As swiftly as the darkness of sudden death had consumed him, the invisible hand parted the veil and the light came flooding in again. It wasn’t painful, but it was shocking, every time. He assumed he may never get used to it. It wasn’t like being born. It was more akin to demonic possession – he would awaken again, feeling the consciousness of his new host pushed into the swirling abyss as his own memories and thoughts took over.
This time he had gotten rather lucky. He glanced down at himself, and saw the familiar red robes. Reaching into his left pocket, he felt the little stone idol, and a leather pouch which his fingers quickly explored and found to be familiar. His heart raced for a moment when he realized who he had become. How fortuitous it was! He had never been able to choose his host, it happened randomly and he had never been able to predict where he would awaken next. This time around, he could hardly believe his luck. Fate had blessed him with jumping into Vlastimir’s being, and the leather satchel in his pocket contained the vial with Melek’s alchemical mixture inside it. A plan began to emerge in his mind, and he felt suddenly dizzy. The world wobbled for a moment as he struggled to gain his composure.
A quick survey of his surroundings helped him gain his balance again, and he was thankful to see Nazli standing at the rear corner of the caravan, looking to the south from where they had come. Kuzey had meanwhile hiked down the slopes to the left to fill his canteen from the stream rushing over the jagged rocks. He could hear Ayberk’s voice shouting down from the hillside as he shook his head quickly and began hiking over to where Ayberk was scrambling cautiously down the embankment. They stood over the body crumpled up against an outcropping of rock jutting from the reddish soil and yellowing knee-high grasses. A thick crimson stream soaked the ground beneath his left side, one arm splayed out above his head, the other hand stuck clutching at the spike protruding from his chest. He glanced again at Nazli, who had not moved from her position behind the wagon.
Another thing he figured he may never get used to was seeing his previous host body lying dead in front of him. Over centuries of this however, he had learned to steel himself against emotional reactions to the sight. This in turn had led to a sort of disconnection in him, a detachment from his physical containers. He held no affection for the beings he inhabited. Life for him was always in motion, always a transition from one stage to the next. He had come to despise looking into mirrors or reflections, anything which forced him to confront his outward identity, with which he never fully identified. When he closed his eyes imagining what he looked like, it wasn’t a blank canvas, but rather a senseless mess of swirling blended images, mixed by the years of constant change. There had never been a solidified self-image for him to access. Having no idea what he looks like, this sometimes set him reeling in a swamp of self-image where nothing was defined, always in flux.
He sighed deeply and turned his eyes to Ayberk. “We have problems,” he said quietly.
He Could Be Anybody
“How do we handle this?” Ayberk asked, genuinely perplexed, his voice tinged with worry and anxiety. Vlastimir could smell the stress coming off him, it stung his nostrils.
“Well, we don’t know where he went. Who he is now. He could be anybody. He could have jumped into a body thousands of miles from here. There really is no way of telling.” Vlastimir looked at the sky and sighed. A hawk was slowly circling above them on the September breeze.
“We have to get a message to Cosimo.”
It felt like lying. It was lying. He had to react quickly, he had to become Vlastimir. He had to find that part inside himself that was still Vlastimir, and plug it in so it could be accessed when he needed it. He did not have much time. He would have to get this situation straightened out, and quickly. There were a lot of loose ends. Ayberk could not suspect a thing or he knew he would follow established protocol and everyone in the party would be killed. Everyone in the group had taken an oath of understanding, that if and when things went terribly wrong there was no other solution than to give up their lives to protect Cosimo’s secret. Nobody could know what they knew, and nobody was safe if the knowledge ended up in the wrong hands.
Despite feeling the situation spiraling out of his control, he was not afraid. He rarely feared for his life any more. It meant nothing to die – a moment of pain, a wave of darkness, a flash of light, and he was back.
“Finish dragging down that tree and let’s cantilever that boulder out of the road so we can continue. That’s our first order of business. I am not sure what we will do with Nazli. I think we need to…” he slid his index finger across his throat, simulating the act of slitting her jugular.
“But please,” he continued, “please do not mention what has happened to Melek. Nazli cannot know yet. I need time to figure out what to do next. Once you have removed the boulder blocking our path, go and speak privately with Kuzey and inform him of what has happened. I will take care of the girl.”
A Crime Of Opportunity
Vlastimir scrambled carefully back down the hill, scree breaking loose beneath his steps and scattering down the slope in front of him. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the satchel that contained the vial of potion. There was plenty left, the fools who had fed it to the dog in that room back in Erzincan had no idea how potent it was. Only the smallest drop was needed to achieve the desired effect, they had given the dog enough to turn a small army to stone. He slid the vial back into his pocket but kept it outside the leather satchel in which it was normally housed.
