Authors: A.J. Dalton
Haal’s face began to redden and swell, rage sparking in his small black eyes. Speechless with anger, he choked and spluttered. Then he lowered his heavy brows like a wild boar preparing to charge.
‘No! Don’t!’ Hella squeaked.
Jillan was strangely calm. Let the Chaos come then. It would either destroy him totally or he would put down his enemies. It was simple. It was clear. There was no doubt in him to confuse things or cloud his judgement. There was only focus, purpose and poise. He would not fail. The storm raged around him, but he stood in the still centre of its eye. He watched with a strange detachment as the eddies of power swirling around him began to buffet Haal …
The school’s large door suddenly swung open, showing only darkness beyond. It was a cavernous mouth yawning wide to consume its prey whole. A cold breath issued out of the portal.
‘Come in, children!’ creaked the voice of Minister Praxis. ‘Quickly now, for we should spend whatever time we may learning of the blessed Saviours for our own improvement.’
For once most of the students wasted no time hurrying into the darkness. Jillan suddenly came back to himself and staggered as dizziness overtook him. Hella reached out to steady him, her blue eyes fearful.
‘What happened?’ she whispered. ‘It was so strange.’
Haal still stood glaring at Jillan. He silently promised that things would be settled between them after school and then turned on his heel, followed by the pale Karl and Silus.
‘I-I don’t know,’ Jillan wheezed. ‘Maybe I’m coming down with something.’ Yet he forced himself to straighten and seem bright, so as not to upset her any further. ‘Come on then, let’s get inside. Otherwise, the Minister will decide we need punishing for being lazy.’
But Jillan’s thoughts were not so easily straightened. They swirled as if the storm was in his head and desperate for release. A pain started at his temples and it was a struggle not to wince. He concentrated hard on placing one foot after another evenly on the stony ground, and managed to force everything else into the background, reducing his headache to a dull throb. It itched and nagged at him, making his shoulders twitch every now and then, but he was satisfied that he had it largely under control. He managed a smile for his friend and pulled her inside the school.
Minister Praxis stood looking down at each of them. He was so tall and thin that he seemed unnaturally upright. His eyes were like water, sometimes colourless, sometimes taking on the hue of everything around them. Jillan felt as if he were drowning whenever the Minister looked at him. Everything else about the Minister was hard lines – an unbreakable brow, ruler-straight cheekbones and a spiked nose. He was the rod of discipline every community needed if it was to remain close to the will of the blessed Saviours.
‘Good morning, children!’ the Minister creaked.
‘Good morning, Minister Praxis!’ they chanted back, having to brave his gaze. Jillan could not help shivering, the back of his neck feeling wet and cold. He swayed slightly and his chair scraped.
‘Jillan Hunterson, do you know no manners?’ the Minister asked. ‘You others may sit.’
Haal made no effort to hide a smile. There was the shunting and scraping of chairs as the class settled behind their desks. Jillan looked down at his feet.
‘Well, Jillan Hunterson? We’re waiting. Or do you seek to keep us from our study of the blessed Saviours?’
‘Sorry, sir, it won’t happen again.’
‘Stop mumbling, boy! Are you trying to swallow your apology before it can be heard? Are you not genuine? Are you not honest? Lift your head up and apologise clearly to us all.’
His head and eyes never having felt so heavy, Jillan slowly raised his head and said, ‘I’m sorry.’ He hunched his shoulders slightly to hide the twitch that stabbed him in the middle of his back.
‘You know, I’m curious, boy. Is it a poor upbringing or dark and sneaking thoughts that are to blame for your ill behaviour? Well? Which is it?’
His mind a muddle, Jillan could think of no easy answer. The Minister’s question had him trapped. Either he had to blame his parents, giving Haal and his cronies the chance to smirk, or he had to confess to succumbing to the temptations of the Chaos.
‘He’s coming down with a cold or something! That’s why he’s shaking,’ Hella blurted.
