. They seemed to be inflamed with some awful infection. A green liquid dripped from his black nipples. Simon wished that he hadn’t eaten.
At the back of the room stood a golden cage. Where the cauldron seemed to absorb light, the cage seemed to glow with exuberance. Inside, seated upon a simple bench, was the most beautiful woman Simon had ever seen. Her blonde hair cascaded over a perfect elven face and flowed on to the floor, hiding her nakedness, yet somehow Simon knew her body would be perfection too. Her skin was pure alabaster. Her eyes were a sparkling blue. Just a glance at her settled his nausea and made him feel better than he had in days.
Shamash laughed. “Welcome Txazop, good of you to bring your friend. Sorry about the pox, it’s a new disease I’m working on. It’s a bit like AIDS and the bubonic plague combined. I think it will be a great hit. It will be sexually transmitted, of course. I always like to give people a bit of enjoyment before they decay.” He laughed again and gave the cauldron a stir. The woman in the cage did not move. “Now, Simon, I have to speak to you. It’s a tough job being Shamash but someone has to do it. Everyone comes to me in the end. Well, almost everyone. Not those who die in their prime from accidents or get cut down in battle. Your Sword has robbed me of too many.” Simon instinctively felt for Kin Slayer but it was not there. “It is not welcome here, though I’m sure Kharmeth would swoon over it. Nevertheless, you are welcome and to show my good intents, I will not infect you with anything nasty today. I suppose you are wondering why I would seek your help, when I despise your Sword so much. I guess you are also thinking what could I possibly have to offer you in return.” Those thoughts were crossing Simon’s mind. “You have seen my friend. You can barely take your eyes off her. Yes, she’s my friend and my sister. It’s such a shame that I have to keep her locked up but she does so much damage, finding cures for my plagues.”
Simon was feeling confused. Txazop scratched a bubo and it burst with a whoosh, emitting a stream of foul-smelling yellow pus. He whispered to Simon, “She is Shamesh, Goddess of Healing, and sister to Shamash.”
“Txazop is correct and my offer is this. Side with me and I shall allow Shamesh to cure your wife.”
Simon looked at the beautiful woman, who now seemed to be smiling, showing perfect white teeth. He felt a surge of hope and the words were out of his mouth almost before his brain had thought them. “What must I do?”
“It might surprise you to know, but I do have enemies that I cannot defeat with my normal methods. I have a need for your Sword. It will be a simple arrangement; you destroy them and I shall restore your wife.”
“And what of my son?”
“Unfortunately, he is beyond help. However, Shamesh can heal the pain of his loss. Think on it carefully, for the time of choosing is almost upon us.” Shamash returned to stirring the pot. Shamesh moved her head and held Simon’s gaze for an instant.
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