Chapter 7: Inside Dem
Furtov beckoned one of his boys to tend to the horse.
“Your business here is not the usual. Am I right?”
“You are correct,” Ava answered, scanning the outpost for anyone who might be paying attention to her arrival.
“Come,” said Furtov, placing his hand on her elbow. “We always have what you need. And if we don’t, we’ll get it!” he laughed.
Ava tried to adopt his easy manners and followed him into the large tent filled with all sorts of wares and staples packaged in bulky burlap sacks and wooden crates. He led her through a flap into a more private setting. Directing her to a stool, she sat down at a makeshift table which was nothing more than a round board laid over a barrel. She placed her satchel on the floor beside her stool. Furtov nodded at another boy who brought tea and a small plate of fruit and bread.
“Thank you,” Ava said to Furtov who took a seat across from her.
He waived off this display of generous hospitality with a gesture of his hand. “You have not come for supplies without a cart. You must be here on other business.”
“Actually, my cart was destroyed by a fowl along the way.”
“You are lucky to be alive then, aren’t you?”
“And the man you came with . . .” he began.
“He came to my aid.”
“Very kind of him,” Furtov remarked in a low whisper. He could see through the breach in the flaps of the tent that another customer appeared in the front. With a nod, he directed the young man serving the tea to tend to the man looking at wares.
“Kindness is— an unusual quality these days.”
Ava drank her tea and gratefully ate some fruit while Furtov kept his eyes fixed on the flap leading to the front store. One hand was tucked inside his tunic vest, gripping a concealed dagger. They waited until the man completed his business before they spoke again.
When the man left, Furtov asked, “What did you come for, Ava?”
“I need to get inside the walls of Dem,” she admitted. “Unseen.”
Looking each other square in the eyes, Furtov asked the obvious. “Why?”
“My husband has a tattoo,” she disclosed; and after a pause, she added, “and a shadow.”
Furtov looked at her for what seemed an interminably long time without saying a word. Ava held his gaze without looking away, as if to prove her resolve.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Take me inside.”
“I’ve been inside Dem once,” he declared. “I have no desire to go back.”
“I must know what my husband is planning.”
“If your husband has any dealings with Dem, you’re headed in the wrong direction. You need to get as far away as you can, as fast as you can.”
“I can’t leave on suspicions only. I need proof. I have to see with my own eyes. I must know of a certainty.”
“His tattoo is certain enough, trust me.”
“I will not believe he has betrayed us until I see and hear it for myself.”
“It is madness!”
“I have two sons. I cannot whisk them away from their father on a whim,” she declared. “I have to know I’m justified in my actions. I will have to live with this decision in the eyes of my children.”
After a moment, Furtov asked, “How old are your boys?”
“They’re now about seventeen and fifteen.”
“Ava, if your husband has a tattoo, your family is in great danger. You are marked as surely as he is.”
Ava did not fully understand what he meant by that. Her objective was to compel Furtov to get her inside Dem. She listened to Furtov’s recounting of his visit to Dem and of tormenting dreams that plague him still.
“Take my advice. Return to your boys and put as much distance as the known world affords between you and Dem, for it is only there that they will be safe. He received that tattoo in exchange for a pledge. Your lives are forfeit.”
“Not until I have seen for myself.”
Furtov examined her in silence. This stubborn woman was not to be reasoned with— her mind was set. Why on earth should he accommodate her? She sat there across from him, straight, tall, and determined. Ava slowly reached down and opened her satchel.
“I offer you this in exchange,” she said, placing a dried gourd on the table. Inside the hollowed-out gourd was a plant spilling over the sides with tiny white blooms that glowed in the dim light of the tent. Their fragrance filled the room with the sweetest scent he had ever known.
“Elpece,” he breathed, a tear brimming his eye.
Ava was surprised by his reaction. “You are familiar with these flowers?”
“Elpece?” he asked, a look of peace and nostalgia crossing his face. “Oh, yes. I know elpece. Where did you get these?”
“We found them not far from our home.”
“Do you know about elpece?”
“Only that they glow in the dark and their scent has a rejuvenating effect.”
“More than that,” he countered. “They have healing properties, too. Chew the stem and bloom together and place them on a wound. It will heal with amazing speed. Eat them, and they will take away pains throughout your body.”
“Oh, yes, but greater still, they are a sign.”
“Yes. A sign of approval and protection from— ” before he went on, he drew his stool nearer to her and said in an almost inaudible whisper close to her ear, “— from the king of Menetoy.”
“Shhh!” he silenced her, even though she whispered the name. “Menetoy is a kingdom well to the east beyond the Great Wall of Fire. On the other side of that wall, the skies are blue, not gray. A great light, the sun, shines in the sky, giving life and health to plants and animals alike. The air is crisp and clean. Even the inhabitants of Menetoy have shiny skin, unlike our sallow pale complexions. The grass is green, and the trees give forth their leaves and fruit in abundance. And the king is a good king. He does not oppress his people. They live in peace and prosperity.”
