Sunday, 21 January 2018

Episode II - V Lessons of Courage

A Cliff-top Duel

Lessons of Courage
(Full Chapter)

The night winds were beginning to kick up into a slowly churning sandstorm. The sanguine glow of Celanna above cast the sands below in shades of blood and rust. Beyond the Goddess of Blood on the horizon, the double-slitted eye of Vorthyl tore the sky in half. The hypnotizing twin rivers of stars and glowing celestial clouds was slowly being engulfed by the kicked up sands that were blowing in from the southern lands.

Despite the wind, the rocky lands of the Jolash Plateau remained still and devoid of activity. There were no howls of wolves as they sung to each other, yells from laborers working on stones into the night, or the hissing of snakes as the sought out their next meal. The entire plateau seemed to be as silent and as eerily haunted as a grave-site.

Ghelta remained perched on her favorite rock as she watched the stillness of the night before her. The blowing sands were growing bothersome so she lifted the hood on her black robes with a free hand. Her other hand clutched a long spear whose tip was buried far below her perch. Above her robes, she wore her leather armor that signified her membership in the Vhulkhovyr caste.

After securing her hood, she proceeded to dust the sand from the wolf’s fur trim on her shoulder plates and that trailed down her back; the familiar fur that she had harvested from Skartha when she set her to rest many years ago. She chose that fur as a testament to her origins as a warrior and to keep the spirit of her first wolf close to her heart. It would be the spirit of Skartha that would always watch over her and protect her as she watched over and protected the people of Alsira Thaenat.

Beside her on the rock laid the immense black form of Khollta as she watched the plateau as well. The wolf had grown from a pup to great creature that dwarfed Ghelta in size. Once Khollta had grown to two years of age, Ghelta realized why Skartha had died during childbirth. The children she had died for were born as dire-wolves. It was extremely unlikely for domesticated wolves to give birth to such mutations, but any that did so would surely die.

Ghelta didn’t know exactly if it was Khollta’s nature as a dire-wolf that caused her immense size and the bony growths that served as armor that sprouted from her shoulders and spine. Naturally, she would be larger than other wolves, but maybe it was the choice of milk and upbringing that Ghelta had given her that caused her to be even larger than normal. She wasn’t allowed in the kennels with the other wolves as she would easily rip them apart. It was always at Ghelta’s side that Khollta remained, and in those times where Ghelta had to be in civilized areas, she would let the wolf run wild outside the city.

More than the fact that Ghelta was her mother, the bond between her and the dire-wolf was exceptionally strong. Both had come from similar origins as orphans, as unwanted cast-offs from their societies, and as creatures that held a darkness within them beyond mortal reckoning. Both seemed to always seek the other out when they needed to and react the same in moments of emotion. Theirs was the same soul.

After preening her furs, Ghelta reached over and began to ruffle up Khollta’s black fur. She could hear the wolf groan at the playful action and slowly lift one of her giant paws to push Ghelta’s hand away. Khollta rolled from her back onto her stomach and began to nuzzle at Ghelta’s hip with her nose. She playfully tried to push the young warrior from her perch, but she resisted as she replanted her spear into the ground.

“Phah! You little runt.” Ghelta pushed back against Khollta’s nose and elbowed the wolf in the shoulder. She could feel the hard, bony plates scrape against her skin, but she knew the weak points to get the wolf back for her impertinence. “This is where I sit. Get your own place.”

Khollta gave a sassy and mocking set of yaps back at Ghelta as if trying to mimic her own words. She swiped one of her large paws against Ghelta’s back and the rolled over onto her back again. She held her head up and continued to yelp aimlessly for a few moments. She gave a sideways glance back to Ghelta, with one of her blue eyes looking over her black fur. She yapped once more to test Ghelta’s nerve and then went quiet.

Ghelta refocused her attention on the blowing sand and darkness ahead of her. Her eyes scanned the sanguine-hued horizon and darted over key points of the towering mesas to her left and the jagged mountain to her right. She could make out a few distant lights coming from the tops of the mesas, but their glow was becoming hidden beneath the growing sandstorm. The mountain to her right was devoid of any life at all.

