Stories

Cacame Versus the Gods


Somewhere, deep in the polished caverns, a single trickle of water continued to drip its drop into a puddle. Plip. Plip. Plip. The sound was a constant tattoo. How long had it been going on? After a million, he had stopped counting. Or perhaps he only convinced himself that it had been a million drops.

Where were his servants? They should be taking care of that infernal dripping. Couldnt they hear it too? They must. They were born of the stone, after all. Things such as a dripping leak would alarm them, surely. It meant there was a crack in the stone, somewhere. This deep in the earth, any crack could be dire.

He opened his eyes but did not see. Stiffly, he shifted in his throne. The air was stale and dry, despite the distantly dripping water. How long had it been since he last moved? There should have been torches to give him light, at least. His people could see in the dark; their king, sadly, could not.

But he knew well enough how to get what he needed. His fingers remained locked around the handle of his massive war hammer. He lifted the butt and slammed it down on the floor, sending a loud crack echoing through the dark throne room.

Several minutes passed and there was no response. Curious, he thought. That normally brought his servants running, if not the entirety of the fortress itself, to prostrate themselves before him and demand he order them around.

Finally, he decided he had better stand. Movement was difficult. He found his joints unresponsive, his muscles weak. Each step left a tingling burn in the tips of his fingers and toes. His mail still jingled lightly against his skin, but that was of no substance; the metal it was forged from did not rust or tarnish, no matter how much time had passed.

He was glad for the darkness, then, because it would hide his limping gait. But then, he remembered, his people would be able to see him perfectly. The momentary swell of shame filled him with loathing.

Despite the dark, he made his way to the doorway without stumbling. He leaned against it, but the door would not budge. With a grunt, he put all his weight behind it and pushed as hard as he could, yet found it unyielding. Perhaps it had been locked or barred... He ran his fingers over the surface of the door, searching for a mechanism to release it.

He found nothing. Had it been done from the outside? Who would dare to lock him into his own throne room?

So no, that couldnít be it. Aha, a lever, he realized. His people would have connected the door to a lever to open it. He didnít recall them doing that, but it must have happened when he wasnít paying attention. Paying attention had been so difficult.

Using the butt of his hammer as a staff, he swept it slowly in the ground in front of him, checking for a lever. He guessed it would be near the door, probably to the right. But he walked ten steps, then twenty, then thirty, then forty without finding the lever. At forty-five, he hit the wall. Annoyed, he turned and retraced his steps to the door, keeping his hand on the wall to guide his path.

Then he repeated the process going left. Similarly, he did not find the lever this way. Now growing frustrated, he took a step away from the wall. Had they placed the lever closer to the center of the throne room? he wondered. That seemed unlikely, but... It was the only remaining option.

He placed one foot in front of the other foot, trying to maintain a straight line as he swept the war hammerís haft in front of him. He crossed the room once and found nothing, took a few steps to the side, and crossed the room again without success. On the next pass, his searching finally uncovered something, low on the ground. He fell to his knees and grabbed it, but found it not a lever.

It was a bone. As he brushed his hands over the ground, he found it was an entire pile of them. They were large, thick bones. He found a pair of large, scythe-like teeth and a huge, strong-browed skull... These were the bones of one of the savage animals he kept chained in the throne room for show. The mightiest beasts of nature, wrenched from their habitats and forced to live at his whim in the dark depths of the earth...

But they had died and been gone long enough that the flesh had rotted from their bones. Had his people sealed them in there with him? Or had they died first and his people been unwilling to move them out. He groped around further and found a second skull several feet away.

Was this his throne room or his tomb?

He crouched among the bones for several minutes.

Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip. Plip.

How could no one else hear that noise? Would it not drive them mad.

Oh. Oh no. That would make sense. His people were prone to madness. Deep in the earth, away from the light of the sun, where cold and darkness dwelt... They often said they were of the earth, but the earth had ways of devouring their sanity nonetheless. The smallest thing could trigger an unending spiral of insanity.

Perhaps that had happened. One of them went mad, then did something that caused another to go mad, all in an unstoppable cycle. And he was locked in this tomb which had been his throne room, at least until he starved.

No, surely not. He who had been named the Immortal Onslaught by his enemies would not allow himself to wither away, waiting for the specter of death to reach its claws into him. He would find a way to break free and emerge into his kingdom once again.

