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Lady of Shadows: Part 1

Pain. Pain the like of which I had never imagined. Like spears of sun-scorched obsidian sliding through my limbs where my bones should have been, the claws of some ravening beast tearing through my bowels, razors across my sweat-slick skin. And, through it all, he was there, inside my mind, pouring fear and anguish into my soul.

Lady of Shadows: Part 1

By Duskweaver

Pain. Pain the like of which I had never imagined. Like spears of sun-scorched obsidian sliding through my limbs where my bones should have been, the claws of some ravening beast tearing through my bowels, razors across my sweat-slick skin. And, through it all, he was there, inside my mind, pouring fear and anguish into my soul.

My body hung spread-eagled within an arch carved by the desert winds from solid rock, my wrists and ankles secured with ropes I had long since given up on breaking or loosening. They were of giant’s hair, and so tight that my hands and feet, even dripping with sweat and blood as they were, could never slip through.

He had plied me with his little knives for most of the night. They were ancient, these tools of torture, and he treated them almost as holy relics, unwrapping them from their envelope of tembo skin with obvious reverence, whispering prayers over them in a tongue I did not recognise. The blades were steel – not the crude iron from which the sand devils forge their curved swords. Not for the first time, I wondered where these savages found so much iron ore. I had never in my life seen so much metal as these fiends bore, not even within the Naggaramakam.

In truth, his blades alone did little. Though I will bear the scars upon my body until the end of my days, he seemed almost casual with his incisions, as though the mere physical agonies he inflicted were incidental. The true torment he inflicted mind to mind.

I had always prided myself on my strength of will. I am not the most beautiful of my husband’s templar-wives. My father’s taint left me with the pointed ears and slanted eyes of his uncivilized race, while my mother bestowed upon me her diminutive stature – this awkward combination of features had always seemed a cruel joke. So, had it not been for my intellect and my will, I would never have come to the Shadow King’s attention, and certainly never risen so high within the Temple of Thought.

Yet, this uncultured savage, this sand devil, tore through all my defences like a whirlwind through a nomad camp. He was everywhere, stalking me through the dark, desolate labyrinth of my mind, hurling my every fear and doubt against me as a weapon, his lash of terror and despair cutting more deeply by far than his little steel knives.

He hunted me wearing the faces of my mother, livid with the marks of the fever that had taken her from me before my thirteenth High Sun, and my father, whom I have never seen in truth, for he abandoned my mother as soon as her belly grew bloated with the fruit of his seed. He wore the face of Consort Boukta, who had taken pleasure in tormenting and terrifying me throughout the first three years after I became one of the Shadow King’s brides, and of the monstrous Prince Dhojakt, whose hideous form can still even the bravest heart. He even stole the likeness of my lord and husband – not the illusion he wears when he walks among his people, but his true face, in all its noble, draconic majesty. To hear the twisted sand devil’s cruel taunts and obscene promises spill from the mouth of my beloved was more than I could bear.

I had thought Boukta’s pitiless beatings had robbed me of my capacity for tears. Certainly, I had not shed a single tear in the five years since leaving the barracks over which she exercised her petty and brutal tyranny to take my place in the Temple of Thought. But now I cried as I had not since my mother’s death: the wracking, uncontrollable, shameful sobbing of a child.

The pain was nothing. I could have borne the skin being peeled from my flesh, the flesh from my bones. I would still have screamed, but I would not have wept. But the breaking open of my mind and memories, the cruel violation of my soul, those I could not endure. And I knew that there was no hope. No hope at all. This torment would last for days – so the sand devil had promised – and would end only with my death. And, even then, my soul would be plundered, used to unleash… what? He had babbled some nonsense about a being who had been the lord and master of my husband, long ago. It could not be true. Any of it. Yet, somehow, the dread was still real. I saw myself fall shrieking into darkness, into a place outside the world, outside of time and space. A prison within which was locked a being of such monstrous, calculating evil that even the legendary Dragon seemed like a mere kirre when compared to its ageless malevolence.

Through the dark haze of suffering, I felt the first rays of dawn upon my forehead. My tormentor snarled with displeasure as crimson light glinted upon the tips of his twisted horns. Then he sighed, an artist forced by circumstance to postpone the creation of his masterpiece, and smiled crookedly at me. His talons brushed my cheek, then cupped my chin almost tenderly, lifting my eyes to his.

“We shall continue tonight, child. My people do not enjoy the touch of the crimson sun. It reminds us too sharply that this world is not as it should be.” He turned away, his shoulders seeming to slump beneath his heavy black robes as he shuffled away into the darkness of the cave mouth. His next words seemed not to be directed at me, for he barely whispered them, but with my senses still agonisingly sensitive after his psychic assault, I heard them regardless: “It reminds us there is still so much work to do.”

