The Story of Sheng Seleris
- by Martin Laurie
Part 1 - Origins
I am Sheng Seleris, which means "Pain Star" in my tribal tongue though this was not always my calling, for many years I was called only "slave" and before that I was named as a child and not a man for I had not reached the age of initiation when I was captured and changed into what I am today. My tribe was the Turorreg and we were ancient in lineage, tracing our fathers back to the Warlords of the Sun and the God of Heavenly Fire himself. My father was Khan of many warriors, mighty magics but little intelligence for his plans showed his courage and not his wits.
Before the first day of my slavery, our tribe had wintered near the lands of the Dragon Men and a great force of our warriors rode out from our camp to raid and destroy them. I was not on the raid, being too young to accompany the riders and thus I missed their end.
Five hundred of our best men rode through the mountain passes. They were led bravely onwards by my father and older brothers only to be trapped and slaughtered in some unknown gorge. We didn't find out exactly what happened but I know that the Exarch had ordered a purge of the Horse clans that were wintering near the Mountains in an effort to prevent us raiding them further in the summer. Our five hundred were met with Golden Sun Warriors, Spear Birds, Iron clad legions and mystical magics that turned our shaman to dust.
How do I know these things when none of our warriors survived? I know because they sent a force of mercenaries to our camp to take slaves and bring their anger against our womenfolk and children. Strange warriors came, mounted on high-legged beasts, using long spears wielded with merciless precision. The few warriors we had left behind were swept aside by these marauders of the plains. They were led by Kralori soldiers who rounded up most of the women and children, split them in half, giving one half to the high-legged beast riders and the other half they kept for themselves. We found out about the massacre of our men from the Kralori guards who gloated with capricious glee as they led us back to their lands. I remembered their gloating when I ruled the lands of their children. They certainly did not forget mine.
So it was that we were marched through the lands of Kralorela as an example of the Exarch's power over the foolish horsemen of the plains. Our destination was unknown but it was clear that our captors were in no hurry to get us there. We were taken on a wandering route to be pelted by stones and shit at every village we passed through. In-between those brief spells of contact with the Kralori peoples, we ate leaves and dirt from the roadside, we drank piss-filled water from pools in the mud and always we were whipped onwards by the guards who treated us like animals instead of the proud sons of the Heavenly Fire that we were. But like our ancestor in the Darkness, we endured it all without a moan of pain to bring pleasure to our captors though some endured better than others.
When they raped my sisters, night after night, I sat like stone, my back straight and my head held high. I ignored their screams and cries, the laughter of the guards and the sounds of fists on flesh. I was of the Turroreg and we left the acknowledgment of pain to lesser men. I was obdurate, unbreakable or so I thought. I did not know then that sometimes the only way to make something stronger was to break it and build it anew. Many of us died on that march, including my mother. I remember her death to this day. The stone that killed her cracked her skull like a melon as she trudged forward against the hail of dung and rotten fruit that bombarded us all as we passed through yet another village full of hate and bitterness. The guards made me drag her body to the side of the road and whipped me on when I tried to cover her pitiful form with some leaves and rocks. My sudden grief at her loss was overwhelming. I cried in despair, feeling nothing of the lash on my back as I hunched over the woman who had brought me into the world, baring my soul to the mercy of other men for the first time in my life. Instead of mercy I was given pain. Instead of love, I was given torture. Beyond agony, beyond suffering a part of me that I had not suspected before came to the fore and my heart hardened beyond rock, beyond iron. At that moment I lost my fears and I became Sheng Seleris.
I still did not know my name, yet I knew my purpose - I would have my vengeance and I would have a place in the world beyond the mercy of other men. Mercy would be _mine_ to give, and ultimately to deny. That day those men of cruelty made a dagger to stab deep into their own hearts. I would be the weapon of retribution, the scourge of my peoples enemies and the righter of wrongs.
