Listen closely doctor, for our time together will be short. This body shivering before you is possessed. Your medicines and theories can do nothing for it until I leave. Not so long ago I could have spoken to you directly, making the very air sing, or dispensing with sound altogether and planting words in your mind — but I no longer have the energy for such tricks. I must be content to puppet a human mouth.
You’re a rationalist of the New Age, so you above all must learn what I have to teach.
I know secrets about your Emperor Maserik, and the world he built. I know the true nature of the gods. Do I have your attention yet? Relax, doctor. Sip one of your restoratives, and if it pleases you, think of my tale as the rambling of a madman, a curiosity for your notebook. I’ll be brief.
I am a god, but my story begins humbly enough.
The Temple of Runners was a small and remote outpost of my dying religion, the last of my temples in fact, sitting piled on a ledge of Starvation Mountain in the Flameworm Range, near the western frontier of the Hosm Republic. In the days of my full glory I paid it no mind. Little more than a roadside shrine on the old Pilgrim’s Way, I would manifest there perhaps once in a generation. I had always scorned its dilapidated mud-brick facade with its tiny hollows for peasant offerings. These were filled with fruit and incense and cheaply printed Spirit Money, but I preferred the feast-laden altars of Hosm City, or better still the pyramid summits and their doomed virgins. I glutted my way through five hundred years during the Warring Kingdoms Period.
There was nothing like strife for breeding cults and innovative new pantheons, for new idols to animate and desperate millions to enthrall.
This tale is really a series of confessions, and that was my first. Yes, it was I alone in every statue: in Ensingway the Sky Father, Ahret his First Wife, and all the rest. I am a lonely thing. There are no families of gods. I’m the only one in all the universe, so far as I know. Take this blasphemy to heart. You humans have been laboring under a mass delusion for twenty thousand years: every sacrifice, and every offering, went to me.
Mankind created me with those first few centuries of religion. Back then I was newborn, half-mad with the naked horror of my existence. Much of the time I stumbled through primeval forests, taking the form of any animal I saw and trying out newfound appetites like sex. Occasionally I managed to divert a migration of herbivores toward whichever roving band of hunters had called me into being.
That would be my second confession: humans constructed me, not the other way around. I don’t know how, but the need of your ancestors teased me out of the void. Those primordial scavengers wandered the virgin earth and were terrified, not to mention hungry. This somehow gave rise to a thinking entity with power over nature. Shamanic babbling nourished my infancy and the rise of agriculture fueled my adolescence. By then I was playing thousands of roles in hundreds of religions. Prayers vivified me, but offerings were better, and meat was better than fruit or grains. Better still was Spirit Money, though entirely symbolic. The best of course was human sacrifice. These not only nurtured me, but made me forget this yawning universe in which I’m the only one of my kind. A balm indeed.
I gave life and took it, was beautiful, terrible, and merciful. I had no inkling of the real calculus of the game. I had never experienced paucity. Mine was a perfect extortion: I got my sustenance in good times and bad. The human capacity for fear insured both sacrifices for change and sacrifices for preserving the status quo. So how could I guess what lay in store?
The fact that humans created me implies a third confession, the point of this tale. Until a few decades ago, I thought I was immortal. It turns out I was wrong.
I don’t need to tell you about the dwindling of religion. You have your natural philosophers now, your Light of Reason, your clever hands scribbling the secret math of nature. For a long time I convulsed in vain, sending droughts and blighting crops and triggering volcanoes. I even hurled the “Falling Star” in the Year of the Monkey. I was sure this flourish would cause you to dust off the altars, but your philosophers answered with theories of gravitation. Manifestations brought nothing more than prognoses of brain fever. When I took the form of a burning mountain over Hosm Port, for millions to see, they called it a “mass hallucination!” They blamed it on moldy bread!
I began to sense my dilemma.
I was growing weak, so I headed for the Flameworm Mountains with my tail between my legs, a dwindling spark in an entropic universe. One last beacon, a feeble one, burned on Starvation Mountain, tended by the last believer I knew of.
Maserik had been a sickly and lonesome child. His failures with women steered him toward the Priesthood, where he flourished for a time playing power games in the Holy City. Upon gaining a seat at the Inner Table, he made his fatal error: trying to take control of the city guard. His ostensible purpose was to expel the cults growing in the compost of Hosm. He’d actually won two divisions to his cause before the rest of the Table intervened. They might have killed him, but Maserik played the blackmail cards he’d kept in store for this contingency. Still, he might’ve done better. In the end he found himself demoted to priest of Starvation Mountain fief, where he grew old.
