When the Fog appeared through a break in the trees, Meric’s breath let go in a rush of emotion.
I don’t know if I can do this.
As they’d closed on Panchaea, he’d watched for the gray haze, both dread and desire rising with each branch he pushed aside–but always there’d been another clearing, another patch of trees, another dead monument. The let-down had been maddening. His muscles were tense, his pulse fast. The effects of the gojun masked a bone-deep exhaustion. White pebbles clung to the soles of his boots: the crumbled bones of ancient buildings, scattered marginally further by his passage. Had they somehow passed the city unnoticed? Impossible.
Meric stopped short. He thought he’d be inured to any reaction. He thought all reserves of emotion had been discharged, leaving him as numb and wooden as the trees. Yet his body surprised him. His stomach dropped. His legs turned to liquid. The end was coming–but an end for whom? In single-file, the others halted behind him. A hand gripped his shoulder, squeezing, reassuring: You can do this–or perhaps, Don’t fail us now.
The Fog was a vast gray cloud resting on the earth, like the smoke-wrapped lair of some gargantuan beast. It was both larger and smaller than Meric remembered. It dwarfed the nearest trees, the mouth of the Great River, the five-hundred-foot Obelisk spearing the sky to the southeast; yet it had once been Meric’s whole world, and no place could ever be as big from the outside as it was from within. The dim outline of the perimeter-wall was visible in the Fog’s outer reaches. The orchards were hidden just beyond; the blackberries, the beefpods, his family’s farm…or where it had been. His jaw clenched at the thought.
The Plutarchs giveth and the Plutarchs taketh away.
The simplicity of it, the almost mind-boggling stupidity…
The entire history of civilization, molded by a thousand generations of political maneuvering, had borne at its heart this one simple goal–the power to give, the power to take away. And the inverse, of course: the power to stop from giving, the power to stop from taking away. Meric had always been more ambitious than wise. If he did the unthinkable, if he brought down the Plutarchs, would he mold himself in their image? Or would he remember the cost?
A whisper in his ear: “Are you ready?”
Meric nodded. Still, he hesitated. Here was the separation of before and after. The ripples of innumerable events had led them here; the ripples of innumerable events would lead away. He could almost see them, like ribbons of light spinning away into the future, ceaseless as a hurricane.
How did it ever come to this?
An involuntary answer, a flash of memory: Gallatius.
It had all begun with Gallatius…
Anwa Babi fed on the memories of children.
The demon loved infant-memories best, which was why no man could recall his own birth. Only as the years passed and the crispness of perception began to fade did the demon’s interest wane. Meric’s first memory of the Plutarchs came at age seven, when they descended for Giving Day. He didn’t know why the demon had chosen that moment to pass up a meal, but it seemed a mistake on Anwa Babi’s part–Giving Day was particularly rich in flavor.
Meric and Reed joined the crowd early, brimming with excitement, waiting in the Fog on Divinity Ave. The festivities had begun long before the parade. Amateur bladesmen, jugglers, fools, and firethrowers had taken to the streets in want of attention. The entirety of Panchaea bustled about, waiting for the Plutarchs to arrive. Eyes flicked skywards as if to hasten their descent. The Fog was unusually still, and floating palaces could be glimpsed high above: mountainous gray silhouettes drifting as lazily as cotton wisps in a summer’s breeze. Like the Plutarchs themselves, they were never close enough to touch, never far enough to forget.
Reed talked incessantly as the brothers waited, cheering the firethrowers, questioning the performers, doubting them until they earned his admiration. Two years Meric’s junior, he’d always been a social creature. His birth-name was Strativus, but he’d sprouted so thin and tall that their father had said he was like one of those reeds that sprang up in the irrigation channels despite all attempts to keep them out. The nickname had stuck. Meric had to rely on his mother for that information, however; Anwa Babi had eaten all the memories of his father.
