Enter the realm . . .
Book One, The Death Wizard Chronicles
Only a Death-Knower can die. And live again.
Only a Death-Knower can return from death. And remember.
Only a Death-Knower can tell the world what he’s seen. Not all care to listen.
For a thousand years, none have rivaled the power of Torg, the Death-Knower wizard, as he ruled his people and kept peace on Triken.
Now a new threat has suddenly arisen. The evil sorcerer Invictus is greater even than Torg, and his greed and ambition threaten to engulf the land in eternal darkness. When Invictus imprisons Torg in a horrifying pit bored into the solid rock of a frozen mountain, the fate of Triken hangs in the balance.
Torg becomes freedom’s final hope, but first he must die to earn the victory.
Jim Melvin is the author of the six-book epic fantasy, The Death Wizard Chronicles. He was an award-winning journalist at the St. Petersburg Times for twenty-five years. As a reporter, he specialized in science, nature, health and fitness, and he wrote about everything from childhood drowning to erupting volcanoes. Jim is a student of Eastern philosophy and mindfulness meditation, both of which he weaves extensively into his work. Jim lives in Upstate South Carolina in the foothills of the mountains. He’s married and has five daughters. Visit him at www.jim-melvin.com and http://deathwizardchronicles.blogspot.com/.
"We have a masterful new fantasy writer on the scene…Melvin shows his literary mastery as he weaves elements of potential and transformation; his tale dances among literal shape shifters and more subtle powers of mind. Things are not what they seem on Triken." -- Ann Allen, The Charlotte Observer
"Forged in Death was beautifully written and a worthy
addition to the epic fantasy genre…promises to be truly world-shaking." -- Rob Steiner, The New Podler
"I was consistently pulled by the imaginative
fantasy of the characters and the metaphysical world created by Mr. Melvin…fast
paced with good action and always something new on the next page!" -- Martha Eskuchen, Martha’s Bookshelf
Such darkness he had never known. In all the centuries of his long life, the wizard had never felt anything as loathsome. Torturous days and weeks lay behind, endless horror ahead. He was helpless in the grip of an eternal doom.
For a millennium he had freely roamed the planet Triken, using his prodigious powers to unite the forces of good. But now a sorcerer held him captive in a pit bored into the solid rock of a frozen mountain. Beyond the walls of his prison, a war would soon take place that would dwarf all others. An evil had arisen that threatened not just Triken but the fabric that held together the universe. Only the wizard could stop it. But first he had to survive.
The pit was two hundred cubits deep but only three cubits in diameter. The prisoner lay curled at its bottom like a snake in a well. Fetid dankness swirled about him, creeping in and out of his nostrils as he breathed. A chill like no other clung to his body, freezing his heart. All he had left were his memories, which provided his only relief from the relentless blackness. He immersed himself in them, focusing on the past rather than the present. Doing this went against all that he held true. But now it kept him sane.
For a fraction of a moment. And another. And another . . .
The Noble Ones
In his mind the Death-Knower wizard replayed what had led to this hideous imprisonment. He fled to a land of fresh air and sunlight where courage and hope still existed. In this place he was known as Torg—king of the Tugars—and he led his desert warriors against Invictus, a sorcerer who threatened to ensnare the world in a prison as terrible as the pit.
Seventy-two days ago, Torg and twenty Asēkhas—the Tugars of highest rank—had set out from their encampment on the western edge of the Great Desert. As dawn approached, the desert warriors had walked across a dry ravine strewn with crumbled rock, their long strides barely disturbing the loose ground. Few living things noticed their presence. Even a tiny elf owl, hopping from stone to stone in search of beetles, never saw them pass, though its yellow eyes were clever and keen.
Many believed that Tugars were magicians capable of invisibility. Others considered them gods who were immortal in battle. Tugars knew invisibility was a state of mind: silence the mind, and the body became difficult to see. As for their perceived invincibility, Tugars trained under the guidance of Vasi masters for fifty years before attaining the rank of warrior. No greater fighters had ever existed. But they were not immortal.
In the fiery heat of late summer, the small band had traveled westward for three days, marching twenty-five leagues across the rocky wasteland of Barranca, which partially encircled the Tējo desert. At dusk of the third day, Torg and the Asēkhas finally passed through the wastes and into lowland choked with scrub. They scrambled over creosote bushes that stank like skunks and strode past giant sagebrush that stood thirty spans tall. If the task before them had not been so crucial, Torg would have had them stop and collect parts of both plants, which the Tugars used for medicines and dyes, and to weave hats and bags.