It was this jaded creature that found me near death on the little altar inside Runners’ Temple.
He was sprawled on his cot, smoking Narcosia and lost in vain dreams of power. At first he took me for part of his delirium. Narcosia was his evening habit, barely supported by the token dues still paid by the hamlets dotting the valley below. Pilgrims no longer visited the temple. The altar hadn’t seen an offering in years, beyond Maserik’s pittances of rotten fruit. He had prayed to me thousands of times during his exile for a grand return to prominence in Hosm. He’d even sacrificed an infant once, a secret act of desperation long after such practices were outlawed. But that was in the time of the Third Crusade. I barely noticed the child amid the banquet of lives forfeit to me on a daily basis. Since then Maserik had retreated into visions, his faith eroding, and the Holy City he aspired to had collapsed.
We were both near the end of our ropes. I summoned my last strength for a feeble manifestation: a flickering ghost of the temple’s minor deity Penser, God of Crossroads, Messengers, and Gambling. Maserik saw the lean, fur-garbed youth depicted in the temple’s crude interior paintings, an intermittent phantasm above the altar.
“Priest Maserik,” I said, trying for thunder but hardly managing a croak, “you’ve been remiss in your duties. I demand a sacrifice!”
The black-robed corpse sat up in its bed, setting aside the Narcosia pipe.
“You hesitate?” I whined. “Fetch a pig, or better yet a child, forthwith!”
“Or what?” said Maserik, standing drunkenly.
This outrage took me surprise, and I sputtered, “Or torments you can’t imagine!”
The priest shrugged. “A pig is a lot of trouble, never mind a child. I’d have to go down to the valley and borrow against next year’s dues. And those might not be forthcoming, if the rumors are true. Besides, what’s in it for me?”
I confess this left me dumbfounded.
“I risked a lot for that child,” Maserik continued. “Spirit Money isn’t free either, and let’s not forget all the chickens. Yet here I am. In case you haven’t been listening, I stopped asking for power long ago, but you couldn’t even help me with that girl, the ombudsman’s daughter. You’ve taught me well, dear Penser. Spiritual transactions hold nothing for me.”
“How about your life?” I said.
“Take it,” he replied, giving himself and the room a grimly appraising look.
“But it wouldn’t end here!” I bluffed. “It would be the Ninth Hell for you, an eternity of suffering!” Hell was one of my most brilliant lies. Another confession, if you can stomach it.
He shrugged again. “A change of scenery?” He extended open hands. “I’m ready when you are.”
The audacity! I’d never been called on this before, and despite my waning consciousness and impotent fury, I had to admire Maserik. At the same time, I recognized that I’d created this monster. Too much to bear!
It was soon clear that my threats had no teeth, and the priest shambled toward the altar, squinting and frowning. “Curious,” he muttered. What I felt now was a true novelty: embarrassment before a human. My manifestation was shrinking, losing cohesion as my final energies dissipated. “Why should you come to me now?” he wondered aloud.
He disappeared into the larder behind the temple and returned with an apple. He held it poised over the altar. My Penser ghost shivered with anticipation. “Times must be hard for you,” the priest said. “Out there in the world, I mean. Could it be that you need me?”
“You’ll regret that,” I whimpered.
“An experiment then, in the grand tradition of the Age of Reason!” His tone was withering. The apple hit the altar and rolled to a stop beneath my winged ghost feet. Normally I let foodstuffs rot at their natural rates, absorbing the energy meant for the animalcules doing the work, but not tonight. The apple melted before Maserik’s eyes, turning green then black before vanishing entirely.
The priest watched my ghost with a keen philosopher’s interest. I had little control now, and was unable to hide the slight swelling and cohesion of Penser.
“Ha!” Maserik barked.
“More,” I said.
After a moment’s thought, he said, “I suppose it’s safe, considering the observed rate of… what shall we call it? Convalescence?” He laughed like a hissing water pump as he returned to the larder for some cured mutton. These scraps restored my faculties, somewhat, though I found I still couldn’t leave the altar. At first I didn’t know if a crippling fear or weakness was to blame. Maserik brought out the salted pork and kept feeding me, stoking the fire of religion as it were. Soon I felt stronger than when I’d arrived, but I couldn’t leave the altar. It had become my tiny island in a vast, dead sea. I’d never experienced mortal fear before.
