Chapter IIIBlack Fists, New Rebirth26th August, Ramliah FortressIn the days following the battle, the fortress was repaired and its civilian population – which had remained even in the face of siege – was evacuated. But rather than abandon Ramliah entirely, soldiers remained stationed against the possibility of another attack. Mastema also remained, and now stood atop the battlements to gaze across the battlefield. He felt sorrow for those who had died, but that sorrow extended beyond the reach it should have. It extended to the Crusaders who had fallen, and even the makers of the Machina forced to watch their creations felled. Yes, he felt sorrow. More than Astarte could ever feel.Those passing below Mastema would see him as a supernatural tower of strength, someone apart from his fellow humans. Covered by a dark cloak, his gauntleted arms folded in contemplation, a fine black shirt covering his bulky form, dark trousers of tough material enclosing his legs, and sturdy leather boots. His face, worn and grim with black hair sweeping into multiple proto-horns, reinforced this image. The only thing not in keeping were his eyes: full of compassion and sadness as if they were a new pair unused to battle and hardship.An approaching soldier saw this as she had always seen it. She saw the prince, the prince heard her and turned, and their eyes met.‘Sire, an urgent message from Madailah. By hand from a Court courier.’Mastama took the scroll handed to her. He opened it slowly and looked at its contents. With a grimace, he tore the paper into quarters and tossed it over the wall, the fragments carried away on the wind.‘No reply.’‘But–’‘No reply!’ the ferocity of the prince’s words made the soldier stop any contradiction she might have voiced. ‘Send the courier back with that and that alone. We must ready our garrison for the next assault. What was the damage?’‘A Machina damaged our Western wall. In addition to repairs, we will need to shore up the walls to prevent another such breach.’‘I see. Anything else?’‘Almost fifty of our soldiers were lost on the field. And I feel that, unless we bring in artillery, we will be unable to withstand another assault.’‘What of the cave system?’‘That is still clear. I can compile a more thorough report–’‘A moment... We will make use of this courier who waits below. I will send messages to Madailah concerning the artillery. Meanwhile, you get the report on the troops together. I must learn of their morale.’‘Understood, sire.’Mastema jumped down from his perch and descended the stairway into the square below. The soldier returned to her duties, including passing on the prince’s orders and speaking with the courier. Mastema did not want to return to any duty, but to escape from the smell and – if possible – the sight of the battlefield beyond. He strode across the square, through a pair of stark gates and into the training yard. The soldiers were generally given their regular weapons training here, always keeping their minds and bodies sharp in the use of blades. But today, at this moment, only one person could be seen in the fenced-off arena.Astarte was weaving her giant sword about her with deadly expertise, her face a mask of cold determination. Mastema waited on the edges, watching her with a neutral expression, as she weaved her longsword about her as if it were made of grass. She had always worked to wield that sword with such lightness, ever since walking solemnly into Madailah’s martial centre and demanding her right as a royal scion to full weapons training. Many strained joins and torn muscles later, she had mastered the weapon and now used it with pitiless force.It was as these thoughts filled his mind that the voice came again. A voice from within, yet not his own. The voice of Orobas.‘You sense it, do you not?’‘Sense it?’‘Yes. The new presence within her. The one that saved her life. Asmodeus.’‘I thought her merely touched.’ he tapped his head to illustrate.‘Do not jest. You saw it on the battlefield, the power that decimated the Crusader lines and enabled her to enact her fantasies of vengeance.’Mastema looked. He again saw the slight change in aura that surrounded her, the power that flowed from her. He had seen it, and had been truly frightened by it. Anyone with that much power and that little mercy was to be feared rather than lauded for their actions. He had been lucky: Orobas granted power knowing the consequences, but other Powers were not as discriminating in their choices. Human history was littered with such power-mad monsters.‘You use the sword well.’Mastema’s words halted Astarte’s movements. She turned to look at him, then looked down at her weapon.