The sage sat statuesque by his window, staring out into a field thick with snow. Leaf-bare trees, frosted white, stood like sentinels. All of them waited together, listening to the ululation carried on those strange winds.
There was a long emptiness to the field, and this was how the sage preferred it. Why he had come out here, so far away from the land of his ancestors. The earth here was foreign to him; the creatures which hid in the boughs and the hidden things which scurried just out of eyesight all hesitated to speak with him. He was not of their ilk. He was of the wrong sort – a pinch of fay, and a heaping of something else. If he was ever a man, they could no longer tell.
The sage was not of this land, but this land knew of the sage. Even in his flight from his home, in his pursuit of some mythical woman, the souls of those caught in the whorls of his destiny had assailed him. He had met his destiny – that enchanting woman, who lingered somewhere in the crevice between figment and dream. He found her and now he was the sage and the spirits did not speak to him anymore.
Except on this day, one of them had broken their unspoken vow of silence.
It had been the first crawl of morning light, sliding across his pitted and leathery face and the blizzard of white hairs across his jaw, when he heard a voice. Soft, but sure as the arrival of death. A body can take years or hours in its race to death, but it takes an infinity of seconds for it to die.
In that infinity, he heard the voice of the spirit that dwelled with him in his small home, on its wide field.
“He comes,” it said, “Your heir comes and seeks. We have been told.”
There were no more words. The sage rose on gnarled legs, wrapped in a cloak against the snapping cold that had filled his room in the night. He started a small fire in his kitchen, filled a pot of chilled water with black, brittle leaves, and sat by the window to hear the crackling of the fire as the water began to seethe.
The knock on the door was sharp. It reminded the sage of old battles – a maul colliding with an errant knight’s ventail; the sharp, wet crunch, the sight of red lines running down across grimy silver breastplates. A high laugh on the high wind, the din and roar of horses neighing and great, extinct beasts screaming against the lacquered red sky.
Another knock followed, then a steady rapping on the door.
The sage sipped the bitter black brew in his hand and croaked, “Enter, my son, enter.”
The words had barely left his mouth when the door came open, and framed by the winter sun’s pale light was a young man – too young for the endeavor ahead. Too young for the malfeasance behind.
He wore simple clothes. A cotton shirt, raggedy trousers. His feet were unshod and icy blue from the cold outside, though the hostile weather did not seem to perturb him. Instead, he smiled a curious, heavy smile – a difficult twist of his lips, whose mirth never found his eyes – and then crossed the threshold, kicking the door shut behind him.
As he drew closer, the sage admired the similarities. He was so much like his son – like a ghost, come to dwell with him in his hovel as all the other souls of his misdeeds did. From the bruise-black hair, to the grey-green eyes, to the large, thick nose planted firmly on his face – it looked like an oak tree in the middle of small, ravaged garden. In his left hand, he held a scuffed up brown scabbard, the worn hilt of the sword within failing to catch the shards of light thrown off by the fireplace. It was a warrior’s sword – no time for pleasantries and beauty. Its edge, he knew, was nicked and dulled by bones and armor of fallen enemies. He knew, because it had once belonged to the sage.
“I have traveled far to find you, grandfather,” the boy said, kneeling before the sage. “Across the fields of Bar Muth and the steppes of the Hjalmarringa and her barbarous inhabitants, I traveled. I cleaved a path through the beasts of Yulratha… and smashed the king of Ellor beneath your black blade. All to find you, grandfather. And I saw them tremble at your name – Vax-“
“I am your grandfather, but that man you seek is not here, lad,” he said curtly, averting his eyes from the boy, studying only the endless white horizon.
The young man paused, licking his chapped lips. “Then answer me this, old man who is my grandfather but not the great warrior: when you came to this land, did you not seek a woman of some acclaim? The woman who took the book penned by a dead god in bygone eldritch days?”
The sage could feel the fire of his gaze on him, young and voracious; like the sage when time was still yet his friend. Like him then, the boy was an inferno – without direction, full of temperamental appetite. It would burn and burn until it burned itself out while pulling everything into its belly. It all in its path like coruscating cinders on a great pile of ash.
“I sought the woman with such a book,” he answered, “And I found such a woman, and her book, and read those words from a dead god, written in a dead language from a dead time.” He extended one bony finger to the boy’s chin – so much like his son. So much like Arlemus. One more cinder. “But all things of which this book is the progeny are dead, my child. There are many things which die that should not. And many things which die that should. And in that woman’s book, I found that which should be dead.”
The leather groaned beneath the boys hand; his fingers clenched, squeezed the hilt with intimate familiarity. The sage thought he heard its siren call – hold me, it said, embrace me, wield me. I am your will incarnate. The boy’s body tightened, coiling like a snake as muscle rippled across his exposed biceps – hunger vying against need. The man against the beast.
