Enderal:The Butcher of Ark (Book Series)
hey call me “The Butcher”.
It hurts to write these words, though I am aware of their truth. What else should a man be called whose trail is marked by dozens of corpses, corpses which are not mute witnesses of a battle or an accident, no, corpses which are solely the result of my own doing. Men, women, elders, children. Priests, merchants, travelers and whores. My murders seem to follow an inscrutable pattern whose arbitrariness will put an icy veil around everyone's heart. But of course this will not be what heralds will proclaim. For them and the Holy Order I will be no less than a monstrosity, a pathless demon, who has been led astray by his own mundane cravings. They will call me an evil man, a beast with a heart black as midnight. Because these are the colors in which the world prefers to think: black and white. No one will ask about the how and why. Even these pages will be hard to acquire, for the Holy Order will surely do everything in its power to prohibit their printing — which is why I shall congratulate you, whoever you may be, for holding them in your very own hands. With this assembly of withered pages you shall be given an insight into my very own thoughts.
Do not understand them as a justification for my deeds, because this is not what they are. I assume full responsibility for what I have done and I desire no absolution, neither from Malphas — whose supposed “divinity” is something I nowadays merely smile upon —, nor from the people, from justice or some other strange, greater power whose true nature we have not yet learned to comprehend.
This book is no more than a testimony of strange and inscrutable happenings yonder, which have made me into what I am.
It was a dull, cold and wet morning that should change my life forever. Yes… Somehow it almost seemed as if that day Mother Nature, as a response for the festivities of the preceding night, had decided to recover herself with a dreamy, nondescript day. The reason for the aforementioned festivities had been the so-called Star Summer Night, which every year marks the beginning of a new spring and in which the night sky is illuminated by dozens of wild, untamed starfires. While the common people, however, use the occasion to indulge in their mundane cravings — whether by drinking in smoky taverns, dancing around the first delve of spade, or having cultivated conversations on a masked ball —, for us clerics it means no less than a night filled with processions, sermons and prayer. After shortly attending the joyous speech of the mayor and giving my priestly blessing to the commencement of the festivities, I silently retreated into the temple and prayed until both my knees and my tongue were sore, just like the Holy Verses oblige every priest to do. It was of no significance whether the cleric was the High Priest in person or — as it was the case with me — merely a simple, insignificant Father in an even simpler and more insignificant village.
Mine was called Fogville and was situated on a constantly windy, sparsely vegetated cliff at the very west of Enderal. It owed its name to — who would have guessed that? — the pale, thin wafts of mist which every morning laid themselves over the village's countenance like a mourning veil over the face of an old widow.
I still remember this last gaze yonder, which I threw upon the poor houses at the bottom of the hill the village's temple was enthroned upon. After the dissonant orchestration of lute music, animated laughter and popping of corks, an almost eerie silence had laid itself upon the village. Only here and there a lonesome figure could be seen and heard moving through the cool mist, and even the bakery's chimney remained still. I feebly smiled into the face of the village I had grown up in. My father, who actually wasn't my father, claimed to have found me wrapped in linen and lying in a basket near a wayshrine on the Mist Road. I had been abandoned, and the man who later became my father took me to the village, “full of devotion and grateful for the divine gift”. However, before his untimely death, only ten years later, I never got rid of the feeling that his compassionate act was due to the fact that he found me right underneath a statue of Malphas, and not because of his wish for a child.
Gilmon the Tanner, as the villagers called him, was a delicate man with pockmarked skin and a slim nose. In his own opinion, the whole world conspired against him, which was the sole reason for his misery. We never talked much, but when we did, our conversations followed a general pattern. With his sawing voice, he called me to his fireplace room, where he rigidly sat most of the time, along with two empty tankards of beer. Then he indicated me to sit down and announced that he had “to get something off his chest.” The fact that only his foundling son was there to listen was another proof for how badly life had treated him. It started right when I sat down. Tjalmar the Hunter had sold him rancid oils. An evil cutthroat, my father called him, but after all, it was in the nature of the Aeterna, he said, and in Enderal this fact was not as well known as in Nehrim. Or Matressa Zulja, who had served him bitter wine. A mean crone she was, he said, oh yes, but thanks to Malphas he had perceived her plan and cut her down to size. And then, of course, Rashik the Smith's twin boys. Rascals they were, both of them. No respect they had for path-abiding, hard-working people like him. But no manners were to be expected from a coal man and his breed. “What do they know about decency?”, he said, excitedly. “These folks do nothing but shag until the bed breaks down.” It did not matter to him that Rashik was a Qyran living in third generation in Enderal, and that he preferred a long-term union with his mate over the promiscuous family clans of his homeland.
These conversations, his persistently sour breath, and the smell of raw hides, leather and animal fats in the workshop made up a great deal of my childhood. Friends I had only a few to none, mostly due to the fact that my father made me work hard in the tannery as soon as I reached the age of five. If Mater Pyléa — I am sure of this now — had not by incident noticed my quick wit, I would still be there today, working between animal parts, stretched hides and slippery grease. Maybe the strange experience at that misty morning would have never happened. Yet she noticed, and that is how it came that on the day of my path consecration the aged priest proclaimed my holy path in a solemn voice. I, Jaél, Tanner's son, was predestined to entirely dedicate my life to Malphas' glory — as a priest. Of course, back then I did not fully comprehend what that meant, but the other children's awestruck reactions made me realize it was a good thing.
Thus I left the bleak tannery and only entered the old house at the end of the village to sleep there. For my foster-father, the “child abduction” was only one more act of treason. Looking back, I think that the amiable Mater was the only real caregiver in my life. She taught me to read and write, and she taught me the essentials of herbal lore. With empathy and toughness she taught me what I needed to know to become part of the Endralean clergy. Ten winters later, I received priesthood and began to serve in the small temple. I did what an obedient priest had to do: I held services, I prayed, I maintained the temple and I heard the villager's confessions. Mater Pyléa left the village on her sixtieth namesday and moved to a retirement quarter in the Sun Temple of the capital, which I only knew from tales. A year later my father passed away, an event that, to my surprise, affected me deeply. Then, everything became lethargic routine, until that very day.
The man that I was then — was he a happy man? I am not able to tell. When I try to recall the first twenty-eight years of my life, my memories seem to be like fading words on an old parchment. My reason tells me that I was blessed, in a way. The life of a priest was pleasant and constant, without highs and lows. I had enough to eat, I had a home and enough pennies to afford the services of a wandering whore from time to time. I knew that, according to the Holy Verses, at the end of my days I would enter the Eternal Paths, my Path trodden, my task fulfilled. But things turned out differently.
After I had taken off my robes and wearily laid down under the sheet of sheep's wool, I noticed a strange and dull feeling in my stomach. Today I know that this unremarkable moment was the first time I encountered the fire. It was small, insignificant, only a weak glow, but it was there, knowing that I would wake up as a different man. However, on this gray morning I was too tired to pay attention to it. Exhausted, I wrapped my sheet around myself and was fast asleep a moment later.
I awoke in a dream.
I found myself on an idyllic forest glade, surrounded by green oak trees, whose leaves were moved gently by the wind. The setting sun stood at the horizon like molten blaze and threw a red light over the scenery. I savored the spicy, fresh air, which tasted of wet moss, morning dew and old secrets, mysterious, wild and clear, like life itself. In contrast to what we all know from the nightly journeys that we call dreams, I was fully aware of the unreality of the scenery. So I accepted it as if it was as natural as time's passing. I was stark naked, as on the day of my birth, but I was not ashamed. On the contrary: I felt strong, clear and free.
When I took my eyes away from the sky and looked in front of me, I saw her. She stood in an old ruin that was overgrown with ivy and whose collapsed walls and arches told of ancient times. She wore a gray, flowing robe that only allowed a glimpse of her femininity beneath. Her hood hung deeply over her face so that only the tender and delicate parts of her cheeks and chin were visible — a sight that could have come from the imagination of a Qyranian painter. Her dense, midnight black hair was tied into snake-like braids and fell down to her shoulders. Various things were interwoven in her hair: old, faded coins that must have been minted by lost civilizations; small, finely polished bones from animals unknown to us; and strange ribbons whose colorful threads created an artful pattern. But it was not all this that hypnotized me and drew me towards the veiled figure in the ruin. It was her smile. With every step I took towards her, I fell deeper into its charm. It was not a lovely smile, as some might assume. It was a mixture of melancholy, rage, hope and love, a symphony of contradicting feelings which I thought to be irreconcilable. It was a smile that was able to speak great wisdom as much as orders that would mean the death of thousands. A smile born from truths recognized in otherworldly existences. Cold sweat ran from my pores, and I felt how apprehensiveness mixed with the peaceful bliss of the moment just gone.
I came to a halt a few steps before her, still staring at her magical smile like a starving man at a feast. For a moment I believed to recognize a glimpse of mirth in her features. But it faded away as fast as it had appeared. Then she began to speak. “You are dying, Jaél.” Her voice was rough and tender at the same time, full of contrast. She spoke without mockery, pity or cruelty.
“Why?”, I heard myself responding mechanically. “I am in the best of health.” My answer was as pathetic and clumsy as it must appear to the reader of these yellowed pages, but I spoke them faster than I was able to think, without control. The woman nodded subtly, as if she had expected this very response.
“You affirm that you are of good health”, she paraphrased my words with a peculiar intonation. “But you fail to perceive the fabric of this world in all its intricacy.” Slowly and regretfully, she shook her head, like a Magistra in the monastery school who got a foolish answer from a novice to a very simple question. Then she took her hands out of the robe's sleeves and indicated me to follow her. Even her walk had something of another world about it. Her body did not move with her steps, but seemed to float. Silent and obedient, I followed her through the old ruin. Today, after I had gone through the vision in my thoughts many thousand times, I know that it was an old trading post. The walls and the rusty gate left no doubt about it. — But in the vision, I did not care about such banalities. To follow the figure in front of me was my sole purpose. She stopped in front of an old, overgrown tower, presumably once the heart of the ruin, and opened the cast-iron door, which swung aside in an eerie, silent manner.
“Go, Jaél”, she said. “Go and perceive the truth.” These were the last words I heard until the horrid discovery inside the ruin. For when I was about to reply, she was gone. For the first time, a feeling of uncertainty mingled with the confidence that I had at the beginning of the vision. I was still aware of the fact that my physical body was lying on a bed in a modest chamber, in another world. Also I knew that I could decide to wake from the wonderful and terrible vision. But I did not. Why? — I am unable to say. Was it out of curiosity? Was it the sense of fate that covered the ruin like a thin, transcendent sleeve? I don't know.
I entered. The floor felt cold under my naked feet, and the dusty air that was only lit by a pale red sunbeam made me cough as it filled my lungs. The inside was almost empty, except for spiderwebs, weathered furniture and broken stones that had fallen from the crumbling walls. In the middle there was a wooden construction, an extraordinarily large, upright box. Hesitantly, I walked closer. A word came to my head, but faded from my mind as fast as it had appeared. I recognized how the fire of the setting sun extinguished and how it was replaced by a dull blue. Gentle, hazy fog started to cover the scenery, and everything that was peaceful and blessed before I entered the ruin was replaced by a sense of trepidation. Creeping, cold, wasting.
My hand moved along the surface of the strange box that was slightly taller than me. The wood was decayed and gray, and an odd smell came from it, like iron. It was sweet and tempting, but at the same time repellant. Leave!, flashed through my head. Leave before you inflame it. I was unable to determine if it was I who thought these thoughts. But of course, I did not leave. Slowly my hand moved toward a gap at the side the of the box that allowed me to open its lid. As the hinge opened with a reluctant, mourning sound, I remembered the word that had slipped my mind. This time it did not vanish, it preserved in all its dreadfulness. The wooden construction in the middle of this abandoned ruin was no box. It was a coffin.
Even today I can hardly find the right words for the terror that stared at me from the decomposing inside of the coffin. Without any doubt, the creature before my very eyes was myself. There it was, the brown hair, thinning, even at the age of twenty-eight. There it was, the well-trimmed, dense beard that grew down to my chest, the beard that I grew to hide my unremarkable, longish face. And there it was, the crooked nose, giving my face a vulture-like appearance, making me avoid my own reflection in the mirror. But the body in the coffin was dead, clenched like in the moment of dying. Penned in like cattle, his head was pressed down to his shoulders by the small dimensions of the coffin, his unnatural posture a silent accusation. His body was pinched, his arms pressed to himself in a twisted manner. Much more gruesome, though, was the face. The skin was pale and had a greenish gray color like decayed tombstones. There were many deep fissures that were not bleeding, but displaying bare flesh and white bones. The beard was curly and wild, and maggots moved around in the tangled mesh, oozing a festering, doughy liquid that was dripping down to the stone floor. The man's cheeks were hollow, and his lacerated lips were opened in a twisted way that gave the impression of a tormented smile. His teeth were rotten and his tongue gray. But none of this was the reason for the bloodcurdling, panic-fuelled cry that escaped my throat. It was the eyes. Or, rather, it was the place where the eyes used to be on a healthy, living person.
But there were no eyes. Weak and pale like shrouds, the lids, devoid of any sense, hung over gaping black sockets. Contradicting any logic, they seemed to stare at me, whispering, rotting, and dead. The same festering liquid that came from the man's beard trickled down the brows and disappeared in the empty eye sockets. No… No words can describe the terror that filled me when I looked at that deformed creature.
In panic, I hit the withered copy of myself, but I only loosened the body so it fell right toward me. I felt how the repellent, festering corpse water from the beard touched my lips, while a handful of maggots landed on my shoulder. For a short moment I was petrified. I held myself in my arms, like a twin his own deceased brother. But this was no twin. When the maggots tried to move up my neck, I pushed the corpse away with a shrill cry, wiped away the maggots and fled out of the ruin.
Meanwhile, it was night, and the full moon stood cold, white and unmoving at the sky. The veil of mist that formed inside the ruin faded as soon as I came outside and let myself fall to the ground, crying and breathing heavily. I am dead, flashed through my mind, again and again. DEAD! I uttered a panicky scream, a pitiful effort to banish the madness from my mind. The terror remained, it was omnipresent, and I felt bitter tears making their way through my eyes. What, by the righteous path, does it mean? What kind of nightmare am I trapped in? Some might ask why I did not end the vision with the well-known physical stimulus, by pinching myself, even more so because I was fully aware of the unreality of what was happening. The answer is, I was unable to do it, and I knew it. What I went through was not one of the usual, nightly phantasms that occasionally haunt us in the quiet hours. Something that I later began to understand at least a little wanted to show me something, and I was unable to escape the truth, as little as man can escape the sands of time. As I turned my gaze from the floor and started to crouch toward the stone arch and the forest, weeping helplessly, I saw her again. The veiled woman. She stood above me and stared down at me, almost with sympathy. At least I assumed so, because despite the angle of my view, I was unable to recognize anything above her cheeks but the unnatural shadow of her hood.
“What are you?”, I brought forth in a weak voice. “What by the Black Guardian's name are you? A demon? An angel of death?” It sounded pathetic, like the lament of a desperate child.
“You ask me what I am”, she answered again, an echo of my pitiful words. “And you assume I am a black angel of your god, come upon you to punish you. But” — a touch of maternal tenderness accompanied her rough voice — “you ask the wrong question, Jaél. For who I am is not of importance.”
For a moment I stared at her in confusion, unable to react to her enigmatic answer. I remained at the floor for a while, motionless, breathing frantically and panicky, looking at the veiled woman. After what felt like an eternity, I asked the question that needed to be asked.
“And what… what is the right question?”
For a brief moment, I saw what seemed to be a sad smile caress her red lips. “You inquire from me what only you can answer”, she said and began to walk towards the stone arch. “And I want to give you an advice.” She halted, looking like an unreal shape in the silver of the night. “An advice on how you can avoid the death of your soul.” There was a moment of silence. “End your false life. And follow the fire.”
Then the vision broke apart.
Up to the present day, the origin and nature of this vision remained a mystery to me. Who was the enigmatic woman? How did she enter my thoughts? Or was it not her, but merely a spectral image of my thoughts, an embodiment of my subconscious? These were the questions that went through my head right after I awoke.
Yet I had not much time to ponder. For when I awoke, breathing heavily and soaked in sweat, I realized that something was different. Disoriented, I rose up and rubbed my burning eyes. I looked around in my room, and my bones cracked reluctantly as I turned my head left and right. Nothing. My surroundings seemed perfectly normal. Again, I let my gaze roam the narrow room, from the heavy wooden door, along the small wardrobe, to the scribe's desk in the right corner, on which numerous tomes and scrolls lay in disorder. Insecurely, I closed my eyes and delved into myself. No … The repugnancy was not to be found in my surroundings. It derived from me. To be exact, it derived from a strange feeling in my stomach that was unknown to me back then. It was an uneasiness, dull and stagnant, a diffuse fear similar to the one we fear when we know that terrible or challenging things wait ahead. Notwithstanding, the feeling seemed familiar, like a gloomy truth that was suppressed in my subconscious all the years and that now found its way to my mind, like glowing coal beneath a thin layer of fissured ice that began to melt. Bewildered, I laid my hands on my stomach, in a child-like, instinctive manner. Of course, it did not help — the strange, dull feeling remained.
I rose up dizzily and looked out of the narrow window above the scribe's desk. The vision that had felt like an eternity seemed to have lasted not more than an hour in reality. Still, not a single sound from outside reached my ear, and the light was dim and pale. Only a pallid and grey cone of sunlight brightened the dance of a hundred confused dust grains in the air. In addition to my uneasiness, I was nauseous, my eyes burned and I felt weak. Water … I need water. Indolently, I walked to the trough, which was filled with fresh spring water, next to the heavy wooden door. I felt how my uneasiness became stronger, and for a moment an absurd scenario unfolded in my mind. What would I see in the mirror of the water when I bent over the trough? The deformed and decayed grimace I saw in the ruin? Or the unremarkable face of a man that lived his life ruled by coincidence and the lack of alternatives instead of free will? I fought the urge to walk away from the trough and instead went to my knees in front of it. But my fear was baseless. No festering maggots crawled from the face that stared at me in the reflection, no chapped skin revealed the flesh on the bones beneath. Just a dream. It was just a dream. I smiled weakly and confused about my own folly, formed my hands to a bowl and drank three deep gulps. Then I sprinkled some water on my face, rubbed it on my body, my hair, my arms and my feet. I took the brush of boar bristles and scrubbed my skin until it began to bite. Finally, I took my brown priest's robe from the cast-iron hook at the door, slipped it over and leaned wearily against the wall. I felt better but not well. I repeated the sentence several times in my thoughts. Thus, I tried to banish the remains of what I believed to be a nightmare. Yet the desired effect did not occur, for every time I closed my eyes, images of my own corpse flooded through my mind, and my uneasiness grew, as if it wanted to emphasize the meaning of the dream. I sighed and did what I always did when I contemplated — I began to pace around my room.
I remember all too well that this moment was the first time in my life that silence appeared oppressive to me. How I wished to hear the familiar creaking of cartwheels, the bright calls of the baker or the bray of a donkey … But there was nothing, absolutely nothing to hear, not even the mournful singing of the wind that was usually omnipresent in Fogville. Along with the pale light in my chamber I felt like a part of a Tirmatralean mourning tableau. Always the same images: the coffin … the corpse. And the veiled woman and her words … Follow the fire … End your false life. Was there a connection between these words and the dull feeling in my stomach? Why did I dream of such things at all? What, by the righteous path, did it mean? My countenance clouded. False life? What a heap of nonsense. I lived exactly the life that the Path had chosen for me. Even if, from time to time, gloomy thought came to my mind and I felt envious about the adventures who on their journeys had a rest in Fogville, it did not mean that my pious life was in any way “false”. No … I was lucky that I did not have to live at the side of my miserable father, smearing grease on animal hides. I was even luckier not to be one of the ill-fated people who cut each other's throats for a stale piece of bread in the Undercity of Ark. I pinched my eyes. These are the very thoughts that make path-abiding people stray from the Path. They become attracted to an insane vision o an “adventurous life” and get drawn into suffering and misery. With a gloomy face I thought of terrible stories that from time to time reached Fogville. All the time it had been egoists and power-hungry ones who drew innocent people into ruin along with them. Eventually, I stopped. No … my life is exactly as it should be.
“Is that so, Jaél?”
I startled. What in blazes …? Irritated, I moved around, trying to find the voice's origin. Nothing … I was alone. But then where did this voice come from? I must have had imagined it. It had come to that — I heard voices! This dream is driving me insane. Angry about myself, I started to move again. Yet after only two steps, the voice sounded again in my thoughts — and along with it, the dull feeling in my stomach burned like fresh blaze in the wind. Images and feelings rose in my consciousness, heavy and pressing, but familiar at the same time. This time the voice spoke with a mixture of mourning and mockery.
“How much longer do you want to close your eyes to the truth? What needs to happen to make you finally understand?”
This time I actually tumbled backwards when I heard the voice. Not so much because of the words but because of the feeling it triggered in me. Thoughts flew in my mind, and they were not only thoughts about the scenes of my dream. I saw myself, lying on my bed, soaked in sweat, shivering. I saw myself, gloomily staring afar while Mater Pyléa was reading out the Path to me. Along with these thoughts came a crawling uneasiness, a feeling of loneliness and fear. Instinctively, I pressed both hands against my stomach. By the righteous Path … I am losing my mind! Damn it, I am actually losing my mind! I turned around fast like lightning and hastened to my desk, upon which lay an open, leather-bound folio. It was a handwritten transcription of the Path that I had just started before the festivities of the Star Summer Night. For five decades now it had been possible to reproduce written works in an almost magical manner — thanks to the strange, press-like construction of a cunning Starling researcher (it was called “letterpress” due to the mechanics of the machine). The manual transcription, however, was still considered a sign of spiritual commitment. It had something meditative about it, it was calming, and that was what I needed to banish the rising panic in my stomach. Hastily, I adjusted my chair, opened the inkwell and took the quill. “Work frees the mind”, I told myself. I was encouraged by the fact that the barrage of strange images and the feeling that came along with them had decreased. It had been a dream, nothing more. A frightening dream, indeed, but a dream nonetheless. Yes … Concentrating, writing a few pages, reciting a verse — and the spook will be gone. Nothing will remind me of the disfigured body in the coffin of you, and tomorrow I will be able to continue my meaningless life. Indeed, it will be business as usual, and then, one day, I will die in peace, without having seen the truth at all, an insignificant, pale number among thousands, and no one, no one will ever remember you, Jaél Tanner's son, the Nameless One, and … Only now I realized that sweat was pouring down my forehead and that I was clenching the quill so hard that my hand began to hurt. The sentences that I had written down were scrawly and full of mistakes. I dropped the quill and gasped. Witchcraft. This is witchcraft! I slammed the book shut, closed my eyes and started to clear my mind as Mater Pyléa had taught me. Breathe, Jaél. Breathe. My entire body trembled, and my pulse hammered in my wrists. Without any doubt, the voice came from within me. It was part of my thoughts, yet still so unfamiliar, threatening and lurking. “It is futile, Jaél”, the voice suddenly whispered. “You cannot escape destiny. End your false life, end it here and now … and follow the fire.” There was a moment of silence. “Or else you will die.”
As the last word faded in my mind, fear exploded inside me. It shot up my spine and made its way through my body, to my heart, to my fingertips, to my skull, right into my brain. The feeling it released was terrible. Again and again the horrid images from my dream appeared along with the strange memories of seemingly random moments of my life. I saw myself pacing between the benches of the temple, without orientation. I saw myself preparing a corpse for its last journey, according to Endraelean tradition, weeping. I saw myself, lying sweating in my bed, breathing heavily and my eyes wide open. However, it were not the images that made the situation so unbearable … It was the feeling that covered everything like a leaden, grey cloud, almost driving me crazy. I felt a mixture of fear and panic, bitter loneliness and desolation. I felt like standing in front of a pitch black abyss, lost and without identity. I felt … alone.