They camped that night in a remote hollow that was a three-day march from their destination: the city called Dibbu-Loka, the realm of the noble ones. All was quiet, and the Asēkhas slept, except for Torg and one other. The pair stood together on a nearby hillock—two imposing figures dressed in black. Curved swords hung at their hips.
"Lord, is your mind set?’’ Chieftain Asēkha-Kusala asked. He was the most powerful Tugar in the world besides Torg. "Must you remain with us on this mission? Your people need you more than does our small company.”
Torg stood with his back to Kusala, staring at the golden orb in the night sky. For the past several months the full moon had called to his heart in a confounding manner. He ached when he looked at it, a sensation that was sweet and sour. He didn’t understand why he’d begun to feel this way. It was unlike him. But he recognized this puzzling development as far too powerful and persistent to dismiss as mere imagination.
"My mind is set,” he said. "I am a Death-Knower. I have lived for a millennium, yet I have died a thousand times. The paradox makes me wise. Do you doubt it?” He turned to glare at Kusala, who was a shorter but slightly thicker man. "You have been at my side for centuries, chieftain. Do you doubt me?”
"Forgive me, lord,” Kusala said, his expression momentarily downcast and obedient. Even he, revered among the Tugars and throughout Triken, knew better than to oppose his king. "I meant no disrespect.” But then his countenance quickly changed, as was his custom. He lifted his gaze and his eyes glowed, bathed in the moon’s reflected light. "My love for you inspires my speech, and I fear for you.”
Torg smiled. He knew Kusala too well. The chieftain was preparing to give his king a spirited lecture.
"The rise of Invictus threatens Triken and its free people, but we have been slow to respond,” Kusala said, his voice rising. "Even the Tugars have stood like statues in this storm. If not for you, we already would have closed the doors of Tējo and vanished from the world, away from the young sorcerer’s grasp. But you have taught us that sloth would merely postpone our demise. Invictus grows strong beyond his merit, and those who would see goodness prevail depend on you more than ever. Who else but a Death-Knower can stand against a Sun God? Who else but you? And yet his soldiers prepare a trap. An obvious one. And you enter it . . . willingly.”
Torg allowed him to finish. Then he calmly said, "There has never been such a dangerous threat in our lifetime. And it comes from someone who—compared to you and me—is relatively young. But this has not stopped Invictus from surpassing us.”
Torg closed his eyes and breathed in the hot night air. He leaned against his walking staff, which was carved from the ivory of an immense desert elephant found dead of old age at the base of a dry lakebed. He had named the staff Obhasa, which in the ancient tongue meant container of light. An impressive weapon, Obhasa crackled with Torg’s own magic.
"Invictus’ armies, though powerful, are not yet invincible,” Torg continued. "But what of the sorcerer himself? Against him, I have not been tested. Still, as his might spreads throughout the land, my confidence diminishes.”
"All the more reason for you not to go to Dibbu-Loka,” Kusala said. "Let the Asēkhas rescue the noble ones. Return to the desert and await us there.”
"You are a brilliant chieftain,” Torg said. "But your vision can be short-sighted. You are underestimating the scope of Invictus’ malevolence. The noble ones of Dibbu-Loka believe there is only one way to defeat such malice. They say, ‘Hatred is never appeased by hatred. Hatred is appeased by love.’”
"They are a gentle and beautiful people,” Kusala said. "But they are helpless against such evil.”
"Helpless? Is a tree helpless against the wind? The wind blows and fades. The tree bends and remains. Kusala, there are those among the keepers of Dibbu-Loka who are far older than you or me. And they do not waste their long lives on meanderings. Instead they wisely use their time to learn the true nature of love and hate, good and evil, pleasure and suffering. What you mistake for helplessness is actually a deep understanding of what is and isn’t real.”
"You are right, lord. My vision is short-sighted. Their ‘deep understanding’ is beyond my comprehension.”
Torg chuckled. "Ah, Kusala, now it is my turn to say that I meant no disrespect. I do not intend to demean your courage or loyalty. It’s just that I have spent much time among the noble ones and have grown to cherish them. I could not bear to see such an intense and sincere people perish from the world. I would rather fail in an attempt to save them than not make the attempt at all. A trap? Of course. Do I enter it willingly? Yes. But you must trust that I am not without a plan.”
