Bound in the Earth: rough draft

 

 

Eastern-desert-mountain-range-Qena

Image from Wikimedia Commons by Edal Anton Lefterov.

Whew! Here you go. I finally finished the rough draft of Bound in the Earth. Yes, it’s choppy. Yes, it’s imperfect. But I hope you find it as intriguing of a story as this rough desert the character inhabits.

Suggested for ages 13 and up for some suggestive themes.

I was an abandoned child, no more than five years old, when the priests of Kartoc found me alone in the desert, my tribe having abandoned me. From there, I was taken to their temple built in the stone cliffs of Gigamunt. Don’t ask me why my tribe abandoned me. I’m not sure of what offense as a five year old boy I could have committed. I don’t even remember my original name. The priests gave me a new one. Erug is my name today. And I spent most of my life cleaning the stone floors of the temple, and helping the head priests sacrifice fowl and cattle to the deity of Kartoc. The priests were kind to me, making sure that I was properly clothed and fed. I would even go so far as to say that many of them became like fathers, brothers, and uncles to me.

But Kartoc, I could never see him as a heavenly father. His stone statue stood twelve feet high. From head to toe, he was carved to look like he was wearing heavy plate armor, with the symbol of a roaring lion on his breastplate. His head was bereft of a helmet, carved instead to have a head of flowing locks down to his shoulders and a beard that reached above his breastplate. His legs were bare a little above the knees, chiseled out into muscles and sinews, ending in strong feet shod in sandals. One hand was wrapped over his stomach, fists clenched around a sword, while the right arm was raised high, holding a sickle, a symbol of reaping the souls of the dead and of conquering the false gods from long ago. Being abandoned by my tribe and my parents was hard enough for me, but to be brought to a temple in which one sees the image of Kartoc, armed with blades and looking down with eyes that reflect anger, permeated my small, fragile body.

Nonetheless, the food was good and my quarters were comfortable. I was away from the scorching heat of the desert sun and the chill of the desert night. The temple itself was a wonderland of twisting corridors and secret passages to explore. What more could a child ask for?

I joyfully spent my childhood probing the deepest secrets of the temple, discovering corridors that wound in all directions, hallways and chambers that told stories of those who built the place. I was never in the dark. The stone walls of the temple had some sort of crystals in them that always gave off a soft orange glow like a cold fire. Being that young, I thought that the crystals glowed for me, like they were a light telling me that all would be okay in this dark world, even though I had been forsaken. A silly thought, I know, but when one is a child it’s often the silly thoughts that are the most logical, keeping us sane. I appreciated those lights, especially when I got lost in the halls and narrow passageways. And for the first couple of weeks I did get lost. And not just in the secret passages and corridors, but in my very mind, I might add as I got lost in my own thoughts, a thick fog of the worst things that could happen to me. Yet the priests were always able to find me. I am thankful that they never chastised me, but told me that they would always search me out when lost. The comforting words of the priest’s aside, my initial fears couldn’t dampen the flame of my curiosity that burned brighter by each passing day. When I wasn’t cleaning, I explored as much of the temple as I could. I found narrow passages plastered in murals of great battles, in which Kartoc lead his valiant army to battle against the forces of evil.

The first chamber I found myself in was a wide and spacious one, where pillars towered above me, with life-size lions, tigers, and jackals carved onto pedestals jutting out the pillars halfway up and further on top, each of these stone animals eying me like I was prey. I needn’t elaborate the initial fear I felt. I was certain that those stone animals were alive and that they would eat me. There was an old altar in the middle of this room, used for old animal sacrifices. I always thought that it looked like it would make a good table for me to be there dinner. Memories blur over time and I can’t remember if it took me weeks, months, a year, or even just a couple of days, to summon the courage to go back into that chamber. In a way, that chamber was my rite of passage, an early initiation into the vaster hallways of my life where tough decisions would have to be made. But for now, I was a happy child.

For my first couple of years in the temple, the chamber and the adjoining passages were my territory and I didn’t go much further. But when I was eight I started to explore a bit more. I found other chambers, some empty, and others full of old antiques whispering of a time long gone. Some were full of stacked old vases sprinkled with the dust of ages, their paint chipping away. One room was a long chamber leading up to a throne of tarnished silver, its edges inlaid with dull jewels. Excited, I told the priests about it. They told me that there were many treasures in this old temple, but that the greatest treasure was Kartoc, and he alone deserved our worship. Speaking of which, in one chamber I found a dead language chiseled on the walls. When I inquired of the priests, none knew what it read, except that it was a dead language it was in praise to the righteous indignation of Kartoc and the love he had for his children.

“Why is the temple so big?” I asked Dyorn, one of the older priests. He was one of my primary caretakers, teaching me how to properly pay observances to Kartoc and how to clean the temple.

“Because the ancients needed it to be so, Erug.”

“But why?”

“You ask a lot of questions for an eight year old.” My fears that he was growing impatient with me were alleviated as a wry smile crossed his face. “No harm in that. An inquisitive mind brings one to the truth. First off, you should know that the ancients are our ancestors, Erug. And you as a priest in training have been adopted into the family, so, they are your ancestors, too. Also there were more servants to Kartoc back then, an army of them. We are the descendants of that army. The numbers of Kartoc’s army died down greatly, hence we don’t need to use the whole temple. But those ancestors waged a huge spiritual battle, lead by Kartoc himself, against the forces of darkness and their leader the evil one.”

“Is what you’re talking about from the old mural I saw in one of the passageways?”

“Yes,” nodded Dyorn, well pleased. “I am happy to see that you able to make the connections.”

“And the throne room I found?”

“For the king of the priests.”

“What about that big chamber where I saw an old altar with animals on pillars peering down?” I felt goosebumps just asking about it.

“That is where the king of the priests officiated the animal sacrifices to Kartoc, the three animals are his guardians.”

“And who was the king?”

The king was Gecata the Great. He was the first member of our order, pledging his allegiance to Kartoc to banish the evil one. Gecata was a humble farm boy who lived in a kingdom overruled by the evil one. The evil one reigned supreme, having his followers subjugate the people. The nobles were under the influence of the evil one, but worse was the king. The king engaged in all sorts of debauchery, and the nobles followed his lead. Their most heinous of sins was sacrificing a citizen to the evil one, once a month. But Gecata had a dream one night after his brother was taken to be sacrificed the next day. A heavenly being appeared before him, sword raised. He told the boy to rally the people to overthrow the evil king and his monarchy, and that if Gecata did so, he, Kartoc, would be by his side as they took the fight to the thresholds of the evil one himself. Though the young farm boy assured the populace that Kartoc would guide them, many didn’t believe him. Out of the thousands of people, only ten joined his side. The rest mocked him. No matter. Those who mocked were humbled when Gecata and his ten followers stormed the castle and put the king and his followers to the sword. After the battle, Gecata was crowned the new king. But he was more than a king. He was a priest, presenting Kartoc’s laws to the people and officiating in the sacrifices.

“Still there those who still followed the evil one, amassing into large armies. So Gecata’s successors had a vision to build this temple. They hid the evil one’s remains in the darkest bowels, where no one could find it. Why do we have twisting corridors that one can easily get lost in? So if enemies tried to invade, they would get lost and the priests could waylay them. And they did. These were warrior priests, and they knew every tunnel and secret passageway.”

“Why didn’t the enemy armies blow up the temple by launching huge boulders or with magic?” I was by now enthralled in what I was hearing.

