Excerpt for Legend of Axiatés Episode 7 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




Legend of Axiatés

















J.B. Kleynhans





Legend of Axiatés

Episode 7

Copyright 2018 by J.B. Kleynhans

Smashwords Edition




Episode 7





Beluka looked back at the trail, winding down to where his capsule had come to a halt. He had no idea where he was - some nameless, semi-arid wilderness was all he could say - with dust roads lining the hills that stood shoulder to shoulder, the only distinction in the landscape a few thistles growing here and there. Many of the rocky outcroppings had crumbled, spilling all over the supposed roads that dressed them, nature taking exception to man’s half-hearted invasion. As such Beluka was very wary of a landslide, subtle cues of pebbles raining down the hillside telling him there would be more to come.

More than caution however, more than anything, Beluka carried with him anger. He had woken up, only to find he was alone at the little enclave, at the end of the line for the underground capsule system. At a panic at the time, he scoured the inside and his immediate surroundings, a hundred different scenarios coursing through his mind. Fedaro and Gloria could not get away from the Desolates… something went wrong with the capsules mid-ride… no, they arrived here but Fedaro led them away! No! The other capsules would still have been here! Did the Imperial army get to them somehow?

Beluka took pause as he finally came to the correct conclusion, finding some ire at his own naivety; Fedaro had of course very deliberately sent him to a different location as Gloria and himself. He was a liability to Fedaro's cause and Fedaro had been looking of a way to get rid of him - he should have seen this coming.

‘I am going to kill him!’ shouted Beluka at the hills. His voice dissipated into the wilderness, and he wished someone would shout back. He really had no idea where he was or what he could expect going forward. Nor did this point of the capsule system have something resembling a control centre as did the Desolates. This meant he had taken a one way trip. There was no using the capsule to try his luck at another destination, meaning he had little choice other than wander in vain hope of finding civilization sooner rather than later.

Two hours passed fruitlessly in this endeavour. Even with the power of the gauntlets Beluka grew exhausted hauling the anchor-axe with him, and he sincerely wished he was back in the capsule, lying down and taking a nap, hopefully come by some friendly locals by the time he woke up again. Only he could not stay there forever. He was already hungry and dehydrated, and he was pretty certain there was no civilization nearby, as he had not seen anything noteworthy besides the capsule system. Fedaro would not have sent him to a place where he could easily come by transport and communication with the Imperial army. You might end killing me Fedaro, thought Beluka as he wandered blindly, the landscape not offering him anything new to indicate if he was moving closer or further away from salvation.

Irritable and tired, Beluka came to a halt, scanning vainly with his hand canopied over his brow to block the sun, which had climbed to a bright late morning blaze There was nothing yet. His energy diminished, he decided to rest.

He sat down on a smallish rock that stood in the perforated shade of a buffalo thorn tree, a tough survivor of dry areas with more spikes than leaves on its scantily clad branches.

Beluka was a little disappointed with the shade offered, but quickly turned his focus elsewhere; specifically, the gauntlets, which he had been experimenting with since waking up, and now at a halt investigated with them with more attention. Having seen that bracelet of Fedaro, the one with the dial on it, Beluka was turning his hands over and over, prodding here and there in search of some kind of switch, dial, or even a tiny lever. He found nothing like that, yet found the fluctuations of the melosophrous crystals interesting, their alien blue hue brightening and dimming as though in tune with something he could not see. He made the conclusion that its gravity effect was greatest when the crystals glowed brightest. That was obvious enough. How to get them at their brightest was the question. Can just as well be a mood bracelet, thought Beluka dryly, although that was unlikely given that he been in nothing but a foul mood since he got here. He flexed his fingers in the heavy dark gauntlets, and yet even as he played with them, he could not help but feel the want to take them off. They too were heavy in a way, stuffy also, and certainly cumbersome despite the ease which he could use his fingers. Taking them off however was not an option, as he would have no way of carrying the anchor-axe across any significant distance if he did, and he was unwilling to go on ahead weaponless. Again his anger for Fedaro flared up, and he punched with his right hand into his left, catching his own fist. If I could get my hands on him now.

A few things happened then, and he blinked rapidly at his own hands while trying to figure out what exactly transpired, his anger forgotten. The vents on the gauntlet of his curled up fist were glowing more brightly than his other hand surrounding it. The really puzzling part however were the very small stones and pebbles at his feet, which had moved of their own accord the second Beluka had made his gesture, as though disturbed by an invisible hand.

The trader, Demosen, had said these gauntlets could exercise gravitational powers, proportionate to the mass of what they were affixed to. It stands to reason that his gestures and movements could influence a myriad of things around him. But first things first. Surprised at its simplicity, Beluka gave each hand a turn of clenching into a full fist, and sure enough, the crystals glowed brightest when his fingers pressed into his palm. Ironically, he could not have figured this out while carrying the axe, unable to fully make a clenched fist while holding the anchor-axe.

He tested the rock phenomena again, clenching both fists quickly, sending the tiny rocks scattering in many directions. He laughed in exhilaration; never had he expected such an advanced piece of technology in his hands, something beyond the scope of what the Imperials were capable of even. He would have to ensure a lot of practise to get a precise idea on predicting the effects on objects based on how he moved. He was already forming a crude idea of the matter however, testing it by clenching his fist and pulling his arm backwards in the same motion. The pebbles at his feet this time flew more or less in the direction his arm retreated. A concentration of gravity, or a gravity vacuum - depending on how you look at it - was created in the direction his body was relative to the object, and the effect intensified if his body was on the move, relative to the object. Beluka had little expertise in physics, but he was smart enough to know that his framework was not far from accurate and would help him predict the effects of the gauntlets. He still had to be careful though; the results of this kind of thing could be as hard to calculate as is the precise aftermath of a car crash. And as deadly too.

