THE VOICE OF THE GREEN FLAME



THE VOICE OF THE GREEN FLAME, by J.R. Restrick

Nearly an hour had passed since King Kaledes died raving in his bed, succumbing to the violent fever that broke mind and spirit alike. Already word of his death had spread through Greykeep, though the horn did not sound that sounded always when a King of Ilwynne breathed his last—for the city was under siege, and the men forbore to have their enemies hear them mourn.

Now his son, Kaledar, stood atop the ramparts of Greykeep surveying the charred fields and the vast legion encamped beneath a smoky night sky.

Footsteps approached. “Ho, my liege,” greeted a familiar voice.

“Felix.” Kaledar acknowledged the captain of the guard without taking his eyes from the enemy below. “Here we are at last. These walls, which once held even the Golgorians at bay, are but the armour that bedecks a corpse.”

Felix looked northward in the direction of the province beyond the forest. “It is said that the hosts of Tar will not ride forth. How can Lord Merrick abandon his fealty?”

“Merrick lost much of his stores and strength in the early raids,” answered Kaledar. “And Wolheim has us completely cut off. There is no help that can reach us from otuside. The Age of the Barbarian has come to my father’s land.”

“The scouts—” began Felix,

“—have sent no signal in many days,” responded Kaledar.

After a length of silence, Kaledar turned to face Felix. “I’m going to entreat the Council of Oraxis.” In response to the captain’s frown, he added, “It is the last course left to us.”

“Surely you don’t mean this,” said Felix. “It’s said that a man forfeits choice and will to their word. Would you place the kingdom in their hands?”

“What kingdom? If there is any magic in the priesthood—.”

“I would not call upon it!” urged Felix. “The council is older than the very stones of Greykeep. Who can know their aim or say even that they are human?”

“Kings in the past have taken their counsel,” said Kaledar.

“So the legends say. But to what end has never been known.”

“Then what would you do, Felix of Ilwynne?” Anger rose in Kaledar’s voice. Like the kings that ruled before him, Kaledar mistrusted the shrouded priesthood. What they worshipped, whatever Oraxis was, none knew. Nor could any say why the first king took refuge beneath the cursed mountain, where from the highest peak loomed that cave called the Eye of Sepolis from which danced an eerie green flame. Some believed there was a city behind Greykeep itself, deep in the fastness of Sepolis Mountain, and its priesthood looked out the Eye and cursed the world below. Others said there was no such city, that the council was a small enclave of immortals, and those that tended the green flame were the same that set it before ever the rocks of Greykeep were quarried.

“What if you do not like what you hear, O King? Their word is bond. ‘Hearken and Obey.’ Felix quoted the phrase said to be inscribed at the threshold before the Eye.

A change came over Kaledar’s voice. “We cannot break this siege! There is no aid coming! We are trapped; and when they force the gates there will be no quarter!” He turned away, letting the weight of reason end the argument.

Felix placed a hand on Kaledar’s shoulder. “I would rather die than surrender our fate to them.”

“And what of your daughters when the barbarians trample our corpses?” Kaledar pointed to the campfires abroad with madness in his features. “If there is another way, any way at all, we must attempt it!”

Felix stepped away from his burning gaze, fearful that the savage tide that waited outside the walls had already scourged the mind of his king.

“For a thousand years Greykeep has protected our people from every middling army that ever set foot upon the fields under her aegis. But against one truly great foe, the full might of the savage tribes from Skeinfold Forest to the Crags of Charras, Greykeep cannot avail us! The mountain at our backs is now our doom!” The voice of the king deepend, fear and despair draining the reserves of his composure. “We are already dead and this is our tomb!” Full madness shone in his eyes which blazed unseeing through the smoke.

The moment passed. The colour returned to his cheeks, the glint of madness left his eyes. “Unless—.”

“Unless,” whispered Felix. They were decided. The captain of the guard watched the king depart along the ramparts to the steps that led into Sepolis.

###

Down circling tower stairs went King Kaledar, his eyes darting along the crevices of the stone columns on left and right.