“You ask so many questions, and it’s getting late,” laughed Dyorn. “At this rate, you are going to have me up all night. No matter. I forgot to mention that after Gecata and his ten followers put the king and the nobles to death, more people amassed under his banner, and they marched out to the fields to engage in open combat with the evil one. The evil one had called his followers from all the corners of the earth, and his figure was looming like a dark shadow. But Kartoc’s figure was also towering high, like a mountain, and with sword outstretched he lead Gecata and his army to conquer. That they did, and the evil one’s spirit was sealed in a jar and buried deep in the temple.

“So, what would it avail them to bombard the temple? They would have to remove huge slabs of stone and all the rest of the debris to find the jar that seals the evil god’s spirit. They couldn’t risk bombarding the temple. And with that inconvience, the evil one’s followers slowly died and the attacks became less frequent as the years passed by.”

“The evil god is sealed in this temple?” I couldn’t believe that this place where I felt a sense of peace – not including Kartoc’s intimidating statue – had something evil lurking beneath it. Imagine the terror a child feels when he thinks that there is a monster under the bed. This was similar to that feeling, but magnified.

Dyorn saw my concern and tried to comfort me. “By all means, keep up with your exploring of the temple. You are not going to find that jar. The warrior-priests of old made sure of that. You are in the safest place on earth.”

Words of comfort can pacify a child, but in this case it did little to soothe me to sleep. Neither were the glowing crystals that were in the rest of the temple in my quarters. So I had to sleep in the darkness, my thoughts my only company. I need not describe in too much detail how I felt. Suffice to say, it’s that gloom that lays heavily on the chest, the weight of life and all its uncertainties crushing the spirit that I had to face nightly.

There was a year in which I chose not to explore the temple. The stature of Kartoc, initially frightening to me, now took on the role of father figure protecting me from the evil. Familiarity breeds contentment. But, that contentment didn’t last. For contentment often comes about with the familiar, and thus, ironically enough, contentment breeds boredom. Children are natural adventurers, and it wasn’t long before I decided to start exploring the temple again, eager to see what new discoveries I could make.

It was when I was an older child and my body had a little more strength to it that I found that by pulling on a statue the arm would sometimes twist, causing the statue to move and reveal another passage. The first passage I discovered doing this was dark, and it made me think that some monster was lurking down there, or the evil spirit of the banished god. A part of me was frightened, but the adventurous side of me conquered my fear, and I ran back to my quarters to grab a torch, wrapped in a rag torn from one of my old robes, and to retrieve a match.

Torch lit and at the entrance, I stared at the stairway leading down. I should have thought of the ramifications if my torch ran out of oil. But I was too lost in the corridors of my own mind of what I might discover that I didn’t stop to think of the dangers of being lost in the corridors of a new passageway. Only now do I look back and realize that a young boy had no business in traversing into unknown territory. I count myself lucky that I survived the ordeal, for I got lost in those dark passages. By the time I found my way out, my torch was almost burned out. But at the time I felt it had been worth it. Though most of what I had discovered were empty chambers and long hallways that lead to dead ends or which led back into each other. I did find one room full of old bones. Cracked skulls, swords jammed into rib cages, and disembodied bones lay across the floor. I wondered if this had been a battle between the old warrior priests against invaders who had tried to storm the temple. Some of these passage ways lead to crypts with intricately carved coffins, each one illustrating a different scene of the person’s life.

There is not much more to say on the matter. The years passed. I attended my priest in training duties. I formed solid familial bonds with the other priests, and on my spare time I continued to discover new secret passage ways. I had learned from my past mistakes, taking polished stones and leaving them along the corridors so I would know how to get out. If I hadn’t, I don’t doubt that I might not likely be here telling this story. For I don’t even think the priests could have found me in all that darkness.

It was when I was nine years old that the seeds of a violent upheaval would be laid for me to take root later on in my life. It happened late at night when my room was in complete darkness, that perfect time for the world to fall apart around you.

Erug, the voice said softly. It was like a fresh breath that I had been shut away from for years. There was something familiar about it, like when someone finds an oasis in the desert to quench their thirst. Rejuvenating, nourishing. Then it dawned on me. It was feminine. Something I had grown unaccustomed to.

I sat up straight in my bed. “Who’s there?” I asked.

You can find me under the altar.

“How do I open it?”

From the blood of a dove.

And that was all she said.

I sat awake in my bed, perplexed and then terrified. Who had just spoken to me, asking for blood? I told the priests what I had heard. But they seemed more annoyed that I woke them up. They tried to convince me that it was just a bad dream that felt real. I find it funny that they had taught me the importance of heeding omens and divine manifestations, the belief in voices from the spirit realm being the core of our doctrine, only for them to tell me that what I had heard was of no consequence. It’s been my observation that adults don’t seem to take children or youth seriously. But in all honesty, it’s the young who are the most receptive to the voices of the spirit realm, seeing as they are without guile or influence from the vain philosophies of adults.

Still, I had hopes that the priests were right about it only being a bad dream. Often when we pine for the end of unpleasant situations, we are disappointed to find that it’s only the beginning of our sorrows. But by the end of the week, I heard that voice, smooth and calm, yet laced with a dangerous edge to cut, again in the darkness. It was a voice that was like the eerie calm of the desert before the raging sand and thunderstorms.

Erug, what are you doing? Have you forgotten?

“I thought you were a dream.”

Is that how you truly felt? she asked softly, though I knew the question was more rhetorical.

“No. I knew that you were real,” I confessed.

               Then you know that you must help me.

“I don’t even know who you are,” I said. “And I don’t want to know.” And I didn’t. Not yet, not at that time. I didn’t need anything to come and cause a disruption to the peaceful life that I was living.

For a moment I felt a chill. I shuddered, wondering if I had angered whoever this being was… whoever…. “The evil one!” I blurted it out suddenly.

A giggle pierced the darkness, one child-like with a hint of mischief. Is that what they are calling me? Of course, the big guy would discard me like that, wouldn’t he!

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, but you are supposed to be sealed somewhere in the temple.”

And I am. But it’s my thoughts that roam free. They do get so board hidden within the bowels of this prison. That is why I’m wondering if you won’t come down and visit me. I get so lonely. Come down and I can explain everything to you. Maybe we can even play a game. All you have to do is sacrifice a dove to me.

“I’m not killing an innocent dove,” I protested. “Leave me alone,” I shouted.

No need to shout, Erug. The priests can’t hear you. They are entrapped in the sleep of happy dreams.

“And what are happy dreams?”

That same giggle. When you’re older and still celibate, you’ll then know. Then there was a deep sigh. I grow tired. You’re just no fun. I’m going to be blunt. I know that you are too inquisitive to never seek me out. You always have been. Curiosity will keep sucking at your brain, like a mosquito sucking blood, urging you to scratch that itch, and when you do your life will never be the same again.

And she was right. As time went on I did grow more curious. But I can hold my head high knowing that I held my ground, that is until she gave me the final ultimatum.

Another night came as usual, but the next day the priests just didn’t wake up. Then the day after that priests still didn’t wake up. I tried waking up Dyorn, but aside from a faint breath and a smile on his face, it was as if he were dead. Frantically, I tried to wake him up. When he didn’t wake up, I tried waking the others up. But all were in this happy dream-like trance, unable to wake up. I felt powerless.

