Dream of the Prophet
The Gods and the Demons have been at war since time began. Their battle rages on each and every world in existence. The goal of this war - to seal off the enemy from each of the worlds, one by one. Until, eventually, the enemy has been sealed off from all of existence.
On one particular lonely world, the Demons have won.
Sirvina was a Demon. She was the Lord of Spite, and the so-called Goddess of Devotion and Retribution. And unlike most Demons, she was beautiful. But not just to weak human eyes - which could only see the illusions that the Demons wanted them to see. She was beautiful in truth. Though it was a feral kind of beauty.
Just the scent of her - a scent of jasmine and rotting leather - caused me to tense uncontrollably. And in my currently weakened state, her presence also made me afraid, and I whipped around to confront her. Discovering that she was lying seductively upon a rock nearby, staring down at me.
"Zellnos, my pet," she said gently, in her throaty voice. "I could not believe it when I heard - they said you had willingly left your duty to Demon Lord Daes Daegule, and had returned yourself to your exile. I didn't think anyone of intelligence could make such a choice. But, here you are."
I scowled grimly. "Have you come to kill me for what I did?"
"No, my pet," she said quietly, but in such a way as to leave no doubt that she very well could have, both physically and emotionally, if she had wanted. "I came here only to see you. To see if it was true that you had walked away from the protection and comforts of the Iron Cities, all for this sorry existence out here in the desert."
My jaw tightened. "I could not serve Daegule."
"Even though serving him meant an end to your exile?"
"...And even though you knew that the Demon Lords would never make you such an offer again?"
She cocked her head at me. "So, you chose an existence that you loathe over a life of power in the Iron Cities?"
"The price was too high."
She leapt down off of the rock and, in one smooth movement, brought herself over to me, reached out her hand, and caressed the underside of my chin. "Ah, a man of conviction."
"Rather, a man of pride."
"Very...interesting." She slowly leaned closer, as if to kiss me.
I didn't resist. Couldn't have, even if I had wanted to, in my current weakened state.
She smiled. And slapped me, with the strength of a Demon, sending me reeling to the ground. "You disappoint me," she said, speaking just as gently as she had before.
Then she bounded away into the desert.
For three years, I had traveled through the burning heat of the Flatlands. For three years, the Flatlands had tested me. And it was I who had won.
Yet the testing had left me weak. Almost as weak as one of the pitiable humans. But I had not fallen quite that far. It would take something more powerful than the emptiness of the Flatlands to bring me that low. For I was Tsarvrath - halfling demonkin. Half-demon, half-man. And while my kind could be tested by a desert, we could not be broken by it.
Still, the testing had left me weak. I needed to hunt and to feast and to sleep. And it was while I was sleeping that they came for me.
Halflings do not normally need sleep. It is not in our nature. And even when we do sleep, it is not the same. Our senses are not dulled while we are at rest, making it no less difficult for an enemy to sneak up upon us when we are asleep as when we are awake.
But this was not that kind of enemy. This enemy did not come at me in physical form. Neither did they come to kill me. They came instead with temptations. Always with their temptations.
The Voices - the Voices that had always plagued me.
Zellnos. The feminine Voice - the kindest of the three. You have helped us much in the past.
I growled. "Only to my lasting regret."
And we would like to reward you for that help, in order to show you how grateful we are.
A gift, demonkin... One of the male Voices - the contemptual one. We offer you another deal...but this time one entirely in your favor.
"You think I would willingly make another deal with you?" I snorted in contempt.
Our last deal allowed you to pull down the palace at Eivanore. I would think that you would be grateful, demonkin.
"Our last deal also got me trapped in the Flatlands for three years."
True. ...There were hidden consequences to your part of the agreement. He laughed. But this is different. This time we are giving you a reward, and the advantage is all on your side.
"Your deals are always too costly. I imagine your rewards are worse."
We are only trying to give you something that you want, demonkin.
"No. You are trying to manipulate me into making another deal with you."
Mmhm. We are, indeed, asking for another deal, demonkin. But what we are asking of you is such a small thing, and what we are offering to you is so very large.
"Go. Away!" And I did everything I could to shut them out. In an instant, then, the feminine and contemptual Voices became distant, hollow noises to my ears - sounding as if they were coming from very far away. Too far away to be understood.
Yet, when the other male Voice - the hard one - spoke to me, his voice was so powerful that his words were only slightly muffled. Emar Varagon Savanied.
For a moment, hearing that name, I let my guard down. Unintentionally.
And into that moment of weakness, the contemptual Voice inserted himself. Yes, demonkin. The priest! ...Your oldest enemy. The one who cursed you all those millennia ago for your actions during Godfall. The only one of your enemies to ever truly hurt you. ...And he didn't do so through combat, which you would have respected, but from a distance, through his prayers.
I growled low in my throat.
Striking you from the shadows. Unseen. Unheard. Unknown. And so strong were his prayers, that his curse still claims you, even after all of these millennia.
"Yes," I mumbled. "It does."
Mmhm. The contemptual Voice sounded as if he were smiling. I can sense your hate, demonkin. Your desire for revenge. And it is that that we are offering you.
I sneered. Once again, the Voices had failed to understand me. True, they were right that I desired revenge against Emar Savanied - he was probably the one man in all of existence that I would seek revenge upon. But they were wrong to think that I would want to inflict my desire for revenge upon Savanied's descendants. Such ways had never been in my nature, and never would be. "I have no desire to take revenge upon a dead man."