Maserik was no fool. He perceived immediately that I was trapped, and through a predatory grin said, “Poetic.”
“How’s that?” I muttered.
But he was talking to himself: “It really is something, this new Reasoning. Another experiment, yes. Then I’ll know.” He seemed to emerge from his theories and looked at me. “You must still be hungry. Am I right?”
I couldn’t bring myself to answer.
“So we’re going to wait,” he said. “You cannot leave, but I think perhaps you can project a miracle. The moment I’ve had my way with the ombudsman’s daughter, you get a reward.”
“Are you serious?” I managed.
“Oh quite. It’s time we renegotiated the terms of our relationship, Penser.” So he still thought I was the God of Runners. He hadn’t guessed the full truth about me, about the “gods.” That was something — a potential weapon in the power game to come. “You will have to stimulate my atrophied manhood, a distasteful chore I’m sure. But do you have a choice?”
He sat and drew on the pipe. Perhaps he still thought this was all a Narcosia dream. He smoked and he watched me begin to fade once more. It was time for a sober accounting on my part. Could I wait him out? Would he really let me die? There was food piled around the altar now, and a few bundles of tasty-looking Spirit Money, but of course I couldn’t take them. They had to be offered. If I waited too long, I would lose the strength for Maserik’s miracle. Implanting desire was a small feat, actually. I could tinker with the human mind in a thousand ways—but one of the things I couldn’t do was force religious awe. This I had to earn.
“You’re running out of time,” Maserik observed. The scarecrow’s intelligence was infuriating. The decision point, in terms of energy, was fast approaching. So what could I do but reach out to the flaxen-haired maid sleeping far below and massage her dreams to include Maserik? Feeble, ghoulish Maserik. I confess to some pride in the job, truly a work of art, a sixteen-year-old beauty shifting her affections from the local muscle-bound twit to my priest. The work done, I was little more than a candle-flame of manifestation, and soon this pilot light would go out.
“She’s coming,” I whispered.
“We’ll see,” said Maserik.
“It’s quite a hike from the valley. I won’t make it that long.”
He sighed and tossed a few breadcrumbs at his pigeon. I consumed them instantly and needed more, so he experimented with crumb rates until he found my subsistence level. Before drifting off he carefully portioned out my night’s ration of stale crusts, and one bill of Spirit Money, which he placed at the base of a stick of burning incense. “Make it last,” he said, before sinking into his cot and fever dreams.
Chessra came the next morning, her skirts muddy, hair disheveled, expression fetchingly bewildered. She rang the bell for a long time before venturing inside and crouching beside her snoring idol. I’d long since dispensed with my Penser ghost, to conserve energy, so she had no idea I was watching.
She brushed greasy white locks from Maserik’s skeletal face. “I need you,” she whispered tearfully. She couldn’t rationalize her outlandish lust for Maserik, a profoundly disturbing sensation, I’m sure.
I quickened the priest’s manhood. He awoke flushed and perspiring, eyes roving over the girl.
Still quietly weeping, she slid on top of him and hitched up her skirts. Maserik, an eighty-two-year-old virgin, placed his shaking claws on her buttocks. He stared up at her with priestly awe. In supernatural heat, she yanked up his robes and mounted him.
Soon they were at work like rabbits, and I must confess my weakness for such scenes. I am not a completely monstrous thing. Human reproduction is a comical and quaint amusement.
Maserik made a quick job of it that first time, but round two followed hard upon. My endowment to the priest waned toward sundown, but the girl remained clinging to her lover, and since I no longer had the strength to release her from the charm, I had no choice but to manifest for both of them and beg for dinner.
Chessra tumbled out of bed shrieking, while Maserik rose unsteadily.
The priest stumbled to the altar and knelt. I thought that his sexual awakening had renewed his religious fervor, but he was only kneeling to pick up a chicken leg. He rose, wincing as the girl continued to scream, and tossed the meat to me.
Chessra finally ran out of steam and, gasping for breath, intoned, “Penser.”
“Yes,” said the priest, inflated like a courting bird. “He is my new pet.”
The girl struggled to put words together. “No, I’m hallucinating.”
“I’m afraid not, my dear.”
“It can’t be a god!” she insisted.
“In a sense you’re right. Penser here serves me, so I’m the god.”
