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Chronicles of the Branded Mage
I knew that I was as good as dead without the letter. I scrambled and dove after the cursed paper, imploring whatever god that still lived for a moment’s respite from the incessant wind. Finally it came to rest against a small declivity that marked the edge of Lord’s Way, an abomination of mortar and granite that scarred the pristine countryside. It was just one of the twelve Great Roads that eventually led to the capital in Ophiuchus. They were the most expeditious means of travel, cutting straight lines through the countryside with complete disregard to all in their path, be it lake, canyon or mountain. I watched in horror as a dark spot appeared in the center of the parchment. It was as if the letter had suffered a mortal wound - ink ran like blood as it shrivelled into a pathetic lump. Apparently some of last night’s rain sought shelter from the wind in the same place.
This all made perfect sense of course. That letter had survived unscathed throughout a year of war on the eastern continent, the four-month sail to these tortured shores, the six months of hard travel, and countless attacks from brigands and deserters. All that time, the letter was kept safely tucked in the empty scabbard that hung at my side. It was merely a precaution should I actually make it this far; a feat which no one, including myself, ever expected. And now, feet from the great granite slabs, it lay ruined. My safe passage to Dellain ruined, I sat down some distance from the Way and pulled my pipe from the pocket of my worn coat. My luck has truly run out, I thought to myself, as I loaded the last of my tobacco. Taking a long drag I lay down in the moist grass and let my gaze find its way through the branches of a young oak.
These roads have been closed to the public since the Mothers’ Insurrection. At one time the mad King Aras actually believed he could pass a law that required all children older than 12 years and in ill health to supplement the garrisons at the front. I hear that it was quite a sight to behold an army of angry wives and mothers wielding kitchen knives and improvised bludgeons, attacking the soldiers that came to collect their children. More often than not, the selected children were in perfect health, but they were needed at the front as cannon fodder, to slow the nightly onslaughts of the northern hordes. To look out over the red ice and hear the screams of countless sons and daughters would be too much for my simple soul; soldiers must be of a different breed.
After that laughable rebellion was quelled, the King issued a general decree forbidding travel on the Great Roads. Only the aristocracy, by the King’s personal sanction, was allowed to use the wide, smooth paths. It was a joke, of course, a punishment for the commoners’ insolence. The aristocratic class made up a small fraction of the population and lived in or around the King’s castle at Dellain. They never left the pampered grounds. Courtiers were in constant fear of missing their chance to flatter the King with their capricious tongues and possibly weasel themselves into a coveted appointment. Now, travel to and from market was relegated to dangerous forest paths and muddy fields.
I was warned that to be caught on the Lord’s Way without the written consent of the King himself was a death sentence. Actually, a quick death would be the best that I could hope for. The soldiers given the duty of patrolling these endless expanses of smooth granite were usually the rapists, murderers and thieves that were given the choice of prison or service to the Kingdom. They were usually little more than a small army of demons given authority and protection by the King’s banner. I am fair skinned and short of stature – I shuddered to think of the terrible things that would occur should I be questioned and found lacking.
The cool wind and blissful silence must have lulled me to sleep. I was working my hands up the skirt of a certain red-headed serving wench when I awoke to the clicking of shod hooves against hard stone. Scrambling to my feet, disoriented and cursing the inevitable, I looked frantically for a place to hide. Unarmed and exhausted, it would be a very short fight. I knew that I would be spotted if I tried to cross the 20-yard width of road. I spun around and my heart sank. Rolling hills for as far north as the eye could see, dotted here and there by simple shepherds’ huts. I tried to remember back to my childhood lessons with the theologues. Wasn’t there a goddess of tree and stream? I looked at the oak that had sheltered me during my brief nap. There was no deity that could help me here; the tree was barely more than a sapling. Knowing that a conflict was unavoidable, I did what any self-respecting, unarmed man of any intelligence would do. I fled like a woman.
