A Slender Darkness


The sweeping curve of indigo reminded Rhyse of Daisha's lithe body, the way her smooth shoulder had moved under his clumsy fingers as he applied the ink. She'd gasped when he'd used the hot wire to set the line, her voice exploding in breathless sighs of pleasure.

"Care, boy." Mondev Marul Mars, Master Cxerifon, growled. Fire burst from between lines of ink on the awkwardly shaded Wyvmeir, and Marul pressed a long boney finger almost casually against the sputtering flame on his chest, stamping it out. "You are too new for me to be seeking your replacement so soon."

Rhyse muttered a short apology and tried to concentrate more fully on his work. The golden eye of a black mountain wolf stared balefully from the Cxerifon's thick neck, seeming to watch him. The tattoo had been expertly drawn, but the scrivener was unknown to Rhyse. He'd asked Daisha about the Cxerifon's previous scryers, but all she'd say was they seldom lasted, burned out by the demands of their master.

"Control." Marul hissed in a whisper, the sound of a file dragged through steel. "Control is everything. Those lines are your life, boy, remember that."

Rhyse forced himself to work through the fear without his fingers shaking. He tried to put Daisha from his mind as the Wyvmeir took shape beneath his needles. The tapered triangular thorax and armored shoulders formed as if grown from Marul's flesh. The lean feral face and piercing violet eyes seemed to study him, forcing a shudder. As a final touch, he included the rune symbol Daisha had shown him, secreting it within the strands of the Wyvmeir's short grey mane.

He'd die horribly if it were ever discovered, but for Daisha the risk was worth it. She was his link to the outside world. She represented the life that had been taken from him; his family, his home. She promised freedom and desire, a release from his servitude, and the gifts of her lithe perfect body. For these, he would gladly do her bidding.

"Magic is energy." Daisha's eyes glittered among the stars.

They'd slipped away, run to the lagoon within moments of Marul's vanishing. The old Cxerifon had pierced his own flesh, placed a long iron nail into the tattoo of the mountain stronghold of Buor-Kulifaer that Rhyse had drawn over the man's right cheek, and folded into the glittering ether. He would not return this night.

What the wizard sought could not be found by his kind. Still, the Cxerifon searched, torturing his flesh with needles and spikes as he shifted between his villa on the isle and unknown realms. When he returned, he'd beat Rhyse for the boy's inability to scrye what he could not comprehend. Rhyse hated him for that.

Daisha laughed. "Magic is love, it is passion and lust. It's the force that makes young men fools and young women mothers. It draws its own blood for the taste... and for the pain. It's a thing outside of life, beyond the pale boundaries of existence."

She pushed on his chest, and with a thin chirp of agony flew into the air. "It's the price we pay for the power."

He tried to grasp her, but she hovered just out of reach, a slender darkness against the black of night. She cried, and landed hard in the sand beside him, unable to keep herself aloft for very long.

"That's why I need your help." Her voice was a panting whisper. Just that little display of magic had injured her.

In the two years of his slavery, she'd gone from a playmate to... what? He wasn't entirely sure. She was less than his lover, but more than his friend. He ached for her with every waking moment, but still she held him at arm's length.

"I've done what you wished." He turned, searching her out. The peach-colored sand, as hot as the inside of a brazier during the day, felt cool and moist beneath him. It gave way in sheets as he moved, like dead flesh.

He wanted to let her know what it had cost him, but the bruises on his face and the blackness over his left eye should have spoken for themselves. The Cxerifon had been brutal, but distracted. He'd beaten Rhyse with an almost casual cruelty, his mind on his quest.

Marul conjured the Wyvmeir with a single slash from a filigreed silver razor, thanking Rhyse as he staunched the blood and returned the creature from whence it came. He congratulated the boy on his blossoming skill with the ink, and then punched him in the face. Rhyse whimpered, and shied from the kick that followed. Marul hit him again when he staggered to his feet, and blood poured into his bruised mouth.

"Control is everything. You will stand when struck, or be beaten again. To control the power in the lines, you must first control yourself. Do... you... understand?"

