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As The Old Gods Before Us

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‘Venerable, there was a call!’

‘Venerable!’

He put down the tablet and wrapped the beads over his forearm, once, twice, thrice, and then one more time. The bone beads rustled.

He knew. He had heard.

He got to his feet, and exited the small shack.

The whole town was weighing on him. It wasn’t big: thirty houses, just an outpost. Trains following further to the Sundo Mine used to stop here to refill their water tanks, to buy mole meat and fungi. It was away from the main routes. The mine had been closed off seven weeks ago. He knew why the Council had sent him here.

These people wouldn’t leave. It was their home.

But that was not the only reason why he had been sent here.

They flocked to the shack, lined the main—the only—street. All eyes on him, fifty one pair. He touched the hound’s head on his way past her.

He had left the coat in the shack, the staff also. (There was another coat in his bag, and another staff, wrapped in old waxed cloth, and a mask, too.)

He walked clad only in the bodyglove and the simple garments underneath. Even though the dark wires attracted heat, he didn’t waste energy on thermoregulation.

(The whole town was weighing on him.)

‘There was a call, Venerable!’

‘I know,’ he told them. ‘I heard.’ He felt it, too. Felt them moving days before they had come this close.

He wondered why they were here. He would know.

They couldn’t have come for him. (The grey-clad didn’t care for his other coat and his staff and the mask, they wouldn’t understand, they would mock.)

He walked to the gates, and the town weighed on him as he walked out and the gates closed.

The Technomancer was tall and imposing in the ceremonial long coat, their staff fully extended. They had noble features, and even more noble air about them—and they were being used as a blunt weapon of war, feeding and feeding that empty gorge, bleeding on the fanged maw.

‘What do you want, cousin?’ he called to them, weary and not hiding it.

(The town was weighing upon him.)

He caught them flicking their gaze up and down him, and up again. They had blue eyes, matching the sundown sky above, and a head full of white, even though they couldn’t have been much older than him.

‘You are not dressed for a fight,’ they pointed out, quiet enough that it only carried between them.

‘I am not here to fight,’ he replied. The heat of the day was getting to him. ‘But if there is a need, I will.’

‘I am—’

‘I know who you are. You carry my kindred’s mark, and they speak of you.’

The man remained unmoved, then his face softened. Still a weapon, but not unthinking. ‘We need this town, kinsman.’

He laughed. ‘For what? There is nothing here.’

‘Abundance wants it for an outpost.’

‘And she is afraid of insurgents in her midst? Leave these people alone, cousin. They are too busy trying to survive.’

The man gripped his staff tight. ‘I have to, cousin. The people will not yield while you are here.’

‘Don’t speak of them as though they are an unthinking herd.’

‘No, they are not. So don’t let them die. They don’t have to die.’

He smiled. ‘If you kill me, they will.’

‘I give you my word,’ the man said quietly, so stern and powerful, and powerless all the same, ‘that no harm would come to them.’

He smiled. ‘Your word holds no sway over it, cousin, for they will die. The town only lives because I do.’

‘You dare…’ The man’s face twisted—just for a moment. His will was strong, but though their face turned impassive again, their field was a blaze. ‘They are your flock!’

‘They are. You misunderstand me.’ And he shrugged the town off his shoulders for a moment.

The man’s face turned into stone. That Technomancer was good, they said, and he measured him and thought he was, in more ways than one.

No doubt he would notice the drop in charge all across the town.

‘You are powering it all?’

He smiled again. ‘I do. Abundance is generous with her violence, and a few shells from the opening salvo on Fair Den landed here. It is a small town, and has few generators. I die, and the deaths of these people will be on your hands, brother. We don’t have to do it.’

‘We have to.’ The man stood silent, then bowed. ‘You are skilled in mind games.’

He wasn’t, not really. ‘It is no mind game. I speak the truth. But we don’t have to decide now.’

‘I have a sniper.’

‘I know.’

A yelp echoed, followed by colourful cursing.

The man didn’t turn bodily, but his head tilted slightly.

