Years before the rise of the Ku’ototh and the fall of N’Yoktu, when I was still a mere acolyte, spending my days cataloging clay prayer tablets at the Polten Monastery, I met a most remarkable woman. She would become legend, of course. The Scourge of Tranth. The Hammer of Fate. Bride of Hell. Great Lord of the Steppes. She is called Evil One in Ubasis. She is the Bringer of Justice in Wassu. I have heard she is worshiped as a goddess by the blue people of the Eratok Mountains.
I am sure there are many names, honors, and curses heaped upon her name I have never heard and never will. I am sure as many are deserved as not. A bloody-handed barbarian of a savage race of foreign devils. A bold adventurer with a mind as sharp as a Tolinish glass blade. A staunch defender of justice. A violence prone fool. She was all of these things and more. When I met her, she had yet to make her mark on the world, yet to earn these colorful titles.
When she saved my life, she was known only as Baal.
That first sight of her I will never forget as long as I live. She was obviously foreign, with her sickly pale skin, wild curly hair, and imposing physique. Yet, it was more than her strange appearance. No matter what I heard about her in all the years and decades since, nothing surprised me. That moment left an impression.
There she stands in my mind’s eye still, stripped to the waist, spattered in the gore and blood of her enemies, her face a mask of violent lust. She is singing. Not a dirge or a battle hymn. She is singing some joyful song in a language I don’t recognize. As I watch, struck numb by this mad vision, she lifts a blade above her head, the thick sinewy muscles of her arms and back tensed like a mad beast. The blade cuts a man clean in twain from his shoulder to his groin. I can still see it.
This was my introduction to Baal. How was I to know the changes she would bring? Not just to my life, which at that moment I believed to be nearly at its end, but to the whole world. How could I know? If I had, would I have tried to stop her, to put an end to her then and there?
Two days before this momentous meeting, Aaolin the Red and his band of displaced and disgraced soldiers broke through the front gate of the monastery and put several of my fellow monks to the stake.
Though the Akavian Wars had faded from memory, deeply held fears and hatreds had not, and with so many set to wandering by the Blight, violence was common in those days. Warlords and bandit kings burned their way across the land and the sea.
Aaolin was no more savage or violent than others, nor more willing to spill blood or desecrate the sacred. He was, however, exceptionally charismatic. That, more than anything, made him truly terrifying. His followers weren’t simply looking for loot or blood. They sought Aaolin’s approval and his respect. They would sink to terrible depths to achieve it.
Ours was a monastery devoted to the study and worship of Nevalla. As He demands, we all had wives and children. Though I was a young man, my beautiful H’lees and I already added two young boys to the Troupe of Youth. I am, perversely, glad that H’lees had taken ill with the sleeping sickness the previous harvest and not lived to see what Aaolin’s gang did to the boys.
I will not record those horrors here. Perhaps holding onto those memories, letting them die with me, will be my ultimate revenge against Aaolin and his followers. Their evil will fade from the world as their bones bleach in the sun, and crumble beneath the marching feet of more civilized kin. I will say that while I love and honor Nevalla to this day, and still believe the Spark of Life is the ultimate weapon against the Dark, looking upon Aaolin’s broken body and shattered skull, tossed like so much refuse into the ditch by the North Tower, I was filled with a lightness and peace the likes of which I haven’t felt in the deepest of ecstatic worship.
Two days of Aaolin and his brutes, two days of violence and depravity, left all but a very few of us dead. Bodies were left out to rot, drawing carrion eaters.
By the time my vision cleared briefly to allow me my first sight of Baal, the last surviving monks, myself included, were tied on a rough scaffold. One of the invaders practiced throwing blades. To my inexpert eyes, he seemed perfectly skilled with the weapon. There were perhaps five of us from the monastery and a dozen or more raiders. Only I made it out of that charnel house.
I don’t know where she came from or how she entered the monastery complex. The invaders were as confused as I when a head leapt suddenly free of its shoulders to roll through a cooking fire. I remember little tornadoes of ash swirling up around it as the hair began to burn.
In moments, fire was licking the walls and screams echoed. Blood turned the ground to thick, red mud. Panic set in. In the middle of it, Baal’s pale skin moved like an apparition. The wild-eyed foreigner, singing her joyful song, bashed and cut her way through foe after foe. She tossed opponents aside like kindling on a fire, ripping weapons from hands and using them to slay previous owners.
When I was a small child, a traveling circus performed on the monastery grounds. There were acrobats, dancers, strong men, and exotic animals we couldn’t find reference to in any book. Baal was a combination of all these things. A dancer’s grace, an animal’s power, strength to shame any strongman, and a skill with any weapon unmatched by any present that day. She punched a man in the face with such force his neck broke with a sharp crack. She killed him with a single swing of her bare fist.
