The Stranger felt the earth tremble beneath his feet, as if some great leviathan beneath the surface had finally stirred to life, and his heart stuttered in his chest. The plans were not yet come to fruition, yet already it seemed as if the very earth were ready to give birth to the new order that was about to rise. Perhaps, he thought, there were other gods than those locked away in the bowels of the temple, older and far more powerful.
He grimaced. It would not do at all for everything to come to fruition prematurely, like ill-timed fruit. He closed his eyes, seeking for the cause of this disturbance, probing the fabric of the world, but whatever it was that had made its presence known had returned to quiet. Still, the Stranger’s heart was troubled. He did not like it when events occurred that had not been put into his plans first, weighed and balanced until he was sure of the outcome. It was not in his nature, such as it was, to like spontaneity and chance.
Still, there was little that he could do about it now, in any case. He had an important task, and he could not let himself be distracted. Whatever it was that was now moving in the world, he would deal with it when he had done what he came to do.
Already, he knew, the lands about the temple had grown restive and fearful at his presence. Not that he had actually
anything; he was far beyond such silly things now. He was not like one of the lesser ones, the beast-men that were, in the main, more beast than man. They were little more than savages, fit only for the meanest, and often the most violent, of tasks that the Justices were able to develop. That had not stopped them from becoming the most feared soldiers in the territories, however, nor had it stopped them from utterly annihilating many of the Stranger’s own brethren.
The Stranger grimaced at that last thought. Those had indeed been dark days, when he had also been forced to flee for his life, scratching a living off of whatever bare earth he could find, desperate to remain hidden from those who would have killed him.
It was not, of course, that he feared death. He had gone through too much, sacrificed too much of who he had been, to fear such a paltry thing as death. After all, was not death the province of the Beast, the one whom he had given up so much to serve? Yet such sacrifices had not been enough to save him, the Beast could not yet touch the world directly, and so he had been forced to prostrate himself at the feet of the Justices, those paltry rulers who thought themselves the conquerors of this new world, and sue for mercy and protection.
They had granted it, but the price had been high. Too high. And the Stranger intended to make sure that he was paid back for what they had forced him to do.
The smile that crossed his lips then would have frightened anyone who saw it, and even those who dwelt close to the road felt a dark dread fall over their hearts, and they shut their doors and windows, though the midday sun still shone bright in the sky.
The world had become a perilous place, and a great pall of doom lay over the valley.
They came at him from every direction, so quickly that he could not even tell for a moment who his attackers were. All he knew was that the raven had clearly betrayed him, and that thought was more terrifying than anything else that had happened that day. Like the Guardian, the ravens had been bred for one specific purpose, to serve the watchers in the woods, and now they had been turned into something else, into servants of an unknown enemy. What power was it that could undo the work of millennia?
Arcadius was not sure that he wanted to know the answer.
He knew that he did not have the ability to fight, and that his only hope lay in surrender. So surrender he did, kneeling and laying his head upon the ground. He waited for the fatal strike to fall, but no blow came. Instead, his gesture was met with a hoarse laugh, like the grating and grinding of old bones in some impossibly ancient, indelibly corrupt tomb.
“So,” the voice said, clearly the same person as the one who had laughed, “this is the maggot that was set to watch for our coming. He seems a terribly weak specimen, even for the pathetic creatures that make this valley their home.”
A rough, iron-toed boot roughly nudged him. “What do you have to say for yourself, maggot?”
Arcadius dared to look up and immediately wished he had not.
He was used to the wasted, pale visages of those who lived in the valley, for even those who did not dwell in the temple still felt the terrible power of the gods in their everyday lives. Children were often born sick or frail, and far too many did not live to see the end of their first year. He had also seen the florid visages of those who lived in the temple itself, their bodies ruined by their service, spent in their commitment to their sacred mission.
The face that looked at him now, however, was like something of a nightmare, a twisted ruin that made even the stranger’s dreadful visage seem pleasant. This was an unholy demon, a twining together of animal and human until it was difficult to tell where one began and the other ended. When he looked into those shining eyes, Arcadius saw hatred and loathing, but also the glimmer of a creature that was in abject pain.
What had happened to the world?
“What do you want of me?” he managed to ask, though he feared to know the answer.
