They were ready to depart Bellatoir Manor in the very early hours of the morning. After staying put for a week after the Goddess had killed her own detachment of Sepulchra troops, she suddenly decided it was time to get going.
Delegan had not mingled with the Goddess too much during that time and had kept himself preoccupied with the books to be found in the Manor. During his exploration of the building he had heard the ramblings of the Lord Charlan about the devastation the Goddess had inflicted on his antechamber. Of course, face to face with the woman called Axiatés he did not raise a single word of protest about the happenings of that night. Still, his foul mood was evident in that he did not emerge to see them off, except for the keeper of his house that bade them best wishes and a good deal of supplies for the road. Till the moment Delegan exited the manor that day, he was not yet sure what their departure here would entail.
Delegan hovered unsure as he came trudging down the steps, outside at the back of the building of Lord Charlan’s Manor. He lifted his gaze up the driveway to see a huge carriage of intricate design and opulent woods, framed with silver alloy polished to a degree where the moonlight made it glisten like steel, and when the sun rose it would be blazoned gold for the first two hours of dawn, Delegan was sure. Reined to the contraption were four dark horses of extraordinary size. They were thick and muscled in stature, their legs looking short in proportion to their body, more reminiscent to the log-like limps of a rhino than any kind of racehorse. They snarled these beasts, and blew angry gusts of moist from their noses like raging bulls. Their eyes too were as black as night and when their lips curled back Delegan was surprised to see fangs in the mouth of a horse. Even as Delegan stood and stared one of the horses tried to take a bite of one of the others. He sensed a malice within these creatures and an inherent impatience that was not becoming of a beast of burden.
On the front of carriage, waiting with the reins in his hands, and also a long willow-like switch, was what Delegan recognized as one of the Mesauwee beast handlers. Their kind must’ve gone through a vigorous process of amnesty to appear anywhere in Sepulchra, let alone here. It brought disquieting premonitions of how this journey was going to play out.
The Mesauwee were descendants of practices frowned upon the world over, ever since mankind had realized how violent the monstra were compared to normal animal life. Beast handlers are what the Mesauwee called themselves, often promoting the idea that they had a mental link with the creatures and even a measure of control over them. To Delegan’s mind and eyes, they were little better than a lion-tamer confronting a lion with a chair and whip whilst reassuring everyone everything is under control. The Mesauwee man sitting there observed every tradition appearance-wise; a clean shaven head and a naked torso that had tattoos explaining what kind of creatures he had mastery of. If he did not have a raging black horse imprinted on his chest, across his heart, Delegan’s worry would have been worse manifold. Onto that he wore an assortment of ornaments that Delegan had not yet made a study of. Most of the little charms the Mesauwee man wore were probably superstitious things, but today Delegan hoped there was more to it than he would ordinarily believe - anything to keep the four great horses in check.
‘Those things are monstra!’ stammered Delegan, hoping he was not pointing this out to the ignorance of the rest. Surely they must know!
‘Monstra has become a term used so often it has lost most of its original meaning, and it is bestowed upon every little creature that has the courage to bare its teeth,’ said Axiatés, who walked only a pace behind Delegan, and with the quiet commander Libras at her side, the last of the Sepulchra Mortar soldiers.
Delegan looked at the Goddess in surprise, waiting for her to overtake him. ‘Well, I guess your Excellency fears very little, but to me anything bigger than a cat poses a problem. And no animal has ever taken a liking to me, even though I pose no threat.’
Axiatés laughed. ‘The fiercest of beings may yet be the smallest ones Delegan. Have you ever seen bat-eared foxes?’
’Once, not frightening at all. But really your Excellency, before we start talking about bat-eared foxes, can we rather discuss where this carriage has come from?’
‘Did you believe I was waiting at the manor for nothing, not planning my best way onwards to the Imperial Empire, dear Delegan?’ said Axiatés.
Delegan was a little unsettled; given the boldness of being transported by a Mesauwee steering a carriage he wished the Goddess had at least consulted him about it. Never mind the Madura beasts (that’s what the giant black horses were known as), how did they hope to pass through civilizations without being confronted or even persecuted?
’Can the Lord Charlan not provide something more... safe?’
‘He only has modern automobiles and they will be no good in the desert.’
Delegan conceded. No modern vehicle was going to make it through Tulan, and Tulan as it were, being a hostile land, valued pragmatic things above the outcry over vilified beasts. If something could pass through Tulan and survive it was then morally justified, so they might yet pass through the deserts without scrutiny. Delegan could only assume they would abandon the carriage once they came across the first borders of Doma Arak, or else they truly operated in folly. The Imperials would not tolerate any kind of monstra or the Mesauwee who pretended to control them.
