Salidar could smell the coming rain. He glanced up to the clouds and cursed. They were beginning to darken, and his mood darkened along with them. Rain was the last thing he wanted. They were close to finishing what his ancestors had started hundreds of years ago, but a little moisture was all it would take to ruin the chalk circle his mages were drawing upon the cobblestones. He would come back if the rain interrupted his plans, but each journey to the city risked his exposure to the Knights of the Firmament. If the knights ever learned what Salidar was trying to accomplish, he would never have a chance of succeeding.
He glanced to the man at his side, Fasha. For as long as Salidar had known Fasha, the man had remained an enigma, but Fasha had never proven to be anything other than loyal. Fasha had gone so far as to willingly become Salidar's familiar, bonding his blood to Salidar's and giving Salidar control of that bond. That display of trust from Fasha had touched Salidar deeply, and he cared for Fasha as he did a brother. Although the bond allowed Salidar to compel Fasha to act in accordance to his will, he had never had reason to do so, for Fasha always did as he was told. He served as Salidar's chief assassin, and when there wasn't someone to kill he was at Salidar's side, serving to intimidate the men and women who served under Salidar's command.
"How much longer will it take?" Salidar grumbled quietly, glad only Fasha was within earshot. For a king to show such a display of impatience was improper in Salidar's mind. He wanted those under his command to work urgently out of respect for him, not out of fear for their lives should they not work fast enough. Salidar hated men who ruled by fear as much as he hated men who ruled by love. Mutual respect between subject and ruler was the only way Salidar felt that a society could progress, and his kingdom had flourished under his rule.
Fasha glanced up at Salidar with one corner of his mouth raised in a half-grin and a sinister twinkle in his eye. "Are you worried about the knights finding us, or the weather?" Fasha asked then chuckled with light amusement. He returned his focus to where the alleyway widened around a pillar of grey fog that stretched until it disappeared into the clouds. Four magi were busy drawing the circle of runes in white chalk across the grey cobblestones at the base of the pillar. The circle was designed to protect them from what was trapped inside. The magi murmured amongst themselves at a volume too low for Salidar to hear the subject of their apparent disagreement. "Don't worry, my king, all is well," Fasha said soothingly, "We'll be out of Pentalus in no time, and we'll have our prize with us."
Salidar nodded, but not before glancing toward the mouth of the alleyway and the busy street beyond, where several of his soldiers stood guard. Beyond them lay a thriving metropolis filled with people who considered him an enemy. They were in the center of Pentalus, the City of Wonders, which was in the middle of the plains of Northern Kalle. It was the center of trade for the modern world and also the power center of Neredos, the Radiant King. King Neredos ruled from his throne built in The Everbright City, which was set among the clouds above Pentalus. The Everbright City was held aloft by the same magic Neredos had wielded against the demon hordes eight hundred years before. Salidar avoided looking up at the clouds above him again, knowing that Neredos was above him somewhere, and he gritted his teeth in silent rage.
Neredos had sealed the demon armies within the pillars of air that supported the cloud city, while the five demon generals who led the armies were sealed inside the five largest pillars. The Radiant King siphoned the power from these demons to grant himself immortality, giving him the power to rule for eternity should the gods allow him the privilege. Salidar's ancestors had spent centuries trying to determine a way around that immortality, but there was a problem; each demon general afforded Neredos protection from death in their own way. One afforded him immunity to the elements, another to disease, a third to injury, the fourth to aging, and the fifth removed the need to sleep, eat, or even breathe. Only by maintaining his link to the sealed demons could he ensure that he remained immortal, and thus he kept a watchful eye on those five pillars in particular and placed them in prominent places in the city. If all went well with his plans in the alley that would no longer be a problem, and Salidar was eagerly anticipating success in bringing down the tyrant.
At first Neredos had ruled with compassion and virtue, and his benevolence had been known far and wide. People flocked to his banner, but only those who had been among his first followers were allowed to reside in the Everbright City. Those who arrived later were forced to settle amongst the pillars beneath the cloud city, forming the city of Pentalus, which grew to become a thriving metropolis. Pentalus became a center of wealth and commerce, and in general the people were happy to serve their king.