The creature laughed. “What do we want of you? What could we possibly need with a pathetic weakling like you? We needed only to capture you, to make sure that you did not go wagging that thick pink tongue of yours to those in the Temple. We want our arrival to be…a bit of a surprise.”
Arcadius knew then that they were going to kill him.
As if reading his thoughts, the beast laughed again. “No, little worm, we are not going to kill you. Not right now, at any rate. Our orders are to take the temple without loss of life,” the twist of his mouth showed all too clearly what he thought of this idea, but he went on, “and your life might be valuable to those who dwell there. Valuable enough, perhaps, to force them to open the gates to us.”
Arcadius almost wished that they would have killed him, for what could be worse than being used this way? What if he brought to ruin the temple that had stood for so long? How would he ever be able to live with himself, tormented with the knowledge that he had destroyed that which he had been sworn to protect?
Of course, he reflected, he probably would not live long enough to be tormented any sort of guilt.
The thought was not a comforting one.
The Stranger’s mind roiled with a thousand thoughts. He knew perfectly well who had been sent here to follow him, and now the mystery of who had observed him had also been solved. Clearly this fool Arcadius had been captured by the army sent to follow him, who no doubt thought to use him as a bargaining chip with those inside the temple. How much was his life worth, though? The Deacon seemed to be an unpredictable sort of woman, determined to protect her flock no matter what the cost might be to herself. Such people were, the Stranger thought, both foolish
dangerous. They were also a terrible nuisance.
The army that had so abruptly and unsubtly announced itself, now that was a different problem altogether. He had known, of course, that the Justices would send along their own Chosen, the elite corps of armed guards that existed solely for the purpose of carrying out the will of their overlords. He had been under the assumption, however, that they were to wait until he had paved the ground and ensured the temple was thoroughly overthrown before coming in to take control of the gods.
The fools, however, had clearly taken it into their heads to follow their own guidance rather than their superiors’. How could they do such a stupid thing?
The answer, of course, was obvious to the Stranger. The Chosen were nothing more than the brute strength the Justices used to enforce their will on everyone else, with little ability to think on their own. It still eluded the Stranger why they would have sent them for a task that clearly required such a deft touch as this, but at this moment it was not his part to question the reasoning of the Justices.
Now that the die had been cast for better or worse, he would have to see what he could do to control matters. He had been sent here to accomplish a task and, whatever else happened, he would see it done. After all, there were other powers in this world than the Justices, no matter how well they thought they controlled the world that bowed and scraped at their feet. A thousand years and more of their hegemony had allowed them to forget that there were beings far older and far more powerful than they could ever hope to be, powers that the Stranger had served for years beyond count, years of pleasure and of pain, of sacrifices greater than any man should have to offer.
Yet he had done so, and gained immeasurably from it. Never had he doubted that he had made the right choice, never had he doubted that his path had been the right one, whatever others might have said and done in ages past. The world was not as it was, nor indeed would it last long as it was in this moment. The only thing to be done was to seize the moment when it came.
And he fully intended to do so.
Vestra took a moment to get her bearings. Two questions dominated her thoughts. How had Arcadius allowed himself to be captured? And what would this army ask, now that they had him in their grasp?
Though it pained her to do so, she had to admit that his life was a small thing when measured against that of her fellows. Theirs was a trust that exceeded the life of any one man, even one as dear to her as Arcadius.
The wind howled atop the temple walls as she looked down on the army camped below, and the slender circlet on her brow grew so cold that it seemed to sear her skin. Below her, in the dark tunnels, she could feel the gods stirring, as if responding to the forces gathered below, as if they were a blood-red heart pumping at the frozen void-ridden center of winter. She trembled with anticipation, with fear, and perhaps even with desire. All of the pressure she had felt these last months, she knew, had all been leading to this moment.
“Who comes to the walls of the temple with force of arms?” she called, her voice pitched to carry out to those gathered below. The wind tore at her throat even before her words could leave, but she could tell that those below had heard her, for they parted ranks to make room for someone to step away.
A figure stepped forward, and she drew in a sharp hiss of breath. She had never seen a man so tall; he towered above all those around him, a terrifying presence that made her heart beat stronger with fear.
A great helm obscured his features, yet even from above she could see the red glint of his eyes, full of malevolence. She steeled herself for what was to come, and as he took off the helm she was glad that she had done so.