You should have listened to me, she said to me after a week had passed. Right now I am being gentle to you by giving them nice, pleasant dreams about that which is forbidden them. But if you keep this up, I shall take away their manhood, making these bulls into steers. Don’t cross me, young one.

So, there I was. Trapped. Still, I hated the idea of killing a dove to find her. I knew where the sacrificial doves to Kartoc were kept. Maybe I could find a sickly one. Thank goodness, there was one that looked like it was on death’s door. I took that bird from out of the perch, not bothering to hid it under my robe since there were no priests to stop me.

I slit the dove’s throat, with a crude makeshift shiv, over the altar. The blood spilled on the stone slab. What to do? How would I clean the blood out that was already staining the rough surface? Where would I put the dove?

Throw it on the altar, came the feminine voice.

Shaking, I dropped the dove on the altar where it burned without use of kindling. Even the blood evaporated, transforming into a red misty smoke. I then heard the grating of stone as the altar opened before me, revealing a set of stairs going downward.

Come not unto me unprepared! her voice echoed in my mind.

I found myself at the crossroads of indecision. One part of me was terrified of what would happen to me if I went down there. Another part of me was fearful for Dyorn and the other priests if I didn’t. What was I to do? I figured that since she warned me not to come to her unprepared, I had time to think it over. Surely she wouldn’t harm the priests in such a short time frame. Hopefully.

That night I had a dream. I was taken down the steps to where there were three riddles. The first riddle was short but succinct. Can water quench my burning thirst? The second riddle followed thus: And ache that needs to be relieved. The final riddle was a bit more complex. The portion of the size matters not. No matter how much I eat, I am always hungry, never full. In eternal darkness I dwell.

My mind made up, the next day I took a torch, a shoulder sack of rags drenched in alcohol, and went down those stairs underneath the altar. It smelled old and suffocating down there. I held my torch out to burn the shadows around me away. The stairway down was long, and I often second guessed my decision. I went down so many stairs that my feet grew sore and I lost all track of time. Did time even exist down there? If memory serves me right, it felt as though time stopped in that limbo. Either way, it felt like I walked down those steps for hours. Too stubborn to turn back.

Eventually, I came upon a hallway. It stretched far. Numerous times I had to stop and replenish my torch with a new rag. If it went out on me, I knew I’d go mad in that darkness. As it was, I wondered where the voice of that womanly spirit had gone off to. I began to ask questions as to whether or not she had tricked me into coming down here, to toy with me like a spider does a fly, or a cat torments a mouse. Brief shock that I can’t possibly put into adequate words overwhelmed me. She could have very easily closed the altar on me, forever trapping my remains in that forsaken place. I felt helpless in the earth above and around me, but worse I felt encaged by the fears of my mind. I couldn’t scream. Even if the priests were awake my scream would be a silent one, swallowed by this stone tomb.

But then I saw something. It was a faint blue glow in the distance. It looked ghostly. My first impression was that it was the spirit mocking me. But when I got closer I found that it was a large blue fire. It burned hot, and I knew that that this was my first riddle. Can water quench my burning thirst? I could tell that the path way widened into a huge room, with the fire engulfing all of it. Of course water couldn’t quench a thirst such as this. I would have had to have brought down thousands of buckets worth, a monumental task that I could never be up to.

Then, over the crackling of the fire, my ears picked up a steady and gentle sound. Water! I looked up see another light shining down. It was a dim sky-blue light, outlining what looked like some sort of walkway held up by pillars. My eyes followed the walkway, ending in, to my delight, a waterfall. It was an aqueduct. But how was I to get water from it? Then, my eyes saw a ladder in the right hand corner of the fiery room. Only one problem. There was only a sliver of a space to tread, a slit of safe ground between the wall and the fire. I had no choice. I would have to walk near the fire and hope I wouldn’t get burned. Back pressed into the wall, somehow or other I did it, and I didn’t even singe a hair.

The ladder was far enough in the corner that it was warm, but not burning hot. Fortunately it was also made of stone, not metal. I climbed up it onto a catwalk running by the suspended irrigation duct. I dunked my hands in the water. My, that water was cold! Ice cold! It felt good after the heat of the fire. And as luck would have it, I saw a lever in the wall at the far end in front of me with a carving showing the aqueduct opening to release water on the fire. I was about to pull the lever, but I hesitated. This answer was too simple. It looked like enough water was running through to put out the fire, but my intuition warned me against it, and I the riddle came returned with full force back into my mind. Can water quench my burning thirst? No. Water couldn’t quench that thirst. There had to be something else. Something not so obvious.

Eureka! Another glance showed a rope hanging down on the opposite end of the catwalk. Above it were saw some large bags, tons of them. None were directly above my head that I could see. Still, it was terrifying to pull that rope. I had no idea what would happen. Yet my intuition warned me about pulling the lever to release the water. So I pulled the rope. The bags came crashing through the walkway I wasn’t standing on. A huge cloud of dust rose up. When the dust cleared I noticed that the fire wasn’t burning anymore. There was only a pile of sand and the water running through it and into a drain.

I was able to jump softly onto the tall pile of sand. I made my way to the door that had previously been blocked and into the next chamber.

Inside were statues of all sorts of bizarre creatures crowding the room. Though I had plenty of torches, there were other torches burning faintly on the walls, allowing me to save the ones I already had in case I needed them. What sort of magic was this that allowed fire to continually burn? I had a feeling that the fires were as old as the chambers themselves. The illuminations didn’t do anything to alleviate my fears. Shadows melded into the black statues, making it hard to decipher what was stone and what was silhouette. Jagged teeth lining long snouts and sharp claws at the ends of outstretched arms seemed to grasp at me, even though I knew that was impossible. I almost fell on my face when I tripped over a winding stone tail, and I slightly cut my leg, below my shin, open on one of the spikes. It could have been a lot worse. My thick trousers protected me, though they were ruined in the process. The mental anguish bothered me more than the physical, anyway. The creatures who looked like wolves, dragons, serpents, and ogres ate at my mind, causing my heart to falter.

What did this have to do with the second riddle? An ache that needs to be relieved. Did it refer to my leg? Because my leg was certainly aching after that fall. Maybe that vision had been an omen and I had to heal my leg. But again I didn’t think it could be that obvious. The riddle pertained to the statues that much I was sure of. I tried to swallow my fears and look for clues. But I could find nothing distinguishing about the statues, not initially anyway. I must have spent who knows how many hours examining every one of them; their lifeless stone eyes always watching me.

It was when I was about ready to give up that I found I had missed a small detail on one of the statues I looked at earlier. It was a statue of some hybrid, a long serpent body with smooth scales, coiled near the back. Half way up the serpentine body, an arm protruded out, ending in three sharp claws.  The upper part of the statue forming the neck, if it could be called that, bent in an arch, head at the end looking straight at me. It had the face of a lion, barring his teeth. All this I had noticed before, except for one of the teeth looking out of place. It bent ever so slightly out of the mouth, hardly noticeable unless one looked closely. It made me think of a toothache.

That was it!

I tried pulling the tooth out with my fingers. It moved and jiggled a bit, but I couldn’t quite yank it out. There had to be something I could use for some sort of leverage. I then looked at my ripped trousers. A thread, the length of my arm, was hanging off because of the tear from the spikes. If I could only manage to… And I got it, carefully used the torch to burn off the piece. Thank goodness I didn’t catch myself on fire in the process. With my string in hand, I tied it in a noose and slipped it between the crevices of the bad tooth. I prayed that the threads of my trousers would be strong enough to yank a tooth out. Without further thought, I yanked. To my surprise the string held and the tooth came flying out.

