The Nebakarz priests flanking Dacian radiated disapproval in thick mental waves that even a human could have felt. Dacian knew that he had behaved badly and more than once. His esteem for law and order that his teaching master had instilled in him seemed no longer sufficient to control his behavior. Willfully he rallied his determination to salvage his education as the priests marched him into the hallowed audience chamber of the Grand Lumin.
The thin elderly tabre male in his red robes looked deceptively weak and benign, but Dacian sensed his immense power.
Dropping to his knees, Dacian said, “Great Grand Lumin, my Master, forgive me.”
The attending priests went to the sides of the Grand Lumin and placed themselves near the hovering crystal orbs. Their stance was defensive, and Dacian cringed in shame.
After a painful silence, the voice of the Grand Lumin cracked out words. “After everything else, you even dare to speak first.” The Grand Lumin then proceeded to harangue Dacian for his impudence and interference at the punishment of the rys female. Respect for authority was paramount in a society composed of magic beings, the Grand Lumin insisted. Dacian’s crime had been doubly wrong because he had done it in public!
The Grand Lumin gave a long rattling sigh. “We gave you a chance, Dacian. The Nebakarz of the Kwellstan Sect were not blind to your potential. Often Halor spoke highly of you. All of this has been a grave disappointment,” the Grand Lumin said.
Dacian did not like the direction of the Grand Lumin’s speech. “May I speak in my defense?” Dacian asked.
The Grand Lumin scowled. “What defense could you have?” he demanded.
“Great Grand Lumin, my Master,” Dacian said humbly. “I am more than willing to accept what penance you require to make up for my poor behavior. But please understand that I did not mean to attack your authority. I was only overcome by my emotions. The phlia-mel was so brutal and shocking. It was hurting her! Surely, the Nebakarz are well beyond such things.”
“The phlia-mel was the decision of the Daykash and you should not have concerned yourself with it,” the intractable Grand Lumin said firmly.
Great dejection deflated Dacian’s confidence. “How can I make amends, my Master?” he said.
The thin lips of the Grand Lumin pursed thoughtfully. He pondered his options then spoke bluntly. “You cannot. This has gone on long enough. A rys will not enter the revered ranks of the Nebakarz. It is not meant to be.”
Dacian gaped in disbelief. Failure beat at his dreams like an evil spouse and he felt sick. He had excelled as an acolyte. He had passed all the necessary tests. How could the Nebakarz just spurn his talent?
His goal of proving that rys were worthy of the priesthood began to wither like a plant with its roots eaten away. A mire of hateful reality sucked down his hope that rys would be included in the wider society of Nufal instead of locked away in their remote homeland like an idiot son.
Dacian scrambled for a solution, but, for all his education and training, he remained young and naive and lacked the skills to deal with a crisis. And so he slouched before the Grand Lumin, dazed by his failure instead of angered. The many predictions of his father emerged from his memories.
Suddenly Dacian wished very much to be home and see his father, his mother too. He longed for their support in this time of personal destruction. Perhaps it would be best to go meekly instead of begging the Nebakarz to absolve him and accept him back. Dacian needed time to rethink his life. If he let the situation cool down perhaps he could begin again. He would not be so easily refused. He would prove that rys were worthy and talented. He recalled that the tabre female had mentioned that there were other paths besides priesthood although Dacian was not sure what place she and her brother held in tabre society.
Dacian lowered his eyes again. “Forgive me for troubling you, Great Grand Lumin. I apologize for my earlier intrusion into your sanctum as well. I wanted only to show you my skill, but I am now ashamed of my reckless disregard for your privacy. I would return to Jingten if you will not have me,” Dacian said.
“No, Dacian. You may not return to Jingten,” the Grand Lumin said. Power was building around him as his lifeforce summoned his magic, and white light brightened his blind eyes. “We sentence you to stay here and serve us. You have not only grown insolent but you have grown brash. Working in the Altular as a servant will teach you humility and obedience.”
