Episode 13 - Rumors of the Demon King
Minerva had come out to join us, smiling. When Riordan finally sighed under the volume of my questions and announced that he would get me out to see the world if it was the last thing he did, she began telling us quietly of Noksheoth Heights. A plateau of stone high above the farmland and the ocean, requiring a journey in a basket up the sheer cliff face - a journey so harrowing that most people who were born in the Heights never left, most people who weren't never went there, and of those who made the journey once, the vast majority stayed where they found themselves and never made it again.
After a pause to explain to me what a 'plateau' was - hey, if the old bard didn't sing about it, chances are I didn't know about it - Riordan asked rather rudely what was so great about Noksheoth Heights to get people to go there in the first place. "There are..." he paused to make sure no one could overhear us and then went on, "There are demons there, right? And dead people? Why the hell would anyone want to be stuck up atop a cliff with a bunch of nasty things like that?"
With a shrug and a bit of a smile, she spread her hands in a graceful, "who can say?" gesture. "'Nasty things' like exquisite surroundings," she answered, and then went on to explain. "The city is carved from the white granite of the plateau on which it sits. Legend has it that the demon Noksheoth drew a pillar of white granite the size of a mountain out of the sea to form a bridge between the two continents. Then he sat atop it and sundered it in half. He commanded his minions to build his temple upon the edge of the precipice, and bridges to be built to span the chasm under the vigilant eye of the temple, so that he might watch all comings and goings between the two lands."
"I thought you said hardly anyone could stand to make the journey in the basket thingy," Riordan pointed out. I gave him a dark look. He simply did not know how to sit back and enjoy a good story.
"Not everything that makes the journey feels fear," Minerva responded in such a manner as sent a chill down my back, and Riordan's too from the look on his face. She continued with her story in the silence. "Then Noksheoth put magics upon the pillar, drawing fresh water up, some chilled by its journey through the stones, some passing through caves where the heat is so intense that only a demon could find pleasure in it, so that the Heights never lack for water, hot or cold. He spoke with the ancient kings and queens of the distant past, whispering to them about a paradise where they could walk in living death forever, if only they would worship him, and they devoted their riches and their followers to his designs, carving a great city out of the stone, full of splendors such as you have never seen, palaces built of gems and precious metals, full of the greatest art of all time, the most exquisite gardens, the most perfect of everything that might please a king or queen to regard for eternity. Atop the city, in the wind and the sun, the servants and workers made their camps, while under the surface, encased in the protection of the granite, the tombs of those who will never die grew in magnificence and splendor. Over time, the city of the living on the surface has prospered, as powerful merchants, priests and officials and their families have followed their undead masters to their eternal rest. The living have made their own deals with Noksheoth, and their city still rules in magnificence and beauty over any other city of man. Beneath them, they aspire to form their own eternal palaces with the rich and powerful in the City of the Dead."
Riordan was staring slack-jawed. I went to smirk to myself over that fact, then realized I had been listening with my mouth agape, too. "So... you have to worship Noksheoth to live anywhere in the city? Living or dead?"
Her hair caught the sunlight when she shook her head. "No. Many of the living fear Noksheoth and will not worship him. It is not mandatory to worship him, but the worship of any other god is prohibited. It must be understood, however, that he rules in the Heights, and his word is law there. And if you do not worship Noksheoth, the Heights are not a good place to die. Unless you have managed to serve another god loyally enough that he or she intervenes to take your soul upon your death, your body is cast into the great Tombs of the Impoverished Dead, where your spirit is bound and can be summoned and enslaved by Noksheoth's necromancers."
We listened in horrified silence, until Riordan found his voice. "You know, don't take this the wrong way, but that kind of shit is why the rest of the world hates you westerners."
Minerva's smile was without mirth. "Note that not all of us choose to stay."
"Why would anyone want to?"
"Some find solace in the assurance of continuation after death. They save all their lives to purchase a place in the Catacombs, where common men and women are interred. There, their bodies are rarely resurrected, but their spirits are free to rest, or to walk the city of the dead and enjoy the splendors, or to serve as they are called upon or able. For us, even for thousands of years before the coming of Noksheoth, our ancients worshipped gods who taught of life after death. Before the coming of the demon, the kings and queens vied with one another across the lands to build the greatest tombs and monuments, furnished with the most lavish objects, for them to dwell in after their death. Even the common people do the same with their family crypts. Many nobles will chose to have their crypts built large enough to contain colleges or hospitals and see that they are prospering and busy before their deaths so that when they die and are buried there, they will not be forgotten, and their souls will be surrounded by something they enjoy and people who are grateful to them. This has been our way since the gods were young. We are accustomed to the thought of our spirits lingering long after our bodies have grown cold and withered. Even in the time of ancient gods, rare were the zealots who wished to join their god or goddess in the afterlife. This is the realm of mortals. This is what will bring us solace in the eternity of death."
