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Introduction by James Frenkel
The story that follows is the first work of fiction set in the Vault of Heaven universe by a new epic fantasy writer named Peter Orullian. Peter has had a few short stories published, but “The Sacrifice of the First Sheason” introduces a world of long, tragic history in which there are no easy answers, and many mysteries that will be revealed, each in its own time, many of them in The Vault of Heaven, a series of novels which Tor will begin publishing with The Unremembered, this coming April.
Following “Sacrifice of the First Sheason,” Tor.com will publish two more stories set in this universe, and another nine tales will appear on the author’s website, www.orullian.com. Each of these stories is independent of the novels and of the other stories, though they share the same background.
This first tale takes place long before the action of The Unremembered. Other stories to come will deal with historical events that helped to shape later events in the world’s development that are keys to one or another element of the narrative of The Unremembered or a subsequent novel in the series. But each online story stands completely on its own.
At Tor, we have published quite a number of epic fantasy authors, and I personally have edited a lot of different series, from the multi-layered epics of Kate Elliott’s Crossroads books to the early heroic tales of Terry Goodkind; from David B. Coe’s Forelands and Southlands sagas to the Long Price Quartet of Daniel Abraham…and many others equally memorable. At SF conventions, readers will often ask me which is the epic fantasy that I love the most, but that’s a question I have never been able to answer. It’s like asking a parent which is his favorite child. It’s an impossible question.
They’re all different, of course, each with its own pleasures and rewards. The other question readers ask is what attracts me to the work or one author or another. And that’s not quite as hard to answer: I like what I like. Editors are readers first, and what we like as readers is…well, like any reader, we know when we see something we really like.
When I first read Peter Orullian’s early draft of The Unremembered, I was attracted by the characters, and then by mysteries in the story that made me feel I absolutely had to find out what was going on. Then, as I read more, I realized that I was hooked on his world, which has a rich history and culture, as well as some surprises I couldn’t have anticipated.
I also was fascinated by the unique connection of music to the magic of the world, something that readers will discover in The Unremembered. And there is a passion running through his narrative that is the hallmark of great storytelling. Without the excitement of great storytelling, there is no great epic fantasy.
So here’s the very first story set in Peter Orullian’s world, a tale from early in that world’s history. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Deep in the Divide Mountains, wind and thunder shook conifers that towered a hundred strides tall. Rain fell hard, battering the village of Estem Salo and leaving it awash in the sound of rushing waters. Lightning struck every few moments, flashing the world beyond Palamon Dal Solaas’ window in stark, momentary relief before darkness reclaimed the heights around his home. Beside him, Solera slept soundly, nestled into the crook of his arm. But he could not sleep, finding the tempest in the heavens too disquieting. So, when Palamon first heard the pounding at his door over the tumult of the storm, he had a sense of foreboding about the late night caller. Who would brave these storms at this hour?
The heavy beating at his door came again, faster this time, more insistent. Quickly but carefully he freed his arm from beneath his slumbering companion and hurried to the door. He could imagine only a member of the council coming to him at this hour. He’d seen them in private chambers often lately; perhaps this visit was related to these new secrets. His visitor would likely be Dossolum, the Voice of the Council, who’d been struggling to maintain balance as the Founders labored to complete their formation of this world.
When Palamon pulled open his door, he looked instead into the dripping, strained face of his fellow Sheason, Manoa.
“Palamon, please, will you come with me? There’s trouble and I need help.” Manoa ran a hand over his face in a futile attempt to wipe off the rain, which struck his cheeks and forehead in torrents.
Palamon did not hesitate. As he pulled on a heavy greatcloak and slipped into high boots set beside his door, he asked, “What is the problem?”
“There’s a disturbance of some kind in the town of Melas Tal. They’ve sent for me as intercessor.” Manoa stood back and pointed an arm weighted by his own sodden cloak toward a figure in shadow sitting astride a horse. “This man will show us the way.”
“You usually don’t ask for help, my friend,” Palamon said. “What is this disturbance?”
Just then Solera came into the room, bearing a hand lamp that dimly lit the walls around them. “What is it, Palamon?” she asked.
Manoa explained. “This man’s wife,” he said, still indicating the shadowed man waiting several paces back in the night, “there are complications with the birth of her child. I would tend to her, but there is trouble elsewhere in Melas Tal. Palamon. Please, we must go.”
The other Sheason looked back at his companion. “I will be back as quickly as I can.”
Solera nodded, and came close to give him a brief kiss. She then shut the door behind him as he ran to his mount, which Manoa already had waiting for him. The other man came into dim view as Palamon climbed into his saddle. His eyes looked haunted, his face drawn with sleeplessness and worry. His great beard did not move when he offered a “thank you” Palamon could barely hear over the sound of the downpour.
The bearded man led them into the night. Palamon focused on the dark trail, working to keep pace with the man, whom Manoa called Efram. They slowed several times, but only to rest the horses before pushing hard again through the night and the storm. Three hours they rode before coming upon the town. Manoa bade them farewell, then veered sharply to the north on his own errand.
Palamon continued to follow Efram, and shortly they were pulling up beside a low cottage that seemed to hunker close to the earth in the darkness. They dismounted fast, and the man got the door open as Palamon rushed inside.
What he saw nearly stopped his heart.
In a simple home, adorned with hand-hewn chairs and uneven pots and thick shawls knitted of dull brown yarn, a young girl, maybe six years old, sat at the foot of her mother’s bed holding an infant that did not cry or stir. Palamon kept moving, his own boots loud in his ears as he neared the child. Closer, he could see a bluish hue to the babe’s skin. At that moment, Efram swept past him and landed hard on his knees in front of his daughter, who began to weep as her father wrapped both her and her dead baby brother in a grief-stricken embrace.
“I didn’t know what to do,” the little girl said through her sobs. “I tried and tried, but he stopped breathing. Mama is too sick. There was no one else to help . . .”
Efram brushed tears from his daughter’s cheeks and gently took the babe from her arms. He looked down at the child’s face with a profound sadness Palamon would never forget. Then the man tenderly pulled the blanket swaddling the babe around to cover its face, and gently laid it in a nearby crib fashioned of whittled pine boughs sitting at the foot of the bed.
After a moment there, the man knelt at his wife’s side and stroked her forehead to rouse her. “Volleia,” he whispered. “Volleia, I’ve brought help.”
The woman’s eyes fluttered open. “My child.”
Efram lied. “The baby is fine, dear one, no need to bother with that. But you, how are you?”
Volleia never replied, her eyes closing again. Efram pulled back the covers and showed Palamon.
“She’s lost a lot of blood, Sheason. Too much. And she still bleeds.” The man turned around, still on his knees, and took Palamon’s hand in his own rough-skinned palms. “I beg you, don’t let her die.”
Efram’s voice remained steady, but came so softly that Palamon almost could not hear it. “I came too late to save my son; don’t let me lose my dear one, too.”
Palamon then sensed another presence and turned to see the young girl likewise kneeling before him. She reached up with her small hand and put it over her father’s.
As Sheason, he had studied healing arts, and might be able to help, but there was no guarantee. And their supplication made him uncomfortable besides. He lifted their hands, urging them to their feet, and away from the bed.
He sat at the woman’s side and leaned close, and gently placed a hand on her chest. She stirred, and opened her eyes. She looked up at him, staring first at the Sheason pendant hanging around his neck, then up into his face.
After a moment, silent tears began to fall from the corners of her eyes. “My child is dead. I can see it in your face,” Volleia whispered. She swallowed hard. “Can you not save my son?” she asked.
Palamon could hear his own breath, hear the creak of the bed and floorboards and the burn of the lamp. He heard the howl of the storm beyond the cottage walls, and thought he could hear the strained cry of a newborn in the wind that shrilled around the eaves. In that moment, he felt a kind of grief he had not ever felt.
