Saturday, January 21, 2017

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 27: Duty Done

             Cecily silently summoned the sword’s power.  She felt it well up in the pit of her stomach, exploding upward as it coursed through her.
            “I am yours,” she heard it whisper.  That should have surprised her.  The power had never communicated with her before, let alone through her own speech.  She only needed to feel what she wanted it to do, and the power obeyed. 
            Yet now it was speaking; pledging itself to her.  There was no doubt in her mind that it was speaking the truth.  It would always tell her the truth; for truth is what she desired.  And now, she desired the truth of Malthus’s throne room. 
            Cecily looked into the blinding radiance that shielded that truth from her and she gripped Malthir tightly.  “Show me,” she commanded.
            Suddenly, the glittering bright of Malthus’s throne room shattered before her sight.  All was laid bare. 
On either side of the place were large windows that flooded the room with radiant sunlight.  It was a curious sight, given that Cecily knew it to be night outside this castle. 
“An enchantment,” the power whispered again.  “The GodKing would suffer no nightfall on his reign.”   
Cecily walked in, following along a stone path lined here and there with the pieces of maroon fabric: no doubt the remains of a once fine carpet.  She looked to either side of her path and saw towering heaps of gold, silver and jewels.
“Such a waste,” she heard the divine energy whisper.  “These…”
“Mortal baubles,” Cecily said aloud, completing the sentiment.
She came to the foot of the dais, atop which sat a crumbling throne.  Cecily thought it must have been a glorious seat once.  Now though, it was stained brown by the passage of time and many coats of dried blood. 
Cecily let her head fall to her feet, where she found, finally, what she had come for.  She bent down, kneeling beside an old man: bone thin and lying helplessly on his back: and took his head onto her lap.  His beard was matted with spots of dark maroon from his own dried blood, and his thin hair had grown so long that it completely covered his face.  She smoothed it back and looked into his waiting eyes.  Two milky, clotted things looked back at her, reflecting the old man’s many lifetimes of suffering.  Yet his eyebrows rose minutely, and she saw a light come into his countenance: the light of hope.
Cecily brought the sword up to his face, pressing the flat of the blade against the old man’s cheek.  “Malthus,” she said with less reverence than she had always imagined she would in this moment, “I am come.”
“my…child…,” the GodKing exhaled.  He tried to say more, but a fit of coughs and shallow breathing came upon him.  Then he gave a silent moan.  Quiet though the sigh was, Cecily inferred that it carried the weight of his immense agony. 
“I believe what my father wishes to say…is thank you,” Cecily heard a familiar voice call out from behind her.
She gently laid the head of Malthus back onto the stone floor and rose steadily.  She gripped the hilt of Malthir tightly and turned to face who she knew to be there.
Cassius strode into the throne room with a drawn sword and Amelia at his side.  He looked grim, though he tried to mask it with a self-satisfied smirk.  He halted only a few paces away from Cecily, offering a half-hearted bow.
Amelia stopped just behind Cassius, and did not offer anything.  The captain of the ship Defiance showed no signs of the woman that Cecily had met all those months ago.  Now she seemed stern and resolute, her intentions worn clear on her face.  She had come here to fight, and to die.
“You are leaner than you were the last time I saw you,” Cassius said, his false smile spreading into something more cruelly authentic.  “The power is eating away at you.  You do not have much time left.  A final decision must be made.”
“You were a fool to follow me here,” Cecily said with a cold determination.  “I spared you before, but if you try to stop me from doing my duty, there will be no mercy for you.”
Amelia stepped forward, getting in between Cassius and Cecily.  She drew two short swords from over her shoulders and readied herself to attack.
“What have you done to her?” Cecily put to Cassius.
“It has taken most of my power,” Cassius answered, his smile fading into disdain.  “But she is mine now.  Utterly mine.  As she was always meant to be.”
“Who are you to say what she was always meant to be?” Cecily accused.
“I am her God!” Cassius proclaimed.
“You are no god,” Cecily said.  “And so long as I breathe, you never will be.”
CRASH
All three of them turned back to the open door that led out of the throne room into the antechamber.  Ceramic debris was strewn about the floor, as though a vase had just fallen and shattered.  Cecily took a step forward, making for the opening.
“Haah…,” the intoned breath of the GodKing called.  Cecily turned back to Malthus.  His eyes caught hers, and in two short steps she was back at his side, kneeling next to him with his head in her lap again.  “…kill…me…,” he managed.