“Have you been there yourself? How do you know this to be true?”
“I have not been there,” he answered somewhat ashamed. “But I have seen the Great Wall. It stretches across the land as far as north goes north and as far as south goes south. It reaches up through the clouds.”
“How do you know about the kingdom on the other side?”
“From those who have passed through the flame and beckoned whosoever will to cross back with them.”
“And you didn’t go?”
“Did I mention the Great Wall was made of fire?”
Ava stared for a moment. “Did you ever actually see someone emerge from the Wall of Fire?”
“If I can believe my eyes, yes.”
“Well, if they made it through, surely you could as well.”
“I do not believe that my faith is strong enough to protect me.”
Furtov explained to Ava that the fires of the Wall would not harm the true seeker of light nor a citizen commissioned by the king to return and invite those who dwell in darkness to come into the light. A person attempting to pass through the flame with any deceitfulness in his heart, with the intent to spread darkness on the other side, would be consumed in the flames.
So it is true.
“Ava, the name of these flowers, elpece, means hope.”
“Then in exchange for getting me in and out of Dem, I offer you hope.”
Furtov sat back and nervously ran his hand over his graying beard. He loathed the idea of going back to Dem. He had stayed here on the outskirts of that deadly city to turn people away whenever he could. Visions of the horrors of that night, of that poor old couple, betrayed by their own son, raced through his mind. Here sits this woman who presumes to imagine she can get in and out unharmed, unaffected. What a miserable wretch her husband must be to forsake so beautiful a woman and two fine sons! Her loyalty to him was obviously without merit. Furtov knew her to be a woman of character, a trait that often makes one a target in this age. Her steel blue eyes were set. Something in her expression told him that she would make the attempt with or without his help.
“My sources tell me the flags are up, indicating Cam is present in the city.”
This news evoked no apparent change in her expression. She did turn her head slightly when she recognized the sound of distant drums.
“I know a way,” he said at last. Rising, he put the elpece in a cupboard and brought back two dark gray robes. They were hooded and heavy. “We must be off right away.” Then he turned to her and asked, “Are you quite certain that your husband will be there tonight.”
“Almost,” was her best answer.
“Almost?” he repeated.
They saddled two horses. Furtov recommended they leave Anani, Archer’s horse, at the trade post to rest. Ava would need him to be well rested for her return flight tomorrow. He would also draw more attention than they wanted, for he was truly a magnificent creature and quite uncommon in these parts. They carried nothing more than their weapons, two light sticks, robes, and a canteen of water. They were off.
It was a long ride into darkness. It was more than just the absence of light; a heavy thickness surrounded them. They sliced through the intense haze with its increasingly repulsive smell. As they rode, the drums grew louder and more palpable.
“The drums desensitize,” Furtov informed her.
Indeed, Ava couldn’t help but feel as if she were being hypnotized by the drumbeat. She struggled to maintain awareness. She caught a glimpse of the city walls looming over the treetops against the blacker darkness. She could also hear occasional screams of terror. With the main gate in sight, they turned to the left and followed a sparse trail through hedges and thorns to the south corner. They dismounted in the shrub and secured their horses out of the line of sight from the top of the city wall. As she tied her horse, she pondered the few travelers they passed along the way to the city; all were headed toward Dem; none were coming away.
Cam’s flag was flown at each corner of the city walls and every main gate when he was in residence. The dark gray banner with two black orbs and a red dagger with red drops of blood falling off its tip was his insignia. Furtov’s sources were correct. Cam was present inside those walls. One could almost feel his evil presence prickling the skin.
“We will enter through a drainage pipe,” Furtov informed. “Brace yourself. The stench is overpowering and the sight of blood disheartening. Are you sure you want to do this?”
“It’s not that I want to do this; I must.”
“Very well.” He led the way to the drainage pipe.
The stench of refuse and waste hit them before they arrived. Ava had to cover her mouth and nose to keep from heaving. Even then, she was confident she would be sick before long. The drainage pipe was large enough for them to walk inside only slightly bent over. Furtov did not light their torches until they were well away from the entrance. He didn’t want their glow to be visible to anyone patrolling outside. Ava followed along, not wanting to see the slop she was hearing and smelling as she held onto Furtov’s robe for guidance. They paused when they could no longer distinguish the entrance to the pipe. Furtov lit the torches.
Ava immediately gagged. The reddish brown liquid they stood in was above her ankles. Body parts were scattered along the way. She squeezed her eyes shut.
“Are you sure you want to see this Ava? It only gets worse.”
“I must. I must see him here. I have to know that he has chosen this over us.”
“Then let us press on.”
Ava continued to follow Furtov, eyes shut tight, while clinging to his robe for guidance. At last, they came to a split where two pipes joined together. They took the right side and continued further. Now and again they could hear a splash of liquid tumbling from above and would have to lunge forward or brace themselves back to avoid being doused from above with waste being dumped into the drain. The noise of revelry reverberated through the sewer chambers. Furtov counted five plumes looming upward.
