Lore of the underlings e.., p.1
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       Lore of the Underlings: Episode 3 ~ Fyryx, p.1

          
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Lore of the Underlings: Episode 3 ~ Fyryx
Lore of the Underlings: Episode 3 ~ Fyryx

  Tales of tongues unknown

  Translated by John Klobucher

  (he wrote it too, but don’t tell anyone and spoil the fun)

  Second revision

  Copyright 2012-2013 John Klobucher

  ~ ~ ~

  ~ ~ ~

  Cover art by John Klobucher

  Faint praise for Lore of the Underlings

  “It’s an affront to the language!

  The ‘author’ should be brought up on charges

  (which I’m filing as we speak).”

  ~ Marcus Harshley, Professor of Letters (A through M),

  University College of the Arts and Crafts,

  B.A., B.S., Ph.D., U.S.B., F.Y.I., B.B.C., I.M.F., M.S.G., F.D.I.C., H.T.T.P., Esq.

  “Worth the price — nothing.”

  ~ J. Throckmorton Moneybags III

  “Huh?”

  ~ Everyone else

  Table of Contents

  Episode 3 ~ Fyryx

  About the Author

  Episode 3 ~ Fyryx

  Fyryx slowly shed his wet coat and hat then laid them carefully at the foot of the thick mat of bristlebush on the floor before him. Though soft sleep seemed to beckon, he showed no sign of napping abed this night. Instead the restless man straightened and turned about, brushing aside a flap stitched of old sector flags to emerge from the battle tent’s aft chamber and into its dim, high-domed meeting hall.

  With measured steps he reached a pike-mounted torchure wheel of molded malaphant bone at center of the circular room and took from one of its seven spokes a short handtorch, soot upon the handle but flame aglow of gold. Its soft light seemed to soothe his reddened eyes. It smelled of sweet fat and comfort.

  He let the glow lead him to a slumbering lamp that hung by the tent’s yawning fore door, a dark way of passage made stable this night. Fyryx lit it by slipping the torch through a collar just below and the warm flame flared and licked at the air. Then he crossed the threshold, the line where light cast shadow aside, and without a sound slid gingerly in. His red hair and beard, turned briefly ablaze by the aura of burning oil, faded into embers.

  As his eyes grew full to the half-light, Fyryx found the vell’s still but beautiful form curled like a babe in a cradle of straw. The three boys, his treasured nephews, sons of his brother Ayryx, had labored hard and done just as he had asked of them. Never before had they been more like men. But, the mission met, he sent them home to night the moon’s last hours in their own beds. Boys or men, they would stand stronger by the Keep well slept.

  They had not gone willingly.

  Fyryx knelt on the edge of the fragrant straw but the hilt of the strangers’ sword pressed into his ribs beneath the web-woven umbershirt he always wore. He unlet the lash of spring vine that bound it to his blood-snake belt and set it down on the floor. Then he placed his right hand gently on the vell’s smooth, tan coat, not far from the heart, and closed his eyes.

  Cold. So cold. Beyond the cold of death. It ran up his arm, standing each hair on end.

  He sought the signs of life. The heart beat still though only an echo. The chest yet rose yet further it fell. Breath, yes, but shallow, grave. The chill wisp of a passing ghost.

  Then he could hold the touch no more. He took back his hand but barely felt fingers. He shook them alive, slumping back on his heels. His eyes opened wide and wet.

  “Heavens help me,” he whispered aloud. The vell quivered but it could not hear him.

  Fyryx looked on Arrowborne’s hind left leg, all curled up, too hideous to wash, and gnashed his ground-down teeth. “I shall slay every oddcat that prowls this sacred land, I vow by my blood, I swear.” The wound grew still with an ooze of its own… a sinister stew of sinew, skin, and bone abubble in colors unknown…

  The chamber’s air went heavy and damp, beading into summer sweat on what warm flesh it found. Fyryx wiped his brow and noticed the feeling returned to his fingertips. Now he turned onto his hands and knees and crawled like a child through the golden straw to rest close to the face of the angel-made beast. And there at last he sat.

  “Do you remember the day, Arrowboy? The day we came to make this Keep, so, so long ago?”

  The vell kept quiet and stiff as stone, its lidless eyes icy, disturbingly blank.