Approaching the carriage Delegan urged the Goddess to climb the fold-out steps before him, the Mesauwee coachman offering his hand to guide her up and through the doors. Delegan carefully ascended, and the closest of the Madura looked back at the librarian, the fierce but cloudy eyes of the creature startling Delegan so that he froze and almost missed his next step when he got going again. When the carriage door shut behind him, he felt relieved to be out of the same space as the Madura. Still their impatient whinnies, snorts and stamp of hooves came through muffled to the carriage interior, but it was not as unnerving as walking past in front of them.
Commander Libras of the Sepulchra climbed in silently and Delegan had a great deal of sympathy for the man. He had tried his best to avert a disaster, failed to do so, essentially betrayed by his own men, but still heartbroken that the detachment of men left in his care were slaughtered mercilessly. To compound the matter, he owed absolute loyalty to the Goddess, as did most men, because she represented the salvation of the world.
Delegan himself sat opposite of the Goddess, the benches wide and comfortable, some form of expensive leather, hand-stitched stylistically to the extent that Delegan glided his hand over the deep cushion, feeling the outline tentatively.
‘The embroidery amuses you?’ asked Axiatés with a wry smile.
‘This is Sillivier handiwork. A province of the Imperials.’
‘Quite right, librarian,’ said a rather familiar voice from just outside the carriage. Delegan was surprised to the utmost as a man with a rather large frame came squeezing legs first through the open window of the carriage door. That he proved to be so limber was but the first of many surprises.
‘What... what are you doing here?’ asked Delegan, recognizing a cult figure he had hoped he would never again run into.
‘I summoned him. We need transport at least until we reach Tulan,’ said Axiatés.
’This is your carriage?’ asked Delegan.
‘Indeed so,’ said the man known as Dulcan. ’An Imperial carriage, steered by a Mesauwee lad bearing a Sepulchra woman and her consorts. It is a sign of the times old one, that folk of all corners of the world come together to ensure the sun rises on all nations. Unlikely allies are at the order of the day. You should know that better than most!’
Delegan was not ready to ask this man where he had come across the Mesauwee or how he had come to enlist his services. Trying to form a relationship or being caught harbouring a monstra was punishable by death in both Sepulchra and Doma Arak, so for the moment the less Delegan knew the better.
Dulcan looked like he had picked up some weight, though not an ungainly man, and a dangerous one even if he were not the athletic figure he was some years back. Delegan felt he tried to hide this by wearing a big black coat. Age catches up to all of us, and all those ill-considered treats too! thought Delegan. Dulcan’s voice however was still rich and his hair still wavy, which contributed to his charm which Delegan knew he used more often than not. He was the kind of man that had friends everywhere he went.
‘Thank you for responding to my call so urgently, even in these times I would have been hard pressed to find someone else,’ said Axiatés.
‘And if I can, I will convince you to ride along the border of Tulan instead of through it, the benefit of course being you can remain on my carriage,’ said Dulcan.
Axiatés shook her head. ‘There is an errand I need to see to in Tulan.’
Dulcan raised his eyebrow questioningly, but before he could protest the Mesauwee man called him from the outside. ‘What is it now?’ he murmured impatiently, exiting by the door as one should.
When Dulcan exited the coach, Delegan asked: ‘How did you summon this man?’
‘Money,’ said Axiatés as though it was very obvious.
‘He is not just some mercenary your Excellency. He is a brother of the Aeyog!’
‘He does not observe their belief.’
‘He will if it suits him!’ Delegan thought he didn’t need to explain exactly what the Aeyog believed about women with power, even though he felt like if he reiterated it to Axiatés she might rethink the entire idea.
‘Are you worried about me Delegan?’ asked Axiatés.
Delegan sat back. ‘I’m worried about myself,’ he said unconvincingly, but which was not entirely untrue of course. Since the Goddess had burnt the cancer from his body he felt resurgent in both mind and body, and there was maybe just a hint of true self-preservation returning to his priorities.
Dulcan came back into the carriage, slamming the carriage door behind with unnecessary force, and Axiatés said to Delegan in the elder tongue: ‘Daea ma kilan iel thelstra vols nattuwera oel res mael loyeri.’
Put your trust in me, and I will safely take you to the stars.
