The Swimmer Part 3

Time to make up for the break Here is part 3 of The Swimmer. 

Link to part 1 and part 2.

This takes place in The Children of the Pantheon’s world. The first story, which is not directly connected to this, is Between Two Cities

The Swimmer (Part 3)

Jon floundered in mid-air, screaming. He tipped his feet forward, hunting for the ground with his toes. He scratched the soft soil with the tips of his toenails before rising farther. Like a swimmer slowly surfacing. He flung out his limbs. The trunk of the tree was a good two feet out of reach. He watched it sink. Jon rose belly down, felt the skin on his back being tugged upwards, the hairs on his spine tearing as if a God had grasped him with countless tiny fingers to pull him upwards, towards judgement. Jon stuttered “By…THE….hallowed names…thine kingdom come….WILL….Oh Gods…OH GODS!”  He climbed higher, mumbling a prayer, spittle raining out of his mouth. His sacrilegious writing stick and whittling stone eight feet below now.

A low branch bent against the small of his back. Jon felt it, uncomprehending, he thought the pressure on him was some kind of punishment. The wood began to crack and Jon finally threw his hands around his back, failing to grab hold of the branch. It bent farther upwards. He grazed his knuckles against it. The branch snapped and he continued to rise. As it fell he grabbed hold of it, waved it pointlessly.  Jon tried to turn his head, couldn’t enough to see if there were any more branches in reach.  He’d memorized the number of crenelations on the tower, the number of trees across the horizon, the shapes of the distant mountains but he’d not once tried to sketch the tree under which he took shade.  Jon had no idea how many branches he had left, passed another branch on the right, moaned “Noooo…” when it was out of reach. He was blinded by a flurry of leaves. Instinctively he brushed at his face. When the leaves finally stopped scratching at his cheeks it was too late. He had just about passed the peak of the tree. One final branch remained. His fingers clawed at empty air.

The Rock, The Shard, The Root. Jon dove. He flipped his legs upwards, head downwards, arms stroking the air. He kicked at the air, imagining water. For a moment he seemed to go lower, perhaps, perhaps not; it did not matter, he had successfully aligned himself feet up in the air, head down, closing the gap between him and the branch. He grabbed hold of it. Continued to rise, held onto the thick branch like a rope. It felt secure, as long as the Gods did not pull him any harder. Jon closed his eyes and started to pull himself down, hand over hand. He pretended he was climbing upwards. Three pulls and was nearly at the trunk. That was when he dropped.

His eyes shot open in that sickening moment. The branch between his hands tore a long graze down his palms, his his inner forearms. He grabbed hold and kicked at empty air, the sky and ground reasserting themselves. He mumbled “I’m so sorry.” towards the Gods who tossed him up and down as they pleased. They must have been watching, it did not matter that they were not overhead. They must have watched him scratching in the dirt for the last month, waiting with mounting apprehension for the moment to punish him. Jon dared to measure how far he was from the ground. A short fall if he prepared himself, but to risk it? He could try climbing down, had never climbed, not since Kulk did. No one climbed since Kulk did.

Jon let go.

Landed on his ankle sideways.

He stumbled, cursed: “Nononono…” Sat down on the ground and rubbed at his foot, pushing into his shin as if to squeeze the pain right out of it. He lay back. Underneath the changing, red-tinged sky the clouds blurred and broke as he allowed himself to sob. Then came the ragged breathing and the thundering panic in his chest. He got up and limped towards the river. He left the stick where it lay.

The swim back was the hardest he’d ever done. With one aching, twisted foot, he kicked, propelled not by the spark he’d felt only a few hours before, but by sheer unbridled desperation. He made it into the tunnel and almost opened his mouth to the water when the image of little Kulk’s empty sockets invaded that scrambling darkness. On the otherside Jon found The Shards in the river bed and scattered them with one careless, slapping hand. Finally he shoved off the bottom and emerged upwards. It was an effort just to tread water. He pulled himself along the wall till he reached a bank, dared not to look towards the fountain and past it to the others, back to the city and those plump childrens who slept in soft beds who had his friends whipped and his skin burned just because, just because of what- the Gods maybe. As if by not looking they would not be there. He noticed then that he had not cleaned his palms. The soil remained printed upon them. He looked and saw past the fountain. Two tiny islands of flesh floated on the water, impervious and oblivious.

