A heavy pang of disappointment tugged at Nabu-sin’s heart. Memories of yesterday. The dreams of vengeance, the recurrent nightmares, and the deep-seated boiling fury hidden in the innermost chambers of his being all drove him to surpass everyone in studies at the temple complex. His carefully built preparations came crashing down that day of failure. Offered a task as an assistant curator at the temple’s archives, he accepted and bided his time to try again. Meanwhile, he saw his brethren ascend to acolyte status from being mere novitiates. He envied them as they told stories of their struggles against the dark. True, a few didn’t make it back from their journeys but to Nabu-sin, it was truly a real warrior’s life – fighting against the hordes of the darkness.
To ease the bitter pain in his troubled heart and soul, he studiously pored over countless ancient tracts of knowledge on demon lore in the temple’s archives. Until the time came when all that was left unread by him was behind an iron door. A repository of documents and artifacts dating back to the founding of the temple. As the years passed, he found himself reluctant to take the final ordeal once more. Another rejection would surely break him. But he deemed himself ready for the war against the darkness.
Then one day, his feet took him to the doors of the local branch of the guild of demon hunters. Accepted as a hunter of the fifth tier, he was apprenticed to an old man of the third rank. After some ventures, he regretfully realized he knew a lot more than the man about the subject. But the few tricks of the trade taught to him were welcome additions to his knowledge. He remembered his first solo hunt, a bizarre experience which bothered him up to this day. The three demon imps plaguing the merchant’s warehouse simply vanished upon catching sight of him. The act of returning of their plane of existence was not the issue. They were known to do that. What troubled him was the surprise and fright etched on their faces when they saw him.
His assigned mentor died a year after that incident. Taken by a cunning trap laid down by an elder demon who used a pair of edimmu as bait. Nothing was left of the man except the ox whip and one of his sandals. As the deceased hunter’s assistant, he was given the tool. He promptly modified it and had it magically prepared. He was not going to be trapped nor overpowered like the old man.
Slowly, his star in the guild started to rise. Despite entreaties, he refused to take on apprentices. He knew he was at his best when alone, facing the demons of the netherworld.
He went back to his horse, now watered and fed. The road looked to be a long one. Without a doubt, empty and abandoned villages will be a familiar sight before long. But Nabu-sin knew he would recognize the signs of a recent infestation when he comes across one. Then one of his magical scrolls will direct him to the source of the plague. There the hunter will know which will serve better, the whip or the sword now slung across his back. He didn’t fear the demonic fiends though he had learned caution when dealing with them. Hate was stronger than fear.
As he urged his horse forward, he suddenly realized that for some strange reason, his path always led east. Nabu-sin reflected on that curious fact. Jobs always appeared after he finished one. It may be a choice of two or even three well-paying tasks but they still made him travel further eastward. Fate or coincidence, he pondered. No matter, he finally decided. As long as he gets to dispose of the hellish vermin and continue his search for that one particular tribe which devastated his village, he couldn’t care less.
As the demon hunter continued his lonely trek, he noticed how surreal the journey was. Here he was, on the eastern Highway of the Kings, and yet not a soul to be seen. He passed abandoned guard towers, caravanserai, hamlets, and villages. Some appeared to have been left in a hurry, others in an organized manner. A forgotten pig or chicken could be found in some of the villages. A welcome addition to his dwindling rations.
And yet, his quest appeared to be far from over in the eastern plains. Forest animals could be seen and from time to time, contributed to his supplies. But with no time to prepare the meat, he was forced to consume them first. Nor was his sleep disturbed except once, when a pack of wolves tried to take their chances with him. Regretfully Nabu-sin had to leave the pelts behind, he couldn’t risk overburdening his horse.
Finally, at dusk of the tenth day, he reached the low foothills of the edge of the savannah. Beyond are the mountains bordering the shunned Death Lands. But nary a sign of his quarry. A small farmstead lay in the distance. Surprisingly, he saw a light in one of its windows. He urged his horse forward. A bed would be a welcome respite from the hard ground even if he had to face whatever demon awaited him in the small house.
Reaching the house, he got down and tied his horse to the fence. Checking himself, he loosened the holding strap of his sword sheath, readied the ox whip on his belt, and knocked on the door.
