In a world of despair, ruled by tyrants and parasites, where is the room for hope?
Once upon a time, a living consciousness collided with the planet Galan in a trail of blood and fire, burning cities and melting the land. The Fall.
Perverting an alien magic in gem shards from that cosmic impact, the God-kin, sorcerer-lords, established a new order from chaos, an absolute theocracy, adored by commoners as living gods.
Now, after generations of a stagnant peace, the city-states of Galan erupt in turmoil and violence. God-kin battle God-kin, while the people revolt, revealing the horrifying truth of corrupted energy. What price power?
Come travel with a small band of warriors fighting for love while confronting themselves.
DARK'S DAUGHTER, HOPE is an adventure in faith, courage, spirit, and the riddle of Consciousness Itself.
Out past the endless sand dunes rose the mountains at last. Stark, naked, they shimmered honey and gold from the setting sun.
It would be another bitterly cold night, but every night in the desert was freezing. Tokal grimaced. His people had learned to survive in the midst of so many of his people who had not.
Staring at burning stars, the air so crisp and clear, he longed for Sera, his betrothed - his life, his heart, his soul. How his body shivered when she was near! Shivered, but never satisfied, not until their wedding night.
Wedding. Marriage. His heart pounded thunderous lust, spurting pleasure to every muscle and limb. He couldn't wait for that sacred joining before the Shining Ones, more profound than any friendship!
Marriage was a spirit journey to the realm of the gods, or so said his grandfather.
“Oh, you’ll have your moments, maybe hate each other silly for months, but if you follow the ways of the Shining Ones, you’ll learn the greatest gifts of all, forgiveness and unconditional love. And there's no way to get there without the journey. You learn as you go. Ain’t no other way.”
The next day found Tokal at the base of the mountains. It was traditional for the man to travel here, alone, braving the guardians of the desert and the crown of the world. Scaling the heights, one discovered countless jewels lying exposed to the sun. Sera had asked for an emerald to match her eyes, and Tokal was determined to bring back the largest the village had ever seen.
How she would be pleased with the bright green crystal adorning the front piece of her marriage dress!
Tokal climbed doggedly to the mountain top, scrambling up gullies, crossing boulders of pink granite, scaling sheer rock walls with the motivation and strength of young love. He would bring back the best, he would!
His body cramped in exhaustion after hours of the strenuous climb, but Tokal grinned in satisfaction. Just as his grandfather had foretold, there was the Cave at last, opening up like a black, jagged maw to swallow the sun. Riches poured out in a flowing river of rainbow beauty; diamonds and rubies, opals and lapis lazuli.
Sera, oh Sera, my love for you is greater than these peaks, more priceless than this treasure of shining, earth-born stars!
Tokal spied his prize. The emerald was enormous and perfect. But Tokal did not see the Karuna stalking up behind him. He only heard mad shrieks echo in the canyons as the beast fed on its still living prey.
Chapter 1 – Yoni
Have I become a god? I am many gods. A dream within a dream within a dream.
He held her hand as she shrieked, her frail body jerking, skinny legs kicking. He wished he could heal her, comfort her, do something.
“Oh, please! Help me! Someone! Stop the pain! I beg you!” the poor girl screamed again and again. “Yoni, please!!”
But it was too late. He knew it. The veiny tumor growing from her forehead popped in bits of bone and blood. Then there was silence. Another victim of the stones.
Numb, frozen, Yoni watched Lily’s brain ooze out of her skull in a purple pool like some dark halo. His friend, this tortured thing, had once been a little girl, just as somewhere, sometime, he himself had been a little boy, he knew.
He sighed and wiped the hot, wet muck from his face. He had a real responsibility to help in any way he could, though this would never stop, this horror, this despair, this torture of existence, until he also died, and was forever erased.
Grey, bent, broken stick figures huddled together in shadows, moaning and crying, as Yoni rolled Lily onto an old burlap sack and dragged her out of the cave. The place reeked of ancient urine and old feces stained the floor and walls.
Still more voices gibbered in the darkness as Yoni passed by.
“You, there…I was king once…”
“You there, dear boy, I was somebody, you know…”
"Oh, gods, help us!!"
“No chance! NO CHANCE!”
Yoni tuned it out, he had to. It was too much to bear. These rotting things. These dying things.
He could only do so much, no matter what his mind told him. How his muscles ached under tanned skin bruised with old scabs and new sores shining like fresh burns. Yoni wiped stinging sweat and ragged blond hair from his eyes. He was so tired.
