Thursday, December 1, 2011

Chapter Seventeen


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 46,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.

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A Squire must serve at least three years under a Knight before he can be considered for the knighthood himself. However, a man must also be twenty-one to become a Knight. These laws were set down at the beginning of the Order and are unbreachable. As a result of this, Gildegarde Brisbane II was forced to serve five years as the Squire of Sir Reginald Ironshield. As soon as he became eligible, Ironshield stood before the old King and announced that through faithful and exemplary service to him, Gildegarde Brisbane II had earned the right to become a Knight of Farchrist. The ceremony was held in the King’s own chambers. It was an exclusive affair with only the King, Ironshield, Brisbane, his mother Madeline, and dwarf named Nog Shortwhiskers in attendance. When King Gregorovich Farchrist II brought his father’s sword, the sword of the Peasant King, down on the shoulders of my father and proclaimed him a Knight, the only sound in the chamber had been that of Madeline’s quiet tears.

+ + +

As it turned out, things were much better in the morning. Brisbane awoke feeling somewhat refreshed and, when he emerged from the tent, the first thing he saw was Stargazer sitting on the ground with her legs crossed, her eyes closed and her hands folded in her lap.

Brisbane quietly went down to the river to relieve himself and, when he returned, Stargazer was standing there waiting for him. There seemed to be no one else around.

“Gil,” she said. “I would like to speak with you.”

“I’m sorry, Allie,” Brisbane blurted out. “Please, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

Stargazer smiled. As soon as Brisbane saw that he knew everything was going to be all right.

“I know you are,” Stargazer said. “But it is I who should be apologetic. I have thought a lot about what you said and, although your words did hurt me, I realize there was no real malice in them. You are, of course, right in the matter of Roundtower and your sword, Angelika. He could no more become a Knight with it than Roystnof could with his spells.”

Brisbane did not like the nature of her analogy, but he accepted it and kept his mouth shut. Stargazer was doing her best to deal with the situation.

“I have perhaps lived apart from the world for too long,” Stargazer went on. “Many things have passed me by. The humans have made many advances in the administration of their religion. I am perhaps a fossil in their midst.”

Brisbane also did not like to hear Stargazer speaking so, no matter how true he thought the statements to be. “Allie, please. You’re being too hard on yourself.”

“No, Gil,” she said. “As you are so fond of doing, I am just saying how things are. But, don’t you see, all of this only further resolves me to stay apart from the organized religion I deserted years ago. They, the priests and patriarchs of Grecolus, they have in effect banished him from the earth. They control his worshippers and they have denied his works. They claim all magic is the tool of Damaleous, but they don’t know that Grecolus has a magic of his own. How could he perform creation without it?”

The logic made sense to Brisbane. “But how is one to tell the difference?”

Stargazer smiled. “That is the problem the priests had. For them, it got to the point where magic was so intricate that they threw the whole lot away and tagged it as evil. But there still is a difference.” She put her hand over her heart. “The difference is here.”

“I don’t understand,” Brisbane said, but he thought maybe he did.

Stargazer’s took Brisbane’s hand and placed it against her chest. Brisbane tried to pull away when he felt her heart thump but Stargazer held him firmly.

“Don’t you see?” she said. “People have such a hard time distinguishing good magic from evil magic because only the person who uses the magic really knows which her body is being used for. I know in my heart I am serving Grecolus and so my healing power is good magic. You know you are serving Grecolus, so Angelika is good magic, too.”

She was beginning to go beyond Brisbane’s understanding of things. “But what about Roystnof?” he asked.

“What about him?”

“He is serving neither Grecolus nor Damaleous,” Brisbane said. “Where does his magic fall?”

Stargazer paused. “Now, Gil,” she said slowly. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings either, but I am going to tell you how things are.”

“Go ahead,” Brisbane said, mentally cringing at what she might say.