She had seen many faces disfigured by the presence of the gods, but this was something else entirely. There was a ruthless anger and hatred that burned at the core of this creature, a hatred born of years of pain and agony, of uncounted days bearing the burden of it. She involuntarily clutched at her chest, as she felt a great pressure squeeze her heart. What sort of world could give birth to such a creature? Had the world outside of their valley really changed so much, that these were its denizens?
“I come in the name of justice,” the creature said, his voice deep yet tortured, a hoarse rasp that reminded her inexplicably of death achieved after centuries of suffering. An image flashed through her mind of a young man, imprisoned beneath impossibly high walls of stone, his body racked by hot iron and jagged hooks, the sinuous tendrils of dark sorcery warping and breaking his mind while shadowy figures looked on, their faces shrouded behind veils of silk.
The next moment, however, the image vanished as if a door had suddenly closed, and Vestra reeled. Was that image of her own making, or had she seen the truth?
“You have seen a portion of the truth, dear lady,” the Stranger’s insidious voice whispered from behind her, “so perhaps you will have a greater appreciation for the forces arrayed against you. Surely you would not seek to resist those who would willingly do the same to you, or worse, should you continue to resist?”
She whirled to face him, her anger nearly choking her so that she could not speak.
The smile on his face was so calm, so utterly devoid of any of the heightened emotions she was feeling, that Vestra wanted to scream. How was it possible that he could remain so calm, when everything she had built her life on, everything she had sought to protect and defend, was crumbling around her?
For a moment, she could do nothing more than take in his face, while she determined what she would do about the army standing before her walls.
At last, she turned back to them. “Why are you here?” she demanded, pitching her voice so that it could be clearly heard below her. “What do you want?”
The creature standing below seemed to laugh, as if what she had said was amusing. “I think you know what we have come for!” he called up. “We have come for the powers that you have unjustly hoarded from the rest of the world.”
“And what will you do if we do not give them to you?” She tried to make her voice sound full of authority, but to her own ears it sounded trite and petulant, like a small child speaking to its elders.
The general gestured at those standing behind him, and though they were all draped in black robes that concealed their features, Vestra could see the glint of sunlight off of weapons. These were not the pikes and swords that she had spent her entire life seeing, however. These were something altogether different and much more sinister.
These were weapons of the old world, weapons that could belch forth fire and ruin, death and destruction. She knew all too well of the damage they could inflict, of the ways in which they could bring about the end of a world.
Further, there were enough men gathered out there to annihilate every priest and priestess under her aegis.
What was she to do?
Then, in a flash of insight, she realized what had to be done.
Summoning Antonia to her, she whispered to her. “You must let these monsters in,” she said. “There is no other choice. I must go and prepare the gods for their departure.”
The look on Antonia’s face showed clearly that she was terrified and desperate to believe any promise of stability, no matter how flimsy, and Vestra offered a quick prayer to the gods for that bit of simplicity.
Casting a brief glance at the Stranger, who seemed to have turned his own gaze out to the gathered army, she swept into the temple and closed the door behind her. Then, taking a deep breath, she began to make her way down into the catacombs.
The Stranger, of course, had heard every word that passed between Vestra and Antonia, and at first he could not believe it. Surely Antonia would not actually let the gods out of her grasp. But then, he thought, what other choice did she have? The army gathered outside would storm her temple and slay everyone in it if their demands were not met, so she had nothing to gain by resisting.
Then again, they would probably destroy everyone anyway.
It was then that he realized, in a blinding moment of clarity, exactly what she planned, and he could barely contain his rage.
At that moment, several things happened simultaneously.
The Chosen, apparently mistaking Vestra’s gesture, unleashed a firestorm upon the gates. The priests, already frightened to the breaking point, screamed and scattered.
In a fit of rage, the Stranger lashed out with the
at his command and struck down several of them where they stood, savoring the taste of their death.
He knew that he had more important matters to attend to, and so he ignored the panicked priests and made his way to the ruined gates, only striking out when someone attempted to obstruct his passage.
When he reached the gates, he saw the Chosen already pouring in. The Stranger knew he would have to act quickly, or the entire situation would slip completely out of his control.
Striding to the leader of the Chosen, he adopted his most haughty manner, hoping that if he could seize control that the other would be more pliant.
Unfortunately, such was not to be the case.
Before the Stranger could even open his mouth, the Chosen sneered, the expression twisting his already-ruined face into an even grimmer visage.
