Originally published in OWS Ink: 2016 Spring Issue, Volume 1 by Our Write Side
You can read this, and more stories, in A Merchant in Oria and Other Tales.
Words Like Rain
By David Wiley
The words poured from his mouth like rain. The old man stood in front of the heavy oak doors, arms spread wide to bar their entrance. His deep blue robes marked him as a cleric of the cobalt quill, but they were scorched and covered in soot and ash. Just about everything in this forsaken place was covered in soot and ash by now. The kingdom of Andgiet was being razed beneath the weight of revolution and a new kingdom would rise from the ashes like a phoenix. The pockets of resistance had all but given way when their figurehead, the self-titled Lord Emperor van Ludwig, had fallen in battle. Clearly this cleric had not received the memo.
“Please, you must not desecrate this sacred place of learning,” he pleaded. Sweat beaded upon his hairless scalp and trickled down around his white eyebrows. His hazel eyes were wide and rimmed with red. His weathered hands whipped forward as he doubled over in a fit of coughing. He regained his composure and stretched his arms back out, gripping the vertical strips of black iron along the edges of the doors. As though he alone could hold them back so long as he stood clutching a part of the door. “Barbarians like you could never comprehend the value of the information contained in these tomes.”
The man standing at the head of the invaders smiled at the deranged old man. Captain Byers was never one to back down from a challenge, much less from an old man while he had a squad of warriors at his back. Captain Byers found it amusing that he called them barbarians. He was all too aware of the power that words could hold, especially written words. He had no intention of burning this glorious library to the ground, but the old man would never believe that. Let the rutting fool believe what he wanted about their revolution. Together they will reshape this kingdom and tap into the wasted potential it had squandered for decades. Two of the soldiers moved forward and grabbed the man’s arms, lifting him high off the ground. His feet flailed about in the air like a toddler throwing a tantrum. His crooked back stiffened and his kicking stopped. A milky white flooded his eyes and the laugh that sprang from his cracked lips caused the men around Captain Byers to take two steps back. But the captain stood firm, his crimson cape billowing in the wind. He pushed the sleeves of his soot-stained doublet up and strode toward the double doors of the building.
The dim light from a thousand candles cast shadows throughout the vast chamber. Columns of books stretched across walls and reached to the ceiling. Captain Byers mused that there were more words contained in this one building than in the rest of the whole world combined. It was a literary treasure trove, but the books were not without company. Men of all ages scurried about and scattered into the shadows. A rainbow of robes disappeared behind shelves and through doors as Captain Byers strode across the black and white floor. In the sparse spots without shelves of books there were tall mahogany tables, each one stacked with tomes and scrolls. This was a sacred place to these robed men, a place of learning, and Captain Byers knew this would become the epicenter of power for his new glorious kingdom.
A small and slim figure appeared ten feet away from Captain Byers. His stunted arms and legs were dwarfed by his large head and massive flowing beard. In his arms he held his weapon, a single leatherbound book. The men behind Captain Byers laughed when they realized this dwarf intended to fight them without a weapon. But Captain Byers suspected the dwarf had chosen his weapon well.
“Turn back now,” a gravelly voice boomed from the stout man. His eyes flashed red in the candlelight. Captain Byers stood his ground and drew his scimitar from its home. He had to be prepared for literally anything. The dwarf sighed and opened the book.
Words like rain poured from the yellowed pages, swirling and spiraling as they took shape in the space between them. A knight, three heads taller than Captain Byers, swung an axe through the air. Its form was solid yet the flowing letters that formed the knight were fluid, continually shifting and rearranging in order. The letters ebbed and flowed throughout its massive form like water flowing through a stream. Some of the men behind Captain Byers laughed at the sight. Others drew their weapons. Captain Byers would be certain to remember them and honor them, whether in memory or in promotion, when the siege of this kingdom was complete. The flowing script turned red and the knight took a slow step forward. The axe, nearly as large as Captain Byers, whirled in a deadly arc toward the captain.
The twang of a crossbow unloading echoed through the air. Captain Byers stood his ground before the giant knight, his curved scimitar raised to meet the coming blow. Sweat beaded on Captain Byers’ forehead and he could hear his heart pounding in his chest. A dull thwack echoed as a heavy bolt slammed into the dwarf’s chest. The coppery scent of fresh blood made Captain Byers’ pulse thrum with excitement. The knight formed from letters stiffened and fell to the ground in sync with the dwarf. The letters splashed into the air, scattering in a small arc away from the impact point and dissipating as they drifted back to the ground. The dwarf coughed blood and gasped his final breath. His chest remained still, unmoving, and silence permeated the area around the corpse. And then chaos broke loose throughout the room.