‘It is the only skill left to me. Aside from killing Crusaders. You know that.’‘Need that preclude compliments?’Mastema slowly moved into the training area. Astarte continued her training motions even as he continued to talk.‘You move as if you were fighting for your life. But the gift you hold now should make such fervour unnecessary.’‘It does not stop you.’‘True. It does make me think twice about what I do with it. Such as who would benefit from or be harmed by it.’‘Such talk is for those with the luxury of mercy.’‘And you lack that “luxury”?’‘Prince Mastema, my mercy withered and died with my home and family. I would ask that you leave this topic.’‘As you wish.’Astarte expected Mastema to go away, but he remained. An unpleasant smile came to Astarte’s lips, and she raised her sword towards him.‘Do you wish to spar?’‘No. I have no wish to fight with allies.’‘But I do. How else will I know that my enemies are truly strong. Come, prepare yourself!’Astarte stood ready. Sighing, Mastama raised his fists, and he felt Orobas’s borrowed energies form invisible shields around his limbs. Astarte ran a hand along her sword as if caressing a lover, then attacked with a yell. The strength behind her attacks made parrying difficult and risky, so Mastema instead dodged and skirted round her, waiting for her to tire. As they circled each other, the sunlight caught her beautifully-crafted blade, washed clean of blood and revealing the place where the ancestral runes of its owner had been chipped away.Finally, Mastema grew tired of the onslaught, and summoning a ball of energy into his hands, he shot his arms forward as if driving a spear into an enemy. Astarte raised her sword in front of her as if to guard, but the energy struck the sword and threw her back off her feet. The sword was knocked from her hands, Mastema caught it, then thrust it forward until it nearly touched her nose. She glared up at her opponent, then smiled again.‘You win. This round!’A blast of force threw Mastema back, then Astarte kicked the sword from his hand and caught it, thrusting it towards him. She seemed to fly at him, continuing her thrust and forcing Mastema to retreat until he was backed against the boundary. A grin of satisfaction spread across her face as she held him at her mercy, the blade pushing gently into the flesh just beneath his jaw, marking the point where she could drive her sword directly into his windpipe.‘I win. Sorry.’‘By falsehood only.’‘Falsehood is a skill in battle. Heard of the feint?’‘A cowardly tactic.’The prince’s expression curdled the air between them. Astarte slowly lowered her sword and turned, then had to swing round as Mastema pushed towards her for a second onslaught. On instinct, she brought the blade down towards him, but he stopped it in mid-air. They remained motionless, Astarte gripping the hilt of her sword while Mastema held its blade in check, a tiny trickle of blood running from the shallow cut in his palm along its gleaming edge. Astarte’s face crumpled into a look of frowning anger.‘You think yourself stronger than I?’Mastema shook his head. ‘No. Just better.’Mastema slowly pushed the blade back and down against Astarte’s face, and its razor edge drew a slight speck of blood from beneath her eyebrow. Astarte backed away and looked down at the prince’s cut hands. She smirked, and went to where her sword’s swathing cloths rested. No sheath could hold it, so she simply wrapped it in clean or even scented cloth to prevent weathering, carrying it in her hand or tied to her back.‘As you will it, oh mighty prince. May your line be long.’And even as she bowed, she saw the verbal bolt hit home. That would always strike him, no matter how high he was riding or how resilient his armour was at any one minute. She moved away and out of the training area, then Mastema turned to look at a training dummy set up against the wall. Going to it, Mastema began punching and kicking it, slamming his limbs into it with all his strength. Soon, the wooden stake supporting the doll snapped, forcing him to move to the next one. As he broke the second dummy, a new figure appeared to watch the young prince’s frustrated exercises.The man was approximately twice Mastema’s age, wearing fine if drab clothing that marked him as of a higher status than others within the fortress walls. He bore no staff or seal of office, but the marks upon his hands and the gleam in his eyes sorted him from his fellows. He slowly approached the agitated prince, moving as quietly as he could. When he was at a suitable distance, he coughed gently. The prince was in the middle of a leg swing, and the sound made him carry that swing round to where he thought the new arrival’s head would be. Upon seeing who it was, he lowered his leg and relaxed.