First Sight of the Mark (by Technopilus)

2095 Year of the Tusk, Kuniuri

The screams had finally stopped, but the smell lingered. Jraus had never actually believed his father when he had told him that burning men smelled of pork. He could not deny that unpleasant truth any longer. The men tied to the tree had finally stopped struggling against the restraints. The fire continued though. The Sranc had tied the caravan guards to a large oak. The lower boughs were aflame now. Within moments the entire tree had been engulfed. Jraus could see the horror of it as he strained against his own bonds. He, with some of the other men, had been tied to the sides of the wagons; the horses that had pulled them from Tryse had long since been slaughtered.

His legs ached after having to support his own weight for endless hours. The hemp rope that held him had cut into his arms and hands. Rivers of blood ran down, dripping onto the dry ground beneath him. Delina had been tied down into the bed of the wagon. She hadn’t made any sound for hours now, not since the rape. Jraus had felt every struggle when the abominations had taken her as the wagon thrashed side to side. Her screams, first of rage and pain, then of terror still echoed in his ears along with the screams of the others being tortured.

The children, Jraus didn’t want to think about what was going to happen to them. But he could hear them; the high pitch of their cries had an unmistakable tone over the mindless gibbering of their captors. Until now, he had heard the rumors about what the Sranc did to their captives. The truth was far worse.

His mind had been numbed by the horrors of the last few hours. Every moment felt dreamlike and unreal, as if this were all some horrible nightmare that he would wake from and feel Delina’s comforting arms encircle him in comfort. There was no comfort now. He had tried to talk to her. He couldn’t see her, no matter which way he tried to turn his head. She had whispered his name a few times after it was over. But she had fallen silent for a while now and would no longer respond.

The tree burned for an hour before the flames died away. Around its base, teams of Sranc danced, spilling their black seed on the ground. Their handsome and horrible faces twisted in the orgy of their perversions.

The sound of a broken sob next to him caught his attention. Jraus turned and looked at Phaul. One of his ears had been torn off; blood had crusted around the gaping wound. Phaul was looking straight ahead, past the dancing Sranc.

“That’s a Nonman. I’m sure of it.” His voice was a rasp now.

Jraus looked up, and noticed the figure on horseback on the ridge above them, silhouetted in the pale moonlight. A Nonman? Jraus couldn’t tell, though he doubted very much that it was human. The Sranc would have long since taken the figure.

“Jraus, I can no longer feel my hands.” Phaul said. Jraus’s own hands had been tied as Phaul’s. Twisted around to strain his arms, Fingers bent backward, fine rope holding them back that cut into the flesh.

“Have hope Phaul.” Jraus was surprised at the sound of his own voice. His throat had hurt to utter the words. He had worn out his voice from his own screams when they had peeled the skin off his chest. Two long strips of raw meat oozed blood that ran down his front.

Phaul let out a grunt, either in agreement or just acknowledgement that he had heard. On the ridge, the figure bowed his head and clicked the reigns. The horse began descending down the steep slope.

Not far behind was the road they had been taking from Tryse. It had been a dangerous trip. He had been warned before packing up Delina and joining the caravan to Sakarpus. There had been stories of trouble in the Kuniuri plains. But he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. A nobleman had offered him a wage twice that of what he had made in Tryse. Besides, he had been convinced that the presence of guards for the caravan would ensure its safe journey.

They had shared a meal the first night with several cast-menials from some of Tryse’s wealthier families. Jraus had sat at the camp fire and listened as one of the men, a bronzesmith had mentioned visiting a school in Sauglish, but the man’s wife had quickly shushed him. Jraus knew about the school in Sauglish and had no intention of going anywhere near it. He had been warned by his father long ago about staying away from schoolmen. It had been years since he had seen the mark, and had avoided any contact with the sorcerers since.

Not wishing to talk about that particular subject, he had also fallen into silence. Jraus had caught the man giving his son long quite looks. The boy looked to be five or six and had spent the trip in silence, reading some of the books that Jraus had lent him. The next night the other family had chosen to rest somewhere else, Jraus hadn’t seen them since. He wondered what had happened to the boy.

