Monday, January 27, 2014

Prologue – Endings



“The void… the void!  He sleeps and cannot dream!  His bones are splitting!  The heavens are empty, empty, empty, and she rakes at his belly.  Stop them!  You have to stop them!  Why will you not listen to me?”
-          Transcript: The Heresy of Mother Darain, Day 7, Hour 23


NOW

THE PURSUED
           
The day dawns, red, and blood flows, and the great gate topples inward, and now, finally, after all of our struggles, I am going to die.

It is the balcony, my balcony.  From here, atop the Temple, I have watched the people of this city, my city now, as they struggled and built and erected my great legacy.  From here I poured out all of my power, all of my life, all of my love to create a monument to existence, a shield against the coming storm, a lock for the door that must never be opened.

I have spilled blood.  I have bathed in it.  I have slaughtered thousands so that millions more might live in peace.  I bathed in the blood of volunteers, and when no more could be found, conscripts, and when even they ran out, the women and children who I kept from fleeing by my magic. I have severed every tie and bond I shared with family and friends, and walked this path alone; but I have not strayed.  Say whatever else you will about me; I have not strayed.  I have kept to the course laid out before me.  Lesser men would have turned aside.  Lesser men would not have triumphed!

I stare out into the city, gazing at the new tower that sits, shining in its center.  The bones and blood of a people are wrought into the stones of it, polished into the facets of the gems which adorn it, melded into the metal that crowns it.  It rises, towers, commands, and proclaims atrocity, blasphemy, horror.  It speaks, more quietly, to those who might listen, of peace and stability; but no one is listening.

The last stones have already been placed.  My legacy is written.  Let men curse me.  I have but one last task, before the darkness falls.

I do not turn to look at my brother standing in the doorway.  I stand, pretending to ignore him, leaning on the stone railing of the balcony, feeling the cool breeze from the north that signals the turn of winter once again.  I pretend to ignore the jeers and shouts from the crowd below, the glint of metal on the weapons they hold.  They are three stories below me.  My brother is not.

I turn, very slowly, to face him.  He is shadowed, there in the doorway, but I can still see the hate in his eyes.  His fingers tighten on the hilt of his naked sword.  His breath is quick and shallow.  He is bracing himself.

I do not speak.  I do not try to explain.  The time for words is past.

He takes a deep breath, his eyes darting to the floor instead of meeting mine, and when he looks up again, his face is blank.  He takes another slow breath and steps forward into the light.

            I feel the cool stone of the balcony’s railing press against my back.  My brother watches in silence.  He knows that I have nowhere left to flee.  He knows that his long chase has finally ended.

            He takes another step forward out of the doorway and onto the sun lit stones of the balcony itself.  Rogen chooses that moment to strike from his hiding place, out of sight behind the open door.  He leaps at my brother from behind, sword flashing.  Rogen: the last of my defenders, the only one loyal enough to stay with me until the very end.  Rogen: who spits in the eye of fate.  Rogen, the undefeated.

My brother doesn’t even deign to turn around to face his opponent.  His sword arm parries the blow aimed at his neck, turns Rogen’s blade aside, and somehow finds its way into his heart in the same motion.  Rogen stiffens, and his sword clatters to the floor, his hands clenching impotently.  My brother violently whips his blade back out of my last friend’s body, never taking his eyes off of me.  He never looks at the man he just killed.  His sword drips red onto the bare stones.

            Mayou’s Tits, when did he learn to fight like that?

Rogen sinks to his knees, and mutters something incomprehensible before collapsing.  Five seconds, and he’s gone.  The bravest man I’ve ever met, the man who marched with me into Gorgus’ own dark halls and stood before a god and his monsters without blinking, dead.  That man had a story, one I had promised to tell, and it shall die now with me.  Another broken promise.  My brother doesn’t even give the man a second thought, stepping forward again, this time purposefully closing the distance between us in only a few steps.

