The serpent kings, p.1
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       The Serpent Kings, p.1

          James Somers / Fantasy
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The Serpent Kings
The Serpent Kings

(Serpent Kings Saga Book One)



By

JAMES SOMERS





2013© James Somers





THE SERPENT KINGS SAGA





Serpent Kings

Wraith Dancer









GWEN



I never wanted to be a killer—an assassin—a Wraith Dancer. But as a priestess of the High Serpent King, Belial, I had little choice in the matter. Still, despite my inward desire for a life of perfect peace, it must be said that I was one of the best. Blood had splattered across the front of my tunic. At my feet lay the body of an infidel called Peka; his throat sliced open from ear to ear; the bones of his left thigh and right arm shattered. He had come with a group of rebels hoping to desecrate Belial’s temple here in Babale. I could not allow that.







This day had begun like any other: sunshine reflected from thousands of Babale’s brilliantly polished marble structures spread across the vast Muat Plain, the fertile fields beyond ripe with fresh produce, cattle grazing in great herds upon many low-lying hills and a peaceful feeling of harmony present in the breast of every faithful follower of Belial and his Serpent Kings. Such were the days of the Reign of Peace—a thousand years of tranquility under the benevolent rule of the dragon gods.

Only the promise of today’s annual celebration, marking the first day of a new year, could make it a happier occasion. And while passing from one year to the next was always festive in the five patron cities, the final year before the Renewal presented a far more delightful opportunity to celebrate the rule of the Serpent Kings and worship our gods. At the end of this one thousandth year the faithful would finally see their hope realized when the five dragons became one with their disciples, extending to them eternal life and godhood. Beyond the many wonderful blessings granted by Belial and the other dragons, this one promise of becoming more than human held the highest place in our hearts.

With Renewal now only a year away and the week long celebration of New Year beginning in earnest, it was no wonder the Resistance had chosen today to strike at the very heart of Belial’s rule: his glorious temple in the patron city of Babale. Destroying this place at the center of dragon worship would plant fear in the faithful and render a symbolic slap to the face of Belial himself. Only his priestesses stood in the way to stop them.

We had been taught by the Elder Mothers to always be ready. But I admit that today my mind had been on other things. I had been present at a wedding ceremony the previous day for one of the daughters of Lord Mazreth, a high political figure in Babale, who owned many cattle. The young groom came from Tarris, the patron city of the dragon Moloch. His father held a high office there.

Though some of my sister priestesses had only been present as a matter of proper ceremony, I had actually been commissioned by my lord Belial to protect the wedding party from harm should that blasphemous prophet, Ezekiah, or some of his Resistance followers attempt to disrupt this well-publicized event. However, as I watched the ceremony unfolding I could not escape my own curiosity. What must it be like to fall in love with a man? To have him fall in love with you and then seek your father’s permission to marry?

I actually imagined myself in the place of the bride for a moment. Oh, not to have her groom. Lord Mazreth’s son was foppish and not particularly attractive. But I still saw myself behind the veil in the ceremonial gown that had taken at least a month to make ready for the occasion. Presented for all others to adore and envy for my beauty and well-favored husband who loved me enough to devote the rest of his life to my happiness. It sounded so interesting.

As a priestess, I was bound to my lord Belial’s service and my virginity. It was the highest honor a daughter could be afforded. This honor extended to her family as well, allowing them to experience the Renewal as soon as their child was placed within a ward of priestesses to be raised and trained by an Elder Mother.

I had often wondered what my family experienced when they stood before the great dragon, Belial, to become one with him. Even my older brother had been taken. To become gods earlier than the rest of us must have been quite amazing. But I was here with blessings of my own. I belonged to Belial the High Serpent King—a high calling. But it did not keep me from curious thoughts about things like love, marriage and having children of my own; things I would never experience.

I had still been distracted by those thoughts the next day as New Year began.

The air was neither too hot nor too cool; just as it was everyday. The dew had burned away already, but the soft grass felt pleasant gathering around my bare feet. My cheek burned where Zora had passed through my defenses unexpectedly striking me with an open palm.

“Pay attention!” she scolded. “What if I had been using the Touch at that moment?”

Using the back of my hand, I wiped a drop of blood from the corner of my mouth. “I’m sorry, Zora.”

