The Well of Power - Tome of Chaos Story
My world is dying, he thought.
Through the hot stifling night, Mushtal ran with his two companions. Their feet were bare from long pursuit, scabbed and torn by brambles and rough earth. In the long dark shadows cast by the timeless ruins about them, things moved with a ravening vitality. The guardians of the Deep Dreaming were hungry.
Somewhere out there, the Black Talisman was hidden, and with it his world's deliverance, but death and things worse than death were certainties here, though the path forward was not. Above, the starless sky held no cloud or moon, yet there was still a pale light cast by the yawning black. Such was the world of Dream.
A flicker of movement caught his eye. From across the road, the withered half-starved form of Enmul, his slave-sworn servant, darted from the shadows. Dashing across the road to meet his master, the old man stumbled on the bleached stones of the wide road, falling to his hands and knees. Enmul faced the ground clutching at his chest, his breath coming in heaving gasps. His tattered woolens hung loosely about him like rags.
They're coming, Mushtal thought. Get up. Injured, the old man lifted his gaze slowly from the stone. Get up, damn you! Enmul's sunken eyes met his master’s, then glanced back the way they had come. The unnerving silence was broken by the chittering of a thousand hungry mouths and the flutter of wings only a few hundred steps behind. Enmul glanced back to Mushtal and mouthed a single noiseless word.
Enmul then raised his arm feebly as if to stop the coming doom. Mushtal stood in horror as an enormous larval swarm of living shadow, thousands of winged eyeless mouths, descended on Enmul. They began to devour him. A hand yanked at Mushtal's arm, tugging him free from his shock and away from the black feast. "This way, my lord," whispered Sangasu. And on they ran, dashing headlong down the dark cobbled roads under the endless night. Enmul's screams echoed in their ears until, at last, there was again nothing but terrible silence.
They ran until they could not run. They walked until their legs could no longer carry them. After what felt like an age, they collapsed by a copse of witherwood near the edge of a great black sea. His servant's sacrifice had bought them time, but how much was unclear. A day? Two? This far down the Dreaming was endless nightmare. Death or madness was a certainty unless they found the portal soon.
As they lay slumped against the tree's soot-black base, Sangasu turned to his master and, through cracked lips, spoke, "How much longer until we reach the entrance, my lord?"
How much longer, he thought. How much longer, indeed. He had been born a king's son, but had borne the mark of Anum, skin the color of stone. The midwife witch was told to throw him into the sea, but instead took him as her own. She gave him a new name and a new purpose. She raised him as an outlander filling his head with spellsong, heresies and lost tales of the Black Talisman from before the beginning. He might have died in obscurity, but the sky had turned to flame and the seas had burned. They had turned to him, the last in line; the cursed son of the god king. His witch-mother, who was not his mother, had begged him as she lay dying to unmake their extinction, to seek the talisman and end the ruin of their world.
How much longer. It had taken him through the deepest veins of fire and stone to the Fissure, a natural rift into the world of Dream. The journey had taken eight sunless weeks, and while they descended to the roots of the earth, above ground, the sky had rained stone and fire. All but his two blood bonded servants had died or abandoned him by the time they made it to that shattered wall of obsidian. Into the Dream they had come and down into its depths they crept, but the talisman lay further. They had wandered the Dreaming for how long? It was impossible to know.
"Not long now, brother,” he said absently to Sangasu. Sangasu had been his right hand since he was a boy. As children, they had cut hands and uttered oaths in the dark. Sangasu was the only person other than his witch-mother that knew his true name as son of the king. They were kin in all but blood. And here they were on the shore of a silent sea beneath a starless sky nearly to the vault of the abyss. Not long now. They huddled together, backs against the thick trunk of the tall tree and despaired. They were out of food and his waterskin was nearly dry. Mushtal was exhausted, and hunger had his gut in knots. On the pale earth next to him, Sangasu had already shut his eyes. So it was decided, he would take first watch. As his stomach growled, he set his jaw, turning to watch back the way they had come.
A cry of agony woke him from a troubled sleep. Sangasu was no longer by his side. Mushtal pushed himself up and glanced about for his friend. There, near the water's edge, his ragged form stood crouched over the moist sand, hands clutching his face. Mushtal approached warily. As he drew near, Sangasu turned, his eyes hollow ruins, his hands wet claws upturned beneath his face. His eyes. The bondsman's mouth worked something rubbery in his jaws, a lunatic expression on his face. Mushtal watched in horror as Sangasu swallowed hard and stumbled a few paces closer. Where were his eyes?
"How much longer?" Sangasu wailed. "HOW MUCH LONGER?"
