27 February 2009

The Price of Spring

Darkness. Thick and wet after the blinding light of the garden outside. Thick and almost solid, making his breathing difficult, clogging his mouth and nose. Dorgir felt the bile rise in his throat and had to concentrate to keep himself from retching. Reaching inside his rough tunic, he wrapped his fingers around the small leather pouch hanging from his neck by frayed strands of braided black and green cotton. Inside were three coins, all his family had after the long year of drought, and not nearly enough. Still, he had to try.

He was unsteady on his feet and reached out an arm to steady himself. It didn't help: his hand slid across the surface of a wall covered with a thick slime. Jerking back, he lost his balance, fell sharply to the ground and gave in, covering the ground in front of him with the remnants of the waybread he had at daybreak. As his stomach tightened and clenched, heaving its last remains up his burning throat, he began to shiver and tears came to his eyes.

"You can't let them down. You can't. You can't. You can't."

Repeating this, turning it into a chant, a steady drumbeat he could use to slow his racing heart, he wiped his eyes dry, slowly went to one knee, and finally stood. The opressive weight of the darkness was still there, but it was less solid, less a force against which he had to struggle than a foreign medium to move through. And there, some indeterminant distance ahead, not a light so much as a fading, a slightly paler darkness marking the entrance to his goal at the heart of the temple. "You can't. You can't. You can't." He moved--slowly and haltingly, yes--but still he moved.

As he approached, the darkness began to fade into a mist, a silverslick cloak between him and the entrance, finally resolving itself as an archway, beyond which the tunnel took an immediate turn to the right. There was a soft rumbling, sounding almost like whispers. Dorgir took a deep breath and with it exhaled the last of his prior nerves, stepped forward, and turned into a circular room with a high, vaulted ceiling. He stopped short, dizzied by the kaleidescope of color that assaulted him, feeling his stomach begin to clench again. He squinted hard, looking for something familiar, some anchor around which to tether his perceptions. He started with his shoes, the sturdy moccasins with his tribal insignia--a black diamond centered in a dark green circle--beaded upon each foot. His right was in pretty good shape, only missing a few beads, but the left had been caught beneath a fallen limb in late Spring the previous year, and only retained a faded echo of the diamond and a few lonely green beads.

That worked: his shoes were his shoes, and thoughts of home helped steady him as well. Calmed, Dorgir expanded his vision, seeing the pale stone of the floor. It was covered with runes and symbols, written in a brilliant green script. At first, Dorgir thought it was some enchantment, a sorceror's fire of some sort; then as his eyes slowly lost their squint and grew accustomed to the light he saw the source of the whispers he heard: carved into the floor were curved troughs whose swift-moving waters flowed into a central well, creating an endless murmur in the background. And the writing was an emerald lichen, brilliant green, fed by those same waters.

As his eyes drifted up the wall in front of him, he saw patches of blues, purples, dark greens, the colors of bruises, of deep water and dark places. Dorgir knew they were made of glass, but they looked disconcertingly like a living liquid, pulsing with echoes of the light in the room whose source was higher yet: circling the room, just below the wooden ceiling supports were a ring of braziers, alternating between small floating balls of fire and glowing coals, from which a thick and pungent smoke drifted. The room felt alive, not energized but living, pulsing and vibrating on its own accord, as if Dorgir was now deep inside something both beautiful and dangerous.

By the far wall were three figures, two standing impassively by a huge white chair upon which the third sat, clothed in a tunic of the deepest green, resting his chin on his clasped hands, his face obscured in shadow. The chair seemed to glow with a pale light, but Dorgir knew it was carved from the bones of some massive beast from the depths of the ocean, taking master craftsmen dozens of years to create an intricate mass of interlaced tentacles. The two standing figures were nude and utterly hairless, thickly muscled men whose pale skin was nearly translucent, and reflected the dark colors from the glass in the walls.

The seated figure straightened suddenly, placing his hands in front of him, and moving his head out of the shadows. There was a glint of gold at his neck, which Dorgir knew was a clasp in the shape of an octopus, holding a black cape in place, the cowl of which was nestled beneath his chin like a cloud. He too was bald, but not hairless: dark eyebrows rested above his eyes. Those eyes! When he first looked into them, Dorgir was frozen, his blood chilled by what he thought he saw. Later, he would convince himself it was a trick of the light, but at the time it seemed the eyes of the other were pure black, lacking any whiteness at all, endless obsidian ovals containing no hint of humanity, let alone compassion.

