RAKEFIRE



RAKEFIRE, by Jason Carney

 

This was after several secret meetings in smoky roothouses, where whispered secrets were swapped for more secrets couched in cryptolects and allegories. With them I had been shadowing Qwayas for several years, my erstwhile lover and son’s father, who I had questions for and possibly slow death, depending on his answers. His spoor led me to a forgotten town in the ruin-haunted forest of Drossus, part of a fief barely worth the ink to note it, but he was departed when I got there. The folk who lived there–a mixture of Youv, Griess, and Iseran–told me the tale of an escaped foundling Srin named Augrim who ended up naming me Rakefire.

These folk huddled around me in a slanting shack of a court illuminated with smoking grease lamps hanging from the rafters, casting shadows on the angling slate floors. I sipped strong blackroot from a clay handpot. My red robe wrapped around me as I gazed at them with bleary, travel-worn eyes. My long hair was plaited down my back, but much of it had come undone and framed my face. A week’s worth of dust settled on my dark skin, etching out young wrinkles. I was only a novice, a child by any sorcerer’s standard, though womanhood wasn’t new to me.

The frontier folk gazed back at me, curious to see a woman of the Trokarus caste, a rarity in those lands.

“He couldn’t bear his slavery,” they told me.

“He questioned the Caste Laws of the Covenant,” I was told breathlessly.

“Blaspheming thrall,” they whispered.

I intuited they knew something of my nature for they offered him to me as a thrall if I helped. “Otherwise we intend to burn him as a caste transgressor, give him to the Horned One, whom he clearly serves,” they said.

The road had been long, my Seeking tiring, and so the opportunity to take a thrall piqued my interest, but my weird to find Qwayas had set my path : “I have a shadow to catch,” I said, accepting another steaming pot of blackroot.

“But Trokarus!” they said, “None knew Srin Augrim was capable of reading, let alone working magic. He has come upon powerful secrets and is now fortified and playing at sorcery in a cave a day to the north beyond the walls.”

“Where the forest grows shadowy and a river cuts great rift through the wild.”

“A fitting grotto for mischief.”

I needed to find Qwayas. My questions needed answering. But these folk appeared genuinely afraid, and I felt for them: “Who among you is Seneschal? I will speak with that one about the matter as well as anyone else who has knowledge of this slave’s transgression.”

Several nodded and fled. Eventually a high-backed chair was brought out and the Seneschal, an old, blind man with his chain of office glimmering, was helped into it by a Nohvite priest.

“I assure you, Trokarus,” he said, his voice trembling with age. “No one taught Srin Augrim to read. We are an observant folk. Nor did we give him secrets. We had none.” But it was his household Nohvite Priest, his liver-spotted hand on his Seneschal’s shoulder (who also called me “Trokarus” in that pious fashion), who revealed my fate with this transgressing hedge mage: “Srin Augrim’s transgression was discovered by my master, Trokarus. He found him reading in his cot and seized a thin, blackboarded book adorned with the Black Triangle. Please examine it,” he said. He laid a delicately black bound quarto on the table adorned with hasps of black steel; the light caught the mirror surface of the black triangle. He left it there like it was a snake ready to bite.

Of course it was encoded in Qwayas’s distinctive cipher, the very same that had often spoken of love of me.

The bastard had been here.

 

*

 

They were simple provincials and hospitable to a strange Red Robe Seeking out of the wilderness, though a little pitiful and definitely ignorant: weary worn from bad weather, blighted crops, subsisting on mushrooms, acorns, and venison, right on the edge of a choking forest. They all had the look of fear: eyeballs a little too large, crows feet at the eyes, in both children and old ones. I had read Procreus’s treatise, The Origins of the Gran, and knew then how the foul creatures came to be. So, I felt  sorry for these people, had a nightmarish vision of them dehumanizing at vegetable speed. They seemed to me like a flock without a shepherd growing teeth for lack of stewardship.

After the discovery of Qwayas’s codex of spells I made a point of learning as much as I could about Srin Augrim, the slave who Qwayas initiated into sorcery. The Seneschal discovered him with the book, seized it, and brought the full might of religious fervor down on him. Augrim was thrown in an old, rooty oubliette to await punishment. But he escaped the following evening by hypnotizing one of his gaolers, forcing him to drop looped rope down into the pit. After tying up the gaoler with the same loop, he set a reed store on fire with magic and blinded a man-at-arms with werelight from his hands. Quite good, considering Augrim was esteemed an illiterate slave.