“A servant?” Dacian whispered. He harbored no personal dislike for those who served. He respected them as valuable beings, but he was more than they were. That was only a fact.
“Do not question me. You were brought here to be punished and punished you shall be,” the Grand Lumin said. “Only a moment ago you begged to hear your penance, so go now to your room and await duties to be assigned to you. Trouble me no more, Dacian of Jingten!”
Dacian was dumbfounded by the dismissal. Since maturity he had pursued the goal of joining the Nebakarz. It had been held out before him and Halor had encouraged him. Even when he took into account his bad behavior, this harsh rejection did not make sense. Deep inside, Dacian started to admit that he had miscalculated the prejudice the tabre bore toward the rys, but then he quashed the thought. It was too painful to confront the fact that the tabre were not going to embrace him as an equal no matter what he did.
A servant? This stinging thought rang inside his head like wind chimes in a bad storm. Accepting this sentence would not serve his goal of proving the quality of rys. It would only exacerbate the situation if he performed menial tasks in the very heartland of Nufal.
Recovering slightly from his shock, Dacian persisted, “Great Grand Lumin, I ask that I be allowed to return home. You have made it clear you don’t want me. I would go home.” He spoke firmly at the end, and, as he said the words, defiance built in him. He was reminded of the emotions that had flared when he defended Onja, and he was afraid of what he might do.
“You will serve us in the Altular,” the Grand Lumin said. “Do not think to defy us and do not think that you will go home!” White light blazed in his eyes and the Grand Lumin tilted his head back as he concentrated mightily on his magic. The air around Dacian erupted with magical fire and terrified him with its immediate intensity.
For the first time in his life, Dacian knew mortal fear. Burning magic, irresistibly strong, tore into his chest and he felt his heart gripped by the will of the Grand Lumin. The contracting chambers pulled the scalding power of the tabre deeper into his blood. Fine needles like the hairs of mold penetrated his heart with stunning pain. Dacian had never imagined that another being could assault him so intimately and thoroughly.
A wrenching scream erupted from Dacian’s throat. The Grand Lumin sagged a little after his exertion and his magic receded to a fluttering glow over his face.
Dacian collapsed forward and caught himself with his hands on the floor. His vision was blurring and he gasped for breath. Leaning back onto his knees, he fumbled with his clothes. His chest felt heavy and…wrong.
He opened his shirt and stared at his blue skin. Over his sternum an oval plate of milky white crystal was embedded in his flesh. In dismay he cried out. He had never heard or read of such a thing nor conceived of such a spell.
The Grand Lumin said, “As you see, there is much that you do not know, Dacian. You may have the power to thrust your mind into my inner sanctum like a hungry bandit, but you know nothing.”
“What have you done to me?” Dacian demanded. He trembled now from fear and many other ugly feelings that were foreign invaders to his heart.
“That is a crosha. It will keep you in Kwellstan. It is linked to your body and to the land and waters here. The farther you go from the Altular, the more energy the enchantment will draw out of your body. If you go far enough, it will kill you,” the Grand Lumin explained with blatant amusement. It was nice to see his uppity rys so well tethered and it had been exhilarating to cast such an obscure spell. It was worth the year it took off his life to thrust such an intricate enchantment upon a living soul.
The Grand Lumin continued, “Do not dare to think that you can disobey me. That is just one of the secret spells in my library passed down from Grand Lumin to Grand Lumin for over two thousand years.”
The two attending priests came forward and grabbed Dacian by the arms. He walked backwards as they hustled him out and he stared at the Grand Lumin in miserable awe. He could feel the power of the ancient tabre clutching his body and it was the most violating experience Dacian had ever known.
The priests deposited Dacian in his cell without even looking at him. Their disregard for his feelings added to his many hurts. He crumbled onto the bunk and stared at the enchanted crystal lodged in his chest. Stroking the smooth oval, he contemplated its nature, but then a piercing headache soon distracted him. He realized that its magic was fending him off from even examining it.
