Sandcastles

by Jonathon Sullivan

 

 

Brion, Lord Harrick, Prince of Westbreak, Duke of Fallon, Hero of the Battle of the Blackrot, came into his second life much as he had come into the first. He gestated for a long time in brine, and was then thrust into the cold, covered with muck.

 

Unlike his first birth, his second was accompanied by a full awareness of who he was, a complete experience of the pain of parturition, and an immediate knowledge of how to walk.

 

And memories of a previous life.

 

Burning at the stake.

 

He recoiled from those memories, but they clung to him: choking on smoke, the roasting of his flesh, his own screams...

 

Phillip. Dear brother. I told you I would come back. I haven’t forgotten.

 

He stood up on the beach, and with his hands he sloughed away the placenta of kelp and slime that covered his body.

 

Nearby, the sea licked at the decrepit remnants of an elaborate sandcastle. The tide surged against the castle’s foundations, and soon the crude walls and turrets would dissolve into swirling chaos. A ghost crab crawled over one of the carefully constructed walls and flopped into the castle courtyard, taking up residence in a doomed fortress. Brion imagined a child sitting on the shore, erecting her monument to impermanence while her parents probed the beach for mussels, probably just a few hours ago. The image was at once comforting and infuriating.

 

He took his first steps into the south, following the coastline, his feet sinking into the gray sand. The surf snatched at his ankles, like a mother unwilling to see her son go into the world so young.

 

But Brion Lord Harrick was not young. And more than any of his kind alive or dead, he knew the truth: He’d never had a real mother.

 

The sea had borne him, a fetus of slowly differentiating rot-muck, and pushed him out onto the sand, into the company of hermit crabs and seagulls. But there was no fine sand, and no sea, and no crab would ever walk the earth again. Only the rot was real. As he marched into the south, toward the edifice of rot that was home, he picked sand off his bare chest and rubbed it between thumb and forefinger. Gritty and hard.

 

He smelled salt on the air.

 

The low hills overlooking the beach sported a brilliant green plumage of spiregrass.

 

The gulls shrieked in protest—we live.

 

He stopped, and looked down at his hand. For a long moment the allure of substance held him in thrall, and he __wanted__ to submit. The world built castles out of corrupt clay, a paste of granules a million times smaller than any grain of sand. He wanted to live in those sandcastles, and believe the lie. At least forget the lie. Perhaps he already had. Perhaps the lie had itself been a lie. A bad dream. With the sand abrading his waterlogged fingertips, and the shriek of the gulls in his head, he could almost believe it.

 

But he could not believe it. He stared into the sand at his fingertips, rubbing. He let his vision smear as his mind focused. At first the power would not come, and he shuddered with dread and longing. It had been a dream.

 

No. The world bent to his will.  His vision came into focus, and he watched the granules of sand melt into his flesh. Muck mixing with muck. The grit in his hair smoothed into his scalp. In a few seconds his body, which had been covered with the pruritic detritus of the sea and sand, was as smooth and clean as a baby’s. 

 

The world felt his power, and sent an avatar of protest to hover before him, screeching outrage at his violation of the illusion. He extended his will, and before the gull had finished falling to the ground it had become a light tunic, to shield his new skin from the sun. A half-dozen of the gull’s fellows met similar fates, and he had short trousers, sandals and a wide-brimmed hat. The rest of the flock screeched its way to the north.  

 

The waves breached the walls of the sandcastle, and it collapsed into rot.

 

So be it. Phillip...Marten...I’ve come back, to wash you all away.

 

Ruth. I’ve come back.

 

The sun was directly overhead as he set off again, hungry but unwilling to eat, hot but of no mind to seek shade, mindful of a world he could understand and manipulate, but never really control. Even when a man knew he was an imaginary crab inhabiting sandcastles, he still had no say in his birth, and he still became hungry and hot and tired. He could still be thirsty for blood, and lust for revenge.

 

His new sandals kept the grit out of his toes.

