The firmament was drowned in a swirl of flames and smoke woven like a silk tapestry – the ground, blanketed in grey turbid water, sputtering and spitting as the deluge poured down and electricity split the sky sporadically. The whole world felt filthy, but the lightning storm had sharpened the air with the acrid smell of ozone.
His clothes were damp, his face pale and drawn, the shadows of his sharp cheekbones enhanced by rough stubble. His eyes were brilliant, dangerous; their merest glance could pierce like a pair of daggers. The black riding coat he wore was stained by dirt and water, his boots covered past the ankles in thick mire. His hair was windblown, wet strands falling across his face, and at the corners of his mouth there played the hint of an ominous grin. His grin was that of a fallen angel, the bitter but amused smirk of an agent of apocalypse.
The druids had named him Gideon. The destroyer. A tough job to be chosen for, from his very birth, but Gideon was the right man for it. There was power in destruction: energy. Creative energy. The world he knew was the wild, outside of society, where he had been raised. The druids had taught him the laws of the stars, to track their movements, and his movements by them. They had taught him to predict the weather, to heal wounds, to tell time by the sun. Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, the works of man were an affront to his eyes, civilization a blight upon the earth. Civilization meant order, and order meant death.
He liked the acerbic taste of the air, the way it cloyed his nostrils. It invigorated him as he strode through the night, inexorably closer to the ancient stone chapel on the cliff. Some hundreds of yards straight ahead along the flat, even path he saw the crimson glow of the chapel’s braziers. Hanging heavily in his right hand, a satchel of black bulged with something large and round slumbering inside. It swayed like a clock’s pendulum in time to his slow, measured stride, the sound of which was obscured by the slosh of the mud and the crashing of thunder.
The ancient stone chapel was the oldest building for many kilometers. The high walls were of large stones, dull red, grey, yellow, all held together with the liquid-stone the Tinners made: cement. Half a dozen archways made up the front of the building. Gideon’s boots tracked muddy footprints across dusty red cobblestones as he stepped under the eaves, the brown water sloughing off his riding coat and down the green copper drains. The great oak doors before him were bound with black hinges of pockmarked wrought iron. Beside the doors was a plaque, reading:
All Hail Agnos, Bringer of Order, without Whom none would Be.
The becloaked man sneered at this, and chuckled grimly to himself.
“Soon enough, Agnos, You will not Be. You will not, and we will remain.”
The druids had sent Gideon on this mission. For years they had worked to restore the Old Ways, suppressed and rooted out by the Order of Agnos; the Tinners, they called them, for their devices of steam and that flimsy, cheap metal; ever since they formed half a century ago. The Tinners called their creations, their sad replacement for magick, “Techknowledge.”
Once, the gods of the Old Ways, Alina the healer, Diebol the treacherous, Microst the all-knowing, Spurmann the heroic and strong, and countless others were worshipped by all. Now, those who had followed them were allowed to worship no other god but Agnos. His Order regulated society, assigned every man his work. They organized obsessively; every minute of every man’s day was scheduled, every city organized in maddening even rows, as if people were being grown and tended in gardens rather than living their own lives. In civilization, everything was part of a system as inflexible as the clockwork machines of the Tinners, as the followers of Agnos were called. They said they were systematically guiding everyone to a higher state of existence, and the Old Ways were only an impediment to that progress. The Old Ways were kept alive only by the druids and a few hundred renegades living in the wilds, outside civilization, waiting for the day Agnos would fall and the Old Ways would be restored.
If the druids were correct, this would be that day.
Laying his hand on the door’s massive ring, the heretic pulled. The door remained immobile. A grumble, followed by a whispered curse, escaped his lips as he spun on his heel and walked back into the rain.
Around the side of the monolithic building where the ground began to slope downward, he found a short walkway, a door on either end, raised about a man’s height from the earth. He lifted his bag and set it on the stone walkway gingerly. A spry leap put his feet on the flagstones, and, for the moment, out of the rain. His boots tracked mud. No concern. Any sign of his passage would be obliterated soon enough.
Both doors were locked – hardly unexpected. No passage above, but below was a grate that might be moved. Leaping down, his boots collided with the muddy ground. The grate was brittle iron and somewhat rusted; easily broken by a swift kick. He lifted the bag again gently, and dropped down into the bowels of the Chapel of Agnos.
Splash! More water, tepid and reeking this time, and up to his ankles. He found himself in a dark catacomb, illuminated only by the few beams of stray light that trickled in from the grate. It was some kind of tunnel, an uncomfortably warm one, with no exit in sight. The very walls seemed to sweat, the whole place a rounded iron tube dripping with fetid moisture like the vile innards of some enormous beast. He had dropped into a steam tunnel.
