KINGS IN DISGUISE
by John Syron, posted on January 6th, 2005
Chapter 1 ~ Chapter 2 ~ Chapter 3 ~ Chapter 4 ~ Chapter 5 ~ Chapter 6
The reanimated man entered Madame Lil's through the servants' entrance. Virgil, coming down the stairs, glanced at him before kissing Laura goodbye. The former maid had fitted in well with the rest of Madame Lil's soiled doves, once Malan Wetherby had talked her into giving Lil's house a try. Tending toward plumpness, the red-blonde girl hugged Virgil with unfeigned affection. "See you soon, darlin," she whispered before returning upstairs. "Did I tell you Lil is teachin me to keep the books? Surely beats scrubbin floors, this does." Her Roseborough brogue was as rich as ever; it had been one of the first things that had caught his notice, nostalgic for his Caladon boyhood.
Virgil noticed the apparent half-ogre still standing cap in hand and waiting for the madame. He paused a moment; trying not to stare at the fellow customer. Something about this one. Virgil waited by the kitchen, trying to look inconspicuous as the half-ogre spoke to the formidable Madame Lil.
The former thief was unsurprised that the ogre chose Bunny. The pert minx was half-elf, her tongue as sharp as the points on her ears. As she sized up the new customer, Virgil could hear her say "Ogre, huh. It'll cost ye extra." As she swayed up the stairs with him, Virgil turned to Madame Lil and asked who he was.
Lil was reluctant to discuss the customers until Virgil discreetly passed her a few gold pieces. "The Mule?" she at last said. "He's in the freak show over at Parnell's. An interesting boyo, that one. Not so sure he's as dumb as most half-ogres."
Virgil thanked her and walked into the docklands night. The warehouse wasn't many blocks farther south. As he strolled through the gaslit evening, still a little warm from his time with Laura, he reached a decision. Time to talk to Malan.
J. T. Parnell was a large, florid man with an equally red nose and the gift of the blarney. His establishment was popular with all walks of life in Tarant. Even though most of the rubes knew they were seeing fake exhibits, such was his showmanship that most didn't mind.
"Boss, what the hell are we doin here," said Dante. "So Parnell got a new geek after 'Gar, the World's Smartest Orc' got his walkin papers. So what. Let's go."
"Shhh," said Virgil. "The show's starting."
The half-ogre sat on the small platform, dressed in short pants and a robe, looking not unlike a pugilist. Outwardly impassive, Mule was smiling inside at the whole situation.
"The Reanimated Man!", cried Parnell in his nasal but resonant stage voice, throwing his arms wide with a flourish. "The sundered races of Arcanum brought together in one being, restored to life by the lightning harnessed by mankind!"
Mule stood and took off the robe, standing bare-chested. A woman in the audience fainted; many of the other patrons stood with mouths agape.
The being who stood in the footlights had the barrel chest and titanic right arm of an ogre, but his left arm seemed elven; slender and well-proportioned. His head was on the human side of half-ogre, and Mule's legs might well have been half-orc, powerful but a little bandy-legged. All of his joints seemed to bear the scars of stitches. Virgil noted uneasily that no two of Mule's limbs had exactly the same complexion.
Malan was silent. After the show, he conferred with Parnell; money changed hands. A private show, to take place at the warehouse.
The next day, Mule and the party of adventurers stood in the training dojo of Plough's warehouse. Natural light slanted on the polished wooden floor. Malan studied the half-ogre, if such he was.
"Boss, what the hell you doin?" said Dante. Malan had inclined his head. Mule nodded back, regally.
"For Nasrudin's sake, shut up, Dante," hissed Virgil. "Can't you sense it too?"
Dante studied Mule for a moment with his inner eye. His eyes widened. "The geek * He's got as much mana as you an me *."
"Put together," finished Virgil.
Mule attempted to speak, but shook his head after a few gargled words. His hands began gesturing, rather fluidly Virgil thought.
Raven murmured, "The hunter's sign language of the Bedokaan tribes. But with * some additions?"
