The squawk brought the Anithon out his contemplation.
Jaz'or, they all deserved what came to them.
The Roc-Raven had become accustomed to the entity of law's mental missives.
"True. A carrion bird should rejoice at the feast...but these spawn had the foul taint of the Far Ones about them."
The battle had come due to an emergency landing. Moments before the slaughter, the two had stood in the web between the worlds. Anithon, Guardian of the Ways-Between-Worlds, had kept the worlds at equilibrium. The Lady ruled the Spire. He the nexus. Some would think a True Neutral being would preside over the confluence of worlds, but One bound to the Law of Balance could maintain sufficient impartiality. Anithon was such a Warden, while Jaz'or had been His faithful harbinger and harsh enforcer of Rule 1: Aequilibrium in omnibus.*
Then the web between the worlds shivered and shattered.
In Anithon's perception, it was as though the strands burned, froze, splintered, boiled, writhed, vaporized, and vanished all at once--a stunning diversity of destruction which would have shred a mortal's mind. An infinite procession of windows slammed close in an instant. Rule 0, the preamble and epilogue of all things, rushed to devour the Balance and enact a greater scale. Anithon had foreseen its coming long (or a moment?) ago when He became Warden.
To the Great Omen, the Roc-Raven saw a billion wormholes snap shut, with tunnels wriggling backwards into nothingness. A pull came from everywhere to rise and parade before the End. Cries inaudible to all flesh trumpeted to Him the summons to sound the Great Feast. Yet, bound in fealty to the Warden, Jaz'or awaited Anithon's word. The two had flashed like lightning through a chink that led into the visible convergence between the planes. Many would come here and fight to re-establish rule of the Realms.
Their arrival had blasted a gigantic shaft into a colossal cavern.
A cavern filled with thralls, servitors, and the Foul Consciousness.
Of course the thralls and servitors frenzied to protect the disembodied Mind, which cowered at the coming of two equally mighty Powers. Blood-Swan tore through entire divisions with its fell beak. Its own
primal cry tearing the mental fetters off broken minds. The shriek drove
the shambled souls from panic to death. Living Axiom then unleashed a terrible Dictum upon the hordes of slaves and servants. Flesh, bone, sinew dissolved at the Word's impact, transforming the numberless mob into a sea of blood.
Meanwhile, the Formless Mind hovered and awaited judgment.
Anithon had not deemed to address the Being, letting the humiliation mount. Clean, unpolluted water poured from the vast hole the Warden had purposely torn in the ceiling. The gape stood as a sign to the dark Power and others that limits still existed. The scales may yet return to Equilibrium. The embodiment of Order finally spoke to the alien Farlander.
You know why I have come, Ildriline.
Yesss...Your Rule has ended, so you seek to stop Mine.
A Rule has ended. Not all Rule. The Realms will not be Thine. Balance will restore once more.
A mental hiss reverberated through the crystalline hollows. Jaz'or answered the mental assault that would have unraveled worlds with mania if uttered elsewhere. The harbinger shrilled terribly, killing the maddening tone in its infancy. The Far Queen had chosen a domain too close to the Spire to think to rule over an equal Power. Much less two Powers. This timeless Terror had fled this dream when it left the Realm of Nightmares.
The water ran in a steady, warm river. The dirt of the road fell away under its soft caress. The traveler shook as his protective layer fell away. How long had it been since he felt such tender relief? The arid desert had afforded little respite beyond a few sudden rains and small streams. Both had been miles and memories ago.
The water opened his crusted vision and soothed his cracked lips. He drank in the refreshment and opened his gaze. The realms of salt and sand dissipated into a verdant oasis of coruscating lights. The veil of water which drenched his face had also cleared away the blockage that hindered real Sight. Life grew where barrenness had been moments before. Venerable trees stood where stone had denied weeds. Birds and beasts laughed in the distance. Across the river of water stood a man on fire.
The river bubbled as the nomad sobbed with joy.
“It’s been so long.” Too long, the traveler thought.
The person amid the shimmering radiance spoke with words both mirthful and piercing.
“Haven’t I always been near at hand?”
