THE MINISTRY OF FATE
By Jonathon Burgess
Captivity did not agree with Hristomarth. The societal stigma attached to the condition tended to close off opportunity. Practically speaking, it also made the hasty escape of consequences difficult. The state was more troubling than the method, though fetters particularly lacked dignity. Even the simple rope now binding his wrists soured his mood, adding another reason for his disappointment.
“You are too dour,” said Sorra the Bandit Queen. She walked behind him, hacking playfully at the foliage with his broken-bladed sword. “Here you hike through the bracing wildness of nature’s bounty. Your guide? My own attractive self. One would think this cause for celebration! Yet your demeanor is that of a Lumbering stranded in the dry desert sands.”
The bracing wildness of nature’s bounty was a forest somewhere deep within a series of foothills. Ancient trees towered overhead, casting everything beneath in a gloom barely penetrated by the setting sun. Sorra herself was tough, fast, and unreasonably silent, which Hristomarth had discovered to his detriment. Her opinion on her appearance wasn’t far off, though it was tempered by the jagged scar across her face and the half-starved leanness of a professional bandit.
“Some conflicts,” Hristomarth replied acidly, “must be fought. Others fled. A lesson I had hoped to teach to my cadre during your ambush, though I suspect they have drawn the wrong conclusion.” He adjusted the leather leashes coiled uncomfortably around his neck. “My demeanor is likely due to unfulfilled expectations on their part. It is possible I have overestimated their ferocity.”
The wyrmlings romped along through the forest behind them. None seemed concerned at the situation. Free of their leashes, they ate insects, lit fires, and ambushed each other from the underbrush. When distant thunder rumbled a few would stop and growl at the unseen sky.
Sorra put a hand to her chest in surprise. “What? Surely the fault is completely your own. These charming creatures are blameless!” She knelt, surprising Splaywing where it trotted alongside the bandit. “After all,” she continued,” such wise and brilliant creatures could never be taken by surprise. They’re far too clever for that, aren’t they? The very soul of wisdom!”
The little dragon sat back on its haunches, looking pleased and expectant, trilling pleasurably at the praise. Catchmaw poked its head around from behind her and Breaktooth pushed itself into place on the other side. All three studied Sorra with interest.
Hristomarth glared at them all. Loyalty was apparently cheap, among dragonkind.
“Such fine beasts you all are!” Sorra said. She reached out to scratch the underside of Breaktooth’s jaw, thought better of it, and scratched Catchmaw instead. “Your scales shine like packs of jewels, prettier by far than any potentates treasure horde.”
The rest of the wyrmling pack clustered eagerly around her. Except Greasetrap, who tried swallowing a stick, coughed it out, then picked it back up to chew thoughtfully on. Hristomarth rolled his eyes and reviewed the forest around them for opportunities. Thunder rolled in the distance again.
“A storm is coming,” he said flatly.
“Hmm?” Sorra cocked her head to listen. “It is distant, still,” she said after a moment. “By the time it breaks we’ll be safely back to my camp.” She grinned at the turncoat reptiles surrounding her. “You’ll all just love it there. It’s the perfect spot to train you all as fearsome ravagers and tireless reavers! At my direction, you’ll strike terror into the hearts of the populace! Absolute rivers of gold will flow before you, shining and glorious! Every merchant across Darmx will know an empty purse. Can you say that? Say “merchant.”
The wyrmlings sat with wide eyes. They shared an eager look among themselves, except for Greasetrap, who chewed on a stone. Breaktooth sat up a little straighter. “Enemy?” it tried.
“Good answer!” cooed Sorra. She bent over to scratch the wyrmling behind his head, then thought better of it. “Who’s a clever dragon?” she said instead. “Who is just the cleverest dragon?”
Hristomarth felt like swallowing his tongue in revulsion. “An idea occurs to me,” he said instead. “If you command an entire camp full of bandits, why are you out by yourself?”
Sorra shot him a glare. “Because I am a bandit queen!” She stood straight, planting both hands on her hips and thrusting out her chin. “And a queen needs to prove she’s strong. Periodically this means raiding by performed alone.”
“Not much is proved, thus.”
“You were captured, weren’t you?” She gestured with the tip of his broken sword. “Now march, prisoner. These beautiful creatures await their destiny, to carry us all towards gold and glory!”
