MELTING GOLD AND ASHES



MELTING GOLD AND ASHES, by Dennis Mombauer

 

The massive and ornate ship was visible even from the hills above the city, swarmed by ant-like workers who had been carrying pyrewood onboard its planks for days. When the ship would be ignited, the flames would burn hotter and higher than any flames had burned in the city’s long history, and their blaze would release the soul of a great warrior from its corporeal vessel.

People had come from far and wide to pay their respects to the fallen legend, from amidst the raging wars and their various campaigns, out of distant kingdoms and even from beyond the pearl-white seas, leaving their troops, families and homes behind. For weeks, the city had been bustling with tales and recollections of the warrior’s life, most vividly in the immense palace complex, where tonight, the ceremony of his cremation would be initiated by the setting sun.

#

“We have gathered here because a man died, and because this man was not just any man: he was Tlamord Laygrin. He was there when the wars began, back in the lands of Solpforte; and he was there when they engulfed the world, when emperors toppled like dominos and peoples scattered like leaves in the wind. He was a man of great prowess, proud and accomplished; he has bested many opponents in single combat and led armies, he has burned cities or defended them when no one else would. At long last, the chains of the underworld have hooked into his flesh and pulled him down, but not without a struggle; and when he departs this world in the fire-lit darkness, he will have left his mark.”

The vaulted halls stretched into the distance, filled by an army of grim faces, by hundreds of lords and dignitaries, grizzled war veterans and shrewd diplomats, united in one place for the first time. Through some architectural miracle, the supreme curate’s voice had carried through the entirety of the vast room, but it faded out now, and the hall ebbed and flooded only with the current of a thousand lungs pushing air out and a thousand mouths breathing it in again.

“He was a great warrior, alright.” A barrel-chested, one-armed giant rose from his chair, raised a gilded cup and emptied it in one gulp. “I knew him as a young man in Solpforte, when he was barely out of his children’s sandals, already faster and more capable than most of his peers. It’s hard to imagine, but back then, we took this to be nothing more than a border feud … not the makings of history. We didn’t know what was about to happen, and he didn’t know, he was just a kid looking for some adventure and steady pay. He already had this thrice-tribulated talent of his, although it wasn’t honed and developed yet, and I was glad to have him as a recruit.” The giant paused for effect. “If you had seen Laygrin back then, you would’ve never guessed what a fucked-up monster he would become.”

With all the swordmasters, career soldiers and bodyguards, the palace halls were filled with more weapons than most active battlefields, and a wave of metallic rustling travelled along the tables whenever someone made a sudden move. The supreme curate was on his feet again, even though the one-armed giant hadn’t sat down, and most eyes turned back to him.

“We are all gathered here to pay our respects, not to insult a dead man. Let us remember Tlamord Laygrin as he was; not as some horrifying creature, but as a human being.”

“I am not here to pay respect.” A tribal chieftain toward the far end of the room glared at the curate. His heavily tattooed torso provided a chronicle of the war in his part of the world, of catamaran fleets and sinking treasure ships, with serpentine patterns representing islands and volcanic peninsulas. “This man who is dead here, he was not been my friend, he was been my enemy. I am not come to pay respect, I am come to see his corpse.”

The chieftain’s speech was stiff and had a foreign rhythm to it, like the sounds of some deep-diving ocean creature. “When the five-lizard fought the three-flyfox in the waters of the seven-eel, he was there like soul-spiral, wicked and not-of-us.” The chieftain’s teeth had been inlayed with sea crystals and mother-of-pearl, glittering in the hall’s dim luster like a coral reef opening up in the shoals of a bay.

“I was laid in wait with my warriors, one great-pack of spearmen, watching the fleet of three-flyfox catamarans round the cape in the darkness. They been coming for the lagoon settlement under cover of night, but we know and we ready, up on the jungle hills. My best knife divers been waiting in the water, led by feared sharkhunter, and they been prepared to slaughter ships as soon as spears had rained down. Slowly the catamarans was rounding the cape, slowly they was coming into range–”

“And then Laygrin ambushed your ambush from behind. Yes, I’ve heard this story.” A gaunt woman with gouged-out eyes sipped from her wine, half of which ran over her chin and dripped to the table. Her mouth had been cut open and grown back together slanted, turning her smile into a grimace of scarred tissue. “He wasn’t worse than all the other great warriors in this war, only more successful. You all know he did what he had to do, that he didn’t kill for fun, only to win his victories. He was a man capable of making hard choices and doing the necessary things, with a stomach for violence – but the war was never his passion, just something he excelled at.”