On the sixth, he said, “This is it. Up we go.”
A wooden ladder was attached to the side of the drain column. It was both slick and sticky. Ava nearly slipped and fell several times on the way up. The noise from the drums and the numans chanting was deafening in the pipe. She stopped for a moment to collect her emotions. She felt a wave of hysteria rising up in her. Desperately, she fought to suppress it. She would have to maintain her composure long enough to get through this night. See. Do not feel.
Finally, they reached the top. Ava was no longer sure if she was hearing drums or her own heart beating. The noise was jarring. Furtov pushed up on the grate at the top to allow himself to scan the passageway above for bystanders or witnesses to their arrival. Seeing none, he slid the heavy iron grate to the side and heaved himself up out of the drain. Quickly, he turned to offer Ava a hand, then replaced the grate so as not to alert any passersby that intruders could be afoot.
“This is your final chance to turn back,” he offered.
Ava merely looked toward the larger chamber ahead and nodded.
Their hooded cloaks allowed them to blend in with the spectators. They took their place in the back near the passageway from which they had entered. The festivities were taking place on a lower level. Ava observed the Counsel Chamber was actually an amphitheater with spectator booths and galleries rising all around a large arena in the center with an enormous platform to the lower left of her position. She had not yet found the courage to focus on the stage area.
Almost as soon as they positioned themselves against the marled rock wall, the drums suddenly ceased. Ava feared they had been discovered and expected that at any second the numans in front of her would turn around and pounce upon her and Furtov. Instead, the silence was broken by three quick drumbeats, followed by another three. Twice more she heard the succession of three drumbeats, followed by another three.
Nine numans, cloaked in darkest black, arms folded in front, walked out to the middle of the arena in single file and formed a large circle to a slow monotonous drumbeat. The drums ceased again when the Circle was formed.
That’s when she saw him. To the serenade of a monosyllable chant, two numans wearing dark red robes escorted Les around the perimeter of the Circle. They came to a stop in between the Circle and the platform where Cam loomed large upon the Counsel Chamber throne. Because Les was positioned to face the platform, Ava could now see only his profile; but she saw his full face when he first stepped out from an obscure dark corner into the spotlight before this crowd of thousands of numans.
What in the world is this?
The two numans escorting Les around the Counsel Circle removed their hoods. Ava could not be certain, but she believed them to be none other than Griff and the other friend whom Onar had shot through the arm with an arrow. They were his accusers. Ava could not distinguish all that was said, but he was apparently being charged with divided loyalties. To earn the mark of Cam, one had to bring a blood sacrifice of an immediate family member. It had been discovered that the woman Les brought for sacrifice was nothing more than a mistress and not his actual wife. The enraged crowd of spectators began to chant, “Kill, kill, kill . . .”
Griff and the other man testified that Les had a beautiful wife and two brawny boys. The question was posed to Les, would he rather forfeit his life this night, or pledge his family to the Circle? The Nine would determine which of his family should live and which should die the death on the altar. He was given a smooth round stone. One side was painted black, the other side painted white. Les was to indicate his will by placing his stone in the center of the ring. White side up meant he chose death for himself. Black side up meant he chose death for his family.
Les turned toward the Circle and slowly walked toward the center. He hesitated for some minutes, evidently trying to make his decision. The length of his quandary enflamed the crowd that seemed ready for immediate action. They began again to shout, “Kill, kill, kill…” Les laid his stone in the center. The black side was facing up.
Cam let out an angry roar, for the spectators always chant his will. “What is the will of the Counsel?” his voice boomed like thunder and rolled around the Chamber walls.
The Circle of Nine threw their stones up into the air and let them fall in the middle. Their stones would either affirm or annul Les’s stone. When the stones came to rest and were counted, four were facing up white; five were facing up black. The decision stood. Enraged, the Warlord leapt from his platform to the center of the Circle. With sword drawn, he grabbed Les by the throat. Numans all throughout the Chamber began to remove their robes, exposing contorted faces and bodies. Their skin took on a dark gray pallor; their eyes became sunken black pits. Howls of ecstasy rolled around the chamber and reverberated against the rock walls.
Ava had seen what she had come to see. She did not care to witness her husband die at the hands of Cam, who clearly wanted this man’s blood. She tugged on Furtov’s sleeve and moved toward the passageway, where they were followed by the chant, “Kill, kill, kill . . .”
Stealthily, they made their way back to the drainage grate. They lowered themselves silently down the wet sticky ladder. After Furtov returned the grate to its position over the pipe, an ethereal blackness came to hover over the opening.
A triumphant roar echoed through the column, shaking the ladder. Ava stopped for just a brief second. It is finished. She made her way to the bottom of the ladder and through the drainage tunnels to the exit. She did not allow herself to see, hear, smell, or feel.