Chapter 48 A FIRST FOR EVERYTHING
The mountain of rubble went on forever, the product of three hundred-story high-rises that had tumbled down on the same spot, their foundations ripped apart by heavy artillery or aerial bombing. The summit was crowned by a massive block of nanocrete that offered an excellent vantage point over the ruined cityscape below.
A lone man in the uniform of a lowly private of a Coalition infantry division sat on the dusty ground, his feet dangling over the edge, hundreds of meters above the deserted streets below. Thira—or should I call you Athens? We had a rough start, but I think we’ll do better the second time around.
His eyes were closed, his face turned towards the midday sun directly overhead. Rivulets of sweat carved an intricate web through the layers of dust and dirt covering his face and neck. The rays of the sun were painful to him now. His face felt like it was on fire, but he refused to back down. It’s a trick of the mind. The light cannot harm me.
He could hear one of his followers making his way up the rubble hill below. The climb was steep, the footing unsteady. You had to be careful not to stumble, or you might fall to your death. After ten more minutes of climbing, the man reached the top. He was nearly out of breath and had to take a breather before speaking.
“Sir?” the young corporal said, his voice strained despite his efforts to hide his exhaustion from his master.
“What is it,” Private First Class Obiscor snapped back at the soldier, still facing the sun. “I gave orders not to be disturbed.” The light couldn’t hurt him, but it made him irritable.
“It’s the Colonel, Sir. He’s on his way to speak to you. Something to do with insubordination, I believe.” The corporal’s voice betrayed his inner conflict.
Obiscor turned his head towards the other man, opened his eyes, and smiled. “There is no need for concern, my young disciple. The Colonel is among the unenlightened.”
“He has men with him. His own men,” the corporal protested. “They are many.”
“I will speak to them, share with them the Word, and they will understand. The Colonel will come to know God as we do, and all will be well.” Or, if he doesn’t, I’ll have his own men smite him with stones and throw his corpse from the heights. Either way, I’ll be in charge.
All uncertainty fled from the corporal’s face. “In God we trust.”
Obiscor nodded his agreement. “He is the beginning and the end, the creator and destroyer, and we are his chosen people.”
The corporal smiled blissfully. The idiot had no clue whatsoever as to the nature of the God he thought he worshipped. Only the Preachers knew the truth—and Obiscor was the last one on Protasia. Unless you counted Verrigan. He knew, of course. But the apostate had turned his back to God.
“Well, then. Let’s not keep the Colonel waiting. Hurry back down and send him to me. I’ll wait here.” And with that, he closed his eyes again and turned back to the painful rays of the sun high above, contemplating the injustices of the past.
He had come to Thira—or Athens as it was called now—posing as Preacher Ramush. It seemed the ideal place to start anew. The city had been spared the worst atrocities. Many buildings were still standing, utilities were—partially—in working order, and the city retained a substantial population. Not as many as it had during the pre-war years, but there were still a couple of million people eking out a living within the city limits. The army units garrisoning the place were of the civilized kind. They kept the peace with a minimum of bloodshed. Thira was even blessedly free of competition: the Conclave and the Dragon Order had wiped out the local congregation early in the war. The city really was the right place to start over.
He had started by converting soldiers from the Coalition invasion forces. He had to be careful, though. The Coalition troops were part of a larger organization, one that didn’t accept any challenges to its authority. If he went too far, they would notice, and that would be the end of his new congregation.
For that reason, he had diverted some of his attention to the locals. He’d roamed the indigenous zones and quickly gained converts—thousands in just a few short months. The desperate and the downtrodden were so eager to grasp at just the slightest glimmer of hope now that their own Gods had abandoned them. With the power of the Word infusing his sermons, they converted in droves. Anybody who resisted his sorceries took care of.
To the Coalition soldiers, he was Reverend Ramush, a wandering churchman that comforted them, exiled as they were to this war-torn world. To the locals, he was a man of their own blood, a simple clergyman carried to Thira on the tides of war. Having converts on both sides was always useful, giving him access to intelligence and resources he otherwise would not have.
Only a fraction of the converts were fully exposed to the Word and turned into true Brethren. Such was the Will of the Prophet. The rest of his disciples made up an outer circle of followers, whose purpose was to provide the inner circle with resources and to provide a layer of obfuscation. If the Coalition cared to look, it would see only insurgents and fail to spot the Preacher spreading the Word.
