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 order from chaos, adored by peasants as living gods.
After generations of a stagnant peace, the city-states of Galan erupt in turmoil and violence. God-kin battle God-kin, revealing the truth of corrupted energy. What price power?
Come travel with a band of warriors, fighting for love, and confronting themselves.
DARK'S DAUGHTER, HOPE is an adventure in faith, courage, and the riddle of Consciousness Itself.
--found crumpled on an old fisher boat
Out past the vast sand dunes rose the mountains at last, shimmering gold and honey with the setting sun.
Alone with cold stars, the air so crisp and clear, Tokal longed for Sera, his life, his heart, his soul. How his body shivered when she stood near. Shivered, but never satisfied, not until their wedding night.
Marriage. The sacred joining before the Shining Ones. More profound than any friendship, marriage was a journey to the gods, or so said his grandfather.
“Oh, you’ll have your moments, maybe hate each other silly for seasons, but if you follow the ways of the Shining Ones, you’ll learn the greatest gifts of all, forgiveness and unconditional love. No way to get there without the journey. You learn as you go.”
The next day found Tokal at the base of the mountains, braving the guardians of the desert and the crown of the world.
Countless jewels lay scattered on the heights above. Sera asked him for an emerald to match her eyes and he’d bring back the best. He would!
Tokal raced over giant boulders, scaling rock walls with the strength and passion of young love.
There was the Cave, opening like a black maw to swallow the sun. Riches poured out in a 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, enormous and perfect, but did not see the Karuna stalking up behind him. He only heard mad shrieks echo in the canyons as the beast fed on still living prey.
Have I become a god? I am many gods. A dream in a dream in a dream.
He held on tightly, squeezing her hand while she shrieked.
Her frail body jerked, skinny legs kicking. He tried to heal her, comfort her, do something.
“Oh, please! Help me! Someone! Stop the pain! I beg you!” the poor girl screamed. “Yoni, please!”
But it was too late. He knew it. The tumor on her forehead popped in bits of bone and blood. Another victim of the stones.
Lily’s brain oozed from her skull in a liquid purple pool. 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, wiping wet muck from his face. He had a real responsibility to help, though this nightmare would never end - 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. 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!”
He tuned it out. No other choice. Too much to bear. These rotting things. These dying things.
He could only do so much, no matter what his mind told him.
Yoni wiped sweat and ragged blond hair from his eyes. How his muscles ached under tanned skin bruised with old scabs and new sores. He was so tired.
Slipping in 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.
Lying there in pain, he wanted to pray, but it’s so hard to choke back the disappointment.
“Yoni? Treasure?” someone giggled.
Yoni shrugged, climbing to his feet, and backed again into the light.
Nothing. Silence. His elbows hurt.
The sun burned. 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. The creature’s abdomen ballooned, expanded by the living rock suffusing the man’s legs into a single stand. Shik was a multitude. Many Sentinels watched here in the Blessed Isles. Different bodies, one mind. One person.
Shik picked his nose, smearing snot against naked ribs covered in filth. Lank, greasy hair draped down to his shoulders, partially obscuring the winking Aj stone in his forehead.
The Sentinel chuckled, stretching long arms. 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?”
“I cry to the Shining Ones to kill me,” Shik said, 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 a slave of the jewels. I must be what I was made to be. Don’t you see?”
The Sentinel’s purple Aj stone 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. Sometimes he remembered his mother chopping vegetables for a stew, the scents of spices and warm bread, the pot boiling down fat and bones from deer or rabbit, and she smiled and hummed. He was loved. Home.
But he didn’t remember the color of her eyes.
Following rutted trails through barren hills of striated sandstone, Yoni wondered how to kill himself. He wondered even more on why he didn’t. The cliffs of the island were so very high. Jump. Easy.
Lily’s head smacked against a rock.
What do you have to live for, the heat shimmering from cracked stones seemed to say.
Nobody cares about you, the buzzards called down. Just end it, you worthless nothing.