Stone grated on stone while the statues turned around to face forward. A wall moved from its place, revealing another set of stairs.

This was it. The final test.

At the bottom of the stairs was an ancient library, full of rolls of scrolls stuffed away into old wooden shelves and stacks of musty tomes. In the wall in front of me was the statue of a fierce bird of prey, though I know not what kind. Its beak looked like it could tear into flesh, and for a moment I feared that it would eat my bones. Light, a dim blue, was provided by a huge diamond in the wall.        When I was standing right in front of it, the neck craned down slightly, allowing the bird’s eyes to stare right into mine. “Answer the riddle correctly and pass on through. Incorrectly, and your life is mine.”

“Do I have time to think the riddle over?” I asked, flustered.

“Take as much time as you need,” said the fierce bird. “I have all the time in the world. Now, your riddle. The portion of the size matters not. No matter how much I eat, I am always hungry, never full. In eternal darkness I dwell.”

“How am I supposed to know the answer to that?” My prior confidence of being able to solve the riddle was, suffice to say, waning. Death, or the possibility of such, is truly a great humbler.

“Are you blind, boy! Look around you! You’re in a library. Search for the answer, if you must.”

I tried to keep calm, reminding myself that I could think rationally. Obviously the answer was in one of these books or scrolls. But which one? There were too many of them. Think, think, think! I had to think! Start from a portion of the riddle. In eternal darkness I dwell. Okay, something that dwelled in darkness, and eternal at that. A bat perhaps? Another part of the riddle was no matter how much I eat, I am always hungry, never full. With no time to lose, I started reading through the scrolls and books, starting with writings about animals. But none of the animals seemed to fit the answer to the riddle.  Bats could eat a lot of bugs. But bats could still get full. The only part of the riddle that worked in their favor was that they, unless sick, they dwelled in eternal darkness. Like the water above the fire for the first riddle, it was too obvious. I then had the wild idea that maybe it wasn’t something of this earth. Maybe not even alive.

It took a while to wade through the clutter of scrolls and books, but I eventually found the section dealing with astronomy. The ancients had written copiously about the heavens, with its stars, nebulas, planets, and comets. But I found nothing about life anywhere else in the universe. If Kartoc had created other planets, inhabited by other people, then the teachings were silent over it. Then I found the answer. A scholar who had written about black holes. They sucked away everything from stars to planets, in a sense they were devouring them. Such a thing could never be full or hungry, not being alive, and it dwelled in the darkness of space.

Bravely, I took the scroll and approached the bird guardian, not sure if my answer was correct, but knowing that I had no other choice if I wanted to save the priests. “This is your answer,” I said, unraveling the scroll with the picture of the black hole.

The sharp eyes glared at it, and then looked at me thoughtfully. “You have answered correctly,” the bird guardian said. “Go forth and meet my mistress.” The statue upon pedestal slid, revealing the final passage.

I went through the passage, darkness greeting me. The pedestal closed behind me. I was trapped. I desperately tried to move the pedestal, but it was wedge firmly in the passage. I couldn’t push it, I couldn’t pull it.

“Why do you struggle so?” asked that same soft, feminine voice that I recognized all too well. “Is my presence not intoxicating?”

“I don’t know how it could be when I am trapped in a dark room,” I replied.

She giggled. “Oh, where are my manners? Follow my voice. You can’t see me, but worry not, for I can see you.”

She gave me directions, but I still stumbled about in the dark. A pain shot through my kneecap when I bumped into something that felt like a knee high stone pillar. There was a rattling, followed by a crash.

The room was spontaneously lit up by many different torches, pale pinks, hot reds, and deep crimson purples. There was a cauldron in the middle of the chamber, flat, flow to the ground, and wide enough to fit ten men in. The cauldron was gold with wide silver lines running vertical. Around the rim of the cauldron were rubies and sapphires encrusted into it. Behind the cauldron, silk hung down from the walls, rippling and red, sensuous. Yet I felt no peace of mind from such radiant beauty. Rather I felt a sense of danger, like the beautiful décor was there to suppress an ugliness. Water in the cauldron started to boil, first at a slow pace and then at a vicious. It shot up like a loud geyser, filling the room with steam, and as it did so it began to form the shape of a body, one with wide hips, long legs, a small torso, and large breasts underneath a red dress that clung to her as though it were a part of her body. Golden circlets dangled from her dainty wrists, with many rings, some with diamonds, on her fingers. Her neck was like that of a swan, her face the perfect oval shape with a long nose and green eyes against skin soft like milk. Her red hair was like scarlet, and she had it braided up into intricate buns. Around her head was a red diamond crown.

“Welcome, Erug,” the woman said to me. “Thank you for freeing me from that infernal base. Tell me, do you like how I was able to conjure up this setting so quickly? It’s impressive, much like me.”

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I am the one Kartoc sealed away. I am the one whom he condemned.”

“You mean you are the evil god!” The realization was a double stab to the chest.

“Evil!” She seemed taken back that I’d even think such a thing. “First off, I’m a goddess. Tell me,” she moved her hand over her body. “Would an evil goddess look as beautiful as I, with my supple body, shapely ships, and mesmerizing eyes? I should say not! Besides, is that anyway to talk to your mother?”

“Mother!” I couldn’t believe my ears. I was wondering if there was some burning incense coming out of the cauldron, making me hallucinate.  “Then that would make you the wife of” –

She chuckled mischievously. “That’s right. It makes me Kartoc’s wife. Now tell me, have you ever laid your eyes on a more beautiful mother? Am I not the embodiment of radiance? Ah, but you are not yet a man. When you are older you shall know what I speak of. You see, that big oaf Kartoc couldn’t handle a strong woman. So he imprisoned me here. Worse, he defiled my name by making up lies about me, sullying my reputation.”

“I see.”

“Oh, but darling, you don’t! What lies have they passed down through the generations? Let me guess… Oh yes! There was some poor farm boy who overthrew the nobility who worshipped and adored. This country bumpkin became a king. Is that the gist of it?”

“You only know that because you’re the evil god, I mean goddess that was sealed away.”

“And I also know it because there was no farm boy who became king. My husband, the god you foolishly worship, is a pathological liar and he always has been.” Her eyes turned dark with anger. There are mistakes we make in life that we can never take back. I feared that I had just made one of them.

“What are you going to do now?” I asked quietly. This one simple question turned away her anger.

“Why, silly mortal, I am going to take my place in society again,” she beamed proudly. “And I have you to thank for it. Don’t worry. The priests have woken up from their slumbers, after some very pleasant dreams, I might add. As for your reward, well, I foresee it. You shall be memorialized in future scripture.”

“Huh?”

“Don’t you know, I forsaw you as the one who would liberate me! None of the other priests would do it. Believe me, I tried. Such a pity that they wouldn’t heed to the voice of a superior sex. You, on the other hand, are destined achieve greatness that the others could never hope to achieve. Be open to it and cast away your silly worship of that man who is more like a child than a god.”

Immediately I was back in my room, stunned over what just happened. What had I done? Whatever I had just done, I had forever shaken the core of humanity, changing the face of civilization. I wouldn’t know how much until later. Little was I prepared for it all.

