Here it is, free of charge, the prologue to Ages of Aenya. If you’ve ever cared about my writing, or this story, now is the time to show your support! Next week, these words will be traveling by manila envelope to New York, where dreams are made and crushed! Needless to say, it’s a bit nerve wracking posting something you’ve been working on for ten years. Is it perfect? No. Art is never perfect. As George Lucas once put it, “films are never finished, just abandoned.” So this is me, abandoning my prologue. In terms of publishing, these are the all important first five pages that will determine whether Ages of Aenya ends up in somebody’s trash. Throughout the week, I’ll be posting chapters 1 through 3, which will also be flying to NYC. If you have any suggestions, comments, like to point out grammatical or spelling errors (hey, I’m not perfect) or just have an opinion other than “that was nice,” please let me know—some stupid little oversight could save me from the trash! So without further ado, I give you the beginning:
|This is the very first piece made for Ages of Aenya (ten years ago, it was simply called the Dark Age) by T’Lustachowski|
AGES OF AENYA
Hand over foot, Xandr managed his way to the top of the plateau, where the air was crisp about his pores and the green scent of fallen rain filled his lungs. His arms spread against the greater moon, Infinity, the turquoise crescent that straddled the horizon. The other moon, Eon, shone like an amethyst in the morning sky. Beneath his battered soles, waterfalls vanished into mists between foothills where a thousand shades colored the valley from the jade of the leaves to the amber of the oaks to the gold of the sun gilded Potamis. Beyond the north passage, the Mountains of Ukko met the heavens like strokes of chalk.
Ilmarinen was as he ever knew, but he found no sense of oneness in its valleys today, for questions still churned in his mind.
Apart from his scabbard belt and the lapis lazuli in his braid, the young monk was clad only in the Goddess. All the ground was his shoes and the sun his coat, and Xandr never knew any other way of being. The sword and the blue mineral were his only possessions, but he was more interested in the stone, remembering the girl who had given it to him—she had, he thought, a pleasing face and an easy gait and he admired the skill with which her henna was applied, the pattern running up her thigh to form an arrow shape between her breasts.
Leaves rustled behind him and he turned. Effortlessly, his hands and feet met the nooks in the olive tree’s roots. Descending the hill, he spotted his mentor rounding the path.
“Queffi!” the boy called. “I am here!”
QuasiI did not appreciate Xandr’s sudden disappearances, but never punished the boy’s eagerness to explore. Blinded by the sunbeam flaring off the old man’s scalp, the boy suppressed the urge to laugh. It was not as if his mentor lacked for hair; his ash white locks reached to the middle of his back and his silver streaked beard concealed the whole of his collarbone. But the top of his head was as barren as the western hemisphere.
“Recite the names again,” his mentor droned, steadying himself on his quarterstaff.
What enthusiasm he’d shown earlier that morning drained from his voice. Not ecology. Again. Why can’t I learn about trikes or mammoths? Or dragons! He doubted he would ever face mortal danger from an elm.
“That one’s camphor, and there is an elm and an olive tree . . .” The fruits of the olive branch were flat and dull in color, not yet ripe for the beating. It’s odd, he mused, how the limbs are smooth but the trunk is gnarled . . .
“Xandr!” a voice rumbled. “Focus!”
The boy suppressed a groan. “Maple, birch, um . . .,”
“Did you forget?” QuasiI admonished, displeasure adding creases to his face. “You must not forget the names of trees, or they will forget you.”
“Yes Queffi, that is true, but—”
QuasiI bent to example a sapling, thumbing the tiny leaves between thumb and forefinger. His mentor was often distracted by miniscule things too, sometimes looking aloof, but Xandr’s respect for him never lessened. Despite his age, his mentor’s hands looked strong enough to squeeze water from a rock. And the old man knew things no one else did. He could tell when rain was coming days before; he knew the age of a tree by touch alone; and he referred to each animal as if part of a great family, explaining how the rabbit was cousin to the deer and the deer to the ornith.
