Chapter 1 - A Bloody Attack

Sinja gazed intently over the Tenebraes steppe; something was in the air, even the yakutas were standing still, the herd normally going from one corner of the pasture to the other, eating the bright pink grass. These animals provided furs, leather, meat and milk, and were the most highly prized things in the life of a nomad. She looked again up to the heavens and the gradual transition to azure blue, the first sign of the coming dawn, her royal blue eyes scanning the horizon; she could see nothing, but could feel the threat hanging heavily in the air. The Iron Mountains framing the steppe were only visible through a white haze, but Sinja knew the great cities lay there. They had shunned the cities until now and traded their wares with small settlements or travelling merchants, the people in the cities looking down on the nomads as an inferior race.

A heavy hand laid on Sinja’s shoulder brought her back from her thoughts. Smiling, she looked into the beloved face of her father, who had come up from behind her. He too could sense the threat, and frowned. “What’s going on?” his daughter wanted to know. “I have no idea my child, but it’s nothing good” he replied evasively with an intent glance. Sinja nodded thoughtfully, half open-mouthed to ask another question as he interrupted her; “go to the yurt, this is no place for you right now.” A low rumbling made any reply stick in her throat and she turned her mesmerized gaze to the horizon from where an enormous black cloud was approaching, covering everything in its path. She recognised silver horses within the cloud, and her heart missed a beat with fear. Such horses were only ridden by the zjertas, vicious semi-demons, who took anything they wanted. “Go, now” shouted her father with an urgent push as he ran into the camp to raise the alarm.

Frightened but curious, Sinja took refuge with her aunt and mother in the largest yurt. She would have liked to help the men, but none of them was any match for these devils. It was not long until the first battle cries rang out, hissing, growling and howling accompanying the fight. It was pitch black inside the yurt and the three women clung anxiously together listening to the noises from outside. The minutes seemed like hours, and Sinja’s heart pounded up to her throat, fear holding her firmly in its grip as the dark sense of foreboding was transformed into certainty, her aunt screaming in panic as the yurt was ripped through and the interior lit up with a flaming torch. Three zjertas approached, eyes glowing brightly red in the half-darkness as their faces turned to grimaces. The semi-demons were wrapped in dark cloaks, sparing the women the sight of what lay beneath, but their faces resembled charred flesh, with noses flat as if burnt away. Sinja was struck with terror, not even able to scream as the fiends stood directly over them. One of the three growled a command, sounding like deep thunder from a distant storm, and horrified, the young nomad saw two of the demons drag her mother and aunt from the yurt; probably the last she would ever see of them.

The third zjerta approached her, licking his black lips with tongue forked and unnaturally green. Sinja recoiled anxiously, raising her hands in defence and shaking her head, but still no sound came from her mouth. The devil grabbed her with a harsh laugh and ran slowly over her slender body, Sinja sensing the claw-like hands more than seeing them. At the very moment his claw reached her breast another demon leapt into the yurt, and struck off her tormentor’s head. Completely paralysed with horror she watched the now lifeless carcass tilt forward as the black blood gushed over her gown, a scream finally breaking from her throat as she lost consciousness.

As Sinja’s awareness returned she at first thought it was all a terrible nightmare, but then saw the ripped fabric and suddenly realised this was no dream at all. A zjerta sat outside the entrance, watching her inimically, otherwise there was deathly silence. It was dark outside, which however said nothing about the time of day as the black haze obscured everything. The sages had said this cloud was fed by the evil which brought the zjertas into this world; and right now Sinja had every faith in that. Torches were set up, and her guard dragged her out of the yurt, his claws scratching the skin on her arm, but she no longer felt it. For a moment the fire threw a little light on the battlefield which had once been their camp, and she recognised the corpses of her brothers and father. Sinja was so unprepared for the shock she could neither cry out nor weep, simply staring, stunned, at the loved ones who would never smile at her again. No one had taken the trouble to close their eyes; her father seemed to be gazing at her, begging forgiveness, and she knew he had defended them to his last breath. Still no tears broke free, everything felt numbly unreal. The demon pushed her onwards, kicking the bodies aside without a care for her suffering as Sinja stood in shock, and his grip tightened to drag her half stumbling after him, unable to really take in what she had seen.