‘Ipos.’Ipos bowed with due deference. Anyone who had come in at that moment would have seen the stark contrast in their forms and mannerisms. The prince was strong and confident, filled with the vigour of youth. Ipos looked his age and dressed in a sagely fashion, but his face was sharp and his manner sported a confidence equal and opposite in nature to his prince’s. They remained in silence for a while, then Ipos looked at the broken training dummies, smiling in the way old people do when looking at the misdirected vigour of youth.‘You appear to have felled your enemy, Sire.’Mastema chuckled. ‘Their fault for creating inferior training dummies. But I am sure you did not come here to admire my strength, or comment on my temper. Was there something that you wanted?’Ipos hesitated, and Mastema felt a dread come into him. Ipos’ following words were spoken with a kind of sorrowful tiredness.‘The Ruling Ministers and Court wish to know what you intend to do now.’‘Do?’‘Yes. Do. I have received a letter from their official spokesperson. A somewhat irate letter, I must say.’‘Saying what exactly?’‘You should know. You received it.’‘I barely read a line before giving it to the winds. Give me its breviate.’‘That,’ Ipos rolled his eyes slightly as if recalling the text in his hand, ‘you have been neglecting your duties as spouse to the keeper of the Sacred Flame. That as the only legitimate descendent of the last reigning Shah, you are risking your life in a foolish manner in continuing to fight with your soldiers on these battlefields–’ he broke off, ‘This is a translation as much as a breviate. I could go on forever about their euphemisms. It felt as if the letter did just that. How they can say so little with so many words is surely beyond mortal comprehension.’‘Then do not say more. I know what the rest of such a message would say, and they know my reply.’‘Yes. And I am sure they are in no mood to have their ancient ancestors insulted into rising from their graves. Holding Concord does not allow the free abuse of your peers by flouting tradition and throwing their carefully-worded entreaties back in their faces.’‘Sometimes I wish I could.’With any other member of his Court, the prince would have been more than sharp, but Ipos was not any Courtier. He was the closest thing to a father he had in his life. Just thinking this made his old wounds ache, wounds that would never fade. Wounds in his mind.‘Then I take it you can write a reasonably courteous and obtuse reply to those doddering old alhamqaa.’Ipos smiled. ‘You can depend upon it, Mastema. I will even omit your most apt description of them, desperate though I am to include it on my own account.’Ipos left, and Mastema looked at the broken training dummies. He reached picked one up, then stopped and winced. It was a memory, the memory of a body coming close to him like that, that caused him to stop. Horrible feelings coursed through him, and he ran to the wall and punched hard. The stone shuddered and caved a little under his strength, and a rock splinter struck his cheek.‘Quell your anger, son of Alastor.’‘You dare to mention that name!’‘What harm can you do me? And still your voice. None other can hear me but you, remember? Regardless of true knowledge, it is not comely to speak to thin air. I exist on a plain most humans cannot dream of.’‘Except those you wish to use.’ Mastema’s voice was quieter, ‘How I ever fell for your silver tongue...’‘I chose you to help you, and you showed your gratitude. And now, do you wish the Crusaders to take and pillage your lands? No. And I do not want their sponsors to have dominion over our world. We have a mutual interest.’‘And I am the worse for it.’‘If I had not needed your help, I would have left you weeping on that bed like the “toy” you were. I gave you the strength to take back your life and become a man. I expect some degree of loyalty as repayment.’Mastema smirked. ‘Indeed. I will repay. I will drive the Crusaders from my land, even to the farthest reaches of the Western Sea.’‘That is what I saw in you that day. A spirit that would not be broken. Take out your rage if you must, but perhaps using the wall is not the best use of the Black Fists’ time. You have cut your cheek.’The voice faded. Mastema looked down at his hands. The “Black Fists”; that was what people called his hands out of earshot. Dark spectres of death that struck down all who stood against his people. On the battlefield, he was unstoppable, his strength and agility unmatched even by the nimblest soldier. But he was lost in the face of it, seeing his hands take life and become unstoppable after years of being powerless. As a tiny speck of blood dripped from cheek to palm, the aches came again and he slumped against the wall, feeling himself and grinding his teeth with shame.‘Powers That Be,’ he muttered through his suppressed tears, ‘will I ever be free?’