“If Roystnof is not serving Grecolus, whether or not he actively worships Damaleous, his magic is evil and he is being used by the Evil One. Magic power comes from one or the other. It does not come from man.”

Brisbane wanted to explode but he refused to react as Stargazer had the day before. He was going to see this through calmly, rationally.

“So you’re saying Roy could be misguided, but you couldn’t be. Is that it?”

“What do you mean?” Stargazer said, dropping his hand from her chest.

“If Roy is serving Damaleous without realizing it, then how do you know you’re not serving him, too?”

“Gil, I serve Grecolus. My powers are his.”

“That’s what you believe,” Brisbane said, his voice rising. “But what if the priests are right? What if all magic, even yours, is the tool of Damaleous? What if he has only duped you into thinking your magic is good? He is supposed to be the Father of Lies, you know.”

Stargazer shook her head. “No. This cannot be.”

“But how can you know?” Brisbane asked. “How can anyone know?”

“I have faith,” Stargazer said. “Don’t you?”

A flap on one of the tents was suddenly pulled back and Roystnof stepped out into the campsite. He greeted both Brisbane and Stargazer with a cheerful good morning and then made his way down to the river. Brisbane’s eyes followed his friend.

“Well,” Stargazer said guardedly, drawing Brisbane’s attention back to her. “They’ll all be up soon. I just wanted you to know I forgive you for your callousness and that I’m not mad at you.”

Brisbane heard Shortwhiskers cough from inside one of the tents. “Yes,” he said, trying to forget all the questions and ideas their little talk had brought to his mind. “Well, I’m glad for that. I never meant to offend you, Allie. It’s just that life is confusing, more so when you try to make sense out of it.”

Stargazer kissed him on the cheek. It was a part of their relationship he was really beginning to enjoy. “You’re young, yet,” she said. “Wait. It gets worse.”

He tried to grab her for that but she playfully drew away and he soon found himself chasing her around the campsite as if they were two schoolchildren.

Roystnof returned and soon the whole camp was up and about, fixing breakfast and discussing plans for the day. In actuality, Stargazer was the only one who truly wanted to go into the garden and explore the shrine, but whereas Roystnof, Shortwhiskers, and Brisbane didn’t mind the delay on their journey up the river, Dantrius showed he was dead set against the foray. He argued there was nothing to see there anyway, four of them had already been there and had seen nothing but rock—after the death of the demon, of course—and he didn’t see why they should waste their time on the whims of only one of their number. But his complaining was largely ignored as the others saw it as no bother and they knew Dantrius was not about to journey on alone.

A surprising amount of time, however, went into deciding just who would go into the garden. Roystnof suggested they all go to preserve party unity, but again Dantrius dissented. He declared he would not again set foot in such a place and said anyone who would was nuts. There could, after all, be any number of basilisks still wandering around in there and he wasn’t going to take that risk for no good reason.

Brisbane could see some sense in Dantrius’ argument, especially after what the mage had been through with the basilisk he had met those many years—and Brisbane still didn’t know just how many years—ago. But as Shortwhiskers had felt when he witnessed Dantrius arguing against sending the expedition to Dragon’s Peak, Brisbane now sensed Dantrius was arguing for all the wrong reasons. He was hiding something, and Brisbane suspected it had something to do with the demon they had destroyed.

Shortwhiskers finally said, fine, let Dantrius sit outside by himself, but Roystnof refused to let that be the end of it. He said no one should be left alone out here in the hills, and at least one of them should stay with Dantrius. As there were no volunteers, and as it had been Roystnof’s idea, he agreed to stay with Dantrius while Shortwhiskers and Brisbane went with Stargazer into the garden.

Brisbane did not like the idea of going in without the magical protection of one of the wizards, but there seemed to be no other way around it. Roystnof assured Brisbane basilisks were extremely rare creatures and that he very much doubted there would be any more waiting for them.

