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Gods on the Scarp
Lissy had been forced to bed early in the night, and it was a hot night too, brimming with crickets and frogs. She was humidly frustrated — more so because, through a rotted hole, she could see Rerf’s bristly mane lighted by the fire. Lissy wanted so desperately to be out there sharing the repellent of the flame with the other younglings and hearing the great stories of her scarred elder, but her parents had forced her to bed. And now they were doing it. She could hear it through the thin logged walls of their swamp-side abode.
Mischievous happenings now in Lissy’s mind — blessing of Plerel: God of Deceit. The girl would sneak out, while her parents indulged in each other.
Lissy tiptoed like Plerel’s great feline — hiding in the shadows, daring to draw breath. One with the night, she crept along the swamp bank to the fire, and snuck into a gap on a prostrate log between her cousin and the weaver’s boy. Spellbound by the words of Rerf: The God-Touched, the younglings shuffled unconsciously to let her in.
The bear-of-a-man had crouched his fierce locks close now to the flames, allowing his audience to grasp fully the severity of his scars. He held the shaft of his greataxe in one hand; it’s battered head was buried into the white sand.
Rerf exhaled, purging himself of a tangible pain.
Senses around the fire honed on the storyteller, hearing not a word from the crickets or the frogs. Hairs stood up, chilled somehow in the thickness of the night.
Lissy Woadbow had arrived just in time.
“Hmph, we were on the tail of a great mother boar, scared her near to the edge of the scarp from a dark dwelling within the Pale Forest. The old mother’s mud hole was nestled among pods of necrospores, for she had learnt that their excretions would faze the dogs coursing her farrow. Torje will swear she was the largest he had ever hunted, ever seen with his keen eyes. And I swear to you, by the old gods, Torje dared not boast.
The day was old, and heated, like it is now. We wore naught but the skin on our backs and the furs on our groins. Wisping clouds streaked across the heavens; under them our scarlet moon presented herself confident and full — a burnished shieldmaiden soaked in blood. Ahhh, and our brilliant yellow star struck upon our spines, drawing from us precious water, even late as it was.
Across the bronzing outcrop, we chased the beast. Between great bounds, she would return her eyes to the Pale to curse the moment she had fled from it, and search for a chance to return.
But she would not escape, for the men — our tribesmen! — thirsted ferociously for her flesh, and the glory that courses through it; for such yield would echo ceaselessly within the bellies of Karffe-Alkaza, and be rewarded with endless mead, from goblets of black ivory and gold — blessing of Wihkister: God of the Hunt.
Looking down at the valley from upon the scarp, sunlight savours longer; even so, it had covertly escaped us, and we soon found ourselves chasing the great boar in darkness.”
Rerf: The God-Touched adjusted his bulk to reach for a goblet tilting in the sand; the log beneath him groaned. He took from the goblet a generous swig, and then wiped from his bristles the clinging red beads of liquid.
The younglings were hushed still in the light of the fire, watching every move the old warrior made. Their eyes were wide with concern, for with each new telling Rerf would disclose a subtle detail that their ears had not before heard.
The God-Touched stretched back, exposing his robust figure and abundance of scars. His regular pelts and leathers were stowed away, for the night was abnormally humid.
Replacing the black goblet, Rerf returned his mind and tongue to the scarp.
“Blessings of Plerel — our tribesmen had adjusted their eyes to the night, and had now cornered the great mother boar against the thick of an unnamed woodland. The beast dared not enter the wood, and she had turned to face us with her wet snarls and heaving tusks.
Yarrr! The great beast charged! Right at my belly! I dash, sticking my axe into her side to regain my footing. My men charge with their spears, sticking her again and again. She spins and growls, unable to focus on a single target. Her saliva whips through the air as she squeals, now so close to her end. I take her by a tusk and cut her throat with my knife; the mother’s thick blood spills onto the granite outcrop, and streams into its cracks and slits. Blood looks black in the night.
Hmmm, but the tribesmen did not celebrate. Things were static as death.
We watched the woodland before us, for in its darkness there was a stir of light. It was a cast we had not before seen — gloriously potent, even through the clot of trees.
As Karffe, we were fated to seek out its source.
We cleaved through the trees and vines of the foreign woodland with our axes in a battle-like fury. Something drove us madly deeper. I remember the menacing cries of the tribesmen, loud and terrifying as they are in war.
Deeper and deeper we hacked. Until we came to a natural arena: a short-grassed circular clearing doused in glorious golden light.
