Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Seventh Circle by Todd Cheney




The Summoning

The red robes of the Anointed One flowed out behind him as he swept down the long, dismal hallway. It had been some time since he had visited this part of the dark keep he called home. Duties and responsibilities had kept him away from this part of the castle for several months. There were many troubles for him, the leader of his Order.

Screams echoed through the barren corridors. Creaking gears and snapping whips always preceded the screams. Mal Tarsis, the Anointed, smiled darkly. He could remember long nights when he had personally tortured the prisoners. He used to relish in their pleas for mercy. He used to savor in their cries. Now he spent most of his time keeping power over the Order firmly in his hand.

He passed several torches, which flickered in a cold draft that seemed to emanate from nowhere. He would stop when he reached the deepest part of the dungeon, the part closest to the center of the earth, the only place where the rite could be done properly. The rite could and would give him the power he needed to achieve his ultimate goal.

When he came to a solid steel door he saw that its bolt and chain were rusted through. But Mal Tarsis knew there existed other ways. After all, he had been to the levels below the dungeons before, if only to prepare for this night.

He stopped in front of the door. Another of the Order passed him in the hallway behind him. The acolyte gave a respectful nod, proper when encountering the Anointed of the Black Order. The acolyte's robes were black and his hood hung on his shoulders. From the shadows of his own raised hood, the red-robed Mal Tarsis could see fear in this pupil's gray eyes. The acolyte should be with escort. Unacceptable, especially this far below the student quarters. Mal Tarsis let this triviality slide, however. More important things lay ahead.

With a magical gesture of his hands, the bolt and chain flew off the door. Mal Tarsis swung the door wide to allow a cloud of dust into the corridor. He covered his mouth to stifle a slight cough. He then proceeded into the dark, dusty hallway.

He had taken only a few steps after shutting the door behind him when torchlight appeared ahead. That would be Demtry, his assistant for the rite and one of his most trusted friends. He would have already brought the subject, a prisoner that Mal Tarsis had chosen only two hours earlier. The final preparations must be completed soon. The time drew near.

Waiting for Demtry to reach him, Mal Tarsis went over the preparations for the rite in his head. The subject would be tied to the altar with only the most exquisite cords of silk. He would be naked but for a loincloth. The room would be lit by four red candles. One for each direction and each placed on their respective compass points. A circle of specially prepared herbs would first be drawn around the altar, and another around the candles. The candles would stand between the altar and the outer circle. Only the beginning.

Demtry stood directly ahead of him now. His silver-white hair fell to his shoulders, a significant contrast to his own raven black locks and beard. Demtry's black eyes held their usual amused look. He seemed to think the world a joke. Mal Tarsis could only imagine how many doomed souls had gazed into those dark pools in their final moments. The black robes Demtry wore were laced with his own personal symbols and wards, as were most within the Order.

“All is well, master. The altar is ready,” Demtry said.

“Let’s go then.”

The two robed men walked in silence the rest of the way down the dusty hall. They reached a spiral staircase. This had once been the passage to an escape tunnel that would take one out beyond the walls of the keep in times of siege. The staircase, the tunnel and what lay beyond served no purpose now. At least not until Mal Tarsis had rediscovered it and the ancient rite.

The staircase wound down and down as the two men traveled on, neither speaking. Torchlight from Demtry’s brand flickered eerily off the walls. Spiders and other creatures of the dark skittered away at their passing and then silently reappeared. Every so often, one man or the other would reach up and brush thick cobwebs away. But still they did not speak. They had both prepared extensively for this night and there would be only one chance to get it right. The tension ate away at their patience.

Demtry reached the bottom of the stairs first. Here, the stonework ended with a rotten door that had fallen off its hinges long ago. Beyond the door could be seen a small grotto just at the edge of the torchlight. Here they would perform the rite.

A stone slab rested in the center of the grotto. A man lay atop the slab. He wore little but the silk cords that bound him to it. The four red candles were in their proper places and lit. The herb circles had already been drawn.

The bound, naked man looked up toward the two robed men as they approached him. The silk held him so tight only his head could move. “Let me go!” he shrieked. He struggled against the silken cords, but they held fast.

Mal Tarsis reached the altar and produced a razor sharp, curved blade from beneath his robes. The knife had a white bone hilt and its polished shine reflected the candlelight. He ignored the man, for he was a maggot compared to the Anointed of the Black Order. After all, he had offered a choice to this man two hours ago. Become like the others of the Order and serve them in every respect or die tonight. Of course, the man had not expected his fate to come like this. But as far as Mal Tarsis knew the rite required a willing victim.

Stepping carefully over the two circles of herbs, Mal Tarsis brought the knife up before him then slowly slid it down the chest of the man lying on the stone slab. He used the flat of the blade so as not to harm the subject before it was time. As he did so he smiled beneath his beard. And seeing renewed fear in the man's eyes, his emotion heightened.

