Sarthas cracked the knuckles of his left hand, he was seated on a sizable gray rock with a rough, hardscrabble surface and a faint coating of green moss on one side. On his lap sat a cut strip of wood to which he’d secured a large, hand length thorn. A series of red scribe leaves were pierced on the thorn and kept in place, while closer to his body sat a fresh leaf ready for use. ‘It’s uncanny luck that a few of the trees I need for these leaves grow here… it would be so much harder if I had to just ‘remember’ everything…’ He thought while he let the humans stew in their fear of his silence for a minute or two.
In front of him were the two prostrate humans, the male and female bonded pair chosen especially by Lord Sadrahan.
He looked them over for what had to be the hundredth time, ‘Why did Sadrahan choose these two out of all of the others? There appears to be nothing special about them. Am I missing something? Of course, none of the captives seem special now… maybe that is what I’m supposed to realize?’ Sarthas wondered if he might have cut to the quick on that thought.
He took a heavy breath and told himself, ‘Perhaps I’ll know more when I actually ask them things.’ It was barely enthusiastic enough to be called optimism, but he clung to it as best he could.
“Where do you come from?” He asked at last, his voice was kept low, not as a whisper, but rather calm and focused, his sharp red eyes focused in on the pair who trembled under his glare.
“The city of Guzali. In the Kingdom of Seven Hills.” The male of the pair answered, daring enough to raise his head to speak, though he otherwise remained prostrate on all fours.
Behind the pair, the captive humans were busy chopping wood and preparing fields for sowing, darting glances, envious glances as far as Sarthas was concerned, toward the pair. Though they did not look for long as Batagan stood over them with a furious, hate filled glare, every time he cleared his throat, the glances vanished and the captives resumed their work with renewed vigor.
Other demons worked around them, but none too close. And moreover, none very well. ‘They’re still, no, we are still, all getting our strength back… but it won’t be long before we’re ourselves again.’ Sarthas thought with relief, and scratched out the name of the city.
“The Kingdom of Sevenills. What is a Kingdom and why is it called that?” Sarthas asked, and the two humans blinked.
“It’s a place ruled by a King or a Queen, that has a bunch of cities and towns, like your… your demon lord. Seven Hills has five cities, and we come from Guzali.” The male answered him again and swallowed uncomfortably, “I- We haven’t been to any other city though.”
“It’s true!” The human female protested and lowered her forehead into the dirt. “We’re just peasants from the city’s poor district! We… We don’t know much of anything about the other places!”
Sarthas grunted out a noncommittal noise, but inside he was near panic. ‘Five cities?! If each one is worth one hundred villages…’ The thought of so many humans in one place was enough to cause him to snap the thorn he held. He cursed, and the humans inched back from him a little while still remaining prostrate, scraping their bodies along the hardscrabble dirt until he shortened his grip on the remains of the thorn and addressed the pair again.
“How do you feed so many?” Sarthas asked, that was the real question, the most prominent question in his mind.
“Some… don’t get food.” The younger female answered, she raised her head and blinked back tears, “It wasn’t uncommon for us to go hungry… but, I think, well, ah, each city, the lords rule over towns and villages, and those give food to the cities in exchange for protection from the cities.”
“Protection?” Sarthas asked, his pointed ears pricked up. “From what?”
“Demons, elves, dwarves, giants, things like that, The priests say. And bandits. And monsters. And the cities make things that villages can’t.” The male replied and flicked his eyes away. “And themselves… a village can’t fight a town, let alone a city.”
“Priests?” Sarthas felt his attention sharpen, ‘Batagan mentioned hearing about priests when down in the pit.’
“Yes. The priests of Amulial, the God of cities, prosperity, and war.” The male answered.
“War? What is war?” Sarthas asked and scratched out the word on the leaf.
“You… you lost your village, sir?” The woman asked, blinking back teary eyes, “and our… we lost ours to you? That fighting is war. Taking land, things, money, people… taking whatever you want and killing everyone who tries to stop you… that is war.”
The male of the pair gritted his teeth, his shaking ceased to be of fear, changing into anger, he hadn’t the will to rise to his feet, but he did raise his head, “Why do you have to mock us like this?! You took us prisoner… you have us at your mercy! Your Demon Lord already knows all this! He must! We heard on the way back about how he killed all the soldiers sent out to chase the first group down! How he carried the prisoner back and made the soldiers bend to him! Why are you making us talk like children if he already knows all this?!”
Sarthas was briefly surprised, his jaw opened and bared teeth, but no words came out, the work taking place not far away, demon and human alike, stopped. ‘And no wonder… I hadn’t heard this story yet…’
He jumped on it. “Tell me the story! I haven’t heard what happened!” Sarthas’s ears flicked toward them and his wild eyed expression took the humans briefly aback.
The woman put her hand on her companions head and forced him down in apology, and rather than risk another outburst, she hastened to explain without even apologizing for what her mate had done, unaware that her voice had risen several octaves and was heard in whole or in part by many, and equally unaware that those who couldn’t hear clearly, quickly found excuses to put themselves close enough that they did.
