Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Secret of Atlantis



Citadel World, book 2
The Secret of Atlantis
by Kir Lukovkin




Release - February 26, 2018



A

The cold wind blew swathes of snow into Paul’s face.
He closed his eyes and nearly fell to the ground from the blow he received.
“Where are you going!” someone growled in front of him.
Paul pulled on the reins of his bay horse. The other riders behind him followed suit. They shouted at each other, conveying the command to halt along the chain of riders. Paul rose in his saddle, trying to make out what was going on at the head of the column. Excited voices could be heard, sounding like they were in arguing fiercely. Lanky Pete rode up on his old nag and asked him about what was going on ahead.
“I don’t know,” Paul muttered. “We wait.”
Lanky Pete grimaced unhappily and rode on. Paul stared at his retreating back, dumbly. It was cold and all he wanted to do was to return to their Retreat, stretch his legs in front of the big fireplace and drink some hot ale. The horses snorted, flicking their ears and nervously looking around. Paul turned to see what his bay horse Duchess was looking at and examined the edge of the Canal—a long depression that ran almost as far as the horizon. Nothing, just a gray line that grew misshapen as it stretched out in the haze.  Duchess was clearly getting nervous.


“Now, now,” Paul stroked the horse’s neck.
Lanky Pete returned and rode back towards the tail end of the caravan without stopping. A cry came from the front for everyone to get ready as the caravan was about to continue on its way.  Paul could not wait to get going. This was all because of the accursed cold. Everyone’s hands had already gone blue from the freezing temperature, chilled down to the bone, their bodies barely obeying them. There was no clothing that could save you when you spent more than a day up on the surface.
The caravan crawled on, gradually twisting its way around some unknown obstacle. The reason for the stop became immediately obvious. Paul could not help but shake his head, thanking the Almighty for the fact that he was traveling on an empty stomach. A corpse lay in the middle of the Canal, so disfigured that it was impossible to tell whether it was a man or a woman. As the column moved on past the body, Paul managed to overcome his disgust to have a closer look. The cadaver lay in a fetal position. The flesh had been gnawed all the way down to the bone. It was difficult to tell whether this was a righteous man or one of the possessed. Death is the great equalizer.
Paul stared at the edge of the canal ahead of him again. Everyone in their Retreat new that the Great Canal divided the plain in two. A shallow river flowed along it in the summer, while the bottom was covered with a layer of ice and snow in winter. It was an umbilical cord that carried caravans to the Retreat from the Mainland. If anything was to happen to the Canal, it would be the end of the Retreat.
Paul gloomily considered this every time the latest mission set off on its way. Paul had thought about this the first time he joined one of the missions too...
The horse of the leading rider suddenly reared violently. The rider could not hold on and fell onto the ground, beneath the hooves of the horse behind him. There was a commotion up front for a few instants, with pushing, shoving and shouts of frustration. Paul barely held on to Duchess, when she tried to bolt away at a frantic gallop. He pulled on the reins with all his might and leaned in towards the horses head, patting her on the neck. Duchess' whole body trembled, and it was not because of the cold.
“What's wrong with you?” Paul exclaimed, trying to calm the mare down, but she whinnied loudly.
The other horses in the column replied, as they fidgeted nervously and attempted to rear or bolt. One horse managed to jump up on a cart and knock it onto its side. There was a complete mess up ahead and some sort of serious obstacle.
The caravan stood still. A Captain rushed past Paul, shouting commands and trying to impose order. Duchess finally calmed and that was when Paul looked up. The banks of the Canal were covered with strange mounds under the snow. Duchess nearly stepped on one of these and immediately shied away, neighing wildly again.
Paul took a closer look and understood what the matter was. The horse's hoof had randomly swept some snow from a mound and a human hand appeared. It was as white as a block of salt.
The captain kept shouting, “Order! Order, you idiots! Get back into the column!”
And then Paul noticed them.
A human figure appeared far away upon the left edge of the Canal. It looked so small that it was barely the size of his little finger could cover it. Then, another appeared by its side, as if it came from underground. Then another and another, and then the edges were lined with silent figures.
Paul felt the cold reach its tentacles right into his heart. His hands almost let go of the reins. He thought that he shouted, but only a weak croak emerged from his throat.
The figures did not move, but more and more of them appeared with every passing second. All the while, the people at the bottom of the Canal were too preoccupied with getting everything in order as their horses trampled the frozen corpses underfoot.