He looked back at the pleading mother and said as tenderly as he could, “My good woman, it is not given to me to breathe life back into a form that has gone to its earth. But I ask you not to despair. These loved ones behind me need you, and it will take all our combined strength to make you well.”
But she did not hear most of his words. Even now she slipped toward death. Perhaps the realization that her babe could not be saved was too much to bear, and so she yielded to death’s embrace. Or maybe she was fighting to stay alive. Regardless, Palamon knew he faced a mighty challenge. Her life energy was fading fast, and despite all he could do, she might yet pass this life and leave her family behind.
Palamon lowered his head and began to utter words in the conceiver tongue. He drew out healing herbs and pried open her mouth, crumbling them onto her tongue. He had cold water brought, and wiped the woman down to reduce her fever, likewise cleansing her body of the blood and applying a salve to the damage in her womanhood to stop further bleeding. He hadn’t the power to render the Will to heal her, but his quiet words seemed to impart the stillness of peace as best he could to her battered mother’s soul.
For hours he worked, constantly cooling her skin with a wet rag, administering further doses of herb, speaking words of comfort and hope though she remained unconscious. Near on to morning, his strength flagged, having offered so much of himself that he began to swoon. He braced himself with one arm and kept on. At last, his own eyes closed and he felt himself falling from exhaustion.
When Manoa roused him he did not know how long he’d been sleeping.
On his lips, Palamon tasted the mint of the Cloudwood sprig the Sheason harvested and used for renewal. No doubt his friend had placed it on Palamon’s tongue while he slept.
“She is well?” Palamon asked, feeling some certainty about it, and sat up.
In reply, Manoa stood back, allowing Efram to come forward. Palamon saw grief in the man’s eyes, but strangely he thought he saw gratitude, too. The man said nothing, only looking at Palamon, his eyes never once showing tears. Rather, again his rough hands took hold of Palamon’s own, and he squeezed with a might that suggested great strength and the acknowledgment of a debt.
The young girl stepped up beside her father and offered a much-loved doll as if in payment—a gesture Palamon could tell required great sacrifice on her part. He smiled weakly, and handed the toy back to the child. “Keep her safe for me,” he said. The girl hugged the doll close to her cheek.
Manoa then assisted Palamon to his feet. It was then that he saw the woman lying under a sheet on the bed, her face covered over.
She was dead.
“I’m sorry,” Palamon offered. “I tried . . .”
Then Manoa helped him out of the cottage and onto his mount. Together, he and the intercessor for the people of this new world rode away as slowly and lazily as the smoke that streamed from Efram’s fieldstone chimney.
The sun broke over the mountains to the east, the storm clouds gone from the skies. Palamon thought to ask his Sheason friend what disturbance he’d seen to while Palamon had tried to save a family. But he forgot his question beneath the searing mental image of the young girl holding the dead child, the woman he’d tried to save but could not, and the receding visage of Efram, who watched them from his doorstep until the road wound out of sight of the man’s humble home.
Several days later, Palamon stood at the foot of the Tabernacle steps and frowned. Blood from the body on the marble steps above had pooled in the soft loam near his feet. The figure had been brutalized to a point where he could tell only that it had once been a man. But one thing was clear: this was no accident
The savagery of the attack, all too evident, sickened him. He looked up, as he always did when he needed to gather himself. Against the bright blue heavens, the great pillars of the Tabernacle of the Sky rose like sentinels guarding the sacred place that had witnessed the founding of the world. It stood in majesty, unassailable, beautiful, almost as if its heights held up the sky itself. And here, high in the mountains of the Divide, the sky seemed already a close thing.
Palamon took a deep, bracing breath of cool early morning air. Before this, there had not been bloodshed. Not in this world. There’d been death of the natural kind, mishap or disease or the struggle of childbirth—he knew those only too well. But this kind of death was not supposed to come until later, in due course, when intentional travail beset the races the Founders, who strode the halls of the Tabernacle, had fashioned to populate the land.
It should not have begun so soon.
Not . . . deliberately.
Palamon, first servant among the Sheason whom the Great Ones had created first to aid them, steeled himself to look back down at the broken body. Seeing it again, he thought he could now smell the iron in the drying blood. And though perhaps only in his mind, he thought the saw an expression of confusion and fear still resting in the man’s purpled cheeks. Whoever this had been had not expected such violence —nor would he have had cause to. Not yet.
The position of the body told another story.
This still-unnamed world—more vast than most the Fathers had created for eons—was in its infancy. Its wide geography stood yet mostly vacant of inhabitants. The exodus into the wildernesses that existed far from the Tabernacle had only just begun. Still, none of those created by the Fathers ever came here. In the land below the mountains of the Tabernacle they lived and tilled and settled. The Tabernacle itself would have been unknown to them, or if somehow known, unthinkable to approach.
Whatever had slain this man had unique knowledge of this place and meant to leave the crushed heap of flesh as a message. In its desecration of the Tabernacle … it was a warning; its presence a dire harbinger.
But from whom? Who would threaten the Council of the Gods by raining down blood on the steps to this sacred place? In this high season of creation, even those beings made deliberately to harrow the lives of men hadn’t yet such rancor or temerity. Or has something changed?
Surveying the wreckage of flesh and the red runnels of blood now stiff from hours of exposure to chill air, Palamon felt a shiver deep in his soul. Something in the founding of this world had gone wrong. He looked back up past the heights of the Tabernacle toward the open, wind-swept sky, but could not reclaim his sense of peace. Some taint had gotten into the very fabric of things. He could feel it.
Perhaps it was because he worked so closely with Dossolum, the Voice of the Council, that he sensed such things. The long periods he’d spent together with Dossolum in consultation, recording what had been done, what lay ahead, retrieving archived information carried forward from other worlds … all of it endowed Palamon with an understanding none of the other Sheason possessed. Dossolum trusted him more than the other Founders did their attendants, helping Palamon to gain—over years of counsel and attentive service—an acute intuition.
As he slowly climbed toward the battered body, something came into terrible focus. He shook his head as he knelt beside the lifeless form and gingerly pulled it over onto its back. Grief and fear struck him when he saw that the dead man was Manoa. Not a man created by the Fathers to live in this world, but a Sheason, like Palamon himself . . .
In this fledgling place, Manoa had held a special stewardship: to guide and teach. He’d worn the mantle of intercessor with the Great Ones on behalf of men, for those times when the work at the Founders’ hands might prove imbalanced.
If laying a torn and bloodied body on the steps of the Tabernacle had been a message, this was a challenge. Or worse. It showed utter disregard for the Tabernacle and those who walked its vaulted halls. Could there have been something more ancient, something more malevolent residing in the very matter they’d used to create this youngest of worlds?
Staring into one of Manoa’s empty eye-sockets, Palamon thought it could be nothing as remarkable as that. Rather, as he recalled the gentleness of this servant, how the man had delighted in the companionship of others; how he had struggled—but persisted—with his own efforts at song, and laughed to make others feel comfortable when argument over the work grew heated, Palamon’s suspicions grew. He became convinced that whatever—whoever—was to blame had been specifically aware of the significance of this death, this Sheason.
And so, sitting at the foot of creation, next to the tortured body of a gentle man, he grieved. But in his heart he felt also the stirrings of wrath—an anger that had as yet no target.
Some time later, stirred from grief and anger by the shrill cry of a mountain raptor, Palamon stood and gently picked up his dead friend’s body and carried it into a stand of towering hemlocks. Just before easing the body into its final earth he shifted the body so that he could gently lay it down. As he put his hand under Manoa’s neck to guide him into his grace, his hand caught on something hard and sharp, drawing blood. He pulled from Manoa’s garment a serrated tooth half the length of his finger, studied it a moment, and dropped it into his pocket. He then finished digging the grave and burying his friend within sight of the Tabernacle—Manoa would have liked that. Then he returned and washed away the blood from the steps before others came to the Tabernacle to resume their labors of creation.
