Leci waited, on her knees. She kept her head bowed obediently as she had been taught. The full splendor of such a communion was not to be observed by her unworthy eyes. Her place was on the ground.
Air rushed about her suddenly, and Leci tensed. Beside her, she could hear the priest Tawl inhale in shuddering ecstasy. Leci’s eyes remained firmly fixed on the floor. In truth, she did not rightly fear the torture Tawl had promised her should she look up. Having experienced pain her entire 14 years of life, such a familiar threat could not have dissuaded her. No truly devout being would be cowed by his petty threats.
“Let it begin.”
The voice came, the one that sent tingles up her spine. This was the reason that commanded her strict obedience to the edict of submission. Such an unearthly cadence, the voice of a higher being, was too much for her to immediately grasp. Later back in the dens she would recall every word over and over again with obsessive longing. But here and now there could be no such frivolities. She had to concentrate on the import of the beautiful melody so as not to miss a word of divine thought. This was more than any lowly creature should be allowed, and to see the form that could create such heavenly sounds would be sacrilege from one in her position.
“Why do you live?”
Leci tensed. Tawl had drilled her repeatedly for months on the proper responses to make, so as not to offend the questioner. But she had secretly made her own deliberations, and had come to an answer that no one had to teach her, the correct one.
Drawing a deep breath, she responded clearly, “I do not.”
Tawl gasped in shock beside her, overcome by this unexpected rebellion against his authority.
Leci remained silent, breathlessly waiting to see if she had been guided truly.
Seconds flitted away in silence. Then the voice spoke again.
“No, master,” Leci responded. Beside her Tawl choked with fury, aghast at her presumption, but she hurriedly continued nonetheless. “You are alive. I merely exist, of as little consequence as dirt or rock. Like such objects, I might be used for the purposes of higher beings such as yourself. Only then would my existence have meaning. But I would still not be alive unless…”
Before she could finish, a booted foot slammed into her side. She toppled over to one side, gagging and sickened. Though expected, the attack was no less forceful and debilitating. Still she shut her eyes resolutely. She must not catch a glimpse of what was before her!
Tawl was speaking now in his horribly human voice. “This thing will die, master,” he whispered fiercely. “She shall be permitted to speak again only in screams, and I myself will surrender half my blood to replace what she was to have given.”
No! Leci cried inwardly. Master, I beg you, take me!
A low beautiful chuckle stifled her silent protestations.
“Oh, you will surrender much more than that, human.”
There was a muffled burst, like an inflated bladder exploding. Something hot spattered against Leci’s face and hands, accompanied by a slithering thud of cloth and flesh striking the floor. She remained still.
“Rise up,” the voice commanded. So soothing, it wrapped around her, dispelling the awareness of pain. Leci levered herself up to her knees again. She abased herself. When she opened her eyes, she glimpsed Tawl’s corpse lying beside her. His head was missing, and there were bloody scraps scattered all about. Blood from his ruptured neck was pumping out to feed a pool that was creeping slowly towards her knees. Leci made no move to avoid it. This was divine justice she had been privy to!
The master’s voice claimed all her attention again. “It seems you know your place far better than this one did.”
Leci felt her heart pound at the compliment. “I am what God made me, master.”
There was a slight hiss, and then the voice spoke in a strange tone, “Yes, aren’t we all.” For a moment Leci feared that she had offended him somehow, but then he continued. “And not all of us are capable of seizing the opportunity to be something more.”
Previously unthinkable hope blossomed in her, and her heart began to pound at a dizzying rate. Was he saying…?
“But I think,” the voice continued in a satisfied air, “that one day you will ascend to something greater.”
Leci uttered a small cry. She trembled feverishly in forbidden bliss. She had passed! Now she would be initiated, offer up half her blood to join the blessed worshippers of the gods. She would survive it, she knew she must. Her dreams would soon be achieved. The implications were clear, that and so much more. For if what she read behind the honeyed words was correct, then perhaps, one day, she would truly live. To serve the gods, and then to be one with them. He had all but promised it to her!
“Or perhaps,” a soft, cold voice broke in from behind her, “her destiny is to die now.”
It surprised Leci. Without thinking, she whirled around, her eyes came up. A man stood behind her. Wait, not a man: skin green and leathery, hair long and blazing white, and the face…
Was the face of God.
