Thursday, October 1, 2009

Paladin-Part 6

“Regarding that aid,” Thomas said, “what do you mean?”

Mentat went around the desk and arranged the papers and journal such that all of them faced James and Thomas. Taking a pen in hand as a pointer, he quickly shot a glance at James and Thomas to confirm their attention, then pointed at a map.
“We are here, some distance from the center.” Mentat said, still unspeaking, and then he pointed to a mountain on that map, “This is where you two and your men intend to go.”

Mentat then gestured at the distance between the two points, which James and Thomas saw as being on differing sides of the line on the map marking where the exterior walls ran around the pacified lands. Then, flipping the pages of Donaldson’s log book, Mentat pointed at pictures of several grotesque figures—some humanoid, some vaguely beast-like, some utterly alien—and again looked at the two young men before him.

“These are your enemies.” he said, “Most of them are those that survived the Azure Flames, but not unscathed. The flames changed them, burned them, and mutated them, twisting their forms to match the foulness of their souls. They hate us—Thomas, I know you have spells that can perceive their evil—and seek to butcher the men and take the women off to use as breeders for their spawn.”

Mentat paused, but as no questions came, he continued.

“Most are simple brutes, bloody-minded and—at worst—using cunning in lie of actual intellect or knowledge. A few of them possess command over the elements to some degree, casting fires or other powers as if they were true wizards, and others command other powers through pacts with yet greater monsters.”

“I would think that our enemies command by fear and violence.” Thomas said, “This seems to be a society based upon chains of dominance, an order built upon fear and hatred.”

Mentat nodded, affirming Thomas’s statement.

“Yet they raid, not invade.” James said, “This suggests that they lack the means to do so at this time, or they are unaware of our capabilities, and use these raids to probe our defenses. That, in turn, suggests an intelligent master atop your hierarchy, Tom.”

Mentat smiled, then affirmed James’s statement in turn.

“Your mission, I see,” Mentat said, unspeaking still, “is to kill that master. Yes, I see it clearly now. You travel to Silvertop Mountain to find and slay the mastermind. So, the old man finally found him at last!”

The youths’ faces showed their confusion.

“He—the Archmage always said it was a man—was known to us for a long time. That he’s sent you youths, and not the old veterans, suggests to me that there is more to his intent than to just hack down this villain.”

Donaldson, sobbing, tried to speak but Mentat cupped his mouth with a free hand and silenced him.

“You can’t fight the brand, Donaldson, so don’t talk.” Mentat said, “Let me do it for you.”

Mentat stood silent a moment. Donaldson exhaled, as if expelling a deep breath, and then collapsed to the floor, overcome by fatigue.

“He’s asleep now.” Mentat said, “I have what he wanted to say, and as one that has overcome the Ban, I can speak freely.”

“The Ban?” James said.

“All of those judged capable of remembering the way things were before the Azure Flames, by order of the Archmage, fell under a great curse forbidding them from ever talking about it—outside of what the Archmage specifically allowed—to those not present then and there. This is ‘The Ban’, and it is what keeps your parents from telling you the truth of what life was like before the Azure Flames scoured the world.”

“Amongst other things, I assume.” Thomas said.

“Correct.” Mentat said, unspeaking, as he brought forth a strange map written in a language unknown to them. This map seemed written by artifice, not by hand, and concerned itself more with roads and other pathways than features such as rivers or lakes.

“This is a road map of what this part of the world looked like before the Azure Flames.” Mentat said, unspeaking, “While much of what’s written here is now ruined or reduced to ash, or buried under ash, some remain- and I know that enough of these things remain between here and there to guide you once beyond our borders.”

James realized what he beheld, a relic of his parents’ world, and marveled; the degree of detail, contrasted with the distress of age and the casual attitude towards it by Mentat, implied that this was a map made in mass quantities before the Flames- and not meant to endure as long as it had.

“Your target has such a map. Count on it.” Mentat said.

