Lahn was not able to reach his apartments before there were five soldiers surrounding him.
He scowled. “What is this?”
The one who seemed to be in charge bowed, fist to chest. “Apologies, Oracle. You are to be confined to your apartments until such a time as the Warlord is well enough to see you.”
Lahn gaped. “He wouldn’t dare!”
“I’m sorry, Oracle,” the soldier said again. “Please…proceed to your apartments. There will be someone posted at each exit, including the servant’s hallway. If we can’t secure you, you will be incarcerated in the donjon.”
Lahn crossed his arms over his chest. “Then take me to the donjon. If I am a prisoner, then take me there.”
The guard frowned. “Those were not my orders.”
“Do you want me to curse you?” Lahn asked with deceptive mildness.
The man blanched. “Fine. I will let the Warlord know of your request. Come, then.”
They proceeded down the hallway to the stairs. The stone stairs curved gracefully until they stopped on the main floor. From there, he was escorted down the wide main hall past the Throne Room to a nondescript archway with two guards. The archway had no door. They went through the door and straight down a dim stairwell into an even dimmer space with a low ceiling. The rank odor of must and mold clung to the damp air. The floor was earthen and the walls were stone but slimy with dampness and a strange green growth.
“New prisoner,” one of the soldiers told the donjon master.
The man was tall and wide, with a craggy face and a bald pate. “He looks like he is an aristocrat.”
“He is,” the soldier replied.
The man’s scowl became even more fierce. “Fine. I’ll put him with the others.”
The donjon master led, carrying a torch, down a narrow walkway, iron doors on either side. The iron doors had grates but Lahn saw no one peering through them. Finally, the donjon master stopped at a door and unlocked it, pushing it open.
“This one was prepared for Lord Tehna, but I hear he escaped,” the donjon master said.
“It appears so,” the soldier replied noncommittally.
The donjon master grunted and turned to Lahn. “Inside, yer lordship.”
Lahn entered into absolute darkness. He paused, unsure.
“I’ll put an oil lamp inside the room, don’t fret,” the donjon master growled, amused.
Lahn stepped to one side and watched as the mountain of man strode into the cell with an oil lamp and set it on a desk against the far wall.
When the soldiers and the donjon master left, closing the door behind them, Lahn looked at the cell. Aside from the desk, the small space had a cot with blankets, and a waste bucket. He had had little more while at the monastery. He sighed and walked to the cot to take a seat.
“I should have kept my mouth shut and escaped,” he muttered, disgusted with himself.
Everything smelled of old earth and mold. Dampness clung to the very air. Strange pale roots pushed up through the ground. The silence was unnerving.
The cot beneath him was sturdy enough, made of wood and wide enough for one person. The pillow looked lumpy. Probably filled with straw.
He frowned and gazed at the low ceiling, where oily shadows skittered and swayed. “What is your plan, Goddess? I feel used. We never spoke of you giving Kah’len a Queen he would love and lust after. That was not our deal.” His eyes filled with tears. “That was not our deal.”
He looked at his hands on his lap and sighed. No. He had been used and manipulated by a celestial master. What could he possibly offer Kah’len? His Queen would help him found a dynasty, but Lahn was only Lahn. He could not give Kah’len children. He could not rule at his side. He could only ever be a high priest. His eyes overflowed with tears and he sobbed disconsolately. He thought of his family and a deep ache filled his heart and chest. For the first time in his life, he missed his father, his mother, his siblings. A prayer for their safety formed on his lips and he whispered it into the dank, cool air.
Lying down on his back, he looked at the ceiling crowded with shadows. He thought of what he could give Kah’len that his Queen could not. He was the Oracle. Through him spoke Atana, the Goddess of this accursed land. He had been chosen, but then so had she. He shook his head and tears slid down his temple to soak into the pillow. He needed to speak to his uncle, to ask his advice. A yawn overtook him and he closed his eyes.
You throw away home and hearth.
You seek isolation and dearth.
You will have nothing but emptiness,
Regret, a cold resentment that will
Leave you destitute
Nothing from your loins, no fruit
No future. Darkness and sorrow
Like a clarion will slice you life
Until you are nothing and no one
Until your years are done.
Lahn opened his eyes. Overheard, a strange night sky full of unknown stars. He sat up and looked around him. The air was cold and he was naked.
Where is your faith, priest?
He frowned and gazed around him. In the stillness, the voice was a breeze.
I have no faith, he replied angrily. You have used me.
You are a tool. The future is bigger than any one man or woman, priest. You will see this, in time.
I don’t want to be the Oracle.
You were chosen. Your will, your desire, your petty emotions mean nothing. When I am done with you, you will be done with me. Not before. You forget yourself, mortal.
When She withdrew from his heart, a terrible loneliness and sorrow, an unending emptiness gaped inside of him. It left him desolated, destroyed.
He screamed into that strange sky.
The breeze danced along his hair and his skin.
“I am here, Maltika.”
“Don’t leave me.”
“I will not leave you.”
A small red animal padded along the horizon towards him. It was around the size of a dosi, but it was furry, with a bushy tail and big sharp ears. As it neared, it sniffed the air.