Palamon rode hard to Estem Salo, some ten leagues from the Tabernacle. The small town sat in a high valley of the Divide surrounded by forests of white pine and aspen. He kicked his horse often, riding directly to the archives where the Sheason did most of their work. Even before his mount had stopped, he leapt to the ground and rushed through the door into the warm light of oil lamps and the scent of burning candles. Usually these things calmed him and set the tenor of his studies. Today, his heart raced with urgency to find one person and one piece of information.
On the main floor he dashed around study tables and shelves of books and working Sheason, angling toward the left wall, and Solera.
Let her be here.
His wife would ordinarily be recording those things spoken at the Tabernacle the evening before. These days she was responsible for documenting the many species and the uniqueness of each. She would record the gifts inherent in the formation of life, and those instilled by the framers. It was a delicate and difficult task, since the strengths and weaknesses of each species had to be balanced with those of all the others. The Fathers had taken this all into account, but the nuances of their creations were not easy to articulate. And increasingly, those who walked the Sky relied on Solera to inform their labors in advance. Her gift in this regard was matchless.
But the burden of it—writing and informing the harmony they all sought for the people now being set upon the land—often took her out of the archive to rest her mind. Most often, she went to their aspen grove, where the slightest stirring of the wind brought the sound of rippling leaves that she described as laughter.
He hoped she had not gone there today. As he slammed into the study where she worked he realized that for the first time he was feeling mortal dread.
But immediately upon entering he saw her. She held a stylus in one hand. And when she looked up, an expression of surprise turned fast to irritation. As she started to scold him for being so careless and interrupting her, he drew her up from her seat and pulled her close.
He felt her finally return his embrace. “What is wrong?” she asked.
Palamon hugged her tighter still. The thoughts that had run through his mind . . . he couldn’t imagine life without her. She was his greatest happiness: sharing their evenings, making love, exploring topics that despite their work with the Founders continued to elude him and Solera both.
She drew back and repeated, “What is wrong?”
Briefly, Palamon considered telling her all he knew. And more than that, all he feared. The death of Manoa, the placement of the body, the bit of sharp bone in his pocket, and a few rumors he now recalled about one member of the council he’d not allowed himself to think too much upon . . . all of it led his mind to conclusions he hoped yet might prove false.
“Nothing,” he finally said. “Just some foolishness. I’m sorry. Go back to your work.”
He tried to leave, but she grabbed his hand with firm insistence. “Not good enough. If you want to tell me that you’re in a rush, and that you’ll explain later, I can accept that. And only if there’s nothing I can do to help. But don’t play false with your need and emotions. Or mine.”
Still feeling the urgency of his second reason for hurrying to the Archive, he nevertheless smiled. “I love that you keep me honest. But it isn’t something I would speak of here.” Palamon looked over his shoulder. “I don’t want to worry anyone until I have answers.”
“And you don’t need my help,” she said, her brows rising to suggest her offer to assist.
“Not yet.” Palamon squeezed her fingers in reassurance. He then quickly took his leave, pulling the door shut again, much harder than he’d intended. But he was already rushing to the stairs. He paid no mind to either greetings or looks of concern and surprise as he sped past other Sheason engaged in their work.
Up three flights of stairs he raced, glancing at many who sat at tables and carefully recordedin books and ledgers. He dashed past others who stood near smoothly plastered walls. Upon these walls were philosophies and precise drawings pertaining to those words, and all setting forth the guiding principles spoken by the Framers in the Tabernacle of the Sky.
A few called after him, inquiring, and one—Ilana—scolding. He ignored them all. Then he reached the fourth floor and wound his way recklessly between reading and study tables to a rear room with a closed door. He pulled up short, breathing hard. He clenched his teeth, firmly pressed on the latch, and threw open the door.
He desperately wanted a confrontation, but there would be none. The room lay empty. Still, what he needed to find was here. It must be! Palamon rushed to low shelves and long, wide drawers, rifling through sheaves of parchment and strange, dark papyrus written on with a silver ink.
He found nothing, and so forced himself to stop and think of his next course of action. The Sheason who served Maldaea, the member of the council set apart to refine mankind by challenging it with adversity, would have a filing system. Palamon had never been in this room to study or record, and knew he wasn’t supposed to be here even now. But he had to find out what was really going on. It stood to reason that Maldaea’s Sheason would keep organized records.
Palamon took the bit of bone from his pocket and looked at it more closely. He noticed now that blood—it had to be Manoa’s blood—had dried in the serrated grooves. A fresh surge of loss and anger swept through him, lending him a savage calm. He went back to the shelves and focused his search. A few minutes later, what he found left him feeling the kind of despair he’d thought he might never feel.
The Sheason who served Maldaea had distilled their labors into elegant classifications and formulas that could easily and incrementally be added to the work Palamon and his brothers and sisters had been doing to aid the council. In the simple life of a flower or blossoming bush or high-growth tree, in the quality of sunlight, hue of water, and richness of the soil, in the forms of animal life, these servants had in most cases made only the subtlest change to poison or sully the purpose of that which the Founders had set forth on the land. It was genius. It was an abomination.
With only a fraction of the effort, they’d produced a set of formation principles that would undo so much of what had been done since the dawn of this world’s creation.
And then, they had begun their real work.
Palamon moved fast, consuming what he could of the plans prepared by Maldaea and those who served him. His throat tightened as he read; the room seemed to grow hot.
He could feel his own mind pricked with a canker at the simple introduction of these thoughts and semantics.He’d seen none of these things in the world beyond the archive, and yet here it was, written in the dark pages of this quiet study.
He looked up, needing a break. Learning of these malefic things had strained him to the point of panting. His chest felt constricted. His hands were quivering as he went to the single window and pushed it open to gasp some air. Slowly, he regained the rhythms of his own heart and breathing, and hunkered down before a last bookcase. He ran his fingers over the spines, the intuition he had honed in so many years as Dossolum’s right arm warning him vaguely about what he would find.
Then his fingers stopped, and he drew forth a volume with one hand, squeezing the bony tooth with his other, feeling neither its bite nor the blood that trickled through his clenched fist.
He thumbed open the tome, reading its title scrawled in long pen-strokes: Y’Tilat Mor Sonctal Fanumen. Palamon dropped the book, and his hands again began to shake. He dared not think or utter the meaning of these words, written in the language of dominion and conception used by the First Ones themselves to call forth the world.
Here, sitting on a simple corner bookshelf in Esteem Salo, this book spoke of that which went beyond.
But Palamon remembered his friend Manoa, who’d been cast upon the marble steps of the Tabernacle of the Sky, and steadied his nerves once more. He began to turn back the pages, learning things that only the gods themselves should know and looking at the renderings of an expert hand. These illustrations showed creatures that people in their darkest nightmares could not have seen.
Again, Palamon despaired. But he did not stop.
He read onward, taking in the images drawn on the pages and the words that accompanied them, powerful verse crafted in a tongue that Palamon himself had never been allowed to fully know, even as close as he was to Dossolum.
Then he paused. His hand no longer trembled as he stared at the page and the image of a creation—no, a demon that defied description, except for its open, snarling maw that exposed rows and rows … of serrated teeth.
In his mind, Palamon suddenly played grisly scenarios of the death of his friend, who had had no notion of hatred.