Mentat then traced out a route, both on the aging road map and on the hand-drawn map amongst the papers on the table. He then marked on the drawn map notations of what to expect at this or that location.

“What are these?” James asked.

“Places where you may find aid beyond the walls.” Mentat said, “I am not the only one of my kind. Others, dissatisfied with the rule of the Masters, came out over time; these are all possessed of talents similar to my own, and they are now like me. I taught them how to use the talents that they possessed, and we now exist in the shadow of the White Tower, seeking those like us while safeguarding the community that spawned us- even if the Masters disapprove of our existence.”

“I do not under-“ Thomas said, but James cut him off.

“That is sufficient explanation for now, Tom.” James said, “We have more pressing matters before us.”

Mentat smiled, again impressed at James’s sense of judgement.

“You have brethren in the wilderness then?” James said.

Mentat nodded. “Some alone, some with others, some concealed amongst our foes as spies, and some engaged in harrying them to slow down their plans—whatever they are—and buy time for the Masters.”

“How shall we be able to call upon them?”

Just then, James felt as if he’d been pricked by a needle.

“I’ve marked you, and Thomas, with a signature in your minds that my brethren will recognize. Infinitesimally small, and only those with the means, the desire and the skill will ever find it outside my own circle.”

“You seem rather trusting for one wronged by the Masters, Mentat.” Thomas said, “Why trust me?”

“I see now why he sent you fresh youths on this task. You lack a quality that we that remember the world before the Flames possess; one that he thinks will prove beneficial in completing this task.”

“Which is?”

“The taint of the world that the Flames burned away with its cleansing fire, Thomas- that is what you lack, and I believe that the Archmage thinks that this purity will see you to victory.”

Thomas, still not understanding, again tried to press for details, and again James stopped him.

“Save it for another time, Tom.” James said, “For now, that’s enough.”

James then turned his attention again to Mentat.

“What do you suspect of our enemies’ intentions towards us?”

Mentat paused a moment, and then he caused to appear in miniature an illusion of the lands of the White Tower being overrun by the mutant hordes beyond. They butchered the men, slaughtered those too old to toil, burned the fields, demolished the walls and homes, wrecked the Iron Men, cast down the White Tower and carried away the women and children in chains to fates worse than death. In its place arose a crude, rag-like banner with an array of barbaric squiggles mimicking the symbols of civilized men.

“I appreciate the simple and straightforward nature of this design.” James said, “They hate us, so they seek to slaughter us, take our land and make slaves of our women and children.”

Mentat changed the focus of the scene. Before the assembled hordes stood a deformed, but otherwise recognizably human, figure that once was a man of great stature.

“This is the mastermind.” Thomas said, “The one we’re to seek and destroy.”

“The one, without whom, we can easily divide these monsters against each other and then conquer the rest.” James said, “As our fathers did before us.”

Mentat again smiled, satisfied with himself, and he let the illusion continue. Behind the deformed man stood an array of apparently normal men, and a woman who obvious seemed to be a mistress or consort—all too perfect to be truly human, and all exuding a malevolence that seemed otherworldly—and these seemed familiar to the deformed man.

“Demons.” James said, “One of them is either the one he’s struck a pact with, or an agent of that one. The rest of servants of that master, including the she-demon.”
“Very astute.” Mentat said, “Now, consider the implications.”

James and Thomas paused, thinking, before James again spoke.

“We represent a threat to their very existence, their reason for being, and not merely some design for carving out a kingdom at our expense.”

Thomas hastened to add, “If they succeeded, they could begin breeding an army of demon-spawned warriors immediately, and then spread like a plague across this ruined world to establish a demonic empire.”

“Mentat, I need Donaldson to recover completely by morning.” James said, “He needs to supply us not merely with provisions, but to send word ahead to our next stop. As for our men, would you be willing to covertly assist Thomas is expressing this same knowledge to them? Thomas, I need you to play at casting the illusion; they will accept it without question if you bring it to them.”

Wordlessly, Mentat and Thomas agreed to his commands.

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