OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 43: A New Road
Shepherd stood alone atop the spire of the GodKing, one hand resting easily on the stone battlement that encircled him, while the other was clenched tightly around the grip of Brand.
It was a clear day, with no clouds shielding the new GodKing from the naked horizon that surrounded him. Below, the city of Malthanon was laid bare, even from so great a height as the spire stood. Shepherd looked down on this city…his city, now…and channeling a bit of his power, he opened his eyes to the goings-on of the mortals who lived there.
He saw them all; the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the working and the derelict. He followed each of them living their lives in a city that seemed only an imitation of what it once was. Even with the harbor rebuilt, and the GodKing’s castle and spire restored, there was still so much devastation; and it was the people who were being made to suffer for it. Some were suffering more than others, yet Shepherd could not ignore how much needed to be done before Malthanon would be made whole again.
The newly made GodKing watched over all of this, weighing how best to intervene - wondering how much the people expected of him. A barrage of imagined demands suddenly littered his mind, giving rise to a growing sense of panic. Of course the people would expect much of him. Malthanon had been the envy of every other kingdom on Arden, and even with a ruler who had been absent from their lives for a thousand years, the people of the city attributed its stability and prestige to their GodKing. Malthus was the greatest of the gods, and they would expect no less from Shepherd.
And why should they? For all they knew, Malthus was still alive and well. True, his tower was destroyed, but it was also rebuilt overnight. The harbor had sunk into the ocean, yet in an instant was restored. It did not matter that Shepherd was the one who performed those miracles…not to the citizens of Malthanon. And beyond that, Shepherd bore Malthus’s full power. There was still a trace of the dead god in him…and in the city that still bore Malthus’s name. Shepherd suddenly felt a bond to Malthanon he had not realized was always there; for while the power and the people were at the forefront of his mind, the city too was an inheritance…one he had not considered before.
So much responsibility, and yet Shepherd could see to it all with only a thought. He had the power to heal the whole of the city. He had the power to improve the lives of its people: not just improve, but perfect. He could mend their wounds - he could feed their hungers - he could shower them in riches so that they wanted for nothing ever again. He could revive those on the edge of death; or better, bestow immortality upon them so that death posed no threat.
Under his rule, Malthanon could become a living paradise. In the pit of his stomach, the power fluttered in answer to his desire, begging to be harnessed to achieve its master’s noble ends. It trickled upward, moving through his chest, past his neck, and filling his head. Shepherd’s eyes came alive with divine purpose as he looked down on the now broken city below, and reveled in the glory that only he could bestow upon it.
“I can see to it, master,” a familiar, female voice whispered inside his mind. “Say the word, and thy will be done.”
Shepherd lifted his hand from the battlement and held it forth. His outstretched fingers came into view, silhouetted in a white, perfect gleam. In contrast to such holy luminescence, the city below seemed dull…dying…lifeless.
“Send me, lord,” the phantom Cecily’s voice sounded with great reverence. “Let me bring them your light.”
A simple sanction from him; that was all she required to make the city perfect beyond the wildest dreams of all those who dwelt in it.
“You cant,” another voice sounded, in a tone far more serious than Shepherd was used to hearing from it.
“I can,” Shepherd insisted aloud.
“You shouldn’t, then,” Finnian Pell’s voice amended. “And you know why.”
Shepherd bore the disagreement between the two voices on his face. One moment, his eyes were wide and his smile broad with the possibility of what he could do. An instant later, his brow was furrowed and his grimace pained with what he should do.
Finally, he slowly forced his outstretched fingers closed.
“Are you sure?” Cecily asked, her heartbreak echoing in him more than her words.
Shepherd did not answer. He had not the strength. With all the will he could muster, he turned from the city. The refusal to use so much power, already summoned, forced the GodKing to his knees. “AHHH,” he screamed as he fell, landing hard on the stone of the spire. With head bowed and eyes closed, he let himself be still, breathing in and out…shutting out the world around him, and living in himself for a moment’s rest. Finally, he opened his eyes and raised his head, meeting the gaze of the pair of phantoms he knew would be waiting for him.
“You wanted to heal the city,” the pale Cecily said, “yet bound me to do nothing. Why?”
Shepherd looked from her, finding Finnian’s spectral face wearing that all-too-familiar smile. He breathed, “I want to restore Malthanon. But more than that, I do not want her people enslaved. But I could see it, Finnian, I…I saw it. I saw the city rebuilt, more magnificent than before. I saw the lives of the people…free of pain and ache and toil. I saw paradise…perfection,” the young god recounted in rapture, looking up at them with moist eyes as though he still beheld the visions he described.
Then he shut his eyes tightly. He raised a knee, resting his leather boot onto the stone floor, and lifted himself to standing. As he got to his feet, Shepherd let his head fall to rest, and his body followed suit in relaxing. The serene, blissful expression that shaped his face was now replaced by a contemplative, troubled visage. He had fallen out of the ecstatic state and reclaimed himself.
“If I go down this road of restoring to them all that they have lost…” Shepherd said, opening his eyes to his shadow companions, “…I will become the same as the other gods, whose bondage I have sworn to free them from.”