With the gauntlets worked out to an extent, he felt his spirits lift a little. Time to press on. Turning his back on the sun, Beluka took a road that dipped low between two hills, glad for the temporary shade before it rose again, cresting against the side of a particularly crumbly hillside. The upside was that he was he could survey the land now, much of what he could not see before now opened before him, which were more wilderness at first, but then Beluka spotted what he thought was a boomgate.

His eyes followed the road beyond it. In the distance, an old chemical plant stood, almost indistinct due the glare of the sun that blurred the subtle colours differences, and not helping with shimmers that played in the distance due to the heat.

The plant sat ominously in the folds of the landscape, an overshadowing bulge of mountainous rock at its back and many smaller hills obscuring the approach toward it. Beluka had nearly missed it.

I’m at the back of the plant! And surely on the other side, must be a main road that supplied the entire setup! No way trucks would come en mass with these dusty roads. With more vigour and pace Beluka marched at the booms, preparing what he was going to say to whoever he might find there. He doubted they got many visitors coming through from the capsules.

But the booms and the small security box were empty, so he passed without a second thought and head straight for the heavy gate at the back of the plant.

He grew a little nervous then, seeing the security towers on the top of the gate, and the many signs that explicitly prohibited civilian trespass. This could very well be a plant geared to military purposes. Dragging the anchor-axe along the ground, he held up his other hand in a submissive gesture, hoping that combined with his wearing an imperial uniform would spare him from being shot down by anyone surveying from the tower top. But he made it all the way to the gate without as much as an admonishment coming down at him.

Testing himself again the steel gates, it turned out they were locked and shut, and after calling out a few times it looked as though not a soul manned the place either. Despite the plume of smoke rising from the plant chimney, the place beyond the gate looked forlorn. Beluka didn't even have an idea what day it was. Maybe I caught them on bad day? A weekend? Somehow he doubted it. Something was off.

After he had spent the appropriate amount of time trying to force himself through the gate, he walked some distance along the fence. It was a twenty foot high mesh fence topped by circles of barbwire, with an extra facade of high-voltage electrified wires. Spacing himself at arm's length of the fence, Beluka spread his feet, placing the anchor axe behind his hip, and then swung, up and over, cutting vertically through the fence until the blow struck ground. He split the two fences effortlessly really, the tensioned electrical fence snapping immediately and flailing in so many loose wires. The harder part of this exercise was forcing the opening in the mesh fence big enough for him to slither through. He suspected that it would be a terrible time to be spotted by anyone manning the plant still, and regretted not opening up the fence further before trying get through it. Inside now he rushed for the cover of the buildings, becoming more convinced the place was wholly abandoned the closer he got.

It grew all the more dark as he wandered in, the catwalks and the many towering structures casting grim shadows, many of the lights broken or offline, one in particular spitting sparks, like something had very deliberately vandalized its fitting at a near thirty foot height. It convinced him to turn to the very first door he could see, a small outside office that could have belonged to a foreman or a low ranking technician. He twisted the handle, finding it locked, unsurprisingly. Cautious by nature, it took him a few seconds to decide to defile whatever sanctity a small side office in an abandoned plant might have. With a heavy blow from his shoulder he broke into the small office. The place was dank, the lights also out. Like everything else he guessed, it hadn't seen another human in quite some time.

It was an office with very little space, fitted with a desk, chair, monitor and a file cabinet to its left. The rest were personal trappings which included a photo of the man's family. Beluka raided the desk drawers, ignoring the ledgers on top of it. He zoned on whatever food he could find, which happened to be a box of very old cookies and washed it down with a accompanying bottle of water rolling around as he pulled out the drawer. It would keep him going a while more at least, even if it did leave a terrible aftertaste. Rummaging some more, he found a hand-held recorder, getting the impression that the man who had manned this office was very meticulous, or at least his job required him to be. Maybe an inspector of sorts? Regardless, he wound the device back, intending to find out if the man had left any clue as to why the plant was empty. He played the recording and got exactly what he was looking for, a panicky voice blaring from the speaker, his breathing heavy:


The Carcecurs are everywhere! I warned them this might happen. I knew of their hunger and that they might come. They've been indigenous to these hills for a long time. When we found the damaged pipes they should have already evacuated the place! I’m holed up in my office, but I cannot stay any longer. I’m going to try and make a run for it. To the north. Melinda... Jessie... If I don’t make it, please remember that I love you very much… I love you very much!’

Goosebumps ran the length of Beluka. This man was saying goodbye. He either made it out, or the Carcecurs got to him. What on earth is a Carcecur? Beluka would rather not find out. Security could not be too shabby in a place like this, and monstra, however menacing, were usually very shy of human settlements except for a few truly menacing breeds. The Carcecurs had possibly driven out the men from the plant. He searched for more tapes so that he could maybe he get his hands on something where the inspector had detailed his concerns more clearly, but there was no sign of them in the office. Instead he flipped open the ledgers on the table, seeing that they contained printed out sketches of the plant's elaborate piping infrastructure. It was indeed a chemical plant, Beluka was sure. The sketches seemed to detail an inordinate amount of places in the piping network that required maintenance and repair, with Highly Hazardous warning text blocks all over the place. I walked myself into a death trap. He left the office with a dry mouth.