Malan was signing back, translating aloud. " 'Additions of my own. It is good to finally meet you and your adventurers, Malan.' "
"Halcyon on a crutch," muttered Dante. "Looks like we done met the one exhibit of J. T's that's real."
Some while later, Mule slid the mica screen aside and knelt patiently outside the training hall while the others conferred.
"So he's not undead?" queried Virgil.
Malan shook his head. "I would sense the wrongness if he had been raised by a necromancer, as would you. There is something different about his soul, though. I will have to remember its signature."
Raven said, "He can't go back to the show, Malan. We shall have to reach a financial understanding with Parnell * again." The company winced a little, remembering the Stillwater Giant snipe hunt of a few years back.
Said Malan, "I need to study the Mule, and perhaps train him. We can always use adventurers; but we have to know his strengths and limitations."
Agreeing, the company called Mule back in.
Once Mule was kneeling with the others, Malan gestured and spoke at the same time: "Mule, there are weeks at a time when we are on expedition. Although we have silent wards on our building, we could use a watchman while we're away. Would you be interested?"
At Mule's nod, Wetherby continued. "We can't pay much *. Money is not important to the company. But you will train and study as we do when we're in town."
As an answer, Mule picked a curved Kree bone dagger from the wall and cut his palm, then offered it to Malan. Dante nodded approvingly as they sealed the bargain. "This one's old school."
In the days that followed, the company tested Mule. Again, the company met in the training room while Mule waited elsewhere. Dante was the first to report: the Mule's combat instincts were good enough to be frightening; if Dante could have only worked with him from childhood, Mule might have been the greatest fighter of modern times, "An I ain't blowin smoke," concluded Dante, not one given to exaggerate where it counted.
"Virgil?" queried Wetherby.
"He can become a master of gestural spells, Mal. But since his voice isn't hooked up right, somehow, he will never be a master of spells requiring words of power along with the mudras."
"Raven?" said Malan.
"He's the strongest of us physically, and has the most endurance. Except for fire, which seems to be a weakness. His mana is strong; he can learn to be a mage, perhaps a great one."
The company was silent for a moment, considering. The work songs of the stevedores could be heard in the distance. At last Malan stirred.
"He will always be underestimated, particularly by a people such as Tarant. You've seen how the wrong accent, the wrong background, an unusual appearance are increasingly unacceptable."
Virgil said, "He can be our eyes, here and elsewhere. The Mule can go where we can't -- we're spread too thin as it is."
Malan raised a hand. "I agree. His training begins today."
The Mule settled into a routine identical to that of the company while in town. Mornings were spent in combat and spell training; afternoons were typically filled with study at the respected university and library of Tarant, mixed with lectures from mages brought to the warehouse as adjunct teachers. As ever, Dante proved a good instructor in both firearms and melee weapons. Virgil concentrated on spell and theological instruction, and Raven taught Mule of the history and customs of Arcanum's races.
But other training followed over the months. Virgil and Dante between them taught Mule everything from picking locks and pockets, to street-fighting, to confidence tricks. Any farm boy or girl could take up a weapon and call themselves an adventurer, but that was a sure road to oblivion for what the company dealt with.
Malan eventually included the Mule in study of the forbidden scrolls and artifacts that the company had won with much sweat and blood over the years. In this, as with all else, Mule proved an apt pupil.
The seasons rolled by. Always, there were Raven and Malan to test Mule, training alongside him to see how well he had put his lessons together.
One morning, the company knelt with their watchman in the dojo. Malan took a bundle from a wooden chest and unwrapped it.
"A woman in Black Root, one Julia Cameron, reports her son is missing. Apparently he's something of a tinkerer. Ordinarily, this wouldn't have come to our attention *. But there are reports of strange, demonic creatures in the woods near Black Root. We're sending you out."
He lifted the weapon, with difficulty, and handed it to the Mule. "The Dernholm Crow. May it bring you luck."
Mule turned the war hammer over in his hands. One edge was pointed, to penetrate armor; the other edge was blunt. Mystic runes had been inlaid in the weapon, which, he had been told, had once been wielded in the service of the Dragon Knights before they had been massacred by recruits with muskets. Killed from a distance in the coward's way.
