Promythia – Out of Ashes
Merchants throughout the Effavesca had a saying, that Tarkin could boil the eyes right out of a man’s head. They called it a golden death, when a man died thoroughly cooked.
Tarkin Pass was a path that snaked east through the red plateaus and barren valleys that scarred all the land north of the Amentia Wall. Squares of wizened sedimentary rock jutted out of the dry earth and provided wisps of shade beneath the white sun. Arches worn smooth as bones by the sand and wind curved like great bridges over the path, and emaciated pillars supported vast outgrowths of granite. The horizon, visible at rare moments, allowed no hope; every stride of land clear out to the hazy lip of the sky formed a single tortured corpse, the skeleton of a being who had long ago rattled with death.
In the summer months, when the white sun licked the earth, Tarkin Pass was unpassable. No amount of water, shade, or fitness could save a traveler from the relentless heat. In those months the path lay invariably empty, unable to support even transient life; and Fort Tarkin, the sole beneficiary of the Pass, was severed from rest of the Effavesca until the inferno cooled to a swelter. The fort was a vestigial outpost, a relic of the days when war came frequently from strange tribes to the east and the north, tribes that had not been heard from in generations. But the maintenance of Effavesca’s easternmost defense had become a tradition, and the tradition had become a reality beyond question, and the fort was continuously manned by a full contingency force and a complimentary civilian population. It had become its own little city, one far removed from the comforts and securities of the rest of civilization, and cut off from that civilization for three months out of the year.
As the faithful reckoned, it was about three hundred and forty strides of the titan that lay between Dormus and Fort Tarkin, or twenty miles. It was a short distance and a long hard journey, one that had claimed many lives throughout the Effavesca’s history. Whole graveyards marked by stacks of stone had amassed along the route, constant signposts reminding travelers to keep their guard up, and to mind the sun.
But at the height of one especially violent summer there came strolling through the Pass a jaunty, high-spirited fellow dressed in green and yellow robes, which flowed about him like sheets in a bipolar breeze. Strange shifting eyes – eyes at once heavy with incalculable knowledge and sparkling with naïve wonder – danced beneath bushy yellow brows and a papery crinkled forehead. His step was light, unaffected by the heat, and a leisurely gait took him through the wind-polished arches and over the sun-baked hills of sediment, down the craggy slopes and through the shadowless valleys. At different turns whistling airy tunes or humming mournful dirges, he cantered, trotted, skipped through the jagged terrain, giving the distinct impression of a toddler reveling in the discovery of an enormous playground.
On a seeming whim he veered from the path and up a red slope to a broad tabletop that was completely saturated with grave-marking stones. Standing there, a suspicious glint in his shifting eyes, he suddenly perked up and bounced on his heels, his head snapping to the left as if responding to a noise. He slinked on his feet in that direction, searching the desolate silence for the source of it. Without apparent cause he leapt back in surprise, pivoted wildly, fell to his hands and knees and stared with uninhibited intensity at what had inspired his entire reaction – a little white rock.
A moment passed, in which his shifting eyes flitted from green to blue to brown before blazing hot orange.
“Well, you’ll just have to grant me a pardon,” he said very seriously to the rock. “I was not aware until this very moment that rocks could speak. Or that they were so sensitive,” he added.
He paused, cocked his head in the attitude of listening, and replied, “Who am I? Well, I am everything that knows not which way to turn . . . I believe I do know who you are . . . You’re a rock . . . No need to get snippy . . . I happen to give great credence to my powers of observation, and I observe that you are a rock . . . A prince? Well, you might as well come along then.”
He stood and gently removed the white stone from the pile and returned to the Pass, carrying on what was to all appearances a very one-sided conversation.
“Two hundred years! That makes you a spit older than most princes I’ve met . . . Of course I’ve met princes before . . . Much more important, in fact, and a good deal prettier . . . Opinion? Yes, I suppose that is an opinion. There’s no escaping opinions, but only dull men and donkeys subscribe to their own opinions . . . I wouldn’t put it that way . . . Rather, I mean what I say with the full force of confidence, but I don’t believe a word of it . . . It makes perfect sense . . . I haven’t interrupted anybody . . . Well, tell me a story then, Brave Sir Rock.”