The wyrmlings trilled eagerly.
Further travel only became more difficult. Rocky outcrops appeared and the incline they climbed grew steeper. Hristomarth stumbled through increasingly dim underbrush. Either the day was fading, or the clouds above had grown to blot it out. Lightning flared and rumbling thunder boomed. The wind pelted him with leaves and the lash of dancing branches. Ducking behind a tree for cover, he turned back to the bandit and the wyrmlings. “Proper refuge is increasingly desirable!”
“We’re almost there,” shouted Sorra. She pointed with the tip of his sword. “Just past that ridge.” She glanced around with a frown. “That’s where my camp is, I’m sure of it.”
Hristomarth peered at her as realization dawned. “You’re lost.”
Sorra jerked back as if he’d slapped her. “I am not! I know these hills like the back of my hand! You’ll pay for this insolence, rogue, if you cannot find a civil tongue.”
The wyrmlings crawled between the two of them for cover from the wind. They turned their heads back and forth between Hristomarth and Sorra like spectators at a sporting event. Hristomarth ignored the little turncoats.
“You’re lost,” he said again.
“Beyond this pass!” she shouted. “Now march!”
Several appropriate retorts came quickly to his tongue. Brawling, of course, was also an option. Unfortunately, the bandit was a surprisingly capable fighter, as he’d already learned. No, that avenue was already closed. Some conflicts were fought, but others had to be fled. Maybe he could lose her in the storm. Hristomarth turned again into the wind and pressed on.
Rain joined the howling wind, and the flashing crackle of lightning heralded thunder. Hristomarth kept his head low, both bound wrists atop his hat to keep it from flying away. The wyrmlings yowled miserably behind him, while Sorra brought up the rear with a steady stream of course invective. Blown back and forth, Hristomarth couldn’t tell if the incline they’d been climbing was growing steeper or less so, whether they were ascending or descending. The rain hammering at his face felt like hailstones. Lightning-flash provided lapsed illumination in the gloom, half a heartbeat at a time.
Abruptly, the storm ended. Hristomarth stumbled onto springy grass and a warm, clear evening. Stars shone down brilliantly, illuminating a clearing in the forest like nothing he’d ever seen. It was a grove, with wizened mulberry trees growing in neatly ordered rows. Through them lay a plaza of white tile, gleaming softly in the starlight. Five enormous statues stood around the edge of the tiles, their features hidden by the brilliantly green and silver leaves. Behind him, past the edge of the grove the rest of the forest still raged, lashed by wind and rain and lit by flickering lightning high above.
Freezing a storm in place? Sorcery came to mind, but Hristomarth had never heard of a sorcerer capable of such a feat. Neither were any of those egomaniacal villains capable of keeping secret such an accomplishment.
The others staggered into the grove. Hristomarth was suddenly surrounded by wyrmlings, nuzzling his still-bound hands, seeking reassurance as they stared back at the storm. Of course the little beasts wanted comforting, now.
“This is not your camp,” Hristomarth said to Sorra.
The self-styled Bandit Queen stared about in surprise. “Your perception is commendable. Where are we?”
“Reconnaissance would prove useful,” said Hristomarth. He raised his wrists towards her, eliciting chirps of dismay from the wyrmlings below. “Considering that we venture into the unknown, perhaps you could remove my fetters. After all, it’s said that many hands make light work.”
Sorra whipped up the tip of his broken sword in threat. “Proverbs unsettle my digestion,” she replied, “as philosophers are usually impoverished. The bonds stay. You also get to go first.”
Hristomarth pursed his lips. Some conflicts could be fought, others had to be fled. Turning on his heel, he strode through the pack of anxious wyrmlings deeper into the grove.
Soft shadows spread beneath the boughs, like curtains spun from starlight. The rich scent of mulberry fruit replaced that of damp forest smells. No breeze blew, the air only just barely stirred by the fluttering of delicate, moon-pale moths between each tree, who alighted on rich green leaves with glittering silver edges. Hristomarth felt unconscionably rude in his passage. There was a kind of serenity here, one which he was not intended to be a part of.
The last few trees gave way to the plaza at its heart. Large and spacious, the tiles were smooth alabaster, covered with hundreds and hundreds of haphazardly placed wooden frames. They were racks, really, made of mulberry wood and carved into all different shapes and sizes. Each supported a dozen tall spindles wound around with glittering silver thread.
