Chronicles of Hildegoth: The First

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Not So Cute (G-PG)

 

 

 

 

 

Stuart Staub

 

Chronicles of Hildegoth:

The First

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chronicles of Hildegoth: The First

 

Copyright © 2017 by Stuart Staub All rights reserved worldwide.

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are

products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to

actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

 

 

 

 

ISBN:  978-1-387-05658-3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For my son and my brother

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part 1 - Warriors and Angels

Prologue

 

                Oh, bloody hells and gods, Hildegoth was vast and beautiful and ancient and all that. In the west were the rich lands of Rualedd and Olda Sett, the barren stretches of sand that made up much of Chaal, and the deep and mysterious woodlands of Fruudosch. Other lands bordered these, and were as varied as the pebbles in a stream, and we will get to them eventually. For now, much of what will be told took place in the far west, and the far east in Erathai, the seat to the gleaming city of Tyniar where all fell under the rule of the High King. No one knows who settled here first, but all agree it was the humans who arrived last. The dwarves, reclining in their castles of stone buried in the mountains, insist that it was their ancestors who crawled from the mountains to lay claim to the lands. And, of course, the ageless elves in their gentle spires along the forests and rivers would say that they had always been here and had watched the dwarves slink from their holes into the light. The brilliant and eccentric gnomes toiling in their mechanized cities, well, they were never much for delving into the squabbles of the elder grumpy races.

The humans, the youngest, brashest, and most arrogant in their ignorance of the two-footed thinkers, did manage to succeed in one obscure area: They somehow managed to unite all of these unrelatable peoples under one tentative crown. Furthermore, they made it so that any human, dwarf, elf, gnome, or what have you could ascend to such a position. This position was known as the High King.

                The High King was and is the highest seat of power in Hildegoth. It has been held by many mortals of both endless integrity and indescribable malevolence, and its history stretches back a thousand years to when the warring kings of that age decided

amongst themselves that, though they would govern their own lands and their own peoples, an Oltim Sovrothi, a Great King, would have the final say in governance over them all. For some reason, slaughtering each other for a millennium did little to bring peace to lands that had known only poverty, war, and famine for generations. This concordance achieved it by making it clear that, for the most part, it was better to just sort of keep to themselves and not try to kill each other so much.

As the ages passed, its influence grew into a ruling entity that governed more than war and irreconcilable dispute as individual kings lost their kingdoms or passed away without an heir. Eventually, kingdoms became oligarchies and theocracies and

dozens of other governments, and reason and fear of losing what position they held

swayed these men and women and mankindred to continue fealty to the High King. Mutually agreed upon boundaries both real and imagined may never be enough to end conflict, but it could corral it nicely.

As for the throne itself, succession was by birth, but, in the event that a high king was deposed or died without a son or daughter, a new one was elected in an exhaustive process that limited itself to no one. This has come to pass occasionally in Hildegoth’s history, and those were turbulent times at best.

                There were dissenters of course. The savage orcs of Westenmarsh and the

untamable gangrel elves of the wildernesses of Margas Enudd would remain forever

beyond the High King's rule. Additionally, organizations within the kingdoms themselves have opposed it since its inception. Such institutions like the Ardett Marsai, whose crimson-robed officials dot royal courts to this day vied for their bizarre and dark agendas. Or theCircle of Toro, the foul garden in which a member grew to such a place of power he actually had the ear of High King Uredd the Red, who brought about The Great

Cleansing, the most despicable sanction in the history of Hildegoth. King Uredd eventually went mad and took his own life, leaving the seat vacant for nearly a decade – the longest in its history.

                The succeeding king, again chosen by his peers, was known as Merrett of

Marmalokk, a small mining village in northern Erathai. He was appointed by a passing noble of unknown origins and great influence at the Erathian High Courts who saw him leading a team of starving miners from the colliers where most of the laboring classes of those lands made their living. They had been trapped without food, water, or light, but Merrett, the youngest of three children and only thirteen years old at the time, had coaxed them on and led them out by convincing them that his nose could find fresh air. He had been lying of course, but their belief in his words and character was great enough to follow him nonetheless, where cool wit and a bit of luck led eventually to freedom. This so moved the noble that he demanded the young man accompany him back to the lands of Erathai so that he could be endorsed as High king. Investigation into the young man’s heritage eventually revealed that he was of an ancient line of warrior kings, dating back to the earliest settlements of Erathai. He was crowned almost immediately. He began drinking immediately after that.

                Many insist that Merrett’s ascension to the crown was the doing of the gods, for an immediate test of the young king’s mettle awaited him. The overwhelmed boy king found himself knee deep in the most trying times in recent memory: The Garull Wars.

                Vicious trollkin, hell-spawned and enhanced by the dreams and means of some foolish lord whose name has been lost to petty history, the garulls nearly toppled civilized life in the known lands. Only careful conspiracy between humans and mankindred – and the formation of the fighting Garulokai –vanquished them, though they were never truly eradicated.

                After the Garull Wars had seen their last days, the great armies of the High King saw themselves fall into disuse and then ruin. With no foe upon which to test their steel, many warriors of old either passed on as nature intended, or succumbed to the frailties of a peaceful life that has no place for their kind. Very few of them were at odds with such an existence.

                In only a few decades, the swamps and great redwood groves of the West fell back into the hands of the wild races, as the strongholds condensed and solidified into towering city states under the direct rule of their governing bodies and under peripheral (yet final) rule of the High King. Centralized and quite often self-sufficient, these protectorates paid their dues in taxes or materials according to the terms set down in the High King’s edicts, though most began to do so grudgingly. Some had argued their place in such matters. Their individual governing representatives claimed that peacetime and

distance from Erathai made such taxation unnecessary and difficult. The High King did his best to accommodate their demands, and, eventually, their instruments of warfare, both armory and soldier, withered and nearly vanished.

                Farmsteads grew in the footprints of battlefields. Grazing fields spread through tracts of ash that had once been villages. The vast flocks and packs of carrion eaters that were as commonplace as fleas and ticks for the last thirty years died off or scattered. The settled realms of Hildegoth became a land of green hills, peaceful roads, and infrequent strife. The vast unsettled lands between these kingdom cities fell under their appropriate rule, but enjoyed a life free from most constraints as long as outright anarchy or lawlessness did not take hold. It was a land for which a king could feel pride, despite its eccentricities. And, as the endless pattern demanded, the scale that had shifted and paused in favor of good, slowed, shuddered, and began to swing inexorably back to balance, but did not stop there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

                According to the edicts of the Ummonic beliefs, the incarnation of the collective faith of his followers and the creator of all the other gods is known as Ummon. The holy book of this greatest of gods, the Rand, dictates that he did not create Hildegoth nor any of its peoples, but he was in fact drawn to them by the power of their goodness and faithfulness.

Centuries ago, a bright burning light fell from the sky and all who witnessed it believed it to be a god come to deliver them from the arduous times that tormented them. This, the source of Ummon’s original power, was set upon by the pawns of evil that wallowed in the muddy pits of other mortals’ souls and a great battle unknown of in all but the most ancient of historic texts took place, but even then the power of good outweighed it and saw it defeated.

                As for Ummon himself, he has power beyond comprehension, but many scholars and clerics postulate that it may not be infinite, hence the creation of the greater gods.    

Their origins buried in myth and in some cases lost to the tongues of the long dead, many of the greater gods were chosen from exceptional mortals, while some were created outright from matter indicative of their spheres of influence. Given a spark of his power, these gods filled their own roles as need dictated and required. Connected through their vast warra to their respective elemental divergesses, they have performed their deeds for over two thousand years. However, they have lessened greatly of late, and it may very well be that even immortals tire of toil.

 

                Long, long ago, stirrings had begun in vast currents of malignant energy accumulating beyond the senses of normal folk. They had coalesced in great maelstroms near Erathai, the oldest seat of civilization in Hildegoth, where the humans of this land had dwelt the longest. After so many centuries of greed, hatred, and envy, that energy began to leech back into the waking world, affecting friend and foe alike. It had been held in check for a time by the hearts and efforts of beings such as High King Merrett the Good and his predecessors, but with these lodestones of emotion came the inevitable bloody filings of their ken. Peace had had her brief verse on the stage: sweet, soothing, and far too short. As these energies thickened, they began to draw even more of the same vein to itself. At first it was only sparks and threads, but slowly it became a great churning vortex that assimilated anything wicked that came near.

                Over the ages, simple similarity became need. Need became intent. Intent

eventually became mind, and its hunger was unimaginable. It reached out blindly, like

an infant seeking its mother, and its rancorous influence coaxed the very acts that provided its sustenance from even those of mild spite, that felt its touch. For many it

caused their violent, wicked end. For others, it caused flashes of insight on how to spread their own terrible acts, thus releasing more of what this vile amalgam craved. And for yet others, a precious few, it would stoke old embers of sin that would engender such unquenchable guilt that the only respite from it was oblivion.

Inspired by forces they could not understand, Ogres took up mace and club and sword and tapped on the shoulder their surly neighbors, suggesting that they work together on their hunts.

                The thin ranks of the garulls, only now beginning to fill gaps and reconnect

bloodlines, ventured out on mad rampages that even their savage minds could not

fathom. Their stomachs groaned with flesh to the point where they left great piles of

steaming, bloody meat behind them only to kill more and more to satisfy their manic

lust for death. It would pass, but a simmering drop would remain, enough to stir the creatures back up into another lunatic killing revelry, and then another, and then another. Such actions threatened their still reduced numbers, but their intrinsic survival instinct was swept aside by this madness.

                Simple folk watched in horror as goblins wandered down from their long

shut up dens to set fire to farms and cottages alike, only to stand, stupefied amongst

the flames, and be consumed along with them.

                A child of ill temper would suddenly flare and strike like a crazed animal,

ripping and tearing with his nails until they were ripped from his fingers, and biting

until his teeth bent from his mouth. He would just as suddenly cease as tears of pain

and confusion surrogated the inexplicable rage.

                An old man in a coastal town got up from his rocking chair, wandered down

to the docks, and dropped into the water. He would never emerge, and good-hearted

people who would attempt rescue would find his drowned, milky body nearly a

hundred feet from shore and thirty feet down, his hands locked in futile claws around

the partially buried handle of a chest. This chest yielded no treasure but for that of a skeleton, an old business associate he had killed and buried under the sands of the ocean floor fifty years past.

                The good looked on in confused terror, the balanced could tip either way, and even the slightly wicked would feel the tugging of something above the senses, something vile and cruel and irresistible. And acts were committed. And more acts. And more.

                Though not, as yet, consciously provoking these acts, the newly formed being whose very existence was responsible for their coalescence would look upon the works, and call them good, had it been able to see them. And it would grow, and learn, and Scheme for more in an endless lust for power and sustenance.

                There was a great shining bastion of good spiking the aether through Erathai’s heart in the form of its leaders and followers of the Ummonic faith, but it could not eradicate its antithesis, only combat it.

                And in Erathai, in the High King’s castle of Tyn Ianett, the High King himself

sits bolt upright with his hand at his chest and his breath bursting from him in hissing gasps. His hair and beard were a frantic, sweaty tangle. For the second time that turn, he had dreamt of his people clutching at his robes, only they are torn and tattered and the people are withered ghouls baring teeth through mouths pulled taut with desiccation. Beyond and all around him was the presence of a single malevolent horror that had no name.

As he leaned forward in a bed that had yet to find a queen, he calmed and reasoned. They seemed only dreams and he would repeat this to himself until he nearly believed it, but in his heart, he knew something moved in the world beyond what he could see with his eyes...

                …Something that had to be stopped.

 

Chapter 2

 

                Grannith, the god of earth and stone, is said to be not a golem of rock and dirt, but actually a rather plain looking fellow of young years whose eyes suggest a strength much beyond what his arms would suggest. Piecing together the legends of his origin, it seems he was the lone son of a farmer who had lost his wife and children only to succumb to sickness himself. His son, the boy who would be the god of earth, simply and quietly took on the monumental task of managing his father’s lands when selling them off would have seen him well off for the rest of his years. Some, like he, measure wealth in weights other than coin. Ummon, moved by the boy’s humility and determination offered the power of a god to him. The boy found the tasks of such a role enticing and accepted.

                His power is literally wherever there is earth in any of its forms. He is almost always underfoot and bestows some of the greatest challenges a mortal can face in the traverse of a mountain or the descent of a great canyon. Worshippers of this god remind us that even the most steadfast of us dream and doubt at times, only to stand triumphant when nothing more than resolve remains.

                He represents more than the stone and earth beneath one’s feet. He embodies the unrelenting, unwavering determination of the just and true, especially when a being of virtue holds to such beliefs when all else has fallen to ruin.

 

                King Merrett – Good King Merrett as he had been known for years – gazed

out of the open window of his stronghold that overlooked the outskirts of some tiny

farming village the name of which escaped him. The room he was in was sparsely

furnished, which was how he liked it. Of all the things of his station, what he abhorred the most was all the glittering foppery. In this blocky, foreboding structure of stone and iron, he found peace in simplicity.

                There was a large table in front of him and two pairs of chairs, all of which

were utilitarian in appearance and usage. A small end table topped with a bronze

sculpture of Ummon’s uplifted palms filled one corner of the room, and there was a

single large, paneless window on the east side, with its thick oak shutter swung open.

It was through this window the King looked.

                Not that there was anything particularly remarkable to see. The scene was one of typical east Erathian countryside: gentle rolling green populated by gossiping clutches of poplar and ewen trees. Far below where he stood, a small farming community from the village toiled away on a collection of community crops, no doubt enjoying the unusually warm Sanguinneth day. This time last year, when the season’s red leaves and smoky winds spoke only of the cold days of Surcease around the corner, the townspeople would be frantically tilling the soil for any last scraps from the planting season’s banquet. Today they milled about happily, greeting each other with warm words and many wishes of good fortune and bountiful harvest. He sternly recalled the events of his nightmares, causing icy fear to run through his stomach at the sight of their blameless lives. They seemed suddenly so very vulnerable.

                The not-very-tall, not-very-handsome king ran aging fingers through hair that was swiftly becoming not-very-thick. He stared long and hard at his poor ill-informed people, and then turned abruptly from the window as his nightmares came rushing back to the forefront of his mind where they were very unwelcome.

                “What?” King Merrett asked the tall, hawkish man behind him once again. It

was more greeting than question.

                The man said, “Twenty individual daggers worth of soldiers.” Without prompting from his king, who would have given pause over such a computation, he added, “A total of eighty men.”

                The King strode with his hands clasped behind his back, his casual robe of

gold trimmed navy rustling with every step. “How long has this been happening?”

                The tall, lean man looked to be in his early fifties. He had a grayed widow’s

peak seated high on a rounded forehead, and a long, thin, bird like nose arched over a

mouth that seemed to be crooked in a permanent scowl. Othis, was King Merrett's oldest

and most trusted advisor.

He had gently taken the king into his tutelage when he was a young lad, wide-eyed and terrified. He had schooled him in politics, etiquette, history, and warfare. He had been astounded by the young man’s quick wit and ability to function under unimaginable duress, but he had been even more impressed by young Merrett’s kind heart and selfless character. There had been no reason for him to be so. He simply was. It was for this reason alone that Othis had taken extra care to bend his mind and resources to hone and sharpen this young man into a benevolent and brilliant monarch. He had not been disappointed. At the moment, though, he was attempting to assuage his temper and impatience, two traits with which Good King Merrett was also well-stocked.

He inclined his hawk face toward a slightly yellowed sheet of parchment in his hands. “For approximately four turns, Sire. The Sword Commander –”

                King Merrett exploded, and his face flushed crimson. “– Is a doddering twit

who should have his head divorced from his neck!” He threw his hands in the air in

exasperation, and began walking in furious circles. “How do I do it, Othis? No matter

what I try, no matter what I think, no matter what I do, how is it that brain-optional

turnips keep ending up in charge of my military?”

                Amazingly, Othis’ lips curved even further downward in a flustered frown at

the king’s outburst. “Sire...”

                Merrett slumped into a large chair near the same window, his gaze once again settling on the hard working, innocent backs of his people. “How is it that I ever won a war?” He muttered mostly to himself, bitterly reminding himself that some of the most brilliant military tacticians in the kingdom were under his command. At the moment, though, he just wanted to be angry and do away with reason.

                Othis cleared his throat. “These incidents appear to be concentrated in the South. The Sword Commander understandably…” King Merrett glared briefly at him, “…believed that he could contain it. Unfortunately for him, it quickly became more than trivial, and he feared looking incompetent by coming to you for help so long after the problems had appeared.”

                The King grumbled. Othis cleared his throat again and continued. “Our spies

to the north in Margas Enudd report no such conflicts, and ambassadors in the western kingdoms recently returned, stating the same. Whatever these ‘occurrences’ may be, they seem to be contained in southeastern Hildegoth.”

                “Which are, of course, my lands.”

                “Yes Sire... as are the rest.”

                “Were there any witnesses? Who or what attacked these men?”

                The High Advisor’s features pinched for a moment. “There were several

witnesses, seeing that these daggers often guarded caravans and such. When they were attacked, they, more often than not, fled. Half of the time they were not swift enough and were killed along with the dagger, but the half that escaped returned with... well, returned with accounts of the incidents that were, ah, a bit difficult to absorb at first.”

                The King’s thin brow dented above his nose. “Yes? Well, out with it!”

                Othis shrugged and continued. “Several of the daggers fell to packs of garulls that hid in the southeastern woods. When the caravan and dagger would get too close, the things would charge the dagger, kill them, and then attack the caravan if they were dim enough to hang about.”

                King Merrett leaned forward on his knees, an incredulous look on his face. “There has not been a reported attack by garulls on a heavily trafficked road for years. Were they starving?”

                Othis shook his head once. “I do not believe so, Sire. They attacked swiftly and viciously, but left the corpses to rot in the open air. None of them were consumed.”

                Merrett unconsciously slapped a palm on his thigh. “That’s ridiculous, Othis.

Garulls have hardly more wit than a dull spoon, but they know better than to leave perfectly good food to waste away.”

                “Under normal circumstances Sire, I would tend to agree. However, these

circumstances can hardly be called 'normal'. The next few reports will no doubt lend a

bit of credence to this.”

                The King paused, and then bade him continue.

                “Other witnesses claim that they saw four ogres assault and kill several daggers in broad daylight with swords and armor. Of poor construction and badly in need of repair, but swords and armor nonetheless.”

                Ogres are night creatures, and were only seen as other than solitary when they were making their relative efforts to propagate their race – something most tried to avoid seeing. Furthermore, if they ever carried weapons, it was always either a large rock, or a large club. Sometimes, a genius amongst their kind would learn how to cap a few of their clubs with this metal culled from any number of sources. But they never, ever wore actual armor other than hides, or stolen bits of dead victims clothing poorly sewn together. They were simply too stupid and too arrogant as a race to resort to such things. The very image of an ogre armed with a sword was too disturbing to even contemplate, much less with three of its smelly brethren at its side. Merrett made no attempt to hide his shock at Othis’ words.

                “I can’t accept that,” He murmured.

                “Nor, at first, could I, but several completely unrelated sources corroborated the same stories. A quartet of ogres, both armed and armored, charged from a canyon and slaughtered the dagger and virtually all of the party under their protection until they finally fell behind the horses.”

                Ogres can match an average horse’s speed, though usually only for a few

seconds. Those few seconds, though, when put to good use by a twelve-foot tall, eight-foot wide monster swinging a ten-foot club, (or in this case a sword, gods help

their souls) could seem very, very long indeed.

                “As improbable as it may appear, Sire, I believe these accounts to be accurate. If you look at them each objectively and observe all of the facts, you will most likely agree as well.”

                “Explain.”

                “First of all, there is the dis-relation yet similarity of the reports. Some were told by small groups of survivors, who, though not appearing to be unduly bright, had their stories down perfectly, to each detail, without hesitation. Most were by sole survivors who related startlingly similar information with their own separate but identical experiences. These survivors did not know each other. Secondly, you could feel the fear spilling out their eyes as well as their mouths when they recalled these events.” He closed his eyes and slowly shook his head. “Trained actors could not simulate such emotion, my king. Thirdly, and most prominently, however, is that none of them had a single thing to gain by spreading lies of this nature. Nothing, that is, except a fine and sixty days in prison for falsifying information detrimental to the public peace.”

                “And what of some plot by our enemies? We have known peace since the Garull Wars, yet there are certainly circles that would want to see us pained. Westenmarsh, to name one, is not precisely our sternest supporter.”

                Othis inclined his head, granting the point. “A possibility Sire, yet it would be both an unconventional and improbable scheme. How could they accomplish such?

Warricking has its merits, but the ability needed to realize these deeds is both extreme in power and obscurity.” He paused, and the real concern he had been carefully veiling slipped through his features. “I have some knowledge of these schools, and I have never heard of such a practice in theory nor application.” He spread his hands briefly. “It seems of remote likelihood at best, my king. And these people, who have laid these tales of horror at our feet, have not shown the telltale improvement in lifestyle due to bribes nor have those agents attached to their heels reported anyone out of the ordinary contacting them.”

                Merrett had to acknowledge Othis’ seamless logic, despite his difficulty in doing so. He reclined in his chair, a pair of fingers thoughtfully stroking his lips.

                “Have someone get word to Canthus. I want him here within a turn.” The King proclaimed.

                Othis bowed without a word and left the room.

 

~*~

 

                A man sat astride a massive warhorse, his graying hair lifting every now and Then to a brief touch of wind. A cloak of travel-stained burgundy fell off his shoulders, revealing a set of thick, tanned arms cross-hatched with scars. He wore cracked and worn leather across his chest that had darkened with age to somewhere between black and crimson. At the rear of his saddle was an oddly shaped weapon: a black handle topped with a smooth sphere the size of a man’s head that gleamed like silver. Other than a small pack tucked behind his saddle, he had nothing else. He had no home, nor a place to call his own other than where he laid his head. It was not necessarily a good life, but it was one that suited him.

                He was watching a pair of children play in the field that began at the base of

the hill upon which he and his horse stood, and stretched East for miles to the mountains. To the West lay the tip of the dark and beautiful expanse of Graydon’s Wood. Two turns at a swift ride further in that direction would find you in the coastal city of Fremett. Facing the opposite direction, a thousand miles and more to the East lay the capital city of Tyniar, home to Good King What’s-His-Name. He had stopped keeping track of their monikers shortly after the bloody and disappointing reign of the last king, Uredd the Red, ended. He had met him once and he seemed all right yet clearly was not. Ah well. You never really know. Even after so many years.

                The children (a brother and sister) danced and raced and chased and tackled and tickled each other in the wild abandon that many who have passed up childhood long for after a time, but can never recover. Even those with minds unfettered by the dreary boundaries of adulthood who could run out and join them in their frolicking would realize that something has been lost with the advent of this adulthood, something that cannot be replaced – only observed and missed.

                Little did the boy and girl know, but three decades previously, one of the last

battles of the Garull Wars were fought at this very spot. Three hundred of the deadliest warriors of the High King’s elite forces, the Garulokai, squared off against nearly a thousand of the infernal creatures. Though each warrior had to fell three garulls to win the day, they stood fast and fought well. The skirmish lasted two days and two nights and every living thing but the two armies fled from the field. Not even vultures could be seen.

It was a horrendous rending, slashing, crushing exchange of primal forces that flattened the grass with corpses and blood. In the end, not a solitary garull was left alive. Even the ones fleeing to the woods were hunted down and extinguished. They had lost only twenty men. It was the memory of this battle that had drawn the old man, who had been wandering the countryside for a season, to this site. He smiled, not because of glory or wealth or bloodlust, but because he had been among the victors. He was among those who could recall what it felt like to stand back to back with some of the finest men and mankindred ever to lift blade, axe or hammer, especially the sword commander. He was the finest of all. He wondered if he was still alive.

                His thoughts drifting thus, he did not at first pay much heed when he saw the Boy trip over something unseen in the grass. He leaned over and pulled whatever it was out of the ground. His sister stood by, interested in what her brother had found. The old man, his attention shifting back to the pair when they stopped moving about, focused on what the boy had unearthed.

                It was two feet long and rusted to virtually nothing, but its identity was still easily apparent, even from so far away. The boy had found a broken short sword, no doubt a blade that slipped from lifeless fingers thirty years ago. Quite suddenly, the old man’s pleasant reminiscing was quelled and replaced with slowly boiling anger, and all thoughts of old comrades and victory over a relentless foe melted away.

                Patriotism and defending what is right, (whatever the hells that meant) aside, in the old man’s experience war tended to have more darkness to it than light. In his long years, wherever he fought or for what reason, its indelible aftermath would remain long after the last of its generation had gone to dust and bones. Whether locked away in a moldering trunk in the cellars of history, the minds of old generals or carelessly left in a child’s playground, war would forever leave its iron footprint, and beneath that footprint were dead people.

No matter the nobility, atrocity, or neutrality, in wars, people die. Good or evil, they are snuffed out. Ended unnaturally. Some would say that good’s sacrifice is evil’s demise, but you can never completely smother it. Good will always be here to defend the innocent and thwart evil’s heinous ambitions, and evil will always be here to ensure good’s future employment. Thus, war’s inevitable place will be in the coming chapters of the future, as it already dwells in the bloody volumes of the past, regardless of where they are shelved.

                Some would also say that war and justice can go hand in hand, and perhaps they

can, but the old warrior felt that the only thing blinder than justice is war. Despite any noble intentions, the innocent and the blameless will not only find themselves sucked into its groping, eyeless maw, they are often the first to be consumed, even children. It would seem a point of no contention that children should always be left out of the grim toils of battle, but, of course, they are not. In many ways they find themselves in the grips of it long after everyone else manages to slip free, from fatherless daughters to this young boy happening across a weapon he should never have the cause to see nor use.

                The old warrior turned his horse abruptly away, his quiet musings at the Children’s antics shattered and replaced with memories, that, as it turns out, he could long since do without. As he spurred the horse to a gallop, he could hear them laughing at their newfound toy.

 

Chapter 3

 

                Zephris was once a young woman who had chosen to take her own life only to seemingly and inexplicably walk away from this choice at the last moment. She talked to people who were not there, hardly wore clothes and then only a large sac with holes cut in it, and claimed that wild animals were actually distant kin. All of this was a ruse to make her family believe that she was mad so they could not marry her away against her wishes. Ummon, in wisdom and vision, saw the good spirit in her through her brilliant trickery, and offered her the mantle of the goddess of wind. She accepted readily.

                She is one of the most ill-interpreted gods of Ummon’s pantheon. Taken to be a deity of ephemeral emotion and unfounded intent, Zephris has been embraced by the flighty and aimless only to be disappointed by their deity again and again, wondering what it is that they had done to offend her. What they had actually done was grossly misunderstand their goddess. Zephris’ greatest strength is her ambiguity and underestimation. The wind, though apparently random and without purpose truly has many: the pushing of the seasons, the currents on which birds fly and ships sail, and the carrier of the weather, among others. True believers of this goddess are masters of misinterpretation and often are mistaken for dullards or haphazard souls wandering through life, when their true aims may only become apparent when they are intentionally revealed.

 

                Jerom was a prostitute. He had always been a prostitute. He could not remember his mother or father, or any siblings. Indeed, his earliest recollections were of whoring himself to whomever would pay for his amateur services. Of course, back then his youth was all the selling point he needed. Grown men and women lusted after his unsullied appearance in ways too terrible to mention, much less recall. Now in his twenties, the innocence of childhood had been replaced with the skills of one accustomed to years of honing his trade.

                Once, years ago, he had watched inwardly as the last light of goodness faded from his heart. He was not even fifteen years old, yet life on the docks of Fremett had sucked it all away. There was no single event, no isolated traumatic experience that stood out in the life of a young boy who sold his flesh on the streets that had snuffed this final spark. It was more like a constant draining that had finally drawn its last drop from him. He had given up loving anyone but himself. It seemed the only way he could survive.

                Now, ten or so years later, the hole that had one time held the potential for

goodness, hope, and love, had been deluged to overflowing with hatred, greed, and

arrogance. He had opened his heart to it, found its taste and presence nearly as sweet as the coin his services would accrue, and reveled in the twisted bliss such an existence provided.

                Tonight, he had crowned himself anew. He had murdered someone.

She was a pretty young thing, new to the oldest trade. A prospective client,

deciding his fancy for the evening, had nearly been hooked by Jerom’s silver tongue when the man’s eyes had fallen on the taut hardness of her pale thighs and the clench of her breasts as they pleasantly filled her bodice. The prospect had instantly lost interest in Jerom.

                She had not even intended the theft. She had just been passing by when the

gentleman spied her. But, theft it was to Jerom. After all, she had not refused his advances, did she? She could have just as easily made up some excuse, seeing clearly that Jerom had nearly closed the dark, unspoken contract between hooker and hookee, and been on her way. She had not done this of course, and it was just as if she had picked his pocket, as far as he was concerned. He refused to inwardly acknowledge the fact that he had stolen hundreds of prospects from the other prostitutes that lounged about the docks. Such admission would only cloud his judgment with doubt.

                So, he killed her. He waited for her to head to the washroom of a nearby inn,

pulled her by the throat into an alleyway that no street torch would illuminate, and shoved a long, thick wooden splinter into the base of her skull. She quivered and gurgled, then lay still. He then laid a small sign that read, “Complimentary” on her chest. He giggled when he looked at her corpse, with its wide eyes and open mouth. He was not certain why he made the sign. It had just felt appropriately disrespectful, a proper hawk and spit on her grave. He stood but then nearly fell over as a wave of euphoria tore through him. This was far better than any coupling. It was spiritual and mental in nature, a climax that could only be brought on by the ultimate power one creature could have over another: the power of taking life.

                She was found the following morning. No one could imagine why she was killed. She tended to bring a great deal of business into the docks, business that could always find a bedmate. A jealous ex-lover was the general murmured consensus. Jerom found that the will power needed to keep from laughing when he heard these things was nearly beyond him, but he managed to control himself.

                The next few days he did not accept any invitations from his clients, though

some of them begged for his company. He paid them no heed. He had plenty of hoarded wealth to live on, and plenty of time to brood over his sudden voracious appetite for blood.  One simple murder and he was hopelessly addicted. He needed to kill again, or he would go mad. His ability to bury himself in denial again saved him, this time from the notion that the desire to kill for the sheer pleasure of the act made one mad already.

                He spent that night in the modest accommodations of his suite near the docks. As he slept, he dreamt. He dreamt of hordes of men, women, and children falling before him as he tore them to pieces and devoured them. He heard and saw them plead for their lives, and they were like the surrendering gasps of reluctant lovers. Sometimes he would see himself pause and consider their words, causing a brief flicker of hope in their wavering gaze, only to make their grisly deaths that much sweeter as he ripped them apart and swallowed their flesh whole. As he committed these acts, he was wrapped in an undulating current of ecstasy that would build as they begged, peak as he destroyed their bodies, and wash away as they were eaten, only to build again as he snatched at more innocent souls.

                He writhed between the sheets, and then awoke suddenly. He was drenched with sweat, and he shuddered as a cool wind blew through a nearby window and pulled the moisture from his skin. He immediately dismissed away his thoughts as a dream, a wonderfully erotic dream of sensual death, when a soft, gentle voice touched his mind.

                “Yes, it was a dream. But it need not be.”

He held his breath as fear grabbed at his chest like a drowning child. He could not speak, but it seemed that speech was not necessary.             

“Do not be afraid. I have been searching for one such as you, one who derives such pleasure from such pain.”

                He nodded. He also fully admitted that he had lost his mind. He found the idea soothing, somehow.

                “Forget who you are, and who you were. Open yourself to me. Let me in. Such intrusion is nothing new to you, is it not?”

                He shook his head. No, this was nothing new at all. He sensed a dark presence prod at his soul. It was soft and gentle, like a kind lover who felt no need to injure him with his attentions. Insistent but not cruel. So, he relaxed. Something horrible and vast and foul filled him. It was like sucking in a chest full of boiling sewage. It fought with his mind, and then brutally tore it away.

                Much like the girl Jerom had dispatched, he quivered and gurgled, and lay still. His second to last sentient moment was of looking down at a filthy alleyway as someone shoved something sharp and wooden into the back of his head. He was living her death. His last thought was the realization that he did not even know her name.

                His soul was ripped from its seat and hurled towards the Hells where all manner of demons and their underlings awaited it gasping with delight and surprise. His mind was simply blanked, turned into an unmarred surface upon which a new library of thought would be etched, a library so removed from humanity and its ilk that anyone who knew of its origins would be astounded that it was birthed by it. That night Jerom died, and was replaced by something else, something that prowled the docks as before, but for a much larger and permanent clientele.

 

~*~

 

                A few days passed as the Sun and his pale sister changed hands at the table.

Morning had been crisp and damp, and had soon bloomed into a beautiful day. As

afternoon crept over the woods and deepened the palette of the fields, the children had

adopted an entirely new way to spend their play. Hide and seek and trap the goblin were no longer amongst their frolicking. Now, swordplay and wheat field conquests filled these delicate hours.

                Again, the grizzled fighter watched them, though he was at a loss as to why.

He no longer smiled. He no longer felt a desire to be young again, for the spectacle before him only reminded him of the atrocities of his youth. So many days drenched in blood. So many friends lost on the point of a blade, or torn open on the cruel barbs of a crossbow bolt. So many nights he wondered how many he would send to the ground the next day, and if one of them would send him. So many mornings greeted by the foul stench of the dead and the sticky fly encrusted bandages of the wounded. To this day, he harbored no great love for breakfast. To him, the beginning of a new day only brought an iron sledge down to shatter the dreams of peace and fellowship he had had the night before. Every night he would whisk himself away to some distant, benign place where no pain or death could touch him or anyone else. Every morning he opened his eyes and saw these fleeting visions smashed and swept away. Dawn merely meant that someone had an entire day to kill you. As the day bled away, it ended wherever you were able to rest a gore-smeared head on the lumpy, sodden folds of a traveling blanket.

                He tugged himself back to reality. The boy, a thin whip of a lad with a cap of

brown curls, had managed to dig up the iron circle of a shield, its wooden slats long gone to rot, and a rusted swatch of chain mail that he wore as a cowl, to complement the ruin of a short sword he carried at his waist. The girl, also thin but sporting a length of red curls down her back, had un-entombed an unstrung crossbow, and had fitted a crooked stick to its rusted draw. She was now pantomiming shooting her brother in the back.

                The old man closed his eyes, and tried to think back to something, anything about the war that he could find comforting. The victory? No, there had been far too much sacrifice for the victory to mean anything to anybody, except those who had not

spilled their blood on the trampled track of a battle. The thrill of the battle itself then?

His breath caught in a brief chuckle as he marveled at the very thought of considering

this notion. There was no thrill for him. The closest he ever managed was when he had been able to ward off a lethal strike he could see coming towards a friendly back. The shock on their faces as they realized what had nearly happened, followed by the always subtle nod of thanks brought something along the way of a thrill to him, but the berserker

sentiment that merely being in a bloodbath and hacking your way through it was the

epitome of excitement? This was simply not like him. He did not look down on those who felt otherwise, but neither could he find himself comfortable in sharing a watch

with a warrior of such tendencies. Death’s dogs had a knack for following at their boot heels.

                The old solder shook his head, batting away the thoughts like gossamer gnats. Little about death was worth remembering. He was amazed by his own naivete that he would expect little else by revisiting a place of such slaughter. He felt a sudden urge to turn his mount away and head somewhere where children had not yet been invented, when a soft tickle at the back of his neck stayed his reins. It was so slight, so gentle, almost imperceptible. A breath of sensation. He knew this sensation all too well.

                His eyes flashed to the children. No, they were utterly alone, mock slashing and feinting in an effort to theatrically disembowel one another. Though he knew it was not from where it would come, he glanced behind him. He tested the wind with his sensitive and trained nose: nothing. Where in the hells was it? He passed his gaze west several hundred yards, where the thick trees of Graydon’s Wood stood their ground. He suddenly felt his skin go cold. His eyes froze on a leafy entrance into those woods, where six men could walk through abreast. It was as clear as a diamond at the bottom of a still pond. The danger came from there.

                He looked back at the children. Should he call out to them? No. The two of them seeing his huge frame straddling the even larger frame of his horse would most likely just drive them toward the nearest haven they could find, which would be the very forest from which they needed to flee. He could not summon help either, for the town the children lived in was more than a mile away. Not very far, but far enough for them to be long dead when he returned with whatever help he could muster. As he furiously assaulted his mind with possibilities, they both stopped playing, and looked right at him. The little boy glanced quickly at his sister, then back to him. The little girl turned towards her brother and said something to which he quickly agreed. Without further hesitation, they both raised their weapons, and charged straight for him.

                Though alarmed at their lack of good judgment, the old man could not help but feel relief. Their playful “attack,” as it were, took them almost directly away from the woods. He could see their little faces: the boy’s mouth in a smiling war cry, the girl

giggling loudly enough for him to hear though they were still a quarter mile away.

Then, something came out of the woods.

                It shambled forward on powerful legs cabled with wiry muscle, its long, spindly arms brought up at the elbows so the wicked claws affixed at the ends of its knobby fingers would not drag in the dirt. The head was more mouth than anything else, and this mouth was filled with huge conical teeth created specifically for ripping flesh from bone. A pair of bright yellow eyes peered feverishly from concave sockets, and a mangled lock of black mane ran from between the pointed ears on top of its head to nearly its tailbone. Its skin was mottled brown and green, armored with bony knobs on every joint and virtually encrusting its spine and shoulders. JaBrawn’s eyes widened and his jaw clenched in shock. It had been thirty long years since he had seen this creature, one of a species that he had surely thought driven to extinction, yet here one was. It was a garull, and it was almost certainly not alone.

                Like a trackhound, JaBrawn searched the air again with his nose. He could find nothing other than the mild tang of the afternoon and the distant scent of the children. He could not tell how many more there were, but one was too many.

It lifted its stubby nose and tested the wind as JaBrawn had, though it was

seeking the scent of the succulent flesh it had detected moments earlier. Extended this way, the garull was half again as tall as a man. Moving its broad head in slow passes from left to right, it seemed unable to locate them. Then the wind shifted, and the scent flew into its nostrils. The smell nearly driving it mad, the creature howled a horrible, keening wail and, in a stooped gallop, charged with nightmarish speed towards the children. As if a hellish cage of them had suddenly overturned and spilled its contents, another half dozen of the things appeared from the woods and took off after it, their murderous appendages rending the ground beneath them.

                Yes, there definitely was more than one of them.

                The old man knew what would happen if he engaged the monsters. He knew how it would slow the gears of time for him and even begin to wind them backward, and this saddened him. He had grown so tired, so worn out, that he truly wanted somewhere quiet and peaceful to pass the rest of his years, somewhere where his past was simply that, and was locked away safely in his mind and seen only in dreams. Fate, however, shook the stillness of his solitude as it had so many times before.

