Mortalis by R. A. Salvatore


PROLOGUE

  Jilseponie-Pony-sat on the crenellated roof of the one squat tower of St. Precious Abbey in the great city of Palmaris, looking out over the snow-covered rooftops, her gaze drifting inevitably to the dark flowing waters of the Masur Delaval. A bitterly cold wind nipped at her, but Pony, deep in memories, hardly noticed the sting. All the region, the northwestern expanses of the kingdom of Honce-the-Bear, had experienced an early snow only a week before, winter coming on in full force, though the year had not seen the end of the tenth month.

  By all estimations, the war against the demon Bestesbulzibar and its goblin, giant, and powrie minions had gone unexpectedly well, had been completed with minimal loss of human life and without a single major city burned to the ground. Now with winter, though, the aftereffects of that war were beginning to show, most notably the food shortages in villages whose supplies had been diverted to towns that had harbored the King's soldiers. Rumors had come to Palmaris of uprisings in some of those villages against King Danube and against the Abellican Church, whose leader had surely acted in the interests of the demon. Other rumors spoke of several mysterious deaths along the coast of the Mantis Arm and of a group of fanatics threatening to break away from the Abellican Church while rejecting outright the notion of any church dedicated to Avelyn Desbris.

  So the war had ended here in Palmaris, but it seemed to the grieving Pony as if the turmoil had only begun.

  Or was it merely a continuing thing? she wondered. Was such travesty and turmoil, such unrest, merely a reflection of the human condition, an unending procession of one battle after another, of one cause of bitterness replacing another? The notion stung Pony deeply, for if that were the case, then what had they really accomplished? What had been bought by their sacrifice?

  Why had Elbryan, her beloved husband, died?

  Pony gave a helpless sigh at the futility of it all. She thought back to her early days, up in the wild Timberlands, in Dundalis, when she and Elbryan had grown up together, carefree. She remembered running down the wooded trails beside the boy, running particularly among the white caribou moss in the pine-filled valley north of their village. She remembered climbing the northern slope beside him one chilly night, looking up at the sky to see Corona's Halo, the beautiful multicolored ring that encircled the world, the source, she had later come to learn, of the blessed magical gemstones that served as the power and focus of faith of the Abellican Church.

  The next dawn, Pony and Elbryan had witnessed the return of their fathers and the other hunters. How clearly Pony now remembered that, running, full of excitement, full of anticipation, full of-Horror. For suspended from a shoulder pole had hung a most curious and ugly little creature: a goblin. Never could Pony or Elbryan have foreseen that slain little brute as a harbinger of such doom. But soon after, the goblins had attacked in force, burning Dundalis to the ground, slaughtering everyone except Pony and Elbryan, the two of them somehow managing separately to elude the monsters, each not knowing that the other had survived.

  And afterward Pony had wound up here, in Palmaris, bereft of memory and identity, adopted by Graevis and Pettibwa Chilichunk, patrons of the bustling tavern Fellowship Way.

  Pony looked out across the quiet city now, in the direction where that establishment had stood. What wild turns fate had placed in her path: married to the favored nephew of the city's Baron Bildeborough; the wedding annulled forthwith and Pony indentured in the King's army; her ascension to the elite Coastpoint Guard and her appointment to Pireth Tuime; the coming of the powries and the fall of that fortress. It had all taken years, but to Pony now it seemed as if it had happened overnight. She could again feel the chill deep in her bones as she had escaped doomed Pireth Tuime, floating in the cold waters of the Gulf of Corona. Perhaps it was fate, perhaps mere chance, that had pulled her from those waters in the vicinity of Avelyn Desbris, the "mad friar" from St. -Mere-Abelle who was being hunted by the Church for the death of a master and the theft of many of the sacred magical gemstones. Avelyn had taken Pony back to Dundalis, and there she had been reunited with Elbryan, who had returned to the region after being trained as a ranger by the mysterious Touel'alfar.