A great silver frame rose from amidst the clustering racks, in the center of the plaza. Stretched across it was a tapestry, larger than a cottage. The pattern was so complicated and minute that Hristomarth’s eyes wanted to follow it forever, the hundred-thousand geometries twisting in upon themselves as they trailed down the length of the fabric, fading until they disappeared into a field of night-sky blue near the base.
A creature tended the great tapestry, weaving threads from the nearest spindles with inhuman dexterity. It was an enormous spider, colored the same shade as the tapestry and as tall as a bull Loxodont. The monster twisted about in its work, spied Hristomarth, and froze.
He dove for cover behind the nearest statue, of a richly-dressed noble in jade green robes. Damn it all to the Black Vault Below, his hands were still tied. Maybe it hadn’t seen him, though. Maybe he had been fast enough.
Hristomarth peered back around the gleaming black ankle of the statue. The spider had reared back in surprise. It cocked its head upwards and rapidly clacked its mandibles together, almost like it was shouting a warning.
He should run. Just turn and run as fast as his legs would take him. Or his sword. If he could get the sword back from Sorra he’d have a fighting chance. Fighting, though, had been what had gotten him into this miserable situation to begin with.
The spider chittered again, in alarm. Something was very wrong. Instincts honed by a lifetime on the road demanded attention. The hairs on the back of his neck stood straight. Hristomarth slowly looked up at the statue he hid behind to find it staring back at him, with eyes like burning stars.
“Who are you,” boomed the statue, “to disturb the Ministry of Fate?” The voice rolled across the plaza, timeless and eternal. Hristomarth somehow knew that long after he was gone the words would stand as measured notes in the history of the world.
Hristomarth could only stare. Impossible. The Ministry of Fate. The Great Tapestry. It was all supposed to be a myth, like the God Beasts of Suuth or the Celestial Concordance. People swore by them when they stubbed their toes. They weren’t supposed to be real, just off in the forest past a storm. He had to get out of here. This was worse than some obnoxious forest bandit. This certainly qualified an escape.
There were five Ministers, of course. Each stood two dozen feet tall, like statues of black glass, carved to wear fine robes and grand headdresses each a different shade. An-Shah wore jade, Yu-Lizz crimson, Ka-Voya cerulean, Se-Null alabaster, and Di-Tath in amethyst. Their eyes blazed with cold fire.
“I remember this one,” boomed Di-Tath. “The Last Illuminate, who maimed himself to escape the mobs.”
Hristomarth covered his crippled hand.
“A perfect tragedy,” added Ka-Voya approvingly.
A stampede of tiny claws cut through their remembrance. The wyrmlings bounded out of the grove and slammed into Hristomarth’s legs like a wave made of scales. They trilled and licked his hands, still seeking comfort after the storm.
Of course, the bandit queen wasn’t far behind. “Don’t fret, my tiny little investments. Any discomforts we currently feel are temporary! And know that you can come to Auntie Sorra for comfort at any time. But what is all…this…shouting…” She trailed off upon taking in the scene.
The Ministers considered her. “The bandit queen,” rumbled An-Shah. “A fate full of flashing blades and daring knavery.”
“She will encounter the great figures of the age,” boomed Di-Tath.
“And she dreams of feats none would even dare consider,” added Yu-Lizz.
“Though they will cost her everything,” continued Ka-Voya. “Before she comes to her inevitable end.”
The other four ministers turned to Se-Null, who folded his great arms obstinately. “We all agreed upon it,” he said, voice louder than a shout. “She will meet a handsome captain and forsake her ways.”
Sorra shook as if slapped. “What absurdity is this?” she snarled. “Who are you to decide what I will or won’t—”
An-Shah raised a dark finger and she froze. The broken-bladed sword fell from her hands. “She is off the thread of her fate,” pronounced the Minister. “Weaver? Attend!”
The monstrous spider crawled smoothly into view behind the wyrmlings, sending Hristomarth’s heart into his throat. It had left the plaza and circled around, blocking the way back through the grove. He, Sorra, and the wyrmlings were all trapped, now.
“Don’t forget the Illuminate,” said Se-Null.
