By John R. Fultz
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of John R. Fultz and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by New Epoch Press.
[Editor’s Note: This story occurs prior to the events in “Return of the Quill” (from BG 13)]
“Sorcery is the oldest Art. Before the Coming of Jadmeil, man
did not know higher forms of thought. The struggle for daily
survival ruled all endeavors. Early cave painters were the
Disciples of Jadmeil — the first sorcerers.”
— from Rise of the Enlightened Ones
by Mordeau of Narr
The haunted city lay sleeping at the feet of the mountains, a gray collection of antique architecture encircled by a granite wall. A monolith rose from its central plaza, crowned by a crimson orb that refracted starlight, painting the streets with bloody shadow. Pale ghosts wandered along the avenues, silver phantasms gliding through vermilion, while the living stayed locked inside their shuttered houses.
Three brightly canopied wagons descended the ancient road to Mornitetra. Artifice sat on the driver’s bench of the lead wagon, between Mordeau and Helena. As the confining walls of the mountain pass fell behind, he looked down upon the shunned city at last. He eyed the great ruby and watched spectral shapes swim through the avenues.
What would the ghosts think of his play?
The road leveled out, bringing the wagons down onto the grassy plain about the city, and Artifice could no longer see over the great wall into the phantom-choked streets. Transfixed, he stared up at the great, blood-colored jewel that shone brighter than the sickle moon.
“Is that the Eye of the Earth God?” he asked, knowing it could be nothing else.
Mordeau nodded, stroking his white beard, tightening his grip on the reins as the horses stamped along the gravelly road. “If one believes the legends,” answered the showman. His silken robes were hidden beneath a fur cloak, tightly wrapped against the bitter cold of the pass that had taken nearly a week to cross. The night air on the plain was chill, yet far warmer than the icy gales that scoured the mountain heights.
“Can there be any doubt?” asked Helena. Her slender hand reached to grab Artifice’s arm, and she nuzzled closer to him, the clean smell of her dark hair filling his nostrils. “We saw the evidence of those legends before we entered the mountains.”
Artifice nodded, studying the great jewel. The city’s outer wall seemed to grow taller as the wagons drew near, the crimson Eye swelling to dwarf the moon.
“What we saw,” said Mordeau, “was the moldering ruins of a city that died a thousand years ago. Nothing more.”
“Yet was not doomed Ultimetra a twin city to this one, born at the same time and heir to the same divine legacy?” Helena asked.
“It was,” answered Artifice. “Five millennia past, the twin cities were built at the whim of the Earth God, or so the myth-cycles read. Despairing at the cruel wars he witnessed and the destructive nature of Man, the god plucked forth both his eyes and dropped them on either side of the mountains. He entrusted each of them to a separate tribe of worshippers and charged them to guard his eyes while he slept through eternity. The western tribe built the city of Ultimetra around their Eye, while the eastern tribe built Mornitetra around theirs, two nations linked only by the Earth God’s commandment and the narrow pass that we just navigated. It is said the god still sleeps below the mountains, while Man’s cruelty continues.”
“Why did Ultimetra fall?” asked Helena.
Artifice smiled at her. “The Ultimetrans abandoned their faith and gave the western Eye over to foreign sorcerers. So their city fell into ruin, cursed by the god for betraying his trust. Ultimetra met its death in a single night of terrible quakes and darkness. When the Mornitetran King led an embassy of his people across the Spine, they found their sister city squashed flat, as if ground beneath the heel of an angry god.”
Helena shivered against Artifice’s shoulder.
“Yet faithful Mornitetra still stands, haunted by the ghosts of its dead twin,” said Mordeau. “The City of the Lonely Eye, sages call it. Certainly there is no more fitting a place to unveil this drama you have crafted.”
Artifice swallowed the lump in his throat as he studied the primeval wall encircling the fabled city. He was not at all confident in Mordeau’s decision to make this journey. The old showman had taught him many things since accepting him into the Glimmer Faire two years ago. Artifice had wandered across the greater part of the western world with the troupe, performing in every village, town, and city in their path. He studied every move the actors made, every nuance of Mordeau’s plays and the staging of them. His training included the basic tenets of sorcery, which Mordeau used to enhance and illuminate their plays. Artifice — once the most famous Quill in the world’s greatest city, whose books were sought after across the length and breadth of the Continent — had become the penniless apprentice to a sorcerer playwright whose wanderlust knew no bounds. Now everything Artifice had learned would be put to the test.