My magic is gone.  My friends are gone.  I have nothing left, and I still have one last task yet to perform before the darkness falls.  There is nothing between me and the man seeking my death.

            He is going to kill me.

THE PURSUER

            I press in close, forcing my traitorous brother up against the balcony railing and he cannot resist me, and his arms collapse before my approach like paper, and his face is close to mine, and I can smell tobacco and strong wine, and I notice the stubble on his cheeks and chin, and that he hasn’t shaved this morning, and I smell something else, and wonder when last he bathed, and I take a breath…

…and nahhu screams at me, but I tell it to shut up, and I still my racing thoughts.

Still!

Savor.

This.

Moment.

My sword is eager, and it is justified.  I want to listen to him scream.

THE PURSUED

I feel the cold burning of his blade sliding into my belly, and I can do nothing.  His arm, holding me in place, is crushing.  I cannot even draw the breath to scream.  His deed is performed in silence.

His eyes are vacant.  His face is passive.  His actions are surgical.  There is no hatred.  There is no longer vengeance.  His face is a mask, with nothing underneath.  Everything human is dead, gone the moment he drove his sword into his brother’s gut.

            Hell, everything human in him died two years ago.  I truly believe that he’s only kept moving and breathing all this time by habit.

            Just like that, it is over.  He steps away, and I am no longer a concern for him.  I wobble in place, my hands instinctively trying to staunch the flow of blood leaking from the gaping hole in my belly.  I gasp for air, stumbling forward, tripping over the hem of my robes, and tumble to the floor near the doorway.  He merely stands, like a statue, watching the blood on his blade slowly run down and drip, drip, drip onto the stones of the balcony.  His face is blank, his thoughts far away.

I want to stand, to do something, but I can’t.  My legs ignore me.  It’s not even the pain (yes, Goddess, yes it hurts!); it’s just that my body has given up.  My soul screams to rise, to flee, but my legs and fists and body lie and clench in silent pain.  I have nothing left.  All that remains is instinct and reflex, and when faced with the choice between fighting or fleeing, they have chosen to submit.  The wound would have been enough on its own, but I have already spent everything else, every last strength I possessed, in fighting my brother’s coming, in my great Working, and this has pushed me into debt.  I grimace and strain and somehow still manage to awkwardly slide myself over closer to the door, another foot or two away from my brother, as if that would save me.  I would prop myself up on one elbow if I had the strength, to lift myself out of the puddle of my own blood, mingling now with Rogen’s, his body rigid beside me.  The wetness of blood and sweat and piss soaks into my robes and through my shirt and I shiver.

I try not to look at my old friend’s corpse.

            My brother suddenly whips his head up, like he’s waking from a dream.  He grips his sword tightly and steps to the edge of the balcony.  He lifts the dripping sword over his head, and a massive shout rises from below.  He thrusts it into the air again, and another shout follows from the victorious crowd sacking my city. 

            I really was unpopular, wasn’t I?

            He turns around again, facing me, and a sense of deja-vu overwhelms me.  His pose is almost the same as the last time we were here, brothers in more than name back then: friends and companions.  I led the victorious crowd into the city that day, three years ago, and my brother was at my side as we drove the Kyzanthe before us.  We routed them from this very Temple, and ended up here, on the high balcony, realizing with breathless excitement that we had won.  We were heroes.

            The tableau is the same, but his face is all wrong.  He is not smiling.  His eyes are not innocent.  His face is blank. His eyes are dead.

            In a few minutes, so will I be.

            I’m not scared.  I’m angry.  Angrier than I ever expected to be.  Here, at the moment of his great and terrible revenge, he looks almost… disappointed.  After everything we did together, after his rage, I’m dismissed so easily?  I’m just one more obstacle along his path?  I taught him everything, and now I am discarded and apparently forgotten?  I don’t think so.

            My magic is spent, but Rogen’s body is still warm and though he is gone his flesh still burns with the fire of life.

Blood is magic, blood is life, Yuu be praised.

