DIY Dante

We’re taking a break from King in the Mountain this week to do a project I like to call DIY Dante.

I call it that because that’s the project a professor assigned me while reading Dante’s Inferno, that I decided to replicate this year due to my frustration with various people I’ve met who are unwilling to vote on November 6th.

Feel free to do your own. I’d love to see what you come up with. Pick a sin, a punishment, and a creature-guard for your invented circle of Hell.

Here’s what I came up with:

THE SIN – Apathy/Complacency

THE PUNISHMENT – Those who are complacent in life and never strive or hope for anything better are frozen in place, feeling but unable to move or blink, perched on a hill and watching the apathetic in the valley below—those who in life and refuse to show interest in the lives or well-beings of others are now hunted by Winged Terrors and Blue Horrors with whips crackling with sizzling sparks that chase them atop spiders as big as war-horses. The Apathetic are permitted to attempt to climb the hill toward the complacent, though their touch will burn them and the complacent will still never be able to move, speak or even scream.

THE CREATURE-GUARD- The Winged Terrors and the Blue Horrors that ride the spiders are big as war-horses are girdled into the hill and valley by gigantic Termagants—hulking beasts with two huge boots capped with worn steel atop legs as large and long as a ship’s mast. Their mail is stretched thin across their chests, and cinched about their waists by a belt twice as wide as a man’s palm, overstuffed with swords that look like daggers when pinned against their massive frames, rusted in places like an old man’s liver spots. Their fingers were crusted with rings inlaid with stones that wink in the sparks of the Blue Horrors’ whips. Their eyes are gray like two chips of dirty ice, and in either hand they hold circular shields befitting their titanic size that are red-hot and glowing, as if always fresh from a forge fire. The largest of these Termagants is the Grand Termagant, who is the Lord of this circle.

13. The Higher Power

My skin is choked in dirt and grime and what feels like layers and layers of sweat. The blazing heat pounds against me. The air is thick and soupy as I make my way to the apothecary. I don’t know these roads, but a part of me feels like I’m being dragged. It’s all instinct. Anthea, I understand, is dragging my mind towards hers. It’s stronger than before. More desperate.

I am compelled toward the apothecary. My legs are throbbing, yet nearly numb. It doesn’t feel like I’m the one moving them. It’s almost like I’m falling sideways, toward Anthea and Clarissant.

I don’t quite remember entering the apothecary. Everything is coming in fragments. It’s too much to take in. The room is disheveled. Disemboweled. Sheets and straw and feathers splayed everywhere. I think I see spiders, too. But I don’t have time to stop and check.

(It was supposed to be different, I had said. I was going to save everyone. How times change, eh?)

Anthea has pushed up, feet knocking together on the edge of her cot. “We need to go,” she rasps. “We have to get out of here now!

“The whole village is burning, Anthea!” Clarissant is saying. Her hands wring her crossbow. “Your Father is still out there, we can’t just–”

I’m only half-listening. Because I’ve sensed something. Something bubbling under Anthea, wreathed in fear and anger and hurt. It struggles against its bonds. It has something to show me, doesn’t it? Don’t I? Is that?

The Higher Power.

It worms its way through Anthea’s tangle of emotions. I can see it happening, It knows that I know. It can sense me looking at it the way I might notice a pair of eyes staring at the back of my head. Slowly, methodically, it uncoil the smallest piece of itself from around the bands of rage she’s in which she’s shrouded it.

It have something to tell me, I understand.

It seems to know know that you’re distantly aware of her arguing with Clarissant. You wonder if it can can hear them, too, muted. Underwater-sounding as it wriggle up and up and up. Anthea notices, then, as this fractional shard of the Higher Power’s Being squirms through her. She tries to turn her frustration on it, tries to use it to lash it back down. Confine it. She thinks it’ll burn her up. But this piece of it is but an ember.

By the time the mote of Higher Power has slid free of frustration, she’s primed a cage banded in grief and sealed in sorrow–but too late. By the time she’s manifested it, the Higher Power is already spilling into her throat, sizzling up and out:

It makes her voice louder, lower, stronger than the rasp she can usually manage. It’s both her voice and not. And in it, she says, “Virengar to the northwest has deposed their Imperium overlords. There are yet physicians behind their walls with skill in healing, and yet more who understand the rules of Ambient energies. They may yet extract the Higher Power. Anthea may yet live. And the King in the Mountain may yet have forces he may rally to his call. It begins with Virengar. It cannot be so without Virengar. You will go to there. You must go there. You will leave now, else Lord Ath will take you all in flame and storm.”

That shard of me Being fizzles out of her mouth. Anthea’s whole body convulses, and I reach out to steady her–careful of my still-unsheathed sword.

