Artemis [ Chapter 5b ]
Artemis was miserable. All the sounds of the world still seemed distant to her and she had to focus really hard to listen to what the one-eyed monk was saying. “I wish she would stop…” she said meekly, “can’t you… end her misery?”
The monk stared at her, the fresh hollow cavity of his right eye socket vexing her. It was the first thing she had seen when she regained consciousness; that he grabbed his own eye and tore it out. Then he started retching blood. That’s when she had thrown up too. “I cannot end her misery,” he said, “not even if I killed her. But you should be glad for her: that she screams means she is still alive, still fighting.”
She was screaming, the woman he had called ‘Valkyrie’. Her body was twitching and squirming, and she was screaming her lungs out. Literally: the longer it lasted the more often a little spittle of blood would come out with her screams, though perhaps it came from actual battle wounds. Her eyes were wide open and she stared at the sky in terror, but when Artemis had waved her hand in front of the Valkyrie’s face, there had been no reaction at all: her eyes were open, but her mind was closed. And she raised a great clamor.
And that wasn’t the most unsettling thing about her anguish: Drool and snot were leaking from her mouth and nose, and blood spilled out of her many wounds, the fluids glowing strangely, forcing a strange change upon the ground around her: plants, flowers, small trees, grass, and other things kept growing around her like on a beautiful grave, just to wither away and then grow back in a different variety. It was as if a seamless cycle of life and death was erupting from her very pores, as if it was her life-force that was leaving her drop by drop.
Artemis could still not truly grasp the situation. After she had given the throne to her younger brother Sem-la, she had said her farewells to her people and fired Windfall once again, causing it to open a portal for her. Much like the old woman had said it seemed that she had duties elsewhere, and back then Artemis had felt this to be true in her heart, so she walked through the portal and appeared here.
But appearing here wasn’t quite as charming as she might have hoped. A grasping, evil cold and darkness had surrounded her at her arrival, and she saw two men fighting and a woman dying on the ground, just before the strange, overwhelming pressure that permeated the battlefield wrung her to the ground and rendered her unconscious. Now she was here with a dying Valkyrie and a one-eyed monk, not knowing what she was supposed to do. “What is that thing happening to the ground around her?” she inquired suspiciously, desperate to hold a distracting conversation.
The monk sat back tiredly and freed some crusty old bread und hard sausages from his luggage. When he offered Artemis some, she accepted and began wolfing it down greedily. “You have the appetite of a Kaltani,” he noted.
“I am Kaltani,” she replied stubbornly. After they had eaten he looked over at the screaming Valkyrie and sighed.
“Such a beautiful creature mowed down by a power she could not hope to comprehend. Like a bird snatched by the jaws of a hurricane. Look at her flapping so tenaciously, yet desperate in her struggle,” he said. “If you want to know what is happening to the ground around her, I would be keen to hear something from you before. I may have been in the middle of a perilous battle, but few people have the necessary skill to just appear next to me like you did, seemingly out of nowhere. And I would expect such people not to be subdued by the mere presence of that poor man there and myself. How is it that you are here?”
Artemis gazed at Windfall dreamily. “Truth is: I do not know,” she said after a while and put the bow down in front of her. “This is what I traded my life for, a life I had just won back. The old Schamani told me I would find the bow and it would lead me to my destiny.” The shock of all these happenings that had cramped together in scarcely more than two days began to settle slowly, and the more they did, the more Artemis began to feel lost. She was so far away from home she had no one and nothing but Windfall.
“Destiny is always with us,” the one-eyed monk said. “There is a Great Clockwork that runs throughout the corners of the universe and guides man and mankind alike.” He inspected the bow with a ponderous look about him. “I can feel it now, a pulsing might inside this weapon, not unlike the speck that keeps the Valkyrie alive right now. This is an artifact of power; it might even be an eternal. Some say that, like the five eternal blades, there are artifacts forged by the hands of men that may endure for all eternity, even past the world gaps when Aqualon breaks apart and is formed anew.”
Artemis eyed him wearily, “The world does that? How could anyone know such a thing?”
