War shatters the world of Ordanya, leaving only one survivor: Mehgrath Isul the High Priest of the Darkness.
Note: This is one of the stories that I will soon send off to a contest. I'm still in the midst of editing three them, so what you'll see here isn't even as much as I have fixed. Anyway I'd like feedback while I'm still at the process, so I could possibly win (or at least get close) this time. Thanks in advance.
By R.M. Summerhill
Mehgrath Isul progressed through the tomb, which was called the Sepulcher of Priests, and found himself wondering if the place could still be thought of as a tomb. After all, the world of Ordanya was almost completely dead. While the purplish trees and grasses still swayed in the wind, and the yucanis birds cawed within the twisted branches, and the reptiles slithered on the ground, Isul was the only remaining humanoid. The War of Chaos had seen to that.
Isul knew that if he were not mad now, it would only be a matter of time before his mind was forever gone. Time had no meaning, however. How long had it been since he had impaled his last enemy upon the sword of High Priesthood? A month or two.... almost a year? Isul knew only his grief; he trembled often, sometimes he even slipped into a seizure, yet he couldn't cry. War had killed all his tears.
As Isul trekked closer to his destination, listening to the rain as it pelted the mixture of stone and earth high above him, his mind slipped into the past, to a time when all livable sectors of Ordanya were teaming with people.
Almost five years before when War was but a rumor (when the Priests dwelt, worshiped, and ruled from Fedan, their great fortress city) Mehgrath Isul was little more than a boy, a young Priest, fresh from a decade of being his father's chief Acolyte . Isul was handsome—his strong, highborn face was seductively ashen and his gray-blue eyes were commanding—already he had slept with almost a dozen willing women, but he was thinking about taking a wife (or two or three). Polygamy was almost a dirty thing amongst the peasantry, rarely done and most always punished. However, the Priests were above their own laws; they had to be to in order to follow their religious doctrines.
The Priesthood was a hereditary right. Isul's father Pehdrath was High Priest. Mégrah (Isul's beautiful mother; he had her eyes) had been the previous High Priest's daughter. Yet she was long dead from suicide, which was not a thing of sorrow.
Before committing the deed she had written, 'I go into eternal darkness, for our Master has called me. He wants me at his side now, to embrace what I have worshiped all my life. Dathema!'
Mégrah had been celebrated for her willingness to forfeit her life early. To transcend fear, to taste Darkness and willing become his consort forever.... Many devout had done this, yet many could not. Isul had cried for her. He had only been six when she’d died and hadn't understood, and he had been disciplined, but not too harshly since he hadn't even begun Acolyte training. So Pehdrath had said, but Isul had known and kept a great secret. His father had wept bitterly over the lovely Mégrah's death, and not just once.
Then in 768-2301, the War of Chaos had begun. Mehgrath would ever be rueful and hateful concerning that day. His future—as it should have been—had been stolen from him, and by lowly rebels who wanted the Priests’ freedom. How dare them! For although Isul could understand why they had wanted it and why they had been angry, Chaos had to be kept from the masses, left as a Priestly indulgence, so that there could be stability on Ordanya. Any fool should have known that and been to abide by it.
Maybe the peasantry had known but they certainly did not abide. Their darkest evil passions had driven them. Maybe the Darkness himself had pressed them to it, but how could Isul believe that, even when all was finished? Could it even possible that the Darkness had ordered rebellion against his most devout servants?
Pehdrath had died as the War entered its third year. Isul was appointed High Priest then and was given the most sacred weapons and vestments. He commanded the Priesthood's army and was a merciless general. Also, he was an ultimate killer. Perhaps that was why he was the only one left.
Still, the High Priesthood was supposed to have been so very different. After many studious years, climbing the ranks and awaiting his father's death (and maybe even causing it) Isul would have ruled from the Great Throne. He would have taken a few wives, sought their pleasure often, and gained sons and daughters that would have kept the greatest bloodline in the Priesthood thriving. Most importantly, he would have stained himself with thousands of dirty little deeds and left bleak trails of blood that would have proved his devotion to the Darkness.… Now that had been thieved, shattered beyond all hope....
