Thursday, October 27, 2016

            OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 22: A Sword for Service

            Slivers of light pierced the darkness.  Images flashed in Tarsus’s mind.  Images of stone…steel…a dying man.  They came to him like crashing waves on a shore: instantly and with great force.  And just as quickly as they came, they went – catching him up in their undertow and then leaving him behind as they passed over.  
            With the sudden ferocity of a lion leaping onto its prey, Tarsus woke.  He pushed himself to his knees as he struggled for air, but there was none left now.  He stood frantically, hoping to break through an imagined threshold between air and no air: on the other side of which would be the promise of life.  But even standing, there was nothing to breathe.  His time was up.
            He searched frantically for any sign of the GodKing’s sword.  He had overcome the challenge of Drake by admitting his deepest desires and pushing past them.  Selfish though he was before, now his need for Malthir was as pure as it could be - for only the sword could save him from drowning.
            Thinking of Drake, Tarsus noticed that there was no sign of the knight’s body.  At his feet, Tarsus found only two bloodied swords: one his, the other the ornamented blade of every KingsGuard knight.  He scanned the pews nearby, and the rest of the cavernous cathedral, but he seemed to be completely alone. 
            There was no time for an exhaustive search.  Already, the darkness was teasing the corners of Tarsus’s vision.  This was not simply the pitch-blackness that Tarsus had to advance through to reach his challenges; nor the comforting dark of unconsciousness that came after succumbing to mortal injury.  Tarsus could feel this shade; an utterly cold and lonely emptiness that had a shape he would never know.  Twas a land he would be forced to stumble through for all eternity, with nowhere to go and nothing to find: a place for the purposeless, where he would be both awake and powerless to his own hopelessness.  Every moment brought him closer to this oblivion, its shadow stretching out a hand to welcome him.
            A scraping of stone on stone reverberated throughout the cathedral shaking everything, including Tarsus, out of the tightening clutches of death.  He turned to look up at the dais, from which the sound came.  Had he been able to inhale in astonishment, he would have.
            The statue of Malthus, a fifteen foot high stone bulk in the shape of the GodKing, had moved forward from the very back of the dais to the center.  When Tarsus saw it last, the statue stood with its hands held up over its head.  It was meant to be gripping a weapon, but instead gripping nothing at all.
            That was not the case now.  A golden light shone in the shape of a sword, and the statue of Malthus gripped it by the hilt in both of its hands.
            Tarsus rushed to the dais and stepped up on to it.  He approached the statue, momentarily transfixed by the light.  In his gut, he felt an eruption of a familiar force that he’d only felt snatches of before.  This was it; this golden light was the lost sword of the GodKing.
            As though confirming Tarsus’s belief, the stone statue lowered its hands, bringing the hilt of the sword down to its waist where Tarsus could reach it.
            He smiled despite himself.  He had journeyed with Cecily and Finnian for so long…and now, finally, their goal lay before him.  He reached a hand for the grip, stretching out his fingers for the perfect light that floated in the statue’s hands.
            He stopped.
            “Cecily…” he thought. 
            It was her quest to find the sword.  She wanted to bring it back to the GodKing so that he could reclaim his full power and resume his rule.  But she did not know that the GodKing was dying, and that not even this sword could save him. 
            “All it can do,” Tarsus reflected, remembering Adulatio’s words to he and Finnian all those weeks ago at the Good Shepherd, “is kill him.  Release him from his suffering.”
            And Cassius knew that.  The demigod would never allow Cecily, or Tarsus, to keep the sword.  He would take Malthir from them, slay his father, and claim Malthus’s place as the GodKing of the realm.
            Tarsus was suddenly struck with the futility of his quest.  “What was the point of all this?  If no good can come from it.”
            But Tarsus could feel the warmth, the flow, of the light course through him, answering his despair with a deep seeded lust.  He stretched out his middle and forefingers closer to the grip, reveling in the warmth of golden light.  Seeing this light from afar: from the deck of the Defiance, or even the foot of the mountain: he was compelled to it.  But standing as he was now, he was consumed by it.  He felt it drown his very soul, and still he needed more.