Without speaking or even glancing at Nazli, Vlastimir walked to the back of the wagon where he reached into the back and pulled out a sack with some dried nuts, figs and crusty bread inside it. He removed a handful which he pushed into his right-hand pocket. Before pulling it out from the rear of the wagon, he carefully but quickly emptied half the contents of the vial into the sack. He squeezed it, rolling the food inside the sack back and forth gently, coating it with the odorless elixir. He also retrieved a bottle of crude port wine from a wooden crate. He gripped the wine cork between his teeth and pulled it loose, abruptly spitting it onto the ground where it rolled in a semi-circle, coming to rest at Nazli’s left foot. He drank deeply, the deep red liquid dripping over his beard as he pulled the bottle away from his mouth.
Holding some of the untainted food from his pocket in his hand, he leaned against the wagon and tossed some of the nuts and figs into his mouth, chewing noisily. Nazli turned to look at him, not suspecting a thing, still not knowing the fate which had just befallen Melek on the hillside moments before. The corners of her mouth turned only slightly upward, not enough to bunch up her flushed cheeks. A conciliatory smile that stung him inside, knowing what he was about to do. He held the sack of food toward her, with a nod of encouragement toward the food inside, just as Ayberk and Kuzey came shuffling up the road toward them. She reached inside the sack, pulling out a small handful of the nut mixture. Turning away from him, she placed it in her mouth as she began to chew. It only took a few moments. There was a subtle but tight crunching sound as she turned to stone almost immediately. Vlastimir turned to face her one last time as a look of momentary panic washed across her face as she realized, far too late, what was happening to her. Then it was over.
Vlastimir turned to Ayberk and Kuzey, placing the sack of nuts in the seat at the front of the wagon and taking another deep drink from the bottle of port, which he then passed to Ayberk. The three of them stood in silence for a moment. Finally Ayberk spoke, only to tell them the boulder had been broken free and the road was now cleared enough for the wagon to pass.
“Ayberk, help Kuzey load her into the back of the wagon. We can’t leave her here. Cover her with some of the sacks. We will leave once you have finished this.”
Vlastimir climbed onto the wagon bench and clenched the bag of nuts and figs in his left hand, the reins of the horses in the other. There was a bump and some shuffling noises as the two men loaded Nazili’s petrified body into the rear of the wagon. Kuzey climbed inside the back, while Ayberk went to the front and joined Vlastimir on the bench.
“What will be do with her?” Ayberk asked as Vlastimir jerked the reins and set the wagon bumping into motion.
“We will take her with us to Cosimo. He may have a use for her. I suspect that the shining one will come looking for her eventually. He seemed very attached to her.”
Tying Up Loose Ends
They passed the bottle of port wine between them a few times, the wine sloshing over their chins and down onto their chest as they drank and jostled down the road. Vlastimir passed the bag of nuts to Ayberk who looked at Vlastimir questioningly for a moment. Vlastimir nodded, assuring Ayberk it was ok. It was not. That only left Kuzey to deal with in the back of the wagon.
A couple miles later, Vlastimir pulled the wagon to a stop. He reached over and removed the hatchet from the floorboard where Ayberk had placed it. He climbed down off the bench and walked to the back, clutching the rough wooden hatchet handle in his hand, hiding it slightly behind his back. As Vlastimir approached the back of the wagon, Kuzey stuck his head out from between the canvas flaps and without another thought, Vlastimir swung the hatchet, swiftly planting it into Kuzey’s skull with a dull thud. Kuzey’s body dropped lifelessly from the back of the wagon, hatchet blade still stuck in his head, blood pooling quickly in the dirt. His eyes still held a fixed look of surprise as Vlastimir wrenched the hatchet loose from the bone and tossed it over the slope to the left where it tumbled and clanked against a rock. He opened the vial once again and dripped a few drops of the elixir into the wound. The blood seeping from Kuzey’s head wound hardened first, and with the sound of stiff crinkling paper Kuzey too was transformed to a lifeless gray stone statue, lying crumpled in the road.
Vlastimir took a moment now, the breeze whistled through the valley, rustling his hair and billowing in his robes. The world seemed to take on a great stillness – time stopped and he felt frozen for a moment. The hawk floated, drawing a large circle in the sky. Vlastimir drew a deep breath, and placing the vial back into its satchel, he bent down and gripped Kuzey’s body under the shoulders and began dragging him off the road. It was extremely heavy and awkward to move the stone figure on his own, so he grabbed a large rock from the roadside and smashed it against the lifeless figure, breaking it into unrecognizable chunks. He picked up the chunks one by one and threw them over the embankment where they rolled down, smashing into other rocks on the way. He did the same with the body of Ayberk, disposing of them both in a single effort. Sweat beading on his brow, Vlastimir leaned now against the wagon and rested for a moment. He drew apart the canvas flaps and gazed at the petrified body of Nazli lying in there, her frozen expression leering at him from beneath a cloth sack full of various travel supplies.