Novel: Month 2

I have renamed (Finally) the book. It is now called Little Gods which makes much more sense.
Little Gods

By Paul Rheaume

for Alice

Character Profiles

Brin : “merchant clever” a little frustrated, ultimately good hearted, observant, idealist. Portly.
Treeman: childlike, very in tune with nature. 7” hairy. Bonds with Brin over food.
Annis: sociopath. Dangerous. Untrustworthy. Schizophrenic. Possessed by a power mad little god. She was raised by the Priests of the Sacred Grove then, once she was possessed, trained by the thieves guild.
Parrid: single minded. Neurotic, paranoid. Made up the god that he worshipped. Is needed for his faith to keep the little god at bay. The little god that resides in his head is the god of an old sword that Parrid acquired. His god, Saaban has found a way to strengthen Parrid.
Karrig Ulle: quick witted, sharp, wise, secretive. Has an intimate knowledge of mechanical things.
Tarol Undershine: A military tactician who surrounded himself with brute force to keep himself safe. Travels the world with his roving band of brigands and warriors, destroying and looting whatever they turn their eye to. Older of body but with a mind that has managed to keep his rather large company well fed and safe. Only a select few handmaidens and scouts ever see him, he barks his orders through an intricate system of tubes and horns that come out of his large wooden covered wagon.
The Priests of the Sacred Grove: An ancient brother/sisterhood of priests dedicated to preserving balance in the world. They believe that there are little gods in everything. Each person has a god that lives inside them. They renounce any names they may have had upon swearing the sacred oath believing themselves to be mere vessels for the gods that live inside of them.
The Elder Priest of the Sacred Grove: The oldest of the priests. He is looked to as a vessel for all the gods that have lived in the Elder Priests before him. The little god that inhabited Annis was supposed to transfer to him with the passing of the person he succeeded.
The Little Gods: Multidimentional creatures that

Chapter 1 – The Merchant and the Dancer Page 5
Chapter 2 – As the Arrow Flies Page 8
Chapter 3 – Word as law Page 10
Chapter 4 – Of Roots and Prayer Page 13
Chapter 5 – Powder and Globes Page 20
Chapter 6 –

The Pursuit of Happiness
Chapter one:
The Merchant and the Dancer

The wind held something in it that brought tears to the eyes. The bitter cold that followed froze them. It was difficult to move quietly in the early morning frost. Everything was so crisp, so loud. The forest air could carry a sound, distorted and hollow, from miles away. It could also be coming from just behind the next hill. One could never tell. Fur padding on the shoes helped a little. They looked a bit ridiculous, but helped to muffle the sound of crunching leaves and breaking twigs. Brin knew, at this point, it didn’t matter, as he was being followed. He had been since two days ago. He was unsure as to why. He carried nothing of any real value. He was a simple merchant on his way to pick up a springtime order. He couldn’t be late.

He had half a mind to just stay put and wait for his pursuer. Better to face the devil than to let his mind build up who it may be. Was it a hunter? Any hunter worth his salt would know the tracks he left was not made by a forest animal. But yet, he was still followed. Not a good sign.

He ducked behind a large oak to catch his breath. The tell-tale smell of fire had disappeared with the shifting of the wind. He would have to be more cautious now. He had no weapon save a whittling knife and a crooked walking stick that he had found along the road at the beginning of his journey. It would make a poor spear. The blood pumping in his ears was a constant drumbeat signaling danger. When he paused for a breath or a drink, it created a cacophonous reminder to his current plight. Annis would have shimmied up a tall pine and held her bow silent until the interloper showed himself. It had always amazed him how she could stand, unmoving, for hours. But Annis wasn’t here, and age weighed heavily on Brin’s considerable body. His days of climbing trees were well past. If it weren’t for his current situation, the notion would be humorous.

It was a week since he had left the village of Crydon. It had been more like a group of six farms that butted up against each other with an inn and a statue of a farmer in the middle. But the food had been well spiced and the company was friendly. He spent a few nights over a bowl of hunter’s stew consisting of both deer and rabbit in a thick brown sauce served over cubes of bread and mugs of the local ale. He was fairly sure that he had made no enemies in the nights he had rested there. He had done his best to keep any conversations to simple things like the crops and weather. He gave no complaint when he saw that the prices were just slightly higher for outsiders. Who was he to deny them larder for the winter? Coins were just rocks from the ground that someone polished pretty. They came and went like the seasons. You quickly got the idea from the ready smiles and the tavern songs that nothing terrible had ever happened there. Crydon hadn’t had any sense of local government, just a group of local people who knew that there was comfort in numbers. So be it.
He hadn’t noticed his tail until three days ago. He doubted that anyone from the village had ever travelled so far. That left two answers. That he had recently picked up his follower or that he had been followed for long before Crydon. The latter was unsettling.

Brin unwrapped his roll and took out one of his few remaining loaves of bread that he had purchased in town. The thick brown crust staved off the bread going stale. Thinking always came easier with a full stomach, and he certainly had some thinking to do. Just continuing on to the sacred grove wasn’t really an option. He had pledged, long ago, never to reveal its location. The pledge was long and was centered on swearing to many different gods and the letting of blood from his finger. Brin was hardly a superstitious man, but there was something about these priests that he decided would be better not to cross. That he brought an enemy into their camp would not be a conversation that he would like to have with the priests. They were skittish enough as it was. The need for secrecy with this group was paramount although Brian could never figure out why. The priests were a quiet, unassuming people who lived closely attuned to nature. They hid no gold as far as he knew and so had little to fear from outsiders. But still they kept themselves unknown to the world. That was the way they liked it and the world got along just fine without knowing they existed. It did, however, narrow his choices. It was unlikely that he could still lose the person following him, he was too close now, and he could not lead them any closer. If he did that, the priests would never let themselves be found. There was really only one option. Better the devil you know. If he was met with a sword, well, that he could handle, if he had to. His girth hid a quickness that surprised most. He did make for a fairly easy ranged target, however. It was best to lay low until he was in striking range. He figured that he had about two hours, on the outside, before they would meet. Strategy was key here; he put to mind as he surveyed the outlying landscape. The ground was relatively flat, so no adjustments could be made for higher ground. Even the trees had thinned out for the past few miles. This was hardly an ideal place to make ones last stand. Chewing slowly, he weighed his options. Eating always made him think better. He wiped the crumbs from his chin as it came to him. He found a stump, sat down and smiled. It was worth a shot.

By the time the silhouette crested into view Brian had a roaring fire burning and some root vegetables slow roasting. It wasn’t a rabbit, by any means, but it still left a comforting aroma on the breeze. He was fortunate enough to find a few ripened roots over the past few days. It was foolhardy to waste resources as such. Root patches don’t show up every day, especially in this frost. But, it was most likely a pretty strong signal to whoever was coming that he knew someone was behind him. The pops of the dry wood burning and the ensuing sparks floated on the breeze towards the interloper. If this didn’t work, he knew he was in trouble. He pretended not to notice the large man approaching as he poked his stick in the food to test doneness.
Brin waved his cooking utensil at a stone that he had placed at the other end of the fire. The large man slung his pack from over his shoulder and onto the rock. His broad, bearded face showed no emotion as he rummaged through his pack, producing a fair sized parcel made of what appeared to be birch bark. He was a large man, exceptionally so. His beard hung long and the state of his clothing suggested that he slept outside more often than not. His thick fingers struggled with unwrapping the delicately tied package.

“Ho, stranger.” Brin announced, as calmly as he could. “What brings you to follow in my path? You are welcome to share my fire. My roots appear to be almost cooked. I am called Brin and am glad for the company.”

The hulking mass lifted his head to meet his gaze for but a moment before returning to his task. The grey eyes immediately told Brin that this was not a man that would put up with witty banter. He needed to re-evaluate his plan and quickly. Cleverness would be unlikely to win the day. A quick exchange of a meal and quips would have suited him for most folk. He would at least know where he stood. This man was different, unnerving. This open air meeting would, most certainly, be an error of judgment on his part. He sat and watched silently as the man finally was able to unwrap the package. He pulled out a metal box that, when opened, contained meat packed in salt. The meat had been pre-set in skewers that were carefully lifted, shaken to remove any excess salt, and set above the fire to toast. He then pulled a fur blanket from his pack and set it next to the rock near the fire. As he began to clap his hands together to remove the excess salt, Brian attempted to verbally engage him again.

“I have water…”

He was cut off short as the man spun more quickly than Brin would have ever imagined and put one hand to his mouth; fingers up and palm out in the universal sign for silence. Brin froze mid-word; his eyes open wide in anticipation of attack. He had no idea what to expect next. The man slowly lowered his hand and turned back to his pack. He removed a deerskin pouch, opened it and threw a pinch of the contents into the fire.

Immediately, the cooking fire exploded into a blaze of color. Brin quickly brought up his arm so as not to be blinded. He steeled himself for some sort of attack that never came. When he saw the light at his feet diminish, he peeked up above his forearm and saw the most curious thing. The large man who must have weighed at least seventeen stones was dancing on the rug in a fervor that Brian would never have thought that someone of his size could muster. His arms flung about haphazardly in a rhythm that was unheard but clearly felt. The man’s crazed movements depicted (as near as Brin could tell) the flight of some angry bear-bird who wished to give thanks to the mountain god. Or something like that. His dance interpretation skills were far outweighed by the realization that if this man wanted him dead, there would be nothing he could do to stop him. His shaggy frame belied a quickness of motion that was eerie. Brian was watching a human thunderstorm.

