Thursday, February 13, 2014

1 – Spreading Flames



“It is all a lie.  It is all a lie.  It is all a lie.  It is all a lie.  It is all a lie.”

“What is a lie?  Why do you keep repeating that?  What have you seen?”

“I cannot… I cannot… I see it and I do not want to see it.  I can not not see it!  Please!  Please!  I cannot tell you.  I cannot tell you!  You would burn me as surely as you did the Chasmites.  Yes, burn me!  I am mad.  I see only madness. Burn me as a heretic and stop this madness!  Please make it stop! Oh, goddess, do you know what your children have wrought?”
-          Transcript: The Heresy of Mother Darain, Day 3, Hour 1

NOW

THE PURSUED

            The spell comes to life, and I know its mind, and oh, oh dear, I might be in trouble this time.

            I feel my pain ease, but I feel my limbs gripped ever more tightly by something unseen.   I feel the whirling forces surrounding me, almost unlimited power stolen from time itself, but none of it at my command, all of it holding me in place.  It is hungry.

            I try to move, and I cannot.  I try to speak, and then to scream, and I cannot.

            And then my mind opens, and I am falling through space, and I am suddenly…

           
THEN


ERINNIUS

I do not like my thoughts interrupted.  I do not like my mind invaded.

Get out.  Get out of my mind, now!

There is no answer.  Who is this arrogant fool who dares to tread upon my innermost musings?

I can see him, through the long distance of years and time, sitting upon the floor, a book open beside him.  I watch as my own thoughts are inscribed upon its pages.  I feel the hunger of old magic, magic that eats life and rebels against its own ending.

Oh.  You foolish, foolish child.  What have you done? Murder and betrayal and madness…

Miserable wretch.  You truly have no idea what you have started, do you?  Don't bother answering.  I see that you can no longer do so.  No matter.  I can read the truth from the pages of your mind just as easily as from that book lying beside you. Stop struggling. You can't move, and I'm trying to see...

Ah, so you know me.  Babaiya?  I am no one’s… Ah.  Not yet.


 You see, tiny idiot.  This is the foolishness I speak of.  I am no weak small mortal whose mind can be read like some parchment.  I perceive you in return!  I know your mind even as you know mine, and I see my own future written therein.  Cease!  Do not think of those things.  I refuse to know!

Go away!

NOW

THE PURSUED

I am shoved back into myself, back in the chamber, caught in a circle of magic with a dead demon lying mere feet away. 

What in the seven hells is happening?

Even as my hand continues to write, I feel the spell working around me.  My gut… has stopped leaking!  I feel the skin knitting together (and oh goddess it itches, if only I could move my hand!)  I was weak, dizzy from blood loss, yet my mind sings with the power of this magic coursing through me.  I feel better than healed; I feel rejuvenated, young, new, whole, alive!

I would shout for joy, but of course, I cannot shout.

            I am certain now that this spell has one purpose: to tell a story.  When the story is over, the spell will end, and because it is alive, because this is living magic, that means that this spell will fight against its own ending, its own death.  So long as I remain powerless, it will preserve me here in order to preserve itself.  It needs someone to write, a conduit through which to exist, and so, it needs me.

On the one hand, this is wonderful.  Magic flows within me in place of blood, in place of breath, in place of food, sustaining, preserving.  I could live like this!  Imagine if I had only had access to this sort of unlimited power this morning.  I would have swatted my brother like a fly!  I could endure, and oversee my legacy for all time, and no man would dare to confront me!

On the other hand, I can’t move (well, apart from the writing my right hand insists on doing.)  I can’t actually do anything, and for a moment there I was Babaiya.  I didn’t just hear her thoughts, I thought them.  I felt everything she did: the stone underneath her feet, the coolness of the air around her, the rage and worry within her mind, and I could do nothing to influence it, to change it.  I was being shown something, and I could not close my eyes or turn away.  Strange also that she seemed able to sense me.

The advantages of being a dragon, young one.  Not everyone can be as perceptive.  I hear her thoughts, and I feel my hand writing them as well.

“Hello, grandmother,” I think, since I cannot speak, and therefore write into the book as well.  “You have decided to break your vow never to speak to me again?”

