|Sunday, August 14th, 2016|
This month, I have draft of the Retribution prologue for you! Normal disclaimers apply: everything is subject to change, and there are likely spoilers for anyone who hasn’t caught up with Absolution yet.
Enjoy and feel free to let me know what you think!
The Aether was many things. An endless expanse of thought and emotion. A scintillating mosaic of light and shadow. A terrifying source of power for mortals who desired everything yet understood nothing.
But most of all, it was a graveyard for those who had tried and failed to stop these “Unbound” from poisoning their own world. And Orias, the last of the Immortals, had been hearing the echo of his people’s dying screams for so long he had forgotten the sound of silence.
His consciousness was flotsam in the Aether, completely at the mercy of its whims and currents. The physical world was a pale shadow at the fringes of his mind, and no matter how hard he focused he couldn’t make himself manifest. Not yet.
“I haven’t betrayed you,” he insisted to the voices that refused to listen. “I have saved you. I have made us whole again.”
Their answer was the same as always: hollow cries of anguish followed by the vivid memories of their mortal worshippers turning against them. One by one his brothers and sisters fell, usurped by false gods and their boundless ambition. And the faster his people fell, the more powerful the mortals became.
“For an age I have watched them,” Orias insisted. “For an age I have destroyed them. But their avarice cannot be quenched, and their power cannot be contained. Our only chance is to unite in purpose as well as form. Division is their weakness—we cannot afford to make it ours as well.”
Orias tried to turn away from the memories and ignore the voices, but there was no escaping either. He had no eyes to close or ears to plug. The physical world was a dark and dreary place, but there was a reason he spent so much time there inside a host. Sometimes, limitation meant liberation.
Before the recent destruction of his mortal shell, he had finally been able to merge the strongest of his brethren’s voices into one. Zerel, the goddess of long-forgotten wars and those who had been destroyed by them, had spent an eternity trapped beneath the earth bleeding her energy into the world; Anvira, the patron of the druids, had spent the same years locked inside a prison surrounded by fools. They were a part of him now, and their combined strength was nearly enough to destroy the false gods and end this war once and for all.
“Whatever happens, I will not forget you,” he promised. “Your memories will live on through me. Your powers will live on through me. And your pain, your suffering…I will forge them into a weapon. I will use them to cleanse this world and rebuild a new one from the ashes. The mortals will face justice for their betrayal.”
Orias expected them to protest. He expected them to scream and wail just as they had always done. But for the first time in an age, their only response was silence. A long, hopeful silence.
He wasn’t sure if they believed him or not. He wasn’t even sure if his words and feelings could even reach them anymore. His people were echoes now, not consciousness; they were shattered fragments of a whole rather than the whole itself. But every once in a while, he swore he could feel them come alive again, if only for an instant.
Not justice, they whispered to him. Retribution.
“Yes,” Orias agreed. “Retribution.”
The word rippled through the Aether like an undercurrent, tugging all the fragments of his brethren back to him. Their thoughts and memories became one with his, and his consciousness transformed from flotsam to vortex. He was no longer at the mercy of the storm—he had become the storm. He shed the mantle of Orias and became something greater. The last god. The only god. The One God.
His eyes fluttered open. Once again the mortal world sprawled out before him, and he drew a deep breath into the lungs of his host body. One by one his physical senses returned: hearing, touch, smell…and then finally sight. His eyes required several seconds to adjust to the near darkness; his ears, however, were instantly drawn to the muted cries and crashes of a nearby battle.
Another deep breath rattled through his lungs as he studied his surroundings. He was lying atop a cold stone slab, and he instantly recognized the engravings on the ceiling. This was Anubek Tor, the last standing temple of Orias in all Obsidian. But strangely, none of his supplicants were looming over him to aid with the transference ritual…
“My lord! Praise the Aether you’ve returned!”
Dathiel sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the slab. The rest of the antechamber was empty aside from a single black-robed man. He stumbled inside and sealed the door, a trail of fresh blood smeared along the wall behind him.
“You must leave quickly, my lord,” the man, High Priest Casadyn, pleaded between labored breaths. “They aim to destroy you before you can fully gather your strength.”