Slipping on a pile of vomit, he tripped over another still form, skinning his elbows against the stony ground. Nobody helped. Nobody could help. He was alone. Entirely alone.
Lying there, he stared at the beautiful quartz reflections on the high rock ceiling. He wanted to pray, but it’s so hard to choke back the disappointment.
“Yoni? Treasure?” someone asked, giggling.
Climbing to his feet, Yoni shrugged, gripped the burlap, and backed again into the light.
“Yoni? Friend?” the voice came again.
“What?” Yoni answered.
“Friend! Treasure!!” it said, triumphantly.
Nothing. Silence. His elbows hurt.
The sun burned, and Yoni blinked, as he made his careful way outside.
“Oh, bother, another one?” Shik sniffed. “To Cook if it’s fresh, to the pits if it’s been a day. And bring back a pail of water and rags. It stinks around here.”
It always stunk around there.
Yoni glared at the Sentinel. Half flesh, half stone, it lived its gruesome life rooted to a pedestal by some foul sorcery. The creature’s abdomen and waist ballooned, expanded by the living rock suffusing the man’s legs into a single stand. And Shik was a multitude. Many Sentinels were rooted here in the Blessed Isles, watching. Different bodies, but all one mind. One person. Yoni shuddered.
Shik picked his fat nose and smeared the snot against naked ribs covered in filth. Lank, greasy hair draped down to his shoulders, partially obscuring the winking Aj stone imbedded in his forehead.
“Nothing,” Yoni said.
The Sentinel chuckled, stretching long arms up to the blue sky.
Yoni shuddered at the grotesque cracking and grinding of the thing, then felt an overwhelming wave of compassion.
“How can you stand to be you? How can you bear to live as you are?” Yoni asked.
“I pray to the Shining Ones to kill me,” Shik sighed, his eyes softening, “but they never answer. Look at what I’m made to do! Look at me, Yoni. I pray every day to die, but I cannot die. I cannot. I’m just a slave of the jewels. I must be what I was made to be. Don’t you see?”
The Sentinel’s purple Aj stone went dark, then flared a brighter violet. His sad eyes grew cold again, and hard, so Yoni turned away.
Every day home grew more and more unclear, more and more distant, like a dream. Sometimes he remembered his mother chopping vegetables for a stew; smelled the scent of spices and fresh bread, listened to the gurgling pot boiling down fat and bones from deer or rabbit, and she was smiling and humming, and he was loved. Home.
But he couldn’t remember the color of her eyes.
Following the rutted trail through barren hills of striated sandstone, Yoni wondered how he could kill himself, and wondered even more on why he didn’t. The cliffs of the island were so very high. He only had to jump. Easy.
“I’m sorry,” he said as Lily’s head smacked against a rock for the hundredth time. “I’m so sorry.”
What do you have to live for, the shimmering heat roiling from the dry, cracked ground seemed to say.
Nobody cares about you, the buzzards above called down. Just end it, you worthless nothing.
But what was it his father had told him so long ago, in his other life?
“I don’t build these walls and this roof to house the god, as I built our walls and roof to house our bodies. I build this roof and these walls as a gesture, and a reminder, of the Spirit, alive there in every stone and every stream and every leaf of the forest.”
“So the Spirit won’t forget us?” Yoni asked.
“No,” his father answered, “so I won’t.”
His father just smiled his secret smile, and went back to work.
Yoni looked down at the burning rocks of the trail, and his grim cargo. Where are you, Spirit? What are you?
Lily grinned back at him. She had no teeth, no nose - frozen grin, Death’s grin, another secret smile. Alone and hurting in a world of mad secrets, where is the room for hope?
Maybe this was his temple, this moment, his gesture to who knows what, his reminder of who knows what; something deep, something essential. Drenched in sweat, he trudged on with renewed determination.
A pebble fell from the hill to his left, then sliding dirt and more rocks. Bod-kin…?
Tackled hard from behind, Yoni fell face first into the ground. His nose snapped, and he tasted his own blood. Twisting, he jerked to his feet. Can’t breathe! A filthy arm grabbed him around his face, gritty with sand, pinching his broken nose, and he bit down, ripping out a bloody chunk of gristle, and slipped away.
Howling, the thing attacked him again, punching his face, kicking his shins, spitting, and clawing. Yoni’s eyes began to swell, and he lunged forward. They both collapsed in a heap, with Yoni on the bottom. His world was pain, he couldn’t win. Blow after blow hit his stomach, his back, his arms, his legs - he couldn’t win. He’d die here, now…
NOOO!! He could feel the Bod-kin, like heat, could feel his…life. What if he used that life, what if he could borrow that Life?