With more urgency Beluka wandered about, trying to judge the quickest way to get past a giant obstacle course of so many structures, that did everything to speed up the movement of the product they manufactured between different sections, but restricted the same ease of passage for its employees, for safety reasons and more. Several sections of the place were walled off, with heavy iron doors barring the way. He thought he saw shadows on the edge of his vision the entire time, and every time he swung toward them, he trained his gaze on nothing. The emptiness of this place was prompting a response from his imagination.

I'm starting to see things, thought Beluka, contemplating whether the recording's warnings or dehydration was at work here. Even so, he couldn't get rid of the gnawing feeling that he was being followed. Zigzagging through the place, he became distracted at having another look into the plant's workings:

A storeroom's door stood ajar and he entered on a whim. Given the room's size, it was really more of a warehouse, stacked goods creating several aisles throughout, some of which had caved in, and boxed by machinery along the periphery of the room. He came across a heavy-duty goods crane, a sturdy belt still wrapped around a crate, and suspended from the hook at the end of its coil. This gave him an idea to a problem he had been wrestling with ever since he had first picked up the anchor-axe with the gauntlets back in the Desolates. He patiently undid the belt from the crate, a bit dismayed at its length as it came loose.

With too much of the belt bundled in his hands, he walked in the direction of some of the other heavy machinery. The necessary switches were easy to find; they were next to the very bold demarcations warning men of the limbs and fingers they could lose should they practice incaution while operating the machine, stick-figures undergoing bizarre injuries in a multitude of scenarios. This one in particular was an industrial class saw machine, Beluka not entirely sure what they used it for. He started it up, the contraption making an ungodly screeching as it got up to speed, and left Beluka a little unnerved. He did not think it would make so much noise. Regardless, he took the belt and ran it through the saw like someone running a piece of cloth through a sowing machine, having carefully guessed what kind of length he would need. He discarded the greater length of the surplus.

With some consideration on how best to do this, he folded the belt underneath the left shoulder and over his right, tying a knot on his chest, with a loop on the back for the anchor-axe. It was even clumsier than he thought it would be, but served its purpose all the same; he no longer needed to carry the weapon in his hands the whole time. Invigorated by a small victory, he was ready to leave again. At least I got something out of this. And then a guttural noise alerted him, coming from above, and he immediately regretted using the saw, wondering if it had brought about his doom.

Through the high windows, unclear due to grime and a lack of light he saw the shadow of a misshapen shape stuck there like a spider wanting to come in. Whatever it was, it had been lured by the ruckus. Beluka expected this was the Carcecur and his heart was beating in his throat. The creature where it sat against the window pulled back a clawed limb in a striking motion and Beluka turned and ran for the door. He heard it smashing through the window behind him, glass raining into the storeroom, as more than just the one monstra broke in. Beluka did not even turn to have a look at them; he just kept his head down and ran. Out of the storeroom and into any other avenue he could, as fast as his legs could carry him, and so aware that the Carcecurs were in pursuit. They made awful noises.

Beluka ran in such a haphazard fashion through the maze that in the back of his mind he was convinced of his demise by virtue of his failure to keep a cool head. With three pursuers or more on his heels, he made up his mind to shut the very next door that he would pass through, or else he would be overtaken. Instead, he found a dead end, and a gaping hole in the ground, squared and lined with a chute that quickly became a dark pit with no hint of where it went or what waited below. With a reckless bound Beluka was into the chute, leaving his enemies behind and exposing him to the unknown. Mercifully the fall wasn't long, although enough so for him to contemplate a dreadful end. Coming out he was cushioned by a hill of emptied drums and other discarded containers. It was far from pleasant, feeling several bruises flare up that would show splendid purple spots should he survive long enough to see tomorrow. He did however come through unscathed, although a little encumbered to continue his escape, as he swam through the debris and as much as he climbed, until he could force his way free completely.

Down in the underground it was quiet again, except for the low droning sound of machinery still actively reverberating. The men of the plant had scurried off without a thought of bringing the plant to a halt. Although, given how much time it takes to start up industrial sized machinery, they maybe decided to risk leaving everything as it were in case they could stage a swift return – a false hope as it turned out. Beluka knew then that the plant had been deserted for some time, coming across the remains of some of the workers who had not managed to escape, their still forms already rotten to a degree that Beluka had to cover both his nose and his mouth.

Whatever manner of creature had chased him just now, had evidently cornered the men in the more secluded areas, and made short work of them, many of the bodies showing grievous wounds.

In the belly of the plant for the moment, Beluka had his trouble finding a ladder that would bring him to the top again. Wandering, it forced him to inspect the plant's purpose, the constant drip of green liquids a feature throughout the place. The leakages down here made Beluka wary, as they were not due to wear and tear - pipes still pristine had hints of malicious damages, like someone had painstakingly punctured holes in them, with no hint of corrosion or pitting.

The liquids did not stink of any fuel; the spillages from leaking pipes reminded him much of some kind of acid, or maybe even sulphur. He doubted it was either one. He couldn't be sure, but he suddenly had a good idea about the purpose of this plant. His theory went something like this:

Robotics had taken a severe a blow with the coming of the Goddess in her 25th incarnation, an incarnation prior to the current, the suns she had given humanity wreaking havoc on any kind of electronics that could not be shielded.

When a large scale project to get first-generation robots into everyday life was launched, it became apparent the Imperials’ efforts would be stillborn. For effective humanoid bots, whether in the civilian or military domain, it was simply impractical to build a heavily shielded unit, while still having all the manoeuvrability and fine-motor movements that was central to the concept's usefulness.

Two years ago, the worst kept secret of the Imperial military was its push for autonomous warriors in a different mould. Using a very expensive chemical compound, they created gelatinous limbs, torso's and muscles like that of humans, but much stronger, faster and extremely tough while still being dynamic. Beluka was convinced that this plant was a recently set up military institution purposed to manufacturing the chemicals needed, then shipped to a laboratory in Doma Arak that refined it to the gelatinous muscle.