He still had his hammer. He marched back to the door, his limbs regaining the familiar sensation of life with each step. The door was solid, but he could break free, he was sure. His war hammer was forged from a rare metal which was heavier than steel. Few could wield it with the grace and power he did.

Once he found the door, he set his feet wide, in the dwarven style. Cocking the hammer back over his shoulder, he tensed his muscles and, in one lightning-quick strike, swung it with terrible force directly at the door. The thunderous impact shook the air with the twin sounds of a clang and wood cracking.

He was left standing with a useless stick of wood in his hand. He cursed himself. He had no idea how long he had been sitting in this throne room. The wood handle had obviously rotted out and snapped on impact. With annoyance, he threw the useless haft away.

Now, stuck in the darkness, he had nothing to do but wait. Maybe he could go to sleep again... How long had he been asleep? And yet he was neither hungry nor thirsty. If that was the case, perhaps he could return to sleep until someone released him. But how could he be sure he would wake when they came?

How could he be sure anyone would ever come?

There had to be some way out of the room, he needed merely think of it. He returned to his throne. His trek was uneasy, but he never stumbled. Already he found himself growing used to the darkness. He could see nothing, but that suited his mood for the moment.

As he sat there, the water continued to drip. Plip. Plip. Plip. He tried to ignore it. Plip.Plip.Plip. He tried to sink into himself. PlipPlipPlip. There, deep inside him, was that burning fire. Plipliplip. The rage. Pliplistenlip. It had driven him through decades, kept him sane even when he would have rather sunk into the bliss of madness. Pliphearusplip. When he faced down an army by himself, that rage had driven him. PlipCacamePlip. When he had stood against a demon and swung his hammer despite the flames of death, that rage had driven him. Plip.Cacame.Plip. When he lost his wife, when her body had been devoured by the people who had been his kin, that rage had driven him. Plip. Cacame. Plip. Now, trapped, it would drive him to free himself somehow. Plip! Cacame! Plip!

He opened his eyes. The voice, the dripping water, was right in his ears. Yet still, he sat on his throne in the dark room.

"Who speaks?" Cacame asked, his voice rough and choked from having not been used in a great time.

We speak, Cacame, the voice came again. No, it was two voices. But they did not come from the mouths of things. They came from the air itself. They came from the dripping water. They came from the stone and the darkness and the fire burning inside him.

"Who are you?" Cacame asked. He considered asking if they could release him from this room, but stopped himself. He was unused to being at the mercy of others. And the speakers had come for him, obviously. They called out to him.

We are all, Cacame, the voices said in unison. It was not in harmony, however. The voices, together, clashed. They were two opposite things, coming together. Fire and water. Light and dark. We are everything together, but we are apart. We have come to you.

Cacame shifted in his throne, just slightly. He had dealt with numerous petitioners before. These two, whatever they were, were no different. He leaned to his side, slumping into a posture of disinterest. "And why, exactly, have you come?"

Choose, one of the voices said. To hear it alone was wonderful. It was the sound of a raging fire, the warmth of summer sun on skin, the soft rustle of wind through the spring trees. It was compassion and caring and mercy and wrath and fleeting life.

Choose one of us, the other voice said. It, too, was wonderful. It was the sound of waves on a beach, the crisp bite of winter as snow fell in large fluffy flakes during the night, the rumble of stone as it crumbled in some distant cavern. It was strength and control and potential and righteousness and eternity.

Cacame smirked slightly at the request. "So am I to judge you?" He let out a clipped laugh that echoed through the cavernous throne room like a physical force. "And what am I to judge you on?"

Everything, they said together.

And then, Cacame was no longer there.




He opened his eyes as the warmth touched his face. Softness surrounded him. Sitting up, he found himself laying alone in a bed. The sheets and blankets were soft, pastel colors. The warm feeling he had felt came from a sunbeam, lancing through the slightly-parted curtains draping a window. He stood and his head swam as the cool air of the room raised goosebumps on his bare flesh.

The floor was carpeted in white fur rugs. It was the softest thing he had ever felt before. It was... glorious to feel. A shiver went up his spine so strongly that he wrapped his arms around himself to contain it.

But no, now he knew the softest thing ever. It was his own skin. Like silk, or better even. Looking down at himself he found a body that was definitely familiar, but different. It was as if visiting a place he had been gone from for years; same in general, but with small changes that marked it only to those familiar.