Marul stared closely at Rhyse, a sheen of sweat glossing the Cxerifon's shaven head and thick square face. Scar tissue covered every visible portion of the man's body in the form of fine lines and puckered circles. It was said the worth of a magician is counted on his flesh. If this were indeed true, then Marul's power must be formidable.

"I understand." The words dribbled through Rhyse's bloody lips as the wizard lowered him to the floor. He was released after that, and told to go clean himself. Work would begin anew tomorrow.

He crawled back to his chambers, careful not to smear blood against the cream-colored muslin walls as he passed. The cloth drank the warm wet air from the beach, hanging limp and moist like panting tongues. Salvaged cushions and torn silk pillows were his only furniture, except for a small cache of broken sea finch eggs pressed into the loose ground. These cracked vessels held his inks, his potions and powders, his wires of precious and living metals. Each color had been stolen one drop at a time, carefully collected over many months. He had nearly all he needed, all that Daisha required of him. Soon he would scrye for her. Their bodies would become one as the hot metal feasted on her blood, the inks mingling beneath her flesh to become conduits for power he could not understand. Very soon he would betray the Cxerifon, and he would be free.

"I can't do it myself." Daisha's fingers lightly stroked Rhyse's chest. He lay on his back, staring into the night. Stars raged in great splashes above, mirrored in the placid waters of the lagoon below. A night bird, an owl or a black rassik, hooted nearby, calling to a mate from the safety of a perch in a dune cedar tree, and the scent of jasmine wafted across the beach from the dark shadows of the jungle beyond.

It was a rare evening, a night without fear or pain. He drank it in, wishing it would never end. The cool breezes reminded him of home. He remembered the smell of hay and brine, sunlight sparkling in scattered shards from mica windows, and his mother's voice calling his name. He fought to capture her image, but the memory fell apart.

He'd asked Daisha if she remembered her time before the Cxerifon. She'd become angry, slapping his face and running away. He'd stared after her with a confused glance and a reddening welt on his cheek. He'd never brought it up again.

"My hand can never be raised to Marul." Her voice broke him from his thoughts, floating with an ethereal lilt out of the night. "I'm powerless against him."

"I'm merely an artist of flesh. What could I do that a junior Cxerifon could not?"

"He's bound me to his will and to his villa in ink, and I have no choice but to serve him. But you, the scrivener--he won't bind you while you stain his flesh. You are free."

"Free to do what?" He reached for her, tired of talking. She'd made promises with her eyes and her lips. Her body had asked for his touch, but now she held herself just out of reach. She teased him, as she'd done on many occasions during the long years since the Cxerifon had taken him, since he'd begun his apprenticeship.

He'd been a shy boy then, unsure and afraid. She couldn't have been more than a year older, but she'd been apprenticed to Marul since a very young age. He'd had no practice drawing over scar tissue. His skills were new and untried, and the cruelty of the Cxerifon came like a blast of ice water against his sensibilities. Marul had beaten him daily, leaving him broken and in agony on the rounded pebbles of the inner courtyard.

It was there that Daisha would come to him, mending the worst of his wounds by the use of tiny golden needles inserted beneath the vibrantly colored glyphs adorning her fingernails. Her tears mixed with his blood in the bright sunlight. Then, as she departed, she would offer glimpses of her pale perfect body, as white as marble, as pure as diamond. Her gaze told him she could be his for the asking.

Now, years later, she was still just beyond his reach.

"Command me," he sighed. "I am your puppet."

She giggled. "If only I could show you passion, then you would be great."

"Teach me." His fingers brushed her breast in the dark. Her body arched to meet his hands, and then she vanished.

"The passion to control the lines burns hotter than lust." Her voice fell like rain from the blackness opposite him. "It can't be ignited by the friction of two bodies."

"Then how?" He begged to know.

"First, you must lose control..."

Rhyse hissed, but continued the arc of emerald ink across his inner thigh. It had to be green. That was the color of Marul's cruel eyes, and the scrying was meant to blind those eyes to Rhyse's presence. Rhyse used a piece of polished shell from the lagoon to see as he traced the small scrimshaw lens in the place he thought the Cxerifon would never care to examine. He built it in layers, gentle curves that drew cries as the ink ate into his soft flesh.