Apparently the muscles worked by chemical impulses that flexed and relaxed the fibre like a biological being, instead of electronic wiring. The only CPU would be in the head and it was heavily protected at great expense just like the helmets of the human Imperial soldiers were. Other than that, it had no wiring that would be exposed to solar flares. The interactions of the muscles, CPU and its release of chemicals were quite complex it was told and Beluka promised himself to ask someone more knowledgeable on its workings once he reached Doma Arak again. The whole operation however had gone very quiet lately, and seeing this plant in this state gave Beluka a reason why. It seemed the emergence of autonomous soldiers in general had an uphill battle, and that Beluka's job as a soldier, a job he didn't want, was very safe. Moving on Beluka was a little surprised at how big the underground chamber turned out to be, seeking out an elusive set of stairs that could take him up again. On the ground level of the building, he still searched for some time through the windowless halls for an exit.

Eventually he found a loading bay with clearly marked yellow lines indicating on how to navigate in and out of the plant for the benefit of for forklifts and the like. Eagerly Beluka followed the lines. The marked floor finally led Beluka to the outside again, the approach to the core lined with huge vats on either side, doubtless containing whatever chemical they processed here. Some of them were leaking, like the pipes he had seen earlier and it drew his attention to some very still looking shadows clinging to the vats, some of them as much as thirty feet in the sky. Beluka walked slower and slower as he looked up, aware now that the shadows were looking back at him, predator-like eyes lighting up at the sight of an intruder. Where they clung they turned their heads away from their feasting on the chemicals, one by one, until many such eyes glinted at Beluka.

He was in trouble.

The Carcecurs came raining down in defence of their precious fluid, jumping from the vats and encroaching the lone human. Tall and limber, they hardly made a sound as they landed.

They were lanky and emaciated, with hunched shoulders and very long arms from which hands went directly into eight-inch claws, with very little evidence of phalanges. The claws bristled ominously. Their skin was grey and seemed to be peeling all over, like they had scales of some sort. At least for a moment, some luminance was ebbing from underneath their skin, as too the eyes, which Beluka took was a side-effect of the liquid they consumed. They had strands of dark hair hanging loosely from their heads and all in all looked exceedingly unhealthy, and yet dangerous all the same. Gaunt faces were lipless and up close Beluka could see razor sharp fangs that along with the slightly elongated jaw explained how they managed to chew through the vats and the pipes.

Two things stood out to Beluka: their claws and teeth were sharp enough to pierce the vats, and that their intestines could stand the clearly putrid and acid like substance. They were not to be underestimated.

Seeing their aggression, Beluka wondered then how pointless it would be to try and reassure them that he was not after their precious liquid. If Fedaro were here, he would say that there was no way these things would believe him, probably making a joke about his size in the process. So Beluka took the axe from his back slowly, knowing he would have to fight his way out.

The Carcecurs were fast – leaping into conflict and bringing their claws down in deadly fast swipes. Backing off, Beluka swung the anchor-axe defensively, more to create some defensive space between him than scoring any real hit. They moved out of the arc of the blade with ease. Conversely Beluka was an easy target other than the small amount of time he was buying by waving the axe around.

Still wearing his imperials plates on his uniform, it did very little to halt the flashing claws. One set of claws pierced through the chest part and ripped into a pectoral muscle, Beluka almost dropping the axe in reponse. With a flailing arm he managed to bat the creature away for the moment, before it could do any really damage.

Beluka however was on the verge of panic, realizing that the harassment of the Carcecurs would see him overwhelmed soon enough. Deciding on greater aggression, he targeted one that had allowed itself to be isolated, and Beluka charged forward hoping he had cornered the thing. He brought the axe down overhead, but like a fly about to be swatted, it disappeared perceptively in an effortless bound. The axe came down on the roadside barricade, crushing through a portion of it in a cloud of dust and head-sized chucks. It was hopeless…

Pivoting, to turned back to face the mob of Carcecurs behind him, lest they stab him in the back. They encroached like they knew Beluka was done for. His posture dipping, Beluka felt little hope of beating them. Even when airborne, the Carsecurs seemed to move like silvery fish, able to evade an attack in the blink of an eye. He needed Fedaro, badly. The mercenary would do something smart or bold, probably without breaking a sweat. Something bold.

Beluka strode forward for one more attempt, the Carcecurs taking the challenge, and the first three leaping high up. This time, Beluka clenched his left fist and pulled backward, the gauntlet blazing blue, creating a pull on the airborne creatures, just enough to disrupt their way of escape, coming down bunched up in Beluka's path as though on inevitable collision course. He met them with a tremendous sidelong blow of the anchor axe, tearing through them, and their parts scattered so fiercely it was impossible to say which limb belong to which creature. Beluka swung himself full circle in the process and trying to turn the ungraceful follow-through into something useful, again freed one hand, clenched it, and pulled it through the air in a circular motion and bringing it forward toward the rest of the Carcecurs. In response, the rocks of the barricade he had shattered surged up and forward like projectiles and clattered into the mob. It did not do a lot of damage, but even the Carcecurs who had kept their feet had lost their composure, and Beluka was already past them, ripping through two more with the axe, all the while a great vat in his sights.

