“Fools see only sunshine.” The words hissed from between his lips; cracked from countless ages in the toxic air that permeated the deepest reaches of the earth. Immortality granted his body only infinite life, not complete immunity from the poisonous effects of his habitation.
“But, Sire, the mirror. The clouds are banished. No darkness descends from the sky to dampen the hearts of men.”
Kai knew he was treading on dangerous ground. His master, Hasa, was in no mood to be challenged. If he said that the smiles that fell from the faces of the humans far above them betrayed their foolishness, then such was the case regardless of whether Kai was able to sense it.
But he had walked such a treacherous path before. He had learned it was all in the tone. If his words sounded as if they disagreed with Hasa, then life would be quickly ended, or worse – for things far worse than death existed here. But if his voice achieved just the right inflection, the same words could portray self-awareness of his ignorance; a recognition that his Master was nigh omniscient. Hasa would feed off that, and would teach him of his dark ways.
Hasa knew that his First Servant played his words to ingratiate him, of course. He both loved and despised Kai for it, but mostly he tolerated it. Kai’s desire for power had made him thoroughly loyal, for there was nowhere else he would learn of the ways to seize a soul. And his desire was, for the most part, matched by his talents: naturally gifted in all of the ways of destruction. Most of those who braved the dark caverns seeking his knowledge had proficiency at only one of the methods he used; but not Kai.
No, he had mastered all the arts he had been taught.
First, of coercion. Hasa always began with this one, because it was the easiest. Even the most incompetent of men could force most others of his race to evil acts if he exercised enough power. A strong woman would crumble when her children were threatened.
Within these lessons came also the ability to use a man’s own natural impulses against himself. Most men would do anything for a beautiful woman. Used well, men and women could thus be led like puppies to whatever deeds a powerful master desired.
Next came illusion: the ability to deceive mankind into pursuing paths that would achieve their ruin. Fewer than half of his servants – for all of his students were also servants – were able to gain more than rudimentary skills in deception. It required intelligence that most men lacked. Those who sought power through politics or wealth were the easiest to deceive, of course; usually by offering them lessons in these very arts. Oh, the irony made Hasa laugh.
Finally, was the art of corruption. There were precious few who had served him over the millennia who had even begun apprenticeships in this skill. It was not that it was any more difficult than illusion. But in order to succeed in poisoning the soul of a man, one had to be totally given to evil. In corrupting another you were seeking more than their misery; you were pursuing the very cankering of their soul: not just sorrow in this life, but weeping for eternity. In truth, though there were men aplenty who sought power from Hasa to injure another, there had been only a handful whose own souls were dark enough to succeed in truly corrupting another’s.
But Kai was one of those, and today Hasa was offering another lesson to his foremost servant. A lesson that would eventually lead to the ubiquity of despair across the land. A lesser being would tremble with excitement, but not Hasa. His patience was not even matched by the sun, for the sun’s life – though long – would one day end, becoming a distant memory while Hasa continued his machinations unfettered by such things as time.
He smiled, the purity of his white teeth in stark contrast to the appearance of dried slime across his face. “When men can conceive only of beauty and joy they make themselves most vulnerable,” he said to his First.
“Watch. See how they view only the clear sky. No storms threaten.
“So, too, the breeze they call gentle that brushes playfully, suggesting peace.”
Kai listened to his Master’s words as he watched the scene in the liquid reflection. The Vessel of Truth, Hasa called the tall bowl in the middle of the room; for while it displayed events that were occurring far above them in the land of mortality, it also revealed the weaknesses of individuals and communities.
The vision was of a clustering of homes near the sea. The gulls were calling in the air above, and the sounds of the waves crashing against the rocks far below added what the inhabitants would call serenity to the scene. But Kai’s frustration was growing. The only thing that kept his feelings in check was the fact that Lord Hasa was showing no signs of irritation. Whatever clues were displayed within the images were well hidden, and Kai wasn’t expected to find them – not yet.
“Sire,” he grovelled, “Your wisdom, as ever, surpasses mine. If it pleases you, I would seek your counsel in this.”
“Tell me,” came the reply, “What do you see?”
Kai again looked closely at the scene before answering. “I see a blue sky, devoid of even the hint of cloud. The trees’ smallest arms wave slowly in a breeze. I see children playing in a field; their parents at work within earshot. Animals nearby are tended.”
He scoured the image but could see nothing they could use. Oh, he could look for weaknesses in the ground at the top of the sea cliff. They could perhaps cause a piece of ground to break away and fall into the ocean, taking one of two of the people with it. Perhaps they could instil fear into the hearts of the large animals, causing them to trample their carers. These would cause pain and sorrow, but Kai knew it wasn’t what he was meant to find now. Mere tragedy was insufficient to bestow disease upon a soul – not on its own anyway.
“Still the habits of your former mortal life constrain you,” said Hasa. “You see as the humans see. Focus on one man, and then try once more,” he counselled.