He smiled. ‘Your boy is all right. Though he’d have to look for the parts of his rifle scattered now, oh, all across that cliff.’

‘Mine?’ The Technomancer arched a brow.

‘Yours. I know.’ He felt their ties, he could see them. Tethers from this grey-clad one—to them. They were his, his small group.

‘I’ll take the measure of you,’ he said. ‘If you kill me, you will be ever shunned. If you don’t, the kindred will know this also.’

The blue eyes darkened. The sun was rolling down, unstoppable. ‘They hadn’t known me for years, only my construct.’

‘My voice will be heard, and heeded. I give you my word.’

His kindred didn’t look convinced. He could understand the hesitation.

There was a war going on.

‘You evoked the name of Mars.’ He bowed, too, a copy of the grey-clad one’s movement. ‘Clever. You know my kin well. But you remember there was an old goddess of bloodlust and war rage. They tricked her into drinking until she fell asleep. Let us drown the war until it sleeps, just for one night. After all, it is the first of March, and on Earth it marked the start of the year, once.’

The Technomancer tilted his head to his shoulder. ‘What do you do to celebrate it?’

He spread his arms. ‘We feast. We sing. We dance. What do you do?’

The man snorted. It was more handsome on him, being alive and not a statue. ‘I thought of other things, for you.’

‘What, sacrifices? Orgies? Seriously, brother. Do you dance?’

‘A… little.’

‘I will teach you.’ He raised his hand and raised his voice, ‘Come, kindred! No bloodshed today. Fuck wars.’

And the gates opened.

***

Flames danced, and lights danced, and people danced. They were tired of war, and here, they offered it wine instead of blood, and, stupid and blind, it drank until it fell into slumber.

And they danced.

He watched Sean and the boy watch each other, and wondered. What it would be like, what it felt like. To have that. When he caught Sean throwing a glance at his boy for the seventh time, he got up and stepped to his side. ‘Why don’t you go to him?’

Sean retreated into the shadow. He had taken off his long coat, wearing a jacket the colour of sands instead—and the gloves, too, were absent.

‘And what would that achieve?’

‘You tell me.’ He took the cup dangling uselessly in Sean’s fingers and drained the wine. It was sweet and fruity, made here in this town ages ago. They opened all the bottles. ‘You have to let your charges align first, however. So I was taught.’

‘You are taught…?’ Sean looked at him with unhidden amusement quirking his lips.

He shrugged. ‘It is an essential knowledge. We are human, and some of us have those desires.’

‘Not you?’

‘I’m not certain. Haven’t met anyone yet who would,’ he smiled, ‘rouse my charge, so to speak.’

Sean snorted. The crow’s feet at his eyes were better than the frown lines cut deep on the forehead. ‘Clearly, they don’t teach you to joke properly.’

‘They do, but I failed that class entirely.’

Sean nudged him in the ribs—and hissed, stung by the charge.

He chuckled. ‘You walk in my field, brother, and I’m burdened by the whole town. My control slips.’

‘You are no brother of mine.’

‘But I am. You wouldn’t have allowed me to talk about your sex life otherwise. Go on. Nothing is stopping you. He wants you, and frankly his desire is pressing uncomfortably on me.’

‘If you intend to creep…’

‘I would look the other way and fold my field.’

Sean threw another glance at the boy. Zachariah was scratching under the chin of the hound, making her chitter.

He nudged Sean, making sure his charge didn’t sting this time. ‘Go, brother.’

‘I am his commanding officer.’

‘And I am your enemy.’

Sean looked at him. Flames flickered in his eyes. ‘And yet, tonight we dance.’

He smiled. ‘And yet, we dance. No war tonight, and you are not an officer, for there are no armies here. Go. He is waiting.’

He did fold his field, leaving them in darkness.

***

The ridge of the cliffs was blazing already, the Sun close. Unstoppable.

He stood in front of the gates, like he had done the morning before, and before, and before that, every sunrise since his arrival.

Nursing a slight hangover, this time.

The sand rustled.

