Hello all, it’s story time with Uncle Peat. This one is a bit sweary and a bit bloody, so you’ve been warned. It’s about 7k words, and I hope you enjoy.
Nelevo ran. He ran past looming menacing shadows, through rain and branches that whipped back in his face, over the slick leaf mould. He ran as hard as he could, each stride hurting his knees and making his chest shudder. He ran from the soldiers behind him, from the slaughter they’d made and now planned to finish.
But most of all he ran. Nelevo had been the champion of his village before getting conscripted. He knew running was about focus. Nothing mattered but running and everything else must be ignored. Even so, he couldn’t help but note he’d never won a race wearing full armour before, blood sticky against his skin. And that he could hear horses.
He tripped over a tree root, mind and muscles alike betraying him. He caught himself on the trunk, winced, and straightened. He had to start running again. His hand was trembling. Where was he running? Everything was trembling. There! He could see a light off to his left.
Nelevo started running again but settled for a fast stumble. His muscles were screaming at him. The light was a hundred yards away. He had to stay strong. There was a cramp starting in his left calf. The thunder of hooves. Fifty yards. He picked his knees up higher, focused entirely on every step and every pain. Twenty.
And then time stopped.
He kept moving, not quite believing it. But the hoof beats had stopped. There was a bird hung motionless above him. Raindrops suspended in mid-air. Time had somehow stopped and Nelevo crashed to the floor, panting hard. He turned to see his pursuers, frozen in mid-gallop with swords upraised mere yards behind him, outlined as if light had been shone through quartz.
Nelevo slowly sat up, trying to breathe slower. Trying to make sense of the world. This morning he’d been a soldier in the army of Grand Duke Revannu. He’d marched to battle with his comrades with a spear, a long coat of padded cloth, and a full belly. He’d thrown up all that food back on the battlefield and left the spear there too. As for the leather coat, it was soaked and cut in a dozen places. Nelevo felt at the cuts, cringing when he felt dried blood on his shoulder and ribs. At least they hadn’t wounded his legs. At least he’d be able to escape. Even if it was just into this sorcerer’s trap.
“Hello?” he called out.
The air rang in reply. “Well, hello to you too.”
Nelevo covered his ears with a yelp. His head whipped round one way then another but no one was there. This truly was a bad place. As bad as the battlefield though? He glanced at the frozen riders and shivered.
“I might well ask you the same question. This is my home after all, and I really can’t recall inviting you.”
He clutched hold of his trousers this time. There was no excuse for not showing a brave face. Not even to a sorcerer. He forced himself to his feet, limbs still trembling, and bowed.
“I am Nelevo, formerly of the Grand Duke’s army, before that of Tishora village. I apologise for disturbing you, friend sorcerer. I saw your light and ran towards it because I was desperate.”
“I’d already gathered that last detail, thank you.” There was a peevish quality to the voice that reminded Nelevo of the village tutor. “But you are quite forgiven, friend Nelevo. I suggest you close your eyes.”
Nelevo opened his mouth to question why then thought better of it. He shut everything as tight as he could. Even so he could see the flash of violet light through his eyelids. Someone whimpered. No. He had whimpered. Tears forced their way out and suddenly he remembered Kashi falling, hands failing to stop blood spurting from his neck. Remembered Grandfather’s howls and painful panting when his liver failed him. Remembered the spear that cut his ribs, the one he’d been sure would end his life.
Every moment of pain. Every moment of violence. And then gone.
“Open your eyes.”
Nelevo did as he was told. In front of him was a tall lithe figure with a beautifully angled face and a crimson scarf over the eyes. They wore a crimson gown that covered the whole body and a purple-black aura shifted unevenly around them. The sorcerer stood before a trio of dull dark stones, jutting from the earth at unnatural angles and marked with lettering that still pulsed with violet light. Nelevo slid to his knees and made a formal abasement.
“Oh, stand will you?” There was no noise as the sorcerer walked past him. “I am not your Grand Duke or some leader of soldiers. Speaking of which, what we do with these?”
He scrambled up and around to see the Sorcerer feeling the frozen horsemen. “Could you vanish them?”
