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Now that All the Heroes are Dead by David Tallerman

May 4, 2017 Fantasy No Comments
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Now that All the Heroes are Dead
by David Tallerman

Ghest Untar shielded his eyes with one gauntleted hand and stared further up the flank of Shaelorn Mountain.

Though lower down there had remained some foliage, in the form of gaunt trees and browned grass, from here onward was only bare and blackened rock, as though a fire had raged. Yet there was no sign of any fire. There were only the ebon slopes and then, rising abrupt as a wall, a pillar of cloud that penetrated high into the heavens, farther than he could see.

Within that ethereal column, Ghest could make out slashes of lightning, vertical and horizontal, and if he really concentrated, something more: traces of a sky, but not the sky that lay beyond the cloud pillar. Here was early evening, the sun sinking red towards the horizon; there was darkest night. He glimpsed constellations he could make no sense of, spied slivers of one moon and another.

He would have found it easy, all too easy, to convince himself that there was the true sky of a true world and that this, here about him, was mere illusion. For when he looked behind him–his gaze roving across the lifeless mountainside and the long-abandoned villages at its base, all the way to the distant needle of the Spire Aspirant upon its rugged promontory–the scene seemed flimsy and insubstantial, like a tapestry coming loose at its seams.

Ghest looked away. He felt fear that he could not quite explain. Hadn’t he faced worse threats than this? He had, for he remembered them each distinctly. The Shifters of Starsang, that corroded city where men walked who were not and never had been men. The priests of the House Descending, who had dreamed their mad and blood-red dreams. And the thing in the Forests of Fossil, which his mind still trembled to consider. But he had won against it, though winning had seemed impossible; he had skewered its amorphous flesh, set light to the flaccid corpse, and for two whole days and nights had watched as it burned and squirmed, before finally it lay still.

He’d won. He had always won. Why then, this time, was he afraid?

Ghest did not let his trepidation show. He could feel the tension among the half-dozen men at his back. For them, if for no other reason, he must find courage. They had served him through long years and hard times; they looked to him for the courage they couldn’t find in themselves.

“Light the lanterns,” Ghest said. “We’ll delay no longer.”

His men did as instructed. Lamplight flickered across the tenebrous stone, merging by degrees into the bloody glow of sunset. Yet when Ghest looked at the tunnel mouth, he noticed that the darkness within was not absolute. Though his skin prickled as he crossed the threshold, and more with each subsequent step, he went some way ahead. The tunnel seemed neither entirely natural nor manmade; it possessed all the clumsy artifice of a wormhole through wood. There was a faint gleam, he realised, oozing from within the walls–a reddish glimmer that the setting sun had masked from outside.

Ghest drew his dirk, leaving his sword Orison in its scabbard. In these close confines it would be more a hindrance than a benefit, and so he’d rely upon the shorter blade and his buckler, should the need arise. The sorcerers of the Spire had told him that there were no monsters here in Shaelorn, that if once there had been they had been driven out like everything else. “That abhorrence, which has come to our world from another,” they’d said, “is antithetic to life. Nothing living, good or evil, can tolerate its presence long.”

Ghest had refrained from pointing out that he didn’t know what antithetic meant, or that he was only a simple man, though uncommonly good with a blade. Debating with sorcerers, in his experience, did no good, and at any rate he had understood their gist. Even if he hadn’t, he could feel the phenomenon they’d described, now, for himself: an energy that seemed to tug at the very motes of him, as though eager to reassemble them into something quite different; a perpetual whisper on the edge of hearing that rejected his presence utterly. Whatever was ahead, it abhorred him at the very level of his existence.

The walls were smoother here, of polished shale that reminded him of dark glass. The red glow came from within them and had grown brighter. Ghest thought of the labyrinths under Starsang–of how he had wandered in near-total darkness, at first hunted and then hunter. Hadn’t he found his way out eventually, though his sword was dripping with ichor by then?

He had. Only, now that he considered, he couldn’t say precisely how.

No matter. Ten years had passed since he’d left the ashes of his home, to right whatever wrongs he could. Ten years since he’d set out to ensure, as far as possible, that no one should suffer as he and those he’d loved had. So what if memories should blur and falter? Perhaps they were bound to, when there were so many–and most stained by blood.

Now the passage was wider. There were threads like white worms crawling through the stone, giving it the texture of marble or fatty meat. The ground under his feet was ascending steadily. For brief periods it grew steep, and stairs would have been useful; but always the surface remained smooth, though never slippery. Ghest’s progress might have been much easier if he’d reached a hand out to the wall, yet he found that he couldn’t persuade himself to. Something about that white-threaded, pinkish stone troubled him profoundly.

