The Quest of Balthasar

Chapter I

 

Tarr groaned as his battered body smashed the stones. Blood oozed from his crumpled nose and the pungent smoke of the dungeon cell stung his swollen eyes.

"You no good swine," the jailer cursed. "Yah deserve to die." The slobbering Mystragaellan guard slammed his foot onto the small of Tarr's back. "But, there is others who wants yah first. That there Hunter has his dibs, he does."

The Hunter. Tarr shuddered. Always The Hunter nipping at his heels. Now, that Black Pirate had caught up with him.

A steel-capped toe flipped the Lochnaeran like a helpless turtle. Tarr coiled his arms over his lacerated face.

"Scrofata-swine," the jailer spat. Tarr huffed as the boot bit into his gut. "Yah ain't good for nothing. Not stealing. Not slaving. Nothing."

A bell sounded in the passageway.

"By Veldnor's sword!" the guard swore. He moved toward the barred door, his bushy tail rustling the loose straw. "Just when I was getting somewheres; it ends. Duty. Bloody duty calls."

Tarr sagged, somehow drawing strength from the stone floor beneath him as the steel cell door rang shut. His limp ears caught the rattle of a key.

"Swine of the universe," the jailer growled, thrusting his slavering snout through the bars. "Yah'll rot here, that's what yah'll do. Death won't come soon enough for the likes of you."

His barking laugh haunted the passage.

Tarr lay still. His mind wavered between the reality of this filthy cell and some fantasy world where his parents loved him. Where someone cared whether he lived or died. In that misty place between the present pain and his dreams, he knew another prisoner's eyes watched.

Through mere slits in puffy flesh, he searched the haze of the dungeon cell. Three stone walls surrounded him, the fourth being made of steel bars. The door, although of ancient design, had a humming blueness shrouding it.

As he eased himself up, the Lochnaeran gasped drawing in the thick smoke. It was sweet, like the incense of an Aurora winter festival.

Tarr's ears flared as a sigh sent a whirl of eddies toward him.

"Come, my friend, enjoy what these Mystragaellan dogs toss us. It's all the comfort yo'll get." The stranger's voice rumbled, belching from a cavernous chest and slurred as if drunk on buckberry wine.

"Who are you?" Tarr asked, trying to dissipate the smoke with a wave of his hand.

"I is a friend," the creature replied. Then, a ghost of a chuckle haunted the cell. "Yeah, you might call me friend."

"I've no friends here," Tarr whispered. "I'm a stranger."

A coughing fit racked him. Pain tore through his chest and he spat blood into the straw. After wiping the spittle from his chin, Tarr twisted a greasy blonde curl behind his ear which hung against his cheek, shredded by dagger-like teeth.

"We is the same, yo and me," his cellmate said. The straw rustled behind the screen of billowing smoke. "Strangers, I mean. Strangers in a strange world."

Tarr dragged his aching body up, propping himself against the wall. He prayed to Hath to give him the strength to live.

"They did a number on you, eh?"

Pain hammered inside Tarr's head. "Like I said; I'm a stranger here."

"From Lochnaera."

"You know my world?" The smoke shredded apart. Seeing his cellmate, Tarr gasped.

An unearthly laugh erupted from the creature. "Yo ain't dreaming, my friend. Yo sees what you thinks yo sees."

The Lavnoran's massive black bulk was not an imaginary character. This beast of legend lived! Tarr couldnŐt believe his eyes. A true Lavnoran, a crooked smile on his dark face, sat before him.

"I thought all Lavnorans were dead," Tarr whispered. "We, I mean, my people...well, you know. Your people, they are all but forgotten. A legend lost in the mists of time."

A ghostly rumble rippled across the cell. The Lavnoran studied him, a dirty patch shrouding one of his black eyes.

"Not forgotten by yo, me thinks."

"I believed your race to be dead. We destroyed you."

The creature leaned forward to corral some stray straw with his broad hands, stuffing the shiny stalks beneath him.

"Yor people thought us dead 'cause that's what we wanted you ta think. We escaped, yo see. Our people survived on the Dark Side."

"None can live there!"

School lessons flooded back of the treacherous ice fields, incredible cold, and perpetual night of the Dark Side. Only Lochnaera's sister planet, Areanhcol, ever viewed its blackness. A few scattered legends spoke of its mysteries but even Tarr's Legend Master thought them stories to frighten children.