“The Conventions of the Covenant protect us, and only evil comes from their disregard,” the Nohvite said. He wiped away a sincere tear.

They told me more about the cave where Augrim had retreated, and that he had been alone there doing gods knows what. I was told to speak to a Srin trapper the following morning, a woman named Sloan, who could give me directions to the cave, which was used by the trappers.

If I found Augrim, I had their blessing: I could take him as a thrall.

Finally, they prayed for my safety. “By the Body of Noh, we admonish ourselves! There’s no knowing what sorcery Augrim is working in darkness!”

“Indeed,” I said, standing, wiping froth from my mouth. “Sorcery lays a dangerous board, and much of the food is poisonous.”

The Priest made the Sign of Noh over his chest, his eyes dark hollows of fear: “That I would never gainsay,” he said frowning. And the Seneschal nodded as I retreated to sleep for the night.

I had a sense that Qwayas was laughing at the joke somewhere.

 

*

 

The next morning, after a breakfast of bone broth and black bread, I sought out the trapper, Sloan, and found her in the town, her hood shadowing her eyes, working on the center sward stretching skins. She was scarecrow tall and thin with faded brown wisping hair pulled back in a bun. Her jutting front teeth rested in her cup as she sipped small beer from a ladle of beaten copper. She called me “Trokarus” and averted her eyes from mine.

“Your Nohvite tells me you know of a certain grotto where a transgressor works magic,” I said when she knelt at my approach.

“He speaks truth,” she replied. She was tight-lipped.

I gestured for her to stand. “Tell me about it then. I’m going there today.”

She was taciturn, avoided eye contact by stretching skin as I talked. I proposed ideas; she grunted in affirmation or denial. After a bit of this primitive discourse, I learned that the cave was a shelter used by trappers when they were out on a range tending to their traps. This region was less than a hundred leagues from the waters of Calse-lesih and was subject to unexpected rains, and so the trappers had previously retreated to the now sorcerer-haunted cave during showers, winds, and lightning.

I was surprised and a little suspicious when Sloan volunteered to lead me there: “I’ll go. With you. Get rid of transgressor.”

“You may be safer in town,” I said. “This hedge mage may have stumbled upon powerful secrets.”

She spat at this, wiped her grimy, callus-knuckled hands on her apron: “I know the foundling,” she snarled. “I swaddled him in skins as a babe. He was a good Srin. The Horned One poisoned his mind.” She made a hex with her hands to protect himself, having evoked the Dark One.

“His is a foul transgression,” I answered.

She snarled at that and spit.

 

*

 

I spent much of the evening gathering supplies: twice-baked seed biscuit, a coil of hemp rope, two oil rag torches capped with wax, and lamb bladders filled with small beer. Later I practiced my mudras, meditated, and read in the Nohvite’s subterranean library, a quiet circular chamber ornamented with tapestries depicting Noh’s coupling with Ral in the Glade of Rallweis.

I read what relevant treatises he possessed from yellow-leafed books inked in antique script with verdigris-encrusted hasps. They were unlearned but old, beautiful books written and illuminated by Priests of Noh, scholars who had never worked magic themselves, but feared and respected it.

Sloan and I embarked early the next morning, a blood-soaked sky to our backs. It became foggy as the winds changed and we wandered the game paths into the forest.

We hewed to the paths and eventually came to one that ran parallel to a forest canyon and threaded along a rocky ledge. The canyon of red rock and many pale striations had been carved over many years by a river that had been recently dammed–200 farstals ago–far to the north, by a larger settlement of Yavvin ax-men.

It was a slow, lazy river of clear water, bursting with over-eager fish with glorious scales and beards. To pass the time as I walked along the ledge, I occasionally gazed at the waters and saw schools of them flitting and jumping around like animated jewels among the polished rocks, flying from the water like butterfly sculptures of glass.

As we proceeded, Sloan and I spoke little. Sloan was the better woodsman than I. She walked with a stave capped in silver and helped me with firm hands when I stumbled, would climb ledges before me and then grunt angry directions to guide my hand and footfalls.

