The ritual began as it always did. The Servants gathered in the great hall, all of them preparing their minds, gathering the necessary aura of peace.
On this, her first day as Deacon, Vestra struggled to find that peace; each time she grabbed for it, it slid away from her, evasive, unattainable. She ground her teeth in frustration, and it was not until she tasted the coppery tang of blood that she realized she had bitten her tongue in her agitation.
Calm yourself, a serene voice in her head said softly. It will not do to show the others your nervousness.
Indeed it would not. The Deacon must always show a face of utter peace to those who serve beneath her. Vestra’s predecessor, Deacon Julia, had said repeatedly that the greatest, and most difficult, responsibility of a Deacon was maintaining calm when all others were not.
Thinking of her aged predecessor, dead for only a week, summoned a deep and profound sadness. Vestra had known Julia for as long as she could remember; the other woman had raised, cared for, and trained her. Now she was gone, taken away by the same affliction that had carried away so many of those who had been called, the terrible price they paid for the privilege of serving the Gods.
And yet, thinking of Julia also enabled Vestra to attain the calm that had eluded her, and she felt serenity settling over her like a warm blanket. She could not help but smile, though it was tinged with sorrow.
As she settled the ceremonial mask over her face, she could feel the aura of authority it carried with it suffusing her. A hush fell over those assembled, as all faces turned to her.
“Let us begin,” she said, and as one they turned toward the great gates that led into the catacombs.
The gates were large, taller than even the tallest among them, and carved with words in a tongue that none gathered there could read in these latter days. Once, it was said, every Servant had to learn the tongues of the gods, but this practice, like so much, had fallen by the wayside, forgotten by even the most faithful.
Still, even if they could not read it, the Servants gathered there could still intone the words that would open the doors. Led by Vestra’s strong alto, they lifted their voices in song, their hands raised in gestures of supplication. Immediately, a charge swept through their bodies, a great thrumming that swept away all thought. The ritual had begun.
The doors swung open of their own accord, and Vestra walked forward, her face set beneath the mask. Now that the ritual had begun, she did not feel the same sense of terror and trepidation. Buoyed by the measures that were as much a part of her being as her lifeblood, she led her fellows down into the catacombs.
As they descended, their voices mingled with those of the sleeping gods, a harmony that was as familiar and comforting as a mother’s lullaby. For centuries untold, the strains of this same melody had echoed through the catacombs, the sign that whatever happened in the world beyond, in the temple all was the same, an island of calm within the maelstrom. So had it been, and so it would always be.
The voices of the gods thrummed and boomed, and behind her Vestra could feel the youngest among the flock quivering with the pressure of it. To be called to serve, and to do so, was the greatest gift one could receive, yet it also brought with it a tremendous price, and not all could endure.
Yet she continued, and she felt those behind her take strength from her own determination. Again, she felt that sense of comfort fill her; this day would pass as any other. She could continue the tradition of her elders.
The chords rose again, and it was as if a great wave were rising in the sea, threatening to carry them all away. Vestra’s voice, however, formed a wall against the torrent, and together they continued wending their way through the catacombs, their voices strengthening the wards that kept the sleeping gods resting peacefully in their chambers.
As they reached the bottom-most level, however, where the eldest and most powerful of the gods slept, a subtle change came into the notes of the song. Vestra felt the voices joined with hers falter, for this was a note that none gathered there had ever heard before, and their hearts filled with fear. Vestra felt her own will falter, for she had no idea what this could mean. Never before had the gods spoken like this before.
Still, she knew she could do nothing but continue on. She was their Deacon, and it was her duty to be a pillar of strength, even when she felt weak. She lifted her voice yet louder, determined to drown out this unwelcome noise, this drop of wormwood. Taking their cue from her, her fellow Servants also sang all the louder, and gradually their voices overcame the discord, and they were able to finish the ceremony.
Yet as they made their slow way back up the winding stairs, the same thoughts echoed in the mind of each one gathered there.
What had happened? What could it mean?
None, not even Vestra, knew the answer.
Most days, the sounds of the birds singing outside the window of his small hut woke Arcadius. This morning, however, it was something else, and for a moment he could not determine what had awakened him.
Then he realized it was the silence.
Slowly, he opened his eyes. Something was amiss. He looked toward the window, where normally the birds came in the morning, the thrushes and the nightingales with their sweet voices. Instead there sat a raven, its eye a black and glittering gem, its feathers glistening in the first rays of the sun.
For a moment, Arcadius thought the earth had dropped away from beneath his feet.