And then, as quickly it had begun, it was over. The man gave a final shake of his body; much like a wet dog would, and sat down with a thump that Brin felt in the ground from across the fire. He ham fistedly grabbed the two skewers from the fire, the heat apparently causing him no discomfort, and tore a ragged piece of meat from the stick. Oddly enough, the meat that had been packed in salt now appeared to be juicy and sizzling with crackling fat. It dripped down his beard, though he seemed to pay it no mind. The large man just stared at Brin, chewing slowly, his large jaw working back and forth. Further study of the man in front of him raised far more questions than it answered. He had hair everywhere. His long hair and ample beard hid most of his face, but the parts that it did not hide were the most unsettling. Upon closer inspection his gray eyes seemed almost too large for his head. Even his hands, or what he could see of them poking out of his long sleeves, had tufts of long, shaggy hair. He wore no boots but all he could see of his feet that wasn’t completely covered by hair were his enormous toes. The large vest that he wore was made out of woven leaves….

Brin gasped.

He was staring across the fire at a treeman.

All thoughts of getting an upper hand in the situation fled his mind. He sat down with a considerable thump of his own on the log he had placed near the fire and let out a long, whistling breath. The treeman copied the sound. Only his whistle seemed to call a small bird to alight on his shoulder and pick a bug out of his ear.

From what he could piece together from childhood stories, the treemen were little seen guardians of the forest. According to his mother, they stole away children who wouldn’t wash their clothes in the river. He doubted if that particular piece of folklore held any merit, but the man sitting before him certainly fit the description. Brian could not recall any stories about them being particularly violent but it was best to be safe. Mostly they were known for their reluctance for contact with anyone except for their own kind. This meeting was unprecedented. He became sorely afraid that the reason that there were so few stories about the Treemen was due to so few surviving the encounter. His demeanor did not shout out killer as much as it did child. That man sitting across from him, however, was in no way a child.

Chapter 2: As the Arrow Flies

Annis pressed her back against the remains of the ancient stone wall and listened for any scouts that she may have missed. The swiftly moving air kept any scent of her quarry downwind but was also continually whipping her long chestnut locks into her eyes and mouth. She tore a strip from her well worn leather jerkin and tied her hair back, looking down while she did so.

Three corpses lay at her feet, two with arrows sticking in their torsos and one with his neck at an unusual angle. Once she was sure that the footsteps she heard a few minutes ago were not returning, she squatted down to see if the projectiles were still serviceable. Pulling an arrow out of someone’s back is not as simple as one would think.

A well made arrow, at least the kind used against people, should be a difficult thing to remove. She thought back to her mentor; the arrogant sod, Gilliad, and how he would have her forge her arrowheads wider than any she had ever seen. When pressed as to why, he told her: “When you shoot someone with an arrow, you are gifting him with a death that some would consider… impersonal. It is not wise to allow your victim to take offence at your attempt and decide to do otherwise. When you make an arrowhead wide, it will become twisted with their insides when they try to remove it. It will hasten their death, which is only kind, as an arrow is a painful way to die.” He then showed her how to make the outside edges very sharp but to leave the back of the head with no edge at all. Little notches along the back would ensure that even if the arrow could be dislodged, it would take important bits with it.

Her mentor Gilliad may well have been the most dangerous man she had ever met, but even he did not know the secret of removing a well made arrow, especially, when he didn’t see it coming. But how could he have when she was the one holding the bow. His fiery libido wasn’t quite as threatening when the only thing stiff down there was an arrow in his groin.

Hunching down, she inspected the first arrow. The shaft was cracked. It was useless to her now. She pocketed the arrowhead and threw the rest into the tall grass that skirted the rubble she had been hiding in. The grass was deep enough to hide a body, so it should do for a few arrows. These ruins provided pretty decent cover, but there was no need to leave undue traces. There had been no one calling this home for at least a hundred years, from the look of things. Only one wall still stood as high as she did, the rest had been reduced to piles of stone surrounded by tall weeds. It was also excellent cover. Little ruins like this dotted the landscape providing excellent cover. She wasn’t sure what had happened here to run everyone out so long ago, but it had been enough to where no one had returned.

This close to the caravan was not a safe area to be in the daylight. Roaming patrols, such as the one that lay dead at her feet, were a certainty. The only benefit to stalking a caravan was that a caravan would not know the lay of the land. It made keeping out of sight much easier. Tarrol had his scouts out, for sure. But they also had the added duty of watching out over five giant tents, carts, horses and throngs of warriors milling about the encampment. There is only so much ground they can cover. Also, with their reputation as it is, they don’t have a lot of issues with people attacking them. Once word comes through an area that the caravan is coming, most folk run to safer grounds, quickly; usually, with a lot of screaming.

Still, as sure as she was that she could avoid detection in broad daylight, there was no need. She had been following the caravan for a month now and was pretty sure that she knew a way in. The guards drank pretty heavily at night from the rum caskets so they had become complacent. Even so, they were dangerous. Still, most of them would have staggered off to their tents by the pre dawn hours. The approach was fairly simple. It was once she was in one of the giant tents when her skills would be tested. The tents were palaces that could be moved. They were not for the rabble. There were many of the common soldiers that Undershine employed that never saw the inside of one. The guards that did work inside were not allowed drink and so would not be as quickly fooled as the common raider that slept under the stars.

The tents, themselves, were as large as city blocks and separated into many rooms. What information she had gathered about the of the inside layout was weak. When she had gotten close enough to cut a little slit in the side of the thick canvas, she discovered that the tents outer walls only gave way to another tent wall, studded with metal rings and more than a foot away. It is just enough room for a guard to walk through. From what was gleaned from overheard conversation, there was another similar guard walk leading to Tarrol Undershine’s inner chambers. A tent within a tent… within a tent. It must have cost a fortune. All of that work… the fireproofing with tar slag alone would have bankrupt a small city. It was an exorbitant strategy, but one that appeared to work very well.

But for now, it was time to hunker down and wait for nightfall. Tonight, it was finally time to make her move. Her success was in no way guaranteed, but the risks were worth it as Tarrol was said to be in possession of an item looted from Annis’s father.

Lifting her head over the ruined stone wall, confidence that she was not followed prevailed. She slid back down and began to rifle through the clothing of the three gentlemen that would be keeping her company until nightfall. Their packs contained a good supply of road food: biscuits and dried meat. She had named them Gerrod, Benj and King Tem. They had been one of the numerous scouting parties that had been sent out before the caravan moved out. They probably would not be expected to return for at least three days. Tannis had needed to know how well trained the caravan’s men were. As it turned out, they were not trained very well at all. The first two scouts fell, quickly, under her arrows. When the third saw this, he just stood there, like a frightened child, while she ran up to him. The look of surprise that he had on his face as Tannis killed him with a perfectly placed kick to the neck was still there, Frozen for eternity. She recalled that it had made a satisfying “pop” when it snapped.

She held a war conference with her new friends to discuss what the best way in to the encampment would be. Sat up against the wall, they looked like royalty. She had tried to make a crown out of leaves and sticks in Tem’s hair, but the results were disappointing. His broken neck was poor at holding his head up and the leaves kept tumbling off. The long grasses that she had stuffed in his now stiffening mouth were a noble attempt at, but did not quite mimic, a kingly beard. She had smashed out all of Gerrod and Benj’s teeth with a rock in hopes of making them look like a queen and a princess with red, pouty mouths, but was disappointed with the results. The red around their mouth did add to the illusion but she had accidentally caved in Gerrod’s head in the front. If you have never caved in someone’s skull you probably wouldn’t know how bad brains smell. Not very princess-like at all.

None of them were very forthcoming with a good route into the camp. She could tell that they were far too afraid to give up anything. Tarol Undershine was not one to forgive betrayal. The stories that crossed the plains were of heads on pikes marking the path that his caravan moved through the world. Undershine did not hide. He left a path of heads for anyone foolish enough to follow. The unlucky ones that did, more likely than not, became part of the path. From what Annis had seen, there did not appear to be a shortage of fools. What stories she had heard, mostly from cowering peasants, told the tale of a wandering tyrant and his tireless army. Undershine was a superstitious king and believed himself to be cursed to never take root in one place. He was also known for looting any town, village, city or fortress he came across. That was what had caught her attention. The stories that were whispered, that of an army that never slept and carrying an ancient treasure, she could dismiss. She had already seen that his army sleeps just fine. In fact, he was pretty sure that the queen in front of her was dozing off.
That was royalty for you.

