Reads: 42

Az’s shouting woke me up. I reacted instantly, jumping up and began stringing my bow. 

Then I looked over and saw Neil in Az’s arms. I dropped everything and bolted over. 

Neil was shivering, although it wasn’t that cool outside. His face had turned beet red, and it looked like he had trouble breathing. By now everyone was there.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” Az said. “I heard something break and found him like this. He was saying something when he went unconscious.”

“What did he say?” asked Steph. 

“He said, ‘don’t let the sun…’ and then he went unconscious.”

I held my hand to his forehead. “He’s running a fever.” I stated. “Rachel, do you know any healing spells?”

“Just a minor cure.”

“We need it now.”

She raised her wand and there was a flash of blue light. Neil looked just as red as he was before. It was clear her spell did not, and would not work.

“We need to get him back to town, fast.”

There was agreement. Az picked up Neil with little to no effort and slung him over his shoulder.

“I can run with him,” Az said confidently. “I assume you don’t want me to wait for you.”

Then he ran off into the desert in the direction of Rebel’s Rest. We gathered our things as fast as we could and started after him. The adrenaline was wearing off, and the sun was rising. But I still stayed focused as I ran at a steady pace. My friend was hurt. Someone was going to pay.

I almost realized too late that one of us should have stayed behind to look for clues. I skidded to a stop. Steph looked at me questioningly and stopped too. 

“Clues,” I panted, pointing over my shoulder. “Gonna look for them.”

She nodded and ran with me. There was no time to argue. Hugh and Rachel would have to go ahead. We sprinted back to the oasis. My lungs were on fire. I took a moment to breathe, but Steph was ready to go. The first thing she did was run over to where Neil fell. There was enough light now that we could see the outlines of things. I joined her shortly. She was crouched over a pile of broken glass.

She bent down and carefully picked up one. 

“What is it?” I asked.

“It looks and feels like glass,” she said, “but there’s something different about it.”

I looked for a larger piece, but most of it was dust and the wind was picking up, shifting things around. It was indeed black glass. It shone, just like obsidian. It was flawless. If I didn’t know better, I’d have said it was onyx. But how did a material so hard shatter against the soft sand?

We had wasted enough time already. We raced away. We could see the town, a mile away. I thanked my younger self for running track in high school. 

That’s where I met Hugh. He was a goofy kid, good natured and loud. He was a fun guy to be around. At the time I didn’t make friends easily, but he was an exception. Every party livened up when he was there. I remember running from busted parties with him, and laughing about it later. Even when he was being a dick to Neil, he was nice to me. I think he wanted to make Neil jealous. He really was a dick, for a while anyways.

Steph and I stumbled into town. We forced our way up the street to where we knew the town doctor practiced.

The infirmary was crowded when we arrived. The door was open, and yelling was coming from it. Steph and I ran in to see utter chaos. 

Neil was convulsing, and puking. Hugh was holding his head and Rachel was waving her wand over him, trying to perform another healing charm. 

Az was spouting what could have been nonsense and trying to hold a convulsing Neil still with the town doctor, a short plump woman named Eliza. I realized he was probably swearing in his native tongue. Steph and I ran over and sat Neil upright, so he wouldn’t choke on his own vomit. I could tell he also relieved himself. I wasn’t going to hold it against him. 

Neil’s eyes opened. They were bloodshot. He groaned.

“Hey buddy,” I said. “What happened?”

His red eyes turned to me. A black goo dribbled out of his nose. His veins were turning from blue to black. This wasn’t good.

“Gotta…” he coughed. “Gotta stay out of the sun. Can’t see the sun. Or I’ll die. It’s part of the trial.”

“What are you talking about? What happened to you?”

“Otom- Otom-” he struggled to get the name out. “He found us. He did this.” He retched. We all scooted back, but nothing came up. Even from a foot away I could feel the heat radiating from his skin. The infection was getting worse.

“We need a cure,” said Dr. Eliza. “But I have nothing that will help him.”

“Fear not my children,” said a voice from behind us. We all jumped. There in the doorway stood a man dressed like a friar, but his robes were white and he wore a strange star-shaped medallion over his chest. It was almost like a pentagram but it was gold and silver. It was the same star that dangled from my bow. 