Jon washed his hands thoroughly, eviscerating the dirt underneath his finger nails. Spotless, he limped back along the bank. When he was close enough to the others he slopped back into the water. The children finished playing. Their whoops and chortles faded into the late afternoon whilst Jon watched from the shore. When they had gone inside Marat came and demanded Jon change and follow, that there was work to be done by men and they needed boys to carry their tools. Jon lagged behind and Marat noticed immediately.

There were still two hours of sunlight left.

Jon did not scream until the seventh lash. With his hands tied above his head and the laughs of the children behind, Jon gritted his teeth against the stake he was tied to. His bound fingers scraped against the wood, tracing the same abominable pattern, over and over and over again, shuddering during a lash. He rubbed his thumb- one invisible, pointless act of defiance; he rubbed his thumb into the stake. It kept him from screaming. He had to focus. Each time the whip fell he’d sweep his thumb the way he swept that stick to make that sacrilegious, glowing rune. If the Gods were watching let them, they could not do to him anything worse than what men had. The final lash was held back my Marat, just long enough for Jon to loosen, for his mucles to relax. That suprise was the cruelest and drew a scream. Marat’s satisfaction could be heard then in his repetitive warning to the waiting slaves behind Jon.

He left Jon there till dusk. The slashes on his twelve-year old back wept. The red sun dispelled the drops of river water that clung to his exposed skin. Jon continued to trace that symbol invisibly in the air with his wiggling fingers, even after he could no longer feel them. He traced that symbol till it was as well known to him as the number of crenellations on that crumbling wall.

That night he slept on his stomach.

The next day he was assigned to the nave. Work fit for cripples, the sick, and women. Work that was out of the sun. When he walked into the temple the first thing he was told, by a crone behind a table at the far end was: “Gah, it’s too bright out there. Close the door slave.” He did and in that silence could only hear the sound of scratching, scratching, coming from the feather that danced above real paper. The priestess may or may not have smiled at Jon, but Jon did smile back. He limped forward till he was able to fix his eye on the purple liquid within the crystal by her side. She followed his gaze.

“It’s ink boy.”

Jon discarded his smile immediately, looking anywhere but at the ink bottle and the pile of paper beside it, focusing particularly on the old crone and her feeble movements. “It’s for writing boy. Symbols. Holy runes. Do you have any idea what I am talking about?”

“No.”

“Well. Let me teach you how to make my blasted tea then.”

Jon listened intently to the priestesses intricate instructions. He had never focused so hard on something then he had on making that tea. He summoned all he had learnt about being a scraping, pathetic, obsequious servant, watched her closely to anticipate the sundry needs she requested of him. When during the evening she said: “You will be here at dawn.” Jon had to hold back tears.

That night he slept on his stomach, tracing the symbol on the straw till he fell asleep.

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Fantasy story excerpt: The Swimmer (Part 1)

Also set in the same world as Between Two Cities. This takes place three generations later. Too sleepy to edit, will tomorrow.

The Swimmer

The foreman had been ill for so long that the lashes on Jon’s back hadn’t just scabbed over, they had fallen off. According to the chalk on the Jubal tree he’d grown an entire foot. He made harpoons of the sticks at the bottom of the pool, threw them at the other children under the water where they couldn’t see, watched them sink, useless. The red sun hovered almost directly overhead and it was a clear, blue day, no Gods above or anywhere above the walled off horizon. Jon moved farther away from the children with each of their splashes, a receding wave, he tried to laugh in time to the others jokes. “JON! WHERE YOU GOING?”

“I want to swim to the fountain and back, maybe thirty times. Anyone else want to come?”

The chubby scions of House Kobar shook water from their heads, frowned and made disgusting sounds. Hak turned to the others and put two fingers together, as if holding a pen, then rotated them near his cheek. The others laughed. “Have a good swim slave.” Hak called.

Jon smiled and waved back: “Thanks!” He said. Jon held his polite smile till his back was turned, let it deepen as he thrust forward. His gratitude always confused them and Jon loved to confuse them. Between strokes, each time his head emerged he examined his whipchord limbs, honed over the last year with these lengths, these exercises done purely to disguise the truth. It was worth it. Jon swam around the corner of the wall to where the fountain stood on it’s tiny island. He treaded water and imagined the moss retreating from the white marble, the figure above, long since crumbled, being rebuilt, and as Marca had claimed, water spouting from the top to pour like rain over the surrounding pool. Jon hadn’t believed him. “Can no one fix it?”

Marca had said: “Willar Wall-builder could have, but we went blind, then died, and taught no on how to.”