It might be hard for you to comprehend the description, but maybe it helps you understand the mechanism of the human mind. If something terrible happens to someone — such as the death of a loved one —, our mind reacts with a kind of shock. Merely part of what we actually should feel is allowed to enter the immediate mind. The rest will be banished into the depths of our unconsciousness, buried like an unloved, dangerous secret. Only after the mind has somewhat recovered, the banished pieces of memory will be unearthed, piece by piece, so that we can deal with them and finish the mourning process. If, however, for some reason this reworking will not take place, the memories will decay and fester until they are noticed: We feel gloomy, have panic attacks or entirely lose the ability to feel emotions. Though it is possible to live under such conditions until one dies, the buried memories take away a huge part of our vital energy, or, in the worst case, drive us to strange deeds.
As the tentacles of fear were raging in me, I realized that these terrible feelings were exactly such decomposing memories. They had been there forever, lurking shadows beneath a shield of glass. I had noticed them in short moments, small and insignificant. Sometimes in the deepest night, when I awoke from a nightmare, soaked in sweat, unable to grasp only one image of the dream. Sometimes in small fissures of my thought that haunted me while I performed perfectly normal tasks. Then, for a tiny moment, I was filled with a misty and grey loneliness, and I felt as if I was an observer of myself, the spectator of a hypocritical, bigoted play. My false life. I lived a lie, a desperate effort of my mind to cover something in me that could not be covered — a secret, something that I had suppressed and that could not be held at bay anymore. Now it had broken free, and it remorselessly showed me what would happen if I did not start to search the truth: Death. You are dying.
Yet some among you might know that insights and actions are very opposing things. Even though the voice had forced me to look at it — and I had looked at it —, I did not want to accept it. I uttered a guttural cry, wiped my writing utensils from the desk and knocked down my stool. I hit the wall of my chamber with my bare fist, ignoring the burning pain that crawled up my arm. I wanted to banish the feeling inside me, somehow, so that I could get my old life back. But my resistance was in vain, and each second that passed amplified the panic that constricted my throat and drowned me like a remorseless flood. Only when my breath was but a weak gasp, I sank down to the floor with my back against the wall, my face buried in my hands, exhausted. It is futile. I felt the salt of my tears burning on my cheeks and began to sob like a child. “What shall I do? By Malphas, what shall I do?” I uttered. My voice sounded shaky and miserable.
For a while, nothing happened. Then I heard the voice again in my thoughts, tender, melancholic.
“You already know the answer, Jaél … She told you what to do.”
This time, the voice did not aggravate my loneliness. No, for a moment I almost felt secure, and it was the moment I made my decision. Yes … she was right. I knew what I had to do. I knew it and I had always known it, yet like a fledgling soldier who did not understand that the tales about glorious wars were only tales until he lost his leg I had to see my own death in order to understand.
I had to begin searching for the buried truth. At that moment it was obscure to me what the veiled woman had meant by talking about the “Fire”. Was the fire a symbol for the truth? The truth behind the feeling of emptiness and loneliness that I had learned to suppress and that could not be suppressed anymore?
The newborn man who later became known as the “Butcher of Ark” did not yet know that he would soon get the answer to this question.
My memories of the hours right after my decision are only vague. It would be wrong to assume that the oppressive feeling in my stomach vanished after I had gained insight into its nature. No, it was still there, and each time when I had doubts while I was packing my belongings, it grew stronger and more present, like a master who was determined to keep a weak-minded student on the right path by using reprimand and sharp words. Yet I felt a determination that I had never felt in my life before. Indeed I felt a spirit of … optimism, as absurd as it might sound after what had happened to me.
After I had collected all my belongings, I left the temple, which had been my home for more than a decade. One last time I looked back into its awe-inspiring interior. There it stood, Malphas' stone statue, clad in a massive steel harness, determinedly looking ahead. In his left hand the statue held a replica of broken chains, and the right hand pointed forward, showing the way, proudly and full of power. One last time I closed my eyes and smelled the omnipresent mixture of incense, lavender and roses, a scent that used to give me a feeling of comfort. — Now it unpleasantly tickled in my nose and reminded me of the ointment that the inhabitants of the Isles of Kilé used to embalm their dead. I swallowed heavily and closed the door behind me.
The contents of the package that hung on my shoulder was scarce: a loaf of considerably fresh Enderalean bread, a waterskin, my scratchy cotton blanket, a sachet of pennies and the holy 101 verses, which I decided to take along after a moment of hesitation. The book felt heavy, and its leather binding seemed rough and … well, sticky. Nonetheless, my attachment to the lightborn whose holy word was the spiritual compass for any devout Endralean and who was the only companion in my lonesome life so far, except for Mater Pylea, was too deep. One thing was clear to me: Wherever my journey would lead me, I needed food and decent clothing. My priest's robes were too heavy and cumbersome, and they would be too warm in the summer. Also, they seemed like a burden to me, completely inappropriate for the task ahead. Even though every traveler — except for brigands — would treat me with respect, the robes were a symbol for my old life as a priest.
So I had to go to the marketplace and find a trader who would sell his wares despite the holy day. It felt strange to see the place that usually was full of people being so empty and quiet. Only a dog noticed my presence, and a few chickens which by their owner had been perched in a corral surrounded by an alcove of the weak town wall. Meanwhile, the sun had risen, but the many gray clouds did not allow much light to shine down on the city. It was going to rain.
Eventually, I reached my destination, a small and cozy store. The house walls were overgrown with ivy which framed even the milky windows beneath the crooked roof. A handcart full of barrels and crates stood before the entrance as if it had been abandoned by its owner during work, which was likely considering the smell of alcohol, gunpowder and fried meat in the air. Garlands which would have shined in all colors if enough sunlight had been present hung limply between the houses. Several times I heard a crunch when I walked over some broken jugs. The sign next to the heavy door identified the shop as “Carvai's Sundries”.
I knocked, and I knocked again after a few moments that passed without any reaction. After the third time I heard the sound of scuffling steps, and an aged Starling with clean-shaven face and a sharp nose opened the door. His tired look told me that he had intended to run off the unwanted customer before he recognized me. The dark circles under his eyes made me assume that he had vigorously been celebrating Star Summer Night as well. For a moment the sight seemed bizarre to me, even familiar, as if I had experienced it may times before. However, the feeling was gone at the moment he started to speak. “Well … Father?” he said in a worn out voice. He looked nervously at the embroidered emblem on my robe which showed a stylized eye and a sword. “Can I help you?” I tried to smile. “Indeed you can, by showing me your wares. May I enter?” I was surprised how confident and friendly my voice sounded. For a moment the Starling named Carvai looked at me insecurely. Like all Starlings he was small and wiry, had frizzy hair and a pointy nose. Carvai was a path-abiding man. Every week he and his many children visited the three masses, which was also the reason why I had chosen his store to buy clothes for my ludicrous journey. His respect for the clergy was great, so he would not ask questions. Carvai scratched his nose and gave me a sleepy and confused look. In his eyes I saw the question why by the righteous Path a village priest visited a store that early in the morning. But he nodded devotedly, stepped aside and asked me to enter.
Other than the dire landscape around Fogville, his house had a rustic and cozy feel. The fireplace in the large room at the end of the hall was crackling, and for a moment I saw a young girl peeking through a door at the end of the stairs next to the entrance. I envied the Starling child and her siblings. Their father had given them a home and a feeling of security that I never had with Gilmon. When Pylea had taken me under her wings, it had already been too late.
The wooden walls looked solid yet old, and the large fur of a coast stalker hung at the left side. Reluctantly I took a step forward and almost stumbled over one of the many shoes on the floor. I heard how the door behind me snapped shut and Carvai cleared his throat. “This way, Father”, he said and walked towards the large sales room from which I had heard the crackle of the fire. It was an amazing sight. Behind the wooden counter, which separated the seller's realm from the customer's, numerous items, chests, boxes and pieces of furniture were piled up. Huge bookshelves along the walls were filled with dusty folios, scrolls, crystals and caskets. The store looked insignificant from outside, but I could not fight the feeling that some precious antiquities could be found here.
“Well … What exactly do you need, Father?” the Starling finally asked. For a moment I could not answer. What did I actually need? I wanted to embark on a journey to find the mysterious woman from my dream, and a feeling told me that it might not end in Enderal.
“Well …”, I started. “Everything you need for an extended journey.”
The Starling furrowed his eyebrows. “A journey? To where?” He faltered for a moment. “If you don't mind the question.”
“I am traveling … to Ark”, I improvised. The later he would tell anyone about my getaway, the better. “The High Priest asks for us.” That seemed to satisfy him.
“I understand …”, he said and lifted the hatch in the counter. “I am all the more honored by your visit in my store.” I nodded and smiled and let him walk me through his wares.
About half an hour later I was relieved of 102 pennies. I had purchased a sturdy knapsack, a good pair of boots, a hooded traveler's cowl and an old iron dagger, which I did not know how to use. Carvai had also sold me a traveler's staff that he said was favored by pilgrims who visit the seven wayshrines. “It is perfect for repelling insects”, he had told me trustworthily. As a farewell, I had blessed him and left with a priestly smile. I got food for my journey in the tavern. The Matris, defying his lack of sleep, was diligently cleaning up the remains of the festivities. He gave me a confused look, but after some explanation about my plans he sold me for a good price a loaf of tasty bread, dried fruit and a tub of pickled whisperweed, which was popular among travelers because of its durability. He also asked for my priestly blessing, which I gave him with a strange feeling. The holy act felt so wrong like never before, and the ceremony seemed not like routine, but like a lie to me.
The guardsman Yleas was the last person I met before I walked down the hill where Fogville was situated. He was too sleepy to ask for my destination. Obediently, he opened the wooden gate and wished me to walk blessed. As I left Fogville behind, I was flooded by a feeling of melancholy relief. Within a few hours I had ended my life that the veiled woman had described as “false”. Nobody would notice my absence until late in the day.
The first days of my journey were an almost spiritual, yet not entirely pleasant experience. I felt as if I had lived my whole life wearing a veil over my eyes. The greater the distance to the bare cliff became, the more surreal the thought seemed to me that I had lived there for twenty-eight years … as a priest. It almost seemed to me as if it had merely been a dream.
After all, who was I?
I was unable to find a satisfying answer to that question. If I did not end my foolish journey and return immediately, in the eyes of the Holy Order I would be a heretic, a pathless one, someone who had strayed from his way. The fact that I belonged to the cleric was only of minor concern. When I thought of Malphas and his 101 verses, doubt and bitterness intersected my feeling of liberation like a mental sword. Yet it felt the same when I thought about returning. The dull feeling in my stomach lurked inside of me. When on the second day of my journey I tried to take a few steps back to Fogville, the very same terrible panic arose that had led to the breakdown in my chamber. No … The only way that I could take now was the one leading through my suppressed memories, away from my false life. I had not the slightest idea where to start looking for the lost fragments of my childhood. I had only been two years old when Gilmon had found me. What could have had happened to shape my life to such an extent? I had only one clue to find answers: the ominous words of the veiled woman. To trust these words was as foolish and irrational as trusting a Qyranian bone reader, but I had no choice.
Follow the fire …
I halted for a moment and wiped the sweat off my forhead. After I had descended from the Fogville cliff, I had taken a small path along the coast. Now I was at the border to the Heartland. Ark was about eleven days' march away, but I intended to use my last pennies to pay a Myrad flight to the capital. The overgrown streets leading through the Endralean forests were too dangerous. At the moment I wandered on a halfway paved path between colorful meadows. The sound of birds was in the air, and the sun was burning on the back of my neck. You are insane, Jaél … simply insane, I thought, as I looked back. Indeed, what I did was contradicting everything the holy verses had taught me. Only about seven turns of the moon ago I had accompanied a small group of boys and girls of appropriate age through their consecration. I remembered how a smart, red-haired Aeterna girl spoke to me during one of the preparation lessons. Her hair was fine and straight, as it was usual with the pointy-eared race. “What if I did not want to become a tailoress?”, she had asked me after I had explained the importance of their upcoming namesday's ceremony to the children.
“What is your name, young girl?”, I answered smilingly.
The determined look had not vanished from her eyes. “Syléna, Father. My name is Syléna.”
“Syléna … very well. Let me give you a small riddle. Or rather, let me give you all a small riddle.” She had furrowed her eyebrows and looked at me sceptically, more like a grown woman than a young girl. “Imagine yourselves as brave explorers. It is your holy mission, personally assigned to you by the holy leader of the Order, to discover new land far off the Skarrag isles … just as the first pioneers did in Enderal.” The helpless or bored looks in the faces of the children had been replaced by curiosity. Only Syléa still looked at me with determination and skepticism. “However,” I said pointedly, raising my index finger, “a great disaster happens to you.” I paused momentously.
“A thunderstorm. After only half the way, your galley is torn by a severe tempest. You are lucky as none of you is hurt, but you find yourselves on a wild, deserted island. There is nothing but thickets, cold sand and wreckage around you.” With the exceoption of Syléa, all of them were drawn into my tale at that time.
“You all know that if you want to survive, you need to act — at once. For not only bitter cold and hunger could be your doom … You can hear a threatening growl from afar, a sound that only a wild Vatyr can bring forth.” As I mentioned the hideous, goat-like creatures which usually live in dark and moist caves, some of the children uttered noises of disgust. “So you start collecting wood and building a camp. But soon you realize that some of you are better qualified for certain tasks than others. Ralof, for example, can carry twice as much wood as Syléna because of his strong physique. You, Gilma, are a gifted markswoman, because your father allowed you to practice with the straw dolls in the guard house at an early age. Now — who should keep the first watch and who should go looking for firewood?” All children agreed that Ralof was supposed to carry the wood and Gilma to keep the watch. The game went on until all tasks were assigned to the “pioneers” according to their physical and mental conditions.
“Well. But now something bothersome happens: Ralof feels exploited and does not want to collect any more firewood.” The said boy looked indignantly at me, but I calmed him with a gesture of my hand. “Of course he behaves like this only in my story. By all means, he does not want to go looking for firewood anymore. He says he wants to keep watch with Gilma, even though all of you know that he would not be able to hit a blind, paralyzed Troll with his bow. Now my question to you is this: What would be best for all of you? If Ralof came to reason or if he from now on kept watch and Gilma collected the wood instead?” The children voted unanimously for the first choice.
“Very well. Only this way you will be able to defy Vatyrs, hunger and cold on the inhospitable island until a galley arrives and brings you back to Enderal. This is the essence of what the Holy Scripture teaches us: Unity and strength can only emerge in a community that serves the welfare of all and not only of an individual. Malphas himself chooses our divine tasks, for who else knows our strengths and weaknesses better than the one who gives our mothers the gift of fertility each moon? With a satisfied smile my gaze wandered back to the one who initially had asked the question.”
“And that, dear Syléna, is the answer to your question. Even if you have doubts about the path that Malphas is soon going to choose for you, defy them as you defy a disease, for only a people united in flesh and mind will be able to prevail eternally.” The children's answer was rapt silence. Syléna, however, had not lost her skeptical look after I had told my story that was inspired by the first verse of the Path.
The Path … Had I ever believed in it? I did not know. It was what Mother Pylea had told me. It was what I was supposed to believe. If even I, an educated man with access to so much knowledge, was able to discover the decayed memories of childhood only after a vision … what about other people? Do they all live a … false life? But if, it shot through my head, the Path is indeed a lie … what … what then guides us? This heretic thought kept me busy until the sun set.
Not before the sun had disappeared almost entirely behind the horizon I recognized signs of human life on the trail again. Like the four days before, I had been wandering through pines and cypresses, encountering no human soul. But now a giant field of wheat lay before me, and in the middle of it stood a windmill high as a tower. Its wheel turned slowly in the evening wind and a mixture of dusty earth, moss and freshly cut grass was in the air. For a moment the rustic beauty of the sight made me forget my aching legs and the dull feeling in my stomach. People.
Despite my fatigue I accelerated my steps and soon came to a paved road that was winding between the hills which were overgrown with wheat. After a short while I found what I had been looking for: a shelter. It was full night now, and the orange light that was streaming out of the windows of the old, ivy-covered farmhouse promised protection and rest. A smile lightened up my face and I sighed in relief without noticing it. During the last nights I had rested in small caverns which my back, which was used to my soft bed, did not approve of. A warm meal … Suddenly, two horses in full gallop dashed past me. Refelxively, I jumped to the side, and the flank of one of the horses barely missed me. I uttered a scared cry and stumbled as I tried to regain my balance. I landed in the dust with a muffled thud. What in blazes!? Indignantly I looked at the two riders who came to a halt in front of me. They both were very tall and wore solid leather garments, just like hunters. Their horses were black, indicating an expensive breed. Angrily I watched them dismounting, throwing a penny to a slender boy who probably was the stable lad, and disappearing into the tavern. Even then, I hated complacent and crude people. Did these two apes even realize that they almost had run me down? Probably not. And if they did, they would not even look at you. My lips shrank to a thin line. Damn primitives.
But my mind was too exhausted to allow any more angry thoughts. So I shrugged resignedly, picked up my staff from the ground and went to the farmhouse. An overwhelming scent of freshly baked bread filled the air, and my anger was gone. One last time I looked at the tavern sign that was shaking in the wind. The Red Ox. This is where I was going to spend the first “civilized” night of my new life.
When I entered the tavern I could hear a pleasant mixture of voices, clanking goblets and crackling fire. The cold left my limbs immediately and my mouth was watering. During my long march, I had only eaten some pieces of my bread and a few handful of whisperweed, so I was hungry. The tavern was well-frequented which explained the empty streets outside. I assumed that it served as some kind of meeting point for the local farmers. There was space for about thirty souls in the room, and almost all of the chairs, stools and benches were occupied. Torches lit the room and cast dancing shadows of the guests at the walls. I mustered the people. Next to the entrance a tired looking man extensively studied a yellowed picture book called “The Merry Aeterna Damsel”. Its saucy images looked as if they were not exclusively drawn for ethnologists. A bearded bard tuned his lute on a shamefully tiny pedestal. He was probably preparing to sing his next song which would be devoured by the noise around him. Just in front of me sat an enviable attractive, well-dressed man who talked to a woman whose countenance showed utter devotion. I estimated him to be thirty-five winters old. His hair was jet-black, his face was masculine yet delicate, and he wore a three-day stubble. Unwittingly, I distorted my mouth. Certainly he is a one of the prigs from the upper city. One of those who shag around and waste their inheritance. When I had finished the thought, the beau noticed my staring. For a moment he looked at me with sparkling eyes and smiled, fetching and narcissistic at the same time. Then he turned back to his admirer. The other guests were travelers and farmers of all sorts, man and woman, young and old, tall and short. I felt misplaced, like a northman on a Qyranian bazar, strange and uneasy among the rough people to which I did not belong.
Hastily, I went to the counter which was placed underneath a lower part of the ceiling and behind which various barrels and liquors were lined up. I was just about to speak as I noticed the two clumsy figures who were sitting on the high stools. The two apes. Now I had time to muster them. One of them wore a full beard and two strange earrings which gave him the appearance of a buccaneer. His chum had no beard, but he also had a chin that could shatter walls made of Northwind stone. For a moment I felt the urge to grab the mug in front of me and pour beer into their faces. However, the idea vanished when the two noticed me. Unwittingly, I duck my head as they gave me an amused look and turned their attention back to their stew. They have not even recognized me. With a slight nod of my head I summoned the barmaid who was cleaning mugs behind the counter. She came closer, sized me up and gave me an amused look. “Matris? What may I get you?” she said with a rough voice. At least she has the decency to address me as an urban citizen. I tried not to show my inner turmoil.
“A glass of goat's milk, please.”
I was trying to sound masculine and confident, but my voice, coarse and untrained after four days of silence, was a pitiful croak. The reactions could not have been more intense had I asked for the crown jewels of the Golden Queen. While the barmaid only smiled and shook her head in sympathy, the two primitives next to me broke out laughing heavily. “Goat's milk”, one of them roared, padding his comrade's shoulder. “He wants a glass of goat's milk!” I stared at the giant with a mixture of irritation and defiance. I probably could have avoided the further events of the evening if I had not responded. Even though numerous snappy answers wandered around in my head, the one I finally gave them, my arms crossed in front of my chest, was pathetic.
“Yes, goat's milk”, I said with a shaking voice. “Do you have a problem with it?” This seemed to intensify the amusement of the apes. This time their laughter was so loud that even the bearded bard stopped playing the lute and, as many other guests, turned his insulted yet curious gaze toward the counter. After they had finished laughing and padding each other's shoulders affirmatively, the buccaneer spoke to me. “By no means, Matris!” he said with a sympathetic face. “It's just … Unfortunately, the tavern is out of goat's milk.” He paused for a while, grinning. “Maybe you want to try the harlot's inn in the bathhouse of Ark.” This time they almost burst with laughter. I felt fierce anger arise in me. Never since I had become a priest I was treated with such disrespect. Never! “I will do that when I visit you next time in the apes' compound.”
I froze up. The snappish response had come from my mouth faster than I was thinking, and I had the feeling that the cheerful atmosphere around the two churls faded away. From the corner of my eye I saw that almost half of the guests followed the events apprehensively. You damn idiot. You damn, miserable idiot. For a moment, the eyes of the buccaneer and his chum narrowed to a slit. Then the visible anger left their faces and was replaced by a livid feistiness.
“Well, well”, he finally started, now with an obviously vicious voice. “So you are a real badass.” I wanted to take a step backwards, but the buccaneer had grabbed my wrist with his strong right hand. His grip was hard and firm and his fingers were crude and full of calluses. I felt cold sweat breaking out all over my body. I realized that the man was primitive but dangerous. Half-heartedly, I tried to escape his grip — a convulsion that the two men ignored completely. “I … I am sorry”, I stuttered helplessly. I had just finished my sentence when the gorilla pressed his hand on my mouth. He pointedly glanced at his chum, who sneered even more. “I like brave people. But you seem to be exhausted from your long journey.” I saw how the other man pushed something to him on the counter. “So how about a little refreshment?”
With his last word he removed his hand from my mouth, quickly grabbed the bowl and poured its content over my head. It was stew, and if the encounter had occurred a few minutes earlier, the broth would probably have scalded my skin. Nevertheless, I was covered in hot, sticky slime. I was shocked and I gasped for air so that some of the broth got into my windpipe. I broke down and panted, coughing out the liquid. The meaty brew dripped down my hair, and some of it found its way into my garment, running down my spine. I heard roaring laughter around me. I was certain that most of it came from the buccaneer and his chum, but some of those who had watched the events before were laughing now as well. I felt how my stomach cramped and shame rose up in me. There I was, broken down, coughing stew, the laughing stock. I had an impulse to jump up and grab the buccaneer's throat, but my reason suppressed it instantly. I was deeply humiliated, but I had no death wish. So I tried to raise myself up in a controlled and dignified manner and removed pieces of meat from my clothes. Indeed, my indifference and serenity would be enough of a lesson for the two brutes. I gathered all my priestly courage and turned around. They looked at me, amused and challenging. They want me to keep acting defiantly, I thought. The want me to keep provoking them. I did not stand the slightest chance against any of them in close combat, that was for sure. After all, I had as much knowledge about brawls as a troll about hair care. Just leave, Jaél. Leave and swallow down you damn pride. I peered at the crowd. Most of the guests had returned to their meals or conversations. Only a few of them still looked at me expectantly, among them the black-haired beau. Nobody seemed to despise the impudence of the two men at all. Abruptly I realized what had protected me from events like this my entire life: My priest's robe. It had been the only reason why the other boys had stopped mocking me after my consecration. And probably it was the only reason why everyone lowered their heads devoutly or at least had the decency not to pour stew on me when I entered a tavern! You are a nobody, Jaél. Without your priest's robe you are just another common man, neither big nor slim, neither old nor young, neither ugly nor handsome. Meaningless. For a brief moment I felt the urge to draw the priest's brooch, which I had not had the heart to leave behind, from my bag. Oh, how they would look at me, the primitives. They would begin to recite the Prayer of the Path with eyes widened by fear, asking me for forgiveness. They would respect me what you represent, yes, they would bow their head in reverence because they fear the power of the Holy Order. Of course they would. To disregard a priest of the Path was a capital crime, and only a fool would risk such a punishment …
No. To reveal myself as a priest would not only mean to rely on the authority of others, but also to return to my false life. I already felt my stomach contracting warningly.
