Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Chapter Seven


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 33,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.

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When my grandfather, Gildegarde Brisbane, was eighteen, he was selected by the priests as the first Riser. They said that devotion such as his was rare in a man so young and that, with continued dedication to Grecolus and his laws, my grandfather was destined for greatness. While serving his squireship under Sir Gregorovich Farchrist II, it was his job to perform all the menial tasks his Knight gave him. Care of the weapons, tending of the horses, shining the armor—Gregorovich II was known to say that he never before had met a man who threw so much of himself into everything he did. It was as if the young Brisbane only wanted to do the best he could do.

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Roundtower awoke near sunset. He emerged from the tent with the look of health and the complaint of hunger. Brisbane went about heating him up what was left of the stew. Roystnof and Shortwhiskers sat stiffly nearby, as if afraid to ask Roundtower about his ordeal.

Roundtower began to eat and an oppressive silence hung around the campfire.

“Ignatius,” Roystnof said, his voice sounding too loud over the crackling firewood. “Do you remember what happened to you?”

“Yes,” Roundtower said in a distant voice, not looking up at the wizard. “But I do not understand it.”

“Do you remember the creature you saw in the garden?” Roystnof said. “The large lizard you were going to point out to Nog?”

“Yes,” Roundtower said, speaking into his stew. “It was brown and it had eight legs. And its eyes. Its eyes…” He trailed off.

“Ignatius,” Roystnof said. “It is called a basilisk. It has the power to turn men to stone by its gaze. When you looked into its eyes, you were so effected. You have been standing as a statue of stone in that garden for more than two weeks. Nog witnessed your transformation and came to me with the news. It is my magic that has freed you. Do you understand what has happened? Do you understand what I am telling you?”

Roundtower lifted his head and gave the wizard a long stare. He then looked at Shortwhiskers, who nodded his head in verification. Roundtower swallowed hard and mumbled very quietly to himself.

“I thought I had died.”

Only Brisbane was close enough to hear these words.

“You must remember,” Roystnof went on, “who you are and what your life has meant before this transformation took place. Now, is there anything—”

“Roystnof,” Roundtower said, snapping into a normal tone of voice and cutting the wizard off. “I appreciate what you have done for me, and what you are trying to do now. It is hard for me to accept what has happened. I have never heard of such a creature that can turn men to stone, but I can only trust what you say as the truth. The time I then spent as stone,” his voice faltered, “was difficult and trying for me on a very personal level. I expect it will be some time before I am over the experience. But I do remember who I am, and I have every intention of continuing on with the natural course of my life.”

Roystnof said he was glad to hear Roundtower speak so, and quickly dismissed the subject out of respect for the warrior’s wishes. Shortwhiskers then commenced in telling Roundtower all that had happened since his original transformation to stone. The dwarf’s search for Roystnof, his meeting Brisbane—whom he called Parkinson as Brisbane himself had done to Roundtower—the journey to the garden, and the process of transforming Roundtower from stone back to his own flesh. Intentionally, or so Brisbane thought at the time, the dwarf left out the part about Roystnof teaching Brisbane how to cast shocking grasp. It really wasn’t all that important to the story, as Brisbane had not used the knowledge in the one circumstance when it might have proved helpful. The battle with the ogres, however, was the only part of the story where Roundtower showed any true enthusiasm.

When Shortwhiskers finished his tale, Roystnof brought up the subject of exploring the garden in the morning.

“I am very curious,” the wizard said, “about the stone structure that Nog saw at the center. I am sure it will at least give us a clue as to why this oasis is here.”

“But what about the basilisk?” Roundtower asked.

“It is an obstacle like any other,” Roystnof said. “I am confident it can be avoided or overcome.”

“I would not like to be turned to stone again,” Roundtower said. “And what of the three of you?”

“Anyone,” Roystnof said, “who has the misfortune of being turned to stone, I will be able to transform back.”

“And you?” Brisbane said. “What do we do if you meet the monster’s gaze?”

There was a silent pause before Roystnof answered.

“I will not.”

Brisbane and the others could not argue with such conviction, although Brisbane found it a bit foolhardy. He had known Roystnof for a long time, but was just now beginning to see another side of him. Brisbane was not sure he liked it.

