"Call of the Dragon, Part I"
"Call of the Dragon, Part II"
"Ruins and Hopes"
"Shield Maiden" Cornell #3
"Warrior Eternal" Cornell #4
"Childhood of a Fighter"
"The Pledge" Cornell #5
"The Rock of Discontent"
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"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
"The Pilgrims' Trial and Faith"
CHAPTER TWELVE <=== / ===> CHAPTER FOURTEEN
I can only assume they were men we saw torn to pieces in the devastated clearing before us. I will spare you the details of the destruction that were wrought on these men. Some of their clothing remained, enough for each of us to see that it had been identical to that worn by the Tyrant’s warrior we had seen staked before. These had been his comrades, just as I had predicted. Tyrant’s warriors never travel alone, always in groups, with a Jengchan priest leading them.
“Any idea who the priest is?” Bluff asked while we were walking carefully across the circular area.
“No,” I answered truthfully. There might have been pieces of the typical clothes – but then again, I wasn’t sure about anything here. Just too much destruction, you know? What I could see, though, were some pieces of armor that had survived. Badly scratched, but otherwise hale. Including –
I stopped, staring at a scabbard a foot or two next to me.
“Weapons,” Red grunted. He’d figured it out at the same time as I had. “See if they’re still usable.”
The blade of a Tyrant’s warrior? At another time I would have run away, had someone suggested this to me. That sword must be blessed by the dark priest, wasn’t that right? Couldn’t that blessing – or curse, for someone like me – pass to a new wearer?
All we thought about were the swords, and the chance to defend ourselves with them. None of us, not even me, dared ponder the matter further. I knelt down, drew the blade from the scabbard. A crumbling, rustling noise accompanied the motion – pieces of stone, tiny debris caught in the scabbard.
The blade I drew was bifurcated, like the sword in the Jengchan emblem. A narrow gap running through the middle, separating the two parts, both double-edged, with sharpened tips. A nasty weapon – as nasty as its god intended it to be.
It didn’t fit into my scabbard, was just an inch or two to wide. Without thinking much I replaced my scabbard with the scratched up one of the Tyrant’s warrior, fitted it to my belt. I straightened up, practiced drawing the blade quickly. It left the scabbard surprisingly quickly – but there was still this annoying noise. The blade in one hand, I upended the scabbard, shook the grains out. Quite a lot of them there was.
Bluff and Torrindas were going through the same motions. Bluff had the biggest sword we’d found – suitable to him, I’d say. He swirled it around in his hand once, twice, thrice, and grinned at the swooshing noise of the air. Very suitable.
And, yes, had this been another time, we all would have been at least a little scared how easily we took to these new weapons. I felt better having this blade by my side, and my own practice motions had gone a good deal better than I had ever done with Longstick’s sword.
Who had killed the Jengchan warriors? You’re right, we should have wondered about that more. As it was, we exchanged a few words on the topic, caught up more in our new blades. Scraps and Red stuck to their accustomed swords, of course, and – come to think of it – they were the ones truly concerned with that clearing of stones.
Where had the obsidian come from? How had it been whipped up to a storm?
More importantly, who had wielded that power? It was clearly magic, and none could say whether it was priestly or wizardly magic. Red and Scraps spoke about that when we continued, the two walking next to each other, a step or so behind the rest of us. An unspoken agreement to leave us some space – rightfully so, since we walked faster than they did. Well, we didn’t talk and waste breath better spent on moving our legs.
Torrindas had taken over from Scraps as a scout. He wasn’t as good as the drummer, but he kept us on the right track. Literally, of course.
How much further could the bard be? He hadn’t walked fast, that much I remembered. And he had been encumbered with dragging Valanda behind. Although she’d been hovering in the air, the bard must be expending strength on that spell, so…
I was losing myself in reasoning one way or another. All of a sudden I found myself walking well behind Bluff and Torrindas, closing the gap to Red and Scraps.
“… sign of the priest,” Scraps was arguing. “Where is that cleric? Red, I don’t like it. That music around us, it –“
“What?!” Red interrupted him sharply. And not a little bit tired.
How can he be tired? We’ve got to find and rescue Valanda!
