Once a Hero
Copyright © 2003
They say that everyone wants to see a hero. Well, when he came through our tiny village, I wasn't much impressed. He was well past his best days. Not in age, he was probably only in his early thirties, but he had let himself go to seed. He was a big man, probably six-six and he weighed at least three hundred and twenty pounds and only about fifty pounds of that was fat.
But still, with that beer belly and bleary eyes, I figured he should stop calling himself a hero and call himself a has-been. I admit he could still fight at least to some extent. Jevan, the village bully, forced a fight on him. Not that Jevan was much of a bully but then it wasnít much of a village. He took care of Jevan in less than ten seconds, and everybody else was cheering this incredible feat. Me, I was just looking at him and figuring it was lucky it hadn't taken him eleven seconds. The hero never would have made it.
I turned my back on them with disgust and headed for the one room shack I called my home. It was half a mile from the village and it was hidden in a fold in the earth so that it couldn't be seen from the village, just from the beach where I got most of my food; crabs, fish trapped in tide pools, clams, dried seaweed. The ocean provided plenty of food most of the time, even for a ten year old all on his own.
I felt a shiver go up my backbone as I felt something seeking me, looking for me. I stood staring to the north wondering if they would ever stop searching. I checked my shields and there were no leaks, so I knew they hadn't found me, they were simply looking. I speculated: Was it my uncle who intended to kill me, or his opposition who wanted to use me? Well, I didnít want my uncle off the throne though he didnít know that, but I certainly didn't intend to be used by the priests of Skaal. Whenever they had controlled the throne in the past, they had been far worse than any King could ever dream of being. Not that they had revealed what their aim really was, not even then. However during the reigns of the Kings they had controlled, we had had the worst wars in our history. I didn't intend to inflict years of war on my poor people.
When I woke up the next morning, I had a surprise visitor. The Hero was on the sand thirty feet away, lying on his back with his mouth open, snoring. He was obviously all right, so I ignored him for the moment and concentrated on getting my breakfast. Since I had a guest, as unwelcome as he might be, as his host I felt I had to get enough food for the hero as well.
I took the string bag and headed along the beach. The first two tidal pools were empty, but the third provided an unexpected bonanza. A dozen eltafish. They were a delight to the taste but almost as important was the fact that unlike other fish or animals once they were cleaned they would stay good for almost a week before they began to go bad.
The fish had been cleaned and were now covered in clay and baking in the coals of the fire. I sat down close enough to the hero so that he was inside my shield and prepared to find out a little about him.
Entering his mind wasnít difficult and the first thing I looked for was his name, which turned out to be Weltan Arthetan. I wasnít interested in his present condition, but his past and why he had ended up this way, and it wasnít hard to find. It was never far from the front of his mind.
I lay on the ground; the wound in my chest and the loss of blood had made me too weak to rise. Not even my anger and despair as I watched the Baron and his men play with my wife and three small children allowed me to get off the ground.
After they were through having their fun the Baron came to me and looked down at me scornfully, "So blacksmith, now you know what throwing my tax man out will get you. As badly hurt as you are, itís unlikely that youíll profit from the lesson, but your neighbors will."
Contemptuously he kicked me in the chest, and as the blackness took me I hoped that I would be joining my loved ones in death.
But it was not to be. I woke once and the heat of the fever and the pain told me this wasnít Valan. Paradise wasnít to be my lot, not yet.
Finally I woke fully aware for the first time in three weeks, as I was to find out. I moved and I clamped my teeth down to keep the groan of pain in. Suddenly Afern was stooping over me, with a mug in her hand. "Here Weltan take this, it will help ease the pain."
I cursed her in a croaking voice and she simply looked at me calmly. I didnít have enough energy, to keep it up for long and when my tirade trailed off she said, "I know that Senda and your children were your life, and you wish to join them in the next world. But the Gods have decided that you will live. They have a purpose; perhaps it is to send Baron Darvan to be punished in the Lower Realms."
"Do you wish their deaths to go unpunished, because no one but you will care about them? You are an enormous man, Weltan, and I have watched you since you were a little boy. You were averaged size as a child, but you were quick and strong, and you had a definite talent for handling the weapons of war. Then suddenly when you were nine you reached your peak, and the other boys seemed to catch up to you and then pass you by."
"I donít know if anyone else besides you and I knew that you deliberately decided at nine that you didnít want to be one of the Baronís soldiers. Yet if you had the skill you would have had no choice in the matter. As the years passed and you reached puberty, and began to grow into your adult size, your apparent clumsiness actually got you thrown out of the weapons classes, as they gave up in disgust."
I asked, curious in spite of myself, "How do you know that, when no one else ever noticed?"
She cackled, "I am old now, and have been a priestess of the Mother-Goddess for over fifty years, yet at one time, I was a Warrior-Priestess of Shankell. When I was thirty Shankell needed my leg, and I could no longer fight anymore, I had two choices. To stay and be a teacher for the rest of my life."
She shook her head, "That was impossible. While I can teach, for advanced students in the Order a lot of the teaching is done one on one. I had the knowledge but being lame I no longer had the ability to fight at that level and I would have been relegated to teaching the beginners."
She smiled, "I didnít have the patience to teach youngsters of that age. Iíve always loved younger children and I can be patient with them or with adults, but adolescents simply rub me the wrong way. I wished to be of service to the Gods so I asked for my release and joined the Temple of the Mother-Goddess.
I wasnít particularly interested in his training though once he was recovered, I watched a little of it, and even Afern was astonished at how much he had been hiding.
When she said he was ready, he was absolutely deadly. He spent six months taking the Baron apart. He felt satisfaction when he killed one of the Baronís men, and glee when he killed one of those who had been with the Baron the day his wife and children were killed.
Yet always there was loneliness and the hope that he would be killed during his vengeance quest, for he longed to join his family in the next world. He was wounded on several occasions, yet they were never more than minor injuries.
In the end his vengeance was even more complete than he had expected it to be, and he ended up facing the Baron in his own castle. The men had become so afraid of him that they had deserted en masse, and there were no guards left to defend the Baron.
There was some satisfaction, yet mainly there was disappointment that he was still alive. The villagers had welcomed his return and plied him with drink, and for the first time in over a year he slept through the night unbroken by dreams of his family. To him the sleep of a drunken man had become the sleep of peace, and he sought it out drifting from village to village.
He was a hero and was always welcome since his name was known far and wide, and he was always plied with drink. He had had to fight at times, yet it was almost with indifference that he destroyed those who wanted to battle him.
As time passed he began to go to fat, but there was still no one who had the skill to best him, to kill him, for though he sought the drink which to him meant peace, at the same time he sought the death which would reunite him with his family in the next world.
When I withdrew from his mind, I felt sympathy for him. I thought he was wrong to take the route he was taking, but it was his life. I had seen the love that he had for his family, and the only thing that would give him the will to live again was to find someone to care for.
I sighed and shook my head, and then deciding that the least I could do was remove the headache and sickness he would normally have experienced when he woke up. Taking the flute that was hanging around my neck I began to play a melody, entwining it with a simple spell.
I woke to the sound of a flute in my ears, and it seemed to reach into my mind and surround both the ache I felt for my family and the feeling of sickness I normally felt when I woke up with a hangover. It wasnít removing them; the tune was telling me that it was simply putting a temporary barrier around them.
I pushed myself to a half sitting position and looked at the boy who was playing the tune sitting crosslegged with his eyes closed. And thatís what it was. It was no longer a spell, but simply a melody.
He was about ten and like many children of his age he was naked. The only thing he was wearing was the flute that he was playing since I could see it normally hung on a thong around his neck. His complexion was a much deeper shade of brown than most of the people of this area, though his hair was bleached almost white from the sun.
The song ended and he opened his large brown eyes and looked at me soberly. He said, "Iíve given you a little relief. It wonít last very long, because while I sympathize with your loss, I donít really like the way youíre handling it."
That made me angry, both the fact that obviously he was a mind snooper, and also I didnít think a boy as young as he was could know the anguish that I had gone through.
He smiled at me and putting the flute to his lips he played a short tune. Suddenly his body seemed to be covered with multi-colored lines of light. There must have been thousands of them.
He told me, "My father was a worshipper of Skaal and he gave me to his Temple when I was four. He was dying and they told him they could cure him if they gave me to them. However all they give is lies, and I imagine he died cursing them. Every line of light you see represents a weal caused by a whip. They wanted to control me and to do that they needed to break me, so every priest was ordered to give me at least ten lashes when they met me. I was in constant pain all of my waking hours."
"Quite often, for days at a time, I was also forbidden to sleep but every morning whether I had slept or not they Healed me. Not that it was a relief. The first thing the priest who Healed me would do was give me twenty-five lashes with his whip so that I could start the day out right at least in their way of thinking."
I was horrified by what I was hearing as I watched the lights begin to fade and then disappear, yet he said it simply, not feeling sorry for himself merely to tell me that he had gone through something as horrible as I had.
"If I had let them rule me, then they would have bound my mind as well as my magic, and there would have been no escape; because I wouldnít have wanted to escape. When I was eight my uncle attacked the Temple, and during the confusion I escaped."
I asked a little confused, "To free you?"
He shook his head, "No. Actually he wanted my head, and he would have preferred not to have the rest of me attached. Not that I blame him, if the priests of Skaal had been able to control me then his life and the lives of his family were in danger."
Suddenly I could see him go tense and he looked inland toward the village.