He placed a wadded scrap of leather between his teeth for the application of the wire. When the searing metal bit his skin, slithering into his body like a burning snake, he screamed. Hot purple spots shot through his vision. His cracked lip split, and blood poured into his mouth. He gagged. He vomited, and it accumulated like festering acid behind the leather wadding. He choked, tried to inhale, and then got sick all over again. He couldn't breathe.

Shaking fingers flew to his face, plucking the leather bundle from his mouth. A wave of blood and vomit erupted. He retched, spitting foul fluid, and drew great wheezing gulps of air as his sight fogged with pain. Then it faded into blackness.

He awoke to Daisha kneeling over him. Embarrassed, he reached to his mouth, but she'd cleaned him.

"It's done?" The smile on her full lips told him she was already aware.

"Yes, but I don't see the point." His voice slurred, a groggy murmur. "You've told me I can't wield the power I paint. Why put me through the pain?"

Sometimes he thought she made him do things simply because she could, because it gave her power over him. At times he saw a hint of Marul's temperament in Daisha, and it frightened him. Would he become more like the Cxerifon as time passed, or would he simply be a tool to be used up and then discarded?

The very talent that allowed him to scrim fantastic images on flesh prevented him from ever once manipulating those designs. To control the ink, to control the mind's eye with hand and line, was to deny the flame required to harness the archaic forces. Scryers must never bear ink.

"Magic is passion." Daisha's lips caressed his ear, the scent of mint from her breath like a moist breeze, warm and erotic. "Magic is need. It is desire--do you want me?"

"Yes." The word rushed like steam from his trembling lips.

She licked his earlobe. He spun, but she was already gone, a single bright drop of blood marking the spot where she'd knelt.

He knew where she had to be. The tattoo he’d etched into his tender flesh was meant for Marul, so Rhyse would go to Marul. He'd find Daisha, and he'd have her.

His head swam with the scent of her. The heat of her body still lingered in the air. His heart forced itself forward, beating a path as he staggered from his chamber and into the main house, blinded by lust. He felt drunk.

He paused for a breath before entering the silk-lined corridors of Marul’s chambers. He needed remember what Daisha had shown him of Marul's inner sanctum while the wizard was away. The walls were bare frames here, panels of flimsy gossamer that shimmered like gold in the breezes from the lagoon. They seemed to breathe, flexing inward in gasps as he passed. The Cxerifon needed no defense of stone or steel. His power made him secure. Rhyse could have hacked his way to Marul's rooms with a small blade, but it would mean death.

His hands trembled as he loosened the tie on his trousers, plunging the slender silver pin into the soft flesh of his inner thigh. He bit his lip to keep from screaming. The rune-etched needle pierced the green eye he'd drawn, and his grip faltered, fingers sliding in blood.

Unseen fingers caressed his thigh. His body ached, but the pain had become something else, something he had no words for. It wasn't pleasure, but there was a trace of arousal. It wasn't passion, but it felt erotic; addicting and electric. For a moment he became both infinitesimal and gargantuan. He felt himself as an infinitely small part of something profound, like a single raindrop as it strikes the ocean.

Circular walls of robustly dyed fabric lined the wide living area, many colors tapering to a point high above. A wrought-iron brazier illuminated a low wooden platform strewn with vellum sheets. Frames of codices flanked the table, some spilling from their pews in accordion cascades, like thin engraved waterfalls.

The talisman burned against his thigh, hot with magic. He smiled. The Cxerifon had been wrong. Rhyse did have the passion to activate the ink, and he wondered what other certainties the wizard had misjudged? His heart sang to think that his cruel master was as human and as flawed as he.

Exhilaration quickly turned to disappointment when he entered the room. Daisha was not there. He'd been so certain of her game. She'd taunted him with the forbidden, offered him a taste of passion, and then vanished. She hated Marul as much as he did, and he suspected she'd given him the talisman eye in order to make him her spy. She was bound to Marul through ink. He wasn't. There were things Rhyse could learn that were beyond the sight of the wizard's apprentice.