‘They can’t stay here. You cannot carry that burden forever.’ Sean wore only the bodyglove, just like him, and with no gloves, just like him, although, unlike him, Sean had a jacket thrown over his shoulders. It was not Sean’s jacket.

He looked at the ridge again. ‘I can, but you are right. I was waiting for a caravan, but if there are more of mobile groups like yours, I will not endanger them.’

‘There are a couple. But regardless, the Army might want the mine. Or they might move out of the Den. Or any number of things, brother. This town will not stand.’

‘Abundance will not stand against me either.’

‘Your arrogance will doom you.’ There was sharp frustration in Sean’s voice, and in his field. His field carried tangles and imprints of his boy’s. ‘You are no god.’

He smiled. There was a flare on the ridge. Tails of light, like a fire burning somewhere behind the cliffs. ‘I would argue, but we’ve no time.’ He took a flask, another resting at his feet already drained, and offered it to Sean. ‘What do you suggest?’

Their fingers brushed, ungloved, a spark running over. He knew Sean’s spark and his signature and the shape of his field. ‘Come with us.’ Blue eyes peered at him as Sean drank. ‘If we pool our resources…’

He smiled. He knew how many resources the town had and Sean’s people had. ‘You are no god either.’

‘We can drop them at Blue Veil.’

‘“Them”? Not “you”?’ He was amused.

Sean stayed silent, looked at the cliffs, too. Then asked, ‘Will you be punished? For leaving?’

‘We don’t have your hierarchy. We are not soldiers. If the people live, I have served my purpose.’

‘And if you join…’ Sean trailed off.

‘You have the boy. I understood you do not have trines. You don’t need me.’

‘We do have bonds.’

‘That, you do. And I have my duty.’

‘They have abandoned you here.’

‘They have not. It is not that.’

‘Then what? Without your trine…’

‘I have no trine.’

‘No? But…’

He looked away from Sean. ‘One day.’ He thought. Calculated.

Another flare went up and left a trail in the sky. The Sun was close.

‘Take my people,’ he said. ‘Bring them to safety. And then, we’ll see.’

It was not a promise, and they both knew it. What promises besides the promise of death could be made between enemies?

But they were not enemies. They had feasted and shared wine, and they had sung, and they had danced. They were kindred, the same salt in their blood.

‘Sean? If you tried to cover the hickey on your neck, you have failed.’

‘Fuck.’ It was with laughter hidden in the sigh.

‘You were with a Technomancer. Marks linger.’

‘Fuck. I forgot.’

‘He’s a good boy.’

‘He does questionable things.’

‘That is not a measure of goodness, Sean, you know it. And you are a good man.’

‘I’m certainly not.’

‘Then I am a crazy fanatical abomination.’

‘Many would call you that.’

‘Many do. But not you.’

‘Not me.’

Another flare. And another. And another. And another. The blazing light like war banners over the cliffs. The Sun riding closer, closer.

‘At least tell me your name,’ Sean asked.

He smiled. ‘I’m called Temperance.’

Sean laughed—a sound that the cliffs caught and carried away. ‘I thought those names were supposed to inspire the qualities, not… be the opposite. They call you other names, however.’

He nodded. ‘They do. And you call me your brother.’

‘I do.’

They watched the cliffs.

‘There were older gods,’ he said. ‘One with pale skin and red hair, the lord of crimson sands, lover of the Sun. Protector of the people, even though later on they mocked him and twisted his image.

‘To him, our duty goes back in centuries. We stand, brother, facing the immeasurable indifference of the elements, and burn in the Light—but we cast the Shadow, and they walk in it; and we know there is love. We know, because we feel it, no matter what. Without it, we might as well fall and turn into sand.’

He reached to Sean. They locked hands and twined fingers. Sean’s hand was dry and firm.

‘We face the Light,’ he said as the cliffs burnt.

‘We cast the Shadow,’ he said and raised the shield over the town, the sandsails, the people. Sean’s charge joined his.

‘We stand,’ he declared against the blaze.

‘We stand!’ And the cliffs were shaken by their voices.

The Sun rose.