Unable to bear his situation, Dacian entered trance. It was a relief to learn that the crosha did not prevent him from using his magic. His despondence impeded his concentration, but eventually he overcame his turmoil and his mind flew across the land. The delight of releasing his spirit from his body comforted him somewhat.
The dense forest of the Valley of Nufal was cold and gray with only lingering clusters of color beneath his ranging consciousness. Then he passed the city of Kahtep on the threshold of the prairie. Beyond was the Rysamand Mountains, and the sight of them renewed his trampled spirit. With greater energy, his mind dashed to Jingten.
Dacian sought Halor and when he touched the familiar lifeforce of his teacher, Dacian accosted him with urgency. His spirit projection flashed into the room where Halor had been making a journal entry.
Startled, Halor jerked back in his seat and his carving stylus left an erratic gouge on the stone wafer. “Dacian!” he exclaimed.
In a rush of mental words, Dacian told Halor of the sentence he had just been given by the Grand Lumin and the crosha.
“Master, please help me!” he begged. “You must convince the Grand Lumin that I deserve a second chance. Why has he been so harsh?”
Halor heard the poorly restrained despair of his wayward pupil. He could not blame Dacian for being upset. Halor had never heard of the crosha spell, but, now that he thought about it, inflicting one’s magic upon another so vindictively had to border on illegal.
Quickly, Halor erased the thought. He was no one to judge the actions of the Grand Lumin, who was, if not above the law, right next to it.
“Dacian, Dacian,” Halor responded sadly, trying to soothe. He truly had sympathy for Dacian. “I will see what I can do. I will write to the Grand Lumin on your behalf. But you must be reasonable. If you were even half as rude as you told me, you deserve to be punished.”
“Master, he said this spell would kill me if I left Kwellstan,” Dacian complained.
Halor physically clutched his temples trying to think of what he should say. He needed to calm Dacian down and get him to acquiesce to his situation. It was imperative that he not let Dacian’s despair fester until he lashed out with dark anger. Halor resented the mess the Daykash and now the Grand Lumin had made of things. In retrospect he wished that he had made it clearer to his superiors just how very powerful Dacian was.
“Dacian, listen to me. You must be patient. You have to give me a chance to help. You angered the Grand Lumin. He had to do something to control you. This will not last forever. He will release you from the crosha if you behave properly. Do as you are told. Serve in the Altular. Show that you can be trusted,” Halor advised.
Dacian was silent for a long time. The blue translucent image of his face hung over the table cluttered with Halor’s stone wafers. Dacian was sullen when he responded, asking only how long Halor thought it would be before the Grand Lumin undid the crosha.
“You know I can’t answer that. But I know the Grand Lumin. He will let you go, but please promise me, Dacian, that you will do as you are told and be patient. If you promise, I will do all I can to have you reinstated as an acolyte. I really disagree that your education should be stopped. You are my finest pupil ever,” Halor said.
Dacian clutched the praise from his teacher like a scared child with a doll. He had known that Halor would reassure him, but he was reluctant to give his promise to serve in the Altular. There was little else he could do though, so he promised Halor that he would serve because he could think of no other way to mend the damage he had done to his future.
“Good, Dacian. Try to calm down. I will do as much as I can,” Halor said. “And try to be good.”
Depressed but otherwise mollified, Dacian thanked Halor for the advice.
“You’re welcome, and I am glad that you came to me. You know that you can always trust me…It was good to see you,” Halor added. He even smiled.
Dacian’s spirit projection faded but his seeing mind lingered over Jingten. The sun was sinking behind the broad shoulders of the mountains and the light dazzled silver and orange upon Lake Nin. With a nostalgic pang he appreciated the beauty of the land that had bred him. He thought to contact his parents but he decided against it. Despite longing for their soothing presence, his shame was too new and intense.
A female’s voice whispered to his consciousness.
“Onja!” he answered and his sudden rush of excitement briefly shoved aside his heartbroken weariness.