            “I should kill Cassius,” he thought with a sudden contempt for the half-god.  “He planned to betray us from the start.  Why not betray him first?  It is only right.  I can kill him and give the sword to Cecily.  Or I could keep it…just until we reached Malthanon.  Just until then...”
            Tarsus stretched his fingers just a little further.  Oblivion crept in closer from the borders of his sight, yet he did not care now.  He had eyes only for the light.  That was all he needed to see.  And he was so close.
            “To do is to be,” he heard suddenly.  Yet the voice in his mind was not Drake’s, but his own.  And it was faint - as though a small piece of him had been shouting it for some time and had gone hoarse with the effort. 
            Yet it was only now that Tarsus heard the warning; only now that Tarsus needed to hear the warning.  Drake’s words were suddenly given context to him, and the phrasing of the philosophy became clear.  “To kill is to become a killer.  To betray, is to become a betrayer.”  Tarsus narrowed his eyes on the light of the sword.  “I am no killer.  No traitor.  And I will become neither for Cassius’s sake.”
            Tarsus retracted his fingers, yet left his hand hanging in the air, still a short reach from the sword…from claiming its glory.
            “Drake was right,” he realized.  “I came on this quest for myself, though I swore to serve another.  But I will make it up.”
            Tarsus let his hand fall.
            The light of the sword suddenly faded.  What stood in its place was a simple stone sword, completing the tableau of the statue of Malthus.
Tarsus stepped back, stunned and suddenly hit with the pain in his stomach and chest that the light had distracted him from: the pain of drowning.
“Not the sword?” Tarsus thought, his mind unable to shape complete thoughts as he searched it for some refuge from his suffering: any place he could think about something other than the endless pain.
“No,” he suddenly realized.  “It’s not.  Of course it’s not.  To do is to be.”
He turned from the statue, rushing from the dais to the spot where he awoke.  He found the two swords: his and Drake’s: untouched where he had left them.  He bent to one knee and took up both swords, one in each hand, by their grips.  He felt a tingle in his gut; an echo of the vibrant power he had exulted in only a moment ago.  He rested the tips of both blades on the stone floor of the cathedral and he bowed his head.
“GodKing of Malthanon,” Tarsus offered in silent prayer.  “I have come here to find your lost sword, not for the woman I pledged to serve but for myself.  It is she who should be here now, kneeling to you in this holy place.  I am unfit.  But I wish to change that.  Grant me your sword, GodKing, only for a little while, and I swear to you that I will see it delivered to her hands.  I will do what I swore…and thus will I become what I have always desired…your loyal servant.”
Tarsus did not open his eyes, but he felt heat emanating off of the two blades.  He could perceive the radiance of light on his eyes, as the divine essence of the UnderIsle flowed through him.
“Both of these blades were used in service today: one, in service of self.  One, in service of others.  Let them come together, a testament of the bond between gods and men.  For I understand now, Malthus.  Men serve gods, and gods serve men…for in serving others, we serve ourselves.”
Tarsus felt the swords being pulled together, starting from their tips upward.  He felt his hands join together, grasping one where there were two.  He opened his eyes and saw the one blade of brilliant light thrum in his hands as it coursed with the power of the mortal and the mighty.
And he breathed; deeply and slowly, yet without the greed of one who had almost drowned.  For the divine energy coursed through him fully, and in it, Tarsus Cole’s hurts were healed.
He stood, as though forced to his feet by the power.  There was so much of it…too much.  It threatened to overwhelm him at any moment, yet he was not afraid.  For this power was different than the golden light in the hands of the statue.  It felt wholesome, somehow; and all traces of the violent lust he had felt were gone. 
For he understood his purpose now, and the light offered him a direction.
He looked up at the high-latticed ceiling of the cathedral.  He held the sword aloft, as he had seen the statue of Malthus do.
Tarsus Cole began to rise.  He was lifted off of his feet and he was flying up.  As he neared the ceiling, he did not fear or panic.  He did not even close his eyes.  Instead, he trusted the divine inside of him.  Thus, as quickly as he came to the very top of the cathedral, he passed through it; the blue, open sky of the UnderIsle his next barrier.
Higher he flew; ever higher, until he had left even the vast sky far below him.  He shot into the sea of stars beyond, soaring past the celestial bodies until he came to the very limits of the cosmos.
