Dacian dumped a measure of oats into the feed trough. The horse munched contentedly, and Dacian stroked its face. The animal was indifferent to him, but that was soothing companionship compared to the snickering tabre servants who had laughed while he mucked out the stalls of the temple’s stable. As he petted the horse, he envied the beast. The animal maintained its spirit while still submitting to its harness. Dacian wished he could obtain such peace with his circumstances.
Sighing, Dacian put the grain scoop back in its bin and left the stable. Dejection dragged at his shoulders. Each step took special effort because he wanted to collapse in despair.
Dacian emerged into the entry hall of the Altular. He could not bring himself to look up at its grand interior. For too long he had dreamed of serving the Great Divinity from within this temple, and the drudgery that the tabre inflicted on him was a wretched punishment. Such duties wasted his talent, and the humiliation galled him. The Grand Lumin had said that his menial duties were meant to teach him humility, but Dacian knew the humiliation was not just about him. The tabre believed all rys belonged at the bottom of the society, quiet and obedient.
For weeks, Dacian had kept quiet and obedient. Every day he worked at such things as cleaning floors or tending horses, and every night he retired meekly to his small room. But resentment smoldered inside him until finally his restraint was reduced to ash.
As Dacian approached his room, his apathy snapped. His blood flow quickened, and the flare of rebellion brightened his spirit.
After entering his room, he slapped his hands against the metal door as it faded into the appearance of smooth stone. His sharp mind unraveled the magic that governed the shifting materials of the door and put them back together with a new spell, his spell.
When the work was done, Dacian stepped back and felt his first flush of satisfaction in a long time. No one was entering his room unless he wished it. Extracting what pleasure he could from the tiny triumph, Dacian stretched out on his small bed and enjoyed some decent sleep.
When the prying spells of tabre came scratching at the door, Dacian’s subconscious perception prodded him awake. With his seeing mind, he knew that the sun was halfway through its morning route. His failure to report for his ridiculous duties had finally prompted his tabre handlers to look for him. Their vexation radiated through the sealed door. Dacian relaxed with his hands behind his head and smiled smugly at their efforts to undo his spell. Whenever they came close to opening the door, Dacian cast another spell and thwarted them anew.
All day a procession of acolytes made failed attempts to open the door. Dacian surmised that they were hoping to avoid telling their superiors about his rebellion. Eventually a trio of full Nebakarz priests arrived, and Dacian vied with them into the evening. Driven to indignation, one of the frustrated priests cast his spirit projection into Dacian’s room and scolded him to his face. Dacian easily outclassed the priest and dissolved his image with a lazy flick of magic. Having already suffered severe punishment from the Grand Lumin, Dacian had no patience for the threats of a middling priest.
Touching the crosha on his chest, Dacian was sobered by the enormity of his problems. Toying with the acolytes and priests had been an amusing rebellion, but Dacian could not waste his attention on a virtual shoving match with the Grand Lumin’s underlings. He needed to contemplate the crosha even if it hurt.
Dacian opened the door. His sudden appearance startled three priests and a crowd of acolytes and servants. Dacian regarded them with disdain.
“You can make me your prisoner, but you will not bother me with your pointless labors,” he announced.
The half circle of gaping tabre actually amused Dacian. He swung his gaze over the nervous tabre, expecting them to disperse. At length, a senior priest said, “Very well.” At his direction the tabre departed.
Dacian went back into his room and sealed the door again. He crumpled on to his bed and clasped his face. The petty entertainment of his rebellion was over, and he wondered what the next move of his captors would be.
To his surprise, he was left in peace for four days. No one brought him food or water and he did not seek any. Knowing that he could survive indefinitely without sustenance if necessary, Dacian focused his precious unmolested time on the crosha. Applying his mind to the crystal that had fine filaments reaching into his heart caused him pain, but he clung tenaciously to his task despite the needling discomfort.
Eventually failure mauled his intellect into surrender. He could devise no way to undo the insidious enchantment that gripped his life. Exhausted and truly dispirited, Dacian collapsed, knowing that his enemies would surely come for him.
An intense blast of magic roused him. Dacian opened his eyes and saw his door glowing orange and then turn to vapor. Daykash Breymer burst through the super heated smoke. Dacian flung out his hands and cast a shield spell, but the Daykash did not attack him with magic. Aided by two priests, they pounced on Dacian and seized his arms. When he saw a small hollow needle in Breymer’s hand, Dacian cringed with panic, but firm hands drew him upright. The needle jabbed into his neck. Dacian cried out at the sharp pain, but his resistance crumbled immediately. A foreign substance permeated his neck tissues and kept spreading. His muscles stopped reacting to his will, and his magic receded from the reach of his mind. Paralyzed and bereft of his natural powers, Dacian sagged in the grip of his enemies.
The Daykash pulled the needle out. Sinister satisfaction spread over his narrow face as he stepped back and admired the fully subdued rys.
