Friday, February 25, 2011
Hey there. If you didn't get about enough blood and butchery in Part One, here's Part Two, with the goriest movies ever!
11.Swordsman 2, 1992, Director: Ching Siu Tung
Ching Siu Tung (he's going by the name Tony Ching Siu Tung these days), is flat out one of the great action directors of all time. He's as good as Yakima Canutt, Terry Leonard, Vic Armstrong, Yuen Woo Ping, any of those guys, which is very high praise. Now, he does something different than a Hollywood stunt gaffer; he's Mr. Wirework, among other things, and he specializes in fantasy stuff. He's perfectly at home doing bone-crunching fights and crashes, etc, but the effects that he's chiefly known for are flawless flying-through-the air things with fluttering robes---think of the action scenes in Hero and House of Flying Daggers; both movies were basically co-directed by him. Ang Lee should've had him do the honors in Crouching Tiger...Yuen Woo Ping really isn't the guy for that real real beautiful stuff, although he's just the man for something like Kill Bill.
Now as I said, Mr. Ching is a master of cinematic fantasy...and when it comes to fantastic ultraviolence, he's completely in a realm of his own. If you were going to make live-action a Samurai Cat movie, Ching Siu Tung would be the guy to direct it. His films give you craziness teetering on lunacy balanced just barely on hallucination. All you've got to do is look at some of the work he did for Stephen Chow, like the action scenes in Royal Tramp Part One. People talk about live action cartoons, but they don't mean it...way back in the dim dim eighties and early nineties,Ching was accomplishing the most amazing unreal visuals without the aid of digital effects. It's all practical stuff. And while sometimes it doesn't work, the results are awe-inspiring when they do. Especially when he's putting his peculiar genius to work on high-flying swordplay and splatter.
If you look at a lot of the of Hong Kong New Wave classics, his name shows up again and again. He was the action director on Peking Opera Blues, Better Tomorrow 2, and The Killer; (John Woo's bullet-ballets owe a lot to him, I suspect), and Ching directed Chinese Ghost Story ; operating under producer/impresario Tsui Hark, he sure got a shitload of good work done. And in 1992, he turned out one of his definitive masterpieces, a dreamy, rapturous sexy gender-bender bloodfest called Swordsman 2, which is maybe the definitive Brigitte Lin movie.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Brigitte, she was the reigning demi-goddess cross dresser of the HK New Wave; I'm not sure, exactly, why she struck Chinese moviegoers as so mannish, because she looks pretty girly to me, but she was sure in a lot of things where she got into male drag and butchered loads of people. And she was unarguably pretty damn charismatic. Well, in Swordsman 2, she plays Asia the Invincible, the crazed leader of the Sun-Moon sect, a southern Chinese (down by Vietnam, I guess) martial arts cult dedicated to throwing out the those damn Ming Dynasty folks. Aided by Japanese ninja-pirates, she's raising all kinds of hell; into this situation comes Ling (Jet Li), who's the leader of a small troop of martial artists who want to retire from the world and get drunk every night and sing a great song called "Hero of Heroes" till the sun comes up. Jet wants to stop of and pay one last visit to poor Ying (Rosamund Kwan), a Sun-Moon member who's on the outs with Asia. Asia's imprisoned her father, Wu, you see...Wu was the former Sun-Moon leader. As a favor to Ying, Ling goes to see if he can't free her dad...he falls for Asia, not knowing that Asia's got a very strange secret...he's imprisoned, frees himself and Wu through a clever use of rats, and sets up the final third of the movie, which is a cornucopia of deranged Ching Siu Tung bloodshed. Ling and his buds join the Sun-Moon rebels and go after Asia; Wu wanders about liberally applying "Essence Absorbing Stance" which can shrink people into little balls, or suck their heads off their shoulders...Asia flies around tearing hearts out and blowing guys up in midair and riddling people with flying needles...body parts rain from the skies while a cute little martial-arts girl named Blue Phoenix stuffs her mouth with severed snake-parts and spews out mouthfuls of corrosive venom. Ultimately, the folks we're rooting for (sort of) wind up invading Asia's headquarters...Uncle Wu is pinned to a wall with needles even as he sucks a torrent of blood out of Asia with Essence Absorbing Stance...and so on and so forth.
Movie might inspire a whole lot of "Huh? What the fuck?" from someone not familiar with Hong Kong nuttiness...even for someone like yours truly, who watches a lot of these things, it's confusing. Supposedly, it's a sequel to Swordsman 1, but none of the leads from the first film return, and there are a whole lot of characters that weren't introduced in 1, even though the film acts as though you should be familiar with them. About the only things that are clearly carried over from 1 to 2 are the southern setting, snakes, and Hero of Heroes. However, if you can tolerate the mystifying nature of the proceedings, it's well worth the effort...the story kind of sorts itself out about midway through...you really do owe it to yourself to experience Brigitte Lin at the height of her form.
And last but not least, there's Essence Absorbing Stance1
12. Dead Alive, 1992, Director: Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson's sure had an amazing career. You look at his early stuff---don't get me wrong, I really got a huge kick out of it---and it's pretty hard to see how he ever wangled the Lord of the Rings gig. Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles (my favorite early Jackson), and Dead Alive were all heavy-duty hoots, but they sure weren't anything like Tolkien. Even Heavenly Creatures, which was grade-a critic bait, wasn't Middle Earth-type critic bait. The Frighteners did show that his team could handle impressive special effects on a zilch budget; so there's that. But I sure would've liked to have been a fly on the wall when he made his pitch to those guys at New Line over LOTR. The man must truly be able to talk a blue streak.
Now, if I'd been one of those New Line execs, and I'd seen Bad Taste or Dead Alive, I wouldn't have let Jackson in the parking-lot, let alone the door. I mean, I personally would've admitted him, because I'd have a lot to talk about with him, but, Hollywood suit material I am not. And something like Dead Alive is so outside the mainstream that Jackson should've been roundly rejected by Tinseltown's immunity system.
True, he had been getting money from the cinematic establishment in New Zealand, the NZ Film Commission, or whatever it is...but I guess he must've used the same peculiar magic on them. I do wonder if he explained that, with Dead Alive, he was planning to make the single goriest movie ever. If so, my hat is off to them. He sure did open the spigots, the floodgates, Hell, he blew up the dam. It's a wonder New Zealand didn't sink.
Story is a cautionary tale about Sumatran Rat Monkeys, and having a mother. A couple of explorers from NZ invade a particularly nasty patch of wilderness (it seems to be the wierdly-eroded area where they filmed the Paths of the Dead Stuff in Return of the King), looking for the fabled primate-rodent, a cross between monkeys, well, and rapist rats. One of the scientists gets bitten...his buddies chop his infected arm off, then see that he's been wounded in the head, and kill him. They then take the monkey to New Zealand, and it winds up in the Wellington zoo.
It's 1957, and momma's boy Lionel (Timothy Balme)is smitten by Paquita (Diana Penalver)...his mom (Elizabeth Moody) disapproves, and follows them to the zoo, where she gets chawed on by the monkey. From this point on, Lionel's life becomes a bizarre balancing act, as he keeps romancing Paquita and tries to take care of his mother, who's becoming a zombie. Additional folks are infected---mom bites some, others get the virus from pus that squirted into some pudding. Determined to maintain a facade of normality, Lionel hides the victims downstairs, but even though he whacks them up with big doses of tranquilizer, things spiral more and more out of control. Evil relatives discover the zombies and threaten to tell if Lionel doesn't turn over his property...he acquiesces, decides to poison the zombies...evil Uncle Les and co. throw a housewarming party for themselves.
But the poison's revealed as a stimulant, the invigorated zombies burst from their graves and rip into the guests, and soon there seem to be hundreds of undead...the film becomes an almost indescribable orgy of zombie violence. Really, truly, as I said in my Top Ten Zombie movie list, the film is not only the goriest movie ever made, it's probably gorier than every other movie ever made combined. There's a scene with an upended lawnmower that would wash Ogami Itto, Hanzo the Razor and Lady Snowblood right the fuck back to Japan. If you're a relatively normal individual, you probably won't quite believe that our little world could contain a movie this gory. I'm not saying it's sound storytelling, mind you...but it has the courage of its convictions.
You'll need a schnorkel. Hell, you'll need an aqualung.
Lothlorien it's not.
Wouldn't it be something, though, if Jackson took a similar approach with that new Hobbit film? It turns out that that's what Bilbo Baggins hates? All those rivers of blood? I know I'd sure be confusticated and bebothered...
13.Full Contact, 1992, Director: Ringo Lam
Here's another Hong Kong violent classic that was spurned by the home audience....I don't know why. It's got a fantastic cast, Chow Yun Fat's best haircut, a great Teddy Robin Kwan score, a memorable blast of ultraviolence every four or five minutes or so, and a fantastic poster with Chow astride a truly mandom chopper. Oh yeah, it was directed by Ringo Lam, the guy who Tarantino ripped off for Reservoir Dogs, who happens to be the single finest purveyor of mayhem that the HK new wave ever produced. He also put Chow Yun Fat to better use than anyone else, pace John Woo. His films are, in general, much meaner than Woo's, lacking in lyricism, making up for that with blunt brutality and macho behavior that doesn't seem like mere posturing...actually, if you showed me Bullet in the Head and I didn't know who made it, and you asked me to guess, I would've said it was Ringo Lam. He's kind of the Robert Aldrich of Hong Kong, and Hard Boiled is his single meanest crime flick.
Right up front, during a jewelry-store robbery in Bangkok, we're introduced to the bad guys. Judge(Simon Yam) is a flamboyant homosexual with penchant for sadism and startling magic tricks; Deano (Frankie Chan Chi-Leung) is a giant stupid mass of muscle, and his girlfriend Virgin (Bonnie Fu) is an idiotic but extremely sexy slut you flashes her underwear at cowering store-clerks and asks them, "What color is it?" Judge gets hold of a female clerk, asks her where the golden Buddhas are, and and without even waiting for her to answer, springs a hideout blade and plunges it into her shoulder. When some cops arrive on the scene, Deano, who's waiting outside with the car, picks up an M-16 and blasts a lot of exit wounds out their backs. Buddhas in hand, the gang peels out, rubber shrieking...cut to Mona, (Annie Bridgewater), doing some flashdance type gyrating in a sleazy but not-too-sleazy club, as the opening credits roll and some of that Teddy Robin music pulsates...the Full Contact logo, with its garish winged rose, is particularly sharp.
Turns out Mona's in love with Geoff(Chow Yun Fat), who's the no-nonsnese bouncer at the club...he gets a call about his friend Sam (the great Anthony Wong) who's always getting into trouble, and has done it again. Geoff, bristly flat-top and all, mounts his hog and goes to rescue him from gangsters, who refuses to give Geoff face...Geoff just has to slice his way through the goons with his bali-song, but he's really made some enemies in the process. Geoff and Sam and Mona decide they'd better get the hell out of Dodge, blow back to Hong Kong. But they need a grubstake...Sam puts Geoff in touch with his cousin, who's planning an arms robbery. The cousin turns out to be Judge; sparks fly between Geoff and Judge, who instantly develops a wierd love-hate thing with him; Judge decides to double-cross him after the robbery.
We get to this point real quick...the film is extremely efficient. The robbery isn't that interesting, just one of those things, but the aftermath is a very wild ride...a buddy of Geoff's takes a bullet in the face from Judge...after a car chase, Geoff winds up mixing it with Judge, who uses that hideout blade to cut three fingers from Geoff's right hand before Judge's reinforcements arrive in the form of Deano and Virgin. Gripping his mangled hand, Geoff takes refuge in a shanty...Judge sends Sam in to kill him and prove his loyalty to the gang. Sam shoots Geoff somewhere non-lethal, then comes out acting like he did the trick...already burning,the shanty blows up behind him when a propane-cannister goes. But inside the building, a young girl is getting fearfully disfigured by the fire.
Geoff saves her, slips off in one of those long bangkok canal-boats, sojourns for a bit acquiring Buddhist wisdom from some monks, sees to the girl's medical treatment, rehabilitates himself with weight-lifting, and learns to shoot with his left hand. Then he heads to Hong Kong, where Sam is in snug with Judge, and Mona, who thinks, of course, that Geoff got killed in the robbery...
Geoff functions more and more as some sort of Buddhist avenger fellow...I didn't realize that the Buddha set such great store by blowing people brains out, but Ringo Lam seems to think it's grade-a Mahayana. In one of the film's most iconic images, we see Geoff sitting on his chopper in a tunnel, with a great big Buddhist swastika on the wall behind him.
Confronting Sam and making him feel like a real shitheel for betraying him (although not forgiving him at all), Geoff finds out about the ice-factory where Judge has cached his arms; in a gory assault, involving bali-songs, ice-hooks, guns, and exploding CO2 tanks, Geoff and Sam steal the guns. This leads to an even bloodier shootout at the nightclub where Mona works doing rather improbable musical numbers; we get the scene that inspired that bullets-crashing tip-to-tip bit from The Shadow, and a slug's eye-view shot of a bullet going into a guy's eye and out the back of his head. Afterwards, suspecting that Virgin must've have told Sam where the arms cache was, Judge shots her in the head right in front of Deano, who's so stupid that he doesn't even do anything to retaliate.
