Part Three: Chapter 41
The girl shut her eyes, spread arms wide, and let herself fall backwards into the waiting sea of green grass. A sigh of contentment escaped her as she struck the cushioned ground, and for a moment she lay perfectly still, smiling at secret thoughts, lids drawn as shields against the shining heavens above. Then slowly her chest rose and fell as she took in a breath of cool mountain air and released it.
The wind stirred, whipping the forest of emerald blades into a frenzy about her spread dark curls…and with it came the piercing screech of a bird of prey. Her eyes snapped open at the sound, and she sat up in time for a glimpse at the creature’s descent—a majestic osprey swooping down on her from the slopes of Gorm Vûdoc—before it suddenly vanished, leaving in its wake a man standing no further than two strides away. He was tall, slender, and handsome, staring at her with grinning eyes.
“What is your name, fairest daughter of Earth?” spoke Kamani in the flesh. His voice was a gentle breeze that calmed the wind.
The girl swept a stray lock from her brow and returned her caller’s smile. “I am your loving servant, Father. Name me what you will.”
Without hesitation, the man went down on one knee, running his eyes over a patch of wildflowers growing at his feet. Reaching for the stem of his choice, he delicately plucked a flower from the ground—then stood and presented it to the girl. “Your name is but my first gift to you, Issalzon. Take this blossom from my hand…and feel life quicken in your womb. Our son shall be a king of men.”
Tears of joy pooled in her eyes as the woman named Issalzon reached out to accept the Creator’s offer…yet hers and his weren’t the only eyes focused on the symbol of their union. The Asendath’s banks were but a stone’s throw away; and there, perched on a gnarled limb just outside the cave where the river meets the mountain, a lone raven brooded. Up to this point it’d been watching the pair in silence; yet soon as the girl’s fingers touched the flower, the bird gave a caw of protest, took to wing, and retreated swiftly into the cave. Issalzon took no note of this, for now tears streamed down her face as the Father incarnate closed his hand on her own. But the disturbance wasn’t lost on Kamani. For the briefest moment the corners of his mouth turned down, and his eyes fell cold as they followed the raven into darkness. Then the smile won out over the frown, just as that darkness streamed forth and swallowed the world about him, fading his scene to utter black…
Time leapt forward, and the setting returned. There was Issalzon alone once more on the mountainside, now relaxing her swollen feet in the river. One hand rested on her ripe belly as she sang a lullaby to her unborn son, and she laughed to herself whenever he kicked her in response. Yet this happy moment seemed already at its end—for slithering toward her through the weeds was a venomous snake. The woman neither saw the serpent nor did anything unknowingly that might’ve provoked it…yet soon as the creature came within range it reared its head and lashed out, sinking dripping fangs deep into her stomach. Issalzon let go a scream of agony as poison spewed out to fill her womb; but even as the cry resounded, the scene dissolved and reset itself again, her terrible note ending on a darker picture still…
Blood-smeared and broken, a filthy naked woman knelt in the failing light at the cave’s entrance, holding a strange bundle at arm’s length out over the river’s black water. At first it seemed she might drop the thing in, consigning it forever to Asendath’s embrace, then suddenly she yanked the object back to her heaving breast, releasing instead a string of sobs that rapidly degenerated into a maniacal fit of laughter. “Why do you hide from me, coward?” spat Issalzon at the ceiling, and her hateful words bounced from the walls to race off into fathomless depths beneath the mountain. In the shadows her crazed, sunken eyes were dreadful to behold. “Could the all-powerful One not spare his own child from death?”