“Ah, so the dirty little wizard shows his face at last,” he snarled. “I was beginning to think you would stay hidden behind these walls all day.”
“We don’t have time for these petty squabbles,” the Stranger hissed, his desperation overcoming all sense of caution. “That fool of a Deacon has fled into the bowels of this temple, and there is no telling what manner of damage she will do if she isn’t stopped.” He took a deep breath. “We need to join together if we are to stop her.”
It seemed at first that the Chosen would merely laugh at him, but he was no fool. He knew that the Stranger’s talents could be of an immense use, and so he at last nodded.
“Very well, but do not think that you are my equal.”
It was all the Stranger could do not to strangle him.
As he swept through the halls of the temple, the Stranger took a perverse sort of delight in striking down those who sought so desperately to find some measure of safety. It was not that he had anything against these particular people, mind. In the end, they were nothing more than pawns in a game the rules of which none of them would ever likely understand, mired as they were in their own myopic view of the world.
His lips curled at the thought of their own hubris, thinking that somehow they could keep the gods to themselves, as if such power was to be squandered by a bunch of misshapen weaklings that barely had the strength to fight off any sort of invasion.
Except, of course, for the troublesome Deacon Vestra, who even now managed to elude him. There was a strength there that had somehow managed to survive all attempts of this cold world to crush it out of her, and that made her extremely dangerous. The Stranger knew that he had to find her before she was able to see her plan to fruition, and he thought he knew all too well what that plan was. Unless he was very much mistaken, she intended to unleash the gods upon the world again, to bring their destructive power to bear before it could be harnessed by those she deemed weaker or more foolish than she.
The unbearable arrogance of the woman!
The thought of Vestra enraged him so much that he lashed out at one of the priestesses—a young woman, her skin not yet destroyed by her service yet still perilously thin, little more than parchment—and was intensely satisfied to see the look of anguish that crossed her face as his
ripped through her. She cried out, crumpling to the ground as agony seared her nerves and blotted out everything else in her world. He took a brief moment to savor her pain, feeding on it, desperate for the satisfaction that it could bring him.
The lives of these mortals were so frail, when all was said and done, so easily snuffed out by anyone who had the power and the will to do so. Why did they struggle so hard, then, when it came to matters that they believed in? Did they not realize that doing so was foolish, that it was futile to try to escape the coils of destiny?
He would ensure that Vestra, at least, would understand that. He smiled grimly and continued on his way.
Vestra fled quickly through the halls of the temple, desperate to reach the sacred catacombs, intent on her newfound purpose. She knew with a dreadful certainty what she would have to do, though it would spell the end of everything. She would have to unleash the gods, to let them do what they would with those who had come into the valley.
One of the last things Julia had told her as she lay dying was of this terrible secret. It was a piece of knowledge handed down from Deacon to Deacon, generation to generation, the secret to the beginning and the end of all things. Once the gods were released, she knew, there would be no controlling their power, nothing to inhibit what they would do.
Indeed, she knew, they could decide to destroy the entire world in their wrath at having been imprisoned so long. Had it not been their destructive potential that had led the people of the old world, all those generations ago, to lock them away in their chambers of lead?
Still, there was no other choice. If she did not release them, then the general and his forces, or worse yet the Stranger, would seize them, and there was no telling what would happen, what cataclysm would envelop the world.
The only thing that Vestra could do was to free them, and let the chips fall where they may.
It was the only choice.
When she reached the bottommost level, she paused for a moment, straining her ears for signs of pursuit. She knew that her time was short; it was only a matter of time before the army that was amassed outside stormed the gates and took by force what they could not gain by negotiation. She also knew that in leaving behind her children she had effectively sentenced all of them to death.
Yet what choice had she had in the matter, after all? What could she have done differently? If she had stayed, she would simply have perished along with all of the rest of them, her own life sacrificed for little purpose. At least now she could possibly do some good, could at least let the gods determine what would happen when they were released.
Placing her hands upon the great doors that warded the chamber, she pushed gently. The doors, imbued with a power she did not understand, sensed her touch and swung inward on silent hinges. Only once before had she been here, on the day that Julia informed her that she would be her successor. She had not understood then the immensity of the responsibility that would soon land on her shoulders. Had she done so, had she known that in a mere two months Julia would be dead and the Deacon’s mantle draped around her own narrow shoulders, would she still have been so eager, so filled with joy to be chosen as the next one to serve?
