Friday, June 1, 2012

Chapter Twenty-Three


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

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The guilt over what he had done plagued Sir Gildegarde Brisbane II constantly and eventually reached a point where he could no longer bear it. He loved Amanda, and was amazed at the amount of release and pleasure their hasty lovemaking had brought, but he was a Knight of Farchrist, and all he had ever been taught, all he had ever believed in, all he had become, called their passionate act only one ugly world. Fornication. He was compelled by tradition and respect for his position to confess his sin and he requested a private audience with the new King, Gregorovich IV, to do just that. But Gregorovich IV had no absolution for Brisbane. The King was sickened at the thought of what one of his knights had done. He stripped Brisbane of his knighthood, banished him from the kingdom, and hoped to contain these events before scandal resulted. To the King the affair was an embarrassment. To my father, it was the beginning of the end.

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They followed the corridor for a long time, longer than Brisbane would have believed possible. He had never seen a passageway so long in his life. It went on and on and Brisbane became pessimistically sure it would continue to go on and on until they all dropped dead of exhaustion. And then it would still go on and on.

The corridor curved and twisted around so much that Brisbane was no longer sure in what direction they were traveling. Shortwhiskers, who was good at underground navigation, kept the party informed of their direction, but Brisbane had no compass to check the dwarf so he didn’t know how true Shortwhiskers’ reports could be. Fortunately, the passage never split into more corridors, so they had no fear of getting lost. Ahead and back were the only two directions they had to worry about and those were more than enough for Brisbane.

But worse than the potential of getting lost was the fact that the corridor had a steady and unrelenting slope upward. They had been climbing the endless grade for hours and the muscles in Brisbane’s legs were beginning to whine in submission. Shortwhiskers, who evidently was also good at judging depth under the surface of the earth, said they had climbed over a thousand feet, and the end of the corridor was still nowhere in sight.

No one in the group seemed very talkative as they pressed on against the slope. Brisbane’s lips grew welded together and his tongue became stuck to the roof of his mouth. Like the others, he supposed, he was lost in thought to take away from the drudgery of the march. Even Angelika, whom Brisbane had taken back from Roystnof when he came out of the meditation chamber with Stargazer, was silent and far from his thoughts.

Predictably, Brisbane’s head was filled with thoughts of Stargazer and Roystnof and the difficulties he had and might have between the two of them. Foremost in his mind was what Stargazer had most recently done, asking Roystnof to call her Allison. He was not sure he understood all the ramifications, but he was sure it was a good sign. It was too much to hope for that Stargazer might have relaxed her view on magic and allowed for the possibility that Roystnof might be able to work magic without being a slave to Damaleous. More likely, she was just extending a courtesy to the wizard on Brisbane’s behalf, but Brisbane could still hope relations were getting better between the two people he cared about most. He tried not to think of Stargazer and Roystnof clashing, and was only glad things had been going as well as they had. It might be considered foolish for him to sit back and watch what happened, but Brisbane found himself too confused to do anything else.

He loved Stargazer and she loved him. That was now official after their exchange at the bottom of the ladder. Brisbane felt good about his admission, and was dizzy over what Stargazer had said. He was sure their relationship was going to grow by leaps and bounds now. It was somehow as if they had gotten a stodgy formality out of the way and would now be able to grow and live together without a nameless pressure.

But once again, his joy over his love for Stargazer was coupled with a fear over the possibility of disaster caused by his magical past and, as he had been reminded by his mystical torch lighting, present. It was cowardly, he knew, to go on with Stargazer pretending his magic skill did not exist, and he knew the problem would not go away if ignored, but he could not fathom a delicate way to present his problem to Stargazer. He was afraid, he supposed, afraid of her response to him, and afraid of what may come to him afterward.

Brisbane’s mind continually presented arguments for and against coming clean with Stargazer and the whole process left him befuddled beyond his own belief. He couldn’t make this decision himself, he was beginning to understand. He needed advice on how to go about breaking the news to Stargazer, or even if he should break it to her at all.

But to whom could he go? Brisbane would have liked to go to Roystnof for advice, but he wasn’t sure if he should bring the topic up with him. After all, in a real sense, Roystnof was intricately involved in this problem with Stargazer. It was he who had taught Brisbane his magical knowledge and, because of Roystnof’s atheistic beliefs, Brisbane was sure he would not understand the magnitude of the problem.

Roystnof, not having the instruction in Grecolus’ doctrine, would not realize the extent of Stargazer’s revulsion of the magical craft. He may have experienced the hatred of the faithful against him in his life, but Brisbane did not think Roystnof could appreciate the depth from which that hatred came.