I had to comply. So I took a deep breath and swallowed my fervent shame. Ignoring the mocking glances of the buccaneers, I silently gave the barmaid a sign that I wanted a room for the night. I had no desire for a meal anymore, even less in the presence of those who had witnessed my humiliation. The barmaid nodded pitifully and told an old man, who sat quietly at the counter and looked undefinably at me, to show me the way. In silence, I followed the old man up to the room. Only when I stood in front of the room's door, I felt how the malice of the brutes, which cut like a sword in my back, began to wane. I gave the old man five pennies and he handed me the key, a burning candle and a cloth for cleaning, which was probably meant as a benevolent gesture, but only intensified my shame. I turned around silently, entered my chamber and locked the door behind me. Then my anger overcame me like a flood. Without taking notice of the bed, I went to the window and stared into the rain. I uttered a suppressed shout, closed my eyes and clawed both my hands into the window ledge. By the black Guardian, I was angry! Of course the rational part of me knew that I had got off cheaply. — In other, rougher taverns people left a brawl with a broken arm or worse. However, I was unwilling to accept the events and put them aside. Did these men have no respect? This kind of scum deserved to be hanged, flayed and skinned, like brigands and marauders, preferably in public. My jaw cramped and I noticed how the feeling in my stomach had started to change. The dull feeling of insecurity had transformed into a flaming rage, paired with an iron determination. I will not begin my new life in disgrace. I opened my eyes again and looked at the candle that the innkeeper had given to me. The flame burned and crackled, and in a strange way its fire strengthened my determination. I wanted to teach the two apes a lesson, even if it was the last thing I did in my life. But how? What can I do except for preaching, reading books and mixing herbs?
I halted. Yes … Now I was almost grateful that the two disrespectful primitives had crossed my way, right here and right now. A malicious grin bloomed on my lips, and I turned my gaze back to the window. For a short moment I marveled about the man who looked at me from the silent glass. His pale blue eyes looked like burning ice, a contradiction that seemed to be as natural to him as the fire of the sun in autumn twilight. He did not resemble the cringing priest anymore who had given the blessing to washwomen only a week ago. Yes, the man emitted something like … power. Determination. Fire.
It must have been around two o'clock in the night when I put my plan into action. The voices from below had started to fade around midnight, but I did not want to take any unnecessary risks. I carefully stepped outside my room and looked into the hallway leading to the stairs down to the taproom. However, I quickly drew back my head when I heard muffled, heavy steps rumbling up the stairs. I closed the door behind me and listened. A woman and a man, probably drunk, judging by the irregularity of their steps. Could it be one of the two brutes? No … his voice sounded too bright, too soft and too tired. I waited until they had passed my door and until I heard their door closing. Then I swiftly stepped into the hallway again. Now it was empty. Quietly, I went towards the stairs and peeked down to the taphall. Nothing. Even the maidservant and the host seemed to be sleeping, and only the typical smell of grease, alcohol and sweat told of the numerous guests who had indulged themselves a few hours ago. I nodded contentedly just as to confirm myself and returned to my room. An empty taproom indicated that even outside there was nobody except for a sentinel -maybe a beefy farmer's son who wanted to earn a few extra coins.
Carefully, I checked the utensils that I had concocted for my revenge, and I tied the leather pouch that contained them around my waist. Then I pulled the hood of my vagabond's gear deep into my face and congratulated myself for its purchase again. I opened the window without effort or noise and swung out the blinds that were supposed to protect the room from the cold of the night. Just a little creak. I looked down the wall. I was filled with a feeling of gratification. Indeed, I was less muscular and strong than the brutes, but I was agile and flexible instead. My hands were long and slim, perfectly fit for my purpose. Slowly I climbed out of the window and was filled with a cozy, almost thumping warmness even though a cold wind was blowing. I felt as if I even drew power from the dull feeling inside me. I glanced down and surveyed the situation. I was lucky in two ways: first, the host had given me a room on the second floor, not the third one — and second, just a few feet below me there was the roof of a small porch that was probably sheltering the sentinel from rain. As I descended, I was luck again: The tips of my boots were only a few finger's breadth away from the roof. I inhaled deeply and loosened my grip from the window ledge. A muffled impact was audible, but it was not loud enough to raise suspicion. Now I had to be quick. Any second out here could be the moment that someone got aware of me. Quietly, I walked along the porch and descended from the edge. A gust of wind made my vagabond's garment flutter, just as if nature had decided to accentuate the scene.
The stables where the brutes had put their horses were now in front of me. The building was an unremarkable extension of the tavern, standing in the blue of the night in perfect silence. As I came closer, I heard the heavy breath of horses, the scraping of hooves and the crinkle of hey. Carefully, I pulled the heavy iron grip at the door. It opened easily. You might well ask why an open stable door did not arouse any suspicion in me. Yet I was too consumed by the blazing determination that my bold plan of revenge had created, so I sneaked inside. Only five horses were in the stable, two of them sleeping. A gray nag in a compartment next to the door glanced at me with an expression that could have been called skepticism, but it soon continued chewing the hey. It was not difficult to find the steeds of my tormentors, pitch black and muscular as they were. They stood at the very end of the horse wing, in a chamber separated by a fragile wooden door. Now the moment had come. Cautiously, I kneeled down at the compartment of the first steed, near the manger. I was unable to fight a feeling of envy as I inspected the animal from up close. Even an amateur like me could see that it was a Scarragian Rock Stallion. For a while, I quarreled with myself. Who were these men that could afford such noble horses? And what was going to expect me if they ever got scent of the fact that I was responsible for what was going to happen to them in the morning? Maybe all this is the first time in your life that you show courage! These two bastards have earned a lesson in humility!
Of course … The voice was right! I was right! To recoil now would be an act of cowardice, a shame that I did not want to live with. Indeed … these two had earned a lesson in humility, and I was going to give it to them.
My fingers slid into the leather pouch at my side, felt out the small phial and pulled it out. Sheer Cap dust. The eponymous mushrooms usually grew in sparsely vegetated, stony landscapes, and the cliff that Fogville was situated on was exactly such an area. The application of these fungi was one of the first things that Mother Pylea had taught me when I was a novice in the village. Mixing the dry powder with Whispertree Resin resulted in a sticky pulp that considerably accelerated the healing rate if applied to an open wound. As Whispertrees grew in almost all areas of Enderal — except in the barren lands of Thalgard, the Frostcliff Mountains and the Pinnacle Desert — it was highly advisable to take along a phial of concentrated Sheer Cap Powder on extended journeys. The small vessel provided protection from various ailments and afflictions, first of all inflammation, to those who knew the right mixture ratio. However, the Cap's powder had another effect that was unknown to the common people: If it reached the stomach of an unfortunate fellow in an excessive concentration, it triggered something that would be best described as a “cascade of rage”. Negative feelings such as grief, hate and anger were amplified many times over. An irascible man would lose his temper even faster than usual. A gloomy, heartbroken woman would be suffering unbearably, leading to a full breakdown. The effect of concentrated Sheer Cap Powder mixed into a meal equaled the feelings that a trained psionic could evoke in his victims. The only difference was that the powder needed seven or eight hours to take effect. In this case, though, I welcomed the delay, as you can imagine. According to my plan, the two brutes, full of arrogance and pride, would be mounting their expensive stallions, only to be thrown to the ground by the befuddled horses in full gallop. The horses would probably be running away, leaving behind the primitives with considerable bruises or fractures — at that time I was shocked by the gratification, or rather lust, that the thought gave me.
A smile formed on my lips as I opened the phial and walked towards the sleeping horses. I did not have to search long for the trough. It contained a pap of hey, mashed apples and rancid water, most likely a meal that the splendid animals were not accustomed to, yet it was tasty enough to what their appetite. I crouched down in front of the bucket that stood at the end of the hallway between the two compartments, poured two small heaps of the powder on my hand and mixed them into the food. Then I carried the trough to the compartment, waved it around in front of the horses and murmured something I considered appropriate to smoothly wake up a warhorse. I did not have to wait long. Sluggishly, the first horse opened an eye an gave me an undefinable glance. Sleepily, it shook its head as if the mental classification of my presence meant too much effort at this late hour, fluttered its lips and dipped its head into the trough. It is working … Damn it, it is working! The thrill of anticipation that had filled me when I entered the stable now mingled with a glowing feeling of triumph, and I felt more alive than ever. Strange, indeed? There I was, a young priest of about thirty winters, playing a prank on two brutes who had been bullying me. However, instead of feeling impish or cheeky I saw myself as an impersonation of justice, as an avenging angel who contributed to the betterment of humanity with his action. Well, so the circumstances fit into each other … And the first butterfly flew, as the veiled women would say. I was so consumed in my satisfaction that I did not perceive my surroundings. Therefore I heard the heavy steps behind me only when it was too late.
I felt a heavy paw on my shoulder. Startled, I turned my head, which was my first mistake. Now the buccaneer was able to identify my face which before was hidden in the darkness. He seemed to instantly realize what I was doing.
“You lousy swine!”, he snarled, half statement and half question. His breath, smelling of alcohol, was the last thing I heard before he clashed his right fist into my face without waiting for a response. I heard a sharp snap and felt a burning pain shooting up my head. The force of the blow threw me back so that I fell on the sparsely distributed pieces of hey on the floor. My head reverberated as if the pillars of the Sun Temple had burst asunder on it.
“Miserable son of a whore!”, I heard the buccaneer amid the noise. “You haven't had enough, have you?” The pain made me ache and I tried to crawl forward. Instantly, I felt an exploding pain in my right side as the giant thrust his rigid leather boot in my side. “Huh? What is your problem, you piece of crap?”, he shouted, full of rage. “What is your damn problem?” Another thrust followed, now in my ribs. I heard them cracking noisily, and for a moment I was unable to breathe. I was foolish enough not to understand that the buccaneers “questions” were not questions but expressions of rage, so I held up my hand and tried to give an explanation for my presence here. As a result, his boot hit my head, and my face was dashed on the hard stone floor. I felt hot blood running down my forehead, my cheeks and my nose, and everything went black. Using the last of my strength, I crouched like a child in its mother's womb in order to better endure the force of his attacks. You miserable fool, I thought. You damn fool! He is going to kill you, damn it, he is going to kill you! These thoughts crossed my mind over and over while I expected his next kick.
But no kick came. I was confused and, between the blood in my eyes, tried to recognize something in the dark. The giant had turned away from me and kneeled before his horse, worriedly caressing it. The soothing words he whispered to the animal made a stark contrast to the brutish crying that had accompanied his attack. He does not recognize me, I thought while in pain. He does not even recognize me as a threat.
What happened next — and most importantly, what I felt — will be hard to put in words.
I remember how I suddenly felt the leather sheath of my iron dagger. I had considered it to be smart to keep it disguised, and I carried it with me simply because I had forgotten to leave it in my room in the tavern. Everything happened faster than I was able to think — instinctively, bestially. Anyone who had received a well-trained, hard blow on his nose knows how painful it was. However, my experience of pain vanished in an instant, and I felt how the dull feeling in my stomach, the feeling that at the beginning of my failed act of vengeance had become determination and anticipation, began to transform. If a feeling had a form, it changed after my last thoughts were thought. Degenerate bastard, it shot through my mind. First you humiliate me without reason, in front of all the people, and now you dare to spoil my revenge? The anger in my stomach started to smolder, and in a matter of seconds my body was soaked in sweat. I trembled. He was going to pay for this, the subhuman, the worthless piece of filth that considered himself above the law only because of his bloated upper arms and his physique. Indeed … Some people did not deserve a place on this world. Quietly, bristling with rage, I drew my dagger. My arm was strangely twisted by the kicks, but I ignored the pain, it did not exist anymore. There was only me and my enemy. And then I was there. With a force I did not think my slim arms were capable of I drove the dagger into the brute's back. Surprised and stunned, the gorilla gasped and turned around. Now there was no hint of malice and mocking in his eyes. Instead, I saw bewilderment, as if what was about to happen did not belong to the realm of possibility. Then it changed to plain, bestial rage. He grabbed my throat with both his hands and lifted me so that I dangled like a convict from the gallows. Unconcernedly, the dagger stuck in his back as if it had been there from the day of his birth. I felt how he tried to choke me, but the instant I saw the man's eyes I knew that his time was numbered. It burned inside of me, an archaic, destructive force, and a mixture of rage, euphoria and a flush of victory ran through my veins, my mind and every part of my body. With full force I kicked the tip of my boot between his legs. Instantly, the man uttered a terrified cry, unclamped the hands around my neck and sank down. I did not hesitate for a second. Quickly, I grabbed dagger in his back and pulled it out vigorously, only to stab him again in a different place. This time I felt resistance, so I changed the angle of the weapon and turned it jerkily. The man roared, and now his voice did not sound human anymore. Weak and disoriented he tried to fall backwards and thus throw himself on me, but it was in vain. You dare to evade your punishment?, the voice in my head ranted. After all you did to me you dare to resist me? Huh?! One more time I hit him with my dagger, and this time I drove it into his thigh. Again he staggered, gasping unintelligible words. This time he did not try to fight back. Instead, he sank to his knees and started to whimper. He wants me to stop!, it shot through my head, and an insane, triumphant grin filled my face. This piece of crap seriously wants mercy! However, I did not grant him mercy. Instead, I threw myself upon him and knocked him down to the floor. Now I kneeled over him, and for a short, quirky moment I realized that a stranger who at this very moment had watched our silhouettes must have considered us a couple in love play. A laugh left my throat, and another, louder one. The way he was laying there! The big, remorseless giant looked at me with delirious eyes full of fear like a boy who was about to receive a well-deserved spanking from his father. His steed did not seem to be concerned at all. “Please … please not!”, he whispered, and blood gushed out of his mouth.
What happened then will be hard to put in words. First, I was overcome by a wave of demonic joy and broke out in manic laughter. I threw my head backwards and laughed loud and ringing. An ecstatic frenzy swept through my bones, my veins, my body. By the Black Guardian, I felt alive! I felt if I had lived with a veil over my eyes that was now torn away, as if I had considered a shadow on the wall for the thing that had cast it. Like a priest who killed a sacrificial lamb, I grabbed the dagger with both my hands, held it above my head and drove it into the brute's chest. In the very instant when the poignant sound of steel penetrating flesh occurred, something happened that changed my life forever. For a short moment I became the man who I killed. Indeed, I became him and stayed myself at the same time, as paradoxical as it may sound to you. First, a wave of unknown memories swept across my mind. I saw the brute, having the blood of a Scarragian man on his hands; I saw him In a dark room, holding a black piece of cloth, weeping; I saw him together with his chum — it was his brother — in a large stone hall, standing in a circle of people who held each other's hands. Each of the images appeared with the force of a striking hammer, and with every new image the tingle increased, the flaming delight in my body intensified and the obsession that controlled my actions grew and became more consuming. Feed me, the dark part of my self cried, louder and stronger with each image that appeared to me. Feed me with his flames!
With shaking hands and sweat all over my body I pulled the dagger out of the dead body of the giant, only to drive it into his chest one more time, three times stronger than before. Again a wave of images filled my mind in the very moment the dagger hit him, revealing themselves to me with the rhythm of an adrenalin-fueled heartbeat. Every new image bestowed an rise of ecstasy upon me. I uttered a noise that was meant to be a sigh of pleasure, but it left my mouth as a manic, demonic croak. By the righteous way, I experienced a feeling of rapture like never before. I am alive!, my thoughts cried while I lifted the blade for the next blow. I live and I JUDGE! The blade dashed down again and pierced the lifeless flesh that lay below me. Memories.Ecstasy. His red lifeblood was in my face, hot and sticky, but I did not care, no, I cared about nothing at all for I would judge, kill, punish! him for his sins, stab for stab, memory for memory, until nothing remained of him, nothing but cold, lifeless ASHES!!
Even now, almost a year later, I feel my palms grow moist and my breath accelerate when I recall this memory; the ink becomes darker and the quill breaks. But you will not be able to understand my feelings as a damned being from a non-rational point of view; there are numerous reasons for this. The first reason is that it is very likely you are disgusted by my account. You are right, for I describe a barbaric act in an almost celebratory manner. However, it is the only way to make you understand my thoughts to some extent at least. The second reason however, which is attributable to the first, is the one that weighs most:
There are things you can only truly understand if you experience them yourself. Among them are sex, the ecstasy of pain during a deadly fight, and, not least, the end of life itself, death. How exquisitely we could reason upon the latter, creating explanatory models for its nature — emanating from the Path, the chants of the monks from Arazeal or a philosopher's mind —, yet in the end it will make no difference, we will truly comprehend it in the moment we face it ourselves. The ecstasy that had got hold of my body like the Blue Death got hold of a wild magician's mind was all of the above and none of it. It was the fire. It filled me up and burned in every part of my body. All my limbs felt boiling hot, and my heart beat insanely within my chest. What I had done seemed to me morbidly wonderful, lofty … even stimulating and, in a perverted manner, sexual. I did not believe for a second that I did anything wrong, no, there was no right or wrong, there was only me and the driving force inside of me, originating from somewhere apart from gods, demons and the laws of this world. I was judge, my will was my sword, and the man the convict. There was nothing more. All of my movements were instinctive, archaic, pure. What I did was nothing more than the consequences of intricate circumstances. Just like a wolf that tears apart a lamb, I did only what I, Jaél Tanner's Son, had to do in this moment.
At least until the fire expired.
How late might it have been? The cock's crow had not sounded yet, but a few birds chirped in the dense forest next to the fields of wheat. One of the steeds was still sleeping, defying the laws of sound. The other one just scraped its hooves impatiently on the hey-covereed ground. I had not moved a bit after my final stab. The man who some hours ago had mocked me lay below me, battered and disfigured, and the dark blood on my hands had started to dry. Unmoving and rigid as a wax doll, I kneeled above my work. At one point I had felt something like a “zenith”. As mentioned earlier, I had felt more burning and ecstatic with every stab. The flames inside me had grown, grown and grown. Then I felt as if an enormous, infernal pillar of flames shot up from my stomach to my eyes, blazing, hot, searing.
After that, my reason started to return. Less and less I thought with the diffuse voice in my mind, more and more I became Jaél Tanner's Son again, born in Fogville, a pathless priest … and murderer. I realized what I had done, but like a warrior after a nerve-racking battle, my mind and body were too weak, and I was unable to think straight. So I dropped the dagger, put my head back, closed my eyes and listened to the silence. Ten minutes passed. Fifteen.Half an hour. Only when I heard steps nearing the stable, I broke free from my rigor, but I was unable to act accordingly. A good boy wipes off the dirt from his plate, shot through my head all of a sudden. Slowly I turned my gaze. It was the buccaneer's chum.
For a short moment the fire started to glow inside me again, and I smiled an almost indulgent smile at the man who stared at the carnage in disbelief. Then it disappeared, too tired, too weak, sated. The brute's hand started to move towards his sword, slowly and lethargically.
Suddenly he broke down with a choked, dead groan. I blinked, too apathetic to fully comprehend what just happened. A dark shape, veiled in shadows, stood still like a statue behind the collapsed body at the entrance. Then it started to move and approached me. The silver beam of a moon that was almost defeated by the sun shed light on the face of the figure.
It was the beau.
Some steps in front of me he halted and stemmed his hands against his hips. He appeared to me like a docker who examined the payload that had to be carried from the ship to the wharf in hours of hard work. Then he smiled, engaging, perceptive and scornful.
“You actually have it”, he spoke in a pleasant baritone, fascinated.
The beau laughed.
“Well, what?!” He paused and for a moment seemed to look right through me. Then his eyes met mine again, and I perceived in them a curious change that I was unable to comprehend at that time.
The man before me towered over me by half a head. His physique was athletic, but not heavy, his eyes pitch black and sparkling. Yet it was his smile which caught my eye. It was peculiar and crooked, and it made me believe that there was nothing that could impress this man. It was neither naïve like the smile of a child, nor was it cynical like that of an old man who had seen too much.
There he was, and both of us looked absurd: Me, a thin, ugly man, kneeling on the dead body of a giant, my hands soaked in blood, my face apathetic, my weapon lying next to my feet. He, tall, handsome, wearing elegant clothes, his arms crossed, observing me curiously.
Suddenly I broke into loud laughter. I threw my head into my neck and started to laugh, loud and resounding, the laughter of a man who was overwhelmed by the situation he found himself in so that his brain left him no other choice. I tried to get up from the body and slipped as my hands did not find any support on the blood-soaked floor. Lengthways, I fell on the corpse, feeling the warm blood on my body. You have not eaten up, it shot through my head. Bad Jaél!
Instead of bringing me back to reality, the nonsensical thought fueled my laughter even more. I rolled on my back, clutched my stomach and gasped for air. The man, whose name was unknown to me then, reacted in a similarly odd manner. First he rubbed his chin with his thumb and index finger and furled his eyebrows. He acted like a farmer whose sheep had started to bleak and jump around as if it had been bitten by the Black Guardian. Then, however, he started laugh as well. For me and my overwhelmed, confused mind the situation became even more absurd. I gasped for air as the laughter grew so strong that my lungs threatened to fail. Then, as hot tears ran down my cheeks, I heard a muffled sound. My sight faded to black and I lost consciousness.
I woke up with a metal taste in my mouth. My eyelids were heavy and glued shut, and my sight was blurred when I opened them.
I found myself in a forest, under a small edge at a rock surrounded by dark pine trees. Around the shelter, rain poured down. Only the fire that burned about an arm's length away kept me from feeling cold. I tried to turn my gaze so I could fully conceive my surroundings, but a biting pain exploded in the back of my head. I gasped and instinctively pressed my lips and eyelids together.
“Good evening”, I suddenly heard a voice saying nearby.
I was scared and tried again to turn my gaze, only to be punished by a more severe pain. This time, a short cry escaped my mouth. The voice next to me reacted with laughter. Then I heard someone stand up and walk over to me. Eventually, I saw a pair of boots, and someone kneeled before me.
It was the beau. He wore his chin-long hair in a small topknot which gave him the look of an Arazealean monk if it were not for the elegant clothing.
“I am sorry about the bump”, he said and smiled apologetically, “I must have exaggerated a bit.”
I looked at the man in confusion. My memories of the day before were pale and remote. The tavern … The humiliation by the two brutes. My plan for revenge … The stable.
The insight hit me like a beam of lightning striking an old tree on a clearing.
I had killed him. Massacred him.
I pressed my hands on my mouth and felt myself shivering all over. Every detail of last night's events hit me like a hammer. How the brute caught me in the act and dashed me to the ground. The pain as he his kicked me over and over with his boots. The rising of blazing rage. The smacking sound of the dagger that penetrated his back. His bewildered face, his silent begging for mercy. My frenzy, my satisfaction, my ecstasy that grew stronger with every stab.
