The God, the Oracle, the Hegemon
3026 After the Fall
A storm within a storm raged over the Western Sea, and at the core of the storms a silent pressure grew. The storm clouds held the vessel, a machine of energy and light not of that planet, a roiling amalgam of forces held together and aloft by means all below would deem magical. The vessel was the property of a being, also alien, whose long torment was existence. Trapped in the world he hated, the being stoked his anger, and the pressure inside him built, and built, and built.
For centuries it had built, and it was building still. It was the pressure of a deranged mind, ancient and stubborn, bent on vengeance regardless of the bloody eras it took in the making. Soon, it would come pouring forth, and the world below would burn.
The spear of lightning struck and rebounded from Balrus’ bubble of energy, arcing toward the peak of the mountain far below. The god ignored it, keeping his gaze on the tiny shape of a ship bobbing in the waves. A whisper of something scurried across his mind, errant and gone before he claimed it. After so long, he ignored most of what occurred on the planet, and his mind had been slipping for centuries.
He could forgive himself the hate he felt for the place. It was a planet he had once helped destroy. A planet filled with overgrown chattel he’d come to despise, experiments he had masterminded running rampant, self-righteous in their ignorance. A planet left behind by his race.
It was a planet he might never leave. In the name of the Source, but he missed Zemuria.
His attention was focused on the ship below, riding the waves toward the lone island mountain like a leaf caught in the rapids of a swift river. From a mile above Balrus’ enhanced eyes discerned the flag of the Panjatai Hegemony atop the primitive wind-propelled vessel. To all others on the planet it was a symbol of power, but to him it was more of a project gone well and just reaching maturity, like a vine just reaching the top of the trellis it was always meant to climb after years of careful direction. And not a bit of pruning.
For the first time in centuries, Balrus felt something stir within. A feeling of some kind. It roiled his desolately still inner being.
Hemmed by the roiling surf, the central spire of the island strained to a point as if trying to will its bulk skyward. It pointed straight at him, an accusatory finger thrust from a planet that wanted him gone. Asar hated him, he knew. It had reason.
He shook his head, trying to clear it. His thoughts veered too much of late, especially the last couple of centuries. The scene below returned to his focus. As always, order seemed to flee from chaos amidst the interacting elements. For once, Balrus would not have it so. He needed order for his plan to work, for the vine to reach the top of the trellis.
Balrus knew the island down there, knew the whole planet as intimately as a lover. Over the 3016 cycles of his sentence, he had visited at least a score of times. The land mass below had been many things in different eras, even an important city at one time, in the Zemurian Age. Nothing of that remained, other than the odd column standing sentinel here and there in the blasted landscape.
He peered upward, eyeing the freedom of space above him. He attempted to rise up closer to the vacuum, testing the limits of his freedom for the ten thousandth time. Before he felt the force restrain his field, he knew it would be there. It was always there. His enhancements began to fail as soon as he crossed a certain threshold of Asar’s gravity.
Balrus also knew that Volant was not far. His guard was always nearby, smug, implacable, ridiculously virtuous. Even when Balrus fled to the most remote wilds of Asar, in the center of the Hushed Lands he had helped create, he could feel him watching.
Seeing the ship reach the island, Balrus could finally taste his freedom. It was a tingle that coursed through his nervous system. The thought of it was too dangerous to embrace and yet it lurked around the corners of his mind. Three millennia had passed. Nothing of his painstaking efforts had shown in that time other than this one possibility.
Now, finally, one had been born. Born, and saved, and nearly grown. One who could free him from his prison.
Balrus had experimented on many generations, cross-breeding those with the right blood much as the Asarian farmers created hybrid varieties of plants. He had done so with a hope born of desperation, though he had never truly believed in the prophecy.
It was a relic from his kind’s primal beginnings. Something best left in the dead zones of the home planet. Yet the unity had been achieved. An Asarian had been born. A hybrid with the blood of Balrus’ own kind perfectly mixed with the native blood of Asar.
If Balrus could feel joy, he thought perhaps he would at that moment. It was uncomfortable enough that he felt anything after the infinite tedium of his exile.
Below him the sodden hump of stone housed a single sentient being. An Oracle, or what passed for one on Asar. Balrus could feel the Asarian’s thoughts waver with the slightest application of psychic pressure. It was a pathetic creature in cosmic terms, but it had the prescient gift. On Asar, this was enough.
Manju, Hegemon of Panjatai, disembarked from the ship with a small group of guards. Balrus knew the strength of the man’s focus, intent on his yearly visit to the Oracle. Balrus could discern his mind from those of the guards around him like a piece of steel among reeds.
It had taken Balrus so long. Yet now he had the pieces in place.