We sustained ourselves by eating smoked fish the tavernmaster had given us as a parting boon, but we also had handfuls of nuts and dried berries. I sometimes drank from a wax-lined skin of peppered wine when we rested while Sloan smoked seeds from a small, steel pipe, her eyes blackening with dreams.

For a whole day we went forward in this way. That evening we camped in a windhallow. Despite my anxieties regarding gran, Sloan struck a small fire of cones, moss, and twigs and boiled water for blackroot and reed porridge.

“The gran in this region will not attack us if there is a fire, Trokarus,” she said, dismissing my concern.”They fear it.” Her eyes were black orbs in her hood.

“I always thought gran danced around fire and burned their captives at the stake,” I said.

Sloan grinned between sips of steaming blackroot. “Not these. These are the deep dwellers. For them, flames are the fingers of dark ones prying open the walls separating worlds.”

“An interesting story,” I said.

For a while she did not respond, seemed to ignore my comment as she tended the fire with the capped end of her stave. She surprised me when she finally spoke: “No story,” she said, tapping out her pipe.

She hooded herself and went off beyond the light of the fire to sleep.

 

*

 

The following morning Sloan struck camp, meticulously removed evidence of our having stayed there while I meditated; then, we marched on as before. “We shall come to the cave soon,” Sloan said. “Before midday meal.”

We had been walking for a while and had come across a colony of conifers in the forest when Sloan, up ahead, kneeled in the needle bed.

“What is it?” I called.

“Strange carrion,” she said, motioning for me to come.

As I approached, I saw it over her shoulder: a pale, child-like body but malformed and slimy, appearing somewhat half-digested. Its pudgy legs were much smaller than its long, stringy arms. Part of it was liquefying into slime. The bald head was a little too large, the skull not quite the right shape. And its eyes were open–black pupiless irises. It’s mouth was drawn tightly.

“The face,” Sloan said. She covered her nose to hide her disgust. “Augrim,” she snarled.

“This looks like Augrim?” I asked.

She nodded, stood, and made a protective hex over her body.

 

*

 

“The creature died because it wandered too far from its maker,” I said, stumbling over a mossy stone.

“Maker?” she asked skeptically. “And how did Srin Augrim make this slime child?”

It had taken much of the morning to convince her that the Lorik we found, despite its resemblance, was not Augrim but something else: “The process is secret. But it involves blood, words, and certain sacrifices. And if the creatures are not properly stewarded, they will follow dark dreams and wander, as this one did, and then die.”

“Why make such foulness?” she asked. She had let her hair down and pulled it into a thong of leather. She gazed at me as she tied it.

“Several reasons,” I said. “For thrall, for service, for protection. It is complicated.”

She hoisted the blade at her hip. “Not so much,” she replied. “We need protection from them?”

“They can be poisonous. They can send horrible dreams,” I said taking a drink of smallbeer from my skin. I offered it to her and she waved it away. “Their danger depends on the skill of the maker.”

“Is Srin Augrim skilled?” she asked.

“We shall see,” I said wiping my mouth.

 

*

 

The sun had not completely reached its apex when we came to the ledge that hid the cave. It was high up, a black bore on the side of a wall of stone and earth. A curtain of dirty cotton was hung over it, but the wind had blown it back or it was being held open in some way, for we could see inside the cave, could see it ending in darkness within. It did not seem to me to be a natural formation.

“How far does it go back?” I asked.

“The tunnel is narrow. The floor is even. It goes back a bit and opens into a chamber.”

“Is it natural?”

“We do not know. Perhaps it was worked by hands long ago,” she said.

“These forests are haunted by ruins of the old empires, you know,” I said. “This could be anything, even an opening into a furnace.”

Sloan made a hex on herself as I mentioned that horrible prospect.

“How do we get up there?” I asked.

She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes and then pointed north to a rock outcropping. I could see a ramp of earth there secured by the roots of an overhanging tree. We would need to climb to the ramp.

When we walked there, we had to bring out my rope and grappling hook to climb. After testing to make it sure it was firmly anchored, Sloan scaled the rope swiftly and skillfully.

I was halfway up. Sloan had already made the climb, had thrown back her hood. She was standing there, at the top of ledge, whispering, cursing, trying to advise me: “Do not use that root as a footfall, Trokarus! It is unsafe!” In the midst of her speaking she seemed to lose her breath.

