The Tome of the Time-Siege
by Joshua Babcock
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
When Vyra had pronounced her formally as Somna the Stoic, the young girl had difficulty quelling the pride that welled up within her. She knew her mastery of emotion was far from perfect. For a child, though — creatures prone to tremendous joys and sorrows and many other variegated feelings — she had shown an impressive stone-faced exterior.
On the side of the road, in front of a common dwelling, she saw a young mother using her body to shelter her son; a flaming sphere loomed fatally above them. Somna knew the boy to be a wicked brute and the woman to be wholly uncaring when it came to children not of her own flesh. For all their failings, she wished them no harm. They did not deserve the eradication they would soon receive were she to fulfill the wishes of the Wise Ones.
If the situation had been altered, she would have done what she could to save them. However, she understood that there was nothing she would be able to do for them that would not cripple the chances of the rest of the population. By trying to help them, she might merely join them, a temporally frozen triad; thereby, she would be condemning everyone else in her town, possibly the entire country of Bahkshir, to a grim destiny.
Somna had already seen several such sights on her journey and had to ignore each and every one of them — no matter how heart-wrenching the scene or admirable the individuals involved. This was at least one of the reasons for her being chosen, she thought, in answer to Morag’s query posed the night before. For all his brawn and his courage, he was a man of terrific caring. He would not have been able to avert his eyes and focus on the more important priorities. Morag would have doomed them all with his feckless altruism. His rage at the aggressors and love for his innocent neighbors would have blinded him to his true mission.
Somna swallowed down her rising ego and tentatively shoved aside elongated droplets. She continued to thread her miniature frame through the half-fallen rain of fire and bits of exploded buildings like an arachnid contortionist. Her size increased her odds of triumph just as much as her propensity for apathetic inaction.
She finally entered the district closest to the hall of the elders. The goods and services quarter was the nexus of the community during daylight and nightshine. In the bright times when both artists and artisans did business, anything could be bartered for: supplies for homes and journeys, finished foods, iron wrought tools, petty baubles and high art. During the dark times the taverns were open, well-stocked with intoxicants and cordial comments, couriers and courtesans. The hustle and bustle was usually deafening, but not so on that eerily silent afternoon.
At the far end of the long, straight main road, past the providers of sundry provender, was the hall. Somna was able to press her velocity, slipping beneath the sturdier thatched awnings that had survived the initial bombardment.
She was occasionally distracted by the raindrops; they merely hung before her, as if placed to bedeck the open spaces, as one might ornament a wall or bejewel oneself. More still than the tortoise-paced stars in a night’s sky, they captured the illumination thrown by the splashing fireballs.
As she ducked and dodged the branches of a lightning bolt caught by the spell mid-strike, Somna wondered at the might of time controlled by mortals. Even the potent and primal forces of nature, the wills of the gods in physical form, were but marionettes strung up by time, and jerked about by one monstrous puppeteer mage.
The main audience chamber was large and beautifully bare as ever; the architecture was aptly structured to serve its purpose. This aided her mission as well. She ran with relish across the simple limestone flooring. The monumental unembellished pillars afforded her miniscule form a wide berth. She enjoyed a pure freedom of movement that had been impossible since the cracking open of the Time Tome, a relative eternity ago.
“The book, which many have begun calling the Time Tome, is the source of our troubles.” Caheiris, the council’s mistress of books, spoke in a tone of tremendous reverence and sublime awe.
“It is written in a language even I have not come across in my studies. The manuscript contains spells that link the reader to time itself, giving them the ability to control its ebb and flow. The present possessor, Malnorant, has spent a lifetime learning just the first few passages. Even so, he has but a novice’s grasp of its intricacies.
“We are fortunate the book is so enigmatic. Stopping time is an ability hard enough to circumvent. Had he another lifetime to deepen his understanding, the mage would have likely gained the ability to move forward and backward through the chronological currents. Then there would be nothing anyone could do to thwart the ambitions of the wizard and Naskil.”
