Authors: A.J. Dalton
He looked at the twisted agony of the dead girl again and sighed in irritation. He should probably pull her limbs straight and close her eyelids – it would make for less fuss from the People waiting outside, meaning that he’d have to put up with less of a headache in turn. The People of Saviours’ Paradise were feistier than those of Hyvan’s Cross, because they did not live day to day in the shadow of his home temple or under the watchful gaze of his elite and personal squad of Heroes. As a result, they had developed an inflated sense of their own worth and the worth of their lives. Perhaps a few more deaths like the girl’s would disabuse them of such preposterous notions. Perhaps he should ban the town from holding a monthly market, to prevent them from seeing themselves as more important than the other communities.
He checked himself as he realised he was experiencing the characteristic bad mood that followed the high of drinking down the magic of one coming of age. Some decades previously, he’d all but wiped out one of his communities when in a fit of dudgeon like this. What had been the name of the place? Yes, New Sanctuary. To be sure, the People were his to do with as he saw fit, but he’d spited himself by giving in to such pique because he’d slaughtered a lot of his own prime breeding stock, which had taken him generations to replace; meaning that he’d therefore missed out on generations from which he could drink magic. He’d made himself weaker in the long run. Even worse, it had caused the blessed Saviour to whom he was devoted to contact him, something that had not happened in a long, long time.
Are you well, Damon?
the serene, sexless voice had suddenly asked in his mind.
Azual had fallen to his knees where he was – amid hundreds of dripping carcasses in the town square, with his legion of Heroes looking on – and begun to tremble violently. The holy one had addressed him by his old name, not his Saint name! The full horror and consequence of what he had done hit harder and far more painfully than any pagan chieftain ever had. Bile rose in his throat and it felt as if he could barely keep from vomiting his stomach, heart and lungs onto the red-stained grass. His own body was in revolt, so disgusted was it with the being of which it was a part.
he mentally cried in torment.
What have I done? I did not mean it
Why do you say so? Nothing is hidden from us, Damon, you know that. We always know. Know thyself, Damon, know thyself. I will not tell you again
H-holy one, instruct me! Do not leave me. How might I best know myself?
But there’d been no reply, as much as he’d pleaded. It was a punishment to him, but it also required him to become a solution in and of himself, in the same way that he’d become the problem. He sighed as he remembered the difficult years of self-doubt and self-recrimination that had followed. It was then that he’d truly understood that there was always a terrible price to pay when drinking of the beguiling, chaotic energies of this besmirched world: just as there was the moment of ecstasy and transcendence, so the moment of loss and pain would follow; just as his personal power would increase, so he would lose something of himself and his self-possession. He must never forget that this magic was corrupt and corrupting in its essential nature. He must seek to control it at all times, therefore. Lapses like the young girl might happen from time to time, but they should not become a habit.
Azual frowned. Just what had gone wrong today? There was something nagging him. He threw his mind out across the thoughts of all the People to whom he was connected. There was a disruption somewhere; something wasn’t right. Where there were usually smooth and regular shapes and patterns in the web of the People’s thoughts, today there was a particular area of randomness. He looked closer and pursued the fragments of thought there. What a mess! He ended up following a number of loose strands and coming up against a few dead ends before he had it.
His one good eye flared in surprise. Godsend? Just what sort of trouble could have occurred in that miserable backwater? There’d been a death. That wasn’t out of the ordinary by any means … but as a result of magic! He sat bolt upright. Not since the days of conquest and settlement had there been any display of magic from the People. What could have triggered it now? What did it mean? Were there pagans involved? It wasn’t clear.