"And you are?" The voice was soft and dangerous, a whisper that left sailors bloodied and shipwrecked on sun-bleached coral after promising them the pleasures of the flesh. Dorgir swallowed hard. He had rehearsed this many times, and falling to a pose of supplication, head bowed, one hand on his heart, the other palm up across his raised knee, began to recite:

"I am Dorgir, from the Eastern Cape. I come to beg a boon against the drought. My family is dying: there have been no rains since Ches, and Uktar draws near. I am here to beg for water."

During the weeks of travel to the city, as he practiced again and again for this moment, Dorgir was never sure what would happen next, but he was sure something would. Instead, there was silence. Just the constant murmur of the water, the occasional crack from the fires above, and the increasing hammer of his own heart as he felt the blood rush to his face. He looked up: as far as he could tell, nothing had changed across the room: just the three figures and the unwavering strangeness of those eyes.

"Sir ... my Lor ... " Dorgir was unsure how to address this man . "I can pay." He reached inside his shirt, and the next thing he knew, his arms were pinioned painfully behind his back, the sharp edge of what he assumed was a knife tightly angled against his throat. He never saw the two figures move, yet they were now on either side of him, holding him immobile. An eternity intervened. Dorgir dared not breathe nor swallow, for the blade at his neck had already peirced the skin.

Again, the sibilant promise filled the air: "Let him be." The blade disappeared, and Dorgir felt the figures step away, behind him and out of his field of vision entirely. Resisting the urge to turn around or touch the growing wetness he felt on his throat, he again fell to one knee in the pose of supplication, this time with the pouch of coins in his upturned hands. He felt the pouch being lifted away, but little else: in the instant it took him to lift his head, the two pale men were again motionless on each side of the bone chair, and the seated figure was slowly weighing the pouch in his hand.

"This, this is not enough. Not nearly enough."

"It's all I have, all we have. Please ... we will die without water. If we can plant now, we can get one crop in before the deep freeze, one crop is all we need. It will be a hard winter, but we will make it. Please."

"Come now, child, you must have something else to offer. Something of value." Dorgir felt a small soft push behind his eyes. "Yes," he thought, "surely I have something else. Of course." But nothing came to mind.

"Nothing? Not even a memory, a recollection of the Eleiasias sea on a warm day? Or the softness of your first kiss?" Dorgir felt the dizziness return, felt the cold stone beneath his knee slide away from him, felt the room tilt strangely on a new axis. Torn between incomprehension and the growing conviction that whatever the seated figure said was perfectly reasonable, perfectly sage, perfectly sensible, he stammered, "I ... I don't understand."

"Hmmm ... you will. Will you give anything for your boon?"

"Wait ... I don't ... How can you take a memory?"

The voice changed, gained the undertones of a gathering storm, the dark strength of a slate grey sky. "Will. You. Give. Anything?"

Dorgir thought of his family, of the cracked land, the failed crops. "Ye ... Yes."

The softness returned. "Good. We leave in the morning." The figure stood, reached up, draped the cowl over his head, and pulled the black cloack around himself. One solid black figure, a piece of night detached from a distant darkness, flanked by two pale muscled pillars. The eyes glinted from deep within the cowl, dark jewels on a platter of darker velvet, "Be in the southern garden at sunrise."

Dorgir didn't remember how he left the temple, or how he made his way back to the inn. Thoughts of flight played at the edges of his mind, but instead he found himself waiting for the first rays of the sun in the palm lined garden, talking softly to his mount, adjusting and readjusting his saddlebags, idly fingering the tender line on his neck left by the blade. Just as the first blush of dawn reached towards the distant mountains, he heard hoofbeats and, turning, saw three figures walking towards him, each leading a massive horse. In front, again covered in black, was the figure from the previous night. He could only assume the other two were the same as well, although today they wore identically cut tunics of a rough material, one a deep purple, the other the blue of the midnight sky. He could never be sure, but he thought the black-robed figure smiled at him. Dorgir looked closely at his face: his eyes were quite dark, with no distinction between the pupil and the iris, but they were just eyes, surrounded by white. Dorgir felt a little embarrased, and quickly looked away. Wordlessly, the four mounted, and Dorgir led them out of the city and into the glare of the strengthening day.

Dorgir never learned the cultist's name, and in the ten days it took them to go from the city to his home, barely three dozen words passed between them. They rode in silence, made camp in silence, even shared meals without speaking. Sometimes, the one in purple would sing as their horses moved across the land, a deep voice full of resonance, singing hypotic, sonorous songs in a language Dorgir did not recognize. Sometimes, in the middle of the song, the other two would reply in unison creating an eerily contrapuntal chant, and once the man in the black cape brought out a small ocarina shaped like a turtle and played lightly as they rode. When he finished, he replaced the round flute in his cloak and turned to Dorgir. "I first heard that song on a Lanun ship, far from home." Dorgir nodded, unsure of what to say.

