We’re delighted to present an extract from Gateway of the Saviours, the second Gollancz book from AJ Dalton, which was released yesterday. This is the opening half of chapter two, and we join our young hero, Jillan, as he works to rebuild his town and his life following the dramatic climax to book one, Empire of the Saviours, now available in paperback.
In his dreams Jillan was always happy. Or at least he always started out as happy. He would find himself waking in his parents’ small house, his mother already moving around in the main room as she prepared bread and honey for his breakfast, a small fire dancing in the hearth. He would splash cold water on his face from the ewer and bowl in his room, dress, choose one of the lucky stones from his collection to put in the pocket of his trews and then come out to the heavy oak table where they always had their meals as a family.
His mother Maria would always smile and ask him how he had slept and about his dreams. She would listen carefully, even if the dreams sounded silly when described out loud. Jillan would tell her that he often dreamed about waking up in his room and then coming out to the main room to have precisely this sort of conversation. Jed, his father, would laugh and shake his head, until Maria frowned at her husband and told him not to make light of things he did not properly understand. Jed would school his expression and nod repentantly until Maria turned round to attend to the bread toasting on the hearth, at which point Jed would wink conspiratorially at his son, poke his tongue out at his wife and make Jillan giggle. Maria would whirl back round, a scowl of amused fury on her face, and declare that men were the bane of any good woman’s life and that she would be keeping all the breakfast for herself. Then a loud argument would start, in which Jed complained of a broken heart and Maria’s cruelty, Jillan would declare all innocence and blame his father for getting them into trouble, and Maria would bewail her generous nature that made her forgiving of two such devils.
At last they would sit to have breakfast and they would anticipate the day ahead. It was then that the dream would always begin to change, for Jillan’s stomach would pain him and he’d ask to stay at home rather than go to the school he dreaded so much. Jed would ask if Jillan was scared of going to school; whether he was being bullied by Haal, elder Corin’s son.
‘N-No!’ Jillan would protest. ‘He’s just an idiot! I’m not scared of him.’
‘Then what is it? You know you can tell us anything.’
Jillan shifted uncomfortably. He glanced at his mother for help, but she only watched him with a mix of apprehension and curiosity. Finally, he blurted, ‘Minister Praxis hates me! He always picks on me! And I haven’t done anything wrong, not really! But don’t say anything, pleeease, because that’ll only make things worse.’
There was a terrible anger in his father’s eyes, a dangerous anger. ‘I knew that snake couldn’t be trusted to leave well enough alone!’
‘Jillan!’ Maria snapped, demanding his attention. ‘Get your things and go! I need to talk to your father. Don’t worry: all will be well!’ Her eyes then blazed as she turned on his father.
But Jillan didn’t want to go. The Minister was out there. The arguments and detention. Coming home late and being attacked. Lashing out. Poor Karl. It had been an accident! Becoming a fugitive who was hunted by Heroes, the Saint and the strange creature who might be a Saviour. And then the terrible, terrible thing that happened to his parents, the thing he refused to think about, he refused to believe, the thing he told himself was just a bad dream.
It was all out there, just beyond the door to their small home. Waiting and hungry . . . trying to get in.
There was a heavy and demanding knock on the front door and Jillan gasped. ‘No! Don’t let them in!’
It was the Minister and the elders coming for Karl’s killer, to torture the Chaos out of Jillan. It was Heroes coming for his parents. It was the townsfolk of Godsend come to tear them apart. It was the whole Empire trying to force its way in so that they might be saved from themselves. It was the blessed Saviours coming to exorcise their souls.
‘Who’s there?’ Jed would begin to reach for the latch, too far away for Jillan to stop him in time.
Heart pounding and blood roaring in his ears, Jillan would flee to his parents’ room and the small window there, but he knew there were things crouched in the darkness just beyond the frame. His mother screamed . . .
And Jillan sat bolt upright in his bed, suddenly awake. He wiped a shaking hand across his sweaty forehead. The vest in which he’d slept was soaked. He blinked and, as he did most mornings, worked to shake off the lingering terror of his dreams. He blanked his mind as best he could, shutting out the haunting impressions.
How long can you keep this up for? whispered the taint, whose voice had started to become stronger of late.