He could feel the intoxicated thoughts of the Oracle as they shifted aimlessly across the many dimensions he was capable of accessing, like a drunk lost in the night.
Balrus concentrated, and turned his mind’s power towards the man. He felt the Oracle’s attention snap into focus as all occluding thoughts were extinguished at a thought from Balrus. While the man actually possessed the rare gift of prophecy, he was not able to distinguish it from Balrus’ own well-timed interjections. And Balrus would give Manju an answer that served his own purposes.
The smile made his cheeks ache with disuse. Smiling had become a personal gaffe after the first thousand years, when he had decided he would feel no pleasure until he had escaped this primeval rock and its ghosts.
That was more than a score of centuries ago.
He waited, ready to uncoil his will when the time came.
. . . .
Manju galloped the rough track leading up the mountain to the Oracle’s cave, teeth grinding. His guards followed behind, unable to keep pace with the Hegemon’s steed. Manju did not know the horse’s name, but it was fast. He considered naming it for a moment, but dismissed the notion. There was little time in life for naming tools.
He rode right up to the cave mouth, where an ancient staircase led into the heart of the mountain. Manju knew himself braver than most men, yet he never enjoyed entering the cave. As always when he stepped foot on the island, the Hegemon had felt eyes on him. This was a skill he had honed as a youth, one which had saved his life countless times.
Yet he was certain none watched from anywhere his own senses could perceive. The path he had taken had shown no signs of life, and the slope above was a smooth plane. Yet he knew he was being observed. He supposed some sorcerer, or the gods themselves, could be watching - both ideas he had no time for.
He dismounted, his boots scuffing on the light-weight pebbles on the ground. The darkness inside the passage was complete. As he descended the staircase in the esophagus-like passage with his men behind him and the moist foulness embracing him, Manju pondered his uneasiness.
He’d crushed great men, killed Aschan in individual combat, and conquered nations. What was it about the place that disturbed him so?
As his boot slapped the monolithic stone step at the entrance to the Oracle’s abyss, he realized the answer.
He feared the future.
The constant flow of time that was unyielding to men’s struggles for control. Manju, if he needed anything, had to have control.
The flame of a lone torch barely lit the subterranean chamber, its dancing flames casting overlapping patterns of shadow and light on the wet granite of the walls. The traipsing of these opposing shades flickered the confines of the mountain’s stomach into existence.
Manju knew the future, such as it was, would be revealed in that room. Recent events had made him fear what that fortune might be.
The oracle was waiting for him near the gaping cleft slicing across the chamber’s floor. The man looked more dead than alive, the flesh-draped bones protruding from his filthy habit only pitiful remnants of human limbs. The shadowed ridges of his face wheezed a welcome sigh to Manju, rocking slowly back and forth. The tattered brown rag stretched across his torso was filthy with yellowed juices. The oracle was not fond of guests, and never bothered with chatter.
Manju asked him the question. It was the same question he asked him year after year, one born from a recurring nightmare. At first he had thought it came from the ghost of his father, a kind of revenge the old tyrant had cursed him with before swallowing Manju’s sword that distant night.
But the man in the nightmare, projecting blinding light all around him as he progressed slowly to Manju to kill him, wasn’t related to his father’s death. No, the man was Manju’s destiny. The sword entered him, and light filled his eyes, and Manju would awake with his chest burning where the sword had been.
When would the man come?
Would it be this year?
Manju had to know, to prepare, to halt the wheels of destiny and somehow undo the debt he owed. For what else could it be, but a curse on him for the many necessary evils of his life?
Sometimes it seemed as if the spirits themselves were against him for the many people he had killed in the name of order. Manju was used to fighting for his life, for his throne. And winning.
Yet after all the real enemies he’d killed, it was a ghost of the night he feared.
“Will this be the year that the swordsman comes for me?” he asked the Oracle.
The man began, intoning words Manju could not discern. His arms moved like frail gantries pawing ellipses through the air. The feel of Manju’s heart pounding in his chest forced him to calm himself with a Shir-ji breath.
He held out his hand.
The Oracle knelt over the chasm in the earth like a penitent, breathing deeply of the foul smoke rising there. His arm struck out and caught Manju’s waiting hand, drawing blood.
Manju let the pain flow around him and away. The Oracle ingested the blood and smeared the rest across his eyes and nose. He began inhaling rapidly, arms shuffling the runed bones littering the floor around him. From his previous visits, Manju knew they imparted some cryptic meaning to the oracle.
The Oracle’s pet shifted in the rear of the chamber, just out of torchlight. It was the Oracle’s constant companion, yet Manju had never seen what kind of creature it was. A thick chain trailed from an attachment in the rock near the Oracle back into the shadows where it lurked.
Manju’s bodyguards shuffled restlessly at the movement. Whatever beast it was, its size was implied by the chain.