Dathiel concentrated upon the sounds of battle vibrating through the walls. He could sense almost thirty individual minds, including several that were near death. Normally he could identify them or even control them outright, but the transference ritual had obviously been interrupted. For the moment, he only had access to a small portion of his abilities.
“Who are they?” he asked. The voice of his new body sounded strange in his ears. “Minions of the Unbound?”
“N-no, my lord,” Casadyn said as he slowly sank down to his knees. His injuries were severe—it was clearly taking all of his effort just to remain conscious. “They are priests.”
“Priests? Whose priests?”
Casadyn grimaced. “Yours, my lord.”
Dathiel leapt down off the slab. “Explain.”
“When they heard of your defeat in Solaria, they decided to…” Casadyn closed his eyes and grimaced as he mustered the last of his strength. “You must leave now, my lord, before they breach the—”
A thunderous boom shuddered through the antechamber as the attackers attempted to smash their way through the door. The wood was thick and reinforced with an enchantment, but it still wouldn’t last for long.
“I will not retreat from my own temple,” Dathiel declared. He stepped over to Casadyn and helped hold the priest up. “Nor will I abandon my loyal supplicants.”
A burst of brilliant yellowish light erupted from his hands and encased Casadyn in a luminous cocoon. Divine energy coursed through the priest, mending his flesh and restoring his vitality, before the cocoon molted away and dissipated.
“My lord…” Casadyn breathed, his eyes gaping wide in awe.
“Remain here,” Dathiel ordered. “If your brethren wish my attention, they shall have it.”
Turning towards the door, he extended his hand and unleashed a seismic wave of telekinetic force. The stone splintered like glass beneath a hammer, showering the main chamber in a barrage of pebbles. The men outside the door were hurled backwards, and their battering ram soared through the air until it crashed down atop a row of wooden pews.
A low rumble echoed off the walls for several seconds as the attackers stumbled to their feet and realized what was happening. Dathiel stepped over the debris, his eyes sweeping back and forth across the men and women who had defiled his temple. He recognized each and every one of them; many had loyally served the Watchers for decades.
Scattered between them, their bodies pierced by arrows or swords, were Casadyn’s acolytes. They had died defending this holy place from their own brethren.
“What have you done?” Dathiel asked. His voice was barely a whisper, yet the temple foundation trembled at every word.
“No,” one of the attackers, a woman named Cyrel, breathed as she dragged herself back to her feet. “No, you’re not supposed to be here!”
“This is my temple. And you are my servants.”
“Not anymore,” another man, Revick, hissed from behind a shattered pew. His sword still dripped with fresh blood. “Not after you betrayed us!”
Dathiel took another step forward. “I have betrayed no one.”
“Except for the faeyn. And the knights. And the druids!”
“And us,” Cyrel added. “We served you loyally, and you repaid us by stealing away our magic and leaving us in darkness!”
Dathiel stopped at the center of the chamber. “I see,” he murmured. “Like all mortals, you believe you are entitled to that which doesn’t belong to you.”
“We earned the right to channel!” Revick snarled. “We gave you everything!”
Their rage burned like fire in the Aether, and Dathiel finally understood. For over a millennium he and his brethren had been party to a grand deception. In order to fight back against the Unbound, they had pretended to be Ascendants. The druids, the paladins, the Watchers—they had all captured a “divine spark,” a fragment of Unbound power, and used it to imbue their followers with the ability to channel the Aether.
It was a perverse form of pragmatism and sickening hypocrisy. Rather than continuing the fight on their own, the Triumvirate had successfully harnessed the energies of the very enemies that had destroyed them. This deception had allowed the Watchers to contain the Unbound and limit the scope of their atrocities, but it had never granted them enough power to actually win this Godswar once and for all. Only the combined might of the surviving Immortals could do that.
And only Dathiel could unite them.
“Your service has been exemplary,” he said, glancing between each and every one of the attackers. “But I have not betrayed you—I have liberated you from an unfair burden. No mortal should wield the power of the gods, not even their most loyal supplicants.”
“You expect us to fight the Sovereigns without magic?” Cyrel asked. “You expect us to kill the Unbound without protection?”
“I was all the protection you ever needed,” Dathiel told her. “Even if your mortal shells had failed you, I would have shielded your souls for eternity.”