“What are we waiting for?” Clarissant asks. “Let’s go.”

I blink. “What?”

“We have to go to Virengar right now. It’s urgent.”

“You were just saying–you know what? Never mind.”

I know what it is the Higher Power has done. They don’t often speak, I know, for they can only convey what must be done. And all who hear must do it, too. Clarissant couldn’t avoid the power of a Prophecy unless she wanted Lord Ath’s flame and Swarm to consume her.

So I rush them out, and Anthea wraps my Ambient around her own internal power. I know the latticework of roads. Every turn and bend now lit with heat and light. Swarm are stirring, clicking and scuttling up burning walls.

Every now and again, one of them makes a grab at me. I flail wildly with my blade, when I can. Enough to convince them I’m not worth bothering.

I try some of my old forms when I can: The Thrush Knocks. Wind Down the Mountain. Breaking the Clouds. All of them are pale imitations. My body isn’t used to this yet, see? I haven’t picked up a sword in five years.

(Technically, this body has never picked up a sword.)

Sometimes my edge alignment is off. Others have the timing wrong, or I’m bending my wrist too far forward. Or I haven’t got the right stance. My fundemanetals are all wrong. But I’m capable enough, and when I’ve shown the Swarm I’m enough of a threat, they scamper off in search of easier pray.

(I knuckle my eyes and tell myself that the tears are just the smoke.)

All the running has flowered pain in my side. Every step makes it flare. I can hear stomping boots behind me. Someone following down the back streets where the Swarm have thinned out. I cannot chance to look back as I tear down a bend. I hear Clarissant shout, “We’re almost out!”

I can see a back gate at the end of this road. Huts here are sparse and run-down. I’m surprised that there are no Swarm to guard the exit.

The moment my sneakers crunch down on the soft earth below the back gate, I feel heavier. Anthea’s amped up the force of her power. Dragging me bodily forward. “Have to hurry,” she gasps. “He’s following us.”

I check over my shoulder to see a man with shiny black hair and a thick purple robe, almost gliding towards us.

“Don’t look!” Anthea snaps. “We have to keep moving.”

“Both of you!” Clarissant huffs, “This way!” She seized tufts of cloak in either hand and tears me into a hard right. I realize, belatedly, that whoever’s following us is gliding. He’s surfing on the Ambient that our footsteps have made.

I don’t have time to consider this, though, as I hear a low grinding sound from deep in the earth. Clarissant has her hands between my shoulder blades, almost pushing me forward. “Go go go go go!” she hisses.

Thick, gray walls of stone stone hisses from the earth behind me, belching dust and grinding on rock with heavy showers of sparks. The last thing I see of our pursuer is him releasing the Ambient and slowing to a halt in front of the massive structure climbing into the sky, stone letting out a bloody wail as a line of jagged spires line the terrain behind us for miles in either direction.

I wonder if anyone remembered to pack supplies.  

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12. The Burning Blaze

It has only been minutes. All of Strathbury is drowned in flames. I’m fumbling through the smoky haze, cloak pulled over my mouth and nose. My other hand grasps Clarissant as she barrels for the apothecary. She knows the way, not me.

I can hear screams in the night. And clicking, scuttling things that I can’t quite see.

I pull my hand free. “Go get Anthea!” I tell Clarissant. “I’ll meet you in the apothecary.”

She narrows her eyes at me. “Why should I trust you?”

It is all I can do to keep my composure. I’m in the middle of a war zone! Strathbury burns and smoke stings my eyes and barrels down my throat. And she wants to talk about trust. “What choice do you have?” I sputter. The smoke makes my ultimatum pathetic.

She grabs my forearm as I move back. It’s squishier than it probably should be. But I turn that thought, and my heel, to one side and face her. “Where are you going?” she asks.

“I need to find Gormund! I need to make sure the rest of the town is safe!”

She relents enough for me to pull my arm free.

“Go!” I say and hurl myself in the opposite direction, unsheathing my sword and whirling it around in a gray arc. I scan through the smoky haze. Ambient energies make themselves known to me like visual snow. It clouds my vision almost as much as the smoke. My steps are hesitant, toward the danger.

Images of the slaughter I arrived to flash through my mind’s eye, and I are suddenly more careful of my footing.

The orange glow bathes me in its light. I can hear the scuttling coming closer now. Flashes of dirty bandages. There and gone in an instant.

And then the creature is on top of me, all browning linens and scuttling spiders. I should have cleft it in two the moment I saw it, but I fumble with my blade–I’m not used to it yet. I haven’t even grasped edge alignment again. So what should be a mortal blow is only glancing, and sends a shower of spiders spilling from underneath the linens.