And Palamon realized, as he saw it in his mind, that so much of what he’d seen this day might only be prelude to what may come. Bloodshed was inevitable (and even necessary), but only after the High Season, after creation was complete; until then the Founders’ will and benevolence (at least from what Palamon had read of other worlds) held sway in the hearts of men. Here, the land had been formed, the light of the heavens by day and night prepared, the vegetation and animals placed, man most recently . . . but this kind of treachery should not yet have been unleashed into this world.
What he had seen in the book had flowed from a diseased mind, and Palamon had to let Dossolum know. The very intention of the council, all their work, was at risk. Still reading, he stood.
“You’re not allowed in here,” a voice said.
Startled, Palamon whirled. Jo’ha’nel, Maldaea’s primary Sheason, towered in the doorway. His wide shoulders supported a thin, almost emaciated torso, but he gave the feeling of coiled power. He was attired all in black, tight-fitting clothes. His breeches were lashed to his legs with dark leather strips that wound up from his boots to his knees. Dark, silken hair fell down around his pale face.
“Manoa has been killed,” Palamon said. “I fear something wrought by Maldaea’s hand is the cause.”
“Be careful of your accusations, brother.” Jo’ha’nel smiled.
Palamon found renewed calm at the thought of the work taking place in the outer rooms. They were not alone. He stared back. “Deny it.”
The other laughed. “I am not yours to question, Palamon. Founders are not supposed to esteem one Sheason over another, and regardless, Dossolum’s fondness for you doesn’t worry me.”
“I do not ask for him,” Palamon said. “I ask for the fallen.”
Jo’ha’nel did not reply, but instead turned in the doorway and cast his gaze back into the archive where Sheason worked diligently at their many tasks. “Look at them,” he said. “Enamored of their own books and philosophies. You know, of course, that Dossolum has even asked them now to fashion a system of beliefs, morality … religion for your weaker races.”
“Why do you say yours, Jo’ha’nel? The work belongs to all of us. We are not at odds, you and I. I help in bringing life to this place. Your part is to assist in that which will provide challenge and trial to the people of this world, so that they might find within themselves their own greatness.”
“You are naive,” the other said, and laughed.
“Then you do not deny that it is your craft that gave rise to this.” He thrust the open book toward Jo’ha’nel like an indictment, showing him the page where the creature was drawn.
The other would not be baited. “Let us follow your reason, shall we? If the role of Maldaea and we who serve him is to create that which will burden and test those that flow from your merciful bowels, then this,” he pointed at the book, “represents nothing more than our desire for mankind to achieve his utmost.” Again he flashed the dark smile.
“You exaggerate your role, Jo’ha’nel. This world is in a delicate balance just now. We are at only the beginning of imparting to the people the values that will lead them to the ethics of the Charter.”
Maldaea’s primary Sheason frowned at the mention of this last. He muttered to himself, “Charter.” Then he turned in the doorway, squaring his wide shoulders and willowy frame toward Palamon. “The Charter is a fool’s doctrine. Its adherents will fall when greed and gluttony and pride fill the hearts of men.”
“Your mind is twisted,” Palamon countered. “These are the very things the Charter is written to safeguard against. Without it, this world—any world—would crumble beneath the weight of its inhabitants’ baser instincts.”
“And why base, Palamon? Because Dossolum says it is so?” Jo’ha’nel glared at him.
As Palamon returned the stare, he realized something. “You knew. You knew Manoa was going to be killed and you did nothing.” And on the heels of this knowledge came something more. “And Manoa is not the only one, is he?”
The other’s lips pulled back into an unsmiling grin that revealed carious teeth—Jo’ha’nel was changing . . .
“You will not succeed,” Palamon said softly but with defiance. “I won’t allow it.”
“You won’t allow it.” At that, Jo’ha’nel threw his head back and laughed. The hoarse sound of it was like the tearing of parchment. “You are a scholar, a historian, and maybe—at the best of times—a sage. But you lack any power to stem this tide, Palamon. Not even the one you serve can turn it back.”
At that instant, Jo’ha’nel raised an upturned palm and pulled his fingers back in a summoning gesture. The book Palamon held was ripped from his hands and flew into the clutches of Maldaea’s Sheason.
Dear Sky, he’s been given the power to render the Will!
Feeling helpless and exposed, Palamon yet held his ground, and looked back intently. “Don’t do this, Jo’ha’nel. You know why we came here. Don’t let this new gospel confuse you.” He pointed at the book the other now held tight to his chest. “Think on what it has done. This fiend has taken life. He’s ended all that Manoa was or could ever be. It puts the essence of things, matter and spirit—Forda I’Forza—out of balance.”
“No!” the other cried. “There you are wrong. Balance remains. The difference is only who, on this world, will define that balance . . . and how. We are simply rewriting what your scribblers so arrogantly and ignorantly pen at the behest of the council.” Jo’ha’nel pointed behind him at the archive study tables.
Palamon shook his head. This was madness. He looked it in the face. Jo’ha’nel, once his brother, now glared at him with malefic eyes. This servant’s countenance had changed in a way that left Palamon feeling cold for both the loss of a friend and the baneful intention he could see there.
“You are wise, Palamon. You need to consider on which side you will stand when the time comes.”
Then Jo’ha’nel raised a hand and quietly spoke a few words; a faint light pulsed across all the drawers and shelves of the dark study. He’s sealing the books.
With that Jo’ha’nel tucked under his arm the book he still held and slowly walked to the stairs without looking back.
Palamon surveyed the room, wondering what other dark arts were hidden in the writings around him. He could now feel the taint of this corner study, and hastened to leave. Once he got out of Jo’ha’nel’s room, his breathing eased and his mind cleared. With that, a single question occurred to him, and he rushed after the dark Sheason—once his friend—intent on having the answer. All the way to the door on the main level he ran, then into the street. But Jo’ha’nel had disappeared.
And like salt poured into a wound, even as he stood there panting, peering down the street, rumors began to arrive, riders, messenger birds, all bearing the same news: the blood of innocents was drenching the land. And often the deaths reported were not quick, but savage and punishing.
A few days later Dossolum arrived in the Sheason village and gave Palamon a grave look; without a word they turned east, each knowing the other’s mind. They trod the path as they did once every cycle of the Lesser Light. From Estem Salo, they walked in silence all the way to the edge of a great promontory.
Now, Palamon stood at the precipice. Beside him, still unspeaking, was Dossolum. Through the hazy light of early evening, they looked far away to the south and east. On the horizon slightly to their left some few stars had winked into life with the imminent arrival of night. Up from the face of the cliff rose a warm, gentle breeze scented with juniper and oak. It gusted lightly every few moments, causing the whisper of leaves as they fluttered in the wind.
Palamon looked up into the half moon and smiled wanly. He was thinking of the peace, now lost, that he’d so recently known when gazing upon its simple beauty. It hung low in the dimming azure sky.
After a time, Dossolum’s deep, resonant voice broke the silence between them. “You have secrets, my friend.”
Palamon’s smile faded. “That you ask tells me they are not secrets.”
“And yet you did not choose to discuss them with me. Why?”
“I have no answers for my questions, no solutions to the problems I’ve encountered,” Palamon replied. “I hoped to bring you more than the trouble itself. The killings are only part of the story. I believe we can yet rescue Jo’ha’nel.”
It was Dossolum’s turn to smile. “You’ve a good heart, Palamon. But at times it makes you unwise.” The Voice of the Council raised a hand toward the expanse before them, where far away and below a few small villages and one sizable town could be seen on the horizon. “Should we suffer more of these mortals to die while we seek answers to one Sheason’s sickness?”
“I ask your forgiveness,” Palamon said, offering a slight bow. “I thought I could find an answer quickly. Surely it’s been written of … occurred before.”
Dossolum shifted his stance and looked at him. “There has been arrogance and pretense, yes. And there have been challenges in the formation of many worlds. Even bloodshed like Manoa’s.”
