Monday, December 06, 2021

Abyss & Sea 20


When Disan arrived home, Baia was out, so he used the time officially to transfer his status from Residence aboard the flagship to Residence again at Neyat Sor. He had hardly finished when Baia returned and he greeted her gladly.

"My queen," he said, and kissed her.

"My king," she said in response. "How was the Great Council?"

Disan sighed. "Troubling. We will have to discuss it later. How have things been here?"

"Well enough," said Baia. "There are still places that have not fully recovered from the earthquake, and I have been out and about to see them. And Asaia is still moody and I do not know why."

They had a supper together as Disan told of all that had happened while he was at the Porphyry Mountain. Baia listened somberly, and when he finished, she said, "It has reached the point that I feel that I no longer understand anything that is happening. We seem to be planning for a war with no identifiable enemy. King murders king. Strange powers from the Court of Night move events from the Porphyry Mountain. And who can understand what the Powers are doing?"

"Yes," said Disan, "but I think it is worse than that, because it is like coming to recognize that you never understood anything at all, that all that you thought was true is as false as counterfeit coin."

After a few days at Neyat Sor, there was report of significant delay at one of the major shipyards in mainland Sorea, so Disan went to inspect the situation personally. The problem was an ordinary logistical error, so it was not difficult to solve, but it was time-consuming and tedious, and it was all the more tiring by a late cold spell with a strong breeze. Because of this, on his way back to Neyat Sor, Disan and his guard stopped at an inn for an afternoon meal before continuing onward. The innkeeper seemed a jolly old fellow, and the inn common room was quite busy, with a bustle of conversation and laughter, with singing and even some dancing. Disan sat in a chair by the fire while his men ate nearby. It was a comfortable chair and he felt a little drowsy. Then he snapped completely awake, not at first knowing why.

The first thing he then noticed was that the fire was not leaping. It had not died down. It was not moving at all. The second thing he noticed, some dim some sense of which was probably what had actually brought him to attention in the first place, was that the entire room had gone silent. All his men were gone and the common room was completely empty, except for the innkeeper, who sat in a chair opposite him. But he was no innkeeper.

"Do you know who we are, O Disan, son of Rezan, son of Belan, King of Sorea?" asked the innkeeper who was not an innkeeper. 

"There are stories that one of the Powers, who is never given a name, shows forth in the appearance of an Old Man who meets travelers along the road. And I think we have met before in a cavern across the sea."

"Yes," said the Old Man. He rose and put his hand under Disan's chin and peered into his face with eyes that seemed to pierce through everything. Disan, who as king was not used to people touching him without permission, found it extremely uncomfortable.

Suddenly the Old Man dropped his hand and returned to his chair. "You have brushed the abyss, but you are not yet corrupted. Yet you dally. We gave you word by the Seven Sisters that you were to build a fleet."

"We have been building a fleet," said Disan.

"You were told to build a fleet but not for the abomination. We are also not blind. You have been temporizing, biding your time, hoping to stay in some middle path between the two demands that have been placed on you. And yourself have now met the abomination, and yet still you seek an irenic path. We tell you again, O King of Sorea. Judgment comes. Destruction is at the door. It cannot be avoided. Act accordingly."

Disan stared a moment into the unchanging fire. Then he said, "Is it really so impossible to avoid it? Surely you have other ways?"

"There are none."

"Do you not owe us anything at all? You called upon us in the War of Night and we came to your aid, and delivered to you the Court of Night."

The Old Man's grave face seemed to take on a faint cast of amusement. "Did you indeed? Were you the Golden Dragon who fought the Black Dragon for nine days and nine nights? Were you the unicorns who bore the brunt of the sorceries of the Court, immortals dying by the hundreds to save mortals, each one more precious and wise in lore than an entire human civilization? Were you the leocorns whose lion-like roars burst through the enchantments of the doors? Did you lay out the strategies and battle plans thousands of years before? Did you summon the great nations of the world to the right time and the right place? You could not even follow the instructions you were given. We do not deny that you contributed, as you were obligated to do by the Orikhalh Tablets, and for all that it was your duty, we have stayed our hand because of it in matters in which we were within our rights to be severe. But do you dare look at us in our face and proclaim that you do not deserve to be judged now, though you had aided us in a thousand wars before?"

