Chapter One: The Relics of Saint Malathric
Part Eight: What Dreams May Come
In which Master Siskington receives an unexpected visit.
“Stand forth, brother.”
It was a voice that could not be ignored, well used to command and being obeyed. I stepped forward, and marvelled at what I saw. A city of towers, surrounded by a high wall, with fields spiralling from it as far as the eye could see. With another step I was within the walls. I saw the milling people, wearing clothes of ancient times. All around were the signs of prosperity and industry. A line of carts left one gate, loaded with bags of grain. There was joy here, a pleasure that focused around the huge temple in the centre of the city.
I stepped forward once more and I was there, looking up at its embossed door, where the effigy of a man tethering the sun with one hand and guiding a plough with the other. He was not smiling, but he was not displeased. On the steps of the temple acoyltes went to and fro, distributing alms to the poor. “Blessings of the saint be on you, brother,” both giver and receiver intoned.
“This is Malathricthier, the mortal site of my worship.”
The golden effigy stepped down out of the door, and resolved itself into a tall man with a halo of light surrounding him. Saint Malathric swept a hand, encompassing the whole of the city in his gesture.
“I ruled here in the days of the Priest Kings. I thought that I ruled wisely, and justly, but I was mortal then, and fallible. When the Molgur came, they destroyed all of this.”
A boiling cloud of ruin came from the north, and though Saint Malathric and I stood unmoved, everything else was thrown down and despoiled by a howling barbarous wind.
When the dust cleared, we were standing somewhere else. It was a strange and shining place, like our world but suffused with an eerie light. Saint Malathric now looked as any mortal man would, though clad in shining armour with a sunburst on one breast and a scythe on the other. I looked down at myself, and saw that I was nearly invisible.
“This is Urcaen. I cannot hold you here for long, but I needed to show you something.”
He took my hand and we flew. A spectacular valley lay below us, and on each side stood a fortress. On one side the walls were emblazoned with the Menofix, on the other the sigil of Morrow. The battlements of both were lined with watchful soldiers, and as we flew closer I could see that the valley itself was a bloody marsh, festooned with the bodies of the slain. It seemed that even in death there was no freedom from war.
“Come the morning, they will rise again to slay each other. This is the War of Souls. The eternal conflict that the gods play out amongst themselves.”
My eyes were drawn to Saint Malathric’s golden visage. Tears did not roll down, but his voice was leaden with sorrow. We floated over the endless battlefield, halfway between the citadel of Menoth and the castle of Morrow.
“I have brought you here so you can see. The souls of men bound to servitude in death. They fight each other for their god’s power. But a greater threat looms.”
We turned in place, and far off a darkening cloud coloured the horizon. We stepped in the air, and we were there. An infinity of bone and machine and cackling gasping torturing consuming hissing looking straight at me into my soul and it was devouring me-
His hand grasped my shoulder and pulled me back from the brink. As the shining world around me dissolved and shone, his voice rang in my ears.
“It matters not to whom I belong. I stand for all mankind. Every life lost in my name is a life wasted.”
* * *
I sat bolt upright, just in time to have a bucket of freezing water thrown in my face. As the dream faded, the rough jollity of Brother Clarence rang in my ears, “Up you get, young fella me lad! The Grand Scrutator wants a word. And when I say word, I mean your head on a spike!” The empty pail clanged onto my bare feet and the Errant was away, leaving me to shiver.
Let it never be said I am not a sensitive sort, and I recognise a portentous dream when I have one. Saint Malathric had chosen me to receive a visitation in the night, so that he could bring his message of fellowship among mankind to the narrow-minded Menites. This was my chance to surpass my servile entrapment and make a real difference in Caen, to throw off the shackles of cowardice and become a hero.
More like a martyr. As I struggled into my breeches I estimated my life expectancy if I strode up to Grand Scrutator Severius and declaimed, “My dear Grand Scrutator, cease your foolhardy expedition in this godsforsaken part of the world! I have had a dream which says you are ignoring a greater threat, indeed far greater than oneupmanship over a rival faith who you hate more even than myself. I have been chosen to bring this message to you by Saint Malathric himself. Yes, me, a guttersnipe your employee pressed into service!”
Probably as long as it took me to finish the first sentence, I concluded as I wove my way between the tents to the Grand Scrutator’s pavillion. I wasn’t aware he had gotten back yet, scuttlebutt around the camp had it that he had set off in the night with some workmen. The shouting within the tent told me how wrong I was. I hesitated outside the tentflap for a moment, and then a gloved and robed arm surged out and grabbed my collar, dragging me inside.
“HOW MUCH DID THEY PAY YOU TO BETRAY US YOU FLOOTHERING MAGGOT?!” Alphonse Severius was yelling into my face, spit spraying over me as I hit the floor. I rolled under the table as he kicked at me. Scrambling to my hands and knees I sought an exit but the only way out was through the Grand Scrutator. I got to my feet with the table between me and him, and for a moment or two we dodged back and forth. He was just about to leap across the table, his hands curved like talons, when a heavy tread outside alerted us to another’s presence. The tentflap darkened, and High Exemplar Gavram Kreoss stepped inside, his armour darkened by blood and mud.
