Friday, March 15, 2013

"Edge of Darkness" by V. A. Jeffrey (Short Story)

Genre:  Fantasy

Type of Short Story:  Short Story

Summary:  A powerful king and his most trusted counselor look far into the future and find the kingdom and culture poised on a precipice. A new, dark age begins, one that they have prepared for.


“Survival of the line is the ultimate goal.
In these dark days it must be the supreme ideology.”

-Nagilla the sage

He stood from the tallest, most slender tower of the palace, looking out across wide windows at the violet evening sky. The stars and the delicate light of the twin moons were bleeding in. Numerous towers and obelisks peppered the city, mirroring the tall rock spires of the southern highlands. They were spread out almost as far as the eye could see. Lantern lights flickered like fire bugs far below.

My mighty city. Its grandeur that he carved, wove and scripted on its walls, its people and its institutions. Just like his forebears before him who built it from the dust. Assenna, the great city! Had not the Lord of the Deep Heavens decreed that it should stand forever? It is the pride and the jewel of the world. Should it not always be?

He knew the answer.

“After me, the darkness.” He whispered. Always, the darkness was on his mind and in his dreams. Not even the jeweled evening horizon could shake his mood. There was a quick rap on the doors and the tiny bell chimed. He turned and put his hand on his hip, near the curved sword hidden under voluminous robes. He did not move from the window. The door opened.

“Your Greatness, Most Excellent One. Nagilla the sage is here to see you. May you live, even forever.” Radu entered and bowed low. The king detected a note of derision.

“Let him in, Radu. That will be all.” Radu nodded curtly to the sage and left. The sage, tall, unbent, with the broad musculature of a man who had known hard work wore the simple, wool gray robes and shaved head of the desert holy men. He was very old but his age could not be determined from his physical bearing. Only his somber, gray eyes revealed something of his great age. They both stood in silence for a few moments until the servant's footsteps grew faint. The sage then strode across the room and stood by the king.

“I've been thinking about dismissing Radu. He has become too irksome for words. What do you think?”

“I know it can be a dangerous undertaking, keeping snakes underfoot. Nevertheless, keep him and the others close, for now. It is better to keep a snake under the foot, where you can see him and crush him rather than let him get behind a stone somewhere at your back. Radu thinks himself a clever spy. Let him continue his delusions.”

“Always you are right, Nagilla. Radu has joined the sect of the Ainash. They are growing, even after being banished from the city. Even my own sons sympathize with them. I could have crushed those apostates, had them all executed, their houses burned down and families banished, according to the law, but I withheld punishment.”

“You took the high course, even if many will not see it. There are still many who can see the difference in your rule and the hypocrisy the Ainash offer. The Lord of the Deep sees it and keeps account. Continue on the high course, Your Greatness, though it be thankless.”

“I am tired of bloodshed, Nagilla. I have made a mistake in letting this sect go on for so long. They have gained a strong foothold among the people.”

“It is hard to watch, I realize, but in this case the flowers must grow with the weeds so that all weeds can be plainly seen for what they are when it is time for the judgment. It is Divine Will that you allow it. A judgment is coming. Battling with the Ainash will not change things. The land has grown corrupt even with you as its ruler and it must be cleansed. Do not trouble yourself over it. Your dreams and visions are of divine origin. The land and its people are being called to account.”

“But they cry freedom, Nagilla, as if I were some tyrant! Some even go so far as to call for my death, those cowards outside of the city, at least. I wonder at who will really be free if these Ainash and the other rebels had their way?”

“They will find out one day. Some who cry freedom merely want power for themselves. There are many purposes at work, my king. Some of them very dark. But the overriding one is higher than we know.” Nagilla was steadfast. The king sighed and stroked his, long beard. The jewels braided within clinked against his finger rings.

“What shall I do about my eldest son? Many call for his release. Others for his execution.”

“That is your decision alone, Your Greatness. The Lord of the Deep has willed nothing in this matter.”

“Of course not,” Said the king bitterly. “only that after I die, all will fall into darkness and fire!”

“Yes. The visions are true. They cannot be changed.”

“If only I could make them all see and walk the Red Path.” He looked out at the temples, pavilions, towers, domes and arenas. A jewel of a city, yet nearly completely corrupt. It was hard for him to accept such a beautiful place was so dark a place. Nagilla quoted a passage from the Holy Aishanna written by the prophet Kai'Alit: “I have seen much blood and fire and smoke. I have seen the fires raging, the whole world burning. Fear not you people, for the fire is not eternal. It is a cleansing, a purification and then there shall be a rebirth. This, I have seen.”