Every year on the morning of the Solstice, the keepers would descend to the village to select among the wisest of the youth a protégé to be raised in the monastery. A boy or girl showing an aptitude for metallurgy was taught the secrets of metals, and after a lifetime of study was expected to replace their mentor as Keeper of Metallurgy. So it went with all the secrets of the universe. But Xandr was unlike the others. For as long as he could remember, he lived with the keepers, and though he cared little for plants, he was expected to know everything about them. As QuasiI often reminded him, the discipline of ecology was the greatest of all the sciences, but Xandr could not bring himself to agree. He much preferred the tales of the Zo with their vast cities and fantastic machines and world spanning wars. The boy could not understand why the Ilmar, despite their advanced knowledge, had no such things—why Xandr was, in fact, forbidden possessions of any kind. Whenever he asked the keepers about it, he was told, “You are the Batal,” and nothing more.
“Shall we go over flowers, then?” the old man suggested.
Leaves cracked underfoot as the boy circled with impatience. Xandr was a jumble of energy, nimbly ducking branches and hopping roots without suffering a scratch. “Queffi . . . there are things I wish you to teach me that you never have.”
“Such as?” He arched a bushy eyebrow, knowing what weighed upon his pupil’s heart, and the boy knew it also, knew his mentor was testing him.
Xandr decided to ask a simple question first to loosen the old man’s tongue. “I want to know of the customs beyond the south river. Is it true that in other lands, humans need to cover their bodies?”
QuasiI cleared his throat of morning phlegm, as though he were about to recite from the philosophers. “People are as diverse as the flowers of Aenya. Just as the soft soil suits the ilm so that it may flourish, so do the customs of each peoples differ so that they may prosper. Ice does not fall from the heavens as it does in the Dark Hemisphere, nor does Solos’ chariot scorch the flesh as in the Dead Zones. Here in the Womb of Alashiya, we live as simply as we are born, as Kjus teaches us.”
“But Queffi,” the boy went on, bouncing eagerly from the perch of a mossy root, “Why should we burn under a life giving sun? Are we not to roam freely about the world? Or are we to remain still in our soil, as the ilms do?”
“The body is an absolute good.” QuasiI breathed deeply, as if answers floated in the air like spores. “Just as our cousins, the merquid and the avian, the human is born of the Mother Goddess, lovingly and minutely refined over the aeons. The flaw is not in us—I fear—but in the world. Before the greater moon loomed in the heavens, every land was as Ilmarinen; every species lived as we do, without clothes, without possessions.”
“What happened?” Xandr asked a little too loudly. “Was it the Cataclysm? The Zo?”
The old man’s smile cut like a wrinkle across his face. “I suppose you’ve been keeping late nights again with Brother Zoab?”
“I have,” Xandr admitted. “But he tells only fantastic tales, myths and legends.”
“We are all keepers of ancient knowledge, Xandr. Do not forget, just as I keep the names of the flora, so does he keep knowledge of the outer universe. Zoab is Keeper of Moons and Stars.
“Sciences, philosophies, faiths . . . myths; all these are woven together; all knowledge is story.”
“Then tell me—,”said Xandr, jumping forward, “is it true what Brother Zoab says of the star they call the Tooth of Skullgrin? Of The Wandering God?”
QuasiI paused to glare at the broad shouldered youth who stood up to his chin—then hurried off, his staff clacking against the stones. “I am not so certain Zoab should speak to you of such things. You are not yet a man.”
Xandr held his anger in his fists so that it not show on his face. He was no longer a child. When a boy or girl began to show hair about the loins, they’d partake in the rituals of the Solstice Night. Though Xandr had yet to jump the sacred bonfire hand-in-hand with the girl that was to be joined to him, the time was upon him, as evidenced by his maturing body. “No,” he protested, “my hair has grown, and my chin is coarse. Soon I’ll be bearded, and a man!” Xandr never challenged his mentor so openly before, but he still lacked the courage to meet the deep well of wisdom that were his mentor’s eyes.
“Have you been practicing the technique we went over, the delayed counter?”
Devoid of thought, a hand flied to the pommel at his hip. “Yes, every day and night!”
“Wait . . . you always trick me into forgetting my questions this way. But you won’t this time.” And he folded his arms defiantly.
