|Stormcastle: And Other Fun Games With Cards And Dice|
|The Dreaming Fire|
In Another's Hell
Bring me my bow of burning gold
Bring me my arrows of desire
Bring me my spear; O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.
William Blake, 1804
No, there you are wrong. Ruager is not my friend. He is an acquaintance of my father. He is the fiercest warrior, the most cunning hunter, and the biggest bastard this side of the Long River. But he is not my friend.
As for myself, I was raised in the village of Arteen. It is a small place hardly worthy of a name and not worthy of a spot on most maps. Our village elders claim two distinctions for our home. First is a form of decorative clay pottery popular amongst the moneyed merchants and landed gentry in the Imperial capital. Ruager is the second. He lives here.
Ruager is such a celebrity because he is a servant of the Gods, the most famous some say. Ruager serves two gods: Melas the God of Justice and his brother, Melar the God of Revenge. Most approach the gods in one of three ways: fear and reverence, love and offerings, or disdain. I am in the final category. You may guess my opinion of the Gods' servants. I should know. I, too, am a servant of the gods. Ruager made me one. The gods expect much of their servants and return little.
It was last spring when my misfortunate career began. Ruager returned after being away for the frigid winter. He had a new scar. It was just above his left eye. He brushed aside my queries with a stentorian grunt. I had myself just returned to Arteen. I had carted a supply of pots and vases to the river port of Aav. I came back loaded with bolts of linen for the market peddlers and copper, tin and iron ingots for the blacksmith. It was in the smithy, I met Ruager. He was getting a new hilt for one of his knives.
"I need you to come with me for a fortnight."
I glared into his brown eyes. "No," I answered. For a moment there was silence, broken only by the wheezing blast of the smith's bellows.
"You do owe me, Hest."
"If I ever did, I've repaid you."
He smiled, raising an eyebrow toward his ruddy scar. "Not till I say you have. Besides Hest, you're destined for better things than this motley place. Your mind encompasses more things than the roads between the river and the capital. Come with me and see what I have to offer. What's holding you back?"
"Things..." I replied uncomfortably.
"Your father is beyond your help or harm. Wait! It's not that milkmaid of yours. Is it?"
I hated him at that moment.
"Forget her! Why, she'll capture some moronic farmhand, give him seven
sons, and grow disagreeable and unhappy."
I hated him even more.
We left in my dray the next morning's dawn.
We stopped to make camp late in the evening. Ruager took out his sword and began to hone its edge as I started a small fire. Soon the dim flames were crackling lazily. In the firelight, Ruager cast a grim figure. His hair was like a moonless night, but grey nestled within his heavy beard. He wore a weathered black jerkin. He handled his huge two-handed broadsword facially. I have seen him in combat many times, in joust and in earnest. Once he and his opponent crossed each other in a brutal thrust and parry, and Ruager, not even glancing back, drove the pommel into the nape of his foe's neck, bludgeoning him as with a cudgel. The man sunk to his knees stunned and Ruager dispatched him quickly.
"Your father was too much like you; he believed in things foolishly."
"Foolishly," I repeated.
"I do not mean he believed in foolish things. He believed in things foolishly -- too faithfully. Your father was not a man to compromise his beliefs for anyone. He was the greatest oracle I have ever known. But a king does not keep an oracle to listen to the truth; he keeps a seer to hear the Gods praise his policies.
"I tried to tell him this. Would he listen to me? He only heard the voice of Ryal, God of Light. Why didn't Ryal tell him he would be exiled to Arteen?"
I always grew uncomfortable when people spoke of my father. Everything I am, he was and more. My strength and even my weaknesses were derived from him. I cannot help but wonder what he would think of me. Were we not parent and offspring, would he be proud of me, would he hate me, or worse pity me.
"What do you remember of the palace?"
"What?!" My tongue stumbled. "Oh, I remember the blue jays that nested outside my window." I did not say that I recalled other sorts of winged things.
Bali, my lead horse, snorted and scratched the earth. I reached for my war-club.
"Someone's out there."
"I know. Don't worry." Ruager stood up. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he shouted, "Come out, Djuna. We all know you are there."