But in time the laws became unbearable for some who lived under the rule of King Neredos. Those who disagreed with the law were few in number in the beginning, but over time their forces grew until they became great enough to challenge the king. The rebels were led by Odiran thulu'Khant, one of Salidar's ancestors, and he had forced his way into the Everbright City. The King's army, the Knights of the Firmament, met the rebels in battle and left only a small number of the insurgents alive. Those who did survive fled into caves that came to be called 'The Shade'. These caves lay beneath the city of Pentalus, and the rebels who escaped came to resent those who lived in the surface city above them, for supporting the king who had forced them into hiding.
It was a resentment that Salidar and his people still carried. The Shade became a haven for those who didn't fit in anywhere else; the thieves and vagrants, the rebels, all those who could not bear the strict rule of the Everbright tyrant. In time The Shade formed its own laws, though most were unwritten; whoever found it first, kept the prize; do not kill unless you are willing to die. It was anarchy, but yet there was a sense of order, a consequence brought on by the collective need to survive. Where the merchants formed their guilds in Pentalus above, the thieves of The Shade formed their own guilds below, out of the belief that there was safety in numbers. Both types of guilds found that there was profit to be gained by working with their fellows. The way of life may have been different in The Shade, but human nature remained the same.
The greatest of the guilds formed under Odiran thulu'Khant after he had led the rebels against the King in the first War of Pentalus. It was he who had retreated into the depths to bide his time for another strike. Though the opportunity never arose again during Odiran's lifetime, his men remained loyal until his death and transferred that loyalty on to his son when he took his father's place as head of the guild. And thus the lineage of the Underking, Salidar's lineage, was born.
From father to son the legacy continued, and with the legacy came the dream of the rebellion. Each Underking knew they must watch for the opportunity to strike at Neredos with everything they had, and to tear the kingdom out from under the tyrant's feet. As the years passed by, three more wars occurred, but each time the rebels were driven back into The Shade. The hope of rebellion began to fade as the memory of why it had begun disappeared, until the Underking's guild became no better than the thieves' guilds that surrounded him.
Until Salidar came to power, that is. He had been told the family legends, though he had been raised not to believe them. But as a child, he dreamed of being able to live in the city above; a place he was only able to visit in secret. The spirit of rebellion grew in Salidar until ending Neredos's reign once again became a dream worth realizing. Salidar's entire rule became bent to those ends, and he would stop at nothing to claim The Everbright City as his own.
His resources came from far and wide, from the Northern forests of the Gor, to the mountains of Braeg far to the south, as he searched everywhere for the answers that would grant him the power to take the Everbright City. He sent men to every nation, to consult with historians and mages, to piece together what had happened eight hundred years before. Most turned up only dead ends, but in time they were able to piece together that the answer lay in freeing the demons from their prisons. The search took new direction, and at long last Salidar came upon the solution in a grimoire of ancient magic.
Though Salidar had never become a student of magic himself, his son, Maxthane, had been tutored by the finest enchanter that The Shade had to offer. When the grimoire was delivered to his son, the glimmer of excitement in Maxthane's features had been more than enough repayment for acquiring the ancient tome in the first place, but when his son came back to him with the information that he had longed to hear; that had made it all the more worthwhile. It had led them to the alleyway in Pentalus.
"Remind them that the longer we're here the more chance we have of being discovered," Salidar said after a moment, "and they won't like the result if we are."
Fasha bowed and went to do as he was told, his step silent as he moved with deadly grace. When he arrived at the first of the magi and laid a hand on the mage's robed shoulder, the mage pulled away and reached for the knife on his belt before realizing that it was Fasha. The magi stopped their murmuring and listened as Fasha relayed Salidar's message. One of the magi looked over his shoulder and smiled at Salidar; a youth of fifteen, bare-chested with a black dhoti covering his legs. Black tattoos decorated most of his bare flesh, except for a large patch on his right shoulder. Maxthane was the most experienced mage in the group despite his young age, and should have been in control, but the other magi had been letting their years override their wisdom.
Where the other magi were cowed by the threat that Fasha delivered, Maxthane immediately took the opening provided by Fasha's admonishment and seized control of the situation. He barked orders at the other magi that they rushed to follow, hearing the command in Maxthane's voice and not wishing to incur the wrath of Salidar. With a satisfied nod Maxthane rose from the circle and walked toward Salidar.
