The Three Sides of Truth - Part I
By: Charles Matthias & Chris Hoekstra
|This work comes between Jormugand and Killing Time. Special thanks on this work goes to Christian O'Kane for his tireless betareading.|
ven though it was a rainy afternoon outside, the calm drizzle soaking appreciated into the thirsty earth, inside the Sondeckis Shrine it was just one more tool for Charles to use to find his Calm. The Calm was very important to the Sondeckis, a place of solace inside themselves that was far removed from the chaos, fright, and anger that otherwise dominated their existence. Without it, Charles reflected, every child born with the Sondeckis inside of them would die by the age of twenty-five, if not sooner, from the madness that would eventually envelope their minds. Their power generated the anger and rage in increasing portions as time went on. Only through the use of their power, and the techniques he was presently teaching Garigan, were any of them allowed the gift of longevity.
The ferret was sitting down with his legs crossed, and eyes bent out the window, watching the rain fall steadily. His chest raised and lowered, the brilliant heraldry upon his yellow robes glistened in the sultry afternoon air. His face was a spectacle of his soul, at times occluded, but at others very revealing. Matthias glimpsed torrents of sorrow at his lost home gush forth and spill into the battlements and gutters as did the sky's tears. But even that profound loss lasted only a moment before it was replaced by a sullen anger that appeared to exist in every single strand of fur, and collect at the tips of each of his whiskers. Then that too passed away from his pupil's visage, to be usurped by an unfathomable expression, one that the rat could only classify as confoundment.
And this continued for some time, as the steady lull of raindrops, shattering the stillness of the undulating surface of the ponds in the gardens, as well as the heads of any Keeper unfortunate enough to be out in that mess, soaked up all of Matthias's own anger and frustrations from the previous week. The lessons taught by a master Sondeckis to their pupil were not solely designed for the student. The teacher, as in any subject, was supposed to learn from their lessons as well. So far, Charles had rediscovered so many ways to control his own emotions. It was with some regret that he admitted, his behavior in the past, and the decisions that he had made were largely guided by his hot blood, and not the cool temper of reason.
How many people had managed to rile his anger to the point where he could no longer stand being in the same room with them? Habakkuk, for one. That meddling marsupial had largely been to blame for his admission to Wessex a couple months back about his friendly relationship with Zagrosek. Of course, that Wessex had seen Zagrosek do those things was more startling in itself, but he did not need to be associated with an evil man in that young wizard's eyes. Charles wondered on many occasions what had happened to his old friend, for surely the Zagrosek that he knew would never act as the boy had described. Still, the entire situation was Zhypar's fault, giving away books of ancient lore, and then continuously hinting that he was about to reveal all that he knew was an even worse crime. That had been the reason that Matthias had made him the Head of the Writer's Guild. There was such a huge backlog from all the adventures Charles had been on in the last few months of his tenure, that Habakkuk would be swamped for months with work.
The other figure whose very presence made the rat's hair stand on end was Rickkter. Though the Kankoran hadn't really done anything of note to offend Charles, and had kept his promise not to make a nuisance of himself or to reveal their secrets, his proximity was enough to make Matthias's blood boil. The ancient enmity between their clans was over a thousand years in the making. What had the original crime been? The rat remembered reading about it at one point. All he recalled was that it was a rather pathetic excuse to cause a thousand years of bloodshed and hatred. But, with so many dead on either side, their paws were still covered red in the blood of their enemies. That was the more real pain, the names that they had lost to each other. And for that, the hatred and the slaughter would continue. Whenever the rat saw the Kankoran, all he could think to ask himself was, had this one killed anybody I knew?
Grunting in annoyance, Charles dragged his thoughts back to the present. Just thinking about those two had filled him with a quiet rage. The Sondeck liked rage, it fed off of it, and the rage fed off of the Sondeck. If allowed to go unchecked, both would be uncontrollable. When he'd found Garigan several months ago in the Glen, he had been witnessing the effects of the power of the Sondeck allowed to build up rage too far. It was rare for somebody possessed of the power in the Southlands to live past the age of ten without his clan noticing and bringing them into the fold. It made Charles wonder just how many people in the north were born with the power, but died as a result of it because there were no Sondeckis to help them.
