Mortal Judgement: Episode 6
by Ian Taylor
“WHERE IS ORFEO?”
Valka screamed the question at her umpteenth street urchin. The streets of Ronella were full of them, and by far the largest concentration was in the part of the city called the Heel.
The boy struggled to escape, but Valka’s huge fist gripped most of his tunic. His eyes did not leave her axe, which was glowing an angry red. “I…I don’t know Orfeo,” he stammered.
“Are you Orfeo?” Valka growled. The axe’s glow shone on her gritted teeth.
The lad seemed confused and terrified by the question.
“His name’s Eg!” yelled a young girl from the shadows.
“Let ‘im go!” yelled another urchin.
From a rooftop above, a stone bounced off Valka’s shoulder. Valka let go of Eg, and he scrambled into the shadows. She retrieved a throwing axe from her belt and weighed it in her hand, as though thinking about throwing it up at them. If only she could see where exactly the little bastards were.
“Five Hundred Eyes, lady!” yelled another child.
Valka heard two sets of laughter from two different directions. “Yeah, Five Hundred Eyes!” they said.
“I’m about to bring you kids to see your parents!” yelled Valka.
“I think they’re orphans,” Oddi muttered.
“I know what I said.”
Valka’s sigh didn’t mask how frustrated and angry she was. She hated this place. Nothing but walls and shadows. Gutters fed gutters that fed more gutters. Water was everywhere but nothing was remotely clean. The city streets were cramped and narrow. Valka could swing her axe and strike three walls.
“What does that even mean?” said Valka. “Five Hundred Eyes?”
“I believe it’s a curse,” said Oddi.
“Yes,” said a voice behind them. “A very rude one. Those kids did not like you.
Valka whirled around. Her axe was back in her hand before she saw him, but Orfeo wasn’t even trying to hide. He stood in the middle of the alleyway, hands up and grinning like someone who’s clearly not as afraid as they should be. His chain actively twirled around his body like a ribbon held by a flailing child.
“I’ve been looking for you!” said Valka.
“So I’ve been told,” said Orfeo. “Welcome to Ronella. Shall we go somewhere and talk?”
The city quickly faded from Valka and Oddi’s sight as a murky fog rolled in. They still stood on cobbled streets, in what still felt like the open air, but the fog surrounded them, giving the impression that they were in a large room so dark they couldn’t see the walls.
“Where are we?” asked Oddi.
“Elsewhere,” Orfeo shrugged. “This is where I come to think.”
“You have something I want,” said Valka, circling him as she tried her best to understand this place.. The Champion of War didn’t enjoy having a tactical disadvantage.
“I only have information,” said Orfeo. He stared straight ahead, watching her with the excellent peripheral vision of every trainee of The Guild.
“That is what we need,” Oddi explained. “Your sparrows are everywhere. Stands to reason they report to you, or they report to someone that reports to you.”
Orfeo nodded at that logic. “What do you need to know?”
“What is happening?” asked Valka.
“Broad question,’ said Orfeo.
“Give a broad answer,” said Valka.
“Very well,” said Orfeo. He was now sitting in an ornate chair that simply was not there moments before. “We chained the gods and the sun went out. We also had the occasional ghost. Two weeks ago you attacked the Academy at Redwater and your army stalled. Then, there was an explosion in the Arkmon forest, which I’m sure you know nothing about.” Orfeo paused, the moment of silence drenched in sarcasm. He continued. “After that, ghosts were everywhere. People call them echoes.”
“What of Neferu and her army?”
“I don’t have much on them,” said Orfeo. “They keep killing my sparrows when they get too close. However, Neferu has taken back every Olympian city between Hierakon and Parthon, but they stopped half a day’s march from Parthon and we don’t know why. Regardless, Neferu raises the dead wherever she goes, of whomever she conquers. Her army is the biggest Eucos has ever seen.”
“War without end,” said Oddi. “Even Malissus never went that far. She was always content to wait for the dead to arrive…for the most part.”
“Malissus didn’t have Neferu’s bloodlust,” Valka mused.
Orfeo let out a half-smile. “Didn’t you also want war without end?”