"That is the most horrible thing I have ever heard."
Her mouth quirked in a wry smile as she looked at Riordan. "What familial duties have you failed in that you fear the presence of your ancestors?"
"So the whole land is like that? Even the places away from Noksheoth?"
"Noksheoth lures our people with wealth and luxuries and the ability to walk the earth with your body after death. But even where his name is only whispered and people still worship the old gods in secret, yes, we are as aware of death as we are of life. It is the night to our day - we do not hide our eyes from it, or fear it as you foreigners do. It is the way of things."
"Sounds like a rotten place to be alive," Riordan huffed.
Minerva smiled at that and gave a mischievous little shrug. "Do you think? Most who have traveled through our land say the opposite. We are more aware than most of the brevity of life and the pleasure peculiar to the living. My people have spent thousands upon thousands of years refining pleasure and decadence. There is not nor ever has been another land to equal ours in that regard."
"I guess there are a lot of extremely wealthy people there," Riordan commented thoughtfully.
"Platinum coins flow like rivers?"
"Among the rich. The poor, I will admit, live in a poverty that is also unequaled in any land I have seen or heard tell of. That is not a point of my heritage to bring me pride, but it is true."
"Lot of wealthy middle class merchants?"
Riordan's line of questioning was making me look at him a little funny, but Minerva didn't seem to notice anything unusual about it. "This is true. A great, great many."
"Huh. How many foreigners go there?"
"Not many," she admitted, "but some. Similar to your great market grounds in the city. Noksheoth Heights does draw more foreigners than most parts of our country, those who are brave enough to dare the travel for a chance to experience the riches. A great many foreign wizards come there to build their towers because of the tolerance of magic and the access to the ancient libraries. Gentlemen, I am tired from the cold and from speaking so much. Forgive me if I retire to the wagon."
A blissful two or three minutes for me, helping her into the back of the wagon, trying to find that perfect balance between enjoying the chance to touch her and not getting caught enjoying it, then I rejoined Riordan walking along the road. "What the hell was that about?"
"All those questions."
Riordan gave me an arch look. "Oh, please. This coming from Master Why Does The Forest Grow In Rows? 'What's that tree? Can you eat it? Why aren't any farmers growing anything? How come the baby cows don't squeeze through the fences? Who makes roads?'" I felt my face grow a little hot. And I didn't think the types of questions were the same, but I couldn't figure out how to say it. "Aw, c'mon, Ozzie. Don't sull up on me like that. You never been outside of Bloodport. I've never been to Darkdim Crux. So we both asked a lot of stupid questions. Doesn't make us stupid people."
"Yeah, but your questions sounded like you were trying to get at something."
He looked a little pissed off at that, like maybe he hadn't been as discreet as he was hoping he was. "Okay, look, Ozzie. Do you realize how much money we have?"
"Yeah," I lied. I didn't really have a clue, but that wasn't important.
"Right now, my crotch could buy half of Waymeet. Your crotch could buy the other half. Okay? We have an absurd amount of money. So much money that we could not possibly spend even a tenth of it in one place without a whole lot of money changers getting together and asking why two scurvy looking mongrels such as ourselves have so much money without them having heard about how we got it. People are gonna talk, people are gonna start looking at how easy its going to be to take that money away from us, the people who lost the money in the first place are going to say, 'Hey, those would be the bastards we have to find and torture forever' and provided they have any money whatsoever left, which I frankly can't imagine, they will hire many, many large professional people to kill us slowly forever. Am I painting a clear enough picture for you, Ozzie?"
"My crotch is doomed."
"Exactly. You are much smarter than you look. Your crotch - and mine - are both doomed." He held up a finger. "Unless... unless we were to go somewhere where that type of money was not unusual. Somewhere that the cost of living was maybe a little higher, but that the influx of a hundred mithril pieces on the market would not cause much of a stir. We live a little more modestly, maybe, but the trade off is that the quality of life is higher, the luxuries more luxurious, and we don't have everyone for two hundred miles around suddenly looking to split us open to get the rest of it. We live comfortably and relatively unnoticed. What do you think?"
"Gonna buy yourself a palace and a little statue of Noksheoth?"
"Quit joking around. I plan on leaving the country as soon as I start feeling old and sick. But by then, I will be able to say that I made my fortune there and no one will be the wiser. C'mon, Ozzie. Sure, it's not without risk, but I think it's the best chance we got. Anywhere else we go, if we try to spend it, we're dead for sure."
"'We', huh?" I was kind of flattered. Oh, boy. Was going to have to tell him about the demon business soon for sure. "Sounds good."