The hard, rigid muscles had softened to pampered flesh. Those scars, from so many battles, had faded to the merest lines. Tracing them with his delicate, manicured fingers, he shivered again. Once pallid, he now sported a light amber coloration.

He walked to the curtains and threw them open, no regard for propriety or modesty. The bright sun poured in over him, cloaking him in such warmth that he had no choice but to shiver again. He felt his face break into a smile. When had he last smiled?

It had been ages, he knew in some deep part of him. But the nagging wrongness of his own joy was smothered out by memories of recent smiles. The smiles of friends and family and good cheer.

Looking out the window he saw a grand castle. He stood in a tall spire, looking down on the people who wandered below in orderly fashion. Who were those people? His people, he knew. He squinted at them... Dwarves, he saw, but not only. Humans, too. Goblins. Yes, even elves. Of course there would be elves.

He ruled over them all. He was their king, their just and kind ruler. If any had looked up just then and spied him looking down upon them, they would have smiled and waved fiercely, hoping to catch the eye and favor of their king. He laughed out loud, a soft and giddy yelp.

It was time for the day to be well spent. The sun had only recently risen above the horizon and, though no one would blame him for sleeping in, that meant it was time for a good king to begin his work. For a king had much to do if he wished to be good and just and proper.

He softly padded over to the door of his chamber and swung it open. Immediately, three servants who were patiently waiting outside sprung into action. They were three goblin women; Themiyi, Dostngosp, and Ngom, his personal guard. And yet... Here they were, not wearing armor and appearing rough and crude, but dressed in prim dresses and well-groomed.

As they looked up at him, standing bare, blue-tinged blushes crept onto each of their cheeks. Yet not once did they look away. He took a step forward onto the floor outside and actually gasped as the sole of his foot touched the flagstone. It was cold and rough and unpleasant. He frowned, looking down at his own betraying foot, as the three women rushed toward him, clucking and berating.

Not him, he realized, but each other. "How could we let you outside without dressing you?" "My king, please! We didnít realize you were awake!" "Letís get you properly dressed!" "Forgive us, we allowed you to touch the cold floor!" "Why didnít you go as soon as he came out?" "You should have known it was almost time for him to wake! Youíre always saying how much you know about him!" "Itís not my fault you let him step out onto the floor!"

The three continued to bicker amongst each other about whose fault it was that Cacameís delicate flesh had been allowed to touch the floor even as they gently guided him back into his bedroom. He couldnít even get a word in to quiet them... He found he didnít want to get a word in! Their voices, mingling together in a haze of lilting syllables, were little more than the breeze to him.

Their skin was also soft, though not so soft as his! They took gentle brushes and swept powders over his body; they smelled sweetly of crushed flowers and herbs. Once they finished, he tingled all over, but in a good way. Then they each took lotions and began rubbing them into his skin. He simply went limp and relaxed as they massaged him all over with their hands, from the tips of his toes to the tips of his ears...

The tips of his ears. His ears had tips. He reached up and touched them. They were pointed and fully formed. Nowhere were the rough scars that had marked where he had sliced the tips off in a foolish, young, prideful effort to reshape his ears away from their elven nature.

Dostngosp, who was busy massaging his shoulders, asked, "King Cacame, is there a problem?"

He froze. Why had he been so concerned with the shapes of his ears? They were his ears. He had no reason to hate them. "No, my dear, nothing is wrong."

His voice... For a moment he wasnít even sure he was speaking. It was soft, almost musical. Just like the goblinsí. But he was being silly. Thatís always how he had sounded, hadnít it? Of course it had. Of course.

His servants accepted his words as if they were gospel and continued pampering him. Once they had finished bathing him in powders and ointments, they began dressing him. They were, of course, fine silks. What else could they be? Where had the silk come from, he wondered? Certainly not the cave spiders the dwarves so frequently utilized. Not even the giant version that sometimes lurked in the darkest caverns of the earth.

One of the massive spiders that was said to roam the wildest lands? The type that could fight a dragon to a standstill? Perhaps it was one of those, he thought. What did they call those things? Ah, well, it was something distant. Something he need not worry himself over, unless one happened to begin rampaging through his kingdom. Then his army might need to march on it.

He smirked at the thought. His army! Brave men, all, surely, but they hadnít had to march in years. It was a time of peace. A peace that he had brought about through hard work, blood, and sweat. His enemies, who cradled in the darkness, had been ground to dust. Heíd brought light to the entire world.

He was Cacame Awemedinade, the Immortal Flame.

