“Are you losing perspective, Garran?”
Garran altered his stance, the rough sanctuary floor chafing his bare feet, and considered the question. The answer was not a simple yes or no, and he knew it was foolish to respond hastily to a Rahamen; they valued truth above all else.
Two years had passed since they sent him to the North. The He’Rahamen, She Who Is All, had handpicked a small village for the infiltration, and perhaps that marked where she had erred. He knew these people by name, knew their children, their grandchildren. Kemille, with her dark hair that always managed to cast the most beguiling shadows along the contours of her face; Old Eb, who even with a withered leg hobbled into the village daily to give treats to the children. They were not the evil he had imagined while surrounded by the comforts of home.
Looming before him, the Rahamen shifted seamlessly—the smell of freshly peeled oranges always followed a shift—and flowed her misty hand down Garran’s face, caressing his cheek like a humid breeze that held the threat of a storm. She was now uncomfortably close, eyes solidifying into icy blue fissures that drained the warmth from the room. That was the nature of the Rahamen. They knew what it took to coax truth from an adherent.
“I have certain...reservations,” Garran admitted. During the past two years, his preconceived notions had deteriorated into ruins, casting shadows that helped hide and nurture his growing doubt. How could he continue if it meant bringing harm to those he had come to respect?
“These reservations, do they involve doubting the wisdom of the He’Rahamen?”
Garran met the Rahamen’s unnerving gaze and refused to look away as he recited the words of the Holy Writ. “‘Bring me your wise...he who would dispute. His wisdom shall be as the babble of a fool before the He’Rahamen.’“
“You dare quote scripture to me, Wreaker?” the Rahamen asked. “You have grown vain. You doubt the wisdom of the He’Rahamen, but worse...you have forgotten her sorrow.”
He fell to a knee and placed his palm flat against his forehead in supplication. “I would never—”
“Silence,” the Rahamen interjected. “It is the ruling of this One that you shall relive the Great Sorrow. So it is willed, so shall it be.”
Her command for silence was not all that kept him from pleading for leniency; part of him knew he deserved the punishment for allowing his doubt to fester like an untreated lesion.
The vapor on his face, remnants of the Rahamen’s caress, heated to painful temperature. It slithered at a scalding crawl and probed moist fingers into his eyes, burrowing its way inward. The world disappeared in a boiling waterfall of colors, melting away into a throbbing blackness.
The lash of a whip against his bare buttocks jerked Garran from the darkness; for a brief glimpse of time, he was himself, and then he was Beliath, Son of the He’Rahamen.
Beliath struggled to cover his nakedness. The men who loomed over him had ripped off his robes and soiled them with spit and urine. He could smell his own feces smeared down his thighs, and the dirt beneath him was wet with his vomit and blood. The gash on his scalp bled freely, clouding his mind with the weakness of blood loss. His throat was raw from pleading for them to stop, and he had long since quit making any noise save for grunts and groans.
“Where is your holy mother now, boy?” the man with the scarred face and biting whip slurred, pausing to drink from his wineskin before thrusting a booted foot into Beliath’s ribs. “Will she not step down from her throne high in the heavens even to save her only son?”
“Perhaps she is preoccupied,” the youngest man said—he had hungry eyes, which had sparkled promisingly when first the men ripped Beliath’s robes free. He leered at his companions and thrust his hips back and forth in the air. “You know,” he continued, “preoccupied.”
The third man laughed; it made Beliath feel like he had been chewing shards of steel. “What was it you said? Oh, yes, I remember, ‘I come as a herald for She Who Is All. I bear the mark of her promise in my blood’.” He knelt and dipped his finger in the blood pooling around Beliath’s head. “This looks as red as my own. I see no mark.” He stuck his finger in his mouth and sucked it clean. “And I taste no mark.”
Beliath worked his tongue around broken teeth, spitting free a mouthful of blood. “I meant no harm.”
The third man’s eyes gleamed with cunning and cruelty. “I care not for your intent. Your kind is unwelcome here, and I will see to it that your memory serves as an unforgettable reminder.” He stood and placed a calloused hand on the youngest man’s shoulder. “Kill him.”
The man ran an eager hand through his dark hair. “Can I have him first?”
“I do not care what you do with him, so long as he is not breathing once you are done.”
Beliath strained to crawl away as the man came for him, but his injuries were too severe, and his struggles only excited the man further.
He pushed his thoughts away from the violation—oddly, the sour smell of alcohol that dripped from the rapid breaths against the nape of his neck proved to be the hardest thing to ignore—and fought to hold to consciousness so that he might yet win his life.
A short time later, the young man whispered in Beliath’s ear. “Now that I am done with you, I will find your holy mother and do the same to her.”
The heat of steel seared into Beliath’s back and erupted from his stomach, pinning him to the soiled dirt. Numbness seeped outward from the wound. With the last of his strength, Beliath grabbed the man’s arm and pulled him close. “I forgive you,” he said.
