The instructions he had been given served well enough. He managed to find the big door with the swords crossed upon it without coming across any kobalos. Kak had said that most of the Nidrig kept to certain parts of Oomglaken, out of the way of the higher ups, for it was dangerous to be found wandering. Orscan had tempers and cruel whims. There were two of the Orscan standing guard outside the door. They looked bored and hardly spoke. One appeared to be sharpening his claws on a whetstone. Cabriabanus wondered if these two had been blessed with the secret of the Ghamiscar. There was really only one way to find out. He stepped out of the shadows and walked confidently toward the creatures, long dagger in hand. When they saw him, grins grew upon their faces. One laughed and made some sort of signal to the other, who nodded, and drew his sword. They advanced, one to either side of Cabriabanus. He could feel the anticipation in the air. There was a long moment, where everything seemed to slow, so that each movement of the creatures could be examined carefully. He saw the motion before they moved and threw himself forward, tumbling between them as they lunged and struck each other. They were quick to recover, but Cabriabanus was quicker, hauling open one of the large, heavy doors. He turned and stepped backward into the room, fending off their blows with his dagger, using the door as a shield. He hauled upon the heavy thing, trying to close it in their faces, but one of them got an arm through and scrabbled with a huge clawed fist. The claws were extremely sharp. He slashed wildly at the arm and the creature bellowed but would not withdraw and they hauled upon the door from the other side. He impaled the thick meat on the forearm, brackish blood spewed out, and finally it was enough for the creature to pull his arm back. Then it was merely a tug-of-war upon the door. Cabriabanus had the upper hand for the floor in the room was rough dirt which gave him sure footing, compared to the polished stone floor in the hall, and the door naturally wanted to close. It was a great heavy thing and finally got its way. Cabriabanus barred the door, slamming the wood down, more hastily, louder than he intended. The whole thing had taken mere moments, but had been a noisy affair and he was afraid, blood pounding in his ears. The door was solid and sound proof for once it had closed he could no longer hear the creature’s howling.
There was a soft rustling from behind and he whirled around, bloody dagger at the ready, to find Mag standing at the end of a short hall, golden collar still fastened around her neck, and an angry, crazed look upon her face.
“Mag,” he said quietly. He wiped the dagger upon his britches and stepped toward her. The chamber walls and ceiling were a brilliant, polished turquoise, nearly the colour of Mag’s ruined robe. All was silent but for his boots upon the dirt floor. The girl was a mess, her robe in tatters, her flesh beneath striped with fresh wounds from claws or lashes. Blue and purple bruises marred her arms and legs and face, but most prominently her neck, around the collar. The madness in her eyes jumped out as he reached her and she lunged for the dagger, practically throwing herself atop it. The chain on the collar jingled lightly as she tried to wrest the weapon from his grip, and she had a desperate strength. He yanked the dagger away, tried to toss it behind him but she grabbed at his wrist and the dagger fell at his feet. He kicked it away behind him and snatched her by the wrists as she raised them up to fall upon him. He twisted her around, held her against his body with her arms crossed in front of her. She fought with a fierceness he hadn’t yet known from her, growling like a wild cat deep in her throat before realizing he had her caught and she could do little to escape. She stopped fighting, sagged against his grip and started to cry.
“Mag,” he said softly, still holding her wrists, uncertain as to whether or not this was some sort of ploy. Uncertain, until she spoke.
“Kill me,” she whined through the tears. “You have to kill me.”
He let go her wrists and pulled her around to face him. Tears streaked her bruised, dirty face and he wiped them away as gently as he could.
“No,” he said. “I cannot do that.”
“I want to die,” she said, large eyes locking into his.
“You can die later,” he said. “Right now, we’re getting out of here. Heal yourself and tell me how to get that thing off your neck.”
She laughed sardonically, quietly. “I cannot.”
“Which?” he asked, stepping back to pick up the dagger and sheathing it.
“Only Maakraig can take the collar off. And...” she trailed off, looked away. “I am empty of power.”
“What do you mean, empty?” he asked, eyes flickering from her saddened face to the collar around her neck. The collar was gold of colour, but much stronger than gold. Near to where the chain was attached was a hinge.
“Empty,” she sneered. “Like a cup.”
“How do you...” he hesitated. “Fill yourself?”