Ah, but who said that Savanied was dead?
I snorted. "He was human. He died long ago."
You are wrong, demonkin. He is very much still alive. And the contemptual Voice laughed.
"I do not believe you."
It is true, Zellnos. The feminine Voice. He is still alive._
The desire for revenge was still quiet within me, but it was there. As was the desire to never have anything to do with the Voices again. "The man is human. How is he still alive?"
The feminine Voice sighed. He was given long life for the work that he did before Godfall. And, since then, he has been careful to never attract the attention of the Demonaazguledd.
The first part of that claim was definitely possible, but the second... "No human could have avoided the Demon Lords' attention for this long." Yet, if any of them could have done it, it would have been Savanied. He had always been cleverer than most of his weak race.
He is the last of his kind. The hard Voice.
The last of the priests of the Gods. The feminine Voice.
Yes. And we give him to you, demonkin. The contemptual Voice. If you want him.
"Why would you do this?"
Because we want to reward you, demonkin. The contemptual Voice. And this is something that we can now give you. All that we ask for is a tiny favor in return.
I clenched my jaw. "What is the favor?"
Please, Zellnos. The feminine Voice. Do this for us.
"What is the favor?"
When someone comes to you seeking a guide through the desert, we want you to take him wherever he wants to go.
And also, you are to make sure that he gets there. The contemptual Voice.
That is all, demonkin.
I accepted the deal. How could I not, with what they were offering.
Godfall. It was the name that the Gods had given to the final war between the Gods and the Demons. A war that I had been very instrumental in the outcome of. And, long ago, somehow Emar Savanied had found out about my part in it, and at the very end, had cursed me for it.
Now, I would at last have my revenge for all of these years of torment.
I ran through the ruin of the town of Lus Merganis, looking for the temple to the Gods that the Voices had told me would be there.
Monks stepped out of the ruined buildings and tried to stop my advance. Monks who were wearing the black robes and steel belts and leather bands of the dark priests of the Demon Lords, but who did not bear the Stigmas that the Lords gifted to their most devout followers. And how no one had ever discovered these people and seen through their disguise during all of these years, I had no idea.
But they were discovered now. And I slaughtered every weak human that I came across, servant of the temple or not. Because anyone who was here in this ruin was obviously in support of Emar Savanied, and thus deserved to die.
And blood soon coated every street of the town, as I lived up to the battlename that the humans had given me - The Render. A name given to me both because it was deserved, and because the humans had come to fear to speak my true name aloud.
The senses of the Tsarvrath are much greater than that of the weakling humans, and by the time I came upon the Temple of the Gods, there was no one left alive in all of Lus Merganis, save for the temple itself. Which I finally approached.
The temple had fallen in upon itself. The roof had collapsed, and the four towers were so bowed that they were nearly touching. The entrance was impassable, completely obscured by rubble. But, behind the rubble, hidden amongst the fallen pillars, was a tiny hole opening onto makeshift stairs leading down into the earth. Down to the lower floor of the temple. A level that still existed in all of the glory of the past.
And it was with something beyond shock that I encountered the old symbols written upon the walls, the basins of sanctified water, the purified ground, and the scent of incense. Because, even though I had known that this was a temple to the Gods - the only one such left in existence - I had not at all expected...the past.
It was as if nothing had changed in tens of thousands of years. As if Godfall had never actually happened. As if the wasted world that I knew was only just a nightmare, and had never actually existed.
But this was all just a passing moment, of course. A spell of the past that had somehow claimed me. A spell that was instantly broken when two monks stepped into the chamber.
They noticed me, and paused in fright. Yet then the spirit of their faith came over them, and they both charged me, howling.
I left their blood strewn over every single wall of the chamber. And the past became the present.
Through the doorway that the monks had come from was the Statue Room - a room devoted to a depiction of each of the Gods, in all of their glory and fallen magnificence. The statues were set back in nooks along the walls, and were lifelike in every way. Except that the paint had flecked off over the millennia, leaving only plain, pale stone. Which was a lapse on the part of the monks, but an understandable one, since they wouldn't have been able to secretly smuggle paint all of the way out here, to the middle of nowhere.
Yet, the monks had obviously risked something, because all of the statues' eyes were still colored a soft blue. Blue - the color of the Gods. Just as all true Demon eyes are red.
And it was actually chilling - a feeling I am not at all used to experiencing - to have all of those pale eyes staring at me as I passed through the room. Obviously, it was only imagination, of course, but I still got the sense that the statues were watching me, judging me.
After the Statue Room came the Worship Room. Then the Vestments Chamber. And beyond that were the quarters of the devout. There weren't many people at the temple. Far fewer than I expected. But I was remembering the past. And what I was walking through was a secret temple devoted to long-banished Gods, hidden away in an ancient ruin out in the middle of the desert. Really, it should have been surprising to me that there were so many people as there were.
I left no one alive in the temple, just as I had done in the city above.
Yet, nowhere had I found Emar Savanied. And, even though many years had passed, I would know him, no matter what changes so much time had wrought. Him, I would know. There was no forgetting Savanied. Not for me. After what he had done.
And I began to scream at the Voices, thinking that they had betrayed me.
But then, I came to a simple monk's cell at the very back of the temple and discovered that all was just as the Voices had said.
The cell was like any of the others, except that there were more cushions laid out across the mat that was a bed. And upon those cushions lay a very old human man. Faded. Sallow. Wracked by coughing.
Even seeing him like this, I instantly knew him for who he was. Savanied.