The demon paused in front of a group of four other zjertas and three humans; one of the devils bore a silver star on his forehead and she realised this must be their clan chief. They began to talk, a mixture of hissing, rumbling and clacking Sinja couldn’t understand. It took a while, then the leader nodded, and she was met with a cold but human glance. The men immediately sprang into motion, two holding her while the third closed iron shackles around her neck and wrists, the heavy iron chaffing painfully on her delicate skin and she could hardly lift her hands, so great was the weight of the manacles. She already knew the significance of these shackles, the mark of slavery; she had been sold to slave traders, but even this realisation could not touch her. A chain was attached to the iron collar and Sinja was dragged away from her former camp. Considerate treatment was not to be expected, so she tried to keep up with the long strides of the men, and after an exhausting forced march of over a kilometre they emerged from the black cloud of the zjertas to be dazzled by bright sunshine. The steppe was still pink, but where the demons had ridden the ground was an icy strip; the farther they moved away from the dark haze the brighter the grass became, until it had regained its natural sparkle.

Sinja was pushed roughly into a tent, where several people already sat huddled together. No one looked up, no one moved, not even as she was chained by the right ankle to another prisoner, the dull eyes of the new slaves only being turned toward her when the entrance closed behind her, but still no one spoke. Why this should be was something Sinja could not yet even suspect. She looked at the others, hoping one of her relatives was among them, but recognised no one. The pain clenched in her heart as she realised she was probably the only survivor. For quite some time they simply sat, the heat in the tent becoming unbearable, partly because too many people were crowded together under the tent. Hunger and thirst rumbled in their insides, but no one got up to demand something to eat or drink. Sinja’s eyes flashed angrily, replacing the numbness inflicted by the loss of her entire family, perhaps precisely that making her careless. With difficulty, she stood, but the man next to her shook his head. “Don’t, they will only make you suffer” he whispered, then the tent was again pervaded by unspeaking silence. Her mother had often told them tales of the slavers and their cruelty, partly to keep her children from going too far into the steppe. These stories now came back into her mind, and she decided not to risk her luck.

It was already dusk when a bowl of water and a crust of bread were thrust into her hand. It wasn’t much, but would secure her survival; that more would not be coming was immediately clear, Sinja quickly drinking the water and chewing the crust before anyone could take it away again. Shortly afterwards they were driven out into the open and ordered to dismantle the tents, irrespective of her gender, no one was spared. The heavy tents were loaded onto a few yakutas, the young nomad constantly stumbling over the chains, receiving kicks and punches as reward for her clumsiness. She staunchly held back the tears, with no more than a contemptuous look for her captors. When the tents and supplies were loaded they were driven out into the wilderness, chained together like animals. Through clenched teeth the slaves tried to stay on their feet; if one fell, more often than not they would take their neighbours with them, and then they all had to endure the fury of the slave traders.

They moved toward the mountains throughout the night, with the moon bathing the steppe in turquoise rays. Particularly at night, the Iron Mountains gleamed in a mystical dark light, and Sinja remembered the tales she had heard about the cities. Previously she had begged her parents to visit one of these settlements with her; today she would gladly forgo the experience. The mountains alone scared her, and the idea of being taken to one of these huge cities, hewn into the rock, made her tremble. Silently they walked through the desert, each trapped in their own nightmare, driven by the three slavers on their horses. Shortly before sunrise they were forced to build the camp again, and then herded back into the tent. There was no bread and water this time, and so Sinja fell asleep, exhausted, but fear of the future and grief for her family followed her.