The Pass descended steeply through a valley, which narrowed into a ravine, layered cliffs rising on either side. He listened to the rock’s tale with one ear, and with his other eye traced the whole history of the Effavesca as it was scribed into the rock face, going back ages that could not possibly be remembered. Thousands of years of famine, war, prosperity, life, and destruction were carved into its features. About five thousand years separated the moistureless chasm from the river that had once created it.
As the Pass began to climb steadily out of the ravine, he turned again to the rock, which he held with a grand show of dignity in his upturned left palm.
“Begging your indulgence, Brave Sir Rock, but you’re not much for stories. The king had two sons, then? . . . And the eldest was to his concubine . . . Of course . . . And it was by his third queen . . . Fifth queen! Charmant! And her name was . . . Marelda, she finally produced a legitimate heir? . . . And this eldest son of a whore . . . Many pardons, Sir Rock, I’m sure your mother was graceful as moonlight . . . Fifteen when Marelda produced an heir . . . And she was none too happy about the bastard in the wing . . . Oh come off it . . . Bastard bastard bastard whoreson half-blood mutt bastard snivel-stick . . . Yes, I think you’re being a touch frumpy . . . At any rate, you fled the castle, for fear of Queen Marelda . . . For love! Who was she, Brave Sir Rock? . . . Clistora? Well, if the lass was half as beautiful as the name portends, she was worth more or less than twice the remainder . . . I don’t doubt it . . . Insult! Brave Sir Rock, you misquote yourself. It was merely an oblique assertion of the obvious . . . Collect yourself, Sir Rock. Let me better acquaint myself with your story by telling it. Feel free to correct me.
“So, it was once upon a time, I suppose, that – say, I haven’t netted your appellation . . . Prince Gunting. Gunting, Clistora. Clistora, Gunting . . . I seem to have blown my load of thought . . . The king! Thank you, Brave Sir Rock.
“Once upon a time, then, the great King of the great City Dormus, capitol of the great kingdom of the Effavesca, pined for a son and eventual heir to his throne. But lo! his seed was interminably feminine and a veritable army of plain and beautiful daughters spilled out of the wombs of his several queens. His one success, his one consolation, was the utterly masculine but wholly illegitimate Gunting, whom he sired outside the strictures of orthodoxy with one of his many concubines. As his legitimate daughters continued to multiply, fumigating the castle with their spritely odors, that consolation grew into a secret pride as his only male child developed into a charming and athletic young hero. He contrived to legitimize Gunting through the avenues available to him, speaking clandestinely with lawyers and priests and all manners of clever men. But as fate would have it, on the eve of legitimization, his fifth queen, the vicious coldhearted and supremely jealous Queen Marelda, screamed forth a child with the proper set of equipment and the purity of royal blood.
“Marelda knew of this Gunting, this whoreson who might one day threaten the true heir, the child of her womb. She therefore made clear to the king that, if he cherished the boy’s life, he would banish Gunting from the kingdom. With a sad heart the king made the pronouncement, unaware that Marelda, captive of her malicious and jealous nature, had hired a sorceress to follow the little whoreson and to end the threat to her child’s ascension.
“Gunting, meanwhile, met a nice enough girl and convinced himself it was love so that he might call it eloping, and not see a coward in the mirror . . . Of course it’s true . . . A statement of truth is hardly an opinion . . . Anyway . . .
“This sorceress followed the two young lovers, and after watching them from afar for many days, she took pity on Prince Gunting. But she was bound by ancient magic to adhere to Marelda’s command. After some deliberation, she arrived at a solution and stepped out of the shadows and approached the young lovers on the path. She informed the banished prince of Marelda’s inviolate orders to end the threat to her child’s ascension, but that after observing his pure spirit she had no desire to kill him. And so she made him an offer: she would drain the life-force from his body and plant it in a rock, thereby satisfying Marelda’s command. His lover’s life-force she would give to the wind, that he might still feel her gentle caresses and her angry slaps, hear her seductive whispers and her scornful howls. And one day, the old sorceress said, perhaps not so far off, there may come another with the power to relieve you of this spell, and rejoined with your love you might return to your home and reclaim the Effavescan crown.
