Part 1 – Andy Peloquin

Andy Peloquin

I am an artist – words are my palette

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Part 1: Chapter 3 Cont…

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.

 

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“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.

“Wh-what?”

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?”

“Count them.”

“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.”

“Explain.”

“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.”

 

 

Want to read more? Check out the book on Amazonor go to the My Books page to see what happens next…

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Part 1: Chapter 3

Gods how I hate these ceremonial robes! They chafed in all the wrong places, and I could swear that they weighed more than I did. So much sweat had soaked into the robes that they felt soggy every time I moved. Nor was their color a saving grace, for they were the garish orange worn by those attending the religious ceremonies of Atateide.
The chair next to me sat empty, the empress still conspicuously absent. The rotund High Priest Orgas cast frequent glances towards the empty throne, obviously impatient to begin the ceremony.

Derchon stood just within the private box reserved for the empress, thankfully in earshot of my whispered question.

“Where is the empress?”

“She should be arriving any moment.”

I nodded my thanks, but no reply was forthcoming. The man had turned into a statue, his eyes scanning every face in the crowd for any sign of danger.

The heat mounted as the long minutes passed.

“Historian, I didn’t believe you would attend this evening.” The voice of the empress was imperious as she entered the box behind me.

“The Immortal Empress commanded my presence, so here I sit in acquiescence to Imperial demand.”

“You are nothing if not a model citizen, Historian. If only all of my vassals were as obedient as you.”

“Do I detect a slight mocking in my empress’ words?”

“The Immortal Empress, mocking her loyal Chancellor and favorite model citizen? Never! The empress does not mock.”

Her face struggled to hide a grin that threatening to break out.

I was about to retort, but the din of ceremonial horns being blown cut off my words. The ceremony was about to begin.

“Those men must have superhuman lungs to sound those things.” The horns were nearly half the height of the men blowing on them—apparently cut from the heads of giant rams.

The empress shot a scolding glance at me for my comment. “Enough talk, Historian. People should be watching the ceremony below, not some loud-mouthed buffoon sitting next to his empress.”

I returned my attention to the temple laid out below.

It was a truly impressive structure, the golden-domed roof towering high into the sky. The glass at the pinnacle of the dome allowed the fading light of day to provide scant illumination, while torchlight glittered in the reflections of thousands of gems set into the stones of the walls.

Massive tapestries hung on the walls of the temple—pictures of horrible sacrifices and ceremonies that had long since been abandoned. The Emperor Vaspin—founder of the House of Tah—had built this structure, and his descendants had made additions. It had taken hundreds of years and an incalculable amount of Imperial gold, but the temple had become a monstrosity—in appearance as well as in practice.

My attention was drawn towards the massive ceremonial stage below as the fat figure of High Priest Orgas strutted out, bedecked in finery potentially worth more than the robes of the empress herself.

The fat little man was as pompous as he was obsequious, and he conducted the ceremony with all the formality he so loved. An event that should be over in a matter of minutes could drag on for hours were Orgas to be given free rein—as he was in the Temple of Togan.

The empress noticed a sardonic comment forming on my lips.

“Keep it to yourself, Historian. The least you can do is don the mask of sincerity.”

“As the Immortal Empress commands.”

Her look would have boiled steel.

The fat High Priest waddled towards the altar, holding high an ornate jeweled dagger—obviously a ceremonial weapon.

“People of Atateide, rejoice!”

He flung his arms wide, and the crowd filling the temple stood to their feet and cheered for a long, loud minute.

“Today, we come before the great god Togan, god of war, god of justice, god of Atlantis. This day, we beseech the radiant Eliana, goddess of love, embodiment of beauty.

On this even, we offer sacrifice unto the gods and goddesses of Atlantis—entreating them for prosperity, health, and wealth.

People of Atlantis, prostrate yourselves before our gods!”

The crowds below followed his commands, lying prone on the floor as he droned on.

“Oh great gods of Atlantis, we beseech you for your protection from the savage heathens beyond our borders—the foul Mexica, the evil Norse, and the ungodly Egiptos. We call for your blessing on our great city of Atateide, for we offer to you the sacrifice that you demand.”

At these words, two priests emerged from the curtains behind him. The young bull they led chewed its cud as it plodded towards the altar.

“We humbly beg you, oh great Togan, god of gods, that you protect us from the wrath of Cronos, thy father, god of death, decay, and desolation.”

His words turned to a bellow as he addressed the crowd below.

“Pray, oh unworthy mortals. Pray for your very lives! Togan walks the face of Atlantis this night—judging all. None are worthy! Beseech the great gods to turn their face away, lest ye be devoured in their wrath.”

“Great Togan, ruler of gods. Gentle Eliana, mother of all. Accept our humble sacrifice this night, and smile upon us as we prostrate ourselves before you.”

The acolytes by his side fell to the floor, but the High Priest remained standing. No doubt his impressive bulk would make it difficult to remain dignified while assuming the prone position. I wonder if he would be able to get up again if he did attempt it.

“With the blood of this sanctified animal, heed our prayers.”

The knife flashed, slicing through thick flesh. The bull remained motionless, the blood dripping from its neck into the golden brazier held by the two acolytes. Slowly, quietly, the animal sank to its knees, dying as its blood fed the religious fervor of the ceremony.

“Bring me the blood!”

Orgas’ face was joyful. He enjoyed this part of the ceremony far too much.