All stood. " ' Cast a cold eye/ On life, on death,' " quoted Malan.
Virgil shook Mule's hand, saying: "Uplift the weak, humble the proud. Remember that Nasrudin is more alive than many of those now living."
Dante said, "Kill them all and let Halcyon sort them out." As the others looked at him, he said with a mischievous gleam, "What? No joshin the Mule allowed?"
The party shook their heads but chuckled.
Woods outside Liam's Workshop
Mule crushed the demon's skull with one swing, impaling another with the backswing. He ran to the portal through a throng of chittering, pot-bellied nightmares, some lizard-like, others with bird's heads, or pigs'. The air from the portal was equally stinking and cold.
If this doesn't work, I'd better hope the scroll does, thought Mule. He threw the hammer at several demons, bowling them over, and desperately grabbed the device from his backpack. It was a duplicate of the one on Liam's corpse nearby, which had unfortunately failed in the hands of a tech-oriented human.
With a wordless shout, the Mule hurled the device into the portal. The tear in space winked out. The demon horde was illuminated from within, light spilling from mouth and eye before all collapsed, dead.
Mule knelt for a moment, exhausted, before picking up his hammer and trudging back to the cabin. He had to make sure to return Liam's journal to his mother.
A day later, Mule stood in the tidy parlor of Julia Cameron's home. He held a small slate board and chalk with which to communicate. The woman's frame shook with her sobs.
"My poor Liam. What shall I do* it's all for nothing. Those creatures will keep killing the town*."
She stopped as the bearded stranger placed a gentle left hand on her face. Julia looked up as Mule wrote on the slate. "no. he was a hero. i have closed the portal but only with his work."
"Thank you, Mule," she gradually said, hugging him. "Nasrudin and the saints look after you." Mule returned to Tarant, subdued but at peace. There was a Void, and evil, but he had proved equal to the challenge.
The gates to the Bates mansion swung shut as Malan, Virgil, and the Mule walked into the Tarant morning in an embarrassed silence. Malan finally spoke: "Gilbert's a good man *. Just set in his ways. He sees you and thinks, Just another half-ogre bodyguard or dockworker. I'm sorry, Mule."
Mule nodded his understanding. Virgil finally suggested, "Mal, let's head over to Vermillion Station. The new representative from Tulla's due to arrive today, I read."
"Oh, they're deigning to speak with the mundanes?" said Malan sarcastically, but the three men turned toward the nearby railway station. As they walked through the small mage neighborhood west of the University district, they noted uneasily more than one team of surveyors.
"They're really going to do it, then," said Virgil finally. "They're going to tear up the mage community for their precious railway roundhouse and tracks *. Except for a few pet shopkeepers, to keep around for the tourists."
Malan was silent, knowing Virgil had a point. The company had an enemy they couldn't defeat. How do you fight the spirit of the times, thought Wetherby, but had no answer.
Perriman Smythe looked to be a pleasant enough young man, goateed, still dressed in his desert robes as he debarked from "The Spirit of Owosso". He was apparently being met by Councilman Edward Willoughsby. Malan didn't trust the ambitious Willoughsby, who had once considered sending Malan to talk the Caladon monarchy into joining the Unified Kingdom. Wetherby had always been glad he hadn't taken the bait, for both Caladon's and the company's sakes.
The gladhanding Willoughsby had taken charge of the Tullan's arrival, posing for the photographers at the same time as he spoke to Smythe, who seemed out of his depth. The three adventurers were starting to become bored, when chaos erupted.
Events moved too quickly to ever be sorted out completely. Amid warning cries, a second steam engine bore down on the crowd. Some said later that the engine's throttle was stuck, others hinted at conspiracy. Willoughsby seemed as frozen as Smythe.
The Mule tried to call out, but after a few agonizing sounds, shook his head in frustration. His hands swung into three mudras, one after another, which Virgil and Malan had never seen before. Mule uttered a single syllable which might have been a word of power.