In fact, moment by moment, the mental disturbance he’d been conscious of ever since he’d first set foot upon Shaelorn’s slope was growing stronger. The sensation was like crossing over the periphery of a storm and feeling the air grow tense and electric. Except that this storm, he felt, was aware of him–as though the insistent pressure inside his cranium was an actual force that he hung at the centre of. It inspected; it probed. He was intruding and so he was resisted.

Magic–it horrified him. No man ever dabbled in magic who valued his soul. Ghest couldn’t but think of the House Descending and its priests, men and women naked except for their flowing masks of ebon silk. They too had fought with magic; they too had sought to probe his mind. He had resisted, they’d had no other weapons, and so the day had proved an ugly slaughter by its end, one hard to take pride in.

He’d resisted–but how he could not remember. When he tried, the result was like watching the remembered moments from outside himself. Nor could he recall how he’d come to the temple, suspended deep in its abysmal gulf by chains each thick as a tree trunk, or how afterwards he had escaped. He could say only that they’d fought, that the day had been long and bloody, and that he, Ghest Untar, had won. Beyond those facts, the memory was like a fly inside a bead of amber: at once perfectly preserved and perfectly remote.

That fact troubled him, perhaps, more than it should. So did the pressure upon his mind. He could almost hear words now, or sounds like words; whenever one came close to making sense, it was accompanied by flaring images that vanished as quickly as they appeared, like bubbles in streaming water.

Ghest wondered then about the men following behind him. Not one of them had spoken since they’d entered the cave mouth. Their steps were soundless, or else perfectly synchronised to the falls of his own booted feet. Were it not for the wash of their lamplight and the weird shadows cast thereby, he would not have been able to say for sure that they weren’t figments of his imagination.

The passage was finally beginning to level now, while at the same time having grown yet wider. Its surface seemed almost transparent. Glimpsed from the corner of the eye, the stone appeared to be a sheen as fine as onion skin, beyond which lay dark vastnesses. Yet looked at directly, those same walls were mere polished stone. Then, as they retreated even further, to be swallowed by the shadows, the sense of walking amid a void grew almost intolerable.

He must be no longer within a passage but in a cavern, the dimensions of which he couldn’t gauge. Even without that fact, Ghest would have known from the intolerable pressure on his mind that he’d reached his destination. The lamplight had grown dim and clotted. It failed to touch the ceiling and only barely lit the opposite wall, some fifty paces away–so that at first he mistook the protuberances in its surface for mere unevenness, or lumps of a different stone.

Then one of them flickered open and turned its watery stare upon him.

Ghest took a step forward, and another. He was fascinated, despite himself. Another protrusion blinked open, and another–then they were prying apart by the dozen, heavy lids withdrawing to reveal crimson irises and whites the yellow of spoiled milk. Some were small as coins, others larger, half-a-dozen as tall as Ghest himself. He might have imagined them as belonging to a multitude of creatures, all hiding there in the dimness at the cavern’s end–but somehow he knew otherwise. Perhaps it was only that they each bore the same expression: a depthless revulsion that made him feel like a fat insect crawling across a dinner plate.

Ghest took one more step and found that he could go no further. He was barred by a grave sense of trespass, of bitter self-loathing. What had he imagined he was doing, coming here? His presence was sacrilege. His very existence was a blasphemy. He met the steady stare of a thousand thousand eyes and each looked back at him. Each one knew. He could hold no illusions beneath that million-eyed gaze. He felt as though his identity was a map spread upon a table, every pace of its topography revealed. He felt as though his skull was a cup, his thoughts sour wine, and those eyes were spilling one from the other.

From beside him he heard a murmured plea: “Oh gods.”

Ghest turned his head part way to look at the speaker–and his blood ran cold. For though what he saw had the shape and features of a man, though that shape and features were familiar from long acquaintance, nevertheless he understood now that they weren’t real.

Ghest reached with his free hand, placed it almost fondly around the man’s throat. The man opened his mouth but did not protest. Ghest drove his dirk up to the hilt into the man’s chest, piercing his heart.

He remembered dimly that the man’s name had been Furzon, and that his wife’s name had been Ebless. No–all of that was fantasy. These memories weren’t his; these memories were a lie. The man had been no man. Ghest remembered Starsang, and the ghosts of wise and ancient beasts, which walked by day in costumes of human skin and wore the dead like masks.

Yes. That was it. He had been a slave to illusion. But now, no more.

