THE WIZARD’S SCREAMS echoed through the cavern. As they died away, Davian stared down at the old man chained to the stone table, puzzled and frustrated. The wizard 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. Draped from head to toe in blood-red robes that looked like flames in the flickering torchlight, the Inquisitress stood silently, her head tilted towards the trembling, 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 pointed tongs he’d been using. A knife and a 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 picked up the knife.
Without warning, the old man seized Davian’s wrist with a painfully strong grip. Davian’s fingers went limp and the knife clattered to the stone table. Fear clenched at his gut. The wizard’s hands should have been bound to the table with heavy chains. The Inquisitress would punish Davian for letting the prisoner break free.
With his other hand, the wizard grabbed the front of Davian’s ragged tunic and pulled him down so that their faces nearly touched. “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? What was the old man talking about? It didn’t make sense. Davian was a slave. A high-ranking slave, to be sure; he 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.” Davian jerked himself free from 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. Davian had tried to take the pendant, the wizard’s Source-token, from him before, but it had burned his fingers and slipped from his grasp. Now, the wizard folded Davian’s fingers around it.
A bolt of pain shocked up Davian’s arm. Brilliant blue-green light flared inside him, unbearably hot and bright. Along with it came the strangest feeling. His mind seemed to expand, and new strength flowed through his veins along with burning knowledge. He could be something more than a slave. He could be anything he wanted.
The power swelling inside Davian grated against the dark imprint of Makarsk’s seal in his mind. It felt like a grindstone was crushing his brain. Davian squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his teeth to keep 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.
All at once, the power stopped expanding. The blue-green glow gathered in on itself until it was no more than a tiny glimmer, then buried itself deep inside Davian. The headache faded. 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 would be angry. What was he going to tell her? 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’d better finish the job before the Inquisitress came to see why he was taking so long. Or before the wizard escaped.
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 he paused. 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 gone silent.
An uncomfortable feeling twisted through Davian’s belly. 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. He had been strong enough to keep himself alive until the Inquisitress left Davian alone with him 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 intentionally sacrificed himself 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 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, save two.
There was no way a slave could ever become Archpriest, though. Even to think of it was to risk being 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 like the Archpriest and hold the power of life and death, pleasure and pain, freedom and slavery over others?
A sense of denial flickered inside him, warm like the wizard’s power. That wasn’t right. That wasn’t what the wizard had meant.
But what else was there? Even from before the time he arrived at Makarsk as a young boy, sold into slavery by his angry, grieving parents, Davian had known that the world was divided into those who were ruled and those who ruled over them, those who served and those who were served by them, those who caused pain and those who received it. There were those who ordered some to live and others to die, and those who lived and died at their word. That was 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, whenever his eyes strayed towards the wizard’s face, that uncomfortable feeling squirmed through him again.
It didn’t matter. In just a moment, the wizard would be gone, fed to Makarsk, and Davian wouldn’t have to look at him or 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. He shut his mind on further thoughts of the wizard. Bearing the corpse across his shoulders, he walked to the back of the cavern, where the darkest shadows concealed the black pit that was the mouth of Source Makarsk itself.
Several paces from the edge of the pit, he stopped. This was as close as he dared come, the farthest 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. Kneeling on hands and knees, he pushed the body forward a bit at a time. At the farthest reach of his arm, the body slid over the edge of the pit.
Davian sat back and waited, counting the heartbeats that passed. He had never heard a body hit the bottom.
After fifteen heartbeats, a familiar burst of dark power flooded 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, Davian had never known that Makarsk spoke to slaves as well. No doubt the Inquisitress and the Archpriest already knew this, though they never asked what the Source said to him. He had no intention of telling them. It was one thing that was his and his alone.
You have done well, slave, the Source said. The offering is acceptable, and I am renewed.
Davian closed his eyes, basking in the embrace of Makarsk’s approval. He should be proud, said a voice inside him that sounded a lot like Makarsk. Though he was only a slave, he was a servant of Source Makarsk, the most powerful Source in the Empire of the North, the Source that enforced the Emperor’s rule with the power of the heavens and the earth.
Makarsk’s presence grated against the flicker of blue-green 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. A sharp pang of loss, of sorrow, struck him at the thought of Makarsk taking it from him. Though if Makarsk did decide to take it, there was nothing Davian could do about it.
I see that the prisoner, that foolish practioner of weak magic, left a trace of himself on you, Makarsk said. Those who bridge the gap between life and death together often 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.
Chilling laughter sounded in Davian’s mind. You think this insignificant trace of power makes you special, is that it? 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. Cut off from its Source, it will soon wither away. Do not 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 bore down heavily on Davian’s mind. Makarsk was right. He had been a fool to think he could ever be more than a slave. “Yes, Master,” he whispered, feeling small and helpless.
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, as well. Always, the price that Makarsk demanded for pleasure was pain and shame.
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 far 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 it 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 this. Sex was ever-present 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 with each other, with or without consent. Those who were higher-ranking indulged in domination over their inferiors and pleasure with their equals. Davian was nothing, a slave, with no choice but to allow his superiors to do whatever they wanted to him and consider himself privileged for it.
But why should he have to live with being used and abused like that? The thought reared up, startling Davian with its 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.
He would leave Makarsk, then, so he wouldn’t be a slave any more.
The idea took Davian by surprise. He didn’t know where it had come from; he had never dared think such a thing before. His parents had sold him to Makarsk when he was twelve; there was no other place for him in the world, no other life. But he knew, sure as he knew his own name, that he needed to leave. 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 know what other places there were in the world, except for the few things he had heard about the Empire’s capital city and about 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.
His chest tightened with fear; his stomach clenched in a cold knot. Darkness clouded his thoughts again, spreading out from Makarsk’s seal deep in his mind. It was better to accept his lot in life than to risk being thrown into Makarsk’s pit.
Footsteps padded down the corridor towards him. Davian looked up, terrified that whoever it was would 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 was left. 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. Now he knew what to do. Keeping his head lowered, lest anyone guess from the look on his face what he meant to do, Davian followed the slave down the stairs and out to the kitchen yard.
Copyright 2017 Kyra Halland
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