“Still, is it not beautiful?” The king asked sadly. He turned to Nagilla with a questing look. The sage's eyes grew soft and kinder for a moment. There was a momentary flicker of white light within, like reflected starlight. Nagilla flicked his gaze over the room then returned his gaze to the king.

“My king, it is beautiful indeed, and will remain so until after your death. But even a beautiful woman must die when there is only evil within. The beautiful tree that bears rotten fruit must be cut down and thrown in the fire.” The king nodded, resigned. He went to the balcony doors and pushed them open. A gentle rush of cool air filled the room.

“So,” He moved to change the subject. “What news? Was our plan successful?” He motioned for Nagilla to follow him out to the balcony.

“All is ready, Your Greatness. All four of your sons born of the concubines have been dispersed through some of the wild tribes. I've had wise men and wise women infiltrate these tribes long ago to prepare for this time. These know the old ways and the old rites. Divine Will shall see to the rest.”

“A shame my royal sons were not fit for the task.”

“Had they still been babes they would have been but bloodline of the Red Kings is what is important. Bloodlines rise and fall, many die out but a promise has been made to your line. Bastard or true-born, they are of the blood.”

“Are they gone, safe from here already?”

“Yes. To the far corners of the world. Which one will take seed we do not know but the bloodline has been preserved. The darkness comes.”

“How long will it last?”

“It was told to me that it shall last through five ages.”

“That long? And the line can be preserved through all that time?”

“Do you doubt it now?”

“No, no. But my forebears and I have built this kingdom with our might and by a god's hand. I sit at the apex of what was once holy and sacred only for it to crumble. One does not accept such a fall easily, even when the prophecy comes from a god.”

They grew quiet again. High above and just under the thin horizon floated the great balloons of the new star stations built for the Star Guild. They seemed from this distance like perfectly shaped oval clouds. The stations were beginning to descend. On the morrow he would hear new reports of the guild's progress on the new star maps.

“Into the dust we all go, as we all came. What things will look like I do not know. Only that He has sent many of us to labor under the darkness bringing light here and there and keeping the light burning where it does not extinguish, until the time for rebirth. All the things that will be needed for that future day will be preserved. Do not worry, my king.” Nagilla pointed towards the floating stations. “The progress, the machines, the new knowledge your Star Guild and the Alchemist Guilds have acquired, all these good things will come again. They will come when the people are ready and the time is right.” The sage turned to face the king squarely.

“My king, my journey in this place comes to an end tonight, as you well know. I have been called home.”

“We shall not see the likes of your kind again, Nagilla.”

“Nor yours. At least, not in this age.”

“Yet, I am a defect.”

“We have been through all this before, my king. Who are you to decide what is defective? That defect has become the reason the peoples have prospered under you and your forebears.”

“Yet, with these coming schisms it will be forgotten and trampled underfoot.”

“And then in that future time, the long memory of time will be awakened again. I bid you farewell, my king.”

“Farewell my friend. Your counsel and wisdom was like cold water upon the dry throat. It will be missed.”

“And I shall miss you.” Said the sage. The king gathered the wide sleeves of his robes, threw them back and embraced the sage. Nagilla embraced him with equal affection. Then he gathered his own rough-hewn robes and strode out of the king's study. The air in the narrow, high halls of the palace were crisp, flowing in from unseen vents in the gilded ceilings. It signaled that fall was coming. He passed by all the familiar rich, moving tapestries, through the long, vaulted halls, passed by the servants, most of whom greeted him with due respect. He would miss Cera the head cook and her little daughter Laina, who always made him special little breads and cakes during festival times and always made sure that whenever he visited the summer palace on an extended stay that besides the king's household, he was served the richest dishes, though he had no need of such delicacies. Still, he'd always appreciated them.

When Nagilla had finally reached the gates he permitted himself a last look around the grounds. Nothing surpassed the beauty of Assenna in the whole land of Hybron, or anywhere else and he had traveled the world over many years ago. The pinnacle of that beauty was the summer palace, with its ivory white towers and spires that gleamed in both sunlight and moonlight. The many levels of verdant gardens of rare kata flowers and tended fruit trees, the pools and waterfalls that surrounded the palace from the grounds to the lower towers. No wonder so many assumed that things would always be as they were. No wonder the visions of its destruction still galled the king.