Rumbling, like the gates of Hell opening, echoed from deep in the dark recesses of the tunnel. The interloper’s legs felt like lead and he felt icy fear well up in his gut. For an instant, a fiery rubescent glow illuminated the tunnel behind him. Those were the furnaces. He was in a steam tunnel. Panic and adrenaline shot through him. If he didn’t escape, he’d be cooked alive.
Running furiously away from the furnace’s infernal glow, he could feel the oncoming heat. Sweat rolled from his soaked face, dripping down the back of his neck. The steam was becoming thicker, and he could hardly see. The tunnel was slick, and his feet slid and he slipped, coming down hard on the side of his head. The heat was tangible, oppressive. Lassitude was creeping into him, making him want to embrace sleep, and death. He cleared his head with some effort and resumed his dash for a way out.
Above him, he spied a grating with long, narrow slits. Leaping upward, he managed to slip a hand through to the floor above. Pushing the grate aside roughly, he pulled, straining to pull himself up, through the narrow opening. Dragging the bag with him, he rolled, panting, onto the floor of the chapel.
Vents like the one he had climbed through lined both sides of the enormous room, and were now blasting steam. Iron statues lined both walls as well, depicting soldiers with pikes, swords, and axes: the guardians of the temple. The panicked man held as still as he could. Were these the Automata, the living statues that were said to guard Agnos? None of them moved. The man let out his held breath, sweeping his now-drenched hair away from his face with one hand. He had made it inside, and was now safe.
Carefully opening the bag he lifted out the object within – a globe of metal with a curious lustre, connected by copper wires to a square base of the same strange metal. The globe was decorated with five small clear crystals on the top, a row of two over a row of three, and had a kind of seam running around the equator. It was an artifact of magickal potency, which belonged to the ancients, masters of wizardry and wielders of great powers, left over from the bygone times. It had been retrieved from deep underneath the ruins of one of the ancients’ cities. It would be the weapon to destroy Agnos.
Satisfied it was unharmed, he returned it to the bag. Clambering to his feet, he found himself in somewhat rougher shape, but he would manage. He was to meet another here, one wise in the ways of magick who could harness the power of the ancients’ devices. Though Gideon had never met him before, he knew his name was Alexander, and he was to bring the magickal stone that would be the source of the Orb’s power.
At one end of the room was the great statue of Agnos, made of the same iron as the smaller statues, raised on a dais and towering over the room. Before him, the great golden altar, in the shape of a gear. In the temples of their own gods, within their statues, the followers of the Old Ways always entombed the body of that god. It was a great secret, but Gideon was one of the privileged few to whom it was told. The gods were once living men and women, who by their deeds had achieved immortality upon their death. They promised him that if he succeeded, he too would surely become one of the gods, entombed in a statue of himself. But first, he needed to slay Agnos, by destroying his temple, by destroying his body. The interloper strode forward, and spoke in a coarse whisper.
“Alexander? Be you here?”
“Yes. I am here.” The reply was startling: loud, and from only a short distance away.
“Sweet Lady Alina! Ee’ ought never sneak up on people like that! I thought you might be one of the clerics.” The man stood beside one of the statues. He was old but not elderly, the hood of his brown cloak framing a red face, in turn framed by hair white as clouds.
“Calm your heart and lower your voice. Come over here. Your name?”
“I see. Everything is in readiness, Gideon?” The man’s tone sounded strange to Gideon.
“Readiness? What do ‘ee mean by that? I’ve the Orb in this satchel.”
“Pray give the sight of it,” the old man extended his gnarled hand.
Gideon placed the black bag’s straps in the outstretched hand. “Are ’ee sure the Tinners are not around?”
The old man peered into the bag. “The Order of Agnos leaves only one cleric to watch the temple every night. That‘s him, over there. He will be out for the rest of the night; I dosed him with sleeping powder.”
While Gideon stepped over to the unconscious body nearby, the old man examined the strange Orb, bemused. He muttered a distracted warning to Gideon, “Bewary the pressure plates, if ‘ee trip those trickers the hydraulics those statues shall come to life and smash you with their axes.” Gideon stepped carefully.
As Gideon turned the unconscious body over onto his back, the white hood of the Order’s robe fell away. The flesh of the man’s face looked like melting wax, hanging loosely from the bone like rubber. Growths and discolorations covered his skin. Pouches of flesh, spotted with sores and seeping, seemed to dangle off the bone of his jaw. He showed sure signs of aether-rot: a disease born of prolonged exposure to magickal energies, and caused deformities, eventually twisting living things into mutated freaks. It often afflicted wildlife inhabiting the vast ash deserts which contained the ruins of the ancients’ cities, and held the lingering remains of their magick.