Oh yes, hissed a voice in immediate answer. Not Kamani’s soothing tones, but rather a sinister whisper creeping into her skull from somewhere out in the gloom. Indeed he could, woman—if he truly cared for you at all. But your Father has the mind of a child: a naughty lad who never cleans up his toys. Your son is yesterday’s trinket to him, easily tossed aside for the jewels of a new day. Don’t be deceived by his false promises! I am here with you now. Hearken to me instead…
Taken aback by the sudden alien voice mixed in with her thoughts, Issalzon pulled her stillborn baby tighter to her bosom—as if the infant weren’t already beyond protection. Her gaze darted to and fro, seeking the source of the words but finding nothing. “Who are you?” she shouted…and for an instant it seemed she might regain her senses and flee. But the voice returned just then, stronger than before:
You know me! We’ve spoken before…if only in your dreams. Kamani won’t restore your son to life, Earth-daughter—but I can fulfill that desire and more. All you need do is renounce his claim to you. Curse your Father’s name, and bind your soul forever to the Night!
For a few moments thereafter Issalzon wavered as the insistent voice drew in its net about her, but in the end she found nothing from her former life to sway her against its persuasions. Following instructions given, she held her child out again above the Asendath…yet instead of releasing him to the river as originally planned, she lowered her prize beneath the frigid water, gripping it tightly as she cried aloud once more: “May the darkness consume you, Kamani! I’m your slave no longer!” Then she raised the tiny body from the sluggish flow, and the scene ended with a different cry than the one that had begun it: the birthing wail of her resurrected son…
Now the images came and went at a quickened pace, with no time for words and no sound at all. There was the Daemon’s half-breed child as an adolescent: the first King scowling upon a massive ebony throne with his fiendish mother by his side. At their feet knelt the foul men and beasts who worshipped the boy as a god, and on his lap lay a withered black flower. A creature without eyes stood and raised a blood-filled goblet in salute to his master and mistress—then turned and drained the vessel’s dark contents in a single long draught…
Next stood a solitary figure at the edge of a high sea cliff, the folds of his gray robe billowing in the wind as he observed a fleet of warships approaching over the choppy waves below. Presently this man held out a warding palm—and the ships stopped abruptly in mid-pitch or lunge, all held fast by the water beneath that was now a plain of solid ice…
A falling tower. A field of strangling vines. The Red King’s throat slit by his lover in the depths of night. These all streamed past in the blink of an eye. Then at last came a vision of Tiramas Vendhane as he reached out to stroke his steed’s ivory neck. Sound returned at the man’s touch, and the horse snorted loudly…
…pulling Dragan suddenly awake. Instinctively he snatched up his sword, thrusting the steel out before him while he waited for his sight to focus in on…
The servant from the keep—Erroth—with one palm resting on Allethion and that black mask of his trained on the DoomBringer’s face.
“Step away!” barked Dragan as he rose groggily, wiping sleep from his eyes with the back of a fist.
Slowly Erroth untangled his gloved fingers from the horse’s mane and let the hand fall—but otherwise he made no move to comply with his host’s command. Allethion nickered and nudged the servant playfully, craving more of the man’s attention. “I didn’t wish to startle you,” replied the visitor in an unthreatening tone. “There’s no need for that blade.”
It took Dragan another moment or so to regain his bearings…yet fortunately for him it seemed Erroth was fully aware of—and sensitive to—his addled state, waiting patiently as Dragan reordered his jumbled thoughts. It was all coming back now, however. After bolting from the keep, he’d nearly mounted Allethion then and there to ride off into the failing light, so anxious had he been to set his hands about his mother’s neck and squeeze the life from her. But good sense had prevailed before he could gather up the reins, and instead he’d led the horse to this very spot among the ruins to settle down for the night. He’d struck up a fire then to drive off the chill; yet even as he sat staring at the flames with the heat working its way into his flesh, his rage had steadily cooled to the point where he began to question the oath he’d just made. The bitch shall die… Was it really that simple? Slay his own mother on the grounds of rumors whispered in his mind by a pack of phantasms? Throw down his cherished armor without even testing the validity of their claim? He must’ve dozed off in the midst of those thoughts, then the visions had come. He couldn’t recall ever dreaming so vividly before. “Why are you here?” he managed at last.
“Perhaps you’ve forgotten. My master said you might question me after you and he were done.”