Obiscor looked down the hill of rubble. The corporal had reached the base of the rubble mountain far below and was explaining the situation to the Colonel. Now he turned around and pointed forwards the little figure perched on the nanocrete high above. The Preacher saw sunlight reflected from a pair of binoculars. Obiscor rose and waved down to them, grinning. A rifle or two was pointed his way. It didn’t matter. They could not strike him at this distance, even if they tried. His wards were too strong for that.
No shots were fired, however, and soon a group of about twenty men started on the long climb. Obiscor settled down again and pulled out his pipe. He stuffed it with blueweed—a mix of local herbs steeped in a mild narcotic. He would have more than enough time to finish it before they reached the top.
The plan had worked wonderfully for a while. Trouble had come from an unexpected direction. Not from the Conclave or the Dragon Order. Not even from First Minister Verrigan, who had not yet claimed his fief. It was elements of the Coalition garrison that had chosen to interfere with his growing following in the indig zones.
He’d tried dealing with them, but it had all gone to shit. Despite having a force of more than two hundred heavily armed and fanatical Brethren warriors, he had failed. The soldiers had somehow tricked him, painted him into a corner, and then wiped out his warriors and subalterns.
It was the closest to real death he had ever come. Not since his pre-Bishop years had the Preacher been in such mortal peril. He found himself trapped inside a ruined building with a superior enemy force converging on his position from multiple directions. He was there, helpless to intervene, as the last Brethren warriors were overwhelmed.
He had been forced to call upon one of his oldest pacts. Even as the Coalition soldiers had dragged him kicking and screaming into the dusty streets of Thira, he had called, and the darkness had answered. The price of aid would be high, but he was all out of options.
You will bring me a Name, Preacher, the darkness had spoken into his mind. It shall be that Name which is both thine and thy enemy’s, that Name which defines the both of you, that name which rings True. This Name, you will know, and when you know it, you will offer it up to me, and your debt shall be considered repaid in full.
The Preacher had no idea what the darkness was talking about. It sounded innocent enough but probably wasn’t. But he had no time to argue. He’d watched as the five captured Brethren warriors were flayed alive and suspended from roadside lampposts to die. He was up next. He could only acquiesce to the demands.
As soon as he agreed, the darkness had latched onto his soul with fanged tentacles and torn it from his body. It had done the same with one of the enemy soldiers, a man who had been active with the skinning knife. Using its Abyss-given powers, the darkness had soul-shifted Ramush into the body of the soldier, and vice versa. It was a painful, disorienting experience, worse even than his own rituals, but still much preferable to dying for real.
And none too soon: the Preacher had watched from his new body as the stern-faced Colonel of the 57th Loches had ordered some filthy local kid to carry out the execution of his former body. It was beyond demeaning.
In his new flesh, he’d followed the soldiers back to their base. Trying to convert any of them was out of the question. He was barely able to maintain his cover; there were only hazy memory flashes and fleeting emotions to base his impersonation upon. If he started spreading the Word, they would become suspicious and alert their officers. He would be dragged in front of the Colonel again. Only this time, the Preacher would have no more tricks up his sleeve. He had to wait until the opportunity to desert presented itself.
His old body was dead. He had to establish a new identity, based on his current flesh body, and find new converts. It felt like a chore to have to do it again so soon. But the Word demanded it from him, so that was how it must be.
The group was half-way up the hill now. Obiscor could begin to make out some of the faces below. He didn’t recognize very many of them, and the group didn’t include a single soul who had taken to the Word.
Here I am, King of nothing much but this hill, served by a handful of simple, uneducated warriors. I’ve been lax in my duties. It is time to stop brooding, time to heed the Word and the Will. I have my work cut out for me.
He set down his pipe, got to his feet, and pulled his uniform shirt over his head. His torso and arms were covered in scars, old and new, some of them still weeping blood. Time to add a few more.
He drew his ceremonial blade and started cutting his own flesh. By the time he started chanting, the blood was mingling with the dust and the sweat, creating swirls and patterns not entirely of this world. Come. Come listen to me. I will show you the truth. I will make you whole. I will set you free.
The wind picked up, slowly at first, then with ever-increasing fury. It whipped up great clouds of dust, enough to block out the sun. Only the top of the hill was eerily untouched as if the wind dared not touch the lone, bleeding figure standing there. Or perhaps it merely danced to his mad rhythm, spinning faster and faster, even as the man turned round and round.