Isul slipped from his reverie as he entered his father's burial chamber. With wood and flint, he lit the wicks of the few candles that remained in the candelabra, which rested next to the coffin. For a while now the lid been ripped away. Isul had done this, as if seeing the bones would help him. Yet could anything possibly help?
The High Priest pushed the hood of his dark gray robes from his face. He still looked strong and handsome, but he looked more than ten years older. The High Priest's ashen skin was now battle scarred.
Isul felt the old wounds and traced the etchings for a moment. It was a custom, a habit, something uncontrollable, and an eerie chill crept up his spine, like an echo of madness, a promise of it.
Isul knelt before the coffin then, and with his head bowed, he prayed.
“Darkness.... Forger of Ordanya.... Maker of Legend and Truth.... Father of your Priesthood.... Hear me, Master. By your Will, I am the sole survivor of War. I beg you, hear me and grant me the words of my ancestors, for they were gifted to hear from their own ancestors when they asked it of you. Remember how many I have killed and if not that, please, I beg you, remember the devotion of my mother, as she is at your side now, drinking the blood of all Ordanya with you. Please, let my father speak to me. Let him guide me through this.”
Isul had said words similar to these for what felt like ages. He couldn’t stop repeating them. Yet nothing had ever come from them. He was worse than an orphan was. Not only was his entire race gone, but also it seemed as if he had been abandoned by the one he had worshiped his entire life.
Isul's head blasted upward, his eyes filled with agony.
“Please, Master, hear my cry!”
Of course, there was nothing.
Isul bowed his head again, this time truly feeling that he could weep. Yet he resisted the urge, and he finished his prayer.
“If you still desire me, then give me sense enough to take my mother's path.... my life is yours!”
For a moment Isul felt strong, compelled to rip out one of his ceremonial daggers and cut his throat. Just as suddenly, the feeling melted into utter weakness. Isul began to tremble, not with sadness, but with anger at himself—and the Darkness—for taunting him with courage and throwing it away.
Still, he muttered, “Dathema!” the traditional prayer closing, and as Isul's tremors increased blackness overtook him. He must have dreamed of nothing but torture for a long time, but like a sudden blast of lightning, a word seared through Isul's brain.
With that, the High Priest's eyes flashed open. The candles had long since gone out. It was cold, but the sound of rain was gone. Whatever had spoken to him had been demanding, and Isul knew where he was to go and what he was to do.
Isul spent much of the next few weeks rummaging through ancient tomes. There were hundreds of them lining the Priests' vaults, some that dated back more than a thousand years, but the volumes had once been on shelves. They had been orderly and cared for with dignity, but even Isul, who had loved studying and at one time wouldn't have wrinkled so much as a page corner, had nearly all of them piled and strewn about the anteroom.
Only one thought haunted his mind, this important prophecy, which the Darkness had spoken. It stretched his growing madness even further. He hardly slept or ate. Isul plunged on; casting aside books when they frustrated him, (this happened at quite regular intervals). Perhaps he had imagined the voice. An unsettling thought, but a worse thought was this: the Darkness had indeed spoken, but the word was false, a taunting thing said only for amusement. However, the High Priest (if he could still be called that without a Priesthood to back him) became even more determined.
Still, determination with no results could waver, and it was starting to. More thoughts of suicide played at the edge of Isul's mind. He couldn't live like this much longer. Loneliness could be a burden for even someone who enjoyed solitude, especially when there could be no end. Yet did Isul really want to commit his spirit into the hands of a lord that would leave him like this and clearly take such pleasure in the fact? Could the last son of a proud priestly family forge chains that would forever bind him to a Master that clearly hated him?
Isul knew he was standing at the edge of reason. Each outcome seemed like madness. He would be a mortal devoured by insanity, for any route he could take would lead to a plunge, and this is what he had been thinking about as he looked at the book on his lap. One couldn't call it reading, for he was drowsy, on the verge of sleep.
Mindlessly Isul turned the page, and he would have slipped away, only to wake with pain later (he was sitting in a chair that had lost its comfort long ago), but the words scribbled on the far page caught his eye. Rather it was the color of the words. Everything else had been in black, but this page had almost entirely been scrawled in red. The crimson was so vivid that the intense violet of blood fruit would have seemed dim and dreary next to it.
