Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Violet Flame

I was told that death would feel this way. First to come is the darkness, like a cloud approaching from all sides, choking the light as I see my Pharaoh run to me. He cries out, but even now the silence drowns him out as if mud clogs my ears. Shouts become less than whispers. Last to come is the pressure, a steady, surrounding sort of comfort which replaces the pain in my side. My Pharaoh is safe; I will pass without shame or regret. I can feel myself being carried away already, the many hands of those since passed lifting me.

Sight and sound return to me, but these cannot be real. I am standing in the presence of the pharaoh, yet he appears even younger than he is now. Is this scene beset by fog just a dream? The pharaoh and I speak in turn; I have no control of my actions and the world itself looks a blur, as if through water. The young pharaoh becomes angry and at once I recognize this distant memory. The words we speak sound foreign and echo but I recall the conversation clearly. It seems I am to relive one of my shames before I pass from this world.

The pharaoh desires to see me enter a small and nearly private tournament to which I protest. I explain my reasons, that it would be unfair to others because of my talents. He says he does not care, that he wishes to see me fight, that he expects me to win, that he is the pharaoh and his word is command. The scene becomes clear as I foolishly raise my voice to the pharaoh.

"You may command me to compete, but I will do so fairly. Expect no miracles. The soul's fire is not used for personal gain. Whether this is a decision you respect, it is one you will abide."

I turn at once to walk away, but even now I do not believe the pharaoh will permit my leave so easily. True to the past, the pharaoh keeps his silence and the other guards stay their hands, awaiting orders that do not come. The clarity of my memory quickly fades; my feet take me from the room into a vast white expanse. I stand on nothing. I walk through nothing. There is light, but no source I can see.

Detail returns suddenly. It is now days ahead and I stand facing my first opponent of the tournament. I know this boy; he has many blessings but luck is not among them. No doubt he is here only to impress some girl within the crowd (which is not so small as the pharaoh had led me to believe it would be), yet in the first round he is pitted against his very trainer. Even though I vowed not to fight with my talents, he is still without hope. The least I can do for him is to give the girl a show.

A drum signals the combat to begin and the boy shudders, expecting the worst. Instead, I circle slowly towards him. He adjusts his feet, squaring to face me, but otherwise afraid to act. My first attack is wide and from his right, in the same manner as a recent training exercise. He deflects it correctly, as well as my follow up, just as we drilled. The boy smiles briefly and I know he has caught on. The combat continues much the same for a while. My attacks are precise but predictable; my blocks are infallible but the retaliations come late. Before the ruse becomes obvious to the crowd, I exploit one of his mistakes. Toppled and pinned, he yields graciously.

After I help the boy to his feet, the memory accelerates. Until my next bout, shadows race across the ground as the sun arcs above at an unnatural pace. I now prepare for my second opponent, a man I have often seen causing trouble in the market. He has the scarred skin of a quarry worker, with lean muscles to match, but his stance is peculiar, feet close together and hands awkwardly far apart. Before the signal to begin, he mocks me openly.

"I will give you one chance to back down before I break you."
"Do not be so sure of yourself," I warn.
"I saw how much trouble that child gave you." He laughs, and I hear a few in the crowd chuckle as well.

To this I simply smile, and upon hearing the drum I step in to quickly jab at his nose. As I expect, he cannot pull his hands back to block fast enough, the blow obscuring his vision with teary eyes. He curses and swings at me, a strong hook that I see coming soon enough to duck under. From below, I use both of my arms to shove at his chest, throwing the poor balance he has on his close feet. As he steps back, I place my weight on his front foot, trapping it. With his legs now spread far, my next move is a strong round kick to the inside of his thigh, a pressure point that causes him to collapse. As he hits the ground, I mutter, "That child gave me more trouble than you have."

My third match is against a giant of a man, portly yet solid, standing two heads taller than myself and easily twice my weight. I approach with caution, allowing him to throw the first punch. I deflect it, but discover that his layers of fat belie a great deal of muscle beneath. My retaliation is a side kick to his gut which feels more like kicking the Pyramids. Unmoved, he swings his fist at me again, this time catching my chest with most of its force. He follows with his other fist, which I dodge against and circle behind him. I try a second side kick, this time to the back of his knee. As he begins to fall forward, I jump on his back and wrap arm around throat in a tight lock. Instead of prying my grip loose, his hands must stop his face from hitting the ground. Fortunately, that is all the time I need for him to lose consciousness.

The drum sounds my fourth match and I am immediately assailed by a rapid volley of fists. I deflect all but the first, but by the time I retaliate he is already out of my range. The young man's hair brushes against either elbow as he bounces between the balls of his feet, a playful grin on his face. Again he comes at me, feigning to my right but then striking from my left; again I manage to block most of the assault but his retreat is too quick. Taking the fight to him gains me nothing as well. He dodges everything and keeps moving out of range. He must train for stamina, showering opponents with weak blows and outlasting them. I take the advantage by ignoring his attack, landing a single strong punch to his abdomen. He staggers back and gasps, the surprise in his eyes tells me this is his first injury of the day. He recovers and tries again, this time I drive the ridge of my palm to his throat. He falls to his knees, choking for breath and waving an arm to signal his yield.

