My first novel. Completed. Unpublished as of yet.
What if you lived in a world where when you prayed, the gods themselves answered? And if you were tricked into giving your soul away, would you kill a god to get it back?
Averil is a young man who lost all faith in himself and his world when he traded his soul to the god of Darkness to save a deceptive friend. Averil is challenged to reclaim his life when he discovers ancient words that can kill a deity, and is drawn into a quest that that will not only end his life, but challenge him to return from the dead to destroy every god. He is joined in his adventure by the most unlikely of allies, Maurice — Darkness’ most loyal servant. Maurice’s stated goal is to see his master become the One God. But Maurice also hopes this quest will bring him what all his magical abilities and talents have not, the one thing he truly desires — Darkness’ love.
Maurice aids Averil in his destruction of the other gods, and Averil fights to maintain his humanity. This delicate balance collapses as Maurice finds himself doubting his master and beginning to care about regular people (and one special woman) for the first time, and Averil becomes what he has struggled against — an inhuman, uncaring monster of amazing power.
This as an intelligent adventure where blood is spilled in combat, but the battle is decided in the minds and souls of the combatants. It is a landscape that allows us to see the power and potential of the individual and the danger of breaking free in a world built quite literally on the power of chains.
Chapter 1 —
Only in the desert did he feel free.
The landscape was perfect, flawless to abstraction — violence without passion, a kiss without regret.
The dunes rose and fell in high, gentle waves. The sand whispered in colors, tans and umbers and grays defining themselves only by sun and shadow, shifting without thought or feeling. The desert could not be reasoned with; you handed over a piece of your soul at the gates, falling under its power and by its rules alone could you survive, and for a second linger between the reality of this life and the jagged seas of immortality.
The morning sun had risen to almost the day’s full strength, leaving only a last, lengthy expanse of dune enveloped in shadow, and beneath that ridge of light ran a creature, a myth turned flesh, gifted by the skies and stars, glimpsed by none in this barren land.
A black horse, large, beauty and monster in one, his power lifted him through the sands, ascending the hill as though carried by fate alone. A ray touched his straining satin neck, caressing, falling like water across his shoulders, illuminating a figure almost hidden upon the horse’s great back. The stallion’s long mane whipped around the small, pale hands that clasp the equine’s neck; the twirling strands blew across the young man’s face as though they were his own, turning the demure features into something wild and unkempt. The two figures edged up to the top of the ridge, the sunlight blotting out their shape. Beyond, there was no hill, or bush, or reprieve. Daybreak danced, shimmering across unnamed plains — the horse and his rider were free.
Don’t ever look back.
As the man leaned down closer to the pounding muscles, the stallion lengthened his stride beneath him, and as they tore into the sunlight Averil knew in a few moments they would be beyond reach of man or gods.
Averil closed his eyes.
What would I give to be that brave?
Averil’s hand caught the braided leather of the reins and pulled back. The horse strained against the command and, for a second, Averil dared to hope his mount would go mad, refusing to stop — and away they would gallop over the plains, lost forever, a memory’s lament — but then the stallion halted, rearing, his legs dancing against the sun, beating against a confine of which he could not feel.
Behind them, clustered inside a great wall, high dark skyscrapers rose; feats of the gods that lived within the city. These tall buildings were well beyond the work of men, even the most advanced mason-architects could not see above simple two story structures conceived with wood, stone, or mortar. Within the city everything really beautiful was the work of one of the six gods — Light, Wisdom, Power, Life, Darkness, and Death; how could mere mortals compare with such forces? In his mind Averil saw the skyscrapers laughing at he and Blackstar, the hundred shining eyes of the buildings mocking their fleeing form.
Averil turned, facing down Restāre, that beautiful city full of gods and possibility, that tomb haunted by his corpsified dreams and, for a moment only, Averil wished he could tear every last brick down.
