The Pebble and the King

by Ryx

Muri allowed Llyn to rest, taking up the watch as he prepared to begin his ritual. They had run far and hard to get ahead of the huge, slow moving stone towers so that he could prepare for what he had planned. Standing just outside the entrance of the huge cavern, he was able to see the road, and the huge dike where it crossed a deep valley. A steady rain was falling, half obscuring the distant sight. He rather imagined the water was getting pretty deep behind that huge earthen wall. Soon enough the water would be pouring through the three culverts below the road level, if it was not already.

He turned at a sound from the cavern behind him, seeing Llyn's silhouette emerging from the dimness of the depths. She nodded as she stretched, not stepping directly into the dim dawning light and rain. Muri gave himself a shake, shedding the water from his fur, glad for once for the cold wet; it washed some of the grime from his fur. He had soap and grooming supplies in his pack, but the past weeks had been far too hectic to allow him the luxury of keeping clean.

He would have to remedy that, soon. He grinned as he wandered from the light, into the darkness of the cavern, and passed Llyn as she strapped on her belt. She had left her vest at their makeshift camp deeper in the cavern, which left her with nothing in the way of clothing save her belt. Muri pulled his gaze away before it roved lower than her whiskered muzzle, shaking his head slowly. She was fetching, certainly enough, but here was not the place for such ideas, nor was it the proper time. They could not afford the distractions.

And besides, he had no idea how he would be received if he did make any advances. She was strictly professional, and seemed rather put off by his practice of magic, and his faith. Banishing the ghostly image of her within his mind, he turned his attention upon the task at hand. He had rested as best he was able prior to relieving Llyn earlier so that she might sleep, so he was feeling prepared in body as well as mind.

Kneeling before the table rock upon which his circle had been drawn, he bowed his head and offered up a series of sing-song prayers to the entire pantheon of his gods. The prayers were rote, ritualistic, the strangely inhuman burr of his voice echoing hauntingly through the cavern as he ran through the entire litany, ending upon his own personal version of the Prayer of the Land, to Artela.

That done, his voice fell silent as he turned his focus inward, tapping the well of his diminished magics, letting the last of his energies drain away into the chaotic swirl of the earth life around him. Losing himself in their coruscant shimmer, he relaxed, letting them encompass his presence, shredding away the last of his tightly controlled personal energies, leaving him emptied, bereft, and alone in the all-encompassing power of the earth.

Yet not entirely lost. Once fully cleansed of his disciplined energies, he began to rise from the shimmering rivers of energy, drawing as much up with him as he could. Despite the denuding of the forests there was still a huge reserve of energy within that deep buried node, and his drawing away some of it made no perceptible change in the quantity. He withdrew from the energies, cutting them off from the source and setting his discipline to them for the project to be performed next.

Blinking back into the physical realm, he stretched slightly, shaking out his fur as he glanced around. Silence and shadows were all that greeted his eyes and filled his ears, the wet scent of old stone and mineral water filling his nose, together with the mingled musks he and Llyn had brought with them into the cavern. The emptiness here was nearly equal to that he had experienced lost within the energies of the earth, but with a solid physicality about it that banished the feeling of abandonment that the flow instilled.

Taking a deep breath and letting it out, he rearranged himself before the flat surface of stone, setting his blade to one side within easy reach, as well as the other implements he planned on making use of. Reaching up to his neck, he drew up the small bone he had shown Llyn, pulling the thong from around his neck and looking at the discolored brown amulet. Grasping it between his hands, he gave a quick jerk, the bone snapping easily. Now Keletikt would know where he was, and that he was requesting the Shaman's presence. That done, he cast the shattered remnants into the heap of his equipment and removed the rest of the items around his neck, leaving himself unadorned entirely. Settling his knees into the sand before the stone, he lit the incense within the burner set in the center of his circle with little more than a glance. As smoke began to filter from the small holes he began his chant.

