Within the Bone
: A Clarity by K. Olsen
Perhaps it was because of the easy violence his guards had displayed that Mara thought the merchant spoke with the authority of a lord. “You may come out,” the man said, pushing the table back out so he was no longer pinned to the wall. The heavy oak moved easily, suggesting that he had the muscle of a trained fighter even though he looked slim and unassuming. “So long as your manners are better than your countrymen’s, I have no desire for a quarrel.”
Aallotar looked at Mara. “There is a back door,” she said in a hushed voice.
“We might outrun them, but not their monsters outside,” Mara whispered back. “Those creatures looked like they had a wolf’s nose.”
Reluctantly, Aallotar nodded and stood, helping Mara up from their concealment behind the bar. She kept her shield on her arm, eyeing the two guards. Both men looked like devils from some fiery hell, spattered with blood from the cleaving wounds left by their wicked curved swords. They stood taller than even her father’s six foot height and their golden eyes seemed doubly feral now even if their faces were calmly composed.
One ran a hand over his head thoughtfully as he looked down at the man pinned beneath his heel, brushing across the rows of small horns that rose from his scalp, mostly lost in his hair. The other stared at Aallotar without so much as a sign of heavy breathing, sword held loosely at his side, as if he had not just been some whirling dervish of death.
There was no way they were going to get to Caliban or the pack containing whatever treasures the dead adventurers had looted from the ancient ruins without entreating for their guide’s release. Even a demon’s servant didn’t stand a chance against the two expert warriors they were facing.
“Who are you?” Mara asked, as cautious as a feral cat.
“I am Dexsius,” the merchant said, rising from his seat to give them a polite bow. “My companions are Ansigar and Ealhhere.” He gestured to each one in turn. Ansigar had come charging in from outside. Ealhhere had been seated at the table with the merchant, easily distinguished by the series of scars that criss-crossed his face, even biting into his flat nose. “Do not let the twins trouble you too much. They are here for my protection.” He gave the two women in front of him a thin smile. “You are?”
Mara had never been a good liar, something she bitterly rued at the moment. “Mara,” she said with all the politeness she could muster. She could at least limit information by not giving her full name. “I’m sorry about Caliban. He really doesn’t mean you any harm.”
Ansigar bent over, wrenching the backpack from Caliban’s death-grip with ease. He tossed it to his brother like it weighed nothing and Ealhhere spilled the contents onto the table. Coins and assorted wealth likely robbed from graves and buried share scattered across the surface of the wood, followed by a few chunks of twisted metal covered in the same incredibly intricate writing that Mara had seen in her master’s tomes.
The dead men had found something of interest after all.
“Fascinating,” the merchant said, picking up one of the metal shards. He turned it over in his hands, inspecting what could be seen of the markings where the dirt caked on it had been rubbed partially away.
“What is it?” Ansigar asked, his voice a low rumble.
“A piece of ancient history,” Dexisus said with amusement flickering across his face. “These are prayers to the pretenders who fell from heaven and died, back in the days of warring gods and angels.” He looked over at Caliban. “Are you a scholar, then, or is that the domain of your lovely friends?”
‘That one is a warrior,” Ealhhere muttered with narrowed eyes, gesturing to Aallotar with his sword.
“One can be both, even if that is not common in these lands,” Dexisus reminded his guard. His eyes focused on Mara. “Who is your protective friend?”
Mara put her injured hand on Aallotar’s back. The wildling couldn’t feel its presence through her chainmail hauberk and gambeson, but Mara couldn’t think of another way to calm her. “Easy, Aallotar,” she said, trying to distract her friend from Ealhhere’s glare. Then she glanced over at Caliban, who looked particularly sour at the moment. “No one wants a fight.”
Aallotar nodded and relaxed slightly out of her stance, lowering her shield. In answer, both of the red-skinned strangers wiped down their blades and sheathed them. The villagers cowering in the corners still didn’t step out to face them, not with six dead men on the floor of the room. “Indeed,” Dexsius said.