The piercing eyes of soldiers on watch searched his for any sign of hope. The king did not betray his fear. The blocks of Greykeep melded into the cold body of Sepolis. An isolated flight of steps brought Kaledar before two men standing on either side of a wide doorway. At their shoulders wavered two torches, reaching tall in the gloom of night. Even now, with scouts along the walls and the soldiers resting uneasily in their beds, the vigil before the door to Sepolis was kept, though it had never known need. No Ilwynne-born lacked freedom to enter the mountain, nor had anything ever emerged, but there is no complacence that subdues even the most carefree to relax their guard against such a door. The council of Oraxis brooded secretive within—and a thousand years is not enough to tell that they need not be feared.

The guards parted way for their king. No words were spoken, for it was clearly understood whither and wherefore the king walked. A knowing glance passed between three as privy to a conspiracy, then the King of Ilwynne, taking a torch from its iron sconce, disappeared into the mountain.

The guards stepped back into place, halberds glinting weirdly in the glow of mists. Not a word passed their lips. The significance of the king’s climb commanded its own solemnity.

The bright flame cast shadows through a long, shapeless tunnel and for the first time Kaledar’s eyes witnessed the dark realm that lay like a black secret behind the mighty façade of Greykeep. Long was that walk so that he sweated beneath his mail before he came to the first artifice that might be called a room. His heart sank as he glanced around a dead-end, a chamber that lay empty save for a stone sarcophagus in the centre. The ponderous lid was slid half aside, showing only a white, threadbare shroud within.

He wondered if he did not miss some alternate passage in the shadowy folds of the serpentine tunnel, but he was not ready to retrace his steps. He felt somehow that this room, with the hoary sarcophagus, was itself an obstacle along the way.

The coffin had the trappings of the older kingdoms, with the figure of the interred embossed on the lid. Yet it was empty. Kaledar could not say why he found the placid face of the carving so terrible. He realized the features were too generic, that what had been carved could not be the face of any man living or dead. It was as if the figure was merely an imprint in clay awaiting form.

There had to be more to this room, else legend had no truth. Kaledar ran his hands along the coffin but it revealed no secrets, though he fixed his eyes on every detail. Abandoning the coffin, he noticed a mass of cobwebs concentrated strangely where the further wall met the ceiling. He raised his sword and pressed it through the webbing, revealing a narrow tunnel just wide enough for a man to crawl into.

The opening was arm’s length above his head. He hoisted himself upward—cobwebs stretched endlessly all the way through. If he would go on, it was clear that he could not fit with his armour. He knew also that he had to leave the torch behind or else suffocate from the smoke in the narrow confines.

One glance at the dark things settled within the grey-white mesh and it took no stretch of the imagination to take the linen shroud from the coffin. Then he rested his sword against the wall, doffed his armour, and tucked the legs of his breeches into his boots. Finally, he wrapped the mouldering shroud around his body, hoisted to cover neck and head.

A moment of pause. The thought of climbing headfirst into that damnable tunnel, thickly web-sealed, chilled his spine. Instinct, joined to reason and sanity, forbade that plunge. Gathering the nerve to disobey the caution of nature, Kaledar pulled himself into the unknownable darkness in one swift motion.

Ever upward he went, a stranger in the land of those that crawl and wait. The tunnel was irregular, widening and narrowing without warning. Jagged obstructions thrust out unexpectedly at all sides.

Kaledar itched as one itches in the sweat of fever, a sensation caused not only by heat and sweat, but a hundred other things. Divergent paths gave way now and then at either side. Occasionally the cavern walls pressed in on his shoulders and back, at other times he could have sat upright or perhaps even stood, but so full were these openings with membranous tissues, sacks, eggs, and wriggling monstrosities, that he desired only to keep as low as possible, maintaining a straight course as long as the tunnel allowed. Thus he went, crawling on hands and knees to supplicate before some prophetic council. He felt not a king but a beggar.

Suddenly, fast, thick legs scuttled jarringly against him—there was a flurry backwards and then the creature darted forth again. Kaledar worked his hands free of his sleeves, trying to protect his head. He scrambled backward, smashing elbow and shoulder on jutting stones, almost wedging himself in his panic. Working his bleeding hand backward he drew the poniard from his boot and reached.