When we had marched for what seemed like a season, we reached a land of bleakness and cold nights. It was like the tundra of Northern Pent in many ways, though more fertile. People lived here but they ignored us, ignored everything as they grubbed in the earth with the relentless probing and thoughtless instinct of a Long-Bill searching for worms. How I hated them, how I longed to crush them beneath my fist, to ride them into their terraces of mud and burn their feeble buildings of wattle and daub. My hate burned stronger every day till I felt like my skin boiled with my rage yet I knew that patience would have to be my mantra. I was but ten years of age, lacking the strength that would come to me in manhood and lacking the skills to use that strength. I resolved to wait and the grim pleasure of _knowing_ that I would have my desires fulfilled gave me the will of a god, the determination of a Hell Hound and the heart of a Hollri. I needed every bit of that determination for Hell was to be my prison, my cage and my forge and only the strongest steel could survive that heat and come out stronger.
We crested a rise made of quarried materials and I caught my first view of the Hen Siao Instant Torture Camp. It sprawled like a choking mold, a morass of misery and bile that infected the very earth it festered upon. Vast heaps of slurry dotted the wide sweep of land before us, around which were clustered long buildings of blackened stone. The reek of death and despair hung over the myriad swarms of people who worked in mines factories, quarries and foundries everywhere in sight. Around this vast forge of suffering ranged a wall of several man-heights which was broken by towers of black rock that stuck up like smashed teeth at irregular intervals. Motionless black armoured warriors stood on those walls and others in red stood atop the towers, pointing missile weapons into the prisoners below.
Our guard captain turned to us and for once his grin of glee was gone, replaced by a look of discomfort. This place frightened him as it did the others. Most of our group was Kralori now as my own folk had been halved in number by their sufferings and along the way we'd been joined by many other columns of prisoners from all over the Dragon Empire. "Prisoners move forward to the gates!" He ordered and the group shuffled forward uncertainly, except me for I strode to the gates as if entering the Chief’s Yurt for a taste of foreign wines.
Red clad warriors issued forth from the black gates to usher the crowd in, they were startled as I walked past them into the Camp. A tall red clad man with gold dragons swirling on his cloak rode over to me on a fine horse as I walked in. "You!" He shouted.
I looked up.
"You seem eager to enter, perhaps you think a world of pleasure awaits you?" He smiled but there was no humour in it. "No." Said I. "I _choose_ to enter this place for I could have chosen to die, yet I go on. Bring me the worst you have to offer, bring me the sufferings of all your Hells and I shall endure and in the end, I shall overcome."
He laughed then, amused beyond words for some moments. Then he spoke in all seriousness "Boy, you have the heart of a Tiger but the brain of an Ox. Nobody endures what we have to offer here. This is not simply a prison, this is a trap for the soul. Once through these gates you will not die of age, only of suffering. We will not _let_ you die until it is in the greatest agony you have ever known in your life. This is the magic we bring to you and believe me when I say that no man has survived it before, nor will."
I stared back, uncowed, into his eyes and I saw a flicker of doubt pass over his mind as he saw the certainty in mine. "Then I shall be the first." I said and stepped into the gateway.
That single stride seemed to last an eternity and I knew that I had moved beyond the normal world into something out of phase with reality. This place was truly a Hell and I was bound to it with that simple step like the thousands who had passed through those gates before me. There was one difference though - none of _them_ had been Sheng Seleris.
My first two years in the Instant Torture Camp were easy compared to what was to follow. Partly that was due to influence of the man I first met on entering the camp, though I didn't know of his interest in me at the time. He had been none other than the Chen Taio; the Mandarin of Painful Enlightenment himself and the man directly responsible to the Exarch of Ignorance for the continued suffering of the camps' inmates and the smooth running of the its industries.