“So the Batal has come of age, eh?” It was more a question than a statement. “Come.” Without a further word, they followed a path clear of shrubs formed by years of treading feet.
Layers of limestone rose above the tree line. An immense white willow grew at its peak. Its trunk always made Xandr think of a bent woman with a cane. It was a place for bloodless battles, long discourses on philosophy, and an observatory for the Zo, Alashiya, and Skullgrin constellations. As was their custom, QuasiI let his staff against the mossy stone and was seated. Xandr folded his legs atop the boulder below, tucking his manhood between his thighs, a thing which had become a bother lately, especially when he thought of the young girls bathing in the waterfalls in the valley below. He assumed it was a part of his growing to maturity, but he was destined to be the Batal, which made him wonder whether he would ever join in the festivities of the Solstice Night.
“The sapling,” QuasiI began, “too feeble for the outer world, remains safe within its seed. There it waits till ready, till strong enough to break its shell and lay roots in the earth.”
More metaphors! If there was one thing QuasiI did that annoyed him, it was speaking in metaphors. “But teacher,” Xandr informed, “I’ve already bested you with my sword!”
The old monk waved a dismissive hand. “You know how to kill, but it is not what matters. You forget the sayings of Kjus, ‘knowledge not tempered by wisdom sows destruction’. I may know to destroy this willow,” he added, shaking the violet bulbs from the branches with a slap of his hand, “yet I may not have the wisdom to hear it speak to me.”
Xandr threw his shoulders back, the sunlight turning his hair to gold. “But I am ready, Queffi, ready to leave Ilmarinen, to be the Batal.”
“And how can you be so certain, my son, when you do not know what lies beyond the Potamis? Look there . . .” QuasiI pointed to a tree as tall as the sky, with branches thick enough to walk upon, “the Batal is like the mighty camphor. It begins as a berry no bigger than your thumb, but then it grows, becoming home to many species . . .”
Having heard the lecture countless times, Xandr’s mind drifted. QuasiI was either stubbornly repeating himself or becoming forgetful. It was not quite as boring as ecology, but philosophy made him want to sleep. He greatly preferred Brother Zoab’s tales of magic and monsters and heroism. Shifting in his limestone seat, he pulled at his ankle to study his sole. It was black as soot and rough as leather, the cracks in it like some form of lettering. Something in his heel had been causing him pain since starting along the path. It was strange, for there were days when his feet carried him through dense brambles without leaving a mark. Things seemed wrong to him today, as though the greater and smaller moons were misaligned. Running a thumbnail to his heel, what he thought a splinter was a thorny seedling. His questions were also like seeds, he considered, only now taking root in his awareness.
After his mentor was finished speaking, he looked up from his sole, saying, “But am I not already the Batal?”
QuasiI rubbed his skull, forming new folds of flesh, as he often did when frustrated. “No. Not yet. Before becoming a great man, you must first become a man.” He gazed into the sunrise, drawing images with his hands. “Only by relinquishing pride, by surrendering possessions, can one hope to escape the mistakes of the past. It is why the Goddess chose us, for of all the world’s peoples, only the Ilmar desire nothing.”
“But will you not tell me, plainly, what I am meant to do?”
The wizened monk drew a long, tired breath, as if much work was before him. “True understanding comes from oneself. You will know when you learn to listen to the trees, to hear the voices of Alashiya.”
As if suddenly remembering something urgent, the old monk’s attention came away and they became aware of it—between the turquoise moon and the violet glow of the smaller—a gray ribbon of smoke diffusing over the orange sky.
Xandr could see the turmoil in his mentor’s eyes, but to a boy so innocent, imagination did not lend itself easily to horror. “What could it mean?”
“No,” he murmured, never straying from the ribbon of smoke. Instantly, the staff was in his hand, no longer a stick for walking but a weapon, and QuasiI became more than he had been, a warrior of commanding presence. “We’ve been found! Hurry, Xandr! Today you prove yourself!”
And for the first time the boy sensed real uncertainty in his teacher’s voice.