Her mind guided him into the small room in the tower where she now lived. It was only down the curving hall from where Dacian had spent many years in study. She wore a simple black sack dress with a fur trimmed hood that was draped across her shoulders. The clothing was new but Dacian disliked it because the loose dress completely obscured the wondrous youthful beauty that was Onja.
“Are you well?” he asked, communing with her mind.
Onja closed her eyes and reclined onto her narrow bed. Her hood and her black hair pillowed around her head, framing her blue face with shining black mystery. She told Dacian that she was fine.
“At least you are not locked in a cell any more,” Dacian observed.
“Yet I am not free,” she said.
She then explained to him that she was now the ward of Halor, who had undertaken her instruction for proper citizenship. Halor had her on a probation that required that she stay within the tower so as to keep her rebellious influence separate from rys society.
“But he can’t truly keep me in. My mind cannot be held in by walls or rules,” she boasted with some happiness before switching the subject to his welfare. She could feel how upset he was. “What have they done to you?” she asked. Her mind spit venom when she said “they.” Despite his shame, he did not hide any details from her about his terrible meeting with the Grand Lumin. She reacted with immediate anger. “Intolerable! You must fight this indignity,” she raged. Her peaceful lovely face twisted with sour displeasure and her hands clenched the loose black fabric of her dress.
“Onja, I am already in such disfavor. Fighting will make it worse,” he said.
“One as great as you should not have to endure THEIR judgment,” she declared.
Naturally thrilled by her high opinion of him, Dacian was soothed by her admiration, but it did not change how his greatness was lost upon the tabre.
“I have already endured their judgment, just like you,” he said.
Onja’s temper slackened into soft regret. “This is my fault,” she said.
Her guilt for his sake and the memory of her beating hardened Dacian to his fate. Everything he had worked toward was destroyed, but he could not imagine changing his actions. “Saving you from even one more brutal stroke of the phlia-mel was worth it,” he said and meant it.
“Dacian,” she said and smiled dreamily.
They were silent together for a while and enjoyed the twining of their minds where they both found comfort. “What will you do?” she asked him.
Dismally he said that he would serve as he had promised. It seemed the only reasonable way to get the crosha released. Onja’s disappointment with the answer was palpable. She suggested that he remove it himself.
“I might die,” he worried.
“Not if you unlock the power of the spell and take control of it,” she said.
“True…” he admitted, reluctant but thoughtful. “But it would only mean that I would incur the anger of the Grand Lumin again.”
Onja quickly rejoined that he should stop letting the Nebakarz hold him down because that is what they wanted. That was what they did to all rys and he knew it was true.
The presence of the crosha was still shockingly new, and goaded by Onja, he honestly considered the possibility of breaking loose from it. He should be capable of doing it, but he was too upset and shaken. His confidence was sucked down into a bog of failure, and experimenting with such a mighty and esoteric spell right now could be disastrous.
“I need time to think on what I might do,” he told her.
Softly she agreed and apologized for her hasty words. She was upset for him and had spoken boldly because of it. “Promise to take care of yourself,” she said. This promise was easy for him to give.
They lingered in each other’s minds before reluctantly breaking their connections.
Once Dacian returned to his body, he realized his utter exhaustion. Never had he been so tired, and all he could do now was rest. To hold back the distress of what the Grand Lumin had done to him, he placed the image of Onja foremost in his mind and closed his eyes. He already longed to communicate with her again. Then he imagined physically being near her and his desire to return home flared painfully. His whole body suddenly ached with no possibility of relief. Onja had stirred feelings in him. Dacian understood that it was a natural part of maturity, but it did not make it any easier in the loneliness of his cell far from Jingten.
Miserably he faced the reality that he would have to serve in the Altular and serve well. He had to gain the pardon of the Grand Lumin if he was ever going to see Onja again. Along with his new longing for Onja his proud dreams of ridding the rys of oppression stubbornly lingered. The cruel disregard of the Grand Lumin proved to Dacian the importance of his cause. His battered feelings and violated body were still a small price compared to what his race had to gain if he persisted in his quest.