Chapter 3: Word as law

The marketplace bustled with moving carts, stalls and barkers. The smell of roasted meats mingled, uneasily, with that of horse’s shit. Thick smoke from various small blacksmiths in the area combined with the haphazard layout of the market to make visibility low. Parrid was in a particularly foul mood this morning, having had his breakfast unceremoniously thrown out the tavern window by an irate innkeeper demanding payment. The mindless shrieks from this overweight pile of excrement still rang in his ears. “No coin, no room! No coin, no food. How many fucking times do I have to tell you? This is NOT a monastery and you don’t stay for free. ” Parrid was sure that he was being made an example of. He had promised the keep his payment in three days time and was rewarded for his oath by being locked out of his room. In three days time, when the keeper was paid, he would see the return of his belongings that were in the room at the time of the incident. If not, then it would be put into the fireplace. Even if he had had the coin for the bloated innkeeper, he would never see it now. To think! Charging a warrior priest of Sabban for lodging? That would never do! Lord Saaban (may his name reign fire down upon the ages) did not create this world so that the people that infest it could profit from what was made to offer freely. Such an offence to a priest of Saaban should not go unpunished, but it was difficult in a city where the Lord of the Red Heavens name was not known. Lashing out in self-righteous anger would not serve the cause. These ignorant sheep must be hand-held to glory like cows to grass. His possessions were of no consequence. A warrior priest of the Red Heavens had no need of worldly items, save his sword. That was buried safely near the stables.
He had come here to save the spirits of the people of this city. The stone spires and glassed windows of the kingdom of Providence hid the fact that there were vermin in every soul. The king was a loathsome heathen who had spent the majority of his rule fucking street whores and sending his army off on folly quests which were little more than excuses to raid neighboring kingdoms. How many times had he brought us to the brink of war? The temples were no better. It was well known that they forced the street people to beg for them and collect all of the proceeds. Sure, they were fed a bowl of slop each day but those that refused were killed. It was a pretty solid incentive. It only took one or two bodies found in the dark corners of the market square to send the message. It was one thing for a church to lead the flock, quite another to lead them to the abattoir.
The vice and corruption in this kingdom ran rampant. He knew that only Saaban had the power to turn things around. His fire would cleanse the wicked. His will alone would be sufficient to destroy the usurpers to the land that is rightfully his. Once the hearts and the minds of the people were free, they could join together in a righteous army and wipe the false gods from the world. It will be a glorious day. But until then there was work to do.
As much as he was loathe to do so, Parrid approached, then mounted, the stump of a great old may tree that stood in a clearing of the market. It was mostly used by preachers but sometimes by overly enthusiastic merchants. He did not care for this part of his calling. Speaking before others was a necessity, to be sure, but it did not come easy for him. Prophets throughout time had always been made out to be madmen and fools. Few people took his words to heart. The jeers, the clumps of dirt thrown at him riled him quickly. These people did not deserve salvation. The endless time spent spreading the word of Saaban to deaf ears grew tiresome. His only audience, an occasional drunk who overheard the closing to prayer “May the taste of my enemies blood be ever in my mouth!” That usually roused a halfhearted hurrah from boys and people who have never actually seen a battle. It was rare, however, to have someone listen to the whole of his word. He let the red hood fall behind his head and allowed his steely grey eyes to search the crowds unhindered, searching for someone with an ounce of steel to listen to his message.
His countenance did not inspire fellowship, or so he had been told. His nose was long and sharp and his mouth was tied into a constant scowl. It made him look older than his 36 summers. The streaks of grey in his hair didn’t help either. He had never claimed to be a beautiful man, nor, did he think, was that something that Lord Saaban would need. His arms were strong enough and his legs would and could carry him many miles. When he first donned the red robe many years ago, he would often have a strong mental image of it flowing around it majestically. This morning it felt listless and damp.
He cleared his throat and began. The usual noise was doing its best to drown him out. Merchants with nearby stalls heard his voice and immediately began to sneer. They raised their voices proclaiming the quality of their roots or rugs. It mattered little. Soon they would become weary of yelling over him. He would not allow himself the luxury of defeat. He easily dodged a piece of rotten fruit that was launched from somewhere within the rabble.
“Raise your ears and your swords!” He bellowed.
“The great Lord Sabban shall rein fire down upon the blood-soaked fields of battle, cleansing pure those who have given to him their lives. Your spirits shall be forged and folded into Lord Saaban’s terrible sword ‘SOL’ which shall, one day be swung against the darkness and we shall all become as light.”
“The Lord Saaban will feed his army with the roots of the tree of life and all shall become part of him. His armies shall be his limbs. All will drink deeply of the blood as it pours from our enemy’s neck! When all of the evil ones have all fallen, the great Red Lord will lead us to the stars, where we shall rule in blood and shine down upon the unworthy!”
He hefted a stick above his head. This used to be the point where he raised his sword for dramatic effect, but apparently the King’s guards frown upon waving swords about in public areas; especially so, when the crown princess is visiting the market. It took him at least a week before he could open his eye from the beating he took by the hands of the royal guard. He also took no pleasure in the dungeon’s cuisine which, due to the king’s questionable humor, was a platter of food that could only fit through a vertical slot in the door if all of the food had been previously removed. After three months of that, plus having a cellmate that sang sea chantys incessantly, he decided that it would be in his best interest to just put the sword away in public. All would be well; the day would come when they would beg for him to hold his sword.
“The great cleanser, Sabban the fire bringer, brings you his breath from the RED Heavens! The wind that blows is one of battle. Battle for the lands! Battle for the hearts of the people! Battle for the blood of the ones who have come before!”
“The battle of the ages is coming! Upon his red horse he comes, sword in hand, to devour those too weak to fight. He will crush the bones of the fools that dare oppose him in his teeth and from the resulting spittle-bone mix will create a new empire…An Empire of BLOOD!”
A strange old lady had stopped before him, her sunken eyes shaded by the ratty old hood covering the sparse strings of greasy hair that jutted out haphazardly. She waited, politely, until he was finished talking about the battle bit before she whacked him in the knee with her walking stick.
“Come with me now.” She calmly said.
He began again, ignoring the throb in his knee and suppressing the urge to kick the old woman away.
“The walls of all cities who proclaim his name will… OW!”
She had cracked him in the leg again. “Come with me. now.”
He reached down to cup his sore leg and immediately saw a group of the king’s guards looking around the market. They were easily recognizable by their red tunics with the golden roping around the edges. The front was emblazoned with a golden lightning bolt, the personal symbol of King William. The uniforms may have looked ridiculous, but the men that wore them did not. They looked like the breed of man that would follow orders blindly, without question. Big, dumb, hairy apes that would just as soon kill you, because any reason one brought to the table would challenge their extremely limited world view.
They were dragging behind them a cage of truth. The cage of truth was a globular cage that was made of steel bands banded together jaggedly that were thin enough as to only cause discomfort at first. It has been said, however, that that discomfort would soon grow to pain leading, eventually, to madness. Parrid was surprised to see it as it was a cage usually reserved for the most vile of criminals such as traitors to the crown. The accused would be crudely stuffed in the cage and dragged behind a team of horses along a rocky road until they confessed to whatever it was they did or didn’t do. It wouldn’t kill you, but your body would wish that it had.
“Here! Boy! Look here!” the old lady said with some urgency. She rapped her cane against the stump to draw his attention. She removed her hood and hissed “Those men are looking for you, and if you don’t follow me right now, they will find you. After that you will be of no use to me.”
Dragging his eyes away from the large metal ball, Parrid turned and met the eyes of his newest tormenter. “Old woman!,” He shouted, “You will immediately cease the pummeling of my leg!”
She drew the cane back for yet another strike. “You have moments before one of the merchants gets wind of who they are looking for and happily point this way. You know as well as I that these chicken-sellers would happily turn you in for an afternoon without your incessant cawing on that stump.”
She had a very good point there. Still, what could the guards want with him?
“Parrid. There is no more time. Gods! I did not want to have to waste this….” He suddenly felt a puff of air on his face and an acrid taste in his mouth. He turned to look at the woman to see what she had done.
His jaw dropped. Her eyes were stunning. He had seen brown and blue eyes, sometimes green…but these were every color. Reds and yellows danced with blues and violets. The colors were moving, as well. The rest of her face just melted away beneath the swirls that radiated from her eyes.
“Come with me now, Parrid. We don’t have much time. Throw aside your robe and follow me.” There was never any question as to what needed to be done. Her will was law. She had a voice that was far too young to be so old, the voice of a god. She pulled her hood back over her head and walked between a group of stalls.
Colors dancing in his vision, he discarded his robe and did as he was told, following her into the maze of stalls and beyond. His will was no longer his own he did not think to turn around and watch as the guard focused their attention on the robe he has discarded moments before.

Chapter 4: Of Roots and Prayers

The treeman still had not uttered a word after an hour. Brin had attempted to engage him several times without any success. He did help himself to the roasted roots, sniffing them curiously before devouring them in two bites per root. When he ate the first one, his eyes opened wide in surprise and he made some sort of happy growling sound. The other roots disappeared into his maw shortly thereafter. He seemed to enjoy the warmth of the fire on his feet, but had little use for the smoke which the wind would sometimes carry to his face. He would shake his head and make faces, as a child would, to show his displeasure. Brin had no doubt that the treeman was dangerous, but after close scrutiny he doubted that he was a cold blooded assassin. If it had wanted to kill him, it would have had no problem doing so before. Still, he had no idea of what his next move should be.
It was too late to run. Looking at the Treeman’s frame, Brin could tell that he would make it all of four steps before he was caught – and hopefully not eaten. Communication seemed to be a wall as well. Either he was not interested in talking or didn’t know how to. Searching his surroundings he realized that there was nowhere to hide, either. Desperation seized him. Even if he made it to the Priests of the Sacred Grove, what could they do? Pray that his death was not overly painful?
Brin jumped back to his immediate surroundings as the Treeman stretched his arms out and cracked his back audibly. The reach of his arms was unsettling. The creature easily had twice the reach of a tall man with hands three times the size. After his back stretch, he reached down into the frozen ground in front of where he was sitting and came up with an armload of the mostly frozen soil which he unceremoniously threw over the fire, extinguishing the embers. Standing up, he caught Brin’s gaze and said in a low, rumbling voice, reminiscent of an oncoming storm:
“We go.”
“Excuse me good sir, but where are we going?” Brin cautioned. “I promise you that I harbor you no ill will and would never tell a soul that I have so much as seen you.”
“We go.” More thunder rumbled from his mouth, deeper now.
“But you see, I am a merchant on my way, overdue I might add, to pick up wares in a distant town. If I hesitate, even for a day, the seller will sell my goods to another. This is my livelihood, good man, and I cannot afford to…”
The Treeman took two steps forward; faster than Brin could ever imagined that it could move. It reached down with one long arm and swept everything that Brin had with him into one giant hand. His bedroll and provisions were dumped, unceremoniously, at his feet. The Treeman leaned over so as to be eye level with him. Brin could feel the hot breath exhaled from oversized nostrils. So close to his face, his curiosity about the creature faded and quickly became rapt attention mixed with fear.
“We go.”
The treeman blinked twice and put one of his enormous, heavy hands on Brin’s shoulder.
“We go. We go, see tiny gods.”
A giant smile opened up on his face. His eyes shone. He threw his head back and laughed.
It was then and there that Brin knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this thing, this Treeman-in case he had had any doubts before, had the upper hand. Now, with the revelation about the ‘Tiny Gods’ he would have no choice but to oblige. He seemed to be stuck between a resolute giant and a group of irate hermit-priests.