Suddenly I knew there was something wrong. I jumped to my feet and scrambled up the hill. When I reached the crest I could see smoke coming from the village. It was too much for a cooking fire. The only big things made of wood were the boats; like my little shack, the huts were made of stone with slate roofs, material easily available in the area, and were fireproof.
I tried to think of what had been said before the appearance of Weltan had turned all attention in his direction. They intended to go out for bluetin, so that would mean the afternoon tide at this time of year.
Weltan appeared in front of me running for the village. He looked like a sick bull with his ungainly bulk, but he was moving at a respectable speed. I followed more slowly. The men of the village would fight to the death before they would ever allow their boats to be burned. Therefore they were already dead, and everybody else in the village would be dead as well.
Maybe I should have run after Weltan, but I didnít really want to see what I knew would be there, so I moved more slowly. That gave my rage time to build.
By the time I reached the village Weltan had also stopped, knowing that it was too late. He was kneeling on the ground, caressing the hair of six year old Russein, unashamed tears flowing down his cheeks as he mourned the dead boy.
I closed my eyes; my own tears beginning to leak through my closed eyelids, and down my cheeks. I went to my knees at the unexpected impact of the sorrow I was feeling. The villagers had never welcomed me, but at the same time they had been much kinder than I had ever expected them to be. At times when the fish were scarce they barely had enough for their own families, yet they had fed me at those times, when I couldnít find enough on my own.
I opened my eyes and I almost couldnít see as a red haze of anger blurred my sight. My logical mind was telling me not to be silly. I had managed to stay away from my uncle and the priests of Skaal for just over two years, by only using a little of my magic. What I intended to do would reveal me to the world.
Yet at the same time that my logical mind was telling me that, I was ignoring it, as my magic was building. I didnít recognize my own voice when I said to Weltan, "Move away from the boy!" in an ugly hiss.
He hesitated but looking at me he decided it might be wiser to do what I said. I let my magic loose and let my rage guide it. One by one wherever they lay in the village the bodies began to burn. I left Russein till last, and almost dispassionately I watched his body turn to ash. But I wasnít finished yet, I concentrated and one by one the virtually fireproof huts burst into flame.
But then my magic wasnít ordinary flame, and even iron would have burned if I focused my power on them.
Weltan looked down at where Russeinís ashes were and then back at the burning huts, and he said in a voice, which was made husky by rage, and probably guilt and perhaps a little awe. He asked, "I thought you said your magic was bound?"
My anger had gone cold now, like it had been during the four years I had spent in the Temple of Skaal. It had sustained me then but now it wanted something different. Vengeance!
I said almost absently, "Yes. It is bound; at least it is to an extent. Even when I was four I could produce a respectable amount of fire, and knowing what my ancestors could do, the priests felt that they had better do so. They couldnít bind it completely they simply bound certain aspects of it so that I canít harm any of them directly with my magic."
My mind was reaching out to contact Ethra, and I finally found her about twenty-five miles away. *Ethra, I need your help.*
*???* she asked.
*Raiders destroyed the village. I want you to circle around to see if you can find them. They canít have gone very far yet. They may have come by boats, on foot or on horseback.* I told her.
*I heard lots of anger magic. You?* she asked.
*Yes. It was me.* I told her.
*Like mother. Anger magic very dangerous.* she sounded impressed.
*Yes. The village no longer exists. The huts are almost burned to the ground.* I said.
*Sorry. Feel pain as well as anger. Will find raiders!* she said with determination. *Ease pain.*
*Thank you, little one.* I said sincerely.
I looked at Weltan, saying "Our breakfast should be ready by now. Perhaps a little overdone, but it should still be edible."
He looked angry, and gestured at what was left of the village, "You can eat after that?"
"I spent four years in the head temple of the god of death. I saw many people die, some horribly." I gestured at the village as well. "I will mourn them and hopefully avenge them, but I wonít starve myself to do so. I wouldnít have been able to escape if I hadnít kept my strength up."
I guess it made sense to him, since he had no trouble eating either. Before he was finished Ethra showed up and came in for a landing. Since I had nothing left she went to him first and he looked in wonder at the dragonet. I was thinking and I neglected my duties as host.
When he reached out his hand to touch her on the head, I said harshly, "No donít touch her. You know better than that, Ethra. Come here." And she obeyed me and I picked her up and soothed her ruffled feelings.
I looked at Weltan. "Sorry about that. Iím so used to her being around that I forget at times that sheís here. I didnít stop you because I was jealous, and I think thatís what you think." And he nodded, a hurt look on his face.
"Humans almost never see dragonets, so not much is known about them. Her skin is actually poisonous to the touch. At the least it would make you very sick, and it would more likely to kill you. After I escaped from the Temple, I was having a hard time finding enough to eat, so I was looking in places I normally would have avoided."
"I found a cave and I thought there might be mushrooms in it as there had been in other caves I had found, and though it was a tight squeeze I pushed through the entrance. As I had hoped there were mushrooms and they were edible so for the first time in days I had a full belly. I heard squeaking and squealing from the back of the cave. You can imagine what I was thinking at the time."
"I was trembling with fear, but I searched the back of the cave, and I found Ethra, who was trapped in a crack in the rock, and trying to get out. Unlike you, I knew that her scales were poisonous, but I couldnít just leave her there to die. It took me ten minutes to get her out and my skin was burning by that time. I managed to get her into the open air before I collapsed."
"Her mother found us and she nursed me back to health. It must have looked pretty strange, a hundred foot dragon taking care of a human boy who wasnít much bigger than one of her claws. Of course with her magic it wasnít really that hard, but it took almost three months before I was completely well again."
"However the contact changed me. Ethraís scales are no longer poisonous to me, and it changed her as well. Normally dragonets of her age are as helpless as babies and just about as smart. It would have taken fifty years or so before she would have reached the stage that sheís at now if she had grown normally. She thinks of me as her brother and if sheís not with her mother, sheís with me."
"In age sheís still considered a nestling and normally wouldnít even leave the nest for another twenty years, but would be very closely supervised by an adolescent dragon. Even in a hundred years she wonít become more than double the size she is now, though she does all of her growing in that second hundred years. The poison is what protects her. Animals instinctively know that her skin is poisonous, and they know that if they actually bite through her scales her insides and her blood are even worse."
I asked Ethra, "Did you find anything, little one?"
*Yes, find. Men on foot, twenty-one men, going to south, have captive with them. Woman almost as big as man. Chains on wrists. * she told me. "Moving slow. In no hurry. Went in direction they were moving. Big camp in valley. Many men about half with horses, yet no women, no children.*
I said to Weltan, "Ethra found them. Theyíre moving south, and theyíre not moving very fast. There are twenty-one of them but thereís a lot more hidden in a valley. About half of them have horses. There are too many of them to be bandits. The village was destroyed for the death and destruction, since the village was so poor that there was no loot to be gotten."
"You wanted revenge once, and you were willing to wait until you had the skill to get it, though you also wanted death, and that never happened. I intend to go after them, and I want your help."
He said a little bitterly, holding up his hands that were shaking a little. "I wonít be of much use like this. Oh sure, I could fight and kill a few, if they were right here. Even if theyíre moving slowly they have several hours head start on us, and, even if I could catch up to them, by that time I would be almost as helpless as that child I found."
He said, "So youíre finally starting to realize that once you become a hero, you simply canít turn your back on people like youíve been doing. It would normally take you weeks of exercise to become like you once were not even considering the fact that you need to dry out. Well I can make you like you were. But it wonít be for free; eventually a price will have to be paid."
"When it comes time, everything you would normally feel will be felt then. I doubt if itís going to be a pleasant experience."
I said not eagerly but almost resigned, "Do what you must little one and Iíll bear the consequences when I MUST."
He took the flute and lifted it to his mouth and began to play it. I heard the first couple of notes and then time seemed to stand still. When I was aware again, I felt different, more powerful, and for the first time in a couple of years, I knew what it felt to have a clear head again.
Ceran held up what looked like a small ruby with a chain attached. He said, "This is the aches and pains and everything else you would normally feel, made solid. When the time comes they will flow back into their holder."
I took it and placed it around my neck as he stood up and without a backward look began moving south. I got up and after stretching luxuriously, feeling my muscles moving freely and easily, I vowed that I wouldnít go back to the life I had been living. If I was a hero, so be it; there were plenty of wrongs that needed righting and if I got killed doing it, then that would simply be what I wanted. I strode after the boy.
I was exhausted, breathing hard and dripping with sweat when we finally stopped. We had pushed the pace and Iíd had to do a lot of running to keep up with Weltan.
Fortunately, with Ethra we didnít have to do any scouting, and sheíd been able to pick out our best route. We also knew that we didnít have to worry about anyone scouting the back trail since they very considerately werenít watching it.
I sat down and put my head on my knees. Finally after I had gotten some of my breath back, I said, "I donít know why they stopped so soon. Ethra says that the rest of the group is only about five miles from us. Bait maybe. There will be a priest with them. Heíll be low ranked and wonít have a great deal of magic. But there will be at least one First or Second Rank priest with the rest of the men."
"He would have felt the anger magic as Ethra called it, that I used to cremate the villagers and destroy their huts. He would be quite willing to sacrifice twenty-one men to recapture me. When we attack, heíll send out the horsemen. Theyíll know the area and with both moons in the sky tonight, itíll be light enough that they wonít have any problem traveling."