An old man who was almost dead. With eyes so cloudy that they could no longer see. And a body so weak that it could no longer even fully lift itself upright. A man much faded from that which I had known. And I screamed in rage at the terrible fact that the Voices had once more succeeded in manipulating me. Had succeeded, despite all of the promises that I had made to myself to never let it happen again.
As the echo of my scream faded from the halls of the last temple to the Gods, I discovered that the old man's head had turned to face me. It was obvious that he could see little, but he still stared up at me. Unblinking. "I recognize that battlecry." His voice was much weakened from what I had known. But it was still shockingly strong - still the powerful voice that Savanied had been famous for. "...Zellnos."
I said nothing, breathing heavily.
"Everyone is dead, then, I suppose." His tone was slightly sad.
I stilled my breathing for a moment, but still said nothing.
He coughed violently. "And you and I are the last ones alive."
"...Not for long."
"Mm." Feebly, he raised a hand, and gestured. "Come closer."
I was wary. As always. But I did step closer. And I could smell the death on him. It was close, but it would not be coming soon. He might linger on for months yet.
Trembling with weakness, he brought his hand over mine and gripped it, despite the claws which pierced his skin. "Zellnos. You sound as if you are still angry with me."
"After what you did to me? Of course I am."
"Mm, just as I am still angry with you. Strange, is it not, how little the two of us have changed, even after all of these many years?"
"I do not find it strange at all."
"Ah, how much things change, and how much they stay the same."
"The world always changes. It is the people that stay the same."
"Mm. I suppose that a Demon would know such things better than anyone." His voice turned distant. "I often think back to that time now. The time before the Godfall. In my dreams, I even still live there." He sighed. "Do you ever think upon that time?"
Carefully, trembling with weakness, he placed his other hand over mine. "There is one thing that I simply must know, before... Tell me. Do you still love her? The Goddess, Salanae." There was a strange mixture of anxiety, hope, and dread in his tone. And he stared up at me with his bleary eyes, searching.
"My kind do not love."
"You are wrong. The Demons do not love, but halflings yet have the potential."
"I have never loved anyone."
However, his attention was not on my words, but was instead on my hand, which was gripping his too strongly, drawing blood. And he released my hand, and settled back onto his bed, a soft, satisfied smile upon his lips.
I didn't like this line of questioning. So I put an end to it, thrusting all five of the claws of my right hand deep into his heart.
But this time, the blood and the violence brought me little satisfaction. Instead, it mostly just brought me more anger.
I returned to the desert. And I ran. Ran with no destination in mind. Just wanting to get away from the site of my latest failure to avoid the Voices' temptations.
And I was still running three days later when they came for me.
"I will not listen anymore!" I screamed at the sky.
But the feminine Voice only said, sadly, It is time, Zellnos. We have fulfilled our part of the deal, and now it is your turn.
"Everything you say is lies!"
Remember, Zellnos. He will come to you.
Would you really break our deal, demonkin? The contemptual Voice. Has your honor really fallen so low?
My only answer to this was a scream. A scream that echoed off of the desert hills.
My anger at the Voices somehow mixed with my anger at High Priest Emar Savanied and with my frustration at my weakness at falling for the Voices' temptations. And the mixture became a kind of insanity.
There was so much anger that I could not control it anymore. Could not control myself. And when I came across the village of Chamall, huddled around its chalky well, I laid it waste. Burning whatever remained. Then I stood beside the inferno, and reveled in the flaming destruction.
It was as the fires turned into embers that he came upon me. He was human, and had the look of one of them who had been out in the desert alone for a very long time. Though he was young still. And strong with his youth. Yet, his eyes, wherever he gazed, always seemed to be looking upon something else. Something, perhaps, better.
By his dress, he obviously was not a part of the village. But, even so, I expected to see rage or fear in him as he came upon the smoking ruin. Yet, I saw neither. He didn't even turn his gaze to his surroundings, instead keeping his eyes to the path that he walked, and occasionally upon me - his destination. As if he didn't care about the destruction. Or as if this was only what he had expected.
As he drew close, I bared my claws at him.
At that, he stopped his advance, and raised his eyes to mine. But it was as if he wasn't looking at me, but at something within me. Which was a stupid notion, on my part, and I quickly destroyed it.
Then he turned his eyes to my claws. "I have no desire to war with you." His voice was deep, quiet, and distant.
I growled, low in the back of my throat. "You have come upon a place of death. And thus, you will die."
He did not cower. He did not even flinch. And he did not look away from me. "If you desire to kill me, then I will accept it. But I will not fight you, Tsarvrath. I do not war."
His lack of fear made me curious. And curiosity and anger, I quickly discovered, did not mix well. But I held on to what I could. "Then you will die a weakling."
"Death comes to us all, weak or strong. And so, it is not death that makes us weak, Tsarvrath, but the way we live."
I have no idea why his words should have given me pause. I do not think that I even really understood them. But so it was. "...You are a coward."
He took a step towards me. "I have felt the madness you feel, Tsarvrath-- it is not easy to deal with the Gods. But I have come to accept it."
A chill went through me at those words, cooling my anger. And, knowing that this man had been used as I had, I even began to gain a little respect for him. "...You are the one they sent to me, aren't you?"
I ground my teeth together for a moment, and made a decision. "What do you want of me?"
"Did they not tell you? I am in need of a guide through the desert. You are to be my guide, if you will accept the duty."
"But why me? Why do they want...me...to help you?"
