Very well, my child, very well. I think you are of age now to hear the one story I have dared not tell you before. This is the story of my time in the Duchy of Dulay, and of my adventure with the warrior Brunhild, and of the silver sphere. Yet know this, my child: there is a reason I have waited so long to tell you this story. This is a tale of blood, heresy, and old scars. I do not tell it to you lightly.
Now let me see. In those days Duke Sigibert ruled Dulay. A tender little tract of land, rich with wheat and wine, home to about two dozen villages, sparkling like emeralds in Sigibert’s lofty crown. Ah, forgive me for slipping into the poetic voice, child. I was a herald once; I am prone to speaking highly of men who wear gold.
I was young, then. Less than ten years older than yourself, but of course I thought I had the wisdom of one five times my age. It was not a belief without merit. Already I had traveled from the great pyramids of Saqqara to the Isle of Giants, where eagles the size of mountains once used to dwell, out into the pirate-ridden coves of the Autumn Sea. In my nineteenth year my travels took me north, into Dulay.
This story concerns Duke Sigibert. A wise duke, and a fair one, he brought me into his court with open arms and taught me his people’s language. After three seasons, I was beloved by the court. My homeland is not called the Land of Poets for nothing, child. Even writing in an alien tongue, I dazzled the court with my effusive wit and charisma. Ah, but I am showing my hubris perhaps, and keeping you from hearing my tale.
One day, a tinker-merchant who wandered the Duchy asked for an audience with the gentle Duke. He said that one of the villages had closed its gates and abandoned the gatehouse. He had knocked upon the gate and the gatehouse door, yet received no answer. Sigibert knew that such behavior meant either rebellion or heresy, so he drafted a contract to bring the village elders to heel. Being the only other one in the room who could read the language, I was asked to certify it. It was only natural, or so it seemed to me at the time, that I volunteer. There was a boy in the court I fancied, although in my age I have forgotten his name. Perhaps I thought that if I demonstrated my bravery, I could win his affection. Cease your giggling, my child. I was young and the court was beginning to chafe at my wanderlust.
I was joined by Brunhild, a woman-at-arms. I could always pray to the Three Thousand Gods if need be, but the contract required steel. Brunhild was old and world-weary as a fossil in a tide-pool, and had traveled across Dulay and all the duchies surrounding it. She had faced steppe raiders and northmen and once, she claimed, a Giant of the Far North, a lie I believed wholeheartedly, and in my youth attempted to outdo with my own tales of adventure. These bounced off of her like arrows off a castle wall, but I relished the conversation with a kindred spirit. With us were her elite, a compact fighting force of ten soldiers, all miniature versions of her, varying in gender or age or ancestry yet essentially the same.
It took five days of pleasant walking to reach the village. The soldiers were kind, and I earned their affection with many jests and limericks that are best not repeated here. Warm campfires, tasty suppers, and hearty laughter bore us to the village with high spirits.
When we arrived, it was still as the tinker-merchant described: the gate was closed and barred, the gatehouse hollow as a chestnut. No one patrolled the gate, and the village was silent. Brunhild’s company were still discussing what to do when the woman herself spurred her horse to the gate and rapped one knuckle upon it. It rattled loudly, and then fell silent. Twice more she knocked upon it, and twice more she received no response.
She had anticipated this, and ordered six of her mightiest soldiers to bring the gate down. While they worked, she sent the rest to circle the village. She gave me neither acknowledgment nor orders in all of this, and so I took it upon myself to enter the gatehouse.
The door was swollen with moisture, yet I was able to pull it open. A ladder, with more than one broken rung, led perilously up to the loft. It smelled like straw and clay. As I began to climb…
My child, are you sure you wish to hear this story? I know stories that may be of more interest to you. Perhaps you would like to hear of when I challenged the greatest swordsman on Earth to a duel. Or of when I charmed the great dragon Apep with nothing more than… No? Very well. But heed my warning: this is no tale of mirth and joy.
I climbed the ladder up to the loft. Easing open the trap door, my senses were assaulted by the smell of death. Inside the loft was the body of a man. He was about the age I am now, but it was difficult to tell: his skin was swollen and blue in parts. Yet what struck me most about the body was its tattoos, the likes of which I had not seen since leaving my homeland. The markings were not like mine; they covered him from head to toe. The symbols… ah, you must forgive me, my memory is a little fuzzy. They were like nothing I had ever seen.