“How?” Cecily asked in a dead calm.
Malthus began to wheeze again.  No words could come from him as he fought, every instant, to hold onto what little air he could.  He dropped his eyes from hers, and settled them on her right hand that she had draped over his chest: the hand that gripped Malthir. 
Cecily held the blade up into the divine sunlight.  As she looked at the sword, she was caught with the image of herself staring back at her through a faint gleam.  Cecily was transfixed.
“If I kill you, do I take your place?” she asked, her eyes still held by her own reflected gaze.
She felt Malthus’s head, cradled with her left arm, rise and fall in a nod of ascent.
“Become a god?” she pressed.
Again, the GodKing nodded.
“And take on your pain?” she concluded.
The wheezing Malthus tried to lift his head up, but let out a silent gasp of agony as he let it fall back onto Cecily’s arm.  His hand moved from his side, which he had been clutching since Cecily found him.  Beneath his hand, Cecily saw a gaping fresh stab wound.  Instantly, a fountain of divine blood began flowing from it.
“…no…wound…,” Malthus gasped in halting, agonized spurts.
“Do not listen to him!” Cecily heard the pleading, frenzied voice of Cassius scream.  “He is lying!”
She looked back at Malthus.  The GodKing’s eyes were still desperate, wild, but pitiable.  She gripped Malthir, took on more of its power, and asked inside her own mind, “is he lying?”
“No,” came the simple reply, this time in her own voice.  She should have found that strange.  But she did not.  Not now. 
The desperate, dying god struggled to lift his hand.  It had been resting near the wound he had uncovered to show her, and was now covered in his fresh blood.  He raised his trembling hand to Cecily’s face.  She did not move away, but let the GodKing rest his useless appendage on her cheek.  She felt a small stream of his cold blood run down her face, droplets falling from her chin. 
“...do…duty…,” the GodKing whimpered.
Cecily did not need to hear anymore.  She gently lifted Malthus’s head from her lap and replaced it on the stone floor.  She rose slowly, keeping her eyes fixed on his.  She would not look away until this deed was done.
She raised Malthir up over her head with her right hand while she wrapped her left around the exposed bottom half of the grip.  She stood there a moment, looking down at the GodKing with a stilled resolution, as he looked up at her in desperate gratitude.  The sword was steady in her hands: deathly steady.
“Amelia!  Kill her!” Cecily heard Cassius from behind her, but the former demigod sounded so far away; like the fourth iteration of an echo from the bottom of a large canyon.
There was another sound then, just as faint: an explosion.  Cecily was curious, and thought she might turn around to see what was going on.  But within the hopeful eyes of Malthus, she saw tears begin to form.  “He fears you will not slay him,” the sword said in her voice.
“I will not abandon him,” she told herself and the growing power inside her.  “My place is here…now.  Not behind.”
Cecily’s arms bounced up and she rose to the balls of her feet.  She began her strike, and the sword began its descent.
There were several more faint sounds behind her.  There was a crackling fire, which reminded her of the one she saw in the Good Shepherd when she had first visited Briarden in search of help.  Then she heard a fading scream in the distance.
“What have you done?” she heard Cassius cry from far away. 
“Cecily!” she heard a new voice call out to her.  It sounded like Tarsus’s voice, but she knew that was impossible.  She had commanded him to leave and return home.
Her eyes were still fixed upon Malthus’s when the blade, halfway down its arc, cut between them for an instant, severing their link. 
“Tarsus will be halfway to Briarden by now,” Cecily thought sadly to herself.
The blade passed by, revealing God and disciple to one another again.
“As he should be,” Cecily heard her voice say to her, “the gods must be obeyed.”
“The chosen returns,” a new voice said pompously.  It seemed familiar to her, but Cecily could not be bothered to deduce where she had heard it before.
“Someone stop her!” yet another new voice called out. 
“It is done,” the pompous voice chortled.
“AHHHH!” Cecily screamed, drowning out the noise that kept pulling her backward.  There was no going back for her.  She swung Malthir with the deadly precision of a skilled warrior, and she did not miss her mark. 
The blade was buried deep into the head of Malthus.  Instantly, the light went out of the GodKing’s eyes and serenity spread across his face.  His body stopped twitching, and he lay there…still.
            THUNK
            The sickening sound of a blade being buried into flesh rang faintly in her ears.  Cecily thought it odd that she should hear it an instant after her blade had connected, but she could not be bothered with such trivialities.  The GodKing, Malthus, was dead.  She had fulfilled her duty.
