Empire of the Saviours (Chronicles of/Cosmic Warlord 1) (4 page)

There was a quiet gasp from the class. Instinctively, they knew Jillan had crossed some line, had dared to go somewhere that was forbidden. They didn’t understand why it was wrong, they only knew it
was
wrong, and that that was all they needed to know.

The Minister’s face became as severe as they’d ever seen it. His cheeks were hollowed with shadow, his nostrils pinched and his lips bloodless. ‘You dare?’ he whispered. ‘You presume to question
me
, a Minister of the Empire? What corruption is in you, boy, that you are so fascinated by the pagans?’

The noise roared in Jillan’s ears now, but he was not going to let himself be trapped this time. ‘They are our terrible enemies, sir. We must know enough of them to know how best to guard ourselves against them. Do they survive still in the mountains?’

Menace in his voice, his eyes narrowed, the Minister said very quietly, ‘Our best defence against the dark and sneaking ways of the Chaos is a proper understanding of the Saviours’ will, and that is all we need to protect us, as you should already know, boy. A close study of the holy book and the guidance provided by the Saviours’ own Minister in Godsend is defence enough!’ Now his voice became louder and his words came faster: ‘Is that holy teaching not enough for you, boy, in your pride and arrogance? You are too inquisitive to keep your thoughts controlled and safe! Beware, Jillan Hunterson, for the Chaos lurks to either side of the righteous path of the Saviours’ will, and should you start to wonder whether the lights and glints to either side are a better welcome of a lost treasure, then you will all too easily step from the path and become lost forever!’ Spittle sprayed from the preacher’s mouth and caught the thin light that made it through the shutters. ‘If you were a better or more faithful student, Jillan Hunterson, then you would not so quickly forget the salutary lesson of Kaspar the Curious from the holy book! What is it that clouds your mind with forgetting? Well? You know yourself, do you not? It is a taint of corruption, is it not!’

The other students stared at Jillan in horror. Even Hella’s face showed doubt and fear.

The Minister was shouting and wild-eyed now. ‘You are too wilful for your own good, boy! Wayward like your parents, I say! It is that which makes you dangerously inquisitive. Until you learn the error of your ways, you are a danger to all your fellow students. They should shun you lest the taint spread to them also! Shun you, yes! Out, children, out! Go to your homes and pray for the Saviours’ guidance. Hella and Jillan, you will stay here with me and study the holy book and seek salvation. I will then talk to the council to see what we can do about having you isolated from the others until the blessed Saint comes to Draw the taint from you. Out!’ he shrieked.

The children scrambled to their feet in panic, a few crying out in fear as they were pushed and shoved by the others. Jillan blinked in shock, struggling to understand what was happening. Was he tainted after all? Was that the explanation for the trouble today and why everyone seemed so angry? And what did it mean that his parents were
wayward
? He looked at Hella, but she’d begun to cry and wouldn’t meet his gaze. Her shoulders shook, but he dared not go to her.

The Minister shooed the last of the children out and proceeded to pace back and forth in animated fashion. He stared at them every so often and mumbled to himself. He clasped his hands together and shook them in fervent prayer. Jillan’s shoulders twitched violently, but fortunately the distracted Minister failed to notice. Finally, the Minister stopped, some decision apparently made.

‘See what your corruption has done, boy! See how it has disrupted our proper study of the Saviours’ will. Do you see what a danger you have become?’

Caught between shame and denial, apology and refusal, Jillan found it impossible to speak. He managed to nod miserably, however, as his twitching became all but continuous.

‘Let us pray we are not too late! Confessing your own corruption is the first step towards salvation, boy. If you repent and then show yourself genuinely penitent, there is still some hope for you. The Chaos may yet be defeated, and the taint exorcised by the blessed Saint! All will then celebrate your return to us! So you must not despair, Hella Jacobsdotter, for to give up hope is to lack faith in the eternal Saviours. We must instead become stronger and more determined in our faith, for we need the Saviours now more than ever before! Show me that you understand this: repent of your despair, Hella Jacobsdotter!’

Hiccuping through her tears, and wiping snot from her nose, the young girl answered, ‘I repent, sir, truly I do. I try to be a good girl and learn the lessons as well as I can.’