We are given a brief respite before the final round which races by in my memory. I see my Pharaoh again, who appears more irritated than interested. The bouts have not been what he expected and I am not displeased; though I obey my Pharaoh, I hope he learns that combat is not the spectacle he imagines. My place is to protect my Pharaoh, not to entertain him. Time returns to its normal pace as my last competitor steps forward and bows graciously to make an appeal to the pharaoh. When bidden to speak, he offers through a grin, "As this is the last match, perhaps it should be a grander thing that those before it. I suggest this final combat be armed."

It is not his words, but the unsettling manner in which he speaks that urge me to study the man. The style of his hair and garb appear to be foreign, but his skin and accent suggest he was born along the Nile. His belt offers many worn sheaths of all sizes which now sit empty. These outward signs tell me little of the man and his intentions. I must glimpse his fire to know more. While a righteous blue flame is the last thing I expect, I pray to see the middle hues of green or yellow; even orange would not be foreboding. It is a deep red I fear, which would show his intent to harm others, likely my Pharaoh. Blinking slowly, what I witness is a blaze, the strength of which is rare among men, but it is not the size of his flame that harrows me. His is a color I have never before seen, let alone understand. He is the Violet Flame.

The sight of his flame shatters my memory as I am brought reeling back to the now, the wound at my side a burning reminder of my expiring life. A scream can be heard, one of agony that sounds much like my own voice, although I do not believe I have that much breath left. Frantically, my eyes dart around the room. The assassin remains motionless, but I can still see it burning; the Violet Flame persists, albeit weakly. My fellow guards have gripped tightly to my shoulders and ankles to carry me from the room but I cannot see their faces, my world already fading. I try to speak, to warn them, but my voice fails and I drift back into the dream.

I look now to the young pharaoh as his eyes widen with anticipation; the idea of armed combat clearly entices him, but whatever eagerness he feels I match with cautious anxiety. The pharaoh carefully regards my opponent, then allows his eyes to travel over the crowd, all of whom are clearly excited at the prospect. Finally his gaze ends as it meets mine and with whatever language a face can convey, I beg him not to allow it. The corner of his mouth curls up in a smirk before he responds, "Very well, but I will not have blood spilled. Your weapons are to be from our blunted stock for training. Choose freely from among them."

I take a kopesh and will later regret it. While my hooked weapon excels at disarming foes, it will do little against the twin straight daggers my opponent favors. From his stance, I guess that his style is to defend with one while attacking with the other. Opening the match, I swing from overhead and straight down; he deflects with his right blade and immediately lunges inward with his left, but I have kept too much distance for him to reach me. Circling slowly to his right side, my objective is to leverage the length of my weapon and distance his strong arm from me.

Before my next attack, the man leaps at me, jarring my kopesh out of the way with left blade and thrusting the other to my chest. The ambidextrous move surprises me, but stepping aside proves enough to avoid his attack. In the moment I dodge, he flips his left dagger over in hand and uses it to trap the curved blade of my kopesh. With his right he thrusts the the dagger to my side, which is stopped short by my left hand gripping tight at his wrist. His response could not have been more elegant or brutal. All at once, he grips my sword arm, pinning it to my chest as he steps behind me, moving the dagger so it points at my back, and kicks at the back of my knee. Blunt or no, that blade may kill me when my weight falls on it. Even though I maintain hold of his wrist, I do not have the strength to save myself, unless...

Instinct takes over as I focus inward and kindle my own flame. When my hand makes contact with the ground, I tense and keep the dagger from plunging into my back. Using that platform, I spring to my feet, pulling both my weight and his upright, but I do not stop there. The speed and strength of my motions leave him witless as I release his right hand, trap his left, and flip him over myself. The landing is only half as harsh as my forearm strike to his neck. The beaten man slumps to his side, then rolls to his hands and knees to recover.

It is at this moment that time stands still and I glance freely about at the crowd. Many stare agape, the action too rapid for them to have seen. Others saw, but stare blankly, disbelief in their eyes. Still others truly witnessed and understand that the things I did were not quite possible. Finally, my Pharaoh sits at the edge of his chair, eyes wide with admiration, panting as though he had been the one to fight. I do not deserve a victory, but there is yet time to salvage my honor. Shamefully, I yield.

Bright lights slowly begin to wash out my memory, but not before I get one last look at my opponent; his eyes pour forth a cold contempt, his fists clench tight in fury, his inner flame flickers red briefly, and even through this dream, I swear I can still feel its angry heat on my skin.

No, this is a different heat I feel, and it comes from the same brazier that washes out my memory with light. My eyes are open; I am yet alive. I see the blurred shapes of four people standing around me. The smallest of them presses cloth to the wound at my side while they speak to one another, their voices only slightly more distinct than their shapes.

"... Man is dying ... heal him."
"... Last rites ... miracles ... from Set."
"I command that Set save him."
"... a bargain ... life ... for life."

My Pharaoh, what are you doing?

The next grain of sand to fall through the hourglass is here.
Feeling lost in time? Start at the beginning.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo! Bravo! The tournament is a vivid scene. I can see and hear the action! JED