by Rob Steiner
Karak wondered again why he was still alive.
After getting knocked out in Silek’s hallway—the welt on the back of his head throbbed with unholy glee—he had awoken in a lavishly decorated bedroom that could have been in the Speaker’s Palace. Ornate lamps shined on ornately carved tables next to ornately carved chairs. Exquisite paintings and tapestries hung on the walls. He had awoken on a four-post bed with lace curtains, crisply ironed blankets, and silk pillow cases.
The one window in the room, however, was bricked over. The one door had three bolt locks, all locked from the outside. If this was a prison cell, it was the classiest cell Karak had ever seen, and he had occupied his share over the years.
Despite the pain in his head and the dizziness whenever he sat up, Karak made himself walk the room to search for clues as to where he was. He never heard of such a room when he was in Silek’s Swornmen, so it must not have been in one of Silek’s homes. Maybe the room belonged to Crane. This brought an involuntary shudder, which angered Karak. He would not let that man—or whatever he was—scare him again. Never.
Karak didn’t know how much time had passed since he was taken, nor how much had passed since he awakened in this room. It felt like hours, but Karak knew that men deprived of a view of the outside lost track of time. He tried not to think about time, and instead focused on what he would do when someone eventually walked through that locked door. They wouldn’t have put him in a prison made for a king if they did not plan on at least feeding him, or letting him visit the water closet. Someone would come, and Karak would be ready.
But more hours passed—what felt like hours—and nobody came. Karak knew what they were doing. They were letting him think. It was a tactic he used himself to sweat a man he was about to interrogate. Give most men plenty of time to think about all the horrible things his captors could do to him, and he would break at the slightest pressure. It worked most of the time.
But either his captors were ignorant of Karak’s knowledge, or they had something else in mind. First, when you are about to interrogate someone, you do not put your prisoner in a comfortable room—you keep him in the darkest, foulest dungeon cell you can find. Second, you have to know your prisoner—if he is the kind of man who does not break through delay, then you might as well start questioning him right away.
Karak paced the room. He counted how many steps it took to get from one end to the other. Fifteen paces long by ten paces wide. Quite a large room for a prison cell. The walls were papered white with light green stripes. Karak picked at a corner of the paper to find plaster beneath. He used one of the unlit lamps to chip away at the plaster to find red brick beneath. At the one “window” in the room, he put his ear to the brick, but could not hear anything beyond. The brick was cool to the touch, so it might have meant the room was underground. Or it could mean the day outside was cold.
Karak had counted the bricks in the window for the fifth time—there were sixty-eight—when the bolts clicked on the door. He got up from the bed and stood in the center of the room, ready to face standing whoever came through that door.
But he was disappointed when a young blond girl, barely in her teen years, carried in a tray with a covered plate, a pitcher, and a glass. Karak caught a glimpse of the narrow, red-bricked, torch-lit hallway beyond the door before one of Silek’s Swornmen—a bald, dark-skinned man from the deserts south of the Kingdoms—shut the door behind the girl. She kept her eyes low and did not look at Karak. She set the tray on one of the lamp-lit tables next to the “window.” There were no utensils on the tray.
She turned and hurried to the door.
“What is your name, miss?” Karak asked.
She ignored him. The girl tapped on the door, and the dark Swornman outside opened it, let her out, and shut it again without looking at Karak.
Karak frowned, and then turned to the tray of food. He paused, despite his rumbling stomach, but decided that a poisoned meal was unlikely. If they had wanted to kill him, they had had ample opportunity. He lifted the plate cover.
And then dropped it.
The plate was piled high with bloody human eyeballs, all with blue irises. Each one swiveled around to meet Karak’s horrified stare. He backed away, but the gruesome gaze of the eyes on the plate followed him. Karak shut his eyes tightly for a moment, then reopened them.
The eyeballs were still there, watching him. They made sickeningly wet noises as they followed his movements.
He leaned his back against the corner of the room farthest from the tray and forced himself to stared back at it.
The clicking of the bolts in the door awakened Karak, and he sat up straight. He stood in the center of the room when the final bolt released and the door opened.
Three Swornmen strode in and stopped in front of Karak, staring at him as if he were a bug they wanted to smash under foot. Karak ignored them, and trained his gaze on Silek, who entered the room with his usual swagger, like a High King from the Kingdoms. Behind Silek walked Crane, his black-wood cane clicking on the stone floor. He now wore a red suit with a black shirt, red gloves, and a red tri-corner hat. Karak thought Crane’s suits grew more garish each time he saw the witchman.
