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The Pen is Mightier than the Sword


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Everything posted by Finnius

  1. 4. A Long, Dry Walk The air burned. The sky burned. Sight bled away into nothing and then sight, too, burned. There was nothing in this land, nothing in this world, save pain and loss. Mephis felt that loss and shook mountains half a continent away, building with his bare hands and the tool he had crafted to harness the chaos of the world. Building was all he knew, the only way to focus his mind away from the desecration of his brother's body and soul. But Althis had not been desecrated. In Desert's Heart, a new understanding was being given unto the world of pain and loss. An understanding that these shells of flesh was not all a human was, nor were they a limitation to what a human could accomplish. That a strong enough will, through patient, persistent endeavor, could break even the need for that shell of flesh. Althis had proven this, had died and lived again. He had seen what lay beyond this world and returned with a new purpose, a new understanding... what lay beyond was chaos, as Mephis had discovered that what lay within was chaos. And so Althis, alone under Desert's Heart, crafted a tool of his own. ----- The gates of Hammerfall opened wide, swinging outwards into the sand. Great wings of grit lined the desert in the wake of those gates, doors as tall as five men at least and wider than tall. Normally one was enough to pass entire caravans. Now both lay open onto burning sands, waiting for the return of the children of Orin. Far away from there, half a continent away lay the village built on the rubble of Desert's Heart, where the gates also lay open - the day after the five heads of the Dead Council came to Split-rock a long line of dust, a double-helix rising into the air appeared on the near horizon. By nightfall the cloud had neared enough to resolve into two long lines from the south, heads down against the heat. The guards didn't bother to wait, simply leaving the gates open and fleeing to the safeness of their homes. The Seftali had come. ----- The Dead Council moved through Split-rock, straight as an arrow towards the Stones. Fexus darted from shadow to shadow behind, growing less and less confident that following these people was a good idea. But when they reached the Stones proper, he knew it to be true. The pile was cursed, all the villagers knew it. It loomed in a great hill, broken rubble of a city older than the sun, older than the desert. Faces carved into some of the stones stared sightless out over Split-rock, or the desert, some simply gazed at the sky forever. Sounds came from inside at night, hollow echoes of voices which screamed or sobbed or pleaded in tongues as old as the city. Even that would have been enough to set the brave running, but the real reason the Stones were cursed is that all along the edges, reaching from the sand, were remains of black rocks - five to a set and a sixth set center. Like hands, as if the old city had simply been pulled into the desert. Fexus had heard stories that sometimes people got too close, and they too were dragged under the sand. And yet these five people, two women and three men, simply walked to the edge without fear. One pulled back his hood, snowy-white hair gleaming a halo in the moonlight. He spoke, and the others listened. "There's a way in, somewhere... spread out and look." The others obeyed, short nods or bows, and fanned around the Stones, disappearing around the edges. The man with the white hair turned, a little grin touching his lips. Fexus froze to the spot, ducking behind a broken pillar. The man's laugh, soft and gentle, echoed through the rubble. "Come out. You have nothing to fear from me, and trust me, I've known you were there for quite some time now." Fexus peeked out from behind the pillar, breath catching in his throat. The man's eyes were black, no trick of the light that. The rest of him was pale as soft sand, his hair blowing softly in the warm breeze. Fexus took a moment to steady himself and stepped out. "Hmm. A little scrawny, aren't you?" The man rubbed his chin idly, head tilting to one side. "What's your name?" "Fexus... sir." He made a little bow, awkward, and nearly stumbled. The man chuckled again. "Ah, well. I've known a few of those. Uncommon name, but it crops up every now and then." He shrugged, a little habitual motion. "My name is Loghis. Gerod Loghis. You're one of the locals, aren't you?" Fexus nodded, throat dry and quickly clamping. Loghis' eyes were hard to follow. His head stayed straight, but there was something in his manner that suggested he was paying attention to far more than simply the boy he was speaking to. "Ever come out to the Stones? No? Hmm..." He took a step back, turning and laying a hand gently on the pile of rubble. "Don't suppose you've heard anyone talk about a way in here, have you?" "Only one... and I don't think you'll want to attempt it." Loghis turned, a gust of wind whipping his long robe around him. For a brief moment, it looked as if he had wings of dark shadow spread out around him, and then the wind died and the illusion was gone. He smiled, white teeth and white hair glowing in the moonlight. "Try me." ----- Seraphina watched from the edges of Split-rock as the line of dust drew closer across the desert. Whenever the Seftali visited, the village nearly shut down entirely. These people were superstitious, xenophobic, and deeply afraid of the Seftali. It wasn't hard to understand once you got a good look at them, faces distended, malformed and bestial all of them. But behind the yellowing eyes, sharp teeth, and twisted bodies were minds. The Seftali were just as afraid of the villagers, and just as superstitious... albeit in a different manner. It took the double-helix, the twin lines of thick dust, the better part of a day to reach the village proper. When they got there, there was only Seraphina to greet them. The villagers always left this to her family. Beaten, mocked, and shunned inside Split-rock, they were still the only people the Seftali would speak with. And so she bowed low as the lines approached. They slowed to a halt, shifting of cloth and clanking metal, coughs, sneezes, grunts, all the sounds of a people who'd been walking for a very, very long time. From the middle of the line stepped a figure wrapped head to toe in cloth - the gaited, stilting steps spoke of some deformity of the legs, and whatever gender this poor soul may have had was long indistinguishable. It hobbled forward on a gnarled makeshift crutch, returning her bow on shaky legs. "We welcome you to Split-rock, travelers." Seraphina stood, stepping aside casually. "There's water in the square, and the Stones beyond. May you all find what you are searching for." The creature, still kneeling in the sand, croaked a brief thanks and pushed itself up. It looked painful. The twin lines bowed their heads as they passed her, some offering their own thanks as the Seftali moved in their file through the town.
