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4th Grand Malazan Writing Contest Offical Submission Thread

#1 User is offline   Shinrei 

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Posted 28 April 2012 - 01:06 AM

Please do not post comments in this thread, it is for submissions only.
You’ve never heard of the Silanda? … It’s the ship that made the Warren of Telas run in less than 12 parsecs.
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#2 User is offline   Shinrei 

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Posted 28 April 2012 - 01:07 AM

Submission #1,

Author: SylvanShade

The Obsidian Bench

Subject D’s Account

That cold wind again... My skin is in such a state of sensitivity that even the most gentle of drafts imitates a wintry gust. This bench that has been my base for what may have been years now is painted in all matter of fluids, most of which had been discharged or bled from my body. This texture I lay upon, it ceaselessly presses harsh against my protruding bones. I long for the body fat I once wore, some sort of comfort against this unrelenting, cold surface. Somehow it encroaches upon my mind, pulling me in, endeavoring to make me one with the obsidian.

My Love… Her work was a thing of such brilliance, such beauty. I had never understood it, it was a grand puzzle to me; I could never make any worthwhile contributions. But I could make myself a piece of the puzzle. Yes… If it would only please her, and it did… I now serve a purpose beyond my understanding.

I remember the first time I died, when the torture exceeded my body’s endurance. It wasn’t a relief like some theorize, it wasn’t anything. It was nothing. Then I awoke from that nothing, numb in body and mind. She assured me that I had merely expired, and had been recycled for further productivity. It was sweet of her, comforting me so. With the revival came all the capacities of life to their fullest extent. I could feel and I was conscious, my constitution rebuilt. The pain exacerbated, however. A defect in the temporal reconstruction, she had explained, which creates the illusion of extremity in certain capacities. Of which particular senses that were affected, it’s arbitrary, but at this phase my nerves and aural functioning are in a state of haywire.

Water dripping on stone, splishing in puddles, pattering on leaves. A distant insect flitting its wings, flies in a buzzing frenzy on some dead or dying subject. The scratching of her quill on parchment, the clattering of her tools as she works on some obscure project. I can hear it all agonizingly magnified. And my Love’s footsteps as they fall short of my cell. Then comes the screaming. But I never know if it is me or someone else…

My body, reduced to nothing, is emaciated and pallid as bone. My skin is dry, turned from tender scar-tissue to leathery callus. My body’s natural restorative aptitudes have long ceased to function, and the lacerations inflicted weeks ago are the festering wounds of today. She mends me when it pleases her, but ‘every wound holds a fruit,’ she says.

When my Love neglects me for longer than usual, flies meander into my chamber and lay their larva in my lesions. The maggots borne squirm beneath my skin, and the itch is unbearable, but it is too painful to move so I leave them be. What more damage could they do? I resolve. In time they dig deeper; I feel the flutter of an organ’s wall being eaten through and they nest within me. When I am graced once again by the love of her Genius, the electricity she pulses through my body fries all living bacteria and parasites, and the dead bulges of maggots are left to fester amongst rotting flesh. My love is good to me, I never deserved such kindness.

In the cell across the aisle from my own, I had witnessed a crude amputation. Just recently I believe, not but a year ago... Performed by a servant of her Genius, I remember assisting my love whence she bound him. Subservience was all the brute knew now. He was a hulking fellow, I do believe my love tampered with his clockwork… As I remember, he pinned the young girl of perhaps twenty years to the floor, and twisted her arm until it crunched in a series of muffled cracks, like the sound of tree roots rupturing beneath earth. The choir of noisome subjects hushed in response to the girl’s shriek. Her bones permeated from the inside, splinters emerging from skin. The brute, muscles all swelling and rippling, tore the appendage from her body with a sickening rip. He left her with a spurting crater of sharp bone fragments mired in dark, pudgy flesh. Crawling helplessly, her face was cringed in mindless agony, gaping mouth displaying rows of decayed and shattered teeth. Her breath came gasping between protracted interludes. I remember her, from a time before I had taken my place on the obsidian bench, my love and I had sourced her from the capital city’s dungeon. She was of youth then, condemned for patricide. Such a beautiful creature she had once been, reduced to this… Irony, or poetry?

Before she perished from blood hemorrhage, my love released Barreler unto her. The skinned hound mauled her throat and ravaged her countenance, until she was beyond recognition. Her Genius remarked at the girl’s determination to live despite the odds, and scribbled happily into her note book. Subsequently, the hound mounted the girl’s corpse, her Genius scolded the dog and it obediently ceased its endeavor. She cast her hand at the dead girl and she twitched back to life, ‘carry on, my baby,’ she said, and Barreler recommenced deflowering the already despoiled girl.

My love had performed a human-brain transplant on the hound, and so, he had an incessant sexual-drive fueled by unconditioned ignorance of morality, or pretense, as my love would call it. The girl was disoriented when she awoke from death, but as she sobered, she began screaming. Her timbre fluctuated as the beast drove back and forth. The bubble and gurgle of air escaping via the punctures in her wind-pipe made for a lurid detail.

The girl had been recycled too frequently, the intervals were shortening. Her body would fall into hypovolemic shock with each revival. Taking successive, shallow gasps of air, before fading into unresponsiveness. Her mouth was her only discernible feature in the pulp that her face had become; it opened and closed as she wheezed for air. Her head looked like a tomato that had been left to rot, and then stepped on; a blackly humorous analogy, yet a fitting one, mind you.

Her Genius placed the girl on Channel-support, of which I have been on for quite a while now. It is the artificial sustainment of the body. We are not really alive, so to speak, but all the physiological capacities of the living are artificially instilled into our being. It’s like a simulation, I believe. Our bodies are abandoned and left to rot as our intellect abides in some sort of Horizon. I do not understand exactly how it works, or what Horizon specifically refers to, but I do not seek to pry her Genius, lest she think me ungratefully suspicious.

We are utilities for her Genius, assisting in forging a unique path to a deeper understanding of the mechanics of Duality, but there is something else. Something different and new she has found…

* * *

I awake to find myself entrenched in physician’s armamentarium, turning my head with as much energy as I can muster, I focus my gaze upon what appears to be a sedated animal – Barreler. He sleeps prostrate atop a makeshift work-bench, wooden. Inferior to my obsidian… My love gave me the obsidian bench. She is good to me. It has become a part of me, my home…

The obsidian bench, it is magnificent. Virtually immovable; solid, powerful. The chutes carved into its edges channel the discharged fluids into underlying basins. Such craftsmanship!

* * *

Suddenly the sensation of heat floods my body, as nerves alight with a euphoric fire. I survey my body to discover cannulas inserted at various nodes on my body, they travel from beneath the surface of my skin over to Barreler. A hand touches my chest.

‘A transfusion, my sweet,’ she says, ‘although it will be difficult considering you have scant stores of blood left.’

I dropped my jaw in an attempt to speak words, but only managed to tear my dried cheek.

‘Oh dear, never fret.’ She lifted a conduit for me to see, ‘this will connect your heart to the hound,’ she indicated Barreler. ‘Once you begin to receive his output, I will just need to start your heart pumping, so it can begin channeling his blood through your body. Some areas have been damaged beyond repair however, such as your right arm, so I’ve dissociated it by re-routing your circulatory system to benefit areas that still have hope of regeneration. Here, my sweet.’

She lifted my head for me, and I felt the skin of my back tear like rotted linen. I looked down upon my abdomen to see it open and reeking, and the skin of my body had been peeled back to allow access to the subcutaneous regions. Veins and arteries were flat and shriveled; no longer circulating. Certain routes had been pinched off and tied, stapled and merged into other lanes to negate the flow of blood to irretrievable areas.

‘Here,’ she procured a prop for my head, ‘now you can watch.’

She procured a cannula and attached it to the conduit. She slowly pressed the needle against my skin, it pierced and slid between my rib-cage and into my still heart. She readied the other end at the hound, holding it poised below its shoulder blade. As the needle penetrated the beast, I felt my heart stammer to life, and the obsidian bench seemed to spin as the chamber whirled in contrary. My circulatory system inflated as blood flooded in from the hound, feeding my heart. Something blossomed in my head, a warm sensation, and then blood began discharging from my nose, ears and eyes. The build-up of fluid resulted in blurred vision, as it emitted in excess from my eye-sockets.

‘Oh dear,’ I heard her exclaim, ‘now never mind that my sweet, I will get you a new pair. We have an abundance of donors.’

The chamber stilled once again. Deprived of my senses, all I heard for a while was the new found rhythm of my heart, as it pulled me into a curios trance...

* * *

I awoke again as she was at work on my new eyes. She had placed the fresh pair in my empty sockets, and I suddenly felt a searing pain as my optic nerves were associated to my brain. Vision returned to me, an array of depthless images breaking the void. The association was imperfect, for I could only see shades of gray.

Blood had clotted in my ears, so I could only hear muffled words as her Genius spoke to me. I left myself fade out of consciousness…

* * *

A jolt awoke me from my numbed daze. I could feel something… Was it life? When my vision focused, I found myself gazing upon furry flesh. Had it been days since I was last conscious? Hair had grown all over my body, veins and arteries were bulging. I could feel… strength? Stamina. I sent transmissions to my hands, telling them to rouse, my left hand twitched. When I assessed my right hand, I saw a black, rotted appendage.

I suddenly felt a vibration in the membrane of my ears, and turned my eyes to see her Genius looking down on me with a warming smile. Her youth, so radiant, divine. With my new found strength, I opened what was left of my mouth, only to spit blood and fluid. She signaled for me to pause and left the chamber, when she returned she gently placed a quill in my left hand and allowed to me inscribe onto a sheet of parchment.

You are beautiful, I wrote, and she cupped a warm hand against my cold, dead cheek.

* * *

A violent surge awoke me. My body pulsed and blood spurted from every orifice, clearing my ears. She was at work again; I glimpsed her form through a film of mucous that had developed on my eyes, she pulled a cannula from my arm.

‘I’ve created this new agent, can you feel it?’ She injected again, and the surge came instantly. The pain was extraordinary. ‘It should form a bond with your red blood cells, in theory...’

She picked up a new tool and stooped in towards me. A fine knife scraped the film from my eyes. I was then able to properly survey myself, I had been stitched shut, and more hair had grown, it was starting to blanket my body, everywhere except my right arm and groin. I turned my head with this new found strength, and glimpsed what used to be the hound. It was shriveled, gaunt.

* * *



Subject C’s Account

I’ve been watching him ever since she brought me into this horrid place, whatever she’s doing to him, he seems to be growing. And he’s getting hairier. Perhaps it’s some sort of testosterone? There is something behind the bench he’s lying on, at the far end of his cell, something that often causes the reeds that are attached to him to move, but it’s beyond my vision.

* * *

She’s back, this man in the cell across from mine seems to have her preoccupied. She hasn’t payed any attention to any of the other subjects for a few weeks at the least. Now she’s working on him once again. I watched as she hovered her hand over him and started channeling. All was silent, and suddenly an inhuman scream broke from his throat passage that she herself flinched away from. Blood sprayed as his chest bulged and the stitched cut through his skin, and his body was taken by violent spasms. He tore free from the reeds and flopped off from the bench, slapping on the ground like a fish out of water.

The only conscious motion he seemed to make was the way he thrashed his head upon the ground, seemingly trying to put an end to the agony. The bitch was at a loss for what to do, she just stood there dumbfounded. I stooped and vomited, the scene was sickening.

Amidst the mindless thrashing, I noticed he seemed to be swelling. Then as I squinted through my cell grates, I saw the skin of his face rip open to make way for a transmuting cranium, he formed a hideous snout, and his back bulged and hunched. When the transfiguration was complete, he stood back on his hind legs. Terrified by this monstrous presence, I scrambled to the back of my cell, the hysteria driving me into the back wall. I watched on as the creature turned about, its dead arm that seemed to resist the transformation flopping as some desultory attachment.

The bitch had silenced, shrinking away in fear as the creature sniffed loudly at the air. I could not see any eyes, muscle seemed to have closed around his eye sockets. Bone had most certainly reshaped, for the creature stood extraordinarily tall, despite its hunch. His genitalia was engorged with, and weeping, blood.

Finally he caught her scent, and closed in. She screamed and sidestepped his blind flurry, making towards the cell door. He lunged and was met by a closing grate; heedless, he reared and charged it once again, snapping the iron from its hinges.