Scraps grunted. “I can’t say for sure, but I’m remembering some stuff. Songs, you know? Er, more like hymns, actually. From the dark temples.” He spat – I clearly heard the sound. “Leastways that’s what I’ve heard. Some of our regular songs – pretty good, and pretty clean stuff -, the melodies are descended from hymns. A couple of those hymns are from…”
“The Tyrant’s temple?!” Red exclaimed. “Scraps, why would anybody do that?!”
“I’m just saying what I heard! Maybe it’s just a load of dung, but – abysses, Red, that rhythm out there sounds just like that bloody song, The Hedge-Walker’s Egg! Gods, the silliest song you can imagine, and it could be a hymn about bloody Jengchan! Originally, I mean, and –“
“Shut up, Scraps,” Red sighed. “I don’t want to hear any more. I don’t –“
Scraps sighed as well, the urgency evaporating from him. “Yeah. I know.”
What did I make of these words? Nothing, to be honest. I needed to walk on. I needed to find Valanda. All of that blathering was useless.
Oh, sure, kind reader. You know it wasn’t. Take it from me. Had you been in my place, things might not have been as obvious to you.
Remember the prayer I sent to Nash’Geo about an hour earlier? The one that had sent the blue flashes across my eyes? Prayers aren’t what they used to be. Sometimes they’re more than you expect from them.
The same light rushed across my vision again a couple of minutes after leaving the devastated circle. Danger was coming! The light flashed again, again and again, leaving me disconcerted, groaning while my vision was swept away, replaced by a wash of blue.
“What is it, pilgrim?” Red muttered.
“Danger!” I croaked – how very helpful of me. I heard my friends move about, blades drawn, as they sought the danger I’d announced.
They didn’t find any, and slowly my vision returned to me when the blue flashes mercifully dissipated. Torrindas shrugged. “I can’t see anything,” the head laborer said. Bluff and Scraps shook their heads, while Red made a grim face. “Keep the blades ready,” he said, “and we’ll move on. Unless…” He raised an eyebrow towards me.
I could do no more than shrug. “It was… The same thing that warned me from the driger, Red, it happened again, and… I don’t know what it’s about.”
“Let’s walk on,” Red sighed.
We did, and the blue flash returned the first step I took. I shook my head violently, tried to clear my vision. Slowly it came back, and I found my comrades standing around me, glancing at me now, then at the bushes and meadows around us. So peaceful. There was nothing even remotely dangerous in sight. Why the blue flashes then?
“I’m all right again,” I said, stepped forward – and stopped when another flash assaulted me. What the abysses was going on?
“You know,” Scraps said after a moment, “we’re standing in a ditch.”
My friends looked around and found that he was right. Perhaps the word ditch was wrong, for it was more like a dried-out river bed. A gentle slope, curved, with ridges here and there in which bushes had found their niches to grow. But it was noticeably lower than the surrounding meadows, running in a straight line through the landscape. A kind of ditch, yes, with its rims about seven yards apart.
Red told us to leave the trench. The flashes kept running over me until we had cleared it, and then – I shook my head. They were gone. I could walk as far as I wanted away from the ditch, and not a single blue spot appeared before my eyes. But just putting my foot into that groove running through the meadows, and the blue blinded me again.
“I won’t claim to understand the gods,” Red grunted, “but I take it that this ditch is dangerous.”
“It’s like the ridges outside, isn’t it?” Bluff commented. “The old battle lines.”
Scraps and Torrindas nodded to that in agreement. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I was quickly told that there were ridges outside of Deersrun Hill – miles above our heads -, trailing towards the hill. I had mentioned that in the beginning, hadn’t I? This place has once been the site of a major war, terrible battles and the like. Some legends said that the infamous magepriests had once ruled here. The locals called those ridges battle lines – for no particular reason, I take it. Nobody knows their meaning – perhaps they were walls thrown up for defense, perhaps… Oh, I don’t know. It’s strange to compare this ditch with the ridges outside, and I never studied the battle lines in depth. Unlike my companions, obviously. They’ve spent all their lives here, and the battle lines have been commonplace to them. Apparently the ditch we were in seemed like a reverse image of the ridges – dug down rather than up -, overgrown with bushes and grass.
