Forge of Stones
"It is by fortune alone that man maintains his bountiful existence, unhindered by the forces beyond his grasp, unaware of what lies beyond. Once that veil is lifted, who can foretell the future?"
-Hilderich D'Augnacy, Visions of The Aftermath
She reveled in the darkly lit chambers, her form so very much like that of a swirling dervish. The locks of her hair mirrored the precious little light with a warm sheen of honey and brown. An ethereal smell of roses and lavender poured out of her skin, intoxicating the senses. She moved as if the ground was a mere illusion to be disregarded with her arms faintly bent upwards in prayer, a caress for the lithe forms of young gods. Her face had the impression of unborn awe, mesmerizing to see, inviolate to the touch.
She danced to the sounds of incessantly beating drums, in patterns and rhythms deep and rumbling that seemed to echo from the walls of her very soul. They seemed to follow behind a melody of strings as clear as an erupting mountain spring. Like a fresh dew that engulfed the chamber a band of flutes called out to unseen spirits, as if a ritual of old was being performed for her pleasure alone.
The music reached a crescendo, a ground-shaking climax. She became frenzied with passion, exhuming a mystical air of love, a beacon of a haven for all the ones who were unloved. An unseen pact with a muse beckoned behind each tempting gesture.
Her faint gossamer dress swirled, failing to contain her ethereal form in such a breathtaking way, that even the flames of the brazers around the chamber flickered in tune with her dancing form to cast shadows that seemed to have a life of their own.
The crowd around her was silent and still, wearing almost identical masks of brass, the few flames that illuminated the chamber adorning them with golden hues of honey and the distinctive glimmer of sunlight upon metal.
A single man stood at the edge of the dancing stage. He was robed in heavy linen, his face unmasked for everyone to see. Tears were running down his cheeks, welling under his chin in an unwavering steady flow. His face was a painful mix of sorrow and awe, his eyelids closed shut in a vain attempt to contain his tears.
At the climax of her dance, she laid her body down on the stone floor, and planted her feet and hands on the stage with her back forming an arc. She start to convulse in a familiar but never spoken way, the way of ecstasy. Her pelvis moved to the rhythm of the drums, faster and faster, as if an invisible lover was holding her aloft, their bodies mingling with lust.
The music came abruptly to a stop and utter silence filled the chamber. She springed herself on her knees, her hair concealing her face completely. The silence was almost deafening. Her ragged, fast breath was the only sound that could be heard. Then, the unmasked man spoke while bowing solemnly:
"Celia, I lack the words. The Chorus weeps in adoration. Let everyone be witness to this moment: Celia danced the Edichoros, and the Gods were pleased. So says the Chorus."
In a transient moment of still time, the crowd of masks said in one voice:
As soon as the word was spoken, the masked men dispersed as if answering to a silent summons and melted into the shadows, as if they were never really there, as if they had been a mirage, a background for this dance alone. The dancer and the unmasked man still remained.
He extended his arms, palms facing upwards, a gesture to the dancer or mayhap the Gods themselves. She stood up on her bare feet slowly, her hands touching her thighs over her gossamer dress, strands of her hair upon her bare shoulders. He spoke softly now, as if not to be overheard, even though there was not a living soul around in earshot.
"Celia, my love. Come."
At his words, she touched his palms and drew closer to him. She looked upon his face, wet with tears and lit by flickering flames, her hazel eyes still glittering with ecstasy, alight with enthusiasm, and yet forming a wizened look that belied her years.
She uttered his name with a feeling of relief.
"It is done. You need not worry anymore. Men and Gods alike will remember this night for all time," Amonas said sweetly while gently caressing her head.
"And you, will you cherish those tears?"
A faint smile formed on her mouth, a playful expression shone on her face and her eyes darted around his face with glee.
"Need you ask?"
His eyes ran all over her features, to her smooth hair, her sculpted nose, the lobes of her ears, her slender neck, her measured lips and back to her stare.
"I am only a woman, Amonas. I have to."
She craned her neck to meet his lips, tall as he was.
"I'm not worthy of such a gift."
Amonas told her as he stood still with black eyes peering at her closed eyelids.
"Speak no more."
