Mythopoeia (Beleaguered Fools)
Night lay on the face of Syndesia; a bitter, white cold in the north; a black, stifling heat to the south; and a gentle, cool change from a day of pleasant warmth in the lands of Myr.
In the midst of Myr, among the wide plains, there rises a great upswelling of the earth; the last bastion of mountains that once had pressed inland from the sea, their outflung spurs driving like spears into the lowlands. But long and long ago they were beaten back by that most relentless foe, ranging now in misty lines of stone across a distant sky.
Alone this mountain stands, undefeated, though bowed beneath the long green cloak of time, with no friend about him but the graves of the slain; the laying dead of an army in retreat, in row upon row of rolling hills that stretch from here to the far off marching peaks. And across their sinking bones, like the ceaseless waves of a verdant sea, moaning and howling among the grass, The Wind drives his unseen herds to storm the horizon.
A river winds about his feet, and on its shores, between the mountain and the water, stands a city. Its walls are built of stone hewn from him; its houses of timbers cut from the forest that cloaks him, and its people are fed on the food that his body gives them; crops that grow on the floodplains about him, herds and flocks that graze on his grassy flanks.
The city stands muffled in the folds of a thick cloaking fog; masts rising from out of a cloudy sea, piers and jetties stretching over nothing amidst its pale drifts, and where the shifting white parts for a moment, glimpses of a black liquid sky. The banks of pale stuff pile themselves against the water gate and pool around the walls; rising up and falling back like waves, wisps floating over the parapets, through the cracks in the timbers to stray down cobbled thoroughfares and winding alley ways like ragged ghosts, their silent passage unheeded by the living, for the living are no longer there to see them.
The sun rises and the darkness begins to lighten, but shadows still lie deep over the city, for night lingers here, in the shadow of the mountain. The golden tide of sunlight flows by on either side, parting about the mighty sheltering shoulders and the high proud peak. The encroaching day shows the land bare all about the city; nothing but stubble stands in the fields, and the pastures on the mountains long, green sides hold neither flock nor herd, and the air is still and silent but for birds that quarrel over the empty fields.
Now comes the dawn in truth, and Morning races upon a freshening wind to catch at the banners hanging low and dark upon the spires of the city; snapping them out like whips until they flash and crack like fire: tongues of fire in every hue.
Then the light upon its breezy charger, turns and courses back again towards the the mountain, washing over the plain before the city to break upon the walls and foam about the knights there drawn up like the ranks of Faery; all in glittering mail and helms that flame with the dawn.
Their lances rise like a forest, the points tipped with the beaten fires of a new day. Their shields shine like the scales of great and wondrous fish, and the morning dances about them, pulling at their capes and the tossing the manes of their horses, until the sight of them, arrayed so boldly before that fair city, took on the seeming of a dream; some memory of childhood that brings to the hearts of men the ache of a nameless longing.
Now falls once more the night; darkness blotting out the land as the shadow of Tartaros catches the sun from the sky and devours the day.
Silence covers the land; deep, and dark, and waiting. Then a sound like metal torn and shrieking; like thunder breaking all to pieces, and a doorway flares in the darkness; the flaming hellish mouth yawning ever wider and lighting the field with a bloody light. The waiting army turns, it seems, to stone, all dull and lifeless while the shadows crawl around them.
Into that benighted world comes a creature like a dragon; crawling across the earth with a thousand heads and ten thousand feet that scratch and claw the green, green grass still wet with the mornings dew.
The beast draws itself up before the city; a dark and twisted mirror to that fair host which stood but a little time before, now gone grey and crumbling in the face of a mighty foe, and there it stops. Writhing and rustling like a forest of iron, a thousand thousand red and hungry eyes, all turned upon the city like a serpent before a nest of eggs, whose fearful stare has turned to stone the beak and claws poised to defend it.
The field stood so, poised for battle, but caught in an endless moment.
Story continues here:
Syndesia's shadow lies lightly on the night. The tortured line of a ravine winds among great stones, little more than a shadow in the gloom; a crack in the flesh of Tartaros. In it's depths hangs the stillness of the hunt.
Two massive forms slowly force their bulk through the tight passage. There is a feeling of unseen things before and behind them in the darkness.
One of the figures growls as a horn grinds on the stone, catches, and its face thuds into into the cliff.
"What are they thinking; sending us down into this rat-hole? Bah!"
The demon behind him jams a fist into his ribs.
"Shut up and keep moving, you want to get stuck in here?"
The first demon would have turned, had not the rock walls forced them both to sidle along like crabs.
"Whats the point of an alliance with those damn ‘Cockroaches’ if they aren't the ones doing the scouting? "
Again the fist thuds into flesh, and the first demon growls, wrenching his head about trying to clear his horns, and groping behind him with a clawed hand.
"I said shut it!"
Cold fear in the others voice stopped him. Silence buzzed while they both listened. After a few moments he continued in as close to a whisper as such a huge body could achieve.
"You want them to hear you? While we’re stuck in here and can’t fight back? If you don’t shut up, I'll kill you before our new friends can do anything worse. Now, keep your mouth shut and your feet moving. Go on!"
A section of jagged stone shimmers as the two Hellfire demons pass it; one horn of the hindmost sinking into it, but neither of them notice.
A few minutes later, the two Infernos side-by-side now as the ravine widens, are lost in the gloom. The illusion of stone fades and the low light shows yellow fangs grinning up at him.
"Don't you worry, they ain't lookin fer us. 'Course, that don't mean they won't rip our 'eads off if they catch us..."
A wink and his guide ducked his head out of the cave.
"What is it?"
He made to peer out himself, but the other checked him.
"You might want to stay out of sight. Now, listen up:"
Barely audible with his mouth at the others ear and hands cupped around it, the Shadow Demon began to whisper.
"A'right now; up ahead there, our two friends 'ave found a few more of their friends, so we're gonna have to play this smart. So, just behind where they're gabbin, this ditch splits up, and I reckon the others were checkin out which way to go, an' I dont reckon' they found what they're lookin fer, which is good for whoever it is, but bad fer us, coz it looks like they aint gonna move on any time soon. In a bit, I'm gonna head out of 'ere and charge at 'em, 'cepting I won't look like me, right? They'll see some shadowy horror coming down this gully at 'em, twice as big and twice as mean as anything they ever saw."
He stopped, listened for a moment, and peeked out before continuing.
"So, you come along behind me, quick as you can, and while I keep 'em busy, you duck into the right-hand path, ok? You run down that crack like The Old Goat 'erself was lickin at yer neck, and when you get to a spot where you gotta jump over this big pit to keep going, you drop right into it, ok? down the hole, you hear? don't worry, you'll be a'right, so long as you got a good lead on 'em and they don't see ya go in. You got all that?"
He nodded. Reaching up to clap him on the shoulder, the little demon grinned.
"Now, don't you worry 'bout me, I'm a slippery old 'cockroach'"
They grinned at each other like children, then the shadow demon nodded at him.
He peeked out once more, and then they were running.
The thought that he might die had just begun to cross his mind when he was gripped by invisible hands and pulled backward, in under the ledge. He felt himself come to a stop and a soft voice spoke from the blackness.
"There is stone beneath you; be silent"
He felt himself gently lowered until he was once more on his feet, and the unseen grip released him.
There came a quick, soft padding above him; a click of claws on stone, then silence. Once, twice,
Time passed uncounted, and he was about to speak when he felt a cool hand on his arm and a breath at his ear whispered:
He strained his ears but heard nothing.
He felt himself grow cold but thought it only the quieting of his blood. The fingers clenched on his arm. He held himself still and silent, trusting to the unseen stranger. After a while the grip slackened and the small hand moved to take his.
He was led, walking as silently as he might, until at last his guide halted and a light bloomed in the tunnel. He stood looking into the smiling face of a Blood Demon.
He flinched. Memories came to him of other smiles; pink teeth behind wet lips. She saw him recoil and reached out a hand to him.
An elegant hand. A slender arm, like the statues of Iridia that stand in human temples. The long fingers dripping blood. Bodies lying torn and broken, cast at her marble feet. Ruby tears trailing down her alabaster cheeks; the goddess' ravaged face looked on her children’s final sacrifice with eyes never shaped by mason’s craft.
He stepped back, fury roaring in his ears and disgust roiling in his belly.
And stopped. The memory passed and he looked at the woman before him, her face no longer that of an enemy, but soft with concern.
He had seen demons smile; he had heard laughter issue from a mouth full of fangs, and felt friendship in taloned hands. But he had never seen pity in the eyes of a Vampire.
He lowered his head, rubbed the memories away from his eyes.
"Forgive me, the last time I saw one of your kind..."
"Please, it is I who am sorry; I should have warned you. I forget sometimes, how it is elsewhere... it seems strange, that I could forget... We have had no one join us in so long"
They stood a moment, each lost in their own thoughts before the woman shook her head and smiled at him again.
"Come, we are not safe yet. This passage will lead you to a valley; when you reach it you will see three tall fingers of rock. Sit beneath the stone that is of middle height, and one will be sent to lead you on."
"I shall await the Little One that lead you to me, then we shall follow."
"Do not fear for our friend; He has many times escaped more cunning foes than those you saw. Nor fear for me; my arts are not strong to kill, but there are few even among my own people who might easily overcome me. We shall the two of us see you again."
"Very well, until next we meet"
He turned and walked into the darkness.
Syndesia had passed from view and the sky grown pale before the final guide came to meet him. His exertions and the stress of the last few days caught up with him and he fell asleep sitting beneath the stone pillar, his back to it and his head resting against it.
Suddenly he woke, someone was shaking him. Through sleep blurred eyes he saw a huge figure blotting out the dawn. A black form bent over him, reaching out to him, curved horns stark against a lightening sky.
“Hullo lad, sorry about the wait, had to stay up there until my replacement came, can’t have the only sentry checking out every one that might come along. Could’ve been a trap you know, then who’d warn everyone eh? But I reckon that if you fell asleep out here in the open you can’t be much of a threat!”
The grinning face of an infernal, illuminated by the wan sun rising over the cliffs, was somehow comforting, and as he gripped the proffered hand and rose to his feet, he wasn’t sure what that meant.
After waving up at the cliffs, presumably to reassure the sentry hidden somewhere above, the giant turned back to him, still smiling.
“Shall we? There’s a bit of a way to go yet, but you can rest proper when we get there”
He led the way and the smaller demon hurried to keep up. As they reached the steep slope of scree beneath the cliffs that edged the small valley, he saw the entrance of a narrow ravine open above them. His guide kept a running commentary as they struggled upwards, the coarse sand and stones slipping back to cover their footsteps.
“I’m sure Marl’ll have something in the pot when we get back; best cook in the worlds is Marl. I guess that’s one of the good things about a setup like this, a lot of people show up here that don’t get much recognition out there”
He indicated the rest of Tartaros with a broad wave of an arm
“Right bunch of ‘artistes’ they are, but if they can’t use a Warhammer or at least make one, no one out there cares much. Makes living here a right treat though.”