“None can escape their fate,” boomed Yu-Lizz, in a voice like rolling thunder. “Not even the Sagacious or the Illuminated. Place them back on the threads of—”
“What are those?” demanded Se-Null.
Hristomarth glanced back up. The Minister had just noticed the wyrmlings. It seemed surprised, pointing at them with a dark, tree-thick finger. The others all shifted their attention to stare.
The distraction was more than welcome. At least the little turncoats were useful, for once. Hristomarth sidled over to the still-frozen Sorra and knelt. Then he slid his broken-bladed sword between his knees and sawed at the ropes binding his wrists.
The wyrmlings peered up at the towering Ministers. They seemed impressed, though Hristomarth could tell it wouldn’t last. Greasetrap was already paying more attention to the mouthful of mulberry leaves he chewed experimentally upon, and Coalbelly was eyeing a fallen branch speculatively.
“They’re some sort of reptile,” said Ka-Voya. “Mountain Dragons, I think.”
“Impossible,” replied Di-Tath. “These are so small.”
“The Clutch of Nesnatoth,” added An-Shah. “Seven wyrmlings. Three-quarters of their race that will be born for this age.”
“Oh,” said Yu-Lizz. “We never quite got around to finishing their fates, did we?”
An-Shah’s imperious features froze. “Of course we did,” he said. “Didn’t we?”
The rope around Hristomarth’s wrists parted with a satisfying pop. Freedom! Undoing the coil of leashes wound around his neck would have been nice, but the most important goal for the moment was getting out of here. Some battles were fought, others fled. How to go about it? The Weaver still blocked the return path. That left the other side of the grove, through the plaza and the innumerable wooden frames within. Hopefully they’d provide enough cover. Hristomarth rose to a crouch and began inching away.
“Their unfinished fates,” blared Yu-Lizz, “are a problem easily remedied.”
The Minister reached down across the plaza towards a smoldering branch, where Coalbelly had started a fire. The wyrmling yowled as Yu-Lizz gripped its wings and plucked it into the air.
“They shall be reavers and destroyers,” continued Yu-Lizz, turning the wyrmling this way and that. “Simple-minded ravagers laying waste to the countryside. The perfect end to a hero’s grand quest!”
Coalbelly ceased struggling. Its beady eyes screwed up in thoughtful consideration, and it began nodding enthusiastically.
“No,” intoned An-Shah. “That will not do.”
“We have plenty of dumb monsters already,” added Ka-Voya. “Why add more? And keeping them around to test some barbarian is inefficient.”
The other ministers made noises of agreement. Yu-Lizz scowled. “Fine,” he snapped, releasing the wyrmling. Coalbelly fell onto the racks below with a surprised squawk. “Then what should they be?”
“Wait,” said Di-Tath. “What of the humans? They have lost their path.”
Hristomarth cursed his fate and crept along faster.
“Yes, yes” agreed An-Shah. The Minister gestured dismissively at Hristomarth and Sorra. “Weaver! Place them back upon the threads of their fate. Start with the one with the sword.”
The giant spider dipped its head deferentially. Then it rose, raising both forelegs menacingly as it came forward. Glistening venom dripped from its mandibles. Light reflected from its carapace like the sheen of armored glass.
He had the sword. The monster was after him. Hristomarth broke out into a run. Behind him, Sorra swore vehemently, finally shaking herself free of the Minister’s spell. Her boots stomped the flagstones a half-second later as she tried to catch up. Hristomarth ignored her to dive beneath a cluster of thickly-clustered wooden racks.
The Ministers barely seemed to notice. “I have it,” said Se-Null above, lifting Splaywing like its sibling. “They should be graceful sages. Peaceable creatures much renowned across the land for their wisdom.”
Splaywing stopped trying to claw the Minister’s fingers. Instead, the wyrmling tried to appear demure. It failed completely.
“You are thinking of Moon Dragons,” said Di-Tath. “We already have those. And these creatures…will never be graceful.”
Se-Null considered the wyrmling and discarded it with a shrug.
Splaywing crashed down just past the gleaming bulk of the Weaver, which stood at the edge of the plaza. It twisted its multifaceted eyes back and forth, hunting uncertainly among the tightly packed wooden frames. Hristomarth repressed a sigh of relief. Stealthy as it was for its size, it appeared neither quick nor perceptive. It would be no match for the steely nature of his resolve.