There were few birds that bore with them such a reputation for ill-tidings as the raven, and for years Arcadius, and those who had come before, had dreaded its coming. He slowly got up from the bed and made his way to the window, though every fiber of his being cried out to him to stop, to not hear the words that he knew would come. At last, he stood before the creature, and he opened his mind.
The day has come, the bird’s harsh voice said in the caverns of his mind. The valley has been breached.
There was but one choice, Arcadius knew. He would have to go and see for himself the nature of this incursion. He wished, with an intensity greater than anything he had ever experienced before, that such a thing had not happened while he was alive. All the years of his life, brief as they were, had been peaceful, but he had long felt a shadow on his heart, as if a terrible doom was approaching. Now, he knew, that doom was at last here.
“Take me to the place,” he said to the raven.
The bird turned its head to the side, fixing him in its glaring eye. Such is not your task, watcher, it said. Yours is to take this news to the Servants at the temple.
Arcadius glared back in return. “And it is not your place, bird, to tell me what is my task and what is not,” he responded. “To me was entrusted the watch of this valley and its inhabitants, and it is my wish to see the nature of this threat that has come into our midst. Will you take me to it, or will I have to find it for myself?”
Though his words were harsh, in reality they were empty bravado. Arcadius knew in his heart that he was not a brave man, and he did not know where his own words had come from. Why didn’t he simply go to the Servants as the bird said, and let them take control of this situation? It was, after all, their duty, not his, to protect the valley and all that they had sworn to uphold. And besides, there was the Guardian.
But something, something he could not name, burned within him. He wanted to know what this new threat was, and his desire was enough to overcome his fear.
For several moments the two of them stood there, the bird and the man, staring at one another. At last, however, the raven bent its head in acknowledgment of defeat. Though I wish I could dissuade you from this course, it said, its voice heavy with doom, I will do as you command. But I fear that much ill will come of this day and the actions that you take, Arcadius. Watcher.
The bird’s archaic speech, so heavy and full of its own importance (much of that importance, Arcadius was sure, was attached to the bird’s person, rather than the news it brought), weighed on him, but he was determined in his course now that he had decided what he was going to do. Gathering what courage and fortitude he could, he set out to follow the raven to whatever awaited him.
The atmosphere was tense as Vestra sought to keep control of the room. Now released from the solemnity and restriction of the ceremony, every one of her fellow Servants had a question or an opinion, and all of them attempted to voice it at once. Each person, it seemed, thought their opinion was more important than the others’.
Two, however, had managed to gather most of the others’ attention, Cornelia and Tullia, two of those whose own claim to be the next Deacon should have superseded Vestra’s own. Both had made a great show of pretending utter loyalty to their newly-chosen leader, though it was clear to any who had the skill to see it that they bitterly resented having been passed over. Now they at last saw their opportunity to get some measure of vengeance, though at the moment they were too bound up with their extreme dislike of one another to unite and focus their energies on their shared enemy.
“I do not know what happened to the song today,” Cornelia said, her voice hoarse, struggling to speak around the wrinkled growth that occupied most of her neck. Her eyes, however, were as full of fire and passion as always, and they alternated between Vestra and Tullia. “But it is nothing to be taken lightly, that is for certain. And one that casts a great deal of doubt upon the suitability of choosing this particular woman to lead us.”
Tullia looked like she would like to agree with her, but her own extreme dislike of her old nemesis prevented her from doing so. However, she also could not quite bring herself to defend Vestra. Her rheumy eyes, blind now for over forty years, rolled in their sockets in her agitation. “You think that you know everything so well, don’t you, Cornelia,” she snarled. “You think that the gods speak even more loudly to you than they do to the rest of us. Allow me to disagree.”
The others merely sat there observing this exchange, as if too frightened to offer their own opinions. For her part, Vestra wanted desperately to intervene, but something kept her from saying anything.
At last, the two combatants seemed to have sparred themselves into a stalemate, and each sat there, as if expecting the other to speak again. Seeing her chance, Vestra seized it.
“These are indeed perilous times,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “We have all heard the rumors that occasionally come to us from the outside world, of a land that has fallen into utter ruin and chaos as the result of the old world and its foolhardy attempts to harness the power of the gods and of science. But none of that has yet touched us here, nor, the gods willing, will it.”
