by Den Valdron
SHADES OF DARKNESS
I was back in chains. This brave new world seemed to have no shortage of them. I was losing track of my captivities. Unfortunately, these irons, lighter and better made, were gifted with finer locks than the ones I had picked. I doubted I could pick these so easily, and I certainly wasn't being given the opportunity.
“There are no Jewels,” I said wearily, for the hundredth time to my captors.
They'd made their camp in the Great Hall of Art, an act of casual and unthinking sacrilege. On the wall in front of me, was the great mural depicting the Vengeance of Rhiannon. I recognized it from the inferior reproduction at the Mummer's hall. All but faded, cracked and broken, it was still a masterpiece of incomparable beauty.
Aspar Aguus stood by the doorway, chained between the loins of a giant sculpture of the goddess of fornication, Bay Ti Paj. Actually, she was really only a Demi-Goddess, but that distinction was seldom made in prayer. It would have been comic, a creature of war chained to the edifice of lust.
“Somehow,” my captor said, he was a tall Red man with one eye, his body criss crossed with jagged scars, a veteran of many wars, fierce and clever. His companions called him Pul Bayl. “Somehow, I don't believe it. Perhaps because you and your companion spoke so freely of it, when you thought no one was listening.”
“There are no Jewels,” I repeated.
I was all out of lies. These were hard men and I was completely in their power. If they thought I had hidden wealth, they would torture me until I revealed it. If they imagined I had anything of value, they would not rest until it was torn from me.
“Come now, Princess,” Pul Bayl said.
“I am no Princess.”
He sighed. “So you say, not a Princess, no Jewels, simply an Orovar from out of the distant distant past, out for a stroll to a dead city in the middle of nowhere with an Orgus Jed for a bodyguard. At least have the decency to not insult us with idiotic lies.”
“Where are these Jewels?” Bayl demanded.
“There are no Jewels.”
“What makes them Sacred?”
“There are no Jewels.”
“Vadak Eth,” he called, “heat up the torture irons, I believe we may have to loosen the Princess's tongue.”
Vadak Eth, who I took to be the bald one, his face strangely, almost girlishly, smooth and round, though he was as hard and rough looking as the rest, began to make ready with unbecoming enthusiasm.
Some of the other men, particularly a strangely muscled half-naked youth, seemed uncertain about it. I tried to look imploringly at him, doing my best to look pitiful and helpless. It wasn't actually all that hard, considering my situation.
“Hah,” Aspar Aguus laughed, “you are all fools. This is a Princess of Az-Lium, final city of the Orovars. Do you think she fears such as you? Do you think torture will break her? Go ahead. She will laugh. With her bare hands she fought her way free of the fall of Az-Lium, and killed a dozen men in the process. She walked the valley of Spiderlings without fear. She saved my life. With my own eyes, I did see her defeat a Sadok with a simple flung stone. Had you sense, you would surrender and beg for your lives. Torture her if you dare.”
Stop helping me, I thought at the horn-headed warrior. Shut up! I didn't need him telling them to torture me!
“Well,” Bayl's one eyed glimmered with sadistic amusement, he pulled a knife and drew it down the side of my face. It pricked my eyelid, causing me to gasp. He chuckled.
“We'd better be careful with you,” he purred, “Laughing at torture and killing sand dragons. Do you think I'm pretty, Princess? Some do not think so. It's all in how you look at things, though.”
“How do you want to look, Princess,” Bayl asked. “You said they were jewels of power? That interests me.”
Aspar Aguus laughed again. “Foolish red men. The power of the stones is tuned to the Royal blood of the Orovars. In the hands of one of your effete gutter race, it is but worthless rubble.”
“Aha,” one of the men, Japh Leah, said excitedly. “Not treasure, but a weapon! That explains much!”
Japh Leah had been the smiling one who'd winked at me, as they'd tied me up.
The other men began to gather.
“We have been looking at this the wrong way. This creature,” Japh Leah said, “wears the rank of a Jed of the Orgus. He is a chosen agent of Hedo Lettus himself. Armies of the Orgus horde are his to command, how is it that he is a lone bodyguard for some slip of a girl?”
“Let me ask you, fellows,” he said, “who was pulling the sledge? Is he her servant, or was she his prisoner?”
“We have mistaken servant for master!” the one-eyed bandit chief exploded. “ Curse me for a fool, it was right there in front of us!”
My mind started to race again. Surely there was some way to take advantage of this. At the very least, they were far less likely to torture a servant to death. Especially a valuable servant.
“Yes,” I said, “it's true. I was a prisoner of the Orgus. He kept me alive because only I can wield the Sacred Jewels of Power. If you harm me, they will be useless to you!”
“Aha,” he wheeled back at me, “so they do exist! What are they? How do they work?”
“They are jewels, as I said,” I looked around desperately. Above me, on the mural, Rhiannon was breaking the bonds of his seven brothers. “There are seven of them. Worn as a harness.”
Over the one-eyed Man's soldier, was a depiction of the glory of Tur, shining his ray of creation. “They focus rays.... of destruction.”
A headless statue. “Vaporizing all flesh, all living matter, no matter the barrier.”
“You know,” the bald Vadak Eth said thoughtfully, “it is rumoured that Phor Tak of Jahar created just such a weapon.”
“A bullet can do just as well,” Pul Bayl scoffed, “What range, what power do these Jewels have?”
“Enough to sweep a battlefield,” I said, “to clear enemies to the horizon, to clear ships from the sky to the limits of sight. It has been sufficient to keep Az-Lium safe and protected these ten thousand years.”