There was no choice to be made here. The children had to be protected. Without a further thought he urged his old warhorse forward, the gigantic beast’s hooves gouging the ground as best as any of the monsters.

                The brother and sister stopped in their tracks, frozen with shock. From their innocent perspective, their prospective playmate had turned from a quiet, if somewhat uncomfortably large, old man into a raging bear thundering down the hill.

The old soldier careened past them, his passage whipping their hair about and leaving them stupefied and in wonder. Reaching behind him, the old man unhitched his mace, Silvermoon, from her perch on his saddle. The giant gleaming sphere hummed through the air atop its handle, sending a pleasant tingle through his hand despite the situation. The nearest garull, entirely unperturbed by the newcomer, turned towards the old man and charged, opening its gruesome hands into barbed fans. As the distance between the two whittled away to a few dozen feet, the warrior, leaning forward in his saddle, extended his weapon hand to his right, and Silvermoon’s handle jumped from two feet in length to five. Not comprehending the difference, the garull leapt an impossible distance into the air, intending to rend horse and rider alike.

                Blurring in a half circle, the enwarred mace struck the creature from below with horrible force, splitting its breastbone and almost dislodging its head. When the monster impacted the ground several yards away, it was dead.

                Pulling hard on the reins and veering to the right, the silvered veteran forced the remaining creatures to turn from a column six strong into a diagonal line one deep. Straightening out while closing in on the outermost garull, he brought his weapon up in a pillar of shimmering metal, smashing the thing under its chin. Its head snapped back with the brutal attack, and ended up looking behind itself, inverted. The one after that slashed through the air with it claws only to have its blow immovably blocked. Its arm splintered into several dozen pieces, causing it to yowl with pain. A fierce jab with the mace folded its skull in half, the inners of its brain erupting from eyes and ears. Twitching, it flopped to the ground.

The old warrior reined in his horse again, awaiting the actions of the remaining garulls. He was not even breathing hard. Though the creatures had the natural cunning shared by all predators, he also knew that they were as stupid as they were vicious – and they were very vicious.

                The remaining four broke into pairs, attempting to flank him and get to his rear.

This was what he expected, as senses honed by decades of fighting predicted their strike, and when they did, he spurred his mount towards to the right, the only gap in their noose.

                Though he did want them to be extremely close for his next maneuver, he admitted to himself that he had not expected any of them to crash into each other as the two in the rear did. They tumbled to the ground in a ripping, roaring tangle of armored limbs and snapping teeth. Shaking his head just slightly as thousands of memories idly poked at his mind about just how witless and ruthless garulls were, he raised Silvermoon over his head and, bidding her to return to him, flung it at the creature nearest him on the left.

                Like a stone cast by a god, Silvermoon streaked through the air and took its head completely off, disintegrating it like a puffed dandelion. The weapon continued on through the upper chest of the garull behind that one, sundering its torso. Though

appearing to have exhausted its attack, the gleaming mace amazingly reversed itself

and returned to the old soldier’s outstretched hand. He smiled grimly.

                It was unlikely that the two creatures who were once again upright could feel

outrage, as they were more animal than anything else, but the manner in which they launched themselves at him seemed to be fueled more by rage than anything else.

                Like a man swatting away cats, the old man brushed the creatures cruelly to the ground. The one that absorbed most of the impact had its lungs and several of its ribs crushed, and died in agonized helplessness in the grass. The other was more stunned than anything else. It stood to engage the warrior yet again. Before it reached its full height however, its head suddenly sported the ugly and very distinct impression of a horseshoe above its eyes. Dropping like a stone, the garull joined its cooling mate in the grass, the thick green blood of its kind oozing out its ears.

The old man yanked on the reins, pulling Grendel in a short, harsh circle. He  took deep cleansing breaths of the changing wind in through his nose, trying to find something other than blood and death and battle in the air’s fingers.

                There was none. Smiling grimly to himself, the old man patted the horse’s broad, scarred neck.

                “Thank you, Grendel.” The horse nickered a response. “Yes, that was a foolish attack. You could have seen it coming a mile away.” The response was a grunting whinny. The irritation was quite clear. “Of course. You did see it coming a mile away.”

                He pulled a rag from his meager saddlebags, and wiped the gore from Silvermoon’s unmarred surface and ebony handle. After a quick word of gratitude to his weapon, he returned her to her place behind him and reined Grendel back towards the hill, ready to leave the children to the gods’ devices, whatever they may be.

                “You can talk to animals?” asked a thin, reedy voice.

                Hesitation gripped him. He should not answer. He should nudge Grendel into a canter, then a trot, and then open into a gallop when he was far enough away. That would be the good decision – the wise decision. Every time he involved himself in the doings of the mundane world, he found himself regretting it immediately after. He had done his good deed, and it was now time to remove himself.

                Instead, he looked behind him. The question had come from the little girl, her eyes squinting up at him. Her brother stood to her side, an identical look on his face. They were apparently unmoved by the gruesome spectacle they must have surely witnessed, nor by the grisly corpses now littering the field. Old garull blood wetted with new.

                More stunned by their complacent demeanor than with the brutal slayings he had just rendered, the old man blinked at them. “What?” he asked.

                “We saw you talking to your horse. Can he understand you?”

                He became quite irritated. “Yes, he understands me. What are your names, and why are you so far from home?”

                As unperturbed with his manner as they were with the battle, the girl answered the first question. “Wendonel,” she said clearly. She gestured towards her brother. “Favius. And we were playing.”

                Again, he balked. “Do your parents know where you are?”

                Wendonel shrugged. “I doubt our father knows where we are, but he wouldn’t mind if he did.” She bit her lip slightly. “Well, not very much anyway. He knows we’re not dumb.”

                The boy nodded his compliance. The warrior shook his head. “If I were your

father...” and then caught his tongue. They were, after all, just children, and the language he was about to loose on them would have been construed by most as inappropriate. “Let us just say you’d be sleeping on your stomachs for some time.”

                They did not seem to fathom what he was implying. “Our father knows we can take care of each other,” she said. “He really has had no choice since our mother died. With his work at the town hall taking up a lot of his day, he is hardly ever home.”

                His countenance softened slightly at her words. “What does your father do,

little one?”

                “Don’t call me that! And as for what he does, well, he is one of the town

Magistrate’s personal guardsmen.” She puffed up slightly as she pronounced this.

                The old man sighed. Protecting some bloated self-important minnow in a

puddle of a town surrounded by sea serpents would leave little time to raise younglings. “When do you expect him back?”

                The little girl shrugged. “He usually stops by our cottage on Thirday, but sometimes he shows up out of nowhere.” She beamed with a smile. “Last time he stayed home for almost two days!”

                His visage reverted, as Thirday was nearly an entire turn away. “Who cares for you while he is away?”

                Wendonel glanced at her brother, a quick sparkle of pride in her eyes. “We take care of each other!” She said, repeating an earlier statement, but with entirely new emphasis.

                He sat back in his saddle with a resigned grunt. The way children were being

raised these days was completely baffling to him. Wendonel hardly looked out of her tenth year, her brother one less than that. Children of such tender age should not be left completely unattended for a handful of hours, much less days at a time.

                “How long has he been away?” he asked, fearing the answer.

                “Only half a turn this time. He brought me a new pouch the last time he visited,” and she patted a furred herb pouch hanging from the bit of rope she was using for a belt.

                The grizzled man’s patience fractured. “Five days?”

                The girl gave her now characteristic shrug. “That’s just how it is. He works often and sees us rarely. Thank you for saving our lives, by the way.” Favius enthusiastically nodded his assent.

                The child was snapping his mind back and forth like a mancat worrying a snake. After looking at her for a few moments, he finally replied. “You’re welcome.”

She smiled and returned his look. “You look different,” she said.

                His brow furrowed. “Different from when? You’ve never seen me before.”

                She nodded. “Yes we have. You’ve been watching us play every now and then for a few days now. It made us feel safe. And you look different now than you did then.”

                He believed that he should still be angry, but the emotion would not return. He simply answered her smile with his distinctive half-twitch variety. He leaned over his saddle, his hands crossed at the wrist over the horn. “I do, do I?”

She and her brother nodded and beamed at him. “You look kind of younger.

Your hair is browner, and your face is smoother.”

He nodded. “Yes. Fighting does that with my kind.”

This time her little brow furrowed. “What kind are you?”

“Never mind about that,” and he extended his hand to help them up to Grendel’s massive back. They grasped his fingers and took their proffered spots behind him without a moment’s hesitation. If the mean old horse noticed the added weight, he gave no sign of it. Favius was grinning ear to ear, looking in all directions. He was obviously very excited.

                “I know, Favius! Fun, huh!” Wendonel said through a smile. Favius vigorously nodded his agreement.

                The old man looked back at him. “Does he talk at all?”

                She shook her head. “Not since Mum died. And this is his first time on a horse. Father has his own, but he’s the only one who rides her.”

                He again felt a pang in his heart, as he further understood their odd and unfortunate plight. Their father was away all the time trying to keep food in their bellies, with no mother to care for them during his absence. He reached down into himself to try and find some thoughts of comfort with which to console her, but could only discover painful memories of his past. He had never been that skilled with words to begin with, and decided to keep his tongue silent lest he hurt them further or make a fool of himself. He faced forward, and talked Grendel into a quick trot.

                Wendonel tapped him on his broad shoulder. “What’s your name?”

                The man turned to look at her, her pixie-like features, now much closer, were

at once tiny and helpless looking, yet defiant and full of spirit. “My name is JaBrawn.

JaBrawn Marshada.” And his mouth quirked into his half-smile again.

                She turned away slightly and nodded, as if he had answered the question correctly. Then, looking back at him as he turned forward again, she said, “You know,

you should try smiling all the way. It might make you all the way happy.”

                His face frozen for lack of reply, JaBrawn locked his eyes on the path before

them, stumped yet again. He swore that that would be the last time he would be taken

by surprise by the little brat.

                However, there was a bit of a ride back to town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 4

 

                The goddess of death was once a teacher. Unable to have children of her own, she instead spent her life showing children the first few real steps to take in life up until the day of her death. Ummon reasoned that someone as well-versed as she in the simple intricacies of life would be the perfect goddess of death, Cessara. Not a cold, heartless specter who reminds us with an empty socketed glare that we will all someday be maggot fodder, but a gentle guide to show us where life leads after it ends.

 

                A slurred, harsh lisp split the air.

                “Well, lookee here! It’s Jerom! The scummiest rat tha’ ever slept in its own

filth! How many sailors have ‘ya peddled yerself to lately, Jerry-boy?”

                The grubby blacksmith’s comments raised a raucous slew of laughter from his drunken tablemates. Jerom, standing just outside the door, sheathed in the skirts of the night and barely visible, merely turned eyes like a pair of needles on them, and smiled. It was a smile that both chided and beckoned. It was not what the blacksmith had been expecting. He instantly sprang to his feet, fists clenched. He was a huge trunk of a man, his arms chorded and bulging from a lifetime of twisting metal into shapes nature never intended.

                “I tolja, ya little freak, I aren’t interested in that skinny ‘lil backside ‘a yers,

unless ‘ya need it beat, eh?”

                The night was overcast and full of muggy anxiety. Nearly midnight, the bar had all but emptied, save for the blacksmith’s table. Jerom had been walking by on a strip of dock on which he had often frequented his wares. The crude man's threat normally would have sent him scurrying for a hole in which to find safety. Instead he stopped and stared at the hulking man. He smiled again and took a step forward without a trace of fear. The blacksmith, unbelieving and enraged with his audacity, drew a wicked looking knife from his belt.

                “What a turn ‘uv events, eh lads? Jerry the spit-licker’s found a spark ‘a man

inside ‘a him that ‘ain’t been buggered out yet,” and he waved the knife in a fluid series of arcs that spoke of a skilled knife fighter.

                His friends laughed and cheered for Jerom to take him on. The blacksmith edged a couple of steps toward the young man. The barkeep, having had too good a day for it to end badly, simply closed off the window that allowed him access to patrons and vanished into the back.

                Jerom watched the man as he moved in measured steps to close the distance

between them. He showed not a trace of fear or anger. In fact his face was still twisted

into a grin. The smith had seen this look before, but could not recall when or where until he was an arm’s length away from him. His appearance then became clear, and was all the more horrible because of this clarity.

                Jerom’s skin was inert and leathery. The black hair on his head was knotted and unkempt. His lips were dry and withered, and he appeared as though he had gone without water for days. The blacksmith was beginning to have doubts about his choice now. Had the little prostitute’s line of work found him with some horrible malady? He looked up at his eyes, wondering if they were glazed with madness, and a terrible fear gripped his belly. The man’s eyes were the only aspect of his form that showed true life. They were lit from within by an unholy light that made them appear as flakes of emerald shot hrough with frozen lightning.

                He suddenly remembered what the condition of Jerom’s body resembled: that of a corpse that had been left to the mercy of the sun. He had seen similar sorts floating in on a schooner that had been caught in a squall in deep waters and broken its main sail. After a few days, the crew had exhausted its supplies of food and water. Hailed and boarded long after the last seaman had perished, the cadavers, far from any carrion eaters, looked like clothed leather skeletons with teeth and shoes. Only this one, now, stepping from the murky shadows, was moving. The smith felt a scream rising from his belly. Jerom smiled once more, his lips splitting far wider than a man’s possibly could, showing black gums and teeth like old bones.

                Like a snapping tether his hand flashed out, knocking the blade from the larger man’s hand and splintering his wrist. Now the smith really did scream, a high – pitched shriek that seemed utterly unmarriable to the man who had produced it. The others stood at the table behind him, looks of confusion and rage painted on their faces.

                Jerom then grasped the smith by his underarms, and quite simply tore the front of the man’s chest off. A bucket’s worth of blood splashed the flooring, and the blacksmith’s eyes rolled into his head. Collapsing like a net loosed from a hook, he fell to the ground.

                The other sailors’ faces quickly melted into terror as they saw the diminutive dock whore standing in the doorway with a broad belt of still dripping human flesh in his hands, grinning from ear to ear. He spread his hands, tearing the piece of meat in two, and spoke to the other men in a voice as smooth and unblemished as a sheet of crystal at the bottom of a spring stream.

                “Would you die?” He asked the others at the table. Their fear locked away any answer they might have had tight in their throats. The monstrosity casually advanced a handful of steps. “Would you die?” again passed its lips.

                The closest of them, a thin and pockmarked seaman let slip a strangled wail of despair and terror as he locked eyes with it. The thing that once was Jerom nodded and held out its hand. The sailor, seemingly against his will, stared at the outstretched fingers that looked like old cowhide and stumbled forward, his own hand reaching out and clasping it. As if sustaining a blow to the face, the filthy man jerked in place, his eyes wide and his features peeled back with fear. Then, like a cloud cloaking the moon, his face relaxed. The other two men, still frozen with shock at the spectacle before them, gaped at their former shipmate. His flesh seemed to wilt as if bathed in great heat, though it did not catch flame. His hair fell in clumps to the floor, and his clothing began to drape over his shrunken form like a large cloak on a small child, and then it contracted to a stretched and wrinkled covering that seemed to barely conceal the form beneath it that it once did naturally. He stood, leaning slightly from side to side, facing Jerom.

                One of the others finally found his voice, choked and stricken thought it was.

“W-what are you? What in the hells are you?!”

                Jerom released its victim’s hand, and both he and the newly formed monstrosity faced the remaining two. The sailor’s eyes were like that of Jerom’s now, sparkling motes of green hate, though not nearly as bright. The hand that had gripped Jerom’s and had changed him thus was a withered claw, dry except for the nails, which dripped an amber fluid. His mouth parted in an obscene smile. With a voice unlike his master’s, a voice like broken pottery scraped across ice, he addressed his former mates.

                “Would you die?”

                They knew then that it was not a warning but an invitation, and that the stick like simulacrum of humanity that had smiled at them with an impossible smile was not Jerom at all.

Passersby were few and drunk, but even these muddled shufflers felt their senses prick and their wits sharpen at the gurgling screams cut short that poured forth from the confines of the foul little tavern.

 

~*~

 

                Several hours later, the diseased flock of followers had grown considerably. They slipped through the shadowy blankets of darkness that lay behind every shop, every inn, every warehouse, and every brothel. Near these establishments were more wasted souls that ripe for the plucking. Each new member was added in the same manner as the one that preceded it, and not one was able to resist his hideous temptation. All fell with equal effort, which was hardly any at all.

                The creatures shambled restlessly yet quietly through the night, embracing more into their grotesque fellowship, killing some outright, and avoiding others. Large groups of armed members were still too mighty to fall easily to their wiles.

                “Soon,” the once-Jerom would croon to them, “soon, my little ones.”

                A few hours before dawn they all went to ground near a reeking stretch of beach where the stench of dead fish and sodden seaweed was strong enough to gag even an old sailor. No one would bother them there. The gathered ones, beyond mortal but still limited, needed rest, but their creator did not. It lay there, eyes parted in the sand, thinking, brooding, and plotting. This was hardly the first shuffle of the first step, but it had finally begun. And the world awaited.

 

 

 

 

~*~

 

                The town was not very large, as he had expected. It lay partially shrouded under the fringes of an old oak forest, though the farmhouses were on relatively flat land near a small river, where pulley systems lifted water from it to their crops. It was a quiet, comforting scene, one with which JaBrawn was nearly alien.

                People stared at him with unabashed curiosity that for some reason bordered on scornful. He sauntered Grendel along, fairly used to the odd looks he and his ugly old horse received, but this seems excessive. He abandoned such thoughts when Wendonel waved and called out by name to some of the townspeople. Mostly her greetings were met with a nervous nod or nothing at all. One even dropped what he was doing and ran to a nearby cottage. So, it was not he who was causing the volatile glares, or, at least, not solely: It was the children as well. It was all very, very odd.

                He asked softly, “What town is this, anyway?”

                “This is Camdur, and this is our house,” she said suddenly.

                JaBrawn pulled back on the reins and Grendel obeyed with only a small huff of complaint at the abrupt halt. Wendonel hopped off without his help. Favius was not so certain. The old warrior got off his horse and lifted him down to the ground as if he weighed nothing. He beamed up at him. There was a flash, and JaBrawn was staring down at another boy child, his face smudged with dirt and there were two front teeth

absent from his smile, making it that much more precious. “Hurry home Dada!” The

straw-haired youth mouthed to him, though he couldn’t hear the words. He reached a hand out to muss his hair, a gesture that was familiar and long lost.

                A loud shout erupted from behind him. “Wendonel! Favius!”

                That strand to the distant past was snapped instantly. He caught himself with his hand half raised towards Favius’ head, who had shown no fear at such an action. He lowered it quickly, for the shout had to have been the father, returned early from whatever current service his employ with the magistrate entailed. He turned to face him, attempting to put on a friendly smile.

                A bearded man nearly as large as he, clad in thick mail covered over with a dull red tunic, stomped up to him. Obviously unperturbed by confrontation, the man barked a demand. “Who the hells are you, and what are you doing with my daughter and son?”

                JaBrawn clenched his jaw, but remained calm. “A traveler. I found your

children out near Graydon’s Wood.” The man’s eyes broadened slightly. “They told me where they were from, so I decided that it would be best to bring them home.”

                Wendonel stared at the side of his head, wondering why JaBrawn had not told her father about the mean looking monster things. She wanted to voice her curiosity, but decided against it.

                The man’s bullish demeanor drained away. He sighed and stepped back, looking rather abashed at his outburst. “Graydon’s Wood. By the gods, you two are impossible to contain.” They giggled and ran to him, throwing their arms around his waist. He chuckled back to them.

                JaBrawn, a bit put off by the man’s acceptance of their misbehavior, silently

reminded himself that it had been many, many years since he had been a father. It did not seem appropriate for him to judge this man. Still. He seemed far too accommodating to the little devils. The man broke away from his children and extended a gnarled, callused hand. Appreciating this at least, JaBrawn took it and shook firmly.

“My apologies for my little outburst. I am Derrig Thresher. And you my friend?”

                He tried to avoid giving his name out too often, but he could not give a false one since he had already told the children. At least the fellow seemed well meaning.

                “JaBrawn Marshada. An honor, Derrig.”

                The man shook his head and closed his eyes briefly. “No, JaBrawn. The honor and pleasure are mine. My thanks are yours.” He released JaBrawn’s hand and glared at his offspring with mock fury. “My thanks for tending to my two hellions who, though they can read better than a priest, can amazingly forget their boundaries as if they were as sharp-witted as upside down fenceposts.” They giggled. JaBrawn did not. “Why don’t you come in JaBrawn? I’d love to hear of any tales your travels have learned you. What do you say?”

                Without waiting for an answer, he turned and headed for his cottage. It was a respectably sizeable structure of whitewashed mud plaster and timber, and roofed with neat fired clay slates. The nearby stand of oaks cast shade over most of it and the neighboring houses, but unbroken sunlight struck to the South where a patch of fenced in ground enclosed the even rows of a large vegetable garden. Along the furthest fence were three small trees, each bearing different fruit.

                At the corner nearest the house was a tall roofed well, with a trough running from its lip to a delicately tiered garden. Buckets of water could be drawn from its recesses and dumped down the trough, where it would wind its way around the vegetables. It was all in all a clever setup. JaBrawn murmured quietly for Grendel to stay nearby. The horse chuffed a response and wandered over to a nearby patch of thick, succulent grass.

                As the old warrior neared the door he noticed that other than a riding horse, there was not a single animal to be seen on the Thresher homestead, unlike the other farmhouses. Some farms did keep animals for what they could produce other than their meat, such as chickens for eggs and cows or goats for milk. This little family had neither. He smiled a bit at the thought. He had forsaken meat decades ago, for its taste could stir something in his soul that he would prefer remained dormant. It seemed odd to him that here he was, a vegetarian, invited in to a household where meat must be, at least, a rarity. Perhaps it was dependent upon the guest.

                The inside of the cottage was nondescript, but pretty in its minimal way. There was a thick fired clay and stone hearth blackened with years of use against the wall pposite the door. Along another wall ran a low set of bookshelves, crammed with tomes and texts and all other manner of reading materials. Near it was a writing desk with lead styluses, quills, inkpots, and a small stack of paper. The main living area showed a low table at its center, with a small sofa on one side and a large stuffed leather chair on the other. In one corner of the room was a wooden chair, most likely for guests. Derrig motioned towards the larger one, a gesture of very considerate kindness, as it was obviously the head of the household’s. JaBrawn accepted it graciously. He got a nod and a friendly smile in return.

Wendonel and Favius sat on the sofa. They both maintained perfect posture, despite being in the comforts of their own home. Going back the many years to his childhood, JaBrawn admitted to himself that he could not recall being that well-mannered.

                Derrig went through the right door of two along the southern wall. JaBrawn

took a deep breath, folded his arms across his chest, and pondered. He really wasn’t the social type. He could appreciate all the trappings and goings-on of civilized life, but only in a distant, observational sense. He had given up his part in it long ago. He felt out of place in everywhere but nowhere, even in a home nearly empty of everything but family, and even when that family welcomed him in.

                He must have started scowling, because Wendonel suddenly piped in, “What

are you thinking of when you do that?” She asked.

                He shook his attention away from his broodings. “What?”

                “You heard me,” she managed to reply without a trace of insolence. Besides, she was right.

                He shrugged. “Nothing, really.”

                He had hardly closed his mouth when she said, “If it’s nothing then why do

you get so mad when you think about it?”

                “You ask a lot of questions,” he muttered out the corner of his mouth.

                “And you don’t give very good answers,” she said sweetly. Just then Derrig

returned. JaBrawn felt literally rescued.

                “Maybe it’s because he does not like to, Wendy. Did you think of that?” He said this as he placed a large wooden tray laden with fresh fruits and vegetables on the table. JaBrawn’s mouth watered. “Help yourself, my friend. There is plenty more.”

                “Thank you, Derrig. You are very kind.” He reached for a plump tomato nearly the size of his fist.

                Derrig chuckled again. “And you are very patient. You must be.” He inclined his head towards his children. “They’re still alive.”

                “Aye, they are a bit of a handful.”

                “They are a bit of two handfuls.”

                Wendonel and Favius giggled and munched on carrots and radishes.

                JaBrawn took a bite of the tomato and found it delicious. It was lightly coated with a tasty oil glaze that was peppery and garlicky and sweet all at once. He raised his eyes in question to Derrig.

                “A very simple oil and seasoning glaze that my wife used to make,” his host said. “It takes only moments to prepare, and will keep indefinitely. Or until it’s gone.”

                JaBrawn nodded as he took another bite of the sumptuous fruit and looked

around again with both his eyes and his nose. The room was full of smells that were new but rapidly becoming familiar as he acclimated. His eyes found a small painting hanging on the wall over the hearth. It was of a very slender woman, so thin she almost looked sickly, yet she was absolutely lovely. She had Wendonel’s nose and Favius’ lips, or, rather, they had hers. It could only have been their mother. JaBrawn indicated the painting with a small nod. “Your wife?” He asked.

                He smiled and reached for a radish. “Yes, her name was Aria. She died.”

                “Your children told me.” JaBrawn said quietly.

                Derrig nodded. “Yes. They have had to become quite reliant on each other. With me spending days at a time guarding the magistrate on this or that important outing, my time at home has been spotty at best. I had in fact been relieved early by my replacement and only just returned home when you rode up.” He chewed slowly, and was quiet for a moment. Then his eyes perked up. “I think we need drink to go with this fine meal. JaBrawn, I take it you would appreciate a fresh ale?”

                The broad old warrior nodded and grinned. “Absolutely.”

                Derrig approved. “As would I. Fave, Wendy, draw us each a flagon, would you? And get yourself something as well.”

                They both hopped to their feet and rushed to the kitchen. JaBrawn and Derrig continued to munch on the heaping platter.

                “I notice that you do not ask why I serve no meat.” Derrig commented.

                JaBrawn shrugged. “A man’s house is run the way he sees fit. It would be unseemly to question your tastes at any table, much less your own.”

                “There is a reason, you know.”

                “I am certain that it is a good one, Sir.” JaBrawn replied, attempting to imply

that Derrig need not explain anything.

                “It is. You are too polite to ask, so I’ll go ahead and tell you.” He turned and

looked at the painting of his wife. “It was Aria, really. She died of some sort of family

malady associated with the eating of meat of any kind. It causes an infection in the stomach that literally makes them waste away to nothing. By the time its presence was discovered, the damage it had done to her body was irreversible.”

                JaBrawn listened with a slightly unsettled feeling. This fellow certainly was quick at becoming comfortable with strangers. He was sympathetic, but it was difficult to let this be known, especially to another man.

                Derrig continued. “I had simply thought that she was frail in health. She had looked thin for as long I’d known her.” He looked down, and plucked a celery stalk from the platter. “As it turns out, Wendonel is afflicted with the same illness. Favius might be As well, but I am not sure. I dare not risk his health for the satisfaction of mere curiosity. Regardless, there has not been a sliver of meat in this house for six years.” He peered away at nothing. “Ever since she died.”

                JaBrawn swallowed hard. “Wendonel? Is she -?”

                Derrig shook his head. “It was caught very early. She is in perfect health and will remain so as long as she sticks to her vegetarian diet. She was so young when I made the transition that she hardly remembers what eating meat was like.”

                JaBrawn said, “She seems very happy. So does the boy, despite his inability to talk.”

                Again, Derrig shook his head. “It is not an inability. He simply chooses not to speak. The night Aria died, she told him, ‘Let no words of regret pass these lips.’ He was only three, but he has hardly uttered a word since. I think he believes that nothing but repentance will fall from his lips if he were to speak, so he keeps silent.” He briefly raised one hand, palm up, and then dropped it in his lap. “I really do not know. The only one who does is he.”

                JaBrawn took a slow, quiet breath, taking this all in. After all his gloomy

recollections of war and its atrocities, he had quite neatly forgotten that pain and loss

touches everyone everywhere, even here, in this loving father’s and widower’s home. “Derrig… you may have already noticed that I am not very good with words as well, though it is much more a clumsiness with them than anything else. All I can really think to say is that I am sorry for what you have lost. And I mean more than your wife.” He opened his mouth as if to continue, but could not think of anything more to say, so he went back to eating.

                Derrig’s eyes turned into tiny mirrors in which JaBrawn could plainly see

himself. “Kinder words have not been said to me in quite some time, JaBrawn.” He

smiled thinly, in a manner that showed a tired, lonely man who had made the best of the world with which he had been left, and had done quite well with it. Then the children returned. He cleared his throat, took a large mug of ale lightly from his daughter while planting a kiss on her cheek for her efforts, and then regaled JaBrawn with an enthusiasm that shattered the awkward, melancholy moment. “Enough with this sappy horse scat. What tales of the world have you brought to our fire tonight, O man of the open road?”

                They all shared a laugh, the men’s baritones mingling with Wendonel’s and

Favius’ tinkling silver giggles. Then, slowly and dramatically, Favius pointed at the hearth.

                There was no fire.

                They laughed again, even louder this time.

                The old, war weary JaBrawn felt a warmth bloom in his heart that had not been there since a time that was more than a man’s life ago. It was an existence so delicately shelved in his memory that he had, at times, been uncertain that he had even taken part in it. It was an existence where he, too, had been a father and a husband, more than three hundred years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 5

 

                Blayzrai is unique amongst the greater pantheon of Ummon, as he is the only god of an element than mortals can create. It is through him that all fires burn, from the touch of flint to tinder, to the burning warra channeled by warricks, to the broiling furnaces that fuel a dragon’s breath.

True worshippers of Blayzrai are not those obsessed with the destruction of all things by fire. They pay tribute to their deity by following his example with their gift. Fire is to be used as a tool, whether to cook meals, warm hands, or light catapult pitch ablaze, control is necessary for this ravenous beast lest it devour all in its path. Abusers of this gift, whether they claim allegiance to the god of fire or not, can be amongst the most destructive creatures to walk the face of Hildegoth.

                No history of this god’s past exists in mortal hands, but of the few who have seen him, his visage ranges from a tall, thin, lanky fellow crowned with a flowing mane of hair the hue of his element’s namesake, to a towering titan composed of flame with eyes of white hot pits that can set stone afire with a glance.

                Perhaps he, like his element, is never truly known. Perhaps he is simply depended upon and feared.

 

                The aging, slender fellow waved off his friends, one new and one old, and sat back in his chair. It was a pleasant enough day, and recent efforts had proven both wise and fruitful. The results of these efforts had yet to play out, but he was confident that all the best choices had been made.

                He smiled at the way life can hand you its veiled offerings. They were either gems or offal, and you would not know which until you unwrapped the paper to inspect for gleam or grime. As he peered through a window and down the street, he pondered whether or not the gleam of some was covered with a coat or two of grime. This thought had not quite faded when there was a sudden pounding on his door. He made a noise that was a combination of sigh, groan, and curse, and made his way towards the noise. Deciding not to engage in any prestidigitation, he simply opened it. A young man, his chest heaving, stood just outside. He had obviously been running for some time. He handed the silvered gentleman a roll of parchment stoppered with wax. Close inspection revealed an enwarred sigil that told the handlers of said document that something rather nasty would happen if anyone other than for whom it was intended tried to open it.

                “Well, I certainly hope that it’s for me then,” he said, and pulled the stopper out. A puff of green smoke and light, and the parchment unrolled. He read the contents carefully, his face straight and emotionless.

                At first the young messenger simply waited for his recipient to read his letter, but in due time and between breaths, he said, “The High King wishes for you to send word back, Sir.”

                The old fellow turned to look at him. “Does he now? Very well. Tell him

that I will be there before you are even halfway back.”

                The boy blinked. “Uh… begging your pardon, Mr. Canthus, but… how would you go about doing that?” He blinked. “Uh… Sir.”

                Canthus smiled a very elvish smile. “By employing one of the many tricks I have up my sleeve, young man. Tricks that I’ve been perfecting for the last, oh, thousand years or so.” He waved him off. “Now off with you. I have to decide on something.”

                The boy, taken aback at Canthus’ millennial reference, stood where he was,

unmoving. “Decide, Sir?”

                Canthus nodded vigorously and a little impatiently. “Yes, yes, I have to decide if the air temperature and time of year will mean flight is faster for a raven, or a hawk.” He paused. “A hawk probably, but I might look a bit odd. Ravens, though, tend to be harbingers of ill tidings. Oh, bother it all.”

                The messenger made a postulation. “Aren’t drakes or dragons the fastest?”

                Canthus regarded him coldly. “Oh, dear lad, have you not a wit in your head?

Of course they’re the fastest, but they are hardly a covert means of travel, now are they? In a half dozen wing strokes I’d have every man-at-arms, mercenary, and noble knight on the bloody continent trying to shoot me out of the sky, wanting to make names for themselves. No. I think…” He snapped his fingers. “Perfect! A meadowlark. Inconsequential, and quite swift. How does that sound?”

                The boy shrugged. “Sounds perfect, Sir.”

                “Excellent! Now, off you go. And don’t forget to shut the door!”

                He did not.

 

~*~

 

                Later that night, after many simple yet heartfelt tales of where JaBrawn’s recent wanderings had taken him, after the children had sat there wide-eyed until they quite literally collapsed with excitement-induced exhaustion, after JaBrawn had sat and watched Derrig clutch his two most precious possessions to his chest and carry them, one in each arm, to bed, after all these things, JaBrawn told Derrig in quick, hushed strokes about the garulls. He mentioned their number and that he had killed one of them, and the rest had fled back into the woods. He did not want to mention that he had dispatched the lot of the creatures, for fear of sounding unbelievable or inhuman. The deception did not sit well with him, but a boast would probably be ignored at exactly the wrong time by exactly the right person. If it was believed, then too many eyes would be on him, and how, most likely, no ordinary man could have done so. Derrig held his face in his hands as a horrible, unspoken list of possibilities played across his mind. “JaBrawn, I must offer my heartfelt thanks once more, as well as my lifelong service. If you had not been there…” he peered at him intently. “If you had not been there…” he repeated softly.

                JaBrawn stood resolutely, uncomfortable with the situation, but sympathetic with Derrig’s fear of what could have happened – a fruitless but unavoidable union of the thinking mind and the loving heart. “I did what anybody would have done. You owe me nothing.”

                Derrig took a long breath and idly ran his fingers through his beard. “Your

humility becomes you, traveler, but you simply do not understand. The people of this town would have watched them die. Some would have even been pleased by the idea.” He ground his teeth in disgust. JaBrawn could tell there was more hiding in this statement

but did not press it. Derrig continued. “I would, quite simply, be nothing without my children. After losing Aria, they have become the center of my life, my heart, my soul.”

JaBrawn’s brow furrowed. Derrig read his question right off of his features.

“I know, I know. If I care so deeply for them, why let them wander so far? Well, to be honest, I forbid them to wander much beyond the town boundaries. I will have a good, long talk with the both of them on the morrow. When they misbehave they are reprimanded, but I take all care in making certain that I do not let anger or irritation affect my judgment. I always make certain that the punishment befits the crime. In all else, however, I want them to live free and happy, to have as full a life as our little Camdur can provide.”

                He stood and filled his mug again from the ale barrel, which he had moved into the living room earlier. Standing, he took a deep pull from it. “If either of them decide to move on later in life it will pain me, but not nearly as much as the thought of quelling their lives in even the smallest fashion. If they want to trek on to Greann, Tallo, Fremett or even Tyniar for all I know, they may go with the knowledge that their father blesses them with all his heart and good wishes.”

JaBrawn still felt grumbly and at odds with his ways of child rearing, but his

reasoning now seemed rather hollow and old fashioned when he really looked at it. Both of Derrig’s children were educated, clean, well-fed, and well-mannered, if a little too curious. However, he was open minded enough to see that that may simply be his sensitivity to prying questions more than anything else.

Finally, he said, “I think more parents should let their hearts and their minds guide their actions with their children.”

                Derrig raised his mug and nodded. “And I wish there were more people as

willing as you, to take a step back and see things for what they are.”

                JaBrawn again saw something hidden in his statement, though he did raise

his flagon as well. “There are people here who do not?”

                Derrig sighed and shook his head rather sadly. “There always are, are there

not?” He made his way to his room, where a window peeked out over the small piece

of land between his cottage and the one nearest it to the North. Here there were yet

more books, piled at the nightstand and arranged precariously about a worn desk. The

man was clearly self-educated, and it did him and his children credit. He beckoned

JaBrawn near, and pointed toward the lighted window of his neighbor.

                He could plainly see an old man and woman peering from this window, one of them with a looking glass. He pinched his features in annoyance. “Spies?”

                Derrig chuckled lightly, but there was some concern in it. “A bit more than that. The fellow is called Unger Whitley. He was a high-ranking captain in the old militia. He is one of three such old soldiers left, and he has the magistrate’s and the town council spokesman’s ear.” He leaned on the sill, eyeing his two observers as they passed the spyglass back and forth. He and JaBrawn were in complete darkness, so the espionage would reveal nothing.

                “A few turns before Aria died, he came to me demanding that I have my wife brought to the village warrick to cleanse her soul of demons before she expired. I tried to explain to him the causes behind her illness, but then he simply accused me of being in league with whatever malevolent forces had taken over my wife’s body.”

                JaBrawn growled low in his throat. He caught himself before the sound took

on too much of a bestial quality. “I have… encountered such fools myself.”

                Derrig snorted. “I think we all have. Even so, I asked him what possible

reasoning he had behind his accusations. He said that he saw Aria reading to the children out of a book that he did not recognize, a book with a black cover. I told him that I did not know of any such book, which was true (I cared not a whit by the way) but nonetheless, that was hardly proof enough to level a charge of demon possession against someone.”

                JaBrawn agreed with a grunt.

                “He said that if it wasn’t, then it must merely ‘be a piece of a larger puzzle.’

When I asked him what in all the hells he meant by that, he claims he saw Wendonel speaking to a squirrel, out near the large twisted oak tree between our properties. He said she told it to do things, tricks and such, and it did them.” He waggled his fingers mock menacingly. “Utter nonsense.”

                JaBrawn stiffened slightly. Wendonel had shown passing interest in the fact that he had spoken to his warhorse. He wondered now if perhaps the reason she seemed more pleased than impressed was because such abilities were nothing new to her.

                Derrig continued. “I called him a bothersome sneak with nothing better to do than to spy on little girls. He stomped off in a huff. Two days afterward my wife received a summons from the town magistrate’s aide, who doubles as constable. She was to stand trial for demon possession.” He sighed harshly. “The crusty old bastard had probably gone straight to the magistrate, or his little toady, Salett, a self-appointed aide who is some sort of disgraced royal champion in exile, and had demanded that it take place. Being the loved old war hero that he was, the magistrate ordered it immediately.”

                JaBrawn stared at the side of Derrig’s face. “She was ordered to stand trial in her condition?”

                Derrig nodded slowly. “Aye. But it really didn’t matter. She died a day before the date of her inquiry.”

                JaBrawn closed his eyes. “Barbaric.”