“I’ve not seen these records in the Archives,” Palamon said. “Wouldn’t those help us find answers to what is happening now?”
“We’ve not recorded these, because it is not a pattern we wish to repeat.” Dossolum’s countenance drew taut with a faraway look, as if in remembrance. “There’ve been worlds, my friend, where our efforts have not gone precisely as we might have hoped. The temptations of Maldaea’s office—to create all that is baneful; in particular, creatures that revel in violence against all other creations—these temptations are strong. Other council members who have held that office in the formation of other worlds have nearly gone too far . . .”
Palamon shivered. He’d not heard Dossolum speak of such things. Even the tone of his voice had changed, sounding doubtful and sad.
The Voice of the Council then turned to look at him. “But never,” he said, giving Palamon a regretful look, “never to this degree. This is the dawning of a new corruption, a new sorrow … a new damnation. I ask you to waste no more time in seeking a cure. We will have enough to do just annulling this awful work.”
Palamon’s intuition revealed a terrifying suggestion in Dossolum’s words. He turned to look at the Voice of the Council. “What would you ask of me?”
Dossolum smiled. “You are a serious man, my friend. I suspect it is why I’ve taken you to my right. But you’ve become more than a helpmate; I have never had so good a friend as you.”
“Thank you. And I am not always so serious,” Palamon said, smiling at his own denial.
“No, not always,” Dossolum conceded. “But you have a keen mind. You are first among your Sheason brothers not because you stand at my right, but rather you stand there because of that mind of yours.”
Palamon turned and looked back at the horizon. This promontory, which he’d come to consider sacred, looked out over lands that stretched for leagues east of the Divide Mountains. Countless times he and Dossolum had stood right here, taking in the view, considering the work in which they were engaged. And now, the work itself had ground to a halt under suspicions and the chaos of so much violent death.
Finally, he only nodded to Dossolum’s words. When the Founder spoke, there was hardly any opinion in it; he was a truth speaker, the Voice of the Council.
Another companionable silence fell between them, as each considered, Palamon guessed, his own grave thoughts. Dossolum later placed a hand on Palamon’s shoulder, preparatory to speaking again.
“They will not survive,” he said.
Surprise and panic filled Palamon. “Nonsense. The council will surely put a stop to Maldaea’s efforts. And Jo’ha’nel will fall in line once that is done.”
“And what of the vile species given life by Maldaea’s hand? What of them?”
Palamon considered the words, and said again, “What would you ask of me?”
Silence stretched for long moments before Dossolum spoke. “Palamon, I am going to confer upon you the authority to render the Will and the office of intercessor for the people of this world.”
Dossolum’s hand on his shoulder suddenly felt very heavy. He could only think that this responsibility came as a result of recent changes, in Maldaea and Jo’ha’nel—and because of the death of his friend. He feared that he would have to use this new authority not —as it was intended—to create and sustain, but to defend … and destroy.
“Jo’ha’nel has been given the power of the Will,” Palamon said. “He wields it, I fear, with ill-intent. And with Manoa dead, someone must answer this threat,” Palamon deduced, with some bitterness.
Dossolum surprised him when he said simply, “Yes.” Then after several moments he added, “But not only that, Palamon. You have been on this path for a long time. Have you not already been among the people, providing comfort?”
Looking out over the wide terrain, Palamon nodded and thought of Efram and his little girl . . . and the woman and child he’d been too late to save.
Dossolum made a sound deep in his throat. “They will not survive unless there is one to protect them.”
“With more than a quill and his knowledge of history, you mean,” Palamon said, and offered a faltering smile. “You see, I am not always so serious.”
Dossolum returned the smile. “Kneel, my friend.”
Palamon knelt, steadying himself with his hands on the ground and feeling the cool earth beneath his fingers. He closed his eyes as the Voice of the Council began to speak in a commanding yet soothing tone.
“As it lives in me, so shall it live in you, Palamon Dal Solaas. The right and privilege to stir and direct the Will that resides in all things, in all Forda I’Forza, I give you. It is a gift and power to be used wisely, never selfishly, and never to bring harm to the lives of mortals. With this authority you may direct and shape the things around you, even unto the healing of that which is broken, body or spirit. You have proven worthy of this endowment, Palamon; generations will revere you, peace will be yours, and the world may have hope now as you take the mantle of intercessor for the people of an imperiled world.”
Dossolum’s hand never left Palamon’s shoulder, and in the moments that followed, his entire body warmed from within. His mind filled with hopeful thoughts and good memories, until other revelations were imparted to him, dark things, things he would be asked to do with this new mantle. Images traced through his consciousness with such speed and force that he began to fear for his own sanity.
He shuddered, considering what this could all mean before it was through.
But before that thought could consume him, the simple ritual was at an end, and he felt peace in his heart like the calm of still waters.
When Dossolum finished speaking, he gently urged Palamon to his feet, a fatherly smile on his face. “I know the peace that rests in your heart at this moment, my friend. May it ever be so. You must, however, remember this, that as a man your rendering of the Will can only come at the expenditure of your own spirit.”
“I know this, Dossolum. What are you telling me?” Palamon asked.
Dossolum smiled. “Balance, my friend. It is about balance. When you choose to draw upon the Will, it requires a measure of your own Forda to give that rendering life. So be judicious in your use of this gift, as the greater your rendering act, the greater the price to your own spirit, your energy . . . your Forda. It will take a physical toll, and as intercessor, there will be multitudes who will call upon you for help. You will have, sometimes, to say no.”
Palamon nodded, a vague unease now in his heart. They resumed looking out over the expanse that fell away from their high place. And just before the Greater Light fled the sky entirely, Dossolum said with a tired fondness, “Your work as a servant now has new meaning, my friend. What you have done for me, now do for them.”
The words were lost to the whir of crickets. The chill on Palamon’s skin, he thought, came not only from the cold of night.
News of the Founders’ decision to abandon their labors had spread like fire. A week ago, Palamon had stood with Dossolum and been given the power to render the Will and made intercessor. Now, he rushed down the marble colonnades of the Tabernacle. The great pillars rose majestically on either side of him, ending at the open sky. In the marble surfaces everywhere were recorded the many feats and designs and efforts of the council to bring forth worlds and give place to men to learn and grow. Many of these Palamon himself had chiseled with painstaking care.
Today he hurried past it all, hastening to the central chamber, having called the council to convene to hear his plea.
Fear and uncertainty had swept Estem Salo. Palamon, chief among the Sheason, had requested a formal audience with the Framers and Dossolum, who he saw first as he entered the council chamber.
“Palamon,” said the Voice of the Council, “we will hear you because of your long and faithful service, but there are pressing matters to attend to. We do not have much time.”
Palamon did not hesitate. “Stop this. Don’t allow the taint of one council member’s efforts to cause your ill-faith in an entire world. It needn’t be so. Please.”
Dossolum stood. “The vote to abandon this labor has been made, Palamon. It was not a debate. The entire council, save Maldaea, is in agreement. We did not rush to judgment in this, my friend. We have long contended with Maldaea over his efforts here. We’ve tried to turn back what he has done. And we do know what it will mean to this world that we must leave our work here unfinished. But we find this to be the best course.”
“Why?” Palamon asked. “I don’t understand.”
The Voice of the Council stood looking at him, seeming to consider how much he should say. Finally, he gave a slight nod of acquiescence. “You know, my friend, the first eternal truth: that Forza and Forda, matter and energy, can be neither created nor destroyed, only rendered, changed. The council could remain on this world, spend years, perhaps an age, trying to undo the imbalance Maldaea has wrought.” Dossolum paused, looking more distraught, more human than Palamon ever remembered seeing him. In a softer voice, he continued, “But it would be irresponsible of us. It would not be a good use of the Will.”
