There is a message on my desk, scribbled on a piece of thick paper. A boy has brought it to me, saying that it had been left, he does not know by whom. I have read it, and I will read it again.
But first I look towards the window, and the years melt away, as I let the memories play out again before me.
The Lord Kalkar turned back from the window and looked at me. “The beast marches,” he said.
I noticed that he did not use the official term. “The Godmonster, my Lord?” I said, to remind him.
He snorted. “The beast. Call it what you will, it’s still a beast. I’ll grant you the monster part, though.”
I suppressed the urge to look over my shoulder. Even the Lord’s castle undoubtedly crawled with spies, and he must have known it as well as I did. I could only imagine that he thought it no longer mattered. “You were saying?” I murmured.
“You heard me,” he said, glancing at me sharply. “I have just received a message from....a source. The beast is on the march.”
“And it’s coming this way,” I said. If the Godmonster – I could not risk even thinking of it otherwise, because thoughts could be dangerous – if the Godmonster had been going in any other direction, the Lord would never have mentioned it. “How fast is it moving?”
“Not very fast, of course. Something that size can’t move very fast. It will take a few weeks to get here. But get here it will.” The Lord laughed, a short harsh bark. “It seems as though adopting the One True Faith of the Godmonster has not done a thing to protect us.”
“The priests...” I began.
“Have the priests ever achieved anything?” the Lord demanded. “Tell me that. Have they ever done a single damned thing that helped anyone but themselves?”
I kept prudently silent. The Lord came back to the table and picked up the goblet, looked into it, and seemed surprised to find it empty. I realised that he was more than a little tipsy. “So, can you guess what I want you to do?”
“Organise the evacuation?” I hazarded. “Where do you plan to evacuate, Lord? Your estates to the south have been taken over by the priests. The Western farmland has been fallow for years, and...”
“Evacuation?” Kalkar almost spat. He threw down the goblet on the floor. It bounced. “Look at that,” he said, with grim satisfaction. “I can’t even break a goblet anymore.”
“The floor’s wood,” I pointed out, “and what’s more, you’ve got a carpet on it.”
He glared at me. “I was saying,” he replied, biting off the words with his teeth, “that there won’t be any evacuation. We aren’t going anywhere.”
“But the Godmonster will be here in a few weeks,” I pointed out, “and then there won’t be a thing to be done. If we don’t evacuate we’ll be...”
He didn’t let me finish. “We won’t let it get here, then,” he snapped. “We’ll stop it. Somehow.”
I had a sudden lurching feeling inside me, as though my intestines had been removed. “Who is this we, Lord?”
“You and I.” He glared at me so fiercely I almost felt my eyebrows turning into ash and smelly smoke. “Who else?”
I looked around. There was nobody else. Everyone else had prudently kept out of sight. “Er...”
“Er, what?” His hand moved over the table, looking for something else to throw. The only thing on the table was a heavy jewelled dagger. His fingers twitched towards it. “Er, what?”
“I was going to say, of course, Lord,” I said, trying not to gabble. “When do we start?”
“Now, of course.” The Lord thrust his beard at me. “Any objections?”
There were so many that my mind jammed trying to sort them out. “No, Lord,” my mouth said, for no reason I could think of. “None at all.”
The new metal studded leather armour that is all the rage these days may be tough, but it’s rigid and immensely uncomfortable. I’d have much preferred the old chain mail, but the Lord waved away my objections.
“The beast will cook you in chain mail,” he’d said, thrusting the immense helmet into my hands. The weight made my shoulders slump. “Put that on.”
The Godmonster would cook us anyway, but I knew enough not to say that. Without wasting any further breath, I’d put it on.
Now the sweat was trickling down my back and stinging salt in my eyes; and the helmet seemed determined to tilt forward over my face until it rested on my chest. Wearily, I pushed it up again. “Lord?”
“Yes?” he was riding just to my right, but I couldn’t see far enough to the side out of the vision slit of the helmet to catch sight of anything more than the tip of his horse’s nose. It made it easier to talk though I couldn’t watch his reactions. “What is it?”
“You know the priests said the Godmonster’s will can’t be defied, and it’s heresy and death to do so,” I said. “So, even if we succeed, we still aren’t out of trouble. In fact, we’re deeper in it.”
He snorted, as loudly as the horses. “The priests will change their tune as soon as they see who’s got the upper hand. The God...the beast is just a way for them to cow people into submission. Once we beat it, nobody will be afraid of it anymore...or of the priests.”