“You did not know we could do that to you, did you rys?” Breymer said. “You’ll beg your masters for mercy before long,” he predicted and whirled into the hall.
The two priests hauled Dacian up by his arms and dragged his dead weight for a few steps before applying a levitation spell to him. Dacian felt his paralyzed body lighten, and the helpless floating made his terrified mind reel with disorientation. Watching the carpet slide past beneath him, Dacian naturally sought to feel his surroundings with his advanced perception, but the toxin polluting his flesh left only yawning emptiness in his head.
Dacian was hauled past the foundations of the Altular. Outside, the wondrous temple lorded over the great forest and inspired the citizens of Nufal with its ultimate grandeur, but few of them ever considered its dark fearsome depths. Kwellstan Sect builders had delved deeply into Ektren’s stone body. Below common storage basements lurked secret chambers accessed by only the Grand Lumin and his closest priests. From the cellars, a narrow stair led to an even lower room carved from the cold stone where a wide, circular pit gaped from the darkness like the birth canal of an unholy beast. This secret levitation shaft opened onto a deep natural cave that the Nebakarz kept mostly free of water with their enchantments. Even so, the constant drip of the relentless waters that blessed Kwellstan above rained in slow motion within the cave, leaving stalagmites and stalactites and other strange sculptures of glistening minerals to beautify the humid hole.
Here Dacian was brought and thrown face down inside a circle of jagged glowing crystals. Daykash Breymer laughed. Dacian had never heard him do that before, and the mirth of the Daykash scourged Dacian with hopelessness. The tabre left him paralyzed upon the damp heartless rock. Dacian did not know how long he lay in that timeless pit, but mercifully he felt the poison dissipate. Grateful to feel his body respond again, he moved his limbs. The white light pulsing languidly within the crystals brightened and magic pressed on his body. An enchantment akin to the tumor-like crosha radiated from the ring of crystals.
Slowly he became aware of a Nebakarz priest beyond the ring of enchanted crystals. As the poison continued to slip from Dacian’s nerves, he moved again, and the priest leaned forward from the darkness and put a tube to his dark lips. After a spurt of air, a dart pricked Dacian and replenished the poison. His agony was allowed only the feeble outlet of groaning. He continued in this poisoned limbo through darting after darting.
He was not sure how many days passed in this misery. With his mind impaired, he could not look at the world above and count the risings and settings of the sun. Sprawled against the slick stone of the dungeon floor, Dacian kept still the next time he felt his control return. Moving would only summon another dart from the watchful shadows.
As his mind cleared, he sensed the approaching lifeforce of the Grand Lumin. Dacian turned his head and let his other cheek slap onto the floor so that he could look at the levitation shaft coming out of the cave’s arching ceiling. The glow of the Grand Lumin’s magic swelled out of the tunnel like a mockery of moonlight.
The Grand Lumin settled softly onto the floor and his floating orbs bobbed alongside him. Illuminated by the orbs’ soft light amid deep shadow, his red robe looked like fresh blood. The heavy fabric seemed to weigh heavily on his thin elderly body as he shuffled toward Dacian with blind-yet-seeing steps. One priest came down the shaft to attend him.
“He is watching us,” the Grand Lumin whispered and his attendant slipped a fresh dart into his blow tube.
“Wait,” the Grand Lumin said and entered the ring of crystals alone.
Standing over the rys prisoner, the Grand Lumin said, “Are you willing to serve me now, Dacian?”
“No,” Dacian replied. His defiance was his sole possession in life. A satisfying wave of fury came off the Grand Lumin. The powerful so disliked the audacity of rebellion. It reminded them that courage came from a place that could never truly be owned or controlled.
“I could leave you here,” the Grand Lumin warned.
“Why not just kill me?” Dacian demanded.
“Why not indeed?” the Grand Lumin said. His floating orbs blazed hotly and swooped down. They crashed into Dacian’s head and exerted a levitating force that dragged him to his feet. Pressed against his ears, the orbs held him up straight in front of the Grand Lumin while a piercing sound snarled at Dacian’s sanity.
“You are powerful, Dacian,” the Grand Lumin said. “Powerful enough to warrant study.”
Dacian unclenched his teeth. “Are you saying that I am superior to tabre?” he asked.
The Grand Lumin’s thin lips pulled back from his teeth. As when he created the crosha, his spellcasting erupted like birds flushed from bushes. His magic tore violently into the rys. Pain screeched along Dacian’s nerves like a splinter of wood jamming jaggedly under fingernails.
Dacian screamed. His shield spells banged around the cave like drunken lightning.
The Grand Lumin probed beyond Dacian’s thoughts. Dacian felt the gates of his lifeforce weaken, but he must never let this powerful tabre touch him in the reservoir of his soul. Dacian fought. Even impaired and weakened, he marshaled strength from deep in his being. He raised his hands and clutched the orbs pressed against his ears and pulled them away from his head.
Pain and determination twisted his face into a wretched grimace. In his mind, he saw the cold blind eyes of the Grand Lumin trying to peer into his soul, but Dacian would never let him see the essence of his power.
