Lesser of Two Evils
The Tale of the Serpent Amphora
The Tale of the Serpent Amphora
Listen and write carefully, priest, for my time is short. I have seen things I would have remembered this day, and I know my death is at hand. I have lived longer than accursed Mormo, though, and in this I must be content.
My archers and I were at the last battle against the Hagqueen. Summoned by our Goddess, the Huntress Tanil, we took up arms against the final muster of Mormo’s forces. Little did we know that this battle was a trap’ – aye, a trap set by our gods, my good priest – but I am not bitter, for this trap was successful. That is all a hunter cares for.
Of late, Mormo had taken a more active hand in the war, actually appearing among her troops in order to turn the tide of battle. I myself saw one such confrontation – indeed, I put one of my arrows in her foul, slitted eye. Tanil, Madriel, and Vangal appeared at that battle, however, and Mormo disappeared. The serpents of her body broke apart and fled into a hundred cracks and crevices. Even had we managed to capture every one of them, however, it would have availed us not. Her blighted spirit had already fled that form.
A troop of hags and gorgons marched on the settlements in the Broadreach. My children, my students, and their students were at the forefront of the line, bows to hand. Long ago, my husband Thoresk and I had taken oaths to defend the Broadreach from all incursions. We would not shirk our oaths now. Though Thoresk was long dead – the peril of elf marrying half-elf, I suppose – we rallied our archers and led the defense.
My grandson Thoreskul was slain by gorgons, though he sundered his mage-staff at the last moment. The explosion blew a crater in the ground and decimated a score of gorgons, both high and low. My daughter Illia, Thoreskul’s mother, was grief-stricken, and she expended her life slaying a trio of serpent-druidesses, though she was struck down by one of Mormo’s venomous assassins. My second husband Erunn died wielding his razor-bow against a powerful moon hag. She died screaming, but her death poisoned him.
And her screams were not a mere death-cry, it would seem. No, they were words of invocation, powered by her last breath. All grew dark in the skies and quiet on the battlefield. I cursed, for I knew what this meant. I called a retreat, but my words were drowned out by the rasp of scale on rock and bark. As my people turned to flee, a mound of ophidians rose in the midst of Mormo’s army. Half of my command cheered aloud. The other half panicked and fled.
In their midst, Mormo took shape. We were doomed. But the the skies brightened with a peal of thunder and the gods were among us, too. Our armies were heartened by their appearance. I was as well, although my own goddess was not there. I wish even now that I could gaze upon her face once more. I think I could die easily, then.
Ehh? Yes, priest. I know that I will see her again shortly. The comforts of the dead do little to succor the yet living….
Shall I continue?
We fought well. Madriel hovered overhead, casting bolts of pure white sunlight into the fray, while radiating a warmth that healed the bite of venom. Chardun directed our forces, his mastery of tactics and his supreme dominion overcoming even our own love of freedom – we wished only to please the Slaver and obey.
I shall never forget that feeling. I loath it still.
At some point, the witches of Mormo ceased their attacks. I myself went to scout out their position, to discover what new evil they were planning. There, strangely, I found Belsameth the Hag, with Mormo’s witches gathered under her vulture’s wings as chicks to a hen. She saw me and smiled, motioning me away. I fled as she drew them into her own darkness.
Soon, the battle had churned through its early participants as both titan and god slew the mortals standing in their way. Madriel was the first to engage Mormo, launching her mighty spear into Mormo’s breast. The purity of it burned the Queen of Witches, who plucked it out and spat a curse upon it, blackening and putrefying the weapon.
Belsameth struck then – the only sign of her presence was the silent slipping of a midnight black blade through the coils that made up Mormo’s body. Mormo screamed and whirled, lashing out at the Slayer. Madriel attacked again and Mormo was like the dusk, trapped between Night and Day.
Chardun stood aside. I didn’t know if he was waiting for some opportunity or was plotting some betrayal. All I knew was that the Divine Twins battled the Mother of Hags while he merely observed.
Hours passed and the swath of destruction caused by this battle ate into the heart of the Broadreach. I ran ahead of the devastation, warning those settlements that lay in its path. In some cases I was too late, as the great battle ranged ahead of my ability to keep up; in others, I was able to sound the alarm in time.