Talking to Roystnof would bring up another problem that Brisbane was not sure he was ready to deal with. The wizard had already said he was looking forward to restarting Brisbane’s apprenticeship after this journey was finished. Brisbane knew this was going to be a problem if Stargazer heard about it and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue his magical studies in the first place. He liked Roystnof, and his magic intrigued Brisbane, but now with his relationship with Stargazer, Brisbane was willing to give all that up. He did not want to end his friendship with Roystnof, but he did want to end his potential career as a wizard. He wondered if he could do that without alienating Roystnof from himself.

That was the only solution that made any sense to him. To stop his magical contacts now and forever, but it was a solution filled with potential dangers and possible disasters. The worst case scenario was one in which Roystnof disowned him because of his denouncement of his magical training, and then Stargazer left him anyway, unable to deal with what he had done in the past. It was this possibility, this worst case scenario, that kept Brisbane on his course of inaction in this matter. His fear of losing these people, whom he cared about so much, forced him to bide his time, to watch the events of this melodrama of a life pass by, and to hope, somehow, that everything was going to come out right in the end.

Brisbane supposed he would have to talk with Shortwhiskers about his problems. The dwarf, Brisbane felt, was close enough to be sympathetic, but far enough away from the triangle to give Brisbane objective opinions. But now, buried deep in this lost temple, was not the time to bring these things up. Afterwards, when their adventure was over, perhaps on the journey back to Queensburg, Brisbane would make it a point to take Shortwhiskers aside and ask his opinion in these matters.

But for now, the endless corridor wore on, climbing higher and higher inside the guts of one of the Crimson Mountains. The party began to take short breaks to rest their tired muscles, but these rests were quiet and hurried, and it wasn’t long before they were on their silent way again. Wherever this corridor was leading, Brisbane realized that it had to be sealed at the other end. The corridor was completely empty. Brisbane had seen no other life along the way, no rats, no insects, nothing. It occurred to him that they were most likely the first living creatures to be here in centuries, and he was once again filled with a soft sense of awe. How could such a place, a place once so important to the culture of an ancient people, be forgotten and abandoned for so long?

But finally, the corridor came to an end. The party was making its way around a curve in the passage, a curve like hundreds of others they had passed, and suddenly they came up against a solid wall. The last twenty feet of the corridor was level, no longer inclined upward, and then it just ended in a plain gray stone wall.

No one said anything, but the looks on all their faces clearly expressed the anger that was going to erupt if this turned into a colossal dead end. Shortwhiskers stepped ahead and began to explore the surface of the wall. A short time later he quickly turned around and addressed the party.

“It’s another secret door,” the dwarf said. “Like the one at the entrance. But I think it’s meant to be secret from the other side. It’s too obvious from here.”

“Can you open it?” Roystnof asked.

“Sure.” Shortwhiskers just stood there.

“Then do it already,” Dantrius called from the back of the group. “Let’s see what we’ve walked all this way for.”

Shortwhiskers turned silently away and went back to work on the wall. He found a certain spot, and this time not needing Brisbane, applied his muscle to the wall and a small section of it began to push outward.

Brisbane and the others watched carefully as Shortwhiskers opened the secret door. The first idea Brisbane had was that the door opened onto the outside, meaning that they would be leaving the mountain, and then he saw this idea came from the drops of rain that began to drip into the corridor. During the time they had spent inside the temple and the mountain, it had begun to rain, a light spring shower that fell from a cloudy sky and quickly soaked the earth. When Shortwhiskers had the door opened far enough, he stepped out into the weather and the rest of the party followed him.

They found themselves nearly on the peak of a mountain, on a flattened-off area overlooking an almost perfectly circular mountain lake. Brisbane stared down the sheer face of a cliff, at least a hundred feet down, to the surface of the lake, and he realized the lake was the source of the waterfall they had seen before. He could just make out the drop-off through the mist of rain at the far edge of the lake. The temple must be right over that edge, he thought, hidden from view here just as this mountain top was hidden from view down below.

But the view down to the lake was not the most spectacular sight to be seen. Standing upright on the platform they stood upon, carved out of solid stone, was a gigantic hand, cupped slightly, with the fingers thrusting up towards the heavens. And here, in the palm of this tremendous hand, was the only evidence they had seen of living creatures using the deserted remains of the temple. Here was a huge nest, made from branches and rocks and river mud. The nest rested above their heads, and the party could not see into it, but it seemed that nothing was residing in it at the moment.

The party stood quietly in the rain, looking out at the panoramic view they had of the wet mountain range, and then turned their attention to the immense hand towering over their heads. Brisbane remarked that the stone hand was nearly a duplicate of the small iron one that topped Stargazer’s staff. Everyone agreed.

“I’ve never seen a nest so big,” Brisbane said, guessing it must be ten feet across. “I’d hate to see the bird that built it.”

“You think there are any eggs in it?” Shortwhiskers asked.

