So Below

Haelel Ahn, King of Kings, the Glorious Emperor of both the and Living and the Dead, he who ate the Serpent’s Heart and snatched the Crooked Staff from the hands of a dying god refused to sit upon his gilded throne. He sat upon the battlements of his tallest tower and took neither meat nor wine nor sleep. His lords and vassals challenged him to ritual combat as was their right and he refused though he had not the right to do so. Araleion the Master Scribe and Oroab the Lord Martial murdered a dozen powerful courtiers and then destroyed each other and Haelel stirred not from his perch.

On the eighth day of her father’s solitude, Jarioth Ahn, Princess of the Realm and Sorceress of the Ebon Flame, ascended the spiral stair to the top of the tallest tower and sat with her father a time. Like her father, her hair was blacker than the feathers of the crow. Unlike her father she was small and delicate and given to fits of coughing. A chill wind blew from the northwest, out of the distant Ahar Mountains and over the silent remains of Aareth, once a proud and bustling fortress. It carried with it the ash of the last defenders of that empty stronghold. At the edge of the horizon she could almost make out a faint orange glow, the fires that destroyed Aareth and consumed its garrison ten days ago burned yet, the wrath of the scaled god still blazed unspent. Jarioth Ahn turned her head to avoid breathing the unclean breeze and looked out at the Living Forest, its boughs green and deep reddish-brown. The King at last took notice of his daughter. When he spoke, his normal joy had deserted him; his words were bitter and filled with pain.

“I name you regent until I return. The Blood-Red Sword offers no peace and I am sickened at heart each time I must carry it. Many will issue you challenge but stain not thy hands by taking up that sword.”

“Where is it you would go? To Aareth? I say leave their spirits to suffer as an offering to the god they insulted.” Jarioth took her father’s hand and held it tightly.

“No my child, not to any place in this world.”

So saying, Haelel Ahn, King of Kings, the Glorious Emperor of both the and Living and the Dead stood for the first time in eight days and cast himself off the parapet to his death.

*    *    *

“Tell us again, why did the King step off the parapet?”

“My father expressed his dissatisfaction with the theocracy; that is all. He was always one to guard his motives closely.”

“And he named you Regent? Without contest or ritual?”

“Clear the Grand Circle and stand fast, I shall demonstrate my Right.”

*    *    *

In the netherworld my crown is meaningless, my titles hollow. A friend walks by bound in chains of fire. He is old now, death hangs from his skin and his face is worn. He is bleeding his life’s blood from the wounds in his chest and back. I look away as he turns his old eyes upon me. I won’t look into those eyes.

*    *    *

“Tanists, lustrate me and begin the second sacrifice.”

The Conjurtorium still held the dressings for the initiatory ceremonial preformed nearly a month ago. Only five of the eight candidates had died during the trials. I smiled at the memory. One of the outland witches had sent his two most promising apprentices. I had put on the mask of K’araos and visited them both in turn before their final ordeal. They had been so eager to please and so poor at pleasing that their deaths had seemed like a mercy at the time. The savages couldn’t even retain their vital force at the crucial moments.

Rlan eun rykhem.” The slaves dully parroted the prayers of the tanists as they poured the water and went through the motions to ensure my ritual purity.

*    *    *

The tomb filled the horizon, a mountain risen to cover the corpse of a giant. I did not know his name. His name was as dust and as dead as its master. A second time I descended into the darkness of this place. I do not deserve to see the light of dawn again. Let the mountain crush me. Let me die the final death….

*    *    *

A tension fills the room as the wards are set. There is no turning back now. No escape. I shall endure, let God himself stand in my path. Let the heavens shake and the whole world tear itself to pieces. I will not break. I will not.

*    *    *

The door is wrought of blackened iron and upon its rough surface blaze the twelve great seals of Aauelim. I pass within. Empty. The body of a child floats in the stagnant pool. A final sacrifice or his last adherent? I continue to wind my way deeper into the secret places of the earth. Overhead I hear the beating of massive wings, ahead a rumbling in the heart of the mountain.

*    *    *

For once I stop and feel the tiny, panicked heartbeat. The bird is warm in my hands. My father’s final command comes back to me as I pause; delaying the inevitable course of the ceremony, “Stain not thy hands by taking up that sword.”

*    *    *

The gods die slow and even now he almost seemed to stir as I placed the Crooked Staff back in his hand. No, it was only light and shadows. He is dead and I am his murderer. I turn to leave. Only shadows.

*    *    *

I can see them through the smoke. The peers of the realm. My fellow pretenders unto divinity. Smiling false smiles as I strain my will against the inner gates. I can almost hear the Lords of the Upper Dark laughing as I loose my soul to begin the rite in the higher realms. At least the mockery of devils is honest.