Three months ago he had finally completed his first play. Inspired by an ancient myth that had always intrigued him, he titled it The Doom of Ultimetra. When he presented the completed manuscript to Mordeau, the old sorcerer hadn’t even bothered to read it. Instead, he gathered all seven of the actors together, conjured a flame from a split stone, and instructed Artifice to read every line of his creation aloud while the Players listened.
Their camp that night was set along the banks of the wide, blue river that flowed from the northern strongholds of Heynar the Bold to the decadent jungle metropolis known as Asha the Lustful. Both communities, and hundreds more in between, had received the Glimmer Faire with fanfare and aplomb. Yet now only the chirping night insects bore witness to the troupe’s assembly.
As he read out the first of the play’s scenes, hand-scrawled pages lit by the orange glow of the flame, the Faire’s twelve musicians came forward to join the actors. An unexpected honor, since the melodious woodfolk usually kept a separate camp from the tents of the actors and bondsmen.
The chromatic hues of the little musicians’ skin, green and lavender and pearl, glowed in the moonlight as they walked close enough to hear Artifice’s reading. They had left behind their wood-carved lyres, flutes, drums and harps, listening in rapt silence to his oration of The Doom of Ultimetra. Artifice had never seen them interested in anything besides their musical compositions, but now their curious eyes gleamed like fireflies as they watched him read. The twigs and leaves that grew from their delicate brows occasionally twitched as they digested his words. The weirdlings exchanged arcane expressions among themselves at certain stages of the reading, as if crafting mentally the music that would support the drama.
As for the actors, they sat like stone as Artifice went through the play’s three-act structure line by line. Often their eyes would close, visualizing the reaction of a particular character or the possible staging of a scene. Mordeau smoked a pipe as he listened, contemplating the flow and structure of the play, giving neither praise nor critique.
Artifice used the myth of the sister cities as fodder for his imagination, following Mordeau’s technique for drafting many of his own plays.
“Myths are truths,” the old man had taught him. “Stories are inventions, based around the truth supplied by myths, to flesh them out and make them live and become real to the audience. Even a bitter truth can be sweet when wrapped in an engaging drama. Use the myths, for they are the bonds that unite all the people of the Continent in a shared understanding.” Artifice had attempted to do exactly that with his first stab at writing a play.
When he completed the reading, the actors stood and bowed to him, some of them weeping. The musicians clapped, then shuffled off to take up their instruments, inspired. Mordeau clapped him on the shoulder.
“Quill,” the old man said, “you are Quill no more. Now you are Artifice the Playwright.”
But Artifice felt no different. He had written several books, each more popular than the last. Yet ultimately the fame of his works won him an exile from Narr the Golden, when the city’s rulers branded him a seditionist. He escaped a sentence of death by sheer luck and forbidden magic, and finally ended up with the Glimmer Faire. After two years of this new life, he remained unsure that his choice had been the right one. Had he abandoned the glory of the written word for the life of a traveling vagabond? He missed the permanence of books, the ranks of the Quills who copied and distributed his works, the wealth and prestige of his status as one of the city’s greatest thinkers. Could he find the same satisfaction as a writer of plays? In his darker moments, brooding over a tankard of ale after a show in some thatch-roofed village, he doubted his chosen path.
“It will take some time to create copies for all of the actors,” Artifice told Mordeau after the reading.
“Copies?” Mordeau echoed the word, wrinkling his brow.
“Of course,” Artifice said. “How else will they learn their lines?”
Mordeau laughed. “My boy, you’ve just taken part in the Covenant of Understanding. They will remember every line.”
Artifice was stunned. “You mean the spell you worked… the flame… ”
“Yes, and you will learn to work the same spell, so that your players never need study lines written by hand. All performances begin in the mind, Artifice, and sorcery allows us to bridge these minds, locking in a structure that will serve both player and playwright far more eloquently than simple memory work. Come, let us drink to celebrate the completion of your first piece!”
Artifice’s heart sank. There would be no copies made of his latest work. His words would exist solely in the minds and hearts of the Players, revealed only to the audiences who saw them perform. All his work, his perfection of the lines and attention to detail, would have to emerge on the stage. Now he wrote for Players… not for readers. At that moment, he missed his books more than ever.
He shared a cask of amber liquor with Mordeau and the actors. A band of water-nymphs came forth from the river to join them, beautiful humanoids with glistening rainbow scales and sea-green hair. They sang weird songs around the camp fires and danced to the music of the woodfolk while the warm winds of summer blew across the river.
