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The crash of nearby thunder woke the tired old gnome from his uneasy slumber. He’d hoped that the storm was going to pass him by this time. His luck being what it was, however, he should have known better. His rickety lean-to of dead branches and dirty straw wouldn’t be enough to keep out the heavy rain, and that meant he’d have to take refuge in the temple.
He hated that place, preferring to face the cold nights bundled in rags and dead leaves rather than be near that evil altar. The shrine was what kept him bound to this ruined fortress and this miserable life. Countless generations ago, one of his ancestors had insulted K’lu Satal, a demi-goddess and powerful mage. She had bound his blood and forced him to serve as her priest in retaliation, a curse passed down through the family line to this day. He took some comfort that the suffering of a thousand years would end with him – he had no children to pass on his tainted legacy to – but the shrine was, as his old bones constantly reminded him, the only building in the fortress left with an intact roof.
He gathered the hot embers from what remained of his fire just as the clouds burst, and ran as fast as his frail legs would carry him into the temple. He took one last breath of fresh air before forcing the door closed to block out the wind.
The dim red glow was the first indication that something had changed. It was hard to see inside even at midday without the braziers being lit, and the money for candles had run out a decades ago. The chamber should have been pitch black.
On a dais opposite the doors, a ten foot tall statue of his mistress stood with arms outstretched toward the empty room. The pews and other furniture had been sold off or burned for warmth by his predecessors long ago, but no one had ever wanted the hideous lump of carved granite with the skeletal face. Not that the curse would have permitted him to get rid of it, but he always imagined it would make a most effective scarecrow. Especially now when it was glowing ominously with magical energy.
“No, no, no, no, no, no,” he chanted, but he couldn’t deny what he saw. After all these long years of silence, K’lu Satal was finally waking. “Damn it! A few more years and I would have been dead, and you could have gone to rot with Sharton and the other dead gods. Why did you have to come back now?”
Despite all his protests, he knew what he had to do. He could already feel the geas compelling him to act. Taking the embers from his campfire, he fired up the pile of wood on one of the large braziers that flanked the statue so he would have some heat and light. Once that was going, he tossed a burning log onto the other to let it catch on its own.
From a hidden compartment beneath the altar, the gnome pulled out the reliquary which held the last treasures of a once proud religion and opened it. Putting aside a folded piece of vellum and a half empty bottle of wine turned to vinegar, he drew out the last remaining candles, a small jeweled dagger, and a solid gold bowl inlaid with black pearls. He looked inside the box and frowned. All that remained inside was a moldy bit of cheese, an assortment of buttons, and some thread which he used to patch his ragged clothes. He slammed the lid shut and put it aside.
After lighting and placing the candles around the bowl, he picked up the dagger and held it to his wrist. K’lu Satal demanded a blood sacrifice to appear, but there was no one else around to offer up but himself. The gnome held his breath in anticipation. The curse fought against itself as it demanded that he should both live to perform the ritual and die as a sacrifice. Then, as if in a compromise, it settled on slicing a vein instead of an artery.
Disappointed, he let his breath out in a sigh. He’d thought that might have been it for him, but it looked like he was going to survive the day after all. He let the blood run down his fingers into the bowl until it was half-full and then bandaged the cut as best he could with a dirty rag. He smiled at the thought of a lethal infection, which was almost certain considering the squalor he lived in. Despite all that the curse had done to him, he remained an optimist. He would have his death one way or another.
He raised his arms over the bowl and began to chant in a long forgotten tongue. The statue began to tremble as the ancient evil gathered its strength. The blood boiled and the flames of the candles and braziers turned a brilliant blue. A woman’s voice shook the temple as it boomed out from the statue.
“Who summons the great K’lu Satal. Speak and be rewarded.”
“I am just a lowly maggot, mistress,” said the gnome. “Not worthy of a name.”
“That may be true, worm,” said the voice, “but I must call you something. Give me a name.”
“The villagers call me Cluck,” said the gnome. “The crazy old man who lives in a chicken coop. Cluck, cluck, cluck.”
The statue stopped shaking for a moment, and seemed to dim slightly. The voiced boomed again, “Is there anyone else there I can talk to? Anyone at all?”
“No, there is only me, poor old Cluck. The rest are gone. Dead or fled. I am the last.”
“Maybe I’ll try one of my other temples,” moaned K’lu Satal.
“Ruins all, save this one,” said Cluck. “Smashed and burned. Looted and forgotten. Only Cluck remembers now.”
“How is this possible?” boomed K’lu Satal. “I once had worshippers from the Sea of Tears to the Moon Mountains. Where did they all go?”
“It turns out that when you don’t answer your follower’s prayers, they stop asking,” said Cluck. “That plus the flagellation. Not too many were keen on the daily whippings. Even I tried praying to other gods, but none of them would have me. Stupid curse.”
“You’re absolutely sure there’s no one else there?” she asked.
“I am your last priest and worshipper. How may I serve you, mistress?”
“I suppose you’ll have to do,” said K’lu Satal. The voice grew strong and commanding once more. “As was foretold, one of the Hands of Fate has been revealed in a dragon’s horde in the wastelands near the western woods. It is only a matter of time now before the others are discovered. This is what I have been waiting for all these long years. With their combined power, I’ll be able to overthrow the gods themselves and rule all of…Cluck! Wake up!”
The gnome had slumped unconscious on the floor. He woke with a sudden start at K’lu Satal’s order. “Sorry, mistress. There wasn’t anyone else to give the blood sacrifice. I may have overdone it a bit.”
The room began to shake more violently than before. Cluck curled into a ball on the floor, afraid the ceiling was finally going to collapse. Two green beams of light erupted from the hands of the statue concentrating magical energy on the shrivelled old man. When they finally stopped, Cluck pulled away the bandage from his arm and his heart sank. The cut had been sealed leaving only an ugly red welt that ran up his arm. He wouldn’t die today after all. With thinly veiled disdain, he grumbled, “Thank you, mistress.”
“Well, I can’t have you dying on me just yet,” she said. “I have two tasks for you to perform. First, I need you to find me a new vessel. The body should be strong and the mind well-versed in the magic arts. It needs to be delivered alive to my tomb as soon as possible.”
“Forgive me, mistress,” said Cluck, “but this frail body of mine would never survive a trip to the Southern Reaches.”
“That’s not my problem,” said K’lu Satal. “Figure something out. Just get it done.”
“I also need you to start recruiting some new followers. If I’m going to rule the universe, I’m going to need to someone to take care of all the little things I can’t be bothered with. One pathetic priest does not make a religion. Honestly, the current state of affairs is embarrassing.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” said Cluck.
“Oh, and one more thing…”
“Give yourself an extra whipping tomorrow.”
The temple was suddenly still as the spirit of K’lu Satal left the statue. Cluck let his eyes adjust as the flames returned to a more normal orange and yellow, and he pondered his next move. He couldn’t refuse a direct command from K’lu Satal herself, so he knew he would be forced to abandon the fortress. The only question that remained was where he should go.
To be continued…
If you like this story, consider getting a copy for your self. The Problem with Prophesy is currently selling pre-orders at Inkshares until March 3rd, 2015. I’m publishing the first few chapters here as a teaser. If the book reaches 750 pre-orders before March 3, 2016, it will receive professional editing, design, distribution, and marketing. For more information visit Inkshares.com.