  What a dark road the three had walked from there: to Aida and the demon dactyl; back across the kingdom to St. -Mere-Abelle, where Pony's adoptive parents had been imprisoned and had died; and then back again-a road that should have lightened, despite the grief, but that had only darkened more as the evil that was Bestesbulzibar, the dactyl demon, infected Father Abbot Markwart with a singular desire to do battle with Elbryan and Pony.

  And so he had, in that same mansion where Pony had spent her wedding night with Connor Bildeborough, the mansion of horrors where Elbryan and Pony had waged the final fight against Markwart, and had won, though at the price of Elbryan's life.

  Now Pony wasn't sure what they had won and what it had been worth. She recognized the almost circular nature of her long journey; but instead of drawing comfort from that, she felt restless and trapped.

  "It is far too cold for you to be up here, I fear," came a gentle voice behind her, the voice of Brother Braumin Herde, the leader of the band of monks who had followed Master Jojonah away from the Church, believing as they did in Avelyn's goodness, one of the monks who had come to join Elbryan and Pony in their efforts against Markwart.

  She turned to regard the handsome man. He was older than Pony by several years-in his early thirties-with black, woolly hair just starting to gray and a dark complexion made even more so by the fact that no matter how often he shaved his face, it was always shadowed by black hair.

  "It is too unimportant for me to care," she answered quietly. Pony looked back over the city as he walked up to lean on the wall beside her.

  "Thinking of Elbryan? " he asked.

  Pony smiled briefly, believing the answer to be obvious.

  "Many are saddened," Brother Braumin began-the same hollow words Pony had been hearing from so many for the last three months. She appreciated their efforts-of course she did!-but, in truth, she wished they would all leave her to her thoughts in private.

  "The passage of time will heal . . . " Brother Braumin started to say, but when Pony fixed him with a skeptical glance, he let his words die away.

  "Your pain is to be expected," he tried again a moment later. "You must take solace and faith in God and in the good that came of your actions. "

  Now Pony glared sternly at him, and the gentle monk retreated a step.

  "Good?" she asked.

  Braumin held up his hands as if he did not understand.

  "They are fighting again, aren't they? " Pony asked, looking back over the snowy city. "Or should I say that they are fighting still? "

  "They?"

  "The leaders of your Church," Pony clarified, "and King Danube and his advisers. Fighting again, fighting always. It changes not at all. "

  "If the Church is in turmoil, that is understandable, you must admit," Braumin returned firmly. "We have lost our Father Abbot. "

  "You lost him long before I killed him," Pony interjected.

  "True enough," the monk admitted. "But still it came as a shock to so many who supported Dalebert Markwart to learn the truth: to learn that Bestesbulzibar-curse his name, the ultimate darkness-had so infiltrated our ranks as to pervert the Father Abbot himself. "

  "And now he is gone and you are better off," Pony remarked.

  Brother Braumin didn't immediately respond, and Pony understood that she wasn't being fair to him. He was a friend, after all, who had done nothing but try to help her and Elbryan, and her sarcasm was certainly wounding him. She looked at him directly and started to say something but bit it back immediately. So be it, she decided, for she could not find generosity in her heart. Not yet.
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br />   "We are better off by far," Braumin decided, turning the sarcasm back. "And better off we would be by far if Jilseponie would reconsider the offer. "

  Pony was shaking her head before he completed the all-too-predictable request. Reconsider the offer. Always that. They wanted her to become the mother abbess of the Abellican Church, though nothing of the sort had ever been heard of in the long history of the patriarchal Order. Brother Francis, Markwart's staunchest follower, had suggested it, even while holding the dying Markwart in his arms, the demon burned from the Father Abbot's body by the faith and strength of Pony and Elbryan. Francis had seen the truth during that terrible battle, and the truth of his terrible master. Pony had killed the demon that Markwart had become, and now several very influential monks were hinting that they wanted Pony to replace him.