Half of the day had passed and the trees had become thick again. The sun that was now just past mid-sky warmed the frost off of the ground and made a fine mist that obscured the view. The roots and briars that were constantly tripping Brin seemed not to bother the Treeman at all. His feet just seemed to know where to go without looking. Brin was not so lucky. The giant’s pace was unrelenting and whenever his did not match it, he was nudged along by a gentle push and a reminder that “We go.”
There was no map to get to the sacred grove; one had to use other means. The first few times the priests allowed him into the grove, he was taught the path of senses. This was a methodology that had nothing to do with maps or logic, but seemed to be the only way to find the grove. He had tried all other ways he could think of. Making maps failed spectacularly. Counting footsteps inevitably led him to the edge of a small cliff. Marking landmarks never worked as he could never find the landmarks again. It was if the terrain was constantly shifting. He had decided long ago to not think too deeply about the landscape here.
His was trained during an entire harvest season by the nameless priests. The training was simply how to locate their outpost. This, alone, was no easy task. He knew that it was an honor of the highest sort-not to mention profitable, to be able to be the merchant selected to bring provisions to the priests. The ancient coin he was paid with was always plentiful and his loads were always light. The priests had very little in the way of material needs. The ones they did have were often a pain to procure but it always ended up in his favor in the end. The only stipulation that the priests imposed upon him was that he never mentioned who he was dealing with or how to locate them. The wages he was paid made that easy. Two trips a year, one to take the order, one to bring in the provisions and he was assured never to go hungry that year.
There were five parts to the path of senses that would lead him to the grove and it was never possible to take the same path twice in a row. His teacher had been a kindly, middle-aged woman who was quite wise in the lay of the land. Like the other priests, she had renounced any name. They would be gone for days in the forest and would subsist on foraged fruits and nuts that never left even his considerable hunger wanting. They would always sleep in the softest of moss beds and no bugs would ever bite their exposed flesh at night. He soon learned how to identify every type of tree and bush in the forest. He knew what plants he could eat, which ones would heal and which would kill. He learned to listen for underground rivers that would slake his thirst. Her daily lessons may have been arduous but he always awoke feeling completely refreshed. It was if the woods had granted them favor. Brin recalled her holding out her hand on his final day of lessons, her fingers spread wide.
“As you know there are many paths to a single destination. The grove, however, is different. There is only one path and that path changes with the whims of the Little Gods of the forest.”
She held out her thumb and held it to her nose. First , there is the path of scents. “There will be a time, when you seek the grove” the nameless priestess had told him those many years ago, “that you will smell a redflower in the air. You must immediately stop where you are and slowly move in a circle. When the grove wants you to find it, you shall. This path will show itself to you when the forest is in harmony. When you come to us with an open heart and pure intention this will be your way. “
“When you are hungry, sore and in need of comfort you shall find it in the path of taste.” She then held out her palm and showed me a handful of berries she had collected earlier. She let one roll down to the tip of her index finger where it sat there balanced precariously. It was bright red with curious yellow stripes radiating from where the fruit met the stem. “These are known as cat berries. They grow all year from the abundance of spring to the sleep of winter. They will only let themselves be found when you are in need. If you respect the bush and eat only one you will soon find another bush. Another will soon follow. The Little God that lives within the bush will lead you to the grove as long as you do not gorge yourself on the berries. It may seem a simple thing to do… “
She then pushed one of the berries into his mouth. It was the most amazing thing he had ever tasted. One berry filled his mouth with the taste of sweet red wine, and strange, spicy fruit. All fatigue immediately fell from his shoulders. It was one berry but felt as though it was as substantial as a mouthful of hearty stew. He swallowed and immediately reached for another from her hand. She closed her fingers around the berries and quickly snatched away her hand. The craving for another did not pass until an hour later.
“This,” She said with a grave stare, “is what you will have to fight to find your way to us. The berries hold a powerful sway over all that eat the fruit. Animals know better than to touch them. Humans have long ago lost such common sense. The berries let you think that you are healed but this is only an illusion. There have been people who have lost their senses and starved due to wanting for nothing else. You must find the strength within yourself to be strong of spirit and calm of mind to find your path.”
After giving him a little while to center himself she continued her lesson. She pointed her middle finger to the sky. “The path of the crows, also known as the path of hearing will be opened to you when you follow the caw of the crow to us. This is a very difficult path in that you must never be seen by a crow when you follow him. A crow will remember your face for as long as you live and will tell all of its brothers to lead you into trouble if he sees you. If you know that you have been seen, you will more likely be led to a bear than you will to us. The secret is to follow the caw of the crow from a distance. If you hear it get too close, hide yourself and quickly. Due to the long memories of the crow, most people lose this path first. Crows are never in a hurry, except to eat, so be patient. It may seem like you are being led in circles but if you relax and do not lose patience, you will be brought to our gates.”
She ran her ring finger down the side of his face, softly. “The path of skin is deceptive because it is the quickest way in but is quite difficult to follow. If you give yourself over to the wind blowing on your face, it will guide you. This does not sound difficult but the wind is a little god that is difficult to understand. If you do not have complete trust in its gentle pushes, it will recognize your lack of faith and send you in circles. If you can bring yourself to just let go and be led, you will be feasting with us before the sun goes down. “
They had been walking during the lesson and after she had finished he looked up and saw that they were, once again, at the gates of the grove. The arch always took his breath away. It was two giant trees that had grown together about four body lengths high and knotted themselves together in a beautiful, symmetric arch that only could have been nursed into being by the most skillful of botanists. The doors of the gates were alive with green, no matter the season. He turned to enter the gates when a thought struck him.
“Teacher…’” he said whilst furrowing his brow. “ You said that this was there were five parts to the path of five senses. You only told me of four.”
The priestess looked him squarely in the eye and said “The final path is one we have never found. The Little Gods have whispered to us that in the time of great crisis the forest itself will seek the path to our door for sanctuary. We have never been able to decipher its meaning. The Little Gods are seldom literal. Their words are the wind. “
“Everything in the world has a voice” she continued, ”and usually these voices speak in harmony; as things have a true nature and are known in a certain way. But the fifth path is almost an unconscious point of discord for the little gods. It is something that we, mortals, were not meant to know. Everything that we ask gives us a different answer. There is no better way to rile one of the Little Gods than to ask about the fifth path. Unless your bonds are strong and true they will never speak to you again.”
Brin was brought back to his present situation by a large finger nudging him in the small of his back and yet another reminder that “We go.”

The way of the five senses had failed him. He could smell no flowers and the air was as still as a grave in the forest. There were no berry bushes that he could see and if there were crows, they were eerily silent. Over the many years he had visited the grove numerous times and had never had any difficulty finding the path. He did his best to sweep out while walking, sometimes moving to his left, sometimes to his right. He tried to keep his eyes level with the horizon to see any irregularities that may be the beginning of a path. As much as it seemed that he opened himself to the way of the path, the less things became clear. Frustration weighed heavy on his shoulders. What if the priests didn’t want to be found? It would be hard to blame them. Potentially dangerous giants are seldom welcome in bastions of tranquility.
The Treeman had been spending less time poking him in the back and more time exploring the environment carefully. He would sometimes run ahead and disappear for a little while. His running reminded Brin more of an animal than it did a man. Human-like steps quickly gave way to a loping gait of a wolf. It was a strange thing to see. He knew that he certainly wouldn’t be able to contort his body in order to run on all fours and it made him all the more leery. He would return with a branch in his hand which he would carefully study before casually tossing it behind him. Occasionally, he would lift his head to the sky and let out a whistle and cock his ear as if listening for a reply. When none came, he would once again urge Brin onwards.
By the time the Treeman stopped for any length of time, it was about an hour before sunset. Normally this is the time when you hear the local wildlife begin to stir, but the forest was silent. With the sun disappearing, the cold was starting to seep into the land again. The skies above were beginning to cloud over. If they didn’t get to where going soon, there would be snow to contend with. He could smell it in the air. The Treeman hollowed out a small pit in the ground with the end of a branch that Brin would have had a hard time lifting, never mind using it as a tool. Disappearing again into the brush he soon returned with two logs. He placed both by the fire pit and began to unroll his pack. Two rocks emerged which, after smashing them together a few times, soon roared to life as a raging fire. It was then that Brin noticed the priests emerging from the forest in every direction.
“Ah. Little Gods.” The treeman said, his smile wide and his arms open. “Come. sit.”

Chapter Five: Powders and Globes.