Ancient battle lines. Reversed in this underworld. Was there a connection?
“The magepriests,” Scraps muttered and made a warding sign. I think it was one. I can’t remember having seen it ever before, a complicated gesture – the fingers twitching while the hand moved in quick circles over the breast.
A local custom, I assume. Perhaps dating back to the actual time of the magepriests, millenia ago. And perhaps it was just something foolish associated with the legend. Could any gestures survive millenia? In a localized area such as this?
Magepriests. I had heard about their legend before, in particular since wandering closer to Deersrun Hill. Nobody seemed to know when exactly they had waged their terrible war on Gushémal. Nobody wanted to know exactly. It had been a long time ago. Millenia, yes. They had perverted magic in a way that none had imagined before, and none wanted to imagine today. Valanda, in a quiet moment much, much later, told me that some wizards researched the magepriests and how they had accomplished merging wizardly and clerical magic. As far as she knows, no wizard has ever been able to understand it. Perhaps it’s only that the ones who uncovered the secret were smart enough to have it burned along with their corpses. Another magepriest unleashed upon the world, that would be… unthinkable.
Well, I didn’t think that far – nor did I know that I would be able to speak to Valanda again. Not that she was quite the same…
We pushed on again, following the side of the trench. Scraps and Torrindas took turns braving it to check on the footprints. The bard had stayed inside – unaware of any danger, or part of it?
The ground suddenly took a dip before us, the edges of the ditch getting flatter, merging with the surroundings after some fifteen yards. A valley? I was surprised – a few steps earlier, I would have thought the land would continue more or less flat, yet now there was a bowl-shaped valley before us. Something else occurred to me a moment later: there was a circular trench running alongside the valley, looking almost identical to the one we had been following – except that only the hardiest of plants had taken root there, and there were no animal tracks in its expanse. There also were other trenches joining the circular one – the nearest some five hundred feet away, barely visible, unless you saw its counterpart on the other side.
If these were the battle lines of the surface, we were coming to their center.
“There!” Torrindas growled and pointed down the sloping valley. “The bard and the wizardess.”
Yes! Valanda! My heart jumped when I saw the two figures slowly descending the slope – one walking, the other, wonderfully female, still hovering in the air. The bard didn’t look back. His eyes were concentrated on the center of the valley, where – My heart stopped. So far this subterranean landscape had seemed untouched by human hands, yet there was indubitably a building. Old, built in the style of the turn of the millenium, about a century ago, dilapidated. Shingles had fallen from the roof of the three-story building, cracks had appeared in the yellowish plaster, some of the glazed windows were broken. Otherwise it looked like any mansion vacated for a few years – not decades. What was that place? And why was the dwarf heading towards it?
“Get down!” Red ordered quietly, adding, “Bows.”
I didn’t want to – I wanted to run down the slope, attack the bard with my naked sword, free Valanda. But Red was right, and I got to my knees. I didn’t have a bow left anymore, by the way, only two arrows which I handed to Torrindas. He was, I take it, the best archer in our number.
It occurred to me that we had tried shooting the bard before. Fortunately, Red was ahead of me, as his next words proved, “Quiet, everybody. We don’t want the dwarf to notice us. He might not have time to get his shield up.”
Torrindas nodded. He nocked an arrow, along with Bluff and Red. “On my mark,” the latter said, counting down from three. “Now!” he said forcefully, exhaling at the same time as he let his arrow fly.
All three were launched at the same time, flying in parallel for the better part of the way. Then Bluff’s arrow trailed away, aimed too far to the right. It would fly on for several yards before losing speed and falling to the ground. Red’s and Torrindas’ arrows were better aimed, headed straight for the bard.
Who turned around a heartbeat before the arrows should have impacted and waved them off with a negligent gesture. The arrows rushed off, danced erratically for a moment before dropping down.
The dwarf focused on us. I could see his eyes. How, you ask? Did the gods enhance my sight? No. I am quite sure that all of us could see the sparkle, that glint of magic flash, like a colored wraith shooting towards us. It grew weaker and weaker, dissipating, sinking into the ground.
Another tremor. Different from the ones before.
