Saturday, February 20, 2016

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 6: The Road to Malthanon

             POUND…POUND…POUND…
Tarsus tried to ignore it.  The pounding at his front door was bleeding into the pounding inside his own head.  He’d overdone it again last night.  Why did he always overdo it?  He just wanted to fall back asleep, but he knew he wasn’t going to.  He was up now, and had been for at least a half hour.  No amount of keeping his eyes shut was going to change that.
“Cole!  Open up!” he heard a female voice bark from outside.
“Wake up Tarsus.  Going on this quest was your idea, remember?” came the gravelly, not-quite-awake-himself voice of Finnian Pell.
Tarsus pushed himself up from…the floor?  Yes, he must have slept on the floor last night, using a nearby rug for a blanket.  He looked around his small cottage.  Everything was in a haze, but his furniture and belongings were undisturbed.  Seemed he didn’t make it far past the door when he returned home from the Good Shepherd.
POUND…POUND…POUND…
“I’m awake.  I’m coming!” he shouted.
He made it to the door on unsteady feet.  As he opened it, the morning sun greeted him with a light so bright it intensified his headache.  His already blurry vision became blurrier as he put a hand over his eyes.  The shapes of Cecily and Finnian were like the paintings of a five year old child before him: splashes of different colors that had no business being together, sprawling all over the canvass outside the lines.
“We leave today.  Did you forget?” Cecily asked.
“Yes,” Tarsus answered quickly.  Part of him just wanted to get a rise out of Cecily for being so rude about waking him up.  But he also had, in fact, forgotten.
“How much did the two of you drink last night?” Cecily questioned.
“Hard to say,” Tarsus replied.  “We were euphoric in the presence of a god.”
“That’s nothing new,” Cecily fired back.  “And it’s no excuse for drinking yourself into a stupor.”
“Of course not,” Finnian butted in.  “That, we did for fun.”
“Are you having fun now?” Cecily asked, turning on Finnian with a rueful smile.
“So much fun,” Finnian shot back defiantly.
“Hm,” she smirked, turning back to Tarsus.  “Come along then.  Grab your gear.  We make for Malthanon.”
“Why?” Tarsus asked.
“I need to visit the temple of Malthus.  I have questions only the priests can answer,” Cecily explained.  “From there, we go to the port; and hire a ship to take us across the Sheltered Sea.”
Her eyes glazed over as she took them through her plan.  It was clear to Tarsus she wasn’t telling them every step, but he could tell that she was seeing each piece play out in her mind.  
Cecily turned from Tarsus and walked back to the road where three horses were tied to Tarsus’s small fence post.  Cecily untied hers and climbed onto its saddle.
“Her majesty awaits,” Finnian jested, looking at Cecily sitting atop her horse and staring out to the village.  “Coming Tarsus?”
“Of course,” Tarsus said.  “I just need a moment to collect my things.”
“Don’t take too long Tarsus Cole,” Finnian deepened his voice and spoke with a mock-gravitas.  “For godhood awaits.”
“Shut up,” the half-barbarian scoffed, pushing his friend back gently.  “I’ll be right out.”
Tarsus closed the door on Finnian and the rest of the world.  He looked to his left, at his own small fireplace.  Leaning on it was his sheathed sword.  He picked it up and strapped it to his side.  Next to where the sword leaned was a small pack.  Tarsus took up the pack and slung it over his shoulder.  These were all the possessions he was taking on this journey.  These were all the possessions meant anything to him.
Except for one.  Tarsus walked around to the front of his fireplace and looked at the portrait of Malthus that hung over it.  Remembering Finnian’s words from the night before, he chuckled at how ridiculous the pose of the portrait now seemed to him.  Still, he saw a majesty in the figure of Malthus painted thus.  He remembered seeing it when he moved into this small cottage a year ago.  This was his first home away from his parents.  This cottage was the first step in Tarsus’s mind to becoming a man.  Beyond that, he planned to join the militia, rise in its ranks and finally be selected as a member of the KingsGuard.  He would serve Malthus loyally, doing what it is he had always dreamed he would.
But that dream had not come true.  Drake had been chosen for his dream; and as much as Tarsus did not want to admit it, his chance of becoming a member of the KingsGuard was now infinitely small.  He had to find a new dream to chase; a new road to follow to manhood.  He would save the GodKing of the realm and prove to the world that he was more than what they thought him to be.  