Brown and green letters sprouted from the ground, raising to form a massive jungle of shifting trees. A lithe form leapt from branch to branch, a small book tucked under his arm. “Damn elves,” Captain Byers muttered under his breath. Other shapes and forms emerged from the trees, charging toward Byers and his men like a wild horde of barbarians. Slender cheetahs and massive gorillas led the way, followed by golems and goblins formed from words. A pair of red dragons sprayed a fire of crimson letters as their wings beat the air. Knights in heavy armor, dwarven berserkers, drooling trolls, and elven bowmen marched forward flanked by one beast that barely fit inside the building: a behemoth.
The penmanship on the massive monster was different than all the others – the curves of the letters flowed and the ends of the letters rolled up into curls like a snail’s shell. The letters were crimson and violet and goldenrod, some letters having all three colors overlap. These things tried to make the towering monster appear less intimidating, but Captain Byers was not fooled by colors nor décor. He knew a summoned beast from a Libromage was as likely to kill you as an arrow fired from a bow. Only a fool would underestimate these foes. He had truly stumbled upon the wealth of information he had sought: once they conquered the pocket of resistance here he could learn the secrets of a Libromage and then the world would kneel before his feet. Indeed, he knew exactly what sort of word-hoard was contained here and that was why he came here last in his conquest of Andgiet.
His eyes scanned the shadows of the room for signs of the Libromages themselves. The crossbow bolt had proven to his men that the best way to handle these word-foes would be to slay their summoner. His troops awaited his command, keeping tight rank behind him. Many more waited outside for his signal. The siege of the city had taken the lives of many of his men. He would likely lose more here than he had out there, judging from the overwhelming number of summoned word-foes. He raised a gloved fist and the men and women in his army held their breath in anticipation. He pointed to the left, the right, and then straight. They forked off into three prongs of attack like a trident. He led the center column toward the beasts and humanoids ahead of them. Shield-bearers rushed toward the front of the mass, prepared to provide a wall of protection for this column. With any luck they would bring all the focus down upon themselves and the others would be free to pick off those hiding in the dark recesses and alcoves of the room.
Captain Byers smiled and swung his scimitar, the curved blade flashing in the candlelight as it arced toward the gorilla at the head of the word-foe army. Words fell like rain to the floor, puddling around their feet. The gorilla had been struck down from his scimitar striking in synchonization with a trio of lances thrust from the men to either side of Captain Byers. To his left a squad made short work of a duo of cheetahs. The two armies clashed in the center of the library floor, blood and ink spilling with every strike, swipe, or bite. Captain Byers’ wall of shield-bearers was beginning to dwindle in number, a towering team of golems denting metal with heavy blows and crushing the men with strong swipes. Captain Byers whirled his scimitar overhead, black and cobalt ink spattering through the air as he signaled the army waiting outside. The steady thrum of marching feet beat like a pulse as they entered into the fray. The din of battle was full of agonized screams as men and women fell victim to blows from letter-swords and shots from word-cannons. Their army was not large enough to sustain such a pace of battle but Captain Byers cast those thoughts far from his mind. Soon the tides would change and fortune’s wheel would turn in their favor. It had always been that way.
Captain Byers parried a thrust from a pirate whose eyes were splotches of ink pulsing in the air. Their blades met midair but made no sound as they clashed. Flowing black script rushed in waves along the surface of its sword where the weapons met, the ink trying to reinforce the blade and reshape it as his cold steel cut through it. But the pirate’s efforts were in vain, as words could not match the power commanded in his hand. He had been wise enough to have his weapon enchanted before they took this place. The enchantress had known her craft well, as evidenced by his scimitar cutting through even the thickest of Libromage creations. His curved blade broke through the word-sword and crashed into the word-skull of his foe and the pirate became mere words, the words became ink, and the ink fell to the floor with a soft splash. The scent of salt water and pickled fish emanated from the puddle beneath his boots as Captain Byers marched forward. That was one more down. Yet for every Libromage creation they slaughtered two more took their place, just like the fabled hydra. Had his men managed to discover where these pesky Libromages were hiding yet?