But what had his father told him 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, every stream, and every leaf of the forest.”
“So the spirit won’t forget us?”
“So I won’t.”
His father just smiled his secret smile, and returned to work.
Yoni stumbled down the burning rocks of the trail. He’d have the headaches today.
Where are you, spirit? What are you?
Lily grinned. Death’s grin.
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.
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, Yoni fell face first to the ground. His nose snapped and he tasted blood. He jerked to his feet. A hand grabbed his face, gritty with sand, pinching his nose. Can’t breathe!
He bit down, ripping out a chunk of gristle, and slipped away.
The thing attacked again, punching, kicking, and clawing. Yoni lunged forward and they collapsed in a cloud of dust. His world was pain. Blow after blow. He’d die here.
NOOO!! He felt the Bod-kin, like heat. He felt his life. What if he used that life? What if he borrowed that life?
Blow after blow, like his father chiseling temple stones. Blow after blow, ringing his ears. The black place coming, time stopping. Need more strength. Need more… LIFE.
Yoni reached for that life, for strength. He willed it into himself from his assailant. Just a bit, just a chance.
The Bod-kin yelped in pain and surprise.
Yoni rolled on top, gripping greasy hair, pounding the Bod-kin’s head into gravel 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. His nose hurt. He touched the Mulad stone between his thighs. It burned hot and the scars itched where his penis used to be. Guess I won’t get that dance at the summer fair…
Hah! Was he mad? If not now, then one day. They were mad. He was mad. All full-blown mad.
People here lost body parts, an eye, an arm. Sometimes they lost their wits, their souls. They became Bod-kin, rabid animals more wounded than any cripple. Some were young, some were old, some big, some small.
If the God-kin were the peak of civilization and power, the Bod-kin were the bottom of the spectrum.
“Lily, meet Bod-kin.”
The heat of the day baked the cactus and withered shrubs like hell.
Then just die already, the buzzards laughed.
Yoni grabbed his bag, then gasped.
A Panter sprawled on a boulder thirty paces away. A Panter! Tawny fur camouflaged it in the rocks, but he’d seen black and even white before.
Back home everyone knew the Panter was lucky. Best of all to touch one. Not that anyone ever did.
“I’ll be back. Don’t go anywhere.”
The Panter licked its fur, kneading claws into hard rock.
Mad, mad, mad, the cactus laughed.
Yoni tripped over branches and a pale green spiny-pear. Pay attention! One step at a time. Close now!
Panters were enormous cats, larger than the lions or tigers he’d seen once in a traveling show. As large as a big horse, or larger. He should have been terrified, but he wasn’t.
The Panter…called…and he felt no fear.
Yoni trudged forward until the blue of the sky darkened, deepened, and he stood at the top of a cliff opening out to an endless ocean. He blinked with vertigo and panic.
He’d never escape from here, never see his family again, his home again, his friends again. He’d never be that little boy again. He’d become a Bod-kin, or worse. He knew it.
Far in the distance, buried and bobbing in white-caps, tiny ships brought another Choosing Day harvest. Headless Crushers patrolled the beach below, humming in tandem to the winking Svad stones planted in thick, granite chests. He’d never escape.
Yoni closed his eyes, swaying, blood dripping from his nose, and he didn’t care whether he fell forwards or backwards. He let the wind caress him, and heal him, if it could.
Wiping his face, sniffing down tears, he walked back to the trail to drag Lily and the Bod-kin to the kitchens. The living have to eat, after all.
The Panter was nowhere to be seen, and though forgotten, the Panter saw.
The Panter tracked me into the Harfor, baiting me, pushing me onward through the high passes. When the blizzards came, I huddled alone, without supplies, without hope. The Panter always behind, relentless.
Tangled in robes and plain-woolen skirts, wild-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.
Amateur players sang 'Fall of the Aton.’ Sang of days before the Benefactors. Tan lost himself, dreaming of glory, of love and empire.
Rough shouts shocked him awake. Benefactor Guards smacked the players with iron-studded cudgels. They despised the old songs, the old ways.