 

The years further passed and I had seen nothing of the goddess. Sometimes I wondered if it was just all a dream. But it felt too real to be a dream. Often I had agonized over it. It was said that the father god would slay those who committed unforgivable offenses, and I couldn’t think of a more unforgivable offense than freeing the evil one. Yet here I was, still standing. I could only wish that what I thought happened didn’t truly happen.

This uncomfortable part of my life should have stayed buried in the past, but my thirteenth birthday deemed otherwise. I was in the midst of a huge assembly. Everyone was gathered there to witness my inauguration into the priesthood. We were standing at the statue of Kartoc, and Dyorn was initiating me into the order. I was looking up in the face of the deity the whole time. While the statue had always scared me, he seemed especially angry today. His stony expression read that he knew what I had done, the offense I had given. An unpleasant situation to say the least. I would rather that the earth opened up and swallowed me.

In my new priestly robes, I retired to my chamber when the ceremony was over. I sat on my bed, feeling sick, with anxiety squeezing my heart and poking my stomach.

I was just in the process of laying down when I found myself lifted out of my room and into the heavens. But the heavens were far from being a peaceful place. The clouds that spread out for miles in every direction were dark and red, and the sky was an even deeper shade of red, like a sea of blood from slain armies. Thunder rumbled like clashing spears and thousands of horse drawn chariots, and lightning flashed like blazing arrows. In the midst of it all was Kartoc, standing tall, looking down on me like I was an insignificant bug to be squashed. Anger flashed in his eyes, and the emblem of the lion on his breastplate seemed alive with a desire to eat me. I was afraid that he’d cleave me in two with the sword he had drawn, or that he would take the sickle from his back and cut off my head. In short, I was certain that my life was forfeit.

“What have you done!” This wasn’t a question. The great god knew what I had done. His voice boomed, louder than the thunder. Sparks flashed in his eyes, a microcosm of lightning. When I didn’t answer, being far too scared, he grabbed me by the head with his thumb and forefinger, lifting me up to his face. Hot air blew from his nostrils from the fire of his range within. “You released the evil one!”

“Kartoc, my lord, forgive me,” I pleaded, not having much faith in begging him for mercy. I might as well have begged for mercy towards an oncoming storm, or an earth-shaking quake. For before me stood not a man, but a force of nature that could not be tamed. Still, I tried to apply reason, knowing very well that my pleas were akin to the frightening squawks of a bird in the presence of a hungry cat. And hungry the god was, hungry for my devotion and worship. Memories of my first encounter with him as a statue came back into play. “The evil one beguiled me,” I said. “She put a spell on the priests. There was nothing I could do.”

“How weak you are!” Kartoc snarled at me, disapproval oozing off of his tongue, poisoning my heart. “Did you not know that the priests are descended from warriors? Where is your warrior heart?” With that he shook me, and I thought that my head would pop out from my shoulders, like I was a rag doll to be discarded.

“Please. What can I do to atone for my sin?” After I asked this he dropped me. I fell comfortably enough on the soft clouds.

“If you had of asked me to begin with, I could have given you proper guidance,” he chastised me. “But did you? No! You were like a hungry mouse going for the poisonous cheese. Curiosity was your teacher, not wisdom, and now you are in this mess.”

“My lord, please forgive me, but how was I to talk with you?”

“Do you not know the power of prayer?” he snapped at me, and I shuddered under the harshness of his tongue, a tongue that I thought could cleave my body into two as it did my soul. “Prayer would have ascended to me like an eagle flying to the mountain-top, but you chose to run around in a maze of misdirection. Well! Are you satisfied! Because you chose to follow your own moral compass, instead of turning to me, the evil one will be perverting the hearts of men, twisting their desires into immoral purposes.”

“Maybe I can make this right?” I ventured.

“You shouldn’t even be asking me this. I had for-seen you as the one would ignore the cries of the evil one and became a head priest in my name. In the future I saw you as the greatest priest that lived, as my chosen vessel. That is why I rescued you from the scorching desert. But you have made mock of what I had decreed, despising your birthright.”

“Can I get my birthright back?” and though I asked, I didn’t know if I wanted it back.

Kartoc’s voice and eyes softened. “Hmmm….. Well, no, or perhaps. Yes, it will certainly be a trial, no doubt, one that will weave a tail for the priests to record throughout the ages, but it could work.”

He clamped his right hand tight and then opened it again, revealing a jewel, bright red like fresh drawn blood. He tossed it toward me and it shrunk as it landed in the palm of my hand. The sides of the jewel were sharp. I was careful so as not to cut myself. “How will this help?”

“That will imprison her, my son.” I looked up at him, shocked to see the face of a beast melt away for one of paternal care. But I dare not argue that I didn’t want to face the evil one again. With gods it is not wise. “From a large block of ruby she was carved. She was to be my wife, your mother goddess. Yet she could not cleave unto my wisdom. Vanity and narcissism were her loves. And instead of seeing the full potential of men, she saw them as her baubles and trinkets to use however she pleased. To further inflict men, she created women. She lied to me, telling me that they would serve as companions, earthly angels. It was then I agreed that they could make humankind together. Suffice to say, the evil one ended up leaving me, trying to woo men, our children, to her chaotic mindset. I must say, the females she created aren’t any better. Hence, only men are allowed in the priesthood.”

“But what must I do with the ruby?” I asked before he could veer off topic again.

“She must be trapped a second time. The first time I was too lenient on her. I thought that letting the Gecata imprison her in a dungeon full of riddles was enough, and that in time I could claim her as my own again. I curse my foolishness. But this ruby that you hold, why, she won’t be able to resist it. It is a part of her. What you must do is use the ruby to carve a magic circle in the floor. I will send you a vision as to what the circle will look like. But first, you must attract her. Play into her vanity so that she will find the circle and the ruby in it. Once she picks it up, she will be sucked in, the circle and the ruby working together to entrap her in an unbreakable barrier that she will never be able to get out of unless I deem otherwise.”

“What if I can’t find a way to persuade her to return?” I asked the question out of naivety coupled with a false sense of security that I was in the good god’s graces again. I was unprepared for the condemnation it provoked.

“Then I shall punish you to the utter farthing. I shall plant a seed in each of the priest’s hearts, turning them against one another with the sword. When it’s all done, you shall remain, swimming in a sea of blood. Now, cease your incessant lack of faith and amend your error. Then I can claim you as mine, having fulfilled your destiny.”

Then, just like that, I was back in bed. For a moment I hoped that it was a dream. But when I closed my right hand, I found the ruby was still there. I groaned. It wasn’t fair. I hadn’t asked for any of this. Yet, here I was, a pawn to be used.

“What are you thinking about, dear?” It was that same feminine voice that got me in this mess in the first place, and I hadn’t even had time to draw a magic circle.

“It’s you,” I said, looking up at the evil one, who was my height. “The evil one!”

She smiled at me, pointing to her teeth. “Does this look like the face of an evil one to you?”

It is said that evil can be made to look attractive. If not, no one would be beguiled by it. Still, I held my peace.

“What do you have in your hand?” she asked me in a sing-song voice while she approached me, sitting by my bedside.

“Nothing?” I lied. A foolish act, to be honest. No one can lie to a god or a goddess.

“Well, I’ll have you know that I am a goddess. Do I have to beat it into your feeble skull once again? And you may call me Temelia. Now, stop lying. What do you have hiding from me?”

“It’s” – I couldn’t finish. She had yanked away the covers and found the ruby laying there.