“I’m afraid that is not the nature of my power. But I could perhaps help you vanquish them.”
Nelevo knuckled at his mustache. One way or another, he had to escape these enemies, but he didn’t much like the sound of that offer. Not only was he a reluctant warrior at best, but something about the lilt of the Sorcerer’s voice made him uneasy.
“What do you want for this?” he said.
The sorcerer clapped their hands in glee. “Ah! To the point at last. Friend Nelevo, do you see these stones behind me?”
A blind man would have seen those stones. “I see them.”
“If a person touches them in the right way, they can travel to other worlds. My duty is to ensure nobody goes or comes through that shouldn’t, and let me tell you the coming is a lot harder to deal with. There are others who would come here to kill and steal. From time to time, I can get them first.” The sorcerer’s mouth twisted in what could have been smile or grimace. “That is my bargain to you. I will give you the power to kill these men if you go along the world-threads and kill a single man.”
Nelevo licked his lips. There was so many questions he didn’t even know which to begin with. The silence stretched on, uninterrupted even by the wind in the trees. The sorcerer cocked their head in question and Nelevo turned to look at the soldiers. There were a dozen of them, all of them mounted and armoured in steel plates. No man could hope to win that fight. He stared next at the stones. He didn’t doubt the sorcerer’s word that they could transport him to other worlds, even if he’d never heard of such a thing. He didn’t doubt anything here.
“How would I get back?” he said.
“I’ll give you a stone. As soon as it touches the man’s blood, it will come back here, along with anyone touching it. So don’t lose it!”
“And how will I know who to kill?” he said.
“He will be wearing a mask over his face and a bloodstained apron,” said the sorcerer. “He will be easy to find, believe me.”
“And how will I kill him? I have no weapon,” he said.
“Indeed. No weapon, nor the strength to use it, nor the inclination to do so either. I have seen your mind, Nelevo, and you are a decent man. That’s why I’ll help you and help you I can – if you agree to our deal.
He was actually going to go to another world and kill a man. He was actually going to do it. This wasn’t some mad prankster’s joke and it was going to happen. No it wasn’t, said a voice at the back of his mind, but that was quickly silenced. His choice as to kill the sorcerer’s enemy – an enemy of the entire world – or die to his own enemies. And that was no choice at all.
“I will do it,” said Nelevo.
“Splendid!” The sorcerer reached inside their robe and handed three items to Nelevo. He took them and inspected them as the sorcerer kept speaking.
“A stone for you to travel with. Touch it to the portal to go through, then to the dead man’s blood to return. A weapon for you to kill with. I suspect even a decent man such as yourself knows what to do. And in the vial, the strength to use it. I’d drink it now if I were you.”
Nelevo lifted the vial to his eye. The glass was cool but the contents were bubbling away inside. He slowly uncorked it and tipped a little into his mouth. It was – somehow – icy cold and thick.
“I said drink it, not sip it.”
It slid agonisingly down his throat and seethed in his stomach. Nothing happened. He examined the weapon, a knife over a foot long, with a wide fistguard and a wide darkened blade. It felt right in his hand.
Then he touched stone to stone.
He stood in a small cell – it was definitely a cell – made of gray bricks with an open door. He crept towards it, crouched and ready for any enemy. A glance behind and he could see his boot prints in the floor behind him. How? Nelevo shivered but edged out-
A scream sent him tumbling back inside. Some moments later, Nelevo picked himself up, the noise still echoing from the strange walls. Had he simply lost his balance, startled by the sound and sheer pain? Or had something knocked him? He didn’t know.
All he knew was that he had to fulfil his bargain. The weirdness of this world couldn’t stop him. Not if he wanted to go home and see his mother again. Good thoughts.
He crept out again, barely even flinching at the next scream. At least it gave him some sense of where to go, or so he told himself before laughing in disgust at himself. He shouldn’t be making fun of those poor devils, like Caton had.
Nelevo stopped at the end of a deserted corridor, considering the door in front of him. He could hear hoarse breathing, sobs, and all the noises of anguish behind it. Surely the way to go. He touched his fingers to the wood – hard normal wood – and the door budged a little. Had no one locked it? Who didn’t lock the door to their dungeon.