She looked over he shoulder back to the glimmering lights of the City of Veils behind her. Many of the hermitages on the top of the plateau were closing up their doors and windows or blowing out their torches in anticipation of the sandstorm rising up. The lights of the central city could be seen glowing up from the wide canyon that the city sat within.

The winds weren’t particularly bad this night, but they were coming in from the Haakuenthi lands to the south, which caused the white sands to be blow up and over the plateau. The sands would be a nuisance and make it hard to see this night, but they wouldn’t be as savage as they could get. There were times, especially in the Autumn, when great storms would blow in from the South and cast flesh-ripping sands upon the winds. Great bolts of red and purple lightning would devastate the plateau creating the famed glasses that Alsiran merchants would sell in later days. As for anyone caught out in the winds, they would be dead and stripped down to the very bone before the day was done. Thankfully, this wasn’t one of those nights.

Ghelta had always been a night-person and enjoyed sleeping during most of the day, so it had become a habit that Ylethus would give her ranging duties during the nights. She would retreat to one of her favorite perches and watch over the outskirts of the city for any beasts or interlopers that might come by. For the most part, it was a boring task, as more expert warriors would watch further afield as silent and deadly sentinels. Still, it allowed her to spend time with Khollta and be lost in her own thoughts.

She would wait here for several more hours until Celanna had lifted more of herself into the sky — eclipsing the eye of Vorthyl — and then she would make her way to the mountain on her right to watch from a caern stone near the summit. She would then spend the hours around midnight at her favorite hiding place at the extents of the Alsiran lands and before dawn, she would do a quick survey of the mesas to the west. She did this almost every night, except those times she had to break the habit or watch another area that a different warrior was responsible for.

As more of the sands began to blow in, it was becoming harder and harder to see the furthest extents of the plateau. In fact, the mesas to the west were almost overrun, and she could only make out the outline of the mountain ahead of her. She tugged once more on her hood to cover most of her face and leaned back against an outcropping of rock. She would take Khollta’s lead and rest for a bit. She lifted and thrust the head of her spear into the sand and the let go of the haft. The spear remained standing up with the tattered scarlet banner on the top end trailing on the wind.

She remembered what Ylethus had said about the significance of that ribbon of threadbare cloth. Each group of sentinels or rangers were given a specific color, and each had to keep their spear end aloft so that others could find them. Ylethus would perform occasional inspections to make sure each warrior was holding their banner high. If any warrior was found sleeping and their banner fell, they would be punished severely. The significance of a lowered banner was that they were under attack, or had fallen to a threat. What he hadn’t thought of, however, was those warriors who found a way to keep the spears aloft, yet still get some rest during the quiet hours of the night.

Ghelta looked back to her spear once more, watching it to make sure it was securely stuck in the sand. She crossed her arms over her chest and pulled Khollta’s rump closer to her to keep her warm. She leaned her head back against the rock and closed her eyes for a moment.

Time washed away between a state of half-dreaming and occasional alertness as Ghelta gave into sleep and then to moments of flurried wakefulness. Each moment she was pulled back to the conscious world she would look up to see Celanna growing nearer and higher in the sky. During the moments that she let her self sleep, she held flashes of dreams where she was exploring an icy cave complex deep beneath the world.

As she drifted back into her ongoing dream, Ghelta noticed the chill that drained the blood from her fingers and toes. For the last few flashes of a dream, she had been working through several rooms beneath the world, but this particular room she found herself in made her skin crawl. As she made her way deeper and deeper, the light breaking its way in through the ice was giving way to darkness and shadow.

She found herself walking through an archway and into a larger chamber with a shattered stone slab in the middle. She had never seen a sarcophagus before, but she remembered how they were described in tales that Ylethus told her as a child. These slabs would hold the remains of the dead. Great stone covers would be placed over the bodies to seal and preserve them for countless centuries. They weren’t often used by the Alsiran people except in cases of putting famed heroes to rest. Mostly they were used by ancient societies in the hopes of preserving the dead so that they might come back to life later on.