Hunger had sapped my strength days before, so I was no longer hungry, just weak and always tired. I feared that I would collapse at any moment, but visions of a perverse death spurred me onwards. Against my will, I began to slow to an awkward shuffle. Finally, I fell face first into the soft ground. Sucking air and dripping sweat, I rolled over and looked back towards the road. Three horsemen sat facing my direction, their polished black and blue armour of the Aquarian guard all too obvious in the fading light. Their mounts foamed at the mouth but were otherwise motionless. I returned their gaze, knowing full well that they could ride me down in less than a minute. They would never even have to draw a sword. All the mounts used by King Aras were much more than the simple beasts of time past. They stood feet taller than any man alive and weighed three times as much as a typical workhorse. Their teeth were capped with steel and sharper than any razor. With blood red eyes and sickle-shaped talons of poisoned bone on their hooves, they were a formidable enemy unto themselves. The King’s personal apothecary was the only man alive that knew the concoction responsible for such a terrible mutation. The especially odd thing, however, was their sunny disposition. Something about the drug made them look like monsters, but they were as docile as kittens. It took quite a bit of beating to work them into a rage fit for battle.
They continued to look my way for quite some time. And I, slowly recovering my strength, stood and returned their stare. Doing so made me feel less of a coward, for I could have easily disposed of three men, even from this distance. However, if that number were doubled, this would be a very short story indeed. They must have come to the conclusion that I was not worth the effort, for they soon spurred their mounts eastward. I pulled what was left of my cloak around my shoulders and continued north. The Great Roads were permanently closed to me now. I would have to find another way west, but first, I needed food.
I crept quietly up the hill towards the small hut. The rudimentary structure was in shambles but there was smoke drifting out of a hole in the roof. Peeking through the open entrance I could barely contain my laughter. Some men benefit greatly from solitude, others develop sicknesses of the mind. Maybe the prophets and sages who lived in the rocky hollows of the Vain Mountains and spoke to spirits were just as afflicted, but at least they didn’t participate in such vile acts as this. A haggard, toothless old man lay awkwardly in the throes of an orgasm. His partner appeared to be a younger member of his flock, and the small animal did not seem to share its master’s excitement.
I cleared my throat forcefully and the old man, apparently not yet satiated, glared at me with incredulous eyes.
“Who do ya’ think ya’ are, bargin’ in on someone like that. Not announcin’ yer’ entrance or nuthin.”
“My apologies shepherd. Would you be so kind as to remove yourself from that animal? I have to admit, it sickens me.”
Pushing the animal away, he jumped to his feet, his shriveled member still uncovered.
“Oh, well, excuse me your highness. Some have to make do, see, not many women in these parts.” The shepherd said as he tied his pants. The sheep, sensing her freedom, dashed out the doorway, almost knocking me over.
“I don’t mean to intrude. I have been on the road for many days and I am famished. Could you spare some bread and meat, and possibly provide shelter for the night?” I asked as nicely as possible.
“Ah, now ya’ show some manners. Well, the answer is no! Ya’ interrupted me private time and I’ve no pity for rude vagabonds.”
I have never been a man known for my patience. “Listen here you toothless cur! If I understand the law correctly, bestiality is a crime punishable by castration! And I, Enoch of Sarilisan, by right of my former station, judge you guilty!”
I showed the old man my hands and he fell to his knees, trembling and stuttering.
“Enoch!? The Enoch!? But he’s just a myth, a banished magician from the Eastern continent, a traitor of the empire!”
I kicked him in the face. Being called a traitor, especially by someone such as him, enraged me. He spoke the truth though, and perhaps that is what made me so angry. While once a living legend in my own land, I was next to nothing here. The Emperor’s Council of Mages stripped me of most of my power. I had only enough magic for the most basic spells and oftentimes could produce nothing more than a pathetic puff of smoke. I was truly a disgrace, but this man was lower even than I.
“Please good magician, I meant no harm! I’m just an old man ya’ see, nuthin’ to my name but a few sheep!” He was crying now, obviously terrified of losing his penis.
