by Rob Steiner
“Please, sit,” Savix said to Karak, pointing to two red, cushioned chairs that faced the stunning view of the city and the bay.
Karak stood where he was. He was tired of the games and would not take another order until he knew what was happening to him.
“Why am I here? And how did I…get here?”
“Sit down,” Savix repeated, “and I will explain.”
Karak did not hear the reverberating voice that he had with Crane, but he nonetheless found himself moving toward the chairs against his will and sitting down in the right chair. It was as comfortable as it looked, and the view beyond the balcony was beautiful—
Karak shook his head. He turned to Savix, who sat in the left chair. “Why am I here?”
Savix smiled. “Mr. Crane.”
Crane walked over, his head bowed. “Yes, my lord.”
“Bring us two cups of cocau, please.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Crane backed away and strode briskly through the arch and down the spiral stairs. When Karak could no longer hear the clicking of Crane’s boots, Savix turned to Karak.
“Have you ever heard of the ‘Zervakan?’”
“Other than in passing by your lapdog, no. Should I have?”
“I suppose not,” Savix said. “Not many living today have heard the term. Time breeds ignorance, unfortunately. No matter, I was hoping to avoid some unnecessary explaining, but now I suppose I must educate you.”
“Fine,” Karak said. “Educate me.”
Savix looked at him with an arched eyebrow. “Did you talk to Overlord Silek this way? I will have to educate you on showing respect to your new lord, as well.”
“I serve no lord,” Karak said. “Not Silek, not you, not anyone.”
Savix smiled, and Karak saw that he had the same unnaturally large number of teeth that Crane had.
“Do you feel that gold chain around your neck?”
Karak’s hand shot up to his neck. Sure enough, there was a chain necklace that he had not noticed until now. How did that—?
“How it got there does not matter,” Savix said. “What matters is that you serve me now. Everything you do, everything you say, and everything you think is known to me. Now I can force you to do, say, or think whatever I want, but that takes energy on my part that I’d rather devote to other purposes. And don’t even think about trying to take off that necklace.”
Karak wanted to rip it off his neck and strangle—
Blinding pain shot through his head, a pain that should have killed him if it were something gentler, like a pick axe through his skull, or a steam trolley on his chest. The pain spread from his head, down his spine and soon throughout his limbs. His entire body was engulfed in flames, every inch of skin. His blood boiled and his organs had turned molten.
And it was not just the physical pain, but it was emotional as well. Every horrible memory he had suffered throughout his life, every moment that had ever given him anguish, was thrown into the furnace of agony his existence had suddenly become. From the moment of his birth, to the day he held his mother’s broken body in his arms when he was a boy, to the first time he had killed a man, to Silek’s betrayal. All of it was focused like an arrow into his heart that threatened to destroy his soul.
The pain suddenly switched off, and Karak realized he was screaming his throat raw. He stopped screaming, but his heart thumped and his breathing was heavy. Sweat drenched his hair. His fingers had dug themselves into the cushions of his chair. The physical agony was gone, but Karak could remember every moment of it, along with the emotional anguish.
Savix sighed. “I told you not to think about the necklace.”
For the first time since he was a boy holding his dead mother’s broken body, Karak wept.
“Now to avoid that,” Savix said in a consoling tone, “you cannot think of removing the necklace ever again. If it ever breaks, or becomes separated from your neck…well, you just felt what happened. In fact, after what you just experienced, I suspect you will fight to the death to keep anyone from removing it.”
Savix put a hand on Karak’s left hand and gently said, “You are mine. Accept it, and the pain will never bother you again. Do you accept me?”
“Yes,” Karak said in a cracking voice, before stray thoughts could enter his mind. He never wanted that pain again. He would do anything to avoid it. Anything.
Savix clapped his hands and said jovially, “Good! Now then, let us discuss why I have brought you here.”
The King of Mazumdahr stood and went to the double glass doors that led to the balcony. He opened the doors, and a fresh breeze of sea air came through, helping Karak to forget for a moment the torment raging in his mind.
“Follow me, Mr. Frost,” Savix said without turning around, and stepped out onto the balcony into the sunshine.
Karak stood and followed of his own will.
The sun was bright, the sky blue, and the air warm and fresh. He closed his eyes, and tilted his face toward the sun. It had been a long time since he had been outside the city of Calaman, so he had forgotten what fresh air and sun felt like on his face.
“Beautiful, is it not?” Savix asked. “Of all the kingdoms I have ruled, Mazumdahr is my favorite.”