Manju felt his patience wearing thin.
The bones skittered around and the Oracle inhaled deeply. After a time the man straightened, slowly trailing faint wisps of the dark smoke from below. His voice was a dry rasp, forcing Manju to listen intently to catch his words.
“The images swirl around you, Manju. Fates tied up in your destiny, enemies dreaming your death. This is nothing new to you,” he said.
Manju grimaced. Was this all he was to get, again?
Somehow the Oracle noticed his face, because he held up an arm at Manju and the hood angled up from the bones, regarding him. The ruins of a face were almost visible, but Manju did not look away.
“Always you ask the same question. Never have I seen the one you fear from your dreams. But the bones today…they are different from before,” he said. Manju thought he could hear a smile on the man’s lips, as if he were enjoying Manju’s need to know.
“Get on with it, old man, before I tear it out of you,” Manju finally said.
The beast in the back of the chamber gave a roar loud enough to hurt his ears, but Manju did not cringe. Whatever it was, he could kill the thing if need be.
Out of the edges of his vision he saw his Lionsteeth prepare.
Again the Oracle held up his arm, unhurried.
“The Great Disc spins. The bones reveal that the age of prophecy has come,” he said.
One of Manju’s guards gasped.
“All will change. The tide is rising against you. The world will end as you know it, though there are some futures that see you remain in control. A few, perhaps. But do not trouble yourself with those futures. They are distant. Today you must think only on the coming year.”
Manju waited, staring at the man. The Oracle continued.
“The Aschani War continues. There are three futures this year in which one of their assassins breaches your palace and kills you. The tiger-men pray in their desert fortresses for nothing more than your death,” the Oracle paused, breathing laboriously.
After an interminable moment, he was able to continue.
“Ikage Aomori will betray you. He now serves another power, one the bones will not reveal to me. What I can see is that he has been given Zemurian magic. In one future, his is the blade that finds your heart.”
Manju tightened his jaw until it cracked. Aomori was not his fear, even with Zemurian magic. The bones rattled and fell again.
“The Ferghana tribes will assault the Hegemony, bringing the fight to Panja itself.”
Manju’s knuckles whitened as he gripped his palms. The herders could be dealt with. These warnings were nothing new.
The Oracle paused, sucking in air again like wind whistling through a whole.
“And…?” Manju asked, his patience gone. The Oracle seemed to be toying with him.
“Dalritian has offered a million-crown bounty to the one who kills you. Among the bones here I see glimpses of dozens in preparation to do just that,” the Oracle said and gestured vaguely in all directions.
Manju frowned. This was the foretelling of the previous years, more or less. What was different in the bones? He felt a strong urge to kill the thing before him. He barely contained himself, knowing the Oracle could give him the clue he needed.
The man’s hood faced him expectantly. Torchlight occasionally lit the blood-smeared terrain of his face beneath.
“The one from your dream, I can tell you who he is,” he said finally.
Manju felt his face spasm. The shrouded head performed a tottering orbit of its axis.
“Who is he?” Manju shouted at the man. His magic coursed through his veins. His veins throbbed as if he had just sprinted from the boat.
The Oracle made a familiar gesture, vaguely pointing to one of Manju’s men.
Manju held up his fist and raised his small finger. The other Lionsteeth turned on the one he indicated, quickly killing him.
Each year, the Oracle demanded a price.
Manju paid without remorse. Necessary evils.
“The warrior from your dreams is a boy. He is among the Kalmat,” the Oracle’s voice held notes of amusement.
Manju almost laughed with the man. A mountain boy was the killer he feared? He would destroy the boy’s entire village, and be done with it.
A boy. Among the Kalmat. He finally knew.
He would have the warrior from his dream hunted down and killed. The boy from his dream. If there were possible futures in which Manju remained in control, he would manifest them.
As could others, he realized. Knowledge of the future was dangerous. So very dangerous.
When Manju unsheathed the four thousand year old Zemurian blade from his side, the Oracle rocked back in alarm.
“Wait! There is…” he shrieked.
With a stroke Manju decapitated the man, the head dropping into the rift in the floor and continuing to fall.
There was a roar, and a huge Matsu bear charged from the shadows. Manju raised his hand and unleashed some of the force gathered there, relishing the pent-up release. A hole the size of a man appeared in the bear and it fell to the ground, skidding to a halt beside its headless master without a sound. Curlicues of smoke twisted up, smelling of burnt meat.
Manju turned away from the scene, feeling a smile stretch across his face. His guards’ faces were ashen, but none looked at him.
He began up the stairs, back to the ship, to Panja. The scene from his nightmare would never occur. His fear of the specter of his nightmare would burn along with the boy’s village.
And again Manju Panjatai would be fearless.