"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 NINE <=== / ===> CHAPTER ELEVEN
We ate of the apples and felt heartened to have something akin to a solid meal in our stomachs. Nonetheless I dreamed of a good roasted pig, with potatoes and a couple of assorted vegetables. The only proper place for an apple would have been in the pig’s snout. Oh, yes, I enjoyed the fruit, and I ate plenty of them. But I surely wasn’t alone in my dreaming.
Red took Valanda’s arm, leading her off a few steps back to the cave to talk to her. Trying to find out why the ground hadn’t shaken under her and my feet, of course. He didn’t want to disturb our meal, he would claim later, but I think he was afraid of an explanation to disturb him.
Valanda couldn’t tell him more than she had said to me. Peering across my comrades’ shoulders, I saw Red’s face darken – angry that there wasn’t a solution to be found.
My comrades spoke about the matter as well, in hushed tones that did their best to keep me in the dark. I had sat down close to them, offering them the apples we had gathered. Don’t ask me how exactly it happened, since I didn’t move, but at the end of the meal I was sitting well apart from them. None of them meant any harm, I’m sure. It was just that they felt better giving me that space.
I know, in a different situation I might have enjoyed that. Being treated with respect, in this manner. But here I didn’t want to be apart. No matter that the gods had given me some sign of their attention – I was wary of thinking about affection -, I felt safer in company.
And let’s not forget that I had begun to like these fellows. Cardsleeve, who wouldn’t think twice of separating me from my money over a couple of acorns from his sleeves. Scraps, who would love nothing better than sitting at his drums – and being respected for that, rather than ignored or ridiculed. (How I could sympathize with him!) Torrindas, who was the proverbial rock in the storm. Bluff, who wanted his family to live on at the price of his own life.
And Red, who kept pushing us onward, pretty much with the same reasoning. Add to that his pain over his brother’s death.
Valanda, who… Valanda… You understand, since she might read these lines, I am wary of talking about her. But she was – and is – a fragile person. You wouldn’t know from just talking to her for a while, or walking alongside her. Yet she is. So sweet, so heartbroken, and… it didn’t matter to her. She continued with her life, no matter what. I admire that about her.
What about me? What about Ahnfredas Bluekeg? A priest in the making, a fake pilgrim, a coward, a fighter?
I didn’t know what to make of myself, whether I might be remotely worthy of such company, or not. All I knew was that I had to push the confusion down and continue.
Deciding where to go next was easy. For our comrades, anyway. Whichever way Valanda or I strode, the ground remained as calm as you pleased. But were one of the others to follow us in the wrong direction, the earth would tremble and the quakes would grow the more serious the further they strayed from the path.
“I don’t like it,” Red muttered, scratching his chin, covered by a good deal of stubble.
Which reminded me to brush over my own chin. The stubble was starting to soften already, not as hard as when it first grows and screams for a razor. That meant I had gone for a goodly three days without a shave. Three days?! Could it really have been that long? Granted that I’d shaved the morning before coming to Guardpeak, but… I was distracted by this for a while and needed a moment to catch up to the conversation.
Red had asked Valanda whether she had any spell at her disposal to scan ahead of us. The wizardess simply shook her head, rather than tell him that she would have used such a spell in the caves above us long ago. Then Red had come over to me and asked the same question.
I blinked, looking at his face and the deep lines that had engraved themselves on it. How could I possibly have likened him to Grapes before? These worries were completely foreign to the boy, surely. I couldn’t imagine him ever developing such a look.
“Pilgrim?” Red muttered. “Still with us?” Ahh, so much for respect. The grand tradition of Cayaborean soldiers, I suppose.
“Er, yes, I… No, I don’t know any spells, I mean I am not a –“ I wanted to claim I wasn’t a priest, but somehow I couldn’t continue saying that, now could I? “I’ve never been trained,” I helplessly shrugged after a moment.
“I know,” Red nodded, shook his head, turned half off, as he muttered, “I was just hoping –“ His head swiveled around to me. “Try what you’ve been doing before, all right?”
He didn’t stick around, to wait for any of my prayers to succeed. Instead he picked Scraps to walk some twenty yards ahead of us, figuring out which way to avoid the tremors, and to warn us of any potential dangers.
My prayer, you wonder? I chose Nash’Geo, god of traveling and crossroads, asking him to bless our journey, to reveal any troubles. I was hoping for another golden glow to descend from the skies, showing me the image of what lay ahead of us. Instead, I was given my usual reward for my efforts – nothing.