Silus woke with a start, pushing himself from beneath the waters of the wide marble basin. Black liquid drained from his mouth and nostrils as he stood, the vision fading. Wisps of fluorescent vapor trailed from his eyes. They shone like glowing cinders. Through the thick hides of the tent walls, whispered prayers drifted in on the morning breeze, though the words themselves were lost.
A balding robed figure stepped forward clutching a staff in its right hand and spoke, "Did you find the emulsion calming, my lord?"
Lifting his kaftan from its golden hook at the basin's edge, the dark lord spoke. "The Well of Power is a balm, as ever. The madness fades."
"Yet your eyes still burn. Did the visions return?" the Anachron asked flatly.
The briefest look of suspicion passed over his gray skinned face before slipping the garment over himself. As he drew his palms over his chest to smooth the golden plaits he spoke again. "Only memories, doomsayer. Do not trouble yourself."
Sensing his master's ire at the question, he turned away. "As you wish, my lord."
Stepping barefoot to the center of the war tent, Silus spoke again, "Is our guest ready?"
With a smirk that did not reach his eyes, the acolyte answered. "Strung from the tree with care, my lord. Their king awaits your audience."
Silus turned, a cryptic expression passing over his dark features. "And what of the witch?"
"The sorceress arrived while you were submerged, my lord." The Anachron spoke slowly, weighing each word for his lord's displeasure. "...she was not allowed to enter."
"See that it remains so." Satisfied, he turned to the tent's opening and spoke again, "Let us not keep them waiting."
The dark robed acolyte pulled the flap of the tent back for his master. Silus stepped through and out onto the edge of an enormous courtyard, resplendent, marbled and overflowing with every green thing. This was the heart of the city, the temple to the verdant wold of Lyveria, the Dome of the Wood. At its center stood the Elder Tree, flecks of gold in its chalk white bark. The trunk was ten paces wide at its base and crowned with a wild tangle of thick boughs and pale green leaves. Color of every kind dappled the edges of the courtyard. It was an orgy of color. The air too was perfumed, though there were notes of something foul lingering on the wind. Through the lattice of the courtyard's dome, countless wisps of smoke hinted at the scale of the city's ruin. From here to the city gates, silks, coin and stone spilled into the streets like offal from a body disemboweled. On every street were fresh corpse fires. The temples were sacked. The city was a smoldering wound.
In a wide circle at the courtyard's edge were a hundred and forty four young men and women, blindfolded and bound. These were the attendants to Lyveria's symbol of power and strength, the Great Elder Tree. Each was on their knees in their night clothes, having been forced from sleep before dawn. Outside the tent their chants were clear, their urgent prayers a rhythmic hum, their upturned faces swaying gently. They prayed to the tree for their fallen city. They prayed to the seed of its fruit for the life of their dying king. They prayed to its leaves to be spared. And though they wept as they prayed, their wooden god was still, neither limb nor leaf stirring in the cool morning air.
On its branches now hung their lord, stripped bare, bound about the arms and neck with thick crude chains of iron, arms outstretched, a great spike driven into each forearm just below the wrist. A figure draped in vermillion silks stepped lithely from the tree's circle, her movements graceful and menacing like a serpent uncoiling. "So glad you could join us, my lord." A grin spread across Portia's face, though the smile did not reach her eyes. "The king," she said gesturing vaguely behind her, "is unhappy with his accommodations, but I have assured him that his stay will not be long."
Behind her, the king coughed and spat, his ruined figure hanging defeated and limp. Muttering through bruised lips he spoke, "You may kill her king, but Lyveria is more than her sovereign." Portia turned and issued a sharp reproach.
Ignoring them both, Silus let his gaze pass absently slowly over the praying prisoner's circle, as if considering insects. Each was the same when the end came, he reflected morbidly. First a fiery desperation. Then barter. Then prayer. Then welcome acceptance. He regarded the witch as she admonished the dying king. It was a horrible necessity, he thought, and only he understood. He thought of his witch-mother and the time before…and sighed. So it was with me. So it must be, to the end.
He lifted his eyes to the chained king and, interrupting Portia's rebuke, commanded, "There is no Lyveria. There is no Anenon. No Ulindin. No other kingdom or banner under a sun for man or beast may endure. I am endless and only I have seen the ending of all things. Until the breaking of creation there is only Chaos and its legions are mine. By my hand, even death may die."
With one last act of rebellion, the king mustered his strength and spoke. "Though I die, Lyveria will endure your fire, warlock. Her roots are deep. Her people, hardy."
Sneering, Silus spat. "I am counting on it."
