Saturday, April 30, 2016

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 11: Storms

            The ship Defiance rose and fell on the face of the Crystal Sea.  What had promised to be a calm and serene ocean at the start of their voyage, only seven days ago, had now broken that promise and was stirred to bubbling fury.  The storm was upon them.
The wind lashed at the ship with the explosive force of several whips.  Raindrops as large as a human fist were crashing down on the deck.  Down below, the ocean roiled with breaking crests that were getting higher and higher: the hands of the sea were slowly enfolding the Defiance in their embrace.
  “All hands, prepare yourselves!” shouted Amelia as she took her place on the elevated quarterdeck.  
On the main deck below, her crew scurried all about, busying themselves with ship tasks to brace for the storm.  Tarsus, Cecily and Finnian could only stand by and watch, half in shock at how quickly the storm had come upon them and half in amazement at how quickly the crew was responding to it.  
Tarsus was especially impressed.  It seemed to him that none of these men and women really thought about what they had to do.  They simply took on a job and went to it.  But, they were trained to respond that way, surely.  It made all the sense in the world to be incredibly confident and competent when you had been trained.  If he had half of their experience, he would immediately jump in to help them.  But he didn’t have their experience, or their knowledge.  Instinctively, he gripped the hilt of the sword at his side.    
He was a soldier, after all: not a sailor.
“You three!” Amelia called to them from behind.  Tarsus, Cecily and Finnian all turned to look up at her on the quarterdeck.  “Find a way to be helpful.  In a storm, no ship can afford idle hands.”
Tarsus was struck with the simplicity of this order.  It was so vague to him.  Weren’t orders supposed to be specific?  Didn’t good leaders have a clear vision of how to move forward, in any given situation?  Wasn’t it their responsibility to communicate their needs clearly to their subordinates?  
He began panicking then, as his mind came back around to the situation he was in.  He did not know the inner workings of a ship.  He did not even know the outer workings of a ship.  Where could he even begin to look for a way to be helpful?
He turned to Finnian, expecting his friend to be wearing the same dumbfounded expression that he imagined he had on his own face.  But Finnian was gone.  Tarsus turned to the port side of the ship, expecting to find Cecily there, but she had left him as well.  He turned fully then, to face the front of the ship, and he quickly spotted them both.
At the foremast, Finnian was taking direction from a sailor who was throwing rope over the fore boom.  Once all the rope was in place, Finnian helped the sailor tie it down: meaning that Finnian did the tying while watching the sailor gesture strongly with an open hand toward the bow of the ship, sliding his forearm forward.  It seemed to Tarsus that the sailor was emphasizing that the ship needed to be moving forward at all times.
Not far from Finnian, Cecily stood on the forecastle deck talking to a female sailor.  The sailor held a telescope, and used it to point out to the open sea.  Cecily followed the sailor’s gestures with a telescope of her own that she was looking through.  Tarsus surmised that the two women were looking for a port, or some other shelter from the storm.
“Excuse me, chosen one?” he heard Amelia ask glibly.
Tarsus turned and looked up at her.
She stood next to Cassius, who seemed to be enjoying this open mockery so much that his grin spread from ear to ear.
“That sword won’t help you now,” Amelia continued.
Tarsus realized his hand still gripped the hilt of his sword.  He quickly let his hand fall from it, as he felt the heat of embarrassment flush his face.
“Be useful.  Find something you can do, with what little you know,” Amelia concluded sternly.
Suddenly, the ship tipped slightly to the right, pulling Tarsus’s focus to the starboard railing.  He saw the crests of crashed waves; like thin, pale fingers; recede from the twelve foot height they had climbed to invade the deck.  
The briny hands had tried to envelope the Defiance in their hold, but they were not large enough yet. 
Tarsus shivered, looking down at the assault of the cold wet that had invaded his boots.  His head popped back up, looking beyond the railing through the harsh winds and heavy rains.  A stroke of lightning lit up the dark grey sky, and Tarsus saw the hand of the sea rise up to greet it.  The wave, that only a moment ago had reached a paltry height of twelve feet, was now a mighty fist that towered over even the tallest mast of the Defiance.  
Instinctively, Tarsus grabbed the hilt of his sword again.  He let his head fall, shaking it to himself and his own foolishness.  What use was a sword now?  What good was a soldier here?  If only he had a flesh and blood opponent to prove himself against…but this was a storm, and only the gods themselves could temper the weather of the world.
His mind held onto that revelation, and slowly his head rose in realization.  He turned and looked back up at Cassius.  Amelia was not next to him anymore, but behind him wrestling with the steering wheel to keep the ship from straying off-course.
“You’re half a god!” Tarsus declared with a pride he could not hide.  Cassius only deigned to bow his head a little, in bored acknowledgement that he was being spoken to.             
        “Can’t you help subdue the storm?”
