The Dauntless Rook (§.16)

Continued from §.15

 

When Sprill realized his tenants were either sleeping, hiding, or vacant, he gave a soft grunt of irritation, produced a keyring and turned the lock. Adair followed the landlord and moved through the small, sparse room to the window and peered out into the cluttered lane below, spying only a grim, gray-clad man, conversing with two mailed sentries of the paramount, who stood before a swelling crowd, barely visible in the great thoroughfare beyond the alley. Though Adair could not make out the conversation, it was clear from their body-language that an argument was underway, in which the ashen man was rebuffed. He subsequently turned and left off from the ramshackle lane, shaking his head and muttering and vanished back from whence he’d come.

Adair turned from the window to behold Hoston starring at his pocket-watch.

“Apologies, my comitem. I’ve no idea where they’ve gotten off to.”

“No trouble at all. Perhaps I’ll stop by another time. Wherefore all the commotion?”

“Outside?”

“Aye.”

“Thou art surprisingly unprimed of thy classes own affairs.”

“Sir?”

“The Lord Paramount has organized a parade in honor of Baron Avarr’s triumphal return.”

“The Torian noble?”

“Aye. I mean no offense, my comitem, but should thee not know of this? Surely thou wert invited?”

“If I was, I remember not, but thou speaketh rightly – unfortunately, I’ve been swamped of late. I am to be married and-”

“Why, that is wonderful! I had not heard.”

“Of that I am pleased. I should not wish for my life to become a staple of the gossip columns.”

“Nor I!”

“The business has been most taxing. I’ve had little time for anything else.”

“I suspect that blackguard what came after ye, has somewhat disturbed the tranquil waters of thy recreation.”

“Thou hath heard of my adventure?”

“Heard of it! I should be a queerly isolated soul were I to have not. Why near the whole of town is jawin’ of it. It were said that thee dodged the brigand’s pitch. Is it true?”

“A man may accomplish the extraordinary when by it, he is beset.”

Shortly after the words had left his mouth, he froze, eyes fixating upon a small, black thing at the periphery of his vision. He turned to the left and beheld a feather, laying upon the ground beneath a chair. He bent to a knee and plucked it from the ground, turning it in the ambered light.

It was a crow quill, familiar in constitution.

“I’d no idea they’d a bird,” declared Hoston, briefly observing the feather, “Hmph! How dare they sneak such a creature in here! I’ll have them on the street for this!”

“Its not from a living bird. Note the glue upon the shaft.”

Hoston bent to the feather and peered at the quill.

“Ay. Must have come from a costume… Well, I must be off, my comitem. I take it the path out lays fresh in thy mind?”

“It does. I thank thee for thy time.”

Sprill bowed and left whereupon Adair unfurled himself from the hardwood floor, placed the plume in his inner-jacket pocket and gave Dren’s curiously unfurnished room one last cursory glance before shutting the door and hailing a hansom.

He twirled the feather between his fingertips as the vehicle clattered down the cobblestone streets, wondering why the absent renter had stolen his coat.

The Dauntless Rook (§.15)

Continued from §.14

Luned gasped as she spied Oeric Adair through the keyhole of her flat. The comitem walked patiently, yet eagerly, behind the corpulent, key-jangling landlord, Hoston Sprill. Both men advanced slowly, but steadily, down the corridor; scant minutes from the door.

“Damn that conniving wind-tossed scoundrel. This is all his fault.” She muttered, backing past the divan and the sofa, swiftly towards the tiny apartment’s only window. When she turned full round, she nearly screamed.

Casually lounging upon the sill was Drake Dren, shorn of his recently riven coat, smiling like a jackal.

“How goes it?”

“How many times must I tell ya not to do that, damn thee. Where in blazes have ya been?”

Luned straightened as the sound of Hoston’s fist resounded upon the door of the cramped and peeling flat. Then a pause and a voice following.

“Ms. Luned? Mr. Dren? Anyone home? Its Hoston. Hello? I’ve a gentleman whose most desirous to meet ye.”

“What say you? Shall we stay and chat with Hoston and his friend?”

“Of course not – its Adair. Thou hath said-”

“Of that later. Come.”

Without hesitation, Drake took the woman’s left arm and guided her through the open window to a ladder he’d laid against the side of the tenement to reach the sill. Where he acquired the ladder, Luned had no idea. The man threw his legs out, grabbed the sides of the ladder and slid down a little, smiling at his own successful display of agility, as Luned gasped and redoubled her grasp.

“Curb thy trepidation. Manful make thy heart.” He whispered up to the woman with a grin before sliding all the way down to the bottom of the contraption.

“Mettlesome blighter.” She huffed hotly before beginning her descent.

When the woman made it to the bottom of the ladder, Drake withdrew the device from the side of the tenement and, to Luned’s very great surprize, began folding it up as one might a newspaper, speaking in tones of feigned offense all the while.

“To reproach me for thy own proclivities is to reproach thyself. Or didst thee forget how came our divan and sofa? A simple ‘thank ye’ would be sufficient.”

When the portable ladder was folded to the size of a large suitcase, Drake stuffed it in a heavy and battered leather pack that lay in the alley adjacent their sill and surveyed the alley.

“Where on earth did ya get that?” Luned inquired, gesturing to the pack.

He shushed the woman and drew up his hood, turning away from the woman, and moving into the shadows as a grim figure ambled into view at the leftern end of the alley.

“Who’s that?”

“A man best avoided,” he whispered without pausing, heading to the right exitway.

“Its him isn’t it – the assassin?”

“Aye. He knows me not in my present state and thou art wholly foreign to his experience. Quell thy tongue and shift away.”

She nodded and moved up to his side. Together they passed swiftly to the far right side of the alley, whereupon a considerable throng had gathered in the great thoroughfare beyond. The avenue, however, was obstructed by two large men who stood shoulder to shoulder, clad in heavy haurberks of the paramount.

“Excuse me, sirs, may we pass?”

“Sorry miss,” the smaller of the two guards replied courteously, “Baron Avarr has recently arrived at the outskirts, enroute to Tor. Consequently, the Lord Paramount has commanded the main thoroughfare sealed, to make way for his lauded guest’s procession. Considerable is the host, even now, and word has yet to fully spread; when it does, there will doubtless be all manner of disorder, which our dispensation shall, our lord hopes, in some measure abate.”

The sound of cheers, trumpets and drums flared in the distance.

“I’ve heard he contributed considerably to the war-effort.”

“Aye. Victoriously he returnth.”

The larger guard gesturing flippantly towards the opposite end of the lane, “We’ve answered ya query. Begone. Both of ye.”

Luned and Dren exchanged looks whereupon Dren drew forth, cleared his throat and pulled from his shoulder-slung pack Adair’s plumed cap, revealing the tag to the guards.

The guards furrowed their brows, perplexed.

“Recognize ye the crest?” the thief intoned in his best Adair impression.

The smaller guard’s eyes widened.

“The crest of House Adair! My comitem… please accept my apologies. I recognized thee not.”

“That is precisely as I had intended it – for thou art doubtless primed of the dire circumstance which previously dogged me.”

“Aye milord. And so the cloak.”

“Indeed.”

“A wise precaution. We are pleased to see thee safe.”

The guards then parted and Dren, assuming an air of amiable regality, extended his arm to Luned who took it with a grin.

Arm in arm, the designing pair passed beyond the lane to the great and crowded thoroughfare as a cacophony of ringing steel foretokened the baron’s arrival.

 

*

 

continued in part 16 (forthcoming)

The Dauntless Rook (§.09)

Continued from §.08.


Aymon Degarre found Learc Demelody smoking her ever-present whale bone pipe in the ministry library, pouring through a stack of papers. Before he could get close enough to inspect the content of the pulpy pile, Learc blew a cloud of smoke towards him without removing her eyes from the items before her, as if warding against some noxious insect.

“Go away.”

“Madam.”

“Shoo.”

“I can not.”

“Can not or will not?”

Still she did not meet his eye, her attention fixed to the papers before her.

“The lieutenant has assigned me to the Adair case, madam.”

Finally, Learc looked at the man. He found her eyes disquieting, for they were large and glassy, like the eyes of a fish.

“Wert thou primed of the affair?” Learc inquired.

“Yes. Thoroughly. No one knows much of the matter, so there was little to impart.”

“Very well. I’m headed down to the theatre.”

“Whatever for?”

“To catch the thief.”

Degarre furrowed his brow in confusion and followed the older inspector out of the building into the whirring streets of the smouldering city and in short order found himself within the garish lobby of Mazrak’s Grand Theatre, wherefrom a gathering of patrons milled, listlessly conversing betwixt swills of ambered wine.

“I’ve long held theatres to be strange aberrations,” Learc declared abruptly.

“Why’s that?”

“In constantly seeking the drama of artifice they are apt to miss that which is transpiring around them everyday.”

“I fancy that is because they’re dissatisfied with mundane drama. The reason I joined the ministry was because of a play of General Godwin Galorion I saw as a child.”

The accipiter looked at the young man with a expression he could not place and then turned towards the ticket counter, wholly disinterested in the crowd and addressed the old clerk without emotion.

“Has Ms. Harrington’s hat been recovered?”

The clerk shook his head.

“I was verged to ask thee the same.”

“Thy superiors shalt, I presume, in no wise object to our presence?”

“Nay. In truth, quite the contrary,” he removed two tickets from beneath the counter and handed them to Learc, “Courtesy of Madam Ibbot.”

She took the tickets with a nod of appreciation, “Give her my thanks.”

With that Learc and Degarre traversed the flight of stairs to the second floor and moved down the main corridor to the upper stands of the auditorium. Learc paused as Degarre settled down into the small box-seats.

“What art thou doing?”

“Watching the show.”

She shook her head and counted the seats.

“They’re only eight seats available.”

Degarre looked at the ticket he had been handed, “Ah, of course, yes, these seats are reserved.”

“Which means that to steal Harrington’s hat the thief was either garbed as a valet or reserved a seat himself.”

“Could it be that the rogue is a woman?”

“I find it unlikely. Though I know not whether the one who stole Harrington’s hat and Adair’s coat was the same that posed as the latter, it strikes me as likely. If not, why pass off the merchandise?”

“That’s sound. But why a man?”

Learc moved to the white polished balcony and peered down at the stage as the curtain rose to reveal the sundry actors thereupon.

“A female valet would look glaringly out of place, as the theatre does not hire them.”

Degarre pondered the issue a moment, nodding to himself.

“So as to have a staff strong of arm should any actor or patron require assistance with their luggage.”

“Aye. Most of the valets double as gophers for the production company. Our thief is not a woman.”


Continued in §.10.

Tomb of the Father: Chapter Three (Excerpt)

Author’s note: The following text is a short chapter excerpt from my forthcoming novel, Tomb Of The Father. This installment will be one of the last chapter excerpts released until the book is completed.