“Who are you?” asked Hugh.

“Forgive my intrusion. I am Brother Friedrick of the Merlinnia Order. It is clear you are in need  of divine assistance. I can examine him, if you would let me.”

In our own world, we debated the existence of gods. Az taught us enough that there was no such debate in this world. In this world the gods were literally real. It became a debate of who you worshiped and how powerful they were.

Neil had written the early Otomipent to be very powerful, but he was part of a coalition of deities who kept each other in check. 

“It’s ok.” whispered Neil. 

The friar approached unsmiling. He looked carefully at Neil, checking his eyes, his mouth, and his hands. For the first time I noticed his fingertips were welted and swollen. Brother Friedrick let go and solemnly looked at us. 

“I am afraid I have seen this before. If it is what I think it is then we are all in danger.

“Long ago when I had begun my apprenticeship, I came to Rebel’s Rest with my master, Brother Gerhard. It was our duty to bring the word of the Celestial Counsel back to our southern friends.

“We met a man on the road, a curious fellow by the name of Smith, although now I suspect that was not his real name. He claimed to be an adventurer looking for a lost treasure in the desert, and stayed with us as we began to rebuild our forgotten church. 

“One day he finally journeyed into the desert. He did not return a week later like he promised. We prayed for him, although I suspected he had perished looking for his treasure. 

“Two weeks later he came back from the desert, but he had changed. He acted strangely, as if he was possessed by another personality. A week later, our suspicions were confirmed. Smith was no longer himself. The demon possessing him killed Gerhard in cold blood. He would have slayed me too, had I not repelled him with a prayer. He escaped that night, to where I do not know. It is likely he now roams the desert, leading his dark cultists in ritual sacrifice.”

We were all silent.

“What are you talking about?” Neil said. “Why would he do that? Isn’t Otomip-” The friar hissed.

“His eyes and ears are everywhere. The enemy of the celestials cannot be mentioned by name. For names have power, and he is already powerful enough.”

“But that’s the thing,” croaked Neil. “Isn’t he in league with the celestials?”

“Oh child,” said Friedrick condescendingly, “where have you been for the past century? The celestials and the dark one began upon his betrayal.”

“Wait a minute,” said Hugh. “Let me get my facts straight. Is the dark one, this dark god, the same guy as the dark lord?”

“No,” said Az. “The dark lord is not a god. They share many qualities, but my people know that the dark god is impartial.”

“Nevertheless,” cut in Brother Friedrick, “there is suspicion that they are in league with each other. Both dabble in evil forces, and it is no coincidence that the dark lord appeared when the dark god betrayed the celestials.”

“Betrayed?” asked Neil. “Why would he do that? What did he do?”

“That is a matter for the celestials alone. We have to trust their judgment when it comes to their private matters. But perhaps I can help you remove your curse before it is too late.”

“It’s not a curse, it’s a trial.”

“Nonsense.” Friedrick turned to us. “The possession has started. In a month’s time your friend will cease to be himself. He will slaughter you and anyone without hesitation.

“But fear not. I have prepared a prayer over the years that will exorcize the demon.”

“I hate to interrupt,” said Az, noticeably angry. “But those are my ancestors whom you speak of. Possession isn’t one of our tricks. You would know that if you actually paid attention to anything besides your own scripture.”

“Ah, a demon spawn. Of course you believe such heresy. It runs in your blood.”

“Both of you stop it,” said Stephanie. “Now is not the time. You said you can pray for him?”

“Steph, don’t.” said Neil. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

“What do you think?” I asked Dr. Eliza, who had been quiet this whole time. 

She scrunched her face. “We might need a miracle to pull this off. Prayer is a gateway to miracles. There is nothing I can do for him.”

“Sorry bud,” I told Neil. “But your health is on the line.” To the friar I said “do it.”

Brother Friedrick grasped his medallion, and began to chant. 

“In the first winter there was darkness.

In the second winter there was an ember of light.

The third winter brought flame, and with flame came the divine.

And with the fire of the divine, the darkness was banished.”

Neil groaned. The friar continued.

“In the final dawn as the sun set

The darkness hungrily ate away at the light

But the light was too strong

And banished the dark.”