Tears welled up in Leci’s eyes. Transported by religious bliss, she no longer heard the long dreamt-of voice, screaming now in ugly fury. But she felt the taloned fist slam into her.
She flew through the air, riding a fervid wave of noise and pain like she had never known. She hit the wall with bone-crunching force, organs pierced by smashed bone and head cracked open against the stone. But none of that mattered.
Because for one moment, she had lived.
“Filth!” Turel shrieked, his fanged jaws slavering. “Contagion! Death was not sufficient!”
Brimming with indignation, he turned to his exalted guest. “Father, I…”
The look on Kain’s face brought him up short.
Kain’s eyes bore into him with unblinking reproach, his lip curled down slightly in a disapproving frown. The Master’s very bearing seemed to radiate intense displeasure.
Turel cringed, his mouth opening and closing as he sought vainly for words to explain. He knew that it was not the human’s indiscretion that stoked his father’s wrath. It was only a beast, its name unknown, so no repudiation on that score. No, it was Turel’s reaction, exaggerated and undignified, that brought him so low before the one being whose acceptance he craved more than anything. It was always thus. He was ever falling short of his father’s expectations.
A lump rose in Turel’s throat. He felt as if he would start sobbing at any moment. Please, Father, do not look at me that way, he wailed inwardly.
Kain’s piercing eyes released Turel from their grip, traveling to one side to rest lightly on the vampire worshipper’s corpse. He reflected for a moment, how this scene had served to illustrate the point he intended to make to his second eldest. Then he addressed his son in a soft, reflective tone. “One cannot escape one’s destiny.”
Turel seemed to shrink in upon himself. High, plaintive whimpering came from his throat, and he hung his head, ashamed.
Then Kain was standing beside him, and his strong claws gripped Turel’s own. Looking down, Turel could not help but think that his talons, though physically larger, were pitifully outmatched by his father’s. Before he could sink deeper into maudlin self-pity, Kain’s voice pulled him back. “Heed my words, child,” he spoke firmly but not harshly. “It falls now that you and I speak upon the destiny of our race. Forget any failings, and resume the stature that befits your position as my worthy son.”
The words and the pressure of Kain’s hands brought renewed strength to Turel. His head came up, his spine stiffened resolutely. The familiar sense of inadequacy was replaced by much-needed self-respect. He now felt able to meet his father’s gaze, and promptly did so.
highest aerie of the
Within the desolate confines of the mammoth desert known as the Dry Maw, a solitary figure trudged resolutely across the dunes. All around this tiny form, the red sands spread out in seemingly endless profusion. Mountains of sand collapsed and grew before the force of the howling gale, the continuous shriek of its passing giving voice to the dying planet that quivered in its death-throes. It seemed almost to wail in high torment for the myriad and fragile skin of living things that had once graced its face.
The lone traveler, intent upon other matters, paid the wind’s imploring no heed.
At times, low rumblings shook the earth that his clawed feet passed over, further signs of the planet’s torment. These slight tremblings did not disturb him, although each time he was reminded that yet greater seismic disruptions might lie in store for him. The landscape of this desert, in his memory a smooth ripple of red sands marked by protrusions of rocks the color of dried blood, was now scarred and defaced by gaping gorges of sundered stone. Mighty earthquakes of continent-shuddering force had torn the earth asunder here, adding a further impediment to his travels. At times he had been confronted by such monstrosities in his path, the other side sometimes lost to view. Not to be balked, he had spread his tattered wings and hurled himself over the side, relying upon the ever-present sirocco winds to carry him up and across. The thrust could not keep him aloft for long, and he had inevitably sunk into the depths of the pit, but always moving forward, eventually touching either the other side or the ruined floor of the bedrock. Whatever the case, he had always climbed out, the arachnid talents of his slain brother Zephon being put to tireless use. Upon reaching the top over which umber sands spilled like water, he would continue his trek toward the stronghold of his final sibling, his path never deviating.
Raziel, the Reaver of Souls, walked on down the road of revenge. Behind him, a storm began to grow.
“I have felt them all die, father,” Turel spoke softly.
Kain stood before him, an immutable presence that seemed to fill the room, though he said not a word in reply.
“I have now felt all my brethren perish. All of them.” Turel emphasized this last so that the import would not be lost.
Kain made no sign of hearing him, but continued to scan the trappings of the throne room with a dispassionate eye.