The rough canvas brushed against her cheek as she pushed through the hole she had made into the narrow cloth hallway. She had waited a few seconds after she heard the guard walk by before she had made her move. It had taken nearly a half an hour, listening at the wall, to get the pattern of steps of the two guards down to memory. She figured that she still had at least three hours before the next guard change when it was a sure bet that she would be discovered. She slowly walked up behind the guard, eyes looking for strike points. She estimated that he had seven more steps before he turned around to return back down the hallway. She had to act now. Annis raised her bow; arrow notched, pulled back and released the silent missile. Her shot was true. A close range arrow in the back of the head ensured a quick death which was just what she needed here. It would be difficult enough to tear off his long, ringed leather jacket and put it on before she was supposed to meet the second guard in the middle of the hallway. She decided to forego the boots and just removed the jacket from the crumpled mess that was once a man. She pulled it on and brought the hood up, over her head.
This is where it would get tricky. If there is one downfall to a large tent it is that it is very difficult to light effectively. The main tent was a maze of hallways, small rooms and chambers. All of them could be lit from wall sconces. This hallway, however, was so narrow that any sconce would instantly be a fire hazard; tarred walls or not. She swiped up the torch, rubbed two fingers in the soot on the side and drew above her lip, a surprisingly accurate representation of the mustache that the dead guard had been wearing. She knew she would have to run to the corner in order not to be late. She did. Somehow, she managed to turn the corner almost the exact same time that the other guard did. They matched pace, walking towards each other. It was about six paces away before the second guard realized what was happening. She saw his eyes grow wide. It was difficult to say what gave her away. Was it her walk, her stature? It didn’t matter. She could live with not knowing. The second that the guard began to open his mouth to raise an alarm, there was a satisfying “thunk” as the arrow shot through his eye and into the brain behind it. He spun in a half circle, limbs shooting out like he was hit by lightning, and then crumpled. He was dead before he hit the ground. People’s bodies do comical things before they die. If the stakes weren’t as high as they were, she thought, she would be rolling on the ground, laughing. She caught herself before she did. Barely.
She took the time, now that she was without distraction, to don the entire solder’s uniform. The boots were a little big, but serviceable. The soft leather pants were actually a decent fit once she used the heavy belt. She decided to keep them. Having second thoughts, she wiped away the hastily applied mustache. She had only seen a few female guards and none had fit her stature. Logic dictated that it was better not to draw undue attention to herself by having out of place, poorly drawn, facial hair. She sat still and did her best to calm her mind. That was not always the easiest of tasks. But she must. The next phase of the plan would rely on luck as much as it would skill. That always meant that the skill portion would need to be completely on point.
She found the slit where the guards entered the passage and slipped through. The first thing that threw her was the temperature change. The copper pipes that ran through the ceiling and through the walls shot off steam constantly and kept the place very warm. In the center of the room there was a large copper globe heated by a fire below it. There were two muscular men held in irons by the ankle, pumping two large bellows. The coals pulsed white-orange every time the bellows blew air across them. Sweat poured down the faces of the men and they looked straight ahead with dead, unseeing eyes. If they saw her they gave no sign of it. She knew the vacant glare all too well. She had used it herself many a day. When things become soul-crushingly difficult, sometimes all that one can do is go some somewhere far away in your mind. The very best can go nowhere, into the void. To feel and see nothing was definitely one of her priorities, but not until what was hers was returned.
There were two different gateways out of the heating room. One was covered in heavy oiled cloth, much like the walls were; the second was a much more refined fabric. She could see the tell-tale strings that you would find on the back of a piece of cloth that had embroidery on the front. Definitely not the way she wanted to go. The longer that she could stay out in the open, with the servants, the better off she would be. The caravan was very large, but not so large that the elite wouldn’t notice someone among them that did not belong there. Hiding amongst servants was usually fairly easy. As long as you join in on your share of the work, you are not usually asked many questions. Servants in this place never last long. If they are not worked to death, as is usually the case, they can find themselves at the whims of a drunken Baron with a mean streak. Many servants simply disappear, never to be heard from again. As most of the caravan’s serving class come from towns that were looted, one or two disappearing never raises many eyebrows. She opened the much humbler of the two doors and was immediately overwhelmed by the smell of food.
After having long survived on the occasional berry bush and squirrel, the smell of pastries overwhelmed her. It was difficult enough to focus on the task at hand, now she had her rumbling in her stomach to contend with. She was quite sure that there was nothing that any of these men could do to stop her from filling her belly.
The room was a large one filled with five cooks delicately moving around each other, spicing foods and tasting dishes. There were four different exits from this room, including the one that she came through. The copper piping came right through the walls into large vats of boiling water for cooking. In the center of the room was a large flat piece of metal that heated by pipes that coursed directly into it from the next room. The flat piece of metal emitted a radiating heat that the chefs were using to quickly cook cuts of meat. The smoke that the meats made when they seared against the iron forced an audible growl from her stomach. There were large rope baskets filled with edible roots of every kind leaned against the wall. One wall had, splayed open, both deer and elk roped up. There was a short portly man cleaning and salting one of the beasts with a large Fletcher knife. Strips of hide fell beneath the knife and were set aside for later tanning. The animal’s horned head was staring, uncaring and unseeing, at the grassy floor. Occasionally a servant would come in, pick up a tray and move through one of the larger doors to what only could be a dining hall. She hid behind a cage of chickens trying not to be seen. With all of the movement going on, she wasn’t surprised that she wasn’t. The chickens were making enough of a racket where she could have been banging two pans together and would hardly have been noticed.
Stealth was hardly the optimal plan here. Blending in was. She scooped up a platter of fruit and headed towards one of the less impressive doors. Walking into the main dining hall would not be wise. She needed to find the path to the inner sanctum. She kept her head low and carried the fruit past the cooks and into the hallway beyond the flap. The hall was about 30 feet long and ended with two guards. This must be it, she thought. She made an attempt at unfurrowing her brow and pressed forward with the platter in her hands.
“Gentlemen, I am to bring fruit to the sir” she muttered in a northern accent.
She lifted the tray for the guards to inspect. The first guard, a heavily mustached man with one eye seemed to inspect the tray. He reached forward and started poking at apples with his fingers.
The second guard, however, met her gaze and kept it. He was a wiry man with an acid intelligence in his eyes. His lips pursed in judgment and Annis knew immediately that her cover was blown.
“Why…” he sneered, “is a guard bringing fruit? And who is this “Sir” of which you speak?”
His weasel eyes narrowed. She could see that he had quickly taken in the situation and judged it as incorrect. He began a sharp intake of breath that could only be the prelude to hollering out an alarm.
“Shit.” She muttered.
What happened next was a chain of events that Annis had desperately wanted to avoid, but had planned for from the second she had walked into the hallway.
Her right hand shot out in an arc, still carrying the metal platter. It carved an opening in the thin guard’s throat that showed pure white before exploding in a sea of crimson. Her left hand pulled a long dagger from her side and shot upwards. One of the apples that was just a second ago still on the tray, found itself impaled upon the knife. Just as quickly, the knife was impaled deep under the chin of the larger guard. It made for a strange looking meat skewer, to be sure. The thinner guard’s head rocked back and the hole in his throat emitted a low whistle, like a teapot. The first guard, at least, had the good sense to just fall down dead. The fall pushed the blade up through the top of his head, shattering the apple into quite a few wet pieces.
The weasel’s eyes searched madly for escape. His hands grasped his neck, trying futilely to staunch the ever increasing flow of his life’s blood. His jaw worked up and down, soundlessly. As he turned to go back through the door behind him, Annis brought the metal tray down on the back of his neck, severing his spine. His eyes stopped their frantic movement and were still. The sickly smell of urine let her know that the deed was done.
Stealth was no longer as much as a concern. It would not be long before the two guards were discovered. She could tell that it was a well used corridor as the footprints had worn the grass down to pure earth. She pulled her dagger from the guard’s head, wiped it on his back and stuck it back in its sheath. As she did so a cook carrying a large pot of stew walked in where she had come from. She spun and kissed him between the eyes with an arrow. She chuckled when she realized that if she remained there much longer, she would have the opportunity to kill everyone in the encampment, right there, in the hallway. She wiped off the spray of blood from the weasel’s neck that landed on her face the best she could. After a brief listen at the flap, she hurried through the door, bow drawn.
The room was decorated like a palace. There were ornate tapestries on the walls depicting great battles and the sconces were made of a bronze like metal with gems embedded in them. The fire within them shot off rays of color as the light diffused through the precious stones. The air was perfumed with heavy, musky incense that drifted lazily from censers scattered about the room. A single large table sat in the center of the room covered in maps and scout reports. The man wearing a bronze chain mail tunic, intent upon the reports, saw her immediately. He raised his head and grimaced.
His crown was golden and inlayed with the largest rubies she had ever seen. His eyes did not hide the intelligence behind them. His face was deeply lined and beardless. She estimated him at least sixty summers old, if not more. His once black hair was now streaked with grey and worn long at the back. It was missing altogether on the top. Sneering, he stamped his foot twice. Immediately, two archers stepped out from the shadows, bows trained on what she could only imagine to be her eyes. The black leather armor that they wore seemed to absorb light. Everything on their faces, save their eyes, was covered by black cloth wrappings. She could hear a third bowstring drawn back behind her.
“Drop the bow” a woman’s voice hissed, very close to her ear. Her voice was quiet but demanding.
She slowly lowered the arrow that had been pointed at Tarrol Undershine. She did her best to show no fear although she could clearly feel the knife pressing against her spine. A foul smelling powder was blown from behind her, encircling her head. The world went black.

Annis awoke in water, up to her neck. Her head pounded as if it had spent time being forged upon an anvil. It made it difficult to think. Colors swam before her eyes and everything appeared distant and pulsing with a poison energy. Her arms were bound, tightly-from wrist to elbow, behind her back. Her shoulders felt as if they would tear from her sockets. Her neck was held still by a grate above a large cauldron. She could kick her legs but they found no purchase and it added weight upon her neck, cutting off her air. She would have choked to death had it not been for her buoyancy in the water. Her initial panic subsiding, she tried to get acclimated to her surroundings. She was in a different room, now, one with steel bandings across the walls. Various weapons adorned the room held upright in stands and holders. Two black archers stood on either side of an ornate throne occupied by Tarrol Undershine. The way he rested, lazily, upon his chair did not belie the seething anger upon his face.
“Are we awake now?” he growled in a low, angry voice. “Good. Who are you?”
Annis stared ahead blankly, her head hurting too much to answer even if she had wished to. She felt bile rising in her stomach. She heaved and then vomited through the grate in front of her. The colors spun and danced before her eyes. She could feel unconsciousness creeping back but the nausea pushed it back away.
“Anson!” the warlord bellowed.
A extremely short, tired-looking man with a long white beard skittered toward Undershine, his head bowed. His red robes with white trim marked him as one of the Alchemists. If she wasn’t in such a state, Annis would have been impressed. Alchemists could take rocks and ingredients from the earth that would make powders and tonics that could both heal the body, or destroy it. They were a very rare breed indeed and having one cower in your service spoke well to Undershine’s influence. There were many kings that did not have an alchemist in their keep and the ones that did kept them well treated.
“Yes, my liege?” he offered. He was shaking. His body gave away that he would rather be anywhere else right at that moment. Either that or he was just a nervous wreck. It was said that mixing such concoctions would slowly drive you mad.
“This powder you have made…will she live?” he grumbled, “Her skin is green and she does not look well.”
“Oh yes, my Liege, she will live.” He shuffled to the cauldron. “Of course, that contraption she is in will not assist in any healing. “ He scrunched up his mouth in a look of concentration and studied her face intently. He gently rapped her head with his walking stick and said, “Yes, yes. She will be fine. She is ill, to be sure, but that is expected. If you had used too much powder her eyes would bleed. I see no corneal ruptures of any sort. I do warn you, however, that any information you get from her for the next hour or so will probably be fairly unreliable. The powder I made not only renders one unconscious…but also scrambles the mind. It makes it easier to deal with a quarry when they awaken. Give her an hour before you interrogate.”
“Of course, little man, you are predisposing that I even wish to interrogate.” Undershine muttered. He lifted a goblet to him mouth and sipped, never taking his eyes off of her. His steely gaze spoke of unspeakable acts. “This cunt got closer to me than anyone has in years. As much as I look forward to trying out my new kettle, I believe I shall wait until I get my answers. She had better speak true, though. The night is falling and soon there will be a chill in the air.” He stomped his foot twice and the archers dispersed. The each returned with an armload of wood that they piled beneath the kettle.