Xandr raced ahead, leaping over bustling creeks, never minding the thorny seedling that dug deeper into his sole. Twisting boughs obscured his sight, roots impeded his passage at every turn, yet he maneuvered around them without conscious thought, letting the pull of a slope take him when it would. With each step the smell of burning intensified, quickening the drumbeat under his chest. Whether QuasiI had followed he could not tell, nor could he hear the rustle of the branches or the ballad of the sparrows. All that mattered were the notches and the footholds he knew too well, blindly meeting feet and fingertips at will.
The cylindrical monastery crowned the peak, rising from the rock as a phoenix with folded wings in a quartet of buttresses. It was the only familiar sight. Flames spread along wooden frames; blackness billowed overhead; and a mob of hideous gray creatures scampered every which way, their pumpkin-sized heads bobbing with wicked urgency. Faces Xandr knew became distorted through dust and sweat and distance. His friends were holding the field, but there were too few short swords and quarterstaffs and desperate fists to stem the tempest of blades. A whining sound pervaded his ears, like laughter, mocking the shrieks of the wounded and dying. Flames swirled about torches clutched in clawed fingers. Stones launched through windows, instantly shattering centuries of mosaic splendor. And somehow the gray, emaciated bodies found the strength to drag the fallen to a gathering, where others with daggers joined in the stabbing, raining blood over sacred earth and walls.
He knew them from the lessons on species relative to human. Those lessons now seemed remote, for knowing their names gave him no confidence nor made them less terrifying.
His empty sword belt struck the ground as horror gave way to rage. No thought commanded the legs that carried him or the arm that thrust his blade between a bogren’s shoulders. The squeal pained his ears and the creature slumped forward. Its limbs bent at awkward angles like a sleeping toddler along the ground. Streaks of black painted the silver of his sword, dripping from the tip as from an ink-dipped quill. The hilt quaked in his palm; it’d never drawn blood. But despite the bogren’s hideousness and the awfulness of its deeds, its death brought the boy little satisfaction. Instead, Xandr felt a loss in his soul. The slain bogren had taken something from him, a peace he would never know again. But in the madness of battle, loss gave way to euphoria. It pulsed through his veins till consuming him, thrilling him, frightening him.
Aware of the danger he posed, a host of Gray Ones turned from their victim, shaking their blades clean of entrails, measuring the boy through folded pupils. Without minding their fallen comrade, they advanced with daggers hooked like talons, speaking in tortured syllables. Unconsciously, Xandr moved his blade between him and the points directed at his underbelly. Chrome flashed, arched in semi-circles and twisted back in figure S’s, dancing to the ring of metal. The bogrens were swift but he was a blur of naked flesh. Mired in gore, Xandr fought with a ferocity and desperation never seen by his fellow monks. For never in all his years of sparring had he known the company of the Taker and now the God of Death became his shadow, patient as a vulture as one bogren after another crumpled at the boy’s feet.
And always were the lessons guiding his hands:
You must be everywhere and nowhere; you must move faster than thought, faster than perception permits.
But Xandr soon learned that they were not retreating, but regrouping. Every evil eye fell upon him. Like locusts they swarmed him, grinding shoulder-bones as they joined together, every dagger gesturing how a man might be butchered.
Wood split in his ears and Xandr knew he was not alone. Tendons became unfastened; vertebrae snapped and grew limp; eyeballs smashed into brains. The old man fought through the horde with total economy of movement, not a blow wasted, not an incoming blade left to chance. He turned their attacks as a parent swatting an infant’s hand. The staff was everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, at once vertical and immobile as a cedar, at once horizontal and devastating as a tidal wave. Out of decades’ training and centuries’ tradition, the staff painted Ancient symbols of power in the old man’s nimble hands. QuasiI was Keeper of Flowers, the greatest of the warrior monks, and the bogrens felt his greatness.
Side-by-side with his teacher, Xandr believed himself indomitable. Together they would drive back the attackers, send them cowering from whence they came. But his thoughts strayed to his friends; who among them were gasping through punctured lungs or spilling their last into the dirt? Which of his mentors somewhere called his name? And there was the ultimate question of why, reverberating in his skull, tearing at the tissue of his reasoning. Why is this happening!