When it was over, Sarthas nodded his head, any anger that might have been brought on by the male’s outburst was well and truly gone, but in its place was a profound sense of inadequacy. He hung his head, “It must be as you say, human. He must know more than he says to us. But I tell you now, I do not know these things. Maybe he tells me to ask so that I learn about them. Maybe this is just his way of showing mercy to your worthless hides and sparing your lives by pretending you have some use. If it were left up to all of us, you would be dead. You owe your lives to the Demon Lord.” He leveled a white tipped claw toward them both, “You would be wise not to forget that. Answer my questions without complaint, and when he shows himself again I will tell him you were obedient.”
The pair lowered their faces to the dirt again with their hands cast forward and palms pressed flat, “I- We understand. Forgive my stupid outburst… I’ll tell you everything I can, I swear it. It-It won’t happen again, that shouting, I mean, I won’t do it, I promise.” The male said in a hoarse whisper.
“Swear it on your names. You have that tradition, don’t you?” Sarthas asked.
The pair nodded as much as keeping their heads to the ground allowed. “We do.” The woman replied to him and clenched her jaw.
“By my name, Shala…”
“By my name, Klemet…”
“I swear to obey the will of the Demon Lord, to speak the truth in peace and never raise hand or word against him or his servants. And may the gods strike us dead if we should disobey.”
“Good enough.” Sarthas said and scratched down his notes, “Now, tell me more about how this city works… what does it produce, what does it need… where does it get the things it needs… reveal everything and every function, down to the last nail you’ve ever seen, leave nothing out, no matter how trivial it seems.”
“If I may… when was the last time she left this cave?” Liln asked, and for once, Sadrahan turned his eyes away from his infant, though it wasn’t toward her, but rather the entrance to the wide cavern he’d made into his home.
“She hasn’t.” He answered, “Now that you mention it, she hasn’t.” He reiterated and scratched his horn, “She sleeps here in the stone, and there’s nothing out there but danger so I-” He thought in silence after cutting off his own sentence, then shrugged, “I just haven’t taken her out there.”
“You should.” Liln said and put her left hand on her hip, she leaned forward toward him and looked up, then pointed from him to her with her right hand’s sharp foreclaw, “A child needs sunlight, they need fresh air, they need to feel the wind. Are you going to keep her trapped here in the cave forever with nothing but a green glow for light and the noise of dripping water for music?”
“But there are humans out there.” Sadrahan pointed out.
“And if they cause a problem, you’re strong enough to kill them. And every demon out there would take their lives for you or for themselves at one word from you. There’s no real danger in a little time out there, besides, it will be winter soon and nobody will be going anywhere.” Liln’s stern face softened a little, the left corner of her dark lips turned up a little and her eyes seemed to dance a little. “Besides, who knows what she’ll remember? It’s beautiful out there, let her experience it. Or do you want her to only ever know this cave?”
“No… no, I suppose I don’t.” Sadrahan said, and before his eyes the fire and flame of his burning home, his wife’s final words, returned again. The cracking noise that preceded the collapse of the roof of his home and crushed the life from her body was like thunder that only he could hear.
“But I can take her out later. Not now. No… not now. She needs her rest, you just fed her after all, and thank you for that.” Sadrahan answered and after clinging to Lamashi for a moment more, he lay her back down into the stone bassinet, and she quickly drifted off to sleep, her red eyelids must have been heavy, since though she struggled to keep them open, they closed anyway.
The Demon Lord covered her with the goat fur again and flicked one finger against the ruby necklace that hung above where she slept, watching it sway back and forth, Sadrahan’s back was to Liln.
Liln held out her hand for a moment, halfway to his back, then drew it back, and then thrust it forward so that her palm was high up on his shoulder, where his wings would open up to let him fly.
“I clung to Assamo, too. Just like you do Lamashi.” Liln said with a tender, half broken voice, she took a tiny step closer to her rescuer. “But he’s outside working right now… you can’t protect her forever. You know that, don’t you?”
“Yes. I can. And I will.” Sadrahan didn’t look back at Liln when he said it, “I’ll never… ever let anything happen to her. No one will put her into a pit. No one will ever put a blade to her wings. I won’t let them. I won’t. And I don’t care what it takes to keep that promise.” Sadrahan’s talons closed into the stone, gripping it as firmly as his remembrance gripped him.
Liln was quiet, not because she could think of nothing to say, but because beneath the sound of his every resolute word, she was aghast. ‘That sound…’ She leaned to the right and looked down at the source.
The Demon Lord’s claws were ripping through the stone as easily as Sarthas’s claws opened up the leaves he used to take notes. ‘That’s… impossible… isn’t it?’ She wondered as the claws ripped in deep, cracked… and broke off in his hands.
Sadrahan suppressed all sounds of his wrath and cast the broken pieces of rock away into the depths of the underground lake, a splash went up, rising several feet into the air and coming down again to splatter and disturb the still waters again.
Without thinking, Liln went down to one knee and bowed her head. “My Lord, do you… have a command?”
That snapped him back to reality, and Sadrahan said the only thing that came to mind… “Just get ready for a long winter… and go bring me Sarthas, I want to know what he’s learned from the humans.”
“At once.” Liln quipped, rose, and left Sadrahan alone again in the cave with his daughter.