“Why do you linger here, little one?”
“The priests came to speak their prayers and give their orders.”
“You don’t like them?”
“I’d do anything to be rid of them. But I haven’t the power. Why doesn’t the Dreamer come for them, Valakash?”
“Why hasn’t he already? Why were they allowed to take over the village? Why does he let them change all the old ways?”
“Patience, little one. He will come for them.”
“How do you know?”
The wizened old hermit smiled. “Because I know how much he hates them. I know how much he hates their gods. I know he won’t rest until they’re all destroyed.”
The Whorl spread out before Garlon. Mindfog clung around the gnarled, moss-laden trees that surrounded him, as it always did in the dream realm. Light seeped in from all directions, as if intrinsic to the mist. He felt the damp ground under his feet, yielding slightly beneath his weight. His shaven face remained blank, set in determination.
He moved forward through the fog and the trees, seeking. The heavy armor on his torso clanked with each step, its thick scales rattling. He made no attempt to dampen its clamor; in fact he reveled in its repetitious beat. To him, the sound represented his inexorable advance, the unstoppable approach of death itself.
A long black rope of flowing slime curled around a nearby branch and grew eyes to look at the newcomer. Garlon looked away. He knew enough to avoid provoking any entities with which he had no mission. The long scar on his shoulder itched under his armor, as if to remind him of the consequences of becoming distracted in the Whorl.
He kept the image of his target clear in his mind: the robed form of the High Priest of Nykan. A man usually addressed by his title, but which Garlon also knew bore the name Artaxiad. The priest had a white beard, dark eyes and a thin nose.
Cognizance of the target kept him locked on. Wherever his feet fell he would near the high priest as long as this picture remained fixed in his mind. He stepped around trunks and over twisted roots. The clinging mindfog never relented; it bordered anyone’s view in the Whorl, where nothing existed without an entity to form substance from the ether.
The warrior tramped on, thinking only of his target, and found himself walking in a bog. Rather than look down and succumb to the sense of panic that demanded his attention, Garlon continued to move his legs mechanically. The muck rose up to his knees, his pumping legs driving him further into the bog. Garlon closed his eyes and concentrated on Artaxiad. He saw the priest in his mind, saw him giving speeches, collecting tithes, and ordering his acolytes about on temple business. This was his goal. The threat of the consuming mud beneath him fell from his mind. He paid the mud no attention.
Garlon’s feet found steady ground again, shedding the sludge that had clung to them moments before. Whatever lurking evil that had attempted to divert him had given up, seeking easier prey. Once again he moved through the Whorl toward the spirit of Artaxiad.
After a few more minutes of determined travel he sensed a thinning of the mindfog ahead. This usually signaled that he neared his target. The smooth domed roof of a formidable stone temple broke through the nebulous mist.
He took a moment to regard the massive construct through the slits of his helmet. It resembled many other temples: an impressive structure, reaching towards the sky with three majestic towers of the purest white stone. Garlon ground his teeth at the sight. Men always built such monuments to add grandiosity to their groveling before the gods. And their giant temples often came with them into this place, because it was a part of their psyche, as if these men had nothing of their own to bring. The true priests, like Artaxiad, allowed their devotion to their lords to consume them, leaving them pathetic empty husks.
Garlon brought no temples of his own into the dream world, no graceful towers or massive pillared halls to surround and comfort him. He brought only his armor, his weapons, and his hatred.
Garlon tramped up to the building, his armor announcing his presence. The mist broke and revealed the temple walls, carved in foreboding designs that hinted at sinuous cloudlike beings watching him with tiny hollow eyes. A wide set of low steps rose gently up to the raised floor of the structure. No doors barred the way into the interior.
The intruder reached over his shoulder and unlimbered his broad-headed spear. The spear had a short haft with an oversized diamond-shaped head. He held the spear more like an axe, feeling the heft of its wedge-like end in his hands. Soon it would taste blood as it had many times before. Garlon’s massive arms, even larger here in the Whorl than back on Mitris, handled the weapon with ease.
Garlon took the low steps two at a time, eager to begin now that he neared Artaxiad. He stepped through the entranceway and saw a deserted room of worship: empty stone benches arrayed around massive columns of stone, with a giant statue of a stag-horned god towering towards the ceiling at the far end.
A red stone dais dominated the floor at the base of the statue and there Garlon spotted his victim, Artaxiad. Garlon pointed his weapon at the priest before him. Huge muscles bulged as Garlon moved closer.