            My brother’s vacant eyes widen in genuine surprise as I launch a sphere of fire up at his face.  It is the simplest of spells, as easy as moving a finger, and so totally beyond my ability now that I must leech off of the corpse of my best friend.  Damn you, brother, I hope you burn in hell!

THE PURSUER

            Blasted Consort and all of the seven prisons of…

            I cough and struggle to rise from the tangled mass of bodies of the crowd.  I look up at the balcony as hands lift me and help me to my feet.  Somehow, I managed to parry that burning missile with my blade, but the impact still sent me flying over the edge.  I turn around to look at the damage my fall caused.  One of Scnadra’s knights is lying there, clutching at his arm and grimacing.  I suppose someone else’s broken arm is a small price to pay for falling from a third floor balcony.  Still, I didn’t expect my brother to have enough power left to summon fire.  My face burns and stings and I’m sure I’ve lost hair, or at the very least my eyebrows.  I smell bacon and then realize that, oh no, that’s just me.

I had put aside anger, and hatred, and fear and had tried to draw strength from calm surety but that’s gone now.  Nahhu crumbles and emotion rushes back and oh, I forgot how much I hated him. I forgot how delicious this feeling was.  One of the men in the crowd is patting down my smoldering tunic and I roughly push him away. Idiocy.

So, my brother still has some fight left in him.  I smile, and nahhu screams but I ignore it and step forward once more towards the temple.  I shall finish this, even if it kills me.

Again.

THE PURSUED

I am so sorry, my old friend.  Your life is gone, but your blood might just save mine.

It takes all of the life force that is within Rogen’s cooling blood, but I am able to rise, slowly, wincing. There’s not much to work with, but it’s enough power, enough raw life force to give me back the strength of a man who was merely only stabbed in the gut.

Gut wounds are notoriously dangerous; you can sometimes survive for several days with one, but they turn bad quickly, festering and souring and unless they're treated almost immediately they're as surely a death sentence as being stabbed in the neck. You can live, but without help you will not heal, and eventually you will die.  They're also immobilizing, and I want nothing more than to just lie here and hope for someone else to come along and save me. Still, the shouts and general murmur from the crowd below contradict that possibility. The guards I hired have all fled or been killed. The creatures I summoned have been dispelled or destroyed, and the shield I erected has finally fallen. Rogen is dead.  I'm my only friend here. So I rise, because the alternative is to die.

I. Will. Not. Die.

Not. Yet.  One task still remains, before the darkness falls.

I limp inside through the open doorway and reach the stairs, where I wobble for a moment, leaning against the wall for support. I'm dizzy and out of breath, I want to scream from the pain, and my nice new robes are soaked through with blood. Vengeance is never pretty, but he's just damn inconsiderate! If I had possessed the strength, I'd have stayed on the balcony and given him a piece of my mind. He used to understand things like respect, and timing! A couple of years ago, he'd have fainted at the thought of even lifting a sword. Now he swaggers in all full of righteous fury and justice and thinks that his pointy steel gives him the right to try to impale me. Me!

Whatever happened to our brotherhood? Our blood bond? When we cut our hands and pressed them together and declared ourselves brothers, did either of us foresee this? He had my loyalty, and my life, and I know I had his. We were friends and comrades and brothers not in blood, but in something far greater: in spirit. He does not know it, but everything I own is willed to him, for he has been family to me more than my mother and father ever were.

Frankly, I'm tired of his whining. My patience has limits. You know what? He is officially disowned!

I raise my voice and shout to him, wherever he is, below. "You are officially disowned!"

THE PURSUER

I pause on the steps leading up to the temple door. Disowned?  Seriously? Is he kidding me?

I shake my head and continue up the stairs.

THE PURSUED

I slam the door behind me as I leave the balcony and the open air and the outraged shouts from outside and fly down the steps towards the main floor, trailing a river of life behind me. The rugs are ruined. Blood stains are impossible to get out.