In answer to his unasked question the behemoth exploded. Words spread like rain, showering down upon the entire room. The acrid aroma of rotting flesh and charred bones made Captain Byers and his men retreat a few steps. A splotch of lavender ink splattered on his face and ran down his cheek. He knew he had lost dozens of good soldiers to that monster and now the tide was turning. No blow had landed on the behemoth to bring it down. The Libromage had been discovered and dispatched. Captain Byers yelled out to his men and they rallied around him. The word-foe army fell back under the intensity of their blows and, one by one, a dwarf or an elf or an ogre burst into a splatter of ink in the center of their army. His strike team was finally accomplishing their mission. The inky creations died without word, even though they were formed from words, and Captain Byers lost fewer men by the minute. Two dragons charged into the fray. Captain Byers stood his ground.
Crimson and orange flames flared around the shield-bearers as they formed a protective wall before the army. The words had no heat to them, yet Captain Byers and his men knew they were fatal. Death would come to any who scoffed at the ferocity of the dragon breath, even that breathed by word-dragons. A squadron of knights circled around each dragon and hacked at the legs of the beasts. Each dragon raised its head in a soundless roar and turned its gaze toward the knights. With both dragons distracted, Captain Byers charged ahead of the shield-bearers and plunged into the combat. His sword struck leg and side, deflecting off the hard scales formed from words. He thrust at the space between the flowing letters but found no greater success. He hacked at wings as they flapped in the air and his weapon was denied. But the dragon turned its head toward him and he could see his death written in the gaze of its crimson eyes.
“Enough,” boomed a voice. Everything paused, men and women and word-beasts, as the echoes died away in the candlelit chamber. The word-beasts parted to let someone through from the back. Captain Byers held his fist up for his own troops in silent command. He was curious to meet the man behind the voice that could give such a strong command. Heavy black robes disguised shape and figure as he approached Captain Byers, who was doing his damned best to ignore the word-dragon breathing on his neck. Strange how this beast of ink and letters let out hot breath in rhythm with his own. The man approaching was flanked by half a dozen others who had their hoods down: a man, a dwarf, an elven lady, a grotesque troll, a lanky lizardman, and a stout centaur. Captain Byers thought it unusual that this assembly of figures, representative of six of the seven major civilized races in the thirteen kingdoms, were following the one. Therefore he was not surprised, too much, when the hood fell back to reveal the leader was a goblin.
Her features were distinctly feminine, although in quite a different manner than Captain Byers was accustomed to observing in the women of his home. Her nose was long and crooked down into a point and her ears jutted out to either side atop her head. Her olive skin was rough like leather but smoother in complexion than he had ever seen in a goblin. Her strands of black hair atop her head were thick and had an oiled sheen in the candlelight. She let the cloak fall away and leapt off the shoulders of the goblin who had been carrying her this far. It had been an interesting ruse, disguising her height so as to hide her true form. She stood a head taller than the dwarf yet she was less than half the size of the troll. In spite of being a woman, and short in stature, she commanded the full respect of the room. Captain Byers felt inclined to like her already in spite of the fact that he was going to have to kill her.
“Enough lives have been lost already this day, on both sides,” she said with a slight incline of her head. “Would you not agree, Captain Byers?”
He stammered. She had known his name? How? “Alas, an unpleasant yet necessary side-effect of conquest,” he answered at last. He considered returning the nod to her but thought better of it. Best to look strong and confident in front of his men. The lizardman hissed but was cut off as the goblin raised her hand.
“Come now, Captain Byers, I am certain we can come to terms agreeable to us both. We know what you want. Does it truly require a thousand more lives to obtain this plot of land?”
“So you surrender?” Captain Byers said without thinking. He knew that was not being implied but it was certainly the only way to prevent those deaths. But he had heard rumor of this council of seven and what he knew was enough to know they were not about to hand over their secrets.
“No, Captain. But there is still another way that we can settle this without putting others at risk. One of us against one of you.”
Captain Byers pursed his lips and considered the proposition. He looked the seven over, gauging in his mind whether he could best each of them in single combat. The troll might be tricky, and the dwarf could pose a threat, but he was certain he could defeat any of the others with ease. “Terms of the combat?”
“One of your men of your choosing,” she began.
“I will fight the battle myself,” Captain Byers interrupted.
“Very well, then,” she said with a sly smile. “You will face one of us in single combat outside the city walls and both sides may employ the weapons of their choice. Your men and women are to withdraw to that battlefield immediately, remaining as spectators at a distance. The other six of my group here will accompany your chosen opponent to the field.”
“My chosen opponent?” Captain Byers asked. He could taste the victory being handed to him already.
“Yes, Captain,” she answered with a hint of a nod. “The rest of my people will remain safe in here. If you win, you can have what remains on this piece of land without further resistance. If we win, your men and women withdraw and never return.”