                “Yes. It was. I sent letter after letter to the town council about her condition and how it was caused. Several very expensive warricks hired by her family and well-versed in her condition backed up my claims.” He smirked. “I have yet to hear back. Even when I happen across them at the town hall, they are always ‘far too busy.’”

                They were both silent a moment. Then JaBrawn said, “So your neighbor’s been after you ever since?”

                “In a manner of speaking. He mostly just wants to look important and powerful. Rumor has it he knows a bit of warricking, so maybe he’s looking to replace the one we already have. She’s kind of an idiot.”

                JaBrawn smiled. “So, he spies on you in hopes of catching… what, exactly?”

                “Oh, in hopes of catching me and my children in the midst of one of our sinister demonic incantations. Maybe he thinks I conjured up that ugly scab of a horse eating my grass by the fence.”

                JaBrawn forced an offended look to his face. “Hey… that horse has been the

only companion I’ve had for the last six years.”

                Derrig donned a look of mild alarm.

                “Oh, by the gods,” JaBrawn muttered. “Tripped headfirst into that one, now didn’t I?”

                Both men shared another bout of barely stifled laughter, tilting back their drinks in a manner that males have made synonymous with camaraderie for as long as there has been drinking and men.

                JaBrawn said, “Were you working for the magistrate at the time all this happened?”

                “Oh yes. I doubt that I would have been able to secure the job afterward. Even so, there have been over the shoulder mutterings and narrow glances abounding. The magistrate is a good enough man, but he tends to lean towards the quickest route to whatever will keep the peace. Sometimes that’s a good thing.” He shrugged and took another pull from his mug. “And sometimes not.”

                “Have you thought of leaving? Moving from here to another town?”

                Derrig sighed softly. “Constantly, but… I cannot. The children love it here, and so do I, really. The few friends I have are very good friends, and I honestly can’t make myself tuck my tail between my legs and run.” He leaned on the sill. “Aria would want me to stay and fight. I just know it.”

                Both men drank quietly and saying little, though an occasional muffled laugh escaped their lips as they watched Mr. Whitley and his wife watch them. The old curmudgeons continued their important observations long after JaBrawn and Derrig had given up and went to bed, and were either unaware or uncaring that, back-lit in their window, they were quite neatly silhouetted against the night and looked completely ridiculous.

 

~*~

 

                JaBrawn had, for as far back as he could remember, found it difficult to sleep

under a roof. It was not exactly a phobia of any real sort. It was more like he found the scene of the sky a comforting thing to rest his eyes on before sleep finally overtook him, whether it was a dusting of stars or rolling storm clouds. Musing at such, he lost himself in the twilight heavens.

                There was a full moon that night.

                JaBrawn was far too old for the night’s luminary watchman to force the change, but he felt the all too familiar slight tug at his soul, to bring out the beast and hunt. He tapped it away with hardly a thought. He far preferred the human tendency to just gaze at it and wonder.

                Wendonel was sleeping quietly in her bed through the window nearest to him. Every few minutes he would glance at her silently resting form, and that almost-a-smile twitch of his lips would wriggle to his mouth with far stronger insistence than the beast in his heart. He knew that her brother was in his own visit to slumber a few feet from her bed. He could clearly hear him snoring, though the sound would have been slight to human ears. He had not slept soundly enough to snore for longer than he could remember.

                It was so odd. His resiliency to death was bettered by few, yet, when he learned of his handful of weaknesses, the possibility of being attacked while he rested kept him at odds with sleep far more often than when he had been mortal and could sleep in the middle of a battle with only a single, wounded friend standing watch over him.

                He looked out again at the moon. It seemed to return his gaze. No longer a thing for him to fear, it was more like a wrongly maligned companion that had waited all these years to show him that all it ever wanted to give him was a few hours of peace during the night. He almost regretted the decades he spent hiding from it, despite its previously uncontrollable effects over him.

                He felt remorse for the past.

                He felt wonder for the night.

                He felt good about himself for the first time since he had crushed the life out

of a garull to save the neck of a friend three decades ago. For a few moments, he wondered if any of his old comrades were still alive. Perhaps someday he would seek

them out.

                He smiled at the thought, this time all the way.

 

~*~

 

                JaBrawn awoke before the first fingers of the sun chased away the gray stillness of predawn. He sat up, feeling well rested and alert and smiled in subtle approval as he met Derrig coming out the front door, already scrubbed and dressed in his guardsmen tunic and mail. He smelled the dusky sweat of three horses coming down the path well before they actually arrived.

                After a few seconds the pounding of hooves became clearly audible. Derrig put his hands on his hips as they rounded the bend. Two men clad as in mail like he, rode escort to a third, who was draped in a flowing tunic of an absurdly bright blue. The curve of a large crossbow was outlined under this man’s cloak.

                “Good Morning,” JaBrawn said to Derrig as he strapped on his leather vest and tied back his hair. “Who are they?”

                “Good morning.” Derrig snorted. “Two of them are friends. One is not.”

                It was not very difficult to discern which was which, for as the blue-garbed rider drew near, JaBrawn could see a clear look of disdain on his pockmarked face, one that deepened when he and the others drew their mounts to a halt.

                He nodded sourly. “Good morrow, Derrig.” It was an archaic, slightly stilted manner of greeting.

                Derrig returned it curtly. “Good morrow, Salett.”

                JaBrawn recalled his brief mention of him the previous night. He had only said his name once, but it stuck in his head as someone unpleasant. He lifted his chin slightly in JaBrawn’s direction. “’Morrow,” he said simply.

                JaBrawn stood impassively and folded arms that looked as broad as Salett’s waist across his chest. “Morning,” he muttered through the corner of his mouth.

                The cratered visage fixed on him for a good long moment, then looked away. “Who is this man, Derrig? I have never seen him before.”

                “He is a recent acquaintance, a traveler that quite literally saved my children’s lives. He brings fearful news with him, as well.”

                Salett hopped down from his horse. The crossbow on the back of his horse was covered in a leather case and clearly massive. It seemed all the larger as Salett himself was not a man of much stature. He strode over to them in a strutting, overly regal manner, as the men-at-arms assigned to him followed, though they seemed to do so a bit grudgingly. He drew up to JaBrawn and peered at his face from a foot beneath it.

                “What provident happenstance, then, that you were in the area, Lord…” He leaned over slightly, extending his right leg in almost a curtsy, and offered his hand.

                JaBrawn took it firmly. The little man’s grip was like a bag of matchsticks.

“JaBrawn. And yes, it was lucky that I was where I was.”

                Salett stared up at him. JaBrawn stared back.

                Derrig said, “Salett, why exactly are you here?”

Salett released his hand and looked at Derrig. “Last night you were seen conversing with an unknown fellow,” he glanced back at JaBrawn, “until far past what would be considered a respectable hour for one of the magistrate’s personal guard.”

                Derrig smirked. “How absolutely hedonistic of me. Staying up past my bed time.” He looked over at JaBrawn. “With an unknown fellow, no less.” He nodded,

looking serious. “Shall you execute me here, or… would you prefer to take me into the village square to make a public spectacle out of me?”

                Salett frowned. “These are serious times, Derrig…”

                “Yes, they are.” Derrig strode towards the aide to the magistrate, towering over him as well. With JaBrawn at his side, they outmassed him four-fold.  “And I wonder, you repugnant little toad, when you and that dried up old excuse for a soldier,” he jerked his head in Whitley’s direction, “will become aware of just how serious these times are? Perhaps sometime after you are through pestering me and my family?”

                Salett, impressively, had stood his ground without so much as a flinch, even at the insult. He indulged Derrig with a greasy smile. “I do not understand. What are you saying?”

                “JaBrawn has seen a pack of garulls hardly a mile from here.” He held his hand up as Salett opened his mouth to speak. “I realize that it is extremely uncommon for these creatures to come so close to our town, but I believe what he says. My children can corroborate it.”

                Salett snorted. “Your children? Ah.” He nodded slowly. “I wonder, Thresher, is their word as golden as their mother’s is?” Derrig’s jaw muscles rippled visibly even beneath his beard. “Or was, rather?”

                The big farmer and guardsman appeared perfectly calm, but one hand slowly

moved to a wicked hand ax, one of two, that he had at his waist.

                A sudden shout came from behind Salett. “Derrig! Hold your hand!” Derrig glanced to the other guardsmen, whom he knew well, and called friend. The man spoke softly but clearly. “Keep your fingers away from your splitters, friend. Please.”

                Derrig, fuming, did as he was asked.

                The aide sneered. The other guardsman continued. “And you, Salett. Whether or not you truly believe this mule spit about Derrig’s wife being infested with demons, I would think you would at least have the wit to not insult a man who can part another man’s skull in two from fifty feet away.”

                Salett spat over his shoulder without turning. “Might I remind you, commoner, that you are here at my pleasure to protect me against this peasant, not defend him? If he were to attack, it is your duty to take the blow.”

                The other guardsman clucked. “Oh Salett, come off it. If you were half as

important as you thought you were, The High King himself would have his nose buried so deep in your backside, so often, you’d never need escort because you’d be unable to go anywhere without dragging the Good King behind you.”

                There was a brief rumble of barely muffled laughter from all but JaBrawn and Salett at this. The latter of course, did not find any humor in it for obvious reasons. JaBrawn, however, was reminded of a man too young to be in command and who knew nothing of what being in command entailed. He sent wave after wave of men to die, all of them needlessly, simply because he would not admit his thinking was faulty. He was short, covered with the cratered scars of ruptured boils, and as self-righteous as a monk in a tavern brawl. It could not possibly be the same man, but the similarities were bothersome. Then the memory slipped away.

                As the laughter died down, Salett reached into a fold of his robe and brought

forth a folded parchment. He handed it to Derrig with his mouth clamped shut on his words, turned, and stomped over to his horse. He mounted quickly and rode back the way he had come with hardly a backward glance. His two escorts waved grimly, and then took their time to catch up as the aide disappeared around the bend.

                JaBrawn’s scowl was not alone. One formed on Derrig’s face that could have been its twin as he unrolled the message and read it silently. “What is it?” He asked.

                “A council inquiry.”

                JaBrawn blinked. “You’re to be tried?”

                His friend shook his head. “Not exactly. It’s more like a trial to see if there needs to be a trial.”

                “That’s ridiculous.”

                Derrig sighed. “Well yes, it is, but that is the way we do things in Camdur.”

                JaBrawn found the children’s scent on the air. They were waking. “Does the High King know of this? I am not completely clear on his mandates for outlying kingdoms, but I don’t think he’d approve of such treatment.”

                Derrig laughed derisively – a harsh, abrupt bark. “If the rumors and tales of

his kindness are true, then I am sure he would not, but he governs what: a dozen kingdoms? More? And that statement doesn’t really appreciate Erathai, the largest of

them all. I somehow doubt he could find the time to correct a few civic discrepancies in our backwards little village, my friend.”

                JaBrawn’s cheek twitched in irritation. “These are more than discrepancies Derrig, and you damn well know it.”

                Derrig nodded slowly. “I know JaBrawn, but to men with as much power and as little time as Good King Merrett, they would only be labeled as ‘discrepancies’ if he were even made aware of it.”

                “Daddy?” Wendonel asked as she wandered out of the front of their cottage, her hair a tangled mess and her eyes puffy with sleep. “What’s going on? Why are the red men laughing at you?”

                “Wendy, hush!” Derrig snapped.

                JaBrawn’s looked at her, confused. “Redmen? You mean the guardsmen?”

                She shook her head.

                “Wendonel, go inside and fix your brother some breakfast.” Derrig snapped.

                She took a few backwards steps. “But… what about you?”

                “I will be fine. Go now!”

                She stared at him, confused, then dutifully turned tail and went back into the

house.

                JaBrawn put the same question to Derrig. “Who are the red men?”

                He waved it away. “She is a very imaginative girl. She often dreams of fairies with red skin and wings. She calls them the Redmen. She must have heard everyone laughing and put that sound to her dreams.”

                JaBrawn looked at him incredulously. Again, he was hiding something. There was the tang of discomfort that was nearly fear in his scent. This was common with deception. He did not press the issue.

                Derrig folded the parchment abruptly and shoved it in his tunic. “You may stay here as long as you like, JaBrawn. Wendonel and Favius obviously like you, and so do I. I will no doubt be dealing with this inquiry for a day or so, during which the children would normally have to fend for themselves.”

                JaBrawn chewed the inside of his cheek. He knew what was coming, and headed it off. “I will look after them for as long as you need, but would it not be better if I came with you?”

                Derrig scowled in thought. “I would welcome the company, but no. Your presence would most likely stir the pot of dissent that Unger and Salett have placed before the magistrate.” He shook his head. “They shan't do anything drastic at a preliminary inquiry. I will see what they claim at the very least. Perhaps I can even stopper it up before it spills its nonsense over everything.” His lips pulled into a taut, grim, line. “Well and good then.”

                His previous manner of jovial sarcasm had been uprooted and supplanted with cynical, simmering anger. He went into the house, kissed and held his children, and told them that business would have to keep him away for a few days more.

                “But you’ve only just returned,” Wendonel said over a sad frown.

                “I know, little petal,” he said brushing a finger down her nose. “But this can’t wait. I wish it could.” He kissed her cheek and then tousled Favius’ hair, whose face was locked into a rictus of bothered melancholy. “I tell you this much, though: At least this time you’ll have someone to watch you, and to keep you out of trouble.” He winked. It almost worked.

                He stood, and clasped JaBrawn’s hand strongly. “My friend. Though saving the lives of my children has made me eternally indebted to you, I am certain that I would have sensed your honor even if you had done nothing more than pass through town.”

                JaBrawn shook his hand solemnly. “You are too kind, Derrig. Though if I were you, I’d cover that worm Salett with curdled milk and then toss him into a pit of wild boars. You really should not have to endure this.” He tilted his head slightly towards the children. “Nor should they.”

                Derrig shook his head. “No, we should not. However, I am a man who has sworn to uphold our laws. As such, I cannot say that I, alone, am above them, can I?”

                JaBrawn could always find holes in such thinking, but realized that this was neither the time nor the place to discuss it. Besides, it probably would not change this man’s mind. “No, I suppose not.”

                They released hands, and Derrig said, “A day then. Three at the most.”

                The grizzled old soldier nodded. “I’ll be here.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 6

 

                Deluzha, somewhat like her sister, Zephris, is sometimes taken to be a deity of undirected force, though of a much higher magnitude. Also, much like her sister, her actions are never without aim or purpose. Though all the gods are interconnected, the goddess of water and the goddess of wind work in concert often, from the currents of the seas and the winds that blow across them to the protean yet cool and sometimes devastating cycles of the weather.

                Deluzsha herself reigns over water in all its manifestations. Perhaps the simplest element of them all, yet without it, no mortal life would find a hold on this world, rendering the governing of all other elements meaningless.

                Deluzha had been a child when she drowned in a small stream near her home. Her father and mother, praying to any power of good that existed, asked that their daughter simply live, no matter her form. Ummon,his ear tuned to the heartfelt pleas of his yet unknowing followers, caught her spirit in the divergess Extiris Aquanie, the elemental plane of water. He wiped her mind of the horrible and tragic moments of her death, but let the fact that it happened and the respect garnered from it remain. He asked her if she was frightened of the element that had killed her. She told him that it was not the water that killed her. It was the fact that she could not breathe in it. Finding her humility and her logic to be perfect counterparts for such an outwardly chaotic force, he mantled her with the responsibilities of its governance.

                The millennia have matured her, but she remains in the guise of a pale girl child with eyes the deepest, darkest blue of the ocean’s depths.

 

                The once-Jerom had been mulling over a new name for itself in its dark, broiling imagination. The moment it had infested and dissolved Jerom’s mind, it had become more than human. As it spread its influence amongst its flock, its power grew as did theirs. They were now twice the might of any man, and it was twice that and growing stronger, though it lacked something it felt was essential: a true identity. It had no real label to affix to its intellect that it could call its own. Over the millennia it had grown from the simple mote of dark, hateful energy that the first sin loosed into the universe, into a being that had finally become aware of its own existence. And, once aware, had become fixated on only one thing: to feed. The misty coils of hate and evil that it had been consuming for the last ten thousand years had long since become less than satisfactory. It needed a richer source of nourishment. It needed to draw it straight from the source. This incredibly difficult task of crossing from the voids in which it had been gestated had been achieved. This first step had been taken. So, now that its endeavors had begun, what should it call itself?

                What?

                Ahhhh…

                Yes, of course.

                It mouthed it silently with lips that had turned from withered gray to black over the past few days. It slipped this appellation into the dull minds of its followers, and they all hissed their acceptance.

It had gathered enough for its flock, for now. Its power ebbed as it forced away the minds and essences of each of its victims, for its creatures were but vessels to do so, but it would return even greater once it drew from their combined fortitude. Within each decrepit underling was a spark of its own being, and each spark would slowly become a flame. This flame, when fed by its foul acts, would pour out the sustenance it needed to survive, to grow.

                It was time to find its first real prize, its first serious step in securing its delicious future. Though stronger than perhaps any single being in the docks and streets of Fremett, they were still vulnerable and mortal now if assaulted by a stalwart enough foe. It had been very careful to select only those members of its dank avenues that would not be missed, those members whose absence would, at times, even be pleasant.

                Now it and its children needed a new home. It bothered it somewhat, but they needed a better place to hide their appearance and intentions than the sand until such needs were moot. It rifled through the fractured memories that remained in the meat of Jerom’s mind, and found a man amongst his upper clientele that could provide the means to house them for some time, and in plain sight no less. Excellent.

It stood and its flock did the same, rivulets of stinking, clinging sand falling from their emaciated bodies. Indulging in a small bit of ego which it had only recently developed before taking physical form, it spoke in its seamless voice. “My creatures, my…” it grinned wide, “…children, the time has come to go to our new home. We will embrace more of our family soon enough. These souls, though hardier than those we have encountered, are still only lightly anchored and will fall easily. In time when enough have been taken into our fold, any who do not succumb or surrender will simply become food for those who do.”

                They murmured their agreement in a horrible dissonance of hisses and gnashing teeth.

                “Excellent my creations. Now: Who is your master?”

                The collection of vile undead said its name in a drawn out, vile pronunciation.

                The Once Jerom smiled softly.

 

                And a terrified watcher amongst the piers, not intending to spy on anything much less an army of undead, viewed all of this in mute terror, and then slipped as quietly away as her respectable talents allowed. She could not decide whether to disclose the nightmare she saw rise from the sands, or find the nearest horse and get the hells out of town.

                She decided to do both, as quickly as possible.

 

~*~

 

                “There are three possibilities,” the tall, thin elf remarked, his hands interlocked under his chin except for the index fingers, which were steepled under his nose. “It is a natural phenomenon, it is an unnatural phenomenon, or it was engineered to happen.”

                Good King Merrett nodded, smiling bitterly. “Hmm. Interesting. Now, could you explain to me what in the hells you mean by that?”

                The elf was only too happy to clarify. “Explaining the recent goings-on through natural phenomena: Suppose some millennial cycle caused all the creatures to come out of hiding and behave strangely, not unlike the mentality involved in a mass migration that does not bind itself to any one species and with obvious behavioral differences. If we have no previous record of such an event, then it would certainly appear strange, despite how natural it may be.

                “An unnatural phenomenon would be, oh, some cosmic body streaking across the heavens and throwing off gods know what kinds of energy in its wake that scrambles up the brains of certain creatures, whilst leaving others completely alone.

                “And, of course, the engineered explanation would be the most disturbing of the three. Somewhere, somehow, for whatever reason, someone would be causing this to happen.” He spread his hands and then interlaced them again, proclaiming his piece, for now, concluded.

                The King leaned out of an open window in the same stony block of a keep that  was his residence in this area, sucking in a smoky breath through his nose of evening Sanguinneth air. He looked down, towards several great tables laden with a portion of the year’s unheard of harvest. A good one hundred fifty of the nearby townspeople were celebrating this eve, honoring his name as the benefactor of their fortune. He pretended with great aplomb to be honored and proud to receive such praise when they toasted him from below. What he felt inside, however, was shame. He and his vast kingdom were, quite simply, ill-equipped on every level for the ramifications of what was happening in the world, whether natural, unnatural, or engineered. It had been years since there had been any kind of serious uprising, and decades since any sort of war. He was utterly unprepared for conflict.

                He turned and looked at the old elf, the pain of realizing one’s own failures

brimming his eyes. In a series of abrupt, discordant confessions, he divulged the horror of his nightmares to the elf. He described how he could feel the leathery fingers and calloused claws of thousands of people tugging at him, whether for salvation or starvation he could not discern.

                “Truly that was the worst of it. It was like I absolutely must or absolutely must not sacrifice everything I was to them. Canthus, What am I to do?”

                The elf peered at him with honest sympathy and then stood with the casual grace that only an elf can. “I think the only solution is a simple one, my king. Protect your people. Raise and train an army, maybe. Prepare for whatever these events entail, whether good, ill, or neither.”

                Good King Merrett glanced back out the window. A little girl, just learning the intricacies of walking, looked up at him, and grinned a pearly grin through blond curls and blue eyes. He looked back at the elf Canthus, and nodded. Whether or not his worst fears had been realized, there was a great deal of work to do.

 

~*~

 

                “Why do you get up so early?” Wendonel asked JaBrawn as she pulled herself from her bed at an hour on which she was obviously not used to rising.

                “I like getting up a bit before dawn.” JaBrawn said idly, as he gathered wood for the hearth from a stack just outside the house.

                Favius stumbled into the living room in his nightshirt. The top of his hair stood perfectly on end. The remainder seemed determined to do the opposite.

                JaBrawn chuckled. “That’s quite a head of hair you have there, boy.” The little fellow gave him a silly looking smile and blinked the sleep from his eyes. JaBrawn looked over at Wendonel. “What do you two normally do in the morning?”

                She sat on the edge of the sofa. “We normally sleep until about eight or nine of the clock. Then we wash up, make breakfast, and practice our letters and numbers. Then we do chores.”

                JaBrawn nodded his approval. “You really have done well for yourselves while your father is away.” He bit his lip momentarily, measuring his words. “You know he is very proud of you.”

                She screwed her face up in annoyance, as if he had just said something ncredibly dim-witted. “Well of course he is, silly. We’re great children.”

                Not really expecting that but still not as surprised as he used to be at her off-center notions, JaBrawn merely paused for a moment, and then continued piling split logs on to his arms.

                “You’re strong,” Wendonel said. “Dada could lift that much wood, but his face turns kind of red and he makes these huffing noises.”

                JaBrawn shrugged.

                “Is this something else about your kind?”

                He was not yet certain if he should be honest about this part of him, but for some reason, that part of him felt that it was not only safe, but that it was a wise idea. He looked at her levelly. “Yes. It is.”

                “You never did tell me what kind you are,” she replied as she rubbed her puffy eyes.

                “That’s true,” he commented, getting up and heading into the cottage. “And I

think I will continue to not tell you for now.”

                She nodded. “Okay. Can you answer me at least one question?”

                He set the pile down, and then turned towards her again. “Actually Wendonel, I’ve answered all your questions.”

                She opened her mouth to speak, but then broke into a grin that spread across her entire face, marveling at the cleverness of what he had said. “That’s right, you did! You just didn’t really tell me anything!” She hopped up and down, and clapped her hands once.

                JaBrawn didn’t even try to stifle his smile, but busied himself with stacking wood in the hearth so as to not make his reaction the center of his presence at the moment. “You are a very smart girl.”

                She squatted near him, watching him work. When he looked up at her, she handed him a handful of kindling. “Not really. I’m smart, but not really, really smart.” She indicated Favius with a nod. He was sitting on the sofa kicking his feet back and forth in midair, staring at nothing. He had seized his bottom lip with his upper teeth, causing him to have a rather rodent-like look on his face. “He is though.”

                JaBrawn peered at him for a moment. “I am certain you’re right.”

                She nodded again. “I usually am. When I’m wrong though, hooooo boy!” She grinned again. “Anyway, will you answer one question with an answer that does really tell me something?”

                He grabbed a few corkscrews of wood shavings from a small crate to the side of the hearth, and set them in a pile at the base of the fire, on which he set an interlocking stack of kindling. He then pulled a flint box from a small iron box on a nearby shelf, and struck a large spark from its surface. It disappeared into the wood shavings, which began to smolder. This stretched into a flickering tongue that licked at the tiers of kindling. With a puff, the flame sputtered then began spread. “I might.” He puffed twice more, and the fire caught in earnest. “Depends on the question.”

                She shook her head. “That’s not fair, that way you can just answer it any way you like.”

                He smirked. “That’s the idea.”

                “Oh, fine then,” she said, raising her voice to the highest level he had yet heard, which was not much at all. “Here it is: Why didn’t you tell my father what had really happened with the monsters? That you killed them all and saved us?”

                He shut the grate on the hearth. “If you promise not to tell your father until I feel the time is right, I will tell you.” She nodded. Favius’ vote, of course, was not needed, though he did appear compliant. He continued, though hesitatingly. “I am not exactly what you could call… ehhh… human. I used to be.” He caught the corner of his mouth briefly with his teeth. This was awkward. “I’m not now.”

                She interrupted briefly. “What changed you?”

                He shook his head. “It was more like realizing that I was always the same. More than that I won’t go into. Not now. Probably not ever.” He knelt on one knee near the hearth, bracing an elbow up on one leg. “Anyway. No normal man could have killed those garulls like I did. Not a boast, just the truth. As strong as your dada is, I’m probably about ten times stronger.”

                She blanched for a moment. Saying such a thing to a child about their father will usually result in a comparative father prowess argument, but Wendonel (and Favius, for that matter, though he did not look nearly as surprised) just seemed to sense somehow that JaBrawn was telling the truth. They were there when he had killed the garulls after all, and had seen everything. They were about as worldly as kittens, but what they saw this great bearded old warrior do could very well be construed as beyond human ability.

                “What else?” She asked quietly.

                His brow furrowed slightly. Wendonel noticed that they looked kind of like two great fuzzy iron caterpillars kissing. “What do you mean?” He asked in reply.

                “What else can your kind do?”

                He hesitated a moment, then a tiny voice in him said, Why not? You’ve been

hiding everything for thirty years now. Of all the people to confess to, a child is probably better than most. He cleared his throat. “Well, I can heal very quickly. Small wounds heal in a few seconds. Most bad ones, including ones that would kill a man instantly, would take a handful of minutes or so. Um… I can smell things that men can’t. Kind of like a trackhound, only a bit better I think. Oh. And the one thing you first asked about, uh…” he distractedly rubbed the back of his neck, “I will eventually die of old age if I never involve myself in battle of any kind. If I do, well, the results vary, but that scuffle with the garulls took a couple years off my hide, I think. That’s about it.” He was rambling and he knew it, but it did not seem to matter.

                Wendonel stood there, not moving, not talking. She looked over at her brother. He sat silently and returned the look. There were tears in both children’s eyes. He suddenly felt foolish, awful, and cold-hearted. He had frightened the poor things mute (well even more muteness for the lad) and now they were just too stunned with the abomination that he was to so much as tremble a lip, and…

                …And then Wendonel lifted a hand and laid it against his cheek. The hand was tiny, cool, and innocent. It was an inconsequential action and sensation, but there was a gentle power in her touch that struck him to his core and pried open something that he had long ago fused shut. Her hand became like a bandage, one that had been soaked in an icy stream and then placed on a steaming, hurting wound.

                Favius slipped from the sofa and walked over to them. At the same time, both brother and sister embraced the scarred old warrior, their tiny frames wrapped around his vast bulk. He could not understand why this simple gesture moved him so, but he felt the slow filling of his chest with cool surrender, of surrender to grief that he had not faced in years. He had shouldered this burden for so long now, that even considering the idea of setting it down at the behest of someone else was something he had not done since time immemorial.

                He did not know how long he knelt there, but throughout it Wendonel and Favius held him. They held him as softly and tenderly as his own mother had when he was a child, though she was dust in a grave thousands of miles away. He mused inwardly that the fact he was kneeling seemed very appropriate to these two noble little souls.

                After it had passed, he gently extricated himself from their little embrace. He meant to ask them what they had done, but it was instantly clear. Somehow, their little gesture had let him free his pain, a pain that had burrowed deep into his heart and poisoned his soul for centuries. It was a pain that only grew as he tried to swallow it down and squelch it out, and every friend that died on the battlefield, every loved one that fell to the tireless walk of age while he stayed youthful, fed it to the point where it defined him more than anything else, or at least, he had convinced himself that it had. All that he loved would die around him because he was a monstrosity, and he could tell no one.

                Except that here, in this little hovel, he had, and now it was beaten. It was still there, but more as a nicked and battered bookshelf of memories and knowledge, rather than a malignant keep of anguish, like a ragged scar, but no longer a wound.

                He sat for several seconds, breathing heavily, his hands resting lightly on their shoulders. Finally, he found his voice. “Children… I have not felt emotion such as that for… well, for a very long time. I had it under keyless lock for many, many years. How did you do that?”

                “We didn’t do it, really,” Wendonel said. “We just turned your eyes towards a mess in you that you needed to clean up.” This was logical enough. She stepped back now, and peered into his earth and emerald eyes. “It was the least we could do for you, because we know what you are, JaBrawn. We know!” Her voice rose to an excited squeal.

                He could not help but smile. It felt as if a great blotch of tar had been scrubbed from his soul. “And what am I?”

                She took his face in her tiny hands. “You’re the answer to our prayers!”

                JaBrawn looked in surprise from Wendonel to Favius who was nodding vigorously, causing his great mane of disheveled hair to bob up and down like a rooster comb.

 

~*~

 

                The Town Hall was a long squat building made from row upon row of crude clay bricks. It was the first structure made after the huts were torn down ages ago, and had stood strong and immovable ever since. Much of the surrounding township, especially the older inns, shops and warehouses, followed a similar cut. This noble trait had been twisted by most of the elder council members into a backwards, naïve stubbornness that tended to push logic out of the way of saving face. Derrig had known this since he was a boy felling redwoods with his father.

                He had accompanied his father to an inquiry against him, when he had refused to pay taxes that had nearly doubled since the year before with no appreciable difference in public services. The board would hear nothing of his concerns, and threatened to have his house annexed by the magistrate. The magistrate, though a sterner man than he who held that title today, refused to involve himself. His father had had no choice. He paid the difference, plus a penalty. Those councilmen had since gone to their graves, though their replacements were no better. Some who were old enough to remember both would say even worse.

                Derrig reined in his horse as he neared the hall. He dismounted in one fluid

movement, and then fettered the reins to a row of hitches near the entrance. There was a respectable amount of commotion at that hour in town, but this was not really all that unusual. Logging towns tend to rise early, as cutting trees is the kind of work that one wants to do when it is reasonably cool, and prepping the timber into lumber is a large, time-consuming industry.

Derrig approached the main doors of the hall, which was flanked by two guardsmen. These men not only knew him well, they were under his command in the magistrate’s personal guard. They both looked grim and uncomfortable at the situation. As one they turned and faced each other at attention, allowing him entrance.

                Derrig stopped just before them. “Here now, lads. Just because we serve the magistrate together does not mean any of us, including myself, are above the rules he makes. Now, by the book, please.”

                The guard on his left sighed deeply, but nodded his acceptance. “State your

business then.”

                Derrig nodded. “Sergeant Derrig Thresher of His Magistrate’s Guardsmen,

reporting as commanded by the Camdur High Council for an official inquiry.”

                The same guard held out a reluctant gauntleted hand. “Your papers and weapons, please.” Derrig handed both to him.

The speaking guardsman handed his pair of throwing axes to his partner and then silently read Derrig’s summons. After a moment he nodded through a frown. “You may pass, Sergeant.”

                “Thank you, Sergeant.”

                Official business dealt with, Derrig entered the hall and descended a staircase, as the entire structure was partially underground, bespeaking its age as all the oldest buildings were constructed this way when the town was founded. There were several benches lining its redwood-lined belly, facing the rear of two podiums that in turned faced the wide, high bench of dark oak behind which the five councilmen sat. The council spokesperson, Gar Serbis, a somewhat deceptively disheveled and unkempt man who was actually as sharp as a falcon, sat unperturbed at its center. The other four were seated in pairs on either side of him. Derrig approached until his distance from them was halved, awaiting his official recognition by the council.

                “Approach your podium Sergeant,” Serbis said with a hand gesture and a smile.

                Saying nothing, Derrig walked the remainder of the distance to the podium on his left. He stood impassively, staring at a spot that was almost directly in front of him but in truth did not exist at all. He was thinking of his wife, and how much he missed her. O how she would have liked to stay alive long enough to have testified here, in front of these cranky old muck-wallowers.

                Behind him, he heard the door click open and shut. Someone with an audible

(and most likely exaggerated) limp made his way to that same halfway point, and, as

Derrig had, awaited permission to continue.

                “Approach your podium, Captain,” Serbis said.

                Derrig smirked slightly. So, they were still calling Unger Whitley, windowsill

spy extraordinaire, by his retired rank? How touching.

                The guardsmen by the door followed behind Whitley and took places behind both he and Derrig. He could not see either of them, but he knew that they had their hands on their weapons as protocol decreed.

                As soon as Whitley had taken his place, Serbis stood. His hair was uneven and greasy, his tunic and vest rumpled, and his face unshaven. Both Unger and Derrig knew this to be a ruse, but if that knowledge were truly some sort of advantage, it was a small one.

                “You are here, Sergeant Derrig Thresher, because of concerns brought to the

council’s attention by Mr. Unger Whitley, your caring and observant neighbor...” Unger lifted his chin and nodded shortly. Serbis continued, “...who is interested in nothing other than the well-being of both your soul and mind, and the same of your two children. Do you understand all that I have said?”

                Derrig scowled in his mind. Concern? The nerve of the old vulture! He comprehended the words, but not the thinking. “I understand what you have said,” Derrig said carefully.

                Serbis nodded abruptly and took his seat. “Excellent. As long as everyone present keeps in mind that this entire inquiry is taking place with intentions that are more to keep safe and sound a broken family than to break it further,” he hovered briefly over these words, “then its inevitable conclusion will no doubt be reached that much sooner.” He cleared his throat and lifted a hand towards Whitley. “Captain Whitley? Your presentations, please.”

                Unger glared briefly at Derrig whilst pulling a rough roll of brown parchment from his inside coat pocket. He was quite a sight, really, with his tufts of wild white hair standing up like errant goose down attracted to a feather grabbing lodestone, his lips cinched tight into a wrinkled purse, and his eyes accusatory lumps of coal. Oh yes, filled to the brim with concern and loving, neighborly care, this one.

                “Councilman Serbis, and all you other esteemed councilmen... of the council,” Derrig stifled something that was half groan half chuckle. Whitley was oblivious. “Please allow me to present the findings that my lovely and appropriate wife, Irga, and myself observed this past night, on the day of Freeday, on the eighth turn of the season of Sanguinneth, High King’s year of 1721…” His fumbling words worked no small effect on the council. Most men with hearts and senses of humor would have found it difficult to listen to such lingual buggery without biting back a laugh. The council, however, wore faces showing various stages of what appeared to be nausea.

                Serbis said, “Continue, good Captain.”

                Whitley began reading off an account of what he saw and at what time, from the

evening of JaBrawn’s arrival. It was an exhaustive effort in which he no doubt took great pride and care, for it took him the better part of fifteen minutes to prattle it off. He had apparently begun it at the time of his rising that morning.

                Amazingly, every last councilman sat completely still and with no complaint either verbal or inferred. In fact, they appeared quite fascinated with Whitley’s account of when Favius and Wendonel lay out in the sun and giggled when an oak leaf drifted from its tree and settled on Favius’ nose. They grumbled and clucked when he recanted how, not an hour later, they left on their own to places unknown and beyond the safe confines of the town limits. Then, with great fervor and while staring directly at Derrig, Whitley barked off an entry that signified the beginning of his true concern.

                “18 and 20 of the clock: Thresher is already home when a very large man riding atop an even more larger warhorse covered with a great lot of scars and with an obvious foul and ill temperament rides up from the West with Thresher’s children in his custody.” He paused for what he thought was effect. “The fellow was as broad as two men with a face that has no doubt seen nothing but pain and suffering. There is a strange weapon strapped to the back of his saddle. It looks to be a footman’s mace.” Here he again paused to give a lengthy description of the characteristics of a footman’s mace, including several popular methods by which they are employed. Once, a councilman cleared his throat with the beginnings of impatience. Whitley continued. “The thing that was an obvious weapon had the handle of a footman’s mace, but the striking end was a huge shiny sphere the likes of which I have never seen.” The fact that he had never seen its like was said with the same impact as would a master vintner who had sampled a grape from a vineyard with which he was completely unfamiliar.

                Serbis pursed his lips. “Is that all good Captain?”

                Whitley shook his head dramatically. “No sir, I fear it is not.”

                Serbis nodded. “Continue then.”

                Derrig rolled his eyes. “By the gods Serbis, how much more must you hear before you realize that this dried up old blowhard is doing nothing but bellowing a furnace that isn’t lit?”

                Serbis clucked at him. “Sergeant, you will be given relevant allowance for rebuttal. Now please, remain at peace. At that time, which will come I assure you, I would additionally remind you that you are to refer to myself and my esteemed peers by our titles or not at all. Do you understand?”

                Derrig, of course, expected nothing other. He had just hoped that there was some flicker of common sense that would supersede all of this nonsense and reveal its foundation: Nothing. He nodded resignedly.

                “Excellent.” Serbis looked back at Whitley who was staring at Derrig with his arms crossed. “Continue, good Captain.”

                “Thank you, Councilman Serbis. As I was saying, the man had a look of just

unspeakable malice and evil. His garments were all dark and patched up, no doubt from years of use and wear doing the gods know what sorts of deeds. When he pulled up to the Thresher farmstead, he spoke something to the horse, and it trotted off without hesitation as if it understood completely.”

                Serbis held up a hand to silence him briefly, and then turned his attention to

Derrig. “Sergeant, were you aware of this?”

                Derrig shook his head. “No, Councilman, I was not. Then again, if Mr. Whitley can be taught how to speak, it would not be unreasonable for a horse –”

                “Sergeant,” Serbis muttered, closing his eyes as Whitley let loose a strangled

gasp, “I have known you since you were a boy, have I not?”

                Derrig nodded grudgingly. “Yes, Councilman.”

                “I have watched you grow and fall in love and marry and have children, and have approved. Believe it or not, yes, I do approve of you and your family. I also grieved when you lost your wife.” Derrig stiffened. “However, I also know you to be hot-tempered and confrontational.” Serbis glared at him. “Despite my fondness for you, Sergeant, one more outburst like that and your case will be presented, weighed, and decided upon whilst you wait in chains in the cell house. Do I make myself clear?”

                Derrig took a long breath in and out through his nose. “Yes, Councilman, perfectly clear. I will rein in my temper.”

                Serbis relaxed into his seat. “Very well then.” He bade Whitley continue.

                And continue he did. Listed in neat chronological order were any and all events which had transpired at the Thresher household that Whitley or his wife could observe from their window.