Again Torg looked at the moon. When he sighed, a bluish vapor flowed from his mouth, floating seductively in the thick air. Kusala flared his nostrils and inhaled, then visibly relaxed. Torg’s essence imbued a calming strength not unlike drunkenness, yet it wrought clarity instead of intoxication.
"You are my king,” Kusala said. "I would cast myself off Mount Asubha, if you but said the word.”
"Do not speak of Asubha,” Torg said. "The prison on the mountaintop is Invictus’ most terrible creation. I will beg the snow giants to cast it down, if we are able to defeat the sorcerer.”
Without further speech, Torg and Kusala strode back to the hollow where the others slept. This close to the Great Desert, they had little to fear.
Nevertheless, Torg knew that danger lay ahead, and it was greater than anyone else had yet begun to realize.
Three days later, Torg stood again with Kusala, this time on the precipice of an escarpment overlooking the temples of Dibbu-Loka. Although it was midday and the air was clear, they were far enough away to be undetectable to anyone within the holy city, enabling them to remain in the open and take their time studying the surroundings. Thousands of golden flashes burst from the three-cornered conurbation, resembling a wind-ruffled lake sparkling beneath a setting sun.
Two scouts made their way up the side of the cliff. Kusala was so eager to hear their report, he could hardly stand still. But Torg already knew much of what they would say. The flashes were reflections coming off the armor of the golden soldiers of Invictus. Invaders occupied the holy city.
Asēkhas Rati and Sōbhana, wearing black silk jackets tucked into their breeches, reached the roof of the escarpment and strode forward. Both were excellent scouts. Sōbhana, especially, was held in high regard. She stood a finger-length shy of four cubits, which was considered small for a Tugarian woman, but she was strong, limber, and could run almost as fast as a wolf.
Despite her well-documented prowess, Sōbhana, like many Tugars, was visibly intimidated by Torg’s presence. The Tugarian nation considered him to be not just a king, but a king of kings. Sōbhana had once told him she’d take out her dagger and slit her wrists, if he but commanded.
Torg, of course, would never demand such a heinous act. He loved Sōbhana like a little sister. Her nervousness amused him, and in less troubling times he would have teased her until she grew comfortable.
But there was no time for that now.
Sōbhana looked at Torg, and her face began to flush. She lowered her gaze.
"Speak,” Kusala demanded, with his typical impatience.
Rati stepped forward instead. "Dibbu-Loka is overrun. At least two thousand golden soldiers control the temples and surrounding walls. The monks and nuns offer no resistance. Daggers are held to every throat. Even a surprise attack by a thousand Tugars would save just a few of the prisoners. The soldiers would be easily defeated, but not before most of the noble ones were slaughtered.”
Kusala looked at Torg somberly, as if hoping to see some form of resignation that might indicate he would give up the mission.
But Torg paid the chieftain no heed, instead focusing on Sōbhana. "What say you?”
Sōbhana looked up, her cheeks still splashed with red. Though she opened her mouth and seemed about to speak, nothing recognizable came out.
"Sōbhana, are you a warrior or a child?” Kusala said. "Report to me, if not to your king.”
When Sōbhana turned toward the chieftain, her clumsiness vanished. Her cheeks remained flushed, but this time with anger. "It is worse than Rati reports,” she said. "One of their captains stands boldly on the upper steps of the main temple and calls over and over for The Torgonto come forth. He says they’ll sacrifice three monks and three nuns for every hour that passes, beginning at sundown of this day, unless our king enters the city and surrenders himself.”
"The captain claims our king is a traitor to the free people of Triken,’’ Rati added, "and that he must stand trial for his crimes before the seat of Invictus. He promises a just trial. The noble ones roll their eyes. Despite their predicament, they keep their sense of humor. They seem to have no fear. They are warriors, as well, it seems.”
"We could have killed the fool, we were so close,” Sōbhana said, "but it would have done little good. Rati and I suspected our approach was long witnessed, yet we were permitted to enter the city without resistance. It was too easy. Too many heads were turned in the wrong direction. They are poor soldiers, by our standards, but they are well-armed and all too capable of killing.”
Torg could sense that Sōbhana was holding something back—and so he continued to fix his gaze only on her. There was a period of silence finally broken by Kusala, who cleared his throat and touched Torg lightly on the shoulder. "What is it, lord?”