“Who is it?” came the query. A female. An old woman’s voice.
“Nabu-sin. Hunter. I come in peace, grandmother.”
“Of course, you are him. Who else would be traveling in these forsaken lands,” answered the old woman while unlocking the door. It took a while before all the locks were opened.
The door opened. An old woman stood before him, dressed in peasant garb, with a brown cloak wrapped around her. Her hair, tied at the back, was still black with a few graying strands. Her hand carried a lit candle.
“Took your time, didn’t you? Come in, come in. The cold outside is cruel to these old bones.”
To say that the demon hunter was surprised would be an understatement. He stood outside the door for a while, speechless.
“Well? Are you coming in or not?” finally asked the old woman.
“Of course, grandmother, and my thanks.”
“Oh, you’ve got a horse. And it took you this long to get here. What did you do? See the sights? Never mind. Get your horse inside the fence first and bring in what you need. I won’t be opening the door again. The draft is murder,” said the old woman and then she turned and went inside the interior of the house.
Nabu-sin did as she asked and brought his saddlebags, including the small round shield he kept tied to them. He never did have the opportunity to use it since he started on this dangerous but rewarding profession.
He placed his things in a corner and sat on a chair. The sword was on his lap and the ox whip was still loosened on his belt. Looking around, he saw he was in a small foyer. A receiving room for the dwelling. Considering the modest size of the structure, it must have only one bedroom.
The old woman came out, whispered a cantrip, and a magelight came to life, illuminating the small space. She was carrying a tray of food and a jug of water. He stood up and helped her.
“It’s your dinner,” she said, giving the food and pitcher to him. “Eat first. I’ll wait. I expect you have questions. My name is Anunit, a country healer and midwife. Not that there’s anybody around to heal now. The three villages around here were abandoned. Though since they were in a hurry, a lot of food was left behind.”
Nabu-sin started eating. His protective amulets didn’t raise any alarm about poison and magically treated food and drink. Even then, the powerful artifact which hung around his neck on a copper necklace would negate any such effects. A unique gift from his adoptive father, the priest who found and took care of him.
“We can talk while I am eating,” Nabu-sin offered. “I am still at a loss why you seem to expect me.”
“Ah, may Innana and Gula guide my speech and protect me. Let me see how to phrase this carefully. You are on a quest to determine what devilry plagues the land. Well, they’re a few miles from here. In a cave which can only be approached through a narrow chasm. Quite difficult to find without directions. I’ll give you a rough map in the morning.”
“Huh?” exclaimed the surprised hunter. He didn’t expect such a direct answer and solution to his quest.
“I know, I know. You’re surprised. Mystified. The hunter wishes to understand the baffling circumstances of the moment. But let me go back to the time the demon plague started. They’re demons. Of course, you know that. A vast and powerful tribe of the fiends. It started a few moons ago. They just appeared in this area. Starting killing hunters and killing inhabitants of isolated farms. Then they wiped out one village. The two other settlements immediately packed up and left.”
“But how about you?”
“I am protected by my amulets and other blessings. My goddesses didn’t abandon me. The demon plague passed me by. But as I was going to join the fleeing villagers, a tall, dark man appeared outside my fence. A vile being. Though extremely handsome, I must confess. A demon cloaked in human skin. And I mean that literally. He told me in no uncertain terms that I am not allowed to leave.”
“He said that?”
“I just told you, didn’t I? The demon, an elder one I assume from his demeanor and aura, said my house and its fence do protect me but once I get on the open road, they’ll tear me to pieces and feed me my flesh while I watch.”
“So you’re trapped here? And why did it want you to remain?” asked the bewildered Nabu-sin.
“He offered me a choice: remain and wait for the arrival of a great demon hunter. And in so doing, no demon will harm me even outside my house and its fence. True enough, I have not seen hair nor hide of those disgusting and abominable creatures. The other option was the one I told you about.”
“They were expecting me?”
“Yes. He even referred to you by name and your titles as known to demons. Scourge of the Dark, Demon-Killer, the Whip of Hate. Colorful names. You must have really hurt them. “
“I try to do my best,” replied Nabu-sin.