“We begin rehearsals tomorrow,” said Mordeau, as they watched the graceful creatures cavort. Several of the actors joined the nymphs, aping their sinuous movements. Artifice knew the promiscuous nature of the actors would demand they sample the lovemaking techniques of the water creatures. “We’ll continue on a nightly basis, until we reach our next venue.”
“Where might that be?” Artifice asked. He imagined his first play would open in some backwater hamlet where people couldn’t tell the difference between it and the work of a more mature playwright.
“Where else?” said Mordeau. “We’re going to Mornitetra.”
It took three months to reach the mountain range known as the Spine, since the troupe stopped for lengthy rehearsals each night. And every third day they halted at a village to perform one of their standard productions such as The Robes of Omogron or The Gift of Jadmeil. Traveling straight through might have taken half the time, but the troupe’s lifeblood was performance, literally and spiritually, and it provided the rewards of food and drink, among others.
During the rehearsals, Artifice served as little more than an assistant director to Mordeau. The old man offered him the opportunity to direct, but he declined. In Mordeau’s hands, the play would more likely embrace its potential, for the old man’s mastery of the craft brought out the best in the actors. Artifice remained content to watch the showman guide his actors through the scenes, perfecting every nuance of expression and bringing the two-dimensional wordplay into three-dimensional life. The musicians composed an intricate, moving symphony, one movement at a time, and Mordeau worked with them to synchronize the staging to the blend of melody. After three months of watching his manuscript evolve into a living, breathing drama, Artifice possessed more confidence in the talents of the Players than in the play itself. Yet the true measure of the play’s worth would be seen only in the reactions of an audience. Despite Artifice’s reservations, that audience would be found beyond the Spine, in haunted Mornitetra.
On the day when the misty peaks first rose into view along the eastern horizon, Helena came to Artifice. Usually she lay with one of the male actors, or a particularly handsome village boy, the occasional dashing nobleman. As with all the actors, her beauty was flawless to the point of malleability, a requirement for playing a vast assortment of multi-gender roles. Artifice enjoyed the hot caress of her skin and the silky flow of her hair. Making love to her was like remembering something wonderful and important that he’d chosen to forget, and now he found himself with Helena constantly. She seemed taken with him as well, and had lain with nobody else since that first night. Yet sometimes he sensed something inhuman in her manner, her ability to become the roles that she played, as if she were a spirit made flesh only by the power of the characters she portrayed. Part of him feared her alien nature, yet he could not deny his growing affection.
Now, as the caravan approached the iron-bound gates of Mornitetra, he slid his arm around Helena’s shoulders, kissed her full lips, and wondered if this burgeoning romance would prove any more permanent than ink-scrawled lines on a crumpled leaf of parchment.
Tomorrow his play would open in the haunted city, where the citizens would witness the dramatization of their sister city’s fall. What if the play offended them, or was taken as a blasphemous twisting of their legends? Most of all, what would the haunters — the ghosts of doomed Ultimetra — what would they think of Artifice re-casting their lives into a work of dramatic fiction? What horrors might such phantoms wreak upon the living if angered?
Four spike-roofed guard towers stood along the city’s outer wall, rising at north, east, west and south. The road wound through orderly wheat fields toward a gate bearing the crimson insignia of the Earth God’s Eye, crest of Mornitetra’s royal house and a reminder of the city’s faithful charge. As the wagons rolled near to the closed gate, a chorus of moaning spirits reached Artifice’s ears. The sentries stationed atop the wall wore dragon-winged helms of iron, their faces hidden behind daemonic masks. Their tall spears were tipped with triple-pointed blades of ornate design, and their armor held the dull sheen of ancient iron well-preserved.
“Ho, the guardtower!” called Mordeau from the lead wagon. “The Glimmer Faire arrives for the pleasure of the king and his kindly folk!”
At a signal from one of the iron-faced guards, some hidden mechanism began to grind within the walls, and the massive gate swung open on squealing hinges. A host of silvery shapes rushed out to greet Mordeau’s wagons, a translucent throng of men and women long dead, draped in the antique fashions of Ultimetra. The ghosts howled and moaned songs of eternal sorrow, flocking around the wagons like voiceless beggars, pleading with phantom eyes for some unknowable gift to ease their suffering. Mordeau called to his musicians, and the woodfolk crawled from beneath the canopy of the middle wagon to perch atop its roof. The gentle music of their strings, flutes and drums filled the streets, drowning out the howls of the forlorn spirits.
The houses, official buildings and towers of office were built of pitted, fractured stone, decrepit with age, stained with the dust of centuries. Once intricate and meticulous, the structures of the haunted city had weathered into smooth domes and rounded edges, the frescoed masonry worn plain by ages of rain and wind, earthen walls like melted wax.