He swallowed hard at the black eyes 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, aristocrats and merchants held their places, waiting for what they knew they deserved. 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 on the other side of the street.
When the beatings came, when the Benefactors dragged away another wailing wretch for re-education, it was the nobles 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 mob, Tan let himself go and groped Besi’s bottom So wonderful, so tight! He could have fondled her all day, and dreamt of other things besides.
The petite blonde squeezed her cheeks beneath pressed skirts, glancing back with a wink and a grin.
Tan touched Tara as well, Besi’s mother, caressing her delicately. Her bottom felt tight, like her daughter’s, but also ripe and lush. Mature fruit.
The older woman didn’t respond to his subtle probing beyond flinching and relaxing into it. Did she even notice?
What was he thinking!?! He was insane.
Colored flowers and brightly painted figurines of the Shining Ones adorned the streets and shops of Kend. Streamers, ribbons, and flags covered every wall and balcony, flapping in the breeze of the morning.
The Choosing. Freedom! The most important day 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. Had to be Chosen! He’d become a Benefactor if he had the Talent, or even visit the Blessed Isles! Anything other than this life!
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’s so beautiful,” Besi cried as the big-cheeked trumpeters passed by into Kend proper. “So beautiful!”
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.
Another shout erupted at the sight of the golden chariot of the Warlord Samras, the Incarnation of Justice.
Hugely-muscled, radiating an amazing charisma, Samras stood bare-skinned in a black kilt and silver Panter buckle. His eyes 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 Tan’s gaze, and for just a moment he felt like pissing himself. The moment passed and Samras entered the city.
Dressed in silks and lace, poets and musicians of Lucelle danced before the Lover, the Incarnation of Mercy. Balancing the 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 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 faded. The crowds dispersed.
And all Tan wanted was to keep on fondling the women in front of him.
“No, Felix,” Tan sighed as they picked their way past packs of bodies and voices inside the walls of Kend. “It’s like I told you yesterday, and the day before that, and…”
“Tan, please,” Besi smiled. “Not everyone has a mind for geography like you do.”
Tan knew she was right. “All the cities of the God-kin lie here on the Peninsula except for Milarik. The barons of Maradon ship down fine tapestries and carpets from their wool-rich lands. Peace-loving North men trade fish and blubber, scrimshaw and beaten copper. Lumberjacks ferry strong timber on river barges from the forests of the Harfor mountains. Mighty Stardus guards the oceans of the east, while Kend is the gateway to the west.
“Farthest west of all lie 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.
“Grow all the potatoes you want,” said Besi as Tan shook his head.
The sooner he’d be away from fools like Felix, the better his life would be.
“I’d miss you every day, Tan,” said Felix. “If I were 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 an ass. He knew Felix was a good person with a good heart, but Tan needed more stimulation. He needed brains.
But what’s the point of brains if you’re an unbearable jerk? Maybe it’s about the choices we make? Maybe I’m so conceited I can’t see clearly.
Surely someone of my abilities is destined for greatness! Why would the Shining Ones set it up this way? Why give the intelligence and hunger, only to leave me a failure?
Come on, Choosing, come on!
I plummeted from the cliff top, numb from the cold, landing on a narrow ledge.
I awoke in agony, the wind howling. The fall didn’t kill me, though it certainly doomed me. There was no escape.
Blak jerked Kenalel from the High Seat, choking the wind-pipe, crunching the neck bones of the God-kin.
They wrestled back and forth, snarling, smashing finely carved tables, shattering porcelain vases. 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.
Svad and Mulad raced through Blak’s fingers from his aching penis, decapitating the God-kin like a hot knife scooping through butter.
Blood sprayed counterpoint in 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. “You killed the Master, Lord Kenalel. You killed…”
The servant staggered down an open hallway. “He killed the Master! He killed the Master!”
Blak lifted Kenalel’s head, punching through the dead man’s eyes with both thumbs, splitting the skull.
