The ancient king kneels by my prone form. His expression is that of bored majesty, patient towards his lesser, yet unattainable.
“Do you yield?”
I feel no aura coming from him. Both he and Malakim have masked their presence so completely that I find myself incapable of even guessing at his state of mind. It does not matter. I know with certainty what the consequences are here, because his blood became mine and so did some of his instincts.
I am defeated. I will yield or I will die. There are no other alternatives.
I nod to signify assent, and he stands back up. It is done. I am his prisoner. I will no longer fight.
“Take her to the side.”
Malakim picks me up by the collar and drags me through the mud to a patch of grass beneath a tall apple tree at the edge of the village. I take this opportunity to make an inventory as my feet dig a furrow in the wet loam.
I have lacerations all over my arms, some of them still seeping blood. There is a gaping hole in my chest. My spine is broken. So is my arm. Despite having fed only a few days ago, the wounds are slow to heal since they were inflicted by Malakim’s claws. All in all, I hurt like a bitch.
My dress is a rag and all my belongings besides the gauntlet are gone, not that I had taken much to begin with. This is a secondary concern. I do not own, nor know of any weapon, armor or tool that could have stopped either of those two. Malakim did not even push himself. He matched my strength and speed then beat me on technique alone. He was just toying with me.
I stare at his broad, leather-covered back. The pale skin of his arm finished knitting itself from its previous butchered state.
I am not scared.
If I repeat it often enough, it might become true. Anything to take my mind off the fact that I am once again at the mercy of a man who ground me to dust, a man whose shadows I have lived under without him even being on the same continent. It took me years to rebuild myself, to forge a new identity from the wreck he left in his wake, and now he has returned and I am, once again, powerless. And the most amusing thing of all is that he does not care.
Once I give him my agreement he turns and gracefully walks to the village square.
I struggle as wariness smothers my mind, invades every recess with the urgency of my situation. I force myself to focus and rationalize it. Fate pushed me here instead of away. A path to salvation must exist, and I must witness or acquire something important. I refuse to believe that my sire can manipulate the threads of destiny himself, therefore, all is not as desperate as it seems. I just need to stay calm and play this carefully. I cannot afford to give up. Not now and not ever.
My sire stops.
From where I lie, I see him as he stands in the middle of the village. The view is… odd. He is dressed in a cream-colored ensemble that fits him perfectly. Not a mote of dust nor a speck of mud has managed to stain its understated elegance. He looks like a sovereign in the midst of a royal hunt, more interested in networking with high lords than in running down stags. By comparison, the village represents the far side of poverty with cramped houses sticking haphazardly out of the dusty ground like the teeth of a hag. There is not a single pane of glass to be found nor any dyed material piece of cloth in the ratty curtains. Even the stalls are held together by hand-woven twine instead of nails. People here do not live. They subsist.
They will not do so for long.
The ancient monster raises a fist and I gasp at the raw, unadulterated power now bursting from his unmoving figure. Reality hiccups and moves until I feel a difference in the texture of the world. Colors flare brighter, bleed into each other as they become more fluid. Even my wounds close with increased speed as willpower gains the edge over matter and rules become more lax. The sensation is slightly euphoric, causing me to smile despite my predicament. If this is how it feels to live in a Likaean world then our planet must feel dreary indeed.
My moment of pleasure dies when he casts.
The vision I had of his battle on the beach did not give him justice. Nirari whispers a word and, by this act, violates the beauty he had brought here. A rune like a scar appears before his extended arm, as if carved into invisible flesh. It pulses the angry red of a festering wound.
I gasp and shiver, then gasp again when the pain of movement washes my mind clean. This is a new feeling. No, this is an emotion I lost a long time ago and one I have not missed.
It washes away everything else.
I fight against the all-encompassing wave of white noise hounding my mind with all the mental fortitude I can muster. This is fake. This is a trick!
Constanza wheels around, holding her lacerated cheek. A monster!
I am no longer so weak.
I am no longer trapped and alone!