She sighed. “There is no sorry on the battlefield, Gwen. You know this as well as anyone. Even a single mistake like that can cost you your life. Do not suppose those damnable rebels will show you any mercy.”

“I understand, Zora,” I said. “I’m only glad the rebels don’t have the Gifts of Transcendence at their disposal.”

Zora’s posture stiffened. “Don’t be so sure, child. I’ve heard rumors of traitors.”

“From among wraith dancers?” I asked, incredulous. “But that would be—”

“Not as impossible as you might suppose,” Zora finished.

I looked suspiciously at Zora. “But who could possibly turn away from such a high office? The privilege of serving the High Serpent King; how could anyone turn away from our benevolent lord like that?”

Zora smiled knowingly. “You and I understand the wisdom of it, but not everyone is so appreciative of the gods. Just don’t go about your duties so muddle-headed that you forget what I’ve taught you.”

“I won’t forget, Zora.”

Zora placed her jeweled dagger inside the sheath at her waist. “We’re done practicing today,” she said. “Go to the temple and meditate on these things. The High Guard will be picked next week, and I’ve submitted your name for consideration. Try to clear your mind. Belial will help you.”

Zora turned, heading back inside Belial’s palace. I nodded as she left, but couldn’t help but remain puzzled by what she had said. Traitors from among the priestesses of Belial? It was unthinkable. My gaze ran up from the gardens where I stood in the cool green grass taking in the polished marble: columns and spires of exquisite beauty that vaulted high into the blue sky above.

I breathed in the fresh air; the scent of flowers providing just the right amount of sweetness to it. Looking over the garden’s low retaining wall, I took my view of Babale beyond. Belial’s patron city stretched to the horizon; a city full of prosperous peace-loving people grateful for the reign of our Serpent Kings. “How could anyone not love this life?” I muttered.

My trip to the temple took me near one of the markets providing produce, meats and anything else a person could desire. A hundred different smells drifted on the gentle breeze: cattle, poultry, perfumes, roasted meats, spices refined in distant Cazwell, stews and gumbos of every sort sold in heaping bowls and servants willing to indenture themselves in exchange for room and board.

The streets of Babale were alive with activity. Wagons carried sellers of goods and services. Some carried passengers to and fro in the city. But the wide avenues had been designed with dragons in mind. Wagon traffic was minor in comparison.

The palace of Belial, where his priestesses had their ward, was relatively close to the main temple. My trips through the city never took me far from the palace unless Belial requested justice against some individual. On those occasions either a priest was sent to collect tribute for Belial’s temple as punishment, or a wraith dancer was dispatched to take the life of the individual.

Executions were always carried out on the spot wherever the individual was found. My Elder Mother had explained that Belial’s justice must be carried out swiftly and publicly in order to warn others as to the consequences of disobedience. Even one execution served greatly as a deterrent.

I had only been sent to dispense justice twice. The first time had led me into the countryside. A certain cattle owner had failed to pay his monthly tribute to the temple of Belial. I had found him on a horse among several cattle handlers. The cattle owner had never seen me before, or I him, but he knew what I was and why I had been sent. Somehow, the man had actually had the audacity to question Belial’s judgment.

The man had warned me to leave his land. When I refused, he drew his sword and charged toward me on his horse. Instinctively my hand passed over the dagger sheath at my waist, retrieved the weapon and sent it hurtling into the man’s chest. His limp body fell out of his saddle while the horse passed me by at a gallop.

One of the other men dropped from his horse, perhaps the cattleman’s eldest son, and took up the fallen sword. I suppose he must have thought my only weapon was still stuck hilt-deep inside his father’s chest. However, a wraith dancer never goes unprepared. I had many weapons on my person.

As the younger man approached, swiping at me with his father’s sword, I used the Gifts of Transcendence to pinpoint weaknesses in the bones of his forearm. I allowed his strike to pass on my right side. With my index and middle fingers locked together I used the Touch, tapping the bones of his forearm, fracturing them.

The sword was only beginning to fall from his limp appendage and the cry escape his lips when my left hand flew out, striking the pulsing artery in his neck. His voice was stifled instantly. The young man fell forward, landing among the cow manure. His body jerked a few times before he became still. The bewildered expressions on the faces of the other men told me they were wiser than these two corpses. It was time to go.