With a swing he brought through all the way from yesterday, he pierced the vat with the anchor axe, the bulging tank erupting under the loss of structural integrity, creating a maw in its side, and the amount of liquid that spilled from it much more in volume than Beluka had thought would possible. He barely got out in time, his boots caught up for a moment. A tide of liquid swept by him and hit the Carcecurs like a train, the wave quickly dissipating to a low ebb that stained a great part of the bay. The Carcecurs, scattered, had barely regained their feet when Beluka was upon them, on the front foot, and he kept swinging the axe, now catching them in its wake and dispatching them in giant strokes, battered and confused that their precious liquid was wasted so. They rallied somewhat in anger, but Beluka had found his stride, keeping his balance as he attacked, enduring their claws, and now humiliating the Carcecurs and leaving them in lifeless heaps. They faltered, and the remainder turned coward and fled. Beluka was grateful for that, the weight of the axe taking much of his strength, heaving as he sought to catch his breath... He couldn't wait to see the back of this place.

Despite his fatigue he forced himself along in a jog, leaving the vats behind, and after two sets of gates he saw the front entrance of the plant.

The sight of tar and a main road brought a rush of relieve Beluka had never experienced before. Even in their prior adversities he at the very least had companions to watch his back, not so much now. Desperately he tried to wave down one of the vehicles passing, waiting for one who would actually pull over for the giant Imperial soldier.

***

By the desert road their carriage had finally come across Merlor, a town hidden somewhere in the heart of the Tulan, walled by mirages approaching from the north and sitting against a river in the south. Axiatés and her company would visit but briefly, restock, and then shoot east toward the capital. Reaching the boundary they walked out in the open, which was not a bad change after spending endless miles in the carriage. The downside of course was the sun, here a different being altogether, harsher than in any other part of the world. ‘This is truly the land of the Goddess, as the sun comes even from the ground!’ waxed Dulcan.

Delegan mused on that statement a while. It was very apt; the sands of Tulan did not absorb the sun as did other landscapes, rather it mirrored its heat and light right back up. It was by Delegan’s estimation only a very hardy, or a very stubborn people, that could survive here. Having his first glance at the people indigenous to these parts, they indeed reminded Delegan of the Mesauwee lad who steered the carriage, Ibris, who also struck the librarian as a sinewy, but tough customer.

Ibris himself was not with them at the moment, steering the carriage around the outskirts of town and destined meet them on the other side once they were ready to leave. Having Madura Monstra, even when pulling the carriage of a Goddess, would not be seemly even in this part of the world, leastwise not in a civilized area where children ran in the streets. Down the main road of Merlor, the merchants lined the streets like some kind of bazaar, informal booths set up next to each other like a continuous wall of brightly clothed canopies, offering a little bit of shade to anyone who could afford to spend some money. Axiatés it seemed was drawn to the clamour of a shop just like any woman, but where she chose to stop was more than a little bit of a surprise:

Picking her first morsel, Delegan watched on morbidly as the Goddess consumed the scorpion.

‘You should really try one of these, librarian. They are something quite different...’ she said, ‘and excellent,’ she added through bites, as though she was judging the taste in an increasingly favourable light.

‘I would... only have sip of water Your Excellency,’ said Delegan, his forehead already dripping with sweat from the heat of day, further enhanced by his revulsion of the basket of scorpions offered by a merchant as persistent as they came.

‘You have lost weight,’ said the Goddess.

Delegan nodded. ‘I used to eat quite richly. When we started off however I had always assumed that that would come to an end.’

Axiatés held out an untouched scorpion out for him, again gesturing that he should try it. ‘They are well-spiced,’ she said, as though that was going change anything.

With a green face he shook his head once more. ‘No thanks Your Excellency.’ Again he could not look away as the raven haired beauty, petite and finely dressed, pulled apart the carapace of the once deadly creature, now cooked, and savoured the meat so. She is a strange being, thought Delegan for the hundredth time. Her many sides would make her a perpetual mystery, a blend of wrath and something that resembled kindness, and also a cold intellect that supposedly knew everything, except when she inexplicably didn’t, and she appeared as innocent as the normal girl most other people might mistake her for . That of course that only enflamed Delegan's allure to her. If he was much younger, he might've been infatuated, but in his golden years his interest boiled down to the very nature of a Goddess walking the earth. It was a paradox so complex he could not could grasp it all. At the very least it gave him a reason to follow her other than her apparent interest in him. He was still not exactly sure why she wanted him to come along to begin with.

Before leaving the stall Axiatés suggested to Dulcan that he should get some scorpions for Ibris once they rendezvoused with him. Dulcan agreed, tipping a basket into one of his foil-lined bags, and then paid for everyone’s behalf. The Goddess moved on, and walking out in front of them, she looked like she knew exactly where she was going, although Delegan seriously doubted that the Goddess had visited this place before - at least not in her current incarnation.

Today she wore dessert clothes, in both colour and design, long flowing ones, voluminous enough to protect her skin from the sun, but light enough that she was not bothered by the heat of these lands. She also wore her hair tied up, to keep it out of her neck. Dulcan had provided a war chest of supplies from the back of the carriage earlier in the day. Transport was not the only benefit he provided Delegan found, and he was proving to be very resourceful. Begrudgingly Delegan had to admit that Dulcan at least added some humour to their group as well, as Captain Libras was probably the quietest person Delegan had ever encountered. Although he was certain that would’ve been much different if the Captain had not gone on this mission with most of his compatriots turning traitor against the Goddess. He seemed to carry their sins heavily, even though the Goddess was very much comfortable with his presence, whereas she had met the rest of the Mortar soldiers with a merciless display of power.

‘Gods I can use a beer!’ said Dulcan, who had finished the carriage stock within the first few days of travel. Delegan was sure the people here made their own brew of some nature or another, but he would be very surprised if they found someone selling anything resembling the cans Dulcan had thrown back.

