I keep my eyes on Veshnic as he pulls me to my feet. I can feel the heat from the fireplace against my skin, and I can still see by the light of it. But then the air changes. It prickles my cheek with a cool, damp touch. There’s still light, but it’s paler now and more distant and coming from . . . from everywhere.
Fuck! I let go of Veshnic. We’re not in my chamber anymore. No, we’re in a cavern of some sort. A massive cavern. There are a hundred people here, at least, crowded below us in one central area. We’re against the wall, though, up on some sort of scaffolding.
As for the torchlight—some of it flickers from the crowd, who all seem anxious and hushed. But torches line the walls as well. And their smoke rises high enough to disappear from sight.
I swallow. I can’t see that top of this cavern. Just how high does it go?
Rokofar. Veshnic said he was bringing me to Rokofar—this must be one of their cave dwellings. No, that’s wrong. No one lives here. No one but the gods, that is. There’s an altar near the head of this room. A horned altar.
This is a temple.
What’s brought so many people here? I take a moment to study the crowd. They’re all adults, about evenly split between men and women. They’re all wearing fairly simple robes, but they seem to favor bright, solid colors. Is this a festival of some sort? Or do they dress like that all the time?
As for ancestry—most of these people could pass for relatives of Gael, with medium skin tones and chiseled features. So they’re likely from the clans and tribes that were the first to settle this continent. But a few are darker than even Jonac, and a few others are as pale as me. And one or two, at least, must be from over the western sea. They have the olive skin, straight black hair and narrow eyes to prove it.
My eyes stray back to the altar—and then to the statue just beyond it. An enormous statue of a male god. A god with dark skin and outstretched, feathered arms. Wing-like arms that seem ready to shelter all the worshipers here. Fuck, it’s Veshnic! It must be. The statue’s eyes are painted a bright, shimmering blue.
“Those wings.” I keep my voice to a whisper as I turn back to Veshnic. “They’re painted like vulture feathers.”
He nods. “Fine craftsmanship—I’ll say that much for this temple.”
“I thought the eagle was your emblem?”
“In Tantzil. In Rokofar they prefer the vulture.”
“They prefer? But which do you prefer?”
That’s a stupid question—what difference does iconography make? But Veshnic gives me a serious look as he puts a hand on my arm. “I don’t play favorites, Aric. Not among any creatures. You’re all equally dear to me.”
“Including the wyverns?” I grunt. “Remember them? Those monsters that like to drink human blood?”
“Yes.” There’s not a trace of shame in his voice as he answers. “They’re just as much mine as you are.”
My stomach twists. “Is that why you haven’t given me a damn bit of useful information on how to send them all back where they belong, my Lord? Or how to keep them there? If we’re all equal to you, then why should you care if they feed on us?”
There’s a searching look on his face now, as if he’s measuring me up. “Here’s the most useful information I can give you, pet. I may not love you more than I love the rest of creation. But if you put your trust in me and carry out my will, then I’ll spring to life in you.”
“Spring to life in me?” I stare at him. “Forgive me, my Lord, but what the fuck does that mean?”
The sudden beat of a drum interrupts his answer. I turn to stare down below us.
The crowds are parting for a procession, led by the drummer. A tall, willowy woman is walking behind him. She looks like one of Jonac’s people. And she’s a priest, I think. She’s in some kind of special vestments with lots of embroidery. And she’s carrying a short, glimmering dagger that I’ll wager is razor sharp.
There’s going to be a sacrifice. Málaf, it’s going to be a human sacrifice. That man walking right behind the priestess—he must be the victim. He’s not chained and he’s not resisting. No, there’s an almost proud expression on his face, as if he thinks he’s going to a good death. And behind him . . .
Fuck. It’s Shoch. My Shoch, except that his eyes are blue. There’s no fire in them yet.
Of course. Veshnic said he would help me understand the making of a sorcerer, so he—somehow he brought me into the past. This must be the ceremony that bound Shoch to his wyvern.
There’s a young man walking behind Shoch. Like Shoch, he could easily be a pure-blooded Tantzi. But I can see his eyes glowing red in the flickering torchlight. A sorcerer, then. If I understand this right, it will be his job to summon a wyvern from beyond the barrier. The priest will sacrifice the victim, and the blood will hold the wyvern’s attention while Shoch . . . while Shoch does what? Binds the wyvern to him, I guess.
“We’re about to see a sacrifice, aren’t we?”
Veshnic doesn’t answer.
My stomach is roiling now. “That man there—he’s the victim? Did Shoch choose him? Did he have anything to do with that?”
Still no answer. Veshnic just tightens his grip on my arm. It’s supposed to be comforting, I think.
The man—the victim, I mean—is stripping off his robe now, leaving himself naked. The crowd is silent while the priest ties him to the horns of the altar. He doesn’t react at all. His face is impassive.
I try to tear my eyes off of him. I try to turn back to Veshnic, but I can’t. I can still talk, though—even if my voice sounds hoarse and stilted. “Why is there a crowd here? Are those all civilians? Why risk them when there’s going to be a wyvern on the loose?”
“They’re here to honor the victim and the sorcerer-to-be.”
Right. Shoch is a sacrifice too—if this ritual succeeds, the wyvern will burn through him within a few years. If it fails . . . well, I suppose he would die on the spot. Would have died, I mean. This all happened already.
Shoch is facing the altar, with his profile toward me. He glances at the victim, but there’s no compassion or gratitude written on his face. No, he’s got that look he makes when he’s concentrating on something else. He doesn’t want to screw up his part of the ritual. But he doesn’t seem to give a damn about the man who’s going to die so he can become a sorcerer.
I knew this. I knew that Shoch doesn’t have a moral bone in his body. My pet doesn’t know right from wrong. That doesn’t change anything. He still belongs to me—but I don’t want to let him out of my sight ever again.
The drumming stops. Someone brings the sorcerer a bowl—oh. Incense. The cloying scent of holy wood is going to fill the air soon. And once it does, the priest will raise her knife and someone—the drummer, maybe?—will move forward with a ritual bowl to catch the blood as it spills on the altar . . . .
No! I’m not going to stand here and watch that happen. I’m not going to let this man die, and I’m not going to let Shoch bind himself up with a monster. So I wrench my arm out of Veshnic’s grasp and vault up and over the scaffolding, down to the crowd below.