Stabbing furiously into the dark, the blade struck true and sank deep. The poniard was almost wrenched from his hand as the wounded thing erupted into death-spasms. Gripping the hilt, he twisted the blade and drove it deeper, all the while his arm shot about, elbow striking stone as the monster convulsed and shrieked. Rancour, disgust, fear, ebbed from his soul into the bleeding hand that held the knife, making strong his grip.

He passed a moment in tense silence and did not stir. There was something unthinkable about wriggling across that corpse in the dark. Mustering his nerve, a hard carapace crunched beneath his fist. He shuddered miserably as his chest dragged the carcass. Juices burst noisily from the core while the loathsome prod of upturned legs rustled along his body. Then the creature lay behind in a splintered, wet mound.

Kaledar heaved beneath the strain of his climb, drawing sharp, stifled breaths through the shroud that covered his head. The cloth was soaked around the mouth and clung to his sweaty face. Too long had he laboured without clean air, and in sudden desperation he lowered the shroud covering his face so that the hood hung around his neck. He gasped deeply, at length coming to understand that there was space above his head, and a faint draft. He slowly rose to his feet, finding he could stretch his full length, and at once beat furiously at his clothes to shake loose whatever cave-born things might be upon him.

Silence and darkness lay on all sides. He groped about for any firm surface, soon reaching a wall on the left, which he kept a hand to so that he could keep some sense of distance and bearing in the absolute dark. Soon shades of red began to lighten the abysmal cavern and a dim sense of sight returned to Kaledar. The grey stones captured the red light and held it, glowing duskily and warmly.

He saw an aperture in the red gloom ahead, above which the words ‘Hearken & Obey’ were inscribed in the old language. The steady light shone through the doorway, giving sight to a broad room. But before room and door stood a tall figure absolutely still. Kaledar advanced cautiously, poniard in hand.

“I am Kaledar, King of Ilwynne, son of Kaledes who is dead.” The announcement did not stir the silent sentinel, but the affirmation of his identity stoked the flame of courage in the heart of the speaker, who in duty to his realm would balk at nothing. It was not a man who had climbed the dreadful passages of Sepolis to dare the Council of Oraxis, but the keeper of a realm on the brink.

His voice became the gauntlet of his intentions, tossed in challenge before the silent figure. “I am the ruler of Castle Greykeep! I seek the Council of Oraxis.”

The only answer was a long sweep of the neck, the first sign of life Kaledar detected in the inscrutable shadow. Its face entered the light that emanated from beyond the door.

Long was its neck, long the arms, narrow its body and bleak its face. It moved into the frame of the doorway, surveying with lusterless eyes the King of Greykeep. Its sallow round face, bulging eyes and sunken jaw gave it an aspect of mindless imbecility.

“Will you speak?” pressed Kaledar.

Silence.

“Then stand aside.”

The skeletal, grey spectre showed no sign of comprehension. If it had a will of its own, it was unknowable; if it could even think, there was no indication. Its blank stare fell on the human before it, and as often drifted away vacantly.

Kaledar noticed raised steps in the room beyond, and only the silent creature before him barred the threshold. Its tremendous height, long reach and hideous aspect did not daunt the King of Ilwynne, and he was prepared to fight his way through, but as yet the creature had shown no hostility. Nerves taut, Kaledar stepped forward while blank eyes followed him in a dead stare as the vulture-like neck swept along. Its face pressed close to his but showed no twitch of mouth or eye. Kaledar suppressed a shudder, for here was a living thing that had no humanity at all. How could there exist any soul inside this shell? What vital spark animated the life-force, he could not guess. Gritting his teeth he passed the guard and stepped into the redly glowing room.

He emerged through a secondary doorway that had a tapered shape. It was about four cubits wide at base, about two at its height, like a triangle with its top portion severed. He saw a room of strange splendour, not magnificent as a palace is magnificent, but beautiful in a bizarre manner, with an otherworldly majesty within its geometric irregularity. The room was alike in shape to the door, smooth and precise, but cyclopean in proportion. Deep crevices shattered the floor in lightning-shaped fractures, and from the depths emerged the red glow Kaledar had seen from the hallway.

