Authors: A.J. Dalton
The headman flinched and twisted in pain, but he did not release his grip. He grinned fiercely and bellowed, ‘The Geas receive me!’
Now the emissary abandoned the knife and forced his hands up through the headman’s guard. Rather than trying to break the elder’s death grip, however, he got his hands around the other’s neck and crushed his windpipe with an inhuman and surely Saviour-blessed strength.
The two struggling giants were lost to Jillan’s view as the Heroes swept past them, weapons raised and intent on slaughtering the few villagers still on their feet or twitching in the mud. Jillan did not even have the strength to beg for his life.
He woke up gasping, a coldness like death in his lungs. His chest heaved painfully as, close to panic, he gulped air.
It’s just a dream, just a dream! You’re alive, you’re alive!
The dawn sky spun up above him and he kept his eyes fixed on it until he’d got his breathing under control.
Jillan blinked and felt a rime of ice on his eyelashes come away. His whole body was numb and he realised he’d been lucky to wake up at all. It had been stupid to fall asleep without even getting the blanket out of his pack. He needed to get moving and warm again as soon as possible.
As his eyes became accustomed to the weak light down in his hollow of sticks and branches, his breath suddenly caught in his lungs again. Even before his eyes fully confirmed it, instinct and the haunting vestiges of his dream were telling him that he was not lying within rotting piles of wood. The smooth curves of those evenly spaced sticks, all coming off a main column … they could only be ribs. And that was a shank bone.
He lay among the dead, and they were piled six deep! In horror, he backed away from the side of the hollow closest to him, only to bump into a teetering pile behind. Thinking something had reached out to touch his shoulder, he spun his head round quickly and pulled it away. Jillan let out a yelp of fear as he came face to face with the vacant eye sockets of a skull. A pronounced jaw detached itself and clattered down the wall of bones to land between his splayed legs. The headman!
He threw himself away, but his stiff limbs were uncoordinated and he sprawled on his face, splashing mud up from the ground. He uncovered the face of a smaller skull and its top ribs and shoulders. There were signs the skeleton had once been wrapped in animal furs. The shaman!
Jillan clambered to his feet, desperate to be free of this place. Something glinted at him near the headman’s skull, although how one of the rays of the rising sun had managed to find its way down into this Saviours-forsaken grave he had no idea. It glinted again and he stilled. Curious despite himself, he crept forward as if approaching some altar of bones, and spied the headman’s gold-emblazoned armour in the wall.
He tugged on it carefully, ready to jump back in case he was about to be buried by the dead. To his wonder, the armour came free without stirring anything around it. It looked as if it were newly fashioned, and its strange designs dazzled and bewitched his eyes.
He couldn’t resist trying it on, so raised it over his head and lowered it over his shoulders. There was no way the armour of the towering chieftain in his dreams should fit his boyish frame, but fit it did. It was not too heavy either, not even when he hung his pack off the back. If anything, the armour spread the load and gave him more freedom of movement than he’d enjoyed previously.
Pleased at his luck and strangely energised, Jillan scrabbled out of the dark pit and into the warm light of the new sun. Light-footed, he ran for the road, eager to leave the field of the pagan dead far behind him. They’d come close to draining all the life from him, to keeping him down in the wormy mud and decay forever, and to making him one of them; but he’d managed to escape their cold clutches and would be more wary the next time the Chaos came to try and steal his soul.
The only slight worry he had was just how angry the pagan spirits would be that he’d taken the armour.
aint Azual shook off the warm muzzy feeling that came with drinking down the magic of one of those coming of age and waited with ill-contained excitement for the moment of ecstasy that always followed. It never disappointed, even though it would inevitably seem too brief. He spasmed as the charge radiated out through his body and sharpened his senses and mind. His one good eye blazed and understood the nature of every stone that comprised the mean temple of Saviours’ Paradise. He saw the fleeting lives of whole worlds as they were born and then consumed in the smoking flames of the torches on the wall. He saw the collapse already beginning in the body of the young girl whom he’d just drained, saw decay beginning to nibble at her extremities.
He yawned and stretched, revelling in the temporary increase in his power – it was the one thing that made life worth living, the one thing that never paled or managed to bore him. It was always new, always different, as if he were reborn to see the world through inexperienced eyes once more. It made the repetition of his long existence bearable, the tedious round of visiting the communities in the south every six months, the endless days of listening to the same empty praise and prayers for aid, the interminable centuries of seeing to it that every generation feared and revered the Saviours.
The death of the young girl was a shame, but only because he’d now have to listen to the high-pitched exclamations of grief from her kith and kin, and that would grate on his nerves. He’d have to trot through some facile explanation of how the girl had been tainted but not been strong enough to endure the purge. Her kith and kin should celebrate, he’d declare, for the girl’s death had been overseen and blessed by the Saint himself, so there was no doubt her spirit would be welcomed by the eternal Saviours.
The truth, of course, was that he’d become distracted while he’d been tapping her of her burgeoning energies, and had only realised when it was already too late to save her. It had happened to him several times over the years, as the tedium of inserting a channelling tube into one child after another, after another, had caused him to lose concentration. The first time it had happened, he’d almost been intrigued to see what would happen as a result, for it was a change from the norm. But nothing much had happened, in truth. There’d been a bit of wailing, tears and a few speeches, and that had been that. Everything had carried on just as before.
Such was the value of the life of one of the People. Nothing but wind and noise marked their passing. They left no other meaningful mark on the world or eternity. They were a type of cattle, really, penned into their compounds and bred in the numbers required by the Saviours. And the People were worthy of nothing more, for left to their own devices they would fight among themselves and scratch around in the mud their whole lives. They would seek to find happiness by making others more miserable than themselves.