A deep, sonorous tone, the chants were a combination of ancient magical formulae dedicated to the powers of the element Earth and the more modern incantations of Stone and Soil. He chanted from deep within his chest, deepening his voice to lend the power of earth to his calling, lifting prayers to the various deities of the land, both modern and ancient. This litany repeated in slow, stately procession, his body swaying slightly in the sand, his hands clasped before him in supplication as he sought to call forth the spirits of the Earth, whichever spirits there were to answer that had not gone into a dormancy with the lessening of the life energies around them.

He expected to do this for much of the day and into the night, as earth spirits were notoriously lethargic beings to begin with, moving slowly once awakening to the voice of any who call upon them. Thus he was slightly surprised when, after an hour of variations of Stone, a quiet shape appeared from the wall opposite him. Without missing a verse he lapsed into the phrase of Name that was a polite way of requesting the spirit's name so that he would be able to refer to her properly. Again he was rewarded with a quick, silent response from the spirit, revealing her name within the context of his chant as if he alone had learned it with no consideration from the unmoving female shape before him.

"Patient Gyl'Milar, I petition to..." he started, bowing his head toward her, but tapering off as her hand came up in a staying gesture slowly, bringing him to a confused halt as another shadow seemed to detach itself from the heavily textured wall across from him. His eyes darted to this new figure, much more stout than the first; a spirit of some mountain, or another hill perhaps. The verse of Name never left his lips as her name came to his mind with alarming speed. Then a third shadow appeared, tall and willowy, from the face of the stone. This was no earth spirit, her form too slender and ephemeral, her color that of ancient oak bark and spring leaves. She was gaunt and pale, her manner lethargic. Her name, quick to spring into his mind, was Tannim Larch, and her tree was no more.

"Invoker Findahl, we hear your call, and know your quest." the second spirit spoke, the one whose flesh was the color of flint, with striations of lapis and paler chert adding features to her strong, exotically alluring form. Her voice lacked the ponderous, slow grace of the one other earth spirit he knew, Grimshori, a fact which sprang swiftly to mind. "The land dies, our sisters are sundered from their soul trees." she waved a powerful hand toward the exhausted looking dryad, "You seek to halt those that ravage our lands, and we understand this."

Muri rocked back on his heels, staring in open shock at the spirits who had turned his summoning to their own purpose, and he had no control over the situation. For a moment he pondered the wisdom of not creating a containment for the summoning, but dismissed the idea as foolish.

"Yet, were you to stop this force, our land would remain crippled, and nothing short of the intervention of higher gods can change that."

"Surely they would intervene on your behalf?" the first words he had been able to speak in many minutes.

"Those who ravaged our realm have created powerful magics to bar us from interfering." whispered the dryad, her face expressing great sorrow, and a pent up anger that Muri found rather frightening. Nymphs were powerful creatures in their own right, and to be forestalled by the magics of mortals meant that such magics must be powerful indeed. "Thus it must be a mortal that assists us, as we assist them."

"Assist you," said the first earth spirit, her voice slow and gravelly, her flesh a mottled, unremarkable grey, "storyteller." Muri blinked and raised an eyebrow to her at that last appellation.

"Your name is known to us, speaker-to-stones." the taller earth spirit, Largos Shori, smiled at him, "We speak often to our sisters of the land." Muri could only nod as she leaned closer, the smoke from his incense wreathing around her broad shoulders as she laid out a handful of stones before him. He could see already that they shone with prodigious amounts of invested energies. "Speak with us, storyteller, as your time passes."

"As our time passes." lamented the dryad, her head bowed. Muri stirred his hand through the stones, a half dozen of them, all of a pale greyish blue stone that was rough to the touch and very dense. Picking up one of the stones, he rubbed his thumb across it, the surface smoothing out like warm clay under his thumb.

"Where is your tree, Tannim Larch?" he asked lightly as he worked the stone between his fingers, looking at the somnolent tree spirit. He could work the stones initially by little more than touch, the fine details coming later. For now he could pay attention to his most attentive guests, and hostess. Which of the earth elementals was the spirit of the cavern and hill he was in he did not know, or where the others came from either.

