The Arkanist
Author: surfingpanda7

Chapter 20
The City of Serpents

“The city was taken.” Said a man hidden by shadow. He wore ragged brown robes with smeared soot laced across the fabric and a wrapped cloth over his head. He was from Dreados, the cloth told Visir that much.

“They swept over the walls like a wave from the ocean and crashed down on us, taking us prisoner, raping us, or just killing us.” The man went on to say, shifting in his shackles as they rasped along the dreary stone ground, dark with lichen. He spoke in the Hhadiri, but Visir could understand well enough.

“Our guards held the city for as long as they could until they were overwhelmed and the city was lost as soon as the O`eaneese soldiers crossed our walls. Inside, they plundered the city, taking the gold and gems and extravagant wealth gleaming in the throne room and the vaults under the mountains.

“They traipsed in, burning, destroying until the city was in a dismal ruin, hardly enough to be called a city.” The man continued, until his speech was engulfed by a monstrous stampede of rushing white streaked with blades of blue roared through the wrought-iron bars of the cell and enveloped everything. The water smacked Visir’s face hard, the churning currents throwing him lifelessly. The water began to recced, crawling back to the sea, the water white as snow as it frothed along the stone floor.

“There is a reason why they get their name.” Moaned the man, his glinting eyes like diamonds as they look through the bars and down at the rippling white fingers walked across the dark surface. Great rock spires dark with shadow and moss spiked through the churning water like spears sticking through a man’s body, the spike ripe with red.

“The seacells.” Said the man, tired. “Stories have always wandered into my ears o the dreaded places. Some have said they saw a man down, others say the wave broke so hard that the bars shattered and the water snatched the two prisoners like fish, dragging them out to the jagged caves right there. Nasty places these are; unlike anything else.”

The man stopped talking when there was a loud moan of iron from farther down the main hall, where the grimy rock floor was thrown with dim splashes of flickering red light. Visir could hear the trickle of keys and the high yelp of iron as the gates were swung open. The guards, bearing wrought-iron scones shivering plumes of ruby flame clicked into the seacell and thrust the captives out as if they were nothing more than vile cats seen on the side of the street. The gates were closed with a clap like lightning and the prisoners were dragged away, the sounds of aimless pleas vanishing into the darkness.

“We’ll be up soon.” Said the man as another wave broke before them, hissing like a hundred snakes as it sprayed through the bars. The white fingers of froth hit Visir hard, like an iron fist and showered him in a fine mist of salt. A chill wind burned icily against Visir’s soaked skin as the water receded back from whence it came.

He shivered, his teeth clattering like water running along rocks, “Up for what?”

“They’re taking us before the King of O`aes, the Serpent King to be assessed.”

“Serpent King?” Asked Visir, his brows running with beads of water. “Is the king a serpent?”

The man chuckled. “No, King Elliae is no serpent.”

“The why does he call himself that?” Said Visir, “To make his seem more formidable?”

“In part.” Said the man, “Though there are some who believe like most of his people that he can turn into a serpent. For it is said in legend that the House of Aeneir was the House of the Serpents. It is said that King Elliae’s ancestors could turn into serpents upon their calling. Still, some still believe in the legends and the family history, King Elliae for one. Though as of recent kings none have been known to turn into a serpent.”

“Could they though, his ancestors?” Asked Visir. “Could they truly turn into sea serpents?”

“It is said.” Rasped the man, coughing. “It is said.”

Visir braced, clenching his muscles tight as another fist of water punched him, spitting splinters of white when it crashed down on him. He was knocked aside, his face slamming into the firm rock floor. Bone met rock and he felt as if he had broken his cheek. After the water had then been swallowed back again by the cavern, Visir rose, the racing snow splitting around him.

“The stories have been true about these cells though.” Said the man. “Nasty business sitting in them.”

