The Concord

The prayer circle was a blinding white under the cloudless sky. Even this early in the year the sun was burning down as it approached its noon height. The man sitting in Lotus Position since First Light that morning showed no sign of discomfort with his twisted pose nor with the heat that had sweat streaming down his black skin. He had not moved all day except for his barely perceptible breathing.

The peasants who were beginning to walk down the long paved path that wound its way towards the brilliantly glittering temple on top of the low hill, heading for the noon prayers. The early ones either trying to make a statement or perhaps some of them were done with their morning work early. All of them saw the man sitting in the middle of the circle and instinctively took the far side of the road. An icon of their faith he might be, but he was enough to make anybody feel uncomfortable.

Gradually the early arrivals became a steady stream, then a crowd marching by noisily, and if the man in the prayer circle made them nervous, and he he clearly did, the road was so packed that they could not move aside to give him more distance. Eventually the stream died down to a trickle of stragglers, running to be on time for the start of the service.

When the sun reached its highest point and the first sounds of the opening hymn echoed over the land surrounding the temple the man abruptly got up, getting to his feet in one smooth motion without using his arms, not even for balance. Unhurriedly he left the circle, taking care to sweep away his footsteps and meticulously restoring the circular wave patterns brushed into the fine white sand. Still unhurriedly he restored the little sweeping brush to the little alcove inside the half-height wall surrounding the circle, and made his way towards the temple with calm, measured steps.

Inside the temple he turned left — to avoid the giant central nave, now packed with thousand of worshippers — and made his way to the cloister. From there he went to the stairs down to the crypt. Still with the same calm and measured paces he made his way to the very back to the second level of the crypt where there was a large room with narrow and deep recesses and a circular pattern in the pavement on the floor. On his second round along those stones he suddenly began to sink deeper into the floor with each step, as if the tiles had become a circular stairs even though the floor was still as flat as it had always been.

By the time he had taken another ten steps he had disappeared entirely under the floor. A weak ripple played over the tiles, and after that slight mirage it was as if the man had not been in the crypt at all. The man found himself in pitch black circular stairway, some four paces across at hits widest. The steps of the stairs were wide enough for only one man at a time and there was no central pillar that the steps were anchored to. Instead there was a hole wider than the tallest man was long, entirely invisible in the blackness. Neither the darkness nor the lack of railing seemed to bother the man though, as he made his unhurried way down to the bottom of the stairs. Behind a solid wall , about halfway down the stairs, there was a tunnel through which the song of the congregation echoed.

The man minutely adjusted his pacing to match the hymn in progress and shortly exited the tunnel into another pitch black room, this one half of a sphere from the way the sound of singing echoed through it. At the exact centre of that room was another circle in the tiling and the man walked to centre and stopped. At exact that moment high above him, the noon prayers reached their crescendo and in the apex of the temple a stone aperture was grinding open, letting a blinding shaft of light in, illuminating the high priest conducting the services. Unseen to the faithful that shaft of light travelled through the floor the priest was standing on and lit up the black man standing deep underground.

Paying no attention to the way the concentrated beam of sunlight began to burn him the man waited for a voice out of the darkness.

“Do you submit willingly to your Lord the Sun, and His mortal representatives, the Concord of Faiths?”

“I do” he answered, and his voice was as calm and measured as his walk to this circle of obedience had been.

“Then your Lord has a task for you. One of the most important tasks in the history of the True Faith. Are you prepared to sacrifice everything to see this task to completion?”

The question was an insult to even ask of a Hand of the Concord, but the answer was a calm and measured as everything the man did “I am.”

“Listen then, and heed. The Sun Lord has blessed us with knowledge that the ancient pact that separates the worlds is shattered, and that in time a Messenger will reach the Nexus of that pact and seal it anew.”

Another voice spoke up somewhere behind the man “Listen then, and heed also that the Darkness, the ancient enemy of the Sun Lord, has learned of this and has arranged that this Messenger will be His. This can not be permitted for this shall make the power of the Darkness paramount in this world, when such ascendency is rightfully the Sun Lord’s”

A third voice, to the right this time, intoned “Listen then, and heed that through the Sun Lord’s will we have learned that in eight moons and eight suns a message will be dispatched in barbaric lands far to the north of here, that will set these events in motion.”

“Listen then, and heed,” came the fourth and final voice, the rumbling basso easily identifying this as the Primary of the Concord. The one who spoke with the Voice of the Sun Lord, if there was discord instead of concord. “with the Pact shattering, the Darkness is more free than ever to work against the will of the Sun Lord, and is able to obscure the Light of Truth to a small degree. This message must be stopped from reaching its destination, or the world will be cast in Darkness. But already the Darkness is ascent such that His Hand must be present to identify the messenger and guide the Cleansing Light so that it may destroy the message of the Darkness.”

“I listen and heed.” the man said simply.

In the temple tower the stone aperture closed again at the end of services, and abruptly cast the room far below it in absolute darkness again. The audition was over and without waiting for further word or instruction the black man returned the way he had come.

It seemed strange that the concorded faiths of the Sun met in utter darkness, when that same darkness was the eternal enemy of the light, but the man did not question the traditions. Or anything really. His was a life of unquestioning devotion, and if he had had a different life before, it had been burned away in the fire and light of his confirmation. Like with all other Hands of the Concord since the unification of the four faiths, more than his old life had been burned away, so had his eyes. His confirmation had been proven when the Sun Lord had replaced the ruined and useless eyes with senses and an awareness keen enough to easily replace the lost sight. In the Light of Truth there is no place for colours nor shades the saying was, and the Hands were the living embodiment of that.