The mages stared in astonishment as the train derailed, sparing the platform full of onlookers. Their inner eyes could see what the civilians could not: a giant hand, brass-colored but translucent, had seized the runaway locomotive and flung it to the side like an idle boy with a stick.
"Come on," ordered Malan, and the three fought their way closer to Perriman Smythe and the council members. From his expression, Smythe had seen it too. "Bigby's Hand," he breathed. "Impossible."
"Smythe!" called out Wetherby. "You must leave here. This could be an assassination attempt." The Tullan mage snapped out of his daze and nodded. The mages retreated hastily to the docklands.
That evening, the adventurers sat around the table of the dining area and discussed what they had seen. "It is not generally known," said Perriman Smythe, "But there is a thirteenth school of magic. It has been lost for a millennium at the least. Bigby's Hand is one such spell."
Malan looked at the Mule. "Our jigsaw man is more of a puzzle than ever, it seems. You don't know how you knew the spell?" Mule shook his head.
"Smythe, incidents like these are further excuses for Tarant to shut the mages down. You are protected by your diplomatic status, but not the Mule. We'll have to get him out of town for a while; we'll tell the authorities that you somehow managed to derail the train."
"I think I can double-talk them into that, Wetherby," said Smythe. "I wouldn't mind learning more about your work here *. Especially any scrolls you might have come across."
"It's settled then." Mule reached over and shook Smythe's hand. "Mule, there's a woman in Dernholm that I'd like you to look up for me; Lianna Pel Dar. She has an interesting story about her father and the Dragon Knights."
"I'll get his supplies together, Mal," said Virgil.
The next morning, Virgil finished going over the provisions with Mule, ending with the question of armor. "Mule, we can't afford plate mail for one of your size, let alone plate that's been tailored. But take this as a gift." He opened an armoire and blew the dust from a set of leather armor. Mule studied it; old but serviceable.
"This is the skin of a full ogre, a being who fought bravely some centuries ago and was preserved out of respect. It's enchanted as well --- it has the limited ability to heal itself." Mule tried it on, and it fit surprisingly well. "The Crow is yours forever, of course," added Virgil.
Mule signed, Let us go up and say goodbye. Virgil shook his head, a little choked up. "We'll go up, but it will be 'Until we meet again.' "
Dernholm, Kingdom of Cumbria
Lianna had proved to be, not necessarily beautiful, but possessing great character in both face and manner. As she showed Mule around the small capital of the once-mighty kingdom, she used the slate to talk with Mule but was interested in learning the hunter's sign language as well.
Mule was diplomatic as he toured the provincial city but inwardly appalled. Both houses and shops were shabby, and weeds grew up through the cobblestone streets; it seemed telling that no one was concerned. The choice of employment was between swaggering around as militia, or loitering at the nearly-abandoned docks looking for day labor.
Lianna related the same story that she had once told Malan. Her beloved father, Warren, had been a skilled knight and had imparted much of his knowledge to his daughter. The current king, Praetor, had long ago turned his back on the world, rejecting both technology and trade. The valiant Dragon Knights had been slaughtered in one last charge against Tarant's troops, who though green had had the overwhelming advantage of gunpowder weapons.
Praetor had long ago sacked the town of Black Root, but that town had since rebuilt and was fairly prosperous again, having thrown in with Tarant. Mule decided to study the example of Black Root, and asked Lianna to accompany him.
After agreeing, she had one last secret to impart. King Praetor was not the true king, and had cheated his worthier brother out of the throne. Maximilian was said to be stranded far to the east, on the penal colony of Isle of Despair. Malan Wetherby had said he would contact the pretender when he traveled to the colony in search of the fate of the Black Mountain Clan. Did Mule know if he had succeeded?
Mule didn't, but was able to send a letter by courier to Tarant. Such was the state of Dernholm that no telegraph service existed. Receiving a reply from the company, he was able to tell Lianna that they had a new goal after the journey to Black Root.
Almost to Mule's surprise, somewhere along the way in Dernholm the two had gone from respect to love. In early 1896, they left for Black Root, not fully realizing the extent of their destiny.