Artifice surveyed the listless crowd of ghosts drawn by the Glimmer Faire’s passing, looking for sign of the one he most feared to see among the spirits, the central figure of his play, King Ytreus. But he saw no sign of Ultimetra’s final, doomed monarch. Yet the regal shade must be there somewhere in the teeming crowd of spectres. Perhaps Ytreus watched from the crimson shadows of a nearby alley where the glow of the Earth God’s Eye could not touch his phantasmal skin, weeping still for his broken oath. Artifice shuddered, and said nothing of his fear to Helena.
“Make a note, Helena,” said Mordeau, studying the peculiar trim of a ghost’s pale robes. “The style of the Ultimetran cuffs and hemlines should be reflected in our costuming tomorrow.” Artifice nodded in appreciation of the showman’s keen eye and taste for details. He avoided looking into the hollow eyes of the ghosts that walked alongside the wagon.
The musicians approached the climax of their entry symphony as the wagons rolled toward the palace of Mornitetra’s living king. Shuttered windows opened occasionally in nearby homes, living citizens braving the ghostly air to catch a glimpse of the Glimmer Faire’s arrival. A troop of guards met them at the palace gates and escorted them into the well-tended gardens of the royal courtyard, where the ghosts would not follow. A captain of the palace approached, greeting the troupe with a deep bow.
“Welcome back, Mordeau,” the captain spoke, removing his horned helm. “Too long has it been since your players have engaged our hospitality.” He spoke the common language of the Great Continent, accented in the ancient dialect of Mornitetra. Artifice had studied this dialect and used it to some effect in the dialogue of his play.
The musicians finished their performance with a stirring coda as Mordeau stepped down from the wagon’s high seat and embraced the smiling captain.
“Yarl the Fierce-Hearted,” he greeted the man. “It is good to see you healthy and still heading the king’s garrison.”
“Until the day I go to my final rest,” grinned Captain Yarl. “Come, and bring your famished troupe, the king will feast with you this night.”
Mordeau bowed, and motioned for Artifice to approach. “We are deeply honored, sir,” he said. “May I introduce my protégé Artifice, a playwright of no small means.”
The captain offered his gauntleted hand, and Artifice shook it somewhat embarrassedly. Then the warrior bent to kiss Helena’s hand, and Artifice saw a gleam of familiarity in the captain’s eyes. Or was it something more? How long had Helena and her fellow actors traveled the world in Mordeau’s band? The ages of the actors was an unspoken mystery, but Artifice knew that Helena must be older than her looks. Had Yarl the Fierce-Hearted been one of her lovers during some previous visit to this antiquated metropolis? A smile from Helena quelled the pang of jealousy in Artifice’s stomach, a glance that told him she was now his, no matter what might have happened here or anywhere else. He took her hand as they followed Captain Yarl up the palace’s outer steps and into the king’s smoky hall.
A feast lay spread across a great table, with the king’s chair at its head, and four tall fireplaces roared heat into the hall. The pillars that supported the arched roof told pictogram stories of ancient battles and histories of the city’s royal lineage. Tapestries of faded gold weave hung along the walls among round shields and crossed swords. The gray-bearded king sat in his regal chair surrounded by a throng of curious courtiers. The beautiful actors and the odd little musicians filed in to take their places along the great table, while Mordeau approached the monarch with Artifice in tow.
Mordeau bowed low, and all the troupe copied his graceful approach. “Greetings from beyond the Spine, O, Tomias, King of the Faithful City. I bring fresh entertainment to thrill and amaze yourself and your devout subjects.”
The king motioned for the showman to be seated. “Blessings of the Eye be upon you,” he spoke. “Too long have you been away from us, showman.” Tomias was a man of middle years, flaxen beard shot with tints of early gray. His robes bore stitchings of the finest white fur, his crown a circlet of dull gold topped by seven great rubies, miniature versions of the great God’s Eye that glimmered above his city. “Sit, eat, and be welcome.”
The trappings and heraldry of the palace were as decrepit and worn as the city stones, but the fare at the table was fresh and prepared with skilled hands. Servants kept the cups of the Glimmer Faire filled with rich, red wine, adding new dishes to the table as the feast proceeded. Artifice sat next to Mordeau, near the head of the table, with the actors nearby. A pair of the woodfolk made sweet music on their harps as their fellow Players ate. Though museum-like in its decor, the hall soon filled with a lively atmosphere of camaraderie. Artifice felt genuinely welcome at the court of King Tomias.
