Authors: Ben Galley
The strangest wounds of all, it seemed, were the people themselves. As with every war, it’s the aftermath that can be the most damaging. It is not the visceral, pounding moments of its fire, but the dull, wounding glow of its embers that will maim. And it may not maim a limb nor a face, but it will dig its blade deep into the minds of its survivors. The loss, the questions, the outrage, it all manifests in different ways. For Krauslung, it had manifested in the strangest of ways indeed.
As the group was led north and west by the Arkmages, the three visitors began to spot little huddles of people standing in street-corners. Some were simply little groups wearing strangely similar colours. Other wore home-made robes with little insignias on the breast. Some, ensconced in back-alleys and off-road squares, stood on flights of steps and waved their arms about wildly, preaching to little groups at a time. The visitors could see their lips moving animatedly, see their faces in the grip of angst and passion, but their distant words were lost in the clamour of the streets, to all but one of the visitors. The tall man frowned at the sound of them.
Tyrfing noticed the skinny woman staring at one of these little groups, a sorry-looking half-dozen wearing white tunics and holding cloth bags by their sides. Their whole party looked a little on the glum side. A few of them yawned, head bowed and eyes fixed on the ground, as if they were not worthy of using their necks. If one had looked a little closer, they might have spied bruises under their eyes, or little spatters and flecks of red on their white tunics.
Tyrfing leant close to the three strangers. ‘The Company of Repugnant Souls.’
The woman said nothing. She simply curled her lip with disdain. It was the tall man by her side that answered instead. ‘And what exactly are they?’
One of the council members butted in. ‘Absolutely crazy, if you ask me. But pay them no heed, sir. They’re obsessed with the gods. Goddess Evernia if I remember correctly. Don’t half scare you, when they start strutting about, whipping themse…’
‘Of course,’ interrupted Durnus. ‘What Council Harrigin means to say is that in the recent years, we’ve seen a number of sects spring up in the city.’
?’ asked the man with the youthful, clean-shaven face.
‘Nothing to worry about, young sir… I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name?’ Harrigin piped up again, but quickly fell silent as Tyrfing coughed loudly.
Durnus quickly continued. ‘Societies, movements, sects, cults, guilds, factions, call them as you may. Opinionated, I call them. They all seem to have some sort of idea, or belief, that they incessantly preach. Their existence is due to the newest fashion, or rather obsession, of trying to define oneself with belief, or creed. People are asking questions now, and everybody thinks they have the answer. We’re living in a time of deep thought and passionate soul-searching, a time that we should be welcoming, had it not spawned these strangely radical cults. Some of them seem to be passionately defensive of certain gods or practices, some of them are sadly the opposite, and some seem to be political in nature. A few we’ve had to watch very closely indeed.’
‘Why?’ asked the tall man.
‘Competition. One thing they do share in common is their desire to rally others to their cause. The other cults don’t take kindly to this. The streets have become a battle for believers. There is coin in it for some of them. Subscription. Collections. Membership, that sort of thing. Some have started taking matters into their own hands. We can’t have that,’ explained Tyrfing. The council members and traders behind them were beginning to look uncomfortable. This conversation didn’t bode well for first impressions.
The skinny woman spoke up. Her voice was airy, faint. ‘And when you say
Durnus could feel the tension of the others behind him. He quickly decided to alleviate it. The ruse had to be maintained, after all. ‘We can discuss this further over a lunch, if you’d like, madam?’ he asked. The woman nodded and the others surreptitiously blew little sighs of relief. They quickly moved on.
With the streets as busy as they were, and under a constant hail of questions and proud comments from the council members, it took them just under an hour to reach the monolithic doors of the Arkathedral. The three visitors seemed very impressed as they took a moment to stand at the base of the fortress and gaze up at its sheer, pale marble walls and the parapets that coiled around them, like the layers of an enormous cake. At its top, near where the great hall had once stood, the walls bristled with spindly wooden cranes. They swung lazily back and forth, docile from that distance, but no doubt hard at work.
