Friday, June 23, 2017

Chapter 37: Choosing to See

            Drake awoke with the light of the dawn; an old habit of a former life lived for far too many years.  As a soldier, he had many predispositions disciplined into him.  Now though, this very morning, he wished to be rid of all of them.
            Last night he tried very hard to ensure a much longer lie-in for himself by engaging Finnian Pell in a drinking game.  He, the tall and muscle-bound former soldier, matched the younger, thinner, and more jovial Pell drink for drink. 
They were celebrating.  Two weeks had passed since a strange boy showed them to a familiar hilltop where they could look out onto the city of Malthanon.  They expected to find it in ruin, but were surprised to see that it had been restored…complete with the rebuilt palace of the GodKing, and its spire; a steeple that stood so tall, no mortal’s gaze could find the top.
            But the restitution of his GodKing was not the reason for Drake’s celebration.  After showing them the rejuvenated city, the boy begged Drake to return: to retake his place as rightful captain of the KingsGuard.  Drake debated with himself everyday for a fortnight on what he should do. 
Finally, he commanded the boy to go back to Malthanon, alone.  He would stay in Briarden, his home, and help his people to rebuild it.  There was no god here to do it for them, and so they would have to do it themselves; as always, Drake realized…all the shepherd’s village ever had was the people that made it up.
            Thus Drake Mathix drank in celebration of his newfound freedom: in commemoration of what Briarden had done for him in the past, and in pledge to what he would do for it in future.  It was a healthy, or perhaps unhealthy, first step toward making up for lost time.
            And one he regretted tight now, in the light of the morning.  His head hurt and his stomach ached.  He shut his eyes tight, but the dim light of dawn managed to find small cracks through his ocular armor.  Beams of light, as thin as strands of yarn, exploded into view like flashes of lightning in a clear night sky.  Why would anyone do this to himself?
            He sat up with bowed head, trying to rub the light from his eyes.  As he slowly managed them open, he saw that his chest was bare.  He had not put on a nightshirt when he went to bed, and the hairs on his bulging pectorals were standing straight up.  Realizing how cold he felt, Drake reached over on the bed, searching with his hand for something to put on.  His outstretched fingers fell to cover a perfect mound that felt like wool to his touch, though he’d never known a ball of wool to give so easily.  He lifted his hand a bit, withholding the minimal force he’d placed on the woolen shape…and the perfect mound returned to form.
            Drake turned to see where his hand lay.  His eyes went wide with shock, and what little sleep was left in him had fled. 
            Sleeping next to him, face-up, was Madeline.  She was covered to her neck in a heavy woolen blanket; a blanket, Drake suddenly thought, that looked more than large enough to cover the both of them.  Yet she managed, somehow, to wrestle it from a battle-tested soldier.  She wore a small smile as she slept, as if to mock her failed opponent, and her cheeks shone red with the warm reward her victory had afforded her.
            Drake suddenly realized he had not removed his hand from Madeline’s…
            The small gust of wind from the speed of Drake’s pull lightly grazed Madeline’s hair, pushing her forelocks to a gentle sway.  The sleeping maiden responded to this by nestling the wool blanket up a little higher to just underneath her chin. 
            Drake jumped quietly from the bed and searched desperately to find his tunic and breeches.  Surely they were somewhere, under all the ruffles, and lace, and stockings, and hosiery.
            There!  Beyond the foot of the bed, he found his clothes and quickly put them on.  By the door, he found his boots.  He almost leapt into them, and as he bent low to strap them he found his cloak and his sword belt lying flat under the bed. 
            “Hm…mmm,” the low, still half-asleep groan came from above.
            Drake looked up, then back down to his belongings.  Could he retrieve them without waking her?  They were his, after all. 
But Madeline would not be asleep for much longer, and the idea of being there when she awoke was out of the question.  Whatever this was between them, it was too complicated to be decided now.  Drake had chosen to leave everything behind, and he wanted to enjoy being unencumbered for a while.
            “Wahhh,” the audible yawn came.
            Drake rose silently and opened the door behind him with the deftness of a thief.  He gave the sleeping form of Madeline an awkward nod, then turned and walked out.
            The door was shut behind him, and Drake was faced with a pair of red velvet curtains.  He steeled himself, and pushed through. 
