Halfway across the city, on Hobb Hill, one patch of the night was darker than the rest. It gathered and flowed around a lone figure who knelt at the base of a tree, retching. He heaved again. Nothing came up... just like the last couple of times. It just hurt like demons from the seven hells were trying to claw their way out of his insides. Why did it always have to happen like this?
It will be over soon, the voice promised. Be strong.
He grunted in response. The whispered voice seemed to come from everywhere at once. Perhaps it did... perhaps his benefactor, his tormentor, was the night itself? He'd tried to figure out which god it was that spoke to him, long ago when he'd first been chosen. When the green stone had first come into his possession. Sometime after he'd realized he hadn't just gone insane. Several deities would have fit the role, but none seemed to have the exact agenda of the voice. It seemed feminine to him, though that could have been wishful thinking. It was hard to tell, really, as soft and barely heard as it was. He'd given up trying to find out eventually. What good would it have done him to know, anyway? Would it make him any less a slave to it?
He breathed in deeply, held it in, and let it out slowly. The feeling of illness was passing. His hands were still shaking when he held them up. They were cold, but that wasn't the reason for the tremors. No, that cold came from the stone. It had spread now, across both arms and down into his chest. Closing in on his belly it had forced his stomach to empty it's contents onto the ground. He wouldn't need to eat now, wouldn't be hungry. Not until his job was done and the voice left him alone again. Then he would eat like a horse for days.
He stood up, bracing himself against the tree with one hand. After swaying for a moment his vision focused and the light headed feeling passed. He wiped at his mouth with the sleeve of his coat, making sure to remove the last bits of vomit.
Another deep breath, and now he looked around at the world again. The ever present rain, of course. He was starting to take it for granted, as much as the living shadows that whirled through the air around him. Drawing his lips into a grimace he reached out with one hand and brushed his fingers through a shadow as it passed. A chittering hiss answered his intrusion, and his fingers were numb for a second. So. Still the same as it always was.
"Move," the told them, sweeping an arm through the air in front of him. They parted, affording him a view of the city. He was, it seemed, in a park of some sort. He stood at the edge of a light wood which opened into a larger grassy area. There was a path through it, and every now and again a bench. There were no streetlamps here. He tried to remember how he'd gotten to be there.
He'd lost control, he remembered that much. There had been the merchant near the gate... his hands balled into fists at the recollection. He shouldn't be surprised, of course. The first time after he regained his... what, his powers? He wouldn't call them that. He wouldn't call them gifts, either, though he knew that's what they were supposed to be. After the voice took control of him, he decided. Yes, he would phrase it that way. After the voice took control of him, the first time he killed he always lost control. He would black out and find himself somewhere else, vaguely aware of having done many horrible things.
Though he counted it as a failure on his part he suspected his loss of control was something the voice was pleased with. He could almost feel it's palpable approval emanating from the darkest corners of the night. "Yeah," he said hoarsely, "Well. Fuck you." But his hand went to his coat pocket even as he spoke, and his fist closed around the green stone. He could say what he wanted, it didn't matter.
He worked his tongue around the inside of his mouth, scraping up more of the foul taste of bile, and spat it into the night. Time to get to work. "You," he fixed one of the swarming shadows with an unwavering stare, "Find me a temple." It shot off without hesitation, quickly becoming lost in the darkness. He noted the voice didn't comment on his choice of a temple. Either it knew what he was going to do, and was ok with it, or it was certain that he wouldn't try to subvert it's control of him. He'd tried that, once. To say it hadn't worked was a monumental understatement. There had been no punishment, because there had been no chance for disobedience. He simply wasn't able to do anything but what the voice commanded.
The shadow returned in short order, like a dog returning a stick to it's master. He had no illusions of control, however. These things were on loan. Nothing more. It made noises at him... hisses, clicks, pops. Somehow he knew what it meant. He trudged through the sodden grass until he found the street. The shadows shied away, avoiding the glow of the streetlamps as much as possible. The few people he passed ignored him as he ignored them. But while they hustled through the rain, eager to get through it and to someplace dry, he walked slowly. The wet didn't bother him, nor did the slight chill of the night. In fact, he almost enjoyed it.