Listen in, younglings. This is when we saw them: the gods…
A great golden obelisk stood in the crux of the arena. It radiated like our brilliant yellow star, blinding us while our eyes adjusted to its glory. Beneath the unfathomable intrusion were three giant humans — golden and naked, and with the heads of beasts:
The head of a wolf — Wihkister: God of the Hunt.
The head of a cobra — Plerel: God of Deceit.
And the head of a demon — Cesta: God of War.
There was no order that needed to be given: it is the birthright of Karffe to fight! It would please the gods — these that crave violence and conflict most — to battle. All that rage in the woodland behind us was for this purpose! We would die in glorious combat against our creators, and join them upon the precipice of their perfect heaven.
Our tribesmen advance in unison, bashing axes and spears against their own chest and head, crying out most terrible cries. Fierce we were! We would give them a proper battle, and prove the worth of every man, woman and youngling born to our great village. Blessings would rain down upon Karffe-Alkaza for eternity: gold, mead, flesh, and weapons powerful enough to slay any worldly enemy.
Plerel dashed into the unnamed woodland; Wihkister reached for his quiver, drawing from it to knock an arrow into his longbow; Cesta raised his claw-sword above his horned, red skull and advanced.
Cesta was double the crest and bulk of the largest of the Karffe, and he was close enough now to be menacing: course red scales for a face, solid black eyes, vicious over-biting fangs, reeking of decay. I would be a liar if I said the figure failed to faze me.
Whoosh! A horrid diagonal cleave from the demon god’s blade tore through Torje’s defences, clean splitting the warrior in two ——
And with that the tribesmen charged for the demon god’s human legs!
I saw Lekt drive a wild swing of his axe into the thigh of our foe. The axe head penetrated, drawing thick golden fluid —— And then from atop! — Cesta’s blade struck vertically into Lekt’s skull and straight down the middle of him as if following his spine. Cesta lifted the skewered man high above his wretched grin, wavering him about us in vainglory.
Veldar lunged a spear into the god’s belly — a good strike! I saw the glory coursing through Veldar’s body as he forced the spear around the gizzards of the demon god. Then I saw naught but a silver flash —— and Veldar was taken to the side of the fight by the deceitful Plerel snake god, who had come from the woodland to grasp him by the face with its fearsome jaw. Our warrior was swallowed half before us. Then his legs were torn from him before his torso was wholly consumed.
Brave and tactful, Thom had snuck his way around the demon god and unsheathed two daggers to climb at his back. I saw Thom leap heroically for the unattended golden flesh of the god —— but he was met in the air with Wihkister’s infected arrow and pinned to Cesta’s shoulder blade. The gods in their trinity let out a caustic howl, clearly finding tremendous amusement in this. I couldn’t help but join them with my own spastic laughter — for I was the last tribesman standing upon bloodied feet.
Covered in the gore of Lekt and the sweat of the night, I raised my greataxe above my head for a doomed assault. Every muscle in my body, every thought in my mind — all into this ultimate blow. Wrahhh! The momentum built! —— Was stopped by a grasp from behind. Plerel gripped my greataxe — this very one! — and stole it from me with divine strength.
Weapon-less and surrounded, I did what any sane Karffe would do: I began at them with my flesh and bone, bashing at what I could reach in my flailing fury.
Quickly I was snatched by the wolf god, and held up into the air above the others. I struggled with my might, and the might of my Karffe fathers before me, but to no avail.
Hmmm, then I was held toward Plerel’s fearsome jaw, and the snake god spoke…
“Ssss. Warrior. Thisss night you will be ssspared.”
And then I received the wound to my scar.
Plerel dragged a potent tongue across my face. I felt it slice me like a blade, felt the venom seep into the open flesh, burning and corroding, churning into my blood.
Then I fell into what I thought to be a forever sleep…
Hmph, and when I awoke it was not to gods… but men. My men, our Karffe tribesmen. Our finest remaining trackers had traced the scent of the mother boar and our trail through the unnamed wood to the scene of the battle. All that remained was my writhing body and the scorched earth beneath where the golden obelisk had stood. All the carnage and blood: gone.”
Just like before and during the tale, the younglings were still. None spoke. All were staring wide-eyed at their weathered hero. Aside from Lissy, who gazed into the dying flames of the swamp-side fire.
“Hmph, now the lot of you… off to your homes… off to your families. A big day tomorrow. We will make tribesmen of you all. Bring your axes and your hearts. Training as a Karffe is no easy thing.” Rerf reached again for his black goblet, and from it took a generous swig.
