9

I read this story in the last year or so (2017). I'm going to comb through my library history to see if any memories are sparked, but it's also possible that I read this online. The part that I remember has a wealthy Middle Eastern merchant in roughly historical Middle Ages (I think The Crusades were a backdrop) being approached by the ruler (the "Shah"?) about a position in the government. Said position involves keeping track of magic in the realm, which is heresy (antithetical to Islam), but which is practiced by many of the tribes and it's not uncommon for people to make use of it. The merchant has, himself, seen demons summoned and had his destiny determined by interpretation of intestines.

Then, I think we turn to a male, traveling, who meets with the other members of his group, who are a secret society dedicated to maintaining justice and order. Each has a particular role from fighting to stealth to magic to diplomacy, and they carry an item or a tattoo to establish their roles. I want to say that a tattoo of a deer, a lock, and a rusty piece of iron were among the symbols. I believe that they are headed towards the site of one of the battles of the Crusades, knowing that the conflict will result in seals being smashed and demons being unleashed, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Another scene (which may have come before the prior one), involves a Crusader, trapped in a city with ghouls. He's been burying the dead as best he can, but he's only one man, and he also has to fight off the ghouls. Making things more difficult, the presence of the ghouls has also caused all of the iron and steel in the city to weaken, and has poisoned the water. His sword bends with the merest thrust, although he's able to also straighten it by hand. I believe the ghouls carried some sort of disease or poison, which for some reason he's immune to. He encounters the prior secret society, who recognize the ghouls for what they are, and get him to help them dispatch the witch who'd summoned dark powers, and was now birthing the ghouls. In the process, they also establish that the iron in the city is not weakened, but rather that the Crusader is immensely strong and tough (basically, Golden Age Superman levels). As one of their number has succumbed (or is succumbing) to the ghouls' poison, they recruit this Crusader as one of their members.

In yet another scene (I think I got the impression that the author kept getting bored with one plotline and moving to another), a wandering hunter encounters a refugee family who have taken over his camp in his absence, thinking it abandoned while he was out hunting for a few days, and he cheerfully decides to walk with them for a time, although his rough ways conflict with their devotion to Islam. One of the children with the group imprints upon him, insisting on carrying his pack (although it's much too big for them) and eventually asking him to marry them, whereupon he learns that the child is a girl (I think after a wry comment that he didn't think their religion allowed for same-sex couples) and he reluctantly allows for the possibility, but only when she is finished serving her family, figuring that it was a passing infatuation. Somewhere in this section, they pass an old weathered stone outcrop and he recounts a story of chieftains hundreds of years past as if he'd been there, heavily implying that he was historical Gilgamesh, and indeed was there at that time. Anyhow, he comes back from a hunting trip and finds the family has been taken by bandits. He finds the dead bodies of most of the family, but the girl who wanted to marry him was apparently sold off to slavers, so he sets out after her, feeling obliged by his promise to marry her once she was free of her family.

This is where I think all of the plotlines started converging. The action pans back to the merchant from before, who is trying to negotiate the cleansing of a site of evil, a temple. We're given hints that the girl is among the captives who have been brought for that ritual sacrifice. The official objects to the sacrifice and it transpires that his bodyguard (who I believe was a long trusted friend) is affiliated with the same group as the sorcerer (they exchange code phrases), which is the Hashishin, and they plan to go through the ritual if they have to go over his dead body. With a bit of quick thinking, he extinguishes the lights and employs his long ago past as a street rat to avoid them for a time. Meanwhile, the Gilgamesh character shows up and lays into the guards. They both succeed and reach an uneasy truce. And I think that's when the mystical protection group shows up and that's all I remember.

  • It wouldn't make much sense for Gilgamesh to be immortal. – Buzz Oct 24 '17 at 13:55
  • 1
    @Buzz: One of the guesses by a forum-goer was that he swallowed the pearl (or flower) of immortality that Utnapishtim told him could be found at the bottom of the sea rather than it being swallowed by the snake while he slept. – FuzzyBoots Oct 24 '17 at 14:57
8

Some of the details of that story kept rattling around in my head, and I realized they sounded familiar. This is Peregrino by Lost Demiurge, aka Andrew Seiple, and is loosely tied to his Teslaverse, with the stranded Crusader being, well, Crusader as in his Dire Saga books.

He walked to the fire, waited until the others arranged themselves in a loose circle. The words of the lost tongue came to him, the words taught him by his father so long ago. "Aequitas Rex."

"Aequitas Rex Saecula," they chorused back.