Her eyes grew wide and a thick vein throbbed on her forehead; a side of her face sagged. Redness bloomed in the white irises of her eyes, blood poured from her nose, and bubbling froth issued from the corner of her mouth.

“Sloan! What ails you?” I shouted.

And then she tipped and fell over, her knotty hand hanging loosely.

Looking behind and down, my heart leaping to my throat, I saw them: at the base of the incline were two Loriks, their faces nearly identical, their brains glowing red in grayish, translucent skulls. They gazed up at me with large, lamplight eyes: little naked slime men with undulating lobes like blooming flowers. They chattered something at me in a foul, half-formed language, black tongues slipping out.

Loriklore has never been an interest of mine, and the pidgin of ancient Greh they speak differs so greatly from creator to creator. I’m sure they gargled a threat of some sort; that was clear from the tone and body language. So, hanging there like a treed cat, I closed my eyes, exhaled, fitted a free hand into a deadly mudra, and conjured a mind ward. It took longer than I was comfortable taking, especially considering the Lorik’s brains began to bulge red and bright.

When my spell was done, I threw it over myself with a dramatic gesture. It was red light and smoke only, and barely any heat but I added a few brush strokes of sound and shape.

“Stop! Stop or death!” I said, exhausting much of my ancient Greh. I hoped they could understand me. If formed with skill, Lorik’s can be shrewd, animated not only by their maker’s exhortations but also by a bit of personal agency and even self-interest. Not so, these ones; they looked at me, the little quivering wretches, and answered my warning with snarling grins that revealed transparent teeth. Their radiant eyes dilated. I saw their brains bulging, brightening. They threw the force of their poisonous dreams against my ward that repelled them back like a brick wall. In the intensity of their mental barrage, they popped like overindulging ticks, the bloody slime of their brains smearing across the cliff face and undergrowth.

 

*

 

I closed my eyes for a moment and hung there, letting the sweat stream, catching my breath, stunned, feeling guilt for getting Sloan involved in my dangerous Seeking. I looked up to her. He mouth dripped saliva. Her eyes were lidded.

If it wasn’t for me, she probably would have been engaged in honest work or having a midday meal. Now she was in a dark sleep and her waking was not guaranteed.

I stifled my guilt, gathered my wits, surveyed the cliff before me and the landing above, and thought about how to proceed. After some reflection, I continued to climb, and much to my surprise, found the ledge and ramp.

I turned Sloan over, examined her pulse and eyes. I listened to her heartbeat: it was dangerously faint. I couldn’t see any easy way to get her down. In addition to that was the difficulty that Srin Augrim’s cave was nearby. Perhaps he had made more Loriks?

I covered Sloan with a sheet of roughspun cloth to keep back the wind and sunlight – what else could I do? – and then drew a circle around her with a stick. This basic ward wouldn’t do much, if anything, but I thought her survival, at this point, depended on dealing with the most pressing threat, the transgressor who had created the Loriks who did this to her.

I took a sip of water from her skin.

The ramp, although of rock and earth, seemed engineered, and it snaked all the way to the cavemouth. This made me pause. I was very nearly convinced that this was not a naturally formed cave but a ruin. In my brief reading in the Nohvite’s library, I’d learned that Drossus was once part of a fief, a battleground of several wars, the jewel of many a sorcerer’s crown. I wasn’t sure what disturbed me more: the rogue slave-sorcerer hiding in there, the Loriks, or the secrets the place might hold.

I had enough wisdom at this point to look for traps. Augrim had created a few deadly Loriks. If he had the lore to do that, other deadly wards would be within his skill. I stepped lightly and watched my footfalls.

I’m not much of a sword fighter, but I do conceal a small blade in my cloaks, a shiwa, slightly curving and blacked with grease, and I brought this out as I came to the cave portal. I had no intention of harming Augrim, if I could avoid it. I planned to take him as my thrall and to learn what I could from him about Qwayas, his erstwhile teacher, it seemed. But I suspected there were more Loriks about, and I had no expectations that they would be reasonable. I didn’t have it in me to cast another ward, but I knew where their most vulnerable spots were. I had contrived a few of homunculi myself, though not nearly as well formed as the masterpieces I’d just destroyed.

