Secrets & Darkness
Daiza had been captured before. Because of this, she knew--despite their claims to the contrary--she was a hostage. She recognized the signs.
After the horcha were entombed, some soldiers fell out and formed an "escort squad" to march the trio of "guests" along a winding path through the hills.
"You carry that lazy tart for a while," Gillion protested, shoving Syll into a guard. The little man glared with undisguised loathing at their captor--apparently still irate over the confiscation of his shortsword.
That was nothing, though. What could he do with one sword against a squad of soldiers?
Her rod of shoma wood, meanwhile--that was a real setback. It was possible to work spells without it, but the shoma was her quick reservoir. With it, she spent less time drawing dji into her. If the soldiers had been trained to watch for channeling, they could hurt her before she even uttered the words.
She gazed with longing at it, tucked into the belt of a young but hard-faced lieutenant.
He nodded at a pair of soldiers to carry Syll.
"She's faking it, you know," Gillion said, rubbing his shoulder.
The lieutenant grabbed Syll's chin none-too-gently, turning her head so he could examine her. She was deathly pale--but no more so than the locals, all of whom had an unhealthy pallor about them. "Shut your mouth, boy." He released her so her head sagged to her chest again.
Gillion flushed with anger.
Daiza put a calming hand on his shoulder. "Be still, little brother."
He glared at her, too, but to the girl's relief, he kept quiet.
Despite his pointed ears and numerous piercings--his cowl was back on the path in the sickly hollow--the soldiers still thought him a minor. To Daiza's mind, it was best to keep it this way.
Their path ended at the side of a hill. A tunnel yawned before them with a wrought-iron gate clenched in its stony teeth, rusty from age. The officer shouted through the bars until a shrunken little man with stringy hair emerged. From his voluminous robes he produced a set of keys and unlocked the door. With a knowing leer at Daiza, he led the squad and their prisoners through a labyrinth of hoary passages.
Daiza tried to count the turns--she was still hoping to escape--but the task proved too daunting. The complex was a veritable ant's nest of stonework. The masonry was alien to her, worked in some ancient style she did not recognize and coated in a thick white layer of niter.
After what felt like hours of walking, they emerged from behind a tapestry in a long, impressive hall--a throne room any king would envy.
Massive columns raised an arching roof with great, open windows high above their heads. At each column, a twisted bronze arm thrust out, gripping a brazier. Their fires cast long, eerie shadows about the place that reminded Daiza of the forest. Overhead, mouldering banners of forgotten clans hung like wraiths in a weak breeze. At one end of the great hall were enormous double-doors and at the other, a raised dais with a throne of polished ebony. In that throne sat a tall, lean man wearing a tunic the same dark purple as blood still in the veins. His cloak was trimmed in silver fur and over his face he wore a silken mask. On either side of him were men in black-painted corselets gripping halberds and doing their best to imitate statues.
"Ah," the kingly man said without surprise. "My guests have arrived."
No one asked how he knew they were coming.
The escort led their prisoners before the dais. Syll was pushed into Gillion once more. The soldiers then fell back, forming a semi-circle behind the hostages.
"I am Lord Tchimiri," the masked man announced. He spoke in a quiet voice that carried effortlessly through the hall. "King of Kalambra, Warden of the Shadowed Isle and High Chief of the Vōzniacs." He gestured with one of his black gloved hands. "I bid thee welcome."
"Some welcome," Gillion said from under Syll's arm. "Your men took us prisoner."
"I am told you were in a dangerous part of our island--what the commonfolk call 'the Goorvould' or death-wood." He shrugged. "They had to take you into custody...for your own safety."
Reaching out with her mind, Daiza called upon the Touch and tried to examine Lord Tchimiri's dji.
Nothing. He had no more dji than a shadow. It was like the throne was empty.
That was all wrong--even a benumbed, magicless person would have a dji presence. It could mean only one thing: he was a wizard for sure, a wizard smart and skilled enough to cloak his power. This mask--even more than the one on his face--disturbed her to no end.
"Where did those horcha come from?" she suddenly asked in a small voice.
Tchimiri cocked his head so the silken mask shifted over his face. "Such an ugly word..."
He stared down at her through his mask. "A strange malady," he said after a pause.
"Liar," Daiza said, shocking even herself.
The soldiers gasped. One strode towards her, preparing a backhand when the master stilled him with a cold look.
"No disease can make such a thing," Daiza said. "It has to be done deliberately."
"Ah." The master stood. "In that, you are wrong. I actually stumbled on the process by accident. I was, as many have before me, looking for eternal life."
Daiza hugged herself. "Eternal life?"
He nodded. "I found it--after a fashion. As we both know, dji is life itself, the raw essence of creation. I tried to channel and contain enough to regenerate my body and keep me alive indefinitely."
"But that's impossible," Daiza whispered. "You must have drawn in so much that it collapsed, forming a--a--"
"Some call it 'paradox'," he said. "Others prefer 'abomination.' That's not fair, though. Before the dji disappears into the void within me, it briefly passes through my flesh, restoring me just as I intended it to."
"Where do those nasty tongue-critters figure into this?" Gillion asked. "Why did they have to hurt Syll like that?"
Tchimiri glanced at their semi-conscious friend. "Yes, I'm sorry this maiden was sickened. I assure you--those creatures weren't intentionally created. They were a byproduct if you will. I suppose I should have destroyed them, but I'm a soft touch. I dislike killing. So I released them into the Goorvould."
Daiza scoffed. "Where they prey on travelers and get buried alive--or semi-alive--by your goons."
The soldiers shifted, unused to seeing their master spoken to this way.
"If you knew my story, you would understand." He took a deep breath. It sounded unnatural in his old, dusty lungs. "I could get used to hiding from the sun. That didn't bother me. But the nights became lonely. I just wanted to share my bounty with someone. What good is eternal life if you must spend it alone?"
"You experimented on those girls." Daiza's hands dropped to her side and made fists Without realizing what she was doing, she began to draw dji into her.
Tchimiri watched, eyes twinkling with amusement through the slits of his mask.
"You couldn't reproduce the spell--as you said, it was an accident--so you've been capturing women for years and making them into horcha."
"I'm getting close. Soon, I will have a woman both intelligent and immortal. Soon, I will have another like me."
Daiza spoke through clenched teeth. "Those things are already like you--monsters."
"You'll feel differently, once I've given you eternal life. As I said, I'm close. What's more, I've never tried it on someone as strong with the Touch as you. I bet you think breaking my tether would make me mad eh? Well, it didn't. I got excited to think that such a strong sorceress was nearby." His eyes glittered with admiration and hunger.
She was about to speak but faltered, then looked away. He didn't know about Ku! He thought she--young Daiza--had broken the cable. This was good--he didn't know about the others. If she could just school her thoughts, she could avoid giving away their existence...
"You will make a fine consort, my dear." He motioned to his guards. "Let the boy and the sick maiden go. Take your future queen to my laboratory. We're in for a busy morning."
©2015 Christopher Beats. All Rights Reserved.