Abelard had always been near the truth, yet it eluded him like a branch just out of reach. His was faith not wholly acted upon. Were he only to leap, his hands would have grasped, and he would have risen. He would have seen a farther horizon, perhaps even beyond the Fortress of Doom.
He saw the stars, how they shined. His eyes appeared tired, but there was a deeper malaise set within them. They doubted. They feared. They refused to act.
He had suspected who I was; studied my disguise in earnest. He had known in a timid part of his mind, but had halted between two opinions. Even as the troop stared across Atzapar valley at the fortress, Abelard gazed at the stars and hoped. He must have known: we are the strange fire by night at the roof of the world, and the stars sparkle in our presence.
I was Cornelius Fander Tillian again, mercifully released from the tenement of clay that was Cludge. I hovered above them, a keeper of the tenth ray and a messenger of the Great One.
Ahead lay a flat plain that billowed and swelled as its prairie grass rolled under the stars like a placid sea. Its beauty was marred only by the specter of the Fortress at its far end, which seemed to float upon the grassy sea like a ghost ship.
Tekla managed one step onto the plain before Abelard halted her with a hand to the shoulder. Soft but firm, perhaps like a budding faith.
“One moment,” he said. “There is something here for us.”
Raibert and Barzallai turned toward him. Luther remained in the rear. Tekla caressed his hand on her shoulder. She had softened somewhat, and it surprised me to see just how much she had loved me.
“For Cludge, I’ll hear you out, Priestmage,” she said. “But it’s the fortress I want. Be brief.”
In this world of battleaxe, sword, and bow, men trusted what they could grasp. Their faith lay in steel and leather, no matter the evils beset upon them by the implements of their hands. They loved gold. Even magic, though mysterious, was tangible power to be coveted. I had seen it in their dreams; they were no different, but such are those who can be reached.
My presence had stirred them, and perhaps men would now see again with eyes of faith. I had not long to go upon the lowlands of Celis. Soon I would be back to the mountain baronies, but if they were to succeed, it would be with swords and bows infused with faith. I had to make them see.
Raibert’s coat lit up from the inside as if he had hid a lamp under a bushel. He recoiled and drew out the source of the light. It was the pouch that held Cludge’s ash. It pulsated, as if Raibert had ripped his still beating heart from his chest. The light throbbed in the darkness.
After staring at the pouch, Raibert dropped it like he suddenly remembered to be startled. It suspended for a moment in mid-air, then plummeted, certain to burst open on the ground. Except that Abelard caught it a foot from the earth.
He lifted it above his head. The pouch shone over the rolling swells of the prairie grass like the great lighthouse that lit the way of safe passage to the nine ports.
“The tenth ray,” Abelard said. “I never thought to see it, in all my years, since I heard the myth at my nurse’s knee. Cludge lives.”
They had begun to see.
Tekla drew a knife and pointed at the sky, eyes misty. “Cludge lives!”
Raibert and Barzallai followed. It’s a fine thing to see faith kindle.
“We do this now,” Tekla said, pointing at the fortress.
Odd, but Abelard’s hand still rested on her shoulder. He drew her in with it, while lowering the pouch, which still pulsed with light. “Not just yet. I have a feeling.”
Abelard removed his hand from Tekla and slowly loosed the drawstring that held the pouch closed. With a hand under the pouch, he lowered it, and with his other hand spread the top open.
It was an undulating sea of beauty that swirled in the pouch like a kaleidoscope of colors from an indescribable alien spectrum. A pillar of light rose from it into the night sky, so high it seemed to stretch to the twin stars of Alethea and beyond. Yet the tenth ray was not blinding to the eye, rather it comforted the soul like a burst of clarity.
Abelard reached toward the mouth of the pouch with his free hand.
“No!” Tekla restrained him, dropping her knife.
“Trust in it,” Abelard said, and reached into the pouch with Tekla’s hand in tow.
The light never flickered, no shadow appeared from their hands. Instead, inside the pouch their hands seemed to transform into spirit. Abelard pulled out—face now radiant, not with joy, but what seemed to be resolve—with a handful of the ash. It was a pittance from the bag, as it was filled with the ash of a colossus.
Abelard flipped his hand over and opened it. The ash balanced on his palm, not a speck cascaded over the side of his hand. He splayed his fingers, not losing a fleck, even with Tekla’s hand still mounted to his wrist in a death grip.
The ash, like a bonfire in his hand, began to rise. It swirled in the air, slowly at first, and then rotated like a funnel cloud. It whooosed around them, a tornadic light of breathless beauty, yet not a hair on their heads moved.
The cyclone rose above them and tilted so that its spout pointed toward the fortress, and the tip reached toward them like a finger. Had the thing been in the shape of a sludge feeder, the troop would have embraced it just the same on account of its beauty. Then I coalesced in the air in front of them, a wispy apparition, a beautiful amalgamation of wind, water, and light.
“By the name of the Great One, it’s true,” Abelard said.
“You’re a long journey over hard ground, Abelard,” I said, my voice more like soft wind through the grass than a mortal’s. “In another world they would have called you Petros. Now is the time to harden, son, for the fate of Celis depends on you.”
“C…Cludge?” Tekla said. She rushed to hug me, but found only air. She retreated like a horse backing into a stall, hiding a sniffle from the others.
“Cornelius, my dear, and I do think you presuppose too much.”
“Will I ever see you again?”
“Look for me atop the mountains in the cool of the twilight or in the dew of the grass on a sultry summer morning. I’ll be there. And Tekla—”
“You are loved, dear.”
She rushed to hug me again. This time the resplendent ash coiled itself around her, and for a moment, she embraced her Cludge.
The ash released her, with what seemed to be a caress on the cheek. The cyclone returned and found Tekla’s dropped knife. The blade was sucked into the vortex. It disappeared, but re-emerged from the cyclone glowing like Alethea. Before it was done, every weapon and arrow the troop carried pulsated with a patina of ash, enchanted with power unknown to mortals.
Then the ash rocketed toward the sky in a flash of light, arced across the prairie, cast a glare upon the side of the Fortress of Gloom, and streamed into the open pouch Abelard still held. The prairie fell dark.
It was time for me, Cornelius Fander Tillian—nee Cludge—to return to the mountain baronies. As I began to fade away, I noticed two things. The Fortress of Doom drew my companions like a dreadful vortex. It would suck in the prairie and all of Celis if they failed to stop it. The other thing was this: Abelard saying we’re ready—like a man not merely near the truth, but baptized in it.
It’s astonishing what faith, once awakened, can do, and Abelard had seen. Sometimes what it takes is a man—or in this case a Cludge—willing to lay his life down for his friends.