Blow after blow, like his father chiseling the temple stones, blow after blow, ringing his ears, he couldn’t see at all anymore. The black place was coming, time stopping. Need more strength, need more…LIFE…and he reached for that life, for strength, willed it into himself from his assailant, just a bit, just a chance, and the Bod-kin yelped in pain and surprise.
Yoni rolled on top, gripping greasy hair, and pounding the Bod-kin’s head into the gravel, again and again, until the body went limp, and there was nothing but the sound of his own ragged breathing and a wet, squishy crunching.
The price of life was pain. He hurt everywhere.
What had he done? It didn’t matter.
He rubbed his face, and grimaced at his nose. He touched the Mulad stone between his thighs. It was burning hot, and the scars itched where his penis used to be. Guess I won’t get that dance at the summer fair… Hah!! He was going as mad as the creature that had just tried to kill him. If not now, then inevitably. Not that the Bod-kin actually tried to kill him, not that the Bod-kin actually knew anything at all anymore. They were mad. Full blown mad.
Yoni had witnessed many people, too many, losing body parts, an eye, an arm, whatever, but sometimes they lost their wits, their souls, became Bod-kins, rabid, mindless animals, more wounded than any cripple. Some were young, some were old, some big, some small, all equally lost. If the God-kin were the peak of civilization and power, than surely the Bod-kin were at the extreme bottom of the spectrum.
“Lily, meet Bod-kin,” he wheezed, rolling the new corpse onto the burlap. The relentless heat of the day baked the desolate cactus and the withered, twisted shrubs like hell.
Then just die already, the buzzards laughed.
Pulling up the corners of his bag, Yoni caught a blur out of the corner of his eye. Another Bod-kin? Turning, he saw a Panter perched on a boulder, thirty paces away, perfectly still, perfectly relaxed. A Panter! Its fur was tawny, camouflaged in the rocks, though he had seen black and even white before.
Back home, everyone knew the Panter was lucky, and it was best of all to touch one, to pet one. Not that anyone ever did, or even could. But what have I got to lose? “I’ll be right back,” he said to both corpses. “Don’t go anywhere.” And moved up toward the Panter.
The Panter licked its fur in complete unconcern, absently kneading its claws into the rock.
Panters were enormous, beautiful cats, larger than lions or the tigers he’d seen once in a traveling menagerie, as large as a big horse, or larger. He should have been terrified, but he wasn’t.
Yoni tripped over tangled branches, and a pale green spiny-pear. Careful. Pay attention! One step at a time, left, right, step, step, close now. Glancing up, he saw the Panter, licking its fur, about thirty paces away…on a different boulder! Whaa…?
But the Panter…called…and he trudged forward, numb, until the pale blue of the sky, darkened, deepened, and he was at the top of the rise. Looking down from a sheer cliff, opening out to an endless ocean, he felt a nauseating vertigo and panic. He’d never escape from here, never see his family again, his home again, his friends again, never be that little boy again. He’d become a Bod-kin, or worse. He knew it.
Way off in the distance, buried and bobbing in white-caps, he could make out tiny ships, bringing another harvest. Down below, Crushers, twins to the Sentinels, patrolled the beach shore. They were guardians with huge, hairy legs melded to granite torsos, and bulging arms. Completely faceless except for their winking Aj stones, they were beyond mercy, beyond reason, incapable of reason. He shivered. He’d never escape.
Yoni closed his eyes and stood there, swaying, blood dripping from his nose, and he didn’t care whether he fell forwards or backwards; he just let the wind caress him, and heal him, if it could. Finally, absolutely hopeless, he wiped his face with the back of his hand, smearing blood across his cheeks, sniffed down the tears, and turned back to drag Lily, and the Bod-kin, somehow, to the kitchens. The living have to eat, after all.
The Panter was nowhere to be seen, and though forgotten, the Panter saw.
Chapter 2 – Tanlray
The Panter tracked me into the Harfor, baiting me, pushing me onward through the high passes. When the blizzards came, I huddled miserably alone, without supplies, without hope. The Panter always behind, relentless.
Tangled in robes and plain-woolen skirts, wild, shiny-eyed children raced laughing through the Choosing Day crowd. Good wives beamed in new lace dresses, dabbing sweat from make-up smeared faces. Shepherds, carpenters, and masons swapped ale and tall tales, ignoring wives weighing other options.