  2. 3. Water and Sand Rain. There would be rain forever, and lightning. Thunder, black clouds that would never touch the sky, never dissipate into a cool evening fog, or allow the morning sun to scatter them. The sky would never know the sun again, this treacherous sun that let Althis die. Mephis was small, a flea on the back of a dog, but the mountains trembled all the same. He towered, he raged, he screamed into the night, he tore with the loneliness left, the hole in his heart. Althis was dead. Everything had been taken away. Desert's Heart was torn in half, split between the followers of the... thing... that walked in his brother's body and himself, and he wished the same for all of them. Sun-face, that charismatic leader of men, had already taken even revenge from Mephis. The men of the forest were men no longer. What he'd done to them wasn't enough. Not nearly enough. The people wouldn't share his wish for further punishement, he knew. Sun-face wouldn't share his loss - how could he? Not even Sospita, for all his wisdom, could share in that pain. But the sky, at least, would share the tears of Mephis. ----- The day Orin Hloran died the skies above Hammerfall split in two, a heavy rain spilling into the streets without a cloud in the sky. The water was black, sour, and smelled of death. The people took it as an omen... his children took it as a sign. Two days after the black rain, the sons and daughters of the Hloran line gathered in the Great Hall of the ancestral home of the keepers of the city - Hammer Keep. All lined up in a neat row, there they were - Faria, the eldest daughter, with hair a black so deep it encompassed all other colors. The city loved her dearly, and she knew it. Beside her Lonane, the oldest son, with the crest of the Hloran family proudly on his sleeve - a fork of lightning and a hammer. Sara, the second daughter, ever somber and still dressed in her funeral clothing, a tear resting against her cheek. And last, Mallon - the youngest of the Hloran line, not even a man yet, and utterly unremarkable. His eyes were cast down, and one hand rested in his sister Sara's. Alone of the children of Orin, Mallon had his father's eyes - cold, bright, blue as ice. Today they barely touched the corner where the floor met the wall. The four of them stood in silence, waiting uncomfortably. Servants moved through the wings of the room, silent footsteps seeming much louder on the tiles. Everything did seem louder, since Orin died. The city spoke in a hush, even the gulls along the docks had grown quiet in the days since. The skies had cleared, the rain had stopped, but a shattering storm stilled the people and drove them indoors all the same. And so the children of Orin stood in a line, and waited for their mother. ----- The gates of Split-rock were not what one might call imposing. An arch, met on either side by a building - low walls surrounded the buildings without managing to really offer much by way of protection. Utterly unprepared for an attack, the only real defense the city had was the combination of terrain and pointlessness. There was simply nothing here worth bothering over. Sand, sand, and sand as far as the eye could see. No fit place for man nor beast, and yet both managed to cling to some... scrap of survival out here. The village did have a bracing sort of beauty to it, though, in the moonlight. People milled within even at this hour, guards stood watch - somewhat more nervously in the face of five oncoming strangers who walked out of the sand with neither food nor water. Simple black robes hid them head to toe. Three were tall, one short, one fell average - two might have been women, or simply slender men. They paused at the gates. The one at the head stretched a hand out, silent - ashen white, pale as death, but with a small purse in it which held a promising clink. "For your troubles, good sirs. Thank you for standing so diligent a watch... my companions and I are quite thirsty... is there somewhere we could find a drink?" Behind a black hood, a man with white hair had a private smile as directions were given. It had been a long time since any member of the Dead Council had come this far from Cold Port, let alone Gerod Loghis. The fact that all five of them had made the journey only put emphasis on the point, and yet these people... these guards just let them pass. A word, a hint of danger, a few coins, that's all it ever took. People were so predictable. Then again, he sincerely doubted whether any of these sand dwellers really knew who they were. The concept of outside appeared not to exist. "Loghis! I think we're being watched..." Keris, the next eldest of the Council. She'd been so promising in life, and yet after... such a disappointment. Still, Holy