The villagers crash against their doors in their desperate attempts to escape, only to be cut down like so many sheep to the slaughter by some dreadful spell. Nirari stands in the middle like a director to some hellish orchestra, stabbing, gouging, cleaving with simple gestures and not once does his expression move away from casual ennui. He is just cleaning house. I suppose that he does not wish to leave any witnesses.
After only a minute, the massacre runs out of victims. Nirari signals, and Malakim pulls me through fields of uncaring grass like a captured flag. We leave the village behind with only two babies screaming their lungs out among a field of dead. This is not mercy, but expediency. Toddlers cannot speak and so no effort is expended to silence them. That is all.
In the following hours, I am dragged north and away from my planned destination. Malakim and Nirari do not hurry, and eventually I manage to fix my spine and upgrade my station from luggage to unwilling follower. I do my best to keep my flickering aura under control and stare at their backs with apprehension. I can see them. I can even smell a whiff of cold perfume among the smells of loam, grass, and flowers. They do not emit sounds nor do they have an aura. Every time I turn my head, they disappear. Their stealth upsets me almost as much as the fact that I am wearing filthy rags.
I have always been the one to sneak up on people, so far. I suppose that rules do not apply to them.
As the night runs its course, we keep moving north through the wilderness. The land here is choked with life but devoid of human presence. I grit my teeth and focus on closing every last wound, still feeling the sting of Malakim’s claws in my flesh. I am ready to admit being lost in the monotony of the landscape until, finally, I spot smoke in the distance.
When we crest the next hillock, I feel my sense of reality drift away once more.
Hidden from prying eyes is a camp from another era, a gathering of people I would not have expected from the most vivid imagination. Men and women clad in white linen bands work among a circle of beige tents. Their skin is golden, and their limbs are lean and muscular in the manner of hunters. Tattoos adorn them, and shaven skulls as decorations or, more likely, symbols of rank. They perform various tasks in complete silence, the shuffling of their feet the only noise besides the crackling of their fires.
A sentinel notices us and bows as we enter the perimeter. As if linked by a single mind, the others turn and salute with eerie uniformity. Those among them who wield glaives and bows raise them to their foreheads in a strange gesture I had never seen before. None speak.
Nirari waves them back to their labor as we approach the object of his attention, a narrow opening in the side of a valley not unlike that of a mausoleum. It must have started as a natural cavern at some point in the past, then someone enlarged it and added decorations on the side walls shining an organic yellow glow in the darkness like so many veins. The assembled strange people apparently spent a significant amount of time clearing debris to free the path in as small piles of broken rocks, sand, and gravels dot the far side of the basin.
We walk in.
Though the path would not let a carriage through, even the unusually tall Nirari has no need to bend his back to cross the threshold. We end up inside a small cavern showing signs of a massive excavation. The lines of fluorescent paint merge and diverge in intricate patterns with no discernible order. Sometimes, I can almost glimpse hints of shape — an owl caught mid-flight, a lit candle — then I move and the construct collapses into amorphous shapes. The mirage is gone.
The cavern is not too deep and we angle downward into a passage. Some of the walls are still wet, soil staining the glistening surface. It goes on for a few yards and then the ground dries again.
I feel a shift in the air, like opening a door to a musty cellar the further we descend. It takes us a few minutes to reach another cavern.
While the previous one had an almost primal feeling to it, this one has been clearly worked on and transformed into a workshop of sorts, now abandoned. Great tables of pale stone pitted with impacts and marred with puddles of molten metal speak of some great works in a distant past. A large brick smelter takes a significant part of the right wall, while the left used to be a storage area now empty save for a few broken remains of stone and ceramics. As deserted as it seems now, this place must have been quite a sight when active. The only intact thing remaining are runes engraved into almost every surface that still shine with remnants of power. They are in an ancient and unfamiliar script that reminds me of Akkad yet more sinuous, and the taste I get from them is that of molding and twisting.
This is an artefact production facility.