With staff and sword they fended the onslaught, but as bodies piled at their heels, more bogrens came as if from nowhere, clawing with abandon over the dead and injured, redrawing the circle of battle to narrower confines.
“Xandr, the sword!”
It was QuasiI, his voice muffled by dying squeals and the crack of wood and the indistinctive din of battle, but his meaning rang clear. He could have meant only one.
His feet damp in blood, Xandr fled for the monastery across corpses of men and monster. Ash rained across his path, dusting his blond locks and skin shades of gray. Blinking to clear his sight, he could make out a vague shape of what had been his place of sleep and contemplation, now dissolved in an inferno of oranges and reds, opaque vapors stretching like willowy tendrils from the colonnade of arches to the swirling darkness above. He groped at the bronze rings and the door came apart, burning his fingers.
Muttering to the Mother Goddess that the temple not collapse upon him, he moved through the aperture, not knowing even how much of the structure remained. His forearm shielded his tears and each breath burned like embers in his lungs. Despite the brightness of the fire, he stumbled forward blindly, fighting the blackening clouds of soot rolling through the corridors.
Xandr knew the way to the Chamber of Forbidden Knowledge. Often he had gone to stare at the arched double-doors to guess at its secrets. Only once, during his twelfth year, when QuasiI went with Brother Zoab to meditate on the mountain, had he dared to peek within. Memories surfaced of the muted colors of an old mural, the shadow of a great sword, and the approaching footfalls that frightened him away.
Turning the corner, he came to a place thick with smoke, though he could still picture the intricate patterns etched into the door. Wrenching it ajar, a grinding echo met his ears. His soles touched the cold marble flooring and his lungs began to swell. It was as if the fire was forbidden from entering.
Tides of force crashed against his bosom as he crossed under the doorframe; it was, he felt, like passing into another world. Shafts of light cascaded through mosaic windows from a domed ceiling, making the dust glitter, painting the chamber in lurid colors. Moving further inward, his shadow lengthened across a concave mural: a circle of monks bowed before a sleeping child and a great phoenix spread wings of orange, blue, and white. But the sword in their midst was no interpretation of oils and pigments. Shimmering silver mirrored his charred and bloodied visage with surreal clarity. The sword was positioned to create the illusion that the painted phoenix was clawing at its hilt.
An eerie feeling of familiarity washed over him as he stood, his forefinger hovering over the icon of a boy of about three, or four. He shut his eyes and saw the mural come into reality; he could hear the monks’ conflicting murmurs, see their faces as they moved toward him.
Could that be . . . me?
The sword rose tall as a man out of a great stone dais. Upon its hilt a yawning animal skull, with teeth growing like thorny brambles from its jaw, emerged like some ghastly apparition fighting to escape its casting. Gazing long into the nodes and cavities that made up its face, Xandr was overcome by a sense of vertigo, feeling as though he were looking through the cavities that were its eyes, where a universe of potentialities loosed upon his fragile mind: waves swallowing empires, serpents taking the guise of men, stars falling from the heavens, and bloodshed, always bloodshed. It was a hunger in himself, a longing for slaughter not all his own. Tearing himself away, he heard with uncertainty the sword calling him, whisper its dreadful name.
I am Emmaxis.
Remembering his mentor and how he had to rush the sword to the battle, the boy awakened from his stupor. His palms grew clammy about the handle, the alloy quivering at his touch like some living thing, and at last he freed the sword from its base. The sound of metal released from stone resonated throughout the chamber like something moved after untold ages. Wondering how any man could wield such a great, ungainly thing, he carried the sword with some difficulty under his arm and made for the flames.
Sunlight pained the boy’s eyes. Gasping, he descended the steps of the blazing monument to witness the crimson field of bodies. He stumbled through the haze, over the remains of friends and mentors, numb and trembling.
“From nowhere.” It was a voice, passing in step with the boy, like a gust through the leaves.
Xandr leaned an ear against the black and hardened lips. “Zoab! What’s happened? Who still lives?”
