Today was worse than any other day. It was hard to think about anything, let alone magic, with the constant music playing in his head. There were times when Ziedon involuntarily strained against his bonds, knowing for sure that the only way to stop the madness was to confront the priests, destroy the scepter and stop that infernal singing. But each time, when he managed to calm himself, he knew that he was coming closer to winning.
When Korisca got back, having lost Kreemon a long time ago, she found Ziedon asleep, breathing heavily with his brow furrowed. Concerned, she tried to wake him, but his slumber was too deep to break. When Kreemon finally returned, he found the same.
Ziedon was lost in his own mind, or perhaps he wasn't in the room at all, but on some other plane of existence. It certainly looked like it. He stood on a grassy path that wound through the void, nothing on either side, or above or below. This world was so filled with the music so that it was almost tangible, like a buffeting wind that made it hard for Ziedon to keep his balance. In the distance, at the end of the path, he could see a circle of yellow light.
Steeling himself against the music with a few of mental exercises he learned as an apprentice, Ziedon slowly put one foot in front of the other, willing himself forward towards the circle of light.
It look a long time. The path was much longer than it looked, and it wound about, almost doubling back on itself over and over. But Ziedon continued to get closer, catching his balance every few steps as if he were drunk. After what must have been hours, he was close enough to see that it wasn't just a circle of light; it was a Sign of Morenth, the eight-legged goat encircled by intertwined snakes, perhaps the very same Sign that hung in the House of Morenth, lit by the cleverly-placed lantern. The music was louder here, pounding against Ziedon's ears like hammers.
Ziedon nodded, as if expecting this. He pushed himself forward, his teeth gritted together against the music, closing the distance as quickly as he could. The music was crippling, maddening. At one point Ziedon fell to his knees, clutching his head and screaming, but he recovered and moved on. He had to keep moving.
Now only a few dozen yards away, Ziedon could see the glowing symbol in detail, ten feet across, and floating unaided in the air. The snakes writhed around the periphery as if alive, violently snapping at each other's tails, and the goat turned its head to watch as Ziedon approached. Through the symbol was a large room, the chapel of the House of Morenth. The doors and windows had been sealed until they were air tight, and armed priests stood along the sides, waiting expectantly. In the center, on a raised platform, one priest stood, singing the central melody of the song that filled the air, and holding the scepter.
Ziedon paused at the edge of the Sign and looked at the scene on the other side. He unsheathed a dagger, drew back and launched it at the scepter-wielding priest. On the way through, it ricocheted off of one of the goat's legs, and flew into the room at a sharp angle toward the ceiling. It followed a high arc, and then bounced off the marble floor, twenty feet or so from the priest. No one in the room seemed to notice. The stranger thing was, the dagger had seemed like it was going to make it into the room without a problem. Had the goat's leg moved, like the snakes writing around the circle?
Rubbing his chin, Ziedon took another look at the symbol itself before drawing a second dagger. Stepping up close to the Sign, Ziedon jabbed the dagger at the goat's eye, only to have it whipped from his grasp by the tail of a snake. The goat squinted at Ziedon, but made no move.
Ziedon drew a third dagger, squinted back at the goat, and jabbed his dagger at the goat's eye again. This time, he had a firm grip on the weapon. When the snake made its move, he changed the course of his attack to pierce the snake's tail, but again, with almost impossible speed, the dagger was whipped out of his hand. It flew away from the path and plummeted into the void, quickly disappearing from sight.
Inside the room, the priest continued singing with no awareness of the attack.
Ziedon turned around and cast a spell. Then he turned back, and tried to touch the goat's leg with a glowing blue hand. Once again, his attack was deflected by one of the snakes. He felt the cold, scaly skin against his arm, and was nearly knocked off his feet.
Changing tactics, Ziedon tried to touch one of the snakes, instead of the goat. For a frustrating fifth time, he was batted away. These snakes were obviously skilled at their one apparent purpose, but Ziedon couldn't imagine how it was so difficult to touch a target that stayed in one place.
He used one hand to try to touch a snake, and darted out almost blindly with his other hand, hoping to lay a finger on anything. He visualized himself touching the snake, and the snake fading away. Once again, he was brushed aside, but when Ziedon attacked so rapidly, and two snakes had to defend the Sign at once, a large gap opened up on the other side.
