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© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl
Updates: Chapter 17 of Mystic Seasons Series Mythopoeia Book -8 posted, chapter eight of Lady in the Labyrinth posted high fantasy booksyoung adult fantasy books
A cross, a cross, who could have raised that cross?
Who shut our lord away,
even his love?
Mok remembered dying, and the light before it. He did not remember any place like this.
The labyrinth was folded over itself, rolled into a ball. Mok could not see beyond the walls that closed him in, but he could look above into some other stellar segment of the maze. He didn't know how long he had wandered here, where all was shadow and stone. Though not tired yet, his head swam in fog, and he could not hold a thought together long enough to give it voice.
As a slave, he had not been inducted into the beliefs of his betters. The Asharians did not hold much sway in eastern Carrolan, and the House of Loss was not a formally religious one. Mok had known that there were gods and spirits, and that it was best to avoid their notice. He had failed at that in a most spectacular manner. The sword of glass had been a blade meant for spirits and gods, not a man-child with freshly severed chains. Timothean had not been human, of that Mok was certain. Wrapped in the fates of others, forsaking all that was his own, Mok had always been taught that death was the end for mortal folk, that the spark of life returned to the world soul to be born anew. The continuation of life meant there could be no afterlife, though some would always claim otherwise. Heroes especially, were said to linger after death. Their spark was so strong it did not fade at once, but could remain to help and guide those left behind. Mok knew he was no hero, and that he could not help anyone here.
At some point in eternity a stair appeared, rising higher than he could guess. He went up.
Seconds passed, or seasons, and he reached the top, finding two giants bound together to a cross with chains of obsidian. Their heads were bowed, facing in opposite directions. Tremendous iron nails pierced their wrists, connecting them and keeping their arms outstretched.
The giant facing Mok was a woman, and the hair falling down from her shoulders was her only modesty. He thought her dead, but slowly became aware of the gentle draw of breath, the pulse of her life that filled the endless chamber, and the absence of any answering pulse from her counterpart. His vision blurred then, and he saw her old and young, immaculate and marred, the images overlaying in a dizzying whir. Her eyes were closed, and beneath them was a molten light. A warmth filled him, a lust and a revulsion. The sight of her caused his mouth to dry and his heart to break its rhythm. The sudden rush of his desire made him sick, and he began to retch. The feeling was overpowering, and the fact that he could have nestled in her palm as easily as her bosom hardly factored. This wasn't mortal beauty, it was the glamour of a goddess.
A firm hand seized him, dragging him away from the cross, back onto the steps.
"Do not meet her gaze, even when her gaze is elsewhere."
The man who had grabbed Mok was easily twice his size, four hundred pounds and garbed from the neck down in incredibly detailed platemail. There were faces in that steel, and smoke, and bones, and moths. Having worn a suit of his own, Mok could not imagine one so overwrought being taken into actual battle. It would be ruined by a single blow from a mace like the one that hung at the strangers waist.
"Her strength has not diminished in her imprisonment, and her madness has grown into something more than the world could bear."
"What?" Mok said, "Who are you?"
"I am the innkeeper at the end of all roads," the armored man said.
Mok shook his head. He didn't have the presence of mind for riddles, though he had always been fond of them.
"I will offer you a choice," the innkeeper said. "You can stay here and eventually lose yourself to her, or you can come with me, serve me, and be rewarded according to your service."
Mok didn't feel as if there really was a choice there. "I want to leave," he said.
Mok was in a basement that smelled of corpses. There was dust and straw and the noise of rodents in the walls. And also corpses, though thankfully dry ones. He sat up, and feeling no pain, stood. The basement and everything in it seemed oversized. He touched his chest, a hollow drum, and felt nothing stir within it. In the dim light that filtered through the floorboards above, he saw his hands were grey and thin and wrong. They were not his hands.
The innkeeper tromped heavily down the steps, no longer in plate, protected only by stained linens and a leather apron.
"Good, you wake." He tossed Mok a set of clothes. They looked like he had just beaten them off of a street urchin.
"What have you done?" Mok asked.
"I brought you back."
"What have you done!" Mok dropped the clothes, looking at his wrong hands.
"Your body was destroyed in Mondane, beyond anything I could repair. I have anchored your spark to a new body, a temporary home. You will grow accustomed to the process. You are my servant."
