Walking in Flames
The dungeons underneath the Order keep in the first circle were humble in size. They were only intended to keep the rare prisoner of political importance or those guilty of particular crimes such as treason, and usually only for a short time; such people either ended up on the executioner’s block or in the salt mines. With the outlanders in charge, this had changed; the cells were full of not only insurrectionists, whether confirmed or merely suspected, but above all occupied by robes of every colour. Black, red, yellow, blue, green, and a single white. Every priest and priestess of the city had been rounded up and imprisoned. The largest number of robes were brown, however, as they included all the novices from every order, the youngest being seven and the oldest fourteen.
The torture chamber had at first been in use by the blackboots, extracting information to root out the resistance in the city. This changed with the arrival of the priestess Daena; with her helpers, she had assumed command of the racks, and those placed upon them were not ordinary citizens or rebels, but men and women in robes.
“They found another,” one of the tormentors informed Daena, pointing to where two blackboots dragged in a priestess of Austre. The mistress was busy watching another of her aides turning the mechanisms that stretched the body of the unfortunate blackrobe on the rack. “One of those wearing green.”
“Those don’t last long,” declared the torturer turning the wheel, sounding disappointed. “Those in white hold out longest. It’s a pity there were so few of them.”
“Remember your purpose,” the flame-robed priestess spoke sharply. “This is not for your amusement.”
“Of course, Mistress Daena,” mumbled her helpers.
“In fact, I am dissatisfied by your efforts. Barely any of these filthy blasphemers have denounced their false gods. I am inclined to believe you are being too gentle with them.”
“Never, Mistress Daena!” The torturers looked abhorrent. “We do our very best.”
“See that you do,” Daena told them with a harsh voice, “or you may find yourselves taking their place if you continue to disappoint me.”
“Yes, Mistress Daena,” they said meekly.
“This one is done for now,” she declared, looking at the blackrobe, who had lost consciousness. “Throw him back in his cell and let the woman take his place,” she told the others, who hurried to carry out her orders.
Either because it served some unknown purpose or simply due to some penchant for arranging things by colour, the outlanders kept the imprisoned clergy in separate cells based on the dye of their cloth. All the blackrobes, the most numerous of the orders, were thus kept in the same place. As the guards returned with the latest acolyte to have been tortured, they threw him into one of the cells with little regard, fastened the chain around his ankle to the wall, and left again.
“Brother Nikodemos,” whispered Dominic. The former court seer crawled over to where the broken body of his brother lay, bereft of its black robe. Wearing only a ragged undershirt and pants, nothing hid the signs of the severe mistreatment that the acolyte had suffered. He gave a groan as Dominic took hold of him, helping him to a more comfortable position.
“Do not worry, Brother,” Nikodemos whispered hoarsely with the vaguest of smiles. “I did not break.”
“My son, my son,” Dominic exclaimed with a thick voice, caressing the hair of his fellow blackrobe. “What have they done to you?”
“They hurt my body,” the acolyte said with belaboured breath. “They cannot have my spirit. We are all in Rihimil’s hands, are we not?”
“Yes, Brother,” the high priest told him. “One day, the eagle shall come for us and lead us to the Sapphire City. The gates shall open for you, my son, and Rihimil himself will welcome you.”
“I remember as a novice, you told me this,” Nikodemos recounted with a dreaming smile upon his bruised and battered face. “I kept your voice and words in my ear as they tried to break me, as clear as I hear it now.”
“The streets are paved with silver,” Dominic continued, raising his voice and receiving the attention of his remaining brethren as well. The last word made those who still had their robes touch the silver dragon upon their chest. “The doors are made of gold. A seat of sapphire awaits each of the faithful. There is no night, no travail, no suffering. Only peace.”
“Only peace,” some of the others muttered.
With some difficulty, Dominic removed his robe and used it to cover Nikodemos instead. “Rihimil, your names are many,” he began to pray. “Ruler of heavens, we beseech you. Silver dragon, we beseech you.” As he spoke, the other priests joined him. “Knight in black, we beseech you. Sword of high, we beseech you.” The longer the high priest spoke, the stronger his voice became. In the darkness of the cell, none could see his tears.
Nearby in the council chamber, the lord of Tothmor was tending to the affairs of the city as usual. He was not accompanied by Philon at present, however, but instead meeting with several blackboots. Behind him stood as always his shadow.
“Jenaab, respectfully,” one of the blackboots said, “We are spread thin. Not only must we root out these rebels, we must also assist the flame mistress in hunting down the worshippers of the false gods. And in between these, several of our numbers are constantly leaving the city to scout the surroundings.”
“I will withdraw you from scouting, in that case,” Rostam declared.
“That might not be wise,” another hastily interjected.
“Yes, Kamran?” asked Rostam with raised eyebrows.
“There is still danger from the drylanders,” the blackboot replied haltingly.
“With winter approaching?” The outlander captain’s voice sounded dubious.
“They have not retreated beyond the border,” Kamran began to explain, recovering from his initial stammer. “We will need supplies sent to us to last through winter, which will be easy targets for their raids unless we remain vigilant.”
“That may be,” Rostam muttered, now contemplative.
“You cannot spare the Anausa to effectively patrol such vast areas,” Kamran continued, speaking at a steadier pace. “Beyond the city, just one sāyag keeping watch is worth a hundred soldiers.”
“Enough,” the captain raised his hand. “Focus your efforts on finding the conspirators in our city. We will resume our search for the blasphemers in the city once the rebels have been dealt with.”
“That is well, Jenaab,” one of the other blackboots expressed, and they all nodded. “We will bring the rebels to you soon.”
