He is not the hero they remember.
This is not the world he knew.
Thirty years have passed since the bloody battle of Njorn Pass, since Rikard Mazrem traded his life away to the Alterra to save his dying men. Defeat became victory and an empire was born. For decades, the people of Carce have revered Rikard as a hero.
But now Rikard has returned to find the world changed. Or perhaps he is the one who has changed…
Chapter 1: The Road
“Inside every man lurks a menagerie of terrible beasts. Dragons, if you will, that consume and corrupt from within: greed, lust, rage, pride and fear. The Terran soul is a breeding ground for monsters far worse than those of any story.”
– Utora Maesus
His uneven steps whispered through the dry grass like a mother hushing her child. The long summer had turned the grass into brittle blades as dusty-wan as the slanting beams of bronze sunlight. A hot wind rippled the hillside and stirred the grass into yellow waves. Droning bees and bright-painted butterflies fluttered here and there, laboring through the heavy heat to find the last late-season blossoms.
The man who could not remember his name crushed them all under steel-shod boots.
He stopped. The new sound made him look down in weary wonderment. The browning grass gave way abruptly, sliced as though at knife’s edge to reveal the bones beneath – worn and dusty stones cut and fitted together. They were cracked and chipped with wear.
He crouched low and stared. Long, wild black hair tickled at his sweaty, windburnt neck as he trailed his hand haltingly over the alien thing winding through the grass. Was it real? Whose idea was this? The scarred metal cap on his forefinger scraped unpleasantly over the broken stones.
What…? Hae, men can lift and cut rocks, he remembered. They lay them together to make trails that lead between important things.
These rock-rivers had names, he knew. The certainty of it weighed solidly in the palm of his mind. They had names, titles that did not change from one moment to the next, depending upon the wind and who was winning. Real names. Terran names.
Roads! I remember now. Terrans have to take the long way between places. They travel on roads that stretch like a great spider’s web across their land.
But where did this road lead?
The sun beat down on him and pried at his sore skin with tiny, burning fingers. With an effort, he lifted his eyes again. They stung in the bright daylight. A pale, angular smear shone on the horizon and glittered like desire. It was a city, sprawling over two sloping hills and covering them like jeweled turtles’ shells. The Mazren River’s slow-moving pewter arc curved east around the city.
The nameless man braced himself against the sharp pain, the searing and screaming attack that chilled him to the core, the Shatter’s always-answer to thoughts of home. He armored his memories in bristling blades of howling rage. They would not take the last shreds of him!
But the tearing despair never came. All remained still. There was only a strange silence in his mind. He felt pain, but it was only a distant, disconnected sort. It seemed no more real than the sun that burned the back of his neck or the sticky blood oozing from gashes in his numb, wooden flesh. He lowered his streaming eyes again and staggered along the cracked road toward Dormaen.
Time marched on far more evenly than the wounded man. His chin – dark with a week of stubble – sagged to his chest, following the sun as it sank down toward the horizon. His body was trembling, weak. Even fear would not rouse it. Want and longing did nothing to banish the uncomfortable gnawing sensation deep inside his skin.
He craved something. His body and blood begged for it in an alien voice, grumbling loudly. There was something familiar about it all. He had known this sensation once, long ago, known it very well. Before, in ice and stone, while fire howled down on us.
His knees went suddenly soft as indecision. Finally unable to bear his weight, they buckled and he fell to the road with a crash and clatter of steel. His eyes were sticky and swollen. They fell to angry, glowering slits, and then closed completely.
Am I finally dying?
Not content with his vision, the darkness surged up from the depths and swallowed his thoughts.
The tree-tower tossed and creaked in an imaginary wind. It rose majestically – smooth, rough, multiform – from the arched back of a great hill that floated in the glassy nothing. The tree’s shivering dance shook free the great leaves, bleak-browned by age and disuse. They fell and swirled like smoke rising the wrong way.
But the air of the Uprising remained still, taut and tense with anticipation. Watching.
The Shatter. The Shatter. They shatter.
A serpent-shape of cloudy rain and stars coiled in the branches of the tower, listening. The malachite nightingale perched beside it coughed sickly, shuddering loose a green fragment of stone from under his wing. The striped shard fell and bounced off a branch. It twisted, turned and became an oversized blue snowflake, then scrawled inky to the distant ground where it shattered into a thousand whispers and finally faded into nothing. The serpent glittered comfortingly at the nightingale.
Where’s he going, Flickerdim? asked the malachite bird.
A city. He’ll be there in a few days, thought the snake-shape.
Home, Flickerdim decided. He’s finally going home, Stumble. To his birthplace. It’s the center of his world, even after all these years gone. After all he’s done. All we’ve done to him. He’s going back to the place where he left his life.
What’s he looking for there? His life? It’s old now, the curiosity griped with the sulky objection of the young.
Home never gets old, Flickerdim said.
Empty wind rattled the forest tower again. The sky high above twisted in on itself, blue-blink and juniper. Silent thunder boomed through the Uprising. Under the hill, the sky remained placid, colorless and tepid. For now, the Shatter waited. They had time. Stumble flexed his wings restlessly.
Wait, wait! What’s he doing now? Stumble asked suddenly. He fell down!
He’s sleeping. His kind does it with some frequency, Flickerdim replied thoughtfully. It is a strange thing, a little death every night followed by rebirth upon the sun’s rising.
When will he be done? We need him. Make him hurry!
We cannot rush him, Stumble. We must give him time.
But there isn’t time! Not for us.
All the more reason we must give him what we have left.
Published 11.27.2010 by Loose Leaf Stories