The figure on the horse reached the bottom of the slope and rode closer to the wagons. A few still held the squirming forms of the men and women who had been forced to endure the unspeakable. Jraus was certain he was going to die when the Sranc had begun working on him. But he wasn’t dead, not yet. The Sranc had stopped their torture a while ago. Likely just to let their victims endure the injuries that had been inflicted upon them, and to let them ponder what was coming next.

Jraus watched the Nonman. He was a Nonman, Jraus was certain of it now that he could see the figure more clearly in the firelight. He wore a cloak about his shoulders that dropped across the back of his mount. His face was like something from a painting. His skin pale and unblemished, his eyes dark, the bald plate of his head glistened in the firelight.

Had the Nonman been working with these creatures? They had certainly seemed to be more organized. Not the mindless hordes that roamed near the mountains in the north. These Sranc had been prepared to ambush the caravan. Within moments their defenses had been overcome.

Screams coming from behind him, children’s screams. What’s happening now?

“Oh Gods, no.” Phaul’s voice was almost a sigh. “Please let this end, make it stop.”

Jraus turned away, trying not to listen to the man next to him. No one else had been tied to this side of the wagon, and Jraus could see one other wagon with three figures tied to it. At least two more were tied down in the bed. The Nonman had dismounted his horse and approached the wagon. Jraus watched as the Nonman’s eyes began to glow, words came forth that made the very world cringe. The wagon burst into white hot flame. It had happened so fast that the people had no chance to even cry out.

“It is almost over Phaul” Jraus said. “They are ending it.”

A moment later the restraints that had cut through his skin suddenly relaxed, and then seemed to vanish. His legs gave out and he dropped to the ground. Next to him Phaul let out a groan as his limp form collapsed as well.

They weren’t going to end it then, not yet anyway. Jraus tried to move, to see what was happening on the wagon above him. Shifting sounds of scraping along wood, then Delina was thrown out of the wagon. The way she landed, the blank look in her wide open eyes, her clothing, what little of it remained was soaked in blood; Jraus knew that she had died hours ago. A cry of despair escaped his lips.

The Nonman appeared over him, looking down. Jraus stared up into the dark eyes. I’ve never been this close to one. He thought. Until the last few horrifying hours, he had never actually seen one. The blank face, the fused teeth, it was easy to see now how different these creatures were.

“Your kind fought them for so long.” Jraus croaked, not really understanding why he was saying anything at all. “Why do you fight with them now?” He wasn’t expecting any answer.

The Nonman tilted his head slightly, looked toward the children then reached down and grabbed Jraus’s collar and hauled him back up. He was surprised at the strength of the creature. Jraus could smell him now, a faint sent of pine. The Nonman had been in the open for a long time. The smell of the wild was all over him; but none of the scents that a man would have no odour of sweat, dirt or blood. Just the musky smells of trees, and flowers.

The Nonman looked directly into his eyes, and then turned to the gibbering Sranc who had gathered around them. The words he uttered sounded like animal cries, and the Sranc shouted back, clearly angered. The Nonman’s eyes glowed then. The next words that came forward made the very air around Jraus thick. He could almost feel nature itself flinch away and he felt a moment of nausea that was not from the wounds he had endured. The Sranc fled, their short forms disappearing into the darkness beyond the light cast by the fires. Then the Nonman released his grip and Jraus dropped to his knees. He felt a hand rest on his head, and then heard some more of the Nonman’s song. He felt darkness take him then. His vision clouded and went black.

Daylight burned into his eyelids. Small hands were shaking him. Jraus turned away from the light, opened his eyes. Phaul was gone. Only a small patch of dried blood remained where the other man had been.

“Get up! Please we have to go before they come back.” A child’s voice. The bronzesmith’s son. The boy looked frightened, but otherwise unhurt. Jraus pushed himself upright, wincing at the anticipated pain. He was surprised to find none. Looking down at his chest, he saw two long scars where the raw tissue had been before. His arms and hands were also healed; thin lines of new skin crisscrossed his forearms and hands.

