Chapter 34 THE PREACHER
Vern had been talking to his old friend Aaron—this time he was called Maximilian—like he had so many times before. In a few years, the process would be complete. Xerza would give the signal, and Aaron would remember his past. All his pasts.
It was a curious thing, how similar this incarnation was to the original. Xerza always took care to change their appearance. Otherwise, it would be too easy to understand they were, in fact, clones. This Maxi, however, looked very much like the first one. Then again, centuries had passed since the original died, so it wasn’t really a problem.
It wasn’t just the appearance, however. Like the original, Maximilian had grown up in an orphanage, dodged the executioner’s axe, and joined the police academy. Only to be betrayed by his own colleagues—and subsequently recruited by the Order. It was eerily similar to the first Aaron’s younger years on Amalfi, all those years ago.
The old savant wondered how much of it was Xerza’s doing and how much had been left to chance. He’d meant to ask her, but she rarely came by anymore, and Vern had taken a long time to pice together Maxi’s story—his interrogator wasn’t the talkative sort.
Vern and Aaron-Maximilian had been speaking about the Word. About how it infected Akakios. They always did. It was one of the milestones of their shared journey. Vern had been about to start explaining the insidious nature of the beast, the dark things only the Bishops knew about. That their ‘god’ was the Shadow, the personification of evil, and the Prophet none other than Telémakhos, the Black Dragon—or Temeluchus as he was called in High Dominion.
Then, as if on cue, the entire universe had gone dark, not a single speck of light in all of creation. No sounds could be heard, no heartbeat felt. Vern couldn’t tell how long he was trapped there alone. Time had no meaning in the realm of night. Eternal darkness, like the one the Shadow sought to impose on the universe.
Someone was coming. A shadow so dark it showed against the black of night.
“You,” Vern said.
“Quite so,” the shadow replied.
“Didn’t quite work. I was able to hide inside you. Xerza should have left it to the professionals and let them burn the body afterward.”
“Not for me. I’ve been inside you all this time, biding my time, gently guiding your words and actions to prepare for my release.”
“You say that a lot, Vern, but an old savant like you should know better. ‘Impossible’ is another word for ‘improbable,’ but in an infinite universe, where men wield powers unto those of the gods, the improbable happens every day.”
“You cannot get out. The Bastille is impregnable.”
“Perhaps. But no one will try to break in—or out. I’ll simply walk out of this place.”
Vern glared at his nemesis. “What happens next?”
“Now, we wait for you to die.”
“Now there’s a cheerful thought,” Vern said. “I finally get to meet my Dragon.”
“And you call us insane?” the shadow replied. “Why don’t you join me in Thira while we wait for your heart to give up? It’s a fitting end, don’t you think?”
“Is there a problem, Sergeant?” the man wearing missionary Ramush’s flesh said. He was on his way to the city of Thira on the Prophet’s business, but the young Coalition corporal looking through his papers was taking his sweet time.
The corporal looked up at the tall, gangly priest standing before him, not seeing the actual person hidden inside, then down at his papers again, then back up.
“Uh, no...Corporal...I mean Reverend,” the man stuttered.
“Take your time, son,” Ramush said, voice all mild and warm. “I have the gods’ patience,” he added and stroked his flaxen beard, hoping he looked like a wise and holy man. He felt more like stabbing the imbecile to death, but that would blow his cover real fast.
“I mean, I’m a corporal, reverend, not a sergeant.”
“I wouldn’t know,” the persona hiding inside Ramush’s flesh lied. “My mind is always dwelling on the will of the gods, the Chthonic gods—the Lords of the Dead—in particular. I pay scant attention to military matters. Not unless it has to do with Thor or Heimdall, Horus, or Athena.”
“Anyway. You papers...they are a little old is all, but they check out Reverend. You are free to pass into the TSZ—the Thiran Safe Zone.” He retrieved a small laser stamp from a pocket and engraved Ramush’s passport with the seal of passage.
“Thank you...Corporal. And may God watch over you.” Ramush picked up his little rucksack and slung it over one shoulder. It contained all of his meager worldly belongings, a sad situation he would remedy as soon as possible. He took refilled his canteen from a water cart, drank deeply, and topped the bottle off before continuing on foot down the dusty road that would lead him to the city of Thira-by-the-Lake. A new home, a new congregation.
His papers identified him as Reverend Ramush, but that wasn’t his real name. Ramush was the name of the Conclave missionary whose identity he had stolen. After the Coalition gained control over Akakios—or Protasia as the invaders were calling the planet—it had become necessary to be part of the winning team. A wandering priest from another world was an excellent cover. As a missionary, moving around and sticking your nose where it didn’t belong was part of the job description.
He had employed a thaumaturgical ritual to steal not only the missionary’s identity but his memories as well. He’d then disposed of the old body; the new Ramush couldn’t have the old Ramush running around screaming ‘sorcery most foul.’
For all intents and purposes, he’d become Ramush. Only a full screening by a legate would have any chance at all of seeing through his disguise. A censor could be a problem too. But there were no snooping legates or censors on Protasia, not anymore, his shadowy allies had told him as much.
Reverend Ramush was walking through the peaceful hill country outside of Thira. The sun setting behind the azure lake on his left hand, the distant mountains, crowned in white on his right. Everywhere flowering heath and moor flowers. If he had cared about such things, he might have found it a beautiful view.
There was still enough light to see by, but it would not be long before it got dark. Not that the being posing as Ramush was bothered by darkness in the slightest. He could make out some buildings in the distance. From far away, the city looked eerily untouched by the war, unlike the other regions he’d traveled through.
