The Pillars of Heaven
Then will I put forth my hand and pluck the sun from the heavens, and cast my cloak over the moon, and with my breath will I snuff out the stars, and Darkness shall fill the land. The prison of Noss shall be broke asunder, its foundations rent, and I will walk the land withersoever I will, and my people will know me. And then will mine enemies forswear their enmity, for I shall slay them and raise their flesh anew, servants to me forever more.
From the Canticle of Malasephus
They stood towering over the plains at their feet, an impassable range of mountains. No one had ever ventured beyond them, not in recorded history. Likely never at all. They were called the Sepinals, The Binding Mountains, not because of their impassable nature, though they certainly set the boundaries of the known world, but at the heart of the greatest of them was the prison of Malasephus, the Fallen Virtue who men worshipped as a god.
They had long since ceased to bind Malasephus. His flesh remained imprisoned, but through the Beckoning, he sent his spirit out into the world to seduce the minds and hearts of men, binding their souls to him. In return, they built temples to him, wherein people gave themselves willingly to the fallen Virtue in obscene rituals in the hopes of becoming one of the Feral, Malasephus’s chosen servants.
Most of the world worshipped Malasephus as a god, and the Beckoning was welcomed, but there were places where the Beckoning could not be found. It eschewed sunlight, but what of that, half the world was cloaked in darkness at any given time, and the men and women he seduced preferred the dark of night. There was the Great Forest, where the Last Elan dwelt. The Beckoning did not enter that realm, nor any of Malasephus’s servants. The Westlands, a barren region where the few men who rejected the fallen Virtue lived, eking out a living from the hard earth, and sheltering behind rune protected walls at night.
And the Beckoning did not go where there were no men. For Malasephus craved their worship, and where there were none, he had no interest. The lonely, desolate places of the earth were no part of his kingdom, and there was no more lonely, desolate place in all the world than the Pillars of Heaven.
They stood in the cold heights of the Sepinals, among its clouded and brooding peaks. Two towers, one of stone cut from the very peak of the mountain from which it jutted, and the other built from the stone that was hewn to carve the first. A chasm divided the towers, spanned by a narrow bridge without guard or rail, for these towers were built by the Elan, that fair race for whom no such aids were needed. They called them the Pillars of Heaven, and in the height of their power, the Elan often came to gaze on the world over which they had been given stewardship.
Few men knew of their existence, and indeed, the impassable mountains made them all but inaccessible. Only the Elan had ever come to this remote place, and that in ages long past. There was no darkness in their hearts when they built the towers, and after the corruption of Malasephus they never returned, for the Judgment of Noss fell on them, and they vanished from the world.
Each tower had a stair, but only one descended into the mountain. Malasephus’s tower. The other opened to the mountainside, and to a frozen desert of ice and snow. If ever there was a path from that tower to the lands below it was long ago buried beneath the perennial snows which drifted high around the base, hiding any sign of door or window.
Karl looked out from the top most chamber in Malasephus’s tower. The air was bitterly cold, and the wind filled with a thousand icy daggers that tore at his face like claws. Breathing was painful as each breath seemed to freeze his lungs. He gazed down on the white cloud tops in despair. He was on an island in the sky, surrounded by an endless ocean of mist. The tower stood over a hundred feet above the steeply slanted mountain it jutted from. A high wind, fierce and powerful gave the towers a mournful and angry voice as it howled and whined in its cracks and crevices. Vast curtains of snow and ice cut through the air, obscuring his vision.
The narrow bridge connecting the towers was impassible in the gale force winds. Tewfik might make it, but Karl knew one step on the treacherous icy stones would send him plunging to his death. They were trapped until the storm passed, and the hornets nest Sep had kicked down below would eventually send someone up here, Karl was certain of that. It was only a matter of time.
He dropped back down, ducking below the opening and out of the wind. It was little relief. The cold was palpable, and more real than his own body. He could feel it seeping into him with deadly resolve, and had long since lost any feeling in his hands and feet.
Eurich’s body was freezing solid. He and Tewfik had stretched it out, laying it flat on the ground, arms folded across the chest where the hilt of a Tok blade protruded, still binding the flesh from the Beckoning. Karl was shaking violently from the cold, and he rubbed his chest in a desperate bid to keep himself warm. When he spoke, his teeth chattered so violently he doubted Tewfik understood him.