Images of the journey blazed up into sight. A rock-strewn valley in which messengers encased in starlight danced and blazed about the sleeping traveler. Another camp many days later lay hidden under a withered tree, from which dew fell into a stone pool long prepared generations before the traveler’s tread. Clouds weaving their strands as a hood over a scorched land just when water became scarcest. Each moment flowed into the stream in hot relief. Jacob could not deny the presence’s truth. He never could.
“You have been with me, and I have not known. My vision has been blinded by the road,” confessed the weary wanderer.
“Cross over, and I will help you to see further.”
The words awakened slumbering fear and excited immense joy. The walker had always stood on this side of the veil looking into the realm of radiance. To go over meant to leave behind...what exactly he couldn’t say. So much had been left behind already. Lost. Given. Taken. Gone. Life in the wilderness whittled resources and possessions down to the barest necessities. But these few had become proportionately precious.
An involuntary spasm shook the wanderer. He planted one foot into the stream and the other heel dug into the earth. At once greater relief and anguish welled. He locked his gaze on the smiling, flaming figure before him, so full of life unfiltered. He took another step, dragging his braced leg forward. Half of him blazed with life. Half took on the nature of stone. Muscles had tensed, protested. Joints ceased functioning. Pain screamed from these seized parts of his body. A few feet became an ever expanding gulf. His long dehydration took its toll.
The wanderer shot out a hand which splashed in the water. He gasped as the current struck his waist, then his chest. He attempted to swim, but he sank as half his body betrayed him. The light rippled, then dimmed. He watched his air flee in rapid bubbles. Panic tore into his resolve like voracious piranhas hungering for his hope. Still he floundered. His good foot sunk into clay and he pushed forward. He bobbled and fell again into the mire. He hopped once more, stretching his fingers toward the surface. His chest blazed and darkness encroached into the rim of his gaze.
With one last, desperate leap the wanderer dove from the dark depths toward the light. Instead of hobbling onto shore, he soared above the stream. He felt two fiery hands lifted him from both water and realm. Lightness replaced the heavy numbness. The coruscating brilliance flowed about the nomad. He turned his glance about him and saw the stream had turned into a mighty torrent. A deluge of light. His eyes could see hues beyond any he had ever known.
Hovering now amid the luminous well, he saw the world as a beautiful sapphire sphere far below. Winter coated half in pleasant frost, while summer warmed the other in verdant green. Earth’s moon danced in faithful promenade, glistening ivory in the light. The traveler turned once more to the man behind him. He saw details he would never utter or dare to describe to mortal ears. The man's featuresdeclared nobility and power, while his eyes blazed with wisdom and compassion.
“I can see!” laughed the traveler.
“Yes, and never forget what you have seen.”
The wanderer furrowed his brow. “Am I not to stay?”
“No, messenger. You have work yet to do.”
The wanderer wiped his face. The heavy tears from crying out had made a mess of hisclothes. He looked about himself. A twisted olive tree glistened in moonlight. Darkness otherwise covered the earth. Then he remembered. He had finished his provisions days ago. He had come to this barren tree to die. He had cast himself down and wept himself to sleep. His hand fell to something soft on the ground. An olive. Other similarly dark bulbs lay about him. He wept again.
“Surely the Lordis in this place, and I did not know it!”
The basal grind--like an industrial coal sieve--ripped at the fibers of my soul. When the growl came through the medium, its overlay had been softened by her sultry croon. Many, ahem, “rituals” had been...pleasurable. But now I had graduated, or so Khosk had spoken through my exquisite teacher. Syrena. How I missed her tender touch as I stood alone in this clammy cemetery.
What were the honeyed words she chanted? “The succulent song of luring,” as she had whispered, her spiced breath awakening my potential...Ah, now I remember...
The nocturnal dance of Pan’s pantomime Calls forth prance from passion of mine --A riotous rhythm, an unruly rite, An endless spring of lascivious delight: Summons the foul Lord of Blights.
“Y-yes, Sire. I agree.”
I had hardly paid attention to my response, snared in the thoughts of her slender fingers’ caresses.