Having articulated this, the revelation struck home. I could see possibilities multiplying in his mind, and with a sense of dread I watched him turn to face me. But his reverie was disturbed when Chessra, overwrought, careened toward the doorway in a half-swoon and struck the head beam hard.
She stumbled back, blinked once, and collapsed. For a long moment we watched her twitch and bleed on the flagstones.
Then Maserik knelt beside her. “Very naughty of you Penser, scaring my young bride like that. But perhaps it was for the best.”
The girl was not dead. She still breathed in bubbling gasps. Maserik brushed a tangle of blood-soaked hair from her eyes. “I am sorry my dear,” he murmured. “Rest easy now. Your death will not be in vain.”
With that he dragged her into a sitting position, then propped her against the altar and heaved. She whimpered some kind of plea as Maserik rolled her over the lip and onto the granite polished smooth by thousands of sacrifices.
He withdrew his ancient curved knife from beneath the altar. Wheezing, barely able to stand, he leaned on the altar and raised the knife. “For thee, Penser, an offering of flesh and blood. Watcher of Crossroads, Patron of Runners, take this life and grant boons to your follower.” Each well-rehearsed word dripped with sarcasm. The last one should have been pluralized, but Maserik changed it with relish for the new era.
The blade struck home, piercing the girl’s heart and bringing a final convulsion before she lay twisted and still beneath me.
Maserik sat down heavily on the floor. I dispensed with the Penser ghost and floated there, poised between loathing — for the priest and for myself — and a ravening hunger.
“Take her,” said Maserik. “You know you want to.”
I had consumed millions of human beings, but this was different: ugly and sordid, a furtive transaction between old men in a back-alley brothel.
The priest leered. “She’s not a virgin, but I’m guessing that doesn’t really matter, does it?”
I almost killed him then. I could have animated the discarded knife and fired it into his skull, but that would have been suicide. Instead, I consumed Chessra in one shameful gulp, accomplishing her decay in seconds and leaving only a dust of minerals. Suddenly I was more alive than I’d been in months. The energy fed every part of me, including the shame and frustrated anger, and it was unbearable.
“I suppose you’ll leave now,” said the priest, “but you’ll be back.”
I leaped from the altar and plunged into the valley below — into a night of manifestations, miracles, and supernatural threats in village after village. I had tried it all before, to no avail, but now I had energy to burn and dwindling hope to annihilate. It was pathetic. The world had moved on. Physical philosophy had inoculated even the dimmest peasant against belief. I took the form of luminous gods, seductive goddesses, and beasts from ancient nightmares. I floated innocents over bonfires and demanded, “Tribute, or else!” but Reason was always there to spin ludicrous theories and thwart me. In fact many humans no longer saw me, or my tricks, at all. The safety of the altar was never far from my thoughts.
As the sun rose, I returned to the temple on the mountain.
The priest awaited me. He stood by the altar with a few notes of Spirit Money poised over a candle. I didn’t manifest, but he sensed my presence. “There’s a good Penser,” he coaxed. “Come now. Everything’s going to be okay.”
I hesitated near dissolution once again. I was tempted to let it happen this time.
“You must be hungry,” he said. The Spirit Money touched the flame and blazed to life, and god-energy blossomed for the taking. I was drawn toward it like iron to lodestone.
“That’s right,” said Maserik, feeling my approach. “I’m going to protect you. There’s nothing to fear.” He was like a filthy lecher enticing a child with sweets, but I fell for it. In that moment I believed him, even loved him. The feeling didn’t last, of course, but it was enough to get me back on the spiritual teat.
I heard him afterward through a sated fog: “I am a god now, but no one must ever know it. We cannot return to a world of faith. We both know why that wouldn’t do.” He grinned meaningfully at the altar. “I must become a Lord of the New Age, an Enforcer of Reason.”
“You?” I said, incredulous. “But you despise the New Age!”
“A delicious irony, to be sure.”
“I could snuff you out any time I like. You know that, don’t you?”
He gave a slight nod.
“Or I could refuse your offerings and let myself vanish.”
“Come now,” he purred, “we mustn’t get off on the wrong foot. Be grateful that I acknowledge your existence. You’ll be well fed, and in a sense you’ll continue to reign over the world, but you’ll do it through me. You’ve had a long and colorful run, Penser. Think of this as retirement, and be content to work behind the scenes.”
