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From the author of the Longtail saga:
Outside the sturdy borders of the longhouse, the shadowed cloak of winter's night hung. The winds howled like demented banshees, while heavy snow rose and fell with a vengeance, determined to bury the world in white. Within, a crackling fire danced in the fire pit in the center of the longhouse, its writhing tongues a comforting talisman to banish the cold.
Around the fire sat a circle of people who were as diverse in a gathering as could be. The matron, a stout woman in a thick woollen coat, stirred a pot of bubbling stew hanging over the flames. Two children, a boy, and a girl, each not older than ten summers, sat near their mother and played a game of rocks and catch.
A peddler, dressed in the leathers of his trade where odds and ends hung from a multitude of pouches, with a countenance most sour and miserable, sat staring with vague anxiety into the fire while rubbing his hands.
Two cloaked figures in ermine furs of noble quality kept to themselves in the shadows, just beyond the reach of the fire's light but not its heat.
The rest - a tall, thin man of sunken features, indeterminate age and a faraway look in his eyes, dressed in threadbare fineries, and a duo of rough men, woodcutters by trade and already half-drunk, sprawled on the ground passing a skin of cheap wine between them.
Frigid air blasted into the longhouse as the door was thrown open. A man wrapped in heavy furs trudged in.
"The devil's balls!" he exclaimed as he lowered his hood and stomped his boots clear of snow, "but it's cold outside!"
A heavy wooden ladle sailed through the air with the fierce aim of an expert marksman. It clipped the man on his ears and struck the doorpost with a heavy thud.
"In the High King's name, are you trying to kill me, woman?!" the man roared at the affront.
"Bartle, you oaf! If you don't close the door, I'll have your balls! The fire is going out." The stout matron glared at the man, hands on her hips. “And no swearing in my hearth!”
"Fine, fine! I'm closing the door! Don't throw anything else!" The man in furs shoved the door close and, under his breath, muttered, "Women! You marry them, and they climb all over your head. Whose hands built this place anyway?"
This is Bartle, proprietor of the establishment that served as the last way house for travelers leaving the influence of the holy city of G'henne. He is a man of shrewd cheer - a studied trait most valuable in people of the hospitality trade.
Bartle hurried to the inviting blaze, divesting himself of the bulkiest of his clothing. As he did so, he lowered unto the floor the prize for which he had risked the tempestuous weather outside; a small barrel of fine honeyed sunberry mead he had casked the short-lived summer just past.
"Ho, what have you got there, master Bartle?" one of the woodcutters, ruddy of cheeks and with the beginnings of a paunch, called out in inebriated animation.
Bartle gave the cask a hearty slap. "Sunberry mead, sir! My own recipe and brewed just this summer! This beastly weather means to keep us cooped up like chickens, but "fie!" to that, say I! We will make merry and be like proper men and women of the High King!" To his wife, he hollered, "Woman! Bring out the flagons then, and one for the little'uns to share too!"
His wife ignored him. After a moment of awkward silence, he tried again. "Martha, dear wife. Would you be so kind as to bring out some flagons for our guests?"
Martha turned up her nose as if rating Bartle's efforts at grace as mere passable, but she went into the kitchens. The woodcutters cheered, and even the querulous ill-humor of the peddler lifted some.
"My thanks for your generosity, master Bartle." The peddler's voice was thin and a little wheezy. "Some spiced mead will do my congested chest good, I grant you. It's a wonder, though, that you found anything to ferment even as our summers grow ever shorter over the years." As if he just realized what came out of his mouth, the peddler shot a nervous, frightened glance at the two cloaked figures, who seemed immune to the boost in spirits.
Bartle drew in his brows. "It's a wicked thing that afflicts us, it's true. Why, I remember the long, lazy summers I had as a boy!" His expression cleared soon, however, and his optimism returned. "But I have no doubt the High King and the Queen will put all aright anon!"
The proprietor busied himself with unsealing the barrel, and when Martha set the flagons, filled them to the brim.
