Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 35

Tarrow Sharn was standing on a beach.

He looked down, and felt the fine, sugar-white sand caressing his bare feet. The sound of the waves had a soothing cantor, sometimes steady and rhythmic, sometimes wild and uncontrolled. His green eyes gazed out over the sea, and it spread out before him for eternity, wave after wave rolling in from the deep.

He was now moving, his body still but passing over the landscape. He was moving further from the sea, across the sand, moving independently of the topography- sometimes he would float over huge chasms in the sand, and other times his body would pass through dunes as if they were immaterial. He looked up at the sky, and in it, he saw billions and billions of stars, each staring down at him, each in its perfect place, each forming the perfectly ordered pinpricks that looked down on the earth every night.

His flight picked up speed, traveling now so fast that everything passed in a blur. The sands below him became a perfectly flat plane stretching out in every direction forever, and even the stars itself were getting so far from him be couldn’t see them anymore. After what felt like a thousand years he reached a point so far from anything else there was nothing to see except an endless expanse of perfectly flat ground and perfectly dark sky- as if someone had lost interest in creating the world and left this blank space of “world” behind.

His movement stopped abruptly, and he was standing upon this perfectly ordered, yet perfectly alien surface. It was the color of sand, yet had no shape or texture. Above him, the endless void had just enough color to render the word “absolute” inappropriate- Tarrow was reminded of the color of old, long-dry bloodstains or the color of the sea where it was so dark that even sunlight couldn’t reach it. It was that and other colors, colors he couldn’t identify and had no reason to be able to identify.

And then, off in the distance, a star appeared.

The star was purple, and despite its distance Tarrow felt like it was right beside him. He could feel a pull, as if it were another world reaching for invisible strings that controlled him, and the purple glow burned like a flaming eye on the featureless horizon.


The voice shook not only Tarrow, but the entire endless blank “world” space as well. He did not hear the words- he did not even feel the words- but rather he knew them, as if they were a part of his own soul or a part of his body since birth. He tried to speak, to ask what the words meant or to try and explain that he didn’t understand, but he couldn’t. He knew, like he knew the words, exactly what they meant and why he was here.

But he was terrified. He turned around to face away from the star. Even when he looked away, he could feel it. He could see it, through the back of his head, as if he were staring straight at it. He turned ever-so-slowly, until the light was just barely visible in the corner of his eye. Somehow, that made it less intimidating.

He was alone, of course. There was no other being, not here, not on the beach, not anywhere in this entire universe. He knew of that. Just him and this light.

The light stared, unblinking, unwavering. It didn’t need to repeat itself because it would wait for Tarrow’s response for all eternity, and he knew this.

He closed his eyes. He could still see the light. He took a deep breath. With it, he breathed in the light, and felt it course through his veins. He opened his mouth, and out came the words his entire body yearned to say.

“I accept.”
Tarrow’s eyes shot open. He was lying in his bunk, staring up at the empty bed above his. He had been dreaming. Except… this one felt different. He was on a beach… no, not a beach- some wide, flat space of… sand? He remembered a star. He remembered an agreement, some sort of a deal. He rubbed his eyes, trying to remember what it was. What had he agreed to? And why did this feel so familiar?

He sat up on the edge of the bed. It was the middle of the night. He looked across the barracks, and Fru’al and Sanna were both asleep. To catch Sanna during sleep was a rare occurrence, but the three of them had a rough past few days. He was glad she had finally decided to get some rest instead of keeping her own personal guard against whatever might come and kill them.

Feeling more awake than he had in a long time, Tarrow stretched his right arm, threw on some clothes, pulled his boots on, and got up. The hearth in the fireplace still had glowing embers deep within, so he figured it he still had some time before daybreak. He picked up a couple of the coals, rubbing them between his heat-resistant hands for warmth.

Pulling on his cloak, he stepped outside into the chill. He wandered over to the two mounds of loosely-packed dirt, each Lainened with a polished weapon, that sat on the eastern side of the hill, looking out towards the forest, and their home, Eodon. Tarrow stared at the graves for some time, his eyes feeling wet.

He spoke a quiet goodbye, not for the first time, to his companions and started walking back into the building.

The terms.

He suddenly remembered his dream, pausing mid-stride momentarily. He didn’t know why he remembered that, or even what it meant, but he realized that though he kept walking, he wasn’t walking to the building. Before he knew it, he was at the stables, untethering his horse. As he mounted, he looked north- he knew where he was going.

He… he had to go back.
He rode like the wind, and before long, he was nearing the hill where the witches’ cottage waited. Rather than climbing to the top, however, he followed the river where it cut through the hills, and found the cave where the Horselords- Talarin Needlemaker in tow- had escaped from the underground prison weeks earlier. He tied his horse to a rock outcropping, and, a torch in one hand to help navigate the dark stony steps, ascended into the cave mouth.