He bowed his head and closed his eyes.  “Malthus, bless this quest.  Be with us all as we strive to serve you.  Be with me, lord.”

It was a quiet ride through the Wandering Wood.  The afternoon sun shone bright in the sky, and the bite of fall was setting in; turning leaves yellow, red and brown.
The three warriors rode single-file down the road, with Cecily in the lead.  They did not speak to one another, and they all wore solemn expressions.
Tarsus felt the melancholy in the air.  He wanted to say something; to bring some levity to this depressing start of their journey.  For if their quest began like this, what would happen when things got really hard?
He was in the middle of forming a joke in his head when an arrow flew from out of the trees and whizzed past the front of Cecily’s horse.  The beast whinnied and rose to its hind legs in panic.  Cecily immediately began stroking its main and talking soothingly to it.
“Halt!” they all heard.  “In the name of Malthus, you will dismount!”
None of them did.  Instead, they all stayed on their horses looking around for the source of the mysterious voice.
From out of the surrounding foliage came a group of men holding various weapons: daggers, short swords, and lances mostly.  They wore mismatched pieces of leather and cloth armor and they were incredibly dirty.  If Tarsus had to guess, he would have assumed them to be some of the roving bandits that were said to make their homes deep in the Wandering Wood.
A fit young man carrying a jagged long sword came to the head of their group.  He must have been the leader; everyone else in the party gave deference to him.
“Dismount!” he bellowed gruffly.
“No,” Cecily answered calmly.
As one, the group of bandits moved toward Cecily’s horse.  Their blades were held out menacingly, and the threat of force was clear.
Cecily’s horse began panicking, backing up into Finnian’s which in turn backed up into Tarsus.  
“Wait!” Cecily called out.
The bandits obeyed, as though they were not aware of who gave them the order.
Cecily dismounted and held the reigns of her horse.  She pulled the animal’s head in close and stroked its head, calming it.
“Your money!” the leader of the bandits ordered.  “Or we kill you and your beasts.”
“It is a cheap tactic to steal in the name of Malthus,” Cecily said icily.
“Yeah, and it never works,” the leader confided as though he were in congress with another bandit leader.  “GodKing’s name don’t hold the influence it once did.”
“I can see where shooting an arrow at your targets before trying to impersonate loyal servants of the GodKing might be a bit confusing,” Cecily offered.
“Nah,” the bandit leader replied casually.  “We tried it before with no arrow and no one never stopped.”
“Then why use his name at all?” Cecily asked.
The bandit leader opened his mouth to answer and then paused.  The three companions could see him thinking, what with him stroking his chin and his overly elaborate “hms” and “huhs.”
“She have a point boss?” one of the cronies standing next to the leader asked.
“That she do Bernard.  That she do.”
“Ugh, your grammar is atrocious,” Cecily let out.
“Hey!  You’ll show the boss some respect,” Bernard said as he waved his small dagger in Cecily’s face.  “He’s a philosopher he is.  Smartest man I ever knew.  Why, he’s teachin me seventeen year old daughter how to read!”  
“Tell me friend,” Finnian said as he and Tarsus stepped up to either side of Cecily with swords already drawn.  “When do those lessons take place?”
The spooked group of bandits all backed away for a moment.  Then, looking amongst each other and realizing they outnumbered the warriors before them, they stepped forward again more menacingly than before.
“Every evening right after supper,” Bernard offered.  “My little girl loves the readin so much, sometimes she don’t come home till next morning.”
“Understandable, of course,” Finnian said, eyeing the leader.  “There are so many good books out there.”
“Long ones too,” Tarsus joined in, trying to stop himself from laughing.
“And short,” Cecily added.
That broke Tarsus and Finnian.  They couldn’t help giggling like younger lads.
“Enough!” the red faced leader screamed.  “You’ll give us your money, or we’ll…”
“No no,” Finnian interrupted.  “You should really hear what I have to say before you finish that threat.  Now, by my count there are fifteen of you.  We are only three.  Following me so far?”
“Yes,” the leader answered suspiciously.
“Very good,” Finnian went on.  “You have weapons.  Crude, but you’re all armed.  Am I right?”