“Hey you, wake up, and follow me” came a voice from in front of her. Somewhat dazed she opened her eyes, only to look straight into the face of a slaver. Before she could move, he grabbed her by the arm and dragged her up. Sinja noticed someone had removed the chain on her ankle, but before she could even think of escape she was thrust into the next tent. Stumbling, she only just kept her balance, but at the same moment her legs were kicked away from under her so she dropped painfully to the ground. “You must learn how a slave is to behave. The first lesson should already be clear; when the master is in the room, you kneel.” “You’re not worthy of looking at your owner” came another voice. Sinja hastened to obey, as everything hurt from the heavy impact. Upright now, she knelt before the slavers, firmly keeping her eyes lowered so as not to give them any reason to punish her more. The end of a riding crop was pushed under her chin, forcing her to raise her head until she was looking into the almost black eyes of the slaver. “Are you a virgin?” he asked. Sinja’s cheeks turned red, she had never been asked so brazen a question. Everything in her strained against giving this brute a response; she should rather stand and spit it in his face her pride demanded, urgently, but she knew he would have no compunction against killing her on the spot. The riding crop under her chin disappeared, and the next moment his open hand slapped into her face, snapping her head sideways. “Second lesson, you answer questions immediately, without hesitation, without lies” the man told her, quite calmly. Still shocked, she stared at him, unable to respond. Her pride and fear were struggling against each other within her, particularly as she did not have much to lose. Another slap, followed by a powerful kick in the stomach, and she forgot any resistance, struggling painfully to her feet to kneel before him again. “Yes master, I’m still a virgin” she whispered, looking stubbornly down at her knees, not wanting to witness his triumphant grin. She had now slipped so far she sat crouched on the floor, no longer daring to show contempt for her tormentors. “You’ll bring me a pretty penny then” the slaver proclaimed with satisfaction. Sinja did not know what to reply, and so remained silent. He let her kneel in front of him for a while before calling one of his subordinates to take her away. Relieved that nothing worse had happened, Sinja sat back in her place to lapse into dark brooding; it appeared her virginity was to be sold, as if some base whore, but there was nothing she could do to prevent it.

The next week passed in a similar manner, resting during the day, driven over the steppe like cattle at night, Sinja seeming to draw no more attention than the other slaves. There was a bowl of water and a crust of bread once a day, no more, no less; enough to keep them alive, but not to stay strong enough to rebel against their tormentors. She wondered repeatedly what the future held, was this to be her fate? Would her new master be just as callous and inhuman? Or would he torture and abuse her as a sex slave? She often lay awake during the day, tormented by fear, but still not letting it show; she could do without any further humiliation, especially as there was a painful daily lesson on how a slave was to behave; kicks, slaps and humiliation being the order of the day, and with her, it seemed the slavers enjoyed it even more. Perhaps because she was a girl, but she was the only woman these people had captured, and accordingly valuable; from a few overheard snatches of conversation she discovered that not many females survived zjerta attacks, a cold shiver shaking through her as she remembered her own encounter with the monsters. The sight of the demon’s head flying by and the bleeding corpse falling toward her was etched into her memory; reliving it in her dreams every night to wake drenched in sweat.

They finally arrived at the city, and Sinja looked up at the huge gates rising majestically before them; no one could enter the city as long as these gates were closed. They shone with a metallic silver, only a shade darker than the rocks of the Iron Mountains in the background. A push in the back reminded her that the tents had to be put up, as no one was allowed into the city in the middle of the night. She quickly turned her attention back to the heavy tents, which they lifted from the yakutas and dragged to the specified place. She had in the meantime become accustomed to this work, and did not stumble over the ropes so often. Today she was not so exhausted as they had camped much earlier, which did however also take away any hope of finally being able to sleep the night through although even total exhaustion had not been able to free her from the nightmares; but it was already dusk as they were driven together again for the night. Dropping wearily to the ground, she closed her eyes and sank into a finally dreamless sleep.

A few hours later Sinja was awakened with a kick and instructed to dismantle the tents and load them back onto the yakutas. She rubbed her eyes nervously, how gladly she would have slept a little longer, particularly since she had for once not been disturbed by any nightmares, but there was no way to sleep any longer so she scrambled up and went together with the others to carry out their tasks. The chain which bound them together was just long enough for them to carry out their tasks, but also meant everything else was done chained as well, embarrassing as it was for her when she had to satisfy the call of nature. This was a humiliation she would never get used to.