Paul looked up at the sky for some reason, as if he was hoping for help from some unknown gods. A thick layer of clouds hung low and silent up above. He directed his gaze back down to look ahead and the figures started to move. It was as if a gray wave rapidly flowed down the edges of the canal in complete silence.
It was only then that a belated cry of “Possessed!” sounded nearby.
The cry was caught up by a multitude of voices along the body of the column, like a sudden convulsion. There was a glint of bared swords. Paul remembered that his blade was also sheathed by his saddle. It seemed to be a pathetic toy compared to the hordes bearing down from above.
“Here comes death,” a thought flickered through his mind. The wave of possessed on the right reached the canal first and smashed into the side of the caravan. The howling, shouts, screams of the horses and the clang of steel got even louder. Barely a moment had passed when the same happened on the left-hand side.
The faces of the closest possessed were so near that it seemed that they could be touched with an outstretched hand. However, attracting their attention had to be avoided at all costs. Standing out among the crowd was also a recipe for disaster, as the possessed were predators that attacked caravans to satisfy the only primitive and primal feeling that they had remaining.
Hunger!
Paul struck Duchess on her haunches and flew along the column at a gallop. The possessed smashed into the caravan behind his back. People screamed in terror as they swung their swords. Paul rode on ahead without looking back. It was obvious what was going on there anyway—the humans were entwined in a bloody battle for their lives against beasts in human form. The waves of attackers rolled down the slopes faster than Duchess could gallop. In a moment or two they would collide, crushing the column in a vice-like grip of death.
He had almost reached the end of the caravan where he could already see Magister Choo and his escort, who had quickly separated themselves from the masses. It looked like the Magister was planning to slip away from the claws of the predators. However, the possessed were already rushing to cut them off from both sides. The first of them leapt with an unbelievable speed and threw one of the Magister’s bodyguards off his horse.
Duchess reared again and there was a loud crunch as her front hooves smashed back into the ground. A braying scream rang out. Paul turned his horse towards the inside of the column, trying to hide from the possessed. Chaos was everywhere, death feasted as madness snorted with laughter. The Brothers of the Order fought back as hard as they could, but their experience as warriors was of no matter, as the enemy overwhelmed them with their numbers. For every possessed that fell, two rushed in to take its place. The monsters were chewing upon still living humans. They were filthy, they looked scrawny, but they were merciless beasts. Their strength was unbelievable. It seemed that they never got tired and that they were ready to engage in endless slaughter just to satisfy their hunger.
And then, Paul felt himself being dragged from the saddle. He hacked away with his blade, but the grasping fingers kept dragging him to the ground even though he continued to desperately fight back. Duchess bolted, kicking through anything in her way. Two or three of the possessed had Paul in their deathly grip. His foot was stuck in the stirrup and he would have been torn apart if his boot had not slid off.
Duchess galloped away. A foul, blood-drenched maw hovered above Paul. He stabbed out with his blade and pierced the throat of the monster. A gushing stream of blood burst upon Paul’s face and chest. The blood suddenly warmed him, giving him a moment of calm so he could look around. It would have been better if he had not—the furious battle had become a massacre, with the victorious possessed feasting on the bodies of their enemies and finishing off the few that still resisted in groups. The horses had all fallen or run away. There were few people left that were still capable of screaming in pain and fear. The possessed growled and squealed. And then, Paul’s shoulder was in agony.
He had no time to even turn his head when he felt another bite sink into his forearm. Paul screamed, trying to unsuccessfully fight back and preparing to meet his death, when something inexplicable happened.
A strange hissing sound rang out, followed by a low drone, as if the air itself became thicker, twisting into a horizontal whirlwind. Paul's ears got blocked. The growls of the possessed changed to howls of terror. The monsters started to run away in a panic.
Paul could not gather the strength to rise so he just looked up again. The gray sky had turned pink. His head spun. It was as if he was starting to fall into the heavens but just could not do it. The possessed ran past, gesticulating and swinging their arms wildly—for some reason, they were engulfed by flames as if they were living torches. Gradually, the screams quietened down and the wind began to howl over the canal again. Paul felt the cold but he did not care, he was not afraid of freezing. He lay there and looked up at the sky and could not understand why he was not dying. Death should have come long ago, as well as a meeting with God, but neither seemed to be happening.