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. 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.
Had Kenalel ever loved? If so, that too was lost in the amethyst of his mind. The memories of centuries gone forever.
We’ll all be erased, soon or late, and there’s nothing we can do. Terrifying, but as always, Blak shrugged the thought away.
Flames devoured the tapestries and banners of the State Room, roaring. Time to leave.
Shouting guards and nobles poured into the wrecked Royal Hall, weapons drawn, followed by four Benefactors of Man.
Each cleric controlled gates to the Sharka Power, but not all six like the God-kin. Most implanted with the seed-buds died as the jewels transformed the body and mind. It was rare to survive a single gem, even more so to have them all. He wasn’t worried.
The knights milled uncertainly, blocked by rubble, dazed by the madness of Kenalel’s destruction. The Benefactors crushed Blak’s chest with the Sharka, stealing his breath away.
He countered with Svad and An, channeling arcs of flame and blasting the support column to the remains of the sagging roof. The ceiling rumbled down in another cloud of dust, crushing the men beneath.
Blak sprinted behind the High Seat, splintering a wooden door with a surge of Mulad. He charged through to a narrow corridor lit by flickering candles. The sconces were wrought of silver, decadent, carved with winged-bulls and crowned cobras that no one would ever see. 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. He lunged straight ahead, passing several lush apartments, mostly empty excepting the few courtesans waiting on the pleasure of their now dead lord.
A Benefactor tickled at the back of Blak’s neck, probing, tracking him from floor to floor.
Stopping at a set of ancient armor, he wrenched a two-handed axe from its pedestal, and crouched behind an open doorway.
A guard swept past him into the darkened room, quickly followed by the whispering Benefactor. Blak swung forward, the axe crunching into the cleric’s back, severing his spine. He stopped the guard’s heart with Svad, dropped the axe with a loud clatter, and raced on through the hallways.
Blak stopped at the most opulent of the living quarters. Silence. No guards. No servants.
Kenalel had spared no expense over the centuries, hoarding gold and silver sculptures, priceless paintings by various masters. But this is not what Blak wanted.
It called to him, like a pulse, like a song. It was warded, but he was too sensitive to miss it.
Weapons and war banners covered the walls of the bedchamber, even here, in the most intimate of settings.
The thing called to him, like a lover. There, against the far corner, behind a carved oaken divan.
Blak wrenched the divan aside, using Mulad to hammer the stone. The wall cracked and collapsed into a hidden alcove. It was here. The pendant. The Key. He felt ecstasy. Accomplishment. It was finally his, after so long! The world could be healed. He could be healed.
Blak heard a scratching behind him and dove to the ground. A spiked mace thundered into the wall above. He scrambled around on hands and knees.
The Crusher, an abomination created by Sharka power and foulest imagination, swung again, and shards of stone flew out in sparks.
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 monster jerked uncontrollably, running blindly into furniture and statues, fire streaming from its face.
Again Blak struck, a focused beam of light severing the torso from the legs. The chest dissolved into sand, the legs rotten meat filled with maggots.
He had what he needed, and more guards were on the way.
Racing past libraries, gardens, and dancing halls, Blak burst out into the night, atop the Lord’s Tower of the God-kin’s Palace.
To the west he saw the rolling blackness of the harbor, the bells of the channel buoys ringing behind the still belching bonfire of the State Room. The bulk of Kend sprawled out on the hills to the east. House Pennants and Choosing Festival flags flapped and whipped from the balconies of mansions and temples in the strong western wind.
Booted feet and shouts approached from the stairwell as Blak rushed to the tower edge – I won’t make it – and leapt from the tower anyway.
He crashed into a balcony, snapping the railing, impaling his shoulder on a long bolt. He 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 shouting voices 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. In relation to what? In distinction to what? Where do I begin? Where do I end? From where did I come before Zeke came to be? What shall Zeke become when Zeke ceases?
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.
Wriggling to adjust my back, I noticed a dark depression at the far end of the ledge. I tried ignoring the chasm below me.