When next she awoke her head had cleared some. The amorphous blobs that had clouded her vision were gone and she could open her eyes without the immediate need to vomit. Her neck was in agony from the weight of her body but it was not enough to hang her. She could now feel that she was naked in the water. That would mean that they would have gone through her clothes and inspected her weapons. She rarely carried anything of value but would miss her bow. She had carved it herself. It was no work of art but it had shot straight and far. There would be time for nostalgia later, if she could find a way out of this mess.
Undershine soon marched into the room with his retainer of archers behind him. Annis noticed that one of them had her bow slung across his shoulder. The alchemist followed soon behind.
“I have waited and waited and now you will talk.” The great lord roared. “Are you feeling better, my dear? Are the accommodations to your fucking liking? Is the food to your taste?” He stormed up to her prison and screamed in her face, his hot spittle blanketing her cheeks. “WHO, in the name of the gods are YOU?”
“My name is Annis of Foxhole, Daughter of Claire, Archer of Throw Woods and Thief of good standing,” She jutted out her chin as best she could and spat back:”You stole from my father before you killed him and set my town alight. You will return to me what is mine and I shall trouble you no more. You have in your possession a green globe. It is a stone of perfect shine. It looks to be fragile as it appears to be hollow…but it cannot be broken. It is as big as my head and if you have any honor you shall return it to…”
Her words were cut short by the full force of the back of Tarrol Undershine’s hand. Flashes of light exploded in her vision and a pain that she wished would have killed her settled in, as if for a long stay. Blackness moved in again.
“Archers.” he commanded as he walked back to his throne. “Start the fire. I shall watch her boil. I shall watch as the pain of her body cooking wracks her unto death.”
All four of the archers lit their arrows from the sconces in the wall. They shot the flaming missiles into the pile of loose timber beneath her. It would be a while but soon enough it would catch into a roaring fire and oblige her with a slow, painful, death.
“My Liege, you cannot do this. She mentioned the orb!” the alchemist cautioned.
“SILENCE! You DO NOT tell me what I can and cannot do. You exist at my pleasure. Do you recall, old man, why you were dismissed from the kingdom of Trent?”
The Alchemist groveled forward. “My apologies my Liege. I…”
“Silence! I asked you a question, worm. Do you recall why you are no longer working in the kingdom of Trent?” The warlord spat.
“I do, my liege. The king’s daughter died by my hand. I had mixed the ingredients whilst I had been drinking and now, the sweet Princess Karund lies dead.I had mistaken the sleeping powder for that which kills the rats. It was a horrid mistake of which I can only blame myself.“ The Alchemist bowed his head. “ Sweet Lamb, she was kind to a fault. She was even kind to her mother, the Queen, who despised her. She had a simple cold. I should have been able to cure that, but instead…she died screaming at my hand. I still don’t know how I could have made such a mistake. I had had but three glasses.”
“And who took you in, forgave you? Gave you another chance?” His voice softened.
“You did, my liege.”
“And what did I ask in return?”
“My allegiance.”
“Then give it to me! The next time you presume to think for me, you will be right where she is.” He waved a hand in Annis’s direction. “But first,” His voice grew cold and mean. “I shall dig up your precious princess. I shall prop up her rotting corpse so that she stares you right in the eyes whilst you boil for my pleasure. With the amount of self pity you have granted yourself, it seems to be only fitting to give you what you want. You are a weak man, Anson. You may well be wise in the way of stones and powders, but you are a fool to the ways of pain. When this starts getting warm enough, she will tell you everything you need to know about your precious globe. But that will take time. She killed two guards, my favorite chef and did unspeakable things to my scouting party.”
The alchemist simply lowered his head, defeated.
“That is right, Annis of Fox Hole, daughter of a whore, archer of such renown that you were caught and thief of your senses. Did you think I would not find what you did?” He suddenly got up from his chair and walked towards her. “Why did you deface the dead? Such an odd thing for such a pretty girl to do. You caved that man’s face in with a stone. I have seen your arms. They are not weak, but surely that took more than one blow…There is so much hatred in you. Why? What does this globe mean to you?”
Annis stared directly into the warlords eyes. “You have taken what is mine by birthright. You will return it to me or I shall kill you and have it returned to me by blood. It is your choice, Cart-King. What do you say?” She heard the alchemist gasp from the shadows.
Undershine returned her stare. After a minute of staring into those hard, cold eyes, he broke into a grin, threw back his head and laughed. “I admire your spit, little assassin.” He turned his back to her and walked back to his throne. He picked up his cloak which had been draped over the arm of the chair and threw it over his shoulder. “I do not believe, however, that you are in any position to make threats. Archers. Throw one more log each on the fire. Keep it so for the duration of the night. I would like to keep my friend warm for the night. We will see what she has to say in the morning.“ He sauntered off towards a door in the back. Before he entered the next chamber, he stopped, turned around and said: ”Annis. Please know this. This night you will not boil. Tomorrow you will. This night you will simply wish you were dead. I promise you this. In the morning, you will tell me anything that I want to know. You will tell me immediately and without deception. You shall do this for me and I shall grant you a quick death. That may not sound like much of a winning proposition now, but come dawn it will be as sweet nectar on the tongue. Pleasant dreams.” With that he bowed his head and stepped through the doorway.
The extra logs on the fire certainly did make things more uncomfortable. For the first hour, it was almost pleasant. The warmth was welcome after sitting in the cold water all day. As time went by the archers began to throw logs on the fire more frequently. When the water began to steam, it made breathing feel like she was not getting enough air. She could tell her skin was swelling after so many hours in the water. Her bound arms began to ache constantly and her feet, which were closest to the heat were starting to become unbearable. She tried to keep her knees bent and her feet up, but that pulled on her neck. She had very few thoughts at this time. There was no hope of escape. The four archers sat, in silence, on the dais on which the throne rested. They never paid her much mind but sat content in tending to their quarry of arrows, sharpening the heads and oiling the shafts. Her ever increasing thrashing seemed not to alarm them at all, as if they had seen it a hundred timed before.

The Alchemist came puttering in after a few hours with a large bowl of stew. The smell of meat was almost as painful as the water that was slowly boiling her. She felt like screaming. It had been two days since she had last eaten. She knew that she had practiced self control for years, but this was too much. She wanted to scream out and beg to be fed from the strange little old man. He walked right through the middle of the archers and as he did he tripped. He did not fully lose his balance but when he stumbled, Annis say him throw a little leather ball to the ground which exploded in a cloud of dust when it hit the ground.
The little man continued to her, unphased by the cloud that spread quickly amongst all of the archers. There was no time for them to react, they just dropped, unconscious, to the floor.
“We have one hour to speak before the archers awaken.” The alchemist said before disappearing from her peripheral vision. She soon heard a scraping noise and watched as the top of a small ladder hit the end of the kettle with the sound of wood against iron. His head poked above the rim, now wearing spectacles.
“What is the globe?” he said.
He took a little paper packet from inside his shirt and poured it in the water. Her pain immediately disappeared. Her clouded mind was once again sharp. She struggled against her bonds, alive again. “Get me out of here, little man.” She hissed.
“No. Not yet. Tell me about the globe.” He kept peering over his spectacles at her face. He was obviously impressed with what he saw. “And my name is Anson. I was born a little man. I have earned my name. My stature was as the universe saw fit for me.” He held up some sort of gem to his left eye and peered through it at her. “You don’t have much time. Tell me the story of the globe. The powder that I added to the water will only control the temperature for so long. Unless you would prefer that I leave you here to boil.”
“No. please” she clamored.
“Good. Talk.” His intense stare seemed to almost be looking through her.
“Fine.” She said. “But there is little to tell. The globe belonged to my father. I do not know where he got it from. It was always on the hearth above the fireplace from when I was a child.” She was amazed at how quickly the words came to her mouth. It must be an effect of the powder.
“I remember holding the ball in my hands, looking through it to the fire. I remember pretending that it was a window to the faerie kingdom. It made everything look so…unreal. It made everything so much more interesting. It looked so fragile, so delicate, like it was made of the thinnest glass. I always took the greatest care not to drop it. But one day when I was out, looking at the world through it, I tripped over a root. The globe flew from my hands into a rock. To my surprise, it didn’t shatter. I was so grateful that I picked up the globe and clutched it to my chest. It was only then that I noticed that the globe had cracked the rock underneath. Tentatively, I tapped the rock against a rock again, praying it wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t. I soon found that the globe could not be broken. I threw it at walls, dropped it off cliffs. Nothing. Not a scratch.”
“Mmm-hmmm” Anson replied, still more interested in looking at her through the gem. “What happened next?”
“Nothing. It was as I said.” She muttered. “It was more of a curiosity than anything useful. As I grew it was always near. It was my special thing. It set me apart from the others. It was my little secret.”
“You do not have too long before the powder wears off. Speak truly.” He was now very close to her face peering deeply into her eyes through the ruby colored gem.
“When it was taken from me, everything was lost. My family, my home, everything was gone. The man that caused me this misery stole my special thing. There is nothing special about the globe except for it cannot be broken. It was a link to my father. I vowed to return it. I have travelled dark paths to seek out the caravan again. Only for it all to end like this. Kill me powder wizard. Make it quick. I am so very tired; my quest has driven me mad. Sometimes I feel like I don’t even know what I am doing. I kill indiscriminately. I have done things that would make you shudder. This is not who I am, who I was. I feel as though I am always being lead to my destruction. So kill me old man. Relieve me of this burden.” Tears now freely ran down her cheeks. “Do it.”
“Hmmmm” Anson said, although she could not tell if it was directed to her. “Yes. Yes I see now.”
He reached over and released the clasp around her neck. The spring loaded collar clicked open and she immediately plunged into the water. Her feet, for the first time in a day, found purchase on the bottom of the kettle and she bent her knees and pushed upwards. She angled her body in such a way that her arms came over the lip and she was able to keep herself from plunging to the bottom again.
“Strange days, these are.” He scooted over and began working the rope from her wrists. With her arms free, she was able to clamber over the edge of the kettle and unto the ground below. It was not a graceful landing my any means but she was reasonably sure that she did not do any more damage than had already been done.
“What…what are you doing?” Annis asked, breathless.
Anson pushed the spectacles back up on his nose. “I am bringing you to the globe before the God living in your head kills all of us.”