I rush through the sanctuary, wide and dark, the details of the far corners hidden in the shadows of this ancient place of marble and granite. The statues and tapestries and pillars are masterworks of their craft, but they're all lost in the gloom here. The candles are all dead, the lanterns stolen this morning before I evicted the first wave of looters. The great stained window behind the altar is the only source of light, and it casts a pale and yellow pall over everything. I pass among the pews, dust flying up in the wavering sunbeam, and race up and around the great altar where a set of ornate wooden doors awaits me. I open them, smiling, but a shout from behind stops me before I step through them.

He's standing in the aisle at the opposite end of the sanctuary, blade in hand, smoke rising from his beard and robes. I chuckle and immediately regret it, grabbing my stomach in agony. He frowns and starts forward.

I back through the massive double doors and close them even as he runs up. I lock them with a satisfied flourish, listening with momentary contentment as he bangs on the door. I smile at his futility.

“No!” he screams.

“Yes,” I whisper.

There are more stairs here, leading downwards, into the cellars below the temple, and there lies my only hope of survival, the only one who can save me.  I had vowed never to call upon him again, but desperate times, and all that.  I had considered it earlier this morning, but Rogen had cautioned against it.  Always sensible and cautious, and see where that led you, old friend.

At the bottom of the stairs a doorway leads into a basement, little more than a storage room, but I had cleaned it out over a year ago, and kept the stones of the floor well swept.  I had a circle of cold steel hammered into the floor, and even now it is still glowing with the enchantments I laid upon it months before.

I sink to my knees before it, clutching my belly, already feeling the meager power that I stole from Rogen’s corpse starting to fade.  I have to act quickly.

Reaching into my robe, I pull forth a talisman that I had kept locked away until this morning.  It is small and wooden, and carved into the shape of a dog.

From above, I hear shouts and the sound of wood crashing and splintering.  My brother is on his way.

I cast the talisman into the circle and whisper the words of summoning, giving a portion of the life I have left to make my will reality.

Suddenly, with only the slightest disturbance of the air, he appears.  Sa’sholi the demon sits, cross legged and with his head bowed, within the circle.  He lifts his head and smiles his hideous smile.  “Ah, finally, once again you call upon loyal Sa’sholi.  How can he serve you, powerful one?”

I don’t smile back.  I point to my stomach.  “I am dying, demon.  My life is spent.  Heal this wound, or protect me from those who seek to hasten my demise.  Save me and I shall repay you generously as I have in the past.”

Sa’sholi hisses and steps forward, right up to the edge of the circle.  “You must release him!  Sa’sholi cannot help when he is trapped behind the cold steel!”

I frown, but I am desperate.  “The usual constraints, demon.  You can come forth, but you are bound by the previous arrangement and bindings.”

Sa’sholi growls and paces, but nods, stiffly.  “Sa’sholi agrees!  Release Sa’sholi!”

Silver bracelets appear upon the demon’s wrists, a symbol of its vow.  It is still dangerous, but it should be safe enough to work with, because a vow made by a spirit is as binding as gravity is to you or me.  I release the enchantment upon the steel circle, allowing the creature to come forth.  It takes the last of my strength to do so, and I slump onto my back as Sa’sholi bounds forth and straddles me, poking at my belly with one taloned finger.

He hisses again.  “Very nasty!  You are dying, human!  You are passing from this world!  You cannot pass yet!  Sa’sholi is not ready for you to leave.  You must finish your work!”

“I agree, demon.  So heal me!”

“This wound Sa’sholi cannot heal!  Sa’sholi is not a healing spirit!”

“Then defend me from those pursuing me, and then find me someone else to heal these wounds.”

“Defend?  Sa’sholi cannot fight men while he wears the silver wrists!  Remove them, human!  Remove them!”

I am not so far gone that I have become stupid.  “No games, demon.  Protect me, or heal me, or I will command you to return to your pit!”