I raced forward to watch them recede down the corridor. One of the witch’s servants came between them, only to be ripped in two. She came sprinting back down the aisle, and I took the opportunity to stick my leg out. She sprawled and the creature assailed her. He pummeled her skull with his disfigured hands, then grasped either side of her head and tore it from her shoulders. He threw it against the bars of my cell with such force that I was showered with brain-matter. Before I could backpedal, he reached in, took hold, and began pulling me through the grates…
You’ve never heard of the Silanda? … It’s the ship that made the Warren of Telas run in less than 12 parsecs.
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#3 User is offline   Shinrei 

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Posted 08 June 2012 - 09:15 PM

Submission #2

Author: UseOfWeapons


Sweet Victory

I tell people who ask --- and everyone does --- that I learned most of what makes my cooking famous from my mother, at our family’s tiny house on the edge of the Îpres orchard. Of course, it is a complete lie. My cooking is famously refined, with a subtle combination of flavours and judgement of different sucres that gives both pleasure and power to the Royal Circle of Mages. And I am supposed to have acquired that skill cooking over an open fire on a peat hearth, with cooking pot as black as the scabs on the Devil's soul? As well expect Casanueva to have learned his famously silky seduction techniques at the knees of the lowest tavern harlot!
Or perhaps slightly higher than the knees, hmm?
A fantasy for another time. Or perhaps not. It would never do if the man discovered I had been fantasising! And I am famously loquacious when in my cups.
Focus! I turned to my manikin. ‘Fetch the molasses, and two ripe limes,’ I said firmly. It moved fluidly towards the pantry, and I spent a moment taking pleasure in the beautiful efficiency of its movement, still wondrously smooth even after two years continuous service. A pity they were so ruinously expensive to make and maintain. I sometimes wondered if the whole damnéd hierarchy of sucre was not subtly influenced just to keep them all running.
Power flows in many directions. Like a stream running downhill, who is to say what channels it will find?
The kin returned swiftly, bearing its meagre load, and deposited it on the table within easy reach. It knew my habits now. A more paranoid man would have found reason for disquiet in that thought, perhaps. I am not a man given to flights of fancy, but word pictures have been painted of what could happen should the kin choose to rise up against their creators. It is a favourite topic of the black-clad, when they were not fulminating against the various sins their feverish imaginations conjured up for the peasants. Indeed, I often thought I saw, when I deigned to attend a service with a particularly fervid sermon on the topic, men and women with a sordid gleam in the eye as they listened carefully. One might even have been taking notes!
The seal of the confessional contains a multitude of salacious secrets. The corpulence of priests is thereby clearly explained, gorging themselves as they must on such a feast. What piety! What sacrifice, to open their hearts and other organs to such depravity!
Distracted again my my own ruminations --- and still with much ground to cover in today’s research. This would never do. My reputation, hard won and carefully maintained as a man whose focus was legendary, whose drive to uncover new flavours and taste combinations bore comparison with the greatest of gustatory diviners, Guillaume d’Alpes-Huéz; that reputation was being sorely tried. The day was full of beauty, summer’s heat rising slowly as the sun sailed above, casting gloriously tinted shade across the palace gardens. I could hear the twittering of the Queen and her ladies picnicking on the lawns, indistinguishable from the chirping of birds from my vantage. Not quite as decorative, and only slightly more useful, I thought a tad uncharitably.
A knock at the study door, and was it my imagination or was there a touch of hesitation in the rhythm? ‘Bah!’ I exclaimed loudly, secretly overjoyed at the interruption. But it would never do to allow that to colour my response. ‘Come, then, damn it all!’
The door eased open, and a tousled head poked past it, eyes wide. ‘My--- my l-lord C-castagnède,’ stammered the mewling cretin I had deigned to take as my apprentice. The White only knows where I found sufficient pity in me to accept another after the abject failure of the first. And second. And, well, bother if I could actually remember how many there had been. This one had showed promise, at first, but soon descended into the blithering, hesitant fool I had known was his destiny in the end. Who visits this torment on me?
‘Well? Spit it out, boy!’ I roared gently.
‘Y-you asked, sir, you asked t-to be re-re-reminded when n-noon came,’ he said, his face pale under those blasted unruly curls.
‘Re-reminded?’ I said. ‘I thought I had asked just to be reminded. I don’t recall you reminding me, so how can you now be re-reminding me?’
The blank look at this wordplay failed to make an impression --- yet another sign that this failure’s time was growing short. I fluttered a hand at him. ‘Begone then, your errand is done.’
His face disappeared and the door shut behind him. Noon. What was happening at noon?
Ah, yes. The annual Trials for entry to the Circle. I, of course, was required to be in attendance, both to supply clean sucre and demonstrate my Art for their majesties’ pleasure. I looked forward to it as one looks forward to finding a slug in their shoe, but it was unavoidable.
I tasked the kin with bearing loads of pristine white, powdered sucre, and took for myself a jar of new honey from the Royal Swarm. Thusly burdened, I made my way through the gardens to the central square, where the Trials and demonstrations would take place.