“Time,” she sighed. “Rest, food.”
“They do not feed you?” he muttered. “May I?” he asked and stepped forward to lift her hair and examine the collar all around.
“They’ve always kept me weak,” she said. “If I were full I would destroy Oomglaken and all of the filthy creatures that call it home.”
“So you can do nothing?” he asked.
“I have no strength left,” she whispered. He could see her lips shake as she said it. She was afraid. She was terrified. Perhaps that was what was blocking her power. “I want to die.”
He shook his head. “No,” he said. “There is a better life for you, waiting outside of this place. You got out once, you can do it again.”
She sniffed and her body started to shake with sobs. He thought perhaps he should try to comfort her, but her body was all bruises and scratches and he could not put a hand upon her without causing her harm. Instead he thought to distract her.
“What did you do with the boys,” he asked.
“They’re alive,” she said in a pitiful voice.
He let go a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.
“I magicked them to the broken hall. All the passages that lead there have been blocked off for years. No one can get to them without magic.” He flicked his eyes up from examining the collar. There were lines on her face he hadn’t noticed before. She looked old beyond her years, and there was a shadow of doubt flickering in her eyes. She had not lost her magic, but given up on herself. He flicked his eyes back to the collar and noticed a tiny hole in the front of it. And as he noticed it there came a great stirring from farther within the chamber and a low rumble. Mag’s eyes widened and she clutched the collar at her throat.
“Get it off!” she hissed, panicked, scrabbling at the thing with her fingers.
And then, like throwing a cloak over her, she was calm, her lids half closed, her posture drooped. “You have to hide now.” She took his arm and hauled him into the main chamber. It was difficult to tell how large the chamber was, the floor was dirt and the walls, once past the hall, were hidden in a tangle of tall, narrow trees that seemed half vine. The air was hot and moist. There was a low rock wall to one side of the room which appeared to house a significant pond and beside it a raised bed of branches, leaf-litter and mud; a nest. On this nest stirred the creature called Maakraig.
She dragged Cabriabanus toward the creature and his heart leaped into his throat, fearful she was giving him away, but before Maakraig could turn and see him she shoved him into a break in the nest, near the back. There was room enough for him to huddle, his hand upon the dagger hilt, and pretend to be invisible. Branches cracked and creaked as Maakraig’s massive form lifted from the nest and called for Mag.
“Viy,” he purred. She sat shaking at the front of the nest and his massive form moved beside her.
“Why do you weep, my Geleket?” His voice rumbled. It took Cabriabanus a moment to decipher the word into something that made sense in his head; it meant something like paramour, but not quite and he nearly sneered at its use.
“How can I be viy and geleket?” she sobbed angrily. He patted her hair with a massive hand. He seemed surprisingly gentle.
“You are human,” he explained. “You cannot understand the ways of Kobalos.”
“Teach me then,” she wiped the tears from her face. “If I am Geleket then I must know what it means to be so.”
“I have tried,” he said, letting his clawed hand ease down her back. He did not seem to notice the long red mark he left on her skin. “Humans have not the capacity to learn. You will always be spilzock, even when you are Geleket.”
“I am not spilzock,” she sneered. “You took that away from me.”
He stood up and stretched, ignoring her complaints and then prowled across the room. Cab’s heart leaped into his chest, worried suddenly that the creature would try to walk out the door, would notice that it had been barred. But he turned back and Cabriabanus realized he was only pacing the room.
“Before I hatched, the Wifiji ruled the kobalos with wicked claws and tongues as sharp as their teeth. My...” and he hesitated before speaking the word with venom. “Mother was Arr- Ghamiscar then. In the days before the hatching there were many men brought from the sky realm to fatten her belly, to sing their sweet screams and lull her to sleep, for she was always hungry and could never be satisfied. She would breed with Canaille males and devour them. They were nothing to her, as the men from the sky-realm were nothing to her. My first glimpse of my mother after the hatching was of a creature so large and full that she could barely move. She wallowed in her pool and watched us hatch, watched us fight for our lives. If she had been able to move she might have kept me from my triumph, for the Wifiji loathe males and exist only to further themselves.” He turned and looked to the pond, a wicked grin upon his face, his eyes out of focus, lost in memory. “I carry the scars still, from that time. This,” he indicated a long gash upon his side, “is from a brother. But this,” and Cab noticed for the first time a vertical slice extending from his chin to the base of his throat, “is from a sister.”