“Still yourself and I shall tell you of what you seek, child,” the sage said. “I will tell you and pray you heed an old man’s words, as your father bade an old man to heed his.”
He saw the shift in the boy’s eyes at mention of his father. A wave of anxiety rolled across him.
“The son you slew in pursuit of the book, grandfather,” he added. He saw the vengeance in his eyes – a son’s vendetta, cobwebbed and nearly forgotten, but lingering. The sage would let such a flame devour him.
“The very same,” he said, “Now I shall tell you of the woman and the book.”
I was your age when I first heard of that dead god’s book. They said its words were the first words, its bindings made of that rawstuff which was fashioned into the heavens, and its author one of the architects of creation. We do not know his name, for he was dead and gone when still the world was dawning.
My mentor told me of the book, speaking in hushed tones of its magnificent and infernal power. He found me, a noble’s son gone astray. I was the heir of some fiefdom that, to my knowledge, no longer exists. But I wanted more than these finite things, back then – more than all the gold and cattle and fertile lands my father’s titles offered. I went out as a young child to find my destiny. And I met my mentor, who instructed me in many things. And he told me of the dead god’s book.
He desired for us to journey together and find the tome. For ten summers he taught me his esoteric ways. He showed me how to speak to those spirits which walk among the barrows of our ancestors, he taught me to see those hidden things in the home, he showed me how to find the ancient gods of the land whose power is great. And he taught me to subvert their will to my own- to violate the treaty between men and those others by enslaving them to my will.
In a volcano where the souls of many dead men congested, I forged the very blade you hold in your hand. With it, I wrote my own book, in ink of deep red.
Ravisher, he named me. I took on another name later, which you know and I will not speak hear, for the man who was weighed down by such a name perished in pursuit of this book.
As Ravisher, my mentor and I scoured the lands. We usurped lords, ravaged women, put the torch and steel to any who opposed us.
Aye. They called us warlords. My mentor said, “We shall be war gods.”
But after twenty summers, my mentor became distrustful. He would inspect me from the shadows when he thought I was not looking. His hand would linger on his dagger too long when I was near. Power is not shared, my lad, not among those who seek it to whatever ends necessary. Power is not bread which can be broken for some; it is life, and a man can only have one life. To split it is to die and so to share power is to have none at all.
In the night I found him, and I compelled a shadowy entity that had stalked us for many miles to end my mentor’s life. There was a great deal of blood, for this creature was a cruel one and it fed just as much on my mentor’s suffering as it did his flesh. I banished it back to that terrible void from which our iniquity had conjured it.
Shortly after, I took a wife. Her name was Euphonia and she was a beauty so lovely the heavens were weeping in envy on us the day I met her. With Euphonia, I found a peace which had eluded me for nearly a score of years. We had a son and a daughter.
Things went peaceably for a time, and then Jele- then the girl was taken by consumption. I had been sober of my terrible art for half a score when my daughter was taken from me. But in my fury and my despair, those wretched things returned to me with alacrity.
Surreptitiously, I returned to my arcane study. I remembered that my mentor had said so many years ago – the book could solve that great secret, the conundrum which had vexed all of us who touch the arts and the spirits. Life. With the book, I could return my daughter to me.
I went a year before my wife or son noticed any alarming changes. The most alarming was the massacre of Delhaleen. One could say it was accidental – that I had simply not woven my spellsong correctly, not prepared aptly. This would be a great lie, for the spell called for the lives of thousands on the altar to accomplish my needs.
For my daughter, I remember, I would have massacred Delhaleen a thousand times over, and a thousand times again.
I believed it vital, you see. These many souls brought much power. The souls of the dead are currency among those cyclopean beings, which live among us, but not with us. It was, however, fruitless, at the time. They said they did not know where the book had found its home – but that a woman had found the home for it.
‘She dresses in starlight and her name is Thine,’ they said to me.
I could not be appeased. With terrible wroth, I slew that ancient being and began my new voyage… not as Ravisher, but under a different name.
Pretenses vanished and my redeeming wife became a memory. My son fled with her upon hearing of the massacre of Delhaleen.
The king sent a legion after me. An entire legion. Like wheat in harvest, I cut them down with terrible power.
Do not smile so thrillingly, my child, because these are not things which are walked away from. All souls are connected. To break one soul is to break a part of your own. How many can you break before you are no longer whole yourself?
I spent another score of years searching. Eventually, I forgot my daughter, forgot her name and her face and for many years, forgot the way her small arms would embrace me or her lips kiss my cheek.
Fury is a terrible master, because it does not grant reprieve until reprieve only grants you a moment to see what you have wrought. That moment of sanity sends men tumbling into the abyss from which they never return.