My second time dispensing Belial’s justice had been altogether a different and more troubling experience for me.

I had come to the quaint home of a man named John. I have never been able to forget his name, though I have tried desperately since. John had a family: a wife and small daughter. I did not know their names. I’m glad now that I never learned them before going.

John had also been found guilty of not paying monthly tribute to the Temple of Belial. And while defrauding a neighbor usually carried stiff financial penalties, to defraud Belial made one worthy of death. John and his wife had between them managed to confuse a previous month with the current dues. The mistake had not been caught until it was too late.

To his credit, John did not try to excuse himself by blaming his wife. I still respect his integrity when I think of that day. John had been standing at his dinner table speaking with me while his wife and daughter remained seated; listening and hoping.

But Belial’s justice was carried by the wraith dancer not his mercy. It was not mine to arbitrarily give. My hand trembled at my side as John waited, his eyes never leaving my face. I doubt that he was quick enough to see my resolve harden before my dagger slashed the air, catching him across the throat.

His wife and child leaped away from their seats screaming as John’s body fell backward; his hands managing to clasp his wounded throat. John was already dead when his wife and daughter fell upon his chest, pleading for him not to leave them. I had already turned; not wanting to see their faces, not wanting to hear their cries. I left their home that bright spring day with John’s blood on my knife and tears beginning to stream down my face.

I have often told myself since that such actions are necessary to maintain the balance of our glorious society; that as a god, Belial knows all and does not dispense such judgment without a full understanding of every situation. Surely, this man John had not been the just man I had witnessed. Belial must have known the secrets of the man’s heart. It had been justice after all. It had to have been.

Still, there were sleepless moments in the night when I wondered.

Arriving at Belial’s main temple in the city, I took in the carved images and the molten images of the High Serpent King with due awe and wonder. How I had come to such privilege as his servant was a mystery to me. I passed through the many columns surrounding the primary marble image of Belial and approached one of the altars where offerings were made by the priests. Two of the priests, officiating at the altar in their crimson robes, nodded to me as I held out my hand toward the fire burning there.

A flame leaped away from the altar to my fingertips. Long ago I had learned that the Gifts of Transcendence allow wraith dancers to do things other mortals cannot: touch bones so that they break, speak to animals, communicate with Belial and the other dragon gods by thought even over great distances, fight with preternatural skill and even capture and throw fire with our hands. Other worshippers entering the prayer gardens took with them a small pot of incense from the incense altar, but wraith dancers were not allowed.

The incense burned in the temple had the effect of dulling the body’s senses so that the mind could flow more freely, allowing the worshipper to lose themselves in thoughts of Belial and his Serpent Kings while praying to the same. However, as guardians of Belials interests, the wraith dancers had to be always ready at a moments notice to do his bidding when called. Our minds had to be sharp; focused upon our duties even in prayer.

The flame from the altar danced upon my upturned palm as I entered the prayer garden. Many others walked among its pebble paths, trickling fountains of water and lush green grass. Pots of incense smoldered gently beneath happy faces lost in meditation and prayer. Some had been in the gardens so long sleep had taken them. In these cases, the priests retrieved the pots but left the worshippers alone to dream of whatever mysteries the dragon gods might reveal to them.

I paused with the flame at a fountain and knelt upon the cool grass. Staring into the dancing flicker of fire, I offered up my prayers to Belial. I did not use the direct communication offered by the Gifts of Transcendence. Somehow, it seemed like an unnecessary intrusion upon Belial. If he desired to hear my prayers, surely he could pluck them from the air as he did for everyone else.

ELDER MOTHER



Zora walked through her ward, the place where priestesses of Belial made their home within the palace of the High Serpent King here in Babale. Young women dressed in brightly colored knee length tunics and dark breeches flowed through the halls of marble on their way to breakfast or the baths, depending upon their prescribed routines given by their Elder Mothers. Zora was herself an Elder Mother within this particular ward, but had trained and released all but one of her dozen apprentices to the mature ranks of Belial’s priestesses here in Babale.