Slouched in his chair, eyes closed, Tan still watched the skyline of Kend, burned forever into his brain. Immense and overwhelming, the city was perfect for his ambitious, daydreaming mind.
“Why, Tani, this stew isn’t any better than what Nanna always cooks!”
She was right, the stew tasted mediocre at best. He’d had better in wintertime. What was the magic, what the charm, that so many of the others treated this food as though it were the first they’d ever tasted?
Was it the excitement of the surroundings, the great city most 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 women. He’d be someone. He’d be known.
“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?”
“I promised your mother I’d protect you, take care of you, and I always keep my promises.”
“I need fresh air.”
“Please don’t be late,” said Besi. “The time we always talk about is just tomorrow morning!”
“Fresh air? In this city? Don’t let the crowds push you around,” Tara laughed.
Lurching out of the inn, he wondered what she meant. Did she know he’d groped her? Did she allow it? Wanted it? Though only sixteen, Tan was nearly full grown, with auburn hair and dark eyes. Many of Besi’s friends gave him the eye, and a smile, and sometimes even more.
But he wanted Tara. Always. Ever since he was able to know such things. When he came into his power, he’d return for his love.
Tan passed shops closing for the night and a huge open market square with empty stalls. He wandered aimlessly. 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. 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 faced the western wall and the harbor of Kend. He hadn’t noticed the increasing riches around him, the larger inns, the towers, the imposing hill-top chateaus.
He stopped at a large wall surrounding the most glamorous palace he’d ever seen. A hundred feet high, the wall protected the wealth that should have been his, would be his in time. How it would be his remained a mystery, but it just had to happen.
A smashing of thunder, as of an earthquake, or a thousand drums, knocked Tan to his knees. Was the celebration from the morning continuing behind that wall?
Tan stumbled to his feet.
A dancing glow illuminated the street, like the sun rising from the west. Another peal of thunder rocked the wall and street, throbbing 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 a raging bonfire, Tanlray spied a bird plummeting from the tallest tower. Or was it a bird, smashing against the cathedral on the other side of the street? A demon? A man?
Tan knew he was lost. 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 do we 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, what’s we got here, Big Tom,” floated a greasy voice from the deep fog.
“What is it, Piping Dan, but a lost puppy?”
Two men sauntered out of the mists. One loomed twice Tanlray’s size, tapping a cudgel in a meaty fist. The second hunched over small and thin, a weasel of a man with a crazy clown grin.
This isn’t good.
Tanlray had wandered into a seedy labyrinth of cramped streets, sewers, and garbage piled high at crooked doorways.
“I’m lost, yes, a stranger here just come for the Choosing. Why, I’ll be Chosen myself and what then? Must we be unpleasant?”
“Be unpleasant, the puppy says, as though we’re some kind of savages,” the big man growled. “Unpleasant? We’re but good citizens out for a pleasure walk.”
“My sincerest apologies, good men. A good night to you.”
Tanlray darted to a side street. As he rounded the corner, slipping in damp filth, he was confronted by four more ruffians, grinning toothless grins.
“Give it up, lad. We can take all you have at any time. The question you have to ask is how much pain you can handle while we do it.”
“Yeah, Chosen, how much, how much? Heh heh!”
Tanlray wished he’d never mentioned the bit about being Chosen. Not that he had been Chosen, of course, but he would be. He would be!
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,” said Big Tom. “Probably can’t believe he is where he is. Not that I can blame him, with what’s coming his way.”
Tan backed into a moist, scummy 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 we won’t kill you now. Later, perhaps. Who knows? I ain’t no charmer to read the stars. I’m just a simple man, making his way in the wide world. But what you need, lad, is an education, a lesson ‘bout 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.
“Kill you now, and be the end of it is what it’d be, but we’re choosing to do you a favor. 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 meaning, lad?”
“I made a mistake. I was curious. I went exploring. I got lost and fell into your bread and butter. I didn’t mean to, but I’m taking your lesson to heart…”
“…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.
