At first everything was pitch black, and the space around him was empty. Mithras could only hear a bell sounding, but that too, soon disappeared. Slowly there came a dim flicker of light like the flame of a candle, shining in the darkness. Then he began to hear something else; something deep and muffled. Perhaps a voice.
Without warning, the dark evaporated, and he found himself surrounded by burgeoning desert; swirling all around him. There was as much to see before when it was dark. The wind wailed angrily, throwing sand at him, yet Mithras could still hear the adagio of a human voice. But Mithras could not see the speaker, nor was he able to reply.
Eventually, the words became clear, and Mithras realised there was more than one voice to be heard. Words spoken to him not long ago, though some were more coherent than others.
“It is a matter of death and life… death and life…”
The words echoed over the howling gale, ringing in his ears as if they were significant. All the while, more voices continued to speak.
“Now is the time to captivate… captivate… We’ve been waiting for you… waiting for you…”
And then he heard a whisper; a woman’s voice which was much softer and lighter than the rest. One that Mithras did not recognise. “Do not be afraid, Mithras… do not be afraid…”
As the woman whispered, the wind turned more ferocious and drowned her voice out, though Mithras thought she may have had more to say. The prince closed his eyes and shielded his face and he heard one final voice. Serpentine and full of malice, and much easier to hear than the others; as if the words had been poured right into his ear. “We’re going home soon… care to join us?”
No sooner had those words been said that Mithras jolted awake. However, it was still dark. Just a dream, thought Mithras. But then he tried to look around, and couldn’t. He was bound tightly around his arms and wrists, his legs and ankles. And when he tried to call for help, Mithras felt the gag in his mouth, and the shroud over his head, so he couldn’t see.
He was neither in his own bed, nor any other. No, thought Mithras, this isn’t a mattress at all. It was something far more unpleasant. He realised that the events he imagined to have transpired in his chambers truly did happen. Mithras squirmed in futility. Not out of panic, for panic will get me nowhere. He tried his ever best to break free of his bonds. To escape.
For his efforts, Mithras was struck harshly in the face, and he groaned loudly. He coughed even, and nearly would have choked had he not controlled his breathing. After a moment the pain had subsided, but he felt blood pooling under his nose, then dripping down the sides of his cheeks.
To find out what was happening outside of his hood, Mithras tried to tune his other senses. Close by he picked up something sweet-smelling, possibly fruit. He wagered that he was lying on top of what felt like apples? No… pears! And they were painful; digging against his back. Further away something reeked of sweat and something else of manure. How ripe, thought Mithras as he started to gag again.
Mithras returned to his hearing, and although he couldn’t see, he closed his eyes, in the hopes it might help him overhear something. That he may learn where his captors had taken him.
There were no voices here it seemed. At first Mithras could only detect the wheels of a cart, the clopping of hoofbeats, (so he knew he was moving) and the occasional snort from one of the horses. Of which Mithras believed there were at least four. Which seemed right according to Mithras, who remembered fighting with five individuals before I was defeated. Before I was taken.
Trying to better gauge his surroundings took time, but the sounds of a nearby river were within earshot. I must be hearing the River Arkiva.
Before he had the chance to learn anything else, he heard a rustling above him, perhaps belonging to a heavy sheet or blanket. And he felt it being lifted off of his body.
Immediately he could sense a light, with some of the rays shining through the veil. And only then could he see his nose, and the black canvas covering his face. But that too was ripped away from his head, and some of his hair was pulled in the process. Though what was most painful was the sudden blinding light. It was a blue moon. The brightest in a thousand years.
He turned away squinting and blinking rapidly, as though he had never seen one before. When he looked up again, he saw a cruel, brutish man staring back at him, grinning toothlessly. A large man with bronze skin, a hooked nose, and long greasy hair.
Ahead of them, someone called to the man and he became alert as he marched forward, trailing after Mithras’ barrow. The language was harsh and guttural and spoken far too quickly for Mithras to understand. Whatever it was was not High Kassian.
Keeping his gaze steadily on Mithras, the man replied, speaking slow enough for Mithras to determine it was a western dialect, but not one he could decipher. He suspected Tandarian or possibly Xaian, but beyond that, nothing.
Mithras tried to speak again, having forgotten the gag in his mouth. The man laughed, but it sounded like a grunt. Then he produced a long dagger with a jagged notch at the end and brought it to Mithras’ face. The prince fell silent, but sweated, realising his submissiveness might just save him. Don’t make a sound, thought Mithras, utter not a word.
Rather than slashing his neck however, the man cut the cloth covering Mithras’ mouth. Mithras kept quiet either way, still having no desire to risk being killed.
Then heard a third voice. Though the speaker was out of sight, it sounded as though he were walking astride the man with the knife. He replied calmly and tucked the knife into his robes before walking out of view.