It was a trap. This was some sick game and beyond the door would be Duke Silovarin’s torturers. The sorcerer had betrayed him – he should go gut the bastard! But how? A glance behind him told him what he already knew; that he was stood in a corridor with only one way out and not even a way in. Should he search the cell for some secret door? A door that he knew deep in his bones wasn’t there?
No point wasting time and allowing someone to find the open door. With a deep breath he edged it open.
The floor was like an abattoir. When he forced himself to look properly at the walls they were decorated with young people, pinioned in the cruelest positions. The sorcerer’s potion surged halfway back up his gullet. And there, in the middle of it, was the masked man with the bloodstained apron.
Nelevo only saw the scalpel in his hand when halfway across the room. Only registered the chorus of screams when a few feet away. Only noticed the pouch in the other hand when close enough to see wide brown eyes with huge pupils. He rolled like a tumbler as something went over his head and stabbd upwards as he got to his feet. The man grunted, but still stood, so Nelevo stabbed again and again.
A voice at the back of his head said it was like butchering a pig.
And all the time the victims screamed.
Eventually Nelevo drew back the knife and the man fell. He didn’t even feel tired. Was that the elixir? He’d ask the sorcerer when he returned. Nelevo took the stone out of his pocket as the screams continued. Was there something he could do?
He turned to see two of the victims were rotting as if they were corpses. Their mouths still moved though, blood dribbling onto visibly decomposing flesh. A cloud of dust still hung in the air. How had he avoided that? Nelevo had no answer. Best to return home before someone else came.
He touched the stone to the blood on his knife.
The purple light was fading. The soldiers were moving like a slow ooze. Nelevo wanted to ask the sorcerer questions but his ‘benefactor’ was nowhere to be seen.
Well, if he couldn’t find out the truth, he could escape. How many minutes would he have before the spell wore off and the riders were chasing him again? Nelevo didn’t know but he didn’t like his chances. He couldn’t outrun them and he couldn’t hide from them.
So he lifted his knife and started killing.
The spell held the soldiers too well for them to even register surprise, nevermind defend themselves. That made the task easier, like cutting ticks from the buffalo. If anything it was easier. Nelevo was about to start killing the horses too when he realised he’d look quite the conquering hero, returning to the Grand Duke’s camp with all the steeds as trophies of war. He could take back the armour too – that was worth just as much as the animals.
That made the task longer but Nelevo didn’t mind. Any farmer could tell you it was better to work harder for more. He left the dead men neatly lined up just outside the clearing, as respectfully as he could. Hopefully some passers by would find them before the animals did – either way, he’d done all that was sensible.
Then he tied the horses’ reins together, loaded the armour up on them, and mounted the lead animal. It snorted and bucked but settled when it realised it wasn’t losing its load. Nelevo sat there dumbly once he realised what he’d done. He had always struggled with the old cart horse back, and she’d been half-dead. What else had the sorcerer done?
“You are welcome, friend Nelevo.” The sorcerer’s whisper filled the air, coming from everywhere at once. “If you require more favours one day, you know where to find me.”
Nelevo nodded awkwardly, but as he rode out, he thought never again.
“Halt! Who goe- oh, sorry Captain. Didn’t see your helmet.”
Nelevo glanced at the helmet he carried under the crook of his arm, then at his officer’s sash and the knife hilt that poked out from under it. He took his time before looking at the sentry and his blushes, visible even under moon light.
He put his helmet on. “You did the right thing Miun,” he said, barely remembering the name in time. “Now return to your post.”
“Yes sir… err, sir? Where are you going? I mean, if anyone asks if I’ve seen the Captain…”
Nelevo stared him into silence before relenting. “Tell them I’ll be back soon.”
The poor bastard didn’t like the answer but he wasn’t a captain so he nodded and saluted. Sometimes he remembered what it was like to be that soldier. Well, he hadn’t lied too much to the sentry. The forest was near and from what Nelevo remembered, time moved slow there.