“Have I gotten it mostly right? . . . How did I guess the ending? Well, it’s your rotten luck that I’ve heard all that tripe before. But not to worry, Prince Gunting – I’ve a strong arm and an immaculate sense of direction.”
So saying, he took a step and hurled the rock into the red-blue distance, listening as it clacked dumbly down the slope of a valley, kicking up trite little breaths of dust.
“Well, not that strong,” he admitted.
Exhaling in a long and drawn out whistle, he turned and continued down the Pass.
The sun, now at its zenith on the hottest day of the hottest summer the Effavesca had ever known, was perturbed by the easy manner of the man now cavorting the unpassable Pass, and redoubled its efforts. Waves of heat rose off the red ground as the earth sizzled, and the blue dome of the sky undulated. But the man’s brow went unmarked by sweat, his step unharrowed by fatigue, his whistling betraying no hint of dried up lips. Though he traveled through the visible world, he seemed wholly immune to its whims.
As he came to the top of the final rise a grin swept through his face, encasing his eyes like flames around two prisms.
“It is your misfortune, Brave Sir Rock, that my own designs are vastly more interesting than your static desires. I have a far sexier tale to tell.”
The gates of Fort Tarkin stood before him, and he could smell the destruction within. If horror and death and chaos and suffering – and a host of other things generally considered to be bad – were pulled out of their abstract chairs and thrown into a boiling vat, they would emit an odor quite similar to the one that hung in the air cooking over Tarkin.
“By the fiberless thread of a chosen fate, he was persuaded through the ominous gate,” he uttered, then puckered his face and giggled ravenously. With a flick of his wrist the gates flung open, and he entered the fort.
Inside the smell and the heat were absolutely toxic. Above swirled a storm-cloud of vultures, eerily quiet. The road fanned out into a cobblestoned circle that ran around the perimeter, and it was empty. Here were shops and a few taverns, all dusty sun-battered shanties built into the ground, only the tops of the structures peeking above. A water pump just off the road creaked when the dry wind gusted.
He walked to the right along the road, towards the cloud of ragged birds. His green and yellow robes danced around him, irrespective of the wind, seemingly a further extension of his body – an excited dog unconsciously wagging its tail.
The road arced the perimeter for perhaps the length of a stride, revealing no signs of life, no signs of anything whatsoever. Towards the end of it, the cobblestones curled inward and narrowed, leading to a second gated wall. Were the fort to be attacked, this would be the wall defended.
Another flick of the wrist, and the gate swung wide. He walked through it, and immediately his eyes began flitting through every shade of the spectrum.
Bodies, hewn savagely apart and blackened by the sun, smattered the red ground. Hundreds of them. It was a rancid collage of charred flesh and evaporating blood, emancipated guts and broken-jawed heads. A string-necked vulture burrowed its head into a stomach that had been opened with an axe, ripped at the decaying intestines and the briny liver flap, gulped down whatever morsels it could tear free. Another swooped down and spreading its gnarled wings alighted on a head, pecking greedily at the empty eye sockets for a treat that wasn’t there.
There were no eyes anywhere. If the sun hadn’t cooked them, the birds had devoured them.
“Tarkin will boil the eyes out of a man’s head,” he said approvingly.
Careful not to sully his robes, he walked through the organic mess, pausing occasionally to admire a contorted face or a mangled body. The stink, the heat, the gruesomeness of the massacre – they would have overcome any man by any standard considered decent or sane. But the bushy-browed shifty-eyed gent betrayed not a wisp of polite disgust nor a shred of courteous horror. Instead, he pressed his lips and flexed his brows in bewildered disappointment.
“Not the craftsmanship I had hoped for,” he muttered. He paused to survey a head that lay facedown in the dirt. He nudged it with his toe and it rolled heavily over, revealing a face that had been relieved of its lower jaw, probably by the blunt side of an axe or a heavy fist. “This has no aesthetic value at all.”