“No!  Do not banish Sa’sholi!  Sa’sholi will save you, human!  He has another way!”

“Then do it!  Now!”

The demon reaches out and grabs me by my right wrist.  Hissing, he closes his eyes and begins to chant in his horrible demonic tongue.  My ears burn, hearing the raw words of the underworld, but I have no more strength to block them out as I might have otherwise.  Sa’sholi chants, and my ears burn, and I feel the floor soften beneath me.

My brother bursts into the room, taking the last few steps at a leap, sword flashing.  He stares in shock at the red leathery-skinned creature clutching at me, and then his shock turns to anger as we sink through the floor entirely.  I can imagine the scene from his point of view, our vanishing into the ground before his impotent eyes.  I hear his screams of rage through the stones above as we fall away into the depths of the earth below.

Well, that’s a pleasant surprise.  I seem to have won.

THE PURSUER

He is gone.  I have lost him.

A demon.  Of course.  Sa’sholi, again.  My brother told me that he would banish that one.  Another lie!

He will sneak away and lick his wounds and return more powerful than before.  Hundreds of years and three, and I have nothing to bring to bear against a man who should already be dead.

I hurl my sword against the far wall and scream for a while.


THE PURSUED

Everything is hazy, but I cannot say if it is because of the earth we are passing through, or if my eyes are beginning to fail me.

I am nothing more than haze, and mist, and yet I can feel the talons of the demon clutching my wrist, burning like hot irons.  Together we sink, slowly, the tightly packed earth and stone about us fading, until only blackness surrounds us, and it is only me and the demon.

And then, we are in a room, and solid again.

The demon quickly (though gently) lowers me to the floor, and rushes off, muttering to himself.  I hear the clatter of metal, what sounds like earthenware, and stones striking together.  I can only lie there, in silent agony, struggling to breathe.  Soon enough, though, the demon is back, leaning over me, chittering and tsking and hissing.  “Up, up!  You must!  You must step into the circle so Sa’sholi can defend you!”

I do not answer.  I cannot answer.  I breathe, and use every ounce of strength to keep my eyes open.

The demon grunts, and punches me in the face.

I rise up, fuming, my fists raised and clenched.  “What do you think you…” and then I breathe again.  I stretch my hands up over my head and groan in satisfaction, free of weakness, free from pain.  “Oh, well done, demon!  Well done!”

I feel perfect.  I feel whole.  I take a deep breath and luxuriate in it for a moment.

The demon dances in front of me, impatiently.  “Move!  Move now!  Illusion!  Temporary!  You still die, human!  Into the circle, now!”  He holds up a small metal charm, shaped like a bird, as if to explain.  I can feel the magics pouring from it even from here.

            I glance down at my own belly, at the bloodstained robes, and gingerly touch there with a finger.  It sinks in to the knuckle before I yank it back out in disgust.

Oh.  Oh, my.  That’s… unsettling.  The gaping wound still open in my gut responds by leaking more bile onto my shoes.

Clever demon!  He could not heal me, so he has used a talisman to cast some sort of glamor over me to mask the pain.  Interesting.  My body is still dying, but for a brief while it doesn’t seem to matter.  My muscles don’t seem to know the difference.  I can stand, and walk, and act as if I’m not about to collapse.

I can breathe, and my eyes come back into focus.  I finally look about the room where Sa’sholi has brought me.  It’s small, carved out of stone, and I notice that there are no doors.  A small desk sits against a wall, lit by several candles, piled with all sorts of trinkets and glassware and books.  By my feet, I see a circle engraved into the floor, one far more ornate than the beaten steel I used to summon Sa’sholi.  It is metal, but it appears to be etched directly into the stones themselves, and surrounded by a ring of intricate knots and curves, and bordered by runes that I do not recognize.  It’s far more elegant than the summoning circle I kept, far above, and it’s large enough for me to sit inside of it, with some room to spare.  I look at the demon, and he nods, pointing.

