Set on the world Tarkeenia, the story marks the struggle between God and man, magic and indefinable evil.
THE UNSEEN PROMISE
Her eyes welled up every time she heard those hated words. The Biscop and his filth ran through her veins still, after all, these years. The endless nights and the grief remained the same. She could hear the defamation of loathing, full of envy at what Ellic was. Now it was her turn. “You should never have killed my darling, you know. He was everything to me – husband, lover, so much more. We were just helping, that’s all we ever wanted to do. Then you came along. With your spite and hate, you destroyed the only thing I ever loved. Maybe this time I can bring him back.” She was gibbering now, passionate in her mad cause.
Scooping up a handful of hair, Magdeline wrenched Roedanth’s head back. He stared adoringly at her. Light gleamed from her five steel fingertips, ready for the killing strike. Hooting like an owl, the mage brought her hand down. How delightful! Roedanth’s throat lay bare for the taking. The mage licked her lips, and drew a single finger across his craw. Blood sprung to the surface of his skin.
Roedanth closed his eyes, and she hissed. “Open your eyes, or by the stars, I will cut them out.”
Roedanth smiled and did what she asked. Wide-eyed, he stared up at Magdeline. The room fell dark and with her free hand, she clicked her fingers together. A ball of light hung over the pair – a blazing white glow. The mage’s hair trailed out behind her, a gossamer web of silken tangles. It was time.
“You little fucker. You’ll die here tonight and then your holy words can slide about in all that hot blood while you lie dying on my floor.” She screeched, joyous in her abandonment.
Down swept her hand, it would be clean, and it would be kindly quick. More than he deserved. Little did she know Drakite stared back at the woman through Roedanth’s eyes, coiled and ready to strike, the Dark God waited, if he acted too soon she might make a mistake, taking his prize with her. Oh, he possessed the power to drag the bitch into the boy she was intent on killing – it would have been a straightforward matter, but a messy one for Roedanth. He would live with her mad soul chained to his and that was not in Drakite’s plans. No, it was better this way.
Roedanth blinked, just once. Revealing himself, Drakite pulled the young man’s lips into a feral smile, exposing a set of neat white teeth. Pure spirit-tainted power exploded into Madgeline’s eyes. The energy of infinite universes filled her soul, making her sightless in a sudden blinding. She missed – and instead of slashing Roedanth’s throat, her sharp needle fingertips sank themselves into his chest. He gasped, and Drakite, unable to remain with the young man, fled. Back to his halls and the sanctity of his spite, the Dark God had no choice but to seethe and wait.
Magdeline’s light vanished along with her sight, leaving her blue peepers forever sightless. The room fell into blackness.
“I can’t see.” She screamed and twisted round and round in an unsteady circle – her feet becoming entangled in her silken strands. Crashing to her knees, Magdeline sobbed. “What have you done, you evil creature? I am blind, you have made me blind.” She crawled away from Roedanth.
The adoration he felt only moments before disappeared. The fevered worship now replaced with a different sickness, tainted from Drakite’s touch. It was more than a stain. It was a longing – a shadow that promised the whisperings of this Dark God’s answer to his earlier plea. Clutching his chest with one hand, Roedanth held the other out in front of him. Moving forward, the young man stumbled about, feeling for a way out as the wounds in his breast turned Ned’s sister’s tunic crimson.
The fresh air cleared his head, and for a while, Roedanth felt a little better. His chest ached inside and out – throbbing with all sorts of painful colours. White hot, fiery red. By the light of the Pata Batu, Roedanth stumbled away from Magdeline’s tower. The wounds from her fingertips were deep and possibly fatal, and if he stopped, even for a few minutes he would in all likelihood die. The screeching of an owl in the distance pushed him on. Magdeline was now a blind, mad mage and who knew what lay behind him. Only death if he didn’t keep moving.
His tongue tasted like shoe leather, taut and dry, the thirst only adding to his misery. Lurching from tree to tree, Roedanth didn’t notice the scratches on his hands and face. This last betrayal of mankind was too much. Stark reality stared back at him; now alone and injured. Peetra dead by his hand, and the guilt still a heavy lump in his throat. He should have heeded his brother’s melancholy.
The sky was growing lighter, both halves of the Pata Batu a fading reminder that he had been walking for most of the night. Sucking in air, hardly breathing and barely so close to collapsing, Roedanth found himself waiting on the edge of the woods. Thin, spindly trees strained to touch the sky on the verge. Before him stretched open farmland, a collection of yellow flowering fields. A hesitant smile ghosted his lips. What a sight! Blinding perfection and then he fainted.