“The gods!” Cornelia shouted. “Do you think the gods care what becomes of us? We can tell by what happened today that they have clearly become displeased with us, that the rumors from the outside world have awakened them from their slumber. Who knows what they might do in their wrath? There is a choice before us, and we would do well to sit and think carefully before we decide what to do, but we should also not give in to the temptation to wait on forces beyond our control. Do we want to perish here, where we have spent so many long years of servitude, or do we wish to survive and seek a home somewhere else?”
The looks of abject terror of the other Servants told Vestra all she needed to know. She had to put a stop to this foolishness before it got any more out of hand.
“That will be quite enough of that, Cornelia,” she snapped, a definite note of command in her voice. “Can’t you see how you are needlessly terrifying your brothers and sisters? The discord we heard this morning was a mere ripple, sure never to be repeated. There is nothing to fear.”
Though she said all of this with great confidence, she did not at all feel it herself. In fact, she could smell the rank scent of fear and sweat in the air, and that, as much as what had transpired this morning, filled her heart with a deep fear and foreboding.
The question flitted through her mind: have I caused this? Was there something that I did wrong that angered the gods and made this transpire? She wracked her brain, trying to think of something, anything, that she might have done wrong, some little slip of the tongue, some gesture not performed correctly, but she could think of nothing.
And that, indeed, terrified her even more.
The forest was even more eerily silent than Arcadius had anticipated. What had happened, to send all of the birds silent? What dreadful beast, its time come, even now made its way toward the temple, determined to bring ruin in its wake? For surely there was no other reason for anyone to invade this valley other than to seek out the ancient powers locked away there?
His stomach felt as if a block of ice had taken up residence, and a sickly sweet taste invaded the back of his throat.
“How much further?” he asked the raven, as it flew from branch to branch ahead of him, periodically turning to cast a disapproving gimlet eye upon him.
Not much further now, it answered, so we must be silent. Do not speak!
Stifling another flash of irritation, Arcadius continued to follow, terrified of what he would find yet unable to cease going forward, determined to see this matter through to the end, no matter how bitter. Although it was now spring in the valley, the debris of the previous autumn still lay thick upon the ground, but Arcadius had been trained by the greatest tracker that age of the world had known, and so he could move with absolute silence when needed. Not even a beast of the forest, if any had still been present, would have been able to detect him by sight or by sound.
Grasping his cloak close to him, Arcadius moved forward until he came to the road that led through the forest and, after clearing that, to the temple itself.
The road had been built with the powers of ages past, when mankind was still in the height of its glory and its ingenuity. Whatever arts were used in its construction may have long since passed from human memory, and the hands that had built it long reduced to dust, but still the road remained, running straight as a spear thrust through the forest.
Of course, the road was not unwatched, for those who had set the valley apart had known that someday, perhaps far into the future, someone would come seeking what was hidden here.
No sign of the Guardian was in evidence now, though, as Arcadius came to a stop in a cluster of bushes, just out of sight of the road.
At first, he could see no sign of whatever it was that had so upset the raven that he had come to Aracdius’ hut to tell him of it. Gradually, however, the faint sound of footsteps reached his ears. This person, whoever it was, was clearly almost as talented as Arcadius at keeping his presence secret, but his ears were too sharp.
At last, a figure came into sight. Arcadius squinted, for it seemed to him as if the man—he thought it was a man—seemed insubstantial. His eyes kept wanting to look past him, as if some force was at work that kept him disguised. Only with great force of will could Arcadius force his eyes to settle on the figure, and even then he seemed utterly ordinary, nothing exceptional at all about his appearance.
And yet, he also had the feeling that if evil itself were to come to the mortal world and take on human flesh, it would look and feel like this. Gooseflesh raced up and down his arms as he stood rooted there, utterly transfixed. His stomach roiled, and he felt he would be ill.
He reached out with his mind to the raven, but found the way blocked. The bird turned one eye to him, and even in its inhuman and glassy surface Arcadius could see the fear. Clearly, he was not supposed to speak even with his mind.
What manner of creature was this that had wandered into the valley? And what was he going to do?
One of those questions at least was answered a moment later, when the Guardian finally lurched into view.
For untold centuries the Guardian had patrolled the forest surrounding the valley. His makers—the same that had made the road, or related to them—had imbued him with his own mind, the ability to think rationally and to make his own decisions based upon what he perceived in the world around him. However, they had also built into him a deep and abiding hatred of anything that sought to bring harm to the valley, and when he had sensed the intense evil that walked on two legs he had made his ungainly way there.
And now here he was, a towering mass of muscle and bone, looming taller than a man at the shoulder, ready to rend flesh from bone in his effort to protect the valley that was his charge. He paused for a moment, staring at this seemingly harmless man, attempting to determine what manner of threat he posed. His brain moved slowly yet methodically, looking everywhere, determined to ensure that there was no threat that he did not see.