Panic shot through me as I crawled to the other side of the ledge. My options were limited, but if I had to die, I didn’t want it to be at that moment.
Big, fat snowflakes melted on his cheeks and tongue.
He trudged forward into the wind, bent double, slipping, sliding, rising again, back to home. Home. Whatever that means. So cold.
Maan stoked Mulad, and the warmth spread from his erection. Life.
He felt like a lonely heart in a world of ice. But somehow, thankfully, painfully, the heart keeps beating, even after the heart is broken.
Maan loved exploring the woods by his family cabin when he was young, tracking deer trails, stalking rabbits, playing in worlds of imagination. He used trees as enemy warriors, a stick his sword, beating back Dardan brush, branches of Philok infantry, and Brann cavalry spider webs.
One day it struck him like lightning, with wonder, that his casual destruction of the webs was also the possible destruction of the spider. So he sat there, at the very spot of his realization, and watched for hours as a spider wove its web, strand by strand, connection by connection, delicately, purposefully, brilliantly.
The spider didn’t chop logs for walls or sweet grass for thatch, like father, but built its home solely from inside itself.
How did this little spider produce such an intricate pattern? From itself? Amazing.
The spider caught a moth, a fly, then a wasp. They resisted, and fought, struggling with all their might. But the web held, the spider prevailed, and all were wrapped up for dinner.
Sometime later, he visited that spider again, but it was gone, leaving only a ghost of itself, waving in the wind. The heart was gone.
Maan became that tattered, silken ghost, shattered, the day his son was taken, the day Jhen died.
What do you do when your heart dies, but the heart beats on?
You breathe in and you breathe out. You fetch wood and water, chew your food, and dump your waste. You carry on with the business of living. But feel like a ghost in the wind. Just a ghost. Out of place. An actor on Feast Days whose scene is over, yet stays stuttering on the stage. Awkward. Unnecessary. Unwanted.
The snow fell faster now, obscuring his twisted back trail. The blizzard had struck, vicious, two hours on, blizzard on blizzard, unpredictable. Reality in the Harfor mountains.
He’d been forced to leave behind the doe he’d brought down; a waste, unless the wolves found her.
Maan called on Aj. Luck! A thousand paces to the shelter. A snapping roar from an evergreen, its frozen sap popping, jolted his heart. One step, then another, it’s all anyone could do, God-kin or slave. One step, then another.
He awoke, sprawled in a wet snow bank, half-melted by the heat of Mulad, his silent Self saving his life, again. He shook his head. Night. The storm had stopped, leaving a strong, steady wind. Twenty paces from home. So easy to die when you’re all alone.
Maan ignited tinder for a fire with Svad, quickly heating the cabin, and tore into a strip of salted jerky.
Wincing from the pain in his back, Maan collapsed onto a bed of furs. So sad. The man who’d once raced from Stardus to Kend could now barely stagger across a one room cabin.
That night coyotes were in the chicken yard again, and the hens begocked and screeched in terror, and he threw rocks that moved like flies in molasses, floating in mid-air, and the coyotes laughed contemptuously, red-muzzled, returning to devour the chickens, and he drew his sword, the sword given by his father, and it turned to ash, crumbling in his hands, and he shouted in desperate fury, and the coyotes burst into flames, transforming into his dead wife, whimpering for mercy as they died, and he gathered the surviving chicks to his breast, like some mother hen, and where his arms touched theirs, feathers curled and blackened, open sores appeared and white feeding maggots, his son’s voice pleading, “Don’t leave me, daddy, please don’t leave me…”
He awoke to the sounds of his dead son begging and the howls of his own sobbing.
Lurching up from his bed pallet, he tripped in furs, fell to his face, and crawled to the door. Fumbling and clawing at the lock bar, he scooted outside and vomited into a snow bank, hyperventilating, shaking with fever. It was the old, old dream.
Snowing again, there was that diaphanous white-grey glow which comes from a strong moon behind the storm clouds. The cold felt so good against his burning skin. He rubbed his eyes, melting snow mixed with tears.
