The Last Temptation of Debinani Rahl
The day started normally enough. I was walking out to the front of the tower, pulling on my padded gloves for my afternoon bout and chat with Nocturne. I found the man standing where I was expecting him, though not remotely ready to fight.
“Sir,” he said, and reverently pulled a cloth-wrapped package from his pouch. He unwrapped it carefully and handed me a small vial of sparkling blue liquid.
“This it?” I asked.
He nodded. “Sandoval already took the stuff, watched him turn all young right in front of my eyes.”
“Where is he now?”
“Oh sir, I’m quite sure he’s romping naked through the woods with a whore on each arm, wiping out entire generations of orcs as well as anyone who looks at him funny.”
“That’s about right,” I observed. I called Ralben out and handed him the vial, ordering him to get to work. Noc looked at me like I was insane for not quaffing the thing right then and there and started to object. I raised my fists. He didn’t raise his shield. I knocked the little shit on his ass.
The night had grown quite long and the candles in the lab were burning low. The novelty of Damascus’ exquisitely crafted katana had faded. I elected to stop playing with the thing before I hurt myself and hung it on the wall in my office. Ralben and I were looking over each other’s notes on the analysis of the Elixir Vitae. If there was anyone who could figure out one of Absalom’s concoctions, Ralben was he – there wasn’t a finer alchemist, cleverer researcher, or more skilled assassin in all the lands. The man finally fell back into his chair with a thud and a rustle of robes.
“I give up,” he exclaimed, “I think I have enough information to work with, but it’ll take time before I can figure the thing out. It would help if we had one I could experiment with.”
I ran my hand through my hair, bonking myself on the forehead with the apparatus attached to my wrist. “I don’t know how many we have to begin with,” I said muffling a curse, “so no promises.”
“Well then,” he pulled off a piece of dried fish and gnawed on it, gazing into the blue liquid thoughtfully, “I think we should give it a rest. Sleepy minds and sleepy hands kill in this line of work.”
I nodded and stood to stretch out my back. There was a lot more pop and crackle than stretch. When I looked back he was looking at me funny.
“How’s your heart?” he asked.
“I feel like I have a hive of grasshoppers jumping around in my chest.”
He responded with a clucking sound. “Hrrrm. That’s a bad sign. You have very little time left, maybe only hours. You should drink the thing down, we can study the notes later.”
I collected the vial and a handful of the notes before I responded with a nod and left.
The moons were high in the sky when Alexander found me behind my desk, staring at the vial.
“You ever going to drink that thing?” he asked, then saw the look on my face and paled. “You’re not…are you?”
“I don’t know.”
My son seemed to have an argument then: he looked from side to side, whispered a few things I couldn’t catch then threw his hands up in the air and exclaimed “Fine! You talk to him!” He strode over to my desk and reached across and tapped the top of my hand. The world…shifted…ever so slightly, and suddenly the room was full of people – the specters of the past that followed Alexander through his life. There was a clamor as what seemed to be the tail end of an argument ended, and then all eyes were on me. Gods, there were dozens of people in that room, none of whom I had ever seen save my father standing in the front of the crowd. Alexander gave the gathering a good glare and stomped out into the lounge outside my office. The shade of Adulphus Turon smiled warmly at me and drifted over to take a seat across the desk from me.
“How are ye son?” he asked.
“I’ve had a one or two better nights than this one, Cap’n.” I tried to summon a smile, but it just didn’t come. The shade crossed his arms and leaned his ethereal form back in the chair a bit.
“Quite a decision huh: decide whether to let nature take its course or fight it tooth and nail. You know, a lot of people in Britannia don’t seem to age at all, or they do at strange intervals. I’m sure there’s a few people out there who’ve been ground-pounding as long as you have and they’re not a day over thirty.”
I was still a little stunned at the whole thing, what with five thousand years of history and legend lounging around my office. All I could really do was nod.
“It’s unnatural I tell you!” We both turned to see the powerfully built, ebony-skinned man detach himself from the crowd.
Adulphus motioned for the man to be quiet. “I’m trying to talk to my son here T’Panga, do you mind? You’ll get your chance.” The other man scowled deeply but moved back into the crowd. To be honest, this kind of scrutiny was beginning to make me intensely uncomfortable – I found within myself a new respect for Alexander’s ability to stay sane. “Anyway,” continued my father, “as I was saying…. If you want to keep up, it only makes sense you drink the thing. After all, you’re entitled to the same chances they are right?”