"Manifestataurus," he commanded, and watched them reach into various pockets or pouches. For his own part, he pulled the amulet free from under the neck of his tunic, watched the tiny silver key glitter in the firelight. "I am the Key."

Semiha offered up a journal, quill set into a sheath on the front. "I am the Codex."

Sabbas merely raised an arm, spreading his fingers wide. "I am the Hand."

The short frank drew a knife, held it up. "I am the Blade."

A rustle, as the youth drew back his sleeve to show a smooth arm and a tattoo of a leaping deer. "I am the Hart."

And the tall Frank pulled a heavy piece of rusted iron from his belt. "I am the Lock."

"Salutem, Rexi." Arzu said, and they replaced their symbols, as he did his own. An ease had come over the camp, as he'd hoped. The argument was forgotten, in the face of their shared duty. "So. I am Arzu. Semiha and Sabbas are known to me. Who are the rest of you?"

"I am Adalric," the short frank offered. "This is my brother Bertmund. We took the cross and are following Emperor Barbarossa on his holy crusade."

Semiha snorted, and Arzu shot her a cautioning look. For once she held her tongue.

The youth, the Hart, cleared his throat. "I am Khazhak."

There was silence for a bit, and Arzu looked him over. Tanned skin, a firm, beaklike nose... "Armenian?" he asked.

"Yes."

"What do you do?"

"I... hunt."

"Ironic, that," said Bertmund. "A hart who hunts."

....

Like the others, the flesh gave like wax to a heated poker, and it took barely any effort at all to cut through the demon. Something about the steel made it vulnerable, that was his best guess. He cut it in two, then scooped up the thrashing halves and threw them out into the sunlight, ignoring the foul blood that sprayed over him.

Then he burst out into the light, and cast around, and sure enough, there was rustling near the hatch to the mosque's cellar. He started jogging that way, and immediately the rustling retreated.

The sword's bent again, he noted, and straightened it, moulding it like clay. But he was the son of a smith, and he knew that if he kept doing that, it would eventually snap. No matter how witched it was, metal was still metal. He didn't know what he'd do then. The creatures had stolen away the other weapons from his group while he was sleeping. There wasn't even a dinner knife left in the village.

....

Arzu lowered his blade. The Frank tried to sheathe his, couldn't get it to fit in his belt. The blade was so wrecked and bent, that it wouldn't slide in.

With a grimace, the Frank grabbed the blade and twisted it with a careless gesture, and Arzu heard gasps behind him as the blade bent back into shape.

"It's the metal here," the Frank explained. "They've witched it somehow."

Arzu sheathed his sword, took a cautious step forward, held out his hand. "No."

"No?" The Frank's relief turned to caution. "What do you..."

"I will do you no harm. Let me see that."

The Frank measured his face for a long moment, then offered the broken blade, hiltfirst. Arzu traced the marks of fingers pressed into the solid hilt, and nodded. He took the hilt, and carefully extended the blade to Bertmund.

"Bend this."

Bertmund wrapped a gloved hand around it, and tried. Grunts rose from both of them, as Arzu's arm shook, holding the hilt steady. Bertmund finally released it, and Arzu reversed his grip, offered it hiltfirst back to its owner.

"The metal is not witched," he told him. The wind sighed over the hills, as the Frank stood, uncomprehending.

....

Tahir took a deep breath, and stomped up to him, staring up into his eyes. The chubby chin trembled, and the kid brushed at brown curls, face reddening.

"What's wrong?" Gahmess dropped down, to the kid's height.

"I want to marry you!" Tahir blurted out.

Gahmess blinked.

"Ah. Well."

"I can cook!"

"Er."

"Please! I want to go with you and hunt lions and drive chariots and fight giants and-"

"Um. Given how this Allah fellow hates fun I'm pretty sure he frowns on men marrying."

"My name's not Tahir. It's Tahira."

"Which means what?" Gahmess scratched his ear.

"I'm a girl! Dad says I have to dress this way so slavers don't take me! I want to marry you and when I come of age I can bear you lots of sons! Seven or eight I'm sure!"

Gahmess rubbed his face. "Yes. See... you're ten, child. I'm not a Greek. "

"Please! I don't... I don't like it here." Gods, now her lip was quivering. "I don't get to do ANYTHING."

Gahmess sighed, and straightened up again. Maybe it was time to move on, after all. This was going to make things awkward. Still...

"Please don't go," Tahira whispered, and hugged his knees. "I... I want to hear more stories."

He sighed again. So few people did these days, and look at all the mess they were in.

