The wizard’s screams echoed through the cavern, then died away. Davian stared down at the old man chained to the inquisition table. He was nothing more than skin and broken bones and thin, ropy muscles, covered in open wounds and blood and burns, but somehow he was still gasping for breath, still strong enough to scream, still resisting Davian’s best efforts to make him talk.
It didn’t make sense. Most prisoners brought to Source Makarsk’s cavern for questioning would have either talked or died by now.
Davian looked to the Inquisitress for instructions. She stood silently, draped from head to toe in blood-red robes that looked like flames in the flickering torchlight, her head tilted towards the trembling, sweating, bleeding old man on the stone table. Behind the red veil covering her face, Davian imagined the ice blue eyes narrowed in disapproval, the full lips frowning. Desperately, he hoped she wouldn’t take her displeasure out on him.
“Useless,” she finally said. “Finish him, slave. Be sure to remove his Source-token once he’s dead, before you dispose of the body. It might be useful.”
“Yes, my lady.” The knot of fear inside Davian eased a little. He wouldn’t be punished for failing to get any useful information out of the foreign wizard. Not yet, anyway.
The Inquisitress left the cavern. Davian set down the sharp, pointed tongs he’d been using and picked up the knife. The black stone bowl, for collecting the wizard’s blood for the Archpriest’s rites later that night, stood close to hand. He grasped the wizard’s jaw and pushed it back to expose his throat, then raised the knife.
Without warning, the old man seized Davian’s wrist with a grip so painfully strong Davian dropped the knife. With his other hand, he grabbed the front of Davian’s ragged tunic and pulled him down so that their faces nearly touched.
Davian’s gut clenched. The wizard’s hands should have been bound to the table with heavy chains. How had he gotten free? The Inquisitress would certainly punish him for this.
“You…” the wizard breathed against Davian’s face, his voice nearly gone after all his screaming. “Finally found… You can be more, better than this…”
More? Better? Davian struggled to make sense of the old man’s words. He was a slave. High-ranking, who no longer had to clean out the cesspits or fight for scraps of food left behind by the kitchen dogs, but still a slave. How could a slave ever be anything more and better than a slave?
The old man was crazy, that was all. “Be quiet.” He jerked himself free of the prisoner’s grasp.
The wizard grabbed his wrist again. “Take this,” he whispered. He held up the small wooden pendant, carved in the shape of a leaf, that hung from a chain around his neck – the pendant Davian hadn’t been able to take before; it had burned his fingers and slipped from his grasp when he tried – and folded Davian’s fingers around it.
A lightning bolt of pain shocked up Davian’s arm. Brilliant blue-green light swelled inside him, unbearably hot and bright. Along with it came a feeling Davian had never known before. His mind seemed to expand and new strength flowed through his veins. He could be something more than a slave, something better than he was now. He could be anything he wanted.
As the power continued to fill Davian, it grated against the dark imprint of Makarsk’s seal in his mind like a grindstone crushing his brain. Davian squeezed his eyes shut against the agony and clenched his teeth to keep himself from crying out. If the guards heard him and discovered he had lost control of the prisoner, he would be punished right then and there.
And then the flow of power stopped. The blue-green glow gathered in on itself until it was no more than a tiny glimmer, then buried itself deep within him. The headache ebbed away. Sweating and shaking, Davian opened his eyes and unclenched his hand from around the Source-token.
Nothing but wood dust filled his hand.
His blood turned to ice. The Inquisitress had commanded him to take the token, but now it was ruined. She was going to be angry. What was he going to tell her? There had to be something he could say that would keep him from being punished. She hadn’t seen what had happened; maybe he could tell her that the wizard had destroyed the Source-token himself. Maybe she wouldn’t notice the strange new power inside him, or the strange new feelings it had awakened.
Maybe he could turn invisible and sink into the earth.
Davian shook himself. He was taking too long. He’d better finish the job before the Inquisitress came to see what he was doing. Or before the wizard got away.
But the old man hadn’t moved. Davian picked up the knife again and gripped the underside of the wizard’s jaw, bending the old man’s head back, then stopped. For all his strength just moments ago, the wizard was now limp and unresisting. His eyes stared sightlessly upward into the shadowy heights of the cavern; his gnarled hands lay still at his sides. The harsh, broken breathing had stopped.
An uncomfortable sensation twisted inside Davian. The wizard had been strong enough to break the chains that bound him to the table, strong enough to stay alive through days of imprisonment and torture, long past the point when anyone else would have died, until the Inquisitress left them alone and he had the chance to give Davian his message and the power from his Source-token. If he was that strong, why had he allowed himself to be taken prisoner and tortured to the point of death in the first place? It was almost as though he had sacrificed himself on purpose to bring Davian that message.