The camp was an immense source of wealth for the Exarch of Ignorance and ultimately the Dragon Emperor; Godunya. The endless stream of political prisoners, rebels, criminals, madmen, fanatics and foreigners that were sent to this camp were put to work on a multitude of tasks from the forging of weapons to the quarrying of rock. From the making of saddles to the shaping of pots. Finally, when life came to an end, the body of the dead inmate was checked for usefulness and if strong enough, it was turned into a Zombie, either to stand guard over the inmates it had once been part of or to serve in the Dragon armies or navies as a rower or spear carrier. If the body was not tough enough for the Zombie ceremony to be worth it, they threw it into the Pit of Flame and Fat where the burning woods reduced flesh to a liquid that was collected from runnels built into the base of the pit. The human fat was used to lubricate many different products including the oar-locks of the Imperial navy. Nothing was wasted of the body and as I later found out, nothing of the soul either.
After being assigned to a barracks, my first task was easy on my body but taxing on my mind and soul. I worked in the Black Lotus preparation factory, grinding and treating the flowers until they became the mind-altering dust that kept the lands of Ignorance in slumber as the Dragon Emperor demanded.
For me the work was a revelation. Constant exposure to the drug combined with my own innate powers and vision took me beyond the normal abusers blank peacefulness into the world of spirits, ghosts and demons. If there was any place in the world to find such beings, it was in this Hell of Endless Torture. They swarmed and screamed their agony of gibbering joys to those who could see them and wormed into the hearts of those who could not.
The vision the Black Lotus gave me was acute, I could see the souls of those around me, know who was weak and who was strong. With such powers I knew who to avoid and who to dominate. More, I began to let my spirit wander at night while my flesh slept. At first I confined the exploration of this strange new world to my barracks where I visited the dreams of the other prisoners and twisted their minds to my will, but later I went beyond the walls and out, into the camp. What I saw out there shocked and intrigued me; I had found the heart of it all.
In the centre of the camp hung an amorphous shape of gigantic size that was not immobile nor without hunger. It pulsed with a purple glow that seemed to drain me of strength as I neared it. Fat, groping tentacles of power snaked around the camp looking for sustenance and souls. Sensing their danger I avoided them easily for they quested blindly and without intelligence as if seeking easier food than I. However, the closer to the central mass I moved, the thicker the tentacles became and the higher my chances of being caught so I stayed back and observed. As I watched, entranced by its hellish beauty, writhing spirits appeared from all over the camp and were sucked or pulled into the seething mass. They struggled and strove but none had my strength or speed to resist its demonic attraction. Each time one was absorbed into the mass the purple glow flared up brightly then died again. Whatever this thing was it was hungry and without end in its appetites.
I felt a surge behind me and span my spiritual body about. From my barracks a soul emerged. It glowed weakly yet for some reason it seemed familiar. It moved uncertainly about, like a foal trying its legs for the first time. It did not have long to get used to its new form of travel for a thick tentacle of purple hunger swung into view and encircled the soul. and began pulling it back towards the central mass with ease. The soul squirmed and struggled and I felt waves of pain emanating from its being. Its consciousness was fading but I recognised the memories of Tun Hwa, a prisoner who slept only three beds from mine and who'd been suffering from the Racking Disease for some time. Plainly the disease had ended his life and now this thing was going to take his soul.
I had a sudden urge to find out what it was doing and followed the tentacle and its catch closely. The purple limb pushed its way through the others as it went back to the central mass with its prize, this cleared the way for me too and I followed it through a wall of shimmering lights and jumping sparks into a pit of utter blackness. The soul of Tun Hwa spiralled below me and I followed, deep into the blackness.
Other souls joined the spiral and I began to hear their screams, as if their very essence was being torn apart and indeed, as I looked they began to dissolve all around me until I was surrounded by a hazy mist of soul-stuff. Then, everything went dark.
"I knew you would come." Said a voice in my head. I span this way and that but could see nothing. "As I said; heart of a Tiger - brain of an Ox."
I knew that voice but before I could blurt out his name, he became visible to me as did my surroundings. I floated in a cavern of immense size and Chen Taio; the Mandarin of Painful Enlightenment hovered beside me, still garbed in his red robes.