There was blackness then: the cold and stark blackness that threatened to envelop him when he was drowning.  Yet it was not wholly dark, for Tarsus had brought with him a piercing light: a light that shone, and revealed what was never meant to be seen.

Even higher Tarsus flew, reaching the very edge of the spiritual realm.  And then, he passed through.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Chapter 21: The Better Man

            The darkness lifted suddenly, but Tarsus expected it this time.  The light was blinding, yet as his eyes grew accustomed to it the blur of bright colors coalesced into yet another familiar scene.
            To the left and right of him were church pews made of solid stone.  Tarsus’s gaze flitted over them and fell onto the lush red carpet he stood on that ran down the aisle in between them.  He followed it to the head of the room, where a familiar dais itched at his memory.  He had an inkling that he knew where he was.
            That inkling turned into confirmation as he saw what was on the dais: the great stone statue of the GodKing Malthus, standing in his warlike pose with arms stretched over his head and hands gripping an absent weapon. 
Sunbeams fell across the statue, and Tarsus looked up to see the iron lattices that served as the ceiling of the cathedral, and the floor of the magnificent crystal dome that towered above.  The dome itself sparkled like a diamond, yet was clear as the surface of the Crystal Sea.  Tarsus remembered its beauty; how it seemed to invite the sun to shine on it and share divine light with disciples of Malthus inside.  Yet the fullness of such divinity was too much for mortals to comprehend, and so the latticework at its base served to distill what beauty it could.
“You are not fit for this place,” Tarsus heard a muffled voice say from behind him.
He turned to find the bared blade of a long sword screaming toward his face.  Tarsus ducked instinctively, shutting his eyes tight.  He waited in a darkness of his own making, crouched and alert.  A moment passed that felt like an hour, and he felt no pain.  His mind caught up to his intuition, and he realized that he had successfully ducked the attack. 
Revelation, however, became distraction.  As the thought of dodging danger occurred to him, a thundering force collided with his chest, knocking him onto his back.  Tarsus quickly brought one hand up to shield the spot where he had been struck, while his other hand instinctively grabbed the grip of the sword at his side.  He opened his eyes. 
Looming over Tarsus, large and commanding, was a knight in white armor.  On his head, he wore an enclosed helm and on either side he bore the sunstroke of Malthus at his pauldrons.  This was a knight of the KingsGuard, and he held his gleaming sword to Tarsus’s chest, its tip scraping the leather of the sunsword’s tunic.
“Drake,” Tarsus said between belabored breaths.
The knight raised his free hand and removed his helm.  Drake’s cold eyes bore into Tarsus from on high, surveying the fallen man as a mountain peak looks down on the river valley below it. 
“There are no more impulses to overcome,” Drake said with authority.  “No more goodbyes to say.  You have come to the end of this.  Defeat me, and the sword is yours to claim.”
Tarsus drew his own sword and batted Drake’s weapon away.  He struggled to get to his feet, using the side of a pew to lift himself.  It had been a few moments now since Drake had kicked him; time enough for him to regain his breath and adjust to the shock of the blow.  Yet the more time that passed; even instants, the more his pain increased.  Every new breath brought with it a fiercer burning than the one before.  It felt like his head was wrapped in a cotton sheet, drenched in oil; some air came through, but most of it held fast on the other side of a near impenetrable wall.
Drake lunged at him with an overhead strike.
Tarsus brought his sword up to parry, and managed to block his old friend’s attack for a second time.  But Drake did not stop.  Further back Tarsus was driven, constantly on the defensive. 
Tarsus threw his head backward, avoiding the oncoming strike altogether.
Tarsus brushed Drake’s blade to the left with his own sword.
The sunsword brought his blade up to block his right side.
Tarsus felt Drake’s boot connect with his chest for a second time, hurling him backward.  His feet slammed into the small step leading up to the dais, and Tarsus toppled onto the slightly elevated platform.  He used the momentum of his fall to roll further back, quickly abandoning the spot where he would have landed had he done nothing.  The small roll meant the difference between life and death - causing an overhead swing from Drake to crash into the wood of the dais rather than his chest.
