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The Wyrmling Horde
By David Farland
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2008 David Farland
All rights reserved.
To control a man fully, one must channel his thoughts. You will not have to concern yourself with issues of loyalty once your vassal is incapable of disloyal contemplation.
— The Emperor Zul-torac, on the importance of reinforcing the Wyrmling Catechism on the youth
Cullossax the tormentor strode through the dark warrens of Rugassa, shoving lesser wyrmlings aside. None dared to snarl or raise a hand to stop him. Instead, the pale creatures cowered back in fear. He was imposing in part because of his bulk. At nine feet, Cullossax towered over all but even the largest wyrmlings. The bony plate that ran along his forehead was abnormally thick, and the horny nubs on his head were larger than most. He was broad of chest, and his canines hung well below his lower lip. All of these were signs to other wyrmlings that he was potentially a violent man.
But it was not his brutal appearance alone that won him deference. His black robes of office struck fear in the hearts of others, as did his blood-soaked hands.
The labyrinth seemed alive with excitement. It coursed through Cullossax's veins, and thrummed through every taut muscle. He could see it in the faces of those that he passed, and hear it in their nervous voices.
Some had fear upon their faces, while others' fears deepened to dread. But some faces shone with wonder or hope, bloodlust or exultation.
It was a rare and heady combination. It was an exciting time to be alive.
Four days ago, a huge army had left Rugassa to destroy the last of the humans at Caer Luciare. The attack was to have begun that very night. Thus the hope upon the people's faces that, after a war that had raged for three thousand years, the last of their enemies would be gone.
But then two days past, everything had changed: a whole world had fallen from the sky, and when it struck, the worlds did not crash and break. Instead, they combined into one whole, a world that was new and different, a world that combined the magics and peoples of two worlds, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Mountains had fallen and rivers had flooded. Ancient forests suddenly sprouted outside the castle gate where none had stood before. Strange creatures roamed the land, and all was in chaos.
Now reports were coming from wyrmling outposts in every quarter: there was something new in the land — humans, smaller folk than those of Caer Luciare. If the reports could be believed, they lived by the millions in every direction. It was rumored that it was one of their own wizards who bound the world of the wyrmlings with their own.
Such power was cause enough for the wyrmling's nervousness. But there was also cause for celebration.
Within the past few hours, rumors had been screaming through the chain of command that the Great Wyrm itself had taken a new form and now walked the labyrinth, showing abilities that had never been dreamed, not even in wyrmling legend.
Strange times indeed.
The last battle against the human warrior clans had been fought. Caer Luciare had been taken. The human warriors had been slaughtered and routed.
The news was glorious. But the wyrmlings remained nervous, unsure what might happen next. They stood in small knots and gossiped when they should be working. Some were disobedient and needed to be brought back into line.
So Cullossax the tormentor was busy.
In dark corridors where only glow worms lit his way, he searched through the crèche, where the scent of children mingled with the mineral smells of the warren, until at last he found a teaching chamber with three silver stars above the door.
He did not call out at the door, but instead shoved it open. There, a dogmatist stood against a wall with his pupils, wyrmling children fifteen or sixteen years of age. Few of the children had begun to grow the horny nubs at their temples yet, and so they looked small and effeminate.
At the center of the room, a single young girl was chained by the ankle to an iron rung in the floor. She had a desk — a few planks lying upon an iron frame. But instead of sitting at her desk, she crouched beneath it, moaning and peering away distantly, as if lost in some dream. She rocked back and forth as she moaned.
She was a pretty girl, by wyrmling standards. All wyrmlings had skin that was faintly bioluminescent, and children, with their excess energy, glowed strongly, while those who were ancient, with their leathery skin, faded altogether. This girl was a bright one, with silky white hair, innocent eyes, a full round face, and breasts that had already fully blossomed.
"She refuses to sit," said the dogmatist, a stern old man of sixty years. "She refuses to take part in class. When we recite the catechisms, she mouths the words. When we examine the policies, she will not answer questions."
"How long has she been like this?" the tormentor asked.
"For two days now," the dogmatist said. "I have berated her and beaten her, but still she refuses to cooperate."
"Yet she gave you no trouble before?"
"None," the dogmatist admitted.
It was the tormentor's job to dole out punishment, to do it thoroughly and dispassionately. Whether that punishment be public strangulation, or dismemberment, or some other torture, it did not matter.
Surely, this could not go on.
Cullossax knelt beside the girl, studied the child. There had to be a punishment. But Cullossax did not have to dole out the ultimate penalty.
"You must submit," Cullossax said softly, dangerously. "Society has a right to protect itself from the individual. Surely you see the wisdom in this?"