His face was set in a rictus of fatigue and defeat, and as he stepped inside he first staggered, then tottered, then fell. His enormous bulk hit the table and flipped it right over on top of our little game of cat and mouse. There was a strange sensation of time slowing down as the Grand Scrutator took the opportunity to lunge through the empty space before the somersaulting table hit all three of us and we were flattened into the mud of the floor.
The sheer confusion of the last few seconds took its time to pass, as with my face pressed into the mud and the rest of me pinned down by the table I heard nothing but ringing and buzzing. It reminded me of the dream, the terrible gnashing wailing monstrosity that awaited us all in Urcaen if we squandered our lives fighting humanity rather than humanity’s enemies. Saint Malathric had given me a message, one that I must carry to everyone.
“Failed. I have failed. And I have fallen.” The High Exemplar was reciting this over and over again, lying on his back atop the Grand Scrutator, the now-broken table and myself. The Grand Scrutator and I looked up and saw each other across Kreoss’ prone body, and formed a silent truce. We hauled ourselves up and out from beneath the calamity of the High Exemplar’s entrance, and each grabbing an arm we failed completely in pulling him upright.
“Bloody man must weigh a ton,” Severius puffed, letting go his arm. “This is the last thing we need. First they find us this morning, then half the camp has this cursed dream, and now he returns like this. Go and get someone to carry him to the chirurgeons. Maybe they can leech it out of him.” Since I had a reprieve from his fury, I scurried off. Something he said weighed on my mind.
When I returned a few minutes later, Severius sat on a chair regarding his fallen comrade. The strapping young men I had brought with him hauled the High Exemplar onto the stretcher like it was nothing and were off, leaving the two of us facing each other across the tent. I got the question in before he remembered where we had left off, “You mentioned a dream, my lord?”
He appeared distracted for a moment, then: “Oh yes, some nonsense about the Sainted Malathric appearing to them, giving them a dire warning and telling them the error of our ways. Utter hogswash. Any amateur theologian knows that as a fourth class Saint Malathric is limited to crying statues and ensuring that farmers remember to rotate crops, nothing even remotely like a dream. But it did seem…they said that it seemed real enough.”
As I learned I was not the only one to have the dream the compulsion to relate its events first faded, and then died. It was odd. I had remembered wanting to tell the Grand Scrutator all about it, even at the risk of my own life. Something strange had happened in the night, clearly. What was more, the sight of the High Exemplar crashing into unconsciousness had shaken the Grand Scrutator, to the extent that he was acting like a normal human being instead of a ravening psychopath. I asked some cautious questions and he related the story of his failure to secure any relics, and how the Morrowans seemed able to intercept their every move. “That witch-knight of theirs, she is crafty. And now our scouts say there is a larger army on its way. I thought you must have betrayed us.” He shot me a glare, and then he was back to his new distracted air. “Kreoss is right, we have failed.”
For some reason the sight of this man admitting defeat filled me with outrage. “We can’t just give in!” I heard myself cry, “there must be something we can do! This underground city that you found, do you think they know about it, or are they just digging on the surface.” Severius shrugged, not seeing my point. “The longer we stay, the longer they will think there must be more to find beyond what they have already. We have to hide the existence of Malathricthier and lead them on a false trail. Then we hire some mercenaries or treasure hunters back in Merwynn and come back here, get into the cavern you described by stealth, and take all the loot-I mean relics that we can find. Then the Morrowans will be put to shame, with the knick-knacks they have! Everyone will know that Saint Malathric belongs to Menoth, and this conflict will be behind us!”
My mouth closed with a snap. Where had that come from?! Apart from saving my own skin, I had no interest in the success or failure of this crazed mission! Or so I thought at first. The High Exemplar was a decent skin, and my friends among the Flameguard had taught me how to drink kafi properly, sifting the larger grainier bits with my tongue and spitting them out. Even the Grand Scrutator…no, dear reader, I did not let my newfound bizarre sense of familial loyalty extend as far as the spitting cobra in human form that sat before me. He regarded me in silence for a time after I finished speaking, then he rose to his feet.
Crossing the gap between us, Alphonse Severius spoke quietly, yet his voice resounded deep. “That has to be one of the most despicable things I have ever heard. Rather than achieving glorious victory on the field of battle in the name of the Lawgiver, you would have us sneak away like thieves in the night, only to return and further despoil the ancient seat of one of the greatest men of a bygone age, so that we can obtain a petty triumph in what amounts to a shouting match between two street gangs in a city that is a hotbed of sin.” His face behind its burnished mask was right up against mine now, I could see the whites of his eyes behind the smoked lenses. He drew a long shuddering breath, as if grappling with some impossible conflict within himself.
“It might just work.”
Apologies for the late update! Check back this Friday for the last battle report of the campaign, and next Monday for the final part of Chapter One!