Angus, the exile, reached behind his head and smoothed down his long, flowing hair. It would reach his waist soon and he would have to have it sheared. A daily ritual of shaving kept his face bare. Black eyes like machined spheres of hematite marked him as cunning to the other Heretics; one to be dealt with only when necessary and then with caution. Only the tips of his fangs showed when his mouth was closed. Nor did his tunic cover his arms as it did most of the others. Rather, he bared them proudly, the thick fur as sufficient as sleeves. When he stood to full height rather than slumped, he was as tall as the natives roaming freely above.
He ran his fingers over the polished wood grain of the orange-brown table, but its beauty gave him little satisfaction. Neither did the expanse of the rocky alcove about him, though it was larger than all but two others. More than three times his height, its smooth walls rippled like waves on a placid sea, a wrinkled bubble of air far beneath the ocean’s surface.
Small flakes of gold shimmered in a narrow vein snaking above Angus’ head. Flickering candles standing in indentations chiseled into the walls gave only enough light so that the objects on the tabletop could be seen, but the rest of the alcove was in shadow. The wax was too precious to waste on reminding one of the crushing reality of confinement.
Untold hours had been spent by the Heretics chipping away at the alcove floor to create the flat space on which the table stood and a pathway to a small oval opening leading to more caverns and twisty passageways beyond. Caverns and passageways—the entire world of the vanquished, the exiles, the Heretics Who Proclaim the Truth.
Angus looked at the small clock on the tabletop, its pendulum swinging back and forth in frantic haste, far faster than the glacial slowness the humans used to mark their time.
The humans. The puny, primitive humans. If they knew of his true status and that of the others of his kind, they would be laughing. He was a powerful alchemist. His brothers were potent practitioners of the crafts as well. Unfettered, subjugations of the surface dwellers would be easy. Yet despite this power, they hopelessly were confined in underground caverns. And so fearful that any use of the magics would alert the so-called Faithful, the oppressors who put them here, his brothers insisted no craft be practiced at all.
The Faithful. Faithful to what? What an ill-fitting label. Sheep that move from one fad to the next with only the slightest prodding. The merest hint that something new was going to be more popular than what had come before. The idiots did not think, did not consider, did not engage with exercises of the mind.
But then, it was no better here. Dinton, his eldest brother, how could he be so stubborn, so unseeing, so afraid? Whenever he had possession of the baton, the depression of the flock members always increased. There was always the risk one or more would remove their rings and surrender—unable to accept who knows how much longer—more centuries encased in rock before they might possibly be free.
Dinton and Thaling would be here shortly, so Angus shoved the thoughts away. As always, Dinton would arrive first; Thaling would be the last to appear—the diplomat, his middle brother with the glib words to douse the rising anger boiling between Dinton and himself. Never venturing opinions of his own so they too could be attacked. His two, so unalike brothers. He wondered how much longer he could keep his secret from them.
Without preamble, Dinton entered the alcove, breaking through Angus’ reverie. He was shorter but broader like an over ripe gourd. His hair also cascaded to his waist behind, but rather than the uniform dull brown of Angus, the roots showed silver. Even in the dimness, his eyes squinted nearly shut, as if he were afraid to let anything from the outside accost his senses. His fangs did not protrude. A long rod of polished wood hung from his waist on one side and a short dagger from the other. He carried a colored cardboard box in his hand.
“You have gone above again, haven’t you?” Dinton said without preamble. He slapped the staff at his side. “Even when I explicitly forbade it while the baton is mine.”
Angus glanced up at Dinton, but did not rise. His brother’s time as agreed upon absolute leader was almost over. Let him feel a little more aggravation before it was finished.
“We have been over this many times before,” Angus said. “A grandfather over a hundred native years ago, and then his grandson when his elder was soon to pass. They are the only two of which I have interacted. There is no way any other of these primitives would find out about the trades I have made.”
“It is not the natives I worry about,” Dinton thundered as if were orating to everyone in the caverns at once. “It is the oppressive ones, the Faithful, the ones who overwhelmed us and cast us out. If they discover there is traffic with those who call themselves humans, or that the charm placed upon us has worn off, or if any new exercise of craft is detected, their next punishment will be even worse than this. We all would be given to the tigerwasps. All of us. Continual pain with no release.”
Angus prided himself on how he carried himself in the caverns—back straight as a sheer cliff, untroubled by any threat unless directly challenged to a duel one-to-one. But every time he thought of the wasps, he could not help but wince.
His eyes closed nearly shut and his cheeks stretched high on his face. “We should have destroyed the colony of the loathsome pests long ago,” he shuddered. “The Faithful left those huge beasts with us so we would come to use them on ourselves—even when there was the most petty bickering.”
Dinton nodded slowly. He cleared his throat before speaking as he often did. “What the feeling would be, I, too, find it hard to think about. Boring into one’s stomach and then consuming the organs from the inside—slowly and carefully, leaving only enough of each to continue functioning until the very last.”
“But it is the ultimate deterrent,” Dinton continued before Angus could reply. “No one dares to commit a capital crime. The punishment would be too great. For the thousand years we have been here, the tigerwasps have been employed only twice.”
“Count the rings in your alcove,” Angus ignored Dinton’s words. His brother had a tendency to run on and on. “How many do they number now? Haven’t more than three hundred already taken their own lives, from their loss in either a half-heartedly fought duel or an overwhelming sadness they can no longer put away? What good does it do to wait any longer? Soon there will be none of us left, and then it will not matter.”
“We must have patience,” Dinton answered. Now his eyes were totally shut. “The primitives are accelerating the destruction of their world. In a few hundred more orbits about their star, they all will be gone and this entire planet will be ours.”
