by Tom Dillon
Caden felt his age in his legs as he climbed the steps carved into the vertical sides of Crest Island. Twenty years prior he would have ran up the steps, and the awareness of his spent youth rekindled the doubts that had been smoldering since the beginning of his quest.
“The essence of swordsmanship is composure,“ he muttered to himself, between breaths. The fight sometimes went to the strongest, fastest, or toughest, but it almost always went to the one who didn‘t flinch. It was the first thing he had told recruits during training, and it was something that he shouldn‘t have needed to hear again, but the words reminded him that he had a chance, so long as he kept his composure.
The place had lost its glamour since he had made the journey three years past. The steps were now mere steps, carved into the granite walls of the island, and the mist that shrouded the barnacle-like town below was no more meaningful than steam from a kettle. Arkos, who he had once believed to be a god, was in fact a man. The true magic of his last visit had been hope, hope to make peace with his wife who had died while he was away on campaign, hope that had been met only by betrayal. This time his only companions were determination and its tools: a sword that had cost a hundred men their lives to forge and could cut through stone, gauntlets could grasp the sun, and a ring that showed the truth of what was rather than what others desired it to be.
After his last encounter, Caden had ended up at the far side of the world. It had taken him three years to walk and sail back. The thousands of steps that led to the Sanctuary of Arkos wore on him, and as he climbed a certainty grew in him: he would succeed or die. If he failed, he didn’t know what waited for him. If Arkos wasn’t a god, then who was to say that the other religions were any more valid. He continued on, step after step. It would be better to die in uncertainty than to live in falsehood.
At the end of the steps, the top of Crest Island was completely flat, as though it been sliced off by a giant. The rock had been polished smooth and was inlaid with green stone in the shape of a compass rose. Although there was no roof or walls, the wind did not enter and the rain did not fall. Arkos may have been just a man, but he was also more than that, he had absorbed so much power that no enclosed space could contain his swollen essence.
In the middle of the floor was Arkos, white and still as marble. If Caden didn’t know better he might have thought that he was looking at a statue, but in his time walking the world he had learned that Arkos now used his body as a mere anchor. There was no saying where his spirit or mind was at any given moment.
“Have you reconsidered my offer, then?” the statue said.
When Caden‘s wife had died while he was off on a campaign, it had nearly killed him, and when Arkos had offered him a chance to make peace with her, it had renewed him. So Caden had come, and Arkos had shown him his wife but then demanded that Caden lead an army to wipe out every man, woman, and child on the island of Asennos, home of the last of the unbelievers. Caden had refused, and what had followed was unclear, except that he somehow had woken up on the shores of that same land across the ocean.
“And why not?” Arkos asked. “You have lost your wife, and even though I gave you the chance to make your peace with her, I can still see the emptiness in you. It is eating away at you, and if you do nothing, it will consume you. Yet in the face of that, you still turn down my offer.”
If Arkos was waiting for an answer, Caden did not notice. Something about the man-god’s words bothered him. Arkos continued to speak.
“You have no family, no holdings. But then again, none of those things would fill the void within you. What I’m offering you is much greater. I will give you glory, should you choose to take it.”
“You killed my wife. You killed Tara,” Caden said, the thought coming out as words before he had the time to even process it. It made too much sense to be false. Arkos needed someone to lead his army, needed Caden. But Arkos knew Caden would not join another campaign if he had anything else to cling to.
“Absurd,” Arkos said.
Caden knew that there was no point in debating the issue with Arkos. He drew his sword as he sprinted towards the man-god in front of him. Arkos was moving, but slowly, putting out his right hand as though to ward off the blow. Caden swung.
It was like hitting an oak tree. The shock reverberated through Caden’s arms, numbing them. Caden’s momentum carried him past Arkos, who had grasped the sword by the blade. He turned around to see it carelessly tossed into the ocean. An unseen force grabbed hold of Caden and stretched him out. The gauntlets were torn from his hands, taking skin with them and pulling his shoulders almost out of their sockets.
“I have faced down armies and leveled mountains, what did you think you were going to accomplish with those trinkets?” he asked.
Caden tried to answer but found himself unable to open his mouth.
“A few centuries ago I might have simply killed you,” Arkos said. Caden felt himself lifted up and back into the air until he was dangling over the edge of the cliff. “Still, I must mark you.”
There was a burning sensation on Caden’s right palm, and he looked down. The pain mounted, growing to a white hot ball of agony, then subsided as the parts of his skin that felt were burned away. When it was done, there was a black compass rose that matched the one Arkos was standing on burned into his hand. He smelled his own burning flesh and retched. He looked away and saw Arkos, who had moved to the cliff’s edge. He could make out faint rays of light against the grey clouds. He looked closer, focusing on them. A burning came from the ring on his left hand, but he ignored it.
The rays of light resolved into golden arcs of energy flowing into Arkos in a thousand unending streams. Caden had no idea where the energy was coming from, but he was mesmerized, the abuse his body was suffering forgotten.
“As for the fall, I don’t know how you survived the first time, but I don’t doubt that you will again,” Arkos said. Caden was so focused on the golden light that he barely heard him.
His attention returned to himself when the edge of the cliff obstructed his view. He fell and fell, through the air and mist, weightless. Soon enough, he hit the foaming water below.
The first indication that he wasn’t dead was the smell of brine and the crashing of the waves outside. When he tried to open his eyes, the skin of his face resisted, like leather that had been soaked and left to dry in the sun.
“You’re awake,” a man’s voice said.
Caden managed to get his eyes open a sliver and the light that came through was blinding. He tried to speak, but his mouth and throat felt as though they were coated with sand.
“Here.” The voice had an Assenan accent, but Caden couldn’t think clearly enough to remember what that meant.
Caden felt water being poured into his partially open mouth. He reached out until his hand found the cup, and he drank it all.
“Thank you,” he said. Even with the water, the words still rasped painfully against his throat. His eyes were adjusting to the light, and he could see that he was in a small house. The walls were hung with nets and hooks and fishing gear. He could see someone sitting by the bed, but his vision was too blurry to make him out.
“Thank whatever gods you pray to. When I pulled you out of the water I thought that it was only to bring you ashore to bury you,” the man said.
“I will,” Caden said. He felt his body start to relax and his mind start to drift back into unconsciousness. The cup was taken from his hand.
When he awoke again, he was alone in the house. His skin had gone from stiff to merely painful, and he was able to drink the water that had been left on the table next to him without spilling much.
He wondered how many weeks it had been since his confrontation with Arkos. When he stood up, the crippling weakness in his legs told him that it had been more than a few. He was able to totter over to one of the windows, its corner glazed with frost. The small house was on top of a bluff, and he could see the ocean beyond it. Even the slight exertion had left him lightheaded. He needed food.
The house was composed of a single large room. In the center was a small hearth with a lidded pot resting on top. Sitting down next to the hearth, Caden opened the pot to find a spicy fish stew that had been kept warm by the embers in the hearth. With a bit of work he got the fire going again and soon he was ladling hot stew into a chipped bowl.
