Chapter 2: A Choice of Gruesome Deaths
The transition was gradual, like a diver swimming up from sable depths to the light above. A glow crept under his eyelids, unwanted but persistent, levering them open.
A light-gem in the ceiling cast its cool radiance upon his prone form, illuminating the cold gray cell. Taxa was alone, and his head felt as if a herd of stampeding karm were running about inside his skull. He wasn’t sure he was grateful to be alive.
Lying still, Taxa began to employ the Inner Healing taught him by his father, a priest of Ulim, one of the many philosophical sects prominent in Vez, and after a time the pain began to ease as the curative processes of his body accelerated under the direction of his will.
Soon, he was able to sit up and began to consider his situation. The pirates could only have kept him alive for one reason – sport. They were a notoriously cruel lot, especially when a prize yielded little in the way of treasure to sate their rapacious greed. The Nemsu had been carrying none of that, only spices such as memna and tez, and a small collection of ancient Besminuran documents for the Prince of Vetu, who was given to collecting such things.
Looks like I’m in for a rough time, he thought, grimly. Hopefully, I and whoever else survived can face our end with fortitude, and show these villains how the men of Vez can die.
Brave thoughts indeed, but would his actions be their equal? Of that he wasn’t so sure.
As if on cue the door slammed open, and a being stepped within, a native of Tekyis, one of the twin worlds of the second ring. It regarded him with an inscrutable air, the gray horny plates on its gaunt body, freshly polished, shone dully in the soft light. The face, an expressionless bony mask, was emotionless as a stone carving. Even so, it radiated a dark aura of menace.
Taxa froze. These creatures, possessing venomous claws and many times the speed and strength of men, tolerated no company other than their kind. They were the very essence of death itself manifest in humanoid form.
That it had not attacked him forthwith was because of the murim set upon its bony brow, just above the cone-shaped infrared organ with which it sensed the world. The device – a diadem whose single blue jewel gave off a hypnotic emanation - made the creature subservient to its master’s will.
The Tekyisan beckoned Taxa, and he slowly stood, his mind swirling with impotent plans of action.
Unarmed, there is nothing I can do against that thing, he thought. Best follow it for now, and hope some chance presents itself.
The creature ushered him from the room into a gangway lined with doors whose appearance suggested they gave egress to stately cabins rather than prison cells, and it was obvious to him that he was in that section of the corsair reserved for her officers and not the common crew.
Following the gangway with the Tekyisan stalking behind, he entered a spacious room paneled in fragrant nakris wood whose puce timber had been carved with intricate arabesques of startling complexity.
Before him in the room’s center stood a tableau of seven roguish figures in richly embroidered garments of multitudinous hues. Festooned with sparkling jewels and cunningly wrought ornaments of precious metal, they exuded a gaudy richness that bespoke of great wealth and outlandish taste, a stark contrast to his simple uniform of red and black.
The chief among them, a man of mighty thews and a cruel predatory continence, his lavender skin marking him a native of Masmoon (a lesser world of the third band), stepped forward and gave a mocking bow.
“I am Torquimis, Captain of the Nemesis,” he said in patona, the lingua franca of the system. “Perhaps you have heard of me?”
“Indeed I have,” replied Taxa, hoping his voice did not betray his fear, for the man’s name was a byword for cruelty. “What have you done with my crewmates?”
Troquimis’ scarred face split into a broad grin, which would have been congenial but for the hardness of his eyes.
“The survivors entertained my crew before departing to the realm of Eternal Shadow. You, on the other hand, have been reserved for our pleasure.” And then, with a sweeping gesture, encompassed his men who were cast in the same hard mould as he.
“My officers. We’re one short – you, having slain Besu, my First. My ill humor is only tempered by this,” he continued, with a malicious grin, patting a scroll tucked in his black sash. “So I’ll offer you a choice of gruesome deaths …”
“I’ll fight you,” interrupted Taxa. “If I win I’ll have your ship, if I lose you’ll have my head. It seems a fair exchange. Are you man enough to take the challenge?”
It was a bold speech, but he knew he was as good as dead, and hoped to goad the pirate into killing him quickly rather than by slow torture.
Now, if only I could feel so brave, he thought.
The corsair captain gave a hearty laugh and smote his thigh, his fellows echoing his dark mirth.
“I almost regret that I must kill you. Slave,” he said, turning to the Tekyisan. “Fetch me my dueling axes, and we’ll see if this fellow can match worthy words with equal blows.”
The creature departed and the two men regarded each other. Taxa measured his opponent – the breadth of his shoulders, the depth of his chest, the bulging muscles of his bare arms, a desperate plan forming in his mind.
I’ll avenge my comrades before I die, he thought, grimly. It’s the least I can do before I meet their fate.
For his part, Torquimis gazed upon the young man with contempt - his dark bronze hair and skin were displeasing to the Masmoonian’s prejudiced eyes and, though of a tall athletic build, lacked the mighty thews the pirate considered a sign of manly strength.
I’ll slice him in two with a single stroke, was his scornful thought.
Returning with the dueling axes – broad headed weapons with metal hafts - the Tekyisan handed one to the grinning buccaneer, the other to Taxa who, with surprising speed, smashed its back against the murim, shattering the crystal to sparkling shards, and then threw himself to safety upon the floor.
There was a moment of horrified silence as the import of his actions registered upon the pirate's minds – the creature was free of its controlling crystal, and knew it.
The room exploded into wild uproar, the former slave into violent motion. It fell upon the buccaneers in a frenzied blur of vengeance. In less than one second three men fell beneath its envenomed claws, their bodies writhing in agony upon the floor.
Howling with rage, Torquimis struck at Taxa’s prone form. The Yaxkanite rolled aside, the axe missing him by an inch, burying itself deeply in the intricate parquetry. Springing to his feet, he countered with a lusty stroke that sent his foe crashing to the ground.
Chaos reigned. Pirates swung at the Tekyisan, who moved among them like a wrathful ghost – its outline blurred by speed. Taxa bolted for the exit cutting down several pirates in his path, slammed the hatch; wedged it shut with his axe.
The alarm gong sounded its discordant cry; and the tramp of feet came to Taxa’s ears. He turned like a hound at bay. Other pirates, not yet visible, were racing up the passage.
This story is copyright by Kirk Straughen. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)