“This entire hell-hole, you mean,” Angus snapped back. “Of what use is it to us, if we must remain below the surface even after the humans are gone?”
Angus waved his arm around his alcove. “And while we wait, what do we have to bring us joy? A meandering collection of lava tubes and gas bubbles. Small cracks in the surface to let in sunlight for our crops, a trickle of water from the rains above. No sky overhead, no wind. Once every nook had been explored two or three times over, only numbness is left.”
“Back on the home world,” Dinton put a tone of considered reasoning into his voice, “our so-called heresies were a matter of debate— the beliefs of one flock against those of another. But here, the risk of discovery is unforgiveable. Your dabbling, the skirting on the edge of safety must stop.” The sound of the orator resumed. “I have commanded it. Stop or else.”
“Or else, what?”
“Or else the wasps.”
“Yet, you enjoy an even bigger table than this one in your alcove,” Angus said. “Without what I have done, how could these little tastes of beauty even have been possible? The monotony would indeed be complete.”
“Mere shadows,” Dinton scoffed. “Native trinkets with no depth of meaning.”
“Trinkets!” Angus shouted. “The objects I have obtained at great peril, mere trinkets?” With a snarl, he withdrew the dagger from his waist. “I’ll show you a trinket. But first, you will have to remove it from your gut!”
“You are the youngest, Angus,” Dinton growled. The box he was carrying dropped to the floor and flew open. Cards and tokens scattered about. Ignoring the mess, he drew his knife in reply, his eyes now wide open and glaring. “You are the youngest, Angus, if only for a few moments more.”
“Stop!” a third voice interrupted the argument. “What is it this time?” Thaling rushed in and placed restraining hands on his brothers’ arms. “We have made the agreement that we will not succumb to our baser emotions when we meet. We are to decide who will possess the baton for the next turn of the wheel of time. Nothing more. Why is that so hard to remember?”
Thaling was the shortest of the three, hunched over like a rat trying to walk on only its hind legs. Long fangs protruding from his lips interfered with his speech, but his brothers had grown used to his slurs. As adults, they no longer jeered when he tried to mouth human words.
For a few heartbeats, Angus and Dinton stared at each other. Like two feuding children, they played at who would resheath his weapon first. Finally, Angus sighed in exasperation and plunged his into its scabbard. Dinton waited a moment longer, smiled, and put his away as well.
“If only father had publically chosen one of us before he gave into the monotony and took his own life,” Thaling said. He straightened up as best he could. “We would have no need for the periodic bickering and waste of time.”
“Yes, certainly,” Angus said. “Our daily schedules are so very busy, that we can hardly find a few moments for this stupid ceremony.”
“We have agreed,” Thaling said, his slur more noticeable when he became excited. “It is the only thing that has kept us from destroying all of ourselves in a struggle to determine who was to rule.”
“I am the eldest,” Dinton said. “By rights, it should have been me.”
“We made an agreement,” Thaling pleaded. “Why do we have to go through with this each and every time?”
“If Dinton would only stop harping about being the oldest—” Angus began.
“I choose my words carefully each time I speak,” Dinton cut in. “You are the one who pollutes the air with your hot-headed outbursts.”
“Enough,” Thaling shouted. “To the business at hand.”
“You are not yet the holder of the baton,” Dinton turned his attention to Thaling and withdrew his dagger again. “You cannot give me commands. I demand the respect that is my due.”
“I do not cower to words that are merely loud,” Angus said as he brandished his stiletto as well.
Thaling took a step backward and bared his own knife. “So this is the way of cowards? Rather than duel properly, instead, gang up two against one?” He showed his teeth, and a drool of foam began to drip from the side of his mouth.
The three brothers stood facing one another in a tight circle, first threatening the one on the left and then the right. After a few dozen heartbeats, a gentle chime from the small clock on Angus’ table broke through the tension. Like the uncoiling of intertwined springs, all three men relaxed.
“Yes, it is time to choose,” Thaling said, lowering his blade and resuming his usual slump.
“If it is my turn again,” Dinton said, “my edicts remain the same. No contact with the natives. Reduce the frivolous use of water. Store it instead against when there will be drought. And above all, patience. Wait for what eventually is going to happen—for when the humans will be gone.”
“Action now,” Angus said. “If it becomes my turn, then there will be tasks that I will command what you and your flocks are to do.” He turned and looked at Thaling. “And you, brother. Every time, you are always silent. “Have you even thought about what would be your commands if the baton were to pass to you?”
“No thoughts, my brothers.” Thaling’s slump grew even deeper. “Not until such time as they are needed. Let us continue as we have done before.”
Dinton grunted. He stooped and began retrieving the box and its scattered contents. Thaling and Angus bent to help. Soon a flat board, the tokens, and the cards were in their proper places.
“Before we begin, the oath,” Dinton said. Angus and Thaling nodded.
In unison, they orated, “I agree that the winner of the game gets the baton for the next cycle. For so long as he holds it, his word is absolute, and I shall obey.”
“And regardless of who holds the baton, I shall practice no craft. But if I transgress, the tigerwasps shall do what they will with me.” Dinton then continued alone.
“And regardless of who holds the baton, I shall practice no craft. But if I transgress, the tigerwasps shall do what they will with me,” Thaling repeated.
“And regardless of who holds the baton, I shall practice no craft. But if I transgress, the tigerwasps shall do what they will with me.” Angus spoke as the last.
Angus held his thoughts to himself. He pushed away the images of the wasp depositing an egg in his stomach bulges. There was high risk in what he was doing. He could not deny it. But then, neither could he continue with things as they were.
The three turned their attention to Angus’ tabletop. Dice rolled and the tokens moved. No one spoke until Thaling said, “I suggest it was done by Miss Scarlet with the revolver in the lounge.”