By now it’d become fairly clear to Dragan that this man wasn’t out to cast some horrible spell on him, thus he sat back down, laying his sword across his lap. “So you did hear it all. In that case, sit…and take off that mask. If we’re to speak openly, I’d have it be face-to-face.”
At this invitation Erroth strode to a fallen pillar across the fire from Dragan and sat—but he didn’t remove the mask. “That I won’t do willingly,” he said as he smoothed out his robe. “Another detail you might’ve missed?”
“I remember enough. Something about saving yourself for your new master, is that right?”
Although he could see nothing but black beneath the servant’s drawn hood, Dragan felt Erroth’s frown as surely as the sky was dark.
“Scoff if you like, son of Saedus, but know that I’m not bound to you yet. If your aim is to mistreat me, I’ll return at once…”
“No!” said Dragan, surprising himself with the intensity of his response. It had just dawned on him that he did have some questions that needed answering. “Wait a moment. I meant no offense.”
Erroth didn’t reply to indicate he’d accepted this apology…but the man was still sitting there, and for Dragan that was enough to move on. “I’ll respect your ritual. If only my own mask was not as infamous as the name it won me, I might well hide behind it from now till the day I die. But at least tell me how you came to serve Vendhane.”
The visitor continued to sit in thought for a few breaths before replying with a question of his own. “You had an unusual dream just now, didn’t you?”
It was all Dragan could do not to let his jaw drop at this—but somehow he kept his composure and simply nodded in return.
“Before you say I planted it in your head, hear me out. That’s how it started with me. Not the exact dream as yours, mind you…yet it came from the same source. The Kings are men selected by Kamani himself, not some line of fools riding a birthright down the ages. And so it is also for their stewards. The blood of sorcery may flow through my veins…but without his mark on me, I’m little more than a charmer—just as you claimed.”
“You had no choice, then.”
“There’s always a choice. Even for the Kings themselves. You can’t give back your power once it’s blossomed…but whether you use it for good or for evil—or even at all, for that matter—is entirely up to you. I chose to embrace my calling. The question is: will you?”
Dragan wasn’t ready to go down that path at the moment, thus he quickly changed the subject. “Was it you who carved the White King’s statue?”
The black mask dipped in a nod. “And I’ll add his tale to a new Book of Kings as well. Yet in such works I’m but my lord’s tool. His spirit guides my mind.”
“And still you’d convince me not to be my mother’s pawn.” The GrimHelm shook his head then as if something weren’t quite adding up. “I may owe you thanks, steward, for delivering my retainer from the sylvans and sending him back to me in one piece—but should I learn you’ve been playing me false…”
“I was there when you killed him,” the servant cut in unexpectedly, seeming to gloss over Dragan’s implication with his admission. “We were the first to find you seated upon his throne. You weren’t ready to rule us then…and when you fled, you left us with nothing but chaos and civil war. Few men would judge me ill were I to play you false, slayer; yet—just as Nal’tanos told you—this goes well beyond revenge.”
“Alright,” said Dragan, setting his blade aside and reaching for a waterskin in its place. “You’ve made your point.” He drank from the bladder and held it out to Erroth. The steward shook his head no, so Dragan shrugged and took another swig himself. Suddenly he frowned deep. “How do you know what I dreamt? Can you read my thoughts even now?”
“Only when your mind already lies open. The visions came to you from my master—if not from Kamani himself. Again, I am but an instrument. You’ve nothing to fear from me.”
“I’m afraid of no man, wizard or not.” As soon as the words left his mouth, however, Dragan knew they were no longer true. It was an automatic response that’d come from the many years of him actually believing it so. But now? He’d already admitted to Ûladriss that he feared his mother…and her pet G’nilbor had unnerved him as well. Today he’d been led to believe his armor held no magic: that the power had been inside him all along. A revelation that should embolden him all the more. So why did he feel the opposite, like any old fool could strike him down with hardly a fight?
In any case, Erroth passed over Dragan’s bravado, continuing on as if he’d not even heard the hero’s boast. “What do you recall from the dream?”