"What is this place?" I asked. My voice did not quaver but it was filled with wonder.
"It is the heart of it all, the centre of the camp."
"The souls of the dead come here?" I asked, knowing the answer but wanting to be sure.
"Yes. All who die in the camp are brought here by the Catcher, none escape its clutches on death though some have made other....arrangements." I could tell from his tone that this was something he would not talk about so I changed my line of questioning. I wanted to know everything I could about this man and this place.
“Why? What use are the souls of the weak?”
He laughed wildly. “Souls are what builds the Empire! Not ‘enlightenment’, not ‘inner peace’ but souls! Everything else is just words and illusion!” He gestured around him into the mist of souls. “This is my function, all Mandarins do this. We focus the spirits of the people for the Exarches who in turn focus it for the Emperor. Such is the way of the Dragon. Worship of the lowest gives strength to the highest!”
I was perplexed, such a concept was beyond my youthful mind yet I saw with an instinctual understanding of what he implied, it seemed wrong. “You lie! These people don’t worship, they suffer your rule as do I. Give me a chance at escape and I would kill you where you stand!”
“Yes Tiger-Ox, that is true but does worship have to be given freely?”
“Of course!” I snapped. “What else is there?”
He closed with me then and I felt his spirit grab me in a grip of power that was iron, unbending and unbreakable. His unmasked strength flared around me and I saw the might and fierce will that was the Mandarin of Painful Enlightenment. I saw deeper into his soul, saw the roots that fed him, saw the roots that bound him, saw how my agony strengthened him and realisation hit me like a thunderbolt.
“You _are_ the collector!” I blurted as I looked into the eye of the tiger and possibly my own death.
His burning rage cooled and was replaced instantly by calculation. He nodded as he released me. “Yes, I am the collector or at least a part of me is, it is not a conscious function.”
“You take the souls of the inmates? But how does this help you, they do not worship your Emperor, they curse him!”
He laughed madly then grew serious, as he had at the gate that first day. “They hate him, its true but that is desired. Their suffering, hate, anger and pain is all part of the Emperors spirit. This camp and others like it gives the Emperor the strength he needs to enact suffering upon his own people, it is only a part of his power but a vital part. That is the secret of the Dragon Empire - it _is_ its people! It is its happiness, its contentment..... and its pain.”
“He wishes to make his own people suffer?” I was bemused.
“Of course! Should they act wrongly he must have the means to punish! Without this there is no balance, no equilibrium.”
I saw then the dreadful simplicity of it all, even at that age my mind had the clarity of the Heavens. I saw how every act upon my journey had been designed to engender hate and how every rule of the camp was meant to break the human spirit into suffering and spite. No soul fled this camp, all were absorbed into the Dragon mind to give it the will to inflict damage upon itself should it be necessary. Its balance was wondrous but also wasteful to my way of thinking. I opened my thoughts to the Mandarin. “But this power of suffering is so easy to create, why waste it on harmony, use it for conquest!”
He smiled strangely. “Spoken like a true barbarian Tiger-Ox. You are a child of your people right enough, no matter how advanced your spirit.” He looked down at me sadly. “I had thought that you might make a suitable replacement for me but that may be impossible. I see it now. I show you balance and you see gain, I show you understanding and you seek conquest!”
I glared into his eyes. “What else is there? We are weaned on war and blood. It is what we _are_. Is this why you allowed me here, gave me the Black Lotus to bring my soul forth? To teach me as your student?”
“Perhaps, perhaps I saw something in you that had been in me all those decades ago when I first rose to my rank. I too had been an inmate of this place, I too felt the burning hate, the need for vengeance but in the end I felt one with the Dragon and knew my place in its energies. I can give you that place, I can make you whole but you must endure as I did and learn as I did. Can you do this, is it in you to open your mind?”
I nodded my assent and held his gaze while his soul-sight searched my thoughts with incredible intensity. “Teach me and I shall follow.” I said.