"That, I do not know." He raised his hands in an even-handed gesture. "My tribe has been lost in the desert. I was only told to come to this village in search of a guide. I had thought that I might find the aid I am in need of among the villagers. But when I arrived here there was only you."
The embers of Challis crackled.
I growled quietly. "Very well. I will guide you."
"Thank you." He bowed respectfully to me, which is something that had never happened to me before. As a Tsarvrath, I rarely received bows, and those that I did receive were only out of fear. That this man bowed to me in this way immediately caused my opinion of him to lower considerably.
And then he said, "May the Gods bless you."
I grunted sourly. "That is a blessing I do not need."
The embers of Challis had faded to dry ash. I stood at the edge of the ruined village, looking out across the desert. "Where am I to take you, human?"
"My name is Misha."
"Where am I to take you, human?"
Misha smiled at my response. "I desire to return to my tribe. Then we must continue our journey towards Lus Zannis. There, I have been told, we are at last to find Sanctuary. Do you know where Lus Zannis is, Tsarvrath?"
"It is south of here. very far south. Across the Hara Desert."
"Ah. It is no wonder, then, that no one I spoke to knew where it was."
"No wonder at all." I grunted. "Let's go. It is a very long journey, and I want to spend as little time with you as possible."
"Yes, we should go." Misha smiled. "There is one thing, though."
I had already started walking across the desert sands, and now I stopped and gazed up at the sky. Waiting.
"There are certain people chasing me who want me dead."
I laughed at the sky. A loud, biting, insane laughter.
Because, once again, the Voices had trapped me into unknown consequences.
Misha wanted to run from them, of course. But I had my own kind of unknown consequences, for the Voices. If they wanted me as a guide, then they got me. Me, as I am. And not some weak, subservient guide.
And I did not let enemies stay at my back.
The blackened ruin of Challis was behind us, partially obscured by a tall mesa. Before us was the caravan trail, its posts driven into the earth at regular intervals. Recently, the sands of the track had been churned up by the passage of a single man - Misha as he had come to the village. And that had been the only passage for at least the last week.
But not so far in the distance, the track was obscured by a thick dust trail, made by hundreds of soldiers bearing down upon the village.
I was kneeling upon the top of a dune, staring down at the lines of soldiers. Studying them with the eyes of a Tsarvrath - and so I saw them clearly, even at this distance. Saw that at their head was Savel Mans.
Savel Mans. A Parvrath - a quarter-blood - and the Demon Lords' currently most prized bounty hunter. A near human who had his very own staff of slave-bearers - runners all - to carry his belongings for him, which allowed him to move across the desert at a speed that most quarterlings couldn't even conceive of, even when they weren't saddled with an army.
And my lips curled, exposing my fangs. "Kind of important enemies, for a simple human."
Misha only smiled in a way that reminded me of the manner in which his eyes looked upon the world. "I helped to free my tribe from their slavery, which is something that has caused a little stirring among a few of the other enslaved tribes. And that has angered some of the Demon Lords."
"Freedom?" I gave the slightest of shakes to my head. "You have brought your tribe to the desert, not to freedom."
He gazed off into the distance. "To us, the desert is freedom."
I sneered at him, and returned my attention to the advancing army, picking out which one of them I would kill first.
I slaughtered the entire army, to a man. Then I stuck a spear into the earth and spiked Savel Mans's head onto it, as a warning to anyone else who might think to follow us.
The slaves were simple bearers and I ignored them. And I would continue to do so unless they gave me reason to do otherwise, which these few obviously had no intention of doing.
Misha had watched all of this in horror. But it was not a horror that came out of awe and fear, but instead it came out of disgust. Which was something that I was not used to, and could not understand.
Thus, as we walked towards the place where his tribe waited for him, I broke the silence that had existed between us for some time. "You are human?"
"And you are not afraid?"
"Death is not something to be afraid of." And that was said not with a voice of someone who believed, but of someone who knew.
Which was not the question I had asked. I had asked if he was afraid of me, not of death. But I didn't really care anymore about his answer, and so I just resumed walking in silence.
Behind us, the slaves were still bowing to us, heads to the sand, even though we were now some distance away. I was unused to such treatment. But I figured that these few had just never before seen a Tsarvrath on the battlefield.
Yet, just as we reached the edge of the range of weak human eyesight, one of the slaves spread his hands to his sides and raised his eyes to the heavens, and called out, "He is saved! Thank you!"
And I wondered, then, if Misha had told me all of the truth about why the Demon Lords hated him.
We traveled only at night, because that was safest for weak humans, and because weak humans needed their daily rest. Which left me just sitting there staring at nothing for all the hours of daylight. And we did that for several days, and I quickly grew bored of it.
"Just how far away is your tribe?" I demanded.
"Only a couple more days of travel," Misha replied simply.
Alone, I could easily have covered the distance in a single day. But I had Misha with me, and so we had to travel at the agonizingly slow pace of a human. And, once again, at the sun's rise, we had to make a camp.
Misha stared at me over the remains of his simple meal. I ignored him. The same as I had been ignoring him during most of our journey.
But eventually his searching blue eyes became too much, and: "What?" I demanded.
He shrugged. "I was thinking on Demons and the life that we of the world lead."
"Hrrrm. Well, don't look at me while you do it."
"It is the blood of the Demons in you that caused my thoughts."
"I will not tell you again, weakling."
He took no offense, and merely turned away. And we sat there in silence once more, as the sun at last crested over the horizon, and a wave of heat fell across the sands.