* * *
Life whispered in moments, laughed in years. Averil and Blackstar descended the dunes, abandoning their magic, and the Gatekeeper of the city felt the muffled reality of his days cloud in around him, small, mundane tidbits shifting like fog in front of him, blocking out some greater image— a painting of his life, writ large, with strokes so grand as to disappear into the margins of his memory.
Too bad I can’t see the whole picture.
Too bad there isn’t one.
* * *
As they passed back through the great eastern gates Averil’s eyes drew upward. The light growing across the sky had pushed the dark back so far as to leave it the faintest murmur over the farthest building.
There were two gates leading from the city — the western, which led to all other cities and the eastern gate, which opened to a wildness so barren it had been called the Dead Road. The western structure was made of wood, fine and strong under coats of paint and war markings so old as to be jokes and memorandums so new as to still bring a tear. These eastern gates though, held no match in memory. While much shorter than the wall of towering brick around the city, they still stood over a hundred feet tall, with high black spikes of steel, warning visitors against either entry or leaving. Never in Averil’s lifetime had he seen the east gates closed, nor indeed did anyone step outside them without great reason or coercion.
No one but me.
Averil could find no pride in those words that separated him from normal men.
Averil slowed Blackstar to a walk and as they reentered Restāre he ran an outstretched hand across the valleys and swells of the long, blackened metal door. He cast one more quick glance back over his shoulder. Then Averil closed his eyes, turned in his smooth, worn saddle and focused his gaze again on the city, the world he inhabited.
He had learned to never watch the desert disappear behind him.
* * *
As he rode down the empty cobble-stone streets dotted on either side by houses with windows still drawn and their people still happy and asleep, Averil pondered which road to take.
The rumors of the days before had ceded to fact yesterday; not only was the man called Galion missing, but his house had also burned to the ground. Now that Galion had disappeared, probably forever, Averil could finally feel comfortable calling him a friend.
He had convinced himself that, in turn — that there wouldn’t be time, that he didn’t care, that everything had burned, and, most importantly, that nothing there would change his existence. He honestly believed that last one, for how could searching through a man’s ruined life alter his own? His heart keep beating a strange, almost aspirant refrain, but he could not hear it with any sort of clarity.
The sun still had not peaked over the high wall when he reached the location of Galion’s house. He had time before he would be expected at work.
Who’ll miss me? The desk?
Averil ignored himself. Rituals and rhythms were too important to be questioned; they had held his life together far longer than any other bind.
The house, now charred beams and a half-fallen ceiling, had stood for a thousand years, since when gods were still giddy and young. The papers, trinkets, and drawings that had brought life and light into the old man’s home were gone, as erased in the starless hours of the night as the man himself.
Averil dismounted. The air smelled rich, like good dirt, though too sharp, too defined. Stepping through where a door had stood yesterday, he came first upon a small, fallen heap of books, withered in the ash. He knelt beside the papery corpses, his hands running over them with the same care a follower of Death would have given a fallen body. He swayed a finger up and down the spine of a ruined book, unable to make out any word from the charred, flaking bits of gold across the cover.
Anger bit into Averil, greedy, rousing. “They should have . . .”
Have what? Emptied the house before they made an example by burning it?
Averil comforted himself by imagining the ignorance of the people who did this — followers of wanton gods, men who had probably never read a book in their whole lives.
He didn’t believe his words, but they allowed him to rise and move on.
Nothing of worth remained. No god had cared to extinguish the flames and no man had wanted to cross the deities’s wrath by doing it himself.
I would have, if I’d known.
The boast of a man with nothing to lose, and someone to protect you.
Either the looters had been through or the fire had done its job too well. Still, everything in the shivery black and gray heaps was replaceable, ignorable, unimportant — everything except the tomes.
Averil had only visited Galion here twice, the man’s life had been as impervious to fellowship as Averil’s own, but he had admired the fine shelf of books both times. He quelled an upstart of feeling in his heart. The volumes he had looked at were oddball, ancient — interesting but not necessarily valuable. On those days past Averil had sensed some greater connection — both between the man and the books themselves, but he could not see it, then nor now.