Tarsus settled on his knees and breathed…or tried to breathe.  His chest was on fire, and it was becoming harder and harder to take in air.  More than that, he knew he could not win this fight.  Drake was always the better fighter: the better man…in every way.  Even at his best, it was all Tarsus could do to keep up with the captain of the KingsGuard.  Now, hurt and barely able to breathe, he stood less than no chance at all.
“I’m going to fail,” he thought.  “I’m going to die.”
“I thought you were different Sunsword,” Drake said as he stepped onto the dais.  “When we were children, I mean.  I thought you were like me: driven and motivated.  Or could be, at least, with some pushing.”
Tarsus pushed himself onto his side and rolled out of the way of Drake’s attack.
“You were the only one who seemed to understand what becoming a knight of the KingsGuard meant,” Drake went on, turning slowly to face his prey.
            Tarsus tried to retort, but all effort had to be focused on staying alive: which, in this case, meant getting as much air as possible.
            “Tis a calling,” Drake explained, answering the unasked question.  “Like entering the clergy, or leading a rebellion.  Those who desire this life…truly…can settle for nothing else.”
            BACK HAND!
            Tarsus fell back again, streams of blood falling from his gaping mouth.  The force of Drake’s strike pushed him off the dais, back onto the stone floor of the cathedral proper.  He managed to pull himself onto his feet, his sword raised ineffectually before him.
            Drake stood still on the dais, looking on Tarsus with those cold, calculating eyes.  There was no pity in his gaze for the man who was once a friend: for the man whom he grew up with, and played with, and trained with.  As Drake looked on a bruised and bloodied Tarsus who could barely stand…barely breathe…barely lift a sword, there was only one thing Tarsus could see clearly: disappointment.
            “Don’t…” Tarsus managed to sputter.
            “I wanted more of you,” Drake said.  “I wanted you to have desire for something greater than yourself; to reach for the unreachable, as I did.  But in the end, you chose you.”
            “Cecily,” Tarsus breathed out in little more than a whisper.
            “If only that were true,” Drake said as he took a step toward Tarsus.  “But you did not take up her quest for her, no matter what you tell yourself.”  Drake took another step closer.  “You came on this quest for yourself.  You wanted glory.  You wanted to be exalted above other men.”  Drake took a third step.  “That is what you never understood.  Glory and greatness are not the same.  I chose to chase greatness, because to be truly great means to forsake yourself and serve others.  I work, and I train, and I fight…for Malthanon.  For the GodKing, and the KingsGuard.  For you and Finnian and every other living soul in Briarden.”
            Drake took a final step off of the dais and pushed Tarsus’s sword gently toward the floor.  He stepped in close and put a hand on Tarsus’s shoulder.
            Tarsus felt the blade push through his belly, travel deeper into his gut, and pierce his back coming out the other side.  He softly exhaled what little breath remained in his body.
            Drake brought his mouth to Tarsus’s ear.  “To do is to be, and every moment of every day allows you to be what you do.  Now you die, Tarsus Cole.  Having done nothing.  Having been no one.  The few who loved you will eventually forget you, and you will pass from Arden leaving no footprint in the sands of time.”
            Tears stained the eyes of Tarsus Cole.  There were not many; his body had precious little left to give now. 
But his spirit was another matter.  It stormed with a torrent of emotions that he could not share for sheer exhaustion.  The anger at Drake’s self-righteousness – the heartbreak of his own failure – the guilt of choosing himself at every turn – these all railed inside of him with full furor.
            But there was something else inside of him: the only thing left to those who have lost everything.  There was resolve.
            “Goodbye my friend,” Tarsus heard Drake say.  “I wish this could have ended differently.”
            “It will…” Tarsus whispered.
            Tarsus found the weakest spot on Drake’s chest plate and pushed his sword through.  In fits, Tarsus forced the blade deeper and deeper into the body of Drake Mathix; pushing into the stomach, past bone and flesh, and stopping at the back.  He breathed in, and with the last of his strength he forced his sword through Drake’s back.
            There, in the cathedral of Malthus under the heavenly rays of the sun, two friends stood dying in each other’s arms, bound by the blades of one another.
