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Red as Coals, Black as Night Chapter 2
Recalling the legend, Jose smiled disdainfully. It sounded like a fairy tale. Nevertheless, when he stopped for a drink an hour later, he made an offering of meat to Shano, thanking him for a successful kill.
He was passing through a young wood now, healthy and bright. The sunlight irked him, and hurt his skin, but he did his best to ignore it.
The sun was starting to fade, so he took shelter in a small cave between rocks. Right outside the cave, so the smoke wouldn’t suffocate him, he started a fire. Then he caught two bright green fish in a nearby brook, and cooked them. Their taste was very plain without herbs, but he was used to eating things simply. The fish still had a very good taste.
After eating most of the fish and leaving the rest out for scavengers and other animals, he climbed into his shelter and, making sure he had a hole he could breathe through, he fell asleep.
The next morning he got up feeling grumpy, though he didn’t know why. At least he would reach the castle in four days.
It cheered him to think of seeing his companions again, and telling them of his success. Oh, how they would look!
Most Shanese started being trained when they turned twenty, and started going out to actually do the work at age twenty five, young though that was. At first Jose had been no different, but when his teachers had seen what an aptitude he had for it, they had sent him out when he was only twenty two.
Jose could still remember the day of his first assignment as if it were yesterday. He could still see the older Shanese men cooking the pigs for that night’s supper. Shanese women were never birthed, which was why it was so important to have as few generations as possible, since they had to constantly dilute their blood to survive.
He could still see his friends and enemies that were his age, lining the walkways to stare at him with envy. They all wished they could already go out to do the real work.
He had made his way nervously to Shalamar’s reception room, wondering what kind of girl he was going to kill. While the Shanese killed many of them, there were still those occasions when the Shanese never came back. Jose’s father had never come back.
Remembering this, Jose had begun to sweat. It had dripped down his black face heavily, and splashed on the smooth stone floor.
However, all his worry had been for nothing. As a beginner, Jose had been given an easy assignment. The girl’s ability had been to project her voice over vast distances. All she could do was scream. It hadn’t done her any good.
When he had returned from the town after a four-day journey, bearing the body of the girl as was asked, the Shanese had celebrated. The ceremony after a Shanese had killed his first Gifted One was very like that of the humans’ manhood ceremony. There had been feasting and drink, as well as sports for two whole days. His friends had treated him almost reverently until he bashed them in the head to get them to return to their old selves. In the eighteen years since his first kill, he had killed twenty nine of them, far more than any of his year-mates. This would be his thirtieth kill.
Yet he couldn’t get that excited about it, or at least not as excited as he should have been. He would have a warm reception and be reunited with his friends, but in his mind’s eye he kept seeing the terror flashing in the girl’s eyes, and the hatred as he advanced on her. She had been so scared, he could almost taste it…Never mind. He could look forward to a real bed and a hot bath soon. That was what mattered.
He started running, and soon he was clear of the wood, crossing miles of very tall meadows with grass waving like hands, as if greeting him. The flowers’ heady scent filled his nostrils, and he sneezed often.
About mid-afternoon he came to the queerest place. It had forests, plains, meadows, lakes, rivers, and a bit of hot, dry land that looked like desert. It looked for all the world as if some giant had plucked out little pieces from all over the world and stuck them all together in this one place. But Jose wasn’t surprised. To him this was a part of home.
It took him three and a half tiring days, but eventually he reached the end of the unnatural place. All the pieces turned into striking mountains. And between the two largest mountains, seated like a crown on the head of an immense monarch, was the castle.
It was huge. Jose had seen the scrawny little things those humans called “castles.” They were like chicken coops next to a mansion. Then again, the human castles were numerous, and each did not house that many people. This was where the majority of the Shanese population, particularly the warriors, lived, as well as their ruler.
The encircling walls were eighty feet high, soaring into the sky, and at least twenty feet thick at their thinnest. They completely enclosed the castle, and every twenty feet along there was a guard. The guard towers were large and stocked with weapons. Mounted by each one were loaded ballistae. Before the walls were ditches filled with slanted spikes, made to impale unfriendly riders. Any Shanese, even the elderly, were nimble enough to cross unscathed.
There was only one gate, and it was made of solid iron. Any battering ram would really have its work cut out trying to breach this gate. There were also spikes spaced along the gate. Above it, a murder hole was poised to pour boiling oil and rocks on enemies. This was a place meant to hold off intruders.
Behind the stone walls was a log one. It was only forty feet high, and not very thick, but it was another barrier against entry. Upon this wall were manned catapults that could hurl ammunition over the stone wall and on invaders. The gate through this wall was wooden, but heavy and durable. Inside all that was the castle itself.
Surrounding the castle were things needed to keep the inhabitants living, like blacksmith’s huts, carpenters, livestock, and the cooking grounds, as well as a grain mill and well. There was also a servants quarters to the side of the palace, for those who were too old to still fight, and so served the king. On the opposite side of the castle from the servants’ quarters were the barracks for those who could still fight, but were just ordinary soldiers, not favored by the king. The long wood and stone barracks were built to house many soldiers, not to give comfort to those who lived in them. Those favored by the king, like Jose, lived in the castle itself. This was a much better place to live.