Turel mustered his resolve to say now what he must.
“But you have not lost all of your sons.” He stopped and waited for a reaction.
Slowly, very slowly, Kain turned to look at Turel. Arms crossed over his chest, he regarded his son with a cold stare that made his son quail. He obviously knew where this line of talk was headed.
Whereas before Turel might have been dissuaded from continuing, recent events now emboldened him beyond his previous timidity.
“Father, I alone remain willingly to serve you as I always have. No wish of yours has ever been met with less than my most supreme effort.” Turel took a step closer to Kain, his voice taking on a meaningful whisper.
“And no task you set me has never been fulfilled, to the very last detail.”
The allusion was not lost upon Kain. For the briefest moment, his stormy eyes flickered to the walls of the cavernous chamber, whereupon were triumphantly displayed the ancient, crumbling banners of a clan that had not existed for close upon 900 years, whose very name was forbidden upon pain of execution. It was not wise to surpass God. Once again, Kain turned his attention to his vampiric second-born.
Turel continued in a steady tone. “There is no more time for rivalries or weaknesses. The order of the planet has been irrevocably changed again, by your will. But you have greater works in mind.” Turel paused for a moment. Strange, he was not usually so direct with his parent. But Father had not cut him off so far, so perhaps further insistence would prove efficacious. He moved closer.
“We are not totally immured by Fate, our…” Turel hesitated, “your world being proof of that. It was your choice to bring about a paradise based upon worth and judgment, not destiny. Even before the evolution touched you, the greatest power was already yours, that being your recognition of the importance of individual choice.”
“I did not come here for this, Turel,” Kain spoke then, and his raspy voice swept away all Turel’s clever arguments. “Come to your point.”
Turel stood speechless. His eyes drifted to the floor. Was his ardor so quickly dimmed? Where were all his carefully prepared speeches and declarations? Desperate, he knew he must not lose this opportunity, for it would surely be his last. Jerking his head up, he met Kain’s expectant gaze, and suddenly, without thinking, he spoke his heart.
“Please do not let me die.”
Kain blinked, shocked.
He had thought himself prepared. Undisputed king of this world, he had lived for thousands of year with his will being absolute and total. Since the conception of his plan, he had been concerned with his own fears and doubts, but never, not once, with those of others. Only now, at his son’s simple plea, did he realize how he had deceived himself.
Looking at Turel, Kain silently took in the physical changes his son had endured since last they had met. How long had that been? A year? A century? With deep sadness, Kain came to realize how much time he had been spending in the Cavern of the Chronoplast, observing and planning his own future course and that of every being on his world. Foreknowledge had endowed upon him acceptance of the sacrifice he had demanded from his children. In their final meetings with him, they had all reacted differently to his words. Melchiah had been morosely relieved at the prospect, while Zephon had tried to mask his secret treachery with sly words and fawning deprecation. Rahab had been proud, loyal Rahab, possessed of the self-assurance that Turel lacked, and which had elevated the Leviathan prince in Kain’s eyes beyond the technicality of his rank as fourth-born. Dumah, of course, had said little, considering his being quite dead at the time and still not pleased with it.
But none of them had questioned him outright, or asked him for help as Turel did now. Kain had known that Turel might, yet he had felt assured that it would be of no consequence. But still, standing so close to his son, the last scion of the dynasty he himself had reared and guided, Kain felt an absurd need to apologize. For when all was said and done, he truly loved his people, his children, and he regretted his choices.
The moment passed. Such melancholy thoughts were not for him. And, he told himself resolutely, it was this very same love that urged him to stay the course no matter his misgivings. So it was that Kain raised his eyes to Turel’s hopeful face and made his choice.
Around Raziel now there was chaos and tumult. The sandstorm had built up and descended upon him with uncanny speed and strength. The seemingly harsh winds of before were as soft as a gentle breeze compared against the raging disorder that now mindlessly smashed into him from all sides. His visibility was limited to a few feet. The sky was no longer discernible from the ground, and there seemed to be as much sand as one as in the other. It sucked at his feet and raked along his skin, trying with every movement to hinder his advance. The gale blasted his puny form with all its strength.
But Raziel gave not an inch. His steps continued unabated, when suddenly something made him stop.
He knew that he was no longer alone.