And that was precisely why they’d do anything to stop that happening, I thought, but knew well enough not to say anything.
“Lord,” I ventured, instead. “What is the Godmonster?”
“What is...” he repeated, his voice so filled with astonishment that I heard the surprise over the noise of our horses’ hooves. “Oh, of course, you have never seen the beast, or even heard of it from any source other than the tales of the priests. It’s only a few of us who have ever laid eyes on it, and fewer still who have read the old archives. I am perhaps the only one still alive, outside the priesthood, who has done both. And,” he added with gloomy satisfaction, “nobody can do that anymore. The High Priest Kandar ordered all the archives destroyed, ten years ago.”
I didn’t care about the archives. “You’ve seen the Godmonster?” I asked. “Actually seen it?”
“Once,” he said, “and long ago, when I was only a little older than a boy. I accompanied the Lord Pachar’s Army of Heretics in its expedition against the beast. You know what happened to that army?”
“They say,” I swallowed. “They say the Godmonster ate it.”
“Ate it?” He had drawn ahead a little, enough so that I could see him cock his head to one side in the familiar gesture whenever he was giving something thought. “Yes, I suppose you could say it ate the army, in a manner of speaking. Actually, what happened to the army we never knew, because it just vanished into the beast’s flame and smoke, and never came out again. Only the rearguard was left...and I was part of that rearguard.”
“I thought the rearguard was eaten, too.”
“Oh yes, the fool who was the Captain of the Guard ordered it into battle, to rescue the army he said. Fortunately, a few of us right at the back had enough sense to realise that if the beast had destroyed the main force, the rearguard couldn’t do a thing. So we just...failed to charge along with them.”
We rode for a while longer before I spoke next. “What is the Godmonster like? Is it as terrible as they say?”
“Worse. Much, much worse.” He turned his heavy helmet enough to look round at me. “That’s why I’m not raising an army to fight the beast. It would just be wiped out, again.”
“Then what are the two of us going to do, Lord?” I asked.
“I have ideas,” he said. “Don’t forget, I’ve three advantages over anyone else. First, I’ve seen the beast with my own eyes. Secondly, I’ve read the archives, and I know more about it than most people do. And the third advantage I have is the most important of all.”
He waited for the question. I waited longer. He waited some more. Through the vision slit of the helmet I saw a substantial town in the distance. He turned his horse towards it.
“That’s Mankhlar,” he said. “I’ve got some work to do there, so I might as well get it over with. Meanwhile, keep your ears open, but make sure you don’t believe anything anyone says that comes from the priests.”
I gave in. “What’s the third advantage, Lord?”
“I just told you. Unlike you, and everyone else, I don’t believe a word the priests tell me. Not one single, solitary word.”
I watched the walls of the town come closer. “Should we use false names, Lord? In case the priests try to stop us?”
“Why would they?” he flung back over his shoulder, urging his horse into a gallop. “They’ll be happy if we get roasted to a cinder. It’ll make an example of us. So why should the priests bother?”
On that cheery note, we drew to the city gates, so I said nothing more.
“There are rumours, that’s all,” I said the next morning, leaning forward in the saddle to ease my aching back. The mattress on which I’d had the misfortune to spend the night seemed to have been stuffed with several large and craggy rocks. I don’t know where Kalkar had spent the night; he’d met me as I was just finishing the inn’s inadequate breakfast, with a satisfied expression on his face. “People have heard that the Godmonster is moving, but they don’t know which way, and the priests are telling them...”
“...that it won’t come this way if they visit the temple and donate money and gold,” the Lord said. “Just as they always do. And when the beast appears on the horizon, heading towards the town, they’ll say the people need to pray harder...and pay harder, too.”
“Lord,” I said, “about those archives. You said they had information about the Godmonster.”
“So I did.” The Lord had been riding slightly ahead, but he slowed down enough so that we were side by side. Today I’d prevailed on him enough to be allowed to not wear the heavy helmet, which now hung from the back of the saddle. His was slung over his back by leather thongs. “You know the standard dogma of the priests about the beast, I imagine?
“That it’s the High God himself, who has always lived among us, and punishes those who transgress his laws? Of course.”
“Would it surprise you to learn that the beast only appeared a little more than a thousand years ago? And that the tale the priests tell now is something they decided among themselves, a few hundred years after that. The Priesthood itself was built out of several competing priesthoods, each of which had its own story.”
“And what was the real story?” I asked.
