Saturday, February 18, 2017

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.”

Saturday, February 4, 2017

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 28: Sovereign

             Tarsus could not take his eyes off of the tip of the dagger that protruded through Cecily’s breastplate.  For some minutes, her blood was oozing out of the stab wound, cascading over her body and onto the stone floor below; a vibrant crimson wash staining the sea of faded grey and brown.
            “So much blood…” Tarsus thought in horror.  “It seems endless.”
            “Tarsus…” Cecily forced out, calling him back to her tortured face.  “…it hurts.”
            “Of course it does, my dear,” a rich baritone voice confirmed. 
A tall, regal figure stepped into Cecily’s upturned line of sight.  For a moment, the stranger seemed a shadow to her, surrounded entirely in a halo of golden light.  The dark shape of a man bent toward her, and the closer it came, the clearer this menacing shade came into view. 
“You are a full goddess now,” Adulatio said, stopping just short of his nose touching hers.  He smiled down at Cecily with a gleeful contempt, “and that divine power you possess will keep you alive.  But it will not, cannot, ease your pain.”
The old god rose then, regaining his full height, and as he did so, Tarsus saw that he had picked up Malthir and held the sword by the flat of the blade.  Adulatio raised the weapon up, offering its hilt to the dark stranger sitting upon Malthus’s throne.
“The sword of Malthus,” the god said reverently, taking a knee and bowing his head before this new player.  “As promised, my lord.”
“My lord?” Tarsus was struck by such deference coming from a god, let alone one of the oldest of them.  “Who is this man to command such homage?  What power does he hold over the gods?”
The stranger rose from the throne.  Though his eyes remained hidden: tucked away under the hood of the dark cloak he wore: Tarsus felt a tingling chill run up his spine.  This man was weighing them all in his gaze.
In an instant, the stranger stood before the supplicant Adulatio.  Tarsus watched as the darkness that swirled around the stranger, as though it were part of his cloak, diminished the light that emanated from Adulatio.  It was as though the old god’s divinity was giving way to the force of this mysterious man. 
“Divinity!” Tarsus realized.  “I have not felt Adulatio’s divinity since he appeared.  I am not compelled to serve as I usually am.  Why?”
Tarsus began searching the room frantically to see if he was the only one to keep his wits.  A few paces behind him, on the path leading up to the dais, he found Cassius.  The demigod was helplessly circling the charred remains of what was clearly a human corpse: Amelia. 
When Tarsus and Finnian had burst from their hiding places in the antechamber outside Malthus’s throne room, they ran in to find a scene of chaos.  First, an explosion of light had temporarily blinded everyone in the throne room, and when they had regained their sight they found Adulatio standing poised with a hand filled with fire.  Cecily, ready to strike down a decrepit man at her feet, rose and unleashed Malthir upon her target.  Cassius screamed an order for Cecily to be killed, and Amelia rushed forward to obey.
Then, Tarsus and Finnian stood rooted by horror as Adulatio struck Amelia down in a plume of heavenly flame.  Cassius rushed to her, cradling her remains in his arms even as she charred to ash in his embrace.  Cecily, with a cry of desperate focus, saw her strike through, and buried Malthir into the head of the pitiful old man.  Then, out of a shadow, this stranger appeared behind Cecily and buried something into her back.  She did not flinch; she did not even react.  As the stranger disappeared, Tarsus saw the hilt of a dagger nestled into his friend.  Tarsus remembered letting out a cry, but then being silenced and struck dumb by the sight of the old man’s body transforming into divine light and fire.  He watched as that light infused Cecily with its essence, and for that brief moment he had forgotten about the dagger.  Cecily transformed, before his very eyes, into a goddess.  Divinity emanated from her as the full power of Malthus burrowed itself into her.  Surely, no such trivial strike could harm her.
But then the light faded, and Cecily fell to her knees.  The stranger reappeared sitting on the throne of Malthus, watching her suffering from on high.  No one was helping Cecily.  They were all just standing there, watching. 
Tarsus did not remember running to her.  He only remembered arriving at her side, kneeling, and taking her head in his lap.  He had nothing to offer her; no comfort save for a pained smile and quivering, “I’m here.”
Tarsus had not moved from that spot.  He still knelt on the dais, with Cecily’s head in his lap, now searching beyond a grief stricken Cassius to the open doorway that led into this throne room from the antechamber.  He found Finnian, still waiting there, looking on Adulatio and the dark overlord with the same awe that Tarsus felt at reliving the enormity of the last few moments of both of their lives. 
Finnian, likely sensing he was being watched, turned his head to look back at Tarsus.  Tarsus shot his friend a questioning look, and Finnian answered with a weak smile and a shrug of the shoulders. 
“He’s alright!” Tarsus smiled in relief.  “More than that.  He’s awake.  He doesn’t feel Adulatio’s divinity either.”
Tarsus looked back then to the old god who was undeniably quivering in the presence of the dark man stooping over him.  The sword was shaking in Adulatio’s hand.  Then, the stranger reached out and closed a free hand around the grip of Malthir, stilling the pulsing blade.  Adulatio released the weapon then, and quickly pulled his hand away as though the touch of this stranger had turned the sword hot with a burning intensity.
“NO!” the voice of Cassius rang clear. 
“Silence you foolish whelp!” Adulatio spat in uncharacteristic scorn.  “You know not what you do!”
“That sword was made by my father,” Cassius continued, ignoring Adulatio’s warning as he stepped in closer to the dark stranger who now wielded Malthir.  “By rights, it passes to me.”
“Right?” the stranger asked in a cold placidity.
“Did you not hear me?” Cassius challenged.  “I am the GodKing’s son!  Cassius Aurus Malthane…”
