Magic is the only weapon against the gods in this powerful conclusion to Stephen Aryan’s Age of Dread Trilogy.
Kai sneered at the line of beggars that trailed after him as he walked through Herakion, the capital city of Zecorria.
His sneer grew more intense as he passed the front doors of several large churches and temples dedicated to his brethren. Huge stone buildings that spoke of permanence, giving mortals the illusion of comfort in their endless quest to confess their sins. None was eternal, with perhaps the exception of the Maker, but no one had seen him in centuries and yet somehow His faith endured.
Kai knew the others dreamed of having as many followers as the Maker so that they might extend their miserable and empty existence for another century or two. They were sheep. And like all livestock, one day, they would be ripe for slaughter.
Somewhere deep inside himself Kai heard the faint whimpers and pleas of those being consumed and a wolfish smile spread across his face.
The beggars saw only a handsome, richly dressed man striding down the street with purpose. A few cried out, asking for a coin to buy a crust of bread, which he completely ignored. One man, with blue stains at the corners of his mouth and open sores on his arms, made Kai smile. With nothing but the clothes on his back, not even his health, the man chose to spend his money on venthe, numbing himself to the world. The marks on his face were a clear sign of his addiction. Kai flicked the man a small coin, helping him towards his imminent and painful death.
The mortals were even worse than his brethren. Greedy. Desperate to belong. Frantically trying to feel something to give their life meaning. They weren’t sheep. They were like ants, swarming around in search of food and shelter.
Kai wasn’t paying attention and almost tripped over another beggar sitting on the street. The blind man pulled in his legs while raising a cracked bowl in one grubby hand. Ignoring the wretched creature Kai was about to move on when he felt a familiar but insistent pull.
Part of him wanted to disregard it and keep walking but, as ever, appearances had to be maintained. This wasn’t a summons he could ignore without attracting attention. Closing his eyes the world around him faded away. There was a brief moment of disorientation and then he was standing in the familiar banqueting hall.
At the far end of the table the huge chair of the Maker loomed over everyone in the room. Even in such a large space with a high vaulted ceiling, ribbed with beams like the innards of a vast beast, the chair drew everyone’s attention. At some point they all glanced at it, half expecting it to be occupied by His indomitable presence. Perhaps, one day, it would be. That was the one thought that scared Kai.
As others began appearing out of thin air, and the room gradually filled up, Kai noticed the pool of empty space around him. He smiled at their fear while carefully studying the faces he hadn’t seen before.
Vargus and the others paid little attention to the newcomers, probably didn’t even know half of their names. Even among their kind most of the newborn were like moths. Here one day and gone the next. But some were stronger than others. Some flourished and grew. Some were lame, ready to be culled, and others, on the cusp of greatness, were ready to be consumed. Licking his lips at the thought of feasting on the delicious treats that surrounded him, Kai moved towards his chair. The others moved out of the way without being asked.
Halfway down the table someone blocked his path, refusing to step aside. Looking up he saw that it was Elwei. Unlike most of his brethren, the Lord of the First People was inscrutable. Even now, as Elwei stood in the room with everyone, part of his attention remained elsewhere, focused on distant events. His face was turned away from Kai and most of his features were in shadow, partially hidden by a headscarf. The faded tattoos on his black skin were so ancient that even Kai didn’t recognise the symbols. Powerful and mysterious was never a good combination. He skirted around the old Pilgrim, nodded politely to Summer and Winter, and then sat down.
Towards the head of the table the old sailor, Nethun, took his seat. Everyone else took that as a cue to cut short their conversations and get comfortable. Normally quick to smile, Nethun’s expression was as grim as those around him. The Blessed Mother seemed troubled and Vargus distracted, suggesting that both of them were privy to whatever was about to be said. Kai maintained his air of ignorance, waiting to be told while working hard to keep the smile off his face.