Wasting no time, he arranged the dead girl so she looked more at peace, sealed the final flask so that it was ready for transport to the Great Temple complex and ducked to exit the damp and draughty stone temple. How he was glad to be free of the rotting mausoleum of a building. Like most temples, it had been designed to make a statement to the People more than for the comfort of the Saint who resided there whenever he visited. Thus it had been built of giant stone blocks which spoke of the permanence of eternity; it had low entrances and a low roof so that worshippers would always keep their heads bowed; and it had large, unshuttered apertures so that it was open to the light and elements of the world. It was a home for higher beings who thought nothing of the cold, wind, and rain, for such elements were theirs to command. It was a place for those who had no need of rest or sleep, for they were so close to eternity.
He would have stayed elsewhere, anywhere, but that would have been to erode the community’s focus on the temple. In turn, that would have threatened the community’s devotion to the will of the Saviours, and thus the community’s very cohesion. Chaos would have ensued and then the Heroes would have been forced to put the People down. So staying in the temple was just one more sacrifice Azual had to make for the care of these troublesome cattle. Once they had fully served their purpose and he’d attained almost godlike power, he’d exterminate them to pay them back for all that he’d had to endure, every humiliation, every indignity, every injury.
But now there was some sort of trouble that demanded his attention. A young boy, was it? Hmm. Surely the magic he could drink from this one would be beyond anything he’d tasted before? Could it be that, at last, the power he needed to complete his transformation was within his grasp? The boy must be his at all costs! Drooling with anticipation and truly excited for the first time in who knew how long, Azual strode across from the temple to the Captain of his personal guard of fifty Heroes and hurriedly issued his orders: ‘Have several men collect the flasks and ride with them to Hyvan’s Cross. You and the others will mount up and ride hard for Godsend. I will go ahead of you.’
‘Yes, holy one!’ the Captain replied with a respectful bow of the head and set about repeating the orders to his underlings.
The Minister of Saviours’ Paradise dared to place himself in the Saint’s path with a low bow. ‘Holy one, the girl …’
Of course, the girl
. ‘Is dead!’
The Minister’s eyes widened in distress. ‘I understand, holy one. I shall inform the parents. I will ensure that their grief does not overshadow tonight’s celebration of your visit to our community. Shall I tell the other children that they will be Drawn to the Saviours tomorrow?’
What was this fool’s name? In his distraction, he couldn’t remember and couldn’t be bothered with extracting it from the shapes of the thoughts around him. Minister Baxal, wasn’t it, or was that the one who’d died some years before? He resolved to pass an edict whereby all Ministers would bear the same name from now on. ‘I am leaving now. The others will wait. Out of my way.’
Saint Azual turned the full fury of his burning eye upon the simpering priest and, using his connection, the Saint squeezed the other’s mind. With a shriek, the retreating Minister tripped over his own heels and landed heavily.
Azual ignored him and moved with purpose in the direction of the gates. People threw themselves out of his path or fell on their faces in front of him. He trod on them as necessary and without a care. His destiny awaited him, and he moved towards it as a wolf would come for a deer.
His blood churned and his muscles twitched as the magic he’d recently drunk demanded release. He loosened his long limbs and began to flow across the ground at an ever-increasing speed. He was soon flying along the road to Godsend. Now let the hunt begin!
Looking back on it now, it was almost as if the gods had conspired against him, to see him exiled from his own people. What sort of life or meaning could there be when both gods and mortals turned their faces away? He did not know and was not sure he wanted to find out either. Maybe he’d be better off not moving from this exposed spot on the mountain – he could instead become a part of the stone itself, unmoving and unmoved. It endured, separated gods from mortals, and eternity from fragility, and yet was unanswerable to either. He would sit and slow his thoughts and breath to almost nothing, where there was no difference between one moment and the next, whether alive or dead. Except then his stomach would growl peevishly and ruin everything …
And it had been his damned stomach that had got him into trouble in the first place. He’d been about to head for home with the young mountain hare he’d managed to snag after a long day of otherwise fruitless hunting, when he’d suddenly spotted a deer straying above the snowline where he currently lay. As it had drifted back again for the better foraging, he’d begun to stalk it.