As the sunlight came across us, Misha - still politely keeping his eyes turned away from me - said, "It is sad, this life of slavery that we humans have been forced to live here...but it is just."
I still didn't want to talk, but especially not to some crazy, weak human. Yet, I had never heard anyone - not Demon nor partial-blood, and certainly no human - ever speak of life on this wasted world in that way. Most just complained endlessly about the unfairity of their being trapped here. A few did their best to ignore the horrors of this life, believing that they would move on to something better when they died since they were more righteous than everyone else. And the rest mostly found someone to blame for everything, and spent their lives blaming them and searching for ways to prove that they were right.
No one, absolutely no one, described life here as being just. I scowled. "Just?"
"Yes." He was quiet, then, for a long time. And I thought that he had decided to put an end to his talking, as I had wanted all along. But he was only contemplating - as he often did. I just hadn't been able to see it, since his face was turned away from me. Eventually, he went on. "We needed this trial. Needed it to show us what we are truly fighting against. Because it was our own choices that brought us Demon rule."
My only answer to him was a quiet grunt. But I seemed to remember some other things being involved - like blood and betrayal and war.
"He has returned!"
"The Prophet has returned."
Those voices, and many others echoing them, greeted us as we arrived at the desert camp of Misha's people. Or rather, this was the greeting for Misha, spoken in the awed and hushed tones of the faithful speaking of the Blessed.
It was a tone that I had not heard in a very long time. Millennia, in fact, because the priests of the Demon Lords did not inspire awe. Did not want to. They wanted fear. And they were very good at getting it.
As I entered the camp, I narrowed my gaze at these strange people. Wondering just who they were that they ignored a Tsarvrath come among them in order to stare in awe at some weakling human.
But I did not stay so unnoticed for long, for not everyone of the camp was so worshipful of my traveling companion. In fact, about half of them weren't. And one of these unenamored ones turned to me, saw that I was a Tsarvrath, and quickly grew both angry and afraid. And he raised his hand in a gesture of denouncement. "You! You are a Spawn of Evil!"
Ah. Spawn of Evil. A phrase I had not heard in a very long time. Not since Godfall. My claws twitched just to hear it. For, back when it had been spoken in its proper age, it had meant that I was about to slaughter a great number of weak humans.
But that age was gone, and now was not the time for such things, sadly. So, instead, I crossed my arms in order to keep my claws from involuntarily leaping forwards. Then I leered. Which caused this man to flinch, but only a little. Thus proving that he had courage, if not much intelligence.
"How dare you come among the Gods' chosen people?" this weak human shouted.
My leer widened. "The Gods don't have any chosen people. The Gods are dead."
But that wasn't true. The Gods weren't dead, as I well knew. Yet, the humans weren't supposed to know of that. Really, they weren't supposed to know of the Gods at all. Such knowledge was supposed to have died out, and not through any purgings, but instead through just the passing of too many years. Too many thousands of centuries.
Though, of course, if Misha had spoken truly when he told me that he spoke to the Gods as I did, then these people might actually know very much about how things really were instead of only knowing what they were told. Told by the Demon Lords.
My confronter's face was red with fury. "And even now you spread their evil lies, Darkspawn!"
The rest of the tribe had taken notice of us, of course, what with all of the noise we were making. And they were all repeatedly bowing their heads to the ground, pleading with me not to kill them all for the words of one man among them. Or just pleading.
I laughed. A laugh of the Tsarvrath.
And fear went through the entire tribe, leaving no one but Misha untrembling. Yet, my confronter stayed on his feet. Which, to me, earned him a little respect. Though only a little. "We cannot fight you, Darkspawn. But we will try. We are not going back."
Many among his tribe whimpered, giving the lie to this claim. But he didn't seem to notice. "Leave us, Darkspawn. Or kill us. We are not going back!"
I widened my leer still further. And eventually, his fear overwhelmed whatever was empowering him and his knees gave way.
Leaving only Misha and I on our feet. And Misha cautiously approached me. "You have made me curious, Tsarvrath. Before escaping into the desert, I saw much of your kind. And if I am not speaking too out of place, may I ask you - why did you not kill Vanis for what he just said to you?"
I laughed. But this time there was an edge of bitterness to it. "Because I have been assigned to be your guide, weakling. And I assumed that you did not want me to kill this man." I bared my claws. "Though maybe I shouldn't have so assumed?"
Yet, in response, Misha simply smiled an odd smile, and shook his head.
Eventually things settled down and the people of Misha's tribe were sent away while the leaders came to confront me.
There were too many leaders to count easily, and I didn't bother. Only three of them seemed to be of any real importance, anyway. Vanis, of course, with two of his slaves flanking him. An elderly, frazzle-haired man with a bashed-in nose named Asil. And a venerable man who never spoke a word to me but only ever spoke in hushed tones to the other leaders. Tsarvrath ears heard his words easily, though, of course. Yet, what he mostly spoke of was traditions and ancestors. Things that weak humans, for some reason, care endlessly about but which bore everyone else.
Interestingly enough, Misha wasn't among the leaders at all. However, they let him remain beside me, since he was the one who had brought me. Though "let" may not exactly have been the right word. I had the feeling that he was going to share in my fate here.
Asil spoke first, and he was tentative as he did so - but then, most weak humans wouldn't dare to speak directly to a Tsarvrath at all. "I think we should all now take some time and allow our tempers to cool before we begin this conversation."