I would like to paint you an idyllic picture of Djuna. I can't. She came out of the forest sweaty and smelly from too many hours in her saddle. Her skirt and tunic were an ugly utilitarian brown. The curvature of her bosom was not overly buxom, but nonetheless enough to give one pause. Her straight auburn hair was drawn into a single braid. Bangs inched toward her hazel eyes. Her face was oval and when she smiled, it was tight-lipped and somber. She summed me up out of the corners of her eyes, then led her roan mare to the other horses, my draft animals and Ruager's sable stallion. She hobbled the animal and came over to sit down at our fire. She helped herself to some honeyed chicory tea, drinking silently.
Finally she spoke. "I have to see to my mount." I saw her remove the saddle, blanket and bridle. She brushed the horse down thoroughly before lying on the ground to sleep herself.
That was my first meeting with Djuna.
"I don't think I like her," I told Ruager that morning.
"Come on, Hest. You know you don't like her. No one does, but I need her to accomplish my task. So settle down and suffer."
Djuna took the lead when we started out. Her braid hung down her back. My eyes were drawn to it as it moved with her horse's steps. She rode well. Her hips swung as the mare trotted. She turned toward me. I quickly looked away. She gently nudged her mount's flanks and cantered ahead. Beside me, Ruager took up a vicious laugh.
* * *
We stopped in Tural for supplies during our trek. Djuna searched for a fletcher, while I purchased hardtack and dried strips of elk meat in the village bazaar. The prices were high. Being early spring, Tural's larders were growing sparse, or so I was told. Ruager sat in a tavern and drank dark brown ale. Djuna and I found him there. It was a one-room affair. A row of game fowl -- tonight's meal, no doubt -- hung behind the tavernkeeper's pine table of simple tankards, fancy seidels and a thick wheel of goat's cheese. Casks of wine and barrels of ale were stacked along the wall. I stared at the birds. A grouse and squab farce would be more appetizing than the provisions I was able to purchase. An open pit fire burned in the center of the room. A tin flume hung above the meager flames and failed to clear the woody smoke from the air.
"We should be going," Djuna told Ruager. And me, too, I imagine. I sipped my bitter brew, waiting for Ruager. Glancing at my stein, I recognized the craftsmanship. It was the stag couchant design of Colm the potter. I smiled a bit scornfully. My stein had come from Arteen.
"We got time." Ruager called over the serving wench - not for the first time that day. Near us a lone player swore at his dice on the chancing table. I looked that way, looked any direction not Ruager's. The croupier was a woman wearing a velveteen gown with a plunging neckline. A scarlet ribbon was tied about her neck, and long, dark hair flowed to her bare shoulders. The tavernkeeper's teenage daughter placed another ale before me. Her dress was gingham, her blonde hair was unkempt, and uneven bangs veiled her blue eyes.
Ruager continued: "We can reach Castle Jerath by midday tomorrow. We don't want to arrive there too early." He smiled wickedly and tapped his forefinger against his nose.
Too loudly, he asked me: "Have you ever been to Jerath?"
Djuna was silent.
"No," I spoke up. "I haven't."
"I have!" Ruager said, again too loudly. "I was born there."
"Centuries ago, Ruager," Djuna whispered.
"For the world, yes. For me, it was yesterday.
"Castle Jerath has been the scene of countless abominations to the gods. Demons of Chaos dance upon its battlements and petards, peasants live in fear and poverty, children disappear at noon on cloudless days. It wasn't always so.."
Djuna shook her head. "Jerath's deserted." I glanced at her face. It was dour, and her eyes studied her hands, avoiding Ruager all together.
"It was once a great manor keep; it was a place of justice, succor for peasants, and a haven for the beggar and the widow. Now all sorrows since the benighted death of Dermott, ninth Baron of Jerath.
"Dermott had a priest of Melas for a son - fourth to be born, puny, a weakling whose weaning Dermott had left in the hands of aged nannies and later austere clerics. Dermott's other sons had died in battles with arms or disease. The ninth Baron turned then his attention to the priest."
"Ruager, why torture yourself?" Djuna asked. She took Ruager's hand. He pulled it away.
"It's not torture to relive it. I keep hoping it will end differently.
"One night the humble priest sulked away to meditate and pray. He had endured the nightly campaign of the Baron to convince him to forsake his vows, relinquish his scrolls and tablets, and embrace his rightful duty to family and vassals. He was tired of the haranguing to turn him into the heir and tenth Baron in training.