“It's well known that the Orovars had science and magic which this age cannot fathom,” Japh Leah said reflectively.
I boggled inwardly at that. We had science and magic? These people had these ‘rifle’ artifacts, which killed from a distance, immense craft which sailed the air as we had once sailed lost seas. Were they deluded? What magic could they possibly imagine we had, that compared to the things they took as commonplace? I was dealing with superstitious idiots.
Dangerous, superstitious idiots, though.
“It does explain how an Orovar city might have endured safely for ten thousand years. And why no enemies lived long enough to report their discovery.”
By not being found! I thought. Were they that stupid? We'd survived because none of these crazed maniacs had found us. That luck had run out.
“Not safe enough,” Pul Bayl said, “your Orgus tells us that Az-Lium has fallen to Markath Khan of Diome. Why didn't your sacred jewels sweep his fleet from the sky? If these Jewels are as powerful as you say, how is it that your city is ruins, your people enslaved and you are chained before us?”
“Because,” I glanced again at Rhiannon, all figures cowered from his deadly aura. None dared come near him. “the jewels release a radiation, that poisons and contaminates everything near it, even when not in use. We dared not keep it in the city, it was secured here and retrieved when needed.”
“It didn't help you this time.” The strangely muscled youth said, he had the strangest accent. It gave his speech a jagged, broken quality.
“There was no time,” I said, “the attack came too quickly, we had no warning. Kathkart Kin must have neutralized our spies.”
“Markath Khan,” one eye corrected.
“Neutralized your spies?” He said thoughtfully. “Then how do you know Markath Khan has not already taken this weapon?”
“I can answer that,” Japh Leah laughed, “if Markath Khan had it, he'd be out conquering the rest of Barsoom, and Hedo Lettus would be the first to rush to grovel at his boots.”
“Instead, Hedo Lettus has gone in pursuit of it, and sent one of his own handpicked Jeds, alone on a solitary mission. Bless Issus that he did not find it.”
“So it's still up for grabs.”
“We could be kings!”
Considering the moment perfect, I burst into tears. “It's true,” I wept, “it's true, it's all true. The brutes captured me during the fall of Az-Lium. They put my family to the sword to keep the secret. I was enslaved and abused. You are my rescuers, oh thank you for freeing me from bondage.”
I was maybe laying it on a little thick, but I've learned that when playing to the common rows, you could never be broad enough.
They were not convinced.
“How much of this is true,” Pul Bayl asked turning to Aspar Aguus.
The Orgus maintained a stony silence. Pul Bayl stared. The fierce Orgus looked away. Finally, Bayl chuckled.
“Well, that answers that,” he said reflectively. He turned back to me.
“Tell me something, girl,” he asked. “Are you really a Princess? Or perhaps something else? An acolyte perhaps? An apprentice?”
My mind raced. What would be best? A princess, higher status, but perhaps more difficult... they might not like that. An acolyte or apprentice, a priestess’ assistant, something malleable... someone they might enlist?
“And another answer,” Bayl replied to my silence, stepping away. “What you refuse to say, tells us everything.”
He paused, kicking a pebble as he contemplated his next words.
“Well, ‘Princess’... Or whatever you are... it's lucky for you we rescued you from the Orgus. Where are these Jewels?”
I took a deep breath.
“I cannot sense them,” I said, “they are not here. They have been taken.”
The room shifted dangerously. It wasn't an answer they wanted.
“It's not here?”
“I... the members of my Order... to use it, we're attuned to its radiations. If it was here, then I would be able to sense its nearness.”
One-eye leaned back reflectively.
“You said it was taken. You know something.”
I nodded, putting on my best innocent face. The jewels didn't exist at all, of course, but if they believed it was here, they'd torture me for its location. If they came to lose belief altogether, they'd simply kill me and Aguus. It had to be somewhere else, somewhere they could reach, so that they would preserve Aguus and I to lead them to it.
“There was another expedition,” I said, “when we knew the attack was coming. Acolytes were sent to retrieve. They did not return. They were the only ones who could have known the location. We thought they had failed.”
“But obviously,” One-eye said, “they succeeded.... At least, somewhat.”
I made sure to put a certain reluctance into my nod.
“Anything could have happened,” one of the men said, “a small expedition? A rockslide. Spidelings. Perhaps a band of Orgus, or one of Markath Kahn's airships. There's any number of things that may have befallen them.”
“But if it was Orgus or Diome, then they didn't know what they had found. It's probably still there.”
“So the Jewels of power must lie between here and Az-Lium,” Bayl concluded, working it out.
I gave a very careful nod. All that mattered was that he was selling himself on the notion, and that would keep me alive.
“And you can sense them?” he asked. “Over how great a distance?”
“To the horizon, if it's clear.”
“Not much clear in the Jagged lands,” Pul Bayl replied. “But you would be able to sense them if nearby.”
“There are ...false signatures. Some of the elements of which the Jewels are formed are in the Jagged lands and can mislead. But the closer I come, the more certain.”
“Hmmm,” he said, “‘’Princess,’ I and my noble band pledge ourselves to your service, to assist you in retrieving the lost treasure of your people.”
“You will help me liberate Az-Lium,” I whispered, putting a trace of hope into my voice.
“We promise,” he lied, smiling.
“Then I promise to take you to them,” I lied back, my eyes shining with sincerity.
“Done then,” he said, “release the ‘Princess.’”
Finally! Once again, I had hope. Out in the wild lands, there would be numerous opportunities. Aguus and I would find our moment and slip away to freedom. And after that? Well, I'd figure something out.
“Oh, and by the way... kill the Orgus.”
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