Delegan shuddered. It wasn’t her own words even though she had said it to reassure him specifically. Stars in the old sense was a metaphor for end destination, but whether it was meant as a destination somewhere on Ellion or a destination in the next life was not specified.
Dulcan again raised that dark thick eyebrow of his; making the conclusion that Delegan understood what the Goddess had said just now.
‘My sister and I had a secret language, one we spoke in front of my father when wanted to discuss things not meant for his ears. Very useful. I still use a secret language to this day. I must admit that being on the receiving of such an exchange is not the most pleasant of experiences, being naturally curious as I am.’
‘Concern yourself not Dulcan. My subject and I are talking of trivial things, and I need to brush up on my knowledge of the elder tongue.’
‘That is a dead language and of no use. Are you still making a study of a cults old one?’ asked Dulcan.
Delegan shook his head. ‘I’m afraid after learning too much about the cults I have realized that the balance of my life is better spent studying something else.’
‘A pity then, I appreciated the notoriety you brought my brothers.’
’You did not need me to gain notoriety,’ said Delegan.
Dulcan did not respond to that.
‘And why are you so quiet?’ said Dulcan, directing his question at Libras.
‘The commander here is going through a hard time. He lost most of his men, and is struggling to make peace with the fact that he had traitors under his command,’ answered Axiatés.
Dulcan outright laughed. ‘You see Delegan, you don’t trust me, but the very escort Sepulchra gave the Goddess was as corrupt as I know all government militaries to be.’
‘Those men were exceptions,’ uttered Libras. ‘They were not men of the Sepulchra way.’
‘At ease commander. I meant no offence.’
‘I have no doubt that it is your kind, one cult or another, that have infiltrated and commanded the Sepulchra to harm the Goddess,’ said Delegan pointedly.
Dulcan shrugged. ‘Not that the cults see eye to eye old one. The motives of one cult is often directly opposite of the others.’
On that note, the Mesauwee got the horses moving, cracking his whip and the Madura sounding loudly in response, their whinnies crashing over one another. As though it had been but a brief protest, the carriage pulled away with a force that certainly inspired the term horsepower in earlier years.
It took Delegan some time to get used to the incredible pounding the four horses inflicted on the road. That said, the ride was remarkably smooth and the carriage was probably one of the best of its kind, a luxury vehicle in so many words, more evidently so as Dulcan did not wait long to open a fully stocked mini fridge hidden behind one of the surrounding cabinets. After offering everyone a can of ready-mix vodka and lime - which everyone declined - he cracked one open himself, drinking it in one long draught. Though everyone was thinking it, no one asked the obvious “isn’t it a bit early to start drinking?” question.
Deciding to ignore the antics of Dulcan, Delegan was just starting to wonder where they were going to sleep. He had no doubt that he and the Commander would not be provided for, but surely the Goddess was not going to be alright just sleeping on the carriage benches?
There was one thing that Delegan was not uncertain off, and that was why they were riding in this kind of vehicle at this day and age.
Cars were plentiful, or at least they would’ve been had technology not fallen prey to such a strange turn of events. Fossil fuels had provided the backbone of vehicles of all kinds for such a long time. There were growing concerns about pollution the world over and alternative means did not make the inroads required to displace fossil fuels entirely as a chief means of energy production. Still, the transition from internal combustion engines to batteries within cars slowly became more and more prevalent, until the fuel burning engines started falling away completely.
Then came the Goddess in her 26th incarnation, Axiatés. Of all her powers (of which there were truly many) the ability to create suns was at the forefront of technological development.
They were saying that the Goddess was going to create a second sun for the earth, but the truth was that she had created many suns for the earth since the dawn of the original. The only difference now was that she was going to try and create a sun big enough to replace the one in the sky and therein lied all the complications and intrigue of their current day and age.
The smaller suns, sometimes no larger than a football, were to be found in all kinds of power stations and the greater ships and aircraft that roamed the seas and skies of Ellion. They simply suspended these smaller suns in electromagnetic fields, leaving it hanging away from anything and everything. From thereon they could be used to generate huge amount of energy, put either to immediate use or stored away.
Philosophers oriented toward futurism Delegan had known through the years had always wondered how humanity would react if they came across a technological advancement that was not quite their own doing, proposing that mankind would not necessarily be ready for such an advent. They were right; and so the suns of the Goddess had not come without consequence.