“Gods like Adulatio?” Finnian asked with an inkling of accusation.
“It had to be done,” Shepherd hardened. “He had to be dealt with.”
“In the way that you dealt with him?” Finnian pressed with firm sincerity, all pretense fallen away.
Shepherd hesitated, and in that instant so many thoughts raced through his mind; thoughts, he knew, that the ghosts standing before him were privy to. But at the end of such a long stream of ethical quandaries and morality plays, he knew what he felt about his actions: and that feeling was mightier than his conscience.
Shepherd steeled himself, and leveled an unflinching glare at the shade of his friend. “I do not apologize for what I did to Adulatio. His punishment was just. He and those like him deserve to share in the suffering they inflict on others. If I must be the one to deliver that judgment…then so be it.”
The phantom Finnian took a few steps forward, stopping so close to Shepherd that the god could have reached out and touched his old friend if there had been anything corporeal left of Finnian to touch.
“You know what I am,” the ghost whispered disarmingly, leaning in as if to keep this secret a private thing between old friends.
“I do,” Shepherd whispered back, suddenly softened.
“Then you know my being with you makes this road you’ve chosen harder,” the pale Finnian said, offering a warm smile. “Best to leave me behind. Take only what you need to see this through,” he said with a tilt of the head toward the spectral Cecily behind him.
“No,” Shepherd asserted without hesitation. “I need you both. Every step of the way. Until the end.”
“Very well,” Finnian said, brightening. “Just don’t lose me. If you do, you will never be able to find me again.”
Shepherd gave a grim nod in answer. He understood what Finnian meant: the severity of it.
“Cheer up!” his old friend’s ghost barked joyfully. Shepherd could almost feel the clap on his shoulder as the shade of Finnian Pell stepped back to his original place next to Cecily. “I’m a hard one to lose.”
“Master?” Cecily interjected.
“Are you two quite finished?” she asked with all the seriousness of her intensely religious namesake.
“Pardon me?” Shepherd was taken aback.
“There are things we can be doing. Steps to take, if we are to go forward with this insane plan of yours,” she said without a hint of jeering.
“Are you sure she’s a part of you?” Finnian put to Shepherd. “She sounds far too much like the real Cecily.”
“I suppose…now…she is the real Cecily,” Shepherd concluded. “And even though he’s still alive in Briarden…for me, you’re the real Finnian.”
“Good. Now that’s out of the way,” Cecily began dispassionately, “our first step should be finding the dark robed one whom Adulatio served. The one called The Sovereign. He is one of the elder powers, and would have the answers you seek.”
“That is an…ambitious…first step,” Shepherd said soberly. “How do we even begin to find such a powerful being? And if we do, how do we get him to talk?”
“One problem at a time, I think,” Cecily’s namesake pushed forward. “First, how to find him. He used Adulatio to reunite all of Malthus’s power back into a single host. You, master.”
Shepherd, channeling the spirit of Finnian Pell; a spirit who stood not five paces away, offered Cecily a mischievous smile and a grand bow.
“If other gods have fractured their power in a similar fashion; like tributaries allowed to flow from the well; perhaps this Sovereign will seek them out, and find some way of forcing such branches back to their source,” Cecily concluded.
Shepherd looked at her, dumbstruck. He turned to the ghostly Finnian, who only looked back at him, equally awed. “Cecily,” Shepherd finally said, turning back to her, “that’s brilliant!”
“I am your power. I do as you wish,” Cecily said, that reverence from before, when Shepherd was on the verge of unleashing her on Malthanon, had returned. “You wished for a path, and I am glad to have aided in finding it.”
For the second time since this conversation began, Shepherd was taken aback. He offered a slight bow of his head, and she returned in kind.
“How do we find another god who has split their power the way that Malthus did?” Finnian mused.
“The old stories are filled with mentions of the gods’ treasures,” Shepherd answered absently, his mind racing through the tales of gems, jewels, armors and arms that were cherished by the gods.
“But those are tales,” Finnian specified. “Some of them centuries old. There may be some truth to them, but how do we know what’s true and what’s not?”
“Malmira,” Shepherd exclaimed. “She is one of the oldest of the gods. Perhaps she’d be able to help us separate fact from fiction.”
“To Malmot then,” Cecily declared.
“To Malmot,” Finnian agreed easily.
Shepherd looked on the pale faces of his two dearest friends; eager and willing to jump into this new adventure with him; and he felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. They may not have been the real Finnian and Cecily, but they were his memories of them. Besides, to him in this moment, it did not matter. These two shades were the only remnants of his old life, and he was as bound to them as they were to him. So long as he had them both by his side, Tarsus Cole would not be lost to him…even on this new, divine road he now had to tread.
Shepherd drew Brand from its scabbard and held it up high. The afternoon sun set the blade aglow, and he was reminded of all that the three of them had endured over the last year trying to find Malthir. Now, he held the heir of that legendary sword; freshly forged, with an unwritten destiny in need only of a willing hand to compose it.
Shepherd brought the blade down and met the illumined aspects of his friends, matching their willingness with a righteous fervor. “To Malmot.”
To Be Continued…