Gwen alone remained, but soon she too would go. Quite possibly it would be the High Guard who would claim her particular talents. Zora certainly hoped so. She smiled as she thought of Gwen’s peculiarities and her excellent quality. She managed to stand out among the priestesses of Belial, and she was a gifted wraith dancer even if she didn’t see it as Zora did.

“My finest pupil,” she had commented more than once. And, without question, one of the few Zora felt belonged among Belial’s High Guard. Zora had served as one of the High Guard during her younger days, a hundred years ago, but had considered it a fine privilege to be chosen by Belial as an Elder Mother. After all, a wraith dancer was normally only expected to serve as one of the High Guard for twelve years, and Zora had served far longer.

Still, even at over one hundred years of age, she was only considered middle-aged. Such was the norm during the Reign of Peace. There was much to be done, and Zora hoped to have the opportunity at serving as an active wraith dancer again. With Gwen soon functioning independently, she at least hoped for that possibility.

Zora made her way to the baths, finding it relatively empty at this time of day as she liked it. As an Elder Mother raising young women to maturity from very early ages Zora considered any quiet moment she could find very precious.

One of the older servants of the ward, Jana, at three hundred years old with graying hair, drew her fresh water into one of the baths. Jana was a friend of many years, even a trusted confident. Her lower station had not prevented them from becoming so while Zora was still a young apprentice herself.

Zora smiled at her friend as the woman nodded and walked out of the chamber leaving her alone. “Thank you, Jana,” she called after.

Zora disrobed, placing her soiled garments in a nearby hamper where they could be collected by servants later. She descended the stone steps, gliding out into the steaming water still flowing from four sculpted dragon-head faucets. The bath’s depth began waist-high near the steps, becoming shoulder-deep at its farthest point.

Grabbing a bar of perfumed soap Jana had left for her; Zora lathered her body and then made her way deeper until she was completely submerged below her neck. There she rested, closing her eyes, allowing the steam to caress her face. Jana peaked around the corner, then turned off the flow of water and was gone again.

These peaceful respites from mothering her girls had come more frequently over the last year. Six of her girls had become independent within a very short time of one another. Zora allowed her mind to wander, but did not realize she had fallen asleep until Jana shook her shoulder.

“Mistress,” she said.

Zora started awake, noticing the colder temperature of the water, and then the concerned look on Jana’s aged face. “What is it?” she asked.

Jana already had a large bath towel in her hands as she knelt next to Zora’s head. “Strangers moving across the courtyard toward the ward,” she said urgently.

Zora pulled herself up on the stone lip of the bath, quickly accepting the towel and drying off. Jana was already handing her a fresh tunic and breeches. “Hurry, Mistress, they are not servants I’ve seen before. They have no business in this part of the palace.”

Zora knew this as well. Only women were allowed anywhere near the ward that was occupied by the priestesses of Belial. Crossing that boundary made one worthy of death by Belial’s commandment.

She practically leaped into her breeches, then hit the ground at a run, her tunic slipping down over her head and torso; arms through her sleeves by the time she got to the outer hall leaving the baths behind. As Zora’s bare feet slapped the cool stones, winding between columns, she saw three men dashing across the far veranda leading to the kitchens and the area where most of the priestesses in this ward would be gathered eating their morning meal.

Zora leaped over the nearest balustrade, lighting on the green courtyard beyond. From a leather brace of daggers folded inside her left hand, she pulled three knives. There was no time to run these men down. They were already almost inside. Zora pulled strength, balance and keen eyesight from the spiritual realm through the Gifts of Transcendence.

She hurled three daggers one after the other while still sprinting across the courtyard toward her targets. The men had just turned away from Zora, entering the cafeteria beneath an open archway. She had predicted this and had led her targets precisely. The two men flanking the third were struck between their shoulder blades with cold steel long enough to pierce their hearts. They fell—their limbs splayed across the stone floor while the third kept running.

The dagger had found its mark, but the man was wearing some sort of package strapped to his body. The jeweled pommel protruding from his back caught the sunlight, glinting for a moment before he disappeared inside. Zora did not know what the package might contain, but it didn’t look like it was meant to be removed easily.

The young women inside the cafeteria had seen the stranger by now. Some were shouting while younger girls with less courage screamed. Zora bounded from a marble urn up to the balustrade and over as precisely as a gazelle. As she entered the cafeteria through the archway, she saw a small fire bouncing out of his hand. The man turned around, taking in all of his intended victims. “Down with Belial and his witches!” he shouted.

