by Hiroen Chouseki (広遠 潮汐)
At the foot of the Hollowed Cliffs in presence of sea and sky, under the names of the Brother and Sisters of the wave he once served, the man once named Ker Caliel dei Salis swore off any future expeditions that did not come with a treasure meant to be found. No more inane riddles, no more locked rooms passable only after every single necromanced fiend died eight times, and he banned puzzles that could only be solved at dawn. It prevented necessary rest. Caliel rubbed bleary eyes, swearing when dust, sand, and the crumbling rock around him crusted his skin.
He’d spent the past two mornings searching the cliffs for what the ancient scrolls called, “Eif kleed talnef“, which, according to the scholars of Cultoh, meant either the South’s red door or the Earth’s red…. Well, womb became the agreed upon term. Door and…womb, a way that grants entrance and exit, but what did it look like? No one in the citadel could answer that question. In truth, Caliel doubted the reputation of the Cultoh scholars before he sought their help, and promised himself to decry their fame at the next available opportunity.
Glaring at the map proved useless, as his anger could no more cause an answer to appear than – worse yet – some new secret glyph to riddle up from its molded depths and start this fool’s quest all over again. It tired Caliel that success rode once again on correctly translating the meaning of a long dead language, without guarantee. Weariness stole over his body, heavy and dark as winter’s cloak. His back ached, his jaw ached, and the guilty frustration gnawing at his heart dug deeper than before.
Caliel tucked cheek to left shoulder and sighed. “Once you said there was no easy path, but once. Just once. Perhaps one that is less difficult.”
There was no answer, of course, though he’d long hoped to hear one. Silence goaded him back into action. Once the map had been stowed beside the silver key in its protective case, and a final curse directed at the reputable scholars, Caliel uncoiled his long body in a glorious stretch of lean muscle. A good stretch and a toast, the only rituals needed to prepare for another climb around the cliffs. Caliel lifted his water pouch in salute to the rising tides.
“To the less difficult path, a straightforward quest, and forgiveness.” In his heart, forgiveness was what he most desired. A man alone and forsaken by the gods he once served, the man now named Caliel nal dei deim understood that his wishes went unheard on most days, and were deviously twisted the rest. Today, however, someone listened.
The porous rock below Caliel’s heel shattered. His feet stumbled over the tilting earth, each step ending in shards of rock. Muscles tensed, Caliel sprang from his well-trod path to a sturdy boulder he’d marked yesterday. He landed in a splay-legged crouch, grasping at the smooth sides as his feet found purchase.
“That was a bit unexpected.” Caliel laughed. He balanced on his heels and stowed the water pouch.
A trickle of dust and a slight quiver of stone, but the boulder held his weight. The ground itself did not. The stone dropped through the Hollow Cliffs and Caliel with it, curses blistering the air on his way down.
The wind-whistling, stomach-flipping, vertigo-inducing rush of falling – or flight – was nothing new to Caliel. Ropes, no matter how carefully tended, snapped. Knots unraveled, rooftops ended, and sometimes the best escape truly came from a leap of faith over an abyss of black hellfire. Fear of falling did not spur Caliel to leap from the boulder, grasping for some ledge or outcropping sturdy enough to stop or even slow the fall. Fear of landing did.
Where mountains may have caves surrounded by solid rock, long, empty tunnels existed at the Hollowed Cliffs’ core, proving the cliffs aptly named. They spiraled straight down and were made with the same hole-filled rock that littered the outside paths. Each ledge or offshoot he managed to grab broke like new coral, exploded like black salt rocks, leaving Caliel with stinging cuts in his right hand and the sudden realization that finger gloves were not worth the trouble and matching was a nice alternative to bleeding.
Splashes echoed up from below, small at first, then a large roll of water that sprayed up to Caliel’s boots as his body flailed into empty air: the boulder! Caliel drew a deep breath and flipped backwards, cutting through the water’s broken surface in a tight dive. He rose as soon as his feet found purchase, with sword drawn, because the odds always favored the slime-covered creature spying from hidden corners and he learned from mistakes. When no attack came, Caliel made sure to keep a tight lid on his relief.
