The Trials of Shallam
By: Thenidiel Posted on: February 27, 2006
The Trials of Shallam
The sun had just set over the western sea when they heard the first scream. Clustered around the fire, the five of them looked up in fear, a chill running down their spine. Ale'ta, clutching the newborn child Lyath to her chest, quickly ushered her two daughters through the trapdoor that was concealed beneath the rug. It was an almost mechanical reaction for Ale'ta now, standing and entering their secret shelter while Cayel ran to close the shutters on the windows and put out the fire, as if no one had ever been there.
Once they were in the shelter and the two of them had pulled the rug over them as they closed the trapdoor, they would sit and wait in terror. Cayel would fret about, tidying the shelter and checking supplies, while Ale'ta placed the baby boy into his cradle and made sure that their twin daughters were settled in their bed. The war had been going on for a year now; it was a miracle they were still alive. Few households in the subdivision had escaped the raiders and the family prayed each day to their Lady that their good luck would continue.
Their lives might be frayed with nervousness at every single unknown noise, but they still had those lives, and they clung to them with every fibre of their being. It had been different before, when they were free to wander around - there was always a friendly Forestal or Priest there to resurrect you. Those days were no more - the Mhaldorians had systematically eradicated all of the Priests in the city and as fast as they were being trained again it was not enough. The forests had been torched and the corpses of the Shallamese were stolen by Mhaldorians as soon as they fell upon the battlefields.
No one knew how the war had started, in truth. The Sultan had taken his time in announcing it to the city, perhaps for fear of instilling panic - a logic that did not permeate the minds of the masses, who flocked in their hundreds to the safety of the Bastion of the North and the Crown of the Ithmia - even the tranquil Forestal village of Eleusis played host to a myraid of refugees from Shallam. The Sultan could not hide the fact, however, that the two cities had been at loggerheads for some time, and the public denouncements of his reign by the Tyrannus had not helped the attempted concealment.
The soldiers had marched to war on the valleys of Pash, torching the Dardanic hills to the anger of the Council of Oakstone and destroying the temple of Lady Lorielan, plus all of her beloved mazes. The town of Jaru was pillaged and the children violated, their parents' bodies left bloodied and often disembodied amongst the streets. Ale'ta had witnessed this horror while galloping out on her roan to give word to her brother, Balius, that his wife had been killed in a raid. Her sister-in-law, the gentle ambassador of the city, had died as graciously as she had lived, proudly defending the shops of the Medina from the hands of greedy Mhaldorian enemies.
To Ale'ta the deaths of her loved ones seemed as common as the shortage of shrimps in the bait shop towards the end of the month, but she knew that if she lost her children she would fall into a deeper despair than she had ever known. They were her life, the three of them and Cayel, and she knew that they were what kept her from delving into that dark place that so many others had gone to. Saving herself, and her dearest from going there - that was the one thing she lived for now.
Their sanctity was broken that night in the shelter. Footsteps clattered above them, the floorboards shaking dust down onto their heads. The twins clutched at their father's arms, and Ale'ta tried desperatly to hush the newborn Lyath, who wailed and cried at the disturbance. Fearing for their lives, they prepared quickly to defend themselves. The twins were ushered into the cupboard they kept in the shelter, holding their young brother with more maturity than they had ever displayed. Cayel brandished his staff in his right hand, embedding crystals into the ground that would help to heal them. Ale'ta slung her quiver over her back and quickly rubbed venoms of vibrant colours upon her arrows, loading her bow and preparing to fire.
There was the sound of boots scraping against wood - the intruders had taken up the rug. Ale'ta saw the trapdoor shake and tensed her bow, ready to strike. Light fell into the room in shafts as the trapdoor was levered up by a gleaming metal axe. Ale'ta could hear Cayel's heart beating loudly next to her, and hers in time with it, as the trapdoor fell back to reveal the pale countenence of the Sultan of Shallam. Dropping their weapons in relief, the two of them knelt before their tired-looking leader, who gracefully leapt to the floor, landing with bent knee and ruffled fur.