“This is different,” said Valka, as she tried to hide how well his comment landed. “I just want the gods unchained. Auros is War, not some animal to be kept in a cage. If Parthon falls to Neferu, she will have Eucos.”
“That’s how I read it,” said Orfeo. “Tartessos isn’t getting involved. Proteus seems quite happy to watch Parthon become a bad memory.”
“We need to stop Neferu. That’s why the Valknir march.” Valka squared up to Orfeo. She seemed bigger than before. “We need to unchain the gods. Are you in?”
A shadow seemed to pass over Orfeo’s face. He looked down at his chain. “I can’t,” he whispered.
“What are you afraid of?” asked Valka.
Orfeo bit his lip. “You remember that curse the children shouted? It’s an old Ronellan insult. May five hundred eyes be upon you. Because when a bunch of people watch your every move, you can’t be yourself. You can’t function properly. You can’t relax. It’s like the prison at Citytop. They call it Panopticon. Everyone can see everyone. No privacy ever. It’s the worst kind of curse.”
Valka looked over at Oddi, who shrugged the way he did when he heard something new to him, but also plausible.
Orfeo held up the chain. “I hate the person I am when she’s free.” His voice cracked just a little. He was clearly afraid.
Valka wasn’t buying it. If Orfeo was going to be afraid, he was going to be afraid of Valka and nobody else. “We’re releasing the gods. How many soldiers are in the Freeguard?”
“A little over a hundred,” Orfeo replied. “Why?”
“Gather them, and meet us outside the city. Two meals from now.”
Orfeo nodded and waved his hand. Valka and Oddi watched the black fog melt away, replaced by light from several bonfires. They were outside the city, next to the largest of the fires and surrounded by the Valknir who sat circled around its perimeter, each drinking enough alcohol to kill an Olympian.
“VALKA!” yelled someone. Many drinking horns were raised. “VALKA!” repeated every single one of the Valknir attached to those horns.
Valka paused for a mere moment, to process where she was and what had just happened. Then she put down her axe and demanded meat. For a little while, life was normal.
“Give the pup over to Argrim!”
Kadmos eyed the quartermaster wearily. He’d been training with the Tartessian army for two weeks now, enduring a lifetime of mild disrespect from nearly everyone he encountered. Apparently it was a T’artess tradition to mock Kadmos without explaining the joke.
Kadmos waited until the small group of soldiers stopped laughing. “Who’s Argrim?” he asked.
“You’ll enjoy training with Argrim, lad.”
“Aye, he just woke up… from hibernation!”
More laughter. Kadmos was used to it now, but it still annoyed him. He always won their respect in the training arena, but no matter how many times he was able to bruise their ribs or bloody their noses, once the fighting was over, they still treated him like a perfumed acolyte of the Citadel.
When Tartessians reached the Age of Decision, they began their army training at the military school in T’alon. Adults didn’t train so much as they just paired off and fought in the arena, perhaps learning and improving their technique, perhaps not. They used wooden weapons, for safety, which struck Kadmos as a rather broad interpretation of the word.
Kadmos selected a spear and a pair of daggers and waited his turn. The arena wasn’t much more than a mud pit about half a soldier deep, but it was wide enough that most people couldn’t throw a stone across it without some effort. The walls consisted of tightly-spaced wooden stakes that kept the mud walls from collapsing. There were gates on either side of the arena, so that people didn’t enter alongside their opponents. Too much risk of an insult causing a real fight to break out.
After the third fight ended, Kadmos heard a cheer from the other side of the gate. Then he heard chanting. “Argrim! Argrim!” Every soldier standing nearby turned a grinning face to the young Olympian. Kadmos shrugged, picked up his shield, opened the gate and stepped through.
Kadmos did not expect to see a minotaur.
Before him stood a giant with the body of a man and the head of a bull. He was bulky, built like a knotted fist, and at least half a man taller than Kadmos. Argrim wore no armor, save for loose leather pants held up by a single strap across the monster’s broad chest and shoulder, and a vambrace that covered his left forearm with well-worn, sculpted steel. It was clearly forged several human lifetimes ago, and fashioned to fit his exact form.
Agrim’s other mighty hand held a wooden axe so large it required two hands to wield, even for a minotaur. It was chipped and broken, yet oddly smooth. Clearly this was a favorite weapon.
