Thursday, October 29, 2015

Fragment: Orontes' Tale

Although not recent, I've written a lot of mostly incomplete fiction in the past. Here's one of those pieces, in the raw.....this was a fictional rendering of the start of a campaign event in Lingusia I ran sometime ago, back in 2004ish.

Orontes' Tale

   Atop the cliffs of a quiet island surrounded by the shimmering waters of the Inner Sea, a vague form, not unlike a shadow trapped in the brilliant light of the sun, came to rest upon a loose outcropping of rock.  A flock of seagulls nesting alongside the cliffs beneath the overhang raised a cacophonous cry as they spun away from the cliffs one by one, avian instincts deeply upset with the unnatural shade above them.
   There was a time when this shadow remembered what the sun felt like. He could remember it shining down on his face, warming his skin. He could remember a strong breeze, off of the coast, sending a shiver through his very being as his body experienced the sudden contrast of warm and cool. It was a memory so vivid, he felt as if he had thought of nothing else for an age or more. That was long ago. Now he felt only the passage of time.
   An anger, like a half-forgotten memory, would flood through him at the realization that he could only remember the experience, but not the feelings. He had been upon that same cliff side overlooking the deep, azure lagoon a thousand times it seemed, and yet he could never remember what it was like to feel. He didn’t know why. Even his anger was a trickling brook compared to the river of rage he once knew.
   Long ago he had decided he was simply asleep, for a very long time. He felt as if he could recall the moments of his last waking memories. That he was on the cliff, he was certain, but beyond that he could not say. Not entirely. He did remember someone else, a woman, and another figure, one which had no form in his mind, yet was always present, always just behind him.
   The woman was so young, so vibrantly alive. She had red hair, long and glossy, flowing lightly in the airy breeze. Her skin was pale and unburned, wet as if she had just bathed. She knew him well, he was certain. He didn’t know why, but he suspected they had children. But she was so young in his memory.
   He knew her name, once. He knew she was very much like him, a free spirit, strong with the sensations and emotions of the body. Primal. She was at the cliff, too. Something happened to them. They went to overlook the lagoon. They were happy, perhaps for the first time.
   Though he knew it not then, a whispery, formless companion lurked nearby, ever mindful of the couple. That day on the cliffs he knew it was so close to them, he was certain of it. Did it reach out and push them off of the cliff? Did they jump? Was there some other reason that that cliff was his last recollection? Damn his memory! Whatever had happened, he realized now, was forever lost to him.
   Trapped in this formless, unabated sleep, he struggled to remember. It was important. He had to know.
   This was how he spent his days, uncounted, trying so hard to remember what had happened. Too often, he would become distracted by the smaller details, those which were so compelling, because it had been so long since he felt anything. A breeze, the sun, all of it was so distracting. It was too easy to think of these details, and focus on them. How had it felt again, that great warm resonance in the sky?
   And once again, he trailed away, forgetting the presence behind him, the companion on the cliff, and his betrothed who stood next to him when all memory and consciousness was lost forever more.