The only way to have this business over was to go in through the front. Not the most subtle tactic, but my options were limited. Like a good Seeker, I had more than a few surprises prepared. From my many compartmented belt pouch, I pulled out a pinch of this powder, a twist of that root, said a few words, and evoked a small globe of werelight–not too bright–but just enough to send into the cave to give me an idea of how to proceed. It floated in the palm of my hand. I blew and sent it as one would send a seed in flight, and it glided into the cave, a wisp of brightness like a floating man-o-war illuminating the mineral-rich earthen walls.

It glided into the darkness. As it proceeded I noted that the walls were planed and supported with columns of darker stone or petrified wood. It didn’t take a wiseman to know that this was no natural cave.

Moving quietly, I hewed to the west wall of the tunnel and began entering. My shoes were soft-soled and had been laid with spells to make them quiet, so I wasn’t so concerned about being heard as seen. Loriks can see in the dark.

The tunnel had a curve in it, and the moment I crossed the westward bend in the curve I saw two things: the tunnel ended in two large wooden doors braced with steel, and there were two sentries there: gran wearing steel caps!

They weren’t the big gran, only granlings, about waist high, but they had long arms, pointed ears, pointed chins, and sharp teeth. More than that, they were armed well: they wore leather jerkins on their barrel torsos, gripped steel-tipped polearms in their lean hands, and bore little knives at their waists.

I could only assume Augrim had taken them as thralls, else why would a hedge mage have granlings protecting him?

I was lucky in that I saw them before they saw me. They seemed to be engaged in a game, a granish dice game I have heard they play at using small polished stones shaped into pyramids, their manifold sides marked with dashes to signify numbers. I couldn’t understand their speech, but one was annoying the other by winning too much. That much was clear.

RakefireArt

 

What to do? I didn’t have much time. If they saw me, they would shout an alarm. I had to silence them quickly. Like I said, I am no swordfighter, but I was angry over the maiming of Sloan, my guilt at bringing her here. I’m sure this played into my ferocity.

I threw a spell at the one on the left, just as he was about to roll the dice, and this closed his throat–the dice plopped to the ground. His companion continued speaking to him, unaware that the other was slowly asphyxiating. Before the other became aware of his friend’s trouble, I stole from the darkness quietly and hacked off his head–two hard, wet strokes, and gushing black blood made my hands slippery. The other one, by this point, was gagging and frothing on the ground, my spell completely smothering him. I put an end to him with one tender thrust of my blade at the base of the skull.

Then I examined the door.

The doors were ancient, but the portal was much older, a part of the architecture, carved and leveled hundreds of years ago. These sorts of details can’t be lost on a Seeker. Some of the greatest secrets I have ever found were due to the most mundane observations: the grain of an ancient wood, a smell, a draft.

Upon closer inspection, I noted the doors were barred. I silently cursed to myself. First, I was going to have to open that door not knowing what was on the other side: a whole nest of granlings and Lorik, probably, with Augrim working some terrible magic, or worse. Second, I was going to have to use sorcery and I didn’t know how much more I could stand. The ward had already eroded my lucidity and emotional equilibrium a bit. I was flitting from mania to rage to calm like water, sky, earth and shadow in a storm, and I felt nauseous, headachy, paranoid, taut as a bowstring. I made unbidden fists and clenched by jaws and ground my teeth, felt like I was being watched, and had the occasional audible hallucination, a straining hiss of my son feverish in his cradle. If I didn’t calm down and restrain myself, I might go luth, would get dragged down by shadows, the inevitable terminus of those who ply my strange art, though I wasn’t quite there yet.

I might have turned back, fetched some swordsmen from town, but that would have meant leaving Sloan. If granlings were involved, she would end up in a stewpot. Granlings never let good meat go to waste.

So, instead, I swallowed a tincture of angulseed, which nixed the voices and brought some calm, then fashioned a three-fingered mudra and touched the doors and exhaled. Whatever barred them snapped and they flew open revealing a larger chamber, partially illuminated. All but the northwest corner was littered with rancid straw and grass, and on the floor were lumps in various poses rising and falling in quick breaths; granlings sleeping, I supposed. Against the walls on the east were shelves stuffed with various parcels: sacks of grain, hanging meat, dried fruit, no doubt placed there by the trappers who had once used the place. This all looked impatiently ransacked. Someone had hung the carcass of what looked like venison from the ceiling; it had yet to be cleaned and was mostly free of flies.