“The book! Demtry, bring me the book!” the red-robed warlock exclaimed. He had waited for his chance to show them, and now it had all come to this. Either he would succeed tonight or he would die, would rather die. There were no thoughts of going back and no room to fail. He twitched the knife in his hand.

Demtry leaned over and retrieved a large leather bound volume from the floor where it had been stored. Long-forgotten archaic runes and symbols covered it. From this book the rite had come. Mal Tarsis had found the book in one of the less used parts of the castle. He had slipped on the rug in an old study. And there, on the bottom shelf of the case, lay the dusty tome. It was right in front of his face, as if someone had wanted him to find it. Out of curiosity he had decided to take a look at this new treasure. Most of the spells and ceremonies that covered its cracked yellow pages were too mundane to be of much use to him. All but this one.

Demtry stepped over the two herb circles and then to the altar in near imitation of his master a moment before. The large dusty volume he put forward with both hands. Mal Tarsis received it, and Demtry withdrew from the circles. He would now watch and wait, ready to seal the cave if anything went wrong.

Mal Tarsis laid the book on the ground before the altar. He then knelt before it and opened it to a marked page. The bindings creaked with age as they always did. He remembered long nights poring over this tome just to decipher the ancient dialects within it. He found it strange that he had slaved so many long hours over this book. But he always knew there had to be something in it, something that would give him the power that was rightfully his. If he succeeded in this ceremony tonight, then nothing could stand in his way.

Kneeling before the altar, he laid the curved blade atop the book so that it balanced over the pages. The first part of the ceremony would imbue the blade with the proper powers and nuances.

He read aloud from the book, could hear nothing but his own voice now. The man's cries and pleas were a distant dream. He saw nothing but the aged, yellow pages and his hands as he followed the lines of text. He had to concentrate.

“With the soul of fire I consecrate you,

With the stone of earth I will create you,

Take from him his, which is not his,

Take from him life, and give him this.”

Mal Tarsis rose from the ground after reading these words. The knife took on a reddish hue. Everything was going according to plan. Yet he had barely begun. Sweat began to bead on his forehead.

The next part of the rite would be the most difficult. He would read aloud the passages from the book while he made the proper cuts in the subject's body. But he had to finish the incisions before the candles burned halfway to the floor. If the candles were to burn out before the rite was over, even one of them, then his life and his very soul would be forfeit to the demon conjured.

The Anointed had deemed it necessary to memorize this part of the rite. He would then chant the words while he cut open the helpless victim. He began to speak as he placed the point of the blade in the crevice between the rib cage and the neck.

“Let him be that which you choose.”

He made a cut directly from the point where he had originally placed the knife down to the area just above the groin. A second or two passed before blood began to fill the gap. The victim no longer struggled or pleaded as he had before. His eyes stared forward in blind terror.

“To lay yourselves inside his noose,

And make his shell your shell.”

As he chanted these words, he made two more cuts, one down each leg to above the foot. Despite the wounds, the victim must live through the rite. The spirits, which would soon occupy the victim's mortal body, needed living, breathing flesh in which to function. Without the mortal soul to feed upon, the spirits from the Lands of Death would strike at anyone in the general area and destroy them.

Mal Tarsis edged his way to the head of the altar. The final, most important, cut neared. He laid the blade across the man's throat. With a dark elation, the warlock drew the knife from one side to the other. As he did so, he spoke again.

“I summon thee, oh timeless ones.”

The warlock bolted from the center of the circles. To remain within would be suicide. Soon the tortured souls would bridge the gap between the Lands of Death and the mortal world. The outer circle of herbs protected the summoner and any others present from the souls of the damned.

As he reached the outer edge of the second circle of herbs, Mal Tarsis glanced at the red candles. The candles had not been very tall to begin with. They were almost three quarters down now. He must finish the spell quickly.

He tucked the knife away in a fold of his cloak. He threw back the hood of his robe and lifted his arms to the ceiling. A mist of swirling gray clouds had begun to form there. An eye formed in the cloud directly above the stone slab with the bleeding victim. Although the mist seemed to be fog driven into a funnel by a wind, the phantom wind did not touch the candles' flames or the two warlocks at all.

“Come from the lands you know,

Come from the hands of fate,

To live again and breathe again,

To destroy those which you would hate.”

The final part of the conjuration came. The words that the red-robed summoner had just spoken would draw the souls from within the cloud now swirling above the altar. The warlock watched as faces began to appear in the mist. Their features contorted with soundless screams, and melded in and out of the gray funnel. Only the whiteness of their countenance distinguished them from the cloud.

“Take his body I command you,

But obey me I demand you,

Or the darkness again will you know.”

With the incantation finished, the Anointed spread his hands out before him toward the victim bound to the altar. The souls that swirled inside the cloud had begun to flow smoothly into the man's body through the cuts that had previously been made in his skin. The first soul entered the body of the half-dead subject, and he roared to life with a shriek that pierced the ears of the other two.