“He took your eyes, for fuck’s sake,” someone shouted from a sideward hall.

“That he did.” The woman flashed her mutilated grin again. “But we were enemies, and he did what anyone would’ve done.”

“Not anyone.” An iron-clad paladin smashed a fist on the table, her voice hard and unforgiving. “I would never do this to a prisoner of mine. Even war, even this war, has a code of conduct, unspoken rules.”

“Oh, he understood the accursed rules, and he twisted them to his advantage.” The barrel-chested brute, who had been standing the entire time, gulped down another drink with his remaining hand. “He twisted them damned well. After we both had left Solpforte, we met again many years later, on a different continent. Both of us had long since changed sides, and the vexed tides of this war had pitted us against each other: I was defending the impenetrable Citadel of Nebergen, and he was besieging it in the service of some empire or another.

“If you have been to Nebergen, you know that it was a piece of work, built into solid rock, with cyclopean battlements and gates as high as a dozen men. I felt pretty secure, having two arms and all, and some of the world’s best archers under my command – that is, until Laygrin rode up to the fortress like a madman, all alone, and challenged, I quote, ‘the one lion among the turtles.’ Well, you know what happened, don’t you? I had no choice but to follow the rules, uphold my honor, accept his challenge.” Another pause. “Lost my arm, lost the fortress.”

“Aren’t you sweet.” The eyeless woman spat out, which caused the other side of her table to erupt in a burst of drawn weapons. “He exploited your flaws, and then he spared you: for your life was his to take. You were too proud to hold onto your arm, and suddenly you’re following the ‘rules of war’?” She turned to the armored paladin. “And you, the untouchable ‘Shield of Patashavan’, you follow them, too? Is it part of the rules to bury your enemies alive?”

“I bring them back into the earth to cleanse them, just as the fire will cleanse this world from the rotten corpse of Tlamord Laygrin. I fought him many times in Patashavan’s holy war, when the front stretched all along the Kumat expanse, over half a continent, with battles raging across its entire length. I met him on the field of honor, and I saw first-hand that he had none: his combat skills were impressive, but they were dirty, tainted, leaving his opponents with no chance and no dignity. He was out there to win, and he ignored all the rules to do it.”

“As did everyone else. But Laygrin wasn’t just a powerful fighter, he was able to understand other people, to excavate the hidden mechanisms of their minds. If you gave him enough time, he could find a solution to every problem, a weakness in every enemy.” The woman shrugged. “But I guess he has run out of time now, and I’m not crying for him.”

#

“He didn’t just see the weaknesses in his enemies.” A lean Kaiterian, whose skin was a tapestry of scars, raised his arms as if for prayer. “I met him after he had been enslaved by the Acid Tyrant and led the revolt, when he made his ceaseless march from the great basins of the Tyrant’s capital through the dried-up Inner Sea. He had escorted boat convoys from coast to coast before, back when there still was water, so he knew the landmarks; but it was still a long way to go. When we reached the half-point, many of us were growing desperate: it was an alien landscape, with strange moons and stars hanging over us, and transformed sea creatures following our tracks in ever-increasing numbers.

“People were losing hope, giving in to the indescribable wet pull at our feet, letting themselves sink down into the slush and die. Laygrin saw that, and he gave us a goal, a new sense of purpose. He spoke, and he spoke about our innermost dreams so precisely as if they were his own, about our journeys as if he had made them himself. Maybe he just wanted his army to live through the march … or maybe he genuinely cared about us.”

“He always got the things he wanted … but these things were fleeting, ephemeral, not fully formed ideals or principles.” The certainty in the blind woman’s speech was unsettling.

“He was wicked massacre-man, a soul-spiral twisted in on himself, just wanting to kill, travelling the world and making slaughter wherever he came.” The chieftain’s teeth gleamed again in their multicolored array. “A man would care about family, about his tribe, about brothers in womb and brothers in blood.”

“And about honor.”

“But if he had, what would have changed? Many of those with ideals switched sides again and again as this war grew, as nations collapsed and others formed from the rubble – many of them are here tonight, fleas on a still-warm carcass.”