But my eyes didn’t linger long on the granlings and the disorder they had wrought. In the northwest corner, illuminated by the brazier coals, was a table of stone slabs laid with diverse sorcerous tools: colorful roots partially peeled, dried flowers, rare seeds, corpses of birds and rodents, minerals of various shapes and sizes, a jawless skull, powders in tiny glass vials stoppered with cork, an abacus, a mortar and pestle, and a cluster of brightly colored spheres I could not identify. In the center of this was a glass decanter, wide at the bottom and tapering at the top. Suspended in a pinkish slime inside was the twist of some nascent, fetus-like organism, vaguely humanoid with an overlarge head. Standing tall over all of these accoutrements of magic was Augrim, wearing a black Somite cloak embroidered with stars in silver thread.

His head was shaved in Srin fashion, and there were several tattoos around his eyes and brows. The skin around his eyes was very dark, almost black, for he had been smoking seeds and was seeing dreams. And his teeth were stained: he had been drinking or chewing blackroot. He held his wrist, which he had cut, over the decanter and was bleeding into it, and all the while he spoke words in the ancient tongue, highly accented. I guessed he was making another Lorik of his own fluids. In his other hand, supporting it by the spine, he held a book, steel-cornered boards and script-filled pages falling open.

The sight of his dilated eyes, delicately twisting fingers, and snarling face revolted me.

I leapt into the chamber, my anger flaring. Several gran stumbled up, tangled in their bedrolls. Unconsciously I had summoned magic to my palms, raised them crackling with manifest rage. I had not intended to announce my presence so dramatically, but my passion came without my volition.

Augrim hearkened to me, of course. His surprised and burning eyes, hitherto concentrating on his Lorikcrafting, locked with mine; there was a strange, formless exhalation and I smelled the acrid scent of a spell gone wrong: the slime in the decanter went black with putrefaction.

Ix ix alarus!” he shouted–an alarum in gran pidgin. His voice echoed through the chamber. The granlings who had not been woken when I threw wide the doors were awake now, jumping to their feet, snarling, brandishing blade and spear and dagger.

I acted without thought. With one hand, I threw a tight compression of air at Augrim. It struck him firmly and he fell, crashed among his clutter. With the other, I scattered death among the granlings. As the chaotic clusters of heat and light left my hand, I shaped them in my mind. I heard Augrim groaning in pain and clattering amongst his belongings, but I was watching the magic flying among the granlings taking form. With a fist and a hysteric laugh, I turned my spell into a shower of sparks, roasting four of them. The stink of scorched flesh filled my nostrils.

The next thing I knew, my shiwa was in my hand and three partially burnt gran, wielding spears, pressed upon me through the smoke, spearheads flashing and stabbing. I swiped at them as they stabbed at me. One nearly impaled me in the stomach, but I shifted my waist slightly, cursed, danced back on the balls of my feet, grabbed the pole, tugged with one hand, and dragged the granling to the ground, to my feet; dropping the pole, I jabbed him in the face with a small but powerful fist. Pain shot through my hand and forearm as my fist collided with his head, but he fell.

“Doom! Doom! Doom!” I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. The shadows were coming and a sorcerer’s theatrics are important. But I did not know whose doom I was screaming, mine or theirs.

My attention diverted by this revelry, I was speared in the ribs. There was no pain, which disturbed me, and by the time I dragged the spearpoint from my torso, red blood had soaked my tunic. Wielding my shiwa and dodging another granling’s stabbings, I stabbed and killed the granling who had wounded me and turned my attention to what seemed to be last one still standing. He was still thrusting with his spear, and I continued to knock it away, when, appearing to my left, another granling slashed at my face with a blade. I felt a burning in my left eye, the wetness of blood, and knew I had been blinded. I grabbed at my eye and saw in my periphery the vague shape of a granling standing there, pressing forward. The other granling continued to harass me, but when he stabbed with his spear, I buried my shiwa into him, grazing his collarbone and sliding into his flopping heart. Parrying raining blows from the the granling who blinded me, I retreated backward through the doors. He came out after me, slashing his sword, his hood billowing back. I used a simple spell to close the doors firmly behind him, and this startled him. Whatever courage his master had given him now fled, and he turned and beat upon the doors firmly closed, shouting in a language I did not understand. I calmed myself, breathed deeply, and used a spell to strangle him.

