Discover more from The Mad Christian
Earth Chapter 7: Fate 1
Find the rest at https://tinyurl.com/EarthFisk
Earth watched the charred and blackened ground beneath his feet, a stark reminder of the destruction wrought by the Madgyi.
His sword hung heavy at his hip as he trudged onward, a weary admixture of scavenger and warrior. Discovering more chaos was clockwork now. Each day brought more of the same as the troops moved through the farmlands east of the Ahrvan River, following the trail of devastation left by the Madgyi. Nothing but burnt homes and ruined crops lay in their wake.
Thanks for reading The Mad Christian! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
They approached a small settlement, and Earth detected the familiar scent. Burnt flesh mixed with the harsh residue of madgyics, like sulfur. He tightened his kerchief over his nose, stepping over a dead, young farmer. Not the first.
“Search the grounds,” barked Korma, Earth’s current officer. He spoke with the accent of a dockhand. His age and class limited his rank, but his experience was of a seasoned general and the bite of a junk yard dog. “Stay in pairs’n watch for the bloody wards. Don’t want any more lost limbs like poor Mikeh’s last week. Nice’n easy, aim to move on before midsun three!”
Today's platoon was small, just twenty-five men and Korma. The forces sent out on patrol were once much larger, but as the Culling continued without any sight of the Madgyi, the supply lines needed more and more men to guard them. The army pressed northward off the banks of the Ahrvan, constantly sweeping for the wards - mysterious traps of power barely seen in the ground, ready at any moment to burst forth with destructive energy. A single undetected ward could kill every man within twenty paces, injure more, and shred wagons and supplies into useless ruin.
They were easier to spot near the river. The muddy ground revealed anything recently buried, and following the river had brought them northward for several weeks without incident, the caravans followed the bank closely. But it was hard going, and in the towns and farms they passed, blackened and smoking, not a living soul was left.
Earth had only found one ward so far. As he watched the sniffers carefully pull it out of the ground, it was hard to believe such a little thing could create so much destruction. It was nothing but a tiny box, less than half a hand wide and still less thick. The sniffers scurried it away to be disposed of only the Forgotten knew where.
Once again, then, Earth forced himself to stare with rugged attention at the dirt path before him as he moved into the heart of the farmyard, eyes scanning for any sign of disturbed ground. He paused to prod over yet another body, this one an old woman.
“What are we even doing here?” Macrema grumbled beside Earth. Although Earth was younger and Macrema had more training, Earth wasn’t sure he would trust him in a real fight. He handled his weapon well, but lacked conviction.
“I don’t know,” Earth replied. As they approached one of the smaller barns of the farmstead, its walls scorched black and the thatched roof burned away, he continued, “I’m sure there is a reason we’ve been sent to search through the damages. They’re hungry for information. We must learn what it is that we fight before we can ever hope to defeat it. These madgyics... no one’s ever seen anything like it. I can’t imagine how the Shadowsun ever turned it back.”
“It's madness,” Macrema said, pausing before they entered the low hanging door of the barn. "A fool's errand. We should have fled south or across the sea. They could be behind us now as easily as ahead. And how many? How strong?” He ducked to enter as he finished, “I’ll be murdered before I believe searching rotting farmhouses will bring an answer to that!”
The scent hit Earth before the sound, a faint whiff, sweet yet acrid. He lunged for Macrema, knocking him to the side just as a deafening CRACK! exploded within the darkness of the building, filling the air with red light. Adrenaline surged through Earth as he pressed himself against the outer wall, bracing for what was to come. He could hear Korma barking above the din, but the world spun in Earth’s head, impossibly fast and barely crawling. Others sprinted towards them from across the yard. But there was something else. Something wrong. There was no waiting. By then it would be too late.
Earth dove through the door and came up, sword ready, facing the interior. Another CRACK! shattered the darkness behind him with flash of red. Earth saw him then, skin was drawn and leathery behind his full beard, eyes aged and wizened, but also contorted into a scowl.
There was no time. Earth lunged at him.
Pain exploded through Earth’s body, but that didn’t stop his sword from swatting away the stave away to plunge deep into the Madgyi’s neck. Together, they fell to the ground in a heap.
The world darkened while his chest raged like fire. Was that Macrema? No. Korma. The smell of sulfur. Earth gritted his teeth. He must keep fighting. He must not fail now.
Earth stirred in the darkened tent, the absence of light closed in on him. The scent of incense mingled with the stale air as he tried to shake off his grogginess. A cough revealed his throat to be parched and raw. His limbs were heavy and weak, like after a fever. His hair was damp with sweat and his stomach ached.
He wondered if anyone was nearby, or if there was water. As he sat up, the bandages around his middle pulled taut. Memories flooded back to him. Pain. Shock. The Madgyi. the staff. The explosion that tore a whole in his chest.
But he could not feel the pain now, only an itching beneath the poultice that had been applied to his wounds. He lay back down, waiting for something to happen. Soon the incense would go out.