The gathering of younglings drifted back to their homes, wordless. All but Lissy, who took not the ease of a blink from the fires heat.
Rerf questioned her now: “Do you not believe in the gods, Woadbow?”
“Doubtless, I do. I am swift like Plerel and his great feline.”
“You shouldn’t believe everything you are told, youngling.”
Lissy looked up from the fire in a shock which locked on the scarred face of Rerf. But she said not a thing. It could have easily been a test.
“I am old, Woadbow. I feel that soon I will leave this place. And when I go I do not plan to carry this burden with me. Do you want to know what I really saw, youngling? Do you want to know the true face of the gods?”
Lissy said not a thing, just magnified her senses on the greying man before her. He appeared far older now, weaker somehow in the minutes that had passed; but he had strength yet to speak.
“We slew the mother boar, this is true. We hacked through the unnamed wood, this is also true. But what we saw in the clearing… I have lied for many years —— but only ever to protect the Karffe. The truth would flip us upon our big heads.
Understand that this is a burden, Lissy. Do not thank me for this.
And know that I did not tell you for selfish venting. I tell you, a youngling wise beyond her years, in the case that it becomes advantageous for the tribesmen to know. Advantageous? — I mean to say if the sky warriors return…
The light I described was not golden, nor glorious, but a cold and sharp white. When we entered the clearing, we triggered some… warning signal or trap — a consistent and high pitched shriek coming from all directions at once, like a choir of shrieking bats.
There was no radiant obelisk, but a black cube — much the colour of black ivory — with a white slit across its waist, from which beamed so potent a light.
As our eyes adjusted to the painful white, we saw figures strengthen into view. Small, these figures were. The size of you, Woadbow… the size of a youngling. But they had six tapering, sharp limbs; they were coated in a fine, fine chainmail — more of a ribbed silver skin; their faces — if you could see them as that — were ovals of captured flame… like peering into the depths of blue gem… an infinitely reflecting sapphire sea; they moved quickly, like insects —— silver ants!
There was no order that needed to be given: it is the birthright of Karffe to fight! And with the shrieking riling them and the silver ants charging, a fight seemed the only path.
But it wasn’t a fight, Lissy Woadbow of Karffe-Alkaza. It was over before we had chance to hurl a spear, swing an axe. It was over before the images that I had seen made sense at all in my battle-thirsty mind.
The sky warriors each held, at the tip of one of their acicular limbs, a molten red sphere; from it, streaks of keen red light darted at us.
And then I received the wound to my scar.
A streak of red skimmed near to my face. Like venom seeping into the open flesh, it burnt, corroded, churned into my blood. I fell to the floor of the clearing, stunned.
The silver ant warriors surrounded me, and I was quickly raised to the air. I had nought the strength to struggle. I let them dangle me, dangle my dignity.
I was held toward one of the silver ants. It directed its imprisoned blue-fire at my eyes. It must be its face, I reason.
And then the sky warrior spoke…
But I could never make sense of it, for it spoke with a sound that no worldly thing could produce. I think it knew this — knew that I could not by my life understand. So it showed me, Lissy. It showed me.
The flaming face of the silver warrior became an oval of the blackest of blacks — and I fell into it. I saw the world fall past me. All things together, without beginning or end. Past, present, and future as one. How can I be sure how long I fell?
Then I remember seeing the sky warriors float towards the heavens, toward the many stars… and our scarlet moon… in that black ivory cube of theirs. They floated higher and higher.
Whoosh! — And I now fell back into time, felt air rush past me as I advanced un-slowing through the clouds of our world, headed toward the very clearing from where I had begun my infinite fall.
Hmph, and when I awoke it was not to gods… but men.”
Lissy Woadbow of Karffe-Alkaza had been the first Karffe to see Rerf: The God-Touched express fear. His eyes were wide, pupils dilated, lower lip quivering. To see such a powerful warrior cowering as such disgusted Lissy… disgusted!
Karffe are not cowards!
The tribesmen’s encounter had forced Rerf to question the old gods… to question faith and hope. He now feared death, feared where it would lead… feared that it would be nowhere at all…
Lissy could not look at the shell-of-man. Forever in her mind he would be Rerf: The Godless.
Illustration Credit: Oliver Ragen
Ollie, thank you so much for being there for this one. Looking forward to working with you more, brother. Rerf looks like a real badass, love it.