“This is a maltika, Oracle. This is your spirit animal, your emblem, your strength. When you build the Church for my children, you will create the emblem of the maltika, cousin of the Tash-Tash. Separate but similar. The Church and the Throne must rule jointly. Never alone. Into your hands I give my children’s welfare and safety. Create an army of soldiers just for the Church. Keep it safe from the Throne. The Tash-Tash is a fair man, but his children may not always be. This is your task: Make a Church that is strong, there to safeguard the common people. If the Throne ever becomes corrupt, you must uproot it.”
He knelt before the Maltika. The animal sniffed his neck and face, licking his cheeks. He giggled and hugged the little red animal. It smelled wild, dusty, and musky.
Go, priest. From your mind and heart, you found a Church. Your church will be a meritocracy. Your successor must be the best, most able person to lead. Find your heir while young and feed him the milk of my teachings. You will know when a youngling is pure of heart and sharp of mind. Take him from the common stock of mankind. He must be poor and scraping by. He must be grateful and loyal to Me, but also to you. Do you understand, Maltika?
Your pup must always owe you.
Good. Then know you have a purpose. Your purpose is greater than what your heart needs.
Lahn blinked his eyes open. The stillness around him was disconcerting. He heard voices through the grating in the door. He sat up and rose to his feet as the cell door was opened and his uncle strode through.
“Have you lost your senses, young man?” Domio demanded.
“No. The Goddess has spoken to me once more. I have work to do.”
“I’m happy to hear that, but Kah’len is fighting for his life. He is unconscious, Lahn. The empathic healers are trying to save him, but Bhne Tehna used Alait Rose poisoning. Do you understand?”
“Take me to him,” Lahn said.
“You are no healer.”
“I will pray,” Lahn told him. “As will you. Take me to him.”
“You are to be confined,” a soldier said from the doorway.
Lahn gave him a withering glare. “I can be guarded. I must lay hands on him so the Goddess may save him. Do you want him to die?”
The soldier looked unsure.
“Make up your mind!” Lahn spat. “But every moment the Oracle does not lay hands on the Warlord, he may die. All things are in flux. We are at a crossroads. All futures are possible.”
His eyes rolled back and he began to shake.
“I must secure the throne, uncle!”
Lahn opened his eyes.
Domio spoke to the guard. “Make sure all exits to the Warlord’s apartments are guarded, but my nephew must come and try to save him.”
The soldier made his mind up and nodded. “Come. Quickly.”
They hurried away from the cell and through the donjon to the stairs. Then up the stairs to the main floor.
By the time they made it to the fifth floor, where Kah’len’s apartments were located, Lahn had begun praying. A fire burned in him. Sweat poured from his pores, trickling down his temples and back.
He entered Kah’len’s apartments and then ran to his bedroom.
Two healers stood near the foot of the bed. They watched as Lahn, Domio and five guards entered the room.
“What is this?” one of the healers demanded.
“I must pray over him,” Lahn said and hurried to the bed.
He sat down on the edge of the mattress and took Kah’len’s pale, icy hand in both of his. Kah’len’ lips were blue and his skin was translucent. Veins and arteries stood stark against the pallidity of his flesh. He lay very still.
Lahn placed a hand over the Warlord’s heart. He closed his eyes.
At once, it was like a door opened inside of him. It was blown open by a strong, hot wind. Fire boiled in his gut and licked up his insides. It was exquisitely painful and he smelled and tasted blood in his mouth.
He opened his mouth and began to pray.
The words he spoke were strange and ancient. He somehow knew he spoke a forgotten language, a holy language from the beginning of time. From a time before even hu’ans lived on this world. His eyes rolled back and he trembled from the strength of the heat inside of him. Sweat poured from his body until his tunic was plastered to his skin. He sobbed as he prayed.
“Ithal! Thal! Nashta k’kan! Kaitah multho kon!”
The Goddess was nearby. He could feel her, sense her. She was like a fire in the room.
She filled the room with heat. The bed shook and Lahn clung to Kah’len’s hand. A strange wind moaned.
“Ithal! Thal! Nashta k’kan! Kaitah multho kon!”
Behind his eyes, Lahn saw the gods and goddesses of this world. So many deities filled his mind. Beyond them, there were other universes and a Will greater than all of these. Something so vast and ancient, Lahn could not conceive. He pulled away from that Conscience, for only madness waited him there. He knew that as a mortal, he was not allowed to See or Touch that entity that existed beyond what was Holy. Many lives and tasks lay before him, but it would be an eternity before he would Know that Conscience.
Fire filled his hands. He smelled the stench of burning. The pain was excruciating. It was like holding his hand to a flame. The flame licked along his flesh and charred him. He bit his lip to keep from screaming and tasted blood.
Finally, when he thought he would go mad from the pain, the fire left him.
He opened his eyes.
Kah’len lay with his eyes open, panting. Color had returned to his skin, although his eyes looked dazed. He was drenched in sweat. A smell of flower petals clung to the air.
Lahn let go of his hand and stood up on shaky legs. “Bathe him and change his clothes. The poison has been sweated out of his body.”
He turned and was swallowed by darkness.