A follower of Agnos afflicted by aether-rot was simply impossible. This was the man he had been sent to meet, Alexander. The old man now holding the Orb, the key to his people’s salvation, was someone else, a monk of the very Order who oppressed them.
Behind Gideon rusty metal screeched. He stood and spun towards the noise; the Tinner who had posed as his fellow conspirator had thrown one of the levers by the iron statues. The sound of hissing steam filled the chamber.
The statues stirred, and slowly began to move. Automatons! They were, surely! Gideon dropped onto the stone floor and rolled just in time, avoiding the halberd the nearest one swung at him. He came to his feet directly before the cleric, and seized the smaller man by the wrist roughly. No sooner had he done this, though, than another automaton lunged with its spear, catching Gideon directly between the blades of his shoulders, and sending him sprawling across the room.
“Lie, Gideon.” The man had ceased hunching and now looked twenty years younger. His hood was off, and standing up straight he was Gideon’s height. “I know all the triggers here. Move from that spot, and ‘ee will breathe it out, just like Alexander there.”
Gideon coughed. Blood flecked his teeth and its coppery taste filled his mouth. He liked the taste, and the harsh sensation of the adrenaline in his blood. His heart had quickened, his hands felt cold and his mouth was dry.
“If yon chuck-meat is Alexander, who are ‘ee?” Gideon grinned crookedly.
“I am Friar Salvadore.” Salvadore suppressed a shiver as his eyes met Gideon’s. He was in control here, the interloper was stretched out helpless on the floor between him. Why should this man make him nervous now? Those eyes were dangerous. This man either had something up his sleeve, or he was insane.
In truth, Gideon probably was insane after a fashion. Certainly, most people would not consider him entirely rational at the best of times. Now was not the best of times. Here he was, almost certainly doomed, and he was grinning for no better reason than that he enjoyed the desperation of his situation.
“One move and I’ll have the automatons tear you apart. Now, tell me what this device is and what you and this Alexander planned to do with it.”
In a state somewhat like a wild animal in a frenzy, somehow between panic and euphoria, Gideon experienced a moment of clarity. The automata were not alive. They were machines. He saw it now: as alive as they looked, they were as lifeless and as fixed to their path as the Order of Agnos. As he watched, he perceived the patterns of their movements: complex, yes, but he could time his moment.
“Speak, dog!” Salvadore bellowed in a voice that overpowered the shrill screeching of metal from the dozens of writhing, swaying automata “Or is your will to die like one?” Gideon sprang forward, heedless of the deep wound on his back. Salvadore’s eyes widened in surprise as Gideon threw his weight against him, and he stumbled back at the very instant the automaton thrust its spear forward again. The spear impaled Salvadore, who bellowed with pain and rage.
With surprising strength, Salvadore seized Gideon’s hair, and forced him off balance until he was kneeling before him. Drawing a small but very sharp dagger, Salvadore, with a taut, severe and expressionless mien, raised it to strike directly down into Gideon’s eyes.
The automaton continued its motion, sweeping the spear to the side. Its point carried with it Salvadore, tearing him screaming in frustration away from Gideon. Gideon’s hand groped for the lever that he had seen Salvadore throw, and switched it back. The sound of moving machinery died away. The automatons were left in various poses of mid-action. The nearby spearman held his spear high to the sky, and at its point a cleric of the Order of Agnos had ceased his moving and breathed it out.
Gideon crawled on hands and knees, his body beginning to feel like a pummeled sack of apples, over to the unconscious Alexander. He still breathed, so he was indeed unconscious. The wound between his shoulders made every movement agonizing. The pain was amazing, but Gods! He had never felt so alive. Laying a shivering hand on Alexander’s chest, Gideon shook him. The flaps of Alexander’s diseased skin wobbled.
“Diebol take you!” Gideon grunted, striking the unconscious man hard with the back of his right hand. “Wake thee! We have a job to do. In the name of Spurmann, wake!”
The decrepit old man wheezed and stirred. He rolled to his side, away from Gideon, and curled into a ball, coughing and hacking up the residue of the sleeping powder. Gods knew it was foul stuff. Gideon lay sprawled patiently on the cold stone floor until the old man was finished. The world grew hazy and time skipped and stuttered forward strangely. Once Gideon’s head had stopped swimming, Alexander was standing above him, offering a gnarled hand.
“I suppose I am in debt to ‘ee.” Alexander helped Gideon to his feet, wobbling and nearly tumbling himself as he did so. “Listen with care. You must place this crystal in the Orb and set it on the Altar.” He produced a small diadem of flat grey in a hand that trembled with nerve decay. Gideon accepted it. “Pass your finger across the crystal on the top left to open the Orb. Place the crystal in the cradle within, then press the next crystal to close it. Press all the crystals on the bottom row, from left to right to complete the process. When ‘ee have completed this, we must leave and go far away from here, as the druids instructed.”