Dragan’s hand rose to his chin as he gave this some thought. “No more than a few images now—though it seemed so real at the time. Some of it I recognize from the Book of Kings. The rest…I’m not sure.”
“The trial of Issalzon…” sighed Erroth, his words coming out barely above a whisper.
The steward’s question had been unnecessary, then. He’d seen all of it—or at least the greater part. “That’s right,” Dragan nodded, setting the waterskin down. “But what do such legends have to do with me?”
“They’ve everything to do with you—for whether you choose to believe it yet or not, you are next in line. The cycle’s starting over. The age of the Black King is poised to begin anew. Will you follow in the footsteps of the first and become your mother’s soulless puppet: a champion of the Daemon? Or will you accept the truth of the dream and nurture your gift as if tending the Creator’s flower?” A pause. “The first King’s reign nearly broke the world, Dragan Saedus. And now they call you DoomBringer. So I ask you again: will that name continue to bring doom only for your enemies on the battlefield…or will it spell the doom of us all?”
These words brought about a lengthy pause, during which no sound could be heard save the faint crackling of dying flames. There was hardly any wood to speak of out here in the desolation, and what little of it Dragan had managed to find among the ruins earlier he’d fed all at once. Presently he looked up from the coals: “Was I chosen because of my mother, then? If she’d not placed herself in league with the Daemon, would I be nothing more than a common, spoon-fed prince?”
“Perhaps. And maybe even a step further than that. Maybe you wouldn’t have even been born…”
This time Dragan’s jaw did drop. “Are you saying she saw beforehand what I’d become? That she planned it?”
“But that makes no sense at all! If it’s my fate—as you say—to stand against her…”
“That’s not what I said,” Erroth cut in again. “I said it was your choice. All your life your mother’s groomed you to choose her side. But remember what my master said: her hold on you is slipping. This breastplate of yours,” he pointed a finger at it, “…is a crutch that should be cast away. As long as that tie remains, you can’t hope to defeat her. Why don’t you leave it behind when you depart on the morrow? I’ll keep it safe until the day you return…until you can look upon it as nothing more than an heirloom.”
Yet with these last words the servant had made a terrible mistake. Suspicion arose again in Dragan’s mind at the thought of anyone wanting to lay hands on his armor, and he wasn’t shy about making this known. “Do you take me for a half-wit, Erroth? Hand over my prized possession to a stranger I’ve known less than a day—who refuses to show me his face? Suppose I believe some portion of what I’ve been told here…but still the gaps are enough to keep even a simpleton wary!”
“What else would you know, then?” The steward’s voice remained calm, but once more his invisible frown was tangible.
“Well, to begin with: what proof is there that the Father’s real? Men hardly speak that name in oaths these days, much less in prayers—though the Daemon’s never far from their lips. I’ve heard as many tales of the Creator as you have, no doubt…yet that’s all there seems to be to him. Myths. I’ve witnessed a King’s power with my own eyes, and my mother’s involvement with dark forces seems evidence enough on that end. But tell me this, steward: if Kamani’s so powerful, why does he allow his enemy to exist? How could he let the Daemon murder his own son, unless he’s just as cold and cruel himself?”
“It’s not our place to question the Father’s mind,” said Erroth firmly. “Yet if you must know: it’s been said that Kamani let his son die as a test for his mortal lover, to see if she’d remain faithful even in suffering…or else would deny him and walk the easier path to evil. Perhaps if she’d not cursed him but continued to call upon him for aid, he would’ve restored the child to life himself without the Daemon’s taint entering the line of Kings…and so much of the world’s pain and suffering might’ve been avoided. Yet you’re right about one thing, at least. We’re living in an age of pagan gods and unbelievers.”
Dragan shook his head slowly as if still unconvinced, yet a great portion of his anger had now faded. “Then you won’t gape to find me among them.” He took in a deep breath and let out a sigh. “I’m sorry, Erroth, but I can’t make the promise you’d drag from me here. I need time to think things through. Away from this place. And away from Mother as well.”