Posted by: lordkyler | December 10, 2016

The Apocalypse Anthology – Third Stanza

This is an excerpt from an ongoing project, though it is a complete story on its own. The previous entry can be found here, and also provides a few more details about the project. You should probably read it first.


The Crystal Crown: the Right of Rule,

The Power of the Sun does blaze

The Light it brings, and everything

Will burn beneath its gaze

Stars had fallen from heaven, and Jorrah meant to catch one.

Ever since last night, when the fiery red stars had flown like comets across the night sky, Jorrah had thought of nothing else. The elders claimed that the stars had returned to the aether by now, but he knew better. These were not like the normal falling stars, little streaks of light that vanished in an eye-blink. These were something tangible and real. They had fallen to the earth, he was certain, and he was pretty sure where they had landed. 

It was easy enough to get out of that day’s worship. All he had to do was force himself to eat a little phentos root, and he was vomiting violently within the hour, before they had gotten halfway to the shrine. After a brief inspection, his mother had sent him home, and the symptoms had passed by the time he arrived back at the hut. He didn’t even feel guilty about the deception.

His mother and father were devout in the faith. Jorrah could not remember a time when he wasn’t being told some story or another. Tales of creation and balance and the First Generation at morning meal, descriptions of the Iron Mother and her Sanguine Blade at the afternoon sleep, and lectures about the duties of man and the importance of honoring dead Gods over evening feasts. Jorrah was sick of it, tired of hearing legends from a thousand years ago. The angels of death had slain the Gods and all that had been too foolish to feign death, as his ancestors had. By all accounts, the angels themselves had vanished as well, so why should they bother? What was there to fear? And why did they have to spend so much howling time talking about it?

He scowled to himself as he cut through the forests, bare feet slapping against dew-wetted leaves. By the time he reached the village, though, the frown had disappeared like the morning mists. He was too excited. His hands were shaking as he opened the door to his family’s hut.

There wasn’t much inside, just a cooking pit, sleeping hammocks, and a few tools arranged neatly against the wall: fishing nets, knives, and the old ancestral spear, carved in elaborate patterns and topped with an scything blade that Grandfather had always claimed was fashioned from a Wer claw.

Jorrah stared at the spear with new eyes. It was his family’s one treasure, as fine as anything in the village. He was not allowed to touch it, much less use it. He’d taken it to play with once, and he’d rather face down the Unmade than go through that again.

And yet… a fallen star. A quest, fraught with danger, like the great explorers after the turmoil of the earth, exploring the shattered isles and wild seas in search of new homes. Mankind had rebuilt itself now, building clans and confederations that spanned oceans, but Jorrah craved the adventure of those days. That was his religion.

He took the spear before he could think better of it, and all his worries washed away in the wave of confidence that swept through him. When he’d held the spear before, it had been too heavy, unwieldy in his small hands. But now it was a perfect fit, just the right heft. It felt like an extension of himself, fully natural, almost instinctive.

He pulled one of the nets free as well, stuffing it with containers full of food; smoked fish, dried apples and moonfruit, a shell full of sour wine. With the net over his shoulder and the spear in his hand, he took off for Widow’s Cove, looking over his shoulder every few steps.

The fallen stars burned in his thoughts like they had in the sky, blazing, burning, branding themselves into his psyche. Every time he blinked he could see them. What would it be like to see it closely? To touch it? To own it? Wild fantasies filled his thoughts. He imagined himself as a great chief, lord of a hundred isles. The wind turned into the cheering of crowds in his mind’s eye, birdsong to triumphant trumpets, the net on his back into a cape made from the finest silks and the brightest feathers. Who knew what might happen when you possessed a star?

Eventually he reached the dark, gritty sands of Widow’s Cove, so named for all the women who had stood watch here, looking for husbands that would never return from the treacherous reefs. Jorrah knew them by heart. He would come home, and gloriously.

Boats were pulled up on the sand, from simple canoes to full catamarans. Jorrah had his own craft, a crude thing that was little more than a few logs lashed together. He was making on his own canoe, but he was still working on hollowing out the center. The raft wouldn’t do. How many other adventurers on how many other islands had seen the star and might be racing for it even now?

No, it had to be Limma’s long canoe, with the outriggers and the sail. As the best physician within a week’s sailing, she often had to travel to other islands to tend to patients or gather plants. Her boat was the fastest on the island, and Jorrah had no qualms about borrowing it. She hadn’t liked him since the day she’d caught him sneaking redweed from her stores as a child. It was a foolish mistake, of course, but she’d considered him as a criminal ever since.

Jorrah figured that if she was going to treat him like a thief, he might as well at least deserve it. One good push and he was off, riding the tranquil waters of the sheltered cove.

After he had travelled a only few feet, he turned around and looked back at the shore, feeling a moment of doubt. There would be no going back from this. Stealing boats was one of the gravest crimes a man could commit. He’d be lucky to get off with a flaying, and he’d be branded. His family would disown him, most likely, and he would live as a vagrant, drifting from island to island, shunned by all, scraping out a living from the bare rocks and rainwater. He was risking his entire future.

