My stomach was in knots as I quietly returned to my seat. The heavy ceremonial robes felt like protective armor, and I donned them gratefully—trying my best to ignore the gnawing disquiet in my stomach.
What the hell had happened out there?
My limbs felt numb, and I could scarcely feel a thing as I lounged in the hard, straight-backed chair.
Where had the massive figure gone? How had he disappeared like that?
“Are you alright, Historian? You haven’t looked this wretched since that night at Lord Allegorn’s party.”
“I am…I am…fine, Empress. Just feeling the heat of these robes.” That much, at least, was not a lie.
Orgas’ droning voice continued in the background of my thoughts, his priestly words falling on unheeding ears. He spoke in the secret cant of the Priesthood of Togan, taught to the acolytes and only heard in ceremonies. And yet, despite my fascination for the forbidden tongue of the priests, I could not keep my mind off what had happened outside.
I felt awestruck by the ease with which the giant man had passed us—freezing us with nothing more than a look.
The air around me felt charged. I sensed a subtle change in the atmosphere below, and forced my eyes to focus. Somehow, I knew what was going to happen before it ever did.
The massive figure was striding down the aisles towards the stage. Temple Guards rushed to intercept him. The huge staff swung, and crumpled bodies flew through the air. The path before him was clear. Calmly, inexorably, his shambling led him ever closer to the stage.
And then he stood on the stage, towering over the fat High Priest gibbering unintelligibly in his rage and the acolytes surrounding the altar.
I felt my chest burn as his eyes fell on me, heard the Empress gasp when they turned to stare at her. The room fell deathly silent as those piercing eyes roved from one side of the room to the other.
The voice that boomed from the massive chest was superhuman, even for a creature of this size.
“People of Atlantis, listen to the Word of the God.
Because you have forsaken Me and went awhoring after other gods, because you have forgotten your first love and have defiled yourselves with other lovers, because you have left My ways and followed in your own path…I will destroy you utterly from the face of the earth!”
I felt as if I had been stabbed in the heart.
“You are the architects of your own destruction. Your fathers searched after worthlessness, and became worthless in their turn. Your wickedness will chasten you, and your apostasy will reprove you.
Know that it is evil and bitter for you to forsake the One God Over All. Long ago you broke your yoke and burst your bonds; and you said, ‘I will not serve.’ Yea, upon every high hill and under every green tree you bowed down as a harlot.”
His eyes seemed to take in the entire crowd—melting them like silver in the fire of his words.
“You have all rebelled against Me, says the God. You have polluted the land with your vile harlotry. Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you. This is your doom, and it is bitter; it has reached your very heart.
Hear the word of the God of men, oh ye rulers of Atlantis. What is the multitude of your sacrifices when they are burned in My name? Says the Creator of All; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of he-goats. Burn no more vain offerings to your false gods, for they are an abomination to Me.
New moon and Beltane and the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; they have become a burden to Me, I am weary of bearing them.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before My eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow. ‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the God. ‘I will vent My wrath on my enemies, and avenge Myself on My foes. I will turn My hand against you.’
The giant’s outstretched hands pleaded with the crowd.
“Yet, if you remove your abominations from my presence, and do not waver in truth, in justice, and in uprightness, then I shall spare you from the impending judgment that is about to fall. O wicked Atlantis, wash your heart from wickedness, that you may be saved. How long shall your evil thoughts lodge within you?
Thus speaks the God of the Sun, the Moon, and the Heavens.
If you do not heed, I shall destroy you with a great destruction. I shall abolish your cities, lay desolate your fields and homes, and take even your lives. Only those who turn to Me and beg for forgiveness will be spared. Thus I have spoken, and thus it shall be.”
Silence reigned in the Temple for an eternity.
“My lady, I believe you wished to speak with me?”
The oily voice of the fat High Priest cut through my reverie. The empress seemed just as startled as I.
Had it all been a dream? I dimly recalled the huge man and his message. Could Phoris and the other Imperial Guards actually manage to haul off the giant?
The tumult that had arisen in the temple of Togan upon the departure of the prophet of doom had barely penetrated the haze that had settled over my mind. From the look on her face, the Immortal Empress Tatho, Ruler of Atateide, the Lesser Eastern Isles, and the provinces of Atlantis had been just as shaken as the men and women sitting in the commoners row.
The priest’s acolytes flanked him like dutiful sheep, and even through the fog in my mind I felt sick at the obsequious nature of the rotund little priest.
The empress was finding it hard to snap out of the trance-like state.
“You mentioned earlier that you wished to speak with me.”
For just a moment, the Immortal Empress was a woman, a woman as lost and confused as any in the temple.
Then the moment passed, and the empress returned from the place in her mind where she had been wandering. Once again, she was the regal, powerful ruler of Atlantis once more.
“Good Orgas, I do recall wishing to speak with you. However, I feel unwell at the moment, so I will put off the discussion until I have had a night of rest.”