Kadmos turned to the quartermaster. “Is this it? You want me to fight a mindless beast?”
“Take care in whom you call mindless, boy,” said Argrim. His deep, sonorous voice silenced the jeering crowd. “I’ve read of civilizations you never knew existed.”
Kadmos had never encountered a minotaur before. Argrim on the other hand, had encountered a good number of arrogant young creatures over his years. His method of dealing with them varied. Today, he threw an empty spear rack.
Kadmos desperately raised his shield arm as his reflexes took over and he rolled to the side, but it wasn’t quite enough. The wooden rack caught his shield and Kadmos tumbled backward from the impact.
“Of trial and scattered light on high.” The words boomed through the crude arena, projected and enunciated, as if Agrim was performing in a play.
Kadmos scrambled to his feet, but Argrim just stood and bared his teeth in what might have been a smile. He then pointed his mighty axe at Kadmos. “As one of six and now of none.”
Kadmos dropped his shield and ran towards Argrim. As Kadmos got closer he swung his spear. Argrim used his vambrace to deflect the blow, but Kadmos released the spear and instead grabbed the beast’s forearm with both hands, like a boy climbing a tree. He planted one foot on Argrim’s knee and snapped his other foot up into Argrim’s jaw.
Argrim staggered back as Kadmos flipped backwards and landed on his feet. By the time Argrim recovered, Kadmos had retrieved his spear and was pointing it at the minotaur’s chest.
“Through sea on parted shimmered sky, he saw the fires of Albion.” Kadmos recited in response, slightly lowering his spear in a small gesture of truce. “Well-read indeed. Not many people know the Song of Jovanen.”
Argrim brought a hand to his injured mouth, paused, and then extended the same hand out to Kadmos. There was a small smear of blood on the palm.
“First blood to the boy,” he rumbled. A cheer went up from the crowd and they began chanting “Argrim! Argrim!” once again.
Kadmos scowled. Despite his victory, they refused to chant for him. He wondered what he would have to do to earn their adoration.
Argrim put one burly arm around Kadmos and waved to the crowd with the other. “They are a tough crowd,” mumbled the minotaur. “But they’ll come around. In the meantime, let me buy you a drink.”
A little over two meals after they left Ronella, Valka led the long column of Valknir through and out of the Plains of Ronel. Beside her was Oddi. On the other side was Orfeo. The Champion of Deception was not able to persuade the Freeguard to leave Ronella, so he offered himself in their stead, on the condition that Valka take the Valknir away… and to not raze the city as she had promised.
Valka took him up on his offer, thinking he would try to weasel his way out of it. She was surprised to learn that not only had Orfeo packed sensibly for the journey, he was even riding a horse of excellent quality. Valka had expected two Ronellans wearing the sort of horse costume that one might find in a Thebian children’s play. Oddi would later comment that Orfeo’s horse was an Appaloosa, which was rare in these parts, and Valka would tell him to shut up
“Do you approach via the Ruin of Sisos?” asked Orfeo, breaking the silence that had grown increasingly awkward. The Ruin of Sisos was the name given to the vast forest on the dawnside of Parthon. The ancient city of Sisos had been long ago abandoned and reclaimed by nature, and in fact even its location had been lost to time. However, nobody could agree on a good name for the forest, so everyone just called the whole area Ruin of Sisos. It was one of the few things on which everyone in Eucos agreed.
“It will bring us to the other side of Parthon,” answered Valka. “This will shield our intentions from Neferu.”
“I think that’s a mistake,” said Orfeo. “Break up into a number of smaller forces. Make Neferu’s spies believe your army is no more and that your Valknir have splintered off into raiding parties. Meet up in the Gara Foothills near the Tartessian border, there are a hundred different paths they can take to get there.”
“You mean to have us scuttle around like rats?” There was fire in Valka’s eyes.
“Yes,” said Orfeo. “It’s no more deceptive than hiding your army in a forest. Why bring me along if you won’t heed my counsel?”
“You gave your word that you would not leave,” said Valka. She swept her arm back towards the rest of the Valknir. “Five hundred eyes are upon you. I prefer you that way.”
There was a creature in Orfeo’s dream again.