Chapter Six: Den of thieves and the vibrations of the stars.

They ran, quickly, from the preaching stump and into the maze of stalls and people. The colors slowly began to dissipate from his eyes as they ran. His head had cleared a bit, but Perrin was fairly certain that if the guards caught up with him there would be trouble. He raced along the market stalls following as closely as he could to the rag-encased old lady. The deep clanging of the cage of truth against the road had faded slightly. That did not mean that there weren’t guards right behind him. It was difficult to tell. The sudden turns that his guide took him on did not leave a clear path behind him to watch. Not that he had time to. It took every ounce of his concentration just to follow the woman’s movements.
He was still unsure as to what he had done to be followed so. He had served his time for the sword incident. And what were those colors about? He must have been poisoned. His head was still groggy but he figured that he would have time to figure it out when he was somewhere safer. Sabban save him, this must be a test. A disciple must be expected to be tested. He would not fail his lord and master.
His first clue that this woman was not as old as she appeared was the way she ran. Long purposeful strides gave way to sharp maneuvers around carts, people and the myriad of junk that you find scattered around a marketplace. She was like a cat on the hunt. Keeping up with her proved more difficult than Parrid had anticipated. He was by no means in bad shape, in fact one of the tenants of his religion demand that the body must be held tight, like a fist. Yet, she easily outpaced him with her obvious knowledge of the market, disappearing into a hollow in the wall that he didn’t even see, at first.
It was covered in ivy that cascaded from the top of the wall, some ten stones up. Parrin quickly scrambled after the woman and emerged into a small, open courtyard. The woman ran to the center and started to pry at a large flat footstone near a decorative fruit tree. The tree had been long untended and dried rotten plums littered its base. There were long unused crates scattered about and it looked as if there was no way in or out of the yard. How could there be such a large area in the middle of a city that was hidden like this was?
He finally caught up to her, quite out of breath. Putting his hands on his knees and taking deep gasps he looked behind him to see if he was followed. Not yet, but that didn’t mean anything. If any of those merchants saw him dive through the bushes like he did, it would only take a coin-in-palm to loosen their jaws.
“Here, priest! Are you going to spend eternity staring at your toes or are you going to help me?” she spat out between fruitless bursts of lifting. “Those guards will find us and when they do they will put you in that cage where you can spend eternity staring at them.” Parrid took one last deep breath and then hurried to her side. He grasped the edge of the stone and started applying force.
“Who are you, woman, to lead a warrior priest of Sabban to folly?” He shot off in his best righteous voice.
“Ah!” She exclaimed, completely ignoring him, “That’s why!” She scrambled over to a different rock. It came up easily on a hinge. She stuck her walking stick in the hole underneath and there was an audible click followed by a grinding sound in the northwest wall. “Come on! We only have seven seconds before the pulley drops. After that it will lock and we will be left in this courtyard to die.”
She ran over to a white stone section of the wall, and pushed. Parrid ran to join and followed suit. The bottom of the wall quickly gave way, swinging inward. It revealed a small passage down into the ground. There were a darkened set of stairs that wound down into a corridor below. The smell that wafted up on the wind from below could only be described as stale.
“Follow me.” She stated bluntly. The tone in her voice, once again, reminded him that he didn’t have much choice. She hurried him down the stairs and in to the darkness. Her cane found another hole in the wall that resembled the one she used beneath the rock and he heard the door swing shut behind them, leaving them in total darkness.
“Now, mister Parrid, I would suggest that you stay calm and simply do as you are told.” She said from somewhere ahead of him. “This can be easy if you don’t give us any trouble. My name is Karig Ulle and I have been tasked with taking you to the council. I am also under orders to bring you in alive. So, please, do not do anything foolish and I will be able to do so.”
The darkness was total. “Orders from who? How do you even know my name?”
“We know everything that happens in this city. You will follow me.”
Parrid heard cloth rustling directly in front of him. There was a scratching sound and then the corridor was illuminated by a lantern, blinding him momentarily. The woman that was holding the lantern was not the old woman that had led him here. The eyes were the same; the lantern light glimmered across them like so many gems. But now, instead of wrinkles, the light revealed the fair skin of youth. Some sort of mask lay crumpled by her feet. Now that she was not hunched over, she was nearly as tall as Parrid. Long brown locks cascaded over her shoulders. It was her multicolored eyes, however, that told him that this was the old lady from the marketplace.
“What the fuck are you looking at, priest?” She scowled and drew a dagger. “I know. My eyes are pretty. I get it. Now, move.”
”I assure you miss, that my only allegiance..”
The tip of the dagger poked ever so slightly into one of his ribs. Not enough to break the skin through his shirt, just enough pressure so that he knew she meant business. “Come on, tongue-wagger, I am too tired to be bothered with trouble from you.” She barked as she herded him into the stone corridor.
The tunnels that they walked down were old and dry. There were simple stone archways every fifty steps or so. The path went on for far longer than Parrid believed it could. By his reckoning, they may well have been underneath the castle proper. It seemed as though they had been walking these twisting, intersecting tunnels for an hour before they came to a small circular room with a wooden floor. She kicked her heel into one of the planks and it rose like a lever. When she pulled the plank back down, the entire floor started to descend with a shudder and a low, creaking sound. This was easily one of the most advanced tunnel systems he had seen. There seemed to be a pulley or a button for everything. The stone that began to appear in the decent was smooth, as though it had been polished. It soon opened up into a large anti-chamber that was lit by torchlight. The room contained a large circular table that was occupied by a group of twenty people feasting. When the bottom of the lift hit the floor, the room grew silent and all eyes turned to him.
A large bearded man wearing the fur of a beast and laurels upon his head stood. His central position at the table told Parrid that this was the leader. That and he was being fed grapes by two lovely servant girls.
“Wonderful, Karig!” the man laughed. He had red, ruddy cheeks and a quick smile. “Wonderful! Please escort our guest to the table.”
There was a low murmur as the rest of the table’s occupants muttered to themselves. One of the people, a thin man wearing the mottled green of a forest hunter got out of his chair across from the big man and made room for him.
“Sit, Parrid, sit! Join our revel. I can see that you are afraid. But I assure you, we are not here to harm you in any way. We simply wish to meet with you.”
He began to wave his hands more vigorously towards the chair. Parrid tentatively stepped forward and slid into the chair.
“But where are my manners? I know your name, but you do not know mine! I am known as Brandon. I am king of Providence’s Undercastle, known as the House of Brandon. This is my kingdom and these…” He waved his arms and spun around in a full circle. “Are my loyal retinue. You are welcome here, good priest.” King Ware plopped down into his seat and outstretched his arms.
“Eat, my friends! The hour is ripe for a feast! We are joined tonight by a very special guest. We have, in our midst, the only known warrior priest of Sabban, the great Red God.” The fur clad man waved his arms about two and fro with great emotion. Watching him was almost comical except that you could tell from his voice that he was completely earnest. “Lift your goblets to him and his. We are honored by your presence good sir. Will you honor us with a blessing for our repast?”
Parrid sat, hands flat on the table, quite overwhelmed. The breakfast eviction, the race through the market, being chased by the King’s guard and now this, a feast in his honor had left him at a loss for words. He took in, as best he could, the odd assortment of characters at the table before him. There were what looked to be the lowliest of beggars sitting next to and dining with what appeared to be royalty. Wine flowed freely from an ornate cask in the center of the table for servant and king alike. All the plates were full and all appeared to be merry. All eyes were upon him, however, and he could not for the life of him remember what he was supposed to do. Karig silently slid up beside him and whispered in his ear: “Look, priest…They are going to keep looking at you like that until you bless them. I promise you, they mean you no harm. I apologize if I had to get showy with the dagger earlier, but I had a schedule to keep. “
She gently tugged his elbow until he stood up. Parrid opened his mouth, then closed it. Fearing looking like a fish, he forced out the first words that came to his mouth.
“My brethren! May a flood of your enemy’s blood wash your feet! May the stars set fire to your hair!”
A raucous cheer erupted from the crowd and Parrid sat back down with a thump. His eyes still wide, he gladly took the goblet of wine handed to him by Karig and drank deeply.
“Ha! Priest! A fine blessing indeed! We welcome you to the House of Brandon!”