The little fire hit the ground, and then ran up a cord turning it to ash. A fuse, Zora realized too late; trying to get to the man in time, trying to cut it before it reached the package tied with cords surrounding his torso. Her jeweled dagger still protruded from the canvas wrap that Zora knew must contain the powder she had seen demonstrated once by scientists who scoured the ruins of the former world. They too had used fire to ignite the powder, turning it into an inferno of flame.

Zora had pushed through several stunned apprentices, crying out for them to flee as she ran toward the rebel assassin. She snatched up a table by one leg intending to block the blast or batter the man—something, anything. He caught sight of her in time to smile maniacally; his arms opening wide to receive her.

Meanwhile, in those three seconds it had taken Zora to light upon the veranda, enter the cafeteria and take up her makeshift weapon, the little fire had run its course and found the canvas package upon the intruder’s back. The canvas, packed tight with gunpowder as well as the man bearing it, exploded. The table in Zora’s hands caught much of the force of the blast, lifting her into the air and tossing her backward at speed. The wooden table shattered and scattered from her grasp as her entire body went numb. All she had seen at the last moment was a raging fire—hell unleashed, consuming everything in its path.

SACRILEGE



A ball of fire tearing through a large portion of our ward would have been hard to miss had I been outside at the time of the explosion. However, I had still been within the temple prayer gardens housed beneath a huge translucent dome deep in meditation. The pounding thunder, though, had reached everyone’s ears for miles within the city. The tranquility of the prayer garden shattered suddenly as I and the other supplicants roused from our dream-states.

The fire dancing upon my upturned palm winked out as I leaped to my feet searching for the source of the terrible disturbance. Distant screams echoed throughout the temple, coming from places beyond in the city. I dashed away from the bewildered worshippers, into the main hall, past the altar of incense and the altar of sacrifice.

The priests of Belial were trying to coordinate their efforts, calming the faithful while sending out men to find the cause of the disturbance. None of them had noticed what I saw as I came upon the great statues of Belial within the main hall. Armed rebels had dared to enter the Temple of the High Serpent King.

I crouched behind the massive marble image of my dragon god, staring at the dozen men who had breached the temple proper. They carried weapons. Some I knew well. Others I had only heard about from Zora’s description. They each carried canvas bags by straps upon their backs. I was unsure of their use until the leader motioned the others forward.

The men pulled back flaps upon their sacks, removing threaded cords called fuses to be ignited with torches mounted on the walls. Three of the men stuffed their sacks within the space beneath the belly of Belial’s image. The leader ignited the first fuse as I decided to act.

Calling for speed, agility and the Touch through the gifts, I shot out of my hiding place near the statue’s long tail. Using the prominences flowing down the marble Belial’s back, I raced up and leaped over the shoulder, tumbling down as a ball to unfurl my arms and legs just before striking the leader.

My kick sent him sprawling backward across the polished marble floor, his torch skidding away into a corner. One of the other men was upon me in a moment with a sword in his hand. I spun aside as he struck down upon the place where I had been standing. Using his momentum against him, I raised my right knee to meet his forearm while slamming my right hand down upon his wrist. His sword dropped away as the bones of his forearm snapped neatly over my knee.

The rebel screamed in pain, falling sideways as he cupped his wounded arm. Spotting another rebel moving in with one of the weapons Zora had warned me about, I snatched up the dislodged sword from my previous victim, spun around completely to build centrifugal force, and then hurled the sword spinning at the man. His gun went flying out of his hands as the sword shot through his belly.

The fact that one of the fuses was already burning behind me had not been forgotten. If Zora’s description was correct, it could explode with such force that it might very well destroy Belial’s image and the entire gallery around us. Another gunner was taking aim to my right. I pulled two daggers from my brace, then spun left as the man fired his shot. I had spun inside the reach of another man with a broadsword.

My right arm thrust behind me, catching the swordsman under the ribs, my dagger tearing through his liver and other organs on its way to the large artery traveling beneath his heart. My left hand hurled its dagger backhanded into the chest of the gunman before he even realized he had missed me. Still, the fuse burned its way toward the canvas sack full of deadly explosive powder.