He shrugged so his shoulder plates clanked. “You know those ruins we keep digging up, and which the priests demand we cover up again? The world was a different place then. There was no priesthood to rule over everything. Instead, there were competing tribal entities, called nations and kingdoms, which kept quarrelling over resources and territory.”
“That sounds fairly primitive,” I said.
“Primitive?” He considered the idea. “No, not really. Not in the way you mean. In some ways it was a far more advanced society than ours, with much greater weapons. And they had tremendous wars, of a ferocity we can’t even imagine now.
“From what I read, their weapons had advanced to the point where they had the ability to destroy everything. And the two biggest nations of the time were in a confrontation, heading steadily towards a war that everyone knew was coming but seemed to be unable to prevent.
“And then it was that the Godmonster appeared. There was a gap in the archives at that point – I rather think some earlier priest had decided that something needed to be removed – so I don’t know exactly how it appeared. There are hints that it fell from the sky in a storm of fire and darkness. And as it fell, it totally destroyed one of those two nations in its fall.”
“Didn’t the other...” I began.
“Oh of course it did. Of course it tried to turn the beast into a weapon. And when that failed, it attacked the thing. With all those world destroying weapons, you know.”
“What happened, Lord?”
“What do you think happened? The beast is still here, but that country isn’t.”
“And the priesthood sprung up then? I mean, the priesthoods?”
“Not at once, no. What happened was a period of warfare among all the other nations. The beast started walking across the world, destroying everything...well, you know that...and those countries that lay in its path attacked countries that didn’t, so as to take over their territories and become countries that the beast wouldn’t destroy. The beast walked a lot more back then, and faster than it does now. So in not very long most of the countries were at war, and the amount of weapons being used meant that though the big two weren’t around anymore, the rest could still easily eradicate the world among themselves.
“And now I’m going to tell you where the idea that the beast is a god first came up. There was a man then, who was a little cleverer than the rest and also perhaps also spoke with a little louder voice. He declared that the beast was a judge, which had found the nations wanting, and was merely delivering verdict and punishment. And it would, of course, merely destroy the evil and help the good.” He laughed so loudly that his horse cocked its head uneasily. “Just like gods have always chosen the good over the evil throughout history. Anyone who wins was helped by a god, and the god helped him because he was good and the other one was evil, right?”
I wisely chose not to say anything.
“This man’s name was Mzibanga. I’ve seen a picture of him; he was past middle age, and quite thin and small. You wouldn’t expect someone as insignificant looking as that to come up with such an idea, still less get anyone else to accept it.
“This is what Mzibanga said. If the beast continued its rampage across the world, it would inevitably destroy it all, even if it did not mean to, because of the constant warfare that broke out before and around it. Even the good would suffer and die, not just the bad. There was only one way to solve the problem.” He glanced at me from the corner of his eye. “Guess.”
When Lord Kalkar asked you to guess, he was issuing an order and you were not at liberty to take it lightly. “If I were this Mzibanga,” I said, wheels spinning hard in my head, “I’d try to get everyone to stop fighting. And if they wouldn’t...”
“No, they wouldn’t, would they. Because the Godmonster would destroy their countries as it kept marching.” I risked a couple of moments for thought. “Then, I suppose, there is only one solution. But he must have been a truly remarkable man if he could have got them to agree.”
“And that solution is?”
“To bring their armies to the Godmonster, of course.” He grinned and nodded encouragingly, and I breathed a sigh of relief. “If the Godmonster destroyed one army, that would have been the evil side, and the other would have won. If both armies were destroyed, then both sides were evil. But if neither was...”
“Never, not once, did the beast leave both armies alone. Generally it wiped out both, but usually a few stragglers from one or the other army survived. And those few would be declared the good side, and that was all.” He snorted. “And now that its food was coming to it, it didn’t need to waste its energies moving around, so it hardly moved at all. Mzibanga had foreseen that, too.”
“And he was the first High Priest, of course?” I asked.
“No, he wasn’t. They lynched him.”
“He was stupid. Once the beast had stopped moving, he dared say that the evil had gone from the world and that the remaining countries, such as were left, were all good and should try to live with each other.” The Lord snorted so loudly that his beard shook. “Not so clever after all.”
“And after that the priests started?”
“And after that the priests started. Some of them began cementing their hold on power by feeding anyone they didn’t like to the beast.”
“You mean, heretics?”
“So called heretics. Anyone whose property the priests wanted was a heretic. If you knew what was good for you, you’d give the priests what they wanted at once, before they took it by force.”
I didn’t look at him. We both knew he was talking about his southern estates. “What do you think the Godmonster really is, Lord? A real beast?”
