By Thomas Barczak
This is an excerpt from Mouth of the Dragon by Thomas Barczak, presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Perseid Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Mouth of the Dragon: Prophecy of the Evarun is available in trade paper and digital editions at Amazon, and wherever quality books are sold.
We join the tale of Chaelus, vessel of the Giver reborn, in progress, as he begins to wonder what awaits when prophecy turns against the prophet. What will he see, when the veil of the dragon rises?
To save the ones he loves, Chaelus must pursue the dragon and the fate prophesied for him. But as the veil of the dragon rises, so does the veil between prophecy and the past, where the Prophecy of Evarun suffers no rivals…
Twelve who would save. Twelve who would fall.
The Mother had chosen each of them, each for her own reasons, and one of them was Al-Miriam.
Twelve Servian knights the Mother had chosen to be guardians of the Giver reborn.
Yet their mortal husks served no purpose for that. Their own vows, her own vows, forbade it. By their vows, they were forbidden to shed the blood of men. But then, Chaelus didn’t need them to, did he? Prophecy itself protected him. It needed him. She had seen the power of it, the Giver’s power, manifested within him. She had felt it in his very touch upon her skin.
Yet still, twelve the Mother had chosen for him.
The twelve were not to be his companions, either. The mysticism that had already grown around him, around Chaelus, the Giver, forbade that. How could one befriend or love something, or someone, so holy as he? Or could they? Could she?
No. The one redemptive truth was that she and the other Servian knights sent with him were much more than guardians or companions. They were at last what they were always intended to be. They were his servants, and if need be, his sacrifice. That was the purpose for which they had been chosen.
And she would gladly be that.
If not for prophecy, then for him.
The small shadow of a horse and rider broke out of the thin blue veil on the horizon, a mark like a firebrand upon a pristine field of white, like an urgent stroke of prophecy.
Chaelus, the vessel of the Giver reborn, had returned to them.
Her lips, her cheeks, the very flesh beneath her brow kindled at the sight of him, in the very place where Chaelus had touched her only a fortnight before, when he had held her face and showed her his divinity, the true nature of what he was; when he had touched the very soul of her.
When he had touched her heart.
She had tried to then, but she could no longer deny her devotion toward him. What plagued her heart, though, was the question of its nature. She had been touched by him, by the eternal spirit of the Giver that possessed him, but she had also been touched by something else, something more. She had been touched by the mortal husk that carried it, by the man who so effortlessly and nobly suffered both the burden and the grace of its bearing.
It was his humanness that kept her near to him, that made her love him.
It was he, Chaelus, not the vessel of the Giver reborn but the resurrected barbarian lord of the House of Malius, who had laid such a claim upon her heart.
She stopped her hand as it drew unconsciously near her brow, just above the place where Chaelus’ flesh bore the pale mark of the Dragon’s crown.
The shuffling cascade of ice and stone down the slope behind her announced Al-Toman’s arrival.
Al-Toman’s thick merchant cloak swirled about him.
Disguised as a noblewoman’s merchant train returning from Tulon, some of them as merchants, some of them as slaves, the twelve kept their Gossamer Blades hidden beyond the warded safety of the Garden, the place of their exile. Obidae, along with Al-Mariam’s orphaned mystical brother, Michalas, spiritual twin to Chaelus and somehow part of the prophecy as well, would also play the part of slaves. Chaelus, their prophesied protector, would be their temporal one as well, should ever the eyes of bandits or Hunters, the assassins sent by the Theocracy to exterminate their order, find them.
And, of course, Obidae would be there to help them with this, too.
Al-Toman eyed Obidae and nodded to him.
Obidae, the mastiff barbarian, nodded back.
Al-Toman, unlike most of the Servian Knights, felt no discomfort toward the barbarian chieftain. In fact, a sort of silent friendship had developed between the two in the fortnight that had passed since Obidae and his band of Khaalish warriors joined them.
Al-Toman, like most of the Servian knights, came from a foreign land. In Al-Toman’s case, from the Dunnish lands to the east, where the mysticism of the Khaalishite was not so foreign and where both blood and trade had flowed between both peoples ever since the Awakening, a hundred years before.