Exhausted, he crawled from his bed and splashed cold water on his face from the ewer and bowl in his room. Then he rinsed himself down. He began to shiver and his teeth rattled in the cool temperature of the dawn.
Small price to pay to be free of such dreams and to be sure you’re out and about before everyone else, eh? Can’t stand their stares and whispering, can you?
He didn’t have the energy to argue. Hurriedly, he dressed and chose a red stone from his collection to put in one of his pockets. He fancied that it warmed his hands slightly, and he felt a little better. Just as his father had always done, every time he came home without having successfully hunted anything, he brought a new stone for the collection instead. The collection was becoming quite large now, for there seemed to be a scarcity of game about, even given that spring was only just beginning to arrive.
You’re just a bad hunter, is more like it, the taint admonished. That’s what most of them think, you know. The other hunters manage well enough, which is just as well with all these extra mouths about, eh?
When Jillan had overcome the mad Saint Azual, the army of Heroes that had descended on Godsend had lost all momentum. Weapons hanging loose in their hands, soldiers had stood stupidly looking upon the world as if for the first time, or as if waking from a bad dream. They had been freed but had nowhere to go. The majority had therefore remained in Godsend and helped to rebuild the fortified town. Yet they represented a size of population which the town’s food stores could ill sustain.
Taking on a Saint is one thing, but once all the dust settles what real use is your magic if it can’t even catch you a couple of rabbits, eh? Still, maybe the rabbits are just smarter than you.
‘I probably just need a bit more luck is all,’ Jillan said to himself, sweeping the entire stone collection into his pockets.
Gold gleamed at him from the dark corner of the room where he’d abandoned his rune-inscribed leather armour after the battle with the Saint. He retrieved it now and buckled it on, still amazed at how little it weighed him down. If anything, it made him feel lighter.
Now feeling ready to leave his room, he stepped into the kitchen. The hearth was cold. Neither was there anyone preparing breakfast for him. But Samnir slept soundlessly – almost like one of the dead – in Jed’s armchair. The soldier had apparently come home long after Jillan had turned in for the night, gnawed on some of the hard bread and cheese Jillan had left out for him and then fallen asleep where he sat, without even removing his sword belt or boots. The old man’s skin looked grey and there were deep hollows around his eyes – he was working too hard training the men, settling disputes and dealing with all the trivial details involved in commanding a large standing force. Jillan hardly ever saw his friend any more – awake, at any rate.
The least you could do is catch a decent bit of meat for him, so he can keep his strength up. Thinking about it, you could do with putting a bit on those bones of yours too. Get too scrawny and Hella’s eyes might start drifting towards those who cut a finer and more manly figure, someone like Haal perhaps?
Jillan ignored the taint and managed to put its voice out of his mind for a while. He knew that in its own perverse and roundabout fashion it sought to look out for him, but all too often it seemed to want to goad or provoke him with half-truths and suspicions, so that he might give it a measure of free rein over both himself and his magic. He feared that if he let it have too much leeway, he’d never be able to wrestle it back.
He was tempted to wake Samnir. It would be good to tell him about his dreams. But the old soldier got too little sleep as it was, and he wouldn’t want to listen to a boy’s silly dreams anyway. Not for the first time Jillan sighed over the fact that Aspin had had to return to the mountains with his people to bury their dead chief and help choose a new one. Aspin had always been good at listening, and seemed to have some ability when it came to reading people and events.
And Jillan’s other friends never seemed to be around either. Freda had disappeared months ago, no one knew where. The rock blight that gave her stone-like skin and was rumoured to be contagious meant very few individuals desired her company, and a good number knew she had been a hanger-on to the generally despised Miserath, the Lord of Mayhem and likely betrayer of the other pagan gods. No matter where she had visited in Godsend, there had always been those who made the cross sign against evil upon seeing her. In the end she had just stopped being around.
The woodsman Ash was only ever to be found in the town’s inn, and although he would be eager to offer Jillan a welcome it would always involve one rapid toast after another, and one tankard after another – until they no longer knew each other’s names and an angry Samnir was there, forbidding Jillan to enter the inn again.