Revick hissed and twirled his sword. “And what about in this world? What do you offer us here?”
“Before today, I offered you the only sustenance mortals require: a clear and vital purpose. But now…” Dathiel knelt down over one of the corpses and retrieved the broken, blood-splattered mask from its face. “Now you have spilled the blood of the faithful. Now you have betrayed your oaths, your kin, and your god.”
He slowly rose back to his feet, the bloody mask clutched in his hand. “Now I have only one thing left to offer you,” he whispered. “Oblivion.”
With the flick a finger, Dathiel purged every breath of air from the chamber. The attackers realized what he’d done immediately. They clutched at their throats and waved their arms as their lungs seized. They tried to call out to their comrades as their eyes bulged in horror. But without the wind to carry their cries, they drowned in silence.
Some directed their final bursts of rage at the avatar they had once served. Swords, spears, arrows—they all pierced Dathiel’s mortal shell, but his wounds sealed before his flesh spilled a single drop of blood. In the end, the traitors died just as all mortals did, terrified and alone.
“Casadyn,” he called out once the last body had collapsed upon the floor. Air rushed back into the chamber and filled his nostrils with the scent of blood and incense.
“My lord?” the priest whispered from the antechamber doorway. He seemed unable to drag his eyes away from the corpses.
“You will acquire the necessary reagents to complete the transference ritual,” Dathiel ordered. “This shell is not yet at full strength.”
“Yes, my lord. Of course.”
“Do not weep for the fallen, my child. Those who died defending my name shall spend eternity at my side. And once this war is over, they shall bask in the glory of the One God.”
Casadyn nodded solemnly. “Your other subjects are ready to serve, of course. Since your defeat, we have been attempting to—”
“The enemy has a new weapon,” Dathiel said. “An abomination of great power.”
“A dragon, yes. Our agents report that it may only be the first of many.”
“It must be destroyed, and all knowledge of its creation must be eradicated. This is our first and only priority.”
Dathiel turned and strode up to the throne along the chamber’s northern wall. It was flanked on either side by two statues, each representing one of his dormant siblings: Anvira, Krosis, Maeleon, and Zerel. When he sat down, he could feel a tiny fraction of their power coursing through him. More importantly, he could sense the wayward souls of those he had yet to capture. They were still out there in darkness, yearning to rejoin him…
“We have located the Solarian breeding grounds, my lord,” Casadyn said after a moment, “but without an army we cannot challenge the Dragon Queen’s garrison.”
“We won’t need an army,” Dathiel replied.
Casadyn’s lip twitched. “Forgive me, my lord, but you cannot afford to risk yourself against this creature again.”
“I don’t intend to. We have other options.”
Lifting his arms from the throne, Dathiel reached out and tore open a rift between the Aether and the physical world. It only took a moment for a horde of his spectral servants to pour out into the temple.
“Demons,” the priest breathed.
“A word created by the ignorant to describe that which they do not understand,” Dathiel said. “They are echoes of the fallen, nothing more. And if we can no longer rely upon the soldiers of this world, then we shall summon aid from another.”
Casadyn nodded but remained silent. His eyes flicked about the chamber, but his mortal vision couldn’t even perceive the creatures.
“Take these bodies,” Dathiel said, gesturing to the bodies strewn across the floor. “Wear them to battle in my name.”
His servants eagerly obeyed. One by one the corpses twitched back to life as the “demons” burrowed in and seized control. Soon they were standing and awaiting his command.
“This may not be enough, my lord,” Casadyn warned. “And they will have to travel some distance.”
“My servants are legion, and distance is irrelevant,” Dathiel said. “The time has come for the Watchers to leave the shadows, my servant. I will not allow this girl-queen to imprison my sister, and I will not allow the false gods to ravage this world. We will find and destroy them.”
“Of course. As always, I trust in the infinite wisdom of the One God.”
“As well you should. There was a time when mortals considered faith a virtue.”
“Many still do, my lord,” Casadyn assured him. “And the rest…they’re simply confused. They don’t understand why you’ve been silent, and they’ve forgotten the extent of your power.”
Dathiel smiled. “Then it is time for us to help them remember.”
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