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Dustlifter - The Villain's Names (Chapter Two)

Andrei Pambuccian
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For a long while, there was darkness. There still is, keeping its dominion from the lights of the outside world. This may take its place somewhere in the barrows of an orc army, or it may have never taken place yet, perhaps even now its consequences storm into the south. Whatever it is, it stays as dark as the most somber night that passed above Calindra, a city, a hole in the world it was made out of. The azure pillars of marble reaching out to hold its loft remain covered in a veil of nothingness, and even if our Lady ever did take pity on them, summoned its beauty to shine off their highest facets, the minced fragments below would still not be exposed. These minced fragments, however, are far more worthy of watch than the lifeless columns that stand above them, for stones do not march about the land in its own name unless stirred up by earthquakes and volcanoes. These short men had no need of such, as they were earthquakes and volcanoes themselves. There were four of them marching at a steady foot-second pace, with one rushing ahead to messenger their approach through the cloud darkness. Each bore a great black hammer in his grey steel gauntlets, pounding the granite stairs with his saldiem boots as the group went onward grim-faced stone-spirited. The sounds they launched were so strong they matched thunder, as if intended to send word of their presence to someone still hidden behind the doors. Pressing the floor, they kept their march orderly as they stepped on escalating stone steps, once, twice and the final one was gone behind them. As their leader shouted at the doors in an uncomprehensible tongue amidst uncomprehensible sounds, the granite dove back into its matron floor and revealed a hollow cylinder filled with seven pillars around a circle of stairs, the missing eighth facing what seconds before were the doors. Atop that circle, raised at half the room's level stood an elaborate adamantine throne to match the chamber in its entirety: tall carvings of ruby-bearded heroes stepped their golden sandals or blue saldiem boots on the floor that was a gem mine, each stone placed in one of the detailed mosaics telling the world's ever-changing tales. A cluster of emeralds covered the front, with crimson stones running from their side to the room's center. The chart stopped at the stairs and pillars, for they were to hold things far more sacred than this world in its entirety. Filling the lenght of each circle-step and spiraling from the height of every column, the glyphs marked in adamantine spoke the very words of the earth, words which would never be stepped on or crushed by anyone but the earth itself. This sanctity known to the group, they approached only as close as the stone guards standing one against a pillar and went down on their knees to honor that which was above on their throne.

"We've built them, my lord," spoke the first. "ready for orders. Three have been sent to Diir-Akhtan, one is at Diir-Karsbrinnic and sixteen have landed at canal-end in fifth Regim. These last sixteen cannot continue, as there..."

"Yes. And command?" A suit of armor with an almost cubic man inside it was displaying its doubts from the throne.

"Here are the four engineers to coordinate them. The most competent of all of us for this task and many others. They are here to prove that to you."

"That won't be needed. The four of you present your skills to lieutenant Khafras. He will give me his word of confidence, which I respect as adamantine." He continued smiling, with a fatherly voice. "Mikendal, however, will delight this emerald with his saldiem for as long as Telurien takes pleasure in the sight."

The four obeyed, said nothing. Soon they were gone, the doors shut and the suit of armor began speaking in a hasty rythm to turn any smile from its face.

"It took me, my closest companions and their office two months to plan this. Normally I can spot mice fast enough to snatch the cheese away, and if I can't act by pressure or fortune then at least Telurien grants me the joy of watching the mouse eaten by his starving pit mates after I catch it out of its own net. But again, good fortune has stopped the flow of orcs to make my pleasure in the pit, therefore I have decided to spare your corpse for this time. And for this time only. Two months, as much as you took from me shall be given back to you before your infection. You may thank your lord for his benevolence, though in these moments I'm sure you'd rather beg for your life. You may begin at your leisure."

Mikendal's head sprang up from his knees. "Beg for my life, sir? There are countless other things to pray for from my lord. A prayer for his safety, given every day at dawn. A prayer for his fortune, given every single day at noon. A prayer for his wisdom, never missing one single dusk of my life." His voice, without strenght in his first few words, had now grown to a shout, one that in spite of its power retained Mikendal's calm, steady flow. "That prayer, is it worth sending so far only that I alone may know of it? Your judgement, which I treasure beyond my hammer's worth, with every one of its flaws, cracks and ridges, is something I have been praying for many times before. Yet as I saw my prayers unanswered, yesterday I stopped and turned towards action. I have done all of what I did to contribute, to do all that I can for my lord and nation."

"Mikendal," he grumbled in sour sweetness, "my beloved son, you may give contributions to my judgement as wide as your lips open. Do not, however, open them in your laughable attempts at begging to turn that judgement -which you so flamefully revere- from the treason that you commited."

"Treason? I rejected an order, not Telurien itself."

"You rejected my word, and that is just as important."

"As you command then, my lord! We shall march our gears onward until no spot of Telurien's face will be left alive. In your acts of wisdom we shall then feast and merry with the world around us closing its jaws which you helped grow, and as our cage is set what will we do? Build a cage, of course! Build a cage to trap it, perhaps build it out of its own teeth."

