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“What was the thing?” Mai asked, just to get the statement out there. “Do you have any new ideas, Broken?”

It had taken a long argument with Tur is Ashat for Mai to convince him to release Ishad from careful watch in the infirmary wing, but she had succeeded. Now, some time after midday meal, Mai, Broken, and Ishad had all gathered together in Mai’s chamber, to discuss what needed to be discussed.

Mai settled back in her chair, for yes, there were chairs now, one for the three of them, arranged in a triangle in the center of the room. She had asked the servants, and within the hour, they had provided the most comfortable armchairs Mai had ever had the pleasure of using. Identical, they were of brown leather, and seemed to be perfect for either sitting up, or reclining.

A table was between them, with the book Broken had found in the library, Afflictions of the Dark Spiritual, carefully placed upon it.

Within all the material comfort, Mai was pleased to have tangible proof that Tur is Ashat backed them.

Even if she was less than pleased with Broken’s answer.

“I have made little headway,” he said, sinking into his chair, and looking almost asleep, with his eyes narrowed into slits. Mai didn’t doubt that Broken was the most alert one of the three in the room right then, but still, she found his behavior somewhat annoying.

“Then restate what you already know, for Ishad’s benefit,” said Mai. The meeting of the three had only just begun, and she did not want Ishad to be left out.

“Two nights ago, Mai had a disturbing dream,” said Broken. Though he responded at once, he still lounged in his chair. “This dream was the third in a series of three that Mai had, all featuring a Nari. In the first two dreams, the Nari was warning Mai to keep her head down, and not go to Asan Paril. The third dream made it clear that the time for warning was over.

“When Mai woke up then, Ishad found himself actively possessed, by a force that had been with him, sapping his energy, since he had arrived at Asan Paril. In that state, his body tried to kill Mai, who made attempts to resist.

“I was awoken by the sound of Mai screaming, but almost as soon as I awoke, a second presence flooded by consciousness, directing me to head to Ishad’s room, and help him kill Mai.

“I shrugged off the influence, but, understandably, thought it would be a good idea to head to Ishad’s room nevertheless. I reached the room, saved Mai from drowning in the tub, and got into a brawl with a possessed Ishad.

“In his state, Ishad had gained a tolerance for pain, and so was able to fight me with some ability. Ishad slammed me against the tub, and simultaneously, the presence tried to take control of my actions for a second time. For a second time, I shrugged off the presence, but allowed enough of it to get through to give me yellow eyes, thus convincing the presence in Ishad that its fellow presence had gained control of me. I tried to gain information, failed, and resumed brawling.

“Then I was able to knock Ishad out, and, seeing its host unable to accomplish its goal of killing Mai, the presence fled.”

Broken glanced at Mai. “Those are the facts.”

“Thank you,” said Mai. “We all read what Afflictions of the Dark Spiritual has to say on possession, at least up until the point when the book begins to give rather tedious and long winded explanations of case studies.”

“However,” cut in Broken, “said book, while helpful, is not entirely accurate, as not only demons, but Nari as well, can possess.”

“Forgive me for being so rash,” said Ishad, “but doesn’t it seem rather obvious what possessed me, and what tried to possess Broken? The Nari not only warned of the attack, but provided Mai with a fairly accurate description of what it thought was going to happen, with me and Broken forcing Mai’s head underwater.”

Mai was glad beyond words that Ishad had been able to take in all the new information objectively, especially the contents of her dreams.

“That does seem obvious,” said Broken. “However, let us not forget Eton. He is an unknown part of the equation. Eton is very strong, and is very resistant to Symbols, and other forms of exorcism. And he, unlike the Nari, has a very good reason for wanting Mai dead, as he is employed by the Makini, who wish to rid her from the equation. It is possible that all the dreams were planted by him, to throw our suspicion off track.”

“Do you think now, that Eton was most likely behind what happened?” asked Mai.

“Yes,” said Broken. “While I myself mentioned that Nari can possess, that information seems irrelevant.”

Mai knew that when Broken gave a statement about something, it true. Not even just likely to be true. It was true.

Mai understood that Eton was behind what happened. She accepted that fact, and tried the best she could to move past it.

“I see your logic,” said Ishad. “I just have a reservation. When the possession became apparent, my eyes turned yellow, not red like it said in the book. Yellow is the color of a Nari’s eyes.”