He was behind the bar of the Good Shepherd.  As expected, none of the patrons who had slept here the previous night were awake…yet.  He gave a small sigh of relief, and with a dexterity that usually escaped men of his size, Drake was over the bar and through the front door of the place nary making a sound. 
Twenty paces down the lane from the Good Shepherd tavern, Drake took his first deep breath of the day.  He knew that in two hours time, there would be questions.  But he would not be there to answer them.  Not today at least.  For now, he would make for the village square.  What was to happen later…could be left for later.

“Mornin there!”
Drake slowly raised his hand in greeting.  The man who’d called out was a grocer, by the looks of him.  Drake had never seen him before, but Drake had lived in Malthanon for ten years.  There were quite a few new faces he’d noticed since coming back, and this wrinkly old man’s may have been one of them. 
The grocer stood hunched over, with long silver hair and bright blue eyes.  He offered a wide, open-mouth smile, and waved Drake over to his little cart. 
The cart itself was a rickety thing: a hodgepodge of wooden pieces, ill-fitted to replace bits that must have broken off.  It stood wide enough for the old man to be covered when he stood behind it, and in the front were two small shelves that had been laid with the most beautiful fruits and vegetables that Drake had ever seen. 
“Hello there,” Drake said as he approached, taking his eyes off the goods and focusing on the man.  “I do not believe we have met before.  I am Drake Mathix.”
“Old Horace sir,” the grocer replied, offering a tip of his head and a finger-salute.  “And I’ve heard tell o’you.  The great captain o’Malthus’s knights.  Folk won’t stop talkin bout it.  Specially mistress Madeline, if ya don’t mind my sayin.”
“Why should I mind?” Drake asked, suddenly caught off guard.
“Well, cause you and she…” Old Horace stumbled for the words, “beggin yer pardon, sir, but, ya just came from the Good Shepherd.”
“How do you know that?” Drake demanded.
“Everyone knows.  We were all there last night,” Horace admitted.  “Sides, there’s very few places to hide in a village this small.  S’pose ya must’ve forgotten that, livin in Malthanon fer so long.”
Drake looked up, above the grocer’s cart, to the tall spire in the distance.  It gleamed in the morning sunlight, and he remembered that only two weeks and a day ago that spire had crumbled because of Adulatio’s raid.  Yet now it stood.  Malthus, it seemed, had returned. 
“She’s a good girl,” Horace said, breaking the spell of memory that had seduced Drake.
“Madeline, you mean?” Drake asked, being recalled.
Horace gave him a long, sly look in reply.  “Not many could keep a tavern open and runnin by themselves.  But she did.  An I thank her fer that.”
“Why thank her for keeping a business going?” Drake asked.
“Wasn’t about the drinkin, son,” Horace replied, raising his bright eyes to Drake’s.  “S’about findin home again, in a place ya least expect.” 
Drake lowered himself to be level with the grocer, as if being pulled by a force outside his own volition.  He couldn’t be sure, but he thought that, for a moment, he caught sight of a familiar pair of brown eyes in the old man’s gaze.  He blinked, and grocer’s eyes returned to their brilliant blue.  Drake shook his head.  Clearly, some remnant of sleep held fast in him.
“Good Shepherd gave us all a place to go at night,” Horace continued.  “Gave us a place where we could talk sense, when everywhere else, sense seemed in short supply.  Gave us a place to laugh, when just outside the door, weren’t nothin to be but scared.”  
“I didn’t realize a tavern could inspire so much hope,” Drake offered.
“Not the tavern.  Her,” the grocer said, laboring over his words with a slow emphasis.  “She ran the place.  She set the mood.  And we all followed after.”
“Hm,” Drake betrayed a small smile, his first this morning.  “We barely spoke as children…Madeline and I.  Still, I knew her.  But I never expected this much of her.”
“Funny how people can surprise us,” Horace said, his smile disappearing, “when we fin’ly choose ta see’em.” 
A cloud suddenly seemed to pass over the old man’s countenance.  In an instant, the Horace Drake had been speaking to, jovial and light, suddenly felt different…heavier.
A chill ran down Drake’s spine as he bent low.  “What do you mean?” Drake whispered.
“Just as I said,” Horace said intently. 