The ravine curved smoothly to the right, widening or narrowing here and there, as though it had once been a watercourse, long dried up now, the soft sandstone worn away in a wide arc, layers of stone revealed in the high steep walls, and boulders of harder stone scattered along its floor, which was remarkably flat though it showed no signs of work but that of wind and time.
“‘Course, there is such a thing as ‘too peaceful’. Being out here in the middle of nowhere, we get left pretty much to ourselves. There’s a few know about us of course, can’t hide this many people from everyone, but we’re out of the way and they tend to think its not worth the effort of getting in here through all these cliffs and canyons and such.”
He stopped and pointed forward down the passage to where it seemed to bend to the left
“Nearly there, see that corner up ahead? Just past that there’s the bridge. I usually go down and around the long way, the caves are a bit uncomfortable for a fella big as I am, but I reckon you’d not be eager to do any extra walking, so we’ll go the short way.”
Continuing along he resumed his chatter
“So, every now and then, me and some of the lads’ll head off for a bit of an adventure, I mean, you can’t sit around painting every day now can ya, eh? Just the usual mostly, some old ruin or something with a few skeletons and spiders, but sometimes we go a bit further. Not everyone stays here you know, some come for a bit but leave again for one reason or another, can’t stand the boredom mostly, and even those that stay go off to one of the big cities now and again, have a bit of fun.”
He fell silent as they came out on a wide but short ledge halfway up the sheer wall of an enormous valley. Far below, the floor of the valley sloped down from the walls on either side in the usual sandy scree, though the sand was a much paler colour than he had seen so far. Winding among the sand down the middle of the valley was a strip of scraggly bushes and patchy, wiry grasses, most of them looking like they were dying or already dead, but there in the center of that disheartening strip of struggling life, barely visible at this distance, but unmistakeable in its contrast, was a thin line of green.
To one side was the opening of a stairway cut into the side of the cliff, leading down, and straight out from the ledge, stretching over the wide gorge, was a thin stone bridge, arching over the valley like a rainbow whose blues and greens had faded away in the sun. Below its opposite end, where it met the wall on the far side, was a large rocky outcrop. The stone was worn by the wind that at times must howl savagely down the valley, but if you looked at it in a certain way, it seemed as though it might once have had the form of a man-like figure carved into the rock, its arms raised above its head, holding up the bridge.
As they crossed, carefully on the part of one and familiarly on the part of the other, the guide took up where he had left off, his voice coming faintly back to his companion walking behind him. It may have been this lessening of volume, or the wind that brushed at them, but their seemed a hint of sorrow in the brash voice.
“Every time I get bored here and go off looking to do something like in the old days, before I came here, I get to a city and its fun at first, but every time it takes me less time to remember why I left all that. There’s good things out there for sure, but its all mixed up in so much stuff that doesn’t even make sense; people trying to get things for themselves by knocking down everyone around them, and then they lose it all when someone knocks them down. Here, we all help each other and everyone gets the things they want without having to fight for it.”
He trailed off, or maybe his words became so soft that the wind took them before they could reach the ears of his companion and they finished the crossing in silence.
When they reached the other side, there was nothing more than a slight broadening of the bridge, and a hole in the cliff face that leaned out as it rose above them forming a roof of sorts.
Turning to him, the Inferno indicated the hole.
“This is one of the caves, theres a few others around, but they mostly all join up somewhere inside. The tunnels are a bit of a maze, you aren’t worried about being underground are you?”
He shook his head
“I thought you said you don’t get attacked here, why do you have to live in caves then?”
“Oh no, we don’t live in the caves, well there’s a few that do, the caves are just one way of getting to the city, which, I suppose is in a cave, but its not really. You’ll see when we get there.”
With this he turned and ducked into the mouth of the cave.
The passages beyond were cold and, while not particularly low or narrow as tunnels went, his guide could rarely walk easily along them, and some of the narrower places nearly stopped him completely. He found that as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see, as though there were a faint light all through the place. The way before him as well as down every side tunnel or beyond every doorway they passed, seemed to be faint illuminated, as though there was a light source somewhere just out of sight, but he never saw one, and the passage behind him showed as faintly lit as it was before him, while he himself always seemed to walk in dimness just bright enough to see by. As they went along, the larger demon mentioning this and that about the tunnels, he saw that each intersection of passages was signposted in a way and every door way marked with writing cut deep into the stone, and while he couldn’t understand the characters, he soon realised that at every turn, they followed a passage whose ‘signpost’, in the form of a serious of figures at the mouth, contained among the others the same repeated symbol.
“Almost there, and a good thing too, my necks starting to get a bit sore, you doing all right back there? Here we go, the home stretch”
Just past the latest junction the passageway began to slope upward and curve to the left until they reached a door. Not just an open doorway this time, but a solid door made of some kind of thick planks set into an iron framework and hung on huge iron hinges.
“You might want to cover your eyes a bit, the sun shouldjust about down by now, we get short days here, what with all the cliffs we lose half the morning and the afternoon, but it’ll still be pretty bright out there. Welcome to my home”
With that he set his hand to the door and swung it outwards, following it to one side, the pale light of morning bursting through the portal. With one hand raised to shade his eyes, he stepped out into the open air.
Lowering his hand he looked out into what seemed like a deep canyon. The cliff walls rose smooth and clean on every side, meeting far above and curving outwards so that the ‘canyon’ was truly a massive cave in shape, but the ceiling being so very high above, the whole was open and airy, daylight streaming in unhindered through the thin slit where the walls almost met on the far side.
The door he had entered the place through, he saw as his companion swung it shut, was made of slabs of bone, pale off-white where it faced the dimness of the tunnels, but dark and yellowed on the outer side, and was set into the face of the wall at the deepest part of the canyon, furthest from the mouth. The floor of the cavern was not flat but rose one every side towards the walls, so that the curvature of the floor nearly mirrored that of the ceiling, with the lowest part being in the center, and he looked from the doorway down a long slope to where a city had been built in the bottom of the cavern, the buildings clustered about a large pointed outcrop of dark grey rock very different from the surrounding stone, and across the roofs of the city to where the ground sloped up again on the far side to a high wall built across the entrance, where the cliffs came nearest each other.
The outcrop in the middle of the place jutted from the top of a small hill rising out of the central hollow, and the whole sweep of the hill and the surrounding shallow bowl was covered by houses and streets, and out through the gap where the cliffs ran apart again beyond the wall could be glimpsed a strip of green, and a flash as though from water glinting in the sun.
His attention caught by the strange sight of a city in a cave and what seemed to be fertile fields in the midst of this desolate world, he hardly heard his companion begin to speak.
“Well, lets head on down shall we? You see that big building on the side of the hill? Sort of cut into the side there? That’s Marl’s place, you can get something cold to drink and something hot to eat as soon as we get there, and Marl can send someone to get the boss, no doubt he’ll be happy for an excuse to drop in as well”
He grinned at him and strode off down the path, yellow and orange striped pavers set into the pale sand that covered every inch of the floor except where stone was laid.
The walls that rose up and curled into the ceiling hanging far overhead were of striped sandstone, reds and yellows in whorls and ribbons of colour that faded into each other or rippled starkly side by side. The long slope was a hill of loose sand in as many mingled colours as the stone all around, except where buildings stood or where cobbles were laid in pathways crisscrossing the slope, and near the center of the cavern, where the sand levelled for a moment before plunging down to the narrow mouth of the canyon, stood the bare jutting knee of dark basalt, the pale buildings clustering about it like frightened calves beside a bull.
The path that his guide led him went near to the middle of the city, headed it seemed for the edge of the great dark stone, where the building he had pointed out, long and low like all the rest and roofed with the same yellow slate, but wider, and judging by the windows set into the stone about it, and the way the walls vanished into the rock, the building was much larger inside than out, and more than a mere dwelling.
Beyond the wall, unseen in the blackness of a Tartaros night, were the jagged peaks and crawling ravines that protected them; the perils and pitfalls of this harsh world providing sanctuary.
Out there, in the shadows, lay fields that He had seen rippling like an ocean of gold in the sunlight, and a river, too small to merit the name on any other world, but here a shimmering flood of life glittering even now in the light of Arboreus, adding its feeble refrain to the outpouring of song that there, in that other place, hung ceaselessly in the air, ever present; the beating of summer storms and spring showers that murmur at the window. Throbbing oceans and rippling pools, the roar of waterfalls and the gentle laughter of streams. Arboreus…
An ear twitched at the sound of feet on the stairs, but his mind paid it no attention, lost in the memories of another life.
The dreams began to recede, fading into the distance, vanishing into the night.
His eyes focused again, looking into the darkness after the lost images. The feel of the stone parapet beneath his folded arms returning. He turned his head to the figure beside him, an indication of his attention only, his nose had told him already who stood there.
A Hellfire demon, broad shouldered but short, for one of them, looked up at him, worry on her matronly features.
“A stranger just came in the back way; Trom brought him, but from what he says it seems like Grue and Rischa sent him.”
He nodded and straightened, the course hair of his arms rasping over the stone, and headed for the steps leading down, the demon falling in beside him.
“Grue isn’t with him?”
“No, he says Grue and Rish told him how to get here and then went to distract the group that was following him, draw them away so he could get through unseen. He described Grue pretty well.”
He glanced over at her, and they shared a grin at the thought of the scrawny old shadow demon.
“I wonder if Time will get him first, or a more common foe.”
“More likely he’ll set them on each other while he slips away!”
“Perhaps he will at that”
They walked along the quiet streets in companionable silence, the light of the few lanterns held by the cave walls and the roof high overhead gleaming faintly on the pale stone of the dwellings, a faint illumination throughout the entire city while the darkness hung outside like black fog.
He pushed open the free swinging door of thick hide stretched between carved bone posts and ducked into the darkness beyond, his companion entering with a little more ease beneath the high, but not high enough lintel. They made their way with easy familiarity among the chairs and tables, also made of hides and bone, that occupied the large room. A thin ribbon of golden light was the only illumination in the otherwise black space, shining out from a gap in the wall opposite, behind the long stone bar, where a doorway was not quite fully covered by a leather curtain.
Passing through this curtain, he saw the newcomer seated at a table in the brightly lit kitchen, pots a-bubbling and things sizzling on the various fires, the air thick and warm and full of the smell of food.
As they entered, he heard a muffled voice ask a question, and a familiar voice reply
“Well, I suppose it is kind of ironic, I mean, a vampire chef! Who ever heard of such a thing? But well, what can I say? I always liked to cook. As a child I found the idea of drinking blood a little off-putting, but mostly just boring. The flavours! the textures! All the things that those Troglodytes miss out on! Raw meat and fresh blood, Bah! There are so many different techniques; recipes; shapes, colours… there are just so many ways you can cook something, so many challenges.”
The speaker was a small, thin figure standing on the other side of a large central table with its back to them, a quiet rhythmic vibration, almost lost among the other sounds, emanated from where his hands would be, hidden by his body.
“I suppose it didn’t help that I preferred to eat things that didn’t move when I bit them. It’s sort of cowardly I suppose, I mean, I’m fine with cooking the thing, but I don’t want to get my hands dirty by killing it. I love animals. I honestly couldn’t say what Id do if I had to choose between killing an animal and starving to death, id try to find a way around it, but in the end, I really dont know.”