"A covetous cousin of Dermott chose that night to attack. This cousin followed not a god, but a darkling prince of Chaos. And it was truly chaos that reigned in the castle that night."
I was struck by the way Ruager spoke. It was not his usual pithy phrases, much less the words of a man who has sat in a dark tavern half the afternoon. It was more like a rehearsed speech or the practiced sermon by one of Melas's clergy.
"The peaceful priest was spared in his vaulted retreat. He heard the screams. They echoed through his tower room in the keep. He prayed to Melas to save his father. Finally he prayed to Melas just to stop the screams."
Ruager lifted his drink to his lips. Putting it down on the wooden table, he pushed the empty stein away.
I toyed with my ale, not drinking.
"The priest descended from his high haven of safety and made his way to a cavern deep under the castle. He made his way through a secret passage known only to members of the Baron's family. It was an escape route in case of a prolonged siege. The passage opened onto a natural cavern thick with stalagmites and stalactites. The first Baron of Jerath had transformed it into a cathedral of Melar. Jerath, himself, had consecrated his sword to the stern god here.
"The priest took up Jerath's broadsword from its sacred place of honor. He completed the slaughter in the castle. He hacked the usurper's forces while they slept, while they feasted. When he waded away, his sandals ruined by blood, there was not a living thing in the keep.
"He has never returned."
"Until now," completed Djuna softly.
Ruager stood and walked steadily to the tavernkeeper to settle his debt. I left to ready my dray. Djuna joined me as I was fixing a leading halter to Ruager's stallion.
"Why?" asked Djuna. "Why are you coming with us?"
"Ruager asked me to."
"And why did you agree?"
"Seemed like the thing to do," I replied.
"That's not an answer."
Ruager came up and stretched out in the back of the wagon. Djuna stared at me a moment, then she mounted her horse and took the point.
* * *
Sunlight was warm upon my nose as she woke me. She had the cast of face I could fall in love with. She had the curvaceous body and the quality of voice that was insanely desirable, as well. She was also only a hand's span tall and her skin was an azure blue though she was never cold. Her hair was something like the sun, a blazing blonde and her eyes flamed bright red.
"Go away Balefire. I'm in no mood." I rolled over and closed my eyes, attempting to return to sleep -- a realm in which creatures like the one before me had no right to exist.
"I've come to warn you."
Warn me? I was awake instantly; I would listen. After all, Balefire had been a familiar of my father and a companion of my youth. Not every child's 'imaginary' friend was a mystic power of nature.
"Warn me of danger?" I asked.
"Warn you of a change."
"Djuna asked why you followed Ruager --"
"Were you spying on me!"
Balefire continued: "You did not answer her."
"I don't rightly know why I'm here. Okay?"
"I do." She smiled spritefully, looking at me with her fiery orbs.
"Enlighten me," I said skeptically.
"You're tired of the way your life is going. Hest, you're not living, you're existing. You want to have a purpose again, a purpose that extends beyond the next month."
"How virtuous of me." I responded, looking away. The rest of the camp was silent. Djuna slept by the horses and Ruager was still in his blankets. I was surprised Balefire had not awoken either of them. Even the horses were quiescent.
"Your wish is nigh; however beware. You may not go back. Things will no longer be easy. You must decide anon."
"What is coming?"
"Who are you talking to?" Ruager yelled.
Balefire grew willowy wings and faded like a dream -- or nightmare.
"No one," I answered.
* * *
Dusk had been upon us for over an hour. The moon was readying herself for a hike across the heavens' sphere. So too, were we preparing ourselves to assault Castle Jerath. The demon stars hung low on the horizon. Appearing at dusk before other stars and lingering to dawn after the other stars fled the skies, these were always the brightest, never twinkling lights that moved through the heavens. This evening the demon stars were exemplary vibrant and ominously close together. The keep rose out of the gathering darkness like some brooding old man. Lights shone out of isolated arrow-loops like jewels on a grand lady's necklace. Murkily these lights were reflected in the moat below.
We dressed for war. Ruager put on his cuirass and helm, both he had stained black by soot from last night's campfire. Djuna slipped into leather armor, vest, leggings and sleeves. She added an arming skullcap and stuffed her braid beneath it so no one could grab it in a fight. Finally she strapped a boot scabbard to her leg. In it was a long dirk or short sword. Ruager tossed me a brigandine, a leather garment with metal plates sown on. It was uncomfortable and heavy on the shoulders.