Dark rage threatened to overtake Dacian’s emotions, but he feared the ugliness that this treatment was conceiving within him. He did not want to hurt anyone. He did not want to be cruel. Was the Grand Lumin trying to corrupt him toward violence so that he could then claim that rys were dangerous? To what would that lead? Dacian feared that he would become an excuse for the tabre to unleash some horrible campaign of oppression against the rys that was far worse than what they already did.
Trembling, Dacian held the Grand Lumin back from seizing his soul, but he resisted setting free the rabid dogs of injustice that howled and frothed next to his wounded heart.
When the Grand Lumin seemed disgusted with the stalemate, Dacian assumed that he had avoided the tabre leader’s trap. The horrible noise that pierced Dacian’s skull rose in intensity, and the Grand Lumin cast a spell that incinerated Dacian’s shirt. Then the Grand Lumin lashed out with one thin arm through the ash and smoke. His scrawny fingers with their hard dry nails scratched Dacian’s stomach, and, aided by precise attack spells, the physically weak hand became the claw of a pitiless predator and tore his flesh. Split muscle revealed the loosening bulge of Dacian’s viscera and purple blood spilled from the ragged wound in a grotesque satire of a waterfall.
An awful cry of despair issued from Dacian’s gaping mouth. Fighting for his life, his shocked metabolism boiled the poison from his body. Dacian let go of the orbs and pushed his guts in with his hands. The orbs slammed back into his head, but their power could not stop his healing spell that blazed around his torso.
The Grand Lumin observed how Dacian reconnected tissues and rapidly regrew flesh. It was a tremendous display of genius power. Truly the Nebakarz had wrought something great in Jingten, but the Grand Lumin doubted that the rys could be properly controlled. Dacian and his kind were too dangerous to risk acceptance. The Grand Lumin had sensed this for years now. What remained to be determined was if the power of the rys could be harvested.
With his body whole again, Dacian felt some of his fury slip free. After what the Grand Lumin had just done, Dacian lost one of his moral handholds. Again he pushed the orbs away from his head and this time flung them back at the Grand Lumin. Justified anger enflamed Dacian’s magic as he prepared to attack.
“He’s free!” the Grand Lumin gasped, and his priest waiting behind him fired a dart.
Dacian’s mind shot the poisoned dart with a super-hot thought, and it disappeared in a spray of sparks.
The Grand Lumin thrust a dart that had been up his sleeve into Dacian’s bare chest.
“No!” Dacian shouted despairingly. He could not even lift a hand to take out the poisoned needle. The sting of the Grand Lumin was savagely stronger than the poison Dacian had heretofore experienced. Its toxic bite rampaged through his body, causing both mental disorientation and a violent physical reaction.
Lurching in a seizure, Dacian toppled to the floor, slamming painfully into the rock. Convulsions wracked him until paralysis gradually quieted his jerking body. Then the Grand Lumin stooped slowly beside him and retrieved his dart.
The Grand Lumin’s orbs were hovering behind his head, and Dacian could only see his tormentor in silhouette.
The Grand Lumin said, “Now that I have you worn out, Dacian, I don’t think you will be resisting me much longer.”
Dacian wanted to shut his eyes, but the paralysis forced him to stare while the damp air cooled his eyeballs. He was tired after so long without food or proper rest, but he was Dacian and he was powerful and he would fight this awful battle for a thousand years if he had to.
Dacian let go of his anger and rallied his magic around his soul. Let the Grand Lumin drill with his malicious mind. He would never take what was not his.
A priest came down the levitation shaft. He approached the arena where the Grand Lumin practiced his dark art.
“What is it?” the Grand Lumin asked testily.
“Alloi is here, Grand Lumin. She asks to speak with you,” the priest said.
The Grand Lumin scowled and his blind white eyes flashed. He was annoyed with himself for not noticing that Alloi had entered the Altular.
Meddlesome Drathatarlane, he thought. I best send off their pretty spy before I continue here.
Stiffly the Grand Lumin straightened and shuffled away from Dacian.
Dacian had overheard the message and he found the thought of Alloi comforting. She had not been like the other tabre, and he was admittedly grateful for her serendipitous interruption.
“Enjoy this respite,” the Grand Lumin said over his shoulder. “You obviously need more time to think about your future. I expect to find you more cooperative when I return.” Then to the priest who would stay below, the Grand Lumin said, “Drown him. That ought to weaken him enough.”
Dacian was not sprawled at an angle that allowed him to see the Grand Lumin leaving, but the cave grew a little darker once the cruel tabre leader ascended with his glowing orbs. The future was too painful for Dacian to think about. Perhaps there was no such thing as a future in this timeless pit of torment.