The stew was delicious, but it was like rubbing salt on a raw wound. How many times had Tara attempted to make a stew like that, without success? Caden had never said anything, though he suspected that she knew, but had instead focused his attention on the beautiful bowls that she had served it in, the products of her kiln that were as beautiful as anything he had come across in his travels.
When the fisherman returned later in the afternoon, he looked half frozen, his clothes stiff with dried salt and ice. Caden made the man a pot of tea while he cleaned changed into dry clothes.
“Thank you,” the man said. “I never got your name.”
“Thank you. I’m Avlar.”
“Avlar . . .” It was a traditional Asennan name. “This is Asennos?”
“Yes, about a day’s walk from Evenport. I hope that isn’t a problem,” the man said. Caden noticed that his hand was resting on the knife at his belt.
“Of course not. The Asennan people have treated me with kindness in the past, I bear them no grudge,” Caden said. Avlar relaxed and he brought both hands to the steaming mug of tea.
“Do you fish through the winter?” Caden asked.
“No, but I must fish longer into the winter each year in order to make ends meet. I think that today will probably be the last time I go out this year,” Avlar said. “Which means that you will be spending the next few months here with me. I hope you are in no hurry.”
“I may be in a hurry, but I doubt my body cares. I can barely walk,” Caden said. “Will you have enough food for two?”
“No. But by the time we run low, hopefully you will be well enough to hunt,” Avlar said. His voice was confident, but Caden couldn’t ignore the worry in his eyes.
“I’m sure that I will,” he said. “In the meantime, is there anything I can do? Do you need help with your nets?”
“I won’t be doing any more fishing this year, I don’t think,” Avlar said. The worry spread from his eyes to the rest of his face, the sanity of his guest an open question.
“I meant that perhaps I could help to mend them. My father was a fisherman, I’m sure that with a little practice the knots would come back to me,” Caden said.
For the second time since he had returned from fishing, Avlar relaxed. “Of course.”
“How is it that you bear none of your countrymens’ prejudices?” Avlar asked as he and Caden sat and worked the nets.
Caden didn’t answer immediately, but neither of them was in any hurry, most of the easy conversation topics had been exhausted in the past few weeks. He looked out the window as he thought on how to answer. His hands continued to work on the net in his lap in a pattern from his chilhood that had come back to him with practice. His strength had come back more quickly than he had expected, and with the exception of the silver ring grafted into the index finger on his right hand, he was beginning to feel himself again.
“For nearly two decades, I was a Dragoon,” he said. Avlar stopped, his entire body frozen as he stared at Caden from across the hearth. “And yes, I have killed many of your countrymen. I never questioned what I was doing, and for that I apologize. That all changed when I returned from a campaign to find that my wife, Tara, had died of a fever while I had been gone. I grieved and prayed, and Arkos came to me. He told me that if I went to him at Crest Island, he would allow me to make my peace with Tara.
“When I arrived, however, I learned that all he really wanted was for me to lead a force into your land. He had shown me a mere illusion of Tara, and I was tired of fighting. I refused and he sent me away in disgrace.“
“But the invasion, it never came, is that because of you?“ Avlar asked.
“No, the invasion will still come. He is raising a massive army, bigger than any I have ever seen, which will take time. Still, I would not be surprised if they were on your shores this spring.“
Avlar‘s face drained of all color. “Is there nothing we can do?“
Caden shook his head in response. “He will destroy your armies and dissolve your governments, replacing them with his own. The people he will leave alone.“
Avlar started to stand up. “We need to warn them, we–“
Caden cut him off. “I tried. After I left, I started to think for the first time in my life, and I realized how wrong everything was. I went back to Arkos, determined to change things. The ideas of your land had invaded my thoughts, and I began to suspect that he was no true god. I went to fight him, only to learn that even though he wasn‘t a god, he was still incredibly powerful. He swatted me like a fly.
“I don‘t know how I survived, but I did, somehow. And I washed ashore in Evenport. I told your people what was coming, but no one believed me. So I set off again to collect things that would make me powerful enough to defeat him. Things out of legend and song, making my way back to him as I did so. It took me more than three years to make it back there and when I did, the result wasn’t much different. The artifacts that I had collected were of no use. He branded me and cast me into the sea again, and that was when you found me. He may not be a god, but I am not sure that he can be stopped, either.” Caden held up his hand, showing the compass rose scar that Avlar had been too polite to ask about.
Avlar didn’t respond, and there was silence as the two men worked on the nets.
The next morning Avlar was up before Caden, frying potato cakes on the hearth. Caden went to get a net to work on while he ate, but Avlar stopped him, gesturing for him to sit.
“You’ve told me your story, now listen to mine,” the man said after Caden sat down. “No doubt you wonder why my people have been fighting him all these years, when there is so little chance of victory.”
“The question had occurred to me, yes,” Caden said.
“Six generations ago, Arkos came here. He had singlehandedly subjugated most of the rest of the countries at that point. He was strong. We denied him, and he killed the messengers. In those days, Asenn was much stronger, and we had heard what had happened to the other countries. We were determined not to repeat their mistakes, sending small forces against him. Instead, we formed an army, every man who could bear arms, and we attacked him.”
“And he destroyed that army, right?”
“Yes. To a man.” Avlar slid a pair of the cakes off of the hearth and onto a wooden plate. Caden took it from him and drizzled a tiny bit of honey over them.
“What is your point, then?” Caden asked in between bites. “To show how brave your people are?”
“No. My point is that where you are from, the only side of the story that is told is that Arkos destroyed an army. Here, we know that we almost won. We nearly killed him.”
“How can you be sure? That must have been 150 years ago. How do you know that your near victory wasn’t just a story that your ancestors made up to assuage the pain of having lost so many?”
“Because my ancestors were able to tell the story. After he destroyed the army, why didn’t he finish the job and take the country? Why didn’t he come back? We were weak, even weaker than we are now, if we did not nearly kill him, you and I would not be having this discussion today.”
Caden leaned back and ate the rest of his cakes. “I’m not sure how much that helps, I don’t have an army, if you hadn’t noticed,” he said after he had finished eating.
“No, you most certainly do not.” Avlar laughed. “And I don’t know if the story has any use for you. But there is a good reason that Arkos would use an army to conquer Asenn rather than do it himself, even if we do not know what it is.”
“Maybe so,” Caden said, but despite his noncommittal words, he began thinking of how he would make it back to Crest Island.
It was not as difficult as Caden had imagined to get from Asennos to Kalmar. Avlar had gotten him in contact with some smugglers, and when spring had come they had sailed him across the channel and dropped him off just North of Helena.
