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Authors: Steven Savile

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BOOK: The Defiler
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"A promise from me and in return you will take us to the Skinless Man?" Sláine said. Her words stung in a way he had not expected. She was right. He thought back to Niamh, to Bedelia and Brianna, even Brighid the Daughter of Danu. He had treated them all like possessions, like dirt, taking from them what he wanted, not caring about the cost of his selfishness. There was no beauty in the taking. No kindness in the owning. It was, if anything, a parallel to the souring of the land at Feg's hand. He used things of beauty, took from them what
he
needed, and discarded them when they were used up. In his case it wasn't land, or the surge of the Earth Serpent, it was the company of women. In his way he was as much of a defiler as the enemy he sought to pull down. The realisation was both humbling and horrifying. He did not want to believe her accusations, but even as he tried to deny them he remembered more and more moments of so-called worship that were little more than drunken rutting and loud-mouthed buffoonery.

He made a silent vow - he was young, there was time yet - he would change his ways.

"I see you understand, warrior," the Crone smiled, curiosity on her crow-face. "I will open the way for you," she waved her hand; the movement formed a curious pattern in the air, the gestures coming together to dispel the lost souls. Their spirit forms lost all consistency, drifting away like smoke to reveal a white marble altar and arch on the plain in front of them.

Sláine licked his parched lips. He had not seen the archway, though now it towered over them all and it was obvious that there was no way the wraiths of the half-dead could have hidden it. It was an amazing construction, standing a full four times their height and three paces deep. The keystone was decorated with elaborate carvings of the creatures representing the wild hunt. The icons were bound together by serpentine knotwork and spirals that simultaneously drew the eye and somehow repelled its focus. It was an impossible arch. The sight of it churned Sláine's stomach.

"Your eye perceives the doorway in the manner your mind most readily understands," the Crone said. "That is the nature of the arch of time. While it requires no physicality, we do. We make of it what we need to see, and no two people see the same thing."

"Neat trick," Ukko said, coming up behind them. He rummaged around in his pockets and pulled out a lump of cornbread - covered in lint - out and began munching on it. "All this travelling works up an appetite. I'm ravenous. Then again, it's probably
months
since I last had anything to eat."

"Through the arch lies Purgadair," the Morrigan said, ignoring Ukko. "A city on the edge of Nàimhdiel, a harsh and utterly barren desert. The Skinless Man you seek resides there, but beware child of Danu, this is a cruel place, this city."

"I am not afraid," Sláine said, squaring his jaw stubbornly.

"Of course you aren't, axe of the Goddess. You know all the evils of mankind, do you not? You have walked the halls of the hells, battled free of the underworld, traded blows with demons and lived to tell the tale. Oh, wait, you have done no such thing... perhaps you
should
consider fear. It might serve to keep you alive after you enter the arch. Purgadair is not a city for weakness - and make no mistake, humanity is weakness. If you betray yourselves the beings of the mad city will tear your soul apart. And don't believe you can simply open your eyes and return from here as though from a bad dream. Any harm done to your spirit here will be matched on your bodies back on the fields beyond Dardun. A cut here will bleed there. An eye lost here leaves a blind man there. Die here and you die in the Tir-Nan-Og."

"And this is where the Skinless Man is to be found?"

The Morrigan stretched her neck, clacking the hard edges of her beak together excitedly. "It is, it is. I can open the way if I have your promise, warrior. Such a little thing, a promise. So, do I have it?" The crow-woman asked again, her talons clicking on the compacted glass-sand.

How could he deny her? He had felt the truth - or an aspect of it - in her declamation. He was not the man his Goddess deserved. But would walking this path make him that man? It was impossible to know, and if, as the Crone intimated, the permutations of future possibilities were limitless, then in some futures he had walked the road, in others he had turned his back. The question was, in which future did he triumph? He thought he knew - because for all of her half-truths, what did the Morrigan stand to gain if the world she loved were destroyed, the land reduced to soured dirt?

Nothing.

Perhaps it was his destiny.

But did that mean he could trust her?

"What choice do I have, Crone? You do," Sláine said, "you have my promise even if it damns me."