The morning sun began to penetrate the misty haze, shining down through the new skylights and coming to rest upon Averil’s small figure.
What a waste.
Averil considered himself an expert on such matters, squandered possibilities, and this empty ruination of a house certainly qualified.
His gaze lifted from the scattered remains of the living room and he looked upward to the heavy, burned stairs.
No reason to go up there.
Rare as Averil’s visits here had been — their office had always been a more natural meeting place — he did remember Galion had shown him the upstairs, particularly intent on revealing to him a secret hiding place beneath the floor boards. It had been empty then, but now, Averil wondered.
What if I missed everything he was trying to tell me that day?
Averil rose, stepping over piles of ash and fallen timber. The upstairs room appeared to have survived mostly intact —
Why? Did a storm in the night extinguish the blaze?
The same could not be said for the stairs. Averil grasp onto the railing which had once been smooth and round and massive. Bits of charred wood broke off under his hand. He pulled himself onto the first functional-looking step, the third one up.
Averil balanced, testing his weight, hoping what he had going for him was greater than that which worked against him. At twenty-eight, he reminded himself often, he was still young and his slim build certainly aided in climbing eaten-away boards in thousand-year-old houses. He pulled himself up to the next piece of stairs. It gave way and he almost dropped to the ground, but then clung on and managed to make a rather undignified jump to the next step. What worked against him was that he’d spent the last ten years in an office, and probably hadn’t climbed a tree, which this reminded him of, for far longer than that.
Got to look dignified for people all the time.
Averil laughed as he traversed higher. In truth, no one cared what he did. Sure, most people had heard of his job, and knew that Averil, under threat of death, could not pledge himself to a god, but if you said being a gatekeeper involved climbing through piles of ruin like some untimely haunt, the majority of the general public would nod their heads and agree with you.
The last four steps had fallen to the ground below so Averil climbed onto the rail itself, then leapt, throwing himself toward the landing. To his surprise he made it, and so scrambled up to relative safety and stood. Immediately, he wished he hadn’t.
What if Galion’s body is up here? Or his marauding ghost?
Averil shook his head to clear the thoughts away.
He’d gone, disappeared — well before the fire.
Galion had too many enemies in too many camps to make this a surprise, particularly if he had really left forever, and so retribution wasn’t a factor. All gods hated him, and any one of their followers might have been sent to burn this place down.
Averil walked up the small hall toward the bedroom, glad to find everything sturdier here. When Galion had shown Averil this room he had been in a rare talkative mood and had told the young man that there was nothing the gods hated more than someone they could not bribe, control, or measure. That was the worst of all — the man who wanted nothing they had to offer. That was all Galion had said, but for him it was quite verbose.
Averil reached the simple bed and knelt beside it, lowering himself to the floor and resting his palms upon the smooth wood. The structure gave a shake, perceivably, like a horse after a good roll in the dirt. Averil held his breath, but the house stood quiet again. He dug his fingernails under the edge of the plank as he’d seen Galion do that long night ages ago; his hands shook with anticipation.
How can I think this is fun? The old man’s disappeared, probably dead, I have no place here, and yet here I am, quaking like a thief over an undiscovered jewel.
Averil smiled, the cobwebbed feeling a pleasure across his face.
The board moved easily, sliding right away from the others. Averil peered down into the dark recesses of the boxy hole, hoping, almost praying, something that mattered would be inside.
It was empty.
The house groaned under his weight again and Averil felt the disappointment, crawling through his veins, seeping toward his heart.
Fine; who cares?
That Averil knew the answer to that question did not escape him. His body crumpled
over, a slow sort of decomposition of the soul that brought his head down to his knees. He placed a hand over his mouth, as if to keep the unnamed grief from tumbling out onto the floor.
That there was nothing, or that you’re here lamenting over a tiny, empty hole?