'Hello, Ale'ta dear, Cayel. It's good to see you're still...here.' The Sultan heaved a great sigh as he ruffled the hair of the twins, who had been let out of the cupboard to come and greet him. 'So many have left us for the northern cities...so many have left us for good.'
'Mi'Lord, how have you survived? We heard they were after your head for sure,' Ale'ta said, concern evident in her eyes, as she handed the parched Sultan a flagon of water.
'I have hidden in the sewers. The thugs have long fled for fear of the Mhaldorians...it is not the best place to hide, but it has served me well.'
Stretching his tired limbs out, the Sultan leant his back against the ladder, after stepping to the side so that Cayel could close the trapdoor.
'I am sorry to bring my presence upon you all,' he said with regret, his yellow eyes looking with pity upon the three children. 'You have already been through so much. But I must ask something of you - I can give your children to a cousin of mine in the city of Ashtan. My cousin will come down to collect them and keep them safe. In return, I must ask you to do something for me.'
Ale'ta sat down on the bed, her eyes fixed upon the floor for a moment. For her three darling children to be safe - she knew that she would do anything, though she feared that cold void where not even Lady Maya could save her. 'What would you ask of us, Mi'Lord?'
'I need you to venture into the city of Evil,' he said, in a low voice. 'Within it they have our Holy Codex...' He glanced about himself nervously before continuing, as if he were afraid that some unseen presence would overhear. 'Our Lady has said that if we recover it, She will give us a great weapon with which we can defeat those bloody ingrates. The Divine do not usually interfere, but this...this has come onto Her territory now, and She will see victory for the Light, the balance and harmony re-established. I trust it to you, as two of her dearest followers, to do this.'
The voice of Her Lady echoed in her head - 'You are a warrior of Harmony, dear one. Be content in yourself and your path and nothing will stand in your way.' Ale'ta closed her eyes, allowing herself to fall into a quiet meditation for a moment, before she swayed gently for a moment and looked up into the Sultan's face.
'I shall do it,' she said, rising from her seat on the bed, her hand clutched protectively about Lyath's head. 'But you must not come,' she said, turning to Cayel. 'You know that you cannot hide like I can. They would find you instantly and rip you limb from limb.'
The Sultan eyed Cayel suspiciously for a moment. 'You're right, Ale'ta,' he said. 'To send Cayel in would be dangerous for him and for Shallam.'
Slowly, Cayel nodded. 'I understand, and I shall follow your wishes, Mi'Lord.'
The sun was rising on a chilly Sarapin morning when the Sultan's cousin came. Mounted on Ale'ta's trusty roan, Cayel kissed her goodbye before riding off with their children and her heart. She stood there, her cloak fluttering in the wind, and sighed. Her Lady would guide her now, and that was all she could hope for. Adjusting the buckle on her quiver, she took the first steps along the Prelatorean Higway towards her destination. She couldn't go through Pash, the battle still raged there, or what was left of it at least. The highway was the only way - up towards Delos, then she would skirt westwards through the forests, across the Urubamba, and back down into Sartan's Isle. A journey she wasn't looking forward to.
The hailstorms whipped violently against her skin as she slowly made her way northwards. The journey was slow - it took her a month to get to the Urubamba, another fortnight to make it to the Isle. She took a battering from the lycopods that she met in the fog - they seemed to sniff her out even if they could not see her. Their acrid taste polluted her tongue as she bit into them, letting the camus flow through their veins. She had long lost her dirk and whip on her trek across the lands. Draining the last dregs of water from her flask, she spat the acrid taste out onto the floor.
The fog consumed all of her vision - it turned her eyes red and made them water with a prickling sting, while she choked on the fumes. The ground was harsh and made for slow travel, as well as many scrapes and bruises on her legs and arms from tripping over on loose rocks repeatedly. It took her another month just to traverse the Isle itself, and by the end her health was rapidly detereorating. Her supplies of health elixir were fast running out and she had long ago developed a resistance to kelp, rendering her unable to stop the red fog constricting her lungs.