No, that wasnít quite right, was it? But what was he really called? Was it Immortal Flame? He couldnít...

"King Cacame?" one of the goblin womenís voices said. He looked up at her. She wore an expression that was parts motherly and parts desirous.

"Yes?" he asked mildly. "Sorry, I was lost in thought."

She smiled at him. Which one was she? He used to be able to tell his three guardians apart, but now... They seemed all the same to him. They even looked the same. No differences between them at all.

"You should be off to your daily affairs," she said with more than a small bit of mirth in her voice. "There will be plenty of time for thinking then."

He nodded. "Yes, of course. Thank you for your help, as always." It seemed the three would swoon instantly upon his mild gratitude. Somehow, each managed to stay upright as he marched out of the room, leather boots so soft they made not even a sound as they touched the stone hallway.

He let his hand lightly brush the walls as he went. The stone was cold and lifeless. What a silly thought to have, he realized. Stone never has life, does it? It was inanimate. Nothing but the unliving earth, cut from the ground and pasted together through mortar.

What strange thoughts he was having today, he mused. Ah, but that was the price of kinghood! The mind wandered to deeper thoughts when one was free from having to work the fields or mines. The life of a peasant, where he worked with his hands and thought of nothing but feeding his family... That was a life worth envying.

He let out a lilting laugh and began to take on a cheerful gait through the halls. Oh, if only he hadnít important matters to attend to! Then he could spend the day running through the tall grass, in the bright, warm sun, feeling the wind in his hair.

But important matters. There were always important matters. And the first of those matters was breakfast.

He made his way to the dining room, where servants were already bustling. Once he entered the room, they immediately froze and bowed stiffly at their waists. A dwarf hustled over, head still low, beard brushing the ground, and escorted his liege to a large chair. Another pair of dwarves rushed behind him and pulled the chair out.

Cacame took his seat and smiled as the dwarves pushed it back beneath the table. The smells of exotic foods wafted to his nostrils. His mouth began to water and his stomach growled. As if on cue, the servants poured into the room, each carrying trays piled high with meat, fruits, eggs, and more.

He selected items almost at random, sliding them onto his plate and taking little more than small nibbles. He savored the flavor more than anything. Dark and smoky. Sweet and succulent. Light and crisp. More and same. It was a million different flavors and after the first few they blended together into an orgy of taste.

Before long he grew bored. He filled his belly with bits of food and washed it down with a bland wine and was ready to stand and leave, when the door to the room swung open once more. A serving girl, a young human with long black hair, shuffled into the room.

"The queen," she announced in a soft but loud voice.

Cacameís heart raced. The queen? His queen? His wife. Nemo. He felt tears almost pour forth from his eyes. "Nemo," he said so softly that only the nearest servants could hear him. They turned and looked strangely at their king out of the corner of their eyes. Why did he say the name with such despair and longing?

The woman who entered the room was not Nemo. She was gorgeous, yes. Her hair was long, blonde, flowing to her waist and decorated with braids and flowers. The dress was tight in places, especially around the breasts and waist, while flaring at her hips and shoulders, with a neckline that showed off her ample cleavage. Full lips marked a perfectly delicate face with large, almond eyes that were the color of the forest in spring.

She sashayed toward Cacame and, upon reaching him, laid her small hands upon his shoulders and bent in for a kiss upon his cheek.

He recoiled from her touch. A wave of nausea filled him and he pushed himself violently away from the table.

The queenís eyes went wide. "My king, what is the matter?"

He stared at her, eyes wide. Who was this woman? She was not Nemo! She was not his wife! "You... Who are you?" he demanded, his voice dropping to a deadly, angry tone that shocked even himself. Where did that come from?

The woman, whoever she was, placed a dainty hand over her chest in a fair approximation of shock. "My dearest Cacame, I am your wife!"

Cacame shook his head. "No. No, no. Youíre not Nemo. Youíre not..."

She placed her hands on his shoulders and then cradled his head. "No, no Iím not," she said softly. She looked around at the servants, her eyes flashing with fierce intent. Reading their mistress well, they all scattered, leaving the room immediately.

The woman pulled Cacameís head to her breast, resting it there like they were a pillow. She lightly shushed him and patted his head as he felt those earlier tears burst forth. "I know, my dear, I know. I am not Nemo. I am Ayeli. I am your new wife. Do you remember?"

