Ghosts of the Past
By Dr David Burrows
A cloaked figure, garbed in black with a hood drawn across its eyes, stared around at the cave. It was warm and dry, ideal for the Ritual. Black boots crushed the dry leaves that carpeted the cavern floor. The torrent outside continued as though even the Gods wept. His yellow eyes glinting feverishly; he beckoned to his companion, his hands almost claw-like with long dirt-brown nails. Another cloaked figure entered the cave, taller and broader than the first man. Behind him came a third figure, shorter, more youthful, eyes flickering about the cave in mistrust.
“Come, come,” said the first man, waving his arm impatiently. His frown suggested he was not a patient man. “We must hurry if we are to perform the Ritual before dawn. Darren, do not be a slouch and hurry up.”
The youth paused, anger flashing in his eyes. “Kryan, do not take that tone with me. I volunteered for this, remember.”
Kryan tried to conceal his smile. Since when did a four year old boy volunteer? That was Darren’s age when he was snatched from his village ten years ago and, since then, the boy’s training had been intense. But whatever was certain, he was no volunteer.
Gallan was reverently placing candles about the cave. The big man’s frown was one of intense concentration. Soon a gentle light illuminated the interior revealing scar-ravaged walls, boulders strewn about the cavern floor and dark, sinister looking recesses where even the light seemed afraid to penetrate.
Kryan liked Gallan; he was the silent type who just got on with jobs. He hated people who blathered, especially those with nothing much to say. Kryan breathed in the dry air, scenting the years of accumulated dust. The cave was ancient, just what they needed to summon the spirits of the dead. Kryan turned just as Gallan was handing him a knife. The weapon was silver and the hilt inlaid with gold wire. An expensive item, but Ryoch demanded no less. Kryan took the weapon and turned to Darrell.
Darrell was shaking and his brown eyes looked uncertain. His earlier bravado was gone and he now looked his fourteen years.
“Your shaol is strong, Darrell. You do not need to be afraid,” Kryan said with just a hint of condemnation in his voice, deliberately bridling the younger man.
Darrell’s fear vanished and anger blossomed behind his eyes. “I told you, old man,” he sneered. “Watch your tone or it will be you lying on the ground and not I.”
Inside Kryan laughed. He cast Gallan a look and saw that the other man understood. Darrell’s training had been superb; arrogance would force him to do what they wanted. Arrogance and the belief in Ryoch, his god.
“My apologies, Darrell. You are correct, and I have overstepped myself. Now come here and kneel,” Kryan said, bowing ever so slightly in mock respect.
Darrell’s eyes hardened and Kryan sensed his growing rebellion.
“Oh, do not fear. You are not kneeling to me. Do you not feel his presence, here in the cave?”
For the first time, Darrell’s eyes swept the cave interior. He, too, must have sensed the antiquity and a look of reverence crossed his face.
“He is here?” he asked in child-like innocence. “Here, with us now?”
“Communicate with your shaol, and ask him what he sees. You will have a better answer from the spirit world than from me.”
Darrell did not close his eyes. He had no need. In truth, Kryan was growing afraid of the younger man and the strength of his bond with his shaol. Given time he would be powerful indeed, but the experiments must go on. If Drachar was to be served, he needed an army. An army of invincible warriors, even stronger than the growing number of warrior Priests of Ryoch, a god created in name only to serve a greater god – Drachar. Until the time was ripe for the people to believe in his return, Drachar’s name must remain a preserve of the trusted. Ryoch would do, but Ryoch was a sham, nothing more, nothing less.
Darrell’s eyes grew hard as though he had focussed on something upon another plane. Kryan felt a shiver run down his spine; something was wrong. He summoned his own shaol and, as always, the link was there but tenuous. His shaol was warning him, but of what he could not say. Fear cascaded down his spine and he glanced uncertainly around the cave, trying to see into the hidden depths where evil might lurk like a plague about to be released upon the world.
Kryan was playing with proverbial fire; imps, demons and devils were not to be toyed with. One mistake and his soul could be rotting in hell for an eternity of damnation.