The girl rolled her eyes and peered away, as if carried to some faraway place in her imagination. She scratched at her throat, near a pendant made from a mouse's skull.
Cullossax had seen too many like her in the past couple of days, people who chose to turn their faces to the wall and die. Beating her would not force her to submit. Nor would anything else. He would probably have to kill her, and that was a waste. This was a three-star school, the highest level. This girl had potential. So before the torments began, he decided to try reasoning with her.
"What are you thinking?" Cullossax demanded, his voice soft and deep. "Are you remembering something? Are you remembering ... another place?"
That caught the girl. She turned her head slowly, peered into Cullossax's eyes.
"Yes," she whimpered, giving out a soft sob, then she began shaking in fear.
"What do you remember?" Cullossax demanded.
"My life before," the child said. "I remember walking under green fields in the starlight. I lived with my mother there, and two sisters, and we raised pigs and kept a garden. The place we lived in was called Inkarra."
Just like so many others. This was the third today to name that place. Each of them had spoken of it the same, as if it were a place of longing. Each of them hated their life in Rugassa.
It was the binding, of course. Cullossax was only beginning to understand, but much had changed when the two worlds were bound into one.
Children like this girl claimed to recall another life on that other world, a world where children were not kept in cages, a world where harsh masters did not make demands of them. They all dreamed of returning.
"It is all a dream," Cullossax said, hoping to convince her. "It isn't real. There is no place where children play free of fear. There is only here and now. You must learn to be responsible, to give away your own selfish desires.
"If you continue to resist," Cullossax threatened, "you know what I must do. When you reject society, you remove yourself from it. This cannot be tolerated, for then you are destined to become a drain upon society, not a contributor.
"Society has the right, and the duty, to protect itself from the individual."
Normally, at this time, Cullossax would afflict the subject. Sometimes the very threat of torment would strike enough fear into the heart of the reprobate that she would do anything to prove her obedience. But Cullossax had discovered over the past two days that these children were not likely to submit at all.
"What shall I do with you?" Cullossax asked.
The girl was shaking still, speechless with terror.
"Who is society?" she asked suddenly, as if she had come upon a plan to win some leniency.
"Society consists of all of the individuals that make up the whole," Cullossax said, quoting from the catechisms that the child was to be studying.
"But which one of the people makes up the rules?" she asked. "Which one of them says that I must die if I do not follow the rules?"
"All of them," Cullossax answered reasonably. But he knew that that was not true.
The girl caught him in his lie. "The catechisms say that 'Right acts follow from right thinking.' 'But youth and stupidity are barriers to right thinking. Thus, we must submit to those who are wiser than we.' 'Ultimately the emperor, by virtue of the great immortal wyrm that lives within him, is wisest of all.'"
Wyrmling education consisted of rote memorization of the catechisms, not upon learning the skills of reading and writing. The wyrmlings had found that forcing children to memorize the words verbatim trained their minds well, and in time led to an almost infallible memory. This girl had strung together some catechisms in order to form the core of an argument. Now she asked her question: "So if the emperor is wisest, does not the emperor make the rules, rather than the collective group?"
"Some might say so," Cullossax admitted.
"The catechisms say, 'Men exist to serve the empire,'" the girl said. "But it seems to me that the emperor's teachings lead us to serve only him."
Cullossax knew blasphemy when he heard it. He answered in catechisms: "'Each serves society to the best of his ability, the emperor as well as the least serf,'" Cullossax reasoned. "'By serving the emperor, we serve the great wyrm that resides within him,' and if we are worthy, we shall be rewarded. 'Live worthily, and a wyrm may someday enter you, granting you a portion of its immortality.'"
The child seemed to think for a long time.
Cullossax could not bother with her any longer. This was a busy time. There had been a great battle to the south, and the troops would begin to arrive any day. Once all of the reports had been made, Cullossax would be assigned to deal with those who had not distinguished themselves in battle. He would need to sharpen many of his skinning knives, so that he could remove portions of flesh from those who were not valiant. With the flesh, he would braid whips, and then lash the backs of those that he had skinned.
And then there were people like this girl — people who had somehow gained memories of another life, and who now sought to escape the horde. The tormentors had to make examples of them.
Cullossax reached under his collar, pulled out a talisman that showed his badge of office: a bloody red fist. The law required him to display it before administering torture.
"What do you think your torment should be?" Cullossax asked.
Trembling almost beyond control, the girl turned her head slowly, peered up at Cullossax. "Doesn't a person have the right to protect himself from society?"
It was a question that Cullossax had never considered. It was a childish question, undeserving of consideration. "No," he answered.
Cullossax would normally have administered a beating then, perhaps broken a few bones. But he suspected that it would do no good. "If I hurt you enough, will you listen to your dogmatist? Will you internalize his teachings?"