As he raised the brazier high above his head, I noticed his free hand snaking into a pouch hanging from his waist. The hand emerged a heartbeat later, flashing a magical symbol in the air as the High Priest splashed the blood over the altar.

In a moment, the altar was a mass of flames—seemingly out of nowhere. The crowd gasped, and I could see that even the Empress was startled by the sudden conflagration.

I kept my laughter to myself as I watched the reaction of those around me. I had seen it before—at a street mummer’s show, no less. It was all theatrics, and Orgas was master of the theater.

The rotund face of the High Priest seemed to glow in the light of the fires, and even I couldn’t help feeling awe at the sight. His face was contorted in the ecstasy of the ceremony, the sway he held over the crowd below obvious as they chanted along with the ritual words emanating from his mouth.

“Hail Togan, god of all. Turn away your face from us, for we are not worthy. Hail Togan, god of all. Turn away your face from us, for we are not worthy…”

He was nothing more than a charlatan, a trickster, but a very convincing one nonetheless.

The sacrifice was placed on the altar, and another handful of the powder in Orgas’ pouch set it instantly alight. Within minutes, the entire carcass was nothing more than charred bones—and yet still the fire blazed impossibly high.

And then something changed. The ceremony below conveyed a sense of power, but a crawling sensation at the back of my neck set me instantly alert.

Something is coming this way—something that blazed with true power.

 

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I couldn’t explain the sensation. All I knew was that something was about to happen, and I was responsible for keeping the Empress out of the way of harm.

“If you will excuse me, Immortal One, I must take my leave of you for a moment.”

It took her long seconds to tear her gaze away from the ceremony below, and I could see the awe still written on her face as she forced her eyes to focus on my face.

“Of…of course, Deucalion.”

She seemed to be in a trance—the hypnotic power of the High Priest drawing her in as easily as the crowd of commoners and nobles below. The fact that she had called me Deucalion—she only ever did so when we were alone—showed just how disoriented she was.

“I will return shortly.”

I was incredibly relieved to shrug off the voluminous ceremonial robes, walking comfortably in the simple clothing I had donned earlier. A quick signal to Derchon relayed my orders. Stay at your post and guard the Empress.

A tunnel led away from the Empress’ private section in the Temple, directly onto the main avenue outside. Murgen and Angrion stood guard by the entrance to the corridor, Phoris and Eirin standing a few paces away. I knew Traga and Carrt loitered in the shadows should I need them.

“Phoris.” I had a hard time keeping the urgency out of my voice.

“What is it, Deucalion?”

“I can’t say that I know precisely what, but I feel that something is…”

I couldn’t put into words what I felt. Something was…

“I thought it was just me. I feel it, too.” He looked around nervously, unsure and uncomfortable—just like I felt.

“Captain!”  Traga came running towards us, the look on his face mirroring the one I had no doubt showed on ours.

“Chancellor.” A curt nod from me, and he continued. “You’re going to want to see this—both of you.”

“See what, Traga?”

“Look.” Our eyes turned in the direction he pointed. The street was empty, the falling dusk casting shadow on the unlit streets.

“What…?”

I could make out a hazy shape in the near darkness, a shape that towered taller than any creature I had seen before.

The darkness must be playing tricks with my eyes, for I saw the shaggy shape of a bear walking calmly towards us.

“How…?”

The shadows were thrown back as the street lights were lit, and even Phoris gasped as he saw the approaching figure.

It was a man—a huge man. His beard was as thick as the fur on the bear skin wrapped around his massive frame, and his hands grasped a staff that could only have been a young tree—so thick and heavy it was. And yet, he carried it with ease.

I had no idea where beard ended and fur began—hair of all types dragged on the floor as he walked. The man stood close to twice my height, and easily twice my width. I could almost feel the ground shaking as he took each step, but it may have just been my imagination.

I heard Phoris issue a terse command behind me, but my senses were entirely focused on the towering figure approaching. Breath caught in my chest as he stared directly at me, and I was rooted to the spot by the raw power I felt in his eyes. Every muscle in my body constricted, but my every effort to move was for naught—my body remaining frozen as he walked towards me.

His bulk came to a stop a handful of paces from where we stood, his gaze encompassing each of us in turn. Where his eyes fell, motion stopped. My men were as unmoving as I, their bodies numbing with the same sensations that coursed through my veins.

It was as if fire and ice flowed through me, and I burned as I stared at the power filling the very core of this man’s being. It called out to me, reaching into my soul and yearning to fill me. It wanted to claim me for its own, and I had no way to stop it.

And then the massive figure was gone. I hadn’t seen him move, but I suddenly awoke as if from a trance. I heard myself gasping as I released the air I had been holding in. I heard the gasps of Phoris and the others. They had been under the same spell as I.

Blood rushed into my limbs, and my arms and legs felt weak. It took all of my willpower to stand straight when all I wanted to do was sag to the floor. What just happened?

“What the fuck was that?”

Traga was as dazed as I was, yet far more colorful in his wonderment. Phoris looked around anxiously, incomprehension written on the faces of the other Nightstalkers as well.

“I have no idea.”

I felt an insistent urge to return to my place by the Empress’ side. I had to get back in the Temple now.

I could hear Phoris just a step behind me as I sprinted back down the tunnel towards the throne where the Immortal Empress of Atlantis sat—guarded by two professional killers who would stand no chance against the power that had just slipped past us.

 

 

Want to read more? Check out the book on Amazonor go to the My Books page to see what happens next…

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