Sam's been wounded...Geoff makes it abundantly clear to him that they're really not jake in his book...Sam winds up with Geoff's wierd little dog. Geoff is more inclined to let bygones be bygones with Mona, but not before he goes on to the film's big climax, in which a dozen cars full of arms get blown up in Judge's face, Geoff blows away a bunch of Judge's men from his motorcycle, Deano gets shot in the foot, then in the head, Geoff gets shot in the chest and loses a couple more fingers to Judge's knife, and then Judge gets Geoff's bali-song through the wrist and a bullet in the throat. For a few seconds it looks as though Geoff's going to succumb to that chest wound, but no...turns out he had a Buddha medallion that absorbed most of the brunt. So I guess Buddha was happy with this all along. Oh well, if we can buy Dirty Harry as a Christ symbol, we might as well buy Geoff here as a monument to Buddhism. And really, vengeance makes for more kinetic cinema than forgiveness, doesn't it?
Of course,I'm no one to complain.
14. Burning Paradise, 1994, Director Ringo Lam
The second Ringo Lam flick on this list, and my personal favorite Lam movie ever. As I said on the villains list (where the chief bad guy from this had a prominent place), I really hated Temple of Doom, but if it had been a great movie, it would've been Burning Paradise. Paradise is everything Doom isn't---fast, smart, intensely vicious, and wonderfully atmospheric. It looks like it cost way more (it was the most expensive HK movie made up till that point), and it's got an actual philosophy...that bad guy I mentioned is absolutely one for the books.
Story is a variation on a standard Shaolin legend, the Burning of the Red Lotus temple, and it features two bigtime Chinese martial arts heroes, Fong Sai Yuk and Hung Hei Kwan. The movie opens with the evil Qing dynasty forces suppressing the Shaolin monks, burning their monastery, torching their books, beheading the baldies themselves...Shaolin student Fong Sai Yuk (Willie Chi) is on the run with his abbot. There's a bunch of jolting slaughter right at the beginning---Qing henchman Crimson (John Ching) is after our boys with a huge circular beheado-blade on a wire, that he uses to clip the heads off horses...the scene of one poor nag stumbling around with its head matted away is pretty amazing. On foot, Fong retaliates by chopping a Manchu in half with his massive saber, the bastard riding off with his lower half still in the saddle, blood squirting---quite impossibly, since his heart was removed with the upper half of his body--- up from his hips! Fong snatches a horse, and we're on the run again.
Fong and the abbot elude the baddies and hide in a hut, where they meet cute little Tou-Tou (Carmen Lee). There's some dumb comedy, but it's back to killing in the morning...hundreds of Qing troops surround the house, the Abbot is felled by artillery, then stabbed by Crimson, and Fong and Tou-Tou are brought to the Red Lotus Temple, where the film takes off at a steep angle and never stops jetting into the stratosphere. The temple, you see, is a trap-infested prison for Shaolin monks, run by the demented Master Kung, who's the Buddhist equivalent of a satanist...it having sunk in that he was getting old, he requested(!) the post as warden, because he figured he could only keep his mind off his own mortality by inflicting giant doses of torture and rape on other people. Also, he's an artist; his paintings really suck, but they're extremely unpleasant, and his underground realm is one of the most infernal movie visions ever...it seems to have been the chief inspiration for Chris Lee's Isengard digs in LOTR.
Some of the Shaolin monks, including Fong, challenge Master Kung right off the bat, and are dispatched in front of everybody, by a number of traps and strategies...Fong finds himself in single combat with his old erstwhile buddy, Hung Hei Kwan, who seems to have gone over to the enemy...when Fong gets past Hung, he hurls an iron spike, hits master Kung, and seems to impale him, only to have Kung pull the spike out and hurl it back, pinning him to the wall by the thigh. In a mega-scream inducing moment, Fong upends, hanging from from the missile through his flesh.
Tout-Tou is subjected to a disquisition on Kung's extremely disturbing world-view, then gets raped, but not before Kung rips the head off a serving-girl who blunders in...Fong gets tossed into a pit full of vapor-emitting corpses...he's allowed to live, but only to have a rematch with Hung Hei-Kwan on a platform surrounded by spikes. But it turns out that Hung has merely pretended to change sides, in order to find out where all the trap are...the two join forces and lead a Shaolin revolt!
But boy, the temple is full of traps, and the good guys are bottled up in no time...Fong and Hung find themselves hunted like rats through the catacombs, meeting the damnedst stuff, poison gas, doors that swing shut and cut people in half, chambers full of Kung's pickled onetime concubines (he soaks them in red fluid to make them "perfect") and blasphemous statues mocking the Buddha, that spit bullets at you if you're foolish enough to light the incense and try to get a prayer off. It's one damn ting after another...the pace doesn't flag...the invention just keeps mounting. Ultimately our guys blow the powder magazine, and the place starts to come to bits; led by a freed Shaolin cleric, a bunch of prisoners tangle with the bullet-spitting Buddha, then are exhorted by the abbot to get down and pray a second time, after planting gunpowder behind the image to blow down a wall. Fong and Hung confront Master Kung, who attacks them with lethal flying paint drops and generally beats the crap out of them, until the Buddha-statue blows up, and one of its fists comes flying down the corridor, striking master Kung and splattering him into one of his own fucked-up pictures.
Whew. And...I've even left out a bunch of stuff.
Yet again, another HK movie that wasn't well-received in its hometown. It's thunderously effing wonderful, however, like God's idea of a Fu Manchu movie, take my word on it.
15. Braveheart, 1995, Director, Mel Gibson
Ah, 1995...those were happier times for Mel Gibson and his fans. I used to like the man, and his movies...still like the latter, although I wasn't a huge fan of The Passion. But Braveheart is one of his best, and it holds up quite well...why, just last night, I was channel-surfing about, and ran into the Battle of Stirling, and sixteen years hadn't diminished it one bit. If only Mel would get the bottle out his mouth and his dick back in his pants!
The movie infuriated the Brits, and in truth Mel never liked them. They really hate the Brits Downunder, and not just because British toilet water goes a different way round. In Australia, everyone knows that Brits sent everybody's unjustly convicted ancestor to Australia, and then killed everyone's great-great-grandaddy at Gallipoli. It's no wonder that you get violent righteous Aussie patriots like Ned Kelly and William Wallace...
Scratch that. Wallace was a proto-Aussie from Scotland, I know, I know. In case you're not familiar with the story, Wallace was a Scots leader who resisted Edward Longshanks' expansion into Scotland long about the time that everyone was switching from chain to plate armor. Now Mel takes a lot of liberties with the history, in order to make his version a better story...for one thing he puts all the badness on the English and makes the Scots seem rather more primitive than they would've been...a lot of the costumes are quite off...and the French princess that Willy Wallace gets involved with was about three years old at the time the movie is set. Still, you really comes to hate those English buggers, and Edward most of all---he's very well played by Patrick McGoohan, who nearly made my villains list---and all the Scots are game lads and very engaging, although the most engaging Scot turns out to be an Irishman named Stephen (David O'Hara), who should get more screentime.
Also, the action scenes are extremely well done. The stunt director was Mic Rodgers, who later went on to work with Mel in Apocalypto...man knows his business. In most medieval flicks, when it comes to the fighting, people generally don't look like they're really trying to kill each other. There have been some movie where they did a good job on the hack and slash stuff---Yakima Canutt's work on The Warlord was very impressive, and the climactic swordfight in The Vikings was quite good---but mostly, medieval fights have been listless bores. It hasn't changed much, either.
Braveheart was something else entirely. The stuff at Stirling, where the horses go charging into the chiltrons, is extremely well realized, making expert use of that fake animal technology that was developed for the buffaloes in Dances with Wolves...we're absolutely convinced that we just saw a bunch of poor horsies run onto sixteen-foot long spears. When the infantry from both sides crash together, they really crash together. Everyone looks like they're trying to murder each other, they're really swinging for the bleachers, and the recipients of blows really look like they're getting clocked. There's quite a bit of splatter..hands are hacked off, daggers go into eyes and out the back of heads, war-picks bury themselves in helmet-crowns and blood rivers over faces...battle ends with Mel chopping the legs out from under one of those very convincing fake horses and then decapitating an English commander.
Film gets less good after that...one of the reasons I prefer Rob Roy to Braveheart is that it doesn't peak in the middle, but saves its best action sequence for the very end. Braveheart remains pretty good, though...the other battle scenes aren't as nifty as Stirling, but they're well done...you come to hate Longshanks more and more. The romance between Wallace and the french princess is ridiculous, but...I like looking at Sophie Marceau. And Wallace's vendetta against the Scots lairds who betray him is a lot of ghastly fun, particularly the scene where Wallace rides into the one jerk's bedroom and crushes his head with a big iron ball at the end of a chain. The obligatory medieval/ancient flammable material scene is ludicrous (just what is that flammable stuff, anyway?), but at least you get some very intense fire gags.
Apparently, the movie was cut pretty extensively to secure an r-rating. Boy, I would love to see the gory version. Mel should rouse himself from whatever alcoholic anti-semitic stupor he's in, and put together a proper unrated Blu-Ray.
16. Saving Private Ryan, 1998, Director, Stephen Spielberg
Stephen Spielberg is a brilliant film-maker, but he's got some profound shortcomings. His chief strength is action set pieces and special effects direction, but he seems to think that he's a real judge of characterization and screenwriting...well, he just ain't. His ideas on screenwriting are completely and awfully doctrinaire, and Saving Private Ryan is an infuriating demonstration, oddly self-refuting. What's great about it is the action stuff, and that undermines the rest something awful. I'll show you what I mean.
The opening sequence, where Tom Hanks's guys storm Omaha Beach, is just textbook film-making. It's the best WWII battle that's ever been in a movie. It's so harrowing that you wish it would stop. It scares you out of your wits. It shows you stuff that you always suspected that other war movies were sparing you, miracles of bad taste, and it's full of details, like the sound of the bullets clanging from metal obstacles, that I don't think I ever heard in a movie before. It goes on for about twenty-five minutes, and it's so compelling that it doesn't seem to be a movie.
SPR settles down and just turns into something rather like just another war flick. You get characterization. You get Oscar clips. You get tension in the squad. Every doggie gets his four minutes of screentime and back story. Does any of it amount to a hill of beans? Hell no. The only character we care about is Barry Pepper's sniper, and that's because we see him do what he does, which is intrinsically interesting. Oh, and we're sorta interested in Vin Diesel, but just because he's interesting as an actor and was new then. Otherwise, we just get a bunch of scenes that are episodic and don't go anywhere. Probably this has to do with the basic nature of the story...which doesn't seem to be very much like any actual WWII story I ever heard of. Guys coming ashore at Omaha, yeah. Guys dispatched, in the opening days of an invasion, directly behind enemy lines to find and save Private Ryan because all his brothers have been killed...well, how often would that happen?
Moreover, the stuff after the landing is just flattened like a pancake by the landing itself. Even though Spielberg clearly feels we need backstories and Oscar clips in order to care about our boys, he's just demonstrated conclusively that you don't. Those guys in the landing crafts...you don't know them from Adam, unless they happen to be played by some actor you recognize. You know why you care? Because they're our guys, and the Germans are trying to kill them. That's right, holy cow, what's interesting about war movies is the war. This crap about backstories and tensions inside the squad...why should we care about that, or what Tom Hanks did as a civilian, if the film-maker does a good job on the Germans trying to kill you?
Consider War of the Worlds. Spielberg thought that was a good script. His direction was frequently great, but the script stank. Here we are, being invaded by Martians, for God's sake, and we need to suffer through a lot of dysfunctional family shit in order for there to be sufficient drama. Time we could be spending running away from Martian war machines is blown on little kids bickering with each other, and Tom Cruise reforming and becoming a responsible dad. As Morrie from Goodfellas would say, Screw that! Screw it in the ear!
