The Mural on the Wall
A slash of yellow cut across green walls. Two more followed before the brush stalled inches away. The Collector paused, her eyes narrowing in the low light. Comely in face and supple as a river adder, the painted figure returned her stare. The body was an appropriate facsimile of her own, of that she was confident. Hundreds of renditions whiling away the last three decades schooled her hands well in the delicate lines. They could paint them blindfolded. In a few cases they had.
Sometimes she allowed vanity to take control. Her paint-pocked hands would stray here and there, enhancing until the image coloring the drab subterranean walls passed for Sune herself. For hours, she’d lie on her back starring, lost in idle dreams. Sipping wine, she’d stare into the colors and shapes draped across her walls and imagine sunning herself next to a naked lover. Stuffed beneath the earth in a dingy hole far from the surface, those flights of fancy had sustained her in the cold dark.
But those pictures were gone. Time grew short and whimsy pushed aside by reality. The last four years she concerned herself with chronicling the past, or as well as she could decipher it. Thelek avoided history. She’d only heard him speak of it twice. He preferred not to dwell on the deeds he’d done, noble or base, instead focusing on what may come. “The past is stone,” he’d say, “The future need not be.” Yet, he spoke of men not born and wars unfought as if they’d been decided eons before. It was maddening to keeping it straight. In the end, she’d taken to painting the events he described to create a visual time line. She doubted it made sense, especially as half of the events portrayed would never come to pass should Thelek achieve his goal, but it helped to try.
She cleansed the brush and dipped again. Months ago, the major pieces had dried. The many lives of Thelek and the Faerun of past and present decorated large portions of the lower chambers. Now in this last space in her personal quarters, she wished to capture her own little part. The Tenth Follower of Thelekanos. The Collector. She wished the world to know she existed. An act of vanity, she knew, but allowable as it would be her last.
The freshly painted body before her, resplendent and beautiful, pleased the eye; yet an empty void hung beneath her writhing hair. Painting her features proved far more difficult. She ran her fingers across her face, feeling the dips and lows, willing touch to shape her mind’s eye yet, nothing came and now nothing ever would. Destined to day soon, she would never know her own face.
“It’s time,” Beran called. The Collector cringed. He moved like his oozes, slow and silent. Once it took an hour for him to travel a span that had taken her five minutes. She’d only wanted to know if the storeroom held more polish- the dampness of the temple above subjected her statues to an endless variety of filth and mold; yet, the priest had arrived crawling on all fours, his ankle ritualistically snapped and folded 180 degrees behind him. He’d confessed to walking on it half way before the leg gave. She knew he’d finished without complaint. Bevan had listened to her silly request for polish, his expressionless gold mask waited patiently.
“I don’t know,” he had replied in a voice bright with cheer, “Let me check.” She had watched him slowly turn and make his way back down the hall, his useless ankle flopping behind like a boned fish. The memory, as every time she heard his voice when she believed herself alone, made her skin crawl like insects swarming beneath the surface.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she said. She couldn’t work in his presence. She believed in capturing and preserving beauty for all time; he sought to dissolve the world. Some things never mixed.
“Nevertheless,” he returned, “It’s time.
The Collector’s anger flared. Her hair became agitated, and she glared at him. He’d be dead and consumed by his own minions decades ago if not for Ghuandar’s gold mask and those hideous spikes that held it in place. She knew he sensed her feelings. Blind or no, he perceived things far better than most. Still his voice brimmed with cheer; never once had he returned her irritation.
Yet Bevan had it right. It was time. She sighed. Four lifespans passed and still the end arrived so soon. Her work remained unfinished. A blank space for a face would forever mar the beautiful painting. The Collector would come and go without evidence. No remedy; nothing to be done. She placed the delicate brush between her fingers and snapped it in a quick jerk, watching the pieces fall to the stone floor before grabbing her bow and quiver.
“Open it,” she commanded. They’d arrived at the massive stone door separating the temple from the underdark. After three and a half centuries, Thelekanos stood on the other side, waiting to be let in, waiting to change the world.