Something scrabbled on the flagstones beside him, launching Hristomarth’s heart into his throat and his sword to the ready. Sorra forced the broken blade back down and glared. Not at him, but at the Weaver and the Ministers. Her affront was almost palpable. It was obvious she wanted to fight. Hristomarth gave her a shrug and crawled to the next rack over.
“I suppose,” said Se-Null, “that you have a better idea?”
“Here,” intoned Ka-Voya, lifting Catchmaw for all to see. “A classic. They shall be hoarders of gold and fine gemstones. They will build troves of treasure deep in their mountain lairs.”
Catchmaw nodded enthusiastically.
“No,” said Di-Tath. “We have economies to consider.” The Minister raised Idleheart between two fingers. “Let us make them sleep. For an age at a time. After a thousand years they shall slumber, waking to feed and mate. Look.” The minister shook the wyrmling. “This one has a head start already.”
Catchmaw, seeming to sense the shift in discourse, had latched onto the titanic silver ring its Minister wore. Ka-Voya flung the wyrmling away to crash down into the plaza. “What kind of life-cycle is that?” boomed the minister. “They would all be extinct within the first generation.”
Hristomarth crept past a still-stunned Splaywing for the cover afforded by the silver frame of the Great Tapestry of Fate. Sorra followed along, though she watched the Weaver as it picked its way through the opposite side of the plaza. Behind her came Breaktooth and Greasetrap, trying to avoid the gaze of the Ministers.
“Enough skulking!” hissed Sorra, sitting up and throwing her arms wide. “I am a bandit queen! Such scraping and crawling about lacks dignity!”
Hristomarth twisted around beside the Tapestry. The woman was intolerable. “Do you want to get caught?” he asked in a stage-whisper. “Freedom is almost ours!”
She glared at him. “Give me an honest defeat over ignoble cowardice.”
Unbelievable. “The defining feature of glorious last stands,” he replied, “is their finality. Consider the giant spider! Consider the very real Ministers of Fate surrounding us!”
Sorra narrowed her eyes. “Are you calling me a fool?”
Hristomarth leaned in. “Yes!”
“These Ministers called you the last Illuminate Knight,” she sneered. “Yet the only man I’ve seen today is a craven and incompetent vagabond.”
More than enough. Hristomarth launched himself to his feet, shaking his maimed fist in her face. “Consider consequences!” he roared. “Fighting back was what got me tethered to you in the first place!”
Silence reigned over the plaza. The Ministers were staring down, now. The wyrmlings watched him as well. The Weaver paid especially close attention. It chittered victoriously and lunged forward, picking its way between the forest of wooden frames.
Hristomarth cursed it all to the Black Vault Below. He turned and ran, pushing through the racks as he made for the grove. Sorra unleashed her own stream of invective, followed by her frustrated bootsteps as she ran after him. Above, the Ministers resumed their deliberations.
“Let us put an end to this,” boomed An-Shah. It grabbed Jitterclaw, who immediately snarled, spat, and bit at the entity’s finger. “We shall make them brave guardians over the heavens. Stalwart protectors of the weak. Valiant and capable of honorable conflict when needed.”
The ministers all cried out.
“Worst idea yet!”
“That one seems completely unsuitable for the role.”
An-Shah scowled and flung Jitterclaw with a flick of the wrist. The wyrmling sailed out over the plaza with a terrified wail. Hristomarth watched the wyrmling land somewhere in the grove just ahead. There were only a few racks of the sparkling silk remaining between him and escape. He was almost home free.
A whistling noise sounded behind Hristomarth. His instincts roared and he threw himself to the side, barely avoiding the ball of sticky webbing that whipped past, trailing a line behind it. He collided roughly with a rack and fell, bowling it over, rocking enough of the others that they toppled down on him in a clattering heap. Sorra cursed as she tripped into the pile as well.
Everything was a chaos of wooden racks and spindles of glittering silk. Hristomarth fumbled for purchase, to right himself, to shove the bandit queen out of the way. Another faint whistling sounded across the crowded plaza, followed by an impact on his boot. Hristomarth was yanked suddenly, violently out into the open. This time the ball of sticky webbing had hit home. The line connecting to it trailed back to the Weaver, which reeled him closer with its forelegs like a fisherman pulling in his catch.