It was the Saviours who gave the People the potential to be something more, gave them a vision of the glorious civilisation that could be built, a sense of order within which they could start to better themselves, instilled them with ideas about themselves in a larger scheme of things, a sense of meaning beyond a primitive hand-to-mouth existence. With the coming of the Empire, this mean world had discovered wonder, magnitude and awe for the first time. It was still largely a place of mud and filth, to be sure, but every now and then the search for betterment uncovered the odd glint of something more valuable. And then there was the eternal presence of the Saviours themselves, and their temples, to inspire and reassure generations of the People from cradle to grave.
Naturally, the People knew they were unworthy ever to see a Saviour, and could not be properly protected if they were free to move through the Empire. For such reasons, the People were rarely permitted to travel beyond the environs of the town in which they were born, unless they had a trading licence, undertook a pilgrimage or were chosen to become retainers in the Great Temple. And so it fell to the Saints to visit the towns of the regions and see to it that the People’s ignorance was constantly corrected, their base behaviours were punished and their sullied blood was cleansed. For, not surprisingly, the lesser nature of the People exhibited itself not just in their behaviour, but also in their blood. As they became older, a corruption of sorts manifested itself in them, a type of chaotic energy that was rarely controlled and would seek to spill out to cause untold damage. Azual tended to think of it as a virulent infection or a dangerous illness. Sometimes, with particularly bad cases, he would have no choice but to put down the individual for the good of the rest.
And the corruption appeared in all of them because it was essential to the nature of this festering world and all life born to it. All was mud and decay. A child might seem pure, innocent and full of life, but it was conceived by those already corrupt so, as soon it began to grow, the corruption would begin to work, ageing it and breaking it down until it died and returned to mud.
The only ones to remain uncorrupted were the Saviours, and as a result they were eternal. It had never been recorded how it was they came to be uncorrupted, but Azual had overheard Saint Dionan from the east speculate that they may originally have been from a place beyond this world and therefore did not share its essential nature and corruption. Azual had his own belief, though, that the Saviours had once been like him, and had, through strength of will, come to control the chaotic energy within: as a consequence, the corruption had no longer been able to age them, and they had become eternal. Was that not indeed how it had happened for Azual himself? Was that not how he had come to live for centuries? Despite the suffering inflicted upon him by his own corrupt community when he was a child, he had remained true to the teachings and discipline of the Saviours and refused to submit to the Chaos. Both the Saviours’ and his own righteousness had been shown when he’d ultimately
his community; and in recognition of his true faith, Azual had been named Saint and set to purging the People of their corruption.
Azual knew he must be close to becoming a Saviour himself, for he had been becoming stronger with each passing generation of the People that he drained of their chaotic energy. In contrast to his early days as a Saint, he no longer had any difficulty hearing the thoughts of the People in the communities of the south beyond Hyvan’s Cross. He even perceived a shape and pattern to all the different thoughts to which he was connected, and could sometimes anticipate large events before they happened. Imagine what it must be like to understand the thoughts of all living things in this world, to be able to predict the destiny of all things! Surely that was the power of the Saviours that would one day be his. He would be a living, omniscient and eternal god!
Were it not for the wretched pagans. They refused to join the Empire and, even more wilfully, refused to die out completely. They lingered like one of the elderly on their deathbed: no longer any use to their community, a constant burden to their family, infirm of bowel and a hygiene hazard; yet selfishly clinging to life in a final vainglorious bid for the sort of attention of which they were fully unworthy in life. The vision of an eternal future for the world would not come to pass while the pagans survived. They resisted the Saviours’ desire to bring all living things together; they held the People back; they constantly sought to undermine the civilisation the Saviours had built; and they prevented this world realising true godhead.
How he despised the mud-worshippers! True, they’d given him some of his greatest moments of joy when he’d slaughtered them in such large numbers coming south for the first time, he reflected while knuckling his empty, itching eye socket through his patch. But then they’d scurried away in all directions and hidden in the darkest or most remote parts of this world, just as insects will burrow and race when the rock under which they have been scheming is lifted and they are exposed to the light.
So now he must abide and wait for the last of them to emerge from their lairs or to gather together under some new rock where they might be caught all at once. And so he would wait, patiently tending to generations of the People and seeing to the growth of the Empire, all the while keeping a constant and careful watch with his one all-seeing eye for the mud-worshippers to betray themselves.
And there could be no doubt that they
betray themselves. Just as he inevitably became stronger, and the Empire inevitably grew, so it was inevitable the desperate pagans would be forced out into the open. He could all but read it in the shape and pattern of things. The pagans had been in continuous decline since the beginning of the Empire. More than that, though – and this was the delicious irony of it all – corruption, death and decay were essential to the nature of the pagans. The mud-worshippers could never hope to outlast the eternal and patient Saviours. The pagans could only fail – only find defeat for themselves – in themselves. If they could but see it as he did, they would probably surrender and save a lot of grief, bother and wasted energy.
Still, if they surrendered too simply, there’d be no fun to be had through the hunting and harrying of them when they did break cover. In many ways, the waiting only increased the anticipation and hunger, meaning the kill – when it finally came – would be all the sweeter.
And so he would abide, patiently tending to the tedious People, just as a cowherd will sometimes sleep in the same shed as his cattle or a shepherd will sleep beneath a tree to be near his flock. He would abide in this manner for centuries more if necessary, although he felt the change in all things would come far sooner than that. He would continue to purge the People of their dangerous and chaotic energies, and what did it matter if he killed a few – or more than a few – along the way? It mattered not one jot. It might actually be kinder in the long run, not that the simple People often understood that.