David Drake: The Gods Return

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David Drake The Gods Return
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    The Gods Return
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David Drake

The Gods Return


"You were right, priest," said Archas grudgingly as he and Salmson stared at the jungle-covered building. He wore his blond beard in two braids, curving outward like the horns of a mountain sheep. "Though it doesn't look like any temple I've ever seen." Before the Change that mixed all eras to reform the Isles into a single continent, Archas and his men had been pirates scouring the seas off Sirimat and Seres. Now Franca the Sky God had use for them. The underpriest Salmson shivered despite the muggy air and the runnels of sweat which had already soaked his robe. "Franca's revelation to Nivers His priest is always right, Captain Archas," he said. "Of course. Franca is lord of all existence; how can He not be right?"

Salmson looked up to mumble a prayer, but he couldn't see even a patch of sky through the layers of foliage. Nonetheless Franca was present, here and everywhere. All power is with Franca, and serve Him.

"Anyway, it's a temple and a prison both," Salmson said, wiping his neck where the robe chafed. Insects ringed the collar, not biting but drinking his sweat and making him itch. Other insects crawled into his eyes, though he kept blinking them away. "And it's your path to power, captain." Salmson had spent the past twenty years as steward and general dogsbody to Nivers, High Priest of Franca, in the glittering ruin which was all that remained of the Empire of Palomir. It frightened him to have suddenly become so close to unthinkably great power. That was true even though the power was his to control. The Gods of Palomir had returned. Deep in Salmson's fearful heart, he regretted his loss of the past when rats chittered in the crystal hallways of Palomir and the jungle inexorably devoured its margins.

Those days were gone forever, though. Now Salmson spoke with the voice and power of Franca. He grimaced and said, "Bring up the prisoners.

It's time we got started." The man-sized rat beside him turned and sent a clicking call back along the trail. A squad of ratmen chivied the captives out of the jungle, each carrying a pack. There was no formal division, but Archas and his men had taken the lead during most of the journey from their base on the eastern coast of the seaway which penetrated the new continent. The pirates didn't mix with Salmson's escort of ratmen, but they wouldn't have mixed with another band of human cutthroats either. The pirates were a pack of wild beasts which Archas ruled by being the most savage beast among them.

Whereas the rats were certainly beasts, but not wild ones: they were the minions of Franca, raised by Nivers to serve the place of the human worshippers which depopulated Palomir could not yet provide. The ratmen stood upright, carrying swords. They spoke their own language among themselves, but they took Salmson's orders and kept better discipline than most human soldiers; certainly they were better disciplined than Archas' pirates. The ratmen were as ruthless as the icy winter wind. Franca demanded that in His worshippers, and soon all the world would worship Him. The prisoners staggered forward and set down packs before sinking to the ground. The six-year-old boy and handful of elderly people didn't have burdens, but even so the trek had exhausted them to the point of collapse. This wasn't a clearing, but the canopy hundreds of feet in the air and the lesser canopy of saplings and palms thirty or forty feet up meant there were only ferns and fungi on the forest floor. Some of the captives stared fearfully at the ratmen and the pirates, each band more savage than the other; most turned their eyes to the ground. Here flowers fallen from a giant tree threw magenta patterns across the leaf mold. Only one prisoner, an old woman, bothered to look at the structure to which Salmson had drawn them. It was flat-topped, a massive table at least eighty feet long-both ends were hidden in the forest-and twelve high, built from the coarse red limestone which underlay the jungle's thin soil. The frieze along the top register seemed to alternate geometric designs with the heads of stylized beasts, though it was hard to be sure: fern fronds and the roots of major trees covered most of its length. Archas prodded the alcove in the center of the structure with one of his pair of curved swords. "This isn't a door!" he said. "It's carved out of rock just like all the rest of the thing. Where's the real door, then?" The altar block in front of the temple had a narrow ledge along the back side. Salmson looked up from laying out his apparatus there.

A pair of captives had carried the chest holding his paraphernalia of wizardry. It made Salmson uncomfortable to think of himself as a wizard. He felt even more uncomfortable in directing the powers of Franca, though… and that seemed to be the truth of the matter. He rose to his feet. "That's as expected," he said curtly. "It's the door, or will be. Now, get out of the way while I remove the seal."

Archas gave him a look of cold appraisal, flicking his sword like the tip of a lion's tail. He stepped aside, though. They were all on edge, even the chittering ratmen. The journey along jungle tracks or no track at all, the heat, the insects-all these things were uncomfortable enough. Beyond those normal miseries lurked fear of the unknown and the scraps of knowledge which were even more fearful.

There was no turning back; Salmson touched his apparatus, nerving himself to begin by raising his athame. That knife of art had been cut from a whale's tooth by a wizard of an age lost in dim time. Its yellowed ivory was inscribed with symbols which Salmson couldn't translate and with tableaux which were all too clear. No turning back… "Abriaon orthiare," Salmson chanted, dipping the athame's point at each syllable. He hadn't scratched a figure on the altar as he normally would've done, but he thought he saw a pentagram glowing in the heart of the opaque stone. "Lampho!" Wizardlight as blue as the heart of a glacier quivered along the edge of the alcove; it spluttered every hands-breadth as if igniting blobs of sealing wax.

Only when it had described the whole rectangular course did the cold glare fade away. "There!" Salmson cried. "Archas, get the shackle that I've freed. By Hili, man, don't lose it or you'll never control the-Hell blast you, I'll do it!" The priest scrambled around the end of the altar, tripping on tree roots because his eyes were focused on the wall from which a quiver of gold was drifting. He thrust his hand out against the stone and to his relief felt the ghostly caress of the gossamer which had held the portal closed beyond the strength of even a God to open. Carefully, he began to wind the fetter onto a tourmaline miniature of Fallin of the Waves. "What is it?" said the pirate chieftain. He'd stepped back when Salmson shouted at him, his sword raised against whatever might be coming from the tomb. Now he approached again, keeping the blade slanted across his body with the edge outward. "Is it a hair? It looks like blond hair!" "It's a hair,"

Salmson said slowly as he coiled the wisp of gold on the finger-long tourmaline statue of Franca's sibling. "It's supposed to be a hair of the Lady Herself." Salmson knew everyone's attention was on him. There were forty-odd pirates; two had died during the march, one in a fight too disorganized to be called a duel and the other screaming at the demons he'd swilled with his wine. The twenty ratmen groomed themselves as they waited. Though they didn't wear armor for this expedition, the jungle's mold and moisture had caused their harnesses to chafe. They licked the sores in their coarse fur methodically. "A god's hair?" said Archas. "That's impossible!" He glowered, then added, "And anyway, didn't you say the gods were dead? The Lady and the Shepherd and the Sister, all three?" Nearly a hundred human captives had survived the march, but they were too cowed even to run away. They watched with the dumb apathy of sheep at the gate of the abattoir. The black rooster trussed to a handle of Salmson's casket watched him with furious black eyes, though. Unlike the human prisoners, it hadn't given up. Slavery is a state of mind, thought Salmson. But we are all slaves of Franca. Even the cockerel. "I said,"

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