I have been a member of the Fantasy Faction forum for getting on for five years now and one of the best things about the community has been the writing contest – it’s only 1500 words so come give it a go! Contest winners were posted on the website but that hasn’t happened for a while, so I’ve been asked to fill in. It’s an honour to do so, and here is another winner.
The theme for the competition when this story won was “Undercover Gods” is “Battlefield Tour” by John M. Kelly, aka Jmack at the forums. To find out more about his writing, visit http://www.starlit-lands.com/
King Etiras’s entourage drifted through the ancient battlefield, trailing their king, his strange consort, and their tour guide, the bard Amberlass. She half sang and half shouted at the straggling courtiers. “Then, over the rise, at the last gasp of a breathless day, marched Caramagh’s Army of Light, swords shining, armor singing!”
The goddess Caramagh herself walked next to the king, wearing the mortal disguise she’d fashioned years before they’d ever met. She’d almost forgotten what it felt like to be without it. “I don’t remember the armor singing.”
“Poetic license, my heart. It was half a millennium ago. No one but you actually remembers it.” The only mortal to know her true name, Etiras spoke as softly as his divine companion. It wouldn’t do to have her cover blown. Though how anyone could miss the power barely veiled behind her eyes he’d never understood.
“Well, she’s no poet.” Caramagh pulled her skirts away from a low briar. “I’ve heard true poets. Women whose words could scribe the sky —“
“Of course you have,” tutted Etiras, patting her hand with his wrinkled one.
Caramagh cast about for her legendary anger. She should be irritated at the man. Shushing a goddess! But she’d banked her fire in ashes long ago, leaving only embers. Why she’d ever thought that touring the old battlefield at Clouds Edge would be fun she couldn’t imagine now. Let’s see what’s changed, she’d said. Let’s see if I even recognize it.
Let’s see if there’s an echo of who I really am.
Amberlass waved grandly at a majestic elm standing alone. “At this very place, Shadrach fell. Golden Caramagh, betrayer of the gods, lover of mankind, wrested the sword Fellbringer from the dark lord’s own hand and plunged the soul-eating blade through the black heart of its master.”
“That was well sung,” said Etiras.
“Except that I killed the bastard way over there.” Caramagh pointed her chin at a patch of bare rock squatting in a distant tangle of weeds. “And ‘betrayer’? That’s harsh.”
“Yes, but you are a lover of mankind.” Etiras winked. “Oh, here comes the good part. ‘Life-blood leaking, she stumbled to the edge of the great cliff. Would she live on? Would she die the true death?’”
The goddess snorted. “Tell me how it ends. I’m going over there to talk to the dark lord.” It was all she could do to keep a straight face as the king’s eyes bulged. Let him think she still had some secrets. Secrets were good for relationships.
It was a long, nettled walk through nettles to the rock. If she sloughed off her disguise, she could be there in one stride. Wouldn’t that shock everyone? Instead, she hauled herself along, almost losing a traitorous shoe to a sucking patch of bloodweed.
Betrayer. Not a word of it true. Sure, she disobeyed a direct command from the whole pantheon. Sure, she told her father to get another life. Sure, she dyed her sleeping sister’s hair with berries from the dark side of the Moon. But she’d never betrayed them. She’d just… gone her own way. And been exiled for it. But what were a few years of exile to an immortal? Well, more than a few years. Eternity? She didn’t like to think about it, but eternity was a whole, long lot of years.
Etiras wouldn’t be there for much of it; his coarse mane turned grayer every day. Immortality was not the blessing mortals imagined if you left everyone that mattered behind.
Nope, not thinking about it. Just touring the old field of victory. Looking around. Stepping onto this ugly rock where I killed the death god.
So. Been a long time, hey? Just stopping by. May not recognize me in this mortal-suit. Oh, fine. No, no kids. Demi-gods in diapers, perish the thought.
Clouds drifted past the sun, and a breeze carried the bard’s droning voice. Caramagh barely made out the words. Something about her great sacrifice. Blah, blah, blah. She’d treasured the day the Church of the Goddess died out two centuries past. Worship was so embarrassing.