There was already a substantial audience at the centre of the gardens, and I don’t mean just the waistlines that were visible, though those were, of a certainty, also very much on display. It is an unfortunate truth of fashion that it will occasionally throw up amongst its vicissitudes some styles that are unutterably unsuited to the adornment of the more generously-proportioned form.
Many have bemoaned the nature of our power. Coming from sucre, it has of course the side effect of increasing the girth of those who would wield it. I myself, from a famously slim bloodline, have no trouble with my wardrobe. But there were those taking up inordinate space today whose various bulges and protrusions --- they referred to them as ‘curves,’ a locution doing as much damage to the language as they to their furniture --- were not well served by the current vogue for wound strips of cloth twisted and curled around arms and torsos, with rippling skirts for the ladies and hosen with a dye effect recreating musculature for the gents. Ripples and shadows created an altogether unpleasant effect on corpulent thighs, and I think I am not alone in hoping this particular fashion dies an ugly death in the short term.
Shielding my eyes from the sun at noon, and, not accidentally, from the views before me, I urged my manikin forward with a nod and a muttered, ‘Follow,’ as I made my way to the gathering before their august majesties --- they did reign all-year round, I should add --- and bowed before them.
The king spotted me first. ‘Pierre!’ He indicated that the crowd of functionaries and hangers-on should move aside to permit me ingress, and, grudgingly, they did so. I bowed, first to him, and then to the queen.
‘Sire. Your majesty,’ I greeted them, and added to the queen, ‘and may I say, the sun itself is scarcely more radiant than your majesty today.’
‘Why, M’sieur Pierre,’ she laughed, raising an eyebrow, ‘have you been practising? That was very nearly acceptable!’
I quirked a lip, and bowed again. ‘One tries one’s humble best, my Queen.’
‘Humble? Never!’ she declared, and her husband laughed.
‘Carry on like this, Pierre,’ he said, smiling, ‘and you will be in danger of being awarded a title.’
I scowled theatrically. ‘I will have to do something outrageous to counter that erroneous good impression, sire,’ I said wryly. ‘Me, a noble?’ I indicated the coterie of nobles and courtiers. ‘The parents of these fine folk would turn in their luxurious graves.’
‘No doubt,’ murmured the queen. ‘Still, Pierre, it is good that you are here. The contest was waiting only for you and your supplies.’
I told the manikin to step forward and lay its burden directly before the king and queen. Once it had done so, I placed the honey beside it. ‘Fresh from the hive, your majesties,’ I told them. Not that I had gathered it myself. Horrible buzzing things, bees. Still, I suppose they were necessary. But my antipathy was returned in equal measure by the Royal Hive, whose own queen never permitted me entry. Some insects really can try one’s patience.
Speaking of which. ‘Sire, you recall, I trust, that you allowed that I should select a new apprentice from the Trialists today?’
He nodded. ‘Have you worn out the last one already?’
I smiled thinly. ‘Not quite, my liege, but it never hurts to be prepared. And I had thought that perhaps I could try two at once. Who knows, perhaps sharing the tasks between them will make their abject inability less onerous to me, and they might stay long enough to become useful.’
‘Very well.’ He waved me off. ‘You may choose from the losers of the semi-finals, should they be amenable.’
I bowed and retreated, murmuring my thanks, and settled back next to the supplies. I would, as ever, be in charge of doling out what ever servings each contestant deemed necessary in between bouts, and in the event of a tied contest, my scoring would be taken into consideration when their majesties decided the winner. Ties were unusual in the early rounds, so I got my scales ready, and arranged a few dipping pots ahead of time. Then I waited.
The afternoon passed predictably enough. It was a trivial matter in most cases to anticipate the winner. Often the outcome would be apparent just from how the contestants interacted. Each knew the others well, and they knew their own hierarchy of ability. It was in the bouts involving a stranger, someone from outside of Ferençy, that the greatest interest lay.
In the first round of matches, a honey-user from the court of the great Espan monarchs came up against a direly out-matched fructis-mage who had clearly come in from the provinces to try his luck. Oh, he had a trick or two, but the young Espanen woman neatly avoided those --- I suspect a hint of lemon up her sleeve from the twists she was pulling out --- and the match was over in short order after she lured him in close enough to plant a sweet kiss on his forehead while somersaulting over him. By the time she landed her reins of power had sapped her opponent’s volition and the umpire was quick to declare the bout done.
Interesting, I thought to myself as I contrived to look bored with both the competition and the company. Flexibility, judicious use of power, imagination. Yes, very interesting indeed.
‘That was something to see, don’t you think, Pierre?’ asked the queen, below whom I was seated looking out on the arena.
‘Pedestrian at best, your majesty,’ I replied in my most supercilious tone. ‘Some flair, no doubt, but I doubt anyone would have broken a sweat defeating that clod-hopper.’
She tinkled a girlish laugh, which I had once found charming, but which now grated on my ears like the braying of a mule. ‘Oh, Pierre,’ she giggled, another affectation I despised, ‘what will it take to impress you?’
‘I will be certain to let you know once I find something that does, my queen,’ I said unctuously. She laughed again, and returned her attention to the field.
The bouts fell out as expected. Our Espanen honey-user progressed easily through the early rounds, and I heard murmurs of interest growing, accompanied by some rather unattractive gnashings of teeth as those who had wagered against her --- some quite heavily --- lost again and again. They were seemingly unable to believe that her wins were due to marked skill, preferring to think her the owner of some remarkable luck. Hah! I thought. Like most serious contestants, I understood that the more effectively and often one practised, the more lucky one became. I had often been accused of the most devil-curséd luck in my competition days. ‘Nay,’ I would inevitably reply, ‘just talent and application.’ And walk away with my winnings. I always bet on myself, you see.
My supplies were dwindling, and I sent the kin back to the storeroom for more. Fine white powder dusted the table, and empty pots were stacked neatly to one side. Only one finger of honey remained in the jar I had brought, and I wondered whether to request another from the Hiveman. Of three honey-users in the competition, only the Espanen and one other remained. The third had been eliminated in the second round by a rather excellent concealed entrapment which had bound his mouth and hands swiftly enough that he yielded before suffocating. We had all enjoyed that one.
The court’s Chef des Jeux announced that there would be a brief recess while the competitors prepared themselves for the semi-finals, and my interest, which had flagged like a sailor’s libido after a week of shore leave, was rekindled. Here, at last, the true contest began, from my perspective.
The pause in proceedings gave me time to set up properly for the bouts. I wiped the table down, and then for each semi-final contestant I prepared a small personal pot of clean sucre, and added their own individual requirements.
Guillaume d’Alpes-Huéz, the latest scion of that house to reach the age of maturity without having been horribly disfigured in a duel, was somewhat known to me, though the bulk of his reputation had been won in the south. I never visit the south, as the sun lashes down unmercifully and fashions are thereby more revealing, and hence distracting. But the young man’s growing prowess had been reported as far north as Chânçy, and his entry into this year’s Trials had had ladies of the court all aflutter for tedious months. His style was deceptively languid, a deception easily seen through if any of his competitors had bothered to watch him partake of the juice of an apple in addition to his hit of sucre. The quickly absorbed power of liquid sugars in the juice pointed to a competitor that preferred to get the first hit in early and hard.
His opponent in the first match would be the son of the Turkmen’s ambassador to the court. A favourite with the bookmakers, Rajesh Hussein bar Ahmed was a fiery sort, and his previous wins had all come by rendering his opponent unconscious. He liked using air, and so for him I added a meringue and a light soufflé.
The second semi-final was the one with the highest levels of interest among spectators, however. Two honey mages facing each other, for the first time in a good number of years, and of course that meant there would be a honey-user in the final, an event that had not happened in over a decade of competition. Our Espanen’s name, I discovered, was Catarina Cecilia Joao-Lattes, a pretty mouthful for a pretty girl, and one who had by now made everyone realise that she was a serious contender.
There was no solid information on her background, and so the socialites had invented the details seemingly from nothing more than imagination and wishful-thinking. Depending on how much money they had lost --- or won --- the flavour of those rumours varied wildly. According to some, she was an illegitimate daughter of the Bonbon blood Réal, the ruling House of Espan, which of course had given its name to the toffee-like sweet covered in a light dusting of powdered sucre. That sweet had given them the power to win the crown, and the Espan Dauphin, heir apparent to his elderly father, had been famously profligate in his youth. This, apparently, was enough to invent an entire life history for the girl, born a bastard but supported by her father and showing the promise of that House.
Another tale, darker by far, held that she was an indentured slave masquerading as a freewoman but trained as an assassin by the Moorish connections of the Espan court. The servants of the White had thrown the Moors out of the peninsula some years ago, but many questioned how committed the Bonbons had been to the expulsion, and Moorish influence was still widely apparent in the southern cities. ‘Surely,’ these rumours said, ‘only one so trained could so easily progress against our best?’ Hubris, plain and simple, but there was an ugly undercurrent to this one. I made a mental note to attempt to trace it back.
Other rumours were variations on these, combined in varying measures and served with a great dollop of whispered sauce behind raised fans. One had to wonder what her opponent made of them. That opponent was a home-grown honey-mage from the duchy of Anjou.
Jean-Michel Comte d’Anjou held an unusual place in the nobility of Ferençy. His mother, the noted beauty Evangeline of Aquitaine, had married the duke of Anjou after a previous marriage to the Prefect of Saxe-Coburg ended in tragedy after a hunting accident. Accusations had floated around at the time hinting of her involvement to one degree or another, but nothing ever came of it, and she retired to her estates in Aquitaine, where a stream of suitors of varying degrees of suitability and desperation paid endless tributes to her beauty.
In the end, she chose the duc of Anjou, once a claimant to the throne of Ferençy itself. His majesty had won Anjou as an ally by granting him substantial neighbouring estates, and now the duchy covered some of the most productive lands in the south and west. Adding these to Aquitaine, which young Jean-Michel would do on inheriting, would make the young man the largest land-holder in the country after the White Church.
Which made him currently the most eligible bachelor in the court. Ladies sighed and fluttered even more than usual when they spotted him, and there was generally a very large gathering when he trained at swords. Their majesties had taken to having him trailed by a doctor of medicine to deal with the fainting beauties he left in his wake.
Seated at my desk, I watched as the competitors for the first bout were led up to my desk. D’Alpes-Huéz and bar Ahmed were a study in contrasts. D’Alpes-Huéz was escorted by his second, a cousin of the family who seemed to be imparting an endless stream of last-minute advice, which as far as I could tell was being absorbed by the young man in the same way that a wall absorbs arrow, which is to say, not at all. He looked nervous.
Behind him, bar Ahmed was preceded by his father the Ambassador, who was acting as his second. The Turkmen’s dress was exquisitely flamboyant, with reds and flashes of green accenting the white kaftan. The younger man passed his headdress to his father with a quiet word as they approached me, and bowed in the Turkish style. I inclined my head in response.
‘Salaam, sir!’ he said, flashing a smile. I was nearly blinded by the whiteness of his teeth in that dark face. I smiled in response, unwillingly, but he was an engaging young man.
‘Welcome to the semi-finals, young sir,’ I said in return, bowing at the same time to his father, who stood some distance back. ‘And welcome, Ambassador bar Ahmed. You must be gratified to see your son doing so well.’ I raised my eyebrow questioningly.
‘It is gratifying,’ the elder bar Ahmed said in his wonderfully rich voice, surely the singular reason for his selection to his office, ‘when one’s expectations are met so convincingly.’ He smiled at his son, and there was genuine warmth and pride in the expression.
I indicated the items on the table. ‘Your supplies, as requested.’ Rajesh licked the tip of a finger and touched it lightly to the surface of the pot, and then to his tongue. The aura of power surrounded him briefly, and he smiled as it faded. ‘Excellent work, as usual, Master Castagnède. And the soufflé?’ He wavered momentarily. ‘Or the meringue?’ His voice was thoughtful, and his eyes lost focus for a moment, surely thinking through what he knew of his opponent. He turned to his father, a question on his face, and I opened my mouth to speak, but the Ambassador forestalled me.
‘I cannot help in this choice, my son. It must be yours, for the victory to be yours.’ I subsided, and nodded once, sharply, gratified that the statesman would preserve not just the letter, but also the spirit of the traditions governing the Trials.
The young man nodded soberly, and turned back to the table. His hesitation vanished, and he selected the meringue, pocketing it and taking the pot of sucre into his hand. He bowed once more to me, and then to his father, who conducted him away from the table to the side of the Chef des Jeux. I silently applauded the young man’s choice.
D’Alpes-Huéz arrived at the table with his compatriot, whom I could now identify as Tomas de Morevin, related to the Alpes-Huéz family through his mother who had married into the Morevin family of the northern nobility. Both fell silent as they arrived, and Guillaume gave a distracted nod of acknowledgement in my direction. I nodded back, and they scanned the products on the table.
Guillaume licked his finger, just as young Rajesh had done, and pronounced himself equally satisfied with the sucre. For the juice, however, he did not sample it, merely gulped it down in one long swallow. Almost immediately, his eyes began to shine with power, but he controlled it and suppressed the glow until it merely appeared as a reflection of the sun’s light.
Young, but impressive control, I thought as they two of them made their way to the side of the Chef des Jeux. Certainly, one I could train.
Once both competitors were at his side, the adjudicator led them into the centre of the arena that was the centrepiece of the gardens. Their seconds stood silent at either end of the square where the contest would soon commence. The audience quietened to an expectant hush, and the voice of the Master of Ceremonies rang out.
‘In the fourth year of the reign of his august majesty, King Rudolph of the House Valeur-Angoulème, third of his name, I present to you the first semi-final of the Trials for admittance to the Royal Circle of Mages!’ A smattering of applause. ‘Contesting this match for a place in the final and a chance to study without burden for a year, it is my honour to introduce---’ He paused, and urged d’Alpes-Huéz forward. The young man took a step, and the Master continued, ‘---Guillaume of the noble House of Alpes-Huéz!’
The ladies of the audience burst into fierce applause, and there were not a few hoots and whistles. Guillaume’s compatriots added some guttural chanting whose words I mercifully could not make out, before the Master gestured for quiet.
‘And facing him, ladies and gentlemen, an honoured and exceedingly welcome guest of the court, his Eminence Rajesh Hussein bar Ahmed, by the White’s grace Lord of Medina!’
Another round of applause. Rajesh was a favourite at court, though his temper and impulsiveness had made some wary of his company. The two young men bowed to each other, each taking the other’s measure coolly. The Chef des Jeux indicated that they should stand facing one another in the centre of the cleared area, and retreated to his observation point at one corner. In each of the other corners were independent judges who would give a verdict should the contest not end with a victory. And was it just me, or did I detect an unbecoming haste in that retreat? I smiled inwardly. The head adjudicator of the Trials was not known for his personal courage.
‘Sirs,’ he said loudly once he had reached his position, ‘on my mark you should commence. Three!’ Guillaume dipped a finger in his pot, and licked it clean, replacing the pot in his breast pocket. Rajesh did likewise.
‘Two!’ Guillaume brought one hand up, curving his fingers slightly, and a faint mist gathered around it. The other, he kept behind his back, but from my vantage point I could see a red glow outlining his clenched fist. Rajesh, for his part, held both hands out in front of him, and wore an air of fierce concentration. The space between his hands began to roil subtly.
‘One! Mark!’ The match was on. Rajesh brought his hands wide apart, and the fulminating air between them expanded suddenly, twisting and roaring as it shot towards his opponent. Guillaume’s mist had exploded from his hand, but was swallowed by the funnel of air now advancing towards him. He brought his clenched fist out in front of him, and dodged to one side as he unleashed its power in Rajesh’s direction. But the young Turk had moved also, and the ugly beam of light flashed harmlessly past him, to splash against the barrier erected for the protection of the spectators.