There is something you must know, child. My homeland was the first to understand that with the right numbers and symbols, one can predict the movements of the tides, the motions of the stars, or the right way to build structures that reach into the heavens. Our people see mathematics as the oldest and most primordial form of magic. The symbols were like nothing I have ever seen. They curled in on themselves in twisting spirals, stacked themselves into pyramids, and crowded into impossibly dense jumbles, violating all the laws of mathematics to reach inscrutable conclusions. Despite their alien nature, I understood their implications with perfect clarity, as if they controlled my thinking like a king driving a chariot. As I looked, I remember feeling as though my very existence had been disproved with the same obvious certainty with which two and two make four.
The second I looked away, hurtling down the ladder in terror, the details fled my mind. It was as if… as if my mind was too weak to contain them. As if my very soul was protecting me from the truth.
Ah, I am sorry to have frightened you, my child. Worry not. As many people have learned to their surprise, my will is not so easily shattered. As I stood panting like a dog in the undercroft of the gatehouse, I regained my composure, shaken but standing. Besides, I had other matters to distract me. The soldiers Brunhild had appointed to batter down the gate had finished the task.
Still trembling, I walked to the now-ruined gate. Apparently, I was not so composed as I thought: several soldiers craned their necks to look at me, and I found tears on my face. The soldiers were quickly focused elsewhere, however, as Brunhild called them into formation and began to march into the village. With no place for me in the marching order, I took up the rear, where I could dry my tears in peace.
The village had been abandoned in a hurry. Houses were left unlocked, and most still had their possessions within. Stray animals – rats, cats, the odd goat – wandered the streets aimlessly. An avalanche of barrels was scattered over the main road, which Brunhild and two of her companions cleared quickly.
As she directed her soldiers to fan out, I approached Brunhild and told her about the body in the loft, about his bloated blue skin, about the stench. For all I told her, I failed to mention the markings; the fear they had caused me made the words catch in my throat.
I am not a man with many regrets, my child. I try not to let the mistakes of my past haunt me. But I have never gone a night without wondering what would have happened if I had told Brunild about the markings on the body. Perhaps if I had, she in her wisdom would have understood the elder powers being brought to bear that day and would have ordered her soldiers to retreat. But such regrets are the cost of a life like mine, I suppose, though it is people like Brunhild who suffer the consequences.
Where was I? Right, yes. I remember. In response to my distress, Brunhild nodded, gentle and stoic as an old oak tree. Reaching down with her sword, she cut a corner from her half-cape, handing it to me to dry my tears. Yet before I could thank her for the gesture, one of her soldiers came to her in a panic, sweating.
The man had not even finished what he was saying before Brunhild ordered her forces to follow his pointing finger to the village square, keeping her sword unsheathed as she marched. Delayed a moment by confusion, I took up the rear of the van once again.
When we arrived, we saw the truth: the village square was dominated by the bodies of the dead. The corpses of more than fifty villagers were heaped over the cobblestones. Each one was covered in the same strange markings as the body in the gatehouse. As soldiers poured into the area, many, hardened though they were by battle, gasped in horror.
Yet for all the grim nature of the scene, it was not the bodies that most captivated our small party’s attention. For at the center of the village square, embedded halfway in the ground, was a pristine silver sphere the size of a stagecoach. The bodies were piled radially around the artifact, growing denser the closer one got, and the closest ones were reaching for it like a dying man in a desert might reach for something to drink. The sphere hummed softly, and smelled like the air after a lightning strike. I had never seen anything like it.
The soldiers began picking through the bodies. Some reacted with horror, others with awe, others still with morbid curiosity. I saw soldiers poking the bodies with their swords, tracing the lines of the symbols. It was only a matter of time before the soldiers began to gather around the silver sphere, and one of them put a gauntleted hand on its surface.
A smell of rot and salt bubbled up. From the top of the silver sphere, a tendril of gray flesh shot forth, covered in mycelium like an unearthed tree root. Another tendril appeared, then another, and between their bases, blossoming like corpse-flowers, were countless cold and glassy eyes and yawning beaked mouths. The tendrils and eyes and mouths formed together into a single creature the size of a jungle elephant, which detached from the sphere like an apple off a tree and leapt forth, crushing three soldiers like a pouncing cat.
Be happy that you were born in peaceful times, my child. Being in a battle, a real battle, is nothing like the war games you play with the other children. Even if you survive, it brings a living-death that haunts many soldiers for the rest of their lives. It is something I am glad you have never experienced, and hope you never have to.