Together, the two would also help to serve as ambassadors when they arrived in the Khaalishite, so that the Giver, so that Chaelus, could carry the message of his return to them as well. Hopefully, they could do so before the Dragon, which had already darkened the Theocratic States along their border, carried its own.
That was why the Mother had sent them, anyway, if it was true that the souls of the Theocracy were already lost.
“The others are beginning to wonder if…” Al-Toman began. He followed the direction of her stare. His voice softened. “He’s here.”
Al-Mariam heard Al-Toman’s voice change at the sight of Chaelus, in unfeigned reverence at the sight of their, his own, savior.
She heard the call and running footsteps of the other Servian knights climbing the ridge to meet him, to see him.
“He’s late,” she said.
Al-Toman’s mouth waited, open but silent.
Blood and spittle gathered around the corner of his lips. His head hung with a slight bend over where the arrow shaft protruded from his throat and through the back of his neck. The rest of his body sagged, then gave way beneath him.
Her own voice, along with everything else, fell suddenly silent.
More arrows grew out of the snow around her, sprouting like a savage garden. Their fletching was the color of blood. She felt a sharp tug at her cloak and a heavy weight.
She searched in vain for Obidae, for his protection, but only found the muted pleas of fallen knights in the snow around her.
Across the frozen plain, the small shadow of Chaelus seemed to move farther away from her.
The silence cracked at last like a frozen pond around her, exploding in a pain that consumed her, crushing her, bringing her down, dulled only by the mortal sound of her own scream.
Chaelus watched them fall, one by one, like cordwood; five Servian knights brought down to the bristling snow.
Crimson feathers stuck out against the pallor. Even from a half a league away he could see them, like the blood they let. The red fletching of the Khaalish. But Chaelus didn’t need the whisper of the Giver to drift through him to know it was a ruse. It wasn’t the Khaalish. It was something far worse.
It was the Hunters.
Idyliss bowed her head without his command and flew across the snow-covered plain.
They were still too far away for him to save them.
He held out his hand to reach them with all of the power of the Giver that he held; his palm outstretched, to reach, to ward, to summon, to defend, to rain holy fire upon the men, the evil men, the Hunters who had struck them down.
Nothing came from him. The only thing left was the seeming weight of a hundred stone.
Beyond the scarcest whisper, the spirit of the Giver said nothing else to him. The whisper, it said no.
His shoulders shook with impotent rage. His hand trembled with the desperation of a drunken fool. He knew that was just what he had been; a fool. He had been a fool to leave them here. The Mother had been right, just as she always was.
He should never have gone.
The dark shadow of Baelus’ eyes, the eyes of the Dragon, stared back at him like a veil over the distant slaughter before him. The bleeding cries of the Servian knights rushed up to him like some foul incense offered up beneath them.
He slumped over Idyliss’ mane. The wind of their flight whistled past them.
The Mother had been right.
He never should have gone.
In a rush, the plain of snow disappeared beneath them.
A shallow vale, unseen against the winter haze, opened up beneath Idyliss’ hooves. Together they went, beast and man, tumbling down. Billows of ice and snow exploded around him as they fell.
The ground trembled beneath them.
Idyliss struggled to right herself.
He took to his feet.
Beyond the curtain of settling snow, four archers against the rising slope before him stared back at him in shock.
One of them, the quicker of them, hefted his bow.
Chaelus drew Sundengal as the man nocked an arrow against him. The distance fell away beneath his strides.
Bow and chainmail splintered through the screaming flesh of the Hunter beneath them.
The other three dropped their bows and pulled out whatever they could reach. Sword, axe, and mace.
Yet they were unprepared for someone with drawn steel coming against them, only the helpless cry of the faithful slaughtered. They were only prepared to watch the Servian knights die helplessly before them. They were woefully unprepared to meet him.
One by one, the other three Hunters, just like the Servian knights whose lives they had taken, fell like cordwood. Their cries fell silent as their blood rushed onto the snow amongst the red fletching of their feigned Khaalish arrows, fallen and scattered from their quivers where they died.
Michalas, unwitting stepchild of the angels, could only stare at the place where his sister, Mariam, had just fallen with an arrow through her heart.