The priest who remained in the cave cast a spell. The confining enchantment now felt like boulders pressing on Dacian’s skeleton. The light increased in the cave. The crystal formations that penned Dacian grew from the hard stone and transformed his pen into a circular cell. Then the crystal walls bent inward to encase him in a dome with only a small opening at the top. Water started to drizzle and then pour through the hole, and Dacian realized that the priest had loosened the spell that kept the groundwater out of the chamber.
Now the Grand Lumin’s last words embraced comprehension in Dacian’s mind. He was actually going to be drowned. Already the paralysis hindered his ability to breathe, but at least a little air was drifting into his lungs. The water was pooling on the floor and starting to seep into Dacian’s slack mouth. He had to do something to prepare his body for this ordeal. A rys could enter a state in which breathing was not necessary, but he needed his magic. With the sickening poison polluting his mind, he felt like a fish flopping on a riverbank, its gills fluttering in futility.
Desperately Dacian sought to enter a trance. He had to destroy the poison in his body. He squeezed all the strength he could from his desire to survive.
Water continued pouring into the cell and covered his head. Dacian transformed his fear into peace. He imagined the floating calm of the womb where once he had developed inside the true magic of his mother’s creative force. In that place he had been pure and protected.
Thinking of his mother boosted his desire to overcome this attack. He would not submit to the intolerable shame of perishing in the bowels of his oppressors’ stronghold. Glaxon and Illyr had made a son meant for a greater fate than that.
Dacian reached his magic that had retreated deeply within his spirit. When he clutched this precious reservoir, it was as if the Great Divinity had blessed him again with the gifts of his race. He grasped this thin line of power that fluttered like the loose thread of a tattered garment. He told himself to focus only on the poison. The water seeping into his lungs mattered for nothing. He could wait to breathe.
Focused entirely on his physiology, Dacian began to segregate the wicked poison and expel it from his body. It sweated out his pores, and lavender swirls of his purple blood floated away from his eyes and nose, and then he was free of the poison. Dacian surged back to his true power. Before the glorious rush of triumph overcame his good sense, Dacian told himself not to be guided by only his anger. He would gain his freedom, but he must show himself to be better than the tabre. Despite his sick fury that howled for justice, he would show that rys were civilized, good, and worthy of respect.
The crystal cell exploded into a million shards. The water washed the Nebakarz priest away until a stalagmite snagged him by his robe like driftwood in a flood.
Dacian stood up. He renewed his body with a subtle heat spell that drove the water from his skin and ragged clothing. With steam curling over his skin, he stepped away from the patch of bedrock where the tabre had shown themselves for what they truly were.
He sloshed by the priest, who was scrambling to loosen his robe from the spiny stone. The tabre was frantic with fear. He had never expected Dacian to shrug off the Grand Lumin’s poison and obliterate the holding cell. The nearly witless priest tore his soggy garment free and stumbled away from Dacian.
Dacian headed to the levitation shaft and reached out to the shaft’s line of energy, but a mortal pain stabbed his chest, like his heart muscle was cramping. Dacian released his connection. Gasping, he realized the crosha had hurt him. The chamber was still filling with water and it was up to Dacian’s thighs now. The other tabre priest waded up to him. His eyes were wide and glowing with his power, but he did not dare attack. The priest connected with the levitation line and instantly flew upward.
Dacian watched him go, knowing that the tabre would soon be alerted to his partial escape. After studying the dark tunnel, he resigned himself to having to make his way out the old fashioned way. Dacian undid the rest of the spells that held back groundwater from the chamber and accelerated its flooding so he could float to where he could reach the sides of the tunnel.
The Grand Lumin settled onto his cushions and prepared himself mentally for his encounter with Alloi. His experience with Dacian had made him feel his age, and he had not liked that. But the Grand Lumin set his turmoil aside. He would never want a Drathatarlane to sense his distraction.
When he was ready, he telepathically informed his attendants to show her in. Alloi was lovelier than ever. The absence of her twin brother allowed her splendorous appearance to shine more brightly without being shaded by Tempet’s masculine grandeur. Alloi’s black hair was pulled back smoothly from her face and held in place with jade clips. A black tunic with a wolf fur collar and loose pants draped her statuesque figure. A single silver pendant adorned her neck, showing off the symbol of the Drathatarlane Sect, a squat gnarled tree within a streaking comet.
The Grand Lumin was soothed to look upon her in his mind. She even made him briefly wish for his forsaken physical vision, but he knew too much of power to truly be tempted by flesh.
“Alloi, I am pleased to be graced by your company,” the Grand Lumin said.
She bowed politely and thanked him for receiving her.
“What wisdom would you learn from me today?” he asked.
Alloi tried to control her disgust. She noted that the Grand Lumin did not seem to be trying to probe her thoughts. His sick games with Dacian had probably taxed him too much.
“I would see Dacian again,” Alloi announced bluntly.
“I found him interesting,” she said, and it was the truth.
“Dacian is not available,” he said.
Alloi’s ingrained dislike for the Kwellstan Sect swelled inside her. The Sect was insufferably arrogant just as she had been taught. And the Grand Lumin was an unprincipled slime who knew nothing of the glories of the Great Divinity.