Their first plays thus revealed, the two combatants crouched and waited. Rajesh was still controlling his whirlwind, advancing towards Guillaume who was beginning to look a bit anxious. He brought up his hands, clasped them, and his eyes glowed with the power of apples, turning them a harsh green. He jerked his hands apart, and Rajesh’s wind died violently into a few gentle breezes. The young Turk gave an agonised grunt as the backlash hit him, and sagged slightly. I saw his father half-rise and raise his arm towards his son, but the ambassador controlled himself. I could see him muttering furious words of encouragement.
Guillaume took the opportunity of his opponent’s incapacity to regroup, and licked another finger of power from his pot. Reaching out, he grasped in the direction of one of the trees in the area, and bent it to his will. A dull shriek sounded as the branches grew and stretched towards Rajesh, whose eyes even at this distance grew wide. He back-pedalled hastily, and licked some of his own sucre. A white glow flashed from his eyes and the tree’s green growth was blackened and stilled. Rajesh shouted in triumph, and whipped his sword free.
Holding it aloft towards the noon sun, he cried a word, and the blade lit up with blue fire, crawling sinuously along the length. Guillaume drew his own blade, a thinner rapier compared to the Moorish sabre, and flicked one finger against it, drawing forth a hum. The sound built and crescendoed in the garden, and several ladies clasped their ears in pain. The d’Alpes-Huéz scion pointed his blade at Rajesh, and waves of sound travelled down it and covered the distance between them, bursting against the young man’s hand and throwing his sword free. The blue fire died instantly, but Guillaume was not done. He tracked Rajesh’s movements with his blade, and it was all the young man could do to keep the waves of sonic force from him.
Finally, he gave up evading, and crossed his arms before him, generating a shield of force into which the sound waves hammered. Face tight with effort, he pushed the power away. But Guillaume, sensing weakness, added his other hand to the sword’s hilt, and the volume doubled --- nay, tripled --- in intensity. Rajesh’s shield splintered, and the full force of the sound waves battered his body, throwing him some distance backwards. He cried out in pain, and raised a hand, shouting, ‘I yield, I yield!’ Guillaume lowered his sword, panting with effort, and leaned on it to catch his breath.
The Master of Trials and Chef des Jeux both stood, and the Master declared the bout over. ‘Victorious in the first semi-final, and proceeding to the final --- your majesties, nobles all, please show your appreciation for...Guillaume d’Alpes-Huéz!’ A resounding wall of cheers went up at the formal declaration of victory.
The Master continued, ‘And please, let us also congratulate Lord Rajesh Hussein bar Ahmed on a well-fought contest! I have no doubt we will see him at these trials again!’ The Master bowed to Rajesh, who had by now regained his feet and was limping over to his conqueror.
‘Well fought, indeed, sir,’ he said, smiling through the pain of his ribs, which I suspected were at the very least cracked. ‘A worthy win.’
Guillaume bowed. ‘Gracious of you,’ he said. ‘That whirlwind wasn’t anything I expected, you know. You very nearly had me with that.’
Rajesh shrugged, and then winced in pain. ‘Ach, well, “very nearly” wasn’t quite good enough.’ He flashed another smile, and finished, ‘This time!’
They both laughed, and the Ambassador tugged his son away to have his ribs tended to. Guillaume submitted to the congratulations of the court, and drew away from the contest area, which was currently being swept clean.
‘How exciting!’ exclaimed the queen, nearly bouncing off of her raised chair. ‘Did you not think so, my love? Pierre?’
The king nodded, his teeth bared in a savage grin. ‘A good bout, indeed.’
I inclined my head to both. ‘Aye,’ I said, ‘the match was a close one, if a bit rough around the edges.’
‘Ah, Pierre,’ said the king, stroking his neat beard, ‘your famously refined technique would have carried the day even against young Guillaume, no?’
I laughed deprecatingly. ‘My competition days are far behind me, your majesty, but I saw a few openings that could have been taken, had our Lord of Medina but seen them.’
‘I suppose in that case our young winner should count himself lucky he wasn’t up against you,’ drawled the king.
‘Your majesty is too kind,’ I murmured. A cough behind me drew my attention back to my table, where both competitors in the second bout were waiting patiently. The cough had plainly come from the Comte d’Anjou’s second, whom I saw was none other than his famous mother, the dowager Duchesse Evangeline herself. I rose to greet them both.
‘My lady Evangeline, how wonderful of you to grace the court with your beauty once more,’ I declaimed extravagantly, bowing over her hand. She smiled, and nodded to me as she curtsied gracefully to their majesties.
‘Sire, my queen,’ she said, ‘it is my honour to present my son to you both before he enters the fray.’
The king inclined his head, and the queen said, ‘We shall watch his progress with great interest, my lady of Anjou.’
Duchesse Evangeline thanked them both, and, picking up the pot of sucre for her son, walked over to the Master of Trials. Jean-Michel stayed by the table, and looked over the preparations I had laid out for him. He hadn’t used anything other than clean honey and sucre in previous rounds, so I had put out a selection for his perusal, not expecting him to do anything differently this time around.
But, to my surprise, as well as the small, clear jar of honey, he picked up a formed cane of hard sucre. It was patterned with the familiar brown and white spiral striped pattern than betrayed its source as from the far-off Ferençal client state of Barbadie.
‘What is this?’ he asked me.
I eyed the young man, before answering, ‘It is called canne à sucre, my lord, from Barbadie. Hard, and flavoured with peppermint, and you can see the glassy sheen the makers achieve.’
‘I’ll take it,’ he said, not terribly decisively. He looked around, and spotted his mother chatting to the Master, and when he turned back to me, his face was set with purpose. ‘I’ll take it,’ he repeated, and this time there was a note of iron in his voice, which surprised me. And surprised him, it seemed. He snapped a piece of the caned sucre off and popped it in his mouth. The pot of honey he opened, and using the remainder of the cane, dipped it into the pot and licked it clean. His hair began to shine, and his skin turned a golden brown, seeming to glisten in the sun. He stripped his cape off, and tossed it on the desk. Thus divested, he joined his mother at the edge of the competition area.
Still at the table was the Espanen honey-mage, whose second was one of my peers. Or, I should say, ostensible peers, in that he was a second-rate mage and a third-rate chocolatier. I greeted him with a frosty nod, and his charge with a warmer smile and a bow.
‘Pierre, how marvellous to see you,’ he exclaimed, putting out a hand. I bowed, and he retracted his hand after a moment. ‘Your usual standard of honey, I see.’
Indeed,’ I said blithely, and added with a delightful barb, ‘fresh this morning from their Majesties’ own Royal Hive.’ How I loved seeing him squirm to compliment them on their hive’s quality and wish it productivity evermore. Ah, it’s the smallest pleasures, is it not?
‘Pierre, Pierre,’ sighed the King Rudolph when they had made their way to the edge of the trial space, ‘will you ever stop scoring points?’
‘Not when it takes so little effort, my liege,’ I said drily. He laughed heartily, closing his eyes while his belly bounced. I turned back to the contest, where the Master had already made the introductions, and was counting down.
‘Three!’ Both combatants assumed classic ‘ready’ positions, though there was an odd tilt to Jean-Michel’s left hand that suggested his main teacher had been a woman. His mother perhaps, or one of her circle.
‘Two!’ A gleam of honey-bright argent power gathered around Catarina’s left hand, and coalesced into a faintly translucent shield, round and just sufficient to cover the entirety of her left side. The translucency was a nice touch, I thought, allowed her a mostly unobstructed view even when shielded. Her hand clenched, and green power started to wind along her entire arm, sinuous and shimmering, a fascination pattern that could entrap the mind if focused on for too long. As, for example, one might do in a contest while watching to see what dangers it held. A very nice tactic.
For his part, Jean-Michel had responded by placing his palms together and drawing them apart, leaving a thick strand of golden light between them. Now this, I recognised. A speciality of the southern school, the light could cut through even the toughest metal like a skinning knife through wax, and its flexibility made it difficult to block effectively. A good counter to the shield his opponent held. This match promised much.
‘One! Mark!’ They were underway, and Jean-Michel swept his hands out, thrusting forward and sweeping that straw-coloured light low and hard. Catarina leapt agilely over it, and landed in a roll that allowed her to cut through the beam with her shield. There was a dazzling flash, and when my eyes cleared, both shield and golden strand were gone. Catarina pressed her right hand to the earth where she had landed, and left a gently glowing green imprint. The glow of her hand faded slightly, and then renewed.
Both contestants topped up their honey reserves. Catarina now wound a string of golden light around herself, flickered...and vanished from sight. Spectators gasped, and heads turned as they sought in vain to detect where she was. Jean-Michel did the same, but then his training took over, and he responded with the same spell, a speciality of honey-users. The clear, sweet substance was ideal for manipulating light.
Ah! There, at one corner of the competition area, another green handprint sprang into being. Jean-Michel must have seen it a fraction after I did, as a wave of brightly flaring power swept across the area moments after. But it seemed Catarina was moving, as the wave crashed against the barrier without being deflected or showing her presence.
A game of cat and mouse, I thought, but who is the cat?
Maintaining those light-bending workings would be draining, and they didn’t have a limitless supply. Sure enough, both contestants flickered into view, both dipping into their pots. Jean-Michel sucked on the canne à sucre, and bit a piece off to hold in his mouth. Two more green handprints had appeared, and there was now one in each corner.
Catarina flickered into view in the centre of the space, and a moment later disappeared again, as a spear of actinic power shot through where she had been to splash against the barrier screen. I could hear a sizzle of burning hair, and several of the ladies near me, including the queen, winced in sympathy. That power had come from a corner of the Trials square off to the left, and my eyes widened as suddenly a gout of earth fountained up from that corner.
Ah, I thought, she is trusting her speed to get her out of danger, and using herself as bait to make young Anjou reveal his position. Clever tactics, but I wasn’t sure it was a winning strategy, as even one mistake would cost her dearly.
She flickered into view again by one side of the competition area, and almost immediately again, on the opposite side. Is she using simulacra? I wondered. Maybe she was just that fast.
Jean-Michel’s strategy changed, and he began building a web of fine, golden threads that shimmered in the sun. As the web spiralled towards the centre of the area, it covered the entire space, and it seemed there was nowhere Catarina could move to that would prevent her being tangled in those threads. I didn’t think they would do much damage --- rather, they seemed designed to prevent her from moving so effectively. A decent counter.
But just as Jean-Michel’s web was completed and he arrived in the centre, a cry of triumph came from the young Espanen, and she appeared, hovering in mid-air above the golden strands. Her store of honey was dangerously low, as such a working consumed power as fast as she could take it on. But her right hand raised skyward, and she shouted a word, and pointed at each corner in turn. Those verdantly glowing handprints suddenly flared into life, and lines joining them shot out from each one --- trapping Jean-Michel in their centre! His golden web stuttered and failed, and the green glow brightened around him and flashed a brilliant white.
When my vision recovered, Catarina was on one knee in front of me, panting. Jean-Michel lay prostrate at the centre of the square, unmoving. Evangeline d’Anjou’s hand flew to her mouth, and she rushed over, but the barrier was still in place. The Chef des Jeux gestured, and the barrier collapsed. The duchesse rushed to her son, and smiled with relief when she saw that he was still breathing.
Catarina had regained her feet, and curtsied to their majesties.
‘I do not fight to kill,’ she said quietly, ‘but always I fight to win.’
King Rudolph nodded soberly to her, and then began a slow clap, which was taken up by all the spectators surrounding the garden, until the space reverberated with the thunder of hundreds applauding.
Jean-Michel had by this time groggily got to his feet, and was being helped away by his mother and several of her retainers. He retained presence of mind enough to bow shakily in the direction of his victorious opponent, who returned the courtesy gravely, and departed the field.
‘He shows distinct promise,’ I mused to the king. ‘Sire, do I have your permission to approach him?’
‘As I said,’ replied the king, ‘if you think him capable, then do so with my blessing.’ He checked the water clock beside his chair. ‘There is a recess before the final, in any case, so there is time for you to do so now, should you so desire.’
I bowed, and made my excuses to her majesty and the other nobles, and hurried after the party from Anjou.
I caught up with them just as Lady Evangeline was signalling for her doctor. Jean-Michel was lying on one of the stone benches that were placed at strategic places in the gardens, allowing for stunning views of the floral displays, or for quiet contemplation in a hidden corner. The duchesse’s ladies-in-waiting were fluttering anxiously around like so many pretty butterflies, and being equally useless.
‘My lady,’ I said. ‘Sir Jean-Michel.’ I nodded at the young man, and he waved a hand weakly. I wasn’t sure whether he was acknowledging me or trying to shoo some of the ladies away. ‘I addressed myself to him. ‘Well fought, Comte d’Anjou,’ I continued. ‘I confess myself surprised that anyone did so well against your opponent. I feel certain she shall go on to win the contest this year.’
The young man snorted inelegantly, and it turned into a coughing fit that lasted a large fraction of a minute. ‘I’m sure,’ he began, ‘I will feel...more magnanimous...once I have recovered.’
The Comtesse looked at me sharply, and said, ‘Why are you here, Master Castagnède?’ Her eyebrows beetled alarmingly, and I hurried to answer.
‘I...have a proposal, of sorts, my lady,’ I answered. ‘If you and your son would hear me out.’
She was still for a moment, and shot a look at her son that I could not interpret. ‘Go on,’ she said finally.
‘My lady Duchesse, Sir Comte, you know that I have been their Majesties’ Chocolatier Royale for some years now. My mastery in this area is without peer in the realm.’ She looked irritated, and perhaps I should get to the point. ‘Prior to this, I was his Majesty’s Champion in the Trials, with the highest score ever recorded.’ I paused delicately, and laid out my proposal. ‘My lady, his majesty has agreed to permit me to approach candidates who were unsuccessful at the Trials and ask of them to train under me for a year, prior to their attempting the trials again. I would coach them in refinement of taste and technique, delicacy of application, and,’ I paused for effect, ‘how to win.’ I nodded at them both. ‘Make no mistake, my lord, I can teach you how to win. If there is one thing I know above all others, it is that we are what we can do repeatedly. Excellence, then, is not an achievement, but a habit. A habit I can pass on to you.’The young Comte nodded slowly.
‘Passionate,’ Comtesse Evangeline said sniffily, ‘but you have not competed for many years, Pierre. I have instructors from the best courts at Anjou and Aquitaine. I see no need to add another.’
‘Your instructors have not sufficed this year, madame,’ I returned gravely. ‘What makes you think next year will be different?’ As if an afterthought, I added, ‘And I would of course have to spend a great deal of time in Anjou, where I could provide for your court.’
‘Mother,’ said Jean-Michel quietly, ‘I think it an excellent offer.’
‘Ah, my son,’ she said, and sighed without finishing. ‘If...if you wish it, then.’
He nodded, more firmly. ‘I think I do.’ And he smiled at her. ‘Besides,’ he said, something of his normal twinkle returning to his eyes, ‘it will be good to shake up the kitchen!’
‘It is agreed, then?’ I asked.
‘Aye,’ they said together, and smiled at each other. ‘Go,’ Evangeline told me, ‘and tell his majesty that he will have less of your time than he is perhaps accustomed to.’
I bowed, and took my leave of them. Returning to the Trials, I found that the final had already been and gone, and Catarina Cecilia Joao-Lattes was standing triumphant in the centre of the garden, her dark hair blowing behind her, eyes glowing with the aftermath of the fight. Young Guillaume d’Alpes-Huéz was behind her, kneeling in a supplicant’s posture, head bowed. Defeated.
The voice of the Master of Trials rang out clear and strong. ‘Let it be known from this day forward that Catarina Cecilia Joao-Lattes, formerly of the Espan court, is this day admitted to the Circle Royale as Maestra, with all privileges pertaining thereunto!’ Applause and cheers rang forth from the spectators, and even those who had supported Guillaume reluctantly joined in.
I approached their majesties, and Rudolph raised an eyebrow. I nodded, smiling, and he returned the expression. ‘Ah, Pierre, so we must do without you for some time, eh?’
I nodded. ‘I hope your majesty will not be too discommoded.’
‘We will make do, Master Castagnède.’ He gestured in the direction of the newest member of my circle of peers, now approaching. ‘It seems we may even have found a suitable substitute while you are unavailable, hmm?’
Now that was a wrinkle I had not anticipated. The year ahead promised to be entertaining indeed. The Trials had ended, but it seemed my own trial had only just begun.
You’ve never heard of the Silanda? … It’s the ship that made the Warren of Telas run in less than 12 parsecs.
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Posted 26 September 2012 - 05:27 AM