Mordeau answered the king’s questions politely, describing his travels across the Great Continent in fantastic detail. The courtiers and courtesans in their exotic fabrics eyed the beautiful faces of the actors from the adjoining table where they dined; only the Glimmer Faire shared the king’s board this night.
“We come to honor Mornitetra with our latest production,” Mordeau told the king. “A powerful tale based on a chief legend of your kingdom.” Artifice listened nervously as Mordeau, tongue loosened by the strong wine, spoke to the king of his play.
“Which of our many legends will you interpret?” asked King Tomias. Artifice coughed, and nudged Mordeau with his elbow. Best to let the play unfold onstage, rather than spoil it with advance description. But Mordeau was not to be stopped.
“The tragedy of fallen Ultimetra,” said Mordeau.
“Tragedy?” said the Mornitetran king. “We find nothing tragic in the tale of Faithless Ultimetra’s destruction. They betrayed the Earth Giant, and lost his holy western Eye. What else but divine justice could befall them?”
“Forgive me, great king, I meant no offense,” Mordeau said. “Nor would I seek to dishonor the spirits that roam your benighted streets.”
“Now there is tragedy,” said the king. “We, the Faithful, haunted by the specters of the Faithless. Though in truth it was my own ancestor Ignius the Fifth, a great sorcerer, who cursed the Ultimetrans to find no rest in the after-realms. A cruel joke that his incantation caused the souls of Ultimetra to infest our city. No spell or exorcism has ever been able to rid us of the Faithless ghosts. So we have learned to live with them, as you have seen.”
“Is it true that Ultimetra was destroyed in a single night?” asked Artifice.
The king nodded, turning his wine-glazed eyes from Mordeau to Artifice. “A night of terrible quakes followed the removal of the western Eye from its pedestal. Crossing the mountain pass, Ignius found the entire city smashed into dust and bones. Enraged by the Faithless City’s final act, he then spoke his dread curse, and the spirits of crushed Ultimetra followed him back to our city, and they have never left. Because of the Faithless we get few visitors here. Which makes us all the more appreciative of the Glimmer Faire’s rare visits.”
“We are doubly honored by your gracious words, sire,” said Mordeau. “And tomorrow we shall perform for you The Doom of Ultimetra, a journey into history as envisioned by our prodigy, Artifice, whose written work has drawn acclaim throughout the Continent.”
“Very good!” said the king, well on his way to drunk and waxing jovial in the presence of Mordeau’s enthusiasm.
The feast proceeded with a round of toasts, and as the hearthfires died away, the king’s court slipped away singly and in pairs. Servants led the members of Mordeau’s troupe into a suite of rooms in the northern wing of the palace. Artifice slept in a great, soft bed with Helena, while Mordeau enjoyed his own private room. The rest of the actors spent the remainder of the night in the distant rooms of nobles, indulging the carnal passions that fueled their creativity. The musicians slept in the outer garden with the wagons; the woodfolk never liked to sleep beneath a roof, and the wailing of the city’s restless spirits did not seem to bother them.
Artifice and Helena made love and fell asleep in the soft glow of candles. As he drifted into slumber, Artifice remembered the king’s words and realized that Mornitetra bore no sympathy for the Ultimetrans who haunted them. “The Faithless,” the king called them. Would the characters of his play, based on the actual personages of the last Ultimetran royal house, be met with understanding or only scorn? If the drama offended the Mornitetrans, what penalty would Mordeau and the Players face from an insulted King Tomias? Tomorrow’s performance must please two separate audiences at once: the living and the dead. Which contingent would display a greater wrath if the play contradicted their historical beliefs? Artifice slept very little that night. He lay on the silken spread listening to Helena’s soft breathing, grateful for the thick walls and locked windows that kept the moans of ghosts from penetrating the bedchamber.
In the light of early morning, Mornitetra turned from gray to golden. The Eye of the Earth God blazed above the awakening streets like a second sun. The living opened their doors and left their abodes as the night-phantoms faded into whorls of mist. Servants entered the quarters where Artifice and Helena dressed themselves and opened the thick shutters to let in the warm sunlight. The town looked surprisingly average when viewed from the windows of the palace in full daylight.
“The ghosts are still out there,” Mordeau told Artifice as they walked into the breakfast hall. “Though soundless and invisible during the light of day, they return always at sunset to fill the streets with their sadness.”
