Sunlight through an open window and a breeze gently stirring curtains. The smell of salt and stone and sweet honey scented flowers. He is alone, but he is not. He can hear her nearby, just out of sight. The creaking of the chair on which she rocks, her satisfied humming calms his fears. Something tugs at the back of his mind, a great darkness, fire and fear. He tries to push it away but it only pushes back. He takes deep shaking breaths, trying to pull in the smells of this room, of this time and place. Salt. Stone. Sweet flowers.
He cannot stop the wail that escapes his lips as the darkness and the fire and the fear push against his helpless body. But she comes, she’s there, pushing the darkness back, pale skin and big dark eyes and soft lips that kiss his forehead. She lifts him into her arms, holds him against the warmth of her body and he breathes deep the scent of her, the honey scented flowers. Her dark hair falls around them like a curtain and with it the darkness tries to take him away. But she is quick and takes him to the window, to the salt sea breeze and the cries of gulls and the sounds of people far below, in the market.
“Hush, my darling Banus,” she says, comforting, melodic. And then she sings.
I saw a ship upon the sea, I saw my maiden fair,
She stood upon the distant shore, with seashells in her hair.
She stood upon the distant shore, my sweet young maiden fair
And I at ship, alone at sea, could nary meet her there.
And I at ship, alone at sea, and she upon the shore
A lonely tear slipped down her cheek, we’d meet again no more.
A lonely tear upon my cheek, a heavy heart and sore
My sweet young maid I left behind, upon that distant shore.
With that song the memory crashes in around him. He can hear screaming, the flickering of flames. The darkness takes over, takes the smell of flowers and the cries of gulls and the cool breeze and devours it all.
He woke in a dark, hot place in pain. A fine slick of sweat coated his body and he could feel it trickling down his bare back and sides. The agony of his arms and shoulders dulled the throbbing of his head. He was afraid to open his eyes.
“Shoktri,” someone hissed. A familiar, dreadful voice. He wanted to squeeze his eyes tighter, to go back to that memory, to be that baby safe in his mother’s arms. But his mother was dead. She had died a long time before.
He opened his eyes.
Iron manacles chafed and held his wrists, suspended him many feet over a pit of liquid fire. He could barely take a breath, the air was so hot. The chains that held the manacles ran up to a ring in the roof and then down to wrap around a simple winch. Three green kobalos stood next to the winch, grinning mouths full of wicked, shining teeth. They had taken his armour, his boots, the majority of his clothes. He hung from his wrists, bare chested, his britches sticking to his body as if he had been dragged through water, his hair plastered to his face and neck.
His throat ached, his entire body ached. His heart most of all.
The room around him was large and strangely beautiful. Perhaps it had once been a grand hall, for it was spacious, with a high ceiling. The floors and walls were tiled in turquoise and white, with perfect geometric patterns in gilt. There was a great crevasse that cut the room in two, a deep, black, ragged-lipped maw that might have gone straight down to the Other realm. He certainly could not see the bottom. On the opposite side of the crevasse were piles of stones, collapsed doorways, fallen tile-work. This side was in better condition, with a raised platform facing the crevasse, on which sat a massive imposing chair, much too large even for the big crimson-skinned kobal. It was gilded and decorated with glossy black stone in complex geometric patterns. Clearly a throne. The creature upon it must be the king. He was a hideous, monstrous thing, sinuous and taller than any man, with overly long fingers, a long flat snout and massive crests upon his lizard-like head, extending down his back. He sat with an air of such majesty that there could be no doubt as to the power he claimed. He wore robes of darkest red, which only made his skin all the more deeper shade of blue, and round his neck on a great golden chain hung a heavy medallion bearing the crossed swords of Veinar Agis.
A ring on his finger held a chain, on the other side of that chain, a collar around her neck, was Mag. She no longer wore the scaled armour; she was bare of foot and wore a bright blue robe that clung to her body, revealing dark bruises upon her. Her face was angry and tear stained and bruised.
There were others like her, attached with collars and chains to rings on the creature’s other hand, but they were all so much younger and none of them bore bruises, nor tears, nor looks of anger. None wore blue. They stood silent, obedient as only those much abused must be.
Even with the creature sitting she was tiny beside him. The ring around her neck could have fit around its finger. She seemed a child beside the creature, and Cab estimated his height at ten feet.
Behind this king were other blue-skinned, lizard-like men, sat upon thrones made up of pale white stone. None were quite as large as he and none emanated the same easy power. So these were Ghamiscar, the nobles of kobalos.
“He’s awake, Arr-Ghamiscar .”
Rottdokk stood just below Cabriabanus, a foul snarl upon his blistered face.