I cannot say how many empires I laid waste to, how many queens felt the firebrand of my lust, or how many heirlings and princes and princesses were shattered on my beastly appetite.
A man who is willing to murder and destroy has truly unfettered himself – the greatest power cannot be restrained. You cannot jar an inferno. I supped on souls of the innocent and became mighty.
Then one day, a man found me where I had made my dominion. I was seated upon a throne, encircled by groveling subjects.
‘I am your son,’ he said, ‘I am Arlem. Do you remember me, father?’
I did and I embraced him gladly.
He said to me that I should stop this all – that his sister was just a puff of smoke in my mind. There was no mission to bring her back, not anymore.
Remember, child, that power cannot be split and that those that have it guard it jealousy. Remember, too, that fury is a vicious overlord. And know that there, before these weeping folk, I killed my own son, your father. He would not take my power, as I assumed he meant to. He would not make demands of me.
It was when his blood had covered my hands and begun to run around my boots that my temper cooled and very gave me purchase of reality.
I dropped my black blade and fled north that very day, sacrificing my gifts as I journeyed to bargain with those old gods of the woods.
‘Where is Thine and the book of the dead god?’ I asked. They told me of an grove further north, in a place where the sun had never set its eye. I learned more of the book, too. It would provide only what the reader truly wanted – for no single book could, at once, contain all the infinite knowledge of the universe. So it merely granted at one time what was desired, so I was told.
My journey carried me into blistering colds and against foul beasts which have never traversed the lands of the south. Abominations. I augured with their bones and found the woman and the book, though. I found her and I almost thought it a dream.
It was a small grove, west of the Cloud Wall that separates the kingdoms of Balka and Went. Those were war torn lands then. I believe that is why she was so close to them, because I have returned since and there was no grove.
I was haggard and slimmed down greatly when I found the woman and the book. Death had found me at last, after so many years, and it hounded me with slavering jaws.
She had the book in her lap as I approached. I remember the sound of water rushing through a little stream and the way the snow crunched under my numb feet. The trees were green, yet covered with ice. I have never seen its like again.
“You are the boy who became Ravisher, and then Ravisher who became the beast, and the beast who is now a dying man. You have sought me many long years. I can scant hear your breathing or your voice where you stand over the whirlwind of those who have fallen before your blade. They follow you, like shades waiting, because you have forgotten them, but they have not forgotten you.”
I said to her, then, “Let them take me, and damnation too. But let me read of the book, Thine, as they call you. I but want to right my son and daughter. Let me give them back what I stole from them and then all the gods and devils of this world may feast upon my ruin.”
She smiled very prettily, though I was not attracted to her. For she was like a finely painted doll – impeccable in every way, as a doll is supposed to be.
“I shall let you read the book,” she said, approaching me. The snow made no sound under her feet. “But your ruin… shall be your own. The book grants what we seek, not what we want or need.”
It was a simple tome – not lavish, as one would expect. Its cover was leather. It’s bindings leather thong. Yet it pulled me, drew my fingers. Once it was in my hand there was no stopping it – I was a fish, caught on the line, and I would be pulled from those waters writhing and flopping.
Upon opening the book, there was one word.
Titles, it said. Just titles.
The boy stared at his grandfather, but the sage brooded for a moment.
“We never escape what we are, truly,” he scratched his beard, “I was never anything more than a mischievous noble child, seeking his noble titles. I simply did not want my father’s titles, but my own, and mine were far more terrible.”
He slid from his seat onto arthritic knees before the kneeling boy and pressed his hands to his shoulders, “The true price of power, boy, is truth – a truth you can’t escape. Turn back and find your own truth, whatever you desire it to be. The truth we shall life, grieve, and die, and others will do it all over.”
The boy’s hand quivered on his blade. ‘If the gods are good, if they live, let me convince him’ the sage thought.
“The inferno consumes, child, and when your life ends there will be nothing but the terrible truth of what you have done. And they are waiting,” the sage said, glancing over the boy’s shoulder at those constant, chill phantoms that circled them, “They wait and neither the woman nor the book can dissuade them of it.”
The boy drew the blade as the sage embraced him, and for just a moment the old man saw his son there, his hand on his own, and he did not know if it was truthfully him or not.
But it may have been a good lie.
This week’s Garage Fiction prompt was provided by Nicholas Brack…
“Girl With A Book” – Photographed by Nicholas Brack.
His note: “Happened to see this on a car in front of me and thought alright cool!”
These weekly scenes & stories are part of an ongoing project codenamed “Garage Fiction”. Since January 2015, three writers (Nicholas Brack, Jinn Zhong and I) have committed to writing a flash fiction or scene each and every week. We post on Fridays and dissect on Tuesdays via podcast.