“That’s pretty stupid. So it’s gone then?”

“All things pass Jon. Nothing lasts but the stories we tell.”

“That’s not true Marca.” Marca who died, a week later, when he took little Sook up onto the walls and failed to catch her as she fell. Jon kept his head beneath the water that day, for as long as he could, so as to muffle Marca’s distant screams. Jon touched the edge of the island with his feet, grabbed a toeful of moss for luck, then pushed off towards the wall. The wall was patchwork at best now, potent stretches of stones with staggered parts of mish mashed wood, scaffolds and clumsily stacked rocks for where it had begun to crumble. He swam to the wall, behind which he could hear the sounds of the various water falls, where the water flowed under and through the grates and into the river. He touched the wall with his hand, treading water, feeling the rumble of the rivers flow. He closed his eyes and savored the quiet. He swam back to the fountain. From here he could just about see the heads of Teek and Pan, they lay back on their backs, hands on the mounds of their bellys, floating. If they weren’t getting splashed that menat Hak had gone home. They will go to the bank and play their strategy games for at least an hour and by then Jon could be back. He swam one more length to the fountain and back to the wall, then he dove.

He felt his way along the wall, upside down, trying not to panic, he found The Root, then lower down The Rock and finally The Shards in the sand and careful not to cut himself, angled forward, one broad stroke and then there, the grate, two hands on two bars, like in his cell, except he had shrunk, the space between the bars was wide enough, and he thrust through, clawed along the dirt tunnel, his lungs less strained this time, shoved through and then up towards the muted torch of the sun then air, and gasping, and sweetness. The river tugged him down stream. He let it.

Till he found himself at the bank. The familiar tree. In the hollow at it’s base he retrieved the stick he’d found, whittled with the sharp stone kept next to it. For the next few hours he drew in the soil, hoping for something to happen.

cont tomorrow.

Fantasy story excerpt: Between two cities

Okay so it’s just about midnight. I’ve ran out of time today and I’m exhausted. I thought about giving myself a rest day for the 1k. I mean I figure it’s okay because of the Sabbath or something. It *is* reasonable to have one day off a week. But the thing is, that it would mean that I lose momentum. That I can’t say I really stuck with 1k every day for a whole week at least.

These lines of demarcation are arbitrary but so is the nature of any challenge.

I can’t continue BuddyBot today, I can barely keep my eyes open. Instead I will write something weird. It is an extract, or a short story, a piece of fiction from what is hopefully my next novel, tentatively titled. I am sleepy, it is late, so I’m writing this off the top. I apologize if it is thoroughly mediocre.

Quantity, not quality.

The children of the pantheon

Between two cities

The battle took place in the desert, between the frozen waves of two titanic sand dunes. Overhead the spheres of Ishtara and Durgor hovered, disks that had drifted from the east, as distant from the earth as the stars or the moon. The gods would be present. Both houses claimed the Gods watched from directly above their armies; one through a stirring speech from the warlord Habuto, the other a whispered wave that traveled through the exhausted lines of Kundakar’s troops. The two armies were to meet here, between the ruins of two cities, named differently by each side, profane places that had fallen from their lofty heights through defiance of the God emperor, or because of impiety, or because they had employed forbidden sigils and destroyed themselves, or a dozen other tales preserved by no writing.

As there is no writing on earth, nor shall there ever be again.

Halar passed his wineskin to Kunai, who barely managed to continue marching underneath the unforgiving red sun. He and all the others who had to march, had been marching for days, leaning upon their spears, shuffling forward as men and camels dropped beneath their feet, no one bothering to move them, so that they were trampled till they burst. The rot fillled everyone’s nostrils, mixed with the flinty smell of sand and the stink of unwashed thousands.

“Kunai, just get on my camel. It’s fine, no one will stop you. Even the captain’s are too exhausted to bother.”

“Thanks. No. I’m okay. The water was enough. We’re almost there anyway. Look- the dune.” He pointed with one sun shrunk finger towards the emerging lip of the great dune. “Get on your camel Hal. The others could do with some inspiration.”

Halar nodded. He broke off a piece of cracker, handed it to Kunai, who plopped it into his mouth and crunched slowly, chewing it like cud and mumbling between bites: “I take back ever shaying to you thash fishing is dull. Wash the lucky one all along. Never knew it would be like this. Just marching. Endless. Bloody. Marching.”