Drake backed away, regaining himself.  He could have sworn that, when he was fixed on Horace, those blue eyes changed.  Not just the color, but the shape of them as well.  He knew those eyes.  “Who are you?  Truly?”
“Just Old Horace,” the grocer said as an all-too familiar easy smile spread across his face.
The sound of hammer on anvil alerted Drake’s practiced poise.  Instinctively, he turned to look across the empty courtyard to a dilapidated shack.  Within it was housed Briarden’s only forge. 
It was a small thing, only good for fixing broken shepherd’s tools. As such, it was rarely used to begin with.  But after Malthanon’s fall, and the exodus from Briarden, it stood abandoned.  Until today, it seemed.
The unmistakable sound of the bellows was followed by smoke rising from the chimney.
“Didn’t know there was still a blacksmith in Briarden,” Horace said.
“There isn’t.”  Drake turned back to the old man, who did not seem so old any longer.  He still stood with a hunch, and his hair was still silver, but his face belied an understanding of more than he let on. 
Drake turned back to the forge.  Questions raced through his mind.  Who could be using it?  Why now?  And how was Horace involved in all of this?
The bellows belched forth more of their black smoke, now mixed with sparks of red flame…and something else.  Drake squinted, and within the smoke he caught site of a thin ray of golden light. 
“Horace, tell me what this is,” Drake demanded, not turning back to face the grocer.  He kept his eyes on the light, following it from the chimney as it slowly rose higher, and the higher the light shone, the wider the beam became.
“This is the time o’judgement,” Drake heard Horace say.  “When you finally meet your God, and he decides whether or not yer worthy.”
Drake watched thunderstruck as the narrow beam leapt from the chimney to slowly overtake the sky itself.  It grew so high that it escaped his sight.  It expanded so wide that it masked the horizon.  Its only limitation seemed to be the chimney top, where it began; where it came from.  Something, or someone, inside that forge had shaped this inverted pyramid of light.  That is when it occurred to Drake what it was that this shape reminded him of.
“A sunstroke…in reverse,” Drake realized, unconsciously bringing his right hand to his left shoulder.  He felt around on his tunic, but his sigil of the KingsGuard had been put away along with the rest of his uniform.  The only things he kept for use were his cloak and his sword.  Both of those were not with him now, though.
The roof of the blacksmith’s forge was blown free of the small shack that surrounded it.  Thousands of pieces of stone and mortar flew in a thousand different directions, yet when the dust settled, the light remained.  Impossibly, it seemed to be growing ever wider, ever higher.
“Malthus,” Drake said, resignedly.  He turned back to Horace, but both cart and grocer were gone.  Drake exhaled, and turned back to roofless forge that held up a mountain of gold light. 
The front door of the forge was blown clean off its hinges.  It flew straight at Drake with a speed and force that would have carried him along, had he waited to be struck by it. 
But it took more than two weeks to dull the skills of Drake Mathix.  He sidestepped the oncoming debris easily, letting it fly past him.  It was not meant for him, not really.  His fate, it seemed, would be decided inside the forge.
His mind was made up.  Armed with naught but grim determination, Drake walked forward.  His stride was brisk, for his course was set.
The open doorway of the forge shone with a golden light so brilliant that Drake could not make out anything beyond it.  He did not slow.  He had no reason to.  He stepped in, refusing to shield his eyes from the blistering bright.
After all this time, and all his years of dedication…he would see the god he had once so blindly served.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Chapter 36: A Phantom Debate

            Tarsus stood atop the crown of Malthus’s spire; the spire that rose so high off the cathedral base that it pierced the clouds in the sky.  Through the patchwork aerial quilt of blue and white, he caught glimpses of Malthanon underneath; the grand city glittering in the rays of sunlight that managed to find their way to the world below.
            In his entire life as a mortal, Tarsus Cole never imagined he’d look upon this city from a height so far away.  Back then, he was mesmerized by the enormity of it.  Not only was the city large, but it housed so many different people from so many different places; yet here is where they chose to call home. 
Now, though, it looked small: like a child’s toy.  Tarsus thought of Malthus shaping it, building it…like a meticulous collector, passionately constructing a model he was only ever going to lose interest in.  He thought of Cecily, relentless in her pursuit to save the city and her GodKing, only to die before she could succeed.  He felt the weight of the responsibility he had inherited, and awe spread over him as he considered it against the vow he had just sworn to Malmira; a vow he had every intention of keeping.
