Under The False Moon
Orihus involuntarily followed the melodic harmonies up and over the thickly-wooded slopes, pulled along by their beckoning tempo as they tore him away from his old reality like a favored accomplice, forcing him ever closer towards his doom.
Following behind him, his father was just a few beats away, quiet, save for the sounds of his boot soles scraping along the fine dusty stone of the narrow path and the hoarse gasps of the his breathing.
The music was soft, velvety, flowing over the nocturnal happenings of the forested hills like a liquid blanket, conforming to the sounds of chirping insects, hooting night birds, and the rustling flickers of the fabricated moonbeams that snuck in through the tall branches. The music melded with the sounds of the forest, combining to produce a seemingly single entity, one that permeated subtly, all around, yet yielding.
Orihus suddenly stumbled from the sheltering trees and into a vast, leveled clearing. The False Moon, so much like a sub-sun--which were themselves offspring of The Grandsun--yet diminished and shaved of its scorching spikes, hung cold and sentry over all, illuminating the surrounding area, summoning long shadows from the forest's edge to study Orihus and his father silently-sinisterly.
Without a word they continued on, the music pulling them ever onward. Orihus wasn't sure if his father could hear the music, or if it was meant only for his ears alone. He didn't know how the music could not be heard, but so much of this place proved to be governed by unpredictable laws, many of which made not a drop of sense, leading Orihus to the conclusion that anything could be possible here-even the impossible.
He'd thought of asking the old man several times if he did indeed hear the music or not, but speaking aloud in this place felt wrong, forbidden; normal speech hard to conjure, never mind perform, so he remained silent, and his father did as well.
A few steps farther on, the pair waded in through a field of tall wildflowers, which carpeted the clearing floor. The flowers grew knee high and were each collared with vibrant crimson petals and centered with golden-yellow discs. The flowers seemed to scrutinize the intruders as they passed, each one bending at the stem like thousands of miniature cyclopses.
The music grew louder, fiercer, more defined, drowning out Orihus's heavy breathing and all other ambient sound. Thundering drums beat in time to the enchanted zephyrs of flutes, the panicked moaning of horns, and the majestic twanging of harps and lutes, but still Orihus could not spy the musicians who played them.
A warm breeze suddenly gusted across the clearing, carrying with it the smells of a stale world, blowing open his dark cloak, tugging at his peasant homespun and caressing the long, brown bangs back from his forehead; a final comfort before he was sucked into a more complete unknown. Orihus leaned his head back, fighting against the pull of the music, letting himself absorb the comforting touch as he observed the hundreds of mystical constellations that were spinning around the cold eye of The False Moon above.
The seductive breeze passed, leaving him to his fate, perhaps returning again when the next Challenger came along. Orihus lowered his head, not looking back at his father, the one who would share his doom for good or otherwise, and the music began to tug violently, perhaps angered by the pause in events.
They were close now, the journey almost over.
At some point, long after the breeze had vanished, Orihus spied a horizontal row of lights in the distance. The lights slowly coalesced into a large campsite filled with dozens of peaked tents and towering bonfires. Bundled torches strapped to tall poles rose from the ground at regular intervals, their flames spitting sparks up into the opaque sky, dancing rhythmically to the music.
Orihus could make out a score or more dark shapes dancing against the combined firelight, circling each other wildly, gyrating in energetic patterns. Some of those shapes had large, crested heads with long tusks jutting from pointed maws which, in turn, encased thick, purple tongues. Others were squat, misshapen things with wide human-like features, like twisses but with skin the color of blue death, while other beings were long and slender, like gigantic walking sticks with unblinking fish-pan eyes that stared out from their insectoid-like heads. More such creatures sat gathered around the tents in large circles, playing bizarre-shaped instruments, the wicked bands giving birth to the melodies which enthralled Orihus, their arms and tentacles waving spastically as their iniquitous heads lolled back in apparent ecstasy.
There was no doubt in Orihus's mind--he and his father had reached their destination. With a deep breath and a trembling step, he went forth into the camp, his father a close step behind.
With the first of the tents still dozens of feet away, a shadow suddenly sprung up before them. Startled, Orihus shot backwards against the pull of the music to thud hard into his father, forcing a muffled grunt from the old man.
Fabricated moonlight flashed off the scales of the shadow's hideous reptilian head, a forked tongue lapping grotesquely at the air before its narrow snout. The scaled being held a long, hooked pike in both tri-fingered hands and wore a green skirt of smooth leather wrapped around its waist, leaving its top half bare save for where it was clothed in shadow.
The music suddenly stopped, the arcane pull vanishing, and all was instantly quiet.
"Are you the one who comes, anointed by The Union?" the being hissed, its emotionless eyes locked coldly onto Orihus.
"I've-." He had to clear his throat to continue, buying time in order to remember the proscribed protocol. "Yes, I've come to Challenge The Solord of The Sunjack." He revealed an engraved token: a copper disc the size of his palm, set with twelve gems of various colors and etched with the laser runes of all one hundred and fifty-nine names of the representatives of The Union of The Sunjack. "My name is Orihus Nebulbarn and I've been confirmed by the integrated governments, my nomination ratified by both The Union of The Sunjack and The Empire of Espian. Yes, I am The Anointed Challenger."
The scaled being took the token from Orihus, tucking it behind the waistband of its skirt. "And is this your secret witness, chosen by you and by your hand alone?" it hissed.