"I see you took advantage of the situation. Well done," Salidar commended, resting a hand on Maxthane's bare shoulder and feeling the smooth skin beneath his fingers. "Now, tell me about the ritual. How close are we?"
"Extremely close. Dulgek seemed to think that the circle needed to be drawn further out even though it is unnecessary. If we pulled it back as far as he wanted, we would run into the walls," Maxthane explained. He rolled his eyes as he locked his gaze on the eldest of the magi behind him, Dulgek. In Maxthane's sudden absence from the group the mage was beginning to argue with the other magi again, though a quick look up at Fasha who was still watching over them silenced him again. Maxthane chuckled dryly and turned back to Salidar, his eyes suddenly showing their uncertainty as he bit his lower lip and asked in a whisper, "Father, what do we do if it doesn't work?"
"We go back to the drawing board, Max," Salidar replied with a light laugh, though he could feel in his bones that they were on the right track. "I'm sure the answer still lies in the grimoire, even if it isn't as readily apparent as it seems to be. You'll go back to studying it, and I'll go back to looking for answers elsewhere." He shrugged and looked at Maxthane, squeezing his shoulder tightly and raised his other hand in front of him, his elbow bent as he clenched his fist in determination. "There has to be a way to free the demons even if it has been lost to time, Max. Neredos can't have removed all traces of the magic capable of undoing his immortality from the face of the world. Even his influence does not reach that far."
"What about the implications of what we're doing?" Maxthane asked slowly and deliberately, "The demons nearly destroyed the world before. Are we so sure that we can stop that if things get out of hand?"
"Are we back to arguing the morality of our actions?" Salidar replied. The argument was an old one, and he took a deep breath and calmed himself before going on to make the same point he always made, "Neredos cannot be allowed to rule any longer than he already has. We are taking every precaution available. It's not like we're going to free them all today."
"I know," Maxthane admitted shaking his head and meeting Salidar's eyes with a tight smile as he offered, "Perhaps I'm just worried."
"You'll do fine," Salidar insisted as he squeezed Maxthane's shoulder before releasing it. "You've been training for this for quite some time. I'm sure you can handle it."
"Thank you for your confidence, father," Maxthane replied with a formal bow. "I'll return to assisting the magi now. It's time that we began the ritual."
Salidar watched with pride as his son rejoined the others and assumed command. Under Maxthane's confident direction the magi quickly finished their work of drawing the circle of runes. As long as the circle remained unmarred it would function, but a thunderclap above them reminded Salidar again that time was not on their side. It was almost as if the clouds above were protesting their attempt to free the demon within the pillar. Whether the rain came or not, Salidar still intended to go through with the ritual. He could not bear to wait any longer; he had to know if this would work.
He smiled as Maxthane looked back at him for confirmation to proceed, once the last line had been drawn. Salidar nodded, and received the same gesture back, accompanied by a determined smile. Maxthane knelt just outside the circle and began to chant in ancient Gor; a language that had not been spoken in Pentalus for centuries.
The very walls around them seemed to quake with the force of the arcane words as they left Maxthane's mouth, and when the other magi joined in, Salidar swore that it felt as if the earth beneath his feet was about to open up and swallow them all, sending them back down to The Shade where they belonged. As quickly as it had begun the quaking subsided, and to Salidar's delight the pillar of fog began to dissipate.
"It seems to be working," Maxthane said, breaking his chant for a moment, to spur on his fellows, "Keep it up, men. We're almost there."
The fog began to thin and Salidar laughed in delight as an arm of the demon came into view. Its fearsome, jagged claws, which extended from the back of its hand, were poised to strike downward, as if it had been frozen in the throes of battle. His heart skipped a beat as the arm began to move. At first it was just a twitch, but as the fog continued to disappear, more of the body came into view, and the mind of the demon seemed to gain control of its extremities. Soon it was flexing and stretching muscles that had not been used in centuries.
And then its eyes came into view, four orbs of bright white light gleaming through the last few wisps of fog. The fog cleared the rest of the way and the whole creature was revealed. It stood two heads taller than the average man, which put it at a similar size to the ferocious Elroks, with its wide bulk matching that of the Elroks as well. Its four-eyed head roared as it fully awoke, the sound every bit as ominous as the thunderclap that accompanied it, and revealed a maw filled with sharp teeth that resembled those of an alligator. The horns that extended from the sides of its head and curved to point forward were much larger than those of any bull, and resembled nothing that Salidar had ever seen.