“Indeed.” Said Visir, thinking of the hot, dry desert, trying the warm himself with the visions of the orange fins of sand and the beaming white sun, rimmed with a ring of red. A wave of heat splashed over him, soaking into his body and heating him, until another wave crashed into him, the roar fierce and vehement. The hissing faded as the last bands of white wended across the stone, seeping through the iron gates like snakes.

In the churning breathes of salt and water, Visir heard his name being called. “Visir… Visir…Visir…” Came the hisses, slithering through the air. There was a ringing at the bars behind him and he swiveled to see dark shadows. Inside, like the moon, a face stared at him palely, almost ghostly even. “Visir…” It said, straining.

Visir squeezed his head through the bars, the rusted iron tearing at his skin like black talons. His eyes widened as he saw, “Arstain!” Visir whispered, exulted.

“Indeed, that is I.” Said Arstain softly. “Here,” he rasped quietly, holding out a black object through the bars. Visir took it in hand, feeling the leather he knew well. It was Frostbite, his sword.

“How did you manage to get this?” Asked Visir, “And yours? Do you have yours?”

“Yes.” Calmed Arsain. “I have mine as well, hidden under my cloaks. It would be wise if you did the same. When the O`eaneese stormed the city, I punched the guard holding our weapons and took them back. A nice blade you have indeed, very nice. From pommel to point… magnificent. Where did you say you acquired it from?” Inquired Arstain.

Visir remembered, but couldn’t say. He saw the flashes, felt the scars on his back prickle. He would have to lie, “It was a gift.”

“A fine gift.” Said Arstain. “I would keep it safe.”

Another waves of water bellowed into the cells, this one softer. It swept low and fast across the floor, stirring Visir off-balance, though not knocking him off the ground. He was thankful, for the waves had come harder ever since the first one.

There was a sudden groan of wood as the O`eaneese guards thrust open the door, “Quite!” Hissed Arstain, touching his finger to his lips and fading back into the shadows of his cell. The guards swung the corner of stone, their faces licking with the warm flame. They marched down the hall, passing the scones of fire, the flames writhing momentarily and pluming with a gust like smoke, spitting dancing red rubies into the darkness of the seacells. They walked onwards until they stood before Visir and Asrtain’s cells, their fingers fumbling with the keys.

The Hall of Ellesia opened before them like a valley as they were thrust up a crumbling stone staircase and shoved out into the hall. Stark, sullen grey walls of weathered stone rose all about them, rippling banners of House Aeneir tumbling down the sheer grey faces. The heavy blue cloth was stained dark with dye and emblazoned across the sea of blue there was a fierce serpent, its body wending along like tentacles.

Hulking square stone pillars ran down the sides of the room, fashioned as giant pedestals for perching stone serpents, their fierce eyes set with chips of sapphire and emerald, glinting in the dull grey. Before the stone pillars, great braziers of crackling fire threw a dancing light at the creatures bodies, splotched with shadow. The hall was dreary and cool, with a salty wind that wended through the center, hissing up to the massive stone dais.

On either side, guards of the king stood still as stone, wrought strong and hard of the sea. Their salty, stern, pale faces were hidden behind dulled silver steel helms, wrought with spikes that stuck off the back of their heads. They were clad in the same silver ringmail and worn leather breastcoats with plates of hardened steel enameled with interwoven blades of blue and silver, a deep navy serpent emblazoned onto the chest. The silver hauberk fell down past their thighs and was covered with deep blue chausses. Meeting the stone ground, dull grey greaves spiked out like scales and so too did their gauntlets. They were the high nine of the Serpent’s Guard.