 

 

# # #

 

 

He marched along the edge of the sea for two days and a night, barely sleeping, sipping at the freshwater his power distilled from the ocean, but refusing to listen to the acid hunger in his rot-flesh. Two leagues down the coast, he took a hard right, and entered the Eastern Hinterlands. After a few miles of spiregrass and scrub, he came upon a twisted pine growing out of the rocky plains. Over the space of an hour, his power reduced the tree to a puddle of brown goo, which his mind worked like wet clay. The tree’s thick trunk and drooping branches contained enough living rot for him to fashion a brown mare and even some tack. This magic brought his new body, still weak, to the brink of collapse. He had no choice but to sleep and eat. There were rules.

 

With the last of his strength, he transformed stones into a kettle, and spiregrass into capons and potatoes. He fashioned a handful of dirt into a crude glass lens, and used it to focus the sun onto a small heap of tinder. Water from water, living muck from living muck, steel from stone—his power was not arbitrary, and he could no more call fire from nothing than any other man. The rot followed rules that not even the world could break, much less Brion Lord Harrick. His capon stew was thick and bland.

 

The meal restored him. He lay next to his fire in the darkness, listening to his new horse root and chew at the spiregrass, staring up at the stars with the question that had haunted him ever since that day in his first life, when he had awakened to the nature of the world: flame or fabrication? Were those real fires burning in the sky, or just the dance of the most ethereal rot that men called flame? Could the rot overtake a star, as it had the earth? Did the world of lies extend even to the heavens?

 

The question was taunting, but also old and familiar, and it tucked him in like a lullaby.

 

He dreamed of two angels, standing over him.

 

“Brion Lord Harrick...”

 

“...returned...”

 

“...savior...”

 

“...destroyer, I think...”

 

When he snapped awake, the left angel had a sword at his throat.

 

“To kill you would be to fail in my duty, Harrick,” he said. “But my duty is at odds with my judgment. So don’t give me a breath of excuse to do it.”

 

Brion’s eyes adjusted slowly. His fire had withered into red ash, and the angels were illuminated only by starlight.

 

“You will drink this,” said the angel to his right, unlashing a stoppered gourd from his belt.

 

“You aren’t angels,” he said, the first words since his birth. They came out raw, croaking.

 

His assailants glanced at each other, then chuckled. “Just men.”

 

He sat up slowly, and the sword at his throat yielded a bit. “Not even that.”

 

The sword pressed back. “You insult our Order?”

 

“I insult those who think themselves men, and most especially those of your Order.”

 

“Then you insult yourself.”

 

Brion nodded. “Yes.”

 

“You were one of us. Before you fell into apostasy and witchcraft.”

 

“I’m still like you.”

 

“Enough of this,” said the priest on the right, proferring the gourd. “Drink.”

 

Brion eyed the vessel. “What is it?”

 

“Sleep.”

 

“Put the dreamspell on some cheap wine, did you? No thanks, I’ve slept enough.”

 

The sword nibbled at his throat, hungry. “Drink or die.”

 

Harrick took the gourd, twirled it, felt the liquid sloshing within. “You know...this won’t work if I don’t let it.” He tried to sound like he believed it. He was still weak.

 

The warrior-priest on the left took a deep breath, fingers tightening on the hilt of his sword. “I almost hope it doesn’t.”

 

“Prince Brion,” said the other priest, “we are here to convey you unharmed.”

 

“Where?”

 

“It doesn’t matter!” sputtered the other. “He’s right-it won’t work if he doesn’t let it. This was always a fool’s errand. He can’t turn back the blackrot. He brought the blackrot. It’s back because he’s back! We kill him now, while he’s still weak.”

 

“That is not the Prelate’s command, Beol.”

 

“The Prelate has no command." Beol glared at Brion with hate. "He’s a pawn. Our ‘command’ comes from that fool at Westbreak.”

 

“So things haven’t changed that much,” Brion said. He let his unsteady power gather slowly, coiling like a spring for the sudden burst. “Blackrot in the wilderness. A dickless Prelate in thrall to Westbreak. And an Order full of oblivious priests who can’t even decide whether or not they should do as their told.”