When he entered a courtyard, a large dirt square surrounded by barracks, his hopes resurged. Half buried in the dirt, poking up like weeds, a myriad of hands and fingers reached out of the ground. Like a meadow seeded with bones and just beginning to bloom. Human claws, stiff with rigor mortis and defeat, vainly yawing for the sky. Burnt black and pecked to the bone.
“How modern!” he exclaimed, clapping his hands beneath his chin. “Reaching, they are all reaching for the sky. So full of life, but so far away from it. Humanity in a sea of unfulfilled desires. I must meet these artists.”
He interlocked his fingers with those of a hand reaching out of the dirt, putting his free hand on top. “I owe you my gratitude, fallen hero. You are far more interesting in death than you ever could have been in life.” Another hand he kissed a ringed finger, whispering, “She was never a virgin, and you didn’t save anyone.”
And the centerpiece – the isle amidst the sea – did not disappoint. Nine bodies had been impaled in a perfect circle. Toes dangled near the ground, never quite touching. Arms and legs hanging. The pikes were angled with precision, with a delicate awareness of detail. Up through the anus and out through the neck, each pike tilted slightly outward to keep the bodies suspended. The heads had all been hacked off and placed in the center of the circle so that they gaped at one another in horror. And stuffed into each mouth were the spongy remains of each man’s genitalia, two testicles and a phallus rotting inside every row of clean soldierly teeth.
He stepped into the center of the circle, feeling the eyeless faces upon him, and pulled a small orb from the folds in his robe. Blue with green swirls, and black – white swirls and then gray. He set the orb in the exact center and began to dance around it, chanting and singing. The dance was actually very unnecessary; he just felt like dancing. In fact, he wasn’t sure the words were necessary, either.
But what fun was a spell without a little jig?
So he danced. And sang:
“My name is Jarmo, can you hear me calling?
I’ve got a bucket rash, and the sky is falling!
Hey there and hello, itchy itchy swelling,
I’ve got a bucket rash, where I’m not telling!”
Round and round he danced, chanting gibberish and kicking up dirt, until the orb began to glow intensely green. Nine eyeless sockets began to glow green with it, and nine mouths tried to speak.
“Ah uhhmng gumn uhr.”
“Mnuh gnar uhm nah gumgna.”
“Heroes of Tarkin!” Jarmo exclaimed, throwing wide his arms. “Remove the cocks from your mouths and speak to me plainly!”
Nine mouths spit.
“They moved like shadows!”
“Pale skinned devils!”
“Their fingers were knives!”
“What could we do? We fought as well as we could, didn’t we? We met them with our swords, but the devils danced through them. We died well, gentlemen! Hazzah!”
“We may have lost our lives, but we did not go quietly into the night! And I dare say I took three of them with me!”
“And I took five!”
“And I thirteen!”
“Yes, yes, of course,” said Jarmo, trying to calm them down. “You are all very brave. Naturally. Men of honor, true to your duty. You stand as a monument to the courage of the men of the Effavesca. Your names shall be etched into history, carved into stone, sung by bards for a thousand years. Heroic deeds at the Battle of Tarkin.”
“Say, he doesn’t sound quite sincere.”
“I say we banish him!”
“Heroes, I mean no offense. None have fought harder nor suffered more, nor tasted more plainly the bitter salt of defeat.”
“Still he mocks us!”
Jarmo smiled as the “ays” traveled around the circle. He thought:
Nine little soldiers baking in the sun; this one’s head had come undone. He begged the rocks not to come, but they filled his mouth and buried his tongue.
That was the best these men could hope for, a nifty rhyme for girls to jump rope to. No one would really want to remember this. Whoever these pale-skinned conquerors were, they left behind an exquisite carnage without heroes or martyrs.
Eight little soldiers baking in the sun . . .
“The ays have it. You are hereby banished!”
