Walking on Water © 1997
Rain gushed off the roof in rivulets of twisting darkness, splattering to the soaked earth below in thick streams of mud-wrenching power. Darkness fell over the town like the shadow of a god’s hand, and even though it was mid-day the gloom of night had settled into the musty alleys and narrow streets. Behind a long stone wall a dark figure crouched—slitted eyes looked out from under a wide-brimmed hat, following the paths of two patrons as they entered a sagging pub.
The dark shadow sniffed at the moist air, moving his head left and right with an animal quickness, the dusty smell of displaced earth filled the assassin’s nostrils: the smell of rain. Reaching into an inside pocket he drew forth a long, slim dagger, sighing as he contemplated the act to come.
He edged deeper into the shadows of the long stone wall.
Laughter echoed out from within the pub, and bright light streaked through the door-slit as a customer exited. Staggering, the former patron muttered half-coherent thoughts to himself, wincing at the fetid breath rising from his mouth. Halfway through a drunken laugh he sprawled face first in the mud, three steps from the closing door.
Cursing and wiping slippery mud from his eyes he drug his knees beneath himself and tottered unsteadily up. A bolt of lightning suddenly lit the gray sky behind the sagging pub, sending spidery fingers of brilliant electric light streaking across the sky. The drunk man started and jerked his head toward the fading glow—the deep roll of its thunder struck deep into his ancient bones. He lurched forward and began to walk quickly down the street, tracing a weaving pattern through the mud.
Behind the stone wall, the killer crept out further into the dark gray light of the street; leather squeaked softly as he crouched lower and shuffled to where the barrier ended. He could hear the sloshing footsteps of his victim approaching and a grim smile crossed his face—as his drunk victim neared the stone wall the assassin’s muscles tensed in anticipation.
This would be an easy prey, he thought, drunk as the man was there would be no resistance. But that was fine with him, his victim’s head would fetch a weighty price from The Brotherhood. He knew that his target’s sudden death would ignite the passions of those who stood against that ancient sect, but the attacker cared naught for any political quibbling. In his hungry mind all he saw coming down the road was a body hauling around an ample sack of gold instead of a head.
Another hot slash of lightning lit the sky and the attacker, drawing back from the light, saw splashes of muddy water kick forward off the black boots of his victim; swirling into the falling rain, the drops disappeared. A foot stepped into view, and then another, as the bulk of the lumbering man passed by. The dark figure of the assassin rose behind him wraith-like, and with the dull gleam of steel in one hand, it moved forward.
The old man’s sharp cry was muffled by the wet hand that suddenly clamped over his lips. A cold pain lanced deep into his spine; twisting and turning, it ripped its way up and down his back. Then something flashed in front of his face, and in his last drunken second he saw the assassin’s long blade thrusting towards his right eye socket.
The shadow drug the jerking body quickly behind the wall and lay it out. From under his dark cloak he drew forth a polished longsword from a silent, oiled, leather scabbard. With two strong blows he severed the muscle and bone in the skinny neck—cutting loose his prize.
Holding the head by its mass of dark, twisting hair, he looked into the dead man’s wizened face, where blue-black blood still streamed from the punctured eye socket. He reflected on the senselessness of having the old man killed and a brief look of remorse rolled through his eyes. He recovered quickly though, and allowed himself a small laugh before stowing the head in a small leather pouch.
"What one receives in payment for services rendered is not always what one expects."
Page 281—The Book Of The Doomed
Dread-black thunderheads drifted eastward over a purple mountain range: dark, viscous fluid in a sea of sky blue. The army of stormclouds had blown in from the endless depths of the Wasteland—from the Kashmir Sea, more than a thousand miles away. Their color was a boiling, black nightmare before reaching the mountain valley, but they had since dumped inches of rain on the town. Now the dead masses moved on to wrap themselves around the feet of the tall mountain range flanking the village. The tall columns of mist were depleted.
Below, the town of Sanshe’ was silent except for splashing drops that fell from the slanted roofs, verandahs, awnings, and drain pipes. Water gurgled through gutters, which had been cascading, rain-filled trenches during the heavy onslaught—the silt-laden liquid ran down past muddy streets and abandoned stalls, past a dark building covered in slime and stone, peaked in the style of the high mountains. Inside, a different type of fluid flowed down a different kind of gutter.
The dark building had been standing a long time, ever since the first pioneer had come back up from the floor of the Wasteland. It seemed to groan with age—the stone and mortar holding together with a wish and a prayer. The wood that covered the roof was rotten and warped with the weather; the climate had been changing over the last century as water returned to the land.
Inside, a five-sided star gilded with bright gold hung brooding over a gruesome table. The large slab of stone was hollowed out down the middle and channels ran along its sides, they were spattered with the stains of years. So thick in places was the dried blood, that none of the original stone showed through.