The monk laughed about that question. “Most would just tell you that all men know this, but truthfully those stories spring from real witnesses who have lived through those times. They were the truly mighty, those who could tread on more than one world within their lifespan,” he explained. “You should be careful with that weapon: great power does oft as not destroy its wielder. You have been granted a gift worthy of your Kaltani gods, do not squander it.
If truly you are meant to be a driving force in the movements of the clockwork yet to come, you should come with me. In fact, you owe me that much I would say, since my absence would have meant your death and worse earlier. You would be lying right there besides the Valkyrie - and unlike her without any hope.
As promised I shall tell you what is happening to her,” he said and sighed again. “The old gods are real beings; this you must know first. You see, we Null are not just a bunch of nihilistic fear mongers as loving mothers would have their little ones believe. We are an enlightened order and the record keepers of Aqualon. Much of this world’s history is written down in scrolls and books in the library of the Black Sanctum atop the Ever-Clouded Summit. We remember much, even the old wars when the old gods still walked the realms of men. Midgard they call them and why not, Midgard is the one of the nine old realms around which the faceless world shaper built Aqualon as we tread it this day.
The old gods are men too in a way, but they are blessed with an unrivaled might, for their forebears and they have drunk of the universe. Well… not as literally as it may sound, but they have drunk from the well of Wyrd, the last intersecting point between the Great Clockwork and Aqualon before the faceless world shaper smashed it. From it they gained their might and immortality. And fragments of Wyrd still exist in their eternal realm, Asgard that is, hidden on the tip of the world, or the bottom if you go by modern maps. In olden days they created Valkyries out of their most leal and loved subjects by implanting their souls with a fragment of Wyrd, thus giving them might and life eternal. Many centuries ago they were sent forth to roam the realm of Midgard, forever searching for the last great war when the gods shall rise once again and fight alongside their mortal kin.
For this, the Valkyries carry the Horn of the Last Winter with them: when they sound it, the ice will blow up from the sole of the world and the gods will tread Midgard once more with a thirst for battle festered since the last great age of man, which ended over seventeen hundred years ago.”
This was a lot of new information, though some of it had been told to Artemis before in less believable story form. She only knew bits and pieces of this and that, which she had heard from her Kaltani brothers and sisters, and the odd historic footnote she had read during her childhood years when she still had had a chasha to educate her. “But what is happening to this one?” she demanded to know, seeing how he had provided nothing but exposition so far.
The one-eyed monk scratched around his empty eye socket with a frown. It looked as if the walls of the eerily beckoning cavity were itching him and he dared not stick his finger inside. It seemed only wise to Artemis, even though the thought of it all almost made her stomach turn again. She was very presently aware of the poorly formed half-ring of dried blood around his lower eyelid.
He put his hand down again. “The man over there: he is the one I was fighting; and before me the Valkyrie had at him and was crushed into this. I could rinse out some of the dark energy he had poured into her, but I dare not take it all for it has nested deep within her soul already. When I fought this man, I saw true evil for the first time in my life. It was not a sight I enjoyed. When pondering it, the thought comes to my mind that men cannot truly be evil if you compare them to the foulness that had overtaken him. It was on too different a level: inhuman.
Now that I have washed it out of him, he is but a withering shell; he won’t be long for this world. The Valkyrie has a chance though, a chance mortal men would not have: The fragment of Wyrd inside of her is protecting her soul and giving her strength. Whether it is enough to expel the foulness though is up to her and to fate,” he mused, his eyes fixed on the pitiful creature. “Of course, if she fails, I will have to take more drastic action.”
Artemis looked at the screaming woman as well. Still there was growing and withering vegetation around her. “And the ground?”
The monk looked at it, drinking in the strange, and in a way beautiful, phenomenon. “Her whole world is pouring out of her, all she is. What is surprising about there being some flowers and greens in there?” he asked. “But she comes from the icy north, this one. I’d wager that she is truly lost when the snow starts falling around her and the ground turns to ice. When that is gone too, there might be nothing left of her. Or worse: something new and dangerous.”