My sire lifts a fist and the ground rumbles. Blocks of stone emerge from the ground in compact formation, then some stop while others keep going up. In one second, he has formed a massive throne out of cyclopean grey slabs upon which he sits. Malakim comes to stand by his side, his eyes boring into me.
My sire’s gaze lands on me and I feel an immediate sense of dread. I do not have to think; I know what is required of me. Stepping before him, I perform an ancient warrior salute, head bent and right hand raised before my arm.
I believe that the state of my wardrobe and the obvious signs of battle grant me the right to claim a soldier status rather than that of a captured princess. The risk exists that he would take offense. It is one I am willing to take, considering the alternative.
Fortunately, it appears that Nirari is in a pleasant mood. His brows rise almost imperceptibly in what I believe to be amusement.
“Now what am I to do with you, my feisty little princess? Fate certainly has ways of toying with us.”
He did not ask a question and so I do not utter a word. The rules here are simple. Show utmost respect, answer fully and truthfully, and only speak when spoken to. To deviate is to die.
Nirari spends some time pondering the situation while, outside, the night nears its end. I maintain my poise and will do so until he gives me leaves or until dawn does.
“Did you know we were there?” he suddenly asks.
“Do you know why we are here?”
“Do you know where you are?”
This one is open to interpretation.
He waves the answer away.
“Were you not warned of our coming?”
“No. Should I have been?”
An acceptable inquiry, considering the situation. Our meeting might be considered as a waste of time, a hurdle for him. Looking for a guilty party to punish later is standard.
“I made an agreement with clan Natalis. They were to close all outside communications and not speak of our coming, nor of our activities. They were given an hour to contact their traveling members. Did they not know that you were coming?”
I do not volunteer the fact that I may not be reached by message spell so long as I carry Nashoba’s earrings. This is problematic. I may have to stop using them in the future.
“What were you doing so far from your territory?”
So, he knows where I live. I should have expected it, of course, yet hearing it from his very mouth sends a chill along my newly-repaired spine. I pushed him away from my thought, he and the other old monster, like a child hiding her feet under the cover from the creature under her bed. Bedsheets are no shield, and neither is distance.
“I was on my way to save a relative. He is held captive in Matamoros to the south west.”
He allows himself the shadow of a smile.
“Ah, yes. I remember having a clear lineage to protect. Children. Grandchildren. It has been so long… I am pleased to learn that the tradition is still alive. Well then, little princess, you do not seem to know what we are here for so I will allow you to live and serve. I have an inkling as to how you may assist. After all, you did successfully cast one of my spells.”
He lifts a finger and a sound like chimes spreads over the cavern.
“Send me Violet, I have a task for her,” he orders.
A few seconds later, I hear hurried footsteps from the corridor and soon, one of the strange humans appears before us. Just like the others, she is dressed in layers of white linen revealing golden skin decorated with intricate tattoos. Now that I am close enough, I notice that they are magical in nature though she herself is no mage. She walks forward without hesitation and kneels before my sire, placing her forehead on the ground.
“You will serve my spawn, Ariane, until I rescind that order.”
The woman’s eyes widen in surprise. She stares at me with renewed interest, awe, and perhaps even a bit of envy before she nods in understanding.
She understands Akkad? This is… The mortals are not meant to learn it! This is our tongue! How can he commit such a blasphemy?
Sensing my disapproval, Nirari smirks, this time genuinely.
“Violet, open your mouth.”
She obeys, revealing a scarred stump. Someone cut the tip of her tongue.
Well, I suppose that this would work. It also explains why the assembly was so silent.
“Violet, you will clear one of the rooms adjacent to ours for the use of the princess. You must do so before sunrise. You may ask for assistance.”
The woman nods and stands up. She bows and rushes back up the stairs.
“You will present yourself to me as soon as you wake up,” Nirari finishes.
He stands up and leaves through a pair of open stone gates dug in the far wall.
Only after he is gone do I allow myself to relax the position I had assumed.
I now realize that panic has saved me, because I told the truth when he asked if I knew what he was doing here. I did figure it out as soon as he mentioned the question, however.