Lord Eadwulf’s castle lay an hours ride from the city of Hableale, ensconced in rolling woodlands that trammeled out and merged with the flat vastness of the moor circumferent. The outer keep was a massive thing, ringed first by moat and second by huge curtain walls, ancient and wrought of stones from a foreign land, their providence as unknown to the inhabitants of Haberale as their age. Trumpets sounded from somewhere within the hulking monolith as two figures entered on horseback, driving hard across the drawbridge, through the mighty barbican and deep into the well trammeled haven of the outer bailey. To the right, a storehouse before which was chained a massive hound of some breed beyond the rider’s collective reckoning and to the left, a length of stable-barns from which the shunted braying of great steeds emanated like mighty gusts of wind. Folk of every lower class there labored; stable-lads hefting thick clumps of hay and the refuse of the equines as maidens dressed in the elegant red robes of the Order of Marta watched from afar, reveling in the excitement of their voyeurism, giggling with mischievous delight, fantasizing about that which their fathers would prefer they not. Older men moved large sacks of grain and salted meats from the castle proper and placed them within the store house in well-ordered piles and then dusted their calloused hands and stood chatting idly as their eyes followed the crows who turned half-circles up in the thermals.
The sky roiled with the dark harbingers of sunder, a heavy, howling wind tearing off from the far mountains and soaring in and under the battlements to scatter the hay and seed and chill the bones of every present soul. The guards looked to the darkening horizon nervously and then latched the great gate behind the two riders and then lead their horses to the stables and there bound and calmed them.
Gunvald dismounted first and looked around in wonderment. The grand keep’s ambit was so verdant and so ancient that it seemed more of some other world, some higher plane than the dull and barren sprawl of the short-flung town. He moved from the outer stable-barns and started on his way towards the wide stone-slated path which wound up to the mouth of the donjon like a gigantic serpent comprised of cloud. Baldric quickly followed and together, with a retinue of two guardsmen, they entered the castle proper. Through double doors of oak and across wide floors, well-laid with lavish carpeting, and up and down steps they went until at last they entered the well-packed banquet hall to the sound of muted strumming.
A great feast was underway and much merriment could be heard rising every now and then over the raucous clatter of instrumentation. Eadwulf Charmian sat, as was his right, at the head of the polished long table upon a throne garland with cushioned silks, hands overflowing with the splendor of his kitchens; spiced wine and phasianid. He was surrounded on all sides other by the host of the house, the chamberlain, his marshal, knights and footmen aplenty; pantler and butler moving to and fro with dutiful reserve, carrying plates of cheese and meats and trays of fish and hearty loaves and great and shimmering samovars of wine.
As Gunvald and Baldric made their way to the table they paused and, respectfully, bowed to their noble host who rose with great animation, smiling broadly.
“Duteous gentlemen, we welcome thee unto our hearth. One face familiar, the other, less so.”
Baldric gestured with melodramatic flair to his compatriot and then spoke in booming undulations.
“May I present, Ye Lordship, Gunvald Wegferend of Haberale, loyal solider to The Crown and honorable hero of our thede. Twas he alone who survived the massacre at Rivenlore and paid back the damnable cur, that architect of our goodly men’s demise, two-fold!”
A light of recognition there entered into the lord’s puffy, dull and inebriated eyes.
“Not with silver and gold, I trust!”
“No, m’lord,” Gunvald replied with a faint smile, “With blood and steel.”
“Aye, a most handsome reply! Come, let me embrace thee, worthy comrade!”
With a sudden burst of energy, the lord bounded across the floor and threw his chubby, ineffectual arms about Gunvald and then kissed his bewildered guest full upon the cheek and released him, smiling widely, patting the warrior’s arms as might a beneficent uncle.
“Now come, let us wine and dine and make merry!”
With some hesitation, Gunvald nodded and joined his Lord at the resplendent banquet table. Eadwulf made no direction and so Gunvald took a seat beside a old and grizzled pikeman whose helmet sat upon his lap, o’erturned as if he might at any moment don it once more and spring fiercely to violent action.
He scoured all present heads and gave a muted sigh. His lady was not present.
Where hast my love flown?
As Lord Eadwulf bade his Marshal, a stocky man named Haiden, raise the samovars and fill the newcomers goblets. Gunvald gritted his teeth, exerting every ounce of his considerable willpower to restrain himself from inquiry. At last, it became too much to bare; he turned full about in his chair and addressed his gracious host curtly.
“I hear tell, thee’ve taken on new hands. A young woman, if thy yeomen tell it true.”
Eadwulf gave a libidinous smile and in that moment, were he any other man, Gunvald would have leapt from his seat and cleaved him in twain. But he wasn’t any other man; he was a duke and more importantly, he was of Torian blood; of a certainty, there was no greater crime than the murder of one’s own kind – Gunvald recalled that not even that most abominable deity, Dactyl, whose very name were as a curse upon both the living and the dead, ever drew the blood of another Origin.
“Aye,” responded the lord, a twinkle in the eye, “A darling girl. A commoner, but none more beautiful, I tell thee true. Leofflaed is her name. I must introduce thee once she quits her bath.”
“She’ll be joining us?”
“Indeed, this is a special night, dear countryman! Hath thy dull brain been so wrought with valorous contemplation that ye’ve forgotten the day?”
Baldric, who sat dutifully beside his cousin, leaned in, whispering, “Tis Winter’s Dance.”
Gunvald perked up instantly, raising his goblet and forcing a wan smile.
“Of course, of course, I’d nearly forgot, tis Winter’s Dance.”
“Aye, Fall holds ever diminishing sway, master of the seasons no longer – the whispering winds of The Rimn rattle the cottages of our dainty hamlet already like the breath of some great beast,” Haiden exclaimed, shuddering slightly.
This pronouncement of fell dismay seemed to rouse much discontent in the host, the lord most of all.
“What now, sir? Is my Grand Marshal – sovereign of both horse and man – afeared of a light Winter’s gale?”
A portly old man nearest the Marshal, crimson frocked and hairless, replied darkly, “Haiden speaks it true, m’lord. These winds which blow so ceaselessly, the odd fog that seems to hang omnipresent o’er the moors, what seems to follow one in the passing, and those accursed crows – everywhere, simply everywhere – tis a bad sign. An omen. Marta is warning us.”
“Hush now, Summoner Thane,” Exclaimed Eadwulf, squirming upon his garland throne with nervous agitation, “Afore thy doomsaying proves ruinous to the good mirth of the house.”
The old man leaned back in his chair and folded his hands about his chest, over the heart. Gunvald recalled that the superstitious, masked peasants he’d met upon the road had made the same gesture when he’d uttered the name of the Eyeless-all-seeing. Gunvald remembered being taught as a child that the earthly manifestations of Marta affix themselves to the heart. It was said that the heart was the source of all emotion and that, if sufficient appropriations of piety were made to the goddess, she would cleanse the ailing organ of all that troubled it. Due this attribution, some had taken to calling her, Our Lady Pure-Heart, others still, The Reaper of Woe, though Summoner’s of a more parochial variety looked down upon such name-giving – some to the point of declaring such monikers heresies – for in the purist’s eyes, it was the very summit of arrogance to denominate pet-names to an Origin of beautitude. What place, after all, did the finite have naming the infinite?
Thane opened his wrinkled maw to speak but a harsh glare from his lord caught it there in his throat and, quickly, he fell silent once more, nodding to himself rather sadly as might the father of some harumscarum lad who’d the mind to go frolicking about the moors at night. Haiden too said no more and seeing this a fresh smile broke out over Eadwulf’s rotund and rosy face. He reached forth with his beefy, bejeweled fingers and raised his glass for a slender serving wench who poured a fresh pint of wine.
“What do thee make of all their pronouncements, landsman Gunvald?”
Gunvald looked from Haiden to the holy man and then shook his head.
“I am a footsoldier, before that, farmer. Premonitions and omens are, I am afraid, well beyond my ken.”
Suddenly, a new voice intruded upon the feast, low and sonorous, mannered like some orator of yore.
“This once venerable council has fallen to superstition most deplorably. Here you sit, High Summoner and Grand Marhsal, in the keep of the most powerful lord in the north, quaking like unsuckled babes at the prospect of supernatural despotism. Our dreams can, in times of direst contest, follow us full from that queer parlor, sleep, and pass into the waking world, latched to the insides of our selfsame skulls like a gaggle of phantasmal parasites. There they spring loose upon our fertile imaginations all manner of signs and signals, every style of omen and fell proscription. But by what method do we discern whether it is some connective coil that lends itself to providence or merely our dream’s own alcahest? Answer that question and thee shall surely have seized upon the truth of it.”
All present heads turned left, to the grand stair that let out to the upper landing, to behold a young man, garland in the finest of silks, blue and white. Upon his shoulder nested a falcon, whose piercing black eyes scanned the crowd the same as its master’s own and his lapis blue and more striking still.
Eadwulf gestured to the well-spoken dandy, “Landsman Gunvald, may I introduce to you the honorable Baron, Czemis Avarr, Ironmonger and Falconer of Caer Avarr. Our barton’s Master of Game.
Gunvald nodded respectfully towards the beauteous man who bowed respectably, but with a slight smile playing up one side of his face, as if he were possessed of some knowledge about the members of that venerable gathering which, if divulged, would bring about considerable embarrassment. The falconer then advanced to the table, his footfalls so soft and feline he made almost no sound at all. When he stood before the only empty chair opposite the lord, Haiden sighed and gestured to the falcon.
“Master Avarr, surely you do not mean to bring that carrion-beast to our table?”
The falcon sqwaked as if in rebuke as Avarr smiled ever so faintly once more.
“Not at all, for see thee not, he’s no carrion-beast. My friend prefers his prey were lively. The struggle of the hunt well whets his appetite.”
The Grand Marshal furrowed his brows with deep puzzlement and some apprehension, unsure as to the significance of the young falconer’s words.
“Meaning that he will leave thy food unmolested, lest thou there hath eft or shrew a scuttling.”
Avarr smiled his ghosting, barely discernable smile and straightened, extending the arm upon which his falcon nested as he whistled a command, whereupon the majestic beast flew full up to the rafters and then back down to perch upon the lower railing of the staircase like a dutiful guardian. The avian surveyed them intently as its master took his seat opposite Eadwulf, removing a small, silver cigarette tin from some inner fold of his jacket. All the while he moved, Gunvald’s eyes followed him, transfixed to the supple elegance of the singular man as he slid a machine-packed cigarette between his blood-red lips and lit it with a golden lighter. Languid and masterful were his movements, so much so that even the mundane action of his tobacco consumption seemed to eat up the energy of the room, to refocus and refine it. After a few long, languid drags upon his opium laced cigarette he leaned back upon the unadorned and old wooden chair at table’s end as if it were a throne more resplendent than Eadwulf’s own. The gesture seemed to say that it were now permissible for the party to continue, that his entrance had garnered sufficient appraisal. It seemed, to the veteran, that any man or woman who had no foreknowledge of the rightful placing of the household would have assumed this guady, white-haired falconer the rightful master of the keep.
“Thou must be Sir Gunvald, tis an honor to make thy acquaintance, loyal kinsman.”
Avarr extended a supple, white-gloved hand to the soldier who took it with some hesitation and shook it firmly. The falconer was far stronger than he looked.
“The honor is not thine alone, Baron Avarr, thy reputation precedes thee. Six years of fighting the grey folk and yet I never once encountered thee or thy men. Yet there were stories aplenty. Not a month went by where there was not talk amongst the war camp of thy valor. I wish we could have, if but once, shared the field.”
“We never had the chance to fight, side by side, as I never fought at the front. Fering – before his passing – stationed my regiment in the north-eastern forests near the base of the World Spine; despite my protestations, he believed, correctly, as it turned out, that my prowess as a huntsman would prove useful against the remnants of the Grey Folk who had deserted their war combine and who operated from that festering wood as brigands of a most savage disposition. Their operation had severely hampered our supply-lines and without supplies thy lot in the front would have crumbled, not from the foes to the north, but from the pangs of hunger and thirst. As thee well knows, the Grey Folk were not seasoned in open warfare, they’d have been crushed like insects under the hooves for a boar had they confronted the Torian Legions, army to army, on some open plain, as is our custom, for those weapons from my forge are scarce rivaled, even in Sage. Rather, they preferred the confounding architecture of their grand forests – subterfuge and skullduggery from behind bark and vine – arrows in the dark, knives in the back in twisting avenues where grapeshot is ill advised. Thou mayest recall the furor their tactics caused, we Torians had grown complacent in our ways and were outraged, foolishly, senselessly, when a tribe decided that rules and warfare mixed as water and oil. So our gracious Lord sent me to confront them at their selfsame game and thanks to the valor of my own men and, if it is not too bold to say, my own slow-flowering plans, I was able to best them most decisively.”
“As humble as ever, Baron.” Marshal Haiden sneered. Gunvald sensed bad-blood between the two and wondered at its origins. It seemed to Gunvald that there was some mote of jealousy in Haiden’s tone, buried firmly beneath his facade of civility. A venom particular to a man once scorned and unrecognized. A strange thing indeed, for the Grand Marshal was, in the hierarchy of the court, second in importance only to Eadwulf and the Arch-Summoner himself. What, Gunvald wondered, could he possibly be jealous of? What could a countryside ironmonger of minor nobility possess that the chief of The Lord’s army could not?
At length, Avarr turned to the Marshal and poured himself a glass of wine and lit himself another cigarette before speaking.
“I’ve been called many things in my life, Grand Marshal: ‘whore-monger,’ ‘addict,’ ‘pretentious,’ ‘tree killer,’ but never, ‘humble.’ At this point, such an allegation would sting worse than all the others. What is ‘humility’ but the perpetual pretense of inferiority? Nothing else. The humble man is he who says, ‘Ignore my prowess! It is meaningless! Praise only my boundless insignificance!’ When indeed, in reality, the feigning of his impotence and insignificance is the very thing which he hopes is praised; a substitute for true virtue. To be called humble is to be called a liar.”
The members of the house gave several terse, nervous laughs, unsure if Avarr’s comments were meant as jest or lecture or some queer combination of the two and when he laughed with them their mirth turned in earnest. Haiden merely grimaced and returned to his goblet, clearly displeased but not so sufficiently as to ruin his Lord’s graceful gathering.
Eadwulf leaned over his mutton, goblet in hand, remnants of fowl clinging to his girthful and graying beard, “Is Leofflaed coming shortly? Or is she still mucking about with her perfume and spice?”
The baron leaned back in his chair, smoking idly and looking off to where his feathery comrade fluttered about the rafters as if in silent rapport. At length, he spoke without turning.
“She dresses as we speak. I expect her any-”
Suddenly a shrill, impetuous voice boomed out from the upper landing.
“So I see that all have begun without me!”
Gunvald followed the voice from whence it came and turned his gaze to the grand stair whereupon a young woman stood, pout-lipped and grim-eyed, hands at her waist. Gunvald was shocked and elated. Elated at the sight of his beloved, shocked at how much she had changed in the space of seven years. Gone was the radiant smile of youthful innocence, in it’s stead, a cold, disdainful frown. Gone were the sun-faded and form-fitting lineaments of the village, replaced now by garish vestments of the keep, silk and sapphires, silver and gold. Gone was her agile frame and the supple movements which the soldier remembered so fondly from his youth, replaced now by an ungainly girth. None would have called her fat but the burgeoning plumpness of castle-excess was unmistakable.
“Thou hath no right to look so put-out, Leofflaed, one cannot expect all the world to run along the lines of thy clock,” Avarr replied flatly from below.
She surveyed the falconer with slowly softening vexation, then the party. Gunvald was surprised the Lord did not reprimand the baron for his chastisement. At length, she sighed and descended the stair, taking a seat beside Lord Eadwulf. As one of the serving girls pulled out a seat for Leofflaed, Eadwulf smiled and gestured towards her, his mouth half-filled with meats.
“Radiant, my dear, most radiant!”
Her only reply was a half-hearted smile, as transitory as the light glinting off her eyes.
The Lord motioned for the serving girls to fill her cup and move the food down to Leofflaed’s end of the table, as the silk-robed woman looked over the faces of every present soul. She seemed wholly disinterested in the affair, hands folded about her waist, lips stuck in what seemed to be a perpetual pout. Though she had gained weight and her countenance wore grim, she was still quite beautiful, the luster of fertile youth not yet wholly faded by time. What stirred Gunvald’s passions more than all her fading beauty was the memories of those fairer days wherein she and he had twined about the steps of the old temple, bounding here and there over moss and lichen, bracken and fern; how they had played hide and seek in the forests beyond Castle Avarr just before the moorland; how they embraced in times of woe and how they had kissed underneath the white bone of the moon by the statue at the edge of town whereupon he’d stumbled across the curious, one-eyed beggar. He remembered how they’d made love the day before he’d left for war, how she’d moaned and later cried and how they had pledged themselves to one another as the sun had risen red as the blood of all the men he had ever slain, as if portending all the masterful savagery he had done and all that he was still to do. Crushing sadness and unignorable agitation swam within the body of the swordsman, moving within his bosom and up from bosom to throat and from throat to mouth, bursting free of that fleshy cage like a lantern shattered in a barn of hay.
“Ne’er did I dare to believe that I would behold that face again; not in wildest dream-wanderings.”
Leofflaed turned to the upstart instantly, one brow going up with mild shock, the other down in confusion. Eyes met there for some indeterminable sphere’s turning, brown to green, green to brown forest to earth, plateau to vine. The shock swiftly dissipated into perplexed consternation.
“And thou art?”
Gunvald’s heart stilled a moment, then a pain, eerie and ethereal, slithered throughout the totality of the soma, palling the mind with direst imaginings. The soldier parted his lips to speak but no sound there escaped; he merely looked on, stunned to speechlessness. Fists balled like stones at his side, trembling with agitation. How, he thought, could she not remember?
Avarr turned to the woman and gestured to the soldier with his half-burned cigarette.
“Lady Leofflaed, may I introduce thee to Gunvald Wegerferend. It were he that slew Grim-Claw, Chief of the Gray Hordes of the North. Impressive, no?”
Leofflaed’s eyes grew wide, her body tense and still, her breath catching in her throat until a muted gasp escaped therefrom.
“Please… excuse me. I’m not… feeling well.”
Eadwulf lowered his goblet, furrowing his disorderly brows.
“What’s this now, have ye taken too much port afore the meal?”
“No, my dearest,” she turned full away from the still-standing soldier as she addressed her liege, as if she might wither away beneath his gaze, “I… do not not know what has come over me, some allergy perhaps, a fever of the seasons.”
Her facade fooled none but a few of the serving maids who cloistered round their ward, one of them fanning the lady with an empty soup dish, all the better to dispel whatever had befallen her. None spoke and, at length, the Lord intoned softly and somberly, “Well, get ye gone then. Off to bed. Off.”
The Lady left without another word as an uneasy pall settled over the feast. After the last footfalls of the Lady and her entourage had vanished up the well-varnished steps of the keep, The Baron rose and took Gunvald by the arm.
“Join me for a smoke upon the terrace.”
“But… the feast…”
Gunvald glanced over his shoulder and found Eadwulf’s beady eyes affixed to his own, sullenly regarding them with growing suspicion from beneath craggy brows and matted locks.
“I and our kindly guest wish to ply our senses to the crisp night air, by your leave.”
The Lord looked on a moment, his suspicion melting away almost instantly into a look of sadness then bewilderment, then comprehension. He nodded, “Ah, yes, yes, of course. Give him the goodly tour of it!”
“So I shall, my lord. So I shall.”
The two men, the baron and the landsman, left off out of the great hall to the whispering of the inner court, the distance rendering the sounds unintelligable.