The vibrating sound stopped suddenly as one arm flicked out to the side, silver flashing in the hand and a stream of something like green dust flew in a perfect arc to land in a pot nearby, the other hand reaching simultaneously to the other side for a long white root of some kind, and then the hands were hidden again and the sound resumed.
“When I think about it, Maybe I really ought to be a butcher; I know that the animals get raised to be slaughtered, so wouldn’t it be better for people that care about animals to do the killing? Try to be kind to them since they have to die anyway? Or is it best the way it is? Have people who enjoy it or don’t care do it, off somewhere no one sees it, and then no one has to think about it. I don’t know. Still, there will always be people who want meat, so as long as the animals get bred for food, I’ll cook them. After all, the only worse thing than living to be killed would be if they died for nothing right?”
The talkative chef had been speaking over his shoulder to the newcomer who was seated at the long table that occupied most of the middle of the cosy, almost cramped room, eating from a wide wooden bowl containing some sort of stew by the smell. But as he talked, his movements had slowed until he was simply standing there, knife half raised in one hand in the process of dicing something, staring blankly at a wall.
After a moment, he shook himself a bit, shrugged and continued cutting
“Ah well, no use dwelling on it I guess. You know, a lot of demons don’t care, but you can get a lot of flavour without meat, and I guess that was one of the things that drew me to cooking; exploring different things to eat that didn’t require killing. That stew your eating there for example; not a scrap of meat in it I’m afraid, just mushrooms, roots, grains and herbs, tastes pretty good though doesn’t it? Well, don’t tell Graul, he’s one of those people that needs meat in his food. I guess it’s because he used to be one of those beast-folk. I don’t know if that explains it or makes it worse. Funny that, don’t you think? Those Wild-kin are animals in a way, so does that mean they don’t worry about eating other animals because that’s the way nature works, or does it make the idea worse because they’re almost related to their food? You know?”
With these words he turned, one hand full of diced vegetable, and the other loosely holding a long, curved knife. He saw the two figures standing in the doorway and he froze.
“Hello Graul, I uh, didn’t hear you come in”
The stranger turned, his spoon halfway to his mouth, and his eyes widened as he connected the dots. The stew on his spoon slid slowly down the handle and fell to the floor. He tried to swallow his mouthful, choked, and while coughing, tried to stand only to slip in the fallen stew and sprawl onto the floor.
A deep belly laugh erupted from the huge shaggy figure in the doorway, surprising it seemed himself as much as anyone, but in a few moments the small, too warm kitchen was filled with laughter as the stranger looked about him bewildered. The two massive forms of Graul and Shura struggled not to join him on the floor, hanging onto each other to stop themselves from falling in their mirth.
Marl came around the table and helped him to his feet, a smile tugging at his red lips. He winked.
Tartaros Part 2
Afterwards, having been introduced to Graul, and finishing his meal, he was shown to a room where He might rest, and slept until the following night was well set in.
While breakfasting on a curious pie made from a large mushroom whose flesh was tough but richly flavoured, the whole thing covered in an odd fruity sauce, He was informed that Grue and Rischa had returned the previous day, and after resting themselves and finding him still asleep, had only just before gone out to meet with a former student of Grue’s. In his usual talkative manner, Marl also mentioned that his arrival had come at a time when those who would otherwise help him organise housing and finding employment were busy with preparations for the Eclipse. It seemed that while much of Tartaros’s population took advantage of the eclipse to seek fortune and glory in war on Syndesia, the residents of this more peaceful city used Babilis’s gift of easy travel for less belligerent purposes. Many here had friends and trade relations among the humans of Syndesia, and used the eclipse to strengthen those bonds; whether in commerce, social interaction or even helping to defend them from invading demons. Nevertheless, He was free to stay at the tavern free of charge until He got on his feet here, and He might explore the city at his leisure. For the time being, Marl told him that Grue and Rischa had invited him to come and find them when he woke, and that while they weren’t sure where they would be by then, Grues student having recently been given command of a scouting party and was often hard to find, the guards at the gate would be able to direct him.
Grue and Rischa left the tavern and made their way among the quiet buildings, passing here and there beneath the gentle glow of lanterns mounted on tall posts whose lights were worlds hanging upon nothing amidst the deep and pressing night, each golden pool the sum total of existence as they passed out of nothingness and returned to it.
At the gate met Trom, just returned from an extra stint at sentry duty, having traded times with the rostered man who had recently been wed.
They were informed by a guard nearing the end of his watch that Dol’s patrol had been due back a short time before, but not so long as to cause alarm. Grue however thought otherwise.
“I don’t like it; any other fella, well, mebbe they’ve had a bit o’ fun on the job, no worries, but not this’un, he’d have sent word if he ran into anything. Theres something not right here.”
Turning to the watchman he indicated Rischa and Trom, gesturing at the darkness beyond the gate with a thumb.
“We’re gonna go ‘ave a look. If no one comes back by say… no, I want you to go tell Graul, you yourself, get someone else to watch the gate, but you go tell Graul that somethings up, and tell ‘im Grue says so. Tell him that exactly as I said it and tell him I think we should get ready for some action. If nothing comes of it, well, we lost a bit of sleep, but if im right…”
With that lingering thought, he nodded at the gate, and the three of them stepped out as it opened just enough to allow them to pass, and they vanished into the night.
Syndesia's shadow lies lightly on Tartaros. From the unseen darkness of a long and tortured ravine rises the silence of breathing shadows struggling to live; striving to kill. Unheard feet fly from stone to stone, unseen eyes find traps placed by hands now casting droplets of blood upon the greedy dust. He knows that the eyes of they that follow him are as keen as his own, their feet as swift. He knows that they will no more fall to his traps than he himself, and that his track is clear to follow.
Arboreus rises before him in the heavens; it's light never casting a shadow in this place of darkness, never brightening his way, but he can see it. His pursuers begin to howl; they see him. His stride never changes; he has no more to give, and yet he does not slow. Eyes fixed on that one bright thing in his world of dimness, he runs on towards the mouth of the ravine; the others wait for him.
The road from the gate curves about the base of the cliffs, with smaller paths leading down through the fields to the river, and soon they come to a rift in the cliff face, the mouth of a narrow ravine, one of many that wind among the bones of Tartaros. Grue stops to think.
“Hmm, how do we find him? I guess one of us could stay here and the rest follow the usual route. It’s this one I think, ‘less they’ve changed since I did a patrol last“
Grue made to enter the ravine, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him
“Perhaps we should we go the other way round? Back to front, maybe he’s still on his way…”
“I dunno, mebbe.”
He rubbed his face, looking first one way and then the other.
“Why doesn’t one of us stays here, and the other two go one way each? Just be careful not to get caught by whatever might have caught Dol. Otherwise the others won’t know what’s happened”
He nodded, reluctant to split up in a potentially dangerous situation, but unsure what else to do.
“Damn. Somethings wrong, I can feel it. I don’t know what we should do. It could be too late already, what if they’re all…”
“We mustn’t think that way; whatever has happened cannot be changed, all we can do is go on the best we can.”
“You’re right of course”
“I think that Grue and I should head one way each, Grue you go from the start, you’re faster than I am and I might meet him coming back, Trom, you stay here, I’m afraid you are a little conspicuous”
“Right you are, and I’ve give a holler if I see him first, then whoever didn’t find im will know to come back. Be careful you two”
He leant back against the cliff and crossed his arms, his hammer resting handle up in front of him.
“All right, if you find trouble let the others know somehow, or leg it back here, if somethings wrong the rest need to know, top priority, so don’t get caught. Hold on, is that him?”
As they stood talking Grues sharp eyes had caught a flicker of movement further along the cliff. Motioning at the others to stay out of sight, he crouched and began to move like a shadow towards whatever was coming towards them, one hand on his dagger.
“Aye, it’s the lad, he looks hurt, Rischa!”
Together the three of them ran to the figure who was limping, but still moving fast along the track, head down and one hand clasped to his side. He didn’t seem to notice them until Grue, reaching him first, touched his shoulder, but continued past, his attention focused down the path, seeking the pursuers he knew where there.
“Easy lad, Rish’ll take care of ya, Trom! get him back to town, whatever happened to him he needs to tell Graul first, I’ll take a look and see what I can do to slow em down.”
By this time, the small form of Grue beginning to vanish in the darkness, The wounded demon, staggering to a halt, had looked up and turned to follow him, his eyes unfocused.
Rischa caught him as he stood there, seemingly about to fall now that whatever had kept him going was interrupted.
“Where are you hurt Dol?”
A gentle blue light suffused the two of them as she gently laid the injured youth on the ground, his head on her lap. The healing magic began to take effect and his eyes focused on her face.
A massive shape loomed up behind her
“Trom? What are you doing here? I thought I just saw Grue too, but maybe that was a dream, am I dead? You need to warn everyone! They’re coming!”
Trying to lift himself, he spoke urgently, struggling to rise as life came back to his torn body.
“An army, their scouts are just behind me, I’m sorry, I led them here, but I think they already knew where we are, I had to warn you, I’m sorry…”
“it’s alright Dol. You aren’t dead. You got here in time and warned us, everything will be fine now”
Beckoning Trom, she helped him up.
“You’re too weak to walk Dol, Trom will carry you back, and you can tell Graul what happened. I’m going to stay here with Grue and see what we can do to give everyone some more time to prepare, then we’ll come back, all right?”
Dol stood, a little unsteadily, Troms hand on his shoulder as Rischa Looked down the path after Grue. Trom leaned forward, his eyes pleading.
“Rischa, I can help…”
She didn’t look at him, studying the cliffs above them thoughtfully.
“No Trom. Dol can’t make it back by himself and I can’t carry him, you must do it. We will hold them as long as we can.”
Troms face hardened, his eyes going to Dol, the siren call of sleep evident on his face, back to Rischa.
“I’ll be back soon, I… I’ll be back”
He lifted Dol effortlessly into his arms, cradling him like a child, and began to turn away.
Rischa looked back at him and smiled.
Two worlds shone in the heavens; Arboreus sitting large on the horizon, new risen in rich blues and greens. Syndesia high overhead alight with pale gold and pastel shades. Both were brilliant to look on, but their light could never illuminate Tartaros, and was swallowed up by its darkness. Nevertheless, light there was in that place; the soft yellow light of flickering flame that dances with the shadows among a city built within a mighty cavern.
A narrow cleft in the stony cliff provided access to the city and was stopped up by a high wall whose strong gates stood watch against the night. Were light permitted to fall and to silver the land as the moons of some worlds do, then, standing atop that wall, one might look over a sight that would seem strange to the inhabitants of those other worlds, who looked on but could not see, for there were fields near harvest all about, on either side of a river, and while this river was not so deep or so broad as wind across those other worlds, and while those other rivers did not flow beneath the sand, it was water, and soon the harvest would be in.