The more he smiled, the more aware Mara became that there was something not quite right: the expression never reached his eyes. There was a cold detachment to his basilisk stare, like that of a dead man. It wasn’t the menace of her master’s obsidian gaze, but it seemed an echo of something just as dark. She would readily face her master’s displeasure and leave empty-handed if it meant getting away from Dexsius and his bodyguards.
“I was more interested in the coin,” Caliban said, oily tone as measured as always. Mara could almost see his thoughts turning like grindstones in a mill as he tried to figure a way out of their current predicament.
“A failure at banditry,” Ansigar muttered. “Are thieves branded here or do they cleave off at the wrist?”
“The local justice is not ours to administer,” Dexsius said mildly, setting down the piece of inscribed metal he held. “Not beyond self defense.”
“As you wish,” Ansigar said with a bow of his head. “What are we to do with them?”
Dexsius shrugged. “Let them go about their business. We have a task of our own to concern ourselves with. If they wish to pilfer the dead, by all means. I have no use for such coin and its last owners no longer have need of it either.”
Caliban scrambled up to his feet as soon as they allowed him to and swept the bulk of the treasures into the pack again, not forgetting the ostensibly worthless pieces of metal. Coins scattered onto the floor, but he wasted no time trying to gather every one that had escaped. He jerked his head towards the door when he caught Mara’s eye and then flashed the three strangers a wide smile. “Thank you for your generosity, my lord.”
Dexsius nodded thoughtfully, eyes still fixed on Mara. “The rest will pay for the damages,” he said almost absently. “Be careful on your way, my friends. We were warned of a demon in these woods.”
“We will be,” Mara said quickly, wincing when Caliban caught her by the arm and pulled her out the door. Aallotar followed quickly, slamming her shield into his back to shove him forward and away from Mara.
“I am working for her protection, mutt,” Caliban growled, catching himself before he fell on the pack.
Aallotar’s face paled like he’d slapped her, eyes narrowing. She went to lunge for Caliban, but Mara stepped between them to break up the fight. “That’s enough!” Mara barked. She’d never raised her voice to either of them before, so it had the intended effect: both combatants froze. No doubt for Aallotar it was fear of her displeasure and for Caliban it was fear of her power. “We need to get back.”
“Mara, you are bleeding,” Aallotar said, looking down at Mara’s arm where Caliban had grabbed her. An incision had to have reopened. Golden eyes snapped from ferocity to worry almost instantaneously. She closed the distance between them, gauntleted hands reaching to lift Mara’s sleeve so she could look at the wound.
Caliban grabbed Aallotar’s hand before she could expose Sammael’s work on the sorcerer’s arm. “Not here, wildling,” he hissed in a low voice. “We are still under scrutiny. You may tend her when we are away from this wretched little hamlet.”
“He’s right,” Mara said quickly, before Aallotar could refocus her protective wrath on the demon’s servant. “We need to make it home. I’m worried that they’ll follow.”
“Why would they?” Aallotar asked, letting Caliban lead the way back out towards the woods.
Mara didn’t have a good answer to that. There were no actual words to explain the icy dread that sat in the pit of her stomach when she thought of that uncanny smile. “I don’t know. I just...I don’t think that’s the last we’re going to see of them.”
“You’re probably right,” Caliban said, glancing over his shoulder. The large, spotted predatory creatures that stood beside the stables full of terrorized horses looked like a cross between wolves and lions. They were definitely not native to the Red Mountains. “I have heard of such beasts.”
“You said nothing before,” Aallotar said harshly.
“I had not seen the riders and the insignia of their owner to remind me,” the man muttered. “The Angravarri are warg riders, servants of the demon prince of Arcem Solis. Not the eldest of his brothers, but certainly not less dangerous. The Master must be told.”
“A demon prince?” Mara asked hesitantly. “Like Sammael?”
Caliban shook his head. “I do not know where the Master would fit in their cosmology, but he is not the same as the Princes of Iron. They command a vast realm with sorcery at their beck and call as living gods, servants of the empty throne that once held the Deceiver himself.”
“With your hunger for power, I am surprised you know of them and did not think to seek them out,” Aallotar said darkly.