What could I say? I was already hungry again, and the Age of Emperor Maserik had begun.
Now you know the origin of the Empire surrounding you. Soon it will collapse, and maybe then you’ll give credence to my tale, and you’ll tell others. I’ll give you the truth behind the famine, and the Pall of dust that hid the sun for two years. It will be my final confession, before I depart for the void.
Your Emperor of Reason was clever enough to start with gold. He extorted lode coordinates from me, staking claims throughout the Flameworm Range and then mining them with my magic. Three years later he was the most powerful merchant west of Hosm. He raised a mercenary army and declared his mountain fief a free state. Now you’ll begin to recognize your history lessons: the Flameworm War, the Secession of the West, the Senate Conspiracy and the unexplained murders that have kept tavern theorists chattering for twenty-five years. The engine behind this mayhem floated listlessly in the Iron Sanctum of what had once been Runners’ Temple. Now it was the Hawk’s Nest Citadel, Lord Maserik’s private mountain retreat. Only he had keys to the Sanctum. The household slaves thought it a treasure hoard and conjectured endlessly on its value, meanwhile wondering what their Lord and his many guests got up to in there. It was whispered that the “guests” never came out again.
Meanwhile, secret police stamped out any hint of religion. They were really for my benefit. The Age of Reason was in full swing, and mysticism was in no danger of taking root. Still, thousands of innocents died as a message to me: “Do not attempt to diversify. It would be pointless.”
Slaves from the defeated Eastern Confederacy were herded onto plantations and worked to death, the profits funneled to engineers building the City of Light in the rubble of the Holy City. Maserik delighted in their inventions. Anything that reduced his dependence on me was good. He especially liked the steam engine that came first as toys, then as the Iron Draft Horse spanning the Empire, marvel of the modern world. He was less interested in theories, such as the Heliocentric and Gravitational insights that were all the rage in Hosm. Innovations in fireworks were more to his liking, first with the harquebus and then the cannon.
Ten years after I landed on his altar, he ruled the world from the Flameworms to the Middle Sea. With this Empire consolidated, his late-night contemplations in the Hawk’s Nest turned westward. He sent envoys of trade and friendship to the barbarian nations. They came back with disturbing tales of these alleged savages, of development comparable to the Empire’s own. The westerners had guns and prosperity and the Light of Reason. I had warned Maserik of this, and he must have deduced it for himself, since my entrapment depended on it. After the envoys’ return he spent close to a year in the Hawk’s Nest with his generals.
One night he came to me in the Sanctum. My consciousness hadn’t moved in years, floating over the little altar, though I’d projected secret miracles all over the Empire when Maserik ordered them. The Emperor looked old that night, despite the vigor I’d given him that wound his clock back to forty or so. There was a great weariness in his eyes, and a distracting hunger.
“I need your help with the West,” he said.
“Very well,” I replied. It no longer occurred to me to resist him, and I was barely conscious when I spoke to him now. “I can send earthquakes and flood the important rivers. A plague will soften them up too. It worked with the Confederacy.”
“Yes of course,” said Maserik with an impatient wave, “but we’ll want something more this time. I’ve been thinking about the Falling Star in the Year of the Monkey.”
This woke me up.
“The philosophers say it was a wayward heavenly body, a slave of gravitation, but we know better, don’t we?”
My old hate rekindled. I hadn’t felt it since Chessra’s murder.
“But we’ll want something bigger,” said Maserik. “The Falling Star was about the size of this citadel. We need a mountain, or even a small nation of rock, to obliterate the barbarian capital of Iomang.” I considered this for a detached moment—the magnitude of such an impact wasn’t clear to me. A nagging doubt took shape, but Maserik’s next words scattered it to the winds: “I will double or treble your sacrifices for the coming month. We need to build you up. The Hammerfall will be your greatest feat of the New Age.”
I had visited Iomang frequently during religion’s decline, long before the Age of Maserik. I had petitioned the Iomangans like everyone else in the world. The idea of smashing those blue-eyed ingrates was not unpleasant, and the prospect of a return to primordial vitality was seductive.
“I think you miss wielding that kind of power,” said Maserik. “Now’s your chance, little Penser.”
My fortification began the next day. The victims were “processed” one at a time. Maserik alone would follow a slave inside, dragging the vault door squealing shut behind him. Then he forced the doomed creature — man, woman, or child — onto the altar at gunpoint, and ended things with lead shot from an arsenal consecrated for the work.