Once he was calm, he felt a constriction in An, hurting his heart and raising his pulse again. Sometimes you can tell when someone stares at your back. It’s a tickling at the neck, a pressure in the heart. You turn, and there they are, either making eye contact, or averting their gaze.
Maan amplified that feeling by opening An like a flower, like a wheel. Using Aj, the mind’s eye, he saw for miles, saw the source of that disturbance, that force, the magnetic center of other living beings.
Miles away, riders slogged through the snowdrifts, exhausted, about to die.
A thin crack reached high above me, wide enough at the base to admit a man, if that man didn’t mind losing skin. Freezing, with night falling, I didn’t mind.
I squeezed through into a low cave. Safe from the wind. No animals.
Sweet unconsciousness blotted out all pain.
He fell from his horse again. The gelding trudged on, mindless.
“Bendit? Bendit!” someone called.
Get up, by the Stars! Don’t die now! GET UP!
Bendit couldn’t move, couldn’t see, couldn’t feel a thing. It was warm here now. Safe, finally safe, the running is over. The fighting is over.
I did everything I could.
He saw the first man he’d ever killed, just a kid, like him, dumb and reckless, dying from a sword in his belly for some kind of nonsense.
Bendit puked that day, having to murder for honor. Something was lost. Inside. Lost.
He saw the Hanging Gardens of Stardus. Home. His most favorite place in the world. Rich green grass covered with thousands of peonies, lilacs, and lilies. Thousands.
It was warm here and Bendit was happy. The Darda Charla never loved him, never noticed him, but that was OK. Everything was OK. He had been loyal, faithful.
I am faithful.
Tears slid down his half frozen face.
To be faithful, that is victory. To be true.
I am true.
He moaned, muttering, shaking in his armor, as Miran, Valadin, and Krantz hauled him up from the ground and placed him back on his horse. Breaking ice on ropes, they tied him securely, like Tradado, Daran and the others on their own mounts, silent, dead now for all he knew.
Dead. To be dead. Was death just darkness? Was it anything when you are nothing, no one, no more? Was all this pain, this sadness, this suffering, for nothing, not even a dream?
No longer alone in his mind.
Something, someone, beckoned him, pushed him back into the light. Back into Life.
He felt his legs again, and the bitter wind, and the burning agony of his black, frozen hands.
The darkness can’t win, not today, the voice said in his mind. Not today. And Bendit believed it.
“We can’t survive another one,” Valadin said. “But these mountains and storms slow them as much as they slow us. We’re maybe a day ahead of them. Maybe.”
A pack horse stumbled and fell in the snow.
Krantz knelt and rubbed the mare’s neck, checking for life. Glancing up at Miran, he shook his head, and cut off the packs, distributing them amongst the other horses.
Too many comrades had fallen. Too many horses. Another feast for the wolves.
For weeks they’d been hunted by the Ghol, through the high plains and up into these mountains. They started with thirty, and now were eight.
Rest easy, the voice said in his mind. Rest. And Bendit slept, dreaming of the Stardus Gardens.
Bendit! Bendit, come back!
Bendit floated on a rolling sea, rocking in darkness, rising, rising, to his plodding horse, and the bitter cold.
“Bendit!” Krantz called.
The night erupted with shouts and the neighing of horses.
Bendit didn’t feel the first blows from the Ghol swordsman slashing at ice and armor.
His horse screamed, rearing and kicking. Ropes split, throwing Bendit to the ground. He grunted as the gelding collapsed on his chest and legs.
Valadin was also down, his sword dealing death. Krantz fought by his side swinging a two-handed battle axe.
A Ghol in blue face paint leapt from behind a cedar tree and Krantz twisted in the bloody snow. The Ghol’s sword glanced off his shoulder as he crunched into the tribesman’s face with the spike end of the axe, littering the tree trunk with bits of brains and a spray of red.