Weltan chuckled, "In other words youíre telling us we wonít be able to get away after we kill those who destroyed the village." He pulled his sword a few inches out of the sheath and felt the edge, saying, "Well itís a good time to die."
I asked him, "Is it a good time to live? They want me alive. While they tried to break me, they also knew it might not be possible, so I was dedicated as a sacrifice. But I was dedicated on the altar of the chief Temple of Skaal in Nalen. I must die there and nowhere else."
"The priests of Skaal keep track of all of the sacrifices that are made. The villagers for instance were sacrifices. The men we're following are called the Hands of Skaal. The Hands of Death. They arenít priests and in fact they donít directly represent the temple. Theyíre human vermin who get paid a certain amount of gold for each person they kill. There is just enough of a connection that I wonít be able to use my magic against them."
"The lesser ranked priest traveling with them was to count the dead. There were thirty-seven men women and children in the village. There would actually have been forty-five sacrifices. The Headman and his wife would have been considered to be worth five ordinary people."
"Someone like you would be considered the equal of two hundred ordinary sacrifices, and Iím worth even more. It might seem silly, but the priests of Skaal have a quota system. I donít know what the exact number per year is, but when they have the chance to sacrifice someone like us, then we save the lives of those who would ordinarily be sacrificed."
I wasnít particularly worried about my fate. Iíd been told that as a warrior of Salar, my death was too valuable to waste out here in the back of nowhere. They intended to send me to the Head Temple of Skaal in Nalen, where they would sacrifice me on the altar.
We were about ten to fifteen days travel from the border of Thentjie, and the capital Nalen was about five hundred miles from the border. Of course with the extensive canal system that Thentjie maintained, we could move one hundred to a one hundred and fifty miles in a day. Still, if I couldnít manage to kill myself or get myself killed in ten days, I deserved to end up on the altar.
I felt something shake my shoulder, and I opened my eyes and in the light of Temar and Crisen, I could see a small naked boy kneeling beside me. Since I could see right through him either he was a ghost or an Astral Spirit.
He put his finger to his mouth telling me to be silent and I heard in my mind, *Hello Mairen. You keep strange company. Are you ready to leave?* he asked with amusement and I assume he got my name out of my mind.
*More than ready, little one. More than ready.* I told him.
He said, *Good. Hold out your hands and Iíd really make sure that theyíre well away from your body.*
I rolled onto my side and extended my arms wondering what he intended to do. When he brought his hand to the chains that were holding me prisoner. I felt a brief warmth and one of my wrists was free and then a few seconds later the second one was free as well. He moved to the chains on my ankles and my legs and in seconds were also free.
I asked, *You arenít worried about doing magic with the priest here?*
The boy said thoughtfully, *Heís a lower rank priest, and heís reached his full potential, so heíd remain in the lower ranks for the rest of his life. He doesnít even have enough power to feel my presence. All he is, is a bone counter. Literally. He counts those that the Hands kill.*
*A warning before you start to move. Weltan and I intend to kill the vermin that call themselves human. Only five miles from here there are more than fifty men, and half of them have horses. There will be a First or Second Rank priest with the others, and heíll feel their deaths. If you wish we wonít hit them until just before dawn which will give you a head start.*
I thought about that and then asked, *You intend to try and take them with just the two of you? Iíve heard good things about a man called Weltan and Iíve heard bad things about him.*
He grinned, *The things youíve heard, both the good and the bad, are probably all true. He took comfort in a bottle, and heíd gone to seed. It would have taken him weeks to get back into decent shape. However I used magic and I changed what would have been a long period of effort into a physical reality in the shape of a magic stone. Eventually itíll come back to haunt itís possessor but right now heís as deadly as he ever was.*
His small face became solemn, *The event that made him a hero was the death of his wife and children. He avenged them but he always hoped that he would die during that time, for he wished to rejoin his family. He was simply too good a warrior, and he destroyed the Baron and his men.*
*Once he had taken his vengeance he wished to join his family in Valan. He was too honorable to simply kill himself, the drink allowed him to forget for a while about his family. If he dies he will simply be getting his wish.*
He was frowning when he said that, so I guessed he didnít approve. He continued explaining why, *Despite the fact that the Temple of Skaal is the most powerful temple on our world, Skaal is a minor god. As I told Weltan, the priests of Skaal have a quota system. An ordinary person has enough energy to be considered one sacrifice. People like you and Weltan have enough energy as two hundred sacrifices ordinary sacrifices would have.*
*If there is no possibility of escaping then we should spend our lives wisely. If we surrender and end up in the Head Temple in Nalen, then our deaths will save the lives of over a thousand ordinary people.*
I was curious, *Why are you going into so much detail. You came to help me escape and now weíre wasting time.*
He said with a little amusement in his mind-voice, *I have to know what youíre going to do. The one guard that they have is playing with your axe. If you want to escape them, then we can easily avoid him. If you decide to help then you can kill the guard and retrieve your weapon. However his death will alert the high rank priest or priests with the other group and theyíll send their horsemen out, so Weltan is ready to move. Between the two of you, you can probably kill a dozen of them before theyíre properly awake.*
I nodded thinking about it, before answering, *Normally our order is quite pragmatic about things like this. We can always get more weapons, a trained warrior is harder to replace. However once committed, we donít run from a fight even if we know that our deaths are certain.*
He smiled and nodded, saying, *Good. By the way thereís no need for uncomfortable chains. They'll accept our word that we wonít try to escape. Our honor is part of what makes us so valuable to them. Be very careful of how you word your surrender terms. The simplest thing would be to say that you wonít try to escape or cause any trouble until youíre inside the Head Temple at Nalen. They wonít worry about that, they have more than two hundred guards inside the Temple.*
I looked at him closely and the light from the two moons was enough to tell me that he was keeping his face deliberately bland, but then he winked at me before he got to his feet.
Silently I got to mine and following his ghostly form we made our way silently out of the camp until we found the sentry. I had a hard time containing my amusement as he swung my axe back and forth. He wasnít that small, probably about five ten compared to my six five, and maybe a little less than what I weighed at about two hundred pounds. However it was obvious he had never trained with an axe and every swing was taking him well out of position for a counter.
I heard a giggle in my mind, and the boy said, *Pitiful isnít he. Heís more of a danger to himself than to an opponent.* Then his mind-voice went completely cold and it sent a shiver up my back, *But he long ago ceased to be a part of humanity. Heís vermin, and the easier it is to kill him the better.*
I tended to agree as I got to my feet silently. At the moment he was just standing there facing away from me looking at the axe thoughtfully. If heíd had time he might have become very good with it. But carelessness or sheer stupidity cost him the time as I tapped him on the shoulder.
He spun around, and I took the axe that he thoughtfully offered to me, and stuck the spike into his throat, and he gurgled his way into death.
I watched with approval as she took out the guard, and then flashed back into my body as she silently made her way back into the camp joined by Weltan.
Well I had said they were vermin and neither Weltan nor Mairen had any objection to taking out as many as possible in their bedrolls. They might have got them all that way but the third one she killed opened his eyes at just the wrong time and saw her axe coming at him and screamed in panic, waking the whole camp.
I ignored them then. My job was the priest. While not very powerful by any standards, he was still a Mage and a danger to anyone who didnít have a shield. He was also more alert or slept more lightly than the others; because he was on his feet by the time I reached him.
I put a Ward around his shields so that he couldnít hurt anyone, and began driving him backwards until his back came into contact with one of the few big trees in this part of the country.
For a spear tree it wasnít very big however, probably about twenty feet tall. Itís straightness and the branches at the very top made the tree look like a spear at a distance and gave the tree its name. In a decent climate with plenty of rainfall, a normal spear tree of its age would be more than two hundred feet tall.
By the time the screams of fear and then death began fading the priest had begun to recover from his fright. He obviously recognized me though I couldnít remember ever having seen him before.
His face took on a sneer in the moonlight, and he crossed his hands over his chest and simply waited. I saw him look over my head and I heard Weltan and Mairen approaching.
He said with contempt, "Well what are you going to do with me, Prince Ceran? With your powers bound you canít hurt me, and my shield can protect me from your companions weapons."
I said pleasantly, "Actually if you were a higher ranked priest you would know that while boundaries were placed on my magic, they are fairly limited. Iím fourth in line to the Dragon Throne and my ancestors have been some of the most powerful magic users in our history."
"Only the fact that I was in the Head Temple of Skaal, allowed them to do even that. The limits that they placed on my magic wonít allow me to harm any members of your priesthood, or even the Hands of Skaal directly. I have no problems using my magic to kill you as long as I do it indirectly."
I looked above him at the crown of the tree and a little below the bottom branch a fire began to burn through the trunk. "Iím simply going to drop the top of the tree on you. While itís not a particularly big spear tree, still it weighs thousands of pounds and your shields arenít good enough to stand up under that type of weight."
I sighed, "Iím really sorry that I have to kill a tree just to kill a priest of Skaal." I shrugged my shoulders, "But there you have it. You can only blame your own priests."
He screamed as the crown of the tree began to fall, and despite the waste of a perfectly good tree, it made a nice satisfying crunch when it hit him, and his scream was cut off abruptly.
I saw Weltan and Mairen looking at me thoughtfully, and I was glad to see that to them it was simply a piece of information, which might or might not have some importance some day.
Weltan asked, "How many people are you considered to be worth? You were talking about a thousand people for the two of us, and the question of why you were worth so much popped into my mind, but then I forgot about it."