The demon’s servant turned sharply. They had just reached the thick treeline, lost from view under the shadows of dark pines. “Ambitious, yes, I am,” he said, giving the wildling a fearsome glare. “But a fool I am not. The Princes of Iron are jealous with their power. They do not bestow it upon kith the way the dissenting demons do. At least if I choose, I may leave the Master’s company. He does not assign me a place in the cosmos and annihilate me if I so much as breathe wrong.”
Mara felt a chill at that. “Is that what Kalevi saw?” she whispered, more to herself than to anyone else. Sammael had already known about her oracle from the troll, probably through spies in her home city of one kind or another, possibly even through sorcery. No doubt Caliban knew of it as well, though she hadn’t confirmed that with him. The troll’s words followed her mind through its movements like a specter of horror to come.
...In their wake, nothing will remain except fire, death, and salt…
“The Master will know,” Caliban said with unshakable certainty. He sighed. “That said, probably. You were not chosen at this time by accident, Spell-Breaker. The Master has been preparing for the end of the world for a long time. As long as I have known him, at least.”
Mara knew Sammael had been preparing for his enemies to encroach upon his refuge for a very long time, apparently more aware of what was coming than anyone else in the Red Mountains, except for perhaps the Oracle of Deadwood, the monster that was Kalevi. Those preparations had spanned some gap of time longer than all three of their lifespans added together, most likely. She started to walk quickly towards their hidden home, stopping only when Aallotar made her so that they could cover the bandages seeping blood. They didn’t really have time for a re-wrapping.
Together, the three hurried through the woods. Caliban took them across the stream that had frozen over, thankfully deeply enough that it was safe enough to stride upon. They made good time back to the mouth of the cave at the foot of the large stone spire. It was dark by the time they arrived.
Sammael was waiting for them just inside. The demon’s metallic body was unhidden, strange dark ichor flowing from one twisted portion to the next through translucent veins. His almost bestial form leaned against the wall, three angular obsidian eyes glinting slightly in the moonlight. He extended one hand for the backpack that they had brought, needle-like claws catching the strap effortlessly. Without ceremony, Mara’s mentor flipped the bag open and drew out the inscribed fragments of metal.
“YOU HAVE DONE WELL,” Sammael said with little in the way of inflection, his tone perfectly inhuman with the same air of a cold wind sweeping through a deep cave that he always had. He tilted his head to the side slightly as he regarded the first fragment. “EASILY CLEANED. YES, THIS IS AS I HAD ANTICIPATED WHEN I HEARD THEY WERE DIGGING AT THE SOUTHERN SITE.”
“What is it?” Mara asked, voicing the least of her questions.
“Perhaps we should tell you of the interlopers,” Caliban muttered.
Sammael turned his head to regard them as he led the way down the stone steps where snow had drifted. “ELABORATE.”
“There were strangers in the village,” Aallotar said. “Two men with skin the color of Sjaligr’s red stone, dark hair and horns, accompanied by one who smelled of death.”
Caliban didn’t miss the opportunity to snipe at the wildling. “Quite the blood-hound, aren’t you? They all smelled like death.”
Mara stepped between them again before Aallotar could lose her patience a second time. “I know he is pushing,” she whispered to her friend, giving the wildling’s elbow as much of a squeeze as she could with Aallotar wearing mail armor. “Please don’t let him get under your skin.”
“I am not a beast,” Aallotar almost spat, her comment very much directed at the man grinning over Mara’s shoulder. “You are fortunate she steps between, wretch. Some day she may not.”
The demon spun, catching Caliban by the throat. There was just enough light from the sconces ahead for Mara to see the indents the very tips of his hollow claws were making in Caliban’s flesh as he trapped the human man against the rock wall. It was just enough pressure to almost, but not quite, pierce the skin. “ENOUGH,” Sammael boomed, his sonorous voice even more intimidating in the echoing cavern. “TELL ME OF THESE STRANGERS, CALIBAN.” His voice took on an almost purring, alluring quality at the last order. He released Caliban and resumed striding.