Despite the growing fear pulling at her heart, Ghelta’s dream-haunted feet carried her closer to the sarcophagus. As she neared it, she noticed huge cracks and gouges in the rock. She noticed the debris of the sealing slab strew about the room as if the sarcophagus had exploded from within. She continued to near closer despite her mind pleading with her feet to stop.

Ghelta wanted to pull herself away from the dream, but she could not. She wanted to stop walking towards the sarcophagus, for fear of what she would find within, but her feet kept going. She soon found herself looking over the edge, her cold fingers seizing the freezing edge of the stone.

As she looked over the edge, she saw a woman’s corpse laid within. Most of her flesh had been eaten away, exposing sections of her skeleton. Someone had taken care to wrap her in linen, but most of the linen had faded away to stained tatters, barely enough to cover her form.

She looked the corpse over and noticed the carefully placed jewelry placed over her long and claw-like fingers, and hanging from her neck. The jewelry had strange runes carved into the metal and precious gems. As Ghelta raised her eyes to look at the corpses head, she was able to see the remains of a porcelain mask that half covered the dead body’s face. The porcelain had been broken in half, and what remained was heavily chipped with age and ruin.

Around the corpse’s head was an ancient headdress of silver spikes that erupted from a blue and gold segmented crown. Each spike of silver had crimson hair wrapped around it like a snake made of blood. Immediately, Ghelta recognized the same hair color as her own. As this thought echoed through her mind, she found herself reaching out a hand to grip the corpse’s own. As her flesh met the chilled and ancient flesh of the dead woman, a voice seemed to float up from what was left of the dead woman’s still lips.

“They call you the desert lotus.” The voice was commanding and unearthly, yet seemed to float into Ghelta’s ears on a whisper. “The name they gave you is a lie. You carry my namesake and are doomed just as I am.”

The corpses’ eyes shot open but the dead woman remained still. The icy-blue eyes looked up at Ghelta and seemed to pierce into the very seat of her soul. The eyes were familiar, like a mother’s eyes, but they glowed with an unholy power.

“I am your mother’s mother, young one.” The room around the sarcophagus grew all the darker, yet the body of the dead woman remained visible to Ghelta’s eyes. The piercing blue eyes glowed all the more and seemed to cast the inside of the sarcophagus with a silver light. “You belong with me. I seek you out, but I cannot find you. You must come to me so that we can be reunited in death.”

Ghelta looked down at her hand and saw the corpse’s claw reach up to snatch at her flesh. The cold of the dead woman’s flesh crept up and bit at her living skin. Trails of blackness began to burrow up through the skin of her wrist, spreading like an infection up her arm.

“You should not be alive, my daughter’s daughter. In your heart and your veins is an ancient curse. I have seen what will befall the world if you don’t allow me to kill you.” The woman’s mouth opened up into a snarl of metallic fangs. “Let me in so that I can find you. Draw upon my darkness and let me see with your eyes. I will end your suffering and bring you home to live inside of my soul. Once you have been cleansed, then all of my children can find peace.”

Ghelta began to scream, but could not draw any breath. The corpse lifted itself from the sarcophagus and seized her neck with its other clawed hand. She could feel tendrils of darkness rising up from the dead woman and ripping into her soul.

“Surrender to me, desert lotus. Let me know where you are. I cannot see you.” The dead woman’s porcelain face fell away to reveal the half rotten face of a monster beneath. Indigo energy bled from the surrounding darkness to dance around the woman’s blue eyes like halos. “Why can I not see you? You have my blood and my curse within you. Reveal yourself to me. Let me take your life. Let us finally have peace in this world. Do what must be done.”

Ghelta finally was able to pull in a single breath in and screamed out her answer to the monster that held onto her. “No!” She lifted her free hand and watched it turn into the same kind of claw that the dead woman had. The darkness that the monster bled into her became something she could draw strength from. She reached out her free hand and raked at the rotten flesh of the corpse. As she continued to rake she was able to dislocate the corpse’s jaw as she tore flesh away frantically.