After wiping his forehead so many times with his sleeve, Dulcan stepped in and removed a square cloth from the pack he was carrying.

‘Tie this to your head old one. The sun will wither and dry you up like a forgotten fruit,’ said Dulcan, and he showed Delegan how best to the fit the cloth.

It did make big difference, the little cocoon of the cloth taking away the worst of the sun. The Forgotten fruit Dulcan referred to was actually a term used loosely in Tulan for dried out fruit as it turned out, of which the merchants of the area peddled widely. These were much more agreeable to Delegan, and they purchased some from a shop in the street, not far away from the man selling scorpions.

Delegan had to admit that the place was awfully primitive, even by the Empire’s standards, which was considered to be technologically backwards by the Imperials of Doma Arak. Relieved as a stray cloud passed over the sun, Delegan made study of the village, no longer having to shield the glare from his eyes.

Both the hovels and stone houses were very modest, which made up the greater part of Merlor. The merchants he guessed were better off than most, while the majority of people here were labourers it seemed. Delegan did spot a more affluent area, walled of and well guarded from any criminal element that might spawn in the destitute areas. Prime among these buildings were an ancient temple building, worshipping old Scions or the Goddess herself, Delegan was not sure.

A little while later, getting a better view of the south bank of the town, Delegan saw that these areas of Merlor were quite green, oasis-like in the otherwise uniform landscape of Tulan. There was a river here, and suddenly it made sense; there wouldn't be much reason for the town without it. Delegan immediately recognized it for what it was, a vein of life so to speak, and having studied geography quite widely in his understanding of so many dialects, he was pretty certain that this currently unassuming and slow moving river had a hidden quality for the moment. This was the fabled Jeruca River. In the summer months the water would rise quite dramatically, surging past the reeds that stood quite tall for now, and challenging the slopes close to town, and covering a great mass of land that was currently the site of so many swaying grains - hundreds of thousands of them. In the winter, when the water retreated again, the river would have left the banks revitalised with minerals and a deep- seated moist. Though this was desert, it was a perfect place to raise a crop.

Passing closer to the river, which restricted entrance for anyone other than those working the fields, many buildings cropped up just beyond the edge of the flood area. They had no windows, and were almost egg-shaped.

‘Are men supposed to live in such strange buildings?’ asked Libras, a rare question from him.

‘Those are grain silos, not houses. Merlor is the breadbasket of Tulan,’ explained Dulcan.

Delegan was sure most of the populace here operated in servitude to the owners of the land. It seemed however they had come across the town when Merlor's mood was at a particularly low point, or maybe, the people here had always been destitute. It was hard to be certain.

Dulcan noticed this as well, and was eventually ranting about it. ‘So much wasted potential. At the least the clans can never be accused of ever limiting a man to such an existence, labouring forevermore to enrich someone else. I have never liked this place, if for no other reason than had the clans not discovered me, I might have ended up with the same fate.’ Right then Dulcan shook his head, as though disproving of his partial revealing of his past.

‘I am glad you came along anyway,’ said Axiatés.

Dulcan grunted. He had against his own reservations decided to stick around a while longer - Delegan could not blame him - there was no doubt an enthralling quality about the Goddess, seeing that Delegan himself had not ran for the hills.

All the while Delegan hoped Dulcan would ask what exactly they were doing here. He was a little reluctant to do so himself, but forced himself to air the question realizing Dulcan wasn’t going to.

‘Is there something important in Tulan?’ he came to ask aloud, to one in particular.

‘The librarian is right. What are we doing here other than exposing ourselves to the sun?’ said Dulcan more directly, biting on to Delegan’s query.

‘We need the blessings of the people,’ said Axiatés.

‘Blessings?’

Surely librarian you must know that the Complex of Ner Ad Qudei is only opened to those who have the blessings of all the traditional stakeholders; unanimously at that. ’

‘We’re going to Ad Qudei?’

‘Ner ad Qudei,’ Axiatés corrected.

Delegan wasn't going to counter and say that Ner was but a honorific pre-fix to an ancient language that was largely disused.

Delegan had of course heard about the place, and he was quite excited hearing that they would visit the complex; an even more enthralling landmark than the capital of Tulan itself, especially for a librarian as Delegan. He had always wanted to go there, but what they do there he had no idea. What he did know was that it was a detour to their saving the world from going dark, and by all accounts the complex of Ad Qudei had no human denizens, but a cornucopia of monstra to go along with its intrigue. No amount of intrigue had ever spurred Delegan to a place such at that.

‘Is this stop at the temple critical to your mission?’ asked Delegan.

‘Yes,’ she said curtly. He left it at that, but he wasn't convinced that gathering everyone's permission to enter the temple was the best way to manage their time.

Realizing he wasn't going to stop the Goddess from going there, he turned his focus on these "blessings."

‘I expect the monarch Soroien will welcome us once we reach Meddica. Isn't his permission alone enough to get us through? I mean, isn't this blessing thing just a tradition as it is? The world is at stake, we can't really be expected go about this business in a roundabout way...’

‘Even the monarch won't be able to grant us the access to what I desire Delegan. We must go this route, it is the only way,’ the Goddess undercut him.

Delegan nodded, conceding to her wisdom and staying silent after that.

Their day became a little peculiar then. The Goddess, even though lightly dressed was not going to suffer the heat in any debilitating way. Wisps of water had caught up to them, and flowed around her, dutifully orbiting the Goddess, flying serenely like veils, moving and adjusting as the Goddess moved. Their cooling spray was noticeable even drifting a couple of feet away from the her.

‘Your Excellency, the people are starting to take notice of your... magic.’

