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.
“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.