When he moved to attack, he did so with startling speed.
But the stranger, whatever he was, was faster. Arcadius stifled a gasp as he leapt forward, a blade appearing in one hand. If he had thought that the Guardian was slow, however, he had made the same mistake that many others had done, though he was more fortunate than they. As he brought the blade up, one of the Guardian’s enormous paws came swiping down. If the stranger had been but a moment slower, he would no doubt have lost the entire arm, but he also seemed possessed of a preternatural swiftness, dodging backward but dropping the knife in the process.
The Guardian pressed its advantage, but then something happened that was to stay in Arcadius’ mind for the rest of his life. The stranger began to change, his body slowly distorting and growing out of shape, strangled cries wrenched from his throat as his body twisted, the bones contorting and growing larger. The Guardian too seemed perplexed at the sight and paused in its attack.
It was that pause which was to prove fatal.
The stranger had now become a mangled ruin, a creature born out of agony and terror and clearly designed to inflict them on others. With another throttled cry it lunged forward, it jaws agape. The Guardian reared back in defense, and the stranger seized its throat. The Guardian, surprised at the speed and ferocity of the attack, bellowed in rage and pain, its massive arms coming around, determined to squeeze its assailant, to crush the life from this hideous creature, this abomination that could change its flesh.
The stranger, however, seemed possessed of a greater store of strength than the Guardian had anticipated, and despite the tremendous pressure placed by his assailant, it refused to release its vice-like grip. Crimson rivulets of blood ran down the Guardian’s rent throat, and Arcadius resisted the urge to rush forward. After all, what could he do? His task was to watch, and to learn, and to report what he saw to those who possibly could do something.
The battle was over almost before it began.
Slowly but surely the Guardian’s lifeblood ebbed away, and Arcadius felt his throat clench with fear and sorrow as he saw the light fade from its eyes. Though he had seen the creature but few times—and always from a distance—he nevertheless felt a deep bond with this beast that had so long stood as the defense between the valley and the horrors of the world outside. What could they possibly do, now that it was gone?
The stranger, satisfied at last that its foe was vanquished, released the grip of its jaws. Scarlet gobbets slid slowly from its serrated teeth as it turned about the clearing, its eyes raking the shadows, determined to root out and destroy anything else that might pose a threat. Its eyes seemed to piece Arcadius where he stood concealed, and he felt the overwhelming urge to run out of his hiding place and show that he meant no harm.
He looked aside at the raven, however, and the flash of its gimlet eye reminded him of his purpose. If he revealed himself, the odds were that he would be struck down where he stood, another victim of this stranger’s ruthless, implacable malice. So he stayed where was, praying to he knew not what gods that the stranger’s merciless, piercing eye would not see him.
It seemed that the gods, or the fates, looked kindly on Arcadius, for the stranger seemed to overlook him. At last, satisfied that nothing else would threaten his power, he slowly began to change back into the man, or man-like creature, that he had been before. With a final glance around the clearing, he continued on his way.
Arcadius swallowed. The priests would have to be told, but how on earth would get to the temple before the stranger did? The road cut straight through the valley and was the fastest way from the forest to the temple.
I know a way, the raven said through his mind. But it is a difficult path, not much used in these latter days. If you are of stout heart, however, it will take you to the temple before the stranger reaches it.
Nodding reluctantly, Arcadius followed his avian companion once more.
Though still flushed with his victory over the Guardian, the Stranger felt a shadow on his heart. There had been someone else lurking about that clearing. Though he could not have said what the watcher was, he knew that it posed no threat. Still, he increased his pace, for he knew that time was not on his side. The forces that had sent him here were growing impatient, and the seers had grown restless, presaging the arrival of the days of fire and blood so long foretold.
It was his duty to ensure that they came to pass.
The road he walked on was becoming more well-used as he made his way forward, the trees of the forest slowly giving way to flatlands. He noted to himself the ways in which the land that he made his way through was well-plowed and tilled, farmed by those men and women who provided a tithe to those that dwelt in the temple, protecting those in the outlands from the menace that simmered and frothed in the roots of their home.
The Stranger smiled to himself, for he knew that these lands, simple as they were, would make for fine plunder when the armies of those he served came into the valley to reclaim what rightfully belonged to the world. They cared nothing for the lives of those who were not powerful or important, and why should they? The old world had passed away, and the new one had no place for those who did not know the use of weapons, or the true meaning of power.