The young man pulled away and jerked his sword free of Beliath’s spine. Clear water bubbled forth from the hole the sword had gouged into the dirt, spreading and washing away the blood; it even poured from Beliath’s fatal wound. The three men watched in amazement as the water spurted, and then the cruel and cunning man began to laugh.
Garran woke with a scream and scurried on all fours to the corner of the sanctuary to vomit. He remembered everything. Worse, he had recognized the leader of the three men.
The Rahamen’s voice tinkled behind him like the call of a distant brook. “Do you understand why the He’Rahamen mourns?”
“The man...I recognized him,” Garran said. He coughed more bile upon the floor, his mind scorched by the last moments of Beliath’s life. “He is the founder of Vihal, their capital. I saw a painting of him for sale in the borough marketplace. He is a hero to these people.”
The Rahamen nodded. “He founded the city around the endless wellspring. Do you know why it has never stopped flowing? It is the tears of the He’Rahamen, and she has not stopped crying.”
Garran felt warm water trickle down his face, and for a fearful instant, he thought he was going to experience the Great Sorrow again, but then he realized it was his tears. “I was taught about the Great Sorrow, but I did not know.”
“That is why you are here, Wreaker. The He’Rahamen has decided it is time to stop mourning; soon, she will cry no more.”
“I doubted her. I am not worthy.”
“Do you doubt her still?”
“Then do not question her wisdom in choosing you for this honor.”
Garran wiped clean his soiled lips and once more assumed a position of kneeling supplication. “What must I do?”
The Rahamen flowed to a position above his kneeling form; Garran breathed deeply of the smell of peeled oranges. “Travel to Vihal. You are no longer a stranger in these lands and will be welcomed. Draw water from the well and allow it to pass your lips. Once you have partaken of the He’Rahamen’s tears, the nature of the Wreaker will be revealed.”
Garran leaned forward until his forehead touched the floor. The memories squirmed over him like hungry maggots, making him feel filthy and unworthy, but he dared not question the wisdom of the He’Rahamen again. “It will be as you have said.”
“Go with a blessing, Garran,” she said; then, with a whisper of wind and the faint smell of smoke, she disappeared.
Garran locked the sanctuary and traveled through the tunnel to his house. He replaced the tapestry hiding the entrance and released a breath he had not realized he was holding. The threat of discovery darkened his thoughts, but no one in the village even talked of his people; he wondered if they knew his kind existed.
The morning sunlight streamed through a window and dried the tears that remained on his face, and he felt the bite of doubt once more. Who was he to question the He’Rahamen? She had known his name before conception. She had numbered the stars as she lit them. He gasped and prayed for forgiveness, for he realized she knew he doubted her even now. It occurred to him—as though she immediately answered his prayer—that she still chose him, despite knowing all of his doubts. He treasured that knowledge as a comfort; for he knew, he would not fail her.
He prepared a hot bath, tossing in an extra handful of hot-rocks, and permitted himself the luxury of a thorough cleansing. If he were to do the will of the He’Rahamen, he would do it clean in both mind and body. The steam eased the tension in his neck, relaxing his muscles and clearing his lungs. The memories of the Great Sorrow washed away with the dirt and sweat, but a filthy smear of doubt remained, no matter how hard he scrubbed.
His home was not far from Vihal and travelers often packed the main road, going both to and from the capital. Garran blended in as he walked, trailing an inconspicuous distance behind a band of merchants; close enough to be mistaken as part of their group by random passersby, but not close enough to draw their attention or ire.
The hour walk to Vihal left Garran both hungry and thirsty. He bought a wedge of cheese and a hunk of bread from a cart set up outside the city and enjoyed the impromptu dinner before heading for the main gates. He would quench his thirst at the endless fountain and not before—a vow made along the way to grant favor from the He’Rahamen. Several guards stood at attention near the tall iron gates, one of whom he recognized from his village. The man smiled, revealing a mouthful of teeth an unhealthy hue of yellow, and gestured toward him.
“Garran, my friend, what brings you to Vihal?”
If the man so much as suspected the truth, he would thrust steel through Garran, friend or no friend. For a mad instant, Garran entertained the idea of telling him the truth, but he fought against his weakness of faith and put on his friendliest smile instead. It was not that hard to do; after all, it was truly a beautiful day.
“I thought I would purchase some additional hot-rocks,” Garran said. He leaned in closer and gave the guard a conspiratorial wink. “Plus, I might find something for Kemille.”
The guard laughed and shook his head in mock despair. “My friend, if you are thinking of bedding her before you wed her, I am afraid you are humping the wrong leg.”
“My father used to tell me, ‘All humps are not created equal’.”
The guard bellowed out a laugh in response. “Your father was a wise man, Garran, a wise, wise man.”
“That he was...that he was.”