In this way I consumed several humans an hour, as opposed to the three or four a day rationed out to me during previous campaigns.
My strength waxed quickly. As I grew, old feelings and memories stirred. Realms of my consciousness long asleep were activated. I bathed in the voluptuous early days of agriculture, wallowing in priesthoods and theocracies. They knew how to conduct a ceremony back then. I relished the theater of it, the sexual tension of the crowds, the drugged ardor of white-robed youths ascending pyramid steps — nothing like these grimly mechanical executions Maserik had engineered.
Still, volume was volume. I hadn’t felt this potent since the Holy Wars!
“Don’t get funny ideas,” said Maserik, in the midst of the carnage. “Resist the temptation to lash out at me now. You could annihilate my Empire, but it would be your final act. Stick to the plan, my pet. This is just the beginning of our fun.”
I despised him more than ever, but in the context of my restored godhead this petty human emotion didn’t trouble me. The glut went on. After a month I was fairly bursting at the seams. Maserik came to me on the evening of 4 Solstice Month, 1266, a date you know well. He came alone.
“The other gods are dead,” he said. This old assumption of his struck me anew, but I soon forgot it. “You are the last one standing. Have you ever considered what your fate might have been? A mindless follower would have kept you alive, for a time, until his lack of vision led you both to your graves.”
“I might’ve restored the Faith in others,” I said.
“There was Chessra…”
Maserik’s gaze shone with a dangerous light. “We aren’t to speak of her, remember?”
Yes, this had become clear over the years. He’d had many women since Chessra, but she had been the first, and she held a place of honor in his twisted heart. It bored me now. I grew impatient with the little folds of this human’s psyche. “Do not ask me for gratitude, priest. We are bound together, but don’t think it makes us equals. You will never know what it is to be a god. Do you think my mortality implies something even comparable to human consciousness? I have seen worlds and experienced sensations that would dissolve your mind in seizures. Dispense with your pretensions. We are both too old for them. You’ll get your Hammerfall, but it shall mark a new understanding between us. What we have is a business arrangement. Nothing more.”
Maserik studied me, for indeed now I couldn’t prevent a manifestation from seeping into reality where my consciousness was localized. I couldn’t control this pulse of white energy — I was like an over-eager boy pissing his pants, or an incontinent old man. Which was it? I’d never had this problem before.
Finally the Emperor said, “A business arrangement. So be it.”
With that I blasted out of the Sanctum and free of the blanket of air surrounding your world. It was like awakening after the fitful dream of Starvation Mountain. I fell through the void between the planets, browsing far-flung lesser worlds of ice and rock for a suitable weapon. I selected a largely metallic worldlet near earth and already on a near miss trajectory. Maserik’s disinterest in gravitation tickled me now: it took just a fraction of my energy to nudge the iron mountain onto a collision course with Iomang.
With the job done, I still quivered with more potential than ever in my 20,000-year life.
I couldn’t harm Maserik, but I could make you humans pay for the audacity of Reason. I plummeted with my missile toward the night side of your little world, halting just above the air blanket to watch the mountain ignite below me. Briefly it was like a second sun, as you well know.
On impact the new sun grew, instantly vaporizing Iomang and the countryside for hundreds of miles around. That was during the first second. Next came the displacement of matter and superheated air. The mist of the Iomang Republic was flung in every direction. The wall of sound traveled outward, uprooting forests and city-states beyond the initial blast radius, and this was followed by great rolling firestorms.
All of this I’d more or less envisioned, but what came next was interesting.
From the center of Iomang a great plume of dust and ash was being forced upward. The energies of the impact were still playing out, and would continue to do so for some time. The Pall would enclose the globe. The sun would vanish, crops would fail, starvation and plague would ravage mankind.
Maserik watched the fireworks from his balcony seat on Starvation Mountain, which commanded a wide view of the barbarian West. He saw the monstrous shroud unfolding toward him, blotting out the glow of Iomang, and he knew his first inklings of doubt.
Meanwhile, I was like a stunned boy whose experiment with fire has ignited acres of woodland. I watched the devastation roll outward, in waves of sound and flame and earth. The firestorms lapped against the Flameworm Mountains and swelled there like a waxing tide, but they were repelled. Maserik watched the flame roll back and dwindle far below him, but as dawn broke it was obvious that the Pall would not even hesitate at the Mountains.