Vow?  You are confused child.  I have never spoken with you before.  We do not speak upon the same… day.  You are many years ahead for me; though thank you for implying that I am still alive, whenever you are.

Ah, I understand now.  This spell has connected me with the past.  I’d be fascinated, and love to study this further, if I weren’t trapped within it right now.  Instead, all I care about is ending it. This room seems secure and secret, and I have enough power now to work magic of my own, magic that would put me into a healing trance and complete the restoration of my body that this spell has started.  In time, I could emerge, as powerful as ever, and deal with my arrogant brother, and then accomplish that last task required of me before the darkness falls.

First I must end this spell.  Normally, it would end on its own, once the power imbued into it by its caster is used up.  Unless they have been imbued with some outside source of power, most spells end with the death of their caster.  Yet Sa’sholi is dead, and this spell continues, conjured by the sacrifice of a being I have to admit I never fully understood.  I don’t know exactly what sort of power sustains this magic, and I do not know how long I’ll remain trapped here if I cannot find a way to end this.

I wonder what will happen once the book I am writing in is full.

Babaiya seems to clear her throat from wherever, er, whenever she is.

I once cast a spell much like this one myself, in my youth. We use it to chronicle things that have passed, to experience them and record them. It can be painful or disturbing if the things being recorded are…unpleasant.  It will defend you until your story is completed, but it will always find more to write about.  You cannot escape from this so long as there is more to tell. I was wise enough to use it only under proper supervision, so that the spell could be ended in a timely fashion.

Of course you did, you scaly bitch.  Always so arrogant!  Typical for a dragon.

I never did like her.

Well that’s a fine how-do-you-do! she thinks, and goes silent.

            Instead, from somewhere far away, a voice that sounds not unlike Sa’sholi’s whispers: “Enough dawdling, human.  You are needed elsewhere.  Experience.  Enjoy!  Endure.”

            And with a wrenching pull that almost makes me vomit (were my body able to do so) my mind is pulled away and thrown into another time and place.

I try to fight, to marshal my power and reclaim my body and mind, but I cannot turn away.  I cannot close my eyes.  I can no longer speak, or even think.  I can only see.  I can only experience.  I can only endure.


THEN


KAL'BARRE RO MYLHA DUR MEDROSA

Sometime during the night, the pounding on the gate stopped. The growls and shrieks from beyond the palisade went on, maddening and shrill and keeping us from sleep, but at least they were on the other side of the walls.

Now, there is only silence, and somehow that is even more unnerving.

The wooden gate is firmly closed and barred, everyone is inside, including the animals and it is now the third day since the burning of the outer farms. Iy’eke is back among us, his left arm bandaged but managing to hold a shield tightly. His eyes are distant, his mouth a scowl, and I know he is thinking of his children who did not make it to the safety of the village palisade.

It was a small party of Kyzanthe, perhaps a dozen of them, and while they burned the outermost fields, our farmers made their way, dragging belongings and animals, into the safety of the wooden walls. A few of the raiders fired arrows aimlessly into the fleeing villagers from a distance, apparently not caring enough to try to hit anyone specific. This did not protect Iy’eye’s children, nor Widow O’sha, nor too many other of our farmers. We got the rest inside, closed and barred the gate, and set up the homeless families in the Great Hall until the marauders decided to move on, as they always do.

It has now been three days, and they have not moved on. For three days, they’ve rode around outside of our walls jeering and shouting and banging drums and occasionally firing arrows randomly over our walls, never actually hitting anyone, except for old Roan who got hurt falling off of a ladder trying to jump out of the way of a volley. He’s on my left, his dislocated right shoulder and arm swathed in the same brown bandages as Iy’eye. He should be lying down, but we need every man who can hold a weapon right now. I recognize Jen’a’s handiwork in the knots on his bandages. I’m glad she is helping out. There is no time to mourn her mother, and I cannot be with her now. It is better she is kept busy, helping, and not thinking.

Last night, the Kyzanthe began pounding on the gate. All of the men were sent to the front of the village, armed with swords (of which we have far too few) or farming equipment (of which we have an abundance.) We slept in shifts, though no one really got much sleep between the pounding, the drumming and the shouting.