The winter spent with Avlar had done him good, and it was an easy walk to his childhood home. When he arrived, however, he wasn’t prepared for what awaited him. He hadn’t been to the town since he had left it as a teen to seek his fortune with the Dragoons, and he didn’t expect it to be exactly the same, but even so, he hadn’t expected it to wither. Of the fifty or so houses that had comprised the town during his childhood, only a dozen or so appeared to still be occupied.
Of the businesses, there was only one left, an inn that had taken on duties as a general store, tavern, and chandler combined. Inside, a burly man with scarred hands was sitting at one of the tables, splicing together two lengths of rope. He set down his work when he saw that he might have an actual customer.
“What can I do for you?” the man asked, getting up from the table and walking towards Caden with a pronounced limp.
“I’ll need a room for the night, and some food,” Caden said.
“That can be arranged. What are you looking to eat?”
“I was hoping that I could get some crab and a beer,” Caden said.
“Not a problem, although it isn’t cheap,” the innkeep said.
“If it’s as good as I remember, I don’t mind the cost.”
“That’ll be three marks for the room and five for the food.”
Caden dug around in his purse until he found the appropriate coins. Avlar had given him money before leaving, saying that it was for the help with the nets and the hunting, and the smugglers had been happy to exchange it into a less conspicuous currency. Caden handed the innkeep the coins, and the man glanced at them only briefly before pocketing them.
“The crab will be a bit, the first room at the top of the stairs is yours for the night if you want to put your stuff down.”
Caden put his few things in his room and a while later, the big man came out of the back with a platter laden with steaming crab and beer.
“Do you mind if I join you?” he asked after he had set the platter in front of Caden.
“Of course not,” Caden said.
A minute later the man came back with a mug for himself. “Thanks, I’m Fint,” he said.
“I’m Caden,” he said after a brief hesitation. It was unlikely that anyone would remember the arrogant kid who had been so eager to leave twenty years earlier. “The town is smaller than I remember.”
“Yeah, it’s been slowly fading away,” Fint said.
“The fish. There aren’t as many as there used to be. Most of the people here had to move on.”
“That’s odd.” Avlar had said something similar. It was odd that both the loyal and unbelievers alike would be suffering.
“The priests say that the Asennans are doing something to them,” Fint said.
Caden knew the expected answer. He was supposed to curse the Asennans, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Instead he just nodded, and even that felt wrong.
“What brings you here?” Fint asked.
Apparently his reticence hadn’t gone unnoticed. “I’m on my way to Arren from Redport,” Caden said, hoping no deeper questions were coming.
Fint nodded and they drank the rest of their beer in silence. That night, Caden made sure that his things were packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice. He left the inn before dawn, taking the road that led SouthWest towards Arren, where he hoped he would be able find a ship.
Caden wished he had stayed on the ship, but it was too late for that. The men and women fighting in the streets of Pons had seemed to come out of nowhere. Like a sudden squall, they had just appeared, filling the street from every direction. The combatants wore no uniforms, and it took several minutes of watching before Caden was able to distinguish between the two sides.
One side was clearly more organized, with better weapons and even bits of armor under their ragged clothing. The other was composed of the men and women who lived in the city. None of them wore armor, and their weapons were crude, makeshift things. Even though they were heavily outnumbered, the first group’s discipline gave them a clear advantage.
Caden could see the Arkan seal on some of the first group’s weapons. They had been soldiers, once, although that time looked to be long past. Caden had heard about gangs of deserters grouping together to take over towns or small cities, but had never seen it for himself.
Outside, the battle continued. The townspeople’s losses mounted. Soon the battle would be a rout, and the events that would follow were as terrible as they were predictable. He looked around, but he was still alone in the cafe. He put a coin on the table and got up. When he stepped out into the street with his sword unsheathed, eyes were watching him from the windows above the storefronts.
He was immediately confronted by a former soldier, a man missing the top half of his left ear. The man recognized something in him and turned away. Caden had seen many recruits who wouldn’t strike a man in the back during a battle, but those that survived their compunctions soon lost them. The man went down. By the time any of the others knew what was going on, he had killed three more.
Even after they had noticed him, they were no match. Between their fatigue and his experience, all they could manage were couple of nicks and a few near misses. Then Caden found their leader. He wasn’t wearing anything to identify him as such, but the way the others acted around him made it clear. A mace was dangling from his left hand, even though it was made of solid iron his grip was relaxed and he brought it up with ease.
The man rushed at Caden, so fast that he wouldn’t have been able to bring his sword up in time had it not already been there. The mace was as heavy as it looked, and Caden barely managed to deflect the blow. The man’s momentum carried him past Caden, and the tip of Caden’s sword cut through the skin of the man’s left arm as he turned around. The wound didn’t seem to faze the man at all, and he came at Caden again.
The second time he charged, Caden was prepared. He sidestepped and caught the man in the stomach. Still, he could feel the breeze as the mace passed within inches of his face. The man stumbled, then lurched away, almost tearing the sword out of Caden’s hands as it caught on a bone or a piece of armor. Instead of falling down as he should have, the man straightened up, his wound knitting itself closed as Caden watched. The men closest to their leader stumbled, and a couple of them fell down entirely.
“Monster,” Caden said, his voice almost a growl, but the man only laughed. He was drawing the strength from his followers, as long as they lived he would be nearly invulnerable. But every wound inflicted on the man weakened them, and Caden could see the course of the battle beginning to turn as the townsfolk took advantage of their opponents’ sudden weakness.
Caden lunged at the man, the tip of his sword lancing straight at the man’s throat. The man knocked the attack aside with a wild swing of his mace that threw him off balance. Caden moved in to take advantage of his opponent’s mistake, but the mace was already swinging back towards him. He felt his sword bite down into and then through the man’s shoulder even as the mace connected with his head.
Caden woke in a small cot, crowded into a large room with dozens more. The only signs of anyone else were the bloodstains on the surrounding cots. Sun was lancing through the windows, and for that he was thankful. There was nothing so terrible as waking up in the middle of the night only to be confined with ignorance until dawn.
Outside, the town was gathered around a series of fresh graves, and in front of the group was a priest, wearing the eight pointed star of Arkos. Caden made his way to the back of the crowd, and they were all so absorbed in the ceremony that none of them noticed him. He was relieved to see the masts of his ship still rising over the rooflines of the town. His attention was drawn back to the gathering in front of him.
There were twenty-seven graves, rectangles of black dirt laid out side by side, three rows deep. At the head of each one was a wooden placard with a name written on it, and the priest stopped at each one to sprinkle sea-water from a small bowl. He moved in silence, until he had anointed all of the graves, then he turned to face the townspeople.
“Three days have passed since our town was attacked, and many died, but our town still stands,” he began. “It may be tempting to look back at what happened and feel anger, or sadness, but the truth is that each of these men and women gave their lives willingly, so that all would not have to. Our duty now is to move forward, rebuild, and grow whole again, to do anything else would be to dishonor the memory of those who are buried here today.” He let the words hang in the silence of the gathering before he bowed his head and finished. “The will of Arkos be done.”