Anyone standing outside that wall who looked toward the city lights would see a figure there, standing between the towers at either hand where sentries stood their guard. And were any looking outward from within the city at the rising disk of Arboreus, as indeed some did, they would see that same shape against its glow.
The form was like a man, though very strong and tall, clean limbed and graceful, but somehow wrong; the shoulders too broad, the waist too thin, and there was an unnatural stillness in the way it stood, face raised to the light of the world that birthed it.
Ears that once had heard the rustle of leaves in the wind, the passage of small animals through the brush, and the rushing, the gurgling, the purring, the lapping and the dripping of water, now heard stealthy feet that clicked on stones, and the dry rasp of horn against canyon walls.
He approached the gate, passing through the still and silent city where each pool of light seemed hemmed in on every side by the night, pressing in like a black fog, the darkness as physical a seeming thing as the light that held it at bay.
The guard told him that those he had come seeking were gone beyond the gate, and that no one else was to leave the city until they returned. There was talk of battle; everyone was to stand ready, something was about to happen.
As he turned to walk away, the fear he had felt over the last few days, put to rest by the peace he had found here in so short a time, re-awoke in his stomach and he wondered what would happen to this place; what would happen to him. But as he turned, his eye was caught by a figure on the wall above, silhouetted against the disk of Arboreus. He recognised the figure and, checking that the watchman’s attention was focused beyond the wall, stepped quietly up the stairway.
Graul didn’t turn to him, but he knew that his presence was recognised, and he too leaned on the parapet and gazed into the night.
“Why do you stay here, in this place? Knowing that every hand outside these walls is against you?”
He turned to face the creature beside him, standing there as silent as a mountain. He had seen an Abomination once before; a giant of the bear-folk, grown into a thing of hide and horn to rival the behemoths of Arboreus. The being beside him was tall, but not beyond most demons, and curiously slender by proportion; for his arms were long and heavy, and his hands as huge as a trolls. He might have been mistaken, at a distance, for one of his mother-folk; a winter-starved nheedra perhaps. But to see his face was to remove all doubt.
“Is this the only choice for those of us that turn their backs on Babilis? To hide? Only to be hunted down and slaughtered?”
When Graul spoke his voice was deep and purring, but there was something hollow in it.
“Do you know why I am like this? Why I turned my back on my people; my world, and my gods?
I saw over and over how those on the side of evil outmatched us, because they abandoned the things that made them vulnerable, they caught at power without heed for the consequences, while we were forced to sacrifice victory to rescue the weak. So I thought to fight fire with fire, to take the power that they used against us and strike back at them with it. But when I gained that power I found that what I wished to defend with it had passed beyond my reach. My loved ones fled from me, my strength was a danger to the peace I sought to protect, and even the world that birthed me rejected me, the very stones struck at me, and the air burned my throat until I could bear it no more and fled from the place that had been my home. I can never return.
He finally faced the younger demon, his eyes bright and sure despite the worry that wrinkled his features.
“Why did you leave the world out there to come to this place? Knowing that to do so was to have every hand turned against you? We are no more enemies of those out there now than we were before we came here. They fight among themselves as eagerly as they fight us, though for us they would set aside their hatred of each other until we are defeated.”
He motioned to the city below them, half sleeping, half waiting for it knew not what.
“We stay here to provide a place for those like you, for those like us. A place to be among others who share our values. We exist to succour those who are oppressed, whether they are like us in heart or not, here they will find refuge and peace, for a time. Not all seek our lives; many, though they deny it even to themselves, are glad of us. But to those who do despise us, who would slay us if they could, we remain to be a thorn in their side, a fly to sting at them. Every time they assail us, though they break down our walls and scatter us to the winds, though they slay us and hang our broken bodies as a warning to any who would seek a life without war, yet we return, and we rebuild. We may flee before them or fall, but they cannot destroy us utterly, and every day we grow in number, for every one that they slay is an enemy defeated, but every one that turns from their ways to ours is both an enemy defeated and an ally made.”
He turned back to the shrouded land before them, his shoulders no longer bent, as though affirming his beliefs to another had strengthened them in his own mind.
“We remain in the hope that a day may come, on this world or some other, when we need not hide, or die, but walk the land without fear of our fellow man, in friendship with them as they with us. Until then we provide refuge, and for those that desire it, there is another path, a harder path, but a true one.”
He lingered a moment at the wall. Arboreus was bright, so very bright, rising before him in the heavens; it's light never casting a shadow in this place of darkness, never brightening his way, but he could see it.
He could feel again the cool waters of that place as he trailed his fingers in the liquid, laughing stream of it. These fingers; these scarred, bloody, monstrous fingers.
He turned away, to those that he might yet aid.
“Come with me”
Soon He might have to fight again; to take life from those who are no different than he had been. When all you know is to fight, to take so that you are not taken, to kill so that you are not killed, what else can you do? how do you escape from that? That cycle of death? How had he escaped? Indeed, had he escaped? Perhaps those who would be his enemies were also looking for some way out, to change, to be better than they are. Must He take from them that chance? Slay those who, but for fate, might stand with him?
The city passed by them like the shadows of things half remembered and the golden glow of past joys. The homes and shops of his friends; the people and livelihoods that he sought to protect. Were he alone, he might let the enemy take his life and be done with it. Better that one die than many. Better that they live to find a way to let live. But other lives lay in his hands; how could he stay his hand at such a cost?
They reached the great black stone in the center of the city and began to climb. The exterior of the monolith had been left much as it was, but for the road they walked that had been cut into its side, winding about the lower half of its bulk. As they neared the spot where the road entered the stone, a wide tunnel boring inward to the deeper reaches of the fortress the rock had become, the high narrow cutting in the cavern walls came into view far off, the sky visible through it as a patch of light against the shadowed cliffs, the stars bright against a brighter blackness.
He paused, staring at the stars, and it seemed that a hand rested on his shoulder and he heard a voice speaking softly beside him.
“Look to the stars. They know not that ye can see them, nor that their light gives sight to ye who dwell in a world of shadow, and more than light. Yet still they shine. Ye have no surety of what will be, even that of which thine own hand does. If ye strike at another in battle, ye the one or he the other is like to perish, yet hold thee back thy stroke and mayhap ye alone shall die. Yet it may be that ye shall not die, for there are forces mightier than thee and hands greater than thine which may hold fast the lives of all that dwell among the stars, both thee and they”
He turned to his companion but saw that he waited a way below him on the path, not so near as the voice he had heard and much too far to have reached out and touched him. As he stood there in confusion, the question on his lips, the other spoke, gazing out has he himself had been doing, over the city to where the sky showed through the cleft.
“They say that Babilis dwells on Tartaros, as Tyr and Fortuna and the other gods dwell on Syndesia and Arboreus. But I wonder if there might not be another; one whose dwelling is on no world, and who is greater than they as they are greater than we. Whose form exists somewhere in the space behind the stars.”
Remembering the touch he had felt and the voice he had heard, he wondered if such a being might indeed exist, but if so, need its presence be so far off?
The council chamber was a large round room cut into the tip of the basalt spire; the place where decisions affecting the city were made, and the place of final defence in times of danger.
As elsewhere in the city, the room was a distracting combination of primitive materials and fine art. The black stone, rather than being simply cut smooth and flat, had been shaped in a manner reminiscent of the many natural caves in the region. Furnishings were carved from the living rock to resemble stalactites and stalagmites, benches and tables ranged about the walls like fallen boulders or rocky ledges, all bearing the simulated marks of weathering time. A large platform, of waist height to the taller residents, stood in the center of the room. Its sides were lined with crevices and pitted seemingly by the natural forces that might have shaped it, pleasingly asymmetrical in its roundness. Its surface however was perfectly flat and smoothed, as were many other surfaces in the room, not by tools but by use.
Much of the fittings in the chamber were made of white bone, which, by the size of some individual pieces may well have come from the colossal skeletons that could be found here and there across Tartaros, their paleness stark against the basalt, while many of the seats had been piled with various furs and hides, though some apparently chose bare stone over bodily comfort.
There was also a curious amount of glassware considering the wilderness that pressed at the borders of the city. Every lamp, for no daylight shone here, was shaded by elegant covers of glass in various hues, and high above the broad table in the dimness of the ceiling hung a great pale green lantern. Its reflection in the black polished surface shimmered like one of the glowing plants that sailors stories tell shine in the depths of strange waters, and it seemed to shift and sway as those plants do in the currents, for its maker had formed its parts of glass made thinner here or thicker there, and was a deeper or lighter colour in various places. Moreover, whether by some mechanism or by the gentle motion of air through the stone passages, it spun slowly about, every face that came into view seeming to the eye new and never before seen however long one might sit and watch.
As they entered, they found the room quietly busy, a space on the far side of the table the apparent focus of attention.
“Here we prepare a worlds-gate for the Eclipse. After all, would it not be rude to ignore the kindness by which our ‘mistress’ grants her children access to other worlds?”
He smiled a bitter smile.
“If Grue is right that something has happened to the patrol out there, then I believe that what I have long feared has come at last. In the past, the eclipse has been a time of…relief, if not joy, for it offers us a chance to visit more easily with those on Syndesia who are our allies, and to be united again with friends. Not only that, but with much of this world’s population focusing their attentions on Syndesia, we are safer here than at any other time. This is largely due to the semblance of unity that Babilis’ brood achieve when offered other foes to battle besides each other, but also, I must admit, because most demons have some sense of pride if not honour, and so do not hesitate to leave their homes undefended while they invade the world of men. Nevertheless, I have wondered how long it would take the scheming and unscrupulous among them to realise that with so many of Tartaros’ warriors gone, there may be more to be gained here than could be plundered from the humans. This I fear we will soon face; an army seeking to conquer Tartaros while its warlords are busy elsewhere.
He turned from watching the ebb and flow of people through and about the great chamber and spoke directly to the young demon beside him.
“This portal is also the way in which some have chosen to leave Babilis’ grasp forever. I worry that we might be better served to abandon the city and hide in the wilderness until our enemy has gone, for I cannot say how long we will be able to keep the gate open if we are attacked. My hope is that we will have aid from our human allies as we have aided them in the past, but I cannot say for certain. Nor can I guarantee that you will find what you seek if you choose to go through and not return, but the choice is yours.”
Syndesia Part 2
They stood so, the one army writhing in anticipation, while the other stood like stone.
A figure strode forth from among the invaders; A creature of massive stature. Tall and strong, clad in armour like the iron hide of a black dragon, spiked and scaled and glinting darkly with reflected fires. He held a sword, long and thick and jagged, black as his armour and the horns that rose from the grinning skull mask of his helmet. He strode towards the city and those awaiting there, frozen in place it seemed, like the statues of men.
And then the spell was broken, for a hand lifted above that silent line, so pitifully small before that crouching, many headed beast, and in that hand was gripped a banner; the field dark and the sign thereon concealed by its own rippling shadows, but it billowed bravely in the breeze that the darkness had not stilled. And beside the form of he that bore it, and from all about him, with a sound like the ringing of a thousand bells, the swords of the knights were drawn and rose aloft, shining in the darkness as though the sun shone still upon those silvery blades, and there stood once more an army of living men, but grim now and fell, where the morning had shown them fair.