 

Beol’s face became a mask of incoherent rage.

 

“Apostate! Sorcerer!

 

“Perhaps. But at least I don’t call it a Faith, like you charlatan priests and your boy-buggering Prelate.”

 

The sword left his throat, rising in a sweeping arc over Beol’s head, poising to crash down on Brion’s skull.

 

“Beol, no!”

 

Brion released his power.

 

Beol froze in that position for a long moment, sword held high, eyes bulging with shock and sudden pain. A single whimper escaped his throat before he toppled.

 

The other priest stumbled backwards. His hand fumbled for his sword.

 

“Not if you don’t want to end up like him,” Brion said.

 

The priest’s hand fell away from the pommel, then raised up to point at Brion’s chest.

 

“Oh, good,” Brion said. “A magic show.”

 

The priest muttered the three words of the binding spell. His casting was excellent, considering the stress of the situation, and Brion’s arms were pinned to his sides, his knees locked.

 

The priest stared at Beol’s corpse, then at Brion. “What...what did you do to him?”

 

“I turned his brain to bone.”

 

“Oh...by the Faith! They...said you would be weak...”

 

“I’m a little weak,” Harrick said. “But it wasn’t that hard. His brain was fairly well along in the process already. Yours will take a bit longer. Another minute or two, I think.”

 

The priest blanched.

 

“Do you feel it starting, priest? A heaviness behind that low forehead of yours? A buzzing in your ears?”

 

“Don’t...please.”

 

“Release me.”

 

Brion had used no magic, but his words cast a spell nonetheless. The priest raised his arm again, shaking, and muttered the three words of binding in reverse order.

 

“Focus,” Brion said. “I think you just unhitched my horse.”

 

The priest tried again. Brion rose and shook out his arms.

 

“What’s your name, priest?”

 

Another step back. “Geoff.”

 

Brion retrieved his mount, and hitched it to a dead tree. “How far’s come the blackrot, Geoff?”

 

“All across the wilderness. No more’n three leagues out of Westbreak, when I left.”

 

“I see. And Phillip rules at Westbreak, still?”

 

“Aye. With Queen Ruth.”

 

Queen Ruth.” Brion took a moment to taste that. Bitter. “For how long?”

 

“Ruth became Queen at Westbreak in the first year after...after you won the Battle of Blackrot. Thirteen years ago.”

 

Brion nodded. “And they asked the Prelate to have you come to welcome me back. Is that right?”

 

“Aye.”

 

“So how did they know I’d be coming back? Phillip doesn’t have that much imagination. Ruth...I don’t think so.  Our beloved Prelate is even more blind than most men.”

 

“Sir!” Geoff’s outrage displaced his fear for a moment, and his right hand almost went to the pommel of his sword before his left came to drag it away.

 

Brion nodded. “Are you thirsty?”

 

Geoff frowned. “Why?”

 

Brion picked up the gourd. “Because I think you should drink this.”

 

Geoff shook his head. Brion reached down and retrieved Beol’s sword. “I insist.”

 

After Geoff had drained the gourd, and sat heavily in the dirt, Brion knelt beside him. “One last thing, Geoff, before I tuck you in. Phillip would not have sent out a bunch of priests. How many soldiers did he send for me?”

 

“Few.” Geoff nodded, eyelids fluttering. “Most at Westbreak. To stand. Against. Blackrot.”

 

“Stand? Stand how? Never mind. And the Prelate? Has he fled his tower yet?”

 

“Marlett.”

 

“Ah. Where the wine is sweet and the boys are cheap. Of course. Well.” Brion stood. “Good night, Geoff.”

 

“’T’was the Princess.”

 

Brion frowned. “Come again?”

 

“The Princess.”

 

“What Princess?”

 

“She knew. You were. Coming.” And with that, Geoff was asleep, which made him no better or worse than most men. Brion stared at him for a time, then took his mount and headed West, toward a rotten Prelate, a rotten Court, and the implacable blackrot, which was purity itself.