* * * * * *

   Dusk fell over the smoky streets of Malas. The densely packed city was built from great grey and black basalt mined from quarries along the coastal hills. The city overlooked a great bay, which had been guarded by an immense, artificial sea-wall to seal off the docks within from outside invaders for nearly three millennia. Color seemed to be outlawed in the bustling metropolis, along with good will.
    Overlooking the piers below along a rocky outcrop, a small tavern was preparing for an influx of patrons for the evening. Inside was filled with the measured voice of a man telling a tale. Gathered around him, children and curious onlookers sought a better position to watch the man as he elaborated on a tale written before him in a fat codex. His name was Orontes, a philosopher and priest of the White Robes.
   “On a small island in the deep blue waters of the Inner Sea rested a graveyard. Here had come to rest the body of countless villains, men and women of dubious character throughout the countless years. For four thousand years, the waters of the Inner Sea has served as the greatest inland gateway to the great world beyond. Here, the Hyrkanian Empire could reach out to the thousand kingdoms of both men and monster, for discovery, trade, warfare, and worse. And for ten thousand years, since the first day man carved a raft to sail upon, there was always another man waiting to steal it from him.”
   The priest paused for a moment to drink from his mug of ale. Before him, opened like an accordion with its leather bindings undone, was the codex from which he read. The small crowd of listeners around him were all transfixed, forgetting even to drink their own ale as they listened to the tale. None of his onlookers could read, but all knew the power of writing, and its use in the hands of sorcerers and learned men.
   Orontes continued, returning to the dense script of the Old Tongue from which he read and translated, in to the more common middle speech of his audience. “On this island, a legacy had been born. The first of the great pirates to have been buried here was lost to time, his name changing from tale to tale. Some called him Haberlan, and so the island is now named. His grave was simple, unadorned, a pit dug in the sand, his rusted copper blade protruding from it as a simple marker.
   “It is said that he was brought here by his queen, the first queen of ancient Blackholm, whom he had kidnapped from amidst her own armada. Haberlan was said to have stolen her heart as well as her lady hood, and when at last he was found and captured by the general to which she was betrothed, she helped him escape and fled with him to this island. She knew the island held the spirits of ancient beings from a time forgotten, for it was here that she had learned of her talent for necromantic arts. Such arts are the tradition to this day of all of the Queens of Blackholm, you see, and it was because of Haberlan that this started.”
   His audience was rapt, but one boy up front looked quizzically at the priest. “Sir,” he asked politely.
   “Speak, Cantas,” said the priest. Cantas was the boy who had found the scholar-priest sitting in the corner of the tavern, studying his ponderous tome. It was Cantas who convinced Orontes to tell the tale to begin with. Orontes, ever compelled to spread wisdom and learning in his wake, could not help but oblige.
   “How did Haberlan get captured? Was there fighting? And how did he escape?” The boy seemed eager to hear tales of combat and glory.
   “Now see, Cantas, the ancient scholars liked to write down what they knew, but no one can truly say how Haberlan was first captured and then freed by the queen. If I were to make it up, it wouldn’t be truthful, and so I can only tell you what greater men than you or I saw fit to commit to the written page. I am sure a foppish bard or teller of tall tales will come along, who will happily fill in all of the gaps in my text with the most fanciful speculation imaginable. But I shall tell you only what it written, and no more!” He tapped his book forcefully, a grin spreading on his lean, yet kindly young features. Barely 28 years of age, Orontes was young, as members of his order went.
   His audience subdued, Orontes returned to the book. “Now, to continue. It was on this island which the queen and her pirate hid, and it was here eventually to which the general Malabras of Blackholm came, and in a great battle all were slain. At last, only the general stood alive, and he took the body of his lost queen home. A handful of Haberlan’s men saw fit to bury him and whisper unknown prayers before his simple grave. That was the beginning of the tradition.
   “Four thousand years later, the legacy of this first grave of Haberlan had passed in to oblivion. Where once common dogs of the sea saw fit to bury their dead on the isle, an entire culture of deviltry soon sought out the island for their final resting place. Tombs, mausoleums, and graves of a hundred kinds now dotted the hidden valley that lay nestled in between the volcanic mountains that formed the small island. The dead of a dozen evil cults, a hundred unscrupulous mercenary companies, and a thousand purely evil beings had now been laid to rest in unholy ground, condemned by the Solarian priests, warded by the guardians of the god of death, and praised by the cults of chaos.”