                Of recurring note was JaBrawn’s horse. “It was never tethered, yet it stayed near the house throughout the evening and into the morning. Such behavior for an animal is unheard of,” he preached. “Horses wander away, even well-trained ones. It is their nature.”

                He finally put away his notes and took a deep, dramatic breath. “It is the

opinion of I, Unger Whitley, retired from the Camdur militia with the rank of Captain,

servant to our town in war and peace, and a member of its community that wishes to see no harm befall her or any of her residents, no matter how unseemly they might be,” he shot a look over at Derrig who blithely ignored him, “that Sergeant Derrig Thresher and his children be separated and remanded to the care of our warrick for spiritual investigation, and that the stranger be asked kindly to leave our town. If he resists, we should reply with whatever force is needed, as such resistance would admit guilt as clearly as if he had said as much with his own lips.” And he was finished. Eyeing the Council confidently, he awaited their response to his masterpiece of observation.

                “Are your concerns leveled in their totality then, Captain?” Serbis asked.

                Whitley nodded. “That they are, Councilman Serbis.” The look on his face

showed unspeakable pride and self-gratifying smugness. It was disgusting.

                Serbis tilted his head in Derrig’s direction. “You may, within reason, relevance, and respect, rebut, Sergeant.”

                Derrig cleared his throat. “Thank you, Councilman. As you very well know, I lost my wife Aria some six ardens back. She was to stand at a board of inquiry such as this but her health failed immediately beforehand. Her ailment, strange as it was, stood as a stigma of sorts to our little community. People react to the unknown with fear, and to fear with anger.” He clenched his jaw. “Anger breeds thoughts that result in nothing more than destruction, either physical, mental, or spiritual. With my dearly departed wife, it was all three.” He looked up, directly into Serbis’ eyes. “I take it you still have all the letters I sent you concerning her malady? The notes and reports from both her family and a much esteemed panel of warricks all the way from the royal city?”

                Serbis said and did nothing for several seconds, letting the direct, unavoidable question hang in the air. Finally, he nodded gravely. “Yes, Sergeant. I do.”

                Derrig inhaled sharply through his nose. He was not expecting such a

straightforward answer. “I never did hear back from you, Councilman. Did these documents avail her standing with you and the Council?”

                Serbis paused again, weighing his answer carefully. “They did to us personally, Sergeant, but…she passed away before her inquiry. We found it an extraneous expenditure of time and resources to posthumously pass an official ruling either for or against the accusations of possession.”

                Derrig stood silently. “All these years, I had thought there were different reasons for your ruling... or lack of ruling, that is.”

                Serbis was unreadable. “Your thoughts are, of course, free to go where they may. Please continue.”

                Derrig wasted not a second. “I had thought that you had deigned not to rule

because you were afraid of the implications associated with either verdict. If you ruled that she was under the wiles of a demon, then you risk the reputation of the entire town. If you ruled that she was not, you risk the ire of the townspeople themselves, for their own personal fears, however unfounded, would demand closure.” He laid his eyes on Serbis, while his face remained impassive. “And it would not have done much to foster trust amongst your subordinates and the townspeople at large, after having been so very wrong about one of our citizens. A precedent would have been set.”

                Serbis pursed his lips while the other councilmen fell into a small symphony of throat clearing. “It was, then, of very timely general occurrence, however personally unfortunate, that she passed when she did.”

                Derrig felt his stomach plummet at the cold presentation of Serbis’ statement. The logic, however, was clear. “In this single sense, yes.”

                Serbis inclined his head. “Please go on.”

                Derrig’s soul quaked, but he tapped into a dwindling store of resolve and calmed his voice. “Yes, of course.” He took a quick breath and pressed on. “After her death, I noticed that the people of Camdur began to regard me and my children with discomfort and outright avoidance in some cases. I believe that Mr. Whitley’s participation in my wife’s investigation had some part in it, though I have no direct proof.”

                “Then its mention is of no consequence,” Serbis interrupted. “Continue.”

                Derrig bristled at this idle dismissal but pushed past it. “My children do not have any real friends because of all this. They can only really entertain themselves, which most likely explains the event with the squirrel. Wendonel has been outside playing with woodland creatures for the past two or so years. They’re nothing more than cleverly tutored pets. Mr. Whitley insists on maintaining his ridiculous vigil on both me and my children in desperate hopes that he will witness any unusual situation, however trivial, to transform into a dire community emergency, and all to puff up his own sagging ego.” He looked at Whitley, who was staring at some spot on the floor, though the tip of his nose and his ears were glowing crimson.

                Serbis leaned forward. “Your proof for these claims?”

                Derrig shrugged. “Just look at the facts, Councilman. He brings charges of

demonic possession against Aria with silly evidence, however, the stigma of mere

accusation is enough to effectively ostracize us from the rest of the town. After Aria’s

death, he continues with new pointless accusations against my own children.” Derrig

ground his teeth together. “And he sees nothing but opportunity when a stranger rides

into Camdur with my children on his horse’s back, and who had just saved their lives.”

                The councilman’s thin eyebrows lifted. “Did he now? Under what circumstances?”

                Derrig inwardly swore an oath. He had hoped to bring this information in a bit more gently than this. “They were out playing in the fields near Graydon’s Wood. Yes, I know that is very far from town for two young children to wander, and I will deal with their discipline in due time. In any case, JaBrawn Marshada, this gentleman traveler who is to be vilified by the number of patches on his tunic,” he shot Whitley a barbed gaze that was very poorly returned, “snatched my daughter and son from being killed by a pack of garulls.”

                The council, even Serbis, reacted with shock in varying degrees. Serbis, of course, recovered the quickest, throwing his hands out to his sides. “Quiet. I said quiet!” They silenced. “Sergeant, to whose believability do you adhere this account? This… Marshada’s?”

                He nodded. “Yes, Councilman. His and my children’s.”

                Serbis frowned with one side of his mouth. “What makes you think that they

weren’t lying?”

                “My children would never lie to me, Councilman. And JaBrawn, well, he

neither came off as the lying sort, nor did he have any reason to lie. In fact, he was

reluctant to tell me about it, but he felt it was in the best interests of my family’s, and our town’s to do so.”

                “Yet you had never met the man before?”

                “No, Councilman. I had not.”

                “And it was with this man that Captain Whitley saw you speaking late into the night?”

                “It would seem so.”

                “It would also seem that he made quite an impression on you, Sergeant.”

                “A kindly stranger who rescues my children from monsters and then extends this

kindness with good conversation and polite company? Yes. I would guess he would leave similar impressions on just about anyone.”

                Serbis nodded. “I have heard enough. Thank you both for your testimonies.”

                Derrig’s mouth fell open. “Enough? Councilman, I have yet to declare my

presentation completely, please hear…”

                Serbis cut him off sharply. “Please do not presume to tell me or my associates how to do our judicial duties, Sergeant. I had said that you may level any relevant testimony, and you have. We have enough information to render a judgment. Return to your homes. I will send word to both of you concerning our decision.”

                Derrig pointed angrily at Whitley, his composure slipping. “You went out of your way to make certain that he had said all he wanted to say! Why am I not afforded the same measure of - ”

                Serbis quite nearly leapt to his feet. “Sergeant Thresher, this council has

spoken!”

                And that was it. Gar Serbis and his cohorts turned and hastily exited out two

doors behind them, where yet another chamber awaited, a chamber where lives are decided for or against, bolstered up, or shattered. Derrig stared at their backs, stunned

into silence. It was absolutely clear then what this entire thing had been.

                A ruse. A technicality. A going-through-the-motions.

                He snapped his mouth shut and turned without another word, storming past

Whitley who recoiled and glared at him.

                Shoving at the entrance door, the two guardsmen both drew weapons in reaction to Derrig’s sudden appearance. He paid attention to neither of them, who, once seeing who he was, sheathed their weapons dutifully and returned to their posts. He wrenched his axes from their places in the safe box, and then fairly raced to his horse. He leapt on her back, yanked on her reins, and pointed her towards home. She panicked slightly, but obeyed and trotted off. Once clear of the nearest buildings, he spurred the horse into a gallop, which was forbidden within town limits.

                He did not care.

                He remembered pointedly what he had said to JaBrawn right before his departure and to the guardsmen upon his arrival, about being a man of the law and so

eternally bound to it, but here and now, he denounced such thinking. To the hells with

ordinances and charters and regulations. They were supposed to protect the innocent, but in the end laws only bind those who are willingly bound by them. To those in power who cared not a whit, they were hardly an inconvenience. If they could not be circumvented or altered, they were simply ignored.

                He wanted to get home, to hold his daughter and son and tell them how much he loved and cherished them, to tell them how happy a father they had made him. He knew now that everything had been stacked against him from the outset. His and his children’s fates had been decided long ago.

                What a hopeful fool he had been.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 7

 

                Ummon at first intended to create his own gods of the seasons, when strange

happenings began to take shape of their own volition. Barely formed entities harboring only the vaguest sense of their own existence began to evolve awareness in the aether between realms of reality. They too were formed from the wishes and whims of mortals, but only in the tiniest sense. The great majority withered away into oblivion, but a very few, with enough faith or following, came into being as an orphaned cadre of lesser gods. Ummon marveled. Some were of less than reputable origins, but none were truly evil. Their very existence was a testament to the same desires that created him. There was only one true difference between him and them, and that difference seemed to pale when he realized that will alone could cause such a phenomenon.

                The application of this will is often as simple as someone in dire straits praying to whatever god will liste, but many times one will be invented either in jest or seriousness and knowledge of it will pass on to others. Whether intentional or not, even rumor can sprout divine existence when enough attention and desire are bent to it for a long enough period of time. At first it is almost invariably a primal, childish force, and can dissipate quickly when left to its own antics as a barely sentient being, but under the right circumstances it can mature.

                As its self-awareness grows, a need for an identity will often move it to choose a name and gender and make this known to a follower. However, occasionally a follower has already given it a name that they find pleasing and summarily adopt. Some of these gods are: Perrequin, the goddess of wealth, Nimblek, the god of trickery and thieves, Harrowis, the god of the harvest, and Zertana, the goddess of archery.

                Deeming these lesser gods as gifts of providence rather than things to be reviled, Ummon embraced four child-like gods that had materialized after a century of prayer for each season had birthed them. He then named them after the four seasons: Surcease, Rebirth, Arden, and Sanguinneth. All they needed was a father to keep them cooperative and bolstering of one another.

                A dying old man, his children married and wealthy in ways far beyond coin due to his upbringing, made a prayer to Ummon seconds before his death. He thanked his god for his gifts, and if he could be granted a single wish, it would be to have the honor of being a father all over again.

                Ummon was so moved by this selfless, noble yearning, he granted the dying man’s wish beyond any expectations he could have had. He gave him back his youth, gave him final say other than his own in any matters involving the influence of the seasons, and gave him a new name: Tesseroch.

               

                “You will find out when you’re supposed to find out. Right now, you’re not

supposed to find out.”

                JaBrawn scowled and came close to demanding some answers when a notion struck him. “You don’t even know, do you?”

                Wendonel and Favius looked at each other and then back to him. Then they both shook their heads. “No, we don’t. We just know it’s true. Isn’t it wonderful?”

                He sighed sharply. “Yes, I’m sure it is. I’m also sure that both you and your brother are more than you appear to be.”

                She looked at him curiously. “Whatever do you mean?”

                “Well, over the years I’ve encountered different kinds of beings from all walks of life. Some of them are simply more gifted than others.”

                “Gifted how? Like taller or smarter than other people?”

                “Well… that can be part of it, but that’s not exactly what I mean. What I do mean is that they can do things or make things happen that most other people can’t.”

                “Oh!” Wendonel exclaimed. “Like Mother!”

                JaBrawn’s features pinched with curiosity. “Perhaps. What did she do?”

                “She could do all kinds of things: things that she said Favius and I could learn how to do eventually. She could heal with her hands, she could talk to animals, she could even call to them without making any noise. She could start a fire with a look, she could see into the future, kind of, she could make it rain (well she couldn’t exactly make it rain, she said that when the time was right she could talk the clouds into making rain fall), she could sometimes make people change their minds or read their minds though she hated doing that, and she taught Fave and I how to see the Redmen…”

                JaBrawn, exasperated, raised a hand. “She could do all of these things? Are you sure?” They nodded enthusiastically. “Was she a warrick?”

                They both shook their heads just as enthusiastically. “No. She says that warricks have to use their spirit to call on power that’s around them for their warra to work. Some have louder voices than others, and that’s what makes some warricks more powerful than others. The people that Mother came from used warra that was inside them to make things happen. And the more you practiced using it, the stronger it got, like your muscles.” She said this with a grin as Favius curled both arms up in a flexing pose.

                JaBrawn had heard of such people in his travels, but only in the context of ancient history or even myths. And like a suddenly still pond, he could clearly see why Whitley had been such an ass. Most closed-minded people would view even the smallest example of what Wendonel had described with fear.

                Wendonel’s smile faded. “She died before she could tell us what her people were. She did say that we’d find out eventually. We’d know when the time was right.”

                JaBrawn snorted. “Somewhat like when I’ll know why I am to be ‘the answer to your prayers’?”

                She beamed at him. “JaBrawn you are so clever! Yes, it will be exactly like that! It may even be at the same time!”

                She and Favius collapsed in fits of giggles. JaBrawn did not feel so inclined.

“What prayers were you making?”

                The children abruptly ceased their tittering and Wendonel sat up, her happy

demeanor replaced with a look of grim solemnity. She looked at Favius who nodded

seriously. “Favius and I started having the same dream about a year ago. Something

horrible will happen here, something that would kill everyone here and destroy the town. This something will not stop here nor will it start here. It will simply reach here at some point.” Her eyes fell to her lap, where they glazed over a bit. “When they started, Fave and I had them about four or five times. Then it went to once every two turns, then one turn, then three days, and then every night, until last night.” Favius’ chin was set in a manner that showed nothing but strength, even for his tender years, but there was weariness in his eyes.

                “Have you told your father this?”

                She shook her head. “No, it would only worry him. Either we are both mad and need to be locked up, or we are right and everything we know and love will end.”

                JaBrawn blinked in disbelief. “How, by the breath of my forefathers, am I the answer to your prayers?”

                The two children slyly looked at each other, then back to him. “Well…ever since that first night of the dreams, we have been praying to Ummon that he will send someone to deliver us from this terrible fate. Someone big and strong, stronger than the strongest warrior here, and… well, last night we had the same dream, but there was more in it. We dreamt that we were looking up at a big bright hole in the sky. Mother and Father were sitting at a golden table and waving at us, smiling. I don’t know why we weren’t there, but…” she shrugged.

                JaBrawn was moved by her touching story, but his question had yet to be fully answered. “That’s a nice dream Wendonel, but again, why is it that you think I am the answer to these prayers of yours?”

                She looked at him as if he had just turned purple and sprouted a cauliflower out of both ears. “Well last night was the first night you stayed with us. You had already saved us from the garulls, though they are not really what the problem is. And you said you’re really strong. And just now, when we showed you the mess inside your heart? Favius looked into your future. He can do that when he touches someone, sometimes. I can see the past, but I have to be staring at something pretty.”

                JaBrawn blinked at her.

                “Of course, you can’t hear him say anything.” She continued. “I’m the only one who can. Anyway, in your future, he saw you standing at the entrance to our town with a bunch of other people looking all mad like you usually do, only a lot more.” She grinned widely and clapped her hands. “There was no doubt about it. Whatever is going to attack is going to have to go through you first, and there is no way they are going to do that.”

                JaBrawn leaned forward, holding his great shaggy head in his hands. “So…

allow me to sort things a bit: You have been having nightmares about losing the entire

town and everyone in it?”

                “Yes.”

                “You have been having these nightmares for a year, and they have become more and more frequent until you and your brother have them every night?”

                “Yes.”

                “Then, I rescue your foolish little hides from a pack of garulls and spirit you away home, and that night you not only have the same nightmares, but they now are added to by another dream where you see your mother and father sitting at a golden table through a hole in the sky…”

                “Yes.”

                This struck a chord of memory in him. “Does your family belong to the Ummonic faith?”

                She again gave that look of stupefaction at his idiocy. “You don’t have to belong to it. It just is.”

                JaBrawn nodded. “Right. And you have interpreted from your brother who can’t speak…”

                “Who chooses not to speak.”

                “...Right, who chooses not to speak, that because I am standing in front of your town looking agitated, that I am going to save everyone and everything?”

                “Yes!” Wendonel exclaimed. Even Favius was bouncing up and down on the sofa and making little happy noises.

                “Even if all I’m going to do is be stomped into a puddle by a dragon?”

                They both shook their heads the instant the question was out of his mouth. “That’s not going to happen. We can’t see the outcome, but we know you’re not going to fall.”

                He scowled at them both, his arms folded across his chest.

                Wendonel’s smile suddenly became strained. “JaBrawn, you can’t fall! You just can’t!”

                His heart plunged. They did not know after all, though there was no doubt in his mind that these children had some sort of gift with predicting the future and glimpsing the past – most likely amongst several other gifts. He did not know what to say to them. Shortly it did not matter anyway, for just then their father came galloping up as if pursued by demons.

 

Chapter 8

 

                Darkness and Light, the opposite brother and sister gods that embody these

starkest perceptions of reality, keep their respective spheres free of confusion,

misinterpretation, and threat of obliteration. Darkness does not limit itself to simply the opposite of light. It is the world of shadow and concealed intent, including evil but not limiting itself to it. The Dark Warricks wield warra spun through the elemental sphere of darkness. To what ends this power is used lies in their hands. The Warricks of Light likewise would wield their warra through their respective sphere, though they are just as unhindered as to their true motives. The healing of flesh and the abolishment of ailment and curse are just as useful to those of evil persuasion as they are those of good.

                Above it all are the Brother of Darkness, Shadrian, and his Sister of Light, Raymia. Though they squabble and bicker, they are decent beings at their core, aware of their charge of lording over their divergesses, and know that one truly cannot exist without the other, and each a constant reminder to the other that even in total darkness a spark can light the way.

 

                Alvis, the Ummonic High Priest of Fremett, was not a very nice man. In the

deepest depths of his heart and on the surface of his manner he meant well. Everything between these two layers was questionable. He believed in the teachings of the Ummonic holy book of the Rand, and he strove to follow them as closely as he felt was reasonable, but he was only human after all. Humans fail. They succumb. They sin.

                This turn’s tithes totaled a bit more than 3000 dracos in various coin. The

amount that went to the ruling classes and special interests went into one pile. The amount that went into his coffers went into a second pile. The amount that remained, some 430 dracos, went towards the various charities and orphanages throughout Fremett, and the church itself. It was enough to keep them going and to keep the bellies that they served full, but only barely. This fact was enough to quiet his morals. The meager coin did what it was meant to do. Never mind that most of it went to people who were already rich and that a significant portion of it lined his holdings, which had long since become more than respectable. It was a tough life, serving Ummon. He deserved it. He also deserved the golden hemmed robes he wore on Fasday Worship, the large estate overlooking his vineyards, the full serving staff, the stables with four pricey horses that pulled his coach, and the prostitute that would be visiting him at his home this evening. It was the only way to wholly control debauchery: Give into it once in a while. Deflate the pressures in your soul so that they do not rule you.

                He shoveled the coin into their respective steel boxes and placed them against the wall of the strong room at the back of the church. Hefting himself to his feet, he shuffled his substantial bulk out the door, locked all of the locks, and made his way to his carriage. He barked an order at his driver, who was lounging about at an open-air aleworks across from the church (a placement of brilliant marketing strategy) and was

soon inside its cozy confines and off to home. He wanted to have a quick meal, pretty

himself up, and get nice and drunk by the time his favorite evening wares vendor arrived, so that it would take that much longer for him to be satisfied. When he was sober he was both paranoid and overly excited and the task was over and done with far too soon for his money. Yes, he would make certain that at least a night of it would be made.

                Perhaps even a morning as well.

 

~*~

 

                “Children! Gather your things, we are leaving at once!” Derrig bellowed as he leapt off his horse like a man half his age.

                JaBrawn leaned out the doorway, alarmed. “What has happened?”

                “Madness!” Derrig growled, his eyes wild, his face flushed with anger. “Complete and utter madness! The Camdur Town Council is a gathering of crowd-pleasing cowards who want to put me and my children away for the rest of our lives,

while painting a benevolent, kind-hearted portrait over top of the whole thing! Pfah!”

He stomped into his cottage, shoving the door inward so hard it nearly jumped from its hinges.

                JaBrawn gingerly followed him. “What did they say?”

                He pushed his question aside for the moment. “Favius! Wendonel! Collect as many possessions as you think you will need! Hurry now!” He pulled open a cupboard where a large sack of woven roughcloth lay folded. “What did they say? Nothing! Nothing at all!”

                JaBrawn had seen men and women get angered to the point where even

reasonable questions, in fact, especially reasonable questions, did nothing more than

puff on a flame that was substantial already. “Derrig, forgive me, but I have a stupid

question: What sort of nothing are you talking about?”

                Derrig threw his hands up in the air. “The entire ordeal was a book of smoke, a ruse, a set of procedures that had to be followed to the letter but not to the spirit! They had already decided our fate before I even stepped foot in the meeting hall! To the hells with fighting this place! We are leaving!”

                Wendonel and Favius appeared, each carrying a small sack of belongings. The boy’s eyes were rimmed with tears. Wendonel’s were not, though she appeared on the verge of them. “Dada,” she said with a wavering voice, “what’s going on?”

                He turned and looked at his son and daughter. In hardly a moment his rage deflated like a punctured bellows. Kneeling, he gently grasped her shoulders. “Oh, little fire fairy.” He smiled over at his son, tousling his hair like he always did. This time no smile came from it. “And my little frown slayer. We are leaving this godsforsaken place once and for all. We’ll start over where there aren’t so many narrow-sighted people. How does that sound?”

                The children cast a quick glance at each other, and then back to their father.

At once, they grew even more tearful, making their nearly luminescent blue eyes sparkle like crystal. “We can’t leave, Dada.” She sucked back a sob that made her little form shake. “I’m so sorry, but we can’t. Not right now.”

                His forced smile faded. “You can’t... what in the world do you mean?”

                She paused as another snuffling shudder overtook her. “We can’t…” she lifted one hand in frustration and then slapped it down on her hip. “…We can’t tell you.”

                “I don’t understand, why can’t you tell me? I thought there were never any

secrets between us, eh?” He smiled again, his dark beard splitting almost comically, though anger simmered beneath the show. When he saw their unchanged faces, as if

they had both put on masks of misery, his smile drained away again. He turned to

JaBrawn, scowling. “Do you know what’s going on? What they’re talking about?”

                JaBrawn hesitated and then nodded solemnly. “And I think they might even be right.”

                He peered from JaBrawn to his children and then back again, baffled and

frustrated. “Why won’t they tell me?”

                JaBrawn sighed miserably. He did not want to be in the middle of this. “I think it’s because they’re afraid you won’t believe them.”

                Wendonel glared at him with an ugly look. “JaBrawn, that’s not so and you know it!”

                JaBrawn sent a much, much uglier look in return. “Wendonel, you swore that this would not be told until the time was right.”

                The girl began to shake.

                Derrig stood and stared at JaBrawn. “What oath is this you have taken with my

children, JaBrawn?”

                JaBrawn lifted his hands in what he hoped was a calming gesture. “Derrig, all of this would have been revealed to you, I just didn’t want you to worry about it at the time.”

                “All of what, exactly?” Derrig hissed between clenched teeth at him. “What

did you not want me to worry about, and what secret do you and my children share?”

                Favius sprinted over to his father and grabbed him by his tunic, his mouth wide open in a soundless scream, and his eyes pinched. He tugged and tugged at him. Derrig lifted him and gently set him to the side, all the while staring directly into JaBrawn’s eyes. “What sort of man makes secrets with them that he does not share with their father?”

                This had gotten so bitterly complicated that JaBrawn resisted a sudden urge to turn and bolt for the door and Grendel’s back. Instead he said, “Derrig, I swear on my honor I have nothing but virtuous intentions, it’s just that… well… please, give me a moment to explain.”

                Derrig heard none of it and blurted out in a short, derisive laugh. “And here I

was saying to myself over and over, ‘You’ve only known him a night and yet you leave your children with him. What kind of father are you?’ But you seemed so damned trustworthy, JaBrawn! Tell me,” and in a flash, his two axes were in his hands, “was this marvelous sense I had about your worth reliable, or have I made yet another mistake in judgement?”

                JaBrawn’s blood pounded in his head at such an accusation. He felt a spark of anger strike in his heart, but he smothered it. Derrig had obviously had a very bad day with the council, and was not thinking clearly. He focused his keen nose on Derrig’s axes and found no scent of warra on them, but they would still hurt plenty and frighten the children. He backed up towards the door.

                “Derrig, calm yourself. Your sense of me is sound. There is just more to me than I had at first let on, about who I am and where I came from. Your children, in their, I have come to realize, rather strange way, discovered this. I have committed no evil here, I promise you.”

                He attempted to look as unthreatening as his six-and-a-half-foot frame would allow, all the time realizing how silly such an attempt must seem. Yet, somehow, it seemed to be working, for his new and very angry friend paused, his weapons wavering.

                “I find what you say as believable as it is odd, for some reason, though this could just as easily be that same silver tongue dancing like an expensive whore. My mind says cut out your heart, yet my heart wishes to accept as true – and even wise – what you say, as I did when you said that you were an honorable man, JaBrawn. Are you?”

                JaBrawn looked at him, exasperated. “Yes, you stubborn idiot, yes!”

                The two men stared at each other for several seconds. The children were mute statues in the background behind Derrig, who finally calmed down altogether. He peered into this huge, burly savior of his flesh and blood’s eyes and found truth there, somehow. There was something else there as well, something deep and cold, but not evil. He slipped his axes into their loops on his belt. Wendonel and Favius rushed to his embrace.

                “He has done nothing, Dada, other than take care of us like you asked him to.” Wendonel said, burying her face in his tunic. “He’s not a bad man at all, he’s just kind of always grumpy, you’ll see, I promise!”

                Derrig clutched them to him fiercely, as a sudden feeling of foolishness gripped him. He looked up at the old warrior. “Forgive me, JaBrawn. I have had a pretty ugly day, and I daresay it shows.”

                JaBrawn shook his head sardonically. “Have you now? I never would have

guessed.”

                Derrig gave a short laugh, and then turned serious again. “I feel that I have

misunderstood your intentions, but I still mislike what you have done. Know this as truth, traveler: If you in any way harm my children or, through cowardice or intent, allow them to come to harm, I will kill you where you stand, friend or no.”

                JaBrawn diplomatically said, “Understood, but understand this right back at you: It will never come to that, Derrig. I promise you. Now, what in the name of my grandfather’s beard happened today?”

                Derrig’s face suddenly went tight with panic. “Oh gods, I’ve been such a fool wasting seconds with my tantrum! I haven’t the time to tell you, they might take all day to deliberate or they may only need an hour. In any case, we must leave immediately or…” he paused as he saw the look on JaBrawn’s face, as well as the slight twitching of his nose, like he was sniffing the air.

                Derrig's mouth parted in question, but then he heard them.

                Horses.

 

~*~

 

                Ummonic High Priest Alvis was plumped and primped and primed for the night’s events. He had set out a very fine set of silk sheets, several different kinds of drink, and enough mind-altering herbs and potions and powders to fell a mountain giant. He liked those sorts of things.

                While he was wandering around making certain that all was perfect, he passed his maidservant in the hallway dusting furniture. “That will be all for now, Merva. You may take the rest of the night off.”

                Merva, a stout woman in her fifties who was not nearly as stupid as her master hoped she was, bowed reverently. “Thank you, Your Eminence. Leave whatever messes may be made. I shall tend to them in the morning.” She smiled in a friendly manner, but there was something sly rolled in it, something mocking.

                He dismissed it. “Thank you and good night then, Merva.”

                She bowed again, backing towards the door to her quarters. “Good night,

Your Eminence.”

                Shortly after she retired, there was a knock at the door. The High Priest cleared his throat, checked his pudgy complexion in a floor to ceiling silver mirror near the doorway that was worth enough to rebuild his church from the ground up, and then headed for the front of his mansion where his guest awaited just outside.

                As soon as his back was turned, Merva changed course and ducked into a dark alcove a few steps before her room. It was cloaked in blackness so thick you would not have been able to see her if you were a foot from her face. She tiptoed to the rear of the space, and, cloaked safely in darkness, peered from its confines at the door. She was accustomed to the High Priest’s eccentricities, and found them to be exquisite material when trading gossip at the neighborhood market with the other ladies.            The door opened, and Alvis sighed with a sound that was both relief and lust. Merva heard a soft voice say, “Is my timing favorable?”

                The High Priest chuckled. “When is it not, my beautiful, beautiful Jerom?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 9

 

                Jeroth, the God of War, is reputed in myth to have been molded from the skeleton of an old unnamed soldier, the earth on which he died, and the melted and remade implements of his trade. Generals in their dreams sometimes see him the night before a great battle, and even more commonly by soldiers who have spent their blood on the battlefield and move from this world to the next. He is said to appear as a towering hulk of an old human man, his face shrouded by a great white mane and beard and creased with scars and fear and worry, and his hands knotted with bony calluses.

                A great sword as long as he and half as broad is often with him, and he at times will draw it when warding off other spirits who would see a necessary battle thwarted, or an unnecessary one begun.

                To see him is neither a boon for defeat or victory, but a certain kind of vigor is imparted upon those who do see him, as his very presence means that the battle is

guarded, regardless of the outcome.

 

                JaBrawn rushed to the open window near the door and looked out across the

yard. Six armored guardsmen draped in flashing red thundered down the road, followed by one in blue that had to be Salett. The smells of the sweating horses were masking theirs at this distance. He scowled grimly. “Six riders, all armed. A seventh is with them.” He craned his neck to look at Derrig who seemed to be frozen in shock. “It’s Salett.”

                “Dada, what’s going on this time?” Wendonel asked her father, clinging to him desperately. Favius was a sobbing heap pressed against his father’s chest. He gently pulled away from them and strode over to JaBrawn, his hands on his hips.

                “Their treachery runs even deeper than I thought, though the fact that I didn’t

expect as much shames my soul!”

                “What do you mean?” JaBrawn asked.

                He shook his head, his mouth twisting with bitterness. “There is no way they could have mustered up the men, much less Salett with them, in the time that has passed since I fled the town square. They simply would not have known in time.”

                JaBrawn’s frown deepened. “They knew you were going to flee. Or at the very least, they prepared for the possibility.”

                Derrig grumbled deep in his throat. “Right. Which means they either didn’t

deliberate at all and simply watched me leave, or they left orders with the guardsmen

to follow me if I fled.”

                The armed men reined up several steps from Derrig’s front door. Salett murmured a few orders to them as he clambered down awkwardly from his horse. Whatever royal vesting he had once enjoyed, it apparently did not involve much riding. They all nodded at his words, and pulled their mounts into a semicircle as Salett approached the door. JaBrawn and Derrig looked at each other.

                And then came a knocking.

 

~*~

 

                Merva watched in barely suppressed glee from her enclosure. The skinny little dockwhore slipped in through the door, and, much to the horror of his client, was wearing nothing more than a threadbare tunic and a filthy pair of breeches. His soiled feet were bare. Normally Jerom was clad in his best overcoat, vest, shirt and leggings, often accentuated with gold-buckled shoes. His face would be shaved clean, and his hair scented and tied back to make the beauty of his face all the more apparent. None of that was in place this time, which she thought extremely odd. Apparently, so did the High Priest.

                “What in the name of... What has happened to you? Why are you dressed like that?”

                Jerom smiled brightly, his eyes binding some undefined presence in their depths. “Something wonderful has happened, oh devout one. Something you must see.”

                He walked past Alvis who turned to follow Jerom’s thin form as he passed across the thick carpet soundlessly. “I… I hope you don’t expect your full rate this time, Jerom. I have become accustomed to your normal look, this is hardly acceptable.”

                Merva watched as the young man, who seemed even paler and more drawn than he usually did, turned and regarded the holy man with coy eyes. “Oh you gaudy simpleton, look at you: All glittery on the outside while a core as dark and as deep as any tree trunk rotted with parasites resides within.”

                Merva’s delight flickered somewhat. This was odd to the point of being a little disturbing. Was the fellow drunk?

                Alvis’ eyebrows met and his mouth dropped open. “H-How dare you! You have no right to talk to me like that you… you…” he assailed his limited vocabulary of curses, “…whore! You filthy, sinning whore!” He shuffled towards the young man, and then, thinking better of it, went back to the door, seized the handle and wrenched it open. “Get out, g-get out this instant!”

                Jerom snickered and sauntered to his side. When his face was so near the old priest’s that he could feel his slightest breath, he whispered, “Is that really what you want? You want me to step back into cold kiss of the sea’s wind?”

                Alvis felt something cold slither up from his bowels and wrap itself around his spine. He swallowed a dry swallow and burst out in a sweat. Despite this, his desire to see Jerom depart melted away. “No…I do not.”

                Jerom smiled. “You’d like me to stay?”

Alvis nodded dumbly. “Yes… please, stay”

                Merva’s nagging doubt had given way to concern and now finally slipped into the chilly grip of fear. She felt her hand rise unbidden to cover her mouth, trying to quiet her breathing which had become ragged. What disturbed her most was that she did not know from whence this fear came, or why she knew so clearly that it was perfectly founded, but in her heart, she knew this to be true.

                Jerom lifted a hand and ran his fingertips down the side of the High Priest’s face, leaving four trails of murky, swamp-colored fluid. “You poor deluded old buffoon,” he said through a soft smile, his voice deepening far past what it was only moments ago. “So many years draped in all this pious dignity, so many years pretending you were something that you were not. How lonely you must be.”

                The High Priest’s face, at first drawn and featureless, twisted horribly with grief. A gurgling sob lifted from his chest.

                Jerom continued. “To think that you actually believed you were doing what

was right, with your foolish notions of purging yourself of what you call sin by

immersing in it.” He chuckled. “Rolling in mud to stay clean!”

                “I’m sorry!” Alvis blurted out, huge greasy tears bubbling up at the corners of his eyes and then rolling down his pudgy cheeks. Then in a pathetic torrent as he grasped Jerom’s tunic, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” He fell to his knees, weeping like a child.

                Jerom folded his arms and smiled down at the back of his head. “You have fallen farther than I have seen many people fall – and I have seen many people fall.”

                The broken holy man looked up at him, his eyes swimming with tears and mucous. “What are you? How do you know these things? How am I to atone?” His face reddened and he shook his fists feebly. “Why do you hound me so?”

                Jerom dropped one hand and cupped Alvis’ chin, pulling him back to his feet. “Do not make yourself more a fool than you’ve already become. You know the answer to every question you have just asked me, Hemerek Alvis. You have for many, many years.”

                Alvis stared at the abomination, and his eyes went wide as recognition dawned on him. He saw Jerom for what he really was with a knowledge that every sentient being has, for all sentient beings with a soul will know evil when they truly look on its face. Not a second later his bladder betrayed him. A warm circle formed on his robes while what could not be absorbed dribbled to the floor.

                Merva desperately wanted to leave but feared for her safety to attempt it. She was getting on in years and was not confident enough in her ability to quietly slip away. Besides, for some reason she could not fathom she knew the foul creature would sense her if she moved. She tried at least to look away, and found even that small action futile. Whatever was to transpire, her eyes would drink deeply of it.

                Alvis wept openly again, but it was the resigned weeping of a man who had surrendered himself, a man who had realized that he had been beaten and broken and had given up resisting it. Jerom shifted his grip from the old priest’s chin to the collar of his robes, clenching them in his fist and lifting him, who massed twice as much and more than he, into the air like a man would lift a coat off a hook. Alvis’ sobs became choked gargles, but he gave no other sign of distress, so buried was he in his capitulation.

                Merva barely smothered a gasp as she watched Jerom’s face melt into a

blackened mask of dark leather flesh stretched tautly over a death’s head grin. Its eyes

were sparks of emerald, and its hair a brittle mass of oily wire. It whispered in a voice

so soft it was nothing short of seductive. “May I now, truly, come in?” Alvis, his face bulging and purple, merely nodded as best he could. Jerom’s grin spread awfully. “Welcome home then, puppet of sin.”

                It opened its mouth impossibly wide and a mass of roiling tendrils and carapace the blackish green color of rot and putrescent corruption erupted from its thorax and entered Alvis through his face, while the High Priest made a sound that a man might make if he were drowning in mud. As this happened, Jerom’s body convulsed and shook and deflated, its fortitude finally and forever dissolved after the enormous strain of holding the evil entity’s spirit and power for so long finally departed. After a moment it collapsed to the carpet in a steaming, glistening pile of bone and wrinkled skin, as the last of the foulness it once housed rushed into Alvis with a splatter of sickly fluid and twisted, glutinous flesh.

                The stained soul that was once Ummonic High Priest Hemerek Alvis was shoved from its dwelling and cast towards the thousand hells as were all the others Jerom and his entourage had taken under wing. The simple demons waiting there, appreciative of the entity’s offerings as they were, cared not a blink as to their origins. Does a dog care from what bone a tasty morsel is stripped? With the new flesh of a new face, the entity smiled knowingly, relishing a private thought. The demons’ place in the scheme of things would become evident soon enough.

                After a brief examination in the mirror where it expressed a look of comic disdain at how much uglier this face was than the last it had stolen, it turned to the door and threw it wide, hinging open its newly stolen jaw in a nearly silent, hushed summons. Rising from every piece of shadow the night offered in the dim expanse of the street, its children shambled into street and then into the former High Priest’s home. They would be safe here.

                As they entered, Merva watched with petrified horror. She had no way to label what she had just seen, no way to rationalize it or even to truly comprehend it. Nothing in all the holy reading she had done described anything remotely like what she had just observed. All she could do was wait for a moment to make her escape, and, until then, to sit absolutely still and make not a sound.

                The other monstrosities filed in dutifully, lining the main hallway and spilling into the adjoining smoking room and pantry until they formed a lilting, shifting regiment of undead. The once Alvis lifted its hands reverently. The creatures sank to their knees in the thick carpeting, staining it with their decaying filth. As one they said its name. It lowered its arms and hissed in approval. As if a single mind, the creatures limped off toward the cellar of the mansion, one of them idly grabbing the husk that its master once wore. Seconds later they were gone, and the wearer of the priest’s flesh groaned as it basked in the new power it possessed. Lifting its arms again, it harnessed a splinter of this power and rose in the air toward the second tier of the house where Alvis’ master bedroom, the one he never used because of the effort involved in climbing the stairs, awaited. There it would while away a few hours, languishing as it contemplated its next task.