The walls were covered with paintings older than any could comprehend. Acts committed by the god they had worshipped here were depicted in vivid detail upon a row of gold-framed frescos that circled the altar. A god of lust, the paintings said, a god that reveled in—that drank in—the pain and suffering of others. In one, the god laughed gleefully as he ripped the heart from a haloed old man, the elder’s face grimaced in pain as he beheld his life’s force pumping in a red stream from the god’s clenching claws; in another, the god rode in glory on his serpent stag over tormented children, the stag killing and maiming the innocents with its huge cloven hoofs.
The god’s real name was lost in the distant reaches of time, but he had commanded his followers to call him Master. In the paintings His face glowed with green evil, and a single red horn curved up from His forehead—dripping with gore. His arms were many—whipping like tentacles as they clung to and ripped delicate mortal skin. No mercy did this god show to the weak, young, old, or crippled, nor even to his own acolytes. Many times untrue priests of the faith had been strapped to the cold stone table and split up the middle like gutted fish; their entrails and organs pulled out and placed in holy patterns of submission which spoke the god’s will. The disloyal priests had looked on in horror as their life’s blood flowed down the worn channels to drip in the golden chalice waiting at the base. As the Master cut his carefully placed patterns, they knew that their screams were the Master’s blood—their blood, his wine.
This ancient shrine with its suffering history was rediscovered by those first unlucky pioneers who had gained the courage to climb the towering cliffs, and the sect was born again. All seemed prosperous and fresh under the new rule of the new Master, and . . . somehow . . . all followers knew what was expected of them. Ancient books were found locked away in holy places and rituals begun anew.
So was brought about a resurgence of The Brotherhood.
In that black and evil place, on the ancient stone table, even now there lay a new sacrifice. The head of a man. One who had tried to turn the city against the Brothers’ power.
The Most Holy leered down over the altar, peering at the dead man’s face.
"And what say you now foolish one?" the Most Holy questioned. "What now of your high ideals and strong support?"
His black red-rimmed hood hung in loose folds about his face, almost touching the head below, as his hot breath steamed down.
"You thought to end The Brothers’ domination of our fair corner of the world? How foolish of you to think such a thing would be possible. Even if we were all to die, more would rise in our place!" His wet, round mouth opened as his lips pulled back. A hot laugh blew out as he gave the gray one-eyed face a slap. The head rolled from side to side, the expression caught in surprise.
The head’s single eye stared forth sightlessly.
* * * * * *
There was a place overland a bit from the city where certain meetings were held. Presiding over the location was a tall pine, standing sentinel against the endless wastes, which stretched out thousands of feet below—continuing as far as the eye could see.
These were the desolate lands from which the survivors of the great cataclysm had come to live again. Many of their children were stillborn. And still others were made incorrectly, arms grew where they should not be, heads were shaped too large and disfigured to be real. Most of these children died, but some grew into power, and were born with unexplained sight. Posses-sing eyes and minds that could see around corners; corners in the street, or corners in time itself.
A cold wind whipped up from the plain below, chasing the clouds on their way, and bringing a chill to those men who waited on stone chairs at the old vista. The chairs faced each other in a circle and had been weathered by time and constant wind for centuries. They were now as smooth as glass.
Legend told that the first High Council of Sanshe’ had met in these very seats of power.
An ancient man sat in the High Seat, his chair a gnarled affair of stone and carvings. He overlooked the assemblage about him. He leaned forward with his head between his hands, long gray beard whipping in the wind. "I can only wonder where Jurell is," he said. "I realize he was upset the people would not heed his words, but I hope it hasn’t led to another bout with the dark ale."
He raised his head and looked about at the others with a half-smile on his face, his blue eyes piercing out from within his wizened face. "You know he has fought long and hard against The Brothers and their evil. They took his son, Darrell, as you all know, and he was recently made the Most Holy because of the legacy old Valdur passed on to him. I think the strain of losing his son was almost too much to bear, but to have made him the Most Holy? That must have nearly broken Jurell for good. I almost don’t blame him for turning to the bottle."
He scanned those around him and his eyes came to rest on a young man with broad shoulders, dark eyes, and wavy blond hair. He nodded at the youth. "Yurien. Go into town and check all the pubs for Jurell. If he is too far gone take him home and put him to bed. We can have this meeting another day. It would not be complete without him."
Yurien stood up quickly and made to leave. "Right away Casen," he said with a slight bow, honored at being chosen. "I will return as fast as my legs can carry me."
Yurien ran off across the tall, brown, and waving grass, the skyline of the Wasteland merely a desolation left behind. He moved toward the town at a sprint, the wet grass whipping against his legs from the rain that day, and the great mountains rising before him like shoulders nestling his little Sanshe’. Behind him, twelve men waited. Wondering if this peaceful protesting and speech-making was going to work. Maybe in spite of what Jurell had preached, they thought, force would be the only way after all.