In a crooked alley just behind Tanlray, amateur players draped in dark robes sang 'The Fall of the Aton'; sang of days of blood before the Benefactors came. Tan lost himself in the images of glory and grandeur, of love and empire.
Rough shouts shocked Tan awake from his dreaming, and Benefactor Guards shoved him aside, smacking the players with iron-studded cudgels for their trouble. The Benefactors despised the old songs, and old ways.
Tanlray tried to ignore what was happening right in front of him. He swallowed hard at the swollen eyes and blackened jaws of the downcast players, now no more than the peasants they’d always been. He was just like them.
Separated by more than walls, on the far side of the Great Way, polished aristocrats and rich merchants held their own places, patiently waiting for what they knew they deserved. After all, who more than they were worthy of the power of Milarik, the prestige of the Benefactors, the blessing of the Isle of Light? No one. Certainly not the filthy commoners gathered on the other side of the street.
When the beatings came, when the Benefactor Guard dragged away some wailing, hapless wretch to the prisons for re-education, it was the aristocracy who first looked away, hoping they wouldn’t be next. It’s one thing to have armies, it’s another to have armies with sorcerous abilities. The Benefactors of Man ruled in each city of the Peninsula. Men and women with fearsome power, serving their own masters, the immortal God-kin.
Booming bass drums roared in the distance. Cymbals, horns, and pipes signaled the procession of the God-kin Samras and Lucelle approaching Kend-by-the-Seaside.
Already pushed against her by the packed, shifting mob, Tan let go, and groped Besi’s shapely bottom So wonderful, so tight! He could have fondled her all day, and dreamt of other things besides. The blonde squeezed her cheeks beneath her pressed skirts, and glanced back with a wink and a mischievous grin.
Tan then touched Tara as well, Besi’s mother, caressing her slowly, delicately. Tara’s bottom was tight, like her daughter’s, but also ripe and lush. Mature fruit. The older woman didn’t respond to his subtle probing beyond slightly flinching and relaxing into it. It could have meant anything. Did she even notice?
What was he thinking!?! He was insane.
Along the Broadway to Kend, colored flowers and brightly painted figurines of the Shining Ones adorned doors and windows of homes and inns. Streamers, ribbons, and flags covered every wall and balcony, flapping in the breeze of the morning.
The Choosing. Freedom! Tan could taste it. It was here! The most important holiday in all of Galan would also be the most important day in his sixteen years of life. A new life of study and learning and eventual power. It would be his escape from the village, with all the tedious obligations he so despised.
He’d be Chosen, he just knew it. Had to be Chosen! Perhaps become a Benefactor himself, if he had the Talent. Or even be sent to the Blessed Isle of Light! Anything would be better than the life he had now. Anything! Come on, come on!
“Looks like a shiny, pretty lot for all our labor, eh?” one of the players asked no one in particular.
Tan ignored the beaten man. He loved their songs, but nothing was going to ruin this day for him. Nothing!
“Everything is so beautiful,” Besi cried as the wide-eyed, big-cheeked trumpeters passed by into Kend proper. “So beautiful!”
Then a single shout from the people drowned out all words. Marching in polished bronze armor framed by crimson cloaks, their steel boots drumming the cobble-stoned street, the honor guard, the Djinn of the God-Kin, streamed into the city, beating their shields with the flats of their swords.
Hundreds of the elite guard passed, and another shout erupted at the sight of the golden chariot of the Warlord Samras, the Incarnation of Justice. Hugely-muscled, fierce, radiating an amazing charisma, Samras stood arrogantly, bare-skinned in a black silk kilt and silver Panter buckle. His imperious gaze absorbed and mirrored the energy of the adoring crowd. He raised his obscenely bulging arms in fists, and the crowd roared again, like animals.
Passing through the immense city gates, Samras met Tanlray’s eyes, and for just a moment Tanlray felt like pissing himself. The moment passed, and Samras was swallowed by the city.
Next, dressed in luxurious colored silks and lace, came the poets, bards, dancers, and musicians attendant on Lucelle, the Lover, Incarnation of Mercy. Balancing the often times blind judgment of Samras, Lucelle embodied the virtues of compassion and forgiveness.
Pale, slim, ethereal, as magnetic in her beauty as Samras in his strength, Lucelle could not be ignored. Tan gaped like a fool until her eyes touched him, thrilling, like an orgasm, a drug, and moved on. He wanted more. Would do anything to have more…of THAT. Anything.