Perhaps because Bartle himself was the most eager to taste his own wares, he took a small swallow of the ale before anyone else. He smacked his lips in satisfaction and raised his mug high. "To the High King's health! And to the health of his most sagacious queen! May their reign be long and fruitful!"
"To the High King!" came the chorus, and even the two mysterious cloaked figures raised their mugs at the toast.
Bartle took a long swallow and let out a hearty belch. He looked at the gathering around his fire. "Dear guests! We sit beside a warm fire, mead in our bellies, and my wife's excellent stew bubbling in the pot. How about a tale to pass the evening?"
"I've got a story!" one of the woodcutters called out.
"No, sir!" Bartle retorted. "Haven't I heard enough drunken boasting from you two over the years? Peddler, do you have something for us? Tell us of your travels!"
The peddler shook his head. "What is there to say? The nights are long and cold these days, and the roads lonely. Nay, I have nothing of good cheer to share, good master."
"A shame then!" The boisterous man took a stride towards the two cloaked figures and opened his mouth. One of the pair lifted a hooded head and, from beneath, a glacial glare colder than the wailing blizzard outside stopped Bartle in his tracks.
As he floundered, wondering how to recover from this rebuff, a smooth, quiet voice said, "You have shown us kindness and broken mead with us, sir. I have a story to trade in return if you would have it."
Saved from the awkwardness of the moment, Bartle cried out in relief," Then share with us your tale, good sir!"
The tall, thin man with a distant look in his eyes nodded. He gave a slight pause as he gathered himself, then raised his voice to carry. "Harken to me then, for here is my story. A tale of one who failed as a father."
Despite the nature of his words, his gentle tones set them at ease, and even the children stopped their games to listen.
"Once there lived a man, although the mortal world would not reckon him as such. Possessed of great puissance in Miracles and the fear instilled in men thereby, he came to be called many names. Prince of the Deep Night. Keeper of the Damned. The Adversary. Or simply, the devil."
"A familiar beginning to a familiar tale!" Bartle exclaimed, a broad smile on his face. "You tell the saga of the High King and how he bested the villainous Devil himself! An excellent story, one that I never tire of."
There was a smattering of ayes from those assembled, and a brief smile flashed across the storyteller's face. "Perhaps it is, or perhaps it is not. I beg from you, sir, patience for the account to unfold itself."
"Then carry on, and mind not my foolish interruption."
The storyteller continued, "The devil, as we all know, had his abode here in this part of the land. A tall, impenetrable tower that used to stand in the very heart of the holy city of G'henne. Long centuries had the devil wallowed in his tower, consumed by a powerful need to pierce the veil of creation. To understand what separated the animate and the inanimate. He was desirous to wrest the secrets of life from creation itself, to find the animus - the soul!"
The cadence of the storyteller's words, clad in such magnificent passion, pulled at his audience, and they shivered at the profane evil that was the depths of the devil's ambition.
"Oh, but I see you trembling amongst yourselves now! Count yourself blessed that you witnessed not the full extent of the devil's debasement. Screams of the tortured echoed in his dungeons as he desecrated the bodies of living things. He cut them apart, then joined them again into chimeras of the most abominable sorts. A miasma that rendered the earth barren swirled around his tower as he tore apart the walls of reality so that he might peer into the Void beyond.
"And it came to be, after long, arduous studies both foul and exultant, that the Prince of the Deep Night reached the pinnacle of his sacrilege. He had breathed life into a false vessel. A homunculus!"
Bartle's jaw dropped at the storyteller’s words, his face contorted in fury and offense. The peddler shot more nervous glances at the two cloaked figures, and the woodcutters had gone quiet. Martha hugged the children to her bosom.
“Blasphemy!” cried Bartle. “O, guest of mine, what blasphemy do you speak here? No more of this, I beg you!”
"Aye, it is as you say, good sir,” the storyteller replied. “It was a loathsome deed, reeking of hubris, and by such hubris shall the devil be brought low.”
"By the High King and Queen, whom the Creator had entrusted the holy city to!" Bartle shouted, displeased by his guest's twisting of this holy saga.