“Why?” Brisbane said.

“Exotic eggs can bring a high price on some markets I know,” the dwarf said.

Roystnof was looking up into the rainy sky. “Well,” he said. “Someone scramble up there and see before the mother bird comes back.”

“I don’t think we should take any eggs away from the mother,” Stargazer said, putting up her hood. “No matter how big she might be.”

“We’re just going to look,” Roystnof said. “There could be something else in there as well. Let’s find out what’s in there before we start arguing about what to do with it.”

“So go check already,” Dantrius said, exasperation in his voice.

The rest of the party tried to ignore the mage.

“I’ll do it,” Brisbane volunteered.

“Be careful, Gil,” Roystnof said.

“Okay, Dad,” Brisbane said sarcastically as he moved out on the rainy peak.

The crook between the hand’s thumb and index finger was just above his reach and Brisbane had to jump up to grab it. He caught it and slowly began to pull himself up, surprised at how heavy his chainmail made him. He first chinned himself and then he was able to get a leg up on the palm of the hand. A bit more effort and he was entirely over the lip, laying next to the nest itself. He stood up slowly, holding onto one of the fingers to keep his balance. The footing was uneven there and the hand was placed dangerously close to the edge of the cliff. Brisbane experienced a fleeting feeling of vertigo as he looked down on the mountain lake. He had to hold tightly onto the finger until the sensation passed. The rain made the stone slippery and the wind seemed stronger up here than it had been on the platform.

“What’s in the nest, Gil?” Shortwhiskers asked him.

Brisbane turned his back on the view of the lake and looked into the nest. There were indeed eggs in there, two of them about the size of melons with blue-sparkled shells. But they were not the only things to be found in the nest. Laying beside the eggs was the body of an ork, long since killed and partially decayed. The way the ork had been killed was obvious. His heart had been ripped out.

Brisbane leaned over the edge of the nest to tell Shortwhiskers what he had found when a terrible shape came screaming up the side of the mountain, swooping up and hanging protectively above the nest on flapping wings. The body of the bird was the size of a man with dark green wings extended for yards in both directions. But, freakishly, atop the body of the massive bird was the blue-black head of an angry elk, with rakish antlers studded with countless sharp points.

Brisbane only got a glimpse of the beast before it pounced on him with a shriek. He fumbled at his side, trying to pull Angelika from her scabbard, when the thing collided its antlers against his chest. His chainmail protected him from the sharp points, but the force of the blow knocked him off balance and caused him to teeter for a moment, and then fall from the gigantic hand of Grecolus.

The world seemed to slow down to Brisbane and he suddenly felt slightly apart from himself. With a sickening horror, he saw that as he fell, he was going to miss the platform entirely, and he wasn’t going to hit anything else but air until the surface of the mountain lake, hundreds of feet below.

Brisbane’s hand was still around the pommel of Angelika as she extended halfway out of her scabbard. With amazing speed, one thought raced through his mind. If he did not secure Angelika in her scabbard, he might very well lose her when he crashed into the water below. He did not consider that he may not even survive the fall, or that it would be hard to stay afloat in his chainmail if he did survive. In his moment of crisis he was only concerned with Angelika. He had to make sure he did not lose her.

As he passed by the level of the platform, he could see the looks of shock on the faces of his friends. They had been as surprised as he at the appearance of the bird-monster. He could hear Stargazer calling out his name in a long, drawn-out moan, and he thought, just as they disappeared and a wall of rock dominated his vision, that he saw a sly smile spread across the face of the illusionist Dantrius.

And then his companions were gone and he was alone in a world of rain and gravity. Almost unconsciously, his hand pushed Angelika back into her scabbard and quickly buttoned the small securing strap into place. With Angelika safely belted at his side, his thoughts turned momentarily to those of his own safety, and then he smashed into the water of the mountain lake.

The impact caused him to lose consciousness for a moment and he plunged down deep into the depths of the lake. His velocity downward slowed and eventually stopped. As he slowly began to rise back to the surface—the amount of air in his lungs winning out, for the moment, over the weight of his armor—the strong currents toward the waterfall grabbed him and began to drag him away from the mountain from whose top he had fallen.

Brisbane regained consciousness as he resurfaced, coughing water out of his lungs and flailing his arms in a desperate struggle to keep his head above water. Thoughts of his impending doom filled his head as he watched himself be pulled nearer and nearer to the edge of the waterfall. In those moments, he realized how silly his thought about death had been when he felt trapped in the meditation chamber. Death, thought to be so close then, was a million leagues away compared to the way it brushed up against him now. He was actually shocked when he realized just how much he wanted to live and how little he had really understood that when he had been in the meditation chamber. With this desire burning in his mind, Brisbane was dragged over the falls.

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