Caught up in her thoughts about the intolerable situation, she was startled by a pathetic roaring, immediately turning in the direction from which the sound came. Horrified, she saw a tall man torturing a dragon with an electroblade, holding the dragon on a kind of leash, the animal writhing in pain, cowering with every move of its tormentor, and Sinja’s heart clenched. Why did he have to display his superiority in this way? Why did he have to torment the poor creature? Disgusted, she turned her head aside and would have gladly blocked her ears to no longer have to listen to the miserable whining. A whip hit her suddenly across the back, and she stifled the scream before glancing at her tormentor. Quickly remembering the lessons she had been taught Sinja lowered her eyes and hastened to perform her task. The roar of the dragon fell silent, and she prayed that the brutal swine had not killed the animal.

Shortly thereafter the small caravan moved into the city once the slaver had identified himself, moving purposefully toward a marketplace, so Sinja had no opportunity to look around, but her first impression was overwhelming. She had never seen so many buildings before, stacked one against the other. Some were bigger than their entire nomad camp had been. She kept looking upwards to see if the sky was still visible above her. The beauty of the palaces and mansions impressed her, but the pageantry also weighed down on her. She was a child of the steppe and had always been free; the confinement, the crowds, and the towering walls all intimidated her.

On the market square, a small platform and two tents were ready for the slave traders, reminding her she would soon meet her new master. She glanced timidly at the gathering crowd as she was driven into the right hand tent, her courage gradually failing. The flap marking the entrance remained a fraction open, so she continued looking outside, but her hopes for a gracious new owner declined with each new member joining the crowd. The men behaved churlishly, some seemed drunk, and brutality was written in their faces, most even appearing filthy. Sinja shook her head, she was filthy too, and longing for a bath or at least some water for washing, so she should not look down on these men. She would of course rather serve a master who was dirty but kind than one who was clean but beat her and made her suffer, but the crowd out there brought out her worst fears.

She looked out again and was able to make out a small group of kolschas; the creatures were immediately noticeable from their giant balloon-like heads, with one eye on the forehead. They were hardly bigger than herself, and with her one metre-sixty, she was quite petite. Her father had told her about these creatures, they had a very high intellect, superior to most living things, but were animated by an incredible coldness; these monsters knew no pity. Her gaze crossed two seekers, former humans who had been transformed by the kolschas, used as servants to find minerals, or particular people, should someone have risked their disfavour; Sinja trembling at the thought that she might be given to these creatures. Also in the group were some dugies, shrouded in their mandatory black cloaks, only the white faces recognisable. These beings floated over the ground as they moved, with heads oddly elongated. Her father had never described the dugies, saying only that one should stay out of their way as they were abysmally evil. Before she could get a better idea of what was awaiting her, the canvas was closed, obscuring her view. Perhaps it was actually a blessing, as she was now trembling before what was to come, cowering terrified by what she had seen. The hope of being at least bought by a human faded by the minute, as the creatures out there had much more money and power than any mere mortal. Horrified, she heard one of the slavers announce the auction as holding a great surprise, and she immediately knew he meant her. She was startled as the tent canvas was beaten aside, crying out as the leader of the slavers entered the tent. He was followed by a man who at first Sinja could not really see, as her eyes were hurriedly lowered, just as she had so forcefully been taught. The slaves quickly stood, not risking another beating, and stared at the ground, Sinja only daring to peer at the visitor through lowered eyelashes.