Red let go another arrow before jumping up, dropping his bow and drawing his blade. I never found out what happened to his arrow. I was admittedly too busy drawing my own sword, swishing the double-bladed weapon at the air around us.
The air had grown thick. Strange, almost like the morning fog at a river. Cloyingly sweet and earthy. Earthy. Dirt. Ground.
My mind was stuck on those words, and the blue light flashed before my eyes again, blinding me. It came from everywhere. No definite direction where a threat was coming from.
“Blast it!” I shouted. “I undo the prayer!”
Ridiculous, right? You can’t undo a prayer. Or can you?
All I can tell you is that the blue light vanished. Suddenly, and my sight didn’t need any time to adjust. I could see what was happening around us.
And wished I couldn’t.
The grassy ground around us broke open. Swathes of grass were sent flying, their blades glistening from the dew of glowater above. Clumps of dirt followed. The thin top soil covered us in heartbeats in a dusty, brown layer. I wiped my eyes. Instinctively, believe me. Had I been rational, I would have cowered on the ground, sent a prayer of help to any god watching over us. Anyone. Even the Tonomai One God would have been welcome to me.
For the rock beneath the dirt rose up. At first it seemed as if boulders were rising, sent up by some volcanic movement. Then the boulders straightened up, and I realized they were backs. The backs of stone creatures. About eight feet tall, with heads, with arms, with legs. The arms.
Long. Massive. Rock. Inlays of metal glinting. No fingers. They weren’t necessary. The arms were instant clubs.
One of them smashed down on Torrindas. Faithful, reliant Torrindas. Laboring to get out of the abyss a few minutes earlier, proving superhuman strength in his – failed – attempts to save Cardsleeve. Now he was unlucky enough to stand too close to a stone creature. The clublike arm came down on Torrindas’ head.
His helmet crumpled up like paper. The skull caved in. Blood sprayed.
The arm didn’t stop. It smashed through the torso, tearing my friend in twine. More blood. It tasted metallic. I wanted to retch.
“Torrindas…” I breathed while his body fell back from the creature.
“Fight!” Red yelled, his voice breaking through the silence. He swung his blade at the nearest stone creature. I was frozen, could only watch as the metal bounced back from the rock. Red’s sword was dented. The stone wasn’t. “Fight!” Red repeated, jumping out of the way of the creature’s arms.
I counted seven stone creatures around us. Oh, I had the time to count, seeing as I was frozen in horror staring at them and what they did to Torrindas. I’m not proud of that. Earlier I had acted quickly, and now I had even been given warning by the blue light. Yet I could only stare at the creatures. And think about Valanda. The bard was carrying her further off towards the building.
I had to go after her. She needed salvation, and –
Bluff struck one creature with his powerful Tyrant’s blade. Chunks of rock scattered under the blow. The creature trembled, making no sound, but the tremor ran through the ground, into its comrades.
“They can be hurt!” Scraps shouted, snatched up Torrindas’ scabbard and withdrew the split blade. Then he dove under the arms of another of the creatures, twisting his new sword into the pit of that being’s arm. More stone flew off. In response, the creature twitched its arms down, about to smash Scraps.
Wily old drummer boy, he simply dropped to the ground, rolled aside of both the arms and legs.
I had no time to cheer him. Nor did I have time to continue my dumbfounded staring. Another of the creatures was lumbering towards me – not very agile, more like a boulder being rolled by a dozen men. Its arms were swinging, more like a fat man walking. But they were moving towards me.
I jumped aside – and recovered my dumbfoundedness. The creature had twisted its arm aside from me, avoided hitting me. What the abysses…?!
Noise of battle around me, I stepped back towards the creature. Its head turned towards me – there were features on it, like a face, roughly sketched by a hasty mason -, and it stopped. I stood in its way, and it couldn’t figure out how to get around me. Why the abysses didn’t it attack me? (Not that puny me was begging to get smashed by it.)
“Get out of the way!” Bluff yelled, and I was torn aside from the creature when he tackled me. We rolled aside, under the blows of several of the beings. Outside, outside.
“Godsdammit, Bluff!” I yelled.