“Agree? Are you so important as to speak as my peer?”
“The realms have changed. You have acted wisely, though you are ignorant of the matter.I thank you for your short service.”
“Not a problem, M’liege. I live to ever serve you.”
The chuckle that echoed after my words felt as freshly spewed igneous rubbed over my intestines.
“Ah, yes...service. Yours shall be richly rewarded. I needed a vessel in whom I can completely trust.”
A full moon cast its ghostly strands around me, though a terrible shadow cloaked me from behind. During the chanting I had thought it merely branches moving in the light. Oh, how I had forgotten Syrena’s massages...er, messages. Now I saw the thick, spiky brambles were in fact Khosk. Or, rather, knew, as his tarry breath burned the nape of my neck. His strangely limping speech raked across my ears.
“It is time for you to become my soldier.”
“Um...I’m no combatant...Syrena could find you muscle...she’s good with muscle…”
“No, fool, not a soldier of strength. A soldier of soul. MY soul.”
The roots of my hackles twitched painfully at his words. I wasn’t liking where this was going. What were those words of returning? I so desperately needed to remember the words that fell from Syrena’s sweet mouth…
“Ha. Ha. Ha."
A massive limb moved its terrible branches over my head. But it was no tree. Oh no, where was Syrena’s gossamer fingers to brush away the fear? I really needed her now. Then, I didn’t. A foul, pallid burning filled my brain, raged into my eyes, and rushed out into the night. A horrible anguish, an endless hunger, and terrible knowing. Yes, knowing...knowledge unspeakable. Alas, “I” did speak. “...The Gates are shut, and your world is Mine.”
Seas lap with mournful kindness, Draped about as a silvery necklace Around the Land of the Loving Countess. The scent of sage, the runes of mages Forbodes ill for the unraveling ages, I glimpse a book rent of its pages. Sweetly come Her words afar off calling: Return to the beginning ere the Ending, So that in rest you will find rejoicing. Scree jostled the fifteen feet down to the grassy hillock. A swath of green marsh and shimmering rivers danced in a coruscation of silver and emerald. Opposite of the two travelers’ perch lay a grand monolith. Little resided around the forlorn jut of fractured stone. Birds surveyed the broken crown of stone from high above, their cries lost to the ears of the wingless far below.
The surprise and sadness stung Cèrson’s heart.
“I’m sorry, Geneviève. How could I know…”
“Know? Know?! That everything would...that She would....oh, Cèrsi. Why did all of this have to happen to us here? Now? After we’ve come so far.”
Geneviève’s shoulders shook with anguish as her eyes poured out hot rivulets.
“The price for the portal key back into the Ethereal cost us everything. Everything...for nothing. We’re too late.”
“Gen, I do not think our venture to Her domain was for nothing. We are the first to see this world. To see Her. Perhaps this is what She wanted…”
“Wanted? How can you speak of my Mother like that! She’s gone! Gone. What is a world for the One who created you?”
The seasoned warrior placed a firm hand on his beloved’s shoulder. He knew the pain that spurred her rage.
“I think She knew what was coming, Gen. I may not be Her avatar, but I can see the wisdom of calling Her only daughter back to a safe place--a place She had prepared. I think...I think She knew the Closing would destroy Her.”
The beautiful shield-maiden turned and clasped her hands around his scarred face. Her eyes as piercing as midwinter scrutinized his soul.
“How can you believe such things? I am of Her, and I did not know. Did not see. Did not sense...How is it the outlander She hated perceives intent that Her daughter did not foresee?”
“Because we both love you.”
Cèrson took her hands and kissed them before placing them on his chest and drawing her close. The smell of lavender and evening always permeated her presence. He breathed deeply and let his adoration for this demi-goddess to wash over his rugged heart, even as he sought to stretch forth his own fierce and protective aura.
The Lady let his strength support her as her sorrow streamed down his heavy plate-mail. Long had been her mission as her Mother’s emissary to the realms. Longer since she had left this pocket dimension hidden amid the multiverse to adventure. This blunt soldier had stood by her and had even slain his own father, a titan, to protect her. Now, at the closing of all things, he joined her in fulfilling her Mother’s vision.