I considered, "Well, a normal prince would be worth the lives of about a thousand people. As I mentioned Iím fourth in line for succession of the Dragon Throne so probably fifteen hundred lives. Normally when they kill a prince or a noble itís done by assassination, and they donít claim responsibility for it."
"Obviously the reason that my uncle attacked the Temple to kill me was because I represented a danger to him and his children. It took him almost four years of spellmaking to gather enough power to attack the Temple. He succeeded in breaking through the spells protecting it, but obviously he and his men failed to kill me."
"If he had left it another two or three months it probably wouldnít have mattered. I could tell that the High Priest and his Council were ready to give up and I undoubtedly would have died on the altar."
I concentrated and each of the bodies flared into a brief flash of light and disappeared completely, the ash so fine that you could no longer tell where they had been. I rubbed my hands, "Well, the rest of the Skaal party should arrive in a little while. Letís see if we can find some food to eat. Iím hungry."
Actually it took them much longer than I expected. Of course thatís because they were looking for us, and never expected us to stay where we were.
We had time for a good nights sleep before they even thought to look in their own peopleís camp. I recognized both of the First Rank priests looking down at me with hostility. They hated unnecessary exercise and the fact that we hadnít tried to escape meant that the exercise they had been subjected to last night had been totally unnecessary, so they werenít in a good mood.
I said reasonably in reply to an angry comment by Fandain, "Well itís not our fault that you and your people didnít have the common decency to come to the camp first to see if any of your people were still alive. Youíll have to blame the tenets of your faith for that."
He raised his hand to slap me, and then hesitated as both Weltan and Mairen tensed up. He looked at them uncertainly. He knew they didnít have any chance, and he knew that they knew they didnít have any chance, but would what they knew stop them from chopping him into little pieces?
Obviously he decided that it wouldnít as he stalked away to cool down, and incidentally get out of range of their weapons. Feltan, the other First Rank priest, wasnít as intelligent as Fandain and didnít realize what type of danger he was in.
As soon as I saw him I knew my little advance planning would succeed. We just needed him to be alone with us for a few seconds. When Fandain stalked off I used a tiny bit of my magic and lifted the stone that was hanging down under Weltanís shirt, and let it hang down in plain sight.
Feltanís eyes, which were as good as a hawkís when it came to gemstones, caught the glint of the apparent ruby on Weltanís chest.
He crowed with delight, "Ah ha. Iíll take that little pretty off of your hands." And he reached out and took hold of the stone and snapped the flimsy chain, and he looked at it in excitement and pleasure. Weltan simply looked dumbfounded since he didnít want the damn thing anyway and he looked at me.
I grinned and shrugged my shoulders and looked back at Feltan and began to count down from ten. At zero he began screaming, and he tried to throw the gem stone away. Without any success may I add. As the pain raced through his body he began trying to outrun it, but without success. He was about twenty yards away from camp his screams continually rising in volume when with one final shriek he collapsed.
I felt all warm and tingly that my little plan had worked. Now understand Iím not a monster, but, as Iíve mentioned, I consider the Hands of Skaal vermin. You must realize that I have more compassion for a pile of manure than I have for a priest of Skaal. The pile of manure at least has some use.
Weltan was looking a little shaken; probably thinking that might have happened to him. I told him, "Donít worry. When it returned to your body it would have done so gradually. I put a little additional spell on it. If someone stole it, then it would release everything it contained immediately into the thiefís body. As you noticed, it caused a little bit of anguish. In fact unless Iím mistaken, Feltan is ready to be buried and it couldnít happen to a nicer person."
I said cheerfully, "If you remember I said that the price would eventually have to be paid. I didnít say that you would have to pay it. Thatís why it looked like a gemstone and not like a pebble. The priests of Skaal are greedy, and most of them are too stupid to think things through. Fandain is a little smarter than most and he might have guessed that the stone spelled danger. Thatís why I took the opportunity to show it when he stalked off. One thing you could never accuse Feltan of being, was smart."
Mairen said thoughtfully, "Youíre a nasty little boy. I think weíll get along fine."
After that our surrender went as planned, as a somewhat shaken Fandain accepted our word that we wouldnít cause any trouble, though he had Weltan and Mairen stripped to the skin and their clothing searched before allowing them to get dressed again. Not of course a problem with me since I was already stripped to the skin, though they really should have taken my flute away from me.
Not that it was dangerous in and of itself, but it was very easy to hide magic, or at least my type of magic, inside the music. I didnít use much the first week then I began by putting a light shield around us. Not that I thought that Fandain or the two lesser priests who had come with us were any danger, but the Hands of Skaal werenít noted for their stability.
He was playing his flute like he had done every day since we had surrendered and there was a look of peace on his face. I looked around and saw that as usual there was nobody near us. Theyíd taken our weapons but aside from that, weíd been left alone.
Seeing no one watching, I said, "You donít look like someone whoís going to his death."
He didnít open his eyes, but he stopped playing long enough to say, "Who said we were going to our deaths? I told you what our lives were worth as sacrifices to Skaal, I never said I planned to spend them. I just need to get into the Temple, and this was the easiest way to do it. We may die, but it certainly wonít be without a fight, and it certainly wonít be as sacrifices to Skaal. In fact if the two of you will feel for a weapon youíll find something interesting." And he went back to playing.
I felt on my belt as he said, and as I thought of where my sword usually hung, it was with astonishment that I realized that I could actually feel a sword hilt. I looked at Mairen and saw that her eyes had gone wide, and lifting her right hand she made a little chopping motion with her hand.
I looked at Ceran as he continued to play the flute until he finished the melody and then let the flute hang down from the thong around his neck.
"How did you manage to get us weapons and what kind of weapons are they anyway? Theyíre invisible and we canít even feel them unless we think about them."
Ceran said, "You may have noticed that youíre not as angry as you were when we started this trip. I took your anger and I made a storage area in your minds to collect it. Anger is power and power can be used in magic. When you had enough power then I formed weapons for you. An axe for Mairen and a sword for you."
"I used your power and my magic to form the weapons. They are solid and tangible, but right now theyíre in another reality. When you think about them you can feel them, and as long as you donít draw them they remain invisible."
"As I said itís your power, shaped into a magical form by my magic. I use music for two reasons. The first reason is that music can actually let me direct my power more precisely. The second reason is that my magic can be hidden very nicely inside the music."
"The weapons are intended to be used against the priests of Skaal. Theyíll kill an unshielded priest and theyíll go right through a normal shield allowing you to kill the priest using it. They also provide a shield against magic, and a partial shield against physical weapons. The shield is designed to cover your back and sides, but you have to be aware that I havenít made you invulnerable. As long as someone comes at you from the front their weapons are just as effective as they would be normally."
I nodded approvingly and I saw Mairen do the same and I gave her a grin that she returned and for the first time since my wife and children died my heart gave a bounce of what... It was certainly more than comradeship and for the first time I was hoping that we would both live through this, to discover what Ďwhatí was.
"Not everyone in the Temple is there voluntarily and putting aside the captives intended for sacrifice and the servants who are all slaves, not even all of the guards and priests are there because they want to be."
"For the guards many of them simply took jobs with the Temple. For the priests most of whom joined the Temple as acolytes, not even dreaming that what is seen as a fairly benevolent priesthood, actually plumbs the depths of evil. Once you become a guard or a priest of the Temple, you leave when youíre dead and not before."
"So when the party begins you might find you have some strange companions suddenly helping you. Some will still hesitate, and the spell that created the blades will be able to detect a true priest and a dedicated guard and they'll die. If unable to tell the good from the bad, the blades instead of killing will put those they are unsure of into a deep sleep, to be examined at our leisure. They will also put any innocents to sleep as well to get them out of the way."
He grinned as he picked up his flute again, "Of course that assumes that weíre going to win. But whether we live or die a lot of Skaalís priest are going to precede us into the next world." As he began to play his flute again, and I leaned back and just enjoyed the sound as the music flowed around me.
We were standing in the bow of the barge as we approached our final destination. I looked at the Temple of Skaal, and the fear that had once been in my heart at the very thought of it, was gone. It was a series of impressive buildings. They were massive and they dominated the surrounding area.
It was an incongruous sight to see in the middle of a huge city. It was surrounded on all sides by a lawn that in places was more than a mile deep. The expanse of green led up to the Temple complex itself. Even the Palace, though far older, wasnít as impressive.
But then the lawn was intentional. It stated unequivocally the arrogance of Skaalís priesthood and the contempt they felt for the rest of humanity. Even the Palace grew some of itís own food in the form of apples and pears and peaches, yet the Temple produced nothing, contributed nothing to its own existence.
Mairen asked from beside me, "What is your city like, Ceran?"
"Well I didnít see very much of it. I only left the Temple occasionally after I arrived here, and I was only four at the time. However I can remember my mother telling me about it. Itís a peaceful city; very law abiding and you can walk down any street in the city and not worry about cutpurses and you know that when you go out, your house wonít be robbed. There are no beggars to intrude on your peace, and there are no homeless to worry about, and there are no orphans. It sounds idyllic doesnít it?" I asked sarcastically.
She hesitated for a moment, before saying anything, "You use some unusual words for a boy your age."
I nodded my head, "True. However my one sanctuary in the Temple was the Temple Library. I could actually get away from the beatings for an hour or two. The Librarian, Sandak, is one of the few important members of the community who isnít a priest. He has very poor eyesight, heís almost blind in fact, and he has to bring a book within a few inches to read it."