New wife... "I..." He had a new wife? "I donít..." Of course he had a new wife. "Yes..." But why had he forgotten her? "Ayeli..." How could he have remarried? And married an elf at that. "I married you." After he had conquered the land.

"Under Optierusís light," she said softly.

"Optierus..." he muttered. Who was that? His god. But his god was Õle. Or was. Heíd burned Õleís sacred grove to the ground. He had rejected the god.

"Yes, my dear. When you were at your darkest, Optierus came to you. He offered you salvation and happiness." Of course he had. "You accepted it and became his champion. You won the world for him. You brought about peace, harmony, and happiness to all the people. And I was your reward. Ayeli, your light, your wife."

Ayeli was his reward? "But why?" Cacame asked.

"Why?" Ayeli asked in return, surprised. "Why what?"

"Why you?" Cacame said, his voice becoming hard. "Why would I want you as my reward?"

So great was her shock that she let go of Cacame and took a worried step back. He stiffened up. Those tears on his cheeks had dried. "Cacame, what are you saying?" Ayeli asked, now looking as if she might cry.

"My wife was named Nemo," Cacame said harshly. "She was killed by the elves, the people that were supposed to be our kin, and devoured. I swore I would avenge her until the last elf was no more."

Ayeli shrank back another step. "You gave that hatred up," she whispered. "For Optierusís light."

Cacame laughed. It was not his joyous laugh of earlier. It was a laugh that reverberated deep from within his chest. "I am the Immortal Onslaught," he said. "It never ends, donít you see?"

He turned and stormed from the room. Down the cold, artificial hallways crafted from the dead stone of the earth. His feet carried them of their own volition. He knew not where he went, only that there was purpose there.

A pair of wooden doors barred his way, but he flung them open. The gathered men - of races human, elf, dwarf, and goblin - all looked up from the large table they sat around as he entered. At once, all rose and bowed their heads.

They were his ministers, who helped him administer his kingdom. He smiled at them, a grimacing sneer that none saw for what it truly was. "King Cacame," said one of the dwarves, an older one with a gray-streaked beard. "We did not expect you so early!"

"I felt it best to attend to matters immediately," Cacame said, scanning the room slowly. These were old men and soft men and cowardly men. They were not men who were meant to rule. They were men who were meant to scatter before him.

His eyes came to rest on an ornament upon the wall. It was a shield, made of bronze, with a silver warhammer hanging before it. Ostentatious, certainly. A display of the contempt these people had for true strength, that objects of war would be used simply for decoration.

He walked briskly over to the hammer and pulled it from the wall. He hefted it in his hands. It was heavy and his arms were weak. The wooden haft felt rough on his soft skin. He gave it a few practice swings, light things that should have been simplistic but left him winded.

"My king?" asked one of the ministers with mild confusion.

Cacame turned to him. It was an elf, haughty-faced and self-assured. Cacame smiled at him. "Did you know I was once quite the legendary hammer wielder?" he asked.

"That was a long time ago, my king," the elf said.

"Of course it was," Cacame said. He dropped into a combat crouch, in the dwarven style. His eyes burned, like two embers from a dying flame embedded into his skull. With a mighty heave, he brought the hammer crashing down on the meeting table.

It splintered into a thousand pieces, and the hammer kept going until it struck the earth, which similarly splintered, as did every person in the room, breaking into infinitesimal pieces like a shattered mirror, to be replaced completely by the darkness.




He opened his eyes. "What was that?" Cacame demanded of the voices.

Hope, the fiery voice said.

Torment, the cold voice answered.

"An illusion?" he asked. "A vision of the future?"

It was what could be, the fire answered, if you become my champion.

It is what you will suffer
, the chill added, if you submit to him.

Cacame shook his head, clearing the last vestiges of the vision from his mind. "Your champion? What are you? Who are you? And none of your riddles, either! I suffer jesters not, so speak squarely."

We are the world, the voices said in unison. We are everything and all, but we are apart.

Cacame shot to his feet. "Enough!" he shouted, his voice echoing through the empty, pitch-black throne room.

The two voices remained silent for a moment. Then, the wind spoke. I am Optierus. I am the Orb that lights the sky. I am the fire that burns in the hearth. I am the fruit you feast upon. I am compassion and kindness and love and light. I am the god of this world. I created it and all things in it billions of years ago. I am the one truth.