The Kyzanthe have never behaved in this way before. But then, they’ve never come this close to our village before. Every year they pass by, moving south in the winter and then north again with the first thaws, and we’ve always pulled in our most distant people and the worst that might happen would be a burned field. Most years the Kyzanthe never even bothered. They’ve never attacked directly, certainly not an entire village, not if old Roan is to be believed. “Not since the days of the old Pegason” he muttered as we closed the gates. “His memory always cowed them. They must have forgotten.”

This morning, the pounding stopped, as did the chants and screams and drums. The only thing we could hear was the moving of feet and horses from beyond the palisade, and we all took up our weapons and lined up before the gate, ready for an attack.

Nothing happened. For three hours we’ve been standing here, waiting. I wish we could get a look outside. No one has dared to climb a ladder and look over the wall, not since Roan got hurt.

I look at Rikart, who is standing to my right. He looks back, tightly gripping one of the few swords available. He’s one of the few among us who knows how to use one. He looks over towards the ladder still standing next to the gate and back to me. I nod.

He’s thoughtful, and somehow manages to scratch at his chin while holding that sword. “I can hear them walking around out there, and that’s not the footfalls of a dozen men.”

“No,” I agree. It sounds like quite a bit more than a dozen men.

“They’re awfully quiet though. More quiet than Kyzanthe usually are.”

Yes,” I agree. No one is speaking, or grunting.  No one is acting like the Kyzanthe usually do.

“Someone has to take a look.” He says.

Roan groans and rubs at his shoulder as he walks up. “Of course, and no sense in one of you young lads getting knocked off like I did. I’m already hurt, so I’ll go take a look.” He starts off towards the ladder but Rikart smiles and grabs him by the shoulder: the good one, and merely shakes his head. I’m already off, nodding to Roan, dropping my sword and shield as I run; I jump up the ladder and am up it in moments.

It’s not a particularly high wall, perhaps the height of only one man standing on another’s shoulders, but it’s served us in the past. Our wooden palisade was never meant to hold back a determined assault, but again, the marauders had never ventured this far south. The walls are mainly to keep out wild animals and keep in children. We’re farmers. Half of us have never even lifted a sword before today. Apart from Rikart, the rest have only done so in practice drills against scarecrows and hay bales, and even then only during Harvest time, to honor Shaiyra and her great sickle.

We’re not fighters, and as I slowly easy my head over the top of the wall, my heart sinks, because I’m one of the other few in my village who knows how to use a sword, and I have studied wars and tactics and the numbering of men, and there are at least a thousand Kyzanthe standing, silently, in formation before our gate. The distant farms are all ablaze, still, and the nearer buildings are fully engulfed in flame.

A shout goes up as soon as my head appears and I duck back down even as a storm of arrows flies overheard, and I hit the ground running and grab my sword and shield, trembling as I do so. The sound of slow chanting begins from outside, a couple voices at first, and then more, as the war song is taken up by the entire host.

Rikart looks at me, one eyebrow raised. I shake my head. “Too many,” I whisper.

He nods, and turns towards Iy’eke as another volley of arrows arcs over the wall, this time all ablaze.

Most of them fall among the thatch roof of the Great Hall, the rest on other buildings and fire leaps up suddenly. Iy’eke is already running towards the fire, shouting as he runs. We all know where he is going. The village is no longer any protection for our women and children. To stay inside the buildings means death by fire. To stand with us means death by sword. The only hope is to get them outside of the village where they might hopefully not be run down by the army outside. We will have to buy them time to flee with our lives.

No one turns around to watch Iy’eke running, or to see the women spilling out of the flaming building. We can hear the coughing and the cries, and Iy’eke’s barked commands as he leads them all towards the exit at the back of the palisade. The bolthole is only a small doorway, used for bringing in livestock from the far fields. It’s mere coincidence that we’ve not used it in several seasons, and that thick bushes grew up around it, hiding it from view from outside of the walls. I don't dare pray that the walls there will be free of enemies, but they shouldn’t know about the door, and shouldn’t expect any of us to come running out from there.