Submission #3

Author: Sinisdar Toste

From far below, on the empire-sized, stretched-out plate of earth covered in waving golden
grass called Eltin Plain (which was in truth only a small part of a much larger, continent-spanning
empire, with which one Rialuhei Sineien had had something of an unpleasant relationship), the dense,
towering Mirk and the sheer, sky-piercing Rederhod Mountains beyond them were a vision of aweinspiring
beauty. Rialuhei held his breath close, savouring the peacefulness and silence. He imagined if
he were the painting kind of man, he'd take out his oils and easel on this very spot and sit down to paint
a masterpiece; a magnum opus, the golden crown of his career. A crown much like the angelic aura
painted upon the mountains by the rising suns light.
Lips curling into a smirk, Rialuhei sat down, but pulled from his heavy rucksack not paint and
easel, but a folded map, lamb's hide vellum, inked in the beasts own blood. It was the most valuable
thing he owned. Hands reverently halting, he unfolded it, laying it out before him, oriented so that west
pointed the same direction as he. It showed the stretch of forest before him, with mountains marching
north and west a good thirty leagues. A crude notation on the bottom edge gave reference. He was
several hundred paces from the river Inisael, and saw that on the map, the river flowed downward from
a source high in the mountains, pouring over several waterfalls if he was reading it correctly. It surely
came rushing into the forest, but by the time it reached him here, the Inisael was broad, mellow, and
moved, if not slowly, than quite a bit slower than it might in some mountain rapid or something.
Rialuhei had never seen mountains like these before. Where he was from, the land met the sea
with cliffs of varying height for most of the coastline, but they never approached anything resembling
the peaks before him. Far north of Rallophan, the city of his birth, there were the great old Barrier
Ranges, beyond which lay ice, and which had been gouged and wounded by that ice's retreat some time
beyond anyone's reckoning. This was the only explanation that could account for the appearance of
those ranges; so agreed every wisely-bearded scholar of note. They were chewed, gnawed down to low
knuckle bones of their former selves. To the west, there were a few hills that boasted unnatural height,
but the heartlands of the Kalaekan Confederacy were mostly rolling plains.
The Rederhod were the primordial spine of the world, breaking through its skin of vegetation
and soil, thrusting upward like some sea-monster's fin breaching an ocean of verdancy. The towering,
gloom-bound boles of the Lokrisael Mirk reinforced the illusion.
Folding the map, Rialuhei regained his feet. He felt slightly humbled by the omnipresence of his
goal ahead of him, but undaunted nonetheless. He was never one to be daunted, not by anything, and he
possessed a great and overpowering desire to know beauty. To hold it, experience it, cup it in his hands
and feel the warmth of its creation – the warmth of the desires and skills from which creation and
beauty arose.
Yet, Rialuhei reflected as he set out once more, there were many kinds of beauty, and some
defied him. No mortal could hold the beauty of the Rederhod Mountains, likewise the seas and the
cliffs of his home, and fallible human artists captured so little of their true physicality. Furthermore, it
was difficult and fraught to hold the beauty of a woman without crushing it, and some women refused
to be held. These kinds of beauty were timeless, divine.
Other kinds of beauty, to one degree or another, were shaped by men. But what men shaped
could hold beauty. In their labours, they were as little gods, creating using infinitely less refined tools,
methods and materials. Nonetheless, such beauty held value among other men, could afford one power
over them, and this was a thing Rialuhei prized almost as highly as beauty itself.
Within those mountains would be found his fortune. His map – his glorious glorious map –
would take him to it. The best kinds of maps were maps to something, and this map would take him
where he needed to go. For Rialuhei Sineien, Master-Thief Extraordinaire of the Free-City of
Rallophan, First City of the Kalaekan Confederacy, had stolen it, the map. From under the very nosehairs
of the Divine Eskaidorii himself. A hidden drawer in the reading desk of his bedchamber, set
about with all manner of vicious traps, the location gleaned after weeks and weeks of torturous
surveillance. Understandably, the Eskaidorii did not often view such a map, and probably wished he
didn't have to have it – but being as it was a matter of succession, had no choice.
This map was a thing of legend. Hinted at for centuries, all across Menechar. The path to the
motherload, the repository of the wealth of the Kaedorian Empire. This was not some tax-collectors pit
either, filled with coin and ingots. Such things were of course in circulation: in private-vaults and
money-lenders safes, in the purses of the rich and the palms of beggars, spread all across the empire
like seeds. No, these were the spoils.
The Kaedorian Empire, what they called their Daemnod, was nearly seven-hundred years old.
City after city had been conquered. Within these mountains were the furnishings of a dozen palaces or
more, in a vault supposedly guarded by things no man could face and remain sane, never mind alive.
Rialuhei considered that to be superstitious rumour-mongering, spread by Imperial agents for obvious
reasons. They called it The Graveyard of the Failed in the Empire, and the Kaedorian banner is cheered
and blessed, and women weep and little boys dream of becoming soldiers. Rialuhei's people called it
The Lesson. Now, Rialuhei would make that lesson his own, and teach the Kaedorians what it meant to
fail. He'd rob that vault, for he was not only a thief – he was a Magus of the Tenth Order, one of a
handful in all Menechar. What you'd call, in the bastardized Kael that was Rialuhei's first tongue, utzotookolo.
Flicker-walker. A man of the Between.
A day and some later, Rialuhei passed into the darkling realm of the Mirk. Shadows gathered
like physical presences beneath the impenetrable canopy, the branches of the colossal red and grey
cypress' hanging like a cathedral's vaulted ceiling above him. Rotting dead-fall and discolored needles
carpeted the floor in an undulating, treacherous surface, made so by the massive roots he could feel
snaking underneath his footing. He struggled along, clambering over occasional fallen trunks that were
like features of the terrain, so wide the circuit of their girth.
How old this forest was, he didn't know, but it could easily pre-date the empire's first breaths. It
could be thousands of years old, for all he knew. Certainly it had been abandoned by most every
creature that other people considered creatures, the trees asserting a silent and terrifyingly effective
claim on their ground. The only things that thrived in this packed mass were the tiniest mites of
existence. The ones who took the dead needles and branches and turned them into the mulch and
excrement that fed the trees. If he cared to dig down through the forearm thick layer of organic mass,
he would probably find something very sloppy.
There were all sorts of things that had virtually no need for sunlight, unlike Rialuhei, and in this
grim abode of these sentinels of the ages – who had seen seasons come and pass unending, and
watched millions of lives disappear into dust – sunlight was an occasional interloper. Rialuhei already
longed to be climbing free of it, up the passage illuminated on his map, feeling the sun warming his
cheek with each morn. The sun was a thing of unending beauty and life, an almost perfect expression of
creation. He struggled to reconcile the creative and aesthetic beauty of a sunrise with the entropic and
disgusting beauty of the cycles of life embodied by aforementioned slop. No man was perfect.
As he finished a particularly long and exhausting climb up a slope closely packed with ragged,
lichen-encrusted trunks, Rialuhei found himself in a rare space of relative clear. Pink and grey bedrock
actually broke through the canopy in a jutting ledge that the profusion of branches had concealed. It did
not rise so high as to afford him a large view, but he could look through the tops of trees, where
branches thinned, and take note of the position of the sun. Its glow emanated from far to the west, not
long from setting. He would have less than two hours till full dark.
Confident of his ability to continue through any dark, natural or otherwise, Rialuhei carefully
retreated from his vantage and resumed his journey.
In the watch of the night, he reached a cliff-face, and taking out his map, saw it striking through
the midst of the Mirk, reaching to the river in the south-east, and disappearing in the north of the map,
coming to the mountains at an angle. At a point further toward the river, a small note simply said chute
in Kaedorian.
He trekked southward along the cliff for a time, as the moon edged out of view, until he
discovered a narrow slot in the stone. Habitually wary, Rialuhei awakened his senses, probing toward
the chute, which was lined in fitted slate tiles. His tentative spiritual probe met no overt energies, and
so he reached out with a wider hand, tuning all his senses to the examination. A change came over his
vision, his being, and he saw the world as physical and anti-physical. The inherent energies of matter
appeared to his eyes, the stone revealing its makeup so that he might glean its fundamentals.
Someone had set upon them a ritual of ascension, as well as a locking ritual and a trap ritual, for
any failed lock-picker. Rialuhei was willing to bet that most of the would-be pillagers of the vault met
their fate here. Cracking his knuckles, Rialuhei set to the task of unravelling the lock. The key lay in
understanding how the ascension ritual was meant to work, and to understand that, he had to take the
measure of every piece of stone laid by this chute's creator, to learn what the grains desired; what geas
their master had set upon them when he'd called them from the Between.
Rialuhei read them like a book, his touch light yet enlightening, strumming the trembling
strings and finding their path of least resistance. He saw the catch, the work-around of the lock –
which, if not circumvented correctly, would snap the slate tile on the base of the chute, triggering the
trap and incinerating him.
He stepped within the chute, knelt and called upon the air surrounding him, his being stretching
across realities to enforce its will with fists of wind. The wild freedom of air was easier to manipulate
than control directly, and he gritted his teeth with the effort. He caused his stone to hover above the
height of its width, and the ritual of ascension churned into motion. The threshold of tension that held
the tiles in place collapsed, letting the trapped energy surge upward, three tiles underneath him flipping
up and pushing his tile higher, then flipping away again, exchanging with a new layer of tiles as he
passed. Each tile moved in perfect time, clattering in a way that was most meditative.
He rose through the trees and darkness, the moon's silver light peeking through ever more
brightly, as the cliff rose and rose, higher than the canopy bottom, then higher than its thickest
branches. He kept rising, eventually emerging into the ghostly dream-scape of a rocky, scraped clean
cliff-top. More trees sat brooding a few dozen paces beyond, but these decidedly shorter, and he turned
to look out upon the creaking, barely swaying behemoths he'd left behind. From above, with mist
wreathing their branches, they seemed even more sinister, though the only reason he could think to
explain that feeling was that there was nothing but silence from the misty expanse. Not a bird call to be
heard.
The spirit of Lokrisael Mirk was an old and withered one, it seemed to him. Allowing room
only for itself and the conditions it required for survival. He was glad to be rid of it, despite its
interesting aesthetic implications. The community of trees below was of a kind so alien to him, that he
could not help but recognize the raw beauty of it. Those dark boles like brooding siege towers, built
from the bones of the earth. The vast, yet held-breath feeling of the continual silence; how the
crunching of his footsteps seemed at times to return to him from all directions. It was like the trees
were taking his noise, unfamiliar to them, and echoing it back at him like a voice of reproach. Who are
you, bringing such violence of air into our presence? In the deepest recesses of that close set army,
Rialuhei was sure that no wind had ever been felt.
Deciding to take a few hours rest, Rialuhei spread out his bed-roll, and then walked about five
feet away from it. Holding tight in his mind to the real world and his purpose therein, Rialuhei slipped
himself onto the knife-edge between reality and the Between. The world became a glittering version of
itself, matter giving up its naturally ordered construction at his behest. He walked a slow circuit of his
tiny camp, laying in protections against the weather while leaving it open enough to permit fresh air,
carving trip-wards in the stone, and an alarm that would scorch the skin of anything passing through the
perimeter. In order to wake Rialuhei, it would also singe his ears – the dicking about with of Rialuhei's
ears being the one infallible way of acquiring his fullest and most direct attention.
His labor done, he settled under his blankets, warmed them slightly, and fell promptly asleep.
Henceforth, the map led him ever upwards, toward the high cleft in the mountains where hid the
legendary vault. It was marked just a few leagues west of where the Inisael's head-waters appeared. He
climbed switchbacks and scrambled up screes, keeping the rushing river just within hearing distance.
The trees were getting shorter as he climbed. Their needles became brighter, and their branches and
trunks lighter-hued and more gnarled. The sun spread its light and warmth across the mottled grey
slopes and peaks before him. From afar they'd been as a painting to him. Closer at hand, their presence
brought to mind giants crouching around him, moments from reaching out a stony arm and prodding at
the strange visitor.
And a strange journey this one, where he was repeatedly made to feel small. In a lesser man it
might awaken doubt in his abilities, but Rialuhei had seen and accepted his smallness as a young child.
He'd grown in himself since then, but the essential smallness of he, and every other child who'd grown
to adulthood remained. These mountains presented that fact succinctly.
The peaks went from green to grey to purple to white, and the gradient was so compelling he
would find himself slowing down, staring across at one or other of them, studying its lines and faces,
where it slumped and where it reached, where it had its feet and what its brothers looked like beside it.
It was all above him still, and he climbed higher, eventually leaving behind the stands of jackpine
and juniper, the low spreading cedars, and finding lichen and moss beyond them. The river's sound
was often rushing, much more than audible and he would see the mist of waterfalls beyond
outcroppings of rock. He kept to the trail described by the map, finding the switchbacks long, but easier
to take a quicker pace on, and so he doubled his time.
At the dawning of the next day, he finally stopped and had something to eat. Dried meat and
fruit he'd been carrying for weeks. As a Magus, Tenth Order, Rialuhei's body needed less and less to
survive. He was so much of the Between that it had begun to nourish him. It was the raw spontaneity of
creation; that inherent, invisible-to-most energy that gave physical reality a form humanity and life in
general could perceive. One such as he could plumb them, these pure wells of energy threaded through,
around, and within reality. Like an artist he made them swell to the music of his will.