At last she approached the black gloom of Mhaldor. Picking her way through the impaled corpses, gibbets and discarded weapons, wrenched from desperate hands. The road was deserted right up to the despair of the Stygian Crossroads, Lord Twilight's shadow casting a pall over the land. Ale'ta whispered near-silent commands to her loyal snake in the rattle tongue and sent him off to check for dangers on the road ahead. He returned swiftly, confirming her fears - there were three Occultist guards to the northwest. Holding her breath and praying that they would not sense her, Ale'ta slipped slowly towards them.
Time almost seemed to move in slow motion as she edged, inch by inch, through the shadows. Two of the guards were talking, their backs to her - another lay slumped against the wall. Ale'ta hoped that he was asleep and not merely resting, for he lay right in her path. Collecting herself for a moment, Ale'ta narrowed her eyes and sprinted swiftly past the three of them. Stopping further along the Circle of Pain, she glanced over her shoulder and saw the three of them talking.
'Did you hear something?', she heard one ask, and gasping for breath she fled swiftly along the road, knowing that if she did not get out of there soon they would find her. The voice of the Sultan echoed in her mind. 'They will hide the Codex in Sartan's temple. There are dangers there that I dare not imagine. Tread carefully, dear one.' His gentle tone made the impending danger dissipate for a minute. She fingered gently at the amulet of Harmony about her neck, a gift from Her Lady, and let its relaxing feeling ebb through her veins before she walked onwards.
Rain fell freely down as Ale'ta crept along the Circle of Damnation, ever closer to the end of her torrid journey. The rain soaked her to the bone and she shuddered, her viper curling about her arm for warmth. Clutching her bow and a neatly venomed arrow, she was poised for an attack as she traversed the steps to the temple. To her surprise, there was no guard, and this made her all the more wary. Entering the rancid temple, she felt her heart leap as she saw the Holy Codex sitting across the room from her, on a pedestal wreathed with barbs and spikes.
With fleeting footfalls Ale'ta crept across the room, and laid a gentle hand upon the Codex - no curses then, at least. But a fear weighed heavily upon her heart and Ale'ta knew that when she picked it up all hell would break loose, and in this fetid city she knew that would be quite literal. With images of her dear family flashing through her head, memories of games in Moghedu with her sister and brother, travelling to the City of Light for the first time, joining the Dawnstriders...Ale'ta took a deep breath and lifted the Codex from the pedestal.
Wretched screams punctured her hearing as she frantically scrabbled to put the Codex into her kitbag. The guards she had passed earlier tore into the temple seconds after, and Ale'ta released a flurry of arrows at them as they approached. Curare, Epteth, Larkspur, anything that could slow them down. Seeing them disabled Ale'ta fled out of the temple, only to have her vision violently filled with visions of runes, transfixing her and putting her to sleep. Fighting herself awake with the help of the Kola nut, she wrenched herself free of the rune that kept her still and closed her eyes, focusing on the one chance she knew she had at an exit out of there.
There it was - just along the Circle of Damnation, a wormhole to the fortress in Dun. Shielding her eyes with an arm, Ale'ta charged, screaming in determination, taking a barrage of hits from arrows and throwing axes and meteors, and threw herself violently through the wormhole with the last of her strength.
Ale'ta fell through the wormhole and down a series of steps, breaking her bow and a couple of limbs along the way, her shattered body heaving a groan as she came to a still. Casting her snapped bow to the side, she reached forth into the rift and took from it her father's gift to her on her wedding day - a lifestone. 'Keep it safe,' he had told her, 'for there will come a time when you need it more than anything else.' She touched the stone wistfully, her father's face flashing before her eyes, and felt her afflictions disappear from her body as it worked its magic.
Her spirit lifted, Ale'ta leapt to her feet and rushed out of the Valley, scaling it with surprising ease, the hardiness of her Mhun ancestors enthused in her blood. She could hear the clatter of mail behind her, but ran on, her determination to escape the Mhaldorians making her all the more sure of herself. She had passed the dungeons of Azdun within a few days, stopping every so often for a nap when she was sure that she had gained enough headway to do so.