Arr- Ghamiscar moved with a liquid grace, letting the rings on his left hand slide off his fingers, to be taken up by the other Ghamiscar, as he got to his feet. But Mag he dragged along with him and his strides were so long and easy that she had to run to keep up, her hands on the collar and chain. He came to stand before Cabriabanus, their faces level, his eyes were large and yellow, with vertical black pupils. He blinked with translucent eyelids.
“Perfect,” the creature’s voice was deep, somewhere between a growl and a purr and his breath was the hot stink of decay. “You stole my viy from me, Shoktri. You will regret this for the rest of your long life.”
“He can’t understand you,” Mag cried. His head snapped to look down upon her and then he balled his hand into a fist and lifted it up slowly. She was like a string puppet. She clutched at the collar around her neck and stretched herself out on the tips of her toes, but he just lifted higher. He lifted his fist until her feet no longer touched the ground and he continued to lift as she thrashed and struggled and made terrible choking sounds.
“Stop!” Cabriabanus cried, foolishly swinging toward the creature, trying to catch him in the eye with a heel. But Arr- Ghamiscar was no fool, nor did he know mercy. His head whipped around and caught Cab’s leg in his mouth. His teeth were like sabres and they pierced the flesh of his thigh, just above his knee and Cab could not help but cry out as the creature tasted of his blood. He was certain he would lose his leg but instead the great lizard yanked, pulling the limb from its socket and ravaging Cab’s wrists against the iron manacles. Then he let go, leaving Cab to swing and howl wildly, blood slipping down his leg, into the pit below where it hissed and spat. Arr- Ghamiscar continued to lift the sorceress up until she was eye level with him, her face growing redder and redder.
“He taught you to lie,” the creature purred. “This I do not like. You will speak only the truth to me, my viy. Understood?”
“Yes,” she managed to hiss.
“Yes?” he asked. The red of her face was turning to purple.
“Yes, beloved Arr- Ghamiscar Maakraig,” she sputtered. He dropped his arm and she hit the floor, gasping and choking. He didn’t give her time to recover, taking a few easy strides back to his throne. She had to scramble to her feet, still trying to suck air through her tortured windpipe, or be dragged along by the neck.
Sweat and blood mingled and dripped into the pit below Cabriabanus, his limp leg adding to the agony, until he felt dizzy and lightheaded. Colours swam before his eyes, the room around him pitching into darkness and then back into light. He thought he might pass out, give in to the darkness and then Rottdokk snarled.
“Bring in the prisoners.”
He forced himself to focus. The sound of shuffling feet and chains came from behind. A whip cracked and someone gave a sharp cry. A small white-skinned kobal came into his range of sight, leading the young girls they had rescued from the cages to stand beside the crevasse. Five small girls at varying stages of youth, naked and covered in red lash marks, metal collars around their necks. Despite this they stood straight and walked with some confidence, not much, but it was there. They were dragged to their knees and commanded to bow before the Arr-Ghamiscar .
“You stand before Arr- Ghamiscar Maakraig Beztic Vaunchen Murkdror,” the white-skinned kobal pronounced. “Accused of attempting escape and defilement of your power.”
Silence filled the room like a miasma as the girls shivered on the edge of the crevasse. Finally, Maakraig spoke.
“Stand,” he growled. They did so. “Your saviour,” he gestured with one large hand toward Cabriabanus. The girls turned their gazes upon him. Some began to weep, others began to keen. One girl gazed with eyes as hard as stone. She reminded him of Mag. He had told them they would all get out safely. Another promise unfulfilled.
“This Shoktri has given you hope most foul,” Maakraig went on growling. “Hope ruins spilzock. It must be taken from them so they may realize their true power. He has given you hope, and ruined your power. Now we will give you to Kukkukk.”
The white-skinned kobal took the only girl not crying and keening by the arm. Her eyes locked firmly upon Cabriabanus, a grim hatred in her face. She let him lead her to the very edge of the crevasse. But before he could push her over she struck him with the flat of her hand on the nose. He yelped and tottered on the edge and she had only to push him a little and he fell, wailing. Other of the Nidrig were converging upon her from the sides of the room as she summoned up a fireball the size of her hand and flung it with all her might at Maakraig.
He tugged on Mag’s chain and the fireball stopped a few feet in front of him. He let the kobalos converge upon the girl, let her fight with all her might against two, three, four, too many. She didn’t scream as they ripped and tore at her, she shone. She shone and the Nidrig had to cover their eyes with their hands as she shone brighter and brighter. Cabriabanus far above it all had to squint to see what was happening. He had to look away, they all had to look away as she shone so bright that she burst, and all that was left was a short pillar of light burned into the eyelids. After a few moments, Cab’s eyes adjusted. There was a scorch mark where the girl had stood and a blast radius of dead kobalos, stiff fingers red with blood. The anger that radiated from Maakraig was palpable, like the heat of the sun on a summer’s day.