“Go on, then, but give the old leg a hump or two for me, eh?”
Garran laughed uproariously just as the guard had, offered a heartfelt goodbye, and made his way through the gates. After two years of preparation, the act seemed shamefully simple. He was in the capital, though; the birthing place of sorrow. There was a sense of eager nervousness, but more so than that, there was a sense of profound sadness. He summoned his faith and his courage and used them to build a wall around his troubling thoughts. He was a Wreaker, the Wreaker, and it was time he started acting the part.
He stopped in the entertainers’ quadrant and watched a juggler at work—the flashing knives swished through the air, whistling a tune that perfectly matched the routine—for a polite amount of time before asking for directions; he raised his voice to be heard over the shouts of entertainers and bystanders alike. “Excuse me, which way to the fountain?”
The knives all started to point ahead. “Forward, friend, all roads lead to the Fountain.”
The trip inward through the city seemed to take as long as the trip to the city. There were more jugglers, endless stands offering steaming hunks of meat and blistering hot pies, stages for boisterous actors, bards, and storytellers, and sectioned arenas for fighting barehanded and with weapons. The crowd stretched as far as the eye could see, none of them paying the least bit of attention to Garran, except maybe the few he shoved aside in order to make headway toward the fountain.
There were buildings of all shapes and sizes, the colored flags that identified them snapping in the wind: red for weaponsmiths, white for doctors, purple for tailors, brown for cobblers, and many other colors for a myriad of professions. A few flags within sight even had symbols instead of solid colors, and Garran noticed several shady characters patrolling the crowds, matching symbols adorning their cloaks, while some wore bands of various colors around their upper arms. He steered clear of such men.
He spotted the fountain long before he reached its base. Water spurted twenty-odd feet into the air, sprung from a stone wineskin held by a life-sized statue of the founder of Vihal...one of the murderers of Beliath, Son of the He’Rahamen. Garran repeated that fact in his head as he pushed through the last throng of people, a part of him both amazed and horrified that no one had stopped him yet; a much deeper part shamed that he had not stopped on his own.
The statue stood nearly seven feet high. He did not recall the man being that tall in his vision, though it was hard to judge height from a prone position and in the throes of pain. The eyes did not seem cruel and cunning either but rather kind and wise. It was an unsettling variance. The man had likely monitored the sculpting of the statue, of course, which would account for the added height and the softness of his eyes. Men with cruel and cunning eyes, however, rarely were ashamed of them.
Here in the womb of sorrow, the walls he had built around his doubt cracked and crumbled. What kind of Wreaker was he?
Before he could consider the question, an old man approached with a golden cup in his hand.
“Come to taste from the Fountain of Vihal?” the old man asked. His voice had a hint of melody about it, as though he had rehearsed the greeting and that which followed. “For only a sliver of silver, I can fulfill such a desire. You will never be the same, friend, I can guarantee that.”
Garran considered refusing the offer, but then he smelled freshly peeled oranges and something inside him stilled. He nodded to the old man and handed him the appropriate amount of silver. Inwardly, he began to pray; he had never felt closer to the He’Rahamen than he did standing there with her tears misting down around him.
The old man placed the cup into the outstretched hand of the statue. Water flowed up the arm and into the cup, filling it nearly to the top before it died down. He kissed the cup and offered it to Garran. All noise vibrated to an unintelligible hum just below the beat of Garran’s heart. He raised the cup to his lips—the water smelled of lilac and tasted of sweetened milk. He swallowed. Everything around him slowed.
Garran had never been so cold. His stomach was a block of ice, and the numbness that seeped outward felt terribly like the wound that had killed Beliath. The chill flowed from him, endless like the fountain, and he could hear the last sobs of the He’Rahamen as they tapered off into angry silence. There would be no more tears.
The old man shuddered. A layer of frost crackled over his eyelashes. The statue vibrated. The water sputtered into jagged shards of ice that stuck in the hardened air above. The snaps and cracks of spreading ice panicked the people, but they could never run fast enough to escape the Wreaker. The cold anger of the He’Rahamen claimed them all; some in midflight; some cowered in a corner; others hunkered over loved ones, doing their best to protect them right until the very end.
Garran was a Wreaker, a wellspring of vengeance, and the screams of the dying ruptured what little hold he had left over his doubts. He had been a tool, a weapon. Had the vision even showed true? The Rahamen valued truth above all else, but he suspected their truth had been warped by the hatred of the He’Rahamen. He tried to scream his outrage at the betrayal, but ice froze its way through the air and took his voice. It claimed him as it had claimed all the others, and it was only then that he remembered the words of his mother:
“Mother, how does one know the difference between right and wrong?” Garran had asked. He had been a child, no older than six; it would be but a few short months before the Rahamen would come for him.
She answered with a sadness he had not understood...not until now, much too late. “If you question whether a thing is wrong or not, it likely is.”