Althis had seen fit to send her back. Loghis just nodded. A sigh, soft, painstaking, all-suffering. "Of course we're being watched." He peered around the streets noting faces, ignorant, slack-jawed, a few curious, and even fewer bright with intelligence. He shrugged. "And I'm sure we'll be watched until we leave. Drop it." "But-" "Keris..." He looked sideways, black eyes peeking out from under his hood unblinking and alert. "If it bothers you that much, turn back." Keris grimaced, hands folding across her waist. "No... no, it doesn't bother me. I'm just on edge... all of us away like this. It's not natural." "Oh?" Black eyes, cold. You could never be sure where those eyes were looking. "You're the authority." His eyes turned forward again, ghost-pale hand moving up to tug his hood down over his face. "Now be silent. We have business with some old friends of mine." ----- The Dead Council moved through Split-rock, diverting first towards the Water Square - while their bodies wouldn't die of things like hunger and dehydration, they could certainly feel the effects of them. In the shadows, Fexus watched. Fexus listened. Three men, two women - one man had hair white as bleached bone, one was bald. One had a patchwork of red and grey. One of the women was also bald, a halo of light reflecting off the moon as she brought water to her face. The other's hair quickly freed and blew in the wind, little strands of gold like the silk of a rich spider. All five, though, had eyes black as coal - a darkness which spread out from the pupil to encompass the whole. Fexus shivered, pressed further back into the doorway which hid him. Eyes closed briefly, he swallowed. When the five moved on, he opened them again, and followed. ----- When the moon reached the crest of the window which looked onto the Great Hall of Hammer Keep, the widow Hloran descended. She'd had many names. She was born Farine, to a line of tailors, for whom her eldest daughter was named, and loved Orin Hloran under that name when they were both young. When Orin passed the trial of the Stones he came back a different man. A man with fewer siblings and a heavier heart... a man with a duty that would consume his life and grey his hair long before his years. But she had still loved him, and when they married, her name had changed according to tradition. Idicia was her name then, for many years, and after the birth of dear Faria another name was added... Mother. But now Orin was dead, and her children were all grown, and they too would have to face the Stones. Hammerfall would not long abide without a Warden, after all. And now she was simply the widow Hloran, not a Mother, not a wife, not Idicia, and certainly not Farine anymore, that naive girl lost so long ago. Her children looked at her as a stranger. Bundled, veiled, in mourning, not a trace of skin beneath showing through, it was no wonder. She looked less like a person and more like one of those... things... from Cold Port. It was all she could do to speak the words. Go. Go to the remains of Desert's Heart, as the line of Hloran has done for generations. Commune with the hallowed founder of our noble house, and do not return without his blessing. Go, so that you may return and heal Hammerfall of its grief. It was too much. The words barely came, stammering, cracking, grief that could not be healed through any ritual or any dead god's blessing. Her children left her... tradition could not be denied, and the journey would begin tonight, on the hour. Who would come back? Faria, full of life and love, bright eyes and loud laughs? Lonane, patient, serious, always hopeful... he saw the good in everyone, all the time. Sara, so compassionate, so young... Mallon, younger still, barely more than a child himself, with so much to learn? The doors of the Great Hall swung shut, and the widow Hloran sunk to her knees, head resting against the stairs. It was only much later, after the moon had left the arch of the window which looked in upon the Great Hall and all the servants gone from the wings that she lost herself in great, wracking sobs, sharing the tears that had fallen from the skies two days earlier.
  3. *returns the Appy huggles* ^.^ Thanks for all the sparkly nice words! I am glad you liked it!
  4. Imperfect names for perfect ideas, fleeting impractical gone never here in a flash things are switched around towns that aren't real just illusions of grandeur just vapors of steam trains on tracks of deception But names are imperfect, and words just the same.
  5. It's a talent of dubious use and questionable origins - after all, one would wonder how one would go about acquiring a skill that tends to result in the skillee being dead afterwards, but somehow I have managed! Hurrah?