"Ah, but us Lavnorans do live there. Us black scrofata ain't dumb nor soft like yo. We survived and now is galaxy-traders. Successful, too."

He took a long draw on the clay pipe clenched between his yellowed teeth, lovingly cradling its bowl in one massive hand. The pungent smoke wreathed his black face.

"I were trading in this here quadrant," the Lavnoran continued, "when that Mystragaellan scum seized me ship." He spat in the direction of the steel bars. "Theys hate scrofata, they do. 'Course, they see no difference 'tween us. Lavnorans, Lochnaerans, we is all the same to them. Scrofata-scum." He shook his head; his scraggly hair, streaked with dull silver, dusted his shoulders. "Ironic, ain't it?"

The smoke of his pipe curled back over the Lavnoran's tusks, orange and chipped with age. Tarr knew their striated tips had seen many battles, goring more than one unfortunate soul. His own knobby bumps would be no match against them.

As his cellmate smoked, Tarr studied his haggard face. Shaggy brows, lightly frosted with gray, curled over the filthy eye-patch. Dotting his nose were knobby warts, some with tufts of hair. The creases of age etched his black skin except where a jagged pink scar sliced his wiry beard. An iron ring, piercing his nose, gleamed in the dim light of the barred window.

Tarr touched the gold ring in his own nose. Blood oozed from the wound.

"Damn you, you Hath-forsaken heathens," he whispered, dabbing the blood with a wad of straw, "and damn this bloody ring."

The braided gold shackle was why he had ended up in this cell. Had its legendary magic protected him? No. It was just a band of gold. More trouble than it was worth.

After mounding some scattered straw into a crude mattress and bunching his leather jacket into a pillow, Tarr collapsed upon it. A shiny black beetle scuttled away as he fell asleep. His dreams of The Hunter were not restful.

 

"Swill time, yah swine. And, more curaca."

Tarr gazed through the smoky haze as the guard laid two dishes and a small packet just inside the door. Dull gray keys dangled from his belt. Tarr lunged for them.

The guard's foot caught him, slamming him against the wall.

"Yah scum," he growled. "Yah ain't going nowheres. Enjoy yer curaca. It'll make yah happy."

The cell door clang shut; the guard's muttering echoed down the passage.

Tears welling in his eyes, Tarr dragged himself to the food. He brushed aside the packet of tobacco.

"It's mine!" the Lavnoarn snarled.

"Take it," Tarr replied, his tongue lolling through his teeth.

What's wrong with me, he thought? Surely I didn't get beaten so badly I can't even talk?

He watched the Lavnoran stuff the packet under a vest with only two brass buttons. Beneath it, he wore a graying shirt, tattered and bloodstained. It had lacy cuffs. Black leather pantaloons, creased and split, hung limply over the older scrofata's thighs and his white hose sported intricate ladders. Gigantic black toes poked through their sooty soles.

Tarr gazed at the dish of slop the Mystragaellan guard had left. It wavered like heat rising from a field on a hot Millida day.

The words of the jailer waltzed through his muddled mind.

"Yah ain't going nowheres. Enjoy yer curaca. It will make yah happy."

Curaca? Was that the tobacco the Lavnoran smoked? Was its pungency affecting him?

His swollen fingers couldn't hold the food bowl so Tarr ate as an animal does, lapping up the runny porridge.

"Eat mine," the Lavnoran slurred, the smoke of his pipe shrouding his face. "I ain't hungry."

"It's the curaca," Tarr said. "It must deaden your desire. Eat or you'll die."

"Die? I'd love ta die, my friend. I ain't got nothing ta live for. Them dogs took me ship and killed me crew. I can't go home. I've lost me friends. Yeah, I'd rather be dead."

"You could escape."

"The only escape is curaca. Come, take a draw."

Tarr shook his head.

"It's yor only hope, Lochnaeran," the black scrofata said as he drifted from the horrors of their prison.

 

The clatter of the jailer's keys again woke Tarr but this time, he did not stir. "Them filthy pigs," the guard hissed. "Like animals they is. Scrofata-scum." He spat as he scooped up Tarr's empty bowl. The Lavnoran's swill was alive with humming flies.

"Disgusting," the Mystragaellan muttered, waving the insects away. Two landed on Tarr's face. Their tiny feet tickled but he refused to twitch an ear.

As the guard left, he tossed another packet of curaca on the floor. The black scrofata did not wake. His great ears hung like melon leaves caught by an early frost and his snores continued unbroken by the prison's sounds.