“For me? Why it’s lovely!” She held it up, admiring it. “However, I don’t believe it will trap me without a magic circle. Oh dear, oh dear, was this my oafish husband’s brilliant idea? I shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, this is the same dullard who had the brilliant idea of letting his past followers be in charge of my imprisonment. As if he could hope to hold a being as alluring as I. Don’t you see? The world needs one such as I, and you, little man, are going to help me shine.”

“Kartoc will kill me.” I hoped desperately that she could see the plight that she was putting me in.

She put an arm around my shoulder, as if doing so could provide motherly comfort. “I wouldn’t worry about it, dear.”

“Why not?”

“Because I can do so much worse. I can make you and the rest of the priests eunuchs.”

Her point was well taken. “What must I do?”

“Trap him instead of me.”

“And how am I supposed to do that?”

She giggled. “You men don’t know your own weaknesses, but to us women they are clear as a spring morning. Tell me, do you really think that Kartoc cares about your archaic worship of him? Oh, he certainly wants your adoration. And like a man as vain as he is, he gets jealous when his fragile ego is challenged. But your reverent worship, he doesn’t care about it. Despite his proclaimed holiness, he is just like any other man. Righteousness doesn’t guide his heart. His appetites include food, drink, and women, governing his stomach and his loins. Therefore we will give him what he wants.” She gave me a long hard stare. “We are going to give him a feast and I will bring in other women to attend, and you are going to help me with it.”

“Me? How am I supposed to convince the other priests to help me?” Temelia was asking too much. “I’m sure some wouldn’t want to be made into eunuchs, but some won’t care either since they have already taken a vow of chastity.”

“That has already been taken care of,” she assured me, beaming at her own superior intellect. “I have molded the hearts of the priests to follow you.”

“You can do that?”

“Of course I can. A woman’s touch is very powerful.”

“I thought it was because you were a goddess.”

“All women are goddesses,” she corrected me as if I were a simpleton. “It’s why we are able to influence men for good or evil. You don’t need a big masculine god to order you around, since we are the ones who pull your strings.”

“What must I do?” I sighed.

Temalia told me her plan. I was to direct the priests in fixing up a grand banquet for Kartoc. I was to give the directions, to foresee that everything was cooked to perfection. It was my job to direct the priests to retrieve the finest meats and wines from the cellar, and to have them pick the finest vegetables out from the garden. I wondered why a goddess couldn’t just use her magic powers to conjure up a scrumptious banquet instead of controlling the priests and letting me oversee them. “Because I want them to see the glory that is there’s if they serve me,” she said as though she were doing us all a favor. “And I have a soft spot for you, little man. Maybe I will make you my head priest, and you will introduce pleasure back into the order. My visions tell me that this is to be.” I didn’t want to be her head priest, but I didn’t dare say anything for fear of what someone as unpredictable as her could do if I refused. Still, this put me in a terrible situation. I was wondering when Kartoc would kill me.

Eventually, everything was set up, and Temalia made the priests take a vow that they would pretend that this feast was in honor of Kartoc. To feign seriousness, we all sang a loud song that Temalia taught us, imploring the warrior god to come down from his throne and eat with us. This was unusual]. I had grown up believing that the warrior god was stoic and quiet, and that was the form of reverence he wished for.

Nonetheless, our song worked. The earth shook, and the walls in front of us crumbled. I coughed because of the dust. When the dust cleared, Kartoc stood before us. Much to my relief, the god wasn’t as huge as he was when I first met him in the heavens. Yet, that didn’t make him any less imposing. Nor did it give me any peace of mind when he directed his gaze towards me, a sneer on his lips. If he was a divine father who loved his earthly children, I certainly didn’t feel it. Had he ever loved his children? It was a question that I would never know. And it was just he and I. Well, close to just him and me. I did have the priests by my side, but against a god that didn’t amount to anything. Two warriors also stood guard by Kartoc. I had no idea what a god would need with warriors. They certainly weren’t earthly warriors. Both stood on two feet, each of them were girthed in silver blue armor from shoulder to toe. But their heads were not those of man, but of animal. One was a lion, the other an eagle, and both possessed the love of battle in their countenances.

As for Temalia, she had left us, she was nowhere to be seen.

“Why do you call me down from the heavens?” Gyshtak roared.

Amongst the confusion of having a god we had so longed worshipped in our midst, I can’t remember everything the priests said to placate him. But I do remember that there was much praised heaped on him and the stroking of his ego.

When he was invited to sit and eat, he declined until his servants tasted the food first. The eagle and the lion bit a portion out of the seasoned meat, and immediately were transformed from humanoid warriors into common animals. On four feet, the lion leapt out of his suit of armor, while the eagle flew out, talons barred. Humbled, they still possessed that same fighting spirit in their souls. We all parted so as not to get in their way as they ran down the halls and out of the temple.

Kartoc was livid. “There is only one kind of sorcery that is capable of this. Temalia, show yourself, you sneaky minx!”

The goddess was in the room again, bedecked in a silver gown of crystal and diamonds, flowing like waters over her body. “Kartoc, perhaps you aren’t as big of an oaf as I thought. Still an oaf, but slightly less so.”

“What is this sorcery?” the god said, examining the priests before him. “How could you turn their hearts against me?”

“I only slightly turned their hearts against you,” she retorted. “Deep down a man is just a boy, yearning for a mother, for strong female guidance.”

“You, a mother?” Kartoc looked at her as though there were roaches crawling all over her. “What sort of mother could you be? You are a harlot! Teaching my children to walk in your unholy ways after the lusts of their hearts.”

“I don’t need you to lecture me,” her high voice was just as firm as his. “So what if I encourage the pleasures of the flesh. You encourage the slaughtering of brother against brother, father against son. This earth is a bloodbath for you to wade in.”

“Better toughening up my children to the harsh realities of life than beguiling their hearts to indulge in the appetites of the flesh. You turn the hearts of men to abandon their wives, to forsake friendship over a harlot. You have no right to lecture me over violence, when men naturally turn violent over women, and women turn violent when they are spurned. Your whole sex is based on jealousy.”

“Jealousy! You have the audacity to call me out? You couldn’t compete with a strong woman, so you imprisoned me.”

“I imprisoned you for your sweet, honeyed words that disguised an acid. You manipulate others to do your bidding. I am blunt and forthright. Women take after you, manipulative and leeching off men for riches. You use men, and so do most other females. And then when they give you all they have, and can’t give any more, you dispose of them, leaving them an empty shell. It’s what you did to your followers before I locked you away. They gave the gifts of the earth to you, but it was never enough. You kept robbing them.”

“So what if I took a little. You trained boys to grow up to be violent brutes. And you hated women so much, that you forsook them from serving you in your sanctuary.”

By now Kartoc’s voice was shaking the walls. “I did so because I knew that your kind couldn’t be trusted. Overly emotional, making rash decision, and being treasure hunters, you would degenerate my priests.”

“You’ve already degenerated them by making their ancestors into bloodthirsty warriors, quick to kill over a difference of opinion.” Temalia’s voice was just as firm and foundation shaking as her ex-husband’s.

For a brief moment, I was in a state of bliss thinking that the two quarrelsome gods had forgotten about me. “Erug,” they both called my name in unintentional unison. So much for thinking positively.

“Don’t you further poison him against me,” Kartoc warned Temalia.

“You’ve already turned him against yourself years ago,” said Temalia, her tongue a berating hammer. “You could have used your guiding hand to guide him to a new family after he was abandoned. Not here with a bunch of men who show very little emotion. We will talk to him separately.”