“If it is, it certainly is a long-lived one, and one of a kind.” He laughed. “Not to speak of being bigger than a mountain range. What do you think it is?”
I chose not to answer that. “But if weapons that could destroy the world failed, how can the two of us stop it?”
“I told you, I have ideas. Think about what I told you about the archives, and you’ll understand.”
For the rest of the day I thought about it, and still I did not understand.
The town of Sutank was in turmoil. We’d arrived after dark, but even before we’d entered we’d known things were not as usual. There was the noise of shouting crowds, and flickering lights on the walls of the buildings lining the mean streets. Kalkar reined in his horse and sat watching for a while before accosting someone.
“You. What’s going on?”
The man was weedy and small, but laden down with a huge bundle, and at first didn’t even deign to look up. The Lord was having none of that.
“I asked you, fellow, what is going on,” he said sharply. “Answer me.”
He still looked as though he might refuse, and then he noticed the Lord’s red-and-black colours. His face filled with alarm. “Pardon me,” he said. “I didn’t mean anything.”
“You didn’t, that’s all right. But answer my question.”
“They say...” The man’s larynx bobbed up and down in his throat. “They say the Godmonster will be here by tomorrow. And then everything will be burnt.”
“Who says...” I began, but the Lord raised a hand, and I snapped my mouth shut, as one does when the Lord raises his hand. But he continued raising his hand, and pointed up over the roofs of the city. I followed the pointing finger.
The sky was red. For a moment I thought it was the torches and lamps in the streets, but then I noticed that it came from beyond the city, from past the hills we’d seen in the last light, twilight-shrouded in the distance. The Lord glanced at me. “It marches,” he said. “It marches much faster than I’d expected.”
“How far is it, Lord?” My mouth had gone very dry.
The Lord shrugged. The man whom he’d been interrogating had taken advantage of his distraction to disappear, and he didn’t seem inclined to stop anyone else. “It’s not close enough to be here by tomorrow,” he said, “but it’ll be here in a day or two after that. Well, come on, let’s go.”
“Lord? Go where?”
“To this Godmonster of yours, of course. Do you really think we’re going to find any shelter here? If we ride all night, we can reach it by midmorning.”
We turned our horses away from the city. On the way back out we saw a priest surrounded by a throng of people. Some were imploring him to do something, while others looked as though they’d love to tear him to pieces.
The Lord took no notice of any of them at all.
The morning came with skies so grey that I thought they were thick with cloud. But the rain that fell from them was black and grainy. I picked a piece off my armour and looked at it. It was a charred leaf, wisps of smoke still drifting from the edges.
“Lord,” I asked, “why is the Godmonster marching? Hasn’t it been standing in one place for a long time? Isn’t it being fed enough?”
His answer was brief. “I told you, think about it.”
We had been climbing the slopes since the early hours of the morning. The horses, tired, could not go faster than a walk, and the Lord didn’t force them to. The smoke in the sky ahead of us was sullen with red, and once or twice it parted to show the slopes of yet more rocky mountains beyond, higher and far more daunting. I wondered how the Lord expected the horses to climb those.
There was something else, a noise, like the wind rubbing sand grains together. At first it was so faint that I thought I was merely imagining it, but it grew louder and louder until it seemed to fill the world.
“What is that sound?” I asked at last.
Kalkar didn’t bother to look round at me. “The beast’s breathing,” he said shortly.
Then we came to the crest of the ridge, and I saw the mountain beyond for the first time. Only, it wasn’t a mountain.
It was the Godmonster.
It loomed from out of the smoke like a wall of rock that touched the sky, pierced it, cut it into pieces, and set the pieces on fire. It breathed, and the breath was a roar, and the roar was a current of flame that licked the ground to incandescent rock. It moved, and the world seemed to tilt and the sky break into a million splinters around its flanks. It raised one tremendous leg, and the leg was a pillar of rock, which ended in a scythe, and where it fell, the earth parted like water. Its face was an eyeless expanse, and yet it looked at us, and it saw us, and in its sight, I knew, there was neither pity nor mercy.
“Lord...” I did not know whether I spoke to Kalkar or the Godmonster. My companion did not even glance around, so I tried again.
“What are we going to do?” I asked. “It could put down one of its legs and split this hill in two!”
“It can, of course. In fact, it most certainly intends to do so. But I’m going to stop it. Are you with me?”
“Lord...” I licked my lips. “Yes, Lord.”