In The Brothers’ stronghold Jurell’s head rolled from side to side.
‘The future eats the past, rolling up the great carpet of time and swallowing it whole.’ Page 89—The Book of The Doomed
It has been said by some that Sanshe’ was once a seaport, and that it stood on the edge of a vast and unimaginable expanse of water. And that ships that had traveled on water, if it could be believed, had once called from far off places. These were only tales spun by mad old men though, and the reality was that the town stood on the edge of a great chasm; perching at the edge of the Wasteland.
Against the edge of the wastes stood great cliffs covered with the lines of time. Stumps of ancient docks were exposed against the rough and eroding sedimentary layers that swept up to stand against the sky. The mountainous land above had once been desolate where it now thrived. Spoors had taken root to bring it alive again and, after eons of waiting, the people had finally begun to return from the great drylands below.
* * * * * *
Yurien slowed to a walk as he neared the Harde’ Border at the edge of the city; it had been there since the raids of the Dryfolk many years ago. The young man’s face was tense with worry. Ahead, a guard turned to confront him, but on seeing it was only Yurien he waved him through and turned away. Yurien muttered a quick greeting and flashed a grim smile. Inwardly, he thought of Jurell. The old man had taught him so much he was almost like a father, to think that he could give up on the fight against The Brotherhood was almost unbelievable.
The Brotherhood had been much more than a thorn in Jurell’s side, it had been more like a cunning beast that reached in to rip out another hunk of his flesh when he least expected it. It was a beast that Jurell believed he could only fight by mounting a campaign of passive resistance among his people.
Yurien knew that the city that lay before him would look to an Outsider like the cornucopia of the world, but to him it only looked like the city he had grown up in. Like so many other towns it had an air of degradation, but the small towers soared skyward as if this were the proud capitol of an entire world.
He went through the town at a run, ducking into each tavern as he went by. The entrances were all covered with the thin pelts of mountain animals, the doors finely greased and well hung. Inside, the warm smoke wafted its greasy smell about the customers, and many turned to look as Yurien entered.
"Ho!" he would yell as he entered, "Has anyone seen Jurell, the father of Darrell?" Faces would turn away from Yurien, worried that the name of such an evil man had been spoken in a gathering of people. Many who heard him made signs to ward off the darkness of the name.
In some cases, one patron might turn toward Yurien with an interested look, and mention that he had seen Jurell in passing that morning. Yurien didn’t notice that after he exited each pub, a few cloistered individuals darted out the door. Most were doubtless on their way to inform The Brotherhood that someone had noticed Jurell’s absence and was searching for him.
There were only nine pubs in the town, and it didn’t take long for the youth to cover them all; there were places such as The Vulture, where anyone who had enough money could find anything they wanted, from desert roses to willing women. Or one could leave the extravagance of such a place and seek out the low squalid hovels where the ale was watered, but the men were hard and tough.
It was in such a place called The Jagernaught that Yurien found the answer to his extensive search for Jurell. The pub was set back into a space that hadn’t been meant to exist, a leftover place between two warehouses.
The main clientele of the pub were Bloodstone people who had only recently begun coming into Sanshe’ from someplace far off. The Bloodstone clan had told of crossing a river so wide that one side could not be seen from the other, adding that the water was no good to drink. One man who boasted he had drank of it was dead within a week after his arrival. His hair had fallen out by the time he arrived, and soon after he began vomiting blood; he was buried far from the settlement by family members. Who shook their heads and said that they had warned him.
As Yurien entered, he felt a presence of danger. Something actually seemed to prick at the back of his mind. He turned to find a stranger staring at him.
Well, might as well start somewhere. He approached the man, who put down a leg of meat he’d been gnawing on and looked at Yurien’s clothes and face with a scowl.
"Have you seen a man known as Jurell in here today?" he said, as he slowly put his hand to the dagger at his belt.
The stranger shifted under his dark cloak and smiled at where the man Yurien held the hilt of his small dagger. "Boy you’d better be faster than a mountain rabbit and twice as tough as a desert roach if you plan to use that on me, otherwise take yer’ hand off it before something sharp and quick comes at ya’ from under this table." His face was like grizzled leather, and when he smiled his yellow and black teeth looked as if they had been beaten with a smith’s mallet.
Yurien weighed the alternatives carefully; glancing around, he saw that the dozen or so villagers in the room were now focusing their attention on the confrontation. Noticing the ritualistic scars on the man’s face and his armored clothing, he realized that this was no ordinary villager, but one who had probably killed tens of times before. He eased his hand off the knife.
"That was a good idea boy, you may have just saved yer’ life." There was another shift under the man’s cloak. "I don’t know anything about yer’ friend Jurell, and it would be wise of ya’ to leave before things get nasty."
Yurien’s second sense told him that the stranger was lying, and that therefore there must be a connection between him and Jurell.