“It would have changed things for him, for his soul. He must have thought his fight was for something. Everyone fights for something.”

“His soul?” Laughter travelled around the table, though not everyone joined in.

“Well, he fought for many things, but I don’t believe he ever justified them to himself. He was beyond that, you know? He didn’t care why he was doing something, he just did it as best he could.”

“That’s untrue.” The giant from Solpforte hurled his booming voice into the hall once more. “He had principles, and he revealed them in his actions. He believed in strength, in not backing down, in unflinching bravery. He may not have been a fair fighter, but he respected prowess in battle, the accomplishments of a soldier or general.”

Silence set in throughout the hall, but it didn’t last longer than a few heartbeats.

“I am called Sciaria, the oracle of Omalopal. I have never met this deceased man in the flesh, but I have fought him for many years, like the wind that tries to carry away fog from a valley. I have seen over vast distances, at once spatially, temporally, and morally, and I have advised kings and commanders against him, until the deceased man finally fell. I made his mind whither and led to the period of his long sickness; I am responsible for his defeat on the Barbed Fields.”

Rings of lightless metal clinked against each other whenever the speaker moved her fingers, like the scales of a reptile circling its prey. “Believe me, then, that a man’s actions do not betray his principles, that his innermost self is not revealed by them, that he is not equal to the things he does. A man believes things, and sometimes, he acts on those beliefs; but more often than not, he just acts out of necessity and circumstance, to fulfill his basic needs or in compromise with the beliefs of others.”

The seer had no hair, no pupils, no lips, no lashes; she was dried out, her skin stretched over a sharp skull with opiate-rotten eyes. “The deceased man had no beliefs, however: he was as empty as a storm, uncaring for the world and also himself, doing only what was in his nature to do, and doing that without reservation. He was not evil, nor was he good: he just was.”

A bald hunter stepped forward: “Yes. I have fought with him atop the skeleton glaciers, on the far border of Gudleann, where the shiver-skimmers crept in from the north: and he was the coldest thing out there, as devoid of emotion as a spur of iron. He didn’t care how many we killed, or when we burned the villages to the ground; he was leading a punitive expedition, and he was the most merciless of all the merciless men they sent up there.”

“He had no beliefs, but he had emotions, no matter what you believe … he wasn’t cold through and through, not all the time.” The eyeless survivor took over from the hunter with his hanging flaps of skin, who had just recounted the tale of Gudleann’s northern border. “We were comrades in the last stand at the Salt Fortress, where we held out for reinforcements until there was nothing left to defend; we became lovers afterwards, together for quite some time – and mortal enemies later, much later. If he was here now, I would kill him – but there was a time when we were inseparable.”

“Nobody denies that he had emotions, and while its admirable that he didn’t let himself be overcome by them, he lacked something else, some kind of inner structure. I always fought for Patashavan, for the double unity of quartz and crystal, for the Twinned Codex.”

“Why do you talk of Patashavan as of a thing from the past? Did it fall?”

“Haven’t the news reached you? The Kumal expanse was ravaged by fires, the forests burning and the mineral-rich swamps turning to vapor, while we still fought and held and pushed the enemy back – until the flames reached Patashavan itself. Only ashes are left now, and the few of us who still have faith in the double way, however weak this faith may be.”

“We have heard similar reports from Shuowhial.” Three men opened their toothless mouths, former serfs of the Anfractuous Sovereignty. The light of their eyes had been replaced by the cold coruscation of sapphires, and they spoke in unison, long ago robbed of their individual voices. “When the armies of the Feathered Hand emerged from their underground crusade, from the barrow-tunnels and the black passes beneath the mountains, they found that there had been fights on the surface, too, and that their kings had died in their castles as lightning laid low the walls and towers.”

“Is this true?” The supreme curate looked around the hall, at hundreds of faces, most of them red and drunken, some still sober and solemn. “The storms in the highlands have blocked all news from the western empires, or what is left of them; and the purges of the Mangled Jester have spread so much terror in the east that no new order has been established there yet, even though Laygrin slayed him.” The curate’s hands wandered over the jade-inlaid chain around his neck, each furrow representing one of the city’s great gods. “What else has happened? What news from beyond the sea?”

“Desolation only. The islands was dragged beneath the waves, the home of the twelve-bat, the nine-whale, all have gone now. The volcanoes have erupt, and ashes make heavy our catamarans, who were lost their speed, who were lost their grace.”