A powerful emotion, of which the complexity defied Bartle's understanding, flickered across the storyteller's face, and it silenced the proprietor’s anger. The storyteller continued as if Bartle had not made an outburst, his words as inexorable as boulders tumbling down a mountainside.
"The devil looked upon his creation with pride, perhaps even affection, for the homunculus was most perfect of form, and her mind keen and sharp as would rival the devil himself. This homunculus, he called daughter - for did he not bring her into existence? And he named her Ysolde. The devil taught her all he knew and, when he was done, returned to his studies for he felt that there were yet more secrets of life that eluded him."
The storyteller stared into the fire, gazing at something only he could see. Almost as if to himself, the storyteller said, "Perhaps if he had not turned his back on Ysolde, he might have understood what those secrets were.”
The storyteller then shifted his gaze to Bartle, who simmered still with ire quelled only by manners befitting that of a good host. "But let us for a moment turn our attention to a man named Eamon, who came of age seven score and seven years ago.
“It must be said that in those days, these lands had not been tamed. Brigands and abominations alike roamed as they pleased, while good men and women huddled in petty fiefdoms ruled by petty kings that warred upon each other in their shallow aspirations.
”Eamon was the bastard son of one of these self-styled kings. With his passing, the king left Eamon nothing except the tender mercies of his brothers, who saw Eamon as a threat to their own ambitions. In desperation, Eamon fled to the doorstep of the devil’s abode to petition for power over his brothers.
”Indifferent to the affairs of mortals, the devil would have rewarded Eamon with a swift death for his audacity.
”It was Ysolde that stayed his hand. For you see, the devil had indeed performed a great Miracle in her creation. His homunculus felt as would a real mortal.
”Retreating into his studies, the devil had left Ysolde to her own devices for many years, and under such solitude did loneliness find fertile soil to grow. The intrusion of Eamon brought a spark of novelty to her joyless life, and she was enamored by this bold mortal who braved the Tower of G’henne.
”It was she also who prevailed upon the devil to grant Eamon the power he sought.”
The storyteller sighed. “But no Miracle can come without a price for mortals. Such are the laws woven into the very fabric of the world. A Miracle as Eamon desired can only come from the Hunger in the Void, and it demanded tithe of all who sought its attention. This, the devil told the mortal, and undeterred, Eamon pledged his soul.
”With great reluctance - for the devil was not happy with Eamon's influence over Ysolde - the devil agreed to grant Eamon's wishes. For seven days and seven nights, the devil wove his esoteric arts. The days darkened, and the earth heaved as the devil worked his Miracle. The veil between worlds grew thin, and all manners of creatures felt their doom.
"At last, the Miracle was complete, and Eamon was vested with strength and endurance beyond mortals and flesh undying. Giddy with power, he confronted his brothers and slaughtered them.
"With such might are men's desires stoked. Eamon’s avarice grew with each passing day, as did his reach. He brought unto these lands a war of conquest draped in such fury as none had ever seen. Blood ran like rivers as Eamon rode at the head of his army, slaying all who refused to bend their knees to him.
"And through it all, Ysolde rode by his side as his consort and confidante.
"The devil cared not for the plight of mortals, but he cared for his daughter as she grew more estranged from him. Still, his perspective was long, for what were decades to one that lived centuries, and he would tolerate this until such time came as Eamon would pay what he owed to the Hunger. Such foolishness would cease then.”
The storyteller shook his head, “But the crown of the fool was for the devil to wear in the end.” Pausing to catch his breath, the story-teller met the eyes of each of his audience. Powerful was the emotions that roiled through those gathered, from the fear stamped upon the ashen-faced peddler and buried faces of the children to the glint of doubt in the eyes of one woodcutter and the steely attention from the two mysterious cloaked travelers.
Looking straight at the couple sitting in the shadows, the storyteller picked up again the threads of his tale. “Eamon's flesh was undying, but it did not mean he was immortal. The Hunger exacted its price while Eamon lived; his body petrified as the Void drew Eamon's soul away, and he feared the day of his reckoning. Thus did he turn to Ysolde.