By that age, I had been in battles, of course. It was, after all, less than two years after I had served in the War of the Hawk. Yet I had never encountered something so grotesque, so horrid, so alien, in tomes or in the flesh. The mass of tendrils, mouths and eyes, moving as smoothly and fluidly as quicksilver in a vial, slaughtered the footmen. I saw steel swords break against its back, and hardened veterans flee like scared children.
It slew two soldiers in the next heartbeat as I stumbled to the side, tripping over the bodies. Kneeling, I folded my eyes shut, clamped my hands over my ears, and howled a prayer over the screams of dying men. I had never felt my faith so strongly, as I prayed that every one of the Three Thousand Gods bring the beast back to whatever realm of desolation and chaos that had spawned it.
I felt it. I felt its forty eyes affix on to me as soon as I began to pray. Somehow, I knew that my supplication had awakened some anger within its profane heart. Without a moment’s pause, it charged, crushing the bodies in its way as it moved towards me in a line as straight as an arrow’s flight. I felt my time on earth grow short, steeled myself for the end as it bore down upon me. In the last moment, I prayed that the Gods that had failed to protect me in this world would treat me justly in the next one.
But then I heard a crash of steel and flesh. Brunhild, screaming a battle cry, tackled the beast of the beyond, coring into its side with her sword like a butcher gutting a pig. The beast was forced off its trajectory into the ground so hard it cracked the cobblestones. Its tentacles rained against her with the force of a blacksmith’s hammer, yet she held strong even as her armor was sundered and her bones were broken. She bore down upon it, stabbing her sword into it again and again. In desperation, the beast gave one final burst of strength, raising one tentacle high into the air. There was a sickening pause, and before I could shout a warning, it brought the limb down atop Brunhild’s head, crushing it like a beetle. Yet for all its alien physiology, the wounds she had delivered were too grievous. It quivered a moment and died.
The square was silent. The beast had annihilated the entire squadron. The wind whistled, carrying the scent of blood to my nostrils. My mind had no time to form a single word, however, for over my shoulder, I watched as the silver sphere began to glow white.
A blinding light filled the courtyard and consumed me. I looked, and received a vision I shall remember to the day I die. At first, the light became translucent blue circles, which in turn created a vast tunnel through which I felt myself hurtling. I saw a collection of green triangles, like emeralds, but crowded denser and denser until they dissolved into a uniform jade foam. I saw a red-and-black sun, from which yellow wings made of stained glass panes beat slowly. As the visions grew more numerous, I swore I caught glimpses of human-shaped figures watching me, yet before I could call out to them they vanished and it was chaos once more. And through it all, a noise filled my ears, at first high and indistinct, like the sound of cicadas, then deep and rumbling like the noise of a far-off waterfall, until finally it became a chorus of voices. Like an entire crowd speaking in unison, it was difficult to make it out, yet in twenty long years I have never forgotten the words.
“The forbiddences fail. The period of observation of this world draws to a close. The awakening brings closure to our plan. Listen carefully. Proceed to the level above human. Fulfill your mission. You shall see us again..”
The visions ceased, and I ran from the courtyard with all the strength my legs could muster. As I fled, I noticed distantly that the silver sphere was gone, leaving in its place a steaming hemispherical pit. Outside the village was Brunhild’s horse, panicking and snapping at its bindings. Without pause I mounted the beast, undid its lead, and spurred it into the countryside at a forceful gallop.
I never again returned to Dulay, and never again saw Sigibert. I hear a mightier Duke conquered his son’s lands, putting his villages to the torch. The profane truths I witnessed are now nothing more than ash, or so I hope. As for myself, after that day I would go on to travel South, towards Capitol, the city of the great game. There, I would masquerade with capricious lords and share bone marrow with beggars. Yet for all that I did, it would be another year before I would again pray to the Three Thousand Gods. Merely attempting the words would bring me back to the village square, with the screaming soldiers and the piles of dead.
What is that, my child? Oh, you have no reason to apologize. The scars of that day are old now; neither the beast nor the vision could shake my faith completely. This was but one day in the course of my long life. In a way, I have the silver sphere to thank. It was in Capitol, after all, that I met your father. But that is a story for another day. It is well past time you go to bed.
That night, you get little sleep. You have nightmares of a sunless sea, where horrific beasts writhe in impenetrable darkness. You have nightmares of a Heaven with no Gods, a blinding empty void of pain. You have nightmares of a silver sphere in the place of the sun, casting down a ray of light that boils the seas. Thankfully, in the morning, they pass, and you forget them. As if your mind was too weak to contain them.