The castle had dozens of towers, ranging in height, but they all surrounded the largest tower of all, looking like a grown cat among kittens. It was in there that the king lived. The towers, the bases, the courtyard walls, everything was made of smooth, shining black rock. It looked both empty and full at the same time, filled with darkness. The king enjoyed putting fireplaces near the windows, so the windows seemed to glow red, like devils’ eyes. All windows that rose above the stone wall had stone grates that could be slid up, in case of attack.
Despite the dark, heavy veil that seemed to cling to the very rocks of the castle, the courtyards bloomed with color. Flowers of every kind, from all over the world resided in the airy courtyards. Many Shanese liked to bring seeds from the places they went hunting in. For creatures so dark and evil, Shanese had an aptitude and love for growing flowers. Especially red flowers. Jose dug in his robes and took out two small, green-blue seeds. He had brought them from Afalia. He had also brought a piece of the beautiful rock found there. His master had a collection of similar things from all the places his minions went.
Jose jogged to the gate calling out to the guards he recognized. “Karamon! Ruchasil! Untasi! Pakarot! I’m back!” They greeted him happily, asking him if his mission had been successful. He gave them a cold smile as an answer.
They let him through the gates. As he strolled up the beaten paths, he called out greetings to his friends. At one point he passed his former weapons trainer, a grizzled old Shanese who was about one hundred fifty years old, and continued to fight and teach others to fight despite his age. “Lenrafas!” Jose cried gladly. “What have you been up to?”
The older Shanese grinned. “Not much,” he replied. “The newest bunch of warriors, if you can call them that, are a bunch of soft-handed worrywarts. But never mind. I’ll have them straightened out in no time.” Jose, recalling Lenrafas’s methods of teaching, winced in sympathy for his charges.
“Got your thirtieth, did ya?” he inquired. When Jose nodded, he smiled again, but this time without the wolfish edge to it. This time he looked proud. “You do well by me, Jose.” Lenrafas informed him. “I’m proud of you.” Jose nodded again, honored by the compliment, especially since Lenrafas usually was not forthcoming with them. Then he continued on.
He finally paused at the main door to the castle. It was twenty five feet high and five feet thick. There was a complicated mechanism that opened the door, but it still usually required at least two Shanese to operate it. He knocked lightly on the door four times, paused, knocked lightly twice again, then knocked heavily twice. This knock said you were one of the warriors who lived in the castle that had just returned from a trip. The door grated open slowly, and Jose walked inside.
Everything was just the same as when he had left two weeks ago. There was still the bright red carpet covering the entire, immense floor of the main hall, the lamps hung all over the ceiling, which seemed to absorb light instead of create it. There were the torches along the walls, the comfortable, simple leather chairs spaced around the room for people to sit and talk in, with tables in between them. There were dark wooden chests filled with gear necessary for winter and summer, and closets to hang your wet or dirty garments in. On the walls hung various weapons, from daggers like the one Jose wore to large pole arms such as pikes and spears. They were mostly for show, and most of the weapons warriors used were simple, plain ones, but when they first killed a Gifted One they were allowed to select one weapon from the wall as their own. Most warriors took great care of their special weapon, and it was one of their most prized possessions. Jose’s sapphire-hilted dagger was his weapon.
Jose observed the tapestries on the walls. Despite the disbelief in the story, many illustrated how the Shanese had come into being. Some were by Shanese, but since most Shanese were not good artists, many were drawn by captive humans. It was easy to tell which was which. Those done by the humans had a bitter taint to them, as if the artists had taken out some of their fear and anger with their captors on the tapestries.
Two in particular caught his eye. These were ones of the Gifted Ones, demonstrating their powers. In the first tapestry the woman was facing forward, her brown hair up in a stern bun, blue eyes intent and focused. All around her, various objects flew through the air. Jose knew which power this depicted. He had just killed it.
In the other tapestry, the woman was facing away. All you could see of her was her long black hair, swirling around her body and face. Because of the convoluted way she was sitting, it was impossible to tell how tall she was. Surrounding her was what seemed to be all things green in the world, and she commanded them. Grasses, trees, bushes, plants--and flowers. He wished he could do that.
His inspection over with, Jose decided to retire to his rooms. He strode through the dimly lit halls, the flickering light making his eyes seem to dance and burn.
He soon reached his quarters which were in one of the relatively large towers, and also close to the Throne Room, the Reception Room, and Shalamar’s personal chambers. Since he was close to the throne because of the amount of generations his family went from the original Shanese, and because he had a constantly growing reputation as a fearsome, skilled warrior, he was one of the favored warriors allowed to live in the castle itself.