Ruager began to whisper: "A dark mage has taken the castle to perform a frightful ritual, one which will open our world to a legion of demons. It will be tonight. The stars are in the right conjunction; the demon stars are rising in the constellation of the dragon. We will not meet strong resistance. My sources tell me there is only a small squad of the magician's guard. He counts more on stealth than numbers -- as do we."
"Why didn't you say any of this before?" I asked.
"I didn't know if you'd be fool enough to come. There is a child, stolen from its mother just a few days ago. The child is scion of the family line. My plan is to stop the mage and rescue the child."
"In that order?" Djuna asked.
"We do what we must," was his answer.
Ruager took some abaca hemp from his saddle. Handing the rope to Djuna, she took a metal arrow from her quiver. I had never seen the like. It did not have a simple barb at its end, but was hinged to split into three long spars. She drew back the bowstring, whispered a prayer to Selene, the Goddess of the Hunt. She held her breath a second then released the shaft. It spun in the air. I quickly lost sight of its flight, then I heard a clink of metal upon stone. Djuna drew the rope taut. I took it and tied the line to a nearby birch tree. Ruager, Djuna, and then I grabbed the rope and hand walked to the castle. Were we to be seen, arrows and quarrels from the arrow-loops would rain upon us like a summer deluge. We would fall already dead to the shallow moat. These were the thoughts I had as I inched toward the keep. Inched! Hand over hand, we made for the keep. After a century or merely a millennium, we reached a circular landing. It was an unmanned spotting post. I surveyed the surrounding landscape. I felt that I was a lord of Jerath. My lands stretched out before me in the darkness. I was the master of the dark copses of trees and the rambling paps of the hills, which I could make out by the blinking stars. I was the land and all this was me. If only for a moment -- then Ruager took my arm and pointed to a square cut into the wooden planking of the floor. We entered the maw, penetrating Castle Jerath.
Ruager handed Djuna and me a torch each. He struck a flint with his knife once, twice - and intoning the Word of Ryal - thrice. All three torches sparked aflame. The torchheads burned brightly with a blue fire and red sparks danced nolens volens like the will o' the wisp. It cast a wide and clear brilliance.
"There is a stealth charm on these. Its aureole of light will not extend far. Do not let the torch go out, for the fire may be relit, but not the charm."
Ruager left us. He said he had business to attend. As he promised, he did not go far before his torchlight disappeared. With the most careful furtiveness, Djuna and I stalked the halls of the keep. I was clueless as to what we were looking for. Djuna did not seem to suffer from this confusion. Why had Ruager confided in her and not me? I had little time for such rueful thoughts before --
"Halt! Stand where you are.'
-- we were spotted. There were three of them, three mailed ruffians with longer axe handles than their attention spans. They wore dirty furs, which added to, rather than detracted from, their fetid stench. Each was over six feet and at least fifteen stone. Djuna and I did the only sensible thing. We ran. We ran recklessly, blindly. I quickly lost my direction in this mad dash. We were able to stay ahead of our pursuers. Our lungs began to burn; our breath began to come in huge gasps like the hollow-eyed throes of a dying shad in a fisherman's net. Before our entire energy was spent, Djuna pointed to an open door. We did not know what would greet us beyond its threshold. Was it the rest of the small garrison that Ruager had spoken of? Was it their torturer's chamber of pain? Was it the kitchen? We passed into the room. I swung around, dropped my weapon, and pushed the oaken door closed.
One of the men passed by me before it shut. I could feel the pressure as the other two attempted to force the door ajar. My back naked to the armed brute in the room, I reached for the cross board. I kept my shoulder firmly against the barrier as my fingers searched blindly. Then I touched it, and yanked it up with one hand. I braced it across the door, and turned. Djuna was thrusting with her short sword, keeping the guard at a nearly safe distance. Her attacker's battle-axe had a greater reach, but her feisty swordplay kept him defensive. At least for now. I took my war-club from the floor. I moved quickly to the left. I could hear the booming whacks of the men outside as they tried to hack their way in.