Neil retched again and spasmed. The black goo was running from his mouth, his eyes, and his ears now. 

“And the God King stands by my side

The Allfather of my homeland

To push away the forever night

And give life to the innocent and worthy.”

“Join me!” He commanded us. “In the first winter there was darkness….”

I grabbed Neil’s hand. Steph grabbed his other hand. I tried my best to keep up with the friar’s prayer. Neil yelled in pain and grabbed his head. “Make him stop!” he pleaded. 

“In the first winter there was darkness….” we started again

Neil yelled and grabbed his head. “Make it stop!” he pleaded. I looked at my friend. The goo from his eyes was watery as tears of pain mixed with it. The fever was getting stronger. Steam actually began to rise on Neil's skin. 

“Stop!” said Az, “you’re going to kill him! We can find another way!” I stopped as did Steph. Rachel and Hugh also paused shortly after, but Brother Friedrick kept going. Neil kept screaming.

“That’s enough, priest.” I said. Friedrick grabbed Neil, raising his voice. Neils screams got louder.

“I said that’s enough!” I ran at the priest, knocking him backwards into a cabinet. It shook violently, and glass was shattered. “Get away from him!” 

Dr. Eliza screamed. Brother Friedrick looked shocked. “Fools!” he said. “You would put everyone at risk? You would put the lives of one over many? Your only choice is to sacrifice him for the greater good!”

Maybe Friedrick was right. But it was still Neil, and I was not going to let him hurt my friend. Steph stood next to me, also defiant. Az had his staff ready. Rachel, Hugh, and Dr. Eliza looked with open mouths.

“Non believers! You will pay!” He stepped forward before realizing that he was outnumbered and balked before saying “This isn’t the last you’ve seen of me!” He turned and exited the infirmary. 

I looked back at Neil. He was unconscious again. 

“You can’t stay here.” Dr. Eliza was furious, but I caught the fear in her voice. “I will not have you bring the wrath of the gods down on my infirmary.”

Steph bowed her head. “We understand. I’m sorry we dragged you into this.”

“Just please, get out.” Eliza stormed out of the room. We had no choice but to carry Neil out of the infirmary to the street. We decided it would be best if we brought Neil back to the hostel, where we could give him a bath and change his clothes. It was still night, and the only people awake were those at the hostel looking for a late night drink. Nobody gave us a second look. They probably thought Neil had too much to drink. 

Az and I got him upstairs and stripped him and Hugh filled the tub with water. We gently lowered him into the tub. Rachel began to clean out his clothes with magic. Stephanie stood at the window, looking down to the street. 

“How did the priest know where to find us?” she asked out loud.

“What do you mean?” asked Hugh. “Maybe he was walking by.”

“No chance,” said Stephanie. Do you recognize that priest? I sure don’t. And we’ve been living here for almost a week. Have any of us gone to the church in town?”

“Not I.” said Az. “I have no reason to. And I did not run by him on my way into town.” He stroked his braided beard whimsically. 

“Me either.” I avoided religion, even in our world. There was too much controversy to follow. But it was a strange coincidence that the brother arrived when he did. Even stranger coincidence that he had experience with this curse before. Perhaps there was more to his story.

Hugh and Rachel shook their heads. I knew they were only interested in the Lord Almighty in our world, although they didn’t strike me as very religious. I noticed they never prayed or said grace, and they definitely broke the “no sex before marriage” rule. Maybe they were rebels. Neil would say they were hypocrites. I almost laughed at the thought.

“Where are you going with this, Steph?” I asked.

Steph shook her head. “It’s nothing. But I swear it’s as if someone told him we’d be there.”

“We’ll figure it out. But first we got to take care of Neil.”

She nodded. “Whatever we can do for him. Whatever this is.”

We settled ourselves back into bed, wondering what the future would hold for us. I volunteered to stay awake and monitor Neil’s symptoms. 

As I sat there I thought. Ever since we got here Neil had been half right about most things. This world had progressed even further than he had anticipated.  We would still have to question him when he wakes up. 

He had built this world. And now he might die in it.

Submitted: July 08, 2022

© Copyright 2022 Jon Nathaniel. All rights reserved.


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