The crowd echoed the last words, bowed, and began to disperse. Several of them were surprised to see Caden, but no one addressed him. A few men, women, and children stayed to place flowers on the graves of their loved ones, but soon they too had left. The priest approached Caden.
“Some of the people were worried that you would not wake up,” the priest said. “They said that the leader caught you in the head with that mace of his before you killed him. Is that true?” The two of them started to walk back towards the temple.
“I think so, but I could be mistaken,” Caden said, touching the side of his head but feeling no injury. “Twenty-seven dead, it must be difficult on the town.”
“Yes, but not all of them died in the battle. A half dozen of them were old men and women who were found dead in their homes,” the priest said.
“Will you show me their graves?” Caden asked.
The priest looked at him, into his eyes, then nodded and led him back to the graves. They walked to the back row of graves and gestured to six of them. He listed the names of their occupants, but Caden wasn’t listening. Instead, he pulled out his pocket knife and cut open his thumb, squeezing it as he walked so that a drop or two of blood fell on each of the graves.
“What are you doing?” the priest asked.
“It’s the least that I can do,” Caden said.
Caden was awoken by the sounds of men shouting. He grabbed his sword and vaulted up the stairs until he was on deck, where he was immediately buffeted by passing sailors running in every direction. It was the middle of the night and they were adjusting the rigging and putting out the ship’s lanterns. After the activity died down, Caden found the captain in having a quiet discussion with the navigator.
“If you want to avoid Southgate, we either have to head to Aessler or turn back,” the navigator said. “We don’t have enough supplies for anything else.”
“Alright, set the course to Aessler, then,” the captain said.
“An army,” Caden said.
“Exactly. I have no desire to surrender my ship or my crew to whatever force is gathering there, and that is almost certainly what would have happened if we had continued,” the captain said, glancing at the long sword that Caden held in his left hand. “I apologize, but Aessler is the best we are going to be able to do. There are smaller ports in between, but we don’t want to be stuck for a month because we can’t resupply.”
“I understand,” Caden said, and the captain relaxed. “Where is Aessler, exactly? I’ve never heard of the place.”
“It’s about a third of the way up the East coast of the Oleccian mainland,” the Captain said, pointing to the map that was spread out on the table.
“That will work,” Caden said, as though he had a choice. At least it was closer to his destination, not farther.
A week of tight rations later, they arrived in the small port town of Aessler. It was a decent sized town, but they were the only ship in the harbor, all the others presumably pressed into service for the Arkan campaign.
“I don’t suppose that I can convince you to continue North to Zenia?” Caden asked the captain as he disemarked.
“Unfortunately, no,” the captain said. “I’ve lost enough on this run already. We will spend a couple of weeks in port, then head back down to Southgate, if that’s still where you want to go.”
“Thanks, but I’ll find passage North from here.”
Caden had used the extra week at sea to study the maps. Although they weren’t very detailed when it came to the inland areas, it looked like there was a road that ran through the mountains to Zenia. It would add extra time to his trip, but at least he wouldn’t be stranded waiting for another ship.
He found an inn by the waterfront and rented a room. It was more expensive than he would have liked, but he didn‘t complain. The rest of the evening was spent eating and washing the salt off of his skin until he felt almost clean. After that, he had trouble falling asleep without the rhythmic rocking of the ship.
Caden bolted awake at sudden voice in his ear. He reached, but there was nothing at hand. A young woman was standing over him.
“Get up!“ She said, her voice a harsh combination of loud and soft.
“What is it?“ Caden asked.
“They‘re going to conscript you. We need to leave. Now.“ She kept on looking towards the door, as though it might burst open at any time.
“Conscript me?“ he asked. Her words didn‘t seem to fit together in his sleep-addled mind.
“For the army that will march on Asenn. They saw your sword,“ she said.
At the mention of his sword, everything made sense. If he didn‘t leave the inn immediately, he wouldn‘t leave on his feet. He got out of bed and gathered his things, glad he hadn‘t had a chance to unpack them from the oiled leathers. When he started towards the door, the woman moved to stop him.
“They‘ll be waiting,“ she said. “We need to go out the window.“
He nodded, and moved to the window. It was high and small, but large enough to fit through. After running his fingers around the casement in the darkness, he could find no catch or hinges. He smashed it with his sheathed sword. running it along the edges to clear them of broken glass. He could hear yelling from the hallway.
“You first,“ he said.
The woman nodded and he hoisted her up. He tossed his bag out after her, hoping that she wasn‘t a thief, then followed, the lingering glass cutting into his sides as he slid through. Finally he was through, landing hard on his side. The woman was waiting for him with his things when he got up. He looked back and saw that angry faces had appeared in the window.
Without any need for discussion, the two of them ran, the woman leading, Caden following and hoping that she knew her way. She led them into the woods, and he could hear their pursuers crashing their way though the underbrush behind them.
The trees had not yet gained their spring leaves, and the stars and moon provided enough light to keep Caden from running into a tree, but not enough to keep them from leaving a trail that a child could follow.
“Wait,” Caden yelled as loud as he dared when they broke into a small clearing. She stopped and waited for him to catch his breath. “We won’t be able to lose them tonight.”
“I don’t see that we have much of a choice,” she said. She nodded to the trees where they could hear their pursuers drawing closer.
“If we keep running, we’ll be completely exhausted when they catch us,” he said. “Which they will, if not tonight, then in the morning. We might as well wait for them here.” He untied the hilt of his sword and tossed his bag at the woman’s feet.
“You’re going to fight them?” she asked.
“Not if I don’t have to,” he said. “Go, take my things and hide in the trees. If things don’t go well, take my things and run.”
She nodded and grabbed his bag before heading into the trees. She had just gotten out of sight when four men came into the clearing. They looked around, and it took them a moment to register that he was waiting for them.
“So you’ve decided to give up?” the oldest of them said. He was clearly their leader, but by his looks a good decade younger than Caden. The rest of them looked to still be in their second decades. They wore simple clothing and even in the starlight Caden could see the nicks and chips in their sword blades.
“No,” Caden said. “I’m giving you the chance to turn around and go back to your families. Tell whoever has you searching that you couldn’t catch me, or that a boar got me, anything you want. I don’t care.”
“And why would we do that?” the leader asked.
“Because if you don’t, I will kill all four of you.” Caden unsheathed his sword. The oiled metal gleamed. “This is your last chance.”
He could see them tense. They were scared, but not about-to-run scared, about-to-fight scared. The clearing wasn’t very big, he was only a few steps from them, and when he started to advance, they ran at him.
They clearly thought him too old to be a threat, and it was true that he wasn’t nearly as fast as he had been in his youth, but he had found that experience more than countered any loss of speed. A few moments of fighting and there were four dead men in the clearing.
The woman came out of the trees a moment later, still holding his bags. “That was–”
“We need to go,” Caden cut her off. He crouched down and wiped his sword off on one of their sleeves.