They would fall, and the Stranger would be there to witness it.
First, however, he would have to do what he had been sent for, and so he walked, a pale shadow moving through a bright day.
It took some time for the routines of the temple to return to normal, but at last the day with the sour notes seemed to many to be but a distant memory, quickly fading into the distance of time.
For Vestra, however, that day hung like a dark cloud, forever shadowing every step that she took, every word that she uttered. She could not forget, and it troubled her every waking moment until she thought she would go mad with the constant presence of it in her thoughts.
Worse, there were troubling rumors that had reached her from the farmers outside the temple. Just this morning, a young woman bringing milk from the dairies to the west had spoken of a terrible shadow that had fallen on the hearts of those who dwelt in the valley. Something evil was abroad, she said in a hushed whisper, her eyes wide and white with her obvious fear. She had been the only one willing to brave the outdoors to come here to the temple.
This was grave news indeed, and it filled Vestra’s heart with an even darker strain of foreboding. What was happening?
She had pressed the maid for more information, desperate to find out what it was that had entered the valley, but the girl had seemed unable, or unwilling, to say more, and so Vestra had given her the blessing that was her payment and sent her on her way.
And now, as she walked through the garden, the heady scent of roses filling the air, Vestra could not help but wonder if everything that she had known in her entire life was about to fall into ruin and shadow. It was a terrifying thought, and she deliberately stopped.
“Does something trouble you, Mother?” Antonia, the young woman walking beside her, was the closest thing to a friend that Vestra possessed, now that she occupied the position of Deacon. The two of them had grown up together within the temple walls, the only two of their generation to live beyond their teens. Serving the gods was a hard life, and not all were suited to it, nor could survive it.
At last, she decided to share some of her innermost thoughts.
“I am deeply troubled by what happened that day with the music,” she said, lowering her voice. “Though that was now several weeks ago, the memory of it haunts me still. And there are other things to trouble me. Perhaps you have noticed our food stores getting lower, with little replenishment? The farmers refuse to leave their homesteads. They say a creature stalks their fields at night, stealing away the unwary and the young. They say it is a demon, but one that has taken the form of a man.”
She paused to gauge the other woman’s reaction, but Antonia looked avidly at her, eagerly awaiting more of the tale. So relieved was she that she could finally speak to someone, Vestra found herself pouring out her worst fears.
“There have long been rumors coming in from the outside world,” she said, “but until now I paid them little heed. After all, we are safe here in the valley, are we not? But now I am not so sure.”
For a moment the only sound was the rustle of their soft slippers along the gravel path. Many things may have fallen into disrepair in these latter days, when so much that had been solid and trustworthy was now unstable, but Vestra meant to ensure that at least some semblance of the old order was maintained.
She looked around her then at the gardens that had long been one of her favorite places, and that she had taken especial care to protect. Here and there were statues depicting the gods and saints of the old world, their names long since forgotten. Perhaps some of the words that Vestra and her fellows chanted in the morning contained the names of those gods, but if so there were none alive now who could remember if such was the case. That thought made her sad once more, and so she turned her eyes to the riot of colors, of the pinks, scarlets, azures, and vibrant yellows that comprised this garden, even now in the fading days of autumn. There were flowers here for every season, and though spring and early summer were the best times, even now there was still enough beauty for Vestra to feel comforted.
At last, however, she turned once more to Antonia. “What do you think?” she asked, though she was afraid that she already knew the answer.
Antonia paused for a moment, chewing her lip. Her eyes were full of nervousness and fear, but when she spoke her voice was clear. “I think that the days that we have so long cherished have come to their end,” she said softly. “I think that we should start preparing ourselves for the worst.”
Though that was the answer she had known Antonia would provide, Vestra felt as if a piece of her heart died within her. If even Antonia, one of the brightest and most joyous souls in the temple, could no longer find cause to hope that order could be maintained, then things must truly be turning toward the darkness at last.
“The days indeed have grown dark,” she said.
They continued to walk, though neither now felt like speaking.
The raven had been right. The paths he led Arcadius on were indeed arduous, even more so than all of the ones that the tracker himself had journeyed on, back when his master had been alive and had taught him the many ways through the forest. Yet the raven now took him by ways that were utterly unfamiliar to him, and that in itself was surprising. How could these ways exist and he not know of them? How much more was there in this world that existed to surprise him? And most importantly, who used these paths?
For it soon became clear that these tracks, arduous as they were, had nevertheless seen significant use, for they were remarkably free of brambles and other growth.