Black Root, early 1896
Another of Malan's contacts, the quarter-orc Clarissa Shalmo seemed unpromising at first. Black-haired and pugnacious, she had challenged Mule and Lianna's fighting skills until forced to admit that Lianna was in her own way every bit her equal. The couple later met with Clarissa for a pint in their inn's pub.
Clarissa showed them her most prized weapon, Azram's Star. Malan Wetherby had years ago taken the throwing star from the ancient temple of K'na Tha, far on the other side of the northwest mountains. Clarissa had been unable to go after the Star herself at the time, contracted to Black Root as a guard.
While touring Black Root, Mule told the two women of Liam Cameron and the battle to close the portal. The three agreed to stop by Julia Cameron's house to pay their respects.
Unknown to Mule, Lianna and Clarissa were both taking note of Mule's compassion with Julia during their visit.
One afternoon a little way outside of town, Clarissa was showing Mule how to throw Azram's Star. The mystic weapon at first glance might have passed for a lady's large fan, until opened. Pewter-colored, five-armed, the Star could decapitate a human with one throw and still seriously wound the one standing behind the victim.
Clarissa hurled the Star at a tree, saying, "Now watch this." The Star flashed out, severing a branch, and arced back to Clarissa. Instead of attempting to catch it, she closed one fist. The Star hovered above her outstretched arm, still rotating in a blur, until it slowed enough to be safely caught. "Malan thought there might be a deva connected to the Star *. We just can't see her," explained Clarissa.
As she guided his arm to throw the star, Mule found himself brushing the hair back from her prominent cheekbones. She turned to face him, her green eyes reaching a decision. Uh-Oh, Mule thought.
Clarissa and Mule embraced in the clearing. Well, he thought with a rueful smile, What's a few more scars anyway.
Isle of Despair, 1897
Maximilian was surrounded by beauty, thought Mule. He found the late-middle aged royal working on an impressive collection of bonsai trees, in back of his cabin. Glancing at him, the pretender returned to his copper wire and pruning shears.
"You convicts should know by now that I don't have anything you'd consider worth stealing," Maximilian said.
Mule had left the two women near the front door, sensing he would have to go slow with this one. He kneeled in the garden and contemplated the bonsai trees encircling him.
Maximilian glanced at him after a while. He noticed the half-ogre was truly seeing the trees, not just looking. The half-ogre had a stillness about him of which Maximilian had never known a convict to be capable. A half-hour passed, broken only by the birdsongs of the nearby rain forest.
Maximilian finally put down the tools. "All right, my friend. What do you want?"
Before answering, Mule brought in the two women. Lianna bowed low before her king, then knelt with the others and waited for Mule to write his argument.
Mule took ink brush to paper, introducing himself and the women before writing, "O King, this exile is self-indulgence. Your brother is, forgive us, senile. Cumbria is lost without you. Return with us."
What beautiful calligraphy, thought Maximilian as he watched the ideograms brushed onto rice paper. Perhaps not all the Dragon Knights have perished.
"I knew your father, Lianna. It broke my heart when he and his men were shot down."
The four people contemplated the words on paper for a moment longer. Maximilian had tears in his eyes as he looked up. "Have you a boat?"
As Virgil had once instructed him, Mule put on the sunglasses. The jadelike Kathorn crystal cut through the dwarves' optical illusion; he saw the entrance to the Wheel Clan caverns. He and his party walked through the illusion.
Dwarven guards waited, expecting the usual Stillwater traders. The short, powerfully muscled guards wore black and gold armor intricately etched. They had expressions of boredom, but froze when they saw the Mule.
Mule turned to the guide and signed to Clarissa and Lianna. "What's wrong?" translated Clarissa. The guide smiled slightly but kept his response low.
"It's a good job you're not a dwarf or they'd be bloody worshipping you, mate. You're the image of their god Alberich."
"Indeed?" signed Mule. "I will have to stop by the altar after I speak with their king."