The wind caressed his face, tickling his ear as a female voice called his name. Delicate and ethereal Atheria, daughter of the Light, also risked the wrath of Father. There was little she could do about it, for crossing into Tarkeenia’s waking world was risky business. But for the briefest of moments, she needed to see. Roedanth lay bleeding, a damaged piece of flesh for Drakite to use.
Giving the young man a soft kiss on his ear, Atheria took flight, brushing over the yellow flowers of the canola crops. Their heads dipped down as if in prayer to her passing. Across fields and hillocks, searching for a kind soul. Just as she sensed the bite of despair, Atheria settled as lightly as a butterfly on the shoulder of a most unlikely fellow and whispered what he wanted to hear.
There. It was done. Curiosity and luck would have to suffice. Perhaps the young man’s own good nature would save him. Sad, and infinitely beautiful, she turned her back on Tarkeenia.
HEART OF SECRETS
Her struggling slowed, eventually ceasing altogether. She was a bundle of bones and rags that he pulled along after him. Scraping and bruising her already ravaged body, they continued in the dark. Pellimac occasionally whimpered, but for the better part, shock kept her silent. Father tried, crooning affectionate clicks and clacks at her joyous return, but it only terrified her more.
Rats fled the pair. Even the darkness seemed to shy away in the face of Father’s fanatical headlong rush. She was his again!
Hours passed, and the jubilant Speck and the stunned nomad woman stopped. His bony fingers clenched Pellimac’s wrist so tightly that smudges of black already rising to the surface of her skin held the promise of blood red rings. Deep in the inky murk, a part still pure and intact screamed at the loss of the sky and open earth. She wept. Her cries excited Father as she dragged in lungfuls of air in between loud sobs.
Pulling her by the hair, Father dragged his prize down corridors, past grainy streams peppered with gold and gravel, over spillways flowing with unsullied water, until at last, with a clack and a pop, they entered Hi’ayman’s chambers. Dazed and disorientated, Pellimac stared dumbly ahead. A vague memory rose up, threatening to choke her airways. Another place similar to this, where she had once endured fear and pain, broke through her shattered mind. The deprivation and the loneliness, the cruel nightmares, were old friends.
The trace of human lingered upon this room. A bed and all the bowls of water scattered about the floor signaled familiarity. She did what she did best, and waited.
Father sat silent, alongside his love. Her stillness soothed his racing heart and helped to lessen the insatiable hunger gnawing painfully in his bloated belly. Who could doubt his yearnings now? He could feel her trembling. The salty sweat that sheathed her skin and sweet memories caressed him with feelings of the past. A loud sniff sent Pellimac moaning. Father caught up in the excitement of her fear bit into her shoulder. It wasn’t a hard bite, more like a nip, but it broke the skin. Blood so sweet welled to the surface, and he licked it away in a lover’s bliss.
IN THE COLD LIGHT
Drunk on relief and giddy on being his own man once more, Doggit risked a look in the mirror; something he rarely did since his nasty accident. Lott had seen to that. The Toad believed that because the doctor had stitched his once handsome face back together again, all was forgiven. It had been a botched-up job, Lott’s physician, drunk and slightly crossed eyed had been coming down from one of his rowdy benders. There had been stitching in places, where stitching wasn’t needed. It had taken three of his crew to hold him down, a long night such a very long time ago. Lott was a fool. He would never forgive, and best of all, he would never forget. Not as long as that slimy Murrdock lived, would he forget what was owed!
Putting the mirror aside, Doggit smiled at the Snake Man. “Well! Mr. Scale, what say we go out and get us some tail? I could use a good fuck. It’s not every day that you count yourself lucky in being a free man. Is it?”
The Snake Man never sat. It tied his insides up when he did so. Those that knew him, never bothered to offer him a seat.
“Right you are. I’d fancy me a saucy spin in the sack with some spitting Lucy. So yes! Since your offering, I’ll come along. You’re flipping the coin though. After all, it is your idea Captain, and I ain’t payin’ for what normally comes free. My bit of sauce is such a cheeky lass, so you’d better put an extra silver in your pocket.” Mr. Scale’s tongue flicked over his thin gummed lips in mutual jest.
Getting rid of Lott was the beginning of bigger and better things for this crew. Prince Pec was the gateway to a brighter future, tucked away as he was. Doggit jammed on his three cornered hat and followed Mr. Scale in search of some tidy entertainment.
There were brothels aplenty in The Digs. Some a cheap copper or two, but the choicest of morsels could only be found at Midnights Menagerie. Expensive whores, clean and for the most part, young. Anyone with a brain knew you only get what you pay for. Out the front door and the Dog Man smirked. It was his front door: for it belonged to the house he had bought with his hard earned gold, and together they hit the streets.