Ziedon took a break and looked himself over. He had everything with him that he'd taken to bed. More, he also had his spell books, and a few other things he had been keeping in his desk.
Ziedon took a few steps away and kneeled down on the narrow path. He took one of his animated mice from its protective pouch, and chanted a spell while touching its skull. He then said softly to the mouse, “Pass through the gap on the right side of the Sign. Continue into the altar room to the singing priest. Once you reach him, smash your skull against the floor next to his foot. Do not let anything touch you, or stop you from reaching the singing priest and smashing your skull.”
As the mouse clumsily scurried toward the Sign with the quiet clicking of tiny bones, Ziedon backed up along the path. If the mouse didn't make it through the Sign, he didn't want to be anywhere near it when it exploded. When he was far enough away, he held his dagger in front of him and said, “You think you have won? I never did anything to you before your people attacked me. You perpetuate this violence.”
The Sign made no move to indicate that it understood. Soon, the mouse had reached the Sign, and it leapt, trying to land on one of the snakes, which was eighteen inches off the path. The snake whipped out to strike the mouse, and as soon as it made contact, the mouse exploded in a flash of violet light, sending bits of bone flying everywhere. When Ziedon's eyes recovered, he saw that part of the Sign was missing. The head of a snake was gone, and the portal to the chapel was no longer a perfect circle. It was as if, along with damaging the Sign, part of the hole had been damaged as well.
Ziedon rubbed his chin and thought, “Maybe the portal is what is allowing the Song to affect me, by serving as a gateway.” He stepped closer to the Sign and took out the flammable liquor Korisca had brought him. Somehow, he seemed to have almost everything he owned with him. He splashed the liquid all over the goat and two remaining snakes, used his tinderbox to light a piece of tinder and tossed it at the Sign. He backed away to avoid the fireball, but when it faded, he saw that the liquid had burned too hot and too fast to do much damage.
Ziedon resumed his attack, hoping that the one missing snake head had weakened the Sign's defenses. He moved forward and attempted to lay his hands on the goat, shifting from one side of the path to the other, trying to get a touch in. Finally, when he thought he was close enough, he made a grab, but the tail of the headless snake slapped his hand out of the way. Apparently, the snake didn't need its head. Still, it did seem to react a little more slowly than before.
Ziedon stepped away from the Sign a second time and drew a dagger. With his other hand, he pulled an unanimated mouse skeleton out of a pouch and removed the head. Ziedon held the dagger parallel to the ground and laid the mouse head on the flat of the blade. He then cast another spell, arming the skull with destructive powers. Slowly and carefully turning back around, Ziedon used the dagger to fling the skull. For a moment, he thought it would slip off the narrow dagger, or that it would explode too early, but it tumbled through the air, and struck one of the snakes' tails. Again, there was an explosion, and more of the Sign was gone. It was now a jagged portal with only one complete snake, alongside a broken, wiggling tail and a disembodied head. The goat lacked three of its eight legs, and part of its body. Ziedon could still see the singing priest, but the priest was looking back and forth nervously.
The priest's song was noticeably quieter now, and Ziedon's head was clearing.
Ziedon stepped forward and attempted to lay his hands on the broken tail and disembodied head of the snake. The incomplete snakes still managed to whip his hand away painfully, but not before he'd drained some of their strength.
Ziedon continued his assault for the duration of the two spells. Each time, he was batted away, but two of those times he drained some strength away. The snakes were moving noticeably slower now, though the portal had not reduced further in size. The priest continued to look worried, and best of all, the song was quieter.
Ziedon looked at the priest and attempted to enchant him. Hoping he succeeded, he stepped back so the widest portion of his next spell would affect the Sign, and sent a spray of color streaming from his fingertips. The Sign continued to writhe, but beyond it, the priest suddenly stopped singing. He stood, frozen in place, blinking in confusion. Suddenly, there was much more activity in the chapel. Elder priests moved rapidly around the room, looking for the cause of the disturbance. One priest shook the stunned singer, trying to rouse him.