The flap of the tent moved, and he heard a sound, a flint striking, and he tensed, ready to fight. But the figure that emerged was not an enemy. Colinae was the Shadowsun’s Chief of Physicians. Earth recognized him, though he was surprised to see him. Normally, Colinae only directly tended to high ranking officers.
He lit a lamp, hovering over a selection of bottles, before coming over. That gave Earth a moment to better make out his surroundings. This was no common sicktent. Fine furs and rugs covered the walls and floors, and a massive desk in the corner was covered in scrolls, parchments and what looked like maps.
"Where am I?" Earth asked as he sat up. Colinae's piercing green eyes fixated on him suddenly, as if he hadn’t noticed him before. The air of unease that was palpable.
"Why do you ask?" the physician responded at last. He placed a bundle on the table. With a deft hand, he retrieved a scalpel from within, then turned to Earth. "I must examine your poultices," he gestured towards the bed, "Please recline."
Earth complied, bracing himself. He averted his gaze as Colinae began to cut away the fabric, his eyes drawn to a tapestry adorning the wall. It depicted warfare, black-clad soldiers locked in a violent struggle against faceless men garbed in red robes, wielding long staves.
"This is not a sicktent," Earth said. "That is why I ask.”
"No," Colinae said, his voice strained. "No, it is not a - ”
The physician's breath caught in his mouth, the creases on his furrowed brow deepening with concern.
“Yes?” Earth asked, noticing
"What do you remember?" The physician's gaze met his own.
“Very little," Earth said. “It all happened so fast. Memories in haze. A face. An odor.”
Colinae nodded slowly as he listened, but the sound of voices carried in on a soft breeze from outside.
"It tells us nothing," a husky, powerful voice declared. "It could have been an accident. But it smells of a plan to me. A trap."
"Whether it was a trap is irrelevant," said a second voice. Earth immediately recognized the King. "This is our first real opportunity. We must seize it. You trained me well enough to see that we will never be stronger than we are right now."
“We shall know more when the boy wakes,” said a third voice, smooth like a fleeting breeze.
"Your Grace, he is conscious," Colinae announced. A moment later, all three figures stood in the tent beside them. "However,” Colinae added, “I am uncertain of his condition. His memory is incomplete. Further, something peculiar, the man bears no wounds.”
“What manner of sorcery is this?” Admiral Gaoltea growled, his one good eye fixed on Earth.
“I assure you, my Lord Admiral, there is no sorcery here,” Colinae replied, his voice even and steady. “His wounds are simply gone, as if they never were. I cannot explain it.”
"What in the name of the First Realms does that mean?" The smooth voice caught Earth's attention. Acis, the King's Chief of Assassins, had a way of blending into everything, almost as if he was made of water. He looked it too. His hair, a long, silver tail, was held tightly back. His midnight blue eyes shimmered with an otherworldly light.
Beside him Admiral Gaoltea looked even more weathered, red-white scar running down his cheek straight through his streaked, hoary beard. Earth stared awestruck at them both until he remembered that it was the King who stood beside them. Up close he looked even younger, with fire-streaked black hair and youthful skin. But his bright green eyes held a weariness that spoke of more than one hardship.
Colinae's voice brought Earth back. "He has no wounds.”
Acis’ deft hands shot forward, examining the cut bandages and Earth’s bloodstained but otherwise healthy gut with a swift touch.
"Impossible," the assassin whispered.
Colinae stepped between his patient and the assassin.
The King approached, leaning in over the physician's shoulder. "But the report states his intestines were penetrated by the madgyics, that the bleeding could not be stemmed. And that was not but twenty hours ago." He turned to Earth. "You are certain this is the same man?"
"I know my patients," Colinae replied. "But until I've had more than a few grains pass through the glass and examine him, I can offer no more answers than you."
"And what of his own words?" The gruff voice of Gaoltea rumbled from the map table, where he stood scrutinizing a piece of parchment.
"I..." Earth hesitated. "I recall the farmstead, and the Madgyi. I killed him, but he cast a spell. Beyond that, I don’t know. I remember pain, but not much else.”
The Shadowsun’s gaze bore down on him. "Your platoon brought you back to the camp wrapped in bloody rags, all but lifeless. But your captain insisted that you still breathed. You were taken to the sicktent with all haste, as any soldier deserves to be. But…” He moved to a set of shelves behind the table, and retrieved the Madgyi's staff, “when your captain presented us with this, everything changed."
Colinae then spoke. "After I tended your wound, I was certain you would not survive. But I hoped you might awaken before the end. The Shadowsun intended to interrogate you if fortune allowed, so you were brought here. Except for this past hour, I have not left your side, and his highness has remained close by as well. It was evident that you not only breathed, but slumbered peacefully. Nonetheless, I could not have imagined..."
“He is one of them,” Acis spoke, his voice low. “He is a worm, faking his own death by fey madgyics to infiltrate us. And we have done him the greatest favor, bringing him here, to our heart of hearts.”