Crane sniffed the air above the covered plate. “No appetite, Mr. Frost?”
Karak kept his face even, but Crane gave him a knowing smile, showing a mouth full of straight teeth that seemed too numerous for a normal man.
“I’m sorry for all this, lad,” Silek said, his arms folded across his broad chest. “You gave me no choice, what with you sneaking into my home. You’re lucky I didn’t have you killed outright.”
“Why didn’t you kill me outright?”
Silek opened his mouth, but then a confused look crossed his face, as if he did not know why Karak was still alive. Apprentice or no apprentice, when someone tries to kill an Overlord, it was instant death. No pause for explanations or final words. Silek cast a furtive glance at Crane. Crane continued to stare at Karak with that same repugnant grin.
“Huh,” Karak said. He nodded toward Crane, but kept his gaze locked with Silek’s. “I don’t know what kind of deal you made with this…man, but nothing good will come of it for you. Are you listening to me, old man?”
The Swornmen in front of Karak shifted their stances menacingly. Silek turned his gaze back to Karak and snarled, “You know what your problem is, Karak? You’re a bloody arrogant snit who’s risen too far, too fast. You always have been, and it’s made you a lot of enemies. I was in my thirties by the time I had my first lordship.”
Karak shrugged. “Not my fault I’m smarter than you.”
Silek sneered. “Kill him.” The Swornmen in front of Karak drew their pistols.
“No,” Crane said in an even tone, but one that seemed to reverberate in the room. The Swornmen stopped drawing, though they looked confused as to why. All three returned their pistols to their holsters, and then crossed their arms, their eyes staring vacantly past Karak and at the bricked window.
Silek rounded on Crane. “How dare you—?”
“Shut up,” Crane said. Then one of his red gloved hands shot out across the room, as it had in the silo, and tore out Silek’s throat. Silek stared wide-eyed at Crane, gurgling his last breath, blood from the wound spurting onto the Swornmen, who continued staring at the window. Silek fell to the ground face first. Crane’s hand came back to him holding chunks of gore, which he let drop to the stone floor with a sickening slap.
Crane shook his head. “I can see why you wanted to kill the man. And he accuses you of arrogance?”
Karak felt frozen in place, unable to move, only able to stare at Silek’s dead eyes as blood poured from his throat. Silek’s Swornmen did not move.
Crane pulled the chair out from the table, then sat down and crossed his legs as if having afternoon tea. He leaned his cane against the table, pulled his bloody glove off, and dropped it on the tray. He poured the contents from the pitcher into the cup next to it, lifted it to his lips and sipped.
“Now then,” Crane said, one hand on his crossed knees and the other holding the cup. “It has come to my attention that— Wait, forgive me. Gentlemen?”
The three Swornmen turned at once to face Crane.
“Please dispose of Mr. Silek’s body, kill all the people in this house, and then kindly put a bullet in your heads. Thank you, gentlemen.”
Crane’s voice had that same reverberation as when he told the Swornmen not to kill Karak earlier. Like vile whispers that surrounded his words before and after he spoke them. It made Karak clench his teeth.
Without a word, two of the Swornmen bent down over Silek—one grabbing his ankles and the other lifting him from the shoulders—and carried the dead Overlord out of the room, blood still dripping from his throat. The dark-skinned Swornman drew his pistol and followed the other two through the open door, turning to the right. Karak could hear their shuffling footsteps get more distant until a door slammed at the end of the hall, and then silence.
For a brief moment, Karak wondered if he could make it through that door and into the dark corridor before Crane’s arms caught him. Crane watched him with a bemusement, as if daring him to try.
When Karak did not move, Crane continued, “Where was I…? Oh, yes. It has come to my attention—or rather my employer’s attention—that you possess something we need. We are willing to pay handsomely for it.”
Karak managed to make his voice work. “What could I have that you would want? I have nothing thanks to you.”
Crane clicked his tongue. “Are you still bitter about that incident at the silo? All right, I apologize for killing your men. Is that what you want to hear? If I had known who you were, I would not have acted so rashly. Besides, you should be honored that I went through all this trouble to find you again. Do you know how hard it was to turn Silek against you? The man may be arrogant, but he does have a strong will.”