“Gentlemen, forgive me,” Jarmo said, bowing. “I admit that I have no respect for you, that I believe your sacrifice was worthless, and that I am charmed by your enemy’s sense of humor. I have but one question to ask of you, and if you answer it I shall leave you to your glory. Forever.”
The heads conferred. One of them spoke.
“Where is the one who lives?”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“We are dead all.”
“Nope, none alive.”
Nine heads tripping over their tongues, all of them not looking at the sun temple that overlooked the fort from its center.
“Thank you gentlemen. I give you back to eternity,” Jarmo flourished. Before any of them could offer an objection he withdrew the orb from its place in the center and the green glow left their eyes. Once again he stood in the hot silence, charred foreheads and lipless mouths gaping at him from the dirt.
The sun temple stood behind the third and final wall and he took his leave of the nine heroes to search for a way up.
The dead were often called brave, courageous, resolute, stalwart, valiant, strong. Those heroes in particular, despite their emasculation, would not admit defeat. It was a quality that many would admire in them, saying, “They fought with honor to protect their fellow men; they fought with distinction and courage; they did what they knew to be necessary. And even in defeat, as ignominious as it was, none could take from them that satisfaction.” In different circumstances a procession would be led through the capital square, red and gold and white and every other color of celebration, the whole city falling in desperate love with the nine men who died so bravely. Flowers thrown from balconies as the coffins paraded through, old mothers wailing in supplication, young men standing tall and nodding their approval at everything. Minstrels would dust off the old war hymnals, wooing young ladies of the court with tales of gallantry and faithfulness, while priests uttered rites in beautiful dead languages.
“But really,” said Jarmo, “A couple of kids not bright enough for the university found a fight and got their own dicks fed to them.”
People, as a rule, were completely insane and incapable of thinking. They acted as if their own behavior was an immovable obstacle, a mountain they must battle with until death or victory. But tell them that they could just stop fighting, stop thieving, stop raping, and they looked at you the way a horse looks at a dictionary.
“Seven little heroes baking in the sun – this one’s head had come undone. He begged the rocks not to come, but they filled his mouth and buried his tongue.”
The third and final wall had been breached from the north. A good thirty yards of it had crumbled inward, several tons of brick and stone bleeding into the circular road that spiraled upward to the entrance of the sun temple. The temple itself was a practical structure, held up by rugged columns decorated with plain etchings. The people of Dormus would likely scoff at it, accustomed to gold trim and ornate, intricate murals, but it was perhaps the most appropriately constructed temple in all of Effavesca. No mirrors, no gilded entrance, just a hot house of stone where the faithful could sweat for the sun.
But the temple was far from the most interesting thing he saw. The scene splayed out in front of him was obscene, macabre, and deliciously surreal beyond even his heightened expectations. He found a suitable stone and sat down to give it his full power of contemplation.
Craftsmen too old to carry a sword, women, and a few children lined the streets, perfectly preserved. A waxy shine made their unburned skins shimmer in the late afternoon sun. Each of them stood frozen in position, posed variously like storefront mannequins or unimaginative street performers. Every face had been manipulated into a mad, wide grin, the corners of the mouths stretched out nearly to the ears, foreheads pulled taut and eyebrows arching in feverish delight.
“They’ve been cured and stuffed,” Jarmo marveled.
And the scene they were depicting, it was so ineffably normal. An old, stout woman held a broom in her fists, sweeping in front of a marble statue. Her plaster smile was directed at two boys sitting crosslegged on the side of the road, one of them about to toss his boulder through the circle of marbles. Both were grinning in ecstasy at the unlikely arrangement the events of their competition had led to. A short way up the street a blacksmith was shaking hands with the tavern owner, whose leering face had been turned by a young woman, who was carrying a basket and smiling insanely at nothing, her hand clutching her heart.
All of them smiling like lunatics. The hot sun gleaming on their waxed skins.
But what can it mean? Jarmo wondered. Perhaps it was merely avant-garde, meaningless and numbly experimental. He had met droves of utterly normal people, many of them in Dormus, that considered themselves quite revolutionary after sculpting horse dung out of brass or painting portraits that lacked a face. One man in particular had spent twenty-three years constructing a tapestry with his pubic shavings. When Jarmo asked him why, the man said, “Well, I was the first to think of it.”
