Saturday, July 23, 2016

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 16: The UnderIsle

            Tarsus, Cecily and Finnian walked out onto the deck of the ship Defiance.  The moon shone brightly, illuminating the whole of the deck.  But it seemed in vain; the pale light trying to reveal what the thick fog tried to keep hidden.  In stark contrast to the bright moon, tendrils of ghostly fog reached over the railing and onto the deck, like the wispy fingers of ghostly, giant hands.
            They all paused.  The deck unnerved them.  It had grown so familiar over the past weeks, and yet now it was anything but.  Now it was specter of its former self; a black and grey imitation of a place they had only ever seen lit with the reds, browns and golds of day.  And through the ill-defined haze and shrouds of fog, propped up on the railing under a clear night sky, were two shadows. 
            “Tell me what you see!” a chilling voice shrieked.
            Tarsus began walking forward.  He moved through the mist with purpose, approaching the shadows that seemed so far beyond the veil of mist as to be inapproachable. 
            Cecily and Finnian watched as the shape of Tarsus Cole moved further and further away from them.  Cecily rose to the balls of her feet, ready to chase after him: to stop him.  But Tarsus, even from behind, looked suddenly different to her.  She took a breath.  The warrior she met all those weeks ago in Briarden was not the man walking toward the shadows now.  He seemed more determined, more brazen.  It suddenly struck her; the conversation they’d had in the bunk just before, Tarsus’s growing boldness; he was changing.  Yet what he was changing into, Cecily did not know.  She grabbed Finnian’s arm and stepped forward, more cautious now than before.
            As the three of them pushed farther into the mist, the shadow approaching them took shape.  Amelia appeared out of the dark, rushing past them in the opposite direction.  She did not look up at them, she did not even acknowledge them; she simply walked her own way, keeping to herself.
            It struck Cecily then that whatever it was Tarsus was turning into, Amelia had become long ago.  The two of them seemed like islands to her now: far off and remote. 
            Tarsus reached the ship’s railing and gripped it in both hands.  Cassius stood next to him, on his right, looking down over the railing.  To his left, Tarsus felt Finnian approach cautiously.  On the other side of Finnian, Cecily leaned on the railing finishing out the line.
            The three of them scanned the horizon, and then turned to each other confusedly.  There was no island to be found.
            Tarsus’s head spun around to Cassius.  “Where is the UnderIsle?”
            “Down there,” Cassius answered without lifting his gaze from the water below.
            As one, Tarsus, Cecily and Finnian looked down to the ocean below.  As one, their eyes went wide. 
That is when, out of the corner of his eye, Tarsus noticed Cassius’s head rise and look at them.  It hit him like a fist: the power.  It hit all of them.  All three companions felt Cassius’s power in the pit of their stomachs, and they knew that the demigod had a very immediate purpose with them.
“You all see it,” he panted, his low voice alive with the heat of anticipation.  “Yes?”
“Yes,” Finnian answered, his voice trailing off as his eyes searched the water below with the darting speed of a school of minnows.
“What do you see boy?” Cassius asked hungrily, appearing suddenly close to Finnian Pell.
Though Finnian could not be bothered to step away, or even look up at the demigod whose face rested so close to his own that he could feel it’s divine and urgent breaths.  “It’s a field.  Lush.  Open and green.  I see a jousting ring over there.  And there, a track.  Dogs are racing.  And there are so many people.  But they’re different…glowing.”
"What are you talking about?" Cecily asked, looking up at Finnian. 
Finnian did not answer.  He did not even look back up at her.  He stayed as he was; looking down at the water wearing a wide smile.
"You see something else," Cassius said at Cecily.  It was a statement of fact he almost threw away as he spoke.  "Tell me."
Cecily looked back at the water.  "It's a wood.  Dark and dense…and old.  I see swaths of walkways cut in, all over the island.  It's like a maze."
"Where do the walkways lead?" Cassius asked hungrily.
"To little clearings," Cecily answered.  "And in those clearings there are balls of golden light, shining like beacons into the sky."
"Too much," Cassius said quietly to himself.  The demigod turned back and walked to the spot he stood in where Tarsus had found him.  He put a hand to Amelia's cheek and raised her face to look at him.
"What do you see?" he said, but in a half-whisper that was less commanding than when he had spoken to Finnian and Cecily. 
"I was your way here," Amelia said.  "I will not be your way there."
Over the course of a moment, Cassius's face twisted to anger, then acceptance and finally exasperation as he spun from looking at her to face Tarsus.