He bared his teeth once more and shook his head. “We shall see Tiger-Ox, we shall see. Tell me that again, in a hundred years time when you are one with the Dragon. Perhaps then I will believe you fully but for now I’m prepared to ride the Tiger. Go back, go back and learn what suffering _is_, learn it to your core for only then will you know how to take it from others and use it as you must. Go back and _learn_.”
I felt my soul blown by a wind that pushed me like a leaf and I whirled back to my body to awake to the sounds of the Rising Gong. My Barracks-mates clustered around the body of Tun Hwa, he was blue already.
Jongir, a fellow Pentan from the Urkomal Tribe and a man who had been most friendly to me in a world of strangers nodded to the body. “Died in the night, another one for the Pit of Flames and Fat I think, he never was very strong.” He peered at me strangely. “I saw you in my dreams last night, you stood at bay against a thing of evil and held part of your mind from it though it tried to seduce you. Are you a Shaman?” He asked.
I glanced at the body and then at Jongir. “Survive with me and find out Jongir, perhaps the answer will surprise you as I hope to surprise another.”
I walked out that day with a defining sense of purpose. If pain and suffering were to be my sustenance for decades to come then I was going to enjoy sharing my meal with others when I gained my freedom......
Churra tried hard not to scream but the searing torment overcame her discipline and she cried out in agony as I placed the red hot brand upon her flesh once more. I felt myself roaring with pain in harmony with my sister as the needles in me fed the excruciating feelings she endured back to me, her unwilling tormentor.
"Good! Very good Tiger-Ox." The Mystic of Sharp Iron nodded happily as he made me put down the brand. He picked up a large needle from his table and pushed it slowly through his manhood while muttering a mantra with the High Magic.
At once my body and my own manhood jerked into action according to his will, channelled by his magic through the dozen or more needles sticking in my major muscle groups. Slowly, like a zombie, I climbed onto the table where my sister lay chained and bleeding and with a mechanical motion, such as that used by the beasts, I began to rape her with tearing force. She moaned her denial and cried pitifully at each thrust and though it enraged me beyond even the death of my mother at the hands of these pigs, there was little I could do. The needles of Sharp Iron he had placed in me controlled my body like a puppet yet fed me every spasm of her pain that I inflicted it upon her.
This continued for what seemed an eternity, then I felt my sister in my mind but her agony was fading, she was reaching a moment of realisation and I knew what it was. It horrified me utterly. She was gathering her will to die, to seek release from her suffering. I tried to scream at her, to stop her, to assure her, anything, but my jaw would not move and all I managed to do was dribble on her face as my body obeyed the will of another and continued its laborious task. The idea of her death horrified me beyond even this act of torment we participated in. She was all I had left, the only member of my family who still survived and I loved her dearly. She felt my pain, my denial of her wish but I felt her thoughts as though she spoke out loud and her voice in my mind was serene, composed, even.
"I have to go brother, I cannot endure anymore. They seek to break you through me and I have not your strength and you do not have the heart to see me suffer no matter how much you can endure yourself."
I spoke back to her as our souls linked beyond the physical interaction of our bodies until we no longer felt our pain. For brief moments we had clarity and peace. "We _will_ endure, they cannot break us, we are family!" I cried to her. For all my words a part of me knew what she said was true but the thought of being without her was a racking tear in my heart.
She spoke again, so sadly. "Let me go brother." She pleaded. "Let me go but always keep a place for me in your heart. I see blood and suffering beyond any the world has known heaped at your feet and I will die knowing you will gain vengeance for us all." She paused and I could feel the strength of her love and pride in me. This was the moment when she defined me and my life and I will always be grateful for that. "As my final gift to you as the elder of our tribe, I name you as a man. I name you Sheng Seleris - "Pain Star" in the old tongue for you will be an agony of light for the foes of our people. Remember me and remember your name..." Her mind voice faded as she spoke and her eyes glazed over in death. I felt her soul leave her body and saw into the spirit world for that brief instant. Purple tentacles of power quested for her soul which flew high and fast like the Vrok. She skipped and jerked her way through them into the sky and broke free of this hell. I felt her happiness at the last and knew that it was good.