Rialuhei could recall with icy precision his first encounter with the Between.
It was winter, and the thin layer of frost on the grass sent shivers prickling up and down his
spine as he raced through it on bare feet. He felt fleet as a flicker-bird, skipping across muddy lanes,
speeding down stinking alleys, kicking up rock and dust making a sharp right turn and tearing off
across a civic green. Rallophan was known as the Green City, for all the trees and other assorted foliage
that adorned most buildings and every open space. Were it summer, there wouldn't be a window-sill in
sight without some sort of pot affixed to it. Long, wide troughs; deep, narrow buckets; hanging sacks
for the poor – every building would have greenery displayed, and vines climbing the walls, growing
heavy with grapes in the fall.
Rialuhei's mad flight took him to a paved street, where he plunged through crowds at breakneck
speed. Reaching the other side, he caught a low hanging oak branch and pulled himself up onto it.
From there it was a quick climb to roof level, whereupon he leapt to the nearest structure. Damp moss
felt springy under his feet, and a terraced garden of leafy, berry-studded bushes spread out before him.
He turned and went to the roof's edge, searching for the one who'd been chasing him. The man –
guard, mercenary, hired thug, or whatever he was – had been unshakeable for an hour – ever since
Rialuhei had cut the purse of a wealthy-looking woman who'd been engaged at a gem-cutters stall. Not
moments ago, Rialuhei had been about to conclude that he'd eluded his hunter, when the man heaved
himself over the lip of the dry well Rialuhei used as a bolt hole. The well had the advantage of being
placed in a villa's rearmost garden, right on the slope of a hill, allowing Rialuhei, over many weeks of
sweat and toil, to excavate a tunnel from a point at the bottom of that slope, under the well itself.
(Not once during the entire three month process of planning and execution did Rialuhei consider
that an engineering and construction project such as he, a ten year old cut-purse, was about, would be
cause for downright alarm among any adult that might learn of it. The owner of the villa, at the very
least, would have a few curt words to say to his guards. Nothing like this even occurred to him.)
So Rialuhei's bolt-hole was through, as was the tunnel he'd escaped down, and he had nowhere
to go and-
His pursuer stood, arms crossed, absolutely at ease. Face somehow shadowed, staring up at
Rialuhei as he stared down. Terror knotted Rialuhei's chest, and he squeezed the hide purse in his hand
compulsively. He whirled and took off running once more, heart beating a frantic rhythm. He could feel
it in his eyeballs now, as his breathing became more and more ragged. There was a thump behind him,
and he risked a quick glance back, registering that the man was now on the roof, straightening from a
crouch.
How can that be!? No man could jump so high!
Rialuhei sprinted on watery legs into the garden. He lept low fences, dodging ball-shaped plants
that smelt bitter. Vision blurring, he clambered over a lichen-greyed boulder – transplanted from the
sea-cliffs, no doubt. As he crouched behind it, catching his breath, a voice emerged from far too near.
Rialuhei froze like a hair who's stumbled into a den of weasels.
“Child, flee no more, if you value your life. I give you this one chance to return what you've
stolen. Flee no more. Come forth, return what was stolen.”
Rialuhei's eyes clenched shut, and he stayed that way for a moment. Then two moments.
Finally, he opened his eyes, rose to his feet, and revealed himself. His legs felt stiff, and moving into
the open felt good on that one level.
The man who'd cornered him was regarding Rialuhei with nothing more than mild annoyance,
fists resting on his hips. He was a big man, but trim, with legs probably as thick as Rialuhei's torso. His
head was shaved, and delicate, intricate tattooing covered the bald pate. He wore a deep blue coat that
billowed in the fitful gusts coming off the sea, and a tight leather vest beneath that, criss-crossed with
straps.
“Were there naught but coin in that pouch,” the man said, “I would have let you go and blessed
your fortune. But as it is, I cannot allow you to escape.”
As he said this, Rialuhei felt an alien sensation come upon him, saw a visual warping of the
very air before him. Perspectives became chaotic wherever he looked, and in the next instant, the
tattooed man stood before him, face looming. His eyes had been put out; in their place were nothing but
glowering pits of darkness.
“Not with this,” the man hissed, plucking the purse easily from Rialuhei's trembling hands. A
shove sent Rialuhei sprawling, and after spitting dirt, he'd climbed to his feet to find the man already
gone.
For a long time afterward, Rialuhei's greatest obsession had been discovering what the contents
of that purse had been, plus the identity of the woman from whom he'd stolen it, as well as her
apparently sorcerous servant. He'd pursued countless leads to exhaustion, but come no closer to
enlightenment. Years ago now, he'd written it off as a useless enigma, and set his sights on his current
goal.
He could almost feel it growing closer. The vault and the riches contained therein.
In pursuit of some form of answer regarding the purse, power and secrets came ever more
frequently into Rialuhei's hands, as his ruthless inquisitiveness worked its way through the knowledge
of the great sages and philosophers of magic. He'd scoured the continent; learning, mastering, seeking,
discovering, and he'd faced down dozens of deadly threats, while robbing blind nearly everyone he
came into contact with.
Rialuhei Sineien had seen thirty-seven summers since that day, and each year that passed he
filled with pursuit, coming ever more often into violent disagreement with the Kaedorian Empire. He'd
spent many a stretch in imperial gaols and dungeons, but fleeced his way through every scrape. He
desired a challenge, and thus his current mission. The Lesson would be turned, and Rialuhei would
apply it on every level he could.
Another day passed, and another, the Inisael now closer. Rialuhei followed it round the flanks of
mountains, skirting sheer drop-offs and screes of rubble from past rock-falls. At times, these could be
heard to rumble a distant argument in some unknown valley. He climbed, sometimes using his sorcery
to assist in particularly treacherous ascents. As he struggled onward, he noticed that his laboured
breathing seemed to be drawing less and less sustenance into his lungs. The air around him was
apparently thinning, and a quick mental pirouette produced a thicker atmosphere about his person.
The Inisael eventually disappeared through a steep-sided chute, and thence into the mountain.
There, unbeknownst to Rialuhei, a vast glacial lake, fed by melt-water from the heights of the
Rederhod, provided the Inisael's source. He passed over it in ignorance, eye's now flicking constantly
between map and terrain, and when he caught the first glimpse of a curtain-wall in the distance, golden
domes glinting above it, he leapt and hollered, waving the map over his head and breaking into a run.
Ill-considered, as he was forced to climb the punishing slope that presaged the approach to the
vault. Impatience gripped him, and he assaulted it feverishly, pulling himself up with hands that were
soon bloody. In far longer a time than seemed reasonable, Rialuhei climbed onto level ground once
more, gazed upon the walls of the enclosure that hid the vault itself. Massive and dark those walls, with
silvery metal laid in the very stone to resemble the rising-sun and crown of the Kaedorian banner.
Ostentatious for a secret vault.
A thin outcropping of rock enclosed the plateau to the south – reaching out from the mountains
like a fathers protecting arm – and the enclosure sat against the sheer wall opposite this formation.
Gates were well in evidence. Two of them, wooden, tall – your classic castle entry. They weren't
marked on his map. Mind slipping into familiar investigative ruts, Rialuhei studied the map, then the
walls, then began to circle around to the south, keeping one eye each on map and wall.
The inking of the map was rough, but plain, each twist and obstacle in his path revealed and
noted for him in red. The chute, the switchback, mountains he'd passed, ridges he'd climbed. Here at the
vault, it showed the two walls, the corner towers and the vault door within. The walls were represented
by parallel slashes of red, but while the ones which held the gate were identical, the wall he now gazed
upon bulged out slightly on his map. Bulged toward him.
He approached the wall itself now, cautiously, knowing that anything at all could lurk
undetected; that only the greatest and most potent of magicks would be arrayed against him. Looking
down at the map, he hoped briefly that he wasn't overthinking anything. His instincts told him that an
invitation as obvious as the gates could only be a trap – and more, he held in his hand what only the
Divine of Kaedor had ever expected to hold. They would need to know how to bypass the vaults
dangers. Unless, Rialuhei thought with a chill of discomfort, there was some other key, some artefact or
incantation that was required to gain entry. If incantation or magical puzzle, it could take him an hour, a
day, or one hundred days before he defeated it. If artefact, than he was at a total loss, and would have to
spend another period of his life tracking down whatever it was he needed. He came within fifty paces
of the wall, studying it. At almost a hundred spans high, going over, whether climbing or flying, would
see him exhausted before he reached the top. Finding the proper entrance was preferable. He would see
what there was to see, then make a decision.
Calling on the Between, Rialuhei turned his senses upon the blank stone before him, opening
countless cracks in the world, peeling back the skin of reality to peer upon the vital, elemental nature of
it. Revelation filled his mind.
Layers and layers. Stone upon fire, fire upon ice, ice upon earth and earth unto stone. On and on
through the thickness of the wall. Living, writhing, howling layers of energy, stretched taut,
membranous, and thrumming with the will to destroy. To pass through this wall, he would need to
armour himself anew with every step. Each layer would present a new attack, requiring a new defence.
Yet he was relieved. This meant he needn't turn round. That would have stung worse than acid.
Gathering his power close, he stepped forward, shaping it into a cutting blade before himself.
He reached the barrier; saw the seething, actinic layers of power reaching towards him, craving to undo
him, to return his being to the primal energies from whence it sprang. He denied it, breaching its skin
and pushing into the wild maelstrom of the barrier. Hands tight at his sides, he brought the barrier
against a force as great as itself. His will, imposed upon the same universal energy which birthed its
foe, was stronger than chaos itself. He would define order within each layer, for he was order. He was
man. Those who thought. Those who possessed hands to shape.
Fire blazed over him and he answered it with ice. Stone sought to crush his bones and he
banished it to the sky. Each piece of fury that sought to undo him he met with its opposite, its other,
turning over reality as only a creature of supreme focus and will could. A creature of supreme order.
Attacks rippled across his skin, scores at a time, but he plowed forward, a manifestation of
antithesis. Asserting the bindings that defined reality. This actually took less out of him than flying
would have. All he had to do was wait, and react with speed. It required little brute strength – only that
required to endure. Rialuhei knew all about enduring, and no thief worth his salt had poor reflexes.
Soon he found himself stumbling in emptiness, and knew he had passed through.
A smile finding his lips, he lifted his gaze from his feet, seeing a short, rough, pillar with a slot
in its top. His smile twitched and he raised his gaze higher. The smile twisted until it was a sour,
stinking grimace.
Before him, ranks upon ranks of warriors. Most of them appeared to be average men, though
stone, but interspersed throughout their ranks were things quite inhuman.
Most of the behemoths, for they were massive, appeared to be golems. Fashioned of boulders,
their eyes burning coals. Hands like spades that hung to the ground. Some possessed legs, others did
not. Beside these were coiled massive lengths of metal, now humming to life, rotating around and
within one another, spikes jutting from them. They seemed like nothing but cyclones made from steel.
Other conjurations now seemed to activate, for roars and strange noises rose into the air all around him.
It was difficult to see around the serried ranks of stone warriors and giant golems, but that was
of no moment, for every stone face was turned in his direction. He stared back, frozen, and the
conjurations seemed to glance at the short pillar. He studied it. Unadorned, weathered stone. A slot in
the top. Perhaps wide enough to permit a blade.
He looked up. They were all watching him, waiting. He looked back down at the pillar.
Incantation or artefact? Why not both?
Rialuhei looked again upon the creatures before him, a sickly smile working its way onto his
face. He lifted his hands sheepishly, and shrugged.
They attacked.
A split second. This was the time he had before the first javelins would find his flesh. To extend
that, Rialuhei called forth a stone casket, the air surrounding him solidifying instantly. There was no
space between his clothes and the stone, and the encasing weight was comforting as javelins hit and
shattered upon him. He'd left a bare slit for his eyes to see, and little more than a finger-width hole to
breathe through.
The ranks were rushing him, golems reaching hands into their own bodies and pulling out long,
steaming, two-handed swords, black as night and gleaming wetly. The metal contraptions spun even
faster, a horrible wailing sound issuing from them. Rialuhei took all this in, and within seconds had
formulated a rough plan. He had little enough room to maneuver, but he would make the most of what
he did have. The nearest soldiers were within range.
Rialuhei dropped his protective barrier, and fell to one knee, right palm planted firmly on the
ground. He looked up at the blankly impassive faces of the automatons, and with an unleashing of
power that he felt between his manhood and his anus, tore the earth beneath them apart. Geysers of dirt
and rock blasted into the faces of the front ranks. Explosions ripped through them, blowing hulking
golems to pieces. The toothed metal coils were thrown backwards by the force of the blast, and
Rialuhei saw with alarm the path of devastation they carved through the courtyard. The energy of the
explosion only seemed to make them spin faster.
Dust and shattered rock descended all around; a strange, clattering rain. Ten feet before him the
stone of the courtyard simply dropped away. He'd made a deep ditch, pulverizing rock in a line across
the breadth of the courtyard, sides collapsing inwards. He could hear and see more soldiers pouring into
that gully, attempting to climb up the opposite side. Golems still moved forward, and now there were
several metal tornadoes spinning in arcs that held Rialuhei as their terminus.
He ran, ingloriously, sprinting left, making for a tall statue that abutted the base of the nearest
corner tower. Only two of the tornadoes on this side, with the majority of the golems trapped amid the
mass of soldiers still trying to cross the cracked floor. Presently, a few of those managed to leap the
gap, astounding Rialuhei with their ability. He turned on them, a rope of burning energy coalescing in
his hands, ripping across their path. They fell to pieces, legs and arms flipping away. Stumbling to
bring himself around, Rialuhei ran on, eyeing the two metal horrors as they spun toward him, tearing