“I know what you are doing to him,” she said.
The words hung uncomfortably between them as the Grand Lumin pondered the possibility that she might actually have the power to see down into his most secret den.
“You know nothing, young lambling,” he said.
His grandfatherly endearment infuriated her. “I saw you take him to your nasty dungeon,” she said. “Why are you treating him so?”
The floating orbs near the Grand Lumin spun like agitated bumble bees and then stopped.
“Why would I tell my business to a Drathatarlane spy?” he asked.
“How dare you?” she shot back indignantly. “I am an ambassador!”
The Grand Lumin scoffed at her semantics. “You are a sneaky little spy. You Drathatarlane criticize us Kwellstan for going forth in the world to learn, and then your lazy masters send you to steal all that we know.”
“I have never stolen anything,” Alloi declared.
“Only because I’m not foolish enough to allow you to see anything that is useful,” the Grand Lumin said.
Returning to her original purpose, she asked again to see Dacian.
“It is impossible,” the Grand Lumin said.
“You are hurting him. I can feel it,” she said and her sympathy colored her voice. “He needs discipline. We are his masters and he needs to accept that,” the Grand Lumin said. “Now go, Alloi. This does not concern you.”
Alloi refused the dismissal. “I am an elite citizen of our shared realm and I will not stand by while you torture someone. It is wrong,” she said.
“Wrong!” the Grand Lumin almost laughed. “I’ll not listen to moral lectures from a Drathatarlane spy. Go ask your masters about their secrets. See how much they care about the pain of others when they want something.”
Alloi hoped that she did not show how much his words bothered her. She was young and did not know all the ways and secrets of her Sect. They probably did hide things from her.
But that was not what mattered at the moment. The Grand Lumin was doing something awful to Dacian. She had to find out what it was because it was her duty and because Dacian could not possibly deserve it.
She sheathed herself in a potent shielding spell that was far stronger than any she had ever used in a Bozee bout. Dancing white fire radiated from her body as she flaunted her strength.
“Show me Dacian so that I might see that he is well treated. No tabre can be hurt without a trial witnessed by his peers,” she declared.
“Bah! He is no tabre,” the Grand Lumin spat.
“Where is it written that rys are not tabre?” she demanded.
“We all know it to be true. And I’ve heard enough complaints from your Drathatarlane masters since our colonization of the Rysamand about the abomination of the rys. Forget your puny argument. Dacian has no tabre rights. Now, little Drathatarlane spy, stop your tantrum and leave me,” the Grand Lumin commanded.
Alloi hesitated. She knew that the Grand Lumin was hiding a terrible secret. Dacian was powerful, and she suspected that the Grand Lumin was working some dark art in his dungeon. For the sake of her Sect, she needed to find out what it was, and, personally, she wanted to save Dacian from whatever torment he suffered. Clearly the Kwellstan Sect thought of Dacian as merely an experimental animal, but she intuitively saw the error in that attitude. The Grand Lumin was provoking Dacian and he had to be stopped before something horrible happened that neither the Kwellstan nor the Drathatarlane could control.
“Let me see him!” Alloi shouted. She brazenly cast her magic toward the mighty will of the Grand Lumin, surprising even herself with her audacity. But she was Alloi, the most powerful of her generation, and it was time that she embraced her role. The nasty Kwellstan Sect would feel her righteous disapproval.
The Grand Lumin met her challenge with supreme confidence. He deflected her magic and physically knocked her back against the doors to his inner sanctum. His white-hot mind plunged into Alloi’s awareness as if she did not shield herself at all. He was thrilled to best her so swiftly, and he held her tiny mouse mind down mentally with the paw of his power.
Alloi quailed as his magic encased her physically and mentally. She had overstepped herself, and done so brashly in the lair of her enemy. Perhaps this was the lesson that she had been meant to learn when her brother was not at her side to save her. Determined to regain control, she shoved back with her magic. Fueled by her pride, her power flared fiercely from her lifeforce. She expelled the Grand Lumin’s leering awareness and cast an attack spell that was meant to physically remind him that he had no authority over her.
He fended her off with a shield spell, but her impudence enraged him. The Grand Lumin lifted off his seat and flew across the room at her. His floating orbs shot out ahead of him, and Alloi caught them in her hands before they crashed into her face.
Burning power seared her flesh, but she kept him at bay.
“Would you start a war?!” the Grand Lumin thundered. “Would you cast away two thousand years of peace and progress because I denied you one request? Are you going to be the one to do it? You, all by yourself without the leave of your Drathatarlane masters, would be the one to challenge the Kwellstan Sect?”
“You tempt me!” she snarled, but she was shaking from exertion. Sparring magically with the highest among the Kwellstan Sect was unsanctioned folly.
The Grand Lumin floated back and recalled his orbs.
Alloi eased her power down to just a precautionary shield spell.
“That is better, lambling. You don’t want to start a war. We Kwellstan could tear down your mountain towers if it suited us,” he boasted.