“She’s going to kill you,” it would say. “She hates you.”
Orfeo looked around the bizarre room he was in. It was an impossible building that seemed to fold in on itself. Doors led to impossible places. Down was up. There were no rules here. He could always hear a voice in the air that seemed to be multiplied like if images in a mirror could talk. It whispered the same thing over and over. “Omox.” So Orfeo decided the creature’s name was Omox.
“Shut up, Omox.”
“You wound me,” Omox will say. “I only try to help.”
The room was full of Omoxes, all doing different things. Each Omox was part goat, part man. Some people called this kind of thing a satyr, but Orfeo had no strong opinion about that. Omox showed up in Orfeo’s dream the first night after Ludia was chained.
Since then, Omox has been there every night, in every dream, to have the same argument with Orfeo. However, this was the first time that Omox told Orfeo he’d be killed.
“Your suggestions are chaos with legs and I reject them.”
“Deception is chaos,” said Omox a very long time ago.
“Deception is order,” countered Orfeo. “I lie to advance the truth.”
“Then the truth is chaos,” Omox might have said. “She killed me, and she will kill you.”
Far away in Redwater, the main topic of panicked conversation was the hooded stranger that slowly approached Fort Jaraska. Most of the traditional soldiers had deserted during the first day of the recent siege, so the fort was now run by students. Nervous, clammy academics with varying levels of impostor syndrome.
Since the gate had not yet been repaired with any level of competence, it was suggested that someone go out to meet the stranger. To find out what the stranger wanted. To discover what they were carrying on their horse-drawn cart. To suggest that, perhaps, they’d like to go away until the gate could be fixed.
Skaal, being braver than most, volunteered to take the lead. As long as Freiea joined her. The additional power that Pallas granted them was for the most part gone, but Freiea still had the small flying squid monster that seemed to have adopted her, and its presence might add a degree of intimidation that they desperately lacked.
“Stranger! What business have you at the Academy?” yelled Skaal as though her father were watching and judging her.
The stranger dismounted from the horse and pulled back her hood. Neither Skaal nor Freiea recognized the Champion of Nature, but they did recognize the person lying on the cart.
“Pallas!” Freiea discarded all caution and ran towards their friend, horrified to note that they were not moving.
“They are still alive,” said Selena. “But their care is far beyond the ability of the Rethian healers. Your friend fell in battle after drawing power from the Arcane Realm.”
“In battle with whom?” asked Skaal.
“Me,” said Selena. “Pallas was willing to sacrifice themself for their ideals. And they may have been right to do so. I felt that I should bring them home myself. Perhaps then I can understand more about their plan to stop the chaos.” Selena tried to read the expressions of both students but wasn’t getting much. “I am willing to stay and do what I can, but if you want me to leave I will.”
Skaal opened her mouth but Freiea spoke first. “Stay,” she said. “Please,” she added.
Selena bowed and started walking the horse up the path to Mistgate. She had questions about the flying squid monster that accompanied them, but those could wait.
Consuming a leg of meat was an art. Valued by the Valknir, it was the culmination of a lifetime of skill combined with the immediacy of hunger. Valka judged people by the way they ate.
She and Orfeo sat together in Valka’s tent, so Valka could better keep her eye on him, and right now she was watching him eat. Valka had regarded Orfeo as far too fancy. A successful thief. Probably rich. Easy enough when you steal things instead of earning them. Killing someone in battle entitled you to their possessions. Stealing always felt like cheating.
But Orfeo surprised her with his lack of sophistication. He ate hungrily, hurriedly, as though he had been starved, once upon a time, and the memory of it was still too recent. He grabbed extra helpings and took larger bites than necessary. He ate the bits of flesh and gristle that even most Valknir would leave on the bone. And when Orfeo was done, he wiped a greasy hand on his pants. On the back, so his front was still presentable.
Orfeo looked up, and Valka’s gaze moved down to her own food before he could catch her looking at him. He didn’t seem to notice her interest in his eating habits.
“Do you still intend to enter the ruins?” he asked.
“I do,” said Valka.
“An entire army through a thick forest with zero sunlight?”
Orfeo looked genuinely concerned. “You will lose half of them within a day. Bogs. Animals. I heard rumors of vampires. It’s too easy to get lost.”