Prayers aren’t what they used to be. That is a thought coursing through my mind today, writing these lines. Back then I was distraught, wondering if the glow around the apples had truly happened and the lady Sira had shown herself to me. Maybe it had been a figment of my imagination? Maybe Valanda had been caught up in it as well, or maybe I only imagined her reaction?
Why didn’t Nash’Geo pay any attention to me?
Because I wasn’t his favorite? Or because he deemed that we find out what lay ahead on our own? Or because I had imagined it all?
We passed the glowater river, headed on, accompanied for a while by Scraps’ song about riches and despairs – by that time Cardsleeve had taken the lead -, and we grew accustomed to the scenery. If you didn’t pay too much attention to it, you could believe yourself on the surface. The cries in the background might have been birdsong, and your ears were just covered by the helmet to make it sound wrong. That was all.
I was quite busy pretending that this was another stretch of land unknown to me, and the biggest danger waiting for me was a lack of foolish villagers. Or, all right, some predator who couldn’t be scared off by my staff. The pretense was made rather difficult by my companions and the very different garb I wore. I had been smart enough to stow a few apples underneath my breastplate, so I could nibble on them now and then. For a while I grew interested in how dim our breastplates seemed to be. In the darkness of the caves, they had cut powerful beams, yet here they were glowing faintly. Because of the rich light around us, or because the spell on the breastplates altered them?
Oh, yes, I found quite a few things to occupy my mind – others than what was around me.
Prayers aren’t what they used to be.
About an hour after setting off from the cave exit, a blue light seared across my eyes. I stopped, my arms flailed upwards, and I must have yelled. The light faded almost instantly, leaving a shadow on my sight, but I heard my companions crowd around me, asking what had happened.
I mumbled about a light, that I couldn’t see – the latter rather foolish, for my sight recovered at about that moment. “There was nothing,” Bluff said, echoed by Scraps.
“The gods?” Red asked soberly.
I shook my head, rubbed my eyes. “I don’t –“
Cardsleeve’s scream relieved me of the need to answer. “Come over here, fast!” he shouted. “By the abysses, I don’t believe this!”
“Bloody pile of dungs!” I heard Bluff exclaim. Scraps said much the same things, but I’d rather not repeat his words here.
The blue light had flashed before my eyes again, so I was quite a bit slower than my comrades when they hurried forward to join Cardsleeve. Valanda stayed by my side, took my hand – understanding better than myself that my vision wasn’t well enough. Finally we made our way to the site, where a ring of armored backs was turned toward us.
“Pilgrim,” Red’s tired yet firm voice sounded, “come over here.”
One of the backs turned out to be his, as he stepped aside to let me look at Cardsleeve’s find. The wizardess followed as far as she could, peering through the holes in the wall of metal armor. Red, and Torrindas as well, moved far enough apart that there was plenty for her to see.
I, though, was at the front, and I sank to my knees in shock. I had expected several things, but this… Well, have you ever found the body of a human being torn apart by a predator? Strips of flesh spread over the ground, guts hanging out, half consumed?
Now imagine that same cadaver spiked on a stalactite that must have hit him from above, its top perfectly severed rather than the jagged remains of the rock breaking off.
I covered my shock quickly – if I may say so, and nobody countered my claim -, blinked, and reached out my hand carefully towards the remains of the man’s clothes. As far as I could tell, drenched with blood and other parts of him, he had worn black breeches – cut Kraznyczarian style, with tassels at the belt and under the pockets. One leg was missing, the other mangled, and a leather boot stood strangely upright aside the pool of blood. The man’s shirt had been yellow once, good dyed linen, and he’d worn a leather coat above, made from swamp dragon scales. I was rather sure of that – a year earlier, I had met a merchant dealing in these wares, proclaiming how hardy they were and how difficult to procure. Going by the prices he quoted to me, that might be true.
“Who was he?” Red asked.
I blinked, shook my head as I looked up. “I… doubt that I know this man.” I really had no idea. There was no face left to identify him.
“That’s not what I mean,” Red shook his head. “There’s an insignia on his coat, over there. It looks like… I don’t know, like something I’ve seen on a temple in Dauverre, in Cayaboré, once.”