Even so, it was best not to dawdle. He marched at a quick pace despite the heavy armour he wore. Anyone else out this night would hear him from a bow shot off but Nelevo doubted there was anyone. This was not a place for most men. Yet here he was, walking instinctively to his goal like he’d been there a thousand times already.
He hadn’t. He should be lost. But the small garden of bones told him he wasn’t. A shame that nobody had found them, and a marvel too, for there to still be detritus around twelve years later. Maybe they were someone else’s dead. But no, they were the bastards he’d killed, for Nelevo could see the stones.
Or what he thought was the stones. They were the right shape – and nobody else would describe them that way – but there were no pictograms. No eldritch light. No sinister sorcerer. He wiped away a bead of sweat as he stared at the empty clearing. Now what?
“Friend Sorcerer? Are you there?”
Only the gentle wind answered him. Nelevo sat on a rock and racked his brains as a bird cawed above him. Could a sorcerer turn into an animal? His grandmother had always told him so, back when he was just another boy harvesting rice in the fields. He’d loved to sit there and shiver in horror at this stories then, but this was now. He gained nothing for sitting anymore.
The stone. He’d kept the stone, daubed in that murderous shit’s blood, all those years. Nelevo fished it out from a pouch and held it aloft. Nothing. So what did he need to do with it? He walked towards the portal stones then stopped just short of touching them. What if they were to take him between worlds again – this time without understanding how to return home. He hadn’t become the greatest captain in Revannu’s army by taking such risks.
“Friend Sorcerer! I have come to ask a favour!”
Still nothing. Nelevo was sure the sorcerer was here somehow though. Knew it in his bones. This was some sort of test. He weighed his stone consideringly, then put it down and drew the sorcerer’s gift. The magic had responded to blood last time. He pulled his left gauntlet off clumsily and then cut, gently, just above the wrist. A thin smear bubbled up. He sheathed the knife and took the stone again. The contact stung like he’d just been bitten but Nelevo clenched his jaw and kept the stone there.
“Well well well. Friend Nelevo. I just knew you’d figure it out eventually.”
Nelevo didn’t jump. Barely. “You could have told me.”
“I could,” agreed the Sorcerer. “Now, tell me, what is it you require this time? There are no soldiers in pursuit this time – indeed, the only soldier here is you.”
He certainly didn’t need the mockery. Nelevo pocketed the stone and removed his helmet before giving his mysterious benefactor a long hard look. It worked far less well than it had on the sentry. But then, he supposed, the sentry had no scarf over their eyes. But the sorcerer knew what was going on somehow.
“Last time you gave me power. I need more for the land is in ruins. War breeds famine and famine breeds war. From the highest to the lowest, there is no justice and no contentment. Give me the power to win this war and bring peace.”
The sorcerer’s hands disappeared up their sleeves as they screwed up their mouth. “A worthy goal indeed friend Nelevo. I am pleased to see you have remained a decent man. And I have just the remedy! Yes I do. And are you willing to pay my price?”
“Is it the same as last time?” said Nelevo. The sky above him was empty and the wind had stopped.
“Indeed! One death beyond this world and the stone will bring you home again when it touches their corpse’s blood.” The sorcerer wagged a finger and chuckled. “And it does have to be their corpse.”
“Of course.” Nelevo swung his arms out, easing the ache of the armour’s weight. “Who’s my victim?”
“She’ll be carrying a harp and wearing a coronet.”
He wondered what she’d done to merit this then shrugged. Killing women was unpleasant but he’d made his choice now. Nelevo started to put his gauntlet back on when the sorcerer spoke.
“I wouldn’t if I was you. Steel doesn’t travel well through the web – your blade there is one of the few that does.”
Nelevo opened his mouth to argue then shrugged again. If it was like last time, it’d be simple butchery and his armour would just slow him down. He had promised that he’d be back with the boys soon enough. He took his armour off as quickly as he could. Occasionally the sorcerer hummed. He’d asked a few people, casual as you liked, if there were any legends about this forest. Just to see if he could learn anything about this strange person. Nobody had said a thing. He picked up the stone and sword and memory pricked him.