1st September, Forsaken Graveyard
‘Where is he to be laid?’‘Does not matter much. That one there.’The two elderly women assigned to the disposal of invidious corpses, called caretakers by those in the know, handled Elathan’s naked body with uncharacteristic care. Even as they prepared to secure the shroud, the older of the two looked down at Elathan’s face.‘A pity. He looks so handsome.’The younger caretaker studied the dead man, and agreed. The red flush that had come to his face during death was gone, and despite a dry line of spittle at the corner of his mouth, only the deep-ridged mark around his neck and the welts on his limbs showed that he had not died in his sleep. The older caretaker brushed a lock of hair from the man’s face, then smiled and nodded.‘Yes. Beauty is in all things. Even in death. That is the universal blessed gift of the Seraphim. A pity that, when life fades, it must rot into nothingness.’‘And yet so it must, for the cycle of life to continue. So the Sinbearers and Saint Sophia say, and so I do believe.’‘Indeed. So they say. So they say. But come, we must cover his face, and remain but charmed by his sad beauty.’So it was done. The body was wrapped in a shroud, and the caretakers left it for the coming of the boatman and his assistants. They would take the body onto a boat and be carried via a secret tributary-turned-canal onto the river. When the boatman came, a man clothed in dark green who leaned on a gnarled walking stick, he motioned for his two assistants to pick up the body. It was the only one there today, and so was treated with more respect – maybe even ceremony – than was common. The body was carried along the short tunnel and placed in the boat, moored to shore and punt pole. The assistants clambered in forward, the boatman secured himself aft, then they cast off and the boatman began to punt along the hidden canal.When they reached the river proper, the moon was hanging low in the sky, just poking its face above the ragged crests of the mountains. The water’s rumblings deadened any sound the punt pole made, and the relative peace of its movement made the scene both serene and sombre. The shrouded body seemed carried along in stately quiet, its bearers taking it to the mystical land of spirits that lay beyond the edge of the known world. But their ultimate destination was a mere two miles downstream, and the water’s speed meant that their journey took little more than twenty minutes. Their destination was a peninsula of land that had built up around a rocky promontory, a place where anonymous graves could be dug.The two attendants used their oars to push the boat onto the peninsula. The river was wide and slow here, well away from the rapids downstream which whipped the calm waters into a stormy tempest before meeting the all-embracing ocean. Pulling the boat up on shore, the attendants picked up the body and followed the boatman to where a small black flag had been planted. Two spades were already placed there in readiness. The body was laid down, and the attendants began digging the grave. It was not deep – a mere three feet – but in this place very few would come scavenging. And if any did, none would see.With the grave dug, the boatman signalled the attendants. Tossed into the grave, the body landed face up. As if to make sure the man was dead, the attendants first buried his covered face. When the grave was filled and firmed, they departed with tools and all. Nothing would mark the grave aside from slowly-emerging bones in years to come. But even as the boat departed, something else was approaching the peninsula from the top of the cliff which stopped all but the most determined of scavengers.A subtle darkness in the air, so slight as to be nearly invisible, had pushed into existence there. It caused the slightest warping of the air, distorting any light falling on it. The will within that force looked upon the grave, and found its chosen target. In its eagerness, it momentarily showed its shape – a single inhuman being, neither human nor animal, neither temporal nor ethereal, neither living nor dead. After slithering down the cliff, it slid over to the grave, then reared up and dove into the dirt, sinking out of sight.It soon found Elathan’s spirit, separating unwillingly from his corpse to enter the void, falling slowly towards the fathomless dark. In its own sight, the presence sensed his lingering fear of what lay beyond. It reached out, touched Elathan’s spirit. That spirit contorted, tried to speed its descent in vain. The presence searched the spirit’s memories, then summoned its chosen visage. The face it manifested gazed into the newcomer’s widening eyes, and if he could have fled, he would have. The presence spoke in a voice that was not of man or woman, but an unimaginable fusion of both.