The banner bearer rode out from among the ranks of knights; a tall man and fair, his armour all of silvered steel and his cloak as white as his snowy steed, shining dimly in the darkness. Coming close to where the black captain stood waiting in the midst of the field between the armies, he reigned his mount and lifted his visor.
“Hold! In the name of The Lord of Light, who are you that come against us under force of arms?”
The challenge rang in the gloom, not loud, but clear, and every ear upon that field heard it amidst the darkness and the fear, like the pealing of a single glassy bell, and he was answered by the black captain that stood before him, in a voice like roaring fire that drowns all other speech.
“I am He who comes to break this city and to suck the stuff of life from it”
The knight laughed grimly in reply
“Then I fear you will find your meal not to your liking, for it may be that the bones of this place are harder than you reckon and hold little worth the sucking. Indeed it may be, that like a foolish serpent you seek to swallow a stone and must break your teeth on it first to learn your error”
Laughter rang loud and hollow from that black and fearsome helm
“Perhaps you may be right, oh knight of slugs and snails that hide beneath the stones, but break you I shall, and a serpent may grow new fangs.”
The silver clad herald was silent, the standard shaking in his hand, though if in rage or fear he alone might say. The black captain raised his voice so that all could hear him.
“Send out your ruler, dog of Tyros, so that I might speak with him, for I have not come to bandy words with such as you. Where is your master? I have heard that he claims great wisdom but has the mind of a fool. That he goes about capering like a child. Does he hide in yonder barn with the pigs? Does he bury his face in the skirts of women like a frightened babe? Or does he lack even the wit to know that Death has come for him!”
The knight stiffened, and straightened, the banner rising from his hand steady once again.
“No one man rules over another in this place, but the voice of one may at times be required to speak for many, and in matters of war, that voice is mine. If you would treat with us, then speak to me”
The Demon lord planted his great sword in the earth before him, his armoured hands resting on the hilt as he leaned on it in distain.
“So the master has fled, leaving his hound to growl and bare its fangs! But why should I fear the bite of a dog? You ask if I will treat with you? Very well, these are my terms: give over yourselves to me; your people, your city, your lands and your wealth, and I will not slay you. I shall be your ruler that you might work to regain what I have taken and so repay me for my mercy when I come again; in gratitude for your lives, and for the lives of your children, and your children’s children. So do I treat with masterless curs”
A murmur swept through the ranks of the knights before the city, and their captain shook with rage, rearing his steed and thrusting the point of the standard toward his foe.
“These terms we cannot accept! If you would have this city, then you must take it with the point and the edge! But we shall defend ourselves, and a man who defends his home is worth ten who seek to take it. Many of yours will die for each of us that falls, and you yourself may find death this day. But in our defeat, you shall find no victory!”
With these words he made to wheel about and return to his lines, but his counterpart called out to him, and he stayed his mount, snorting as the scent of battle began to rise in its nostrils.
“Hold! You say that yours is the voice of your people? I say that I tire of your voice. Your defiance amused me for a moment, now be silent! If you lead these people in war, as I do those at my back, then let us settle the matter between us; You as champion for yours and I for mine. What say you?”
The knight drove the spike of the flagstaff into the ground and grew his sword.
“I say that my folk will not cast down their weapons if I am killed, but I will match steel with you now or later, I care not which!”
The demon laughed again and lifted his weapon from the dirt.
“Good enough! Come and die!”
The knight spurred his steed, its teeth bared and nostrils wide, and together they rushed upon the towering fiend before them, his feet wide and blade ready. As their swords met, the silver and the black, the force of it rocked the knight in the saddle, though he held his seat, rushing by and circled wide, returning to where the standard stood while his opponent stood haughtily, unmoved by the meeting.
Seeing that his foe, so tall as to match him in height while mounted, would not be overcome easily, he reigned to a halt, the charger wild and eager, and slid from the saddle.
They came together cautiously now; a hawk and an eagle, each aware of the others abilities, the strength of the one and the speed of the other.
The black blade came fast and hard, and from the outset the knight was sorely pressed to defend against it, wielded as it was by one of such great stature, his own sword ringing clearly as it caught the other time and time again. Knocking aside the knight’s sword, the demon swept his own blade high, bringing it down as though to split the smaller man in half, but a silver dart flickered out at the weak armour beneath the great arm and came back wet with blood.
With a grunt, one arm hanging limp, the demon staggered back, his sword held low and wary, but the other also drew away and did not press his advantage. The demon came on again, sweeping his weapon one handed in great arcs from side to side, beating at the others blade, the other hand pressed to his wound, until, his foot catching on a tuft of grass, he staggered, and the knight closed, seeking a final blow. But the injured arm flashed out, its weakness merely feigned, as now it drove a mailed fist into the knights shoulder, the spiked gauntlet crushing the armor there even as the huge blade swept in. Left now with only one hand to defend himself, the knights glittering blade was beaten back against his own body, its keen edge shearing through the mail and biting deep into his thigh.
Halt now and bleeding, the strength of his enemy, apparently undiminished by his initial blow, began to tell on him, and his sword came slower and slower to meet its rival until at last, beaten back and back, his heel caught even as his opponent had feigned to do and the dark captain leaped with a cry, the hungry point of his sword seeking the heart that beat beneath the steel, but he caught himself and twisted, the breastplate turning the blow so that it pierced his side and not his breast, and again the silver sword leapt unlooked for at the throat of the demon, but the arm behind it was greatly weakened, and a jutting horn caught it and passed harmlessly aside, as he fell to the grass, and a black foot pinned his hilt and hand. The great black blade rose high, and fell.
The victorious demon stepped over the body of his enemy and caught up the standard from where it still stood, its pennon hanging low in the dying air, and he broke the staff of it over his knee and tore the banner from its head, but as he did so the wind gusted and began to blow strongly again, snatching the cloth from his grasping claws, and sending it sailing over the heads of the human army towards the city walls.
Moonlight bathed Arboreus, limning the trees with silver; casting their shadows like the blackness between the stars. Eyes watched from one of these shadows.
Away from the forests edge, where huge old trees stood with only saplings round about them, a figure walked amidst the blowing grasses, one hand trailing among their heads. The watcher could not see the others features, for the darkened side of its face was toward, but those eyes had followed this person since dawn, and the rising sun had shone clear upon a demon.
The leaves above the watcher rustled in the breeze; an ear twitched. A lithe form landed lightly on the grass behind him.
"Greetings March-Warden. I am sent to tell you of a star-gate opened this suns-rising past, but I see that I carry old news."
The young chadra grinned, but his levity brought neither sound nor movement from the other.
“Were there more that came with it? Is this now the last? Do you follow it to learn what it knows of our land?"
"Why do you stay your hand, Great-Limb?"
The watching eyes blinked, the mighty head turning toward the newcomer. The keener sight of the messenger saw that the others gaze met his own despite the darkness. The silent one resumed his watch.
"I should have hunted and slain it when first I came upon its tracks, but that I saw your signs. Do you wish me to kill it now? It weakens away from its master; do you wish to see it perish for want of Her touch?"
The eyes never left their mark, clear against the white-lit field, but the voice came low and deep.
"You saw its tracks?"
"Of course. It grows weary"
There was a hint of mockery in the word
“I have also seen them, and I have watched their maker from the first touch of its feet upon this soil. It does not falter."
"Forgive me Great-Limb, but I am certain I know the signs of dragging feet and tiring legs; surely it can last no longer here? Day comes soon."
"The signs you speak of are not of weariness, but of cloths tied about its claws."
"Cloths? I don't understand."
"Nor did I."
The giant Nheedra rose from his haunches and took up the great bow leaning against the tree-bole. He stood a while, eyes on the mighty weapon, but his thoughts were long and far way.
A young Nheedra peered about the bole of a spreading elm tree at a fire and the shapes beside it. He had followed the adventuring party of humans since coming upon their trail as he wandered the forest near his home. They had set a camp before dusk and now the liquid honey light of suns-down filled the shadows as he stepped from hiding and strolled towards them.
He was the son of a wealthy merchant who had travelled many times to Syndesia, and ever spoken warmly of its inhabitants. His father had taught him the human tongue and had but lately spoken of the two making the journey together.
"Hullo the camp!"
He grinned as the humans turned toward him. Two seemed to be scouts or hunters of some sort, clad in leathers and bare headed, but the third was clearly a warrior: massively built and clad all in steel, his head encased in a great horned helm. The two un-helmeted ones exchanged words he could not make out and began to laugh, one of them beckoning him to come closer. Pleased with the effect of his words, he grinned wider still and sauntered towards the fire. The one that had beckoned held out a bag the Nheedra had seen him fill with the heads and entrails of the fish that now were cooking in the flames.
"Want something to eat, bear-cub?"
His smile faltered
"Here boy, you hungry?"
He whistled as one does to a horse or a dog, the other human laughing loudly behind him. He stood uncertainly in the face of their mockery. Then the third rose from his seat. Looking at the man closely for the first time, he saw his mistake. As the huge figure stood up, he saw that the horned helmet was but an iron mask; the horns grew from the dull red skin of the creature’s head.
He began to back away.
The demon took a step forward, making no move toward the giant spiked hammer laying nearby. His second step put one clawed foot in the fire, crushing its companions food cooking there.
One of the humans rose in indignation, but his comrade caught him across the back of the head with a heavy hand. The demon ignored them both.
Eyes wide with fear, He turned to run and plunged into a young hawthorn bush. Unfeeling as they tore him, he struggled through the thorns and stumbled toward the great elm and the track that ran beside it. Turning his head he saw that the demon came unhurried after him, the two humans close on either side. He felt his foot plunge in a rabbits hole and the bone of his leg snap. Sobbing he clawed his way to the trunk of the tree and drew himself up against it.
The demon stood silently beneath the tree, its human lackeys grinning at each other and mocking him. He bared his fangs against the pain and the fear.
The wind had grown stronger with the coming of night, and now began to gust loudly among the swaying branches.
The demon spoke, gesturing towards his injured prey. As the humans advanced on him, and their master turned to go, a 'crack' split the gloaming air like thunder, and a massive limb of the elm tree fell.
The shattered bough lay groaning in the calming breeze, its splintered end an arm’s length from his feet. The thicker portion had crushed the two humans, the fork and branches striking the demons back and pinning it to the ground. He could hear the demons ragged breath moaning through its broken mask. Some time later, having rudely splinted his leg, and hobbling with the aid of a stick, he stood over the demon.
Years passed; years spent defending his home-world from invaders, and now, another demon before him, He stood holding a bow whose limbs were fashioned from the elm branch that had saved his life, their ends capped with black horn.
Return to the Scrying Pool and bid old Twitch come to me at Ravens Tear; ask his forgiveness on my behalf for the journey, but I would have no other."