A single step lay before a long, smooth expanse. Well beyond it lay another step and another plane, and more beyond, totalling nine, rising and converging to a door of the selfsame shape as the previous door and the cavern itself. The whole chamber converged, narrowed, approached precisely some geometric destination not clear to the explorer.

On the eighth strata five figures were seated on five marble thrones, each creature alike in eldritch aspect to the warden of the hall. They were unmoving and still as death. Their unblinking eyes showed the glassy stare of corpses in repose. Beyond this, on the ninth plane, rested a tinctured cresset giving rise to a huge green flame. Broken around it was a rift in the mountain, with the open sky beyond and a piercing orange moon sinking into view.

Kaledar, staring in wonder, was suddenly aware of a chill wind on the back of his neck. Not a wind—breath! His hair prickled, he spun around: the silent watcher was behind him. Kaledar recoiled, gasping. The long neck craned forth, bulging eyes glinting in the red gloom.

And nothing else. Silence.

Kaledar realized the next move must be his, could only be his.

“I seek the wisdom of the council,” he said.

As by a contract now ratified, the watcher moved. It slowly ascended the steps to the five corpses and paced back and forth behind them. Then, settling, it placed its hands on the shoulders of the leftmost body. The once lifeless eyeballs of the enthroned rolled and were concealed by closing lids. When the eyes opened again it spoke in a voice of strange timbre:

“What is told in the Eye of Sepolis shall come to pass.”

Kaledar waited impatiently but the speaker said no more. The priests were an enclave of secrets and Sepolis was a mountain of silence. “Can my people be saved?” he ventured.

The gaunt walker moved to the outer throne on the right. Its long fingers caressed the pallid forehead and cheek. The priest became animated as had the first.

“On misguided terms you have come. Fate is not a guide. We answer no questions. Our laws are the laws of the void, woven of dark matter that cannot be sundered. Hear the immutable law and kneel to the command.”

Felix had warned him of this. Not a council at all, but prophets only. “Then this was a false hope,” said Kaledar, turning his back on them.

The walker stepped back. The five bodies spoke in unison, imbued now by a different agency altogether. In a long, drawn whisper came the words. “Will you hear?” said the terrible chorus—five voices becoming one—the dread utterances of the damned.

Something deep within warned Kaledar not to heed, to turn back and leave this awful place, yet the desperation of the hour compelled him to stake his hope on a dangerous chance. He turned to their gaze.

“Speak,” he said.

The pale minion stalked forward, its eyes bulging. It grabbed the middle priest by the neck and hoisted it clear from the marble throne. An outstretched arm brought the body and carried it down the long platforms while the limbs dangled like a corpse swaying on a gibbet.

The King of Ilwynne watched in disgust as the round, pallid face was brought inches before his own. The mouth-odour of a dead thing filled his nostrils.

Thy gates will open,” it croaked.

A primitive rage flooded Kaledar: he felt as if there was an intruder in his mind, and then something deep within himself shattered as a door shatters before the ram. The tears that burned his eyes were the ashes of a doomed realm.

Despair without focus became wrath.

“I did not crawl for this!” he shouted. “This was not counsel! Speak counsel to me!” Wild fury blazed in his eyes. “Speak, damn you!

The warden let the shell of the priest drop to the stones. It craned its long neck. It could utter no words of its own. Not pity, not mirth, nor even understanding lay in its vacant expression.

Kaledar stood transfixed with the fury that he felt, the disappointment that his journey had been in vain. This room was an empty promise, inhabited only by the dead and powerless. Beyond the council, the green flame scratched against the night sky outside the Eye of Sepolis. Kaledar recalled that the barbarian foe was encamped far beneath the mountain precipice, just beyond arrow-shot of the walls of Greykeep. He let out a breath and turned from the chamber. With the passing of his anger, he was unburdened by the uncertainty of what lay ahead, more resolved than ever to depend on his own strength, and with his people stand against whatever end would come.