  “We knew it was coming. For months of moons we knew, all since the Guard of the ull returned with word of a far new home, the promised land at last and hope. The Treasured talked of nothing else.

  “We watched our parents ready and plan, and helped our families pack. The trip would be long and hard they said. And it was. But our lives had been hard already, ever lost in this savage Wilderness, so it was that many survived.

  “Those left made a grand caravan nonetheless, winding our way from the northern wastes, climbing slowly the slopes of the Hail of Shales to the shadeless sweep of the high, flat plain. Scores of tired traveler’s carts. Teams of the strongest chevox, yoked or free, but all bearing our burdens. A small herd of boven bulls and cows. And the teeming folk, thick afoot.

  “I remember Ayrie and me, riding in a creaky cart that tilted to one side. We lay in a bed of bush hay to cushion the bumps. You trotted alongside, with a smile that only a vell can smile. The warm morning sun washed our faces. So pure and bright. I’d never felt the likes of it. Even the dust in our mouths tasted good. If I close my eyes I can taste it still and see that sweet new light, shining on the boys we were…

  “It was on the faces of others too. The peace of a people being reborn, free to tell folklore anew. And who could deny us childish dreams? We were not prophets or ages-old sages, but nomads who’d never planted a seed. Who could foretaste the fruit of this day?

  “No… I was all of seven, my brother just turned ten that spring. You, Arrowboy, you were already ancient yet acted a pup. So we played. As our columns crossed the empty plain to a distant dot, a speck in the hazy far where prey birds flew to flock, we played without a care. A game of names or ‘mock the folk’. Racing carts. A gumpod ball you chased and caught. We played as the white sun of noon sailed the sky’s wide blue, a prow of hot to plow the cool… A duel of spit. A wrestling match that always followed it (which Ayrie won each time). A round of your favorite hop-a-vell to entertain the Guard.

  “Midday passed yet we ate as we rode, unwrapping cold flyrat from leaves of swamp palm, breaking off chunks of dark brickbread, downing gulps of knownot juice. Between bites, Ayrie leaned over the side of the cart and pulled up clumps of tough, musky scrubgrass, all but falling out each time. He fed them to me then I to you from the palm of my outstretched hand.

  “With the end of lunch we were sleepy and bored, so Ayrie and I both napped. Not you of course. And you had a joke — to poke our backs and bellies with the cold of your nose just as our eyes closed, every time we nodded off. But that only worked a while…

  “When we woke the crossing was well past half and the distant dot had blossomed into a deep and misty wood, a forest that rose on the horizon with a halo of prey birds high overhead. Still long away, hours thought Ayrie. With all else exhausted, but one game remained. It was Ayrie’s idea. Though we’d have to be quiet…”

  Fyryx leaned forward, his lips near to Arrowborne’s ear. “Keep it secret…” he whispered. Then back he sat again, noting not a flinch on the vell’s frozen face.

  “So we came to counting the folk. No one knew the number then. No one ever asked. They dared not find it different from the Semperor’s Rule of Threes, set when he chose the first Treasured ones, fathers and fathers before Ayrie and me. But you were there boy, you knew them all. And when the young Semperess herself, the beautiful Amyly, gave them the gift of a farewell song, you heard each note from her fabled lips. I know but the naked words:

  Three thousand, three hundred, thirty-three

  Heroes every one

  Cast to dwell in this hellish place

  To keep the blood of their people safe

  Left alone to wander lost

  In wastes no foe would know or brave

  Hidden for some fearsome day

  Foreseen…

  Three thousand, three hundred, thirty-three

  Jewels in the Semperor’s vault of souls

  Treasured in our hearts to hold

  Forever

  “It is said she sang as an angel… from childhood raised a Voyce of the Court, but enchanted in time the Semperor so… he fell in desperate love… and banished his first to take her as bride… What does an angel sound like, boy?…”

  Fyryx snapped back with a start, having nearly slipped into dreamy sleep. “Oh, I’m sorry Ary… Arrowboy… I must have… So, the counting…

  “First, the Guard. That was easy. For thirty-three there were and thirty-three there would always be. Fiercest fighters of all the known. Bravest of brave, true to the bone. One for each sector of Syland. Twenty-two bore the bounty of our oceanlands’ twin tides, sibling shores of brothers in arms never breached, whence rivers rose as blood aflow from the rim of the rugged east, running red by the stormy Syar Sea and westward down to drown in the thirsty Sea of Mer’n, deep blue but bedeviled — these gave us the outer Guard, proud soldiers of the ‘syr’. Eleven more were nobler still, warriors all of the inner ‘ull’, the sectors of secret, landlocked and walled, which held the Semperors’ city strong and ringed this wild heart, our home. Where you were born, Arrowboy.