The waves offered its rebuttal. I am Galvetrus. I am the Disc of the night. I am the water that slakes your thirst. I am the stone which houses you. I am strength and life and justice and darkness. I am the god of this world. I created it and all things in it billions of years ago. I am the one truth.

We were once one, the voices said in unison. But we were split apart. Now one is truth and one is a lie, but we cannot decide on our own. We need you. Champion one of us. Forsake the other. Lead an army to victory and spread the way of one of us. You will be rewarded.

Cacame slouched in his throne, chin in hand. "And that vision you showed me, that was my reward?"

If you follow me, Optierus acknowledged.

Cacame let out a clipped laugh. "That was not much of a reward. I was soft... Weak. Complacent! Everyone was alike. Every goblin looked the same, every dwarf, every elf." He spat the last word. "Why would I want that?"

It was peaceful, Optierus said. No one suffers. No one wants. No one needs. Life is easy. People are free. Things are good. You were happy. You found love again -

"NO!" Cacame shouted, slapping his palm against the arm of the throne. "That was not love! It was a lie! That thing was not my wife!"

She was your wife, Optierus insisted. Your new wife. If you become my champion, the fires of rage will flicker out and die. They will be replaced with kindness and desire. You will forgive and move on, but never forget. You will be happy.

You will suffer
, Galvetrus interjected. These visions are given by the both of us, so the other may not lie. What you felt was truth. You will grow weak. In your weakness, you will let go of your lost love. You will give it up. You will turn your back on her. You will replace her.

No.

Yes.


"Silence," Cacame muttered, and the two gods ceased their bickering before it could truly begin. "So, the second of you supposed gods. What is your reward for me?"




Cacame sat on his throne in the darkness, yet he could see as if it were day. His men stood in orderly columns, at attention. There were dwarves, and goblins, and humans standing in those ranks. Each wore matching armor, steel painted black, with black shields and black weapons. Their helmets were open, showing their faces and proudly displaying their wounds from battle.

Cacame clutched his war hammer, the rough wooden haft barely noticeable in his calloused hand. A man was being led up the carpet, toward the throne. He wore simple, rough clothing that seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Why was this pathetic person coming before him?

He prostrated himself before the throne. "Great King Cacame," the man said pitifully. "Please, hear my plea. I come from the village of Peth, where we have suffered a tremendous drought over the growing season. Our crop has been ruined, yet our taxes remain as they always are. We cannot feed ourselves. Our livestock dies in their barns, while our children break their backs in toil to coax life from dry earth. Please, show pity on us."

"Pity," Cacame said, his voice a rumble deep in his chest. "Yes, I may show you pity." He turned slightly to his left, where stood a woman in a lavish robe. It was Dostngosp, her curly black hair done up in a magnificent crown which framed her green face. Her amber eyes seemed to glow in the darkness. She leaned toward him and spoke, her thin lips barely moving.

"My king, Peth has always been dutiful with its taxes. It is a distant village, though, at the outskirts of the kingdom, in an area that is very dry. In years past, it has been suggested to them that they irrigate their fields from a nearby river, but they have always proclaimed themselves blessed by Galvetrus for all the rain he provides the past several years." Her voice was soft but firm, with a slight huskiness that betrayed her inner fire.

Cacame lifted a hand. He had heard enough of her testimony. "Man of Peth," Cacame said. It was an effort to speak, he found. "You have a river near your village. Why not divert the water from there to feed your fields?"

The man remained with his forehead on the ground. "My king, that would require many seasons of work. By the time we knew there would be a drought, it was too late to do anything like you suggest."

"And yet it was suggested to you many seasons ago that you try," Cacame reminded him. "It is not the duty of the wise to provide for the foolish. Galvetrus blessed you with rain so that you could do this work, but you believed he would provide for you in eternity. Why should I provide you with any pity?"

The man swallowed so heavily it could be heard throughout the throne room. He hesitated for several long minutes, then slowly said, his voice shaky, "A fool is a man who is shown his error and then repeats it. A man who errs and learns from it grows in wisdom and strength. Your pity will allow all our village to learn from our mistakes and become better because of it. We swear on the Disc to this."

Cacame nodded. He turned to his right, where a dwarven minister stood. The man had a scar over his right eye. Cacame wondered where it had come from, for not the first time. The man was not a fighter, though he had perhaps survived an attempt on his life or two, though likely due to wisely selecting loyal bodyguards rather than his own martial prowess. Galvetrus rewarded all forms of strength, be they physical or mental. The minister - what was his name, Urist? Probably Urist - had proven his intellect beyond all others.