As they passed under the thick archway of the main entrance and into the atrium beyond it, they marvelled at the thickness of the stone, now reinforced and rebuilt after the battle. The doors themselves seemed to be both stone and wood, bricks pinched between thick panels of stout oak. On the inside and outside, they were plated in ornately-engraved sheets of steel, as thick as a man’s thumb at their widest. They were a great feat of engineering, and once again the visitors seemed impressed. The council members, seeing their raised eyebrows and hearing the murmurs, nudged each other and winked. There was nothing like a bit of mind-boggling construction to show off the wealth of a nation.
The visitors were led across the marble-tiled atrium and after a brief apology from Durnus regarding the amount of stairs and the state of weary travellers, they pressed on towards the peak of the Arkathedral. It took them almost half an hour to walk to the top. Strangely, once they arrived, the visitors were not the slightest bit out of breath. Tyrfing took a moment to clear his throat again, receiving a grimace from Durnus, before he clapped his hands and bowed to their entourage. ‘If you will excuse us, Councils, gentlemen, ladies, I think it’s time that we served our guests some lunch.’ He turned to the three. ‘You must be hungry after your travels?’ The three nodded in unison.
One of the others held up a hand, a grey-haired crow of a woman. ‘I assumed we would be joining you?’
Durnus shook his head. ‘Let our visitors rest for now, Council Fessila. There will be plenty of time for that tonight, after this afternoon’s council meeting.’
‘As you wish, Arkmages,’ sighed Harrigin.
Ignoring the frowns and pursed lips they imagined were now firmly fixed on the faces of those they left behind, the Arkmages turned to lead their guests further down the corridor, towards their private rooms and towards peace and quiet. They were almost safe and sound when a jovial shout caught them mid-stride.
‘Your Mages! Guests!’
They turned to find a well-built man wrapped in fine attire jogging down the corridor towards them. His face was one giant, welcoming smile. He slowed to a walk and then bowed as low as his spine could possibly allow.
Malvus Barkhart was a snake. He had slithered into the magick council and made his home beneath its marble trees. Unfortunately, a great many of its members seemed content, and even pleased, with his presence. The man was charming to say the least. Sickeningly so. He had the ear of almost every member the council had to offer, which might not have been a problem had his vision aligned with the Arkmages’. But it didn’t. In fact, he opposed them on every single matter, however trivial. How he had been elected, they would never know. They had long suspected it was his deep, silken pockets, or his connections in the dark alleyways of the city and the velveteen offices of the traders, or his forked tongue perhaps, equally silken and yet as poisonous, and sharp as a dagger too. He had used them all to worm his way in.
Malvus folded his hands behind his back. His waxed hair, slicked back and plaited into a tail behind his neck, glistened in the sun that was sneaking through the windows of the long, curving hallway. There was a narrow goatee on his pointy chin. He was a tall, narrow man, almost as tall as Tyrfing, and dressed in the finest clothes Krauslung’s markets had to offer. His shirt was blue silk and buttoned to the collar. His trousers were of a light grey and baggy around the knees, an eastern trend. The short boots he wore were polished to obsidian mirrors. There was a small necklace hanging around his neck, a thin silver chain with a ruby pendant. The jewel glowed softly even in the daylight; a trick of whichever spell its maker had written in the silver beneath it. ‘Sirs, madam, allow me to say on behalf of the entire council that it is a pleasure to have you here in Krauslung. It has been too long since we have seen visitors from Hȃlorn. Far too long indeed.’
Once again, the three visitors chose not to bow, but instead nodded deeply. It didn’t faze Malvus in the slightest. ‘We are eager to discuss how our two countries can further benefit each other. Gods know the Arka need every alliance we can get these days.’
‘You speak as if we were at war, Council Barkhart,’ muttered Durnus.
‘Aren’t we, Arkmage? Our soldiers may fight with spears and spells, but our war will be won with politics and coin.’
The woman spoke up. Even inside, away from the breeze and the city noise, her voice was still distant, zephyrous. ‘And who might your enemies be, sir? I see none.’
Malvus bowed again, eyes fixed on the slender woman’s pale eyes. ‘The enemies of progress, madam. The same enemies that would see Krauslung’s expansion and well-being damaged beyond repair.’
Durnus sighed. ‘As always, Council Barkhart, you distract us with your outlandish opinions. Our guests are hungry and tired. You will have a chance to speak to them later, over dinner, if you wish.’