The king swept to the door, not looking back. He marched until the red glow faded from sight in the darkness of deep caverns. His steps were long and sure, undaunted by the corridor’s stygian blackness. His stride quickened restlessly, spurred by a rising concern. The edict of the counsel echoed once more in his thoughts. Thy gates will open. With renewed haste he hurried through the blackness, one arm along the wall guiding him on his way back.

He was soon at the mouth of the tunnel, descending without delay. A fear of things impending arose within him. As though in race against the very voice of fate, Kaledar navigated the horrible passageway.

He pondered what was meant by the prophecy of the priests, whether it signified the sudden advance of the enemy and the breaking of the gates, or of their opening by a hand within Greykeep. He feared what harm would come because of his absence.

A slight obstruction touched his hand and he cursed hatefully as he crossed the dead creature that had blocked his passage upwards. He knew by that grisly mark that he had somewhat more than two-thirds the way to go. With distended web in thick clumps brushing his face, it became gravely hard to breathe. Soon he encountered webbing that was not dusty and dulled with age, but clung more tenaciously to his clothes. Then there was a commotion, a loud scuttling, and something hot and ichorous sprayed outwards. A new foe, monstrous and unseen, worked its craft.

There was the sound of clacking mandibles echoing loudly as within a tomb of nightmare, then sounded the scuttling of legs as clumps of dirt and pebbles fell from above. In a surge of panic Kaledar ripped through the inchoate web, retreating backwards, long poniard held aloft. He fanned his arms hastily, discovering that he was in a large cavity. He fell back as dirt settled from above, though the creature gave no discernible sound of movement itself. Would it follow? Could he escape? He suppressed the call of panic, retreating slowly so as not to inspire the instinct for chase in the predator ahead.

A long, weird echo thundered through the tunnel, resounding shrilly. It was like the half-recognized voice of one who was dear long ago, the sound of a memory fighting its way back from lethéan abysses. The horn of Greykeep! The death-scream of his home!

Kaledar at once reversed his direction and lunged. He knew in his soul that he had to get to the gate, no matter the devil that stood in his way. His poniard struck air and then was snagged in fresh webbing. As he wrenched it free, a heaving mass crashed upon him, pinning him down. He kicked his legs; many more legs struck back. His knife thrust uselessly, finding no mark, yet heavy stalks pinned and pierced him. The core of the spider, for spider he knew it must be, was beyond arm’s reach, while its legs harried and stabbed. Webbing burst forth and an unclean smell befouled the tunnel. The struggle was brief and furious, and very soon Kaledar was entirely helpless.

Again came the horn of the city. Deep and mighty were the king’s own screams as he tore his arms free and lashed out in a fit of strength and desperation. The dull length of the poniard split through a leg with a dry snap. The monster’s stance buckled, its weight bearing down on him. A terrible cry of agony shrieked through the tunnel. The king lost his breath as the creature pressed against him, bending its legs before springing aloft to scuttle across the hidden walls.

Kaledar paused, ears straining to follow its movements. With the horn still blasting in his memory, he shook the spell of caution that subdued him, heaving himself down the tunnel while every muscle burning from desperate effort.

The final opening drew nearer and the silence behind suggested he was free of the chase. A feeling of weightlessness stirred in his stomach as he fell crashing to the ground. He opened his eyes painfully, tears rinsing the dirt that stung beneath his lids. His vision almost entirely obscured, he saw at least that the torch was still lit, casting its glow within the chamber of the sarcophagus. He wiped at his eyes with the inside of his shirt, casting a cautious look behind him at the small opening high in the wall.

Suddenly a great sound drew closer, and a form of nightmare and hell erupted from the tunnel—a demon with hideous face, ghastly white legs and a disgusting white body. Its fat organs were visible through the membranous, translucent flesh—its visage unaccountably alien, spiderlike but not the face of a spider. A mass of legs stretched weirdly as it squeezed through the narrow tunnel.

