Emperor’s Quest Part 2
Part 36 of Quest
& Part 1 of Istan’s Solo Quest: Chasing the Cross
Wingtips skimming clouds
He fell with the clouds bursting
Rain spatters earth’s skin.
~ ~ ~
Istan remembered the storm, the blood spilled
to create a ward, stall a storm’s attack.
He’d fallen weak from blood loss and had willed
his mind to follow the wild storm’s track back
to who had sent it, to the new Storm King.
His mind had decoupled from his body,
flung itself up, free of his collapsing
mortal shell, winged northwards, disembodied,
which made the search for truth easier still
because the man who wore Winter’s Mantle
couldn’t sense the mind hurtling towards the hill
where he stood, his mind lit like a candle
‘gainst the unpopulated dark, exposed,
not shielded, from the attack Istan posed…
~ ~ ~
Istan swooped down on the Storm King taking his mettle then stopped. Something wasn’t right here. An elemental force like that shouldn’t be alone and unprotected in the middle of a tundra. The white haired man, likely some barbarian chief with a drop of the All Father’s blood in his veins, looked like bait. So where was the trap? Who had set it? Who could have known that he would still have the power to follow a storm back to its start even without Winter’s Mantle?
Who indeed. It had to be someone who knew his lineage. Someone who knew that he was the last living son of the original Storm God. Or something worse…
Clouds rained tarot cards.
Emperor’s face turned and fell–
face up, fortunate…
Istan plucked the card from the wind tearing past. A wind that should not have torn at his mental self since he was not here in body. He fingered the card and it felt solid, real in his hand. Damn it. This was not a real out of body experience. This was some other insanity. He had walked into a trap.
Rising over the distant mountains a maelstrom, its rage palpable as its winds swung around what should have been its eye. Instead a gaping hope, a mouth sucking on the psychic marrow of the world, pulled everything the wind swept towards it into that maw.
Screams, whose volume increased as the creature of thought and hunger rolled across the sky. The new Storm King threw his head back and laughed. His eyes shone with manic glee above the tangled ropes that dropped from under his nose and obscured the lower half of his face and chest. Spittle flew as words burbled out of the insane man who called down lightning intended to crisp Istan.
The lightning struck, but not where intended. Startled gray eyes fixed on Istan, who wasn’t rendered extra crispy by the strike.
“You fool, I am a living fulgurite,” Istan shook his head. Did this fool not learn his lore?
Extreme heat fuses sand.
Lightning strikes make fulgurites,
Sons of Storm Gods too.
Above, the sun fought to break through the haze the maelstrom extended. A figure stood on a break in the stone that ringed the tundra. His gray robes rustled in the wind of the maelstrom rising behind him. Cold eyes burned into Istan. Power saturated the air as it strained to break loose, but this man held it in check.
Istan did not need to see his face; it was the same as the one on the card upside in his hand. A phrase came to mind, a bit of the old wisdom learned long ago and never forgot:
Reversed–abuse of power,
The Emperor nodded once, then extended a hand. The card dropped from Istan’s grip as magic unlike any he had faced before tackled him to the ground. Arms sprouted from the earth and hugged him, dragging him under. Not before he had one last glance of the terrible thing that was the maelstrom obeying the this Emperor’s command. It drew no nearer to the mad Storm King who’d resumed his cackling. Instead, it slunk away, heading north towards the scattered villages along the shore. He could do nothing to protect them as the ground devoured him.
A slap brought Istan around. He blinked bleary eyes at a dim hut. Shadows hid the ceiling still. Bandages swathed his feet and something bubbled away in a pot nestled in the firepit. Fragrant spices, coriander, turmeric and good old pepper added zest to the onions, garlic and tomatoes he smelled.
He yearned to go north, to save the people who had depended on him to gentle the winter’s fury so they might eek out a living on the polar fringes, far from the barbarian hordes. A card lay on blanket that covered him. He picked it up, then dropped it. The Emperor’s card–he recalled his brush with that entity and shuddered as he dropped the card.
Few knew how much truth the tarot deck held in its cards and withheld–far more than it ever gave. Who was the emperor and why had he returned? Had he created the maelstrom? What was the maelstrom’s true purpose? To suck all knowledge, memory and sense of self into it? To what end?
The crude working he’d done to save the village remained intact; he could feel it like a phantom limb that twitched, but held. Outside the wards, a storm waited to crash down and rend this village. The Emperor didn’t feed it; he didn’t need to not when the current Storm King was a weak-willed lackey.
He could’t dispel storms,
break up knots that tied magic
into feral storms…
Without the mantle–
winter’s crown and cold scepter–
storms won’t obey him.
A painted man sat beside the pallet.
He held a steaming bowl but his eyes caught
the emp’ror’s card; his fingers, like mallets,
struck the card and sent it tumbling like thoughts.
The card stopped, fell flat, face up and upright.
The painted man relaxed, handed the bowl
to Istan, who had levered himself upright
to watch the card, find out what it foretold.
The card twitched; its gray tones writhed mixing thrones
decorated with rams’ heads with barren
mountains behind and the Emperor’s stone,
an orb transmuting into a warren,
nay, a mouth–the maelstrom’s mouth that swallows
all identity, leaves the mind fallow…
~ ~ ~
Cards decreed his quest:
find the Emperor; stop him.
Go north without rest
~ ~ ~
Istan’s Quest continues in Hierophant’s Quest.
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