"I AM NO ONE’S SERVANT!" Mok head was clear again, his mind as sharp as it had been before he started drinking the potion Timothean had given him so long ago. He did not know what had been done to him, but he knew that he would never be slave to man again. He ran at the innkeeper, trusting that his strength would be as it had been before the end. His fists never connected, his body betrayed him and he fell limp at the big innkeeper’s feet.
"If you wish I could release your spirit. You have only to ask it. I have no need of those who would not serve me willingly. If you wish to be a man again one day, and this time a free one, then I suggest you wear the shape I give you well, until the debt of your continued existence has been paid."
What are you? Mok tried to ask, but even his lips would not answer his demands. He was now no more than a ghost inhabiting a puppet.
"I am Hush," the innkeeper said, "and Hexus, and Thyriel Ra. I am the binder of the dead, and the cuckold husband of decay."
He took a dagger from behind his apron and set it on the ground beside Mok. "Your task will take you to the north, beyond Ashram, beyond the Devil’s Pass. A demi-exalted named Gage commands the legion there. You will convince him to give you his gauntlets, then you will receive further instruction."
Mok could not answer, his body was still not his own.
The innkeeper continued, his voice low and without inflection.
"You have all the skills that you possessed in life, and your body will continue without need of food or rest. You are as strong and as fast as your spark can make you, and that dagger will make you stronger with use." He paused. "When you are ready to serve, you will find you are able."
His footsteps were loud as he returned to the bar upstairs. Mok lay trapped within his mind, struggling against bonds that were not there. He was angry, and panicking, though it was naturally a quiet sort of panic. For some time he lay resenting and resisting, shouting imprecations in the chasm of his consciousness. Then he felt real fear. He was afraid that the innkeeper would leave him trapped like this forever. Hush; the name men whispered when they spoke of the dead, the god whose throne stood behind the veil of life. Mok would have scoffed at it if he had not been brought out of death himself. Eventually, his struggle weakened, and his thoughts stilled. He was a slave again, more truly than ever before. He had killed his master, and raised an army to march across Carrolan. He had become a lord himself, winning the right to a seat upon the Crown of Grass, and now he was here. Mok had grown powerful, and that power had not preserved him. It was nothing to a being such as Hush. There was only one way to live then, he would become more than he was, strong enough that no one could make him a slave again, not even the gods. Until that day, he would serve.
His limbs jerked, ready to move.
There was a young boy upon a worn out nag. He wore layers of worn clothing, and his face was as one near death. People avoided him on the road, sensing sickness. Petronica was said to be the grandest city in the world of men. It seemed empty and frightened to him. Its royal family had been decimated, and all the talk in the streets was whether the fourth and fifth prince would quarrel over the diadem, whether their sister's son had a claim, or one of the great houses would make a bid for a coup.
Mok listened with one ear, his thoughts going to those he had lost. What he learned of his own death was that it had broken the city. Mondane was no more, and both armies had been gutted. So many had followed him, and for what? What had he given them but death? He tried not to piece together who was alive and who was gone. There was no way he could know for sure, and his service would not allow him to travel so far out of the way to find out. He had promised them a world without kings, nearly made himself one, and then lost. All Mok ate upon the road was bitterness.
Out of the city, he watched the star flowers bloom and burnish the face of the moon. The coin of the gods, or the scale of the world devouring serpent, depending on who told the tale. He left his horse. It had to rest, and he did not. He went on alone along the ancient road, smooth stone ten paces across. He had never seen the like in Carrolan, preserved by magics greater than he could guess. It ran from Petronica to Ashram in a nearly straight line, as if the land itself had been molded to accommodate its creation.
One night he found himself arrested by the sight of a campfire a little distance from the road. He had passed others in the night before, but this time he felt himself drawn.
"Child, where do you go?" Mok had not seen the lookout, being so absorbed in his own thoughts. Tall, with the leathers of a woodsman, he approached Mok without menace.
"I am going to Ashram," Mok said.
"Alone, and on foot?" the man questioned.
"It is not so far."
"Perhaps, but it is late. You could spend the night with us if you like. My name is Lam."
Mok looked to the camp, the fire and the shadows around it, and acquiesced. "My name is Mok," he said.
Lam smiled. "A solemn name for one so young."
There were three tents and as many horses, two men drinking around the flame.
"Who have you brought?" one asked, older, with a bushy mustache.
"A fellow traveller." Lam gestured that Mok take a seat. "I offered him a place with us for the night."