“I suggest,” Roystnof said, “that we vote. I say we investigate the stone structure tomorrow. Nog?”

Shortwhiskers nodded. “My curiosity has been tickled. I will go with you.”


Brisbane looked at Roundtower before he answered. The warrior was clearly wrestling with the decision. “I will go as well, Roy.”

Roystnof smiled. “And Ignatius?”

“Friends,” Roundtower said in an ominous tone. “For a reason I do not understand, I feel compelled to join you in this endeavor. Perhaps, inwardly, I wish my revenge on this basilisk, but the reason is really not important, for I am coming along.”

Brisbane was relieved to hear this. He was already beginning to like Ignatius Roundtower and wanted
to get to know him better. Both Roystnof and Shortwhiskers were wearing broad smiles.

“However,” Roundtower continued. “I must say that this will be the last such adventure we will share. Something happened in the time I spent as stone that has made me realize the path my life has taken. This experience has allowed me to see how I have lost sight of my own dreams. I will join you on this one last excursion, and then put an end to this part of my life. Afterwards, I will leave for Farchrist Castle, and start my squireship as soon as one of the good Knights will have me.”

No one seemed pleased with Roundtower’s decision, Shortwhiskers perhaps getting more emotional than he would have wanted to appear, but Roundtower held firmly to his words. Roystnof suggested that they get some sleep before the morning and Shortwhiskers reluctantly agreed, grumbling that he would have a hard time falling asleep. Roundtower volunteered to stand first watch, as he had slept most of the day away. Brisbane felt a little foolish remembering that they had forgotten to post a watch the previous night. Of course, it had been pouring rain. Roundtower surprised Brisbane when he asked the young man to sit up with him for a while.

Roundtower sat down on a large rock and Brisbane settled on a smaller one next to him. The warrior gazed up at the first twinkling stars for an extended moment. Brisbane sat and stared at him. Roundtower was out of his armor now and wore clothing so plain they could only be meant to cover his nakedness. His hair was sandy brown and cut short in a rumpled mop on his head. His muscles were large, but not as large as Brisbane’s. He looked like someone who could stumble into The Quarter Pony and receive no odd stares from the regular patrons.

“I have heard the others call you Gil,” Roundtower said, still looking into the sky. “May I call you this, too?”

“I wish you would,” Brisbane said.

Roundtower looked at Brisbane with troubled eyes. “Gil,” he said. “I need guidance of a sort I do not expect you will be able to give, but I also feel compelled to speak of my ordeal. I’m sure either Nog or Roystnof would be happy to listen to me, but neither of them share my faith, and because of that, I do not believe they would truly be able to understand my plight. I will seek out a patriarch when I have the chance, but for now, I feel I must share a portion of my suffering with someone keeps the proper beliefs.”

Brisbane twitched inside at these last three words. He had seen this attitude before and it had always left him idealistically parched. The worship of Grecolus was widely accepted by its followers as the only true religion. When it recognized other beliefs at all, it characterized them as a mythology constructed to answer philosophical puzzles or an underdeveloped culture’s interpretation of the works of the single holy god Grecolus. Brisbane had not had much experience with other religions, but he did not think this viewpoint was as widespread among them. Hadn’t Shortwhiskers said something about dwarven and human gods?

Roundtower must have caught an indication of Brisbane’s discomfort on his face. “Oh,” he said quickly. “I’m sorry if I have made an incorrect assumption. I just thought that since you have lived your whole life in the Valley of Farchrist that you would have been raised in the King’s faith. Have I made an error?”

“No,” Brisbane said, unsure of what he should reveal to this total stranger whom he wanted to be his friend. “No, I have been raised in the worship of Grecolus. My mother and stepfather have seen to that.”

Roundtower smiled knowingly. “It can often be difficult when you are young. Things can seem so uncertain without the benefit of experience.”

Brisbane sat before the warrior in silence for a few moments, not knowing how to respond to his comments. “Please,” he said eventually. “Tell me what you planned to.”

Roundtower nodded. “Yes, thank you,” he said. “As I said, I plan to seek the advice and counseling of a church patriarch when I can, but there are things that I need to work out now. There are some issues that have been forced upon me that cannot wait for that. You see, when this basilisk creature turned me to stone as Roystnof says it did, I thought it had killed me.”