shallow furrows in the stone, giving them another layer of attack.
He ignored stinging shards as they gifted him a set of scars, pulling the air above the things
inside out, converting it to stone. A massive slab toppled from nothing, cutting across the path of the
cyclones. They were crushed to the ground, and Rialuhei felt a burning triumph. It did not last, as rock
burst apart, metal springing back up and chewing it to pieces. How to disperse their kinetic energy?
Colliding with similar energy simply strengthened them. They were almost upon him. Deadly missiles
flew in all directions now. A bead of sweat formed upon Rialuhei's brow.
What was energy? Most often, it was heat. A lack of energy, a lack of heat; both translated to
cold. Rialuhei clenched his fists, took a step back and wrenched at the very fabric of the world. He stole
what little heat the air held, and even in the thin mountain atmosphere, enough water vapour remained
to crystalize into ice, freezing the cyclones in glittering rivers. It crawled up and down the contraptions
with clear blue fingers, and they stuttered to a halt, silvery metal rusting before his eyes, cracking,
falling, and bursting into pieces. He could feel the cold leaching into him, shrugged it off impatiently.
He hurdled the remains of the cyclones, followed by a mob of soldiers, golems sweeping their lesser
kin aside with their inexorable forward motion. It looked like a landslide rushing after him.
He glanced up, where the door of the vault itself awaited him. Wide steps led up to it, and while
richly appointed and clearly heavy enough to hold back an army, the doors themselves stood open.
Rialuhei could not believe his eyes. Surely this was another trap?
He faced the oncoming horde – fatigue was setting in now – and raised his arms above his head.
A hurricane wind burst from him, rushing toward the stone constructs, blowing them back, pulling
golem heads from titanic shoulders. They crashed against one another, shattering further, and some
were caught up in the remaining tornadoes of death, which rebounded and shuddered with each impact.
He ran for the door. He couldn’t waste any more energy on these guardians, when there would be far
more potent threats within.
Rialuhei bounded up the steps, hearing the myriad sounds of his foes gathering themselves, then
he was slipping into the darkness of the vault, pulling the weighty door closed behind him. It shut with
a dull boom, and either all noise without was ended, or the doors sealed it beyond his hearing. He
turned to peer about himself, his enhanced vision picking out a dull, listless energy. What a room of
mundane stone projected, though it was filled with an acrid stink that reminded him of snakes. With a
modest exertion, he lit the chamber.
Two massive beasts occupied it, shielded from his enhanced senses by sorcery equally potent.
They were reptillian, long-bodied and sleek like blades, jaws deep and wide enough to swallow
Rialuhei in a gulp. A hissing arose from them, crests lifting from necks, and they darted forward on
four limbs. Rialuhei made to run left, then cut right, ducking under the snapping jaws and airborne
body of the first lizard, who had leapt to intercept his feint. He straightened in time to be knocked from
his feet by the shoulder of the second animal. He slid through dust, and fetched up against the door,
slamming his head on its unyielding surface.
Stars swam in his eyes, and it was only on a surge of desperation that he threw himself clear of
a lunging bite. Rialuhei scrambled to his feet, heart-beat throbbing in his skull, and made for a shadowy
corner. Thumping foot-falls behind him announced the nearness of his pursuers, and as he reached the
darkness he threw himself down, relinquishing the sourceless glow he'd been maintaining in the
chamber. As he hit the ground, he softened the stone, sinking into it and allowing it to cover him over.
He maintained a bubble of air over his nose and mouth, providing him a few minutes breath.
The lizards pounced on the spot where he lay, and quickly became frustrated, then confused.
They scratched and tore at the stone, but their talons were no match for Rialuhei's talents. After a time
they retreated, scrabbling at other corners of the room.
How smart were these beasts? Smarter than the automatons outside, to be sure. Those would
have minds filled with a single command. If this condition is not met, kill. These were likely a true bred
animal, though nothing like Rialuhei had ever seen, and seemed to possess the intelligence of a hunter.
They would go over the entire room before returning to where Rialuhei lay, or perhaps report to a
master deeper within the vault.
In the moment before the lizards had fallen upon him, he'd seen the portal that provided egress
from the chamber. It was a large arching thing, without doors, meaning he'd be on the run as soon as
they noticed him making a break for it.
With his stone protection, Rialuhei's hearing was sub-par, but he could feel the vibrations of feet
on stone, and they seemed far off, moving farther every step. Slowly, he peeled back his protection,
rolling over in the man-shaped indent he'd created. He was plastered with sweat, his clothes clinging to
him. He lifted his head, scanned the room. A pair of tails pointed toward him, waving back and forth.
Rialuhei sat up, then pulled his legs in and sprang to his feet. He knew they'd noticed as soon as
he began running, for their hisses were vindictive and one clacked dagger-long teeth. Rialuhei ran flat
out, not a thought given to stealth, and plunged through the doorway into the deeper blackness beyond.
With a stitch forming just under his ribs, Rialuhei caused a blue glow to emanate before him, letting a
blinding white light project behind him, burning into the eyes of the reptilian guardians.
Hisses of fury turned to those of pain, and he heard a trumpeting bellow erupt from one. Claws
scraped across tiles as they skidded and slid in his wake, tails whipping, knocking trinkets off piles of
riches that crowded the aisle Rialuhei fled down.
Piles of... by the Gods!
Not slackening his breath-punching pace, Rialuhei Sineien gazed upon the greatest hoard the
world had ever known. It dazzled his eyes, and he increased the intensity of his forward light, barely
hearing the reptiles still thrashing behind him. They'd be on his heels again soon enough, even if
blinded. But the treasure!
It was everywhere, piled against pillars, spilling into the aisle, hung from the ceiling and walls,
shining in every shade of wealth. The lurid red of rubies hung reflected in vast gold plates. His light
glittered on sapphires that were tears of the ocean, suspended from chains of finest platinum which
depending from the cupped hands of golden cherub statues. On and on, a gallery of masterpieces from
innumerable smiths and artisans, their hearts vision poured out and plated in finery, creation wrought in
a stunning simile of the imagination, unrealities practically heaving with their vitality and thereness.
Rialuhei could not feel the smile splitting his face, nor the tears that poured down his cheeks
upon the catching of a scent he'd not known in decades. At first, he could not identify it, speeding
through shimmering corridors, taking arbitrary turns to confuse his pursuers. The smell lingered on the
edge of his awareness, soft, like the brush of a thought half-formed. He found himself drawing it deep
into his lungs, his stitch gone. It was a sweet smell, but thick and ripe, like some sort of pie... no, it
wasn't as wholesome as all that. It was free, wild. It was, he realized with dizzying shock, the smell of a
hundred-thousand flowers of countless variety, all blooming in a frenzy of pollen and insects.
The smell of Rallophan, Green City, in spring. How? What is this vapour? Am I drugged?
Presently, he came to a door, and he slipped hastily behind it, breathing more easily with a
barrier between him and those lizards. He dimmed his light considerably, finding himself in a smaller
antechamber, one inhabited by a family of statues. Some royal line or other. Mostly men, some in
armour, some without. Only two or three represented women and each was a unique ideal of beauty.
The scent had not left him, and now he thought, beyond all reason, that he could hear a thin
strain of music, easing toward him on a cool gust of air. Warm, light and plucky, for all the life of him
like something played on an eirozither. He almost felt as though he sat beneath the spreading canopy of
a willow, while his (long dead) sister, worked her fingers across the board. Shaking his head, Rialuhei
pushed himself off the door, crossing the chamber and exiting into a much larger hall, similar to the one
he'd left.Statues of chariots paraded down the centre, while archers lined the walls. An entire army of
gold statues? Where in the gods had that come from? So many histories stolen and locked up by the
Kaedorians. He decided that he would start with these ones.
Before coming to this place, he'd already decided how to move such a vast amount of treasure
himself. To do otherwise would have been foolish, and so he'd prepared a place. Stone was more
amenable to such impositions, for it was old and slow in itself, and within that elemental crush, he'd
carved out and reinforced his own vault, beyond the veil of reality. He opened himself to it now.
Arms spreading wide, the sounds and smells of Rallophan a distant murmur, Rialuhei reached
out to close his will about the army of statues. He took them all within the scope of his awareness,
sounding their natures to the core, and becoming one with them.
And he was one with his vault, and all three became one, and then three, and Rialuhei released
his breath. The room was empty. The statues gone. Perhaps forever. He could leave the treasure in his
little vault until the patient power of the Between crushed the life from it, undoing all the ordered
beauty within.
He hurried across the hall to another door, through a room filled with chests he did not deign to
investigate, and into a third hall. Wondering how many of these there could possibly be, a soft sound
brought him around sharply.
Recognition rocked hm. The bald head tattooed in patterns. The empty sockets, the hard lines;
the face was unchanged. Him. The one who'd motivated his life since the age of ten.
“Ah, at last.”
Rialuhei blinked. The man spoke as though he'd been awaiting an old friend, some
acquaintance, ever the late-comer, who'd yet been eagerly anticipated.
Rialuhei opened his mouth, but found his throat constricted. He'd not spoken aloud in weeks.
Air hissed through his throat, and Rialuhei closed his mouth, swallowing hard, “Who are you?”
he croaked at last, the words escaping as a hushed scrawl, like dry leaves circling a courtyard.
“Aimindsahd,” the man replied, “keeper of the Vault. I have but one directive regarding all
those who come seeking plunder. Would you like to hear it, Rialuhei?”
Struggling to form words, Rialuhei gaped, “You cannot be he.”
Aimindsahd frowned ever so slightly, “But I am. Let us not play games Rialuhei. We know each
other. I know why you have come, even if you do not.”
“I am here for the wealth of an empire,” Rialuhei rasped.
Aimindsahd smiled, “No Rialuhei; that is what you tell yourself. You are here... for it.”
The man's smile broadened seeing awe spread across Rialuhei's face. It. The thing within the
purse. Even after all these years, Rialuhei clenched his hand reflexively, feeling the soft hide compress
within.
Aimindsahd indulged a low menacing laugh, “Yes, you remember. Even back then,
unawakened, its power marked you. Changed you, set you headlong on a path you didn't even realize
you were walking.”
“I knew for what I searched,” Rialuhei got out.
“Perhaps,” Aimindsahd agreed, with a gesture that said he couldn't care less, “But now it is
awake, and it is here. Thus my prime directive. I must lead you to it, but,” and he raised a long finger,
“Should you refuse to see it, then we shall do battle.”
Rialuhei's throat, parched already, dried even more. The sounds and smells of Rallophan
redoubled, washing against his senses, filling him with longing greater than lust, desire greater than
anything he'd ever known.
“Where?” he whispered, and Aimindsahd smiled.
Aimindsahd – monk, sorcerer, whatever – led him only a short distance, to a door that seemed
no different from any other Rialuhei had seen. Yet around it shone a flickering aura, yellow and blue,
iridescent and seductive. He could almost hear the creak and sway of the great trader ships moored at
the docks, smell the pitch-dipped cordage and the smoke and stink of fishwives preparing meals. Tears
crowded the corners of his eyes as he imagined the sight of Rallophan, a green mountain rising from
the sea. A breeze tickled his neck, sending shivers down his spine, and as he raised his hand to the door,
it swung open before him.
He took two quick steps within, fell to his knees.
Unrecognizable sounds emerged from his lips, his sweaty palms reaching forward, toward the
vision of beauty that assailed him. His mind felt like fireworks were popping off within it. The smells
and sounds of home were sweetest vapour, intoxicating him, flinging his reserve to the winds. His
vision seemed splintered into scenes, each lingering but a moment before being plucked away. His
home, his people, more beautiful than they could possibly be in reality. Tender scenes of hearth and
home, proud circumstance marching down flower strung avenues, maidens slipping blossoms beneath
the breastplates of knights. A quiet moment in the back garden, soft hands and rose-blossom lips
pressing against a skinned knee, wrapping it in clean, white gauze.
His face had begun to ache with the ferocity of his grin, and tears poured unceasing down his
cheeks. He could not look away, could not even form the prerequisite thoughts required for making the
decision to turn away – even when he felt the blade slide smoothly into his body. He felt it prick his
heart, pierce it, and even then he could not tear his eyes from the beauty that arrested his every organ.
Sliding the golden blade from the thief’s body, Aimindsahd surveyed the empty room he stood
within. There was nothing but a tiny ball of metal sitting on the ground. His eyes had been put out, and
his other senses altered in ways less obvious, so that its sorcery could not affect him. He cleaned the
blade of Rialuhei's blood and slid it back into its hidden scabbard. Then he dragged the body into an
adjoining chamber. This chamber held a heavy iron door, and with a wave, it slid back.
Blue sky was revealed beyond, mountains interposed in the near distance. Aimindsahd dragged
Rialuhei to the threshhold and flung him out into the void beyond, not even bothering to watch the
body's descent. He figured that by now, a not-insubstantial pile of bones would have collected down
there.
He returned to the other chamber, looked down upon the Amitza. To him, it was nothing but a
writhing bundle of elemental energies, but he'd had its effects described: A mirroring of the subjects
happiest memories and deepest desires, the draining away of any suspicion, the twisting of perception
to turn reality into a bouquet of bliss.
All those years ago, they'd finally tracked it down in Rallophan. What better defence against
thievery could there be than the thief’s greatest desires, when what promised the fulfillment of those
desires entrapped the will?
As he returned to his quarters, he passed through an empty hall, formerly home to the
Bilchaesin Host. The Divines wouldn't be pleased with its loss, but really, was there any difference
between where the statues had been and where they were now? Either way, the world had forgotten that
fierce nation, pounded into dust centuries ago.
He returned to his rooms and sat upon his favourite chair, putting an elbow on one armrest, chin
resting in hand. He hoped there would be another attempt on the Vault soon, perhaps in another fifteen
years. Things could get frightfully dull in these intervals.