"It's free!" Salidar shouted as his pulse began to race and adrenaline surged through his veins. This was it, the moment he had been waiting for years to see. "Now men, hold it!"
His soldiers rushed toward the beast with catchpoles ready, but the demon was already striking downward, clawed fist moving fast toward Maxthane's skull. Salidar called out to his son and took several quick steps toward him and Maxthane jumped far back from the circle's perimeter, giving Salidar a complete view of the demon and simultaneously causing him to gasp at an unexpected sight.
Lying at the demon's feet was a warrior, who had blocked the demon's long-frozen strike with metal bracers guarding his forearms, the points of the claws barely an inch from piercing the flesh of his neck. The warrior, who appeared middle-aged, was dressed in a manner that Salidar didn't recognize; an outfit of tightfitting black cloth with worn metal bracers over his arms and shins. The dark tone of his skin led Salidar to believe the man might be from the western desert, though he could have been from some more distant land.
One of Salidar's soldiers caught the demon's other arm with his catchpole, distracting its attention away from the man on the ground before it, which allowed the warrior an opportunity to slip out from under the demon. He rolled away quickly and jumped to his feet, assuming a stance that would impress anyone familiar with combat, and then turned to face his demonic opponent without showing any fear. If he had any suspicion that the other humans around him might be enemies, he didn't show it.
The demon wrestled the first catchpole out of the soldier's hands, lifting the man off his feet. It then tried to step toward him to deliver a blow with its claws but stopped in its tracks as it reached the edge of the circle of chalk. It roared in rage as it shook its head in an attempt to fight through the magic that was keeping it compelled to stay within the bounds of the circle.
The next few catchpoles swung its way but were knocked aside without finding any purchase on the leathery skin of the beast, and Salidar was becoming frustrated. "Hold it steady, dammit!" He called out, his voice nearly masked by the thunderclap that erupted above them. "We are running out of time!"
The warrior turned and regarded Salidar with curiosity. "Hold it?" He asked. "Very well." He rushed back into the circle, sliding under the demon's legs so that he was behind the beast. Once he was out of the demon's sight he jumped onto its back and then reached around its thick neck to put the demon into a chokehold. This enraged the demon even further, and it thrashed backward with its claws in an attempt to get the warrior off its back, but its arms were not made to bend that far and the demon couldn't quite reach him.
The soldiers managed to get their catchpoles in place while the demon was distracted, first catching the demon's legs and then its arms as it toppled to the ground. Within seconds the demon was bound by the catchpoles, though it continued struggling against them and the grip of the man on its back. It was steadily losing steam as the warrior cut off its air supply. Not a minute later the demon collapsed to the ground, its strength spent as it slipped into unconsciousness.
Maxthane and the other magi quickly moved in, their long and thick syringes at the ready as they pricked the skin of the demon and began to drain its blood. The warrior watched curiously as he released the demon and came to stand by Salidar. His soldiers watched the warrior warily, but since Salidar was making no defensive moves nor ordering them to do so on his behalf, they remained where they were, binding the arms and legs of the demon with strong metal cords while the magi did their part of the work.
"I have never seen this strategy in fighting demons," the warrior remarked as he looked at the demon and the men moving around beside it. His accent was thick, and nothing like that of the men of the desert that Salidar had met in the past, leaving him to believe that his guess about the warrior's origins were wrong. The warrior shook his head and then took a look at his surroundings, and his eyes widened as he noticed the walls of the buildings around them. "Where is this place? How did I arrive here?"
"You are in the city of Pentalus. I assume there was no city when you arrived," Salidar said with an amused smile. He turned to look at Fasha who was watching the warrior with a dangerous frown. Although the warrior had already helped them, it was obvious to Salidar that Fasha didn't like the warrior. He was gripping the kris tucked into his belt and took a step toward Prism but Salidar raised his hand to stall Fasha and the assassin took the hint. He had resumed his original position of watching the demon as the warrior shook his head in response to Salidar's question, his gaze still locked on the buildings around him. "You've been sealed with that demon for a long time I'm afraid; almost eight hundred years."
"Sealed? You mean, the strategy worked?" The warrior replied with a sudden smile, "I must congratulate Neredos on his victory then!" His eyes narrowed as he continued, "But if the demons are sealed," He paused as he turned to Salidar and asked with a deadly calm, "Then why are you freeing them?"