The smaller ones, just like the big one in the sky, gave off waves of radiation and electromagnetic pulses. The latter was very much like the equivalent of a solar flare in that it wipes out all kinds of electronics. There was one little problem with batteries and anything electrical in that the two had become somewhat inseparable in the last few decades except for the few rudimentary technologies that could still use batteries without any computerized components. It was too expensive to try and shield a car for your everyday consumer, meaning automobiles other than those still operating on fossil fuels and non-computerized components were largely hampered. It was not just cars that felt the wrath of the suns.
It was quite ironic to think that one of the greatest advancements of mankind was also wreaking serious havoc on their systems, essentially having mankind oscillating through a motley of technologies ranging from the dark ages, space age and advanced robotics every now and then.
In the modern world, the aircraft and ships were big enough to accommodate precautionary measures to house a small sun, and the trains could be powered on electric rails that were shielded to large degrees. The car industry however was often struggling to get back its former glory outside of the richer areas of Doma Arak. The Tulan deserts were rife with sun-driven power stations and even made deliberate use of the EMP’s to ward off unfriendly targets that might be passing through with any vehicle using electronics. So with no train passing their immediate vicinity, they were confined to using a carriage pulled by four horses that could’ve come galloping out of hell itself.
Delegan watched through the window as the morning sun slowly crested the horizon. He looked at the Goddess and thought about the impossibility of the task she had undertaken. Sometimes she looks little more than a girl, but when the time comes, she is going to put a star in the sky enormous beyond human reckoning andsave every wretch that walks the face of Ellion.
Later in the day Dulcan pulled out an electronic tablet, tapping the screen with his meaty fingers until he found what he was looking for.
‘We’re moving at fifty-one miles an hour. Not bad. The Mesauwee lad did not overstate the speed of these creatures.’
‘We’ll go much slower once we are in the desert,’ commented the Goddess.
‘That you are, but it will be mostly because I won’t take you all the way through Tulan, my Lady. When the time comes, if you do not agree to our route along the northern border, I will leave you at a certain point. These steeds are not camels and the sheer weight of this carriage was never made for any desert. Most important of all, I won’t be caught dead in the heartland of Tulan. Too many interesting foemen that I would like to avoid. ’
‘And I thought I made it clear I have things to see to in Tulan. Do as you wish Dulcan, but your conscience must be clear if I happen to fall in Tulan because you were not part of my escort.’
Delegan thought appealing to the man’s conscience was the worst approach to take.
Dulcan shrugged, a gesture of dismissal he seemed to be very fond of. ‘Very well. I have faith in your Excellency. I am sure you can navigate yourself through Tulan.’
‘What is the Mesauwee man’s name?’ asked Axiatés suddenly, and just a for a second Delegan wondered if the Goddess was considering talking to the Mesauwee man behind Dulcan’s back, leaving him stranded somewhere maybe while the beast handler guided them through the desert. That at least would make Delegan feel slightly better about his present company.
‘I thought you know everything?’ said Dulcan
’I sometimes dwell the Truth of Everything, yet sometimes without reward,’ admitted Axiatés.
Delegan so wished he knew more about how omniscient this Goddess really was without having to speculate about it. One day, he would certainly try and have a private discussion about it with her. But that time had not yet come.
‘His name is Ibris. As dumb as his kind, as brave as his kind, and as disobedient as his kind. But he has served me well up and till now,’ answered Dulcan.
‘He is a good man,’ said Axiatés, her eyes narrowing as though she had just gleaned something about the man when Dulcan mentioned those qualities about him.
The carriage sprung in the air like it hit a rock and came to a sudden halt. It was strange because the roads in these parts of the world were still very well paved and they did not expect any rough terrain for at least another day’s travel. They heard Ibris’ feet outside as he probably checked the undercarriage for any damage. Seconds later he came knocking on the little wooden sliding panel
‘What is it now?’ said Dulcan irritably, not walking to talk through the panel, but popping his head out the window again to speak to Ibris. When Dulcan slid back in, Delegan could see there was some puzzlement on his face.
‘We have some... trouble outside,’ he said too diplomatically, which had Delegan worried.
They all clambered out of the carriage, Delegan jumping out just because Axiatés herself wasn’t going to sit still and let Dulcan deal with it.
Delegan himself was surprised. Despite his discomfiture with the beasts pulling their carriage he did not expect any trouble before they were well away from the Lord Charlan’s Manor.
Delegan scanned the surrounding land, seeing nothing but open plain, and other than the horses that still frightened him, there was not a hint of an enemy.