Like many of the children in these times Yurien was not a normal young man. He had been called on many times in his youth to heal or help when danger threatened. What he had came from deep inside the back of his mind, and although he could heal . . . he could also hurt.
He grasped hold of the power in his mind and stretched it out to envelop the stranger. Then he started to squeeze. Sweat broke out immediately on the stranger’s rough countenance and words broke painfully through his lips, "So yer’ a devil child are ya’," his mouth twisted with the strain of getting out the words. Yurien said nothing and increased the pressure. He could feel the man’s skull beginning to change shape under the pounding force of his power.
As the man twisted and writhed in agony, Yurien noted that he was actually enjoying using his force to create pain—his mind balked at the thought.
When the warrior thrashed in his seat, a bag was knocked loose from under the table, where it had apparently been fastened in some way. It clinked against the floor in a heavy way and a yellow coin rolled loose.
The mercenary looked towards the floor and his eyes bugged, he was obviously upset by the fact that his money was now out for anyone to steal.
As he increased the pressure, Yurien reflected on Jurell and what may have motivated him to miss today’s council meeting, it was possible that he thought there was merely nothing to be gained by more talk; the old scholar had become fed up with talk, even though he knew that fighting would solve nothing-only the destruction of his people.
The young man tightened his mind-grip on the savage warrior and thought more. It was also possible that someone had taken or killed Jurell, but the old scholar would definitely be of more value alive. His knowledge about the Great Ones was immense, his study: lifelong. It had even been said that he knew the whereabouts of some Ancient technology, which had been hidden from the eyes of commoners for hundreds of years . . . perhaps thousands. His life was vital to the community, and to the future.
It was on this note that Yurien decided he must do anything, anything at all, to learn Jurell’s fate.
"Speak of Jurell man! Or I will pick the knowledge from the remnants of your splattered brain!" He sent a slow spiral of pain into the base of the neck, and imagined it must feel like a twisting knife.
The stranger’s head actually appeared to be changing shape before the onlookers’ eyes, several backed away, looking frightened. The warrior’s eyes were straining in their sockets and looked as if they would explode from his disfigured skull. Yurien let up the pressure for a moment.
"Where is Jurell?" he asked quietly.
The fighter took a few gasping breaths, his lungs hitching in their full volume of air, and said, "Be damned, If I’d knew how strong ye’ were I would have told ye’ right off." He rubbed his throat and grimaced. "I don’t really know where the man is," he admitted cautiously, "but I do hear from sources that his head has been take The Brother’s stronghold."
Yurien’s mind buzzed and spun, and he completely lost his mental grip inside the man before him, Jurell’s head, he thought, his head?
The sudden grief in his mind was overwhelming.
His power was such that everyone in the room was suddenly full of sadness for their own losses.
A cousin of the man who had died from drinking the waters of the Great River was suddenly struck with the wretchedness of the loss of his relatives, past and present. He realized that life should not have to be lived this way. How had the Great Ones lived in the ancient times? Had they been forced to live with pain, misery, and death all the days of their lives?
On his way from Bloodstone territory, he had seen many wonders that must have come from the time of the Great Ones; great bridges which spanned the sky, only to be broken asunder at their peak; lines of metal and wood which ran on in a row as straight as a city wall, and as far as the eye could see; buildings as high as the towers of gods, some broken and splintered at their peaks. The boy in Peter had wanted to stop and follow the metal lines, climb the bridges, and scale the insides of the towers, but his place was onward with his family.
The land he came from was the only place where a Bloodstone could be found. The Bloodstone: bringer of death to all who touched it. It was a clear, red gem; he had seen one once from far off, before an Appointed One had taken it into an enemy camp to surrender himself. Of course the Appointed One would be searched, but by then it would be too late. All within the camp would be dead within a few days.
However, the Blessing of the Bloodstone Band had also been its curse. Because they lived within reach of Bloodstone they were also subjected to much of the sickness it caused. It had been routine to lose young and old to the stones’ effects almost daily, and over time their once great numbers had dwindled to almost nothing. The leaders had decided that a new settlement must be found, a new place to live.
Now, in this tavern, Peter felt that he had found someone who could understand him. The boy who grieved before him, who had somehow altered Peter’s mood, was like a beacon shining with hope.
Around Yurien had gathered all the people in the Jagernaught, and from the looks on their faces it was plain that they felt the same as Peter. These people were despondent and very nearly homeless; this was not their home, this strange town on the end of the land. Many family members had been lost in the trek to this far-off place, and they felt that now someone had brought out their losses, shown them to them on a platter, and said: It’s all right . . . you are not alone.
Yurien raised his head and saw that many of those around him were in tears. One old woman approached and knelt before him. She took hold of his hand and kissed the back of it. "Bless you sir," she said in an ancient voice, "for you are a savior among men."