Okay then, after the landing, Saving Private Ryan goes into a great big slump, although it recovers its mojo in the final third, when Hanks' troop actually finds private Ryan, and we have reason to believe we're heading for a great big finish. True, we have a Matt Damon Oscar clip (Matt DAY-mon!); and we do have the discussion of what Edith Piaf is saying, which I thought was rather funny. But then the action kicks in big-time again, and Spielberg is back in his element. The climax isn't as hair-raising as the landing scene, but it's a pretty fine hold-the-fort thing, with our boys facing off against a Tiger Tank (it appears to be the same T-34 mockup--with the Liebestandarte key---they used in Kelly's Heroes)), a self-propelled gun, an anti-aircraft piece that's being wheeled around by hand, and a horde of SS badasses. Spielberg appears to have studied huge amounts of actual combat footage and photos, and he trots his knowledge out to excellent effect. There's a lot of sharp, memorable slaughter, particularly surrounding the Tiger, which throws a tread...one moment, the Americans are swarming all over it, the next they're being blown literally to pieces by the anti-aircraft gun. A Jewish soldier dies horribly in a very personal knife-fight with an SS bastard which you think the Jewish guy's going to win, well, because he's the Jewish guy...nope. Barry Pepper gets up in a belfry and snipes the living daylight out of the Germans (even at a long distance, we see little splish-splashes burst out of them) until the self-propelled gun gets his number. Tom Sizemore get shot and dies, though not before hurling his helmet at some krauts and denouncing them sulfurously...Hanks lives long enough to see the village reinforced, then croaks.
The very end is no good, in precisely the same sort of way that Liam Neeson's breakdown at the end of Schindler's List didn't make it. Over in Bollywood, they have a word to describe things that you only get in movies, and it's filmi. At the beginning of SPR, in a gigantic cheat, we had Matt Damon's character, as an old man, flashback to the Normandy Landings, which he wasn't at, since he was Airborne. At the end, his character flash-forwards to a military cemetery where he breaks down and starts going on about not being worthy of all the sacrifices that were made to save him...I didn't buy it for a moment. The fact is, when Spielberg is off, it's just made that much more blindingly obvious by the moments when he's on.
17.Musa, 2001, Director:Sung Soo-Kim
Splatter aside, this is probably my favorite period movie since Rob Roy. It's very much unlike most swordplay spectaculars from the far east---it takes its historical responsibilities extremely seriously, much more so than most western films, even. The costumes and period details are fairly dead-on, and there's a genuine appreciation of the actual attitudes you might encounter---you get running arguments between a failed Confucian scholar and a truculent Buddhist monk, for example. Also, when it comes to the action, there's a complete absence of fluttering robes and flying through the air. Now, I enjoy that sort of biz myself, but I also like action that's meatier and grittier---and Musa provides that in spades. It also has a bunch of things that I'd always wanted to see in a medieval sword slinger, and other things that I hadn't even thought of.
The film, which I believe was edited together from a TV series, is set in China at the end of the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty, and the founding of the Ming. The barbarians are being driven out into the wasteland; the Koreans, (Korean was called Koryo back then) have been under the domination of the Mongols, and they send an embassy to the new capital, Nanking, to make contact with the new dynasty. But because the Koreans had such close ties to the Mongols, the Chinese suspect them, and the Koreans are branded as spies and shipped off to the wastes of central Asia.
There they have a spot of luck...the Chinese guarding them are massacred by a Mongol raiding party, but the barbarians let the Koreans go. Led by general Choi Jung (Jin Mo Ju), the Koreans decide to trek all the way back to Korea across the desolation. But Choi Jung still wants to carry out his mission---that is to say, ingratiate the Korean delegation with the Ming. Even after the ambassador dies out in the desert, Choi Jung pursues this line of thought, and when the Koreans stumble into a desert cantonment, he sees an opportunity...the Mongol general Rambulhua comes through with a captured Ming princess (Zhang Zhiyi, at her bitchiest) and Choi Jung falls in love with her and decides to snatch her and present her to the new Chinese government. This sets in motion a whole series of vicious, beautifully-staged action scenes, everything complicated by the fact that the princess couldn't care less about Choi-Jun, and actually has the hots for Yeo-sol (Sung Soo-Kim from Good the Bad and the Wierd, and Reign of Assassins), the dead ambassador's slave, who's a terrifying badass with a long-bladed spear...a guy that Rambulhua would like to add to his own forces.
Busting out of the Gobi and charging across Northern China, acquiring a bunch of Han Chinese refugees along the way, the Koreans fight a fierce forest hit-and-run battle with the Mongols in a forest (there's some particularly choice stuff with arrows and a Mongol getting Yeo-sol's spear right in the forehead), and finally our protags wind up at the sea, looking across the water towards Koryo from a small ruined Chinese fortress. Rambulhua arrives...from here on in it's a seige, with all sorts of stratagems and techniques, including Mongols running right up the sides of walls with the aid of crude ladders. Spears crunch into prosthetic heads, gigantic sword-blades transfix bodies as heroic Koreans are dragged down...finally the Mongols get in and just about everybody gets slaughtered in one gushy slo-mo death scene after another. A few survivors might, just might, make it across the sea to Korea...the end credits are over an unbelievably sappy Korean pop song.
Actually, the music's not very good in general, and there are some dead spots in the narrative. But the characterizations are universally well-done, and they've got a lot of excellent Korean and Chinese talent in front of the camera. The prosthetic work is as good as anything in American movies, and the stunt gaffing is rather like Braveheart's, only much gorier. There are several versions of this out there; the one that Tai Seng marketted was heavier on the action, and cut a lot of the period detail out, but it was still pretty coherent...I'd go for the longer version, even though, as I said, it does drag occasionally.
18. Kill Bill, 2003/2004, Director, Quentin Tarantino
For the purposes of this discussion, I'm treating parts 1 and 2 of Kill Bill as if they're one movie, which really...they are. I've never seen them cut together, so I really don't know just how they'd work as a single feature...maybe it was a good idea to split them, maybe not. I understand Tarantino's showing something called Kill Bill, the Whole Bloody Affair down in Austin shortly, and I'm expecting that the cut-together thing will be released on DVD or Blu-Ray at some point.
I've got mixed feelings about Kill Bill. I think it's wildly uneven; I liked the second part better than the first, although I thought the end was so anticlimactic that I wanted to throw my shoe at the screen. Individual sequences are quite impressive; but there's no narrative flow whatsoever. That's pretty disastrous in an action film. Even so, Tarantino did some of the things he set out to do, no doubt about it. Regarding this movie, I believe he said that the true test of a director is the ability to do a good action sequence, or something to that effect. He's quite correct. In spite of the fact that there are zillions of crummy action movies out there, there are very few good action sequences, and none by truly bad directors. Even though moving pictures should be all about movement, very few people can really take the reins and force the cinematic beast to go where they want. For one thing, you've got to have a very clear, concrete three-dimensional sense. For another, you've got know what the audience is really going to want to see. And you've got to be decisive. In short, you 've got to be the complete opposite of let's say...Michael Bay. Incessant close-up are a sign of bad judgement and indecision...close-ups are not always called for. Bay compounds his errors by using all that quick cutting...he can't really tell what you'll want to see, so he tries to show you everything at once, but in really quick cuts, in case you start to get restless, like you're a three-year old.
Well, the best action in Kill Bill--principally the House of Blue leaves Sequence, and the fight between Uma Thurmond and Daryl Hannah in the trailer, isn't like that. Tarantino knows exactly where the camera has to go, he knows what's constitutes a good image and what doesn't, and then he shows you a clear non-confusing view of what he thinks you need to see. Oh, things move along pretty briskly; the editing ain't sluggish; but you're not sitting there going, "I don't have a fucking idea what the hell just happened." He sets up the geography, you have a three-dimensional map in your head, and then he lets the action play out in it. The House of Blue leaves is one of the most clearly laid-out sets in movie history; you know who's going where, where they're going to, and why. And you get to just sit back and enjoy the slaughter.
There's a lot of that, scads of fine prosthetic effects, dished up by the guys who wanted to make that movie of The Dead, KNB EFX. When the hyper-violence really kicks in, after Uma demolishes the Japanese chick, film lapses into black and white...for ratings reasons, I believe, kinda like what happened at the end of Taxi Driver. The Japanese version of the film stays in color, or so I've heard...that really would be better. Movie wasn't photographed for black and white...b and w really requires a different approach. Still, the direction's so powerful, and the stuntwork (gaffed by Yuen Woo Ping) is so impressive, that you really don't mind much. As Uma (dressed like Bruce Lee in Game of Death) slashes her way through Lucy Liu's crazy 88's, you're really convinced that every single permutation of slicing and dicing is being explored, and everybody but everybody bleeds at true Shogun Assassin rates. My only real gripe is that the final confrontation between Uma and Lucy isn't as cool as it needs to be...neither of them can handle the quality of stuntwork that we get from Uma's stuntwoman, that Aussie babe who was in Grindhouse and whose name escapes me.
Film's second great action scene takes place in Part Two...it seems to have been inspired by the fight between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love, although it's far more ill-tempered. Basically what you get is a whirlwind of violence in a very small space, in this case, Michael Madsen's grungy trailer near Barstow, or wherever it is. It's all super intense, lightning quick but easy to follow, and ends excrutiatingly with Uma plucking eyepatched Daryl's remaining peeper out of its socket...I just wanted to howl, although I restrained myself.
As I said, the end of the movie, where Uma kills David Carradine, seriously doesn't make it...it's particularly limp after the stupendous violence that preceded it. Movie still belongs on the list, though. Inglorious Basterds has some pretty choice violence too...although it suffers even worse from the lack of narrative flow-through, and it doesn't have nearly enough Nazi-killing. There are some great unusual bullet-squibs; the fight in that basement bar is brief but wonderful; the final goings-on are pretty great too, particularly Hitler getting MP-40'd in the face, courtesy of those KNB EFX boys. But the film needed more basterds doing more inglorious things.
Oh, and I'd like to see all that Maggie Cheung stuff, dammit.
19. Apocalypto, 2006, Director, Mel Gibson.
By the time this thing came out, Mel Gibson had already been revealed as an anti-semitic nut...as I'm sure you recall, he was stopped by a Jewish traffic cop in Malibu and subjected the guy to a rant about the Jews being responsible for all the wars in history. Well, perhaps Mel should've looked at Apocalpyto...it's full of all sorts of terrible behavior, and there's not a Jew in sight! At least, I don't seem to recall any.
I think it would be reasonable to say that certain Precolumbian Mesoamerican societies were the most ghastly cultures the human race has ever produced. Over and above the hearts being ripped out, you had little kids getting suffocated by drying liquid latex, priests who'd dress in the skins of their victims (and never bathe!), human stockyards to supply fat young boys to aristocratic cannibals...the Aztecs were rather like something from one of my more sanguinary stories. Mel does quite a bang-up job on depicting the activities in a Mayan ceremonial center...why he's still got it operating full-scale when the Spaniards show up, I'm not sure. But I've seen worse anachronisms in movies, and he's sure come up with a setting that plays to most of his strengths as a film-maker. Yep, he's a crazy, crazy bastard, and I wish he'd lay off the booze and rejoin the human race. But extremely talented people are frequently very unpleasant specimens.
Story's pretty simple. We have a some happy relatively decent Indians out in the jungle...they get attacked by Mayans looking for human sacrifices. Our hero Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), is captured; his son and preggers wife (Dahlia Hernanadez) hide down a limestone sinkhole but can't get out. He's taken off to the ceremonial center by Zero Wolf (awesome barbarically-decked Raoul Trujillo) and the vile Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacias); before we reach the sacrificial pyramid, there's an extended buildup where we get a very good idea of just how venemous, decadent, and environmentally unsound the Maya are---it's an extremely sinister and powerful sequence, and it instensifies steadily until we reach the pyramid's steps and get all the way to the top. We see severed heads and beheaded corpses come bouncing down the steps (the corpses are particularly impressive special effects); the sacrifices themselves are actually not as explicit as one might expect, but they're directed to maximum impact. We discover that the Maya ruling class regard the sacrifices as a scam---apparently as a result of their superior astronomy, they know when eclipses will occur, and pretend they're controlling them with the butchery. Jaguar Paw seems to get off the hook since an eclipse has been terminated, and he's not needed any more, supposedly...but the incredibly awful Maya bastards intend to kill him anyway, and he's taken out to special court where the remaining prisoners will be slaughtered.
From this point on, the film becomes a rather different movie, shades of The Naked Prey. Jaguar Paw is told to run for his life, is wounded in the side, but winds up killing Zero Wolf's son...the Mayans set off in hot pursuit. Here we get the film's grisliest sequence...Jaguar Paw blunder through a cornfield into the place where the Maya deposit all the beheaded bodies from the pyramid. This has got to be the most gruesome bit of business in any major motion picture ever: given the sheer number of prosthetic corpses, I don't think an exploitiation movie could possibly match it. Jaguar paw stumbles around in the stiffs and flies for a bit, keeps on going...as he races through the jungle, (rather less hampered by his through-and-through side wound than any of us would be), he liquidates his pursuers one by one, and we cut back to wifey and child in that sinkhole, as a rainstorm comes up and threatens to drown them...
The overall effect is rather like a Robert E. Howard story, or a Frazetta painting come to life; I was reminded repeatedly of the two best Conan novellas, Beyond the Black River, and Red Nails. Gibson would surely be just the guy to do a proper job on a Conan movie; he and Howard were kindred nuts, I think.