Celia hushed him by touching his lips with hers. She then embraced his neck with both hands, softly but steadfastly guiding him towards her. Afterwards, they made love on that very stage. The silence of the chamber was broken only by the sound of sputtering candles and flaming braziers.
A man dressed in dark crimson robes and a sky blue sash made haste up the curatorium's long winding staircase. Perspiration covered his craggy, old leathery face and his gray bearded chin was still awash with the wine he had spilled only moments earlier.
"Damn the fools, damn them!"
He kept repeating these words to the deaf, heavy-set stone walls, with almost every breath. The flickering flame of the torch he held cast shadows of his form over the stones of the stair's steps and the dank walls. It resembled the form of a stumbling, muttering old fool. Even the shadows seemed to mock him, crouching even lower than him as the staircase finally unwound onto the roof of the curatorium.
"So, it has finally come to this," said the old man as he caught his breath, and started off to find what it was he had come looking for. His mind was not as sharp as when he was young, and he was caught unprepared. He fumbled around the roof while the lukewarm dusk gave way to the chilling, gloomy cloudy night.
He kept straightening his beard with one hand, keeping his eyes closed. His other hand was raised, waving a pondering finger in a hazy, uncertain rhythm. It looked as if it was trying to catch up with a silent tune only he could hear. Suddenly, he opened his eyes and set off with his head intently searching the floor.
The air smelled of liquorice and the burned wheat stalks of nearby farmsteads. It was the planting season. He looked annoyed, trying to pick up what seemed to be a loose cobblestone from the roof. It seemed to give no purchase and try as he might, he could not remove it.
Standing upright, he folded his arms and breathed deeply, his elbows sagging slightly, his chin almost touching his chest. He sighed, and then abruptly erupted with a flurry of curses, kicks, punches and stomps. Quite an unseemly attitude for a person of his stature.
A Curator. By mutual assent among his peers, not a very prestigious one, but nonetheless, a Curator. The men had chased him up the stairs with profound alacrity and ruthlessness. Their drawn swords looked dull in the little light that was left, but the white of their teeth seemed to shine uncannily behind their wide grins. Forcing himself to calm down, he drew a few deep breaths before standing over one ledge from the roof and shouting, almost in a screech:
An answering shout came from somewhere below: "Over here master Olom, over here!" The curator leaned over the ledge, searching for a face to direct his ire at to no avail. He shouted once more, throwing his fists wildly into the air. The men drew ever closer slowly but surely, an air of supreme confidence about them. They had cornered him and there seemed to be no escape. The chase would be over soon now.
"Hilderich, you mongrel! Get the keystone and run! Run like there's no tomorrow!", said the curator and Hilderich complied smartly to the best of his ability. The Curator felt a strange rush of stinging air, turned about slowly, and had time enough to yell one last time at his pupil:
"Run now! Find the one I dared not!"
As Hilderich ran outside the curatorium, his gaze locked with the despairing eyes of his master, whose last look implored him silently to live. One of the men lunged forward with his blade set to pierce the old Curator. The wizened form of master Olom for a moment seemed to sidestep the blow nimbly, but that was not so. The blade had struck true, and the old man fell on his back without grace. As the second man raised his blade for the final blow, they were both grinning, their faces showing their relish, their enjoyment. This was what they lived for, the rush of murder and the smell of blood. They went about it in revered silence, cherishing every moment.
Hilderich simply stood there for a moment, transfixed, overtaken by the speed and incredulity of what was taking place. Fear had crept up in him, and had saved his life. And it was fear now as well, that urged him to heed his master's order. In the next moment, Hilderich was running with eyes wide from horror, his hands gripping the green, flashy keystone with white knuckles.
"Had to make sure first," said the curator through the agonizing pain of the blade's blow while clutching his pendant. As the blade of one of his assailants came rushing down to meet his sternum, he was smiling with a glaze in his eyes, as if lost in a loving vision of the past. When he blinked next, himself, the curatorium, and the two assasins became a thing of the past. Bright white light suddenly filled the dusky plains accompanied by an eerie, unnerving silence.
Hilderich only felt a haze of heat and a tingling at the back of his head. He dared not stop or look back, he simply ran. And he prayed.