He had Orison drawn before any of them had quite registered their companion’s death, that ancient blade that no evil could taint. The first he decapitated cleanly, before he even had time to look surprised. The second Ghest caught on the downswing, so that Orison cut clean through his wrist and embedded in his side, in the notch of two ribs. Ghest freed his blade by kicking the man aside.

Now there were four left, each with his weapon up and retreating. They had placed their lanterns on the ground behind them, and the light seemed more feeble and futile than ever.

“My lord…” one man began. Fulke, his name was–had been. Whatever stared from behind those pleading eyes was not him.

“I’m not your lord,” Ghest said, running the man through.

Then they went for him; fear triumphed, finally, over loyalty. Ghest used his buckler for the first time–but throwing his whole weight behind it. With that, he broke one man’s jaw. While he was staggering, Ghest cut his belly open, and then shoved him hard into another. A blade whistled past Ghest’s shoulder; he turned in time to tip its edge aside, and as the wielder stumbled, plunged Orison into his back at a severe angle. Trying to tug the sword loose, he found that it was stuck fast. He released the grip, let the man fall.

There was one left. Ghest turned to face him. The last man was holding a dagger in his off hand, a sword in the other; neither was pointed at Ghest. He looked distraught. Ghest could not remember his name.

“Lord,” the last man said, “this isn’t you.”

Ghest gave that thought. “It seems to me,” he said, “that I may not be myself at all.”

The man’s expression vacillated between incomprehension and fear. Ghest felt distant pity. Perhaps the emotion showed in his eyes as he stepped forward, for the man made no move to defend himself. Once Ghest was inside the reach of the man’s sword, clasping his forearm and tipping him from his feet was an easy matter. He barely seemed to resist, and even in chainmail he felt almost weightless. He tried to say something else, but the fall had knocked the breath from him. Before he could recover, Ghest had crouched to place his knee upon the man’s throat. He knelt with all his weight until the body beneath him was quite still.

Ghest climbed back to his feet. He felt no weariness from the brief fight, nor any thrill of bloodlust. He felt only numbed, distracted. He reclaimed one of the lanterns, and by its feeble glow looked at the fractured, bloodied bodies of his men.

No–not his men. Now he barely recognised them. Was it really possible that he’d lived with those still faces for a decade and more? They were all of them strangers, and more than the deformity of death made them so.

Nor, Ghest realised, did he recognise himself.

Ghest drew off one blood-spattered gauntlet and studied the hand beneath with care. The appendage was big, blunt-fingered, and a fine down of hair patinaed the wrist and knuckles. He could not say with certainty that he had seen the hand before, and certainly he felt no sense of ownership.

Was his confusion really due only to the scrutiny of those multitudinous orbs? His instinct told him that there was some deeper truth here.

No matter. It was good to stand beneath the gaze of a million eyes. Ghest smiled–as though struck by an amusing thought that he could no longer quite recall. Then he inspected again the fallen bodies around him until he identified the one he sought, stooped and, with effort, retrieved his sword.

Time, he felt, to make an end of this.

#

In the image that marred the still water before them, the man slumped unhurriedly to his knees. Blood was spattered upon the sleeves of his hauberk and in one long splash across his chest, but none of it was his own. The smile on his thin lips was frozen now, rictus-like, in place.

The man leaned forward. He appeared inexpressibly weary. What he did next seemed to require no exertion at all–only for him to let himself go. Yet it must have taken inhuman strength, Suro thought: to impale his own neck upon the blade of his own sword until his chin rested barely above the cross-guard.

“I really thought he might be the one,” Anselnus said.

As the placid waters grew briefly turbulent and then settled once more, this time to return only the dim reflections of the two sorcerers and the cavernous chamber behind them, Suro turned away. “And why would you think that?” he asked.

“The companions seemed a good idea.”

Suro almost laughed; but the impulse passed quickly. For he had remembered the sight of one man carving briefly and efficiently through six others, and there was nothing amusing about that.

“He made it farther than the others,” Anselnus continued. “The conditioning seemed perfect. And he was a fine specimen.” He seemed to be responding more to his own thoughts than to the bitterness of Suro’s question. “Strong as an ox. Fearless. Best of all, he had no imagination.”

Suro shook his head–weary enough, suddenly, that for a moment he thought he understood perfectly the final actions of the man he’d watched in the scrying pool. “He had at least a little, apparently,” he said.

“It puts thoughts into their heads,” Anselnus suggested, not for the first time.

“No. It works with what it finds. Men are clay to it, easily molded. But it’s no god.” Suro realised, with brief anger, that he was trying to convince himself more than Anselnus. “It’s like a beekeeper. It knows how to manipulate, but it has no comprehension of what it means to be a bee.”