"Not far." the dryad lamented, pointing toward the entrance of the cave with one age-gnarled arm, a browned leaf fluttering down to land within the circle he had created with his sparse supply if incense and powder. "My roots run deep within this land, but my flesh lies upon the turned earth of the beasts." Muri nodded, getting a mental image of the road, and the Lutins which constructed it.

"Can life be brought back to the trees of the land?" he asked as he worked the first stone into several very thin, flat wafers perhaps an inch across and as thin as he could make it and have it not shatter on him. Setting them aside, he picked up a second stone and began working it likewise.

"For many, no." the dryad shook her head sadly, the shorter earth spirit putting a gentle arm around her shoulders as she growled, a particularly powerful sound of great stones grinding together.

"For you?"

"The winter will determine my fate." she sighed softly. Muri nodded. There was little he could do for the tree spirit, for he was not a true cleric of his faith. He was a layman, more secular than anything else, merely owing allegiance to the goddess Artela. He did not have the right, or the power, to perform the ceremonies of the church, such as healing the spirits of the land, though he could invoke them in his magic.

"I sorrow for you." he answered truthfully as he finished the second set of chips, and picked up the third stone, "I sorrow for all that the heedless mortals have destroyed in their lust for power and greed." He said, falling silent for several long minutes as he worked the third stone into several more of the thin wafers. He had a respectable number of them set aside, perhaps four from each of the stones, but he knew he would need more. How many would serve his purposes, he did not know, so he would make as many as he was able to.

"What of you?" he asked, looking up to the first earth spirit, Gyl. "Those creatures did little to the land itself any distance away from their road, merely razing those things that were upon its flesh."

Gyl rumbled angrily, her voice rumbling through the earth and making his molars ache with its deep power and barely contained rage. "The land is a balance." she rumbled, steam wafting from her mouth as she turned her attention to him, "Without trees the mountains are reduced swiftly by the water and air, before the promise of their treasures are ever known. Without life, the land dies."

Muri nodded slowly, knowing full well what the loss of the life that lived upon the land did to the complex pattern of energies woven into the land. "Without that life, the very spirits of the earth die, even whilst their flesh remains?" he waved a hand toward the cavern, indicating the hill that it was carved from.

"Without our sisters of the air, water, and sky even the greatest of the earth wither and die, yes." the taller earth spirit intoned heavily. Muri grimaced and nodded with a quiet sigh, setting aside another collection of stone wafers. He said nothing as he finished the last two stones, ending up with close to forty of the thin wafers. To his magic vision they all glowed with a bright incandescence, the energy invested in them more than he had handled in any previous works with the earth. Even his pickaxe housed less magic at the moment of its creation.

These nymphs were willing to invest a great deal of that which granted them lift to ensure his success. He hoped that he could live up to their expectations. Picking up his smaller dagger and one of the chips, he turned his voice to other, less weighty matters.

"In the land where I spent many of my formative years, Sathmore, there is a particular myth of an ancient king by the name of Mathalfor." he began, sliding back into the role of storyteller, a particular skill he had learned he had a talent for many, many years in his past. Before he was even spirited away from the keep at Metamor, where his father once worked as a long range scout. He carved a rune into the surface of the stone with the tip of the dagger, taking great care to get the etching just right.

"A truly sinister soul, this Mathalfor. His tastes ran to the extreme, in flesh, in finance, and in war. He was a conqueror, and quite good at his chosen path, much to the misfortune of those kingdoms surrounding his own." he carved a second rune around the first, the two runes blending together to form the particular rune he chose. The first was the rune of Stone, a power rune that would hold the power invested in the stone at the level it was when inscribed. The second, larger rune, was one he could etch blindfolded and asleep; a rune he had put to much use over the past couple of years, the Sunder rune. In conjunction with runes of earth it became a spell in its own right; the Shatter spell. Smoothing the two runes with a careful finger, he carved in one last, tying it in around the edges of the stone and leaving but one tiny curlique of the rune open. The rune of Patience and Bonding, as Keletikt had shown him, though modified to work with his own magics rather than using the Lutin's method of binding by blood. Together they became a triggering rune, waiting only an event to trigger them. Setting that stone aside, he picked up another and began the process all over again.