“Is that what you hope to do once you twist Dacian’s power to your will?” she asked, putting the fears of her masters to her lips.
She sensed how her accusation summoned a suspicious discomfort within the Grand Lumin. Whether she had spoken the truth or not, he at least harbored a deep desire to settle the ancient rivalry between the Sects once and for all.
“You will go now,” the Grand Lumin said.
The doors behind Alloi opened and bumped her in the back. Despite the intense confrontation, the Grand Lumin’s mind seemed suddenly to be elsewhere. Two attendant priests rushed into the inner sanctum. They brushed by Alloi, obviously concerned with some other urgent business.
One priest shooed Alloi out while the other kneeled before the Grand Lumin.
As the door was forced shut in her face, Alloi actually detected the mental command of the Grand Lumin. He had not bothered to carefully shield his thoughts. A lapse she had never expected to enjoy.
“Send the Daykash to take care of it,” she overheard the Grand Lumin command his priest.
Tangible alarm radiated through the Altular. Waves of energy from a great work of magic were seeping upward from the temple foundations. Alloi had to find out what was happening. Had they remade Dacian into some enthralled uber warrior? Or was he rampaging toward escape?
Alloi cast a cloaking spell over herself. The attendants of the Grand Lumin burst out of the inner sanctum. She ducked behind a statue to supplement her cloaking spell. The priests ran by her, their feet and robes flapping in undignified urgency.
Keeping her lifeforce masked, she followed them. They met up with Breymer who carried a slender spear, and then they hurried into the dark underbelly of their temple. Alloi pursued them cautiously. Through the storage cellars she trotted down dark stairs with her whispering steps until she reached the grim place where the levitation shaft waited like a gallows.
Many priests were already gathered. Glow crystals cast their shadows upon the rocky cavern walls, making a distorted shadow forest of heads, arms, and long bodies. Alloi found a natural crevice in the stone and ducked inside it. She kept her cloaking spell active.
She could smell water. The wondrous waters of Kwellstan that she had come to appreciate gave off a pure aroma this far below ground. Filtered through the rock, the waters were clean yet enriched by their prolonged contact with the potent body of the world.
Tentatively she peeked with her awareness over the heads of the priests and looked into the levitation shaft. It was filling with water and some of it shot up along the levitation line like an ornamental fountain.
The Daykash held his spear poised over the water. Alloi detected the poison called sho loaded into the hollow tip of the spear. It was a very concentrated formula of sho, and Alloi shuddered when she considered what it would feel like to have that fearsome paralysis drug clogging her veins.
Dacian’s hands reached out of the water. His strong fingers gripped the rock wall of the levitation shaft. His head emerged from the water and he took a great breath. Blue light glowed in his eyes and he reached for the lip of the shaft.
The Daykash thrust the spear into Dacian’s left shoulder. He cried out in defiance more than pain. Instead of splashing back into the frothing water, he grabbed the spear and twisted it from Breymer’s hand. Dacian hurled the light spear over the edge and the priests scrambled out of its path. The enchanted wood clattered on the slick rock floor as Dacian swung out of the water. A stout shield spell glowed around his body, and the sho darts of other priests hissed and bounced off the shell of his power. His bare chest was heaving, and the milky oval of the crosha had taken on an amethyst tinge.
Daykash Breymer ordered his priests to stop shooting, and he stepped in front of Dacian. “You cannot escape. The crosha will kill you,” he announced.
Dacian felt the horrible enchantment drilling into his chest. He still did not know how to get it out of his body. “Why do you hate me?” he demanded. “I have never sought to be anything except your faithful brother!” Bewildered pain marked his voice, and it made Alloi’s heart ache.
“We will fight you. All of us,” Breymer said.
“Why?!” Dacian cried. He could not understand them. “Remove the crosha and let me go in peace.”
“Do you think we are foolish?” the Daykash asked. He believed utterly that without the crosha to contain Dacian, he would go back to his rys and rouse them to rebellion.
“Let me go. I do not want to fight you,” Dacian said.
After an unspoken command from the Daykash, all the priests hit Dacian with their attack spells. He actually dipped to one knee beneath the combined fury of the assault, but like a weight lifter, he rallied his strength and returned to his feet. Despite so much provocation, he did not counterattack. He was not ready to accept the chaos of vengeance. His patient suffering might get through to his tabre cousins yet. How long could they pummel him with hatred before they saw his goodness and the goodness of his kind?
Protected within his shield spell, he walked toward the narrow stair. He looked forward most to seeing the sun again. Being locked away in the deep dark world of solid stone had been hard on him. Bred in the highest mountains of the world, he needed to return to the balcony of the heavens.
The Daykash halted the attack. Dacian’s passive resistance puzzled him and he clearly suspected that Dacian plotted some trick. Those priests who still blocked Dacian’s way stepped aside, unable to conceal their fear and awe.