  6. 2. Street Rats The world was made of fire and stone. It turned through the stars with the ponderous weight of ages, and decayed as surely as any living thing. Mephis dragged his brother from the sand of the desert, reaching down gently with a hand the size of Althis' torso and lifting his younger brother bodily. People said they were twins, but they were wrong - Mephis had come out first. Usually they assumed it had been Althis, because he seemed older somehow, more mature. Mephis didn't mind. The world was made of fire and stone. In its center, a violent inferno raged endlessly, a barely caged lion governing the forces of the universe. It was sloppy, doomed to failure. Something would have to be done. Mephis slung his brother over his shoulder and began the long trudge back to the heart of the world, the place of fire and stone, where the dark helix rose into the sky like the life-chain of the gods. ----- Her name was Seraphina, though she got called many other things. Street rat. Beggar. Thief. Whore. The fact that she wasn't any of those things, not really, not inside herself, didn't seem to matter to most people... except Fexus. So Seraphina walked along beside him, and clasped her hands behind her back, and they talked. "What did the gates look like?" Seraphina knew what they looked like, she had been the one who told Fexus about the morning reflection, but she wanted to hear him say... he had such a way with words. Fexus rubbed his chin for a moment, then looked back with a sparkle in his eye. He always had that, she noticed, he always looked like he was just on the edge of some masterful stroke of wit, some plan just about to come to fruition. "They're magnificent... they shine like the sun, and they're as tall as five men. Maybe six." He brightened as he talked, the road-weariness dropping off him as he grew more excited. "And they're made of solid granite, plated in silver on the outside. There's carvings and etchings, all sorts of things, and words under them, but in the center of each door, bigger than life, is a carving of one of the gods. Mephis on the left, Althis on the right, facing each other forever... nothing like anything you'd see here." She nodded absently as they walked along, twining her fingers together behind her back. He'd gone to see them, and he'd come back impressed... now was the moment of truth. "Don't you..." Seraphina coughed hesitantly, hiding her mouth behind a balled hand. "I mean, wouldn't you like to see them? Up close?" Fexus stopped in the middle of the street, hands clenching at his sides, and for a moment Seraphina thought she'd moved too fast. Then they very slowly opened, and he hung his head. "I can't. Father would never let me, and besides... a few days out is one thing, but I don't have anything like what I'd need to make the trip all the way to Hammerfall." His voice came soft now, and Seraphina cringed to hear the uncertainty there. "I wish I could... I'd do anything to get out of this place." They continued on in silence the rest of the way, until they came to the flap of the shanty that housed the boy's family. Fexus stopped long enough to give the girl a sad smile and a small wave, and then ducked into the flap. Seraphina waited outside for a few moments, just long enough for the shouting to start, and then end with a sharp crack. The girl went on, past the hovel dwellings, and up to the gates. She slipped to one side and took the long way, shimmying up the side of the wall and falling out over the top - the last time she'd went through the gates proper, the guards had thrown rocks. Outside Split-rock, she walked... she walked until the sun was high in the sky, and the city was very nearly out of sight. In the distance, a cloud of dust kicked up, and Seraphina adjusted her course to take her towards it. ----- The air was dry and cool, and Fexus turned onto his side to raise his face to the wind that drifted through the flaps of his home. There would be a wide bruise over his eye in the morning, he could already feel the dull ache as it swelled, but... somehow that didn't matter. To leave this place... it was a nice dream, but that's all it was. Even if he managed to gather the supplies necessary for a desert crossing, even if nobody came looking for him... even if he avoided the pumas, and the snakes, and the sun, and the thousand other ways a man could die in the desert... what then? Even if he got to Hammerfall, what then? He rolled over again, tossing his face against the thin bedroll on which he rested. The bruise forming on the side of his face gave an angry stab, and he winced with the pain. The only things he knew how to do well were hide, listen, and wait... a career as a cutpurse danced through his mind, but Fexus knew well the punishment for thievery in Hammerfall, and didn't particularly enjoy the prospect of being hung upside down and lashed. Still... the thought wouldn't leave him. The moon rose in the sky, and the turning of the world brought wind - Fexus shifted uncomfortably, and rose. He pulled his light coat around his shoulders, and carefully stepped over the sleeping forms of his father and grandmother, and slipped out into the night. He made his way to the center of town, to the Water Square, and paused to sit on the edge of the fountain, splashing his face with ice-cold water. The moon hung overhead, staring down at him, and he dared to stare up at it for a few moments before taking a deep breath of cool desert air. He wondered if somewhere out there, across the desert in far-off Hammerfall, there was another young boy sitting out with a black eye and wishing he was anywhere else. Foolish thought, but the idea appealed somehow. Fexus sighed and began to push himself up, when the far-off sound of a puma's cry stilled him. Desert pumas were tough creatures... in their natural environment, they didn't have any predators... only hunters. Someone was coming.
  7. And also, bumping gives people the chance to enjoy it again if they'd missed it the first time, which I managed to. Lovely, brilliant, funny, and a touch snippy. Awesome.