Time spent among those who had given me insult - even an insult as slight as Darkspawn - only increased my desire to kill, though. But I did not dispute with the man beyond a snort of contempt.
Some time later, then, Asil said, "Now let us pray for guidance in our words and our deeds."
As one, they all bowed their heads, while I was forced to wait again. Wait for a very long time.
But at last Asil turned to me. "Tsarvrath" His voice was much softer as he addressed me than it had been otherwise. "I do not agree with the way that my tribesman spoke to you...but there is some wisdom in his words, I think." He gently folded his hands together. "And, I am thinking, it would be best if you were to leave this place soon."
I was about to give answer, but Misha stepped to the fore, and answered for me. "All of you know that I went in search of a guide for the desert."
"Yes, yes," Vanis said impatiently. "That is unimportant now, Misha. Thanks to you, we now have more immediate things to deal with."
Misha gave a slight shake to his head. "The Gods did bring me to that guide, and this is he."
Some of the leaders turned to each other and began saying things like, "The Prophet has brought us a guide," and sounding very relieved as they spoke. But most were disbelieving, and quite agreed with Vanis when he said, "The Gods would not send us a Darkspawn. You are a fool."
"I'm sorry, Misha," Asil said softly, "but I really must agree with Vanis. The Gods would never send an enemy to us."
Misha simply looked at them with those distant eyes of his. "The Gods have chosen. They have chosen this Tsarvrath. The only question now left to us is whether we will listen to their wisdom."
To some, the words that were spoken by the man they called the Prophet were as good as written in stone. But to most of these leaders, there was still doubt. Especially when it came to accepting that a Tsarvrath - one of those that had held them in slavery - had been sent to lead them to their freedom.
Yet, outside of the leadership, the people were just the opposite - with most simply accepting the Prophet's words as truth. And so, eventually, after much discussion, the leaders agreed to follow me. Because they did not want to, at this time, challenge that belief in truth.
The days grew warm as we neared the edge of the Anamis Desert. It was hot now even at night, and the days were a torture to the weak humans.
But it would get worse once we left the Anamis behind and entered the Hara.
The Davi - as this human tribe called itself - that night set up their camp in the ancient ruin of a city. A city that no one here but I knew the name of because it had died out so long ago.
The Davi were whiny because of the heat, even though the shadows of the ruin offered them a lot of protection from the sun's warmth.
But, for some reason, they all grew quiet, one by one, as everyone turned to listen to the words of the Prophet.
It had started as a simple conversation among Misha, Vanis, and Asil. I was nearby, crouched upon the top of a partially collapsed wall. Hearing every word, but not really listening for I had no liking for human conversations. Though I did notice Vanis's face growing increasingly flushed as the talk wore on.
Misha's voice was distant, like his eyes, as he said, "Now that we have left the Demon Lands, we must leave the ways of the Demons behind. We have come to the desert, and we must now live in its ways. We must all live differently than we have. We must daily give honor to the Gods. We must show respect to all who come among us, be they ally or enemy. We must end the practice of slavery, for no one can own anything, except for ourselves. And even that is only borrowed, one day to be returned."
I lowered my ears and did my best to stop hearing, because I had no desire to be bored.
It was nothing I hadn't heard before, anyway; these were the rules of an old people, long dead now. Having died out not long after Godfall. The Nine Rules of Life - that was what they had called them.
Misha continued to talk, and the nine rules came and went upon his tongue. But he did not stop talking once he had done with them, and he began to speak of a tenth rule. And I pricked my ears back up.
"We must make of war a crime, because those who bring us to war should know that what they do is wrong, even in the best of circumstance. It may be necessary sometimes, but it is wrong. And they should think well on what they do, and the reasons why, before they knowingly decide to commit themselves and their people to such a crime." He raised his gaze to the sky, and paused for a very long time. "In such ways must we now live."
And, with that, the rules were done.
Once more, then, I tried to stop hearing anything that these people had to say. Wondering why I had listened to even what little I had. Because, if I had learned anything at all from listening to their rules, especially that tenth one, it was that I didn't want anything to do with any society that these people might make. And, that was something that I had really already guessed.
At last we reached the border between the Anamis and the Hara. It had taken us a month to get this far on a journey that I could have done in less than a week, had I been alone. But such is the way of weak humanity.
We were an hour into the night when we crossed into the Hara, with its rolling sand dunes, and its heat, and its emptiness. And immediately a man from one of the desert peoples started shadowing us though it was several hours more before anyone of the Davi tribe noticed him.
The desert tribesman sensed that he had been spotted at the very moment that it happened. And he cupped his hands to his mouth, and a low ululation rolled off of his tongue. In an instant, then, hundreds of shadowy figures joined him atop the dunes. Forming a half circle behind and above the Davi caravan.
Many of the Davi fell to their knees in prayer. Even Vanis did - though his was only a prayer to spare his own life.
And the Davi were afraid. For the desert peoples were famed for the harshness and brutality of their way of life, and, other than that, the Davi knew nothing of the desert peoples. Which utter ignorance formed the core of their fear.
Fear, of course, made my mouth water. But I ignored that. And I kept walking. Gesturing impatiently for the weak humans to follow me when they would have stayed where they were and continued their prayers.
The desert peoples had always been few in number, and reclusive, which did much to aid the general ignorance about them. But leaving yourself in such utter ignorance as the Davi were in when you were entering into these peoples' lands was the height of stupidity.
And I continued to make my way across the desert, dragging the Davi along after me, despite any of their protests. Using force whenever it was necessary to. And sometimes even when it was not.