“Yes,” Brisbane said. “I heard you mumble that earlier. I’m not sure I understand the significance.”

Roundtower looked at Brisbane with eyes wide in amazement. “I am killed by a sneak attack by some foul lizard,” he said melodramatically, “an attack so swift that I neither see nor feel the approach of death, and when it is complete I find myself in an afterlife of total emptiness. There is nothing there. No light, no sounds, no scents. It is an infinite plane of void, in which I find myself and nothing else. I do not even have a physical form or, if I do, I cannot perceive it in any fashion. I am merely my thoughts, my consciousness, alone in a universe unto myself.”

Roundtower shuddered again at the memory and Brisbane began to realize how horrible that fate could be. Not just for Roundtower, but for anyone. The isolation, the utter seclusion, with not even the inanimate to occupy your attention. It would drive anyone mad after a while. But it was Roundtower who had been cursed with this glimpse at such a nihilistic afterlife, and it was Roundtower who had such a strong faith in the wisdom and goodliness of Grecolus.

Roundtower cleared his throat. “I cannot describe to you the betrayal I felt. I was actually angry at first. Here I had spent my entire life in merciless devotion to Grecolus, following the doctrine he set down for his servants to live their lives by, and when I did finally pass from this world into the next, I find myself abandoned and alone. Eternal life is one of Grecolus’ promises to his flock, that all who believe in him shall not truly die, but live forever with him in the heavens. If I had died, why did I not see the holy light of Grecolus? Why did I not hear his powerful voice speaking my name? Why did I not feel his guiding hand on my shoulder?”

Roundtower had held his watering eyes up to Brisbane’s face, but now he hung his head and folded his hands between his knees. “That is when I stopped being angry and began to feel my true anguish. The answer to those prideful questions suddenly stared me in the face like all the evil creatures I have killed with my blade. I was not in the heavens because I did not deserve to be there. The holy life I thought I had led had really been a sham.”

Roundtower went suddenly silent and Brisbane felt very uncomfortable during the quiet. He did not know what to say to Roundtower, or even if anything should be said at all. Personally, he still was not sure whether he truly shared the warrior’s faith or not, but he felt like an impostor here. He felt like an unbeliever sitting there listening to Roundtower’s pain.

“Your life has not been a sham,” Brisbane heard himself say, hoping even as he said it that Roundtower would not leap up and ask him just how the hells he knew that.

“No, no,” Roundtower said, wiping moisture from his eyes. “It has, it has.”

The tone of Roundtower’s voice was beginning to make Brisbane’s stomach churn. He began to feel nausea washing over him and he did not know why. Brisbane didn’t really care why, he just did not want to get sick. Brisbane stood up and began to walk aimlessly away.

“Gil?” Roundtower said, his face popping up.

Brisbane stopped at the edge of the campfire’s glow. His back was to Roundtower.

“Please, Gil,” Roundtower said. “I need to finish this.”

Brisbane slowly came back and sat down. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I am not feeling well.” He put a delicate hand on his stomach. “I think it’s something I ate.”

Roundtower swallowed hard. Brisbane realized the warrior was now going to rush through what he had left to say for Brisbane’s sake. That made him feel even worse.

“My faith is strong,” Roundtower said. “I am sure of that. But now I can see all the mistakes I have made in my life. I now realize that I have not been a sinless servant to my Lord.”

“No one is,” Brisbane said automatically.

“Yes, no one is without sin, I know. But the things I have done. I cannot begin to describe what evil I have seen in my travels. I set out on these journeys originally to eradicate that evil from the earth—to do Grecolus’ work—but in the prison in which the basilisk trapped me, I began to see my adventures in a different light. I saw that my intentions had slowly changed, their focus moving from completing a holy mission to obtaining a personal wealth and power. No longer was it my purpose to destroy evil in order to tip the balance of universe to the holy, but I killed the evil creatures I encountered to steal the treasures they hoarded in their caverns.”

Brisbane did not say so, but this transformation Roundtower had undergone reminded him of what Shortwhiskers had said about the dwarven god Abbathor, the Great Master of Greed. If Roundtower thought his change in purpose had been brought about somehow under the influence of Damaleous—who Brisbane was trying to equate in his own mind with Abbathor—he might have found yet another similarity between the human and dwarven mythologies.