Hal affected an unconvincing chuckle. “You’ll never complain about the water again Kun. Well, at least for a whole two weeks right? More time for me to stare at the wife.”

Kunai said: “Not in the mood today Hal. Might be the last time I get to think about Dittya.”

“There we go, be morose. It makes me think of home.”

He earned a dry laugh. Hal pointed to the flanks of their column, past the banners that hung, limp, past the rows of diamond bright spear tips, past the crested helmets of the camel riding mages, to the distant stones of the cities on either side: “Look, the boundary menhirs. You can actually see them. Look, see, from north to south, they curve inwards. Symmetrical. Wonder who put them there in the first place. You know, no one has ever crossed those stones and lived. No one. I think it’s a sickness. I think once you’re inside the city boundaries you catch the plague and you’re dead.”

Kunai started chanting protective mantras to himself in dry fits. Presently he stopped. “It’s clever. The boundary stones are barely ten feet from our ranks, when we spread out. Yeah. Definitely.”

“Your ability to judge distances is just plain unnatural Kun.”

“Right. And you aren’t. Give us a show Hal. Seriously. Something to draw attention to, you know. What’s coming.”

Hal squeezed his old friend’s shoulders. He moved towards his camel, the one he’d left with someone who name he’d already forgotten. Taking the reins, he mounted his camel. He retrieved the silver horn from the leather sack that swung from his saddle. Inhaled deeply enough that a gust of sand entered his mouth, reducing him to choked caughing. A few of the veterans around him chuckled cruelly. Hal righted himself, embarrassed, then pulled out his scarf, held it in front of his face and inhaled again. He blew into the silver horn, a single, clear note.

Immediately all that were riding the camels thrust down the visors, shielding the eyes of their mounts. A few snorted and whined in suprise, but none broke, and most had been trained sufficiently to accept this, barely breaking stride as they continued to march. Hal took out the bone cylinder he kept hanging from his belt. He pulled the top of, unfurled the handles of the scroll, catching the bottom handle and securing it to his belt. He held the other in his left hand, and with his right dipped his index finger into his chalk pocket.

He made the symbol with sweeping movements, effortlessly drawing it onto the paper. He made the last stroke and angled the paper upwards. A fountain of red light burst out of the page. It traveled upwards, a red spear, and at about twenty feet burst into sparks. The sparks fell, shimmering, until what remained was an arrow, pointing forwards and upwards, towards the distant dunes. Over the thirty seconds or so that it faded, loud voices sounded, cries of recognition, then all at once a surge of energy swept through the column, shouts and cheers and a great clanging of spear tips against one another. Halar shouted to Kunai: “How about THAT?” After exactly sixty seconds since he drew it, the chalk symbol on Halar’s scrolls erased itself, from one corner to the other, the chalk blowing from the paper like sand. Halamar then took out the horn, blew twice, and the eyes of the camels were uncovered.

They reached the dunes and spread out. Spears were thrust into the sand as defenses were erected; stakes and pits were dug. Acolytes, in teams of three, took their handmade sticks and carved runes into the sand, tracing symbols that caused the sand to drop away, to create pits, whilst other sticks were taken to hastily carve the sides of the pits, and the third with the longest stick would carve a small symbol at the bottom of the pits. The net results- wells of water, that were then used to pack the sand. After exactly sixty seconds all symbols erased themselves. Some of the younger acolytes continued their training here- trying to predict exactly when sixty seconds would pass, just as their superiors knew, by instinct, when the sigils disappear.

The defenses erected, massive sheafs of stitched together pages were unfurled. They brought them together, secured them with stitching, till a vast moat of paper encircled the entire army. Thousands of men stood inside a circle of paper; an endeavor that had been prepared for for months, all under the command of Misarak the sorcerer, the only person mad enough to march to meet the Warlord Habuto, rather than wait and defend. Then they began to wait. The men were thankful. They were not tense, they were not worried. They were exhausted enough that some claimed they would prefer death to any more marching. Even this was a welcome respite.

The first they saw of the enemy was their outriders. They retreated. Then came the main force. It was three times there own. Upon a massive chariot, from which soared flames maintained by magic made permanent, an impossibility as far as anyone knew. They arrayed themselves. Their battle mages wore black, with masks surrounded by extending rays of stiff red. Misarak’s voice rang out. “PREPARE THE SHIELD. ON THREE BURSTS.” Hal put his horn to his lips with one hand, withdrew his ink wet callgraphers brush with the other. Only the best were entrusted to do this. He rehearsed the movement in his mind several times. A few minutes passed. The enemy had stopped. The star masked mages began their distant movements.

