“Before you kill us,” the philosopher said, standing before fangs dripping with searing venom and six pairs of blazing eyes, “let us ask you a question.”
The philosopher felt her heart beating within her chest. She winced at the feeling. It was not painful. Just sad. Her heart knew this was the moment of her death and it was still aching to keep her from it.
All six of the creature’s eyes were on her, but she was most directly in front of one pair in one giant dog-like head. She knew this one’s name. This one was Lucte. The name meant “grief.”
The philosopher too was one of three. Her fellows, the swordsman and the mage, stood before the other heads. Even the swordsman barely came up to the creature’s shoulder. They had a secondary plan and a tertiary one, if they lived long enough to fall back to other plans.
The philosopher blinked quickly but could not dispel the tears forming in her eyes. She had not sent them on this futile quest. She had not brought her comrades to this moment. They were always fated to face the serpent-hound.
But she had convinced her comrades how they would face the serpent-hound.
Armies had faced this creature and perished. Heroes with the blood of gods coursing through their veins had faced this creature and fallen. The world’s most powerful mages had faced this creature and been torn asunder by their own spells.
The mightiest of the mighty had failed to defeat the serpent-hound. The cleverest of the clever had failed to find some way around the serpent-hound. And the wickedest of the wicked had failed to bribe or befriend the serpent-hound.
Against such legendary beings, the trio that now faced the hound were humble and ordinary.
From the corner of her vision, the philosopher caught movement to her left. The swordsman tightening his grip on his sword, tensing his muscles and taking a final breath. The mage flexing her fingers in the final movements for a spell of attack. There was no need of shields. Shields were heavy no matter if they were made of wood, metal, or magic. No shield known to any being known to them would hold for longer than a heartbeat.
The serpent-hound surely noted the movements, yet did not strike. The philosopher did not know if this was a sign that the creature understood and allowed a question. But she did not wait for a clearer sign.
“Will you listen to our tale?” she asked. “The tale of how we three came to stand here before you? The tale of what we have learned about you?”
Lucte’s sneering snout relaxed and flickering tongue retracted.
The philosopher dared to glance at the other two heads. Nocte and Ultima were their names. They too had been sneering and growling. Ultima’s fangs dripped a final drop of venom at the mage’s feet. The sound of sizzling was all that was heard as the other heads too relaxed their faces and closed their mouths. The creature’s spiked segmented tail remained coiled. It could strike out by reflex, snapping with the speed of a lightning strike.
The philosopher quieted the flutter of hope that tried to rise into her chest. Best that all flutters remain in her gut for the moment.
“I will start with our tale,” the philosopher said, “for it is new to you, I expect. And it will lead to your story. For your story is now a part of ours.”
The philosopher reminded herself that she was not the first to approach the serpent-hound in this manner. But it had been a long, long time. And in the generations of her people that followed since the last time, much had changed, much gained and much lost. It was too much to hope that the story of a long-dead bard whose tale was buried and forgotten as lies and blasphemy held even a drop of hope.
A drop of hope to counter a drop of venom.
“We were sent here by our craven sovereign,” the philosopher started.
The philosopher, the mage, and the swordsman were known in their realm as the Triarch. The Triarch were the rightful rulers, but a line of sovereigns remained upon the throne according to ancient custom, and they held some measure of influence.
The particular sovereign who now reigned aimed to reclaim power from the Triarch. He was prevented from doing so outright. But the sovereign held the right to challenge the Triarch. This law abided to ensure that they did not misuse their considerable powers.
Sovereigns had no say in the choosing of the Triarch. They did not even have a vote.
But the sovereign had maneuvered his own supporters into certain positions of influence and favor with the people of his realm. If the current Triarch were to step down or perish, the sovereign could surely install a Triarch who would bend to his whim and will.
Many knew of this treachery. But not many of those were in any position to act against it.
So when the sovereign began sending the Triarch on various challenges to prove their worth, none could stop it, including the Triarch themselves.
They were forced to accept being sent to the farthest and coldest regions of the world to plant the flag of their realm upon a forever-frozen mountain that none would dream of conquering.