Then there was Thomas the blacksmith, who went at his forge and clanged metal on his anvil day and night. Some whispered that he fought a demon or dragon in his mind’s eye, that he still wrestled with the grief of having lost his family. Yet he would grin at Jillan’s arrival – while still continuing to work – and nod periodically as Jillan spoke. Whether the blacksmith really heard him, Jillan wasn’t sure. If Jillan stopped speaking, there might be some brief monosyllable from the huge man, but it was anyone’s guess if it was prompt, question, mere acknowledgement or a grunt of physical effort. Thomas seemed to want to rebuild Godsend single-handedly, and so Jillan left him to the rhythm of his hammer and nodding.
Yet none of it really mattered, for there was still his beloved Hella. She was as busy as everyone else – what with running her father’s stall when he was away trading with other towns, and being one of the few left with a good enough grasp of numbers for keeping a tally book to be trusted with overseeing the daily distribution from the town’s storage barns – but she still found precious moments for them to share. He stole kisses from her every morning before others were about and they talked about their plans for the future. Her brow would furrow slightly, she would tug absently on a lock of her wheat-gold hair and her usually clear sky-blue eyes would cloud over whenever they spoke of such things. He knew she had waking dreams of the passing seasons, the growth of life and their possible happiness – he held his breath at such times, for her visions were powerful and he feared to interrupt them lest it cause her some shock or pain. When she came back to herself, she would blink, smile gently at him and make him believe there would never be another winter.
Deciding he would tell Hella about his dreams instead, if they found the time, he left Samnir to his sleep. Jillan took a heel of stale bread, dipped it in water and began to chew as he shouldered his longbow and stepped out into the grey light of Godsend.
He wove his way through the higgledy-piggledy maze of stone cottages, huts, hovels and lean-tos that constituted the southern quarter of Godsend, and approached the wide Gathering Place at the centre of town. At all but the same moment, a mule-drawn wagon emerged from a side street and a woman stifled a scream.
‘Saviours preserve us! The devil himself! I told you he would know. Oh, what is to become of us?’
Jillan looked up to see a young mother clutching a babe to her chest and her husband raising a stave to protect them. What appeared to be all the family’s possessions were in the back of the wagon. The mule stopped with a sigh.
Realising they were waiting for him to speak, Jillan quietly commented, ‘You’re leaving then?’
Neither of them answered, but the man’s expression became slightly guilty and he shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
Jillan cleared his throat. ‘It’s all right. No one will try and stop you.’
‘Y-You’re not gonna hurt us?’ the husband said.
‘Don’t you trust him or lower that weapon, Franklyn!’ hissed his life mate.
‘Peace, woman! If he wanted to hurt us, there’s little I could do against his witchery.’ Yet Franklyn was careful to keep his eyes on Jillan as he spoke.
‘Nay, husband! Remain wary, for he seeks to ensnare us with his lies. Keep your faith fixed on the blessed Saviours and we may yet win free of the Chaos creature and this cursed place. Its powers will be unable to touch us if you keep your mind clear.’ She began to mumble a prayer.
‘Look,’ Jillan said tiredly. ‘There’s nothing I want of you. Be on your way as you wish. Do you have enough food to at least see you as far as the next town?’
‘It’s the want of food that sees us leaving,’ the husband replied unhappily. ‘What with the young one and all . . .’
‘I understand. Godspeed!’ Jillan nodded.
‘The pagan gods!’ the woman breathed. ‘He curses us!’ She made the sign of the cross over herself and her child, then over Franklyn.
‘And the Empire will be coming. I have to think of my family,’ Franklyn confessed.
‘Don’t explain yourself and your heart to him! He will seize upon it, feed upon it!’ the wife squealed, setting off her babe.
‘I understand.’ Jillan smiled and waved them on before the child could wake all the houses around and bring out the curious and any interested in making trouble.
Franklyn nodded gratefully and flicked his reins. The mule leaned forward and the wagon began to trundle away.
Good riddance! The place will be better off without that sort. You don’t need such traitors on the inside. And it’s fewer mouths to feed, the taint said with some satisfaction.
‘They’re not traitors really. They’re just scared, is all. How can I blame them? I’d do the same if I could, if Hella and I had a child and somewhere that would take us in, somewhere safe.’