He took another step closer to her through the trampled, bloodied snow.
Men rushed past him.
The cries and laments of the dying surrounded him, but not his sister’s.
She was silent.
The fletching of arrows matted with blood around her. There were too many of them; too many arrows, too much blood, too many dead.
He held where he was, frozen. Not from the cold, but from the sore weight that clung to him like a tomb; a weight and a numbness he was beginning to know all too well ever since the angels had left him.
Because he didn’t know. He didn’t know anything now, only that he couldn’t help her. He couldn’t help her because the angels had gone. Because no matter how hard he tried not to see it, all he knew was their absence, the void left behind by the angels who had always been with him until his sister had rescued him, when he had first found Chaelus, the vessel of the Giver reborn.
They were all he had ever known. The angels had cared for him ever since he could remember, even before Ras Dumas had taken him, and ever since he was born. They were like breath to him. But now, even their marking upon his brow was silent, a mirror of the Giver’s own, like a hollow ward.
All he could do was tremble at the sight of her, his sister, not knowing if she was alive or dead. Not knowing if she breathed. And it terrified him. Because he didn’t know.
Because the angels had gone, and it didn’t seem like they were ever coming back, and the only thing he had left was her.
Blood on fallen snow.
Chaelus slumped to his knees beside Mariam’s still form.
The frozen shadow of her brother, Michalas, the child who would save them, reached out silently toward her.
The gentle locks of Michalas’ hair fell over the runes of the Dragon, etched upon his brow like Chaelus’ own, the mark of the Dragon that bound him and the boy together under the ubiquitous guiding lamp of prophecy.
There was no guidance from prophecy here, where only the silence of the dead surrounded them.
But Mariam still breathed. Her chest rose slowly. She wasn’t dead; at least, not yet.
A broken shaft protruded from her side, just beneath her breast and thankfully, just beneath her heart.
His hand wavered over it. The impotent silence of the Giver surrounded it. Like the silence of the dead.
The vessel of the Giver reborn cried out for help.
Knights ran to him, tunics torn, bringing forth wine to clean and dull the pain of her wound, or her passing.
He cradled her head in his arms. With one of his hands he held the broken shaft.
Michalas held her hand, tears streaming from his eyes. Strange; he had never seen the boy cry before.
Her dim eyes stared into him with all the faith a soul could muster.
He, Chaelus, once Roan Lord of the House of Malius, now vessel of the Giver reborn, stared back into hers with all the courage and faith he could feign, and every ounce of his fear, as her scream let loose upon the frozen Pale.
Al-Mariam walked amongst the dead laid out upon the pallid snow.
Obidae staggered toward her from the edge of the camp in a blood-let haze. The blood of more dead dressed his skin and the matt of his furs like a second cloak, even as it mingled with his own. A bright new wound colored the scars on his arm as he held up a medallion swinging from a chain within his fist. The medallion had the writ of Tulon marked upon it.
Mercenaries hired to hunt down the last of the Servian order.
She had heard their screams even as she woke, even louder than those of the knights they killed, even louder than her own, she imagined. Three more assassins, other than the four she learned Chaelus had killed. She had been told that Obidae had kept them alive just long enough to question them. They hadn’t said much, but they had said enough.
The four dead Servian knights, who should have been five, lay in repose against the still blanket of snow, their arms folded over the pristine gossamer-bound promise of their blades, their sightless eyes pressed closed by her. The young knight Al-Tomas looked strangely the eldest among them now.
Strange what death can do.
Her own wound beneath her breast burned.
She glanced toward Chaelus, where he stood apart from them all. He stared back at her with mournful eyes, the same blood-let cloak that covered Obidae covering him as well.
The blood-red fletching of the arrows piercing the dead knights fluttered in the breeze; arrows made by the Hunters to cast blame on the Khaalish, to end what fragile alliance of faith they and the Servian knights shared.
Hunters under the writ of the city of Tulon, by order by the Theocracy, which in name and claim ruled over them all.
A flurry of prayerful whispers opened near to her.
The shadow of Chaelus draped over her. The surviving Servian knights around her went to bended knee.