“I don’t keep the power to reshape kingdoms strewn around just in case some ambitious soldier comes wondering by you know. No, this will take a little time. Fortunately, that is something I have here.”
The purple black aura intensified, eight tendrils creeping up into the sky. Violet light turned the night into day as the branches stopped swaying. Nelevo clenched his jaw and stood proud like a soldier should but he could see the sorcerer’s smile. Damn the bastard.
“Go, friend Nelevo. We don’t want you to be late back to your troops, do we?”
Just how much did the fucker know? No matter. Questions could wait until after victory. They always could. Nelevo marched to the portal and touched stone to stone.
He was stood in another room, but this was no cell. It was dominated by a giant mirror and silks and jewellery were strewn everywhere. He picked up an ornate necklace set with a mosaic of diamonds and rubies, and weighed it consideringly. He’d double his wealth – more – if he took all of this back. Assuming he could take it back. Assuming he didn’t get laden down. His instincts screamed that this was a poor risk to take but he couldn’t stop looking at the wealth in front of him.
One piece. Just so he had something to remind him this fucking insanity had happened. He carefully wrapped it round his belt then turned to the door.
It led to another corridor that ended with a dark curtain. Light was peeking through round it and Nelevo twitched the curtain aside so he could peek back. A great crowd of people sat in raised tiers, one above the other, and they all shouted as one. Should he run? No, they weren’t shouting for him. There was no alarm in their voices. They were shouting for the woman on stage. The beautiful woman, wearing a coronet in her jet black curls and carrying a harp.
Nelevo settled into a sprinters’ crouch as she started to play. If the woman was beautiful, the music was ten times more so. He’d heard nothing like it – not once in his life. It made him think of his grandmother’s cooking, the way she hadn’t cried when grandpa’s liver had failed. His muscles ached from holding the pose but he didn’t move.
Not until the song ended.
His legs pumped as he raced across the stage and in his head was one constant prayer; don’t look round. She did though. Of course she did. How could she not when the crowd was screaming in horror and he was screaming his war cry? Their eyes met. He had to keep moving. Then the sword met flesh and she screamed briefly too.
A quick kill. He had seconds before the crowd showed him the opposite. The stone was in his hand – no, it was slipping. Falling. He was dead.
Nelevo caught it – somehow – as something hit his head. He smashed the stone into the wound in her neck. He would live.
The clearing was just as he’d left it save for a half-dead fire smoldering away in a shallow pit. The sorcerer stood to the side of it, hands tucked into sleeves and frowning at some invisible thing.
“She’s dead,” said Nelevo.
The sorcerer beamed. “Good! I was beginning to worry, you know. I should have known better.” They produced three vials, each filled with a barely different shade of black. “These are for you.”
Nelevo wiped the blood off his sword and stared at the potions. “Are you an alchemist?”
“Most sorcery contains an element of transmutation, but no. Oh, I know the theories and I respect the art, but no alchemist could brew these beauties.”
Nelevo snorted with half-hearted derision. The Grand Duke had many alchemists and all declared themselves in some way unique. None of them had been able to stop time though.
“What do they do?” he said to change the subject.
The sorcerer held out the first vial. “This one is for you. You’re a decent man, friend Nelevo, but more is needed to end a war.”
Nelevo took it gingerly, remembering the agonising cold of the last draught the sorcerer gave him. The liquid was just as freezing but he drank it quickly, whimpering only a little.
“These are for other people.” The sorcerer waggled them in the air as Nelevo drank. “One for the Grand Duke, the other for his daughter. And between the three, you’ll be more than able to stop this war.”
Nelevo stared numbly as the sorcerer pressed them into his grasp. The fucker might sound confident but Nelevo thought that a flimsy basis indeed.
“Don’t worry, the glass won’t break,” said the sorcerer. “I have one final gift for you today. Duke Silovarin’s army withdraws along the old trade road tonight and the omens are favourable for a famous victory. And with that, I believe it is time we parted again Friend Nelevo. I shall watch events with interest.”