Things had been going so well here on Protasia. From that time, long ago, when the first of the Brethren had taken passage upon an Akakian merchantman, all the way up to the present. Slowly, but surely the Word had spread. First, to a few select members of the ship’s complement, then on to their relatives and relations on the planet. From there, the web had slowly grown, spreading out across the surface of Akakios, and finally onto other ships of the Akakian Merchant Marine. In turn, those ships had carried the Word to other, distant planets of the Amalfian sector and beyond.
The Word was what had drawn him to Akakios in the first place; he remembered as much. Years of searching for answers to questions other people didn’t even pose—then more years as he tried to penetrate the veil of secrecy that guarded the truth. The Word was to be kept secret, so it was written. The Brethren must never be exposed, the Word never fall into the hands of nonbelievers. Not until the day of the Second Coming, the promised End Times, when the First Darkness would send its Prophet to lead the Brethren. On that day, the Brethren will rise up as one—but not before.
The hated Dragon Order would be the first to fall. Next, the Conclave, with its false gods and corrupt priests, followed by the Collegium and its pitiful stage magicians, before finally, the technomancers would pay for their unholy works. All enemies will fall before our might. All living souls will bow before the Shadow.
But the Coalition had known anyway. Maybe that bastard Verrigan had let slip something into the wrong ears. Perhaps the Coalition didn’t know the particulars but had learned enough to begin to take an interest in the Word and the practices of the Brethren. Learned enough to become afraid, enough to alert the Ordo Draconis.
The Bishops had been forced to convene—in direct contravention to established dogma—to deal with the threat of intervention. It had been an exhausting affair. To the Brethren, the Bishops always presented a unified front, but between themselves, they frequently disagreed. He hadn’t been overly optimistic but took it as a good sign, all things considered, that his peers had been willing to come together at all.
After days of heated debate—and the ritualistic murder-sacrifice of those most vocal in their opposition to the majority viewpoint—they had eventually agreed to suspend off-world operations, to cut the ties to those Brethren living elsewhere in the sector. They would also rescind all contact with one another, reverting to the isolated congregations the strictest interpretation of the Word dictated.
Ramush had approved. Should the Coalition come, the Dragon Order would follow. Under no circumstances must they be allowed to trace a connection from one congregation to another.
It might have worked, save that the headstrong Akakians had done something entirely unexpected. They had gotten into a shooting war with the Coalition—the mightiest of the Successor Kingdoms pitted against a single world. What folly. None of the Bishops had anticipated that, not even those that maintained lives in the higher strata of Akakian society. The war that followed had spiraled out of control and left Akakios a war-torn wasteland.
As a result, the Bishops would never know if their efforts would have been sufficient to keep the Dragon Order in the dark: most of them were dead, alongside the majority of the Brethren. As far as Ramush knew, he was the last Bishops left on Protasia, unless you counted Verrigan. But Verrigan was an apostate, a fallen faithful, the most abhorrent enemy of all.
The last Bishop—without any Brethren to guide. The final two members of his failing congregation had given their lives to fuel the ritual that turned him into Preacher Ramush. He didn’t have much of a plan. Not yet, anyway. He just knew he needed a virgin start. Someplace new. Someplace to start spreading the Word again. He was a Bishop. Spreading the Word and preparing for the Second Coming and the Night Without End was his purpose. Such was the Will of the Prophet.
So he’d come here, to Thira, because the city was supposedly still intact and home to millions of survivors. Millions of forlorn souls, eager to receive the guidance of the Word. That Thira was to be Verrigan’s city was only a bonus, an unexpected opportunity to repay one of the architects of Akakios’s destruction. By the time the vile scum arrived, the Preacher Ramush would have the entire city in his hands, and the bloody-handed fool would not even realize.
Ramush waited for it to get dark before he approached the building. It wasn’t a big house. Sufficiently for a small family, nothing more. He liked the way it was nestled in between the hills. You could walk past at a distance of a few hundred meters and never notice it was there. At the same time, you had this magnificent view of the lake and the countryside. If you turned east, you could spy the great white-capped Mastari Mountains rising in the distance and the mighty peak of Mount Othrys.
The house wasn’t new, but it was well maintained. Or it had been, before the war. Now it was beginning to show the signs of neglect—such a warm and welcoming place, a pity to let it go to ruin. Once he had made the inhabitants his followers, he would make sure they took good care of the building.
He knocked at the front door.
There was no answer.
He knocked again, harder.
He could hear two pairs of booted feet approaching.
“Who’s there?” a brusque male voice barked out—a foreigner by the sound of him. A Coalition soldier then.
“Preacher Ramush, of the Conclave,” he replied. “I was headed for Thira on the Gods’ business, but darkness descended, and now I seem to be lost.”
The door was yanked halfway open. Two soldiers, one a young man, the other middle-aged, both in Coalition uniforms, stood in the doorway, pulsers casually pointed in his direction.
“Yeah? Well, this isn’t Thira,” said the older man with the brusque voice. “Just follow the road, take to the right at the junction. You’ll reach the city before dawn.”
Ramush put on his most winning smile. “I shall be on my way then,” he said softly. “But tell me, do you have a moment to contemplate the divine Word, as delivered to us by the great Prophet?”
Both men looked about to object, but neither did. Instead, they blinked as if confused. They looked at one another, seeking affirmation, but finding none. They looked at the Preacher, and in his warm smile, they found the answers to all their questions.
“May I come in?” Ramush asked.
Both men nodded eagerly. “Please do, Reverend,” the elder one said and stepped aside. The younger one quickly opened the door all the way and gave Ramush a deferential bow, as you would give the high priest of your local temple.
Ramush stepped inside, smiling. His new congregation had gotten off to a good start.