So Brisbane reluctantly entered the garden from the southern side with Stargazer and Shortwhiskers. It occurred to Brisbane that because of the placement of their camp, they would have to walk through unfamiliar territory in order to get to the shrine at the center of the garden. He mentioned this to Shortwhiskers but the dwarf did not seem worried about it. Brisbane tried to put it out of his mind.

This part of the oasis looked about the same as the part they had already seen and, as he walked, Brisbane began to experience the same worries about a basilisk surprising them as he had the last time. He was at the back of the line with Stargazer between him and Shortwhiskers, but this position did nothing to allay his fears. As he remembered, the basilisk they had encountered before had crept up on them from behind.

The trees and the underbrush thickened as they continued on until it seemed they were walking through a small forest. The whole garden seemed to be set up like that, with the clearing where the shrine stood in the very center, surrounded by a forest of trees that thinned as they radiated outward.

Brisbane walked with Angelika drawn in his right hand and his undecorated shield in his left. It seemed like hours, but the sun had barely moved when the trio found the clearing and cautiously stepped into it.

It was almost unnaturally quiet. There seemed to be no life anywhere around them. The circle of trees defined the limits if their vision and in its very center stood the cube of stone Stargazer had come to see.

“That’s it?” Stargazer asked Shortwhiskers.

The dwarf silently nodded his head.

She began to walk towards the structure, Brisbane and Shortwhiskers following closely behind her. They approached the back of the shrine without incident and began to circle around to the front. When they got there, they found the portal, and Stargazer began examining the strange writings that outlined it.

“Roundtower was right,” she said aloud. “These are ancient runes used in the worship of Grecolus. Here is the one meaning peace and safe passage.” She pointed to the glyph directly over the portal.

“Can you read the rest of them?” Brisbane asked. “Ignatius couldn’t.”

“Oh yes,” Stargazer said. “And it is a good thing I can.”

Shortwhiskers came forward. “Why is that?”

Stargazer indicated the two columns of markings, one on each side of the doorway. “Well, first of all, this line verifies the temple at the source of the Mystic, the one we seek, does indeed exist and that it is devoted to the ancient worship of Grecolus.”

Shortwhiskers’ ears seemed to perk up. “Does it say anything about how much treasure there is?”

Stargazer laughed. “No, Nog. But this second line tells me something much more important.”

“What’s that?” Brisbane asked.

“It says the entrance to the temple is trapped. Only the faithful can enter.”

Shortwhiskers wrinkled his nose. “Trapped? Does it say how the entrance is trapped?”

Stargazer checked again. “No.”

“Well, what good is that?!” Shortwhiskers said. “Only the faithful can enter? Is that supposed to be a clue or something?”

Brisbane thought about it. It made no practical sense to him.

“It probably means,” Stargazer said, “the ancient worshippers knew a secret way in to avoid the trap. A secret that has probably been forgotten long before even you were born, Nog.”

“Swell,” Shortwhiskers said.

Brisbane examined the markings around the portal with renewed interest. “Allie,” he asked. “Do they say anything else?”

Stargazer shrugged her shoulders. “Nothing special. Those two lines on the sides are really the only two that say anything definitive. The rest just convey ideas like the marking representing safe passage. The one next to it is the symbol for hope. That kind of thing.”

With nothing else to see on the outside of the shrine, the trio entered the structure. It was just as Brisbane had remembered it. The staircase, the kneeling benches, the cobwebs, and the mural. He and Shortwhiskers stood off to one side as Stargazer went about, taking great interest in everything she saw. Brisbane was amazed to see that the place still glowed with the light spell Roystnof had cast months ago. Stargazer didn’t notice or just didn’t comment on the unusual light source.