He lowered his gaze from the natural wonder before him, focusing instead on what he held in his hands.  He found the last vestige of the handle, crossguard, and shattered blade that had been the GodKing’s sword.  Malthir, once a shining beacon of its master’s power, now lay lifeless in his upturned palms: a shadow remnant of a dead regime.
The broken blade suddenly felt heavy.  Tarsus let his hands fall to resting, still clutching the fractured legacy he was meant to rebuild.
“Forget this foolish pledge of retribution,” a strange voice echoed from inside his mind.  As he looked down, a ball of light flew from his chest.  He followed it as it floated directly, purposefully, to a  spot a few paces away.  Then, the light took shape; a familiar frame, depicting a woman that Tarsus once knew.  Her face formed before him, clear and strong and aglow with purpose.  “You must reforge the sword, and take your rightful place as GodKing of this city,” the shade of Cecily Thorne commanded.
“But that is no fun at all,” another familiar voice sounded.  Another ball of light flew forth from Tarsus’s chest, though more meandering and lackadaisical than the first.  After indulging in its own flight for a few moments, casting spectral shapes in the air behind it until it found its mark, it too took shape.  A young man with playful eyes looked back at him.  “The power has cost you everything.  You deserve justice,” the shade of Finnian Pell denounced.
Tarsus looked from one specter to the other, back and forth, considering these glowing ghosts and their purpose for intervening.  He noticed the two of them only had eyes for him, not once looking in the direction of one another.  Yet they knew of each other – of that, Tarsus Cole was absolutely certain.  “Neither diminished life, nor exhaustive death can silence the two of you,” Tarsus said out loud to them.
“I am the power,” Cecily proclaimed ethereally, “overflowing inside of you.”
“Well, I’m no great power,” Finnian admitted saucily.  “Nothing so grand about me.  I’m just your…”
“I know what you are,” Tarsus interrupted.
“Then you know how much you need me,” Finnian jeered as that all-too familiar, easy smile from Tarsus’s memory spread across the phantom face.
“I do,” Tarsus agreed, offering his own smile back.
“Whatever you used to need, you do not any longer,” the hard voice of Cecily rang out.  “You have me.  I can sustain you, fuel you…for I am you, now.”
“I know that full well,” Tarsus returned.
“Then do what you are meant to.  What we are meant to,” Cecily said.  “Do your divine duty.”
“Why?” Finnian retorted.  “What does duty matter?  Duty is what led you here…alone and forgotten.  That is not fair.”
“Twas not simple duty that stranded you in the middle of the ocean of divinity,” Cecily argued.  “Your selfishness played a part.  Cecily should have been the one to take the GodKing’s place, but because of Adulatio you now stand in her stead.  Would you sully her memory by denying her the legacy she wished to leave behind?”
“But even Cecily was a pawn of the gods,” Finnian added.  “Malthus only wanted relief from his suffering.  He didn’t care who suffered in his place, so long as he was freed.  And Adulatio and that dark figure have something even more sinister planned.  You know this.  So long as the gods rule over men, and the power rules over the gods, no one is free.”
“The power has no will of its own,” Cecily corrected.  “My sole purpose is to serve my host.  And now, I serve you, Tarsus Cole.”
“So even the power is a slave,” Finnian jeered.
“I do what I am meant to,” Cecily said, her flat ethereal austerity seeming to falter slightly.  “Beyond that, I have no interest in what I am not meant to know.  And what made us, Tarsus Cole…is not meant for us to know.”
“It is meant for us to know!” Tarsus roared, a sleeping tiger awoken by a thistle’s prick.  “So long as we choose to ask.”
Cecily did not talk back, and from the corner of his eye Tarsus caught a glimmer of the light of Finnian Pell, shining more brightly than it had since taking shape.  He suddenly felt the warmth of Finnian’s approval, emanating from the shining face of the luminous imitation, and he was emboldened.
            “In the end, we defended a GodKing who had grown fat on his own power,” Tarsus charged.  “So fat, in fact, that for a thousand years he closed himself off in his tower...removed from friendship, companionship, even the worship of his own city.  All he wanted, all he craved, was to hoard his godhood for himself; like a dragon brooding over a treasure hoard.”