“Fine,” snorted Kartoc. “But no tricks. I will fortify him against you with my words of wisdom. I will talk to him first.”

“So like a man! Always has to be first! It doesn’t matter. Talk to him. You can’t chain his heart. I know he’ll make the right decision.”

Kartoc snapped his fingers and we were back in the heavens where I first met the god. However, he chose to keep human sized height rather than his imposing original form, something of which I was grateful. But I couldn’t afford to be at ease. Even a baby pit viper is venomous, sometimes even more so than the adult. I knew I still had lots to fear from this old god.

“My boy, I know you will make the right decision,” he said gently. “Trust not her wiles. Her goal for mankind is the pursuit of unbridled pleasure. Such a lifestyle is folly, leading man, as well as woman, into the path of destruction.” When I was silent, he barked to me sharply, “Why do you hesitate. Speak freely. I give you my permission.”

Afraid to talk, I was even more afraid to defy him by keeping silent. “You seem to care for me now. But last time you treated me like I was an insect, threatening me with punishment for my sin by having the priests kill one another.”

“Sometimes a father has to be harsh. Sometimes I have to kill some people. But it’s for the greater good, to protect society as a whole. I’m asking you now, serve me. Help me break the spell that she has cast over the other priests’ hearts. Turn their souls to me again. Reclaim your rightful place. You say I’m kind to you. Of course I am! You are my son, and I had a vision of you becoming the greatest priest of all, even to the point of scattering my enemies to the winds.”

“If I fail, will you kill me?” My tongue had suddenly loosened. “Or will you find some other way to punish me to make me wish I were dead? I feel like I have no free will in this matter.”

“I give you an oath,” said Kartoc, gripping me by the hand, “I will not harm you regardless of what you choose. But I certainly hope that your loins, or worse, your heart doesn’t fall for this vixen’s wiles. Furthermore, I will take you to my kingdom. You only saw me sitting on my throne in the clouds. There is more than that. There are mountains, rugged and strong like me, teeming with all manner of game giving the best meat. Come up there, and I will make you immortal, dissolving your body of flesh into one of steel. You will have the power to fight against evil, as I let you wield weapons that bring forth earthquakes, fissures, and lightening. This I will do when you serve your time on earth, when you fulfill your destiny that I have laid out for you.”

“And if I refuse?”

“It’s true that I said that I won’t hurt you,” Kartoc admitted. “But she will. Make no mistake. She will lead you to ruin in the end. Her visions never come to pass. If you choose to follow her or be neutral, I shall withdraw my protection from you and you shall be alone. I, your father, loves you. Your mother does not.”

“What must I do?” I was growing wary of being involved in part of a cruel game with no end in sight. My love for the god of war, if I ever had any, was wasted away.

“You will give Temalia a choice. Release the priests from her hold or you will slay them.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “What?”

“Your mother is vain,” he continued, oblivious to, or more than likely not caring about my discomfort. “We will play on her vanity. You will tell her that she can either see the priests be slain or she can free them. This will put her in a bind. She’s narcissistic, and won’t like the idea of you slaying her followers. But even if she releases them from her hold, she might kill them herself, not keen on the idea of losing them either. Such a selfish creature! So like a woman!”

“How does this help the situation?” I asked, perplexed as to what he thought he had to gain on.

“She will go through one of her tempers. I’m sure of it.” Excitement had overcome the god as he pounded one of his fists into one of his palms. “You will see her wail over such a cruel fate. That is when you will finish her. Never will she turn the hearts of men against me again.”

“But she’ll try to kill me!” I protested.

“No, she won’t! I will have you under my protection.”

“But the priests will try and kill me!”

“Quit your sniveling, boy. Do you love me, I, who gave you this home, or not?”

“Yes.” My lie was obvious, but I think he couldn’t see it because he was wrapped up in his own vanity.

“Then take this and serve me,” he handed me a sword wreathed in white fire. I reluctantly took it. The heat was intense. Snapping his fingers, I was back in the temple where the priests were.

“What’s this?” Temalia asked me. Her gentle tone couldn’t hide the anger festering underneath it.

Suffice to say, I know that she saw through my ruse, and I felt my tongue freeze in my mouth under her gaze. Logic dictates that I should have dropped the blade in my hand. But under fear, logic is overruled. My hand gripped the hilt even tighter.

She put a gentle hand on my shoulder, though I am hesitant to use the word gentle. There was something that felt manipulative about her touch. She whispered in my ear. “What did he tell you to do?”

“To give you the choice. Either I slaughter the priests you have in your power, or you release them.” The words tumbled out of my mouth.

“Hmmm, is that so?” she said quietly, her red lips forming a faint smile. “And I suppose he told you that you’d catch me throwing a tantrum, and that then you’d be able to pierce me through my poor, fragile heart. Is what I not say true?” I could only gulp, feeling like I was a mouse that was unfortunate enough to be caught between two rolling boulders that came from opposite directions.

The temple fell away from my sight and I was in a garden, vast and green, overgrown with fruit trees and twisted vines. The sky was a twilight, and against the backdrop was a silver palace standing tall, its many spires touching the sky like it was a crown. Temalia directed me towards a soft purple couch to sit on. She in turn sat on a pink one. The couches didn’t look out of place on the grassy, twilight landscape.

“He wanted you to kill me, didn’t he?” she said, sprawled on her couch, her tight dress spilling like water onto the earth. “Such a fool. So predictable.” When I said nothing, she said, “You know you don’t have to follow his orders. All of this could be yours. Join me. I have forseen it. This is your destiny.”

“And if I don’t?” I didn’t ask the question in defiance, but in exhaustion. “Will you punish the priests, take away their manhood? Or will you just kill me?”

“My dear, I won’t do anything of the sort. But I will reward you with riches untold. Any woman you want will be yours. I can even be yours.”

The ground shook and we were back in the temple. Kartoc was standing there, fuming. I could count my blessings, even though there was no god I could thank, that his anger was directed towards her and not me.

“What nonsense have you been filling the boy’s head with?” His voice reverberated with thunder and cracked with lightening. “If only I could kill you.”

If I thought that the goddess couldn’t raise her voice, I was wrong. She wailed back at him, in a high pitched screech like the howling wind of a hurricane accompanying a flood. “You dare to talk to me like this? I, who helped you create life, and who gave men the ability to create life by giving them a vastly superior partner! Harm a hair on my head, and I’ll punish all your men before I do. They will be unable to produce seed. The human race will slowly die off.”

“Confound you, woman,” roared Kartoc. “Release my servants.”

“Fine. I shall do so, and you will see that they will all still follow me. Not because I control them, but because they desire me as their goddess.”

She snapped her fingers and the priests came to their senses. For a moment, they looked bewildered, as if they had just woken up from a long dream.

“My servants, take your rightful place beside me,” said Kartoc. “Reclaim your honor.”

There was some hesitation among some as they spoke amongst each other. Never before had I seen such passionate discussion among the priests, including Dyorn. Finally, some, including Dyorn, made their way to Kartoc, and others to Temalia. Kartoc fumed. Temalia fumed, too.

“Who do you serve?” they both asked me in unison.

“Serve your father,” Kartoc spoke to me as a father would to his son. “I will lead you in honor and sobriety. You have been predestined to.”

“If by honor and being sober you mean being drunk off the blood of innocents whom you delight in slaughtering,” Temalia looked at him in disgust. Turning her soft gaze to me, she said, “Follow me and I will teach you all about love. That is truly your destiny, and you will be heralded as a bringer of love by all.”