  Some of them were, at least. Pony didn't delude herself into thinking that such a break with tradition as appointing a woman to head the Churchand a woman who had just killed the previous leader!-would be without its vehement opponents. The battles would be endless, and, to Pony's way of thinking, perfectly pointless.

  If that wasn't complicated enough, another offer had come to her, one from King Danube himself, offering to name her Baroness of Palmaris, though she obviously had no qualifications for the position either, other than her newfound heroic reputation. Pony wasn't blind to the reality of it:

  in the aftermath of the war both Church and Crown were jockeying for power. Whichever side could claim Jilseponie, companion of Elbryan the Nightbird, as friend, could claim to have promoted her to a position of power, would gain much in the battle for the hearts and loyalty of the common folk of Palmaris and the surrounding region.

  Pony began to laugh quietly as she looked away from Brother Braumin, out over the snow-blanketed city. She loved the snow, especially when it fell deep from blustery skies, draping walls of white over the sides of buildings. Far from a hardship such weather seemed to Pony. Rather, she considered it a reprieve, an excuse to sit quietly by a blazing fire, accountable to no one and without responsibility. Also, because of the unexpectedly early storm, King Danube had been forced to delay his return to Ursal. If the weather did not cooperate, the king might have to wait out the winter in Palmaris, which took some of the pressure off Pony to either accept or reject his offer of the barony.

  Though the weather had cooperated, Pony felt little reprieve. Once she had called this city home. But now, with so much pain associated with the place-the ruins of Fellowship Way, the loss of her adoptive family and her beloved Elbryan-no longer could she see any goodness here or recall any warm memories.

  "If he retains the barony, Duke Kalas will battle St. Precious in every policy," Brother Braumin remarked, drawing Pony from her thoughts. But only temporarily, for the mere mention of the forceful Duke, the temporary Baron of Palmaris, inevitably led her to consider the man's residence, the very house in which her marriage to Connor Bildeborough had swiftly descended into chaos, the house wherein Markwart had taken Elbryan from her forever.

  "How will we win those battles without heroic Jilseponie leading us? " Braumin dared ask. He draped his arm about Pony's shoulders, and that brought, at last, a genuine smile to the woman's beautiful face. "Or perhaps Jilseponie could take the King's offer instead. . . . "

  "Am I to be a figurehead, then? " she asked. "For you or for the Crown? A symbol that will allow Braumin and his friends to attain that which they desire? "

  "Never that!" the monk replied, feigning horror; for it was obvious that he understood Pony was teasing him.

  "I told Bradwarden and Roger Lockless that I would join them up in Dundalis," Pony remarked; and, indeed, as she said it, she was thinking that traveling back to her first home might not be such a bad thing. Elbryan was buried up there, where it was . . . cleaner. Yes, that was a good word to describe it, Pony decided. Cleaner. More removed from the dirt of humankind's endless bickering. Of course, she, too, was trapped here, and likely for the entire winter, for the road north was not an easy one this season.

  She glanced over to see a disappointed Brother Braumin. She honestly liked the man and his eager cohorts, idealists all, who believed they would repair the Abellican Church, put it back on a righteous course by following the teachings of Avelyn. That last thought made Pony smile again: laughing inside but holding her mirth there because she did not want to seem to mock this man. Braumin and his friends hadn't even known Avelyn-not the real Avelyn, not the man known as the mad friar. Braumin had joined the Abellican Order the year before Avelyn, God's Year 815. Both Master Francis and Brother Marlboro Viscenti, Braumin's closest friend, had come in with Avelyn's class in the fall of God's Year 816. But Avelyn and three others had been separated from the rest of their class as they had begun their all-important preparations for the journey to the Isle of Pimaninicuit. The only recollection Braumin, Viscenti, or Francis even had of Avelyn was on the day when the four chosen monks had sailed out of All Saints Bay, bound for the island where they would collect the sacred gemstones. Braumin had never seen Avelyn after he had run off from St. -Mere-Abelle, after he had become the mad friar, with his barroom brawling and his too-frequent drinking-and wouldn't the canonization process of rowdy Avelyn Desbris be colorful indeed!