With her death my mind snapped back to my body as the needles in me fed her passing to my senses. I jerked and spasmed on her corpse but suddenly had control of my body once more.
I leapt off her.
The Mystic of Sharp Iron lost his smug serene look for the first time in perhaps a hundred years as I stalked towards him. He stabbed a needle into his leg in an effort to stop me but his sharp toys had no effect on me now. He tried to run but I was on him like a tiger to a deer. I clubbed him to the ground where he mewled pitifully but I had no pity in me. Not any more.
I found his largest needle and spoke the words of seeing. I saw into the spirit world and found his centre, where his soul connected with his body. With utter force I rammed that needle into him, binding flesh to spirit even as the flesh died. He screamed in torment at what I had done. I had bound his soul to a corpse that would rot and fester with each passing day yet he would never leave it, never join his ancestors in the Enlightened Heavens. For a Kralori there could be no greater suffering. I felt somewhat content and smiled for the first time in the eight years I'd been in the Camp. I kept smiling even as the guards entered the torture chamber and clubbed me senseless.
Chen Taio, Mandarin of Pain and Enlightenment, watched me calmly from across the room as I regained my senses. When I looked at him he shook his head sadly. "That was a very barbaric thing to do to the poor Mystic of Sharp Iron. We had to destroy his body and still his soul is not free. How did you do that?" He seemed almost amused and curious at the same time.
"I don't know, my rage freed me and I focused the suffering he had given me back upon himself. He bound his own soul in a way and thus can never be free of that."
Chen Taio nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, yes I see, Very good, I like that. You have learnt much since those days of childhood when you glared at me so obstinately. However, as much as you entertain me, you must be punished for your insolence. Guards, take him to the Hell of Peeling and Salt."
"Wait!" I commanded. The guards stopped at a gesture from the Mandarin.
"Yes? You wish to plead? How becoming!"
"No, I do not plead, do with me as you will but know this - I will kill you and bring this place down upon you and your kind. There will be no mercy, there will be no survivors. I will see it all burn." I locked eyes with him once more and he saw my certainty as he always did. However, he was used to my pronouncements of prophecy by then and merely laughed.
"Who do you think you are? The Chaos Dragon?"
"No, I'm worse, I am Sheng Seleris."
He said nothing as they dragged me away. What more needed to be said?
The Hell of Peeling and Salt was agony but I barely noticed. My mind was elsewhere. Though they took of most off my skin with razors and graters then rubbed in salt until I blazed with the pain. Though they healed me to do it all again until I rose and fell on a tidal sea of torture, I never uttered a sound.
When they finally let me go they did so with a strange and quiet respect. They looked at me with awe and no little fear. As I left the Rooms of Eviscerating Delights, the word of my defeat of the Mystic of Sharp Iron and unheard of endurance in the Hell of Peeling and Salt was being passed quickly around the camp.
When I came at last to my barracks a strange sight greeted me as I walked through the doors. All the men were standing in rows and when I entered they bowed before me. They were led by Jongir, my first friend in the camp and not to be the last.
"What is this?" I asked, surprise and pain made my mind slow.
Jongir spoke. "We are your men, we follow you here in Hell and wherever you may lead us. There is a light about you that we must meet, like moths to a torch we are drawn to your service for men who have nothing to offer can still give their fidelity."
I looked around the group, at men who had once been broken but now seemed to have a stiffness to their spines not there yesterday. My destiny loomed sharp and clear. I would lead these men at first, then more. Eventually the world would lie at my feet and give loyalty or die. It was prophesied, and so it would be.
"I accept your loyalty. You are the first to give it but you won't be the last. Yet if all the hosts of Heaven stood with me, always I will remember that you _were_ the first!"
They roared their approval at my words and so it began.