"He was very unworldly, and he had no idea of what went on in the Temple. Even though I always had weals on my body from the whippings his eyesight was so bad that he never saw them, and I was careful not to tell him about them. He felt like the grandfather I had never known. If he had found out what they were doing to me, he would have gone to the High Priest and complained, never dreaming that it might end up in him dying. Though even if he had known it wouldnít have stopped him."
"I spent about half the time reading and the other half of the time talking to him. He didnít choose simple words just because he was talking to a child. He used the vocabulary he had gained in over sixty years of scholarship. I appreciated that fact and even when he used words I couldnít understand I could get the general trend of the conversation and afterwards Iíd look up the words that I hadnít known."
She nodded, and Weltan said with some amusement, "Well, Mairen may understand what idyllic means, but I can only guess that it means peaceful, but from the way that you used it I gather itís not as peaceful as it seems."
"Well peaceful is part of the meaning, but the word really is supposed to convey a feeling of perfection. However itís not perfect. There is almost no crime, because criminals, who end up in jail for more than a few days, disappear. There are no beggars or homeless people or orphans for the same reason. They all end up in the Temple as sacrifices to Skaal."
"Thereís a history of Skaalís Temple in the Library. The Librarian doesnít even know that it exists. There's one bookshelf that is protected with magic. Without magic all that you would see or feel is a blank wall. While they put limits on my power, Iím a strong Mage, and the spell couldnít hide the bookshelf from me."
I paused for a moment before continuing reflectively, "About fifteen hundred years ago a group of blood Mages got together and decided to take over the world. They were only Master Class Mages and while they might not have been completely sane, at the same time they were realistic enough to know that they didnít have the power to do so."
"Since they didnít have the power they decided to set up a structure which would one day have enough power to attain their goal. They chose a unimportant god, Skaal, who actually was a minor god of healing, and built a religion around him, as a god of death."
"While Nalen was already thousands of years old at that time, it was growing away from the area on which the Temple sits. They were able to acquire the land and quite a bit of land around it quite cheaply. Then they created a minor spell. They called it the Spell of Negation."
"While it was a minor spell it was a permanent spell, and the priests of the order were connected to the spell when they were ordained and they added their power to it. Over a hundred year what began as a minor spell became a major spell, and it occurred so gradually and subtlety that not even the most powerful Mage or priest of one of the other orders can detect it."
"Once the spell became a major force in Nalen life, the priests of Skaal began acting almost openly in collecting those they wished to sacrifice on the altar. The spell prevented anyone from questioning it or even wondering about it very much.
"Blood Mages arenít always evil but they have a tendency to lean towards the Dark. Those who donít wish to become tools of the Dark must watch what they do very carefully. The priests of Skaal embraced the Dark from the very beginning, and the sacrifices arenít intended to honor Skaal but simply to give them power."
"Their goal is to rule the world and they go about it very religiously, because that is their real religion, and their real god - the goal of conquest. There is always a First or Second Rank priest with the Hands of Skaal, the lower rank priest is as I said there to count the bodies, but through him the higher level priests collects the energy that death brings. They send it on to the Head Temple."
"We are worth much more than ordinary people to them, because our position in society actually gives us much more energy than an ordinary person. Unfortunately itís not guesswork on their part but based on long experience. For blood Mages to have too much power is as bad as having too little power, so as I mention they have a quota system and they very carefully regulate the number of sacrifices made.
As I had been talking we had been poled up to the back entrance of the Temple. The city had been rebuilt many times and now the oldest part of the city was on a hill a hundred and fifty feet above the plain surrounding the city, and as much as fifty to a hundred feet above the newer levels of the city. The newest level, on part of which the Temple sat, was actually right on the plain.
The guards on the canal gate opened it to let the canal boat through, and I felt us crossing the first of the Wards protecting the Temple. The closer we got to the Temple the more Wards we went through. I was still somewhat amazed that my Uncle had been able to get through them.
I said to my two companions in mind speech, as we were tying up to the dock, *Well the game begins. Weíre considered to be inside the Temple proper now, and we're free to do what we will. But we have to be inside the Temple walls for me to do anything, since the walls contain the most potent Wards.*
I was awed just to be here. I knew that Ceran intended to destroy it, though how he would ever be able to destroy such massive structures I had no idea. The isolation made it even more awe-inspiring.
Ceran said looking ahead of us to where several richly robed priests were waiting, "Interesting. It appears the priests didnít try to hide the fact that they had me back in their possession. The fancy dressed peacock is another uncle. Despite his liking of fancy dress, Taysell is a good person and heís always liked me."
"However his loyalty is to Thentjie, and heíd slit my throat in a second if he thought I was a danger to it. As I mentioned a spell hides what the priests of Skaal really do, however they do represent a god of death, and the occasional sacrifice is held quite openly."
"With my father giving me to the Temple, he gave them my life. It appears that they intend to sacrifice me openly, and my uncle is here to observe and make sure that my death really occurs."
When they suddenly turned and went back into the Temple, Ceran said with amusement, "They werenít here to greet me. Iím shattered, simply shattered. Theyíre not interested in my sparkling personality at all; they just wanted to make sure I was actually here."
At my side Mairen smothered a giggle. Obviously Ceran was very confident. Maybe not confident that we would get out of this alive, but simply that we would get to destroy a lot of the Temple before we died.
We were being led by guards and followed by guards, but none of them were very close, and we hadnít been bound or chained. I shook my head, saying, "Itís amazing, a prisoner would never have been left free if they were under our control."
Ceran said, "We gave our word, and as I mentioned our honor is part of what makes us so valuable to them. Obviously Fandain didnít tell them the exact wording of our surrender terms. They donít know that as soon as we came into the Temple proper that we were free to do what we wanted. I wonder."
He was silent as we moved through the massive building heading for the part of the Temple where the major sacrifices were made.
After a few minutes he said with respect in his voice, "It appears that I underestimated Fandain. Heís one of those priests who thought they were entering the service of a benevolent god when he became an acolyte. Somehow he managed to hide his hatred of the Temple once he realized what it really was. Heís been working from the inside to undermine the Temple ever since."
"Blood Mages who embrace the Dark are normally more interested in power than scholarship, so heís one of the few scholars that the Temple has managed to produce in itís long history."
"When I came into the possession of the Temple he felt that I was more important than I seemed. He began to do some research on my family. He actually knows who my ancestors are, and the fact that the priests of Skaal here in the Temple donít know what our actual promise was, is deliberate."
"Heís not sure exactly what I am, but he expects something to happen so it appears we will have much more help than we expected."
This enormous room, which was the center of the Temple of Skaal and the place where the most important ceremonies were held, had the feel of death to it that more sensitive people could actually feel. I looked over it and I was struck once again by the starkness. A temple should be full of light, not like this place with torchlight flickering barely holding back the darkness.
There were no statues, no wall hangings, simply what seemed like acres and acres of bare stone. Nothing was allowed to mar the smooth surfaces of the walls that were barely lit by torches, and though I knew there was nothing in the shadows, that was more disturbing than anything else.
The floor was equally bare; the only thing standing on it was the pure black stone that made up the altar. Oh of course there were tons of priests and tons of guards and we stopped immediately in front of the altar and the guards who had escorted us, moved off to the sides.
It seems there werenít going to be any pleasantries between us. The High Priest motioned to me and said, "Prepare him."
I said, "I donít think so." And I moved my finger in a spiral and a shield surrounded the three of us.
The High Priestís face crumpled almost as if he were a little child whose toy had been taken away from him. He said almost in a whine, "You gave your word."
I said soothingly, "And we kept it, Fessen. I assure you that our honor is completely intact. We said that we wouldnít try to escape or cause any trouble until we were inside the Temple of Skaal. Well weíre inside the Temple of Skaal, have been for several minutes in fact. Therefore our commitment is over and weíre free to cause as much trouble as we can get away with."
I grinned nastily, "And I assure you, I can get away with causing a lot of trouble. You limited part of my power, and in the Temple a great deal of it is bound. However what you bound is the power I get from my ancestors who have occupied the Dragon Throne for the last two thousand years. Thatís the power I got from my father."
"Compared to the power that I inherited from my motherís line that power is almost insignificant. Through my mother, Iím a direct descendant of the three Dragon Kings. However if I had attacked you directly, even I donít have the power to get through your Wards. Not yet anyway. Theyíre simply too powerful, though in a few more years I could have done it. From the inside of course they are no longer a problem."
My voice was almost a whisper as the anger I had been keeping locked inside my heart was finally released. "I really intended to wait for another few years. Unfortunately your Hands attacked and destroyed the village I was living in. You put names and faces to your sacrifices, and I couldnít force myself to delay any longer."
"You really should have looked into my background when my father gave me to you. If you had you would have realized that trying to control me was dangerous. To be safe you should have put me on the altar at the beginning."
"One of your priests put the pieces together and heís aware that Iím much more powerful than you ever knew, but he doesnít know what I am. The first Dragon King was my namesake Seran though his name was spelled differently from mine. I wonít tell you about my ancestors except for him, but I could name them, and, if you had bothered to look, so could you."
I shrugged my shoulders, "I suppose when you set out to rule the world, the past doesnít seem very important. But about Seran, he was in somewhat the same position as I am in a way. His uncle was on the throne, but unlike me his uncle had usurped the throne when Seran was fifteen and he had to go into hiding."