“I didn’t expect anything else.” He motioned towards my helmet and pulled his on. We urged the horses forward and down the slope, the Lord leading us towards the side, to one of the immense legs.
As we came closer, the air became thick, as though we were pushing our way through water, and so hot that each breath felt as though it would burn our nostrils. The Godmonster loomed above us, closer now, its fire breath turning trees and glass to cinders. The horses slowed and stumbled.
“Leave them,” the Lord said, dismounting. “We’ll go on foot from here.”
I looked up. Through the vision slit of my helmet the front edge of the Godmonster’s head was a boulder that filled the sky, poised to come smashing down. “What are we going to do, Lord?”
“Follow me.” The Lord paused long enough to watch the horses cantering to safety, and beckoned.
“We can’t fight it,” I said. It was so obvious that it barely needed saying. “There is no way it can be fought.”
“Fight it? Did I ever say I would fight it?”
“What is it, Lord?” We were almost at the leg. Close to, it was extremely rough and craggy. “What is this thing?”
“It’s a machine, of course.” Kalkar’s voice was filled with excitement. “Didn’t you realise it yet? It’s a machine that someone unleashed to stop the nations from wrecking the world. Whoever built it, this is a machine – and I intend to take control of it.”
“How else do you suppose I can turn it aside? Of course I’m going to take control of it. And once that’s done...” He said something more, but I could not hear it.
“How are you going to...” I began.
He was already running towards the leg. “Help me,” he shouted. “Push me up.”
I did. He scrambled up the rough, stony surface, his fingers clutching at crevices, his boots striking sparks. Clambering up to the first joint, he turned and motioned down at me to follow.
I was still hesitating, and I hesitated just too long.
Slowly, slowly, the leg rose. It tore out of the ground in a cloud of earth and broken stone. It rose and rose, ponderous and inevitable as doom, the great claw at the end sweeping towards me. It was hypnotic, inevitable, a scythe that would remove my head from my shoulders as surely as an axe. I watched it come, unable to move until the very last moment when a shout from above broke through my paralysis. Then I threw myself aside, but the tip struck my helmet. It was just a breath of a touch, but everything disappeared into a black pit.
When I regained consciousness, I was looking up at a patch of blue sky. The smoke still eddied, but above me had begun to clear. My helmet had been ripped off my head. I did not look for it.
Away to the left, I could see the Godmonster. It was moving, but not towards the hills. It was moving away from me.
I have never seen the Lord Kalkar again, but I don’t need to.
Word comes in from all over. The acolytes at the temples whisper of it, the merchants speak about it while looking over their shoulders, careful of who might hear. In the markets, in between deals, the shopkeepers and their customers huddle to discuss the latest rumours. The priesthood’s men at arms do not try to break them up; there is nothing they can do.
The priesthood, too, is a shattered shell. Its landholdings tremble, its temples are now deserted. The Lord Kalkar had spread his gold wide and well, as at Mankhlar; when the Godmonster had turned aside, everyone knew whom to praise, and it was not the priests.
And I now know what Kalkar had said, the last words he’d spoken as he’d scrambled up the Godmonster’s rocky hide. He’d said that when one god was overthrown, another would take his place. He’d known which god that would be.
And he’d wanted to share it with me.
I sit at my window, and I listen to the reports of the Godmonster. And I wonder if I’d gone up with him, if I’d have tried to stop him.
I turn back to the paper on my desk. The writing is familiar. I’d spent many years reading it.
“Time passes,” it says, “and absolute power is lonely. I think I will pay you a visit. If you join me, I will be pleased. If you do not, I have no great interest in what once mattered to me. I will be there soon.
“Chances normally come only once, and for you this is the second time. It will not come again.”
There is no salutation or signature. There does not need to be.
I turn and look out of the window again, at the estate with its gardens and its fields, the place I have grown to think almost as my own. It does not mean anything now, not anymore.
So he will come, and I will be given the chance to be a god again. Or I will be destroyed, and all this along with it.
I look out of the window, and I remember the Godmonster, and what it felt like to look up at it, and be terrified. Will I, can I, become a god? Do I even want to?
The worst of it is, I have no answer. I simply do not know.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017
Note to reader: Back on Multiply, I and a lot of others used to belong to writing groups which posted photos on which one was supposed to write stories. After Multiply closed, I fell out of the habit of writing to prompts; in fact, when I came across this picture on the net, I found it incredibly difficult to write to it, while I'd once have devoured the chance in an evening. Anyone who would like me to start writing to prompts once in a while, please link to photos in the comments.