She supposed that she would have, at that. No matter what happened, she understood the responsibility that had been thrust upon her, and she did not take it lightly.
As she stepped inside the chamber, she immediately saw the pillar upon which rested the orb that held all of her hopes and all of her fears. She stood there for just a moment, feeling the power radiating outward from it, suffusing her limbs with the sense of being one with the forces that purred and hummed here beneath the earth.
She stepped forward, and the faint hiss of the doors closing behind her gave her hope that she would be able to perform the incantation undisturbed.
Before she reached the pillar, however, a sudden bolt of pain struck her lower back. With a grunt she stumbled forward, collapsing to her knees as the pain radiated throughout her body. She turned, desperate to reach the place on the back where the pain originated, but it remained frustratingly out of reach.
Slowly, painfully, with every nerve in her body screaming out in protest, she rolled over to face her attacker.
To her horror, Antonia stood there, her eyes wide and crazed, her hair singed and her face smudged with dirt and grime.
“Antonia,” she gasped. “What have you done?”
“I have repaid you in kind,” she said, her voice eerily calm. “You abandoned all of us to this army and the stranger, doing nothing to help us. You fled down here, as if our lives matter less to you than your own safety and your own designs. I would have thought, Vestra, after all that we have shared, that would have at least made some effort to ensure my own safety. And yet you did nothing.”
The pain was growing increasingly intense, and blackness continued to infringe on her vision. She tried moving her legs but they refused to obey her commands, and Vestra felt a cold fist of fear clench her heart. If she could not move, she would be unable to do what she had come here to do, and that thought terrified her more than anything else.
“You don’t understand,” she managed to gasp, though the words seemed to stick in her throat. “I must do something very important, something that only I can do. You mustn’t stand in my way.
The smile Antonia flashed then was chilling. “Ah, you think you know everything, don’t you, Vestra? You think that you possess all of the knowledge, while the rest of us remain mired in darkness and ignorance.” She laughed, and the sound had more than a ring of hysteria to it.
“I know what you are planning to do,” Antonia said, savage glee suffusing her voice. “I know that you hope to release the gods so that they will do as they will. Better that than falling into the hands of the stranger or the army camped outside our door. You would do that, with no thought for the consequences.”
She paused them, and she cast an appraising eye over Vestra. “But I am afraid you will not be able to do that. I believe the stranger, and probably the soldiers outside, would be very thankful to find that you have been rendered incapacitated, and that they will very much like the gift that will be waiting for them when they arrive.
“Of course,” she mused, “we can’t just have you lying there in that state. Even a fallen Deacon such as you should still be suitably attired for those who have come to see her.”
She moved closer and prepared to kneel down, and as she did so Vestra knew what she would have to do.
As Antonia knelt down beside her and prepared to move her, she reached out a hand and gingerly touched her friend on the hand and, with a whispered, “I’m sorry,” she released the
Antonia reared back, a scream caught in her throat, her eyes wide with shock and terror. She clawed feverishly at her throat, desperate to save the life that was leaching from her, but it was too late. With another strangled cry she fell over, her eyes already filming in death.
For a moment, all Vestra could do was weep, her body wracked with sobs. How could this have happened? What was this world, that she would have to murder the woman who had been her best friend?
But what choice, ultimately, did she have? The lives of countless men, women, and children depended on her, and if she had to sacrifice the life of one person, even if that person was dearer to her than life, was that such a high price to pay?
She allowed herself a moment more of weakness, one more moment in which to mourn, then she gradually began to drag herself across the floor, every inch an agony, every nerve in her body crying out its resistance.
After what seemed like an age she finally reached the pillar. With what little strength remained to her she managed to pull herself to her feet. She quickly began the incantation, the words coming to her as if they were imprinted in her mind. She did not have much time, and she only hoped that she would be able to complete the process before the Stranger and the others arrived.
She sent a final prayer winging up to the gods—would they even listen to her, knowing what she was about to do?—and turned her attention back to the task at hand.
Forgotten by almost everyone, Arcadius huddled outside of the temple, racked with guilt over what had happened. Why had Vestra given in to the demands of these monsters and let them inside? Now all was in ruins, and he wanted nothing more than to let the earth open up and swallow him, to deliver him from this waking nightmare, to deliver him into the welcome oblivion of death.