They all gathered at the back of the carriage, where Ibris was sitting on his haunches, watching the underside sternly.
Seeming frustrated with the rest of them for their ignorance he pointed at the shadows between the carriage wheels. Delegan actually jumped back, even though he was already standing twenty feet away. Something was stuck to the underside of the carriage!
Dulcan walked up closer and looked in under the carriage, almost in a push-up position. The thing gave a deep hiss that had Delegan’s tummy twisting. Its almond shaped eyes were at least a foot apart, glowing purple as it hung upside-down underneath the carriage. It made clicking sounds, moving a little bit this way and little bit that way, its dark form otherwise indiscernible in the shadows.
‘It’s a fucking crawler fiend!’ said Dulcan as he came to his feet.
The Goddess clamped her ears momentarily in response to Dulcan swearing and he looked bemused at Axiatés. Delegan had to admit that he too found the gesture strange coming from someone who had taken many lives without batting an eye.
‘I guess this is not one of yours, Mesauwee?’ asked Dulcan.
‘No,’ said Ibris simply, as though he had taken Dulcan’s question seriously.
‘Am I right in saying that this thing won’t budge until it can scamper into the shadows?’ said Dulcan, looking unimpressed with the their surroundings, not even the smallest hint of a tree-shadow visible in the plain that slowly transitioned into the nothingness of the Tulan deserts.
Ibris nodded. ‘Very venomous too, shoots needles from its pincers. Coated with poisons.’
‘Hmm, can we keep on going until nightfall?’ asked Dulcan.
‘Wait it out?’
’You should really start practising saying yes, I hear they say it brings positive fortunes across one’s road.’
The Mesauwee gave Dulcan an indifferent look.
‘It will kill the horses as soon as night falls. And maybe kill us too, it is too dangerous,’ said Ibris.
‘It must’ve been hiding somewhere in the Manor of Lord Charlan and then scuttled in underneath the carriage when we arrived,’ speculated Dulcan.
A cold child ran over Delegan hearing that. It was bad enough they had to be anywhere near the Madura, but this thing...
‘Can you take care of it your Excellency?’ asked Dulcan.
‘Not without harming the carriage,’ said Axiatés.
‘So how do I get it to leave the shelter of the carriage? Can I shoot it?’ asked Dulcan
Ibris was thoughtful for a moment. Then nodded. ‘It hates the sun, but it will emerge once threatened. But you won’t kill it. Not with that weapon. Hard carapace.’
Dulcan turned to the Goddess. ‘If I can pry our friend here into daylight, I assume the Highlady will give us one act of magic that will save the day?’
‘If I have enough time to work with, yes,’ said Axiatés.
‘Well, better get on with it before everyone loses their nerve; and remember, if this thing chases you, they can’t run in a straight line,’ said Dulcan with a sadistic grin, pulling a handgun from his waist and opened fire, mostly at the ground right beneath the carriage, bouncing bullets into the creature.
Delegan was pitifully terrified, taking cover behind the Mesauwee man who stood primed for action with a curved knife that was going to prove sufficiently useless against a beast of that nature. Commander Libras also had his rifle at the ready, but even that seemed too meagre for this task. The creature came hissing angrily, first crawling up the side of the back of the carriage, turning around and then coming to ground with its pincers snapping violently.
It was very crab-like, indeed with an oval shaped carapace at least six feet wide, a cloudy blue colour. Contrary to most of its kind however its legs were very short - and plentiful too - thirty-two of them to be exact, looking like claws that moved with the same suddenness as the little hammers on a typewriter, all working in unison to propel the creature forward with great speed.
During all of this a mysterious an emblem appeared in the air, like someone had managed to project an image on nothing but an arbitrary slice of the sky. Before Delegan could make a study of all the dozens of symbols captured in the circle, its light grew to an intensity too harsh to look at. From the centre of the emblem, came blasting a bolt of energy of crackling heat. Delegan closed his eyes for a second and opened them just as the brunt of the energy collided with the crawler. The creature only writhed for a second, being reduced to ash and nothingness within a short few moments. What remained of it were charred remains, its mighty carapace sundered so easily. They all looked at it in silence and awe.
‘You are quite something your Excellency,’ said Dulcan finally with a blood hungry grin.
Delegan looked at the mad cult-man, feeling revulsion, and also so when staring at the Mesauwee man who was more than likely to be persecuted in any country other than the one they were headed, and then finally the Goddess who had more power than any one being should ever have, and he thought by himself: whatever did I get myself into?