The grand audience hall was fabulously lit through grandiose arched windows on either side. Sunlight glistened off the brass and gold etchings everywhere around the hall, from chandeliers to decorative ornaments, invariably marked with the livery of the Castigator. Crests and banners engraved with family mottoes finely crafted from materials of the highest quality, hung in carefully positioned places around the hall. These denoted the respective family's status, lineage, and deeds.
Sweet aromas of burnt incense, cinnamon and musk permeated the air. Bouquets of freshly picked flowers with the colors of the rainbow were abundantly strewn around in neat vases and edifices all around the thick marble pillars that supported the magnificently painted dome, depicting wondrous scenes from the history, mythology, and tradition of the Outer Territories.
A ruckus of tingling bells and a flurry of strung chords echoed in the vastness of the audience hall, a single tinny voice singing along:
Five pieces of gold that shone, and the sight of her alone
Another man atop his throne, how will he ever atone
Bloody hands reach for the tome, will he ever dare to come home?
This ballad may remind you of lore, I might even sound a bore
The heart of it still remains, all will always be the same
As long as clouds grace the sky, as long as He will never die
The jester played out the last part of the tune, merrily dancing around the main hall, a wide smile was carved on his painted, multicolored face. As he hit the last of the chords, he ended his performance with a wide curved bow towards the man who sat in the center of the audience throne, his sole spectator, and waited there, until he heard a morose voice:
"I tire of you too easily these days, Perconal. You used to be more, ah ... Fun", said the voice that belonged to the Castigator of the Outer Territories.
"I could do the leap-frog again, sire," the jester countered with a hopeful proposition.
"That only seemed funny when you leap-frogged onto the Patriarch and the Procrastinator Militant. Never saw a Procrastinator Militant fumble for his sword like that before," the Castigator responded absent-mindedly, his head resting on his left hand, a goblet of wine on the other.
"No crowd today, sire. Who could I leap-frog onto then?", the jester insisted while fumbling with his crown of bells, his smile turning into an ever more persistent grin.
"No crowd indeed. I believe I tire of crowds as well lately."
"Perhaps ... an orgy?", proffered the jester, shamelessly making a rude pelvic thrust in the air, his hands mockingly grasping an imaginary waist.
The Castigator seemed to offer a little time to the idea, but a disapproving nod of his head made the jester suddenly wear the face of a crying, hurt man, his shoulders slumped, hands knead together, as if pleading.
"No, Perconal. I'm not in the mood."
"Then games sire! Games are always fun! And a challenge! Or are you perhaps ... Afraid? Surely not!", the jester said in a booming voice, and then exploded into a series of mock athletic gestures like running, jumping and javelin throwing, flexing pitifully thin muscles, kneeling and offering an invisible crown to the Castigator, looking as solemn and expressionless as a grave.
"Games, you say?", the Castigator seemed briefly intrigued, and now rested his head on both hands, his voice slightly muffled.
While he seemed to ponder the idea, the jester scurried soundlessly near the table where the goblet of wine lay, and with a wide grin forming on his shallow face once again, he mischievously reached for it. The Castigator took notice, but said nothing. Eyes darting to and fro, the jester sipped some wine off the goblet, his painted lips smearing its bronze, delicately decorated surface with white powder, red and violet paint. As the jester closed his eyes and savored the exquisite vintage, he felt steel like ice hard against his throat.
"Feuillout usually leaves too dry an aftertaste, don't you think?", the Castigator said to the jester in all seriousness, the knife in his hand set against the jester's throat, its edge flashing bright from the sunlight.
"Sire. I transgressed", replied the jester with any hint of grin or smile cast out instantly from his fear-stricken face.
"You did, Perconal. I hate it when you do that. I thought more highly of you. I believed you to be above such things," said the Castigator in an emphatically disappointed tone of voice.
"I was tempted sire. I haven't tasted wine, any wine that is, since ... I really can't remember. Truth be told sire, I can't."
The jester almost cried out the last few words, his head bowing in submission, his hands fumbling with his chordus, careful not to touch any strings lest he sound a note.