“Hey!” shouted Nelevo but the sorcerer ignored him. The sky pulsed once, bright white, and then the clearing was as it was when he entered. Not even a trace of the fire or a footprint where the sorcerer had stood. Nelevo clenched his hands to keep them from trembling. He was done with that creepy bastard.
He donned his armour as quickly as possible. Sheathed his sword and placed the vials carelessly in his knapsack. Even the bastard was right and they’d be fine – or a liar and it didn’t matter. The necklace was tossed in carelessly afterwards. It was only when he reached the stone he paused. He shouldn’t leave it lying around. What if some poor sod found it and accidentally found his way between worlds? He’d come here to protect people, not get them killed.
Nelevo picked it up and placed it with everything else. Then he left, not even bothering to look at the bones this time.
No sooner than he reached the forest’s edge then he found Miun, jigging from one foot to another as he waited.
“Captain! Sorry Captain, just you weren’t back soon, and the Sergeant wanted to know… so…”
“You did the right thing.” He put an arm round Miun’s shoulders. “Now, I need you to do me a favour. Are you a good runner?”
The man stood to attention. “I was the fastest in my village!”
“Then run back to the company and tell them to be ready. I’ve been scouting and if we attack now, we can destroy that shit-fucker Silovarin’s army. Go!” He pushed the man away when he started to argue “Run! Tell the Sergeants life and death rests on them!”
The entourage halted by the forest’s edge and the King turned to them with a growled command.
Nelevo adjusted his crown as he watched the arselickers do just that, gaggling round each other like the world’s most pampered flock of chickens. The soldiers went first, probably dreaming of getting their gaudy ornamental armour off, followed by the saffron robed priests. The nobles, or ignobles as Nelevo thought of them, brought up the rear, most of them trying to bother his wife’s maids. She was last, fiddling with the diamond and ruby necklace, her expression inscrutable. Let her inscrute. It was what she did best.
Once he quite sure that he was alone, Nelevo trod the now so familiar path. Twelve years since he’d been here but he had dreamed about the sorcerer’s clearing more than enough. Good dreams too, or at least compared to all the others. So many fucking battles. So many fucking deaths. He sometimes dreamed about them all feasting with him, with Grandfather and his big swollen belly at the top of the table. No fucking wonder he was always so tired.
Well that’s why he was here.
He had the sword and the stone in his bare hands as he marched in, shoulders thrown back like the swaggering soldier he’d once been, ready for the coming battle. Yet with every step pride melted, somehow twisting into doubt, even almost fear. He’d promised himself he’d never come back, never abase himself before that fucking bastard ever again. Nelevo stopped in the middle of the clearing and looked around. He’d never really done so before. Just trees, wood and fucking leaves, but something about it struck at him. A towering immensity that whispered that his deeds were nothing but the passing of a season, and soon no one would even remember what he’d done. Not even to say “What a cunt that king was”.
Nelevo cut himself, harder than he’d meant to, and pressed stone to blood. This time he noticed the faint tremors in the ground that announced his summoning had worked, the bruise on the air that signalled the coming. And sure enough, there was the same nightmare figure, gaunt and elegant in crimson silk and brooding light. How had he not seen it before?
“Friend Nelevo! This is an unexpected pleasure.” The words were almost purred.
“I doubt that,” said Nelevo. “There is no need for further pretense now. I know who you are, divine Ci Ven. I doubt anything I did ever surprised the Spider that Spins Secrets. That’s why you know why I’m here. To kill for you again.”
Ci Ven clapped their hands together and smiled, just like the old Duke’s daughter had when he’d given her that necklace. “You flatter me unduly! I am but a humble messenger and guardian. And while this guardian is gratified to have such august company, I do wonder what I have done to deserve it. Or am to do, rather.”
Nelevo unbuckled his belt and shrugged. “Nothing is ever enough, is it? Not even being King. Now, tell me who to kill.”
“To the point,” nodded Ci Ven. “There is a child who will be carrying a wooden horse and wearing a slave’s brown tunic. Kill him for me – for this world – and I shall reward you well.”
Nelevo didn’t answer him but simply approached the portal. He no longer had the heart to argue about another death.