Waiting with the crowd, Meric and Reed skewered each other with toy atomblades, drawing nearby children into a general melee. Their energy was infectious. Only the first deep boom of Kuari gave them pause. As the boom penetrated the Fog, the brothers locked eyes. The performers cleared the streets. A quiet murmur fell over the crowd. The sacred drum boomed again. The children, like over-excited electrons, vibrated to a higher energy-level. Meric and Reed broke away from their mother to slip through to the front of the throng.
“Hang on to each other!” she called after them.
“They’re coming,” Meric said to Reed.
“I can’t see,” Reed said, bouncing up and down.
“But I can’t see,” Reed said, darting into the street.
“They’re gonna run you over, stupid,” Meric said, yanking his brother back by the arm. A man in a ghastly red demon’s mask bounded up Divinity Ave, waving clawed hands. Masked monsters ran behind him, backs hunched, loping with exaggerated, animalistic gaits.
“Ozymandias,” Meric said.
“Is it really him?” Reed asked, eyes wide.
“No, dummy. Don’t you know anything?”
Reed drew back nonetheless, clutching Meric’s arm as the mock demons passed. The booming of Kuari grew louder. The great drum emerged majestically from the Fog, hovering a meter off the ground. Just as the false Ozymandias had fled before it, so too would evil spirits, for the sound of the drum was anathema to their kind. Priests walked to either side, blessing the crowd, preventing the spirits from hiding among them. Meric shivered–had one brushed his arm? He caught sight of Kuari’s drummer, and his eyes went wide. The drummer was a thing of mystery and power, neither man nor beast; dark exoskeleton, mane of black spikes, white eyes shining with the light of other worlds.
“The Godhand,” Meric breathed. Reed gaped. Staring straight ahead, the Godhand pounded a slow, chest-shaking rhythm. The brothers watched in abject awe. The creature passed slowly, fading gradually into the Fog.
Walking behind the Godhand were the music-makers, blasting their trumpets and beating their instruments. Reed marched in place. Meric looked further down the line, eager for a glimpse of the Plutarchs … but next came the merrymen, with their hijinks and colorful clothing. Some threw chocolates, inciting a frenzy among the children. Others threw ration tokens, inciting a frenzy among the adults. When Reed missed all but a few lousy pieces, Meric shared his own. He managed to snatch a token for his mother as well.
The beastmasters followed, tethered to a long line of conquered creatures: horned sheep, an enormous she-wolf with twin cubs, screeching monkeys and mischievous lemurs, a great maned lion, an inquisitive owl. The animals shared a look Meric found disquieting, though he wasn’t sure if it came from their wild nature or the defeat of that nature. Bringing up the rear, antiquated and terrible, blazing with arrogance in denial of its capture, was an enormous bald eagle. It was easy to imagine the magnificent heights to which it must have soared, but its wings had long since been clipped, its talons shackled. Only its tragic impotence was impressed upon those who, almost shamefully, bore witness to its passage. Meric felt Reed squeeze his hand as it faded from view.
After the beastmasters came the relic-keepers, bearing rare artifacts, cursed objects, and the jaws and finger-bones of saintly people; then a silent and far more prosaic procession–the veterans, whose grim visages had been chiseled by hardships in the Wildlands. Had Meric’s father lived, he would’ve marched among them.
More followed: fanciful floats ridden by prominent Plebians, silver armbands and silver canes arrayed with casual immodesty; more music-makers; aged bladesmen who’d been famed duelers; a master marksman with a ceremonial silver skinnygun. It was almost too much for the children. The Plutarchs came every holiday, but there wasn’t always a big procession, and it wasn’t always this good. Meric’s friend Dominus joined the brothers. Reed drew two boys from the neighborhood. They enjoyed the spectacle together. The day was already unique and wonderful. It could hardly get better…
Then came the Plutarchs.
God’s Chosen. The Divinely Favored. Those Who Spoke to the Fog.
A thrill went through Meric as the first emerged from the haze. A man: pale-faced and silver-eyed, draped in clothes like liquid silver. He sat on a cloud four meters off the ground, legs folded, one palm resting in the other. God was causing him to be transported through the Fog. He stared straight ahead, never deigning to glance at the crowd.