We argued about using it as an escape for our families, debated, and finally agreed upon it as a last resort, only if defeat was certain and the village about to be overrun. That’s all but certain now. Still, while the enemy is occupied with the front gate, our wives and children, at least some of them, might slip away, unseen.

The plains of the Hyth-Tao are vast, but maybe some of our people might make it to the hills, or even, Shaiyra willing, the forest. The bastards wouldn't dare pursue into the forest.

Now is the time that we can act, and give the women and children the minutes they will need to get free. Rikart begins to beat on his shield with his sword, shouting his own challenge to the army outside, and in moments we’ve all taken it up, screaming and banging away and drawing attention towards the gate, towards the front of the village, hopefully away from our families and their escape.

As if in response, the banging on the gate from outside begins again, but harder. It creaks and bends for a moment. They’re using a ram of some kind. I smile. Now comes our death, but they’re ignoring our fleeing families. We'll hold here, to the last man, and the others will make it to another village, to other husbands, other lives.

I'm trying not to think of Jen'a right now.

Fire is all around me. The gate creaks under another blow. Another rain of fire arrows flies from beyond the walls and hits the buildings closer to the wall, spreading the fire.

It all happens in an instant. The wooden gate falls completely with a loud crash, and the wave of granite flesh pours into the inner village.

I have never seen a Kyzanthe this close, and I swallow the lump in my throat as they close upon us. None is greater than five feet, shorter than any of us, but wider somehow, broader of shoulder. I understand immediately why they are sometimes called “stoneskins.” Their skin is grey, with no hair save for the black topknot at the back of each one’s head. None wear helms, and most are bare-chested. Their bodies are hairless, their tattered cloth pants as grey as their flesh.

Their faces are remarkably human, but for the twin fangs curving upwards from behind their lips. I expected something more… monstrous.

My thoughts are wrenched back to the present as the creatures charge at us, slamming into our motley collection of pikes, swords and farming equipment. Roan spins and beheads one with his scythe, and I beat aside the defense of another before skewering it. Its eyes widen and it opens its mouth wide in a cry of pain, fangs bared. I push it off of my sword, into the beast behind it, and close ranks with my fellow defenders. Behind us, I hear the noises of the crowd of the unarmed moving away, and I try to ignore it. Rikart moves up alongside me, engaging another attacker. His normal joking easy manner is gone, the laughter gone from his eyes and he viciously slashes another attacker across the face.

And then the fight is over almost as soon as it started, and I’m surprised to see most of us still standing. There were twenty or so of them, but only one of us fell: old Roan. His face is peaceful. The ugly gash in his chest less so.

Only twenty or so rushed us. The gate is smashed open, swung wide on its hinges. I can see lines of enemies standing, chanting, shouting outside. What are the rest waiting for?

Rikart wastes no time. Running towards the rear of our group, he shouts for Iye’ke’s attention. He’s still by the Great Hall, helping people out of the fully engulfed building. It is taking far too long to get everyone out. Rikart waves at him. “No time! Bolthole! Now!”

Iye’ke nods and moves out of sight behind the rest of the buildings, towards the bolthole. There’s no more time for an orderly procession.

Rikart moves back up and looks to me. “We need to get their attention,” and he moves up towards the gate. I turn and wave the other men to follow.

The reaction is immediate. The shouting from the Kyzanthe gets even louder, more frantic. We stand just inside the gate, and I hear gasps from some of the men who hadn’t gotten a good look at the size of the army until now. “Stand firm, for your family’s sake!” I bark.

From somewhere in the back of the crowd, a chant starts, and soon they are all shrieking it.

Da-ré. Da-ré Da-ré. Da-ré. Da-ré. Da-ré

They beat their curved swords against their shields as they chant.

Da-ré. Da-ré Da-ré. Da-ré. Da-ré. Da-ré

Rikart and I grip our own swords, look at each other for a moment, and nod. We agree, silently, and smile, then turn towards the enemy and tense to charge.

The sound and screams of combat distract us, and it takes us all a moment to discern that it is coming from behind us.