“Shouldn’t we at least check them for money or food?” she asked.
“It’s bad enough that they died for no reason. Let the bodies be.”
She didn’t say anything but led him to a narrow trail at the far edge of the clearing. They walked in silence through the woods.
“I’m Keia, by the way,” the woman said after they had walked for a while.
“I’m Caden, and I suppose I should thank you. How did you know what they were planning?”
“I heard them talking about it in the common room after you came in. I’m sorry I couldn’t get to you sooner, but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. Not that it did much good.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself. If it had come to violence in the town, I would be bound for Southgate by now,” Caden said. “Why did you risk yourself to help me?”
“If the army needs soldiers, then they need everything else as well, and I didn’t want to stick around to see what would happen when someone noticed that I was traveling alone,” she said.
Caden didn’t have a reply for that, and he walked in silence for a bit before talking again.”Where are we headed?”
“I was on my way to Zenia, and I guess you are now, too. Unless you want to head back to Aessler, that is,” she said.
“I had been under the impression that I would have to wait a month or more for the mountain passes to clear,” Caden said. “Was that a lie to keep me in town?”
“No, the passes won’t be clear yet,” Keia said. “Don’t worry, we can make it. So long as we have the right supplies.” She looked back and caught Caden’s worried look. “My father made the trip several times. It won’t be fun, but it is possible.”
“Look!” Keia shouted.
“What?” Caden asked, looking around but seeing nothing other than the the forest on the West side of the road.
“The trees! This is the first real forest that we’ve seen in Olec.”
She was right. Even when they crossed the mountains, the trees had all been young, even the largest of them hadn’t been half the size of the ones he was looking at now. Still, he couldn’t share her excitement. Old forests were dangerous, holding everything from ambushes to bandits to boars. There were few things worse than being trapped in a dense forest at night, where even the brightest torch stood no chance of dispelling the suffocating darkness.
“We should move on,” he said.
She looked at his face, and as though she was reading his thoughts turned back to the forest, this time without a smile. She nodded, and focused again on the road ahead of them. The perk that had gone into her step at the sight of the forest vanished just as quickly.
Caden woke in the middle of the night to find Keia missing. Here things were still there, but it looked as though she had just gotten up and wandered off. He looked at the forest and a wave of dread hit him. He waited for as long as he could stand it, hoping that she would come back to the campsite after relieving her bladder, but the night was still. With his sword in one hand and a small lantern in the other, he started towards the forest.
Directly across the road, there was a small path leading into the forest that he hadn’t noticed when they had stopped. He followed it, stepping deeper into the darkness. The lantern cast light on the path in front of him, but did not seem to illuminate beyond the trunks at the path’s edge. The night was warm, but still a shiver came over him, and he felt his hairs standing on edge. As he walked, Caden became aware that the forest had gone silent, as though there was a large predator nearby. He hoped that he was that animal, but doubted it.
The trees began to thin out, becoming small and twisted as he continued until a crack of sky was visible. Soon the stars added their light to that of the globe. The trees ended in a ragged line that curved forward on either side of him, and were replaced by tall yellow grasses. There was a narrow path through them, the grass freshly trampled. Up ahead were two figures, standing still in the starlight. Caden thought that he recognized one of them as Keia, and hurried towards them as quietly as he was able.
A dozen paces from the two figures, the grass ended, leaving only bare earth with only a few weeds poking through. Keia was standing with her back facing him, facing a man who was standing an arm’s length away. Neither of them moved as Caden neared them, his sword drawn. He grabbed her shoulder with his free hand. Nothing happened. He shook her. She half-turned half-stumbled towards him and he had to dance aside to avoid catching her with his blade. His eyes went to the figure in front of them.
The figure was made of stone.
He was afraid stop looking at the statue. It was too detailed, too vivid, full of rage and despair. He sheathed his sword and grabbed Keia under the arms and started pulling her backwards out of the clearing. When his foot caught on something and he almost fell, he saw that the ground around the statue was bare rock, lustrous and cracked like pottery that had been improperly fired.
Caden kept his eyes on the statue until he reached the tree line. Keia was limp in his arms for the entire walk back to their camp, and by the time he laid her down on her blanket he was covered in sweat. He added more wood to the fire and started to make tea, sure that he wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep.
“What happened?” Keia asked, causing Caden to nearly drop his cup.
“I don’t know, I woke and you were missing.”
“Where was I?”
Caden nodded his head towards the forest, and Keia looked at the path in disbelief. For a moment Caden worried that she would insist that he show her the clearing, but she only looked at him and he realized that she wanted him to tell her what he had seen.
“The path over there,” he began. “It leads through the woods and into a clearing. That was where I found you.”
“That’s it? A clearing in the woods?”
“No, there was a figure – a statue – in the clearing. It was a man with his sword drawn part-way. He was wearing some sort of military uniform, but not one that I have ever seen before.” Caden drank some more of his tea. “It scared me. I felt like any moment he was going to spring to life and kill me.”
Keia laughed. “I have a hard time picturing you worrying about a swordsman.”
“Thanks,” Caden said. “But whether it was the artist who made that statue or something else entirely, I wouldn’t want to face down a tea master with that kind of determination.”
Keia laid back down on her blankets, but did not close her eyes.
“Don’t worry, I’ll keep watch,” he said. “Get some rest, I want to be clear of this place as early as possible.”
Caden had imagined that once he arrived at Zenia, he would simply be able to find a ship to take him to Ravos, and from there to Crest Island. The first part had worked out, but the ship had gotten caught in a squall a day out of port. They had barely limped into the small port of Yasiliki with a broken mast and no prospects of moving any time soon. It wasn’t the delay that bothered him, though. After parting ways with Keia in Zenia, he felt alone. He and his wife had never had children, but if they had, he wanted to believe that it would have been like spending time with Keia.
Once they arrived in port, it had become clear that he would have to wait until the ship was repaired, a process that would likely take the better part of a month. There were plenty of boats in the harbor, but Caden wouldn’t have risked the open ocean in them, even if their captains had been willing. So he took the cheapest room he could find at the dockside inn, but within a couple of days the waiting started to get to him.
“What do people do around here this time of year?“ he asked the innkeeper.
“They fish and they drink,“ the man said.
“I was afraid you’d say that,“ Caden said.
“In a few weeks, we‘ll start seeing people for the pilgrimage, but that‘s it.“
“The pilgrimage?“ Caden asked.
“Yeah, there‘s a shrine a couple days’ walk inland,“ he said. “If you‘re desperate for something to do you could probably make it now, but it wouldn‘t be a pleasant trip.“
Caden ate breakfast while they talked about the shrine. In the end, he bought a week worth of dried food and arranged to have his things held for him at the inn. He left immediately, following the main road through the town and into the forest.
The innkeeper had been right. The route had been unpleasant. While most of the snow had melted, it had left behind a sticky mud and after two days of plodding, Caden felt nothing but a burning in his legs.