  8. Epilogue: A New World Hammerfall stretched out to the east of the Frozen Sea, grasping inland. The long rain which had marked Fexus’ rule had finally broken, and the people of the city poked their heads out into the streets to take a fleeting look up at the sun. A very few of them dared to voice what they all knew had come to pass. Fexus, Lord of Hammerfall, was Lord no longer. Even fewer dared to imagine how this had happened. The stories which bled onto the streets of the city were many and varied, and entirely incorrect. In the courts of Hammer Keep, politicians died by the score. With the disappearance of Fexus, a silent revolution swept through the governance of the city. The citizens, as ever, paid little mind so long as the new lords of Hammerfall taxed them less than the old ones. ------------------- Underneath Althis’ Tomb, a shifting mass of rock spit out three forms. Two slumped to the floor, bound and gagged. The third strode into the center of the room, where a great black sphere pulsed its cold heartbeat against the walls. Hryn stretched out a hand to touch the icy cold of Balphinus. Immediately, its rolling, thunderous voice echoed in his head. Hostmask recognized. Hryn, Servant of Fexus, what is your wish? “First, scratch the servant of Fexus bit. Just Hryn, thank you.” Stony silence, and a quick blue flash which Hryn took as assent. He cleared his throat and glanced at the two men slumped on the floor. Fexus was still unconscious, and would remain so as long as Hryn wished. He’d almost left his former master behind, in the merciful care of the Fixers. Loghis’ black eyes burned back at Hryn, deep black pools of loathing. The dead man had developed a deep and abiding dislike of Hryn in the last few days. Hryn turned back to Balphinus. “Secondly, I need you to find another member of the access list. Gavin Althane.” The cold blue light, a tiny glow in the center of the black orb to begin with, flickered and died. After several tense moments, it reappeared. Gavin Althane is no longer on the access list. Hryn turned to Loghis, knelt down, and stripped off his gag. “I thought you said that Balphinus would be able to find him.” Loghis shrugged noncommittally. “If he were still alive, it would. If he’s no longer on the list, and nobody removed him, then he’s dead… well, more dead.” Hryn’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “I don’t believe you.” “You don’t have to. I can prove it, oh Mighty Fixer.” Hryn raised an eyebrow. “Upstairs,” Loghis said with a jerk of his head. “There’s a chamber that leads down here from the Tomb of Holy Althis. In it, you’ll find the souls of the departed Chosen. Gavin will be among them. Go see for yourself.” Hryn shoved Loghis’ gag back in place and began his way up the stairs. ------------------- The chamber was dark, but Hryn’s eyes took precious little time to adjust. At first, he was stunned by the sheer number of shadowy, wraithlike figures. They flowed over, around, and through each other, never stopping. Like hungry sharks, or caged lions. A moment after Hryn stepped into the room they all paused, and in eerie unison, turned towards him. There was wind, and it reminded Hryn of the trip he’d taken between worlds. A frozen wind, which ripped at you and drew tiny beads of blood from your skin. The wraiths swarmed over him, drinking in his heat, hungrily clawing at him with cold, twice-dead hands. As soon as it had started, it was over, and Hryn lay shivering on the floor. The ghosts which a mere moment ago had eagerly tried to rob him of his life now stood in a ring around him, looking puzzled and ashamed. Hryn thought he saw a figure walking through them, striding confidently towards the gap in the ring of specters. He thought the figure was tall, noted its flowing hair, shining even in the darkness, and then passed out; the low murmuring of the ghosts echoing in his ears. ------------------- The ruins of Cold Port winked into existence between rolling spheres of grey. As the dust and wind settled, a lone man strode toward the center of the once proud city between high piles of already rotting wood. The clouds above Cold Port were a bleak mirror of the ones between the lands of the living and the dead. The man paused outside the charred rubble that marked the shell of the Lonely Sailor. He bowed his head shallowly, and then continued on. The center of the city of Cold Port, the two-story stone building which had housed the Court, still stood despite heavy damage. Few had survived the storm which had torn the city to splinters not two weeks ago, and those few toiled outside this one building, clearing the doorway. They worked with the grim resolve of the dead, without food or sleep or water. When the man mounted the marble steps, they stopped for a moment, just long enough to turn to him and bow their heads. None met his black, shimmering eyes. The man walked between them, pushed open the great stone doors, and closed them behind himself as he entered his new home.
  9. 1. Little Deaths Dust choked the sky, covered the ground, rose in vibrantly red clouds at every step. If he hadn't been dying of thirst, Althis would have appreciated the stark beauty of the moment; but he was, so he coughed and staggered on. Twenty miles ahead, a second cloud of dust rose. Unlike the choking, clinging stuff that plauged Althis, this was an orderly column - a pillar of black sand that rose spiralling into the sky. Althis corrected his course slightly and carried on towards it. The sun hung overhead, a hazy orb of fire no less suffocating for the clouds of dust. A little relief, that was all... Althis stumbled and fell, laying face-down in the sand, and wondered how the thick clouds never managed to cast any shade. He raised his head and looked for the pillar of sand. Stinging grit whipped into his eyes, but the pillar was still there. A dark helix against the sky, twisting and writhing. It looked closer now, nearly on him, but it was too late. Althis scrabbled at the ground, tried to stand, to kneel, to crawl even... nothing. He'd pushed himself too far this time. The world dimmed, and Althis closed his eyes. ----- A boy sat on a rock in the desert, legs bunched up in