Return to the beginning ere the Ending, so that in rest you will find rejoicing.
“Cèrsi, why must all good things end?”
“Only to bring forth another, better beginning, dearest.”
She raised her eyes once more to study his brown eyes.
“We cannot leave. The Doors have sealed.”
“I know this in my heart as well,” Cèrson replied.
“Then, Mother has given us a gift,” she whispered.
The warrior woman stepped back, taking her husband’s hand in her own.
“Let us go see what Mother may have hidden for us within this world...our world. Our home.”
Blood-cauldrons burning in angry flame Heaped up agony, overflowing shame Foul are the kindred hauled from hills Vile are the Vil’hal who villagers kill! Blessed Braddox, Breaker-of-Beast, Slaved the Wicked to save the least! Yes, Braddox Will-Snapper spared all When he clapped Grond with iron maul.
Grond had had enough.
The vermin race bound, used, and killed his people for sport. Vil’hal. тролль. Peikko. Gnomo. Troglodytarum. Tröll.* The tribal slurs' nuances mattered little; they all meant the same. Monster. Yet, who had cut off his hands and burned unbreakable cauldrons onto his limbs? Who had heated metal to glowing white and placed it upon his brow, the last thing Grond would ever see? Hatred was not innate to his kind. It had been cultivated. Grond fed its flame with each new grievance, and today it burned pure inside him. The villains had tortured and murdered his wife and his children.
The fiends had made him listen.
The quiet footsoldier in the High Lord’s Helborn Legion stood up in the pit he had been caged. He heard the dull clunk of forged metal rungs against their housing. He raised his ram-fists and struck his own ankles with blows that would flatten men and break troll bones. Agony, the taste of iron, and mud smashed into Grond’s mind. Pain nearly betrayed his plan, but his steeled will clamped back the anguish within him. He lay in his own blood for long spans. A sickly pop announced marrow rejoining bone. The warrior leaned against the wall, recovering from the grizzly ordeal. He took a ginger step and heard nothing beyond the plop of muck protesting his titanic paw.
Grond smiled as he had not in years.
Twenty men-at-arms hurled like flies in summer, shattered bone and broken mail tinkling on the stony ground. No guttural roar heralded Grond’s escape. He gave no alarm, no quarter, no hope. Ears keen by constant use picked man-breaths from horse-neighs, even as the stench of sweat and fear marked the cowards’ paths. The son of titans arose from his prison with judgment for the mortals who dared to chain him. Grond’s hammers shook the foundation of the hills and soon cries of dismay answered his blows.
Men scurried like smoke over stone to either escape or hamper the raging feral-troll. Like wheat before the scythe, smoke upon the wind, rows of men withered from his mammoth blows. Spears whistled, arrows howled, and Grond’s seasoned reflexes turned steel against steel. The thump of poisoned barbs against unflinching mail incited a chuckle from the living mountain. Weak lords these vermin had been. The flecks of their lifesblood hardly tarnished his mauls. The warrior forced the survivors into the wind and advanced.
A final chorus arose from the remnants. Grond understood his plan had succeeded. Standing upon a spire of rock, the victims and their victor loomed over the man-halls below. The giant could hear the bells and shouts down in the city. Grond raised his iron limb and smashed men and stone into dust. Another ironfist rose and fell. Another mortal and shale broke. At the last, Grond opened his mouth and released the pent-up rage of years of enslavement, torture, and murder. The timber of his warcry roared curses generations’ long and nine realms’ high. Man, beast, and mountain quailed at the voice of the trollkin’s hate. Hammer and shout pounded in a terrible crescendo, pouring forth slabs of stone upon the hidden vale. Death rained upon the halls of men with unrelenting speed. Silence followed the sickly echo of their screams amid the thunder of stones. The warrior’s wife and children’s smiling faces flickered within the haze of his mind’s eye. Whatever gods remained in Asgard had honored his cry for justice. The sacrifice upon the fire of the troll’s rage smelled sweet to his bitter heart.