The entrance to the stairs beckoned Dacian but he hesitated when the white glow of two floating orbs illuminated the steps. The Grand Lumin made his way slowly to the bottom step. His long red robe slipped down the last few steps before settling again around his feet.
He held his gnarled hands open in a welcoming gesture. “I am impressed, Dacian. Truly,” the Grand Lumin said. “It is a high art of our Sect to repel the sho potion. Honestly, I am amazed.”
The unexpected praise rattled Dacian more than any crude attack could have done.
“You will not keep me in this dungeon,” Dacian said softly.
“I can see that,” the Grand Lumin agreed. “Forgive this treatment, Dacian. I have tested you harshly. But as the first rys to seek to join us, we had to know your mettle. The Kwellstan Sect is the elite of Ektren. We can never examine a candidate too deeply, especially one with your…aptitude.”
Confusion crept into Dacian’s mind like moss growing on a tree stump. What the Grand Lumin said did not seem right, but Dacian suddenly felt unable to think critically. Had all his suffering been an elaborate test? Was the Grand Lumin about to give him everything he had always wanted? It did not seem possible, but neither did the misuse he had suffered since coming to Kwellstan. Maybe the Kwellstan Sect had been testing his loyalty. Perhaps Halor had been forbidden to warn him about this grim initiation.
Alloi listened in shock to the Grand Lumin’s words, but she had no dreams of joining the Nebakarz to skew her thinking. She recognized the sly magic of the Grand Lumin. Not all magic was easy to notice, and sibilant little spells sang inside his words, delicately pollinating Dacian’s mind with thoughts of submission. Dacian’s fatigue was obvious, and, despite his power, she knew that he was not invulnerable.
Alloi revealed herself. To actually see the Grand Lumin and Daykash Breymer startled was supremely satisfying.
“Dacian, it is me, Alloi. I’ve come to help you. The Grand Lumin is tricking you,” she warned.
Her unexpected entry jolted Dacian out of the mental trap, but her offer to help him was just as confusing as the Grand Lumin’s sudden acceptance of his talent.
The Grand Lumin hissed with rage when he saw Alloi. “Vile Drathatarlane!” he gasped, truly furious.
Daykash Breymer seized Alloi by the wrists. “How did you get here?” he demanded.
“By the stairs,” she said snidely.
More priests grabbed Alloi from all sides.
“Not a spy?” the Grand Lumin criticized, shuffling up to her.
Alloi was the winner of many Bozee bouts and she used an attack spell to force the priests to release her. As soon as the grip of her rivals gave way, she slipped by the Daykash so she could face Dacian.
With only a fleeting moment of freedom, Alloi said, “Dacian, I’ll give you sanctuary. Come to my house and I’ll contact my Sect and tell them to help you. I’ll ask for our best Nebakarz to come and help you free yourself of this…” She reached out to his crosha, but before her sensitive fingers could brush the smooth enchanted stone, the Grand Lumin shouted, “Enough!”
Daykash Breymer’s hands closed around Alloi’s upper arms and yanked her back against his chest. He steered her toward the stairs.
“Dacian,” she called urgently, wanting his answer.
He looked at her painfully. Alloi was lovely and seemingly kind. She was powerful too, which he respected, and among so much hostility, her offer of help should have been irresistible.
But, despite everything, Dacian was of the Kwellstan Sect. He had spent decades studying as a Kwellstan acolyte and he was born of a Kwellstan colony. To side with a Drathatarlane felt unthinkable.
Dacian shook his head. He saw her amazed disappointment as Daykash Breymer hustled her to the stairs.
The Grand Lumin approached Dacian, waving away the two priests that moved to buffer him from Dacian.
“Only the maker of a crosha can undo it. Dacian is not going to harm me,” he said.
His orbs started circling Dacian’s body and sparking against his shield spell.
Dacian said, “Grand Lumin…Master, please remove the crosha and let me go.”
The Grand Lumin said, “In time, Dacian. Once you have shown that you can be obedient and perform the tasks I set for you.”
Dacian assumed that meant more humility training with menial tasks. On behalf of the rys, he could not accept it. “I am leaving,” Dacian announced and walked by the Grand Lumin. No priests moved to stop him.
“You cannot leave Kwellstan,” the Grand Lumin reminded.
Without stopping, Dacian said, “As you have tested me, I shall test you.”
The Grand Lumin watched Dacian in his mind as the rys climbed the steps. Mentally he told his followers that Dacian would be back. “Place him in his quarters upon his return,” the Grand Lumin commanded.
Dacian rushed up the steps. His eagerness to go outside motivated him more than fear of those behind them.
When he reached the ground level of the Altular, he kept his attention fixed on the exit to the Plaza of the Waters. Dacian ignored the startled tabre who looked at him in wonder and fear. He knew he made an unpleasant sight. What remained of his clothes was ragged and dirty. His body was thin from exertion and the crosha branded him as a criminal.
When he left the Altular, only a dreary winter day presented itself as freedom. Dacian was still glad for the cloudy cold daylight, and the half frozen waters in the streams and bathing pools possessed a clean loveliness.