After an hour of the sun, the glory and pomp of the procession dimmed, the thunder of the cheering populace faded farther and farther away, the crowds dispersed, and Tan just wished he could continue fondling the women in front of him.
“No, Felix,” Tan sighed as they picked their way past the packs of bodies and shouting voices inside the walls of Kend. “It’s like I told you yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that, and…”
“Tan, please,” Besi smiled, “not everyone has a mind for geography like you do.”
Tan sighed again, knowing she was right. “On our world of Galan, all the great cities of the God-kin are here on the Peninsula except for their capital of Milarik. Fine tapestries and carpets come from the wool-rich lands up in Maradon. Blubber and beaten copper come from the peace-loving North men. Strong timber is shipped south on river barges from the vast forests of the Harfor mountains. Mighty Stardus guards the oceans of the east, while Kend is the gate to the west.
“Farthest west of all, are the Blessed Isles. The Land of the Shining Ones. The land of most profound peace…”
“You think I could grow me some potatoes in the land of the Shining Ones, Tan?” Felix asked.
“You could grow all the potatoes you want, “ said Besi as Tanlray shook his head. The sooner he could be away from fools like Felix, the better his life would be.
“I’d miss you every day, Tan,” said Felix “if I was called away to serve the Shining Ones, and all. ‘Cause you always been my very best friend. You always nice and polite and proper to me.”
Sometimes, though not often, Tan felt like a complete ass. He knew Felix was a good person with a good heart, but Tan needed more stimulation than that. He needed brains, too.
Then again, what’s the point of having brains if it makes you an unbearable jerk? Maybe it’s just about the choices we make? Maybe I’m so conceited I can’t see clearly, Tan mused.
No, that’s impossible! I’m the most conscious person I know. I’m the most gifted person I know! Surely someone of my abilities is destined for greatness! Why would the Shining Ones set it up this way? Why would they give me the intelligence and hunger for triumphant victory, only to leave me an abject failure? It’s impossible!
Come on Choosing, come on!
Chapter 3 – Blak
More by accident than anything else, numb from the cold, I plummeted from the edge of the cliff to what I thought would be my inevitable death. Instead, I was saved by a ledge invisible from above.
I regained consciousness sometime later, my left ankle broken and my back in agony. For the longest time, I couldn’t move, listening to the lonely howling of the wind. The fall had not immediately killed me, though it had certainly doomed me. There was no escape.
Snarling, Blak jerked Kenalel from the gilded High Seat, squeezing, crunching the wind-pipe and neck bones of the God-kin. The two wrestled back and forth, smashing madly against finely carved tables, shattering priceless porcelain and colored crystal bowls. Huge wooden splinters raked the God-kin’s naked chest, his Sharka jewels shining like stars. Shimmering rainbow waves of energy melted silver statues and ancient bronze armor, buckling and twisting the palace walls.
With a final frenzy, Svad and Mulad raced through Blak’s straining fingers from his aching penis, decapitating the God-kin like a spoon scooping through warm butter, blood spraying counterpoint through the shimmer of Kenalel’s Sharka power. The ceiling collapsed with a thunderclap, thick oak beams bursting in fire.
Silence. The crackling of burning wood, dull shouts in the distance; confused, drunken, frightened.
Blak arose through the ruin of the ceiling, pushing past blocks of fractured marble and clouds of fine, white powder. Another figure struggled through the rubble, a servant, face bloody, and stumbling, “You killed the…the Master…Lord Kenalel…you killed…you…”
The servant ran, staggering down an open hallway, “He killed the Master! He killed…! The Master!!”
Searching quickly through the chaos, Blak lifted Kenalel’s head, punching through the dead man’s eyes with both thumbs, splitting the skull down the middle. The Aj had nearly devoured the brain, leaving only a pittance of wet tissue, the rest a brilliant amethyst jewel. He touched the crystal – still soft and warm, but hardening. Do you see me?
Tossing the head aside, he lifted the God-kin’s still twitching corpse, staring in fascination at the fractured sapphire of Vish where the neck had been. That rock was already cold.
It would be the same down the line. Tearing open Kenalel’s chest revealed emerald An at the heart; Mani citrine at the solar plexus; the honey garnet sex center of Svad; and ruby Mulad, for strength, for Life. The jewels were an intricate inner highway; the God-kin, both spider and web.