front of him and arms wrapped around them. A rather unfortunate face peered out from between his knees. It wasn't a sharp, commanding face, though it might one day be. It wasn't a wide, open, friendly face, though it might once have been. It was a face stuck halfway between states, a face permanently on the edge of recollection, but never quite there. Grey was the word - hair that might have been blonde, brown, red, or any color in between was blasted to a dull and dirty grey, tinged with the brown of the sand. Skin, clothes, even his eyes shared the color. Underneath, he could have been anyone. He sometimes wished he was. In the distance, in the crease of the far-away mountains, a spot of pearl-white glistened and sparkled. The gates of Hammerfall were lovely, even from halfway across the desert. Up close, the boy thought, they must shine like the sun on a mirror. The boy sighed as the sun climbed higher, breaking the illusion. The gates winked out of view, dulling into the background of the mountains. You'd never know they were there if you didn't know exactly when to look. Legs were unfolded, slightly too-long limbs were stretched, and the boy hopped off the rock. He delayed the turning around until it was obvious he was delaying, and then he did - Split-rock squatted there, brown and low against the sands. The boy sighed again and began the long trudge home. He passed the guards at the edge of the city without comment, biting his tongue as they spit in the dirt at his passing. Cookfires smoldered in the doors of hovel dwellings, little more than a few poles with an oil-cloth draped over them. Children cried in some of them, or ran barefoot in the streets, stinking of their own piss and screaming at each other. Had he ever been like that? Once, probably. Farther into town, the hovel dwellings gave way to shanty houses, which were similar, only these could afford a slab of wood to go on top of the poles, which kept out the worst of the sun, and slightly higher quality oil-cloth for the walls. Into one of these, the boy ducked. The explosion came sooner than expected. "Where have you been? Eh? Outside town again, I hear. Two days, this time, two gods-damned days, do you know how your gran-dam has worried about you?" The accusing tone of a father is instantly recognizable, and this was it. "And look at you, filthy and stinking like a seftali. Go wash yourself, I'd hide you, but I don't want to dirty my hand with it." The boy hung his head and nodded silently, then backed out of the shanty house and continued up the street. Eventually the shanty houses gave way to real dwellings, dig-houses. Small hills of dirt and stone lined the street, doors at one end just tall enough to duck into. At this time of day, they were all closed - the dig-house people rarely came out in the day, preferring to spend it sleeping in the cool of the rock. The center of Split-rock was technically the Stones, great lumps of granite and marble, slate and sandstone heaped up into a shamble pile. The real center of Split-rock was the Water Square, a natural spring that flowed from an underground river, bringing cool water into the middle of this gods-forsaken desert. Local myth held that Mephis himself had struck a hole in the rock to bring water up for his brother. The fountain was always busy, but slightly less so this close to noon. The boy stripped to the waist, splashed water across his arms and face, poured a few cupped handfuls over his head, and then shook dry as best he could. Across the square, a small, pointed face watched him. "You've been gone. Two days. I thought you might've been gotten by the pumas." It was a soft voice, one used to being ignored, but with a hint of hope in the background. "So, is it true? Can you see the gates?" The boy nodded and beat the worst of the dust out of his shirt. Across the square, a girl moved forward, shuffling around the fountain. She was small and soft, like her voice, but she'd been that way as long as the boy could remember. Her hair was always clean, even when the rest of her was dirty. Black, shiny hair that framed a face with far too much understanding for someone so young. "You can see them. Only for a few minutes, though." He pulled the shirt back over his head, looking over carefully. "The pumas almost did. I had to hide in a sand pit for half the night." "Did not. You can't hide from a puma in a sand pit, everyone knows that. They'll dig down." "They will." The boy nodded, turning back and starting towards the shanty houses again. The girl fell into step beside him, clasping her hands behind her back. "But they dig slowly, and the sand fills in behind them. If you're quick, you can scramble up the other side and push it back in before they catch up with you." He shrugged, folding his hands together with an air of finality. "And then you wait for the struggling to die down, and you can have puma steak while you wait for the sun to come up." "You never did. You're such a liar, Fexus."
  10. Author's Note: Well, it's been a long time coming, and survived two restarts, a long sit on the shelf, and two computers being fried by a combination of lightning and a nasty virus, but here it is... This is properly a precursor, but it's meant to be read after Where Gods Fear - it can be read out of order, and I won't tell ya not to. Hopefully if you like this one, you'll want to read the first one, which is in severe need of some edits. The afore-mentioned computer crashes managed to fry the work I'd done to that particular end, but thankfully left me the prologue and epilogue I'd written for it, which I'll be cleaning up and posting within the next few days. I'm posting up through the end of the first chapter here, and with any luck I'll be posting the rest at the rate of one chapter a week until it's all up - I'm still doing cleanups on this as I post, so bear with me. That said, I hope you enjoy, and if there are any questions, comments, etc, feel free to start a thread in the Writer's Workshop - I'll probably start one there after a few chapters mahself if nobody else has, just cause I'm a feedback nut. We now return you to your regularly