As Stargazer went about the room, examining every little detail, Brisbane tried to take the faded, rotted place and, in his mind, restore it to what must have been its original splendor. He pictured the kneeling benches freshly carved and varnished and the mural of the parting hands still wet with the paint that defined it. He saw small groups of simply-dressed people shuffle into the shrine, take their places on the benches, and offer their silent prayers up to their deity. With this image fresh in his mind, it saddened him to see the place in such ill repair. Who knew how many other places like this were scattered across the land, forgotten by the people who now longer needed them? It started him thinking about history, about the scores of people who had lived before him and of whom he would never know anything. For how many years had there been people on earth? Brisbane didn’t know. The scriptures said Grecolus had created everything “in the beginning,” but they didn’t say when that beginning was. And if the ways of religion could change so drastically in the few centuries since this shrine was a living part of society, how much could things change over the course of human history? How many gods had lived and died before Grecolus came into being?

Stargazer said she was done looking things over and was ready to proceed downstairs. Shortwhiskers took the lead and they went down the stairs in the same order they had walked through the garden. Brisbane tightened his grip on Angelika as the place he had battled the demon came into his view.

The place was as barren as it had been before, an empty twenty square feet of stone still lighted by Roystnof’s magic. The far wall had a large, smeary red stain upon it an innocent-looking pile of ashes lay in the center of the floor.

“So this is where it happened,” Stargazer said quietly as she went up and poked the end of her staff through the ashes.

“This is where it happened,” Shortwhiskers confirmed as he came up to look at the black remains.

Brisbane stayed at the foot of the stairs.

“It must have been huge,” Stargazer said. “There are a lot of ashes here.”

“It was at least nine feet tall,” Shortwhiskers said. “Its muscles made Gil’s look like empty flour sacks.”

Stargazer turned to Brisbane. “And with Angelika you were able to defeat such a monster?”

Brisbane looked at his sword. “Without Roy’s slow spell,” he said purposefully, “even Angelika would not have been enough to defeat it.” He met Stargazer’s eyes and she did not seem pleased with his statement.

No, Angelika said to him. It was you and me. Together there is no evil we cannot defeat.

Stargazer went over to the stain on the far wall and ran her hand down the crusty remains of blood that had once formed the magical pentagram.

“Who could have done this?” she said, more to herself than to her companions. “Who could have done such an evil thing in such a reverent place? It is the highest sacrilege.”

“Ignatius felt the same way,” Shortwhiskers said.

Stargazer seemed to whirl on the dwarf. “Was it Dantrius, Nog? Did he do this?”

“He says no,” Shortwhiskers said. “We have no proof against him. We found him as a stone statue outside the shrine. He could have been coming or going.”

“Which way was he facing?” Stargazer asked.

“As if he was arriving,” Shortwhiskers said. “But a basilisk had turned him to stone. He could have turned any which way in the melee.”

Stargazer looked at the remains on the wall and then back to the ashes on the floor. “Why did you let Roystnof restore that man to…” she said, trailing off and searching for the right words. “…to his fleshy form,” she said eventually with some distaste.

Shortwhiskers shrugged. “I did not recognize him. We took a party vote. They thought they would be helping an unfortunate victim.”

Stargazer shook her head. “They were wrong.”

“We all are, at times.”

Stargazer looked upon the dwarf with caring eyes. She placed a soft hand on his shoulder. Shortwhiskers patted it with his own and they passed a moment in silent communication.

“I am ready,” Stargazer said. “Let us leave this place.”

Shortwhiskers and Stargazer rejoined Brisbane at the foot of the stairs, widely skirting the ashes of the fallen demon, and together they left the shrine. They quickly and quietly made their way out of the clearing and back into the trees. Apprehension tried to overcome Brisbane as they walked through the garden for the last time, but he was able to hold it in check. Soon they were back at the low stone wall and soon after that they were in the campsite.

Roystnof and Dantrius were sitting outside waiting for their return and they all immediately found themselves in a discussion about what the three of them had seen on their little trip. Stargazer told the two wizards what the ancient runes on the shrine had told her about the temple they were seeking and Roystnof, intrigued by the information, began drilling her on all she could remember. Roystnof, however, could make no more use out of it than Shortwhiskers had. Still, there was a moment in the discussion where Shortwhiskers made it clear to Dantrius the delay of their intended journey had been more than justified by the knowledge they had received.