            Tarsus let his head collapse then, onto the pauldron of his old friend.  He could not keep his eyes open, and before his mind could catch up with his intuition, it faded.  He faded…into oblivion.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Chapter 20: Hero in Another's Story

               Finnian stood looking over the side of the ship’s railing, searching with an all-consuming intensity the black surface of the Crystal Sea.  Tarsus had jumped in only a few moments ago, but in that time the normally transparent water, even in the midst of night, had turned dark to his eyes.
            “Something’s happened,” Finnian proclaimed in dread.  “The water’s gone dark.”
            “Your friend has passed his first test,” Cassius said eagerly.  The demigod was a mirror image of Finnian, looking over the railing, fevered eyes scanning the sea.  Whereas Finnian stood closer to the ship’s bow, though, Cassius stood apart, nearer the captain’s quarters.
            “What does that mean?” Cecily asked with all the trepidation of uncertainty.
            “It means he has gone beyond your sight,” a smug Cassius replied.
            Cecily and Finnian shared a look then.  Concern etched both of their faces.
            “He will come back to us,” Cecily reassured.
            “Maybe,” Finnian said.  “But how?”
            “What do you mean?” Cecily whispered.
            “I feel a change coming,” Finnian said.  “Can you feel it?”
            Cecily did not know how to answer.  There were so many things she was feeling in these last moments: fear, anger, dread and…jealousy.  She could not make sense of everything she felt, but given the situation she did not feel she had to.  Yet something inside her fell into place at hearing Finnian’s words.  She knew he was right. 
            “How much longer?” Cecily’s voice rang out as she tore her eyes away from Finnian’s and turned to face Cassius.
            “Until what?” an impatient Cassius offered, not bothering even to look up from the sea.
            “Until you save him,” Cecily clarified, trying to mask any doubt in her voice.
            “There is no saving him,” Cassius said cruelly and quickly.  “I told you before, he either brings back the sword, or he dies.”
            “How close is he?” Finnian asked.  Cecily turned to look at the young man behind her.  He had turned back to the ocean, looking intently at utter blackness as his knuckles turned white gripping the ship’s railing.
            “Closer than he was,” was all that came from Cassius.
            Cecily turned back to the half-man.  He still mirrored Finnian, but his expression had changed.  Cassius now bore a small, self-satisfied smile.  Cecily understood then that Tarsus must have been doing very well, but Cassius refused to share that aloud, denying Tarsus’s friends even the smallest bit of comfort.
            “There is no comfort for us,” she realized.  “Because there is no assurance of safety.  Not even in victory.  We are nothing to him.  Less than nothing.”
            Her mind raced, not only with this truth but beyond it.  She could not allow this demigod to destroy them.  This was her quest, and somehow it had been usurped by this upstart godling with ambitions of controlling his father’s kingdom.  As a loyal servant of Malthus, she could not allow Cassius to win.  But as a friend to Tarsus and Finnian: someone who had tried to use them only to find honor in their courage: she could not allow Cassius to live.
            She moved toward the demigod slowly, her hand on the hilt of a short sword she wore at her waist.  With each step, she drew the blade a little. 
            Cassius was engrossed in the ocean below, as though his eyes were looking past the surface of the water, past the surface of Tarsus’s body, into the spiritual realm of the UnderIsle itself.
            Cecily took one last step, and she was behind him; close enough that if the godling had been aware of his surroundings he would have felt the warm breezes of her breath on his neck.  Pressed low against her thigh was her blade, hidden from plain sight because of how closely she stood to Cassius.
            She looked around her.  No one else was on the deck, not even Amelia.  Cecily felt no eyes on her either.  Here, in the exposed open air of the vast Crystal Sea, she felt hidden.  All she need do was raise her sword and quickly bring it down.  She would be killed afterward; of that there could be no doubt.  But she would die saving at least one friend’s life, and if she was lucky, the life of her god.
            “Ha,” the small laugh of epiphany rang in her mind.  “Has this been my quest all along?  A swift assassination of Malthus’s son so that another can bring the Father his sword?  So that another can be His chosen?  So be it.  Gone are the days of childhood…the days of dreams.  I accepted this quest, and if this is how I can see it done…then so be it.”
