Chapter One: The Relics of Saint Malathric
Part Ten: As A Dog To The Proverbial
In which Master Siskington is put in a position of responsibility against all better judgement.
The Bloodstone Marches sometimes possess a weird beauty, as the harsh spring recedes and the punishing summer starts to take hold. The wretched scrub takes on a vibrant hue, and the putrid corpses of animals and men that litter the plains often grow quite interesting plantlife. The jackals that roam in starving packs shed their winter coats and soon sport a charming shade of brown, allowing them to blend in with their surroundings and murder lone wayfarers. As our wagon wove its way across the wasteland, I sat up beside our driver and reflected on the changes that had come to the place since my last visit. Let it never be said I cannot appreciate something even if I hate very moment I spend with it.
“How much longer, squire?”
This question came from the bed of the wagon, where my assembled crew of villains lounged, playing cards. My interrogator was called Spoony, for reasons best not explored right now. He had just lost another hand of constanza, and was looking for something else to do. He was a native of Five Fingers in Ord, my old stomping grounds, and he was as unused to the countryside as I was. Any leisure moments he had had before could be spent robbing passers-by or halving property prices by his mere presence, and the blasted landscape which surrounded us offered no such opportunities.
I twisted around in my seat and faced my hired hands. Spoony was the looker of the bunch, with a knotted scar that marred his jawline and indecent tattoos up and down his neck. The rest were assorted thugs, not too bright but reliable once bought. I had spent a week in Five Fingers rounding them up, which had been quite a challenge. Picking out henchmen is not as easy as picking out accomplices. You don’t want the cream, and you don’t want the dregs. You’re aiming somewhere in the middle of the milky criminal world.
“Not much longer lads, then a bit of climbing and we’ll be back on the road. Easiest job you ever had.”
Apart from Spoony, there was one amongst my hired hands who I had known before this journey. That was Brother Clarence of the Exemplars Errant, who had donned a disguise for the occasion. He was a child of the aristocracy, normally with quite refined features though blunted by a life as a soldier. For this incarnation, his hairline had crept forward over a sloping brow and his jaw now festered with rotting crooked teeth.
Clarence was along as my insurance policy. Given the time that my lord and master Scrutator Semper had invested in me, he was unwilling to send me out into the wilderness on a treasure hunt alone with a band of scoundrels. At least without the capacity to murder them all should they betray me, which I’ve observed as a common priority in the leaders of the Protectorate. Clarence had accompanied me to Five Fingers, masquerading as Yulff Sondheim, and had joined us with the rest of them. And yet somehow another of my crew had vouched for him and said he’d known him for years. Between all of his double-lives I wondered where the knight found time to sleep.
As I resumed my seat, I beheld off to the side of the trail a huge patch of burned ground, where a fire might have burned for days before being snuffed out. Some wreckage stuck up out of the turf, white and blue shards of steel which mekanikal experts might be forced to cut away to make emergency repairs. A battle had been fought here, some months back, and the battlefield had been consumed in fire.
“Not long now!”
It was evening by the time we reached Tighrael, or where Tighrael had once stood. In the final confrontation between the Menites and the Cygnaran army that had arrived to back up the Morrowan forces in the area, the Menites had set up a huge explosion which flattened the remaining buildings. The hope behind the plan, as outlined to me by Grand Scrutator Alphonse Severius, was that the Cygnarans would interpret it as the final tantrum of frustrated fanatics who would rather destroy the relics left behind by the ancient bastion of Malathricthier than let them fall into Morrowan hands. Their own excavation sites were the epicentre of the blast, and the use of Menoth’s Fury ensured they burned for days, leaving nothing but char and ash. At the same time, a rearguard led by High Exemplar Gavram Kreoss led a doomed action against the reinforcements that had been summoned by the Morrowans. The High Exemplar had not survived the encounter, which proves that Menites hold life of little worth when their faith must be bolstered.
In fact it was a ruse, rather more clever than I had credited the Menites in being able to concoct. On his first foray into Tighrael, the Grand Scrutator had tumbled into an underground cavern, which held the great temple to Saint Malathric and had been covered over by the cataclysm which befell the city centuries before. There he had seen treasures which made the relics the Morrowans were toting around back in Merwynn look like the contents of a jumble sale. With these items, there would be no contest over the supremacy of the Menites in the turf war over the saint’s true allegiance. It was buried so deep that the Cygnarans would not find it by normal digging alone, and hopefully the pyrrhic display had thrown them off the scent.