“Scared?” asked Valka.
“Yes,” said Orfeo, his fingers idly playing with the chain. “There’s no shame in being afraid. This is a bad idea.”
“Do you wish to leave?”
Orfeo shook his head. “I made a promise to stay.”
“I don’t know how much a promise from the Champion of Deception is worth.”
“Same as a guarantee from the Champion of War,” Orfeo countered. He wasn’t usually so cheeky, but his pride was just a little wounded.
Valka didn’t seem to notice his disrespect and continued to eat. Orfeo continued to watch the fire.
“I’m surprised she hasn’t killed you yet,” Omox would sometimes say.
“She won’t,” said Orfeo.
Omox will open one of the many doors in the room. A figure fell onto the floor, quite dead. Orfeo thought it looked like him, despite the massive head wound.
“She killed this one,” said Omox earlier.
“I don’t believe anything you say,” said Orfeo.
Omox will laugh at that. “But I say literally everything!”
“I trust her,” said Orfeo. “Valka keeps her promises.”
“She promised to cut your head off,” replies Omox.
“But she’s a bad liar.”
Omox perhaps opens a door. Through this Orfeo sees himself in another place in a time to come. He is watching in horror as Valka cuts a massive chain. Ludia, now unchained, smiles at Orfeo as Orfeo watches.
“She will be free,” said Omox. “We cannot survive this.”
Orfeo’s eyes snapped open right before Valka kicked his foot, but she kicked it anyway. “Moving out,” she said.
They were soon on horseback, riding at the front of the column. Orfeo didn’t enjoy skipping breakfast, but he had swiped some wheatcakes made by one of the older blacksmiths the last time they stopped. The cakes didn’t travel well in a pocket, and they weren’t exactly pretty to eat, but food was food.
The army wound along the mountain path that led down to the dawnside entrance to the Ruins of Solis. From the long line of flickering torchlight, Orfeo could just make out the tops of the trees spreading out in every direction before them.
Orfeo sighed and looked back. The line of Valknir stretched and twisted until it vanished far behind them. He wondered how many there would be tomorrow. He wondered how far they would follow Valka.
Orfeo wondered how far he would do the same.
When they got to the bottom of the path, Valka and Oddi rode off to the side to let the others pass. Orfeo joined them. Perhaps there was one last chance to reason with her.
“I don’t suppose…”
“No,” interrupted Valka. “We’re sticking with the plan.”
Orfeo nodded. “Alright,” he murmured.
“Can you go in and scout a path for us?” asked Valka.
“You want me to go in there? Alone?”
“I’m sure you’ll be safe,” Valka said, glancing sideways to Oddi.
“I know I’ll be safe,” said Orfeo. “I’m not worried about me.”
Valka held her horse’s reins steady as Orfeo dismounted. He strode into the treeline without even looking back.
It was some time before Orfeo returned. At least one meal. But he had indeed discovered a safe path that would get the Valknir to the first large clearing. About half a day’s travel, if measured by normal time.
“Finally!” called Valka when Orfeo strode into view of the campfires. “What did you find?”
“Where is everybody?” asked Orfeo. He spied perhaps a dozen small campfires, but the Valknir army was three thousand strong! Or at least it had been when he’d left.
“Gone,” said Valka. “What did you find?”
“There’s a path,” he said. “Far to the left, between two swamps. Follow that to a small lake and keep the hills on your right.”
Valka gave the slightest of smirks. “That agrees with what my scouts found yesterday.”
Orfeo looked around once more. “Where is the rest of your army?” he asked again, hoping that this time would yield more information.
“Somewhere between here and the Gara Foothills near the Tartessian border,” said Valka. “That advice you gave was good, and my commanders agreed. We kept 250 or so, and broke the rest into ten groups, with orders to meet in the shadow of the Notch.”
“Leaving you with 250 here?”
Valka nodded. “I needed five hundred eyes on you.”
Orfeo couldn’t help but smile. “Deception?”
Valka adopted a serious expression. “No. War.”
Orfeo took a seat on a nearby log. “And what are your actual plans?”
“You, me, and Oddi will meet up with the rest of them at the Notch. These warriors are many of my best hunters and scouts. They’ll make it through the Ruins, and assist Parthon if Neferu attacks there.”