Four stood on either side of the throne, their steel hands resting on the seastone pommel of their blades, sheathed in a deep blue scabbard. Their leader, Lord Shallienn, garbed in heavier armor and a gleaming seastone helm fashioned in the shape of a serpent, stood directly before the king and before the dais. He was tall, and broad, with muscles of stone, rippling like the twisting roots of a tree. Resting at his hip was his greatsword, Saltslayer, forged of seastone and in his hand, a long gleaming spear with a glinting seastone point, piercing and foreboding.
A pair of lesser guards, their blades hidden under their heavy wet cloaks, led Visir and Arstain through the monstrous hall. Their hands were still in shackles and they blended together with the rest of the Dreadeen prisoners as they marched along the stone hall, passing through blades of sunlight as they streamed through the thick glass windows on the walls, casting a grey light over the hall. Visir could feel the crashes of waves pounding against the unyielding stonewalls, their frothy fingers hissing at the crest. They came in intervals of five seconds he counted, each stronger, stampeding into the walls like foamy white horses.

The mass of prisoners were set in a spear of sunlight, streaking across the width of the hall, the guards bowing low and stepping aside, “We bring more.” They said in chorus, deep and hard of tone. They joined their fellow O`eaneesse between the pillars of stone, looking on with grim, expressionless faces at the prisoners and awaiting the king’s judgment.

“More.” Said the Serpent King in a stony voice, hard and stern. “Each time it reminds me more of how we sacked the great and holy city of Dreados. How they loved their Sun King, until of course he lay dead before the Temple of Alleh, you God. Where was he, I ask you? Why did he not come and save you from the Sea? There is only one reason,” he said, growing louder, “The time of the Sun has faded and the age of the Serpents shall come again!”

The O`eaneesse roared at his words, chanting in their language of O`eaneivv. They were silenced by the ruling hand of their king as he leaned forward, glaring down at the prisoners. Under his long, straggly black hair a hard grey face of stone stared down, fierce blue-grey eyes shimmering in the grey light. His nose was bent and his cheeks were thin and defined cheekbones curved like bows. He was draped in robes of hard fabric, weaved loosely in shifting shades of blue, glinting different shades as they passed through the light, almost like metallic scales. At the chest was the silver serpent of House Aeneir and a circlet of seastone wreathed in seaweed crowned his head, spiking jaggedly.

“How our people will rejoice tonight after the sun has fallen and when darkness rules.” He bellowed, leaning back on his massive stone throne, encrusted with beads of sapphire and emerald as if like shattered shards of glass. It was the Stone Throne, a chair sat in by the great Serpent King’s of old, when the legends were made of their inhuman abilities and skinchanging.

“We shall feast for this victory over the northlands of Hhad, and the lands my ancestors held for thousands of years. May they never be forgotten!” Another chant thundered through the hall.

“Lord Shalienn, great sir, may it be that you see to these men.” King Elliae pointed a stony finger. “Bring them individually before me and I will hear their voices cry to their beloved Alleh. Bring them forth. Start with the quavering ones first. They are always the best.”

Lord Shalienn nodded, his serpentine helm glaring malevolently towards the prisoners. He strode forward, greaves clinking against the stone floor. His hand sank down to his waist were he slid out a seastone dagger, the hilt ripped with coated mahogany. His ringmail shimmered as he entered the blade of light and thrust out his gauntleted arm to snatch a quivering man, draped in haggard white robes, grey with sorrow and defeat.

Shalienn threw the man down before the dais, the thud echoing in the silent room of stone. Visir could feel his heartbeat. It was slow, but heavy, as if burdened. He watched on, grieving for the people. Though after all, they had made to kill him. But was it them that wanted to kill him or was it their Hhass that made it so? He had indeed insulted Alleh, their God.

“Do you pray to Alleh?” Asked the Serpent King. “Does he listen? Does he answer?” The question hung in the bleak room like mist. “Will he save you?”
The prisoner’s eyes were closed, muttering things. “He will save me from this. He will take me away from here.”

“Then let us test you Sun God, you beloved Alleh, shall we?” King Elliae thundered, beckoning for Shalienn.