“As you’ve noticed, a few of our number are absent,” said Nethun, wasting no time on preamble. “But Akosh has not passed beyond the Veil. She has ignored several summonses and, as we agreed, Vargus was tasked with finding out why.”
“She has been dabbling in the affairs of mortals,” said Vargus, drawing gasps of surprise from several around the table. Kai shook his head in disappointment, biting his bottom lip to crush the mirth rising up inside. “Recently she was seen in Herakion, the capital city of Zecorria. Aren’t you in the north at the moment?”
It took Kai a few seconds to realise the question was directed at him. As all eyes at the table turned his way the half-smile slid off his face. Lying and deception were second nature to him, but sometimes the truth, or at least a version of it, was better. It was also easier to remember under scrutiny.
“I am in Herakion at the moment. There was a huge disturbance last night,” he offered.
Vargus continued to stare at him with an unreadable expression. Despite the help Vargus had given him in the past, Kai knew better than to trust his dear old friend. Vargus would try to snuff him out if he found out even a little of what he’d been doing over the last few years. Kai had promised to play by the rules, to be a good sheep, but he was fundamentally different from all of those around him. They all knew it on some level. They felt it, deep down. It was why he unsettled them so much. In this place everyone wore a mask of flesh, but few had the bravery to look upon his true visage, stripped of all illusion. He belonged to another era that everyone wanted to forget.
“Akosh was partially responsible for what happened at the Red Tower,” Vargus said eventually, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “One of the mages who survived found out that she was to blame. I’m told it was this mage who attacked Akosh last night, seeking vengeance for her murdered family. Their battle collapsed one building and several people died. Akosh fled the area and has not been spotted since. You told me she wasn’t in the north.”
Another arrow hurtling through the air towards him. Vargus definitely had a boil that needed lancing and it seemed as if Kai was the pus-filled target. One of the reasons Akosh had remained hidden for so long was that he’d misdirected Vargus away from Zecorria and the capital city in particular. Her plans had been developing nicely, which he’d permitted to continue, but now that eh, would have to change.
“She wasn’t at the time. Perhaps she recently arrived in Zecorria,” he suggested but Vargus didn’t seem convinced. Kai couldn’t tell if his old friend was angry because he could hear the lies or he just had unfounded suspicions.
“Vargus, where are you now?” asked Nethun.
“Travelling through Shael. It’s going to take me a while to reach Herakion.”
The old sailor didn’t look pleased. Perhaps Nethun was wishing he’d given the task to someone else, but this kind of work was always left to Vargus. Apparently no one else could be trusted, which was probably an accurate assessment. “Get there as fast as you can. Akosh broke the one rule He passed down,” said Nethun. All eyes briefly turned to the empty chair at the head of the table. It amazed Kai that a piece of furniture could inspire so much fear and awe. The majority of those sat around the table had never even seen the Maker and yet they were absolutely terrified of him. “The Queen of Yerskania was recently attacked. My sources tell me it was in retaliation for something she did.”
For all of his little birds whispering secrets into dark corners, Kai’s reach was limited. Nethun had followers in every port and on every ship in the world. They were crawling all over Perizzi, which explained how he knew so much about what went on in the city. It was one of the reasons Kai avoided travelling there. Another was that it stank of fish.
“Why do we care?” asked Kai.
Nethun’s frown deepened. “Because Akosh gave the order.”
“The humans have attempted to dissolve Akosh’s power by rededicating her orphanages,” said Vargus, stepping in smoothly. “It’s a good start, but it’s not enough.”
“We will ensure her end is final. We will rip her up, from root to stem,” promised Nethun, clenching his ham-sized fists. “All of us will do this.”
The Blessed Mother and a few others made noises of agreement, which was a surprise.
They had been planning this. Vargus, Nethun and at least four or five others must have met earlier to discuss a plan of attack. Normally attending these meetings was a waste of time. Just an opportunity for the new faces to bask in the glory of their elders. Asking everyone to get involved was new and unexpected. Moving forward Kai would have to be increasingly careful.