The snow crackled nearby and the sky was suddenly obscured by a face—a wide face, somewhat ungainly, with deep, dark eyes and raven-colored hair, adorned with a scraggly beard. It was very pale. The stranger examined Paul with a calm and uncaring gaze, as if he was an inanimate object.
“Where are you from?” the stranger asked at last.
Paul could not answer. He tried to move his lips, but he was unable to. His strength had completely abandoned him.
“Blink if you want to say “yes”. Do you understand?” the stranger instructed next.
Paul blinked slowly.
“All right. Where are you from? Are you from the west?”
Paul kept staring at the stranger.
“From the east?”
He blinked.
“The outpost at the foot of the mountain?”
Paul used his eyes to say “yes” yet again.
The stranger stood up, looking to the east and adjusted the unusual weapon on his belt—it looked similar to a crossbow, but instead of a bow and string, the stock featured a short tube with some sort of light blinking on the side.
Once he finished with his weapon, the stranger turned to Paul.
“Try not to die before the end of the day.”
And then he vanished.
Paul thought that he would not manage to fulfill his request. However, the stranger returned after some time had passed, pushing a cart. After performing some manipulations, the stranger lifted Paul and placed him inside. There was someone else in the cart but Paul could not see who it was as he could not turn his head.
The stranger left for a second time and he did not come back for a while. But then he brought a horse up to the cart, harnessed it and set off on his way.
Paul lay on the rough planks of the cart and gazed up into the pink clouds. Why were the clouds still pink? Why? He could not think of a coherent answer. Probably because it had got very cold. Paul could not feel his arms and legs and could not stop himself from constantly drifting off to sleep. His mind became cloudy, his thoughts all jumbled up and repeating themselves as his eyelids became heavier with every passing moment.
His consciousness finally sank into the fog in its entirety and then faded to black, as if a candle had been blown out.

B

When Paul finished telling his tale, the dark-skinned Abbot tenderly topped up his cup with nectar and ordered him to drink it all. Paul obediently did so. The Abbot nodded, with obvious satisfaction.
“Excellent, brother. You have been of great help to me.”
Paul carefully lowered the cup onto a tray—he was slow and clumsy when he moved due to the bandages around his shoulders. It would take a long time until he was healthy again. The wounds and bruises would affect him for a while to come.
The Abbot turned towards the wall, which was covered with a curtain and gestured towards it.
“If you please.” 
Rick was relieved to get out from behind the curtain. The whole idea of hiding made him immediately uneasy, but he did not want to argue with the man in charge of the situation. As soon as Paul saw Rick, his exhausted face went white with fear. The young man's full lips trembled, while his fingers frantically gripped the arms of the chair.
The Abbot smiled, showing his completely control of the situation.
“Do you recognize your savior?”
Paul nodded quickly. Rick carefully examined his face: the young man was thin, like many in the Retreat, with no distinguishing features apart from two. While the first one was a particularly intelligent gaze that could be explained through a natural astuteness, the second was so strikingly unusual that it made him stand out like a white crow. A literal white crow—Paul's hair looked as white as the moonlight. This was not just the hair of someone who went white with age or the pale straw color of a blond, but the milky white and pearly hair of an albino.
Rick had never seen people like that. He quietly lowered himself into an armchair.
“How is your shoulder doing?” the Abbot asked Paul.
“Thank you, Master Kiernan, it's much better.”
Two weeks had passed since Rick had brought Paul and another pair of brother monks to the gates of the dome which they called the Retreat. One of the brothers had died on the way. The other was disabled until the end of his days. For a time, Paul's life had also hung by a thread—the wounds turned out to be very dangerous. But he managed to drag himself out of it. It did come at a great cost, however—he had lost half of his weight, walked with a pronounced limp and had lost a pair of toes to frostbite, according to the healers. Both of his arms were now tightly bandaged from shoulder to elbow. He could barely straighten them.
“That's good. We all prayed for you.”
“Your mercy knows no bounds, my Abbot,” Paul whispered reverently.
“Stop that. You are like a son to me. Glory to the Holy Maus that you are still with us. The Almighty favors you and it was he that sent this good man to you in your time of need.”
Rick glanced at Kiernan with reproach. But the Abbot continued with his line of thought, which smoothly grew into a grandiose speech about the Holy Maus and his teachings. Once he finished so he could wet his throat with a drink, Paul asked, “Abbot, what happened to the caravan?”
He had been isolated from all news while he recovered.
“We managed to save most of the supplies,” Kiernan's eyes darted at Rick. “With a little help from our good friend again...”