Without any warning, I vomited on my clothes. I coughed and gagged, and I felt tears rising in my eyes. Slaughtered. You have slaughtered him!, it shot through my head, again and again. I was so consumed in my thoughts that I entirely forgot about the existence of the man in front of me. Finally, when I remembered the moment when I lost my consciousness, I stared at him in disbelief.
He had not moved a bit and still kneeled in front of me. His mouth smiled, but his eyes were earnest, almost devout. What did it mean? Did he knock me down? He must have done it … and brought me here. But ... why?
As if he had read the question in my eyes, he started to move. He shook his head and pointed at a small bag next to my sleeping place. I looked at him with uncertainty, and his grin widened.
“What is it? You look at me if I was Dal'Thalgard's ghost.”
I felt my tension ease up a bit. Still, I was unable to speak a word, whereupon the man pursed his lips.
“Go have a look inside your bag … unless you have a thing for decorating yourself with your own vomit.”
Only now I hesitantly followed his suggestion and found a large cloth that was embroidered in blue and white. I looked at him again, like a child that received something it never before had held in its hands.
He furled his eyebrows skeptically, and I realized that my behavior probably seemed odd to him. Does it really seem odd? After all, he was the one who had brought me here. And he knows what had happened. Grudgingly, I crossed my legs and started to wipe away the remains of Whispertree Resin that I had consumed yesterday from my robe.
The man observed all of my movements attentively. Then he stood up and turned toward the sparkling flames. I noticed that there was something cooking over the fire. Drink. The bile made my mouth feel unpleasantly bitter and my throat was dry as the dunes of the Pinnacle Desert. For a moment I felt hunger, but the memories of yesterday's events made it disappear at once. The man ladled something from the kettle, and a faint wind carried a smell of sugar mint and honey to my nose. Then he turned toward me, carrying a bruised cup in each of his hands. He gave me one of them and sat down on a tree stump.
“It's only that bad the first time.”
I flinched. “Pardon me …?”
“You surely understand me.”
For a moment his gaze went astray. Then he shook his head, almost unrecognizably, and turned toward me again. “But where are my manners?” He knocked his fist against his chest, a military salute that in my eyes seemed inappropriate to his person.
“I am Qalian.” He looked at me expectantly, and when I did not respond, he asked: “And who are you?”
At first I was inclined to tell the man a false name, but I decided against it.
“Jaél. Jaél Tanner's Son.”
The man took off his glove, reached out to me, and I shook his hand. His grip was warm and firm.
“So, Jaél. Very pleased to meet you.” He smiled and looked straight into my eyes without blinking. I felt an awe of veneration running down my spine. What a presence. I remembered the woman who had sat next to him the other day. Now I understood why she had looked at him with such devotion.
Uneasily, I lowered my head. For a moment I envied Qalian's appearance, his demeanor and his endearing manners. Despite the thousands of questions whirling in my head, I could not help but like the stranger. I was certainly not the first one who made this experience. He radiated a kind of venturesomeness that seemed powerful enough to tempt fate itself.
Qalian withdrew his hand and took a sip of tea.
“Well. Where do we start?”
I looked at him helplessly.
“Start … with what?”
“The questions, of course” He smirked. “Don't tell me you don't have any.”
He looked at me appraisingly. “Or maybe I should start. Where do you come from, Jaél? You do not look like a man of the world.”
“I come … from a small village”, I replied carefully. When Qalian only raised his eyebrows, I added “Fogville"”.
“Fogville … Not a very exciting place.”
Now I was the one who raised the eyebrows. “You know Fogville?”
Qalian made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “I once stopped there on a … mission. You have a cozy tavern.” He smiled. “And a few beautiful women.”
“… Yes, of course.” What in the name of Malphas does that guy want from me? Yesterday he had caught me in the act. He knows. And now we were skirmishing with each other like two hunters who had met in a tavern over a mug of mead. I decided to make a foray, not out of courage or bravery, but because I could not bear the unsaid words anymore.
“Listen … Qalian.” I felt a clump forming in my throat and quickly drank a sip of my tea. It was so hot that I asked myself how he had been able to drink it without burning his lips.
“How did I get here?”
Qalian smiled leniently. “I brought you here.” He seemed to notice the irritated look on my face and added: “… after I had struck you down. Let's say … you had problems coping with the situation.”
There was a moment of silence. “I took care of the bodies.”
The word hit me like a hammer, and again I felt bile rising up my gullet. This time, however, I was able to suppress to urge to vomit. As a result, I had a terrible taste on my tongue. I coughed and stared at the man with uncertain eyes. He talks as if all of this was perfectly normal. But it was not, damn it! I had committed a crime, and even worse than the crime itself was the manner in which I had committed it. I am a monster! A god-forsaken monster!
As if he had read my mind, he bent forward a bit.
“I know what you think now, Jaél. You feel guilty, don't you? You feel like a monster, or some such thing?”
I looked at him in unease. Then I turned my gaze away, which he seemed to interpret as an approval.
“Forget about that nonsense. What you did was the right thing.”
A sad laughter escaped my throat. “The right thing?”
“Yes. But wait.” He rubbed his chin with his thumb and his index finger and looked into the fire.
“Let me tell you a story. Then you will understand.”
I nodded, superfluously, for he already started to narrate.
“Once, there was a family. Five people. A woman, her two husbands, and two children.” He seemed to notice that I wrinkled my forehead. “And they came from Qyra. For in Qyra, they live differently, you know? There are not only couples, but also people living in larger families, called circles. Anyway …” He shortly paused and drank some tea. “… this family was not a lucky one. One of the husbands, called Keshan, had just lost his job on a sugar cane plantation outside Al-Rashim, the capital. The wife, who worked as a weaver with a wealthy merchant, also lost her job when the merchant experienced financial troubles. All in all the situation in Al-Rashim was troublesome. The streets were dangerous, the Meat Maggot Plague was raging, and it was no good time for people who lived in a circle with two children and who had no Penyals in their pockets. So they decided to find happiness elsewhere.”
His eyes went astray. “Towards a new world, a new life. And so” — he turned towards me again — “they spent their very last money for a journey to Enderal. However, when they arrived in Ark they realized that life here was not at all as they had imagined. Even in the Foreign Quarter, prices were too high for them, and none of them, except for one of the husbands, spoke Endralean. Therefore, they moved to the Undercity.”
For a moment, I thought I saw melancholy in his amber eyes. “Do you know the Undercity, Jaél?”
“I … Yes, I've heard of it.”
He nodded. “Well. So you know that it is not a friendly place for families. The streets are dangerous. Blackmail and murder are the order of the day. It is a slum, and the most cynical thing about it is the fact that the cavern in which it was erected lies directly underneath the Upper Quarter of Ark, where noblemen have masquerade balls and philosophize about morals and ethics.” With the last part of the sentence, rage flashed through Qalian's eyes. It stayed there for a moment and disappeared as fast as it had arrived.
“Anyway, the small family moved into one of the shabby box-shaped homes in an alley called Canal Street. The street lived up to its name — stinking, dark and narrow. Even though it was definitely not the new beginning that the circle had envisioned, the three parents did not become discouraged. They knew about the obstacles and were determined to overcome them.
“Aside from that, their faith in Irlanda strengthened them. In their tiny house, which consisted only of one room divided by cloths, they had erected a shrine. Every evening, they prayed to their goddess, and they drew courage and strength from it. Indeed … Things seemed to get better when Kesahn was hired on a farm outside the walls of the city. Now, you might not understand how peculiar this was. But let me tell you that it is more likely that a Vatyr learns to read and write than that someone from the Undercity — and, to make matters worse, someone with a dark skin — finds decent and honest work with a farmer in the Heartland.
“Keshan was aware of this, for he and his circle had learned that there were people who hated them because of their origin alone. And these were not merely people from the Upper City. Even their neighbors shouted ‘shagarounds’ or ‘charcoal people’ at them on the streets. For the world is like this, my friend. People are afraid of what they do not know — families with multiple parents, Aeterna, people with black skin. All foreign things are dangerous to them.”
“Yet Keshan fought even harder. Every morning he got up, long before the first cockcrow, and walked the arduous way to the farm where he worked. He returned long after the sun had set. Work was hard, but he was grateful for the opportunity to give his family, especially his two children, a better life.”
Qalian stopped, picked up a piece of firewood and threw it into the fire. Then he continued.
“But things turned out differently, of course. For among all the noble people who live in Ark, there is a … well, a ‘faction’. It calls itself the Citadel and understands itself as a “bastion” of traditional values, as they put it.
“At some point, they got wind of the charcoal man, who took away a hardworking, honest Enderalean's job on a farm. The Citadel's members knew what they had to do. One night, when Kesahn returned to his little house in Canal Street, he sensed that something was wrong. He was unable to put a finger on it, he just felt it like a mother felt that something had befallen her son.”
“What exactly had happened, he found out when he entered his home. All of them were dead. Both his children, Lilyea and Garral. His husband, Jashek. And his wife, Zamira. His children he found in a corner, crouched together and wrapped in a bloody cloth. They had cut Lilyea's throat and Garral's thigh artery. Jashek seemed to have fought back, as he had been stabbed several times in his chest before he was beheaded. Zamira lay flat on the table, and the blood between her legs was clear evidence of what had been done to her before she was killed. Just as Keshan wanted to cry out, he felt a burning pain in his back and fell to the ground, dead.”
Qalian had narrated the last part of his story without blinking his eyes. Stunned and speechless, I looked at him. Again he returned my look without blinking.
“Tell me, Jaél, what do you think about my story? Do you like it?”
“Is it … true?”, I asked, for want of a better reply.
“Yes, it is true.”
I looked at Qalian, seeking advice. What in blazes does he expect from me?
Qalian nodded. “Exactly. And what would you say if I told you that the two men that we have killed yesterday were members of the Citadel?”
I was petrified. “Pardon me?”
“The two apes who now lie dead at the ground of the pond.” I did not notice that he used exactly the same word for them as I did in my thoughts. “They were members of the Citadel. And they have murdered the family of the Qyranian. All for the greater good, of course.” Again, there was cold rage in his eyes.
“I do not understand”, I replied, even though I did.
Qalian narrowed his eyes to a slit. “Oh yes, you do. Salbor and Adreyu Mithal. They are sons of a wealthy ruler from Enderal's north, and they are murderers.”
For a short, irrational moment I was flooded with triumph. They have deserved to die! The corners of my mouth twitched. But then the images flashed before my eyes and the terrible memories returned. Memories of the joy that I had felt when I had stabbed the man, massacred him. The blood …
“But I was not aware of it. Even if …” I stopped mid-sentence and lowered my gaze. How only could I in any way describe the way I felt? For a moment there was silence between us. Just when I wanted to ask a question, Qalian did something unexpected. Before I knew what happened to me, he was right before me, leaving only two hands' width between our faces. I would have flinched, but something in Qalian's gaze paralyzed me. I was unable to move, stiff as a wax figure. For an instant I was unable to notice the change in him, but then I realized it.
His eyes were blazing. First I thought that it was a reflection of the campfire, but when I saw that the fire burned behind Qalian, I knew that his eyes indeed had changed their color. They seemed like glowing coal, like a candlewick just before it is completely consumed by fire. His features had lost the joviality that was present in the past thirty minutes.
Then he began to speak, quietly, but sound and clear. The tone of his voice sent shivers down my spine.
“The scum deserved to die, Jaél. They were corrupted.” He made no move to explain the last word. “I was in the Red Ox because I was chosen to murder them. You had beaten me to it, and you have done me and the world a favor.”
I did not know where I took the strength from to answer, but I did, even though my words were only a whisper, like a deathbed confession. “But I savored it.”
Disgust aroused in me once again. A dull fear, the burden of a man who knew that he had done something terrible. My shoulders slumped and I lowered my head as if it was Malphas and not Qalian to whom I had just confessed the ecstasy during the murder.
But Qalian did not allow me to get overwhelmed. He put his right hand on my shoulder and with his left hand turned my face so that I looked directly at him. Then he spoke, slowly and clearly.
“I know, Jaél. Do you know why?”
He did not give me any time to reply.
“For you have felt what they had done. You have felt their crimes and their guilt, and the ecstasy was the reward for your courage.” He paused. “It was the nectar of their sins.”
Then, with a short, fleeting moment, it was over. The glow in Qalian's eyes was gone. He sat back, and a look at his face made me wonder if my mind had played a trick on me. He remained silent.
After minutes of silence, I asked the crucial question, without even knowing what I really wanted to ask.
But Qalian understood.
“Because you are special. And because the blood that runs in your veins is the same as mine … and as that of our brothers and sisters.”
I stared at him in a baffled way. My mental capacity was exhausted. Brothers and sisters? I could not go any longer — my eyelids were leaden and my limbs were faint and weak.
Qalian seemed to notice.
“There is a long journey ahead of us. I will explain everything you need to know, but now go to sleep.” The glimmer that I had seen in his eyes before returned for a moment. “Dusk is nearing.”
The next morning we headed towards Ark.
You might ask yourselves why I followed the strange man, and I cannot give you a clear answer to that question. Surely, many things would have turned out differently if I had slipped off in the gray mist of the morning, but my exhaustion did not allow me to leave. Another reason for me to stay was perhaps that all the things that had happened to me in the week before seemed bizarrely familiar to me. I probably would not have left anyway, since Qalian's words had a hypnotic effect on me which I was unable to explain to myself. It was the nectar of their sins. A thousand questions were haunting my mind. Nevertheless, the knowledge that the murder I had committed was >a good and righteous deed served as a straw that my plagued mind could cling to. It was a peculiar feeling to have killed a man. Young soldiers and guardsmen have colorful dreams about honor and glory. When they think about thrusting a sword into unrighteous man's chest, they believe it to be a sublime feeling. Even though the experience had been sublime for me, the aftermath was not. My state shifted between an emotionless paralysis and lightning-fast epiphanies filling me me with guilt and disgust which overcame me like the autumnal floods at the coast of Myar. At these moments one wonders if killing can be justified at all. The more often you perform the act of killing, though, the less doubts you have. The coldness grows until the taking of a life becomes trivial.
Back then, however, this way of thinking was unfamiliar to me. When in the light of the setting sun Qalian offered me a bowl of hot, steaming oatmeal and blood-red wild berries, I was overcome with nausea even before I ate a spoonful of it. Did I notice a hint of guilty conscience in Qalian's eyes — or was it amusement? I did not know.
While we packed our belongings I asked him about the meaning of yesterday's testimony once again. He only shook his head and told me that meaning of the “fire” could not be learned by conversation alone, such as swimming could not be learned by reading treatises about the consistency of water.
And so the both of us, as different as day and night, headed towards the legendary capital. He was well dressed, handsome and always confidently smiling. I was dressed in worn-out clothes, had a hooked nose and the puzzled look of a man who had no idea what was happening to him. The first two days of our journey were terrible. I barely ate, and most of the time I thought I could see blood on my hands or hear human death cries among the singing of the birds. Even the silence did not calm me down. Please, not.
But on the third day things started to get better, and for the first time since I had met Qalian, I did not feel the weakening nausea every time I halted and allowed my thoughts to wander. Of course my state of mind was far from joyful, but in an odd way, I felt better than after my departure from Fogville. There was a simple reason for this: The fear was gone from my stomach. Or, in better words: I felt as if I had appeased it, like a wild animal that just had a good meal, knowing that there was more to come. I am on the right way. How strange these words sounded in my mind. But yet I felt alright. As if I had glimpsed a light on the horizon, a light I should have been following all my life.
My sense of guilt began to diminish as well. Even though there was no way for me to verify Qalian's story, I knew that it was right. The arrogant faces, the vile voices — these two men had been evil. Corrupted. And there would have been more victims after Keshan's family. The more time I spent thinking such things, the more truthful they rang in my mind.
While we were wandering, Qalian told me a lot of other things. Great deals of it were stories from his past. I now knew that he came from Nehrim, a fact that explained his subtle accent. He grew up in Cahbaet, the capital of the Northrealm. Just as the Middlerealm, it was under the rule of chancellor Barateon, but Qalian assumed that a civil war between the northern separatists and the chancellor was imminent within the next ten years. His migration to Enderal had many reasons, and with a look that was rejecting, yet not harsh, he indicated that I was not ready to know about these chapters of his past.
After a week's march we arrived in Ark.
I do not wish to spoil ink with descriptions. I am sure that the capital of Enderal is well-known to you, and you might imagine how overwhelmed I was by its sight. We first saw it from a small mountain ledge, and I spent minutes watching the city bathing in the light of the setting sun.
“Impressive, isn't it?”, I heard a voice next to me. It was Qalian.
I murmured something without turning my gaze. He gave off a laugh.
“Indulge! Sometimes, the first time is the best time”, he said and sat down at the edge of the cliff, a chasm of about four hundred arms length's depth. I looked at him and saw that he had closed his eyes and let the evening sun shine on his face. Again, I felt envy rising. If a young woman had come up the hill, she would have considered him to be the hero of a bard's song. But at the same time I knew that Qalian did not show off. He simply enjoyed the view, the moment and the sunlight — an ability I had not developed in my life.
It was already dark when we showed our papers to the city guards and asked for entrance. We pretended to be merchants from Arazeal who had to put in at the harbor of Duneville due to the unfavorable weather. After checking the papers quickly, the guardswoman allowed us to pass. When the heavy gates shut behind us and the portcullis came down with a loud noise, any remaining thoughts about a return to my old life as a priest vanished.
We made stop at a tavern called “The Dancing Nomad”. Qalian opened his bulging purse and invited me to a stew of sugar beets, dark bread and very expensive beer from Cahbaet. This time we did not talk much. Instead, we listened to the music of a beautiful, red-haired bard whose dark voice was in stark contrast to her fragile physique. She sang traditional tunes such as “The Song of the Aged Man”, the “Pathless Wanderer” or “The Maid in the Silver Glow”. I looked down in unease as Qalian started to sing along to the last song in full voice. Only when I noticed that people did not object his good, but not brilliant singing, but started to join in, my ungrounded shame faded away and I felt increasingly comfortable.
We stayed in the taproom until late. When only five other guests were with us, I asked the question that had been burning on my lips.
“What now?” I spoke quietly, dazed by alcohol and the loudness of the past hours.
Qalians gaze met mine, and he did not lower it until I directed mine towards the ground in unease. I heard Qalian emitting a sound that could have been a muffled laughter as well as a sigh.
“Now we are going to sleep like logs. And tomorrow” — his eyes sparkled for a moment — “the first lesson awaits you.”
I had no idea what his words meant.
“The first lesson?”
One of Qalian's skills that I never learned to understand was to get by with almost no sleep. During our journey, he went to bed late after midnight, and he always managed to be awake before me, mostly long before dusk. He had a strict morning routine: It started with a half hour long prayer in a language that I did not understand. Then he practiced with his scimitar for a good hour, and a bit longer on two days of the week. After that, he took a bath, or, when there was no river or lake nearby, sprinkled some water over himself. Finally, he prepared a breakfast of cereal pulp mixed with bitter herbs, which he meditatively devoured as if all mysteries of the Pyraeans were hidden in it. I guessed he only slept a maximum of four hours per night, and I wondered how he managed to look healthy and energetic like after a bath in the waters of Inodan.
On our journey he had let me sleep, but on our first day in Ark he woke me up early in the morning. My limbs felt leaden after the night of carousing. For a moment, my sleepy gaze tried to find the water trough that I had used to wash myself every morning in Fogville. Then I realized where I was. I groaned, hove myself out of bed and looked outside. By the right Path, how late is it? There was no sign of the sun yet. As if he had read my thoughts, Qalian answered my question.
“Two more hours before the cock's crow, my friend. Before you say anything,”— he was just about to strap his sword to his waist — “it is necessary. We have an appointment.”
I wanted to answer, but only a sullen murmur left my mouth. Qalian continued.
“Meet me in an hour in front of the last house of Cloud Alley. I will wait for you there.”
He left the room before I was able to reply anything. For a moment, I was baffled and kept sitting on the edge of my bed. Then, I stood up with a sigh and went over to the window. Absentmindedly, I looked over the roofs of the sleeping city. No cloud hid the silver light of the moon, and despite the early hour, there were several people on the streets. I withdrew into myself. In fact, I felt quite well despite the headache that was a result of inebriation. I rarely thought about the events in the Red Ox anymore, but now I remembered Qalian's words: You have felt their crimes and their guilt, and the ecstasy was the reward for your courage. It was the nectar of their sins.
Could this be the reason why the murder left me cold? Because it was … justified?
I thought: Please not!
I thought: Something good.
Uttering a cheerful and at the same time desperate sound, I shook away the thoughts. Instead, I looked at the activity below. I saw three emaciated children carrying heavy sacks along the big street that led across Ark. Directly behind them, three armored figures, most likely guards, were patrolling. Two women, one of them big and muscular, the other one slim, were pulling a wheelbarrow with a barrel and three bundles of hay into an alley that led to the rear exit of the tavern.
Full of thoughts I turned away from the window and got dressed. After I had eaten a meal in the taproom, I started on my way, feeling a mixture of curiosity and anxiousness.
I do not want to bore you with unnecessary details of my first journey through Ark, for you probably know where the street was situated. I did not know then. Only after a guard eyed me suspiciously and pointed me towards a half-decayed warehouse, I realized where I was, and that I had arrived fifteen minutes before the appointed time. Cloud Alley, as the builders of the city had named it without any apparent reason, marked the end of the Artisan Quarter. It was the way which led to the large stone gate that every decent Upper Town citizen hoped never to enter.
It marked the entry to the Undercity.
I looked around insecurely. I knew about the Undercity from countless stories, including Qalian's. It was a place to be avoided unless one was dealing with concealers or criminals, or living in such poverty that one of the shabby huts down there was the only affordable home. Regardless of how I had imagined the contrast between the beautiful capital and the misery of the Undercity, my thoughts always included a kind of "transition" between prosperity and poverty. But there did not seem to be such a thing. Looking up, I saw the impressive Myrad tower, where wealthy travelers arrived in the city or departed to other places on the eponymous winged animals. Next to me a large waterfall came pouring down, and if I had walked up the small alley again on which I had left the winding marketplace a few minutes ago, I would have found myself in the heart of the Artisan Quarter. Irritated, I again looked at the wooden door, which was guarded by two heavily armed men. Was this door really the entrance to the other, unpleasant world?
I felt a hand on my shoulder. Qalian.
“You found it. Very well”, he said. “Are you ready?”
I screwed up my eyes. I now knew that my first lesson had to do with the Undercity. But what exactly was expecting me?
“I think so. And … what are we going to do?”
Qalian chuckled. “Quite simple, my friend.” He took the knapsack from his shoulders, went down to his knees and started to search for something. The he looked up to me again.
“We are going to have fun.”
My doubts that the Undercity was indeed behind the large, guarded wooden door vanished a few moments after the guards had granted us entry. They must think that we are crazy, I thought as both wings of the door swung open. No citizen of the Upper Town went there voluntarily, for it was well-known that the Order and the Guard were virtually powerless down there. Unofficially, everyone knew about the silent agreement between the Order and the Rhalâta, the association of shady characters: You stay among yourselves, and we stay among ourselves.