This post has been edited by Shinrei: 29 October 2012 - 09:12 AM

You’ve never heard of the Silanda? … It’s the ship that made the Warren of Telas run in less than 12 parsecs.
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#5 User is offline   Shinrei 

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Posted 06 January 2013 - 01:37 AM

Submission #4

Author: Dolmen+

Plan.


A grizzled door guard in a well-tailored coat and suit stood in front of a large shutter door. The door was at the end of a snow laden alley, A single lamp, hung under a bright green awning, covered the area in-front of the door in soft yellow light. The man’s black polished shoes seemed planted in an island of luminescence, as though the man stood in his own private pool of sunshine. Just below the lamp the words Admission reserved, glowed faint neon red. Every so often the sign flickered brighter, fitfully bathing the man’s face in red.
At the mouth of the alley another man came into view, his outline obscured by the gently falling snow. This newcomer was a head shorter than the guardsman but still quite tall; wearing a hat that hung low over his eyes .The man from the alley mouth made his way towards the door, as he came into view the light above him filmed his thin rimmed glasses with a flickering orange tint. This same light cut harsh shadows along the length of his face making his features seem sharper than they had to be. The man in the suit followed the newcomers’ approach eventually glaring down at this new arrival, now standing a few paces away. He wore a pair of pinstriped pants and a light-green shirt, untidily collared with a wrung out olive tie. Over the shirt he wore a vest coat of a darker colour, also pinstriped. A darkened silver chain hung from his necktie to his pocket glittering in the cold. The man in the suit grinned, his hand never leaving the butt of his gun.
“What ya doin’ here son? Ya lost?”
The man in a green vest coat pointed at the door and made a few gestures. The guard let his grin slide. The shorter man made as if to speak but the words wouldn’t come out.
“look here kid, no one around here gets that monkey shit you doing with your hands. Step away. This ain’t no care house.”
The guard pointedly flexed his fingers gripping the gun holstered at his waist. The man in the vest coat gave a small smile and nodded his head repeatedly. He backed away and stepped out of the light. A little wave and he was off, heading back the way he came. The guardsman spat to his side and rolled the tension out his shoulders stretching his suit. He looked up at the darkening, snow shedding sky. Fuck, It had been a long day. Lighting a cigarette the big man propped himself up against a wall and waited. Sometime later, another figure broke the light from the alley mouth. This one brought a smile back on the suits face.
“Been a while since I saw a walk like that. Gloria? That you?” A shapely figure swayed easily into the light. She had dark, straight hair that fell down the left of her face. She wore a heavy brown coat but red and blue shimmers still managed to catch the lamp-light around her neck and ankles. The coat did nothing to hide the curve of her hips, and as she strode out from under the snow and closer to the protection of the covered door flashes of bare calf escaped the hem of her dress.
“Sly, it’s been months!” The guardsman, Sly, spread out his arms and gave her a brotherly hug.
“I thought you were done with us types? I heard you were moving up in the world...”
Gloria smiled jadedly, her head tilting to the side. ”No one’s ever done with you types. The outfits a lifetimes deal remember?” Sly gave her a world weary smile, his hand returning to the Butte of his gun.
“Ain’t that the truth? What brings you out here? This city ain’t the homey kind you come back to.”
Gloria adjusted her coat, drawing it close about herself. “I needed to see him. I need to see the Wise Man.”
Sly stared intently at Gloria, she looked to the side, a small smirk on her face, but her eyes held something fragile in them. I guess she got the news... Sly caught himself staring at Gloria’s attractive face and coughed, looking away.
“You gonna take the path again? Gloria, this place is a nut house. The things they’ve been up to...” Sly sighed “Well I guess he’s in there, they’re all in there, big bunch of cross eyed loons, no offense.”
Gloria flashed a smile, “None taken.”
“English Eric said they haven’t needed his...services in days.” Sly gestured back out towards the alley mouth, rumbling his words. “It’s hell out there, what with ‘em hitters running wild trying to take over the city. We’re keepin’ clear of the regal zone. Letting the new blood duke it out before making a deal with whatever band of psychos wins this damn civil war. Me I couldn’t care less but them loons? Well it’s got their mouths frothing. They think someone’s coming for the big guy. Like anyone cares?”
Gloria’s eyes had widened, just a fraction at the mention of English Eric. She shook her head “Don’t know how you guys live like this. Let me in Sly, its cold out here, even my coats shivering.” Bill grinned and nodded as he replied “Funny. Play nice, Ol’ Eric’s been extra touchy these past few days, you know, for a loon that is.” Gloria grinned back in reply.
He knocked four times before he opened the door. Gloria patted his cheek and made her way into the guardroom where three other goons all called out greetings, all manner of weapons still in hand. She passed ‘em with a casual wave and smiled as she made her way out the stairway door.
As the last glimpse of hip swayed out of view behind the stairway door Sly turned to allow the shutter door to close. Two sharp stabs to his chest made him cough. Something slipped past him so he thought to call out to Charlie, the guy closest to the door. He opened his mouth to shout, only blood gurgled out instead. Something blurred past Charlie, who was now falling, his throat split open by a surgical cut. Only when it got to Jim and drove an arm into his belly did Sly recognize the tiny man from earlier. The attacker stepped to the side as the last guy, Eddie, leveled his shotgun. A gesture and the gun clattered to the floor, arm still attached. Sly blinked. The door begun to close and the man in a vest coat and olive tie turned back to face the dying guardsman. His smile was cold, Eyes almost inhumanly bored behind the thin rimmed glasses. Without turning his gaze away from sly he crushed Eddies’ throat then made some gestures with his hands. Smiling wider now he whispered in strangely thick, accented English.
“To be honest with you friend, I have not a clue what these motions mean either.” Sly coughed up more blood. Chuckling, his killer walked away. The shutter door eased to a close, soon after, everything faded to black.
*
The Corridor was dark. Gloria’s high heels made a faint click against the masonite floor as she walked. Utter Silence behind her was good enough a sign of her associates’ completion of phase one. The pieces of her plan were falling into place. “Now for step two.” She smiled to herself.
Up ahead of Gloria loomed two massive steel doors, standing at twice a man’s height they looked impenetrable. Large, cylinder like pistons loaded the hinges with a huge draw-brace running across the front. Sighing wistfully Gloria walked up to the interface, a pedestal just, a few meters before the reinforced portal. The screen came alive, streaming a feed with a centered shadowy figure in what looked like priestly attire.
“What do you want Gloria?” asked the figure, in a weary nasal voice.
Gloria replied with a smile, leaning into what she assumed was the lens. “Same old English Eric, you look well. The Shadows suit you.” She pointed her thumb behind her. ”Look, Sly let me in, Thought he’d have passed the word on by now. I want to see him, I want to walk the path again.”
There was a pause and the shadowed figure seemed to bow his head in thought. A blurry noise buzzed out the speakers. It took Gloria a while to realize the man on screen was laughing.
“The stones on you! I watched the act you played on Sylvester. I monitor everything that goes on in this building; you think I wouldn’t spot the assassin you set on him and his boys? How dare you think you’d just waltz in and talk to the Wise One?”
Glorias eyes grew large, “Eric? What are you talking about? Quit playing around priest! I know we never saw eye to eye but I don’t need your fucked up accusations. I’m part of the family. I earned my spot in it just like everybody else. I want to come home damn it. Let me in you asshole!”
There was silence. Long and steady, then Eric began to clap.
“I’ll hand it to you, You sure can play a part. But I know all about you, Gloria. Or do you prefer Maralaina?” Erics voice grew smug as he spoke the last few words, Glorias face relaxed, her feigned outrage evaporating like mist. “That’s right. The Wise One knew, he always knew. And now we can see you for the floor crawling scum you are.” Eric made a motion off screen, gas started to fill the corridor. “It’s time you bit the dust, a bitch like you deserves nothing less.”
The woman known as Gloria disappeared as Maralaina fell into a fit of laughter. After a while she started coughing and managed to calm herself, wiping tears off her eyes mirthfully. She drew her hands up covering her mouth as she talked back, her accent shifting, taking on a slightly foreign tilt. “Oh that is wonderful. I Have not been called Maralaina by a Britannic in…God, It has been ages.” Maralaina looked around her. The white, powdered smoke was now up to her ankles. The door back to the guardroom had been sealed. “You win old man. I Thought I could keep you hooked a while longer, perhaps have more fun playing dearest Gloria? Oh but alas, I’ve been revealed.” Gloria raised her hands up dramatically. “Sad thing is…you die regardless.”
“What on earth are you-“
A blade slid out from the centre of the priests’ chest, it retracted then reappeared twice more in quick succession. Eric slid limply off his chair, Gasping. Maralaina shook her head ruefully.
“H-How…?” he began to ask but the wounds were terribly precise. He died eyes wide in confusion.
“Poor Eric,” Maralaina said “Kept his eyes on me the whole time, and missed the detail of his guards being slaughtered right outside his door.” A man wearing a vest coat and thin rimmed glasses came into view, sitting himself into the now unoccupied chair. “Andrei.” She intoned solemnly.
“Mistress Maralaina.” A thick accent coloured every syllable.
“The work of an Ice-blood is as efficient as always.”
Andrei smiled darkly. “I aim to please Mistress. Your plan has worked smoothly.” Andrei pressed a series of buttons as Maralaina had instructed. The automated vault doors began to open. Simultaneously low lying vacuum ducts activated within the corridor, sucking out the poisonous white smoke. The open vault revealed another door, this one ornately carved in a design that curved outwards in the form of an ever rising eagle wearing a crown. There were no handles but a circular dial with five engraved panels occupied the centre. Maralaina inspected the door, frowning.
A few moments later Andrei’s whip-like figure came through the door at the other end of the corridor. He moved in quick, precise steps, ever in perfect balance, he always looked like a predator on the hunt. Men like him killed on instinct.
“Like I suspected, the glyphs have changed.” She caressed the engravings “Call Viktor and the rest of our men. Make sure to bring the orphan as well.”
Andrei bowed, but seemed to hesitate, as if mulling things over. “Mistress, we storm the home of a cult you once served falsely. I rarely concern myself with such things but…this charlatan Wise One, this...Isaiah? He has held this sector through reputation, inspiring the local community into worship even. I expected…more protection for such a man.”
Maralaina looked back at Andrei, her expression unreadable behind long strands of lustrous black hair. She closed her eyes, reciting as though from some written scripture, “The lie will always consume. Fear for the soul you feed it.” She looked to the door, speaking in a whisper. “Once, as Gloria, I walked the path to its conclusion. I walked right into Isaiah’s inner sanctum. I recall little of it but for those words and a blinding sense of his pain and suffering, yet he lives on for what we believed has been millennia. Isaiah is powerful. He doesn’t need guardsmen. They do not protect, they merely obscure who and what he truly is.”
Andrei stared at Maralaina, his mind clearly working through the meaning to her words. “You believe in the faith? That this Isaiah is some sort of immortal?”
Maralaina looked back, a smile on her lips. “And what if I did Andrei? Would that change anything about what we are here to do?”
Andrei hesitated, then shook his head. “No, the mission is clear.”
“Then go, collect our brothers.”
Andrei left Maralaina, silent and quick. Only then, when he was long gone, did she allow her fear to claw at her. She calmly found a quiet corner to the side and violently began to throw up.
*
Viktor and the rest of the men arrived swiftly, having been ordered to hide close by in the surrounding buildings. They numbered twenty odd of Maralainas best men, veteran soldiers, now dressed in military ware and ill fitting green suits. If Andrei was built like a whip slung at your eyes Viktor would be the battle axe swung at your hip. He was a massive man, heavy set with the physique of a bear. In one hand he cradled a small child, a girl of eight years wearing a night gown of blue silk. In his hands she looked infinitely fragile.
The soldiers filed into the corridor, as they walked into the room Maralaina rose, steeling herself for the next phase of her plan. She took the child from Viktor who then barked orders to ready the men. Ignoring the flurried movement around her Maralaina gently set the child to the ground, directly in front of the intricately carved door.
“Mother, The door is wood. Must I make it open?” The child spoke as though in a trance. Maralaina knelt beside her, moving slowly so as not to confuse the little girl.
“Yes little one. This is the puzzle I told you about, open it and father will treat you to something nice and sweet.”
The child’s face lit up, she looked excitedly back at Viktor now in rank with the rest of his men. He nodded solemnly.
“See?” Maralaina spoke, her hand caressing the little girls auburn hair “Father agrees.” The child nodded and slowly began to feel the engraved panels, pressing them in a sequenced pattern only she could see. Maralaina rose and paced backwards slowly. Trying hard not to think of what might happen if the child failed. When the child had finished the panels glowed with faint amber light. The center spun to the left unlatching the door.
“Good girl,” Maralaina let out a faltering breath. “She’s done it. Viktor collect her. Andrei guard Viktor and the girl, the rest of you, storm on my mark. Three, two-”
At that moment all hell broke loose. There was an earth shattering detonation, the door shattered into pieces from the force of it, flinging shards of timber out into the corridor along with the rag-dolled little girl. Viktor dived to catch and shield her. The others hit the ground but not before the door splinters caught three of the men. It was then that Maralaina saw him, a single crazed zealot, barefoot and naked from the waist up. He was riddled in dark purple splotches. The breath from his mouth misted in the air, in each of his arms he held an assault rifle with a grenade launching attachment. He smiled, pure insanity and malice dancing in his eyes. Leveling his weapons at Maralaina he screamed “I clearly see the path! Joyfully I plead to thee! Bathe in its wisdom!”
The madman opened fire. A bullet caught the side of Maralainas shoulder rocking her back, as two of her own men dived forward to return shots of their own. Two of the bullets caught the zealot in the chest, one striking his jaw. The zealot didn’t fall, continuing to spray bullets into the room until five more shots drove him to the ground.
Andrei moved first. He sprinted forward and past the zealot, a slash suddenly appearing across the crazed mans neck. Black blood oozed out thickly. Then Andrei was through. Maralaina, dazed from the detonation pulled out her own gun from under her coat pocket. She made as though to stand but fell over, still disoriented from the blast. [I]Gods, the girl...[I] she forced herself to focus. Viktor roared at the soldiers now finding their feet. Already shots could be heard on the other side of the door. They needed to get through and fast. Forcing herself to her feet Maralaina spotted Viktor charge through the door, the bloodied form of the little girl in one hand, an HK in the other. The Long haired female commander followed the burly soldier, stepping into a nightmare.
The room on the other side was bathed in a faint incandescent light. The smell of blood and gun powder filled the air. This much Maralaina had expected, but even thicker than this was the stench of long decaying flesh. All around her dead bodies lay strewn across the dark tiled floor. Splotches of purple covered the recognizable patches of skin she could see. The bodies were horrendously mauled; soldiers’ eyes widened in recognition of the bite marks, clearly inflicted by human teeth.
“Oh God!” One of the soldiers had tripped over a particularly grisly pile of bodies, one of the bodies reached out an arm, clawing at his face. A fellow soldier, Marcos, Shot the moving corpse twice in the head. The few zealots still standing looked no better than those now lying dead on the floor. They were armed and fired indiscriminately, catching themselves in the cross fire, oozing more blackened blood.
In their midst was Andrei. Moving with inhuman speed he dealt death indiscriminately. Dancing out of the line of fire while cutting at arteries and exposed throats. Viktor had picked up a cultist grenade launcher on his way in and now fired at clustered groups. The remainder of Maralainas men fired at open enemy lines. Bullets flew everywhere. Maralaina scrambled for cover behind a concrete column, she let of two shots, one catching a zealot in the neck, barely slowing him down. Victor finished him off with a lobbed grenade, side stepping his way to a column not far from the column his commanding officer had crouched behind.
“How is the child? Will she live?”
Viktor held her close, from what Maralaina could see, she was a blistered mess but still breathing. Viktor grunted. “Not good.” Maralaina couldn’t stop herself from snorting out a laugh. Viktor didn’t waste words.
Something landed in front of the large soldier, something Maralaina couldn’t see. Viktor picked it up from the floor. He looked at it for a moment, and then nonchalantly threw it out into the midst of purple specked insanity. Seconds later the grenade blew up. Viktor didn’t bat an eyelid.
The big man grunted, “There’s too many.”
Maralaina had to agree. She’d suspected some growth in the cult since the thirty or so that she’d lived with but this? There were at least a hundred cultists, most terribly infected with some kind of maddening disease. She didn’t know how long they could keep this up. They needed to get to the next chamber. None of the fanatics would follow them there. She ducked her head out and was met by a blaze of bullets. She quickly retracted behind the column. Viktor stuck an arm out and sent a salvo in the direction of the incoming bullets. She stuck her head out once more, this time spotting another engraved door way, this one with a single panel. In front of it two heavily armed cultists stood stock still amidst the madness. Maralaina quickly ducked her head back, looking at her surviving soldiers. They’d manage to erect a perimeter of cover grouping up behind the colonnade. She signaled the door amidst the blare of bullets zipping by. Signaling Viktor to take point she motioned for the child. Viktor laid her down, collecting a spare weapon from his holster. As he rose he let out a roar and rushed forward.
The veterans answered the big mans cry and charged. Maralaina dashed to the wounded girl Viktor had lain down. She crouched low with the child, checked her weight and with a quick series of short breaths charged forward tearing away from cover. Up ahead the squad let loose, mowing down any cultists mad enough to try a run at them. Viktor bulled past three of the zealots, guns blazing. He was a few meters away from the two stationary door men when they raised their weapons expertly.
“Mini guns!” Maralaina screamed.”Everybody down!”
It was then that Andrei blazed in from absolutely nowhere. Bounding past Viktors charge as though the big man was standing still he leapt over one of the Cult Door Guards, twisting his neck and landing low to sever the others left leg. He pivoted and drove a blade into the soft underside of the first guardsman’s jaw. Viktor arriving what seemed like ages later dealing with the legless cultist. Rest of the soldiers arrived then, turning outward to fire in defense of the doors position. Maralaina arrived last with a makeshift guard of some of her more injured men; she moved quickly towards the door and slammed her hand onto the panel. Shots zipped in from around them and a soldier to her left went down screaming, they were sitting ducks she needed to move them all and fast.
Pointing back at the shot soldier now writhing around on the floor Maralaina yelled out orders “Viktor, help Zarot up, the rest grab a fallen brother if you can! Keep close! Suppressing fire only! We’re heading through.” With that Maralaina led her soldiers into the inner chamber. Once through Maralainas eyes swam from the sudden brightness in the next room, it was actually more of a corridor, leading down beneath her line of sight. She heard more than saw the rest of her men fight a retreat from the door, eventually the last two in slammed it shut.
Viktor frowned at the door, his newly acquired Assault rifle trained at the door. The soldier he’d carried in now propped down to one side of the chamber.
“At ease brother, they will not follow.” Viktor looked back at Maralaina, one eyebrow raised. “It took me years to gain the ability to open that door.” she explained “None of them would dare attempt it in the state they’re in. It would kill them. God, it probably did already.”
“Those men back there...” The soldier that had saved a comrade from an animated corpse, Marcos, made a sign to counter evil. “These doors lay curses?”
Maralaina shrugged, the motion reminding her of the little girls weight, she could still feel her frail body breathe laboriously, but the breaths were shallow, far too shallow. “I heard stories from fellow inititates, mostly they spoke of some sort of recoil from the doors, an infliction on the flesh reflecting ones failure within the soul. The doors were always carefully prepared for though. No one ever failed the path when I was amongst the cult. If you weren’t ready the door would usually let the priests know.”
The female commander looked around at her soldiers. Only nine had the survived. This mission had always held long odds but nine? Maralaina knew that if not for the Ice-Blood they’d likely all be back in the first hall, lying in pools of their own blood. Andrei had not moved an inch from his place between her and the door. He and Viktor were cut from the same cloth it seems. God she’d lost so many. The child in her hands had finally grown still, Maralainas coat had ripped open at some point and blood now covered her seeping through the fabric of her blouse and touching her skin. A tear escaped her eye and she wiped it away with a shoulder. Marcos stepped forward to collect the little girl’s body. The soldiers left were quiet, Maralaina soon realized their attention was on her. She took off her coat and walked across to one of the dead soldiers brought through. She unclasped and slid off his various military gear, and then casually began to put the gear on. As she did so she addressed them.
“We have lost many of our brothers. But we have made it through. You saw what’s out there. This enslavement to a cause, no, this enslavement to one man, It cannot continue.” Maralaina collected a gun and walked over to the make shift grave Marcos had erected for the little girl, no longer a simple tool in her charge. “The Rebel Council sends us to war with children in our arms. Such is the cost of eradicating this threat. The sector will be ours, this is the final step. And then we can rest, we can finally build our new home”
The soldiers around her looked at one another. The war had been long but finally their rebellion had found a foothold. This city would be theirs, Perhaps the start of a new nation. Marcos rubbed his neck as he spoke in reply. “You all know me. I have been in this army all my life and just a few moments ago I lost Taihr, my uncle, the last of my blood. I am tired of fighting brothers.”
“All the more reason to fight this one last time” Andrei spoke still facing the door, but his shoulders had relaxed some. “I was born a fighter. An Ice bled kills the second he learns to walk. I have been doing so all my life and I have no doubt I will do so till the day that I die. But this city, It will be ours. The Mistress linked us to a worthy cause. We have lost many to find ourselves here in this room. But freedom demands the full price. We cannot stop here.”
Everyone was silent after those words contemplating the fears battle plants into all men. Even Maralaina couldn’t find the right reply To Andrei’s brutal idealism. So Viktor grunted, checked his weapons and ammo, and then began a march down the brilliant white corridor. The rest of the soldiers smiled as they watched the massive man walk away, naturally they followed suit. Andrei shook his head as he passed Maralaina with a smile.
“Well mistress, Leave it to Viktor to say what needs to be said without saying a single thing.”
She smiled at him as he quickly paced to the front of the others. Maralaina looked around her. The second chamber hadn’t changed much. She remembered the last time she’d walked these halls, the horrors had never left her. And now she was back, walking this god forsaken path. The cultists were stark raving mad but even they knew not to cross the threshold. What kept them from giving chase was not some mystical incapability to open the door, no. What kept them away was pure, unadulterated fear. The third step of her plan was complete, only two more left to go. She looked at her soldiers marching onwards. Nine would not be enough. But Isaiah would forgive her. He always forgave her. Gloria made her way after her brothers, the darkest smile sliding across her beautiful face.
***
You’ve never heard of the Silanda? … It’s the ship that made the Warren of Telas run in less than 12 parsecs.
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