But Franklyn’s lot aren’t heading somewhere safe, are they? They’re back off to the Empire. No more freedom of thought and so on. They’ll be Drawn again. They’ll be mindless slaves again.
‘Maybe. Willing slaves, though. Happy slaves. In a safe community. With enough food to eat.’
Idiot! There’s just no talking to you sometimes. What have we been through for, otherwise? Why did your parents sacrifice themselves? Why did you even bother standing against Azual? Why do you think thousands of people in Godsend have chosen to follow you? What’s wrong with you lately, Jillan? Have you completely forgotten yourself?
He didn’t know how to answer. He just didn’t know what Godsend had to offer the likes of Franklyn’s family.No, that wasn’t true. He knew exactly what Godsend offered – the terrible prospect of the full force of the Empire descending upon them. The Empire will be coming. He had to face it. He’d spent the winter in some sort of dream of contentment and denial, as his relationship with Hella had blossomed. The Empire was coming. It would descend on the town and kill or capture them all. It was why Samnir worked all the hours he could remain on his feet, why Thomas hammered on and on in his forge, and why Ash drank himself to the point of oblivion. It could never be enough. The Empire was coming. Did they follow him? There was no way he could defend Godsend against the entire Empire. He’d doomed them all! Rather than him being there to defend them, they’d probably be better off if he left them. Then they’d be able to blame him and make a show of welcoming the Empire, so that they might be shown some mercy.
Shaken to the core, he wandered distractedly through the Gathering Place and entered the northern quarter on the way to Hella’s home. He passed the inn, where orange eyes watched him from the darkness beneath the stairs up to the porch.
Off hunting, I see. Bring me back some squirrels! the large black wolf that was Ash’s companion said silently to Jillan.
Jillan stopped. He answered by rote: ‘Ash doesn’t like it when you have squirrel meat. He says it gives you terrible wind.’
The wolf’s large tongue lolled out and his white teeth showed. Ha! The human will never know. He’s unconscious most of the time.
Jillan frowned. ‘Why doesn’t he do something other than drink?’
The wolf shifted as if shrugging. He seems to enjoy it, even though it makes him incapable of hunting and causes him to urinate where he sleeps, as if he were sick or feeble with age. Why do you humans do anything you do? You are a species often lacking in sense. I do not know how it is you manage to survive sometimes.The woodsman only still lives because the Geas has seen to bless him with good timing – he always passes out before he can seriously injure himself. As for you others . . .
‘Perhaps we will not survive,’ Jillan murmured.
Perhaps not. The only real loss, though, would be that I would have no one to get squirrels on my behalf.
‘Maybe. But it is likely to be the Saviours who undo us while they are in the process of seizing the Geas. Then there will be no more squirrels either.’
There is that. Unless you can convince all the humans to destroy themselves before the Saviours seize the Geas. Or you destroy all the Saviours, but I don’t think your kind is strong enough for that. You don’t eat enough squirrels, after all.
‘It can’t just be that we don’t eat enough squirrels. Why aren’t we strong enough?’
The wolf yawned. Listen, there are two types of animals. There are those like wolves, and even squirrels, who live without apology or permission from others. And then there are those like cattle, who are content to be herded around and kept in relative comfort until they’re slaughtered. Sheep and cows tend to like their farmers, fences and warm barns. It makes them feel secure. Remove the farmer and so on and the cattle are unable to cope with their freedom. They lose all sense of self and direction. They go getting stuck in ditches, falling down rocks and tangled in bushes, making them even easier prey for any passing wolf. Stupid creatures get what they deserve, really.
It’s just a matter of will though. Once you decide which of the two types of animal you are, that’ll decide how you live, how you behave, and pretty much how you’ll end up. Cattle rarely change, you see. Give them freedom and they have no idea what to do with it. When they’re without clear direction, they panic and run scared, straight into trouble, usually, or low so loudly that every wolf in the area knows exactly where they are. Some just die of fright on the spot.
That is why your kind isn’t strong enough, human. Now, all this chat has made me hungry, so why don’t you run along and get me some squirrels – if you’re up to it?