But those who wish for death the most are those that cannot attain it, and so it was with Arcadius.
As he stood wondering what would become of him, he felt the earth move beneath him in a great, shuddering heave that threw him to ground. His breath whooshed out of his lungs, and for a moment the entire world seemed to go dark.
Perhaps, he thought sardonically, the fickle gods had decided to answer his prayer after all.
The next moment, however, his vision returned and he saw that he was alive. Still, the earth continued to shiver and tremble, as if some creature were striving to break free of its earthly prison. He trembled himself at the thought of what such a creature might be, but slowly he got back to his feet.
Around him, everything was chaos. The creatures that comprised the army that surrounded the temple were running around, their eyes wide with terror. Clearly, whatever they had expected of this mission was not this rumbling and trembling.
Suddenly, he realized that here was his opportunity to escape. With a furtive glance to make sure that no on marked him, he began to make his way out of the camp.
At first, he thought he would make it out without being accosted, and he could not believe his good fortune. Just as he reached the perimeter, however, he felt a rough hand on his shoulder, and his heart nearly failed. Now that he was found, there was no doubt in his mind what would happen to him. After all, the general and his followers had already gained access to the temple, so his entire purpose for existing, such as it was, was gone. He was nothing more than a liability, and he knew that his life would be ended.
The hand turned him around, and he found himself facing one of the monstrosities. Without even thinking of what he was doing, he grabbed for the knife at the creature’s side. Whether it was fortune or his own skill that guided his hand he never knew, but somehow he managed to not only grab the blade but also ram it home. The creature’s eyes went wide with shock and a strangled gasp escaped its ravaged throat. Its scaly hands scrambled toward Arcadius’s face, desperate, perhaps, to inflict some final wound on this creature that had somehow managed to escape.
Arcadius frantically drove the blade in deeper, and with a final gasping sigh the beast slumped to the ground, its eyes glazing with the film of death.
For a moment, Arcadius simply stood there, panting, his hands coated with the slickness of blood. He had never taken another life. The fact that he had done so left him feeling as if he had lost some central part of himself.
But, despite it all, there was still a part of him that desired—foolishly, vainly perhaps—to survive this day, to make the fall of the temple worth something. If he could escape, he could perhaps bear the word of what was happening here to the rest of the world.
And he would do whatever it took to make that come to pass.
At last, they had reached the doors leading down into the catacombs. The Chosen stopped and turned to the Stranger, a look of smug satisfaction on his ruined features.
“This is far enough for you,” he said, his voice grating. “I will take over from here. There is no need for you to interfere more than you already have.”
The Stranger smiled. “Ah, but I was chosen by the Justices to come here as much as you were, or had you forgotten that? You cannot simply rewrite their orders just because you wish it were so. I am coming with you, to make sure that the orders of our superiors are followed to the letter.”
Of course, he had other reasons for doing so, but he was not about to let this fool know that.
The Chosen grinned, and the Stranger knew immediately that this hulking giant had something else entirely planned. In response, the Stranger summoned another
to his command, ignoring the strain of weariness that dragged at him.
“It’s almost sad,” the Chosen said, “that I was sent to kill you. It seems like a bit of a waste to let powers like yours go to waste, but I’m not one to challenge the orders I’m given.”
the Stranger thought sardonically, releasing the
before the Chosen could do anything further that would endanger him.
The Stranger smiled grimly at the look of surprise that flitted across the Chosen’s face as the power ripped through him. Strong as he might be, in the end he was just like the others. Even the mightiest of them could be brought low when touched in just the right way in just the right place. It brought him a great deal of macabre amusement to know that he had that power, to wield life and death as he saw fit.
The Chosen slumped to the ground, the spark utterly gone from his eyes, his vitality snuffed out like the flame of some weak, guttering candle. The Stranger felt drained himself for a moment, for even one such as he could not come so close to the abyss of death and remain unscathed.
He gritted his teeth in anger. It seemed like such a waste to expend so much energy on a blasted and ruined creature like this one, but he could not risk his own endeavors by letting him live.
Without sparing him another look, he stepped toward the great gates that stood in his way. He placed his hand against them, probing with his thought for any weakness that would allow him to enter without expending any more of his power. The doors, however, were made of some material the making of which had long since passed out of human memory. His mind flashed back to the metal road upon which he had walked as he made his way through the valley.