Kenalel possessed all the Sharkas, except for Sah, of course, and they were huge. Old, so old, hundreds of years of pomp and ceremony; of feasting, fucking, and fighting; of ancient wars. And had Kenalel ever loved? If so, that too was lost somewhere in the amethyst of his mind. The memories of centuries simply erased.
We’ll all be erased, too, soon or late. And there’s nothing we can do about it. Terrifying, but as always, Blak shrugged the thought away.
Flames licked, then devoured the tapestries and banners of the State Room, roaring. Time to leave.
Shouting palace guards with armed knights and nobles from the feast in the Grand Ballroom poured into the wrecked Royal Hall, weapons drawn, together with four Benefactors of Man.
Blak knew each cleric controlled various gates to the Sharka Power, like all Benefactors, but none would have all six at once, like the God-kin. Most implanted with the seed-buds died quickly, as the jewels transformed the body and mind of the host. It was rare to survive even a single gem, and extremely rare for one person to have them all. He wasn’t worried.
The men stopped, milling uncertainly, blocked by rubble, dazed by the madness of Kenalel’s destruction. Blak gasped as the Sharka power radiating from the Benefactors crushed his chest, stealing his breath away. He countered with Svad and An, channeling arcs of flame onto several of the guards, and blasting the support column to the remains of the sagging roof. The ceiling rained down with another rumbling crash and clouds of dust, crushing the men beneath.
Racing behind the High Seat, Blak splintered a wooden door with a surge of Mulad and charged through to a narrow corridor lit by flickering candles. Even here, hidden, the sconces were of silver, decadent, intricately carved with winged-bulls and crowned cobras that no one would ever see. The dark stone walls were plain, yet seamlessly fitted master’s work.
No time to appreciate it, Blak raced up a stairwell to a landing branching in several directions, and plunged straight ahead, passing several lush apartments, mostly empty excepting the few courtesans waiting on the pleasure of their now dead lord.
Blak felt a Benefactor tickling the back of his neck, probing, tracking him from floor to floor. He grinned. Stopping at a set of ancient armor, Blak wrenched an enormous two-handed axe from its pedestal, and crouched behind an open doorway, waiting.
A guard swept past him into the darkened room, quickly followed by the whispering Benefactor, and Blak swung forward, the axe crunching into the cleric’s back, severing his spine, while simultaneously striking the guard with Svad, stopping his heart. Without hesitating he dropped the axe with a loud clatter and raced on into the darkness.
After several minutes Blak reached the most opulent of the living quarters, but all of the halls were eerily silent. No guards. No courtesans. Silence, except for the soft falls of his leather boots. The personal wing of the God-kin. Kenalel had spared no expense over the centuries, hoarding gold and silver, priceless statues and paintings by various masters. But this is not what Blak wanted.
He could feel it calling to him, like a pulse. Though it was warded, he was too sensitive to miss it. He entered Kenalel’s master bedroom, the walls covered with weapons and war banners, even here, in the most intimate of settings.
The thing continued to call to him, like a lover. There, against the far corner, behind a carved oaken divan. Wasting no time, he pulled the divan aside, and using Mulad, hammered against the stone. Again and again, as the stone cracked and finally collapsed into a secret alcove. It was here. The pendant. The Key. He felt ecstasy. Accomplishment. It was finally his, after so long. The world could now be healed. He could now be healed.
Blak heard a scratching sound behind him, as of stone on stone. Instinctively diving to the ground and rolling, he narrowly avoided an enormous mace which smashed into the granite wall above him. Scrambling around on hands and knees, Blak saw a Crusher, an abomination created by Sharka power and foulest imagination. The creature stood eight feet tall with living stone arms and twisted flesh legs. Powerful, merciless.
Blak struck with Svad and Mulad, hurling the Crusher onto the royal bed, smashing the carved posts and frame to splinters. The thing stood and charged like a rhino, driving Blak into the wall, shattering more stone. Blak struck again with the Sharka, adding An and Aj, ripping out the Crusher’s Aj stone. The twisted monster jerked uncontrollably, blindly running into furniture and statues, fire streaming from its face.
Again Blak struck, a focused beam of light severing the torso from the legs. In an instant, the chest dissolved into sand, the legs rotten meat filled with maggots.
He had what he needed, and more Benefactors and guards were on the way.
Racing past libraries, ballrooms, gardens, and exercise halls, Blak finally burst out into the night, atop the Lord’s Tower of the God-kin’s Palace.