It was to be the last dawn many would see for two years.
I dove into the chaos, Maserik’s attack dog unmuzzled, and rampaged. I rolled countries like dusty carpets, sending tides of earth through civilizations. I took the form of the old vengeful gods and drove refugees into the sea. Many fell back on religion, of course. The sky had fallen. For a time their offerings supplemented Maserik’s and balanced my books, but it couldn’t last. I had gone mad. When no divine aid was forthcoming, they abandoned their temples and stumbled off through the wastes, and my decline hastened.
Slowly, I came to my diminished senses.
When I returned to the Sanctum, I was little more than the spark that first came to the priest so many years before. He was waiting for me like he had then. I found him in a Narcosia haze, curled up on the altar with his furs and harem girls.
“Return of the Profligate Son!” he hissed, sensing my presence. He’d grown old again without my treatments. “I suppose you’re hungry.”
I hovered before him, dying, dimly conscious.
“When I asked for the Hammerfall, I thought it implicit that my Empire should be spared!” I had not marauded in his lands, but the Pall was everywhere.
The girls began to wake from their drugged sleep.
“Now there’s revolution brewing in what’s left of everything we built.” He squinted in my general direction, though he couldn’t see me. “Did you know it would happen? If not, are you really a god? Or just some kind of animal like the rest of us?”
I was too weak to answer. Deducing this, Maserik retrieved a knife from beneath the furs and slit the nearest girl’s throat. She barely noticed in her daze. I drank eagerly, but even as I recovered I felt something new, something impossible to describe to humans, except as a sour stomach.
The act of consumption was unpleasant, and I had never experienced this before.
“We need to get you strong again. Those damned rebels must be put down.” He leaned, groaning, to his right and cut another delicate throat. A white wolf pelt blushed red. “I was thinking tornadoes. They might scare up some religion, but I’ve still got the secret police. What do you think? Come on, Penser, let’s talk business.”
It was difficult keeping the second girl down. I wanted to expunge her energy, vomit her back up, if you like. I began to understand that I was old. Yes, even a god has a finite lifespan, and Maserik had preserved me beyond my time. I didn’t want any more sacrifices. I wanted to fall asleep and never come back.
I worked to digest the energy. Nature had caught up with me. I was running out of time. Maserik’s generals used the term “endgame” in their strategy sessions. One of these began to take shape in my mind. “Tornadoes,” I said. “That’s a good idea. We can focus on rebel strongholds and leave the Empire largely intact.”
“Precisely,” he said. Encouraged, and suddenly forgiving, he went on: “It’s good to have you back, old friend. We’re not sunk yet. If we can deal with these rebels, then it’s just a question of waiting out the Pall. Or shall we scatter it ourselves? How long might it last?”
“Oh, not much longer.” I struggled to keep the smile out of my voice. My way was clear to me, but Maserik must not guess. I would have to endure a final glut, and given my current state I knew this would be the greatest labor of my storied career.
A god is both terrible and merciful, just like the universe itself. In fact, a god is merely an amplification of nature. You must never forget that, doctor. The best you can do is accept it, and accept uncertainty. The greatest among you will thrive on uncertainty.
Maserik built me up like he had for the Hammerfall. It was all I could do to keep from belching energy back in his face and incinerating him. We didn’t need a month this time. Maserik had learned his lesson, and reckoned two weeks was more than enough for his tornadoes. He wanted me back immediately afterward.
When I was finally primed for the campaign, the energy throbbed at my core in a queasy, unstable mass. I would have to act quickly or explode.
The last victim had been processed. Maserik lowered his gun and glanced about in confusion. The air in the Sanctum shivered with my sickness.
“Are you all right?” he said.
“I will be soon.”
The air went suddenly still.
The Emperor flung himself against the door as a white-hot, screaming hole dilated in the iron roof and wormed up through the Hawk’s Nest. Moments later he was hurtling skyward, through his grandiose study, and the harem cloister and the generals’ offices, and then into the dust-choked void above the Flameworms.
“Penser!” he shrieked. “Stop and think!”
Amusing, the way his face rippled at such speeds, and his fishy gulps of breath. I had to be careful not to snap his spine as I dragged him through the air.
Finally I brought him to a jarring halt in the midst of the Pall. “Wait,” he gasped.