The demigod was silent.  Tarsus could not see his face clearly in the dark grey tumult of the storm, but he felt Cassius’s scrutinizing gaze on him, and the slight pull of the immortal’s limited power in the pit of his stomach. 
“No,” Cassius finally said.  It felt to Tarsus a condemnation: that the god-man had judged the request of help against the requestor, and deemed one of them unworthy.
The sunsword wanted to argue; to demand the help of providence for his own life and all the other lives on the ship.  But he knew that such an entreaty was worthless.  There was no changing a god’s mind once it had been made up.
Tarsus turned back to the front of the ship, just in time to be struck in the face by the white water of a wave’s crest.  He toppled backward, even as the ship tipped toward the starboard side.  The fingers of the Crystal Sea were upon them, and their grip was tighter than it had been before.
Tarsus slid down to the starboard railing and managed to grab hold of it before being thrown overboard.  He spit out the salty blood of the ocean left in his mouth; a remnant of the cruel blow it had struck him.  Sputtering, he caught his breath as the ship bobbed back to its righted position.
Struggling back to his feet, Tarsus’s ears were filled with cracks of thunder, howling winds, crashing waves and the joyous laughter of an overly amused deity.  Tarsus only stood there, feeling humiliated: suffering the sounds of these tormentors.  
But slowly, the buzz of ship’s deck displaced the din of damnation in his ears.  He focused on the shouting of desperate men and women as they did all they could in the face of a force far lager and older than any of them.  He marveled again, at how composed they all seemed as they ran this way and that doing all kinds of odd jobs: tying off broken boom lines, clamping together torn sailcloth, distributing ballast on whichever side of the ship needed it to keep the thing level. 
All of these things, he saw Cecily and Finnian rushing around and helping with: as though they had been on the crew for years.  
All of these things, he admonished himself for not doing, not thinking of, and not even trying to think of.  
He should get up and help them now, then.  But he didn’t.  What could he do now? 
This storm was not some god’s gambit or game to test his mettle.  It was real life; and in the face of real life, he had failed.  Had it not been for all of the other quick-witted, skillful, and even not-so-skillful people he was sailing with, he would have drowned.
        He realized that, once again, his hand had grasped the hilt of his sword.  He let it fall.  

Friday, April 15, 2016

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 10: The Disciple's Law

             “Malthus’s son?” Tarsus half asked and half accused.  “I have never heard that Malthus had any children.”
            “Neither did Malthus, I’m sure,” Cassius said as he flashed them a mischievous smile.  “Being one of the youngest, I doubt that he would have heard of me before he disappeared into his palace.”
            “Are you telling us you’re a thousand years old?” Finnian asked in sardonic disbelief.
            “Not just yet,” Cassius answered jovially.  “Though that fated birthday is not far off.  But what is age to an immortal?”
            The three of them stood on the docks of the Malthanon Harbor considering this.  Tarsus felt as though he were outside of his own body at this moment, and his senses seemed to come alive.  He heard the lap of the water below his feet; smelled the salty sea air as it stung his nostrils; faintly saw the morning fog out of his periphery; and felt the slight tug in the pit of his stomach that told him this man was telling the truth…or at least, a truth.
            “You feel it, don’t you?” Cassius asked, looking directly at Tarsus.  “You feel my divinity.  My power…the power of a god.”
            “I feel something,” Tarsus answered guardedly.  “But it is only the solitary hum of a melody I have heard sung by a choir of thousands.”
            “You are savvy,” Cassius said, licking his lips with delight.  “More so than the others I have met.”
            Tarsus tried hard not to give away his surprise at the mention of “others.”  His mind raced with possible answers to the question he had to ask next.  He opened his mouth to speak, only to be interrupted by Cassius.
            “I see that for the sake of our continued conversation, all doubts of my divinity must be removed.  So be it.  Behold!”
            Cassius stretched out his arms, and the slight tug that Tarsus felt in the pit of his stomach became a forceful pull.  It was as though his body was dragged through an opening too small for it; for an instant, he felt pain like he had never felt before.  His skin burned with the sensations of fire and ice, and in his heart he felt the crushing despair of a man alone - stranded on a small desert island in the middle of a vast ocean with only calm water surrounding him. 
Then, it was over.  Vision returned to his eyes, and he saw that he was no longer on the dock.  He, Finnian and Cecily were standing on the deck of a ship.  All around them, a crew was hard at work.  They seemed to take no notice of three strangers suddenly appearing from out of nowhere.  Before them was the main mast rising tall into the sky, and standing in front of it; wearing a proud and arrogant smile upon his face; stood Cassius.
“Dost thou now believe?” he asked, and suddenly his golden skin seemed to shine with a fiery light that emanated from within him.
“Yes,” Cecily answered quickly, falling to her knees.