Malvus’ eyes narrowed. ‘I wholeheartedly look forward to it. I bid you a good day, sirs, and madam,’ he replied, and with that, he walked away, hands still folded firmly behind his back, polished boots squeaking on the marble.
Tyrfing and Durnus quickly led the others into their rooms and locked the door firmly behind them. ‘Finally,’ Tyrfing sighed, spreading his hands over the door. The door seemed to hiss and quiver for a moment. When he rapped his knuckle on its gilded wood, it sounded as though he were knocking on stone. ‘We’re safe from eager ears.’
The three visitors stood in a little triangle in the middle of the room. They were staring at a red velvet armchair in front of them, an armchair which held a blonde man dressed in steel armour, wrapped in a black and green cape, his head back, limbs limp, and snoring contentedly. Tyrfing shrugged off his heavy robe and hung it on a hook. He looked over at their guests and followed their confused gazes to the man in the armchair. With a sigh, he wandered over and flicked the ear of the man, eliciting a grunt and a surprised snort. The man came awake with a start and sat bolt upright in the chair. Rubbing his ear, he looked up and saw three strangers staring back at him. ‘Well, isn’t this embarrassing?’ he muttered. ‘I was on the night shift again.’
Tyrfing gestured to the three. ‘Modren, might I introduce our three guests. The goddess Verix, and the gods Heimdall and Loki. My lords and lady, this is Undermage Modren.’
Modren jumped from the chair and instantly dropped to his knees. ‘It is an honour,’ he whispered. Durnus and Tyrfing also dropped to their knees, now that they could show the proper amount of respect.
‘Please, rise,’ said Heimdall. ‘We have not come here for that.’ The god shrugged off his warm, woollen coat and let it fall to the thick green rug that covered most of the floor. He looked around at the swollen bookcases and drowned desks, the trunks stuffed with trinkets and artefacts and scrolls. He took it all in with slow movements of his tawny eyes, as he had in the streets, absorbing every minute detail like a hawk examining rabbits. A moment of weakness washed across his face, and he rubbed his eyes. The prayers had been strong enough to wrap his ethereal form in bone and skin, but his powers had been left behind. Summoning them was difficult. He sighed and went to one of the six chairs that sat in a circle in the middle of the room. He tested it with his hands, feeling its soft velvet and its plump cushions, before settling awkwardly into it, almost as though he had never sat in a chair before, or if he had, he couldn’t remember how to. Modren and Tyrfing watched with blank expressions, while Durnus felt his way to an oak cabinet.
‘Please, sit,’ he asked, feeling for the cabinet’s handles. Tyrfing didn’t move to assist him. He knew better than to offer help. The blind Arkmage’s hands soon found a trio of glasses. ‘Would you like a drink? Some wine? Food perhaps?’
Loki opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by Heimdall. ‘We will not require any, thank you,’ he answered. ‘Our bodies are merely shells.’
Tyrfing and Modren took their seats. ‘Well, you might have to pretend they aren’t. Gods might not eat, but trade delegates from Hȃlorn definitely do. We don’t want to arouse any suspicion.’
‘Very well,’ said Heimdall, smiling politely. While Verix found her own armchair beside Heimdall, Loki wandered to the windows that spanned the entire length of the far wall. He stared out at the city far below, hands still firmly in his coat pockets. Modren watched him intently. He didn’t look like a god. Like the mage, he was fair-haired. He had deep brown eyes, flecked with yellow, and his skin was pale and clean-shaven, youthful. Modren tried to assess his age, but found himself getting confused the more he watched him. He looked younger than Heimdall, that was for sure, but it was hard to tell. He was neither tall nor short, somewhere in the middle, neither muscular, nor skinny. He just
. The Undermage frowned. It was an odd sort of description, but it was the best he could summon. Maybe he was still sleepy.
Durnus soon joined them, bearing three glasses of amber-coloured wine. Modren and Tyrfing took theirs, and Durnus felt his way to his chair. Verix was staring at him intently. Somehow, Durnus knew it. He smiled in her direction. ‘What is it?’ he asked.
‘You look nothing like your brother, Ruin,’ she whispered.
‘Then I will take that as a compliment,’ replied Durnus, with a tight smile. ‘And please, call me Durnus, or Arkmage, if you prefer. Anything but Ruin.’
‘Though your blood reeks of daemon.’