Rick moved in his chair, as it was time he broke his silence.
“That's right. This is why there's nothing threatening the Retreat.”
The Abbot smiled with satisfaction. His tanned face had an oily shine to it in the light of the fire. The whites of his eyes stood out against his dusky skin like a pair of fireflies. Rick noticed some movement in the corner, at the edge of his vision. It was a yellow canary in a cage. Rick could have sworn that the bird had shown no sign of life over the course of his lengthy conversation with the Abbot until the boy had arrived.
Paul swallowed and asked, “Did anyone else survive?”
“Unfortunately not,” Kiernan entwined his long fingers. “Had we known that the possessed would attack, this tragedy would never have happened. Accursed beasts! Their behavior is always unpredictable. We will need to look at the mission schedule and reinforce the guard detail.”
The Abbot thought about something for a few moments and then continued, speaking with great conviction.
“It is all the devil's work. It is he that tempts man and turns him into an animal. His power over the possessed is great. We must thank the Almighty for having blessed us with intelligence and stopped us from the temptations of sin. Isn't that right, my good friend Rick?”
“I did not quite understand the last words you said,” Rick replied. “About the devil. Do you consider those creatures to be possessed by evil powers?”
“That is exactly what I meant,” the Abbot nodded with a satisfied air. “You have understood the very gist of it.”
“I see,” Rick paused. “I doubt that it is possession.”
The Abbot's face changed to a strange expression, as if he had misheard something.
“It truly is demonic possession,” he countered.
“All right. Does that mean that a demon can be exorcised?”
“Precisely.”
“Have you exorcised demons from the possessed?”
“It is extremely difficult to do,” Kiernan began, caging his fingers. “Firstly, it is very difficult to capture one of the possessed and one that is captured dies in captivity very quickly...”
“Of course,” Rick agreed. “But even being behind the walls of the Retreat does not guarantee salvation from the affliction.”
The room sank into awkward silence for a while. Paul was even more afraid—he carefully glanced over at the Abbot. No one dared to doubt his teachings. Rick calmly weathered the grim stare of Kiernan. The Abbot turned to Paul.
“By the way, did you see anything unusual in the way they attacked? Perhaps they behaved in a strange or special way?”
Paul frowned, trying to think hard.
“No. Apart from the fact that there were so many of them.”
“How many?”
“A couple of hundred. Maybe more.”
Kiernan nodded.
“That's what I was discussing with our friend Rick as well. The beasts never gathered in packs of that size before.”
“Maybe it is a migration,” Rick suggested. “Or some other natural cause.”
“That could be. As I already said, it is difficult to understand the ways of demons. Anyhow, Brother Paul, I invited you here to have a different conversation. Are you prepared to help me to resolve a certain issue?”
“Of course, Abbot,” Paul nodded fervently.
“Good. You see, brother mine, while you were recovering me and our friend Rick spoke much about various subjects. I offered him to be a guest at our humble Retreat and our friend Rick acquiesced. It is an honor for us.”
Kiernan paused, staring at Paul.
“Do you know which day it is?”
Paul bit his lip. His eyes suddenly shone with the realization.
“We are serving the Autumn Mass today.”
“Yes. Our friend Rick wanted to see it before setting off to take care of his own business. This is why I would like to ask you to accompany him throughout this evening until its very end. Tell him everything you know, and you know a lot. Answer any questions he may have.”
“I will perform the task you set me,” Paul replied readily.
“Thank you, my young brother,” Kiernan drawled ingratiatingly. “You may go now. My advisor will give you a ticket for a double dinner. Take a while to feed yourself properly.”
Paul bowed clumsily and set off towards the exit. He stumbled a little as he passed through the doorway but kept his balance and confidently left the room.
“He was born under a lucky star,” Kiernan said a minute later. “I would never have thought he'd make it.”
“A young and strong body,” Rick shrugged. “And a thirst for life.”
Kiernan gave him an appraising glance.
“You are also rather young for such dangerous journeys.”
“That's right. I am a victim of circumstance.”
The Abbot nodded. Rick did not want to make his job any easier and waited for the new questions that immediately followed. First came the attempts to find out as much about the outside world as possible. However, Rick was in no hurry to tell him everything and mainly repeated the same things that he shared on his first day in the Retreat. That was obviously not enough for Kiernan—he wanted to know more and never stopped trying to glean just a little more information ever since. It was obvious that it was difficult for him to stop himself from applying pressure directly. Kiernan was a man used to issuing orders, but not in a situation where he was next to an outsider with a weapon who had managed to miraculously send a hundred possessed on the run.
