Rich, golden red these slopes were. He had been here before. He stood at ridgetop, gazing down simultaneously in all directions. A distant purple river sparkled its winding way, flanked by lovely trees of a shade of green he had never seen before. Joy, triumphant joy, spread through him as he surveyed this kingdom he had conquered by successful ascent. His body felt incredibly strong, perched high in a sky of cerulean blue, cloudless, yet shot through with streaks of brilliant gold.
“You have done well.” The voice seemed a part of him, yet coming from without as well as within. He listened with rapt attention. “Few indeed have reached these heights. Three qualities it takes to come this far in the God Worlds of Eck: Love, humility, and freedom from bondage to tradition. Your bondage has been broken by severe trial, which is ever the way. Without pain, suffering, misery, you could not have achieved freedom in a thousand lives, let alone this singular effort.
“Not many Souls reach this awareness at any given moment in eternity. All is eternity, all is now, yet Ptolians suffer in ignorance, refusing clean spiritual air in favor of darkness and death.”
A shining Ptolian, emitting a great light, appeared before him. Rather than fear at such an occurrence, he felt only a powerful wave of love and respect roll through him. “Garthos, blessed Mahanta! It has been a long time. To climb here once again from tortuous valleys of illusion requires much patience and your guidance as always.” So spoke Dennos in his joy.
The Mahanta smiled. “Your word are true. You recognize your true self. All come to freedom in like manner. Return now, and aid thy fellows.”
Dennos the Quaverer aroused to a kick from Jinda’s boot that sent his body sprawling against hardened cell wood. His mind, resigned to torture and death at last, nearly ignored this latest problem. His inner vision of towering peaks and spiritual instruction seemed more real by far than this hellish timelessness of jungle stink, filth, pain, and starvation. His inner ear listened to the sacred HU, rolling, rolling….
Jinda did not like being ignored. He grabbed his emaciated prisoner by the hair and dragged him outside, flinging him down and standing above him with a booted foot planted squarely in Dennos’s midsection. It was no contest; even when healthy, free, and armed, Dennos had never been a fighter. He was thus mightily misunderstood by Ptolian and Jindanian alike.
“Quaverer,” his captor spoke jeeringly, “You are most fortunate. Having given us much information that will mean absolute destruction for all of your kind, you are to be our guest of honor tomorrow morning. Let me acquaint you with a beloved custom of our land. A prisoner and ‘spy’ such as yourself deserves death in a most glorious manner. Would you like to know the exact method?”
Dennos did not care to know of method; luckily, even his imagination was too tired to care. Fool, he thought, how can you kill a dead body? His lack of expression further irritated the Gochief, who gave up and tossed him unceremoniously back into the cell before stomping off in search of a garox to behead. Let tomorrow’s execution arouse the weakling’s interest; their process had yet to fail with Ptolian or beast.
Eventually, Jinda’s words began to sink home as the prisoner lay huddled with little to think about other than his forthcoming demise. Had he, after all, given these fierce killers information that would help them destroy his own people? What sort of diabolical torture had they planned? Did a screaming victim constitute Jinda’s highest form of entertainment? Where was he even getting energy to even think about such things? Of course, mind must chew on something, even if its owner will soon have little use for its rutted, rigid patterns. And why not? Tomorrow would end this charade, would free him at last to soar in the God Worlds of Eck.
Night fell. He could tell by a shift in jungle sounds and smells that penetrated even his dark cell. His confinement was a tiny sweatbox, windowless and without crack or crevice to let in either air or light. A prisoner’s body heat was often enough to make a terrible difference. Silver lining? The lack of windows and tight construction at least kept out insects. There was that. In his pitiable state, he most assuredly could not have survived even this long were he subjected night and day to thousands of violent biters attacking his torture sores with everything from simple filth to terrible disease and inevitably fatal poisons.
Somehow, though, he didn’t feel properly grateful.
Curious bird calls began to hold his attention. How those could penetrate these wooden walls remained a mystery, but they did, and they fascinated him. He had watched birds devotedly as a youngster; perhaps the same urge was driving him now that no longer could he be considered a Ptolian, allowing capture rather than doggedly fighting to the death as others had done.
Weak as he was, he hadn’t enough mental clarity to recognize Spirit’s wisdom in allowing his capture. His information had given Jinda’s people a picture of plains dwellers little suited to war. This allowed many things to occur in proper order. How could Dennos see he had betrayed no one, actually providing overconfidence to the enemy and time enough for his own nation to prepare? He could not see this, of course, and by now it hardly seemed to matter.
Gradually, he became aware of another jungle sound, one that didn’t fit. It was a low, undulating sort of yell that rose in pitch and tempo, crested sharply, slid downscale, then repeated. People. Must be. But for what purpose? He had been here countless days, yet he had heard nothing of its like before. Could it be some sort of pre-execution celebration? Perhaps.
Could he have but known it, Jinda’s people were not celebrating. Only that evening had emergency patrols found murdered bodies of six missing tree-sentries. Skilled in jungle arts, they had recovered enough remains to tell them a story of previously unsuspected invaders, violent death, stripped gear…and great mystery. How could a half dozen of their best be surprised on home territory? Plains-bred weaklings misjudged? Or some totally unknown tribe? Where had the murderers gone? No wave trail, scent, or sign existed to provide a clue.
Tonight they would grieve and vow revenge, voicing complaint and hatred solemnly through the dark hours. Tomorrow, without sleep, they would eliminate their captive, then hold War Council. There must be some trail; by then, their scouts would know which way to travel.
Of this, Dennos knew nothing. He only felt grief and hatred waves rolling through his little box, knowing this could not be for his own death. No, something had upset these people mightily.
A new sound arrested his attention. The cell door bolt was being drawn back slowly, scraping against door and hasp. Could some beast have mastered its working, thus opening wooden clamshell to dine on bound clam? Jinda, perhaps; could he not wait for daylight? Ha! There was a thought! But no, it was something else, something that would free him of his battered body, denying Jinda his twisted pleasure. It would be well worth it.
He resigned himself completely, focusing on the sound of HU, only half-sensing the dark shape crouched in the cell doorway.