The desert people simply followed us, occasionally one or more of them showing themselves atop the crest of a hill, or in the far distance behind us, their dark robes stirring slightly in the night winds. Letting us know that they were still there. Watching us.
They were wary. Even more wary than were the Davi. But, unlike the Davi, they were warriors.
Asil tentatively came over to me and bowed his head. "May I ask you, please, Tsarvrath - do you know who these people are who follow us?" His voice actually chirped there a little, at the end. Which, for whatever reason, greatly amused me.
I shrugged. "Does it really matter to you so much? They will not bother you. Not as long as I am here and you do as I say." That last was unimportant, of course - it just made things much easier on me.
He exhaled slowly. "My people are worried, Tsarvrath. They need to know."
I snorted. I didn't really think that they needed to know anything. But since I didn't really care, I gave answer anyway. "They are Waterkeepers. They follow us to make sure that we do not touch any of their tribe's water sources."
"And if we did? Touch their water?" Asil asked.
I leered. "They would kill you, of course. Why should they do anything else?"
Asil frowned grimly and turned away, starting to head back to his place in the caravan, among the other leaders.
"Which brings up something else," I went on, causing him to pause. "Now that we are in the Hara, water will be very scarce. Your people must fully enforce the Rules of Water. Even to the point of death."
"What?" Asil exclaimed. "You want us to order the death of our own people?"
"If they steal water, yes."
"Never!" He firmly shook his head. "I know that you are our guide, Tsarvrath. But we will not change our ways simply because you lead us, and you want us to."
I laughed. "You misunderstand me, human. I do not care whether you follow the Rules of Water or not. Because I, personally, do not need water to survive the Hara, and my only interest in this journey is seeing that Misha makes it to his chosen destination. I have allowed the rest of you to follow me, but you are here only because he wants you here, not me. And if you want to die here in the desert, I will not stop you. I only spoke of the Rules of Water because that is the way of the desert peoples. Really, if you don't want to listen to the traditions of a people who have survived out here for generations, then don't. I do not care one way or the other." And I turned away.
"But," Asil protested, after a moment's hesitation, "why should we suddenly exchange our ways for the ways of a violent people, and kill a man simply for thirst? No, it will not be."
The Prophet was, of course, staring off at something else. But he now entered into the conversation as if he had been hearing every word. "Out here in the Hara, every portion of water that a man takes beyond his own is someone that he is murdering. And such a man is a danger to the entire tribe, and cannot be allowed to remain among us. He must either be killed, or exiled - thus allowing the Hara to kill him. I believe that it is more just to simply kill him."
And to these words, Asil bowed his head.
The days warmed even more as we traveled further south. We were nearing the Flatlands - a desert land that burned so hot that it actually was something more than a desert. It was death. And people did not even consider it to be a part of the nine deserts of this wasted world, and instead saw it as something unique. Few living creatures came even as close to it as we were now, and none willingly entered into the death that was the Flatlands.
The Waterkeepers had long since disappeared, once we had left their territory and entered the deadlands that surrounded the Flatlands. They, like all living creatures, didn't come this close to the Flatlands.
And so the Davi and I were now alone in the desert.
With nothing else to focus their attentions upon except the sand and the searing heat, the Davi once more turned upon each other. To me, the arguments seemed to be endless, constant. But they were actually probably only occuring frequently. I just grew so easily tired of them.
And then, at the end of an agonizingly hot dusk, an argument turned to blows.
This was not the first time that such a thing had happened on this journey. But this time, there was so much general anger among the tribe that no one even tried to stop it.
I had no idea what the fight was about because I didn't care what stupid motives these pitiable humans had that they so often fought over.
Neither did I care to watch the fight. The sight of weak humans unskillfully beating each other with their fists did not exactly excite a Tsarvrath's blood. And thus I turned my attention elsewhere. Which is how I discovered that, even as the sounds of fighting were just beginning, Misha was wandering away from the group and also away from the line of our travel. Striking off to the east - away from the Flatlands and deeper into the Hara. His strides were not at all hesitant, but he was weaving, almost off-balance. As if he were drunk. Or sun-damaged. But the Davi had no liquors among them, and Misha showed none of the other signs of being sun-crazed.
I followed him. I have no idea why, there was just something about him. Something...almost...enchanting.
He walked up into the dunes, seemingly wandering aimlessly with his head drifting around almost as much as his feet were. And then he stopped. All at once. And fell.
I thought he might be hurt - weak humans always hurt themselves so easily. But he was only falling to his knees. Falling into a position of prayer. And he raised his head to the sky and gave praise to the Gods.
Those who followed the Prophet had come after us. They gathered about their Prophet as he pointed into a desert valley and announced, "A city will be built here. A city that will be called Sar Avad."
Sar Avad - Gateway to Freedom, in one of the old languages from before Godfall.
Vanis was angry when he heard of Sar Avad, especially when he heard the name. "The Demon Lords are trying to hunt us down. It is idiotic for us to stay in one place, and give them such an easy way to find us!"
And he made that argument over and over again, for an hour. But those who followed the Prophet would not be swayed - the Prophet's city would be built here, and by their hands.
Both sides tried fiercely to persuade the other, and both sides failed. Eventually, then, even Vanis stopped trying to argue. And the Davi were riven in two. Those who did not follow the Prophet - much of the leadership, many of the former land-holders, all of the slave-owners, and all of those who did not believe in the Gods - led by Vanis and Asil, gathered up their property and walked away into the desert.