A high-pitched moan echoed through the chamber, followed by a crash. The silken brocade ceiling fluttered as if struck. Rhyse's heart heaved from its already fevered pitch. Daisha, Marul was hurting her.

He ran through the big room, past several minor chambers and a small outdoor courtyard filled with bright yellow birds. He followed the sound, and echoed it with his labored breathing. He almost called out.

He felt as if he ran for miles, well beyond the boundaries of the Cxerifon's villa. At last the silken halls ended. The cloth here was different, coarser, and dyed a brilliant shade of red. The fabric no longer hung in panels, but was serrated in long thin bands that quivered as he approached, as if trembling in anticipation of his touch. Soft light flickered between the sheets, playfully dancing from strip to strip. He slowed. His fingers slid between the closest ribbons, parting them only slightly to peer inside.

He'd found Daisha.

Rhyse gasped, his breath fleeing as he beheld Daisha's pale young body reflected the crimson light. Bloody shadows cut through the bedchamber as she writhed against the old wizard. Marul's strong broad arms encased her. His large scarred fingers assaulted her small breasts, violating her.

Rhyse fell to his knees. Tears cut like razors down his cheeks. His intestines twisted as if trying to escape. He wanted to die.

Daisha moaned, throwing back her short dark hair. Rhyse whimpered. She glanced up to meet his gaze, a wry smile thinning her full lips. Then she screamed in pleasure. An anguished howl joined her as Rhyse cried out.

The Cxerifon leapt to his feet, his muscular body, painted and scarred, strained as he sought the source of the sound.

"Come out, boy!" The wizard's eyes searched the chamber. He swung his wide arms, chest heaving, sinews flexing. Had he cared to, Marul could easily have killed Rhyse without the use of magic.

Instead, his sharpened fingernails found a glyph at his throat, raking jagged rips in his flesh. The Cxerifon's magic propelled Rhyse forward into the room as if he'd been picked up and tossed there. Marul blinked, reaching out blindly, and with the Cxerifon's touch Rhyse felt the pain in his thigh change from a smoldering ache to an icy stab. The talisman eye had failed.

"Silly boy." Daisha held a strip of cloth over her body, barely bothering to conceal the sheen of sweat still staining her smooth naked flesh.

Marul slapped him. Rhyse's head rang like a bell as he hit the ground. Arcs of lightning flared behind his eyes. His vision trembled and his stomach heaved. The Cxerifon kicked him in the face, grinding a bare heal into Rhyse's eye.

"I will deal with you when I'm finished." Marul spat on Rhyse, turning his back. "Leave or stay, but keep silent. It may mean your life."

Tattoos of horrifying creatures, some drawn by Rhyse himself, glared from the Cxerifon's shoulders, mocking him with promises of death. Marul pulled the sheet from Daisha's hands, exposing her. She laughed without shame. Rhyse wailed.

She was supposed to be his! They'd shared a bond of hatred toward their cruel master, a bond of age and desire. How could she let this creature touch her? How could she enjoy it? She'd been his only link to a different kind of life, a life with love instead of pain. She'd been hope in human form. Now he had nothing.

He lunged without thinking, striking the wizard with all his might. Marul staggered, and then turned, smiling. Cruelty surged in his dark emerald eyes as his fists came up.

"So, the mouse bites the dragon." He shook his head and dropped his fighter's stance, sauntering as he lifted an incredibly thin blade from the furs at his feet. "I feared you would never learn the control you needed to be a truly gifted scrivener. A shame, really."

Rhyse fell to his knees. His breath came in thick gulps, his lungs straining. He could barely see. Marul's last kick had wrecked his right eye. Hot spikes of pain shot through his skull. He tasted blood, and his body trembled with exhaustion.

Marul knelt beside him.

"You had a trace of talent." The Cxerifon's moist lips caressed Rhyse's ear. Then he slipped the blade almost gently into Rhyse's chest.