There is only one reason that could force Nirari to plumb the depths of the world looking at abandoned magical facilities. The ancient one is looking for mother dear.
Meeting Semiramis made it rather obvious as to why Niari cannot catch up. Space is significantly more fluid for the witch queen than it is for the rest of us. It should be easy to remain one step ahead when one of hers is ten of ours.
The thing is that when he last visited one of her old abodes, he merely punched a wall then left. This is different. He is conducting a full excavation of a base that was obviously abandoned at least a century ago. I do not know what he is looking for, but I would bet a night with Ignace that it relates to finding a countermeasure to his mother’s annoying traveling habits.
I just pray that he does not find one. By the Watcher, I am not ready to oppose them. I would not even know where to begin.
In short order, Violet returns with two more minions. They bow to me with the same respect they gave Nirari and I finally realize that they do not serve him. They worship him.
I follow them through the gates and into a large corridor of rough-hewn gray rock that reminds me of a dungeon. The air is inexplicably fresh and enough light is provided by the twisting lines for the mortals to shuffle forward. They choose one of the rooms after a quick exchange of hand signals then cram themselves in like an assault team under bombardment. An instant later, I hear clangs and the rattle of heavy things dragged over rugged stone. I peer in out of curiosity.
The three humans are busy gathering debris and goods out of what appears to be a disaffected storage room. A lanky man struggles with ingots of metal colored a dull verdigris while another picks up ossified planks from the dusty ground. Violet looks at me with a guilty stare, ashamed.
I leave them to their task of making this habitable and decide to inspect the facility. There are more doors to other rooms, some wider than others. One still has abandoned tools possibly left as they were exceedingly easy to replace: calipers, pliers, and even a remote engraver used to inscribe runes on still-hot material.
Two of the gates are closed and I assume that those are Nirari’s quarters and that of his minion. I have no intention of disturbing them.
Further, the corridor ends in a junction with three ways. The one directly in front of me is blocked by more debris with signs of some of the rubble having already been cleared. The one to my right leads to another workshop.
The one to my left fills me with foreboding. It arches to the right a hundred yards in the distance. A massive spot of dried red liquid covers the ground only a few paces away from me. I smell human blood, less than three days old.
I expand my senses and focus on the space before me. I feel no magic at all, but I see a disturbance in the air. A minute current carrying motes of dust that disappears without reason.
There is something there. Something hidden and lethal and lying in wait like a moray. The sense of foreboding I feel increases ever so slightly as I take in the length of this passage. A nest of morays.
I decide to retreat. The other workshop beckons and dawn is close enough for lethargy to muddy my mind. I have no need to take any more risks.
The next room is a copy of the first one, save that the smelter has been replaced by what may be the remnants of a large saw. Pale dust covers the ground and pieces of crumbled rock lie here and there as if fallen from larger constructs. Many of them have one perfect side, polished until flat as a mirror while the rest is raw and irregular. I assume that workers here processed stones but I cannot be sure.
One thing is certain, a woman alone would have had no use for such a large place. I expected both Semiramis and Nirari to work alone and I was just disproved. What bothers me is that the tables here are just a bit too low for adult humans now that I stand by their side.
I should not dwell on that. My priority should be to find a way to leave. Surrendering does not prevent me from planning an escape. That would have to take place tomorrow, however, now is far too late to be running outside.
I also feel that it would be... treacherous to run away on the very night I was captured. I am aware of the lack of logic backing that statement. Much like all the instincts of honor and obligation I inherited from Nirari, this one is more a matter of tradition turned into law than anything else. Frustrating.
I spend some time looking around the workshop and find two other sets of gates leading away, though they are currently locked. Afterward, I return to my quarters and notice that the three linen-covered servants have cleared the space, swept it, and created a rudimentary nest made from hard fabric seeded with a few colorful pillows. A pot-pourri exhales a perfume of rose and lavender, while a single lit candle basks the naked stone with a warm glow.
They made a real effort turning this jail into a bedroom.
I close the door behind me and settle for the night, hugging myself in the ruins of my dress. Tomorrow will be a long day.