She perked up when he stretched a hand down, and ruffled her hair. "Well," he said, deciding to take the easy way out. "Tell you what. Go ask your parents for permission, and if they say yes, we'll talk about an engagement. I can wait four or five years standing on my head." Not that your mother or father would ever agree to it. They'll talk sense into you.

"You promise?" She looked at him, face as fierce as only a young child's can be.

"Promise," he said, and that satisfied her. She ran, practically floating, back towards the camp.

....

"Sure. Where are the children?"

"They... They ordered... them taken to the... Ebon Manse."

"Ebon Manse... wait. Old black marble pillars? Disturbing ruin near a dry well full of bones? Odd feeling that something ancient and malevolent wants your intestines for a torc?"

"How... you know it?"

"Haven't been THERE for a while. Not since Tiamat got stroppy that one time... Well. Thank you, you've been quite helpful."

"Glory to Allah..."

"Somehow I don't think Allah would approve of you taking children to the Ebon Manse. Really don't get the impression that he's that kind of god, pork-phobia aside and all."

"We... We had to gather ten virgins..."

"Mm. Yep, that's Ebon Manse nonsense. Well, pretty sure I can find it from here." If nothing else, all I have to do is follow the trail they left behind.

A thought struck him. "I'm going to wager that's where my pack is, yes?"

"Pack?"

"Yes. Not much in it... A few odds and ends. Old bronze crown. You know, mementos."

"I... yes. The captain... claimed it."

"Well! He can't have that. He's no Kal," Gahmess said.

....

THAT threw the Astrologer for a loop. He blinked, and before he could shift his mind to the new paradigm, Faisal pressed on. "Performing this rite, scouring all of Anatolia with a demon of plagues, would be the worst possible treason. Dismantle it."

Reversal completed, and the guards were looking back and forth between him and the Astrologer, now. Faisal knew the Astrologer, he wouldn't have given them all the details. By showing more cards than the Astrologer had, he'd made them doubt their leader.

Now to seal the deal. He flicked his eyes toward Anwar, and the white-haired old soldier nodded, catching the cue.

Anwar cleared his throat."Take the prisoners and we'll leave this place. Back to the barracks, and a hot meal."

"Wait!" the Astrologer levelled his staff, and Faisal grinned to himself. Desperation in that voice. Time to end this.

"Enough." Faisal spread his arms, took a step foward. "Come on back to the Tower. We'll sort out an alternative that doesn't end with-"

The Astrologer's gaze snapped to Anwar. "In his garden are flowers, placed marking the hours, beautifully are they arrayed-"

Anwar's voice shook, as he answered. "-In the full of their bloom, is written God's doom, Kismet grinds down all, it is said."

What? Faisal took a step back. What was going on here?

Anwar sighed. "Sorry, my friend." He pulled his sword, aimed it towards Faisal. "Dead or alive?" He asked the Astronomer.

And then realization struck him. "The fucking Hashasheen?" Faisal roared. "You're a FUCKING ASSASSIN?"

....

"Ah. Yes," Faisal lied. He didn't know what Gahmess meant, but it seemed best to agree. Kal Gahmess, Kal Gahmess... wait, wasn't there an old story? With something like that name in it?

"Well. No matter." Gahmess took his hand away, and looked around at the carnage. "Tell you what, get the children and the womenclear of here, then come back and help me clean up all these bodies. More importantly, their blood. You can tell me what's going on after that's done."

"Blood?" Faisal shuddered, looking at the mess. "That's going to take hours," he whined. He was feeling the price for his earlier adrenaline. He was tired, his muscles ached, and he was feeling every pound that soft living had put on his frame.

"Best done before midnight," Gahmess said. "Otherwise this place will be swarming with hungry ghosts. Blood is power, you know. You don't want to leave a drop of the stuff in the wrong hands. Especially not when there's sorcery involved."

That tone brooked no disagreement, so Faisal left. The children followed him, as he wandered out of the Ebon Manse. Funny, but it no longer seemed so foreboding and menacing as it once had. Almost as if the very ruin was staying quiet, and hoping that the bronzed warrior at the heart of it didn't notice it was there.

Just like that, everything had changed. Faisal shook his head. "Kal Gahmess, Kal Gahmess..." he muttered, a time or two, sounding the word out. No, it was similar, but not quite-

Faisal stopped, so suddenly that the girl bounced off his rump, and sat down. She squawked angrily, but he ignored her as he slapped his palm to his face.

"All Praise to Allah," he whispered, seeing just how complicated life had become. "Gilgamesh."

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