Tewfik also crouched down below the window. Both wore heavy layers of wool and fur that should have given them some warmth, but didn’t. Tewfik wasn’t shivering as bad as Karl, but then he was feallen, a member of that race whom Malasephus had made in mockery of the Elan after he’d destroyed them. The Elan had been shepherds, masters of life. They had brought the rains that watered the land, and legend said their touch could make a withered flower bloom, or restore an old man to his youth. The Feallen were cruel and murderous. Harbingers of death and misery, everything the Elan were not. They were also far tougher than men, but Karl could see that Tewfik was also suffering from the cold.
Though the Elan might have been comfortable in these icy rooms, demigods that they were, Karl doubted it. Though made in their image, Tewfik and his people were still mortal, even if they were damnably hard to kill. The cold would kill them both if they couldn’t find better shelter
"I’m being a fool." He muttered under his breath. "Too long with that fellow and I think they’re all like him."
He watched Tewfik, whose lithe form and masculine and beautiful features had earned his people the name fair faced killers. And they were. Thirteen Feallen shadow walkers had killed almost a hundred of Karl’s band of Tair.
But Tewfik had shown up in their hour of need, claiming to be a friend and ally. He led them through the impassible tunnels and cities of the Feallen nation, into the heart of Malasephus’s dungeon, past the lair of Fruur, and to the cells where they’d found Sep’s mentor and Karl’s friend Eurich. And that’s when their luck left them.
Eurich was all but dead, his flesh had long ceased to live, and only the will of Malasephus bound his soul to his body. Malasephus was forging a new creature, a Sul Feral, a living soul bound to a walking corpse; a creature able to work both the power of the runes and the Beckoning. Sep had plunged a Tok blade into Eurich’s heart, severing the soul from the flesh, freeing the man to a merciful death, and tipping Sep over the edge into madness.
In that moment, Sep himself was transformed into something Karl never thought possible, and something he hoped never to see again. A man from whom the Feallen ran, who carved runes with a sword, impossible in itself, and who walked as death incarnate as he pulled down the prison of Malasephus in his grief and rage.
His descent into madness, the wild, fierce power of the runes that he summoned, the reckless plunge into their ranks, all threw their enemies into chaos, giving Karl and Tewfik a chance at escape. They took Eurich’s body, stole some warmer clothes, and made for the towers, all without incident.
Karl looked at the trap door that sealed the tower’s stairway, and led back down to the caverns of the mountain. It looked warm and inviting, though he knew that death waited below. The more time that passed, the more organized Tewfik’s kin would become. There was no safety that way, only a quicker death than freezing. Besides, he doubted his cold stiff legs could carry him down the endless stairs to the warmer caverns below.
Tewfik stood, hunched so that he was still below the window and out of the wind, and made his way over to Karl. Karl watched him approach. Fluid, graceful, there was little of the stiffness he felt. He met Tewfik’s eyes, and felt a twinge of fear. Old fears, but there was none of the power of the Feallen in those midnight eyes. He stopped a moment to press a hand against Eurich’s body before moving to sit next to Karl.
"We should sit next to each other, for warmth."
Karl nodded, unable to speak through his chattering teeth.
"With the body frozen, it will be harder." Tewfik continued, but Karl knew where the Feallen was going with this, and shook his head violently.
They had paid too high a price to rescue Eurich, and he wasn’t going to leave the man’s body behind, not where it would become a nohetka. They’d left the runes activated in the blade buried in his chest. It would keep the body safe from the Beckoning that would otherwise take it up, turning it into an abomination. They could leave the body on the mountainside, if they could get down from the towers, if they could survive the storm, if the Feallen didn’t find them first. Leave it with the Tok blade still active and sealing the body from the Beckoning. The runes would eventually erode and fail, and then Eurich would rise again.
That wasn’t an option. Sep wouldn’t want that, and neither did Karl. Sep’s words came back to him, "If Malasephus has him, if he is turned when we reach there, I will stop at nothing to free him. I will spend my life, Karl. I will spend yours to do this. I will do it without hesitation. . ."
And Sep had spent his life, after driving the Tok blade into Eurich’s chest and freeing him from the undeath that waited for him. Of that Karl was certain. Sep was the finest swordsman he’d ever seen, and while the thing Sep had become down in the dungeons would kill a great many of the servants of Malasephus, Sep wasn’t coming back. He’d seen men go berserk before. If there was no one to pull them back from their rage, they always died. Sep, for all his ability was no different.
Oddly, he felt no grief. Sep had long since become something other than human. Maybe it had happened the night his village was destroyed, or gradually over the months as loss upon loss piled up to weigh down the young man’s soul, but from their first meeting Karl had watched Sep with worry. There was something unnerving about the lone survivor of Sommerstone. He had a coldness and brutality that rivaled Feallen shadow walkers, and he had their blood in his veins, burned into his very bones by a freak accident, or something more sinister. No, Karl felt only relief that Eurich hadn’t seen the final transformation of Sep into a vessel of hate and death.