One by one, each of those in the tavern were touched by Yurien, and he, in turn, was touched by them. Touched in his heart, he felt loved and needed as he never had before. One man, who was Yurien’s age, was particularly interested in him. He called himself Peter, and vowed that he would follow Yurien anywhere, just to be close to him.
Even the tough, old warrior who had, moments before, felt Yurien’s wrath was now subservient. "I will do all I can to help ye’ young man," he said. "I have never before seen yer’ like, or felt the sadness that ye’ project. If it is at all within my power ye’ have Socrates, Wader in Blood, at yer’ service."
Yurien look at the two who had pledged their help, and saw two friends. He felt their loyalty glowing at the edge of his awareness, and it was strong.
* * * * * *
The gabled roof of the stronghold whistled above the altar room, as the mountain breeze had its way with the aged slates. Beneath the lower altar room was an old cellar, its purpose was known only to those deep within the life of the sect. The dank room had an evil smell of death, of something rotten and decayed, and within the tunnels that spread out on all sides were gruesome reminders of its origins. In the stronghold of the Brotherhood a ritual was taking place. A ritual brought from the mind of the Master and given to his minions. It was turning toward afternoon, and a crisp wind blew down off the high country.
At the end of each tunnel was a wall shorn up with stone and carved with inscriptions which drew power from the death within. As each of the catacombs were finished, the workers who had built them were encased within the end. They were struck unconscious with the power of the Master, and then stacked like so much old wood while a wall of stone was mortared about them. When they awoke from the deep slumber their screams and terror were fuel for the inscriptions. They tossed and writhed among each other like an overcrowded den of snakes, and the more they scratched and bit and fought for room: the greater was the power drawn by the runes.
In the end, many of the victims had turned to cannibalism. And from that act, many of the inscriptions still glowed—through the eons since the acts were committed.
In this secret area below the altar ten acolytes sat on their knees in a circle, chanting Ancient hymns and making powerful signs. The circle reverberated with power. And in the center, where a post speared up from the blooded ground, was a sphere of glowing blue color.
The Most Holy, also known as Darrell the Black, rose up to his full height and spoke with a voice that dripped like liquid terror into the bones of even the bravest warrior. "Oh my great and glorious one." He spread his arms wide. "Most powerful and dread lord of death, we have brought you the head of our greatest enemy for sacrifice and truth." He motioned to the head that was twisted onto the pole in the center, the single eye seemed to glare out at the Most Holy.
The glowing sphere pulsed in and out, as an inner lightning played upon the sides, and something sinister and evil began to form in the center— twisted shapes danced into a black form.
Darrell the Black felt an inner terror he didn’t feel often these days. He was master of all, except that which he had just conjured up—from who knew what terrible place.
The form had coalesced into something dark with an ugly twisted mouth and green eyes, and when the mouth opened green fire spewed out. "YOU THINK ME TO REWARD THIS SCRAWNY DOING OF YOURS! I SHOULD HAVE YOU STRAPPED TO THE ALTAR AND SENT TO SERVE ME IN THE BEYOND!"
The Most Holy backed away in terror and bowed so low that his lips kissed the floor. He made no supplication, for that was useless under such a merciless god. He only wished and hoped that his power would not be stricken in such an untimely manner, he had such plans! He hoped to one day rule a new world he would create, a world where his slightest wish would be obeyed instantly. On pain of death. A world where he could torture and kill —delighting in the screams and flowing blood. Any young maiden he chose would bow in submission before him, and beg to do as he pleased.
While Darrell waited, sweating, in his fine red-rimmed robe, the Master looked down in scorn.
"ARE YOU AWARE, MY PUNY ONE, THAT A MAN GREATER THAN JURELL HAS NOW SWORN DEATH TO ALL OF YOU? AND THAT I MAY EVEN LET HIM SUCCEED BECAUSE HE SHOWS MORE PROMISE THAN YOU EVER DID?"
"No Master, I was not aware of such a man."
"HE WAS UNDER YOUR NOSE ALL OF HIS LIFE DOG! YOU NEED ONLY TO WATCH THE PEOPLE MORE CAREFULLY. BUT NOW THAT YOU ARE WARNED THERE IS ANOTHER MATTER TO WHICH YOU MUST ATTEND."
Knowing himself to be spared, for now, The Most Holy rose again and listened eagerly.
"HAVE YOU EVER HEARD OF A LAND CALLED DAKOTA?"
Darrell hated to answer but he knew must, "I admit ignorance Master."