Tomb of the Father: Chapter Two (Excerpt)

Author’s note: The following text is a short chapter excerpt from my forthcoming novel, Tomb Of The Father. More chapter excerpts will be released in the coming weeks.


Gunvald woke in the dark and buried the brigand upon the northern hill opposite the shepherd’s encampment and departed from the old vaquero wordlessly, before his waking, as the halcyon sphere drifted up across the high, jagged peaks of the far mountain. He made his way over the thin, reedy grass from the northern hill and from there to the stony outcropping where he’d slept as the sheep bawled and yapped like insane children and then passed down between the precarious tors into the lowlands which were spotted here and there with small tufts of shrubbery and strange boulders incised with markings from some people that had since passed from the world’s collective remembrance. The man stopped as if the stones had rooted him to shade and slowly reached out to touch the curious monolith before him, gingerly running his dry and cloth-wrapped hands across the smooth-hewn crevices of the mighty artifact. He closed his eyes and inhaled and exhaled deeply until his breathing became as rhythmic as a drumbeat and he felt as if his hands and those that had wrought the arcane inscriptions were one and the same. Past called to future. Dead to living. As if the stone were whispering to him, tales of forgotten times and well-lived lives and those less well lived and what their folly entailed for the ignorant persisting. It was a peculiar feeling, one that the weary traveler struggled to rationalize but felt powerfully all the same. At length, he opened his eyes and slowly withdrew his hand from the stone and retreated a pace and looked over the monolith entire, from tip to base and judged the breadth and width; some eight feet high, some seven feet wide. The weight of the thing the gods only knew.
When he’d taken in the stone in all its facets he turned full from it and made his way out through the bracken and quitch and past other stones, both larger and smaller than the first, and all similarly marked by ancient hands, the symbols there incised beyond the travelers reckoning. Here and there a recognizable representation, half-masked in abstraction: a man, a woman, a wolf, a bear, a fish, a snail, a tree. The symbol most oft represented was the wolf, over and over again it was inscribed, with near mechanical precision and a primal beauty that he’d scarcely witnessed in even the most technically proficient of paintings. He could almost hear its call.
Beyond the rune-stones the ground flattened out with astounding brevity, the bracken and quitch giving way to queer lichen and strange vines with small purple shoots and thick, raw swatches of muddy-clay, filled all with fetid water that buzzed with insects of every shape and size. The further out the man cast his gaze the larger the water-filled depressions grew until they merged unto a singularity, one vast marshen heap of rain-catch and sod and sand and silt. Bogland.
He recalled the old man’s words, “The first false step means death, to man or beast.”
Suddenly, there came a raucous calling, an intonation, nearby and strangely human. The traveler whirled, spotting, some forty yards out into the mire, a huge male ram, only his forelegs, chest, neck and horn-crowned head clear above the bog-hold. The creature struggled a moment, flailing its powerful legs against the silt and sand-water and then, quite suddenly, it vanished, sucked down at last; even the tips of its horns sinking below the grim surface of that plane of death.
Gunvald watched the unhappy affair with a mixture equal parts despair and fascination. It seemed too sudden to be real, the way the earth could so swiftly devour such a beast. Such a thing to the traveler’s mind was as fantastical as copper turning to gold or water to diamond. The bog had not been there when last he’d traversed the moor seven years ago. It seemed a whole panoply of lifetimes compressed into the scattered crystalline fragments of his memories and dreams.
He recalled the long march beside his kinsmen. How high their banners flew, the colors of all the clan houses of Tor; after decades of internecine violence, united at last against a common foe, the gray-men of the Hinterlands, those they called, Rimners. How young and wild and full of lofty opinions they had been…
As Gunvald looked out across the moor his opinions flew at considerably lower altitude.