Isul rubbed his eyes, straightened his back, and read, his lips moved, though no sound came out.
When War comes, bleeding through Ordanya's vital stream, the Chaos loosed, our Master pleased, for War is Death, and Death is pleasure to the Immortal. For we that are mortal are doomed to die. We live to die, and Death to cause before we do. But this War, a vision of the distant future I am granted, more Death shall be given there than at any time in History. A rebellion. Our lessers seek to be their own Masters. Shameful, and yet they attack. The Priesthood rises back in anger, in rage and utmost fury. ‘In the name of the Darkness we shall prevail,’ they cry, and as they should! War drives on, mad and hammering, swinging the sword of Death, not just at soldiers, but at common civilians. I see old men lose their heads; mothers die along with the babes at their breasts, virgins defiled, then slashed and burned alive. On both sides these Deaths occur. Our Master pleasures at both from his bleak throne. Then there are only soldiers left, rebels and Priests. The numbers of both factions lower every day, until there is only one. The High Priest alone has victory, but Chaos reigns in the High Priest's stead.
Foreseen and Recorded by High Priest Getrah Mergog, 158-1130
Isul could scarce believe what he had read. Getrah Mergog was an ancestor on his mother's side. Getrah had long been revered as one of the greatest High Priests ever. But this prophecy? It was so true , even down to how some of the civilians had died. Isul himself had ordered their executions, devised their manner. The rebels had done such vile things to the women and children of Fedan that such retribution could not be held back. This prophecy, over a thousand years old, had clearly been read by only a few of the most learned priests and kept secret by them. It was amazing.
Yet there was more on the page. The words were slight, again in black ink, and scribbled in a different hand. This said:
When only the High Priest remains, regeneration shall occur. Not swiftly, but new blood shall arise from the old fount. The Priesthood should be saved, and those that carry the flame shall have long hair that is crimson in color and brighter than any sacrificial pyre.
Who has written this nonsense? Isul thought angrily.
What Priest would have had the gall to leave graffiti inside a sacred tome? To taint such a true prophecy? And even if it hadn't been true or at least not yet happened, to defile words written by such a revered leader was an atrocity. These mad words of regeneration were awful enough, without the nonsense of people having red hair. Who had ever heard of that? Some fool had clearly been mixing the juice of bane-flowers with tainted herbs and smoking them....
How long had their journey gone on? It seemed like several ages to both people within the Labranth. The Labranth was a sleek vessel, one of the sharpest ships in Yun Marak's mercenary fleet. The ship was almost luxuriously equipped, only a step under Marak's private yachts, and an excellent choice for such a long and confusing voyage. Yet even all this fine equipment and home-like comfort was worth little to nothing when the tension was so high.
“Come on, Gryg. Do you really think we're going the right way now?” Mej Dracian said, her condescending bitterness more evident than usual. “Even you can't—”
Mej was standing—hovering—behind Vyrgian Gryg, the pilot and her associate on this job, the man she hated more than anyone else in the entire mercs guild. She gripped the top of the pilot's seat—Gryg was leaning forward over the dash instruments, almost sneering at them. Mej's nails almost pierced the seat’s leather, until Gryg spun the chair around and glared at her.
Mej jerked backward, her red hair shifting back behind her shoulders.
“Shut up. I'm tried of being pecked at, you blasted hag!”
Mej's dark eyes sparkled with anger. She glared at Gryg for a moment. He was a handsome young man—or he would have been to her, if only he wasn't such an annoying, moody little punk--but she had been startled worse than that, not to mention called worse things, so she decided to let the insult lie.
“Wake up, and quit being a little preg. Halmeras couldn't have gone this way. We would have at least caught up with him again, if not already blown him out of the stars.”
Gryg blasted out of his seat, looking as if he might strangle Mej, but she was ready for that. If his hands started for her throat, she'd quickly plant her knee into his groin.
“You saw this was his course, his exact course! We hacked it out of his navigation system back when we made our last stop, and even you were sure this was the way we had to go. We've got to be almost on top of him, Mej.”