“Curious,” he muttered when his boots met flat, even steps at the water’s edge. He held the sword to his left hand, smiling as the grip tightened and twisted so the blade’s flat end followed the curve of his arm, in a still unfamiliar but welcome move. He wrung water from the bits of cloth around his person – his cloak, the cowl that hid all but the tip of his straight nose and the slight beard around his mouth, the dirty sleeve that covered his left arm – and hoped his leathers would dry quickly. He fumbled through his pouches one-handed, locating a small red stone that, thankfully, remained dry, and shook the rock gently.
A flicker of heat and a sputtered glow, but no light came.
“Wake up, you lazy thing. You didn’t even get wet.” Caliel shook the stone a little harder. He brought it to his lips, ready to coax, when a thin flame unwound to lick at his skin. Caliel grunted, unamused.
Within the soft firelight, Caliel saw the beginnings of skilled masonry at his feet. White marble was edged with deep blue tiles that fit together so tightly he could find no cracks. They extended from the shallow lip of what he concluded was the cistern from which he emerged. A secret port, perhaps; but there was no sign of planks or mooring to dock a ship, and the darkness behind him was too thick to pierce with such a small flame. He walked forward and shortly reached an archway of deep red, melding into the gray of the inner cliff face. A master’s touch, he was sure.
Scents of sweet oils and salt filled the next room. Smaller than the first, it held two pools of water. The white floor shifted into a diamond pattern, a deep red stone joining the blue and forming a swirl around a small fountain. Glass glittered above him, rich as jewels.
Caliel lifted his stone again – eyes narrowed for more signs of petulance – and blew softly across the flame. “Najas.” He said the name as a lover would, softly, fondly. The flame grew fat and followed his sweet breath across the room, flaring high to reach the low hanging lamps.
The next two rooms continued in the same manner: white floors, blue accents, red stones that glowed with an inner light, each austere in unworldly beauty. He passed through a room with heated waters, steam so thick he had to physically push the damp air away from Najas’ sputtering flame. The following space was all blue from the overlapping tile work to the lanterns ringing the pool, the walls, the high ceilings in cascading light. Lit, the room resembled nothing more than the ocean’s depths. Caliel hurried through with a pang of regret.
Three gates of red stone stood before him. Oblong with curving sides, the gates truly resembled the architecture of Cultoh’s citadel as well as the soaring buildings in the old city. And the glyph he learned meant women: two curved lines meeting in a sharp apex. A small fall of water spread across the far wall. The clear spray pooled into swirling blue fog, before which a small altar sat.
Caliel set a careful foot at the first gate’s edge. A swirl of air stirred behind and he stopped, stepping backward.
“Eif kleed talnef?” he laughed and turned, short cloak flapping against his back with a wet slap, freeing both shoulders. “So this must be a bath house? Cleansing ritual to taste the water, perhaps.” He frowned. “I really don’t want to go through the ritual bath. I don’t even know how long I’m supposed to sit there.”
He kept his movement easy, voice thoughtful, as he circled to the pool’s edge. What he thought was empty space proved to be water spilt from the dais. He set Najas’ stone at his feet and pulled free an empty silver vessel of some size. While temple water to an unknown god wasn’t what Caliel expected to find, he was not fool enough to leave without taking.
Shoulders tensed, ear cocked to listen, Caliel motioned towards the water. The air shifted to his right, left, then right and – his left arm swung up to catch the coming blow.
“Najas,” he cried.
Red flame billowed high beside Caliel, licking at the unseen attacker. A curse, and the pressure against his blade fell away.
Caliel circled low behind the stone. “Thank you again, my friend.”
Najas flared briefly, a flicker, and Caliel could just make out a single green eye that winked playfully. A coil of fire whipped out then, startling Caliel and – judging by the rippling hiss as fire met water – the guardian as well. The room was illuminated suddenly, flame finding row after row of candles hidden within the porous walls. In the light Caliel could see a human shape, male, hidden behind a thick band of water that cycled as if an ever-flowing wave.
“One should learn the name of the person who would kill him,” Caliel shouted. “What are you called, guardian?”
“Lost, so many years ago, but if I could remember it would not be yours to know.” The water circled to the southern compass point, then northern. “And your name?”
Caliel smiled sadly through the fire. “The man that I was is lost. The man that I am is called Caliel nal dei deim.”