Minister Praxis turned an ire-filled gaze on the bright-haired daughter of the town’s trader. He said nothing for a few moments as the class held its breath …
‘The Saviours gave him a tongue, Hella Jacobsdotter! If he cannot speak for himself in front of the Saviours’ own Minister, then what use is that tongue? And we must wonder what secret it is that prevents him from speaking. Beware, Hella, that you be not unwise in your selection of friends and choosing for whom you speak up. Do you understand me, or should I perhaps ask your father and the town elders to explain it to you?’
Her bottom lip trembling, Hella managed a nod and a stuttering, ‘Y-Yes, Minister. I understand. I-I’m sorry too.’
The Minister nodded and snorted at Jillan. ‘Sit down! You have already wasted enough of our time. You are not worthy of our attention a moment longer when we should be contemplating our blessed Saviours. Now, attend me, children, for some of you will soon be of an age when you will be Drawn to the Saviours by the divine Saint Azual. You will then be ready to take your place as full members of this community, when you can begin to repay us for the years of food, shelter and betterment with which you have been indulged … and with which some have likely been spoiled.’
Jillan resisted the urge to shift uncomfortably under the Minister’s glare.
‘The visit of the holy Saint to this humble community and the Drawing are to be much celebrated. There will be dancing in the Gathering Place on the night of the Drawing, but those who attend should be careful not to overindulge in the revelry, lest their judgement become impaired and the Chaos find entry to their thoughts. Those who are to be Drawn will see the holy Saint alone during the day. Whatever goes on between yourself and the holy Saint must remain a sacred secret of which you never speak, else the pagans learn too much and plot ways to intrude upon the sacrament. You will need to confess your darkest thoughts and then be tested to see if you are worthy of being Drawn. Some will inevitably be found to carry the taint …’
Jillan’s scalp itched and he dropped his eyes to the plain surface of the wooden desk.
‘The tainted will be cleansed by the Saint. It is not a pleasant process, but you must obey the Saint’s instructions without hesitation, lest the taint martial its strength and resist its removal. I will say nothing more of the testing and cleansing, for it is part of the sacred secret. Fear not, for the Saint will do much to remove the sacred knowledge from your mind in any event. Only allow yourself to be guided by the Saint, no matter what is asked of you, and all will be well. Do you all understand?’
‘Yes, Minister Praxis!’
The Minister nodded, for once pleased. ‘Nonetheless, we would do well to remind ourselves of the terrible sacrifices Saint Azual made in the name of the Saviours, so that we are sure to understand the great honour he does us with his visit. As the Book of Saviours tells us, he was once a child like yourselves, in a community like this one. But his community had become proud and wilful, seeking to decide its own future rather than be guided by the will of the Saviours. The Chaos had corrupted the minds of his parents, causing them to subject him to awful temptations in the dark of the night. His soul was in constant peril and there seemed none to hear him when he cried out for help or cried himself to sleep.’
There was the knowing look. There was the hot flush rising in Jillan’s cheeks.
‘One of you will now read to us from the Pages of Azual. Listen closely, children – without fidgeting – for I will test your understanding immediately afterwards. Hella, you seem eager to exercise your voice today so please approach the Book and find the proper page.’
Minister Praxis often asked Hella to give the reading, for he knew she helped her father with his record-keeping and therefore had a good grasp of numbers and letters. Many of the other students struggled with their reading, and the Minister could little bear to hear the sacred words of the Book of Saviours mangled in the mouths of the illiterate.
Hella went up to the simple lectern next to the Minister’s desk and lifted back the heavy cover with her two small hands. The pages were illuminated with gold and lit up her face. She looks like an angel, Jillan thought. He stared, entranced, as she found the marked page and began to read in a slow, deliberate voice.
‘And, in their wisdom, the blessed Saviours gifted a boy-child to the People of Downy Gorge. He was raised with the name Damon, as it was also his father’s name. The boy-child was a joy to his parents and all who saw him, for in his innocence he was beloved of the Saviours and therefore drew all hearts towards him as the sun draws a plant from the earth, and as a flame draws and consumes the fluttering Chaos creatures of the night. Yet the sun will oft cast a shadow through no fault of its own when any seek to block it. And even a newly grown plant will attract a blight, and that is no fault of the sun. In the same way, the corruption of the Chaos sought out the young Damon in Downy Gorge.