Garigan finally looked up an expression of simple peace passing across his face. It was a moment so profound, that Charles recognized it instantly. Many times he had seen that visage upon the faces of his instructors. It was the Calm. Charles stood up, and walked gingerly over to his student's side, the clicking of his toe claws on the clay barely audible against the pelting of the raindrops across the masonry outside. He did not touch his student, not when he had found the Calm. It was such a tenuous place, any distraction could knock the ferret from his precarious perch over the torrential sea of his own emotions. To progress in rank to the green, Garigan would need to master the Calm, hold onto it despite everything occurring around him. The trials normally lasted a full day, but since he was the only Sondeckis here, some other arrangement would have to be found instead.
Unfortunately, though, the moment of Calm was short-lived, as the consternation flooded his features, his whiskers fell, and his eyes brimmed with the disappointment he must have felt at losing his perch. Lowering his narrow snout, he breathed a muffled sigh, and his grey fur appeared to quiet as well, laying back and settling down like pieces of hay floating down to the stable floor.
Charles pressed his palm against Garigan's shoulder, running a claw across the smooth yellow fabric. "You are improving steadily, my student. Do not let this setback disturb you."
He shook his head, eyes casting about the clay walls, and towards the window where the rain drizzled in, forming a small puddle as it soaked into the material. "It was so peaceful for a moment. It was as if everything I ever wanted in life had come true, and I no longer had any worries whatsoever." He pursed his lips thoughtfully, and then turned his head to face Charles, gazing a moment past towards the sculpted angel standing before the grey stone altar. "It was like I was standing with God, and He had His arms wrapped about me. I felt that way at my first Service here at Metamor in the new Chapel. I wanted to hold onto the moment, but it just kept slipping away like... like...."
"Like what?" Matthias prompted, leaning over till he was hunched almost like a squirrel, with his tail sticking up in the air, despite the robe.
"Like trying to hold mercury or hot wax, it just dribbles through my fingers, till all I have left is the memory of it being there." As if to demonstrate, Garigan held up his paws cupped tightly together. He then spread his claws wide, and waggled them slightly, before dropping them to his lap again. "I wish I could stay up there longer."
"You will," Matthias reassured him, comradely patting him on the back, "it will just take time. It took me several months before I was able to hold on for more than a minute or two."
"How did you hold on?"
The rat shook his head, his eyes returning to the stormy day. "Even if I told you, it would do you no good. It would probably do you more harm in fact, delaying your mastery of the technique by a year or more."
"But why?" the ferret asked in some confusion.
"Because you would be trying to emulate me. Each Sondeckis must unlock the secret door to their Calm on their own. I can give you pointers, help you understand some of the things you are seeing, but I cannot tell you how to stay there." Crossing his legs, Charles sat down on the cold clay floor, though he could feel the power inside of it. "Perhaps you would like to tell me what you saw while you were there? I might have heard of something similar to that from my days at Sondeshara. Perhaps it could prove helpful to you."
Garigan opened his mouth to speak, and then coughed slightly. "My throat is dry, do you mind?" He pointed towards the open window with a suggestive paw.
The rat chuckled slightly. "Actually, I think I might need something to drink too. It is not often you get clear water like this."
They both walked over to the window, their foot-paws disturbing the rain-pocked puddle just inside the sill. Garigan leaned his upper half out into the inky grey landscape that enveloped the Keep, and opened wide his long snout. Charles waited as the drizzle soaked through the ferret's robe, garbing him in a dull vermilion, and streaked through his fur, giving it the texture of morning grass, and the color of an old man's beard. Some of the rain even fell inside his pupil's cavernous mouth, glistening off of his narrow, sharp, musteline teeth.
After a few minutes, he pulled himself back in, dripping more water onto the clay, and standing back to let the rat have his turn. "Ah, that was good. Before I had fur, I used to do that all the time in the summers when it rained."
Charles grinned but said nothing as he dipped his head out under the frothy deluge. His claws held onto the wet sill, even as he tried to ignore the rather long drop to the terrazzo below. After his fall from Heraclitus's back some months back, he'd not been able to look down from heights the same way again. That same sense of inevitable doom always filled him when the ground was not right under his paws. He had to wonder how the dragons or the bird morphs here at the Keep were able to handle it. The idea struck him that it would make a delicious story to have a bird morph be acrophobic, and then he recalled that he was no longer in the Writer's Guild, and filed the notion away for another time.