He followed the dank corridor, stopping only once to wonder what he would do if someone was here waiting for him. The only weapon he had brought with him was his Horselord dagger, which he held concealed in his offhand. But somehow, he knew he wouldn’t need it.

The stench of death greeted him long before he reached his destination. He saw an opening up ahead, and before it, a stain of long-dried blood, reminding him of the orc he had broken and beaten in order to learn the name “Dark One” for the first time. Beyond, he entered the dreaded room where the foul spellcaster had revealed himself- many orcs still lay dead on the ground, their bodies reeking the smell of decay. When Sanna and Fru’al had roused Tarrow and the three of them had taken their companions’ bodies back to town, they hadn’t even bothered checking the orcs for anything valuable. It just wasn’t worth it.

Tarrow saw one large pool of blood, its creator gone. He let out a deep sigh as he looked at the point of Grash’s last stand, wishing that he could have been there when his companion fell. If only he could have done more. If he hadn’t been so careless, if he had kept the group from splitting up, maybe they wouldn’t have…

He saw another puddle of blood, once again missing its owner. It was in front of the door, the broken door that Sanna said the Dark One had fled through, before Artemis smashed it to give chase. He knelt beside this pool, feeling the tears pour down his face.
He remembered the day that they had met. This young boy, so eager to help, so eager to do his best, had agreed to spend the most grueling years of his life following around this ragtag bunch of exiles. Maybe he didn’t know what he was getting himself into. Tarrow wondered- if he had told Artemis that he would some day be killed chasing off an unknown enemy, would he still have joined? Or, if Tarrow hadn’t offered to make him his squire, would the boy still be alive today?

Tarrow stood up, the tears flowing freely. He punched the remains of the wooden door with his fist, again and again and again, feeling the skin on his knuckles split and seeing the blood leaving red marks on the wooden surface. He threw his torch down on the ground.

Why did he come here? Tarrow had no idea. Did he just come to weep over his dead companions, as he had done so much over the last few days? He had spoken his peace over them when they were buried, with Jael and Telstedler and even Krym Valdoorn witnessing. Was that enough?

No, he thought. It wasn’t enough. He knew that despite the tragedy, such a showy eulogy was as much for his benefit as it was for the memory of his fallen friends. His ever-vain personality wanted the attention, and would take it whenever he could.

He stood up. “I’m sorry,” he said out loud. “I’m sorry to both of you. I’m sorry for where I brought you both… please forgive me, my closest friends.”

He wiped the tears from his face, and tore a scrap of his cloak off to wrap around his bleeding fist. He bent down to pick up his torch from the doorway.

And he noticed something.

He wasn’t sure what it was, but he stepped into the tiny room. Sanna had found Sibyla and her baby here, bound and gagged. It was where the Dark One had run to, and where Artemis was killed. Tarrow had first seen this room when they fought the witches, and it looked like an old office or something. But now… what was it he noticed?

It was the wall. It was flat, and it visibly showed texture, like any other wall. But it also reminded Tarrow of the flat ground in his dream. It was missing… something that made it look real.

Without thinking, he threw the torch at the wall. He expected it to ricochet back, and he half readied his main hand to try to catch it in case it did.

But it didn’t.

The room around him suddenly went dark- except there was still a light, something illuminating the room, as if there was a torch behind something so he couldn’t quite see where it was coming from. The wall in front of him was still dark, but all of the other walls could still be seen.

His eyes wide open, he gripped his dagger in his left hand, and with his right he slowly inched forward, his fingers extended. His mind kept expecting his fingers to touch something solid, but they didn’t. He suddenly lost sight of his hand, and then his arm, and, taking a deep breath, he leapt through the wall.

As he landed, dagger ready to strike, he looked around. His torch lay on the ground, burning as ever. On one side of the room was a cot, neat and undisturbed. On the other was a small row of bookcases, half full of books, half empty with papers strewn about as if someone had hastily grabbed what they could. And in the center of the room, near where the torch had landed, was a large intricate circle painted on the floor.

Tarrow recognized the circle- not from what it was, but from legends he had been told. He had read stories of powerful archmages crafting circles of teleportation- magical runes created with special inks and infused with extremely powerful rituals. If this was what he thought it was, this would allow someone to instantly travel between this location and… somewhere else.

Who could have made such a thing? All Tarrow knew about magic like this was that it was said to be beyond the power of mortals today. There were remnants of such magic in Eodon- he recalled having seen similar-styled images at various locations in Lainen’s castle, in fact- but all of the magic infused in them was long gone, or so he was told. Was the Dark One really so powerful?