He turned to look at the young Chadra
"You will accompany him"
As the sounds of the Tiger-folk’s passage faded in the distance, he lifted the bow and drew back an arrow, the horned figure an easy target as it stood against the white bark of an ancient Gossamer-Birch. But even as excuses ran through his mind, Arboreus held many dangers after all, the demon reached up a hand, bound in cloths so that the horny skin and jagged claws could do no harm by accident or design, and gently ran its fingers through the hanging catkins and paper-thin leaves, cupping a fragile flower to his face. And then it turned and walked into the trees, the branches swaying gently as they settled and the great white petals ruffling like lace in the night air.
The demon rested upon a stone beneath the spreading boughs of two trees, their limbs entwined above his head. White blossoms fell from their branches to drift on soft airs, until they should come to rest atop their mirrored selves in the waters of the Ravens Tear.
He was dressed curiously for a demon; not in the leather of some beast, nor even the silk of those great and deadly spiders that haunt the fractured worlds. His clothing was of simple rough-spun cloth, perhaps of linen or cotton, and strips of like cloth were tied about his feet; softening their rough and horny hide, muffling the claws and spurs.
He sat watching the water, entranced by the play of light and ripples cast by the flowers alighting on its surface. Across the pool stood a hazel thicket, and a motion from within it caused the lowered eyes to rise. A mighty stag stepped from the thicket upon the grassy lawn about the pool; white as the petals of the falling flowers, and crowned by great antlers like the boughs of a hawthorn, winter-bare. The two looked on one another. Great eyes never leaving the seated figure, the stag began to walk about the circle of the pool. Coming face to face with the demon, the curling branches of its horns rattled gently on the demons own before it halted. A long moment passed as the two looked at one another, until the stag raised its eyes to the woods behind the demon. The demon turned to look over its shoulder.
Two forms stood in the shadow of the trees; one lithe and strong, the other great and mighty as an oak, its right arm cradling a powerful bow. The demon turned back towards the stag; where the stag had been, now stood the elegant form of an old Erwydra.
The forest path from the pool had followed the falling stream down from the mountain, switching back and forth across a cliff tiered like a garden, before joining a wide paved road like a mighty hall beneath the arching boughs of the forest. For some time now there had been a growing lightness before them where branch and leaf gave way to open air and sunlight. And soon they stood on the lip of a deep hollow, the forest eaves whispering at their back in the summer breeze.
Before them the earth fell away gently in the sloping walls of a great earthen bowl that rippled with grass like a verdant sea, fleets of animals grazing here and there as the eye swooped downward to the darker green of field-crops and bright gardens growing among sparkling streams on the valley floor. Orchards bordered the ring of waterways on the inner side, their flowering and fruiting branches giving way to the mightier boughs of greater trees that grew ever innermost as the eye rose over the canopy to the leafy heights at the center of the valley.
Four roads led from the circling forest at the lip of the bowl down into the valley, spiralling gradually as they descended, with steeper pathways and steps cutting across their rings straight downward.
"As gentle as are these slopes, one should not take a heavy wagon by the straighter ways direct from lip to heart, lest its eagerness out-match that of its bearers"
A grin and chuckles told Him that some there were who had tried to spurn the ease of the circling roads in their hurry, and that they had rued the attempt, but their failure had been the cause for much laughter among others.
"But we are not wagons, and the winding ways are long, so we shall take the faster path and rest the sooner."
They followed the straight roads, his companions whop were native citizens pointing out various sites and discussing the harvest and this and that with each other, the fields and pastures passing by on either side as they descended slowly into the valley. Crops of many kinds in many stages of growth, but all bright and rich and healthy, though the planting systems were not the more conventional layouts of the humans, or the harsh economy of Tartaros.
They reached the lowest point of the valley floor, a wide swathe of rivulets and water flashing among the grass that ringed the feet of the slopes and which the road crossed over on low wooden bridges. As they crossed one such bridge, he saw that what he had taken for grass growing among the water was a garden itself; many different water plants growing like emeralds among the shallow silver flow, flowers of every colour in jewel bright hues and water life as well wading, leaping, floating and swimming as though it were some wild marshland, yet here and there were people tending and harvesting the ‘crops’ wading at times up to their chests in the water, clear as crystal among the greenery.
After the bridges the road passed among the orchards where the air was full of the scents of flowers, of fruits and nectars and everywhere was the song of insects. Birds too flocked about the trees, and he wondered that they were allowed such freedoms, but he saw that the workers seemed glad of the birds, and even appeared to direct them, as though the lesser creatures aided in the work also; directed here to a fallen fruit, and there where one that had split apart with ripeness.
Soon they entered the denser, taller grove of trees, where the sounds of the world outside faded away, and the air was still and cool. He remembered again the sight of the grove from above; the boughs reaching ever higher as they approached the centre, and yet now he saw that the ground remained nearly level, rising slightly inward of the streams, but not so high as he had expected, for at the rim he had looked up at the treetops, and they valley was deep for all the gentleness of its slopes.
Here among the trees that bore no harvest, the road meandered a little, winding between the trunks that grew larger and their branches higher as they progressed, and soon he began to see a clear space, far ahead it seemed, but the scale of the trees had begun to disorient him, and he knew now why it had seemed there must be a hill amidst the vale; it was the trees themselves that rose, soaring higher than any he had yet seen as he travelled this world of growing things.
The clearing they entered was not so noticeable as such, for along with the size of the trees so had grown the spaces between them, so that the place was like a mighty cathedral of living pillars, arching boughs and swaying timbers.
A ring of twelve trees, their size beyond words, encircled a central tree larger even perhaps than the others, though this tree was white as bone and long dead. Its branches still rose as they had in life but they bore no leaves and they did not move in the dance that the others shared.
There had been little grass or undergrowth within the grove, the light of the sun caught by the towering trees, and the earth covered instead with fallen leaves thick and musty, but here within the ring and about the trunks of the twelve encircling trees the earth was bare, and the roots of those twelve stretched out from them like buttresses, rising from out of the ground in places like mountain ranges, and where they had reached toward the centre they had been woven into a wall about that midmost tree, the tendrils grasping great stones amid their twining coils.
Their destination it seemed was on the far side of the glade, for his companions led, without speaking, across the bare space close by this wall of roots and stones, and as they approached it he saw a grizzled Nheedra working there, mending in some fashion the network of roots, or twining new ones in perhaps, but as they passed he looked up.
“ ‘Arlow thar yoong Pike! ah haint seen ye en a weel. Garn oop en th’ world ye ‘ave ah sees, still usin’ tha’ auld bow I made for ye ah see, Bee-yoo-tee-ful work if ah do say so meself, still, always a shame when a critter has to die to make something like that, only thing worse’d be for em to die and go to waste. Ye niver did say war ye got those horns; niver seen the like, not on no deer no how, nor goat nor any other critter, ‘cepting on…”
His old eyes, keen and bright among his bristling fur ran over the party, resting pointedly on the demon, hooded and cloaked though he was, the old bear-kin didn’t seem fooled as to his nature
“Warl, Past es Past as ah say.”
He reached out a broad hand to the eldest of the party, and the stranger saw that one finger was missing.
“‘ow are ye Twitch? ah thort yorn journeyin days was over? Wahr’s thes yoong fella had ye orf too thes taim? Taim’ll come ‘es gon’ t’ave t’ troost t’ ‘is awn joodgemen’, and soon a’ tha’ eh?”
The elderly Erwydra returned the greeting warmly, clearly the two were old friends.
“I have a little strength left yet Greyver, and the exercise is good for me. How goes the work? I see young Brim-Gold has not lessened his eagerness to match his brethren, truly I think he will surpass them soon.”
The old bear gave one last look at the well wrapped figure of the stranger before allowing himself to be distracted with talk of his vocation; clearly a passion and a labour of love for him.
“oh, aye, that’s true, but hed better slow hisself summat or ill ave mor troublen I can andle, see ere hes gone and pushed auld Selvers out, see jest thar, and whats that done you ask? Well et means the young whipper snappers got imself scalded a touch it does, aught to tech im fer pushin in among ‘is aulder and betters eh?”
The two old wildkin were leaning over the woven wall of roots and stones, and as the others of the party were drawn in to the conversation, the newcomer, overcome with curiosity, edged around so that he could see beyond the chest high wall of dense tendrils grown into and around each other, and saw a wide flat area between the wall and all around the bole of central tree, filled it seemed with a pale blue-green luminous mist. The inner face of the wall was a smooth patchwork of stones cut and fitted together in a most curious way; seamlessly, the spaces between the stones finer than the thickness of a hair, but the stones were of many kinds and colours; shapes, sizes and finishes, so that the joints were clearly visible, and they seemed to contain no mortar at all, but were held in place by the living roots, which here and there, particularly at the top of the wall, bore strange pale grey marks on their otherwise dark skin.
He came up to the wall, drawn by the wondrous purity of the light, the colour of it like nothing he had ever seen, the roots of the white tree spreading out in fantastical designs before sinking down into the depths of the mist.
He wondered what caused the light; how it was tat it was caught and remained in place like that. He wondered if he could touch it, it seemed so tangible, like water almost. He reached a hand over the wall, down toward the stuff. And another hand caught his wrist in a grip like tree roots. He looked up.
“Yeed regret that, aye ye would, an’ naw meestake, coom awa’ lad”
And he was drawn firmly but gently away, his eyes lingering on the pale blue light until the wall hid it from view.
“Ah thin yeed best get thissun in’th’ chambers afor any ‘arm cooms t’ eet, from ‘is awn ‘and or anithers. Ah reckon Grunnaps yer bet a’ th’ mohmen’”
He indicated a direction with his chin and gave the stranger a push towards one of the twelve great trees
“’lysiums fayver on yer task, yee’ll ‘ave need o’ it wi’ tha’ lot”
And he bent down again to his work as the party proceeded in the direction of the tree, closing in around him as if to hide or guard him.
He had not noticed earlier, his attention at first taken by the size of the trees and then by the mystery of the green blue light, but he saw now that each of the twelve encircling trees held a door between its roots facing inward to the thirteenth tree, but the doors were quite disproportionate, being of ordinary size, large enough for even the mightiest Nheedra, but almost swallowed up by the great size of the swelling roots around them.
The door did not lead, as he had supposed from tales of beastfolk that dwelt in trees, into the tree itself, but down beneath it by way of a sloping tunnel that was no larger than it needed to be, curving down between the spreading surface roots and circling about the great tap root with other tunnels and doors leading from it, until the main passage opened into a great round chamber, domed and pierced along the wall by eleven other archways.
The domed roof of the chamber was supported by many great ribs of a pure white substance with a mesh of cross beams in a latticework pattern between them, like a colossal piece of lace against the grey stone of ceiling and walls. A massive pillar in the centre tapered as it spiralled downward like a unicorn’s horn, its point to the floor. As he stood gazing into the room, in which not a single person could be seen, nor did it seem to hold any furniture, his companions made for a smaller opening to one side of where he stood, mesmerized. One of his companions touched his shoulder and motioned to the doorway, beyond which the others stood waiting for him, but he stood a moment longer, captivated by the wondrous sight. He saw now, as his eyes followed the lines of the room, that the central pillar did not itself touch the floor of the chamber, but was suspended by many fine arching supports curling overhead, hanging there like the ivory head of a great white spear, and beneath its point was a pool set in the floor that shone like the midday sun through diamond. He could not see what it held, being so far away that its edges hid its contents, but the the light rippled as though reflected from the surface of water and as he finally turned, reluctantly, his eyes remaining on the light even as his body moved away form the opening, he saw a gleam from above, and a shining droplet of light came spinning and flashing down the curls of the great inverted spire, to hang for a moment at its tip, and then fall. The light flaring for a moment as ripples spread out through the entire room.