“To save the lives of so many—”
“Palamon,” Dossolum interrupted, “We lament the choice. We care about those to whom we give the breath of life. But the council must weigh the cost of its use of Forda I’Forza. It must decide whether, on balance, it is better to expend so much effort in repairing what is so far damaged, or whether more may be accomplished by expending that same effort to build something new or care for a world that has not such overpowering corruption.”
“But you are many, and Maldaea is but one,” Palamon countered.
Dossolum said only, “Maldaea’s gifts are great, my friend.” His words echoed in the Tabernacle of the Sky like a malediction.
“Have you ever deserted the children you’ve given life to, ever once in all your immortal lives? Think on that. If you permit yourselves now to be dissuaded from treading the rough course ahead, how much easier will it be to do the next time? Your offices are sacred and perilous. I implore you, stand fast in your duty now. There are so many of your children, that I cannot count the lives that depend upon it.”
In a soft voice of warning, Dossolum said, “Take care, Palamon.”
But he could not. Manoa was gone, the intercessor who spoke to the Council of Creation for the people. He had been slaughtered by the very thing to which these Founders now had chosen to abandon their young world.
“I will not!” he declared. “I will be damned before I remain silent. The mighty work of your own hands toils in the fields you’ve given them; they look up at the Sky when they seek peace, and eagerly await the knowledge you impart to provide the path for their growth.It is unthinkable that you would shut them away from your grace and leave them to a world now fraught with unimaginable peril. How can you be so heartless?”
“Be STILL!” Dossolum commanded.
Palamon froze. The echoes of the council Voice rippled every surfaceof the Tabernacle.
When the quaking abated, Palamon made a fateful decision. He would risk all, since to live afterward if he did not would be a hell of his own making. With quiet intent he drew the Will for the very first time, pushing a barrier of calm out from his body, the quietude expanding slowly, gently, until it filled the Tabernacle of the Sky.
It was not a rendering to inflict or compel, but simply to impart the honesty and hope of what he would next ask. Many on the council nodded in silent appreciation of the restoration of serenity which typically abided in the Tabernacle.
With a final thought of what he risked, Palamon addressed the men and women seated at the great semi-circular table. “If you will not keep this world in your embrace, and finish what you have begun, then at least give them some means whereby they may rescue themselves.”
Given gently, earnestly, Palamon’s words, he knew, were also an indictment. But not one, he could see, that the council would deny. Though they remained steadfast in their course, his plea touched the air in the same way Dossolum’s words had so recently done . . . but with an undeniable compassion.
The members of the council looked around at one another, seeming to come to agreement without the need of words. Dossolum nodded, and soon his face showed the familiar smile.
“You remind us of our purpose, Palamon. Thank you.” He looked up at the great open sky above the council chamber and drew a long breath. “We will yet abandon this labor. It is a hard choice, but the right one. What has transpired here is irreparable without inordinate use of the Will and the rendering of matter and energy. You may trust that shortly we will deal with Maldaea for his crimes. But for your sake, we will see the vile breeds given life by his hand placed in the outlands far from the family of man. There we will seal them with their creator, never to return. We will make mortals accountable for the maintenance of the veil that holds these creations at bay. And still other instruments of power, even the Charter itself, we will put in place here because you have hope for them, where we do not.”
A feeling of agreement, contentment, filled the air. The council, Palamon could tell, was pleased with itself.
But there was still more he must say.
“A man may eat, and be warm, and remain relatively safe from the menace of the world he treads, but if he has no hope … he is dead.” Palamon looked directly at Dossolum, realizing he spoke as much for himself as for the people he now served as intercessor. “The faith we have offered them will be hollow when you leave, Dossolum. They will learn of this abandonment, and their hearts will grow hard—a hardness they will turn against one another, despite the exile of Maldaea’s fiends beyond some veil. What will they believe in?”
Dossolum looked back, his eyes intent but kind. “Does there need to be a god for belief to be valid and meaningful and … powerful, Palamon? Perhaps, my friend, that is precisely what belief is … having faith even when you are uncertain.”
The simple truth of it struck him, and yet the reasoning broke down in one tragic respect. “But who will answer them, when they lift their voices in prayer?”
The Voice of the Council looked at Palamon with a knowing expression, but said nothing. It was then that Palamon knew the reason for his ill-feeling at the moment he’d been given the authority to render the Will and made intercessor. He bowed deeply in gratitude and deference, and left the Tabernacle of the Sky, realizing his choices had lasting consequences for one other.
Throughout the evening after his audience with the council, Palamon said nothing, holding back any questions or deep discussion with Solera. He wanted one last normal night with his companion. He meant only to see to the uncomplicated straightening of their small home, conversation over less important things, and one last night of love-making before he told her, before things changed for her, for them.
Throughout the course of the evening he often found himself gazing at her, acutely aware of her fair skin, deep auburn hair, and penetrating brown eyes. After so long, he still felt physically drawn to her. And as much for her keen mind as her beauty.
Solera, like him, had ascended to the office of Sheason. She served Anais, the second voice of the council. But his affection for her had nothing to do with the strength of her service, or even her beauty, but ratherhis fondness for her came first for her good humor. Perhaps, he thought, because he was, as Dossolum reminded him, a serious man.
But they’d found joy in each other’s company and in the sharing of their Sheason calling, and had known love for many years, supporting the labors of the Great Ones in fashioning this world.
And yet, the grand designs toward which they worked each day seemed less important when they spent time together discussing the rain or wind or the power in language, not to create—as the Founders made use of it—but to thrill and inspire. Theirs was a love affair that had sustained Palamon for longer than he could remember. But tonight he feared the question they must discuss, one they could no longer avoid.
In the afterglow of long and tender love-making, they lay together in a grove of blooming aspen—their place—beneath the Lesser Light, the perspiration cool on their skin as they stared up.
“What is on your mind, Palamon?” Solera asked. “You’ve held it through all our quiet talk and love. Now unburden yourself.”
In the dark, he smiled. Somehow he’d known she would see through him. Still, he’d wanted this before …
“You’ve heard of the Framers’ abandonment,” he said, believing she surely must be aware.
“And I heard that you went and pleaded for those being left behind. You can take heart that you did what you could.”
“I am no martyr,” he said. “The Founders still intend to abandon their labors here.”
“We are wise, you and I, and have toiled much to aid this work, but we are not gods, Palamon. You must trust their wisdom.” She drew his face around to look directly at him. “Have you considered that they entrusted you with the same authority they possess to call on the Will? It is the first power, Palamon. The other powers of language and song and movement and all the rest are connected to the Will, each in their own way. But the power to render the Will is its purest, most direct use. What Dossolum has done for you is give that power more purpose, as you serve as intercessor.”
Palamon sat up, dreading what he must tell her. “Solera, I don’t believe Dossolum conferred this office on me to simply serve as intercessor.”
She sat up beside him. The wind soughed lightly through the trees, caressing their shoulders. “Why else, Palamon?”
He looked at her, feeling the bitterness of knowing his next words would change everything. He had hoped it wouldn’t come to this. “I’ve studied the ways of the Will, Solera. And though I’ve not yet rendered much, I’d thought I would always use it to uphold the principles that give life its meaning . . .”
Solera’s brow furrowed. “Palamon?”
He did not want to say it. Even now part of him resisted. But he had procrastinated long enough. “Solera, it is clear to me now. Dossolum granted me this authority not simply to aid others, maybe not even first to aid others . . .
“Then why?” she asked
He gave her a long, pained look. “To carry it into battle.”
He watched as understanding bloomed in her face, perhaps a hint of anger, but finally a sadness that left her countenance looking tired. She put her head on his shoulder and wept. Silent tears fell and ran down his chest.