They were forced to agree to negotiate a treaty of peace with a nation that had locked its borders with all others, and warned of war against any outsiders who set foot within their realm, be it by purpose or accident.
They were forced to acquiesce when presented with the challenge of building a whole castle in the span of three days.
Each time, the Triarch failed to complete their futile task. So the sovereign would pretend to be gracious and indulgent. And he would set them on another impossible quest.
Each time, the Triarch faced dangers, some more dire than others.
It seemed clear that the sovereign’s aim was for the Triarch to die. But that aim could not be too obvious. Or he risked turning the people against him.
But the sovereign came at last to the end of his patience.
For he took the risk of setting the Triarch to a quest that would surely kill them. If they failed, there would be no retreat.
He brought them into the sovereign chamber, and before all who were present, courtiers and commoners alike, he declared his next quest.
“Our realm is mighty,” said the sovereign, “but we must be mightier still, for we have enemies in the world who envy our bounty and scorn our decency. To stand against them we must have more than might. More than mortal power.”
The sovereign rose and descended from his throne, shocking all who were present, shocking the Triarch, who stood at the foot of that throne. He had never before deigned to descend to the level of any who approached his throne.
“Only you, our mighty Triarch,” he said, “would even dare such a quest as the one I put to you now. And I would not risk sending any others. Only our best.” He paused. “Our realm must possess the most powerful instrument that has even graced the earth upon which we tread.”
The sovereign peered into the philosopher’s eyes as he spoke his desire. “We must have the obsidian feather.”
Gasps and whispers rippled through the chamber.
The philosopher felt her heart go still. She felt the cold steel of the swordsman’s sword quivering by her right side. She felt the warm spark of the mage’s magic prickling by her left side.
In that moment, and none other since, she had wished her friends would unleash their might and fury upon the sovereign. She wished it fiercely and she wished it dearly.
But they did not.
And in the days that followed, even as they all marched to their deaths, she was glad they had not.
For though all desired to live long lives, long enough to discuss such matters as whether or not they should purchase matching canes, they felt a certain lightness they had not felt on their other quests.
They were sad for their people, especially the ones they loved most. They had not revealed the nature of their quest to their families. This was the greatest sadness they bore. But their lies would be forgiven in time. They set in place protections for their dear ones to ensure that the sovereign’s eye did not fall upon those who loved the Triarch most.
But the sovereign was no longer their burden to bear. He would have to be defeated by others. Or perhaps he would be the one to live a long life, not a happy one, for his was a greed that could never be sated. But a long one.
Freed of this burden, the three made merry as best they could.
They even stopped calling themselves Triarch.
For now they were just three friends on a foolish quest.
Until they reached the end of their quest, they would revel and carouse. They would sleep for as long as they wished, eat what they wished, see plays, gaze at the stars, sing, and dance, and weep and scream, and stay in fine inns, and give gifts freely, just to see the smile upon a stranger’s face.
Soon there came a sober day, when they were halfway to their destination, the cavern of the obsidian feather. They realized that they must at least try to plan, to try their best, with the aim of returning alive, and with the proof required for the sovereign to be foiled from tossing them in his dungeon.
At first, they entertained the idea of an honest attempt at the obsidian feather.
“We must disable all three heads at the same time,” the swordsman said, as they sat in the lavish chambers that he had rented for them. A fire blazed against the chill of the first winter frost.
“Agreed,” said the mage. “Our best and safest course is for me to devise a custom poison for each of the heads. We can deliver them from a distance.”
As the two went back and forth, refining a plan that others had surely already tried, the philosopher pondered over her book of notes. “I wonder why,” she said, raising her voice above its typical degree to summon the attention of her friends. “Why is the hound guarding the treasure so vehemently?”
“It could be a spell,” the mage said. “I’ve heard it said so.”
“It could be in the hound’s nature,” the swordsman said. “I’ve heard it said so.”
“I’ve found stories of attack only,” the philosopher said. “I wonder if anyone has ever tried showing the hound kindness, sincere kindness, not trickery. I wonder if anyone has ever asked a question, or sang a song to the creature.”