The girl looked down, the wyrmling gesture for no.
"Then you leave me no choice," the tormentor said.
He should have strangled the child then. He should have done it in front of the others, so that they could see firsthand the penalty for disobedience.
But somehow he wanted to spare the girl that indignity. "Come with me," he said. "Your flesh will become food for your fellows."
Cullossax reached down, unlocked the manacle at the girl's foot, and pulled her free from the iron rung in the floor.
The girl did not fight. She did not pull away or strike back. She did not try to run. Instead, she gathered up her courage and followed, as Cullossax held firmly to her wrist.
I would rather die than live here, her actions seemed to say.
Cullossax was willing to oblige.
He escorted the girl from the room. Her fellows jeered as she left, heaping abuse upon her, as was proper.
And once the two were free of the classroom, the girl walked with a lighter step, as if glad that she would meet her demise.
"Where are we going?" the child asked.
Cullossax did not know the girl's name, did not want to know her name.
"To the harvesters." In wyrmling society, the weak, the sickly, and the mentally deficient were often put to use this way. Certain glands would be harvested — the adrenals, the pineal, and others — to make extracts that were used in battle. Then the bodies were harvested for meat, bone, skin, and hair. Nothing went to waste. True, Rugassa's hunters roved far and wide to supply the horde with food, but their efforts were never enough.
"Will it hurt?"
"I think," Cullossax said honestly, "that death is never kind. Still, I will show you what leniency I can."
It was not easy to make such promises. As a tormentor, Cullossax was required to dole out the punishments required by law without regard to compassion or compromise.
That seemed to answer all of her questions, and Cullossax led the girl now effortlessly down the winding corridors, through labyrinthine passages lit only by glow worms. Few of the passages were marked, but Cullossax had memorized the twists and turns long ago. Along the way, they passed through crowded corridors in the merchant district where vendors hawked trinkets carved from bones and vestments sewn from wyrmling leather. And near the arena, which was empty at the moment, they passed through lonely tunnels where the only sound was their footsteps echoing from the stone walls. Fire crickets leapt up near their feet, emitting red flashes of light, like living sparks. Once, he spotted a young boy with a bag of pale glow worms, affixing one to each wall, to keep the labyrinth lighted.
Cullossax wondered at his own reasons for wanting to show her compassion. It was high summer, and in a few weeks he would go into musth. Already he felt the edginess, the arousal, and the beginnings of the mad rage that assailed him at this time of year. The girl was desirable enough, though she was too young to go into heat.
The girl's face was blank as she walked toward her execution. Cullossax had seen that look so often before.
"What are you thinking about?" he asked, knowing that it was easier if he kept them talking.
"There are so many worlds," she said, her voice filled with wonder. "Two worlds have combined, and when they did, two of my shadow selves became one. It's like having lived two lifetimes." She fell silent for a second, then asked, "Have you ever seen the stars?" Most wyrmlings in the labyrinth would never have been topside.
"Yes," he answered, "once."
"My grandmother was the village wise woman at my home in Inkarra," the girl said. "She told me that every star is but a shadow of the One True Star, and each of them has a shadow world that spins around it, and that there are a million million shadow worlds."
"Hah," Cullossax said, intrigued. He had never heard of such a thing. The very strangeness of such a cosmology drew his interest.
"So think," the girl said. "Two worlds combined, and when they did, it is like two pieces of me came together, making a larger whole. I feel stronger than ever before, more alive and complete. Here in the wyrmling horde, I was driven and cunning. But on the other world, I was learning to be wise, to take joy in life." She gave him a moment to think, then asked, "What if there are other pieces of me out there? What if I have a million million shadow selves, and all of them combined into one person in a single breath? What would I be like? What things would I know? It would be like having lived a billion lifetimes all at once. Perhaps on a few thousand worlds, I might have learned perfect self-discipline, and on others I might have spent lifetimes studying how to make peace among warring nations. And if I were combined into one, imagine how whole all of those shadow selves would become."
The thought was staggering. Cullossax could not imagine such a thing. "They say a wizard combined the worlds," Cullossax said. "They say he is in the dungeon now."
And I wish that I had the honor of being his tormentor, Cullossax thought.
"Perhaps we should be helping him," the girl suggested. "He has the power to bind all of the worlds into one."
What good would that do me? Cullossax wondered. Perhaps I have no other selves on other worlds.
He was lost in thought when she struck. It happened so fast, she almost killed him. One instant she was walking blithely along, and the next moment she pulled a dagger from her sleeve and lunged — aiming for his eye.
Excerpted from The Wyrmling Horde by David Farland. Copyright © 2008 David Farland. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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