“Don’t you mean perversion?” scoffed Kartoc. “And you call yourself a mother?”

I don’t know what it was that gave me strength. Maybe I was tired of being ordered around. Maybe I feared that no matter what I chose, one of them would punish or kill me anyway. Maybe I was feeling defiant. Maybe a little bit of all three. Looking back, it doesn’t matter. The point is, I ran. I ran out of the temple and I didn’t look back. The two of them called my name, commanding me to return, but I ignored them, and, for some reasons that may be their own, they didn’t follow. Either way, I ran through the canyon-lands and into the vast desert.

Out in that hostile wilderness, I was on my own. The days were hot, the nights were cold. I didn’t have anyone to pray to. I had to find water on my own. I’m not sure how I did so, but I remembered reading in the scrolls back in the library that water could be found if dug for, or in stone basins. The fact that I was occasionally able to find it was dumb luck. I would like to say that it was a miracle, but I had no gods to help me. I counted myself even luckier when I came across a crevice in a rock, in which out trickled running water. I decided that I would make my home there, learning how to hunt for food. How, I didn’t know. But I knew I’d find a way. Exhausted, I fell immediately asleep after I slaked my thirst, under the shade of looming cliffs, the hot sun warming their tops. I woke at night, a chill over me. I wrapped my cloak tighter against me and looked up at the pale moon.

Come to me, a voice said. It was a different voice. Masculine in nature, but not as harsh as Kartoc’s. I wasn’t sure where the voice was coming from, but I had the impression that the moon would lead the way.

A pastel ray of soft light washed the cliff side to the right of me. There was a rumbling as stone steps protruded out from the cliff-side. Carefully I walked up them until I came to the top, where four monoliths formed a square. Enclosing the square was that same soft, pale light. Inside was some creature, a hybrid of different animals.

“I knew you’d come,” the creature spoke out of the snout of a wolf that had the horns and ears of a bull. He flapped his two wings eagerly, one of a brightly colored parrot, the other of a white swan. His torso was that of a bear. His tail that of a hissing viper. His legs looked like horse legs, but ended in the talons of an eagle. He beckoned me over with his arms and hands that were that of an ape.

“What kind of magic is this?” I asked. “Is this your true form?”

“Of course not,” his voice was smooth, and surprisingly calming for a creature of his size. “I have many forms. I can take many forms.” He morphed his body again, his head turning into that of a lion, his wings into that of a bat, his torso, arms, and legs into a lizard, and his tail into tail feathers of a hawk. “For I am the forgotten god, imprisoned by Kartoc and Temalia.”

“What god are you?”

“Is it not obvious? I am the god of the animals, but I am also a trickster. It was I who manipulated events to lead you here, so that you might free me. Those other two, they think they are in control, but I controlled them.”

“What do you want of me?” I asked, wishing to avoid being ordered about again.

“Only to be freed.”

If I had been reluctant before, I was rebellious now. “Not going to happen. I have been used too much. Besides, you already said that you were a trickster.”

I expected anger, so I found it unsettling when the god gave me a curious look and said, “So be it.”

I foolishly thought that I had settled the matter. But one cannot get involved with gods and expect not to be used. The days passed and my hunger pangs increased. I had been struggling to create a spear over a discarded staff I had found in the desert, by tying a sharp flint to it with a string from my cloak. I went through a lot of frustration making the spear, but success did come to me. However, whenever I tried to hunt lizards and birds, they were too fast for me.

One day I found a large, fat white bird. Plump and juicy, I knew that its meat would sustain me. It wasn’t faster either. When I ran up to it, it just limped along. I jabbed my makeshift spear into it. It released its breath of life with a pitiful squak. Out of the bird popped a black cat.

“Thank you for freeing me,” the cat said in that smooth voice. “You wanted to know my true form. I don’t have one, but I much prefer this one.”

“How did you get out?” I asked.

The god chuckled, a scratchy cat laugh. “Did I not tell you that I am a trickster? Thousands of years ago, before I was imprisoned, they made sure to seal my portals, so that I could not escape from my confinement. They sealed just about everywhere, and I was weak, almost drained completely of powers. However, I used my last remaining bit of strength to create this dead bird which housed a portal from my prison to the outside world. I could only do it once, and the only way I could be freed was with being cut open. However, as a god I am immortal, and have no problem waiting. I knew that I could get you to come and cut this second portal open.”

Once again I had been used, even though I thought I had complete control of the situation. I wondered how he was going to punish me.

“Oh, don’t be so dour,” he said, leaping on a rock and washing his paw with his tongue. “I am Tigin, the god of the animals. We are far more grateful than people, even over little things. I may be a prankster but I’m fear. I’m not going to harm a hair on your head, or anywhere else for that matter. I have other matters to attend to. Those two bungling oafs are so enamored by priests that they forget that there are better servants. The shepherds, vets, ranchers, and animal trainers will be my army, and they shall serve me nicely. Would you like to serve me?”

“I just want to be away from this nonsense,” I said. “Please,” my last word was a desperate plea.

“So be it,” said Tigin. “My power is already rejuvenating. I am going to open a portal for you. It will lead you to an oases two-hundred miles from here. Occasionally caravans come through, but you’ll be in solitude for the most part.”

 

I now close my writing this account of the events since then. In truth, there isn’t much to tell. On first coming to the oasis, it was too good to be true. In some ways, it still is. I made myself a hut here. There are plenty of fruit trees to sustain me, and I have long ago learned how to hunt the birds, lizards, and snakes that make the oasis there home. I am now an old man, but I am as content as I can be. I have no desire to go back to the outside world. Though, twice in my life I have had a traveling caravan pass by. They have never bore good news. I have learned that away from this isolation the world is in a state of war over which god to follow. Kartoc, Temalia, and Tigin are all at war with each other. Whole cities have been wiped out. And the punishments the gods mete on their enemies are harsh, bereft of any sort of justice. To compact this problem, other gods have since been freed, gaining their own followers, forming their own armies. There are about ten different gods with their own worshippers, each of them waging war against another, using humanity as their pawns to do so. It appears that the ten gods are part of a much larger feuding family.

I realize the only reason I am safe is because in the end I am insignificant to them. I have chosen no allegiance, and hence I live my days here alone. If I was forced to choose an allegiance, I would go for Tigin, for it was the god of animals, a trickster though he may be, who has rewarded me for my service and left me alone. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel a sense of guilt, like I was catalyst that destroyed peace on earth. Unwitting, yes, but does that make me any less guilty? Sometimes, especially at night, I can hear the voice of spilled blood come up from the earth, condemning me for my transgression.

Sometimes I toy with the idea of leaving my sanctuary, going out into the open world and seeing the devastation. But I don’t. I can’t help but wonder if it’s because I’m a coward who doesn’t want to see what my decisions wrought. Another part of me feels like I shouldn’t have to be held accountable for it, that I was being used by malevolent forces.

Whether it is my fault or not, I acknowledge that I changed the fate of the world. Because of me, people have to choose which of the many gods they are going to give their allegiances to. Friends and families are divided. War and brutality is the order of the day. And as I look over the clear waters of the oasis and rest under the shade of the palms, I try to tell myself that it’s not my problem. It’s not my problem. No, it most certainly isn’t my problem. I will live the rest of my life here. I don’t think I have too many years left and I am fine with that. Death can always offer another escape.

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