The shrine itself was located halfway up the slope of a valley, overlooking a clear blue lake. A terrace had been cut out of the rock, leaving a perfectly squared standing stone that was supposed to represent all of the energies of the island. A wooden pavilion had been erected against the rock wall, and Caden had been glad of the shelter the night he arrived.
When he woke up the next morning Caden saw the shrine as though for the first time. The standing stone was polished and shone in the morning sun, seeming to dispel the mists that cloaked the rest of the valley.
He walked around the stone, inspecting it. It had no markings of any kind, and there didn’t appear to be any message hidden among the varicolored specks in the grey stone. Finally, he touched it. The stone was as smooth as it looked, but it was also warm, far warmer than the air around him. He walked around to the shadowed side, and found it equally warm. He put his left hand on the stone next to his right, and immediately jumped back.
The ring that had been melted into his skin all those months ago was burning. The sensation wasn‘t the same as it had been when it melted, it was more like the soreness of muscles. Slowly, the burn moved up his arm and shoulder, eventually manifesting itself as a headache behind his eyes. He shut them and massaged he bridge of his nose, but the headache didn‘t go away.
When he opened his eyes again the world had been replaced by golden light, as bright as the midday sun. As his eyes adjusted, the light became bearable, and soon he could see make out a fountain of it rising out of the top of the stone first straight up and then arcing over the mountains and to the East.
Caden stepped back in order to take in the scale of what he was seeing, and half jumped when he looked down. The ground was covered with a multitude of golden strands, miniature versions of the fountain in front of him that clung to the ground and followed its every contour.
After staring at them for a while, he noticed that they appeared to be moving like line being drawn out of the water. That was when he noticed that they weren‘t continuous but had distinct beginnings and ends. The closer he looked, the more he was able to distinguish between individual strands. Some were small and quick, others were large and slow. They were all being gathered, concentrated, by the stone. The ultimate destination of the fountain was unclear, but somewhere inside Caden knew that it was headed to Crest Island.
The morning became afternoon as he studied it. It was only the growling of his stomach and aching of his bladder that brought him any awareness of time. He went back to the pavilion and dug a piece of salted cod out and some hard bread of his bag.
He had to force himself to eat, the stone was transfixing to look at, like watching water run down a stream, endless and ever-changing. Finally he could stand it no more and repacked the half-eaten food in its oilcloth. He walked over to the stone, he tried to ignore the strands that moved through his feet as he walked. He tried to avoid them, but near the stone, they were so dense that he couldn’t see the ground beneath them.
He grabbed onto the top of the stone and tried to pull himself up, but it was over his head and there were no footholds on the stone’s smooth sides. He backed off and looked around the terrace. Medium sized rocks were scattered at the edge of the clearing. He collected them, carrying the ones he could lift and rolling the ones he couldn’t, until he had piled together a rough step at the base of the stone. He climbed up on top.
The top was as smooth as the sides, with the fountain of light appearing to come straight out of the stone. A smell like rich, earthy compost ready to be tilled into the garden filled his nose. Whatever was making it happen was locked inside. It was disappointing, he had hoped for arcane writing, or a geometric pattern, anything. He started to get down, and in a careless movement his hand touched the light.
It was like being reborn, painful and wondrous at the same time. He was filled with energy, seemingly too much for his body to hold, and he felt his weariness fade. His wounds, some new and some more than a decade old, started to burn as they repaired themselves. He felt more alive than any time he could remember.
The feeling didn’t last long, however. He felt something, a distant force of will, turn to him, like a spider that has felt the vibrations of a fly newly caught in its web. As quickly as the energy had surged through him, it was cut off, and it was as though all of the air had been sucked from his lungs.
Caden didn’t know how long he had lain on the ground, staring into the steel-grey sky, but eventually the shock wore off. His body was still whole, and though he no longer felt the swelling of energy inside himself, the hurts from old wounds hadn’t returned. His spirit had no such good fortune. There was a new void in his soul, as though every loss and regret, no matter how large or small, had come together to leave a gaping hole in his life. He could barely find the will to walk back to the pavilion and crawl under his blanket before falling asleep.
When he woke, it was dark out, or at least the sun had gone down, the fountain of light illuminated the entire terrace step to his eyes. He could see winks of golden light making their way across the ground in the distance, passing behind and through and under obstacles to create a sort of perpetual twinkling. He could still smell the scent from the top of the fountain, but he could also smell the decay that was mixed in with it. The despair that he had felt after being thrown from the pillar had faded but not disappeared. A part of him knew that it would never go away.
As he sat there, sheltered by the stone, only the occasional strand was visible. That was when he noticed lines similar to the ones connected to the pillar connected to him like a puppeteer‘s strings. They were silver rather than gold, and they hung in the air straight as a taut fishing line, some of them appearing to come from or through the stone itself. They seemed to have no beginning or end, and the closer he looked, the more he saw, until it appeared that he was at the center of a loom.
They were much fainter, and after a few dozen yards, they faded into invisibility. He tried to touch them, but his hands passed through without so much as a tingle. So he tried to focus his mind on individual strings. At first all he was able to perceive was a faint sense of warmth, like the heat radiating from a hearth at the far end of a room. As with the fountain light, the more he looked, the more he was able to differentiate the individual strands. He closed his eyes and noticed the smell of something sharp and crisp like lime juice but not. The smell was faint, but he was far enough away from the pillar that it overpowered the compost smell. He opened his eyes again.
They were of different thicknesses and opacity. He picked out the thickest and strongest of them. At first there was nothing, but then he began to think of Keia. It wasn’t anything concrete, he didn’t see her face, it was more like how she might sound breathing in her sleep or how her home might smell when she wasn’t there. He explored the feeling, and found that he could somehow pull on it, drawing the string to himself. Some small fraction of the void that had opened up inside of him at the pillar folded in on itself and disappeared, and he felt a brief spark of life flow into him, warming his cheeks against the night’s chill. But he also felt that sound of breathing skip a beat, stutter for a moment. He pulled away from the strings and shut his eyes.
All he could see, however, was the man he had killed in Pons, the monster who had drawn on the life energies of his men to strengthen himself. Caden had no doubt that the silvery strings were the same thing, that he was no different from that beast. How many lives had it cost to survive being thrown into the sea by Arkos? How many mortal wounds had simply been transferred to an innocent person whose only crime was to know him? Had he been the cause of Tara’s death?
Where the events at the stone had torn apart a portion of his soul, he now felt that his entire insides had been hollowed out. For the first time since he had returned to find his home empty, he cried.
The energy he had absorbed had removed all trace of fatigue, but it was the fear of what his dreams would be that kept Caden from sleeping. He built a small fire and stared into the shifting flames until morning. He packed his things and began his hike back to Yasiliki.
The port town was a wholly different place with Caden’s new vision. Many people appeared to be normal, but some started to exude strands of golden light that moved along the ground towards the shrine. Almost all of the people who gave off the light were older, and it seemed the weaker they were, the more light came from them.