*

Finding no passage through the peat, Gunvald opted to travel round it by the southernmost way. The trek lasted two days and brought him past all manner of rummy shrubs and bone piles and dying trees that looked more akin to the macabre props of a phantasmal play. Beyond the surmounted wetlands lay a quiet vale through which ran a babbling brook, girded on all sides by dry forest and vine, the ground verdant-lush and teeming with all manner of skittering things, both foul and fair. He sat by the snaking divet and withdrew a wood cup from his travel satchel and dipped it in the water and drank deeply, the liquid sweet and cool to his parched and desirous throat. Then he watched the solar plumes play across the waves as a small school of fish nudged up to the surface, their huge, lidless eyes gazing upon the sun-scorned figure as if appetent of conversation. Gunvald withdrew the last of his stock, a dry half-loaf of bread and broke it into small pieces, eating some and then throwing the rest to the fishes who gobbled at the flotsam and then nervously retreated, wary of Man’s latent, yet ever present, perfidy.
Moments later, the sound of creaking wood could be heard all throughout the vale, followed swiftly by a muted cascade of footfalls. The sound followed the wake of an old cart, rope-dragged by four men, filthy, disheveled and dressed all in furs. Their faces covered by cloth half-masks, securing the nose and mouth from nature’s multitudinous ravishments. Gunvald rose to observe the strange and solemn congregation, eyes widening with horror as he beheld their vessel’s grisly cargo.
Bodies.
Some fifteen in number, human and decaying under the harsh auspice of the sun, male and female alike, from babe to crone, covered in all manner of hideous rashes and boils, their skin ashen-red and peeling like the hide of some overripe fruit. Whatever disease it was that had snatched from them the breath of life seemed, for the moment, to have no hold upon the cart-pullers who paused momentarily, all turning to the man by the river.
One of their number addressed Gunvald sharply, as if in reprimand for some past transgression.
“What easy fool is this?”
“No fool, sir, but a soldier.”
“Those that here make passage well warrant the epithet. Canst thou not see our sorry wares?”
“Tis a pitiable sight. Whereby didst the sorry lot meet Dactyl’s scythe?”
Upon the utterance of that most singular name the men collectively gasped, the former speaker, a short man, bow-backed, balding and scar-faced, muttered a muted prayer and then gestured towards Gunvald as if casting some devious vermin from his presence.
“Sound not that unutterable traducement!”
“I meant no offense. Superstition has surely deranged thy temperament.”
“Enough, heretic, we darest not tarry, lest thee, with thy calumnious tongue, conjure some new evil to surpass the one that now burdens our aching backs!”
The other workers nodded as if there was great wisdom in the bald man’s words and then they adjusted their masks and ropes and muttered another prayer and bent once more to their toil and moved out across the rutted and grassy way, vanishing at last beneath the cavernous canopy of the wood, swallowed whole by the shadows therein.
Gunvald watched them go and decided to follow the cart-men at a distance, for their path and his were, for the time being, one and the same.
Gunvald rose and gave chase, passing through the thick and tangled forest of oak and ash and fir and gave silent thanks for the thick moss-bed beneath that masked the clattering of his bulky, armored frame. Over moss and stone and leaves, dead and alive, he walked, keeping himself well hidden and well apart from the odd foursome and their rickety old cart. After a couple hundred feet the forest opened up, the trees and shrubbery now growing more sparsely, the grass fading from green to yellow-green to a dull orange-yellow. Dying. The cart-pullers took a sharp right and passed fully beyond the forest unto a thin, dirt road that stretched out to the gray northwestern hill-lands like the great and ossified tendril of some mighty leviathan. The road ran down a slight decline in the hummock-ridden surface of the world and then diverged, one track splitting off to a small city to the south and the other branching to a butte over which rose the pass to the low, south-eastern mountains. Gunvald waited until the men had disappeared beyond the curvature of the earth and then took the lonely path towards the town stopping by a small, wooden sign, hastily constructed, which read:

Ħaberale

The sign was adorned with a large off-white arrow, comprised of some woodland dye, which pointed towards the clearly present outline of the town in the short-off distance, half obscured by small tussles of old trees which poked above a field of withering wheat and the ruins of some primeval fort that lay beyond, its towers brimming with black wings and hissing beaks. Before the man had fully risen from his observation of the sign, the sound of thundering hooves rose up from somewhere nearby, plumes of dust whirling from the immediate northern road. Shortly, a fearsome cavalcade stood before the weary and cautious wayfarer, five in number and all armed and armored in strict uniformity. Knights or sell-swords or something worse. Gunvald knew instantly they were not of the town, by both their expensive attire and peculiar breed of destrier, he fancied them denizens of Caer Tor, a kingdom someways off and rarely concerned with its outlying provinces. The leader of the group and the eldest, a man of middling height and some fifty years, at length addressed the armored wayfarer.
“Hail, traveler. A moment to query?”
Gunvald nodded in wordless acquiescence, though he knew that it was not a question proper.
“I am Cyneweard, second-commander of Tor. Word of brigand-raids have reached our gracious Lord, Cenhelm, and by his leave we make way to Haberale to rope the misbegotten scoundrels.”
“If that is thy venture then ye’ev headed the way awrong. Thy foe lies beyond the northern forest, past the bogland in the high moors.”
“Thou hast seen them?”
“Three nights past I was assailed upon the moor by three fiends, peasants, it seemed.”
“Three thou sayst?”
“Now two.”
The knight took the measure of the soldier before him, discerning flecks of crusted blood about his boots and nodded solemnly.
“I thank thee kindly. Might I inquire as to thy business, traveler?”
“My business is my own.”
“Suit thyself. One word of parting, kinsman, take heed in Haberale, the town is much changed. For the worse I am afeared. With thanks, we take our leave.”
Without another word the knights straightened in their leather saddles and flicked the reigns of their war-beasts and clattered off down the road toward the moor. When they had gone all was silent save for the heavy breath of the western wind that sent the traveler’s long, wavy locks aflutter. He brushed his mane from out his eyes and adjusted his scabbard-belt and wondered at the knight’s words. Haberale had always been a sleepy, little idyll, the only heed one had need to take was of how uneventful it was likely to be so as to better remedy the doldrums. He thought of the bandits and the dead men in the cart and the living ones pulling it and the strange masks on their faces, all deep, emerald green.
Times had changed indeed.
Gunvald left off down the way and crossed through the fading wheat and the hard clay ground and made camp in the ruins of some old fort as darkness closed about him in minacious plume.

*

Todesregel Isle (Part I)

The wind hissed and twined like ethereal snakes above the taiga. All was silent save the cawing of crows who high-circled the heads of the prisoners on the creaking ferry and they one hundred and twenty in number, all chained and over-watched by guards who moved pendulously, left to right, machine guns at-the-ready, eyes masked by helmet-dark. One lit up a cigarette and watched a pack of crows tear an eagle from the sky without comment or concern.

No distinction was made nor given to that swelling fearful mass of fletynge flesh, all similarly garbed in gray, tattered wool, white bands of incrimination upon every arm, distinguishable in the failing light due only their size and pallor. Though all fettered shook with the chill casting off the water like the spirit of death, none dared raised their voice in protest to the bandless sentries who stalked the deck like clockwork toys.

Gregor Villavic starred at the chains about his wrists and ankles and followed them to their source in the side of the ship. If the vessel capsized there would, for the prisoners, be no escape. He turned and watched a pale boy look to his arm band and thought of his ragged little body eaten by fish, bloated by wave-churn and parasites. The child whispered that his armband reminded him of his mother’s tablecloth and that it had been tied too tight by the guards. He asked if Villavic would remove it. The man shook his head and leaned against cold steel of the ship, “If I try to take it off, they’ll shoot us. You know why this is happening. Why they put that on you?”

The boy shook his head.

Villavic nodded, more to himself than the boy and arched his back to view the island, fast encroaching. The isle was small and uneven and covered in mist and strange jutting tors that looked like the ferne halwes to a deity beyond all reckoning. When the ship made landfall the guards ordered the prisoners up and set a plank and disembarked and loosed their fleshy cargo on a rock outcrop just beyond the shore as the wind tore above them like an insane curse. The guards threw them four bags of flour and told them that should they try to leave the island they would drown and should they not, they’d be shot by the villagers on the land surrounding who were under orders from the regional regime.

An old woman wailed and began to cry like as the women and the waves lashed the shore and soiled the sediment with foam like the blood of some cthonic beast and then receded as a strange bird loosed a howl as if in welcome.

Villavic stood up straight and addressed the crowd, “I know none of you. Not your names, nor your religion or from whence you came. None of that matters now. All that matters is cooperation. You there,” He pointed to a bald middle aged man missing an eye and most of his front teeth.

“Derrick.” The bald man replied flatly, his glassy eyes flicking to Villavic and then back to the prison ship as it ghosted into the mist and vanished from sight.

“Derrick, you look fitter than most, can you help me carry the flour.”

The bald man nodded.

“Good. Lets try and find a place to sleep. Somewhere further inland.”

The women weren’t listening and the old crone sobbed and hugged herself, muttering a prayer under her breath and rocking back and forth.

“What is her name?”

Derrick shrugged. A reedy waif spoke up with suddenness.

“Olga, sir. She doesn’t speak yer tongue.”

“Do you speak hers, girl?”

The waif nodded and addressed the crone who nodded solemnly and said a final prayer and rose awkwardly, so weak with fear and the depredations of the crossing that she could barely stand. Villavic gestured for all to rise and shortly the crowd was brought under his control and he lead them from the southern shore to the north, up a steep incline which flattened out into a filthy marsh, coated at every turn with skeletal brush and reeds the bones of animals. Up went a wail as the crone fell to her knees in the filth, making a sign that was unfamiliar to all but the waif and she gasping with terror the whole of her pallid frame. When Villavic followed their gaze he cursed neath his breath.

Laying in the muck before the women was a human skull, slick with blood.

Derrick and an old man with a long gray beard sided up to Villavic as the waif led the crone away from the horror.

“That poor soul was hewn to pieces. Hair and flesh still cling to it. Whatever killed the man, they did it not long ago.” The old man intoned grimly.

Villavic surveyed the settling dark apprehensively and responded flatly.

