OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 29: To Do the Impossible
Finnian was true to his word. The young Pell flew down the crumbling stone staircase of Malthus’s tower with incredible grace; dodging loosed stone and leaping over perilous gaps as though he’d always known them to be there.
“Mind the boulder!” Finnian shouted back to Tarsus. “Make this jump with speed! Stay as close to me as you can, the ceiling’s coming down on us!”
For his part, Tarsus obeyed dutifully…almost slavishly. His body heeded every order Finnian shouted at him, but his mind was still in the throne room with Cecily.
“Can I save her?” he asked himself over and again. “Is there anything two mortals can do for her, in the face of such divinity?”
The descent felt endless to Tarsus. Each obstacle overcome allowed them to see more of the obstacles they had yet to face in their monotonous, grey descent.
“Perhaps this is our punishment,” Tarsus thought after he narrowly avoided being crushed by a boulder for what felt like the hundredth time. “For leaving her. Perhaps we are dead already, and this is the underworld. And we are doomed…doomed to try and escape from a castle that offers no escape. Doomed to run because we didn’t stay. Doomed to die, over and again, because we left a friend to face her death…over and again.”
“I see the door!” Finnian called back, waking Tarsus from his grim fantasy. “Only one more jump…”
Tarsus obeyed without question. With the last hurdle cleared, Finnian threw open the door to the tower and crossed the threshold to the relative safety of the stable base of the palace. Tarsus was right behind him.
And then the earth beneath them began to shake.
Finnian and Tarsus tumbled out of the crumbling palace heaving; their shirts clinging to their bodies by the sweat of their labor. Thanks to Finnian’s endless stamina, they had made it outside, yet the collapse of the palace still threatened to crush them in its wide wake.
“Come on!” Finnian called through belabored breath. “We have to keep running.”
“I can’t…run…anymore,” Tarsus confessed as he stopped, clawing past the shallow breaths his body would allow to the deeper ones he desperately needed.
“You must,” Finnian said flatly.
Tarsus looked at his friend through a squint as he struggled for more air. “Finnian…”
A violent shake toppled Tarsus where he stood.
From on high, a shade fell over the pair of them. Finnian looked up to find a piece of rampart, suddenly in between them and the light of the moon, falling fast to greet them.
Tarsus halfheartedly attempted to push himself up, but it was no use. He did not have the strength to continue, and he did not have the will to turn back. “At least this way, I die quickly.” He thought.
With eyes on his impending doom, Tarsus was surprised to feel something else collide with him first. It knocked him backward, then rolled over him and grabbed his shoulders. Finnian pulled him back, desperately dragging him out of the shade that meant their death.
Pell just managed it. The rampart collided with the quaking earth, crushing naught but stone and soil. Finnian struggled to pull Tarsus up, managing to get the Sunsword onto his knees.
Finnian stood over his friend, looking down into Tarsus’s resigned eyes. “Stand up,” Pell ordered harshly. “I will not let you die here.”
“Finnian, I don’t want to die,” Tarsus said. “I just can’t go on. I don’t have the strength.”
“Well find it,” Finnian interrupted. “We’re out of the castle now. The most dangerous part is behind us. Besides, we won’t find a way to fix this mess if one of us dies.”
“There is no way to fix this,” Tarsus said despondently.
“Are you sure of that?” Finnian asked, flashing a mischievous smile.
Tarsus, despite himself, smiled back. “I’m never sure of anything.”
“What a sensible thing to say,” Finnian said in mock surprise. He offered his hand to Tarsus, “now get up.”
Tarsus took his friend’s hand, got to his feet, and somehow, managed to run.
Tarsus woke with the dawn. It was not the dawn that woke him, but the discomfort of being huddled, back to back, with Finnian in the back-alley of the White Light Tavern. They had managed to run as far as the city center, and in all the chaos, that alley was the only place they could find to take some rest.
They were not alone.
The dirt road of the alley disappeared underneath a slew of sleeping folk. Tarsus took them in through the half-opened eyes of waking, and considered for a moment that he was dreaming, for these people had not been there the night before.