It wasn’t until they had gone some way down the new passage that he realised what he had seen; the white arches and pillars all about the room had been the petrified roots of the great white tree above.
They entered a smaller chamber where a dozen or so of the various folks of Arboreus were seated in a half circle facing a low platform.
Twitch led them through the gathered council and onto the platform where the old Erwydra indicated he was to remove his hood and cloak. His companions moved off to the side leaving him exposed to the eyes of those who would determine his fate.
Silence sat heavy in the chamber until a barking voice broke it.
"It must be killed!"
The eyes turned to the speaker, a scarred wolf-kin who stood behind one of the chairs, its occupant an almost identical Udoardra, but lacking the scars and perhaps slightly younger. It was this council member who replied.
"Hold your peace, brother, you have no voice here."
The one that had called for death glared at the other, who was now addressing the others.
"This creature has spoken its desire to walk the road to redemption, all that remains is to determine how this may be achieved and which of us will walk that road beside him; to aid or to end, as his actions determine."
Eyes met across the room, it seemed his sentiment, so surely spoken, was not shared by others.
"Forgive me, I fear I must have fallen asleep and missed a great deal of talk, by what arguments was it decided to aid this demon? surely it is not our place to interfere with such matters"
The pack-leader turned to look at the speaker; an elegent chadra with laughter in his eyes.
"This demon has, you say, done no harm to our world, very well then, return it to its own world and be done with it. I have no wish for it's blood, but it does not belong here.”
"Yes! If you will not slay it as befits its kind, let us be rid of it!"
"Brother, If you speak again in this room without permission, you will be cast from it."
There was some murmering and shuffling of the council members, as those who wanted nothing to do with the situation began to rise to the bait.
"Perhaps they are right, surely Tyros would not wish us to aid a child of his foe?"
The wolf-man looked to the erwydra who had spoken; a merchant whose clothing was as quietly rich as his character was quietly disliked, his belly outmatching both.
"Surely the god of Justice would not wish us to stand in the way of any that seek him?"
The dissenters were quiet. After a moment their first spokesmen bared his fangs in a smile, and stroked his whiskers.
"Indeed wise one; then let him go back to the Humans. They sent him here, well, we cannot help him. He desires to leave his folk, but he cannot long bear to dwell in the light, though dimmed, of father Elysium, would it not be cruel to keep him here? Let the humans help him in his quest."
Agreement came quickly and loudly from every side. The wolf-man stood, and voices quieted. He stared hard and long at his feline counterpart who met his stare with a smile.
"Have you forgotten that we stand with the humans against Babilis and her followers?"
He looked around the room, his supporters laughing with him.
“Can we not defend our lands without their aid? Do we lack anything that we must beg from them? Where is our benefit? I say leave them; they are as bad as the demons."
The room was silent, but the Young wolf-kin pressed on.
"My people know best..."
He glanced behind him.
"...ought, to know best, that we stand together, or we stand not at all.
Yes, there are many humans that follow Babilis, and even if there were not, they would be hard pressed to resist Her servants. If we do nothing, the day will soon dawn when Syndesia belongs to Her, and She will turn her armies, undivided, against us. How long then will we defend our lands?"
The smile was gone from the Chaadras face and he rose angrily to his feet, his robe parting as he did so, revealing for a moment one leg that did not bend as the other did, before he drew it close, his fur quivering with fury. He snarled as he spat the words.
“It is an affront to Tyros!”
The word echoed in the room suddenly silent as the demon stepped forward
“No. I am an affront to Babilis alone, for it is she upon whom I have turned my back. Yet to her, all life is an affront. Even those of my race, whom she calls her children, are mere pawns to her; their lives serve to further her ends and their deaths please her as does all death.”
“What do you know of the gods, demon?”
‘I know that there is more to the path of light than merely attacking those who fight in darkness; One cannot use the weapons of evil to defeat it.”
He awoke. The bed was not so hard as some he had known, the room was clean and dry and the ceiling was pierced like latticework, the holes winding up through the earth to breezes and daylight that kept the air fresh. The food was plentiful and filling and other… necessities were discreet and adequate. But there were bars on the door.
There were no rats in these cells to scurry, so what had awakened him?
He lay unmoving, his eyes open and fixed on the light patch where the grill was set into the wooden door. The torch in the corridor wavered, its light making the shadows of the bars sweep across the room and back again. The light went dark, and he heard a light ‘clink’ at the lock, the door swung open on well-oiled hinges, letting a flood of light into the room before a figure blocked the doorway.
He sat up. What would be, would be, He had no desire for conflict or any means to fight.
“Well? Don’t just sit there, haven’t you ever broken out of prison before? Come on, the guard’ll wake up in a minute.”
As the person moved into the room and stepped to one side, the torchlight revealed a young Chaadra, a keyring spinning on one finger and a cocky grin on his face.
“stick your pillow under the blanket and bunch it up a bit so they think you’re still in here and lets get going, I’ve got some things for you once we get to a quiet spot, come on, hurry up there lad, haven’t got all night.”
Despite his predicament he returned his rescuers grin and set about following his instructions.
Syndesia Part 3
The black captain raised his bloody sword high in victory, yet even as he did there came a flash of light, as though the dawn had broken a second time, and from the mountains peak where had sat the sun enthroned ere its darkening, up rose a bolt like lightning that swept high above the plain and plunged to the earth before his feet, striking with a sound like thunder and a great crashing of light whose brilliance blinded for a moment all about and even that mighty one turned his head from it.
When the light faded and sight returned, there stood the war chief of Tartaros, sword in hand, the broken pieces of the flag-staff lying about him. But standing there before him was a man near as tall as he; thin and gaunt, but in his eyes were flames of fire and lightning crackled at his fingers. Long robes like red wings whipped about his skeletal form in the rising gale that raged only where they two stood, the fabric glittering like rubies and glistening like blood. His hair, long and wild, was like pale milk upon the red of his garments, but it stood out stiff and untouched by the howling winds, and a faint light was all about him like ghostly flames. His voice came like thunder that echoes through a tomb.
“Return to thy pit, oh Fiend! lest I slay thee!”
But the demon lord merely laughed. Lifting off his helm with one hand, he cast it behind him, his fangs bared in a deaths-head grin as he strode forward, unhindered by the storm around him.
Over the sound of the wind came the roar of his voice as he closed with this new enemy.
“You saw that the yapping of your hound would not make me flee, and so you send out this! One of Galvanos’ weaklings, come to try his arts on me? Fools! I will have no more talk, no more wheedling bargains and empty threats!”
The wizard held his ground and as the demon neared, he spoke a final time.
“If thou wilt not flee, then thou shalt perish, demon of Babilis!”
And an inferno leaped from his hands; a storm of white fire that burst forth and engulfed the black form, the flames leaping higher and higher until their light was such that none could look on it, the figure of the demon blotted out by their brightness.
The flames died and for all their fury, the dew hung still wet on the blades of grass, themselves yet green as spring.
But the demon also was unharmed.
“Old fool! I was birthed in fire!”
His voice as he strode on was cut off by the crack of thunder and the snap of lightning as a pillar of energy burst from the sky and struck him. But when it died away he still stood, silent now and grim. With effort he set each foot down on the earth, but it rose up about him and stone gripped his body up to the neck, encasing him.
With a roar and a violent twist of his head the stone cracked, his shoulders broke through the shell and first one arm and then the other beat at his prison until his chest was free and he could wrench his sword from out of the crumbling stuff, striking at it with the black iron, sparks flaring as the stone shattered and he was held no more.
Snarling he rushed at the wizard, sword thrust out before him to spit the frail body, but was met by a glittering wall of adamant. With a flash of light and a screeching of metal the blade struck, bursting through with a splitting shriek. Through the diamond shield. Through the crimson robes and through the flesh beneath. With a sigh the wind died and the white hair fell still, speckled with blood.
That terrible light flickered once more in his eyes and then died. His body slid from the blade with a horrible sound as the jagged edge caught on his ribs with every tooth and ground against his bones.
The demon stood before the defending army, his black armour smoking and his face fixed in a horrible scowl.
He lifted his arms and roared.
“I have killed your champions and broken their bodies! Who else would challenge me?”
The host before him shifted as some disturbance passed through the ranks, and the sound of breathy whistling could be heard among the rustle of shifting bodies and the soft clanking of metal. until, out from the lines directly before him rode a small man on a donkey, loaded down with packs, tools tied to its sides that rattled merrily as the ugly beast plodded stubbornly onward.
The man was likewise non-descript, clad in rough cloth with a workman’s apron tied about him and a battered felt hat on his shaggy head whose brim hung down over his eyes. He continued to ride forward, his whistling shifting to humming and singing without any rhyme, straight at the place where the enemy captain stood, until, just a few feet away from where he stood, unmoving even as was the army before the gates, all caught in confusion and surprise.
“crying Blerum Blerum to them all!”
He halted suddenly, seeming to have only that moment caught sight of the figure. The donkey snorted at the sudden pull on the reigns and the man slowly looked upwards from beneath the drooping brim of his hat at the black champion standing before him.
Disbelief sounded strange in that terrible voice, but anger quickly replaced it.
“I have defeated great heroes; mighty servants of Tyros and Galvanos, and yet you come before me? By what power do you think to slay me little man? Wilt thy ass bite me so grievously that I fall down and die?”
He lifted up his sword, fury on his face.
“Nay. I will have no more of this mockery. Thou shalt die, and then all thy folk shall follow thee!”
The sword sped once more for the kill, but the man lifted up one hand and it halted in its descent, frozen in place as a ripple of light spread out from his hand, showing the outline of a great dome of force that spread over the entire city.
“Ah. Well, sorry about that, it seems the mages have put up a barrier”
The man on the donkey turned to look over his shoulder at the city walls.
“Yep, there they are, see them? Up on the parapets.”
He waved cheerfully at the figures standing on the wall. Their distant forms in a line above the gate with their arms upraised like toys set atop a child’s sand-castle.
“I’m afraid that we’re both stuck here for a bit, even if they drop it right now, it takes a bit to dissipate. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they stopped me having my noggin split, but I was a bit busy, gold doesn’t prospect itself you know.”
He paused to consider
“Of course, a sword in the skull would probably have been more of a problem now that I think of it.”
He looked at the figure frozen before him, the burning eyes roiling with emotion.