“Whatever or whoever.”

Film Review: Shin Godzilla

***Spoilers

Alternatively titled Godzilla: Resurgence, Shin Godzilla (2016) is a kaiju-political thriller/action film directed by animator Hideaki Anno and storyboard artist Shinji Higuchi and produced by Toho and Cine Bazar. The plot of the film centers around Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) who deduces that a turmoil occurring in Tokyo bay could only have resulted from the movements of a giant aquatic creature.

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Perpetually serious, idealistic and sincere, Rando Yaguchi.

He is laughed at by his peers for proffering this outlandish theory and yet, shortly thereafter, is validated when an enormous reptilian tail emerges from the water. The Japanese government is shocked and fall into beauracratic debate, unable to determine what they should do about the titanic beast. The prime minister goes live to assure the public they are safe because the creature is seafaring and cannot broach the land which turns out to be false as that is just what the monster does, rampaging through the city incurring numerous casualties and mutating rapidly as it goes.

 

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A underdeveloped Gojira rampages through the streets after its first appearance from the sea.

Yaguchi is placed at the head of a taskforce whose sole purpose is to research Gojira to better determine how to stop it and is considerably aided by the brilliant, icy and eccentric scientist Hiromi Ogashira (Mikako Ichikawa).

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Hiromi Ogashira.

The US shortly send in a specialist, Kayoko Patterson who tells the taskforce that a political activist and zoologist named Goro Maki had warned about the coming of the creature as his wife had perished from radiation sickness, causing her bereft husband to obsessively research radiation treatment methods which lead him to believe that such a creature as had recently appeared could exist. Maki’s theory, however, was blocked from public circulation by the US. Patterson inquires about the whereabouts of Maki and is told by the taskforce that he had vanished leaving behind his research material, which was indecipherable, a paper crane and a note urging them to do as they pleased. Upon looking through Maki’s research the team discover he had named the creature, ‘Gojira’ meaning “God Incarnate” (‘Godzilla’ in English).

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Adult Gojira, who looms almost 400 feet tall.

Gojira shortly thereafter reappears roughly twice its original size and begins making inroads to Tokyo. The Japanese military attacks but Gojira seems impervious to damage. US stealth bombers appear and drop bunker busters upon the beast, this time, injuring it, however, this infuriates Gojira who then unleashes its stored thermonuclear energy into a concentrated beam, decimating the Japanese military, all the US bombers and destroying an enormous swath of the city. Then the beast, having spent its energy, falls into a deep slumber; the US, now witness to the monster’s destructive capabilities announce that a nuclear strike will commence upon Gojira after a short evacuation period, forcing a hastily reconstructed Japanese government, Kayoko and Yaguchi’s team to scramble to find a alternative way to stop Gojira and thus halt the impending devastation which would be brought to bare upon them by a US-led thermonuclear strike.

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Composite shot of adult Gojira making landfall.

The film, in both its tone, plot, pacing and effects distinguishes itself markedly from previous films based off of the monster which originated in the 1954 film Gojira. Its dry tone and serious treatment of its subject matter is the inverse of something like Del Toro’s slapstick Pacific Rim. Though it is billed as a monster movie, and it certainly is, it could equally be described as a political thriller, as backroom politicking make up the majority of the film’s considerable running time and, surprisingly, that isn’t a bad thing. Due to the massive amount of information needed to convey the story (who all the principal characters are, what is Gojira and how it came to be and what is to be done by the government and how the government operates and who was Goro Maki anyways? etc.) the pacing is incredibly fast, at times, too fast as characters are introduced with their names and designations at the top of the screen whilst the subtitles for their dialogue appear at the bottom, which made it very difficult to keep track of both what a character was saying and who precisely was saying it (a problem that native Japanese speakers, doubtless, did not have). Other than the scattershot, slapdash firing-off of perpetual streams of names and information (which becomes easier to keep up with once Gojira slaughters half the cast) and the fairly outlandish origin for Gojira (giant aquatic dinosaur remnant which adapted to feeding on nuclear waste??? why did no one ever see the predecessors to such creatures?!), there are few things that standout as problems (the constant overflow of bureaucratic positions, persons and protocols is an obvious satire on governmental red-tape policies – meetings to have more meetings to decide only when to have the next meeting).

The acting is perpetually solid, the story is gripping and the monster’s composite model is absolutely beautiful and terrifying. The meticulous attention to detail that the animator’s paid to the Gojira creature was truly impressive (for instance, when the monster first uses its atomic breath, small shiny platelettes click over its eyes, a adaptation to prevent orbital damage due to the intense heat – a thoughtful design choice). The soundtrack is also gorgeous and features the original Godzilla theme as composed by Akira Ifukube as well as his expansions upon it.

As pertains to the themes in the film, there are many. The original Gojira (1954) was a embodiment of post-war Japan’s fears of nuclear annihilation, a blatant metaphor for the A-bomb and its lingering effects on the collective consciousness of the citizenry of the island empire. Whilst the present Gojira certainly embodies a similar fear of thermonuclear devastation (such as the Fukushima Daiichi incident) it also represents other more recent disasters like the earthquakes which have in the interrum, devastated the island nation. There is also a rather humorous dig at environmentalists; when Gojira emerges from the water, a certain eco-contingent demands to the cabinet that the government capture the creature unharmed and later, they assemble in the streets chanting “Gojira is god!” Of all the things to pick as your subject of worship, a giant thermonuclear death lizard is probably not the best. Then there is the aforementioned lampooning of governmental bureaucracies and redtape typified by the fact that, though a giant death lizard is upon them, the Japanese government struggle to come to any conclusion about what to do and debate endlessly about whether they should just evacuate and allow the creature to tear through town until it goes away or whether they should strike or whether they should call upon another government and by the time they finally decide on a course of action, a quarter of the city is gone and countless lay dead in the rubble. It wasn’t the Japanese government’s fault that Gojira showed up but it does raise the fact that swifter action would have saved more lives (a point to which Yaguchi passionately raises later in the film). Another facet of the film which was interesting was its lack of villains. Though the US government is positioned as central threat (given that they deign to nuke Gojira if the Japanese don’t deal with him) they are never really set up as villains, for various US officials are shown talking about the window they have given the Japanese to evacuate before the nuclear strike and one of them states that he doesn’t think it is enough time (thus, showing concern over the potential for civilian casualties). Gojira himself is not a villain either, nor a hero; unlike many of the previous incarnations of the character where Godzilla is portrayed as having emotions and goals, whether to punish humans or protect them from other monsters, Gojira in the film is just another animal, a very dangerous one, but another animal all the same. Gojira is a powerful engine of destruction but the creature isn’t out to “get” anyone and only attacks once he is struck (Because why wouldn’t it? You’d probably fight back too if someone dropped a load of bunker busters on your back and blew your dorsal fins off) and yet, once imperiled the creature lashes out with wild abandon, killing innocent and aggressor alike without prejudice. It is this placement of Gojira as really no different from a wild terrified bear rampaging through central park, that lends the film a great power of unpredictability, for divine protectors and punishments are predictable, wild animals aren’t. At the end of it all, the denizens of Japan are not saved because of providence or because of the goodwill of the monster, but rather through the ingenuity and perseverance of their best and brightest which makes the ominous conclusion of the film all the more intriguing.

Its not Godzilla (2014), nor Godzilla (1998), which both espouse (to varying degrees) a naive neo-hippie philosophy to natural catastrophe; Shin Godzilla instead declares that nature has made no safe nest for us to lie in, that we must, instead, make our own (just as Gojira was trying to do) or perish.

That’s refreshing.

Highly recommended.


Note: I have not yet watched the English dubbed version of the film, though I intend to and will update this post once I do so.

The Warlord (Part 4)

As a brilliant moon rises we push the boat to the silvery desert shore.  We put what provisions we can in packs and begin our journey towards the needle-sharp silhouettes of stark cliffs in the distance beneath a starry sky like I haven’t seen since the far North.
“We should make the wastes of Yrizang before they catch us on horseback.” says the Warlord.

“What we are doing out here?” I ask him.
“This is where the Master sent my inheritance.”

“Your inheritance?”

“He crafted a being out of dissident souls that will aid me in the last battle.”
“Multiple souls?”

“Yes.  We are powerful in this world but the Master and the Paladin were of another kind.”

We set out at a tremendous pace although we are both armored and carrying burdens.  By dawn, we have reached the end of the rolling dunes and are entering the jagged rocks of Yrizang where hardly even a tuft of hardy grass can be seen.  Within an hour of sunrise, heat ripples all around the valley walls like an ascending chorus. As our steps echo from one dead valley to the next, the rocks change from brown, to white, to yellow, to red, and finally to endless reaches of bleached grey.  The heights are swept by smoldering winds that would soon dry up ordinary men. The next day, we hear a clattering echo at the end of the dismal valley behind us. White pennants appear.
“Go!” shouts the Warlord.

We run for days, yet we cannot outrun the white horses behind us.

“The heat would have killed them by now.” a greater power keeps them alive.  “He is here with them. My equal.”

I shudder at the thought of the shrouded gold palanquin we saw outside Siprali.

The terrain is so rough that divinely empowered horses are little faster than we are and yet they gain little by little.  They are easily within sight when we reach the great faultline that marks the end of the world.
“Down this great chasm.” says the Warlord. “Every inch of land goes to die.  Even where the Great City now sits one day long ahead.”

We find the narrowest point of the chasm we can and leap across it into an unimaginable continent.

Just then, the party of White Knights rides down from the other side.  They stop at the chasm and stare at us.

There’s about twenty of them and all prepare their mounts for a great leap.  Only half of them make it to the other side and we are waiting for them where they land cutting them down back into the abyss.  Then we are thrown back by a crushingly powerful shockwave. Four knights remain and one stooped figure wearing an unblemished hooded white cloak.  The Warlord flees up the unmarked slope of a jagged gray spire and I follow him. Our pursuers are forced to dismount as they chase us upwards. Three of them fall hopelessly far behind us as we climb but the cloaked figure and one of the knights are right behind us.  Then I recognize him. Right on our heels is Edrak of Savisia who I fought on the cursed shores of Sirangulam. His youthful face now seems somehow twisted and grim.

Near the top of the spire, the Warlord finds a cave.

“Just as I thought!” he exclaims.

We rush out of the pounding white sun and into the welcoming blackness.  Then a blinding light illuminates the cave. The cloaked figure has raised a white-gloved hand, the Grand Master Edrak is at its side.
“Run!” says the Warlord.  They sprint far through the cave staying just ahead of the light.

Finally they reach a great chamber.  The pursuers of the light soon catch up with them.
“You can go no further.” rasps the cloaked figure in a mild, lisping voice.

“There is one more chamber.” says the Warlord. “Follow me there if you dare.”

He turns and disappears through another hole in the wall behind them.  In a streak of speed, the cloaked figure follows.

I am left alone with Edrak of Savisia.  “This is it.” I tell him. “Well met.” as I extend my hammer towards him.  The White Knight says, “No honor for you. You will be punished like a common criminal.”

“Very well.” I tell him with disappointment. “What happened to you?”