Her first impression was that he was big, very big; then she noticed the long silver hair spilling smoothly over his shoulders. Above he wore only shoulder armour: heavy leather pauldrons, with a dark cloak attached, hanging down over his back. His pants were likewise in shining black leather, as were his tall boots, and in his hand he held an electroblade, like the dragon rider before the city gates. So he was also one of these animal tormentors Sinja concluded, her hidden view now wandering more closely over his stature; clearly defined chest and abdominal muscles, without an ounce of excess fat on him. He also appeared to combine both power and money, as even the slave traders were looking uncertain, anxious to fulfil their guest’s every wish. The two men went through the entire tent, the dragon rider taking in each of the slaves, choosing two, who were immediately freed from their anklets by the slavers and dragged outside. Sinja shivered as they approached, the imagery of the previous day still fresh in her mind, when the other man had so cruelly tormented the dragon, though this one here looked even more authoritarian. Despite her praying he would finally pass her by he stopped, directly in front of her. To Sinja’s horror he put a hand under her chin, lifting her head until she was forced to look up at him. Cold, grey eyes bored deeply into her own royal blue, and for a while, he just stared at her.

“I want to talk to her alone” he suddenly demanded with a deep, but surprisingly pleasant voice. “But please my lord, that’s really asking too much. No one will believe she’s a virgin if the customers see you disappear into a tent with her” the slaver protested. An icy cold glance from the steely-grey eyes met him, and the slaver could only stammer out disjointed half-sentences, lacking the courage to openly confront the dragon rider, but still did not want to let his business be ruined. “I want to talk to her, - alone” the man repeated, dangerously quietly, his heavy tone carrying both threat and warning. Sinja would have gladly thrown herself at the slavers feet not to have to go with this frightening master, but the slaver duly nodded, stooping to unlock the chain which bound her to the remaining slaves. “Take off the shackles” ordered the dragon rider. With a resigned sigh the man obeyed, unlocked the manacles, and put them aside. It was clear from his face that he would have liked to give the arrogant man a piece of his mind, but would never dare, quickly grabbing the chain attached to her collar and dragging her from the tent. Trembling and stumbling, she had no option but to follow him to the second tent, where he pushed her to the ground, hissing “I’ll be waiting outside” to remind her that any thought of escape was pointless.

For a moment there was silence before the dragon rider pulled her to her feet and forcefully examined her. No detail seemed to escape him, from the long black hair, the royal blue eyes, to her trim, petite figure. “Promise not to flee, to obey me, and I will take you with me” he demanded quietly. Sinja’s eyes opened wide and looked at him as if he had lost his mind. A nomad neither broke their word nor forgot their pride; voluntary submission did not come into question. Slowly she shook her head, “no way” she uttered, forgetting for a moment everything the slavers had so painfully taught her, suddenly remembering that she had no right to look him in the face, and certainly not to give such a response, but he only laughed derisively. “Look at the scum standing in front of the platform. I assure you that none of these bastards has any interest in your safety” he made clear, pushing the cover a little aside from the entrance. Through the opening Sinja could again see the collection of monstrous creatures, and shook once more in disgust. The dragon rider offered her his hand and waited, motionless, for her decision. It was bizarre enough that he was giving her a choice; she had expected him to simply take what he wanted, but was it at all possible for her to keep that promise? By giving her word, she would be binding herself to him indefinitely. Her nervous gaze kept flicking to the crowd raging in front of the platform, loudly demanding to see the slaves, finally deciding he was the lesser of two evils. After all, he wasn’t forcing her; he was leaving it up to her whether she went with him, even though he could have decided entirely for himself. “I promise” she whispered, bowing her head as she took his hand. With a jerk he pulled her to him, put an arm around her, and pressed her tightly to his bare muscular chest. Startled, she opened her eyes and at first tried to resist, but a hardly noticeable shake of the head stopped her. Horrified, she felt his fingertips gliding gently over her body, but somehow, also feeling safe for the first time since the attack. Abruptly he let go, then grabbed the iron chain on her collar to lead her out of the tent. The slaver was on the spot immediately, but the man no longer paid him any attention, simply tossing him a heavy purse in passing. Sinja followed with downcast eyes while he held the chain firmly in his grip. The two slaves he had bought trotted after them, overseen by some unassuming little man. On the opposite side of the square stood a sedan, and the dragon rider walked toward it. As he came into view, the bearers rushed to their places and hastened to open the door. With an inviting gesture he indicated that Sinja should get in. For a moment she considered otherwise, but bound by her word, she accepted his invitation. He climbed in behind her and immediately gave the command to leave.