“It’s their life,” Caden said to himself as he watched an old man hobble along the street, pausing every couple of steps for a cough that spasmed his entire body. The strand of light, the distilled essence of his life, was coming out of him was like a rope.
He walked, aimless, watching the people around him. Eventually his feet took him to the docks, where writhing masses of fish were being offloaded from the ships and butchers worked next to the water, removing the heads and cleaning the bodies. Each time a cleaver came down, a spark of golden life came out. Caden almost jumped when the sparks hit the ground and instead of routing towards the shrine, just fell and disappeared into the ground, completely absorbed.
He thought back to the people he had talked to, who talked about declining fish stocks and barren fields. The life was being sucked out of the land, funneled to Arkos. Caden knew what he had to do, if not how, and although the emptiness remained inside, at least he was once again animated by purpose.
“When are we going to sail he asks!” the captain said, his voice colored with humor as though he were entertaining a crowd. “We limped into port only last week and already you are eager to leave. It wasn’t until three days ago that our shipwright was able to find a suitable tree to replace our broken mast. The wood won’t be ready for a couple of days, and then we have to install it and reset all of the rigging.”
“I understand,” Caden said. “I was simply asking if there was anything I could do to help.” With his eyes opened to it, Caden couldn’t help but notice the silver strand that connected him to the captain. It was finer than a human hair, but it was there nonetheless.
“We can always use a strong back, but this disaster has nearly bankrupted me. I cannot afford to pay another laborer,” the captain said.
“I never said anything about getting paid. If my assistance would shorten our time here by even a single day it would be more than worth the time I put in,” Caden said.
“Free labor, those are words I understand! Is this place really so bad?” he asked.
“It’s not this place–” Caden began before he caught the joke. “When can I start?”
“As soon as you like,” the captain said. “Are you angling to join the crew? Because if you are, I must warn you, this lot resents a strong work ethic.”
“Let me change into some rougher clothes, and I’ll head to the ship,” Caden said.
“When you do, look for Enna, he’ll be the one yelling,” the captain said.
After Caden had changed and was approaching the ship, he heard the first mate yelling, forcing a procrustean order onto the sailors who seemed to be running in every direction. Caden boarded the ship and approached the man, who regarded him suspiciously.
“Are you Enna?” Caden asked.
“That’s me. What do you need?” Enna said.
“I’ve volunteered to help out with the repairs, and was told that you would be able to find a use for me,” Caden said.
“Have any useful skills that I should know about?” Enna asked and Caden shook his head no. “Well, we can always use more men on the capstan, go replace Shea and send him back to me.”
Caden did as Enna asked, and soon was helping to rotate the massive machine alongside three other men whose names he didn’t know. If there was any conversation between them, either his arrival or the exertion of the work had silenced it, which was just as well. As much as Caden wanted to avoid many of his thoughts, he knew that there were others that needed to be worked out.
When his circular path aligned his eyes to the shore, he could see flashes of golden light moving towards the shrine. He could also see the silvery strands connected to the center of his being. At his last encounter with Arkos, the man-god had said that he didn’t understand how Caden had survived. Did that mean that he couldn’t see the silvery strands, that they were beneath his attention, or that he was simply too immersed in the golden light to see anything else. In any case, if a creature like Arkos, so cleary obsessed with gathering power, didn’t use the silver energy, how powerful could it be?
The question went unanswered in Caden’s mind, and soon his thoughts started to wander, eventually making their way back to which of his wounds might have killed his wife. It was too much to bear. He pushed the thoughts away and focused on the rhythm of his breath, the pattern of his steps, and the movement of the capstan.
9 - Orden
Although Caden had been to the city of Orden twice before, he had never strayed far from the docks, as it had never before been than a waypoint on the path to Crest Island. So when he looked at it as they sailed towards the port, he was doing so for the first time.
Orden was like a massive vining plant made of stone and wood, growing out of the hill that rose above the river Ord’s delta, with its tendrils following the pull of gravity all the way down to the delta itself to drink the economic lifeblood of trade. The grey stone of the buildings on the hill stood in sharp contrast to the wooden transience of the buildings on the delta, waiting to be swept away by the next flood. As he had hoped, a massive fountain of light was coming from the center of the city and arcing to the East, like the one at the shrine but a hundred times larger.
Caden retrieved his bags and made noncommittal noises when the captain told him that the ship would be in port for a week and offered him further passage on the ship, if he wanted it. Caden was so focused on not seeing the silver strand that connected them and seemed to have grown thicker that he barely heard the words. Even in the overcast weather, it might as well have been high noon on the solstice with the illumination provided by the golden light that moved towards the hill. He walked, following the light, with legs shaky from his time at sea. There was a broad avenue that arrowed directly at the center of the city, and as he climbed the hill, he saw the buildings around him replaced first with finer wood and then with the city’s ubiquitous grey stone.
He kept on walking, and the farther he went, the more dense the strands of light became as they converged on his path. Then he came to a plaza so bright as to be difficult to look at. He had expected to see a worked stone like the one at Yasiliki, but the only structure was a large fountain in the center. He walked around the fountain, examining it, but as far as he could tell, it was mundane. Then he looked down.
The entire plaza was one seamless slab of basalt. He had been correct about there being a stone like he had seen on Yasiliki, he was standing on it.
The realization was crushing. He had hoped to find something on a similar scale. A small stone like that he might have been able to destroy. It was clear that he could not destroy the Orden stone, he might as well try and swallow the sea.
Depressed, Caden found an inn not far from the plaza, and booked a room that faced the harbor. He hoped that sleep would help to provide an answer, but sleep didn’t come.
It was night outside and the streets were empty. Alone and unarmed, he walked back to the plaza, where it was still as bright as day to his eyes. He stared at the fountain of light. He stared with no awareness of the passage of time, as if in a trance. No answers came to him.
He walked to the center of the plaza and waded into the fountain. He was soaked through by the spray as he pushed his way through the geysers of water that jetted up, propelled by Arkos’s will, an ever-present reminder of his power to the people of Orden. The center of the fountain was empty, bare stone walled off from the water of the fountain. That close to it, Caden could feel the heat that it gave off. He paused, then stepped into it.
He knew what was coming, and opened himself to it. Power, more power than he had thought contained in the entire world, filled him until he thought he would burst with it. But he did not. A moment later, he felt the same will that he had felt at Yasiliki moving again to shake him off like a drop of water. But he was prepared for it, too, and held on, embracing the flow of power. The water ceased to jet out of the fountain and the world was still.
“I see that you have figured it out.” The voice filled the air, as though it had come from both nowhere and everywhere. But Caden knew that it had come from behind him.
Caden turned to face Arkos. “Yes.”
“And you think that you can take it from me?” the god-man said.