“You don’t think she will attack Parthon?”
Valka shook her head. “Doesn’t make sense. Parthon is Olympian soil. According to Oddi, their dead remain dead. If Neferu is wise, she’ll attack T’artess directly, and once she takes that and the training camp at T’alon, Tartessos will be broken and Neferu will have all of their dead.”
“You didn’t want to tell me this before?” asked Orfeo.
“You hadn’t earned my trust. Now saddle up, we have a long ride ahead of us.”
Orfeo laughed. He couldn’t help himself. He was so concerned with underestimating him, that it hadn’t occurred to him that he was underestimating Valka.
“You’re incredible,” said Orfeo.
Valka looked to Oddi. “Was that flirting? I don’t like flirting.”
Orfeo mounted his horse. “I would never disrespect you like that.”
Valka nodded. Good.
Orfeo waved his hand and the land melted away into the sky. Valka and Oddi were blinded by fire, but the warmth of the flames brought their minds to a place of safety and camaraderie.
“VALKA!” came the cheer that filled their ears. “VALKA! VALKA! VALKA!”
Valka looked up at the overhanging peaks and saw the Notch. It was said Auros once leaned his axe against the mountain and left the mark. She looked at Orfeo, who was on the opposite side of the crowd, and got a shrug in response.
“I can move in shadow,” he yelled, his voice drowned out by the cheers. “And it’s all shadow right now!”
Valka nodded. She owed him something. A promise she made to herself.
“Orfeo of the Free City!” bellowed Valka. “Come here. Now!”
The drinking and singing stopped. The Valknir closest to their leader formed a circle around her. Valka stood over a large rock, perhaps knee high. Orfeo regarded her with a worried expression.
She pointed her axe at the rock. “Kneel,” she commanded. All eyes were on Orfeo now. He gulped, dismounted, and approached as ordered. The Valknir let him through.
Valka gestured to the rock again. “Kneel here, hands on the sides of the rock with your head down.”
Orfeo could hear his own breath, rattling deep within his ears. There were still ways out of this. He didn’t have to kneel.
She will kill you.
He put his hands on either side of the rock.
He lowered his head.
“I have one question for you, Orfeo of the Free City. Will you agree to unchain the gods?”
Orfeo looked up at her. He shook his head ever so slightly.
She saw his fear.
But not cowardice.
“I may not be able to protect you from her,” whispered Valka, low enough so that the Valknir who surrounded them could not hear. “But I give you my word that I will stand with you.”
She will kill you.
He lowered his head.
“Yes!” he shouted.
“I have the power to grant you this boon,” said Valka. “I do so now.”
Orfeo’s breathing quickened as he heard the axe whistle through the air. It struck the rock near his hand, severing the chain that bound him. Orfeo fell back, and stared at the broken links in shock.
A rumble of thunder shook the air above them, and Orfeo’s chain lay there shattered. The far end of it dissipated into nothingness as though dragged back into the Void. Orfeo looked up at Valka. Valka looked to the sky.
Suddenly a burst of brilliance lit up the night, and it seemed as if every star burned a hundred times brighter. It lasted a few moments before the light melted away and the land was bathed in red, like that of a glorious sunset.
Valka looked down at Orfeo, then at her hands and arms. “I can feel Auros’ fire in my blood. He is free. They are all free.”
“Ludia,” said Orfeo. His hands were shaking. “She was one step ahead. My chain was the same chain as theirs.” He looked up at Valka. “You unchained the gods.”
Valka smirked. “Don’t look so shocked. It was always going to be me.”
She offered him her arm, to help him up. To help him through this.
The next steps we will take together.
He took her arm. Because she trusted him.
The Anubian camp had felt like a funeral wake for days. Nobody ever sang, or drank, or told a story to pass the time. It never felt appropriate.
Even when the sky exploded. Nobody seemed to want to notice it.
Neferu noticed, even from within the royal tent. She looked towards Takhat, who sat nearby. Their eyes met. A familiar cold dread passed over them both.
“Well, ladies,” Malissus purred. “Haven’t we been busy?”
To be continued in Mortal Judgement Episode 7: Practicing Eternity.