The water was delicious though amazingly difficult to drink as half of it missed his mouth and landed in his eyes. And when he finally drew himself back inside, the black of his robe was even shinier than before, glistening from the raindrops like finest obsidian. Garigan was already removing his robe, the tunic beneath mostly dry still. Charles slipped his off with practiced ease, and gently laid it out on the altar to dry off. As always, his paws closed over top the shield, inscribed by a palm with a white sword in the middle.
"So, what exactly did you see and feel while you were in the Calm?" he asked, his voice quiet, almost reverent.
The ferret rubs his forepaws together slowly, as if to bring warmth back to them. The rain had lent a chill to the air that was common in the summer. Charles could feel it sinking through his wet fur despite his best efforts to warm himself. "Well," Garigan began, his speech slow, as if he were searching for the words, and not finding them, "it was like climbing a tree. There was this huge tree inside of me, it stretched upwards forever, or at least it looked like it did. You remember the pines we have in Glen Avery?"
"How could I forget?" Charles replied, a grin creeping over his features. And indeed, how could he? The trees there were larger than any other he had ever seen before in his life. They had been so wide around at the base that many of the Glenners had built homes into them, including Lord Avery. He doubted that he could have fit the trunks of any of them into his quarters, even if his door were wide enough to accommodate them!
"Well, it was even larger than that, with branches radiating out in all directions. They were thick, but even as I climbed up them, they buckled under my weight, and some of them even broke. But there was this one point, where suddenly the branches stopped, and all I could see was this single spire of wood leading into the heavens. I cannot think of any other way to describe it."
Charles saw that his pupil had nothing more to say, so asked, "And was that your Calm?"
The ferret quickly nodded, a few drops of water falling from his muzzle and into his lap as he did so. "Yes, I was only there a moment. But the view was stunning, I remember that much."
"What was it of?"
He blinked once, and appeared to concentrate on some wisp in his thoughts. Then, sighing, he shook his head forlornly. "I don't know what it was. Nothing."
Matthias nodded slowly, and then brushed a bit of moisture from his fur. "Once you can remember what you have seen up there, you will have a much better chance of holding onto your Calm, that much I can assure you. Otherwise, I'll have to think about this. The Sondeck, though we live with it all our lives, is a very personal thing, and is often mysterious to anyone but its owner. But, it is the tool that we have been given to fight with, and we shall do our best to comply to its needs."
The ferret perked up at something the rat said, his short ears nearly standing up. "There's something else I've been meaning to ask you, master."
"And what is that?"
"Well, I'm not quite sure how to put this," he began, idly scratching the clay floor with one claw. "When I was living at the Glen, I knew what I had to do. I was a scout and defender of my people. I would wake up early in the morning, make my rounds, ensure that no Lutins or other monsters were about, and then head back in late at night for sleep. Not everyday of course, but close enough to it. That was my life, and I knew why I was doing it too. I was protecting my people, and serving them. I loved to do nothing else in the whole world.
"I suppose what I am trying to say is, that before I fought for Glen Avery. Now, now that I am becoming a Sondeckis, I do not know what I am fighting for. What does it mean to be a Sondeckis? This all feels so meaningless to me. Right now, all I really am doing any of these exercises for is to control my anger. I want another reason."
Charles took a deep breath, listening to the distant peal of thunder. Standing up, he walked to the window, and closed the shutters, casting them in even fainter light. They could hear the rat-a-tat-tat as the sound of the rain intensified when it struck the paneled shutters. Taking a small candle, he dipped it into one of the lit braziers, and walked around the room lighting the remaining lamps, including the two set upon ivory stanchions on either side of the altar. Charles had brought the latter in a few weeks ago from one of the storerooms in the Long House to help with the lighting.
"I suppose you should hear part of the story of the Sondeckis. It is a long and old story." Charles blew out the single candle he held, and laid it down on the dry clay beneath his paws. "I shall try my best to keep it short, but you ought to know something about the situation in which our clan live."
Using the wax on the extinguished candle, Matthias began to trace the outline of the four main landmasses of the Southlands. Starting with a hooked downward sweep, he drew another next to it, and then a small line leading downwards, and then a dab over top of it. "This is a rough map of my home, it does not look very big, I know, but the Kitch Steppe here," he pointed a claw at the lower end of the first down stroke, "is longer than the Great Northern Desert to the East.