The others sighed in concert. They whispered to each other.
Then the mage said, “Perhaps, my friend, you are too gentle for this quest. We mean this as compliment not offense.”
The philosopher said nothing. For a while, the only sound in the chamber was the crackling of the fire.
The swordsman at last broke the silence. “I’m hungry. The kitchen will be closed, but we are given leave to prepare something for ourselves if we wish. Shall we go down and have a bite before we retire for the night?”
The kitchen was warm and full of comfort.
But the next day as they departed, the swordsman spoke.
“The cavern of the serpent-hound is no place for a philosopher,” he said.
The philosopher breathed in deeply. “We’re not a true Triarch if we don’t face such challenges together. We need three, at least. Whatever plan we devise, we each must go up against one of the hound’s heads.”
“We haven’t called ourselves Triarch in a long while.”
“Perhaps we should. We still are. And will be. Until our last night upon this earth.”
The swordsman sighed. “You might be a burden. Did you think of that?”
“I might be of help. Did you think of that?”
“Fair enough, my friend. I did not mean to offend.”
“Did you mean to rhyme?” the philosopher said, chuckling.
“Not that time,” the swordsman replied, winking and smiling.
“What about last night? You did it last night as well.”
The matter was dropped as they strolled onward.
That evening all three discussed what they knew of the serpent-hound from rumor and truth.
They would believe any rumor that attributed more difficulty to their task and dismiss any that would favor them. The hound may indeed have some unique weakness they could exploit, but if rumor was wrong, they would squander the only advantage they might have against the hound. And that advantage was surprise.
The hound was keen of eye and nose, but the mage had ways to disguise their scent and to cloak their forms.
There was the danger of the hound giving chase to all three of them, and killing all three.
The serpent-hound had three dog-like heads attached by serpentine necks to an armored four-legged body with a spiked tail.
It was rumored that each head could detach from the main body and give chase to three different prey. The headless yet not helpless body could defend itself until the heads returned by whipping around its tail, slicing with its claws, and drawing prey into the gaping holes that lead straight to its stomach.
Each head also bore serpent-like fangs that dripped a different kind of venom.
It was rumored that a warrior managed to cut off one of the heads. But the head grew back, even more vicious. Another time, a clever trickster tried to get the heads to bite each other and succeeded, only to discover that the creature was immune to all its own venoms.
“We don’t need to return with the obsidian feather,” the swordsman said. “I wouldn’t want it in the hands of dear sovereign anyway.”
The mage rubbed her hands together, practicing a new summoning. “Then what is our proof? We scavenge the area in the hopes of finding a broken fang, a fallen tail spike?”
“Not a bad idea,” said the philosopher. “We need not harm the serpent-hound and the serpent-hound need not harm us.”
The mage began to laugh heartily then, sending the sparking orb between her hands bouncing toward the swordsman, who dodged it.
“I doubt we will harm your serpent-hound, my friend, even if we try with all our might.”
They all began to laugh then, for all contained a tension that strained for release.
When they had calmed, the philosopher spoke.
“You resist knowing the names of the ones we have deemed our enemy, but our true enemy is the sovereign not the serpent-hound.”
“What you say is true,” said the mage. “But what gain is there is knowing the hound’s names? Do you have some plan in mind?”
“Maybe I have, but it requires that you know what I know. It may be too much to ask. For I cannot lift a sword and I cannot do magic. Yet I ask you both to do what I do.”
The mage shrugged. “We might as well try it.”
“Tell us what you know,” the swordsman said.
The philosopher had gathered much knowledge to add to what she already knew. She could not carry a library with her, so she had to condense her knowledge without losing details that might prove vital to their quest. So it was that she learned again what had already been known and then scattered so widely that it might as well have been lost. She had been collecting those scattered pieces, pieces of a legend, pieces of myth, pieces of a story that began in an age where beings known as gods walked the earth.