I spin without thinking, as do my fellows, and some actually drop their weapons in shock. A horde of the Kyzanthe comes into view, running around the burning buildings, waving bloody swords and shrieking in triumph, obviously coming from where they burst in… through the bolthole. Somewhere out of sight behind the other buildings comes the screaming as the enemy carves into our fleeing friends and families.

I don't even have time to start forward, to try to go and help, before the thousand Kyzanthe, forgotten now behind us, slams into us like a wave. I’m pushed violently to the side, away from my friends, as stoneskins grab at my hands and try to rip away my sword and shield.

I turn and slash and send one down, screaming. I hear my friends fighting back but cannot turn from the sea of foes surrounding me, overwhelming me.

I’m turned around, and feel a burning pain from my right shoulder all the way down to the knee of my left leg.  I would fall, but the pressure of a thousand grey bodies presses against me. Hands rip away my blade, my shield, my helmet. I’m hurled to the side, and I stumble, and am trampled underfoot.

All of it cannot have taken more than seconds, at most, yet it stretches on for what seems like an hour. I hear the shouts and growls of the Kyzanthe scum, the shrieks and wails of the women and the cries of the children, and the screams of horror from what seems like everyone. The ground climbs up towards me, tortuously slow, as a leg slams into me and I spin into someone else’s back and bounce off into someone’s fist. I can no longer feel the actual blow that has felled me. I see, off to the side, Rikart already lying there, a look of shock and confusion burned into his face by the axe buried in his head, before a forest of legs cuts him off from view. But it's over now. It's all lost, and I'm shocked to find that I'm at peace with this. Jen'a and I will find each other in the wheat fields in the new morning, in the endless plains where evil does not dare tred. Shaiyra will welcome us, and will be kind. It is cold comfort, but it is enough.

Someone’s elbow hits me square in the nose. The ground rushes up, and then...

Blackness.

ERINNIUS

I do not like this.

I do not like this at all.

I started my day trying to avoid prophecies. I came to this place to consider and decide and I had resolved to reject divination and foretelling and the pre-destination of certainty, and then you came along and ruined all of it.

Instead, I get to live through a battle I am not even participating in!

You cannot even respond to my anger at this. You cannot cease this magic, end this intrusion into my mind and my own future. All you can do is to simply sit there, an imprisoned awareness, perceiving and experiencing and feeling everything but impotent to change any of it. And I am forced to witness and experience all of it along with you.  You’ve left me to clean up your mess, and you’ve left me too many questions and now I must respond when I thought to procrastinate for just a few more years.

I am so angry with you right now.

So, in the future we obviously know each other. You will do terrible things and wreak horrible sins upon our world, and I cannot even act to stop you because I cannot change what already has happened, even if it has not happened yet! Do you see the position you have placed me in? I see all of your betrayals, and I must be friendly and be your grandmother and pretend that I do not know who you will become in time.

And I still perceive! I am still linked to you. I am aware now of all that happens, aware of things happening far away, things that demand action. After a thousand years of justifications and procrastinations and excuses, now I am finally forced to act.

In a small, cowardly way, I will thank you for that. It is obvious. I finally do something about all of this, and that is what sets all of this in motion. I only need to judgment of the Jewel to confirm this.

I keep putting it off.

That ends today.

ANDRIUS

Smoke. Fire. Burning.

Again, again, again. Always again.

Endlessly and again and always and again and...

Peace now my love. Calmness.

As always when climbing up from insanity, I am at first confused. These moments of clarity are rare, and to be treasured. I must take a moment to appreciate seeing the world through untainted eyes.

Blessed goddess and her hideous consort be praised.

Thank you as well, Erin.

You are welcome.

I’m standing on the wide ledge before the Eastern Door, looking out over the wide expanse of the Hyth-Tao.   I sit, letting the wind from the east carry to me the smell of the great rolling plains, the grass leading all the way to The Chasm. Somewhere to the north these plains lead all the way to Archus That is Lost, and southwards to the very feet of the High Wall, but it is the scent from the east that calms me.  I smell the people in their strong villages, the roving bands of kyzanthe, the fierce cats and the gazelle that flee at their approach.  I expand my senses outwards, opening my inner eye and soaking in the images of miles and years.  These moments of sanity are rare, and on these days, I treasure the smell of grasses blown up from below.