                Merva heard what the rotting conglomeration had called it, and silently mouthed the name so as to never forget it, though she said to herself in a panicky joking sort of way that there was very little chance of ever forgetting even the minutest detail of this horrifying night. Once the vile thing that wore the face of the man who once employed her disappeared over her head, she quietly slipped from the alcove into her room, the door opening silently on hinges oiled just this morning, thank Ummon, and then, grabbing her overcoat, a cloak, and as much coin as she could stuff in her purse, she slipped out the back door and into the night, hoping against hope that there would not be any more of the unholy things waiting in the alley.

                She carefully, fearfully, peered into the darkness, her eyes adjusting slowly. If there were more of them, they were either dormant or uninterested in making themselves known. Stepping on to the street, she resolved that she had to tell someone about this and make him or her believe her. She knew not who she could truly trust, but she could not give up until she had found this person. Alvis had not been a good man, had not a personality to speak of, and had given sermons on tenets and values that he had only barely practiced himself, but he was not so evil that he deserved to perish the way that he did.

                Honestly, she could not think of any who did. She trotted off into the night as fast as she could manage, looking for a light in the blackness.

 

~*~

 

                “I’ll deal with this,” Derrig muttered, and walked to the door.

                JaBrawn ground his teeth warily. He noticed that the two guardsmen who had accompanied Salett earlier were not among them, so men who probably did not share their disdain for their immediate leader outnumbered them. In the end, that made very little difference to him. He could kill them all with little chance of reprisal, but he afforded that immunity alone. Derrig and his children would not be able to drop everything and move on as easily as he could.

                Wendonel moved near him and took his hand. He looked down and lifted it

slightly. She pushed against him, holding his rough palm to her face, which was still

damp with tears. Something had to be done. This simply was not right.

                Derrig grabbed the handle and pulled the door open. Salett stood just outside,

his pitted face drawn in a façade of solemnity. “Derrig, I am afraid that I have a most

unpleasant duty.”

                “You have to bathe your mother?” Derrig spat out in instant reprisal.

                There was a strained handful of seconds between his comment and Salett’s,

who looked at him with watery black eyes. “I hope that sense of humor remains intact

after the town warrick has peeled back every last layer of your mind for cleansing.”

                “You will have to do better than that to ruffle my tail, Salett. You know as well as I that such warra cannot be performed without the permission of whoever is to be subjected to it.”

                Salett smiled and slowly shook his head. “That used to be the law, yes. The council has drawn up a clause to it. It cannot be performed on an individual without their permission, unless said individual can be proven to be a liability or danger to the town.”

                Derrig’s face twitched. “There is no such law…”

                “Not yet. The magistrate is looking over it as we speak, however.”

                Derrig’s chest seemed to squeeze the breath out of him. “And, I am sure, his

assessment will be completed by the time my sentencing has been determined?”

                Salett sneered. “I would wager you are right. Oh, and I am certain that you will not be surprised at his decision.”

                Derrig’s voice was a harsh whisper, filtered as it was between clenched teeth. “Did you know about all of this? The insidious plotting behind it? How far back does it go? To my wife’s death? Before even?” Salett continued to smile at him, though it grew wider by a fraction of an inch. “And I suppose,” Derrig continued, his voice now fairly shaking with rage, “that my children are included in this ‘liability’?”

                Salett did nothing for a moment, and then slowly shrugged, his grin bigger

than ever.

                Derrig felt a guttural howl rising from his throat and would have throttled the

bastard right then and there, except he felt JaBrawn’s hand on his shoulder. There was

immense strength there, but it was not to subdue or to restrain. It was a simple, clear,

message: Wait. He gently pulled Derrig aside, and filled the doorway. Derrig was nearly JaBrawn’s height and build, but the scarred old warrior was appreciably larger, with a more hardened look to him.

                Salett involuntarily swallowed a mouthful of saliva that had suddenly filled his mouth. JaBrawn leaned over slightly to compensate for the entire foot of difference between his height and Salett’s and said softly, “Derrig and his children will be leaving shortly. There will be no treatment of any kind by any warrick unless they wish it.” Salett blinked. JaBrawn carried on. “They will not be harmed, bothered, or in any way inconvenienced by anyone in this town, or they will answer to me.” He then straightened, his proposal neatly completed.

                Salett looked up at him. “Stranger, I have no clue as to why you think you can make such an insolent request –”

                “It was not a request,” JaBrawn said quietly.

                Salett blubbered on as if he had not spoken. “You have no word here, you have nothing to stand on, you’re just some… freak visitor from the woods who has thrown our entire town into turmoil!”

                JaBrawn smirked at him. And then he slowly shrugged.

                Salett stood huffing and puffing, his lips shiny with spittle. He wiped one sleeve across his mouth, and then turned towards the guardsmen. “Arrest Thresher and the children. Kill the stranger.”

 

~*~

 

                Merva was out of breath after only a block of running. She had not attempted such effort since before her husband had died, and now, when she called on it, her wind failed her far too quickly. She resigned to a sort of uneven trot, walking when her reserves wavered, quickening to almost a jog when she got her wind back. So far there had been only a few languishing night owls on the streets, people who looked so dark of purpose she felt that calling for their assistance would only open herself up for abuse.

                She was becoming desperate, the panic drawing from her stamina rather than

bolstering it. She could only do this a few minutes more, and when she could not drag

her feet another step, what then? Collapse to the ground? Hope that some kind soul

happened by to whom she could blurt out the entire outlandish tale? She felt herself giving in to the growing desire to just surrender to the aches in her legs and the burn in her chest. Rest a moment and then move on. Leave the hypocritical holy man behind her to whatever malevolent forces his soul had succumbed.

                And then a tall, lightly built man stepped from the shadows directly in her path with so little sound and with such graceful speed that she cried out. The man held his hands up to show that he meant no harm.

                “I noticed you only moments ago Madam, and it is clear that you are in some distress. Are you being pursued?”

                After only a moment’s hesitation she fell into his arms, feeling foolish for she must certainly outweigh the fellow. With surprising strength, he embraced her to keep her from falling. She felt tears come to her eyes. At first, she had thought him just another rat of a man scurrying around the skirts of the light seeking nothing other than easy prey. As she peered up at him through blurred vision, she saw a gentle-faced young man, with a soft smile and warm eyes.

                “Please, Madam, let me help you.”

 

 

 

Chapter 10

 

                That exclusive mortal emotion, Love, would seem beyond the ken of even a god, but Ummon knew that it, too, would need its herald, as an icon to foster its own existence if nothing else. He needed a creature so beautiful and precious that simple prayer or adoration to the emotion could spark its existence.

                He found her in the mortal world, of course, for it is the mortals that have taught the immortals the ways of love. A kind gangrel elf druid, her warra used for healing and guidance, had become so beloved amongst those whose lives she touched, they began to pay homage to her as if she were a goddess already. Struck by such a spectacle, Ummon showed her how she could spread her intrinsic qualities to all who saw her face or felt her touch in the gentlest and darkest of moments, from the first time a baby truly sees its mother, to an enemy pulling the killing blow simply because the love of life outweighed the need for death.          

According to myth, she was reluctant at first, and Ummon had to show his true love for mortals by giving the gift of marriage to the mortal priests as a sacrament to bestow to their fellow mortals instead of divine providence, a divination often misinterpreted anyway. Knowing that such a demand only cemented her as the choice, he granted it, and she assumed the role of Haley the Goddess of Love immediately after.

                Whether it is the night of the union of true love, the moment a child created of this love is conceived, the moment it is brought into this world, or when a comrade steps in front of a blow simply for goodness’ sake, these are all moments when her presence can be felt.

 

                The six guardsmen pulled their faces down in stoic lines. JaBrawn coolly

confronted them, his arms folded lightly.

                “Kill him! Kill the filthy bastard!” Salett shouted, leveling a wavering finger at him.

                Derrig stepped from behind his friend, an ax in each hand. JaBrawn looked over to him and shook his head. “No. I will handle them.”

                Derrig hissed out the corner of his mouth. “I will not let you defend my own

home, JaBrawn. Now stand aside!”

                JaBrawn frowned. “Forgive me then, my friend.” He turned slightly, and snapped his right hand into Derrig’s face, his palm striking him squarely between the eyes. He dropped like a stone. The approaching men-at-arms stopped in their tracks, passing surprised looks from JaBrawn, to Derrig’s unconscious body, and then to Salett.

                Salett himself looked stunned for a moment. “This changes nothing,” he finally said. “We’ll throw him over his own horse if we must. As for this man’s actions,” he peered through squinting eyes at JaBrawn who had turned away briefly to whisper to the children (who no doubt were wondering why their new friend had just incapacitated their father) to find someplace to hide. “We will simply add a charge of assaulting a Camdurian citizen to his list of crimes. Killing him is perfectly justified, now.”

                JaBrawn raised his brows. “Ah, so it was not before, then?”

                Salett merely shrugged again. “We do whatever it takes to safeguard the peace of our town, stranger. Even if that means twisting a law every now and then.”

                JaBrawn snorted. “Or making one up entirely.”

                The guardsmen had been listening quietly, but now, as one, they pulled their

weapons, each bearing a none-too-pretty but perfectly capable looking long sword.

                JaBrawn sighed tiredly, running a hand over his face. “So, I am to be killed then, eh? Just like that, no trial, inquiry, or whatever other soothing name you political types call it?”

                Salett moved back to his horse, and climbed up into the saddle. “Those are for townsfolk. You’re not townsfolk.”

                JaBrawn took a step forward, causing all the guardsmen to freeze in their tracks and bring up their weapons. “Have you considered just asking me to leave?”

                Salett chuckled. “Yes, it was considered. And it was found to be far too temporary.”

                “I see.” JaBrawn said. “So I am sentenced to die simply because there is the

possibility that I am some sort of conjured demon servant, is this true?”

                Salett leaned over the horn of his saddle. “Yes, that. Or some travelling brigand schooled in dark, destructive arts. Or some wandering brigand with a silver tongue. Something like that is what will go down in the town archives.”

                JaBrawn blinked. “So there is a true reason other than that. What is it?”

                Salett paused only a moment. “Aria was an escaped slave. Powers beyond

Camdur wanted her and all her kin slain in punishment. You are a now a witness. Do

I need to elaborate further?”

                The words struck JaBrawn to his bones, but he would not show it. He had

suspected something sinister hidden in the lunacy of it all, but nothing like this. He was amazed at how easily fools’ tongues were loosed when they were showing off to people whom they thought were as good as dead. JaBrawn had seen this time and time again, and it rarely worked out in their favor.

                The guardsmen froze and stared at Salett. They all shared the same look of

disgust and disdain, both for Salett and his casual admission. The one nearest the aide,

a wiry fellow with cropped black hair spoke up. “Salett, do you speak the truth?”

                Salett glared at him in admonishment. “What matter is it to you, servant? Now complete the task I have set forth for you, or your ashes will be scattered over his!”

                JaBrawn smiled coldly. “It would seem you have a half dozen new witnesses, Salett. Are they to be treated the same?”

                “Oh by the gods!” The guardsman swore, but retook his defensive posture.

He really had no choice, as the others did not.

                The blue robed aide to the magistrate reined his horse around. “I would stay

and watch, but I find it more useful to be unable to render testament to something I didn’t see.” He grinned in his slimy little way and kicked his horse into a trot. In moments, he was far down the road, and the guardsmen formed a semi-circle around the big old warrior.

The largest of them, an older fellow with a thin, grizzled beard and a great head of red hair said quietly, “Peace there, stranger. This can go hard, or it can go easy. We don’t much care for the likes of that rump-kisser any more than you do, but we have a duty to do and we will do it.”

                JaBrawn nodded. “I understand.” He said simply. “I am sorry you are in such a position.”

                The cropped guardsman spat. “This is horse spit. Let’s just let him go. We can say that we killed him, drug him into the woods and burned his body. Besides, you heard him. No witnesses.” He glanced around at his comrades. “You all look like witnesses to me.”

                The red-headed fellow looked at him crossly. “Not only would that not work, but we would be betraying what we all swore allegiance to. And Salett, as vile as he is, can’t just go around murdering everyone who has seen him do his dirty work. The town would be empty.”

                JaBrawn lowered his hands to his sides. He then made a quick hissing exhalation. One of his reluctant executioners glanced at him, but paid no other mind.

                “Then what we have sworn to is a mountain of dung!” The cropped fellow said.

                “Quiet, both of you,” ordered a stocky man towards the middle. “Let my words decide. Any and all who do not follow through with the Aide to the Magistrate’s orders will personally be turned in by me to be summarily executed for treason. Is this clear?”

                There was no argument. They held their swords pointed up at waist level and

advanced another step.

                Grendel, responding to JaBrawn’s quiet summons, stepped quietly into view thirty feet away at their flanks. “Well then, my good fellows,” JaBrawn said, smiling and lifting his left hand. “I should think that this is the end, then.”

                “Yes,” the stocky fellow said, “and, like he said… nothing personal.” He grinned a bit too enthusiastically.

                “Likewise,” JaBrawn said.

                Silvermoon detached from her hook on Grendel’s saddle and streaked through the air. A twist of JaBrawn’s hand turned her murderous straight-on approach to a horizontal one. The older guardsman had begun to figure out that JaBrawn was up to something just as her handle struck him solidly in the ribs, throwing him into his

neighbor and the next into his neighbor and so on until the entire group was tumbling in the dirt. Silvermoon rushed by, righted herself, and flew straight and true into JaBrawn’s waiting hand. Twirling the immense weapon in his palm, he waited for the first of the group to attempt to get back to his feet. To JaBrawn’s surprise, it was the first one knocked to the ground, the old fighter who had taken the worst of the impact. He lifted his sword breathlessly, his vision and attentiveness clearly swimming between light and darkness. JaBrawn flicked Silvermoon towards the sword, knocking the blade from his hand and sending it spinning into the trees fifty feet away. The jarring was enough so that the poor old guardsman was thrown off his feet again, this time not to rise for some time.

                The next was the stocky man, who had a look that fought between disbelief and fury. He swung his blade towards JaBrawn’s face with such might that it would have topped a goodly sized tree. The scarred old Garulokai lifted his weapon and parried it soundly, the force ripping the blade from the guardsman’s stinging hands. Stepping forward lightly, JaBrawn lashed out with one fist and thumped him soundly between the eyes, much like he had done with Derrig not even minutes previous. He flopped over like a fish stood on its tail. Hopefully the blow would not inflict much more than a headache.

                The dark-haired cropped fellow thrust forward with the tip of his blade,

reasoning that slashes and chops were not a good idea. JaBrawn neatly side-stepped it

with surprising grace for a man of his size, caught the man’s left wrist, pulled him into the air, flipped him about, and then slammed him to the ground, driving the breath from him.

                The remaining three charged him at the same time, a wise move seeing as how half of their number had already been dispatched coming at him singly. JaBrawn, completely abandoning all semblance of humanity, leaped completely over them. They stared up at him, completely stunned and frozen in place because of it. Rotating his body in midair so that he landed facing their backs, he grabbed the ones on either side of the lad in the middle, lifted them completely into the air, and then smartly knocked all three of their heads together. They crumpled to the ground, unconscious.

                He pulled them all into as comfortable of positions as he could muster in the

thick lawn by Derrig’s fence, figuring that they would feel horrid enough when

consciousness drug them from whatever little hole he had just shoved them into. With

that in mind, they might as well be given as many accommodations as possible. There now was a pile of snoring bodies lying sprawled in the grass. He smiled thinly at his handiwork, and then looked up as Grendel nickered a question at him.

                Something… behind him?

                A crossbow bolt fitted with an armor-piercing tip buried itself in his back

just to the right of his left scapula. He fell to one knee, gritting his teeth against the

shout of pain that had jumped up his throat and bounced off the backs of his teeth. He turned, and saw Salett at the corner of the road about a hundred feet away, standing near his horse and cradling the broad crescent of a siege man’s crossbow, a weapon used to puncture knight’s armor like paper – the same weapon that he had seen under the toady's cloak the other day. The worthless exile had either changed his mind and returned, or had never left – most likely to make certain that the guardsmen had done what they had claimed they were going to do. Seeing that JaBrawn had not fallen, he pulled another bolt from under his saddle and braced his foot against the massive crossbow’s draw, as the catch would require a hundred pounds to pull back.

                JaBrawn reached behind himself, grasped the shaft of the bolt, and pulled it loose at an agonizingly awkward angle. If he had the density of a normal man, the bolt would have passed right through him and continued on into the ground. Honestly, that would have been less painful. He chanced a look at the aide, noting with satisfaction the look of amazed terror on his face. As soon as Salett had another bolt nocked, JaBrawn dropped to the dusty ground and rolled to his right, towards Derrig’s house. The crossbow bolt scorched through the air where he had been standing, whizzing off into the distance.

                “Get up you lazy bastards!” Salett shouted at the unconscious guardsmen. “Get up or I’ll see every one of your heads rolled off your necks!”

                JaBrawn eyed the heartless man from where he lay in the dirt. He shrugged the shoulder near where he had been punctured and was pleased to feel that it was quickly closing.

                He had had enough. It was time for the little bastard to die. He looked over to where Derrig had been lying, hoping he had roused, for he could use his aid.

                He was gone.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 11

 

                The many elemental divergesses of reality have been in place for much longer than recorded history. Who or what put things the way they were (and are) is beyond the comprehension of even the greatest of mortal scholars, and if the gods do truly know, they choose to keep this knowledge to themselves.

                As the millennia passed and the dreams and intentions of the sentient animals poured forth into the spiritual worlds between worlds, these elemental planes became halls of transition from one plane to another. When a soul’s physical shell ended in one plane, it often passed through many others before settling on a permanent resting place. Even then, it would remain there for as long as was necessary, guided by forces not easily perceived, let alone comprehended.

 

                Merva, unbelieving of her fortune, turned from a pale ghost nearly paralyzed

with fright into a flush faced, blubbering child. The fair-skinned young man laid his hand on her cheek and then to her shoulder and she felt the terror drain away to a level where she could gather her wits.

                “Gently, dear lady. Try and tell me what happened.”

                She took several deep breaths, hot tears falling down her round cheeks, and then recounted as best she could the horrible events she had witnessed. Her savior, his kind face turning grim and concerned as her tale wound on, asked her only a single question at its end.

                “This name that the wretched ones called the creature: What was it?”

                She gulped down her fear, forcing up the courage to mention a name that

suddenly became unbelievably difficult to speak. “Anamu, dear sir, they called it Anamu!”

                He rolled the word over his tongue, his soft voice lifting without lead on the stressed vowel at the center of its name. He shook his head slightly, but his demeanor was still serious. “I have never before heard of such a being.”

                She shook her head vigorously. “Nor I, but hearing it once on the lips of those abominable things was more than I will ever need to hear it.”

                She fell against him again, and he held her gently. After a few moments, he lifted her from his embrace. “We probably should not stay here. May I take you to the inn where I am lodging? It is not very extravagant, but the beds are warm and safe.”

                She took his warm, strong hands into her chilly, quaking grasp. “Oh dear sir, the kindness you have shown kindles a hope in me that there is still good in this world, for I swear to you, I saw its nemesis back at that unholy man’s home!”

                The two left quickly, swallowed by a night that suddenly felt thick and viscous as it poured from the sky and down the rooftops until it seemed to puddle at their feet and do its best to drag them back to where the collective evil of a thousand lifetimes walked as a man called Anamu, and it waited with a bottomless appetite.

 

~*~

 

                “Derrig!” JaBrawn shouted, uncaring as to what Salett heard. In a moment, he was going to throw caution to the wind and charge the sewer rat, and be damned his deception and this backward town.

                “Hush!” Came a reply from the vegetable garden.

                Turning his eyes and not his head, JaBrawn looked between the fronds of a turnip row. There Derrig was, crawling on his belly like a lizard with too big a lunch in its belly. From where he was slithering, he was behind his house and out of Salett’s arc of vision, but he would not be once he rounded the corner where fencepost met house. He could stay relatively well hidden, but there was no gap for him to squeeze through. He would have to get to his feet, however briefly, to vault the fence.

                JaBrawn still found the children’s scent in the air, so that meant they were

unfortunately close to everything that would transpire, good or ill. Thankfully, it seemed to be coming from the same direction, so they must have found somewhere to hide. He was still halfway confident that Salett would not harm them at this point, but incidental injury was perfectly possible. Besides, he had fully admitted to their planned murder once they were in custody.

                “Salett!” JaBrawn shouted, “Put the bolt caster down! Have you no honor? It is a coward’s weapon when used one on one against opponents not armed likewise.” He doubted that any sort of talk of honor could bait Salett, but it might get him talking to the point of being easily distracted.

                Salett tittered lightly, the sound mostly stolen by the trees and the distance. “Don’t tempt me with such tenets, stranger. I mean to see you dead, not duel you. Honor to anyone worth his place is meted out in ruling those beneath you, not placing oneself in harm’s way over some outdated, barbaric code.”

                “Barbaric?” JaBrawn eased up to a squat, the cottage’s corner barely concealing him. “It’s barbaric to make certain all is equal between two men that meet in honorable combat?” In his memory, that two-word phrase was nearly contradictory, but he reminded himself that it did, in instances, exist. This fact was hardly prominent at the moment, however.

                Salett blurted out a quick laugh again. “Honorable combat, to me, is a self-defeating phrase. There is nothing honorable about it. And I mean to keep it so.” He lifted his crossbow and let fly another lethal missile. It flashed through the air and buried into the wood of the cottage, disappearing halfway before its power was spent by the impact. There was a scream from within – the scream of a girl child. Salett quickly began to fit another bolt.

                JaBrawn flew to his feet in an instant, hurling Silvermoon with all his inhuman might towards the loathsome man’s chest. Derrig too had heard the scream, and leapt over the fence like a deer. As he closed the distance between himself and Salett, an ax curled through the air from his outstretched hand. As this happened, time seemed to be caught up in some sort of hindering force and slowed in the way that only impending disaster can slow it. JaBrawn marveled at the guardsman’s speed and accuracy, for the weapon’s flight was straight and true towards the soon to be very dead aide to the magistrate. Before either blow landed, however, Salett got off one last shot.

                JaBrawn strained his muscles to the limit, his legs making huge strides

towards his friend, trying to avert the unthinkable.

                It happened anyway, of course.

                The bolt bored through Derrig’s stomach and erupted from the other side in a

spray of crimson, snapping as it sank into the hard earth behind him. He slumped to his knees. A bare fraction of a second later, his ax met Salett’s skull, splitting it from forehead to chin. Before he could loll from his saddle, Silvermoon slammed into and

through his ribcage, folding his entire torso in half. The corpse that hit the ground moments later hardly looked human. A ragged breath slipped from where his lips once were, and then his wicked life ended.

                Silvermoon had reversed herself and streaked back to JaBrawn while he was in mid-stride, having completely ignored Salett. Derrig had rolled silently to his side, and then his back. JaBrawn was at his flank immediately after, skidding to his knees in the gravel. He pressed his palms fiercely to the wound, but it was clear he could never stop the bleeding. It was cleanly through the liver, and there was simply too much damage. “Derrig… why didn’t you just wait? Even if I had died, you have so much more to lose.”

                Derrig forced a smile through his pained expression. “That may be, JaBrawn… but I couldn’t just stand idly by while you defended everything that I hold dear.”

                Scowling, JaBrawn said, “But that’s what I do, brother. That’s all I do, it’s the only thing I’m good at anymore.”

                Derrig smiled weakly. “You will have to become skilled at something else now, JaBrawn. For what I lose, you now gain, my newest friend, at least for a while. Can you do this?” He gripped one of JaBrawn’s rough hands with his own, a hand hardened by battle as well as fatherhood. Perhaps the two, in some sense, were not so different. There were many little wars to fight when raising children. And now, it seemed, this endeavor would pass to JaBrawn. His heart teetered as Derrig’s words sunk in. It terrified him, but of course he could not refuse. There was also guilt, for, in a sense he could save his life. There might still be time. And, as before, he did not, for he vowed that his curse would never again knowingly pass from him. Exceptions in the past had… He shook his head. This was not the time.

                Besides, what of the children? They would have a father that could very easily outlive them, so what then? Damn them as well? No. That would be a worse curse than his. He nodded. “Yes. I can.” He paused, quickly searching for a question that had to be asked. “Shall I take them from here? Do you have family elsewhere?”

                Derrig swallowed, though his mouth was dry. The smell of death was lingering very nearby, peeking over JaBrawn’s shoulder, as it were. “Aye… there will be nothing for them here, that is for certain. For you either.” He took a slow breath. “In Fremett, I have a half-brother. We’ve never met, but he is the only kin I know of. From what I’ve…” a pain tore through him, and he gritted his teeth. “…I do not know his name, but from what I’ve been told, he is a good man. A great, red-headed barbarian of a shipwright, last I heard. Aria once told me that he knows he has a nephew and a niece in Camdur. That is… all I can tell you, forgive me…” He looked up at JaBrawn, his skin quickly paling as his life’s blood poured from the disastrous wound. “JaBrawn, my children… quickly, see to them.”

                JaBrawn nodded and moved to stand, knowing that he would have seconds the moment he let go of the wound. Then he heard a soft voice behind him.

                “We’re here, Father.”

                The old warrior looked up in surprise. They stood mutely behind him, tears sucked back and denied. Derrig smiled softly and reached for them. They instantly ran to his fading embrace, the last they would ever feel in this world.

                JaBrawn stood finally and stepped back, feeling out of place and overwhelmed by hundreds of memories far too similar to this.

                Wendonel kissed her father’s bloodied fingertips and then held his palm to her cheek. “You silly old man,” she said through a shuddering smile.

                “My precious little petal,” he said back. “Watch after your brother, now. You’re all he has left.”

                She nodded and kissed his lips as the sob that she had been denying finally slipped through and shook her little body. He held her as best his failing strength would let her. At last she pulled away and nodded. “I will Poppy, I promise.”

                Derrig’s eyes brimmed. “You haven’t called me that since you first found your feet.”

                “I never forgot.”

                “Never do.” She moved back and the dying man turned to his son. “My silent little prince.” Favius’ face was creased with grief, as huge tears poured from his eyes. “Now then, my beautiful boy. Already the pain is leaving me, so don’t cry so over it.” He used the last wisps of his strength to hold his son’s hands, hands that would one day be as broad and as powerful as his. “I will miss you so very much.”

                A great rush of sadness gripped him. He felt he had done well enough in this world to find himself in Ummon’s golden towers, but they would shine with less brilliance without his beloved Favius and Wendonel. “I had thought I would hear your voice once more before I died, so I could tell your mother what you said when I see her in the next life.” He brushed his numbing fingers through Favius’ curled locks. “No matter. You may tell her yourself one day, when we are all together again.”

                Favius stared at the last moments of his father’s life and calmed himself, an

odd yet admirable tranquility and strength smoothing the lines from his face. Then, he

opened his mouth to speak.

                “When you see Mother, Papa, tell her…” he paused, as Derrig listened as intently as he could and JaBrawn gaped, “…Tell her that I named a star after her, and I pretend it sings me to sleep every night, but only I can hear it.” He nodded, suddenly seeming much older and wiser than his years. “Tell her that.” He repeated.

                JaBrawn was overcome with memories dredged up by the spectacle, seeing a tiny broken body that he had not had the chance to say goodbye to, clutched in the arms of a dying woman whose body was half erased by the claws of a horrific beast and could no longer speak. He swatted the images away, but they buzzed back into his mind like a swarm of gnats.

                Derrig made a quiet sound that was half joy and half anguish as he heard his child speak after six years of silence. “I will tell her that Favius, I swear I will.” His smile shifted and began to change somewhat. “Goodbye, my little ones…look for me in your dreams… I will be there… I will…” his voice faded, his body relaxed, the sparkle in his eyes drifted away, and then he died.

                JaBrawn, watching nearby, moved over to him and closed Derrig’s eyes. “I may walk this earth until the end of time my friend, but I wouldn’t mind if you looked in on me every now and then from whatever keep Ummon seeks to place under your care.” He kissed his fist and brushed it lightly against Derrig’s lips, and then opened his hand and rested his palm gently on his cheek. It was an ancient parting gesture from a warrior to a fallen comrade. “Go where the only blades are of grass, and the only thing split with an ax is wood for the hearth.” JaBrawn knelt near the children, who held their father’s hands in each of theirs and cried quietly for a little while.

                After all the death he had seen in his long years, there still was no manner with which to handle it that could fit every situation. Each taste of death’s touch had its own flavor, its own presence. And each time she called, it was if you were going through it for the first time all over again. Finally, when JaBrawn heard and saw the guardsmen that he had incapacitated stir and groan in the grass, he touched Wendonel and Favius’ shoulders softly. “Children… we must go.”

                Wendonel nodded, and then sucked in a quick chest full of air as she contemplated something. “What about my father?”

                “We will see to his proper burial, Wendonel.” Came a deep, rough voice from behind JaBrawn. The older guardsmen, showing again his durability as being the bearer of the worst wound yet the first to regain his feet, rubbed a sore spot on his flank and rested on his haunches. He motioned to the road behind him. “You all three had better leave. We will inform the magistrate of Salett’s sudden lunacy and how you and Derrig were merely defending yourselves. As such, we would still be obligated to place you, traveler, under arrest.” He shook his head slightly. “Despite our testimonies, there would at some point be a time where having you in chains would give someone the chance to finish what Salett began.”

                JaBrawn peered at the sturdy old man-at-arms for a moment, and then inclined his head in gratitude. “My thanks.”

                The other guardsmen were slowly recovering as well, rubbing their skulls and clutching tender areas, all testaments to JaBrawn’s skill in defeating an opponent (or in this case several opponents) without killing them.

                The old warrior decided that he and the children had best depart before they

fully recovered lest there be a dispute concerning the first guardsman’s generosity. “Come, children. Let’s be on our way.” He motioned them towards Grendel, who had trotted up unbidden, sensing the urgency of the situation. The children began to follow them, then stopped short after only a few steps. JaBrawn turned to them, a quizzical look in his eyes.

                “What is it little one?” He asked Wendonel.

                Her tired, tear-stained face looked out past him, down the road and towards the far bend outside of town where the oaks were thick and gave way to towering pines and then redwoods. JaBrawn tested the wind, which blew softly from the opposite direction. There were the heady scents of the warm day, the musk of farm animals, and the dusty whorls of countless rodent burrows, but most were overridden by the nearby rusty tang of recently spilled human blood. He turned back towards the girl and boy and shrugged lightly, shaking his head in bafflement.

                Wendonel and Favius both lifted a hand and pointed. JaBrawn turned back just as the older guardsman muttered an oath.

                A trio of garulls broke through the tree line snuffling at the air and snapping their jaws. Six more joined their ranks, and six more joined theirs and so on, until there were so many huge, scaly, misshapen bodies pouring out of the trees that they were difficult to count. They shoved and clawed and snapped at each other, and were clearly audible though they were several dozen yards away. The nearby farm animals spooked and tugged at harnesses and thrashed against fences, sensing the very clear threat these horrific creatures represented. Grendel huffed with concern, but not fear. He was too accustomed to peril for it to move him any further than that. JaBrawn, however, had a bit more of a handle on how dangerous the situation had suddenly become.

                He glanced back at Wendonel and Favius, and saw a disturbing look of exhausted resignation on their porcelain faces. He turned back to the now rapidly recovering group of men who were barking words at each other in frantic alarm. They were all capable fighters, but had never been pitched into such a situation. In recent times, garulls were so rare they were nearly mythical. Now here were thirty of the

damnable things standing abreast almost as if in some kind of nightmarish formation,

an organized battalion of hell spawned shock troops.

                They at last ceased bickering in their quite nearly mutilating way and slowly

advanced, their clawed feet piercing the earth only slightly, seemingly to sneak up on

whatever unfortunate target they had chosen. Perhaps they were not aware of the humans in the distance.

                The old guardsman, aware of them but, of course, not intimately, whispered to JaBrawn at his left. “Any idea how good their eyesight is?”

                JaBrawn clenched his jaw. “Similar to a man’s.”

                The guardsman shook his head. “Then it’s too good to be useful to us.”

                “Agreed.” JaBrawn said, and then looked again at the old fellow. “Your name sir?”

                Without turning to him the man said, “Barnus Polchek. And you?”

                “JaBrawn Marshada.”

                Barnus took a long breath in through his nose and let it out through his teeth.

“Well, JaBrawn, I think I’ll ask you to forget about my former offer and in its stead, I would ask that you use that gleaming rib cracker of yours once more,” he indicated the monsters, “but maybe pointed that way this time.”

                JaBrawn backed slowly towards the children while gesturing at Grendel to

follow. With two swift movements, he hoisted them on to the barrel-bodied stallion.

Their bodies were limp and heavy, almost as if they were already attempting to follow

their father to whatever gilded halls in which he had ended up.

                He whispered in the horse’s ear. “A guardsman will wait with you down the road. If he bolts, follow him to the town hall. You hear me old friend?”

                Grendel gave the equine equivalent of “harrumphing.” He was apparently a little irritated at being left out of the fighting, but the ugly old horse did as he was asked. His steps were measured and careful so as to not jostle the children, who were slumped over each other though clearly not asleep.

                JaBrawn watched his mount move down the road a goodly piece, past Salett’s crumpled carcass, and out into a patch of grass that was shaded by yet another enormous oak tree. Grendel stopped and turned about, facing back the way he came.

                JaBrawn set his jaw and nodded, then quickly turned back to the task at hand. “Barnus, I think you should choose one of your comrades to take a horse into town if the garulls get past us.” He pointed far down the road. “Have him wait there. My horse will follow him with the children, should he ride.”

                The beasts had closed to about one hundred yards. Barnus nodded solemnly.

“Aye friend, I think you are right.” He quickly inspected his compatriots for the most

rideworthy. “Temeth! Get on your horse and wait at the end of the road. If I give the retreat signal, ride with all speed to the town hall.” He gestured abruptly at JaBrawn.

“JaBrawn’s horse will follow you with Thresher’s children.”

                Temeth nodded wordlessly and lurched to his feet, not needing to be told who JaBrawn or his horse was. With one swift motion he was on his mount and galloping away towards Grendel. The guardsmen’s horses, sturdy but clearly alarmed, retreated of their own volition to the trees, where they would hopefully survive to be recovered later.

                The surly, stocky man who had threatened the others into action earlier looked on JaBrawn with grudging respect as the garulls closed further. “Where did you learn to fight like that?” He asked.

                JaBrawn glanced over at him. “If we live, I’ll tell you. If we don’t, you’ll have the rest of your life to see it one last time before we are all killed. Fair?”

                The fellow chuckled darkly. “Aye. Fair.”

                JaBrawn expected to gain a few extra minutes or, if their fortune was even

better, lose a few of the garulls altogether when one or two or a dozen of them fattened up on sheep or chickens or even a cow, but amazingly the things passed them by without a glance. They seemed focused on either the small line of men, or the houses nearby. Most appeared empty, their inhabitants going about their tasks or interests downtown, but some were not and of those that were, they would have to return at some time, and to what would they return? Either a field littered with the dead bodies of the garulls, or the garulls themselves tearing everything to pieces. JaBrawn and the guardsmen would not be there, most likely. They would probably be eaten. JaBrawn had never had to survive being torn to pieces and consumed, and even if he did live through it he doubted he would enjoy those particular memories.

                The line of garulls had spread out into eight or so groups of three or four each. At first JaBrawn had resisted voicing the thoughts that strained at his common sense before the monsters had made themselves known, but that same common sense had now reversed itself. He had to try and tell them how to drop the vicious things.

                “They are tough, but not unkillable. Aim for an area that would be vital on any other animal, but stay away from their backs. The scales there are like armor.” He hefted Silvermoon as his eyes darted across the number of their enemy. Gods it had been so long ago yet not nearly long enough since he had seen so many.

                “Their mouths can open to the point where the jaw practically unhinges, and it snaps shut like a bear trap when it bites, but right after a bite it is vulnerable for a half second. Use that time to slash at its neck if you can – its gut or legs if you cannot.”

                The men heard him, he knew, but did not react. Fair enough. Let them believe him or not believe him. In a few more seconds his words would be proven clearly enough.

                The garulls had all stopped advancing and simply stared at them. They shuffled back and forth and clacked their immense jaws together, but did not advance. What in the world was wrong with them?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 12

 

                Extiris Pritera – the prime or primeal plane: the central plane of existence where consciousness, the spirit, and the physical body are separate yet conjoined, as are the elements. In warrick texts it is represented as a great sphere around which the other divergesses surround and penetrate. The vast majority of mortal beings observes and interacts on this plane.

 

                The entity, now known by three living souls as Anamu, wrapped tentative fingers of influence around the collective dull glow of the garulls that plagued JaBrawn and his new cohorts. Its entourage waited in rows of slack-jawed silence below, in the  former priest’s spacious cellars. They knew nothing other than servitude and consumption now, their minds erased of all but these two concepts.

                Anamu had been very pleased to learn that acts of barbarism and destruction had been cropping up randomly since its emergence into self-awareness. Evil begets evil, after all. These instances would further fracture and distract the powers that would inevitably rise against it whilst providing even more energy upon which to draw, so they were more than welcome.

                It had been meditating and gathering the flitting motes of evil energy that were always present to add to its slowly increasing power, when it felt the tantalizing tug of a greater concentrated evil many miles to the East. It was there that it saw the shifting silver luminescence that was the small town of Camdur. It had almost overlooked it, as it was mostly of good character, but then it saw the pulsing reddish hue of a very intense malevolence buried beneath its surface like a boil that had yet to push through the skin. It had nearly clapped its hands with glee at its discovery, at its justification for existence, which was this simple tenet: no matter the good, there was always the bad. Always. You can find it anywhere and everywhere. In the case of Camdur it was simple greed, fear-spawned hate, and the far-reaching intrigues of another evil mind. It vowed to seek this mind out, for its power and influence must have been considerable to reach so far from where it originated.

                This was of negligible focus at this point, however. It was a simple matter for its spirit form to reach out and snare the primitive and dark minds of several garulls hunting through the forest. Next, it would feed off the steaming gouts of malevolence that would pour forth from the deaths of these simple humans, then, it would move its focus to the wicked stew pot of corruption simmering under Camdur’s innocent veil. It would exploit, intensify, and ultimately consume this blot of foulness, and it would enjoy every anguished moment of it.

                All those tiny, innocent lives wrapped around and broken by Anamu’s

Finger. How absolutely delicious this would be!

 

~*~

 

                “All right then. Contact the Sargaths or Presiders or Hazhmahs or whatever else these city-states call their rulers through whatever the warricks call their farspeaking warra. I want them all here, and I want them all here in four turns.”

                Othis bowed low. “Is there more my king?”

                “Of course there is!” Merrett barked. “I want a detailed inventory of every warrick, soldier, weapon, shield, and piece of armor in all of Tyniar’s holds, and I want notices everywhere calling for every last smith that can swing a hammer and every last fletcher who remembers on which end of the shaft goes the pointy bit and which the feathers, that top coin will be paid for their craftsmanship if they report to Tyn Ianett immediately.”

                Othis bowed again, his hands empty of anything with which to write down the High King’s instructions. Merrett was accustomed to this.