            “NO!” the voice that sounded like Tarsus’s screamed: a distant echo in the fading past.
            The body of Malthus decayed to dust before her eyes.  A blue-white light rose from where he had lain.  It hovered before her, and she raised her arms in a sign of welcome to this ethereal divinity.
            The light held still, coiling in the air like a snake on the limb of a tree.  She felt Malthir begin to vibrate in her right hand and she turned to see why.  The blade was glowing with the same heavenly illumination as the light before her.  She turned back, a wide smile spread across her face.
            The light floated forward, spreading its tendrils onto her, enveloping her within itself.  She breathed it in, rejoicing at the essence of such divinity spreading through her and striking all of her senses at once. 
She welcomed it into her sight; it looked like the white light of freedom after being lost in a tunnel.  She welcomed it onto her skin; it felt like a soothing balm on a fresh burn.  She welcomed it into her mouth; it tasted like a glass of cold water after a long march on a hot day.  She welcomed it into her nose; it smelled like a freshly baked bun that her mother used to slather in honey.  She welcomed it into her ears; it sounded like the voices of old friends, reunited after too many years apart.
It was intoxicating – such divinity – such power.  She did not feel her feet lift up off the ground, nevertheless she felt light enough to fly: to soar.  She was a true goddess now and no longer needed Malthir to grant her the morsel of the divine it held.  For what she commanded now was Malthus’s true power, complete and everlasting. 
The light began to fade, and her transformation was complete.  But as Cecily regained her sight, her jubilation turned to curiosity.  For beyond the fading light, sitting on the throne of Malthus at the top of the dais, was a mysterious hooded man.  She did not see his face, but she did not need to.  Somehow, she knew this man.  She knew that he was strong, and in that instant, she knew that he was the one who gave Malthus that fatal wound.
Then her curiosity gave way to something she did not expect: crippling pain.  It began in her chest, and spread outward to the rest of her body.  Cecily fell to her knees, dropping Malthir on the stone and clutching at her breast.  When her hands came to her breastplate, she felt something sharp sticking out from her armor.  She looked down.
Protruding from her chest, Cecily saw the tip of a bloodied blade.  Her eyes went wide.  She reached around her back with her right hand and fingered the pommel of a long dagger.  With her fingers, she followed its short grip and was struck with the awful truth; this thing was buried, to the hilt, into her back.
Cecily collapsed to her side.  She wrapped her arms around herself, trying to stem off the numbing cold that was enveloping her, but it was no use.  The cold was spreading, and the pain was unbearable; with every instant that passed, both grew a hundredfold. 
There was the faint echo of footsteps somewhere in the distance.  Moments that felt like hours in her agony passed by, and she saw a knee fall down near her face.  She felt strong hands pull her up, and the motion sent sharp pain shooting all through her body. 
When she opened her eyes again, she saw a pair of familiar brown eyes looking back at her in growing concern.  She smiled, relieved for an instant that a friend had found her.
“Tarsus…,” she was able to say before another unbearable spasm of pain pulsed through her.
Tarsus Cole, kneeling at Cecily’s side with her head cradled in his lap, smiled back at her.  He took her hand in his and squeezed tight.
          “I’m here.”

Saturday, January 7, 2017

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 26: Mortal Immortality

            She stood outside the grand entrance to Malthus’s cathedral.  The moon hung high in the night, and she pulled her hood up to veil herself as best as she could from its face.  In her left hand she gripped Malthir tightly.  The blade gave a soft glow, which she hid from the sight of the world by pulling her cloak over the rest of her, draping herself entirely.
            She looked up, above the cathedral before her to the palace of Malthus that extended high above the clouds.  Inwardly, she could feel the divinity of the GodKing calling out to her.
            “Not to me, though,” she thought.  “Not to me.”
            She felt the smooth, cold grip of Malthir in her hand; as though the sword understood her thoughts.  She felt it give a slight tingle. 
            “You want me to go on,” she returned in her mind.  “You want to go home.  Yes.  Let’s go home.”
            A rustling breeze blew past, ruffling her cloak.  She pulled it tighter around her, though she did not need to.  There was no wind that could cool her now.  Ignoring this stray thought, she took a step forward.