The leader seemed to have a sudden realization after this question.  He appeared frustrated, even embarrassed as he began to speak.
“Phillip, do you have a weapon?”
“Left it back at camp sir,” a voice, presumably Phillip’s, called from the back of the group.  “But I have a very large bag for all the booty.”
“Well, fourteen out of fifteen armed men is still pretty good,” Finnian comforted.  “As you will notice, we are also armed.  Cecily, my love?  Would you be so kind?”
At his prompting, Cecily slowly unsheathed her own sword and held it up alongside the blades of her companions.
“No doubt you already observe that, though we only have three swords, our weapons are of a higher quality than yours.  Myself and Cecily handling long swords made of tempered steel, and my friend here…” Finnian said as he gestured to Tarsus as a magician would at a rabbit recently pulled from a hat.  “My friend holds a hand-and-a-half bastard sword.  That doesn’t make him a bastard of course, I know his parents quite well and his mother makes the juiciest venison steaks you have ever tasted.  He is, however, a sunsword.  Well, half a sunsword as he’s half barbarian.”
The group of bandits took a step back at this. 
“Ah, you’ve heard of barbarians I see,” Finnian went on.  “Well, they’re loyal people to be sure.  But they do have a vicious, bloodthirsty streak.”
Tarsus shot Finnian a questioning gaze.  Where his friend was going with this, he had no idea.
“So, we have established that while we’re fewer in number we hold the superior weaponry.  Do you know why that is?” Finnian went on.
“No idea,” the leader said.  His eyes were beginning to glaze over.  Tarsus thought his head might topple over with all the information Finnian was offering.
“You see, the half-barbarian and I serve in the Briarden militia together.  At least we did serve, until just yesterday when we joined this lovely, full-bodied woman on a very dangerous quest.”
Now it was Cecily’s turn to give Finnian a glare.  The message was clear; hurry this along.
“Clearly I have taken up too much of your time, so allow to make my point saying this,” Finnian rushed.  “You may think there is strength in numbers.  Ordinarily, you’d be right.  But you don’t know how to use the strength you have.  We do.  I promise you…we do.”
As one, the three companions took a step forward lifting their swords up higher to emphasize Finnian’s point.
Most of the bandits looked scared.  Finnian’s verboseness had done its work.  But the leader remained at their head; a dark smirk on his face as he held his own against the companions’ threat.
“Take’em,” he said.
After a moment of checking in with each other to make sure they had heard their leader correctly, the rag-tag group of men let out several individual battle cries that did not match at all and charged Cecily, Finnian and Tarsus.
Instinctively, the three of them separated so as to give each other the room they needed to fight.
Seven men surrounded Tarsus.  Of course they would.  He was the largest of the three, and his bastard sword was the most impressive weapon of the lot.  Combined with Finnian’s promise of “vicious and bloodthirsty” barbarians, it did not surprise him that these thugs saw him as the most dangerous threat.  He raised his sword slowly, and then instantly launched himself into two unsuspecting men.
The brigands were thrown off guard.  They expected Tarsus to defend, and the sunsword played on that expectation.  Thaddeus Berk had taught him early on that when outnumbered in a fight, it was crucial to use the enemy’s expectations against him.  By doing that, the enemy was kept surprised, and if that surprise could be sustained then the expectation could always be undercut.
HORIZONTAL SLASH!
Tarsus disarmed the two men in one attack.  He got to his knees then, and slashed at their legs.  They toppled over, holding their wounds and doing their best to crawl away.
He left them, and noticed an oncoming bandit looking to sneak up on him.  From his lowered position, Tarsus vaulted onto the oncoming brigand.
  So shocked was the thug, that he slowed his run and let his arms fall; standing there agape as the body of this large man loomed closer and closer.  Tarsus fell on him, bringing him to the ground.
The sunsword was up quickly after that.  Four men left.  They surrounded him in a small circle.  They looked cautious now, and even more afraid than they had been at the start.  Tarsus gave them a grim smile to reassure this behavior.
DOWNWARD STRIKE!
Tarsus’s blade came down where one of the circling men had stood.  The bandit quickly moved out of the way to avoid being hit.  Tarsus followed his attack by charging the distracted bandit, slamming into the brigand with a full-bodied tackle.  The man toppled over and Tarsus spun on the space where he stood, bring his sword around.