                “Next, I want an inventory of every last piece of livestock in every farm, pasture, and stable in the kingdoms: rideable, edible, or both.” Othis stared without

blinking, waiting for the king to finish. “And, lastly, I want a list of every last sack of

provisions we have stored as well as the farm from which they came. Our Civil High

Ordinator will, at one point handle this, but the preliminaries I want handled by you.”

                Othis bowed again. “In that order Sire?”

                “Eh? Oh, erm, yes, in that order.” His brow pinched deeply and he stroked his beard between thumb and forefinger, his mind racing over every last detail that he could come up with. There was almost surely something that he had missed – that he would not remember until it was too late. “Very good. Get to it, Othis.”

                “Immediately, my king.” And the gray draped gentleman walked swiftly and

quietly away to begin the tasks set before him.

                Canthus, reclining nearby in a fur lined chair near an enormous hearth, smiled slightly in admiration. “He’s a good sort, my Lord.”

                “The very best,” Good King Merrett agreed, slumping into his chair.

                He had ridden with all speed back to Tyn Ianett, convincing Canthus to accompany him as consultant for both he and Othis. The High Advisor seemed genuinely pleased with the aged elf’s company and input, and had not even raised an eyebrow at the word consultant. Not that it would have mattered if he had. Pride was a very, very, secondary thing considering the situation. Now, buried in one of the vast castle’s musty and smoke scented rooms, the High King did not at all feel at home, though this place was supposed to define as much.

                “So what else should be done Canthus?” Good King Merrett muttered, feeling edgy and worn. “I cannot for the life of me think of anything else.”

                Canthus rubbed the smooth and hairless point of his chin with a delicate pinkie. “You will need a military cabinet, one composed of other than your generals. They are well-versed and intelligent men and women, but their strategies and abilities are restricted to only certain spheres.”

                Good King Merrett looked at the smooth stone of the floor, planed that way by the passing of countless feet over countless centuries. He mused for a moment on what a spectacle that was, for he rarely used this room and found very little mention of it in any of the other king’s annals, yet here it was, glossed featureless by shuffling steps passing over it every few decades or so. His mind returned from this tangent to Canthus’ recommendation.

                “If not directly in the employ of the military, then what sorts of individuals do you speak of, riddlesome elf?”

                The millenarian elf smiled softly. He so loved the life that humans exuded, and this non-descript little king showed more than most. “The sorts that are gifted creatures of great ability and virtuous heart.”

                Merrett’s face creased once along the corner of his mouth as he pondered his

meaning. “You mean warricks? Dragons? Midwives, what?”

                Canthus was unperturbed. “While we may end up enlisting the help of all you just described, I meant certain specific individuals unique amongst their kind and profession. Heroes, if you will, yet not blatantly heroic.” It was clear that he was choosing his words carefully, but he chose all of his words carefully.

                Merrett felt he understood. “So you wish to find people of unusual talent or

standing and make them direct my forces, is that it? Champions?”

                Canthus winced very slightly at the term. “Not quite so extravagant. If one of these beings was to pass you by, you would glance at them briefly in curiosity that just might border on wonder, but once they passed out of sight, you would put them out of your mind.”

                “How is that advantageous?”

                Canthus spread his hands briefly and then rejoined them. “I want our enemies to pause at the sight of them, change their minds, and then brutally, horribly, underestimate them.”

                Merrett grasped the thumb of one hand in the other and then placed both hands in his lap. “I could see how that would be applicable in a one-on-one engagement, but, as generals, they will hardly ever enter the battlefield.”

                Canthus smiled wide. “Oh but they will, my Good King Merrett. That’s one of many arenas where they will be underestimated, and central to why your regular military leaders fall short.”

                “I understand, but eventually our enemies will learn from their mistakes and will come at them and us with everything they have.”

                Canthus nodded. “Eventually yes, but, if we play our dice right, it will be too late. ‘Everything they have’ will no longer be enough.”

                Merrett seized his bottom lip in his fingers, lightly tugging on it in an almost

comical manner as he brooded. “Very well, I see the wisdom in this. Where will we find such beings?”

                Canthus smirked. “Well, I spoke with two of them only this morning.”

                The High King perked up. “Where are they?”

                The old elf, who suddenly seemed wrapped up and bound by every single one of his years, sighed an oath. “Oh, I sent them off to pull the tiara down over Primaxis Krubisse’s eyes. It was a somewhat greedy endeavor on their part, but you know as well as I that the Primaxis is about as holy as a demon’s scat.

                As is… right now I have no idea whatsoever where they are.”

 

~*~

 

                A garull hurled itself through the air, only to have its skull crushed like a shell of burnt paper by JaBrawn’s mace. Two more launched towards the others, nearly bowling over their targets, but skewered quickly and cleanly by the guardsmen, who repeatedly hacked at their twitching bodies and then reformed their circle without so much as wiping their blades clean so they were not caught unprepared.

                The garulls were not the brightest animals in the woods, but even they could sense that this strange tickle in their dim minds, this beckoning sensation that called to them and directed them here, was not letting them act the way they wanted to act.

                “What are they doing?” Barnus hissed through the side of his mouth towards

JaBrawn.

                JaBrawn took the corner of his bottom lip between his teeth. “Either regrouping, retreating, or charging. Take your pick, though I think one of them is not the answer.”

                Barnus snorted.

                The line of garulls spread out in a half-circle and pulled back, some all the way to the trees. JaBrawn’s concern soared. This was not like the relentless, blood crazy garulls of the war. These things were not acting like animals.

                “Careful lads, they’re flanking us,” the stocky guardsman said softly. The line continued to spread until there were nearly ten or twelve feet between each of the creatures.

                JaBrawn ground his teeth and his stomach sank. “Worse than that. They’re

surrounding us.”

                The stocky man growled in disbelief. “Now how would they know how to do

that? They look about as smart as –”

                No sooner had the words left his mouth than the opposing ends of the garulls’ trap appeared from the trees. It was an impossibly coordinated pincer attack, one that offered no escape for the men. Temeth and Grendel backed up several dozen yards so as not to be caught in it. Their movement caught the attention of the outermost beasts, and they hissed in warning, one of them crouching to spring. JaBrawn cocked back his arm, preparing to heave Silvermoon farther than he’d ever thrown her before, when something even stranger than their cunning maneuvers occurred. The creatures immediately tugged their interest from the horses and turned them back to their task, almost as if some great admonishing hand had twisted their heads.

                This went completely against the mindset of a predator seeking an easy meal. The two horses, one with two children on its saddle, should have completely stolen the attention of the garulls near them, yet they could focus on nothing other than the larger threat of the armed humans at the center of their deadly circle.

                JaBrawn blinked and marveled, but could not spare it any further attention.

The ends had met, and more than a score of the things now surrounded them. As expected, they closed on them steadily, huge hooked hands held before their lithe torsos, mouths hanging open in horrendous fanged grins, eyes gleaming with an innate evil.

                The old warrior felt a tug at his breast, a sensation that he had battled and wrested control of for three decades. He shoved it away as he had in the past but found it difficult, as it was more defense mechanism now than anything else.

                “No,” he muttered to himself, steeling his nerves. “I will not need it.” He did not look about to see if anyone noticed him talking to himself, but he doubted they would care much at that point.

                As the garulls advanced on the men, the gaps between them shrank from twelve feet, to ten, to eight. Soon they would be a foot away from each other and twenty feet away from the men. If they all struck at once, it would be like throwing bread dough into a spinning barrel lined with shark’s teeth. There was no way they could survive, unless he…

                NO!” JaBrawn shouted, making the other’s jump.

                “What the bedeviled saints are you yelling at?” Barnus hissed at him.

                A growl that sounded like someone rolling boulders down a hillside rumbled

from JaBrawn’s chest. Everyone held their breath and turned their heads to look at him. His teeth were gritted, and Barnus noticed that two on the top and bottom seemed elongated – almost tusk like. JaBrawn did his best to ignore this, and found his human voice again, though it was shot through with wrath. “All of you get on your bellies!” He bellowed. They took quick glances at the ground and the garulls, who were perhaps twenty feet away now. “DO it!” JaBrawn shouted, foam flicking from his mouth.

                Considering how this same fellow had felled all six of them earlier with hardly any apparent effort, their hesitation was brief. Like a troupe of felled pawns, they collapsed to the dirt and covered their heads, though some continued to look upward in fear.

JaBrawn willed Silvermoon to her maximum length of ten feet, causing gasps of wonder from the guardsmen who saw it. The weapon was now a massive clubbing pole arm, her hundred-pound weight made three times what it was by being suspended at such a great distance from the handle. JaBrawn noticed the difference in her heft, but paid it little mind. If the garulls did, they showed no outward sign of neither it, nor the sudden prone position of the other men.

                And then, without warning, half their number leaped into the air, claws and jaws spread wide. For the split second that they were airborne, JaBrawn marveled at how every other creature attacked, skipping one in between. If they had all jumped at once, they would have collided with one another. He slapped the thought to the back of his mind. The time for thinking on such would come later.

With a horrendous, bellowing roar, JaBrawn tapped into the heart of the weapon, drawing on a store of living energy within Silvermoon that he rarely used due to its typically uncontrollable nature. With a buzzing, humming shriek, he spun her through the air with such ferocious speed, that the image of Silvermoon’s gleaming sphere dissolved into a blurred, deadly amalgam. One of the guardsmen would later tell how it looked like they were enclosed in a ring of liquid silver, a ring that the ten or so garulls flew into headfirst.

                They were smashed to fragments. Their bones were crushed, their hides split, and the contents of their bellies and torsos ruptured and flung far and wide in a gruesome explosion.

                So quick were their deaths, not one of them made a sound.

 

~*~

 

                Anamu twitched where it sat, feeling the sudden deaths of the garulls like a tug on an eyelid. It bared teeth that once belonged to someone else and hissed like a basket of vipers. It shook its head and wrestled with the remaining creatures, fighting to get them under its yoke again. As it did so, it took a long hard look at the small group of men that dared to defy it, and something that had been hidden became clear.

                It slowly smiled.

                One of them was not what he appeared to be.

 

~*~

 

                JaBrawn attempted to slow down Silvermoon’s spin but was unable to, even when he applied all of his vast strength. In fact, the rotation became more severe, and his weapon began to burn in his hands. It was an enwarred burn, so the damage would be real and lasting if he could not contain it soon. Focusing his will, he endeavored to again tap into Silvermoon’s center, the core of her that actually was alive.

When he reached her, he was stunned to find nothing but hate, revulsion, and bloodlust. She was not going to be called back, not now anyway. He tried for several seconds more, but it was like a man trying to reason with a howling wolf deep in the predatory throes of a recent kill.  He made no headway with her at all, in fact, if anything the mania of her increased and the burning worsened. He could hold her no longer. With a cry of frustration he let go, and she violently launched high and far into the air, lost to the sky and a location he could not even dream. So fast was her flight that the air scorched in her wake, making her appear as a fallen star striving to reclaim its place.

                JaBrawn scowled heavenward, aggravated beyond words at what he lost, and what he would no doubt have to endure to recover her. All he could really ascertain was her initial direction, which was westerly, but her flight was not a straight line. It was more of a great arc that continued beyond sight, so she could have landed anywhere. He could sense her presence when she was close enough, but never from this distance. Considering what he had to endure to call her his own… He shook his head angrily, but pressed it down within him with logic and reason. At least Fremett lay in that general direction.

Irritating as this was, it was now secondary. He looked past the circle of grisly remains that was once nearly a dozen monsters nearly twice the size of a man, and instead inspected their remaining brethren. He had reduced their ranks by not quite half, there being two and ten of them remaining. Not pausing for a second longer, he snatched from the ground a long sword for each hand and leapt into the air holding them over his head while simultaneously shouting for the guardsmen to regain their feet and press the attack. The garulls had appeared dazed and confused when he had killed the others, but regained their composure almost simultaneously. The old warrior then went gruesomely back on the offensive.

                With an overhand chop, he sliced a scaly torso in two, the creature barking in

surprised pain. The sword sang with the impact, and he had to remind himself not to strike to hard or he would dull or even snap a blade against their scales or bones. Spinning to his left, he pierced a snout clear through to the brain, dropping the animal in an instant. He leapt to his right taking a quartet of deep gashes along his flank that tore straight through his leather jerkin to score the flesh beneath. He grunted slightly, reversed his grip of one sword in midair so that he gripped the handle palm down, and then lashed out from left to right with both blades, catching the garull under the chin and slashing through its spine. It had time to shriek once before it died.

                He chanced a quick look over to his new compatriots and saw that they had grouped into a tight ring, each lashing out with his sword, or, in the case of the two whose swords he liberated, stabbing with daggers drawn from their belts. Since they could not focus on a smaller number of targets as they did when the first trio of garulls attacked, they were having difficulty scoring more than the occasional slash or puncture, but the wounds were painful and kept them at bay.

                Two of them converged on him at once, one seizing a sword in its teeth, the other snapping at his head with jaws that could have severed it from his neck with a

single bite. He dropped a sword and seized the latter one by the thick hide of its neck

and squeezed. His powerful hand felt little purchase but the action caused the garull to

shift its intent from trying to behead him to trying to escape his grip. The other was lifted clear off the ground and slammed earthward, shock shattering its jaw and the sword, but no before the blade sliced through its tongue and cheek while snapping off dozens of teeth. Yowling with pain, it rolled around clutching at its head with its claws.

                His remaining sword arm now free, JaBrawn slashed the other creature across the belly, cutting open arteries and organs. He dropped this doomed beast to the ground, and then clubbed the other on its skull with the pommel, splitting its skull to its brainpan, killing it instantly. He then heard a shout of alarm that turned into a shriek behind him. He held his breath in fear but knew what he would see when he turned.

                The stocky guardsman had been plucked from his fellows by two of the horrific beasts and was being tugged in opposite directions between them. Their claws dug into his flesh cruelly at leg and chest, and blood gushed from the wounds. He gritted his teeth against the pain, but one twisted one way as the other went the other, and JaBrawn could hear the man’s bones break even above his cries of pain. All of this happened in only a few seconds, so quick and vicious was the attack. The other men stared, wide-eyed and paralyzed. He had to be rescued now, if at all.

                A missile attack would leave him at a disadvantage as he would be unarmed, but there was little doubt the poor man would be torn in two before he could reach him. Without another thought, the noble old soldier flung his remaining blade with a quick arc of his arm, closing the distance between himself and the nearest of the two garulls in hardly a second.

                The sword pierced its back just above and between its shoulder blades, pushing through the thick scales and immediately severing its spine. Useless as a knot of wet blankets, it flopped over. The other garull, unknowing as to what happened, began tugging the groaning man out from under its former competitor, grinning with the prospect of an entire meal instead of half of one.

Now JaBrawn was on it though, seizing its chin in one powerful hand, and its snout with the other. With a brutal jerk, he spread its jaws wide to the point where they broke, and then he twisted its head brutally to one side while twisting its jaw to the other, snapping its neck. When he shoved it away, it too was a dead pile of mange, scales, and teeth. The guardsman was pinned but protected under its bulk.

                Five of them remained now, and they were very upset. They were caught between the urge to flee and the irresistible goading that had filled their tiny minds, this voice that said they must obey despite the odds, and that there were rich, gluttonous rewards should they succeed and punishment beyond their bestial conception of pain if they did not. One of them, maddened, let loose with an ear-quaking squeal and charged clumsily forward. It suddenly sprouted a thumb-thick crossbow bolt from one of its eyes. It stood stock still for a moment, its jaw working up and down spasmodically. Reaching up with one claw in what almost seemed a curious gesture, it fingered the bolt of wood protruding from its socket. Then, with a sputtering, choking sound, it folded over and fell.

                JaBrawn flung his gaze around, seeking the archer. For a split, surreal moment, some absurd notion in his mind reasoned that Salett, broken in half and pallid from lack of blood, had hauled himself back from death and decided to turn over a new leaf and become a hero.

                His eyes found the truth quickly enough. It was not Salett, of course. Temeth, the guardsman awaiting what he had at first thought was an unavoidable call to retreat, had retrieved the boltcaster from the dead man’s fingers and had begun loosing quarrels towards the garulls. He was not the best marksman (he would later recount that the one that had just sprouted one from its eye had been aimed at its chest) but more than one found their target regardless.

                JaBrawn breathed relief and then returned to his grim task. One creature, screeching and clawing at a bolt that had suddenly appeared in its thigh, was cut down quickly by the guardsmen. JaBrawn impaled another through its chest, as it sought to rend the humans to pieces as they were bent at their task. The two garulls that remained stood back to back, their legs quivering with the urgency to flee, but held rooted to the spot due to Anamu’s unbreakable grip. They hissed, they growled, they gnashed their teeth, they tore at their manes with their claws, but they neither attacked nor retreated.

                It was at that point that realization dawned on JaBrawn. The way they advanced as one, and then spread out evenly and smoothly. After they had been encircled, the way they alternated each creature in the first wave of attacks, so as to not crash into each other nor use all of them at once, and now, the way that they clearly wanted to flee but could not, each occurrence was astounding enough individually, but jointly he mentally chastised himself for not seeing it. Some outside force was coercing them.

                Then, like a hood lifted from the face of one sentenced to death and then released for no reason, the garulls perked up, looked about, and turned away, tearing up the earth in their fervor to escape. A final crossbow bolt glanced off the armored scales of one of them nearly a hundred feet away. A useless shot, but impressive. In moments, they disappeared into the wood.

                Not a single one of the men on that bloody stretch of grass and road raised a shout of victory.

                “Will… somebody get this damned stinking carcass… off my head?” Said a

weak voice buried under three hundred pounds of dead monster.

                Lifting carefully, JaBrawn pulled the sagging weight away from the fallen

guardsman and took stock of his injuries. It was not good. He had deep rents in his flesh where the garulls had pulled and tugged on him, and his legs were a twisted mass of splintered bone and dripping, torn flesh. His left arm was yanked from its socket and hung limply, the palm mottled and purple from pooling blood. If blood loss did not kill him, infection surely would.

                Barnus knelt by his comrade and smiled down at him. “You fought a good one, old friend.” He glanced down his body. “I don’t think you’re going to be out chasing your Eliza much for a while.”

                The broken man lifted his one good hand and grasped Barnus on his shoulder. “No, I suppose not,” he said in a hoarse, pained whisper. He turned to look at JaBrawn. “Thank you, stranger, for helping us save our town. Can I ask you something?”

                JaBrawn nodded slowly. “Of course.”

                The man blinked through the pain. “Who are you?”

                His mouth fluttered into a quick smile that died away. “Some sort of bloody savior, I suppose.”

                The dying man and the others shared a very small, quiet laugh at that. His smile did not fade when, with a soft sigh, his life slipped away.

                JaBrawn held his breath a moment and clenched his jaw. “What was his name?” He asked.

                Barnus closed the man’s eyes, which were a blessed shade of peaceful. “Olmud Craftan. His family was one of the first to stake claim in this valley. His son is now the last of his name.”

                JaBrawn shook his head very slightly. “Then let’s head back to those backwards, slime-covered, wrist-wringing, yellow-bellied collection of toads that run your town, and inform them that two of their number have been killed by creatures that do not exist.”

                The cropped fellow looked at him. “Are you sure that’s wise? This may be the only chance you have to get away clean.”

                JaBrawn nodded grimly. “I understand, but I feel we have just delayed what more may transpire.” He turned towards where the garulls had disappeared. “Something was moving them to act that way. That was far too coordinated an attack for any animals, but especially these bloodthirsty beasts. This was more than random. Your town was targeted, or, at least, perhaps tested. I am not certain who or why, but I strongly urge you to spread the word in Camdur that the High King’s aid is desperately needed. If this happens again,” he pointed at the carnage without turning his head, “It will be disastrous without the proper preparation to repel it.”

                Another said softly, “The council will be resistant to such an idea. They are

proud and arrogant.”

                “That would be another task I must deal with. The time has come for your town to supplant its rulers.”

                The others nodded or murmured quiet agreement, deigning to reserve mention of JaBrawn’s enigmatic method of dispatching the beasts that assaulted them, nor the extravagant manner in which he lost his weapon. There just seemed to be an additional unspoken consensus to voice their thoughts later, if at all.

                “I must admit, I am curious to see their faces when they discover that their

cowardly assassin was killed for pointing a crossbow at the wrong man.” Barnus

mumbled.

 

~*~

 

                Anamu sat very still for a while.

                It strove to remain calm, to remind itself that it really had only just been born and that its power was still not nearly what it could be. It had underestimated the inhuman ability of the one warrior, and had paid minorly, if at all, for it. It had released the remaining garulls, seeing them as wasted resources if he allowed them to be killed. They would heal, breed, and replace their lost numbers in just a few turns. Overall, it categorized the entire affair as a useful lesson in judging an enemy.

                The day for retribution would come. There was no need to get angry.

                None at all.

                In a blur of movement, it turned and rent the former priest’s expensive goose

down bed into shreds, throwing feathers and expensive silk in every direction, striking again and again until the stately bedroom looked as if a tailor’s shop had been upended into a tornado with a flock of geese. The vile entity did not stop until the mattress was in ribbons, and then it went to work on the wooden frame of the bed itself, tearing it into splinters and kindling. It went on destroying it until nothing remained standing or even remotely resembled a bed.

                After its violent task was completed, it knelt in the rubble, its bloody fingers

curled in its lap. It neither seethed through clenched teeth nor was its breathing labored with its efforts. Such things were beneath it, it reasoned with itself, though the occasional curative outburst was not. Relinquishing to such destruction was one of its cornerstones, after all. With wanton ruin came its feast.

                Feeling solaced by this thinking, it decided to review its options and to seek out further resources without risking itself or its minions. At once there seemed to be limitless possibilities and then only a very few. Fremett offered a varied affair of

debauchery and depraved souls that thrived on such wickedness, but, as it had surmised earlier, too much too quickly would draw too much attention to itself. It hated admitting that weakness, but consoled itself with visions of the future when entire nations would sacrifice its children to it.

                It settled itself into a meditative state, loosing its mind into the great astral sheet that connected every living thing with every other living thing, as well as their intentions and the energy released by such intentions. This divergess of aether was something of a transition zone between other divergesses, and hid many mysteries even from it. Anamu’s mind was vast and complex, but limited still, almost as if it were the grandest and largest library on all of Earth, yet most of its books held pages yet to be read – or filled.

                Pulling back from where it found itself, here, in the bedchamber of the late High Priest Alvis, in the town of Fremett, on the western coast of Hildegoth, it panned its vision around its astral self, seeking out first the shiny pond that represented Camdur. The dull red throb was still pulsing beneath its veneer, but that was not why it sought this place out. It wanted to discover what the source of evil was that had reached its horrid fingers from such a distance so as to stir this little pot of a village into acts of villainy. At best it could be a source it could quickly overpower and from which it could draw sustenance. At worst it could be an ally, at least for now.

                It focused its will on the murky tendrils of dark intent that were the points of

contact between this evil it sought and Camdur. Almost instantly they were found,

standing out in stark relief against the pulsing, sparking green of the Earth beneath it.

They were dormant now – connected but inactive. Anamu was pleased with this, as it

meant that it could follow them to their source without being noticed until it had arrived. Pulses of evil influence sent along these tendrils may have not been aware of it, but, considering the fortitude of whatever entity was behind it, it seemed unlikely. This way, since the energy was not present, it could not detect Anamu.

                Racing along their length, Anamu felt a stirring in its spiritual breast, a feeling of growing excitement that it found much more palatable than the rage it had unleashed shortly before. It was a sensation of something astounding about to take place, something wonderful, something momentous. A turning point was about to be reached, and nothing would stand in its way, it was certain of it.

                The gestalt being Anamu could hardly wait.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 13

 

                Extiris Aerathi – The divergess of aether: The currents of aether provide a means to travel to all other planes as it links, surrounds, and penetrates them. It is a

place of calm zephyrs and raging cyclones. Most enter this plane only as a path to find another. There are beings that reside in it and travelers who have become lost in it. Their existence is a fractured and fluid one, as excessive time in the aetheric plane leeches the mind and memory, eventually turning one into a wistae, a ghost particular to the aetheric plane.

                All spirits make a journey through the extiris aerathi to their final place of rest. The land of Erathai derives its name from this plane, as the early High Kings felt that this kingdom linked all others and was instrumental in their existence. The hraath, or the Couriers of death exist here, as well as the zephirim, known more commonly as air elementals.

 

                Canthus sat perfectly still. He laid his hands on his thighs, his back against a chair, and had his eyes closed. Breathing slowly and deeply, he calmed his body down to the point where, other than the slight rise and fall of his slender chest, he appeared dead.

Good King Merrett waited impatiently nearby, pacing as quietly as he could. He had watched Canthus do this sort of thing several times in the past, but he had never really become accustomed to the waiting part of it. He hated waiting. It was like taking bits and pieces of your life and throwing them away. He felt the same way about sleeping.

                “You’re thinking too bloody loudly,” Canthus muttered through slitted lips.

                The High King rolled his eyes and ground his teeth. “Now that, my skinny friend, is something that I have never, ever, been accused of.”

                “It is so, all the same,” Canthus said, adjusting his position in the chair slightly. “Either sit down and think of nothing, or walk around and think of something pleasant, or a combination. But stop this mental complaining. It’s like trying to read a manuscript on phantasmal physics whilst someone washes pots and pans under the table.”

                Merrett held up one hand and headed for the door. “I don’t think I can do either right now, so if you’ll excuse me?”

                “Of course. Stay nearby if you would, my king, so that I might tell you of any information I uncover.”

                The king nodded on his way through the thick oak portal. “Certainly,” he said gruffly.

                Canthus shook his head and smiled, but it quickly faded. He had deceived his friend, the High King of Erathai and all of Hildegoth. He did not like it, but it was

necessary. The two that he was supposed to be seeking with his spirit sight were well

enmeshed in a string of, what he had come to call, The Great Tapestry of Time and Things and Stuff that must take place. He had nudged them in that direction intentionally, and not even the gods themselves could make him remove them. The world was at a time and place where, in order to survive the coming crisis that had been long overdue, certain people had to be certain places when certain things happened. One mistake, one misplaced soul, and the entire strategy could unravel. The only possibility of salvation after that would be he, or someone like he, could begin anew if there was enough time.

                If.

                Canthus, however, had taken enormous steps in making certain that that did not happen. Even though a fine new world might rise from the foul ashes of this one, he had grown quite fond of it. So, instead of seeking the two future allies out like he told the Good King, he sought out others.

                He felt their glowing souls out in the vastness of the Earth call to him silently, their very existence strumming ethereal chords in him that were only noticed when they were touched. They were the veiled champions of which he spoke, the beings who would lead and wage this war that was coming. They were like errant puzzle pieces, misplaced shards of an urn, unmet children wandering as orphans. They would act both within and without the vast, sweeping arm of The High King’s soldiers, and would ultimately go on when the armies had been destroyed.

                Canthus winced inwardly. He knew that reading the future was not, could not, be an exact art because of its shifting nature, but this did little to comfort him when he glimpsed what its guarding hands withheld.

                With a tug on his willpower he pushed those horrible visions aside. Fate

would dictate their end, not he. In fact, dwelling on it much may alter the outcome against his wishes. So delicate were the filaments of time and space, that the simple act of observation could obscure them – or snap them altogether.

                He refocused his mind. After a thousand years of constant practice, he had rather perfected all there was to perfect in the application of warra, both his and otherwise. Techniques of immersion in the astral fields that used to take him days now took him seconds. His spiritual poise, paths of thought, wells of warra, everything was honed to near flawlessness – except the ability to remain neutral. According to what he had learned, it was balance that lit the stairway to enlightenment, objectivity that was its handrail, and non-interference that was the key to the doorway at its landing. He believed this, mostly, but could not wholly subscribe himself to it – not yet anyway, even after all these years. Consequently, it was this lack of neutrality that forced his hand when evil began stomping around, and it was about to do a bit of stomping that would make the oceans roll and the mountains crack.

                He had sensed the gathering of this thing of evil that had attained sentience quite some time ago, but had yet to learn this incarnation’s name, if it even had one. He knew that its mind was not human, nor mankindred, nor demon, yet shared traits with all of these. It was something newborn, yet it had existed for dozens of ages, dwarfing even his lifespan. At the same time, he sensed something lesser about it, something… infantile. Often excess energy of various sources would congeal to an appreciable level, but it would just as often fragment and reform somewhere else, sometimes as something completely benign. The gods and the demons were formed similarly, though it had been a very long time since any new ones had been birthed. The demons would simply destroy and devour any rivals in their realms, and there were enough gods to cover more or less all of the categories of prayer and worship.

                So he had dismissed it, at first. Canthus had felt it simmering and growing like a sickness, like an abscess of foulness, yet was of course much more because this disease had a mind, a heart, a goal, and, like the pain of a swelling chancre, it finally garnered his attention. This was no benign occurrence, and it sought no entry into the towers of the gods of the halls of the damned. It simply remained. And ate. And grew. He knew then that he was witnessing the creation of something new, something horrendous. Action needed to be taken before it attained some sort of mental faculty. Perhaps gaining sentience was just its latest incarnation, and it had yet to accustom itself to the eccentricities of such an existence. The sea had always been the sea, but if one day it noticed the boats on its back and the fish in its flesh, how would it act? What would it think? Would it be e benevolent host, or would treat every living thing as an invader or a parasite? Or lunch?

                Intercepting it before this moment was a personal aim from which he had fallen short, in part because if his self-assured arrogance. He had thought his power would be enough. It was clear now that it was not. As he had before, he needed help. For now, it needed to be unwitting and cleverly motivated help.

                He crafted a mental image of what he saw this evil to be and what could happen if it was allowed to gain a foothold in the living planes. He then slipped this into the High King’s subconscious mind. From there, he had known that nightmares would arise, but he was surprised by their swiftness and efficacy. Good King Merrett’s moral core obviously took things to heart much more swiftly than he had planned, and he felt guilt over it, but it was irrelevant. This impossible beast had to be combatted and its purpose thwarted, for this purpose was painfully clear, as were its origins. It was evil in its purest, most undiluted form, a thing composed of ancient emotion but attaining an existence unique in all reality, because, unlike the demons, it manifested here, amongst the mortals. It was a sobering thought to think that this occurred because here is where it felts most at home, and where its sustenance could be found. It would eat and expand and reach further and further across and through the world until its touch was everywhere. It would be inescapable, and unbeatable.

                Canthus lifted higher into the aetheric heavens, seeing more of the spirit essence that penetrated and bound this living world of Earth, seeking out the bright souls that, hoping against hope, may very well be the beings that he so desperately needed. He looked, and sought, and prayed, and cursed, and fumed, and, ultimately, he started over. He sat without making either a move or a sound for hours, the task gargantuan but with possibilities that he could not discount, thus could not abandon.

                Whilst the ancient elf sat in silence at his quietly exhausting task, the High King in the other room began to get seriously drunk, throwing all thoughts of moderation and caution to the whimsical care of the twilight breeze. Things would get very crowded and very tiresome very soon, and he would be damned if he was going to be sober when it all began.

 

~*~

 

                Councilman Gar Serbis blanched at the news the court attendant brought to his chambers. His mouth pulled into a tight line, and he hurried to the main trial hall where the stranger known as JaBrawn and Sergeant Barnus Polchek were awaiting. The other councilmen would take a few minutes to arrive so he executed a minor infringement on the rules and questioned them himself.

                “How exactly did Derrig die?”

                JaBrawn, an old bearded brute so enormous not even Derrig could have looked him directly in the eye, set his jaw and answered. “Salett killed him.”

                “Salett was defending himself?” He said as he sized him up. He was obviously a warrior sort, but his mannerisms were the cool relaxed demeanor of a practiced politician. Something told him that this trait was not the result of a life dedicated to politics.

                JaBrawn shook his head. “Salett attacked me. Derrig attempted to defend me, and Salett killed him with a siegeman’s crossbow.”

                Serbis pursed his lips. “He and those under Sergeant Polchek’s command,” he sent a quick look at Barnus, “had been sent to arrest Thresher and take his children into custody. He had full authority to use whatever force he deemed necessary to accomplish this. From where I sit, Salett was merely doing his job.”

                JaBrawn took a step towards the wide desk that was between him and Serbis.

Though it was against protocol and more than a little rude, the look in the old warrior’s eyes was enough to silence any offense that may have reached Serbis’ lips.

                “Salett told me the real reasons behind the entire plot, Mr. Councilman.” He leaned over, the shift in weight causing the old timbers beneath his feet to creak. “He told me everything.”

                Serbis, looking into the huge man’s eyes, saw nothing but truth. For the first time in quite a while, he froze. Damn that senseless Salett! At the very least he would never run his mouth on again, but this last time may have worse implications than any other. With some small effort, his polished voice reasserted itself. “He told you about our concerns for the safety of Thresher’s children and for Thresher himself, I take it? Why in the world did he attack you then?”

                JaBrawn’s face looked like shaped iron. “You lie very poorly, Mr. Councilman.”

                The corner of Barnus’ wrinkle framed mouth lifted with amusement as the esteemed Councilman locked up yet again, standing impassively with his palms on the desk. Just then, the chambers behind him opened, and the other four councilmen entered and took their seats. If any of them were curious as to what had been transpiring before their arrival, they gave very little indication of it. Huffing and grumbling, they fluffed their robes, adjusted crystalline spectacles and generally made a big condition out of nothing, as most men of power – however little – do.

                Serbis, his eyes never leaving JaBrawn’s, took his seat as well. With his compatriots at his side, he recovered a great deal of his bearing. “This is not an official trial, inquiry, or anything else of the sort,” he said, his voice still staying smooth and non-inflective. “We have chosen this spot to meet and to hear a firsthand account of what occurred this morning. So: Who’s first?”

                The other guardsmen were waiting outside, each on a horse, each keeping an eye on Wendonel and Favius. They had wanted to come inside the hall and give their own testimonies on what had happened, but JaBrawn and Barnus had asked them to stay uutside and mind the children, who were already getting frightened and even angry looks from passing townspeople. They had not shifted in either position or placement since they had been set on Grendel’s broad back. They blinked, they breathed, but they did not move or speak.

                JaBrawn spoke up loudly and abruptly. “This is not going to be a recounting of what happened this morning. This is going to be a simple and straight forward warning that you don’t really deserve.” He crossed his arms and took a deep breath as Serbis eyed him curiously. “Sergeant Polchek and I will be leaving with Sergeant Thresher’s children shortly. Any man that makes any attempt to stop us will be killed. Anyone sent after us will be killed.” He moved to speak again, but he was interrupted because for the first time in thirty years Gar Serbis actually lost his temper.

                He shot to his feet, his face flushed with indignation. “Now see here, we will not be held captive by your threats outsider! How dare you make such demands on -”

                “Furthermore,” JaBrawn said calmly, his deep voice silencing Serbis immediately, “Sergeant Derrig Thresher will be given a decent burial behind his cottage. His house will be given to his half-brother, when I find him. Until that time it will remain untouched.” He let that sink in a moment. “I will check in from time to time. If any demand I have said this day has not been met, every last one of the guardsmen outside and Sergeant Polchek, will bring up the true reasons behind Sergeant Thresher’s death to the High King and his judicial cabinet. If any of the guardsmen or I are threatened or attacked due to our knowledge, all five of you will die. I will kill you myself.”

                A small chorus of astonished gasps popped out of circled mouths to the left and right of Serbis as he retorted. “Sir, I cannot for the life of me understand why we would at all take these threats seriously, but your status as a threat to our community and the greater good of all Rualedd, and even Hildegoth herself, has just been made perfectly clear.” He drew quick breaths through his nose, agitated beyond even what his nearly legendary demeanor could manage. “If it were up to me you would be drawn and quartered and then burned to ashes, but a simple, clean beheading will have to suffice!”

                Barnus shook his head. “I think you had better hear the rest of what he says,

Councilman.”

                Serbis’ eyes flashed between the two men. “What do you mean?”

                JaBrawn took another step forward, leaning his own hands on the massive

expanse of aged oak. “Your tenure as any kind of ruling class here is over, Serbis.”

                The other councilmen reacted differently between each other, but none could hide the very sudden, very real sense of concern that had blossomed amongst them like a diseased daisy.

                “You have no authority here!” Serbis spat at him. “Your words now are as

meaningless as before, and I will never be more filled with joy and happiness than when I see your head roll off your shoulders!” With that, he reached underneath the edge of the desk and pulled hard on a cable that ran its length to a quartet of brass bells hanging at a corner of the building. They began ringing loudly, casting sharp peals of noise in every direction to nearly the edges of the town. After several seconds of this, Serbis ceased and bored his gaze into Barnus and JaBrawn. They made no move to flee or defend themselves. They did not even appear concerned with it.

                “Brave fools, are you not?” Serbis said, his cool detachment returning. “Good. It will be that much more pleasing to watch that bravery turn to fear.”

                The double doors at the entrance opened. Twelve of the magistrate’s guardsmen filed in. After they had all entered, they made their way to Barnus and JaBrawn’s sides, stopping only when they were within arm’s reach. They then looked upward at Serbis as if awaiting an order.

                Serbis smiled pleasantly at them. “Your deaths will be so much more gratifying if you were to say something in your defense, some moral prattling or decisive banter of good and evil, black and white.” He chuckled at his own words. “Come now, anything at all. Hm?”

                Neither man spoke for several seconds, nor did anyone else. Then, slowly,

deliberately, JaBrawn’s face pulled down into a scowl. The order now came, but not from anyone on the wrong side of the bench. “Your magistrate and all of you, councilmen, have been removed from office in accordance with Camdur’s town charter for conspiracy against a townsperson. Normally you would all be executed, but instead it is banishment into a world that does not treat soft politicians very well. As for the council itself, worry not. New holders of your positions will be voted in on Firsday.” JaBrawn swallowed down the delicious sight of Serbis’ smile melting away like a snowflake in a forest fire. “Take them away. Lock them up. Your town will decide on the terms of their banishment in the morning.” JaBrawn said this quietly yet apparently with enough force to shove Serbis forcefully back into his chair, because that is exactly what happened.

                The guardsmen neither took their eyes from the councilmen nor did they hesitate. They simply approached the bench, rounded it, and took them into their grasp.

So surreal were the circumstances, that hardly a sound was made. They were ushered out one by one through the front doors. As they were lead numbly from their perches, the old aristocrats’ faces were blanched and sickly with horror.

                As Serbis passed by JaBrawn he finally made a sound human enough to be

understood. The robust old soldier placed a hand on the guard’s shoulder who had seized him and bade him stop.

                “What is it?” He asked Serbis.

                With a face slack and lifeless, the councilman addressed him. “You should have killed me, JaBrawn. You should have removed me from this world, because now I will do everything in my power to do that very thing to you.”

                JaBrawn smiled wryly, and then leaned over. “I had figured as much. That is why I had talked the others into banishment rather than outright execution. That way,

I might see you again when you attempt revenge... and exact some of my own.”