The night before, he and Finnian could not get so far as the front door of the White Light because of the crowds who had either lost their homes, or had been forced to leave them behind. Merchants, nobles, knights…all had become beggars after Malthus’s castle came down. Their city was once the crown jewel of all Arden; now they would wake to a new day, a new time; without a city, without a king…without a god.
Tarsus was reminded of Cecily. If not for her quest to find the sword Malthir, these people would have been spared this devastating loss.
“Would they?” he thought in reply to his own assumption. “If we had not succeeded in finding the sword, Malthus would have reached out to someone else. The dark stranger would have seen to that. Someone was bound to take up this quest, because the stranger wished it to happen. Somehow, some way, some time, Malthanon would have fallen. The question is, why?”
“Tarsus?” Finnian’s voice pulled the Sunsword from his pondering.
Tarsus turned to his friend, who was eating a stale and moldy piece of bread he had likely found in the trash heap the two of them had used as a lean-to. With so much dust in the air, the only way to get any sleep was to sit upright. Finnian offered Tarsus a piece of bread.
“You’d better eat it before these vultures wake,” Finnian said quietly, even as he cast a dark eye on the people sleeping fitfully all around them.
“Thank you,” Tarsus said, taking the bread and biting into it.
The two of them sat, eating silently, staring out on a sea of sleeping men, women and children.
“Isn’t it amazing,” Finnian posed after a hard swallow, “how much change a day can bring?” He seemed so self-assured and relaxed in this moment, so at ease; even sitting in the middle of such squalor.
“Thank you,” Tarsus said ardently.
“You thanked me already,” Finnian said as he took another bite.
“Not for the bread. For yesterday,” Tarsus explained. “I thought I was going to die. I made my peace with it. But you wouldn’t let me.”
“Like I told you,” Finnian said, “we can’t be heroes if we’re not alive to try being heroes.”
“Heroes?” Tarsus posed, a smile shaping his lips. “Is that was this is about for you?”
“That’s what this is about for the both of us,” Finnian clarified, emphasizing his point with a revelatory finger in the air. “Our dreams as boys…our wish to join the KingsGuard…this quest…it was all a chance for us to play at being heroes.”
“Hm,” Tarsus exclaimed wanly. He turned back to the sea of sleeping bodies. “But the game is over now.”
“Yes it is,” Finnian said, grabbing hold of Tarsus’s arm and squeezing tightly. The Sunsword turned back to meet the resolved glare of his best friend. “The time for playacting is over. Now, the only way forward, is to become what we have always wanted to be.”
“Finnian,” Tarsus said, trying to mask his excitement with a rational tone, “we are not heroes. We are not even soldiers. To save Cecily…to learn what that dark man is after…to stop him? It is impossible.”
“We have done the impossible already,” Finnian answered simply. “The three of us together found the sword of Malthus and returned it to this city. You conquered the UnderIsle. Cecily killed a god. The impossible is no barrier to us.”
“You know,” Tarsus said through a laugh, “on the UnderIsle, I met a shade of you. It told me that you wanted to go home to Briarden. That is where you felt comfortable, where you wanted to settle. A part of me knew that was true, and I thought, before the end of this, I’d have to say goodbye to you.”
Tarsus pulled his sword from his side and rose to his knees, gesturing to Finnian to follow suit. Tarsus put the tip of his blade into the earth, and held, with one hand, the grip. He took a free hand of Finnian’s and placed it on the grip atop his own. “Thank you for being my friend.”
“There you are!” a brash voice called out.
Tarsus turned to find a familiar shape making its way toward them. Next to him, he felt Finnian rise purposefully. Taking the cue from his friend, Tarsus stood as well, taking up his sword.
Cassius walked slowly toward the pair of friends. But this was not the Cassius that Tarsus and Finnian had remembered: the regal and impish demigod who commanded the ship Defiance. No, this Cassius wore a cloak torn near the pockets, and his face was bruised. His left hand hung dead at his side, with fingers splayed in all directions, while in his right hand he gripped, with white-knuckled fury, the half-sword Malthir. Cassius raised the broken blade, pointing it menacingly at Tarsus.