They were both fully cognizant of this fact.
Kiernan kept smiling, showing two rows of magnificent, strong teeth and expressing his goodwill. Rick did so too, whilst keeping his hands on the stock of his blaster.
“You are never away from your weapon even for a minute,” the Abbot noticed.
“This thing saved my life in the wastelands many times.”
“But there is nothing threatening you here,” Kiernan wheedled. “I vouch for every brother in the Retreat. I gave my word to do you no harm from the very beginning.”
“I truly appreciate your concern, Abbot,” Rick nodded. “However, carrying a personal weapon at all times is part of the culture of my people.”
“The Holy Maus takes all of the peoples of the world as they are,” Kiernan agreed. “It is your right to do so. Our teachings are the epitome of tolerance and peacefulness. We stand upon the foundation of several indomitable truths, but we are prepared to accept people as they are...”
Rick barely listened to him.
They conversed for about half an hour more and then Rick left the Abbot's chamber. He came out into the inner courtyard of the Retreat and curled his lip at the sharp smell of paint. The locals were standing on scaffolding and painting some warehouse containers nearby. The stink tickled his nose and Rick could not help but sneeze.
What a vile odor! He tilted his head back, gazing sadly at the twilit sky above through the protective dome and dreaming of a breath of fresh air. The construction was well designed— arcing metallic struts covered a great area, with a clear material occupying the spaces in between them. The ancients truly knew what they were doing. However, this place was as deathly cold as any of the expiring shelters occupied by mankind.
Even though the dome protected those inside from sudden temperature changes, the locals did not have sufficient fuel to heat the whole Retreat. They spoke of technology and generators with hatred, of course, using slaves for heavy labor. According to Kiernan, the people hid in the monastic cells of the temple and descended into the disused mine to sleep so they could find a warm corner.
Rick stood there for a while, looking at the metallic structure leading to the shaft which had been rent asunder by an explosion. Well... What must it be like for the slaves that live in the cages which stand in the yard? No wonder that one of them dies every day.
There were many cages and slaves in the yard. Rick's eyes met those of a dark-haired, brown-eyed youth that stood transfixed by the bars of his cage. They spent a while studying one another, until voices could be heard nearby. Rick turned his head and saw Paul standing nearby and chatting to one of the locals, so he slowly made his way towards them, remaining in the shadow of the Abbot's house. The local stranger quickly finished the conversation and left, while Paul remained with a pained expression on his face, trying to stretch the stiffness from his bandaged arms. Rick stepped out of the shadows and Paul flinched. Rick did not hurry to start talking, as he was interested in seeing Paul's reaction to his appearance. Paul shifted hesitantly, stepping back a little and coughed.
“Have you already had the time to explore the Retreat?”
“Yes.”
Paul waited for Rick to continue, but he stayed silent.
“Hmm, in that case, there is no need to lead you around the yard and show you all the buildings, is there?”
Rick nodded.
“That's great, that's excellent,” Paul muttered, obviously avoiding looking straight into Rick's eyes.
Strange behavior Rick gave the yard a quick once-over. It was as if the boy was afraid of something. Or someone.
“The Abbott says that you work as an archivist,” he enquired.
“That's right.”
“Are you literate?”
“Why?”
Rick waited for an answer.
“I know how to add up ancient letters into words. But I don't always understand their meaning. I know how to write and copy.”
“That's sufficient,” Rick concluded.
“For what?” Paul did not understand.
“To explain the meaning of your religion to me.”
“Ah, oh, yes,” Paul agreed and looked at the huge clock hanging from one of the separator struts under the dome. “Midnight approaches. The Mass will begin soon. It's best to come to the temple early.”
He touched his chest with a habitual gesture to feel the item hanging on a string around his neck under his jacket.
“We'll do as you say,” Rick nodded and bent his head forward a little to try to see what was so valuable about the item that Paul was hiding in the folds of his clothing.
“This is the medallion of the Holy Maus,” Paul said when he saw the curiosity in Rick's eyes, reaching inside his jacket to take out a shiny round object, which was actually a universal electronic key of the kind used in Thermopolis. “A gift from the Abbot.”
“Yeah,” was Rick's only reply, as he added to himself that if the boy only knew the true purpose of this gift, he would never ever have shown it to him.