When he reached the door with his name carved into the wood, he opened it with a grateful sigh. Behind the door lay a fancy chamber, with a very large (Shanese were nine feet tall), comfortable bed, a separate room for the privy, an entire corner devoted to weapons and the care of weapons, two or three padded chairs, and a writing desk. Jose happily sank into one of the chairs, forgetting everything for a moment in the pleasure of being home.
When his muscles began to cramp, Jose stood up and looked around for something to do, something to occupy his time while he waited. He decided to clean and sharpen his knife. Going to the room with the wash basin and privy in it, he gently washed the blood off the knife and the sheath in which it had lain, taking care not to cut his fingers. When it was thoroughly cleaned and dried, he took out his whetting stone and set to work putting a new edge on the blade. This whole time he was half concentrating on his work, and half listening for the knock he knew would come.
Two hours later, it came. Two sharp knocks, one palm slap, and two gentle fingernail taps. This was the knock Jose and his closest friend used with each other. Jose, beaming, threw open the door to see Karamon, or Kar, as Jose called him standing there with a sarcastic look on his face.
“Well, that ridiculous human thing they call a circus has come here at last, has it? They clearly sent one of their creatures in to spy on us, in the form of a Shanese. It was the hopping around and foolish grinning that gave you away as a dancing bear, Jose.”
Jose laughed-he’d forgotten how funny Kar could be-and ran forward to clap him on the shoulder. Kar smiled, all signs of acting gone and said quietly, “It’s good to have you home, Jose.”
Jose had been gone for two weeks, but Kar had been gone five weeks before that, arriving home three days after Jose left. Usually missions weren’t so close together, but this was the time of season when reports of Gifted Ones, true or false, came pouring in. The pair hadn’t seen each other in almost two months.
They spent the night drinking and recalling old times, like when they were mere youngsters of fourteen, and slipped sleeping herbs into the tea of their language master. He had nodded off before all the young kids. It was only when they had finished recounting old tales that they spoke of recent times. When Jose asked Kar about his mission, he launched into a tale of boredom, suspicion, wonder, then sweet success. When he was finally finished with this long-winded narrative, he turned to Jose and asked, “What about you? Did you bag another one?” his eyes glinted eagerly as he spoke of killing the girls. While this one had been Jose’s thirtieth, the one Kar had killed had only been his twenty first. Kar, despite being Jose’s closest friend and treating him to many very interesting speeches, was like the other Shanese their age in that he held Jose in a sort of awe, for his skill with the blade, his aptitude for killing the girls, and his closeness to the throne.
Jose shifted uncomfortably. He did not feel like talking about what he’d accomplished. Whenever he was reminded of it even the slightest bit, it all came to him as if he were there again: the long streets made of that curious rock, the girl’s frantic breathing as she pumped her scrawny human legs as fast as she could, remembering to run the pace of humans so they wouldn’t be any more suspicious than they already were of a nine-foot-tall creature. He remembered how the blood had spurted from her neck when his beautiful dagger cut into her throat. She had hardly seemed to be aware she was mortally wounded. The fear and panic she must have felt had merged with her power, strengthening it, allowing her to move the living rats. But this was a power Jose was immune to. The rats had dropped to the ground, then scurried away, frightened for their lives. He had seen the hopelessness in the girl’s eyes as she realized she was powerless against him. And he had seen the understanding some of them got in their last moments. He remembered feebly trying to explain to her why he had done it as the last breath of life had left her limbs. He remembered it all. He didn’t want to remember.
But Kar was like all the rest of the Shanese, eager to kill, to hunt, to feel their fear. And he wouldn’t take no for an answer. So slowly, reluctantly, he told Kar of his encounter, his friend’s red eyes shining like orbs the whole time.
“You should have tortured the nag,” Kar said, voice scornful as he spoke of the unfortunate girl. “You should have let her suffer a little. You’re always far too kind.”
Jose gripped his arm wordlessly, eyes drilling into his companion’s. He hadn’t realized how hard he was squeezing until Kar winced. Jose relaxed his grip slightly. “You know I don’t believe in that,” he reminded Kar quietly. “I know everyone else likes to make it as painful as possible, but I don’t. I don’t want to prolong the hurt. I just get the job done. I don’t know why I’m like that, why I’m different, but I am. And you know that. So please don’t keep bringing that up. I don’t hate the girls like the rest of you do.”
Jose let go of his friend’s arm. It had been a longer speech than he usually made. But he wanted his friend to understand that he wasn’t like that. With the other Shanese he didn’t show these feelings, knowing they would take them as weakness, but he wanted his closest friend, at least, to know. He also didn’t want his friend to keep bringing back the memories. It was bad enough that the slightest thing, like when he had seen two large rats on his way up the path, could bring them back. He didn’t need his friend to contribute.
Kar was rubbing his arm, grimacing. Jose regretted gripping it so hard. He hadn’t meant to hurt Kar.
Kar turned around and looked at Jose, concern in his crimson eyes. “You had better not let Shalamar see that,” he said quietly. “You had really better not.”