The creature’s bandaged hand seizes my throat and I see yet more gray and black spiders worming out of its arm, leaving small depressions in its bandaged form. They’re scuttling toward me as the monster’s grip tightens. I’m lifted, flailing. My heels knock together as I dangle.

I have a sword. I know I have a sword. But I feel like nothing more than a frightened boy attacked by a monster that is made of spiders. I cannot get my arms to work. Just thrust, I tell my arms. Just thrust! The spiders are scuttling, pincers snapping and venom dripping and I think, Just thrust!

And when I manage the simple deed, I see the fear in my eyes reflected in the monster’s. It’s bandages unravel, spilling spiders swiftly decaying. But in that quick instant I see something wet and shiny in their eyes. Something like tears. Or a thank you.

Something tightens in my throat. “Their eyes at least are human.”

There’s screaming, whirling, clanging, clanking, as blurry forces march through the smoke and flames. “Gormund!” I’m howling. “Gormund!” My throat is ripping raw. There are not enough among Strathbury to put up more than a meager defense.

My breaths are quick and rattled, raspy. I cannot focus on anything. I’m just darting around at shapes in the haze. I’m trembling as the fire consumed and blackens every home.

I’m panicking, I realize.

Then something–someone makes themselves known to me through the darkness. A hulking figure who towers over me, charging, charging, charging.

Then someone else seizes my shoulder and throws me on my back. The figure charges forward, axe whirling in a deadly arc. There’s a wet noise, then. Like a bucket falling into a well. And the axe is heaved from a dead man’s chest in an arcing spray of blood. “Here, One-Eye,” says Gormund. “I’m here.”

“We have to go or we’re all going to die!” I tell him.

You have to leave,” he tells me. “Go to my daughter. Get her out. I’ll hold them off for as long as I can!” Each arc of his axe brings a spray of spiders, or blood.

“I have to stay!” I tell him. “I have to save everyone! I have magic. I can–”

“You don’t know how to use it!” Each word is punctuated by a strike of his axe. He sees his enemies before I can even discern that they’re there. It’s a practiced skill, I realize.

“I have to try!” I tell Gormund.

“Try it now and you’ll certainly die. You’re not trained. You’re not going to be able to stop them.” He’s out of breath, still swinging. “The Harrower was luck. You won’t be lucky twice. Besides–”

Something huge and round and gleaming golden sails through the air at Gormund and I, catapulting head-on for us. Gormund drags me bodily out of the way as the head of my statue churns up dust and earth as it explodes to the ground and comes to a sliding stop.

“You’re not the only one who knows how to use ambient energies,” Gormund tells me.

I wonder what I would look like if someone pushed my ambient back into me, but I tamp down on that thought before it can progress further. “Where do I go? What do I do?”

Gormund drags me behind the statue and crouches there with me. Huddled amidst debris and screams and flames and smoke.

I cannot save them.

I cannot save them.

“Out west, there is an old, old place. You remember Virengar?”

The name hasn’t changed since I left. How fortunate. Small victories, eh?

I nod. “What about it?”

“Clarissant spoke of rebellion there, in her travels. It is a center of learning and healing. And those who live there harbor ill will towards the Imperium. They might be able to save my daughter. And if you can take the city from the Imperium…” He bites down hard, stifling the thought. “I do not dare to hope. Just promise me you’ll keep Anthea alive.”

“I will.”

“Promise me,” he says again.

“I promise I’ll keep Anthea alive. If–”

His eyebrows shoot up his forehead like a volley of arrows. “If?”

The words spill out of me. “You have to come out of this alive.” I can’t save everyone. It’s too late for that. But this feels like the right thing to do, in some small way. Some ember of hope to cling to. “Find us in Virengar, once all this is over. You have to promise.”

It’s hard to see him in the dark. I can discern his face, just so. There’s a wetness on his face that is blood and a wetness that is not blood. “Aye,” he says. “I promise. Now go.” He half-shoves me back, toward the apothecary, as he goes vaulting up my statue’s head, boots clanging hollow on the gilded gold. “Strathbury!” He howls, “Strathbury!” And  he vaults into the fray.

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11. Statues

I don’t remember when I left. Sometime in the night. I was dazed. Confused. I needed to clear my head.

I’m stumbling out of the lavatory into the cold nighttime air. Crickets are chirping and sand and dirt crunches beneath my boots. There are strange sounds, far and away. Like grinding rocks and showering sparks.

“A mountain just crumbled. You should be resting,” someone tells me. A woman’s voice. From above. I crane my neck for a better look.

I’m staring at a gleaming golden statue. The figure has a horned helmet and a bandage around one eye.

One Eye, I realize. That’s me.

Me from before with golden hair that tickles the small of my back. Was it really that long?

Me, with a knotted beard that hooks in a loop at the end, over my navel.