The Grand Scrutator had shown me the sinkhole he had happened upon on a map, making me commit it to memory. This had the upshot that I slept quite soundly the night we arrived in Tighrael, confident that my hoodlums would not kill me in my sleep because there was no other way for them to find the secret treasure.
The next morning, I roused my henchmen and we set off, with shovels and rakes and implements of destruction. Even with the roasted remains of the town, there were certain landmarks which led me to the spot, just beside what looked like an old clocktower. Once there I directed my posse to spread out and search the area, as I stood back and surveyed. One of the shovels glinted in the early morning sun right into my eyes, and I stepped back instinctively. As the earth gave way under my feet I think I might have almost given a sigh of resignation before I started to yell. This just seemed to be what my life had become.
I must have hit pretty hard, because when I opened my eyes again the surface world was a blinding circle far in the distance, while all around me was darkness. I realised I was on my back, and the circle re-orientated itself to be far above, while I sat up and tried to peer around me. Nothing.
Trying to fight the panic, I groped, noticing as I did so that nothing was broken but the back of my head was damp with something that smelled like blood. So I was concussed and at the bottom of a deep dark hole. It reassured me not at all to remember a soothsayer that had once told me this was how I would die. Worst silver crown I ever spent.
My hand met leather and I nearly wept with joy to discover my pack and attached to it, my lantern. Some more investigation found my tinderbox. Several minutes and some creative cursing obtained a blessed light.
The lantern showed me my surroundings and confirmed my suspicion: I had fallen just as the Grand Scrutator had fallen, straight into the centre of Malathricthier. Here I was on the cobbled square which had stood before the Temple of Bounty. The square had cracked in two as it fell through the earth, and the roof of the temple was long since gone. But off in the distance I could see something gleaming in the light. Could it be that the golden statue which I had seen in a dream so many months before still stood, deep below the earth?
I picked myself up, confirming that I hadn’t broken anything, but my ankle twinged and complained as I limped towards the reflection. There was an odd sense of familiarity as I crossed the square. In my dream, the plaza had been swarming with petitioners and people about their business, in the ages of the Priest-Kings before the doom which had befallen. And here indeed was one of the heroes of that age, shown in effigy upon the temple steps.
As I approached with my lantern, the gleaming visage flickered and danced. Saint Malathric, staring now into darkness where before Malathricthier stood tall. Far above, I heard the sounds of cursing and the clinking of ropes. It looked like I wouldn’t die here after all.
“Hey, I’m down here!”
“As are we both.”
I whirled around, and met the now very animate eyes of the effigy. Still fastened to the stone plinth, the statue nevertheless moved freely, gazing about.
“I see my city has fallen to ruin. Do you come here seeking treasure? If you will offer up your life, I will lead you to treasures beyond your wildest dreams. But not those of chattles and sundries, treasures of the mind. Treasures of the soul. What is your name, my son?”
I still held the lantern aloft, and I was surprised to notice my hand didn’t even shake. I was getting too used to this sort of thing. Or my concussion was worse than I feared.
Malathric’s face broke into a beatific smile.
“From the old Thurian ‘sask’, meaning ‘stone’? How appropriate. You will be the first of many, the first to bring the word of my faith to those who so sorely need it. In this age of war, peace will thrive. Upon this stone, I will build-”
“Sorry to interrupt.”
Malathric paused in his rhapsody and glanced at me askance.
“It’s not from ‘sask’, actually. ‘Sisking’ is a verb meaning to add alcohol to foods that don’t normally contain it. It’s an illicit practice in most of the Ordic gravs, apart from one border town where my ancestors come from. Just thought you should know, what was that about peace?”
The statue stared at me for a moment, and then frowned.
“Ummm, you know what? Forget it.”
“Are you sure? That all sounded very nice, I’d love to be a part of it.”
“I actually forgot, I’ve got a thing, very important spirit world stuff that I have to attend to. I’ll manifest to you sometime though!”
With that, the statue went back to being just that, the eyes lost their spark and once more it was smiling benignly at nothing. I gave a shrug and hefted my crowbar. Those jewelled eyes would be worth a bob or two. And there was a distinct possibility I had imagined the whole thing. Solitude does that to a man.
Thus Concludes Chapter One of the Scrutator Semper Chronicles! Sorry once again for the delay in the update, it has been a hectic week. Watch this space for Chapter Two and other bits and pieces!