Another room, another corridor. One day he’d have to ask Ci Ven whether that was an inherent property of the portal stones, although he doubted a God of Secrets would tell him readily. A quick study revealed he stood in a castle store room, one in regular enough use judging from the fresh looking half-block of cheese. Part of the wall had been swung open to reveal a tunnel, the faint glimmer ahead suggested it exited into daylight.
Nelevo followed it, swinging his arms as he went to relief the tension build up. A child. No, he couldn’t think of that. One of his concubines was with child – he was sure of it, recognised the signals – but she was trying to hide it. The silly bitches always did, scared that they’d lose his favour, or worse. None of them seemed to notice he was trying to protect them from his wife, a woman who’d stop at nothing to be mother of a king. She killed children. He didn’t.
Well, his armies had. He’d seen their tiny corpses lying outside the houses of captured cities, seen charred bones too small for any adult in the ashes. He didn’t kill them personally. Except now he was going to. Fuck, he’d told himself he couldn’t think of it. But what else was there to think of? Admire the mason’s work around him, poke the walls to see if they left an impression? Fuck that.
He strode out into the sunlight of this alien world and wondered what the natives called it. What they spoke. He’d never even tried to communicate with one, not unless you counted that brief moment of eye contact with that harpist. He’d just came here, and killed, and ran away. Maybe they hated him. Maybe they barely noticed he existed, or didn’t believe he was real. Just some nightmare with which to scare naughty little bastards. That’d be more than he deserved.
Nelevo could see the little bastard now. A little boy, sat on the muddy leaf mould and pretending the wooden horse was galloping over it. It looked so much like the one he’d had when he’d played with his friends, holding make-believe races like the ones they saw on feast days. The boy had the tunic too, just as Ci Ven had said, although streaked with blood and shit. The poor little bastard had probably just escaped from the castle and was enjoying his first ever moments of true freedom, playing like a boy should. And Nelevo was a big enough cunt to kill him.
One swing and it was done. He knelt down, trying not to retch as he dabbed the stone in the blood – no, he hadn’t, but he had to. Had to touch the child he’d murdered. Was this really worth it? Well, it would have to be. He pushed down and the world changed.
Ci Ven had dropped the sorcerer’s disguise. The aura had solidified into four extra arms, venom dripping from them and scorching the earth. The blindfold had been removed to reveal four round black eyes. The Demon King of Hidden Violence stood before him in all their fucking bowel loosening glory, beaming at him like he was a dog that had just learned to fetch. He probably was just that to the cunt. It was probably just how how he smiled at those fucking arse lickers when they did something right for once.
“He’s dead. Lets talk about my favour.”
“Indeed yes, friend Nelevo. More pow-”
“I never said I wanted that.” He rushed the words out, then took a deep breath and forced himself to speak slower. “In fact, I never said what I wanted at all.”
He was answered with silence, silence that stretched on and on. Silence that fed his fear, making him think Ci Ven was growing, making him see the shadows of rending claws on those hands.
“Indeed you did not,” said Ci Ven. “Very well then. What do you wish from me?”
There was no turning back now. “I desire that you bind yourself into a prison with all your power.”
The scream of outrage threw him back into a tree and when Nelevo rose, his ears were damp and ringing. Ci Ven kept screaming but even so, the god’s word bound them and those ghastly arms were binding around and around Ci Ven’s body. With each pass they turned a different colour, from blood to bone to bile and to everything else, wrapping faster and faster. And they screamed. Screamed until there was nothing left but a multi-hued cocoon and the echoes of a god’s rage.
A voice whispered on the wind. “Why friend Nelevo? What wrong did I do you when I gave you life and power and everything your heart desired?”
“Everything? I never wanted to be a killer,” Nelevo spat. How dare this fucker try to wheedle their way out of this. “I never wanted to be powerful. I just wanted the land to be right. To put a stop to these wars. And thanks to you, all I did was start more!”
“Thanks to me?”
“Yes, you! You and those filthy potions you had me drink. They changed me. That’s why you’re in that prison, so you’ll start no more fucking wars,” said Nelevo. “I just wish I’d seen it earlier. You’re a vicious cunt, Ci Ven, and you won’t be happy until everyone’s like you.”