HORIZONTAL SLASH!
The ringing of sword on sword echoed loudly as Tarsus’s blade met another thug’s.  But the defending weapon could not hold up against the force of Tarsus’s strike.  The enemy blade was slammed back into the bandit’s own face, severing the thug’s relationship with his nose.
Two men left now.  Tarsus went on the offensive again, moving toward them quickly with his sword ready to strike.  They did not hesitate.
They dropped their weapons, turned to the forest and ran away as fast as they could.
Tarsus turned to see how his companions were faring.
Finnian handily disarmed a bandit and struck the man hard across the face with the pommel of his sword.  That was the last enemy Finnian had to contend with.
Cecily, with a savage two-handed strike, launched the leader’s shaking weapon into the trees.  Disarmed, she raised her sword up; the point less than inch from the shivering man’s face.
“I beg you…don’t kill me,” the leader sniveled.
But Cecily did not lower her weapon.  She stood as a statue, the only thing moving slowly was her sword arm; getting closer and closer, until the point of her blade pricked the tip of the bandit leader’s nose.
“Ahhh,” the leader screamed out in a high-pitched whine.
“Cecily,” Tarsus called.  “You’ve won.”
“You committed a sacrilege coward,” she said quietly.  “You soiled the name of my god for your own selfishness.”
Tarsus looked back at Finnian with concern.  He saw Pell moving slowly toward Cecily.  What his friend planned to do, Tarsus had no idea.  But he wondered if he too should try to intervene.  This bandit had wronged her, to be sure, but did his pathetic attempt to rob them all merit his own murder?
“I’m sorry!  I’ll never use Malthus’s name again,” the bandit leader cried.
“Good.”
Cecily lowered her sword and tilted her head back down the road.  The leader did not need to wait for further instructions.  He was out of sight before they had sheathed their swords.
Cecily looked back to Tarsus.  The sunsword smiled at her, breathing out in relief.
Finnian appeared next to her, putting his arm around their red-headed leader.  He offered a wide smile, looking from her to Tarsus across the way.  She looked surprised, but did not seem angry at affectionate gesture.
       “That was fun!” he said jubilantly.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 5: First of the Firstborn

         Tarsus and Finnian had been at the Good Shepherd for hours, sitting at their usual table toward the back of the place.  The tavern was unusually crowded this night.  Bustling crowds of shepherds, merchants, and other folk milled about with ales in hand.  There was a general sense of excitement in the air as men and women milled about with ales in hand excitedly greeting old friends they hadn’t seen in months.  Tarsus, with the help of several ales, allowed himself to be swept up in this excitement.  It felt right to him that: tonight of all nights: he should be greeted not with the drudgery of the old, but with the thrill of the new.
“Come with me,” he exclaimed to Finnian, who sat across from him.
“Are you mad?” Pell asked, clearly trying to be stern.
“Maybe,” Tarsus laughed at the admission.  “I know this whole thing sounds insane, but I swear to you Finnian…it felt like the hand of fate reached out to me today.  I feel like I have made a choice that will define the rest of my life.”
“No one choice defines anyone’s life,” Finnian retorted.  “Trust me on this.  The choices you make, you have to make every moment of every day for them have any sort of impact.”
“That sounded awfully wise,” Tarsus said accusingly.
“Drinking doesn’t affect me the way it does most people,” Finnian said.  “My mind actually gets sharper.  Gods, I wish we had a chess board right now.  You wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“Come on Finnian,” Tarsus emphatically whined.  “Think of the fun we’ll have together.  A beautiful woman needs our help.  You live for this sort of thing.”
“Speaking of which,” Finnian put on his stern face again.  “Please tell me you haven’t agreed to go on an impossible quest because a pretty girl asked you to.  Even I am not that stupid…especially when I’m drunk.”
“No, of course not,” Tarsus reassured.  
“Really?”
“Truly,” Tarsus said more earnestly.
“Because everything Berk said about her was dead on.  You saw, she didn’t even try to deny it.  She’s more than likely a lunatic,” Finnian shared in a quieter voice.
“Why?  Because she says she saw Malthus in a dream?  We see the gods all the time.  We feel their presence when they’re near.  Why is it so hard to believe?” Tarsus concluded.