Tarsus and Finnian stood dumbstruck.  They looked at each other, questioning with their confounded stares what they should do. 
It made no sense to Tarsus.  The miracle of being instantly transported onto a ship and of seeing a burning man stand before him was spectacular.  Yet the pull in his stomach, so strong only a moment ago, had returned to a weak tug.  This was not the sensation of the gods.  So what was it? 
“You are not a god,” Tarsus said, discovering the answer in the same instant that he spoke.  “Not fully, at least.”
The halo of firelight that shone around Cassius suddenly died down.  The son of Malthus looked at Tarsus with surprise; and yet, he could not keep himself from smiling.
“Who are you?” Cassius asked of Tarsus.  “Who knows so much of the gods?”
Tarsus hesitated a moment.  He looked around to Finnian and Cecily, who were looking back at him confused.  “My name is Tarsus Cole,” he said as he turned back to face Cassius. 
“Tarsus Cole,” Cassius repeated considerately: as though the name was a new delicacy he had tried, and he was deciding whether or not it suited him.  “You have impressed me.  Twice now.  Let us see if it can be done a third time.  What am I?”
“A demigod.  Born of an immortal father and a mortal mother,” Tarsus answered quickly.  “It must be that way, for only mortal women have the gift of childbirth.  Goddesses cannot produce children.”
“Bravo!” Cassius answered with an excited clap of his hands.  In that moment, the fa├žade of godhood fell from him and to Tarsus he seemed like one of the friends of his youth who enjoyed reading the stories of the gods with him.  “You, Tarsus Cole…you will be my chosen.”
“Chosen to do what?” Finnian asked, eager to finally have enough awareness to say something.
“To journey with me to the Under Isle,” Cassius said, not taking his eyes off Tarsus.  “To find Malthir.”
“You are searching for Malthir?” Cecily asked warily.
“Of course,” Cassius answered.  “Malthus is my father, though he may not know it.  I will find the sword and claim my birthright.”
“How will you do that?” Cecily said, seemingly despite herself.
“Clearly, my father communicates with young Tarsus Cole here,” Cassius said, focusing on Tarsus with lustful eyes.  “Is that not true, Tarsus?  My father visited you?  Charged you with this quest?”
Tarsus began to answer, but before he could speak he felt a quick pinch on his left hand.  Cecily stood next to him so closely that her pinch came from behind his back, so that Cassius did not see it happen.  The intent was clear, even if Tarsus could not understand the reason behind it: lie to this god-man.
“Yes,” Tarsus answered without looking over at his friends.  “Malthus came to me in a dream.  Only me.  My friends came along to help me.”
“I knew it,” Cassius said, self-satisfied.  “How else could you know so much of the gods?  And you are clever to boot.  You are a much finer chosen than any of the others of your ilk I have interviewed for his quest.”
            “You mentioned others before,” Tarsus quickly remembered.  “Who are you talking about?”
            “Who am I talking about?  The hundreds of other mortals looking for Malthir,” Cassius answered plainly.
            “What?” Cecily spoke up, stepping forward.
            “Oh come now,” Cassius said, with an air of being bored.  “You believed yourselves the only ones searching for the sword of the GodKing?”
            Cecily began to shake.
            “Malthus…” Tarsus said, stepping in front of her.  “Malthus said that he chose me because I was his most devoted servant.”
            “So he told the others,” Cassius said as though he had practiced this a thousand times already.  “He reached out to thousands of you mortals.  Only mortals.  And the ones who believed in him the most, took up the cause.”
            “Why would he do that?” Cecily pleaded.
            “I do not pretend to know,” Cassius answered; completely unaware of the blows his words were raining down on her.  “I can only guess that it is a game of numbers.  The more of you he can convince to go in search of his sword, the more likely it is the quest will succeed.”
            “You said he only reached out to mortals,” Tarsus charged forward with his words, hoping to change the direction of the conversation.  “Why?  If Malthus had a son…”
            “Sons, boy,” Cassius interrupted.  “And daughters.  So many of them.”
            “With so many children,” Tarsus continued.  “Why recruit mortals to find the sword?”
            “Hm,” Cassius gave a superior grin.  “My chosen’s knowledge of the gods finds its limits in the disciple’s law.  Quite apt for a devoted follower of Malthus; one who has not strayed to serve any other gods.”
            “What is the disciple’s law?” Tarsus asked, aggravated by the condescension of Cassius.
            “Careful, Tarsus Cole,” Cassius said with a sneer.  “I am not one of your peers to be spoken to thus.  I favor you with great honor.  You will return to me the same respect.”
            Tarsus felt another pinch on his left hand.
            “Forgive me,” he said.  “I meant no offense with my question.  I have always been curious about the ways of the gods.  I am only eager to learn something new.”