 

Soon, another of the sand devils came: a woman wrapped in ragged desert robes to shield her crimson skin from the sun’s touch. She put a clay bowl to my lips. I had resolved to take no water, knowing that, even with the partial shelter provided by the cliff face, the sun would likely put an end to my suffering before dusk. But now I found I feared death more than the promise of further torture. I drank greedily, savouring the icy cold of the water. Doubtless it came from some hidden spring within the sand devils’ cave lair.

The woman smiled mockingly at me as I drank, her yellow eyes blazing with contempt and what might almost have been lust. It was clear she took pleasure from observing my wretched state. Her tongue, dark purple and pointed like that of an inix, darted out to moisten her thin lips. “You still strive for life, then,” she crooned. “I wonder how many nights you will last before we have to force the water down your throat.”

She carried the bowl back into the cave, then returned, tossing a jagged-bladed iron dagger casually from one hand to the other. “I wagered this that it will take only another night before you break. I see the weakness in you, you see. Another night, then you will beg us to cut your throat.” She sighed and rested the tip of her dagger in the hollow between my collarbones. Her nose wrinkled in distaste. “My brother disagrees, of course. He thinks it will take at least three nights.” A pause. The sand devil woman put her head on one side, as if in thought.

“I like this knife,” she said after a moment. “I am to guard you and keep you alive until dusk. But there is no reason why I should be bored. I have not the master’s skill, but I can still make you scream. And perhaps stack the odds of the wager a little more in my favour.”

I felt the tip of the knife slide down the line of my sternum. It paused at the point where bone ended and the flesh of my belly began. She pushed, just enough to pucker the skin, though not yet enough to draw blood. Then she paused.

I glanced up, saw a frown crease her horned brow. Then she winced as a flash of light cut across her eyes. She stepped back, blinking, frowning again in puzzlement and annoyance. “What is that?” she muttered. Sheathing the knife, she stepped around me.

There was a muffled sound, an intaking of breath swiftly cut off. Then a frantic, liquid gurgling that seemed to go on for a very long time, punctuated occasionally by faint scraping sounds. Then silence.

A shadow loomed over me, much too large to be cast by any of the sand devils, even with the sun still low in the sky. So this was to be how it ended. Some wild beast had come hunting for a meal. I did not relish the idea of being torn limb from limb and devoured, but at least it would be a quicker death than the one the sand devils had promised.

Then the shadow spoke, its harsh bass rumble one I recognised, and my heart leaped with the return of hope.

“Arrogant, these sand devils. Only one guard. No-one on watch. And they never bothered to check I was dead last night. Don’t know why everyone is so damn scared of them.”

Big hands pulled at my ropes, testing their strength. Then, with the sand devil’s iron dagger, Bayl began quickly cutting through the giant’s hair ropes that held me aloft. Hours of strain had stolen the strength from my limbs, and I fell limp into his powerful arms as he severed the last rope.

He wasted no time on checking my injuries. Loyal he might be, but tenderness has always been a foreign concept to Bayl, as it is to most of his race. Slinging my naked, bleeding body over his shoulder, he picked his way nimbly through the maze of shattered red stone within which the sand devils’ cave squatted like a spider at the heart of its web. I have never understood how such a big man can move so silently or with such grace and speed.

We passed the sprawled body of the sand devil woman, her limbs and face twisted in agony, purple tongue lolling from her mouth grotesquely. The cord of Bayl’s alhulak, a half-inch-thick braid of leather strips, had left its livid mark around her neck. I shuddered as I recalled the sounds I had heard just before Bayl appeared – the gurgling and thrashing that had seemed to go on for far longer than should have been necessary.

Bayl, obviously sensing my unease, shrugged. “Was angry,” he grunted, almost defensively. “You woke me,” he continued after a moment, and I realised he meant that my screams had woken him from the effects of the sand devils’ venom.

“Remind me never to make you angry, Bayl,” I said, trying to sound more cheerful than I felt.

“Never hurt you, lady,” he growled fiercely. “Never.”

I felt tears on my cheeks again. What had I ever done to earn such loyalty, I wondered? But I crushed that errant thought swiftly. Such weakness of emotion was surely just an after-effect of my torture. Bayl was a servant rather than a slave, for his skill and courage in the arena had earned him his freedom years ago, but I was a templar-wife of the Shadow King himself. As a citizen of Nibenay, even a free one, he owed me his very life. His rage at what the sand devils had done to me was only right and proper, and probably more a result of his simple mul mind than of any deeper loyalty.

I must have passed out then, for I remember no more until that evening, when we were far away. I think Bayl must have carried me, running non-stop almost from dawn to dusk. Such feats are nothing to a mul, of course, though such inhuman hardiness never ceases to amaze me. I can understand how the sand devils too must have underestimated him, leaving him for dead after their attack upon our party.

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Raddu

Original creator of The Burnt World of Athas back in 1995 or so...