"Well, no matter. Tomorrow you will be castigated, forty lashes should be enough. People have been hanged for less. Water is so scarce, yet you would risk your life to indulge in wine tasting, no less. I think I'm growing a soft spot for you, Perconal."
"Thank you sire, Gods bless you and your divine rule. Can I at least have another sip, sire? It is so sweet," said the jester with a half-formed smile and the hint of a gesture towards the goblet.
"Another sip? Ha! There you go Perconal, you actually made me laugh. Ha ha!", a hearty laugh creased the Castigator's usually bored, flat face and shook his chest and head, before throwing the goblet on a nearby column, wine spilling all over the shiny, green-veined, black granite floor.
"There you go! Lap it up, you fool! Leave none for the maidens!" shouted the Castigator, a furious laughter welling up, unable to contain it. And Perconal the Jester helplessly ran about the marble floor, trying to sip as much of the spilled wine as he could, his bells and jingles ringing and echoing in the empty hall.
"None of my business, young sir, but given the chance and all since I don't get many passengers through here this ferry, being so far away from the Basilica Road and all, might I ask where do you come from? Beg your pardon, too," the boatman ventured in a fast talkative manner, affording his passenger a casual gaze, beating the boat's rows in and out of the water with a calm, slow rhythm.
"Nicodemea. Far to the west, if you haven't heard of it. Is this safe? The fog, I mean."
The young passenger answered in an absent-minded fashion, his question trailing off with a hint of worry and nervousness, his eyes averted from the surrounding fog and water, focused instead on the boat itself as if an invisible wall had made such an effort vain.
"Why shouldn't it be? The water's dead still and there be no rocks on the other side, just green grass, young sir. You carry nothing more than your person, so missing the platform shouldn't be a bother. A simple matter, sir. We'll be there before you know it too. Looking for a mule or a horse, by any chance? You seem to have a long way to go ahead of you, ain't I right?"
"But the fog. Isn't it..."
The young man hesitated to add his thought fully, and a sour expression appeared on his face.
"Thick? Damn thick fog this time of the year, lifts at around noon, sets in before dusk. Pretty normal, sir. Come to think about it, I didn't catch your name. Care to share it in a friendly discussion? Reilo's mine," the ferry man interjected with a smile part glossy silver, part cavernous lack of teeth.
"Ahem, I'm Molo. Thessurdijad Molo," the young man said after a small pause and some fidgeting about with his cloak and belt before he revealed a gloved hand, proffering it to the boat handler.
"Can't right now lad, kinda caught up in rowing, remember? But very much obliged to meet you nevertheless, young sir. I'm Reilo, Reilo the boatman. Don't get many nice people like you around here. 'Specially not from the western parts," the ferry man nodded in acknowledgement, underlining the fact he was rowing by enthusiastically flapping the rows ineffectually above the water's surface, before adding with a note of apprehension:
"Not to sound too promiscuous sir, but what's a nice gent like you doing crossing these no-good-parts for?"
"Well you are quite talkative a fellow aren't you, Reilo? I'm a curator, on an errand, that's all," the young man rearranged his cloak, and peered past the boat man, through the fog, without success of glimpsing anything else than a gray oozing atmosphere and a thin shiny sliver of murky water.
"Must be quite an errand to travel that far, eh?"
"That, it is indeed," said the young man sounding suddenly grave. The fog started to lift about then and a light breeze rushed around them, the feeling of chilled clean air a welcome change on their cheeks.
"There you are sir Molo, fog's lifting. Clockwork, eh?", the gaping mouth of the man lending little of the associated perfection to the word.
"If you say so, Reilo."
"And once you're on the other side, how 'bout resting your aching feet for a while, eh? I got a cousin, fine lad. He's got comfy beds, real straw and all. Sensible prices too, mind you," the boat man tried to press on his advantage while rowing the last few yards towards the shore.
"I'm looking to keep on moving, thank you," Molo answered politely.
"Then a horse might come in handy? Got a nephew, has a couple o' fine workhorses he could sell you cheap if I put a word too. It'd almost be a steal."
Reilo blinked one eye in a way that could have offered an onlooker too many wrong connotations.