Surprise fought with pain as Rhyse's mind exploded. He trembled, falling as Marul eased him to the ground. He clutched at the knife. Marul stepped away, turning to Daisha. The world receded, fraying at the edges. Daisha frowned, a hint of disappointment on her pale features; as if she had the right to judge him. She wrapped her arms around the Cxerifon. The thin fingers of her left hand traced lazy circles over an image of a kawien raven as Rhyse's life slipped away.

His hand had inked that image. It was the first he'd scryed with the rune symbol Daisha had taught him. Strange that it would be among the last of his thoughts...

Then he understood.

He clutched the knife. It fought him, sliding reluctantly from his chest in a gurgle of blood, and he shuddered. He used his own blood to draw the rune, fingers smearing the lines as he slipped briefly from consciousness. Once completed, he closed his eyes. The blade reentered his battered torso, and he died.

He rose swiftly above his body. Energy hit him between the eyes, striking like a river of white-hot iron. It forced him down.

Gasping, vomit rising in his throat, he returned. The air rippled before him, boiling.

Marul spun. Rage and pain competed against the Cxerifon's heavily scarred features as his right eye exploded. His face bent, twisted as if hit by an unseen hammer. The knife vanished from Rhyse's chest. It reappeared in Marul, slicing through ink and flesh with equal ease. Marul howled in agony.

Tattoos became real. Solid forms erupted from intaglio ink. The raven burst from the Cxerifon's body, flying to Rhyse, exploding in a mass of feathers as it compressed. Rhyse staggered backward with shock. The Wyvmeir, a stalking mass of fangs and fur, followed. Then others; every tattoo he'd scratched into Marul's skin flowed into reality, bursting like crashing waves against Rhyse's body. More and more, until his flesh grew hot and he thought he'd explode.

Finally, with a bellow of anguished fury, Marul fractured. His body shattered into a writhing mass of colored filaments that flexed and snapped like angry snakes, striking Rhyse's chest like jets of acid, smoldering under his skin. As Marul dissipated, his image appeared on the upper part of Rhyse's chest, arms raised, imprisoned in ink.

"No, no, no! Those were supposed to be mine!" Daisha leapt onto Rhyse, scratching at the ink as it set into his skin.

His body stirred from the heat of her nudity. Her warm thighs pressed against him, but he pushed her away. The vision of her riding the old Cxerifon was too fresh, too repulsive. His desire for her had fled.

Power flowed through his body. He felt strong. He felt the electricity of magic, the thrill of energy just under the surface of his skin. It animated him, making him jumpy and restless. The need to use it surged like a craving. Was this what Marul had felt? And Daisha? He sensed much more surging beyond his consciousness, just beyond his grasp. He wanted it all, a taste just wouldn't do.

"Come to me." She hadn't bothered to cover herself. Her body called to him, perfect and inviting. He moved a step, lured by her seduction.

"No." He stopped, taking a deep breath. Her scent was heavy in the air. He could almost taste her; he desperately wanted to taste her.

"But I am the new Cxerifon." She stood imperiously, hands on her hips. "And you will be my scryer."

Suddenly, she looked ridiculous, a petulant child who had not gotten her way. How could he have thought he loved her? He laughed, shaking his head.

Then he bowed to pluck a long golden pin from among many littering a dish of amethyst, and forced it into the tattoo of a snow-shrouded forest now covering his left bicep. The pain sent shocks through his body as he faded away, but he'd endured worse.


A Dragon's Back Door, fiction, Issue 23, June 1, 2013

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I am Brihaspati, fiction, Issue 38, March 15, 2017

D. A. D’Amico is an enigma wrapped in confusion and stuffed head-first into a fish-flavored paper bag. His writing style is Jackson Pollock meets Scanners, a surreal exploding-head mess of genres and styles where almost anything is likely. He's had more than forty works published in the last few years in venues such as Daily Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, and Shock Totem... among others. He's a winner of L. Ron Hubbard's prestigious Writers of the Future award, volume XXVII. He's also begun self-publishing collections of his work (available soon on Amazon, and autographed copies from his website). 

His website is, http://www.dadamico.com
His Facebook is, authordadamico
His twitter is, @dadamico

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