            “It is no secret that Malthus failed as both god and king,” Cecily replied coolly, “in every way.  Which is why he was made to suffer, and why you must not make the same mistakes.”
            “But can you do what Malthus could not?” Finnian asked bitingly.  “Should you be expected to?  The time of the gods helping men has long past.  Now they do as they wish, when they wish.  Why should you do any differently?”
            “The dark robed one may come for you,” Cecily proffered.
            “He hasn’t come for the others,” Finnian rebutted.
            “Lesser gods,” Cecily shot back.
            “Merrier gods,” Finnian retorted.
            “Enough,” Tarsus barked, turning an intent glare, on fire with purpose, to the phantom Finnian.  “I have no wish to follow in the footsteps of Malthus.  I want the people of Malthanon to thrive.  And I want to help them do so.  But I won’t stop there.  I will remember the people that Malthus forgot.  The people of Briarden, and Laros, and Goshen…I can help them all.”
            The ethereal form of Cecily nodded approvingly.  Tarsus turned back to face the pale lady, meeting her stern austerity with a cavalier grin worthy of the living Finnian Pell.  “But neither can I ignore the injustice of the gods on this world.  Of the elder forces on the gods.  They expected our mindless servitude, but to serve is to trust, and no trust should be given blindly.” 
            He took a breath.  His anger was growing so large that the pit of his stomach was on fire with the power, searching for a way out of him just for the sake of doing something.  Tarsus steadied it, locking eyes with Cecily and staying focused on her. 
“Something took you both away from me,” he continued, “and I will shake the very foundations of Heaven to learn what that was…and to see it punished.”
            “Even with all your power,” Cecily began, “you are no match for the elder forces.  They made the power.  They choose who wields it.  You are but an infant to them, opening your eyes to a world they have mastered long ago.”
            Tarsus turned from the specter of Cecily, placing a hand on the rampart and looking out onto a sea of clouds.  What had been a patchwork of white and blue only a moment ago had now been filled in with more solid, grey rainclouds; and with that turn of the weather, the city of Malthanon had disappeared.
            Tarsus knew that Cecily’s shade was right.  What’s more, she and Finnian knew that he knew that she was right.  They were pieces of him, and not one of them could now know something without all three of them knowing it.  As a resounding acknowledgement of that truth, Tarsus turned back to Finnian’s waiting eyes, and the hope that he had always seen there; the cavalier spirit that always made him feel that anything was possible; was replaced by the cold severity of Cecily’s warning.
            “It is hopeless,” the emotionless voice of Cecily decreed: a judgment, sentencing the three of them to this simple, static, unbending truth.
            And then the phantom Finnian cocked his head to one side, and what he said without speaking, was clear.  And that severity in his eyes; Cecily’s severity, wasn’t there any longer.
            Tarsus smiled.
            “We’ve been told that before,” Tarsus said.  “Told we’d never find the UnderIsle.  Told we were not worthy to recover Malthir.  Doomed to die with the GodKing in a plot hatched by elder forces, far and away much greater than ourselves.  Perfect forces that are infallible…or so we were told.”
            Tarsus turned back to Cecily.  The pale lady’s severity was softened by raised eyebrows of understanding.  She knew where he was headed.
            “We were only mortals then,” he punctuated.  “Not now.  Now, we’re…”
            “You,” the phantom Cecily clarified.
            “Me,” Tarsus reluctantly agreed.  “With the both of you as a part of me.  I am a god now.  Gifted with the power the do the impossible.”
            Tarsus looked back at Finnian.  His friend’s illumined face shone brighter for the wide smile it wore.
            “We can serve this realm as GodKing…for now.  While we search for the source of this power.  And once we find it, we’ll rid Arden of it entirely,” Tarsus proclaimed.  “For no man or woman should live in slavery.  We will free them, and ourselves, from bondage of the elder forces.  Even if those forces think our quest hopeless…especially because they believe it is hopeless.  We have proven them wrong before, and we can do so again.”
            For the first time since they manifested, neither phantom had anything to say.  They both seemed at a loss for words.  In fact, they were – Tarsus knew that.  So it fell to him…
            “There is always hope!”