Disan said nothing, and the two simply sat there for a brief moment in silence. Then the Old Man spoke again.

"We are not here to justify ourselves to you, for we are the Powers that govern the world and you have no authority to demand a justification from us. We are here to give you a message again, the gravest yet. But it seems to us that you will need more than just the message to motivate you, and we are not averse to giving it. Hear then the true story of what you call the War of Night, for the Court of Night was in no way the enemy that the Powers fought by means of it.

"In years past that are beyond all tally, the world was very different from the way it is now. In those days we raised up to assist us the most ancient races: dragon and unicorn, khalkythra and phoenix, griffin and leocorn, and many others for which you have no name. To you we gave the Gift of Fire, but they received Gifts without number. But in this time, creatures of the abyss entered in among us. They have no shape and no form. They cannot be seen or heard unless they wish to be so, and then they have merely the appearance that they wish to have. They are in this world only as a great emptiness and an all-devouring void. The greatest of these became known in the most ancient tongues as the Keeper of the Door, for it was through him that all the others came into the world. We called the most ancient races to war, and they were beaten back, although at great price. Many were lost, either corrupted or destroyed, no trace of their histories and their sciences and their arts remaining at all, except as reflected in the memories of those of the most ancient races that yet survive. Therefore we took thought for the day when the powers of the abyss would return, and we raised up the Court of Night and the Court of Day, and gave them Gifts of Dream and of Darkness, of Air and of Light, of Water and of Metal and of Wood. Co-equal and glorious they were in the beginning, mighty and splendid like a vision at the edge of your mind. There was no difference between dream and waking for them; what they dreamed, they made, and what they made had the powers of dream. Throughout the world they expanded, both great, both beautiful, and both filled with wonder. And then the Keeper returned.

"No less devastating was this war than the previous. But in the end the two Courts in alliance defeated him, they themselves, by their own wisdom and power. Their armies cornered the creatures of the abyss, dying by the thousands, and seven virgin priestesses, three from the Court of Night and four from the Court of Day, consecrated a stone with water and oil and light, sealing the Keeper behind it so that he could not enter the world. It was a terrible end; the creatures of the abyss tore them from within, and their blood poured out of their hearts. But they had foreseen this; they had begun the rite knowing that they would not survive it. With blood they made their final consecration and died, and the Keeper was locked out of the world. It was a great deed, but we warned them that their seal could not be flawless, and that the Keeper was not truly gone. Therefore both Courts vowed to guard the sevenfold seal. Both were devastated by the war, but as the Court of Night was the one that was least in ruins, the sevenfold seal came to them. And guard it they did.

"Over time both Courts grew proud, and they began to quarrel. And in those days, and not coincidentally, the Keeper found how to whisper through the flaws of the sevenfold seal, and he whispered in the ears and in the dreams of the Court of Night. Long were the years the refused to listen, but soon he whispered to them means by which they might have the advantage over the Court of Day, and in their pride they deemed that they could make just discrimination in the midst of temptation, and fell into the snare. Great were their victories over the Court of Day, and their corruption spread, and it was at its deepest when they seemed strongest. But the Court of Day was not weak, even in its disadvantage, and the two Courts ground each other into fragments.

"It was in those days that we came to the first of your kind, cold and wet and huddling in the mud and the caves, and we gave to you the Gift of Fire, which set all of your abilities to an inspired blaze. We selected some of you and gave you lesser gifts, this very land, the law of the Orikhalh Tablets, the pacts and the covenants, that you might grow great and wise. You are kin to fire, and fire has this quality, that kept in its hearth it is infinite boon, but when it breaks free it destroys all things, and the Orikhalh Tablets and the conditions of the pacts and the covenants we gave to you to be a hearth. In the meantime, the fragment of the Court of Night that continued the guard on the sevenfold seal grew more and more terrible, and it became clear that they were but puppets of another power. Therefore we summoned again the most ancient races that remained, with the remnants of the Court of Day and your grandfathers, and many others who would hear us. Thus the Court of Night, once glorious and beautiful beyond all dreaming, fell to judgment.