“Most likely the yellow eyes were just another one of the many things Eton did to throw us off course,” said Broken.

“That makes sense,” said Ishad, and Mai nodded. “But, what about the Nari Claw-Back saw in the streets when we first reached Asan Paril?” he added.

“Claw-Back was most likely tricked,” said Broken, which seemed to Mai to be a satisfactory answer. However, Broken frowned, and finally leaned up in his chair. He looked directly at Mai. “In the dreams,” Broken asked, “did the Nari ever give you a name to call it?”

“Yes,” said Mai. “In the third dream, the Nari called itself Slytherayaim, I believe.”

“Slytherayaim is the name of a real Nari,” said Broken. “However, I still believe Eton is behind this all.”

“I agree with you,” said Mai. “However, I am quite curious. Who is this Slytherayaim Eton decided to impersonate?”

“I will tell you some of what I know,” said Broken. “First of all, I will speak of the name. You pronounce it wrong, though doubtless you first heard it pronounced correctly. The suffix, the aim, is not pronounced as is the word aim. It is pronounced as em.”

“But it didn’t sound exactly like that,” said Mai. “It was more dragged out. I remember that much.”

“Only slightly dragged out,” said Broken. “You dragged it out more than correctly in your speak, because you knew not of a letter ai.”

“Ai is not a letter,” said Mai.

“Not in the modern common tongue,” said Broken. “But, in the old tongue, ai is a single letter. It is written as a juxtaposition of the letters a and i.”

“All right,” said Mai.

“The aim at the end of Slytherayaim’s name,” said Broken, “is the ancient precursor of the modern suffix em. For it was decided that ai sounded sufficiently like e, that all instances of ai could be replaced with e. From the suffix em, we get the words empire, and imperial.”

“But imperial starts with an i,” objected Ishad.

“That was a further evolution,” said Broken.

“So you’re trying to say,” said Mai, “that Slytherayaim’s suffix denotes him as a rather important Nari?”

“Precisely,” said Broken. “Eton knows the Nari well. Slytherayaim is the name of a Nari also known as the Third Guide.”

“Guide of what?” asked Ishad.

“Guide of the order of things,” said Broken. “Slytherayaim is the fourth greatest Nari in their hierarchy, a hierarchy that has existed since the First Dynasty.”

“Has Slytherayaim always been the Third Guide?” asked Mai.

“No,” said Broken. “Only for the last fifteen centuries.”

“Long enough,” muttered Ishad.

“How long do Nari live?” asked Mai.

“As with demons,” said Broken, “Nari do not die of natural causes.”

Mai tried to imagine a life of eternity, a life without aging. She could not.

“And that is what I know of Slytherayaim,” said Broken.

“How do you know that much?” asked Mai.

“That is one of the things I cannot tell you.”

Mai respected Broken. She did not press.

“Come,” said Broken, getting up. “Let us go to dinner. “Perhaps during that time, I will think of a reason to explain Eton’s involvement, that does not have so many inconsistencies.”

 

***

 

Tur is Ashat rested against his high backed chair. He was tired, so, so tired. But he could not sleep. For if he did, horrors would await him in the morning.

This was certain, as the horrors were already with him.

A thing, covered from head to toe in a brown cloak, covering all of its features, sat comfortably on the couch in Tur’s reception room, in his private apartments.

Tur, at the creature’s request, sat in a chair opposite it. His guards, standing at the edge of the room, stared blankly into space, completely non-responsive. Tur didn’t know for sure, but he was rather certain that if he came to his guards in the atrium, they would be in a similar state.

Tur was not a timid man, but the situation urged caution.

“Lord Ashat,” said the thing.

“I fear I am at a disadvantage,” Tur responded. “I do not know what to call you.”

“You do not need to know my name,” said the thing. “Being aware that the threat I represent is real will suffice.”

“As you wish,” said Tur.

“Good.”

“Are you what was behind the possessions?” asked the Lord of Asan Paril.

“Indeed. I was thwarted in my aims then, but…I am far from defeated. And I represent powers far greater than myself. Powers willing to make you a deal.”

Tur knew he should have made his spellweavers and priests be more thorough in their checkings. But, he reflected, there is a maxim, that hindsight is always perfect. Out loud, Tur said, “What kind of deal?”