Torg twisted around and glowered. The chieftain hastily removed his hand from his shoulder. Torg grunted impatiently, then returned his gaze to Sōbhana. "You fear more than just a fool of a captain or his pathetic soldiers. I can sense it in your bearing. What do you keep from us?”
Sōbhana took a step back, then sighed. Her full lips trembled, ever so slightly. "I saw something else. Or I think I did.”
Kusala’s eyes almost bulged from their sockets. "Sōbhana.” He spoke so sharply that all the Asēkhas whipped their heads in his direction. "Tell us everything . . . now.”
Seemingly ignoring the chieftain, Sōbhana moved slowly toward Torg and then stood on her toes so that her mouth was just a span below his. Her features softened, and at that moment Torg saw her as startlingly beautiful, even by Tugarian standards.
Kusala was clearly amazed, perhaps perceiving her approach as a burst of arrogance, and he seemed prepared to discipline her.
But Torg waved him off. "Sōbhana . . . speak,” he said gently.
"Lord,” she said, "I saw something . . . someone . . . in the doorway at the top of the temple stairs. There was a deep shadow near the opening, and the sun’s glare prevented a clearer view. But I saw glints . . . or glows . . . that did not resemble the reflections off armor. Two figures loomed within, and one of them was huge—much larger than any of the soldiers, or monks and nuns. I believe, my lord, that it was the great monster we name Mala. And with him, a Warlish witch.”
Though he was born deep within the recesses of the desert Tējo, Torg had resided at Dibbu-Loka many times during his long lifetime, and he knew its history as intimately as anyone. Even as he made his way toward the city, he replayed what he had learned in his thoughts.
A greedy king had built the holy city ten thousand years ago to serve as his final resting place. King Lobha was to be buried in the center of the city in the bowels of a great pyramid. Lobha had originally named the city Piti-Loka, which meant Rapture World in the ancient tongue. The king had been a connoisseur of sexual gratification, especially when he forced it upon helpless victims.
The temples of Piti-Loka were adorned with a myriad of statues, carvings, and jewels. The exterior walls were sheathed in contrasting marbles, shimmering in an ever-changing variety of colors, depending on the time of day. The interior walls were slathered with erotic paintings of naked men, women, and children.
Because of his frequent atrocities, Lobha had acquired many enemies, and an army of Lobha’s vicious soldiers inhabited the inner grounds of the temple. But in truth, the king feared nothing except the demise of his own body, which had somehow retained its sexual prowess despite the feebleness of old age. His hands ruined many lives.
One fateful day, the king made the mistake of molesting and murdering a woman who had been captured during a slave-hunting expedition on the border of the Great Desert. She was a member of a mysterious tribe which dwelled within Tējo. Even as Lobha lay in the throes of ecstasy, and his chained victim breathed her last, the desert dwellers invaded the city. Though outnumbered ten to one, they routed Lobha’s army with ease and slew the king.
After that, Piti-Loka was renamed Dibbu-Loka, the ancient word for Deathless World. A remnant of the desert dwellers remained in the city for several years, allowing only peaceful people intent on goodness and charity to enter its walls. Their leader, a wizard of great renown, saw to it that Dibbu-Loka became a holy place. Thirty-three generations later, the trail of that wizard’s seed had led deep into the desert. A boy emerged that day during a birth so violent it killed his mother.
His father, an Asēkha Chieftain named Jhana, was devastated, as would be expected. But Jhana loved his newborn son, nonetheless, and he named the boy Torg, which meant Blessed Warrior. His proper name for ceremonial events was The Torgon.
In the current day, Dibbu-Loka remained an enchanted place. However, it was the monks and nuns who now resided there that made it special, not its desolate location. Dibbu-Loka rested atop a hill that rose out of dusty land pockmarked with canyons and ravines on ground almost as inhospitable as the desert that lay to the east.
The central shrine of Dibbu-Loka dominated the interior of the city. Bakheng, originally designed as King Lobha’s tomb, had been grandly built to match his excessive tastes. The pyramid contained three entryways leading to three main chambers. The top chamber was intended to house Lobha’s head, the middle his arms and torso, and the bottom his legs.
Now, other more wholesome uses had been found for these chambers.
Three smaller temples surrounded Bakheng, and hundreds of single-story buildings formed a triangular frame around these three. Originally built to house Lobha’s army, the chambers now were the residences of the five hundred monks and nuns who occupied the holy city.