Jarmo stood and walked over to the figure of the woman clutching her heart. He felt her skin. It was some combination of oils and wax that kept the bodies from deteriorating. Now that he was closer he could see the thin metal hooks that pierced the corners of her mouth, and the wire that pulled them. It was the same with her eyebrows.
“Such craftsmanship . . .”
No, these were not pretenders. Whoever did this, they did it precisely, with purpose.
He noticed something in the wicker basket she carried, a fist-sized lump covered by a white cloth. He delicately removed it, revealing a stilled, unbeating red heart. At first he supposed it belonged to her, but though she clutched her chest no visible damage had been inflicted there. He looked up and down the street, searching for candidates. The blacksmith? One of the children? The leering tavern owner? Or maybe it belonged to one of the hundreds scattered by the barracks.
“Delicious mystery,” he said. “Truly, I must meet these artists.”
The entrance to the temple was a large arch, about two hands from the ground to the keystone, or twenty feet. The stone was the same faded color as the desert, chipped and cracking along the walls. A narrow hall led through several smaller arches, unlit torches mounted at even intervals. Jarmo could discern no signs of infiltration, but he doubted the temple had been spared. It would be too strange if these pale-skinned shadows, after defiling the town below, had suddenly respected the sanctuary of the temple. But the further he walked through the passages, circling ever closer to the open courtyard that would mark the temple’s center, the more he noticed a complete lack of violence. The bloodless stone floors, the bodiless passageways. If anything the absence of gore created more suspense, added to the horror.
“It’s almost symphonic,” he said, the acoustics of the stone carrying his voice. “The anticipation of the symmetry and the climax. Holding that lonely note, just one step beneath the harmonic center, the melodic paradigm. Squeezing it, pulling it, wielding it past all conventional points and despoiling all hope of solution. And when we have nearly forgotten where we started, the swell of brass and the mad crescendo!”
Jarmo stepped through the final arch and into the bright courtyard.
It was pretty much empty.
Roughly grooved pillars stood on all sides, holding up immense blocks of stone that ran atop the entire perimeter. The courtyard itself was a square, about a hundred feet in length, and unmarked by decoration. Most of the temples he had seen employed at the very least an idol of the sun god, or sometimes, more common in the southern regions, a fountain filled with sand. But it appeared that the stark practicality of Tarkin extended even into its spirit house, and there was nothing but the stone floor and the awesome power of the sun.
Almost nothing, Jarmo corrected himself. In the middle of the stone, five wooden barrels were lined up – nondescript, just sitting there. His eyes squinted warily beneath his thick brows. A moment crept off before he skittered through the courtyard and poked the first barrel with his finger.
“Could have expected that,” he told himself.
Carefully, with only the thumb and index finger of each hand, he lifted the lid.
“But not this.”
A yellow-scaled snake was coiled several times around the bottom of the barrel. It looked up and hissed but didn’t threaten any further movement. Two lumps were traveling slowly through its midsection, one of which had a suspiciously familiar shape. He replaced the lid and checked the second barrel, finding the interior a near duplicate of the first. The snake was a bit more aggressive and he quickly slammed the lid back into place.
He looked at the remaining three barrels, and his eyes flared. He had read of this somewhere, perhaps in the annals of the great library at Nova. The text, he remembered, had interested him greatly, though he hadn’t known why. It spoke of a wild and savage people that lived beyond the mountains, whose persistent attacks had centuries ago caused the northern tribes to come together to form the Effavesca. Considered more myth than fact, the stories about these mountain savages were as macabre as anything he’d read. In particular, the method by which they selected their leaders – that passage he recalled verbatim:
“Upon the death of a chieftain, it was said of this godless race that all newborn children were gathered together, each placed in a receptacle with a snake and a monkey, and left for two days. This was repeated until a child survived, to be raised by the sword and the axe as the new ruler of his people.”