                Serbis’ eyes flared with a brief anger and then faded away. JaBrawn looked up at the three burly guardsmen and motioned slightly with his head for them to remove the man from his sight. Barnus followed them out, with JaBrawn in tow. He took one last look into the town hall before he moved to close the doors, and wondered what sort of men would take their place, and whether or not there would be any serious improvement. Hopefully the new ones would remember this day, at least for a while.

                He sighed a moment and then shut one door to the chamber. In the end, this hope was naïve and moot. All that really mattered was the struggle, the endeavor to improve. There was no winner’s circle where your trials and moral fortitude paid off. There was no final goal to achieve or trophy to claim. There were no rewards other than small ones along the path of this endless effort – this endless, necessary effort. With a muffled thump like a coffin lid as it sentenced its occupant to eternal night, he shut the other door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 14

 

                Extiris Teraxa – The divergess of earth: Creatures that make their home in earth and stone can be found here, as well as the teragga, the earth elementals. More than a vast realm of broken terrain, gargantuan mountains and smooth cliffs of featureless stone, the teraxian plane also is the source of mortal stability, the birthplace of all growing things, and where the dead spend a brief time after being interred. Here they fully shed their mortal shells and move on to the aetheric plane. From there, their permanent place of rest will be reached, although permanent is a very fluid concept dealing with where we go when this part of the journey ends.

               

                Later that morning they had a small, personal funeral over Derrig’s grave. JaBrawn felt out of place, but both children grasped his hands fiercely when he tried to excuse himself. No words were spoken. No tears fell. They just stood there and stared at the raised piece of fresh earth under which their father was laid to rest – right next to their mother. The air was damp with dew, and the few shafts of sunlight that pushed through the oaks were circled by butterflies and touched with whorls of pollen. A robin hopped about the ground nearby, eying them curiously. The calls of sparrows, thrushes, and warblers tittered in the trees. After a few minutes, Favius and Wendonel turned away simultaneously.

                “We’re ready. Can we go now?” Wendonel asked simply.

                JaBrawn had procured two horses, a covered wagon, and provisions enough to last for several turns as well as seeds to grow more. The children (Wendonel finally speaking again, if not her usual self, and Favius moving about but seeming almost in a

waking fugue) had decided to make a small living area in this wagon, almost a home away from home. JaBrawn had not argued the point at all. They did not take up that much room. All they brought was their clothes, some blankets, and the few books, trinkets, and toys that they had. Their comfort was going to be sparse and unsatisfactory at best for quite some time before their uncle could find some sort of accommodation for them – if he could find their uncle. Hopefully his surname and description, as well as a description of this children would be enough.

                Quietly and whilst no one was looking, JaBrawn murmured to the horses that

they would be well treated and cared for. All they had to do was follow his and Grendel’s lead. They nickered in surprise, but accepted his words readily enough. Everything was in readiness. He asked the children if there was anything else

they required before they departed. Favius did not even appear he had heard. Wendonel lifted her head and shook it very slightly. With a sigh he pulled the waxed canvas shut, cinched it down, and tied it off. As he headed for Grendel’s saddle, Barnus intercepted him and clasped his hand firmly.

                The old guardsman asked, “Where are you headed then?”

                JaBrawn hesitated. He felt it unwise to disclose where they were headed even to trustworthy folk as even well-meant words can be overhead by those who do not mean well, but he needed all the help he could get. “Fremett. To find Thresher’s half-brother, some red-headed fellow who builds ships.”

                Barnus glanced upward at his own fiery locks and shrugged. “I did not even know he had any other family, let alone a fire-branded boat builder. My apologies friend, but I don’t know. I doubt anyone else would either. That said, I will keep your destination a secret.”

                JaBrawn sighed. “I sort of figured something like that. My thanks all the same.” He patted Grendel’s flank.

                The old guardsman lifted his chin somewhat and smiled. “Quite a horse you've got there.”

                Grendel regarded both the men curiously. JaBrawn shrugged, returning the smile, though there really was nothing behind it. “He has been my only friend for the last decade.” Grendel chuffed at him. It sounded something like a curse. “Lately, it seems that I can make and keep any friends I wish, as long as they are not people.”

                Barnus shook his head, closing his eyes. “No, comrade. You have done a great service here.” He turned his head, taking in the small huddle of Camdur. “This town will always remember the unseemly warrior JaBrawn, swooping in from gods knows where on an ugly horse, and saving the town from both without and within.” He grinned. “And who made a new constellation with his monster swatter.”

                Barnus and the others made no mention nor even cast curious glances at JaBrawn, despite the fact that when they had met him he looked to be approaching sixty years of age, and now, thanks to the last skirmish with the garulls, appeared ten years younger than that. It was clear to each of them that he was more than what he seemed, yet it was just as clear that they did not bother themselves with it. He was one of them, and his heart was kind and just. All else was immaterial.

                “Ummon and whatever gods he places in your cabinet be with you, JaBrawn

Marshada.” Barnus said. “I know not from whence you came and care very little. What I do know is that I and many others are forever in your debt. Even many who do not yet know it, but they will. I promise you that.” He paused. “The council members have been chased from town. Four of them left together. Serbis left on his own. At some point, I would like to send word to someone in power in Erathai regarding their crime, and have the high kingdom deal with them. That should make it clear to them just how harsh punishment can be, as simple banishment is much kinder than they deserve.”

                Uncomfortable with praise and feeling undeserving considering that he felt that a great deal of the recent turmoil was as much caused by his presence than cured by it, he merely smiled and shrugged again. “I did what I felt had to be done. Keep a stern eye out, Barnus. I do not think that these beasts will leave Camdur alone simply because we slew a score of them.” He turned to face the town. “As for the spineless worms that perched behind that bench, do as you see fit. My experience, however, says let life take its toll on them. It has a tendency to bring things full circle with little input from anyone else. Just the same... keep a vigil. They may bring some sort of retribution to Camdur's head, if indignation outpaces fear.”

                Barnus nodded. “Fair enough. I wish you good luck and speed in getting those two little ones to safety, and finding Silvermoon.” He indicated the town again, briefly. “Someday they may yet return, when Camdur has reclaimed its virtue. Until then, they have an uncle to find, and there is a good deal of cleaning up to do here.” He grinned broadly through his scraggly beard, and then he stepped away.

                JaBrawn nodded at the man’s departing back and said under his breath, “Agreed, and I cannot think of a better man to head the task.” He hopped on to Grendel’s saddle, turned, and clucked once at the other horses. They instantly obeyed, and their combined pulling power was more than enough to keep up with the powerful warhorse despite the wagon. At a brisk pace, the old warrior and the children left Camdur with the early afternoon sunk whilst Barnus and the others waved in farewell behind them.

                Soon the town was out of sight, though for the rest of their lives its memories

would linger as fresh as when they were laid in their minds: bright and dark moments,

unexpected friendship, and unbelievable anguish. Shining through all else though, was the flickering, brilliant light of hope.

                JaBrawn headed west, into country that used to feel safe and known. The past few days had badly shaken these quiet, unassuming lands, shaken it to the point where there may actually be a fracture that no one would see until it had split wide and rent everything from end to end.

                Fremett still lay two turns away, as did a destiny beyond what any of them

could have possibly imagined.

                Time would tell.

                It always did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part 2 - Politics and the Devil’s Hand

Chapter 15

 

                Extiris Aquanie – The divergess of water: An immense realm of raging torrents and calm seas, the aqueous plane (in concert with the aetheric plan) is where all monumental storms are birthed, where the drowned pass through to the aetheric, and is home to various aquatic beasts both recognizable and the stuff of dreams.

Despite the random force that seems at work everywhere, there is an incomprehensible rein to it, a leash to the chaos. Water elementals, known as torrinqua, make their homes here.

 

                The great hall of Greann was an incredible edifice. It was several hundred feet in diameter and nearly that high at the peak of its central dome. Rebuilt and augmented over the years because of necessity, wealth, or both, it sported structures of every luxurious wood that could be found in all of Hildegoth, and held together with equally expensive metals. It was designed in a series of steep, balconied tiers with a stage and podium at its nadir. Though the richest could sit anywhere they pleased, there was a hierarchical placement at work. The poorest of the shack and stall merchants had to gather at the lowest tiers, where the floors were of oiled wood and the seats were bare. The median filled the levels from there until the very top tier, where only the wealthiest and, of course, most arrogant, could recline on stuffed velvet benches and walk on the finest rugs and carpets. Normally there was an invigorating buzz of talk and intent swirling amongst the mercantile minds who frequented its aisles. Today, though, there was a tangible crabbiness in the air.

As a whole, the Greann Commercial Council did not like showing up for their scheduled seasonal assembly, so an emergency meeting (announced in the middle of the business day, no less) was met with bubbling resentment. Consequently, the air held a tang of something like a tinder dry forest, needing only some stumbling drunk holding a torch to trip over a root and set the whole thing ablaze.

                Arachias had to admit, he often enjoyed being that stumbling drunk. He sat

with his feet crossed and his arms folded over his chest, smiling slightly and even

chuckling every now and again at the rumblings and murmurings eddying around him. His dark crimson overcoat of crushed velvet over burgundy suede was creased in

immaculate folds to accentuate his slim and hardened form.

                His pupil, a young lad bound to his coattails until he learned the ways of politicking and business savvy, looked about like a nervous rabbit. He started at every disgruntled councilman's muttered curse. The boy's father, a mediocre businessman who had reached the mundane pinnacle of his career, would have the sharp young politician believe that he wanted his son to know the ways of the world as a politically knowledgeable man would know it. Arachias was not fooled for an eye blink. He wanted Arachias to teach the boy how to become rich very, very quickly. The deal was brokered this morning, and the first order of business was to attend this emergency meeting.

                Well, he liked the boy, Alec, so he would teach him how to make money as well as how to thrive in the political world. In a year, Arachias was certain Alec would see his father's aims as clearly as he did, and would make his own choices. For now, the poor little thing looked like a mouse in the middle of a catfight.

                He leaned over and whispered in Alec’s ear. “Hey! Who do you think will start shouting first?” Alec, completely consumed in the goingson around him, jerked in his chair at the sound of his new master’s voice. Arachias laughed. “Easy! Nobody’s going to bite you, lad. At least...” he glanced at the riotous members of the hall, “…not if you don't make eye contact.” The boy’s eyes went wide. Arachias waved the look away. “Oh, come on, I’m playing with you. Seriously, which of these crusty old lizards is going to lose their temper first?”

                Alec relaxed a couple of notches. He looked at him a moment, pondering. “Why?” He was stalling.

                Arachias approved. “Very good. Create time for yourself to search for a valid answer in the event that you do not have one immediately.” The boy nodded. “I ask because it is important to know your competitor’s tendencies. By the way, in practically any venue, the words ‘competitor’ and ‘colleague’ are interchangeable. Be that as it may, when you are aware of their tendencies, you can construct your arguments for or against them more effectively.” He sat back and again passed a quick glance over the massive hall of council members. There were dozens of men, women and mankindred from all of the richest businesses in the city. “Now: Who will it be?”

                The boy, his large brown eyes wide in observation, looked back and forth over the vast, ancient meeting hall and evaluated each member, trying to narrow it down. After half a minute or so, he sighed in resignation. “I have no idea.”

                Arachias raised a single finger. “Ah-ah. Your schoolteachers may tell you that honesty will always bring its own rewards. In many areas that is actually true. Here, however, it will bring you nothing but barely concealed snickers and cruel, amused glances if you are honest when it is not to your advantage. Your honesty will be considered a powerful tool to use against you by more than a few of them.”

                The boy frowned. “But if that were the case, then how is it that you could

ever truly trust any of these people, or anyone like them?”

                “Simple. By learning who you can and cannot trust.” He leaned forward

conspiratorily. “Most of this is little more than a game to these people, which is why

it can be extraordinarily easy to surpass them at it when you treat it seriously.”

                “’It’?” Alec asked, somewhere between curious and desperate.

                “Yes. ‘It’ being everything involved in this world in which you now find yourself. I realize it seems vague, and it is, but that is because, ultimately, it can only be defined by you.” The boy looked doubtful. Arachias rolled his eyes and sighed. “I fear you have far too much integrity for this world, young Alec. If you absolutely cannot decide, redirect the question.”

                “All right, Master Arachias. Which do you think? I have several ideas, but would like to compare these with your own.” His eyes were still readable, but he had blunted their honesty appreciably. He was catching on very well.

                Arachias smiled at him. “O my boy. There may be hope for you yet. I have

narrowed it down to three: Old Mangrath Bardee over there,” he indicated a tall thin

high elf (who looked about forty years old but was more like four hundred) seated on

the opposite end of the hall from them with his arms folded across his chest. He actually

appeared to be pouting.

                “Or Madam Oriah Feldsmith,” he gestured towards a short, plump human woman who had shown up for the meeting drunk, and was quickly deepening her condition with glass after glass of the house mead.

                “And, of course, there is always Rogette Busch, the crankiest businessman this side of the Thousand Hells.” He pointed towards a great fat human man with a completely bald head pouring with sweat. Draped and wrapped about his vast bulk was an elaborate, multi-layered business ensemble festooned with tassels and bows and glittering buttons and broaches of every precious stone and metal that could be culled from the earth. He must have been on the verge of fainting in the late Sanguinneth heat. Alec giggled. “All three of these are prime contenders. All three of them are renowned for their inability to withstand any sort of inconvenience, unless they are the ones administering it. What think you?”

                Alec leaned forward and passed his eyes over each of them in turn. “I know

nothing about any of them. It is impossible to decide.”

                “It is impossible to be certain of a correct decision, but that is true no matter

how easily read the situation may be. Even something 99% possible is still 1% impossible and the other way around. Trust me, that 1% can drop out of nowhere when you least expect it. In fact, the only thing that is of absolute certainty is that nothing is of absolutely certainty. In your case, however, it is of even deeper uncertainty, because, well… you’ve never done this before.”

                Alec nodded. “Well, yes.”

                Arachias nodded. “So?”

                “So… what would you do?”

                The dusky young man said, “I often find that, when faced with factors of

questionable intent, it can behoove you to behave in a similarly questionable manner.”

He let the thought trail off mysteriously, his thought clearly unfinished.

                The boy looked around again, baffled, and then back to his mentor. “What?”

                Arachias threw him a mischievous smile. “It is always best to keep those whom you do not consider friends (and those you don’t yet know are friends or enemies) on their toes, always guessing. An effective manner in which to do this is to randomly toss out wild cards when they are least expected.” He laughed lightly. “What if a wild card were thrown into this mix of sweat and whining at just the right

moment?”

                The boy blinked. “What moment?”

                Arachias winked. “Oh, how about right now?” He stood and cleared his voice in such a manner as the whole room could hear him. Some silenced immediately. Most continued talking and squabbling. All, however, turned their eyes to him. He smiled briefly, and then clearly stated, “There is a terrible stench in this room. I believe it is known as ‘old person smell.’ That would seem applicable, seeing as how the majority of you in this assembly could have sired my grandmother.” A few found this amusing and heckles popped up here and there, but, more importantly, the bickering reduced considerably. He now had their attention. “Ah. Glad I found the right combination to silence the lot of you and focus on the one thing that is irritating you all in the first place: Why in the hells are we here?”

                As one the hall unzipped in angry rebukes, some directed at Arachias, but most at the fact that they would rather be someplace else making money. The Conciliator had not yet arrived, and she had been the one to call the meeting.

                “So,” he continued, “how about we find out, eh?” There was a gentle thunder

of consent, grudgingly given or otherwise. “Excellent. Now, does anyone know where

Madam Conciliator is?”

                A weaselly little representative from the Avenue Angels Evening Companion

Service, or whorehouse, offered a suggestion. “Considering the grave implications of

ordering us here on such short notice, an extra dose of courage may have been in order for our esteemed Conciliator. With that in mind, perhaps she is gathering herself at the local refreshment establishment?”

                A chorus of sporadic laughter followed the statement. Madam Conciliator

Arianna Heathrow was reputed to be quite fond of the drink. Subsequently, a host of

rumors sprang from nowhere (of course) and were thriving quite well amongst her dissenters. Arachias shook his head at the fellow.

                “Have you not realized that the only way she could possibly cope with the likes of you, good councilman, is with a few dozen black ales in her belly? If I had the sort of clout Madame Conciliator enjoys, I would mandate a great drum of Midreth dark towed behind me whenever we were called to assemble.”

                A great many more laughs followed this one. The flesh peddler, in fact, was one of them. He bowed deeply to Arachias, who returned it. Then a sudden clap of wood on stone silenced the room. Arachias, consciously controlling his startled reaction, panned down to the raised dais at the center of the hall. There stood the thin, graceful form of the conciliator. She had entered and taken her place at the podium completely unnoticed.

                Arianna Heathrow was a very thin woman, and came close to Arachias’ six feet in height. She was in her early sixties, but her face had only the vaguest lattice of lines, and her voice carried as clearly and as loudly as a man twice her size and half her age. Her hair was a light, silvery blond, and was always pulled back in intricate braids that fell down her back nearly to her knees. There was rumored to be elvish blood in her ancestry, but if the subject had ever been broached there were none who could recall it.

                She always dressed simply yet elegantly, and today appeared in a soft gown of blued pearl, adorned only with a shawl of slightly darker hue. Her fingers glittered with stones, though those few that knew her well enough were aware that she hated diamonds. She preferred the subtler opal and topaz.

                She rapped the ancient oak paddle on the stone again, silencing the few who dared to still whisper though she decreed silence.

                “Quiet,” she said tersely. She leveled a steely gaze of inescapable gray eyes

in the direction of the whisperers. They soon simmered. “Now, I am aware that you hate coming here at all, much less with little warning, so I will be brief. In eastern Hildegoth, there have been unexplainable attacks on the High King’s forces. They were rare at first, and seemingly random, but they have increased with alarming frequency and aggression. They now occur almost daily, and almost always with fatalities.” Her eyes fixed on random members of the assembly, though she was completely relaxed. “As yet the exact details are shadowy, but the information we have received indicates incredibly unusual circumstances. Creatures driven into the woods centuries ago are coming out and assaulting bands of armed men. Other creatures acting in ways unheard of are decimating entire roving caravans. Additionally, the instances of bandit and highwayman assaults have risen dramatically, according to the reports I have seen from our interkingdom agents.”

                Cranky Rogette Busch had heard enough. He heaved his massive bulk to his full height, which was formidable as well. “What in all the frozen hells does this have to do with Greann or us? Erathai is a thousand miles away and then some. Unless Merrett has up and gone into hiding so we can split up this continent amongst ourselves, I can see no reason to usurp a valuable workday and gather us all like sheep!” A great spray of spittle flew off his lower lip.

                Madam Conciliator fixed a patient stare on him until she was satisfied he was finished. “Although I cannot conceive of the High King hiding from anything, I understand your concern Councilman. Thank you. Are there any other completely out of line or rude comments to vomit forth at me before I continue? Anyone?” She glanced quickly around.

                His mouth a stunned O, Busch flopped into his chair, his servant doing everything in her power not to smile.

                “Gods how I love that woman sometimes,” Arachias said softly through a smirk. Alec, standing beside him, amusedly nodded his assent.

                “Right,” she continued, completely unflustered. “The reason I have asked all of you prominent businessmen here today is twofold: First, I would like to extend aid to The High King in combatting these uprising.” A few muffled laughs slipped out amongst the throng. “Second,” here she paused and sighed, “I received a message not six hours ago of a sighting of creatures not seen for two decades in these lands, and, considering the entire Septimet is chasing prospects in the Uulik, I am prepared to expend the necessary funds to address this locally.” The expectancy of the room was vibrating the air. “The issue that is of concern to us all is a pack of garulls, spotted near the Chaali border.”

                The room erupted.

                “Impossible! The garulls were driven into the woods with so few numbers left that it would take...”

                “...If you see one of them, that means a hundred more are hiding not a mile from him...”

                “...The Garulokai are disbanded! If a horde of garulls is gathering, we have

neither the equipment nor the trained soldiers to...”

                “...Why were we not informed of this sooner? I tended my store from nothing, and now it is threatened by something that we were promised would never...”

                The list of complaints and concerns went on and on. A sharp crack of oak on

stone attempted to bring the hall back under control. “Order, the lot of you!”

                The cacophony continued for several seconds. Everyone was obviously shaken with this news, and with good reason. The Garull Wars nearly crippled the developed lands of the entire continent. The distant lands of Westenmarsh had never fully recovered. After the garulls had laid waste to the human settlements and eradicated the local ruling classes, the powerful Orc clans moved in and supplanted the High King’s rule entirely.

                “Why must we come to the High King’s aid?” Mangrath Bardee shouted in a

reedy voice, his elvish features flushed. “We are obligated to send equipment, materials, and taxes as it is, is this not sufficient?” Angry barks of agreement met this statement. “Moreover, is it not true that it is his duty, not ours, to dispatch soldiers to deal with problems we, as subordinate kingdoms, encounter? His forces are the police of these lands, not ours!” He retook his seat as more agreement rumbled forth from the irritable lot.

                The Conciliator again struck her gavel. “Yes, what you say is true, however,

there has not been a need for any sort of police action in years. Consequently, the High King’s military forces have, predictably, atrophied. They have had no serious evil to squelch out and would be of limited effectiveness if such a task was put to them. I believe that it is a good business venture to provide the High King with preemptive materials to head off this uprising before it becomes too large for his weakened forces to contain.”

                “How the hells is that good for business?” Someone practically screamed.

                Conciliator Heathrow smiled. “Simple. If it is we that come to his immediate

aid, he will be beholden to us. Imagine the appreciation. Tax reduction. Trade tariffs

lowered or removed altogether. And, most importantly,” she paused until she had the entire hall’s attention, “discriminatory placement on the ‘who gets the criminal slaves

first’ list.”

                The roiling sea of objection faded, and was slowly replaced with greedy interest. Bardee stood again. “How can we be sure that he will agree to any of these, much less all?”

                Arianna spread her hands. “I see it as a simple comparison of risk versus reward, good councilman. We send a message to Tyniar with our offer and our requests for how we would like to be compensated for this offer, should he accept it. If he says yes to one or all, we gain a great deal. Imagine a fifty percent tax reduction for the next five years. That money, as you well know, could triple itself in one season. Anything else on top of that is simply shine for the crown.”

                “And if his answer is no?” Busch demanded.

                Madam Conciliator shrugged. “Then we are out the payment for one warrick’s message to Erathai, and one business day. We can, at that point, decide if we would bend our own forces to our protection, but if the situation worsens appreciably it may be too late, and, consequently, moot.”

                The scent of oily greed began to spread in the rapidly calming sea of resentment. Tax cuts? Tariff reductions? New slaves? The implications were very profitable indeed.

                Busch, however, still smarting from her earlier rebuke, would not relent. “Some of us are doing just fine as it is, without getting involved in your political games, Madam Conciliator. Besides, what would the Septimet say about all this? Their affairs in Uulik keep them quite conveniently occupied so that you may press authority to force us into this, eh?”

                Arianna shook her and eyed him piteously. “I am forcing nothing other than this

meeting. I brought this to all of your immediate attention so that you can mull it over until our normal meeting time at the end of this turn. Then, as in all radical issues, it will be put to a vote as to whether or not we will commit city funds to this venture. Even if it does not pass, those of you who are interested can still commit personal funds and materials, and will most likely receive like returns. I only regret that the Septimet is not here to capitalize on such an opportunity.”

                Busch pouted but still would not let up. “So, you bring this to the council’s

awareness out of the kindness of your heart?” He smirked, which was a horrific spectacle under the flaps of his jowls. “Why not stake just your claim for this and reap its sole rewards?”

                “First and foremost, I am concerned for the welfare of Hildegoth and thusly the welfare of Greann. The offer of assistance to the High King would be appreciably

augmented if many of us commit funds and materials, and I doubt I could afford such an endeavor on my own. And, finally, yes, out of the kindness of my heart as well, which may come as a surprise to the more ignorant of you good merchants and vendors.” Her cool gray eyes took in the room briefly. “Unawareness of something does mean non-existence of something. That is all.” She clapped the gavel smartly on the stone and abruptly left as Busch clutched at his mouth in exasperation, tossed to the floor yet again.

                The other merchants, money handlers, bankers, vendors, and shopkeepers burst forth with further admonishments and expressions of outrage, though almost all were neatly mitigated by her proclamations. Now murmurs of profit and opportunity slithered amongst them. The quieter ones of the affluent elite most likely already had some inkling of the possibilities and kept to themselves. The rest filed out of the massive old structure, though not without the occasional vocalized opinion toward Heathrow, the situation, or life in general. While all of this occurred around him, Arachias sat in his chair with his feet crossed over the railing. He was frowning.

                “What is it Master?” Alec asked.

                Arachias took a slow, deep breath and let it out even more slowly. “Something about this whole mess is leaving a very bad taste in my mouth every time I try to swallow it.”

                “What about it could be bothering you, Master? It seems a sensible plan of action. Madam Conciliator is taking an ugly-looking situation and making money off

of it. What could be better?” He smiled ear to ear.

                Arachias scowled at him. “Are you absolutely sure that you need any counsel of mine?” The boy’s brow furrowed in confusion. Arachias shook his head. “Never mind. Alec, did you hear what she said?”

                He nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, she talked about tax cuts, tariffs, though I don’t really know what those are, and she talked about –”

                Arachias leaned in close so that there was barely a hand’s breadth between their faces. “Think, boy: What did she say before that? What had everyone so riled?”

Alec’s mouth clamped shut. He blinked a few times. “Something about… invaders? Monsters? I don’t rightly remember.”

                Arachias nodded. “Exactly. And neither do most of them,” he jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the emptying hall. “Of those that do, they see it as a simple hurdle to more wealth, and nothing more. As soon as she dangled money in front of their fat faces,

they all forgot the rather disturbing fact that she had laid on the table.”

Alec shrugged, lost. “And what was that, Master?”

                “A pack of garulls was seen, Alec! Not twenty miles from here! Everyone is so focused on squeezing the Erathian grape, they neglected to address the very real problem that we are in immediate danger!”

                “But it was only a few of them.”

                Arachias shook his head. “Do they not teach history in these schools? Alec, there are never just ‘a few of them’, at least not in any lasting sense. There may be a few that are first seen, loping about and raising mayhem, but there are twenty score more of their twisted brothers and sisters hiding in the trees, or lying about at the bottom of a river. What? Yes of course they can breathe underwater, you didn’t know that? Ummon’s beard this is depressing.”

                Alec had swiftly lost his former look of elation. “What do we do?”

                His master snorted. “We kill off the lot of the evil bastards and then push whatever’s left back into the cauldrons from whence they were spawned, of course.” He quite literally jumped to his feet. He was concerned, but was just as clearly enjoying himself. “Let us find Ari. I need to talk to her.”

                Arachias and his pupil descended the worn steps from their balcony. Alec glanced upward at the great vaulted ceilings, its massive redwood timbers oiled and sanded and held in place by great spikes of steel wrapped steel imperithite. There were two domes, the largest to the south, then connecting to the smaller one was a long rectangle where the vaulted joists and rafters continued. Checkering the ceiling were great panes of leaded glass frosted with powdered sulfur, so that light could come through but no distracting clouds could be seen. Depending from every other rafter were broad copper gilded iron chains holding massive chandeliers aloft. In each of these were at least a dozen evenly spaced ivory carafes carved into a variety of shapes, mostly depictions of former esteemed members of the town council or the Septimet itself. They all were filled with oil and topped with a thick braided wick that gave soft, smokeless light when lit. Alec could not imagine the time and effort it would take to light or extinguish the lot of them. There had to be over a hundred. After spiraling down from their tier and descending several staircases at intervals along the way, they approached the gilded and carved double doors that led from the stage to the Conciliator’s private study. A salt and pepper bearded, heavyset guard stood at attention near it. His armor was plate and scaled mail, and his hand rested casually on the pommel of a thick sword at his waist.

                Alec eyed him nervously. “Master, how will we get past that brute?”

                “Mm? Oh, him? By asking nicely, I suppose.”

                “Of course,” Alec replied.

                Arachias strode purposefully towards the man, with Alec in tow. “Hello, Kevett. A day of ease for you, dare I hope?” He asked.

                The barge of a man shrugged huge shoulders. “S’far, yes, but who knows what a bunch of grouchy councilmen’ll think up when they got the time ta do it.” He grinned a nearly toothless grin.

                “True, true.” He looked away for a moment. “She may not be expecting me, but she is going to send word for me sooner or later. I know she’s here, but is she available?”

                Kevett frowned. “It aren’t ‘zacly the bes’ time, Ar‘kias…”

                Arachias nodded. “It never really is friend, however, I do think that she will be more upset if I don't make an appearance than if I do.”

                The big doorman chuckled. “She’s a difficult one te’ please, an’ that’s fer

certain.”

                “In every way that you can imagine, Kevett.”

                The guard stepped aside. “I guess... bes’ not keep ‘er waitin' then...”

                “Thank you, Kev. Can I get you anything?”

                “Nah. Watch yerself.” He stood at attention as Arachias and Alec passed by.

                Alec glanced behind them. “What did he mean by that?”

                Arachias had a rather grave look on his face, as he pondered the marvels of women. An entirely separate, vast, impossible subject of discussion. “I’ll tell you when you’re older.”

                The room they entered was very old, which was evident in the archaic and

flamboyant carvings gouged directly into the flesh of the walls and ceiling. The floor was rubbed smooth by countless polishing and subsequent baths in oil. Off center slightly from a corner was a delicate navy hued whalewood table with settings for four as well as a three-tiered silver tray crowded with a great variety of instruments for serving tea and all its trimmings. Near a single crystalline window was a cushion less chair, half of it bleached pale by decades half in and half out of the sun.

                The wall opposite the table was filled by a large bookshelf, crammed with ranks of manuscripts and transcripts and member logs from meetings of times past. The last wo hundred years filled those musty boards. The previous thousand years lay in wax-sealed caskets in locked rooms below.

                Arianna Heathrow was sitting at an angled mahogany desk near the window, a thick volume laid open before her and a writing stylus in her thin hand. She was facing away from them both, her willowy shape warmly outlined by the gently wavering yellow light of an oil lamp. She touched the stylus to the book, and began scratching something on the ancient paper.

                She had not turned, nor given any indication that she had known they had entered, but still she snapped, “What do you want, Arachias? And who is that?”

                “I come with a few concerns regarding recent developments, and as to who my young charge is, well, he is something of a homework assignment.”

                “Hmph,” she mumbled back, the scratching of her writing very distinct.

                Arachias and Alec moved to within a yard or so of her. There was a very pleasant scent of lavender in the air about her. “I would like to speak with you on one of the points you brought forth…”

                She waved her hand dismissively at him, still not looking. “Yes, yes. You saw it too. As soon as they saw a gleaming, golden road to money, the trolls guarding the ridges were promptly forgotten.”

                Arachias’ face was grave. “So it’s true then. Garulls have been seen.”

                She at last turned to look at him, irritation burrowing into her refined features. From such proximity, Alec nearly gasped at how lovely she was. She was not young – ageless was a better word. Her face was angular but not sharp, her eyes icy but not piercing, her lips slender but still somehow full. The faint lines about her eyes seemed more to indicate their beauty rather than the loss of youth. “Of course it’s true, Arachias. Have things between us degenerated to the point that you now doubt my word?”

                Alec gave his tutor a sidelong glance that Arachias summarily ignored.

                “The degeneration of which you speak is of a nature difficult to precisely

define. As to the veracity of your words, let’s just say that the last things you made known to me were, how shall I put it: somewhat less than stellar in their authenticity?”

                The Conciliator’s eyes widened hardly a hairsbreadth, but Arachias caught it.

That was all the surprise she was willing to let on that he had discovered her schemes to keep him here, in Greann. Alec, his powers of observation powerful but untrained, was virtually mad with curiosity.

                “I think that you are a self-enamored, horn-blowing braggart, Arachias. I only wanted you to stay here because you force a semblance of order and respect in that... that... juvenile tavern brawl out there. Like it or not, believe it or not, those men look up to you, begrudgingly acknowledged or not. Any other speculation on your part is merely that: speculation. Now, is there an actual purpose as to why you are here, or do you just enjoy wagging your tail feathers in front of another of your infant disciples?” She fixed her eyes on Alec at that point, their attention like a pair of frozen steel spears. Alec’s blood chilled in their intensity. After a moment, she looked back to Arachias.

                “Yes there is Madam,” Arachias said, his voice cheerful. “Other than waiting with our fists clenched between our knees for Erathian favor, I wish to know what we are doing about the possibility of having our beloved city overrun by garulls. If there are a thousand of the beasts raising utter hell in the woods, we’ll need three times that to repel them should they set their eyes on Greann’s walls.”

                Arianna nodded slowly. “I realize this, Arachias. The totality of the city defenses will be insufficient in both number and skill to defend against such an onslaught. That is why I wish to set up camp early on the High King’s good side. When he orders a state of emergency for all the lands of Hildegoth, I want Greann to be on the forefront of the recipient list.”

                “And the other councilmen...?” Arachias carefully asked.

                “...Can rot in their gold-lined coffins for all I care,” she said idly. “I knew the only way I could get them to even consider the proposal was to show them some way to make themselves even richer than they are.”

                “And, of course, you did. Do the esteemed members of our absent oligarchy

know of any of this?”

                She again waved one hand dismissively and looked out the window. “I have not

made any attempts to contact them, however, they are a resourceful bunch of snakes. I

would be far more surprised if they knew nothing about this than if they did. I will keep you informed, Arachias.” She then turned back to her book. “Despite what you may think of me, I am an honorable woman.”

                It was clear at that moment that the conversation had ended.

                Arachias regarded her briefly, and then grabbed Alec by the arm with a grip that made the boy gasp with surprise. With him practically in tow, he stormed out of the study.

                “Where are we going Master?” Alec murmured, a bit stunned by Arachias’

strength.

                “Out,” was the single word reply.

                “Out to where?”

                “Alec, do be quiet.”

                And he was.

                Kevett started when they flew out of the doors and across the stained and travel-worn floors of the Council Hall. He watched them burst out the main entrance and into the sunny Sanguinneth day. He thought the weather odd for this time of year.

                It had been for days. It should be much colder than it was.

                Just like the weather before a thunderstorm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 16

 

                Extiris Incendura – The divergess of fire: The lands of flame are overrun

with cyclones, seas, and hurricanes, all made of fire. Lava flows, fields of molten

glass, and steaming obsidianite comprise this realm, and all who venture into it must

be protected from extreme heat thusly. The fire elementals known as the Infernuu

dwell here.

 

                Arachias and Alec rode a public coach back to Arachias’ manor. He had told his personal driver to take the remainder of the afternoon at his pleasure, and handed him several silver draco coins with which to do it. The driver, not entirely unused to such gestures merely smiled and nodded. He was an excellent employee, really. He asked few

questions and was only too happy to do his employer’s bidding.

                Alec seemed put off by the oddity of the situation, as they climbed into a coach that was still suitable for simple travel but much more drab and common than the other. “Master...I realize that you are upset about something, but... isn’t this a little unusual? I mean, your standing with the others will no doubt be, well… affected by an act such as this if they should see us.”

                Arachias sat with his elbow on the windowsill and his chin held in his palm as a finger tapped a slow, meaningless rhythm on his cheek. “Alec: If nothing else, I would have hoped you’d noticed that, with few exceptions, I hardly care a whore’s fart what others think of me.”

                The boy’s mouth dropped open slightly at such a comment. “I see.” He stared at his new mentor.

                Arachias rolled his eyes. “Look, Arianna and I had a bit of a… ‘falling out’, I guess you could call it.”

                Alec continued to stare. “When did this happen?”

                Arachias groaned and rolled his eyes yet again. “At the tail end of an immense, bothersome story that dates back further than I sometimes care to recall. Like to hear it?”

                Alec nodded.

                He sighed, but his smile returned. “Oh, very well.”

 

~*~

 

                My mother died giving birth to me. My father I never knew. I assume that he is either dead as well, or simply did my mother the service of donating his half of my conception one evening and then moved on. Perhaps it is best that I do not know.

                My earliest memories are as clear to me as today’s will be tomorrow. I remember being only two years old, running around barefoot in the packed dirt lot behind a home for orphaned children in a town far North of here called Tallo where I spent my earliest years. The home did not have a true name. It was not even an official orphan’s home, really. A somewhat wealthy woman opened her somewhat large house to as many children as she could feed. It was not nearly big enough for all of us, of course, but it was a wonderful alternative to the cold, filth-ridden streets.

                I have clear memories of the woman who took care of us. She was an enormous hulk of a lady, with dark red hair always tied back and under a washer woman's cap, a dress a patchwork of stitching and mismatched patterns, and a smile of never-ending love, happiness, and courage. I do not know if it was her actual name, but we all called her Madami. It means something or other about the qualities I just mentioned in some language I cannot recall nor have heard since. Just thinking of it now makes my toes feel warm as if she had just laid a rough swatch of woolen blanket across them, and it made my tongue feel a bit scalded, most likely from downing a cup of her chicken broth with a touch too much enthusiasm.

                Gods, that broth Alec! It was about as simple as food could be, yet on a cold

Surcease day? Matchless.

                It was a wonderful time for me. I learned very quickly, and soon fell in love with all manner of ways to write, read, and work with numbers. Eventually Madami had me teaching myself as well as the other children for her. This garnered more than a few jealous friends, but once I had made it clear to them that I loved doing it and did not think myself their betters, these faded.

                I had even devised games we could play on rainy days involving numbers and betting on a single rolled die. It was fun, and I was grasping a talent (that of understanding the concept of odds in games of chance) that would become very useful much sooner than I would ever expect. Madami loved it. It was helping the children learn, and helping me find something rather difficult to get your hands on when you’re an orphan: myself.

                I suppose if I had seen many children with mothers and fathers I would have

wanted some of my own, but I lived in a house full of parent-less children. We didn't

need a mother or a father, because we had Madami. She was mother, father, and something beyond even them. She was our everything. And despite there only being one of her and twenty of us, she always seemed to have time for each of us. Rarely did we feel that one was being treated better than the other, and yet we still felt special individually. It was an amazing, inhuman emotional balancing act that she maintained. To this day I do not know how she did it, so subtle were her methods. She was a blessing that did not grant everything but did not really need to, for all of our needs were met, and all of our wants were trivial.

                Then out of nowhere comes the illustrious ruler of the city, the Sargath of Tallo. That squat, important pile of political pork that used to send messenger after messenger to her door bearing sealed letters and documents that made the children’s (my) eyes sparkle with wonder.

                I used to think that Madami was some sort of important advisor in disguise,

receiving secret correspondence that only she could see and mentor. To make matters

even more aggravatingly mysterious, she would always tell the messenger one of two

answers: “Tell him yes,” or “Tell him no.” The majority of these answers would be the latter. She would then hand the messenger a brass weg coin and send him on his way. Though mesmerizing at first, the messenger's visits became so frequent that it became a nearly daily routine. She would wake us, have breakfast waiting, and then answer the door where the courier would already be waiting. One morning, though, he had a different message for Madami. The Sargath himself would be paying a personal visit.