Palamon’s heart broke. It broke because of the change that would follow for all the Sheason and all the creation given life by the hands of the Founders; but more than any of this, his heart broke because here forward, Solera would live her life in fear that Palamon could be killed by virtue of the very gift that set him apart.
She drew back, her beauty bathed in the moonlight, tears shining on her cheeks. “We will be all right,” she said.
He wanted to tell her not to worry. But it would be a lie. When the council completed the placing of all Maldaea’s hellish creations and raised the veil, they would move on, and he would be left here in their place.
Unable to speak, he nodded. And they held each other in their grove of aspen all night. Only when the birds of morn sang out their melodies did they rise and return to their home. A small part of him ached for her to ask him not to carry the mantle Dossolum had given him for this benighted world.
How can this be right?
He could only hope that the difference he could make here would justify whatever sacrifices he and his love would be called upon to make.
Sensing his mortality already coming upon him, he felt the bitter irony of the words he had uttered to Solera only hours ago: I am no martyr.
He might live . . . and die . . . to prove those words false.
Once in their home again, he caught her in another embrace and said finally, “We will be all right.”
She pushed him back gently. “I’ll hold you to it,” she said, and smiled. Then, to begin this new—this last—chapter of their lives, she took the vase and went to refresh it with more long-stemmed, fresh-cut grass. The light, clean smell of it, their simple, delicate forms, Palamon decided, were just the right tokens of the years ahead.
Palamon sat at the table near the front window of their home, writing. A forlorn feeling had settled over him. It had been days since the council had departed the world. The door to their house stood open, as it had done all the while. He had listened while the other Sheason said their farewells in the streets beyond that door. He’d been unable to go out and say goodbye—not for bitterness’ sake, but because there’d been nothing left to say.
It hadn’t been long after that that most of the Sheason departed Estem Salo for new lives in distant parts of this world they’d helped to form.
Now, an eerie silence had settled over Estem Salo. Once, he could have sat on his front porch and fairly heard the sound of quills moving over dry parchment in the archives a hundred strides down the road. It wasn’t really so, but the palpable feeling of thought and preparation and scholarship made Palamon think he heard their instruments even now recording it all and framing the development of these lands, these people. They were pleasant thoughts.
At the moment, his mind was as quiet as was the small town where now he and Solera were among the few Sheason left, trying to know what next to do. He hadn’t bothered to return to the Tabernacle. He’d go eventually; perhaps there was wisdom to glean from what the Founders had left behind. But not yet; he couldn’t go there yet.
The Voice of the Council had promised to put in place the means for mankind to protect and (perhaps also, Palamon hoped) redeem itself. These things had been written in a single, thin volume discreetly placed on a windowsill during the few hours he had managed to sleep in those first days after the council’s decision to abandon this world. It sat there still.
He hadn’t opened the book, which came wrapped in a black, brushed leather case, lashed with another length of hide. The note tucked into the lash has been penned in Dossolum’s neat script; Palamon knew what it was. His heart gladdened slightly to have it. But he would only find any real joy in it much later, though even then, he knew, the hope the Founders offered would be improbable and difficult. Perhaps impossible. But for now, utter silence and aloneness had descended on them like a condemnation.
Mostly, he preferred it this way. He needed to mourn; before he’d be any good to the people he’d stayed behind to help, he needed to purge the bitterness he felt toward the council. He had spoken with only one man since the Abandonment, as they were calling it: Efram, the man whom Palamon had tried to help some time ago. Efram had told him of a spreading hopelessness in the people. The abandonment had gotten inside everyone . . .
As he sat, wondering what he would do next, the sound of boots on the pebbled road rose in the stillness. He stood, knowing whom he would see when he walked out his door.
From the far end of the main road through Estem Salo, the tall form of Jo’ha’nel approached. He moved with a strange grace, as though he’d somehow escaped the mortality that fell to those left here when the Founders departed. This other Sheason came at him with an intent he could see and feel, and Palamon found himself instinctively readying the Will.
Then the dark Sheason stopped. “They’ve left you behind,” he said, smiling unkindly.
“I’ve chosen to stay behind,” Palamon corrected. “The Founders had their reasons for leaving, but I would not abandon this world’s people to their own ignorance. You could help me,” Palamon added. “You are knowledgeable, and you bear the power to draw on the Will; we could help them find their way.”
The other laughed. “Would you help me rescue those also left behind inside your Founders’ Bourne? We could undo this veil, find unity and peace among those beings created by both Maldaea and Dossolum.”
Palamon knew it was not a genuine offer. “I have seen the appetite of those given life by Maldaea. There can be no peace between them and those who live south and east. You know this.” He stopped, peering into the hard face of his former brother. “Why have you chosen this path, Jo’ha’nel? Especially now that Maldaea has been sealed away. You have nothing to fear from him. Come. Let us build something here.”
A silence fell across Estem Salo for several long moments. Then the dark Sheason spoke again, “I told you that you must decide on which side to stand. It is time. Who will you now serve? Those who’ve left you with broken promises, and gone on to start again somewhere else? Or the Founder they have left behind on this world?”
Palamon’s thought turned first to the image of a young girl crying and holding her dead brother in her lap. Then he saw Efram’s wife, lying dead despite his attempts to save her. And finally, in his mind could see Manoa’s lifeless body on the steps of the Tabernacle. He recalled thinking over and over . . . not yet. Not yet for violence, and hate. But looking up the road of Estem Salo, Palamon knew the time had finally come for these things.
He shook his head. “I serve none of these,” he said. “I will serve mankind.”
Bitterness filled Jo’ha’nel’s countenance. Before Palamon could say or do anything more, an unseen force traversed the space between him and the dark Sheason, ripping him off the ground and sending him back hard against the side of his house. He fell to the ground, and felt the warmth of blood coming fast from a gash in his scalp. Without thinking or standing, he slammed his fists together in a rage and focused his anger at his new enemy. The earth itself erupted in a violent geyser of rocks and soil that sent Jo’ha’nel shooting ten paces skyward.
The other landed heavily, but staggered to his feet with a manic look in his eye and a mad grin on his lips. Then he stopped, stood still, and closed his eyes. The earth, suddenly bitingly cold, creaked all around Palamon. His flesh began to blister and freeze, his blood feeling cold in his veins. He fell onto his side, the shallow breaths he exhaled pluming as though he lay in a winter storm. He could feel his heart slowing and ice forming over his eyes.
Palamon had a fleeting thought. I could let go. If he did, the pain of the abandonment by ancients who’d covenanted to this world … would simply disappear, as his Forda left his body, relieving him of consciousness.
He would welcome the end of this emptiness but for one thing. Palamon—and Solera— had already made the sacrifices that had caused in him this abject spirit. After it all, he would not throw away those sacrifices by conceding to a Sheason who had forsaken his calling.
Holding onto this indignation, Palamon raised a palm toward Jo’ha’nel as he spoke a few words of the conceivers’ tongue. Flame erupted around the fiendish renderer, licking hungrily at his flesh and raiment. From where he lay, Palamon, too, felt the heat, and thawed enough to sit up against the side of his home. The thought that he had taken life spread like poison in his mind, and he shook his head in denial.
Then, as Palamon watched the blaze, Jo’ha’nel walked unscathed from the fire, his emaciated body and wide shoulders bearing toward Palamon in a graceful nightmarish gait. The dark Sheason then brayed a few words of his own, the sound fouling the air and driving the breath from Palamon’s lungs. All his senses leapt, sending stabbing pain into his mind, and all leading to a white roaring rush.
Palamon again thought this might be the end. And he, the only barrier between this vile Sheason and the already hopeless people still hanging onto life across the great wide of this world.