*    *    *

No light greeted my emergence from the sepulchral depths. Melkun will not shine upon this place. I never cared for the elaborate forms of conveyance my brothers so relished. I called no spirits to carry me on golden palanquins nor serrloth to lift me upon their jeweled backs. I traveled the realms of the dead and unborn with none to guide me. I walked upon a road of black marble that I called into being before me and let crumble into dust behind. The road transversed the lower heavens and below I saw the Fields of Dead Nightmares. Dark shapes littered the ground, each a monstrosity born of the terrors of children, given life in the silent hours of the night and each still bleeding from the single wound in its chest.

I looked above and beheld the Vault of Eternity. I witnessed once more a sight that most found darkened and concealed from their gaze. I beheld the Seven Lords of the Upper Dark swimming through the void above the station of the moon. The Starry Lords, first-born cowards all, shone as points of fire below the Maelstrom. Even in the netherworld I could hear the thunder and fury of that place. I stopped for a moment and strained my eyes to pierce the veils of chaos that obscured my sight. Within the Maelstrom a million worlds dance and spin. Bourne upon the winds of that cosmic abyss. My spirit began to burn and tremble as I strained to see through the final barrier. Twice before had I made this attempt and for a third and perhaps final time I failed.

*    *    *

The Grand Circle flared with witch-fire and the room rocked violently. I rose above the palace and into the true sanctum sanctorium. The temple built of starlight and guarded by every black peril my kind had imagined since the beginning of time. The nobility rose with me, a host of figures silhouetted in the radiance of my soul. I was the center of the working and the power I had called raged within the prison I had built for it in my mind. My dagger had drunk deeply and the blade was red with gore. I forced power into it until it burned like a flaming brand. I held it before the first guardian and drew a sigil and then a star in lines of blue-white fire. The guardian lowered his blade and I alit upon a balcony. As I approached the temple a human eye embedded in an archway opened and I grimaced as it turned its gaze upon me.

*    *    *

I pass over the places of suffering and penance. I see an ancient and feeble soul torn to bloody ruin by the whips of the Overseers. The dead must work and the lash must fall. I pass onward and refuse to heed his cries.

*    *    *

The Heart of the Sanctum is a miracle of sorcery and architecture. A great egg hangs suspended over the Circle of the Art and shines with ethereal luminescence. The old serpent embraces the egg in its coils and grins her wicked grin. The souls of the Mystigoge, Hierophant, and Pythoness lounge upon three of the cardinal thrones, but the fourth seat stands empty. Even in death my fathers’ soul should have rested there, but the manacles attached to the arms of the throne had been broken open.

*    *    *

The astral stronghold of the Hrailghen stood before me at last. The legions of conjoined and twisted souls guarding the outlands of their realm lay behind me. I had killed too many, this was an old game I played but it had never bothered me before. I shuddered as I thought back upon the war I had started in my youth, when the Hrailghen were still a half forgotten story. Men whispered that they had brought the first empire low and ruled over the northern lands until the Salkuth Algonn and the mighty Vennorok drove them west into the sea. Before my crowning I had sought for them in the visions of the lotus dens and the ramblings of degenerate sorcerers. When at last my soul stood alone and naked upon their unfamiliar shore I had felt my first taste of true fear and the beginnings of regret.

*    *    *

The Sword rests at my side and none of them dare contest my claim. It burns like a shard of molten lightning. After returning, I struck off Adlim’s head and ordered her body fed to the slaves. She had been the loudest to challenge my right. How long before I too stand upon the parapet? How much of my father’s weakness is in my blood?

*    *    *

I rest uneasy in the coils of the dragon. The great wheel turns slowly for the dead. Days drift by between one bite and the next. The great black tongue caresses the hole in my chest, lapping blood. I pray my daughter is strong enough. Power is so easy, it makes us weak. Please Jary, forsake it while you’re still young. Don’t take up the Sword!

*    *    *

“She wears it so lightly, like she was born with it at her side.”

“But methinks she carries another burden….”

“No consort yet, I wonder who the bastard’s father is? I heard she has a taste for foreign fair.”

*    *    *

I dig with my bare hands, blood still dripping from my chest. I can hear the old serpent sleeping, not far off. Sated at last. How deep did I hide it? I don’t remember. I wasn’t a man yet. So long ago, so deep. If I don’t find it soon my soul will die. I promised her I would return.

*    *    *

I lay in the pit beneath the Husking Pole. The bronze arms reach out, each holding its’ grim burden with a silken noose. The empty corpses of old friends hang above me, swaying gently. The ropes creak. I’m the only celebrant today. I bite down on a scream as the pain begins to build again.

*    *    *

Light burns a tunnel through the dark reaches and I fly. If another passes through my door, I’m lost.

*    *    *

I hold him in my arms, my son. He holds my finger in his tiny hand. He is fair skinned like the outlanders. Were they brothers? He has my father’s eyes. I can hear his voice deep in my mind, an inaudible murmur at first and then words, “Stain not thy hands my daughter….

 

Next: Jarioth’s Saga

© Tobias Loc 2018