Others followed, whole families of Plutarchs, none younger than fourteen, all with telltale silver eyes. The silver came from seeing the waters of Avos, a sacred lake in the sky. Once the reflection touched the eyes, it never left. Only the worthy dared look, however. A Plebian named Marthuk had once followed a Plutarch to the lake. Upon stealing a glance at the shimmering water, he’d been driven blind and mad. Such was the price of his hubris, and the origin of the Plebian phrase–to look for trouble was to “shadow Marthuk.”
Some Plutarchs were more engaging than others. They nodded and smiled, and the crowd basked in their benevolence. The Plebians loved them for the scraps of their attention. All were transported by divine means, some in thrones and some on clouds and some on floating platforms. Only a few were known by name. Among those few was a blonde youth with a mischievous smile–the well-known trickster, Gallatius.
Gallatius dashed through the air, discs solidifying beneath his every step. Bricks formed in his hands, which he hurled with comical ferocity at the children lining the crowded street. Mothers screamed and raised their arms in fits of worry … but always the implements dissolved before impact, breaking and breaking into a spray of innumerable fragments, leaving nothing but gray mist. The mothers would tremble and mutter fearful praises, or smile and make the Sign of Fealty, but their expressions were always a bit insincere, earning Meric’s derision. Didn’t they understand Gallatius was beyond their judgment? What folly–to worry for their children!
As the brothers watched, Gallatius came running through the air, descending almost to ground-level. He drifted closer to Meric’s side of the street–and closer still, until he was almost within arm’s reach. Reed was bouncing and pointing, Meric staring in awe.
Gallatius stopped abruptly.
He tilted his head to one side, as if he’d just remembered something. Then he whirled around, a shining silver sword flashing in one hand. The sword arced toward Meric’s throat. His mother screamed. Yet Meric was not afraid. He did not blink. He did not flinch. If he moved at all, it was only to lift his chin, as if to accept the blow…
The sword dissolved in a puff of gray mist, which Meric felt as a gentle wind, like a hot breath upon the neck. As the mist drifted away, he stared into the laughing silver eyes of Gallatius himself. Meric’s stubborn immobility had not gone unnoticed. The Plutarch filled his vision, the smirk of a jester playing beneath the silver eyes.
“There’s a brave boy,” Gallatius said quietly.
And then this minor deity, this divine trickster, winked at Meric and tousled his hair.
Tousled his hair!
Meric was a quiet child, obedient to his mother, protective of his brother–though willful when pressed, emotionally closed below a certain level. It was rare for anything to penetrate that deeper level, to stir the secret passions of his youthful heart. To be touched by a Plutarch, however, was a rare and unexpected honor. The simple gesture plunged through Meric’s resistance and seared itself into his seven-year-old brain. In the days and weeks ahead, his ruminations would erect a mental temple around the event, building the gesture into an act of stupendous personal significance.
A Plutarch had recognized something different in him.
A Plutarch had singled him out.
A Plutarch had called him brave.
In Meric’s heart blossomed a secret intention: he would earn that praise. He would do anything and everything to prove himself worthy, although beyond that was an even deeper desire, an almost blasphemous wish…
Meric wanted to be a Plutarch.
Impossible, of course. Was he to shadow Marthuk? No Plebian could speak to the Fog, nor look upon the sacred lake. One was born a Plutarch or one was born a Plebian, and Meric had always known his place. He would serve the Plutarchs instead of standing among them–but some methods of service could bring him closer than others.
The procession moved toward Fountain Square, where the people would praise the Plutarchs, and tokens would rain among the crowd, and God would manifest rare objects, and the Plutarchs would distribute the goods among the Plebians, as was their saintly nature–but as the crowd moved, Meric lingered, hefting a toy atomblade, studying it. It would be weeks before his new goal took shape enough for words, but already it shone as a gleam in his eyes…
I will be their Champion.
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