"He was just biding his time, because he was already a powerful Mage, something his uncle didnít know. Seran was easily able to hide from those people his uncle had searching for him, and at the most important time of his life, he was in the far north of the country in the Dragon Mountains. They got that name because it was well known that dragons lived there. However they didnít interfere with us lesser mortals, they ignored us in fact as long as we didnít get anywhere near their nests. That was something they wouldnít allow because the young of their species like the young of many other species were very vulnerable even to us."
"Even that wasnít a problem for my ancestor because dragons were dying, their species after untold ages was about to become extinct. Worldwide at that point in their history there were probably less than one hundred dragons left. Dragons didnít worry about humans or others getting near their nests because they no longer had nests."
I sighed, "Of the dragons alive at that point only one dragon was still fertile, or at least still had been fertile, and she had produced one dragonet. However though the dragonet was female, the dragons could tell she wasnít fertile."
"Despite the fact that dragons were the most powerful magic users on our world, they were unable to do anything. They gave up at that point and were simply waiting for death to claim their race."
"If the dragonet, her name was Esfera by the way, had been fertile, she would have been guarded by dragons as the precious being she would have been. Since she was infertile she was allowed to grow as dragonetís had always grown, putting her life in danger to hunt."
"She was one hundred and twenty years old and just beginning the grown spurt that would have resulted in her reaching her full size at about two hundred years or a little older."
"At the time she was about ten feet long not including her tail and she was a good hunter but she was a trifle overconfident, and tried to take down a hell-boar." I paused looking around to see if everyone was still listening, and everybody was and even the priests of Skaal were captivated by the story.
I chuckled under my breath, my anger back under control again, and then I continued, "Actually I shouldnít say tried. She in fact succeeded in killing the hell-boar, but she was seriously injured herself and was losing a lot of blood, and would have bled to death in a couple of hours."
"Seran was within earshot, and he was confident enough in his magic that he went to see what had happened. Of course he found a dead hell-boar, and a dying dragonet. This was the most important moment of his life and the most important moment that dragons as a species have ever gone through."
"Esfera in fact was weak and dying from loss of blood, not from the injuries. While not a Healer, Seran was able to seal the wounds and stop the blood flow, yet she needed blood to live."
"Her body was too weak to produce blood for herself and at that point Seran took a risk. He was aware that Healers took blood from donors to give to those who had lost large amounts of blood. He didnít know if his blood was compatible with hers. In order to test it, he actually took some of her blood into his body, and while he felt ill for a few minutes it appeared that his blood and hers was compatible."
"He stimulated his body to produce massive amounts of blood and transported it into her body and she began to recover. But though he didnít know it, they were both being changed drastically."
"He suddenly got very sick and after a few minutes he lost consciousness. When he awoke he found himself in Estanarís lair and she was taking care of him and her daughter Esfera. Heíd been unconscious for close to a month, as her blood, that was poisonous to most humans, began to affect him. Began to change him."
"As his blood mixed with hers at just the right time in her life reversed the damage that had made her infertile, and suddenly she was the savior of her race." I paused thinking about what I was saying and I revised it a little, "No thatís not quite true, Seran and Esfera were considered the saviors of the race of dragons."
"There are a couple of thousand dragons on our world right now and they are all descended from Esfera. Her blood in his body, even though it was a tiny amount, changed him and his descendants forever."
"In gratitude and in respect for the new powers that Seran began to show, Estanar who was Queen of the few dragons that were left, gave him her allegiance. When Seran reclaimed the throne, he got the title Dragon King, because he was literally the King of Dragons. His son didnít inherit his abilities, but his daughter, who was his oldest child, did, and the next Dragon King, who was her only son, didnít occupy the Dragon Throne."
"A Dragon King doesnít always exist, sometimes generations go by before the abilities show up. But when the abilities show up, then the one who has it claims allegiance from the Queen of Dragons and through her all of the dragons."
I lowered myself to a crosslegged position sitting on the floor and closed my eyes and evoked my second Astral Form. Suddenly I was looking down at the High Priest and the other priests of Skaal from twenty feet in the air as I used mind speech to continue my talk he was looking at me in fear and horror.
*This is the ability that is necessary, to claim the allegiance of the dragons. The ability to evoke a secondary Astral Form, in the form of a dragon. While in human form I can use some of the magic that a dragon has access to, in this form my magic is greater even than the most powerful dragon, or it will be when Iím an adult.*
*Two years ago after I escaped from the Temple, I rescued a dragonet and her blood mingled with my blood. The contact between us changed us. I was ill for several months, but never deathly ill. It was simply the changes that normally appear with a Dragon King at puberty, five years or so compressed into a three month period. For her it allowed her to skip the very long period of being a baby dragon and catapulted her into the next phase of life years before she would normally enter it.*
*Today for the first time in their history, dragons will interfere in the day to day workings of human society. Following my orders they will destroy every Temple, every shrine of Skaal, and then theyíll be going after the priests and the Hands of Skaal. When the sun rises tomorrow, it will rise on a very different world, one where the Temple of Skaal no longer exists.*
One of the First Rank priests behind the High Priest stepped out in front of him. It was Fandain, and he asked, "What about those priests who were forced to serve a god they hated?"
I swung my long neck and head to look at him, *Dragons are the greatest magic users on our world, Fandain. They will also be watching for slaves and sacrifices since they donít want to harm innocents anymore than I do. They know that there are those in the Temples who hate what theyíve been doing, and they will be watching for them. Even when I was a captive here in the Temple, I could tell who was committed to the goals of the Temple and those who were not. The fact that you were able to hide what you are from me is more a reflection on your power than from any lack that I had."
I had been watching and listening with fascination. Suddenly everything was still and a light began to glow and then three beings gradually appeared in the air above the High Priestís head. With a shock I realized that my own patron, Salar, Goddess of Justice was one of them, and the others were Camlin the All-Father and Tikar the Mother-Goddess. I looked at Weltan, but I could see that he too was still and unaware.
Turning my attention back to the God and two Goddesses who had just appeared I saw little Ceran begin to glow as well and he stood up. He nodded his head to them in a gesture of greeting and respect in the manner of one welcoming family members.
Tikar spoke sadly, "So you intend to go through with it, Ceran."
Ceran said, "Yes mother. I must. Those beings that the so called priests of Skaal have been sacrificing for the last fifteen hundred years are trapped. As long as the Spell of Negation lasts their souls are bound within it."
"You and father have made the laws by which we live. As Gods we may not actively interfere in the Realm of Mortals except through our representatives, our priests. If we have no priests to act for us we must sit helplessly by and simply watch evil happen. I could no longer accept evil being done, and to interfere I must give up my Godhood and my Immortality and become one of them."
"You have priests, little brother. Why not let them act for you?" said the second of the Goddesses.
Ceran scowled and said angrily, "They use my name Salar, but they are not my priests. There are those among them who would worship a God of Light. But I am no longer a God of Light to them, I represent evil and when the temple of Skaal dies they will abandon me as they should to find a new God to serve."
She said sadly, "It will deeply sadden Camlin and Tikar little one." She paused, "And in fact it will sadden all of us. Itís ironic isnít it, Ceran Skaal, when you die destroying the Spell of Negation your essence will dissipate and you will be gone for all time. Only a God can truly die."
Ceran anger no longer in his voice as he said serenely, "It took me a long time to make my decision, Salar. I watched them doing evil in my name, and then trapping the souls in between the world of the living and the afterlife. My brothers and sisters counseled patience, that no matter how long they were trapped, those souls would eventually be freed. What is a thousand years or ten thousand years to beings who will have all eternity once theyíre freed?"
"Though they counseled patience, the actions of my brothers and sisters and parents is what led me to my decision. Iíve watched my mother in her aspect as a Goddess of Death accept the soul of a newborn. If life as a mortal didnít matter, why did she grieve or feel sorrow, when that life was cut short?"
"When Ceran was born and then died as a three year old boy, I took that as an omen, even though Iím aware that weíre supposed to give omens not follow them. After I conveyed his soul to mother I became him, knowing my life would be short, and eternity closed to me. Though I had to keep some of my Godhood until I could convince Ceranís father that I was no longer him, but something different, and persuade him to give me to the Temple that bears my name."
"The sacrifice of a God even one who was now mortal would have destroyed the spell and freed the trapped souls. That would have left the committed priests still in command, but critically weakened. But they did something I hadnít expected. They tried to break me so they could use me against the King of Thentjie, and replace him."
"The strength to defy them came from Ceran and his ancestors, and what he would have become. The next Dragon King, and the unexpected meeting with Ethra, brought me as Ceran to the full powers he was heir to, years earlier than would normally have occurred. Now I have the chance to destroy the spell and also, through dragons, to destroy the infrastructure of the temple."
He shrugged unhappily, "However I can only use Ceranís power. I may not use the power that is mine as a God. I can destroy the spell but as powerful as Ceran would one day have been, not even he could survive the backlash of power that will occur. I regret the sorrow that my death would bring to all of you, if I die as I now am, but at the same time I still feel itís necessary."
Salar smiled, "Perhaps not little brother. The Dark Gods have been meddling. They sent you the omen; sure you would act on it. They put it into the High Priestís mind to try to break you rather than sacrifice you. Theyíve been helping you."
Ceran looked baffled, saying, "But why? The temple is evil!"
Salar grinned, "But itís not theirs, little one. Itís not theirs. Those in power in the temple claim no God, neither of the Light nor of the Dark. They would destroy the power of the Temple and potentially one of the most powerful of the Gods of Light."