”He whispered murmurings of tender love and marriage to her. He spoke of regret, of how it could not be, for his end was nigh. What happiness could he give to her, he asked, if he died soon after their marriage? First, help him end his curse, he said to Ysolde, and he would marry her and make her happy.
”Off Ysolde went to confront her father, as Eamon hoped she would. She laid forth an impossible demand: that the devil intercede with the Hunger on Eamon's behalf to rescind the sacrifice it demanded.
“Mighty was the devil, yet even he was bound by laws and forces above him. No, he said. This must not be. Eamon must give up his soul. He cannot hope to avoid his part of the bargain, nor must he try, for that way lies ruin for all.
”Ysolde would hear none of it. For many days did they quarrel until at last, tear-stricken, Ysolde cursed her father - he who had brought her life - and told him that she wished him dead. She fled back to Eamon, and on the day she did, the devil did feel something within him break."
The storyteller fell silent. And when he spoke again, his voice was rough. "He thought he would never see his daughter again, but alas for him, he was wrong.
”When Eamon learned of Ysolde's failure, he grew desperate. He beseeched Ysolde to save him, and she could not bear to watch her beloved waste away. She summoned all the knowledge her father had imparted to her and concocted a plan to save her lover. She would sacrifice her father instead and hoped the Hunger would be satisfied in lieu.”
The line between the storyteller’s brows grew heavy at those words, furrowed with a desolation that drew Martha in, fearful of the storyteller’s impiety though she might be. Upon her children she cast her gaze, and could not help but wonder what sorrow and misery, what a cursed fate for a mother it must be if her own flesh and blood were to come so to despise her that they might renounce her with such cruelty. She tightened her grip on her little ones, her darlings, and prayed for deliverance from such an end while the storyteller continued with his bleak recital.
“Ysolde gathered her considerable arcane might, second only to the devil. With Eamon and his host, she laid siege to the devil in his tower.
”Years did the struggle last. Mighty were the elemental forces that father and daughter hurled at each other. The blood that spilled in that conflict would render Eamon's war of conquest a mere stage-play.
”Years did the struggle last. With each passing day, the devil grew more tired and heartsick, until at last, unable to summon the will to fight his daughter anymore, the devil laid down his arms.
”On the cusp of their victory, Ysolde cast her Miracle. She bound the devil in a great circle and opened the veil that kept the Hunger in the Void. She bade it come forth to take her father in Eamon's stead.”
The storyteller laughed. A mirthless laugh. “Foolish daughter,” he lamented. “Foolish woman who was foolish in love. The Hunger cannot be thwarted, nor can it be reasoned and bargained with thus. The Hunger took her father; stripped him of all his might as she wanted. But it did not spare Eamon's curse.
"Instead, it hastened the curse. Eamon began to turn to stone in front of Ysolde's eyes. Horrified, she lifted her hands to cast another Miracle to save her beloved, only to realize at last the depth of her mistake.”
Raising his arms in a gesture towards the heavens, the storyteller shouted, “For she too was of the mortal world! She, too, was bound by the laws that governed the world. She, too, had to pay the price to the Hunger when she worked her Miracle, and it was her corporeal form that the Hunger took.
”Ysolde's body faded away even as she watched, drained into the Void. Desperate, she cast yet another Miracle, and with this, she doomed the world.”
Sweeping his gaze across his spellbound audience, the storyteller dropped his voice to a near whisper. He gestured to the blizzard now raging outside, "You see the cold and the darkness that besieges us. You see that the winter days grow ever longer as the years pass, and the warmth of summer days fades into mere memory.
”Such was the nature of Ysolde's Last Miracle. All the world will share in the toll that she and Eamon incurred. To prolong their life, she had shifted the burden of her curse and Eamon's curse unto the world itself. This land will grow cold and lifeless, banished from the glory of the sun when the Void consumes it at last.”
Laughter erupted from those listening, of doubt and of disbelief, at the grandiose flights the storyteller’s fancies had taken. They laughed, but their mirth was tainted by the secret fear that men and women alike harbored of the things that crept in the dark wilderness of Men’s ignorance.