Disappointment flashed across Orgas’ face almost too fast to notice.
“Of course, Imperatrix. If I may offer her Immortal Majesty a word of advice, don’t let the events of this evening cause you alarm. The gods smile down on Atlantis—no matter what some doomsayer would have you believe.”
“You don’t put stock in the words, Priest?”
“Truthfully, Immortal Empress, I have heard countless madmen rage on about doom and destruction—and never have their predictions come true. Men like him worship false, powerless gods. None can stand before the mighty Togan.”
“Yet, could you honestly say that this was like all the others that you have heard? Was there nothing…different…about this one?”
The sweat-slick face of Orgas convulsed into a grin.
“My Empress, the ramblings of madmen are all alike to a believer in the gods of Atlantis. With your permission, Immortal One, I will be at your disposal should you choose to call upon me.”
“Good night, High Priest.”
His retinue of worshipful acolytes scurried after him.
“Gods how that man repulses me!”
An elbow in the ribs from the Empress was the reward for the remarks I aimed at the High Priest’s rotund, disappearing rear.
Surrounded by the Imperial Guards that separated us from the nobility leaving the Temple alongside us, the empress and I strolled into the cool night air.
The breeze seemed almost chilly after the warmth of the temple—and the raging heat of the giant’s words.
“Walk with me, Historian. I would have your company. It will occupy my mind in a less…worrisome manner.”
“As you wish, Immortal One.”
I could sense she wished to escape the prying eyes and listening ears of not just the spies Orgas no doubt had prowling around the temple, but also in her own retinue.
The principal thoroughfare of Atateide opened before us, and we walked in the soft light of the lamps bordering the street. The empress had ordered her servants to return to the Imperial Palace without her, and only the Nightstalkers protecting her were visible as we strolled.
“My empress is surprisingly pensive tonight.”
Her sharp eyes scanned mine for a fraction of a second before turning back to the street ahead.
“Look up, Deucalion, at the stars.”
“What of them, Immortal One?”
“I cannot, Empress, for they are beyond numbering.”
“Are they truly? Could no man ever count all of the stars?”
“Perhaps if he dedicated his life to it, it might be possible.” I glanced at her questioningly.
“I often feel as if I am just one star among many.” Her look silenced me. “I tire of hearing sycophantic remarks such as ‘The Immortal Empress outshines even the sun.’ Do me the courtesy of talking to me as Deucalion the companion rather than Deucalion the Chancellor and Imperial Historian.”
“As you wish, Empress.”
“The stars. They are beyond number, and yet they are so small in size. We are like the stars—just one small being among many others.”
“A fair point.”
“Don’t interrupt your Empress, Deucalion.”
I said nothing—not wishing to be scolded again.
“Every star is like the other, just as we are. But examine the human body. It is a complex creation, with myriad functions that all of our science has never come close to reproducing. For all of our advances, we cannot create even a single leaf. And yet, as with the mind behind the creations we have become accustomed to, there must be a mind behind the creation of the stars, behind the creation of man. Are the gods of Atlantis are the true gods, or are there others?”
“Whence come such deep ponderings, Empress?”
“Answer the question, Deucalion.”
Her tone was sharp—she was in no mood to be patient.
“My lady.” I bowed as I thought. “You know my thoughts on the matter. I place little stock in the existence of deities such as Togan and Eliana and Cronos. Of course, I cannot espouse these beliefs in public, lest I be shunned by the more religious lords of Atlantis. Yet, given the events of tonight, I must say that my personal beliefs have been somewhat shaken.”
“Well, could there be a mind behind the world around us? If not, how does the world around us exist? Does it cease to exist once we die? Do we return to the dust from which we were formed? Death—that is another question to which I have no answer.”
“For once we are in agreement, Deucalion. If self was the highest form of deity, why does the world not cease to exist every time one more person passes from this realm? What is the meaning of death if we are the gods?”
“Unfortunately, dear Empress, I am completely at a loss for words. I have no answer to the questions posed by my insightful ruler. Perhaps we ought to seek the counsel of the madman prophet from the temple.”
The look on her face showed that she had detected my mocking tone.
“I did notice that your Captain-General had him hauled away before the Temple Guards could lay hands on him. That was rash—pulling him from the clutches of Orgas before he could sink his fangs into him. It is not something Orgas will forget in the near future. Your future could be very bleak should you find yourself on the wrong side of the High Priest’s favor.”
“And yet, my Empress, if what the brute said was true, if we do not turn back to ‘The God’ as he claims, the future would seem to be bleak regardless of the state of our rotund High Priest’s temperament.”
We walked in silence for long moments—both had run out of words. The silence was broken by the quiet voice of the empress.
“I wonder, Deucalion, which is ‘The God’ of which he speaks.”
“I too wonder at that, my Empress.”