Amphitheater of Rizas, Guilder's Precinct, Balic
Mortuus sat quietly, watching from back stage as the cast prepared to give their private showing to Jerrek. As a whole, they seemed more nervous than the situation would seem to warrant - Jerrek was supposedly just a spokesman for some rich noble or merchant.
"They're about to start," Breeck chirped. The thri-kreen clutchling, son of the actor playing the mighty "Dragon of Athas", sat with the other children around Mortuus, the whole group trying to stay quiet and out of the way since it was the first time any of them were allowed to watch the play.
"Shhh," Mol the mul said, ten years old and already bigger than most of the other children half-again older than she. "If you make too much noise we'll all get in trouble."
Then it began. Later, he retold it for Darus in Jerrek's Dormitory since the mul was reporting to Haraxes about their progress during the actual performance.
"Act I: The wilds of the Estuary were wild indeed, overrun with giants and tareks and monsters of all types. The human tribes struggled in despair against the foes and beasts that surrounded them on all sides, their numbers ever dwindling... until Andropinis arose in their midst.
"A humble wise man from one of the tribes, his people had urged him to lead them for decades, but he refused as he had no desire to rule. Then the tareks overran the next village and word came that a horde of the brutes was on their way to wipe the humans off the Estuary of the Forked Tongue entirely.
"With great reluctance, Andropinis finally agreed, shouldering the heavy responsibility for protecting the people. He rallied the remaining tribes and together they held off the tarek assault, driving the horde into the silt sea. The people, overjoyed with gratitude, begged him to remain as their leader once the crisis was over.
"With much hesitation and under constant pressure from the people, he agreed, but demanded that in ten years they hold an election so that if one arose more fitting to rule, that one should rule instead of he.
"He appointed his Templars, the Praetors, to protect the people and formed the scattered warrior bands into the first Legion. He began the building of the walls, the planning of the city, and the irrigation of the wastes around it. A paradise arose in the desert, the first city-state, Balic. Across the world, other leaders took note and other city-states arose in emulation. Bright lights flared in the darkness and Balic shone brighter than them all... that is, until the Dragon arrived.
At this point in the retelling, Mortuus had took a long drink and rummaged in his bag for a needle to patch a hole in his cloak. His real reason, of course, was to increase the tension of the story for his audience - which had grown at this point to include Abu and Eutropia as well.
"Act II: The Dragon of Athas flew over the city, its mighty wings blotting out the red sun, and all in Balic trembled beneath its shadow - all except Andropinis. He climbed to the top of Mount Laeron and there stood calmly, waiting the beast.
"The Dragon saw the one man that stood unbowed by its might and landed before him, its tail stretching half-way down the mountain, the wind from its wings creating a dust storm that shrouded the mountain from view. Alone with the dragon, Andropinis bravely challenged it, knowing that he could but buy the city time for he was still only one man and had not the strength to defeat it.
"The Dragon laughed, a terrible sound that left nightmares stalking the sleep of Balic's people for generations. Then it spoke, its voice like the claws of a Tembo scraping on stone:
"'You are a fool, but your challenge amuses me. I will return in a week so all your people might gather to watch you die.'
"With that it launched into the sky, its laughter echoing to the far corners of Balic. Andropinis mourned - though not for himself - only that he could buy but a week for his people.
"The people begged him to flee, to save himself. So great was their love for him that they would perish to the last child if it meant their great leader might live.
"'I will leave, but I will go to the Golden Ruin. They say it is death to enter that ancient and forbidden place, but there might I find some key to saving my people.'
"A day's time found him standing before the Golden Ruin, its bent and broken metal walls gleaming in the burning sunlight, dark things stirring in the long shadows of its golden towers. Even his mighty heart shook with fear and his inner demons told him to flee, to leave his people to die that he might save himself.
"Two days it took for him to master those demons, to steel himself for whatever foul doom lurked in that ancient, blighted ruin. Even the bravest of his subjects watched from but a distance as he entered the ruin.
"Act III: Four days later, his people wailed in the streets and tore at their hair. Andropinis had not returned and the Dragon was soon to return. Some fled, some prayed to long-dead gods, while others cowered in their homes awaiting the end. There was rioting in the streets and it was all the Praetors could do to keep the people from destroying themselves before the Dragon did.
"And then the Dragon arrived as the sun began to set on Balic, perching atop Mount Laeron and looking for the one man who had dared before to face it. When it saw him not, its laughter again echoed across the lands.
"'I see that the great Andropinis who swore to protect you has fled. I am not surprised, for he must know that all who have ever faced me have died and surely the same would have been his fate - as will now be yours!'
"The Praetors gathered, knowing that they could not harm it, but vowing that though they would die to a man, it would be worth it if even a single child made it safely away.
"The Dragon reared back to take flight, ready to reduce Balic to yet another crumbling ruin in the desert, but what was this? A gleam of golden light arising from the West. The light grew and grew and, intrigued, the Dragon paused to see what approached.
"The people rejoiced when it drew close for it was their dear Andropinis - but Andropinis the man no longer. Though he nearly died more times than he could count, he had vanquished the evils that lurked in the Golden Ruin, mastered their ancient magics, and performed an arduous ritual that imbued him with their power.
"Enraged, the Dragon hurled itself into the sky, its laughter a harsh counterpoint to the grim expression on Andropinis face.
At this point, Mortuus took another drink, then excused himself for a moment to use the privy. When he returned, Abu was nearly exploding with anticipation, Darus leaned in, and even the suave Eutropia - who had been pretending to organize Jerrek's things - gave up all pretenses to sit and listen.
"For three days they fought, their battles taking them from deep into the Estuary of the Forked Tongue in the east to the wastes beyond the Verdant Belt in the west, across mountain and field and silt and sand they fought, the force of their struggle shaking the ground like a quake, a sandstorm swirling and gusting about them with the might of their combat. The people feared that their battle might destroy the whole of Athas itself, so great was its intensity.
"When the Dragon finally fled, realizing it could not defeat Andropinis, the people did not cheer for too great was their shock. They merely stood in awe as their savior walked through the streets, battered and bloody yet unbroken. They followed him to his humble home, every man, woman, and child standing before him in silence.
"Exhausted from a ten days of constant battle - first with the darkness within himself, then with the terrors of the Golden Ruin, then with the mighty Dragon itself - he bowed to his people, a single tear falling with his gratitude that he was able to save them before his exhaustion caused him to topple.
"He never touched the ground for his people bore him up with a great cry. So great was their joy and jubilance that they built the Praetorium for him in a day, demanding that he be their leader, their protector, their savior for as long as he might live to do so.
"Again reluctant, he finally agreed to the heavy duty they laid upon them and lucky are we that we did so, for now, centuries later, still he watches over us. Praise be to Dictator Andropinis, may it always be so."
After the performance, Jerrek had applauded mightily and sang his praises to the Director at its completion. The children about Mortuus dispersed, Breeck already claiming his father's part in the recreation the children were already planning.
Mortuus simply sat, wondering if Jerrek had seen the hesitation, the improvisation, the subtle inconsistencies of word and action visible throughout, hidden behind psychic pyrotechnics, elaborate costumes, and lushly crafted and painted sets.
He didn't miss Jerrek's nod to him as the Praetor broke away from the Director to leave. Mortuus gave his own nod in reply, turning to seek the tent of Horolon, actor extraordinaire, bottomless windbag, and arrogance personified, now taking off Andropinis' beard as he soaked up the praise of his fellow actors.
I'd like to see Jerrek take his part just to watch him deflate, he thought, thumbing the vial in his pocket as he trailed the actors into their colorful camp. If he lives through this, that is.