Then she stopped.  Cecily turned quickly to look behind her.  There was no mistaking it; she had heard something more than the rustling of the wind in that breeze.  It was faint and far, but it was there.  She gripped the sword tight, preparing to release its power…
GONG
She turned back to the cathedral, the midnight bell breaking her from the distraction.  This was the hour she had waited for; to enter the church at its least occupied.  For the previous night’s workers and worshippers had all done their due, while an hour from now the night staff would begin preparations for the early morning’s worship.  Yet in this medial hour, the place would be at its most still.
She moved quickly forward; thoughts of nipping winds and grazing sounds lost to the task at hand.  The time had come.

The priest finished stacking copies of the next day’s homilies in the pulpit.  He had spent hours copying them all himself, and as he stood up, he stretched his body out to relieve his tired muscles of his monotonous labors. 
He stood at the pulpit, looking out into the hundreds of pews that lined the sanctuary.  Starlight poured in from windows on either side of the room, giving the place a ghostly glow. 
The holy man smiled, imagining a phantom congregation filling every seat.  He envisioned himself sharing a rousing homily; his flock moved to tears at beauty of Malthus’s message that flowed through him.  His gaze shifted, and the pale, cold truth returned to his sight.  He was only a lowly rung on the ladder of the clergy now, but one day he would be that man of his mind’s eye.  One day, Malthus would take notice.
The temple doors flew open, crashing against the stone walls of the cathedral with a thunderous clap that echoed all throughout the sanctuary.
The priest rushed in front of the pulpit to get a better view of what could have done such a thing.  It took four men, two on each door, to open and close them.  Who could have the strength to force them thus?
In the doorway, draped in darkness, stood a shadow only visible by the glow of the sword it held aloft.
“Who dares defile this sacred temple of the GodKing?” the priest called out, trying to sound brave. 
The figure walked briskly down the center aisle into the moonlight.  He was granted one instant of realization - that the intruder was no man, but a redheaded young woman - before the spell of divinity took him.  Whatever outrage he had planned on feeling before she had come closer was replaced with a longing desire to serve.
Faced with a priest of Malthus in Arden’s greatest temple to the god that she served, Cecily felt the inkling of old instinct.  Her knees bent before her mind could think it, and she found herself in the beginnings of a genuflection.  But in her descent, she remembered the cold steel she held in her hand, and she brought the shining blade before her face.  The faint glow that Malthir gave off outside of the cathedral had grown brighter; it now shown with the light of a far off star.
Cecily stopped herself from falling to the stone floor.  She rose, bringing the sword to her side as she looked to the priest.  The diminutive man had fallen prostrate before her.  She understood then that there was no longer any authority in the world of men to instruct or command her.  This man; someone she would once have turned to for guidance; now relied on her to guide him.
            “Take me to Malthus’s chambers,” Cecily ordered.  “The GodKing has long been expecting me.”
           
            In the corridors of the upper echelons of the cathedral, Cecily followed the priest as he passed by a series of grand doorways, each one more beautiful than the last.  They had been crafted as the worshipful constructions of the greatest artists in all of Arden.  Some were made of precious metals, inlaid with bright gems that caught light in such a way that they were always aglow; others sang lovely melodies with overlapping voices who’s harmonies came together in transcendent tones; and others still behaved as blank canvasses for ever-changing art that would renew itself with the dawn. 
            “Everyone finds their own door to Malthus in the end,” the priest explained to her as they walked by these doors.  “Yet the GodKing cannot be found behind such material riches or earthly talents.”
            Finally, they stopped some ways away from a small, unassuming wooden door.  Standing before it was a solitary guard, the first Cecily had seen in these upper corridors since she and the priest had entered them.
            “Beyond that door,” the clergyman whispered, “lies the only way to the palace above this cathedral.”
            “And the only way to Malthus,” Cecily concluded.
            “Precisely, my lady,” the priest returned excitedly.
            “Why would Malthus allow such a humble entrance to his chambers?” Cecily asked.
            “Malthus is all-wise,” the priest replied.  “This door is the least obvious route to him.  No invaders would think to find him beyond it.”
            “Invaders?” Cecily questioned aloud, more to herself than the priest.  It struck her as amusing.  Only mortal invaders would be taken in by such a ruse, and they had no hope of doing any harm to Malthus.  The concern was entirely unfounded, unwarranted…even, un-godly.
            “So…Malthus, the GodKing of the realm and the most praised and worshipped deity in all of Arden, had once been a man after all,” she divined.
            They were upon the wooden door, in plain view of the guard.  The soldier grasped his sword hilt, and he raised a hand to them, signaling them to halt.  Old memories of battle sprung up and Cecily gripped Malthir more tightly as she prepared herself for an attack.