Beside him, Tarsus felt Finnian raise a sword in readiness. But the Sunsword did not follow suit this time. He stood poised, ready to defend himself if necessary, but in waiting…watching.
“You were my chosen,” Cassius said as he came to a halt only a few steps away from the pair. “You were supposed to deliver unto me my legacy. But all you have delivered is ruin. This…” he said, waving a hand over the waking paupers who shared this alley, “…is your fault.”
“That’s insane,” Finnian countered with ease.
“Silence cur!” Cassius lashed. “You have no place in this conflict.”
“Perhaps none of us do,” Tarsus posited intently. “Think Cassius! We were all duped. Adulatio used us to find the sword for that dark stranger. Who is he?”
“I know not,” Cassius returned heatedly. “But I will deal with him after I finish you and the girl.”
“All due respect, you didn’t fair so well the last time you faced him,” Finnian offered with a grim smile.
“I told you to be silent mortal,” Cassius fumed.
“He’s right Cassius,” Tarsus said, drawing the demigod’s attention back onto himself. “Whoever that man is, Adulatio fears him. Even at the height of your power, you would not stand a chance.”
“I do not intend to face him at the height of my power, or even Adulatio’s,” Cassius said, seeming to speak more to himself than to Tarsus or Finnian. “I will strike him down with all of the power that my father once possessed. Surely, my father fell because his power was fragmented. If I can gather it all together…”
“How?” Tarsus pressed, channeling the demigod’s on-set mania.
“The girl,” Cassius went on, “If I can find the girl…and kill her…I can still claim what was stolen from me.”
“We’ll kill you first,” Finnian growled.
“It won’t work Cassius,” Tarsus reasoned. “The sword is broken. All of Malthus’s power is Cecily’s now.”
“Not all,” Cassus said, refocusing his attention on Tarsus, “I am the last of my father’s blood. I am the last vestige of his power.”
Cassius resumed his march on Tarsus and Finnian with a mad, but determined, look in his eye.
“Cassius, you can’t kill her,” Tarsus said, unsure if he meant it more as a statement or an entreaty.
“You have left me no other choice,” Cassius accused.
“Yes we did!” Finnian shouted. “There were many other choices. Even now, you have another choice. Your problem, though, is that you consistently make the wrong ones!”
Cassius halted a step away from the pair of them and turned his glare onto Finnian. The demigod’s entire body began to shake where he stood, and his cheeks were reddening.
“Finnian, that’s enough,” Tarsus said.
“It is not! Not by half,” Finnian answered, turning his accusing eyes back to the demigod. “You are nothing but a spoilt child, thinking the world owes you something because of who your father was. Well your father’s gone now, and so is his kingdom. You have nothing to cling to anymore, and soon, these people will move on…on to new homes, new lives, and new gods. And you…you will be forgotten.”
“I told you…” a quaking Cassius began, raising a free hand in Finnian’s direction, “to BE SILENT!”
Finnian backed away instinctively to avoid Cassius’s grasp, but Cassius did not reach to grab him. Instead, the demigod’s open hand closed into a fist, and as it did a swirl of yellow and blue surrounded the young Pell.
Finnian did not have time to react, save for an unleashed wail of agony that rose in pitch to a deafening, unearthly scream. In a burst of light, he was gone.
“Finnian!” Tarsus called out, frantically searching the alley for any sign of his friend. The huddled onlookers all shied away from his gaze, trying to push themselves further back into the refuse heaps and brick walls. He scanned every one of them ten times over, but it did not matter, there was no sign of Finnian Pell. “What have you done?” Tarsus demanded, turning back to face Cassius.
“I have robbed you,” Cassius said through a wall of his own tears. He rested the broken edge of Malthir on Tarsus’s chest, “as you have robbed me.”
“Amelia?” Tarsus deduced. “That was your fault. You did that to her.”
“ENOUGH!” Cassius screamed. He pulled the edge of Malthir away and readied himself in a fighting stance, raising the broken sword in readiness. “Enough speech. You die today.”
“No Cassius,” Tarsus said as he raised his own sword and stood his own ground, “You have stolen my best friend from me. There is nothing…no power you think you possess…that can save you from me now. So come…come and finish it.”