"I won't be needing any of that, thank you Reilo," said Molo, stressing his expressed gratitude as well as his gentle patience by accenting his thanks.
"Alright sir, hope there are no regrets later on," said the boatman, somewhat disappointed his far too obvious sales pitch didn't hit off as he had hoped.
"Believe me, no regrets," answered Molo, and stepped off the boat and onto the river's shore, one hand on his knapsack, a walking rod in the other one. Soon, he picked up a brisk pace and after a few dozen feet met the road going east. He checked his few belongings one last time as a late afterthought and set off once again.
His feet were sore. Cold air rushed to meet his face, the flimsy cloak he wore offering a little less than adequate protection. Tall grass grew on either side of the rocky path through the hills. The cries of a crow accompanied the howling gusts of the wind and the sky was painted a bleak gray, just like it had invariably been for the last few days. He looked around, searching for some kind of shelter at least until the wind decided to die down. He knew he had to rest soon, his body ached and his legs felt like they were cast in stone.
He spotted the large bark of a tree. It looked like a large hollowed out oak, grizzly and old. He made a dash of strained effort to reach it quickly as it lay further up the hill. A little more pain and then he could sit for a change, he thought. Perhaps even sleep, cold wind or not.
The oak was a perfect fit, large enough to lay down with only a small opening that even a lean man had to go through sideways. He was lean. As well as hungry, cold, tired and groggy. He put down his knapsack and grimaced from the pain of stiff, overworked muscles. He lay down on the ground, and felt like all his cares and troubles in the world had been suddenly lifted. He felt light as a feather and a sweet numbness encircled his senses.
He stretched his feet and looked upwards, through a small crack on the bark that let the view of the sky seep in. His sight wandered to the clouds passing overhead, gray tinted whisps of smoke on a sea of blue and black, reminding him of forlorn shapes running through a twisting, foaming river.
He closed his eyes and muttered a prayer, thanking his God for the timely shelter. He felt as if he was being looked after and cared for. To him, it was as if his pilgrimage was an extraordinary thing, a matter of unusually grave importance. He felt the mission he had to carry out was a mission worthy of every help and mercy. All he had to do was have faith, and he would persevere. His God would keep a watchful eye, and provide.
Soon he fell asleep, laying there looking as dead as the wood around him. He dreamt, but he would remember nothing when he would wake up. His chest rose and fell with a slow, deliberate rhythm. All around the oak, the thin grass bend where the wind blew. The crows had stopped their crying and some of them were perched on the very same oak.
A few drops of rain started to fall, and pretty soon the drops turned into a drizzle, thin and almost refreshing, a shower of a gift that the earth accepted eagerly. He was dry, and he was warm. He thought to himself, 'God always provides' and fell into a dreamless sleep.
The City of Pyr
"It is the will of the Gods for man to live as such, to be humbled by his misgivings and sins, to be laid low. For if it was man's destiny to live free as he desired, he would sooner rather than later turn upon his own, his desires becoming a fatal trap, a wretched condition any man worth living strives to keep in check daily, with prayer and the Law as his guide. For without the Law, what is man but a cunning animal?"
- Arch-minister Feinglot XXIV, Porfyria Voluntas, Vol. II
Dangers of the trade
The first thing that assaulted Hilderich's senses were the smells. Lost in a smelting crowd of city people, the smells were overpowering: the acrid sweat of unkempt horses mingled with rosewood and cinder scraps from the carpenters' workshops. Heavy spices like cinnamon and uwe flared his nostrils while an essence of oils and meats wandered through the air. The smell of filthy beggars waxing and waning around every corner, its temporary absence filled in with incense from close by temples and intoxicating perfumes from passing, illustrious carriages.
The mix of sounds though felt familiar. It reminded him of bees buzzing through the meadows back home, whole swarms feeding on the nectar of roleva flowers over a golden carpet swaying gently under the evening gale. Now and then some voices stood taller than the rest, hints of tradesmen selling their wares and the ever present and watchful Ministers announcing laws, edicts, verdicts, punishments, and religious texts, all for the ears and minds of the good people of Pyr. The cacophony was further accented by the clacking sounds of hooves, the cries of pigs and the pleas of beggars.
