Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 38

Fru’al Ronan sat at the common room table, barely believing his eyes and ears. When he had all but given up hope- even despite Tarrow’s crackpot ideas of “raising the dead”- another Horselord, one of his most well-trusted and reliable companions, showed up at his doorstep. Tarrow and Sanna were out doing… whatever it is they were doing, and he wondered how they would take this turn of events.

“Welcome back, Anar,” he said with a smile, his old eyes still taking in the strange man before him. His skin was ocean blue, with bands of grey the color of storm clouds forming simple patterns up his arms and torso. His eyes were like pools of molten silver, and above his head of neat grey hair floated strange symbols that Fru’al had never seen yet he felt like he recognized.

“Jabean,” the blue man softly corrected, expressionless.

“Yes, yes,” continued Fru’al, ignoring the correction. “Tell me- how is it that you are here? And… pardon my ignorance, but… what- who- what are you?”

Jabean smiled slightly, his eyes unblinking. “I am asurae. As I have always been, as I always will be.”

An asura! Fru’al’s gaze drifted up to the ceiling for a moment, recalling long-forgotten fragments of lore from his days learning magic and history. Asurae were, if he read correctly, the servants of noble deities given mortal form. Exceedingly rare, they were said to be reborn again and again for all eternity, each body fitted for the purpose the gods set before them. Some cultures worshipped them as gods themselves, believing their presence to be a great boon of luck to any whose paths they cross.

“Yes,” said the wizard, nodding. “I always wondered what sort of secrets Anar held. Nobody ever saw his face- except for Lainen, I imagine. Might I ask what you think brought you to be here?”

Anar- or Jabean- nodded. “I am where I am needed. It is my purpose.”

Fru’al remembered Anar never elaborating any more than was strictly necessary. He thought about pressing the issue, but he did not.

“I must ask,” continued Fru’al, “what happened after Evard and the rest of you left for the seat of Eodon? None of us ever learned. All we know is that you left… and then… Galex had our families…” he trailed off.

Jabean’s blank expression changed to one of sorrow. “I must apologize, brother,” he said, showing the first signs of emotion Fru’al had seen. “I can imagine the repercussions for our actions. In no way do I expect forgiveness, only understanding. It was a risk that we had to take. In its failure, I see how the alternative would have been preferable.”

Fru’al could feel his eyes stinging. He felt a brief rumble below the floor, and his nose caught a hint of brimstone in the air. But with serious mental effort, he fought off the visions for now.

The asura continued. “But in answering your question, I am regretful to say that I remember very little of our exploits. I remember leaving your camp, and I remember a bloody skirmish within the halls of Eodon. I remember being slain. It is not a pleasant memory.”

Fru’al nodded, and opened his mouth to change the subject, when he saw Jabean’s eyes close and the symbols over his head suddenly grew bright, glowing with a red hue that made the Marquis feel queasy, and on edge.

“I was slain by Sir Sealfrey,” Jabean finished, opening his eyes. The symbols returned to their dim, transparent state.

Fru’al’s eyes opened wide. “Sealfrey? Sir Sealfrey? Lainen’s closest friend? How is such a thing possible?”

“This I do not know. Had I learned it in my previous life, perhaps, but I do not believe I did. Once again, I apologize.”

Fru’al nodded and thanked his old friend for his commitment, but he still felt the pain of everyone that had been lost. Part of him, of course, did blame Anar and Evard and Syf and everyone else who had left on that suicide mission for Eodon castle. But his rational mind couldn’t blame them. In fact, he blamed himself for not being brave enough to accompany them. He always wondered, as he was sure Sanna and Tarrow and Grash and everyone else had wondered, whether they might have been successful if another Horselord or two had come along. There was no way to be sure, but Fru’al felt certain that if they had all banded together, like the unrivaled team they were meant to be, that they would have struck down the traitor in one fell swoop and retaken the throne in the name of Lainen the Betrayed.

“You cannot blame yourself,” said the asura, his featureless eyes seeming to peer into Fru’al’s very soul. “We each have our part to play in this story of life. Beings such as myself exist outside of time. I am often able to see my actions before I take them. Even if I know that such an act is to fail, that does not allow me to choose another. I am to play my role in the universe, whether I am to succeed or not. It does little to help the disappointment of a failure, but at least I can know in the end that I acted exactly as I should.”

The Marquis, his eyes feeling wet, nodded. It did no good to worry about what might have been- all who were dead were still dead, and nothing was going to change that.

“Unless…” he spoke out loud, unintentionally.

Jabean raised a dark eyebrow at the mage’s outburst.

Fru’al’s face went slightly red. “I- nevermind. I was just talking to myself.”

Once again the Marquis felt like Anar- Jabean- whoever- was reading his mind like a book. “Please, brother. Tell me what troubles you so.”

Fru’al took a deep breath. “I suppose I must start at the beginning,” he began.

He told Jabean of their difficulties coping with the loss of their status, their kingdom, and their families. Then he spoke of Artemis, who- despite his lack of skill- managed to help them survive an encounter with Galex’s men. He spoke of the many, many losses they had endured over the years, and the asura was dutifully patient with the old man. He told of this town, Kellonville, and their troubles with hags and orcs and dragons. Then Kefir, and his reveal. The Dark One. The Dark One. The Dark One and his unholy perversion of life. And how Tarrow had the gall to propose that he, Fru’al, use such magic to twist life and death to suit their needs.

Jabean was, through all of this, silent. Once Fru’al had finished, he spoke.

“You tell me that you refused Tarrow’s offer of magic, magic that might save your cause and allow good to triumph over evil.” He paused, possibly waiting for a response. Fru’al gave him none. “I feel I am to ask you to clarify your reasoning.”