Somna had listened to Caheiris’ speech with increasing trepidation. It was not until that moment that she fully comprehended the import of her place in the plan. The mage must not be allowed to continue his studies, she thought. Both he and the book must be destroyed. No one should be able to speak such words. Not even the gods should be entrusted with or burdened by such responsibility.
After crossing the length of the hall, she was met by a disconcerting sight. There, on the crescent stage, stood the motionless panel of Elders. Even upon a dangerously close inspection, Somna could neither sense breathing nor heartbeats.
Of all the people in the village, the Elders were the dearest to her, the ones who truly tested the limits of her stoicism. And especially there was Vyra, just to the right of high-praised Asimuth. Her austere robes and silvery hair were statue-still.
The youth had been forced to bear witness to bodies ravaged by crushing, searing, and piercing debris; mothers and children locked in a final familial embrace; lovers stretching desperate fingers towards one another, seeking the sweet solace of one last touch before death. At each emotional impasse, she had forced herself to look away and walk on. Yet, nothing so shook her inestimable self-assurance and detachment as did the view before her eyes, which were now moistened as the grass at eventide.
Somna still possessed the presence of mind to withdraw her hand as it subconsciously sought out the hem of Vyra’s garment. So many times she had tugged at it, by way of affectionately, wordlessly steering the old woman’s attention to her, and away from whatever the matter of rumination was at that moment.
Inserted betwixt each pair of elders, was a champion. Tall, firmly built men and women garbed in full protective gear — leather for the lighter ones, iron and bronze for those of more massive musculature. Their weapons were drawn and at the ready. Their sightless warrior’s eyes were open wide. Their bodies were positioned in keenly reactive battle stances, and their hair bristled with paused excitement. The warriors were nigh indistinguishable from the statues of ancient heroes. All their preparations would avail them naught were Somna to fail to successfully conclude her quest.
Among them, between Asimuth and Vyra, was mighty Morag, his heavy smithy’s hammer clenched tight and raised high above his head. She was both emboldened and embittered, seeing him standing in a show of support and defiance. She knew his resistance, and that of the entire compliment of sturdy fighters, would be akin to a field of grain trying to withstand the ineffable sweep of a sickle’s blade. Malnorant would cut them down where they stood, or, more likely, destroy them with several mystically imbued syllables. The group would never know their fate before it was maliciously meted out.
Someone had entered the hall. No one in the palette of people she knew — either acquaintances or adversaries — was currently capable of such an act, of any action whatsoever. There was only the nemesis. Somna understood immediately that he was upon her, the Elders, and the ineffectual guardians.
There was only one obstacle left for her to overcome, and it was striding in her direction with supreme confidence.
She took up her prescribed position, just before the stage, to the side of the central steps that poured from the stage like a waterfall.
Bending at the waist, weight placed on one knee, head bowed slightly, and arms hanging limpid at her sides, Somna donned the guise of a court page or council servant. The siege-mage had no way of knowing that there were no such roles within their society. The tips of her calloused, sinewy, working girl’s hands were all but touching the floor. Her hands were a twist of a wrist away from her simple twin daggers; the weapons were couched in sheaths concealed by the intricate leather work of her high boots.
Her eyes would need to be open to strike accurately. Yet, the girl knew she would not be able to restrain the blinking reflex long enough to avoid belying the illusion of absolute motionlessness.
As the footfalls buffeted her ears with ascending immediacy, she rushed to untie the ribbon that held her hair tightly pressed to her head. Placing splayed strands of hair carefully in front of her face, she thought of how insistent and denigrating her gesturing became when the elders told her to shave her hair off for her quest, so that it would not present an additional peril. If she had listened, there would be nothing with which to shade her anxious, blinking eyes, and that violently throbbing vein in her forehead.