  "Too cold up here," Brother Braumin said again, tightening his grip on Pony's shoulders, pulling her closer that she might share his warmth. "Pray come inside and sit by a fire. There is too much sickness spreading in the aftermath of war, and darker would the world be ifJilseponie took ill. "

  Pony didn't resist as he led her toward the tower door. Yes, she did like Brother Braumin and his cohorts, the group of monks who had risked everything to try to find the truth of the world after the turmoil stirred up by the defection of Avelyn Desbris and his theft of so many magical gemstones. It went deeper than liking, she recognized, watching the true concern on his gentle and youthful face, feeling the strong and eager spring in his energetic step. She envied him, because he was full of youth, much more so than she, though he was the older.

  But Brother Braumin, Pony realized within her darkened perception, was possessed of something she could no longer claim.

  Hope.

  "Brennilee! Ye've not fed the chickens, ye silly lass!" Merry Cowsenfed called out the front door of her small house. "Oh, Brennilee, where've ye got yerself to, girl?" She shook her head and grumbled. Truly Brennilee, her youngest child, was the most troublesome seven-year-old Merry had ever heard of, always running across the rocky cliffs and the dunes below, sometimes daring the brutal tidewaters of Falidean Bay-which could bring twenty feet of water rushing across the muddy ground in a matter of a few running strides-in her endless quest for adventure and enjoyment.

  And always, always, did Brennilee forget her chores before she went on her wild runs. Every morning, Merry Cowsenfed heard those chickens complaining, and every morning, the woman had to go to her door and call out.

  "I'm here. Mum," came a quiet voice behind her, a voice Merry hardly recognized as that of her spirited daughter.

  "Ye missed yer breakfast," Merry replied, turning, "and so've the chickens. "

  "I'll feed 'em," Brennilee said quietly, too quietly. Merry Cowsenfed quickly closed the distance to her unexpectedly fragile-looking daughter and brought her palm up against Brennilee's forehead, feeling for fever.

  "Are ye all right, girl? " she asked, and then her eyes widened, for Brennilee was warm to the touch.

  "I'm not feelin' good, Mum," the girl admitted.

  "Come on, then. I'll get ye to bed and get ye some soup to warm ye," the woman said, taking Brennilee by the wrist.

  "But the chickens. . . "

  "The chickens'll get theirs after ye're warm in yer bed," Merry Cowsenfed started to say, turning back with a wide, warm smile for her daughter.

  Her smile evaporated when she saw on the little girl's arm a rosy spot encircled by a white ring.

  Merry Cowsenfed composed herse
lf quickly for her daughter's sake, and brought the arm up for closer inspection. "Did ye hurt yerself, then?" she asked the girl, and there was no mistaking the hopeful tone of her question.

  "No," Brennilee replied, and she moved her face closer, too, to see what was so interesting to her mother.

  Merry studied the rosy spot for just a moment. "Ye go to bed now," she instructed. "Ye pull only the one sheet over ye, so that ye're not overheatin' with the little fever ye got. "

  "Am I going to get sicker? " Brennilee asked innocently.

  Merry painted a smile on her face. "No, ye'U be fine, me girl," she lied, and she knew indeed how great a lie it was! " Now get ye to bed and I'll be bringing ye yer soup. "

  Brennilee smiled. As soon as she was out of the room, Merry Cowsenfed collapsed into a great sobbing ball of fear.

  She'd have to get the Falidean town healer to come quickly and see the girl. She reminded herself repeatedly that she'd need a wiser person than she to confirm her suspicion, that it might be something altogether different: a spider bite or a bruise from one of the sharp rocks that Brennilee was forever scrambling across. It was too soon for such terror, Merry Cowsenfed told herself repeatedly.