All the other interior buildings of Dibbu-Loka were set amid courtyards linked by a maze-like pattern of paved causeways. The main causeway led from the grand entrance to the central shrine. Smaller roads scattered in unusual directions, often ending abruptly in empty pavilions, without doors or windows. Newcomers to Dibbu-Loka frequently became lost if they strayed off the main streets. The noble ones, of course, gently set them back on course. Torg, too, knew all the ways.
As the sun began to fall, he strode purposefully with the Asēkhas through the grand entrance, his pace solemn and hypnotic. Torg was dressed entirely in black, wearing a silk jacket belted tightly at the waist and tucked inside his narrow breeches. Cloth gaiters covered his calves. His hair, which hung to his shoulders, matched the color of his clothing. His tanned skin and blue eyes provided a startling contrast to his monochromatic outfit.
The Asēkhas looked almost identical to Torg. Tugars who had not crossbred with other races always had black hair and blue eyes, and most were between four and four and a half cubits tall, considerably taller than almost all of Triken’s humans. Sōbhana was shorter than most purebred desert warriors, but that made her no less dangerous in Torg’s mind.
When Asēkhas were adorned in black, they were in a killing mood. The desert warriors who had defeated King Lobha’s army had worn black, but while those warriors had been outnumbered ten to one, Torg and his Asēkhas now were outnumbered one hundred to one. Still, he wasn’t overly concerned.
Their first sighting of noble ones was not a pleasant experience. Golden soldiers had forced more than a dozen monks and nuns to stand along the roadside with daggers held to their throats. The soldiers grinned maliciously behind their plated helms, which glowed crimson in the fading light.
Some of the noble ones had trickles of blood on their white robes, but the monks and nuns did not appear to be afraid. Torg knew they did not fear death. In their perception it was as natural as breathing. Even so, they prized life above all things because it provided them with the opportunity to overcome suffering and achieve enlightenment, either in this existence or in one of the countless that followed.
Kusala walked on Torg’s right, one pace behind. Torg looked back and saw the chieftain’s eyes ablaze and tears streaking his dusty cheeks. If not for Torg’s steady presence, Kusala already might have lost control and succumbed to what the Asēkhas called frenzy, butchering any soldier within reach. Torg sensed the other Asēkhas also struggling to contain their fury. It was not inconceivable that the small band of twenty could kill all two thousand of their enemy, if they were given the time and enough room to maneuver.
"Remember your vows of obeisance,” Torg said in a loud voice, bending them to his will. The fate of the prisoners depended on it. "My order was clear. You must not act unless I command it.”
Several dozen enemy soldiers laughed, moving their daggers even closer to the throats of their prisoners.
"Yes, do not act unless the King of Death grants his permission,” a soldier said, his voice echoing in the otherwise silent streets. "He, at least, is wise enough to know that if you attacked, you would be cut down like helpless women.”
A dagger suddenly buried itself in a wooden pillar next to the soldier’s head. The blade hummed and quivered.
Torg shot Sōbhana a fiery look.
"I missed on purpose,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.
Several of the Asēkhas chuckled nervously.
Even Torg could not resist a wry smile. Then he raised his right hand and cried, "Kantaara Yodha tam! (A Desert Warrior calls!)” The dagger sprang from the pillar and spun through the air, its handle landing crisply in his palm. Torg noticed a tiny scratch near the tip of the blade before tossing it back to Sōbhana and then continuing onward.
The others followed, probably relieved that he had chosen to ignore her insubordination. They marched into the city’s depths, but as they neared Bakheng, Torg heard the captain’s dreaded mantra, which erased his brief mirth.
"Come, Torgon, or the killing will begin. Sundown approaches.”
"Come, Torgon, or the killing will begin. Sundown approaches.”
Torg ignored the chanting and continued to lead his Asēkhas up the main causeway toward Bakheng. He was relieved that the incident with the dagger had not caused a skirmish. He’d have to discipline Sōbhana, but it would have to wait for later. In truth, he probably wouldn’t follow through. He treasured her spirit and hoped she would someday bear children, continuing her precious bloodline. Though that too he doubted. More and more, his Tugars failed to proliferate. When needed most, their numbers dwindled. It had become especially troublesome the past one hundred years, coinciding with the birth of Invictus, whose evil had had a deadening effect that reached all the way to Anna, the Tugars’ Tent City in the heart of the desert.