With reluctance, Averil opened his eyes. He stared at the bottom of the secret compartment. Lying so close, he could make out a vague outline cast upon one of the boards and Averil reached down, leaning, lying almost to reach it. He touched this new board, digging and prying at it, and found it gave way only the smallest bit. He lay stomach-flat of the floor, his neat white shirt amid the ash-snow, and pulled again against the wood until it popped out of place. Averil half expected to see the ground level staring back at him but instead saw the tiniest glimmer of silver peering out of the blackness of the hole. Averil pulled it out, and after making sure there was nothing else, rose back to his feet.
A necklace — a clear and gentle topaz blue, the color that brought to mind strength of heart, surrounded by a square thickset of silver and hanging from a matching chain.
It meant nothing to Averil, except . . . every god’s followers wore a pendent similar to this. Each god had a different colored stone — but none had a topaz. Danger flashed in front of Averil’s eyes; whatever he had come to find, some note or clue, this was too much, too far.
Could there be another? Throw it away.
He didn’t move. He didn’t really know what the necklace meant, if anything, but his heart beat faster as he watched it, as though it would start calling out to a god, drawing down wrath from the skies. Then Averil put it on.
He had no sense of why — a reason would have had motive and, perhaps, intelligence behind it — this just seemed radical and stupid.
The necklace felt cold against his skin, even in the warmth of the morning sun. It reverberated against him, echoing a call he had not heard.
The structure shuddered under Averil but he hardly felt it; the sun shone in through a small window and still he could not move, not depart. In a world filled with half-truths, most spoke and answered within his own mind, here was an object that actually meant something, an infinity of truth. He missed Galion but his feelings for this necklace were beyond some slapdash sentimentality. Averil felt an unchaining of his soul, as though he had been loosed upon the most important choice of his life but didn’t yet know its name. Then as wind blew through the charred remains of roof and walls, Averil wondered if his mind had become so desperate it would latch onto any symbol, no matter how abstract — or dangerous.
Averil tucked the pendent under his shirt, hidden away and, with some vague promise to himself about dumping it into the river later, he abandoned the burned-out house and led Blackstar away down the hard, gray streets that echoed with every hoof-step. Already clouds mounted overhead and the world had gone suddenly cold.
* * *
As he rode through the streets, late now, Averil played with the necklace, twisting the chain around his middle finger. He liked both the clarity of the stone and the heavy faded square surrounding it. Clasping the pendent in his hand and running it up and down the chain, he felt alive in a way he thought only the desert knew.
Averil galloped toward the graveyard, the tiny piece of heart song still wrapped within his fingers; its gem played and danced in the dawning light like a prisoner wooing the free air.
* * *
Funerals always made Averil smile.
This one had brought more tense-eyed watchers than actual participants. The graveyard was old, unpopular, with longish scrubby grass marring the little hills, and half-obscuring the low, rust iron fences. No one was crying, which seemed fair, since nobody was being buried. A cheap casket, pale and with nothing inscribed on it, lay forgotten in a hole, dirt already strewn the top.
“Why are you smiling?”
Averil glanced over at an unknown man whose perfect clothes and small, circular glasses looked much too clean for this slovenly kept yard. “No reason.”
The man spoke in a low voice, careful not to draw others into their discussion. “Do you think it’s ‘fun’ to be here? Have you never cried over a grave?” The man himself looked like he had never wasted a tear or a breath of sympathy over anyone and never would.
“Both my parents are dead, of course I cried for them—”
“Then show some respect for the deceased.” The man strode away to stand on the other side of the coffin.
Averil frowned. His own losses aside, he enjoyed this place, this time — being in a crowd of people who, for a moment at least, felt the way he always did. Averil stared at the man in spectacles.
If we meet months from now, you will be the betrayer, because you, like all the others, will move on.
They shared grief today, at least in theory, but soon the others’ lives would stretch out in front of them and they would forget, day by day, to be sad.
Still, I guess crying over the death of another doesn’t have the staying power of mourning over one’s own life.
