By Carlos A.S. Lising
Edited by Thomas Kelly
They started to arrive at sunrise. One by one, each appeared in their own way. The first to arrive came as glittering sunlight and a cloud of glissando moonbeams, realizing themselves into shapes and forms as they pleased. The next, seven in number, strode forth from the verdant density of the timbers, offering nods of salutation and respect to those that arrived before them. In turn, they greeted five, rising from the ocean’s cresting waves. Four more, hailed later, brought forth on world’s winds. They all assembled before the great pavilion. Each one older than time itself, yet, none of those ancient ones could say who was responsible for the colonnade that stood at the foot of the mountain with it’s everlasting pillars of pristine white marble, run through by veins of silver and gold. Certainly the next seven, clambering from deep burrows and bearing gifts of baked goods and fresh cheeses, did not know. Neither did the thirteen from the west, pale skinned, proud, and imperious. And for all their profane knowledge, not even those knew who came riding upon dark pock-marked steeds or vile clouds of darkness, accompanied by the chittering laughter of the mad or the sighs of the damned. Still they came, one by one, gathering before the pavilion. Some stood beside mortal enemies or next to long-estranged kin—this one beside that one, even those antithetical one to the other as fire to ice, light to dark. None raised a weapon; none raised a voice. They came because each knew they must. They came to offer a first and a last word, each the same: respect.
His conscious awareness surfaced as if from deep, dark waters, like one arising from non-existence, like one waking from a sound sleep, the way one sloughs off the soporific haze of a dreamless slumbering. Past the gossamer veil came the normal sense of confusion. Where am I? Why do I feel so cold? What time is it?
Wonderings roused by the sudden flood of lucidity stoked up and sprang to life like sparks and embers rising into the night sky above a campfire. Was it not the same every morning, this waking up?
Then, fear. What if the answers only wrought more questions? I’m not in my bedroom. No bed, no blankets. It’s neither day nor night, wherever I am. He sat up like a shot, his spine steel-straight. Even if his vision remained slightly blurred, he was wide awake, sitting in a small room. Most definitely not my bedroom! Here, were walls of dark stone, rough-hewn, as if chipped from the flesh enclosed within some imposing mountain’s heart. He lay on a prominence of the same rock, made soft by layers white linen. A smokey acrid scent wafted to his nose. Surely the smoke of that lonesome torch, flickering in the sconce upon the wall behind his resting place. The light of the torch made the room seem to glow a color equal parts gentle warmth and scarcely-restrained anger. The air felt almost hot. He found himself shuddering, regardless.
“Shhh….” a voice, beside him. Gentle. Feminine. “Be not afraid.”
She might have said something afterwards as well. He scarcely would have noticed, for when he felt the touch of her hand upon his shoulder, he nearly jumped out of his skin. She withdrew her touch as if chastised. He whipped his head around to see; his eyes fell upon a rare beauty of a woman, tall and slender, her flesh pale like alabaster. Long, resplendent crimson hair tumbled down over her shoulders and beyond like the discontent of a volcano. In one hand, she held a staff made, perhaps, from solid, dark stone.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You don’t yet know.”
He blinked twice. I’m still asleep. Dreaming. Obviously. “I’m…” he started to speak, then reconsidered. “No, I’m sorry. You just … startled me. That’s all.” He paused before hazarding an inquiry, “Where … is this?”
He looked around the small chamber, and his eyes fell on the dark mouth of some exit cut in the rocky wall. Where might it lead? The torch flickered, casting dancing shadows over the dark stone.
She seemed to hesitate before responding. “The end of everything.” Her voice like a sirocco wind across a vast desert plain. “And the beginning of everything.”
He blinked again, suddenly aware of his own breath, rising and falling, his own heart beating like thunder in his ears. Dreaming. You’re just dreaming, He reminded himself. He decided to play along, “Okay, and who are you?”
She looked surprised at the query, like the answer should be the most obvious thing in the world. “I’m your patron,” she explained. “I’m your nurturing mother and your beloved bride. I’m the fires of creation and the ashes of destruction. I am the passion that unlocks all doors with reason—and burns to cinders those that would resist me. My name is here,” her finger touched his temple, a warm touch, “and here,” across his lips, “and here,” a tap on his bare chest, directly over his heart. You know it well, indeed. Search for it and you will find it.”
Another pause. She stepped back, allowing him the grace of room to breathe.
“Rise,” she bade. “Our relationship affords me the honor to meet you here and to act as your guide. But others await.”
He did as she said. The stone felt hard beneath his bare feet, his body was swathed in white linens, like those upon which he had lain. They reminded him of a toga. Immediately, he felt self-conscious, practically naked, his spindled failing body standing before the beautiful enigma. He could only imagine what she thought. He didn’t consider himself a vain man, but he wished her eyes might have beheld him in the vigor of his youth. There was a time, after all, that he was strong, physically powerful enough to hold his own as a doorman at some clubs considered pretty bad news. He wished she could see that guy rather than the pathetic physical wreck he’d become.