She bathed in the Pachacacha river when she reached it, and as the dirt and grime of Sartan's Isle was washed from her body she felt a weight go with it. Her black hair, previously slick to her head, was alive again with shine and flew out behind her as she ran through the Shamtota Hills, following the river and casting glances to the west every now and then, hoping to spot the desert that led to her old home. Hugging her kitbag, containing the precious Codex, she made her journey as fast as she could, knowing that it was not far from the battles that had raged before, just the other side of the river.
When she set eyes on the Highway once more, Ale'ta almost sighed out loud with relief. Shallam was not far now, and the sanctity of the Basilica, which had managed to elude torture thanks to the protection placed upon it by the Lady herself. Ale'ta could see the city looming up ahead of her now, smoke still pluming from it as it continued to burn. 'Not any more,' she thought to herself, sending her viper off ahead to seek out the Sultan and show him that she was back safe.
He met her at the entrance to the Basilica, after she had managed to slip through, evading detection by the Mhaldorians that patrolled the city and were surely now on alert to someone returning with the Codex.
'My dear child,' the Sultan said, enveloping her in a great hug. 'You have done it!'
Weary from her journey, no matter how much she had been uplifted by the lifestone's healing powers, Ale'ta could only smile weakly and give a nod.
'May I see it?' the Sultan said, and the gentle look in his eyes compelled Ale'ta to carefully open the kitbag and show him the Codex. A strange light fell across his face as he did so and for a moment he did not look like himself at all. Ale'ta cried out in shock - this was not the Sultan at all, but an imposter!
'NO!' he yelled, clawing at his face, which was turning from the lithe one of a Tsol'aa into the horned one of a Satyr as his chameleon failed him. Him - the Tyrannus of Mhaldor, the leader of that City of Evil that had killed her family and tortured her fellow citizens. Rage building in her heart, and the Codex clutched to her chest, Ale'ta let the power of the Voyria venom flow through her veins and sank her teeth deep into the Tyrannus' neck as he threw himself upon her, stabbing a shining broadsword deep into her stomach, impaling her to the hilt.
As he fell to the floor, blood and flesh sputtering forth from his mouth, the Tyrannus looked up at her with bloodshot eyes and a triumphant grin. 'My death will bring the trimuph of Mhaldor,' he said, and detereorated into a pool of disgusting green liquid.
Ale'ta lay prone on the floor, watching her vision ebb away before her, and shed a single tear, for the fall of her home city was surely certain now. She had been their only hope, and she had failed them. Her last words as her health oozed slowly away were a prayer to her Lady, the Divine Tarah who had watched over her for so many years.
Ale'ta's vision was flooded with a blinding white light. Consciousness slowly returned to her, after many moments, and her eyes beheld the most precious sight she had ever seen. 'My Lady...' she breathed, falling to her knees. 'My Lady...I am so sorry...'
The memory of her death came back to her suddenly as she wept her apologies before the red-haired Divine. Words fell forth from her mouth, of no real significance, as her mind was flooded with the memories of her torrid journey.
'Ssh,' the voice of the Lady Tarah sounded gently in her ear. 'My child...'
Tarah knelt down beside Ale'ta, placing a delicate hand upon her cheek and lifting her head up. Ale'ta's face was pinched pink and covered in fresh, salty tears. Her eyes were pools of brown that looked desperatly at Tarah, begging forgiveness.
And all of a sudden, the Goddess let out a melodic laugh.
'My dear child, you are alive!' she exclaimed, and the blinding light dimmed, to reveal the interior of the Basilica, what remained of the villagers of Shallam smiling down upon Ale'ta.
'Mother...' Ale'ta said, choking back a sob of joy, 'You saved me, didn't You?'
Tarah's eyes twinkled enchantingly and she disappeared in a flash of white light, leaving Ale'ta collapsed upon the floor, weeping with joy as the villagers surrounded her, cheering and throwing flowers.
It took them many years to rebuild the city, but with the help of Hashan, Cyrene and Ashtan, they were able to do it without much difficulty. The Lady Tarah watched over it all with a gentle eye, and the Lady Miramar with an even hand. The city built up its defences and together with the other cities made sure that Mhaldor never attempted to darken the Light of Shallam once more.
Ale'ta and Cayel sealed up the trapdoor in their house for good, and the sun set over the Jewel of the East as the villagers slept soundly in their beds.