Suddenly he felt the earth lurch beneath him, and he fell to his knees. Events were moving much more quickly than he had anticipated, and he could not tell if this was Vestra’s doing or if the vast powers he had felt throughout his time in the valley were finally stirring to life.
When at last the tremor stopped he got to his feet, swearing.
For a moment, he stood admiring the craftsmanship of these great gates. Truly, those of the ancient world had possessed skills unmatched by those living today. Even in the south, where some vestige of the old world had begun to rebuild itself, they could not produce anything of this magnitude.
The doors stretched at least twenty feet high, their faces carved in the dreadful likenesses of the gods those in the temple were sworn to serve. Whatever artist’s hands had brought these images to life had clearly been touched by those gods, the visages brought to such terrifying life that the Stranger, who had seen many things in his long life, felt a little taken aback. The graven image, he knew, possessed great power, and even the ancients were afraid of what might happen if that power were tampered with.
But the Stranger, driven by a force greater and far more dangerous even than the angry gods of old, did not have time to be delayed by these grotesque visages.
Placing his hands against the gates, he probed again for the weakness that he knew must be there, waiting for the right kind of touch to break them. No matter how hard he attempted to discover it, however, it eluded him. Whatever lost arts had gone into making these great doors also ensured that few powers of this world would be able to force them.
He growled deep in his throat, the darkness that lie at his core threatening to overwhelm him. He had come so close; he was within reach of his final goal. He was not about to let these doors stand in his way, no matter how great the art that had gone into their making. Though he knew that it would take a great deal of his strength, he was determined that he would stop Vestra.
Summoning the power of the
he thrust at the doors and sent them crashing inward.
With a grim smile, he stepped forward, determined to gain his revenge at last.
Even here, in the darkest and deepest parts of the temple, Vestra could still feel every death as it happened, a thousand icy cold swords piercing her mind and her soul, a powerful and terrible reminder of the consequences of her actions, the stigmata that signified the end of everything that she had worked for.
She knew that there were a thousand reasons why she was not to blame for what had happened, so quickly that she had barely had time to react. How was she to know, when she awoke this morning, that an army would storm into the temple, that a stranger with powers like she had never seen, would bring the entire edifice of their precious temple crashing into ruin and death? What, indeed, could she have done differently to change the outcome of this day? And what, she wondered, was the stranger’s purpose here, and who knew what other sinister threads he had woven like a malevolent spider, threatening to ensnare any who stood in his way?
In the end, she knew, such questions were useless; she had committed to this course of action, and she now had no choice but to see it through. The costs would be high. Indeed, it might be that her choices and actions today would spell the end of the world that she had loved and cherished. And that was, indeed, a terrible burden to bear.
Time seemed to slow down, and Vestra thought she could sense, in that moment, all that had come before her, all the untold millennia that stretched back to the days when even the gods were young and roamed the world at will. And somewhere, she thought, she could also sense the future, of untold promise and untold peril.
She closed her eyes, savoring this feeling of pleasurable terror, this sense that all of time was contained in this one singular, fragile moment, like a tiny sliver of ice that would shatter at even the tiniest disturbance. Though she knew she would die this day, she also knew that her actions would echo throughout the ages, the fulfillment of aeons of preparation and the work of many hands.
As she reached out to touch the orb, she felt the earth
, as if some great force had struck a blow at the center of the world. She stumbled to her knees, her breath coming in quick gasps. Whatever had done that was a being of far greater power than she had expected. Surely, she thought frantically, this was not the Stranger’s doing?
Something terrible was about to happen. She knew it as certainly as she knew the sun would rise in the morning.
Suddenly, she felt a great thrumming move through the soles of her feet, and she watched in horror as the door flew inward off its hinges, the scream of metal on metal assaulting her ears. The rush of power that swept through the room in its wake took her breath away.
Steeling herself for the confrontation to come, she prepared to utter the final words of the incantation.
As soon as the Stranger saw Vestra, standing there with the look of a saint upon her ruined face, he knew what she had almost accomplished what she had come to do. He snarled, the animalistic sound rising deep in his throat, and his vision took on a red hue. He could feel that dark part of himself, the part that had replaced his human soul, threatening to break free of his rigid control, and once it did he would not be able to control his actions. He would rend and tear the flesh from Vestra as if she were nothing more than meat to him, as if her life mattered nothing.