Easing himself up on an elbow, Tarr eyed the lump of tobacco. He had to hide it. With the silence of a cat, he slid across the floor. As his fingers curled around the packet, the Lavnoran muttered. Tarr paused, his heart pounding as he watched the creature of his childhood nightmares fling himself into another position on the straw. A minute dragged by before Tarr grabbed the curaca. He quickly stuffed it into the moldy straw that was his mattress.

Old cells, such as this, held many secrets, he thought. Perhaps a hiding place lay behind one of the crumbling stones.

Tarr's fingers groped along the wall. He found what he sought and eased the stone out. The opening beyond would serve his purpose.

 

Pain jerked Tarr awake. Before him, his face a twisted snarl, stood the Lavnoran. A gnarled hand grasped the collar of Tarr's silk shirt, pressing its bony knuckles into his throat. Tarr dangled like a dead puppet in the black scrofata's hand.

Without thinking, Tarr swung at his foe.

The Lavnoran caught his clenched fist, crushing the young scrofata's wrist. Tarr yelped.

"Where is it, Lochnaeran?" The black scrofata's eye smoldered as his putrid breath bathed Tarr's face.

"Where's what?" Tarr squeaked, twisting in the air.

"The curaca."

"I hid it."

The Lavnoran slammed him against the wall. Tarr's breath huffed from him.

"Where is it?"

Tarr lashed out, kicking the giant's shins. Somehow he must win this fight. He had to return to Lochnaera. He had to bring the Ring of Peace to his people.

The gold ring in his nose tingled. The grip around his throat suddenly loosened.

A roaring laugh erupted from the black scrofata.

"What were I thinking, lad?" the Lavnoran asked as he gently lowered Tarr onto the straw. "I ain't never laid me hands on another scrofata before. How old're yo?"

"Sixteen," Tarr whispered, massaging his throat.

"Really?" The Lavnoran sighed. "I ain't never attacked anyone so young. Yo's too young to be traveling the galaxy, lad. And me, I've lost something of m'self in this here cell. Ta think I almost beat a puppy ta death." With a shake of his head, he slumped down on his mound of straw combing his fingers through coarse, dirty hair.

"It's the curaca," Tarr said, his breath slowly returning. "It does strange things to a scrofata's mind."

"Yet, it has given me peace in this hell."

"A false peace."

He nodded. "The name's Argus Sustilla, by the way."

"I'm called Tarr."

"Tarr? Nothing more?" His bushy eyebrow lifted above the dirty eye-patch.

"None must know my real name. Tarr is a nickname."

Argus shrugged his shoulders. "We all bear secrets when we travel the galaxy. So, Tarr of Lochnaera, where's that curaca? I have need of its 'false' peace."

"I can't let you have it, Argus. I must escape and the smoke hinders my thinking. When I leave, I'll let you know where it's hidden."

Argus snorted. "If yo leave, lad, I go with you. False peace is great when there ain't no real hope but give me a chance at freedom any day. I tried ta escape when I first came but it were hopeless. Where I failed, maybe two could succeed. What's the day, lad? I've done gone lost track of time."

"I'm not sure of the day but, it's the month of Remmus in the year 806. Spring on Lochnaera." Tarr sighed remembering last spring. That's when he finally realized who he was and his parents learned who he was not. Autumn brought the deadly Black Pirates.

"I've waited two years for death to free me, Tarr. Them Mystragaellans threaten, drug, and starve, but do they kill? No. With yo here, maybe the freedom of death ain't what I seek."

"When my wounds heal, I'll leave this prison," Tarr replied. "I can't have you slowing me down, Argus."

"I won't; don't fret yorself."

"Rise and shine, Scrofata-scum," the guard's voice echoed down the passage. "Time to get up. Oh, yah's up already. Ain't that nice. You." His scrawny, clawed finger pointed at Tarr. "Yer to be sentenced. Come to the door."

The Lochnaeran staggered to his feet, brushing at the straw clinging to his leather pants.

"Yah be filthy, you be. And yah stink." The jailer snorted as he slapped metallic cuffs around Tarr's wrists.

"Prisoners deserve better treatment than this."

"Not Scrofata-scum prisoners. Get moving. Yer don't want to keep the judge waiting; now do you? Yah must have yer fair trial." His laugh sent a shiver down Tarr's spine.

 

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