More golden soldiers appeared along the road. Monks and nuns, each with a dagger less than a finger-length from their jugulars, were held on display. Without exception, the noble ones’ faces remained calm. During their many years of meditation they had studied all things—without prejudice. Death was an empty threat. They did not demand or expect rescue, but Torg refused to accept the sacrilege of such a slaughter. The noble ones were an invaluable counterbalance to Invictus, an antivenin to his toxic existence. Without their gentleness, the balance of power would irreversibly favor the sorcerer.
Torg struggled to contain his anger. He could hear the grinding of his own teeth. However, he had a plan that he would follow through success or failure.
Bakheng finally came into view. A thick formation of golden soldiers was arranged at the base of the huge pyramid. Several hundred more stood on the steep steps that led to the upper entrance, their swords drawn and their shields pressed to their chests. Archers lined the highest landing.
Torg and the Asēkhas marched to the bottom of the stairs. They looked upward—and beheld an abomination. An elaborate wooden bench had been placed on the balcony at the top of the shrine. Cruelly strapped to it was the High Nun of Dibbu-Loka.
Sister Tathagata, the Perfect One, was more than three thousand years old. But her eyes—ah, her eyes—were as clear as a child’s. Torg had spent many years with her in conversation and meditation. She liked to call him "young man” before throwing her head back and guffawing.
Her laughter was like a waterfall, pleasing more than just the ears. Torg felt insignificant in her presence. For Invictus’ minions to threaten her in this way was an insult against anything sane.
Someone had shoved a pewter funnel into Tathagata’s mouth, attaching it to her jaw with a leather strap. A bronze cauldron hung two cubits above her head. It contained a bubbling liquid. Even from where he stood, Torg could hear her gagging.
Torg sensed the cauldron’s contents. Molten gold—superheated by magic.
He was enraged. Swirling specks of bluish flame crept along his fingertips. Tiny sparks spun about his ears and nostrils. His hair floated and danced, as if electrified. He was a volcano about to erupt, but he knew that if Tathagata and the other noble ones were to survive, he would have to somehow remain calm until he enacted his plan.
The obnoxious captain stood next to Tathagata. He smiled wickedly. Torg smiled back.
At that moment, however, there were greater evils than the captain.
The Warlish witch, her face full of filth and fire, loomed over Tathagata. But she was not the worst. Not even close. Inside the dark entrance to the shrine stood the witch’s true master, an unholy being whose very presence in that sacred place was blasphemy—and it was on that creature that Torg now focused his formidable gaze.
The captain with the loud voice, seemingly unaware of his peril, walked to the edge of the balcony and leered down at Torg. Surrounded by archers and armor-clad soldiers, the annoying little man must have felt brave and powerful, believing that he was the one in control. But Torg saw him as nothing more than a mouthpiece.
"So, you have finally arrived,” the captain said. The timbre of his voice was the most impressive thing about him. "Thank you very much for taking your time, Desert Peasant. Did you walk here so slowly because your boots were full of sand? Or was it simply because your legs would not stop shaking?”
What happened next came as no surprise to Torg, for he had designed it to astound his enemies. But even the Warlish witch, who stood guard over Tathagata, seemed caught unaware. Suddenly Asēkha-Podhana was halfway up the stairs, standing amid a tight group of golden soldiers. The warrior let out a scream that rose in pitch to an impossible intensity, causing dozens of soldiers to tear off their helms and clench their ears. While the attention was focused on Podhana, there was a shuffling sound higher up, away from the diversion. The obnoxious captain cried out, and then his head sprang from his shoulders and tumbled all the way down the stairs—thump, thump, thump, thump, thump.
Podhana screamed again. All eyes returned to him. Meanwhile, something dark streaked down the stairs, quick as a fox.
Kusala stood next to Torg, flicking blood off the blade of his uttara.
Afterward there was much shouting and confusion. A slew of arrows rained down on the Asēkhas, but none were capable of penetrating Tugarian flesh.
Torg reached down and grabbed the captain’s head by its long yellow hair. He lifted it high in the air, its face still wearing an expression of disbelief.
"Mala, we could not abide this one,” Torg said. "His death was not negotiable. I’m sure you understand.”