And everyone else remained behind in order to build the City of the Prophet.
The Davi began to make plans for the building of the city and the bickering began almost immediately. I didn't stay to listen to something so utterly boring and instead set off into the desert, alone.
And did so with no qualms over my decision. After all, I had completed my charge. Misha may not have been brought to Lus Zannis, but he had his city to build now. And maybe that had been his true destination all along.
But, whatever. I was just glad to be leaving these weak and sorry humans behind me. At long last.
Yet as I stepped out of the encampment, I discovered that Misha was ahead of me, and coming towards me - probably having been on yet another of his solitary wanderings in the desert. Which encounter unfortunately postponed my escape for just a little bit longer.
I thought to pass by him without a word, but when we came upon each other, he stopped and bowed low to me. "You are leaving? Wait. I will go with you." And he went to gather his things.
It amused me that the man who had led these people here was going to be leaving them, and they didn't even know it. And so I waited.
Behind me, I could hear the bickering continue. Unfortunately, the ears of a Tsarvrath could hear every word. Every word as they argued over whether the city should be built here or here. Arguing over who would get what land. Arguing over who would lead them - one person or a council. And arguing over who that one person or persons would be.
Soon Misha returned and I gestured at his tribe, and the bickering. "This will be a sorry city."
Misha turned not to his people, but to the place where the city would be built. "It will be the greatest city this world has ever known."
It was odd to once more be journeying alone with Misha, with his strange gaze once more on me. But it was very much preferable to being with the entire tribe of the Davi. And it was oddly more pleasant than traveling alone. But then, I do have human blood in me - always longing for the companionship of others. Pitifully enough.
And, as it turned out, Misha was one of the few humans that I respected. Which was a thought that it took me some time to get used to.
Thus, it was a while before I asked, "Why did you leave them, human?"
"I cannot ever set eyes upon Sar Avad."
He turned those distant eyes of his upon me. "It would be its death."
Once more, we crossed the border of the Anamis Desert, and entered into its land of cliffs and canyons and dunes. We made a small camp in a place surrounded by mesas. And Misha stared up at the sky at the fading night and at the stars slowly disappearing from his view.
"There are so many worlds up there," he said, thinking aloud. "I wonder if the Gods on those worlds are different from ours or if they are the same Gods that we know, but they choose to reveal themselves differently. Or if they are all as one."
I grunted. "I don't think I've ever heard a Follower question the nature of the Gods before."
He nodded once, and continued looking at the fading night sky. "Of course you have not. You have only heard the words of Followers, not those of a Believer."
The sun passed through the eye of a strangely shaped mesa. Then it was gone for the night. I hopped down from the rock that I had been crouched upon, and discovered that Misha was awake, seated upon his knees, with his belongings gathered beside him. And he looked to be in the very position that he had been in when I had left him that morning.
I studied him for a moment, while the dusk grew heavier, and the air of the day cooled. "Didn't you sleep at all today, human?"
He smiled a smile of the deepest joy, though with a touch of sadness. "Not today."
I shrugged, not really caring.
The many weeks without feasting or drinking had weakened me some, and now that we were out of the Hara and back in the somewhat healthier land of the Anamis I had taken the time to hunt and to sleep a little, instead of pushing us to travel on immediately at dusk.
Belly now pleasantly full, I settled in among the dunes, and slept for an hour. Which was all that I had needed, having been only slightly weakened.
And I awoke to a familiar, feminine face hanging over me, and a gentle, leathery hand stroking my chin. A hand that was tipped in claws.
Her lips, and only her lips, smiled as she noticed me awake. "Hello, my sweet."
Only a Demon could have snuck up on me in my sleep. And Sirvina was certainly that.
"Hello," I replied warily.
Sirvina turned her head to her left. "You are not protecting this one, are you, Zellnos?" She tilted just her eyes back in my direction. "He is a blasphemer, and must die."
I glanced over at Misha, who just smiled faintly back. As if he had always known of her coming.
Slowly, I returned my gaze to Sirvina. "No."
Extending the claws of her right hand, she bounded forwards and tore out Misha's throat.
I sat up.
She came back over to me, licking the blood off of her hand. And she let a single droplet of blood fall from one of her claws to my lower lip.
Then she smiled. "It has been very good to see you again, my pet. Very good." She leapt into my chest, knocking me to the ground, and sat upon my body, cocking her head as she gazed into my eyes. Then she kissed me, long and hard, ending with a playful bite upon the lip. "Very very good. And I hope that we can have a more prolonged meeting soon. But, right now, there is somewhere that I have to go. So..." She drew her claws down the side of my cheek, cutting deep. "...don't forget me." And she dashed off into the desert.
Leaving me once more completely alone in my exile.
Protected more by its remote location than by any spell that the Prophet was said to have cast over it, Sar Avad clung to a meager existence at the edge of the Flatlands. Very few people would ever risk the wrath of the Demons, the harshness of the desert, and the isolation of a journey across this world, all for just the chance of finding a city that seemed to be more a legend than anything that might actually exist.
But, even so, every year more humans would come to Sar Avad because of what the city represented.
It didn't give them hope. Nothing in this world could do that. Yet, it allowed them to once more dream that some people somewhere could live outside of slavery - whether it was slavery to Demon or to human.
Maybe neither they nor their descendants would ever see this place. But they could stand outside, and look out into the desert, and dream that there was actually a kind of life other than one that they led.