The rock ahead melted away to reveal a large, steel door: the portal that barred the way to the library. Symbols hummed to life on the door with faint, flickering light as Sammael approached. With a gesture from the demon’s hand, it slid open with a grating sound to reveal the neat rows of books on tall shelves among the other assorted pieces of memory preserved from the First World.
As they went, Caliban provided Sammael with an exacting recollection of the interaction with the two warriors and the merchant. He omitted or hadn't noticed the strange quality of the merchant’s smile, however.
Mara cleared her throat as he finished, drawing the attention of unfeeling obsidian eyes. “There was something odd about the merchant,” she said. “His expressions looked like...copies. Like he’d had a smile described to him, and almost managed it, but it was just pretend. His eyes were like a dead man’s.”
“THAT ILLUMINATES MORE THAN CALIBAN’S PRATTLING,” Sammael mused aloud. He turned to face his mortal servant. “BEGONE. I HAVE WORDS FOR MY APPRENTICE.”
Caliban’s answer was a fawning bow as he vanished towards his filthy accommodations. He’d never been one to clean the way both Mara and Aallotar did. “Of course, Master. Anything you wish, Master.”
Sammael paid Caliban the precise amount of attention that a horse swatting a fly from its hide with its tail might mind the bug. He beckoned for Mara to follow him. “YOU MAY BRING YOUR GUARDIAN.”It was rare for him to permit Aallotar entrance to his study. Clearly he was deep in thought, or perhaps he understood from the way Mara was now gripping the wildling’s gauntleted hand that his apprentice required an anchor. “THE MERCHANT WAS MUCH AS YOU ARE, MY APPRENTICE. HE IS ANOTHER TOUCHED BY SORCERY, THOUGH HE CANNOT COMMAND IT AS YOU DO.”
“Why is that?” Mara asked softly.
“HE HAS ALL THE WILL TO MUSTER THAT A SWORD DOES, A HAMMER DOES, A SCALPEL DOES.” There was no hint of contempt in his tone, but Mara knew it was probably safe to imply it. Sammael seemed to harbor a deep superiority when regarding things that he could bend to his will, though it was always hard to be certain. Demons were often beyond the comprehension of a mortal. “A COMPLEX TOOL, MOST ASSUREDLY, BUT STILL AN INSTRUMENT AT THE FINAL ACCOUNTING.”
Mara didn’t like the sound of that. “And a demon prince is using him.”
“AS I TOLD YOU, THOSE WHO STYLE THEMSELVES PRINCES OF MY KIND DO NOT TOLERATE WHAT THEY CANNOT CONTROL. YOU WOULD BE ANATHEMA TO THEM, MARA SPELL-BREAKER. WHATEVER HERESY MAGIC IS TO THEM, YOU ARE A THOUSAND-FOLD WORSE.” He turned, capturing Mara with one arm around her shoulders, claws just delicately touching her shoulder. She knew they could rend the flesh from her bones in an instant, but she seldom feared Sammael.
The demon wanted her alive. Whether his reasons were as honest as he stated or not, she was very confident in that.
“THEIR ENTIRE DOMINATION IS BUILT UPON THE VERY IDEA THAT WHAT IS GIVEN TO GODS AND ANGELS IS NOT GIVEN TO MORTALS,” Sammael explained carefully. “IN A SINGULAR DISPLAY OF POWER, YOU COULD END THAT SUPPOSITION FOR THE ARROGANT DELUSION THAT IT IS.”
“Could another do as I do?” Mara asked, her nerves audible in her voice now.
“YOU ARE THE ONLY THAT HAS COME SINCE THE DAYS OF GODFALL,” Sammael said with his same, unshakable certainty. “I DO NOT KNOW IF YOU WILL ALWAYS BE THE ONLY, BUT AS OF NOW, THAT IS HOW IT IS. KEEP YOUR GIFT SECRET FROM THEM, MARA, UNTIL YOU ARE SAFELY AWAY. YOU ARE TOO PRECIOUS A THING TO DIE TO THEIR HUBRIS.”
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