The Players dined on fruits, bread and cheeses brought them by the palace servants, and went to drive their wagons into the great amphitheatre where Mornitetra held its annual feats of strength and speed. In ancient times, gladiators had slaughtered one another here to the cheers of the Faithful, but such barbarism was abandoned long before the fall of Ultimetra. Now its only uses were for sporting games, public addresses from the king or his officials, or to stage performances of visiting troupes of artists. Very few traveling performers came to the haunted city, but Mordeau’s Glimmer Faire had made a strong impression here years ago. As word of their arrival spread across the city, the amphitheatre filled with eager citizens. Dressed mainly in drab tunics of earth-colored wool, the Mornitetrans jostled one another for the seats closest to the sunken stage.
Artifice supervised the costuming of the actors, while the musicians tuned their instruments and hung canvas backdrops painted to evoke the setting of the play’s opening scene — the throneroom of Ancient Ultimetra. Mordeau paced about observing all, issuing reminders and last minute alterations to stage positions. Someone brought Artifice a glass of wine, and before he realized it he had drunk two more besides. The woodfolk orchestra took their places at the left and right sides of the grand stage, and word came that King Tomias and his retinue had arrived. Now the play must begin.
Mordeau, dressed in his finest yellow robe trimmed with ivory runes, clapped Artifice on the shoulder as he watched the costumed actors take their places behind the curtain. “This is your moment, my boy,” said the old man. “Today your Art comes alive.”
Artifice smiled and nodded, speechless and ready to get the play’s debut over. He made a concerted mental effort to drive all insecurity and trepidation from his mind. At least the play would debut on a regal stage, not on the back of a converted wagon where most of the Glimmer Faire’s shows were performed. This thought was a miniscule source of comfort.
Mordeau strolled forth to address king and crowd in his best showman voice, proclaiming loudly his appreciation for the rich history of the Mornitetrans and the tales of their elder days. His introduction ended with a pronouncement of the play’s title, and Artifice heard the crowd gasp. “Now, you keepers of the Earth God’s faith, gaze upon The Doom of Ultimetra… ”
Music swelled and the velvet curtain went up. From the sidestage, Artifice stared out at the thousands of curious faces lining the stone benches, the pillared platform in their midst where the king and his retainers sat in rapt attention. Beyond the lip of the amphitheatre he saw the great, fiery Eye gleaming atop its lofty spire. And the play began.
Act One introduced the young Ytreus, crowned as monarch of Ultimetra on his eighteenth birthday, speaking the oath of allegiance to the Earth God beneath the western Eye. He chose Aranha, a girl he had loved since childhood, to be his queen. Soon after their grand wedding he led the Ultimetran army on a crusade against the western Bandit Lords, spending the next ten years fighting to eradicate their lawless legions. When the war was done, Ytreus returned home in victory, and met for the first time his son Yorin, born shortly after he left. Soon Aranha bore Ytreus a second child, a daughter named Altrea. During that year, strange-eyed sorcerers arrived from the Red Isle, shaven-headed men of dark aspect and weird tongue. They asked the king to sell them the Earth God’s Eye. Ytreus banished the sorcerers as blasphemers, ignoring the vast riches they offered for the holy jewel.
As the play proceeded, the painted backdrops changed from golden cityscape to bloody battlefield, subtle illusions conjured by Mordeau’s thespianic magic. The crowd sat transfixed by the dramatic spectacle.
Act Two concerned the famine that swept across the Ultimetran lands, and the tribes of gruesome mountain-beasts who descended to sack the city, hungry for human flesh. Again Ytreus took up his sword, joined now by his son Yorin, and fought back the vicious raiders. Ignius, the king of Mornitetra, crossed the mountain pass with a legion of warriors to aid in these battles. The crowd cheered greatly at the appearance of Ignius, a genuine hero from their own past, lord of their city in its grander days. It seemed they chose to ignore the fact that wrathful Ignius was the one responsible for the ghosts of Ultimetra haunting their city to this very day.
The beast-men of the mountains were driven away by the blades of Ytreus, Yorin and Ignius, but the famine continued on both sides of the Great Mountains. A wasting plague crept into Ultimetra, and Ytreus lost his beloved queen to the horrible disease. During his grief, the Red Isle sorcerers returned, seeking again to acquire the Earth God’s western Eye, offering to rid the land of blight and disease with their magic. A second time Ytreus refused them, slaying their leader with his own dagger, while the others fled.
The actors played their parts superbly, as usual, delivering intensity to Artifice’s carefully wrought expressions of rage, grief and love. Helena portrayed the dying queen Aranha, and Artifice himself nearly wept at her passing.