Tall arches overhead cast angled shadows everywhere, the walls of the buildings like sheer cliffs towering over the palpitating mass of people and animals. Blue-gray rock and lime mortar dominated the market's landscape, the wear-torn cobblestones of the streets a hazy washed white wherever the grit and the mass of people allowed a small glimpse. Street after street, wall after wall, bronze engraved plaques embellished with holy texts and iconography hung on arches, balconies and posts, in favor of the Gods, in memory and glory of the Castigator and the Pantheon.
If the market was the heart of the city as its inhabitants claimed, then the popular piece of wisdom Hilderich had heard about Pyr being a heartless bitch seemed at once both right and wrong. Every single cast, class and type of man was to be found here: they were buying, selling, begging, stealing, killing, blackmailing and dying, all in one place. He had also heard there were parts of the market where the suns had never shown upon them since the city was built. There were dark corners where those who entered usually did not reappear, and when they did, blood that was not their own had soiled them. From what he was seeing before his eyes, no story could do the place justice. Everything could happen in the market of Pyr, that much he could imagine.
The beggars had become part of the landscape: blinds, invalids, all sorts of castaways and society's detritus were tugging away at embroidered hems, pleading with sore voices and grotesque faces. Those of them who bothered the wrong people time and again were soon beaten or stabbed to death by lackeys and guardsmen, left for dead on the same spot. As if that was not enough, they also seemed to attract the ire of some of the merchants and artisans for not having the decency to crawl away from near their workshops and stalls and die someplace else where they would not put off potential customers.
But this was at the same time the place where everything of import came to be; this was where produce from the surrounding fields and indeed neighboring territories was gathered and sold to those who could afford it. This was where artisans created common everyday wares, materials and tools as well as delicate, commissioned works of art. This was the place were deals and partnerships were entered and broken, contracts signed and carried out. This was the place where everyone, whether a layman or a noble, had some kind of business.
This was the place were the Ministers' chants were heard every day, preaching, teaching, and enforcing the religion that is Law. The market in that sense, was a living representation, a miniature of where and how the people of Pyr lived their lives, and even how some of them lost them.
Hilderich was drifting along the current of people flowing incessantly through the market, occasionally bumping onto variably indifferent or protesting men, trying to take caution of the treads of carts, running heralds and practicing pickpockets. He could hear the Minister from the next street calling out a long list of names, while his eye caught two men in an unlit alley cracking another man's skull, their shadowy outline briskly contrasted with the lit background of the large street that ran behind the small alley. It seemed dishearteningly clear that this was business as usual in the market, that some code of practice had been followed and the formalities obeyed, killing a faceless man hidden away from the light of the suns.
His almost random course took him closer to the Minister's spot, an elaborate fountain made of granite, engraved with scenes of an historic battle from the Heathen times he could remember learning about as a child but could not immediately recognize. The Minister held a distaff on one hand, heavy-looking and oblique, and was still reading names off a long unwinding scroll fitted in some kind of extensible hook on the distaff that seemed purposefully designed. He wore a long robe made of violet velvet with a gold embroidered hem and a silver-lined crest of the Outer Territories woven on his chest. On his head lay a small black cap with a single emerald denoting his office, and both of the robe's arms were filled with holy texts written in Lingua Helica, the Territories' formal language, stitched in purple silk.
The ministers Hilderich had known made offerings to the Gods, upheld the Law and taught it to the people that looked to them for guidance in their daily lives. These holy men seemed somewhat distasteful, one might even call them pompous. He wondered what Master Olom's remark would have been and he was reminded of the duty he had yet to fulfill. He ignored the small mass of people gathered around the Minister as well as the rest of the still unfolding list of names, and lost himself once more in the throng of people. His senses had become acutely attuned by now, searching for a sign that would bring him a step closer to finding the one man he was searching for ever since that fateful night.
He conjured in his mind a brief glimpse of that night, an almost morbid recollection of what had happened. He had barely had time to stop and ponder the minutiae, while trying to get to Pyr as fast as possible, the place where he had to start his quite possibly fruitless search. The more he thought about what had exactly happened, the more he failed to grasp how everything had come crashing down like an avalanche: the perfect stillness in his life had been washed away by sheer and utter terror, an unavoidable terrible fate. Such was the end of Master Olom.