I had no time left. I reached for as much speed as I could through the gifts, then dashed toward the statue and snatched the fuse. It wriggled like a wounded serpent as the fire snaked its way along its length. Jerking the fuse free with surprising ease, I turned, tossing it into the face of my next victim. He dropped his weapon while trying to avoid the coil of spitting fizzing fire coming at him. In his confusion, my dagger found his throat as I ran past.

Fortunately the other rebels had forgotten about their canvas bags in their attempts to stop me from stopping them. The leader was only now beginning to pick himself up from the floor, shouting orders for his men to light their fuses and toss them back into the temple. But they had delayed those efforts too long. I retrieved the sword of my next kill and finished off several of these feeble fighters with single precision strikes; all of them essentially coming to me to be slaughtered. Perhaps their pride had kept them from retreating from a woman. No matter. They died just the same.

I expended my last dagger upon one of the men retrieving a torch, trying to obey his leader’s order to blow up his sack. My blade caught him through the back, piercing his heart from behind; one of the basic throws taught to us by our Elder Mothers at an early age. He fell, slapping the marble floor heavily; probably further breaking some of the bones in his face with the impact.

Only the leader remained. I had thought moments before when the attack began that I recognized this man. Now, upon closer examination, I knew him as one of the rebels we had encountered before during other raids into Babale; though none as brazen as this. Peka was his name; an unkempt man with dark stubble on his face. He bore tattoos down both of his bare arms and a dagger in each hand. “You dragon’s witch!” he cried, throwing the first blade with his left hand.

Calling upon speed again, I dashed toward him. His dagger grazed my shoulder. I felt only the sting of the wound; anger fueling my attack. I reached him in a second as he tried to defend himself with the dagger in his right hand. I thrust out simultaneously with my left hand to his right arm and my right foot to his left thigh using the Touch. The bones shattered in both appendages. Peka staggered back a few paces as I spun down scooping up his fallen dagger, then spun upward again in a single motion slicing up under his chin.

He grabbed his throat with his useful left hand. His lifeblood spilled between his fingers as he collapsed onto the polished marble of Belial’s temple next to his comrades. The image of the great dragon looked down with contempt upon them all. I turned to the image bowing reverently, thanking Belial for his Gifts of Transcendence without which such victories would not be possible. Perhaps my earlier distractions, leading to my time in the prayer gardens, had been foreseen by the High Serpent King and allowed in order to place me here in the right place at the right time. Such are the mysterious ways of gods. As for me, I could only guess.

ZORA



Following the attack upon Belial’s temple by Peka and his men, I had stayed at the temple trying to explain to the priests what had happened while helping to restore calm to those who had been worshipping there at the time. The earlier thunder that had woken us all from our prayers had, for the time being, been forgotten. However, news of the other attack in the city soon filtered in through the priest’s runners. There had been an explosion within Belial’s palace.

Hearing that, I detached myself from the High Priest, Benjamin, even as he continued throwing questions at me. But I could not stop to answer them now. My sisters in the priesthood had been in the palace within our ward.

I called for speed and endurance through the gifts, pushing my fatigued body to the breaking point. One of the well known side-effects of plunging into the Gifts of Transcendence was its effects on the physical body. I knew already that this two mile run between Belial’s temple and his palace, using the gifts, would feel like a marathon effort after I stopped to rest. Moreover, if a wraith dancer was not careful she could die from sheer exhaustion; though this had rarely happened.

When I came within visual range of the palace, my heart melted within me. It had not been the palace proper to receive the brunt of the attack but the ward of the priestesses. The cafeteria was a smoldering crater gutted by fire. Though we had heard the distant thunder of the explosion nearly a half hour ago, the bodies of my sisters lay sprawled upon the lawn and veranda entering the building.

Despite the fatigue already burning in my muscles, I pushed harder, using the gifts to drive me toward the grisly scene. I leaped, finally, over the balustrade and paused at the sight of Carra, one of the Elder Mothers, lying supine upon the stones. She looked very much like a broken doll; her lifeless eyes partly rolled up into her head, dried rivulets of blood coming from her ears, nose and mouth. Her tunic had been singed heavily by the fire while her limbs lay twisted in macabre fashion: disjointed and broken.