I followed them into the Broadreach, praying all the while that Tanil should appear and aid the goddesses. The battle took its toll upon the Twins of Light and Darkness, while Mormo simply called more serpents to her and absorbed them into her body when she was sorely wounded.
Finally, Mormo struck a savage blow to Madriel, who crumpled with a strangled cry. Her body was wracked with black venom so potent I could actually see it coursing through the body of the Angel, I wept then, and the sun was doused. Belsameth backed away from the battle with Mormo. I’m sure it was simply out of fear of continuing to battle the great titaness alone, but… there was perhaps a flicker of something else. Fear for her sister, it seemed. Perhaps the Dark does not know if it can exist without the Light, after all.
“I deny thee!” Madriel cried aloud, the light that once radiated from her body turned wan. “I deny thee as my mother, foul Witch of Ages! A thousand-thousand ills have you bright upon this land and its people. You do not deserve to be the mother of this or any land. I deny you, as do all the gods! I call upon the One True Mother! Aid us!”
At this, the world was rocked with quakes and the very land shifted. Where Mormo’s coming was heralded by the drawing together of serpents, now the very land pulled into itself, building a body great and powerful, one the equal of Mormo’s.
Denev had come.
Titan met titan and the world shook. Mormo hissed in hatred, while Dinev’s voice was the roar of the earthquake, the sharp report of a tree cracking in the storm. In her voice could be heard all the animals of the world roaring in anger and hatred, and I – who am born of Denev’s people and worship her as I do her daughter – was sore afraid.
It was in the midst of this titanic battle that Chardum struck from behind. Denev drew back and the Slaver was suddenly there. He smot Mormo thrice with his scepter of war and then drove its barbed and bloodied end through her chest.
Dark energies coursed through her, pulling the serpents that formed her body tighter, it seemed. Her body now seemed less fluid and sinuous, somehow more solid than before.
“I bind thee, bitch-mother,” he whispered – I heard him, though, his voice burning my ears like acid. “Now I repay thee a hundredfold for the torments I suffered at your hands. Never did I think I should have freedom from you – nor shall you ever know freedom again. I bind thy essence, hated hag-mother – forevermore!”
Denev stepped forward then, and plunging her first into the hole made by the warscepter, pulled forth the heart of Mormo. Both Denev and Mormo screamed then, as Mormo felt her power of witchery ripped from her body along with her heart. Denev screamed as those same fell powers burned her, and she hastened back into the succor of the land.
A great gout of venom-black blood issued from the ruined body of Mormo, and Chardun cupped it in his gauntleted hands. A darkness writhed there, serpent-like. He, too, screamed as the very essence of Mormo burned him. But with words of power he caused his gauntlets to flow upwards, encasing the clotting ichor into a vessel of iron. Ere the cap formed upon it, though some of the poison within bubbled over the rim, etching serpentine patterns into the vessel’s surface.
Chardun then closed the newly formed amphora and sealed it with a part of his power. The corpse of Mormo gave a strangled cry and then exploded outward, showering everything with gore. The force of this explosion cast down every tree for miles and covered me in venomous ichors as well. I think I would have died, but for the sudden touch of Madriel upon my brow.
I looked up at the wounded goddess, where she crawled weakly, her flesh burning from a venom so virulent that all of her power could do naught but keep it at bay. Yet she lent me part of this power; I know not why.
“Tell thy story, O Blessed of Tanil”, she said and then pulled me into her arms. I passed into unconsciousness before we passed the tops of the ruined trees. But I saw enough. My beloved forest was beginning to warp and twist. Mormo’s blood traveled with the speed of serpents, creeping into every crevice and tree-knot.
Even the unicorns have been made ill, if the stores I have heard are true.
I am tired, priest. I have done as the Angel has bid me. I have told my tale. My family, all dead save Marillus in Vera-tre, await me in Tanil’s paradise. I have lived my life well and I have fought the enemies of the gods. Let me go to my rest.
Bless me, dear father, for I have failed in my mission. The Broadreach is no more. Let Lilliandel go now to her rest, for I am weary and should quit this world.