Another man, whom Mithras assumed was the third speaker, came forward, leapt onto the back of the cart gracefully, and crouched on the edge.
He stared at the prince with angry, icy eyes and furrowed brows. His complexion was tan, his hair was thick and black. And in his large rough hands he was already holding a knife. It was similar to the first man’s, though the blade was stygian, and had runes etched into the metal.
Finally, Mithras dared ask, “Who are you?” trying to hide the fear in his voice, and not come across as offensive.
To Mithras’ surprise the man answered in perfect, though accented High Kassian. His voice was deep but quiet, even calm. Perhaps too calm. And he said, “Not so loudly, Prince Mithras. Speak too loudly and we may as you fear, slit your throat.”
“Please… let me go.”
“Go? Do you even know where you are? Or how you would return home from here?”
“We’re at the River Arkiva,” answered Mithras.
“Ah, you have been listening. You have a very good ear.”
“And from here I would ride southeast. A day’s ride, I’d wager,” Mithras said forcefully. I think I could probably get home even sooner.
The man said, “It may take longer than that.”
Mithras seemed thrown by the comment; somewhat puzzled by how that statement could be true. How can I be further than a day from Fahržan? How long have I been asleep?
The man continued, “We move more quickly than you think. Your father closed all of the city gates in three quarters of one hour, and yet it was not fast enough. And the river you hear is the River Zakriva. From there, we shall enter the greatwood Látos—”
“You’re taking me to Tandar,” interrupted Mithras.
“Aye. Our country.”
“For ransom of course. You can’t possibly think that we’d abducted you for the pleasure of your company, can you?”
“My father will pay your ransom. Whatever you want will be yours.”
“Oh, we know he will pay. King Tavius has assured us of that.”
Mithras sighed, smiled even as he said conclusively, “Ah, so this is political. I see. You realise this stunt; whatever sum Tavius demands won’t be enough. You’re beaten. Tandar will fall.”
The man growled slightly, “That, is for the gods to decide.”
“They have already decided. And you won’t kill me,” said Mithras raising his voice, “You can’t kill me! If I’m dead, your king will never get his ransom!”
In a flash, the man brought the sharpened poniard to Mithras’ windpipe, and pressed against it, drawing blood. Not just a bloodied nose, thought Mithras, if he cuts any deeper into my flesh I will be a dead man. Mithras shut his eyes, shut his mouth and gulped, waiting for his sudden end.
“You assume too much, Prince. Go ahead, cry out!” said the man with a goading tone. “They will be your last words!” Moments passed in silence when at last the man relaxed so that the knife was just hovering above his neck now. “Little depends on your survival. Your father doesn’t need to know you’re dead when he pays the ransom. Decide now. Would you rather walk out of this mess, or be carried out?”
“Walk,” Mithras replied softly.
The man withdrew and pulled the dagger away. Then he smiled and proceeded to introduce himself. “I am Uriel. Uriel Žahor. You met Bastio Joregh, and I suspect you may have heard Vander Dokhar. He is riding ahead of us.”
“I heard him.”
“Good,” said Uriel, “Now hear me. There is no point in begging; we have no intention of releasing you until we are paid. And if you scream for help, or… try to escape, we will cut you down, and skin you alive. And I can't even imagine what Vander would do to you. Have I made myself clear?”
Mithras smirked, brandishing his royal ivories. They glittered in the twilight. “I am going to escape. When you least expect it. Then I will kill you, Bastio Joregh, and Vander Dokhar.”
Uriel chuckled, and Mithras heard laughter some yards away, presumably belonging to Bastio.
“How?” asked Uriel with a smug look on his face.
Mithras had no idea how he would escape. All he had was determination. Yet he replied heartily, “I’ll figure something out.”
“I would enjoy seeing that. But do you really think you can defeat all five of us?”
“What?” asked Mithras with his eyes widening.
“Oh. You’d forgotten about them hadn’t you? The creatures, Prince Mithras. The Eaters of Fire. Did you think you'd imagined them?”
To the best of his ability, Mithras attempted to sit up and arc his neck about, and take inventory of his surroundings. To find the Vagan V'asi. Surely they are a myth, the prince told himself. And while free to gape and gawk, he barely saw past the walls of the cart, let alone Bastio atop his steed.
“Don’t worry, they’re out there,” Uriel said assuredly. “One ahead… one behind. And they are frightening things. Claws everywhere. And evil haunting eyes. I've yet to see one actually eat fire, but their appetite for men... well, I'll leave it to your imagination.”
“My father will look for me. He will have men scouring the kingdom. And when he finds you, I promise, you will be butchered until there is nothing left.”
“You’re very confident aren’t you? So certain.”
Mithras didn’t answer. He simply stared at Uriel with a hateful glare, and gritted his teeth.