Then again, he thought, whoever has tried to understand what they can easily destroy?

Anselnus seemed about to dispute the analogy. Instead, he said, “At least he stayed on the mountain.”

And, left unspoken, at least he ended it himself. Neither of them needed to be reminded of their fifth champion, who had spent three weeks rampaging through what remained of the villages surrounding Shaelorn, before the contagion had finally devoured what remained of his brain.

A cough from the doorway drew their notice. There stood the acolyte Onen; he had entered without knocking. “Masters,” he said, “I thought you’d want to know that the new subject is ready.”

Suro wanted badly to berate him for his choice of words. But to do so would have been hypocritical, and he understood that sometimes only euphemism allowed the young to watch the deeds of their own hands. Perhaps whatever preserved their sanity in these times could not be faulted.

“Thank you,” Suro said. “Have him brought to the entrance hall and woken there. We shall be along presently.”

#

The man before them looked only a little like the one they’d watched in the scrying pool. His stature was similar, his shoulders equally broad; but he was shorter, his dark hair was shorn almost to his skull, and his features implied a directness that had never been troubled by undue thought.

“Greetings, friend,” Suro said. “And welcome. May I ask what your name is?”

“I’m Ghest,” the man replied. “Ghest Untar. I am–I suppose you would say a warrior. I go where I’m needed and do what I can. I help people, as I’m able.”

Suro nodded. “That’s why you’re here then? To help us?”

“Aye. I heard talk in Hunt City, and then again as I was crossing the Feverplain. Of Shaelorn Mountain. Of a tear in the sky, and the thing that came through. Of how its influence spreads, day by day … a soul-sickness worse than any madness. They told me to speak to the sorcerers of the Spire Aspirant, and so here I am.”

“Yes,” agreed Suro. “Everything you heard is true. One day–in a month, two at most–there will be nothing at all left. An entity dwells within the mountain now, that for want of better words we call the million-eyed god. It hates all life. Many have stood against it; many, now, have fallen. What makes you think you’ll be any different?”

“Perhaps I won’t be,” the man who called himself Ghest accepted. “Perhaps I’ll fall. But I think not. I bear the blessed sword Orison, which can’t be tainted. I’ve fought men, and I’ve fought things; horrors beyond imagining. The Shifters of Starsang. The high priests of the House Descending. They’re dead now, yet I survive.”

“So I see.” Suro was careful to keep any note of disenchantment from his voice.

The man’s boasts were true. Ghest Untar had been the greatest hero of his age. Yet he was wrong also–for the one who’d truly borne that name had been dead for some three moons now, and his corpse lay, preserved by herbs and magics, deep in the crypts beneath the Spire Aspirant.

If his efforts had failed, the shadows of his mind had at least proved fruitful. The greatest warrior of an epoch–what better template could there be? And he had come so very close; didn’t the odds dictate that eventually he must succeed? Certainly Suro had once thought so.

“I commend you,” Suro said, “and I wish you luck. You can see Shaelorn from here; the northern road will lead you to its foothills.” He hesitated, finding himself curiously unwilling to finish the brief speech he’d planned. Finally, pronouncing the words as carefully as if they were an invocation, he said, “Let us hope you may succeed where others have failed.”

Ghest didn’t reply, but merely nodded. Then he turned and climbed down the steps beyond the great double doors, shoulders somewhat hunched as though he were walking into a cold wind.

Suro watched the man’s retreating back, and continued to watch as he paced across the narrow causeway joining spire to mainland. Far before him, Shaelorn Mountain was all but lost within its column of roiling cloud, tormented by strange lightnings and–if one was not careful to look away in time–by shimmers of some place altogether other.

“Quite a thing,” Anselnus said thoughtfully from Suro’s shoulder, snapping cleanly the thread of his thoughts. “To take a man and wipe his mind like a slate. To put someone else in his place.”

Suro thought for a moment that he was talking about the horror that dwelled in the heart of Shaelorn, the million-eyed atrocity that was both more and less than divine. He wasn’t, of course. Anselnus, ever the sentimentalist; he had never managed well with the rigours of necessity.

“He was, what?” Suro said. “A stable lad? A plowman? Or was that the last? Anyway, now he’s a hero. In a time when a hero is sorely needed.”

Suro turned away, torn between equal measures of despair and disgust.

“Anyway, what else is there to do? What other course is left, now that all the heroes are dead?”

* * *

David Tallerman’s short fiction has appeared in around seventy markets, including Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. He’s also the author of the novels Giant Thief, Crown Thief and Prince Thief and the recently released Tor.com novella Patchwerk. Learn more about him at his website.

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