“I…I don’t know anymore. These last weeks have given me a lot of reason to reflect…to open old wounds. I’m not sure I could take another lifetime like this one.”
Adulphus nodded thoughtfully at that. “I’m not entirely sure I have an answer to that, Deb. I really don’t know what to say. My time’s almost up anyway, there are a few others who want to speak with you while your perceptions remain altered.” He rose then and offered me a salute. “You’ve done better than any of us could have hoped with the hand you were dealt, son. I for one am damned proud.” At that he turned and faded into the crowd of spirits as I tried my best to choke back tears.
Dozens of shades began taking their turn. One by one, commanders I had read about and some I had never heard of filed past me, offering bits of wisdom, historical anecdotes, some simply a funny joke that they had heard once hundreds and sometimes thousands of years ago. T’Panga railed into me for not becoming a paladin or other holy warrior. Muerdetta cried with me for a lifetime of losses. Mitarin told me stories of my grandfather Jakob the Steadfast and stories of Stormstone Sound. Several tried to explain the meaning of life and death, but could never find the right words to express themselves. One by one they had their time with me, and one by one they walked away and vanished. Finally, only one remained.
He was a simple man. He had the leathery face and hands of a blacksmith. His short, blonde hair had begun to recede from his forehead, and his full beard was wild and unkempt. His leather jerkin was stained with smoke and gravy, his pants pocked with tiny burns. He smiled warmly at me as he approached. For the first time in my life I truly felt the need to rise up and bow. The man laughed – the kind of hearty, jolly laugh that men with clean consciences are allowed to have – and motioned me back to my seat.
“No need to be formal, Deb,” said Kironius Mengst; his deep voice thickly accented in a manner unfamiliar to me, and likely everyone else in Sosaria as well. “I’m just an old dead guy here to harass the living.”
I couldn’t help but smile in spite of myself; but then it sunk in whom it was that I was talking to.
“I’m sorry, sir, “ I said severely.
“Oh nonsense! Times change, the Queen Bitch is asleep again; it’s five thousand years later and a whole different world. You expect this little folly of mine to stay the same that long?”
“I…I suppose not.”
“Listen General, if you keep the spirit alive: Poise, Discipline, Family, you’ll find that what the Society actually IS isn’t nearly as important as how she does it.”
I genuinely smiled then. “I wish you had told me that forty years ago.”
We both laughed for a time, but finally Mengst’s eyes fell to the device on my wrist and we both sobered up real fast.
“You scared?” he asked.
“Never been more frightened of anything in my life.”
He nodded. “Well that’s understandable I suppose. I guess once you put all the silly arguments aside, it comes down to one question. Are you ready to go? Have you done what you needed to do? I mean, you’ve led a pretty eventful life…four major wars, thousands of skirmishes, a few lovers, a few children, a tight company of soldiers, victories, losses, respect, animosity. Except for the hordes of evil beasties, you’re pretty much untouchable unless a LOT of people got together to go after you. This may not be a soldier’s death…but you’d certainly have a soldier’s funeral. And between you and me, I’d be willing to bet a big chunk of the world would breathe a sigh of relief to see you gone….”
“You’re probably right, I should-”
Mengst raised a finger to interrupt, “Alternately…you could keep going. I’ve been watching you most of your life, Deb, and there’s not a whole lot of people left around who remember you when you were young and impulsive. Back then the Society was different – you had a lot of people who didn’t share your heart and it kept you restrained. The Society you have now is incredibly loyal, exquisitely trained, and pretty much free of moral and political hang-ups…. If you combined that power with a Deb Rahl who wasn’t inhibited by age and angst…well…it would be something for the history books I’m sure. You could be a force for good, evil, material or political gain…the possibilities are endless. You’ve got the Society now that you should have had forty years ago…. It could be a hell of a lot of fun to lead an army like that.” Mengst was trying not to grin, but the old ghost wasn’t hiding it well.
“I don’t think I could do that again…I’m tired…very, very tired. I think it may just be time.”
Mengst shrugged, “Then you’ve solved your own quandary then. See that was easy wasn’t it? And just in time too…” He motioned to the device on my wrist. Its normal steady glow had become dim and intermittent. Cracks were appearing along the band that kept it affixed to my arm. The grasshoppers in my chest were getting agitated.