The obsidian feather was once fixed upon the wing of the dawn god. It was said the feather fell to the earth when the god hurried off to face some great enemy. The god was never seen again. It was not known if she yet lived or was forever lost to oblivion. She had no children, no other legacy save for that lone feather. At first, there was no danger of the feather being stolen. For that feather was as heavy as the dawn was bright. None could lift it. Not god, not immortal, and certainly not mortal. Still many tried, for even if the feather contained only a fraction of the dawn god’s powers, the one who possessed it could wield those powers against any other being in the known world. And perhaps even the unknown worlds.
An age passed.
One day, a thing happened that had never happened before. When an attempt was made to lift the feather, it shifted. It was still too heavy to be moved, but the shifting left many curious. And scholars soon discovered that the feather was becoming lighter over time. This might mean that it was losing its power as well, but none could tell. None knew how to make such measurements. So the feather was still coveted.
All thought it was only a matter of time before the feather could be claimed.
But it was not to be. Before that time could come, a guardian emerged.
There were three different legends of how the serpent-hound came to guard the feather. In one, a mountain and cavern arose around the feather in the course of three days. It was built by some creature that moved so quickly it could only be seen as a whirling of sand and pebbles. The creature itself was not seen until the last day when it emerged from the cavern, its six eyes glowing in the dusk light, its sneering mouth baring fangs that dripped with venoms that seared the sand.
From that day on, there were no efforts to lift the feather, for none could come close enough to try.
The second legend claimed that the hound was created by a cabal of mages who believed it was too dangerous for the feather to fall into anyone’s hands, even their own. They turned to evil magics then and performed experiments to create a creature that would be formidable enough to guard the feather for all time. The creature thus had to be more powerful than any being, and possessed of no greed for the feather, but only a deep need to protect it.
A third legend said that the serpent-hound was sent by the dawn god herself, who would have picked up the feather, had she not been in such haste. The hound was an aspect of herself and thus some have said the hound is her child, the triplets she would have had if she had chosen to bear children. The dawn god knew the feather was a danger to the mortal world. For its raw powers could only be tempered by one such as her.
The philosopher paused after telling her brief story. When her friends gave no response, she prompted them. “Did you note some strange details in the story?”
“No,” said the mage, “but you’re about to tell us, so I need not put my tender mind to the struggle.”
“The true story, I believe, is a composite of the three. No mages created the creature, surely, but how is the hound so powerful? Even if only a fraction of the rumors are true, this hound is so long-lived as to seem immortal, so powerful as to defend the feather for every age without fail, so faithful as to never have left the cavern in all these many ages? To be fair, I would not leave my bedchamber if I had the choice, and if we live through this, I will not emerge from them again. But does it not seem that something is anchoring the creature to that place?”
“Tell us,” the swordsman said. “What is the true tale?”
“The serpent-hound must be the dawn god’s offspring. Not sent, but already here. Not emerging around the feather, but from the feather.” The philosopher flipped through her book of notes. “Legends say the feather is hidden in the heart of the cavern, which is why the hound always stands at the cavern’s mouth. But what if the cavern is merely the hound’s bedchamber? What if the knowledge passed down to us from careless translations actually meant to say that the feather was hidden in a beating living heart, which a cavern cannot have but—“
“The serpent-hound!” the mage cried.
The philosopher nodded and barreled ahead. “The heads have names. This is not so commonly spoken of. Nocte. Lucte. And Ultima. Night. Grief. Last. Some have translated the meaning to be ‘everlasting grief.’ So we have deemed the creature a thing of nightmare. But there was one, only one, I admit, who believed the meaning was ‘last night of grief.’ They suggest the serpent-hound might be a herald for the dawn god’s return. Of that I’m not sure…but I am not the first one to have puzzled out these particulars. Others have in past generations. The fearsome legends prevailed. But a few have always learned the truth. That the serpent-hound was born from the feather and possessed all its powers. And these powers would manifest not only according to the will and wisdom of the hound, but in response to those who surrounded it. The feather had to protect itself from those who sought to possess it and wield it, reckless of the effects on the rest of the world, on existence itself.”
“Then this is all the more reason for us to avoid the serpent-hound and to hope we can find some fallen trophy to bring home,” said the swordsman.