Mej grunted a laugh. “Yeah, right. He left bait for us—false bait—and we bit it. I'll admit I'm as much to blame as you are, but right about now, I'm the only one with brains enough to know that we screwed up. If you weren't such a dip-faced preg we could—”
A nasty wad of saliva hit Mej’s cheek. Strangling she had expected, spit.... well, she had thought that even Gryg had more guts than that.
The saliva ran for a moment; the two stared each other straight in the eye. They were the same height (at least with Mej was in her heeled black boots). The woman was going to prostrate him, have him rolling around the floor in pain.
Mej wiped off the spit, and just as her knee was taking aim, the ship started to shake. They both lost their balance.
“Don't tell me you forgot to put us on auto-pilot!” Mej seethed, about ready to spit herself.
Gryg didn't answer. The Labranth was pitching and the lights flickered. The instruments were going haywire.
“Blast!” Gryg said, as he maneuvered to his feet and rushed back to his seat. “We hit some sort of energy barrier.”
Mej was standing now too, gripping anything she could to stay up.
“All the way out here? We're practically in the uncharted zones. Hell, we're probably already there after all this messing around.”
The ship rocked more insanely than ever. The lights shuddered once more and then they went out. Even the glow of the gages was non-existent, and the engine’s hyper-thrusts quieted to nothing. In less than a minute, everything aboard the Labranth had died, except the passengers, but how could they have much longer?
Then the vessel started plummeting through space.
“We're going down!” Gryg yelled.
Gryg had remembered picking up a planet by trajectory only fifteen minutes before. It was near, but who knew if it was near enough to land on—to crash on, Gryg changed his thought. If only he had been near the equipment before its failure.... Damn that Mej! But in his heart, he felt that this unknown world was just out of reach.
“We're dead,” Gryg whispered, expecting more sarcasm.
“Yeah, we're dead.” And to Gryg's surprise, Mej's voice was shaking.
It was storming on Ordanya. Fierce, jagged bolts of electricity brightened the night sky. Sometimes so much lightning rent the air that it could have midday. Rain was coming down in thick droplets, pounding the ground like a sacrificial drum, and wind blasted through the trees.
Once these storms began, it took almost a week for them to cease. Such Fire in the Sky—as it had been dubbed long ago—was a rarity; it happened once or maybe twice in a century and was a terror to behold.
Mehgrath Isul felt exhilarated, as if the Fire had pierced him where he sat. He felt possessed and almost giddy. Isul had wanted to see this phenomenon since he had been a boy.
It was said—or had been said—by Ordanya’s scientific minds that these storms were so powerful, that they charged the atmosphere so much, that the excess energy had no place left to go and shot right into space, forming a barrier around Ordanya. It had been said that this barrier took the form of a ring and waves of electricity would eventually break off this ring and spread throughout the solar system. Who knew if this was true , but was unlikely to ever be proved true or false.
Isul paced around Great Throne Hall, almost in a state of ecstasy. He could hardly stay still, but several times a minute he was at the windows of dark-colored glass. Most panes depicted horrendous scenes of Ordanian savagery and depictions of the Darkness upon his vile throne.
No one had known the exact form of the Immortal Master, but that had never stopped people from imagining his grotesqueness. Here, a large shadowy beast, with naked females chained to him, drank from a chalice of blood. There, a handsome winged 'man' with a sword rampaged across a battlefield, impaling all he crossed.
Some panes were without image and it was these that Isul watched the storm from when he was able to stand still. Once when he looked out, hoping to see more of the same, something quite unexpected happened.
A slivery, smoking streak tore from the forbidding clouds. It plowed through some of the trees that still dared to stand, and then it went out of sight. There was a great explosion, which shook the ground under Fedan. Whatever had cashed had hit miles away, perhaps even a day's journey away by foot, at least in this mad weather.
Isul hadn't even time to think about whether he would traverse the plains and woods to the crash site (or when was the better word, for the High Priest had little better to do with his time) when the Darkness again touched his mind.
“The Hour of Regeneration is at hand, my Servant. Go and find my gift for you. Now.”
Isul could not protest, even though he had not yet accepted the thought of regeneration. His Master, whether still an ally or now an enemy, could not be denied. The voice was powerful. No, it was power, the power that would control Isul until he drew his last breath, and even into Eternity.
