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.
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.
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.
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.