"This evil king, when not sortying against his neighbors, turned his fiery passions to the captured prisoners from his last crusade. He cared not whether they were male or female, young or old, only that they be winsome of body and innocent of spirit, for that was his particular enjoyment." Muri finished the rune of Earth with a short, quick flourish, "To shatter the spirit even as he ravaged the body, which he would then discard to the use of his guards, or even to the passions of the beasts he kept around his castle.

"A particular blessing had been placed upon this king by an elder god, one best now known as two dark lords: Revonos and Agemnos, a god dedicated to rage, war, and self serving ambition. The blessing was frighteningly all inclusive, but amazingly simple. It stated merely that this vile man, this kink Mathalfor, could be slain by no weapon forged by the hand of any mortal being, or a weapon wielded by the hand of any mortal being, even a weapon forged by a god." Muri's voice dropped to a deep, rumbling growl of sinister import as he set aside the second stone and began on the third, "Thus it was that he could wade into the thick of any battle without the fear of falling to any weapon, wether those wielded by his foes, or traitorously ambitious allies.

"Nor was he particularly mortal, for he aged at an incredibly slow rate. For over a century his darkness spread like a blight across the land, like the rot." he heard the dryad shudder at the mention of the bane to so many great trees, "Many had attempted to face him, with all manner of weapon. Nothing worked; not arrow, or blade, or even poison or sickness. In the case of these two last; poison is a weapon. The weapon of cowards, but a weapon nonetheless. Sickness was often a random event, and Math had the greatest healers in the land to aid him in his healing. It is rumored that he even captured and held, for a time, the greatest sage known to the world of his day, the creator of a great book of arcane knowledge now lost to the world, the Tamar." Muri winced as the stone broke in half in his hand, ruining his work. He picked up the shattered pieces, pressing them together between his fingers. The more he worked the stone, the more magic he drained out of it, which would leave him less to work with when the incantation was finished, but certain things needed to be done. Smoothing out the stone, he once more began carving the runes into it.

"Though that lasted only as long as he could keep the sage away from the many magical items he was cataloging, which was not long, and the man escaped, taking with him several pieces of very ancient and very potent magic, though he was forced to leave behind one of the earliest versions of his tome." Muri's voice passed smoothly from word to word, the form of his muzzle and throat giving them a particular soft edge, making his narration into a soft sing-song that seemed more ballad than history, "As it was, this vile king had steeled himself against all those things that could be his doom.

"Save for one." he set aside the reworked stone onto the stack of others that seemed almost completely identical, save for the hue and shape of the wafers, "A child." he picked another from the shrinking pile of slender stones, "No ordinary child, this, but one who would create a caste of powerful followers as he grew into his power, but that is another story. You see, this child was from one of the adjacent and recently conquered lands, and was brought to Mathalfor's demesnes with his mother for the King's future pleasure, and cast into one of the castle's deepest dungeons. Eventually he was separated from his mother, who never returned.

"She lasted but one night with the rapacious king, and was then given over to the master of hounds for the depraved entertainment of the king's sycophants. Throughout this entire ordeal her fate was known to her son, who realized his rage deep within the bowels of the century old king of the greatest power in all the lands at the time. The child, a mere boy for all accounts, not yet having passed his eighth winter, was older than his years, and had a dark, secret power none knew save for this mother and now deceased father and brothers.

"And now, he was all that remained of his family, his was the only talent that remained, and he knew that shortly the king would come to make the same use of him as had been made of his mother. So he acted, going to the king before a summons ever came to him." Muri leaned back, stretching his aching back as the last few stones lay to his right, a large stack of rune engraved stones to his left. He paused in his labors to work the kinks out of his fingers.

"This lad, who's name has been long lost to time, came to the king but three days after his mother met her fates at the teeth of the king's sinister hounds. During the supplications and dedications of allegiance of those conquered nobles that had survived the fall of their kingdom the child entered. Ignored as insignificant by the guards, he was allowed to pass, until he stood at the end of the great walk from the ranks of supplicants to the tall dais upon which the mighty battle king sat in his huge gilded throne.

