Lush, untamed fields gently sloped to a pristine lake where sunlight shimmered on crystalline water. Thick groves of lunalist trees grew at the edges of the field, their leaves stirred in the breeze and filled the air with the scent of vanilla and clove. Beyond the trees, steep hills defined the lake basin, rising to taller cliffs and a waterfall at the far end of the lake. It was no wonder the Advisors ordered a new lodge built here. Standing at the water’s edge, Tassark took a moment to admire the beauty of the area before turning back to his duties.
A dozen tall, slender people silently worked clearing large rocks and shrubs from the site. They kept their heads down, only looking up to cast glances at the watching guards or the tall post and chains erected in the middle of the clearing. Their ragged clothes did nothing to cover the bruises left from their subjugation, and all bore angry red scars and blistered skin where tuned hermodric was implanted to hinder their magic.
Pacing the site, Tassarks’s eyes fell on a dark-haired woman currently digging at the roots of a bush. Like the others, she kept her head bowed, but her back was straight and her jaw was clenched. Whereas the others shivered with fear and fatigue, she trembled with rage, and pure loathing burned in her eyes when she glanced at him.
The Advisors cautioned him about using slaves for the project. The lake was a Sprytath holy site, so maybe he should use Alfath workers instead? But the lodge was to be a surprise for Amarrah and the mutters of slaves were less likely to reach her ears. He assured them he would take extra precautions against Sprytath anger and ensured there would be nearly as many guards as slaves.
And it was because of these precautions that the woman must be punished. He couldn’t risk an unbroken slave riling the others. He summoned one of the guards and nodded to the woman.
She was expecting it. As soon as Tassark nodded towards her, the woman threw down her shovel and strode, head held high, to the post. She kept her eyes on him as the guard locked manacles about her wrists and yanked on the chains to pull her hands up over her head until she had to stand on her toes.
Work around the site halted as Tassark ordered the rest of the slaves rounded up. He walked over to the post and studied the prisoner. “You already know there is a price for defiance. Your scars testify to that. You think you can take whatever punishment I give you. You tell yourself it won’t be as high as the cost of giving up your pride.”
He snapped his fingers, and guards pushed into the gathered slaves to drag forward two others. It was nearly impossible to tell a Sprytath’s age by looking at them, but the man appeared to be barely more than a boy while the woman appeared much older. “I wonder if your pride will also comfort those who will pay the cost for your insolence?”
“No!” The woman strained against her chains. “They’ve done nothing wrong! Punish me instead!”
“They are completely innocent,” Tassark agreed. “And because of your defiance, he will die slowly and she will die in slowly and in agony.” He looked to the guard holding the old woman. “Proceed.”
At Tassark’s order, the old woman pulled away from the guard holding her and turned to the post. “Aerin!” She stood up straight and held her close fist to her chest.
Instead of trying to recapture the old woman, the guard stretched a hand out towards her. A pale blue glow appeared around the woman and she gasped for air. The guard began to close his fingers, and she fell to her knees, clutching at her throat.
“Careful,” Tassark cautioned. “We want her conscious.” He looked to the other guard standing with the young man. “Continue.”
Unable to pull away from his guard as well, the young man called out in loud, clear voice.
Tassark never bothered to learn the Sprytath language, but the flowing words brought tears to Aerin’s eyes. He snapped his fingers in irritation at the guard holding the young man.
The guard drew a knife, and a purple glow formed around the blade as he yanked the slave’s head back to expose his neck. The young man repeated his phrase, the words faltering only briefly as the guard flicked his knife to open a small but deep cut in the slave’s throat.
The purple glow seeped into the wound, and the young man stiffened. His voice faded, but he still mouthed the words as he visibly withered.
Tears rolling down her cheeks, Aerin brokenly took up the young man’s recitation as his cheeks grew hollow. Her gaze never left him until after all light had left his eyes and he slumped lifelessly in the guard’s arms.
The guard let the young man drop to the ground. He held a hand over the body, and the purple glow rose up from the open wound to form an orb of light in the guard’s hand. The guard focused on the orb and it burst into a ball of flame which he hurled at the old woman.
The flames engulfed the old woman but then sunk into her, continuing to burn her from within. Unable to get enough air to scream, the woman writhed on the ground.
The gathered slaves watched in mute horror, too afraid to look away.
A blinding white flash burst around the old woman breaking the spells and knocking out the casters. The old woman wept as she curled up on her side on the ground.
The gathered slaves began to shift and murmur, but quickly quieted as the remaining guards moved forward.
“Who did that?!” Tassark snarled and turned to Aerin. “You?”
Her gaze still on the dead young man, Aerin shook her head. She turned solemn eyes on the foreman. “There is a price to pay for defiling holy sites.”
As if awaiting for her pronouncement, everything stilled: the breeze died; the water calmed; the buzzes and chirps of insects quieted.
The song began with a lone male voice.
It wend through the trees, rippled through the grass, danced over the water. More voices joined in, each singing a different part, the lines entwining and passing through one another. The song bounced off the hills and echoed off the cliffs, building in intensity and power until the lake itself seemed to vibrate with music and the air crackled with magic.
His mouth dry with fear, Tassark croaked a warning to his guards to ready for an attack. Though his words were drowned by the song, he felt a brief pang of hope when he saw his forces drawing blades and preparing spells. The song reached its crescendo and another bright flash dazzled Tassark. His vision cleared to reveal the worksite surrounded by men and women wearing the armor of the Sprytath temple guards.