“We will never have our open world if we give you any reprieve.  Now you die.”
Edrak lunges and our fight is joined.

In an even greater cavern, the Warlord and the Grand Equal face each other.

“I’ve spent a hundred years trying to figure out who you are.”

“I was born a hundred years ago.”

“The exact moment the neutrality of our plane was broken.”

“Yes.  The heavens chose me to defeat you.  And so I have sacrificed knowing this moment would come.”

Suddenly the robes begin to fall away and a deathly pale, muscular white knight stands there his eyes staring lifelessly.  Then his limbs and features begin to fall away like fleshy leaves in a windless autumn. In moments, all that remains is a limbless, emaciated torso propped against the cave wall, with protruding ribs.  Its eye sockets are empty, its head hairless, its ears just open holes in the side of its head. There is just a nondescript gap where its genitals would have been. It is the most frail and helpless creature the Warlord has ever seen and yet he is repulsed by some great power as he tries to go near it.

Its mouth strains to move.
“I am the Grand Equal.” It feebly rasps.
“You’ve gained power through weakness.  You disgust me.” replies the Warlord.
“To be weak, to be equal is the greatest power.  The strength of a few is no use against the many.”

“Nonsense, the weak are easily ruled, no matter how many they are.”

“Yet you have failed to rule the world.”

The Warlord charges but his knees try to buckle as he approaches the grotesque white torso.  He can go no further. Equal indeed.

“When I was young.” continued the Grand Equal conversationally. “I would whip and scar myself and feel my power over others grow.  One day, I sliced off the tip of a finger and had never felt such rapture.  Every suffering after the last grew the power of Heaven within me.  You cannot harm me now.”

“Do you know why I came here?”

“To seek out the demon’s old glory but he has long fled.”

“We’re true equals.  I pity you. The universe created you to oppose me.  But the demon already won his fight and upset the balance.”

The Warlord walked back into the shadows and somehow the Grand Equal could not perceive him anymore.  He begins to screech and lash out with all his power.

I am locked in battle with Edrak.  Rocks shatter around us as our savage blows deflect and go wild.  I remember how long our battle lasted before and impulsively I lunge right at him while dropping my weapon.  My sharp gauntlets close like a cage about his face. I assault his soul with all my might. But what I find there is unlike anything I’ve seen.  The power of the Equal twists through his thoughts and agency like a lethal serpent. Edrak’s last experiences before being subsumed rush into my consciousness and threaten to engulf me.  There is nothing left of the noble warrior I fought on the beach at dawn and that truth is worse than the final struggles of the other souls I’ve swallowed. He is slave forever to a perfect world that can never be.  Somehow that is worse than becoming aware of a world that is dark and irredeemable.
Nevertheless his soul brims with pure will, even if much of it is not his own.  I am hammered flat by a wave of resistance and nearly let go of him. I had thought myself callused within but the Grand Master’s strength opens up one gaping wound after another.  With each strike I feel an experience keenly one last time before it turns gray. I reel in agony as he slashes straight to my core and suddenly I’m trapped trembling in that loft again as I hear the cries of my parents, my brother and sister, the angry crowd for hours while unable to do anything about it.  I relive in a moment the years I spent in orphanages and workhouses cared for by no one. That unbearable eternity of fear and pain dominates my senses all at once. Then it all erupts from my wound right into Edrak’s soul making him recoil as he shares the agony that made me who I am. Who I was. It begins to ebb and I feel nothing.

The Grand Equal sees two slits of light open up in the darkness and he knows true fear.  A huge mass moves in the dark and lurches toward him. He feels the adamantine rings of spells protecting his frail body crumble away as the beast grows near.  Within his ring of light a vast and hideous head becomes visible, rears back and spits a stream of black venom straight at him. Only the swift command of his powers deflects this sudden attack in a hissing cloud of foul, molten smoke.  The Warlord steps within the now-faint glow surrounding his Equal and says “The creature on the banners of my army was no myth, but my objective all along. A beast forged from the sacrificed souls of dispossessed men by the Master. After all these years, I have finally become worthy!”

“You are an enemy of Humanity, nothing more.”

The Warlord and the Grand Equal muster their powers and clash with all their might.  The emaciated, limbless form of Heaven’s servant slouched against a sharp rock wall strives to hold back an enraged, hulking warrior piercing ever closer towards him with his wickedly barbed sword of enruned black steel that smolders red with rippling heat against layers of unseen resistance.

The Grand Equal begins to bite itself with his toothless gums until the gums are torn away and the bony remains of his jaw rip at his pallid, diseased flesh.  Its power is redoubled. It throws the Warlord to the ground and tries to incinerate him with a column of blinding light that issues forth with a bass thrum.
“You cannot stop progress!” it screams triumphantly through its phlegmatic lungs.

Then, the jaws of the shadow dragon abruptly close around it.

The Grand Equal lashes out furiously within the jaws of its attacker with a crackling and sizzling of power.  Its final weapon a long, prehensile tongue snakes out of its mouth.

“Call off your beast! Face me!” it cries out.
“You never faced us honorably.” replies the Warlord grimly. “No honor for you.”  In one swift move he severs the Grand Equal’s tongue with the glassy blade mounted on his wrist.  The convulsing pale torso gives one last despairing shriek, the stump of its tongue oozing a slow syrup of sickly ichor, its empty eye sockets somehow pleading before the shadow dragon’s jaws snap shut.  A frantically writhing silhouette of incandescent light starts to slide down the shadow dragon’s long neck, its frantic agitations now smothered into silence. The Warlord can see the first tendrils of hungry, vengeful souls begin to feel out its defenses.  With renewed fervor, a burst of light drives them away. The Warlord smiles grimly. It will take a long, agonizing time to wear down and digest his ultimate adversary and that suits him just fine.

I lay across the rubble-strewn cavern from Edrak of Savisia, trying to feel or remember who I am.  Neither of us could prevail against the other, I know that much. Equals in strength. I remember the Warlord telling me something what now seems very long ago.  “It has to resolve downward. Level by level.”

I hear a crunching footstep on a pile of shattered stone and manage to raise my head.  It is the Warlord.

Edrak of Savisia manages to thrust the point of his sword into the ground and raise himself to one knee.  I can now see my master is also nearly too weak to stand. A sense of urgency to intervene grows within me but I can barely move.  As Edrak trembles with strain to rise, his face and the muscles of his neck gleaming with sweat, the Warlord wearily tosses an object at his feet that lands with a wet thump.  The Grand Equal’s severed tongue.

The Grand Master crumples to the ground at once with a cry of total despair.  He then seizes at the tongue and furiously sucks at its tip, his terror growing as not even one drop of succor is forthcoming.  Only reality remains. Seized by waking nightmare, Edrak springs to his feet, still desperately clutching the ashen length of tongue to his chest like a child’s stuffed animal and runs for the exit of the cave and the endless desert waiting outside.

“Who knows how long he may last.” muses the Warlord.

I hear a great bulk move and I look up in awe to the mythical shadow dragon that has led me into battle many times.

“I must return to turn the tides in Sirangulam.” Says my Master.  With that, he manages to climb onto the the Shadow Dragon’s back. With a gravelly screech, the great beast begins to slither towards the mouth of the cave.  “Wait!” I plead, reaching out towards them. As the beast I fought under disappears down the stone corridor I also find the strength to rise and follow them. As I step into the blinding desert sun, the shadow dragon spreads its wings, lifts from the ledge with a burst of gray sand and flaps aloft over the mountaintop towards the north from which we came.

At a loss, I stumble back into the mouth of the cave and collapse.

It is the depth of night when I rise with some strength restored and in some ways it is just a curse.  I can now reflect on my abandonment. What am I to do now? Walk all the way back? Then I remember there is one thing I can do.  I prowl from the cave’s mouth and into the light of flickering stars that seem to hover within reach of my face like fireflies I remember from a final fragment I possess of my childhood.  I go back until I find the last three White Knights who pursued us where they are encamped. I make no attempt at stealth and the one who stands watch quickly wakes his fellows.

All three draw their swords and confront me.  I don’t even bother to wield my hammer as I walk right up to them.  They are terrified but they rush me with everything they’ve got. I grab two of them by their faces and lift them off the ground.  Rivulets of blood stream down from where my claws pierce their stretched skin. I have never tried to take in two souls at once and I don’t know what possesses me to try it.  Yet I do it as the third White Knight crumples to the ground and weeps in a trembling heap screaming prayers to Saint Suryn that receive no answer. The slashing and tearing of two of them at once is far more than I can handle in my still weakened state and I can feel what’s left of me slipping away as I devour them…

The jaggedly spiked silhouette of the warrior stands over the dessicated corpses of three White Knights beneath swirls of stars.  He falls to his hands and knees as his form begins to shift. His clawed gauntlets smoke with infernal heat as they become feet and his arms fuse into front legs.  The wolf’s jaws that decorate his helmet visor come alive, elongate with sliding segments of black metal and close about his face. The eyes of the wolf mask ignite with the fire of hungry intent.  Soon, the jagged metallic hunting beast lopes northward, leaps effortlessly across the chasm and traverses the wastes of Yrizang with impossible speed. By the time the sun rises, every stony valley changes in color again and soon the metallically panting beast is speeding across the dunes with sprays of sand with a slope-backed hyena stride and leaving the stony terrain behind.  Already, it can smell the muted stirrings of souls very far away.

As the Warlord descends upon the battle at Sirangulam he sees below him the Coalition of the Ascendant divided into groups that attack each other now just as furiously as the trenches his half-starved men still strive to defend with hardly any fresh water to drink.  Without the power of the Grand Equal, each part of the Coalition struggles for dominance. The brown skins viciously assault the pale skins. The fat attack the thin. The females attack every male. The crippled and diseased, even stripped of their powers try to savage the well.  Men who lust after men take vengeance on men who desire women. The worshipers of far away Gods strive to cleanse their own army of nonbelievers. Then they subdivide and fight with even more intensity as the Shadow Dragon passes over them and shatters whatever remnants of their spell might remain.
Within the Dragon’s belly the bright light of the Grand Equal still shines.  But it can only writhe in silent, impotent torment as it watches everything it ever lived and sacrificed for falling apart.  The Warlord smiles grimly, yet smugly.

Wherever one faction of the Coalition starts to get the upper hand over another, the shadow dragon spits down a stream of its acid venom to keep the fight balanced.  Then it swoops right over the trenches where the weary Dark Army huddles. The Warlord gestures towards the enemy with his barbed sword, shield ringed with spikes at his side.  His harsh voice echoes across the battlefield. The Shadow Dragon rears back its head and gives out a screech like a sliding avalanche jagged gravel.

No matter how hungry, thirsty, and exhausted, the black-armored legions emerge from the trenches and begin to form up.  Pikes, lances, and sarissas that have been used for little more than fortifications are snatched up wherever they can be found, no matter their condition.  At first they must fight furiously for every square inch, but they gain the space to form into orderly square phalanxes that begin to roll effortlessly through the chaotic mass of the Ascendant.  In spite of this new attack the Coalition forces remain locked in battle with each other and so the slaughter progresses for days until the already putrid no-man’s land is stacked with dunes of bloated corpses.  It is even worse for them than Itlavalus, muses the Warlord to himself, and they have lost their leader. After more than a hundred years, he has fulfilled his task and wonders if Daulan Sekk has done the same.