The water circled again, quickly, and then stopped. The two-pronged blade of a spear sliced through the wave and the water fell away with a quiet slap. The guardian stood tall and narrow-shouldered, with sun-kissed skin and gilded hair floating to his neck. Blue glittered under the skin of his shoulder, a mass that roiled and churned like a living tattoo. He was unadorned but for a green sash, fastened around his waist and between thick thighs with knots, the tail wound down one leg. A thin chain wrapped around his ankle, wavering as if light and air, the lock clicking gently as he settled his feet to the ground.
Their eyes met: there was power there, power beneath the unending blue that spoke of untouched shores, an endless tide, and if he were less of a man, Caliel would have knelt. But he had looked into the eyes of a god and loved. The guardian was a mystery, yes, but no more than Najas, an element of life that could call forth a human form. Yet he found sadness there, beneath the unknown; regrets at the corner, lines where one should find perfection, age in the ageless. Caliel did not think it possible, but the guardian knew mortality.
“Caliel nal dei deim. Caliel son of no one. Caliel friend of none. Unloved by the gods, Caliel god slayer.”
Caliel stood slowly. Shoulders and feet angled, blade across the body, ready. “You know my name but can’t remember your own?”
“All loved the son of the bullgod and the bullgod’s son loved all in return. It should not surprise you to know that the god slayer’s name cannot be forgotten.” The guardian intoned softly, and then shook his head. The words remained in the air. “Why are you here?”
“Not for the water.”
The guardian glanced at silver vessel floating below the dais.
“Eeh,” Caliel tilted his head. “Not originally.”
“Just as well you forget this water. I would be forced to punish you and I would hate to die.”
“I would not. I will not!” Caliel’s left arm rose, sad fury pulsing through his veins. He swallowed back the feeling and smiled through grit teeth. “That is your purpose? To protect the water? Why? What does it do?”
“I,” the guardian blinked at him, surprised. “I do not know.”
“What?” he snapped. “I do not know what it does. No one has asked me before and I never questioned.”
There was no discreet way to laugh without the guardian becoming offended, and Caliel didn’t bother trying. He laughed, long and hard, wrenching his sword free and sheathing it. He laughed while wiping away tears. It was frustrating, the quest useless, the constant battles that ended without an answer ceaseless. He saw his punishment for what it truly was: a continuous game of hope lost. And he laughed.
“Are you done?” The guardian said with swish of his golden hair.
“I’m sorry,” Caliel gasped. “Truly, it’s not you. It’s just. I forgot who I was. I believed I was allowed the easy way, if only for today.”
“Easy?” The guardian rested over the word as if he doubted its existence.
“Gods,” he swore. “I know, I know. I was being sentimental. Ridiculous.”
When Caliel settled onto the wet stones with a sigh, the guardian stared, incredulous. Caliel nuzzled into his left shoulder to hide his grin.
“It started in Balhad,” he began, voice low. Najas’ flame bloomed and behind him, the silhouette of Balhad’s spires flickered. “When I heard the king’s advisor had captured a piece of the god’s heart.”
“Scholarship has fallen low in the citadel of Cultoh if no one could translate “Eif kleed talnef.”
“You know the language written on the map?”
“Of course.” The guardian wiped the stain of red wine from his lips and corked the wine skin. “Let me see it,” he demanded.
Caliel snorted but did as he was asked. He pulled the map free and tossed it carefully into the guardian’s waiting hands. The wine hit him in the chest. He shook it with a frown; less than half full.
“It’s true that the phrase could translate into southern door or earth’s womb in your tongue,” the guardian said after glancing at the map. “But when it’s written like this,” he waved his hand in the air and water followed, swirling into glyphs Caliel still couldn’t read. “It means ‘the Earth Mother’s tears.'”
The Earth Mother’s tears. It was a story Caliel had heard long ago. Long, long ago, when he was friend of many; long ago when gods signed the ledger to know him; long ago when he was young, and the vengeance that ate at his heart was stayed by an unknown feeling; the tale was whispered into his ear, and the stars moved with the words so that Caliel saw clearly the secret history of the gods as pictures playing in the heavens.
Knowing that his father imprisoned the Earth Mother, Heimdal, her favored son, sought to break her free. He fought the host of ten thousand ills. He battled the Sea Kings and their serpents, long-toothed and poised-clawed. Heimdal crossed swords with his father and the eternal flame shivered in their wake. Crawling through solid stone and melting rock, Heimdal finally tore apart the twisted night that kept his mother separated and alone.