He pushed himself up from me, his eyes already checking the creatures. “You were getting yourself killed, pilgrim,” he growled, angry at my lack of gratitude.
“That’s not what I mean!” I smacked his head. (What possessed me to do that? Anger? Stupidity?) His head swiveled around, disbelief obvious on his face. “They’re slow, Bluff! We can get away from them!”
I realized more than that. For some reason the creatures didn’t attack me. They would step around me if their silicone brains could figure out a way to do it. “We don’t have to bloody fight them!”
“Oh.” Bluff shifted away from me, clambering to his feet. I did the same, measuring the distance to the nearest creature. It had turned around to follow Bluff – not me, I was sure. Each step brought it a yard ahead. But each step took at least half a minute. It would take five minutes to cover the short distance to where we were.
Valanda! Don’t forget about her!
“Bluff!” I shouted, and he grimaced since my face was only a foot or so away from his ears. “The bard! Get Valanda, I’ll get the others!” He didn’t react. I shoved him, the hilt of my sword still in my hand. The twinned blade was getting very close to his face, and he saw his own face reflected in it. That was strange enough to get him going without asking any more questions.
I turned around, checked on my two friends remaining in the circle of the stone creatures. Except for the one following Bluff, the other six were closing in. Scraps and Red were weaving their blades and their bodies around the assailing arms, avoiding injury as far as I could tell. If they hadn’t been able to, they would have followed Torrindas into the divine realm.
Torrindas… His bloodied corpse was being smashed by a stone creature carelessly stepping into him. I felt bile rise in my throat. I fought it down. It worked. (How could I have been so callous? How?! I remember the time, remember the numbness in my mind, but today I am looking for a bowl to relieve my stomach.)
My sword was trailing aside of me when I rushed back to my friends, sending a glancing blow to the creature lumbering after Bluff. It barely reacted when the split blade cut into its arm, but the tremor ran through the ground and its comrades.
That was a pause my friends used to send some more chunks of rock flying. Create more tremors. Create more breaks. And cracks. Gods, why hadn’t I thought of you before?!
“Ahnfredas!” Red cried. “Get away from here! Get Val, we’ll –“
“Watch out!” I responded, slammed my blade in the way of a stonecreature’s arm that had been about to bludgeon Red to pulp. The fool! He’d been paying more attention to me than himself! Didn’t he understand I was safe from the beings?
No, of course he didn’t. But he learned when that stonecreature halted its arm a goodly distance from my head, its own rock-skull twitching – like the stones before the quake, dust and debris on its top dancing up and down. Red nodded tersely, realized what the matter was without my speaking up. He was thinking fast. Fast enough to leap behind me, grabbing Scraps in the same motion.
Good. The stonecreatures wouldn’t attack me, and my friends would be safe behind me, so –
Wrong thinking. The creatures were all around us, could pluck out Scraps or Red without ever harming me. Dammit, I would have had to run circles around them to protect them. My breath was too short, I couldn’t possibly keep that up long enough to ford us a way out of their circle.
What to do? What to do?
Scraps dove aside from one creature, scrambled across legs that were lumbering to squash him like a bug. Red grasped around me, heaved me around. The world was whirling around my eyes before I really comprehended – and then there were massive rock trunks rushing towards me.
“Gods!” That was my voice, turned to a screech, sounding right after the arms froze in their motion. Perfect. Just two inches from my head.
Red let go of me, I heard him swing his blade again. Scraps danced before me, he was trying to get outside as well. But always there was a wall of stone arms or legs before him. How had they managed to get so close? How could my friends possibly avoid the massive rocks?
And why hadn’t I pursued the thought about the gods?
I swallowed a curse, sank to my knees – angry that this would take away some space from my friends, space safe from the attacking arms, but it needed to be done. Deswellyn, god of artifice. God of miners. One of his prayers, there had to be one that fitted. Or I could make up one of my own? One that sounded right.
“I pray to the artificer god Deswellyn,” my hurried voice whispered, “to see in stone the sword-dug crack, that needs be brought to ruin, have its scraped width ground back!” A poor rhyme, one so silly that Deswellyn might have been dismayed. And how many prayers relied on rhymes to begin with? But I put my faith into it, begged the great lord to hear my voice, to grant my plea.