The temple was right where it was supposed to be. It was truly grand, drawfing smaller buildings to either side. To judge by the ornate architecture - all columns, reliefs, and flying buttresses - it was likely built within the city during the heyday of the gods and their religion. He stepped through the large double doors and stood dripping a small lake in the entryway. The smell of incense washed over him, so familiar yet so rarely experienced these days. He counted the altars. There was one for each major god, and an impressive number for the smaller ones. Most looked neglected if not forgotten entirely. A meager collection of offerings was scattered among the altars of the major gods.There were a few late night worshipers here, die hard followers of the old ways. But mostly there were priests of the various deities.
One step forward, the voice told him, two steps back. Humanity emboldens itself with technology while destroying it's own soul to do it. They reach for things better left to the Gods, and they think themselves our equal. They think they don't need us...how wrong they are.
The seething anger under those words was unexpected, and he allowed himself a look of mild surprise. When he saw a priest approaching his expression once again turned to stone. He stepped forward to meet the man, who was easily a head shorter than he was. He was old, and swathed in robes of forest green trimmed with black. A priest of Kalia, then. Goddess of nature. Shadows swam at the corner of his vision as the old man approached.
"Welcome, stranger," the priest greeted him. "Might I know your name?"
"You can call me Noman, elder."
The priest excepted the name without question. After a thoughtful look, he added, "You look to have had a hard journey, lad. Come inside, please. Dry yourself by our fire." The old man turned and took a step further inside, expecting him to follow.
He swallowed hard, and tightened his hand on the stone. "Thank you, elder," he said flatly. "But that's not why I'm here." The priest turned back to him, saw something in his eyes.There was a look of fleeting concern, and then calm serenity returned.
"Something troubles you..."
"Yes, elder. Something troubles me." He stepped forward, placing himself uncomfortably close to the priest. The old man didn't budge, but straightened his back and looked up to met his eyes. He withdrew the stone from his pocket, held it up for the priest to see. "Something troubles me greatly," he squeezed the stone so it hissed steam into the air. Now the priest recoiled. His eyes, however, were not fixed on the stone. From behind him, Noman heard the clicking and hissing of the shadows as they crawled in through the temple door, across the walls and up into the vaulted ceilings.They took nightmarish forms as they moved, never holding one shape long.
"Demons!" The priest breathed, and shouts of alarm echoed through the largely empty temple as others saw what was happening.
"Demons?" He echoed, wanting to laugh. "No, elder. Not demons. These are nightmares, terrors of the night come to extract vengeance from a humanity that has neglected its gods. A world that has let its soul rot in the pursuit of technology."
Not demons, perhaps. But the reaction was the same. It was much later in coming than it should have been, but one of the other priests knew what he was about. Robes colored red and edged with gold, a priest was shouting at the top of his lungs. He grinned at the priest, knowing the incantation. It was a spell of sorts, a ward. Proof against demons and dark gods. He'd tried it once himself, having learned it from the village priests in his youth. It didn't work, but they didn't need to know that. He listened for a second, head tilted. Then he took a step backwards. The priest, emboldened, took two steps forward. Grinning now, he turned his back to the priest, stuffed the stone into his coat pocket, and strode back out into the night. The shadows followed, melting from their every shifting insectoid forms back into indefinable shadows once more.
The red and gold robed priest burst through the doors in pursuit, far more eager than was prudent. When he arrived in the street, he saw nothing but the rain. From across the street, swathed in shadows that kept him hidden, Noman watched and smiled.
You have a flare for the artistic, the voice said, clearly pleased. His smile disappeared. Now they will know that the gods are their salvation.
"Only they aren't," Noman murmured. The incantation had been useless. Which made him wonder... had the voice known that all along? Since it hadn't worked, did it mean the voice was not a demon or a dark god after all? The answers to those questions, he thought, would only make things more grim. So he decided he wouldn't try to answer them. Pushing off the wall, he headed off down the street.
Morning comes, the voice warned. He nodded, mostly to himself. The stone's influence did away with the need for sleep. But the shadows worked best at night, and so he did as well. It was time to find an Inn, someplace where he could lay low until the following night. Then the work would resume.