“Because no one has seen Malthus: in a dream or otherwise: for a thousand years.  And he’s a showoff Tarsus!  We know this.  Every home in the kingdom of Malthanon has The Great Works of Malthus as proof: his book, his self-portrait….oh, his self-portrait…” Finnian had been gesturing wildly with his hands for emphasis.  Suddenly, he stopped and sat straight up looking wide-eyed at Tarsus.  “Do you remember the pose?”
“Don’t do it,” Tarsus said, trying to suppress laughter.
“Of course I’m going to do it.  I always do it,” Finnian said as he stood up from the bench.
In an effort to recreate this pose in a crowded tavern, Finnian pushed himself backward into the crowd behind him.  He put his left foot up on the bench and popped his chest out heroically.  His right hand was balled into a fist and placed on his hip, the elbow sticking out prominently.  His left arm he brought up and out in front of his chest, bending his forearm as though a bird was perched on it in front of his face.
“Remember this?” Finnian asked in his pose.  “And there were eagles.  One perched his arm, about to take off, and then a hundred others in front of him in mid-flight; as though he’d conjured all these birds to chase after rabbits or something.”
“I remember,” Tarsus said through strained laughter.
“There were so many eagles in fact, that the painting suggests the wind from their wings had blown Malthus’s shirt clean open.  The tails of his shirt are dangling in the breeze of the eagles’ backsides,” Finnian finished.
Tarsus laughed harder.
Suddenly, a cloaked man wearing a hood over his head appeared out of the crowd of other bar patrons.  He seemed to have tripped, falling right into Finnian.  The pose was broken.
“Sorry,” the man said.   
“That’s alright,” Finnian said as he helped the man up onto his feet.  “It might be better to put the hood on when you’re outside, though.”
“Thank you, young master,” the man said as he stumbled back into the crowd of the tavern, disappearing.
“Drunks, eh?” Finnian said as he resumed his seat.  “Anyway, you tell me how a GodKing who has a mandatory portrait of himself built into the structure of every home in his kingdom can go a thousand years without once hearing from his loyal subjects about how great he is.  Unless…”
“Unless what?” Tarsus pressed.
“Unless Malthus is gone,” Finnian said.  “That’s the only reason I can come up with for the fact that no one has seen him.”
“Maybe,” Tarsus conceded.  “Maybe he got bored.  Maybe he’s somewhere trying to live differently.  People change.  Why not gods?”
“No one really changes,” Finnian said sourly.  “And gods…think about it, if you had all that power and could live forever, would you ever change?”
Tarsus considered this a moment.  “I think I would.  I think I would have to.  It would get boring, wouldn’t it?  Staying the same throughout all of eternity?”
“Fine; maybe the girl’s not crazy,” Finnian humored.  “But that doesn’t mean she’s telling the truth.”
“She’s not lying,” Tarsus said assuredly.
Finnian gave him a questioning stare.  Tarsus could see the condescension in his friend’s eyes, and he suddenly remembered Cecily’s request earlier that day.
“At least, she wasn’t lying about the dream,” Tarsus clarified.
“I’m going to say this one more time,” Finnian said in a mockingly sympathetic tone.  “I know what fiery red hair and a healthy bosom does to a man.  There is no shame in admiring the loveliness of the female form.  But don’t let it turn you into a fool.”
“I swear to you Finnian, this is not about her beauty.  I honestly believe she needs help on this quest.  And the quest…” Tarsus bent in low, speaking in barely more than a whisper.             “To see out the sword of Malthus…”
“Is desperately needed,” a strange voice finished.
Tarsus and Finnian both sat up straight.  They clutched their hands to their stomachs.  This was a feeling they both knew well; it was a slight tug in the pit of their stomach, as though something was pulling the inside of their body to the outside.  Tarsus noticed the large crowding the tavern had quieted as well.  Everyone had a hand to their stomachs; everyone was looking for the god amongst them.
In the seat on the bench next to Finnian, the backside of a man; at least, what appeared to be a man; slowly turned.  
All eyes fell on this man.  He looked as most gods chose to look: achingly beautiful, with the light of grace and dignity radiating out from him as though he were a star.  Yet he was so glorious that he put many other gods to shame.  His ebony locks shone in the candlelight like onyx in the high noon sun.  His blue eyes were as clear and deep as the Crystal Sea.  He was neither overlarge nor undersized, but was somehow possessed of a strong stature.  Yet for all the strength he may have possessed, his smile betrayed a nurturing warmth.