Who else has traveled these ways? He asked the raven. The bird, however, would not reply.
Arcadius shook his head in frustration. Yet what else could he do but follow? His oath was a powerful one, sewn into his very flesh and bone, a thing that could not be broken, unless he wanted to destroy his mind along with his honor.
And so he followed, trusting that the raven would not lead him astray.
Had they taken the road, the journey between his home in the forest and the temple was a journey of almost a fortnight. Given how quickly the stranger walked, however, they could safely guess that he would probably make it to there in slightly less. The raven assured him, however, that the paths they took would get them to the temple more quickly, though they would still only reach there slightly before the stranger.
Still, Arcadius supposed, some warning, however, small, was better than nothing, and so the journey continued.
Until the third day dawned, and he knew that he had been betrayed.
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 done 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.
Vestra walked alone in the catacombs beneath the temple. Her footsteps echoed dismally around her, while the air was filled with a cloying smell of the spices and unguents used to keep the dead from rotting away in their tombs. None, not even the embalmers, could say why it was that they sought so desperately to maintain the bodies of the dead, only that it had been so since the beginning, since the first Deacon was brought here to her eternal rest, all of those millennia ago. Another ritual continued and followed without true recognition or meaning, a hollow and empty gesture to fight off the darkness that hovered always at the edge of sight.
This was the burial place for all of the Deacons that had come before, the many generations of women who had given their lives in the service of the gods, all because that had been their lot. She passed dozens of statues, the likenesses of those who had once walked the halls above. Her sadness grew as she saw the craftsmanship diminish with the years, the faces growing more crudely sculpted until that of her predecessor was just barely recognizable as human, let alone that of the woman she had loved as a mother for more than twenty years.
Was it ever to be so with the things of this world, the beauty carved by human hands? Would it always begin in splendor and greatness, the highest expression of the human spirit, only to descend into crudeness and brutality? That fear had been what had driven her ancestors to take up their charge, in the hope that by protecting the gods, placating them, keeping them locked away, they could prevent the descent into madness that had pushed the old world over the brink of collapse.
She sighed, and the sound echoed around her, reminding her that this sepulcher awaited her, as well. How much longer would it be before she was brought here with all of the ceremonies attached to the dead? She was already fairly old by the accounting of these later days, but there was still so much left to do.
For whatever reason, fate had decreed that she was to be the one to live during this time, to take on this dreadful burden. She could only hope that she had the strength to do what was necessary.
She traced her fingers across her predecessor’s visage, savoring the rough feel of the stone beneath her fingers, trying to ignore the sharp tang of spice that tickled her nose.
“Mother,” she whispered, “I do not know if I have the strength to do this. Why did this burden fall to me? Why did this have to happen in my time, when I am not the strongest or the greatest among us?”
The dead, however, have rarely had reliable answers for the living, and so Vestra was left in silence.
Against her better judgment, Vestra decided to call another meeting of her fellow devotees. The heavy shadow that had lain over the temple had only grown more palpable, as if some great wave were drawing closer, threatening to drown them all in its terrible majesty. Vestra felt as if a band of iron were perpetually bound about her chest, and she found it hard to breathe at times. While she was used to the ailments of the body, this feeling was new, wrought not by the gods and their slumbering wrath, but by something else, something that she did not know.
This meeting would be different, however, for she had decided to summon not just those devoted to going into the catacombs, but all of those who dwelt in the temple, all except those left to guard the gates to the outside. There were around seventy of them all told, both old and young, though the eldest among them had only seen fifty winters. It was typical among them. The eldest of them had only been seventy six, and by that time poor Brother Uriah had been so badly damaged by his years of service, his flesh mottled almost beyond recognition, that it had actually been considered a mercy when death finally claimed him.
The youngest among them were children barely old enough to walk, but circumstances in the temple required children to grow to awareness quickly, and so these young ones sat with their backs as straight as their elders’, their eyes open and sharp. They would probably remain silent, but their minds would still be thinking, asking questions.
That thought was not a cheering one, to Vestra’s mind, but who knew? Perhaps some small gem or pearl of wisdom might come from their mouths, as it was rumored had been the case in the old days, when prophet children had wandered the old roads, preaching and declaiming. Of course, what they had had to say was usually a condemnation of the wicked ways of the world in which they lived, which would hardly help her in her present predicament.
She impatiently shook her head to clear it of these distracting thoughts. Why was she so prone to these moments of abstraction? She supposed it was easier to deal with things in the past rather than with what was occurring at the moment.