The obscured sun was ducking out of the short day as quickly as it could. Dacian thought of Jingten far to the west and started to run. The leafless treetops surrounding the city loomed above rooftops and Dacian hurried toward the forest. He ignored the rising pain in his chest.
By the time he reached the last building along the westerly road, he was staggering. Determined and delirious, he pressed on beneath the old trees, but the city could still be seen through the trunks when he collapsed. Dacian clutched a smooth-barked beach tree and gasped as he fought to master the pain. He looked down at the crosha. Its color had deepened to a misty purple. Countless fine needles pierced his heart.
Still gripping the tree, he struggled to find the fortitude to continue. He sobbed once in weary despair before lapsing into pitiful silence. He could not decide what to do. Returning to the Grand Lumin was a sickening thought, but forcing himself to take another step away from Kwellstan might be suicide.
Alloi came to him. She placed her hand on his chest and cast magic to block the pain from his mind.
“Does that help?” she asked.
“Yes. Thank you,” he said and looked at her gratefully.
She studied the crosha and its sinister character quickly appalled her.
Still blocking much of his pain, Alloi helped Dacian to his feet. He kept an arm around her shoulders and her hand remained on his chest. “What was your crime?” she whispered.
Dacian remembered the phlia-mel striking Onja. He wanted to answer Alloi’s question but it did not seem right to speak to her of Onja. Or perhaps it was not right to think of Onja with Alloi so close. He was not sure which.
He only shook his head. Alloi took him to her house. Humans stepped aside in shock as the tabre and rys made their way slowly down the street. And tabre watched with wary disapproval.
“You should not associate with me,” Dacian whispered. He had no idea what Alloi’s agenda toward him might be, but he feared that her kindness would only lead her to misfortune.
“I can take care of myself,” she said, and was surprised by the sudden confidence of her statement. She had never really thought of herself as an individual force. Tempet had always been entwined with her existence. Even as she recognized how her autonomous identity strengthened her, she missed Tempet. At this moment, his assistance would be welcome.
Alloi brought Dacian inside her home. She lowered him onto a couch. He shut his eyes. Sitting next to his head, she started to stroke his hair and study his face. His rys appearance was intriguing. She was not sure if it was attractive, but she did not find him ugly.
Being alone with him granted her a thrill that she had never before known.
Gradually she ended her pain-blocking spell, but then Dacian shifted uncomfortably. She resumed her spell and apologized, saying that she had only wanted to see if he was still in pain now that he was back in Kwellstan.
“The pain is only absent in the Altular,” he said. He rubbed his temple. He had a terrible headache.
“Stay here and rest,” Alloi said. “I will give you sanctuary and contact my Sect and find out if anyone knows how to get this horrible enchantment off of you.”
“You are kind,” he murmured.
Dacian appeared to fall asleep. Alloi felt his body slacken beneath her finger tips. She could feel his immense weariness. Freeing himself of the Grand Lumin’s dungeon had cost a great toll.
The dusk deepened and the glow crystals throughout Alloi’s house brightened in response. She felt pity for Dacian. He and all his kind were an abomination, yet he seemed a noble being. Perhaps he was even better than all the tabre for not lashing out with violence after so much provocation.
Filling with affection, Alloi bent down and brushed his forehead with a tender kiss. Dacian’s eyes opened and she withdrew, embarrassed.
Dacian sat up and moved away from her. He groaned as the pain from the crosha returned but he waved her away.
“I must go back to the Altular,” he said.
“Dacian, no!” Alloi cried.
“It is the only way,” he said bitterly. “I can’t think with this pain eating my mind. I must rest and then find a way to get this off me.” He dug his fingernails into the skin around the crystal as if he might physically rip it from his flesh.
“Dacian, I will help you, I swear,” she insisted.
Embattled and alone, he was sorely tempted by her offer, but there was nothing to gain by accepting help from a Drathatarlane. Miserably, he explained, “Alloi, you have been kind, but I cannot accept your help. Jingten is controlled by the Kwellstan Sect. If I side with Drathatarlane, the Kwellstan might punish all rys.”
He stood up to leave. Alloi jumped up to prevent him. “Please, Dacian, I can help you!” she pleaded.
“Are you sure?” he demanded bitterly. “Are you sure the Drathatarlane will help a rys?”
Alloi hesitated. “I will convince them to aid the rys,” she said.
“You can try,” he said and headed for the door.
Reluctantly she let him go. Outside a gentle snow was falling, and the moist cold flakes were soothing on his bare skin. He trudged through quiet streets and returned to the Altular like a chastened runaway. To have the pain from the crosha go away was worth crawling back into this cell. At least he was out of the dungeon.
He flopped onto his narrow bed, knowing that he would not rise for days. Although lacking the strength to cast his mind to Jingten, he fell asleep thinking of Onja. Her help he would accept.
Onja, I need you, he thought.