            Cassius looked at Tarsus for a few moments with unchanging expression.  Finally, a long, sly smile spread across his face.  “You are a clever one.  I have chosen well in you.  As a gift, I will deign to enlighten you on this.  The disciple’s law is a sacred covenant between mortal and immortal: a covenant as ancient as the gods themselves.  It states that when a mortal chooses to give their faith to one god, a bond between the two is formed.  Followers, through their faith, feed the god’s power.  Gods, through their benevolence, bless their followers with love and favor.  This bond grows with time.  Thus, the longer someone is devoted to one god, the more the relationship can yield.  It is common enough, in these modern times of doubt and depravity, to speak to the gods; to see their power.  But to feel their love?  To reap their blessings?  That is a privilege reserved for their disciples.”
            Behind him, Tarsus could feel Cecily’s trembling. 
            “You see, Tarsus Cole.  Gods do not serve other gods.  So if you, given the choice, could select a beneficiary to leave your greatest work to; could find a conditioned architect who would keep your legacy alive and flourishing, even after you were dead and gone; could choose a champion to save you from a torment worse than death, and look down on you with reverance as they released you to the afterlife; would you not choose someone who loved you?” Cassius concluded.
            The truth of what was not said chilled Tarsus’s blood in his veins.  “You do not love your father?”
            “You are a clever man.  But do not presume to judge the ways of the gods,” Cassius warned.  “For our ways are beyond you.”
            “Who do we have here?”
            Tarsus heard the strange, new voice but he could not take his attention from Cassius.  He looked into those cruel, guileful eyes and the feeling of the enormity of this quest overwhelmed him again.  He did not expect to meet demigods, and he did not expect to be weaved into the webs of their cold ambitions.
            Cassius did not look away either.  He looked right back at Tarsus without so much as a blink. 
            Next to the spawn of Malthus, a cloaked figure descended.  It landed with grace, and stood up tall next to the godling. 
            “Amelia, please welcome my guests,” Cassius said.  “They will be joining us on the voyage to the Under Isle.”
            Tarsus recognized Amelia immediately. 
            “You’re the woman from the dock,” Finnian shouted before anyone else had a chance to react.  “The one who fell on me!”
            “I am,” Amelia said as she removed the cloth half-mask she was wearing, revealing a face that matched the beauty of her blue-green eyes.  From the sides of her hood, her raven hair poked out and although she was fully covered by her brown cloak, traces of a lithe and agile figure could be made out at certain flattering angles.
            “Who are you?” Finnian asked.
            “I am the captain of this ship,” she answered simply as though Finnian was a fool for not coming to that conclusion on his own.
            “She’s also a wonderful ferret for information,” Cassius added.  “And a talented pick-pocket.”
            Tarsus did not need to look back.  Immediately, he heard the rustling of clothes as Finnian searched himself.
            “Hey!” Finnian shouted.
            Amelia, in reply, held out a small, brown money pouch.  She tossed it back to Finnian with a sly grin.
            “So that’s how you found us,” Cecily said.  “She was spying on us.”
            “Not just you my dear,” Cassius said with a tired air.  “Anyone on the docks of Malthanon searching for Malthir.”
            “So what happens now?” Tarsus interrupted.
            “Now?” Cassius asked, as though he was surprised Tarsus did not already know.  “Now we sail to the Under Isle.”
            “We haven’t agreed to help you,” Tarsus said.
            “Oh Tarsus Cole, do not disappoint me in this way,” Cassius said in mock grievance.  “We both know you are going to come.  I could, of course, threaten you and your friends and force you into my service, but I do not need to and we both know why.  You are a disciple of Malthus.  For you to have any chance at ending his torment, you must come with me.  I know where the Under Isle is.  So if you refuse to come, you allow your god to suffer.”
            Cassius was right.  Tarsus felt like a rabbit, cornered by foxes on all four sides.  On one side was Cecily, with her devotion to Malthus and her vow to end his suffering.  On the other side was Cassius, with his promise of a swift and terrible retribution for refusing him.  Behind him was Drake, with his self-satisfaction at being proven right about Tarsus living a life of mediocrity.  Any one of these three reasons was enough to force him to agree to this journey.  Yet there was also the straight and open road that his mind’s eye saw directly ahead of him.  The thrill of seeing this quest through suddenly flamed up inside of him.  He imagined himself at the end of that open road; imagined how much better he could be by walking down it.
            Behind him, he felt one last pinch on his left hand.  He knew what Cecily wanted to do, and that gave him courage in what he wanted to do.
            “Very well,” he said to Cassius.  “We will come with you.  I will be your chosen.”
            “Of course you will,” Cassius said, grinning wide at his plan that fell into place as he expected it would.  He turned from them then, lightly tapping Amelia on the shoulder.
            The captain stepped forward.  “Welcome aboard the Defiance.  As long as you are on my ship, you answer to me.”