“Open it,” she repeated, hissing in irritation. Bevan was stalling. He was a fool. Thelek was done paying homage, either to gods or mortals. She knew he’d waste a millennium of plans rather than stoop to divine. Those days were over. Gaundar’s toll would go unpaid.
“Wait,” Bevan said.
She struck him hard. The flat of her hand pushed him a step backward and the hard impact of flesh against soft metal rung throughout the halls. She cursed as her bow hand began to sting and turn red.
The gold mask turned to look at her. She swore she could almost see it smile. “Thank you,” Bevan replied with good cheer, “But unnecessary.”
The door shuddered and rose; a layer of dust fell from above as Thelek strode into the temple, passing them as one would urchins begging for coins. A length of gauze encircled his left hand. A single scarlet dot seeped through the linen. Flesh given to acid; an offering to Ghaunadar. The Collector struggled to contain her shock… and disappointment.
“Iofel herds them,” Thelek said, marching down the halls, “See they make it alive.”
The Collector nodded. There wasn’t time for reservations. The Godpawns were sure to follow. She would engage… and she would lose. Not every loss was a failure though. She dropped the bow off her shoulder, held the recurve and strung it with ease. Her paint smeared hands were well practiced in this as well. The quiver strap pressed tight against her shoulder and naked skin. She might be destined to loose, but she’d make the Godpawns fight every step of the way.
Finished, she joined Thelek and matched his stride. “The one you asked for is here. She waits below.”
“I know,” Thelek answered, stepping over the tripwires and pressure plates that made up Bevan’s gauntlet without need of caution or warning. Evidence of foresight. Again it amazed her. Knowing all because you’ve already seen it. What a gift foresight must be? Yet what a far more terrible curse. Coupled with his inability to die, Thelekanos was both twice blessed and damned. In time she found she pitied more than she admired. Perhaps that meant she knew him better than most.
Thelek held a mechanism in place as Bevan and she pushed four crumbling statues off their pressure plates and into the next chamber. The walls began to bleed tendrils of blue slime as the stone door slammed shut after them. In a matter of moments, the slimes on the other side would rise, ready extract more offerings to the Boiling Lord.
She took a moment to examine the ruined statues. They’d all been beautiful, before the oozes had gotten to them. Flawless in face and form. She would have been happy to have been born as any of them. Yet here they were- broken ruins on a moldy floor. Time, she thought, does such terrible things.
“Welcome to the Chapel of the Churning One,” Bevan spoke with reverence as he ushered Thelek into the slime-ridden altar room. A black puddle slid crossed a fallen pillar before popping twice and joining one of the thick oily, masses that dominated the chamber. “Ghaunadur is pleased by your supplication,” the priest finished.
Thelekanos turned on his heel, a sword of radiant energy crackling in his hand. Bevan collapsed against the altar as a massive gash opened lengthwise across his abdomen. It stood empty for a few heartbeats, as black and bottomless as the depths he worshiped. Then the blood began to flow.
“I go to Golurak by my own choosing. I serve no one.” Thelek returned, unbridled anger poring forth from him as waves of heat and light.
Blood coursed from Bevan’s prostrate form; the blade hadn’t enough heat to cauterize the wound. Light, it appeared, was no longer Thelek’s to command. Yet it mattered little. Good or evil, results determined all. Pride, position, near absolute power… Thelekanos abdicated them all to champion the cause of mortals. Soiling himself, he’d waded into the muck to save a drowning dog. Surely that was worthy as of the Maimed One’s sacrifices.
“Nuances… semantics,” Bevan replied, laughing hollowly behind his gold mask, “Scheming, genocide, and off to commit far worse. Fool the children all you want, but we walk the same road.”
“We are nothing alike.” Thelek spat, dismissing his blade as it flickered to a dull gray. The remnants of his light faded with it.
“Are you so sure,” Bevan laughed, the happiness in his voice barely containing an undercurrent of fervent mania. “Same crimes and helping the same master. Do the whys matter when the destination’s the same?”
“Nothing alike,” Thelek repeated.Bevan’s gold mask leered at Thelek’s bandage before holding up his own mutilated stump. “Whatever you say… brother. Whatever you say.”