While he struggled against the onslaught, simultaneously fighting off despair, Solera rushed into the street between him and Jo’ha’nel and raised a defiant cry.
“Stop this! You have no reason to bring death here. Neither Palamon nor the people you torment and rape and murder have earned your scorn.” She pointed toward the heavens. “If you must be angry, it should be with those who no longer walk this earth. But I will not stand idle while you torture—”
Solera’s words were instantly cut short. Her body rose off the ground as she clutched at her throat. She rotated so that she lay parallel to the road, suspended three strides high in the air . . . and began to spin.
It all happened so fast. And even as Palamon struggled to stand, the fire he had called to burn Jo’ha’nel streamed like a sinuous river toward Solera and engulfed her body. She became a whirling maelstrom of flame and hot wind and strangled cries. And in just seconds, the conflagration flared and went out, dropping a spray of dark heavy ash.
“NO!” The sound tore through Estem Salo.
Palamon raged. Forgotten were the dull burning thoughts inside the white rushing sound that had filled his mind, worries over Abandonment, or even Jo’ha’nel’s abandonment of the promise of his service to the people he now preyed upon.
He would later grieve for those things. But not now. Now, his heart knew only wrath! And with it, the noise and rushing ceased, the hate that exuded from the dark Sheason was pushed back upon him, and Palamon stood.
He did not waver, but began to stride toward Jo’ha’nel, indignation giving him new strength. A flicker of concern passed over the other’s face as Palamon raised his hands. He thrust them violently toward Jo’ha’nel and sent him flying twenty strides, where he fell roughly onto the road.
The trees bristled; window glass shattered; birds squawked and fluttered, disturbed in flight. The retaliation continued to emanate from Palamon in waves, descending on Jo’ha’nel in brutalizing blows meant to crush but not kill, to cause an intensity of suffering that would make him plead for the mercy of a fast death.
Sharp cries of agony rose into the still blue skies
But as Palamon tried to prolong the attack, his own Forda waned, and like the dark that follows an extinguished candle, his assault abruptly ended and he fell to the road, entirely spent.
He watched as Jo’ha’nel, lying upon the ground, gave him a spiteful look and managed to spread his fingers out over the dirt. As Palamon looked, the soil there parched, whitened, then burned, sizzling as a thin crust of glass spread over a wide circle around his former brother.
Palamon realized in horror what Jo’ha’nel had done; he’d drawn the Forda from the very earth, stealing it for his own—one of the basest violations of the Charter, putting matter and spirit out of balance. But with the heinous act, he had renewed himself. Invigorated, he promptly stood, and began to advance on Palamon.
But Palamon had nothing more to give, his spirit so drained that he could only watch the slow approach of his enemy, and prepare for death.
I gave my all. I go to the next life content . . . and to meet you there, my love . . .
He closed his eyes, ready for either a crushing blow or some other use of the Will that would end his life, when a hoarse scream shot up the road from beyond the archive. Palamon opened his eyes and managed to turn his head in the direction of the sound. At a dead run came the one man he had met in the lowlands that he had so often spied from his promontory with Dossolum. Efram, who held in one hand a long club and in the other a forked farming implement, and who barreled toward them with fear in his eyes but no shortage of courage.
Jo’ha’nel shifted his ireful gaze up toward the intruder, a wicked gleam in his eye as he seemed to relish the chance to murder another of these pitiful men. But before Jo’ha’nel could render the Will, Efram hurled his pitchfork at the dark Sheason, as though he’d practiced doing so.
The farm tool sailed through the blue sky, spinning slightly, Efram’s aim seeming true. Jo’ha’nel, so caught off guard, watched as fascinated as Palamon, until it was too late, and the sharp spines pierced his upper leg, driving the iron tines deep into his flesh.
Maldaea’s first Sheason looked down at the wound and howled, the force of it sending a rush of wind from his mouth. It blasted Palamon’s cheeks and neck. But before Jo’ha’nel could look up to send Efram to his earth, the farmer beset him, pummeling the malefactor with his wooden club. The dark Sheason fell and writhed, trying to roll away. Efram kept on him until Palamon spoke.
Too weak to call out, he coughed the words, “No . . . stop.”
Efram’s arm paused high in mid-blow, and he slowly lowered his cudgel as though suddenly returning to his senses. He heaved deep breaths and came to a knee beside Palamon.
“You look bad. Are you in pain?” the farmer asked.
“I’ll be all right.” He looked at his home, and felt—even then—that it was not a place to which he ever wanted to return. But it did hold something he needed. “In my house, on the windowsill there is a ledger. Bring it to me.”
Efram moved quickly, and returned a few moments later with the gift from Dossolum. He handed the ledger to Palamon, who took it and held it tight against his chest. Whatever words it contained would be the last he would have from his friend on the council—a mixed blessing.
“What about him?” Efram thrust his cudgel toward Jo’ha’nel.
“I will kill him myself,” Palamon said, his voice like the dry husks of Efram’s fields.
But when he looked up, the dark Sheason was gone. Efram stood staring down the road, a bit slack-jawed. Jo’ha’nel would return, but not today.
Palamon then looked at the road a few strides away, dusted with black ash . . . the remains of Solera. The reality of her death descended on him in a crushing wave, and he cried out.
He did not know how long he lay there, lost in his grief, before he found the presence of mind to say, “Take me to the Archive,” and point south. He knew he would mourn more later, but he could feel his own life ebbing, and all that had happened, including Solera’s death, would come to naught if he didn’t take some immediate action.
As Efram picked up Palamon and carried him to the archive, the servant of Dossolum felt a dark revelation take root in his heart: Jo’ha’nel had abandoned one of the first tenets of the Charter of this world, something written upon the walls of the archive almost from the beginning: the power to render the Will had to be drawn from the spirit of the one calling its use. But it wasn’t as much the fact that Jo’ha’nel had violated this sacred trust—though that would have earned him the severest of punishments had he done so when Dossolum yet tarried here—but the fact that the Founders had spoken this principle so early on, having it recorded . . . as though they anticipated a world where its inhabitants would have need to make use of the Will.
Palamon found his thoughts tied up in secrets he couldn’t untangle. And though he finally left them alone, an uneasy feeling remained deep in his heart, as he wondered what Dossolum might have known from the very beginning.
Inside the archive, the stillness did not help Palamon’s mood—this had been a place of thought and great industry. Indeed, if there were answers to questions like those he’d just let go, they would have been pursued and ultimately discovered here.
Efram gently sat Palamon down at a table.
“In the cabinet,” he said with a strained voice. “The cedar box.”
The farmer went straightaway, returning with the Sheason’s personal case. Palamon opened it with trembling fingers and drew out a sprig drawn from a special grove quite distant from the Tabernacle of the Sky or Estem Salo. He placed it on his tongue and allowed it to dissolve. In just moments new energy spread through him, bringing fresh pain as his body awakened to its own damage; he welcomed it as a reminder that he had survived.
Then Palamon drew out a small journal. Before setting it all down—everything from the moment he’d found Manoa splayed across the Tabernacle steps, to his return to a vacant archive—he turned to Efram.
“Thank you,” he said. “You have my undying gratitude.”
The farmer replied, “What must we do?”
Palamon thought. How to begin the last stages of forming this world without the help of the First Fathers? When a spontaneous smile touched his cheeks it felt good. Perhaps he would find his humor and delight after all, in simply a different way.
“My friend, bring others here. I will begin to teach them: to read, to write, to remember. Some, even, will take up the ways of the Sheason.” He nodded, mostly to himself. “And with time, and industry, and holding to what we know is right and true—” and those things left to me in Dossolum’s ledger—“we will continue on.” He looked up at Efram. “And we will find some small bit of glory along the way if we try, Efram.” If we try.
Copyright © 2010 by Peter Orullian