This was obviously no ceremony, and the attackers were many strides away by now – but it was nonetheless remarkable that the old texts recorded anything about this “godless race.” Jarmo had a vague premonition about the true purpose of this ritual, but no understanding. Some events must simply run their course.
He peeled back the lid of the third barrel. It was not a monkey, but a desert rat, about as long as a man’s forearm and with a pointed snout filled with teeth. It was gnawing at the lifeless tube of the snake, tearing viscously at the scales. Lying next to it were the shattered, mauled remains of a human child. The rat had feasted on everything but the head, which was rotting pale, the face still puckered in terror and pain. Not quite an infant, but Jarmo doubted he had been much older than two.
In the fourth barrel, the snake had once again claimed victory.
That left only one more. Standing in front of it, he thought it appropriate to say something. A dramatic utterance – a concise, suspenseful ululation – anything that might add to the release of the coming climax. His right hand over his chin and mouth, the elbow resting in his left, he stared, pondered.
“Ah!” he breathed, stabbing white hot sky with his finger. “Let’s get this party started!”
And he threw open the lid.
Inside was the grinning face of a healthy baby, batting playfully at the limp head of a yellow snake. A bulge in the snakes midsection had hemorrhaged, a stiff claw protruding from it. The baby giggled at the sight of Jarmo’s bushy brows.
“Well, well,” he smiled. “It is indeed good to be lucky.”
He reached in and grabbed the lucky survivor by the foot, letting it dangle upside down before his eyes, checking for any injuries or scars. There were none; the little tike had come through completely unscathed. He did mark that eight little four-pointed stars had been etched in black ink in the skin between the fingers.
But something entirely unexpected made Jarmo peel his face back in a parental shade of anger.
“Young man,” he scolded, “you have one too many holes.”
The baby giggled. Jarmo tsked and shook his head.
“Just what am I supposed to do with a hero without a sword, hmm?”
He let go of the foot and watched the baby fall head first to the stone floor.
“You’re not even athletic!”
He hunched down so that his face was right up close to the young girl, who was somehow still giggling. But he held tight his stern grimace and looked her straight in the eye.
“I tell you what,” he said, “If you can tell me what you just learned, I’ll take you with me anyway.”
She grabbed his poofy yellow brow and pulled on it, mumbling, “Na na.”
Jarmo contorted his features into a fatherly tinge of delight. “That’s right!” he exclaimed softly. “Never let a wizard pick you up by the foot! How could you be so wise at your age? I guess you’d better come along. Now get in my pocket!”
When he stood, an impossibly large hole opened out of the folds of his robe, and the girl was drawn inexplicably inside.
Whistling, Jarmo made his way out of the temple and back through the artful mayhem of the town proper. Leaving by the back gate, he noticed a man that had been impaled through the forehead by an iron-tipped spear. The spear itself was lodged about ten feet up on a wide post, and the man hung from it like a straw doll from a string. Considering the rest of the carnage Jarmo had seen, this modest addition would not have been worthy of his attention if not for the empty cavity where the man’s heart should have been.
Outside the gate the land fell steeply and the road all but disappeared. This was as far as the Effavesca reached. Bare rock and jagged desert bent outward past all line of sight. As Jarmo began the descent he jiggled his robes and heard a giggle from within.
“Would you like to know where we’re going?”
“I feel the pull, and straight is for the mark. I am, after all, that which knows not which way to turn. If my geography doesn’t fail me, past that ridge in the distance is the River Lithe, and past that is a verdant land of farms and the faithful. I think you just might find a home there.”
Jarmo skipped over a small crevice and firmly planted his feet on a groove in a dusty red boulder. He let his feet slide down the incline and into the ravine that had been formed all those thousands of years ago. His lighthearted voice echoed through as he sang,
“Hey, ho, I’ve got to go
Where water’s wet and the fresh is flow –
Say, yo, now did you know
That dirt aint mud where the flowers grow –
Na, na, ya baby I gotcha,
We’re gonna swing that panorama –
Na, na, onward ya
To the land of Arbinara.”
Jarmo is available on Amazon right here.