“You spin a fanciful tale, storyteller!” one of the woodcutters called out, wearing upon his bearded face a look of open scorn. He had eyes that shone with curiosity, much unlike his flushed-faced companion’s. “It’s a fitting enough yarn for a night cold and miserable as this, I suppose. You but mean to make us all afeared with your foolish prattle!”
Calm in the face of the woodcutter’s derision, the storyteller gazed at him. “Pray tell me, sir, whence this foolishness you speak of?”
“Why, the Hunger of the Void for one!” the woodcutter exclaimed. “A sillier thing has never graced my ears. If such horror existed, surely it would be in the Scriptures and Parables. Upon my soul, I have never heard such from any sermons, nor I wager, has anyone else here!”
Bartle made a most vigorous nod, bearing on his face a look of borrowed triumph from the woodcutter’s unexpected eloquence. By such rude and simple ways had the woodcutter carried himself all through the years Bartle had known the man, that the proprietor had misapprehended the adroit mind underneath.
“And of this war on the devil?” the emboldened woodcutter carried on. “You speak of a mighty host that laid siege to the very walls of the Tower of G’henne. Yet, all know it was the High King and Queen who called upon the Creator to cast out the wickedness that dwelled within and bade the High King and his Queen shelter the people. Who be Eamon and Ysolde? And where went they, even were I to grant you your blasphemy!”
The storyteller smiled, and a gentle chuckle of weary character escaped him. “Ah, but is the answer not yet clear to you, sir, even as you come so close? Eamon and Ysolde live on still, as the High King Ardgal and his Queen Melissan. Rulers,” the storyteller laughed at the word, “of the holy lands of G'henne until they too must answer at last to the Hunger.”
Silence followed at the storyteller’s proclamation. A silence so thick, one could reach out and grasp it. The peddler's frightened gaze was fixed unmoving upon the two figures in the shadows. Bartle's jaws hung open on his ashen face, and he gaped like a landed fish.
"No…no sir, you lie," Bartle cried, but his denial was weak, and his voice trembled with fear. "No, this…this…."
The storyteller did not answer. He raised the flagon he had not touched since the telling of his tale and drank from it, gazing into the fire as he did so.
The two mysterious figures in cloaks stood up then. As they did, their furs fell away to reveal, on their vestures, the Sceptre and Shield of the Holy Inquisition. Letting out a despairing moan, the peddler shrank away.
Drawing their swords, the Inquisitors advanced upon the storyteller until they stood on either side of him. Lifting their blades, they rest the sharp edges on his neck.
"You have earned the attention of a Confessor, blasphemer," said the one who had glared at Bartle earlier. He was so pale of hair and features as to be near white, and his eyes held the warmth of a killer. "Surrender into our custody now, and your trial will not be overly long. Resist not, I advise you. Your end will not be painless otherwise."
The storyteller made no movements of protest. "Yes. It is time to end this." He set down his flagon and stood. As he did so, the fire fluttered. Shadows danced in a manner most strange as if they flowed with the storyteller, and an uncanny light flared deep within his eyes. The Inquisitors turned wary and tightened their grips on their swords.
"Give us a room then, master Bartle, to hold this prisoner in," the Inquisitor with pale hair uttered, his eyes sharp upon the storyteller for signs of mischief. " Do so, and we will speak on your behalf to forgive you this night's events."
"Y..yes, of course!" Swallowing, he nodded to Martha, who cast her eyes on the ground, afraid to look up. "Martha, show them our room. It has a good bolt and lock."
With eyes still downcast, Martha nodded and mumbled, "Please come this way, sirs."
As the Inquisitors followed and led the storyteller away, Bartle burst out, "Hold!"
He could not help himself. He must know. "Why did the devil do as he did, with his black studies, his heresy, his homunculus?! Why bring forth such evils?" Bartle cried.
The storyteller stopped. "He sought an answer, master Bartle, to a question that had vexed him for long, lonely centuries," he replied after a long pause. "Why was he the only one of his kind in the world?"