  Ring around the rosy.

  It was an old song in Falidean town, as in most of the towns of Honcethe-Bear.

  It was a song about the plague. Was the victory worth the cost?

  It pains me even to speak those words aloud, and, in truth, the question seems to reflect a selfishness, an attitude disrespectful to the memory of all those who gave their lives battling the darkness that had come to Corona. If I wish Elbryan back alive-and Avelyn and so many others-am I diminishing their sacrifice? I was there with Elhryan, joined in spirit, bonded to stand united against the demon dactyl that had come to reside in the corporeal form of father Abbot Markwart. I watched and felt Elbryan's spirit dimmish and dissipate into nothingness even as I witnessed the breaking of the blackness, the destruction of Bestesbulzibar.

  And I felt, too, Elbryan's willingness to make the sacrifice, his desire to see the battle through to the only acceptable conclusion, even though that victory, he knew, would take his life. He was a ranger, trained by the Touel'alfar, a servant and protector of mankind, and those tenets demanded of him responsibility and the greatest altruism.

  And so he died contented, in the knowledge that he had lifted the blackness from the Church and the land.

  All our lives together, since I had returned to Dundalis and found Elbryan, had been one of willing sacrifice, of risk taking. How many battles did we fight, even though we might have avoided them? We walked to the heart of the dactyl, to Mount Aida in the Karbacan, though we truly believed that to be a hopeless road, though we fully expected that all of us would die, and likely in vain, in our attempt to battle an evil that seemed so very far beyond us. And yet we went. Willingly. With hope, and with the understanding that we had to do this thing, whatever the cost, for the betterment of the world.

  It came full circle that day in Chasewind Manor, when finally, finally, we caught, not the physical manifestation of Kestesbulzibar, but rather the demon's spirit, the very essence of evil. We won the day, shattering that evil.

  But was the victory worth the cost?

  I look back on the last few years of my life, and I cannot discount that question. I remember all the good people, all the great people, who passed from this world in the course of the journey that led me to this point, and, at times, it seems to me to be a great and worthless waste.

  I know that I dishonor Elbryan and likely anger his ghost with these emotions, but they are very real.

  We battled, we fought, we gave of ourselves all that we could and more. Most of all, though, it seems to me as if we've spent the bulk of time burying our dead. Even that cost, I had hoped, would prove worthwhile in those few shining moments after I awakened from my battle with the demon spirit, in the proclamations of Brother Francis, of Brother Braumin, and of the King himself that Elbryan had not died in vain, that the world, because of our actions, would, he a better place. I dared to hope that my love's sacrifice, that our sacrifice, would be enough, would turn the tide of humankind and better the world for all.

  Is Honce-the-Bear better off for the fall ofMarkwart?

  With sudden response, the answer seems obvious; in that shining moment of clarity and hope, the answer seemed obvious.

  That moment, I fear, has passed. In the fog of confusion, in the shifting and shoving for personal gain, in the politics of court and Church, that moment of glory, of sadness, and of hope has diminished into bickering.

  Like Elbryan s spirit, it becomes something less than substantial and drifts away on unseen winds.

  And I am left alone in Palmaris, watching the world descend into chaos. Demon inspired? Perhaps, or perhaps-and this is my greatest fear-this confusion is merely the nature of humankind,, as eternal as the human spirit, an unending cycle of pain and sacrifice, a series of brilliant, twinkling hopes that fade as surely as do the stars at dawn. Did I, and Elbryan, bring the world through its darkness, or did we merely guide it safely through one long night, with another sure to follow?

  That is my fear and my belief. When I sit and remember all those who gave their lives so that we could walk this road to its end, I fear that we have merely returned to the beginning of that same path.

  In light of that understanding, I say with conviction that the victory was not worth the cost.

 
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