His vision still uncertain, Kaledar stumbled and fell. The monster leapt from the hole, bounded off the wall and clung to the ceiling. Outspread in the corner, with legs beyond the counting, it seemed to fill the room with its hideous and immeasurable stature.

Kaledar saw his sword just beneath it. He rushed forward, somersaulting beneath the shapeless shadow, taking the blade in hand and spinning to meet the charge as the beast sprang down. The monster crushed him to the ground; his head rebounded off the stone—vision faded. His arm bent beneath its terrible form, there was no room to angle the sword—so the knife reached out, stabbing the monster, and Kaledar too was stabbed. Sharp, searing pain riddled through his veins. His muscles tightened and convulsed in spasms but the single driving will to persevere yet drove the knife twice and again into the bulbous white body.

The monster retreated without grace, leaving behind a trail of translucent pale blood. It crept along the shadowed ceiling towards the tunnel leading back to Greykeep. There it stopped and waited.

Kaledar rose on buckling legs, stumbling as searing pain rent through him, not abating but growing more unbearable. His tongue swelled within his mouth, he could barely breathe. The silver poniard fell from his grip. He tried again to rise, hobbled a short distance, and fell against the open coffin.

There was no escape. Unarmed, alone, and scarce able to draw breath, with terrible effort he lifted himself into the sarcophagus. The creature, perhaps guessing his intent, dropped to the ground noisily and in one spring reached his side. Ghastly dripping mandibles and a host of hateful eyes loomed.

In the glare of foul death, panic caused his slowing heart to pump mightily in one final surge, bringing some sensation back into his limbs even as it sped the venom further through his body. In a last effort he dragged the lid over his head, a final strain that brought to a close the efforts and pains of Kaledar. Sight had failed him even before the box was sealed; then, too, consciousness departed.

###

A rising frenzy of panic animated the prone body although the mind was slow to respond. At length Kaledar opened his eyes, or thought they were open, but the night-blind darkness could not be banished. Stale saliva was dried in his throat, his tongue pasted to his mouth. His skin burned unbearably and hot slime pooled beneath him, pulling at his flesh when he tried to move.

Realization came slowly; and the agony of his suffering, the horror of knowing where he lay, brought a prayer to his lips. He pressed his palms against the coffin lid. It wouldn’t give; he was too weak. He lay gasping from the feeble attempt and his breath rebounded hotly back across his face. Then, tracing the confines with his fingertips, he found a small opening at the corner. He reached three fingers into the cool outer air.

He understood at once that this opening was why he had not suffocated, and that the abomination must have jarred the coffin lid in an effort to reach him. The memory of the beast struck him like a fall into cold water. He jerked his fingers back into the box. Was it still out there?

He lay listening until time and the darkness smothered him again, dragging his consciousness into lightless depths. Now black dreams haunted him. He thought he awoke again and again but always to darkness. Unable to move, he shut his eyes, dreaming dreadful dreams and waking in an awful prison of mind and stone. When once more he lay lucid and able to shift his limbs he knew that this was his last chance to escape before falling into that sleep from which there is no awakening. He almost let himself go. It would be better, he thought, to slip away than succumb to the horror that likely lay in wait. Then for the first time in that lightless box, remembrance of things beyond his own pain called out to him. He remembered that he was a king and that his people were in peril. He summoned his courage; he would rise to their aid.

He reached his fingers out again, inching the lid aside as he lifted and pushed. Able to add his other hand to the effort, he slid the lid more and more. The stone slab grated loudly. His head was now exposed, and the air felt good. But it was as dark outside the coffin as within. He banished thoughts of the monster from his mind. He was free. He pulled himself over the side, fell to the ground, dragged himself up, and shambled weakly down the corridor. He desired only to escape and would not have wasted even a minute trying to find his sword upon the floor in the utter darkness.

He emerged into the cold morning air. The pre-dawn light was unable to pierce through the mist. Thick smoke mingled with the fog so that only vague outlines showed now and then through the roaming haze. The shrouded city seemed not a vista of earth, as unfamiliar to the king’s eyes as that strange place in Sepolis where a demon gave the counsel of dead things. The post at the Gates of Sepolis stood empty and the torch that Ilwynne’s king took to light his way was not replaced in its sconce, while the other had burned out at the tip.