Picking up the torch, Tarrow was careful not to step into the circle. But then… as he turned away from it, he kept finding himself glancing back in its direction. He told himself that he was afraid someone might come back from the other side- did these even work that way? He didn’t know. But deep down, he was… curious…

Throwing caution to the wind, he gripped his torch tightly, and his dagger even tighter.

And he stepped into the circle.
There was a rushing sound, like a waterfall passing through his ears, and he felt a tug coming from behind his navel. Suddenly he was dizzy, and he fell onto the hard stone floor, rolling quickly to keep himself from landing on his torch or his blade.

As he reoriented himself, he realized he was not in the same room- he was in a small room, with stone floors and one wooden wall, featureless except for the similar symbol inscribed on the floor. One side of the room opened into a small cave, and following the wooden wall, Tarrow realized that on the other side was a large metal chain and cuff- like one would expect to use to chain up a guard dog, but several times bigger- affixed firmly to the wall. A pile of filthy hay lie rotting on the floor, and a bucket was empty except for maggots crawling through the remains of something that was probably food for the chain’s prisoner.

On the far side of the cave, however, the cave was wide open. Walking to the opening, Tarrow saw a vast mountain range, one he did not recognize, in front of a pink and purple sky. He was once again reminded momentarily of his dream, except he could see the stars, and the sun peeking from beyond the mountains. As he stared dumbstruck at the elegant landscape before him, he took a step, and almost fell to his death.

He caught himself at the last moment, teetering on the edge of the cave. Looking down, he saw that the opening was a sheer drop, high above the ground, with no stable surfaces in sight- whoever used this room must have had some way to fly. Stepping back away from the edge of the cliff, he caught his breath, feeling his heart pounding in his chest.

Once he had calmed down, he took one more gaze out at the vista before heading back to the teleportation circle. This time, he noticed, a fair distance from his vantage point, an empty valley he had originally assumed to be a natural crag between the mountains. As he looked, though, he realized it was a massive square- as if a shooting star had crashed upon the earth, leaving a perfectly square crater in its wake. Considering its likely distance from him, Tarrow figured it had to be the size of a city, if not larger. What could have caused such a thing?

Shaking his head, he turned away from the mountains, and, after taking a deep breath, stepped once again back into the circle, hoping for dear life that it worked both ways.

In an instant, he was back in the cave near Kellonville, slightly less shaken since he knew what to expect. He stepped off the circle, and, not quite sure how such a contraption worked, looked around the room for something to block its use. Not quite sure what to do, he grabbed the cot, turned it over, and tossed it onto the circle. The cot did not vanish, which came as a relief, so Tarrow grabbed the papers off of one of the empty bookcases, and tipped it over on top of the cot. Seeing similar results, he grabbed everything off of the rest of the bookcases, and before long he had a pile of them all sitting in a big messy stack in the middle of the circle. Tarrow hoped that would keep someone from coming from the other side.

Taking a moment to look at the books and papers, he tried to decipher what he could and set some aside to show to Fru’al. A few of the papers, amid a stack of what appeared to be notes about magical theory, caught Tarrow’s eye.

He wasn’t able to decipher all of it, but he read what he could. It talked of a “body”, a “soul”, and an “animus”. The three, as far as Tarrow could tell, were separate things that all existed in a living creature. Each could be manipulated, however, with the right magical forces. By manipulating two of the three, certain effects could be produced- by controlling the body and soul, a spellcaster could coax information from a corpse, by speaking to the body and retrieving information from the knowledge of the dead. By manipulating the soul and the animus, but with no body, it was possible to create a sort of… shadow, from the dead’s personality. Tarrow had heard stories of what people called “ghosts”- malevolent spirits that wished to cause pain and exact revenge for whatever unfinished business they had left over from their time alive. Nothing had ever been proven, of course, and such tales were regarded as little more than folk tales used to scare children. By using magic to connect the body and the animus, without a soul, you were left with an animated corpse, or remains of a corpse, capable of following rudimentary orders.

Tarrow, of course, recognized this last description. The rotting skeletons that had come out of the river were bodies that were given an animus- being without a soul, they had no mind and carried out whatever task the Dark One gave them. Since most of combat is meant to debilitate and demoralize your opponent through pain and fatigue, these beings- without any of the limitations living creatures have- became formidable adversaries.

But as Tarrow reached the bottom of the page, his hands began to shake. He knew that this is what brought him here. Whether he was brought by that dream, or some sort of a pact or whatever it was he had imagined, this is what he came for.

At the bottom, scrawled in more recent script than the rest, explained that the writer had, after many years of trial and error, devised a way of reuniting all three- the body, the soul, and the animus- through the use of an extremely complicated and advanced ritual.

On the following pages, despite not being able to understand the magical script, Tarrow knew what he had found. It explained how the Dark One had brought back the orc scourge. And it explained how the Horselords would get their revenge.

A way to bring back the dead.

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