“They came from nowhere, the gray devils. We were . . . un-armed, un-ready. From no-where.” His voice broke off, but he continued in the attempt to speak, till the rhythm of his breath relaxed and gave in to quiet release. The youth was taken aback by the sudden trespass of the Taker, at its utter lack of ado, at the mundane way in which the cords of Life came unknotted. No longer would Zoab’s folktales enflame the boy’s imagination.
“Rest,” said Xandr, cupping shut unseeing eyes.
He continued through the carnage, searching the horizon without a will to find, till brushing against the wrist of Pawn, the sword of his old sparring partner dull and sullied with use. The boy looked peaceful in his repose, his body cushioned by wild grasses, and if Xandr had not seen his bosom wet with streaks of crimson he might have believed his friend asleep.
But where was QuasiI, he dared ask himself? He screamed the name, perusing dead faces, dissected between hope and fear.
Amid a scattering of gray corpses, a lone scalp shone whitely in the sun, and Xandr cursed himself for all the times he’d mocked his mentor’s lack of hair. His eyes darted between the glitter of hilts rising and falling, a pool of blood expanding and changing shape beneath the still form, and the boy collapsed to his knees as his legs could no longer hold him.
“I am here, Queffi!” he said. “I am—!”
QuasiI shifted his glazed eyes heavenward, and his awfully parched lips cracked into a smile. “The trees . . . we must save the trees!”
“The fire has subsided, teacher, but the temple is gone.”
Whether saddened or relieved by the news, Xandr could not tell, as his dying mentor’s face became a mask too weary for expression. “I staved off the Taker till your return.”
Xandr tugged the handle into the cold, crumpled palm. “Here, I brought you the sword, as you asked.”
“The sword has but one use . . .,” he struggled, every syllable bringing pain, each word another dagger. “It’s your burden to keep now. Watch the sky. Watch for the omens!”
The boy turned away, letting his braid hide his eyes, wet, in part, from smoke. His hands trembled over the sunken daggers as though his will could undo the act. “NO!” he protested. “We could have fought them . . . we could have fought them together. You taught me to move without thought, but I hesitated. I doubted.”
“Weep not, son, for Life is more than a body, a mind. I am in the trees, the ilms . . . in you.”
“Don’t leave me alone!” the boy pleaded with him.
“Remember . . .” the elder one coughed, red trickling like capillaries across his parched lips, “. . . remember. . .” Blood came bubbling up to froth across his lips and the old man’s eyes drifted, as if seeing into a world Xandr could not. The finality of it was crippling. At once the boy knew the sword would remain an enigma. And what he was meant to be—what the Batal of Legend meant—he would never learn from his mentor.
A scream erupted across Ilmarinen, through the timbers of oaks, over the orange and violet valleys of the ilms. Against the sunken breast of his mentor, he wept, cradling the inert skull in his arms, laying gentle kisses upon its forehead.
Surrendering the body to the earth, the blood streaming from the corpse became clear as water, and the knobby fingers turned brittle, and his mentor’s limbs expanded into branches. Before Xandr realized what had happened, the body of QuasiI was no more. Where it had been was now a tree, a tree he could not name.
Nothing was left to the boy but the hideous sword and part of him wished to cast it back into the ruin, as if it were to blame. Why had QuasiI told him to retrieve it? The weight of the question collapsed him like a marionette.
An answer came in the wind, or from the will of the sword, or from instinct, directing him through sinuous belts of gray to a pair of orbs returning his gaze. The face was like a pitch mask. He could see no more but an immense silhouette, and swifter than a hunted animal, it was gone, lost to the surrounding copse.
Mustering his rage about the sword, Xandr followed down the slope beneath interlacing light and shadow. Tracks led every which way, but only the fresh hoof prints were significant. He would have vengeance not on the demented minions who had done the deed, but on the one who commanded it, on the rider moving south.
He vaulted over moss-covered boulders, leapt trickling ravines, but the world stretched on and on. How he could catch a man on horseback while shouldering a sword larger than was meant for human hands, he dared not think. All that mattered was that he run, even should his life become a matter of pursuit.