"And you?  My chosen," Cassius said.  "What do you see?"
"A mountain.  A huge mountain in the middle of the sea.  There is a forest at its base, but it towers over all else on the island," Tarsus said.  "And at the very top, is a floating ball of light.  That's where the sword is."
"Very good," Cassius said with a quiet excitement.  "Very good.  Once again, you prove yourself the right choice.  For you see the blade more clearly than the others."
"Why?" Tarsus asked, turning to the demigod.
"It does not matter why," Cassius said.  "It only matters that you do.  Now take me to my birthright."
"How come we all see a different island?" Finnian asked.  "Is there even an island there?  This could just be a trick."
"It is not," Cassius said impatiently.  "The UnderIsle is there.  But it shows differently to different folk."
"And what do you see?" Cecily asked evenly.
"It is none of your concern what I see," Cassius spat.  "Come Tarsus Cole.  Let us be off."
"How?" Tarsus asked in that way one asks a question he is afraid he already knows the answer to.
"Swim of course," Cassius let the hammer fall.  "It is the UnderIsle.  The only way to get there, is by going under the water."
"But it's so deep," Tarsus said, turning back to the water.
"And perhaps you don't know this about mortals," Finnian added.  "But they cannot breathe under water.  How do you expect us to survive down there?"
"I don't," Cassius said menacingly.  "The two of you will not be going with us.  This journey will be undertaken by a god and his chosen.  That is the only way it can be."
"I came here to retrieve that sword for Malthus," Cecily said.  "I will not allow you…"
"Allow me?" Cassius sniped.  "Foolish woman.  You have no power to allow or disallow me.  I am god!  You are nothing.  I will retrieve the sword and deliver it unto my father…by my own way and in my own time.  You will stay here, aboard this ship, and be grateful I did not strike you down for your insolence."
Cecily opened her mouth, more in the shock than to say anything.
Tarsus looked at her with pity.  Before now, she had not known what Cassius truly was.  But now she did.  Now she saw the true Cassius: the true demigod who was the sum of his most base desires.
Tarsus looked out to the night sky, lit by a pale full moon.  He raised a foot to the top of the railing and hoisted himself up onto it. 
"Tarsus," Finnian called out.
"If this is to be done," Tarsus said calmly.  "Then let us be done with it."
He dove into the water.
When he broke the surface, the mountain isle that he had seen so clearly from the ship's deck disappeared.  There was only blackness facing him.  Strange, he thought, to be under the surface of the Crystal Sea; a sea known for it's clarity of reflection; and be greeted with the most complete darkness he had ever seen in his life.  Yet he swam forward, undeterred by the loss of the vision.
Darkness closed in on him, and the air in his lungs was almost spent.  The reality of being so far under the water closed in on him, and he was afraid.  He turned back, to look up at the surface of the sea.  Yet only blackness met his eyes.  He could not see the surface, nor the bottom of the ship Defiance.  For Tarsus Cole, there was nothing but black surrounding him in all directions.
At that moment of desperation is when he noticed it; the slight tug he'd felt in the pit of his stomach when Cassius had his attention on the three of them was gone.  The god was nowhere to be seen or felt.  Tarsus was alone in this place.
He was truly afraid now.  Had the demigod tricked him?  Why?  If the intent was to kill him, why not do it after the pirate incident?  Or at any other time while Tarsus and his friends were on board?
No, something was not right.  Tarsus did not know why Cassius had abandoned him, but whatever the reason was it was beyond Tarsus to know. 
Tarsus had only one choice now, hopeless as it seemed.  He had to swim toward the island he saw.  It did not fill him with any great resolve, but it was action; any action, any momentum forward, was better than standing still. 
He turned back, or what he perceived was back, to where he remembered the island being.  He began swimming forward.  He was slower than when he began this swim, but he pushed himself on.  Stroke after stroke he went, until he could go no further.
Blackness began creeping in from the borders of his sight, and Tarsus knew that this was no result of the environment.  This was his own consciousness leaving him.  There, deep or perhaps not so deep, beneath the surface of the Crystal Sea, Tarsus Cole was dying. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 15: Summons

     “Wake up!” Tarsus dreamt.  It echoed in his mind, like a trumpet’s call from the waking world: a call that expected to be answered.
     He opened his eyes.  The dark of night greeted him in the cramped room he shared with Finnian and Cecily.  Some light shone through the small porthole they left open, but the moon was pale this night and its light was dim.