Mule was given an audience with Randver, the king's son and acting head of the Wheel Clan. Could Maximilian stay with the dwarves while Mule and his wives raised an army? Randver, remembering Malan's help in the past, agreed to house Maximilian for however many months or years necessary. What was time, anyway, to the long-lived dwarves?
Mule stood later in front of the altar to Alberich. He dropped a lava rock into the sacred fire and clapped his hands three times, as prescribed. Mule felt respect for the dwarves' beliefs, but nothing of this altar resonated with him. His origins lay elsewhere, apparently.
1898. Cumbrian hills.
The general gave the soldier a few minutes to pray. Afterward, he turned the rapist to face the assembled troops, a thousand strong. Mule snapped his neck and picked him up by the back of his leather jerkin, with one hand, hurling him to the ground below. He faced the troops with eyes blazing.
His two wives, commanders in their own right, flanked him on both sides. Clarissa spoke as he gestured, calling out in her clear and strong command voice:
"I remind you again of the articles of war. We are not bloody pirates. You will not harm civilians, you will not rob them. Anyone who does will be dealt with by me personally."
Lianna studied the ranks. Graying men who had waited for this day half their lives stood next to boys who had grown up with their fathers' tales of the old days, when Dernholm had been respected and prosperous. A few women filled out the ranks; more would join the partisans before they were done.
Mule continued: "Your parents starve; your daughters and wives prostitute themselves. You can't get a bloody job. It is past time to get off your knees.
"Follow us and follow the true king. I promise you that you may die, but you will not die like the Dragon Knights, bravely charging into their guns. Charging without hope."
"I will not play Tarant's game. Tarant will learn to play our game."
Lianna looked into their faces and saw something she had never seen. Hope was returning.
In the years of partisan warfare that followed, Mule came to realize taking Dernholm would be the least of the challenges. Tarant had always controlled the lowlands the same way she controlled her workers: divide and conquer, the age-old but effective story. So long as Dernholm and, say, Black Root remained petty, squabbling city-states, so long would the merchants of Tarant rule.
Early tactics included sabotaging Tarant’s rail lines. Later, the partisans would even capture trains for their own use. Always, Mule’s forces strove to treat the farmers and ranchers fairly. Even many of their enemies within the Unified Kingdom grew to respect Mule and his commanders, the last of the chivalrous.
Mule and his wives slept, ate, fought beside their troops, living simply. The partisans grew accustomed to the sight of their general leading from the vanguard, clad in his usual travel-stained armor.
Clarissa and Lianna discovered early on that mages and the tech-oriented could still fight in the same cause, if separated into segregated companies. Magic could lead to guns failing or, worse, exploding in soldiers’ faces. The mage equivalent of these disasters could also happen.
Mule once thought sadly, This is truly the Kali Yuga, the Age of Iron. In a generation or two, would magic even exist? Would magic end as it had begun, a scattered handful of shamans?
Upon entering the former Panarii temple, Mule fell ominously silent in the hunter’s language. Walking past the town’s storage to the steam electrical plant in back, he finally signed furiously to Clarissa: Get this shite out of here!
Doc Roberts stood near Lianna. Lianna watched Mule’s anger soften when he met the mentally-challenged dwarf who maintained the steam engine for the town.
Lianna spoke to Doc Roberts in a low voice. “Doc, you’ll remain the town sheriff for us. Build a new structure for the steam engine though.”
The alcoholic but canny doctor nodded. “I didn’t know your husband was Panarii, ma’am.”
“He’s not,” said Lianna finally, looking at Mule with the loving eye of years of familiarity. “He’s just … respectful.”
The Kree Ruins.
Having killed the last Kree champion in single combat, Mule stood with the Dernholm Crow in hand. He studied the ancient caryatids on either side of the ruined entrance to the temple. The partisans had not sacked Kree; that had happened two millennia ago at the hands of the barbarian known only as the Bane, said even now to live in the Void.
Unfortunately the surviving Kree had become cannibals and bandits over the centuries, given to human sacrifice. They had made the final mistake of allowing themselves to become Tarant’s surrogates, hirelings in the closing months of Cumbria’s struggle.