Fru’al’s expression turned to one of mild disgust. “Must I lecture you about the teachings of the Ebony Raven as I did with the trystborn? Such a thing would be an abomination against my goddess, the sole arbiter of life and death. How am I the only one who sees this? Are you as desperate as Tarrow that you would ask a priest to sacrifice his faith for personal gain?”

Jabean shook his head in such a small gesture. “I do nothing of the sort. But I ask you- have you spoken with the Ebony Raven regarding your concerns?”

Fru’al opened his mouth to speak, and then paused. “I need not bother her with such an insult,” he said finally.

“Forgive me for accusing,” responded Jabean, still without a change in expression. “But does it not strike you as arrogant to assume you know the wishes of your goddess greater than she?”

Fru’al pursed his lips. He had no response. He could feel the blood rising to his face.

“I can tell that I am agitating you,” continued the asura. “I do not wish to do so, and I will pose only one more point. Fru’al, brother, I am asurae. Life, death, and rebirth are as natural to me as breathing is to one of your kind. Do you view me and my kind as an abomination?”

The Marquis blinked. He breathed deeply for a few moments. “No,” he answered. “Of course not. Your kind are said to be the direct servants of the divine themselves. But that is different.”

Jabean nodded. “Yes, it is different. But all I mean to do is urge you to speak with she who guides you on your path. If she denies permission, then you will know that you have made the right decision and you will gain favor in her eyes. If, however, she allows it, then you have brought one more realm of power over death into your goddess’ embrace.”

The asura was right. Fru’al stared at the table. It made so much sense when he said it. Yet thinking of Tarrow making the same statement made the mage want to bury his fist in the trystborn’s red face.

“Then I must pray,” he said, standing up from the table.
Fru’al entered into the trance of communion with his goddess. Some time later, he emerged, feeling slightly weak and disoriented. It was rarely easy for him to remember everything that happened until some time later- he was usually left with a general feeling of his goddess’ perception and small fragments of what she had told him.

This time, he knew that he had spoken with her, Tara Ghiless, the Ebony Raven, the Hand of Fate and Arbiter of All Life and Death. He remembered her commanding him to slay all un-dead creations of this necromancer, wherever he sees them- for they are the true mockeries of life that attempt to spit in the face of the Hand of Fate. But she told him that this ritual Tarrow had uncovered- the one capable of raising the dead to life- was no such mockery. She, being the judge of those that live and those that die, is in control of all living and dead, and any being she deems unworthy of life reborn is not given it. The ritual, she explained, is simply a means for mortals to glimpse her power.

Of course! How could he have been so foolish, so arrogant, to think that power existed, power within his grasp, that could usurp the Ebony Raven’s will? He ought to be punished for such a thought. Graciously, his goddess saw it fit to forgive him of such hubris.

She gave him warning, however. Such a task would be taxing- possibly beyond his ken or that of anyone in his life time. Even if he completes the ritual, it may not always work, as souls are not always willing to return.

As Fru’al sat, his mind racing as he gathered his recollection of his communion, he recalled asking her if it would be possible to raise his family, the Horselords slain by Sealfrey, or even his king Lainen. She told him that certain souls had passed, to a place she called the “beyond the silver lining”. To bring a soul back from the beyond could only be done by a god itself.

Content with the decision of his goddess, Fru’al found Tarrow, who had already met with Jabean while he was busy communing with the Ebony Raven. He and Tarrow spoke, apologies were shared by both sides, and the Marquis took the pages to study. After perusing their texts, however, he grew worried. The ritual was indeed complex- more intricate than any he had performed, without doubt- but the reagents required to join the soul, the body, and this “animus” the Necromancer spoke of were what shook the mage to his very core.

It hid its meaning through complicated arcane language, but as far as Fru’al could understand, the ritual required the expenditure of value. Not necessarily valuable objects or precious materials, like most rituals, or even magical unguents and powders like were required for most permanent magical bindings and artifact creation. No, this spell called for value. A ring representing the bound affection of two lovers, for example, was worth more than the sum of the materials of which it was composed. If such a ring, however, was given and then one of the lovers proved unfaithful, much of its value- at least in the terms of this spell- was lost. Valuable materials could be used, like silver and gold, but it was only valuable because of the people that valued it. If a king offered up a gold coin, it would be worth less than a starving peasant offering up its last piece of moldy bread. The requirements almost seemed to defeat themselves- if something was given willingly, it became less valuable than if it were taken.

The most valuable commodity, according to these notes before him, was blood- blood taken unwillingly. If one had no qualms about killing innocents, ritualistically sacrificing them for their own nefarious purposes, then this spell could be used to resurrect entire armies. That must have been how the Necromancer brought back the orcs- by capturing and slaying every innocent he came across.

The spell, particularly the way it considered value, struck Fru’al as feeling so… evil. But the Ebony Raven had given her permission. Even something evil, he had to remind himself, could be used for the purposes of good.

The ritual was made even more difficult by time. The more time that had passed since the time of death, the more reagents were required to perform it. If they were to try to revive Lainen, or any of their families, it would take far more than any of the Horselords were able to give. This must have been what the goddess had meant- it was beyond his power.

He studied the ritual for most of the night. He heard the other Horselords come and go, but he paid no attention. When morning came, he explained to Tarrow all that he had learned- but in the end, they still couldn’t proceed. They simply couldn’t come up with the materials.

Tarrow, upon learning this, simply nodded.

“I’ll have to ask the town for help,” he said, his tone somber. “It’s the only way.”

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