Grant my plea. Sounded like the Leaves and Wreaths. No, don’t think about funerals, imbecile!
A scream of agony. Red’s voice.
I shot up, my blade flying – of its own volition, or did I still have control over it? I’m not sure, it happened so fast. I saw the sword’s twinned edges digging into a stone creature, tearing a gash into it – then I saw Red crumpling, so slowly, as if he was drifting through molasses. Blood was on his arm – not on his head, not on his torso, only his arm, but he was screaming. My sword! Dammit, concentrate! The blade was still moving!
It was cutting through the stone! It hadn’t done that before, right?
No, it hadn’t. But the cracks that the metal dug into the rock widened, were ground back. Like drills were following the route of my blade, biting into each particle of stone that my blade touched. The prayer! Deswellyn, thank you, thank you, thank you!
I severed the arm, and it fell apart. Just crumbled to dust in the air. Turned to soil, with so many nutrients in there to feed generations of plants that would grow on it.
My blade was hungry. Or was that me? I don’t know, I can’t recall. All I can say is that I was suddenly filled with a frenzy, swinging my sword around, at everything even remotely rock-like. Fortunately that didn’t include my friends. According to Red I was like a whirlwind, moving around restlessly, so fast I seemed a blurry ghost, eating up stone and turning it to ground up dirt.
I’m sure he exaggerates. The tension of the moment clouding his memory, you know?
But the creatures turned to dust. Including the one lumbering after Bluff. I hadn’t touched it, but the cracks in it must have been enough to be affected by my prayer. Ahh, the power of prayer. It can be so invigorating.
The creatures were gone. I was panting, doubling over, stabbing my sword in the ground. A part of me screamed, Not again!, remembering how I had lost Longstick’s blade. But I would pull it out of the soil, I thought. Later. Just a little bit later. Once I got rid of that stinging pain in my ribcage.
“Scraps, you all right?” That was Red. A moment later Scraps grunted something I couldn’t make out. I looked over to them. Both were injured. Not that badly, but they were bleeding. Red’s arm. Scraps’ torso. Scraps was on the ground, and he wasn’t all right. Not by a long shot.
I pulled my sword up, thrust it into the scabbard and heaved my darn aching carcass over to Scraps. Sank to the ground, laid my hands on my friend. Bloody armor. In the way. Trembling fingers sought for the joints holding it together. “Gotta get to the skin,” I murmured. “Heal.” All the breath I had left.
Red was near to me suddenly, undid the joints, flipped open the breastplate. I barely noticed, still gasping for air. My hands reached my comrade’s skin, and somehow I got the air to chant Decalleigh’s healing prayer.
Strength coursed through me, like a mighty river. I was so weak, it was a miracle I wasn’t swept away by the flow. A god’s power was filling me, so much, so godsdamn bloody much! (Blasphemy, I’m sure. Bad education, raised with too much cussing to avoid it. Thankfully, the gods don’t seem to mind a little bit of blasphemy now and then, provided you have true faith. True faith, hah!)
“Oh, that’s good, sweetheart,” Scraps muttered, shifting under me with a silly grin pasted on his lips. Then his eyes flew open, and he saw me. How I wish I could enjoy the memory of the ghastly terror on his face when he recognized me. “Uh. Thanks. Uh. I’m… take care of Red, please?” He whispered hurriedly, trying to undo the damage of his previous words.
I think I smiled. Such a waste, letting a perfectly good line as that go ignored. But I was too weak. I was reeling under the god’s power, and what strength I had left sufficed to reach out to Red, grasp his arm and repeat the prayer.
They were as good as new, Red assures me. I don’t remember. I keeled over backwards. No, I didn’t fall unconscious. I just gazed up at the gleaming heavens above me, barely realizing that it was a rockface covered with glowater. Looked like sky to me, except there were no clouds. I didn’t mind. There were the gods above, and they were smiling at me. I felt happy.
Not even Red’s frantic scream for Valanda shook me out of that happy feeling. “No! Bluff! No!!!” Red shouted.
I felt happy.
Until I remembered.
Read on in Chapter Fourteen!