When they finally cleared the southernmost arm of the mountains and turned towards the East again, the cultist stopped. "Is that it?" Before them lay the remains of the valley, down the middle of which ran a pale, cracked scar where once was a river. The bordering trees were dead or dying, twisted black shapes against the faded ground. And, there, faint grey shapes towards the horizon, was home. Dorgir nodded, and eagerly began to pick his way down the slope. The other three horses stayed motionless, their riders blankly looking over the desolate valley.

"Well? Aren't we going there?"

The cultist looked at him closely, and with a sound gentle as a soft tropical breeze replied, "No. This way." The turned and headed up the slope. Dorgir followed, often looking behind him, longing for home. They edged along the side of sheer wall when, as if out of nowhere, a barely discernable opening appeared leading into a large cave. A bundle of firewood lay at its entrance, and empty holders were spaced on the walls, each marked by a golden symbol identical to the one by the cultist's neck. Within minutes after tying the horses to a nearby stand of scraggly trees, the cave was bathed in a flicker of flame, and the cultist was seated at its center, hands resting on his knees, head bowed. Dorgir moved towards him, but felt a strong hand on his shoulder: the purple clad man shook his head and pointed to the front of the cave. Dorgir moved towards the entrance and settled on a large boulder just inside the opening. When he looked back, the cultist was swaying from side to side with his head still bowed and the two pale men had stripped off their clothes and, again naked, were walking around him in a confused spiral, two lights in eccentric orbit around a dark center.

Dorgir watched, but felt he was observing a foreign universe at an ever-increasing distance, as if the three isolated figures were receding away from him, fading behind a growing mist. Dorgir blinked, but his vision wouldn't clear: he realized the cave was growing moist, nearly wet. The two pale figures were sweating, first drops, then rivulets, and then streams of water pouring down their muscled backs, dripping onto the cave floor, flooding over their smooth bodies in what seemed to be a neverending flow. It was simultaneoulsy hypnotic and terrifying, just the constant slow movement of the two figures, and the swaying cultist at the center, never speeding up but never ceasing either. Dorgir was unaware of how much time had passed, only of the thickening air and the growth of the heavy smell of mulch in the air. It was becoming harder and harder to see clearly--at one point Dorgir could have sworn the pale figures were absorbing darkness from the ground, filling themselves with it as they moved, a dark stain spreading up the contours of their calves.

Then, it ended. The two figures collapsed to the ground, gasping for breath. The cultist leaned forward on his hands, then got up slowly and walked towards Dorgir. He was breathing heavily, sweat beaded on his forehead and upper lip, and his hands were dark with mud, which now covered the floor of the cave and which explained what Dorgir had seen on the legs of the two pale men. He looked at Dorgir, whose breath caught in his chest. His eyes were again entirely filled with blackness.

"It is done."

Dorgir followed the cultist outside and gasped as he looked across the valley: what before was empty and desolate was slowly darkening as a thin river of water found its way along the path of the riverbed. Dormir turned to the cultist, elated with what he saw. "You did it! You did it!" He ran to the horses, eager to untie them and get home. But as he came to the trees, instead he found the two pale men blocking his path. "Let me through--we did it!" They grabbed him, one vice-like grip on each shoulder and carried him back to the cave.

"What are you doing? We did it! I need to go, let me go!"

The fires had been put out, but the air of the cave was still thick with moisture and heavy with smoke. It was cold now, a wet chill that immediately went deep into Dormir's bones. In the shadows, he could see the cultist waiting. "What are you doing? Please ... I just want to go home."
"You are going home. But we have a debt to settle first." Dormir froze. For the first time since he was back in the temple, he heard the cultist's voice take on a steely undertone of danger and threat. "What ... what do you mean?" Dormir's voice cracked as the cultist moved closer.

"I think you know. Look at me. Look at me!" Dormir could not resist. He raised his eyes, and in the black pools of the cultist's, could glimpse his own reflection and recognize the growing fear on his own face. He could feel his will weaken as he stopped resisting the hands that carried him towards the center of the cave. There was a soft rumbling noise that hadn't been there before. The hands tightened and lifted him off the ground. He thought of struggling, wanted to struggle, but somehow couldn't summon the energy to do so. He felt he was merely an observer to what happened, that the body being lifted into the air was not his, nor was the face he saw in the still pool as they slowly submerged his head. Even the screams lost beneath the water seemed to be torn from someone else's throat, but they soon stopped.

What emerged from the cave was no longer human: elongated fingers and toes; long, sinewy muscles, and skin with a sickly green sheen to it. He was wrapped in wet cloths, tied to a horse, and led back to the city to join the others in the ranks of the Drowns, undead thralls to the servants of the Overlords.

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