Numbly, Jillan nodded and went on his way, trying to make sense of what the wolf had said. He certainly didn’t want to be a sheep or a cow. He didn’t really fancy being a squirrel either. Neither could he convince himself he was much like a wolf.
Why on earth are you preoccupying yourself with fantasies about animals? the taint asked in bafflement.
‘Didn’t you hear the wolf?’
What wolf? I heard no howling save for your madness. You must be daydreaming. It’s the lack of sleep.
So the taint hadn’t heard anything the wolf had said. He hadn’t imagined it all, had he? Maybe the taint wasn’t meant to have heard it. Jillan deliberately turned his thoughts back to Hella and found his pace increasing as he neared her home.
A far more suitable fantasy, if I may say? the taint snickered.
‘You may not!’ Jillan replied hotly and banished the voice for a while.
As he rounded the last corner and the house came into view, he saw her waiting on the bottom step, which was unusual. She was wearing the same clothes as the day before – a long ochre dress and a white apron. They were rumpled and creased. Her hair was slightly unkempt and her expression was careworn. Something was wrong!
Jillan hurried forward and she ran into his arms. She hugged him hard.
Hella pulled him down onto the step next to her and held his hand tightly. ‘It’s Pa! He got back late last night from Heroes’ Brook. Jillan, he was attacked! A group of wild men or bandits took everything he had, including the wagon and the horse! How could such a thing happen?’
‘Is he hurt? I should see to him!’ Jillan declared and started to rise.
Hella shook her head, pulled him back down and took a calming breath. ‘It’s all right. He has a deep cut over his eye and several lumps on his head. And he was shaking terribly, so I called the physicker-woman during the night. She’s tended to him. She said he should be kept warm and allowed to rest undisturbed through the morning but that I should be sure to wake him around midday. If I have trouble rousing him, I should fetch her at once b-because . . .’ her eyes watered ‘. . . because . . . sometimes p-people never wake up when they’ve hit . . .’ she hiccupped ‘their head!’
Feeling utterly helpless he put an arm around her and held her tight.
‘Oh, Jillan! They took all our supplies! We have nothing left. And no horse or wagon for trade!’ she sobbed.
‘It’s all right,’ he said soothingly. ‘We’ll work something out.’
‘But the town has too little to eat already! You don’t know just how little there is in the storage barns. I haven’t told anyone because it would cause panic. Samnir told me it’s getting harder and harder to keep discipline because the men are hungry. And some have begun to desert. Oh, Jillan, what are we going to do?’
She stared into his eyes pleadingly. He swallowed hard, thinking desperately. ‘I . . . I will talk to Samnir and maybe we can go after these robbers.’ Yet the doubt was plain in his voice.
‘Jillan, how will we find them?’ Her voice became raised. She’d never shouted at him before. ‘Father says that it’s becoming dangerous everywhere! Heroes’ Brook and Saviours’ Paradise have their gates locked all the time and their fields and cattle are always heavily guarded. They’re not just scared of gangs either, for there is the plague as well. They’re turning away most travellers, sometimes with bloodshed. Jillan, Pa’s ruined and it’s all turning crazy! It’s . . .Chaos! The Chaos has come!’
He flinched as if slapped, and let her go. Her hands fluttered over her mouth and she watched him fearfully. Did she blame him for all the trouble? How could she? She didn’t think he had been used by the Chaos, did she? She couldn’t! She wouldn’t kiss someone she believed to be like that. She wouldn’t say she loved such a person.
Hella was speaking again, her voice trembling. ‘I’m scared is all. I want you to give me answers, but I know that’s not fair. Godsend still has some cattle it can afford to slaughter. And spring is here now.’ She tried to smile but failed. ‘There will be more food from the forest. I’m scared. Scared for the town. Scared for my pa. Scared we won’t be able to marry . . .’
‘Hella! What are you saying?’ he cried, coming to his feet.
‘Jillan, don’t!’ she begged him. There were fresh tears in her eyes. ‘I don’t know what I’m saying! It’s all too much. We’ll talk later. There are things I should tell you.’
‘I don’t understand.’ What was happening? ‘What things?’
‘Tonight, I promise. I must see to Pa,’ she croaked, wiping her face and avoiding his eyes. She quickly got up and went up the stairs.
He reached after her but she was already closing the door behind her.