He pointed his finger at the insignia, and once more I felt my heart skip a beat. Yes, it was the mark of a deity, but not one that you would care to see.
A split sword, two-pronged, with a slim clift inbetween, stains of dried blood on it, and fresh blood dripping from both tips. The sign of the god Jengchan, illegitimate son of the ruling god Decirius and Risa, goddess of natural disaster. Born after Risa pretended to be her twin sister, rightful wife of Decirius, and hidden until manhood lest the Just God might smite his ill-bred offspring. Raised in secret by both Risa and the darkest of gods, Shenaumac, Jengchan chose to devote himself to tyranny and conquest, empowered by his descent from the greatest of the gods. His father.
Although one of the gods of our pantheon, his sign is rare in our world – much the same as can be said for his foster-father, Shenaumac. Who would like to see the sign of darkness on the house down the road, know that the clerics there are not like the other ones whose counsel you might seek? Who would like to know that dark deeds are performed there, that your children might not be safe at night – whether out on the street or lying in bed?
Leave it to Cayaboreans to allow such a temple. The clerics of Jengchan there are surely as chained to their king as all other priests are. Do Cayaboreans allow followers of Shenaumac to travel freely? To take an officer’s position in their army?
Are things different in other countries as well? I don’t think so – for all that my travels have rarely brought me outside the Topay Coalition, it seems that people everywhere share our discomfort at the dark gods.
Yet – the thought instilled fear in my heart – I was a pilgrim, and I had only a bit earlier wondered whether I had become a kind of priest to all the gods. All the gods. Including such as Jengchan or Shenaumac or Middage or Taurkémad. Best not to think about it.
“Jengchan,” I said finally, forcing the word over my lips. “That is the sign of the Tyrant.”
My comrades whispered curses, or prayers for protection, depending on their mood. Scraps asked, “What’s a priest of Jeng-, of the Tyrant doing here?”
I spoke before thinking, just answering the question. “I don’t think this was a priest. Much as they stay in hiding commonly, this man bore the insignia openly, proudly. Why wouldn’t he wear the full signs of the Tyrant’s cleric? The split-sword amulet, the blood-red coat?
“No,” I shook my head, “this man was a holy warrior devoted to serving Jengchan. See the neck? There is a tattoo, most of it remains. It shows the split-sword emblem. That is the sign of the Tyrant’s warrior. But… His kind always follows a priest, a full cleric. Are there other –“
I caught myself short, wondering how I could speak so cold-bloodedly about this topic, with a man rent apart like this before me. I had pointed at the tattoo on the neck! I had spoken about the state of the body, as if I saw its kind every day!
Now this wasn’t the first dead man I had seen before – nor had the deaths on our journey hence been the first I had witnessed. Nonetheless I had never been as utterly composed as I was now.
“How do you know this?” Torrindas asked, and for the first time ever there was an unpleasant tone in his voice.
Ah, yes. Few people cared to learn much about the dark gods – just enough to stay out of their way. As the smart would do.
Of course it would be an easy answer now to say that the entire pantheon is whom I worship. Easy and not at all wrong. It wouldn’t sit well with me, though. I have met other pilgrims – at the Great Statue of Splendor, where I had the first inkling of choosing this profession. They concentrate on the good gods, those of brightness – no matter what dark spots may lie in their history -, and of the dark ones they know as little as other people. At best they know where to place a sacrifice, how to conduct a basic ritual, to appease the deity.
Yes, I learned a number of them myself, and I have been smart enough to go through them, as much as they disgust me. That doesn’t make either of us a follower – the purpose of these rituals is only to avert the attention of darkness for a while. Doing that might not be a bad idea for you, kind reader, although I strongly advise you to keep that practice in secret. Other people are not easily convinced that your purpose is of a good nature.
Where to learn them? Ask a priest in your neighborhood. I would be surprised if that one didn’t have an idea. Oh, sure, he or she will deny any knowledge, but I had the fortune of having a priestess beholden to Haguen living near to my father’s home. Loyalty is Haguen’s strength, and this cleric – Hrandenya, originally from the chilly southern lands – took that to mean she should protect her flock as best she could. Which included appeasing the dark gods.
I served at her shrine occasionally – one of many young children driven by her forceful demeanor to do so -, and I was one of her favorites. Enough so that she included me in some of her rituals. Nobody could question Hrandenya’s devotion to Haguen, or her innate goodness. But do not think that she confided in me quickly, no, she took her time involving me in lengthy discussions, sounding me out. (And my father as well, I should mention. She wanted to know how Hernaldas Bluekeg saw the world, whether he could accept his son involved in this.)