“How long have I been gone?” he asked himself. His voice was cracked and weak like the utterance of a dying man. He suddenly felt his pains more acutely. He looked at his hands. They were blotchy and scabbed, as was his whole body. An exsanguinated substance clung to his skin. He remembered the sticky pool in the coffin. He had secreted from his pores a powerful venom, and the toxin had taken toll, leaving a ruin of his flesh.

How long he climbed the tunnel, how long he rotted in that coffin, he could not guess. The whole ordeal was as some flight through hell from which even eternity pauses, so that the damned may suffer prolong.

The open air was rank with the smell of the dead. With a hand along the rampart sides, partly to feel his way, mostly to support himself, Kaledar descended the stairs leading to the courtyard.

A sense of great loneliness presided. Only the feel of stone beneath his feet gave the assurance of reality; everything else had the aspect of dream, where phantom mirages appeared fleetingly within the endless fog. He stumbled in the courtyard, and feeling utterly lost and alone, weak and destroyed, he had no will to rise. His fingers caressed the dirt on the ground.

He knelt, feeling the soil of his homeland, and the rest of the world slipped from memory. He raised his head absently and chanced to see the stones of the grey fountains smeared with blood. At once, a sense of duty called, sudden and violent like a flight of arrows thundering into a raised shield.

Remembering the dictum of the council he made for the door. Loathsome black flies swarmed the fountain, its water brimming crimson. Streaks of blood converged in paths across the ground, and when he frantically rounded the statues and courtyard walls, he saw a black pile of corpses, heaped almost to the walls in height, burnt in a single, towering pyre. The flames must have lit the skies for untold leagues around, perhaps seen even from Tar beyond the forest.

In front of the pyre, the gate was open, not burst or broken, but with latch enigmatically raised. The blood was thickest on the other side and splattered the outer walls, where host had stood against host, the ground pitted with boot marks, heels pitched, where tower shields were raised in unison, and stones fell from the battlements. Kaledar tried to discern what had happened in his absence. Treachery—infiltration—a failed parley: or was it the last recourse of his desperate soldiers, to raise the gate and charge their enemies? He knew only that his people faced this doom alone, that he most fit to rally them, had instead chosen a futile quest than to stand beside them.

Kaledar stood alone with his pain until the morning mists parted beneath the rising sun like spirits of the dead returning to the grave. Only corpses and black earth remained within the stone walls—the emptiness of a city, whose king was nowhere found during its final hour.

He thought of Felix. Whether the doom of the city came only from outside the gate, or from some further beyond that came on the breath of the Voice, he could not wholly know; but he knew now that Felix had truer counsel. They should have stood together holding the gate until it fell in splinters around them—and even so, courage can prevail against grim odds.

He looked at the gate, open and intact with the heavy latches raised. Hearken and obey. The words came back to him with regret and a pain he could not bear. He looked at his home one last time and shuddered in the cold as he passed through the gate.

The bleak night saw Kaledar passing through the gates of his fallen home. With a sweep of his scabbed arm he threw off the death-shroud that he wore, taken from the coffin beneath Sepolis and carried into its demon-haunted heights. And with the last influence and presence of the false council tossed aside, he went forward by his own limping stride through the ruined land.

He made for Tar, to set right what he could, or perish with its memory. At his side a sword dragged through the earth. If he lived long enough through enemy lands, he prayed he would find his strength again, and live with blade aloft.

Behind him Greykeep lay empty, a city for the dreams of ghosts, where still at nightfall a green flame reaches beneath the moon from windswept mountain peaks.

 

_______________________________________________

Jason Restrick lives in Maple Ridge, British Columbia. He enjoys wandering the outdoors, where mountain trails, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, and the Pacific Ocean are all within reach in one direction or another. He is also fond of fiction from the old pulp days, black and white movies, and strong coffee. His writing has appeared in The Willows and Weird Tales, while a forthcoming tale is scheduled to appear in Nameless Digest.

 


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