In the shadows of the stage wing opposite him, Artifice saw the faint image of a single ghost. The spectre wore a crown similar to that of Tomias, and his garments were antique vestments. Here was the ghost of Ytreus, come forth during sunlight hours to view this re-telling of his fated life. Artifice cringed. Would his fiction meet the ghost-king’s approval? With weary, transparent eyes, the royal shade watched the actors play out their roles.
Act Three presented the deterioration of Ultimetra’s greatness, as starving citizens fought one another for scraps of food and the king bore a constant weight of grief from his wife’s death. At the famine’s height, a terrible beast descended from the cold stars to assault and devour his people. Mordeau’s enchantment turned the wire-and-hide dragon costume worn by three stooped woodfolk into a writhing, fire-breathing monstrosity that drew shrieks of amazement from the crowd. Prince Yorin took up his father’s sword and went forth to slay the beast in a thunderous battle. As Yorin drove his blade into the beast’s heart, the dying monster clamped its fanged jaws about him and ended his life.
Again King Ytreus staggered beneath his grief, with only the tender care of his daughter Altrea preventing him from taking his own life. Soon after heroic Yorin’s funeral, Princess Altrea fell ill, and physicians told the king that she would soon die. A third time the Red Isle sorcerers came to Ultimetra, and again made an offer to the forlorn Ytreus. They promised an end to the famine, a return to prosperity for Ultimetra and its fields, and a cure for Altrea’s sickness. Mad with grief, wishing only to save his last child, Ytreus acquiesced, and the foreign sorcerers absconded with the great jewel that had set above the city for four thousand years. As the earth began to tremble and Ultimetra’s walls came crashing to the ground, Ytreus realized his folly and threw himself on his sword.
In the play’s final scene, Altrea woke from her coma and stumbled away from the smoking ruins of her city, the lone survivor of doomed Ultimetra. She wandered into the setting sun and was seen no more.
The final curtain fell to the boards of the stage, and an eerie silence filled the great amphitheatre. Artifice looked to where the ghost of Ytreus had stood, but the spectre was gone. He peaked out from behind the velvet curtain’s folds, frantic to see the crowd’s reaction.
The citizens of Mornitetra sat quietly in their seats, weeping as one. King Tomias wept along with them.
The actors embraced one another behind the curtain as the musicians played the final bars of their closing melody. Artifice turned to find Helena next to him. She took his arm and started to say something, when a flood of applause drowned out her words. Mordeau ordered the curtain raised for the troupe to present itself and accept accolades. King Tomias and his people stood clapping and cheering with tear-stained cheeks. Artifice joined the Players in taking a deep bow.
A low rumble joined the cacophony of the applause. The stage trembled and the citizens began to lose their footing along the benches. Someone screamed, as full realization arrived simultaneously among the performers and their audience. The earth shook and nearby walls shed torrents of dust. People fell over one another as panic spread among them, and the quake increased its violence. The city rocked like a ship on a turbulent sea, and a distant tower crumbled into rubble. The Eye of the Earth God rocked atop its monolith. Artifice expected it to fall and shatter into a million bloody shards.
The quake subsided, but a great crashing sound filled the sky, as if a nearby mountaintop had fallen to smite the flat earth. Then another, and another, growing louder.
Helena held tightly to Artifice, and the rest of the actors stood in stunned silence as thousands of panicking Mornitetrans began fleeing toward the amphitheatre’s exits. The woodfolk pranced and leapt about the stage as if to celebrate the advent of the quake and the persistent shocks that now followed it. A great shadow blotted out the sun, and the screams of terrified citizens filled the air.
Another great booming step brought the Earth Giant into view. It loomed over the city, a vast titan of raw stone, a mountain molded into a vaguely human form. Its massive, block-like feet crashed against the plain as it strode toward Mornitetra. Pearly clouds swam about its head, the sheer scope of its size defying gravity and sanity.
A great, stony hand reached down toward the city, and a fresh wave of panic swept across the fleeing Mornitetrans. This was the vast being who had stomped Ultimetra out of existence. A single swipe of its humongous palm might do the same to Mornitetra. But the massive, rocky fingers closed around the tiny, red jewel that gleamed above the city. The Earth God took his Eye from its pedestal.
The giant lifted the jewel to its impossibly distant face, obscured by a wreath of shredded cloud, and placed the Eye into its right socket. Then it lowered its vast, craggy face toward the city where its faithful worshippers scrambled in absolute terror. Its left socket remained a black void, but its restored right eye blazed with celestial fire.
Artifice stared deeply into that swirling, blood-colored brightness, watching cosmic secrets reveal themselves.