Roundtower paused to look into the sky at the white moon Grecolum, still full to visual observation. “I hate to admit it,” he said quietly, “especially to you, Gil, but I can only say that my associations have taken me away from Grecolus and brought me slowly under the influence of the Evil One.”

It was at once what Brisbane had wanted and what he had not wanted to hear the warrior say. Linking his personal shortcomings to Damaleous was one thing, but to his associations?

“What do you mean by that?” Brisbane asked.

Roundtower looked back into Brisbane’s tense face. “I am sorry,” he said with deep sincerity. “I can tell you care for him a great deal, and over the years I too have come to consider him my friend. But I must face facts. He is a wizard. He does work magic. Even if he does not recognize it, Roystnof can only be considered a servant of Damaleous.”

Brisbane no longer felt sick to his stomach. He was quite suddenly burning with rage. He stood up and stammered over some syllables, trying to find the right and most appropriate thing to say. How can you say that after he saved you from your stone prison came to mind, but that was off target. He considered flatly denying the accusation, claiming that Roystnof was not a servant of Damaleous, but he knew that argument would be fruitless with Roundtower. He almost allowed himself to call Roundtower a horrible name, but even that, Brisbane decided, would not be direct enough. There came a moment when Brisbane didn’t think he would be able to say anything at all, and it was then that the perfect words came into his mind.

He flavored them with as much sarcasm as he could muster. “Are you trying to tell me that you have decided to try and kill Roystnof, too?”

Roundtower stood up. “Gil, please. Sit down. I could no more kill Roystnof than kill myself. Let me finish.”

Grudgingly, Brisbane sat.

Roundtower lowered himself onto the rock and continued in a low voice. “Being dead, or rather turned to stone, showed me one other thing. It showed me that my own judgment could not be relied upon when choosing what evil to combat and why. When I first took up my blade, it all seemed so clear cut. Good and evil. Black and white. But when I look back upon things, I see that life is not that simple. There is a lot of gray in my black and white world, and a lot of things that defy definition as either good or evil.”

Brisbane’s temper was cooling as the warrior spoke. He was beginning to feel ashamed that he had reacted so uproariously.

“This is in part the reason I have finally decided to try and become a Knight a Farchrist. I have a strong arm in combat, and I have always wanted to use this skill against the enemies of Grecolus. But for too long now I have been going at it alone—choosing my own evils to destroy. I shudder to think of the numbers of errors I may have made in judgment. But the Knights are a holy order, and it is said that the King can talk to Grecolus himself. There, I would receive the guidance I need to really put my sword to the use of good. There, I would never be unsure in my conquest of evil.”

Brisbane could understand this reasoning, but he did not see how one man’s judgment would be better than another’s. Not in matters as difficult to define as to what is good and what is evil. “And what is the other part of the reason you seek the knighthood?”

Roundtower’s eyes grew dark. “Because I want to make certain that when I really do die, I will stand with my creator in the afterlife.”

Brisbane pursed his lips and thought again of how little faith he had in the religious instruction he had been given. He knew it would be easy to accept what he had been taught, easy to follow the words of Grecolus, easy to live life according to his scriptures. Easy, peaceful, and comforting, yes. But was it right? That’s what kept Brisbane guessing. Was it right?

“I hope you do,” Brisbane said.

Roundtower smiled and stood. Brisbane felt he was expected to stand as well, so he did. The warrior extended a hand and Brisbane shook it.

“Thank you, Gil,” Roundtower said. “Thank you for your attention and your kind ear. There is more to tell, but I already feel purged enough to continue with an untroubled mind. Go now and sleep well. I will stand watch. If I tire, I will wake our friend Nog to relieve me.”

“I’m sure he will appreciate that,” Brisbane said with only a touch of sarcasm.

Roundtower laughed. “Yes. I’m sure he will.”

There was no rain to warrant crowding the tent with a third body, so Brisbane spread out his bedroll on the grassy earth, took off his boots, and laid down on his back. He folded his hands behind his head and began to think of all the things Roundtower had said as he stared at the stars and waited for sleep to overtake him.

I must share a portion of my suffering with someone keeps the proper beliefs.