Therefore, the Undercity was a town within the town, and it was much gloomier then the Ark overground with its rustic but cozy half-timbered houses, fountains and theaters. Down there, the Rhalâta controlled every aspect of life, and whoever was unfortunate enough to live there, no matter if they wanted or not, had to bow to them. Shuddering, I remembered what a traveling merchant once had told me. His story revolved around a young tradesman who only a few moons before had received the coveted badge of the Golden Sickle, which denoted him as a sound businessman. This young man wanted to take the short road to wealth, and with the help of a few lads from Ark he started to collect Glimmercap dust. Its production was more or less an official privilege of the Rhalâta, yet this fact did not keep the young man from sending the group of unsuspecting boys to a cave near the west coast to begin his own — unobtrusive, as he believed — trade with the deadly narcotic.
For almost a moon's turn business went well, and his purse was filled faster than the mugs of a popular tavern. One morning, however, when he rode to the grotto where the mushrooms were collected, he found it deserted. There was only a cart with four man-sized baskets in front of the entrance. The baskets were filled to the top with Glimmercap mushrooms, but they emitted a strange odor. When the merchant told his bodyguard to shovel the content out on the ground, different body parts rolled out of each of the baskets: Arms, legs, torsi, heads. The heads had been cut off carefully so that there was no doubt about their owners: Five of them belonged to the unfortunate boys who had been hired by the merchant for a modest earning. Two of the heads belonged to the merchant's daughters. The eighth one was his companion's head. On her forehead, the following words had been carved in: “Sha'Rim Rhalâta”— the Rhalâta does not forget.
They let the merchant live. He was never again seen in the Golden Sickle guild house, and rumor has it that he took his own life a few months later. Thus ended the old traveling merchant's story.
And now we are here. I felt uneasy. Everything about us screamed “Upper Town” and “wealth” — our gestures, our expensive clothes, Qalian's dagger. Behind the door, stairs led down into the darkness. It took us more than fifteen minutes before we encountered signs of human life. The air was cold and humid. It smelled like ammonia, mold and wet stones. We came to the end of the long stone stairway. Wooden planks marked a path that led into a tunnel that was about thirty arm's lengths high. The first hut we passed had been built so tightly into a natural corner of the rocks that I hardly perceived it. Mighty, rusty ducts came out of the walls and disappeared into the floor, winding around the brittle pieces of wood that the house was constructed of. Chests and barrels, some of them broken, were piled up at the walls that were not bordered by the stone of the cavern.
Meanwhile, more and more inhabitants had noticed our presence. Some of them looked at us with suspicion and swiftly turned their gaze away, others bluntly stared at us. While we passed more huts, we even saw constructions with roofs in front of them, probably something like market stalls. Fish, spices, unhealthily looking bread and other wares were displayed on them. Qalian did not seem to mind the people's gazes. He accelerated his pace and disappeared behind a corner. I followed him, and what I saw took my breath away.
Before me was a vast cavern with a ceiling so high that two guard towers, on top of each other, could have have fit in. Stalactites hung from the ceiling like icicles of stone. In the distance, an impressive waterfall was pouring out of the crag. Throughout the cavern, houses of dark wood were erected on platforms, connected by stairs and bridges, supported by piers and natural stone pillars. The houses became increasingly higher toward the walls of the cave, so that the scenery was reminiscent of a gigantic amphitheater. In the center, the buildings were erected on the bare stone floor. In form and appearance they differed from the houses on the platforms. I saw a stone building that, with its high roof and pointy tower, looked like a small temple. A dozen arm's lengths next to it was a multi-story building. It was also made of stone, and its windows emitted a reddish, milky glow. Numerous people were bustling about, and even though I had a good look over the round, open space that most likely was the center of the subterranean city, it was so dark that I could barely make out silhouettes. The Undercity — a name well deserved.
A beefy man passed by and bumped into me, suddenly rousing me from my thoughts. I sighed and wiped the sweat from my forehead that had accumulated there despite the cold air. Then I looked for Qalian who had walked ahead. I found him at the foot of a stairway, beneath a leafless, crooked tree. He was talking to someone. Hastily, I went down the stairs. As I came close to them, the stranger pointed towards me, and Qalian made a placating gesture. Only when I came close, I realized that it was a woman. Her hair was short and blonde, a stark contrast to her soft face with full, red lips. However, her eyes … I felt something glow in my stomach, protesting, angry. Her eyes were ice-cold blue, so lurid that they seemed to shine even in the faint light of the cavern. Even though they were objectively beautiful, they aroused a feeling in me which I was unable to analyse. They appeared cold.
Before I was able to consider the voice that sounded inside me again, Qalian started to speak.
“Jaél, may I introduce you …?” He pointed at the young women with his open hand, his palm directed upwards. “This is Yaléna.”
I tried to respond, but I failed.
Yaléna examined me shortly, from head to toe, and then turned her gaze away from me.
“He seems to be going to pee his pants. Are you absolutely sure? It's not too late yet.”
Qalian smiled charmingly and nodded. “I am. And you can trust him, you have my word.”
The woman bit her lips and furrowed her eyebrows. Then she returned Qalian's nod.
“Very well. Let's go.”
We started to move. Maybe it was only my imagination, but I had the impression that the number of hateful looks around us had increased. The air and the darkness in the cavern suddenly felt even heavier. Qalian looked at me over his shoulder. There was no trace of fear or uneasiness in his eyes. In a certain way they even gleamed with anticipation. But why? I was aware of the fact that there were many shifty people around here. Yet why seemed Qalian and our guide to be so familiar with each other?
Our destination was a dark alley directly next to the multi-story house with the red windows. A sign at the entrance identified it as “The Silver Cloud”. Determinedly, the woman stepped into the dark, and we followed her. There was absolute darkness in the shadows of the buildings, and my uneasiness grew when I saw that our guide, at the end of the alley, walked into an even smaller one. This is a labyrinth, and a damn dangerous one. There were no people, only heaps of rubbish and puddles of feces. There were only two encounters. — First, we saw two men warming themselves at a campfire. As Yaléna saw the fire from afar, she accelerated her steps and kicked one of the men at his head with full force. He uttered a choked cry and fell down, while the other man, terrified, tried to raise himself up against the wall. Yaléna did not allow him to. She bent towards him, holding her face close to the face of the beggar, and murmured something about “open fire”, “alley” and “the siblings”. Then she dashed him to the ground and told us to move on. Our second encounter with human beings in this dark, subterranean maze was with a figure that was draped in sheets, leaning on the wall of a house. I barely recognized her because of her veiling. As I passed by, however, she grabbed my thigh with her bony fingers. I uttered a cry and turned around. She removed a sheet that was covering her head, revealing a face hardly older than my own, but covered by festering, pulsating ulcers. Meat maggots. She whispered something which sounded like a craving plea, but only a guttural, rattling noise left her mouth. Jerkily, I withdrew my leg from her claw and hurried after Qalian and Yaléna.
When we finally arrived after what felt like an eternity, I was exhausted as if I had been briskly wandering for a day. I feared never to get rid of the disgusting odor that stuck on me.
Yaléna halted at a thick steel door and knocked twice. A few moments later a hatch opened and two eyes under bushy brows looked outside. As they recognized our leader, I heard the noise of a creaky latch, and the door opened. The door guard was an unremarkable man with croppy hair who reminded me of myself in an unpleasant manner. He looked at us appraisingly, but his gestures showed that he was Yaléna's subordinate. With relief I noticed that the building, unlike I expected because of its exterior, was clean, and lit by several candlesticks on the walls. There was even a slight scent of lavender in the air, which after the omnipresent odor of feces during the last hours seemed to me like the smell of Irlanda's hair.
Without any conversation, Qalian and I were guided along a narrow corridor with numerous closed doors. Despite the dim light that came forth from underneath them, they seemed oppressive to me, like holding cell doors. At the end of the corridor, Yaléna opened another door.
The room in front of us was impressive. It was decorated with fine furniture and pillows, and a chandelier at the ceiling emitted soft orange light. There was a haze in the air, and as I was looking over the low tables that were surrounded by hassocks, I realized where the scent of lavender came from. Altogether, there were seats for about two dozen people, but except for us, the door guard and Yaléna only three other guests sat separately at the tables, drinking wine and smoking water pipes. Soothing harp music came from a corner of the room that was hidden from my view. I started to feel more comfortable again. Maybe this was indeed just a smokers tavern? Perhaps an exclusive place for even more exclusive customers. Why the exclusive customers should take the troublesome way through the alleys just to smoke a few pipes of Peaceweed with a lavender scent, I could not tell. I pursed my lips and looked helplessly at Qalian. He only smiled contentedly and slightly nodded towards me.
“Have a seat”, Yaléna said, and she pointed at an empty table in a corner. Then she silently moved away behind a curtain, and the door guard went back to the entrance.
I wanted to say something, but Qalian indicated me to wait. We sat down. Furtively, I looked around and mustered the other guests. Two men, one of them young, the other one old, and an old woman who wore her hair in a bun. Judging by their clothes, they all were wealthy, like ourselves. None of them took notice of us. Qalian took one of the candles on our table and held it underneath the pot of the water pipe. Then he leaned back — our pillows lay next to a wall — and yawned cheerfully. He observed the water pipe with a merry and relaxed gaze. In the pot, bubbles began to emerge slowly. For a while, I did the same as him; then I decided to break the silence.
He cut off my words with a gesture and shook his head, almost leniently. “Just relax, my friend.” With one hand, he touched the pot of the water pipe. “Relax.”
We waited more than thirty minutes before a chubby man with a friendly smile approached us. He introduced himself as Konthis.
The first thing I noticed was that the left sleeve of his expensive looking, burgundy garment hung limply down. He was one-armed. As he put out his right hand in greeting, I noticed several shimmering rings on his meaty fingers. A surprisingly pleasant smell reached my nose, originating from his perfume. It was spicy and sweet.
“Please excuse the delay”, he started the conversation with a dark, bassy voice that did not match his appearance. “We have many customers today. May I have a seat?”
Qalian answered in the affirmative to the pleasantry, and Konthis sat down opposite to us. For a while, none of us said anything, and I felt how Konthis's dark, perceptive eyes mustered me. Then he nodded contentedly.
“Well then. Formailities first.” He took a folded parchment out of his garment, opened it and studied it shortly.
“Jarimôn Bathila, 46 winters old, merchant. And … ah, you come from Arazeal? Gosh! May I say that your Endralean is very good!”
The question seemed to refer to Qalian. He smiled.
“Skill comes with practice, I guess.“
Konthis nodded. “Indeed, it does. And then there is … Jaél Thalas. Arazealan as well.“
I nodded and tried to smile as charmingly as Qalian.
“Very well.” He folded the parchment again and leaned slightly forward. “Then we begin. Agreed?”
Qalian blew out the smoke upwards from a corner of his mouth. Like all consumers of Peaceweed, he had slightly misty eyes, but he nevertheless seemed to have a clear mind.
“Please”, he replied.
“For completeness, let me once again explain the rules and the procedure of your visit, which will hopefully not be your last.” His voice was friendly, but I could sense a certain sharpness in it. “As soon as you have paid the rest, a servant will …”
“We have to pay before we receive the services?” Qalian seemed to be indignant.
“Thus are the rules, Matris. I am sorry”, Konthis replied without lowering his gaze.
Qalian looked sourly at the burly man, yet he made an affirmative gesture.
Konthis smiled. “Well now, a servant will give you a sign and then accompany you to your chambers.” He looked at the parchment again. “Or rather, your chamber. The girls will be waiting there. Whatever happens next will be up to you.”
The girls? A shudder went down my spine, and I gave Qalian a nervous gaze.
Konthis had noticed my gaze. “Are you well, Matris?”, he asked.
Before I could answer, Qalian spoke: “He is just a little excited.” He looked at me reprovingly. “It is his first time.”
Konthis frowned. “Well, I understand.”
“As soon as you are done, ring the bell on the nightstand, wait a few moments, then ring again, and someone will take care about …” — he seemed to struggle for a word — “… the rest. And that would be it.” He let his gaze wander between Qalian and me. “Are there any more questions from your side?"” Qalian had a question: “I assume we will leave this place the same way we came in?”
“Yes. Yaléna will accompany you outside.”
My comrade muttered sullenly. “I see. And you can guarantee for our … anonymity?”
Konthis gave a short laugh. “We can guarantee that nobody except for our attendants will have seen you arrive and leave this place. And you can be certain that our other guests have no interest in talking about your presence. I think I do not need to explain why.”
Qalian shortly rubbed his chin with his thumb and index finger. He seemed to think. Then he nodded and put out his strong hand to Konthis.
“Accepted. We have a deal.”
Konthis smiled happily. First, he shook Qalian's hand, then mine. His handshake was strong and firm. Afterwards, Qalian took a small, bulging purse from his coat and emptied it on the table.
“Fifteen gold coins. You can count if you like.”
My eyes widened. Fifteen gold coins?! What a fortune! One gold coin was worth one thousand pennies! One thousand pennies ... Enough to buy a decent house or a warhorse of the finest breed. My head was spinning as I thought of the things one could purchase for a sum fifteen times higher than that. Yet Qalian kept a straight face while he was looking at the shimmering gold. Did these riches come from the treasuries of Qalian's mysterious “brothers and sisters”? They probably did. I uneasily turned my gaze from the coins and looked at our host, who was looking at them contentedly.
“It will not be necessary.” He waved his hand and a lanky boy who wore a red garment came in from between two curtains. His head was bowed in humility. As he had reached our table, Konthis only pointed towards the coins. He collected them swiftly and silently and carried them away. After he had disappeared behind the curtains, Konthis spoke again.
“Well then. Indulge yourselves!”
Qalian smiled and blew out a cloud of smoke. “Thank you.”
Without further words, Konthis stood up and left. After only five minutes the curtains opened again and the slim boy indicated us to follow him. Qalian nodded shortly and took a last draw on the pipe. I noticed uneasily that he had almost smoked two full pots of Peaceweed; an amount that could put a cocky, unexperienced bachelor to a comatose slumber for several hours. Qalian, however, did not seem to be tired. His eyes had a milky shimmer characteristic of Peaceweed consumers, and all his movements were calm, but also I saw the strange, intimidating glimmer in his eyes that I had noticed on that evening when he told me about the “nectar of sins”.
We raised and walked through the room towards the boy. Even when we stood directly before him, he did not look up but still bowed his head towards the ground. He turned around, and we followed him to the long corridor that opened behind the curtains. Similar to the hallway which led from the entrance area to the parlor, every eight arm's lengths there were heavy steel doors at both sides. Each door had a number above its arch, written on a wickedly expensive-looking golden badge. We stopped in front of door number XVI. Silently, the boy removed a heavy key from from a large ring and thrust it into Qalian's hand. Then he bowed shortly, turned around and left. Qalian played with the key like a prestidigitator and then inserted it into the lock.
The door opened without noise.
The room was ample and luxurious. A chandelier emitted candlelight which was colored by a red paper screen. A pompous canopy bed stood in the middle, and the air strongly smelled of roses and lavender. Even before I noticed the two bound girls, a cold shudder went down my spine as I entered the room behind Qalian and the heavy door snapped shut. And before Qalian could inform me about the services this place provided, the pieces came together and formed a coherent, terrible whole. I looked around, overwhelmed. My gaze jumped between the different, unambiguous elements of room XVI. The bound girls on the bed, stark naked, their eyes undoubtedly clouded by a narcotic. The box on a small table, containing angular kernels, which I instantly identified as those of holly berries. Even a bakerwoman from Old Lower Aranath knew about their aphrodisiac effect. Finally, the utensils hanging on the walls.
“Do you like it?”, Qalian asked. He had sat down on a sprawling arrangement of burgundy hassocks. He was barely an arm's length away from the bound girls on the bed, yet he did not look at them at all. In the corners of his mouth I still saw the smile that never seemed to cease. We are going to have some fun.
Monster, I thought, bewildered. Without a word I attacked Qalian. With a loud cry I jumped forward, launched myself on him and started to strangle him. Qalian seemed not to have expected it, and for a moment I thought I had the upper hand. Then, however, he started to laugh — or he tried to. The result was a choking rattle. Full of rage, I increased the pressure, while my face turned into a hateful grimace. But Qalian just kept on laughing. His eyes were gleaming of joy and amusement. If I had watched the scene without being part of it myself I probably would have considered it a fake, an exhibition fight. He made no effort to free himself from my grasp. You miserable bastard! You damned piece of dirt! I pressed harder. I felt the stubbles of Qalian's beard pricking my fingers as I squeezed his warm flesh. Yet nothing happened. Qalian still laughed, and only after sixty seconds I realized that any normal human being should have been unconscious by now. Yet it did not happen. Nothing happened at all. After a while Qalian's laughter broke off, but not because I had killed him. His face, which had not even turned red, began to show the expression of blissful serenity again. Suddenly I felt helpless and ridiculous. I had never seen Qalian fight, but since the day we had met, I had felt the aura of power which surrounded him like a veil of heat surrounded an open fire. He was dangerous. I took fright. He could kill me shot through my head. Once, twice, again and again, like a gloomy drum roll. He could kill me!
“But I won't”, Qalian said. His lips did not move a bit.
Then he put his right hand on my chest, and one second later I was thrown back as if a cannonball had hit me. I hit the stone floor hard and lost consciousness.
I do not know how long I had been away from the world of the living; yet judging by the fact that Qalian's neck still showed imprints of my fingertips, it could only have been a few minutes. The first thing that I thought when I saw him kneeling over me was that my pathetic life was over. The second thing was that Qalian — who by some unholy magic had had enough breath for laughter even after one minute of being strangled — could have let me die a thousand deaths already. Yet he had not. Instead, he kneeled and held out his right hand towards me. Without further thought I took his hand and let him raise me up. Then, I noticed a change in the room: The fetters had been removed from the two girls. Now both girls lay side by side under a heavy woolen blanket. One of them had her eyes closed. The eyes of the other one were still wide open and stared at the wall with the same dead gaze with which she had mustered Qalian and me when we had entered the room.
“Fire Palm extract”, Qalian said. “A droplet puts even a rabid boar to sleep.” For a moment a hint of grief — or was it rage? — overshadowed his gaze. “They do not want the goods to be able to resist.”
“The goods?”, I replied after a long pause, more statement than question. All of a sudden I felt unbearably stupid.
I gulped. “Qalian, I …” — I made a tired, all-embracing gesture with my right hand. “I do not understand.” I sounded broken and dull. “Not at all.”
Then he sat down on the edge of the bed and began to explain it all to me.
Thirty minutes later, which seemed like an eternity to me, Qalian rang the room's bell. The girls were still asleep in the wide bed, rigid and unmoving.
Qalian had given me a precious dagger before. It was of much higher quality and was easier to handle than my old iron blade. He had only nodded affirmatively in response to my insecure gaze, like a gleeman who encouraged his son before his first performance.
Now we both stood at the door, quietly. His eyes glowed, like on the evening when he had first told me about the fire. But this time, there also was something else in his gaze: anticipation.
Footsteps came closer, and I noticed how Qalian slightly bent his knees. There was a knocking at the door. Qalian rang the bell again, just as agreed upon with Konthis. The door opened slightly. No one enters this world as a good or an evil being, despite what the Path wants to make you believe, Jaél. — At the day of our birth, our souls are nothing but empty pages, and we alone decide what will be written upon them. Then, a head peeked through the crack of the door. A bearded man with large eyes and a bulbous nose. His eyes widened as Qalian rushed up to him. Unerringly and effortless he drove his dagger into the man's neck, up to the shaft. He broke down immediately. The sound of the man falling clumsily to the floor reminded me of the freshly pulped furs which my father had dropped on the wooden planks of our home. He uttered a protesting rattle. Qalian, on the contrary, looked as if he was frozen in place. His left eye jerked wildly rightwards, his right eye leftwards, and the corners of his mouth up and down. I remembered my first killing, the images, and the ecstasy. The nectar of their sins. Then he released himself from the paralysis, wiped a splatter of blood from his cheek and grinned at me. I had not moved one finger's length. … We write upon them?
A dark red puddle spread from underneath the dead man's back like the petals of an opening rose. Qalian turned away and left through the door. For a moment I staggered, and then I followed him. Figuratively speaking, yes. Only we decide which way we go in our lives: the way of sin or the way of goodness. It is not easy to go the way of good, Jaél. For the temptation to be weak lurks at every corner. She wears the garments of greed, wrath and weak will. We call these the “demons”. Qalian put his hand on the steel door of the opposing room and stood still. Each time we give in to them, we tread the path of sin a bit further. His lips moved and murmured something that I could not understand. The first times we can still escape them. The more we sin, however, the worse it gets. And eventually — The steel door started to glow, and it emitted smoke, but Qalian did not remove his hand. — they own us. Heat and the smell of molten metal began to fill up the entire hallway. These demons make Tyrants. They make slavers. They make assassins. They are everywhere, and they bear different names. Then the door with the number XIII bent in its middle like a wet piece of paper that was held upright. Qalian took his hand away, kicked the door open, and entered. Those who have devoted themselves completely to them we call the “corrupted”. For this is what they are.
On the edge of a large bed sat a man with an aristocratic, lean face. I recognized him; he had waited with us in the parlor. Before him kneeled a young boy whose age I did not want to guess. I spare you the details of the cruelty I had to witness. I was overwhelmed by the situation anyway, so I was not able to comprehend what was going on. I can only say that the sight of the man who had his mouth wide open in fright made my stomach tingle warmly. I felt how my heartbeat accelerated and my blood started to heat up in my veins. They are the ones who are responsible for the evil in our world, the ones who are too weak to withstand the temptation, to resist the demons. It is because of them that there is war, suffering and death. We, Jaél, we are exceptional. For we were born with a destiny, and — without hesitating for a second, Qalian went towards the bed, pushed the boy aside with his boot and plunged his dagger slantingly into the man's neck — the fire is running in our veins. A fountain of blood shot up, and this time, death did not occur quietly.
The man emitted a terrible scream and clenched both hands at his wound. For a few seconds, Qalian looked at the scene and smiled. Then he grabbed the dying man and lifted him up with a force I would not have imagined despite Qalian's athletics. The fire.' The man's stertorous cries grew louder. Through Qalian's garment I could see how his upper arms tensed up. Then he squeezed. The blood flew down his sleeves like a torrent, and I felt a veil of heat forming around him. We do not know why we of all people were chosen, or where the force that leads us stems from, but we know one thing: We are here to protect the world, and to cleanse it. Against all logic I felt a euphoric joy when I saw the man die. My stomach tingled and my knees grew soft. We judge him, shot through my head. We judge him for his sins!
My fingers clenched the dagger. My breath was fast and panting. Every muscle of my body was prepared to act. The man's cries had become more quiet and breathy while Qalian's garment was now fully soaked with blood. For a moment I was nauseous and felt bile rising up to my mouth. This is insanity! This is murder!, a voice inside of me screamed, loud and clear, my old myself. But at the same time it was pathetic and weak, and it was wrong. So … it is our task to … murder all of those who have given in to the demons? For anyone who made use of the services of this place deserved to die. They did it at the expense of young, innocent souls who had the misfortune to be too poor, too insignificant — or simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. The owners of the brothel had kidnapped them, drugged them, and now offered them to those who were wealthy and ruthless enough to put their needs above ethics. They were sinners. Seized by demons. Alerted yells were audible from the hallway, and a few moments later there was the sound of steps. They are coming … and they want to stop us. The thought occurred to me with an almost indifferent serenity. I felt — I knew — that they would not have the hint of a chance. When the first person appeared at the door, Qalian released the man's neck. He did not cry anymore and collapsed quietly on the floor. Not all of them … there are too many. But those whose death the fire orders. Slowly and almost casually, Qalian turned towards me. The humanity I had seen in his eyes a few moments before was now entirely gone. And this is the only reason for our existence, Jaél. We are the ones standing between mankind and its utter corruption, the depravity that solely results from man's weakness. His face was soaked in blood. Red drops flew down his cheeks. Some of them got caught by his beard while others trickled from his chin like morning dew from the beads of red Malphas Flowers. The glow in his jet black eyes could not be denied even by the most pious, priestly part of my mind anymore. The image that I still have before my eyes even today had at its center one feature of the man that could have arisen from a mad god's mind: his grin. And this is exactly why we are here, Jaél. These people have devoted themselves to sin. They are corrupted, and only their death is going to — You probably have the insane face of the Evil Mage from the theater plays before your inner eye, but you are wrong. If it had not been for the blood, the dead body and the shivering boy, the smile could have been that of a boy who was about to earn a penny in an honest manner. There was no sense of guilt in his face, no bloodlust; only bliss. Indeed … he looked at me as if his deed had been the most natural thing in the world. And he was right, I thought when I looked at him. For what we had done and what we were about to do was righteous. Every corner of this place was corrupted, and so were the people making use of its services. And here we were — to purify their souls.