Soon after, Sirangulam surrenders and they are spared, with a demoniac governor and a bureaucracy of veteran dark warriors now in charge.

With the spine of the heavenly forces shattered once and for all, the army of the man known as Eshlaru, as Kirnavir, as Yeleysh Issaraym, enters the borders of the Center Lands where they have always known him simply as the Warlord.  As the dark legions near The City and the Shadow Dragon of mythical tales passes over the walls again, they are desperate to save themselves by surrendering as quickly as possible. The Warlord lands the Shadow Dragon outside the walls, mounts his black stallion and leads his forces through the City gates as they are opened.  He had thought himself toughened and deadened in most ways, but he feels dizzy as he passes through a familiar gate he last departed through over a century before, alone and pursued by the city guard. Now he is master of the city that created him.

The next day, the Warlord walks alone into the cool marble interior of Saint Suryn’s temple.  It is dark inside except for a few candles but the alabaster statue of the Paladin has almost a pale glow about it.  For the first time, he gazes on the uncanny likeness of someone he knew long ago.

He traces a grooved scar on his bald head with one finger.  “Your power gave these to me and marked me as who I am. I could not be here now without you.”
Without warning, the statue’s blank marble eyes become bottomless black portals that gaze straight into him.  Tears of blood begin to stream down from them. There is a stony groan as her serene mouth twists into a grimace of agony and hatred.  Her arm creaks as if to move.

After everything he has seen for so many years, the Warlord tumbles onto the floor and reflexively raises his arm to shield himself.  All at once, he’s back in the dungeon in the Keep, being beaten, imprisoned, and chained. The glassy blade on his wrist begins to resonate as he relives his escape.  The tone dies down as he comes to his senses and sees nothing more than a statue in front of him now. “Farewell.” He says, then carefully turns his back and leaves.

There is a sacred grove of trees surrounding the temple grounds, their leaves whispering like solemn chimes as dapples of sunlight ripple through them.  Nearby are the memorials and tombs of legendary White Knights who died in service of the Lady, some of whom he had slain himself. Their monolithic images in hauberk and surcoat have nondescript faces and clasp their swords to their chests in repose.  As the Warlord looks up he sees a black-cloaked figure, whose garment flows in the breeze as fluidly as the leaves.

“Dask.” a smooth tenor voice softly addresses him.

The Warlord falls to his knees and for awhile his mouth struggles to form words.

“Master.” he finally says.  He chokes, trying to hold back tears.  “That man died long ago.”

“No, no matter what you have have seen and the price you’ve paid, you have never stopped being him.”

The Warlord tries to collect himself but can say nothing.

“You have completed your task but your soul is not yet ready.  There is another who will accompany me.”

“Daulan Sekk!”
“He is just a Wolf now, an eternally hungry hunter of souls.  He tried to master the greater dark powers as a newly created lesser imp.  That is what often happens. There is more presence there than a hate elemental possesses but not that much more.”

“I tried to warn him!”

“Your loyal follower is not completely gone.  His essence remains. There is an even higher beauty than we can know as only ourselves.  That is all he knows now. And I needed him to choose as he did. I will let him have some of your last, greatest adversaries in this world before I take him.”

“Master.” blurts the Warlord imploringly.

“You have unfinished business.  A life you never lived.”

The Demon raises its hand and the Warlord clutches his face and head as he feels his skin smoldering.  His heavy armor comes loose plate by plate and drops away from him. It feels as though a tremendous weight has fallen away.  His grotesquely large and muscled torso starts to shrink until it reaches the proportions of an ordinary athletic young man. His scalp itches furiously as hair bursts forth all at once.

“Go and live, Dask.  Until you are ready.”

“Until when?” the Warlord asks in a voice he has not heard come from him in a hundred years.

The robed figure shrugs.  “We will both know.”

The Warlord finds himself staring at empty air where his Master stood just a moment before.  Beside himself, he lingers for awhile. He tries to pick up one of his shoulder plates and can barely even move it.  Still stunned, he runs his hands over his face, his head, and body. He nearly collapses as he sees a ghost of his reflection on a perfectly polished granite memorial. “Dask.” he says.  Some time passes. He says it again. The sun starts to grow lower in the leaves the grove.

***

I leave the gates of the City again, a free man, on horseback this time and at my leisure.  Before the sun sinks I am passing by small villages and verdant fields bordered with stands of sunflowers that cast long shadows.  As last light fades, I come on a village by a creek with a watermill churning in a somnolent rhythm. I come to the tavern where my horse is taken to the stable.  There is room enough for me tonight.

“Your name?” asks the Inkeeper.

“Dask.”  I tell him.

“Is that all?” He asks.

“That’s all for now.”

He looks me up and down but sees a young man in workman’s clothes with clear blue eyes.  I seem honest enough. I lay some coins on the counter and he asks me no more.
“That cask could use a mending. I’m a skilled cooper.” I tell him and heft my bag of tools into view.

“Take care of it in the morning before you go.” he replies and slides a small silver coin back at me.

I settle into the boisterous atmosphere of the inn as I down mugs of beer until my head spins and tear through ham shank taken sizzling and dripping right off the spit.  I notice the eyes of one young village girl lingering on me and approach her though my hands are greasy and a stupid grin pasted on my face. It doesn’t seem to matter what comes out of my mouth, she is taken with me and I with her.  As the night finally dies down, she quietly takes my hand and comes up to my room with me. I sleep all night for the first time in decades with her in my arms. The scent of garden flowers drifts through the window as the first rays strike them and the air is still cool.  She’s still sleeping and I gaze adoringly on her peaceful face. I think I will stay here awhile. As I stir then, something near my hip pokes into me and I furrow my brow in confusion. I reach under the sheets impulsively and my hand finds the cold, jagged, glassy blade that changed me forever.

The Warlord (Part 3)

I awake on a cold slab, with a cool draft passing over my bare chest soaked in frigid sweat.  Only the faint glow of a brazier with lowering embers lights the chamber. I sit up.

You won.”  Says the Warlord, his gravelly voice echoing in here.  He sits in a throne-like chair on a stone dais not far from me.
“What happened?”  I groan.
“I did not attempt anything like you did until I was already a couple decades in the service of the Shadow.  I started out with the smallest animals and you wanted to begin with one of the more strong-willed people you will encounter.”

I feel like I’m torn up inside.”  I wince as I try to move, although my body aches I suddenly feel my heart awash with sorrow, burning cold, and then numbness.

You have paid a price.”

How long was I—?”

Days.  Just laying here locked in struggle.  I could feel it was almost over one way or another.  Thought I would have a look.”

I plant my feet on the ground now and force myself to stand, trembling as I do so.  I see my sweat stained undershirt nearby and haltingly struggle to pull it over my head, as if I were a child again.
“Will I heal?”  I ask in apprehension.

No.  Wounds to the soul are eternal.”

Surely nothing is worth a soul.”
“Many of those who seek out Heaven or Hell have suffered.  They long for something greater in which to lose a self that only brings them pain.”

I think of seeing my parents, my brother and sister laying sprawled, bloodied, and crushed unrecognizably in the village square when their last stirrings of life faded in the red of sunset.  I remember the bloody tears coursing down Saint Suryn’s contorted face wrought in smooth white marble. Even as I regain possession of myself, I shudder and turn away toward the stairs leading up.  Just before I begin my ascent the Warlord continues.
“All of us are wounded. Until one day we are scraped down to our essence.”
Without a word, I take the first step up the stairs.  And then another. The first spark of my strength begins to return.

Soon, I see the first tower window with a lazily warm breeze drifting through it, laden with the scent of orange blossoms.  The light of the full moon shines bright through that aperture. Soon I encounter the first soldiers and though I am barefoot in filthy clothes they make way for me with reverence and salute with their weapons crossed over their breastplates.  “Soul-eater!” I hear. “Slayer of Jazan Gur!”
“Where do I sleep?” I ask.

Instead of a tent or barracks, I am shown to my own chamber, well furnished and sumptuous by any standard I have ever known.
I collapse onto my soft bed and pass out at once.

I wake up in the morning with rays of light flooding in through leaded window panes. I haul myself down to the pool fed by a hot spring and feel the layers of grime wash away and the tenseness of many months suddenly relax.  I luxuriate in heat that soaks through me and the gentle whisper of steam that finally seems to relieve many months of marching, digging, and sleeping outdoors in freezing cold, I feel that my arms, chest, and shoulders are even wider than before, corded thick with brawn.  The bottom of the pool is covered in tiles of powdered gold and lapis lazuli Up above are small octagonal windows that that let shafts of light fall through swirls of rising steam. All around are great round stone pillars that create a comfortably enclosed feeling as the domed ceiling creates spaciousness in just the right way.

Now that I have time to think, much of my past memory seems dimmer and further away than it did just before the capture of Siprali.  As I bask in feelings of peace for the first time in what seems forever, I become aware of parts of me that once were too painful to bear and now are cauterized.  My senses are that much more immediate with parts of my past self torn away forever. I even think back on watching my family murdered and somehow am now distant enough to feel the beginnings of detachment.  In some sense it is a great comfort to be freed from such torments, though I feel empty spots inside me where the warrior woman’s soul tore up my own. I think I am just such a person as the Warlord described last night.

Afterwards I lounge for a few hours in my chamber in a comfortable robe and then dress myself for a meeting of our leadership.  Renewed and dressed better than I ever have been before, I set forth.
The Warlord is waiting for us in the deep foundation of the citadel.

The Coalition of the Ascendant have fortified themselves in Sirangulam.”  He begins.

The two sister cities along this trade coast now oppose one another.  We will continue to push south but there will be no easy victory. They are massing their forces and will one day be able to push us back if we wait.”

Edrak of Savisia confronts the gold palanquin.
“You intervened in an honorable challenge when they made no move to violate it!”
The Grand Equal intones a hum of displeasure.  “They are scum.” It rasps.
The knight retorts “If we violate challenges, they will backstab just as gladly.”
“Our rules do not protect those who serve hell.”
“Damn it!  I watched my Captain fall right after the Ha—the Sorceress Queen joined the fight and broke a rightful challenge.  I saw as a demonic soldier rallied to his outnumbered leader and slew the father of our order.”
“You will not speak of her with irreverence.” said the Equal, its voice dripping with understated rage.

Suddenly Edrak’s mouth is stopped up and he can say nothing.  He feels inexplicably weak and falls to his knees.

The palanquin somehow drifts closer.