            They were on the man quickly.  The soldier’s eyes moved up from the priest to Cecily, and as he looked on her his gaze grew wide in astonishment.  Cecily raised her sword, ready to bring it down quickly and with righteous fury, until…
            The soldier fell to his knees, his eyes never leaving Cecily’s.  He raised both hands, palms facing upward, in a signal of surrender.  “I am ready, my lady,” he resigned in a euphoric whisper.
            Cecily felt the weight of Malthir in her hand…ready to fall…ready to strike.  The grip, ordinarily cool to her touch, was warm with the heat of her bloodlust.  Yet a soothing calm ran through her.  There was no need for such savagery; the guard was hers.
            “Open the door,” she said with a lilting calm.
            The guard quickly rose to his feet and pulled a key ring filled with skeleton keys from his belt loop.  He searched frantically, putting one key after the next into the keyhole of the door; trying, unsuccessfully, to obey her.
            Cecily offered him a gracious smile.  The priest jumped in to help the guard; the two of them scrambling to get the door opened,
            “A key ring filled with decoys,” Cecily thought, laughing inwardly.  “Has that ever worked?”
            Just then, she heard the click of the right key and watched the priest and the guard struggle to push the wooden door open.  The screech of the creaking hinges, rusted with the disuse of several hundred years, screamed through the stone corridors like an angry mother eagle that had lost one of its young.
            “My lady,” the guard huffed, stepping out of the way of the open door and presenting her with what was inside, “at the top of the stairs, you will find the antechamber to the throne room of Malthus.  Have I done well?”
            Cecily stepped forward and looked inside.  Beyond the door was the bottom of a simple stone staircase.  Her eyes followed it up, but there was no end that even her holy gaze could see. 
            “You have,” Cecily answered without looking down at the guard.  “The both of you have done very well.”
            “My lady,” the priest said in a concerned tone.  Cecily looked down at him.  “Only the knights of the KingsGuard dwell up in the palace now.  No other servants are allowed.  In fact, other than that holy order, no living soul has even been up there for hundreds of years.”
            “I understand,” Cecily said, smiling down at him and putting a comforting hand to his shoulder. 
            The priest blushed for a moment, then shook with ecstasy, and collapsed.  Cecily did not spare him a second glance, but turned to the staircase and strode in.  She did not hesitate when she took the first step, nor the second.  Up she went; up into the veiled darkness.

            “Who goes there?” the knight of the KingsGuard called out.
            Cecily gripped Malthir with both hands as she readied herself behind the column that concealed her.  Only a few steps from where she hid was the grand red door that led into Malthus’s throne room.  Flanking it from either side were two of his holy knights. 
            But she had given herself away trying to keep from the KingsGuard’s sights, perhaps with an over-quick step or an accidental brush of her armor against a wall.  The guards knew someone was on this sacred floor that shouldn’t have been.  She did not have much time.
            She moved, striding out from behind the column and rushing the first guard nearest her; the one who had called out.  She brought up the hilt of Malthir and bashed it across the guard’s helmeted face.
            SLAM
            He fell to the stone floor, stunned.  Cecily, barely completing the arc of her bash, brought the sword back around just as the second guard ran in.
            “My lady…”
            CRASH
            The knight did not even try to defend himself as the flat of Cecily’s blade collided with him, sending him flying across the room.  Cecily looked at the two fallen men, lying on opposite ends of Malthus’s antechamber.
            “I…only…wanted…” the knight she had sent flying sputtered out, through pained breaths, “to...open the door for you.”
            Cecily panicked.  No one in this palace meant her harm; yet she had been ready to fight her way to Malthus.  She brought the sword up to look upon, and now it was glowing more brightly than she had ever seen.  Cecily could not even make out the blade anymore, for it had become pure white light in the shape of a sword.
The sight soothed her.  Her inclinations to violence from only a moment ago seemed so ugly to her now; so inelegant; so tediously human. 
“I do not need you,” she said flatly to the guard, even as the mean was reaching up for her from the stone floor.
She turned to the large red door and pushed in.  A glittering light spilled out into the antechamber.  It was a light that would have blinded mortal men, but Cecily was no man, and she was not mortal anymore.  Not now.
She strode forth, a goddess, joining with the jeweled light of eternity.  Cecily disappeared into the wall of white, leaving the door open behind her, letting the light consume all that was left in her wake.