The bird-woman gestured sharply with her feathered arms and something within the very stones of the arch stirred. A low hum resonated from beneath their feet - more a vibration than a sound as it grew in substance until Sláine's bones resonated in sympathy and he felt the solid harmonies coursing through his entire body. As his skin began to crawl the air cracked sharply, a single harsh snap, and an ethereal blue light beamed from one side of the arch to the other, and spread, joining the columns in bonds of blue fire.

Every nerve and fibre within him sang to the harmonic of the mystical gate.

Sláine stepped towards it, feeling the static thrill stir every hair on his body.

"One final caution," the crow woman said, her hand on his shoulder staying him. "All that you see in this place, or rather all that you think you see, is due more to desire than truth. Be careful what you wish for, warrior. Rein in your guilt and your libido unless you want to experience a very different kind of hell. Once through the arch you have but a single purpose. Do not allow yourself to deviate from it. The only way you can return is with the aid of the Skinless Man. Remember that. Now go with your Goddess."

Ukko poked a tentative finger into the blue light and leapt back as though shocked. He stared at the tip of his finger, raised an eyebrow and stepped through the arch of time, pausing beneath the keystone to look up. The scoundrel said something but his words were whipped away by the sudden swell of wind that rose up around Sláine and the Morrigan, churning sand up into his face.

"It is time," the old Crone said - and in the sky around them Sláine saw the first of her harbinger birds fly through the squall, coming out of the darkness. The divinity threw her arms wide in greeting and the birds came to settle on her. The carrion eaters sank their beaks into her flesh, tugging at the oleaginous black feathers until they wrenched them free. The murder of birds took flight with thousands of feathers crammed into their beaks only to scatter them from above.

The feathers caught on the wind and blew every which way, temporarily obscuring the blue heart of the huge arch.

Sláine pushed through the falling feathers until he stood less than a yard from the keystone. The sheet of blue fire was both mesmeric and fearsome. It shimmered with a life all of its own.

Denuded, the Morrigan crumbled, her body collapsing in on itself until a pile of feathers was all that remained of her. One by one the falling feathers began to rise again, each growing as it metamorphosed into one of the Crone's damned birds and was gone, away on the wind.

Sláine stepped into the blue fire.

 

He walked out into tomorrow.

The desert heat hit him like an anvil. Shading his eyes, Sláine looked up at the sky. A red heat-haze shimmered across the horizon, rising up towards the cloudless red-tinged alien sky. And he was in no doubt that it was alien. Two suns hung low on either extreme of the horizon, making it impossible to tell if it was dawn or dusk, or if the concept of night even existed here: one sun rising always as the other set. The twin suns were merciless, both in terms of brightness and baking heat.

Ukko sat cross-legged on a patch of parched bunchgrass, worrying away at a kernel of corn that had lodged in his teeth. He hawked and spat, backhanding his lips dry.

"You took your sweet old time getting here," the dwarf said without looking up. "I've been sat on this damned hillock for five days. I'd just about given up on you and gone in search of grub."

"Five days, without food? You expect me to believe that?" Sláine said, staring down the shallow decline of the hill he had stepped out onto at what was undoubtedly a city - but it was a city quite unlike any he had ever seen before.

"My stomach has stopped grumbling now it's decided my throat has been cut. It isn't funny."

Minarets and bone-fine towers shimmered mirage-like before him. They appeared to rise in tiers, concentric rings of monstrosity building upon each other one ghastly layer at a time: and at the very heart of Purgadair, one tower dwarfed all the other peaks of the city, climbing miles into the heavens. Sláine could barely see the golden crown at its peak, reflecting the suns so brilliantly it could almost have been a third beacon in the sky. It was a staggering piece of architecture - a white finger accusing the gods. Beneath it, it was easy to imagine the earth challenging the dominion of the lords of the air themselves. Sláine could not begin to comprehend its sheer size or the marvel of construction it was. In the glare of both suns there was not a single shadow that fell upon the elaborate carvings worked into its stone. Sláine could make out none of the details but the overall impression was one of a mind gone mad, so intense were they. Sláine struggled to see more, to make out details over general impressions, but all he saw were huge faces, ten and twenty times his height, demonic and devilish gargoyles and tormented men, reaching out, beseeching.