"My decision was sound, saboteour, and its fulfillment was destiny. Sixteen instruments were slowed, but not halted. Slowed for a few months, long enough for other acts to take place. Did you think that I couldn't see it all? That I was as blind as you were saldiem? This is not to be a single act. You've got a crew of traitors ready for the next steps to be taken. I'll have either the list, or the venom in two months. Barely enough time for you to think it over, at least I know other ways to catch mice."

"There is no one else, my lord. I-"

"Else? Then you admit this treason by name?"

"I admit attempting to correct the mistake you'll be making. I admit to giving my aid-"

"You destroyed an opportunity that shall never pass before me again, if that is your aid then I have plenty of it in store for you."

"Let us speak of destruction and opportunity. Let us speak of all the saldiem burned in the brightless times of ignorance housed by your grandfather. Let us speak of Orag's great orc empire whose thousandth generation villagers mushroom about the continent, pulled in through the mines and tunnels we carved at Firderim. Let us ever more bask in the enlightment of the City of Clouds, whose supports were torn down along with the city for the sake of creating yet another god, and let us then sing these feats in cheerful songs as wood becomes dust and rain rocks, as the sacred water of life is barred from Telurien's casts and lets them cool dead in the hands of robbers that dare call themselves his children. If you continue this, the world and its true children shall come upon us bearing their own axes, chanting the names of Telurien in each and every curse they address. This is an error, sire, and if I raise only my voice to deny it, be sure that their axes speak the only tongue they know."

"The strong will live to bless me for their new world once I reveal ourselves. The weak will die cursing their own gods. Where is my error then? In the graves of their spirits? On the smiles of their dead? They will die long before they learn to learn of the sheer compexity of our world. Let them. They'll thank me in the end, once I make their land as I want, they'll thank us robbers, kiss our axes, for by the time we come there will be nothing left to rob."

"They'll still have their fury, and that only Death can rob away."

"My death, perhaps? It sounds as if you'd wish to side with them, for all the evil they may do to my plans."

"It's not for them to concern me, sire. And to you, I have kneeled in many darker times with as much pride as I do today and shall do once again tomorrow. If from this pride, this honor, comes the natural need to assist-"

"To assist!" The suit of armor slashed its reply. "Hear back your own words from my mouth, as filthy as they make it. Assistance? This is defiance, Mikendal. High treason, and that is my verdict!"

"My lord, I int-"

The suit of armor was screaming this time, though not loudly enough to be heard outside his doors. "You stalled! Stalled my plans, stalled the future so that you would make your own! You disobeyed, lied, betrayed, conducted worthless preparations not to secure, but to destroy my plans. And who, then, gave the order?"

"It was my own choice." Mikendal had always been rigid in his words, never mixing them with his emotions even in this troubled conversation with his master. For this, the reply came with even more anger.

"Do you claim to be a leader to my enemies, to make a choice as precious as this? Perhaps you wish to declare yourself as more than you are in your testament?" His lungs gave in to the screaming, his sounds became as cracked and scratched as his lips. "Not even the truth is worth keeping you here for two more months, and you back yourself into your lies to save yourself? They will indeed save your life, cover it for a few more weeks during which all falsehood will be pulled out from under your tongue with hooks and knives fashioned in shame by my armorer."

Mikendal knew plenty of his lord's armorer. Hearing of him, he predicted the king's next name. Many of his comrades in conspiracy would now be put through the danger of his eyes' shifts, perhaps some already known as traitors at the court. To his knowledge, the king did this only three times before in his long life, and whenever the trial took place its success was almost total. Mikendal always percieved the king as omniscient in matters of the court and internal espionage, and now was a time to doubt or fall prey to desperation. He knew the ways to failure, either his lord would crack his soul to let out a confession or watch his body's signs to reveal fear of betrayal. Whatever his lord's methods, there were two things among which one must happen: calm would win his heart, or Telurien's finest champions would be left to the spear.

A mention of the grand mason as the man to puppeteer the execution proved his prediction was well-placed. Slowly, in long monologues came out the names of six other conspirators, gathering the eight in the cage that was his lord's throne room. One by one the names gnawed at his mind, their teeth broke at the touch of a stone wall. Fruitless, the king washed his face of anger and shifted into his natural, passionless persona.

"Everything you made so far, was made in lies by ambition for my throne. You wish to decide -to rule- in my place? You won't. Neither you, nor your fellow conspirators can, for the mandate of Telurien belongs to me and me alone until I pass it on to the most faithful of my children. That won't be you, and likely that won't be any one of my own offspring. Telurien gives to those who give and takes from those who take, it judges by respect for our nation more than by ability. For this, even if you were wrongly blessed with that ability, it would still best be used in leading the worms through your soon-dead skull."

"You may speak as you like, repeat these words for two months if it pleases you, it will do you no good." Mikendal pointed his hammer's tip towards the emeralds on the ground. "None of this will do you any good."