Djuna saw me and fought to keep me at her opponent's back. I slipped behind him, raised my cudgel, and swung! The chain-mailed warrior twisted, chopping his axe into my club. I recoiled, my hands stinging from the shock. His weapon trapped by mine, he released it and lunged for Djuna. His left paw grabbed her forearm, twisting it, and forcing her to drop her short sword. His other hand found her throat. He squeezed, forcing the breath from her, and restricting her windpipe. She gasped and clawed at his steely fingers. I tossed away my useless stick of wood and launched myself at the strangler. He drove the back of his skull into my forehead. I crumpled to the floor, my vision blurring, and my knee landing on Djuna's blade. I gripped the sword, slid it under the mail hauberk and stabbed with all my strength. He screamed though clenched teeth. I may have hit a kidney. I hoped so. He loosened his grasp on Djuna and reached around for the steel. Djuna pushed him, and he tumbled ! to his knees. Still gasping for breath, she reclaimed her weapon and drew the edge across his throat. I emptied my stomach, either from the head blow or the blood. I don't know which.
I stood. My vision was clear again, a good sign. The door still boomed like a thunderstorm. Not a good sign. It was a thick door, but their axes were heavy and sharp. We needed a way out of this room. My cudgel was a worthless stick now, but the torches still sputtered a meager light upon the cell floor.
Holding up my torch, I studied the room. It was small, a cell mostly. A moldy tapestry hung on the far wall. It was faded in strips, more dull where the sun touched it over the years, more vivid where sunlight had not shone. The tapestry was a bucolic scene of lean hunting dogs and massive stags. A cold fireplace dominated the room. The light had come from the cell's single recessed window. The debris of a wooden seat chest was beneath the slit in the wall. Strips of silk pillows still clung to the rotting top. Djuna went to the narrow window. Looking out of the cut in the stone, she said, "Even if we could get out through here, there is no handhold to climb on."
I felt lightheaded. Had my wound been more serious than I had hoped? Suddenly my body was racked in convulsions. A face swam through my vision. Slowly it settled into Ruager's bearded image, his lips moving wildly. Pain and Ruager's voice were my universe for an eternity of seconds. My ears rung with sounds I did not know, phrases I could not grasp, syllables that did not belong to any language of the mortal realm.
Slowly my vision widened. As through a spyhole, I saw a darkened corridor. I looked upon the scene of a man in black, flowing robes. The view of my eyes shifted. I saw a gloved hand. It gripped the leather binding of a broadsword tightly. I recognized Ruager's blade resting in the scabbard at his side. I was seeing as Ruager saw!
"Diabolus oriri. Ego pleno iure impero vos. Sistere." The voice and the words sounded familiar, like a wispy memory of youth or a vivid dream fading softly in the bright light of dawn. But was it a foreign -- Ruager's -- lexicon or my own?
"You speak like a truant schoolboy." It was Ruager's voice I heard through my mirage. He was announcing his presence! Why, why invite attack? He stepped forward, out of the shadows, to stand before the altar.
"Still a lazy scholar, I see."
Calmly, he drew forth his broadsword. "I have come to stop you." Flickering shadows danced upon the wall beyond him. One of the dark shapes twisted and grew, mimicking a jester's candle puppet in which arm and knuckles cast the likeness of a long snake with sharp, fleury dorsal spines. The curving, slender silhouette became more and more solid. Slowly the shadow formed into an Orphidian lizard-man from the Southern Ullan Marshes. Green, scaled, and nearly twice as wide as a human, the serpent rose on its coiled tail before the wizard. Each of its breaths hissed through flaring nostrils at the snub-nosed tip of its conical head crest. Serrated teeth were visible through its lipless grimace. Its kind were dark minions of Dagon in the Deep Depths. I'd met them before at the Feast of Lughna in Aav. Many of them had worn deadlock strands of seaweed as camouflage or decoration.
I was trapped, frozen into my own tableau, condemned solely to watch, to observe, and not to interfere, not to help, not to aid Ruager. The Ullan Orphidian chuckled inhumanly. Its ten-foot tail pounded the stone floor. Suddenly two pairs of sinewy tentacles sprang from the serpentine creature. Each ended in a thick, four-fingered hand. It lifted its paws and flexed long, curving talons. Ruager drew up the sword and dropped easily into a combat stance.