For a moment everyone appeared unable to move. Evoking the name of Mala had stunned the gathering into silence. But in place of the monster, the Warlish witch stepped into view, and a noise far more unpleasant and painful than any scream Podhana could have conjured disrupted the eerie quiet.
In Torg’s perception it began as a low growl, like that of a large feline sighting prey, though it was interspersed with tiny cackles and high-pitched profanities. The bizarre mixture of sounds was designed to breed despair, as if confirming the worst fears of all living beings: Hell was the only true reality and eternal suffering the fate of all. The effect on the gathering was widespread. Several of the noble ones, temporarily freed from the grasp of their captors, bent over and vomited. Sōbhana and the other Asēkhas spat and reflexively drew their curved swords.
Kusala bared his teeth and growled in return, one dangerous beast squaring off with another. But Torg held up his hand, as if to stay them all.
When he spoke, the spell was broken—at least enough to relax the Asēkhas. "I did not come all this way ‘with sand in my boots’ to deal with the likes of you,” Torg said to the witch. "Let your master show himself. He is the only one here worthy of my regard.”
Despite Torg’s bold words, the witch did not appear dismayed. Mucus squirted from her nostrils and fell to the stone at her feet, smoking and sizzling. She stomped to the edge of the balcony and kicked the captain’s headless body off the platform. It flew sideways and tumbled halfway down the stairs before crumpling in a bloody heap.
Those nearby backed away in disgust.
"Youuuu,” she purred, pointing a finger at Torg. "I come for youuuu.”
To Torg, the words themselves were harmless, even comical. But there was a madness in the way she uttered them that seemed to cause nervousness and trembling among most in attendance. The witch’s eye sockets were empty, but they blazed with rancid light. Her scraggly hair was gray, and it danced on her head like a tangle of snakes. Worst of all she stank, as if long decayed. Torg could smell her even from where he stood. The soldiers could not abide her, and they fled the balcony and scrunched together on the lower stairs. Only the witch remained—with Sister Tathagata lying beneath her on the wooden bench.
The hideous thing put a gnarled hand on one of the nun’s small breasts and squeezed. Tathagata made no sound. If she was afraid she did not show it.
"Are you rrrready?” the witch said to Torg. "Are you rrrready for me? It’s time for some fun.”
Though Torg did not move or blink, the witch began to laugh.
Sōbhana lifted her hand, as if to throw her dagger again. But the witch was too quick. When she raised her skinny arms there was a flash, followed by a violent boom and a cloud of black smoke. The air cleared slowly. Where a monster had once stood, there now was a woman of incalculable beauty. She still wore a ragged dress, but on her it looked, even to Torg, like a priceless gown. Intoxicating green eyes filled the once-empty sockets, and waist-length auburn hair replaced the tangled gray. A perfume as sweet as spring spread outward in waves, enriching the air and making the fear and hopelessness of a few moments ago feel like a foolish misunderstanding. The soldiers, now entranced, raced back to the balcony and bowed low.
Chal-Abhinno, queen of whores, stood before the gathering. Like all her kind, Chal had two forms: one hideous, the other excruciatingly beautiful. The far-more pleasant version now stared down at Torg.
When Chal smiled, hearts raced, and men began to sweat. Her allure appeared to weaken even the Asēkhas. Sōbhana covered her face. Torg wondered if she felt ugly in comparison. Kusala seemed puzzled and looked at Torg as if seeking guidance.
Torg clenched his left hand in a fist. His right held his walking staff in a death grip. Obhasa’s white ivory glowed, causing the air to crackle.
The next move belonged to Torg. All others waited and wondered.
Torg turned to Kusala and then to the rest of the Asēkhas. "I have forgiven Sōbhana, for now,” he said softly enough so that his words were barely audible to anyone not standing nearby. "If you wish to mistake that for weakness, so be it. But starting now, I will forgive nothing. Any of you who disobey me will suffer at my hands. The stakes are high. Do you doubt it?”
Only Sōbhana answered. "It is I who faltered, lord. We . . . I . . . will not fail you again. We . . . I . . . do not doubt you.”
"That remains to be seen,” Torg said. "But I say this only once more. Stay where you are until it becomes clear that I need you. You may defend yourselves, if you are attacked. And if I’m destroyed, you may kill any and all that you choose. Otherwise, do not act, other than to shield innocents from harm.”
Not even Kusala protested. Torg’s tone had achieved its desired effect. He’d tried to lead with respect, rather than intimidation. This was different—and not open for debate.