I spend quite a bit of time justifying her actions, don’t I? For good reason, because I fear that you may be recoiling from these pages now, think her a pretense priest of Haguen whose true devotion was to darkness. Please, believe me, that was never the case. Just because it is difficult for us to believe it is no less true that also our beloved, worthy priests occasionally traffic with the dark gods – for the purpose of averting them from us.
During my travels I never spoke to another priest openly about this, but from snippets of conversation, from hints here and there – buried within a lengthy discussion, quite involuntary from the cleric – I have deduced that a large number of clerics do this. And their flocks flourish for it.
Well, a lenghty explanation, but one that I feel is necessary.
What I said to my comrades amounted to nearly the same thing – only that I was more concentrated on presenting a good front of myself. I know, selfishness is unbecoming for a priest. I am not at all sure it was necessary. Torrindas would – I suppose – have been happy with the easiest of explanations. When I went off on my waterfall on an excursion into religious topics, they were looking forward to the end and wanting to accept whatever I said.
No, that isn’t quite true. Red was truly interested in my words, and so was Scraps. Bluff and Torrindas, not so much, as I said before. But at first, venturing into that torrent, it must have seemed to them as if I were frantic to conceal some hidden darkness in myself. Just the opposite of what I intended!
Nonetheless I must have been convincingly nervous and my usual frightened self.
“So,” Red shook his head as if to clear it of my words, “there would be more of these people?”
I shrugged, unwilling to reveal more knowledge. “Well, yes, I think so. From what I know, the Tyrant’s followers rarely travel alone. Theirs is to conquer; that is difficult to do alone. At best, a priest may travel alone, intent on gathering new supplicants. So… Yes, there would be more. But…” I shook my head again, looking at the cadaver. Especially the stalactite spiking it. “How did this man die? From the dwarves, or whatever… The noise, I mean, and…”
“Right,” Red nodded. “We’ll have to find out, too. It sure isn’t a good omen to see one of the Tyrant’s warriors killed like this. There’re predators around here, peaceful as this place looks.”
Cardsleeve had recovered by now of the shock of his find. “How’d this man get here, Red? Through our hill? Our caves?”
Oh, I had my ideas. Indeed, one in particular. Remember the open door through which I had entered Deersrun Hill? Carter and Red had mentioned that none of the vintners leave the doors to their caves intentionally open. It might have been an accident, as I had thought before, but with this new evidence before me I thought it likely that a group of Jengchan warriors and a priest – or more? – had forced that door open a short while before I chanced upon it.
But wasn’t it amazing? Dwarves and Jengchan followers sneaking into Deersrun Hill at the same time?
Right before I could comment on that, the blue light flashed across my eyes again – this time, though, I could sense a point of origin, just to our left. And there was an urgency to the light that I hadn’t noticed before. It also passed very quickly, leaving nary a shadow left in my vision. “There…” whispered hoarsely.
Prayers aren’t what they used to be.
This one was pretty late, for the bushes around us parted as a massive, scaled shape launched itself out of the foliage – a missile letting go a roar – a missile that was heading for Scraps.
My diminutive comrade had the presence of mind to leap aside, straight over the cadaver, somehow grabbing the stalactite and using it as a pole to vault well out of the range of that sudden shape.
The latter landed on the ground, right where Scraps had been. A giant snout snapped at Cardsleeve, fangs glistening.
Cardsleeve wasn’t nearly as fast as Scraps. The fangs closed around his arm. Metal crunched. Armor split, burst. And then it was flesh. Cardsleeve screamed.
The creature roared.
It was a giant, a goodly five feet tall in the shoulders, and the rest of the long body matched that size. Four feet, clawed. All of it armored with dark green scales, like a crocodile, but the body seemed more like a tiger’s. The head was a reptilian nightmare. Large fangs, in a stubby snout, in a compact, nearly square head, with small eyes in the front, over breathing slits. And that head was closed around Cardsleeve’s arm, tearing at it, about to wrench it from the socket.
Those fangs, they were the same that had rent the Tyrant’s warrior apart.
And now they were doing that service to my comrade.
I drew my blade, barely thinking about it.
Read on in Chapter Eleven!