All at once I flung back the surrounding dust, so that fresh air from above came rushing to fill the void with a great clap. Maserik shivered in the sky like a pinned insect. The Pall rolled away in every direction, ablaze with sunlight.
I siphoned it into remote deserts and lonely seas.
You remember this morning, I’m sure, but you mustn’t think I sought redemption. It was all for Maserik. I was merely setting the stage.
I manifested as Penser one last time, floating before the haggard Emperor.
“Are you really prepared to die?” he said.
“Die?” Penser smirked. “I’m afraid you’ve been duped, priest. I always was something of a trickster, wasn’t I? A God of Crossroads must be.”
Now Maserik was really afraid. “What are you saying?”
“I am a god. Gods cannot die.”
That was the Old Pantheon’s cue to burst to life above us.
There was stern and bearded Ensingway, the Sky Father, and his favorite son Salifioe, God of Musicians. By their side drifted Ahret, First Wife of Ensingway in her gown of moonlight, and one of the Sky Father’s many bastards, Elrech, fiery God of War. His half-sister Jiang, Goddess of the Hunt, glowed with virginal purity, bow in hand. All the rest were there, arrayed about the First Family in frightening splendor. I hadn’t given a puppet show like this in centuries.
Penser was also Ensingway’s bastard, as you know. The God of Runners smiled up at his relations and said, “Well, how did I do?”
“A fine job!” boomed Salifioe. “Really brother, quite entertaining!”
“And enlightening,” said Ahret, eager as always to deal out judgment.
“I liked the Eastern campaigns,” Elrech rumbled.
A dumbstruck Maserik followed the gods’ gazes. Everyone waited for Ensingway’s opinion.
The Sky Father stroked his beard, deep in thought. Finally he thundered, “Very well, Penser, you’re forgiven!”
“Forgiven?” Maserik said.
Penser shrugged. “I get into all kinds of trouble. This and that.”
“He stole my harp,” Salifioe offered, “and played it for mortals, giving them music. I created music for the gods alone.”
“Naughty brother!” Jiang giggled.
Maserik knew this story and others, as you do. It wasn’t necessary to detail Penser’s many crimes. The priest began to understand.
“You were my sentence,” Penser explained. “I was to test the last believer, throw myself in your lap, pretend mortality and dependence and, well, see what you did.”
Laughter rippled through the gods. Maserik’s mummified face became hideous with panic.
“A good show!” cried blue-skinned Perion, God of the Sea.
“And conclusive,” said Ahret. “This pathetic creature has failed our test.”
“It would appear so,” yawned Penser. He glanced questioningly at the gods. One by one they extended their right hands and aimed thumbs earthward. The judgment passed, a dark and magnificent god emerged from the assembly, wreathed in flame: Nilach, God of the Dead.
Far below, Starvation Mountain seemed to be in titanic collapse, opening onto a great subterranean inferno.
Maserik did not scream — I must give him that. But his face went slack with a great weariness, with the weight of suffering he now believed imminent. No hell awaited him, of course. I saw his quiet terror and that was enough.
“We mortals are but your playthings,” he said, meeting Penser’s gaze. “May that haunt you for eternity, my friend.”
These were the final words of your Emperor. Nilach snatched him out of the sky and dove. As the yawning abyss rushed to meet him, perhaps the priest guessed that it was all a light show. Maybe he realized that I was alone and would soon follow him. We’ll never know. He struck Starvation Mountain like a falling star and was gone, and with him the gods.
My end draws near. I can feel it now. Will the pantheon I scrawled across the heavens change mankind’s course? Or will it be another hallucination? Perhaps the destruction of the Pall will restore your faith, and you’ll return to crumbling altars and pray to a dead god. I must content myself with uncertainty.
This possession has drained the last of my power.
You have my confessions, but don’t take them for an apology. My emotions are too vast and complex for regret as you know it. I feel landscapes, paralyzing harmonies, and recall centuries as moments. I predate good and evil, and that is something you can never understand.
Time to sleep, doctor. If I’ve made a believer of you, please keep it to yourself. Don’t pray. Don’t make offerings. I don’t know if my resurrection is possible, but I don’t wish it. It’s time for you humans to fend for yourselves. Mankind’s childhood is over.
If you bring me back, rest assured you’ll be summoning a monster.
|Andy Dudak’s stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and Abyss & Apex, among other fine venues. He’s an SFWA member living in the ancient city of Xi’an. Find out more at andydudak.tumblr.com.|