A captain of one of the great merchant fleets, which never docked in any harbor, nodded: “The water itself is turning bad. You can’t swim in it anymore, and more than once, we have sailed through patches of dead fish, just their white rotting flesh drifting on the waves for hours. I have heard stories that in certain places, the sea picks a man clean to the bone and spits his remains back onto the beaches. The old maps are not accurate anymore, and strange magnetic reefs arise from the depths, swaying ships off course and crushing their metal-fortified hulls.”

“And what of the other lands?” The curate turned to Sciaria, the oracle of Omalopal: “What of the west, o oracle? What of the east and north?”

“Everything … and nothing. I see rifts too deep to close again, chasms yawning open, the earth swallowing cities whole. I hear a million unanswered pleas, and I smell the fumes of as many roasting sacrifices. The acts of men do not end the world, but the world shapes the acts of men; and I sense that the wars have brought incredible change, that the toils and losses of so many must lead to transformation, and transformation to some form of deliverance.”

The one-armed Solpfortean giant laughed like a great tusked animal might laugh: “You talk a lot, but you accomplish little, o oracle. What do you know of the toils and losses of men? You don’t fight in the wars, you just watch them. They are a thing of life, they will end someday … and maybe, Laygrin’s cremation here marks the beginning of this end.”

#

“Let us now conclude the ceremony.”

They had visited the laid-out body under the dome of the palace’s enormous sanctuary hall, well-prepared and lifelike, with eyes that seemed able to open at any moment, arms ready to strike.

“May the gods and spirits guide this man’s path into the underworld; may they light his way down along the chains, just as the fire will light his remains.” The supreme curate’s jawline seemed strained, as if he was fighting to hold back other words.

The terraces and balconies of the palace complex were filled completely with guests from all over the world, all except for the highest balcony, which was empty in honor of the great warrior. A thousand pairs of eyes were pointed at the harbor from the palace alone, and the entire city was waiting for the first flames to show.

Everyone who had been touched by the war had been in contact with Laygrin, and for many, he was the last remnant of a bygone age, something that had shaped the wars from their beginning, long before they ran so far out of hand that they couldn’t be shaped by anything anymore – and his death seemed like the end of an era.

His corpse had been moved down the palace hill, through the upper semicircle, the merchant’s district, the lower Greed of Pearls, and finally along the docks onto the ship itself. Torches had been lighted all along the way of the funeral procession, as if one glowing drop of blood had run down from the palace complex and cut a flickering scar right through the city.

“We have gathered here because a man died, and because this man was not just any man: he was Tlamord Laygrin.”

A single burning arrow soared high into the sky, toward the monstrous bleak moon which had almost reached its apex, then curved down on the ship. The one-armed giant, the blind woman, the tribal chieftain, the defeated Shield of Patashavan, the oracle Sciaria and all the others watched closely as the first embers erupted from the lower decks, licked up along the ropes and beams, then gradually reached the gigantic stacks of pyrewood.

All across the ship, pillars of intertwining flames roared up, engulfing everything in distorting heat and bathing the city’s streets, plazas and buildings in its flickering reverberations.

Colder lights glittered amidst the red flames, a coin for every man Tlamord Laygrin had killed, strung up in long lines and garlands all over the ship, slowly melting in the surging hotness. There were thick, heavy coins with engraved symbols, the tokens of powerful champions or assassins, of noble lords and even kings; the lighter, well-worn currency of thieves and criminals, of common soldiers or mercenaries; and even things that were not coins at all, but raw lumps of ore or clawed fetishes, representing the feral beasts of the wild.

The remnants of Laygrin’s campaigns and duels ran away like golden teardrops, then turned to nothing in the all-consuming incandescence. With infernal hissing, the main masts broke and burst, matchsticks in the formless grasp of an unsympathetic fire spirit. The heat increased further, coloring the flames from red to blue, from blue to white, from white to the green and purple of the underworld.

The fire expanded and soared up, consuming the entire ship and at the same time, the shrouded body deep within – just as the wars had consumed the world, and the city might be all that remained.

 

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Dennis Mombauer, born 1984, grew up along the Rhine and today lives and works in Cologne.  He writes short stories and novels in German and English and is co-publisher and editor of a German magazine for experimental fiction “Die Novelle- Zeitschrift fur Experimentelles”.  http://dienovelle.blogspot.de


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