Artaxiad faced the intruder, alerted by the noise of his armor or perhaps simply the malice that the assassin radiated. The high priest looked the same as last night, and the night before, a fit graying man in a simple blue robe. The man’s features were delicate but Garlon knew he possessed a reasonable strength of will. Not that it would save him, when the time came.
“This time I’ll stop you,” said the priest. His hands began to weave an intricate pattern in the air before him.
“Your magic will not work here, priest.”
“You mean here in my dreams?” Artaxiad demanded, fear lacing his voice. “Are you a spirit? An auvayni? What do you want?” The man’s hands stopped moving as he sensed the futility of his attempt. He gazed forward through widened eyes as Garlon neared the dais.
“Your destruction,” Garlon answered simply. His oversized spear thrust with tremendous force into the belly of the priest, easily penetrating the flimsy robe and the man’s flesh. Garlon’s muscles flexed, causing the massive wedge of metal to inflict more damage. He picked up the impaled priest and tossed him aside easily. The man grunted and writhed on the stone floor. His death would be slow and painful.
Just as each time before.
Garlon watched while his victim struggled, trying to mouth questions with no breath to emit them. He stared until the glaze of death took the eyes of the priest. He felt no pity for the man. The priest was a tool of the gods; his fate had been set from the day he was born.
Garlon stood from the tree stump that had supported him in repose. Draped on the moss-covered side of a great tree, his armor awaited him. It appeared just as in the Whorl: massive black plates of iron, overlapped like the scales of a serpent.
He retrieved the armor and inspected it with great concern. The black coating seemed to protect the metal from the bite of the wet air. His weapon fared less well. Small patches of rust had materialized on the iron, creeping toward the taper of its sharpened edge. Garlon would have to see to it before he acted.
The stout warrior retrieved an abrasive stone from his pack and began to scrape away the rust. His hand worked in practiced, smooth strokes as he sharpened the spearhead. In Garlon’s skilled hands, the weapon could be used as a spear, its sharp tip thrust into enemy vitals; or as an axe, its honed edge swung into a mailed arm; or as a mace, its heavy head smashed down onto an enemy’s helm to extinguish life forever.
When he finished, he brought out a horn filled with translucent grease and used the substance to coat the honed edges of the weapon. Then he gathered everything together, donned his armor, and re-slung his pack. He was ready to move.
Once again he stepped into the forest. This time, although the priest remained in his mind, his steps were chosen with care. As always, a journey in the waking world required attention to his route. There might be very real dangers here that could not be ignored, and his path would not be certain; if he became lost he could not find his way instinctually. If he slid off a cliff, got ambushed by a jungle cat, or got dragged into the water by a reptile, his death would be real.
Garlon tromped through the undergrowth for the better part of a day before breaking to assuage his rising hunger. He ate a chunk of bread and a handful of nuts in silence. His mind drifted to the past, to a young child in a village that seemed several lifetimes away. He remembered an old man who taught the ways of the Dreamer.
The reverie ended when an orange bird alighted upon his weapon, pecking curiously at its shiny edge. Garlon realized he had been as still as a statue as he considered events long past. He reached for his weapon, startling the creature to flight. He resumed his tread and made it to his target within a few more hours.
This Nykan temple existed farther west than any other. It was the newest in a plan to advance across the rest of the continent. Just finding ground solid enough to lay its foundations must have been difficult; the town nearby contained dozens of households built on stilts. The people there lived in harmony with the spirits of the marsh. The priests of Nykan would change that, if he let them.
The towers of the real temple were smaller, less pure, and crafted more poorly than the structure he had seen in the Whorl. Unlike those of the gods, the accomplishments of men were often less impressive than their dreams. Garlon did not care much for the effort such a temple must have taken to erect; he felt only pleasure that he had reached his goal, and that this would be the last time he sought Artaxiad.
He knew the encounter would not be without its dangers. Even though he had conditioned the priest by subjecting him to many defeats in psychic combat, eroding his confidence and building up the fear in his target, this man could still perform many miraculous feats, drawing upon the power of his deity. Garlon would have to strike quickly and rely on his real combat prowess. Although he wielded more power in the dream world, Garlon remained a force to be reckoned with at home on Mitris. His muscles were stout, if not as spectacular as they appeared in the Whorl.
He would dispatch this man, as he had many others.
The steps rose humbly to the entrance, a crumbling stone arch with old red curtains covering the opening. Garlon drew one aside with his weapon. Seeing no threat, he stepped inside.