A shrill cry interrupted my trance. I heard how a sword was being drawn from its scabbard, and when I turned around I saw the one who wielded it storm towards me. I was surprised that by no means I felt nervous or overwhelmed. In fact, it felt as if time stood still. Every move of the man, every twitch of his muscles, the up and down of his chest when he breathed I observed with a clarity I had never experienced before. I noticed how the grip of my hand hardened around the hilt of my dagger with almost stoical calmness. The fire swell, and the heat was growing inside of me. Then my legs moved in a way that I had not believed to be possible before. I braced my thighs and bent my knees lightly. At the same moment, an impulse went through my body and I leaped forward like a predator. I tensed up the muscles in my right shoulder and turned my hip to the right and forward, which made my straightened right arm thrust forward like the bolt of a Pyraean ballista. My dagger drove deeply into the man's heart. I cleanse him, shot through my head. A tingling exploded in my stomach and in my loins. The world stopped turning. I felt my spirit rise, far above, far away from my body, into blackness, into the light, I am free, I see him, I see them, his deeds, his sins, brighter and brighter, I see them, I –
– am one with his mind.
The man who I am killing stands before me, as a boy. We are in a dark alley, I hear screams. The boy kicks another child, again and again, until the child's face is but a shapeless lump. The body does not flinch anymore. The hand clutches a loaf of bread. His first sin.
Lightning flashes through my mind, and I find myself inside another memory.
This time he is a young man, sparsely bearded, but already scarred. He talks to another figure which is nodding approvingly. The right hand of the obsessed man grabs a knife and thrusts it deeply into the other's heart. Before his victim touches the ground, his left hand swiftly separates its purse from the belt. He runs away. The demons are inside of him', I realize with lucid clarity. He has allowed them to enter.
The obsessed man stands before me as an adult. I look directly into his face, but he does not see me. I do not have to make any effort to notice the demons hiding behind the void of his eyes. They laugh maliciously, for they know about their triumph. They own him, I realize. He is lost. The man prostrates and talks to a young streetwalker. With his right hand, he plays with a penny; he turns and flips it in front of her eyes like a prestidigitator on a fairground. I want to help her, want to tell her to run, but I can't. The girl agrees and starts to follow him. He knocks her down and drags her into a dark cellar. I recognize the building. My sight blurs, and I feel the connection waning. A flash, then darkness.
I see my mundane self, close to the body of the one I have killed. For a moment there is perfect silence. Nothing moves. No sound, no thought. I behold the man's face, distorted with pain, and a touch of melancholy sneaks into my thoughts. He is a slave to his sins. He does not know what he does.
But he had a choice. He could have chosen the righteous path, but he chose sin. He chose the demons. And they have devoured him. I look at my dagger, sticking deeply in his body. A fountain of blood emerges from the wound, but it stands still in the air, a piece of scarlet red, unmoving ice. There is no hope for him anymore, I realize.
I have saved him.
Then, with a loud thunder, I am back inside my physical body. The fire devours me like a storm devours a small boat on the sea. It fills my veins with ecstasy, with liquid lava, and I burn like the sun. A mad laughter emerges from my throat, my mouth moves manically; I flinch like under the command of an insane puppeteer. I taste his sins!, I realize, and the thought heavily amplifies my excitement.
Then the rapture fades away, as fast as it had risen.
Even though it was a strong experience, this act of killing had not been half as intense as the first one. The reason seemed obvious to me: While the sins of the brute that I killed in the Red Ox had been a rapid stream, the sins of the guard were but a trickle. I blink to remove the red veil on my eyes. I look in the man's face. His head leans on my shoulder, and my left hand rests on his back as if I was comforting a friend. He gives me a pleading look and rattles. Then his vital spirits fade away and he glides to the ground with a tired sigh.
It was not before the ruby red puddle reached my feet that I awoke from my trance. I was strangely moved, and my glance jumped between the dagger in my hands and the dead body. Only a hint of the tingling in my stomach was left. Everything had happened in a split second — the attack of the guard, my targeted thrust and the rapture. I looked at Qalian who still stood next to the dead man's body. He gave me a satisfied nod and wiped his dagger on the bedsheet. Then he approached the apathetic boy who was crouching at the wall. Even though his eyes were wide open, I noticed the same void that rested in the eyes of the two girls Qalian had “ordered” for us. My comrade kneeled before the boy, put his bloody hand on his shoulder and whispered something to him. When the boy looked at him uncomprehendingly, Qalian repeated his words with a fuller voice. Then the boy nodded and crawled underneath the bed.
“You're keeping up well”, Qalian said eventually.
I wanted to respond, but I failed. The aftertaste of the rapture was too powerful. Now I realized that my knees and hands were shaking.
My brother seemed to be amused by that. He shook his head leniently, stood up and peeked into the hallway.
“The other guards will come in dozens”, he said without a trace of uneasiness. If we had been robbers, murderers or brigands who had raided an inn for base motives, something like “get ready” or “stay close in the fight” would have followed. But he said nothing, for the silence that surrounded us like a veil of heat the flames told us all we needed to know. Indeed, the fire steered me, and with it inside me I was going to save all the dead souls that inhabited this place, visitors and operators alike. Konthis, Yaléna, the woman in the parlor. — They all had given in to the demons, and it did not matter if they had done so for all their life or just one time too often.
I nodded at Qalian. The words blazing at me from his eyes were unmistakable.
Fulfill your duty.
I remember only fragments of what happened during the next minutes — or hours? How many people did we kill? Two dozen? Three? I do not know anymore. Most of my memories concentrated on the rapture. The enemies fell under my thrusts like in the old legends of the Ash Peoples. I escaped their pitiful attempts of defense with ease, and before I realized myself what happened, my blade sunk deeply into their flesh and I savored their sins. I remember how I had looked in a mirror during the fight. My face was soaked in blood, my garment was red like a Qyranian sunrise, and my eyes glowed with mania that I only knew from fairy tales. I was not surprised by the fact that some of the guards tried to flee when they saw us. But it was in vain: None of the corrupted ones left the brothel alive.
One killing I remember particularly well: When we had arrived on the second floor, we surprised a man who tried to unlock a balcony door. As he noticed us, he fell on his knees and begged for mercy. Qalian grabbed the man at his collar and dragged him to an adjacent room. A Half-Aeterna of about 16 winters lay on the bed. She was stark naked, and her limbs were tied to the bedposts. The chains were so tight that bloody, blue calluses had formed at her wrists and ankles. With remarkable sobriety I noticed that the girl must once have been very pretty. Her hair was an ocean of brown, strong curls, and her face was of a delicate, fragile beauty as it could only be found with those of Aeterna blood. However, she had been disfigured. Deep wounds covered her back like furrows on a freshly-plowed field, numerous bruises were blooming on her thighs and arms. All injuries were fresh, indicating that she had been mistreated this very morning. Qalian grabbed the old man's neck and forced him to look at her while he whispered words into his ear. He broke out in tears, asked for mercy, spoke about his family, the Path and the righteous way. I had to laugh. Facing death, everyone regretted their deeds — that became clear to me after my third killing. Even if we had wanted to forgive them, we would not have been able to. Whoever had sinned once would sin again; the demons would look to that.
That was what Qalian told the man, but he remained stubborn and undiscerning, assured that he would do repentance. Eventually, I ended the tragedy. In contrast to my previous killings which I had performed with my dagger, I instinctively reached for the cat of nine tails that the man had used to torture his slave. He struggled and winced, but Qalian gripped him tightly until I had strangled him. The taste of his sins was stale. Corruption. Fraud. He was a bad man, a bad father, and the act of torture he had performed today and which had cost him a considerable amount of gold had been the first of its kind. When he eventually collapsed in front of me, a beautifully embroidered leather purse fell out of his garment. Its content was distributed on the floor next to my blood-smeared boots. I was about to turn away when I noticed a shimmering, golden item — a brooch on which a bear's head was finely engraved. A family crest. Bewildered, I showed my finding to Qalian: we had killed a nobleman. What would the repercussions be for us? His answer was the one that he frequently gave me, regardless of the question: a smile.
Yaléna, the cold-eyed beauty, was the one who had defended herself in the best way. Instead of trying to escape like the others, she ambushed us in the hallway. The fight between her and Qalian lasted a good minute, but considering the easiness with which he blocked her attacks I assumed that he only let it happen for amusement. When the woman's concentration wavered for a split second, Qalian had already deeply driven his dagger into her abdomen. She broke down with a gasp, vainly trying to keep the dark blood from pouring out of the wound. She opened her mouth in an effort to say something, but she never got the chance to do so: With a massive, targeted blow he separated her head from her torso. For a moment, he squinted as his face was flooded with bliss, and the heat in the room increased to a degree that even I could barely stand.
Less than five minutes later Konthis uttered his final cry, too. As the others, he begged for mercy, vowed betterment, promised us gold and women. A moment later we had escaped from the shadows of the Undercity.
Three months passed by before Qalian considered me worthy of performing the ritual which made me a full-fledged Brother of the Black Libra. He asked if I really wanted to take the path now that I was aware of its true nature. The fact that I stayed was answer enough. After all, what else should I have done?
I had fled from an undefined fear, leaving my old life in order to find out where it came from. As absurd as it might sound to you — I had the feeling that I had found the right path in Qalian and the Fire. We are born as servants of the Libra, he told me one evening. But it is up to us to recognize our determination. He himself was the son of a nobleman, as he had confided to me. Although — unlike me — he remembered the first years of his life, he always had the vague feeling that he was destined to be someone different. In his mind, too, something was hidden that he was unable to explain, and he also had these fleeting moments in which this something crossed the threshold to his consciousness. His first cleansing was a crucial experience: An assassin was hired by a hostile family to seek revenge. She was disguised as a maid and had entered his rooms, but he saw through the disguise and defeated the hired murderer. The nectar of her sins was the first step for him.
He would not tell me which other obstacles had been waiting for him after this moment. I only knew that I was about to overcome one. I did not mind the uncertainty during the long wait. I learned a lot, and for the first time in my life I felt like someone special. How foolish all the people on the streets appeared to me! Full of ignorance they lived their ordinary lives, prayed to the gods and believed that abidance of the Path and godliness alone was enough to protect them from the abyss. Alas, how deluded they were! There was no higher power to free us from the responsibility to protect us from sin. We alone decided what we gave in to and when we acted weakly.
People do not want to carry responsibility for themselves, my friend, Qalian once told me. They never did.
More and more I began to view the world as a game board. The stars, nature, or gods foreign to us hat set the rules and now delightfully observed how mankind struggled to cope with it. Maybe they had the power to remove temptation and sin from the way of the world? I did not know. However, evil was not supposed to get the upper hand, and that was why we were who we were.
It was an elevating feeling to be a sighted man among the blind. So many times in my old life I had felt powerless, angry about how little justice I found in our world. How many times — even in my small village — I had seen a guilty, sinful man evading his just punishment because of status, prestige or gold, while a vagrant got thrown into the dungeon stealing a chicken. These events embittered me, but I thought this was simply the way of the world. The Black Libra, though, changed everything, and the thought of being part of it filled me with triumph and euphoria in a way I was unable to comprehend. Was this the reason for my anxiety? That I, Jaél Tanner's Son, had always sensed my true destiny? To bring justice to the world?
Even now, after I have realized the insanity of the Libra, I cannot answer the question. I just know that it felt right back then.
In contrast to what you may think, we Brothers of the Libra did not choose our victims arbitrarily. When a corrupted was responsible for too many sins, the member chosen for the killing was informed about the “mission” in a letter. I never understood how these letters always found their way regardless of the locations and circumstances. They contained only two pieces of information: a drawing and a name. The rest — collecting further information and planning the assassination — was the chosen's task.
Before my trial, Qalian received four such letters, and I witnessed three of the killings.
You might wonder about the casualness of how I write about it, but as I said: There is almost no circumstance that the human mind will not adapt to. And I adapted to the cleansings. They were always justified, however cruel they appeared. All the people we killed were corrupted and had managed to evade justice with wealth or cunning. But they could not evade us. The Libra was older than Enderal, the Lightborn, maybe even the tides. Nobody knew which prince, god or shapeless entity pulled the strings, and nobody knew how the chosen ones were different from the common people.
Even if I had been able to, I'd never investigated the matter. I did not care why I had met Qalian and where the strange vision had its origin.
With the fire in my blood I was not just anyone anymore. I was special.
That was exactly what I felt when I sat next to Qalian in a carriage three moons later. The time had come, I had been told. I was worthy now.
Worthy ... I wanted to look out of the window, but I was reminded that the glass was veiled by black cloth. No beam of light entered the cabin, only a lantern at the ceiling emitted some light.
“You'll have to get used to this”, Qalian said. “Even I don't know the locations of the bastions.”
“The strongholds. Their temples. There's one on each continent, but nobody knows where they are.”
I nodded. “If I were a spy, I'd be able to blow the cover.”
“You wouldn't”, Qalian responded. “The Black Libra can't be shattered, as much as a forbidden thought can't be erased. You can prohibit it by law, you can burn writings about it, but it will never vanish. This trial is not about your loyalty”, he continued. “If you weren't loyal, I would have killed you long ago.”
“What is it about then?”
“About limits.” He paused a moment, as if he was ordering his words. “You may believe that you have already crossed them, but you haven't. Deep inside” — he pointed between my eyes with his index finger — “they still exist.”
“We who have fully committed ourselves to the Libra, we are different than other people, Jaél.”
I nodded. “The fire.”
“Yes, the fire. But don't be mistaken — you don't know all about it. You have been guided by its force, you feel its voice inside of you, and you have tasted the sins of the obsessed ones. However, this is only a part of what constitutes a true servant of the Libra.”
My stomach itched as if the fire approved of Qalians words. His words resounded in my mind. I felt that there were still miles between me and my comrade — and mentor. Aside from the obvious — his skillful killing and his confidence — there was more that I was not able to explain. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was something in his gaze, something in the way he looked at the world. “Lucid” was the word that came to my mind.
“And what exactly is it?”, I finally asked.
“Boundlessness”, he replied. “Total commitment.”
When he saw my confused face, he smiled. “It is what you have been searching for all your life without finding it. It is what we all strive for, but only few are destined to experience it.” He leaned back and crossed his legs. “And you have the opportunity to be one of them.”
I did not respond as I knew Qalian would not — could not — tell me more.
About an hour later we arrived. The mummed coachman, who had wordlessly picked us up in the evening, opened the door, holding a piece of black cloth in his right hand. I was unable to recognize anything other than the clear light of the stars outside. Qalian took the cloth with both hands.
“I am sorry, but this is necessary.”
I realized what he was about to do and did not resist. The cloth slipped quietly over my head, and everything became pitch black. Then Qalian took my hand and guided me outside. I heard a crunching sound when I started to walk. Snow.
“Come”, I heard my comrade's voice, and I felt a slight pull on my left arm.
I followed him.
After about half an hour I entered the Endralaean Bastion of the Libra for the first time. The echoes of our footsteps indicated that we had entered a kind of cave. A few moments later the sound of several other voices mingled with ours. I was told to sit down. My blindfold was removed, but I was ordered not to open my eyes before I heard the ring of a bell. “Watch closely”, Qalian had whispered before the voices and footsteps faded away and a large door was shut.
Dutifully I kept my eyes closed. A bright ringing sounded.
I was in a large, round room with high walls and a dome-shaped ceiling which appeared to me like the interior of a chapel. It was empty except for numerous candlesticks with crimson flames and a symmetrical column of high and precisely spaced pillars leading to the other side. Only at second glance I noticed the paintings on the walls.
The painting was different to what I was used to from Endralaean temples. It did not depict saints or the twelve stages of the Pioneers' journey. It was divided into nine different pictures. I turned my head to the left to examine the picture next to me.
It showed an athletic man standing on an uneven stone road leading up a hill. He was naked except for a loincloth. The environment was barren and tundra-like, grandly lit by the bright and clear moonlight. The man had averted his gaze from the moon. He wore a simple steel mask. It has no ornamentation, only two narrow slits for the eyes, yet something about it fascinated me in a manner I was unable to describe. It appeared to be … impeccable. Every muscle of the man's body was tightened. He reached both his hands out to the sky, as if he was expecting a divine blessing. I stared at the picture for an endless moment. It emitted something that could be described as an aura, and it made me feel joy and anxiety. Only minutes later I noticed a small writing at the lower corner of the painting. I squinted my eyes to read it. The Renascence.
I kept my gaze on the picture for a few more moments, frowned and turned away. The painting was fascinating, but I had to perform a trial, even though I was not yet aware of its nature. So I turned my gaze ahead again and waited.
However, nothing happened. I started to feel uneasy. What was expected from me? I looked uncertainly behind me — the steel door was closed. Maybe I am supposed to prove patience, I tried to calm my thoughts. I lowered my gaze again and tried to meditate as Qalian had taught me. Five minutes passed. Ten. Nothing.
I felt my stomach rumble and called myself a fool because I had not eaten anything before our hasty departure. Just stretching my legs — I'm sure nobody would mind. My knees crackled as I stood up. My calves tickled from sitting still. Carefully and slowly I walked through the room, as if my observers would be offended by any sudden movement. I hoped for deliverance from the uncertainty by a strange, mysterious voice or the appearance of another person.
It was in vain. Two hours passed, and not even a grain of dust seemed to have moved in the sacral hall. Only then I realized that nobody was going to show up. Whatever this trial was about, I was expected to act on my own. But what was I supposed to do? I was certain that the way to passing the test did not lead through the door behind me. So I tried to find a hidden clue in the room.
I started to feel helpless. What was this? Some test of my willpower? Such a nonsense, I though angrily. I suppressed the urge to walk back to the door and knock. What are they going to do with those who did not pass the test? I had an idea, but I was not eager to know more about it. Qalian should have warned me, I thought bitterly. Or he should at least have …
I halted. Had it been a clue? But about what? The room was empty. But … the paintings. Of course — how could I have been so blind? I had regarded the pictures as mere decoration. How could the key to this trial be hidden in them?
Hastily I turned around and stopped in front of the picture right of the door. If the paintings are connected and the left picture showing the man — The Renascence — is the last one, than this must be the first one. I observed the painting with uncertainty. It also showed a man, naked, looking at the spectator. He wore a mask, like the man in the Renascence, and even though he was less athletic, he seemed to be the same person. The mask, however, was different. It was made from thin, skin-colored cloth, and it appeared to me rather like a second skin, tight and fissured like the skin of a dying old man. I averted my gaze with a feeling of disgust that I could not explain and examined the rest of the picture. At first I thought that the reflective surface on which the man stood was a floor of polished stone, but then I realized that it was still water. The area around the man was filled with wafts of mist, and only a few pine trees, drifting in the water in a surreal way, filled the scenery. What is this supposed to mean? For a moment I adored the painter's artful brush stroke. The pictures were made with oil paint, yet they seemed strangely alive. How many artists in the world had such an expertise? Not many, I guessed. There were letters on this picture as well. The Limbus. I frowned. Arcanists called the state of derangement after overstraining one's mental capacities the Limbus. I pondered about the word, shook my head and went to the second picture.
The pictures were skillfully interwoven with each other. The second picture emerged from the mist in the first painting and depicted the heaven from a bird's view. The clouds were like rising smoke, drowned in sanguine light by the pale red horizon. In the middle there was the silhouette of a man: he hung from the sky on silken threads, like a sun god's puppet, and his mouth was wide open, as if he uttered a cry. This picture was also titled enigmatically: The Washing. The name triggered a memory in me. Hadn't I read about a ritual with this name? Yes … I confirmed my own thought, the nomadic journey of the Qyranians, when they head off to find the Red Mountain. Before they leave, they must perform a symbolic cleansing in one of their holy rivers, allegedly to discard their former self. A new beginning, so to say, a spiritual cleansing. Could this be the meaning of the picture?
I looked around quickly. I was still alone. The next picture, which was similarly interwoven with the one before, showed the naked man, covered with dirt and soaked in water, dragging himself to the coast, probably coming from the mist-shrouded sea. Its title was The First Stone. The sun shone on the man's body, and its light was also the foundation for the next picture, which aroused shame in me. It showed the stranded man, who now looked more athletic and well-fed than in the last picture, making love to a woman. His skin glazed, soaked in sweat, and splatters of blood sparkled on his chest. He wore a mask of cloth, beneath which a diabolical grin could be seen. The woman with whom the man had intercourse had turned her back to him. She was stylized in an unconventional way. Her long plaited hair flew down her back like a torrent of black pearls, and two horns emerged from her forehead. Her face was unrecognizable. The couple's environment resembled a butchery. Puddles of blood dazzled on the floor, and a corpse lay to the man's feet. I kneeled down and read the title of the picture: The First Blaze.
Only when I read the last word, it fell like scales from my eyes.
Yes, Jaél … This is a development, it shot through my head. A transformation.
I had no idea whether it was by chance or by design that the man in the first painting walked through layers of fog. But there was no doubt: It was me, before the vision had occurred to me, when I lived in the grey drabness which I called my home and was always aware that my life lagged behind my true determination — in “limbus”. The “Washing” was nothing short of the vision that had torn me out of this life, the “First Stone” was my escape from Fogville. And the “First Blaze” — a cold shudder went down my spine — was my first killing.
I looked at the next picture. It showed the man, sitting in front of a withered fountain, inside a temple courtyard which was overgrown with tendrils. Instead of the cloth mask he now wore a mask of razor-thin metal, but his face was still visible underneath. At his side sat a woman with red fiery hair. The picture was titled The Companion, and I instantly understood its meaning. Even though Qalian was not a woman, and our first conversation did not take place in a beautiful ruin, it was without any doubt Qalian who saved me from the chaos which I experienced after my first encounter with the Fire. For none of this is coincidental., Did Qalian know that I was a potential Brother, that the Fire was running through my veins? His curious gaze when I had entered the tavern suggested that this was the case. If the previous paintings show my development, then the following ones might help me through this trial!,
Quickened by the thought I continued the examination. I suspected what the next picture would show, and my expectations were fulfilled. Its title was The Rain of Flames,, and it showed the unknown man and the red-haired women on a battlefield. His mask now appeared to be more sturdy, and a gloomy heaven, full of foreboding clouds and only perforated by three dying beams of sunlight added a cataclysmical atmosphere to the image. The man and the woman stood back to back. The woman's face expressed lust and pugnacity. Bodies, covered in blood, with asymmetrical and browless faces, were scattered across the ground. The image symbolized without any doubt the incident in the Undercity, Qalian's lecture. The next painting showed the women, stretching out her hand to the man. If I had not know the images before, I would probably have considered it gaudy. The Time of Rest,. My heart was pounding. The parallels between the pictures and my previous experiences had ended here. After the “Time of Rest”, which in a way described my “apprenticeship” with Qalian, I had been taken to the trial. The solution to the riddle had to be in the next two wall paintings. My eyes grew heavy and I started to shiver slightly as I looked at the next picture that had been hidden in the shadows of the pillars. The Present.,
The man was inside a circular room. His face was still covered by a steel mask, but in the candlelight of the hall it was clearly visible that the metal was not perfect., No … The man's face was still quite recognizable beneath, and it looked weak., I felt a surge of disgust rising inside me that I could not explain. The naked man kneeled in the middle of the large hall, his sickly and elegiac face turned toward the ceiling of the painting, his arms weakly hanging down at his sides. His body was smooth and shining, his skin covered with brown stains. What …?
