With my cover reveal just a day around the corner (hopefully), this 16th day of Balance will be given over to a preview of Purge of Ashes. Hope it scintillates!
The illumination provided by the lantern cast a flickering mosaic along the stone sides of the spiral staircase; each crack a horizon distant, each protrusion amass with nooks and crannies so precise they appeared as a tapestry of faces. Faces lost ages past, perhaps even yet to come. Scenes played out again and again, or perhaps events that never transpired at all. No man-made thread and needle were required for the banners of history woven all along the descent – they were wrapped around and around in the features of the masonry, overseen by a mere three sconces spans since last offering light. When memories pervade my waking consciousness, such salient visions are indeed commonplace.
A thin smile parted the lips of a tall, speculative man. Quietly shutting the door behind him, he kept his light source aloft – and were the stone walls a living history in truth they may have gleaned insight into the extant history of a great man through his eyes. Alas, the cold stone of the mosaic was witness merely to a lord whose shoulders hefted curious accouterments in opposition: a sweeping, off-shoulder cloak on the right and an overly-large, reinforced manica of dirty iron on the left.
Underground he went, deeper and deeper into the heart of this inexplicable hunk of earth lost in a sea of rot. It was cold up above and even colder as he approached the base of the stairs, warmth of all kinds distant from such an unreasonable location. He was unperturbed by the icy chill across his forearms and neck. Indeed, he welcomed it. Most gaols he had found himself in, as warden or dead man walking, had been musty, hot, sand-filled urinals rife with scorpions and cyclopean thorizar. More unbidden memories, but they were of no consequence and easily cast aside. What was more, he had arrived.
The last hidden recluse in the capital. Oh, he had spent many spans in the castle, searched out every cellar, every roost. He had traveled the corridors of the servants and stood in the throne room more times than he could count. That an excavation this expansive could remain so hidden from his probing senses was a mystery – but it was also an answer. There was nowhere else to look. And at this distance, now but paces from what the lantern was revealing to be a sizable, half-rotten wooden door raked by iron bars, he could feel the soft droning of reticent chakka burgeoning after decadaes of elusion.
With a final jangling of his undercoat, he stood in silence before the door, the lantern’s perforation revealing little through the dull, slime-covered splinters. With a gentle palm he pushed on the handle. The fulcrums groaned, but it fell open nonetheless, a metallic wheeze reverberating up the stairwell behind him. Not the amount of resistance one would normally expect from a door untroubled for a great many spans. Flaked chips of rust within a reach of the threshold confirmed his assumption.
Fingers darted out, snuffing the lantern. His quarry was most certainly within the pitch black room. He took one step forward. His eyes would not adjust, he knew. Matchsticks waited on the inside of his cloak for the return trip. Extinguishing the lantern was but a courtesy.
“Ah,” Rafien Jorgamund said simply, a noise more than a word. A rusty creak answered him, followed immediately by the onset of a shiver and the sensation of a most perceptive regard steeling into him from somewhere within the chamber – which was, of course, impossible. Oh, he might try, but Chakka’Ghar were, without exception, blind. The gesture was for his benefit so he could locate the particular direction of black to address. Long ears would have picked up his bootfalls tics prior, descending the stairs with no attempt at the clandestine.
“You could not have thought to evade me here forever.”
No reply was forthcoming. Some things never changed.
“However, being here I must assume that utter evasion was never your desire, else you would have left Sventium altogether and made your way back home. Or maybe north to Brace Cartia. Or west and across the Rockswell. But you are here and I don’t know whether I find that telling or worrisome… because I do not know why.”
They had been friends long ago. They were friends now, truth be told, although the veracity of that statement depended upon the manner upon which one gauges friendship and, indeed, the passage of time.
Rafien could remember the exact sixtieth he saw his friend last, a centoraspan prior, standing on a desolate road south of the site. They had stood together facing the Landbridge, an isthmus runs to the west across wind-swept plains and prairie grasses, the carved bays of its edges disrupting the seamless circumference of the horizon and framing the path soon to be undertaken. Beyond it the battered sun set in vivid display.
The weight of the impending moment had already brought tears to Rafien’s eyes, freezing to his skin as they rode the wind across his cheeks and down his face. They had left him a sleek mask, humorously reflective of his inner turmoil and exposing, for the uncaring flats of Aneoma to see, his self. A petty facade, but one he had clung to nonetheless, unable to come to grips with an emotion he had not felt deeply in so many spans. And so he had wept.
He had stood alone in the gale winds and then they had stood side-by-side when the time had come. A gloved hand had settled on his shoulder, stirring awake the husk he had become: a frigid overseer beset by bandages and bruises staring ruthlessly down at the expanse before him. The action cracked his streaked exterior, spawning new tears and crumbling the remnants of his resolve. He had then whispered the last true prayer of his life.
Ronun Thel had stepped past him and never looked back.
Poetic, then, that his vigil began on the West Plain, where the once-holy could walk half a dozen runs of flat road before becoming a smudge in the distance. Telling, then, that in traveling by night his friend’s progression was all but untraceable in a matter of tics. Maybe he had not wanted me to watch him go, but by Aneom’s robes I stood and watched the darkness. Aneom’s dirty robes, I stood.
Stood as he did now, in utter darkness, with only his measured breaths to act as the wind and break the silence. Somewhere beyond his senses, Ronun.
“What is the… root of this self-pity?” he asked, the plea of his pursuit once more entering his voice unbidden. “What have you not already faced?”
Rafien let the questions linger, the air hanging thick with the unmentionable. He hoped to use their past history to draw the man out, but – as the tics grew longer and Rafien burgeoned on spending a half-tora underground between the bells – he was unsure his friend was ready for the conversation. He had waited a long time to meet Thel again. He could wait a little longer.
“I will return.”
With a respectful bow, he stepped back into the stairwell, his right hand pulling the rotted door shut behind him. It had to be handled carefully. Thel’s scars would weep in time, but, as usual, Rafien himself would have to be prepared for the burden of their bleeding, and that challenge would require a substantial amount of patience.
His hand rummaged in a pocket, finding a long match which he struck against a stone protrusion on the wall. It caught, once more doing the work of the tired sconces. One step at a time, Rafien Jorgamund trudged his way back towards the top of the stairs. Once more in the corridors of the castle, and long out of earshot of the new denizen at the root of the hidden staircase, his lips let slip a ragged sigh – winds of the past once more lashing like flails against his cheeks.
*Courtesy of Chapter Six of Purge of Ashes, Book One of the Imbalance – coming April 5th, 2016, through Realmwalker Publishing Group.