20. Rambo, 2008, Director: Sylvester Stallone
For a while there it was looking as though Stallone was just going to fade out into direct-to-video oblivion...I think the last Stallone movie I really liked before his dry spell was Demolition Man. But I really like Sly, and I was very happy when he made something of a comeback...I thought that last Rocky movie was well worth watching, maybe the best Rocky flick since the original, and I thought Rambo was the best Rambo installment. I understand that Stallone wanted to take a similar approach on the earlier flicks...it's a pity they didn't let him, although the technology mightn't have been up to the task back then. I'm just glad that he didn't listen to Rambo's producer Avi Lerner, who thought the movie would do way better if it wasn't just so damn...brutal.
Movie's about Burma, which has been a shitty nationalist/communist dictatorial nightmare for a very long time. You might remember that dust-up a couple years back with those plucky Buddhist monks...or that Patricia Arquette movie, Beyond Rangoon. Anyway, Rambo opens with some genuinely disturbing, ghastly newsreel footage...I've never seen an action movie that pulled a stunt like that. You realize you're being set up for some very fucked-up material, and Rambo delivers. The flick really has balls.
After the newsreel stuff, we're introduced to some orc-like Burmese army officers who are forcing prisoners to run through a minefield and taking bets on it. Then we meet Rambo, who's moved back to Thailand after his last adventure, and is catching cobras for a local sideshow. He's approach by some missionaries who want to go upriver to to help some Karen tribespeople...trouble is, Burma's a war zone, and the Karen have been fighting the Burmese government forever. Rambo refuses at first, but is won over by a female missionary...don't know why exactly...she's kinda good-looking, gives him a cross...whatever. He takes them upriver, they have a brush with pirates, and he demonstrates he's a lethal as ever---the scene where a do-gooder protests the pirate-snuffin' and gets man-handled by Rambo is a really startling glimpse of the 62-year old Stallone's physical prowess. The next day, Rambo drops them off...they go in among the Karen, do some good work, then get captured by the Burmese army, who descend upon the village in a stop-at-nothing, baby-bayoneting attack.
Later on, a church guy gets in touch with Rambo...his people have gone missing...he wants to know if Rambo will take a bunch of mercs upriver...
Well, you know he will. The interaction between the mercenaries and Rambo is tense and engaging...a scene where he wipes out a handful of Burmese with his bow establishes him nicely as the top dog in the operation...he and the mercs arrive at the prison camp where the missionaries are being fed to pigs. A sniper named schoolboy makes the rounds with his Barrett-Light Fifty, taking off Burmese heads; Rambo invades the hut of an officer who's about to rape the female missionary, and tears his throat out. The surviving prisoners are sprung while the horrible soldiers are distracted by zonked-out dancing girls...the festivities, which feature a lot of billowing red smoke, are right hellish.
Final quarter of the movie is a chase through the jungle climaxing in the most ferocious movie firefight I've ever seen. Utilizing the services of an up-and-coming Russian special effects house, Stallone takes the violent potential of CG absolutely to the max. And amazingly, the setup and the situation all make sense. This isn't like the shootouts in the other Rambo movies, where our hero would just stand there and take on twenty guys, none of whom could hit him, while he just hosed them all down. This is something different. He's up on a hill, has a commanding view of the whole area, is ensconced in a half-track, and armed with a Browning fifty with a steel plate between him and the baddies. Given circumstances like that, you really could make some inroads, especially if you had some other good guys shutting down one flank.
But over and above that, the movie shows you exactly what happens when people get worked over with a .50...there's a reason that the guns are banned by international convention, although our military, quite sensibly, continues to employ them. In Rambo, they seem to have been invented primarily to give justification for the most extreme violent effects imaginable...limbs and heads are clipped off, bodies blown in half, and trees sawn down so that Rambo can lay waste to entire truckloads of Burmese. It's much more extreme than the end of the The Wild Bunch, and about as well directed. In one leap, Stallone establishes himself as a first-rate master of the action sequence...from this moment on, the climax of Rambo will be the gunfight to beat.
I understand there's a more violent version of the film on Blu-Ray. Since I don't have a Blue-Ray player, I haven't seen it, but I find it hard to imagine.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
So, I've revisited all the major Lovecraft Cthulhu Mythos stories, plus Colour Out of Space, and The Shunned House. I'm happy to report it was a very pleasant experience, for the most part. Sometimes, when you go back and take a look at stuff you grew up on, you wish you hadn't...you just spoil old memories. But Lovecraft held up. Frankly, I was kinda surprised...he's sort of a whipping-boy in some critical circles, at least regarding his technique, and he is indeed easy to parody. As some of you know, I did my own Lovecraft takeoff way back in the eighties, in the first Samurai Cat book.
But even though you can have a lot of fun with him, there's no denying that the guy's best work is the product of a very powerful imagination. It's original, it's intense, and it has a great deal of scope and sweep...it's extremely atmospheric, and frequently quite unsettling, almost disorienting. The man was absolutely justified in pursuing his writing, even if it meant he never made any real money, and had to survive on the goodwill of his maiden aunties, etc. The world didn't need another drudge. It needed the man who gave us The Shadow Over Innsmouth.
Boy is that a cool story. Yeah, I know there are some people who think that his Cthulhu/SF hybrids like Mountain of Madness and Shadow Out of Time are his best stuff, but I just don't buy it. Among other things, Innsmouth is simply his most exciting story, actually working up some genuine narrative steam. Also, it's set in his single most interesting and persuasive location, a rotten fishy version of real-life Marblehead, where he spent some happy vacations, apparently...I wonder what the good citizens of the place thought about his depiction of their town.
Story features a young fellow who's out on an antiquarian jaunt around New England...he's never heard of Innsmouth, but when a guy at a bus-station tells him about it, and mentions the shitty bus that takes people there, our hero decides he'd just better take a look. While he's waiting for the bus, he visits a local museum, and hears some strange stories from a historian...turns out Innsmouth used to be a prosperous fishing town, but has been going downhill for eighty years, and it's populated by bizarre inbred degenerates. Our hero is also shown a weird golden tiara that was smuggled out of the town...it's fabulous work, but very peculiarly shaped, not the sort of thing that would fit too easily on a human dome. All this, needless to say, simply inflames the protagonist's desire to hop on that bus.
Finally the old rattletrap arrives...it's driven by a feller who, well, looks as though he's turning into a fish. It's the Innsmouth Look, you see, and our hero is about to see a lot of similar specimens. The bus takes him to Innsmouth, which is this very clearly-realized place full of once opulent but now decaying early nineteenth century New England architecture, something Lovecraft knows a hell of a lot about. There's a gorge (with a rushing river at the bottom) that bisects the town and runs down to the sea, and a decrepit old gold mill that's still, rather suspiciously, a going concern. We get some more info on the town from a young outsider kid who works at a chain supermarket and points our hero in the direction of the town drunk, who dishes up a whole mess of sinister dirt for a bottle of booze.
As the shadows lengthen in Innsmouth, he tells a wild tale about economic depression, and a wide-faring ship-captain who made an unholy deal with some undersea monsters down in the south seas; in exchange for importing their cult (renamed, for New England purposes, the Esoteric Order of Dagon) to Innsmouth, and giving them mating rights with the humans, they supplied the townsfolk with all the fish they could possibly catch, and a bunch of gold to boot. The local churches were taken over by the cult; things just got fishier and fishier; normal people who wouldn't cotton to the new order were exterminated in a great gruesome purge. The drunk was allowed to keep living because he'd be inducted into the preliminary stages of the cult, but he's not doing himself any favors now by spilling the beans to an outsider...he and our hero get spotted, our hero's told that he can't get out of town because the bus has broken down, and he has to spend the night at a horrible dump called the Gilman House.
What follows is a bunch of truly thrilling stuff...as you might imagine, our guy keeps his door locked, but fishmen arrive outside, and try to get in, and he's forced to flee into adjoining rooms, locking their doors just as the Innsmouthers bust in behind. Finally he finds a place where he can climb onto an adjoining roof, and then down to the street. But soon the whole town is looking for him, led by fishy robed clerics in tall golden tiaras, just like that one back in the museum...he manages to get out of town, but not before he witnesses a whole procession of the alarming inhabitants, from a railway cutting, as they pass by its mouth...
Since you may not have read this thing, I won't give away the ending. I will say that it serves up one of Lovecraft's strongest twists. Overall, the story's beautifully constructed and very well paced. It doesn't really feature anything like real characterization, but that's okay. It would make a wonderful movie...a much better one than Mountains of Madness, let me tell you, even though some folks are talking about a 200 million dollar version of that. There was a semi-adaptation of Innsmouth called Dagon, made by the Reanimator guy, Stuart Gordon...to save money, they filmed it in Spain, and it has its moments, but the change of locale was simply not a good idea. One of Innsmouth's chief glories is the setting...it's exactly the sort of thing that digital effects were made for...you could create a whole 3D model of the town, which is described in such considerable detail.The screenplay could easily be broken down into a series of discrete sequences...we introduce our narrator, he talks to the guy at the bus station, he talks to the historian and sees the tiara, then takes the bus into Innsmouth; we get a good look at the town, glimpse some funky fish-people, meet the kid at the supermarket; our narrator goes on a walking tour of the town, gets scared, talks to the town drunk...we get a voice-over showing the ship-captain's deal with the sea-monsters, and the corruption of the town and blood-purge...then our narrator and the drunk are spotted, and we have the siege of our boy in the hotel room, the escape from the town, and the denouement, big twist, the end. The whole thing could easily be done in a hundred minutes or less. It wouldn't require any big stars, although it would be amusing as hell to have Johnny Depp playing our bonehead antiquarian as someone rather like the guy he portrayed in Sleepy Hollow. It wouldn't even have to be R-rated, which would appeal to the Hollywood suits these days, convinced as they are that horror movies have to be aimed at kids...as I've made clear elsewhere, I detest PG-13 for the most part, but Innsmouth could easily get by. I don't think there's a bit of explicit violence in the story... you could do some nasty stuff with the purge, I suppose, but you wouldn't have to. And you could have a stone blast rendering all the fishy stages of the denizens with prosthetics and CG.
By the way, those of you who are plugging away at an unsuccessful writing career might be interested in what became of Innsmouth during Lovecraft's life. He never got it published in any of his magazine markets...I don't think he even submitted it. In 1936, just before his death from cancer, a small press in Pennsylvania printed up four hundred copies, bound two hundred of them, sold a handful. Here you have the best story by the best writer of supernatural fiction that this country ever produced, and that's as far as he got with it. I don't know if that should inspire you or not. But if sometimes you feel as though you've spent your whole life crawling around under a flat rock, you've had some pretty good company.
Monday, February 14, 2011
Haven't been posting as much lately...I was working on the third draft of the first volume of my latest book, Flaming Sword. While it might not be immediately obvious, it's a Zorachus novel...here's an excerpt.
“When Job challenges God to explain Himself, God answers him with monsters.”
—The Gospel According to Harryhausen
Chapter 1: Scorpion Peak
They styled themselves, variously, The Rectifiers, The Perfectors, The Brotherhood of Benefaction, The Openers of The Authentic Way, The Heralds of The Future, the Unfasteners of the Future’s Muzzle (or more simply, the Unfasteners), and The Friends of Magic.
Most everyone else called them The Devils, or The Possessed, and if Sayif Bin Sufyan had known that the bastard who’d flashed the bullion was their cat’s paw, he would’ve told him to go to Hell, or maybe even sent him there himself. But Sayif hadn’t had a clue that twenty blazing-eyed fanatics would waiting for him at the oasis of Wasta, and here he was now, guiding them through the most hellish desert known to man, towards the place where his father and brothers had been eaten alive.
It was late afternoon and the shadows of the deeply pitted lava rocks were lengthening over the orange sand, but he didn’t feel the heat had broken, and he wouldn’t have pushed on so soon, not that he’d have pushed on at all if he’d had a choice. The camels (who hated the Rectifiers, in Sayif’s opinion) were croaking complaints, just plodding along, and caning them more trouble than it was worth, although the Devils kept at it, and Sayif had to as well, since they wanted him out front. But the camels would’ve gone faster, and more than made up for lost time, if the lunatics could’ve waited till things cooled off.
But the Devils, always furiously impatient, could barely restrain themselves; even when the sun stood flaming at noon, they were desperate to be out from under the shade of their propped-up cloaks. Sayif was lucky if he got a couple hours of sleep between sunset and moonrise, and wasn’t sure if he’d slept at all last night...his eyes were dry and swollen. Everything was shimmering…looming ever higher in the southeast, blood red against a dark purplish sky, the Howling Crags wavered and quivered. Scorpion Peak was the tallest spire in the second ridge; Sayif could barely make out the fortress that the ancient Saathranim had built close to the top---the stronghold was made of rock quarried from the crags, and its walls and towers, in their present ruinous state, were nearly indistinguishable from the Peak itself---
Sayif noticed movement, off on his right.