Turning to one side, he stared grimly at the wall of twisting particles. Raziel studied their movement keenly, until his gleaming eyes detected something out of place, pushing against the will of the storm. A dark shape thrust its way towards him, and though its form was still indistinct, a pair of burning red eyes now regarded him hungrily.
Raziel flexed his right claw, and the Soul Reaver extended from his palm in a sinuous dance of twisting energy. A sharp his carried to his ears. From out of the darkness stepped a huge Turelim vampire. It was an adult, and plainly ravenous. Its massive body glided forward quickly until only a few paces separated them.
Raziel dropped to a crouch, the Soul Reaver cocked and ready. In this furious storm, Glyph spells would be useless, their power dampened by roaring wind, sand, and darkness. He could always use the concealing tumult to make his escape, but this was not his intent. Here in this howling rupture of earth and sky, his soul burned with equal fury and bloodlust. An opportunity had presented itself and he was not about to lose it.
The Turelim paced forward. Driven by immense hunger, it was little more than a slavering beast. The sight of the Soul Reaver made no impact on its disordered brain. Prey was near and that was all that mattered. It hissed again at Raziel, and was answered by an eager snarl. At that, the Turelim sprang.
Raziel leapt nimbly to one side, and the vampire slammed into a sand dune with a heavy thud. It whirled about instantly, its claws seeking flesh to rip, but Raziel darted past it on the left. As he did so, the Soul Reaver flicked out, slicing a long bloody gash along the vampire’s outstretched arm.
The monster shrieked and stumbled quickly away from its opponent, to turn and regard him with bulging eyes. Pain had brought it some measure of awareness but had by no means dimmed its determination. Only a few feet away, Raziel stood in readiness. He slowly raised one hand and beckoned the beast to come again.
Enraged, the Turelim drew upon its telekinetic powers and fired a force projectile from its mouth. But the storm still raged, and before the attack was halfway to its target, it was absorbed and dissipated by sand and wind. Dimly, the Turelim realized that Raziel was laughing at it.
The vampire howled. Already its arm had healed, and now it sped forward, determined to rend its foe apart and gorge on its blood. Raziel met the attack head on. The two combatants engaged each other with furious abandon. The Turelim’s massive shoulders drove its talons with lightning speed and force. Raziel dodged and swayed, the Soul Reaver striking with deadly precision at his nimble adversary. Both swift and powerful, they lunged and leapt through the all-encompassing storm, almost seeming to dance in the featureless landscape.
The dance ended abruptly. The Turelim feinted a swipe, expecting Raziel to slide back, and then lunged forward. Instead it found that its prey had copied its attack. Raziel flew through the air and crashed into the shocked Turelim. One foot planted against the monster’s broad chest and propelled backwards. The inertia of the vampire’s lunge sent Raziel soaring out in a superb somersault, and as he went, he extended the Soul Reaver behind him in a lethal arc.
The Turelim, staggering with blunted momentum, caught the tip of the energy blade right in the face. It split the creature’s jaw and nose, grazing the brain as it exited through the forehead. Blood spurted out in a crimson spray. The Turelim stood frozen until the enormity of its injury reached its damaged brain. Then it roared with unadulterated pain.
Raziel landed in a crouch a few yards away. He paused, drinking in the vampire’s agony. Then he dashed forward like a striking serpent.
The Turelim saw the attack coming. It spread its powerful arms wide and swept in at Raziel, still shrieking its agony.
As the razor-sharp points streaked towards him, Raziel suddenly converted his lunge to a feet-first slide. The attack passed harmlessly above him. He skimmed on smooth sand through the Turelim’s spread legs, and as he did so, he brought the Soul Reaver up. It sheared through the beast’s groin and hips with a gory crunch of debilitating savagery.
The Turelim’s screaming ended with a sudden high-pitched squeak. Its severed jaw hung open, and its tongue lolled out in two parts as it sank to the ground. Behind it Raziel had checked his slide. From his position still on the ground, he charged the Soul Reaver until it crackled with a force that surpassed the storm, and then he thrust its searing power through the beast’s back. With a flash of power, the Turelim exploded, its charred remains hurtling through the sandy air.