As, indeed, it did not.
Then the darkness overcame him, and he lost himself.
Vestra watched the terrible transformation take place with her stomach torn into knots, watched with trepidation as some terrible creature attempted to climb and shred its way out of the form of the stranger. All of her instincts were screaming at her to flee, to do anything that she could to get away from the monster taking shape before her, but an equally strong part of her mind refused to do anything other than what she had set out to do.
Thus, even as she watched that which should not have been possible, she continued to utter the words of the incantation, each syllable falling from her lips, her body too far gone to stop.
Nothing would cease the incantation but death, and that would come only once she had finished her task. Even if everything ended this day, she could die knowing that she had fulfilled her purpose. Just as the last syllable of the incantation left her mouth the beast that had been the stranger lunged, its gaping maw and shimmering claws ready to rend her apart. Before he reached her, however, the world exploded into a blinding flash of light, and she knew nothing more.
One morning, as Arcadius approached the great mountains that hemmed in the valley, he allowed himself to pause for a moment, to gather his thoughts and master the terror that had dogged him since he escaped from the temple a fortnight ago. He still did not know what grace had allowed him to do so, but he was not going to waste it.
Truth be told, he felt broken on the inside, as if his very sense of self had been shattered into a thousand icy, jagged shards that could never be put back together again. He had never considered himself a brave man, but the events of the past weeks had stripped away almost everything that he had ever thought made him worthy of his post, or even of living.
He had always known, even from childhood, that he was not strong, that he was more frightened than he should be of the normal things in life.
He had never actually recovered from that day near the temple; his unsuitability for his post making his agonies all that much more intense and disturbing. Many times he had wondered what his life would have been like had he been allowed to make his own choices in life, rather than being forced to take a path for which he was so ill.-suited.
Arcadius sighed and shook his head, trying to clear it of these troublesome memories, distaffs from the past that would only serve to distract him from his ultimate aim: survival. He might have failed in all of the things he had set out to do in this world, but he would at least escape from this valley to tell those in the rest of the world what had happened, to warn them of the war about to engulf their lives.
He did not know how he would accomplish that task, or even if there was anything he would be able to do to stop the tide of destruction waiting to wash down upon the world outside. He did not even know if he would be able to survive in this strange, alien, and utterly terrifying new world. What would he do if the people did not believe him or, worse yet, attempted to kill him?
Then he would take that as the price he had to pay for his own cowardice, his own inability to do what he had been appointed to do all those years ago. If nothing else came of this day, then he would at least make sure that Vestra’s life was not spent in vain, that the people out there knew of the terror and the power of the gods.
As he made the last climb out of the valley, Arcadius turned to look behind him. The sight that met his eyes took his breath away. For as far as the eye could see there stretched the beautiful valley that had served as his home for his entire life, bathed in the sun that was just now rising behind him. The beauty of it all almost broke his heart; how was it possible that this entire world trembled even now on the brink of utter destruction?
Yet he knew that beneath that bucolic vision a terrible power was awakening. He had felt it every day and night of his frantic flight from the temple, a deep rumbling in the earth. Either Vestra or the stranger had unleashed some force, and it was about to destroy the valley, and perhaps the world outside it as well.
The creatures that had captured him had not yet escaped, no doubt still too terrified and confused to decide what to do. Or perhaps they had some power he did not know. Perhaps they were even the ones responsible for the great rumblings. All he knew was that he was glad they had not pursued him, for he did not think he would have had the strength, or the luck, to escape a second time.
As he looked out at valley and contemplated, something caught his eye. In the distance, a great cloud thrust up into the skies, mushrooming ever outward, casting the valley into its terrible shadow. Shards of lightning flickered beneath its underside, and even as he watched he feel a hot wind begin to blow.
He felt a tremble go through him at that sight, for it reminded him so forcefully of everything he was leaving behind, of everything that had been lost this day, never to be regained.
He knew, with a dreadful and final certainty, that the world that he and his fellow valley dwellers had inhabited for so long would be destroyed now. It seemed to him that they had all been living in a dream and, like all dreams, no matter how pleasant and seemingly eternal, it was fated to end, drowned in the fire and blood of the real world.
With a sigh for all that was lost, he turned his face to the broken day.