"I HAD NOT THOUGHT THAT YOU WOULD." The Master seemed thoughtful. "IT HAS BEEN MANY THOUSANDS OF YEARS SINCE IT EXISTED AND I HAD THOUGHT MYSELF DONE WITH IT, BUT I HAVE DISCOVERED THERE STILL LIES A SOURCE OF GREAT POWER THERE. ONE THAT I ONCE USED TO RID THIS PLANET OF ITS DISGUSTING PEOPLE." The Master looked down on the assembly around him and suddenly a flare of blue power flickered out from the remaining eye in Jurrell’s head—within The Master’s projection, clotted blood dripped down the face and onto the post. "IT IS A POWER SO GREAT THAT COMPARED TO THE INFERIOR DEEDS OF THESE TIMES, IT WOULD SEEM AS IF THE SUN HAD BROKEN LOOSE FROM THE HEAVENS AND LANDED ON THE EARTH. IT HAS KILLED PEOPLE IN THE MILLIONS BEFORE, AND NOW THAT I KNOW IT STILL EXISTS I MUST HAVE CONTROL OF IT AGAIN."
The Most Holy was so excited he could scarcely contain his eagerness to have the power in his hands. He answered calmly, "And Your wish Master?"
"GATHER TOGETHER A DOZEN OF YOUR MOST POWERFUL ACOLYTES AND THEN YOU YOURSELF MUST ACCOMPANY THEM TO THIS "DAKOTA," WITH A TALISMAN I SHALL LEAVE TO GUIDE AND PROTECT YOU. WHEN YOU ARRIVE THERE I SHALL FURTHER INSTRUCT YOU."
The giant image of The Master smiled, a rare occurrence, and then he opened his mouth and wind poured into it from all around the catacombs. The sphere of his head shrank smaller and smaller as the wind grew fiercer. And then, when his face was imposed over the face of Jurell, there was a loud snap and an echoing laugh. The lifeless head exploded.
Strips of skin and chunks of broken bone spattered the crowd of acolytes, then Darrell slowly wiped his face.
‘A man who will die for his country is not as dangerous as one who will die for his god.’ Page 672—The Book Of The Doomed
The door slammed shut behind the group as they exited The Jagernaught tavern, and a chorus of cries wished them good luck. Peter tagged close on Yurien’s heels and bombarded him with questions.
"Where are you from Yurien?" he asked, grabbing at his sleeve.
"I have lived here all my life."
"Where did you learn to . . . to do what you did in there?"
"It is not something you learn Peter. I have always had some strange powers of healing and sight, and as I grow older, they grow stronger." He took a quick look back at Socrates who followed with his blade drawn.
"Where do we go now Master?" Peter asked.
Yurien stopped in his tracks and turned around to face the young clanmember. "Never, never call me ‘Master,’ Peter. Please. That is a term reserved only for the god that the Brotherhood worship, it is despicable, disgusting, and an insult to be named so." Yurien’s eyes took on a strange inner quality, they seemed to burn and then fade like lamps on a dark night. Peter had backed off at the rebuke—he looked down at the street nervously.
Socrates spoke up, "Yes Yurien, I have ‘eard of that evil god they call Master." His leather squeaked and shifted. "It is a name no man should speak, unless ‘e is calling on his death."
Yurien sighed and turned to Peter again. "Peter, I am sorry for being so harsh with you . . . it would be best if we could be friends .. I am not your master, nor anyone’s."
* * * * * *
The sun had already come close to finishing the task of drying up the rain, and so it was a sticky and muddy street that the trio walked on. Socrates had moved to the front and was watching warily any who passed by, as if they had desires against Yurien’s life.
Yurien, for his part, was doing his best to make Peter at ease, and wondering at the same time what he had done back at the tavern. He had never felt such power before, nor even knew he had it in him. He realized that if he would have pushed only a little harder, he could have killed Socrates, and the thought sickened him, he had never killed a man before in his life. Yurien’s teaching and nature forbade the thought of killing anyone except in self defense. Jurell . . . he faltered at the thought, for Jurell was surely dead . . . had always taught him that the best way to settle a problem was to talk it out; but Jurell was gone, and Yurien felt that none in The Council had either the power or the youth to do what must be done.
There must be more killing, he decided, I am sorry to the powers of creation, but the members of the Brotherhood must either bow to the will of nature, and give up their powers, or we must wipe them from the Earth. That is the way it must be. They are not the way it was meant to be.
Yurien shook himself out of his contemplation, and said, "We must return to The Council and tell them what has happened, for it seems we have lost a leader."
Going through the market area was usually a heady experience, flavors and aromas sifting through the air and nearly clogging the nostrils. Today though, the participation was low because of the storm the night before. Many were reluctant to brave their carts in the deep mud; the roads from the terraced farm lots above were treacherous enough in normal weather. To brave the twisting paths today could mean the loss of a good draft animal or even an entire crop.
Yurien glanced up at the mountains nearly surrounding the city, and saw small figures out in the fields above—at least some are still at work despite what conditions must be like up there.
The two young men and the grizzled warrior made a strange group walking through the market, but this was the quickest way to the edge of the Harde’ border of Sanshe’, and Yurien was in a hurry.