With the realization came panic.
I stared at the painting. At first I could not believe what my eyes saw. When I took a closer look my doubts were erased by the accurate brush marks. I had deceived myself with my first glance.
The stains covering the man's body were not brown, but red. They were not made of mud or grime, but of blood.
A horizontal cut had opened the man's throat, and blood flew down. Now I noticed the small item next to the left of him which had undoubtedly slipped from his faint hand — a dagger.
Instinctively I turned away my gaze and stepped back. No,, I thought. No. No further reflections were necessary to comprehend the painting's message. I was expected to kill myself.
It is hard to tell what I felt at that moment. I was most hesitant to strip myself naked like my oil-paint alter ego, but after a minute of pondering I did. I had to. By no means I wanted to kneel down in the middle of the room, like a believer expecting a blessing, but I did. Never in my life had I felt more anxiety. I lifted my dagger to my throat. My inner ear heard a disgusting, tearing sound, fueled by the memory of my first killing. No … no man in his right mind would have used the knife on himself, with shaking hands, closed eyes, his body drenched in cold sweat, his eyes closed like a child who tries to wake from a nightmare. However, a man in his right mind would not have followed the vision. A man in his right mind would have accepted the punishment in the stable, wandering off with a few bruises and ruptures. And no man in his right mind was chosen by the Black Libra.
I closed my eyes and clenched my shaking hand around the hilt of the weapon. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to wake up from this ludicrous nightmare, to let the cold steel fall to the ground, to stand up and escape, somehow …
The first thing I felt was astonishment. I was not in pain, even though I clearly felt the cut at my throat. Instead, I felt a sober certainty. I had killed myself.
I closed my eyes and waited.
The pain exploded after exactly twenty-seven seconds. I tried to scream, but I only produced a choked rattle. I broke down and rolled to the side, my knees drawn to my chest like a freezing child.
After ninety-six seconds my field of vision had become a dirty, dark red colored glass pane, and my body was flagged. The red puddle underneath me had grown to man size, and I asked myself if the numerous animals that my foster father or his suppliers had killed in order to obtain their beautiful furs had felt the same. After one hundred and five seconds I felt how life melted away and a pleasant drowsiness emerged. How nice it would be to simply close the eyes and sleep, forever and ever, in peace and tranquility … After one hundred and fifty seconds I stopped counting.
And woke up.
The first change I noticed was one that was hard to describe. Even though the room around me was superficially the same, I felt that something was wrong, like as if a deformed man tried to hide his true face beneath a mask. The other change was of a physical nature, and I noticed it when I instinctively put my right hand on my chest. My heart was not beating anymore. I examined my neck in disbelief. The cut was still there, but the stream of blood had stopped. My sight was back to normal, my mind was clear. I noticed a third change when I looked around.
The drawings had come to life. The mist in “The Washing” swirled around. Lightning made of oil paint flashed at the horizon, fading to a milky grey after a moment. The man himself was levitating up and down like a forgotten corpse in the ocean. I was unable to understand what I saw, and my gaze passed “The First Stone” and “The First Blaze”. The same thing. All paintings were moving. The sunrays from “The Time of Rest” blinded me, and thick blood flowed slowly from the neck of the man in the painting of the trial. For a moment nothing happened. Then, I heard a sound like cloth being torn, and at the same time all masked faces of the painted figures looked into my direction. They all stared at me, and even though their masks at least partly covered their eyes, I felt their gaze on me like a dark power. I should have felt fear, but instead the fire began sparkling and awakening inside of me. They don't want to harm me, it shot through my head. They want to guide me.
I watched how the figures left their paintings. Liquid paint trickled down from them. For a moment they stood still. Then they marched lock-step towards me. Their steps made no sound. Only the trickling paint made a surreal sound that I'm unable to describe. With every step they made, the sparkling inside me intensified. They formed a circle around me and stood still. Then they all lifted their right hands and moved them to their faces. Slowly and firmly I watched the figures, eager not to miss any detail, and I felt changing emotions. I despised the thin man from “The Limbus”. How weak he was, how pathetic. Hope arose in me when I looked at the man from “The First Blaze”. The man from “The Renascence”, the painting that I had studied first, I adored. He emitted dignity and power, such as I had never felt before. Nothing could penetrate the cold steel of his mask. He had crossed the Limit. He was perfect.
The fire now filled every part of my body, my arms, my legs, my chest and my loins. You have chosen the right way, I heard a whisper inside me. Now let yourself go.
I sighed, like a man who holds his lover in his arms after years of separation. Then I nodded to the oil figures.
They took off their masks, and I screamed.
[Here some pages were neatly cut from the original manuscript.]
… opened my eyes again. I was stark naked, lying on the warm stone floor of the hall, but I did not bleed anymore. At once my hand moved to my throat. The wound was gone, though the blood was still visible on my neck, my chest and the floor. Half relieved, half shocked, I opened my mouth and gasped for air. Then I lay down on the floor and stared at the ceiling. A warm, flaring feeling filled my body. I had passed the trial; I knew it as much as I knew that I was going to be haunted until the end of my days by what I had seen beneath the masks of my painted counterparts. A sound of disbelief, meant to be a laughter, left my throat.
I had made it. I had seen it.
And now I was a brother of the Libra.
A feeling of power rose inside of me as I thought this. This power was different from what the arcanists did when they let eventualities become the truth, or from what the shamans did when they connected to the ghost world with their singing. The magic of the Libra was different, pristine, immaculate.
I turned my head with an effort and looked at the paintings. The masked man was gone. I was not surprised.
When I stood up, I felt how a heavy tiredness had overcome me. I got dressed and picked up my dagger from the floor. The blood on its blade was still fresh. I looked at it for a long time. Then I wiped it clean at my trousers and put it into its sheath. A moment later I left the hall.
Oh how complete I felt that day.
My chronicle comes to an end, and I do not want to waste time with unnecessary narrations. Time runs faster than the ink on this paper dries, and I was greatly exhausted by the events of the last days. Reading the previous page filled me with anger. How inappropriate my descriptions were, how fragile my thoughts. I can merely hope that they will suffice.
Let me begin the final part with a correction: Contrary to the claims of some people I am no unprincipled murderer. Everything that I had written so far is truthful, no matter how bizarre it may sound. The Black Libra had chosen me, long before I knew about it. It had found me, had given me a taste of my destiny and had made me one of their own. If there was one thing the Libra was infallible about, it was this:
All of the people they killed were corrupted. They had sinned, were guilty of crimes, they were evil — name it whatever you like.
At first I assured myself about it before each killing. Later, the superficial proof I had was sufficient to me. Not once the Libra was wrong, however inconspicuous the target. They all were sinners.
So do not waste time wondering if my victims were innocent. For they were not. Rather ask yourselves: Was it right to kill them?
Back then I believed it was right. The teachings of the Libra guided me, and it was so simple: We have a choice. We decide whether we invite the demons by committing sins. We decide to become corrupted. We, the chosen of the Libra, punish those who are weak. Not all of them, but enough. Enough — so that the innocent ones are protected, so that fear enters the sinner's hearts, so that the world is preserved from ultimate corruption.
Today, I remember the pride that I felt when I faced Qalian and the others with a tired smile. Not many were present, maybe a dozen, maybe less. Nobody applauded or cheered, as it was unnecessary. The men and women who were present knew what I had seen and done.
Nevertheless, I was surprised when Qalian told me that it was about time to return to Ark. I briefly shook hands with those who also had the Fire within, and then I sat in the dark interior of the coach again, confused, exhausted, but full of pride. He did not answer my question on why we had to leave so soon.
Even today many structures of the Libra are a mystery to me, and each time I ponder about them I realize how little I knew. How should I? Not even six month later I betrayed the Libra, and it was naïve to believe that the survival of the trial was all that constitutes a carrier of the Fire. No … there was so much more. Hierarchies, rituals, stories … none of them I would ever get to know.
Everything happened quickly in Ark. Qalian taught me the art of swordfight and the importance of regular meditation. It was not before long that I felt its effects. Each morning I felt more awake and more powerful. I smiled about the people surrounding me, their clumsiness and inertia. Everything around me seemed so clear! Only three days later Qalian gave me a sealed document in which I was ordered to kill in the name of the Libra for the first time. I would like to claim that I still remembered all of my victims, but I don't. The only memories that never fade are those of the nectar. The procedure was always the same: After receiving the victim's name, I started to research and fleshed out a plan. The Black Libra granted me all the resources I needed — gold, weapons, poison — when I asked for them in a letter that I gave to the concealed coachman. When I was alone with my victim, I killed it and consumed its memories. Then I covered my tracks. Many people admire my “perfidy” and my “cunning plans”, as I was never caught. However, I don't think of myself as particularly intelligent or sly. I seemed to have a certain talent for killing, yet I made many mistakes that could have cost my life. I was protected by the Libra.
With each killing I successfully performed, Qalian disappeared more and more from my life. He was a mentor, and his duty was fulfilled. I regretted it at first and missed his presence, but then I started to enjoy the silence and the solitude. I had enough gold to fulfill all mundane wishes, and I was surprised how quickly wine and love for sale lost their taste to me. In the autumn of the year 6291, four months after my trial, I mostly spent my evenings alone in the room of an inn or walking through nature or the city. I took my time to observe people. How little attention I got. My inconspicuous, ugly appearance did not remind anyone of the illusionary conceptions of a hired killer: a tall and athletic man, with a hooded, concealed face and a malicious smile. I enjoyed the anonymity and the role I had to play. I considered myself a quiet wanderer and a servant of justice who wiped the corrupted ones from life like the summer wind withered leaves from the trees. My fate was not easy to bear — never again I'd be able to fulfill mundane dreams, never again I'd be able to truly love someone. Yet I was part of something without which our world had fallen into the abyss, rotten with sinful people.
The others were blinded. I saw.
I never could have guessed how soon everything was going to change.
The day started like any ordinary day. I woke up before sunrise after a dreamless sleep, and I felt pleasingly calm when I stood up. I had accommodated myself in a tavern near the city gates. The stir after my recent murder had already ceased, and nobody had asked me about my Path or my origin when I paid my room for three weeks in advance from a well-filled penny bag. My gaze wandered thoughtfully through the cozy room. It came to halt on an extinct fireplace.
I yawned and rubbed my eyes. When will it happen again? The snow lay high on the trees, but it started melting in the sun. Soon there will be spring, I thought, and I became melancholic. I imagined children running across blooming meadows, and the craftsmen of Ark gathering below the green oak trees in the tavern garden. For the first time after a long time I wished for company.
I meditated, ignited a fire and had a sparse meal. It was not before I left the room to have a walk that I noticed the paper with a red slipknot that lay under the gap of my door. I recognized it instantly: It came from the Black Libra. With a joyful feeling of anticipation that I welcomed after my gloominess I went to my knees, took the parchment and opened it. I read it letter by letter and repeated it after I had finished. Then I threw it into the fire. When the document turned to ashes I was filled with an uneasiness that I can't explain until today. It was different from the dull anxiety from my past life that I had chased away and that, as I had noticed, always appeared when I questioned my own deeds — but it had the same color nevertheless. I ignored it, ignited a candle and sat down at the small wooden table at the window to come up with a plan.
Three days later I left the inn on a newly bought horse. Spring was closing in, but the days were still short, and I planned to return to Ark before darkness, which I did. I gave my horse to the stable-lad of the highly frequented tavern, threw him a penny and made my way to the taproom.
Back in my room I arranged the tools for the upcoming cleansing on the bed, like a cutler at his market stall. My target — a young man — was easy prey, I could feel it, and so I had free choice. I decided to take my long dagger that I had used to help Qalian in the brothel. Then I pondered my plan. A short time before midnight I left the “Dancing Nomad”.
The night was starry and relatively warm. Melting snow fell down from the roofs with a dull noise. According to the document, I could find my target in a noble house of one of the most expensive streets in town. It's always the rich who see themselves above everything, I bitterly thought when I approached the door to the Noble Quarter. I showed my papers to the guards and they let me in with a nod. If only they knew. Not before long, I arrived at my destination. Like all houses in the Noble Quarter, it was impressive. It was surrounded by high walls, and a stone arch surrounded the gate. The portcullis was closed, but behind it, an alley leading to the entrance of the big house was visible. Two towers at the eastern and western side of the abode made it look like a castle. In my former life the thoughts of the costs of such a luxurious building would have brought me down to my knees, but now I only mustered it coldly. I could not see any guards, but a flickering light in the gatehouse indicated that it was occupied. I had to count on that. I walked around the estate twice. At the back it was protected by the King's Rock, at its side there were two other noble's houses. At the west side of the wall, just a few arm's lengths from where it merged with the rock, I found what I was searching for. Finally. My stomach tingled, and the ash began to glow.
The place that I had chosen for my plan was a nice bench at the shore of the Malphas River which rippled sublimely through the nocturnal scenery. From there I had a clear view through the gate to the estate of the sinner. It was cold, but I was not freezing. A grey-haired man and a young woman passed by and smiled to me. I smiled back.
Then the alley leading to the estate burst into flames with a loud thunder. A cold shudder went down my spine and my forehead began to sweat.
The reactions which I had counted on came quickly. First, the couple noticed the fire. The young woman uttered a shrill cry and clung herself to her lover. Shortly thereafter I heard the sound of boots on cobblestones coming closer. The scent of smoke filled the air, and I was unable to fight a silent smile. Then I, too, made a frightened face and ran away, in panic, as it seemed. But unlike the others I did not run away from the estate or towards it. I contentedly noticed that the doors were wide open. Two guards stepped outside. Another guard stepped out of the gatehouse, helplessly looking at the other guards and the burning trees that illuminated the night like torches on a funeral march. No one noticed that the fire did not spread. I had no intention to cause a large-scale fire as I did not want innocent people to get hurt. I was only interested in the man who was going to die tonight.
I freed my face from the fake panicking expression in the moment I entered the darkness of the side street next to the estate. I slowed down my pace and took an iron hook from my pocket.
I stopped at a part of the wall I had chosen for my plan. It was three times my height, but it was old and fissured. I checked for hollow parts and pulled myself up with the help of my hook. Then I lay flat on the top of the wall and analyzed the situation. The trees were still burning bright, and the porter had opened the gate. Just as I was looking down, two guards ran through the open gate, but they stopped and looked around helplessly. The porter shouted something at them which I couldn't understand. Four more people, most likely of the staff, had left the building and joined the two guards. Perfect. I slipped down the wall and hid behind a bush. Now was the time.
I closed my eyes again and listened to the blaze inside of me. It was content, and felt, just like myself, the nearing nectar. “Soon”, I murmured. Then I turned my gaze at the hedge that had been planted directly in front of the house. I felt a greedy, affirmative tingling. I tensed my muscles and felt it shooting up my body, through my ribs, my neck and my skull, out of my eyes. I gasped and reeled for a moment. For a moment nothing happened. Then the hedges began to burn.
I sighed and smiled, as if I were congratulating myself. If the hedges had started to burn as suddenly as the trees, a trained eye could have noticed the magic behind the events. It still seemed unusual, but not like witchcraft.
A young man was the first one to notice the apparent spreading of the fire. He reacted with a quite unmanly cry. In the meantime, some guards had approached. They were pulling a fire cart behind them — one of the Starling inventions that I never learned to understand. By constantly turning a crank it could be used to shoot a straight beam of water from a bronze barrel of water. Its appearance made me hurry up. The inhabitants who had been indecisive before now fled along the brightly burning alley toward the gate. I rushed silently to the side of the house and pressed myself against the wall. I looked for a delivery door at the back of the house. Every big estate had one of these so that sacks of flour, meat and vegetables for the kitchen didn't have to be carried through the front door. While I was sneaking along the wall, I heard how the water from the fire cart fizzled into the cold night. I need to hurry up, I thought, but without any of the nervousness or panic that I had felt in my earlier life. I put my hand on the lock, conjured the fire and watched it melt away. Then I carefully opened the door and went inside. The storeroom smelled like salted meat, onions and alcohol, and after some time I had found a suitable hiding place between three chests.
I smiled, took a deep breath and extinguished the fire. It was only a matter of patience now.
I estimated that the time was three hours after midnight when I decided to begin. My plan was perfect. Everyone had acted just as I had foreseen — I knew it even though only a few noises told me what was happening.
As expected, the panic had cooled down when the fire slowly began to diminish. I smiled, imagining the faces of the guards when they realized that the flames on the treetops did not perish, no matter how much water they poured at them. They could have tried to extinguish it until the Black Guardian awakes, I thought. Only after my order the flames began to retreat, slow and reluctant like a wolf being forced to leave an animal it had killed on a clearing without savoring its meat. After three hours all the voices outside were gone. Then the door opened and closed several times, and after some angry shouts of a man — definitely my target — there was silence. Without any doubt he would be looking for someone to blame tomorrow, I thought bitterly. And he would find someone.
I brought the document before my mind's eye. Mitumial Dal'Joul, twenty-four winters old. And a murderer. Even though the records of the Black Libra claimed that the demons had taken possession of him only a few moons ago, they had caused more damage with him than with others in an entire lifetime. He had sinned three times, and each time he got away unatoned. Young Dal'Joul, whose father had died this year, was considered impulsive and irascible — traits that had gotten any young man of lower status into trouble soon. Yet his father, a wealthy clothier who, according to rumors, had simply earned his noble title by mercantile success, had used his contacts to protect him from any consequences. It's a shame, I thought. Perhaps it hadn't been too late back then. The first murder had been committed in late summer. He had strangled a room maiden in his chamber after abusing her. The murder was pinned on one of his servants. The second murder was committed, in the same manner, in a brothel. The body of a young whore was found in the sewers. The third murder was the result of a tavern brawl. Young Dal'Joul had an argument with the innkeeper whom he blamed to have insulted his dead father. In the middle of the conflict Mitumial drew a knife and stabbed the innkeeper in full sight of the guests. Even though he'd be called to testify to the Tribunal, the result was obvious. How easy it is to turn the world if a few witnesses' tongues can be oiled with gold. Maybe the Tribunal would sentence him sooner or later, after the demons in him had caused dozens of victims. But that's something the Libra was going to prevent. I stood up and began to move silently.
Nobody noticed me as I sneaked through the kitchen and the atrium, up the stairs, along the hallway, decorated with old, fine harnesses, toward the chamber of the man I intended to kill. As melting the lock would have resulted in unpleasant smells, I took a lockpick from my pocket, tricked the mechanism and entered. Many times I ask myself what would have happened if I'd been more aware of my surroundings. Would I have noticed the detail that I painfully became aware of minutes later, with blood-soaked hands and a heart, tired yet racing as a result of the strange, revealing nectar? Maybe things would have taken a different course. Maybe not.
The weak light of a moonless sky shone upon the mournful scenery before me. A big, misplaced canopy bed with rumpled sheets stood at the front end of the room. Books that had fallen from shelves lay on the floor, and a scimitar, presumably intended as a piece of decoration, had been rammed into an expensive-looking table like in a tasteless still life. I wrinkled my nose and tried to imagine what the whore who was killed by the young nobleman had felt. Did she sense her destiny as she entered the room in which every corner, the empty bottles of wine and the carelessly tossed clothes screamed negligence? Presumably she did. I imagined how she tried to play down her uneasiness with a girlish giggle. I looked at the bed on which the demoniac slept. He panted clumsily, his legs were spread and his hands sprawled out like a squire. There he had taken what he wanted from the girl. Did he already start to strangle her then? Did she still try to stay calm? When did her screams of lust become real, fearful ones? I bit my lower lip and shook my head, trying to get rid of these unpleasant thoughts. I was going to know what had happened sufficiently enough, whether Dal'Joul wanted it or not. And I was going to enjoy it.
I drew my dagger form its sheath. It slipped out almost noiselessly, like a snake approaching its prey. I looked at my victim with a mixture of pity and contempt. Regardless of his twenty-four years Mitumial Dal'Joul had the tender features of a boy. A scarce beard grew on his chin and his cheeks were smooth. His naked chest was covered with red spots and his shoulders were small and lankly. To a certain extent he reminded me of my former self, except for the obtrusive smell of sweat and alcohol. “The demons are inside of you”, I said unconsciously.
I open my leather bag and removed a black, thick cloth from it. Then I sat down next to him at the edge of the bed. In the shadows I probably looked like a mother singing her child to sleep. I laughed shortly to which Dal'Joul reacted with a protesting sigh, but he did not wake up. Then he rolled to the side, moved his knees to his chest and crossed his arms like a child. I shook my head. If I hadn't known about the fragile man's deeds I would have considered him a pitiable, spoiled noble's son. But he wasn't one of these. He had given himself to the demons, not just once, but many times, and others had to pay the price for his lack of willpower. Therefore the Black Libra had sentenced him to death. I took a moment to ponder about how the killing was going to feel like. Then I grabbed Dal'Joul's neck with my right hand, pressed his head against the pillow and pushed a gag in his mouth with my left hand.
The man opened his eyes at once. I tensed my muscles, expecting him to try to push me back. Yet nothing happened. I felt his almost scarily regular breath on my nose, as if he had expected to wake up with a gag in his mouth. His grey-blue eyes were wide open, and he looked at me with horror. With horror? Or … with resignation to fate? I had planned to stab him at once in his chest with the dagger I had placed on my leg, quickly, without ado. Yet there was something in his eyes that irritated me, and I was unable to name it. For a moment we both remained in the strange position. Then Mitumial Dal'Joul, murderer of three innocent people, started to cry. What first was a shimmer on his reddened eyes soon filled the corners, and the tears began beading down his cheeks. A choked sobbing was audible through the gag. I looked at him in irritation. I was used to demoniacs starting to cry or begging for mercy when they were facing their punishment. But it was fear which I saw in my victim's eyes, and their tears were a result of the instinct of self-preservation. His sobbing, his look, his tears, however … something was different about them. They seemed … sad. Devastated. What if he was innocent?, it shot through my head. What if the Libra was wrong? Why, no. Even in the tavern at the Farmers Coast I had found two people who had been able to tell me about his deeds. To doubt the sentence of the Libra was betrayal. Betrayal of myself, of the Libra, of your destiny.
I tightened the grip around his neck. There was still no reaction. He resigns. He knows that there is no rescue from his possession, and he gives in to his fate. For a moment time seemed to stand still. Everything happened with an otherworldly clarity, as if there existed nothing except for me and the man I was about to kill. I thought I could hear the movement of his teary eyes in their sockets.
Do it. Fulfill your duty.
With a cry that could have been an expression of anger as well as of helplessness, I took my hand from the gag, grabbed my dagger and rammed it deeply into my victim's chest. His eyes widened, glowing with relief, which caused a wave of rage inside me. Regret!, it flashed in my mind full of anger. Regret your weakness! I removed the blade from his chest, hauled off and stabbed him again, this time a tiny bit underneath his larynx. I felt resistance and pushed harder. Now Mitumial Dal'Joul uttered a choked cry, but still he did not try to defend himself. Irritated, I extracted my dagger and stared at him. His head had sunk to the side, and the gag had fallen out of his mouth. It seemed that he wanted to say something, but only a rattle left his mouth. “Why?”, I uttered, to him as well as to myself. “Why don't you regret?” He did not answer. The life slipped from his body, I could feel it. His sins, it shot through my head. If I lose him now, I won't be able to see them. For the last time, I lifted my blade and rammed it into his neck. This time, a fountain of blood spurted against me, but while the warm liquid on my skin usually caused a triumphant feeling in me, I did not feel anything. Then the fire seized me, and I plunged into the black.