Black and shiny, as large as a middle-sized dog, a scorpion had crawled up onto a rock. He’d been seeing ones about as big for three days now, and even though the creatures were keeping their distance, he cringed inwardly whenever he spotted one, reminded of their much bigger brothers, the real monsters, who didn’t need to keep their distance…
And here you are, he thought, heading for the Peak again, and in vastly worse company… Even if the scorpions don’t do you in, the Devils will…
He felt a shock between the shoulderblades, heard a sharp snapping noise; his hood flipped back, his robes fluttered, and a voice snarled “Stay awake!” as though he’d been nodding, which he hadn’t—at most, he’d eased off on the caning, because his arm was getting tired. His first impulse was to turn and glare, but he thought better of it. His tormentor, Hafez the Dogkiller, whose camel Sayif’s was tethered to, would’ve only have shocked him again, with his “Staff of Correction.” Every Devil carried one, a smaller “Rod of Correction” too. Sayif worked his neck and his shoulderblades; he had an aching spot that would probably last until he got his next jolt, in the same place, doubtless.
But he’d gotten off light so far. Using rods instead of canes, his captors had corrected several of their camels to death before big Abu Jundab, the closest thing to a sane man among them, had pointed out that they’d all be afoot in short order; earlier on, at Wasta, the bastard who’d lured Sayif to the oasis had gotten the full treatment once they decided they didn’t need him anymore. It had looked to Sayif as though every mote of dust had lifted from the wretch’s billowing clothes before the garments burst into flames, and the man had dropped down dead, his hair burning too, even his beard and moustache...
Sun beating on the back of his head, Sayif realized his hood was down and was just about to raise it again when....
Someone came up on his left.
It was the fanatic-in-chief, Archidamnus Adamantes...he always came up on the left. Rocking on his camel, he caned the animal every few seconds, all the while staring at Sayif, his dark-rimmed eyes burning in a long sunken-cheeked face beneath a dark hood...somehow, despite all these weeks in the desert, his skin remained colorless. His bony left hand was clenched on the reins, trembling; despite their bulk, his heavy robes didn’t conceal the steady quivering of the body within. Adamantes was always shaking, palsied with perpetual vehemence…sometimes Sayif half-expected him to start buzzing, like a wasp.
Moreover, Adamantes stank.
All the Rectifiers did, even out here where the air was so dry and everything was as open as it could be...it had to be hard on the camels, since they had such good noses. But the Devils themselves were, if anything, proud of the odor, calling it “The Scent of Magic.” Even though they usually showed nothing more than their faces and hands, they’d stripped off several times to “Perfume the Wrappings,” moisten inscription-covered bandages on their chests and arms with a noxious green fluid...Sayif had the impression that the cloths fuse with their flesh over time and were absorbed, leaving the inscriptions on the skin like faint tattoos. Whenever the bandages were freshly treated, the odor was very evil, dyeing-pit or tannery bad. Sayif was thankful that the bottles containing the fluid were carried by camels well back in the line...and that Adamantes’ bandages had been drying for a while. Even so, with the madman so close, and upwind, Sayif wanted to pinch his own nostrils shut, but—
“Still can’t make out the fortress,” the Devil said, his Kadjafi good enough, enough, although he had a pronounced Achaean accent.
Sayif replied: “Same rock as the crags, My Lord, so---”
Adamantes broke in: “Do you really think you can fool me?”
Sayif had no idea what he was talking about. “Fool you—?”
“What would be the point?”
“There’s always malice,” said Adamantes. “And despair.”
Sayif began: “I’m a practical man---”
Adamantes broke in: “Practicality is the first refuge of a coward.”
Sayif didn’t know why he’d say this, even though Adamantes clearly meant it...surely it was more in Adamantes’s interest to foster Sayif’s cowardly tendencies. But it was terribly, terribly hard to come up with answers that didn’t aggravate the madman.
“Be that as it may,” Sayif said. “I hope—with all my heart---to earn all that bullion, guide you to the ruins, and survive.”
For several aching moments (Sayif held his breath) Adamantes weighed this, then said: “A man must have faith in the future.”
He came out with this pronouncement five or six times a day, often quite beside the point...sometimes it undermined his arguments, but he didn’t seem to notice, or care. Hearing it yet again, Sayif couldn’t decide if it meant Adamantes had liked his answer, or not...
They went on awhile in silence...Adamantes kept staring at Sayif, who tried to fix his gaze on the desert before him, but Admantes began caning his camel even harder, thap! thap! thap! and managed to beat enough speed from her to pull ahead of Sayif. Twisting, he looked back, his white countenance floating in the blackness of his hood...after weeks in the desert, his face hadn’t acquired the least trace of a tan.
“You hate the very sight of me, don’t you?” he asked.
Sayif was desperate to own up to it, declare it, crow it in fact, and add that he hated his smell just as much, but merely said: “No, My Lord.”
“Liar,” Adamantes replied, glancing past him, and Sayif realized that he’d wasted his restraint.
The Dogkiller jolted Sayif gave him another shock; as Sayif reeled, barely staying on the camel, Adamantes said:
“You hate the very sight of me, yes?”
“Yes, My Lord,” Sayif gasped.
“If you truly had faith in the future,” said Adamantes. “You wouldn’t have to lie.”
Barely able to breathe, the muscles of his ribcage cramping, Sayif fully expected a third shock.
It never came. He’d had enough correction for the time being, apparently…but off to the left, Adamantes stayed beside him, thap-thap-thap-thap, staring and staring...
The light got redder and the heat finally moderated...Sayif’s shadow, swaying atop his camel’s, stretched a good hundred feet before him. The beast picked up the pace, even though Sayif was hardly caning her...he wasn’t at all anxious to reach the crags. He kept seeing more scorpions---they got a lot more active as it got cooler. Knowing that the night would be very bad indeed, he felt driven to dispense some advice...after all, holding his tongue was hardly much worse than speaking his mind.
“We should stop now,” he said.
“Would that be the practical thing to do?” Adamantes sneered.
“We should camp through the night.”
“The moon will still be full,” Adamantes said. “Sufficient to my purpose.”
“In my dream, everything was awash in moonlight.”
“Were there scorpions?” Sayif asked.
Adamantes didn’t answer.
Sayif went on: “Huge ones? The real giants, the ones that won’t hang back, live up in the crags. I watched them eat my father and---“
“You didn’t have any Rectifiers with you,” Adamantes said.
“With all due respect---”
Hearing that phrase, Adamantes eyed him venemously, but Sayif steeled himself, asking:
“Just how powerful do you think you are?”
“We haven’t shocked you enough?”
“You have, My Lord. But the men who bred those monsters...”
“--- were vastly stronger than you.”
Although this was indisputable, there was no reason to think that Adamantes would concede...but Sayif had touched some hidden sadness. Adamantes sighed: “There’s no one like them today.”
Emboldened, Sayif continued: “They were wiped out by those things, the whole order, in a single night. At least, let’s wait till mid-day tomorrow, when the scorpions will be asleep.”
They rode on. Sayif began to think that Adamantes wasn’t going to to reply. But finally the Devil answered:
“I spit on patience.”
That’s a fact, Sayif thought.
Adamantes said: “Ever since the Fall, patience has made eunuchs of men…we’ve wallowed in impotence when we could’ve snatched back our birthright, and mounted the throne of Heaven.”
Sayif wasn’t following this.
Adamantes said: “But, in this instance…”
“My Lord?” Sayif asked after a time.
“I think we should make camp.”
Sayif lifted his eyes, wordlessly thanking the darkening heavens.
The company halted.
A Devil put Sayif’s leg-iron on him, hammered an iron staple into a boulder and fastened Sayif’s chain to it with a padlock. Some of the other Devils gathered some dead white wood---it poked out of the sand between the rocks here and there—and made a fire while the rest drank their fill from the bags carried by the water-camel. Even for men in the desert, the Devils seemed uncommonly thirsty, and sucked down a great deal of water; when Sayif had asked one about it, the Rectifier claimed it kept him from bursting into flames, and while Sayif had thought he was probably joking, he hadn’t been sure.
But if their guzzling struck him as profligate, they had a way to replenish their store...mounted on the water-camel’s back was a thicket of small metal tubes and vanes, which somehow drew water from the air, and channelled it down into two leather bags, with taps, that hung on either side of the camel’s body. It was some time before the Devils had their fill, drinking from iron cups. Once they were done, Sayif went over to the camel (his chain was fairly long) and took a deep pull directly from the tap. Then he was given bread and dried meat; even though he was famished, he tried to eat slowly.
The sun went down in an orange blaze; once the orb dropped from sight, the west went red, then green, then blue. Outlining the horizon, the blue lingered for quite some while, and against it, Sayif could see scorpions moving, some farther, some nearer, the blue glow reflected on their backs. He could hear them too, their leg-tips clittering on the rocks...he nursed a not unreasonable hope that the Scent of Magic might hold them at bay until one got pretty close to the camp...Abu Jundab shot it with his fuselock.
He was the only Devil with a gun. A few had crossbows, but Adamantes was very much of the opinion that they should do their killing with magic whenever possible, use the rods and staffs close in, and force-bolts and conjured demons for stand-off work. Characteristically, Abu was more, well, practical...tasked with providing fresh meat, he’d persuaded Adamantes that he’d bag more antelope with a gun, and had equipped himself with the latest thing in fuselocks, a turnbolt back-loader. Sayif had never seen one before Abu shoved it into his face back at Wasta, and he’d never seen him fire it till now.
It was long-barrelled and big-bored, and Sayif was rather surprised it hadn’t killed the scorpion outright, but the creature was pretty big itself. Unsteady on its legs, it was keeping its distance...Abu reloaded immediately with a brass cartridge from one of the bandoliers across his massive chest. As far as Sayif had been able to deduce, the gun’s barrel was bored straight through from one end to the other, and the cartridge, already containing powder and ball, went into it from the back, the shell acting as part of the chamber....sticking out from the cartridge was a small handle, which Abu pulled along a groove in the barrel...there was a right-angle turn at the end, and he slapped the handle down into it, then stuck a pin into a small hole just above the flash-pan...Sayif guessed he was perforating some sort of lining in the cartridge, which must have a hole lining up with the touch-pan’s. The serpentine arm was already cocked, and Abu shot the scorpion again, this time putting it down. Unlocking the spent cartridge, he pulled it out by the handle, blew on it, and pushed it up into the bandolier-loop he’d plucked it from, no doubt with the intention of reloading it.
He got another cartridge into the gun very quickly and shot a second scorpion farther out, reloaded once more and took aim again—the backloader was capable of a much faster rate of fire than a regular fuselock, plainly. But before he could fire, Adamantes said:.
“Friends of Magic, remember?”
Towering over him, Abu said nothing but lowered the gun, and his target wandered off to live out some more of its strange scorpion life, prompting Sayif to wonder if he had as much time left....
A few bright stars had become visible as soon as the sun vanished; now a great cloudy band of them described an arch that ran from southeast to northwest. The blue limning the horizon was blotted out by a haze of silver starlight. Sayif could see quite clearly for some distance, and there were scores of scorpions now, their raised stingers silhouetted clearly…the camels were croaking nervously, all of them on their feet, heads going this way and that. At any given time, a couple of the scorpions were fighting, locked together at the claws, jabbing with their tails. Swinging round and round each other, Devils leaping to get out of their way, a pair got well into the firelight before one of Adamantes’s fellow Achaeans, a man named Gyllippus, put a quarrel into one, then shocked them both repeatedly with his staff. Loosing each other, they went their separate ways out of the camp, one giving Sayif a good fright as it raced right by him.
But that wasn’t enough to keep him from drifting toward sleep; even if he was chained to a rock in a monster-infested desert, it seemed to him that the most important thing was to let his hot, heavy eyelids close, and…
He woke some time later. It was the smell...the Devils were freshening their bandages. He knew at once that Adamantes had decided to throw caution to the wind.
There was more light now----the moon had risen beyond the Howling Crags, the spires serrate black against its glow, which had banished the stars. Yawning, Sayif lifted one of his hands. He could plainly make out the hairs on the back of it, silvered by the moon. In all his years in the desert, he’d never seen such moonlight. It was so bright that he even noticed a slight red tinge, albeit a dark one, to the sand between the lava rocks…he grew aware of Adamantes standing nearby, his eyes gleaming fiercely in their dark sockets.
“More than enough light,” the Devil declared, adjusting his robes as though he’d just put them back on.
“Are you speaking to me, My Lord?” Sayif asked.
Adamantes ignored the question. “My confidence is renewed.”
“Pushing on. In my dream, as I said, there is copious moonlight.”
“Don’t you believe in dreams?” Adamantes asked.
“I thought I should believe in the future.”
“The future is a dream.” Adamantes’ eyes flamed. “My dream.”
Sayif said: “What about the scor---“
Adamantes silenced him with a chopping gesture. “The Future strains at its leash.”
“Be that as it may, My Lord---“
“Zeal is everything.”