But if he claimed the stars…

Squaring his shoulders, he hoisted the sail and set his course for Tiger Atoll.

Once he was past the encircling arms of the cove, the breeze picked up, sweeping in from behind at the perfect angle to carry him to his destination. He grinned and enjoyed the rise and fall of the boat as it cruised over the low waves. This was the perfect time of year, with none of the hurricanes of warmer seasons or doldrums of the fog months. It was as though fate was conspiring to lead him on. Perhaps the spirits of the Gods did still watch over the world, as some claimed. There was a magic in the air, an energy akin to the thrill of the hunt, like the crackle of the air during a lightning storm. He felt more alive than he ever had, dominant, victorious. All those who had been cruel to him would soon be worms beneath his feet.

The atoll wasn’t far, only a few hour’s sail in such favorable circumstances. Still, Jorrah coaxed every bit of speed he could get from the craft, plying tiller and sails with the skill of men twice his age. He’d always had a knack for sailing. When his cousin Ilias had dared him to run the Wer’s Eye, he’d guided the craft in as neatly as you please, without so much as scraping the hull. He would have made it entirely, if not for the freak wave. To hear Ilias told the story, though, you would have thought he’d rammed his uncle’s boat into the reef on purpose. Jorrah hadn’t been allowed to touch a boat since. He resolved that Ilias would be the first to learn some humility when he returned with his prize.

He made further plans as the sun rose toward its zenith, cataloging every wrong and devising fitting consequences. He was surprised, however, that he was still listing offenses when the trees of Tiger Atoll came creeping over the horizon. He’d never had many friends, even among his family, and certainly not among the luck spirits. But until this moment, he had never realized just how much he’d been mistreated over the years. And for what? A few boyish mistakes? Some truthful but ill-advised words? What was the matter with them?

The energy in the air was palpable now. Jorrah could feel it roaring in his veins, setting his thoughts afire. The anger was almost a living thing, something that had been sleeping within him for years, now awakened and thirsting for blood. It was intoxicating, almost dizzying. Anger. Fury. Power.

Jorrah felt as though he were flying over the water,  almost removed from his body, but as the prow of the canoe dug into the soft white sands of the atoll, he was brought back to reality. His mind was still abuzz with energy, but it was grounded now. He had a purpose – nay, a destiny – to fulfill. There would be time for plans after he had the star.

All the time in the world, whispered a voice in the back of his mind. Jorrah grinned and hopped into the surf to pull the canoe ashore, keeping an eye out for the atoll’s namesake.

The atoll was in the shape of a great ring, a circle of thick jungle bounding a tranquil turquoise lagoon. While there were plenty of inviting beaches along the outer edge of the island, getting to the lagoon was a more difficult prospect. The terrain was steep, stepped, and rocky, and the trees formed a veritable wall in places. And then there were the tigers themselves, silent as spirits, ravenous as sharks, and nearly invisible with their brown striped fur.

During the Convocation, when all the tribes in the region met together, each tribe would send their greatest warrior to Tiger Atoll, in order to determine which tribes would be chiefest until the next gathering. The tigers ate well during those days. And now Jorrah had joined their number.

He clutched his spear tightly. He was not afraid – he was too excited to be afraid – but he was cautious as he plunged into the dark forest. A star would do him no favors if a tiger killed him first.

He made his way upward and inward, moving steady and silent through trees choked with vines and mushrooms with all the color and variety of flowers. Although he had no real idea where to begin looking, there was a tickle at the back of his mind that seemed to drive him toward the lagoon. No, not a push. More of a pull.

As ever, Jorrah trusted that instinct, clambering over fallen logs and ducking under trees with roots like legs holding them off the ground. The closer he came to the lagoon, the stronger that impression became, until he was practically running through the jungle, tigers be Undone.

He came to a halt when he heard voices arguing.

They spoke in a dialect he recognized, that of the Bamboo Isles, a few days to the east. There was no way they could have gotten here so quickly. They must have been nearby when they saw the star fall, and decided to come and steal it for themselves.

Jorrah felt as though his heart had become a volcano, a silent eruption of jealous fury that filled every inch of him with pyroclastic rage. After all he had risked to come here, a pack of leaf-eating bamboo farmers were trying to take his prize?

They are weaklings, came the whisper. Fools. It would be easy to stop them. Jorrah looked at the spear in his hand, with its long hardwood shaft and cruel, curved point. They didn’t know he was here. It would be simple enough, two quick thrusts to the heart or the kidneys…

No. There was always a chance something could go wrong. Better to get ahead of them while they were distracted. He hurried on, to the place he was so sure his treasure awaited him.

The shadows were growing shorter as the sun approached the height of its arc. Jorrah felt a strange kinship with it, as though they were both racing to reach their ultimate power. The glimpses he caught through the leaves seemed brighter than normal, yet it did not hurt his eyes to look at it.