The woman took the torch from the wall. Holding it aloft, she walked in the direction of the dark corridor ahead, trailing a plume of smoke as she moved.
As she turned away, he realized he could see her clearly. It wasn’t usually that way. The illness … it had taken his eyesight before ruining the rest of his body. Usually, when he awoke, he was nearly blind. At best he took in the form of blurs of shape and color. Nothing was ever solid any longer, not for nearly two decades. Not until her.
He followed after the trailing plume of smoke, the flickering glow in the stone corridor ahead. As he went, he became aware of more and more. His knees—a perpetual disaster—no longer ached. A glance at his hands revealed them to be smooth, their skin taut and new.
My name is here. And here. And here.
He stopped walking. Instead, he ran after her.
The last of them arrived. The Queen of Witches—dressed in dark gown and fetching veil, ever eager to make a memorable appearance—broke the silence. “You know,” she said, the edge of a sneer on her timbre, “if not for the Chronicler, the accounting of my life and times might never have been writ.”
The man next to her, dressed in the finery of a bandit prince seemed bored by the revelation. “Do tell, O Curse of Perrenland!” he yawned. He produced a dagger from a sheath on his belt and began to clean beneath his nails.
“It is so,” Iggwilv said. “His great catalog chronicles my glory, and many have used his research to investigate my grand legacy. For this kindness I would reward the souls of all librarians, historians, and loremasters alike! Let them enjoy reading aloud to me as I set a clutter of bebiliths upon them and sound a chime of hunger.”
Olidammara rolled his eyes, glancing to his other side where stood the very vision of beauty: a young maiden holding a lovely bouquet of flowers, her face striped in shadow thrice by the sunrise. His countenance changed to reflect her fetching smile. “And you, milady?” he inquired, eager to be quit of the mother of the Old One. “Surely one such as yourself bears no malice for the Chronicler?”
Myhriss smiled in return. The laughing rogue felt his knees weaken. “Not at all,” she laughed. “He has said that I am only mentioned ten times in the breadth of what is known. I would only give him three flowers and be on my way. Respect,” she nodded sagely, “must be paid.”
Her sentiments inspired a tall, grey-bearded man standing before them. He turned and nodded in the direction of the thrice-kissed maid. Likewise did a woman in grey robes, made so for the threads that composed it, reflecting every color that might possibly be. “It is so,” Lendor said. He cast his eyes on Istus but briefly before finishing the thought, “This is the way that things must be. That they will always be.” He glanced again in the direction of Our Lady of Fate, as if to confirm the truth of his statement. She replied only with soft and knowing smile.
Behind the bunch, a whispered word. “This is kind of freaking me out,” said a slender woman with short, black hair. Her hand seemed affixed to the rapier at her belt. She uttered the confession to a powerful warrior-woman with long blonde hair that glistened like the sun.
Mayaheine placed her hand on Rudd’s shoulder. “Fear not, Luckbringer,” she assured, perhaps too loudly (others were beginning to stare). “I will suffer no harm visit thee, should war come of this occasion. Stand thyself behind my shield and know respite.”
Rudd shook her head. “I’m not worried about getting hurt,” she countered, her voice low and confidential. “I’ve conquered awful dungeons unimaginable—more than you’ve spent days on Oerth! But look at them! That’s Lendor and Istus. Consider their followers. I guess … I just can’t believe we’re not all swinging steel by now.”
“It bespeaks the significance of the moment, aye?” a voice from behind her. She turned to meet its owner and gazed into the face of the sun, warming and soothing, kindly and gentle. “A solemn moment, hmm?” Pelor added.
He reached her side, and she slipped her arm through his, linking their elbows. Beyond the envelope of her torchlight, he could see little, even for his renewed eyesight. Not even the hallway’s walls seemed firm and substantial. “I … ah, figured I better catch up if I wanted answers.”
“Indeed,” she replied. “There are many paths that lead from this place. Some obvious—some not. It would have been a pity to have lost you to Pandemonium or Tarterus when our destination lies so near.”
He saw no mirthful jest in her dark eyes. “Point taken.” He drew a step closer. They walked on for a silent moment, then, “Can I ask a question?”
“Of course,” she replied. “If one such as yourself deigns seeks knowledge from one such as I!”
He nodded. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to him. But right now, little really did. Still dreaming … right? “You said it was your honor to be allowed to meet me and act as my guide.”
He caught her scent. It wasn’t the smoke of the torch after all. She smelled of burning things. Nights spent with friends around campfires; books burning during the sack of an empire.
“Why?” he asked. “Why is it an honor?”
She looked at him askance. “Still, you do not know my name?” she scolded in the tone a mother might use to scold a child.