‘His father became envious of his wife’s love for their son. He was further envious of those who spent time with his son when he could not. Therefore, he turned on Damon, his beloved child, and kept him locked away in a small room in their home. Further, he forbade his wife from ever seeing their son, for he was intent on owning and loving his son completely. In the darkest hours of the night, when the influence of the Chaos was at its strongest, he then visited Damon and sinned against him.
‘Yet although the sun will set for a while, it cannot be held back. And so Damon was freed by his mother, who could not deny her proper motherly love any longer.
‘Terrified that his father would be lost to the Chaos completely, Damon went to the town council to denounce his father and any who would not bow to the will of the Saviours. Even then, in his heart, Damon forgave his father for his sins, for Damon’s was a selfless act, born of a care for the People.
‘Yet the town council had long allowed pagan magicks and blandishments to work upon them. They saw the world not as it was, but as they wanted to see it, for then they could be happy no matter what went on in the world and what happened to the People. They mocked Damon and criticised him for resisting the discipline required by his father. They called his claims spurious and spiteful. And then they demanded he recant. When Damon would not, for he only understood the ways of truth, the council passed judgement that he should be exiled and never be permitted to return to Downy Gorge; and this was despite the pleas of his penitent mother and father.
‘And so Damon was cast out into the wilderness, with nothing but the shirt on his back. Long did he wander, living off berries, mushrooms and plants, until he came to the sacred heart of the Empire. The Saviours were greatly dismayed to hear what had been done to the young and innocent Damon. Further, they were aggrieved to hear what had become of Downy Gorge and swore revenge, to push back the Chaos for the good of the People and the Empire.
‘The Heroes of the Empire were sent forth to protect the People, Damon at their head, for he knew the land well, but also because he wanted to do all he could to save as many inhabitants of Downy Gorge as he could. Despite the trials and tortures to which he had been subjected, Damon still wanted to offer the inhabitants forgiveness and every chance to repent. As an honest and faithful member of the People, he was intent upon following the example of the blessed Saviours, intent upon saving the People and Drawing as many as possible to the Saviours.
‘And so it was that Downy Gorge was overthrown, once honest Damon had shown the Heroes the secret ways through the walls of the community. Many were killed, for they were beyond saving; many were saved, and some few escaped under cover of darkness. Damon led the army of Heroes in pursuit and found out many pagan enclaves in the deepest parts of the forest. The fighting was terrible. The ground and rivers ran red with blood, and the fields were buried under the bodies of the fallen piled several deep. Yet, with the will of the Saviours to protect him, brave Damon prevailed. He cleared all the land to the south of the sacred heart, pushing the unrepentant pagans into the teeth of the mountains.
‘The People and land were thus saved and allowed to flourish anew. New settlements were established, called New Sanctuary, Saviours’ Paradise, Heroes’ Brook and Godsend, in thanks for the wisdom and actions of the blessed Saviours. In recognition of his honesty and faith in the face of extreme temptation and hardship, Damon was beatified by the Saviours and reborn as an eternal Saint, he who is called Saint Azual. He was further charged by the Saviours to keep the lands to the south of the sacred heart always under his protection, so that never again would the Chaos be allowed sway over the People of that region.
‘And so it was that the temple of Saint Azual was established at Hyvan’s Cross, so that the blessed Saint would have a fitting place to receive pilgrims from the region, and a place of succour to which he might return every few months once he had administered the holy sacrament of the Drawing to those coming of age in the communities of the south.
‘Here endeth the lesson,’ Hella finally pronounced and looked to Minister Praxis.
The Minister nodded slowly and gestured for her to return to her seat. His eyes swept the class, looking for any who might not be paying their fullest attention, and finally settled on Jillan.
‘Jillan Hunterson, what were the three miracles performed by Saint Azual when still known as Damon?’
Jillan only heard a rushing noise in his ears. He saw the Minister’s lips move but could not decipher them properly. He felt a pressure behind his eyes and before he knew it he was asking, ‘Sir, it is my duty to understand the reading better. Could you tell me if some of the pagans escaped into the mountains? And does Downy Gorge still exist?’