And then the direction of the wind changes and I smell it again. Smoke, from the north.

Out in the distance, something is burning.

Erin slides up beside me, and as always she is cold. I do not mind, for her thoughts burn like an inferno.

"Brush fire?" I wonder aloud.

She must know that the question is rhetorical, but she chooses to answer regardless. She does so with words this time, not thoughts.

"Unlikely. Upon the wind I hear the echoes of screams and the clash of arms. I hear the stomping of many feet." There is something unsaid that I can see in her eyes, but there is always something left unsaid when a dragon speaks. I learned long ago when not to pry into a dragon's innermost thoughts.

She smiles down at me as if able to hear what I am thinking, and looks away just as quickly as I consider this. Sometimes it almost feels as if she truly can read my mind.

It is as if Erin is somewhere far away, and the trouble upon her brow wounds me more than I can let her know. She is always so concerned about the world outside, about us humans, about her people’s law forbidding interference, and I wish desperately for some way to console her, instead of silently benefiting from her constant self-appointed duty of taking care of a mad fool like myself. She looks away now, and I chose not to pursue this matter. She is troubled, but who is not in these times?

She will tell me her thoughts when she is ready.

She coughs. "Great armies are on the move." She gestures with a talon towards a dim red haze at the horizon. "Battle erupts at the edge of the world. Medrosa has fallen, and others are under siege. The peoples of the Hyth-Tao are being swept away by the incoming tide."

I don't want to believe this. "Battle? Who would be fighting out there, in the plains? The villages barely keep enough weapons to drill with nowadays, and the Uruthyi'e haven't attacked men in..." I rack my brain.

"Four hundred and twenty two years, six months, thirteen days."

I smile. "There are many reasons I love you," I whisper.

She snorts, amused. She is still patient with me, after so many years.

"What about the militia?  Don’t the younger Pegason keep up the patrols?  A force couldn’t have arisen out there without us knowing about it."

"Our intelligence, it seems, is out of date."

I stand up and begin to pace in frustration. "No. They had come so far. They were climbing back, after so many hundreds of years things were finally starting to come around again. They were finally rebuilding."

She shrugs, as best as a dragon can manage. "It will all end. Without help, they will fall once again, and from this fall nothing will be salvaged, not for men, not for the Folk, not even for the kyzanthe."

I narrow my eyes. "Your opinion? Or is that from the Jewel?"

She lowers her own.

I hold my breath. “Finally? They are not going to look upon this kindly.  What has convinced you?”

"I do not need prophecy to read the whispers of the winds." She slides back towards the caves, her parting thoughts delivered without words. "Darkness approaches, and the world stirs."

I settle back down again as she moves away. I watch the spreading red glow, and a rising smoke, out towards the horizon. As she leaves, so does my mind. I do my best to remain stoic, but a sob chokes out of me before I am...

Smoke. Fire. Burning.

Again, again, again. Always again.

Endlessly and again and always and again and again and

ERINNIUS

Oh Andy, my Andy, you were never meant to endure this long. Is this my own selfishness, or your stubborn nature? The madness I can endure, though it cuts me more than you can ever know. Yet I cannot bear to see the despair in your eyes as you contemplate the fate of those you left behind. It has been near to a thousand years that you have stayed by my side, far longer than your kind was meant to exist, and the toll has been heavy upon you.

I cannot let you go. Not now.

Do not judge me. My pain is beyond what you can understand.

Decisions, and action are my consolation.

 
Be proud then, spellcaster from my future, for you made up my mind for me. I have gone unto the Jewel, and in gazing upon the future have solidified it. I cannot know the ultimate outcome, only that the number of paths has been reduced, greatly. The Jewel has shown me the place to start upon those paths, and I shall set myself firmly upon them now, for good or for ill.

I live still in your time, but am I cheered or cursed? Do I succeed, or am I the protagonist of a cautionary tale? No, don’t answer.


Watch on, then, as if you had a choice. Our future awaits.

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