To the west he could just make out the rolling darkness of the harbor, hear the bells of the channel buoys, behind the still raging, belching bonfire of the State Room. The bulk of Kend sprawled out on the hills to the east. House Pennants and flags of the Choosing Festival flapped and whipped from the balconies of mansions and temples in the strong western wind.
Booted feet and shouts approached from the stairwell behind as Blak rushed to the tower edge – I won’t make it - and leapt from the tower anyway, flying through the air, down, down. He crashed into a balcony, snapping the railing and impaling his shoulder on a long, ragged bolt, and bounced off, ripping and shredding through several canopies. A last flag whipped around his ankle, jerking him upside down as he hit the ground hundreds of feet below.
Amidst the tumult of confused and retreating shouts and the shifting of still falling rubble, he became aware of himself. He was simply aware. He was aware, and then he was Zeke. That was his name: Zeke.
I am Zeke, he thought, with wonder. I exist. I exist in relation to what? In distinction to what? Where do I begin? Where do I end? What did I come from before Zeke came to be, and what shall Zeke become when Zeke ceases to be?
And then it struck him with a certainty. Home.
It’s time to go home.
The jeweled figure stood unsteadily, climbed over shattered columns, and disappeared outside.
Blak brought his awareness back to THIS mind, THIS body, THIS moment - because of the pain, the excruciating pain, he knew he was still alive. He grinned through bloody teeth, pulling the metal rod from his shoulder, and limped off into the night.
Chapter 4 – Tanlray
Wriggling to adjust my twisted back, I noticed a dark depression at the far end of the ledge, perhaps twenty paces away. Trying to ignore the yawning chasm below, my options were limited, and the depression kept calling itself out to me.
Sitting back in his chair, eyes closed, Tanlray could still see the skyline of Kend, the shapes of buildings and plazas burnt into his brain. The city was immense and overwhelming. And so wonderful for his ambitious, daydreaming mind.
“Why, Tanni, this stew isn’t any better than what Nanna makes every day!”
Besi’s declaration broke Tanlray’s reverie. She was right, the stew was mediocre at best. In fact, he had had better in the middle of winter. What was the magic, what was the charm that so many of the others were treating this food as though it were the first they’d ever eaten?
Was it the excitement of the new surroundings, the legendary city that most of them would never see again? Or were they satisfied with the base, with the common, with the lowest level? Watered down wine, that was their life. Theirs! Well, not him, not Tanlray! He’d have the best, the best of wine, the best of song, the best of silks and clothing, the best of women. He would be someone. He would be known. He would be given all of these things, or he would take them. One way or another.
“What’s wrong now, Tan?” Tara sighed. She’d seen him grow up from a laughing child to a surly grey cloud. Would he ever laugh again?
“What’s it to you?” he said, more harshly than he’d intended.
“I promised your mother I’d protect you, and take care of you, and I always keep my promises,” Tara smiled.
They stared at each other for a moment, before Tanlray broke away, standing up from the table.
“I need some fresh air,” he gasped.
“Please don’t be late, the time we always talk about is just tomorrow morning!” Besi said.
“Fresh air? In this city? Don’t let the crowds push you around!” Tara added with a throaty laugh, and let him go.
Lurching out of the inn, he wondered what she meant. Had she known all along that he had intentionally groped her? Had she allowed it? Had she wanted it? Though only sixteen, Tanlray was nearly full grown, with auburn hair and dark eyes. Many of Besi’s friends had given him the eye and a smile and sometimes even more, and some of the good wives as well. He shook his head. He had always wanted Tara. Always. Ever since he was able to know such things. When he came into his power, he’d return to his love. One last time would he see his village, on the day he took what he wanted.
Following the falling sun in the west, Tanlray passed shops closing for the night and a huge open market square with already empty stalls. Roaming further and further from the smaller two and three story buildings of the eastern wall, he wandered aimlessly, uncaringly. This city should be his. His!!
How is it possible that he, Tanlray, had been born into a life of hopeless poverty, while other lesser beings had been born into obscene wealth? Was there justice in the world? Were the Benefactors correct in saying that every man lives many lives, none of which they remember, and thus by their actions in one life earn their stations at every new birth? He didn’t know. And if no one remembered their past lives, how could it be proved one way or the other? So who cares?
Musing in this way, he was surprised to hear the ringing of the channel bells. He must have walked for over an hour. Now he was facing the western wall and the harbor of Kend. Lost in thought, he hadn’t even noticed the increasing wealth around him: the larger, more opulent inns, the towers, the decadent friezes of imposing hill-top noble chateaus.