The god looked from Tarsus to Finnian and back; even while every other eye in the place was fixed on him, yearning for his acknowledgment.  “As you were,” he said in the most melodious voice Tarsus had ever heard.
Suddenly, everyone in the tavern turned back to their conversations. The din of humanity had been born anew, and Tarsus was pushed out of the reverie this god had put them all in. 
“Pardon my lord.  Who are you?” Finnian asked in awe.
“Do you know Tarsus?” the heavenly figure asked.
“I am sorry my lord.  I…don’t,” Tarsus said regretfully.  For some reason, this god had trusted him to know and he had disappointed.  In that moment, Tarsus loathed himself.
“Could you not even guess?” the god asked again.  “Of all the folk in this town, your knowledge of me and my kind is unmatched.”
“But there are so many of you,” Tarsus said, trying to justify his stupidity.
He searched his mind, but without a name it was almost impossible to decipher which god was sitting before him.  They could change shape, and did, often.  They were bound by no earthly confines, and so unless they ruled a kingdom any one of them could be anywhere at any time.  And long gone were the days when they ruled over only one element of the many that combined to form the storm of humanity.  There were no more gods of love or war or the hunt.   They had abandoned those roles, choosing instead to enter the world as masters building kingdoms in their own image and honor.
But their names; their names were sacred.  That was a code that even gods lived by.  Perhaps the only code, so far as Tarsus knew.  For while they did not want to be confined, they did want to be known.  They wanted to be revered and adored and worshipped; therefore, at least one piece of them had to stay the same.
He thought frantically, desperately, about everything he had learned of the various gods’ personalities.  Malmira was a matronly goddess; she saw the people of her city as her children, and encouraged everyone who worshipped her to call her “mother.”  
Brandor was a warrior god, who insisted on fighting everyone who challenged him at their level.  It could be god, man or beast he fought, so long as the fight was evenly matched.  If he won, he’d mark his opponent with his seal.  If he lost, he’d allow himself to be marked in any way his opponent saw fit.
Pox was a wily deity, who played tricks on man and god alike for his own amusement.  The story went that rather than build a city of his own, Pox planted an apple tree in the capital city of any kingdom built by another god.  People passing by the tree would find the most beautiful apples hanging from its limbs, but when they tried to pick one the apples remained held fast to the branch; or the apples would be filled with worms; or the apples gave them terrible stomach pains.  The effect changed from city to city, and thus each capital of a god’s kingdom had a Pox tree somewhere within its bounds.
All of these gods and more flew through Tarsus’s mind.  It seemed like an hour had passed before he finally found one tether to grab onto; one god he’d read about who always prized looking his absolute best.
“Adulatio?” he asked hesitantly.
The god across from him gave a wide smile that filled Tarsus with warmth.  He guessed right; and the rapture of guessing right in that moment made him feel better than any living man in Arden.
“A knowledge of the elder gods is so rare to find these days,” Adulatio said.  “Bravo, Tarsus Cole."  
“Elder?  You?  You look like a man in his prime,” Finnian said with reverent solemnity.
“Thank you child,” Adulatio said, turning his fair countenance on Finnian.  “I am now as I choose to appear.  Yet I am old.  First of the firstborn.”
“Who are the firstborn?” Finnian asked.
“The gods,” Tarsus answered immediately.
Adulation turned back to the half barbarian sunsword and nodded, giving his blessing to the answer.
“The gods came first.  Then came mortals,” Tarsus finished.
“Who brought the gods?” Finnian asked.
“We have always been here,” Adulatio said patiently; like a father trying to explain why the birds fly to a child.  “Ever since the beginning of Arden.”
“What brings you here now my lord?” Tarsus asked.
“Your quest Tarsus Cole,” Adulatio answered softly.  He turned to Finnian.  “And yours, Finnian Pell.”
The both of them were awestruck: baffled.  They sat silently, neither one of them daring to move or speak.
Adulatio eyed them both.  He grew stern and leaned in to the center of the table.  They both followed suit.  “The woman who has come to you is telling the truth.  She has seen Malthus.  He reached out to the people of his kingdom with his fading strength, and only she; one of the last of his disciples; was open to receiving him.
