My favourite villains have always been the ones who were made, not born. This excerpt features both the Yellow and its Assistant, Death. I’ll leave it to you to work out which of these villains is which. But please do remember that all of the intelligent life on Vokhtah is sociopathic to some degree. 🙂
Two days later, Death stood quietly by the wall as the Yellow addressed a half-circle of Messengers, none of them more than sixteen. They had been told to bring their sleeping pallets and nothing else. Now all eight stood next to their rolled up pallets, cowls lowered respectfully as they waited to hear why they had been singled out.
“Being chosen for special training,” the Yellow began, its voice stern. “To save Settlement from rogue Escapees. If Escapees finding out, plan failing so what learning here must remaining secret from everyone. Even other Messengers!”
The thought of being chosen for important work must have reassured the youngsters because most responded by flicking back their cowls and standing a little straighter. Only two continued to look wary. Death took special note of their faces; when dealing with the Yellow, caution was a sign of intelligence.
“Until training being finished,” the Yellow continued, a hint of menace creeping into its voice, “only leaving cavern for guard duty outside door. If betraying secret in any way, being punished. By self.”
This time all eight looked worried. Messengers generally had less to fear from the Yellow than ordinary iVokh, but this threat was aimed specifically at them.
“Training being conducted by Assistant,” the Yellow said, gesturing towards Death with one hand. “In matters of training, Assistant speaking for self. Any disobedience being punished. Understanding?”
Eight heads bobbed up and down in unison.
None of the eight made a sound, but Death knew the questions, and the rebellion, would come. The only unknown was how many. One or two would be acceptable, but any more than that would cause problems.
“Assistant?” the Yellow said.
Stepping forward, Death bow to the Yellow before turning to the Students and shouting, “Respect to Honoured!”
The young Messengers all snapped to attention and bowed so low their cilia almost swept the sand. They remained that way as the Yellow turned and stomped down the passage towards the door.
“Up!” Death cried. “Placing pallets against wall then returning here.”
While the young iVokh milled about, choosing a place to sleep, Death walked over to the table and picked up the large ceramic gourd that waited there. Returning to the centre of the cavern, it placed the empty gourd on the sand at its feet and composed itself for what was to come.
When the last of the stragglers had made it back to the centre of the cavern, Death struck an imperious pose and said, “Not being Master but may calling Teacher. As for selves, not being Messengers any more, or Acolytes. Being… Apprentices.”
The young iVokh exchanged shocked glances as they digested the implications of their drastic demotion. The hierarchy of rank was strictly enforced in all eyries, but in the Settlement, the Healers and their Acolytes occupied a level above all other iVokh. By demoting the young Messengers to the rank of Apprentice, Death had effectively placed them above drudges but below all adult commoners. The choice of rank had been a deliberate first step with worse to come.
“Apprentices learning here, feeding here and sleeping here,” Death said once it was sure that none of its new students intended to leave. “Can using pool in bathing cavern, but trips outside to waste pit requiring supervision. By Guard or by self.”
That caused another ripple of unease, but still no one left. Time to increase the pressure.
“Taking off chains.”
That drew audible gasps from the Apprentices, but eventually all eight removed their chains.
“Now placing in gourd.”
This time no one moved.
The question came from one of the cautious ones, but Death knew it was articulating what all of them were thinking.
“Because until end of training, only Guards being allowed to wear chains. And only while being on duty. Everyone else remaining naked.”
“But why?” the Cautious One cried, cilia rigid with distress. “Why needing to remove chains to catch Escapees?”
The moment of truth. Rising to its full height, Death stared down the Apprentice before saying, “Escapees mixing with commoners. Probably pretending to be commoners. Therefore, if wanting to catch Escapees, Apprentices must pretending to be commoners also.”
Cries of horror greeted Death’s words, but one voice rose above all the others. “Ki! Not surviving Quickening so can being commoner again!”
The voice belonged to a tall, muscular Apprentice with an imperious expression. Matching action to words, it slipped its chain back on and marched down the passage towards the door. After a moment of hesitation, a second Apprentice scurried after it.
Death made no attempt to stop them. Instead, it looked at each of the remaining Students in turn, gauging their reactions. Most were unable or unwilling to meet its eye, but one glared back, eyes narrowed in calculation.
Cautious and clever, Death thought, pleased that at least one of its students had potential. If the young Messenger could be taught to dissemble, it would become the perfect spy to send amongst the Acolytes.
Just then, a shrill cry echoed from the passage leading to the door. A moment later, a single Apprentice stumbled back into the cavern, blood dripping from its face.
“Being warned,” the Yellow hissed as it too emerged from the passage, dragging a body by one arm. The body belonged to the Imperious Student and it was very dead. Dumping the body just inside the cavern, the Yellow advanced on the wounded Apprentice.
“Forgiveness!” the young iVokh cried as it backed away. “Not saying any-” Its desperate plea ended on a long, drawn out keen as the Yellow grasped it by the shoulder and sank within.
And then there were six.
“Any more not understanding need for secrecy?” the Yellow asked as the body fell to the ground, still twitching.
The remaining Apprentices all shook their heads, amber eyes round with terror. They had been trained to inflict pain on others but were too young to have experienced violent death at first hand. Now, they knew exactly what it looked like. Some things could not be taught; they could only be witnessed.
Once the Yellow was gone, Death pointed to the gourd and said, “Now.”
Six chains dropped into the gourd in quick succession.
“And those two,” it continued, pointing to the bodies sprawled on the sand.
For a long moment none of the Apprentices moved, then the Clever One shook its head and strode over to the nearest body. A moment later, the last two chains dropped into the gourd.
Well pleased with how the testing had gone, Death closed the gourd and placed it back on the table, right next to the Claw. As a reminder, if any were needed, of what happened to those who displeased the Yellow. Then it proceeded to teach the Apprentices how to dispose of unwanted bodies. Another valuable lesson in survival.
As always, I’d love to hear your reactions in comments! And yes, I was listening to Stillness Speaks as I wrote this scene. 😀