“What a beautiful day Mr. Scale,” remarked his Captain, his brown eyes looking this way and that as they crossed the cobbles.
“It’s not that good, now that I’m in it. In fact, it’s so cold I can’t feel my nut sacks anymore. You know I hate the cold.” Mr. Scale rarely grumbled, but his snake half detested the winters and he never gave up the chance to remark upon it.
Around the corner of a tailor shop, a pretty-good one at that, and Doggit nearly, but not quite, tripped over Quaverit.
“Woah there, mate! You’ve got to watch where you sit on a day like this. The Sweepers might mistake you for a bundle of rags, and before you know it – it’s off to the dump – and from there – well it’s all downhill.”
Mr. Scale laughed. What did he care for beggars and the like? As long as they kept their grubby hands out of his pockets, there’d be no complaints.
It was kindly said, and as Doggit bent down to drop a few coppers into the poor mugs hands, he noticed the long nose. Squatting, the Dog Man rested a hand on Quaverit’s shoulder. And looking at the Stork Man saw through the grub and grime of being low-down poor. “No … it can’t be. Mr. Scale, do you know who this is?”
The Snake Man was used to Doggit’s generous nature. But today his impatience was as thin as the cold air. He wanted a warm bed and the pleasure of a soft body under him. Today, the street charity could go fuck itself. “Captain, enough already. Every corner has some prick or other, holding out a hand for a free copper, and at every corner, you feel the urge to stop for a chat. For shit’s sake, rub the fellows head and be done with it. I want some hot cider and a warm body to push up against.”
“Mr. Scale! One day, someone’s going to take that tongue of yours, stretch it out and use it to strangle those nasty thoughts you keep having. This isn’t some ordinary beggar! This is Mr. Quaverit.” Doggit pulled the shaky fellow to his feet, “Am I right, in saying that you’re the King’s Chamberlain.”
Quaverit started to cry. Just when he thought he was all finished, the Dog Man’s kindness wrung out more. Tears fell aplenty. Dirty streaks of grime appeared on his grubby face, making the Stork Man look all the more woeful.
“I was once that Stork, but this is what you get if you’re loyal to the old King these days,” sniffed Quaverit. “I have been reduced to begging on the streets, and I’m afraid that I’m not very good at it. I am sir, out of work. It seems beggars and thieves don’t care for the hiring of domestic help.” Another tear fell. “Looking after the running of things is my trade Captain, but in The Digs, no-one is hiring.” He tried to sound congenial, for Mr. Scale’s scowl had him doubting the ruffian’s goodwill.
Doggit looked him over, saw the many red holes where they had stripped the poor Stork of his feathery down and came to a decision. He looked at the Snake Man, who was fast rubbing the heel of a hand into his thigh.
Aw don’t Doggit, please, spare us the agony.”
Doggit refused to be swayed, “Mr. Quaverit, I can’t believe my luck. I was just saying to Mr. Scale that it was high time we got ourselves some help. You wouldn’t believe the mess my crew makes. They’re a shiftless lot and a Murrdock with your talents could make the world of difference.”
“Isn’t that so Mr. Scale?”
The Snake Man hissed, “You’re deluded.” He turned his back on them both.
Doggit ignored his First’s rudeness, “I wonder sir, if you are available for employment? The pay’s not much, but I can guarantee a warm bed and a roof over your head each night. “The puckered scar creased as the Dog Man took on a thoughtful note, “I should warn you though, there would be quite a few of us in need of organizing. Also, you’d be charged with the employment of a cook and laundress. What say you Mr. Quaverit? Are you free to help me out?”
Quaverit dropped down to the gutter again, and this time, he didn’t try to hide the tears, “I most certainly am sir. I can start right away, if it pleases. I just have to collect a few meager belongings from my former lodgings, then, I can be your man. Without a question, I am a most trusted servant sir. You can count on that.” He managed a weak grin.
Mr. Scale snorted. This was rubbish, the other fellows wouldn’t suffer a flea’s fart from this skinny stork’s interference, but he held his tongue. Doggit would do, what Doggit always did – collect poor souls that reminded him of him.
“Can we go now?” Bored eyes flicked over the Stork Man’s happy ones.
Mr. Scale threw Quaverit a look of disgust. Stomped his foot in the gutter, splashing the abject fellow with dribbles of black water from a nearby puddle of swill. “I can’t wait.”