The thick snow filled the night. Pines and cypress trees loomed like ghouls in the frozen cotton of the air.
Valadin dropped another Ghol and raced through the trees after more of the tribesmen, stinging sweat and hanging branches whipping at his eyes.
Whirling a staff, Miran guided her stallion with her legs, deflecting sword strikes, until the horse reared, hooves striking a man down.
Valadin speared a tribesman from behind, the Ghol’s body stretching like a bow, jerking to the ground.
Another Ghol attacked, shouting, his blade whirling in time with Valadin. Breathing harshly, white mist streaming from both men, the Ghol struck too wide, overextended, and Valadin ran him through the neck.
A tribesman smacked Valadin’s arm with a mace, knocking him down, then grabbed Miran’s cloak, pulling her from her mount.
The Ghol struggled with the young woman in the snow, stabbing her in the side with a dirk.
Krantz severed his leg with his axe, and with another stroke smashed his skull like a melon.
Krantz searched for more of the enemy, but the night was silent except for the confused whickering and snorting of the remaining horses.
Help me, Bendit whispered, not sure if he actually spoke it.
“Here, Val,” Krantz called.
The two warriors heaved up the dead horse, Valadin grimacing in pain from his injured arm, and pulled Bendit free.
“We have to get Miran on her mount and move!” Valadin said, trying to lift her in his arms. “The rest won’t be far behind.”
Valadin slipped in the snow, dropping Miran back to the ground, and fell on top of her. He screamed when his arm hit the ground. Then Krantz was there, lifting Miran, and tying her to her stallion. Ripping off a strip of his cloak, he wrapped the wound in her belly.
“You going to make it?” he asked Valadin.
“A day behind, eh?”
They both chuckled, then laughed like lunatics.
Bendit dragged his gear to another mount amongst the wandering pack animals. Krantz gathered companions still tied to their horses. Miran moaned.
Lost and exhausted, the companions forced a last march through the snow banks to nowhere.
Soon, not long now, rest easy, shelter is near.
“To the west,” Bendit shouted over the wind. “Try the west!”
“West? And where is west when we’re in a room full of solid white sheets?” Bendit laughed. “I can’t tell up from down and in from out!”
Krantz. Fighting for self-respect his entire life.
“I say we try west, or left then. Left,” said Bendit.
“Good to hear you talking. I thought we’d lost you, too,” Valadin said. “Left it is. We have to get to shelter!”
“Do we now?” Krantz dead-panned.
Bendit was known for his intuition, his little feelings. He’d saved their lives more than once with his awareness of synchronicities. That’s why he’d been invited on this quest by the Darda Miran. His little voice provided the minimal chance, the split-second opportunity where otherwise failure or death would reign.
Another horse dropped to the ground, and another. All stopped, shuffling in place, whickering, heads down, done. Finished.
Bendit spied a flickering light through the grayish white haze. A ghost? A possibility? There it was again, down there!
“A light! Through the trees!” said Bendit.
“I see it, too, lad. Good lad!” Krantz hollered.
Another horse collapsed as the companions led their reluctant mounts to the light.
The hillside collapsed with the screeching of ice, ripping trees free from the earth, crashing down, down, down. Horses and men fell like rag-dolls worried by dogs, disappearing in a mist of white.
Bendit landed on his back, staring at snowflakes. Strange hands loosened straps, removing his breastplate and armor.
A Shining One, an angel, pulled him to his feet, numb.
Am I dreaming? Is this death?
Then he was in a warm room, and the warmth almost hurt, did hurt, burning his frozen skin, and he whimpered, and cried out, and the angel laid him gently down like a baby on clean furs. And touched his head.
Bendit shook and screamed as more heat raced through his body like blood, in every cell, fire washing, cleansing, mending, healing his eye, and chest, and frost-burnt hands.
The immense heat and cold stilled his mind to absolute silence, opening him, and for a moment he recognized the Heat as… himself, and he…
Silence, utter silence, and darkness.
Safe now. Safe.
End of Sample Chapters