The interior had been decorated with colored stones and artifacts, forming crude images on the walls. A ten foot statue stood looking down on the interior hall, a representation of Artaxiad’s god. The imposing stone figure bore ornate robes and held both its arms high in a posture of triumph.
Garlon saw three other men inside, wearing robes. He saw no weapons in their hands or armor on their bodies. It seemed that they had not guessed a real assault was imminent.
Garlon felt the hate rise in his heart as he looked upon the acolytes. He despised the priests with their prayers and spells. They had arrived from the East and they brought their rules and their rituals with them. The marsh people would be stifled beneath their tithes. Many would work to maintain the temple or lay down their treasures for the greedy ones who lived inside. Those who refused to cooperate would be banished or killed by the soldiers who would follow the priests to this new temple.
He would cut open their bellies and free their gold. Then he would leave the people to their own devices. There would be other priests for him to hunt down. There always would be, for the gods were many. The people always flocked to them, begging for their many secrets and their divine power.
The armor-clad warrior strode forward loudly. He charged the men. His oversized spear came up to strike.
“What do you want?” asked the nearest godservant, backing away in fear.
Garlon answered only with a savage yell. He slashed sideways at the unarmored man. His weapon bit into the side of the victim’s neck. The knife edge of the wicked tip cut the flesh and continued on with great momentum. Garlon waded through the blood spray as the acolyte fell.
Another of the robed men yelled a warning and came toward Garlon with a long staff at the ready. The third man turned and stared at Garlon. In an instant they recognized each other. It was Artaxiad. He looked at Garlon as if seeing a specter of death and froze. Then the acolyte attacked with his staff and Garlon had to break his gaze and fight.
The staff whirled out. Garlon stepped forward, moving inside the range of the swing. Instead of using his own weapon, Garlon released his spear with his right hand and embraced his opponent, slipping his leg between the acolyte’s. He sent the man to the floor with a trip and a shove.
Garlon heard Artaxiad’s voice droning loudly in the background. Garlon knew the high priest worked to summon the power of his deity; if Garlon did not finish him soon, things would get much more dangerous. He stomped onto the head of the man below him and brought his spear around, finishing the acolyte with a thrust downward into the man’s heart.
Garlon looked up, searching for Artaxiad. A loud groan sounded from somewhere, accompanied by a shudder in the ground. Garlon swept his gaze back and forth, searching for the source of the noise. His saw movement from above—from the huge statue of Nykan!
The statue stepped forward ponderously, its blazing eyes following Garlon. The assassin felt his heart skip a beat, as if the god’s magic reached out and clenched his chest tight with its awesome power. Then the moment passed and Garlon leaped forward, swinging his spear-axe high. His hand let the haft slip almost to the end to get the range he needed. The metal wedge flew to the side of the golem’s throat.
The steel flashed and struck, chipping away a chunk of white stone from the thing’s head. It bellowed in rage, a sound like massive boulders grinding together, and swung a mighty clawed hand at Garlon. The Dreamer ducked low to avoid the blow and turned the move into an offensive one, thrusting his weapon into the foot of the statue-god.
The end of the appendage crumbled, leaving the foot to spin across the floor. Garlon realized he had picked the wrong side of the statue to move toward as the thing toppled in his direction, its arms outstretched. He dove forward to avoid its crushing embrace. He reveled in success as he narrowly escaped from under the monster. Then a second later he felt a terrible pain in his own foot, and realized that it was being crushed in a giant stone hand.
Garlon let out a cry of pain. He twisted around and thrust his spear into the arm that held him, but it struck without much effect. He could not generate enough power from his awkward position. He dropped the weapon and twisted around, desperate to escape. The massive statue sat up, reaching for him with its other hand.
The boot slipped from his bruised foot and Garlon escaped. He snatched up the weapon and stood back out of reach of the god’s automaton. Garlon realized the thing could not stand or pursue him. It should not distract him from Artaxiad.
He found his target abased before the altar, executing a ritual of some kind with shaking hands. The priest turned to face the armored intruder.
“Your magic will not work here, priest,” Garlon said. He always enjoyed delivering the a line again and watching remembrance cross the face of his victim. The man remained paralyzed with fear, recalling the other times they had met.
“I am dreaming—” stuttered the priest. “This is not real.”
Garlon’s weapon struck. The head of Artaxiad fell away from his severed neck, releasing a geyser of blood.
Garlon smiled then, for he understood what the priest did not, for all his spells and prayers.
This was no dream.