Ci Ven’s voice was gentle and arch. “I change you? I think not.”
“Well what were those potions for? Other than poisoning the Grand Duke, which I never wanted either.”
“Oh no, of course you didn’t. Such a foolish soul as yourself could never have intuited what was in that vial. Its not your fault you’re so pure and naive.” The dripping sarcasm turned into a snarl. “Friend Nelevo, I liked you better when you didn’t lie to yourself. You knew what you were doing. You knew what you wanted. And I gave it to you.”
“That’s not what I asked for!”
“Ah, but wanted? You’re not denying that, are you?” Ci Ven chuckled. “I gave you the power you wanted – the power you craved. And I know that you craved it, not just because I have seen your mind, but because I have seen your actions. Nobody uses power like you have unless they love it like mother’s milk.”
“Ah ah ah! Don’t interrupt me,” continued the god. “You think I changed you. Let me tell you, not even a god can change who a human is. Oh, I can give you power, I can give you love and wealth and knowledge, but I can’t change who you are. Only humans can do that. So if you changed into a tyrant because I gave you power, that was your change. And maybe it wasn’t a change after all.”
Nelevo blinked repeatedly as he shook his head, physically trying to repel the words and repeating his denials again and again in his own head. He touched his face to find that he was crying. He never cried. The king didn’t cry. And he was the king. Any thought, any fleeting comfort that he could derive from the idea that he was still a reluctant soldier caught in a sorcerer’s trap had been smashed. And for all Ci Ven now lay trapped in front of him, he was still under the god’s power. How fucking arrogant of him to believe it would be otherwise.
“It’s not too late to change your mind, you know,” whispered the voice from everywhere. “You have jailed me, but you can release me too, and I will be most generous to my liberator. I can make you Emperor. I can give you a world where no one ever dare raises an army, where your laws are stronger than any steel and the peasants can grow rich and fat in peace. Do you think you can create a better world without my help?”
He stared dully at the cocoon, trying to make sense of his predicament. Ci Ven was right. He couldn’t create that world by his own. And who else would offer him that power? No saffron robed priest ever had. It would be the best thing for his country. For his people. Not for himself though. If he freed Ci Ven the god would take a horrible revenge, whatever they said. Or would they?
Nelevo turned his head to the skies. “What if I ask you to swear on your power to bring no harm to me or my family?”
“Of course, friend Nelevo. I have no wish to hurt you. I never did.”
“What was in those potions then?” He got slowly to his feet. “Why did you give them to me? Were they a lie?”
“No, no, nothing of the sort. They honed your physical prowess, refined your mental agility. Any fool can be a king, but to be a good king, I had to help you a little. Make your your best you. And have they not worked? I must confess, friend Nelevo, that I am rather proud of you.”
Nelevo limped over to the cocoon, as slowly as if he’d just left a battlefield. He certainly didn’t feel like his physical prowess had ever been honed. Had he ever been faster than the young fool who ran here praying for survival? He hoped the Masters of Heaven would understand that deed the next time he turned on life’s wheel. Surely they would.
He had a lot less hope for what had come after though.
“You’ll stay in your own cage, Ci Ven.” His ears were ringing and he wasn’t sure he’d said it right, so he shouted it. “You’ll stay in your own cage, Ci Ven!”
“And that will make you a better person?” said Ci Ven. “As I said, I liked you better when you didn’t lie to yourself.”
“And that’s one of the many lies you’ve told me. You loved me when I lied to myself about who we were. It’s now that I admit the truth that you sneer and snarl. What other lies have you told me?” said Nelevo. “Let me tell you a truth now. Maybe I always blamed you when I should have blamed me. Maybe this won’t make me a better person. Maybe I’d have always walked this path offered the chance.”
“But it was you who set my feet on this path Ci Ven. You’ve gloried in that from the day a frightened peasant boy stumbled into this place. I can’t be a better person with you out there. So that’s why you’re staying in your prison. I’m done with you. Goodbye friend sorcerer.”
Ci Ven screamed again, but at the volume of a whisper. And Nelevo walked away.