Thoughtlessly, she leaned over and rapped on the rock. Hello, brother. Anyone in there?
The rock rapped back.
“Shit!” What was that? Was that anything? Of course not. She checked the crowd across the field. No one looking her way. Good. Caramagh pulled a twig from a bag at her belt and commanded it to become a stout staff. She thumped the rock twice. Knock, knock.
Please don’t knock back.
Shit. Shit! She scoured the bag. Where the blazes had she left that soul-sucking sword?
Get a grip, Caramagh schooled herself. Deep breath. Shadrach?
The voice, or the thought, or whatever drifted away. Maybe senility was creeping up after five hundred years among mortals, and she was hearing things that weren’t there. The hot sun peeked between scudding banks of silver-backed white.
You taste different
Mortal…… but not
Where is……. your fire?
Maybe I lost it when you tried to pull the whole world down to hell with you. How are you here, brother? I killed you. I sacrificed —
So I live….
Caramagh leapt off the rock, as if stung. She searched the battlefield until her eyes found Etiras, safe. Her heart beat again.
Anger flared. Not dead? Since when was her evil, blood-loving, darklord of a brother NOT DEAD?! And how had she not known? How had her father not told her this when he exiled her before the battle here at Clouds Edge? King of the gods. So superior, so full of his own authority. So never willing to fully explain anything. “Do this, daughter, and you can never return here or you must die.” Oh so dramatic.
You can never return, or you must die.
Caramagh had been deaf to her father’s real meaning all along. The thought made her reel. To truly slay her brother she’d have had to die the true death herself. Truly sacrifice herself, not just throw herself into the sea and slip out unseen later. But why her exile? What good did staying on earth do?
You……. prison me
She fell to her knees, sick with it. Her control slipped. The commands that bound her mortal costume wavered.
There is a way
For both of us…………………..
To be free
The thought almost dragged itself into her mind: How?
The world held its breath.
Bring the sword
Yeah. About that —
It has my…
I am an echo of myself
She thought of Fellbringer with horror. Five hundred years ago, that sword ripped a hundred thousand souls from their bodies. Five hundred years ago, she’d torn it from Shadrach’s iron hands and shoved it through his guts. Five hundred years ago, she’d carried the monstrous thing to the peak of… where? Oh, right. Mount Thalacter. A very long way away.
Something pulled the memories from her mind and into the rock.
Caramagh hated that sword. She balanced the homesick yearning in her heart against that hatred. “No.” No, brother. We stay as we are.
A lash of power tore at her.
BRING ME MY SWORD!!!
Whips of agony flailed at Caramagh. She stumbled with shock, fumbled for her power, but it was like slamming a fist into wet sand looking for a buried pearl. She fought the pain, excruciating pain and a sucking away of will, fought back with what fire she could muster. Shadrach swept it aside. She needed… she needed… to be herself.
She let go her mortal shell like a chrysalis freeing its winged prize. Now she reached for power, and light blasted the battlefield like the touch of the very sun. The coils of darkness pulled back, howling. Caramagh raised her staff and struck, deep into the heart of her brother’s echo, and sent it wailing back to hell.
The world sighed. Golden Caramagh stood wreathed in glory, but prisoner and prison still. Across the burning battlefield, the courtiers stared open-mouthed. “She’s returned to us!” cried the bard. As one, they knelt in homage.
Etiras came to the ring of flame that circled the goddess. Caramagh waved a hand, and a passage opened. He averted his eyes, and stepped through.
“Your glory,” he said, not daring to fully look at her. “I never imagined.”
How could -“ Tears choked his voice. “How could you —“
Caramagh reeled in her power and moved to him. “Love you?” He nodded his head twice, hard. She raised his chin with her glowing hand. “Because to me you will never grow old, my brave mortal king.”
Amberlass and her newly minted congregation started an antique hymn she’d hoped to never hear again. “But that will get old fast.”
Worshippers. So embarrassing.
Alone in the dark, Shadrach listened. He could wait. He was good at waiting. And at least he knew now where his sword was hidden.