That did not make the impending conversation any more palatable.
At last, she mustered her courage and got to her feet. Her seat, as the Deacon, was in the center of the vast hall, while around her rose the benches upon which sat the rest of those that lived in the temple. Once, it was said, every bench was full of those who had sworn their lives and service to the gods, but now they were clustered in one tiny bunch, the vast majority of the benches left empty. It was a haunting reminder of just how frail was their existence, especially now, when the entire world seemed poised on the brink of some great change, some plunge into the darkness of infinity.
The hall went quiet, every face turned to look at her in fraught expectation.
“There have, as you know, been signs and warnings that the world outside is changing,” she said, referring to the great star that had appeared in the west of the valley, shining like a blazing sword in the black night sky. “And there have been answering signs from within these very walls, signs that the world that we have lived in is soon to be no more.”
She paused for a moment, and she could feel the terror in the air pulsing like a beating heart, and she almost quailed and could not continue. Then she thought of the statue of Theodora, standing below in the catacombs, and all those who had become before her, who had given their lives in service to this calling, and she spoke.
“These are indeed dark days, and I cannot and will not promise you that we will not see worse before this is all over. It may well be that our time of service draws to a close, and that we will not be here after this storm breaks. However that may be, it is our solemn duty to continue as we have for all these long years, regardless of what happens.”
There was stunned silence when she was finished speaking and sat back down. Now, she knew, the real storm would begin.
However, it did not break immediately. It was as if they all awaited something more, as if she had not just told them that they were no doubt standing on the brink of doom, that even now its first footsteps could be dimly heard, echoing down their halls, drawing perilously closer with every indrawn breath.
At last, however, someone broke the silence, but it was not who she had been expecting.
Sister Miriel was fairly young; she had just passed her tenth winter as a full sister. She had always been a quiet girl, so quiet that many in the temple knew very little, if anything, about her. She went about her tasks with a solemnity belying her young age. Even Vestra, who knew at least a little about all those who served, knew only that this young woman had a voice as pure as an angel’s.
Yet know when she spoke there was a hardness to her voice that Vestra had not heard before, and a steel glint in her eye suggested that for all of her quiet demeanor she was still a force to be reckoned with.
“The Deacon will please excuse me if I express some small amount of doubt in her proclamations,” she said, her voice as steely hard as her eyes. Vestra would never have guessed that a voice that sounded so exquisitely ornate when raised in the praise of the gods could sound so chilling, so utterly devoid of human warmth or compassion.
Miriel continued. “You say that we stand on the brink of doom, and that there is little that we can do save await it, allowing it to sweep us all away, as well as all that we stand for. We have all heard the rumors of dark things swarming through the valley, stealing away children in the night, terrifying all that live and provide us with our food. Our stores have begun to run low, and the Deacon would have us do nothing to replenish them, hoping that some miracle will intervene to save us.
“There are others, however, who will not sit by and let all of this happen, who will lead the charge if need be, who will even take up the mantle of leadership if she who holds it now should fail. If you will not do these things, Deacon, then we must ask you to step down and let someone take up your mantle who will.”
Vestra was too stunned to speak. Never in all of the vast history of the temple and its Servants had anyone dared to even suggest that the Deacon abrogate her responsibilities, still less demanded that she do so. Righteous indignation, even rage, quickly supplanted her shock, and she felt her hands tingle with the rush of her emotions. Who did they think they were, to bring such a charge to her face? She looked around at all of them, trying to gauge how much support this proposition had—and who had coerced Miriel into being the spokesman for such folly, for surely she could not have come to these conclusions by herself—but a sea of blank faces greeted her. No one was going to leap to her defense; they were all too frightened to speak.
So, this was to be the end, was it? She was going to be forced to step down from her position, as if the mantle of the Deacon was something in their keeping to be granted to the one they deemed worthy? Fools! They knew nothing of the trials and tribulations she had endured as Theodora’s chosen successor, of the agony and the torment her body, mind, and soul had been put through in her testing. Had any of them known, they would no doubt not have been so eager to declare her unfit to rule.
This, more than anything else, convinced her that she was the only one able to lead her children into the terror getting ready to break upon them.
“If you think that I will step aside so that one of you can take my place,” she said, her voice full of the power and authority of her position, “you are sadly mistaken. I have gone through greater pain than any of you here have ever imagined, suffered things that no human should ever endure, all so that the rest of you could remain safe. And yet you seek to supplant me, as if you were the ones that set me here?”