Peter looked sideways at his new friend and wondered how old he was. There was a very adult air about the young man, as if he had shouldered the weight of the world. At first glance, Peter thought, Yurien would appear only a normal person. But if one looked closer into those eyes they would see a deep purpose, and a firm resolve.
Peter had a thought, "Do you sit on the High Council Yurien?" he said, with a tinge of awe in his voice.
Yurien smiled at Peter and thought back to the days when he had thought the Council ‘All-Powerful,’ and then when he had realized that they were only tired, but wise, men. "No Peter, I have not yet attained the honor of seat. Although, I suppose what I have is just as worthy, I have the trust of every man in the High Council. Even now they sit waiting on what word I will bring of Jurell," he grimaced. "Sad though it may be, The Council actually has little power these days, even its strongest members dare not challenge The Brotherhood for fear of reprisals against their family or friends. The Brotherhood holds everyone hostage against everyone else." He gave a tight laugh. "It would almost be amusing if it weren’t so serious."
He stopped and turned toward Peter, drawing him close. "They no longer have power over me. They have taken the man I called Father." He looked in the direction of the Brother’s stronghold. "And now I have nothing to lose. They will be more sorry than they can imagine for taking Jurell from me, because I am not such a peace-seeker as he was. To think that his own damned son would order the death of his father . . . I had not thought he had the guts." He looked up to where scar-faced Socrates stood waiting. "Damn Darrell The Black, and all who follow him!"
Yurien struggled to get a grip on himself, then spoke again, "Well, my dear friends Peter and Socrates, let us continue to the seats." He smiled at both and began walking quickly out of town again.
Socrates and Peter exchanged puzzled looks and shrugged their shoulders at each other—they would follow.
The three went through the Harde’ border and headed across the fields at edge of the plateau, until they came in sight of a tall pine, where nearby sat eleven men in twelve ancient seats.
"I don’t see why Jurell would not show up for this meeting," said Oberon—one of the younger members of the High Council. "He knows how important it is that he be here to defend his position." Oberon paused thoughtfully and glanced around at the council members. Oberon himself was for the use of force to oust The Brothers if necessary, but he had hoped it wouldn’t come to this. He had a bad feeling that none of them were ever going to see Jurell again.
Casen had been leader of the council for over a half of a century now, and he had seen what the Brotherhood had done to their small bastion of civilization. If one were to look at it day by day, as the majority did, nothing much wrong would be apparent;
Casen had been around for a long time though, longer than he cared to remember, and he had seen taxes go from only a few plenties on the piece to nearly half a piece for every item sold in the market, and seen a few disappearances a week a go to nearly a dozen. He had seen the weekly protection payments—demanded by The Brotherhood’s underground—go from a tenth of a business’ earnings to quarter. Perhaps most important to him though, was that the stronghold The Brothers hid in had grown from a squalid old center of worship to a garrison of deadly war.
Casen looked out at the Wasteland, thousands of feet below, far over the edge of the small hanging valley Sanshe’ was settled on. We came out of there, he thought, we came from that plain below, the Great Wasteland. How far does The Wasteland extend, he mused, and why were we down there in the first place, and not up here? But that was in the far distant past of humanity. Casen was not sure he wanted to know the answer.
Casen turned towards Oberon and said, "The law of this council has always been patience. The time may come when that law will no longer matter, but for now we will sit." He paused and met every member’s eyes; all were competent to hold the office they had taken from those before, but none were exceptional, none were real leaders, and so far none had seemed to display the abilities to take his place. "For now we will sit and think upon the vastness spread before us, and what we must do to protect this small town from the evils in the world." He lay his hands down to his lap and closed his eyes.
The old Master of the High Seat first saw colors behind his eyelids and then felt his mind grow to grasp some unseen mystery. He had lived a long life and his mind had experienced much, but this sort of mental stretching had always been his greatest thrill. He was vaguely aware of the other council members as points of light in his quickly expanding consciousness. His brain reached out in a whirlpool of thought, he felt The Council around him; some meditated and some only fidgeted, but all were aware that this day was something different. There was a feeling of change in the air, as if the evil of the Brotherhood’s thievery and human sacrifice had reached its apex and now was in for a fall.
Sound brought Casen and the rest out of their thoughts. Out over the plains of The Wasteland a sound was coming, it was a noise like thunder but much more piercing, there was an unreal quality to it. Casen’s mind was still rooted in his mental surroundings and he could feel something coming out of the west, he opened his eyes and looked toward the waste. A black cloud was forming in waves and spreading across the sky.
A hole gaped in the center of the cloud and what looked to be a tornado framed in purple light formed in the hole, he could see the individual eddies and currents of the tornado splitting and crashing against each other. The black cloud must have been miles and miles away. Casen marveled inwardly over the power it must have taken to cause the phenomenon.
As The Council watched from the edge of the escarpment and Yurien, Peter, and Socrates looked from where they had stopped in the field, a comet shot out of the center of the tornado and plunged toward the city.