I don’t remember how I escaped my bindings, but I found myself wandering, choking of the smoke of burning wood and flesh, stumbling in the bloody mud. Suddenly, she was at my side, huge hand on my shoulder, pushing me toward the north side exit.
She pushed me through the door as Aaolin and two of his henchmen appeared out of the swirling smoke. “Who are you, devil?” he demanded.
Baal stood, legs apart, muscles coiled and tense. “You do not speak?” Aaolin seemed to be enjoying himself, in spite of the heavy losses his band of murderers had suffered. His guards circled, weaving blades before them.
Baal regarded the three with what I still believe was a touch of boredom. She dropped the axe and bloody wagon axle to the mud.
Aaolin laughed, the kind of patronizing laugh you might give a beggar with an addled brain. “I don’t know what sort of a man you think I am, stranger. But my men and I are not in the habit of taking prisoners.” He slowly drew his own blade. “And you’re a bit bigger than I like my women.” He chuckled again, indicating the man on Baal’s left. “Larner here, though. He might want a tumble.”
Larner looked back at Aaolin with a nervous smile. He didn’t see Baal move. His last sight was of Aaolin’s smirk going slack. Larner’s wrist broke into several places as Baal wrenched the blade from his hand. He had only the briefest instance of pain before the blade entered his neck, pierced his tongue and soft palate, driving on into his brain. When she yanked the it free, his jaw and some of his face came away. An instant later, Baal drove the blade downward, through the crown of his skull. The lifeless body dropped to the ground, still blood out of his slack mouth. She moved faster than I’ve ever seen someone move.
The second attacker’s ax blade missed Baal by a hair as she ducked under the swing, grabbing his wrist and driving a fist into his elbow. The loud snap accompanied a bone tearing out of the flesh of his arm, sending another spray of blood into the heavy air. He let out a scream of pain that choked off as Baal’s fist impacted again, destroying the soft tissue of his throat. He collapsed, twitching and writhing for a few seconds before spasming and lying still.
Only a moment had passed, and Aaolin found himself facing this hulking killer alone. I collected enough of my wits to stagger the rest of the way through the gate, out of the smoky air, out of the smell of blood and bowels.
I stood in the now welcome chill of the world outside. The mountains looked down upon the carnage at the Polten Monastery impassively. I heard screams behind me. I did not turn back. I had seen enough killing.
Baal and I sat for hours, watching the flames build and burn out. The smoke billowed into the clear sky. Flitters work up the courage to descend upon and gnaw at the corpses, looking for an easy meal. As the sun dimmed above and the sky darkened, yelps of the traghs echoed and we heard their furtive hoof steps as they moved closer, finally entering the smoldering ruins. Other creatures would come to pick the bones and sift through the ash.
When the sun emerged again, we walked into the monastery once more. It was strange to me now, barely recognizable as the only home I had ever known. We burned the bodies of my fellow monks and our families. We left Aaolin and his people for the animals.
Baal spoke little, her accent alien and thick. She dismissed my loyalty to Nevalla, laughed at my worry for the spirits of the dead. But she helped me, nonetheless. I mumbled words, things I had heard the abbot say over the dead. Did I say the right words? If I did, what good did they do the dead on that day? I cannot say.
Baal brought water from the well and I cleaned myself as best I could. While I washed my hands and face to get away the worst of the dirt and blood, Baal set about performing what I can only describe as a ritual, with rules of conduct and meaningful gestures. Year later, I visited a temple devoted to a warrior goddess, where the motions and techniques of combat had spiritual ramifications. Seeing the ordered practice of this killing art, the memory Baal’s cleansing ceremony came back to me.
When she finished, Baal turned to me and said something I will never forget. I can still hear the sounds of the wind over the mountains, the calls of scavengers waiting for us to leave, that accented voice. “When those who lust for power knock on your door, no gods will help you. Only flesh and metal and the will to use them.” It sounded like a quote from old scripture, though none I had read. The following day we went our separate ways. I walked south in search of my brothers and sisters at the Sha’agal Monastery. She traveled east toward…what? History, I suppose.
In all the years since, I’ve never forgotten those moments, that meeting. I have heard so many tales of Baal, some that stretch credibility. They would if I had not seen what she could do. I find myself believing those stories, even the most outlandish. I suspect they are not outlandish enough.
As told to Ch’ila Hodan, Historian in Residence at The Library of Almistey, Year 972 of the Old Lonic Calendar. Former monk of Nevalla, Petas Im Ul was interviewed as part of Historian Ch’ila’s research into the latter days of the world before the Great Opening.
The art at the beginning of this story was created by Christie Adams. You can see more of her excellent work on her website.
You can read more about Baal in Conquest of the Sphere: Four Tales. And if you’d like to support my work and help me commission more artwork, check out my Patreon page. It’s thanks to my patrons that I was able to hire Christie, and Jeff who is doing a new cover for Four Tales. As always, you can check out my Twitter, where I do talk about Conquest of the Sphere a lot, and my Facebook page.