The god opened its mouth and emitted a great roar that shook the walls and towers of Mornitetra. Then, its mountainside face split in a great, gentle grin, and it turned toward the West. The great, jolting shocks of its steps brought another tower crashing down somewhere in the city, as the awakened Earth God strode away toward the Spine.
The Players exited the amphitheatre with the rest of the citizens, while the great, booming steps of the Earth God carried it away from the city. They stood outside the cracked city walls, watching as the awakened god stalked across the mountains, clearing the great peaks in a few steps that rang like distant thunder. The last they saw of the Earth God was his great, round head disappearing into the western world, and the silence left by his passing was both deep and profound.
King Tomias’ troops soon called the city back to order. The destruction had been minor, and since everyone had been in the amphitheatre, the collapsed towers had claimed no lives. Artifice, Mordeau, and the Players met with the king in his pillared throne room, where stunned nobles awaited their monarch’s statement on the day’s historic events.
“See now the power of the Play, well-acted,” Mordeau said to Artifice as they approached the throne room. “That is the power of Sorcery, which is Art, which is the soul of Performance.”
Artifice remained silent, thinking only of the things he had seen in the Earth God’s blazing Eye. Helena squeezed his hand, guiding him along like a senile elder.
“This has been a great day!” spoke the king, as Mordeau and his Players approached the throne. “We have fulfilled our oath to the Earth God. Now the Rejuvenation of the World shall begin. A new age is upon us, and ours was the honor to witness the Great Awakening. Let us feast!”
The sun set beyond the arched palace windows and the king commanded that they be left open. He led his guests into the nearby long hall, where a fresh feast awaited. Again, Artifice and Mordeau sat near to the king, and the hungry Players helped themselves to the delectable fare. Outside the tall windows the moon rose above the dark peaks of the Spine and a sea of stars glittered into view.
For the first time in a thousand years, no ghosts came forth to haunt the streets of Mornitetra. Laughing children raced along the lanes, thrilled by the starry freedom of the night.
“It seems the Earth God has driven away our ghosts!” said the king. “All praise be due him!”
“It was not the god who ended the curse of Ignius, my lord,” Artifice said, certain of his words. “It was your tears, and those of your people, shed for those you once called Faithless. Now the Earth God sees that Man has learned compassion, that hate and destruction need not be humanity’s only contribution to the world. For this, he has waited.”
“How do you know these things, Master Artifice?” asked the king.
“In the Eye,” Artifice said. “I saw it all… in the Eye.”
“What else did you see?” asked Mordeau, his voice a trembling whisper.
“Hope,” said Artifice.
That night, while Helena slept contentedly nearby in the soft palace bed, Artifice began the writing of his second play.
Three days later the Glimmer Faire departed Mornitetra, traveling deeper into the distant East, where strange cities waited hungrily for entertainment.
Grasping For the Wind described it this way:
In “Oblivion is the Sweetest Wine” by John R. Fultz, we learn that sometimes ignorance is bliss. Taizo is a thief sent to steal a precious possession from a city of spider-worshippers. Quite accidentally, he falls in love with a beautiful woman, and wishes to take her with him after completing his mission. But an unfortunate set of circumstances brings about a revelation Taizo could wish he had never seen. Fultz’s story has echoes of the drow of the Forgotten Realms, but forges its own territory. Essentially, this story becomes a fable about curiosity and the cat… The tale itself is tightly woven, and has just the right amount of intrigue, action, and surprise that it is a great opener for the issue.
John’s other contributions to our pages include “Return of the Quill” (in BG 13) and “The Vintages of Dream” (BG 15).
Art for “Oblivion is the Sweetest Wine” by Mark Evans.
John R. Fultz lives in the North Bay area of California, but is originally from Kentucky. His epic fantasy novel Seven Princes is available from Orbit Books. Seven Kings, the second book of the Shaper Trilogy, will be released on Jan. 15, with the concluding volume, Seven Sorcerers, coming in Jan. 2014.
John’s short fiction has appeared in Black Gate, Weird Tales, Space & Time, Lightspeed, and the anthologies Way of the Wizard, Cthulhu’s Reign, Other Worlds Than These, and The Book of Cthulhu II. His comic book work includes Primordia, Zombie Tales, and Cthulhu Tales.
John’s literary heroes include Tanith Lee, Thomas Ligotti, Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany, William Gibson, Robert Silverberg, and Darrell Schweitzer, not to mention Howard, Poe, and Shakespeare.
When not writing novels, stories, or comics, John teaches English Literature at the high school level and plays a mean guitar.