Torg turned back to the stairs. "May I come up?” he said to the witch.
Chal smiled, exposing teeth white as milk. She spread her arms wide. With the coming of dusk an enchanting breeze had arisen, causing her now-lovely hair to swirl enticingly about her slim shoulders.
"Of coursssse, Torgon. You and I need to get to know each other. Let the others bide their time while we discuss matters that are beyond them. If you are reasonable, all of thissss (she waved a hand at Tathagata) will become unnecessary.”
"Very well,” Torg said. He bounded up the steps five at a time, and soon stood face to face with Chal. His quickness stunned several guards, who rumbled forward to contest him, but the witch ordered them off.
"Back!” Chal said, and her voice temporarily took on its former hideousness. Then she regained her composure and became sweetly seductive. "The Torgon is our guesssst. Give him room to stand.”
Torg still held Obhasa. The staff vibrated wildly, as if struggling to contain a bolt of lightning within its dense fibers. Torg leaned down so that his nose was just a finger-length from hers. Her physical beauty was the greater, Torg knew, but it was artificial.
"I find it tedious to repeat myself,” Torg said, slowly enunciating each word. "But if I must, I must. I did not come here to bandy words with a witless whore. Invite your master to show himself.”
The smile on Chal’s face was replaced by a snarl of such vehemence, even her beauty was scarred. Black smoke oozed from the pores of her skin. Her green eyes faded to gray and then white. Her transformation from hideousness to beauty had come with fire and smoke, but this transformation—from beauty back to hideousness—was slow and cruel.
Her skin bubbled and popped. Strand after strand of auburn hair curled and turned gray. The lithe muscles of her tanned arms became lumpy and gruesome. The perfume grew sour, bitter and rotten. The golden soldiers fled her presence.
Torg did not flee.
Chal growled and swept a clawed hand at his face. The force of the blow could have shattered a pillar, but he easily caught her wrist and twisted her arm downward.
The witch yelped and dropped to her knees. Acidic tears fell from her eyes, hissing on the stone.
While continuing to grip her arm, Torg knelt and whispered in her ear. "You are not my match, but at the moment you are also not my concern. Despite what you have done to Sister Tathagata, I will give you one chance. Submit now and live. You and I will cross paths again, I believe.”
"Bastard,” she said. "Basssstard!”
Torg pressed Obhasa’s rounded head against the small of her back. Where it touched her, blue flames arose. "Submit. Or I will end your life. Not even your master will be able to save you.”
"I . . . will . . . not.”
Torg stood and lifted her by her arm. Then he flung her in the air. Chal spun off the balcony and appeared headed to her death, but Torg knew it would not be that easy. The witch landed with the deftness of a cat about fifteen steps below the upper platform. There she crouched on all fours—a vile beast full of hate—and glowered at him. Crimson beams sprang from her empty eye sockets, scorching the stone at his feet. Red flames spat from her mouth and swirled about the wooden bench that held Tathagata. Before the flames could take hold, Torg touched the bench with his staff. Blue liquid spilled over the wood, extinguishing the fire.
"I will kill youuuu . . .” Chal screamed. And then she scrambled down the rest of the steps with the speed of a hunted animal, rushing past the Asēkhas in a torrent of smoke.
Kusala or Sōbhana could have struck her with their swords, but Torg knew they dared not move, more fearful of his wrath than hers. Chal was a formidable creature, the greatest of all the Warlish witches. But as Torg had said, she was not his match. Chal would have to bide her time.
The golden soldiers and the Asēkhas remained still as stones. The brief struggle between Torg and Chal seemed to have engrossed all who watched—even the noble ones, who had not tried to escape though their captors were temporarily preoccupied. Torg reached down and with one bulky hand broke the leather straps that pinned Tathagata to the bench. He gently removed the funnel from her mouth. With a mere fraction of effort he lifted the tiny woman—who was barely a third his weight—up and away from the precariously balanced cauldron, then set her carefully on her feet. The High Nun staggered briefly before regaining her balance.
Tathagata smiled and started to speak, but then her tongue froze in her mouth, and her eyes grew wide. Torg had never seen her react so strongly to anything. He turned around ever so slowly and faced the dark entrance of the shrine’s upper chamber. The figure that had long lurked there, watching the proceedings from the shadows, slowly emerged.
Finally, Mala deigned to make an appearance.