Even though he would not admit to it, he felt he had somehow cheated death on that night, that it should have been him rather than his Master or at least he should have had the same luck, at least as a matter of principle. Thankfully wise master Olom, he thought, had believed otherwise and bought him time enought to live and make the most of his life. He would complete his master's lifetime work. He would not be doing it for his master's sake alone. If Olom had been right ... Hilderich could not imagine the consequences that would imply.
Never pausing in his stride, Hilderich closed his eyes and clutched the keystone his master had entrusted him with ever so tightly. He had taken extra precautions ever since he had to carry the strange artifact with him. He always kept it on his person, and had fashioned a small metal holder with a small but sturdy chain fastened to his thick leather belt. The holder resembled the small cage of a sparrow. It was made of thin sheets of metal he had scrounged off the stables of an inn, the second day since he ran away from that explosion.
He remembered that vividly. An inexplicable explosion of light and heat, the sound of hundreds of steam engines going off at the same time. It must have been something ancient, there was no other logical explanation. But his knowledge of the Old People and their ways and artifacts was little compared to his master's and as far as he knew, no such examples were in master Olom's care. Hilderich had never seen or heard any hint of such awesomely destructive or powerful items since his apprenticeship began. He was starting to warm to the idea that it had perhaps been the Gods themselves that were responsible after all.
He let out a sigh without noticing. He looked crestfallen, his expression sour like unripe neranges. He had been so deeply engrossed in thought, that when he ventured a look around him he saw he was utterly lost, without a sense of direction in a part of the market conspicuously calm, lacking the overwhelming mass of people that at least offered him a false sense of safety that was nevertheless more welcome than none at all.
The far away din of the market proper could still be heard, but he had walked quite a distance and the crowd of people looked a little more than a milling sea of garments and bustling feet. From the corner of his eye he glimpsed a pair of shady figures that seemed to be stalking him, probably had been for a while, and from their earliest motions felt they were just about to gang up on him.
Hilderich was not a stoutly built fellow, and did not consider himself a man of action or someone capable of putting up a serious fight. But he had faith in his master's work, and his quest had to take precedence over everything else. He had to preserve his life in order to preserve the keystone, so he chose the most viable and logical course of action under the circumstances: he ran like hell.
He suddenly darted off towards the direction of what seemed to be a large bell tower, and ventured a slight look over his left shoulder to get the bearings of the figures behind him. They were just beyond hand's reach when he started running, his heavy cloak waving wildly, feet scurrying on the cobbled street.
One of them cursed profoundly and the other one shouted at him to stop, then both of them went on a chase after him. Hilderich went right and left crossing through alleys and larger streets, sometimes under the cover of shadow and others under the sunlight, trying to keep the tower that somehow seemed a public, safe place in sight, as well as give his pursuers the slip. He thought that surely, they wouldn't dare have a go at him in a public place in daylight. At least, that was what he was counting on. They seemed to prefer shadowy, lonely spots. He reminded himself to avoid the shadows.
The sound of boots on stone was still unmistakably behind him. Sweat had started to pour out of his body. He went past small houses, inns, and squares, while fleeing for what would certainly be his life. Curiously enough his mind registered that not a housewife or elder man ventured more than an indifferent look at the chase taking place in front of their eyes. Only the children paused in their play to look startled and amazed, point and giggle excitedly.
His feet started to ache and his breathing became short, almost painful. Fire welled up in his lungs and then he knew he could not keep this up for long. The tower he had set out to reach did not seem much closer than earlier. He ventured a slight look over his right shoulder, and couldn't see either of the figures chasing him. He listened intently for a few moments and could not make out the distinct noise of chasing boots, only rather his own two feet galloping achingly. He allowed himself a drop in pace and eased his breathing. He came to a slow stop near a shadowy wall, and bent over resting his hands on his knees. He threw scared looks around him, hoping that the chase had been over, that his assailants had somehow given up.
"Don't ever run off like that again."