When Mej Dracian awoke, everything surprised her. Firstly, she had expected to be dead, and if this was death, it wasn't her picture of it at all. To Mej death was supposed to be emptiness, nothingness, lack of existence. To those of Righteousness, death was becoming one with the Lord of the Heavens, stepping from life to a higher plain. Mej had heard all about that and really wasn't sure she believed it. Well, maybe the Righteous and those like them got eternal peace, but surely that wasn't doled out to mercs.
But whether dead or alive, Mej was still aware of things. Pain filled her entire body. Its reality came to her even before any semblance of sight. She was lying on sodden grass and its dampness made her shiver.
Mej then saw that she—and Gryg—were flat on their backs, not too far from the damaged Labranth. Holes and scorch marks covered the ship’s hull. Some of the gaps in the plating were large enough for a handful of people to walk through. Vyrgian looked unconscious at the very least, until he began to shift a few moments later.
That preg! He's still alive.... or still with me at any rate. So if I'm dead, Hell must be real.
She turned uncomfortably at the thought; or rather, she tried to when suddenly a pale gray hand fell upon her shoulder. Mej gasped.
“Be wise. Do not move.”
Mej leapt to her feet, a wild defensive glint haunting her eyes. She gabbed for her lazik-pistol and to her chagrin, she only found an empty holster. The red-haired merc was not unaccustomed to fighting with her fists, but the man before her was strong and muscular, a horrendous foe who could well snap her in two without much effort.
Mej stole a glance at Gryg. Both his lazik-pistol and his dagger were gone. Damn!
“Your weapons have been discarded,” the hooded, ashen-skinned man said. “You need not worry. You will not need them if you come with me.”
“I'd like to have been the judge of that,” Mej spat.
“I am sure of you would have.”
The alien man smiled. His expression made him look pleased and almost aroused. Mej's hand twitched back to her empty hostler out of habit.
“But the situation is only mine to judge. Shh. I would not be saddled with an argument. You and your friend are greatly wounded. You need more rest, before we away to Fedan.”
Suddenly Gryg's eyes opened and upon seeing the stranger, he yelled, “What the hell is this!” Panic laced his words, as he struggled to get up.
“Shut up and let me handle this.” Mej glared at her associate as she spoke to him. Then she quickly shifted her gaze back to the other. “First of all, this preg and I are not friends. Why we're together hardly concerns you, and for another thing I'm not 'awaying' anywhere with you.”
The ashen man laughed slightly. “I am afraid you are.”
“And how would you make us?” Mej sneered.
“Even I shall admit I am in no position to make either of you do anything just now, but I could leave you here in this wilderness. Your vessel is dead; you have no weapons, and to stay in this part of Ordanya at night, out in the open....” The man shook his head, smiling as he alluded to the worst. “If you want to die a slow, painful death, I can very well leave you to it.”
“Who do you think you are?” Mej asked.
“I am Mehgrath Isul, the High Priest and Ruler of Ordanya. I also am a man willing to take two stranded travelers under his wings. I am nothing less than your savior.”
Something howled in the distance.
“Let's go with him, Mej,” Gryg said, wincing from the pain as he scrambled to his feet.
“You’re pathetic,” Mej seethed back, but in the end they went to Fedan with Isul, unknowingly toward the promised regeneration.
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|Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado
|Excellent story; very well penned! BRAVA! :)|
|Reviewed by Charlie
|I'm a poet. I read like a poet. I chew on every word, but this is a good story. You've a good chance at winning that contest. I hope you're like me and enjoy constructive criticism. If not, message me, and I'll edit my review. How to make it better: I did notice quite a few dead words. They'd interject themselves in the story and slow down the pace of movement. But that's an easy fix. Try reading it outloud. If the word doesn't move the story along, cut it out. For example, in the first sentence you don't have to say the "tomb called...", just say "thru the Sepulcher..."--you already clarify it's a tomb a little later. Your readers are used to Sci-Fi. They're pretty smart. Act like they know what you're talking about. That way they can absorb themselves in Isul's world. One other thing. Careful on the vernacular. Their speach should be natural--each with his/her own personality. On the whole, I think you've got a great shot. Speed up the pace a little, and "talk normal". --Charlie|