"Yes," Orihus answered. "With me is my father, Gorindaad Nebulbarn, bound to me by blood, and chosen by me, by my hand alone, to bear secret witness to The Challenge."
"Follow," the being hissed, turning and marching off toward the camp proper without another word.
Orihus did as he was ordered and followed the shadow-cloaked being deeper into the camp.
The sudden brightness cast by the torches and bonfires hurt his eyes, but from the edges of those blazing halos, he could still make out the variety of camp-creatures that were appraising him silently as he passed them by--fiendish things, with hardly any two alike, some with slender limbs and torsos, mouths agape, eyes wide and terrified, or stout, porcine-like creatures with bent and bony wings growing from their humped backs, or burly beasts with small beady eyes and enormous foreheads, their skin paper white where it wasn't covered with faded brown splotches, and there were dozens of other revolting creatures, each one harder to comprehend than the last.
The shadow guide halted Orihus and his father before the flap of an enormous tent; the largest that Orihus could see, standing enormously tall at the camp's center. Exotic designs and patterns covered the tent's pale outer hide. The guide reached out with a scrawny, three-fingered hand and slowly drew the flap back, gesturing with the point of the pike for Orihus and his father to enter. They did so without hesitation, having been warned beforehand that hesitation could prove deadly in this place.
Once inside, the tent flap closed behind them with the sound of metal rubbing against skin.
The heat was oppressive within the tent, and every free space writhed with some type of dancing abomination. More visions from nightmare stood upon a wide, carpeted platform against the far left-hand side of the tent, most of them playing those bizarre-shaped instruments or singing in a language Orihus couldn't understand.
Clawed hands reached out for him and soon he was being pushed, pulled, and groped along through the hideous carnival, the beings around him smelling of spiced incense and blood-tinged sweat.
Orihus was sure he would vomit, but moments later he found himself pushed into an open space, hoping his father was there as well, somewhere behind him.
Before him stood a tall, red-carpeted dais, this one far larger and more grandiose than the one from which the wicked choir sang and played from against the left-hand wall. At the very top of the dais sat a horned creature with gray skin, its solid black eyes tilted, its elongated jaw mounted with a cruelly twisted mouth. Gold chains ran from its flaring nostrils, down both muscular arms, and then back up to pierce both nipples, which hung long and black from its heavy chest. The being's wide triangular ears twitched, as if trying to thwart some unseen insect from invading, and its clawed fingers tapped the arm of its gilded throne with unbridled impatience.
Those dead black eyes surveyed Orihus dully.
Remembering what he'd been told, Orihus approached the dais to step carefully up onto the lower level, then bowed deep, his face nearly touching the cloven hooves of the seated creature. He could sense his father doing the same next to him and felt partially relieved that he wasn't alone.
The music and singing ceased immediately, just as it had done outside.
"O'Great Master of The Gate," Orihus began in a shaky voice. "I come seeking permission to pass, having secured the right to Challenge and the opportunity of privilege. O'Great Master of The Gate, please allow this simple life forth, so that I will remember your deed upon my rise and reward you and your charge with greatness and eternal merriment."
"When will it end?" The creature on the throne rumbled, its heavy head swaying slowly back and forth. "You are not the first ignorant fool to come begging for permission to pass, thinking that the promise of greatness and eternal merriment is the key, the password to higher attainment." The seated creature suddenly shot forward in his seat, eyes now alight with black fire. "You wish to reward me and mine? Then free us from The Codes and our Oaths!"
Breathing heavily, the creature sat back down in its throne and continued on in softer tones, much to Orihus's relief since he was now more terrified than he'd ever been in his entire life.
"Oh but alas, I am but the Keeper of The Gate; the one who sees the foolish off to their doom."
"Forgive me if I have insulted you, m-master," Orihus stammered. This part had never been explained to him so he felt at a loss on how to proceed. "I am but a lowly farmer, used to cultivating fields and reaping crops. All this is very confusing to me."
"Your old life matters nothing to me," the creature rumbled. "It will end tonight in any case. Those much greater have fallen before our current Solord, and after you, many more will come. Fall or succeed, it matters little to me and mine."
Orihus didn't know how to respond, so chose not to while he waited for the creature to speak again. He didn't have long to wait.
"Why do you wish to Challenge our Ever-Protecting Solord, where your very life and soul are the stakes?"
"I wish to better my family's lives," Orihus said, raising his head high. This was it, almost finished. And then it will truly begin. "My fields have gone barren and my daughter is sick. She needs medicines I can't afford and she and my wife will need a secure shelter before winter comes. I've exhausted all my appeals and partitions to the integrated governments; they will not help me. By becoming Solord, I hope to help my wife and daughter, and others who are in similar straights as I am."
"Indeed," the creature whispered. "The Solord is more powerful than a God." It stretched out a long arm and pointed a clawed finger at a tall, oak-bound mirror that Orihus hadn't noticed before. It stood on the floor, against the right-hand wall of the tent. "There lies the realm of The Solord. This court wishes you well and begs your forgiveness upon your unlikely ascension."
Orihus nodded, too afraid to speak. He let his feet take him numbly to the gigantic mirror, where he watched wide-eyed as his and his father's reflections grew until they engulfed them both completely.
The heat of the tent vanished, leaving Orihus in a world of cold, black nothingness.