“Lacked zeal, plainly, whatever their power.” Adamantes turned to his men...their robes rustled as they donned them again. He cried: “Who will slice the Future’s Leash?”
“The Rectifiers,” they replied.
“Who will unfasten its muzzle?”
“Sharpen its teeth?”
“Gorge it with red and dripping meat?”
“The Friends of Magic!”
“How I love thee,” said Archidamnus Adamantes, and signaled the man who’d chained Sayif to the rock...off came the leg-iron...the man detached the padlock from the staple and slung the chain over his shoulder, padlock hanging...links clinked as strode off.
Men gathered up gear and strapped it on, saddled their camels and mounted up. But when the beasts demonstrated they were in no mood to advance, Adamantes told his men to try their rods again. The animals bawled, but started forward. Since Sayif didn’t have a staff of his own, the Dogkiller shocked his camel for him. Ahead, the scorpions gave ground, shuttling from the company’s path, even though the landscape alive was with rattlings and clickings and the creaking of joints, and the snippings of cannibal claws.
Presently, though, there got to be so many of the vermin that the camels balked and would go no further, shocks or no shocks. But all at once strange bleatings started up to the north, sounds such as Sayif had never heard, made by God knew what, and the scorpions, in a vast herd, all cleared out in that direction, as though they were drawn by the prospect of easy prey, and lots of it.The scissoring, stinging horde soon reached the bleaters, whatever they were, the pathetic sounds swelling enormously in volume, and bits of sheared-off stuff, black against the moonsilvered night, began flying up into view....Sayif had always assumed that the scorpions must be eating something besides each other, although that left the question of how the bleaters sustained themselves...
The path was relatively clear now, all the way to the foothills of the crags, and even though bigger scorpions were coming down from the heights, they were heading north, towards the slaughter. Soon, exactly where Sayif had expected—he had the uncanny knack of memorizing ever landscape he ever laid eyes on--- the company struck a road with good pavement, partially covered in spots by blown sand, that led due east. Sayif looked away southward. Lightning was flashing in the distance, intermittently illuminating a dark haze that was still low, yet rising...
Sandstorm, he thought.
Ahead, the moon was still silhouetting the crags, but the firmament was so permeated with light that the western faces, shadowed as they were, reflected the sky, all the details of the cliffs revealed to Sayif’s eyes, crevices, ledges, slots, steeply falling canyons, and weathered buttresses. Running along the foot of the towering fence, studded in places with outcroppings and boulders, was a long dune...the road ran right up to it and disappeared beneath. The company went up and over, found the road again, and followed it into a cleft in the palisade.
The canyon turned to the south, its floor rising in a series of shelves, the road switchbacking up the righthand wall. Farther up, two piers extended from the cliffs, projecting towards each other, remnants of the great bridge which had once spanned the gorge. Gatehouses stood at either end. Ten years before, climbing up the lefthand wall below the eastern arch, Sayif and his brother Numan had rigged lines---shot by crossbow from the far side---across the breach, gatehouse to gatehouse, and so the rest of their party had crossed over. The ropes had been fixed to staples, and he guessed those were still there, but...the lines were long gone, undoubtedly.
He’d have to climb up again.
He shook his head...
Then realized it might not be so bad. Once the moon cleared the lefthand wall, there’d be enough light, and this time, it would be cool enough.
He hadn’t been seeing too many scorpions, and that was a relief, but presently he heard crunchings and snippings... and as the troop rounded the corner of a switchback, they came upon a scorpion the size of a camel at work on a specimen, not much smaller, which was lying on its back, legs in the air, the opener of its belly fishing around in it with its claws.
Since the victor was the largest scorpion they’d seen so far, Sayif was sure Adamantes would let Abu Jundab use his gun, but the Devil-in-Chief turned to Gyllippus, who took the lead, staff presented like a spear. The scorpion that was doing the eating seemed uninterested in his approach, and let him go right up and shock it...briefly illuminated by the yellow flash, the thing froze, its claws still buried in its victim.
Gyllippus jumped back to watch it. The scorpion remained motionless for a few moments more, then shuddered as though it were waking itself up, and swung its hindquarters towards the wall on the right, which it began to back straight up, snatching the dead scorpion’s stinger in a pincer as it climbed, yanking the corpse up along the cliff, dislodging a shower of dust and stones. Sayif was afraid the monster was simply going to stop on another switchback farther above, so they’d have to deal with it again, but the scorpion suddenly backed from sight into a horizontal fissure in the face, and yanked its meal in after it. The party waited until the falling rocks slacked off, then continued the ascent.
The switchbacks swung farther south than north; at last the company came up alongside the shelf which lay under the broken bridge. There Sayif dismounted, along with Abu Jundab and Gyllippus, whom Adamantes had assigned to accompany Sayif up the inner wall. Even though Abu and the Achaean both knew the desert, Sayif wondered how much climbing they’d done...those monkish robes would certainly have to go.
But once they downed some water (Sayif drank too, but more sparingly) they stripped down to their trousers. Abu Jundab was certainly a muscular brute, and didn’t have too many bandages...Gyllippus was bony, like most of his comrades, and had more wrappings, but they seemed mostly absorbed into his white skin and didn’t look as though they’d slip. Both Devils tucked rods into their belts, and Abu put his bandoliers back on and strapped his fuselock across his back. He tossed Sayif a coil of rope, and once Sayif had it slung from right shoulder to left side, Abu said:
Even as Sayif led them across the shelf to the base of the cliff, the moon began to creep out above, over the spires, its downward-raking light picking out every little feature of the route Sayif had taken before. To someone with no eye, the cliff might’ve looked unscalable; but even if Sayif hadn’t already climbed it, he still would’ve known just the way to go. Evidently Abu Jundab had the eye too; without asking a word of advice from Sayif, he got round him and took the lead.
Even though the bridge was five hundred feet up, the climbing was easy; the stone was so fractured, and scored with gouges and ledges, that there was always a handhold, and the scorpions didn’t interfere...at least until one decided to get hold of Gyllippus.
He was one ledge down from Sayif....hearing the scream, Sayif looked back over the edge.
Palms pressed flat against the stone, straining and gasping, Gyllippus was off to the left, nearly-hip-deep in a crack Sayif had just stepped over a few moments before. Even though the Devil looked at Sayif as though he expected Sayif to help him, indeed, thought he was obligated, Sayif thought otherwise and was contemplating not helping at all...but before he quite made his mind up (he wasn’t sure what he could do in any case, because trying to pull Gyllippus from the scorpion’s claws might only rip him open), there was a great tug on Gyllippus from below, and both his arms buckled, and down he went, arms flying up over his head, his white hands flapping, before they disappeared just like the rest of him. There was a series of loud clacking sounds and screams, the latter being shortly cut off.
All this happened before Abu Jundab could scramble back down. Halting beside Sayif, he leaned forward, out over that lower step. Just then Gyllippus, with a loud rasping noise, came back up out of the crack, his arms down now...the first thing that showed was his wooly hair...his head was tipped to one side. At first Sayif wondered if he could possibly be alive, somehow getting some purchase with his feet, but it was quickly apparent that the life had gone out of the Achaean’s eyes, and his head just jiggled as another shove pushed him farther up.
Abu Jundab jumped down and seized the Achaean under the shoulders, pulling him out of the crack…Gyllippus was completely limp, and sheared completely through from the crotch to the bottom of the ribcage...one of his arms was also severed below the elbow, and the claw that did it had bitten into his side as well...there were other marks that looked as though he’d been chewed. But the creature must’ve decided that it didn’t like him...even if scorpions had no sense of smell, taste was another matter.
Abu Jundab gave Gyllippus a nudge with his boot-tip.
“Come the Rectification, comrade,” he said, “no more scorpions.” Then he looked at Sayif. “Why didn’t you help him?”
“I didn’t know what to do,” Sayif replied. “If I pulled him, I thought I might...”
Abu cut him short. “You stay out in front from now on, but keep close, where I can see you.”
Even if Sayif tried to escape, he didn’t think Abu would shoot him....they still needed him, and Abu didn’t even have his fuse lit. But he was a fearfully quick climber, and he could use the rod. Sayif thought he might black out and fall if he were shocked, but didn’t know what sort of chance Abu was willing to take....
They resumed the climb.
Thunder rumbled northwards up the chasm…the wind was rising, smelling like some other place entirely, hundred of miles away maybe...fine invisible dust was running ahead of the sand. Sayif remembered that scent. There had been a sandstorm ten years ago, too, ripping through the crags, making them howl indeed…if he was caught on the cliff-face when the storm hit, he knew he’d be scoured right off.
“Faster,” said Abu Jundab, as if Sayif needed to be told….as the thunder grew steadily louder, Sayif pushed himself as hard as he could, and they made swift progress, reaching the eastern gatehouse, crawling in through a crack in the wall and going to the gate, which looked out across the broken span.
Just as Sayif expected, the staples he’d hammered into the lefthand wall were still there, one at the base of the wall, the other about chest high, protruding from the dark cut lava blocks. Most of the rope was gone, although the knots were still fastened to the staples…Abu Jundab sliced the remnants away with a curved dagger; then he and Sayif went out toward the gap in the bridge.
The rest of the company was waiting on the other side.
“We heard screams,” Adamantes cried. “Where’s Gyllippus? ”
“Scorpion got him,” Abu Jundab replied.
“Did it eat him?”
“Tried to. But we don’t taste good, apparently.”
“A badge of honor,” Adamantes answered, and signalled a man with a crossbow...two shots carried light ropes, tied to heavier ones, across the gap. Sayif and Abu Jundab drew the thicker ropes over, and attached them to the staples. Across the breach, the lines were already made fast; walking on the lower rope, gripping the chest-high one, Adamantes led fourteen of his men across, leaving the rest with the camels.
“So where are the big scorpions?” Adamantes asked Sayif. “The giants that won’t back down?”
“Staying in their lairs, maybe,” Sayif replied. “There is a storm headed this way.”
“Best we make haste, then.”
They went through the gate, along a passage strewn with collapsed masonry, and out an arch that opened on the road; it was more switchbacks after that, some of which traversed great crevices in the mountainside, over arches so eroded that they were barely passable. Presently the company rounded a cape outthrust from the cliff, and sighted another headland, farther south.
Atop that loomed Khaur Al-Athtar.
“There it is,” Sayif said. High as the moon was, it was still off to the south, and against its light, from the north, the fortress, massive and square, looked much less like a natural feature than it had from the desert below; Sayif knew that the southern and western faces, which bore the brunt of the sandstorms, were vastly more ruinous. Off on the left, a great crag towered high above the ancient stronghold, bleached in moonlight and slashed with black fissures.
Climbing as it skirted the yawning bay which separated the two capes, the road crawled up the second to the fortress’s entrance, which faced west. The gatehouse had crumbled...beyond the debris stretched a huge courtyard. The south wall was breached in many places, and pits gaped in the pavement, as though mighty chambers had caved in. If not for the pits, Sayif guessed the yard would’ve been much thicker in sand; as it was, the holes were nearly filled, and the pave was almost covered with sand-crescents, some lower, some higher; big drifts had collected against the northern wall, sloping upwards against the masonry. Undulating over crescents, and down into the pits, deep shadow ran along the foot of the southern wall, broken by moonlight shining through the gaps.
At the eastern end of the courtyard, a wall, pierced by slit-casements higher up, rose sheer; an arch yawned beneath a ruined barbican.
“There’s a stair,” Sayif said. “Leads to the upper courtyard.”
“And the Iron Keep’s up there?” Adamantes asked.
“Yes, My Lord,” Sayif answered. “Against the wall of the crag. You can’t see it from here---it’s not very tall.” He tilted his face back, scanning the silverwashed cliff above the wall.
“What are you looking for?” Abu Jundab asked.
“What do you think?” Sayif replied. “We first spotted them up there---the ones that ripped us to pieces. There were ten. It was hard to tell just how big they were, at that distance…they might’ve been three feet long or thirty. Looked like they were in some sort of formation, and they didn’t move for a while….then…”
“Nothing up there now,” said Abu Jundab.
A few yards ahead, Adamantes beckoned, then started across one of those little dunes from the side...he led the way through the barbican, and up the steep stairs. There was no roof overhead; framed by black masonry, a gleaming strip of crag showed at the top, its reflected light tumbling some way down the steps, the spire so tall that it seemed to lean forward. Sayif had to arch well back, almost falling over, before he saw the sky and not moonlit stone.
As below, the pave on the upper courtyard had collapsed in places...there were three walls, north, west, and south, some of which still showed traces of crenelation. At the back of the courtyard rose the crag. Built upon a natural spur that came up through the roof, the Iron Keep was set in a recess in the cliff, dome overhung by beetling stone…a stair led up to the door.
Sayif leaned back yet again, eyeing the heights, and this time---
The scoprions were arranged in a kind of diamond, ten of them, completely motionless. Just as before, they were so far up that they looked tiny...but he knew better. Having nursed a mad hope that they might not come, might indeed be afraid of the storm, he felt his heart plunge.