“What happened?” He croaked. His voice no longer pained him, but he was thirsty, and hungry.

“They cut me loose, and then took all the others. Please get up.” The boy’s eyes were wide. His face puffy from crying.

“Your mother?” Jraus quickly looked for her while coming to his feet. A moment of dizziness at rising to fast forced him to lean on the thin shoulders of the boy.

“They took her, they took everyone but us. Why?”

Jraus took in the scene. The tree had been consumed by the flames; a smoldering pile was all that remained. The wagons had also been burned; the ground around them bore the visible marks of sorceries fire. The bodies were gone. Jraus could see that the boy was right, they had taken everyone away. Of the Sranc and Nonman, he could see no sign.

“Why?” the boy said again. Jraus could see the pain in the boys face, had he been tortured? There was no physical damage. But then Jraus saw it, the mark, the one that couldn’t normally be seen.

“Did you see what the Nonman did?”

“Nonman? Was that what that thing was? He didn’t look like anyone I’ve ever saw before.

And if you’re lucky you won’t see him again. Jraus thought.

The dizziness passed. His wounds had been healed, but how? As far as he knew sorcery of any kind could only destroy. It could only work against the world, not work to fix things, not to heal. How had it happened?

Had the Nonman been an erratic? Very dangerous to be sure if he was and there was no guarantee that he or the Sranc wouldn’t be coming back. They would have to flee. Sakarpus was weeks away and Tryse was over a week behind them now. Fleeing on foot would be faster than traveling with a caravan, but the horses were gone. Jraus knew that there was no choice. It would be dangerous and they would have to leave immediately, but first one thing had to be established.

“What did you see boy?” Jraus asked, already knowing the answer.

“I don’t know. Something happened when that Nonman spoke. His eyes glowed and the words, they seemed to hurt me, but not really hurt me. I can’t describe it.” The boy frowned, trying to find the right words.

“The world screaming at the use of the sorcery.” Jraus said.

The boy gave him a puzzled look at first, and then nodded his head in agreement.

“I never learned how to use it myself.” Jraus said. “I was never around when the sorcerers came through the village looking for those who had the mark. My family kept me away from any schoolmen after. But I found out that I could see it when sorcery was used. And I can see the mark in others. And it seems that you also have the mark.”

“What does that mean?” The boy said. His eyes empty, his expression blank. Shock, Jraus realized. The boy was in shock from everything. Soon he would begin the emotional strain. Night terrors, fears of nameless threats, the loss of his parents would hit him hard and soon.

And that applies to me as well, he realized. But the need to survive was strong right now, stronger than the emptiness inside. Both of them didn’t have the luxury of grief.

Has anyone ever had the mark so young?

“Your family was going to leave the caravan eventually. They were going to Sauglish. Do you know why?”

The boy nodded quietly, his eyes wide with fear. “My father told me I had to go to a school there. A man he worked with told him I was special and needed to be taught.”

Special, that’s obvious. Jraus thought. He had been over twice the boy’s age when he had first seen the mark. Was it possible for anyone so young?

“What are we going to do?” the boy said then. Jraus thought for only a moment. He had stayed away from the schoolmen all his life. But this boy, if he had the mark at his age then he would need the schoolmen. He would have to learn from them. Jraus closed his eyes tight and fought down the wave of fear. He could also see sorcery, what would the schoolmen do to him? But there was also the need to get near other people, quickly.

“We go to Sauglish.” He said then trying to forget his doubt and fears. “It is two, maybe three days to the west. I know the school you are talking about.”

The boy looked at the ground for a moment, he seemed to be thinking. “The Sohonc. That is its name.” he said then.

“We have to go. Quickly and without resting, else they will catch us again.”

With that, the two started off. They were over a mile away from the clearing behind them when Jraus thought to introduce himself.

“And what is your name.” he asked when the boy didn’t respond right away. “I can’t keep calling you boy now can I?”

The boy gazed up at him as he marched forward, matching Jraus’s pace.

“Seswatha, my name is Seswatha.”