“All I have to do, according to that foul being, is wait for your arrival and point you in the right direction. They must be worried about you losing your way.”
“A trap then,” remarked the hunter.
“Of course, it is. Such an elaborate one too. That fiend told me it took them a long time to arrange matters to get you to come this way.”
Nabu-sin couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“The fiend said what?” The hunter exclaimed.
“You heard me, young man. No need to shout.”
“I am sorry, grandmother. It’s a shock to hear such a story.”
“Well, I would be shocked, frightened, and then curious if I were in your place. But you do remember demons never meant good for any human.”
“I do. I have been hunting them since a long time ago. Trying to find a particular tribe of the fiends.”
“Then you must have made an impression. With all the fancy titles and such a complicated scheme to get a mortal to come all this way to the borders of the Death Lands.”
“I will be prepared, grandmother. I swear I’ll hunt them all down while I still draw breath.”
“Shush, child. Oaths are not good for the soul. They tend to entangle us in confusing weaves. To our everlasting regret sometimes. Just rest and stay the night. I doubt if they’ll bother us. They’ll wait for you in that cave.”
It took a long time before the night took pity on Nabu-sin and closed his eyes. His dreams were troubled. Fantastic images of a hellish landscape swam through his wandering thoughts. A field of blackened ground fed by unearthly fires. The screams of lost souls were the chilling breezes that froze the bones. He looked at his body. It had a human shape though fully covered with dark armor of some sort. It was a cruel design, full of jagged protrusions and sharp angles. Even the gauntlets ended in clawed tips. He knew he had a great broadsword sheathed at his back.
Through narrow eye slits, he saw the far horizon and knew it was Kurnugia. The land where the Death goddess Ereshkigal reigned.
But he was not in the land of the dead. Deep inside Nabu-sin was the knowledge that he was in the bleak and damned lands between Kurnugia and the world of the living. A vast and unholy place where one finds demons and vile creatures.
A faint slithering sound to his right caught his attention. It was akin to sibilant music coming from a host of snakes. The light tapping sounds which accompanied it shortly became the noise of the deluge of rushing creatures. In the distance, he spied a scurrying mass of shapes.
Through the murky air, he could see numerous forms with horns and fangs of all sizes and configurations. A multitude of iridescent white, emerald, crimson, and ebony eyes with no pupils stared in his direction. The nightmarish creatures ran, hopped, crawled, flew, and slithered towards him. They filled the horizon. He drew his sword.
“Good morning, hunter? I trust you slept well?”
The voice of the old woman woke him up. The light was already pouring through the small window as the brightness chased his nightmare away. Even as he tried holding on to the details of the dream, it faded from his.memory like morning mist before the rising sun. But a clammy feeling remained.
“Just a bad dream, grandmother. And thank you,” Nabu-sin said as he received the offered washbasin from the old woman.
“Huh. If you slept well after what I told you last night, I would have deemed you stupid or crazy. Maybe both.”
“The sun is up and hunting awaits,” he replied.
“Young men. All in a hurry to fame, fortune, or death. Eat your fill first, hunter, and here’s your map. Walk due north from the gate. Straight onward for three leagues and then you’ll arrive at the outskirts of a forest. Don’t worry, it’s just a small one. More of a novice lumberjack’s delight. Then follow the map.”
A few hours later, Nabu-sin found himself at a small opening between two basaltic walls, the sheer sides of two of the mountains which braced the forest. He carried a small food sack and a waterskin. In addition to his usual arms and armor, his shield now hung from his back and his leather shoes sported a dirk each. Fortunately, the hidden cleft was just wide enough to admit him.
A few moments of pushing past narrow gaps were the only issues he had while passing through the opening. It did have a few twists and turns along the restricted path but he made it through. As he stood on the other side, a faint dirt track led down to a deep and gloomy chasm.
Nabu-sin took a drink out of the waterskin. After washing his face with some of the water, the hunter felt better as he drew his sword, held the small round shield on the left arm, and cautiously moved forward. Downwards towards the shadows of the yawning abyss.
Nabu-sin looked around as he slowly advanced. It was preternaturally still. The temperature was starting to be bone-freezing cold the closer he got to the defile even though the sun was shining brightly in its mid-morning glory. A feeling of dread came over him.