“Your name and claim are meaningless, little one,” the stranger said.  “They are mortal conventions, only upheld for fear of the power your father once claimed.  You have no such power, and if you did it would hold no sway over me, for I am the channel down which such streams flow.  I am the road through the forest; by way the power comes to those chosen to be your gods.  I am the brush with which the portrait of creation is painted.  You?  You are a mere brushstroke, little one: a means to finding this sword and bringing it here, so that your father’s suffering could finally end.  So that the several diluted channels of his power could be reunited.”
The stranger held up Malthir, resting its tip on Cassius’s breast.  With a flick of his wrist, the dark man tossed the sword into the air.  The weapon spun, and he caught it by the flat of its blade, replacing the threatening tip with the offering of its grip.
“Yet if you desire it so badly, here,” the man said calmly.  “I bequeath it you.”
Slowly, Cassius brought up a free hand and reverently wrapped his fingers around the grip of the sword he had so long yearned to retrieve.  He pulled the blade toward him.  It did not move.  Tarsus watched Cassius try again, pulling harder.  The stranger held the sword firm, with only two fingers gripping the flat of the blade.
Cassius brought his second hand up and grasped the bottom half of the grip.  With both hands, the demigod pulled with all his might.  Still the stranger held the blade in place.  Again and again the demigod struggled to pull the sword free, yet the dark man remained perfectly at ease holding on to it.  Then, the hooded stranger flicked his wrist downward.
SNAP
Cassius fell backward with a crash.  He recovered himself quickly and scrambled to his feet.  He brought his hands up, still grasping Malthir with both of them, only to find the half a sword that remained him.
Before Cassius, the stranger stood leisurely; the other half of the broken blade resting easily between his thumb and forefinger.
“Do you feel better now?” the stranger asked flatly, with no hint of jest or boast, “little one?”
“Who are you?” Cassius asked, his voice thick with fear.
“He is our lord, you stupid boy,” Adulatio answered.  “Our sovereign.  The sovereign.”
“I have many names,” the stranger clarified, “many titles.  But they are all meaningless.  All that matters…is my role.”
“Which is what?” Tarsus called out.  The stranger turned to the sunsword, and once again Tarsus felt the chill of that weighing gaze flood his body.  Yet he did not move; he stayed on the dais, on his knees, cradling Cecily’s head.
“Mine is to make certain that brush strokes begin, and end, where they are supposed to,” the dark man answered.  “So long as it amuses me.  For I am the way that you are all destined to follow…gods and men.”
The stranger tossed the broken blade aside.  It clanked as it settled on the stone floor, filling the throne room with hollow echoes.
“You should leave now.  All of you,” the stranger said as he walked up to the throne, retaking his seat.  “This palace has seen its last days.”
“What happens to Cecily?” Tarsus pressed.
“The power of creation cannot be destroyed,” the stranger explained.  “Save for what little the son of Malthus still possesses, she holds all the power of the GodKing within her.  There it must dwell.  Thus, she will remain here, under the last vestiges of her god, and suffer as she is meant to.”
“Suffer?” Finnian asked as he ran up to Tarsus’s side.  “For how long?”
“Until the end of all creation, little one,” the dark man said.
“Why?” Tarsus asked despite himself.
The stranger sat silent on Malthus’s throne.  An all-too familiar chill ran up Tarsus’s spine once more.
“The ant need not know why the boot crushes it,” the hooded stranger finally said.  “Leave now.  Or stay and die, it matters not.  You have all served your purpose.  Henceforth, the age of Malthus is ended.”
The earth began to shake beneath them all.  The stone that made up the walls and the floor began to rend asunder.  The palace was being pulled apart at the seams.
There was an explosion of light, and as Tarsus looked to where Adulatio knelt he found the god had vanished.  Footsteps echoed behind them, and Tarsus and Finnian turned to see Cassius disappear into the antechamber.  Tarsus felt a hand fall hard on his shoulder, and he looked up into Finnian’s waiting, worried eyes.
“We have to go!” Finnian said.
“I can’t!” Tarsus said.
“Tarsus!  Look at her!” Finnian shouted.
Tarsus looked down at his lap.  Cecily’s eyes had disappeared behind a curtain of milky white.  Even though her gaze was facing him, Tarsus knew that she could not see him anymore.  The pain had taken her.
Gently, Tarsus laid her head to rest on the stone.  He rose quickly as the quaking grew more violent beneath him.  Stone columns came crashing down into the piles of gold, silver and jewels the lined the throne room.  Windowpanes were pulled apart as the walls split and severed.  The enchantment of sunlight was quickly fading to reveal the true night sky outside. 
Finnian grabbed Tarsus’s arm, recalling the sunsword’s attention.  “Come!”  He pointed Tarsus in the direction of the opening that led to the antechamber and pushed. 
The two of them bolted, making for the only way out of a throne room that was quickly collapsing in all around them.
CRACK
The floor came apart before them.  Without hesitation, Finnian pushed Tarsus to the right as he himself leapt over the widening chasm.  Tarsus did not need to jump over such a gap, and it was a good thing to.  He could never match Finnian for pure athleticism.  Instead, the sunsword scrambled over the loose stones strewed in his path, and avoided a hail storm of falling stone. 
The pair of them, their obstacles overcome, found themselves at the entrance to the throne room.  Tarsus began to turn back, but Finnian put a hand to the his vest and pulled.  They barreled into the antechamber and found their way to the staircase they had come up. 
“Tarsus, do you want to die?” Finnian shouted back.
“No,” Tarsus admitted.
“Good!  Then stay behind me, and for the love of me, who is your friend, do not turn back.  Understand?” Finnian scolded as the pair descended the crumbling staircase.  “I’m going to get us out of here.”