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.”
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.
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.