“I accept your terms,” Captain Byers shouted so that all could hear him. The room buzzed with hushed conversation all around them.
“Choose your opponent wisely,” she said.
“I choose you,” he answered and the terms were set.
Captain Byers stood tall at the head of his army. He had traded his clothing and his armor for fresh, untarnished ones. The leather armor worn beneath his clothes was light and flexible, unhindering his movements as he flowed through warm-up thrusts and parries with his scimitar. He wore a sea of crimson for his attire, broken only by the gold-trimmed buttons on his waistcoat and the single white dove dancing in the wind atop his hat. Captain Byers twirled his scimitar and passed it to his left hand, running through a gauntlet of thrusts and parries with his off-hand. His red breeches were tucked into his polished crimson boots. The belt around his waist had been dyed to match the boots and the buckle had been made from a rare red iron that came from the forges to the far eastern kingdoms. Rubies decorated a scarlet sheath at his side, the waning light of the day gleaming upon their facets as he shifted through his strokes. Today Captain Byers was walking death. He smiled and switched his sword back to his right hand, stepping up the tempo as the seven approached. Let them see whom they are dealing with. Let them realize their defeat is inevitable.
His foe stepped forward, dressed in a simple white robe that flowed around the sharp angles of her limbs. Her hood was pulled forward, casting a shadow over her face as it danced in the light breeze. She had no weapon that Captain Byers could see, nor even a book or scroll at hand to cast her spells. Libromages needed written words on the page to give them form, conjuring things contained within those tomes. Yet she had nothing. Was she to be their sacrificial lamb being led here for slaughter? Was she to become a martyr, to make a point by practicing peace while he struck her down? Perhaps she suspected he would not strike if she were unarmed. But she would soon find that would not stay his blade for even a breath. Victory was at hand and it tasted sweeter than fresh honeycomb.
Captain Byers twirled his scimitar and advanced toward the goblin Libromage. Words like rain fell from her lips, forming one word-goblin and then two. Three more quickly joined the others and Captain Byers missed a step. This woman was casting without a book, without so much as a page, and was raising more than one thing at a time. He had heard rumors of Libromages who could craft things from their own minds, without the aid of written word, but never had he heard of them being able to summon and control more than one thing at a time. The green ink of the word-goblins danced and flowed as they marched in unison toward Captain Byers. They chanted in goblin as they marched and one called out, “Victory for Mistress Silvertongue” as their word-feet stamped the ground. Weapons materialized in their hands, slender slings that shot bursts of gray ink through the air. Their projectiles pelted Captain Byers with spatters of ink that ran down his crimson chest. The six behind the goblin laughed but Byers found no humor in the mess. This was his favorite attire, as his crimson visage usually made an intimidating impression upon his foes. To be made a fool was not acceptable. Captain Byers reached down and pulled a knife free from his belt, flicking his arm in one swift movement that sent it howling through the air with deadly precision. A shield formed in the air in the time it took Captain Byers to blink, enveloping the area around the goblin known as Silvertongue. The steel blade hit the word-shield without a sound and dropped to the ground with a sharp clatter. Before Captain Byers could react the word-goblins were upon him, swinging tiny daggers and axes formed from lethal ink.
Captain Byers was able to deflect their blows and dispatch the word-goblins with ease. A light thrust was usually enough to incapacitate one. But his sword could not stop five attacks at once and every time one word-goblin fell another sprouted from the inkstains underfoot. He reeled under the blow from a trio of clubs, pain lancing through his shins. The two goblins he felled merged together into a larger form. Black and gray ink rippled as the word-warg let out an inaudible growl, lowering itself to the ground. It leapt into the air with snapping jaws and flashing claws. Captain Byers ducked and stepped aside as the warg flew overhead. He straightened and an inky fist slammed into his jaw, spattering his face with emerald splotches. The trio of goblins had merged as well into a miniature ogre while he had been distracted by the warg. He could not imagine how a person could contend with these ever-shifting, never-dying creations formed from the words that the Libromage wove. His advantage had been in numbers, with his army fighting alongside him in battle. Isolated and alone, he was outmatched by this Silvertongue. He needed to do something to change the odds back into his favor.
Captain Byers rolled between the ogre’s legs, thrusting his scimitar into its exposed back on the other side. It spun around, fists windmilling, but Captain Byers had already moved away. The warg flew through the air at him and burst into a blast of ink as the ogre’s meaty ink-fist slammed into it. Captain Byers struck the ogre’s thigh, chest, then neck and watched the giant fall to the ground in a pool of crimson and black and brown. Captain Byers wasted no time, sprinting across the battlefield toward his opponent. A pillar of ink burst into shape ahead of him and he adjusted his course just in time to avoid a collision. Walls of ink raised around him, forming a labyrinth to slow his progress. Was she tiring already? He needed to get through this and put an end to this contest before she could summon up something fearsome like a dragon or behemoth.