            She raised her sword quickly, positioning the tip of the blade over the back of Cassius’s exposed neck.  She would only get one strike, and it had to be fast and sure.  She breathed, savoring this moment of stillness…the only moment on this quest that she felt in control.  Then, her hands were flung back, conjuring all the momentum she could for this fatal blow.  Down came the sword, hurtling toward its target…
            An explosion of light propelled Cecily from her feet.  She slammed against the wall of the captain’s quarters and fell to the deck with equally harsh force.  She gave herself a moment, mentally reaching out to her body for signs of damage.
            She ached where her body had collided with the wood of the ship, but she felt no sharp pains.  She was able to breathe, and she could feel a hot liquid dripping onto her bottom lip.  She put a hand to it and looked down at her fingertips covered in her own blood. 
            Cecily looked up, seeking the source of the explosion.  Casisus’s back was turned to the ship railing, and he was looking on with dread.  The demigod was not looking at her, though, but at something directly in front of him.  Beyond Cassius, Cecily saw that Finnian too was turned around and looking at something.  Though Finnian wore an expression of awe and radiant joy.
            Cecily felt it then: the pull in the pit of her stomach.  She got to her feet and walked toward Finnian, her eyes taking in the sight of glory.
            A golden god stood on the deck of the Defiance.  He radiated light, like a star from the heavens, and his piercing blue eyes stared intently at Cassius.  Cecily could not believe it.  She had heard stories of this god…namely of his beauty, but she did not believe any of them were true. 
            Yet they were.  For Adulatio was beyond beauty: he was glorious.
            “I am come,” Adulatio declared.
            “What are you doing here?” Cassius spat with contempt.
            The demigod’s accusatory way of addressing Adulatio seemed ugly to the ears of Cecily and Finnian.
            “Saving your life,” Adulatio answered wryly.  “Such as it is.”
            “What do you mean?” Cassius asked incredulously.
            Adulatio’s eyes moved from Cassius to the captain’s quarters.  Cassius followed the elder god’s gaze.  On the deck near the quarters lay a naked short sword.  Cassius looked back up at Adulatio with an astonished fear.
            Adulatio then moved his eyes once again, settling on Cecily.  Cassius found the young woman staring back at Adulatio with tears in her eyes from the fervor of her love for the elder god.  Cassius looked back at Adulatio with understanding. 
            “She could not kill me,” Cassius declared nervously.  “I am a god.”
            “Half a god,” Adulatio corrected.  “Which also makes you half a man.”
            “Why did you save me?” Cassius asked in a panic.
            “Because you still have a purpose to serve, son of Malthus,” Adulatio replied.
            Cassius stood silent, his eyes studying Adulatio; trying to divine some purpose in the elder god’s actions.
            “Is everything alright?” Cassius heard a female voice cry out.
            Suddenly, Amelia and some other sailors broke onto the deck from the captain’s quarters.  Once they came in close range of Adulatio, however, they stopped.  They let their weapons fall to the deck, and stood as transfixed by Adulatio as Cecily and Finnian were. 
            For all intents and purposes, Cassius was alone.
            “Turn, half born,” Adulatio said with a sudden contempt.  “Turn and survey your chosen.  For all our efforts rely on his success.”
            “Our efforts?” Cassius asked suspiciously.
            Adulatio’s grim stare grew angry, as the god’s eyes narrowed on Cassius.  “Turn.”
            Cassius obeyed.  The demigod turned to look back at the floating body of Tarsus, but something had changed.  The Crystal Sea had turned black.  Cassius could not see Tarsus’s beyond the water anymore. 
            The demigod channeled his power to see beyond the water, to the UnderIsle itself, but he could not.  Even with all his power, he was blind to the UnderIsle now.  He began to breathe quickly.
            “He is…beyond my sight,” Cassius screeched with incredulity.  He turned back to Adulatio with wild eyes.  “I did not know such a thing was possible!”
            A small smile graced the elder god’s face.  “There is much you do not know, pretender.  He has passed his second trial.  He is now on the darkest part of the journey.”
            “What do I do now?” Cassius asked helplessly.
            “Get on your knees,” Adulatio said.  “And pray…pray to a better god than you that Tarsus Cole is successful.”