“Agreed, but we will have to get close,” said the philosopher. “If the hound finds us, we must be ready. We don’t seek the feather for ourselves.”
“Others have sent proxies,” said the mage. “We are no different.”
The philosopher shook her head. “There have been other proxies, true. Others who did not want the feather to fall into the hands of the ones who sent them. But how many of those others knew what we know? We may have a chance.”
“A chance to do what?”
“To reason with the hound.”
“That is how we have come to stand before you now,” said the philosopher to the serpent-hound, having finished her tale. “And if you do have some part of your form that you have shed, a part that bears no power, no importance to you, we ask permission to bear it away.”
The philosopher’s heart, much to her amazement, had calmed during the telling of the tale. Perhaps it was in part because the serpent-hound’s tail had uncurled and lowered, and all heads turned to her to listen. But now her heart began to throb once again.
The head closest to her, the one with dark purple fur, was Lucte.
Lucte’s mouth began to open.
The philosopher tensed, her hand moved to the potion in her pocket that the mage had given to her.
But then, Lucte spoke.
“Perhaps there is a drop of worthiness after all, in these hairless things that walk on two legs.”
The philosopher gasped, for the voice was not gruff or grinding with gravel. It was smooth and deep, much like a human’s, only richer.
“I remain skeptical,” said Nocte.
“I remain wary,” said Ultima.
The swordsman slowly sheathed his sword. “As you should,” he said.
The mage brought her hands forward and folded them before herself. “We are not to be trusted.”
The philosopher nodded. “But we too remain skeptical and wary.”
“Then perhaps you would listen to a story as we have listened to yours,” Nocte said.
Ultima nodded. “You will tell it to them as we travel.”
The philosopher raised her brows. “Travel?”
“We are ready now,” Lucte said.
The philosopher did not carry the obsidian feather with her into the throne room.
It was clear to all present that their Triarch had not faced the serpent-hound of the cavern of the obsidian feather. If they had, they would have died or brought back the feather. But it was known that all three had returned. It seemed the swordsman and mage were too ashamed to show their faces in the throne room.
It was clear that the sovereign was seething. No doubt, he would have preferred that the Triarch had died. Throwing them in the dungeon was not as clean an end to them. He gazed down at his feet.
“You have failed, as you always do,” he said.
“Indeed, my sovereign.” The philosopher bowed her head. “We have failed in the quest of obtaining the obsidian feather for you. But as we always have, we bring you a gift in hopes of appeasing your disappointment.”
“Doubtful, but I will allow you to present your gift before I mete out a most regrettable punishment.”
The philosopher smiled brightly then. Permission was granted, witnessed by all. “We bring a gift that is truly among the greatest known, friendship.”
Once, a ripple of gasps and whispers had passed through the throne room. Now, there came cries and sobbing. And yet, no one fled.
The philosopher did not turn around. But she pictured the sight behind her. She raised her head and fixed her gaze on the sovereign.
“And proof, of course, that we faced the serpent-hound of the cavern of the obsidian feather,” she said.
The serpent-hound had entered the throne room, or rather, had been uncloaked by the mage. The hound now walked slowly toward the throne, flanked by the mage and the swordsman.
The sovereign frowned, for the cries in his chamber drew his gaze up. He glared at the philosopher until he spotted what was causing the commotion in his chamber.
The philosopher found it curious indeed how quickly the blush fled the sovereign’s face, turning it pale and gray.
“Does our gift please my sovereign?” the philosopher asked as the serpent-hound stopped beside her.
The sovereign had half-risen from his throne and seemed to be trying to push himself backward into it, through it. His guards had swords drawn but did not move to protect him.
Nocte, Lucte, and Ultima spoke as one. “Give us no reason to fear you, and you will have no reason to fear us. For we too are a creature of this world.”
Then only Nocte spoke, for Nocte was the one who liked to speak. “We will tell you the true tale of our origin, as we have told our friends, the Triarch.”
As Nocte continued telling a tale that the philosopher now knew well, Lucte’s head lowered to the philosopher’s ear. And Lucte spoke in a whisper that only the philosopher could hear.
“This will be your last night of grief.”
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel