Authors: Gareth K Pengelly
© 2012 by Gareth K Pengelly.
Writing and illustrations by Gareth K Pengelly.
No part of this book may be taken, sold or reproduced without the express consent of the author.
All characters portrayed are fictitious and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
“This is him?”
“How long has it been?”
“A very long time.”
“He’s pale. A stab wound. It looks infected. I thought he was immune to disease?”
“All but immune, yes. However, I sense a potent cocktail of poisons at work in him. Whoever did this had planned to take him down. Quickly, restrain his limbs before the fever takes hold.”
“Restrain him? I thought you said he was powerless?”
“Powerless, yes. But he is also seven feet tall and four hundred pounds.”
“Quickly now, we must get him to the valley if we are to stand a chance.”
“Will he live?”
“He must; for without him, all that we strive for is for nought.”
What am I? That simple three word question could be answered in so many different ways now, now that the hazy veil of his memory had been drawn aside.
For the last one hundred
years, he had been Invictus. God-King. Ruler of all he surveyed… or so he had been led to believe. A tyrant.
Before that, he had been Stone, the Nagah-Slayer, who had gone from living as a creature in the wilds to finding his place, peaceful, welcome, as a Shaman of the Plains People. Beloved. A hero.
But before that, even, before he’d been plucked from his former world innumerable light years away, he had been Graeme Stone. Unemployed. Unloved. A man bereft of hope.
Three people; the same flesh. But which was he?
Was he Invictus? The Nagah-Slayer? Graeme Stone?
The reality, the genuine answer, was difficult to swallow, but he knew it nonetheless. It pained him to admit it, even to himself, here in the limbo of his dying fever. He had been told the truth so long ago, by the Avatars of the Elements as he had stood before them, a bug, a nothing, facing their judgement. And that self-same truth had been confirmed at the very end by the woman he’d thought of as his equal.
He had denied it. He had fought it. But events had played out and now he was forced to admit it, for what other possible answer was there? Invictus, Nagah-Slayer, Graeme; all masks for the truth.
For he was none of the above.
He was merely a Weapon.
Merely. Pah. He was a weapon, sure. But no
weapon. Going by what he’d been told, he was
weapon. The weapon of ultimate destruction. Mjolnir. Excalibur. The fist of an angry God, poised to destroy a world. But not one world, no. This world. Then his former world. And where would it end, the destruction he’d unwittingly unleashed? If Ceceline was right, then this world was merely the last in a millennia-long scouring of a galaxy, which had culminated in their taking of him, using him to bridge the gap between this world and his.
Here, now, with his hindsight restored and his mind free to ponder, it all seemed so clear. His genes, the DNA of Graeme Stone – meagre, asthmatic, a nothing – had contained a potential that Ceceline’s masters, whoever they may be, had seen, coveted with hungry eyes from across the gulf of space.
A potential to turn his frail frame into an indestructible conduit for their power. A conduit of such limitless endurance that only he could wield power enough to forge a gateway that would endure the strain of bridging the universe, pulling two points in space so close together over so great a distance. Opening the gates to pastures new.
Somewhere, comatose, his real body lay, he knew. He could feel the lethal, cunning toxins of Memphias’ dagger as they coursed through his organs, laying waste to him, despite his enhanced physiology’s best efforts. The Master Assassin had done his homework. But even without that fateful wound, he was sure that he would have died anyway, his mind fracturing, succumbing to the sheer weight of guilt now that he could see, unblinkered, the carnage he had wrought, the selfishness of his actions over the years.
He thought back over his unnaturally long life to those times he had felt happiest, most content. Not as Invictus, no; for though he’d had all the pleasure in the world at his fingertips, he could see now the cruelty of his whims, the Hunt, the Games. The vague sense of justification he’d felt, having been wronged in his past, that caused him to believe he could unleash such bloodlust on the world and not have to think of the consequences. No, that was not true pleasure. That was nothing more than long and cruelly drawn out revenge.
No. He brought to mind the only true happiness in his living memory, and it hurt. It hurt so much. The summer sun. The crystal running waters of the Yow. Chief Farr. Wrynn. Arnoon.
All gone now, never to return. Oh, but if things could only have been different. If only he hadn’t left to see the Avatars who would only spell out his doom. If he’d been there, with the Youngbloods, to protect the village, maybe things would have been different, this destiny avoided.
But no. He knew now that he had been dangling, all along, from the strings of cosmic puppeteers. Even had he somehow averted the fate of his village, they would still have claimed him in the end. Perhaps Raga would have unleashed his hordes on the Plains, the full might of the Clans. Back then, in the infancy of his power, Stone couldn’t have stopped an army, not by himself. The village would still have burned. He would still have succumbed to the rage.
He would still have listened to the whispers and become their weapon.
Why hadn’t the Avatars ended him as soon as they’d realised the truth? Why had they not wielded their limitless power and crushed him, burned him, reduced him down to nothing so that his manipulators couldn’t have their way?