     “Did you all…hear that?” Finnian’s voice floated down from above them.
     “More like I dreamed it,” Cecily replied, invisible to the men from her bed across the room.
     Tarsus did not sit up or stand; he lay in his cot, though his senses were heightened.  The words of Amelia from the night before began thundering in his mind.  
     “You are a slave.  You have been, since you set foot on this ship.”
     There was no denying it.  The three of them were onboard the ship of a mad demigod who only helped them to service his own ends.  And now, their master was calling.
     “Come to the deck!” Tarsus heard Cassius say, though not with his ears.  “We have arrived at the UnderIsle.”
     Tarsus sat up then, slowly.  He ducked out from his bunk and got to his feet even as his hands searched blindly in the dark for his sword.
     “Tarsus, you heard?” Finnian asked fearfully.
     “He is summoning us Finnian,” Tarsus explained.  The sunsword found his sword belt and wrapped it around his waist.  He tied the free end through the frog and pulled the leather tight.  “Though not with speech.  He does not need to speak to be heard.”
     “I didn’t know he could do that,” Finnian said quietly.  “Real gods, of course.  That’s all they do, is cloud our minds.  Say things to us…sweet things we never want to stop hearing.  But his voice hurts inside my head.”
     “I think that’s a good thing,” Cecily spoke from across the black abyss.  
     “What?” Finnian asked indignantly.  “You like having him in your head?  Why?  Because he’s the son of Malthus?”
     “I don’t like anything about him,” Cecily fired back.  “You are right, he is cruel and petty.  And his power may be great, but you cannot let your imagination make him more than he is,” Cecily admonished.  “He is only half a god.”
     “That doesn’t mean anything,” Finnian said to her.  “In fact, I think that makes him more dangerous than a full god.”  
     “How could he possibly be more dangerous?” Cecily scoffed.  “I have been watching Cassius since he began using his power; trying to get a sense of it.  It’s very clear that he is limited in what he can do.”  
     “He can do enough” Finnian pushed.  “You saw him burn those pirates.  You saw him afterwards, with the lightning.  Full god or no, he was terrible to behold.”
     “What about how he makes you feel?” Cecily would not back down.
     “What do you mean?” Finnian bit.
     “In the pit of your stomach,” Cecily clarified.  “That pull we feel, in the presence of divinity.  That hum of power.  It feels less with him.  He feels less.  Diminished.  Unlike any god I have ever seen.”
     “And how many gods have you seen, Cecily?” Tarsus asked her resignedly.
     “A few, in my lifetime,” Cecily answered, unsteadied by Tarsus’s question.
     “Finnian and I have seen many,” Tarsus said.  “Been in the presence of many.  It’s what happens when you live in a shepherd’s village.  Folk from all over pass through with their flocks, their homes, their families…and inevitably, some also bring their gods.”
     No one spoke, but Tarsus could feel the eyes of Cecily on him, waiting for him to make his point.
     “After meeting so many of these gods, you come to learn that they are both like and unlike us.  Some are great.  Some are not,” Tarsus concluded.
     “So you think Cassius is hiding his true power?” Cecily accused.
     “I think it is unwise to try and predict what a god can and cannot do, even a demigod.  They control a power that we cannot comprehend.  Best to learn of them by how they use their power.  And all the gods I have seen use it the same way; to expand their dominion.  Malthus, Malmira, even Cassius all work to make their kingdoms larger and stronger,” Tarsus finished.
     “Far be it for me to question the chosen of Cassius who knows so much of the gods,” Cecily bit back sarcastically.  “But not every god wants control.  Malthus…”
     “Malthus has the largest kingdom of them all,” Finnian interrupted.
     “To save us,” Cecily said.  “Because the other gods treat mortals no better than slaves.”
     “Cecily, have you been to any of the other kingdoms?” Tarsus asked.
     “No,” she answered defiantly.  
Silence was allowed to pad in, like a dog treading softly into a room of its sleeping masters.
     “I serve Malthus by choice,” Cecily said in angry, hushed tones.  “Not for his power or pride…not because of some manipulation.  I serve him for the love I have felt in his presence.  A love that I know to be real.
     Tarsus let out a small sigh.  
     “He is Malthus’s son, Cecily,” Tarsus said simply.  “How different do you think a son can be from his father?”
     “To the ship’s deck this instant!” the three of them perceived: the shrill voice of Cassius echoing in their minds.
     “Come,” Tarsus said to them.  “Let us go do what we came here to do.”