‘Be not afraid, mortal. I come offering new life.’Elathan shifted in the aether around him. ‘What are you?’‘I have too many names to count, but only one true name that I shall share. I am Kimaris. Tell me, why have you died?’‘Because...’ Elathan wanted to shield his face from that eyeless, formless gaze, ‘...because I was a spy for Sur. They knew, the Church knew, but they wanted me to give myself up. So they... they....’If Elathan could have cried, he would have. Kimaris’s voice slid into his ears like warm oil.‘I offer you life. Come. Form Concord, and be as a blade to smite your enemies, for as long as you are needed by me. Even when Concord is broken, you shall live. And perhaps find...’Elathan tried to retreat, but Kimaris wrapped round him as the arms of a lover and would not let him go. The place where a face should have been began to manifest a solid form. As Elathan watched in terror, the face of his lover appeared there. Paimon, whole and unmarked, looked down at him, slid a hand across Elathan’s bared chest. The memories blinded Elathan’s senses.‘Come.’ Kimaris’s voice came from behind the phantom’s closed lips, ‘Form Concord, and attain the gift you so wish to hold. The gift of revenge. A fair trade; your wish fulfilled in exchange for a transitory loyalty to my quest. Well?’Part of Elathan wanted to tear himself away and dive into the void. Another wanted to accept, to kiss Paimon again even if it was just a palatable illusion created by a Power.‘I...... Accept.’‘Then speak your name, and receive your gift.’‘I am Elathan Darius, son to Tannin Darius. Upon my name and the name of my mother, I submit to Concord.’‘And I, the Power Kimaris, accept your submission and grant you my gift. Here now is your new name: Wadud.’Before Elathan could react, Paimon’s face pushed close and kissed him, transporting him to a secret night of rapture never to return. It was then that he woke up.The first sensation Elathan felt was a horrific shortness of breath, then the constriction of his shroud. He pushed his way up through the soil of his grave, then yanked his arms free of the bonds holding the shroud together and tore it away. He slumped forward, gasping for air, filling his collapsed lungs anew. After he had his breath back, he registered the soreness of his neck and throat, then the welts that even now faded from his wrists and legs. He felt his neck, now unblemished and intact. But this brought no joy.The reason he had accepted death was to be with him. With Paimon. And now he was here, brought back from the void by a Power, given the ability to exact vengeance, and... Kneeling in his torn grave, naked beneath the moon, he fell onto his arms and sobbed bitterly, moaning Paimon’s name under his breath over and over. He also eventually realised that he wore no mask, and he instinctively reached to cover his face. But there was no-one to see him, so he allowed his hand to fall. He still needed clothes and a mask, and quickly.He got up slowly and looked about him. The current was fast enough to carry even an experienced swimmer to their doom. The only way out of this place was to climb the cliff. Even as he thought this, a voice came from within him.‘Yes. Climb, my wonderful partner in Concord. Climb, and free yourself of this life. In passing out of this land of death, you shall break the final chain binding you to your past, and begin your journey anew.’He looked down at himself. ‘But I am naked. That climb... What it might do to...’‘All newborns are naked. Now climb. Or would you sit upon that place until you are found and hanged again?’Elathan paused, breathing hard. Finally, he began walking towards the cliff, staggering slightly as he found sharp rocks digging into the soft soles of his feet. Reaching the foot of the cliff, he began his long climb. Almost upon beginning, his limbs protested. Death had stiffened them and they were unwilling to move again. His hands and feet found tiny cracks and bumps in the rock face, and his skin rasped against its rough surface. When he was a third of the way up, his fingers and toes were bleeding slightly from superficial cuts, and his chest was sore and pallid from dragging against the rock. Elathan stopped, his breathing hard and his muscles screaming.