A FIGHTING CHANCE
Knat risked another look. It helped to stretch out the cramped and aching muscles in his neck, every inch of his body was sore, weighed down by iron and battered by the incessant beatings of the cruel black-pointed priests. He was afraid and, so very tired of hard stares and stinging whips. For a week or more he had sat with the other captives, his shipmates and friends, remembering good men lost to the sea, lucky men not to be chained together like dogs. They were like whipped animals awaiting a mad King’s pleasure.
Sequestered in the dark hull with nothing but failing men’s harsh whispers they were forced to sit in their own shit and tears. Knat had no idea what lay beyond the confines of the deep gloom. Scratching at the wooden wall he was chained to, a futile gesture but one driven from desperation filled the endless minutes that dragged by. He had despite the effort made a small crack, large enough to peer out of.
An enormous structure made of stone was all he could see. Was it wall or was it part of the landscape? Why were they moored here? The wind was picking up and the air about them, even this close to the wharf was hot and dry. A figure passed by swathed in black and trailing behind was a line of chained men. There was nothing similar about the prisoners except for the yoke about their necks and a pattern of whip marks on each of their sunburn backs. Knat blinked back the tears as the realization of what his new life was about to become, a slave and in the eyes of the Seven Tiers folk, a wanting pig.
Blessing rarely raised his eyes. Long lengths of chains weighed them all down, but for the forest fey, being shut out of the light was about as bad as it could get. A saturnine mood held the Fey in a choking embrace, smothering the light and chilling a once warm heart. His bright laughter was as dead in this forest loving soul as the priests who held the cruel rods. Surely there was worse to come for Blessing as his fate now laid in pleasing their King.
A barking command filtered down into the hull and it wasn’t long before the soon to be slaves were dragged up into the light of day. It was hot, unbearably so, and each man brought out into the sun became slick with sweat. Knat looked about with trepidation.
Up and up stretched the walls of the Seven Tiers and was confronted with a stone barricade that rose to dizzy heights towards the lazy clouds, white puffs that floated like cotton wool against a background of blue. Knat squinted and was able to make out black specks on top of the parapets. Guards no doubt, but why would you need to guard a city behind walls so high? Better yet, from whom did they feel the need to post such guards?
Swept off his feet, Knat was thrown into the path of two chained men, crashing clumsily as he flailed despite the heavy fetters. Several others fell with him. Sand sprayed and groans escaped bruised, and cracked lips. The whip master narrowed his eyes, from another man it would have meant nothing, but this priest was covered in black dots. Only his face was free of the inked circles that covered the rest of his body and with a menacing smile his whip struck. It cracked the air with a crisp snap and landed on one poor soul’s shoulder, splitting the sunburnt skin.
A barking order sounded from the right, a tall man with a black patch over one eye stood near a set of wrought iron gates, arms crossed loosely over his chest in a self-assured pose. The dotted priest dropped his arm and gave the one-eyed man a nod. Marking the meat meant damaged goods, which meant the scales would be light and nothing displeased the Keeper more.
The men in chains were hauled upright, a staggering line of dejected captives shuffling once again, forward towards a fate not of their choosing. Knat felt terrible, it was his fault that the fellow behind him bled from an ugly cut, but the walls were so high and he’d never seen the likes. What if he was never to leave this place? The thought chilled his soul.
The gates they passed through were high enough, that if four men stood on each other’s shoulders they would pass without touching the iron crossbar overhead. The Grand Emporium lay beyond. The moment Knat took a staggering step through the wide gates and the shock of his new world set his heart hammering. Never had he seen the likes, the noise was overwhelming and the shackled lad stared wide-eyed at the sights before him.
The Seven Tier people had skin the color of caramel, wrapped up in clothes of dusky pinks and pale yellow, they moved about sedately. As if the heat slowed each step. Slaves closely followed the well-heeled citizens, carrying over-sized umbrellas and through crisp white silken drapes haughty faces peeked as palanquins snaked through the milling crowds. The Grand Emporium was a place of bustling din, it was the gateway to enlightenment and death; it stood on the edge of the world. The Seven Tiers was a public thoroughfare where secrets and lies were traded as briskly as the hawkers cried their wares. Where souls were sought to save those considered worth saving and the bones of those poor souls piled high on the other side of the thick walls like monuments of worship.
A labyrinth of stalls formed a noisy market. It was a myriad of smells and colors. The cries from stallholders rang in a raucous song, each one trying to outshout the other. Boxes and barrels, carts and trestles littered the many streets of the Grand Emporium.