But what was the use in telling a slave he could be something more?
The question gnawed at Davian’s mind as he cut the wizard’s throat and collected the blood in the bowl for the Archpriest. Now there was something better than being a slave. The Archpriest of Makarsk had a hundred or more slaves, servants, and lesser priests at his command. He dressed in fine silks and linens, slept in a giant feather bed with warm blankets and whatever partners he desired, as many of them as he desired, and ate food more delicious than any slave could dream of, as much of it as he wanted. He had power of life and death over every other person at Makarsk but two.
There was no way a slave could ever become Archpriest, though. Even to think of it was asking to be punished. But this power the wizard had given Davian had to be good for something, or else why had the wizard gone to all the trouble, even giving up his life, to give it to him? What had the wizard seen in him? Was it possible that he could become great and hold the power of life and death, pleasure and pain, freedom and slavery over others?
A sense of denial, warm like the flicker of power buried inside him. That wasn’t right. That wasn’t what the wizard had meant.
But what else was there? From the time he first arrived at Makarsk as a young boy, sold into slavery by his angry, grieving parents, Davian had learned that there were those who ruled and those who were ruled, those who were served and those who served, those who caused pain and those who received it, those who ordered some to live and others to die, and those who lived and died at their word. It was just the way things were.
A warm, wet feeling on his hand startled Davian out of his thoughts. The bowl had overflowed, spilling blood over the jagged black marks on the back of his hand. He set the bowl aside on the table, then unfastened the chains that still bound the wizard’s legs and feet.
As he worked, he avoided looking at the dead man’s face. Usually, the dead didn’t bother him; after all, they were dead and couldn’t do anything to him. But now, that same uncomfortable feeling squirmed through him whenever his eyes strayed towards the wizard’s face.
Not that it mattered. In just a moment, the wizard would be gone, fed to Makarsk, and Davian wouldn’t have to think about him any more.
He hoisted the torn, broken body from the table and slung it over his shoulders. One of the reasons he had been chosen as the Inquisitress’s assistant was that, in spite of living in slavery since the age of twelve, he had grown large and strong and was one of the few slaves capable of carrying the dead weight of a grown man. But the foreign wizard seemed to hardly weigh anything, as though something more than blood and breath had gone out of him when he died.
That disturbing feeling crawled through Davian again, and he shut his mind on further thoughts of the wizard. Bearing the corpse across his shoulders, he walked across the cavern to the darkest shadows at the back and the black pit that was the opening of Source Makarsk itself.
Several paces from the edge of the pit, he stopped. This was as close as he dared come, the furthest distance he could keep from the edge and still be able to reach to push the body into the pit. It was said that the pit was bottomless, and nightmares of falling forever and ever into darkness broke Davian’s sleep nearly every night. Careful not to lose his balance, he dropped the wizard’s body to the ground, then knelt on hands and knees and pushed the body over to the edge of the pit and then in.
He sat back and waited, counting the heartbeats that passed. He had never heard a body hit the bottom.
After fifteen heartbeats, the familiar burst of power exploded out of the pit. It washed over Davian, bathing him in a cold, oily sensation.
Slave. Makarsk’s voice filled his mind. He knew that Makarsk spoke to the Archpriest, of course, and to the Inquisitress and the Guardian, but until he started assisting the Inquisitress in her work in this cavern, he had never known that Makarsk spoke to slaves as well. No doubt his superiors already knew this, though they never asked what the Source said to him and he had no intention of telling them. It was one small thing that was his and his alone.
You have done well, slave, the Source said. The offering is acceptable, and I am filled and renewed.
Davian closed his eyes, allowing Makarsk’s approval to embrace him. He should be proud, a voice inside him said. Though only a slave, he was still a servant of Source Makarsk, the most powerful Source in the Empire of the North, the Source that backed up the Emperor’s rule with the power of the heavens and the earth.
Makarsk’s presence brushed against the flicker of power that had buried itself inside Davian. But what is this?
Hastily, Davian tried to bury the power even deeper. It was the wizard’s gift to him, the only gift he could ever remember receiving, and the thought of Makarsk taking it from him struck him with sudden grief. Though, of course, if Makarsk did decide to take it, there was nothing he could do about it.
I see that the practitioner left a trace of himself on you, Makarsk said. It is not unheard of for those who bridge the gap between life and death together to leave something of themselves on each other. The cold, oily touch probed deeper into Davian’s mind. He tried to shrink away from it, but couldn’t escape.