She waved at the man, "Camlin, the All-Father, was aware of their meddling, but didnít interfere."
The God spoke in a deep elemental voice, "Couldnít interfere, daughter. Not even those who made them can flout the laws. They didnít take little Ceranís life; he died because it was his time. They didnít put it into Ceran Skaalís mind to replace him. Those were his thoughts, his ideas."
He shook his head, and gave a little smile, "If they had left it there then we would not be here now. But then the Dark seldom leaves things as they are. Like a crooked gambler, they werenít satisfied that the odds were on their side. They had to use loaded dice, interfering directly by putting the idea to use Ceran rather than sacrifice him into the High Priest's mind. They upset the balance between the Light and the Dark and we are here to redress that balance."
Tikar said in a light voice, "What do you think Fandain? Do you think my son is worthy to claim your allegiance?"
"Ah, undoubtedly, but is he really as young as he looks?" said Fandain from where he was standing in front of the ranks of the priests of Skaal and his voice was somewhat surprised, not rejecting Ceran but simply showing his astonishment.
Salar giggled like a small child, "`What you see is what you get.í as they say in one of the other universes." She looked at Ceran and I could see love on her face. "Heís very young by the scale which Gods use to reckon time. Most of us have existed since before your sun was born, and many of us have watched the birth and death of numerous suns such as yours. Ceran Skaal was born when the first of your people began settling to farm instead of living primarily by hunting."
"He watched with delight as you struggled towards civilization, and frowned when you suffered setbacks. He crowed with delight when people chose him as a minor God of Light, and cried when the temple of Skaal began to use him."
"He could destroy your world with a snap of his fingers, yet was willing to give his life to give the souls that were trapped their freedom. The Dark canít understand why we would sorrow at the death of a single newborn as Ceran mentioned, since it would simply be passing on to the afterlife."
She smiled lovingly at Ceran and he returned it, "To us each part of a personís life is precious, and though itís only the equivalent of a second in a personís existence, we regret the promise of wonderment that the newbornís life would have produced. The choices it would have made. The good, or evil that it would have done."
"So yes heís as young as he looks. We will give him back his immortality, but he has chosen a way, the life of a mortal, and that life must be lived with no knowledge that heís actually a God. What he does, for good or ill must be done as a mortal. We do not feel that he will do ill, but as with all Gods or beings whether mortal or immortal, we must leave him the freedom to choose. Sometimes the choice is not what we expect."
"With the help of you and the other priests who wish to serve a God of Light, Ceran may be able to destroy the spell without giving up his life." She looked at Mairen, "That is why you are here, my valiant soldier. His life as a mortal has been nothing but sorrow to him. The gentleness of Ceranís mother was his and not Ceran Skaalís. He blurred her memory in his mind so that he couldnít claim what wasnít his. The brutality he was subjected to broke our hearts but it did not lead him to evil as the Dark Gods thought as they tried to take him from the Light. He is, as you once said, a nasty little boy at times, but his anger is only turned on those who made him what he has become as a mortal. He is aware of and has compassion for those who are part of the temple of Skaal, yet did not choose that life, but were bound to it."
"If he survives the battle in the temple, then he needs someone to show him that a mortalís life need not be only brutality but can provide a deep and lasting joy." She looked at the man standing beside me, "Weltan is close to choosing his future path, but he has not yet decided whether it will be life or death.
"We do not say that Ceran Skaal will survive the battle that is to come. While we have the power to know the future, one of the laws that my Father and Mother made is that we should not look into the futures. For there are many possible futures, and if we saw them we might choose one above another and try to make it happen. That may not be for that would be meddling."
"If he dies, then, with immortality restored, he will return to us. If he lives then he should come to know both sides of a mortalís life both the bad, which he has already experienced in great measure, and the good. We hope that you and Weltan if he decides on life will show him the joyful part."
I had no need to think it over. To be the guardian of a God was an honor. And to be the guardian of this God, "I feel privileged Salar. I have no doubt that many of the Gods of Light would be willing to give their existence for us, but I do know that Ceran Skaal intended to do so."
Ceran Skaal looked directly at me for the first time, and for a moment his face was solemn and then he began to laugh mischieviously. "I thank you Mairen and I am honored as well but remember I will be mortal and I wonít remember what I am. I imagine Iíll get into a lot of trouble over the next few years."
I chuckled as well. "My father married twice and the brothers and sisters I have are much younger than I am. I assure you little one, spanking a little bottom comes naturally to me."
He chuckled again and then turned his face his face to Fandain and his face became solemn again. "Once the battle is over, if we win, then, with the aid of you and the other priests, I will destroy the Spell of Negation that was cast to help the Temple of Skaal conquer the world. I will not allow my name to be used again. To become mine you and the other priests must change, Fandain."
"To become my priests you must give up your natural powers when you are ordained, and thenceforth the power that you use, will come from me. It will be the power of Healing and never again will you be able to use blood magic. However the power to Heal is also the power to kill if necessary, but you will only be able to do so to defend yourselves."
His face was reflective as he continued, "At the beginning when they first chose me as a God of Healing I was called Serdal. It might be a good idea to use that rather than Skaal. Skaal is now a God of Death and will probably be never again be seen as anything else."
His face became mischievious again, as he said, "Unlike Mairen, you and those priests in the Temple will remember a bit of what transpires here. You will remember I appeared, and that my family was here." He laughed out loud, "However while you will remember that I am young, you wonít remember exactly how young, which should put your mind as ease. Also I have no need for a celibate order, I wish you to take wives and have natural heirs. That will help to show that youíre different from the Priests of Skaal who have been previously existed."
He turned to the Gods and bowed with respect. "Goodbye, Mother, Father, Salar, until we meet again." And he waved his hand and the world started again, and for a few seconds I remembered what had happened and then the memory was gone.
Ceran struck then, his huge claw flicking out and his talons tore the High Priest apart. He settled back onto his haunches and watched the battle, his claw reaching out at times to take the life of a priest threatening one of his allies.
The battle was brief but bloody as Mairen and Weltan carved a swath through the rank of loyal priests and guards. Many of them died when the priest or guard standing next to them struck them down. There were far more of them than Ceran expected, at least a third of them came down on his side when it they were required to act. Another ten percent hesitated and some died as they were hacked down, and others struck by the spelled axe and sword of Mairen and Weltan simply collapsed and their fate would be decided upon later.
The battle only lasted a few minutes. Astonishingly enough only about a dozen of the renegade priests and guards were killed though another twenty were severely injured. Many of the others had minor injuries but the sheer surprise of the attack had kept the death and injuries down, while all of the loyal priests and guards had died, or were dying.
Taysell and his bodyguards had formed a group to one side and had managed to stay out of the battle only needing to defend themselves a couple of times.
Ceran had felt satisfaction as he looked down at the bodies of the dead and dying priests and guards. There was little pity even for those who were on his side. Many of the priests had beaten him as badly as the loyal priests had done. While he acknowledged that personal animosity shouldnít affect how he regarded them, he was a child and he despised them, and he had no intention of forgiving them.
That being said he could work with them, and they spent the next several hours rooting out the remaining priests and guards. Not that there were many priests remaining inside the Temple. Those that were, were of the lower ranks. The planned sacrifice had been so important that every priest that could be there, had been there.
However only about half of the guards had been present. Many of them were stationed throughout the Temple, and, when they realized that it was hopeless, had fled through the gates, and only a few of were ever heard from again.
Weltan looked around with satisfaction, as the renegade priests and the slaves and the released sacrifices began to clean up the carnage of the brief but savage battle. He said to Ceran and Mairen, "I feel more alive than I have in years." He waved his hand, "Weíve changed the world as we knew it. It will never be the same again. Just as this room is now flooded with light from torches and lanterns our world is flooded with light from the absence of evil."
Mairen asked with a smile on her face, "I gather that you no longer wish to die? Iím glad." as she put her hand on his arm and squeezed.
Weltan said without hesitation, "No I no longer wish to die. The memory of my family will always be with me." He looked squarely into her eyes, "However I know that I friends in you and Ceran. Whether what we now have will ever be anything more, doesnít really matter. Thatís for time to tell, but for the first time since my wife and children were killed Iím looking toward the future with eagerness."
It was raining when I greeted my uncles looking up at them, and there was a twinkle in Taysellís eyes but Witan was glaring at me. I chose to ignore it and simply nodded at the people buzzing about the Temple buildings, "The Temple is being stripped of anything that has value and doesnít have any unpleasant feelings. For instance nothing in the High Priestís chambers is being removed. Much of the contents have been in the presence of evil men for hundreds of years and they've soak up feelings that can make people uneasy."
"When we destroy the Temple complex the unpleasant items will be locked inside." I told them. Witan was still glaring at me but he was obviously thinking about my statement.
I said soothingly, "I donít want the throne uncle. I have no interest in having the ability to order somebody to do something and have them obey me because Iím their king."
I continued with amusement thinking of my present nudity, "Iíd actually have to put on clothes and I like things the way they are. Iím a little boy and naked like I am, like half of the children my age, I can be of no class or station in life and nobody cares whether I have no clothes on."
I took a deep breath, and spreading my arms above my head I twirled in glee at being a boy and being alive to live my life to the fullest feeling the rain on my bare body. For the first time in my life that I could remember I was completely free and I felt a surge of joy. I had no intention of ever being trapped into becoming king.
I stopped after a few seconds and looked at Witan and told him, "I donít want the throne, uncle. Only duty would force me to accept that position and I have so many relatives Iíll never be missed."