“‘When she looked upon her son, once fair, and saw his lost limbs, his heart open to the world, the light fading from his all-seeing eyes, the Earth Mother cried as she did never before in her life. And her tears healed him.'” Caliel bowed his head. “The tears of the Earth Mother can heal a god.”
A swirl of water lifted the guardian to his feet. Unsteady feet, Caliel saw across the stone, clumsy with drink.
“If you take sacred waters from the altar, if you seek the Earth Mother’s tears, Caliel nad dim. Caliel nal dei deim, I will stop you.” The guardian sniffed. “It would be a pity. You spin tales with great flair and share your wine freely. I could like you.”
Caliel’s lip quirked. “What if I win?”
“It is more than possible. If I die then you would be free to take the tears.”
“Is that what the compulsion tells you? That you must die?”
The guardian squinted. “Death and life, loss, it feels so similar.”
“Hmm.” Caliel stood, pulling free his scabbard. He stripped off his leather vest and toed off his boots.
“What are you doing?”
“Preparing to challenge you.” Caliel unwound the scarf at his neck and threw off his short cloak and cowl. He glanced over at the guardian’s blue eyed bewilderment and winked. He worked to hide another grin when the guardian, upon seeing his face clearly for the first time, blushed. Deeply.
“You are preparing to challenge me with no weapons?” The guardian struck the hilt of his spear against the white marble. “An easy victory for me then. Perhaps you should leave now.”
“Preparing to challenge you to a game far less painful than death. One that involves more finesse, and no weapons for the both of us.”
“Ah. A game of skill!” The guardian smiled. Youth returned in that moment, and Caliel felt another pang, loneliness answered. “It has been many year. Oh, a very long time since I’ve grappled with a friend. And if loss is all that is required this should suffice,” he added hastily when Caliel loosened his belt. “But don’t think I will go easy on you. I said I could like you, not that I did.”
“I remember, guardian.”
The guardian’s spear dissolved in his hands, and Caliel voiced his challenge.
They circled each other, hands testing in light slaps, eyes steady on the other’s for a hint of the direction from which the first real attack might come. And if matched grins flit over their lips when Caliel slipped on a patch of water that wasn’t there a moment ago, or when the guardian’s fluid movements wobbled from time to time, neither mentioned it.
Caliel ducked forward, fist open against the guardian’s chest, his blocking arm, and caught a hard knee for his trouble. He tumbled away, clutching his belly. The guardian’s legs were solid muscle, deceptive when he rested on water, but on the ground they stood in relief. Careful then, quicker, he must be thread through the needle. Plan in mind, Caliel shifted his weight, ready to launch. And skipped to his knee. A puddle of water soaked through his leathers.
The guardian’s grin was fierce.
Caliel bared his teeth in return. He ran to the right then stopped, spinning into the guardian’s waiting kick and jumping. If the guardian had not been watching – had not felt the flex of Caliel’s feet on his knee – he would have not believed. The guardian’s astonishment led to a drop in his guard. Caliel locked the guardian’s arm in his own, dropped to his feet and applied pressure great enough to force the guardian to his knees.
The smack of water to the face should have been expected.
Spinning to his knees, Caliel wrapped arms around the guardian’s trim waist, legs locking around his ankles, and pulled. Chest to back, hip to hip: Caliel felt the numbing heat found in the ocean’s depth.
“I will not,” the guardian snarled.
Caliel leaped back into a pool of water. A wave washed over him. His grin twisted into something heated. Two more passes and Caliel was somehow more wet than when he emerged from the cistern. His feet were light, his heart raced in his chest, and blood pounded through his veins. Still the guardian would not yield. But he would; he wanted to, Caliel felt it, a pulse when their bodies pressed together.
The guardian spun on his heels, a ripple of water rising towards Caliel, who was there and then not. Caliel shifted, and their hands were wrapped around each other’s shoulders, the guardian’s leg locked with his own. Caliel threw his weight forward, and the fall to the hard stone elicited a gasp from the guardian. Caliel slid his free leg beneath the guardian’s and shoved forward until it curved to his heaving chest. Their bodies locked together, and Caliel leaned up until they were eye to eye.
“Yield.” He whispered.
“I.” The guardian shivered under his mouth.