“What do you want us to do?” asked one of the youngest, eager to please.
“Find every orphanage belonging to Akosh, in every country, and make sure it is converted to another faith.” Nethun’s tone of voice left no room for debate. Without new followers it meant in a hundred years Akosh would cease to exist when all of the current ones had died. But Nethun was intent on utterly destroying her much sooner than that. “She was also responsible for replacing a number of significant people in Perizzi with her own followers. We must ensure she’s not done this in other cities. Report any such interference directly to me,” said the old sailor.
“What will be done about Akosh in the meantime?” asked the Blessed Mother.
“Kai will have to keep watch on her until I arrive,” said Vargus.
“I will be happy to, brother,” said Kai, forcing a smile. He knew exactly where she was at the moment, running scared from a mortal. It was so pathetic he almost laughed out loud.
“Is there anyone else in the Zecorran capital?” asked the Blessed Mother, turning towards the Lady of Light. Zecorria was her stronghold, after all, but she shook her head sadly. Everything about her was sad. From her droopy mouth to her sad eyes, always so full of compassion and love. It was sickening.
Kai would have been offended by the Blessed Mother’s lack of eh, trust if not for the fact that the old hag was right to be suspicious.
“I am in Shael,” said the Lady of Light. “There are many here who are lost and dispossessed.” Her benevolence made Kai want to vomit. She’d been scared into her new subservient role by Vargus after he’d destroyed her consort. It had been a mask to begin with, but now she had become that which she’d pretended to be in the past. A pious priestess. She was a prisoner and didn’t even realise.
“Anyone else?” asked Nethun.
Remarkably there were few in the country and no others in the capital city, a fact Kai knew very well. Those who had travelled to Herakion mysteriously disappeared and were currently nourishing him.
“Should we travel to Herakion to lend our support?” asked a desperate youngster. He was like a hungry puppy, begging for scraps from his master’s table.
Nethun barely considered it. “No. It’s not worth the risk.”
Kai noticed he didn’t specify who or what would put them at risk. Even if they destroyed Akosh’s future she still had a large number of followers, particularly in the north, providing her with strength. A youngster bumbling into the city would be easily noticed. Akosh’s followers would soon warn her that someone else was on her trail.
“I will do my best to keep you apprised of her whereabouts,” said Kai, his smile bordering on a grimace.
Ever a raconteur of witty banter the old sailor merely grunted.
“Is there any other business?” asked Summer.
“No, we’re done,” said Nethun, talking over one of the youngsters who’d raised his voice With that they were dismissed. The majority of those assembled immediately vanished, returning to the mortal world.
“I’ll see you soon,” said Vargus, making it sound like both a promise and a threat. With that he too vanished. Kai thought his old friend looked distracted.
A few stayed behind and a group of four were having a frantic whispered conversation. They were too far away for Kai to overhear but their petty concerns were of no interest to him. He’d lingered only to ponder about what to do with Akosh and how to manoeuvre Vargus when he arrived. When the four youngsters concluded their discussion and vanished Kai realised he wasn’t alone in the hall.
Sat only a few seats from the head of the table was Elwei. He’d not spoken a word during the meeting and Kai had to admit he’d forgotten he was even there. His head was still turned away, staring at something in the distance, perhaps half a world away. Kai might have thought the old Pilgrim had lingered because of him if not for the distracted stare.
Kai returned to the mortal world, stepped around the blind beggar, and hurried away down the street. It wouldn’t take long for Vargus to arrive in the city. A few weeks at most. It might be possible to delay him for a couple of days, but Kai knew he was relentless. It was better to deal with Akosh now, make plans for when Vargus arrived, and hold other schemes in reserve in case those failed. Experience had taught him to prepare for the unexpected where his brethren were involved.