I gasped at the sight of her. Despite having seen dead people many times in my life, I found myself utterly shocked by this. The Elder Mothers were not feeble women whose usefulness had long been spent. They were the best of the best and still very deadly warriors. In fact, their experience and skill was the precise reason they became Elder Mothers at all; to pass on their knowledge to new generations while they were still in their prime.

How could these bumbling rebels have done this to her? I wondered, my mouth agape. I began to hyperventilate as tears flowed down my cheeks. All at once the fatigue of using the gifts hit me like a great weight. I crumbled beneath it, landing on my hip next to Carra’s corpse, only supporting my upper body with trembling arms.

One of my sisters appeared at my side, her hands grasping my shoulders. “Gwen? Where have you been?”

I looked over my shoulder finding Sarah there. She was perhaps ten years older than me and currently serving with the High Guard here in Babale. I was trying to speak, but found that I could not. She tried to console me, brushing my hair with her soot-stained hand. “It’s an unthinkable tragedy, Gwen.” Now she was crying with me.

I closed my eyes longing for comfort, but it wouldn’t come. I looked again at Carra, still not believing an Elder Mother had been killed. Then my eyes shot open. “Zora!”

I twisted in Sarah’s grip. The look on her face terrified me. Something had happened to my Elder Mother. I was almost unable to voice the question stabbing my heart. “Is she—?” It was all I could manage. Zora was the closest thing to a real mother I had ever known. My true mother and father had given me up to the service of Belial at so early an age that my memories of them were precious and few.

Sarah’s expression softened a little. “She lives—”

Immediately, I felt I might faint at this glorious news.

“—but she has been hurt very badly,” Sarah finished.

Still, I didn’t care, so long as she was alive. It was not until I saw Zora for myself that I realized how premature my joy had been.

Sarah led me through our ward. Apart from the cafeteria, our living space had remained relatively unharmed, no doubt due to quality craftsmanship and hard stone. Nevertheless, the odor of burning permeated everything: bodies, hair, clothing—all of it mixed with other things destroyed by the explosion.

It took me a moment to realize that something other than smoke and fire had infiltrated every nook and cranny of our ward. Anger was there and pain; both in measured amounts. However, fear was everywhere. I could see it in the tear-stained expressions of the anguished and in the proud faces of our most well-trained wraith dancers.

Something had changed in us all. We had never felt truly vulnerable before. This attack had shown us how much folly that thinking had been. The rebels were no longer a mere nuisance. Now they were a very real threat, and something had to be done about it.

When we arrived at the infirmary, I was surprised to see how many of my sisters had been brought here. Normally, there are anywhere from two to three hundred priestesses dwelling within Belial’s palace at any given time. Any number of our ranks might be traveling abroad to other patron cities, or be on assignment throughout the kingdom doing the will of the Serpent Kings.

The infirmary, with its thirty beds that normally sat empty, was filled beyond capacity, overflowing into the corridor. This did not even account for the dead I had seen laid outside the cafeteria. Women with bloody abrasions, cuts and burns were everywhere free space could be found for them. When I considered it, I realized how well planned the rebel’s attack had been.

They had wanted to strike at both Belial’s temple and his palace. Wraith dancers, as the primary warriors serving under the rule of the Serpent Kings, were the main threat to whatever goals they hoped to achieve. Wisely, the ward of priestesses here in Babale had been hit first, effectively preventing any interference at the temple where their other team would strike. They had also known our schedule; finding warriors of all ages congregated at the morning meal in our large cafeteria. A better opportunity to kill large numbers of priestesses at one time could not have been found.

As we walked within, winding through the wounded, I heard moaning distinct from the rest of the din. I had been holding onto Sarah’s hand as we closed upon the infirmary. Now, I was squeezing it tightly. Though I had never heard her utter such a sound before, I still recognized Zora’s voice.

She had been moved into the surgical suite beyond the main triage chamber. I could see several physicians, all trained from the ranks of priestesses, moving around her. I caught glimpses of Zora’s thrashing against their efforts, emboldened by her pain.

She was still covered in blood, and much of her clothing had been burned or blasted away in the explosion. Her blonde hair was matted heavily with blood on one side of her head and missing completely on the other. She was screaming one moment and moaning again the next. Several of our warriors had been stationed on her arms and legs to hold her down while the physicians tried to suture her wounds. Even the medicines, derived from opium poppies, seemed to have little effect at diminishing her pain.