In spite of that, he still liked the young man, when he wasn’t consumed by his thirst for revenge, and Eurich had been a true friend. And for that, for Sep’s sacrifice, he was taking Eurich down the mountain and away from Malasephus. He was taking Eurich home, even if it killed him.
For that reason they’d left the Tok blade in Eurich’s chest, though Tewfik warned against runes. Surrounded by Feallen who could sense rune magic, the knife would draw attention, but Sep’s sword runes resonated in the mountain like a massive bell had been struck. The tiny flicker from the tok blade was barely noticeable.
Even after they’d ascended to this barren chamber, Tewfik could feel Sep’s runes. "It’s as if all the bells in Jarick were ringing at once." A look of awe and wonder on his face, and terror. "What is he, Karl? What has he become?"
Karl could only shake his head, the final words of Sep ringing in his ears. "I am become Vengeance. Wrath is my name."
Outside the tower the storm continued to rage. The sky was growing dark, and Karl hoped it only meant the clouds had finally ascended high enough to obscure the sun. If night were falling, they wouldn’t last an hour, but he lacked the strength to stand and look out the window. It was hard to breathe at this altitude.
Suddenly, the wind fell still. Silence, so long in its absence, assaulted Karl’s ears with violence. He held his breath without being aware of it. Tewfik stood, his body shaking slightly. For some reason, Karl knew it wasn’t from the cold. The Feallen looked out the window, started to cough, and then choked it to silence.
The stifled cough sounded like thunder. Karl forced himself up to join Tewfik at the window.
Below, the snow that had been whipped by the wind was settling down to the ground. The sun was cutting its way across a pale blue sky, but it gave little warmth. Karl’s eyes watered as he stared at it. The cloud tops, maybe a thousand feet below them had grown still. The silence was profound, as if the world had suddenly stopped everything, and was holding its breath.
Karl asked, his breath turning to steam that hung before his face in the still air. He turned to meet Tewfik’s eyes, but the Feallen didn’t answer him. Instead, he looped a coil of rope around his waist and threw the other end to Karl.
"We have to cross now. I’ll carry Eurich, but tie that around your waist, and wait for me to get to the other side before you cross. If I fall while crossing you can hold me, and If you fall when you cross…" He left the rest unsaid.
Karl started to shake his head, but Tewfik had turned and moved to Eurich’s body, so Karl had to speak, forcing the words out between numb lips.
"It’s just a lull, Tewfik. If we go out there now, and it picks up again, we’ll die."
Tewfik stood, hoisting Eurich’s torso up, and met Karl’s eyes. He saw fear in those black orbs, genuine fear. The Feallen spoke.
"The runes have fallen silent. Sep is dead, and some power has stopped the storm. I can think of only one power that could do that. This is his tower, part of his prison where he comes to look on what he lost. If the storm stopped, it’s because he wanted it to."
The cold slowed Karl’s thoughts, stupefied him, so that though Tewfik spoke plainly, Karl didn’t hear him. Tewfik grunted as he heaved Eurich’s body up and on to his shoulders. Without waiting, Tewfik ran across the bridge, his feet barely slipping on the ice as he ran as fast as he dared across the narrow bridge. The desperation of the act roused Karl, and he began to move.
For all his speed, it still took nearly ten minutes for Tewfik to cross the bridge, and Karl knew he’d never make it across that fast. The bridge seemed little more than a sliver covered in ice. Small sensations of pleasure began to tickle at Karl’s skin, awakening the cold-numbed flesh with an unnatural heat, and he recognized the pull of the Beckoning.
Tewfik had reached the other side, and Karl, desperation driving reason from his mind ran for the bridge and leapt!
He landed on his belly, sliding with reckless abandon across the ice, praying desperately to any Virtue who would hear him that he wouldn’t go over the edge. Who in their right mind built a bridge without guard rails? Tewfik stood with legs braced, feet anchored against the entry of the other tower as he reeled in the rope as fast as he could. Karl’s mad gambit paid off as he slid across the bridge, colliding into the Feallen in a tumble of arms and legs. He’d crossed the bridge in less than a minute.
Tewfik stood, cursing. Karl turned his gaze to the other tower, separated by the thin, icy bridge. He could see a man, beautifully, physically perfect, coalescing out of an inky nothingness that swirled and heaved. The Feallen grabbed Karl by the arm, gripping the rope in his other hand, and heaved himself and Karl over the edge and into the abyss.
Malasephus had come.