"Zuk," cried the sorcerer. "Stinguere!" The lizard-man attacked. Ruager lunged, advancing his sword before him and putting deep cuts in the Ullan's thick hide. Its claws wrapped around Ruager's sword. He kicked the serpent between its tentacles and yanked back upon his blade. He swung the sword about in a deadly arc, but the snake-man squiggled and squirmed out of the way. His edge cut harmlessly through the air. The creature's claws followed the sword, striking Ruager's armor, sending off sparks worthy of my finest flint. As the creature's long nails raked me - I mean Ruager, I wondered if its reach was greater than I had first imagined, or did its tentacles stretch out like a coiled rope growing taut. Or should I say a coiled snake? Ruager brought his -- our sword up and around in a viscous over-the-head strike. His puissant chop connected and sliced through green flesh like a table knife through the tender veal of the early Spring.
The Orphidian sprang back in shock. It stared at its green bloodied stump, then I stared as the limb swelled and grew, grew whole, hale and complete with another set of menacing claws. It launched itself at Ruager. Blood and pain followed in the wake of this monstrous storm. Ruager lay next to the altar, lifeless. No longer seeing from his orbs, it was as if I was looking down on him from a great height. I could not tell even if he breathed beneath his cuirass. My vision dissolved slowly into the solid blackness of sleep.
When I could hear again -- see again, I was sprawled upon the cold stone. My breath came in loud gasps. Djuna looked down on me with concern -- or disappointment.
"Ruager knows where the child is." I knew where the child was; I knew by eyes not my own. I knew the way we must go, the path we must tread.
Djuna helped me to my feet. I stared about the room, but saw a double image. As before it was dusty, decrepit, and demolished by time. As well, there was a colorful penumbra to everything showing a well-kept place, clean and neat, decorated with embroidered pillows and silk throws. This must be Castle Jerath in days past, in the time of which Ruager spoke. Ruager's voice still rang in my ears. "No, this way," I said, approaching the hearth. It was not the household spirits of the Penates that guided me, but the visions sent to me by Ruager. I no longer felt the weight or confines of my armor. My clothing felt strange, coarse, loose and flowing. It was like the attire of a penitent cleric of Melas.
Djuna and I slunk into the tunnel. Stone steps spiraled downwards. We walked at a dizzying pace. Or should I say, Ruager set us a fast gait. The urgency of my vision impressed the need for haste. Our passage changed from mason's work to cavern suddenly. The floor ceased being a brick road and became the gravely ground of nature. The first living things we came upon in that lifeless cave were red fungi with round white spots. Djuna squatted down to examine the mushrooms. "Bas dearg," she spat with a noticeably Western accent. The Red Death.
We continued ever downward. The walls of the cavern took on a slick sheen. We came upon a pool of still brackish water. It was a cistern designed long ago no doubt to store away cold runoff from Spring mountain freshets. No longer. No creature broke the surface, but I would hate to see what fish would call this cesspool a cozy home. Growing along the edges of the cistern were stringy white vines with thorns and conical purple clusters of blossoms. I shivered when I noticed the bare bones of a giant rat entangled in the vines. Its bleached skeleton still had globs of white ichor clinging to it. We avoided the cavern vines, and continued downwards.
"I'll scout ahead," Djuna said. Soon her torchlight disappeared just as Ruager's had.
My torch was still in my hand and burning brightly. It began to sputter multitudes of red sparks again. These burned the back of my hand like a series of dragon bites. I twisted my grasp to point the torch toward the cave floor, away from me.
"Canna stand the heat." I turned toward the source of Balefire's alto voice. "Amadan!" she chided me like an unruly child. "The time to choose is upon you. But the moment will come in haste. You will have no time to think. Decide now! Why did you follow Ruager?"
A kobold sprang out of the darkness and passed through Balefire like the morning fog; I kicked its ratlike face. More of its brothers followed in the dusky cave. I retreated, cursing the loss of my war-club. I wove the torch about me to create a feckless firewall. The kobolds advanced.
"Hest!" called out Djuna as I approached the foul altar, once the altar of Melar at the center of the cavern-cathedral.
"Discover anything interesting?" I asked her.
* * *
A cohort of shadowy creatures surrounded the black altar. At the very edges of my hearing, I could hear their chanting, but my flesh knew they spoke a vile tongue. Goosebumps grew on my arms and my eardrums tingled as their guttural croaking sounds reached my ears. Slowly, the chanting became more forceful, a pounding strike of hammer upon anvil. No! I shook my head to clear it. The chant was hypnotic and I was not immune to its siren call.