I could not help the tears streaming down my face. I couldn’t bear to look at my Elder Mother in such pain. Death almost seemed a better alternative, if only she didn’t have to suffer so. Sarah tried to console me, allowing me to lean upon her for strength. “It looks worse than it is,” she said. “The physicians say she will recover with time. Zora was the only one of us who realized what was happening. There were three men, but Zora killed two before they could get to us.”

I tried to imagine my Elder Mother in action. Zora had always been so graceful. Even so, very few could match her ferocity. I longed to be like her some day.

“The third man was the one carrying the bomb,” Sarah continued. “Zora tried, but was unable to reach him before he detonated inside the cafeteria. She is among the bravest of our elders. Gwen, you should go to her; try to comfort her.”

I watched Zora straining against the women holding her down. It was terrible. There had been very few times I wanted to run from something. The first time I was punished by Zora for exploring the ancient ruins came to mind. She had been so scared for me; so angry at my disobedience that could have easily harmed me. Seeing her face when I was returned to her—I had wanted to run very much that day.

But now, seeing her like this, I wanted to run again. Still, Sarah urged me on. I found myself moving toward the surgical suite, toward my suffering Elder Mother. I watched as fatigue came over her, overwhelming the pain. She was so tired. I rushed forward then. One of the physicians, Marla, saw me and nodded. The girl holding her left arm moved out of my way, allowing me to take her place.

“Zora?” I whispered. She didn’t seem to hear me. I called to her again, closer to her ear this time. She turned, tried to focus on my face. I could see recognition dawn within her eyes. She tried to whisper my name, but the stab of a suture needle running through her abdomen stole it away as she grimaced against the pain.

“Zora,” I said again. “I’m here. You can do it, Zora. Let the pain melt away from you. Call for the gifts.”

Her eyes closed gently, her face relaxing a little as she tried to concentrate on the Gifts of Transcendence. I held her hand, gently whispering to her, encouraging her. I stroked what was left of her hair, weeding out bits of dirt and debris, ignoring the metallic odor of blood that filled the room.

Zora calmed down within moments, concentrating only upon her breathing and the sound of my voice now. The tension in the room seemed to abate. The physicians kept up their work stitching closed the wound in Zora’s belly. I closed my eyes and concentrated with my Elder Mother, whispering a prayer to Belial for her.

DEATH WALKING



Donavan stood smiling at the small crowd of villagers who had stopped to listen to him. He had just concluded his dissertation examining the current state of kingdom affairs, the true nature of their dragon gods and the imminent return of their long forgotten Creator. One of the men nearest to him looked as though he might have a comment, to which Donavan offered, “Yes?”

A meaty slab of fist slammed into his jaw, sending stars across his vision and his body backward into the wall of their town hall. He bounced off of it back into the man’s pudgy hands, stammering for a word as blood gathered in his mouth. The small crowd of less than twenty persons jeered at him, picking up mud and stones from the street to throw in his direction.

The thick man turned around, holding him by his shirt, and then tossed Donavan away from him into the street. It had been raining the day before when Donavan had come to the village, carrying Ezekiah’s message of hope of Elithias’ coming. He landed sprawling in the muddy street. The rocks and clods of mud followed him. They bounced off of his back and legs and head, stinging him.

He was assaulted with insults besides. Even the women congregated around him were swearing at him and lobbing their share of projectiles in his direction. They cursed him by their dragon gods, calling him an ignorant fool.

Donavan had not come unprepared to hear such things. Ezekiah himself had warned his disciples that the citizens of the kingdom would likely not want to hear their message. “This world and their serpent gods are the only things they have ever known,” he had warned. “Do not think that they will welcome you into their midst. Man’s heart has been turned from Elithias for nearly a thousand years. We cannot expect to undo the resulting damage in a day. They will despise you and spit upon you or worse. Only, do not be afraid of them. Remember that Elithias watches over us.”

A fist sized rock smacked the back of his head. His vision blurred, then went black. He felt a warm trickle down through his hair onto his neck. The voices grew distant and muffled. The impact of stones seemed little more than small pricks at his skin.




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