   Orontes frowned. Elaboration, indeed, he thought to himself. Bards were not the only ones guilty of such crimes, and even scholars of ancient history appeared to be given to some flights of fancy.
   “This was how they wanted it. The Necopolis of Haberlan, blessed by the lords of chaos, shunned by the protectors of order. So it was that, during the Time of the Reckoning, the dreadful followers of Haro came to the island, and in doing so, continued the tradition of burying their evil dead.
   “During the Reckoning, the gods warred and the mother goddess rose up to cast down the minions of chaos. In this time of divine strife, it is said that the duplicitous god of assassins, named Haro, had betrayed his own brethren in chaos and sided with the lords of order to save his own skin. As such, when the Reckoning was past, his followers knew that they had to disappear, to avoid retaliation by the cults of those gods who had fallen from the heavens due to Haro’s betrayal. The Island of Haberlan became a new place of meetings, and it was here that they chose to lay their dead.”
   Orontes eyebrow arched at this. His audience, rapt with attention, could not know that, as they heard the story of the Island for the first time, so did he. Not three hours earlier, Orontes had purchased the tome from a book seller in the grand market. “It was purchased at cost from the estates of a powerful merchant who claimed that his father was a servant of the cult of the Mad God Slithotep,” said the merchant. “None could know wickedness so well as these men,” he continued, and after much haggling, the book was Orontes’.
   Hoping that it would lend him a clue to his ultimate destination, the scholar-priest had sought immediate refuge in a quiet tavern to begin translating. Suddenly, it looked very much as if his investment was about to pay off.
   “The followers of Haro identified themselves by the symbol of a flaming knife against a shield of stars.” He paused, reached in to his leather folio and pulled forth a canvas sheet with exactly that image painted on it. He showed his audience the curious image of a mirrored shield reflecting the stars of the sky, crossed with a bolt and dagger.
    “It is said that if you travel to the Island of Haberlan, you can find a great many tombs with this dreadful symbol upon them. The Flame Knives of Haro believe that only the greatest of their kind can survive long enough to eventually be buried in the necropolis of the island, and it is seen as a great honor. So it was told to this scholar by a wizened sylveinurian who claimed to have once been a grand master of the vile order, who’s name was Celiobantes Astiriate. He relayed a further tale of how he had personally taken the body of one of their greatest members, the legendary Cassios Augustos, to be entombed in the first mausoleum of his ancestors.” Orontes trailed off as he read the final page, and many seconds passed before the sounds of his impatient audience drew his attention back to the theatrical lesson he was involved in.
   As he looked up, Cantas looked ready to burst. “Yes? Speak!”
   “I heard a story from my uncle that Cassios was betrayed by Celiobantes, that he was stabbed by his own friend. Is this true?” He looked a little awkward as he spoke, shifting from foot to foot. Such a story seemed odd knowledge to come from a boy who’s uncle was likely a sailor or shore man.
   “Really? I’d like to hear your uncle’s tale, if I may.” He looked earnestly at the boy, who shuffled a bit more.
   “Well, I’m not supposed to talk about such things,” Cantas looked ready to bolt.
   “I did read to you from my book of tales,” Orontes reminded him. “The least you could do would be to introduce me to your uncle. I’d consider that fair payment for you and your friends interrupting my research with demands for entertainment.” He smirked, knowing the boy would either have to concede or flee.
   Cantas’ companions jeered and needled him. “Show him to your uncle, Cantas!” One boy shouted, “But read us another tale before you go!”
   Peer pressure seemed to topple the lad, and he relented. “Tell us another story and I’ll take you to see my uncle. He’ll be done from his labor for the day soon, and I can take you to his home.” The boy’s companions cheered him on, and Cantas perked up, more confident in his decision now.
   “Well, how can I refuse such a deal?” Orontes smiled. “Now, let me tell you a slightly different tale. Let’s see now, it’s in here somewhere. Ah, how about the story of the Beautiful Empress Phyxillus, who led the Emerald Knights against the Troll Queen Invidia. The vile trolls fell before the Empress’s Crusaders, but at great cost! That’s a fine tale of warfare, intrigue and betrayal. The tale begins long ago, when the Mad God saw fit to sire a daughter of darknes…”
   And for an hour more he regaled an eager audience with tales of adventure, intrigue, and even more importantly, history.