And the thorny seedling dug deeper, becoming part of him.
The violet moon of Eon did not pass a quarter arc from the turquoise halo of Infinity when Xandr came to a curtain of mist. The air was heavy and damp and he could hear the roar of the Potamis dashing against the bank. He climbed over the toppled rings of a column, the granite made smooth by its return to the earth, and he came to recognize the thing that he pursued. From above the waist it was a man, densely muscled, with skin as opaque as polished onyx and a beard like fire. The rest of him waded across the white crests of the river, the turbulent waters rising to four knobby knees.
There had been no rider after all. Beast and man were one. And if not for the Potamis, he would never have known the object of his hatred. And Xandr came to realize that no simple murderer stood before him, but an entity from far beyond the cradle of his world.
Remembering the emptiness newly gaping in his heart, the boy moved into the river. “Villain!” he shouted, splashing into the web of foam emanating from the bank, the sword tugging him down, submerging beneath the current. “You will not escape me!”
The dark mass slowly turned. Its voice came low and soft, fringed with the intonations of an aristocrat. “And who might you be, to command me?”
“I am the Batal of Legend!” the boy boasted, and the metallic shaft came about in a wide arc, though it looked more as if the weapon were wielding him. “I challenge you to a duel to avenge my mentor!”
Hoofs clapped the shallow waters and with a casual gait QuasiI’s killer set his pupils upon the quivering nude, a sardonic smile etched across his stony countenance. “Set down that oar, boy,” he answered, “for we are not at Sea.”
Xandr swallowed hard, finding his voice with difficulty. “Why did you kill them?”
“Ah . . . I thought I’d heard a why in the wind, but thought it was a sparrow. Why, you ask? Why do we suffer? And why must we inevitably face the Taker?” He galloped forward, his fingers tipped like daggers, the river frothing about his equine thighs. “Do not seek answers when there are none. Truth is an illusion, a matter of will.”
“I am no fool!” Xandr cried, hiding, as best he could, the treble of his voice. “Tell me plainly why you’ve come.”
“Indeed, I can see that you are neither fool, nor coward. For that, I commend you, and allow you to leave in peace, to live out your days for as long as this land remains. We are not butchers. We came not to murder. Knowledge is what we’re after, but your people were clever enough to store their power in memory. Now that they’re dead, their knowledge dies with them. How very wasteful.”
“Their wisdom lives in me,” Xandr asserted. “Now tell me your name, so that we may remember your defeat in song.”
“I am Nessus, Dark Centaur, Commander of Legions, Ravager of Kingdoms great and small. But to you, I am your end.”
“I do not fear!” Xandr managed to bellow, but it came out hollow, more like a plea than a threat.
For the centaur, further speech was unnecessary, as his response was to unsheathe the twin obsidian sabers at his sides. Xandr surged forward to engage him with wild, oblong strokes, but Nessus turned each attack away.
The centaur loomed heads over the youth, coming down with animal fury to sever his brash opponent from both the left and right shoulders. But Emmaxis moved with improbable swiftness in Xandr’s hands, joining the twin blades as Nessus met his own scowling countenance upon its mirrored surface.
Stepping away, the young monk drew the centaur into a wider circle, just as QuasiI had taught him, till Xandr’s heel touched upon dry soil, on the north side of the river, leaving the other’s hooves to splash in the current. The boy danced in dizzying loops, sprang and rebounded, lurched with deadly accuracy. Feet skirted sideways, tendons stretched low imitating the killing motions of the horned beetle. He could not manage to swing the sword around him swiftly enough, but rather appeared left of it, right of it.
“You are powerful . . . for a child,” the low voice rumbled. “Unfortunate that you were not born to us!”
The centaur was heavier than a warhorse, with limited lateral movement, made more so by the river coursing about him. The fact did not go unnoticed and Xandr acted to outflank his foe, to sink his metal into broad horse flesh.