                When Madami told us this, we all became nearly manic with nasty mixed feelings of wriggling excitement and stark, bottomless terror. He was not exactly known as a philanthropist. I once heard him say, “The only thing worse than going through childhood, is being around the other worthless piles of rags and hunger who are going through it as well.”

                Of course, this was years later, and under much different circumstances... er... in due time.

                On that sunny, rebirth morning, Madami waited patiently at the door not bothering to wear anything nice, and not bothering to spruce the place up, though it was always neat and cleanly, even with so many children to make it otherwise. She was simply herself, and you could tell by the slight tilt to her lips that she was just a tad amused by the whole thing.

                Such effrontery was terrifying to me. Glancing nervously at the old brass clock over the hearth, I saw that there were still a few minutes before the Sargath’s arrival. I whispered as loudly as I dared towards her, “Madami! Aren’t you worried?”

She turned her broad, friendly face towards me. “Worried? Abot what, little

nugget?”

                Though her affectionate name for me calmed me for the barest sliver of a second, it was only that: the barest sliver of a second. “About what? The Sargath

himself is coming to the house! What has happened? You never did tell us why he is

visiting! Have you failed him in some way?”

                She chuckled. “Failed him nugget? I have ne'er failed anybody. Ta be sure, I

know not why he comes. I am jus' enjoyin' the mornin’ air.” There was an open window near the front door, but the air outside was still and suddenly thick, like the air in a grave yet to receive its occupant.

                It was obvious that she knew more than what she was saying, but I deemed it

better to abandon the subject for now. As I settled back down, I looked at the other

children. They were all staring at me in as much disbelief as I had been staring at her. I opened my mouth to say something, but again decided the better of it and just turned my eyes back to the door. My decision was a wise one. A loud thumping came from the other side of it, a deep, reverberating sound that was nothing like the polite rapping of the

messenger. This was the sound of an armored set of knuckles making it absolutely clear that their owner wanted to come inside.

                Madami calmly rose from her chair and went to the door. She opened it, and

two of the biggest men I had ever seen looked down at her. They were wrapped in links of steel, and each carried a poleaxe. The one on the left parted his lips in a voice that was much louder than it needed to be. “The Sargath of Tallo, Preporious Mondo, deigns to visit thee. Please assume an appropriately deferential posture.” These two then parted and turned to face one another. Three more sets of equally large men did the same. Madami seemed to restrain a chuckle, and made absolutely no attempt to assume any posture even approaching deferential.

                I peered down the row of guards and, from the sumptuous confines of a carriage worth ten times the house in which we lived, stepped the Sargath. I was stunned. He barely topped the guards’ waists, yet was nearly as broad in the waistline, and not with muscle, either. He tromped and huffed and lifted his cloak and said a great deal of words under his breath that were most likely not very nice. He was garbed entirely too richly for such a call. His forest green tunic was shot through with stitched gold filigree, his baldric was a braided chord of steel and silver held with silk, his cloak was a burgundy square of doeskin so tanned and stretched that it was as thin as linen, and his head was adorned with a sort of short, conical hat – almost religious in appearance. This too was detailed in gold and gems. All in all, he looked bloody ridiculous.

                He reached the door, and was literally out of breath. The distance from his carriage to our front door was hardly twenty feet.

                “Damn you, old woman. Look at what you put me through.” His voice was a

grating, unhealthy warble.

                The shock of both hearing someone speak to Madami in that manner and having the speaker be the ruler of the city was almost more than we could bear. I am sure that at least a couple of us soiled our clothes. I was not among them. Just so you know.

                “Oh hush now old gnome. Why have ye come ta me? To ask fer even more

money? Ye know my holdings are big enough, but…”

                The Sargath lifted a worn and wrinkled hand, though I doubted there were calluses from anything other than holding a pen or sifting through coins on his palm.

“Silence. Yes and no. I have come to you to collect your tithe. This time, however, I have brought along a bit of incentive.”

                He stepped to the side, and a tall, regal figure draped in crimson and white

literally filled the doorway. I could tell that his frame was slight, but the voluminous

cavities of his robes and cloak made him seem immense, a shimmering icon of religious order. Despite this, there was an evil about him that I could almost taste, like an invisible syrup that poured into the air and sought out my tongue. His white-parted-with-red accoutrements made him appear like a great slashed fish’s belly, drained and foul. His face was a long and hollow frame like a clock missing its hands, and the flesh that filled the myriad of folds and crevices in his features looked gray and lifeless. His eyes were like dark portals to the sea a thousand fathoms down, while his mouth seemed a motionless line across his face, incapable of a smile that portrayed anything other than malevolence.

Mondo's smile was hardly different. “This time, my little urchin saviour, I am afraid ‘no’ is not an option.”

                His thinking was brutish, unbelievably harsh, and horribly simple, and he

outlined it to Madami in an equally short manner. He wrote a law stating that any person who wanted to open a halfway house or a home for those less fortunate than themselves, must purchase a permit from the Ummonic church to do so. This permit cost ten gold ranyins per year, half of which was donated to the church of course. The priest was apparently present to collect this tithe. Of course, though well off, Madami could not afford such an ungodly amount of money. A horrendous argument ensued. Both Mondo and Madami lost their tempers, but the consequences for Madami were much worse.

                “Yer nothing but a pretend little monarch, Mondo the Motherless! We had ourselves an arrangement but yer greedy little soul simply couldna’ be satisfied, could it?”

                Mondo laughed. “Arrangement? This was nothing more than an investment that has run its course you fat old hag! These wastes are simply worth more to me under some slaver’s collar than sucking down the church’s coin! And so are you!”

Madami glared at him a moment, and then balled up a fist and swung it with surprising speed and skill at Mondo’s nose. The strike was parried at the last second by the gauntleted hand of one of his guards who grabbed harshly at her wrist. Amazingly she yanked the man off his feet, but the other guards were upon her, holding her away from the Sargath. They pulled her, squirming and shouting, from her own house.

                “At least let me say goodbye to my little ones, at least let me say goodbye,” she repeated over and over. We whimpered and cried but were held back by the guards. Madami was then carted away muzzled like an animal and shackled in chains. She was taken to some place that seems to have completely swallowed her up, because I have neither seen nor heard of her since, and have paid quite a handsome amount of money hiring out the sorts of professionals who are good at finding people – or finding out what happened to them.

                At first neither I, nor the other children knew what to make of what had happened. Watching our beloved Madami chained and drug from our home like a criminal was something our feelings could not grasp, nor our minds imagine. It was like watching someone murdered and understanding why murder had to happen in a manner that made their death palatable. Impossible.

                As for the children, those that did not flee from the guards as they turned on

them were snapped up and sold into slavery. Once my means became great enough, I investigated every one of their histories. Not one of the enslaved children from that orphanage are still alive Alec. Not a single one. Most of them hardly survived their first year. The greatest stretch endured was by a girl that was younger than I when she was snatched away and placed in that hell. She died about fifteen years ago, crushed beneath the wheels of a wagon hauling ore out of a quarry near here.

                Naturally I was one of the ones captured, however, I was not led away with the others. I found myself taken towards the open ebony door of Mondo’s carriage, where gilded steel steps and doeskin seats awaited. I was terrified. Losing Madami was unthinkable. Being torn from the others twisted this wound until even more pain poured from me, and I was wailing unintelligibly and had to be carried. I remember it took two of those big brawny bastards to keep me restrained. Oddly enough, though I kicked and squirmed and bit and screamed, not once did they strike me back or utter even a word, much less a curse. They were either completely detached from their act, or what little decency was still theirs kept them from striking a child, though, apparently, participation in a kidnapping was well within their moral standards.

                They put me in the coach, and then assisted the Sargath in behind me.

                Muttering foul curses that I could hear clearly this time, the gnome entered and sat across from me, a narrow table of simple yet elegant and obviously expensive design between us. Though seemingly clean, a foul reek of unwashed skin blew across my face like a fetid breath when he turned to sit. I wrinkled my nose. He nodded to the guards and they stepped away from the coach and disappeared.

                “Well that should show that snobby stubborn old cow what I think of her and

her ‘giving.’” He glared at me as though I was an offensive icon of such thinking. “Giving people everything breeds weak people.” He leaned over, and leveled a knobby finger at my nose. “People just like yourself.”

                So unaccustomed was I to such painful words, that they had no immediate effect on me at all. I simply sat, disbelieving, and staring.

                “See?” He continued, “If only you could see yourself. Terrified. Lost. Powerless.” He squinted at me. “You haven’t a clue as to why I picked you from the

lot, do you?”

                I could not speak. It was all I could do to slowly shake my head.

                He shook his head in return, though it was in disdain. “How disappointing. When I was your age, I was already running with the guilds in gambling groups all throughout Tallo. Of course, it was much less of a city, then.”              He peered out the slit of light to his right. His unfocused subjects were confusing and scaring me further. For many years I had thought that this was the result of madness, but I learned later how easily molded a befuddled enemy was.

                He turned back to me. “I expect three things of you, little puppy. One: Respect and fear me, always. Do as I say, and rarely will I ever have to punish you, though every now and then punishment is inevitable.”

                I gulped and nodded, my lip trembling. He approved. “Two: Never, ever try

to steal from, or betray me. And I will cut off a finger for every lie.”

                Tears rolled down my cheeks like liquid heat, like my very soul had slipped free and burned away in an attempt to escape. “And three: Learn from me. Hang on my every word, and you will one day be rich and powerful, though, for as long as I live, you will never compete with me. Is any of what I have proclaimed at all unclear to you?”

                Through barely strangled sobs and lips that were now quaking, I managed to nod. I had neither idea nor curiosity as to why he would do this, or why he wanted to

teach anybody anything. Nothing and none of this occurred to me, let alone made any sense whatsoever.

                The bastard smiled a smile lined with bent and stained teeth rotted with a life of overindulgence. Then, he slapped his open hand against my cheek. The sound startled me, and the pain was a flashing bolt of stinging heat that started where his hand met my face and then erupted in a wave that spiraled down my spine. When I sat back up, the tears had been severed and had been replaced with an indignant rage.

                He smiled again. “That would be one of the least of the punishments I will

give you, little puppy. And, though the insolence on your face deserves another, it also shows that you may have a backbone underneath all that coddled flesh after all.”

                I at last managed to stammer out a few words. “W-what are you doing with

Madami and my friends?”

                He peered at me, still leering. “Now that is a difficult question to answer." He shifted in his seat. "Not that I don’t know the answer. I had chosen their fate some time ago. No, the difficulty comes from deciding which would cause you more pain: Telling you the horrors that await them, or not telling you – and letting your own imagination do the lashing.”

                I bit down, grinding my teeth as the rage grew. “Please, Sir, tell…” His hand

flew again, this time curled into a fist. It slammed into my cheek, knocking me backward where I hit my head on the solid wooden backing of the coach. My vision swam murkily, and I felt a surge of bile rise up my throat.

                I heard him say in a voice that seemed to be steadily drowning in a rainstorm, “That decides it then. Find out on your own long after their fates have seen them turned to dust.”

                I bit my lip and struggled to hold on to consciousness. It returned in time, though I halfway wish it had not. I wished that I had just been lulled to sleep, and then had Death herself take me away from everything. Quite a wish for an eight-year-old.

 

 

 

Chapter 17

 

                Extiris Nebulazra – The negative plane: A realm of absolute blackness and cold. Tenuous, tortured beings exist here, creatures that are barely sentient and as frigid and heartless as the plane they inhabit. It is thought that evil begins here, though not in the form most would recognize. Darkness tends to be evil's birthing grounds, and those who dabble in dark warricking should use these energies with care. The nebuul, or dark elementals (also known in elvish as the orosamateilar, the dark wraiths), live here – in the vaguest sense of the word.

 

                Alec sat mutely, his hands limp rags in his lap. He opened and shut his mouth several times before finally saying, “That’s terrible.”

                Arachias nodded enthusiastically. “It’s also only the beginning.”

                The coach pulled up to Arachias’ estate, which was a tall, complicated building near the center of town. It was planted on a rather modestly sized lot, as there was precious little space between the structures here. He could have purchased a large, tentacled mansion raised on more land than a small kingdom to cushion it from the outside world, but he had from the very outset of his career preferred to be in the thick of things.

“Let us go inside and finish this trite tale over a cup or two of mead, hm?” He grinned and winked. Alec nodded rather distractedly as Arachias hopped out of the carriage with him close behind.

                He paid the driver for the trip along with a handsome gratuity. Accustomed as he was to moving fat, rich people across the town and its outlying lands, the driver’s brows still twitched at the sum. Arachias smiled brightly, and nearly tugged young Alec towards the front gate.

                Entreda met posesti,” Arachias murmured quietly at the simple iron framework as they approached it. There was a loud ring as if an anvil had been struck, and the gate swung slowly open with a scream of competing metals.

                Alec winced. “Master, I think you need to have the hinges oiled,” he said through clenched teeth.

                Arachias looked at him curiously as he trotted towards the front door. “And what would announce the arrival of some nefarious bad person if he or she were to somehow dissolve the warra of the lock?”

                Alec had no answer, really. “Well, urm... I would think that it would be difficult to negate such a spell...”

                Arachias barked a short laugh. “I am impressed, Alec. You never told me that you were knowledgeable in the ways of warricking!”

                His young pupil looked at him as if he had missed something. “I’m not.”

                His teacher peered at him, draped in feigned concern and disappointment. “I

see. Unfortunate.” And then he punched him in the shoulder. “Doesn’t really matter.

Anyone hell-bent on sneaking in wouldn’t use the gate anyway.”

                “Ow!” Alec blurted, but grinned lopsidedly as he rubbed where the strike landed.

                They passed through the thick iron of the fence and into an intricate and beautiful garden that made use of every square inch of the comparatively sparse area

surrounding the residence. Alec’s expertise was limited, but he recognized several different rose bushes, bougainvillea, honeysuckle, and crawling ivy that clung to walls, trellises, and statues, trimmed neatly and expertly. At each corner was a fountain ringed by stone benches, with interconnecting white flagstone walkways linking each other to the main brick path from the gate to the front door. Bordering this and dispersed throughout the grounds were statuary of various animals both mundane and fantastic.

They reached the beautifully carved and stained front door to which Arachias had produced a key. Alec glanced up at fox-headed statues perched on two wide pillars on either side of the entrance. The craftsmanship was amazing, as such detail was hard to effect in bronze. Each hair seemed individually cast, and the eyes seemed a thought away from turning towards him in inspection of their guest. He pushed his brief appraisal aside, though, and followed Arachias into the entranceway.

                Alec looked up and around the inside of his new master’s house. The décor was not lavish, but the skill with which it had been crafted was exquisite. The floors were dark whalewood stained even darker with ash and resin. The walls were composed of thin boards stacked and glued so tightly and polished so smoothly that they almost appeared to be a painted pattern rather than actual woodwork. Here and there along the main entrance hallways and foyer were small tables atop intricately woven rugs to keep them from marring the floor. Above each table was a mirror. Alec thought this to be rather egocentric, but he let it pass without comment. Then he turned the corner and Arachias’ main living room was revealed. At its center were four chairs, each of similar but distinct design, and they ringed a low, wide oak coffee table that was topped with an incredibly durable and incredibly expensive sheet of obsidianite. At the far wall was a marble hearth caged off by thick iron bars. Each of the walls was adorned with artwork of some kind, but a piece above the fireplace caught his attention. It was a large depiction of a mountain with a curious grain to it that he could not quite make out. It was painted with a careful hand, each stroke obviously not laid on the canvas until its place was certain.

                Arachias nearly rushed in, beckoning for his charge to follow. “Come, come, my infant apprentice, the day might still be young but the tale is long and the storyteller is far too sober.” He clapped his hands and an elderly gentleman detached himself from Some invisible corner and appeared before him. He was tall and thin, but had broad shoulders and a strong set to his back. His head was topped by a carefully combed swatch of gray hair, and he had piercing blue eyes.

                “Ah, Master Arachias. Things must have gone poorly at the meeting, for you

seem in a revoltingly good mood.”

                Arachias laughed loudly. “Aye, Noal, they did. It was absolutely awful. You

could see the greed dripping off their teeth like liquid fat pouring from a cheap roast.”

                The graceful old fellow smiled thinly. “Very good, Sir. Your mood would decree mead, I take it?”

                Arachias beamed at him. “Sometimes your presumptions frighten me with their accuracy, old man. Yes, two large mugs of mead. And leave the bottle, there’s a good fellow.”

                Noal bowed slightly. “Right, then. I’ll fetch the... mugs.” Like a bit of shadow slipping under a chair, he turned and vanished up a hallway.

                Alec noticed with mild interest another painting, this one much smaller than that of the mountain. There were several people in it, standing in a scullery of some sort. They all faced forward, expectantly. It was an odd image, as a still life of such banality usually involved the common people bent to their individual tasks, finding something noble or beautiful in the mundane.

                Arachias tucked his coattails behind his legs and settled into one of the large leather chairs near the unlit hearth. He beckoned towards Alec to take the comfortable

looking seat across from him. Alec felt a slight touch of concern at Arachias’ demeanor as he took the proffered chair. Here he was recounting a tragic and horrible tale of his youth, yet he seemed to be in such good spirits that he almost appeared jovial.

                Arachias reclined in his chair and stared upward into space, his fingers steepled over his lips. Alec sat in his and stared at the brilliant and eccentric young politician. After several seconds, he asked, “Alec, do you ever wonder why things happen the way they happen?”

                Alec squinted in confusion. “Master?”

                “Has something ever happened in your life that – oh, thank you dear fellow.” Noal reappeared with the drinks and laid them out with quick precision on the mirror-like obsidianite surface of the coffee table. The servant had been so thoughtful as to include a tray of cooled fruits and vegetables along with thin cuts of fowl and cheese. He bowed abruptly and then departed, giving Alec a quick wink as he passed by. Arachias continued. “As I was saying: Has something happened in your life that may have seemed small, even insignificant, yet its passing alters everything beyond what you could imagine?”

                Alec waited, and then nodded slowly. “Yes.”

                Arachias rolled a piece of fowl around a strip of delicate white cheese and took a conservative bite. “Tell me.”

                Alec pulled the story out of his brief years of memory. “A couple years ago my father and my mother got into a great argument about what kind of wheels our coach should have. One of them had broken, and they decided to buy a whole new set so they matched.”

                Arachias rolled his eyes briefly. “Go on.”

                Alec helped himself to a mug of mead and tentatively slipped a piece of cheese into his mouth. It was salty, creamy and delicious. “So there we were, late for a dinner meeting with one of Father’s business associates, muddling over wheel designs. It all seemed so silly to me, and I do so wanted to make it to the engagement on time. There... well,” he paused, his face flushing as if he had already emptied his cup though he had yet to touch a drop. “There was a girl: The gentleman’s daughter.”

                Arachias smiled warmly. “I see.”

                Alec grimaced, but pushed on. “So, we were stuck there at the coachwright’s Shop for more than two hours before the new wheels were decided on and mounted. We finally pulled out on the road and headed for the estate, all of us in sour moods.” He paused, almost as if for effect. “On the way there, we found several men of a scout patrol around a burned wagon. My father spoke to them, and from what the scouts could determine, it had been set upon by bandits and everyone on it killed only a few hours or so earlier. If we had picked wheels quickly or not broken one in the first place…”

                “…It could very well have been you.” Arachias finished for him, his chin held between thumb and forefinger. “Yes. That is exactly what I mean.”

                “Yes,” Alec agreed, munching his snack and then following it by a sip of mead. He was young and unaccustomed to drink but he found its sweet burn favorable and licked his lips. He took another long drink. “Why do you ask me this?”

                Arachias made a dismissive gesture. “It’s something I ask everyone that might make for halfway interesting conversation. Thus far, no one had ever denied it happen. Interesting that we all seem to have this in common, yet never talk about it in any serious context, is it not?”

                Alec gulped down the last of his mead, reaching for the pitcher to refill it.

Arachias stayed his hand. “Whoa, there. Eat a bit more first, or your head will be swimming too much for me to pick at.”

                Alec did what he was told and took a few more folds of meat and cheese. He

munched them down quickly. “So how did Madam Heathrow come into all of this?”

                Arachias took a long drink of his own. “That comes much later. First, let me tell you a little more about the Sargath of Tallo: of him, his vision, and his unspeakable greed. Even now, I cannot believe that that greed has not yet swallowed him whole.”

                Alec blinked in surprise. “He’s still alive?”

                “Oh yes, tadpole. He is a gnome after all, and they are a long-yeared race, nearly three times that of a human.” He wavered into the past momentarily. “Yes. He lives well and is richer and more powerful than ever.”

                Alec thumbed the surface of his mug. “Oh.”

 

~*~

 

                So. I was plucked from a life of happiness and friendship and love, and tossed into a quagmire of fear and hatred.

                You see, Mondo did not love money, at least not directly. He loved the power that came with it. I realize that most people would think these things interchangeable, but, if he were to somehow discover a way to become more powerful by disposing of his wealth and living in a fly encrusted hovel, he would do so without thinking. His addiction was power over others, and money was the surest way to invoke and increase this power. The richer he was, the more people he could hurt and destroy. He suckled at other people’s misery and thrived on it, like a tapeworm in your belly, like a greasy, unkempt little parasite that drew pain and despair from your heart rather than blood from your neck. And he was oh so good at it.

                We arrived at his keep not quite half an hour after the horror at Madami’s

home. It was located near the center of Tallo in a large clearing bordered by several busy roads. Numerous armored guards were posted at its circumferences, and a pair casually patrolled it. The daunting keep itself was really more of a small castle, made of stone and wood and banded with iron in places, and ringed with a wide and shallow moat. The moat was bordered by neatly cut stones on both the clearing side, and the castle side. It was glassy and still.

                “Some moats are placed to discourage crossing,” he said to me as I peered into it while we neared its shores. It was hardly three feet deep though it was more than a hundred wide. “I invite someone to enter it. You see, a siege force will always attempt to either lower the drawbridge, or lay ladders directly from the shore to the parapets.”

                 He pointed upward. I followed his hand, my cheek swollen and hot. He chuckled and poked the spot idly, making me wince in pain. This made him smile softly.

                “That will be useful in the days to come. Now: The expanse of the moat is too

great for most ladders. They could not even get one man across without it breaking under his weight. If the towers had been much taller this may not have been the case, but their height was intentionally engineered as well.”

                We had pulled up to a small stone dock where a wide, flat-bottomed barge was

moored. Across the moat was another dock, and behind it a stone enclosure where, presumably, the entrance awaited.

                “They could attempt to fire doorknockers at the drawbridge, but, as you can see now, there is none, as well as no standard entrance.”

                Without thinking I asked, “What are doorknockers?”

                He looked at me quietly for a moment, and then he pulled from his robes a long-handled knife with a thin, keen blade on it. I knew nothing about such weapons, but I could plainly see that it was razor sharp. I swallowed and felt my insides turn to ice as he leaned close, touching the tip to my lower lip.

                “Address me forevermore as Master, or you will never address anyone ever again, for I will cut your tongue out and wear it as a necklace.” He gave a small twist, and I felt the edge of the knife slice my lip. Nothing serious, but the sensation was awful. “Understand me?”

                “Yes, Master.” I said through clenched teeth unable to either move my jaw or nod because he still held the blade against my cut flesh.

                He withdrew it, and I lay back against my seat trembling and trying not to whimper. Damn him, I would not whimper.

                He continued as if nothing of true consequence had happened. “Good. To answer your question, a doorknocker is a collection of barbed and hooked spikes, usually in the shape of a falcon’s claw. This contraption is attached to a stout rope or chain fired from a ballista, which is basically an enormous crossbow laid flat on wheels.” His demeanor had slid from malevolent to almost friendly. It was chilling how easily he did it. “It launches the doorknocker and its line into a drawbridge, where the hooks grip fast. The other end of the line is then pulled with a team of horses or whatever yokeable creatures are available in an attempt to yank it from its hinges or tear a hole in it. They have a fair success rate but, again, they would be useless here. The entrance door is not visible from the ‘shore’, and it would be a nearly impossible task to hit it if it was, for it is only man-sized.”

                The driver of the carriage maneuvered it carefully on to the barge. I leaned over and could see that there was a thick layer of pitch covering its floor. I had to admit, I was curious about the whole affair, but I did not want to ask him any other questions for fear of forgetting once to call him by his title. It hardly mattered though. He continued on his own, obviously proud of his ingenuity.

                “There is a mechanism of gears and chains far beyond your ability to conceive underneath the barge that will pull it across. Ah! There we go.” A soft clunk was followed by a gentle tug, and they were moving quite swiftly across the moat. “It can go much faster if need be, but we are not in any hurry.”

                I nodded, attempting to focus on my surroundings since everything else was in such turmoil. There was only a small wake behind us, and the bottom of the moat appeared to be nothing more than white sand. There were no birds, no plants, and no fish, which seemed odd. I was very young, but I still knew that any body of water, mortal-made or otherwise, eventually became host to all manner of living things.

                “Now, if said siege force were to suddenly show up at my doorstep,” he cackled once at his own words, “they would take one look at this odd setup and probably scratch their heads for a bit. Certainly they might consider engineers to mine a tunnel and sappers to blow the walls down from their foundations, but before they did any of those things, they would see how shallow the moat is, and most likely decide to just boat or even wade across it. Therein would be a ghastly mistake. If you look out and down, you will see why.”

                I did, and I did. Barely ten paces from the dock, several dozen huge, pale tentacles the same color as the bottom of the moat unearthed themselves and began writhing and squirming through the water towards the barge. I gulped as one broke the surface not two yards from my face. Its underside was covered with disk-shaped openings

that were lined with black teeth hooked like cat claws. They opened and closed at me with a nauseating sucking sound, like someone trying to draw mud through a tube.

                The Sargath suddenly lunged for me, pushing me partway out the window. “Here my lovelies, I’ve brought dinner for you! A fresh and overfed little orphan! Plenty of meat on his bones!”

                I screamed and flailed about, but the Sargath held me firmly which was a surprise considering his small size, apparently frail health, and my absolute terror. The tentacle moved toward me and I very nearly voided every end of my body. The thought that Mondo had picked me from the others simply because of the fact that I looked the most scrumptious for his pet boiled across my mind.

                And then he let go, collapsing in a fit of laughter so powerful he held his belly in his hands like some great bloated ogre in miniature. I crumpled into my seat, closed my eyes and breathed heavily as tears came again. When I finally opened them, I saw nearly a dozen more tentacles surrounding the barge. Mondo, finally regaining control of himself, wiped away tears.

                “Oh, don’t fret, useless little urchin. There is one thing these hideous beasties hate, and that is oil of citrus. The very timbers of this barge were soaked in the stuff for a season before it was made. I doubt it will ever wear off, but I have the oils reapplied every few years. By the gods you are a pathetic little whelp, screaming like that. Maybe I should have your voice cut from your throat eh? I’d hate to have to endure your ear piercing wailing every time a little fright made you start.” My hand flew to my throat, and I cursed myself for such an obvious display of fear. He chuckled again. “No, no. At some point you will unfortunately have to converse with me or someone else, and I don’t feel like spending the time or money to teach you hand signs, nor the spectacle of having you run around with a slate and chalk everywhere you go.”

                Spared for convenience rather than morality, I nonetheless felt a wash of relief.

                “So there you have it, puppy. Magnificent, aren't they? There are dozens of such tentacles, though, if memory serves, there are only three or four creatures to which they belong. They were unbelievably expensive to procure and nearly so to transport, but worth every ranyin. Anyone entering that moat will never come out of it in any form other than offal.”

                That was why there was not so much as a tadpole in that damned moat. Nothing could live in it. We traversed the moat while the tentacles writhed and gnashed their teeth

unnervingly. It seemed that the moat had suddenly tripled in width, so terrible was that crossing. In little time, however, we had reached the opposite shore and were collected by a pair of stout servants who lashed the barge securely to the stone dock. The carriage horse, clearly accustomed to such odd situations, trotted confidently on to the dock and into a large square entrance around the corner and beneath the main door. It was invisible from the shore side, and nearly so until you were already going through it. The carriage driver directed the coach through this entrance and into the spacious stables behind it. Moments later he opened the door, placed a small staircase for the portly Sargath to use, and stood nearby.

                Mondo sneered as he stood. “Time to go, little urchin. I will see you later tonight, after the stink of that pig’s wallow has been scrubbed from your hide.”

                The driver helped Mondo’s bulbous little form out of the carriage, and the gnome cursed at him, the weather, the horses, and the general state of things, all in one breath. No stranger to such abuse, the driver simply said, “Yes my Sargath,” repeatedly.

                Watching the pathetic display, I promised myself that, though I would do what I needed to stay alive, I would never become as broken and subservient as this or any other of the vile mankindred’s servants.

                The driver accompanied Mondo up a small staircase and to a curious contraption that, I learned afterward, was modeled after a device used in mining operations. The Sargath stood on a small platform and held on to a railing as the driver placed his feet under an iron bar bolted to the stone floor, to anchor himself. He then grasped a large wheel not unlike the steering wheel of a ship, and, with no small effort, turned it, causing the platform and the Sargath to rise from the floor to another door at the top of the wall. After it stopped, the servant pulled a chain that set a braking lever beneath the platform, locking it in place. Muttering under his breath, Mondo shuffled from the lift and disappeared through the door.

                I remember staring up at the entire arrangement with amazement. The driver had made his way back over to me, and peered into the carriage’s confines at my trembling, amazed, bewildered little face. His face was tired but kind, and he was most likely not as old as he looked.

                “Best not gawk at things too much, little one. The Sargath does not take kindly to such looks.” I tried to give him a defiant gaze, but he only chuckled. “Don’t waste your barbs on me, little one. I’m neither worth the effort, nor the cause a’ your troubles.” I glared at him a moment more just to look, I suppose, convincing or something, and then nodded in as adult a way as I could muster. He smiled. “Well then I’m thinkin’ we can be friends then. My name’s Farquid.” He offered a hand, the first act of kindness I had seen since Madami had made us breakfast that morning.

                At that thought, that pleasant, cozy memory of oatmeal cakes with honey and fresh milk from the market served with a flourish and a smile from the kindest face I have ever met, my innocent little mind and heart were finally and instantly overwhelmed. I managed to take his hand in mine, and then suddenly I was in his arms, sobbing so powerfully I thought my ribs would crack and my heart split. He stiffened when I touched him, and then I felt myself lifted up in his embrace as gently as if he had just plucked a chick from a hen’s nest without waking her. I felt and heard him rushing up the stairs to a different door at the top of the landing, and then felt and heard him rapping on this door as his grasp was too occupied with my weight to turn the handle.

                The door opened to a simple room of old oiled beams, polished ebonwood

floors, and scuffed tables. Hanging from complex hooks and wires were many

different sorts of dried and succulent things, from onions to yams to cured slabs of

bacon. It smelled of steam and roasting meats and a mélange of spices. The man

carrying me began demanding things in a harsh, hushed whisper from people I could

not see. I had at first thought it was simply because he was tiring from holding me in

his arms, but that was not it. He did not want the Sargath to hear him or anyone else

being kind to me. Such doings would instill the very values he appeared to see as not

only disagreeable, but blatantly repugnant.

                I did not know at the time what would drive a man to such extremes of personality. My tiny world only included myself, the other orphans, and Madami. The worst thing in my heart was a slight tendency towards pouring a bit too much honey on my breakfast after Madami had specifically told me not to. Bearing that in mind, The Sargath of Tallo, Preporious Mondo, seemed to not only be a different sort of person, but a different creature altogether, a creature that is ruled and governed to embrace hate, greed, and envy rather than to denounce and defy such things.

                For the next several minutes I was on the verge of unconsciousness and

constantly weaving in and out of uncontrollable bouts of tears, as Mondo’s servants

bent to the task of cleaning me up for his approval.

                I am certain that the entire ordeal of having me reach this level of approval

was part of the system he had devised to break my will and destroy any love I might have in my heart. They were to make the undertaking of cleaning and feeding me as unpleasant as possible without driving me mad, so that I would constantly be on the verge of breaking down completely, but not quite. Unbeknownst to him, however, his servants were very kind to me – at least when he was not around.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 18

 

                Extiris Illumina – The positive plane: A divergess of endless light and gentle warmth. The thoughts and actions of good are inherent to certain sentient beings, not

generated her, however, the energy generated by such acts often found its way here all the same where it is self-sustaining. Creatures of great heart exist and flourish in these bright realms. Many others are birthed here with destinies elsewhere. Still others come into being in their worlds only to find final peace here.

It is home to the illumiari, also called the light elementals, who caretake, guard, and sustain it.

 

                Othis patted the messenger on his back and sent him to the armories where the master armorer was awaiting his inventory lists. One task complete. Legion remained. He caught himself in the midst of a dejected sigh, and sucked it away quickly. He could not afford to let the weight of this ordeal bow his shoulders already. He had an image to uphold and a King to sooth.

                He crossed the comparatively modest expanse of his chambers and sat at his desk as golden rays of warming sunlight spotted the room. As he reached for a sheaf of parchment, he noticed a letter. It was sealed in a nondescript wrap of thick leather with the seal of Thoris Greenwood, the commander of the great mercenary navy, branded at its center. Othis had not seen it until just now. He had been in and out of his chambers dozens of times this day and had left the door unlocked, as anyone of ill intent would find it very difficult to make his or her way this high into the guarded towers of Tyn Ianett. It was entirely plausible that a messenger had knocked, heard no reply, cracked the door, and just decided to deliver it to his desk and scamper off, as they were as swamped with toil as everyone else.

                He eyed the rolled document for a moment, and then lifted it from its place. He stared at it again, wondering what caused his hesitation. There were dozens of parchments, writs, documents of this and that, and loose papers on his desk that it pricked at his usual sense of cleanliness and order, which had to be shelved for the time being.

He pulled open the wrappings, slipped the message from its clutches and read it.

                And then he finally did sigh.

 

~*~

 

                Alec interrupted again. “Master, I sympathize greatly with what you went through, and I believe every last word of it, but gods, why did Mondo put you through

this? Why were you chosen out of all the others?”

                Arachias stopped. “My dear boy, with what is the infirmary of the great castle of Tyn Ianett filled?”

                Alec’s thoughts were scattered by this oblique query, crafted as it was with meticulous grammar. He blinked and furrowed his brow. Arachias sat and waited for an answer. “Um...” he said, and then, after several seconds, “...nurses?”

                “A true answer, but not the right one.”

                Several more seconds passed. “Healer warricks?”

                “Another true answer, but still not the right one.”

                Alec looked at him a while longer, then slowly shook his head and shrugged.

                Arachias clucked. “Patients. They’re filled with patients.”

                Alec nodded in false understanding, and then his eyes opened wide for a moment as the answer smote him. “Patience!” He smirked at his mentor with mild annoyance.

                Arachias grinned. “May I continue?”

 

~*~

 

                So, the servants would scrub me just hard enough to make me pink, would tell me to hold my belly and grimace after dinner if he wanted me to eat too much, or constantly swallow and lick my lips if he wanted me to starve. I was to appear bleary-eyed and sluggish if I was not allowed to sleep enough, or fidgety and impatient if I was to remain in bed until late into the morning. I of course suffered very few of these ills, but I had to appear as if I had.

                He did dress me well, and I always had a roof and then some over my head. His castle must have had rooms enough to rival the greatest citadels in all of Erathai, yet only five of them were used with any regularity: the entrance hall, the dining hall, his private study, the washroom, and my room. I had an adventure or three in many of the other rooms and secret chambers when not under the Sargath’s watchful eye, but, again, that is meat for the spits of another tale.

                He normally hired guards as he needed them, but, to my knowledge, he employed only eleven servants, and they all bunked in the same mid-floor dormitory.

With a few notable exceptions, that left literally dozens of rooms left unoccupied by anything but dust and cobwebs.

 

~*~

 

                As I grew up, I feel I must mention that the physical abuse was never as bad as it was that first day. I am certain that part of this was due to the fact that my learning capacity not only satisfied his expectations, they surpassed them. Another part was that I never challenged his authority or forgot my manners. Though I stand by the fact that I

believe Preporious Mondo lived only to hurt others, I believed at the time that he eased his punishment on me because he was afraid I might break to the point of uselessness. Even so young, it did not take long for me to realize that he must, after all, have some use for me. I just did not as yet know what this use was, other than for his apparent amusement.

                Every morning at nine of the clock, we would meet in the cluttered yet antiseptic setting of his study where he would drill into me the various types of knowledge he felt one needed absolute expertise if one wanted to excel in this world of ours. This was not done in the context of a loving father figure preparing his adopted son for the rigors of life. This was done in the manner of a brutal slavemaster programming an automaton to become the same monster that he was. If I had not had both the loving memories of Madami and her orphanage clutched in stubborn mental fingers, or if Mondo’s servants were not as kind-hearted as they were, I believe that he would have succeeded. I simply would not have had the resources, at such a young age, to repel him.

                And I did learn from him. Just because the grotesque little bastard had a heart as dark as any demon’s and a soul that held as much love for the world as a lava flow, did not in any way mean he was stupid. On the contrary, he was articulate, knowledgeable, devious, insightful, and even tactful when it suited him or when the situation demanded it. As loath as I am to say it, I also believe I would not be at the station in life that I am if it were not for his teachings. Would I have rather spent the rest of my life on the streets of Tallo with the memories of being raised by Madami? Or should I take into account all the good I have done since striking out on my own? Advice to you, youngster: In most cases such pining is both wasted on nothing, and painful. Not much reason in thinking such things then, eh?

                As I was saying, Mondo taught me all about the hearts of men and women,

the fallacies and truths about the gods (as he saw them, that is), the ridiculous

assumptions of the Ummonic church and their ilk (despite his public support of it), the usefulness of hate and greed, the weaknesses of love, the ability to always deal with politicians because all of them, all of them, Alec, lie to better themselves. Yes, even I. I lie all the time, though I always do it for what I believe to be the greater good, despite how slippery that slope can be. If, after I die, I am turned from Ummon’s tower, I will do so with no regrets. I am comfortable with the works I have created, partly because I know they help people, but there is another reason that I have told only very few: I know that each and every act of kindness I do would make Mondo pull his hair out through his nose in disgust.

                Anyway, onward.

                He also developed in me an already respectable talent that I had mentioned earlier, which was a knack for juggling numbers and odds in my head. It was not only easy, it was fun, as I had thus far used it only at the orphanage. I would bet on numbers on a die, or run odds on lizard races in the open lot behind the house, that sort of thing. Even as a hobby I was right much more often than I was wrong. Mondo noticed this immediately when he poked through my brain to see what was already there, if anything.

                “I would hope that there is more going on up there than what is required to move your legs, eat, and weep,” he said. “For that is all you have yet done.”

                Then, like the slow extrication of a fossilized bone, he began digging into the

depths of what my young mind actually could do. “A Drake has been frozen stiff by a