Me, when I was forty; depicting in gilded gold my leathered skin, my embossed shield, my blade whose name I still can’t recall.

And in the crook of my statue’s shield arm, a woman sits on my folded elbow, resting her head just under my shoulder, boots propped up on the edge of my shield. She’s got a crossbow strapped over one shoulder that rests in her lap. She doesn’t reach for it when she addresses me.

I’m not sure if I should be offended.

“Do you remember me, Peter?” she asks. “I’m the reason you’re here,” she says. “From a certain point of view.”

I reach for the iron banded about my statue’s boots and pull. My muscles burn from the exertion. There was a time when I could have made the climb with next to no effort. But that was a long, long time ago. “Clarissant,” I huff. “You’re the geomist.”

“The lookout, now,” she chuckles. “For all the good it’ll do us, if Ath descends on us with a horde of Swarm.”

“Any chance you can help me up there?” I ask.

“I’m not sure how I’d do that,” she admits. She’s a bigger woman. I’m not quite sure how she got up there. Though I assume she must’ve learned a thing or two to survive in that changing earth out there.

“What are you even doing up in that statue?”

“There’s a nice view of the Ever-Changing Land from here.” She sighs. Her gaze is lost on the horizon. Absent-mindedly, she adds, “You’re taking in the fact that you have a statue surprisingly well.”

“Oh believe me, I’m floored,” I tell her.

(This is a lie. I think. Maybe?)

“You earned it,” she says. “You saved the world. Defeated the Great Evil and all that.” She frowns. “Some would say you destroyed the world, given what followed.”

“I’m sorry,” I tell her. “For what it’s worth.”

Clarissant turns her attention back to the horizon. Hot flashes of lightning erupt in some far off town. I see it, just barely. “I can’t say your apology is worth much,” she says.

That stings. And when the stinging melts away I’m left with anger. I’m angry she’d say that, and I’m angry that I’m not as angry about it as I should be.

(Should I be angry? I’m not sure.)

I’m confused. Tired. I slump against my statue’s boots. “How many of these have you seen?”

“Statues?”

“Yeah.”

She closes her eyes. I can hear her softly muttering. Counting. “One in every town,” she tells me. “All across the Ever-Changing Land. You’re worshipped, Peter. It’s Imperial law. They built an entire religion around you.”

Of course, I think. Why the fuck not? They might as well have done that. That may as well happen. My life (lives?) is already so goddamn weird. But I say, “I want to stop it.”

Clarissant looks at me, suddenly serious. She adjusts the position of her crossbow. I’m not sure if it’s to make herself more comfortable, or–does she plan to use it on me? All she says is, “Stop what?” There’s a guarded edge to her voice, and her face remains placid.

I gesture out to the town. “This? I guess?” I slouch. “That’s not very helpful, is it?”

“Not at all.”

I don’t realize I’m were holding my breath until I exhale. “The Imperium. The allied nations I brought under one banner. It’s my mess. I should clean it up.”

Clarissant sweeps her legs off of my statue’s shield so that they dangle over my forearm. She’s much more dexterous than she looks. She throws her crossbow over her shoulder and scampers down the length of my statue, using every crevice like a hand or foothold. She’s down to my level in seconds. “You’re right,” she says.

It stings. I swallow whatever’s bubbling up in my throat. I’m not going to cry. Not here. Not now.

(Not in front of her.)

“I’ll fix it,” I say. “I will fix it. I’ll fix it.” I climb to my feet, and a wave of vertigo slams into me upon the realization of the responsibility I’ve just accepted. I stumble, and Clarissant reaches out to steady me.

I’m not expecting her hands to be so rough. “Easy!” There’s force behind it. Not so much comfort as a command. It’s about as helpful as I’d expect a woman shouting at you to relax would be. But then: “You don’t have to do it alone.”

I blink my surprise.

She nods, seeming to understand. “You’d need a guide in the Ever-Changing Land. Someone who knows how to get to the next stillzone.”

What? I think.  “What?” I say. My head’s still spinning. This is all your fault, Peter. All your fault.

Statues in every town. Forced worship. Barred travel. And disobeying the kingdoms I helped to align has turned countless men into monsters and more.

(Not me, though. I’m a monster for completely different reasons.)

I realize, abruptly, that someone else is forcing this vertigo on me. “Anthea!” Her name stumbles out of my mouth. She’s doing something to me. I must go to her. There’s no questioning this. I know that I need to get back to her the same way I know that tonight’s cold air stings my cheeks. Anthea’s pulling your consciousness toward herself, I realize. And I understand one more thing, too:

“Lord Ath–” I grip Clarissant’s shoulders. There’s something wild speckling my eyes. “–He’s here.”

And then

And then

The fires

come raining

Down, down, down.

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