“There they are,” he told Adamantes, coming up short behind him when the wizard halted and looked.
“Ten,” Adamantes said. “Just like the last time, eh?” Then he turned to his adherents, pointing back over his shoulder at the scorpions, and cried:
“Faith in the Future!” Adamantes cried.
“In the Future, Faith!” his men answered, as one---Sayif seemed to think that their eyes were blazing even more than usual.
“Down Heaven!” Adamantes screamed.
Despite the Scorpions and the Devils, up man almost had Sayif laughing through his nostrils...
Then Adamantes grinned at him like a skull, and Sayif could barely think for a few moments.
“Infected by our enthusiasm?” Adamantes asked.
“Didn’t you say there were no scorpions in your dream, My Lord?”
“I said nothing of the sort,” said Adamantes.
And so, skirting the places where the roof had caved, they pressed on to the foot of the deeply weathered and pitted steps and made their way up to the broad stairhead. A squat drum tower, the Keep was just tall enough to prevent Sayif from scanning the cliff above to see if the scorpions had moved. True to its name, it was made all of iron, which, by some miracle of magic, showed only a few spots of rust, dark violet in the moonlight. The door was perhaps ten feet high, and round.
“Perfectly circular,” Adamantes breathed...for some reason, he set great store by circularity. Directly in the middle of the door was its lock, a series of concentric wheels etched with many markings, figures of animals, numbers, strange symbols which Sayif had been taught to recognize, even though he had no idea what they represented…there were seven wheels, each with a little knob for turning them. Working from fragmentary ancient texts, Sayif’s father had pieced together the combinations for the first six rings...
And five possibilities for the seventh.
But you couldn’t work your way through them at leisure…one mistake, and iron spines erupted from the surface of the door, as though the very metal rearranged itself to form them. Having gotten all the way to the innermost wheel, Sayif’s brother Kinana had made an educated guess---he knew numbers and locks like no one else alive---and had been run through in thirty places. When the spikes clacked back in, they’d drawn him up flat against the surface of the door---he’d still been peeling away from the iron surface when the giants from the cliff had descended at last. The innermost wheel was just as Kinana had left it, except for his blood, which had flaked off over the years.
“Four possibilities left, yes?” Adamantes asked Sayif.
“Yes, My Lord,” Sayif answered.
“And the wheels will still turn?”
“The lock is exceptionally well-made, to say the least.”
Admantes looked at his men. “So then...who wants a go at it?”
To Sayif, they all looked willing enough; a man named Ukaydir was the first to step forward. But Abu Jundab asked:
“Where’s the harm in trying a few spells?”
Adamantes said: “We’ve been through this. The door is heavily proofed against binding-magic. We’d just be wasting time.”
“Would dissipate upon touching it.”
Abu pointed to Sayif. “Make him do it.”
Adamantes shook his head. “And what if he dies straight off? What then?”
“Make him tell the other combinations, before he tries.”
Sayif asked: “And why would I tell, if you’re just going to kill me anyway?”
“We might need him, to find our way back,” Adamantes said.
“I can get us back to Wasta,” said Abu Jundab.
Adamantes regarded him, considered this boast. “His reputation exceeds yours, dear friend.”
“What’s the first combination, Sayif?” Adamantes asked.
“Jackal with rabbit.” Sayif replied.
“Did you hear that, Ukaydir?”
“Jackal with rabbit,” said the volunteer.
“But wait till we all step back.”
“Five paces,” Sayif said.
They all retreated save Ukaydir, who went right up to the door as though he didn’t have a care in the world, and promptly lined up the symbols. At least, that was what Sayif assumed he did, because, even though he couldn’t see through Ukaydir, he saw the results. As if to prove that contempt for death was no substitute for the right combination, the spines erupted, and Ukaydir, impaled out towards the ends of the infernal things, jerked a good twelve feet out from the door, then snapped back in, flattening against the surface just as Sayif’s brother had, but sliding down rather than peeling back---he landed on his knees, leaning against the blood-smear on the door.
Adamantes said dryly: “The Future requires another hero.”
Having just seen what they’d seen, the men seemed rather more reluctant this time...but a man named Suhayl finally presented himself.
“Triangle with Two,” Sayif said.
Suhayl went to the the door, stood athwart Ukaydir’s lower legs, waited a moment, and---
Ended himself with a twist of the wrist.
The spikes pushed Ukaydir into him, but since Ukaydir was dragging this time, he stopped, the spikes passing through him much farther, Suhayl out at the end. Yanked forward when they went back, Suhayl slid languidly down over Ukaydir, wound up slumped against his back.
After that, the men were even more reluctant, but Adamantes said: “Barira!”
and the unfortunate bearer of that name shook himself and cried, in a voice that cracked just a bit, “In the Future, faith!” and stepped out. Sayif could see him trembling.
“Snake with Toad,” Sayif said.
Barira shook himself once more and went to get it over with. Since Ukaydir and Suhayl were piled just under the lock, he planted himself off to the left; when the spikes came through him, he jerked back with his arm still out to the right, his hand dangling limply.
Thunder cracked, much closer now. The wind was sharpening. Sayif craned his head back, looking at the top of the Keep, wishing desperately that he could see beyond it, hoping the scorpions hadn’t moved.
Here you are, he thought, ten years later, and the only way things have changed is for the worse---
He caught himself. That wasn’t exactly true.
At least, no matter what happens this time, you won’t have to see your father and brothers die…
As though he was giving Sayif a great opportunity, Adamantes said: “Up to you now.”
Sayif ran his hand over his mouth, which was absolutely devoid of spittle. He had no way of knowing if the last combination---a mystery symbol with another, equally mysterious---would do anything but slaughter him. Pressed by Kinana, his father had admitted that he wasn’t quite sure than any of the possibilities was the one.
“Might I have a drink?” Sayif asked.
“After,” said Adamantes.
Sayif felt an urge to sink his teeth into him, maybe even bite his nose off, then remembered Gyllippus and that scorpion, and decided he really didn’t need to discover for himself how Devils tasted...
“Do it,” said Adamantes.
Since Barira had died off to Ukaydir and Suhayl’s left, Sayif went to the right, took hold of the knob on the next-to-innermost wheel, and, heart in his throat, lined up enigma with enigma…
With a click, the knobs retracted into the door, all of them at once. The door started to roll, rumbling into the wall on the left. Air rushed past Sayif, into the widening gap. The metal of the keep rang like a sullen bell...expecting gold and jewels to pour forth like water from an opened sluicegate, he backed away.
But he saw quickly that there was nothing to retreat from.
Even the gigantic scorpions he saw inside were clearly dead, flattened, bellies flush against the floor, tails sagging down onto backs...some of the great jointed limbs had fallen off, and those still attached leaned at peculiar angles.
He started forward again, past the dead Devils, and it wasn’t until he was well inside that he was struck by how much light there was. He thought it must be moonlight, but the domed ceiling seemed to be intact, and was in fact covered with a strange decoration which seemed to be giving off the glow...
Yet that didn’t puzzle him as much as the complete lack of treasure. His father had been utterly convinced the keep was crammed. All the dry deadly miles from Thangura, he’d kept everyone going, indeed fired up, with his vivid rapturous descriptions.
But...instead of a huge vault, the chamber seemed to be some sort of council-room. Along with a lot of smashed chairs, there was the wreckage of what might’ve been a huge ring-shaped table...human remains were strewn about too, limb-bones and skulls, and torsos in scale-armor, as though the scorpions had had trouble with the scale-mail, and had settled for eating the extremities.
But in spite of the fact that the fragments had to be a good fifteen hundred years old, they looked much fresher than Sayif would ever have guessed, with rags of flesh still clinging to them. Sayif had heard of such things, bodies preserved in hermetically sealed tombs…
They locked the scorpions in with them, he thought. And the scorpions breathed up all the air after they finished them…
“This is no treasury,” he said, as Adamantes and Abu Jundab came up on either side of him.
“Not so,” Adamantes answered, threading his way through corpses and wreckage. “There’s treasure indeed.”
In the center of the chamber, in the midst of the ruined ring-table, he stood beneath the dome’s peak...Sayif followed, and Adamantes directed his gaze upwards with a bony finger.
That decoration on the ceiling was actually some kind of luminous map...a great lover of maps, he’d committed hundreds to memory, although this one was quite beyond his experience. Evenin the palaces of mighty nobles who had all the money in the world, there was nothing to compare to it. It showed a river that snaked back and forth in a basin, scores of smaller rivers feeding into it before it emptied into a lake...mountains hemmed the basin on all four sides. No matter where he looked, the detail seemed unlimited, although everything also seemed quite convincingly distant...there was a strange reality to the whole thing, of a sort he’d never seen in another human representation of, well, anything…it was almost as though he were looking straight down on the scene, from a point far above a brightly moonlit surface.
Then he noticed silvery shapes that appeared to be clouds, drifting…there was also a yellowish pinprick of light that appeared to be moving as well, across the surface of the lake...
The hairs on the nape of his neck rose.
“What exactly are we looking at, My Lord?” he asked Adamantes.
“What do you mean?”
“What sort of image is that? Those clouds are moving.”
“Yes,” said Adamantes. “I’ll have to wait until they crawl aside, I think.”
Adamantes ignored him, producing a stubby cylindrical object, apparently of brass, out of his robes. There was a lens on one end; the device was folded in sections, and Adamantes twisted something, and lengthened the cylinder out. Then, after positioning himself very carefully, as though he wanted to make absolutely sure he was directly beneath the peak of the dome, he held the tube up vertically, clicked something. The tube whirred.
“Shouldn’t you take another, for good measure?” asked Abu Jundab, backloader resting across his shoulders.
Adamantes clicked the tube again.
“What river is that?” Sayif asked.
“The Khudah Darya,” Adamantes said.
Sayif felt a chill. “The River of God?”
“Not for much longer.”
Without thinking, Sayif laughed: “You’re going to take God’s river away from---“
Seeing Adamantes’ reaction, he broke off before adding the Him.
“He took my beloved Mysia away from me,” said Adamantes...he’d mentioned the name before. “My heart was rent...so I will have His river. And everything else.”
Sayif answered this declaration with silence, but something of the skepticism in which he held must’ve registered in his eyes...as though Adamantes had had enough, he looked at Abu Jundab and asked:
“Are you sure you can get us back to Wasta?”
“Oh yes,” Abu Jundab said, lowering his gun and producing a little crystal alcohol lighter to ignite the fuse.
“Don’t shoot him,” said Adamantes.
Abu glanced at him.
“Use your rod,” Adamantes said. “Till he burns.”
Abu smiled. However much he enjoyed using his gun, he seemed to think the idea had merit...
Adamantes told Sayif: “You have mocked the Future for the last time.”
But just then, back by the door, men started shouting.
“What is it?” Adamantes cried.
“They’re on the steps!” they answered.
Reprieved, Sayif remained where he was as Adamantes and Abu raced away.
The other Devils had lined up by the threshold, and were thrusting with their staffs, which sizzled and flashed; the moonlight was dimmer than the light in the chamber. Sayif couldn’t see too clearly into the night outside.
But there was massive complex movement out there. Abu let off a shot.
Adamantes cried: “Close the door!”
“How?” voices cried.
Rooted in place, Sayif assumed there must be a lever or something, but wherever it was, it couldn’t have been obvious—Abu fire several more times, there was a good deal more sizzling from the staffs, and the door stayed open for what seemed an eternity before someone did whatever was needful, and the wheel began to roll, Devils jumping back to get out of its way.
As the crescent between door and jamb narrowed, a gigantic black pincer lunged through the opening, but the wheel was barely impeded, crunching it off at a joint…the claw dropped to the floor and clacked shut.
As the Devils stood panting, Sayif began to notice a terrible stink that was rapidly thickening, very different from the rectifier-smell and blotting it out…exposed to air, the dead Saathranim and the scorpions who’d killed them had begun to rot, and were, by the smell of it, plainly making up for a great deal of lost time.
Can’t stay in here, he thought.
Once the Devils got some of their wind back, they bunched up, and while there was much gesturing and yelling, there didn’t seem to be any remaining enthusiasm...Sayif guessed he was quite forgotten. Spotting small knives tucked into the belts of a couple of Saathranim who hadn’t needed them for quite a while, Sayif appropriated them, slipping one into his boot, the other into his robe.
The smell grew ever more vile…he stood fanning his face with his hand. Pools of fluid leaked out of the torsos…things inside the dead scorpions creaked and cracked, and jointed legs began to lean at even odder angles than they’d leaned at before.
The Devils were still trying to make up their minds, coughing as they yammered...Adamantes and Abu were off on the left side of the crowd...the former came out with some orders, and a man took up position beside the door, laying his hand on something. The other Rectifiers arrayed themselves along the threshold, and Adamantes raised his arm, said, “One, two---”
Then seemed to remember something and paused, turning.