He stopped at a towering wall surrounding the most glamorous palace in this section of the city. At least a hundred feet high, the wall protected the wealth that should have been his – would be his in time. How it would become his remained a mystery to him, but it just had to happen!
An immense smashing of thunder, as of an earthquake or a hundred drums knocked Tan to his knees. Was the procession from the morning continuing behind that wall?
Tan slowly regained his feet.
A glow began to illuminate the street, like the sun rising from the west. Another peal of thunder rocked the wall and street, which he could feel through his feet. Screams and the rushing of guards flooded past him to the main gates of the wall. The glow intensified, roaring from the center of the palace.
Framed by the light of the raging bonfire, Tanlray spied a bird plummeting from the tallest tower of the palace. Or was it a bird, smashing against the cathedral on the other side of the street? Is it a demon? A man? A man smashing into balconies, flags, canopies, and landing on the road itself?
The thing, the man, rose from the street, glanced in Tanlray’s direction, and limped off into the darkness of the night.
Tanlray was lost. Out of great curiosity, he’d followed the man from the tower. How had he survived such a fall? How had he lived? This is what drove Tanlray. Not figures of wheat or sheep or acreage. But how does a man become superhuman? Superhuman like the man he chased. He had to know!!
But he was lost in the city. Somehow the man had eluded him, though having fallen hundreds of feet to the flagstones below!! How? HOW!?!
“Well, well, look at what’s we got here, Big Tom,” came a greasy voice from the fogged darkness.
“What is it, Piping Dan, but a lost little puppy? Hah!” came an answering rumble.
Two men sauntered out of the mists. One of the men seemed to be twice Tanlray’s size, tapping a cudgel into a meaty fist. The second figure was small and thin, a little weasel of a man with a crazy clown grin.
This isn’t good.
Following the mystery man, Tanlray had wandered into a poorer section of the city, with narrow cramped streets, a running sewer, and rotting garbage piled up at crooked doorways.
“Look, friends, I’m lost, yes, but I’m a stranger here, just come for the Choosing. Well, I’ll be Chosen myself for sure, and what then? Why be unpleasant?” Tan said.
“Why be unpleasant, the little puppy says, as though we’re some kind of savages,” the big man rumbled, with a hint of anger. “Unpleasant? We’re but good citizens out for a pleasure walk.”
“Then my sincerest apologies, good men. A good night to you,” Tanlray said, backing up, and turning to a side street. As he rounded a corner, slipping in damp filth, he was confronted by four more ruffians, grinning toothless grins to match the ones behind.
“Give it up, lad,” Big Tom chuckled, “anything you have we can take any time we wish. The only question you have to ask is how much pain you can handle while we do it.”
“Yeah, Chosen, how much, how much? Heh heh!!” Piping Dan joined in.
Tanlray sighed, wishing he’d never mentioned the bit about being Chosen, not that he had been Chosen, of course, but he would be. He would be!! Then, quite suddenly he found himself face down in the mud, ears ringing from the blow to the back of his head.
“See, boys, what we have here is a little turd who don’t know what’s what. Prolly can’t believe he is where he is. Not that I can blame him, with what’s comin’ his way,” rumbled Big Tom.
Scrambling to his feet, Tanlray backed into a moist wall, the six men surrounding him.
“Chosen don’t know what’s what is all, like Big Tom say,” said Piping Dan.
“I like you lad, I really do, so I’m not going to kill you now. Maybe later. Who knows? I ain’t no charmer to read the stars,” said Big Tom. “I’m just a simple man, making his way in the wide world. I won’t kill you, but what you need, lad, is an education, a real learnin’ about what’s up, and what’s down. For real.”
“Why can’t we kill the Chosen, eh?” asked Piping Dan.
“We may not be no Benefactors or God-kin in their palaces, but we be honorable gentlemen for all.”
Several of the men snickered, but fell silent at a glance from Big Tom.
“I say we could kill you right now, and be the end of it is what it’d be, but we’re choosin’ to do you a favor instead. You see, round here is our turf, our bread and butter, and we choose who comes and goes, and what’s what with what all. You catch my meanin,’ lad?” said Big Tom.
“You know, I certainly made a mistake. I was curious, I went exploring, I got lost, I fell into your bread and butter, I didn’t mean to, but I’m really taking your lessons to heart…”
“…in fact, I’m sure that we can all…”
“…move past this into…”
“Lad! The lesson hasn’t started yet.”
Big Tom gestured to his fellows, and the lesson began.