I nodded slowly. “Mengst,” I said, trying to keep my voice from cracking, “I think I can handle dying behind a desk…but I don’t want to die alone. Could you stay a few minutes more?”
The spirit frowned and shook his head slowly. “’Fraid not Gen’ral. The decisions you make in the next few minutes will change the course of history. Us dead folk can’t influence that.” He smiled then, a soft, encouraging smile. “I’ll see you again…sooner or later.” The words had special meaning at that moment. The shade turned slowly and strode out of the office, fading away as he moved.
It was close to dawn – the world outside had that hesitant, pre-dawn feeling. Alexander had fallen asleep across the map table. And I was about to die. It settled on me slowly, first regret, then a creeping fear, then peace. I gripped the vial of the Elixir tightly. If I was going to go, I’d give the world one last show of willpower before I did it. I was going to die with my salvation in my hands. Don’t know why that idea came over me – probably some male chest-beating thing – but it sounded like a fine idea.
A few long, terrible minutes passed.
A loud crack filled the room. The device’s energies had been expended – it crumbled and fell off my wrist to the floor. Immediately I felt the sickening pain in my chest that had accompanied my last collapse; this time, however, it was a million times worse. My body began to convulse as I endeavored to keep control of it…by god I was going to die with that vial in my hand and my eyes open. After a few minutes the convulsions lessened and the pain grew greater. My vision started blurring, sounds of the jungle became hollow and distant.
I have heard before that when one is about to die the true death, one’s life flashes before their eyes. I had never believed the rumor. In my mind’s eye I saw and felt everything. The first time I collected arrows from bodies on the battlefield when I was six. The slaughter of women and children in Yew. The massacre at Cove. Training on Ice Isle. White-skinned Myca holding an ancient tome. Xavierra’s face in the moonlight. A nine-year-old Alexander kicking Sandoval in the shin. The roar of the armies charging into battle in the first Orc War. Lord Spirit. Kishara. Ehrlich. The faces of soldiers come and gone. Elendril and Sigurd facing off. Marla holding the newborn twins. Citizens of Yew spitting on the men in black cloaks sworn to protect them. I saw all of it. In an instant it was there and gone, and all that was left was a blurry vision of the office before me.
Two figures stood there in the room with me – both women. The first was a vision of gentle comfort, a white-haired, handsome woman robed in white with a sword in one hand and a set of scales in the other. She emanated a warmth and light. The second was the epitome of seductive beauty – raven-black hair flowing down to her waist, clad in a gossamer garment that left nothing to the imagination. She seemed to consume the light around her, leaving her half of the room in a dim shadow.
Aluviel and Kishara had come to watch me die.
The two figures looked to each other, then back at me, as if considering some manner of puzzle.
“I am not finished with him yet,” spoke Aluviel, her voice like a spring mist, “he still has work to do.”
“Nor am I,” added the other, her voice like a stolen kiss, “this is very naughty of you, Little General, we have worked quite hard to see that you continue on for some time….”
I managed to growl a reply back through the pain and the clenched jaw.
“Fuck you,” I said, “I’m done.”
They looked to each other again and when they turned back they were both smiling.
“I think not, Blood of Mengst,” said Aluviel.
Just then, Alexander jerked awake from his slumber. Stiffly and unnaturally, he stood and walked over to the two women and stood between them. They all stretched out their hands, and when their fingertips touched, the room was filled with a terrible glory. My son Alexander – the boy who had become Aluviel’s Chosen One, the Holy Assassin who had become Kishara’s Great General – he was so tied into the both of them that when they beckoned, he followed.
Ever so slowly, he approached me. I tried to shake my head, tried to stand, but I was seconds from death, and nothing but my lips would cooperate.
“Alexander…don’t do this…fight them…fight them please….”
He walked around the desk and pulled the vial from my limp fist. As he uncorked it, he looked me in the eyes. “I do not wish to,” he said quietly. As he lifted the vial to my lips, all I could do is scream.
My name is Gantras.
I’m writing this because a purple-cloak told me too and we always do what the purple-cloaks tell us too even though not many of us know why.