The first dead end he encountered suffered a strike from his scimitar. It cut through the ink like a hot knife through butter but the wall remained intact. He kicked the barrier and sharp pain shot up his leg. The wall was solid enough to resist all but his blade, yet it was clear he could not cut his way through. He turned around and backtracked, taking a different path. Three dead ends later he found himself near his destination. If his estimations were correct she was just beyond the center of the maze. Things had been oddly quiet during his navigation of the labyrinth. Every sound he heard made him pause, heart pounding so loud he was certain that Silvertongue could hear it. His step slowed every time he drew near to a turn or a dark shadow. He expected surprises to leap out of walls or to be hiding in ambush around the corner. But he had found nothing. But that trend ended when the center came into view.
It stood tall on two hairy legs that were each as thick as a king’s waist with muscles that bulged as they stamped the ground. Its torso was rippled with muscle and covered with a blue hair that was much shorter and finer than the hair on its legs. In one massive hand it gripped a thick mace, the other a shield as large as Captain Byers. Long and sharp horns protruded from either side of its head. Black eyes the size of saucers watched Captain Byers without blinking. A burst of steam rushed out of either nostril and its black tongue draped from its open maw. A minotaur was standing between him and victory, only this one was not made of words and ink and letters. This one was flesh and blood and bone. The realization gave him pause. She had left him alone to navigate the labyrinth because she was bringing in something real into the world, moving a minotaur to this battlefield from somewhere else in the world. The thought of possessing that kind of power made his eyes brighten and he gripped the hilt of his sword until his knuckles turned white. And then the monster charged.
It bellowed as it crossed the open space between them. Its cloven hooves flung clods of dirt and rock and dust into the air with each pounding stride. The mace, its round head the size of Captain Byers’ torso, slammed into the ground where Captain Byers had been standing moments before. Steam burst from its nostrils and it turned its dark gaze upon Captain Byers. Its breath burned his skin even through layers of armor and clothing. He ducked as the mace came around in a whistling arc that knocked the crimson hat from atop his head. He struck at the monster but it deflected his blow on its shield and trampled forward a few steps, forcing Captain Byers to retreat a few paces. His right heel clipped along the base of a wall. His left hand grazed the smooth stone-like surface of the inky structure. The mace came down in a strong overhead blow that would crush him into jelly. Captain Byers rolled to his left and the mace crashed down on the ink-wall. The words like rain sprayed in all directions beneath the force of the blow but the ink reformed the wall around the mace faster than the beast could withdraw it. The minotaur tugged on the weapon but it remained firm in its place within the swirling black spirals of the wall. Captain Byers looked at his scimitar and then at the minotaur and shrugged, running toward the exit of the maze. Killing the minotaur was not his objective in this combat. He was content to let it remain behind, struggling to free its weapon.
Silvertongue stood alone in a small enclosed space within the labyrinth, her hood still pulled forward to cast her face in shadow. There was no sign of weapon in her hand, nor did any more words escape her lips. The secrets were as good as his. He knew it. From her lack of resistance, she knew it too. Captain Byers plunged his scimitar deep into her chest, piercing the cold heart of the Libromage. He felt the resistance as the blade sank into her flesh. And then her cloak fell to the ground, devoid of anyone or anything within it. The walls vanished around them and he heard an audible gasp from his men and women gathered behind him. Had his victory surprised them? Were they shocked by the sight of the minotaur. Captain Byers spun to see what they were looking at. But it was not him nor the now-missing minotaur. His gaze followed theirs and he saw an empty plain that stretched for miles. Deep grooves were worn into the ground where the walls of the kingdom of Andgiet had stood. It was gone. All of it. The people, the buildings, the secrets of the Libromages. Vanished into thin air.
A light voice rang in his ear. It was her voice. “Did you think the secrets of Andgiet would fall into the hands of a tyrant? You shall search for it, Captain Byers, for all the days of the rest of your life. And your search will be in vain for you will never be worthy to learn our secrets, nor to enter again into the Kingdom of Knowledge. We shall never meet again in this life for you are not worthy of wielding this power.”
As her voice died away Captain Byers fell to his knees in the ink-covered dirt. Tears like rain fell to the ground as his dreams came crashing down around him.