“The powers I work for are fully capable of bringing your Asan Paril to its knees,” said the things. “However, those same powers have greater concerns than a mere city. Take Maiako as Arathou del Tachen, bind her, blindfold her, and bring her to a location in your city that I will mention, upon your request. Once the powers I represent have her, they will spare your city.”

“I thought you wished her dead,” said Tur.

“Dead on our terms,” said the thing. “Not yours. Now, what is your answer?”

“No.”

“Perhaps you do not understand the magnitude of that little word,” said the thing. “I penetrated into your chambers, past your guards, without great effort. If you do not accept, I can assure you; those I represent will ensure your city will die, in several senses of the word.”

“For the sake of my city, I would be inclined to offer you such a small thing as tribute,” said Tur. “However, Mai is not mine to offer.”

“Explain.”

“I am bound by honor, demon, or whatever you are. I gave Maiako my word that I would give her safe refuge in Asan Paril,” said Tur.

“Your word?” asked the thing. “Your word is no binding enchantment. Break it.”

“I am afraid I cannot,” said Tur is Ashat.

“Why?”

“I will tell you a story, demon,” said Tur. “A story about me, when I was eight years old. I was large for my age, and strong. And because of those twin facts, I was possessed with more than a little bit of pride. Once of my peers, a small, scrawny child, challenged me to swim with him across the Paril River. I laughed, and said that I was so sure I would reach the other side first, if I lost the race, I would gouge my left eye out. I made a vow to that effect.”

The demon merely stared at him.

“As you can see, my left eye is rather missing,” said Tur. “The luck of the God-Kings was not with me that day. I lost the race, and did not want to hold up to my end of the bargain, a bargain I imposed. My adversary cared little about holding me to my end of the bargain, and indeed, begged me not to do it.

“But one of my tutors at the time was a Karaki elder. He said that if I had made anything short of a vow, he could have ignored what I had said. But he told me that vows must be honored.

“And so I gouged my eye out. All thought it had been an accident, and I made no effort to reveal the truth. It is common knowledge that I lost my eye to an accident to this day.

“But the truth still stands, demon. I am not a Karaki, and as such, I do not flay myself at the slightest misspeak. However, I hold to my vows, and I vowed to Maiako as Arathou del Tachen that I would protect her. I accept any and all responsibilities of that vow.”

The thing, completely covered head to toe by its brown cloak, shifted its head from side to side. “It is one thing, mortal, to do what you wish with your own life. It is another thing entirely to play with the lives of every single man, woman, and child in your city. For I assure you, if you do not take my offer, Asan Paril will fall.”

“You represent an army,” Tur breathed. “Are you with Ehajdon, or the Makini?” He couldn’t imagine Ehajdon resorting to use of a demon, as one with his reputation, but Tur understood that he didn’t know Ehajdon’s true motivations.

“You don’t know,” said the demon, mockingly. “Perhaps I represent the Karaki, or the Amzu, or even the Dunesis. Or even something else entirely.” The thing laughed, in such a way that made Tur’s hairs stand on end. “However, I can assure you that those I represent will take your city, all for the sake of that one girl. My threats are not empty. Is no still your answer?”

“Yes,” said Tur. He stood, and drew his sword. “Try to kill me for that answer, if you will, but I will not go down without a fight.”

The demon did not get up. “Lord Ashat, why would I kill you?” it asked. “I need you alive, so that, when I come back to give you one last chance, you can reconsider.” Now, it rose from the couch.

“While you are safe, for now,” said the demon, “others are not.”

Tur turned to where his two guards stood, in their trance, just in time to see them both crumple to the floor, lifeless. Tur didn’t need to check their pulses to know that they were dead.

“I will return,” said the demon, “in a very particular amount of time. If your answer is still no, what you see before you will be only the beginning. The wrath of an immortal is not kind.”

The demon opened the door to the atrium, and while it did so, Tur caught a glimpse of more of his personal guards, dead on the ground.

Then the thing shut the door behind itself.

“Remember,” it called though the door. “It is one thing to play with your own life. It is a very different thing to play with the lives of thousands of others.”

Then there was silence, and Tur knew the thing was gone.

In disgust, he jammed his sword back into its sheath. What good were his noble ideals now, when because of them, his two personal guards, Mel and Fin, both lay dead on the floor?

Tur is Ashat had felt sorry for Mai once, sorry for the way her father treated her. But that feeling was gone, now. She was nothing but a burden.

A burden he was honor-bound to bear.

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