The sound of her own labored breathing drummed upon her perception like thunder. It surprised her that her lungs had not yet betrayed her presence to the wizard. Glad for her practice sessions, she took a few seconds to inflate her lungs with air and becalm herself so that her treacherous pulse was less apparent. She hoped it would not take several hundred heartbeats for her enemy to step into striking range, lest she pass into unconsciousness right on the verge of victory.
Her mind and body snapped to attention like a bow string as the finely embroidered fabrics of the Malnorant’s wardrobe entered her narrow slits of vision. He seemed unprotected by defensive apparel from what she could see of his waist and legs. She could only presume his throat was likewise exposed.
“You know well the problems an individual’s words can present,” Vyra had said a few days prior, while Somna was repeatedly stabbing at target areas painted on young trees outside the town. The size of the targets was roughly the distance between a man’s chest and chin, and of average height from the ground. She had been alternatively stabbing and slicing at them so frequently, with such disturbingly calm ferocity, that several of the thin saplings had been severed. Vyra suggested she choose her strike carefully when the time came.
“You have felt the stinging bite of malignant words many times over. It is imperative that you do not allow the mage time enough for even the briefest utterance. His statements will not have the same effect as those hurled by our local verbal ruffians. His words will not be meant to stab at your heart or play on your insecurities. They won’t be the kind of phrases that you will be able to fend off with impassivity. Even a single syllable, whispered or shouted, could mean the end of your existence.”
In response to Vyra’s advice, Somna had plucked the paintbrush from the grass, painted narrower targets on more trees, and attacked them with even more controlled swiftness. By the next morning, a small copse of beheaded saplings skirted the village’s main gate.
The mage was already speaking. Multiple tones issued from his throat at once, without pause or separation, like some demonic tongue. Stopping time was a difficult thing to procure, and apparently required constant vocal upkeep.
The sound of her short blades being slid from their casings rent the still air with a shrill reverberation. As Somna coiled herself like a spring, muscles half-crippled by deoxygenation, Malnorant turned his pale, wrinkle-ruined visage towards her. She leapt at him like a feline huntress. Her right arm and dagger began carving a slashing arc through the air, which would end at the old man’s throat.
From beneath the demonic murmuring came another sound, another spell. It was of a cruel cadence. The girl was not fast enough. The weird word was spoken. Just as Vyra had warned, Somna could not ignore the pain that shot through her striking arm. She grimaced. Only halfway to its mark, the dagger fell down the stone steps with an echoing clatter.
A wicked smirk appeared on Malnorant’s still muttering lips. His countenance crept closer to her as his mind readied one final pronouncement. He appeared impressed by the impudence of the brazen upstart assassin.
Somna loosed a hoarse, agonized scream, empowering herself with the seldom heard sound of her own voice. She knew of the power of words, knew that people needed to use them with care and responsibility. They were not to be brandished as weapons by individuals with nothing but malice and a hunger for power in their hearts. She would not, could not, let this wicked man continue to use them.
Fighting through the pain in her right arm, she grabbed the mage’s flowing robes and pulled with all her diminished might. Surprised but still speaking, the man tumbled down the steps.
Somna brought her left hand and second dagger up to meet him, plunging the blade spine-deep into his throat. Preoccupied by the struggle for balance and composure, the mage could not finish his fearsome phrase.
Silence was once again secured. All that flew from the wizard’s vile mouth was the hiss of one last, voiceless exhalation and a sputtering of blood.
From beneath the Malnorant’s slight weight, Somna could hear the pelting of rain drops upon the roof. The spell was broken. Nature responded rapidly.
Somna Sleepingskull knew the warriors and Wise Ones on the stage would awaken soon and find that she had won their safety. She could not wait to see Morag’s face when he witnessed the remnants of her success. Maybe, she thought as she drifted into well-earned sleep, the people of the city would have words less harsh for her upon her rousing. Maybe she would even receive a new name. Somna the Savior, the young girl mused. She liked the sound of it.
Copyright © 2007 by Joshua Babcock