The blackness near us parted; it was a curtain drawn across another of these cavern's secret passages. I'd already grown sick of the architectural perfidy of Castle Jerath. Ruager's two opponents exited the maw.
"See what the rats dragged in: two failed minions of a valiant paladin come to share his sad fate." An irritating chuckle followed. The Orphidian dropped a bundle on the altar with all the care a scullery maid shows an old sack of rhubarb. The purple cloth unrolled, unveiling a child, the child we had come here to save.
Yards from our position of unsafety stood the dragon-man and the vizir who had killed Ruager. Ruager's body still lay a few feet away, discarded, forgotten by his foes. I heard Djuna hiss, "Norven the Apostate! It cannot be him. The Emperor executed him."
"He looks alive to me," I said.
"A flaming pyre does not lie. He must be dead."
"All he must be is a sorcerer," I replied. I believe I could recall Norven Valik from my father's time in the Imperial court. I remembered him as an officious, vapid little man currying favor at every turn. How could a sycophant like him become a powerful wizard? I looked at the figure, trying to picture him at that time in the palace. He had been clean-shaven, and dressed in sumptuous purple garb. Tonight, before the dark altar, he had a bald plate, short pointed beard, and wore a black robe marked with silver sigils.
There was a commotion, as if a great wave of the sea was crashing upon the shoals. I looked. The vile kobolds moved quickly, stumbling, trampling each other to escape. It was Ruager's great battle-stallion.
"How'd ya get here, boy?" I touched the horse at its withers. Around my hand a fiery glow formed. A voice burst through my mind.
- I showed him the way. I have transferred my consciousness to my familiar. I have merged with my mount.
"Ruager," I whispered. I tried to calm my racing heart, my pounding blood like the white rapids of the Long River. Preternatural fear dominated my psyche. Thoughts fled my control or grasp and my limbs primed for action, yet felt heavy and tired as if I'd spent the last two days loading my dray.
"Hest, what is it? What's wrong?"
"Yes, Ruager's horse. It's shown us a way out."
"No, it's Ruager!"
"Once a Servant of the Gods, always. It is a lifelong commitment," Djuna said.
"And beyond," I replied, disgusted.
- Take the sword, Ruager whispered an echo in my mind. The sword, his sword. It has not far from his still form, his dead body.
"No, I've seen what it does to you. Ruager, you can't even die. I can't take up your sword."
"For the child," pleaded Djuna.
- Nar laga Dhia do claidheahm bhFiann. Ruager's spectral voice spoke in the Old Tongue - the language of our people before the armies of the Empire came, the speech of tonsured hermits and hedge-schools, words only whispered in fairy-rings, by gurgling brooks, and shadowed glens, an argot I had forgotten I learned at my maternal grandfather's hearth. Words I barely know.
Balefire stood shimmering by the point of the sword, her arms akimbo and her wings flapping slowly like a pennant in gentle winds.
"And what would you have me do?"
"Not for me to say!" She danced upon the tip of the blade, her toes pointed outwards like one of the Emperor's prized ballerinas, her gossamer wings fluttering lightly, and her smile wide and bright. "It is your turn to choose."
"Choose how? Choose what? Don't speak in a familiar's riddles! You're prettier than the Sphinx.
"You've said so yourself," I finished.
Balefire's feet stopped their merry dance. "You know," is all she said, but she drew forth a wooden sword from behind her back, barely a toothpick in her small hands. It mirrored my own toy sword in the palace practice yards that had slain dragons, rescued princesses, and defeated countless knights, with Balefire my only playmate. It was a relic of a time before our exile, before I lived solely day-to-day hauling other people's goods in my wagon, before I had grown old enough to dull the barber's razor with my chin's stubble. It was a reminder of days when I still allowed myself to dream luxuriously of a fine life that would enrich others as well as myself. The life my father had always wanted for me.
The child began a cacophony of cries. The sounds echoed around the cavern.
I reached down and took Ruager's broadsword in my hands. It was heavy as a cord of wood to me.