Hristomarth shook away his disbelief. Amazingly, he still held his sword clenched in his one good hand. Bringing it down in a tight arc, he severed the strand, stopping his progress across the plaza and eliciting a frustrated screech from the Weaver. Hristomarth rolled over on to his hands and knees, then up into an awkward hop, then into a full-out run back to where Sorra was pulling herself out from the pile of toppled wooden frames.
“There’s got to be something we can all agree upon,” intoned Yu-Lizz, plucking Greasetrap up from where the wyrmling was creeping past.
Hristomarth quailed. What to do? Even now the Weaver was balling up another wad of secreted webbing and spinning it with a foreleg like a champion bola-thrower. There was no way he could run fast enough to escape the spider. Maybe he could hide behind Sorra? No, the woman was far too disagreeable and belligerent a piece of cover. She’d be sure to fight him, even if some good could have come of it by saving his skin.
He stopped at the thought. The sword hung heavy in his good hand. Rearing back, Hristomarth tossed the blade hilt-first at the self-proclaimed bandit queen. Then he ducked.
Sorra caught the sword, a little surprised. Then she smiled fiercely. “Do you hope to curry favor, after my inevitable victory?” She kicked the last wooden rack away. “So be it. I—”
A ball of webbing whipped into view, falling just past Sorra’s arm. Momentum carried it back around, tightly wrapping her outstretched limb with the line trailing back to the Weaver. This time, the Weaver yanked immediately on its prize. Sorra dropped the sword and went tumbling across the flagstones. She tried frantically to pull the webbing free, but only stuck herself tighter.
“Help!” she cried, as the Weaver pulled her close.
Hristomarth retrieved his fallen hat. “Further consideration of the situation revealed an option,” he said. “The Weaver was after the one carrying my sword. Take note—a proper escape requires that I am not the fastest, only that I am faster than you. Enjoy your pre-assigned fate!”
“Hristomarth!” Sorra shouted. “Don’t you dare leave me—”
The Weaver pulled her close. It picked her up in its forelegs, secreting more webbing to wrap her up in a tight little bundle. Once finished, the fate spider turned her back and forth to make certain there would be no escape, chittering to itself in satisfaction.
Hristomarth grabbed his sword and quickly left the plaza for the grove. Jitterclaw was a short distance beyond, picking itself nervously out from a small crater. Hristomarth scratched it behind the ear as he hid behind a mulberry tree.
The giant spider picked its way over to the Great Tapestry and pitched Sorra’s cocoon at the fabric like a drover with a sack of potatoes. There was a faint flash and she was gone, off to whatever journey had been decreed by the Ministers, who still arguing among themselves obliviously up above. The Weaver nodded to itself, then returned to where Hristomarth had escaped it.
A cold ball of fear settled into his stomach as the monster glanced up at the grove. Was it more perceptive than he had thought? Why hadn’t he kept running for the forest?
The Weaver took a step forward, just as a reptilian ball of wings and scales slammed into its thorax, knocking it flat to the ground. The Ministers had now discarded Greasetrap, who rolled on to a stop at the line of grass.
The Weaver lay still, either unconscious or dead. It didn’t move when the rest of the wyrmlings trudged past to a dazed Greasetrap, or when they all followed their noses to Hristomarth’s hiding place. It didn’t move when the Ministers’ argument intensified, pealing like thunder overhead.
“Well,” said Hristomarth to the wyrmlings. He pulled the coil of leather leashes from around his neck and unwound them. “I trust that all those fanciful Ministry destinies and bandit-birthed futures have been appropriately discarded?”
The wyrmlings hunkered, apologetic. Except for Greasetrap, who nibbled at the remnant wad of webbing still stuck to his boot, promptly gumming its maw shut.
“Let this be a lesson,” Hristomarth continued. “The world is arrayed against us. Some conflicts may be fought. Others must be fled. And lone forest bandits are never worth the trouble. Now come along. It’s high time we got back on the road. I know your fates already, my wyrmlings. And it lies at a fair in Alhambry.”
Wrapping their leashes back into place, Hristomarth led the wyrmlings out of the grove. Beyond lay the forest and the wind and the rain. Behind them, the Ministry of Fate squabbled on, in voices that had rolled on since the beginning of the world.