"That is a matter to discuss later, when we are safely back at my home," Salidar offered, though the warrior's question made him wary. "Would you care to accompany me there?"
"Home. I've not thought of home since the demons invaded. I've been on the front lines for almost as long as I can remember," the warrior replied wistfully, and then smiled again as he agreed, "Yes, I think I would like that. I am Grandmaster Prism, from Ultaka."
"I am Salidar thulu'Khant, of The Shade," Salidar replied, extending his arm for Prism to shake. Prism took his arm and grasped it firmly as Salidar added, "Well met, Grandmaster Prism. We will be departing shortly."
"We've got enough," Salidar heard Maxthane say, as if in agreement with his father's statement. "Let's move. Get the materials ready."
The two men watched as another rune circle was drawn on the ground, though this one was much smaller than the first and drawn in more modern runes than the arcane Gor runes that had been used before. The drawn blood of the demon was poured into a cauldron that was set in the center of the circle. Maxthane was chanting as he mixed the blood with several other ingredients, among them indigo ink made for tattooing. Salidar moved to stand by his son to offer any support that Maxthane needed. His son finished chanting as the mixture in the cauldron began to glow with an eerie blue light. The enchantment had taken hold and the ink was ready to be used.
"Father, are you sure about this?" Maxthane asked. The sheen of sweat coated Maxthane's brow and Salidar realized how nervous his son actually was. He glanced at the demon and realized that Maxthane had every right to be nervous. It wasn't every day that one became blood-bound to a demon and made it his familiar.
"I'm sure," Salidar said with a nod, but he continued to watch Maxthane with concern as he asked, "Are you ready?"
"Ready as I'll ever be," Maxthane replied as he wiped his brow. He looked to the magi standing a few feet away and nodded. "Go ahead."
Salidar watched with satisfaction as the three magi moved into position beside his son. They took out their tattoo kits and divided the now enchanted ink between them, and then set to work on tattooing the flesh of Maxthane's right bicep. Having gone through tattooing many times before, Maxthane was used to the pain, but the anxiety of having this particular tattoo done was starting to get to him after suffering through the first fifteen minutes. It didn't help his mood at all when he heard the demon stir in the circle not far away.
Prism's face was nearly unreadable, but Salidar watched his eyes and saw the suspicion hidden there. Salidar paused for a moment to consider that suspicion, and realized that Prism, being from a different time, would have a different perspective on the matter at hand. Before today neither he nor any of his men had ever seen a demon, much less tried to capture one, and it was a testament to their training and discipline that they had not cracked under the pressure. It was a testament to Maxthane's discipline, as well, that he did not react when the demon roared in protest as it came back to consciousness.
"Why are you doing this?" Prism asked Salidar, keeping one eye on the demon as it struggled against the bindings that held it. While his tone was emotionless, the suspicion in his eyes had only intensified.
"We are attempting to harness the power of the demon for our benefit," Salidar explained, choosing his words carefully. "If this ritual is successful, then Maxthane will be able to control the demon."
Prism nodded simply, apparently accepting the answer, and Salidar turned his attention back to his son. The three magi, each of whom was a master at the craft of inscribing magical tattoos, had completed the bulk of their work and were making finishing touches. Salidar leaned down to Maxthane's ear and whispered, "Well, son, what do you think? How does it feel?"
"It's more power than I've ever experienced before, but I think I can handle it," Maxthane replied. The magi finished their work and stepped away. To test the strength of his new bond to the demon, Maxthane extended his will toward the creature and commanded it to stop struggling. Almost immediately the beast stopped moving and glared menacingly in Maxthane's direction. He glanced at Salidar and then back to the demon as he whispered, "You were right."
"It will get easier with time," Salidar insisted, patting his son on the shoulder, and then, eyeing Prism, he whispered so that only his son could hear, "We just have to hope that everyone else will be ready before we unleash the rest of them."
Another thunderclap erupted overhead, adding its ominous rumble as a backdrop to Salidar's whisper. They would proceed with the plan, that much was now certain. As the rain began to fall and wash away the circles of chalk, Salidar couldn't help but laugh. The protection was no longer necessary with the demon chained and Maxthane in control of its actions. Why had he ever been worried?