‘Bah Librarian, they haven't seen a beauty like the Goddess since a statue of her in one of her previous incarnations stood here, and you think they would not notice her anyway!’

‘Should I lessen the heat of the sun then, Delegan?’ asked Axiatés, ignoring Dulcan's compliment.

The thought struck Delegan in an interesting way.

‘If I were to do that...’ she started.

‘The entire world - its climate to say the least - would change. A process as old as the earth would be disrupted, and when such a thing happens, the planet as history shows can become inhospitable because of a simple interruption,’ answered Delegan.

‘That's right librarian. You will come to understand my position better than most.’

‘The consequence of great acts of power... we rarely understand the full extent with which they resonate throughout the world. Your powers would be a disaster in hands of man, wielded at every whim. Even if it were all done with a good heart, the road to hell might very well be paved by good intentions.’

‘You should write a book about it,’ quipped the Goddess.

‘A fine idea. It might provide a valuable insight into why every prayer is not answered, and yet also assuage fears of an ultimate end to the world, by the grace of a Goddess understanding her own width of power. ’

‘What should be apparent however and not to be forgotten is that I live by my purpose. My goodwill is limited, and mankind's wont is to draw my wrath and ire. I refrain from unnecessary strife, but I will strike as I see fit when man's pride comes to contest me.’

‘I have seen that Your Excellency, and I above all others respect it without expecting explanation,’ said Delegan in a quiet voice.

‘Now that's the Goddess I like to hear about! The Goddess that demands fear and worship!’

‘You do not appear to fear me all that much Dulcan.’

‘Of course I do. I simply find it futile to show it.’

In meanwhile Delegan wasn't wrong about the wisps; they were drawing a lot of attention and it was the heart of a child that first was brave enough to come to the Goddess because of it. Libras tried to bar the child’s way, but Axiatés waved at him to let him know it’s alright. Afraid of the Mortar soldier's uniform (especially the mantis-like helm) the child beckoned the Goddess down to her level. The Goddess crouched and the child all but whispered into her ear.

After a brief exchange, Axiatés allowed the child to take her by the hand and lead her into the poorest quarter of all of Merlor.

‘What's this all about?’ asked Dulcan.

‘Apparently the people here have no water. They think I can fix that,’ said the Goddess over her shoulder.

Led by the girl, they entered the heart of the poor quarter, Dulcan and Libras drumming more protectively around the Goddess.

They quickly came to the source of the problem, the girl pointing to an old well standing clear from the huts more or less in the centre of an open and hard patch of ground . Given that there was no surrounding greenery it was dug either in great optimism or foolishness, as it had dried up a long time ago. The people here had no access to clear water, the immediate river banks off limits. Barring the goodwill of the local authorities they would have to go to extreme lengths to carry water from unrestricted areas. Delegan guessed it didn't rain here much either.

An expectant crowd of dirt poor labourers had gathered, having assembled on the news of a Goddess passing by. The way they looked at Axiatés, they were clearly undecided on whether she presented salvation or disaster. Striding forward, they cowered away from a her approach, expanding in a circle so that only the Goddess and the well stood in the centre of a ring of onlookers.

‘Who among you is the elder?’ asked the Goddess.

Her question was met with silence, the crowd not even looking amongst each other in fear of betraying one of their own.

From the back, a potbellied, but otherwise malnourished looking old man, came forward, his body shape the result of binge eating when there was something to eat. He had dark eyes and a fantastic beard and raised his hand to the Goddess in acknowledgement.

‘I trust you will give what is yours to give?’

The man nodded without hesitation.

Satisfied Axiatés sent one of her wisps down the well. Soon the earth rumbled and blasting from the circular tunnel of the well was the sound of cracking rock, followed by the sound of liquid rushing up toward the surface. Before they knew it the water swelled right over the low circular wall, running down its sides and turning the dust floor muddy. The people rushed in, the Goddess backing off before the people trampled her. She did not seem to mind the people's fervour, shouting for family members to bring pails and buckets instead of showing any kind of thanks or reverence toward the Goddess.

Approaching carefully through the crowd, the old man introduced himself as Peroma, he alone not taken by jubilation of the others. He led them to his home. ‘I never thought I'd get to give this away, not by my own volition anyway. Had anyone known I'd carry it, some power hungry lord would have taken it from me long ago by force. Bah! I had already prepared my grandson to take its responsibilities once I die. I'm glad he would not have to sit with it for a lifetime like I did.’

At the back of his house he had a small vineyard, literally only stretching the eight feet of a wall he shared with his neighbour. He reached into the screen of leaves, an out of place piece greenery in this village. His hand went in quite deep, which Delegan took meant there was some kind of secret cavity in the wall itself. He pulled out a gnarled object, and as soon as he did, the plants on the wall all died right before their eyes, withering to a depressing brown colour. Whatever the old man held had some power. Handing it to the Goddess, it fit in her palm, like many overlaid thorns, thick, and somewhat like a caltrop in shape.

‘Please accept our people's blessing for you journey to the complex of Ner Ad Qudei. And...forgive the people their lack of gratitude, they will only come to realize how much you have given them after you've gone.’

‘I don't blame them. I know the water is but slight reprieve to the problems they face.’

‘That is very true. Go well Your Excellency.’

Axiatés gave the object to Libras for safe-keeping

‘So this thing is a key?’ he asked.

‘Of sorts,’ said Axiatés. ‘It is supposed to show that the people approve of my presence when we reach Ner Ad Qudei and that I have their blessing, recognized as the true Goddess.’