 

 

# # #

 

 

He evaded the thinly-spread patrols of warrior-priests and common soldiers that Phillip had planted in the countryside, and rode into Marlett on the fifth day after his birth. The city sat on the western shore of the great inland Sea of Arle. Ships crowded into the gray harbor, swaying masts thrusting into the sky like the bare trees of a floating winter forest. But Marlett boasted all the colors of spring, bright penants flying from vividly painted towers, streets lined with festive paper lanterns. Trade with the Eastern Realm, on the other side of Arle, had made Marlett rich, fat, corrupt and colorful.

 

He used some of Beol’s coin to buy a pint at a dockside pub, and drained half his tankard before he had extracted the information he needed from a pretty young barmaid with red hair. He found the inn within the quarter-hour, closed to regular customers for the duration of the Prelate’s stay, secured by the Prelate’s guard: a dozen men in archaic, ridiculous livery, armed with halberds. He hitched his horse to a post before a dry-goods merchant on the other side of the street and made his way to the inn. One of the guards stepped forward as he approached, halberd leaning against his shoulder like a flagpole.

 

“This inn has been appropriated by the Prelate of the Faith,” he called across the street. “You cannot stay here, citizen.”

 

“I would never stay in a house of the Prelate’s Faith,” Brion answered, drawing closer. “I just want to speak with him.”

 

The halberd came down, held across the waist as if to block his way. “Not possible. The Prelate takes no audience today. Turn back, citizen.”

 

“I am no citizen.”

 

He was a few paces away now, and as he drew near recognition dawned on the guard’s face. “Harrick. It’s __Harrick__!” The halberd swung into lunging position, pointing from the right hip. The other guards surged forward.

 

He walked past them, a dozen defenders of the Faith, motionless, carved out of marble and set in the street like icons.

 

He found Marten Ultar, Earl of Lidor, Prelate of the Faith, the King’s Confessor, sitting in the dining hall, dressed in the simple robes of a monk, drinking wine. Four stone guards kept silent watch, expressions frozen in shock. The Prelate was Brion’s age, and in another life they had grown up together, sons of nobility. His features were softer than Brion’s, his head shaven.

 

“Hello, Brion. Welcome back.”

 

“I’ve come to kill you, Marten.”

 

The Prelate nodded. “I know. Care for some wine? This vintage here is from the Eastern Realm.” The Prelate picked up the bottle, examined it. “Their grapes are better, on the other side of the Arle.”

 

“Perhaps the sun shines more brightly where the Faith holds no sway.”

 

The Prelate shook his head, and laughed. “Death and resurrection haven’t washed away your bitterness, have they?”

 

“They haven’t washed away my memory of burning at the stake, if that’s what you mean.”

 

“Or your proclivity to blasphemy, which tied you to that stake in the first place.”

 

“Are you ready to die, Marten?”

 

“Not yet. I really was hoping to share this vintage with you. We used to drink wine and talk a great deal, you and I.”

 

Brion took a seat at the other end of the long table. “One of us usually did more drinking than talking.”

 

“Well, yes, it’s true.” The Prelate took a goblet from one of the empty table settings, wiped it with the hem of his robe, poured, and passed the cup toward Brion. “I used to drink wine because I couldn’t see. Now I drink wine because I don’t __want__ to see. There is a difference, you know.”

 

“Really? Either way, you drink wine. ‘__A man is deed, not deed’s reason__.’”

 

“You are cruel, Brion, to strike a man with his own words.”

 

“I didn’t say it to be cruel.”

 

“Really? Either way, you said it.”

 

“And what is it you see that has given you a new excuse for wine, Marten?”

 

The Prelate laughed. “Why, the same thing you see, of course. And more.”

 

“You think you know what I see?”

 

“What you saw before. Blackrot doesn’t come to devour the world. Blackrot is the world.”

 

“You’ll forgive me if I’m not particularly impressed by your insight. You and Phillip had me burned alive for saying as much.”

 

The Prelate took a long draught. “No, Brion, I had you burned for saying it. Phillip could care less about apostasy.”