The man walked back, but where his gait had a measured unhurriedness before, now there was just the slightest hint of urgency to it, though only those intimately familiar with the Hands would be able to tell the difference from the subtle signs. And only a handful of priests and trainers got that close to them. Being in the presence of the living Will of the Sun God was hard on ordinary humans, and most shied away from them instinctively. It was why they had their own quarters in the sprawling temple complex, and why the entrance to it was closely guarded. Not to protect the Hands, but to keep ordinary temple servants away from them.

Looking up from the final steps of the spiral stair there was nothing to indicate that it was sealed away by a solid floor that one could walk across. It was easy to see from this vantage point that nobody was in the crypt, which was as it should be, and that the man, could continue climbing the stairs until he was standing on top of the floor once again He shuddered imperceptibly as the last threads of unpleasant magic clung to him before slithering off and reuniting with the magic that kept the floor simultaneously solid and a portal to the pit with the spiral stairs in it. And the floor was solid. It had been a long time since last invaders of the temple complex had made it this far, but on that historical, and blasphemous, occasion the mercenaries had pried up the tiles, and only found the foundation. Even knowing that the pit existed they had not been able to activate the magic that sealed it away.

The Hands did not like the magic that sealed away the hidden parts of the temple. They had a dark feel to them, of something not quite of the light. They also were older by far than the temple complex. That was knowledge that was even more deeply guarded than the existence of the sealed parts, and that already had been protected by geas ever since a traitorous high prelate had sold the secret to enemies of the Sun Lord. The Hands knew that the parts of the temple where the Concord was meeting long pre-dated the ostentatious buildings above them. There was no way to hide that knowledge from them, and no reason to attempt to either, but not even they knew what had been on this particular location before the Concord named it as the site of their unified temple of the Sun Lord.

Unpleasant as the magic of the place was to them, the Hands simply bore it without complaint and with hardly noticing it any more. Like the other unpleasant aspects of their service, it was the His will, and to be accepted with complete obedience and devotion. This business of travelling to the edge of the world, far beyond the borders of civilisation, to find and execute and unwitting servant of the Darkness, was similarly unpleasant to him. The rules that bound the Gods, were clear, and almost as tightly bound Their servants when they were as closely connected to them as were the Hands. There would almost certainly be grave repercussions, and those would fall on him. This did not bother him as much as it probably should have. He didn’t need to know that the fate of the world rested on his actions. It was a sign of the weakness of the Doyenne that they felt the need to convince him, when a simple order by the Sun Lord would have been enough. He would shine His Light everywhere he was bid to, and burn with His Fires wherever necessary.

The calm walk on his way to the austere domain of the Hands — through the crypts and the quiet unusual passages through the temple complex — gave him time to mull over his task. Perhaps I was too hasty with dismissing the warning about the end of the world, he thought. It must have been their way of telling me that I can not afford to risk failure.

Abruptly he changed the direction he was heading in. Instead of his cell, he made his way to the outdoor training grounds, where those Hands in residence where no doubt honing their skills even further under the supervision of a dedicated cadre of trainers, weapons masters and instructors.

Ignoring the instructors who where barely perceptible to him at the moment, he let his awareness flow over the field and noticed six other Hands working on various drills and exercises. Briefly he considered restricting himself to four companions, a full hand of five. The number seven though belonged to an older, more primitive version Sun worship and he decided to take it as a sign pertaining his, now their, task.

His arrival at the training grounds had not gone unnoticed and the ongoing sparring and training exercises came to a halt, waiting for him to speak.

“The Sun Lord had called us to service!” he said, There was no need to shout as those who needed to hear him would not be hindered by such a small distances as thirty meters. “We all travel at the first dark of dusk tonight to the far north. Prepare for cold and hostile lands, and for a year and more of travel.”

There was nothing else to say after that. The other hands bowed perfunctorily to their teachers and trainers and then without any word of their own headed for their cells to start the necessary preparations, used to being called to travel at a moment’s notice to whatever task the Sun Lord set before them. And with a journey that long and uncertain there was a lot of work to be done in the short time remaining to get prepared.

 

Hours later, when the sun had only just dipped below the horizon and was still colouring the sky a warm red, fourteen horses thundered down the road. The farmers who had been assigned to the fields that fed the sprawling temple of the Sun Lord with its thousands and thousands of priests, clerics and servants dove off the pavement and towards the dubious safety of the wayside. They looked in wonder after the seven Hands, leading seven pack horses, making their way down the road and disappearing in the deepening dusk. Seeing a Hand ride past, sometimes at great speed, was nothing uncommon to them, but seven at once? That surely was a sign of the end times.

Oblivious, or more accurately uncaring, of the confusion and fear he left behind the man led his fellows along the temple road. They would travel west along it for five days before they would reach the first greater road that lead north. It was not the shortest route, but the advantage of good pavement and inns, even horse relay stations, in his opinion outweighed the extra miles of travel.

He hadn’t told his fellows what their task was, and they hadn’t asked. There would be time enough to discuss these things in the months ahead when they crossed the empty lands north and could be certain not to be overheard. For now it was more important to try to get as close as possible to these barbaric lands with their false Gods, so they would be in striking distance as soon as this messenger set forth. If the Darkness was unchained, as the Doyenne of the Concord had intimated, then the aid the Sun Lord would be able to give them was going to be limited, and more so, creatures of the Dark might well be sent to destroy them. They had to be close for His guidance and did not have the time to search at their leisure. So speed was of the greatest importance, and since nobody had been able to tell him anything about these northern lands, not even if they actually existed, they had to hurry from the start.

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