It was going faster than anything Yurien had ever seen.
* * * * * *
"Get down!" Yurien shouted at the other two, as the comet grew in size. It appeared to be heading directly at them. They all ducked down and slid into the heavy grass. Yurien could not resist a look at the burning globe as it headed over the cliffs, it was still flaming straight toward Sanshe’, and directly at them.
Yurien heard a sizzling sound, and a high pitched whistle forced him to clap his hands over his ears; lightning was playing out from the comet to the ground and burning anything directly below it. The grass crisped and burned not eighty feet from where the three were standing, and Yurien reached out to wrap an arm around Peter’s shoulders. He was not sure if the screaming sound was now coming from him and Peter, or directly above, but it was all around them.
He felt his head began to rip apart with pain, beside him he saw Peter’s hair singe off and fall away, his mouth open and screaming.
Then it was past.
* * * * *
In the city, where none but a few had seen anything coming, the driving force of the comet was felt as a shockwave before the noise was even heard over the garrisoned walls at the Harde’ border.
One of the Brother’s members was standing guard at the top of the wall when the comet came. His name was Swenen and he, although only recently initiated, had always been a firm believer in the Master and all his dealings with the weak and mindless. All the low scum deserved to die, he thought, he was sure he would one day take Darrell The Black’s place as Darrell had taken Valdur’s. Swenen was quite smug as he sat atop the wall and gazed out at the city.
He felt the whining pulse, and was searching for its source in the city below, when a green bolt of power from the globe overhead speared down through his skull, and into his brain. His lifeless body flipped off the parapet like a discarded rag doll.
The comet flew at an angle into the city leaving a wake of burned buildings and people. Below the fiery green globe, a vendor’s cart was split in half in front of his astonished eyes, and a woman watched in surprise as her child was struck down on the muddy street, leaving an unrecognizable, and grotesquely blackened smear. One shopkeeper and all of his customers were crushed under the heavy slab of stone roof, which fell as webs of green balefire burned out its supports.
At The Brotherhood’s stronghold, a gargoyle stared lifelessly from the parapet on the front; intricately wrought steel began to glow purple and then blue; and a Brother on the front steps dropped to his knees and clutched at his head in agony. The comet spun backwards and halted directly in front of the building, suspended in mid-air like a giant, deformed ornament.
* * * * * *
Deep inside the shadowed halls of the stronghold Darrell the Black sat in his study, brooding one second and dreaming the next. His face was bent downwards in concentration as his mind swept back to recall The Master’s face as he spoke to him.
Master had acted different this time than the last, somehow he had actually seemed scared, or as if his confidence was eroding. Had he really said that there was someone more powerful than his own representative on Earth, the Most Holy? Somehow that didn’t sit well with Darrell, the Master was all-powerful wasn’t he? Why would he be concerned with the doings of some puny mortal? And why . . . Darrell slipped back to think on the powerful weapon the Master had talked about . . . like a sun on the earth? What could that mean? Suddenly, as old Valdur had warned him could happen at times of urgency, a voice boomed into his mind, shaking him down to the very core.
"SLAVELING!" The tremor of the voice was so deep and powerful that it knocked Darrell down like a slapped child, to lay at the foot of the desk. His mind reverberated with Power as The Master spoke directly to his brain stem.
"I HAVE SENT YOU A MESSENGER OF GREAT POWER WHO BEARS THE TALISMAN I SPOKE OF. DO NOT TOUCH THE MESSENGER. MERELY STAND BEFORE HIM AND SPEAK THESE WORDS, ‘I HAVE COME FOR THE MASTER AS HIS HIGH INITIATE, THE MOST HOLY. GIVE ME THE TALISMAN,’ AND HE WILL LEAVE IT BEHIND WITH YOU.
"THE MEDALLION CANNOT BE TOUCHED BY ANY OTHER SAVE YOURSELF OR THEY WILL DIE.
"NO OTHER CAN COMMAND IT.
"IT WILL NOT ALLOW ITSELF TO BE STOLEN OR LOST.
"YOU MUST ALWAYS WEAR IT AROUND YOUR NECK.
"FOLLOW WHERE IT WILLS AND YOU WILL FIND MY TREASURE FOR ME. DO AS I COMMAND SLAVE. IT AWAITS YOU EVEN NOW AT YOUR DOORSTEP."
Darrell felt the strings of the god wrap about him and pull him upright, he danced like a marionette forward a step. Then the slimy strings let him loose. The High Initiate stumbled forward a step and he grasped the back of his chair. He looked down at his shaking hand where it gripped the chair, his knuckles were white from blood loss, and then at his other arm—he tore open his robe to look at his chest. His body had turned deathly pale. His muddled and shocked mind took a minute or more to recover, and then he realized. Be Damned the body, The Master has given me a great power, and delivered it to my door!