Beggars hovered on the fringes with their hands opening and closing as they pleaded for charity, some stared about with vacant eyes in dirty clothes, ignored by the arrogant folk that drifted serenely by. The priests snarled and when he felt offended set about cuffing the unfortunates, and knocking them down into the mud, following through with a kick rendering the beggar into a mound of groaning filthy rags. This rambling market was a small city on its own inside a much larger one, covered with hides dyed in multi-colors to catch the eye; a permanent wooden bazaar sitting upon the sands of the Shifting Eye.
The Bazaar was but a small part of the High Quaa’s desert realm, despite the enormity of its high walled capital. At the back of the Grand Emporium was a cluster of buildings and pens, slave pens that on market days were full of desperate souls wishing for a quicker fate than that of being a thrall, whose life hung on a whispered word of his master.
A set of iron gates barred entry to a much grander affair. The stink of wealth wafted through those thick bars and the laughter of carefree arrogance met the shimmering heat in a clash of reckless defiance. Nothing worried the Entitled. They lived off the sweat of others and reveled in the rivers of blood the black pointed priests exacted in misery and torment.
Leading from these gates was a wide avenue and breaking this avenue into two separate laneways was a row of tall evergreen trees. These wooden sentinels were a rare find in the desert and they stood proudly erect as though they alone could defy the horror of the Seven Tiers by standing guard over the crowds coming and going along the wide street.
A poke in the shoulder from a whip handle sent Knat shuffling short steps with the other chained men. Blessing’s muffled whimpers drew the eye of a passerby, her gossamer veil, a deep dusky pink floated seductively beneath cool green eyes. Poppy was as haughty as she was beautiful, her green eyes looked Blessing over and she liked what she saw.
“What have we here? What a pretty thing you are and those ears. What are you sugar? Even her voice sounded clean and full of tease, she reached out to touch the shaken fey, but he dipped his shoulder and her fingers brushed air. “Oh my aren’t you a shy one. Such a sweet quality in a pretty slave as long as it doesn’t interfere with the sex.” She giggled like a naughty child caught out on a girly secret and her companion, a young lordling dressed in different shades of yellow laughed alongside.
“This one won’t be going to the block so move along.” The priest’s harsh rebuke startled the moil.
She was in the Kings favor and her pert breasts sprang forward as she attempted to exert the little power she believed was hers. “You dare presume to address me in such a manner, as if I were a common bitch. I am a moil and as such, I have the King’s ear.
The young lordling paled, turning a sickly yellow to match his lofty attire and took a couple of stunted steps back. He had no illusions about the fanatical reach of the Black-Pointed priest, who carried not only their whips, but the long slim blades of death. Even the mad King in the Seven Tiers trembled when the Grand Skinner looked his way. This young man cringed at his consort’s fiery rebuff. There were many who gave their souls to the bloody knives and fervent undertakings of a fanatical order for simply a wrong look or a backward glance.
The priest’s hand twitched and the whip at his thigh shook with suppressed rage, but the voice he spoke was a calm reflection as to the weight his inked tattoos carried in the Seven Tiers. Each black dot personified a soul, a death by his hand. His body was covered in smatterings of grim ink. “Did you not hear a word I said? Favorite that you say you are? Are those pretty ears deaf as your mind is dumber than a braying ass? You may see better days on the block than in the King’s bed or better yet, I may find you one day under my knives as I strip your screaming soul from that soft body you use to get your way.”
It was a threat, unveiled for all the truth it held and the moil under the weight of his words looked away. She couldn’t let him see the naked fear on her spoilt and powered face, a betrayal to the ugliness of the world she lived in. Poppy’s hand reached out to the lordling, scratching at the fine cloth on his arm as if such contact would lend her strength. She turned back to the priest who stood quivering, he would have found satisfaction in the ruining of her flesh but today there was no time. Pale blue eyes dismissed her as quickly as they would have a beggar. Poppy did not truly understand how lucky she was. Some other poor soul not under the mantle of royal protection would find their way to his table and face the pleasure as he flayed them alive.
Another poke. Somewhat harder and Knat almost went sprawling into the hot dirt. God it was so unbearably hot. The manacles around his ankles had rubbed his skin into agonizing wounds, chafing soft skin to a blistering pink. He stumbled a few times but managed to stay upright, still wide-eyed at the sights around him. He would have liked to see it truly as a free man.
Blessing kept his head down, shuffling beside him was a desperate and forlorn creature. Unable to come to grips with what was expected of him in his new life as a pleasure slave. He had shed an ocean of tears, but his eyes were now, red-rimmed and dry. A sour twisting of his lips turned his beautiful face into a mask of veiled loathing as they all crossed the Grand Emporium.