‘That is good, Hella, that is good. Now, approach the holy book and read to us from the Pages of Damnation, so that we may better understand the horrors that the taint of corruption stores up for us. Let us hear of the pagan hell towards which the Chaos tries to lead us, a place that is buried deep, just as Saint Azual piled the bodies of the pagans several deep. It is a place of decay and corruption, where the Chaos feeds on the unwary and those who have strayed from the safety of the Empire; and it is a place of dark concealment where the Chaos secretly schemes and burrows in an attempt to topple the Empire, while all the while cringing away from the exposing light and shining glory of the blessed Saviours and their Saints. Come, Hella, and read for us, while Jillan sits racked and shaking with remorse! See how the corruption within him twists in pain now that it has been found out and must hear the purging words and truth of the Saviours’ will!’

Minister Praxis did not release them until the sun had begun to set on the world. He ordered them straight home, telling them to talk to no one – especially each other – and to let their parents know to expect a visit from himself and several elders later that same evening.

Tormented by guilt and visions of horror, Jillan stumbled sightlessly towards his house. He was exhausted, but there was something in him that wouldn’t rest. It was the taint, he was now sure. It was never satisfied and it burrowed in him like a worm. If he’d had a knife, he would have cut himself open to try and get it out. ‘After all,
Sacrifice and duty safeguard the People against the Chaos
, don’t they?’ he repeated to himself. He should be prepared to cut himself open to save all those he loved. It was the only way; otherwise, he would be a danger to others and allow the taint to spread.

They were waiting for him around the second corner. Something hit him across the back of the neck and then he was pushed forward.

‘Pagan!’ spat a voice behind him. It sounded like Karl.

Jillan staggered, having to run to stay upright and avoid pitching straight into the ground. He saw Silus ahead of him, the boy’s fists clenched and ready. Knowing he wouldn’t be able to stop in time, Jillan increased his speed and tackled Silus at waist height. The boy went over, banging his fists ineffectually against Jillan’s back. Silus landed with a
whoof
as the air was forced out of him. Jillan lifted his head up sharply and caught the other under the chin, snapping his head back. Then Jillan punched Silus hard in the face.

A large shadow loomed out of the darkness. It was Haal. With a grunt, he swung a heavy stick in a flat arc. In the dim light Jillan didn’t see it coming until it was too late. It caught him just above the right eye and knocked him back into the dirt. Blood filled his eyes and he groaned. He was kicked savagely in the side, but as he curled up in pain he managed to grab the leg of his attacker and topple him.

‘Saviours curse him! Karl, get him! Beat the taint out of him!’ Haal shouted.

And then the corruption finally broke free. The storm that had been trapped in Jillan’s mind blew up around them and began to tear at their clothes. Jillan saw only red as bloodied lightning arced and crackled out from where he stood. Deliberately, he directed the raw energy at Karl, and the boy screamed in terror as it struck him. There was a deafening detonation and then a concussion wave flattening them all, Jillan included.

In the aftershock the only noises to be heard were whimpers from Haal and Silus. Karl lay prone and unmoving. The smell of smelted metal and cooked pork hung over them.

Jillan struggled to rise and then sagged back to the ground, no strength left in him.

Quavering voices began to shout out in the night.

‘Here!’ Silus sobbed.

‘Magic!’ wailed Haal. ‘Murder!’

Jillan growled and the boys yelped and rolled away. His voice slurring with tiredness, he said, ‘Keep quiet or I’ll kill you too!’

They obeyed him and watched with animal-scared eyes. Jillan slowly got up, fighting against a wave of nausea and trying not to swoon. He only just kept a grip on consciousness as he took a lurching step into the dark. His eyes wouldn’t focus and his limbs were reluctant to obey him. It was like that night when he’d decided to try some of his father’s beer. His stomach turned over and he threw up against the stone wall of the nearest house.

‘Who’s there?’ challenged a man’s voice.

Jillan pushed himself away and tottered towards the next house, and the next. Suddenly, strong arms were sweeping him up off his feet and the forest smells of his father filled his nostrils.

‘It’s all right. I’ve got you. You’re safe now,’ Jed rumbled.

Gratefully, Jillan rested his head on his father’s shoulder. He wanted to cry, he was so tired. His eyes began to close.