Noting how the spell cast on the sign affected the priest, and the apparent connection between the two, Ziedon thought that with the priest stunned, the sign should not actively oppose him. He reached out to touch one of the snakes, and was batted away. So much for that theory. After a few seconds, the priest shook free of the spell, and, encouraged by the others, resumed the song. For a moment, at least, Ziedon's head had been clear, and even now, the song seemed to lack some of the power it had once had.
Having exhausted all of his spells, and seeing the confusion in the House, Ziedon turned away from the sign and began the long walk back to where he had first appeared in this dream zone.
Giving up on Ziedon, Kreemon told Korisca about the crowd. “Looks like Balban is behind that army we saw. Things are going to get interesting in the next few days. Let's wait a few more hours and then head to that tavern.”
“Balban was that guy the others were working for, right? I think Sahl mentioned him once. But Kree… what were you doing out there? I heard you yelling something, and it sounded like you were breaking wood or something.”
“I was trying to warn them that Balban wasn't the big savior that they all seemed to think he was. Balban had agents in the crowds, acting as instigators. Hopefully I got through to a few people and they will spread the word.”
“I guess. That guy seems to know what he's doing though. Sahl told me he took over Grenzig almost without trying.”
“He is also the guy that tried to get us locked up in Huerton.” Kreemon picked up a slightly stale roll and took a bite out of it. “So what do you really think about this plan to make you a townslady?”
“It's strange. That's for sure. I was never much of anything in Maelbourg, just stealing what I needed to stay alive, and now I'm supposed to be a townslady. I guess it's worth it to end all this craziness, but Kree – didn't Ziedon cause the whole mess? Sure, he might be a better leader than some of the other people around here, but… well it's just strange, is all… and I wonder… can we really pull it off?”
“I don't think that he caused all of it; Galgewe and Balban are the most to blame. All of them seemed to be trying to use Ziedon, still are it seems. After the earthquake maybe people will see things in a different light.”
“Maybe. I bet it sure changed things in Huerten. I wonder if this whole townslady thing will even matter then.”
“Hopefully we are far enough away from the center of the quake that no major damage is done. But something I know is that whenever there is a crisis or bad things happen, everyone looks for stability and 'familiarness' to help comfort them. What can be more stable or 'normal' than a townswoman taking over for her late father? The mere ceremony and process will give people something to grab onto. So, the whole earthquake and army thing should help your ascension to townsperson status. From there, you will be able to make changes and help out others who were in the same situation as you were, when you lived on the streets. You will have voice and be a positive element for change.”
“But what if there isn't anything I want to change? Maelbourg is no worse than Huerten, except for the laws against Morenthians, and there isn't anything I can do about that.”
“Maybe you won't find a thing to change, but at least there won't be fighting in the streets and townsmen going after each other. This town needs some stability. Snilquost and Grigree really did a number on this place.”
Korisca grinned. “You mean Silnquost and Galgewe? Anyway, I'll give it a shot, whether I can pull it off or not. Ziedon thinks it's a good idea, and I trust him. And you sound like you're pretty into it too.”
“There aren't that many good people in the world. Once you find one, it is smart to stick with them.”
Korisca just turned her head and grinned. After a few seconds she said, “Look. Ziedon's stirring.”
Ziedon stood at the far end of the path for a long time. The Sign of Morenth was gone from sight, and the path itself faded away until it only existed directly below Ziedon's feet. Around him, the music continued, quieter than before, but somehow more powerful, full of incomprehensible intricacies of harmony and rhythm, as if it were building up toward some climax.
Ziedon thought he saw a man, immensely tall, with a wizened beard and bright eyes, holding a cedar staff. It was hard to say whether the man was really there. Any attempt to focus on his form made him harder to see. “You have failed to break the Song,” the figure said. “Be warned – you have created a formidable foe, for now.” The area brightened rapidly while the figure faded away. “Do not be caught alone.”
Ziedon opened his eyes, and in the man's place stood Korisca.
“Kreemon,” she said. “I think he's finally awake.”
Oooh. Scary. :)
I hope you enjoy the fancy new turn format I put together. If you have any suggestions, or if you run into any problems with the comment system or anything else, please let me know.