Water poured over them and Caliel licked his way between the guardian’s lips, tasted the wine on his tongue and felt a roar of heat along his back. There were teeth, a nip to his tongue. Caliel grunted, hips rolling up hard and there, there. The water parted and the guardian shoved at him until his arms were free to wrap around Caliel’s neck, to slide down his back and feeling the flesh of another as he must not have done in untold years.
“Oh,” he moaned, wrapping a hand around Caliel’s wrist and pushing across his chest, the curve of his belly. “Touch me.”
Soft, Caliel marveled, the hard flesh he fought against hidden by such soft skin. He ran his hand across every inch of the guardian he could touch, the begging slant of his lip; pinched at his nipples, the tender bend of muscle along his inner thigh, and groaned when the guardian’s legs spread.
“I know what it means to share pleasure. Touch me. You bastard.”
The green sash all but broke apart at his eager jerks, the knots slipping as if they had never been. Caliel’s thumb brushed the underside of the guardian’s hard cock, and the guardian jerked – moaned – turned his head from side to side, pleading with every unpracticed quiver running through his body. Caliel was unhurried in his strokes, his nipping kisses that goaded the unworldly creature to follow his lips; to lift his head and whine when he pulled back too far, when his hand slowed and withdrew. Caliel moved and lay between his legs, cock heavy, grinding insistently over the guardian’s stomach, his cock, and the guardian moaned again.
They rocked together. Long legs slid up to Caliel’s waist, trapping him there, squeezed until Caliel was dizzy for air. Caliel’s fingers stole between the guardian’s thighs; further, circling, and the guardian moaned high in his throat. “Please.”
Please. Again when Caliel waited, then—
And Caliel was inside, eager, opening him with quick jabs of his finger. He could look nowhere other than the guardian’s eyes as he pushed in. The faintest gasp fell from the guardian’s pink lips and Caliel groaned at the loss, captured the next with a kiss. Then they moved. There was no slow, no fast; only more. More and deeper, the fuck of Caliel’s hips steady, hard and met thrust for thrust. He felt each fission of pleasure tightening around his dick and watched the guardian’s eyes startle open, unseeing. He remembered a time when he walked a clear stairway between the heaven and the waters, between one world and the next, and the peerless blue of the horizon between the two. He stared down into that same light again and came apart.
“How is your flameling?”
Caliel corked the silver flask, now full of the sacred tears. Mind intent on a hundred possibilities, on a new hope, he did not hear the guardian’s question.
“Your flameling. Navas?”
“Yes. That. Is he all right?”
Caliel looked to where the stone sat. It was dull red.
“Though you may not have noticed, your Najas tried to save you.” The guardian smile turned sly, sated eyes hooding. “When you kissed me?”
The water covering them, the taste, so sweet and. The heat. Caliel scratched his beard in embarrassment. He plucked the stone into the palm of his hand and soothed two fingers over its smooth surface.
“Najas? Najas, please, I wish to apologize.”
“For neglecting you shamelessly when someone else comes along.”
Caliel narrowed his eyes in reproach but couldn’t stop the smile. “When you’re ready to accept,” he whispered, tucking the stone back into its oiled skin. He finished packing quickly; filling his water pouch, then stowing the map back in the case. He shook it gently, listening to the rattle with a frown.
“Caliel nal dei deim.”
He turned to find the guardian seated on a bed of cycling water behind him, head cocked to the side, considering.
“Know that the Earth Mother’s tears can heal a god, even from the brink of a true end, but there must be something there. A god must have form.”
“I know,” Caliel said. “But it’s a start.”
The guardian nodded.
“And what will you do now?” Caliel asked.
“Find my name,” he answered simply. “Though it may be difficult.”
Caliel tipped the case and shook until the metal slipped into the palm of his hand. “There is much that I do not know but, perhaps.” He flipped the key from his thumb. The guardian caught it with a frown.
“If it does not work, I am sorry, but something tells me.”
They both froze when the lock clicked and the chain vanished.
“How did you? Who are you?”
Caliel smiled. “A believer in small fortunes. What will you now, guardian?”
The guardian stared at him. “I would leave this place. I would find my name after leaving this place where I’ve remained for untold years. And I would help you while on your journey.”
“I am friend to no one. I am unloved by the gods. And I have no idea what I’m doing, only that something must be done.”
“Well. It would be a start.” The guardian rose to his feet. “And you will need assistance leaving this place. I don’t remember the way exactly, but I expect it to be far easier than your journey here.”
Caliel said, “I doubt that.”