The third man said nothing, he was muscular and bald, there were heavy purple crescents below his eyes. It was this one that had drawn Mok. There was something different about him, something changed.
Lam offered Mok a flask, and he pretended to drink.
"Why are you alone?"
Mok watched the fire, trying to decide what it was he saw in the third man. "I have family there."
A look was exchanged between the strangers. They didn't believe him. "We are going north too," Lam said, "and we wouldn't mind having you with us. You could starve on the road."
"You're going to Ashram?" Mok repeated, ignoring the other comments. "He's sick, isn't he? And they have healers."
The third man straightened, and there was suddenly tension around the camp. "You're right," Lam said, "he is sick. I don't know how you knew it, but we are going for a healer."
"Aren't they expensive?" Mok saw them exchange looks again.
The third man finally spoke. His voice rough, as if he had inhaled smoke. "I will die without magic, so we'll do what we have to."
"You don't look like you have much money."
"No, "Lam said, "but we have what we need. It isn't wise to dress richly, even on the old roads. There are bandits this far out, ready to take the unwary. That's another reason you shouldn't be travelling by yourself."
A night bird sang somewhere out of the light. There were stands of trees, and shadows within shadows. Mok imagined that he saw spirits moving there, watching what he did.
"I don't have anything worth stealing." His voice was distant.
"Maybe not," Lam said, "but there are people who buy children, even in the holy city. Especially there, actually. That's the irony of things."
"I am not a child." Mok said, and for the first time since inhabiting this new body he felt hunger. There had been an emptiness in him since he woke, but it was not something that suggested it could be filled until now. He looked at the sick man and felt hunger.
"Not a child?" Lam asked, and the mustached second laughed. The sick one slumped, already tired.
"Watch," Mok placed his pale hand within the lick of the flame before anyone could stop him. Lam was the only one who reacted, seizing him and pushing him back.
"What are you doing!" He shouted, staring at Monk's cracked and smoking fingers. "Are you mad?"
"I'm a monster." Mok said, and stabbed him. The rush was instant and intense, he could feel the man’s spark flicker and go out, feel the energy of his life pass into Mok, and that emptiness grow a little lighter.
The other two didn't understand what had happened until Lam slumped over and Mok got to his feet. The mustache went for a sword, and it was halfway out of his sheathe when Mok thrust a dagger under his chin and up into his skull. Again, the frisson of the kill, and he turned. The last man hadn't moved.
"What are you?" he asked, unperturbed by the deaths of his companions.
"Same as you," Mok said. "A dead man."
He found treasure in their tents. They had been brigands, as he had guessed. He had known the type in his other life. If they had been good men, he wasn't sure whether he would have been able to resist killing them or not. Maybe they had been good, and desperation had brought them to this. That scared Mok, and then it didn't. He wasn't responsible for what he did while he was a slave. When he was a man again, then he could grieve for the things that had gone before. The knife was enchanted to transfer the life of those he killed with it into him. He wondered whether he would fall apart without it. His mind felt fresh and rested, ready to resume travelling.
Most of what they had wasn't anything he could take with him, so he filled a pouch with gold bases and a few jeweled rings before moving on. He cut the horses loose before he left.
North again, and gradually the border mountains came into view. If he had had breath, they would have taken it from him. They made Skreeholm seem a hill. Stretching forever to the east and west, the spiny back of a primordial dragon. So it was said.
Ashram came into view, tiny beneath those towering heights.
A girl and a boy, neither yet quite woman or man, went on without thinking much about their lost companion. It was hard to think about him, as if a moss had grown over the memory, and trying to see through it only made them angry. They used the woodcraft he had taught them to survive, growing lean on roots and small game. They dressed and looked like rangers, wore swords like them. They might be mistaken from a distance for members of the Hero's Guild.
The boy insisted they go home, to the south. The girl disagreed. If she went home, her mother would marry her off to one of the lords of Dog Keep. Neither of them wanted that. Continuing the adventure, even without their guide, meant they could at least remain companions. That wouldn't be allowed if they returned. This argument won over the boy, along with his knowledge that the Guild might label him a deserter if they knew he was alive. As long as he didn't return, they probably labelled him dead.
"I'm going north, Aric. I want you to come with me."
He could never refuse her.
Wood, hill, and heath they followed until the mountains of the great border rose before them. Those gruelling flanks of earth and stone divided the world in two, or so the stories said. Below them was the world of men, and above, there was else. There was majesty before monsters.