The proper beliefs. Didn’t all religions consider their beliefs to be the proper beliefs? They must. Only a fool would worship a god he knew to be false. But if all faiths considered only themselves to be the true one, how could the actual true religion make itself known? No religion, as far as Brisbane knew, had concrete evidence of its veracity. If one had, wouldn’t everyone follow that one? Why could the dwarves envision more than one god and humans could not?

I thought I had died.

Roundtower certainly found himself unprepared to face death and Brisbane wondered how he would fare. If there was no afterlife, there was nothing to prepare for. You live and you die. If he died slowly, Brisbane thought he might feel regret for things he had or had not done in his life, but a quick death would leave no time for such worries. He would blink out of existence and that would be it. If there was an afterlife, however, and it was as he had been taught it was, Brisbane felt he would be unprepared for his demise. He may shuffle himself back and forth between belief and disbelief, but he knew that Grecolus would easily and justifiably label him an unbeliever and that he would spend eternity in any one of the Nine Hells. That seemed unfair to Brisbane, that he should be punished for not believing things that could not be proven. It was his nature not to believe in things blindly, and that nature had been created as a part of him. But if Grecolus did exist with his infinite powers, would it not be wise to do his bidding regardless of your own personal beliefs? And if there was an afterlife, but it was unlike anything Brisbane had been taught, how could he possibly prepare for it, not knowing what it was? He may actually be unconsciously prepared for it now, and any conscious attempt to prepare for it may make him unprepared.

Roystnof can only be considered a servant of Damaleous.

Brisbane still fumed at the accusation. He knew little of the worship of the Evil One, but he did not see how Roystnof could be practicing it. Brisbane had known him for six years and they had been close from the start. Throughout the time he had secretly studied magic under Roystnof’s tutelage, the wizard had never mentioned Damaleous as the source of his power. He had said the power came from within the magic-user. It was an inherent force present in everyone, larger in a few and barely detectable in most. When Brisbane cast his first cantrip at the age of thirteen, he did so without selling his soul, signing a contract in blood, summoning a demon, or fornicating with one. He had just reached deep inside himself, concentrated on what he wanted the cantrip to do, and tapped into an unrealized power to make the study door unlock by itself. Either Roystnof practiced devil worship in secret and had sold Brisbane away to evil forces without his knowledge—an idea Brisbane found ludicrous—or his magic was not derived from the Evil One.

Brisbane yawned, starting to get sleepy.

Or maybe, the power inside himself that Brisbane could tap into actually was Damaleous, living inside Brisbane’s own body.

There is a lot of gray in my black and white world.

Black and white. That was what Otis had taught Brisbane the world was like. Good and evil. A man either gave his heart to Grecolus or he did not. Those who did were christened the Good, and those who did not were labeled the Evil. But wasn’t it only the Good who did this labeling? What did the Evil think of the label given to them by the Good? What did the Evil call themselves and what did they call the Good? What does a bat call the daytime? Roundtower said there was a lot of gray in this supposedly black and white world, many things that avoided the labels of both the Good and the Evil, and Roundtower had certainly seen more of the world than Brisbane’s stepfather. Besides, Brisbane already knew about the existence of the Gray. He was about as Gray as one could get.

It is said that the King can talk to Grecolus himself.

Conversations with a god? What would one say? How could one assume a friendly tone when speaking with an Almighty? The maker of heavens and earth? Brisbane could only imagine it as the most humbling experience. Wouldn’t even the most saintly cleric feel like a sinful wretch under such a commanding stare? What if one said something to displease the god? The worrying alone could drive one insane.

Brisbane was now beginning to drift off into slumber. His thoughts strayed to dream-like sensations of reality. He imagined his mother was still alive, as he often did, her face clean and smooth, without a trace of age, decay, or death. He remembered the time Roystnof gave him the silver pentacle pendant, which now lay still in the crevice of his throat. He imagined rushing home to show his mother and Otis the gift, but instead of Otis, in the wandering of his mind he replaced his stepfather with his real father, the man he had never known. The senior Brisbane hugged his child closely and told him to keep his pendant safe and to treasure it.

Just before he fell asleep on that night spent outside the strange oasis in the Windcrest Hills, Brisbane thought automatically of Allison Stargazer, and without the restriction of reflection he imagined the warmth of her body pressing against his.

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