‘What is amiss?’ the voice was urgent, puzzled, ‘Why do you halt?’‘I.... I cannot go on.’‘You will go on. You must.’‘How? How can I?’ his voice quivered with emotion, ‘What do I have to keep me going?’‘The promise. The hope. The will to live. Now shout. Shout the sorrow in your heart as if to bring down the very firmament.’‘I...’‘Shout. No need for words. Shout your defiance!’Elathan’s grip tightened on the rocks, then he reared back his head and bellowed like a beast. It was a wordless cry, echoing along the river and across the farmlands and scrubland to the seas and mountains. He slumped back against the wall, breathing shakily, then began climbing again. The pain in his limbs was still there, growing greater by the minute, but that cry had awoken a new resolve in him. Kimaris did not speak again, leaving Elathan to struggle alone up the rock face.Finally, when he was somewhere over halfway, he glanced down. It would be so easy to loosen his grip and fall. To return to death. But... He turned back to the rock face, and sifted through his memories to find something to push him on. He wanted to reach the top, he wanted to prove himself, even as his muscles edged towards their breaking point. Finally, he fixed on something. A moment in the late evening, a moment of two bodies beneath sheets. Two lovers, their words gentle whispers.‘You know what I loved seeing you do, Elathan? Before this?’‘What?’‘Seeing you climb the orchard wall. We slipped out and found rest in the garden, and you climbed up onto the wall so we could reach the date trees on the edge of the Cathedral Orchards. Those were the best dates I ever tasted.’‘Maybe we can climb a wall again someday? Together?’‘Yes, together. Tell me, what is the best thing you have ever tasted?’‘You, Paimon. Only you.’The words pained Elathan like the stings of insects. He pushed himself on, seeming to hear Paimon encouraging him to reach the top, to reach the edge where the dates grew. Time was lost, and Elathan became absorbed in a blissful dream, a dream that blocked out the pain. Finally, his hand stretched up and clapped down on a flat surface. His normal vision returned, and he scrambled up onto the top of the cliff. He dragged himself forward, then reared up on his knees and shouted out a single roar of pained victory.When his cry faded, nothing could be heard but the slight noises of the wind, and he collapsed in utter exhaustion. His hands and feet bled, his muscles cried out for succour, and after a while he realised that tears were streaming down his face. Slowly, he crawled away from the cliff edge and rolled over onto his back. The moonlight shone down on him, illuminating his bared form. He closed his eyes and felt sleep take him. It was not peaceful, disturbed by visions of the recent past, and the prickling pains that racked him.When he woke, the moon had passed most of the way across the sky, and the distant light of dawn was approaching. He slowly rose to his knees, then shivered and started rubbing his sore arms. He had forgotten how cold the coastal desert could be, and his nakedness left him vulnerable to more than embarrassing encounters. As he gazed around at the starkly-lit scenery, the voice came again.‘You are cold?’ a pause as Elathan nodded, ‘Look behind you. You will see.’Elathan obeyed like a child. Caught in a dead bush, flapping in the slight breeze, was a cloak. Getting up with difficulty, he went over and yanked it from the bush. It was a torn thing, chilled by the night’s wind, but it would do to at least make him descent. It tore readily into two pieces; one became his head covering, while the other became a set of underwear for his sore loins. Thus clad, he felt a sudden hunger punch his stomach with enough force to bend him double.‘Time to find civilisation.’ Kimaris’s voice was both gentle and sharp, ‘If you are to survive.’Gritting his teeth, Elathan slowly raised himself. He would make for the coastal road, where he might find food and proper clothes in the huts of fishermen and their like. Squaring his shoulders and clenching his hands into fists, he began his painful walk towards the shore.
The Leviathan Chronicle; Genesis is set for released on 3 May 2018 as a downloadable e-book and physical edition. Help support its author by pre-ordering the Kindle edition (Amazon UK, Amazon USA). The second part of the story will release before the end of the year.