The Sharpening III (prelude)
He sat for several minutes in the hollow of the bone vault, awaiting the three Faces of the Chimera. His mentors had been observing the Sharpening from a series of elevated platforms snaking above the proving grounds, and they were now making their way down to the bone vault. There they would meet the lone survivor and question his every action.
And so the assassin sat in focused meditation, preparing himself for the encounter. By maintaining the disciplined calm of Samatha he soon quieted the energies still coursing through his veins. Once the drumming in his chest again beat steady he conjured up a mental picture of his pursuers. It had been necessary to imagine them as his mortal enemies during the trial, but now that the Sharpening was over he allowed reality to seep back in.
There in his mind’s eye the projections of the cloaked hunters were drained of their menace until he was looking at the familiar features of his fellow Chimera: quick-witted Nisa-Ha-Sura who once was his lover, surly Farhad-An-Hak, and hulking Ebeh-Na-Had baring his brute grin. But this image was soon sucked into a surging, hot-blooded vortex. He fought it, fearful, for he knew well what would follow.
Samatha; Wait Out the Storm...
Despite his rigid mental discipline, conscience quickly pierced the shelter of Samatha, and he could not plug the holes in this forced tranquility. He abandoned it, lest it shatter, and was drowned in the raw violence of his actions.
He relived the way the garrote wire ran red across Nisa-Ha-Sura’s pale throat – him straining to tighten the killing circle, her straining to gurgle breath – the way his face was pressed into her hair, sweet and damp, like when they were lovers – she’d fought, stiff against his body, and then suddenly stopped, and he dropped her dead as a ragdoll, limbs twitching, still warm...
Unflinching he faced this psychic onslaught, for it was a necessary part of his training. He felt again the dagger sinking into Ebeh-Na-Had’s belly, right up to the hilt, then a twisting, and how the man’s muscles cramped, eyes bugging above bared teeth, how as the grinning man gasped his last the spittle had sprayed cold against the assassin’s skin.
The remembering, relentless, grew ever more intense.
How when I disarmed you, brave Farhad-An-Hak, you scampered back like a child with hands outstretched and shaking; begging me no no please – and I saw your spirit snap across the inevitable. When I dug my Claw into your heart I watched the Shroud drawing across your eyes; your soul slipped from your mewling mouth and you had no honour…
These staccato flashes seared deep into his psyche, and he knew their torments would haunt him till he too entered into the Afterlife. He gave himself to the grief, and there in the hollow bone vault of his triumph the killer wept, suddenly no more than a boy who’d barely seen seventeen cycles of the sun. For he was no longer acting as a Chimera but as himself, Zamra-Ta-Gheem, of the mountain tribe Hizari.
Never again will we trade secrets, or share in each others’ laughter, or together climb the walls of our Lair in the light of the moon...
He made himself give thanks through the quiet stream of his tears, silently voicing his gratitude for the honour of their sacrifice.
The lessons of your passing have become a part of me, and your spirits are patterned across the fabric of my mind. There they will guide me.
Each of the Hunters had volunteered for his Sharpening, and knew full well the perils they would face. But the knowledge did little to lessen the pain of their passing. Nor did it exempt him from the pain of taking their lives.
One day I too will come before the Gatekeeper, he acknowledged, fully lucid. Passage through the void, they say, is never kind to those who live by the sword...
He wondered if he could have spared them death. The thought gnawed at his already ragged conscience: the trial did not require him to kill even one them – yet he had killed all three.
He told himself that this was the way of the Chimera, and he like each of his brethren accepted it, jagged as it was.
Slowly his anguish ran its course, and his mind turned to the Chimera funerary rites. He pictured his companions’ corpses splayed across a smoking pyre. Once the flames had licked clear their flesh it would be his grim task to mortar their charred remains into this bone vault.
‘Nothing remains of us but dead bone and dust, all things are burned up, all but all we’ve done...’
Chimera funeral rites dicated that the material possessions of the fallen were burned with their bodies: their weapons, clothing, and all their personal effects, including their money.
‘All things burn up but one; the record of our actions, and so might others gain from what we’ve spun...’
The journals of the Chimera alone were exempt from the flames, and were stored here in the bone vault, fitted within the hollow of their owner’s skulls. As the witness of their final moments, it was Zamra-Ta-Gheem’s duty to pen the details of their deaths across the final pages. Thus this vault was comprised of the blackened bones of every fallen Chimera, interred here to form its very walls, floor, and ceiling. Each was an object of study – both a memento mori and a sombre reflection on the bare core of Chimera philosophy.
The assassin meditated on these truths, accepting them, and in so doing attained a steely solace.
For as you come into this world alone, so you must depart from it; leaving nothing behind but the rippling of your wake. Here in this chamber of bone there are no illusions about our contract with death, signed first for us at birth, and once again when we grip the Claws of the Chimera.
This, then, is the whispered lesson of these skulls...
After several silent minutes there was a muted rattle at the bone gate.
The Faces were outside, signalling their arrival, but they would give the meditating man as long as he needed to assimilate the events of his Sharpening.
Zamra-Ta-Gheem continued to sit in silence until the salt stood dry against his skin.
Breath in, into Samatha; Swimming to the Surface.
Breath out; I am Sharpened.
His resolve was hardened, and his purpose set still keener than before. He was ready now for the final whetting of their questions. And he would need to be, for they bore with them a request from a red-cloaked visitor. The Master of Puppets himself had come and gone, and set new prey for the Chimera.
The assassin cast his gaze upon the knotted white lines of the chamber’s skeletal exit.
“Enter,” he said, and in his voice there was no more feeling.