She stumbled, unthinking, toward him. She fell into him, grateful all the more as he took her within his arms. The scent of him washed over her, burning through her like a healing salve, like nothing else she had ever felt.
Chaelus stared into her. His eyes seared red at their edges, hardened at a depth she could never really know, by things she knew only he alone could ever see, and where angels spoke to him alone in whispers.
Not even angels could heal the hurt in his eyes.
Chaelus had failed at the one thing he wanted most. She knew this without him even saying it. He had failed to save someone he loved from the same darkness that once claimed him. He had failed to save his brother. And he had returned from that failure to this, a massacre, and she could tell by his eyes it was one he told himself he should have been here to prevent.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
“No,” Chaelus’ voice choked. “I am.”
Chaelus traced the back of his finger along her cheek. He kissed her brow.
Her heart quickened. The salve deepened.
“I should not have let this happen to you,” Chaelus said.
She let go of him. She clutched her hands, her need, her want, her weakness, against herself, against the burning pulse of the arrow wound.
“You couldn’t have stopped it,” she said.
A flinch in Chaelus’ eye answered her.
“I know why you had to go to him. I would have gone to him, too. In case you don’t remember, I have done the same thing myself.”
Chaelus glanced with her to where Michalas, her brother kept for her by the angels, finally slept, curled up beside a new fire that had only just been lit. “So you did.”
“And still you can’t find rest,” Chaelus said.
She placed her hand upon his chest.
“Neither would you, even if you saved him.”
Chaelus turned away to the surrounding white plain, looking somewhere beyond it, somewhere between the place from where he had just come, the white tower she had never seen, the seat from which he once ruled, where his brother still did and suffered for it, and another place, somewhere to the east, another place from his past where she knew he was fated still to go. She knew he looked between the two, hoping for the place where prophecy would finally let him be.
“Then tell me,” Chaelus asked. “Where do you go when you cannot go forward and you cannot go back?”
She touched his face, cautious, not for her, but for him. Her own hesitation for him had already passed.
Chaelus’ skin was taut from cold and weariness.
“You simply take the step that’s in front of you,” she said.
Chaelus reached up and took her hand. He clasped it between his. “You’re eloquent. Though I fear in the end, any step I take will lead to both of them.”
“Perhaps,” she said. “Perhaps it will.”
She slid her hand away.
“Or perhaps, in taking a step, something far greater will be allowed to take shape. Something not even prophecy, or you and I can tell.”
She moved closer to him, wondering to which place he stared, to which fate he moved; for himself, for the Pale, and if she dared, even for her.
“When all hope fails,” she said, “it is our faith in the end that carries us.”
“Even for one who still doesn’t believe?”
She smiled at the lack of faith of the one who would save them. “Even when he alone is awash in its glory?”
Chaelus feigned a smile. “Such are the machinations of prophecy.”
Obidae walked up to them. The sharp odor of blood and fate and faith surrounded the Khaalish chieftain. He bowed his head to Chaelus, who stared back to the place from which he had come, to the vengeance he had left there upon the ones who tried to take their lives.
“But not the dead,” Obidae muttered.
He released a fistful of red fletching like drops of blood across the snow, falling one by one as they were carried on the western wind.
“Shoa, it is time,” Obidae said, his face lowered, in faith and in shame that he should ever be so bold. “We cannot stay here any longer.”
Chaelus turned back from his vision and refuge, back to her.
“I know,” he said. “I had to try. I had to see if my brother could still be saved. I was wrong.”
She breathed in. Her breast filled, then released. She sagged with its waning, with all of its hope, and all of its loss, and every one of its moments that fell in between.
A gust of ice and snow blew up about them.
“Shabek,” she whispered.
Obidae nodded. “The Dragon has taken the hearts of the east; it is in the hearts of the east and in the hearts of my people, where it must be defeated, not in hearts here. These Hunters will come again. I do not think we can stop them.”
Chaelus turned and looked down toward the camp, past the reposing dead. He drew Sundengal, weighing her in his hand.
“Then let us bury the dead,” he said. “And wake the hearts of the east from their slumber.”
Mouth of the Dragon: Prophecy of the Evarun
was published February 2, 2017 by
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