A thin smile played at the corner of Crane’s mouth. “Although you did provoke me somewhat when you shot me in the face. I suppose you could say I, um, lost my head after that.”
Crane’s mouth became unnaturally large as he issued a high-pitched, screeching laugh that could have shattered mirrors and windows. Karak winced from the ghastly sound.
When Crane noticed that Karak was not laughing with him, he said, “Oh, come now, that was funny. Laugh!”
Karak simply stared at Crane. Humor was the last thing on his mind at the moment.
Crane’s smile disappeared. “I said laugh.”
The strange reverberation filled the air again, and Karak was horrified to find himself laughing uncontrollably. He could not stop. Tears streamed down his face and he felt as if his lungs would explode from the laughter, but it kept coming.
After what felt like minutes of excruciating laughter, “That’s enough,” reverberated through the room, and Karak fell to his knees gasping for air.
Crane stooped down in front of Karak. He touched a cold, clammy hand to Karak’s chin and gently lifted it so that Karak was staring into Crane’s milky eyes.
“That was your first lesson, Mr. Frost.” His voice was quiet, almost soothing. “You cannot fight me. Do you understand?”
Karak jerked his chin away from Crane’s cold hand. He used one of the bed posts to drag himself to his feet. He stood there swaying, but kept his balance.
Crane chuckled, and clapped his hands at Karak’s effort. “That’s why I like you so much, Mr. Frost. You’re a survivor.”
Crane sat down in the chair again. “Now then, about that thing you have that I need. You see, you might be someone very important to the plans of my employer. Have you ever heard of the ‘Zervakan?’”
Karak shook his head.
Crane’s nose wrinkled. “Vile creature. Makes me look as kind and innocent as the serving girl who’s about to die.”
Two shots rang out from down the hall, both within seconds of each other. Karak dug his fingernails into the wood of the bed post.
Crane continued, “This Zervakan has the potential to destroy the world. Now my employer may use harsh methods at times, but he has always strived for peace with his adversaries.”
“What does this have to do with me?” Karak asked.
“You, my friend, might be my employer’s champion. The man destined to destroy the Zervakan.”
This time Karak chuckled of his own will. “And why would I fight for your employer?”
Crane looked at Karak as if he had just said the sun was green. “Because that is what you were born to do. But of course, you may not be my employer’s champion. And that is the thing with which I need your help to determine. Please, sit.”
Karak thought about ignoring Crane for a moment, but he had no wish for Crane to use that voice again to compel him to sit down. If Karak had to sit, it would be under his own power. He pulled the chair out from the table and sat down facing Crane.
Crane smiled, his large mouth again showing too many teeth. “My first question: what did you see when you took the cover off your food plate this morning?”
Karak glanced at the covered plate to his right, next to the flickering lamp. His stomach rumbled from hunger, but felt nauseous at the same time when he thought of the staring eyes on the plate.
“There were…there were eyes,” Karak said. “All looking at me.”
Crane stared at Karak intently, those milky eyes never wavering. “Interesting. Would you like to see what is on the plate now? I would imagine you are rather hungry, yes?”
Karak grimaced, but said nothing.
Crane reached over to the plate and pulled the cover off. Karak flinched, but when he glanced at the plate, he saw a lamb chop cooked rare like he always ate it, accompanied by several spears of buttered asparagus, and a large chunk of black bread. Karak smelled the seasoning on the lamb, and the butter on the asparagus. His stomach growled again.
Crane smiled. “Looks a bit more appetizing now, does it not?”
Karak’s first thought was that Crane had somehow switched the plates. But with all he had seen Crane do, he knew that turning a plate full of bloody eyes into a lamb dinner was probably not out of Crane’s power. The only thing Karak wondered was which one was the illusion—the plate of eyes or the lamb dinner.
Crane began to applaud softly. “Congratulations, Mr. Frost. You have passed the first test. You can see.”
“See what?” What was this monster talking about?
Gun shots rang out from somewhere above them. It seemed to be a pitched battle.
Crane ignored the shots. “The greatest power in the universe,” Crane said in a quiet tone of respect. “You should be honored. Only a select few can see it. And only a chosen few from the select can tap into it. Which leads us to the second test.”
The shots suddenly stopped. A few moments later, three more shots went off at virtually the same moment, and then all was silent.
Crane listened a moment longer. When there were no more sounds, he seemed satisfied. “It’s time for us to go. Care to meet my employer, Mr. Frost?”