The corpse woman leaned in with her ruined face and began to howl and snarl at her. The room grew dark as the shadows consumed the entire world. The only thing Ghelta could see were those piercing ice-blue eyes as they tore into her vision. She could no longer breath and succumbed to unconsciousness.

The first sensation that Ghelta could feel was a low vibration coming from beside her. The second sensation was the sound of a growling wolf that thrummed through her ears. The final sensation that came to her was the feeling of dry sand filling up her mouth. She opened her eyes to the star-strewn darkness of the living world and began to cough up the sand that had made its way into her throat.

She leaned forward to spit the sand from her mouth and leaned one hand onto Khollta who was perched beside her. She could feel the vibration coming from the wolf’s chest and one of her large paws cover her hand and push her away. Once she cleaned most of the sand from her mouth she looked over to see why Khollta was being so angry. That is when she saw the dire wolf's lips curled up into a rage-filled snarl.

Khollta gave two short barks and looked sideways over to Ghelta. Her ears were pinned back as her blue eyes made contact with Ghelta’s own. It took a moment for Ghelta to wonder if the wolf was snarling at her as if she could pick up the dream she had, but she was mistaken as Khollta looked outward into the darkness. She pointed her nose ahead at the swirling clouds of sand.

Ghelta patted Khollta’s hackles and let her hand slide to the hilt of her klaive. With her other hand, she snatched up the haft of her spear. She watched the darkness ahead for whatever threat that Khollta had noticed. She couldn’t see anything in the whirling winds of crimson-stained sand.

She lifted herself from her perch and dropped several feet to the plateau surface below. Khollta got up and followed after while still snarling. Ghelta let go of her klaive and focused both of her hands on the long spear she held. She slowly lowered the banner end and prepared the spear to be thrown. It would be next to impossible for any of the other warriors to see her banner in this storm, but maybe there was a chance that someone might.

Ghelta took several measured and cautious steps forward into the dark. The sand-strewn winds billowed at her black robes. Despite all the wind, the air in this place felt hollow and heavy. It was hard to draw a breath, and as Ghelta noticed this she also noticed just how silent it had become around her. She should be able to hear the howling wind, yet she could hear nothing except the sound of her own heart hammering in her chest. She couldn’t even hear the sound of Khollta’s snarls and growls beside her any longer.

It started as a vibration in the ground beneath her feet and then soon erupted into a shadow running headlong toward her from the sandy darkness. There was a flash of green light from almost a hundred yards away but as soon as Ghelta’s eyes could catch it, it faded away into the sands once more. A moment later another flash of green, this time much closer but far to her right.

Ghelta moved the body of the spear along with her head, her arm bent backward and ready to plunge the weapon into the darkness ahead of her. She darted her vision from one side to another, trying to find the source of the strange green lights. After scanning from her left to her right she stopped and focused on the center of her vision.

There she could see the two green lights fade in from the sand ahead of her. They looked like two bale-fire flames floating almost a dozen feet above the plateau. It took her a moment to realize that these billowing flames were eyes of some beast standing several dozen yards away.

In a panic, Ghelta launched her spear through the whirling darkness ahead of her. Despite the loss of composure, her aim was true. She could see the half of her spear flying through the air towards the monster and then disappearing into the sands.

A sound of pain and rage tore through the silence of the night. This sound wasn’t given by human lungs but something entirely other. The wail was filled with a rotten and gravel-like reverberation, like something that was capable of speaking but had no lungs to do so. As soon as the sound registered to Ghelta’s ears, she looked down to see Khollta run headlong into the darkness howling her own sound of rage.

For her first time in years, Ghelta felt mortal terror grip her heart and could not find it in her to run after her wolf. She watched as the green flames faded away once more into the sands. She felt prickles in her fingers, and although she willed her feet to run, she couldn’t do so. She was stuck in place, fighting against her own fright.