A small delegation of officials were making their way up the main roadway to the steps. Some of them gave him the customary slight bow of respect due a desert holy man but most of them paid him no heed. Such was the age Nagilla found himself in. Sages like him were becoming irrelevant. Even derided by less charitable subjects. Most of the people living under the prosperous rays of the last Red King had no clue about the terrors they would face when he was gone nor did they care. And why would they? When any kind of bauble, food, spice, cloth and pursuit could be had, who needed a life of prayer, rituals, obedience? Who needed meditation on higher things that no one could see? It was all counted as foolishness and he a foolish relic of the past. It was at this thought that he permitted himself to feel despair for Assenna and all the peoples of Hybron. Even so, the old ways would be kept in some form by a few in Hybron and by some within the wild tribes out in the high desert.

He was let out through the gates and from the palace grounds and made his way towards the Last Gate. In the time he'd made his way from the palace to the streets he perceived clouds gathering. The wind had changed. Rain was coming. Rain rarely fell in Hybron. When it did, it was always a time for celebration. People gathered the water in jars and tanks attached to their houses and some of it was often offered up in tribute to whatever god they worshiped.

Nagilla wound through the streets, keeping to the wide, broad thoroughfares. They were busy but not nearly as crowded as during the day. He passed one of the large, central markets. Most vendors were gone for the day, a few were still closing up shop.

The rain, fine like silt, fell softly and covered the land in blessed dampness and wet. He passed jumbled neighborhood enclaves, smoking dens, minor temples and facades that hid underground tunnels. As the streets grew narrower and darker, the lantern lights grew more scarce and the shadows long. He felt eyes watching him. Shadowy figures were tailing him. This time he would not avoid them. He would teach a lesson. The rain fell harder. The air was moist and fragrant, strong with the slow decay of many things. Nagilla could smell and taste the air slipping down his throat. It was pregnant with fruit from the thousands of trees lining the streets, incense, opium, tar, perfume, smoke and goat meat or chicken stewing in myriads of pots. The watching and the spying was now a frequent occurrence after the political and religious riots in the capital. Opposing groups seemingly sprang up everywhere even in the neighboring city of Jhis. Nagilla approached one of the larger temples of Hec, the sun god and ducked swiftly behind a column. The temple was draped in dim light from the fires within and in deep shadow. Soon he saw the shadows of his followers spilling out across the polished stone floor. Three men surrounded him dressed in black tunics, their faces covered. One stood boldly in front. He was as tall as the sage.

“It is me you are looking for.” Nagilla said calmly.

“It is not personal. Only business.” The three brandished long, hunting knives. The first one lunged at him, quick as a snake, grabbing at him by the back of the neck and slashed at his throat. The other two rounded the column and came in behind him and immediately fell upon Nagilla, stabbing furiously but as soon as the first man had grabbed hold of him, his hand froze and then turned grayish white, calcifying into stone. This calcification spread to his arm and down his chest. The assassin gasped in horror, dropping his knife. It clattered uselessly to the ground. He opened his mouth to scream but the spread of the stone engulfed him until he was only a statue of stone and salt. The other two men also were turned into stone and salt. The third only partially so. Nagilla grabbed him and snapped off his calcified arm. A searing, white light issued forth from his eyes as he cauterized the gaping wound of the man's arm at the elbow. The man, in shock, was sweating profusely and stared at Nagilla with dread in his eyes. He began pleading for his life.

“Be silent and go! This night you and your companions have committed a grave offense against the Lord of the Deep Heavens. I am one of His emissaries, one of the great sages of old. Do not ever lift your hand against any innocent man again. Go and make amends for your evil and stay away from the Ainash if you value your soul in the coming destruction! Go!” Nagilla threatened. The man, quaking in fear and pain stumbled and then ran off into the night. Nagilla stood, unharmed by the attack. He kicked the knives away and threw down the stone arm. It crashed and splintered.

“Nor was that personal.” He shook his head sadly. It was not the first time someone sought to have him put to death. He now fully understood the king's lament. He wanted to gather all the peoples back to the old ways and protect them but it was not to be. The faithful would disperse before the tide of blood and fire came. Perhaps that lone assassin would wake up and walk the Red Path. The other two would stand as a confusing and unknown monument to ignorant people by tomorrow. Nagilla pulled on his hood went his way out into the rain.

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