Minister Praxis lay with his nose and forehead pressed against the cold stone floor of the holy audience chamber of the Great Temple at the heart of the Empire. He’d been prostrate like this for over a week, but he’d never been so happy in his miserable life. To be in this place, so close to the blessed Saviours . . . He’d never dared hope he was worthy even to touch the floor they may once have walked across. He would wait for all eternity for them to appear if necessary. And if they never appeared, then that was their divine will and their judgement upon his own wretchedness.
Elite temple guards came and went as they finished their shifts or refreshed the candles, but he no longer noticed them. He no longer noticed the drops of rain that dripped from the ceiling, ran along the joins in the flagstones of the floor and found their way onto his tongue. He no longer felt the pain and stiffness of his limbs. He must shed himself of selfishness, of all sense of self-obsessed need, if he was ever to be a suitable vessel for the will of the blessed Saviours, surely his only reason for being.He was aware only of his sin, the sin of failing his Saint and, through that failing, the blessed Saviours. How imperfect and lowly he was! Never could his suffering be enough. Ah, the pain of that knowledge! His existence was a torment and punishment to him, and therefore must not be allowed to end until the blessed Saviours willed it. Death would be their divine mercy and he knew he was not deserving of such mercy.
There was only his sin and failure. He had not done enough to prepare against the Chaos. He had underestimated its dark and sneaking ways, just as he had underestimated the boy who was the bane of the Empire. Jillan! The Minister stared at the flagstones so hard his eyes almost fell from their sockets at mere thought of the name. His heart hesitated, his bowels turned to ice, his teeth clenched so hard his jaw came close to dislocating. The evil in that boy was so distilled, so pure, that it could only be a miracle wrought by the blessed Saviours themselves that kept the world sufficiently ordered to remain intact.
All the signs had been there from the beginning. The Minister knew he should have acted when he’d had the chance, when Jillan had been within his power as one of the pupils in his class back in Godsend. He should have throttled that boy during that last detention, or taken him out and pitched him into the town’s well. The creature had caused him no end of trouble in the lessons, with his sly questions and professions of innocence. No one could be entirely innocent, not even the most faithful of the Empire’s Ministers. No one!
Saint Azual was right to have exiled the failed Minister of Godsend, he saw that now. It was his own fault that Jillan had left detention, foully murdered a classmate and then fled the town unpunished. It was right that the failed Minister had had to suffer among the pagans of the mountains. Yet even then he’d failed, for in his arrogance he’d believed that he had redeemed himself and was therefore free to return to Godsend. Instead he’d led the pagans and the Chaos itself into the town and ultimately brought about the demise of the holy Saint and the triumph of the boy. The perfidious boy had been using the Minister all along! He, Minister Praxis, in his own vanity, had terribly underestimated just how dark and sneaking were the ways of the Chaos. He had allowed the very Chaos itself to use him!
Full of so much loathing he could no longer contain it, the Minister retched on the floor. His empty stomach heaved up its digestive juices and he pressed his face into a pool of bile. Let the liquid burn away all that he was. Let the venom of the taint within eat him alive. Let him drown in it, here, right now. He was anathema to the Empire of the blessed Saviours and should not be tolerated by it for an instant longer.
Yet when he had thrown himself upon the ground and prayed for that very thing before – having learned that the Saint had fallen, and having fled in horror into the forests beyond Godsend – Captain Skathis had emerged from the trees as if in answer to his prayer and dragged him up by the scruff of the neck. The Captain had even cuffed him around the back of the head, as if to knock sense into him, remind him of his faith and teach him a lesson.
‘Be a man!’ the Captain had grated. ‘Sacrifice and duty safeguard the People against the Chaos, isn’t that what you Ministers like to tell us? Well, enough of your womanly wailing! Pick your feet up. We’ve got a long walk ahead of us to the Great Temple.’
‘W-We’re going to the Great Temple?’ he’d asked in wonder.
‘Of course, you idiot!’ had come the sneered answer. ‘If you think I’m going to let you weep yourself to death out here in the wilds, leaving me to face the displeasure of the Empire on my own, then you’ve got another thing coming. And if you start flagging, believe me, I will take great joy in bullying and kicking your arse all the way there. Now, wipe your nose and stop snivelling. You make me sick.’