"It can't all be stories." Kerrigan said. The crisp air brought them nearer each other, shoulders brushing in awkward intimacy of youth. "No people ever come down from the pass."
"And no one goes into it." Aric said.
"I want to." Kerrigan’s eyes were bright, her smile radiant and wild. "I want to see what's on the other side."
"Bad things," Aric said. "My mother always said dragons came from the north."
"Dragons come from Kenria," Kerrigan said dismissively. "I don't think they are there anymore. My tutors taught me how myths are made. If something has stories told about it, and in the stories, it gradually changes from mortal to immortal, they called it mytho something. Mythopoeiac."
"I've never heard of that," Aric said, stung.
"Hardly anyone has," Kerrigan said. "It’s a stupid sounding word for smart people to make other people feel stupid."
Aric hummed to himself, a thinking habit, and said, "My dad said there wasn't any such thing as Kenria. He said it was a fairy place, and that if you took a boat out to sea you would eventually come back to our land. That there was nothing else but islands and water."
"He would know." Kerrigan pushed him with her shoulder, playfully enough that he would understand there was no meanness in her words. Aric had not had her education, and she didn't fault him for it, though she sometimes wished he had.
"The people of the city may have the truth," she said. "We can ask them soon enough, and stand on the wall at the edge of our world."
Aric didn't respond. He just followed.
Ashram was the name of the city as well as the land. Outside of it, there was nothing more than a scattering of hamlets and small towns. The foothills were not as fertile as the rolling coast of Carrolan, or even the somber plains of Petronia. Most of its population resided in the single metropolis that had been built in a crescent guarding the pass. Its southern front was shielded by a wall, broken in places, and at its highest not grand compared to what protected Petronica. Ashram had never faced a great threat from the south, and few conquerors of any age would have wished to usurp its burden.
The gates were open during the day, and a pair of guards signalled them to stop as they came through.
"Passports," he said.
"What do you mean?" Aric asked.
The man snorted, looking to his friend, "Like he's never heard of ‘em."
"I haven't." Aric said truthfully, and Kerrigan was just as confused.
The second guard took pity. "Passports are papers, " he said, "they tell us who you are and where you've been. Where do you come from?"
"The Keepholds," Kerrigan said. "We've never had papers."
"Keepholds," the first guard groaned. "Well, you look backwoods enough for that. You have money?"
"Some," Aric said," not much."
"You need papers if you want to stay in the city. Hamlet'll take you to the registry office."
Hamlet was the first guard, and he led them under the walk and pointed out a tall brick building that he called the registry. They thanked him, and he watched them go in.
They found themselves facing a roomful of clerks and scrolls. There was an aisle between tables of furiously scratching scribes that led to an intimidating desk. The man behind it was a wheezy official in spectacles. Kerrigan had seen seeing glasses once before, Aric had not.
"Come here," he called to them. "What do you want?"
"We don't have any papers," Aric said.
"And not much money, " the man said, "else you would have bribed our ever fastidious watchmen. I can give you temporary passes, a few days. Tell me what business you have in the city."
Aric was at a loss. They didn't have business in the city, not really. He was ready to turn around and head back for the woods.
"We need to resupply," Kerrigan said, "It won't take more than a day. And I've always wanted to see the Wall."
"A pilgrimage?" The official looked slightly pleased. "You will never see a truer vision of the mercy of Ashar than what you find in that wall child. I will give you the passes, as soon as I can make note of your weapons. Come now," he urged them when they hesitated. "My beneficence may not endure. I have to make note of what you carry on your papers."
They produced their swords, and an eyebrow was raised in response. "These are very fine," he said, "Where did you get them?"
"These are family weapons," Kerrigan supplied.
"The young master's as well?"
"Yes," Kerrigan said, and Aric kept his silence. He knew she was the better liar.
"Very well," he returned their blades to them. "There are seats over there for you to wait while I finish these."
They did wait, and one of the scribes went out with a note from the registry official before he called them back.
"These will do for the day," he told them. "I expect you to be out of the city by dawn."
They thanked him, and took two scraps of sheepskin from him. They were filled with crabbed writing in a language neither of them recognized.
"We didn't have to pay anything," Aric commented.
Outside, they were greeted by a ring of swords. "You are under arrest," Hamlet said, "for possession of Hero property, and suspicion of violence done to members of the guild."
"Balls," Aric said.