His Master was right. He had been born amongst the humans, and his mind had been taught to think a certain way as he had grown. He had abandoned his world more than five hundred winters ago. Having heard rumours that within the deep caverns of the earth he might find both immortality and new ways to inflict cruelty, he simply left one night and had never returned. But despite his penchant for harming others and his absence of conscience, he couldn’t shake how he had been taught to view the world. There were things he missed because of it, and he allowed a growl of frustration to escape his mouth.
He eyes moved across each individual appearing in the Vessel, eventually settling on a young man, perhaps in his early twenties. He wore no shirt in the warm morning sun, his bronze tan glistening with sweat. But his heavy breathing carried an air of satisfaction. The physical labour worked his muscles in a way that he found pleasant, and his banter with those around him betrayed his jovial mood. The perfect target. Causing despair to overwhelm such a soul would fill him with a sense a triumph – if he could find the man’s weakness.
The young man threw his head to one side, shaking the long wheat-coloured hair from his eyes. Kai now stared closely at his blue irises – clothes to the windows to his soul – but still saw nothing: no hidden shame or childhood trauma revealed itself.
But Hasa had hinted at a weakness… somewhere. Kai furrowed his pale brow, increasing his scrutiny of the details. The answer would be in a small detail.
For countless marks he continued his examination, until the sun rose high in the sky and descended once more, beginning to cast its long shadows across the fertile land.
Ah, he realised. As soon as the thought came to him, he knew that it was what he had been searching for.
“You have discovered our tool?” asked Hasa.
“It is the shadows, sire.”
Hasa's lips curled in maleficent approval. “Even on the brightest day a man will cast a shadow. Indeed, the clearer the sky, the deeper the shadow.”
Kai’s excitement was building, and he had to force control into his voice as he asked, “How, sire? How may we use the shadow?”
“You sought your victim’s weaknesses through his eyes, and often this will be sufficient,” Hasa explained. “For men and women all have secrets that when used properly will taint their souls. But some are able to master their past, and with such their injuries will be hidden from sight, as with the man you examined.
“But their shadows,” even Hasa’s eyes filled with glee now as he continued his lesson, “do not lie. A secret hidden so well that even its owner no longer sees will be revealed in his shadow. A weakness with which he was born will there be displayed. When all else fails, Kai, seek a man’s shadow. There you will unfailingly find tools aplenty.”
Kai nodded his understanding, before Hasa asked, “Now, tell me what you have learned.”
If such a question had been asked even after two hundred winters of his apprenticeship Kai would have recoiled in terror. But his education had surpassed anything he had dreamt, and from his Master’s brief description he had deduced much.
He replied now with confidence, “There are times when a man’s shadow will be faint: when clouds are thick, or a moonless night hovers above the world. At such times, men will be weaker, and other tools more effective.”
“Though even then the strongest may still prove difficult, and the shadow must be sought if we are to succeed,” interrupted Hasa.
“Of course, Sire.”
“The shadow is strongest when the sun is displaying itself. At such times, men are doubly fooled, because not only can we see their shadow most clearly, but they also believe themselves safest in heaven’s light.”
Hasa looked at his First, a smile threatening to once again curl his cracked lips. “And what is our greatest opportunity, and our greatest threat?” he asked.
Kai pondered the question for a moment before the answer came to him, “As the sun nears its highest point in the sky, a man’s shadow will shorten. Even as it does so, the secrets it hides reveal themselves all the more upon the earth. Thus, though an attack must be more…precise, at such a time, if performed well its effect will be stronger. His fall will be greater.”
“And the threat?” asked Hasa.
“When the sun finally reaches its pinnacle, the shadow disappears, for it lies directly beneath a man’s feet. At that point, we have no power.”
Hasa nodded, “And if we attempt to poison a man’s soul at such a time our efforts will rebound upon ourselves. You would be destroyed in such an attempt, Kai.”
Again, Hasa’s First Servant nodded. It stood to reason that the moment of greatest peril for those they sought to destroy would hold an equal peril for themselves.
He only needed to learn how to feed from the shadows now.
The Master closed his eyes, a signal that Kai should do likewise. He would allow his Lord to take command of his faculties. It was the most effective way of learning what he would need to know.
A hundred winters passed as Kai perfected his craft. Extending his awareness through the countless tons of rock that lay above him had proven more difficult that he initially guessed. And even once he had mastered that, it took another dozen winters to learn how to identify the clues left within the humans’ shadows. Slowly he had come to perceive the stain that a hidden weakness would inflict upon the ground, and to understand the near imperceptible differences.
A suppressed memory of violence caused subtle damage to the earth’s surface, while hidden sins poisoned the ground. Mere character flaws did no harm, but… upset nature: the best Kai could describe it was that the earth it touched became momentarily dizzy.
Once he became confident in identifying the vulnerable places of humans’ shadows, he began to test his ability to use his newfound knowledge, engineering circumstances that would bring a man or woman’s hidden past into the open, or test a previously unknown weakness. The sorrows he created were incidental – fortunate byproducts – as he grew his expertise.
By far his greatest pleasure in touching shadows lay in seeing the despair hidden in the souls of those who walked the land. Usually a man’s despair could be seen when he bore into their eyes, but the feeling of it when its shadow touched the earth was unlike anything he had before known: pure anguish falling like tears that caused the ground to cry out in sympathy. Exhilarating to Kai’s soul. So easy to identify… and to use.