He could feel the blush rising to his cheeks. “No,” he confessed. “Not yet.
“Hmmph.” It seemed to wound her pride. “You should. It is your ilk that make me real, and all my kind. And as the Chronicler, you stand above your many brethren. Your great labors profit all who would catalog our mien and tales.”
“The Chronicler?” he asked.
“That is the title by which you are known,” she said. She stopped and cast a long gaze on him. “Have you not said I am mentioned but eighteen times in all that is known? I do not begrudge you the slight.” Her lips betrayed a smile.
He met her gaze and nodded. “I’m dead, right?”
She returned the solemn gesture. “Aye,” she said. “You succumbed to illness and left your world. Now, it falls to me to guide you to the next—where you live on in legend. And so begins a new adventure. Such is your destiny.”
A smile crossed his lips. “I can think of worse fates,” he decided.
Ahead, a pinprick of light came into view. “Did you … fix me?” he asked.
“No,” she replied. “In the same way that a caterpillar might enter its chrysalis injured yet emerge anew unblemished, so you have become whole again.”
He nodded. “That’s … pretty cool.”
The woman chuckled softly. “Yes,” she replied. “Pretty, cool. And so handsome have you become that I had to contend with Myhriss and Wee Jas. Fear not, they are no match for me.”
He raised a brow. “Seriously?”
“Not at all,” she said. When she laughed, the shadows around them seemed to gain a slight tremor. “You have little in common with those, whereas you and I, we share much. Fear not. I do think you handsome—in a certain light.”
He chuckled. “Torchlight, perhaps?”
Her eyes seemed to flicker brighter at the suggestion. “Fire is the only truth. It removes all impurities, leaving behind only fact. It is the crucible from which all knowledge first comes.”
He regarded her closely, gazed into the depths of her red hair, felt the warm skin of her arm locked with his. “Joramy,” he said, his voice a bare whisper. The name fell from his lips; he realized he’d known it all along—in his head, upon his lips, and in his heart. “You’re Joramy.”
She nodded. Her smile grew beatific.
“At least you’re Gygaxian,” he sighed.
“Disappointed?” she asked.
“Not at all,” he smiled. “It makes perfect sense. You’re the Great Debatrix. And I could talk about Greyhawk … well, forever. You’re a goddess of knowledge, which stands to reason, given that I’m … ahem, ‘the Chronicler.’ And, uhm…” he added, “if you were to ask my peers, sometimes I get caught up in my arguments about Greyhawk because I feel so damn passionate about it. I’ve had a lot of arguments with people I really care about and admire. Sometimes, some pretty bad ones. I’ve said stuff I wish I could take back.” He made a face. “But it’s only because of love. Just like you. Knowledge. Wrath. Quarrels. All for love.”
Joramy pulled him closer. “Thank you,” she said. “For everything.”
The long tunnel opened into a brightness, a dazzling light, but he found he could look directly into it without squinting or shielding his eyes. The illumination revealed a broad pavilion of shining white marble. Above it stretched a roof, supported by dozens of thick columns. The stone was shot through with ribbons of silver and gold.
Walking to the far edge of the breathtaking structure, he saw that the land beyond abruptly fell away. The pavilion stood like a stage overlooking a massive throng, gathered as one. When the Chronicler and the goddess appeared, their cheer seemed to split the sky.
He could see dozens of familiar faces: Iuz, standing in the shadow of a chicken-legged hut, Dalt, seated jauntily upon the shoulder of the machine of Lum the Mad, Vecna and Yondalla, Lolth and Moradin. He winced as his eyes fell upon a goddess with shining golden hair. She wore plate armor and lifted a mighty sword to salute his appearance.
“You dislike Mayaheine?” asked his patron.
He made a disgusted face. “Carl Sargent,” he answered.
A figure approached from the eastern portion of the colonnade. Lithe and handsome, he wore dark leather armor and boasted a wicked blade, sheathed at his hip. He greeted the Chronicler with an outstretched hand. A rather unique ring betrayed his identity. The Chronicler grinned widely, shaking that which was proffered, and exclaimed “Lord Gord!”
“Lord Zavoda,” the man nodded in reply. Piercing eyes looked the Chronicler up and down and took everything in at once. Whatever he thought, he kept to himself. It was ever his way. “You will come with me. Once you have tired of basking in the adulation of fawning deities. We have some distance still to travel. You will do so at my side.”
He looked back to his patron. “Joramy?” he asked.
“Peace, Chronicler,” Gord held up a hand. “I will return you to the care of the shrew in due time. Your presence has been requested by one still more celebrated than thee. And as his guide, it is my duty to take you to his side. I understand you have many questions of him—and he, of you.”
The Chronicler’s eyes lit up like the caldera of twin volcanoes. Indeed, he had many questions.
For my friend Jason Zavoda (11.23.65-12.22.21), sleep well; dream forevermore.