The man's gruff voice seemed to come through the wall of stone, but he was only hiding deeper into the shadow of an adjoining alley. Hilderich instinctively turned around and saw a flash of light hinting at an unsheathed knife or sword, its wholeness under the cover of dark.
Hilderich drew enough of a breath to dart off again in another random direction, slipping away at the last minute like before, but then he noticed the other man: a red-haired bearded brute, pieces of armor showing underneath his shabby clothes with a jagged knife in hand. The big man stood a few paces to his right, steadfastly covering the only way out of his predicament.
With no real options left, Hilderich suddenly leaped on the man that had appeared from within the shadows, blade or no blade, in what could only really be a selfless last act of defiance. His mind flashed with the thought that he was soon about to die and fail his master for the last time. While he leaped he gathered his fist aiming for the man's head, trying to deliver as much pain as possible. His punch never connected.
The man still standing inside the shadows, expertly and calmly took a step back bending his back slightly, Hilderich's wild effort going awry. He hit nothing but air, lost his balance and made a counter-step trying to compensate. Just as he could feel his face freeze in astonishment, he brought his other hand backwards in order to try and have another go at punching his assailant. He did not manage that in any event though, because he winced and doubled-up at the paralyzing pain from the knee that had firmly and powerfully connected with his belly. He felt his stomach empty itself of its contents and his sight go blurry. A hint of red clogged his sight and his feet went limp and heavy, his breathing shallow. The last thing he saw before he passed out, was a grinning mouth and the icy clear flash of a steel blade.
She woke up with cold sweat on her forehead. Her temples damp, a few locks of hair glued against her face. She drew the bedsheets against her body, and curled up onto the empty side of her bed. She felt the unborn child inside her stir uncomfortably, as if awoken with terror by the same dream as she. She laid her hands on her belly and gently caressed it, feeling the child inside calm down and freely flow in a warm inner sea of love and protection.
The unborn child fell silent, its tiny heart barely stating it was alive and well inside its mother's womb. The mother, on the other hand, was still visibly shaken from her vision. She had seen rivers of blood engulfing her and her child, and fires bright as the suns all around her. She saw Amonas' head on a pike along with hundreds of other men's heads, hellishly put on display in a gory show. In front of them seething masses of animals, rather than men, were cheering with voices that echoed like broken glass brushing up against uncut stone.
The hair on her back was raised and she felt as helpless as a thawing flake of snow, unable to comfort herself and lay back to sleep. The shocking images in her nightmare had burned through her waking heart and mind. She stood up with some effort and with a slow attentive pace, went to the balcony. The night was invitingly chilly, offering a crystal clear sky. The few clouds overhead were like thin gossamer webs the Gods might have woven to catch a falling star.
She peered out over the never-sleeping city, its market always alight with torches and large common pyres. Strange shadows flickered on walls, while fleetingly illuminated faces with blank expressions as if in a haze of ecstasy whirled in the rhythmic dance of the city like strands of cloth spun in the air.
The Ministry Tower and the Disciplinarium were lit as bright as day, their proud banners flung high and wide. A procession of ministers was underway, and another festivity in the Disciplinarium's garden that sported tricks of fire and light was taking place, washing the rest of the city with golden red hues and splashes of green and blue light as if there was not a care in the whole world.
The rugged brown stonework of the balcony felt rough under her smooth touch. She moved her hand unconsciously across the stone while gazing at the city, vainly searching for her loved one among the sands of men. Her hand seemed to dance, ebbing and flowing to a melody even she herself couldn't hear, like conducting an invisible chorus of spirits of old that seemed to inhabit this very stone.
She closed her eyes momentarily and the image of Amonas' head haunted her, blood still pouring hot out of him. She held her breath and moved her lips in a silent prayer, wishing her dream was nothing more than simple fear and worry of whatever lay ahead. She thought to herself that her faith should not waver, that she must be strong enough for Amonas' sake and above all for the sake of their unborn child. She wished for the good winds of fortune to carry them forward and hoped that all would be as it should be.
Her child stirred once more, soothing her soul and bringing a faint smile to her face. She went back inside and laid herself on her bed, her hands resting on the still empty side. Sleep overtook her in peace, her face a statue of serenity. She saw no more dreams or nightmares on that night.