“Why must I do this?”
“I must retrieve some volumes from the libraries. The Order of Agnos has collected records of the Old People, Gideon! Think how precious these are! If you could read the language of the Old People, you might be able to do this, but you are more suited to the task I have instructed. Do ‘ee not revel in this moment of triumph?”
Gideon did savor this moment, even in his pain and injury. As Alexander went off about his business, Gideon clambered to his feet and over to where the Orb lay, knocked half across the room in his scuffle with Salvadore and miraculously unharmed. Gideon did as Alexander had instructed. The crystal turned from diamond-clear to a scarlet red at his touch and the Orb opened along its equator. He placed the magick crystal on a tiny steel pedestal of sorts in its center. It closed once more, and as he pressed the last three buttons, made a series of strange humming, high pitched noises.
When Gideon had expected to feel triumph, he instead felt a strange sense of wrongness. The Orb seemed to have come alive when awakened by his touch: alive and malicious. The lustre of its steel shell seemed as deep as the ocean depths, a gateway to a lightless world of alien things, a great void from which there was no escape. Destruction he had always seen as the means to his people’s freedom, but the five malevolent glowing crystal eyes of the Orb he had placed on the massive Altar of Agnos promised no freedom. Only destruction, indiscriminate between the Tinners and his people, could be held within that terrible thing he had brought here.
Gideon pushed such thoughts from his mind. His task was complete, the prophecy had been fulfilled. He would be remembered forever as a God-Hero. “Alexander, it is done! We must fly!”
With the satchel that had held the Orb now stuffed with ancient books, Alexander emerged. The two fled the Chapel of Agnos through the front doors and into the east and the approaching dawn.
* * *
“Oh, what unfathomable fools are we…”
Alexander sighed as he sat atop a rock in the forest in the early morning. Nearby, Gideon leaned on an Elder tree. The rain had abated, but all was still damp. Far to the west, the edge of the horizon became the end of the world. As the golden radiance of the rising sun began to pour across the sky from the east, the western sky was shot with orange from the billowing cloud of glowing smoke.
“All was in vain, Gideon.”
Gideon’s tired, pained eyes shot Alexander an acid stare that made him turn his head away. “Why be ‘ee a doomsayer now, now the foretold day has finally come?”
“We cannot kill Agnos, Gideon. He does not exist. We assumed He was like our gods, that his essence was kept in his temple and with the temple the god could be destroyed. But the essence of Agnos is in every piece of machinery and the human ingenuinity that his Cult employs. He is not a god at all, only an idea, a practice. The very essence of Techknowledge.”
“You make no sense.”
Alexander sighed. “I’m only beginning to ken how wrong we were. Gideon, these tomes of the Old People reveal many unexpected, terrible things. They weren’t masters of magick at all. They were masters of Techknowledge. The followers of Agnos were just trying to bring us back to the ways of the Old People all along. The Old Ways we followed were wrong; we had no idea what the Old Ways really were. Our ways were simply an invention of the druids.”
Gideon rushed at him, his hand knocking the book out of Alexander’s. “I will not hear that all I have struggled for was wrong! Even were our ways invented, they were better than the ways of Agnos, better than see men living as machines.” Papery white dust had begun to fall through the ancient trees, like snow. “I care for my people, not the Old People’s ways, and I see no good that Techknowledge can provide that they need or want. Let the bones of the Old People molder, our people must go their own way.”
“There’s one more thing, if ‘ee will hear. Techknowledge was the doom of the Old People. Devices like that Orb, they called them ‘Atomic’, the Old People went to war against each other, and with those devices they destroyed each other. Those atomics reduced their cities to rubble, created the white ash deserts, and brought Aether-Rot. Now that we have unleashed it, it will inevitably do the same to us.”
Gideon snarled at him. “Better in our hands than in the Tinners! Gods! Were you not prepared to shed blood?”
Alexander looked back at him now, his deformed face heavy with profound sadness. “Do ‘ee still not understand, Gideon Stormcrow? The druids and the Tinners have both known this all along. They can find many more of these atomics. Now that it has begun, it will continue until all is desolation. We have loosed this storm upon the world and it will blanket all in its downpour. All shall feel its terrible thunder.”
Unwilling comprehension slowly dawned on Gideon, and he sank heavily to the fallout-speckled earth. His injuries throbbed harder than ever, and his head was swimming under this revelation. “Lady Alina have mercy…”
“Alas, Gideon my brother. Her magick has no power now. This is the real magick, before it we are all but insects: men and gods alike.”
The fiery silken swirls of the radiation clouds met the golden pillars of the dawn in the sky overhead, and the firmament was consumed in its radiance.