After many hours the feast concluded. More from lack of consciousness amongst the revelers than dispersal, although a few did leave down one of the many tunnels leading from the chamber over the course of the day (or was it night? I was difficult to tell down here.) Parrid had kept his wine intake low but had filled his belly on fine spit fire roasted rabbit. There was also fragrant rosemary bread to sop up the juices. The biggest surprise was cheese. Cheese was a rare commodity in the area, as the type of grasses that grew in this area tended to make the livestock ill and the milk sour. But this cheese was pure and clean and good. He could not remember when he had eaten so well. The king, it seemed, always had a plateful of food and a full glass of wine. Whenever one ran empty, one of the servants was quick to make sure it was refilled. Karig had stayed on the edges of the room, oiling her leather coat and sipping, judiciously, from a small goblet of wine.
“So, Parrid, you must be brimming with questions for me. “ The king announced from across the table. “By the roots of the tree Gratos, if I was in your position, I certainly would be. Come with me. We shall speak in private.” The large man was on his feet quicker than he should have been, considering the amount of wine he had drank. He staggered forward a few steps, then backwards. Spinning his arms in a circle, he seemed to find his balance. The king shooed off two servant girls that ran to his aid. He celebrated his newfound equilibrium by letting out a regal belch. He staggered to the rightmost tunnel and entered, one hand kept along the wall for balance.
“Come on, holy man. The King requires your presence.” Karig said to him. He had not even noticed her approach. She put her hand on his shoulder and gently guided him forward on the trail of the king.
They walked a few feet and entered a door that was adorned with a crude painting of a crown. A boy of no more than ten stood sentry outside holding a homemade spear. Karig tussled his hair. “You will be a fine soldier one day, Jerrus. You do your father proud.”
The boy smiled at Karig and then slanted his eyes when he saw the priest. “Who is this, Kar? His spear gripped tighter in his hand.
Karig knelt down, facing the boy and put her hand on his shoulder. “This,” she said as she jerked a thumb over her shoulder at the priest, “Is our chance to live above ground again.”
The boy’s eyes widened. “The redeemer?”
Karig nodded. “We will see…”
The boy stood aside and allowed access to the door. His escort swung it wide and turned around to face him. One eyebrow raised, she muttered, “You better be worth all of this trouble.”
Parrid finally broke. The whirlwind of his day that had kept him off balance could no longer do so. He turned red and stammered, “I-I assure you that I have no idea what is happening here. I am a priest, I have no knowledge of the one you call redeemer. Who are you all and what is it you wish of me?”
He planted his feet firmly in the hallway. He would not be moved until he got some answers. “First you go from deceiving me to threatening me to feasting with me. No. Sabban does not care for the weak and I have been so. You will tell me what it is that you wish from me. I tire of this secrecy. You shall tell me now or… I shall leave.”
Karig threw her head back and laughed. “So, the tiger has teeth! Well, come on Tiger. Your answers lay inside.” She turned and disappeared beyond the door.

The King sat on a large colorful pillow on a dais next to a throne. He looked quite drunk and near unconsciousness. He was holding a turkey leg and slowly rocking back and forth as though he was going to be ill. He was gripping a bronze bowl next to him as though he was going to be using it soon. The ceiling was decorated by multicolored fabric that draped down along the walls. The colors were dizzying. There were racks of weapons all along the walls. There was not a bare stone section of the room. All of the candleholders and sconces appeared to be brass. It was a very regal looking room. Pillows festooned the floor and there were two servants on either side of the dais. They too, were dressed in multicolored silks.
Karig stepped up upon the platform and sat down upon the throne.
“So, my liege, did we have our fill again tonight? Did we drain the wine dry?” She looked down upon the intoxicated man from his chair.
“Urp. Shut yer fucking gob, Karig.” He grumbled, staring at his feet. “You grow more arrogant by the day.”
He slapped his leg with his great wet palm. “But you always have had control.” He snorted. “Control and grace, whereas, I have been blessed with a hearty laugh and an unending appetite. You flaunt your arrogance like the posture of one trained to use a rapier. My arrogance comes from my mouth like a fucking waterfall. Precision versus power. What a pair we have made.”
“Girls. Bring me water and then leave your king in his sickness for the night.” He clapped his hands and the two girls immediately ran off. One returned with an ornate jug brimming with water. It was left at the king’s feet. She made her bows and then left, as well.
Parrid stepped forward. “You are like no king I have known of.”
“Then you have not known many kings, Priest.” King Brandon snapped. He filled his mug with cool water from the jug and gulped it like he was in the desert. He wiped his mouth on his forearm, shook his head and appeared to sober a hair.
“He may not be like any king you have met, Priest, but he is one all the same. You are in the presence of Brandon, rightful King of Providence and her outlying territories. You will show him respect as such.” Karig was now standing, eyes ablaze. Apparently, the discourtesy that she was allowed to the king did not include Parrid. “Now sit.”
“No. I shall not sit. I shall not grovel at a king’s feet exiled or otherwise. I serve only Sabbin, Lord of Red and Master of the Sky. Your hospitality has been, at times, gracious and I would be telling an untruth if I did not say I was grateful for the meal. I am more used to the scraps of food thrown at me during a sermon. But I have been pulled along all day as would a child pull a toy. No more. The Lord of the Sky demands you answer my questions, as do I! I serve a god of the stars, fools! This will no longer stand!” Parrid’s voice grew higher and higher until by the end his last few words almost squeaked out.
Karig was on her feet in an instant, her dagger in hand. “You fool! We knew you were mad but, this…this impudence! You will bow to his majesty, even if it means that I cut out your muscles that allow you to stand upright.”
“ENOUGH!” Bellowed from the fat man’s mouth. His voice was round and full and carried with it a command of respect. People had bowed to this voice and it drew both sets of eyes to it. “Karig, I expect better of you on this, of all nights. The priest I can excuse as I truly do believe him to be mad. But you know better. Both of you need to become better acquainted as you will become travelling companions for a long road ahead.”
Karig’s jaw dropped. “You cannot mean, sire…”
“I can and I do, my good friend. I need someone I can trust to bring this man to the forest priests. If I could have it any other way I would.” The remorse shone in his eyes.
“Brandon! You are a blasted fool! The Kingsguard are looking for us as we speak! Would you have me abandon our people in this, their darkest hour? You all make splendid thieves but warriors you are not.
“If I could interject here, I am not going to meet any priests. I am not going anywhere with you. I am leaving” With that, Parrid spun on his heels and walked out of the throne room.
“Get back here, priest!,” screamed Karig.
“Let him go. There is much we would discuss before you begin.” The king replied.
The voices slowly started to fade as Parrid did his best to retrace his steps to the wooden platform room. Most of the revelers in the main antechamber had gone their separate ways although there were a few scattered about either too drunk to leave or passed out. A thousand thoughts ran through his head, few of them coherent or calm. The very thought of spending five more minutes with these people was abhorrent. It was time to get some air and see what his options were.
He reached the round, wooden room that moved up and down. He kicked his heel in as close an approximation as he could remember Karig did to raise the lever. Of course, nothing happened. He soon found himself stomping angrily all over the wooden floor looking for the plank that lifted. He tried systematically kicking every inch of the floor to no avail. Before long, to keep from tearing his hair out, he simply sat down and closed his eyes for a while. He did his level best to avoid cursing his lot. Fortunately, after a few moments of quiet repose, he was snoring loudly.

His dreams were laden in a heavy fog, as prophesies often were. The landscape around him was red and craggy. Every stone on the ground had an edge that could cut flesh. Thorny red vines covered in what appeared to be metal thorns grew in huge clusters. Parrid knew it would be suicide to touch the sticky looking sap that slowly oozed from the vines like beads of sweat. Large chitinous insects lumbered, digging holes in the stone hard earth, seeking refuge from the heat underground.
The sky was a crimson soup of heat and turmoil that rained sparks on the blasted terrain. Parrid struggled to breathe as a thick smoke hung in the air, choking him. Bursts of lightning were just as likely to shoot up to the sky from the ground as they were to come from the clouds. It was if every part of this world was a weapon in waiting in its pre-forged state. Running blindly to escape the heat and fire, he stumbled into a clearing circled by long-dead twisted remains of ironwood trees. The earth below his feet was blasted, polished metal.
He was immediately driven to his knees by what he saw there.
The God Sabban stood before him, sharpening his legendary sword, SOL on a giant forge in the center of the clearing. His flaming red hair hung in two thick braids that hung over his shoulders. They nestled themselves against his generous beard. Ropey muscular arms moved the sharpening stone down the shining blade. Sweat and soot covered his skin. Large, calloused hands that have known the forge for an eternity worked the stone deftly, as only a master could.
SOL emitted a low tone and vibration that was difficult to be in the presence of. It was as if every inch of his body had suddenly become alive and independent, excited in some way he didn’t truly understand. Parrid knew this to be, from his readings, the strum of the universe. It was the vibration that held all things together. It started with the first hammer fall that created the sword. If it ever was silenced, the nature of the universe would change be to constantly repelling matter instead of attracting it. Everything would simply fall apart and the world would become like the stars above, desolate and empty. SOL had been forged in the soul of a star and was the balance of the sky.
The shower of sparks, from the sharpening stone, set ablaze the landscape around him. Sabban’s presence alone was like being in the center of a blast furnace, yet he did not burn. When he was done sharpening his sword he wiped it upon a pelt that he wore over his shoulder and held it aloft above him. SOL shone brighter than the sun and its vibration increased encompassing everything. The draw from the sword was so strong that the nearby stars drew in closer to him. They circled the sword like a halo. He could not speak; he could not breathe, so great was his awe. He just knelt before Sabban, tears streaming down his eyes that hissed away to steam when they touched the ground.
And then Sabban turned to him. His eyes were like pyres for the dead, red and ever-changing.
“My son.” The voice alone, cracked mountains asunder. It was if he was speaking every language at once, but yet was easily understood. “You must follow the thief to the Queen”
Sabban was suddenly as big as the heavens. They stood amongst the stars now. Floating amongst the cosmos, Sabban spoke to him.
“The King and the Queen must be unified. The blood of your enemies is willful, but this I task unto you.”
The stars began to spin into a dizzying frenzy. Sabban grew too large to see. Then, the stars exploded in every direction. One shot right into his side.
“You will bring together the two so that the vessels may be used.” boomed across the universe.
Another star flew into his side. It was not a pleasant sensation.
“Allow these fools to guide you. Be patient. I will reveal myself.”
The world went white. And Sabban cried in joy for his God knew he existed.


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