See, I like mornings. I like sunrises. Every morning I get up high on the top of the tower to watch the sun come up over the bay. It is very pretty. And when I see the sun come up over the bay I pull my sword out and I hold it up so the sun will kiss it and make it stronger and more true.
This morning was the same but it was different and bad.
The sun had just come up and kissed my luckiest blade for me, and I was lifting some weights to get a good sweat going because my Pa always told me that was healthy. I was lifting and lifting and sweating when out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw Alexander. I don’t much like it when Alexander comes to exercise with me. He’s not as good as I am and sometimes I hurt him. And he’s the Old Man’s son too. And he’s a purple-cloak and that makes me feel funny.
So Alexander walks right up to the edge of the tower and looks over to the rocks I suppose. And then Alexander came running up the stairs screaming! Imagine my surprise! Two Alexanders!
“Stop him!” he screamed. He seemed kinda weak because he wasn’t handling the stairs too well. It was about then that I saw the first Alexander step off the edge. I ran to the very edge of the tower as fast as I possibly could and I managed to get hold of his hand, but it pulled my shoulder out kinda bad and started dragging me over the edge too.
Why, it wasn’t Alexander at all! Maybe the Old Man took the cure everyone was talking about…boy, the General sure does look like Alexander when he’s young!
So anyway, just about when I was about to be pulled over the edge, Alexander (the real one this time) grabbed my belt and hooked himself against one of the battlements. And a few seconds later, there were six or seven purple and black cloaks, all holding on to each other trying to keep me and the General from falling and getting smooshed.
It was about then that I noticed he wasn’t holding on to my arm with his hand. In fact, he was holding it away from my hand, and he was jiggling a little bit and it really hurt my arm, and he looked like he was crying (the General crying!). He wanted to fall and get smooshed! He must have been very sad. Sam (even though he’s a purple-cloak now he’s still okay I guess) was crawling off the ledge beside me, trying to get a handle on the General’s jerkin so we could haul him back up when the Old Man…err…Young Man..err..General finally said something.
“Let me go, gents,” he said quietly, and as calm as if he had been asking for a pipe, but the whole world seemed to stop just then so it sounded very loud, “it’s not suppose to be like this…let me go.” And he looked in my eyes and I saw that he was really, really sad – more sad then I’ve ever been all my life put together. I almost let go, but just then Sam lunged out and got hold of the General’s collar -in doing so he pulled the entire group closer to all falling off, but the General was more secure.
“Let me go Sam…don’t do this.”
Sam shook his head, which must have been hard because all the tendons in his neck were sticking out and his face was very red. I wonder if I looked like that. Sam grit his teeth and said:
“You go, we go.”
Then Alexander said, “You go, we go.”
Then the guy holding my knees said, “You go, we go.”
Then I said, “You go, we go.”
“You go, we go,” said the rest.
The General looked at everyone, and something seemed to change. The features of his young face grew harder, but his eyes grew softer somehow.
“You go…we go…” he whispered. And then he propped his feet against the tower wall and reached his hand up and grabbed my belt, and as one we pulled each other up to safety. And then everyone got a chance to see the General. He was young, younger than the Captain. His hair was a deep dark black, and it had come loose from the thong he usually has tying it back so it hung loose around his shoulders like Alexander’s hair. He looked very strong and very smart and a little scary because he’s always been the smart but tired and relatively harmless old man. The General in front of me breathed vitality and dangerousness.
“Lookin’ good sir!” I said smiling.
I couldn’t help myself.
Two men rode through the jungles of the North Valerian Isle. To those that did not know they were father and son, they appeared as brothers – nearly identical twins with long flowing hair and jet-black armor and deep violet cloaks. They rode slowly, but their faces bore such looks of determination that the jungle itself seemed to shy away from them – or perhaps the jungle remembered.
After a time, they arrived at a bog that looked quite a bit like all the others. But this one was special, almost sacred. They hopped off their mounts and began to look around on the ground.
“Found it,” said the one with the black hair.
The man with the red hair trotted over to where the man was squatting, examining something. It appeared to be the charred remains of a cornerstone – a cornerstone that was once the foundation of a great keep, buried for hundreds of years in the soft earth. Both men took out small hammers and chisels and each chipped off a small chunk from the larger whole.
The men carefully placed their newly found relics into small pouches which they hung around their necks reverently.
“It’s time,” said the man with the black hair.
“It’s time,” said the man with the red hair.
And then they left.