Nabu-sin shook the fear off though he had to admit this hunt was the strangest he had experienced. A faint odor of rotting meat, brimstone, and a dash of the nastiest sewer wafted from the dark chasm. Closer to the entrance to the rocky crevice, he noticed that the sunlight stopped a few feet in the darkness of the opening. It was as if a solid barrier prevented it from penetrating further.
What else did I expect? It’s a demon hunting job after all, he grimly told himself with an inward laugh. Grasping his sword and shield firmly, he started to walk down and passed the impenetrable border blocking the sun’s cleansing light.
He was engulfed by the gloom, eyesight affected by the sudden change. He stopped and blinked his eyes quickly, trying to adjust. Slowly, his vision returned and found himself in a place not of the world where he came. The nauseatingly charnel smell got worse.
It was a bleak, distorted, and hellish landscape. Fires erupted at regular intervals from fissures in the ground, and the dreary sunless surrounding exacerbated the fear and apprehension creeping up on him again. The sky was dark, streaked by falling flaming meteors. Patches of dark gray clouds smeared the monochrome horizon. A dim whitish illumination suffused the place, which at least enabled him to see where he was standing.
The demon hunter saw he was on the bottom of a small mound. He looked back and saw that the way he came in was not there anymore. He cursed violently. A trap, his mind told him. They really want to get rid of him.
He noticed his armor and weapon have changed. Gone were the whip, his sword, and the armor he wore. In its place was the bizarre ebony full-scale plate of his dream. The greatsword was now on his back and his small shield replaced by a large one, of a curved half-moon design, also black and with the same jagged and sharp protrusions as his armor. Despite its size, the protective attire felt light, organic somehow. It was definitely not of any metal he knew.
Such elaborate arrangements for a mortal hunter even if he does hunt demons, he thought. Should I be flattered? And this inexplicable change in attire and weapons?
Anyway, if there’s a way in, then there should be a way out, Nabu-sin reassured himself. He walked forward, senses on battle mode. The strange land was empty of creatures, not even an animated skeleton. He came to the top of a low hill, his footsteps leaving their mark on the chalky black ground. Below him was a vast plain which continued to reflect the brooding monotony of the landscape. Only the occasional ripples of erupting fire from the numerous fissures and the barren petrified trees in the distance added color and variation. He stood there for a while, assessing his options and the changes he had witnessed.
Suddenly, the horizon filled with shapes. The same ones he saw in the dream, frighteningly vivid details of which came rushing back to him. Must be demons, the errant thought crossed his mind. I hope they’re of the tribe I am seeking.
The flying, crawling, running, and slithering shapes all rushed him with great speed. Nabu-sin stood on the lonely hill, readied his shield, and drew his sword. He examined it as he held it with one hand. An unexpectedly light weapon for its size, he observed. The demon hunter could see unfamiliar runes and symbols etched along the length of the blade. The weapon glowed faintly with an eldritch light.
He waited, seeing no sense in rushing to meet the horde. Finally, as the leading demons reached a distance of thirty feet from him, the front row stopped. The following ranks continued to arrive but Nabu-sin could see them arranging themselves into ordered rows. Massive versions of the creatures remained at the back. He couldn’t make sense of some of the huge monsters. Each was covered with a swirling, murky fog and the appearance of each creature changed from time to time. But always an apparition from one’s worst nightmares. Horns, fangs, tentacles, in a multitude of designs and arrays, marked the fiends even when morphing from one form to another. Finally, the host stopped moving. They filled entire plain and their unholy silhouettes adorned the distant horizon. Deathly quiet reigned.
Suddenly a soundless tear in the air opened above Nabu-sin. A tall man, dressed in a simple white robe, stepped out and remained floating in the air. He was a handsome young man, with fair skin and glowing green eyes. His long hair was kept in place by a plain white metal headband and long curls flowed down his back. He smiled at the demon-hunter.
(To be continued)
Innana – A Sumerian goddesses. Later worshipped as the goddess Ishtar.
Gula – A Sumerian/Babylonian goddess whose domain included healing and medical practices.