For a moment I saw nothing. Then my view cleared up and I felt how the fire filled my veins. With one eye I saw reality, how I sat at the edge of the bed, the bloodstained dagger still sticking in the body of my victim, weakly twitching in death agony. His vision was blurred and limited, equal to that of a man peeking through a keyhole into another room. Yet what I saw with the other eye was clearer. His thoughts. His memories.
I saw a corridor which was covered with red carpets. It was the corridor I had just passed to get to Mitumial's room. From his room I heard sobs. I took a step toward him and heard a voice from nowhere. It was hard, cold, and without love.
“You are useless.” I felt that it belonged to Mitumial's father who had just died a short while ago.
I went along. The sobs grew louder and mingled with screams.
A jolt went through the spectral version of myself and threw me into another memory. I saw him, seventeen winters old, sitting at a large table covered with all sorts of dishes. He had lowered his head. At the other end of the table sat his father, whose face seemed familiar to me. A woman was sitting at his side whose eyes looked dreamily and impassively into the void.
“This world is no place for weaklings. Why don't you understand?”
“I do, father.” Mitumial's voice was monotonous.
“Apparently you don't, or you would not behave like a damn fishwife.”
The image turned black, and I was back in the hallway. The cries now began to multiply. I took one more step toward his room. One more. And another one. Then: a new memory. This time I saw Mitumial standing at a door, with his back turned toward it. He seemed to be listening. A man and a woman were shouting at each other behind the door, the man furiously and the woman pleadingly. The male voice belonged to Mitumial's father. Again and again the dull sound of an impact could be heard. I did not need to see the scene in order to understand it, and neither did Mitumial. His face was a grimace of disgust and anger. He despised him for what he did to his mother. He despised him for his deeds. I was back in the corridor, having arrived at the door to Mitumial's room. The fire burned greedily and glaringly in me, but the intoxicating feeling that it sent through my veins felt wrong. I was supposed to feel triumphant, but instead I felt … guilty. Empty. “No”, I whispered. He had killed. He had allowed the demons to enter him, and this was going to be his rightful punishment.
The door in Mitumial's memory swung open and I entered. The room was similarly devastated as the one in which my actual self was standing at his dying body, but this time the scattered sheets and books and the overturned table were the silent witnesses of an outburst of fury. Anger. Or despair? Mitumial was crouching on his bed, beardless and clean, completely unlike the man in whose throat I had just driven a dagger. Tears dried on his cheeks, tears — I knew it — that his father had despised him for, calling him a girl. Now his eyes were dried and reddened, and they seemed to stare into nothingness. He was broken. Why do I see this? I understood nothing of what was happening around me. What I was supposed to see were his sins, the moments in which he had allowed the demons to enter. The moments in which he was weak and had chosen sin and greed instead of fortitude and virtue. The moments that had made him the monster that he was! Determinedly I walked toward him. A lightning struck with a crash, illuminating the image. Then it returned to normal, and nothing had changed.
Almost nothing. I was still in Mitumial's room, and in his head. But neither had the shelves been knocked over nor was he crouching on the bed. An open book lay on it. I knelt down and read. The ink on the first page was still fresh.
15th day of the Kraken, 6098 a. St.
Father says there is no place in the world for weaklings. But he is wrong. It took me a long time to realize this. But I feel the truth in my words while I write them down. First I hated him for his bad deeds; his shady dealings, his “trips” to the Undercity, the things he did to mother that without any doubt had contributed to her death. Why he only had injured me verbally instead of beating me is beyond me. Maybe because I was his son after all? I don't know.
What he was unable to understand though is this simple truth: He is the true weakling. Despite wealth, status and the honor of his Path he is not much more than a desperate child inside, trying to use his power in order to gain acceptance and esteem. How easy it is to fall for this kind of pattern when we are not aware of it. I am ashamed at the thought of the things I've done. Little things they were, my mind tries to justify, but only now I realized how close I was to get into the very same cycle of violence and self-loathing as my father. Why did I beat up the noble boy? Back then I said to myself: Because he had treated me disrespectfully. Today I know that I only wanted to prove to my father that I'm actually a strong man. And I'm sure — if I had not realized it, one thing would have led to another, and harmless bullying would have led to much worse behavior. Quickly I would have been exactly what I feared.
My mind is made up: I will change. And once I am the upright person I am striving to be, my father will realize the perfidy of his deeds.
I have it in me … and he has it as well. I believe it from the bottom of my heart.
Stunned, I stared at the open book in front of me.
He wanted to change.
Was it really possible? Were his intentions so noble? But how?, I thought. He was obsessed! And once the demons have lived inside a human for too long, there was no turning back. A luring uneasiness rose inside of me, and with horror I realized that it was familiar to me. It was the feeling of being misguided which led me to leave Fogville, to betray my Path, and to join the Black Libra. And now it was back again.
I heard a dull sound behind me, like a body bag falling to the ground. It was Mitumial Dal'Joul. An older man who I identified as a servant of the house was standing in the doorway. Mitumial had fallen to the ground and had his face buried in his hands. The fire was raging wildly inside of me, but this time its intoxicating effect felt out of place, like an intruder.
“We came too late”, I heard the servant say. He avoided the gaze of his master. “I am sorry.” When he got no response, he turned around and left.
I felt how a jolt shot through my body. The fire had fed, it had seen the sins. Mitumial Dal'Joul was dying. The spectral world around me began to fade, slowly but consistently, like the ink on a letter in the rain. Irritated, I looked at the diary on the bed and then to the memory of the man whom I had judged. The man who had murdered three innocent people. The man who had given in to sin.
He had despised his father's actions. He wanted to change himself and his father.
Yet he had become a murderer. Why? What was the message brought to him by the servant?
A weak light began to glow inside of me, a shimmer of understanding. Who knows how things would have turned out if I had just closed my eyes in the last moment I had been in Mitumial's memory. But I watched. With a torturing slowness my eyes wandered from the clean marble floor to the shelves filled with ancient knowledge, and stopped above the opulent door frame which I had crossed to enter the room a few moments ago. A round shield in a golden frame was attached to the wall, painted with a crest. It showed a bear.
My memories of the moments after I woke up are as pale and blurry as those of my escape from Fogville. I clearly remember, however, that I stood up from the bed with slow, calm movements which an outside observer may have misunderstood as a sign of serenity, or, in light of the act I just had committed, as a sign of cold-bloodedness. Mitumial Dal'Joul was dead; I did not have to look at him anymore to know it. My heart pounded wildly in my chest, intoxicated by the nectar of his sins. Yet I felt cold. I do not remember my escape from the building anymore. When I approached the city gate, I could still smell the smoke of the fire I had set. The gate was closed, but there was light in the guardhouse. I had no idea how to explain to the guards why I wanted to leave the city at such a late hour, but I did not have to. In case of necessity, if it were the only way to gain distance, I would simply turn the gate and all guards into ash. Again I felt this paralyzing fear in my stomach. Only this time, there was no way out. I had been following a lie, from the beginning to the end. There were no demons taking possession of people. There were no sins, no corruption.
There were only cause and effect.
I myself had sealed young Dal'Joul's fate by killing his father. He wanted to change. My eyes were burning, my limbs were hurting. My thoughts were not in harmony with the Fire anymore. It felt the dissonance and punished me for it. Go back, I heard its voice speaking to me from the blaze, go back and do what you are meant to do. Yet I ignored it. My fist was firmly clenched around my dagger as I walked toward the gatehouse. I saw the shadow of a man flicker. The small building was separated from outsiders by bars. I swallowed, prepared myself for speaking. And I halted.
I knew the face that looked at me through the window, and I knew the smile luring on the lips. The man leaned back in the chair, he had his legs crossed and his arms behind his head.
“Where are you bound?”, Qalian asked. He spoke like a man who runs into a good friend after a long night in the taverns. I did not need the Fire to realize what was going on inside my mentor's head. He can feel it.
I remained silent, unable to respond. The situation reminded me of my old self: secluded, with a heavy tongue and no life experience. Qalian also decided to remain silent so that we only looked at each other for a while. His body seemed to cast no shadow despite the bright candlelight in front of him, but maybe it was only a figment of my imagination.
Finally he broke the silence.
“I will not stop you. But they will come to get you.”
I remained silent.
“We all were where you are now.”
I was filled with a dull rage. “Were you?”
“Yes, my friend.” He let his gaze wander, as in many of our conversations before. “We were.”
“It is our fault, Qalian. It is not the fault of demons or sins. It is only our fault.” A word was formed on my tongue. First there was a tickle, then there was a clear shape, and before I knew, I had spoken it.
“It is a cycle.”
Qalian smiled like a master smiles at his student when he came to an understandable, but naïve conclusion. Then he shook his head.
“I will not stop you”, he repeated.
One day you will make a decision. And I hope it will be the right one.
My hands were shaking, and my fear was overwhelming. I felt tears tickling behind my eyes. It was all in vain. I had believed to be special, to make the world better with my deeds, to find my destiny. But I had not found anything. I had joined a group of lunatics who made themselves judge over life and death with wild magic and unholy rituals.
“Open the gate.” My voice was merely a whisper.
Qalian nodded, with a hinge of regret. He had expected my answer. Three draws of breath later the machinery of the gate began to move and it rattled upward. I turned around and left without looking at Qalian again.
“No one leaves the Black Libra”, I heard his voice behind me. It was neither angry nor malicious, only sad.
I disappeared into the dark of night.
My hand hurts. I feel that they come closer.
I want to end it myself. I would like to claim that my reasons are emotions like guilt or a sense of honor, but it is a lie. Pure fear is driving me. Fear of what the Black Libra does to traitors.
The place where I began writing this transcript will be the place where I will leave this world. Was it fate that my life was going to end here? The fact that I am hiding in an old, abandoned trading post in the middle of a forest makes this conclusion likely. I was not aware of the irony of my fate before I woke up between these cold stone walls yesterday morning. I had wandered all night, and I remember the strange figure walking thirty arms lengths in front of me all time. I followed it. Shortly before I found the clearing, she turned toward me a last time and smiled at me. The adornment in her hair sounded like wind chimes from Kilé. Then she disappeared like she had never been there.
I wish I had more meaningful words to end this transcript. But I don't. As I have mentioned before, it is meant to be an account, nothing more. An account of what made Jaél Tanner's Son, the nameless one, the Butcher of Ark.
I am so tired that my eyes are filled with tears, and my hands are shaking in anticipation of what I am about to do. Several dozen people died by my blade, yet I am too cowardly when it comes to taking my own life.
I have a final plea to you. To find simple explanations, my story will not only be twisted by the heralds and the Order, but also by the Black Libra. It was born in the shadows, and there it will remain. Nowhere will you find traces of its deeds, and with artfulness and perfidy it will cover the traces I am going to leave behind. Besides simple explanations — I was straying from my Path, I was a monster — there will be other assertions which will satisfy scholars and philosophers. Do not listen to them.
They are nothing but lies.
I had to chuckle upon reading your latest letter. No, the Black Libra does not exist, and yes, I do consider your research on its machinations a waste of time.
Why, you ask me? It is very simple.
Jaél Tanner's Son was stark raving mad, up to the last sensible corner of his brain. He suffered from horrid delusions and nearly everything you have read on the previous pages is nonsense. Now I am well aware that this claim fits the book's closing statement only too well. But allow me to shed light on the life and deeds of the Butcher of Ark — on what truly happened — and you will see how what I say is infinitely more sensible than Tanner's Son's metaphysical ramblings on demons, the Black Libra and the fire.
Jaél Tanner's Son was born to a common carpenter and his companion in the year 6056 a. St. in a small village going by the name Northwind. Therefore, his true age at the beginning of the chronicle was thirty and two instead of twenty-eight. This also increases the age at which he was abandoned from two to four. Being of frail stature and small body size, his age seems to simply have been underestimated.
His natural father went by the name Samaél Chipblade and was an utterly violent and mentally challenged man. Both of these streaks — it pains me to say — have to be attributed to his deep-rooted religiousness. Obsessively punctual, he visited the local temple several times each day to pray, never missed even a single mass or sermon, and was able to recite all of the Path's 101 verses in their full length. Nothing was more important to him than to abide by the path and to love our lord; and these were his exact expectations from his fellow villagers — which, as you might be able to guess led to him living a very isolated life.
Though he usually followed the priest's sermons, he often thought their contents too shallow and Northwind's handling of pathlessness too lenient. When he did not pray, he worked, denying himself desires such as love-making, alcohol or even music. And so the village was surprised when rumors that Samaél would become a father began to circulate. Though he denied it, everyone knew who the mother was: a young wandering whore, often seen at his house in the past weeks. The public knowledge of the pregnancy put Samaél in a difficult situation — abandoning a pregnant woman and thus committing murder on babe and woman both, was a grave sin even if the woman concerned was of low status or a whore — but more importantly, it did not in the least fit self-perception. So he picked the only option available to him: He married the woman — not older than twenty winters at the time — and five months later the young Jaél was born.
As one might imagine, he was not born under a lucky star. Though Samaél had always been slyly aggressive and quick-tempered according to the priest I interrogated, this aggression only increased with parenthood. The fear and horror recognizable in Chipblade's young companion had been almost graspable during the three-day-mass, he confessed. So things took their course and — as if he had not already done so — Samaél sealed himself and his “family” increasingly off from the outside world. By now you will have guessed what happened, dear Turas, so I will keep things short: Samaél Chipblade abused both his companion and his young son. What began with scolding looks and curses slowly turned to regular beatings with a birch.
This he of course merely did to “protect” his loved ones, as he confessed to the priest once. Both his companion and his boy were befallen by “demons”, horrible demons whose only purpose it was to drive them from the right path, to taint them. “One cannot purge them forever”, he had said to the priest, his voice shaking, “Because they always return, no matter what you do.” No matter how devoted the prayers or how chaste one's thoughts. “They always return.”
Why the priest didn't intervene? He did not fully suspect how bad things truly were. Corporal punishment for children and women is not unheard of, especially not among the rural populace, and the truth only dawned on him as, one morning, he watched the young woman go to the village's well. A gust of wind freed her from her veil and revealed an abundance of cuts, bumps and broken bones. Do you remember the Butcher's crow-like nose? It is a remnant of such an "exorcism".
There is little more to say of this sad period of his life, except for its tragic end. In an act of despair, Jaél's mother took her life, but only after she had crushed her husband's skull with a heavy hammer. The starved boy was found five days later in his parent's bed chamber, the empty eyes focused on the bloody altar of Malphas. To this day I do not know whether he had been present during the horrible deed or whether he had entered the room when both parents were already dead. He did not cry, spoke no word and his eyes had nothing in common with those of a four-year-old anymore.
When I asked why the boy had not been given to a family from the village, and with lowered eyes the priest confessed that no one was willing to take him in. A child that had already seen murder and violence at such a young age would undoubtedly bring misfortune on those near it, people said. And besides, times were hard and wheat rare. In the end, Jaél was dressed in a woolen blanket and the priest travelled with him to the Fog road and deposited him before a shrine — in the hopes that someone would take pity on the young boy. You already know of Gilmon, the tanner who would later raise him. He shared neither Samaél Chipblade's religious fervor nor his brutality, but, as you certainly concluded from the Butcher's writings, he gave everything to the boy except for an environment in which his scarred soul could heal.
As he turned eleven winters old, he began an apprenticeship with the local priest and came to oversee the temple of Fogville five years later. The villagers saw him as a silent, dutiful man with constantly uneasy expression; and it did indeed take three days before his disappearance following the Star Summer Night's feast was noted.
In the third chapter of his account, Jaél finally tells us of the events that transpired at the “Red Ox”, a small tavern not far from Ark where an essentially harmless act of revenge escalated into his first killing. In incredible detail he recounts the inebriating feelings that took hold of him during the murder, then turning his attention to his first encounter with Qalian, who accompanied him as a mentor and friend during the following moons and winters. Here, however, fact and fiction, truth and phantasy, begin to mix for the first time. The innkeeper of the Red Ox might still remember a sad-looking, thin man being humiliated who then, together with the two riders, had disappeared early in the next morning. A man such as Qalian, however, had never been seen at the tavern. Now while this inconsistency might be attributed to the countless faces the innkeeper must have encountered since, the fact that both giants — Naratil and Jorah Dal'Karek, who indeed are quite nasty fellows — have been seen in Ark a few days later, both in perfect health, makes opposition pointless. No, you have not misread, Turas — both men who, according to the Butcher, died a bloody death that night are in fact well and alive and I have actually spoken to them during my inquiries.
I don't know what truly happened at the Red Ox, but I strongly suspect that at that evening, Jaél's inner need to take revenge for his humiliation caused his insanity to take root for the first time. He felt weak, and the violence he was subjected to unconsciously reminded him of the situations his father used to put him in.
But at the same time he was obviously lacking the power to do something against this — and at this point his imagination gained the upper hand and he conjured up a variant of the events that simply was never true. He then fled head over heels to the forest.
Now you may say that my claim — that the murders were a mere product of his imagination — is nothing more than conjecture. But let me first continue with my account and explain my underlying thesis later.
About six moons before the murders with a proven connection to Jaél Tanner's Son began, he claimed to have arrived in Ark. He posits to have found refuge in a tavern together with his mentor and his companions only to wipe out a sort of “child's brothel” in the Undercity the following day, together with Qalian. Again: The innkeeper of the “Dancing Nomad” recognized Jaél on a drawing, but was unable to remember a person fitting the description of Qalian. Even the brothel I mentioned had never existed in the form described, as my contacts in the Undercity have assured me of. “But is secrecy and covertness not the whole point of such an institution?” you might ask me now. Yes, dear Turas, it is, but such an establishment could only exist under the protection of a large organization such as the Rhalâta. And under these circumstances you can be assured that the destruction of such a — it pains me to say — profitable source of income would not have been tolerated by the Rhalâta. No… Both of us know what that organization is capable of, and what they do with those acting against their authority. But what actually happened was that more and more homeless and sick people were found murdered in the Undercity's alleys, all of them barely recognizable from myriads of stabbing wounds — Tanner's Son's thumbprint.
The first moments of both Jaél's narrative and the truth aligning occurred three months later and coincide with the passing of the so-called “exam”. Back then, the first corpses were discovered, and here we begin to talk of the “Butcher of Ark” due to the brutal manner of the victim's death. The following year, during which Jaél caused havoc in Ark, managing to escape first the guard and later the holy order itself due to his perfidious intelligence, a total of two dozen murders were committed where the Butcher's involvement is beyond doubt; and another dozen where it cannot be ruled out. A second person was never involved, and not all of his victims had been guilty of crimes.
You probably ask yourself the same question as in the beginning of this letter: Why the deviations? Why invent a mysterious secret society with the aim to keep evil in check? Why the talk of a “nectar of sin” enabling the murderer to enter the memories of his victim to be rewarded with sexual ecstasy?
I for my part have found a solution to this riddle, and it rests on my conviction that very few of this world's murderers and criminals view themselves as bad, instead believing to do the right thing. We are so good at creating models of thought that help us in reconciling our deeds with our self-perception. This was no different with Jaél Tanner's Son, and the essence of what caused him to commit his crimes is deeply rooted in his childhood.
You can surely imagine that his childhood had profound effects on Jaél Tanner's Son. I am certain that, on an unconscious level, Jaél knew what his father did unto him, and that he hated him with passion. You also know that children cannot yet distinguish between themselves and their environment, especially in early years. I suspect that this was the case with Jaé, too. The more he hated his father, the more he hated himself, blamed himself for the pain endured by his mother and him. Father had said it, hadn't he? “I only want to protect you. It's the demons, always the demons; you always allow them back into your hearts.” Again and again the boy failed in this, again and again. And again and again he and his mother had to pay dearly for it. How he wished for peace, his father's love, for harmony. But he would never receive it, for when the demons possessed his mother one last time, they robbed him of the only two people he had ever known.
Unable to even try to process his experiences, the horrible images, the raw hate, the guilt and a biting accusation, a deep-rooted realization were confined in a mental casket that his child's mind buried deep in his subconscious, so he would feel nothing but a diffuse, omnipresent fear that kept him from ever experiencing something like true happiness.
Until the day of his trauma, when he was confronted with his repressed memories for the first time by seeing his own corpse. I am sure that finding his own rotting corpse represented the part of him that had been repressed and locked away, sleeping all these years. Now, however, it's burdening presence had become too strong to ignore any longer. He would die if he did not learn to understand, calm or heal it; and so he fled head over heels out of his life, his only compass being an impalpable feeling that would lead to his death, much like the flame is to the moth. It punished him with an insufferable fear when he acted against it; and it rewarded him with maniacal ecstasis when he did something “right”. Without that feeling, he would have never left his village, never began to kill for his imaginary construct of the “Black Libra”, indeed, without it he would have never become the “Butcher of Ark”, instead ending his peaceful if a bit sad existence as priest of Fogville. He dubbed this feeling “fire”. I call it searching for forgiveness.
With every decision, with every murder, every step he took, he wanted only one thing: to triumph where he failed before. To finally achieve the peace he had always hoped for. He wanted to cleanse the world of the demons that had caused so much suffering for his family — his father had, after all, had only wanted to protect his family of them. Can you follow? The demons, the Fire, the Black Libra — it was all nothing more than his subconscious desire for absolution! Absolution for a crime he never committed! The demons Jaél saw in his victims were nothing more than projections of the guilt he felt for the deaths of his parents, and by murdering he tried to atone for it.
Maybe my thesis seems absurd to you at first glance — but think of all the parallels between Jaél's account and his past! The likely most obvious would be his choice of words — “sinner”, “demon” and “soul cleanser”. Humanity is weak and rotten, but there is a hidden order protecting it from its downfall. What could this be, if not a reconstruction of his familial background! It continues with the imaginary person of “Qalian”. Is he not an idealized incarnation of what Jaél would have wanted to be? Strong, lawless, full of desire to life and absolutely devoted to the Black Libra, without the doubts Jaél had until the end and that would ultimately be the cause of the last parallel to his childhood — his failure. Though dozens had to give their life because of Tanner's Son's mad quest for forgiveness it ended with the same cognition it had ended for the small boy in the past. But no matter the self-sacrifice — at the end he had been too weak. His will, his scrupulousness, his belief in the correctness of his cause — it was to no avail. He had failed — and left this world as a broken man.
You seem dear Turas: The parallels are too obvious to be merely accidental. I have been unable decipher merely two symbols in his story: The veiled woman appearing in his vision and the admission ritual. I do have my theories, but they are vague still.
You can calmly lean backwards, though: The day a wild mage enters your room to kill you and then digest your sins — I am sure they are countless! — will not arrive. The Black Libra does not exist, and neither does the fire or “Qalian”.
To me the story of the “Butcher of Ark” is primarily the sad testimony of a man who took countless innocent lives on his quest for forgiveness. Who, in the end, is to blame? He? His father? And if you chose the latter, how can you know whether Samaél Chipblade with his sick religiosity and his "purges", too, has been merely trying to heal a scar on his soul, a scar on his soul he also had no fault in creating?
Here, Jaél Tanner's Son was right: It is an eternal chain of cause and effect. A cycle.
And nowhere in it will you find someone to blame.
Carolyl Dal'Gamar, Arcanist of the Third Sigil and Chronicler of the Holy Order