“What do you mean…his fading strength?” Tarsus asked.
Adulatio’s brow furrowed.  He looked angry.  “Curse me and my incessant tongue.”
“Forgive me lord,” Tarsus said as tears began to well in his eyes.  “I did not mean to offend…”
“Hush child,” Adulatio held up his hand and gave Tarsus a small smile.  “It was not your fault.  You asked an obvious question.  It was my blunder.  Malthus’s secret…is a grave one.  No mortal knows it; not even the captain of the KingsGuard.”
“Would you tell us lord?” Finnian asked.
“Finnian!” Tarsus scolded.  He couldn’t believe the audacity of his friend.  
“Ha, that’s alright.  You are a brave soul young Pell,” Adulatio said, putting his heavenly hand on Finnian’s arm.
The impish young soldier beamed.  He instantly sat up straighter on the bench and bowed his head in gratitude to the god that sat beside him.
“And you Tarsus,” Adulatio said turning to Cole.  “You are a virtuous young man.  I know now that I chose rightly.  You two can save Malthus,” Adulatio proclaimed.
“Save him from what?” Tarsus asked.
“Agony,” Adulatio said.  “As we sit here, Malthus lies on the floor of his throne room…dying.”
“Impossible!” Tarsus exclaimed louder than he expected to.  He bent back in to the center of the table.  “Nothing can kill a god.”
“Some things can,” Adulatio corrected.  “Some…forces can.  But gods cannot simply be erased from existence.  We all hold a power inside us, an ancient living power that separates us from mortals.  If one of us is to die, that power must be transferred to a new host.  Malthus has lain dying now for a thousand years.  It is that power that keeps him alive; suffering each day until he can be released.”
“I don’t understand,” Tarsus’s mind was reeling with these new revelations.  “Cecily said Malthus needed the sword to fight off a great evil.  If he’s dying…well, that can’t be true.”
“Of course it’s true,” Adulatio said, taking on that fatherly tone once more.  “The sword is an extension of Malthus: an extension of his power.  It is so with anything we gods create.  For as long as that sword has been lost, Malthus’s power has been diminished.  But for Malthus to die and the power to pass on, he must be made whole again.”
“Hence, the quest,” Tarsus concluded.
“Yes,” Adulatio said solemnly.  “There is no telling how much longer Malthus can withstand his torment.  That is why he reached out.  That is why you must help Cecily Thorn retrieve Malthir as quickly as you can.  Because if Malthus succumbs to his suffering before it can be brought to him, he will find a way to bring it himself…even if half of Arden has to be destroyed to do it.”
Tarsus and Finnian were struck dumb.  They sat there, thinking to themselves.  This had gone beyond an impossible mission that could be failed and forgotten about by the few who knew of it.  This was now a quest for the fate of the world.  They had dreamed of this as boys; played long and involved games that spanned months of imaginary battles, dragons slain and princesses saved.  But this was not a game.  It was not exciting.  
Tarsus thought back to his first day reporting in to Thaddeus Berk as a part of Briarden’s militia.  He thought about the moments leading up to his first real battle.  He remembered, all too well, the feeling he felt at both of those times: fear.  More than fear, it was a crippling terror.  In both of those times, he felt there was just too much to comprehend; too much at stake; too much lying on his shoulders.  He sat there, trying to understand how he became a part of a fairy tale and how he could have ever seen fairy tales as simple stories before.  He never thought about how the heroes felt.  The adventure always moved swiftly passed too much fear or too much doubt.  There was always just enough to know that heroes weren’t perfect, but not so much that they ever seemed…human.  Finnian’s words suddenly sprung back into his mind and he realized his friend was right.  To go on this journey meant having to choose, every moment of every day, to keep going. 
All of these thoughts raced through his mind, and with each one he came to a question he kept asking himself over and again: could he handle something this big?
“What happens when…if, we bring back the sword of Malthus?” Tarsus finally was able to ask.
“One of you will have to kill him,” Adulatio answered.  “And thus, the power of the GodKing would pass on to his slayer.”
“One of us could become a god?” Finnian asked in disbelief.
        “Yes Finnian Pell.  One of you could become god.”