* * *
Garvey, the blind beggar, had watched with his mouth agape, as the man-shaped being paused in front of him on the street. It moved like a man but it wasn’t human and he doubted it was even mortal. It was more like the chalk outline of a man. Inside it was filled with a vast ocean of swirling energy that was both alien and somehow familiar. Even without the use of his eyes his remaining senses were being flooded by the creature in front of him. Energy radiated from the being in waves, like ripples on a pond, which he translated into distinct impressions and emotions. eh, Darkness, despair and a sea of blood across time were the strongest. The number of deaths connected to it appeared endless. There was so much blood he could taste it in the back of his mouth. Garvey would have screamed if his throat hadn’t been constricted with terror.
Everyone else on the street was oblivious to the weight of its presence, but he could feel it pressing against his mind. Its immense power made his teeth ache and his bones hum. Being so close it felt as if his skin were on fire.
It was also what he’d been searching for since escaping from the palace. The first time he’d sensed it had been in his cell. Somehow it had noticed him reaching out across the city. If not for Tianne’s distress Garvey would’ve been discovered and, he suspected, torn to pieces. It was malicious and he knew it could crush him with ease, but like a moth he was drawn towards it. Such a being was beyond anything he’d encountered. Its existence was both terrifying and intoxicating.
He’d expected the being to move away down the street, but something happened. It paused, right in front of him, staring off into the distance. Even masking his own magic, Garvey had sensed a peculiar shift in the air. Energy unlike any he’d felt before saturated the area and a doorway opened. The being of light remained immobile, staring into space, while the larger part of its presence travelled elsewhere. Garvey felt its focus move away from the street and he decided to take a risk.
Reaching out to the Source he drew energy into his body. His fatigue and the pain in his muscles instantly vanished. His hunger became a distant niggle and the strain from being so close to the being also faded.
In the rest of the city time was almost standing still. All sounds became distorted. Voices stretched on and on in an endless shout that never wavered. Overhead a seagull wailed, its mournful cry grating on his ears. Garvey was caught within a bubble as he could still hear his heart beating at a steady rhythm.
Carefully, with delicate strands of power, he explored the surrounding area. Only a few minutes had passed when Garvey’s instincts screamed at him to run. He instantly severed his connection to the Source and masked his power. A doorway to the other place reopened. The man-shaped being returned and marched away down the street, muttering under his breath.
Garvey was about to follow when the air in front of him flickered again. Time had resumed its normal pace and yet a schism remained. No one noticed as he moved towards it and reached out with one hand. The moment he made contact the street disappeared and Garvey found himself standing inside a huge building. Even without his eyes he could sense the vast space surrounding him and the high ceiling. His breathing echoed loudly in the empty room, rebounding off bare stone walls.
Something ancient and huge sat in the middle of the room. It held a distant echo of life. As soon as his fingers touched the surface of the table he knew the tree it came from had stood upon the world centuries before he was born. It was impossibly long and yet was made from a single piece of wood.
At first Garvey thought he was alone, but soon he became aware of a tall figure seated at the table. The stranger stood up and approached on sandalled feet that whispered across the tiled floor. His presence was as overwhelming as the other being, but Garvey sensed it was being masked, to make it bearable for him. “No mortal has set foot in this hall in over one thousand years,” said the tall man, his voice deep and sonorous. The other had radiated malice but Garvey didn’t feel afraid of the being in front of him. “And now, two Sorcerers have been here in only a handful of years.”
“Balfruss?” asked Garvey. eh, “Yes.”
“Who are you?”
“A Pilgrim. More than that is not important.”
As silence filled the hall Garvey thought the Pilgrim was waiting for him to speak. “Why am I here?” he asked.
“I sensed you were nearby.”
“I was following someone like you,” said Garvey. “But he was different.”
“He’s coursing with malicious, dark energy. Blood and violence cling to him like a second skin. I’ve never felt anything like it.”
“Tell me more,” said the Pilgrim.