Caden didn’t answer, he was looking closely at Arkos. Something was wrong, but not in a way that sparked worry, the very idea of worrying seeming alien in his state. Then he realized that he could see through Arkos, or rather, the projection of Arkos.
“You are a–” the projection began, but was cut off as Caden laughed. He opened himself even more and felt the projection being drawn into him like water into dry sand. Caden wasn’t sure what would happen next, so he waited.
He didn’t know how long it took, but the sun was not yet up when Arkos, the real Arkos, arrived. The marble-white being strode up the hill, the entire wold trembling around him. It didn’t show any concern, didn’t even look directly at Caden, but just examined the stone of the plaza.
“I can see that you encountered Tacitus, my old rival, I can smell him on you,” Arkos said.
Unbidden, the image of the living statue in Waylan came to Caden’s mind, along with the concomitant sadness of that place. He knew that if he failed, he would not die, but would suffer the same fate, sealed in stone.
“I am not him, I will destroy you,” Caden said.
“Do you honestly believe that? The power that you feel right now, I have that a thousandfold and a thousandfold again. What chance do you have against me?”
Caden did not answer, but waited.
“Maybe after a few centuries to reflect on your hubris, you will have an answer,” Arkos said.
Caden still did not answer. He was holding himself as tight as possible to the stream of energy, expecting Arkos to attempt to tear him from it. But he felt no pull.
Instead, Arkos began to glow with white light and a roaring filled Caden’s ears. He was not exuding raw power, but heat. The water in the fountains boiled away in an instant as the heat built. The exposed wood of the structures at the periphery of the plaza burst into flame. Caden was thankful for the thunderous noise, the screams of the people of Orden burning in their homes would have been too much. Soon, all of the air had been sucked from Caden’s chest until he was sustained only by the energy coursing through his body. The stone under foot began to shake and groan as the heat began to warp its hidden flaws. Still the heat increased. Caden knew there was nothing he could do, but watched helpless as the hill itself began to slough down towards the river, bringing the city with it in a steaming and burning landslide. He could see the squared edge of the plaza stone, but even that began to soften as it melted. Caden lost consciousness.
When he regained his senses, it was daylight and Arkos was standing over him framed by smoke and drifting ash. As tired as the man-god looked, Caden felt worse, every speck of energy he had absorbed spent in keeping him alive.
Arkos reached down and grabbed Caden by the neck, his hand as hard and cool. He pulled Caden upright and let go. Caden stumbled but somehow managed to keep his feet.
“You are nothing if not persistent,” Arkos said. “If you want to keep any of your dignity through the centuries, I suggest you compose yourself.”
Caden tried to pull himself upright, but couldn’t manage even that, weak as he was. Arkos reached out again, but when they touched, Caden could feel the life being pulled from his body, and he knew that if he did nothing, he wouldn’t be anything more than an ageless husk, watching over the centuries as Arkos continued to shape the world in his own image.
Caden looked around, hoping to find some stray fragment of the golden energy that Arkos had overlooked. There was no sign of life on the scorched earth. Then the smell of citrus caught his attention. He looked down at his chest and saw the lines of silvery energy that had been so abhorrent that he had willed himself not to see them at all. He looked at what had once been Orden, and thought of what Arkos would do to the world unchallenged. He pulled them, all of them, pulled every bit of energy they could carry.
For the second time that day, he was full to bursting with power, but the experience was tempered by the feeling of those strings being cut one by one as he drew too much from them.
Arkos appeared to be unaware of all of this, and was taken by surprise when Caden lunged at him, catching him full it the chest and knocking him onto his back. The man-god was back on his feet in an instant however, and caught Caden’s fist with ease. The reply to the blow knocked Caden backwards and sent him sliding, the rough ground tearing at his back.
Caden got back up to find Arkos staring at him like he was a child’s enigma, merely a puzzle to be solved. Even with the energy he had absorbed at such great cost, Caden was no match for Arkos, and the fact that Arkos did not know how he had come by it was of little comfort. He felt the will to fight drain out of him.
Arkos picked Caden up again, and again began to drain him. At that proximity, however, Caden could see the faintest silver strand between himself and the man-god. He pulled on it, but to no effect. He could feel the life being sucked out of him.
When he was young, Caden’s father had told him a story about a poor fisherman.
The man was so poor that he had lost everything: most of his equipment, his friends, his family. All he was left with was a tiny boat and some line, and he still had to eat. So one day, he had let his boat drift out into the current, until he was taken far from land. There, he had dropped his line with its unbaited hook into the water and waited. Day turned into night and night into dawn, and finally, in the early hours, something had bit. The man pulled on the line, but whatever had the other end was too big. The man waited, hoping the beast would swim closer to the surface and make his work easier, but it did not. Finally, he was faced with the prospect of cutting the line or pulling it in, whatever the cost. He had reached his limit, and when he was about to cut the line, he hesitated, and instead set his knife down. He wrapped the line around his gnarled hands and pulled, the thin line cutting into his flesh, he pulled and was able to draw the line in towards him a little. Hands bloody, he pulled again, wrapping every little bit around himself to keep it from slipping back into the deep. When evening came, the fish was in his boat, so big that the little vessel nearly capsized. The man started to row towards home. The next day, the people of his village found him washed ashore in his little dinghy. He was laying down next to the fish, and they were both dead. The man’s family buried him and sold the fish for enough to make it through the winter.
Caden had never understood the story when he was young, and when he had left home to join the Dragoons, he suspected that he never would. But looking at the tiny strand that joined him and Arkos, he knew what he needed to do.
He pulled on it again, pulled with all his being, and energy came through the connection even as the strand cut him apart inside. Arkos noticed this, and started to pull energy back from Caden with more urgency, but Caden had a grip and was able to pull faster. He did not know how long it went on like that, but at some point the scales tipped and the stream of energy that he pulled from Arkos became a river.
Sometime during the struggle, Arkos had dropped Caden, and when it was done, the man-god stood over him. Caden would have expected Arkos to become more human as the power was drawn from him, but whatever humanity had animated his marble complexion had fled, leaving mere stone in its place. A hot breeze blew through what had once been the plaza, and Arkos began to disintegrate, minuscule bits carried off by the wind. When the breeze ceased, all that was left of what had once been his god was a pile of white dust.
Caden sat down. He knew that what he had done was terrible, but he could not bring himself to regret it. Even so, he knew that if he tried to live with it, he could well end up like Arkos. He felt along his connections until he found Keia. She was weak, almost dead, and he hoped that she was somewhere safe. He pushed the energy that he had stolen from Arkos out to her until he felt that she could take no more, then he started to push it out along every path that remained.
Eventually, he had pushed so much out of himself that he could no longer sit up, so he lay down. At the very end, when he had hollowed himself out, he saw a golden strand begin to seep from his body. When it touched the ground it was simply absorbed.
Caden did not know if the coming darkness would take him to where Tara was, or somewhere else, but he had done all he could do. He closed his eyes and relaxed, finally at peace.