“Worry not shepherd, I’ll let you keep your…manhood. However, a punishment is in order.” I muttered a few words and my hands traced through the air of their own accord. The air grew thick and the light from the fire seemed to dim. A pop and a feeling of lightning in the air and it was done. I looked down at the old man and fell down laughing. Disbelief filled his listless eyes and he screamed. His eyes crossed as he tried to focus on the penis that dangled limply from his forehead.
“Now you’ll have to face your sins.” I laughed, “Leave now, your home is mine for the night. If I see you again, I’ll kill you.”
The old man, sniffling and shaking, scrambled out of the humble dwelling.
“Oh, and shepherd!” I yelled after him, “I’ll want the best of your flock slaughtered and placed outside the door within the hour. And I swear, I’ll know if it’s the one you violated, try it and I’ll have your legs.”
I would see the man again. Perhaps he could have lived, with a circus maybe, or maybe he would have grown accustomed to the smell and continued with his disgusting habit. It took about half a watch before I heard scuffling outside the shelter. I heard the lamb die and the man retreat into the night.
After rummaging through the shepherd’s meagre belongings I found some cheap iron cookware, a water skin and a dull falchion. A quick field dressing and a minor incantation and a steaming pile of lamb meat sat before me. I ate slowly, deliberately savoring every delectable morsel. Thankful for a full stomach, I stretched out on the floor and sleep threatened to overtake me almost immediately. I had a feeling the shepherd was close by waiting for a chance to take my life. After all, if some rogue magician had just wandered into my home, magically attached a fully functional penis to my forehead (my own nonetheless!), and kicked me out into the night, well, I would die trying to kill him. Fortunately for me, that fate awaited the old sheep-screwing shepherd, and it was, sadly, inevitable. Before sleeping I placed a ward around the shelter. When the old man came to take my life his body would erupt in flames.
I relieved myself on the fire and wrapped myself in my cloak. As my consciousness began to fade I couldn’t help but wonder where I would go from here. I had no marketable skills, so even if I made it to Dellain I would be a pauper. I did have experience at a University, but they were outlawed now. Many years ago, before the war between the Eastern Empire, Western Kingdoms, and the barbarian hordes in the North, a truce was signed. It was not a truce signed by great leaders accompanied by a magnificent display of peace and camaraderie. No, it was not a peace treaty at all. It was signed by the actions of every man and woman, from Lord to peasant. It was the end of progress, and in my opinion, the true death of god.
Art, Science, and Philosophy were quickly replacing the antiquated myths of religion. Man no longer required that there be a supreme being to whom he be accountable to upon death. Art showed man beauty and love, science, a systematic view of the world in which he lived, and philosophy, his soul and virtue. Every religious leader on Earth, from shaman to cleric to saint, resisted this inexorable change.
With the last of their strength and influence, religion struck a devastating blow. They began to poison the minds of monarchs, threatening their reign with the wrath of this god or the next. Soon, the Universities were being closed down. It was not uncommon to see professors stoned in the streets or chased down and lynched. Those of us that refused to submit turned to the only logical alternative. We became magicians of the state. After all, we knew that if we could no longer contemplate first causes and essences we might as well manipulate them. The monarchs were happy to have us, for there is nothing so devastating to the morale of one’s enemies as seeing the earth swallow their entire vanguard in a matter of seconds. So our philosophy and science took on the guise of mystic powers and arcane practices, and things returned to normal. I would have enjoyed a life of pomp and luxury, for state magicians were well taken care of. It was my nagging thirst for Truth that proved to be my downfall. That, however, is a story long in the making, and thankfully, it is not quite finished.
As sleep asserted its hold on my exhausted mind I stared
through the simple oculus at the night sky. Staring at the stars, radiant
and eternal, I could not help but remember my ceremonial answer to the
final question from the Imperial Mage. “I am Dasein;
I am Existence,” I had said solemnly. And with a brotherly smile
he branded my hands with the Tetragrammaton and placed on my shoulders
the black robes that were the symbol of my newly acquired station.
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