The other four girls scrambled to their feet and joined hands. First one began to sing, and the next to harmonize, and the next and the next, until their voices filled the room with the brilliant light of song and Nidrigk were too frightened to go near them. Maakraig howled in rage and shook the chain that held Mag, and she began to sing as well, and her voice held such power that the entire room shook and trembled. The Nidrigk covered their ears with their hands and barked and snarled, attempting to block out the sound with their cacophony. But still the room shook, jostling Cab’s aching body, making his vision swim in pain. His dislocated leg started to burn and he howled, covering up the sound as it popped back into place. Gasping with the burning feeling as his wounds started to close up, Cabriabanus watched Maakraig knock Mag back with one feral sweep of his hand. He knocked the breath out of her and the song faltered. The shaking stopped, but the song swept up again.
“Stop them!” Maakraig roared. Rottdokk marched toward the girls, a terrible grimace upon his face, sword gleaming in his hand when the chamber began to shake again, this time more violently. It shook so that Rottdokk could not stand, so that no one could stand, even Mag was floored. But the girls stood still, holding hands, singing for all they were worth, singing for their lives. The roof over Cab’s head, the pin stuck into the rock holding the chain that held him over the liquid fire, began to shift and slip. Roaring with the pain, for the healing had not finished and his wounds still bled, he started to swing, back and forth. The pin continued to slip and he growled as he swung, the chaos growing more frantic below him with every passing minute. With a crack like thunder breaking the sky the pin slipped from its mooring and Cabriabanus went flying. He did not fall into the pit of fire, instead he landed a good distance from it, hitting the ground first with his battered leg and falling hard, rolling. His world exploded in a brilliant agony and he could barely choke out the dust he raised in the fall. His vision swam and grew dark.
With a gasp of pain his eyes flew open in time to see the four girls slump and fall in a heap. The chamber stood still once again. Rottdokk laughed cruelly as he kicked one limp grey form after another off the edge of the crevasse. The girls had killed themselves to free Cabriabanus. He lay on his back, pulling in the cool air. His sweat soaked body was coated in dust, the wounds from Maakraig’s teeth oozed blood and his hands were still shackled, but part of the chain had fallen into the pit of fire and the links therein were no more. He pulled the end of the chain from the fire and tried to scramble to his feet, but Rottdokk was faster and slammed a massive horny foot upon his chest, drove the air out again and pressed him into the ground.
“Good,” Maakraig purred. Mag pulled herself up off her hands and knees and attempted to dust herself off. She shook with the power that still flowed within her. It had no where to go but out, now that she had called it up and been cut off part way through using it. She touched her sore throat.
Rottdokk snarled, a cruel grin splitting his ugly face.
“Now you will suffer.”
“Bring in the sacrifice,” Maakraig called. Cabriabanus tried to squirm away but Rottdokk only brought his foot down harder upon his chest until it was an effort just to breathe. He leaned down toward the man, grinned.
It seemed to Cabriabanus that the snapping of his ribs must have echoed through the room but he knew that only the two of them heard it. Once the beast had snapped a few more ribs he released the man, allowing him to gasp for breath, every bit of air in his lungs both joy and pain. Rottdokk hauled Cabriabanus to his feet by the chain. Cairbre and Ethamyn stood on the edge of the precipice, swaddled like babes in bright golden cloth, their arms and legs pinned so they could not move. One wore the crown of hawks.
“No, please,” Cab coughed. “Take me instead. Let them go, and take me. They’re only children.”
“They are marked for Kukkukk,” Maakraig purred. “Can you see how they glow with his touch? He wants them. Not you. He cares nothing for you.”
“Don’t do this,” Cab tried. “The world will be swallowed up in nothingness if you do.”
But Maakraig only laughed. “Good,” he purred and waved a great hand. Cabriabanus kicked Rottdokk in the kneecap with all the strength he had left and he let out a grunt and loosened his grip on the chain just enough. Cab yanked it from his grip and stumbled away, toward the boys.
“Viy!” Maakraig snarled.
Cabriabanus froze mid-stride. He could hardly have wiggled his eyebrows, trapped in a net of Mag’s magic. Cairbre and Ethamyn stared, blue eyes wide. Cairbre started to cry and Ethamyn to shout as that same magic lifted them into the air and thrust them, screaming now, off the edge and into darkness. They did not scream for long. Cabriabanus howled.
Rottdokk took up the chain and knocked Cab’s frozen legs out from under him. He landed on his back, bright pain shooting into his head. Snarling and snapping his gruesome jaws the beast kicked him in the belly with a sharp clawed foot. He couldn’t stop the anguished holler that escaped his lips. His vow was broken and his trust and soon his body would be too.