scheduled novella. There may be some mature content, though nothing Scarlet-worthy. Reader discretion is advised. Prologue: The Desert and Hammerfall The desert has no name. It is simply “the desert” to those who speak of it; a thing to be wondered at, to be spoken of in hushed, worried voices. A problem in the world, a blight in the middle of the great Mephitic Island. The desert stretches from the northern edge of the Island, which by all rights should be a continent, to the Seftali forest in the south. It is home to many tribes, many peoples. The desert holds life, but only for those who know how to take it. The desert holds secrets, as well. There is a pile of rubble in the desert, surrounded by a village named Split-rock. The Stones, as the villagers call the pile, has been there since anyone can remember. Sometimes the Seftali come from the south to kneel in front of the Stones. The Seftali frighten the villagers; they are large and their faces and joints are distended and misshapen. Some of them have sharp teeth, like a puma or coyote. But they bring offerings of food and water, and lay them before the Stones. They kneel and pray in their strange, whining language, and then they leave. When the Seftali have gone, the villagers take the food and water and ration them out to the community, and so the Seftali pilgrims are seen as good omens. Across the desert, to the west of Split-rock and the Stones, is a great city. A city carved long ago, so the stories say, out of one piece of granite. Carved with a single stroke of a hammer, by a god who walked the earth. The city is named Hammerfall, and it is rich and prosperous. Sometimes the people of the desert, the people from Split-rock and Blackthorn, the Men of Dry Water, and sometimes even the strange Seftali, with their faces like beasts, visit Hammerfall. Everyone comes to this city eventually, or so the saying goes. Whatever you want, whatever you dream, you can find it here. The gates of Hammerfall face east. The city side of the gate faces warm streets and a lush courtyard with a fountain. The other side is a huge door in the Westering Mountains, and faces burning sand. There are no western gates; Hammerfall sprawls forward from a great cleft in the Westering Mountains all the way to the Frozen Sea. The ports, though, are magnificent. A thousand ships line the edge of Hammerfall at any time of the day or night, from huge fishing galleons to tiny skiffs that can race from Hammerfall to any point on the Mephitic Island’s shore within a week. Hammerfall and the desert share a strange relationship; the city’s rulers, the line of Hloran, claim direct descent from the god who broke the mountains to make his city. His name is Mephis, and at one time he and his brother Althis ruled the world from a city in the desert. Desert’s Heart, it was called, and it was a testament of power, of glory, and of peace. Desert’s Heart is gone now, reduced to a pile of rubble surrounded by a village full of people who know nothing of the ruins they guard. When a new Warden of Hammerfall must be chosen, the sons and daughters of the Hloran line make their way into the desert, to the ruins of Desert’s Heart. There they enter the Stones, a place where not even the Seftali pilgrims will go, and commune, so they say, with Mephis himself. When they emerge, one of them is the new Warden. They never speak of how this happens, how the Warden is chosen, but none has ever disputed the claim. For the most part, the people of Split-rock never knew why these young lords and ladies of Hammerfall journeyed so far out into the desert to visit a backwater village and a cursed pile of rubble. The only ones who had any inkling were a family of beggars and thieves, outcasts and lepers who lived outside the village, in dirty tents along the road. They also claimed descent, but not from Mephis. They claimed that neither Mephis nor Althis ever had any children, that no one could claim their holy blood. They claimed descent from a man named Saevus Sospita. Sospita was a scribe, and one of a very few individuals whom the gods had allowed close to them. Sospita was a figure, for the most part, shrouded in the forgotten mists of history. But to a forgotten few, he was a hero.
  11. A little later, not to be out-done, a little blue birthday cake is sat discreetly under the banner.
  12. Aww... Damn you Queen Elizabeth, you're supposed to choose right! *huggles the 'Shela*
  13. There's a difference? Erm... reading, since I hate the post-writing edit. Naked or nekkid?
  14. Next Generation - Stewie rules! Cupcakes or Muffins?
  15. As Cornelia stared at DC, Ed stared at Cornelia - it wasn't really a planned staring, more one of those times where you're wandering around looking at pictures and happen to turn a corner, and oh look, there's some daggers being stared in the general direction of... someone. Ed paused, scratched the back of his head, then sighed as Cornelia turned to caress her latest work. One of them, he was sure, was behind all this trouble, but the question was, which one? Cornelia was a little bit off her rocker to be sure, what with the making art out of ashtrays and perfectly good sleeping trousers and such, but then... what artist wasn't a little bit crazy? On the other hand, DC seemed almost too sane, and wasn't it always the quiet ones who snapped? But then, meaningful looks full of daggers could be a sign that they were both in on it! Ha! Of course... if they both were, Ed didn't stand a chance. So better to assume only one. Either way, too big a question for poor Ed. And so, he rummaged around in his pocket for a moment, pulled out a shiny quarter, and asked George Washington. OOC - The coin has spoken! (Really, I flipped.) DC - Mith! (Though it was actually Queen Elizabeth, not George Washington, since alls I got is Canadian money. God save the Queen!)
  16. Erm... Not unless I'm missing something in there. The closest I could find was a reference that he worked as a photographer for the local newspaper and freelanced out to the police for crime scene photography, but neither of those are really the same thing, so... /me wins! Bwahaha!