“well, since we’re stuck here, no pun intended, you unable to enter and me unable to leave, do you mind if I ask why you picked this city? It’s a nice enough place, sure, but it’s no merchant hub; there’s no thriving market or anything, and frankly, we’re not exactly rich you know. We also aren’t one of those mercenary cities with big armies and chips on their shoulders that you might want to beat just to show you can, so what do you stand to gain by attacking us? You’d lose a right bunch of chaps, we’re good enough fighters for that, and you’d not get much for it. Like as not you’d wreck the place to I suppose, that’s really all we’ve got going for us you know, nice architecture, and you can’t exactly take that with you back home can you? Hey, you see that spire up there? That skinny one, oh, one, two, third from the right, the one with the bird on top? Looks like a chicken from here actually, blast, it was supposed to be a falcon. Anyway, I did that one you see, just thought I’d point it out.”
He made some impatient gestures to the figures on the wall, and whatever they did in reply seemed to please him.
“Well, you should be right in a minute, they’ve dropped the shield, but one more thing; you said you beat our best did you? I’m afraid I wasn’t watching at the time, and no offence, but it doesn’t look like it from here, I mean, where are the bodies?”
The demon found that he could turn his head a little and, with nothing else to do until the effect wore off and he could step on this infuriating little man, he turned to look back at where he had fought the two men. He could make out the flagstaff, leaning a little and missing its pennon. Hadn’t he broken it? But nowhere could he see the bodies of the knight or the wizard; no silver Armor or scarlet robes, nothing but green grass, unmarked.
He turned back to the man, gazing intently at him, the smile gone from under his silly, drooping moustache. He found he could speak now, and feeling had come back to his feet, though his arms where still locked to his sword hilt, frozen in mid-air above that worn felt hat.
“What trickery is this? Who are you? My strength is that of Babilis! Your magics and your gods cannot stop me!”
“Trickery? You’re probably right about that, but as to gods well…”
His face grew sad and his eyes stared into the demons own, fixing him with a gaze as sharp as swords.
“Do you not see how your victory is come to nothing before your eyes? Where now is your triumph? What are your gods but the blowing of the wind? What are their blessings but the falling of the rain and the suns heat in summer? Their curses but winters dearth? Even they that claim discipleship of them do not worship the creature itself but the things over which it is said to have dominion; a bountiful harvest or success in battle. Good fortune in trade or a mates enduring love. These are the true gods of men.”
He shook his head and the black sword hung heavy in the demons hands once more.
“Anyway, you see, the thing about Good, is that it tends to lose a lot, but somehow, it never actually gets beaten; we just keep fighting a losing battle without ever, actually, losing. Just something to think about, and, before you get too caught up in your battle here, you might want to have a look over there.”
He indicated the slope where the plain beside the river began to rise up into the flanks of the mountain, and the demon, no longer sure of himself followed his gaze.
“Hang on a second, should be… just about…now...there you go”
As he spoke there was a flash of light, and then a second as first one and then a second star-gates tore into being; the first an angular door-shaped hole in the air filled with swirling red and yellow light and the second a rounded portal that shone in gentle blues and greens.
From these two gates began two emerge two armies, one of Wildfolk, and one of Demons, and at the head of each stood a figure different from the rest.
Caught between the three armies and the cold depths of the river, the host of invading demons, no longer superior in number, had only the portal at their back to retreat to.
“Now, I can’t say if its right for anyone to kill someone else to save his own life, or to save someone else’s life, though personally I wouldn’t take a life to keep my own. This lot on the other hand…”
He indicated the humans behind him and the two newly arrived forces.
“…They think otherwise. It’s up to you my friend, but there’ll be no glory here today. There’s nothing but death for everyone if you choose to fight.”
He stood atop the great hill at whose feet lay the city, and from whose stone its walls were builded. Once it had been wooded, and the lands about it had been marsh. Now waves of grass rippled in the breezes that struck its windward side as gales, and a broad river flowed through fertile fields. Flocks grazed where trees had been hewn to build the city, and the broad shoulders of the mountain sheltered the buildings from wind and storm.
He watched the people and the city far below. This had been his dream, his purpose, from long before any other ever shared in it. Now it was his pride, his joy, and his contentment. But soon he would leave it as he had left others before. Demon, Human and Wildfolk walked the streets of this city; tended its fields, its flocks, and its businesses. The mingled peoples of these fractured worlds shared in its bounties and brought it's spirit to the other worlds.
Tartaros sat low in the sky, threatening, but not yet.
The city was all a-bustle; crops flowed into the storehouses, flocks and herds made their way to new-built pens and sheds within the walls. The sight of the demon home-world no longer filled the people of Syndesia with fear and dread; the coming of its shadow served only to set their wills and make them cherish their loved ones all the more as they waited, both for friend and foe alike.
Arboreus glowed on the horizon, and Tartaros hung swollen above, the passing flow of life through the city gates had slowed, and soon they would be shut.
Two figures had been toiling up the side of the mountain while he sat watching, and now they reached him.
“Hullo Graul, I guess this must be everyone’s new favourite angel eh? Good to finally meet you, sit down, take a load off the old stompers. Interesting company you keep Graul; finally decided to look into getting redemption have you?”
He shifted along on the bench and indicated the space beside him, while Graul lowered himself to the grass beneath the wide spreading chestnut that shaped them.
“Tyros will not have me back, you know that”
“I wasn’t talking about Tyros”
The two old friends watched each other like rival bulls, and the newcomer sensed that this was an oft argued point between them. Graul grudgingly made the expected reply.
“You speak of your ‘Nameless God’ then? How do you even know He exists?”
His friend laughed
“We three sit here like a bad joke; and Angel, a Lich and an Abomination, and you ask how I know He exists? Who else would approve of such a friendship? Tyros? Babilis? Galvanos? Well, perhaps He would at that, but calling that old sticky-beak a god of knowledge is like calling a dung farmer a god of the harvest; accurate, but a bit inappropriate.”
The newcomer was hesitant to interrupt, but something he had said aroused his curiosity.
“You are a Lich? How?”
The man shrugged, he certainly didn’t look like a Lich in his dusty, workman’s clothes, his drooping moustaches giving his face a look of deep sorrow despite the smile that hinted beneath it and the laughing eyes above them.
“You know, I’m not really sure. As far as I know it just happened one day, something I found or something I did, of course I couldn’t really tell straight away and I get around, so who’s to say?”
One other thing this ‘Lich’ had said didn’t make sense.
“Who is this Nameless God? Are there other gods besides those who have names?”
The moustaches lifted in a grin, and the laughing eyes winked at Graul, who had closed his eyes quite deliberately.
“Oh, I shouldn’t think that He’s nameless, just that we haven’t a word big enough for Him; We give things names to describe them, but what word do we have to describe someone like Him?”
The Angel pressed him, leaning forward intently.
“But which god do you speak of? All the gods have names, do they not?”
Grinning broadly now at Grauls defiantly sleeping form, the man settled down to talk.
“You know, that’s a good idea Graul, lets ask the angel what He thinks”
Graul didn’t reply
“Tell me lad, doesn’t it stand to reason that if there are beings such as Tyros and Babilis and the rest; these entities that are supposed to be possessed of forms and powers far beyond all mortal ken and whatnot, then mightn’t there be one beyond them; as much greater than they, as they are greater than us?”
He leaned forward, passion burning in his eyes as he laid out years of quiet thought before a willing listener.
“These gods of yours, well, my opinion is that they’re just someone’s ancestors that did something special back in his day and years on, had his kids, kids tack his name onto the things they really worshiped. As though their old grandad might help them get the things they wanted. But even if there are some magical, mystic entities walking about all invisible, giving out powers to people that worship them, are they really worth worshiping? Are they even all that different from us? Don’t they still love and hate, fight and strive for what they want like we do? what’s the point in calling something like that a god?
They sat a while in silence, each contemplating the scene below them. Eventually the angel, unsure how to respond, changed the subject.
“Are you then the ruler of the city?”
“No one is the ruler of this city lad. I helped build it, sure, but so did a lot of others, and it’s not the only one I helped build either. Ruler? No sir, not me.”
He settled deeper into the seat, slouching against the tall back with his hat over his eyes, propped up on his long nose.
“I used to wish I could rule a city somewhere; I told myself I’d be a man of the people and not act like a snob, help out everybody, be one of them. Turns out, I was right about part of it; I am one of the people, but that’s it. You see, for all my dreams of how people would recognise my worth and would make me their leader, which I would reluctantly accept, humility being one of my strengths of course…”
He nudged Graul in the ribs with a foot and he grunted, but a moment before the foot had swung out, the ‘lad’ had seen a grin on the shaggy face.
“…For all that, no one ever did. And all my life it’s been that way; I always wanted to be a noble hero, a knight, or a wise sage, a learned scholar for whom knowledge truly was power, a wizard or a bard that travelled about telling stories, all those sorts of things. When I realised I didn’t have the personality or the charisma for any of that, I thought I could be an artist at least; the craftsman behind the scenes that creates all those wondrous things that heroes and kings and wizards fill their towers and palaces and castles with, but somehow I was never good enough at any one thing to be any of them; I was always too much something else to be good at anything worth doing.”
He tilted his head back and looked out from under the floppy brim of his hat at the angel beside him and winked.
“There’s a reason they call me Niggle you know; well, actually, its… because I gave myself the name and no one else knew anything else to call me...”
He coughed and smoothed his moustaches, his hand muffling his voice a little, but not enough, and they all knew it.
“Anyway, I even tried to be the sort of loner that’s no good at anything, and nobody likes, but who does his own thing anyway, whatever that means. Turns out I was too good at some things to be bad at everything. So now I just do what I can, sometimes it’s good, sometimes it isn’t. But I keep doing it because what else is there to do? I make things and I explore places, I wander, and I wonder, and well, that’s all there is to me. Sorry to disappoint”
He grinned as he said it, but there was the remnant of sorrow in his voice, as though he had mostly come to terms with his failings, but some bitterness lingered amidst the carefree cheer.
The angel frowned, something didn’t make sense.
“Then, if that’s true, why do so many people talk about you?”
The self-proclaimed good-for-nothing snorted. He sat up and removed his hat, letting the breeze ruffle his too-long/not-long-enough hair. He rubbed his face with his hands and turned to face him, grinning ruefully.
“They talk about me because I’ve made a nuisance of myself for far too long. I kept sticking my nose where it didn’t belong; I didn’t give anyone a choice about whether or not they’d heard of me, I made sure they did. I wanted to do my own thing, and to do that I had to badger other people into letting me do it, well, then that’s what I did.”
He stood up, slapped the knees of his moleskin trousers with the hat and jammed it back on his head, combing his hair away from his eyes.
He picked up a pack from beside the tree, talking as he lifted it up and settled it on his shoulders.
“It’s been nice talking to you, I’m glad there’s still kids like you out there, naïve enough to do what’s right without second guessing yourself into doing nothing. Good to see you too Graul”
He nodded to them both as Graul opened his eyes and the Angel sat where he was, surprised by such a sudden parting after everything before.
“I’ll see you around sometime. Bye for now.”
He turned and began to walk down the far slope, and as he disappeared into the trees that still grew on this side of the mountain, a scrap of song came back to them on the wind.
“For me, I’ll turn and wend my way; to Bonny Road, and Fernie Brae…”