Between man and monster, intersections formed and reformed with violent suddenness, tossing embers as their weapons came together. An exhaustive array of thrusts, parries and near misses showcased a plethora of arts, including the delayed counter, which was intended to lure Nessus into an overreaching attack. But reversals gave way to counter-reversals, and soon Xandr succumbed to thought, in how to compensate for the extra weight and length of his blade. Reach and force were its advantages, but whether the sword possessed any fantastic qualities, he could not tell; there was but the eerie, life-like quiver of its alloy and the constant drone in his head to kill, kill, and kill—if not Nessus—something.
Every fiber of the young nude’s muscle throbbed in defense. For though the centaur proved less agile, it offered no more advantage to Xandr than if he were fighting a windmill. Nessus possessed monstrous power, using hoof as elegantly as saber, fighting with a battle-hardened lack of pretense the youth could never counter. Each deflected blow weakened the pubescent warrior’s resolve, and it was not long before the two-handed sword chaffed in his palms and tugged at his spine.
With his hatred spent, Xandr’s grip loosened, and Nessus sent the sword spinning away. In falling, Emmaxis sank deep into a boulder at the river’s edge. Rebounding from the impact, the first of the centaur’s sabers flew back as the second cut diagonally, from hip to collarbone. Xandr’s torso peeled open. Blood pooled between his toes.
Hooves clomping through dirt and clay, the Dark Centaur began to pace the river. “What know you of Aenya in this paradise?” Between his outstretched fingers a sphere erupted, a ruptured surface of arid reds and cobalt. “You know nothing of hunger, of those who hunger . . . You do not even know the true wealth of this land. But wait . . . do you feel it?” he said, studying the air as if a change was taking place, “a chill wind blows from the East. Soon, your people shall know what we have known for millennia. Aenya turns slowly . . . but it does turn . . . and as the world changes so does the land, so will your lands be as ours, so does the light become the dark. Alas, when the darkening comes, that which we seek shall be no more.”
The red bearded face, and the gleaming black blades, and the rushing of the Potamis, it all became distant and unfocused, and Xandr wet his fingers into the fresh cavity in his breast, lifting the blood to his eyes. Each breath stabbed at him, a terrible reminder of life, and he felt himself plummet and the ground wheel about him.
“I could have killed you at any instant. But I am a connoisseur of torment, and I find it more satisfying to first crush the spirit. Idealism is, after all, so nauseating.”
Closing his fist, the projection of Aenya extinguished like a candle-flame, and his attention turned to the sword. “ . . . I have never seen its equal—a sword that cuts through solid rock—and the blade, unscathed, even against my sabers! An old relic, no doubt, from the age of the Zo. Perhaps this little duel was not completely fruitless.”
With all the might of his four legs, the Ravager of Kingdoms could not remove the sword. Emmaxis remained as though moored to the earth and at some length sank further into the stone. “It mocks me!” Nessus grumbled, the skull-face mirroring the convex of his daemonic eyes. “And this hilt, it differs somehow from before . . . What sorcery is this?”
As the blood ebbed from his body, Xandr could do nothing but watch the centaur curse and struggle. In time, the Chariot of Solos crept behind the greater moon, and the sky dulled to sullen shades of violet, and Nessus was no more. All the young monk knew was that the centaur had been and now was not.
Thought and understanding navigated dark regions in his mind. There was no sensation beyond the cold permeating his membranes without the comfort of a shudder. Resolved to this state, he welcomed the Taker’s embrace and the absence of being that lifted all pain.
But it did not come.
Oh Alashiya . . . What glory is in this? Was I not to be Batal? Has my life been a lie?
Moons mingled amid deities and stars drew ellipses in the sky. Leaves curled and twirled off sinewy stems, framing him in earthen colors. Seedlings broke through the soil and ilms pillowed under his limbs. A screech rent the abyss, and looking again toward heaven, he spied upon the great sword once more, its ghoulish face ever grinning, and sitting upon it now was a phoenix with feathers of orange, white, and blue. It was the icon from the mural, resonating with power, gravitating cords of fate and matter about its beak. Planes and galaxies swirled in the phoenix’s eyes, and as it looked into him, all knowing, the black came down and he was gone.
Go to Ages of Aenya, Chapter 1: A Compass for Miseries