"Your sabotage doesn't do me more good than wasting the same two months chattering insults. Time may not have stalled around me, but giving back the names you earned will not, at least, bury my time in the joyless endeavours soon to follow. I have plans, Mikendal, great plans to whose fulfillment you won't attend for reasons of security. I wished you would have helped me compose these plans, and if your deeds would have been different from what they are today, I assure you, it would have been our conquest of the southlands. Have no doubt, there are some achievements which you'll be brought before, though all of these involve your ritual passing to stone. Hammer and armor shall be cast into a plain square rock to bear your corpse, your saldiem shall become a mirror to be placed as lid, so that you may stare on the worms brought from the bones of..."

Mikendal stood and heard all that was to be said. There was certainty that, in his meticulous planning, the king had set his death sentence a fixed ammount of time to be fully expended before passing on to other matters, and for the triviality with which the act of execution was treated Mikendal was pure in his spite. Hearing all, listening to nothing, he understood that the few words which had been thrown about the eight pillars flew around the throne barred by his lord who, busy in his own dire hunts, pursued ideas far from Mikendal's truth. There was one thing left to be told again before severing the web their lips had spun, and with this revealed Mikendal's look of exhausted disgust fell back to let in a cry from above his grounded knees, running his lord's phrase through.

"This is a catastrophy, sire. What about the Rief excavation? Was losing four hundred of Telurien's children to the tunnels not important enough for you to remember? Will losing a thousand count? And even if they don't come apart before time, even if the project is "successful", how much of the world must be wilted, killed, desecrated for you to take a fragment of it?"

"Probably not too much." The suit of armor muttered as the doors came open once again. From their positions, two stonemen raised in preparation of their escort. Mikendal heard emeralds shatter: his hammer cracked a mosaic in its fall. The saldiem boots he wore were now pushing by themselves in between a path set by two stones, his last thoughts muddled in the hatred he bore for this last irony.

"Telurien in you.", he muttered. For this, the walls shed no answer, only an echo in the wake of their kin's lift. The darkness of light overwhelmed sound from its dominion, blessing it only as far as the messenger-hero stood guarding his side of the wall. In time swept after the escort had left, the hero's severed lips discharged its mechanism, the ring from four of its twelve bells, three struck dimly and one with strenght, lastly the twelveth to signal an ending. The king freed none of the pleasure trapped in his mind, instead he waited, expected for something to suddenly appear and notice his harsh, irregular laughter, even as he knew that that something was as much himself as anything outside him could be, and that as his mind could hold the knowledge shamelessly, so would it. Still, that day he had felt the scythe by its handle, and could only wonder what would happen to the next in his line should any of his plans give way, though no answer to this wonder came before all darkness was broken by a beast made of saldiem.

"Bromm?" The beast intoned from the entrance as walls fell up behind it. A suit of saldiem armor reflecting all wonders around it held an adamantine hammer and a bald, freckled sphere above it watching between the pillars with careless dark blue eyes. Before all was to be said, the suit of armor commited to an energetic march towards the throne, resting at the stairs' base as laws of respect dictated, though its rest was consumed in standing confidently with its face centered on his, speaking every word as a woman with the body of a man."Four engineers recently presented their skills in the matter of the south. The test revealed only one to be adequate, though all four would make good service in other tasks." The king's expectation was met. It had to go no other way, he thought, either the lie or the truth. "I've sent the mason to make his own studies. He confirmed."

"And wasn't he supposed to?" she asked as if she was sure of the answer.

"He was supposed to be loyal to Mikendal," he answered with an obvious false sadness, "these rats were all supposed to be loyal to Mikendal, or the conspiracy he stood for. Now I'm watching them betray the very foundations of Telurien with their cowardice. The worse is that Mikendal doesn't know any of this, he doesn't suspect a single one of them."

"He will learn." Khafras spoke in an impatient tone.

"He will certainly do, if not Telurien will face the darkest years in my exile. He'll learn the secrets only once all or none of the mundane methods have been discovered, and if he won't, so be it. Telurien gives to those who give and takes from those who take, it judges by respect for our nation more than by ability. So far, among all the conspirators joined about my throne this incompetent idealist is the only future I will commit our nation to to." He paused for a moment - her chance.

"Unfortunately, Bromm, the future already happened." She scrutinized the king for a question. None found, she continued. "There has been a revolt in the north, something I probably can't handle without exposing our knowledge of their actions. There's no time to bring them rebels, they've already claimed the city they needed to set the embers on our kingdom and it seems there will be more of them showing their faces in outposts throughout the area. We could hold the armies back and send scouts...

"Do it."

"...then mobilise the northen garrisons and lead them to the southern border. Or we could besiege and kill them."

"That depends on how far northwards this city is, and how many rebels you've come up with so far."

"Diir-Pythenderen, and only two thousand men."

"Do it."

"As you command, my lord..." She smiled gloriously, neglecting her mind for a moment to let her king know openly that their plans were indeed the same. Her bow, last glance and spin mocked the still statues with grace and speed unknown to them. Before her saldiem suit the doors fell open, closed at her back by unspoken command words. For a long while after, there was darkness, will be forever to all but the bright eyes of Telurien and his subjects.


Dustlifter, chapter 2 - The villain's names © Andrei Pambuccian

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