In all of our interactions, I have never given in to any of the creature’s demands.  I have bargained with it, and contracted with it, but always have I been careful not to give it too much leeway.  I might be a monster, and I might well deserve the death that my frustrated brother has tried to bring down upon me, but I am not a fool.  I know the perils of taking demons lightly.

So call it the euphoria of the sudden relief from pain, or call it desperation or fear.  Call it an effect of whatever glamor he laid upon me, or call it the gods themselves finally taking me to task for my many blasphemies.  I walk into the circle without question, and sit down, facing him, and when he asks me to remove the bindings upon his wrists, I do so without really considering it.

At my words of agreement, the metal bracelets he wears darken, then split, and fall to the ground with a loud clatter.  He stares at them for a moment, as if deep in thought, and then he casts the metal bird in his hand away… and with it the pain returns once again.

He moves quickly as I sit and grit my teeth in silent agony, and I once again feel my imminent death approaching.  He grabs a book from the nearby table, and a candlestick, and sets both beside me in the circle.  Then he grabs up a quill pen, and holds it out towards me.

“Take it!  Quickly!”

I obey without question, and he backs away, kneels, touches the circle, and chants.  It begins to glow softly, and even in my dizzy, weakened state I realize what he has done.  Our roles are now reversed.  I am locked within his magic circle, as he was once locked within mine.

I move to rise, and cannot.  It is not the pain, or weakness.  My limbs are frozen in place, and I realize that I cannot even turn my head.

I can still speak.  “What are you doing, demon?  You promised to protect me.”

“Protect!  Yes!  Protect and preserve.  You must survive.  Here you will endure, to bulwark the sleeping one!”

He begins chanting again, that horrible acidic language that always seems to burn away at my sanity, and I feel magic coalescing and solidifying around me.  “Wait!  What are you doing to me?  How are you going to protect me? What sleeping one?”

He stops in mid chant, and I feel the power surrounding me pause, as if alive, and waiting.  “Preserve you!  Old magic.  Life magic.  Magic like the Mapforgers use.  Magic of chronicling, writing.  Old magic to see old times, live old lives, preserve their stories.  Men wrought it!  Men were weak and defenseless when they wrote!  They gave it life to defend, preserve, protect!”

Life magic.  I frown.  Magic that taps into the very essence of life itself is far more powerful than the usual magic of the will, or even that of the blood, but it is far more dangerous and unpredictable, far more costly.  If this spell is meant to protect me in some way, I wonder at the cost.  I have no will, no blood, no life left to grant to it.

Sa’sholi resumes chanting again, and the book flips open, of its own accord, to the first page.  The page is blank.  The candle spurts into life, and my hand, holding the quill, jerks into motion without my consent.  It starts to write upon the page, without ink, and yet words appear there.  Although I cannot turn my head to look, I can feel the words inscribed upon the page, and I know that the last words that I just wrote were “and yet words appear there.”

My gut continues to leak into my lap.  I continue to write about it.

Sa’sholi sits back, smiling, and my hand jerks back and forth, writing down everything that happens.  He looks down towards the book, back up at my face, and then sighs.  He seems like he is about to say something, but turns away.  After several moments, he turns back towards me.

I write “After several moments, he turns back towards me.”

He speaks, and his speech is slower, modulated.  It is not the usual wheedling whine I am used to.  It doesn’t sound like him at all.  The voice is deeper, and echoes, as if heard from over a great distance.  I realize, with a rising sense of dread, that I have heard this voice before, and that it is not Sa’sholi’s.

“Endure human. Your sins are many, but you still have a job to do.”

The page is full.  It turns of its own accord, and I continue to write on the next.

Sa’sholi grabs up a dagger I hadn’t noticed from the ground beside him, and without further comment buries it into his own neck.  He screeches, and gurgles, and then collapses just outside of the circle.  He twitches a few times, and then is still.

Around me, within the circle, the spell awakens and becomes alive.


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