Nodding wordlessly to the Anachron, Silus continued, his voice rising. "For it is by the blood of the spellborn and the burning of the faithful that opens the way. Four pillars have fallen and only one remains." As Silus seethed, the Anachron raised his ringed scepter and began the incantation. A purple glow began to radiate from within the Anachron’s jeweled scepter, emitting a low hum. "When I release the fifth, the power of the void will be mine and," Silus stabbed a boney finger toward the sky, "...that thing slavering beyond the rift's rim will be my flaming sword to burn the foundations of the universe and unmake death itself." The air stirred.
Portia recoiled, her eyes narrowing, unnerved by the sudden glimpse of her dark lord's true intent. She considered him with fresh wonder and fear, rekindling both her awe and intent to unseat and destroy him. He truly was mad. He had lost himself, revealing more than he intended. The Anachron closed his eyes and knelt, continuing the spell. Threads of silver light lept from the mouths and eyes of the praying circle and wove their way in the air to the scepter's black ring.
"Consume them, doomsayer." Silus demanded.
Broken, the king moaned piteously, "Nooooooooo". As the Anachron swept his scepter above each one, threads of light erupted into white ropes of energy, draining them utterly, their bodies crumbling to ash. "Spare them! I beg you!" the king pleaded. Shutting his eyes tight, he wailed, "By the Seeds of the Tree, how much longer must I endure this?" The Anachron thrust his scepter into the air as the breeze became wind. The leaves rustled, and the whole garden swayed with the sudden gust of air. Threads from a few in the wide chanting circle burst into thick ribbons of white hot light binding the entire ring of chanting forms to the artifact held aloft by the black priest. "How much longeeeer?" yelled the dying king, his voice a beastly growl.
The hum in the air grew to a roar as the power consumed by the doomsayer stirred forces in the earth and sky. Lightning fell from above, striking the tree, shearing a great bough from its crown. The trunk shifted, exposing earth and root as the air hummed.
The scepter jerked in the Anachron's grip, his muscles taut like cords trembling with the sudden strain. The Anachron opened his eyes in shock as the Elder Tree burst into green flame. Struggling to maintain his grip on his scepter, he glanced nervously around the circle and to his master. The chanting of the assembled throng was growing to match the howling of the wind. Portia, distressed, stepped further back.
Could this be an answered prayer? "I will not be cowed by any spirit,” muttered Silus. He planted his feet to steady himself against the wind, calling out over the howling gale, "Your tree cannot save you! It burns and so shall your god!"
As arcane fire consumed the ancient timbers of the Elder Tree, the king howled, his skin sloughing off in sizzling ribbons. A peal of thunder from the sky split the air, and the king's eyes opened. They blazed with the same emerald glow of the fire in which he now burned. His mouth opened, and with a voice that shook the whole of the Dome, bellowed,"HOW MUCH LONGER, MUSHTAL? HOOOOW MUUUUCH LOOOONGERRR?!!?"
The ground shook. The prayers silenced; twelve dozen souls reduced to ash and dust. The ribbons of light that had poured from their eyes and mouths vanished. The Anachron collapsed from the effort, having completed the spell. The green fire vanished and the air was still.
The three remaining wondered at the air and the Dome and the ruined corpse of the dead king. What had happened? Had the tree spoken? Glancing furtively from Portia to the Anachron something stirred within Silus that he had not felt since before the first pillar fell thousands of years before.
Had the others heard that voice? He wondered to himself. Or was it meant for only me? Is my madness complete?
Unnerved by his lord's apparent distress, the doomsayer broke the silence. "My lord, Lyveria has fallen. Anenon calls. Your legions will be eager for you to take that city, as well. Shall I open the way?"
Breathing deeply he gathered himself up, composing himself. "Very well."
Gesturing with his scepter, the Anachron called forth the portal. An oily ring of light warped the air before them, spiraling out from the size of an egg to the height of a man. As she stepped through the portal, Silus considered the red witch. What had she made of the voice from beyond? She was a zealot and had been more obedient than most, but how much could he truly trust her? As he weighed her loyalty in his mind, he stepped through the portal to Anenon and was gone.
Collect special Limited NFTs related to this story at https://www.splintertalk.io/nfts/
Story: Jeremy Stanton
Editor: Sean Ryan
Narrative Lead: Joey Shimerdla
Character Art (cover): CandyCal
Illustrations: Lim Chuan Shin
Graphic Design: Tamer "Defolt" Oukour
Voice Acting: David Dahdah
Ending credits song: AfterSound
Post Production: INFLUX Pictures
Creative Director: Nate Aguila