"Now this place," he tapped the top of the second stroke, "is where Sondeshara is - my home for many, many years. It is in the middle of the only desert in the Southlands, leagues upon leagues of nothing but sand and shorn rock. That is part of our protection from the other magic clans, as few can survive the rigors of the heat. Sondeshara itself is built on top of a salt mine, where occasionally I would work, as you needed to eat salt anytime that you had to leave the protective walls. It was a harsh life, yes, but we needed that so that we might be able to do that for which we were born.
"Politics in the Southlands is much the same as it is here up North. You have your scheming nobles, greedy tradesman, and then the underclass who struggle just to have enough money to buy bread for their children to eat at night. Oh, not all of the nobility were ambitious, nor were the merchants ravenous for wealth, just as it is here. But many more would be so if it were not for our clan, the Sondeckis.
"You see, the mage clans in the South each serve a purpose, though some of them are horrific, like the Kankoran, or the Hevay." Garigan gave the rat a questioning glance and Charles explained himself. "The Hevay are the Earth Masters, their goal is to constantly change and mold the landscape about them, often times with disastrous consequences for the villages and towns in the vicinity. We Sondeckis along with our allies have tried to root them out and destroy them wherever we find them.
"But for ourselves, we are the champions of the underclass. We defend the poor, the down-trodden, and the oppressed, as no one else will. We do our best to persuade the local authorities that it is in their best interest to look after their charges. Usually, we only have to warn them when their excesses are becoming too great. Sometimes though, they believe themselves invincible, or us powerless, and they ignore our ultimatums. When that happens, we kill them."
Garigan started suddenly at that, his muzzle hanging open in shock at the ease with which the rat conveyed such regicidal practices. "You kill them?"
"Yes, they leave us no choice. We are not an economic power to financially provide for the oppressed ourselves. We Sondeckis have the power to kill, but we try to do it only if there is no other choice for us.
"The only other time when we will kill anyone is to prevent a war. We have often had to intercede when one noble house becomes too greedy and rapacious, and tries to subjugate his neighbors."
"I cannot imagine that it would happen that often, knowing that the Sondeckis would just kill them if they tried."
Charles shook his head sadly. "Unfortunately, it happens quite frequently. Normally, we just give them warnings too, and they back off. But they are always testing to see how far they can push their neighbors before we step in and stop them. So you see, we are the keepers of peace and justice in the Southlands, at least those areas that are not controlled by our enemies the Kankoran. The name Sondeckis itself means Seekers of Justice."
Charles brimmed with pride telling his student of these things. For the first time in so many years, he could talk of them freely. "Sondeshara is the house of Justice. And Sondeshike, which is our most holy weapon, someday I will have one to show you, means Weapon of Justice."
"And Sondeck?" Garigan probed further. The expression on his face was one that did give Charles pause. He did not appear to be as excited to hear of their mission as he had thought he'd be. In fact, the ferret's visage showed disquiet and concern more than anything else.
"That doesn't actually translate well, but at best one could describe it as Soul of Justice. I'm not very good with the origins of words. I know a few of my friends back in the Southlands who could give you a better understanding of what these ancient tongues mean, but I cannot."
Garigan tapped the clay thoughtfully for a moment, and then did his best to grin. "I heard that the Southlands use a different tongue than us Midlanders."
Charles nodded then, and spoke a few words of his native tongue to demonstrate, "Icsh beväzenn wei Sondeckis". After seeing his charge totally confused, but satisfied, the rat gently stood up and touched his black robes. "Now, I think it is time I taught you some of it. I do hope that one day you will be able to stand in the halls of our clan, and on that day, you will need to know my tongue. The first words though, that you shall learn, are ones that you yourself have searched for in the past, but have been unable to find."
Garigan stood as well, towering a foot above the rat. "What are they?"
"Why, the proper words to the Song of the Sondeck of course, or as it is more accurately known in my tongue, Sondeckunliesh." And at that, the ferret did break into a wide grin, one that the rat knew he could trust. Touching the ancient symbol upon his black robe, he felt the words bubble up out of him as if from the very depths of the Earth herself. It was the most beautiful sound that ever graced his ears.
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