Djuna and I approached the Orphidian from two flanks. This impressive strategy had worked so well against our human adversary: Djuna strangled and me nearly with a concussion. Djuna's short sword darted about the creature like a pesky horsefly. The broadsword I held drew figure eight swaths in the air. If only I could invite the Ullan to stick its head within my deadly geometry. Twin tentacles spurt forth toward Djuna. Her sword went flying and clattered upon the ground with a solid clang. She was lifted off her feet to land sprawling on the rough cave floor.
The serpent-man stood before me, amused to be faced by a stripling like me. It chuckled deep in its inhuman throat. I lifted the sword and thrust. By some luck of Ryal, it struck, slicing into the reptilian's scaly hide. The creature's many hands clawed at the blade, knocking the hilt from my grasp. It slithered backward, falling, its taloned hands still. I cautiously stepped closer and tentatively took the sword in my hand. I pulled it free. Green ichor spewed all across me.
The Orphidian lay on the cold stone floor, its long, twitching tail the creature's only movement. I looked for Djuna. She was shakily rising to her feet.
The wizard-priest spat out more incomprehensible noises. I turned toward him. He cast about with his hands and my vision blurred. I shook my head and rubbed my eyes with thumb and forefinger. When I looked again, it was not the dark mage who stood before me -- but the very likeness of my father. Or was it my father himself?! Is that what I believed, needed to believe? It has been so very long since I'd seen him, heard him, known him. Who was this man before me?
A shade. Surely a shade. Was this visitation the very moment Balefire had warned me of?
"Kill this sacrificial lamb!" he shouted.
Obeying, I leveled Ruager's broadsword above the child. It lay amongst its purple swaddling clothes. What child was this? "Scion", Ruager had said; scion and heir, I thought. I had heard rumored in Aav that the Emperor's granddaughter was plump with child. Had she given birth and did that child now lie before me, a sacrifice awaiting the long blade? If that thought was the truth then it was the great-grandchild of the Emperor who had exiled my father upon that altar. Exiled and disgraced my father! It was a revenging ghost that stood before me. My father's kind eyes, his gentle smile, the fluffy cotton of his beard. One stroke, one swipe of the blade, one bloody chop and justice against that foul despot would be done. Years of retribution delayed would be wiped away. The spirit of my father dictated my moves. Beckoned me.
Slowly I lifted the sword above my head, aiming for the babe on the altar, then I swung down -- altering my arc to strike the image of that very same man -- my father. He fell, his visage again that of the mage. He rose on his elbows. I struck again, aiming for his malevolent heart. I felt the steel deflect on a rib. I think I may have hit his left lung. Thick, red blood bubbled from his pursed lips. I took the child into my arms and headed to Ruager. Or was that Ruager in equine form. The displeasant sounds of Norvan Valek's coughing death throes made an unwelcome symphony in my ears. Balefire hovered in the air about the magical animal.
"Did I choose well?" I asked, a little too scornfully. But I held the child tightly in my arms.
"You'll need to answer that yourself on some cloudless night when sleep is an absent and unrequited love. That is if you survive!" Balefire paused, taking a deep breath. "Now, stop appreciating this scant success or the next thing appreciated will be you - as a kobold's cold dinner."
Ruager behaved like the true war-stallion he was; his hooves became anvils to clobber the kobolds or flying pieces of cannonade to scatter them. Djuna's sword became a scythe of safety, slicing the chaff of the verminous creatures. I gripped Ruager's sword before me and I clasped the child closely to my bosom. And Balefire? Balefire's wings beat like a hummingbird's as she flitted about. She was a flickering speck of firefly light distracting, or annoying, our foes, giving the rest of us the chance to strike, to bludgeon, to kill and to survive.
Eventually we waded our way to the mouth of the cavern. The kobolds cowered at the maw, crying out at us, preferring the close air of the caves to the fresh breeze that blew through the clear, dark night. Still we kept fleeing that murky den until daylight greeted us when we collapsed, exhausted.
* * *
And thus you have the simple tale of Ruager, and my own woeful beginning in this splendid career as Gods' servant. You must excuse me now. For I have my sword, my armor, and my journey-bread. I need only my mount. I await my horse. "Come Ruager. We must ride forth on another Gods' task that needs accomplishing." Is that a shrill neigh I hear from beyond that hill? "Come Ruager. Come..."
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Good story. But to much was given away at the start.
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