The scars seemed then to bloom upon his scaly hide, appearing as ants do, first there was one and then there were many. Too many to count. There were so many they seemed more a pattern on his skin, something he was born with, like freckles.
“I defeated my brothers and sisters and devoured them all,” he snarled, triumphantly. “And with the strength they gave to me I came to her Heart-room and I devoured her heart and she was too fat and too slow to stop me. She had not the strength I had. She had not the scars I had. When I was finished with her I devoured the hearts of all the Wifiji and now they are no more.”
“If you destroyed all the Wifiji, then there can be no more kobalos,” Mag reasoned.
“Yes,” he said, his large yellow eyes filled up with wicked glee. “And no.” He put a large hand under her chin, lifting her face to his.
“Many creatures in the sky-realm bear eggs. They are not the same as Wifiji, but they work just as well. Orscan come from the women of Lauklann. The Nidrig are easier, they come from the passions of Orscan and peasant women. The Bechuz,” a cruel, prideful look entered his wicked eyes. “They are my finest work.” He caressed her cheek and neck, drawing his claws upon her, marking her with bloody red lines. She turned away, hands upon her stomach. He could see the profile of her face, her skin was pale and she looked like she was going to be sick. The Bechuz were the fire eaters, magic users; they could come from only one type of human. The thought made him angry beyond imagining and it was difficult for him to keep himself from leaping out and fighting the beast with only his rage and a dagger. His stomach roiled. He wanted to be ill himself.
“You wanted to learn,” Maakraig said. “Your kind always want to learn, but never do they like the knowledge. Geleket are strong.” He pulled her toward him with the chain. She struggled against it, but it was no use, she only ended up at his side all the same, dragged across the dirt floor, legs kicking wildly. He lifted her to her feet.
“You wish to be Geleket?” his purr was closer to a growl now. He put one long claw to her throat, to the collar. She said nothing and the sound of his claw opening the lock on the collar seemed to echo through the chamber. It fell away, landed heavily in the dirt and she took a deep shuddering breath. She opened her mouth and his tail whipped around and struck her, fast as a snake, before she could speak. She was flung halfway across the room, striking a tree trunk and slumping to the floor. She lay gasping for breath as he stalked toward her and Cab’s hands shook from the anger that threatened to escape his hold. He gripped the hilt of the dagger and clenched his jaw to keep it in.
“Geleket are strong,” Maakraig snarled. “Geleket are scarred.” He swiped at her with his claws and she cried out in pain, more bloody red lines appearing upon her soft flesh.
“Geleket do not weep or cry out,” he hissed and lifted her up by one arm to set her on her feet. Her dress, already tattered and stained with blood and dirt, peeled from her body, like a snake part way through moulting. He struck out again with his tail but this time she did not fall or cry out, though the blow echoed through the chamber with a loud snap.
Cabriabanus could take it no longer. He could not sit idly by while this creature played at tearing her apart. He rose with his anger, while the beast’s back was to him, and stalked on silent feet toward him. But Mag saw, and gave him an near imperceptible shake of the head. Colour rose in her cheeks as Maakraig made to strike her with his claws and the terror in her eyes turned to something else. She cried out, but it was not a cry of rage or anger or even fear. It was a melodic cry, as if she were about to sing, and Maakraig’s clawed hand struck the air and stopped mere inches from touching her. Instead of raging, he laughed, a low rumbling in the back of his throat. He started to turn and Cabriabanus froze in place, worry now replacing his anger, for he recalled with a quickness how he had thrown himself at Rottdokk, stabbing at his empty chest and knew that there was no dagger that could kill this creature. Mag, humming, her cheeks now red with exertion, managed to strike out at Maakraig with a sound like a lightning bolt in miniature. While the creature was distracted Cabriabanus slunk back to his hiding place like a dog. There was nothing he could do but hide and watch as Mag struggled to pull magic out of emptiness. It was not pretty and Cabriabanus found himself turning his eyes away, tears slipping down his cheeks. But there was nothing he could do. The scars upon her body revealed that this battle had been fought many times before and she had survived. He could only rely upon Maakraig’s affections for Mag to keep the girl alive.