Artemis kept staring at her and tried to imagine what it would be like if her world would pour out of herself, but the concept was too strange and abstract to fathom for her. She did not even truly understand what it was supposed to mean in this place. All she saw was a strange magic at work and a dying woman that screamed as if she was being tortured with a rod of glowing hot lead. “How long will we sit here and wait?” Artemis asked now. It had been quite a while already.
“As long as it takes,” the man said. “I am praying for her to win this battle. We musts go to war: you… me… her. I would like her to be alive for that, only she can blow the horn.”
Artemis shifted her gaze to him. He looked not that old, now that she looked closer: He might have been anything from twenty-and-two to fifty-and-five she guessed, though the missing eye made him look scary. His appearance resembled a man from the Yamato Kingdom that had once visited her father when he had still been alive. Maybe the monk was of the Yamato as well? “Say,” she began, stroking over the intricate engravings of Windfall as he looked up at her, “when I found this bow, someone had already been there before me. It was an abandoned old palace or something, sunken in the sands. Below the words neatly engraved in the stone, the ones that revealed my destiny to me, there were words in a language I did not recognize, apparently etched in by another visitor. They were… Ra… rara… hmm…” She had trouble remembering those foreign words that had been clumsily cut into the altar. But when trying to envision that eerie sight, she finally succeeded: “I think it was: Rakata rakta… ri… rali… no! Rul’yi, rakata rakta ri rul’yi!”
The monk swayed his head in thought, then reached into his robe and pulled out a small knife: “Can you write it on the ground? The way you pronounce the words… nothing comes to mind.”
She nodded and took the knife, a curious one-bladed thing of no more than five to six inches length with a very straight, broad back. It was not a very quick method of writing, but since the sentence, or whatever it was, was short, Artemis got it done quickly enough.
Now the monk inspected the writing carefully, before he spoke again: “In olden days, during the first age, when men began to settle in the four corners of the Great Land, and the Seventeen Yonder Islands were unknown to man until the age’s latter days, there were five sages who held supreme wisdom and enlightenment. They came from the ur-folk, who had inherited great cultures from the civilization that was before the first age when the world was still split into nine realms.
The five sages traveled the Great Land for many centuries, until valiant explorers crossed the Iron Belt and found there a great ocean to the south. They left their peoples and joined in silent meditation on the First Island, and they built a monastery where they taught those who came to hear their wisdom, calling it Jamphel Yeshe. In time it grew into a prosperous city, only to fall into darkness during the Age of the Iron Divide. It is said that one of the sages was of the Angel Saxons and had many teachings written down in their tongue, for the Angel Saxons do not make use of the one-hundred tongues of man, but teach the lost tongue of the Albenmannen. Though I do not speak it, I do recall some of it from my studies in the library of the Black Sanctum. If I am not mistaken, raka and rak are, in a way, words representative of the physical and the metaphysical in humans. The ‘ta’ is just a connector, like the word ‘and’. Raka means something like ‘heart and soul’, and rak means something like ‘heart and brain’, though the second time ‘heart’ would refer to the actual organ. This might be one of the teachings of that sage, but I cannot translate it in its entirety, I am sorry.”
Artemis shook her weary head. “No, I know more than I did before, and I thank you.” She looked over to the Valkyrie again. Still screaming, still struggling, and between the silence of her two watchers, the clamor was unbearable…
After a while the monk began to sing, his voice clear and lovely:
The gate, the gate of Helgard awaits!
When the last horn is blown
in the wind and the snow.
Oh mannen of Winterland, mannen of yore,
Will you rise and fight and die, when it calls.
The gate, the gate of Helgard awaits!
When the gods who were lost
Will find their way.
As a beacon, a light,
as an angel of war,
Will the winged women fly
And her sword will soar
“I know that song,” Artemis said quietly after he was done. One of her Kaltani brethren had sung it many times. Îsouf had been his name. He had sung it with a deeper, rawer voice, though Artemis had liked to hear him sing. “It’s The Call of the Valkyrie, is it not? Not all the verses though.”
The man nodded. “That is so,” he confirmed. “It is an old Kaltani song. One of my brothers was Kaltani before he joined the brotherhood, and he taught it to me, many years ago. I thought it might help her find her strength… Although she probably hears and sees nothing of this world now. Nothing at all.”