  “Next were the elders, we knew we’d need to tally those. They tended to die… though age and ill-health were the least of their woes. It seems that’s why the Semperor, so wise and well served by the eyes of spies, ruled their number so high as three hundred.

  “Remember old Cornox, the boven man? Just a day before our departure, as Ayrie and I picked up pricklets in a thornblind down by the tar pool’s edge, we heard him come with another for a sit unseen on the round rocks. The other whispered a bit, but fell silent with a slap. Then the boven man began. In a voice that rattled of death he wheezed a musty tale, but nothing like we knew, all of the elders’ origin, of how they came to be. We couldn’t believe our ears and listened hard with all we had. This story was thick with politics. A lesson in the leader’s art, some of it dark.”

  Fyryx coughed up something in his throat to make it go raspy and rough. “It went like this…”

  So you believe the rhymes of children, do you? Songs of the elders’ election? O, how they were handpicked, selected from the wisest and most steadfast of all the land! Each by the touch of the Semperor himself, Poxum LVIII, the Foreknowing, Marshal of the Guarding Armies, Pilot Admiral of the Two-Seas Fleet, Keeper of the City at Syar-ull. Ooo, yes indeed. Then celebration! Their affirmation, solemn and warm, in the great cathydra’s Heroes Hall at Thynes, and the adoration of thousands strong, a throng awaiting them that night, beyond the storied rosewood doors…

  Now surely that’s what some saw. But another side of the stone there was, the side in the soil with crawling things. Do you catch my meaning? It wasn’t just the good and pretty that the Semperor picked. No, he was too clever not to toss some gutworms and bloodgrubs into the mix and be rid of them easy and quick.

  So for every two of merit anointed he chose as third a foe, a voice of dissent appointed for the Wilderness to swallow up silent. From popular prayerman Xole of Mer’n-syr who preached of the Semperors’ power grown too strong, to the ancient Sons of the Shadow Guard forever claiming a bloodline fraud from crimes in Sempyre times gone by, to an angler named Wyll Kyll and crew who, in the royal port of Pyth-syr, made a stink of keeping their fishy catch for just themselves to sell — five score such were called to appear at the Semperor’s court without delay for the honor of joining the Treasured there by the eve of Mourner’s Day.

  A few dared decline as unwell or deceased, but most of those soon were “encouraged” to come, suddenly looking less sick and less dead. Only an alliance of eight remained, five men and three women (one surprisingly young) from the southern-most shores, as a thwart to the Semperor’s will. They fled to the foothills of snow-capped Mount Taan and there held fort with a small force of men, simple sectormen, with loyalty deep as a bag of gold, if you know what I mean. They watched and waited for the Guard to come but day upon day all was quiet. And then one morn from the mountain itself a lone messenger, encloaked in cloud, descended. The Semperor would meet them for talks, he announced, seven days hence at Floramore, in the Taan-syr Gardens by the sea. Suspicious though some were to accept, even they could not cast away such an unheard of concession as this.

  The Eight arrived on a glorious day and were greeted with gifts and spiced sweets. A line of young maidens beckoned them on, onto a path of petals pink, and sprayed them with fragrant perfume as they passed. So here they left their protectors behind. They came to a field of wild plume in bloom and a table set beyond their dreams. Platters replete with succulent meats, rare delicacies and decadent treats, dish after tempting dish, each more sumptuous than the next, and mugglets of pure silver pom wine to drink. At the head, the white-bearded Semperor himself, who stood with welcoming warmth and wide arms. “My children, precious people, how good you would come. Please…” He motioned for them to be seated.