Lord Shalienn sheathed his dagger with a click and wrapped his hand around the virgin leather hilt of his greatsword. The pommel was that of a serpent, set with eyes of emerald, its tongue curling from its mouth. The Saltslayer slid the seastone blade out slowly, the steel grinding wickedly. The flat danced with blue sparkles of light, until the dark grey-blue steel itself gleamed a brighter hue.

Two other knights of the Serpent’s Guard clattered down from the dais, holding out the man’s arms so that his head was suspended. Shalienn strode to his side and taped the neck with the cool seastone flat, torturing the man who still muttered. The greatsword rose and fell, cleaving the man’s head clean off in one monstrous strike. It fell from the neck with a deep thud and a roll, dark blood brushing along the stone floor and a pool settling beneath the neck.

Elliae leaned back into his Seastone Throne, pleased. “Take the body to the Serpents, we shall put his head on a spike along the battlements.” The knights dragged the dead body away, blood trailing behind like a road. “You see, you Alleh is no God. He does not answer to you. What is he than a figure stone of your beliefs, living solely from you legends and your praises you still do. Alleh is no god, there are none. There are only us, the people who dwell on this earth. There are none above and none below. They are folly.”

“Then tell me.” Said Visir, Arstain pulling at his cloak to silence him.
Stubbornly, he continued. “Tell me, what do you then make the Oppressive One to be, if not a god?”

“Who dares speak amongst you?” Shouted the King. “Show yourselves. I want to look at the man who dare defy me!”

Visir stayed, staring up at the King, “You see me clearly enough, do you not? I am the only one bold enough to look at you while all the others shy away.”

“Guards!” Said Elliae. “Seize him and bring him forward.”

The guards remaining beside the Seastone Throne stirred to life, walked down the steps rigidly from the stiff plate armor. They bombarded through the crowd, grabbing Visir and forcing him forward before the dais. “Tell me again, will you?” Said the Serpent King in a hiss. “What is it you say about the Gods?” He chuckled.

“I say that they are real.” Said Visir. “The Ancient Ones and the Seven Elders.”

“What cause do you have to say such things?”

“I have seen one. I have seen the Oppressive One.”
The King’s face darkened, “This man is speaking folly. He is taking me for a fool! I will have so such speech of any gods in my hall, nor shall I have them in my city, the City of Serpents!” he stopped abruptly, almost as if he was chocking. He continued to stare into the crowd of prisoners, ignoring Visir who stood in bars of armor, looking on aghast. He lifted a twitching finger vaguely towards Arstain, “Bring that one before me.”

Two guards on the side of the hall stirred to life and forced their way to Arstain, plowing over the prisoners as if they were wooden poles. Artsain kept his face low, his hood masking his face in shadow. He struggled against his bonds as the guards fought to hold him still.

“It cannot be.” Gasped the Serpent King. “Throw off his hood. Make him look at me with his black eyes.”
As much as he strained, Arstain’s head looked up to Elliae, the cords in his neck bulging. “Revenge will be sweet.” Whispered Elliae. “Revenge will be sweet indeed.”

The King rose from his throne, spreading his hands and speaking to all gathered in the hall. “This man.” He claimed, throwing his hand to Arstain. “This man is the murderer of my true heir, my son, Prince Ellean. This northerner slaughtered my son before my very face in the Battle of Hhad long ago, when Dreados emerged victorious. But now the tides have changed. And here he stands in my own hall, before my very face: the man who killed my son.”

King Elliae stepped down the stone dais slowly and ran his hand along Arstain’s grizzled cheek, “But it is not I who will deal this death. My father, the Great King Ellinn, always told me when there is revenge we give it back harder, and stronger. I will not simply chop of your head and rest it on spike for all to see. I will make it agonizing. I will make it painful, and I will make it slow. Then when tomorrow comes, after I have celebrated this victory for both my city and myself, you shall find yourself face to face with the Serpent.”
He straightened his back, “Take both these foul beasts down to the Serpent’s Stomach. Let them scream!”

 

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