"See Galvetrusís..." He paused. "See my will be done," he finished. The minister turned his head slightly to look at his king and there was a small narrowing of his eyes, but he nodded nonetheless.

The man, who was profusely thanking Cacame, slowly backed out of the hall as another person was brought forward. Unlike the first petitioner, this man was being led in by an armed guard. His arms were bound before him, though his legs were unshackled. The man knelt before the throne and lowered his head to the ground, though it was the guard who spoke.

The guard was a goblin. "King Cacame, this man was caught attempting to rape a woman."

Cacame nodded slightly. "Who was the woman?" Cacame asked.

"His neighborís daughter," the guard explained. "She is well known through the city for her beauty. This man, claiming that such beauty should not be kept from others, particularly him, cornered her in an alley and attempted to force himself on her. He ripped her dress with a dagger and tore out a section of her hair before she was able to fend him off and escape, upon which time she alerted the city guard."

"Have you anything to say for yourself?" Cacame asked the man.

The man remained silent. "He admits to his guilt in the matter," the guard said. "As he was too weak to win the womanís heart, and too weak to take what he desired, he accepts his punishment."

Cacame stood. As he did, pain shot through his leg. He looked down at it and realized it was withered and weak. An old injury, he remembered. He had suffered it in slaying a goliath spider... The spider had bitten him on the leg. Normally fatal, but it had merely cost Cacame the good use of his leg. He leaned heavily on the haft of his war hammer, using it like a staff, as he descended the dais toward the criminal.

"Stand," Cacame ordered. The man stood. "For your crime, I assign three hammer blows. Should you survive, you may go free. If you die, you go to be ground by the Disc."

The man nodded his head slowly, no fear in his eyes. Cacame could not help but smile. He hefted his hammer and swung it with all his might. As he did, his leg quivered and he slipped slightly. The hammer, having been aimed at the manís forehead, glanced off and instead smashed him in the jaw. The man fell to the ground, his face shattered, but he still sucked in breaths. He did not scream, though he did squirm on the ground, clutching his wound.

Cacame lifted the hammer again, aiming to put the man out of his suffering. But thanks to the manís thrashing, Cacame could not land a solid blow. Instead, the hammer crushed the manís hip. Cacame very nearly ordered the guard to lift the man, or at least hold him still, so he could finish it cleanly. But that could not happen. Instead, Cacame lifted the hammer again and took a good aim. He swung...

And the man spasmed at the last moment. The war hammer shattered his shoulder and now, finally, the man cried out, though it was less a scream and more an unintelligible gurgle of blood. It was most likely that the man would die slowly of his wounds. But Cacame could not grant him the mercy of a clean death now. Instead, he nodded to the guard, who dragged the bleeding man out of the hall.

Cacame slowly reascended to his throne and fell heavily into it. There were many more petitioners to deal with through the day. He should not linger on one, though linger he did. His leg had failed him, again. He had struggled through it for some time, but the poison seemed to never leave it. Year after year it became weaker and more crippled. The pain was dull, but constant. Yet he knew as the years passed it would be worse and worse.

His choices were to struggle through it or admit to his own weakness. And such an admission was unthinkable. The struggle made him harder, stronger. Strife broke men down and rebuilt them in the crucible of power. That which does not kill us.

If the rapist survived, he would likely be crippled as well. His punishment should have been swift death. That was just. But a just king administers justice by his own hands and today, Cacameís hands had failed him.

Eventually, the petitioners came to an end and Cacame realized he could not remember a detail about any of them. His guards cleared the room of commoners and peasants. Cacame struggled out of the throne, fire shooting through his leg as he did so. He used the hammer as a crutch, slowly limping down the dais to the floor below.

He walked toward the door when someone stepped in front of him. It was the general of his army, a young dwarf named Olon who had won many battles. He wore his dark steel and hefted a heavy battle axe in his hands. Cacame narrowed his eyes at the man.

"You block my path," Cacame said, his voice strained. "Move aside, general."

But Olon did not move. "Galvetrus does not suffer weakness," Olon said. "When a manís strength leaves him, he is finished. I do not wish to kill you, but I shall if it is Galvetrusís will."

Cacame snorted out a laugh. This mewling whelp would challenge him alone? Cacame glanced over his shoulder, back toward his men...