The decision then had to be made about what to do with Stargazer. She had originally intended just to see the shrine and then turn back for Queensburg, but now that she knew the nature of the temple at the source of the Mystic, she wanted to tag along the rest of the way. Again, this probably would not have been a problem if it had not been for Dantrius, who was dead set against the idea. Everyone else felt Stargazer’s presence could only be an asset to their expedition, but Dantrius was defiant. The argument went on for some time but eventually Roystnof stepped in and said unless Dantrius could come up with a valid reason why Stargazer could not accompany them, she would be allowed to continue with them. Dantrius was unable to come up with a proper restriction and the matter was finally settled.

Little of the day had been used up with these proceedings and all decided to use the rest of the day to make more progress up the river. They packed up the camp onto the mules and were off before noon. They stayed as close to the river as they could to avoid the orks which Roystnof and Shortwhiskers said lived in the hills to the east. The farther south they went, they warned, the more hostile the area was likely to become. As they neared the Crimson Mountains, they would have to be prepared for sudden attacks, not just from orks, but from other creatures that made the area their home.

But the rest of their second day from Queensburg passed uneventfully. The day seemed to go quickly for Brisbane, who spent most of his time chatting with Stargazer and Shortwhiskers. Their main topic of discussion seemed to be Illzeezad Dantrius and how much of a pain he had been on the journey so far.

They camped at sunset and this time Brisbane drew the first watch. After the evening meal had been devoured, everyone went quietly to bed as Brisbane sat outside, keeping the fire low and his ears open.

It was a terrifying night for him, and although their camp was unmolested in the three hours he had to sit up, he was all too glad to wake Dantrius and tell him it was time to relieve him. It was dark out, darker than Brisbane thought it could get. Grecolum was up, but it was waning and the red moon, Damaleum, was growing conversely larger every night. Brisbane remembered the Festival of Whiteshine, when Grecolum had been full and Damaleum new, and he had seen Stargazer for the first time. It was a happy memory for him but it did little to calm his nerves that night. He couldn’t keep his mind off the waxing Damaleum, and every little sound he heard in the night he knew was surely an approaching evil creature, ready to celebrate the festival of its moon a little early with the spilling of Brisbane’s blood.

Finally, Brisbane’s shift was over and he went over to Dantrius’ sleeping form and shook him awake.

“What?” Dantrius mumbled, his voice groggy and his eyes shut.

“It’s your turn to stand watch,” Brisbane said. “Get up.”

Dantrius turned and looked at Brisbane. “Go watch yourself,” He said and snuggled back down into his sleeping bag.

Brisbane looked at Dantrius’ shadowy form in the dim firelight. He considered yelling at Dantrius but decided arguing with the mage usually did little good. He reached over and carefully withdrew a burning log from the campfire. He held the lit end, slowly smoking and glowing orange, up to his face and smiled. He deliberately pressed the hot end of the log against Dantrius’ sleeping bag, approximately where he judged the mage’s hind end to be. Brisbane held it there for perhaps two seconds.

Dantrius leapt clear of his sleeping bag with a yelp of pain. He stood on the bare ground, rubbing his backside and giving Brisbane a venomous look.

“Now that you’re up,” Brisbane said calmly, “you can stand your watch.” He handed Dantrius an hourglass. “In three hours, you can wake Roystnof to relieve you. Good night.”

Brisbane abruptly turned away from Dantrius and crawled into one of the tents. When he was inside, he heard Dantrius’ voice through the tent fabric.

“This is not over, Brisbane,” the mage said. “Laugh all you want now, but there will come a day when you will regret what you just did to me. There will come a day.”

Brisbane looked over at Shortwhiskers who was still sleeping in the tent. His snores were soft and consistent. It was quite a while before he fell asleep himself.

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