Mule’s sergeant major, Herkimer, stood on his left. Nodding at the voluptuous statues with skull heads supporting the temple, Herkimer said, “They’re calling you the consort of Shakar, sir. That’s their goddess of war there.”
Lianna translated as Mule mused, “Half the Kree want to join us now.” He closed his eyes for a moment, remembering with distaste the fire pits with human bones that they had passed on their way into the temple complex. Another custom he would put an end to.
“The war’s over, sir,” said Herkimer. “Tarant’s negotiating terms, honestly negotiating for once. They’re going to have to be content with Ashbury and other towns to the east.” His general clapped him on the shoulder, and they left the past behind as they walked to the bivouac area.
That night, Mule lay in his tent with Clarissa and Lianna at his sides. Clarissa asked sleepily, “Husband, I never did find out what the runes mean on the Crow.”
Lianna said, “That’s easy.” Sitting up and pretending to translate, she said slowly, “In case of emergency …. Use to break glass.”
“Wench! I’ll stop your lies,” said Clarissa, and did, with a kiss. Mule watched fondly, used to his lovers’ sport.
Settled against him again, Lianna said, “The runes read in part: “The Last Answer to Tyrants.”
Knowing the translation already, Mule nodded. He wasn’t surprised that Malan had chosen that weapon to give him, of all those available.
Coastal Hills Near Roseborough.
Mule left Lianna and Clarissa in town, feeling he had to see the holy site alone for some reason. Looking at the cave’s entrance, however, he realized this task would be one of the hardest he had faced in years. Unknown to any save his wives, Mule was claustrophobic. The entrance to Saint Mannox’s cave would have been a crawl even to a human frame.
The Mule fought to control his breathing, and finally managed to enter the saint’s hiding place. He was unable to stand upright in the cave, but managed to squat near the crystal display case. The refuge had been left much as Saint Mannox would have seen it, its improvised fire pit intact.
Saint Mannox’s journal had been removed to the Caladon Cathedral a few years before, after Wetherby’s adventurers had deciphered the clues to its location. The folio now lying under the crystal was a replica, lovingly hand-illuminated by some anonymous Panarri priest. Mule had read the journal entries a few years previously and could quote many of them by heart.
As he looked at the replica, Mule could almost see the valiant Mannox of a millennium past. Frightened, alone, yet undaunted in his faith in Nasrudin and his teachings. The elven high priest K’an Hua, in reality a drow, had succeeded in twisting the Panarii beliefs until many of the faithful believed Nasrudin had never even existed, and that the wards guarding the entrance to the Void were only metaphors.
Suddenly Mule couldn’t breathe, and was seized with the overwhelming need to get out of the cave. A memory had surfaced, the only memory of his origins he would ever get.
Virgil sat at his desk in the cathedral museum, poring over his to-do list. Even a few years after its accession, Malan’s collection was barely beginning to be cataloged, let alone displayed. The cathedral, and selected scholars, would have work for years to come. He adjusted his reading spectacles, still unused to needing them.
One of his assistants, an acolyte named Worcester, knocked on the door jamb. “Warlord to see you, bishop,” he announced with his usual imperturbable air.
“What the devil are you on about …. Good lord,” said Virgil, starting from his chair. A giant in a gold and jade skull mask stood before the curator, with two women at his sides like the messenger ravens of myth. The darker one wore her native sari, a striking green and gold, while the redhead wore quilted armor that looked to be ceremonial.
One of the women translated as the giant laughed and removed the mask. “Forgive me, sensei,” she said as Mule gestured. He embraced the startled but overjoyed Virgil. “Another item for your collection. One of the last authentic Kree warrior masks.”
Lianna and Clarissa hugged Virgil, pleased to finally meet one of Malan’s company.
“Mule, gods, it’s been what, a dozen years…”
“At the least,” nodded Mule through the translation. “I’m in town to negotiate trade agreements with Caladon, and to learn from their constitutional monarchy. Maximilian is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.”