They remained in their lines, staring straight ahead. Not one had moved to intercede. He looked at Dostngosp. Her eyes were wide, eager, ready to witness the confrontation. Her thin lips were curled into a smile. Did she wish for Cacame to win or did she back Olon? There was lust in her eyes, but was it for one of the combatants or merely the combat itself? Urist too watched, with a detached gaze.

None would help Cacame. He would rely on his own strength or nothing. He turned back to Olon. "I shall never stand down. To stand aside is worse than death."

"And that, Cacame, is why I must kill you now," Olon said. "To stand aside and allow your weakness to continue to fester is anathema to Galvetrusís way."

"Very well." Cacame lifted his war hammer and assumed a battle stance, in the dwarven style.

Olon matched it. The jingle of jostling metal sounded in the room as the soldiers took steps back, giving the two combatants room to do battle. Olon made his move first, darting in to swing at Cacameís left, forcing the king to retreat on his crippled leg. Each step sent waves of pain through it. Another feint pushed Cacame further back. He tried to swing his hammer at Olon, but the younger dwarf easily dodged under it and swung again.

Cacame barely retreated in time. As it was, the axe blade still nicked him, splitting his tunic down the center and cutting a bloody line across his abdomen. It hurt not nearly as much as his leg. Olon was an intelligent fighter. Wear his opponent down, slowly if necessarily, until he could not provide a legitimate threat.

The fight would have to end quickly, Cacame knew. Yet he was not fast enough to go on the offensive, while remaining on the defensive played directly into Olonís hands. He retreated back another step, watching Olonís swings. There was not much force in them. Swing too much and Olon would be off balance, unable to dodge a counter strike.

The next time he swung, Cacame stepped into it, his war hammer raised high. Olonís eyes went wide with shock, even as the blade of his axe crashed into Cacameís side and cut into his ribs. The war hammer was already falling, though, and this time Cacameís leg did not give out. The hammer crashed into Olonís forehead, causing a sickening crack which echoed through the throne room.

Olon fell to the ground first, then Cacame shortly after him. The axe blade had gone in deeper than he had expected. Had it hit something vital? Perhaps... perhaps. His soldiers ran over to him and even Dostngosp came for him.

When they reached him, he glared up at them, especially Dostngosp. "So this is your loyalty?" he rasped, the bloody wound in his side burning with pain.

She smiled at him! Through this all, she smiled. "Strength demands loyalty, my king. I had to know who demanded best."

He closed his eyes.




He opened his eyes. It was no longer pitch black in the throne room. Now there was a brilliant orb of light to the right and an ebony disc of pure blackness to the left. The two gods, Cacame gathered. He turned to the disc.

"That is your promise?" Cacame asked. "Treachery and pain?"

Success, Galvetrus clarified. No elves. You win. Life is good for those under you. They toil to better themselves. Death is a price of progress. When there is no pain, there is no drive to better yourself. One manís treachery is another manís grasping at fortune. It is the way of things.

Despair and pain
, Optierus countered. Destruction and darkness. He offers only those things to you.

Choose.

Choose!


"I reject you both," Cacame said simply.

Impossible.

You must.

We are gods.


Cacame laughed. "Gods? I have seen gods before. I have burned a godís sacred grove to the ground. You think proclaiming your divinity will scare me into action?"

That was not a god.

An imposter. A speck compared to us.

We are all. You must choose.

You must! Or you will die.

Trapped forever.

Wither away.

Choose.

Choose!


"No. You will find another puppet."

Cacame stood and walked down the steps in front of his throne. As he passed between the two gods, he felt a force stronger than anything he had ever experience before press down on him. He gritted his teeth against it. He wanted to go down to his knees. He wanted to retreat back to his throne, to choose one of these two gods to give himself to. The futures they offered had their upsides, did they not?

But more than anything, he wanted to get to that door. He pushed himself forward, past the two gods. Then, like a suddenly bursting net, he was free. The light vanished. Cacame reached the door and turned back to where the two gods had once stood.

Against all belief, there was a spot of darkness blacker than pitch where the disc had once hovered. You will be ours, eventually, the cold voice of Galvetrus warned before that spot too vanished.

Cacame turned back to the door. He reached his hands up and touched it and, unsurprisingly, it swung open. Deep in the distant cavern, a drop of water fell into a puddle.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

And did he hear voices too, in the distance? Real voices, not those of the gods.

Calling, "King Cacame!"


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