“Abu,” he said, and nodded toward Sayif.
Abu cocked his backloader; Adamantes raised no objection now; there was no time for a proper job.
But Devil-in-Chief wasn’t about to miss Sayif’s demise; arm still in the air, he held off on three, keeping that man next to the door waiting frantically.
Abu was still a few seconds from firing though. He had a cartridge chambered—a handle was sticking out of the side of the gun---but the tip of his white fuse didn’t show through the serpentine arm, which was cocked upright; there wasn’t any smoke either, and it looked as though the fuse had been stubbed out against the firing-pan, the tip inside the arm now. This was confirmed as Abu started trying to force more of the fuse through the hole one-handed; when the tip came out, he perforated the cartridge, then brought out his lighter once more.
He managed all this very quickly, but it was still too long for Adamantes, who didn’t seem to have any idea what the trouble was.
“Shoot him!” he coughed.
As for Sayif, he was already running headlong at Abu, pulling out the knife he’d hidden in his robes. Despairing, evidently, of Abu getting a shot off on time, Adamantes assumed one of those stances that wizards got into before they discharged a magic-bolt.
But then Abu struck the lighter...
And vanished behind a wall of flame.
Sayif flinched, shut his eyes...there was a tremendous heavy whumpf! and a hot heavy gust struck him, knocking most of the air from his lungs, lifting his feet, swinging him back in midair and slamming him to the floor, that impact knocking the rest of his breath out. He slid and stopped, tried to inhale once he stopped...the air seemed to have departed the chamber.
He opened his eyes…the chamber was misty with smoke. His face felt like he had a terrible sunburn, and he smelled burnt hair, but the stink of decay was gone, almost as if it had been consumed by the flames.
Working his jaw, ears popping, he felt a cool wind, and looked towards the door, which was opening...he could breathe now. He sat up. Abu was prying himself up. Most of the other men, blown well off to the right, were flat on the floor, but some were sitting or kneeling, shaking their heads...the one who’d been stationed at the switch was half-crouched against the wall, hand still on the mechanism he’d apparently tripped....as the door rolled back out of sight, Sayif couldn’t see any scorpions.
Must’ve gone down the steps, partway at least...Maybe they just left when the door closed…
But he wasn’t about to assume this; and that was just as well.
Legtips clattered on stone. Devils got to their feet, looking round for their fallen staffs and picking them up. Abu’s gun seemed to have discharged when the vapor went up; he pulled the shell from the chamber, slid another in, cocked the weapon, and perforated the cartridge, all the while eyeing the door.
Outside, things huge and black heaved against a flash of lightning…even as the thunder rolled, a many-legged giant came right up to the threshold and stopped, swaying, just a bit.
Hood back, bald skull revealed, Hafez the Dogkiller cried “Come on!”to the others and stumbled towards the door, none of them following his example. Halting, he thrust his stave out and cried, “Ha!” at the scorpion, this persuading some of his comrades to take a few tentative steps his way.
But those fellows stopped dead when something dark and blurred shot through the opening...the sting drove right into the middle of his hairless crown as though that were a target, squashing him straight downward...Sayif heard his bones snapping. Looking as though it couldn’t possibly be as heavy as it clearly had to be, the armored monster clattered forward, snatched the Dogkiller in both pincers, and backed out into the night.
Just before it vanished down the steps, another rushed up over it, and two more came over the sides of the stair; all three jammed into the door at once, creating a clicking, clacking, squeaking blockage with the biggest scorpion wedged on top. Limbs interlaced, claws waving, they strained and struggled, and something gave; the scorpion-jam suddenly unlocked, and they exploded into the chamber, leaving a lot of legs behind, two of the monsters heading off to the right, the big one making for Abu and Adamantes...Abu fired...the creature paused. Adamantes struck it with several yellow magic-bolts in quick succession, then conjured a smallish winged something while Abu was reloading. The little demon didn’t seem to make any difference to the motionless scorpion one way or the other.
A man came staggering round the scorpion, his face so covered in blood that Sayif couldn’t recognize him. Abu cried, “Out of the way!” and the wounded man wiped his eyes with both hands...seeing Abu trying to aim at something behind him, he turned and swore, whereupon the scorpion seized him by the neck with a pincer and yanked him off the floor, Abu putting his next bullet into the man’s back. As the man went slack, the pincer closed, snipping his neck all the way through; as soon as the body dropped to the floor, the scorpion buried its mouth in his abdomen, mouthparts working furiously.
Suddenly, though, the gory bladed maw lifted; the scorpion backed away venting an odd sneezelike noise and swiping at its mouthparts with a claw, even as more of its fellows shuttled into the chamber; one Devil after another was stung and sheared and chewed...even if the mastication stopped after a few moments, that was far too late for the mangled human meals...none were succored by their horrible taste.
A scorpion raced around on Sayif’s right, got in back of him…again he found himself running towards Abu Jundab. Abu levelled his gun, but Sayif didd’t know if he was aiming at him or the scorpion...Sayif threw himself forward, Abu’s bullet sucking through his hair...landing on his belly, Sayif skidded up against Abu’s legs. The gun’s butt descended, but Sayif took the blow between the shoulderblades, scrambled up onto all fours, and got round Abu, rising to his feet...red light burst over him, and he was knocked sideways, thinking Adamantes must’ve blasted him...suddenly Sayif was standing in front of the door.
Swaying on its leg-tips, blood sluicing from its mouth, the biggest scorpion Sayif had ever seen was blocking the threshold.
Dead man, he thought.
Hind legs lifting, the thing cocked its tail forward.
Under! he thought, and got beneath the creature while the word was still loud in his mind. The creature danced about as though it didn’t quite realize where he’d gone, its legs hammering on either side of Sayif, who kept running along inside that horrible animate arcade...but before he could get clear, a smaller scorpion came in below the bigger one’s tail. Sayif backed right up, out from under, the smaller scorpion snipping at him, claw-tips plucking at his shirt.
Then the bigger one’s tail snapped forward, and Sayif thought it was shooting at him, but no, it wound up in the littler creature, smashing it flat against the floor.
“Shoot him!” came Adamantes’s voice from somewhere. Abu’s gun went off once more...Sayif didn’t know where the bullet went, or what it was aimed at, but he found himself jumping up onto the scorpion that had been stung, and from there onto head of the collossus who’d stung it. Racing along the armored back, too close to the tail to be jabbed, he leaped past the appendage, landing on the stairhead outside.
Another scorpion was rushing up towards him...he thought of leaping over the side, but thought he was still too high. Charging partway down, he jumped at the last moment. The drop was about five yards, and he thought he’d probably break his leg, twist his ankle at least…the jolt at the bottom was bad, and he fell over, sure he’d done himself some harm, but he got right up anyway and was running in moments, across the roof, towards the stairs that led down to the lower courtyard.
Lightning turned night to day for an instant...a scorpion rushed at him from the left, but the roof gave beneath it, and the thing dropped from sight. When Sayif reached the steps, he paused, panting. They were dark between the walls, but there was moonlit sand at the bottom, and if there’d been anything on the stairs, (or the walls for that matter) he would’ve seen I, silhouetted against that.
Lightning flashed again; wind whipped his robes.
But along with the rush of the gale and the rumbling thunder, he heard another sound, like wolves baying…to the south, not far off, with the sandstorm blasting between their stony blades, the Howling Crags had found their voice.
He hammered down the steps and across the sand-crescents in the lower courtyard…there were a few scorpions, but they paid him no heed, climbing over the walls, as if they were heading somewhere to escape the storm…he raced through the gate and down the road, round to the north side of the cape.
Then the sand-clouds came billowing over and around the fortress and the promontory…the lamentation of the crags intensified. Still in the lee, he had just enough time to find a narrow slot in the wall on the right; into that he lipped, and hunkered down, hands over his ears to muffle the keening of the cliffs. His left ankle began to hurt, getting steadily worse…had he twisted it after all?
Dreading the thought of meeting Adamantes again (he refused to assume the man was dead), he wanted to get moving the instant the weather allowed, and decided he’d better stay awake...even so, despite all that fury outside the slot, he dozen off twice, waking both times when his hands slipped down from his ears, and the howling hit him unmuted.
The storm raged for what seemed hours, finally slackening just before dawn; with the sky lightening over the spires in the east, he slipped out of his refuge and went limping down the road as quick as he could. He half-expected some of the Devils to overtake him, and was constantly looking back, but if any of the lunatics were still alive, there was no evidence of it yet...the thought of scorpions worried him much less, at least for now.
Finally he made it down to the eastern gatehouse, and went out to the gap in the bridge…by then there was much more light, and he could see through the gate opposite, some distance into the other building, where some of the camels were on their knees, others up and moving about...none had been unloaded....Sayif guessed Adamantes had anticipated a hasty retreat. Metal vanes on its back, the water-camel came out of the gate and looked across, chewing her cud. Sayif didn’t see any Devils. As for the ropes across the gap, one was down, and the other was frayed in the middle, strands hanging...the storm had done quite a job.
“Ho!” Sayif called. “Anyone over there?”
An Achaean named Cleomedes rose up rubbing his eyes and came out from behind a kneeling beast.
“Is there anyone else?” Sayif asked.
“I’m the only one left.”
“We managed to keep ‘em away from the camels, but…where’s Lord Adamantes?”
“Wounded, up in the fortress. Abu Jundab’s with him. They sent me down to get help.”
Cleomedes was skeptical. “And you were happy to co-operate, is that it?”
“I figure I should stick with you fellows…If it wasn’t for your Master, I’d be dead ow. Come on, shoot some new lines over.”
It wasn’t as though the Devil had much choice. Sayif rigged the lines, the Devil stuffed a sack, slung a waterbag over one shoulder, and lashed his staff to his back. While he was paying no attention whatsoever to Sayif, Sayif remembered that he had a knife-handle poking up out of his boot, and reached down and palmed it, holding it blade up inside his sleeve. Coming across, Cleomedes asked:
“Just how badly is My Lord wounded?”
“He can’t walk,” Sayif replied.
“Come on,” Cleomedes said, going past...Sayif let the knife drop and reversed his grip, but he didn’t want to simply murder the fellow, even if he was a Devil. He thought of crippling him perhaps, lifting the hem of his robe and hamstringing him.
But no, he thought. He’d only be crippled and he could still do some mischief anyway, like untying the rope when you’re halfway across…
He was still considering what to do with his blade when Cleomedes stopped, looked back, and snarled:
“I said come on---“
All at once he saw Sayif’s knife, and his eyes bulged.
Without thinking, Sayif stepped forward and sliced his throat.
The Devil gripped the wound with both hands, blood streaming out between his fingers; then he stumbled a few paces away and dropped on his face.
Trying not to think about what had just happened, Sayif went to the lines and started across, looking back every few moments to see if Adamantes was coming.
Sayif was halfway over when three figures appeared on the switchback above the eastern gatehouse, and unless Sayif missed his guess, Adamantes was in the lead...already moving with reckless speed on the swaying lines, Sayif wanted desperately to go faster, but found he couldn’t manage it, not if he wanted to hold on.
Even as he neared the western side, he looked back to see that the Devils had vanished behind the gatehouse…just before he reached the cliff, something tugged at one of his sleeves heheard the gunshot and the sound of the bullet striking some rocks about the same time.
Then came a red flash, and a hard impact shoved him farther along...the magic-bolt was slower than a bullet, and he heard it just when it struck him...he lost his grip on the upper rope, but was falling sideways, and was close enough to the cliff to hook his left elbow over the lip, the rim coming up hard into his armpit. He caught the lower rope with his right hand, his legs swung down, and his left foot came up alongside the rock-face and landed on a little step, the inside points of his ankles knocking together. He twisted, slid his right hand along the rope so fast he skinned his palm, got his chest up against the cliff, and swung his elbow round, got the toes of both boots onto the step, his heels still hanging well out over the void. A magic bolt struck him between the shoulderblades; breath exploded from his lungs; but he didn’t let go of the rope. Two more bolts landed on either side of him, spattering him with grit. Grunting, swearing, he dragged and kicked himself up over the edge.
On hands and knees, he spun, looking across at the Devils.
They were all in stances, even Abu; Sayif thought he must be out of ammunition. Beams tossed Sayif’s hair and robes, struck the stone between his hands...little bits flew up under his chin. Rising, he spun again and ran towards the gate, unsheathing his knife. Bolts struck him, nearly knocked him off his feet, but served mainly to impel him forward; as the distance widened, the force decreased, until finally the buffets weren’t much of anything. Getting inside the gate, he went to the spikes where the ropes were fastened, and cut the lines.
One of the Devils had ventured out a few yards; down he went.
Sayif saw Adamantes fling both arms up, heard him scream…going farther into the gatehouse, Sayif strung all the camels together, mounted his beast---she seemed very glad to see him---and led the lot past a tangle of dead scorpions and Devils, going through the archway that opened on the road.
Adamantes was still screaming, voice reverberating between the cliffs.