“And you have something of mine, I believe.” Mule pointed at the reliquary around Virgil’s neck.”
Virgil was puzzled. “This? No, my friend, that’s Saint Mannox’s … finger … Oh no.” He sat down suddenly.
Mule nodded. “Yes. I know who I am now. Though I think it’s the only memory I will ever have…”
A Thousand Years Ago. Caladon.
As the granite lid of Nasrudin’s sarcophagus closed, the full horror of his situation struck the acolyte Mannox. He couldn’t summon a spell; K’an Hua and his Dark Elf lackeys must have placed magic-suppressing wards on the crypt. Mannox tore at the underside of the lid until his fingers bled before giving up and trying to think clearly.
He had returned to the cathedral from his refuge for a final confrontation with the heretic K’an Hua, but had been overpowered and dragged to Nasrudin’s crypt. Incomprehensibly, the crypt had been empty when the elves had drawn back the lid.
Mannox’s thoughts were slowing as the air inside the sarcophagus grew stale. Mercifully, he would suffocate before he could go mad or die of thirst. He had time for one desperate act, a message in a bottle to whoever might discover him someday. With his bleeding fingers, he scratched clues to the location of his cave, with its journal and the family sword, ending with the word that would open his refuge: Truth.
The elder scribe sat in the back offices of the cathedral and despaired. A member of the quasi-secret Order of Saint Mannox, he and a handful of other clerics were the last who believed the elf Nasrudin had really existed once; and that the wards said to guard the entrance to the Void had to be maintained. Although Joachim did not know it yet, the current high priest K’an Hua was the same elf who had twisted the teachings of Nasrudin a thousand years before, and killed Mannox into the bargain.
Joachim knew only that he served a high priest whose faction was corrupt, connected to slavers as well as high-ranking Tarantians who, it was reliably rumored, hadn’t scrupled to breed half-ogre servitors through rape and vivisection. Joachim had learned to keep his head down over the years, trying only to work within the system he had grown up believing in.
The scribe knew of a few good men and women within the Panarii, such as the acolyte Alexander. Alexander was widely known as incorruptible, a direct descendant of Saint Mannox himself and a great warrior in his own right. While not a full member of the Order, Alexander could be counted on if a Reformation ever came.
K’an Hua was so confident of his power that he seemed to know of the existence of the Order, but not care. He had given Joachim charge of the comatose half-ogre on the backroom cot, saying with a sneer that he was a “one-off” and too expensive to be disposed of the way that “some people claim” the half-ogre breeders had been, once sufficient breeding stock had been obtained.
Joachim studied the ogre. The limbs had been reanimated through electricity, as appalling as it seemed, and the being breathed on his own. But he seemed to be a shell. K’an Hua’s faction was finally talking of throwing him away if he did not soon leave his vegetative state.
The parts had been taken from several of Arcanum’s eight races, Joachim noted. He was reminded of Nasrudin’s ideals. The revered elf had founded a Council on which all races would be represented, all respected. Joachim had a sudden impulse.
Letting himself into the cathedral museum after hours was all too easy; it had been underfunded and neglected for years. The crypt of Nasrudin was off-limits even to the priesthood, typical of K’an Hua’s controlling and imperious ways, but Joachim could obtain a relic nearly as important.
Joachim approached the half-ogre. Clutching the relic in his left hand, he traced a holy symbol on the being’s forehead, then whispered in his ear the ancient rune “EMET” Truth.
The elder could do no more. He kneeled beside the cot and tried to summon the faith he had once had as an acolyte. “Mannox lived. Mannox lives. Mannox will live,” he prayed.
Unseen by him, Mule’s eyes opened.
“Get up, my teacher,” said Mule through his wife. Virgil sat at his desk again, still dazed. “The reliquary is still yours. Mannox was only my garment once, as Mule is for a little while.”
“We taught you too well, I think, “ said Virgil. He looked at the honest face. “What will you do with the power you won, Mule?”
“The best thing for it, I think. Once Cumbria is back on her feet … just walk away.” Mule looked at his wives and Virgil with the clear eyes of love.
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