“See that you do,” Rostam demanded.
The landscape surrounding Tothmor was dry heath. There were no trees or vegetation except for heather and flowers stubborn enough to grow in such arid conditions. No hills or forests broke the sight for many miles. The only interruption was the occasional rock formation; remnants of Mount Tothmor that spread out like discarded leaves. The blackboots used these structures to divide the landscape into areas for scouting.
That was not the only use the blackboots had for them. One of their dreaded company had just reached one of the formations, and he walked along the edge of the rock with a searching gaze. At length, he found something that was not natural in origin. It was a series of scratches, made with a tool. Upon closer inspection, it could be surmised that these were runes of a crude variety, the kind that the Mearcians used as numbers.
The blackboot brushed away some brown vegetation to examine the numbers closely for a moment. After that, he climbed onto the rocks and perched himself, keeping vigilance of the surrounding areas.
As night fell, he abandoned his post, but only to position himself on the ground instead, leaning his back against the rocks. With not even a cloak as shelter against the cold, he wrapped his arms around himself and slept.
Morning came, though it brought no change other than daylight. Even the rays of the sun were weak and without warmth. Waking up, the blackboot stretched his limbs and took a sip from his flask. Returning to his place atop the rocks, he resumed gazing in every direction. He kept this up for several hours.
Past noon, the outlander abandoned his purpose. Jumping down, he returned to where the runes could be found, near the ground and almost invisible. Pulling out his dagger, the blackboot made a few scratches at the end of the row of numbers. The current date in the Mearcian calendar. Sheathing the blade again, the blackboot stood up, glanced around, and began walking back towards Tothmor.
A crowd had gathered in the third district, in the area between the gates. It was one of the only open squares in Tothmor where people could assemble or, in this case, be commanded to assemble. By the edge of the area, small fires burned outside the nearby public houses; usually it was for the sake of allowing people warmth when drinking outside the smoky rooms of the taverns, though it served extra purpose with crowds gathering at the square for the spectacle about to unfold. In the centre, a scaffold had been built, though not to be used for executions. It served simply as a platform from which to address the crowd. A ring of Anausa soldiers surrounded the scaffold, keeping people at bay.
Upon the wooden construct stood three people. One was a priestess in a green robe, shivering either from the cold or due to her circumstances. Next to her stood a priestess in flaming garments, with a shadow warrior behind them both.
“This woman,” Daena called out in Mearcspeech, “was a blasphemer. She worshipped false gods and led you to do the same. She and her ilk grew fat on your offerings while lying to you. She has come to see the light, however. The light of the true god, the Godking. Speak,” she commanded, pushing the greenrobe forward, “that these people may hear the truth.”
“I am a blasphemer,” the sister of Austre stammered. “I worshipped a false god and led others to do the same.”
“Now I have seen the light,” she uttered. “I have been cleansed in the blood –” Her voice faltered at this point.
“I have been cleansed in the blood of those who do evil,” she cried out, and those standing closest could see the traces of this; dried blood stained her dirty clothing.
“I profess the name of the Godking as hallowed,” she shouted. “He is my lord, my king, my god. I long for the day when he shall wake –”
Something was flung through the air, followed by several other objects. They looked like stones, thrown at the women on the scaffold and the soldiers on the ground; then they hit their targets and smashed into pieces. A certain smell quickly spread; the projectiles were small jars filled with lamp oil.
From the small fires that had been burning outside the local taverns, a few men picked up burning branches, ran forward, and hurled them through the air over the heads of the crowd.
The shadow warrior grabbed Daena around the waist and threw himself and her backwards over the edge of the scaffold.
One torch hit the oil-drenched clothes of the apostate greenrobe, who was quickly engulfed in flames. Same fate happened to several of the nearest Anausa soldiers. Swiftly, screams and the stench of burning flesh spread through the square along with ensuing panic.
“Your concern is noted,” Rostam said with a firm voice.
“I am not concerned, I am furious,” Daena all but screamed. They were in the royal quarters, which formerly had belonged to the queen of Hæthiod and where the captain currently resided. “They sought to burn me alive!”
“That is what the fravashi is for,” Rostam remarked with a nod towards her silent shadow.
“An assault on me is an assault upon the Godking himself!” the priestess continued. “Do you expect Shahriyar to accept this insult?”
“Those responsible will be caught and punished,” Rostam promised.
“Failure to repay this insult against Shahriyar means complicity,” Daena threatened. “Take care that I do not decide your blood is needed to purify the new temples to our lord.”
“Jenaab Sikandar placed this city under my command,” Rostam defended himself. “It is not your place to question me or his authority.”
“If I deem you are guilty of blasphemy, I need no further authority,” the priestess retorted. “Obedience to the Godking goes before all else.”
“I am loyal to the very depths of my being,” the captain claimed.
“Yet you withdrew every sāyag from my service,” Daena spat.
“In order to catch the very rebels that attacked you,” he countered.
“They will be returned to me at once,” the flame mistress demanded. “Since your methods have failed, I will employ my own. If you hinder my efforts in any way, I will consider it an obstacle to my holy charge of cleansing this city of blasphemy with the appropriate punishment to follow.”
A lengthy moment followed where Rostam was silent, until he lowered his gaze. “Very well.”
The priestess turned on her heel and marched out, followed by her shadow.
Looking up, Rostam directed his sight at his own shadow. “It is late. I retired to this chamber in order to sleep.”
The shadow stared at him with its black-clothed face. The yellow eyes revealed no emotions. “I will be watching.” The words came monotonously, but still an expression of unease ran across Rostam’s face. Without further words, the shadow left the chamber, positioning himself outside the doors.