The scarred Captain had been like some sort of angel or holy messenger, come to prevent the Minister’s death and provide divine instruction. How could the Minister have dared to think of blasphemously ending the life that had been gifted to him by the blessed Saviours? It was yet another sin and failing on his part. Thus he’d humbly made the pilgrimage with the good but impatient Captain Skathis across the southern and central regions, all the way to the Great Temple itself. As soon as the Great Temple had come into sight, the Minister had wanted to complete the rest of his journey on his knees, but, good as his word, the Captain had savagely begun to kick the Minister up the behind, making it all but impossible.
Upon arrival, there had been temple retainers waiting for them, for were not the blessed Saviours all-knowing? One had taken the Captain to report to his army superiors, while another had led the Minister to this audience chamber and commanded him to lie prone while awaiting the pleasure of the blessed Saviours.
And so here he lay, with his face in his own thin vomit. His treacherous thoughts and self-pity had led him back to another sinful contemplation of suicide. This time, without the need for the angelic Captain to drag him up by the scruff of the neck, he moved his mouth and nose up so that he would neither wallow nor drown in his own cesspit of self. There could be no selfish suicide. There was only the will of the blessed Saviours. Only them. Nothing else. Here surely was the revelation of the People’s existence.
‘Praxis!’ came the quietest of whispers, a whisper that he heard as much in his mind as he did in the chamber without. It came again, louder this time and more dreadful. ‘Praxis!’
‘I am here, divine one!’ he squeaked, losing control of his bladder and nearly passing out.
‘Be calm, Praxis. See, I speak through another, for you would be undone by my presence. See!’
The Minister pulled his head up a few inches and blearily made out a glassy-eyed infant girl seated on the simple but large stone throne across the gloomy chamber.
‘Praxis, you may approach,’ the terrible voice commanded, channelled incongruously by the youngster.
The Minister tried to drag his limbs under him, to lever himself forward, but they hardly obeyed, so stiff and rigid had they become. He squirmed forward across the flagstones, whimpering in agony and terror that he might not be able to obey the divine instruction. He bent his ankles and pushed with his toes, shoving himself a few more inches forward. Slowly, slowly, he made his way across the floor, heedlessly scraping cloth and then skin from his knees and elbows, until at last he grovelled before the throne.
In the age it had taken to cover the dozen or so yards, the girl-child seemed to have become years older, her hair and nails growing to an unnatural length. She was taller now, her frame more filled out. Her clothes no longer fitted. If she continued to age at this speed, she would be a bent old woman within a handful of minutes.
‘Hear me, Praxis!’ the alien voice resonated powerfully around the chamber. ‘You will now take the place of my son Azual. You will become Saint of the southern region in his place. Yet you will first need to restore order to that region by Drawing them back to us. You will also seize the youth Jillan, so that he may reveal to us the dark lair of the Geas, that which you know as the Chaos. Once we find this lair, the Chaos will be ended once and for all and this world will be made a paradise. Do you understand?’
Praxis thrashed about in a paroxysm of joy as he replied to the middle-aged woman, who displayed a tracery of lines and wrinkles on her face where a few moments before there had only been fair, unblemished skin. ‘Praise be, most blessed and divine Saviour!’ He sobbed. ‘You have gifted me with a vision of such beauty, may your will be done! I am transported by it and utterly yours. How must the Drawing be done, beneficent one?’
‘Through the holy communion, Praxis, through the holy communion. I have allowed this woman before you to drink of my essence so that she might be my vessel and body. Her flesh is my flesh, and her blood is my blood. It is the divine power of that blood which purges and burns the imperfection from her and rushes her towards an eternity with us, that which you call death. Come, take this tapping tube and partake of my blood, so that you may commune fully with us. It will complete you. Rise, Saint Praxis!’ the unearthly voice directed him.
Insensible with religious fervour, Praxis found himself crouching before the woman and pushing a thin tube of sun-metal into a vein in one of her arms. Scarlet blood arced from the end of the tube into his mouth. He swallowed greedily and within moments could miraculously stand straight once more, his limbs suffused with such power and energy that he felt as if he was born anew. An ecstasy came upon him as he transcended the pathetic being he had been before. He became intoxicated with it and swayed slightly, blood missing his mouth and pouring down his chin and clothes.