 

Brion puckered his lips and nodded. “This is true.”

 

“Phillip had you burned because he thought you brought the rot—and in a way, of course, he was right. He had you burned because you antagonized the priests and the nobility. Because your power was beyond his ken or control. Because you were an asshole. Mostly, though, he burned you to get you out of the way. So he could have Ruth.” The Prelate leaned forward, with a cruel grin. “And he got her.”

 

“Is that supposed to hurt, Marten?” Brion sat back, hurting. “Why do I care? The world is rot.”

 

“It is. I know that now. Still. You care. Knowing the world is rot doesn’t make it hurt any less. It makes it hurt more, because you know you’re hurting over rot.”

 

Brion looked away, took up his goblet.

 

“Ah, you begin to realize, don’t you, that I have seen it. What you see. How you hurt. I had your notes, Brion. Fascinating reading, once I got past your lousy penmanship. To see the world through your eyes...it came slowly, like learning a new tongue. But it grew within me. It gave me visions that exposed our Faith as empty mythology. It yielded powers that made our spells and incantations look like the petty prestidigitations of an itinerant street acrobat. Do you remember, old friend, that summer at the temple, ten years old, learning that first charm? How powerful it made us feel, how special?”

 

Brion looked into his goblet. “Water to wine. I remember.”

 

“After your death, I saw the world as you see it—or as close as any other man could. Nobody could have your depth of insight, or your power. I can’t fight the rot, like you. But I can work it, as never before—because now I know I’m working rot. And I can see it.”

 

“We’re back to those cruel worlds, Prelate. A man is what he does—or says—not why he says it. You say you see the rot, but you can’t fight it. I say you’re just mouthing something you heard a man say long ago, before you burned him at the stake. A last-ditch effort to confuse, or placate. It won’t work.”

 

“Please, Brion. You brought the rot, and then you defeated it. Your power was apparent. And you’re here, aren’t you? Back from the ashes? Back from the dead! Just as you promised. You cast your last spell as we lashed you to the stake, and here you are. Why would any man doubt you now? But I don’t just believe your words, Brion. I’ve seen it. And though I may not have your power, I see more than you do.”

 

Brion snorted, quaffed his wine. It was good.

 

“Do you know, Brion, why you were the first to see the rot? Why you were—and still are—the only man able to beat it back?”

 

Brion Lord Harrick shook his head.

 

“I will tell you. Men created the rot, long ago.”

 

Brion laughed. “You’ve learned nothing, Marten. You see nothing. Men are made out of rot, not the other way around.”

 

“Astonishing,” said the Prelate. “You really don’t see it, do you? No, Brion, it’s true. Men made the rot. Real men—not men of mud like me and you. Men who lived...ages ago. They made a magic dust, a dust of motes smaller than the eye can see, a living dust they could cast into any shape, to do their bidding. But like all living things, the dust had its own will, and they found they could not tame it. That dust became the rot, and it consumed their world. Like a flood. Like a fire.”

 

Brion stared at him.

 

“Yes.” Marten nodded, and his smile was vicious. “But although the dust had a raw will to grow and live, and although its creators had blessed it with a sort of intelligence, it had no imagination. No purpose. And as it devoured the last man, it saw its future—a bleak wasteland of itself, a sea of rot, blank and void.” The Prelate raised his arm and pointed at Brion. “So from the mind of the last man it took a picture of the world, an imaginary world with imaginary people.” The Prelate swept his arm, indicating the chamber. “This world.” He thumped his palm against his chest. “These people.”

 

Brion shook his head. “This is fantasy. There is no way you can know that.”

 

“You may shape the rot, Brion. As you always have. But I can hear it. I know. I...am...rot.”

 

“What are you talking about? ‘As I always have?’”

 

The Prelate’s face took on a façade of gleeful amazement. “You really don’t get it, do you?”

 

Brion stood. “Enough riddles. I came to kill you, Marten.”

 

 

This story is still at market. To prevent it from being considered "published," only this incomplete version is available on line. If you want to read the whole thing, send me an email.