Libras walked on quietly for a moment, looking at the thing contemplatively, and then putting it away in a small pouch. He spoke up, this time more than just a few solitary words:

‘Your Excellency. I have been puzzling over the betrayal of the Sepulchra for a while now. The five colleges unreservedly gave their blessing for your lending to the Imperial mission of putting a sun in the sky. The taskforce chosen for your benefit would have been put together by the council that had extensive oversight over the kind of men chosen. They either made a grave mistake or knowingly chose men who could not be trusted. I was chosen to lead purely by accident, and I was the only one who did not know of the plot to assassinate Your Excellency.’

‘Maybe it was not so much accident. I needed someone loyal to protect me. Besides, you were chosen to the ire of my enemies because of your credentials. I know captain; you have never flinched in the line of duty, and someone else, who wants me to succeed, chose you as the Captain because they know this of you as well.’

‘But who then opposes your mission in our beloved Sepulchra?’ asked Libras with pain in his voice.

‘The very leaders of Sepulchra, captain. The colleges operate through the will of the people, who, faced with an extinguishing sun, would of course vote for me to entreat with the Imperials. But the great leaders of nations are all the same, paranoid, and often fuelled by the many foul whispers of the conspirators they surround themselves with. They would rather take me out than risk me aligning myself with the Imperials. That is what they fear, and that is why they chose a hit squad to be my supposed guard. You were the only one I could trust.’

‘But that is not what this is about at all. Can they not see? Your Excellency belongs to the world at large, not just one nation under the sun!’

‘Do you think they would see that way? That I belong to not them alone?’

The Captain shook his head in dismay.

For Delegan something about this conversation stood out; some the leaders of Sepulchra, whoever they were, believed that normal soldiers could actually kill the Goddess. Add to that, they believed in some manner or another, that the world would not come to an end if they did. Delegan wondered how deluded these men were. Or did they know something? No they are ignorant I’m sure.

‘And now we have no back-up, no contact with Sepulchra after the betrayal,’ said Libras

‘That is partly my doing; I don’t even want to them know how far we’ve come or what we are doing. But yes, they would not have sent additional men for my protection anyway.’

‘How come Your Excellency? We must have sympathizers - or even just reasonable men within Sepulchra?’

‘Of course, but who will come in defence of escorting the Goddess, above and beyond the men already assigned, when all the other leaders have made it clear they do not want me near Imperial hands?’

‘What does that mean?’

‘It means no one wants to take direct responsibility of endorsing a Goddess.’

‘So we are on our own?’

We are on our own,’ echoed the Goddess.

The thought too struck Delegan quite hard, quietly listening and absorbing the information. Who would have thought that a being as powerful and as crucial for the survival for the earth, would find herself friendless even when her mission was clearly to the benefit of mankind.

‘Why do think I'm here Captain? In this day and age even a Goddess's friends are few and far between,’ Dulcan chimed in.

‘But you have ulterior motives,’ stated Libras, now speaking quite boldly after all this time

I do. I wish to see the Goddess in all her splendour. How many men can say they have walked beside Her Excellency herself? I want to see the full scope of it. My clan loves power, and I want to be the one closest when she raises another sun to the sky. Imagine it!

Delegan and Libras exchanged glances. Both of them knew there was something more to it than that. The idea alone of witnessing a great sun lifting to the sky was both fascinating and unsettling; a feat so great even the most devout would have doubts to whether anyone walking the mortal world could accomplish it.

They left the poor quarter the same way they came in, passing many people coming back from the well smilingly, this time Libras and Dulcan having trouble keeping them away from the Goddess as they sought to give thanks, some falling to their knees in respect.

‘Keep moving!’ urged Dulcan, ‘I liked it better when they were ungrateful and dying from thirst!’ he added as he forcefully flung a man aside who had seemed ready to embrace the Goddess.

After it became apparent Dulcan wasn't going to suffer anyone drawing close to Axiatés, the labourers seemed to stay clear for the most part.

It happened so however that a much more fearsome company awaited them in central Merlor again.

Some very dangerous looking men started pouring into the market place, not hiding the fact that they all carried scimitars at their waists. Archaic weapons, but Delegan did not have to be convinced that they could be wielded in a deadly and brutal way, especially considering that as the men closed on them, they were outnumbered five to one.

‘Do you think they want to thank us too?’ asked Dulcan.

‘I doubt it,’ said Delegan.

‘News spreads fast,’ said Axiatés, lifting an eyebrow at the show of force.

‘Maybe they want a favour of their own?’ said Dulcan.

‘Or they don’t appreciate our deeds today,’ said Axiatés, as a burly but unarmed man among the guardsman stepped forward.

‘Your Excellency, I am emissary to the temple and also of Don Kalab-u, owner of the lands. Come with us if you please?’

Axiatés nodded at the emissary without hesitation, but the look of her was cold.

‘As if they were going to give us a choice,’ mumbled Dulcan.

They were escorted to the temple building they had passed by earlier, and going inside, the contrast of this very fine interior to the poor quarter they had visited was quite astounding. It was almost as though the sandstone temple had once been the feature of a grand city gone to dust, with only the temple surviving and a small town of mud brick houses cropping up beside it.

Inside a host of slave labourers stood aside fearfully as their entourage was led through long corridors to the antechamber, an expansive room used for ritualistic purposes, with a high-vaulted ceiling into which prayer murmurs echoed. A very ceremonial looking man in colourful cloths waited for them at the centre of the room, dwarfed by four statues of men exaggerated beyond life-size. The lit braziers at the bottom of the room did not quite illuminate the upper portions of the statues, so it was only when Delegan stared up at the dark ceilings that he could make out the heads of the statues. They were of animals, and not human – monstra to the librarian’s eyes.


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