She laughed, but the sound was high and cold and cruel. “I will not be thrown down by the likes of you!” she cried.
Her last words echoed through the vast chamber, and she closed her eyes to listen to them until they faded away. When she opened them again, she saw that everyone there looked frightened of her. Miriel had fled back to her seat and was now looking as if she wished she could melt into the tiled floor.
When Vestra spoke again, her voice was more measured. The fit of madness had passed, but her resolution was stronger than ever.
“My poor, frightened children,” she said soothingly. “I know that you did not wish to be led into this mess, and it is only natural that you should seek to find reason amid all of this madness. I assure you, however, that I will lead you into the light. Though we linger here at the threshold of death, we shall fear no evil.”
The words were part of the old catechism that had been part of their daily prayers since time immemorial.
“There is much to fear in this world besides, evil, Vestra.”
That voice. Something about it was hauntingly familiar, yet Vestra could not quite identify it.
The entire hall turned as one, seeking out the speaker, and they saw him almost immediately, a man so bland that he could have been overlooked as just another of the farmers that lived in the valley. At the same time, there was something indefinably yet undeniably evil about him, and as one the hall shivered, as if the Beast had reached out from the Outer Darkness and run a deathly, silky finger along their spines.
“Who are you that comes into our hall unannounced and unlooked for?” Vestra demanded, still flush with the power that she had felt but a few moments earlier. Though there was something terrifying about the creature that stood here, she was not about to allow herself to be cowed by some stranger, much less in front of the men and women whose trust she had just now, and so tenuously, regained.
“My name does not matter,” he said matter-of-factly. “It is the news I bring that matters most.” He went on before she could stop him. “You all know that a darkness lies upon your land, and in your hearts. You know that the old gods are awakening, stirring at last from their slumber.”
At the collective gasp he cocked a sardonic eyebrow. “So you did not know that was the source of the disturbance you experienced several weeks ago?” He smiled. “How sad that your Deacon did not know this. How very, very sad indeed. I had no idea things had fallen so low, else I might have come sooner and allowed you to at least know a measure of the doom that awaits you.”
Vestra strode forward, determined to challenge whoever this man was that thought he could come here and spread fear and lies, but the look in his empty eyes froze her where she stood. She had no doubt that this man, whoever or whatever he was, could strike her down where she stood if he so desired. She saw the shadow of death in his eyes, the specters of those who had dared to challenge him and been paid with a grave.
“I have come here to help as I may,” he continued, as if she had not moved. “The days of your service are nearing their end, my good people,” he said. “There is a new power rising in the lands outside of your valley, ruled by justice and peace, by reason and by hope, rather than by the fear and desperation that has so long governed your own service.”
In that moment, Vestra felt the tides of power shift utterly away from her. There was something about this man, something that went beyond her ability to identify through speech, some element that defied her. And yet, like the faint yet bitter fingers of a cold wind, she knew it was there, threatening to chill her blood, to freeze it in her veins.
“What is your name?” she asked. As everyone knew, to be able to name something, to be able to assert its true identity, was to be able to gain the greatest power over it. She was determined, if she could, to gain as much power over this creature, whatever the consequences to her own well-being.
“Names are for those who insist on the primacy of their own desires and their own sense of entitlement,” he said dismissively. “I long ago gave mine away, for I wish only to be of service to those who have need of me. That is also your mission, is it not? To serve?”
Vestra’s patience with this sparring was nearing its end, and she struggled to keep her temper in control. Why did the gods see fit to continue to test her faithfulness, first through her own people and now with the appearance of this stranger who appeared determined to further disturb everything she had so painstakingly maintained?
As she opened her mouth to speak, however, another sound disturbed her even more. The sound of horns blowing, great, deep notes that seemed to shake the very foundations of the temple. She swayed, almost thrown from her feet.
Her eyes sought out the stranger’s, and she was mildly surprised to see a look of shock, and perhaps even hatred, on his face. This was clearly a circumstance that he did not expect, and she did know whether to be gratified or terrified at the thought that something else has come into her valley, some other force perhaps even more terrible and full of chaos than the stranger.
One of the doorwards rushed into the room, his face pale. “Deacon,” he said, bowing at the waist. “There is an army outside, and they demand to speak with you.”
He paused for a moment, and she could see and feel the fear emanating from him. “They have captured Arcadius.”
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 and 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 geis 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 geis 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 geis.
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 geis 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.”
Of course you aren’t, the Stranger thought sardonically, releasing the geis 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 geis, 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 shift, 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.