It was only with the next sound that Ghelta was able to shake off the terror that seized her like lead chains. The sound of Khollta’s whine of pain, followed by a savage howl from whatever beast had attacked her. The monster’s scream was filled with cruelty and predatory joy. That is when Ghelta found herself running forward into the darkness.

She felt renewed strength as she felt spit and rage flow over her lips. She screamed back at the monster in the dark with all the rage she could muster. She could feel the heat of adrenaline coursing through her with each step against the sandy earth. She worked herself up into a berserker rage and prepared herself to meet Olthenna along with her dire-wolf ward.

At first, the impact didn’t register with her senses, but after she stopped and grabbed the spear’s head that was stuck into her stomach she could feel the stinging pain shooting up from the wound. She felt the warmth of her blood flow over her fingers as the haft-end of the spear pivoted to lift her into the air. Her feet dangled helplessly beneath her as those same two bale-fire eyes opened in front of her.

She could see the rotten flesh on the beast’s face. It was half-skeletal like the woman in her dreams. Unlike the woman, this monster didn’t speak as it couldn’t. It howled rage and fury at her as if summoning the very wind to carry its voice. The monster easily stood twice the height of Ghelta, wearing tatters of rusted armor. This was one of those abominations known as a thaekkuz. One of those remnants of the dead who, due to regret and sin in life, crawled their way up from Gehemol to give a savage unlife to their corpse.

The thaekkuz whipped her to and fro on the edge of her own spear. The blade tore more savagely into her stomach but was shoved so far into her that she limply went along with it like a doll impaled on a stick. She continued to stare at the green flames burning up from the monster’s empty eye sockets until her vision faded and shock overtook her completely. After this all she could remember was darkness.

* * *

“-You weren’t even paying attention, you little shit!” Ylethus spat over clenched fists as he charged at Ghelta once more.

Ghelta was pulled away from her reveries of past events as one of Ylethus’ meaty fists impacted her square in the chest. The wind was knocked from her lungs and she felt herself reach out to grab his wrist. He used his free hand to grab her by the collar of her armor and raise her several feet up to his eyes.

“I saw that glazed look in your eye during each one of my lessons. You weren’t even here!” He threw her across the cliff-side where she impacted several rocks near the edge. “Always with the daydreaming! I’m your gods-damned Vhollen and your gods-damned father! I’m trying to teach you to be a warrior.”

Ghelta used one of her own fists to try and push herself up from the ground. When she was thrown she had lost her klaive which was now on the ground next to Ylethus’ feet. She tried to pull air into her lungs but couldn’t. She felt her arm buckle beneath her and she fell face-first back onto the ground.

“Nothing sinks into you, does it?” Ylethus shifted his stance to aim directly at Ghelta once more. He stood with both fists held before him and his shoulders slumped forward as if he would charge at any moment. “If I’m to grant your Kollishi Thaulp, I need to know you can handle yourself on the battlefield. I need to know you won’t end up another corpse beneath the blades of bloodthirsty barbarians. I need to know that you’ll fucking listen to what I command of you!”

Ylethus stopped his rage and swiped up Ghelta’s klaive from the ground in one of his hands. He looked down to it and then grabbed the tiny hilt in his immense hand. He leveled the blade toward Ghelta as she continued to lift herself up from the ground.

“I understand. I thought as much when I brought you out here.” Ylethus lost himself in his own mind for a moment and took a single thunderous step forward. “You only understand action, right?” He took several pitched breaths and another step towards Ghelta. “Then I’ll give you a lesson in action that you won’t soon forget.” A cruel smile tore across his bearded face.

Ghelta finally was able to draw in a breath and get to her knees. She looked up to see Ylethus charging at her with all of his weight and speed. Ahead of him, he swiped at the air several times with her klaive. His eyes were wide with a frantic kind of rage. His patience with her was gone, and she didn’t know what he was capable of at this moment.

She felt the trail of wind and heard the whistling of her blade as her klaive almost cleaved her head in two. The blade darted past her head, snipping several strands of her crimson hair. She choked another breath and jumped to her feet.