*  *  *  *  *  *

   In the clear night sky, a thousand sparkling pinpoints cast light upon the smoky streets below. Snaking its way amidst the starry scape was a dull red bur, like a star out of focus and trailed by a great tail. In the light of Selene, this great comet called the Red Dragon would fade into nothing, but on a new moon like tonight, it stood out starkly against the sea of night. Men moved fearfully beneath it, muttering various wards to protect them from the gaze of the dragon. None had seen the likes in more than a lifetime in the sky, and with each month it grew larger and more distinct, as if a great wave could be seen to be moving inexhorably towards the coast.
   Orontes followed Cantas through torch-lit streets, which grew ever narrower as they moved in to poor neighborhoods. Sultry women who sought to disguise brusque sores with thick makeup gestured for Orontes to give up his faith and join them for an evening. Rough scalawags lurked in darkened passageways and sized up the man and his young guide, then looked hastily away as they noticed Oronte’s luminous staff. Wizards made poor marks for easy coin.
   “Here we are,” Cantas stopped before a tiny passageway, sunken half a man’s height in to the earth with narrow steps leading downward. “He’s lived in the under level here now for as long as I can remember.” Cantas trotted on down the steps.
   Orontes looked uncertain, if only for a moment, but he felt certain that the boy intended only good will. As he descended, his staff shed faint, eerie blue light in the darkened passage, revealing an old wooden door some ten feet down past the steps. The floor was wet with drainage run off from the streets above, and the stench of piss and vomit filled the air. The boy did not seem to care or notice.
   At the end of the passage, the boy grabbed a crude iron knocker in the shape of a portly mermaid and beat hard upon the door. “Uncle Tymoran, it is your nephew!” The boy hissed the words, loudly, but as if he feared they would carry too far.
   A few seconds passed, and when the door opened, a rough character limned with firelight beyond studied the two visitors carefully. A loaded crossbow was nestled in the crook of his arm, which relaxed after a moment. “Cantas!” he spoke, softly. “Boy, why do you bring a priest to my door?” He cast a curious gaze over Orontes, as if he could divine the man’s nature with his eyes. He stared long and hard at the staff, then muttered a silent curse and crossed himself with a curious gesture Orontes had not seen before.
   Cantas seemed abashed at the rebuke. “But uncle, he wants to hear your stories. Your old stories, from when you worked in the city, not down by the docks.”
   The man lashed out, and caught the boy in a firm grip, then threw him inside. “Enough of you! I tell you never to repeat such things, and here you go tell a priest!”
   Before he could reap further violence upon the child, Orontes stepped forward, and place a hand on the man’s shoulder. “He means no ill, but he knows I study that subject of which you have knowledge. My order is wealthy. I have coin, and will play for such information as you can tell me.”
   The man cast a doubtful glance at Orontes, but then relaxed. “Aye, I’ve seen the splendorous halls of your temple in the Sacred District. You worship the lord of knowledge, right? Nistur, his name would be. My gods have no care for yours. Enter and show me coin. I’ll speak.”
   Orontes entered, then, as the man moved away in the cramped basement apartment. He moved to the side of a small pantry and retrieved some bread and a mug of crude ale, which proved to be whiskey from Cretea by the seal. He poured a cup for himself and his visitor. Cantas looked on eagerly. Scowling, Tymoran grabbed another mug and poured a small amount for the boy. “You’re old enough to cause me grief, you’re old enough to drink.”
   They drank and ate bread for a short while, and Orontes explained his interest. “I am on a mission of some importance.” He grimaced as he downed another sip of whiskey. “I seek the tomb of a man named Cassios. He once consorted with an order of assassins, he Flaming Blades, who were said to have ruled this city from the shadows in days past. I found a book which claims that he was laid to rest on an Isle called Haberlan. The boy spoke of a tale in which Cassios’ fate was detailed, and that it involved treachery. Know you of this tale, or the isle on which the man’s bones may be found?”
   The man looked on with a stony silence, then downed his whiskey and poured another round. “You’re order must not lke you to put you on such an errand, priest Orontes. All knowledge having to do with the Flaming Blades should be buried and forgotten. But yes, I do know these tales, as they have been told to me by my fathers before me for many generations.” He grimaced, as if the tales held a bitter taste to his memory. “This boy is my only relative, though I am sure I have left many bastards in other ports. I have told him sme tales, to carry the tradition, but I do not wish him to follow in my footsteps.”
   He got up then, and pulled aside a dark red curtain along one wall, exposing a crude earthen closet. “I have it here. Ah.” he pulled a roll of cloth out and unraveled it, exposing a fine dagger of blackest iron, upon which a silver-inlaid image reflected in the firelight.
   He handed it hilt-first to Orontes. “An assassin’s blade,” he pointed to the weapon’s tip. “See there, two pinprick holes along the flat of the blade near the tip. The base of the hilt unscrews. You place the poison there. A mixture of curare from Amech with local the berries of burnt ivy was a favorite concoction. It rendered the victim paralyzed and in such pain as the would beg for mercy if only their mouth would work. A terrible weapon.”
   Orontes looked at the image on the weapon. It was a circular emblem, with several small star-like points, crossed by arrow and blade. The style was characteristically southern Hyrkanian. A sentence in a language unfamiliar was etched beneath. “I have studied many languages, but this one is unknown to me,” he game Tymoran a querying glance.
   “The Flaming Blades work hard to obscure their very name. What you see is the language of the killers, a script said to have been crafted by Haro himself, and given to the first slayer of man in the days fo creation. It is said that the language mutates itself over time, to insure the secrecy of the secrets written in it’s dark script.” He paused, studied the words. “I am out of practice with my knowledge of this tongue, but the words on this blade tell of the owner of this blade. His name was Celiobantes Astiriate, servant of Haro.”
   Cantas, nearby, was wide eyed. “You mean you have the blade of the one who killed Cassios?” he reached out to touch the blade but Tymoran slapped his hand away, then took the weapon from Orontes.
   The scholar priest wiped his hands on a cloth drawn from a hidden pocket. The blade felt unpleasant to the touch, and was warm, in spite of having been locked away in a cold earthen closet. “This is an artifact of evil. The man who used this blade killed many, I gather.”
   “And all owners thereafter,” Tymoran wrapped the blade up and replaced it in the closet. “But never again.”
   Orontes braved a question lurking in the back of his mind. “When did you quit?”
   Tymoran was silent for a very long time, then at last sighed, as if he was letting loathsome spirits loose upon his breath. “I retired from the art of assassination ten years ago. I chose to end the profession of my fathers on the night I was forced to kill someone dear to me.”
   Orontes’ stoic silence was palbable, as if the instincts of the priest were carefully being fought back by the needs of the scholar. When at last he spoke, it was with measured certainty. “Are you descended from Cassios? Was your ancestor of the blood of Augustos and Sorinos?”
   Tymoran looked askance at the priest. “You seem unusually interested in the tales and tombs of dead villains, sir. Why would this interest you?” Tymoran was retired, but old instincts still kept suspicion alive in his mind.

   “I am on a quest, as I have said. It is on the matter of a prophecy, one which has been held in confidence by my order for millennia. You have seen the Red Dragon, have you not? It grows larger with each passing day.”

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