Soldiers cursed on the high dune. Halar prepared himself. Then someone, somewhere, maybe Misarak himself drew in the sand, the symbol for thunder. A loud THOOM went out across the desert, felt by everyones sand sodden feet and then as one Hal and the others blew their horns, once, twice, three times. Then seventy mages with seventy brushes began to scribble seventy symbols simultaneously. They were ten seconds into their movements when Misarak cried out: “REMEMBER THE BOMBARDMENT, DO NOT STOP, DO NOT PAUSE.” And immediately afterwards an eerie red light lit the sand as massive boulders, crimson, surrounded by flames, began to fall towards Misarak’s forces.

Seventy brushes finished their movements simultaneously.

The red boulder exploded on some invisible dome, shattering into constituent shards that rolled down the sides of the invisible dome, suggesting it’s outlines. As they fell they cooled, until as rocks they thudded into the sand around the shield, throwing up sand and debris that slid harmlessly of the shield that began at the edges of the paper. Halar counted down the seconds in his head. At exactly fifty Misarak called out: “BALLISTAS!” A great creaking of wood could be heard behind Halar. On sixty one Misarak yelled “LOOSE.” And the ballistae fired their heavy bolts, as the symbols erased themselves. Halar held his breath until the bolts were clear of the shield. Exhaled and laughed as they fell upon the ranks of the warlords men. He felt a hand clasp his shoulder. Kunai’s. “HAL! ITS WORKING! BY THE GODS ITS WORKING!”

Three more times the shield went up, down, the ballista reloading in that minute, firing- the timing was perfect, the drills had worked.

The enemy ranks were pummeled. Huge rifts broke into them, and a few on the flanks, a few dozen, broke and ran. They were cut down by their own outriders and no one else broke. After the third volley a wedge detached from the front of the army- cavalry, they ran towards the dune- bare red flags waving in the air, armor glinting silver in the heat. At their head was the warlord himself. Hal said: “Fool. Utter Fool. Misarak would never risk himself like this.”

They began to reload.

The cavalry paused after a few hundred feet.

Hal and the other prepared to draw their symbols.

The riders jumped of their camels and with their hands hastily drew in the sand- a massive symbol that contained all of them. “LOOSE!” The ballista fired another round, this time at the cavalry. In mid air the quarrels seemed to hang. They slammed into the sand, the empty sand- where the riders were, only a burst of rising sand remained, the symbol disappearing. Then all at once they were screaming, as the riders and their mounts appeared several feet in the air, in the middle of Misaraks army. Hal turned and saw a burst of flame engulf a group of soldiers. Kunai was screaming something. Then Halar was thrown to the ground, a wave of sand raining on him. A bright light flashed, so bright that even through closed eyes Hal was seeing spots. He got up and saw soldiers being cut down by the armored men. “That isn’t possible. None of this is possible.” An armored soldier approached him. Hal began to make a mark on his hand. The soldier drew a javelin and hurled it without breaking stride. It plunged into Hal’s belly. He fell backward onto one of the boulders, his feet tearing the parchment he had been drawing on. He started to pray. Holding the spear, his entrails spilling out around it as he choked on his own blood. The armored man grabbed his throat with one steel shod fist. “There are no Gods boy. There will be no God emperor.”

Hal choked “No man can sit His throne.” He spat in the soldiers face, staining his helmet with blood.

The guard raised his visor. Underneath was the face of a man, heavily scarred. All over his skin were markings, runes and sigils Hal did not understand and had never seen. The Warlord said: “I am a God.” And he crushed Halar’s throat.

When the battle ended the Gods above, perhaps satisfied, drifted away in opposite directions.

Kunai survived. He was taken prisoner by one of the steel men. He was present when the Warlord conquered each city state one by one. He was outside the golden gates when the Warlord went to confront the God Emperor. He heard the Warlord’s screams when the God Emperor smote him for his insolence and he saw his wardens burn from the inside out when The God Emperor punished them for their transgression.

He survived and told his son his story, who told his son, who told his.

There is no written history on earth, as there is no writing that survives the end of a single minute.

Thus the oldest story is that of the Warlord, who transgressed against God and was destroyed for it. All have heard it, in all it’s twisted variations. The lesson, common to all versions, is clear. Thou shalt not violate the kingdom of heaven. Magic and writing are not for mortals.