Faint, chilling laughter came into his mind. You think this weak, insignificant trace of power makes you special. You think you can become something other than what I have chosen you to be. Heed me well, slave. That power is nothing compared to mine. It will soon die out. Never forget, I have marked you with my seal on your soul and the symbols of my ownership on your hands. Those will never fade away. Your life and destiny belong to me and me alone.
The cold weight of Makarsk’s words smothered the last traces of the warm, enlarged feeling that the wizard’s power had awakened in Davian. Makarsk was right. He had been a fool to think he could ever be more than a slave. “Yes, Master,” he whispered, feeling colder and smaller than ever before.
At the Inquisitress’s voice, the heavy shadow of Makarsk’s presence fled. Davian opened his eyes and quickly turned around to bow all the way down, touching his forehead to the cold stone floor. “My lady.”
“Did you take the wizard’s Source-token?”
“Forgive me, my lady. The wizard destroyed it before he died.” Davian stiffened against the blows that were sure to come.
But they didn’t come, at least not yet. “A pity,” she said. “I could have used it to find out which Source sent him against the Empire. Well, it’s too late now. Stand.”
Davian obeyed. She stepped closer to him, much closer, and he tensed up again. She was a small woman, the top of her head didn’t even reach his shoulders, but she didn’t need height or size to make him feel small and terrified. She reached out one red-gloved hand from within her robes and slowly dragged a fingertip across his chest. “Wash yourself, then tonight after the ritual you will attend me and the Archpriest in my chambers.”
Davian’s belly clenched in fear even as his groin tightened with anticipation. This was another reason why the Inquisitress had chosen him as her assistant; she found him comely, for a slave. There would be pleasure, far more than he felt with any of the slave women, sharp and dark and intense, sickeningly sweet like overripe, rotting fruit. But the pleasure would come at a cost of pain and humiliation that left him hating every moment of it and hating himself.
Pleasure or pain, though, if he refused the Inquisitress it would mean certain punishment, maybe even death in Makarsk’s pit. The thought of that was even worse than anything the Inquisitress and the Archpriest might do to him in the privacy of their chambers. He bowed his head. “Yes, my lady.”
* * *
Late that night, Davian slumped against the wall of the dimly-lit corridor outside the Inquisitress’s chambers, then slid down to hunch on the floor. Besides putting him to the usual uses, the Archpriest and the Inquisitress had taken out on him their frustration at the unsuccessful torture of the wizard. The cold stone of the wall felt soothing against his stinging back but did nothing to ease the deeper aches of his abused body or the sick, filthy feeling that fogged his mind and made a thick lump in his gut.
He should be used to it. Sex was a large part of life at Source Makarsk, and for him the abuse had started the day his parents left him here. Slaves sought escape from the misery of their lives in each other, with or without consent; those who were higher up indulged in dominance over their inferiors and pleasure with their equals. And always, the price that Makarsk demanded for pleasure was pain and shame. Davian was nothing, a slave, with no choice but to suffer whatever his superiors decided to do to him and consider himself privileged for it.
But why should he have to live with being used and abused? The thought startled him with its heat and strength. He bled red blood just like they did; why should he suffer for their pleasure? Hadn’t the old wizard said he, Davian, could be something more, something better, than that?
But as long as he was a slave, he would never be anything else.
Then he would just have to leave Makarsk, so he wouldn’t be a slave any more.
The idea took him by surprise. He didn’t know where it had come from; he had never even dared think such a thing before. His parents had sold him to Makarsk when he was twelve; there was no other place for him, no other life. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that leaving was what he needed to do. Somehow, he would find a way to escape.
But where would he go? Not back to the fiords and his parents, and he didn’t even know what other places there were in the world, except for the few hints he had heard of the Empire’s capital city and of other lands that were enemies of the Empire.
Anyway, it was far too dangerous. In all the years he’d been at Source Makarsk – fifteen, he guessed, though it might have been more or less – the few slaves who had tried to escape had been brought back dead or nearly so and fed to Makarsk.
Darkness clouded his thoughts again, spreading outward from Makarsk’s seal deep in his mind. Fear churned in his stomach and tightened his chest. Better to accept his lot in life than to risk being thrown into Makarsk’s pit.
Footsteps padded down the corridor. Davian looked up, terrified that whoever it was would somehow know what he had been thinking. But it wasn’t a priest or other avowed servant, only a slave, carrying a tray of bones and scraps left over from a meal. These would be given to the dogs and then the slaves would get what remained. There was also a pile of broken crockery on the tray, destined for the trash pit outside the stronghold’s walls.
The trash pit… Blue-green warmth swelled in Davian’s mind, driving back the darkness as he watched the slave walk past. Now he knew what to do.
Copyright 2017 Kyra Halland. All Rights Reserved.
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