The deer had led him a merry chase for hours. Several times he thought he’d had it cornered in a ravine, only to find that it had scaled an impossible, sheer rock face. He’d then had to spend an age finding a way around and back up to it. It was only when he’d sensed the weather beginning to close in and had admitted defeat that he’d turned round to find it waiting docilely for him. It was almost as if it now wanted to be caught.
Carrying the carcass back up the mountain was far harder work than he’d anticipated, and far slower too. He glanced anxiously up at the sky: it was a flat white without any depth and the wind was high. He could feel the temperature falling by the second. He’d spent his sixteen years of life here in the high mountains, and everything he knew told him that there was a cruel and terrible storm coming, the sort that reminded all men, women and children that they were not the most powerful things in this world, that they lived only so long as it pleased the gods, and that any right-minded person would be wise to pray to and bend to the will of those gods.
He prayed fervently under his breath as he deliberately planted one foot ahead of the other, and as the snow began to fall thick and fast. If he didn’t reach the high pass soon, he would probably be cut off from his tribe’s villages for weeks. Worse, if he found it impassable, he would be surrounded by snow as well as exhausted, so his chances of survival would be virtually nil.
You’re a fool, Aspin
, he remonstrated with himself and dumped the deer on the ground.
It’s not worth dying for. Now get moving!
He leapt into the face of the storm, his short powerful legs propelling him upwards and his muscled arms pulling when his footing chanced to slip. Even among the mountain people, he was considered small for his age, but that meant he had good strength for his size and was one of the fastest when it came to scaling a rock field.
He rose quickly, fighting against himself as much as everything around him. The snow forced itself into his eyes and made him miss his steps and holds. It was only a matter of time before he broke an ankle or wrist, and then it would all be over. His lungs burned and he gasped for a clear breath, but fists of snow forced their way down his throat. He realised he was in the jaws of what some of the elders called a Wolf Winter, a sudden snap that arose with so little warning that none could outrun it. The best that could be done was to hide yourself well and pray that it couldn’t find you.
Aspin now knew he would never reach the pass. He had to find shelter instead. Perhaps a cave … but there were none in this part of the range. Could he descend back beneath the snowline? The firs there might offer him some sort of cover, but never enough to protect him from the cold or exposure. There would certainly be no chance of a fire either.
With a sinking heart, he realised there was only one hope, although that word was the last he would have normally used about the crazy old man called Torpeth. Only the truly desperate, those harbouring evil desires or those who were similarly crazed, sought out that lunatic. Some of the elder tribe members referred to him as
the holy man
, saying he was touched by the gods, but the way the man harangued the tribe’s youth on festival days – about some payment or other being due, always some payment – Aspin thought of him as a demon more than anything else.
Torpeth had always lived well away from the rest of the tribe – some might consider him holy, but they didn’t need him worrying their goats, urinating on the main fire of the large tribal home or leaping out at them on a dark night. He was the only one on these particular mountain slopes – who else would be crazy enough to live in such close proximity to the territories of the blood-soaked lowlanders? But now he was the only one who might offer Aspin shelter and any hope of survival.
The wind howled around him, all but knocking him from his feet, tearing at him like a frenzied pack of wolves. He knew he wouldn’t last much longer in this storm and that he couldn’t afford to hesitate for even a moment. Life or death. Choose now, warrior. He ploughed forward and then broke left onto a rapidly disappearing goat-track along a ridge. The footing was treacherous and the wind was intent on hurling him from the top of the mountain, to be smashed on the rocks below, but he had the balance and sure-footedness of one of the mountain people and was not about to give up his life easily.
Head down and teeth gritted, he reached the end of the ridge and plunged down into a more sheltered gully, where he could at least draw an unencumbered breath or two. The wind above shrieked and snarled in frustration, hurling down snow at him and reducing visibility to little more than a few arm lengths. He made his way carefully along the gully, worried that at any moment he would stumble into a hidden chasm, and finally emerged onto the top of a large slope. He glimpsed the dark shape of a long, low turf-walled construction below and threw himself down the incline towards it.