Finally his Master called for him again. He enquired of his efforts, and when satisfied of his servant’s progress announced a new task.
“You must do this Kai,” he commanded. “You, who I have held as my First and Foremost student and servant. This task is so great it will shake the foundations of life in this world; an act that may never be undone, and will leave its mark through countless generations.”
Kai suppressed his glee, bowing, “As you wish, Sire.”
“I am not permitted to aid you,” his Master said, “And there is great risk. If you fail your soul will face an eternity of torment.”
“I care nothing for myself,” replied Kai. “I live only to do your will.”
After Kai's acceptance, Hasa explained what was required, and then departed; whatever laws governing him not even permitting his presence during this momentous event.
Kai took a deep breath and looked at the creature that had been left before him. The large canine had been bred for its ferocity. Although Hasa bestowed a type of immortality upon his followers, it wasn’t like his own. Hasa couldn’t die: the scars and deformities across his body proved that his physical form could be hideously damaged; but it couldn’t be destroyed.
His servants, however, were another matter. Hasa wove his magic giving endless life to his followers, and even enabled them to live in these toxic caverns. But with a wound severe enough they could still be killed. The black beast in front of him could easily end Kai's life if permitted.
Thus the canine was fighting against its muzzle and the chain that kept its claws a safe distance; shaking its head and growling as if its own fury would throw the restraints from it. It was a deadly animal, and would inflict its long claws and fangs on any within its reach.
But a creature bred for fury was only the beginning of Hasa’s plan for it. Such beasts already existed in the world. They were dangerous, but not inherently evil. What Hasa planned – what Kai would now create – would be a malevolence far more potent.
Gazing into the Vessel of Truth, Kai examined the scene before him. Another town; another host of people, all of whom threw their shadows carelessly to the ground: short enough against the high sky to carry power, while far enough from noon to avoid the risk of failure. What he was about to try was risky enough without the added potential of shadows disappearing.
Settling on a woman in her fifties he closed his eyes and extended his awareness through the mountain of rock that separated them. The distance his consciousness travelled was irrelevant here. He had practised this for scores of winters and was touching her shadow within mere heartbeats.
He allowed his awareness to survey the ground her shadow touched. He had developed an instinctive understanding of who would be his most suitable targets, and instantly knew that he had once again been correct. The woman had known much sorrow in her life. Her soulmate had died shortly after their Entwining, and her sole surviving child had then caught a deadly disease at the only time in five summers when the Healer had been away from her village. Bereft of companionship and child so quickly, she had lost her sense of purpose in life. Even her own gifts from the land she had stopped using to bless others, and had spent most of her life mindlessly trudging through one day after another.
The imprint of her sorrows upon the earth was strong, the heavy shadow conveying her losses almost too well. Kai wrapped his awareness around the taint on the earth, making it a part of him. Pulling his consciousness quickly back to his underground cavern he mentally surveyed the room. Identifying the canine he carefully overlaid his own awareness with that of the black beast, and when he was certain they were in alignment released the despair.
The creature stopped its thrashing as the new emotions initially threatened to overwhelm it, but after a few moments the ferocity intensified, the poor beast growing increasingly desperate.
Kai ignored the creature’s suffering, and returned again to the surface to capture another’s anguish.
And so it went, Kai absorbing painful memory after another, passing the full agony to the black canine. Most creatures would have collapsed under the weight of the new oppression, but not this one. Hasa had created the perfect specimen for him, as growing despair fuelled a rage almost uncontrollable… almost.
His Master knew when Kai’s work was complete and entered the cavern once more. He lay a deformed hand upon the animal; its wild thrashing calming instantly. Kai fought to keep his concern in check as Hasa removed the muzzle and chains that had held the creature, but once free it remained where it stood.
“Now,” said Hasa, “Command it. It will heed you.”
Kai didn’t understand the new magic that his Lord was weaving, but trusted completely in it, stepping towards the beast. It was only now that he realised how huge the animal was: its head rising almost to his chest. Its long black fur now appeared greasy, the waves of despair that had been emptied into it seemingly leaking through its coat. The creature’s fangs, too, were dripping a poison that would both kill the body and destroy the soul; spreading the anguish that now filled its own soul to all those it touched. The beast emanated hopelessness.
Staring at his foul creation he turned his attention to its eyes, boring through them to reach the animal’s sub-conscious.
“Hunt,” he said. “Hunt all that has joy, and knows happy laughter. Seek out the pure and innocent and infect them. And breed, that your kind may infest the land to the end of time.”
“What will you name their kind?” asked Hasa. “It is your creation, and you therefore have the honour.”
Kai held his mental grip on the animal while he thought, finally knowing what the beast should be called. “I call upon the power of the old tongue. That at the mention of your name fear will be instilled in the hearts of those who hear. You are the beasts of the deepest pits, from whence no mortal may climb. You are creatures from the abyss that has no end, even death only claiming your victims in eternal torment.
“I name you Chet’tu.”