All at once Kryan felt his age and his own arrogance died. His wrinkled flesh on the back of the hand gripping the ornate knife suddenly reminded him of his own mortality. He was so afraid to die. The aches and pains of age were suddenly forgotten and he felt an overpowering love of life. Why did he feel so threatened?
Darrell fell to his knees and turned his eyes up to look upon Kryan with a look of reverence that Kryan had never seen before. For a moment he feared that Darrell was seeing his fear as a smile spread upon the youth’s face. Kryan tried to straighten his shoulders. He looked across at Gallan to see whether the other man had felt a similar premonition, but he might well have been looking at rock for all that Gallan’s expression betrayed. The other man’s broad features were impassive. His dark, shaggy eyebrows and long fringe all but hid his eyes. Kryan felt afraid, but knew he must continue, if not just to keep face amongst his peers.
Darrell was now smiling in almost feral glee. Kryan fell back on his last resort when cornered by something he did not understand — bullying and tyranny.
“Here, take the knife,” he commanded proffering the weapon to the youth. Darrell grasped the blade and, for a moment, the two men held the weapon as Kryan turned to Gallan. “Do you have the cloak, belt and scabbard?”
Gallan nodded and for once Kryan wished that he would say something.
Turning his attention back to Darrell, he said, “You know what to do. Ryoch demands your soul.”
Kryan was shocked; always when he said these words there was horror in the eyes of the person he spoke to. Never had he witnessed the calm acceptance that he now saw. It was his hand that shook, and not Darrell’s, as he passed the knife over. Once more he glanced at Gallan but again it was like looking at stone.
“Ryoch,” Kryan shouted and, to his own ears, his voice trembled. “Ryoch, your servant kneels before you and offers you his life.” As required he felt his own shaol scream the name Drachar over and over. This time, though, he heard it clearly, rather than as though across a vast expanse of time. He again realised that something was wrong. This was going too well. Whereas they had always failed before, now doubt crept into his mind. He looked about the cavern as though expecting to see Drachar’s shade smiling down on him, an evil smile of the damned.
Darrell had taken the weapon. He exposed his chest, unbuttoning the jerkin he wore and then the shirt beneath it. Still wearing the feral grin, he placed the point of the blade against his chest and then his eyes met Kryan’s in silent challenge. A brief instance of pain, a grimace, a low moan escaping dying lips and Darrell sank slowly to the cavern floor before Kryan even saw the blade move. It was over and Kryan was suddenly enamoured by the power of his false god.
Shocked, Kryan watched the flow of crimson as Gallan came over with the cloak. “There is no need for that,” Kryan sneered, his bravado returning as adrenalin coursed through his veins. But Gallan did not stop. He placed the cloak about the air above the corpse, and, when he removed his hands, the cloak remained, suspended in mid air. Unseen hands adjusted the cloak, tying it about an invisible throat. The hood came up and it took all Kryan’s strength of will to remain standing.
Gallan looked at Kryan, his eyes dark and brooding. “You did not believe,” he accused. “You have never believed. It is your failure that this moment has taken so long to achieve.”
Gallan strapped the belt and scabbard about the ethereal form. The figure stooped, drawing the knife from the dead boy’s body. Kryan heard his shaol screaming repeated warnings and, too late, he turned, seeking an escape. Intense pain blossomed in his back, a pain like no other. It felt as though he had been kicked by a horse and, all at once, he could not breathe. He fell to his knees, his head turning and his eyes seeking the reason for his demise.
“I told you not to use that tone of voice with me,” a hollow voice said.
Kryan fell forward, his eyes darkening. He panted for breath but none came. He felt life leaving him. Behind him he heard Gallan issuing instructions to the abomination. What had he done? In his mind’s eye, a phantom took shape and, with the recognition, came terror. His master was calling and behind him was his creatures; all the demon’s of hell. His master opened his arms, welcoming Kryan to his domain. His failure was to be punished; a punishment lasting all eternity. Even long after he had died, his wail of remorse filled the cave.
- - -
David is the author of The Prophecy of the Kings, a fantasy trilogy. David was educated at Arnold School Blackpool, and he studied for his degrees at Liverpool University. He is currently working on Drachar’s Demons and a childrens' story, Grump the Giant.
Labels: David Burrows