And no one understood you when the corpse was still walking around, masked, breathing, looking as alive as everyone else.
Everything, from the cheap box to the far-flung locale, implied this man, Galion, had not been loved and would not be missed.
Something tolled dumbly within Averil.
Is this my future?
Averil looked from one blank, uncaring face to another. None stared back, even to give a gentle smile.
A woman, old, wizened, stepped forward, her black cloak hanging from her, shielding her like a frozen black waterfall. “I speak for Death, and she speaks for you. This man has walked among us, lived, failed, and succeeded alongside us. And now he sleeps within our fair city.”
Averil frowned at her. Everything she said felt wrong to him, a lie.
Galion was one-of-a-kind — who else has lived as long as the gods? And he disappeared, so there’s no body to sleep. The gods just hate him so that they seek retribution, even if it must be in common words over an empty grave.
Someone must say something of worth for him.
The woman droned on, but Averil couldn’t hear it, these were the same words any Death follower would say over a stranger in the street. All around the other people stood, staring at the casket as though to make sure it could not pop open, its owner leaping once more into the affairs of their masters, the various gods.
Averil heard the man in spectacles whisper to another mourner — “Of course we’re having a feast later.” He added, glancing down his nose at the other man, “You think we’d be the only ones not celebrating?”
The woman had disappeared, departed in that famously quiet way of her kind, just sort of gliding out of the picture. Everyone broke up, disbanding amid soft laughter. Averil watched them scatter in four directions before he had thought of any words to say.
He moved closer, all alone now and wishing he had something to toss, some measure of meaning to impart — but that was the thing about being a ghost in your own life; you had little of substance to give.
He unfastened the necklace, lifting it above the coffin. “What is this? Do you want it back?” The pendent fell from his hand, but the chain, wrapped in his fingers, caught it. It swung in the winds, which were increasing as a foretold storm began announcing its presence, rumbling in from the far edges of the horizon.
Averil stepped away from the grave, and peered at the first heavy, dark gray cloud being pulled across the sky overhead, its breeze whipping against his faded coat.
* * *
Averil walked around the tiny graveyard, swaying between trees, unable to read names on worn-out, corrupted tombstones. The storm was growing, pounding closer with every rage of thunder. Averil slipped the silver chain back around his neck. For once, his office and the mundane rigidalities of his life held no appeal; they offered no balm upon this day.
Raindrops erupted from the skies and Averil dashed for a small, decrepit building adjacent to the yard. He passed under a great beam of gray stone and stepped inside. A fear seized him, choking the breath from Averil as he walked into the black.
I shouldn’t have brought this necklace into the house of a god.
He could not name why, but the whole of his body told him to run from this place. He turned to stare out the doorway, but it was unnecessary, the harsh, heavy refrain of the rain changed his mind before even his eyes saw the deluge.
Shaking away his trepidation, Averil walked down a little hallway, drawing farther into the temple itself. At its heart lay an ill lit room filled with pews, and a long black velvet cloth unfurling to an alter in the far back. Averil also saw a row of books on a shelf against one wall and he walked forward, pulling close to their rich smell, trying to read the dim titles in the near darkness. They were as friends to him, but friends unnamed. He then seated himself on a lenient pew, absorbing the night-spun mystery from all directions. Tiny, slim windows betrayed the storm outside.
His gaze fell upon the alter — a unlit few candles sat, sinking into hard waxen moats, their smooth shine covered with a dusty layer of nonuse. No other offerings remained here.
I have seen mantles crowded with golden statues and jeweled trinkets in the larger temples.
Averil said aloud, “Has Death abandoned you for better ground?”
Just then thin, pale fingers reached out and set a tiny figurine on the alter. “Think not so low of this place.”
Averil started, leaping around to stare at a cloaked figure in the half-light. Thunder collapsed all around them. As soon as the creature pulled the hand back, Averil could make out no part of its form.