Gaoltea laughed, his booming voice filling the tent. “A fine trick, too! The boy has been with us since Elusa. Quite the ruse.”
The King’s expression firmed. “I am aware of the dangers, Acis. But I will not sacrifice a potential asset without cause. Earth’s officers say he has proved his mettle time over. If he is indeed what you fear, we shall deal with him accordingly.”
The assassin’s silver eyes narrowed. “Trustworthiness is the finest disguise for a liar,” he said as he bowed and left the tent. “I would know.”
Gaoltea followed suit.
“There is a storm brewing between those two,” Colinae said.
“I know it well,” the King replied, but he turned back to Earth. “You have been through much, little brother. But the trial is only begun. Colinae will examine to your wounds, and I will examine your mind. It goes without saying you must be true. The only trait I require of my trust is integrity.”
As the silence stretched between them, the King's gaze bore into Earth's. After a moment, he spoke again. "You are not the only one with secrets, Earth. Mine is this: I need your help. Will you give it?"
“Yes, your grace.” Earth took a deep breath. “I will do what I can.”
“Good.” the Shadowsun stepped close to Earth. “Then let us begin, Earth. That is a good name, little brother. Earth, tell me everything that you remember about this.” He raised the Madgyi’s stave, inspecting it with a keen eye.
“It was dark, ” he began. “But I knew something was inside.”Earth recounted the events in the cottage, his memory vivid. The acrid residue of sulfur. The CRACK! The red flash. As he spoke, the King ran his hands over the strange weapon, tracing its details.
Suddenly, a small compartment opened with a metallic CLINK!, spilling three spheres onto the ground. All three men gasped for breath and froze, expecting a trap, or an explosion. But it never came. The physician stooped to pick up one of the spheres.
"I do not know this alloy," he said. "But if I am not much mistaken, then it was a sphere such as this which caused your injury, Earth. The size is certainly refractive.”
The King picked up a sphere for himself, studying it closely under a near lamp. He then turned his attention back to Earth. “And how long, do you think, was the time between these loud cracks you spoke of, the ones accompanying the red light?"
Earth furrowed his brow. "It’s hard to say, your grace. Things moved so fast, but time itself was standing still. Certainly, not more than a brief moment."
The King pressed him, "How many cracks did you hear again?”
"Two. No, three," Earth replied. "One when I pushed Macrema from the door, one when I dove inside, and the third when I struck the Madgyi."
“There will be signs!” exclaimed the King. He tossed the sphere and caught it with a certain swipe, hand gripped in a fist of determination as he rose up. “Another platoon must be sent to the farmstead at once. If this is true…” He grinned at Colinae and winked at Earth. “I am not mistaken, am I?”
“Your grace, about what?” Colinae’s face pinched as he focused.
“About holes left by the madgyics,” Earth said. “I think you are right, your grace.”
“Your grace,” Colinae stepped between them as he interjected. “About tonight, I do not like the plan.”
“Nor do I,” agreed the King. “That is why we meet to discuss it. You will be in attendance.”
“It is not the place of a mere physician,” Colinae protested. “My peculiar accounting of knowledge cannot accept some of your other allowances.”
“Your place is where I tell you it is,” the King raised his voice, but only an edge. “A keen mind is no more monopolized by generals, shadows and prophets than by doctors. You will be there to tell us what you find of Earth’s recovery, as well as share your advice regarding the plan.”
The King smiled, but Colinae still looked pouty. “My friend, do what you can. I will see to the search for the madgyics’ holes.” He he opened the tent flap to peer outside and the afternoon daylight flooded in. “It remains in the hands of the Forgotten. Whether he be hidden to hear our prayer or not there at all, there is a time to hasten.”
The flap fall shut behind him.
“He will not listen to me,” Colinae said, looking down at Earth with pain etched on his face. He brought forth a damp cloth and began cleaning the caked blood away from Earth’s chest.
“You’ve been honored,” Earth reminded him. “Invited to the King’s own council.”
“Yes,” the physician acknowledged. “And he will ask you too.” He finished with the damp cloth he held and walked away to wring it out in a basin.“But what are you? A lucky boy stumbling upon fate? Not likely. What can you possibly know or do? Our King has the greatest general of our age, the finest assassin to ever walk the earth, three scholars of ancient lore on his council.”
The doctor ducked his head as he complained, coming back with the newly dampened cloth. “He also has a high priest of the Forgotten, a hermit with the strictest commitments a treasurer-savant who can barely speak but never makes a mistake, and his Mastermith at Arms, as if that weren’t enough. If there is anything more to be thought of, these marvels have all already thought it to death.” His fingers brushed against the smooth, unblemished skin where the hole in his abdomen had been. “What can a boy from the sticks or an exhausted physician do?”
The physician's words stung as much as any wound.
The story of Earth continues…
Thanks for reading The Mad Christian! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.