Rooftops slanted in a crooked patchwork of clays, some hard-baked red, others whitewashed.

Compared with the wattle huts of Murias, even the king's roundhouse, the city of Purgadair was a monstrosity of stone that devoured both land and sky. The inhabitants of this mad city must surely live on top of each other, crammed into tiny spaces instead of relishing the freedom of the land.

What was it the Morrigan had said? There is no earth power here... looking at the sprawl of humanity it was easy to see why. In Tir-Nan-Og the land was weakening as the magic was leeched out of it by the Drunes and their huge Weird Stones spread across the land to act as conduits for the great souring. There were no Weird Stones here, only stone, an overwhelming mass of stone. There was nowhere for the land to breathe. The stone of Purgadair had choked the life out of the land. No wonder it stood on the edge of a great barren desert, how could it not? How could the land hope to stand against the parasites crawling across its skin? And when it succumbed, what then?

"This is the future," Sláine said, struck by a sudden premonition. "Huge heartless monstrosities of stone, people crowded in like pigs, rife with disease from the slop of humanity."

"You paint a pretty picture, my friend."

It was as though a goose had walked across his grave - despite the blistering heat a shiver ran down the rungs of his spine. The revelation was not a pleasant one but that did not make it any less true. But what could he do? He was one man. No, he corrected himself, he was Sláine Mac Roth, son of the Sessair, beloved of Danu.

"I understand your pain," Sláine whispered, not to Ukko, nor even the Morrigan, but to the Goddess who could not possibly hear him: Danu, the Earth Mother. Slough Feg's taint was just the beginning of one long future that would destroy her. How could she live with such knowledge? "I will be the champion you need."

"Why thank you, Sláine. I never knew you cared. I've got to admit I'm touched," Ukko grinned and jumped up to his feet, dusting his hands off. "So how about we go fill our bellies, oh great champion of mine?"

"You'll be touched in a minute," Sláine muttered, cuffing Ukko around the back of the head. "Oh, look, I can foretell the future. In fact if I concentrate hard enough I can see a world of hurt waiting for you, runt. Who would have thought being a seer would be so easy?"

"All right, all right, no need to be like that," Ukko grumbled, rubbing at his head. "It's not as though I asked you to be my champion, you volunteered. Let's go find some food,
please
."

"I am not sure I would eat anything from this place. Take a look at it; what do you see? It is dead. There is no spirit here. How can anything offer sustenance when the ground is barren?"

"Well, if it hadn't taken you a month of Sundays to get here, maybe I would be more picky, but as it stands I am willing to risk it."

 

They entered the city on the edge of the desert.

The heat of the sand burned through the leather of Sláine's boots, scorching his feet. Ukko didn't look much happier with his plight, hopping from one foot to another animatedly as he scurried forwards. Sláine walked slowly, awed by the might of Purgadair. They were not alone on the path. A traveller walked a little way in front of them. He appeared lost in thought. His grubby grey robes marked him as some kind of druid, if this realm still paid heed to the land. As Sláine neared, he heard peculiar half-whispered words tripping off the traveller's lips, oblivious to the world around him.

He wiped sweat from his brow and as he did, his hood slipped and Sláine saw him for what he was: an abomination of the flesh, a fusion of animals, raven, rat, badger, and hound somehow mutated into a man. Worse, he looked at them as though they were the mutants.

The three of them approached the twin columns of the towering city gate that symbolically denoted the entrance into Purgadair. The gates were guarded by lean, tanned warriors in light leather armour. They wore short brutish stabbing swords at their sides, leather kilts and flat sandals. Their faces, like the traveller's, were a repulsive fusion of so many creatures it was almost impossible for Sláine to be sure exactly which poor animals had found themselves melded into these horrific creatures.

"Good morning, warden," one of the gathered guards said as the traveller neared the gates. He offered a slight bow. The traveller, seemingly lost in his prayer, didn't notice the guards until he collided bodily with one of them.

BOOK: The Defiler
3.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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