The second attack went for her stomach, but she was barely able to step back enough to avoid the blade. She felt the cold flat of the blade push and then pull back across her abdomen. She jumped one more step back, feeling her heels on the edge of the cliff. The old man wasn’t holding back anymore and if she didn’t know better she honestly thought he was trying to kill her.

The next attack was one of Ylethus’ fists hammering against her right shoulder and causing her to crumple to her left. She could barely keep her feet under her against the impact. As soon as her senses were focused again, she saw her blade thrusting forward towards her chest. She barely had enough time to grab the blade with one of her hands, and the guard of the blade with her other. She shoved the blade further to her left as the edge bit into the flesh of her palm.

In order to control the blade, she had to step back past the edge of the cliff. She found herself teetering on her toes as the center of her mass was over the fall. The only thing that held her in place was her grip on her klaive and Ylethus’ giant fist leveled against her right side. She was helpless now, having to depend upon Ylethus’ grip to keep herself from falling hundreds of feet to her death.

“I don’t want to lose you, Ghelta.” Ylethus said through grit teeth as he pushed her to teeter even more over the cliff-side. “That is why I always kept you back from your rite of adulthood. This world is a savage and brutal place. I don’t want you to be another casualty on a battlefield somewhere. I can’t lose you.” Tears began to stream down Ylethus’ face.

“Well, then just let me get back over the edge, so you don’t kill me here.” Ghelta stammered over her words as she kept her eyes trained on the crazed warrior. She lightly lifted her hand from the guard of her klaive and raised it up to the side of her head. She was trying to signal that she gave up.

“No.” Ylethus pushed the klaive forward an inch. Pain tore through Ghelta’s mind as the blade cut further into her hand. “If I can’t teach you properly-” His voice cracked and his words trailed off. “If I can’t teach you to be a warrior properly, then I have to let you go. I have to give you your last lesson, Ghelta.” He took a pitched breath beneath his continued tears. “The lesson of sacrifice.”

Ylethus took one last breath and then pulled back Ghelta’s klaive with a single motion. The sliding blade bit even harder into Ghelta’s palm. The loss of her grip sent her reeling backward over the cliff. She reached out vainly toward Ylethus’ fist near her left side but he pulled it away from her at the last moment.

The moments slowed down to a snail’s pace as Ghelta continued to reach out for her father. She could see the tears slowly dribble down his face to gather at his mustache as he took two more steps backward. Her vision distorted as her feet fell over the edge of the cliff. A feeling of vertigo swept over her once she could no longer feel an anchor to the world around her.

The wind rushing up to her from the bottom of the cliff felt soothing against her parched and sweaty skin. Terror shot through her mind but soon gave way to a strange sort of contentment. The last person she would see before her doom would be her adopted father, the man who sacrificed and cared for her. The last thing she would see is his sorrow-filled face as he let her go.

The edge of the cliff rushed up and obscured him from her vision as she continued to fall backward. Above her, she could see a patch of white clouds floating by, momentarily obscuring the twin lights of the suns above. The feeling of falling felt like she could fly. Maybe if Olthenna felt merciful she could come back to this world one day and be one of the authrocs that flew through the skies. For now, she just hoped that she could enjoy this feeling before pain overtook her and carried her away to the dark realm of the dead.

Wait — the goddess of death be damned — she wanted to live. She scrabbled and clawed at the empty air that rushed up around her. She began to fill her lungs to their fullest and screamed out her rage-fueled determination for all the world to hear. Olthenna be damned, she wasn’t done living, yet. She wasn’t going to die like this.

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Next Section
I: Demands

1 comment:

  1. Crazy to think that her cute little pup grew up to be a monstrous dire wolf.

    We also got a pretty nice glimpse into the darkness of the past, and the cursed lineage that Ghelta has still been carrying with her this whole time. I like the callback with the scarcophagus and the reminders of Tyverus and Isilda's earlier endeavor.

    But the final lesson was sacrifice? I can't say I completely understand Ylethus's point just yet, but it's hard to tell what will happen to Ghelta from here.

    She has the strength and determination to survive, but in what manner is a completely different question entirely.