Raziel rose to his feet. Before him the vampire’s soul bobbed enticingly. He unwound his face wrap and sucked it in, crying out joyfully as new strength and energy surged through him. Intoxicated with battle victory, he roared a bloody challenge to the swirling sandstorm. Its shrieking cry seemed to answer him. In response, he raised his tattered wings and leapt into the air. The breath of the elemental titan buoyed him up into the sand-filled sky, and Raziel let it sweep him in its chaotic embrace towards his destiny.
Never in all his long life had Turel known such anger. Almost choking on it, he raised an accusing finger and whispered harshly, “You betray us!”
Kain’s face took on a dangerous cast. “I do not recommend this course, Turel. Do not overestimate your worth.”
“I am already dead to you, so it makes little difference, Father!” Turel spat vehemently. “You stand there proud and unconcerned as you arrange for the execution of another of your sons, only now my role is reversed!” Turel’s eyes were bulging from his head, and his voice was contorted into a shrill shriek. “Now that damn ghoul is coming to murder me at your will, and all because your arrogance overcame your…”
“Enough!” Kain thundered. Furious, he clenched his fist, and a nimbus of purple lightning flared around it. With a cry of fear, Turel reared back and cowered in on himself, hiding his face with his hands.
For a moment they stood there, frozen. Then Kain relaxed, and the deadly energy faded. He turned and walked slowly past Turel towards his son’s looming throne without sparing him a glance. There he seated himself, calm and in control as ever.
Turel uncurled his long arms and remained slumped, staring at the floor. He could not stand to meet his father’s gaze as he spoke. “Please forgive me, Father. I beg you to reconsider your path. You cannot deprive your world of its masters and its god. What will become of our race? They need guidance now more than ever.” He risked a quick glance at Kain, then continued softly. “So take him with you wherever you intend, but leave me here to shepherd your kingdom. There will be no one now to resist me. Indeed, that part of your plan was fitting. The others had long outlasted their purpose. Now all five clans will be forced to look to one leader. No more divisions and clan territories. I will make them stronger and more powerful, so that when you return, you will find the clans willing and able to accept the new future that you bring with you.”
Kain made no reply, and so finally Turel mustered the courage to look at his creator. At the sight of Kain’s visage his hopes sank, but all the same he quickly tried to press his case.
“I can do it, Father! I am all the family you have left, the last son of your empire, and…”
“The empire is dead,” Kain intoned in a terrible note of finality. He rose to his feet and fixed his son with a cold stare. “And do not delude yourself into thinking you are my final son.”
Turel drew back with a start, as if his father had actually struck him.
With that, Kain began to fade slowly from view.
“Father!!” Turel cried out and thrust a pleading, needy claw forward. If this was their last parting, then he had to know!
“What does he have that I do not?!”
Kain was almost gone from sight, but even so, Turel thought he saw a slight smile touch his father’s lips. “Integrity, perhaps?” Then, “Goodbye, my son. You were born with a destiny. Choose to fulfill it with dignity.”
And Kain was gone.
With a howl, Turel threw himself into the air. “I will show you, Father!” he screamed. “I will kill him for good, and then you will have no choice!”
“No choice but to accept me!”
His rage echoed throughout the
The storm was dying.
He could feel it. Having exulted in the full furious testimony of its power, he could tell when it was beginning to weaken and pass. Now Raziel waited at the point where the storm had deposited him. It was as if the planet had sensed his will and had brought him to this spot, to a sculpted ridge at the heart of the Dry Maw that had withstood the test of time. It was a familiar place to him, a luxury area built to offer an excellent vista of the surrounding landscape, which boasted a spectacular view of Turel’s prodigious monument to himself.
Now Raziel waited, claws digging with nervous anticipation into the stone on which he perched. Though he knew exactly where to proceed from here, he preferred a clear view of his destination, and whatever defenses might be present. Around him, the last dregs of the storm blew past his vantage point. Already he was beginning to discern some shape to his surroundings past the sandy veil. It would not be long now.
An hour passed.
And then he saw it. To his right and left the skyline was now visible. Some hundreds of yards in front of him, great protrusions of red rock poked out of the desert, marking the beginning of the carved mountain retreat. Raziel strained forward, eagerly awaiting his first glimpse.
Far away, the sandstorm finally died. Shapes began to come clear.
“No,” Raziel whispered.
He sprang to his feet.
Swinging about, his checked his location. Yes, this was correct, it had to be! No mistake here.
Raziel turned slowly and stared out across the desert.
At a long horizon unbroken by any impediment.
To be continued…