‘No, no,’ Jed whispered as he strode quickly towards their home. ‘Stay awake!’ He shook his son gently. ‘Come on, tell me what happened, quickly, before we get home.’

He didn’t want to think about it, but there was no hiding. They would be coming for him. Tears began to run down his cheeks and he began to shiver. What had he done? ‘I am t-tainted, Father!’ he moaned. ‘They attacked me. I-I killed Karl.’

In a tight voice Jed asked, ‘Are you
sure
he’s dead?’

Jillan shook his head. ‘He wasn’t moving. Father, I am tainted!’

‘No!’ his father insisted with unexpected force. ‘There is nothing wrong with you. Karl was probably just unconscious is all. There’s no such thing as any taint. It’s the Minister filling your head with nonsense. You were simply defending yourself.’

‘B-but there were lights and a loud noise. I was rude at school. The M-Minister and some elders are c-coming to see you.’

His father held him tightly and began to move more quickly. ‘Listen to me!’ he whispered fiercely. ‘Whatever happened was completely normal, and never let anyone tell you otherwise, you hear me! They made it happen. There’s nothing wrong with you.’

Jed was running by the time their small house came into view. There were already welcoming candles in the window, and there would be a cosy fire inside.

‘Maria!’ his father shouted between heavy breaths. ‘Maria! I’ve got him.’

The door flew open and his mother came out, took one look at them and then hurried back inside.

‘Some warm tea or broth, Maria, quickly! Or even water if there’s nothing else ready.’

Everything began to blur to Jillan. There were shouts. Shadows. Images faded in and out. He was in the big chair by the fire. Lifted again. A blanket. His mother’s drawn face. His head resting against something hard. ‘Drink this!’ A spoon. ‘Jillan! That’s it.’ Light hurting his eyes.

‘… pack our things. We have to run!’ his father was saying.

Another spoonful, half the contents dribbling down his chin.

‘What are you talking about? There’s nowhere to go,’ his mother said with forced calmness.

‘There was some accident with a boy. Maria, you know the sort of accident I’m talking about. And you know what they’ll do to him. I won’t allow it.’

Another spoonful, the contents slightly too hot, but he was unable to do anything but swallow.

‘Jedadiah, do not panic! We must think. Listen, we will say things got confused. It happened on the way home, yes? Then who can be sure what happened in the dark? The children were tired and overwrought after a long day at school, and got overtaken by a night-terror. Many of the elders are sensible, despite what you might think of them. They will not want any sort of trouble here, not after what happened in New Sanctuary.’

‘No! You know what that Minister is like. And the Saint will know what happened. They
always
know! They will take Jillan away and he will be lost to us. We’ll probably never see him again.’

Another mouthful and he could taste again. His mother’s flavour-some vegetable soup filled his senses.

His mother was silent for a few moments. He could sense her anguish. ‘But we have nowhere to go, Jedadiah,’ she said with a tremor in her voice. ‘They will send Heroes after us. We have no horse. We will not even be able to get out of the gate unchallenged.’

‘Samnir will help!’ Jillan coughed, the room beginning to right itself.

His parents exchanged a glance. Suddenly, Jed was in the bedchambers and pulling blankets from the pallets. He grabbed sacks from the kitchen and began to fill them.

‘Jedadiah, no! Hear me! Stop this!’

Jed did not stop.

‘I outrank you in these matters; you will stop at once!’ Maria commanded in iron tones.

Jed slowed and then stilled. He gazed at his spouse, his face tortured even in the firelight.

‘You will listen to me, old bear. Listen and think! If we all leave together, they will start to search for us beyond the walls almost immediately. Yes, you know the forest paths better than most, but the other hunters will be set to track us. Jillan and I will not be able to keep up with you. They will ride us down within hours.’

‘So what do we do?’ the large man pleaded.

‘It pains me beyond words, beloved, but you and I must remain.’

‘What? How? He cannot go into the woods alone! He is just a boy!’

‘When they come to our home searching for Jillan,’ Maria insisted, ‘we will be here waiting anxiously for him to come home. They will then search the town for him all night, giving Jillan time to get away. It would be inconceivable to them that any Hero would let him out of the town and not report it.’

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