Enough! pulsed the voice in his mind, the white-haired woman too old and frail to speak clearly to him any more. No more of my blood, lest you end up sharing the same fate as this other vessel. You have had sufficient that we may now commune mind to mind and spirit to spirit. Enough, I say!
With an effort of will Saint Praxis ceased drinking, removed the tapping tube and placed it carefully inside his long black coat. The shrunken woman sighed her final breath and moved no more. ‘As you will it, divine one!’ Saint Praxis said, in some sort of blessing over the dead one.
And so you will Draw the People back to us, Praxis. Through you, drops of my blood will be shared with them, and then you will Draw the essence of their own tainted blood from them. They will be cleansed through this holy communion. It will bind them to you so that you may better guide them in their faith. It will restore order, peace and prosperity to the region. It will confound the influence of the Chaos and force it back into the darkness. Truly, you will bring Salvation to the People in our name!
‘Praise be, divine one!’ the Saint replied fervently. ‘Yet there are so many of them. It will take a long time to Draw them all. And they have allowed themselves to become corrupted. Will they not resist?’
Fear not, Praxis. Be of good faith, for we will be with you.
He was about to cast himself back upon the ground as he realised his doubt was all but sinful and that he should beg for forgiveness, but the Saviour was merciful and continued without further castigation.
The People of the southern region were naturally Drawn when young, and still something of that remains with them. Through Azual, they received some small part of my essence such that I will be able to call on them, when you present yourself to them, and remind them of the right path and their duty to the Empire. The majority will be compliant. There will be more blood than you can consume alone, so it should be sent to the Great Temple for the magic of the Chaos within it to be properly cleansed and expunged. It will be a tithe of sorts.
But pay special attention to the young among your flock. As children enter puberty, they become more tempted by sins of the flesh and spirit and far more vulnerable to the influence of the Chaos. Therefore, you should be sure to visit the towns in the region regularly, in order to Draw the children just before they can reach that age.
‘Yes, divine one!’ the Saint moaned, all but overcome by the divine knowledge. ‘And what of those who do resist?’ An edge came into his voice. ‘What of Godsend, that benighted town that has given itself entirely over to the Chaos, that town which first fostered and nurtured the foul corruption and plague of the Chaos, that town which is a living blasphemy to the true faith, that town which even now provides succour to the bane of the Empire?’
A feeling of righteous malevolence communicated itself to his mind. Sweet Praxis, it is good you anticipate the need to punish such resistance. Yet do you really think the all-knowing Saviours had not foreseen all that has come to pass? Beyond this chamber, General Thormodius and our eastern army await you. With him at your side, there will be none in the south to stand against you. You will be the instrument of our divine retribution! Those who attempt to resist will have been so corrupted by the Chaos that they must be beyond saving. Only keep alive those who may give us advantage over the bane.
‘Yes! The girl Hella, divine one! She has been the familiar of the bane from the start and worked to seduce others so that the Chaos has influence over them. She must be made an example of, divine one, to serve as warning to the People and punishment for the bane! Ah, but evil always wears the comeliest mask.’
Then go tear off her face, so that all may see the horror and decay beneath, sweet Praxis!
‘As you will it, blessed one, as you will it!’
Once the presence of the Saviour had faded away, Saint Praxis strode purposefully out of the holy audience chamber. No longer was there anything nervous or twitchy about him, for his faith, suffering and self-denial had at last seen him beatified and raised up. He now had a greater sense of self and conviction than he had ever known. He was clear of eye and unflinching of purpose. And that entire purpose was bent on bringing down the boy Jillan and his witch of a paramour Hella.
He found General Thormodius with the angelic Captain Skathis at his side. Standing tall, the Saint stared down at the two large men. The Captain shifted uncomfortably and looked down and away. The General held the gaze for a few long moments, and then was forced to blink and nod his head slightly in welcome and acknowledgement.
‘What is your will, holy one?’
Saint Praxis allowed himself a satisfied grin and thought of all the different horrors he would visit on Godsend and the evil creatures that dwelt within.