Karak opened his eyes and stared down at the city below him. As he suspected, the palace was built on a bluff above the city. The sun glinted off bronze-colored domes and spires. Red-tiled roofs of residences and merchant shops marched up the hill toward the palace, ending at the palace gates a half-mile down the steep hill. Beyond the city, fishing boats and merchant vessels filled the blue waters of the bay. Karak thought the air looked strange until he realized that it did not have the black tint of coal smoke that Calaman had. Though the guns and cannon of Mazumdahr’s military kept pace with Calaman, coal and steam technology had yet to filter down to the Mazumdahri people. Karak wondered if they still had to draw their water from an outdoor well, rather than from an indoor tap as he was used to in Calaman.
“Yes,” Karak said. “Beautiful.”
“Speaking of beauty,” Savix said, “how do you feel when you look at the rings?”
Karak glanced up at the colored ring and the black ring that ran north to south across the blue sky. He hadn’t spared them more than a passing glance over the last few days, but he, like any other person, was curious about them when they appeared over a month ago. Had they caused the storm that ripped through Calaman the day after they appeared? He had been skeptical then. Now he wasn’t so sure.
“I sense power in them,” he said.
“Yes,” Savix said, staring up at the rings with eyes that seemed in shadow. “The rings are power. They are the power that created this universe and the power that maintains it now. For the longest time they were absent from the sky. The people responsible committed an atrocity against nature. A crime for which they will soon pay.”
Savix sniffed the air. “Ah, our cocau approaches.”
Crane walked onto the balcony carrying a tray with two cups of steaming liquid that smelled both sweet and bitter. Savix handed Karak a cup, then took one for himself. Without saying a word to Crane, Savix turned and continued to stare up at the rings. Crane retreated into the circular room. Karak briefly wondered if Crane also wore a necklace, or if he voluntarily served Savix. He could not imagine anyone voluntarily—
A quick twinge of pain shot through Karak’s skull. It was nowhere near the level he had experienced before. Just enough to make Karak turn his thoughts to other matters, like the rings above him. Yes, concentrate on the rings.
Savix did not seem to notice—or chose to ignore—Karak’s flinch. “Did you know that the black ring is called Angra? It is the greatest force for change in the universe. It challenges life to survive, which in turn makes it strong. You and I would not be here if Angra had not forced our prehistoric ancestors to use tools to hunt. Those who didn’t, starved to death, or became prey themselves. Angra has been the guiding influence in your life, Karak Frost.”
Karak did not speak, nor did he allow himself to contradict Savix. To do so would invite the pain again. He simply allowed his mind to open, to listen to Savix’s words.
“Yes,” Savix said, studying Karak as if he were reading a book. “You are a child of Angra if there ever was one. You grew up in the Wild Kingdoms, where intrigue and tribal warfare made your people hardy and strong. When your mother died in your arms—your eight-year-old arms—you were forced to survive on your own. You stole clothes to keep warm, attacked other street children for the food they scavenged. When you were fourteen you killed a man because he tried to take the food you stole.”
Karak felt a strange presence in his mind, as if another voice was whispering words he could not understand. He tried to resist, but a jab of pain made him allow the intrusion.
“Yes,” Savix said, putting a hand up to Karak’s cheek and caressing it gently. “Angra has taken your pain, your hatred, and focused it. You are someone who wants what the lords of your homeland always had—wealth and power. It is what drives you to this day. You know it will keep you from suffering the same hardships that your mother and your siblings had to suffer.”
Karak’s mouth opened and closed as he stared at Savix. It was true. All his life had been a pursuit of that which his family never had. He came from a family of peasants, the class of people who inevitably suffered the most in the tribal wars of the Wild Kingdoms. When his mother and siblings were killed before his eyes—he had never known his father, nor had his mother ever spoken of him—Karak realized that there were two classes of people in the world—those who suffer and those who mete out the suffering. While holding his mother’s bloody body in his arms after a raid from some rival lord whose name he no longer remembered, he had resolved that he would no longer be the one to suffer.
Savix smiled, his multitude of teeth gleaming in the bright sun. “Angra created you, my friend. It has made you strong so that you can come to me at this moment, ready to start along your destined path.”
“What path?” Karak asked.
Savix smiled, then turned, put his hands behind his back, and slowly strolled along the balcony. He started whistling the same tune Crane had whistled in the dungeons.
Karak followed, walking at his side.