"But in that very hour, you too began to fall. We told your grandfathers to take nothing from the Court of Night without our permission, but they saw the wonders there and their hearts burned with covetousness. Foolishly thinking we did not see, they looted the Court, smuggling out what struck their fancy, including the sevenfold seal. Some of them laid their hands upon that holy stone, and through it the Keeper spoke to them, promising them all the dreams of their heart.

"Still we held our peace. There is one rule that governs all nations in this world, that those who rise will one day fall, and your weakness showed that you had already begun to decline behind the splendor of your appearance. Already you were beginning to overspill your hearth. Soon you would spread across the world in an uncontrolled blaze until you burned yourself out. The Orikhalh Tablets and the conditions of the pacts and the covenants were increasingly violated. We would have foiled your greatest ambitions, to preserve other good things in the world, and because of your oathbreaking and unfaithfulness, but other than that we might nonetheless have let you undergo your natural decline, but for one thing. Playing with powers you did not understand, acting with a hubris beyond even that of the Court of Night, you betrayed your allegiances and your vows before Illimitable Heaven, thinking to defy the Powers that govern the world, and you began to break the sevenfold seal. You said before that you delivered to us the Court of Night. No, but you joined forces with our enemy, and the enemy of everything else in this world.

"The sevenfold seal was finally sealed by seven voluntary sacrifices of blood in rites of consecration; it can be unsealed by seven voluntary sacrifices of blood in rites of desecration. Four of the seven sacrifices are already undone by the sacrifice of victims who were enticed by paying their families in gold and orikhalh or in other services. The rites of desecration required are difficult for your kind, and you are not a people much inclined to die, but you are getting more skilled at your wickedness, and  the rites will be finished at some point this year. The sevenfold seal will be broken entirely and the Keeper and his brothers will walk the earth again.

"In the meantime, we have not been idle, but we have played a game of care and precision. We have chosen the time for the seal to be broken, when a final set of traps have been set that will end the threat of the Keeper and his brethren. It is a time well into the future, and we do not give you permission to change it. Nothing in the world will stop us from preventing the seal from being broken before its time, and we will certainly not allow the Keeper to come forth with a faithless race of Fire as his puppets, turning our own gifts against us. Even now he uses you as shields, thinking that this provides him protection. It does not. The people of this realm will be destroyed, O King. But we would like, if we can, to save something of you. To that end, we have moved with great caution. The Keeper already has more influence than you know; already the substance of things is slowly being eaten away. We have had to restrict our actions carefully lest he discover too quickly what we intend. In the Porphyry Mountain we no longer directly act at all, and elsewhere only with the subtlest of touches. We spoke to you first in foreign lands, where his influence does not yet extend. Our second message we gave to the Seven Sisters long ago. We have reminded you of your duty in dreams. But now you have met the Keeper and he begins to suspect the nature of our actions, although he does not yet know the whole of it. So take the fact that we speak to you face to face on your own soil be a sign to you that all things soon will come to an end. This is our last message to you personally: Act the king, O king; summon your people and flee. The longer you delay, the less likely it is that any of you will survive."

The Old Man rose, but Disan spread his hands. "What can I possibly say to them? They will not understand. They will think I am mad."

The Old Man looked down at him with something like pity. "And if they do, what of it? Your people have brought judgment on themselves by the arrogance playing with what they do not understand. They cannot be saved except by taking the path of salvation, even if they do not understand it. Your task is to summon your people and flee, even if you do it alone. Wait too long and you will save no one at all."

The whole room became pitch black, and there was a considerable sound of stumbling and scuffling and swearing in the dark. Then one of Disan's guards happened upon the door and opened it. Light flooded in. Blinking against the sudden light, Disan and his men looked around, dazed, finding themselves not in an inn at all but in an old country barn.

When Disan returned to Neyat Sor, his first words to Baia were, "We have run out of time."