I began twirling again screaming my delight then chanted, "I donít want it! I donít want it! Never, never, never!"
I heard Taysell break into laughter and when I stopped twirling beginning to feel dizzy I saw that Witan had a small smile on his face. Behind them Mairen was laughing out loud and Weltan had a huge smile on his face.
I knew from my discussions with Sandak that paranoia, as long as it didnít get out of control, wasnít a bad thing for a King. As long as it didnít get anybody killed; me, him, or innocent bystanders, that was fine with me.
I looked around at the remaining priests and acolytes. My animosity for them hadnít lessened just because I found out they didnít like what they were doing. I wasnít that forgiving, and I didnít really care that they had survived or not. However it was nice that there were eleven first rank priest and seven second rank priests still alive. That gave me a means of destroying the Spell of Negation which gave me a slim chance to actually survive.
I said to them, and my voice was cool, my dislike showing, not that I cared, "The Spell of Negation after fifteen hundred years is an enormously powerful spell, but at the same time it has gathered power over such a long time period, only taking a little from each priest."
"According to most of the books I read in the library, spells that act in this manner are very vulnerable to a sudden surge of power. As priests of Skaal of course youíre connected directly to the spell. I can send my power through you and that will overwhelm the spell and unable to contain the extra power it will it will in a sense explode, destroying itself."
Fandain looked at me sardonically, saying dryly, "And just what will happen to us, Ceran? Itís obvious that you feel antipathy for us. Not that I blame you, your time here was a horrifying experience and I know you were never free of pain when you were here. Pain that we caused."
He spread his arms, and then shrugged. I nodded, grinning like a shark I had once seen when the fisherman had needed an extra hand and had taken me out with them. It had been rare, Iíd only been out four times in the thirteen months I had been in the village.
I gave a flip of my hand, "Dislike you, yes. Do I want you dead? Not especially. I donít like my family very much either, but I donít want them dead. The spell was created to take your energy not to give it. What it puts out is designed to affect others, the very act of being connected to it protects you."
"When the spell explodes it will affect everyone else in the city, even cause the more sensitive of them some pain, but it shouldnít affect anyone severely. Now that Iíve explained what you already know, Fandain, you either trust me or not."
He nodded, "What Iíve read agrees with what youíve told us." He grinned, "Itís not surprising since we read the same books, though I have read books from outside the library so I have a more varied knowledge of spells."
I nodded in agreement. I sat down crosslegged on the floor saying, "This is something that was taught to me by Servala. It will take several hours but all you have to do is be here. Thatís why I told you to bring something to do, and I see most of you have done so."
I lifted my flute and began to play. Closing my eyes I let myself become entranced by the music, and after several minutes I reached out for the priests. I could tell as I began to gather them in, that I had perhaps done them an injustice because their minds were calm and peaceful.
Absently I wondered if that would change my feelings for them, and I knew it probably wouldnít. Perhaps by the time I became an adult I might be able to forgive and forget, but for the moment I was a child and I had no wish to forgive them.
But right now it wasnít very important, and I put it aside. I located the channels in their minds that connected them to the spell and drew them all in. When I had a secure grip on all of them I began to gather my power. It took time and when I was ready to release it, it had gone far beyond the point of being uncomfortable, becoming painful.
I hadnít lied to them. I didnít always tell all of the facts, but I never lied. They were in no danger from what I was doing, but others might be. I could destroy the spell but when it exploded there would be a tremendous backlash. In order to protect the people in the city, I would need to absorb much of that backlash.
I didnít know if the defenses I had been constructing for the past two years could contain that energy. If it couldnít, well death would probably be preferable to what could happen. I had no wish to live in a body that was no longer aware, a mind that had less knowledge than a newborn baby.
Even though I was determined to destroy the spell, fear rose in my mind as the moment to act approached. I took the flute out of my mouth and swallowed hard. Then, trembling a little, I tapped into the power reservoir I had built and guided the energy into the channels in the minds of the priests.
I braced myself for the backlash and I was astonished when it didnít occur, yet I could feel the spell beginning to dissipate, though I knew with a spell of such power it would take days and weeks to disappear completely.
I was wondering why I hadnít felt a backlash, when the answer was given to me, *We thank you, little one. You have freed us at long last. The Spell of Negation actually trapped the souls of the sacrifices so that we couldnít go on to the afterlife. A piece of us therefore still existed in the corporeal world and the spell kept that part of us alive.*
*We had the ability to take more power than we needed. Eventually we could have gathered enough power to destroy the spell but it would have taken several hundred years before that could have happened. We have been watching you and we were aware of what you intended to do. We were also aware that you were aware of what could have happened to you if the backlash was allowed to strike you. Yet you never hesitated, you were willing to sacrifice your life or what you considered even worse, your mind to protect the people of the city.*
*We couldnít allow someone so selfless to die in a moment that should be filled with glory. Each of us taking a little bit of energy, we were able to spare you that. The others passed on but they asked me to remain behind and thank you. Goodbye little one, we thank you and the priests of Skaal who made it happen for us.*
I felt the surge of joy that he felt as he prepared to leave our world and go on to the afterlife. A singing joy that contained so much power that I was stunned to tears and looking around through tear blurred eyes I saw that most of the priests and acolytes were also crying.
When I could talk again I said, with awe in my voice, "I didnít know! There was no hint in the book that told about the spell that it was intended to capture souls as well as hide what the priests of Skaal were doing."
Fandain had one of the acolytes on his knees comforting the crying boy, "It probably wasnít intentional. If they had known that the spell was capturing souls they would have tried to control it."
Looking I saw that all of the acolytes and many of the full priests were crying, and they were comforting each other as Fandain was doing for the young acolyte.
A couple of days later we were in one of the tents that had been set up for the former inhabitants of the Temple, having a meal. Fandain asked me, "Now that the Wards have been released, how to you plan to destroy the Temple buildings? Can you do it alone?"
I drank some watered wine and then said, "I could though it would take a great deal of time. Time that I donít intend to waste. Servala and her Consort, Actel, are coming and will be here soon."
In fact they arrived less than an hour later. I could feel their minds approaching and I went outside, accompanied by Mairen and Weltan and Fandain. I looked to the eastern skies, and I saw a couple of dots in the distance. In a few minutes one of the acolytes pointed out the approaching dragons and they immediately captured everyoneís attention.
Few people saw dragons even in flight, not close enough to recognize anyway. Normally they flew too high to see with the human eye and if they were seen at all, it was impossible to distinguish them from birds.
Despite the power that dragons wielded and their incredible size, they seldom turned their attention to what they considered lesser beings. Therefore most of humanity didnít regard them as enemies. They were simply a source of excitement on the few occasions that they allowed humans to see them.
So the former priests of Skaal, acolytes, Temple guards and the freed Temple servants and former sacrifices, buzzed with excitement, perhaps with a little bit of trepidation, but little outright fear.
The buzz began to fade as they got closer and closer and the people took in their overwhelming size. And this sight was even more overpowering because only a few times had anyone ever seen more than one dragon at a time.
I took a deep breath as they landed, and I realized once again that they looked at me as their leader. Like the last of the spirits who had stayed to thank me my heart sang with joy as I moved forward, Mairen and Weltan following closely behind.
I stopped about ten yards in front of them and bowed with respect and they nodded their huge heads. I said in mind speech, *I hope that all of you fared well, Servala.*
*Not all, little one. But you need not grieve for them. The six who died were coming to the end of a long life and they were glad that their deaths came in such a manner rather than fading from old age. When we have a choice it is the way we prefer to go, leaving a legacy behind us.* she told me.
I swallowed hard. I would grieve anyway. The fact that they died the way they wished would be a comfort in the future, but to know that my orders had caused their death, hurt.
However even the pain I felt at their death, couldnít put a dent in the joy I felt from the completion of my self-imposed task. Turning to look at the hated Temple buildings I was aware that the task wasnít quite completed but it would be very, very soon.
The two dragons and I stood at the points of a triangle and we watched as the spell we had cast began to take affect. Within the area of the triangle the Temple was slowly darkening as time began to speed up. In a few minutes the dark and light periods were alternating so swiftly that there was what looked like a haze between us and the buildings.
Thousands upon thousands of years passed and after a time the buildings began to break down, then they began to collapse under their own weight. But we didnít stop even when they became ruins, not until the buildings were but a hill covered with grass, did the spell wind down.
Servala and her Consort, their job done, vaulted into the air and in a few minutes they were gone from my sight. After watching them until they disappeared I looked at what the spell had done and was content.
The last sight of Nalen began to fade, and I stretched my arms in glee as I felt free again. The two years I had spent after my escape from the Temple had been a period of hardship, always looking over my shoulder for the presence of my uncle and my enemies, quite often hungry, but as the same time it had been a period of freedom and I had enjoyed some of it.
But as I had been content when I viewed the complete destruction of the Temple I was content to be travelling on this wagon with Weltan and Mairen, and I looked forward to having a family for the first time that I could remember.
The had watched what I had done, yet unlike some of the priests and my family they didnít regard me with awe. They felt safe around me. I grinned when I remembered last night. I had been clowning around and almost ruined our supper and Weltan, exasperated with me, had turned me over his knee and spanked me.
Despite the pain as his hand struck my bottom, my heart had been singing again that Weltan and Mairen felt comfortable enough to discipline me when I needed it. I rubbed my bum again and grinned. It was going to be an interesting time.
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