The tortured souls dove from the cloud into the mortal body of the unconscious man. They poured in and filled out his wiry frame. The bloody shape writhed in a pool of dark red liquid upon the stained stone slab. His face twisted and spasmed, as did the rest of his body. He grew in stature as the wispy phantoms came faster and faster. His muscles bulged and the features of his body took on a primitive look. His skin exuded a reddish hue, not a glow exactly, but a sheen of darkness.

While the newborn demon servant convulsed, the funnel disappeared. The candles winked out, although they were not completely done burning. A final peal of agony escaped from the drained white lips of the man turned demon; it broke the silken bonds with a singular effort and leapt at the summoner.

Mal Tarsis recoiled from the expected blow reflexively, as did Demtry. But the demon thing never reached them. The protective circle repelled it. It was almost as if an invisible wall spread up from the herb circle and into infinity.

The demon thing brought itself up to its full height and spread wide its red, clawed hands. The stripes of flesh, which had previously been cut by the summoner, now pulsed with supernatural black. Impossibly, the demon thing stood twice as tall as Mal Tarsis did.

“Why have you summoned me?” the newborn demon uttered as it pointed a clawed finger at the two men. Its voice echoed in the cavern like a clap of thunder. It drew back the other massive, clawed hand, as if preparing to attack.

This did not faze Mal Tarsis. He stepped directly to the edge of the inner circle. The outer circle had already served its purpose. He spoke to the creature from beyond death, “You will obey me, or face a worse fate.”

The demon thing pitched back its ugly red head and laughed. “You have no power over me!” it said. The summoner stood before the summoned as the demon's laughter filled the small cave. But Mal Tarsis gritted his teeth and took a determined breath.

“Obey me or I will leave you here for all eternity. I will seal this cavern with the power of earth and bind you in a wall of tormenting fire,” the warlock said as he looked intently into the black, pupil-less eyes of the demon thing.

A red-clawed hand scratched a now bald head. The demon thing regarded the warlock with mock sympathy. “Why should I obey?” it questioned with an obvious note of sarcasm. And it smiled with ugly yellow fangs that dripped saliva onto the dusty floor. It then bent over to glower defiantly into its summoner's eyes.

Mal Tarsis bided his time. He knew that working with this creature would be very tough. Patience was paramount when dealing with creatures of this nature. Not since the Demon Wars had one been successfully conjured.

The demon crossed its arms. It stood to its full height once more. Its black, pupil-less eyes played curiously over the walls of the cavern, as if looking for a way out. Mal Tarsis braced himself. He tried to recall a spell from his scattered wits in case the demon attempted a more ingenious escape. He may have missed something.

The red-robed warlock edged cautiously around the circle. He could not determine what to do next. He had followed the formulas of the book exactly. There had to be something left out. He stopped and looked up at the huge red shape before him. He knew the creature must be trapped in the mortal plane. He knew that it would never escape the circle of herbs unless he let it. But yet he still could not make it swear loyalty to him.

Then it came to him.

It was something his old master had once said, master Haarg. He was one of the Council of Five, which helped to keep some order to the chaotic ranks the Anointed led. When Haarg had given a lecture on the Demon Wars and the origins of the Black Order—many years ago now—he had said, “Only those who know their fears can name them.”

The warlock closed his eyes and turned away. It might be a long shot but it had to work. He imagined his worst fears come to life. And then, as if by some external force, he realized what would make the demon obey him. He heard a voice on the edge of his thoughts, a part of the spell he had already begun. It sounded hollow, so distant he could hardly make it out, the voice of his intuition. It said to him, “Lokanrel, the fear of failure.”

The warlock, empowered, turned to his conjuration. He smiled. This had come to be a success after all. One step out of many. Soon he would turn to other things that would lead to the most powerful object in the world. One that would grant him any wish. His lust consumed his vision. And his success tonight would greatly advance his goals.

But those were later times. The rite remained unfinished.

Mal Tarsis caught the demon's eye. Its dead eyes did not even sparkle in the light of Demtry's torch. “You will obey me, demon, because I know your name. Lok—”

The demon thing cut him off. He flung his blood red arms in front of his face as if to protect himself. “No! Do not speak it!” he screamed.

But the warlock was adamant. He raised his voice and shouted at the demon, “Lokanrel!”

The huge red shape took on true form. The demon, bound to the master that had first named him in the mortal world, roared at the ceiling of the cavern. His voice had such power that the walls shook and dust rained down from the heights. The floor trembled with his bellows. He flung himself at the invisible wall of the protective circle in fury. Over and over he screamed one word, “No!”

The two warlocks turned and headed for the door to the keep's underbellies. The one with red robes had raised his hood once more. But as the Anointed left the chamber he tossed a few words roughly to the demon servant.

“When you're done whining, we can talk of what use I have for you.”

The Seventh Circle

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Genre - Fantasy

Rating – PG13

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