The black hollow of a face turned, resting invisible eyes upon him, its hood hiding everything. Neither spoke.
Averil summoned what courage was left to him. “I did not mean to offend.”
The figure answered in a subdued, female voice. “All are welcome here. Your pain blinds you to caution.”
Averil shook his head. “I don’t know what you mean.”
The woman didn’t move, so Averil started to rise. A gesture of her hand stopped him. “Rest while the storm rages.”
“Who are you?”
“Terma. I do not know your name, but I do not need it.”
Averil smiled and, as the woman took a seat across the aisle from him, he felt unworried by this visitor. “How long of Death?”
“Long enough to understand the suffering of another.”
Why does she care? Why must my every conversation end when questions begin?
Averil glanced out the slits of windows, but the rain pealed harder than ever against the glass.
Averil looked up at the dark ceiling. “Maybe I do complain sometimes — is that a sin?”
“Depends on the religion. What’s yours? Power? Wisdom?”
Averil smiled again. “If you knew who I was you wouldn’t ask me about gods.”
“I’ve just never seen someone look like you do who didn’t belong to the wrong one. It’s an imprisoned look.”
Averil stilled a shiver. “You don’t need a god to wall you in. May I?” Averil reached forward and picked up the tiny stature. “It’s beautiful — who is it of?”
“The last dancer. A human representation of the final thing you love before dying.”
The words shook Averil, though he could not understand why. He moved to replace the figure but it fell from his trembling fingers onto the stone floor. He reached down for it fast, as if to undue the damage.
Sheer horror touched Averil’s features. For as soon as he grasp the offering two happened at once — his necklace tumbled out of the folds of his shirt, and the woman gave a soft whisper of a gasp. Averil somehow managed to set the stature back up on alter as he stumbled away from the woman. Averil moved to tuck the necklace inside his clothes but —
“Stop.” The voice had much more power this time. “Is that your god?” She repeated herself, louder this time.
Averil stepped forward, a hand outstretched in front of him, almost to calm — or at least quiet — her, as though her words would summon a deity to this forgotten shed of a temple. “No, no. My god is— I don’t have a god and I don’t know what this is; you do?”
The faceless black of the hood stared at him, and Averil almost moved to run, for rain and winds held little power against the emotion brewing in this woman’s voice.
Averil’s curiosity won out over his fear. “Terma, who’s necklace is this?”
Her voice was still suddenly, withdrawn. “Only a god can answer that, but none will.”
“But you recognize it.”
The rain leapt and laughed outside, its anger passing, its swelling gifts of water playing down from the skies. Without the thunder, the quiet was eerie, bracing in the darkened room. The droplets outside could not cut through the silence.
Averil could feel a cold sweat take him from all sides; with his breath restrained inside his rib cage, he felt like he had just run a race. He turned toward the hallway, hating himself for leaving the one person in Restāre who might have the answers he sought. “I’d better go.”
“Averil . . .” A shock, upon hearing his name, seized Averil’s heart and resounded a second later when the woman reached up and pulled back her hood.
And Averil found himself staring at the immortal face of Death.
Averil gaped in horror. His body had forgotten how to move; a statue could have felt more free.
With her cloak pulled back, the goddess’s full glory was revealed. Her hair coiled and braided around her head, drawing close to the skull, with shards of smoky crystal shining out. She waved a hand over the lifeless candles, watching small, bright flames erupt, dazzling the alter with light. Death smiled at him. “If you don’t know anything, as you said, then I apologize in advance for the pain.”
Her cold, smooth features were not distorted and cruel as Averil remembered another god’s being, but Death’s words and black eyes chilled his heart. Averil could feel her power filling the room like a fog, and drifting out into the day. Terror aborted any rational thought, and so Averil, the man above all others forbidden alliance with a god called out—
Oh god of Darkness, please protect me, please save me.
A crack of thunder, in abeyance from its kin, sounded. A second later Averil’s master, the most malevolent and feared god of the world, appeared.