Because that, too, would have made no difference, he realised. Such masters as those of Ceceline lived – if that were the term – beyond the flow of time as mortals would understand it. Even if his particular set of genes were unique, a single blip in the million-year history of man, what was another million years to wait till the next blip for such as they? Eventually, another such individual might be born, to fall, unwittingly, into their web.
It dawned, suddenly, that perhaps the Avatars knew that too. Perhaps they weren’t content with merely delaying the inevitable. Perhaps, just maybe, they intended to halt it.
Perhaps the weapon could be wielded by different hands.
“And so, he begins to understand.”
That voice. He knew that voice. He knew it, yet couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t face it. Couldn’t bear to reply. For he had once told this voice that he would do it proud.
“And you still could. I still have every faith in you.”
No! How? So many years had passed. So many evil deeds. So much bloodshed, violence, cruelty all by his hand. How now could anyone still have faith in him?
“I once told someone that you will never lose yourself entirely, even if you forget for a while.”
A hundred years is more than a while.
“Not to such as us.”
“We who are chosen by the Avatars to represent them in this eternal war.”
But I wasn’t chosen by them, I was chosen by the others, the ones that seek to destroy.
“You are claimed by both. So now it is
who gets to choose.”
I… get a choice?
“Life is full of choices, most of them hidden in shades of grey. But this one is clear-cut. Black and white. Do you allow yourself to fade away, die, knowing that you have had a hand in destroying life as we know it? Or do you realise that you can still do that at which you are best… change?”
I have made my choice. I know who I want to be.
“And who are you?”
I am Stone of the Wilds, Nagah-Slayer. The Champion of the Avatars. And I will fight to undo all that I have done.
“Then awaken, my apprentice, for there is much work to be done and not much time in which to do it…”
He emerged into the anteroom clad only in a white loin-cloth about his waist, his former clothes stripped of him as his wounds had been treated. Ducking to avoid the door-frame, he startled the guardsmen who scattered like springtime birds before a bear, freshly wakened from its months long slumber. Fumbling, they drew weapons, pointed shakily in his direction, but there was no threat in his green eyes, only urgency. He spoke to them, his voice deep, powerful and brooking no delay.
“Where is he?”
A trembling hand pointed the way, and the giant strode past, the guards letting out a shuddering breath of relief as he disappeared down the corridor and into the Hall of the Elders. One of them leant over, whispering as they watched the receding titan.
“…he didn’t look that big when he was unconscious.”
People turned as he entered the large, high-ceilinged room, despite the fact that his bare feet made no noise, and Stone became intensely aware that he was being scrutinised by more than just the eyes that watched him. Waves of sorcerous power bathed him from the assembled group, yet it was unlike anything that he had felt in years; this was not dark, twisting, whispering and perverse. This was pure, natural, crisp and refreshing.
Spirit Craft, Shamanic Magic, an art he had thought long exterminated by his own hand and he could feel the unease of the spirits themselves as they whirled about him, wary yet curious, like moths about a night-time fire.
A wariness reflected in the faces of all who looked at him. The crowd of people, of different colours, shapes and sizes, for the most part clad in simple, loose-fitting robes, stared at him; some curious, some worried, others glaring with eyes full of simmering hatred.
But one pair of eyes alone regarded him with something approximating welcome. A pair of eyes that Stone had not seen for over a century and had thought lost to him, forever.
The crowd gasped in surprise at his acknowledgement as the Shaman made his way slowly through the throng, his tall form as imposing as ever, his greying hair and stern eyes the same as they had ever been, even a hundred years later. Unchanging, resolute. A whispering from the crowd, hushed and curious as the ancient Master of Spirit-Craft finally stood before his long-lost student, the ‘youth’ as it were now looming high, a clear head and shoulders above the Shaman.
A further gasp, as the immortal once-king dropped, humble, to his knee before the Shaman. For what, here, was the connection, the history? How did the tyrant know the saviour? And why had they not been told?
“Did I not tell you, my apprentice,” he spoke, his voice gentle, yet strong, the same as ever, “that I would see you again?”
“You did, Master Wrynn,” replied the Nagah-Slayer, his own voice quiet, as though ashamed to be heard out loud. “But so much has changed since then. So much blood on my hands.”
Wrynn nodded, face grave, but his tone wasn’t judging.
“Indeed. Much blood. Several life-time’s worth. But no matter how encrusted your hands, they can still be washed clean. You can still restore the balance
of your deeds if you fight for what you now know is right.”
Stone looked up, green eyes glistening with hope, but before he could thank the Shaman for his words, a voice, loud, angry caused the crowd to start and people parted before the indignant figure that strode towards the duo, face twisted in snarling rage.
“Restore the balance? Restore the
?” The young man positively spat the words from his reddened face. “I’ve seen the barbarism of this man, first hand. I’ve seen the violence in him. And you all think that he will simply drop into our lap and fight for us?”