"'I have come to avenge my mother, my family, and my kingdom!' declared the child in the mightiest voice he could call from his diminutive lungs. Laughter erupted immediately from the guards and nobles of Mathalfor while the ragged nobles of his own kingdom stirred and muttered fearfully among themselves. All eyes were on the child standing along in the center of the great chamber, no one saw what the child had brought with him." Muri smiled at the three nymphs as they stood silently regarding him, the dryad leaning upon the hill spirit, all of them seeming more statue than sentient creatures. Placing his hands within his lap, he continued his story, for a time neglecting the few stones left to finish.

"'What vengeance have you come to visit on me, child?' Mathalfor asked in a deceptively calm voice as the laughter died, utterly and completely, at the first syllable of his speech. He leaned forward on his great throne, his robes whispering their heavy, sibilant hiss of expensive silks and velvets as they shifted around him. The child stuck out his chest and stood as tall as his diminutive frame might allow, refusing to acknowledge the tear that left a trail down his grubby cheeks, 'I have something that your god cannot protect you against, vile pawn of dark lords!' the child yelled back, as he could not be heard over the murmuring that began the moment the king ceased speaking. The king leaned back in his throne, not particularly threatened by the child's proclamation, but not so stupid as to cast the threat aside lightly. He rubbed his chin with one strong, sword callused hand as he regarded the child for several long moments, then raised his hand.

"'Slay the...' the king's order was never completed as he let out a sudden gasp, and clutched his throat. No one had seen what happened, no one understood, not even the king. No one had witnessed the small, fast moving object that crossed from child to king in the blink of an eye. Only the child knew, as he paced the length of the throneroom's center aisle, a place only the king himself had ever been allowed to step. Guards brought up their bows, but fired nothing at the boisterous child, for there had been no order. To do anything without the king's voice behind it would be death to any of them, despite the fact that their monarch could not seem to speak. 'No weapon forged by the hand of man or god, wielded by the hands of any mortal or immortal can slay you.' the child's voice was soft again, the high tenor of a young child, quavering with the suppressed rage and sorrow of the past months of his life, 'But that was no weapon touched by mortal or immortal hands, pawn of dark gods.' the child pointed, his arm and hand rigid with hatred, 'It was but a pebble!' he screamed as the king clutched his throat and gagged, his face purpling.

"Courtiers drew away from their stricken lord, horror writ large upon their sallow faces as the great man sank to his knees before his throne, his face a bruised purple, his eyes bloodshot as he choked, on a pebble of all things. 'I do not need to touch anything, foul king.' the child proclaimed, coming to stand at the foot of the dais, 'Therefor your blessing is ended, your curse lifted from these lands.' the child stepped back as the king toppled down the steps of his dais, struggling to draw Cuenheim, his great sword, and strike the child down. But his face had gone a pale grey tinged with blue and it was all he could do to lift his hand as he sprawled at the feet of the child, 'Evil king Mathalfor, I slay you.' the child proclaimed with grim finality as the great, invulnerable king finally slumped, unmoving, upon the floor of his own throneroom."

Muri picked up one of the few remaining stones and set the tip of his dagger to its still pliable surface, "Thus it was that the great kingdom of Forthail fell to the might of a single pebble, and was expunged forever from the histories of the lands that were thus freed. Only in myth does it remain, to pass from elder to child over the course of a thousand years and more, as a lesson of the folly of power absolute." he finished the stone with swift ease, setting it aside with the others, "For when one is all powerful, only the most minor of obstacles can waylay them." he picked up another stone, his voice finally fading to silence. A shuffling in the sand behind him brought his attention up from his work, and he turned slightly to find Llyn watching him from a few paces away, her eyes going from him to the three immobile spirits opposite him.

"Your Lutin is coming, I believe." she muttered quietly, swallowing visibly at the presence of the trio to whom he had given his story. He nodded with a smile.

"Let him through, but stay out of sight for the most part." he said as he turned to finish his work on the stone, and picked up another, "I don't know how he'll react to you."

Llyn nodded, her eyes never leaving the three humanoid creations of stone and wood, "I will." she whispered, and hastily retreated out of sight.