  But before they could sit there appeared in their midst a sight that beguiled the eye of each. A creature bejeweled of colors bright, a flying flower in flittering flight. And then another. And suddenly more. “Enchanting, aren’t they,” said the Semperor. “But, be careful friends, don’t let one choose you. For it shall follow you forever, whispering worries of death in your ear till you’re mad, mad enough to hasten the end by your own hand. Oh, and did I mention that they are particularly drawn to the delightful scent of lillylorn that you wear? Of course, if you’d rather join my fine Guard under cover of yonder carriage…” The Semperor waved his steady hand toward a gleaming, gilded wagon — a team of combed and ribboned chevox yoked before it.

  All of the alliance but one fled for their lives from the beautiful beasts. The lone holdout, a powerful merchant named Doolox Slyne, was defiant. “No, dear Lord of Lies, Poxum the Pretender! I shall not trade the treasure of my lifetime for your feast of fools and garden games.”

  The ruler’s response came cool and calm. “A pity. But it matters no more, dear Doolox. You have a new friend now.” The man, middle-aged yet cocksure and quick, jumped back — but too late. A flying flower the red of blood and boney white lit to rest in peace upon his shoulder. “Farewell Doolox. May your soul be not forsaken with your foolish flesh.”

  The Semperor turned away, admiring a pleasing array of angel horns, mersies, and forgive-me-nots as he ambled contentedly to his waiting carriage. But a boyish footman suddenly shuddered in horror, going pale as a ghost. “Sire… at your ear… you have been chosen!”

  The great leader gave a fleeting glance then laughed with warm bemusement at the pixie of purple and gold that fluttered playfully by his crown. “Long ago, my son. Long ago.”

  Doolox was given a fresh chevox and clear passage. After three days’ journey, he reached the soaring Cliffs of Syar and home a free man, then leapt to his death in the sea.

  After a few moments’ rest, Fyryx cleared his throat and found his own voice once more. “It’s a wonder, old boy — of the seven who lived that day to join the Treasured as the last of the first, one lives still. We know her now as elderwoman Pum. Even at her olderly age, one of the only to stand for our homeland today. Yes, the Semperor chose well in choosing her… to endure the tests of time, to best the most treacherous, to survive the Wilderness so long…” He reached out to stroke the tip of Arrowborne’s sweetly tapered nose with the back of his hand. “Just as you will survive this…”

  It burned his skin with the heat of an evil inferno, dark and unseen. “Snake spine and rose blood! What devil’s kiss was that?!”

  Fyryx spat on his reddened flesh then rubbed in the thick, white foam to soothe it. He grimaced from the sting but recovered quickly, as if daring not to let the silence linger.

  “Now look how you’ve made me lose my grip on this tale. Always the trickster you were. Like the way you made us lose count of all the elders on that Crossing Day a score and ten years ago. Braying out numbers, mocking our voices. You got Ayrie angry but I just laughed. I hadn’t learned to figure past my fingers anyway.

  “On the other hand, the elders made themselves hard to miss in the pageant of our people. As was their custom from the many trails of tears gone by, they rode afront, just behind the vanguard, leaving the folk to follow as an afterthought and walk in their dusty wake. We traveled amidst them all, between those favored and the foot-borne, with a clear eye of everything. The elders spread out far before us in a carnival of colors, a field of flags abreast by three and long about a hundred strong. Family flags they flew, hoisted high and unfurled with pride to flap a tail or two in the warm wind.

  “Flying foremost among them in a silken sheen of lavender and gold, which we could still see despite the distance, waved a banner bearing the fabled bloodname of Pum. The letter runes lilted by graceful design, each embroidered in the finest thread of angel hare with the chilling skill of the netherworld’s needles in a heavenly hand. Above was depicted a scene of supreme glory — of a young Poxanna the Picked, courtess of Pum, adorned in sacred white robes and anointed by the Semperor himself with a glowing touch upon her forehead. So holy the image… though, between you and me, the artist may have taken some liberties. Especially in the fresh-faced maiden portrayed, a breathtaking beauty of pure and perfect female form with flowing flaxen hair, soft full lips, and the pyre-hot peace — the knowing innocence — of one who’s caught glimpse of a godsign. That figure bore little likeness to the tall, almost manly woman of late middle age who rode under it. She who sat stiff and high above all in a grand sedan chair that had been mounted on a heavy chevox
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