The ground began to slope downward again, until he was skipping from stone to root to ground with long, bone-jarring steps. He was so intensely focused he barely felt them. Every thought was bent to his goal; his body was a mere inconvenience to be transported to the place he could see so clearly in his mind’s eye. Tigers and tribesmen and tribunals were trifling things, soon to be dealt with… and destroyed.

And then, in an instant, the jungle fell away, revealing the lagoon. Or what was left of it.

The once-pristine pool had been boiled away, revealing powdery sand littered with rotting fish and knotted tangles of seaweed. What water remained was roiling and seething madly, crimson foam frothing atop blood-red waves. Tendrils of black glass snaked through the sand, and the trees nearest the shore were singed and blackened.

Jorrah stared, eyes wide. This was power beyond his wildest imagining. Enough that he wasn’t sure he could even touch it without being consumed.

Yours for the taking, said a voice, no longer a whisper, no longer his own. It was at once malignant and alluring, menacing and enticing. Jorrah knew, instantly, that it was the voice of the star. No, it wasn’t a star, was it? It was something else. A shard.

His feet began to move, almost of their own accord, sinking into sun-baked sands, but he could not feel the heat, only the ways the grains danced from the power that vibrated through them. Step by faltering step, he lurched his way toward the turgid pool. The sight filled his eyes, the hum filled his ears, the voice filled his thoughts…

He never even saw the tan-and-brown form of the tiger streaking across the sands.

As it leapt for him, however, a blood-curdling cry erupted from the trees, startling both Jorrah and the tiger. Jorrah spun, saw the tiger, and ducked, just in time to avoid the thorn-sharp claws and knife-like teeth. The tiger flew overhead and landed with a gentle thud on the sand. With effortless grace, it whirled, readying for another pounce, but by then the Bamboo Islanders – who had shouted the alarm – jumped into the fray. Both of the men were gray-haired but wiry, experienced enough to make up for their age. One carried a tall shield and rattler, a bundle of bamboo strips designed to cause pain without being lethal. The other carried a stone-toothed club, but he was using a short leather whip to keep the beast at bay. The tiger snarled, crouching low with bared fangs and laid-back ears, as surely a living embodiment of death as the angels were supposed to have been.

Jorrah rushed to his feet, leveling the scything head of his spear toward the animal. In the moment of fright, all thoughts of revenge and hatred had been driven from his mind, and with it, the power had diminished. No longer did the sands thrum beneath his soles, nor did the fire course through his veins. The voice vanished, and for a moment he wondered if it had ever really existed. All at once, he was a boy again, a child who had scarcely used a spear before, much less faced down a tiger with one. Still, these men had saved his life, and he owed it to them to fight by their side.

The spearpoint wavered as Jorrah carefully circled to the left, hoping to take advantage of the tiger’s distraction with the cracking whip and clacking rattler to strike at the beast’s heart.

The man with the rattler moved, blocking his path. When he tried to go around, the man slammed into him, pushing him to the ground. The spear fell from his hand as he tried to catch himself, but he was caught off balance by the move, and landed face-first in the sand. Fine grit filled his mouth, his nose, his eyes.

“Stay back, boy,” the Bamboo Islander said sternly, his accent sharp. “You’ll only get hurt.”

“This is a bad place, Kunan,” the other said, but Jorrah could not hear anything that came after that. His ears were ringing, no, screaming, filling his head and soul and mind and body…

STRIKE.

His hand touched the spear, and the next moment, it was buried in the back of the man who had shamed him. Blood gushed from the wound in a black torrent, and the man collapsed a second later, face still showing shock.

Jorrah felt amazing.

The man’s companion screamed wrath and revenge, raising his club to strike, but one hook from the spear hamstrung him, and another slash tore his neck open.

The sands were quaking now, jumping visibly as they shifted in strange patterns. The air was keening, and the sun reached its peak, and everything that had once been Jorrah was gone, replaced by pure, unbridled hatred.

MALICE.

The tiger hissed, trying to make sense of the chaos around it, tried vainly to run on shifting sands. The being that had once been Jorrah laughed, a cruel laugh that rent the air with its malevolence.

Seven shards, like jagged jewels, rose from the remnants of the lagoon, each a different shade of red. On one side was the blaze of the dying sun, the scarlet banner of triumph, the blush of shame. On the other was the ochre of rust, the warmth of flame, and the vermillion of poisonous things. In the center, the largest crystal shone with a brilliance too profound for color; the undiluted radiance of the sun.

The shards came together with a flash, bound by pure, incandescent energy, forming a diadem. This crown – not of stars, but something greater – flew to their master’s brow, searing into his flesh, binding themselves to him.

Jorrah the Ungodly rose into the air, until he could see the whole of Tiger Atoll spread beneath him, a green ring on an endless expanse of blue. He grinned, and the Crystal Crown flared, a beam of light spearing down to the center of the atoll. Every living thing upon it burned, caught in a conflagration with nowhere to hide. Again and again he struck, until only scorched earth and smoking stumps remained, and the seas boiled with the heat of his hatred.

But even with the stars at his brow and the power of the sun in his hands, all Jorrah could feel was cold.

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