The colonel and his men finally gained the summit. Well, not all of them. Two men had been pulled from the ground by the devil winds and hurled to their deaths. Others had gotten lost in the roiling dust or simply lost heart. Only ten soldiers stood by the colonel now, staring at the half-naked madman across fifty meters of fallen nanocrete.
“Obiscor!” the colonel shouted. “What is the meaning of this!?”
“It is the Will,” he shouted back over the wind. “The Will of the Prophet as told us by the Word of Light!”
“I know nothing of this Word of yours, Obiscor, but I know it’s not of the Pantheon. You’re playing with heresy. The Conclave will have your hide for this. And I mean to be the one to bring you in,” the officer shouted over the wind.
Ramush put on his most winning smile. “I confess, my Colonel: there is only One True God, and I am his disciple. I care nothing for your gods. I have nothing but contempt for your laughable Pantheon. I spit on its so-called priests.”
“He confesses his crime. Seize him,” the colonel commanded two of his men. They moved cautiously forward, while the rest continued to cover Obiscor with pulsers and autoguns.
Obiscor reached towards the sky with his arms, and then put his hands behind his head, a clear sign of his surrender. Encouraged by his docile behavior, the two soldiers sprang forward and seized him. They forced him to the ground and pinned his arms behind his back.
“Tell me,” he said softly, his words barely audible above the roar of the wind, “do you have a moment to contemplate the 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.
“Prisoner secure, Colonel Kor-Amir,” one of the soldiers declared.
“Excellent,” the colonel declared. “Bring him. If he tries anything funny: beat him. But don’t kill him. The priests will pay us more handsomely if he’s alive. They so like to torture heretics.”
They started down the hill. The wind made it slow going, especially since the prisoner had to be half dragged, half carried down. But there were no further accidents, only frequent stops while they waited for a particularly violent gust to pass.
By the time they reached the bottom of the rubble hill, the wind had died down, and there was not one man who had not heard the Preacher speak. Not one man who had not forsworn the Gods of the Pantheon. Such was the power of the Word.
Obiscor smiled. His new congregation had gotten a slow start, but now things were definitely looking up. The nosy Conclave preachers and their heavy-handed amazons were gone. The same with the thrice-damned Dragon Order, the field office they maintained in Thira was little more than an empty shell now, manned by a token staff under the command of some nameless prefect. They cared nothing for Akakian insurgents—as long as no mention of the Word and the Will was made, there would be no trouble coming from that quarter. Soon he’d be the unseen king of this entire city.
He wasn’t concerned about the Conclave or the Dragon Order. The wild card was Viscount Verrigan, the new Lord of Athens. The mad-man had been well-behaved thus far. He was pretending to be the dutiful and pious noble, cultivating his connections within the Count-Planetar’s court and the Temple of Protasia. But he would not be able to keep up the masquerade for long. His dark nature would soon enough exert itself. Then he would go on to do far worse things than seduce amazon virgins.
Let Verrigan think he was in charge. It would be Obiscor that ruled the people’s hearts and souls. When the time came, something horrible would happen to the First Minister—and he would be there to watch, ready to seize power, to rule from the shadows.
Vern’s old heart finally gave up around oh eight hundred hours, in no small part thanks to the furious beating he’d received at the hands of Prefect Maximilian Eccard.
The Preacher’s soul lingered for a while after death, waiting for a host to come. One that had heard the Word and embraced the darkness, and was willing to do everything to help the Shadow engulf the universe.
Arranging for his own escape had taken more years than he bothered to count. How did an inmate in the most secure prison imaginable start a Shadow-cult right under the noses of the universe’s most diligent Shadow-hunters?
But there was more. He had to build a following within the Dragon’s lair without openly revealing his true nature to the man who’s body and mind he shared. If he acted openly, the dragonsworn would know—and inform Xerza.
She’d be dutybound to conduct another exorcism. If the ritual worked, he’d be cast out, reduced to a mere ghost, without purpose or power. If the ceremony didn’t work, like that first time she tried it, there would be no hiding from the Censors. They would be more thorough—he wouldn’t be able to fool them a second time.
It had seemed an impossible task, but he had persevered. Remained patient and carefully built up his own shadowy organization until the day had come when it was mature enough to get him out. Then it was just a matter of waiting for another Aaron clone to arrive. Vern knew him only too well, having awakened him many times. Manipulating him into beating the old man to death wasn’t that hard.
When his new host body finally did arrive, it was a woman. He hadn’t expected that. Not that it mattered all that much. There was a first for everything.