After this, I turned my attention to my bleeding eye and wound. It had been a horrible battle.

To my knowledge, there were no more granlings living in that chamber. I had not intended the spell I threw at Augrim to be deadly. It was only to knock him down. But I had not anticipated such resistance; had I been aware that so many granlings would be protecting him, I would never have come into the forest without a group of swordsmen with me.

I used what healing art I had to staunch my eye and rib wounds. I was reluctant to make a study of such magic, considering it theoretically difficult and a distraction from deeper secrets. But Qwayas, in his wisdom, insisted I needed something of healing, particularly for the sake of my Seeking. I was glad of his insistence now.

Placing one palm on my eye and the other on my stab wound, I uttered a spell of suturing and grit my teeth, waiting for the pain. It came. Both wounds flamed with intense burning and in the intensity of the pain I could feel, to the precise detail, the shape of my wounds; the wounds sizzled with white foam and steam and I fell to my knees moaning, trembling, sweat streaming. Black spots floated before my remaining eye, and I feared I would pass out. But I managed to steady myself. My spell was mostly rotten, but my wounds were slightly improved, still open and now full of pus, but no longer bleeding.

I stood from one knee and placed both of my feet on the ground. I began reciting a spell to incapacitate Augrim.

I kicked open the doors, spell at the ready. Augrim had managed to climb to his feet, and when he saw me returning, he hissed at me, baring black teeth.

“Thou rakefire!” he spat, his hands rising. He quickly fashioned a ward.

But my spell had been prepared, and I threw it him. There was flash of light and smoke. His ward was broken and its destruction clapped like thunder in the chamber, startling both of us. The crude magic we use in combat is a strange thing, its behavior unpredictable. The unique combination of my spell striking Augrim’s ward produced a bizarre result, a blue sticky powder that sprayed both him and I. For a moment I could nothing in the cloudy blueness.

I heard Augrim coughing and gasping. I covered my mouth and nose with my cloak and struck forward. When the powder settled, I saw a room that strange carrion painted blue, but I did not see Augrim.

I stood there for a moment, still alert, gathering my breath, removing my cloaks and tunic to separate myself from the blueness Augrim and I had summoned. I found a clay water basin filled with oily water slicked with blue, splashed my face and laved my hands, breasts, and stomach.

Then I went to the stone slab table behind which I found Augrim, who was on his hands and knees, muttering magic. Our combat had addled him, but not killed him, and so I kicked him in the ribs lest he finish his spell. He shrieked like a dog.

I removed a strip of cloth from my belt and tied it around his mouth. With another strip, I tied his wrists. Grunting, I heaved him on his back.

And then I straddled him, looked upon him: his eyes trembled, his chest heaved, he glared with deep hatred.

I must admit, I admired him. He was a raw talent, perhaps a better sorcerer than I could ever have been. I had, by the years of my Seeking, the benefit of training in a Spiral Tower, apprenticeship to a celebrated master, Qwayas. Yet this Srin slave had learned the art clandestinely, by force of will and in secret, despite the injustice of his situation.

“Srin Augrim,” I said, unbraiding my hair, throwing aside my blade. “Perhaps I understand why Qwayas gave you such secrets.”

His eyes grew wide when I mentioned that name. I rudely examined his face tattoos. They were an ancient cipher I did not understand.

“Qwayas has made a riddle of you, it seems,” I whispered, sighing.

As understanding bloomed, a black flower, I laughed, a tortured, anxious, falsetto ejaculation; my brimming euphoria and rage had overflowed.

I took the skin of my inner wrist into my mouth and bit. The blood began to flow. I ungagged him: “Open your mouth!” I snarled as I brought my thrumming wrist to his mouth, and I groaned as he suckled the blood like milk. For a few beats he drank deeply.

Trokarus Augrum,” I sighed, pulling my wrist away from his stained lips. “Now you are my thrall, my supplicant, my shadow, and like the blood have shared, our secrets will mingle.”

He whined and sobbed and through the tears I could barely make out his gargled words.

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Jason Ray Carney teaches literature and creative writing at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.  His fiction appears in Skelos: The Journal Of Weird Fiction and Dark Fantasy, Swords and Sorcery Magazine, Cirvosa: Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction, Empyreome: Science Fiction and Fantasy Quarterly, Hypnos Magazine, and others. 


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