  17. ;.; I just wanna take pretty picatures... *sob* Ev'rbody *sniff* wants me dead... *sniff*
  18. Ed once again roamed the earth - or at least that small part of it inhabitted by an art gallery where, apparently, artists were showing up dead on a disturbingly frequent basis. Really, Ed didn't much care about the art world - he'd been told often enough that he was no artist, and the tiny part of his soul that didn't believe that was generally off running errands when Ed came calling - but the fact that people were being killed and he was now being looked at as a suspect was rather vexing, to say the least. Oh well, the show must go on. Ed passed another of that Chesterfield woman's pieces, noting the rubber ducks, and shrugged his way past. Something was nagging at him, and it wasn't just his sore tooth, or the vaguely condescending snickers that followed him. It had to be one of the artists - either that or a psychopath with a taste for oil paints. But who could be doing this? Who had the... the... nefarious... ness... And then Ed realized who the only person with a name for pure, unadulterated evil was. It was as good a guess as any. OOC - A vote for Venefyxatu - Ebinezer Marlend
  19. Hilarious and well written. *tackles*
  20. Outside the gallery, Ed stood forlorn in the rain. He would have liked to think he'd make a dashing figure, mysterious and brooding, but he knew better. He looked more than a slightly overweight, puffy-cheeked man in a damp overcoat. 'Abscessed Tooth Representing the Decay of Modern Society' hadn't been nearly the success he'd hoped, even drawing some very unkind criticism from several onlookers. One in particular had made a very nasty face at it, and while Ed had a thick skin (care of his mother's side of the family, they were prone to warts) it still stung. Well, Ed would show them. He'd find the best, most wonderful scene ever, and shoot it in such a way as to bring out all the inner beauty and understated grandiosity that, in a deep part of his slightly damp heart, Ed knew to exist in the world. It was at that point that he realised it wasn't actually raining, and he was just standing under a sprinkler. Ed went to get his camera. OOC - A vote for Giles / Giles. *sniff* Edit - And only an hour and a half late! Heh...heh... sorry 'Shela. *blush*
  21. By the time Ed had completed his circuit of the gallery in an attempt to escape the heat of his earlier attempted artistic assassination at the hands of the reporter with the tasteful yet ominous glasses, the stupid thing was closed and taped off. Both surprised and relieved, Ed went home. There may have been a murder, and there was as he found out the next morning, but at least it gave him time to figure out what he was actually going to submit. And so, Ed took a day off. What was there about being an artist that made you so... lazy? Ed didn't know, and he didn't really care to know, to be perfectly honest. He spent his day away from the gallery taking a walk, going to the dentist (where he got an excellent idea for a submission), and setting up a particularly tricky shot that he was sure couldn't fail to impress the artsy, black-clad, berret-wearing, and most importantly bespectacled art critics. He called it 'Abscessed Tooth Representing the Decay of Modern Society' and the hardest part was getting the high-zoom lens and flasher to fit propery into his mouth. Ed loved his art, sometimes so much that it hurt. Once he'd finished, though, oh the picture there was... it was brilliant, showers of red and tiny yellow globules against a stark white monolith, rich black and green blossoms of pus gently surrounding and caressing the base of the tooth like an ardent, if somwhat disgusting, lover. Ha! Let's see them scoff at this one! Unfortunately, by the time Ed was finished and got back to the gallery, it was once again closed and taped off. And so, Ed took another day off.
  22. Yay, profanity! *huggles the 'Shela* Take yer time, feel free to curse up a storm, and get to the recreation when you're feeling recreational.
  23. Meanwhile, Ed tried and failed to present his latest artistic vision - 'Still Life Reflecting Man's Decadent Nature' to a crowd of uninterested art patrons. "Ah, you see..." He wrung his hands, sweating nervously from his palms. The effect was something like two leather gloves covered in baby oil and flung into a washing machine. "It, ah... it, ah... represents the, ah... decadent... nature. Of man." One of the art critics in the crowd thumbed a pair of tasteful glasses further up her nose. "Well obviously, that is the name of the piece. But, in what way does it reflect this, Mister..?" "Ed. My friends call me... erm... Ed." After a moment of silent waiting and hoping that would satisfy both questions, Ed realized he'd have to actually come up with something. The truth was, Ed had woken up late today, as he generally did, and didn't have time to prepare a proper work of art, so he'd done a slapdash job - took a picture of the first vaguely avant garde image he saw, then named it as pretentiously as possible. In this case, it seemed to have worked too well, as witnessed by the small crowd of art critics he was gathering. Ed plucked up his courage and soldiered on. It probably didn't help that he had to keep looking back to remember what the picture looked like. "The, ah... the smoke, there, symbolizes... man's... erm... it's a, whatchacallit, meterfor... for, the, ah, right, the tenuous nature of the... psyche?" Ed loosened his collar a bit, letting a surprisingly hot blast of air out. Crowds always made him nervous. "And the, erm, the ashtray, it, to say, well, is a... an... erm... repre... sen... tation... of the modern society? And yeah, see, it's obviously not a very good ashtray, right, so it's kind of saying that, erm, modern society is, ah, a flawed... um... construct. Right." The art critic with the tasteful glasses sniffed slightly and Ed watched in horror as her nose went up in the air haughtily. "Mister, ah, Ed was it? Forgive me for asking, and I'm sure it's just a coincidence, but that looks an awful lot like you just took a picture of the cigarette someone put out on Cornelia Chesterfield's LilySpider. Obviously, I must be mistaken." Ed put on his most winning smile, which is to say there were teeth and his mouth turned vaguely, if somewhat unsettlingly, upwards. He'd never really gotten the hang of smiling. A thin trail of sweat ran down his forehead, making it look as if his scalp were weeping. "Ah..." In a moment of brilliance, Ed fiddled around in his coat pocket, flipped open his cell phone, and laughed politely. "Excuse me, just a, ah, moment, won't you?" Ed the Fish ducked around a corner, pretending to jabber away, and moved swiftly and decisively away from 'Still Life Reflecting Man's Decadent Nature.'
  24. Absolutely. No rush, we're in this for the fun after all.
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