Edrak looks up helplessly as a sallow, sunken face with depthless black eye sockets emerges from the curtains.  It presses its mouth to his as he kneels there paralyzed and a great length of putrid tongue rams down his throat.  He strains as hard as he can to breathe and to escape the spell that somehow prevents him from struggling with all his might, or even from gagging.  The emaciated figure hidden behind the curtain gives a deep moan of satisfaction and Edrak feels some warming substance pouring into his gut. As his master’s tongue retracts, he slumps to the ground and lapses into delirium.
He sees a vision of the Grand Master Jazan Gur.  His brow furrowed in noble thought at his desk in his tent during the Northern campaign, all just as he remembered.  He tries to call out to him but realizes he is a disembodied observer. Then, the Hag slips into the tent without bothering to announce herself and comes behind him.  As he pores over a map, she strokes his head. Instead of starting with surprise, the general tilts his head back languorously, as if in a trance. She kisses him fully on the mouth with her thin, withered lips.  His throat bulges as her tongue forces its way back. Her hairy forearms wrap around his strong shoulders. Then the general’s whole body goes slack. The Hag withdraws and Jazan Gur is left slumped over in his chair.  Edrak tries to do something, anything to intervene and horror wells up in him. It was like this all along. The man who he had idolized but a slave as he had now become. Ever since he was a child, no one had seemed stronger than the White Knights and the Grand Master himself had seemed like an angel.

Edrak came to on the marble floor of the throne room.  It was night now. The Grand Equal’s palanquin is back where it had been as if nothing had happened.  Had it been just a strange nightmare?

I’ve chosen you to be my champion as the Grand Master before you was chosen by my sister.” comes the voice from the palanquin.  “You will argue with me no longer and carry out my will. Go now.”
Edrak gets to his feet and stumbles from the royal chamber and braces himself against the walls as he sways his way shakily down the steps.  On his way down he passes white knights who fervently salute him but he can say nothing to them now. He is still stunned and drained from whatever has just happened to him.

The cities of Epyr Siprali and Sirar Sirangulam face off against each other for the next few months, the demonic forces in the north, the Coalition of the Ascendant fighting from the south.  Several battles taking place in the narrow, strategic lowland that lies between jagged, sun-baked mountain ranges.
In that time I have taken many trophies of my enemies’ heads and when I can, their souls too.  As I draw that inestimable power into me from unwilling foes, I have grown more dangerous and savage than many who have served under the black dragon banner for far longer.  Every time a desperate soul claws back against mine I backhand it into submission as it wails and the scratches left behind turn into scar tissue and tough calluses. It is not as damaging to me as my first victim was, yet each time, I feel further away from who I once was.
The Warlord is agitated at the lack of progress.  He paces as he addresses us.
“Time is on their side.  The longer this war of attrition drags on, the more the hordes of fanatics multiply.  After awhile even our great victory in the far north is for nothing and their strength restored.  This stalemate must be broken now. I know their ultimate leader is there in Sirangulam. We must draw them into battle.”

The very next day we march out of the gates of Siprali in our black ranks bearing our standards as deep drums beat.  The dust of the road curls about our column in the dawn as we begin to wind our way further south with nearly our full strength.  At the end of the first day, we reach the yawning mouth of the two mountain ranges. On the second day, we are full of excitement and suspense as we approach Shemgaum Pass, the narrowest point between the mountains, the place where they would be waiting, the spot where there have been many battles before across ages.  We are greeted by barren silence. There are reports of a few of their scouts but it is clear that they are allowing us through without a fight. The men begin to bang weapons on their shields along with the drums and chant in their deep voices as they see not a single enemy soldier blocks the pass. The army moves at a tremendous pace, eager to be through the strategic chokepoint and break through into enemy territory.  The Warlord communes with the shadows and somehow the army keeps marching through the night and all through the next day until the walls and spires of Sirangulam are in sight by the end of the third day. Commotion and panic are audible from miles away as no one had thought it possible for the offensive to move so quickly. The demoniacs and the strongest human soldiers press forward yet again during the night and are dug in before the walls and beginning to build again the engines of war.  Soon, the rest of the Dark Army arrives and so another siege is begun.

Sirar Sirangulam lies just off the coast on an island.  A small spit of land connects it to the mainland at high tide and that is when we charge its walls with everything we’ve got.  It’s not enough with the core of the Coalition of the Ascendant encamped there. The Warlord has us bring dirt and gravel from miles around to throw into a recalcitrant sea to gradually form a permanent bridge.  All day and night, fanatics and sympathizers charge our trenches from the landward side to relieve the beleaguered garrison but we are always prepared for them in our defensive positions. Their bodies begin to pile up until swarms of flies dominate the air.  We catapult their maggot-ridden corpses over the walls of Sirangulam for it is a sort of ammunition that never runs out.

Every night after sundown our skirmishers fight furiously for control of the one nearby spring that prevents our men from dying of thirst in sight of endless waves.  After resistance grows, I am finally assigned to go with them to make sure all goes as planned. In the small hours of the morning we depart with scores of armored men carrying empty barrels.  We start taking arrows and crossbow bolts as soon as we get near the springs and then I spring into action. I sprint a few hundred meters in full armor with inhuman speed and begin to butcher the harassers single-handedly.  My men soon catch up with me and battle is joined in the darkest hour of night. It is impossible to tell who is winning.

As the sky flaunts the earliest gray hint of dawn I find myself facing a White Knight whose bright surcoat is just visible.  His blade hisses out of its sheath and I am immediately thrown back by a strength I have never seen. We fight until the soldiers of both sides are at a distance from us.  The first light catches the tip of his blade as another impossibly crushing blow falls upon my shield and throws me back into a grassy beach dune. As the first light reveals me fully, he lowers his sword and speaks.
“You killed my captain in Itlavalus!  Now I will slay you!”

It dawns on me now.

You slew one of mine escaping Siprali!”

I wish it had been just me.  I will kill you by myself. I have the Grand Equal’s blessing.”

How can an equal be grand?” I mock.

By overcoming privileged men who turn to evil, like you!”
“Your dear equal leader is under siege now.  Again.”

We will cut you off from every side until you are crushed.  Even until you grow old and the young have all joined us.”

Every declining empire thinks time is on its side.” I retort. “You had over seventy years and now everyone can see that your rule has failed.  We are just the ones who stand up. Kill us and there will be more like us.”

On my feet now, I fight again with the White Knight.  I meet his sword blade with my hammer but it glances off, cuts easily through my armor and buries in my arm.  In a rage I pass my weapon to my other hand and swipe back against him right into his face. His helm flies off his head and I can see his bloodied face clearly now.  I take my helm off and introduce myself. “I am Daulan Sekk. The wolf, slayer of the White Death, soul-eater.”
“Edrak of Savisia.” says he.  “Grand Master.” His features are youthful and innocent for those of a warrior, his blue eyes full of fire, yet I feel something powerful and dangerous disturbs and distorts his essence. Now that I have consumed souls, I can almost smell them out.
We now face each other under the full light of sunrise with both armies watching us.  We both lower our weapons, turn away from one another and go back to our respective armies.

The Grand Equal is furious.
“I told you not to treat honorably with the legions of hell. You idiot!” It hiss lisps venomously.

Edrak stands straight and says, “Better you ask me not to be a knight at all!  I will beat the enemy in honorable combat! So long as we are just, we win by our virtues and the enemy loses by their defects.”
No reply comes from the palanquin.  Edrak suspects no one has ever talked back to the Grand Equal like this. After a long pause he finally hears one firm word.
“Begone.”

Edrak gladly leaves the chamber with frustration eating away at him.
The next day, he goes about his duties, his misgivings about the Grand Equal and his strange dream-like experience in the back of his mind as the role of commander he has assumed consumes every minute.  Around mid-day, there is a terrible itch-like feeling, a craving of some sort that he can’t identify. By that night, he is tossing and turning in bed, sweating profusely. He feels the urge to vomit yet he hasn’t eaten anything.
Finally the longing is too great, he gets out of bed, manages to haphazardly dress himself and paces towards the Grand Equal’s chamber.  The guards quickly let him in without question and shut the door behind him. He approaches the palanquin, intensely repulsed yet unable to resist his need.  His legs buckle under him and finally he hears its voice.
“You will submit to my blessing.”  It speaks slowly in a tone dripping with pleasure and contempt.”
“You will submit.” It repeats.  Edrak full of fear finds his limbs are crawling him towards the palanquin unbidden, such is his desire for that dream-like state of bliss.  He knows somehow that nothing will ever be the same after this time, yet he cannot stop himself.
The curtain of the palanquin slips open again and his spine arches back in anticipation in spite of his horror.  Edrak breaks the spell for one final moment and manages to scream in despair before his mouth is sealed and his throat stopped shut.

Edrak lapses into happy dreams of circles of smiling people of every kind and appearance wearing white robes holding hands with garlands of flowers about their heads and necks.  They gesture to him and he joins their dance. It’s the heaven he’s always wanted to bring about on earth and he loses himself in the celebration for what seems like eternity. Then, he begins to fall out of this rapture and finds himself on the floor lying in front of the Grand Equal’s palanquin.  He feels renewed and stronger than ever now as he springs to his feet. As he turns to leave, the Grand Equal speaks behind him.
“Defy me again and you will languish much longer without my blessing.”
Edrak shudders at the thought of ever going through withdrawal again and turns back toward the palanquin.
“Yes.” he says meekly, and leaves.
The Grand Equal knows that he will never have trouble with this one again.

The siege of Sirar Sirangulam drags on, week after week, gravel, stones, and sand are tirelessly dumped into the ocean and the bridge to the city slowly grows wider.  On the landward side, there is a vast no-man’s land thickly speckled with piles of corpses as far as the eye can see. With every day, the position of the city grows a little weaker but the Coalition of the Ascendant swells and grows stronger until miles of their seething masses surround the entrenched besiegers.  A fortress of grim and gnarled driftwood now guards the one viable spring and improvised barriers protect the lines of trenches that allow the besiegers to hug against the city in a death grip against all the opposition in the world.

Finally, the Warlord receives a messenger.  “They’ve retaken Siprali.” he says. “We are cut off.”  For the first time ever, I see the Warlord at a loss for words.  He clenches his fists. “Enough!” He finally says. “This is it! I know it!”

None of us know what he means and just stare at him.  Without hesitation he points to to me. “You are coming with me.” he says.  “Kivan Rasaris, you are in command!”

That night, he leads me to a small boat captured from the Sirangulese.
“You’re abandoning your army now!?” I ask.

There is a greater purpose, you must trust me.  Rejoin the army if you don’t want to be here.”
I hesitate, but say. “Alright, let’s go.” and get in the boat first.
I do not question further, I can feel from the Warlord that this really is something important.
We set sail in the middle of the night, the free ocean winds a huge relief from the vile, stagnant air of the battlefield that reeked of seaweed, feces, and swollen corpses that rolled about in the surf.

For the next week we sail to the south leaving the Trade Coast far behind for more arid regions.  Every day he tells me of his early days and of the mysterious demon he helped bring into the City of the Center Lands.  I could not believe he was once just a working man driven to desperation by the Duke and the Paladin, St. Suryn. I tell him of my childhood before my old life was abruptly taken from me.
“We had a dog,” I tell him, but it was really my dog. “ He slept on my feet every night and I felt a love for his very presence there that never got old.”
“But?” asked the warlord.
“I no longer feel it in my memory like I used to.”
The Warlord sighs. “I told you, there is a price.  I had a wife, a child, and a job once but it seems a million years ago.  That man is long dead.”

One day, we see a white sail behind us and the Warlord watches in anticipation.
“We disembark tonight.” he says.