Paul hesitantly started to walk away from the house of the Abbot. Rick walked by his side. They walked around ten paces, when Paul asked, “Where did you come from?”
“Far away,” Rick replied. “From the west.”
“From the domed cities?”
“From far further away.”
“There is nothing there, apart from the Abyss.”
“How do you know?”
“This is what the Revelation of the Holy Maus teaches us.”
Rick chuckled to himself bitterly. It was the same every time. They did a really good job at brainwashing them here.
“That's a lie,” he said.
Paul was so shocked that he froze. His lower lip trembled. Finally, he managed to force himself to speak.
“If that's a joke, it is a very flat one, Master Rick. Otherwise, such words can lead to...”
“I know what such words can lead to,” Rick brushed him aside. “Your Abbot told me. But this does not change the truth. And the truth is that there is no Abyss beyond the domed cities. If you like, I can tell you what is there.”
“No,” Paul cut him off in a hurry.
“As you want,” Rick shrugged. “But remember, that if a man that looks at the sun closes his eyes, the sun will not disappear as a result.”
They continued towards their midnight destination—a gallery of steel pillars that reached deep into the yard from the western side of the temple. The gallery gently arced in the direction of a structure that was roofed with a mesh-like spherical construction with a steeple at the top. The fires were already lit inside. People from the whole Retreat were beginning to congregate at the place of service. Their arrival was completely silent. Before Rick and Paul entered the gallery, Paul asked, “Could you please listen to me now? It is forbidden to speak during Mass, because it is but the one and only Great Maus that speaks through his medium, the Abbot. You must stand, listen and obey everything that the priest orders.”
“I understand.”
“Your consciousness must be open for the sacred spirit of Maus. Do you understand?”
“Completely.”
“Well, let's go then.”
They ascended the stairs and entered a long rectangular hall. The congregation slowly progressed through the hall, removing their clothing and footwear on the way.
“It is customary to remove everything apart from your underwear,” Paul whispered and started to take off his boots, to set an example.
Rick watched him in confusion for a while, looked around and walked over to the wall. Paul was waiting for him with his boots in his hand. Rick thought it over for a moment or two and then made his decision. He skillfully removed his robe, revealing his old jumpsuit underneath.
They undressed.
“No one will touch your things,” Paul told him.
“Excellent.”
“You will have to leave the weapon as well,” Paul pointed out.
Rick looked around. It seemed that everyone was completely occupied with the preparations for the service. No one paid attention to him. Paul had already put some distance between them. Rick still gripped the barrel of the blaster. He hesitated, but then wrapped the weapon in his robe and put everything down by the wall next to his bag and hurriedly followed Paul.
The people were thin and scrawny to a man. It would be hard to call even the toughest of them healthy—their pale and filthy skin was covered with scars and abscesses. It seemed that the brotherhood rarely took care of its personal hygiene—there was a strong smell of sweat and unwashed bodies in the air. Life was harsh here.
Rick thought this over as they passed through the hall and entered a spacious room covered with a mesh-like dome. Everything was already prepared for the ceremony here. They walked to a free space behind the backs of the congregation so that everything that was going on could be seen. Paul silently pointed at the altar and the wide table. Rick greedily took in the decorations—he was incredibly interested in who or what exactly was the Holy Maus.
A thick drapery hung behind the altar. The drapery concealed some sort of image on the wall. The altar itself was a stone plinth that was carved with glyphs and writings. Kiernan was already here—the Abbot had changed into a long shirt made out of rough wool. It was called a “hair-shirt”, Rick suddenly remembered.
And suddenly, his temples felt as if he had been struck. Rick closed his eyes and shook his head—the seizure came right at the wrong time. His mind burned with pain, overloaded with the knowledge he gained through the Thermopolis rapid learning program, as dozens of fireflies danced in front of his eyes and as he heard distant voices. That had not happened for quite a long time. It seems that interaction with other people was having an impact as it was far easier in the wastelands and the pain only overcame him when he was reading the books he found among the ruins.
Rick exhaled slowly, calming himself, and cast a sidelong glance at Paul. He was fearfully ogling Rick, unable to understand what was going on. Rick looked ahead and saw Kiernan standing in front of the table with his eyes closed. At least that one did not notice anything.
Everything went silent.
Nothing happened for a couple of minutes. Kiernan slowly swayed from side to side. Then, he upraised his hands and started to chant prayers. His voice carried itself up to the vaulted ceiling, reflecting off the walls. It was a high-pitched, somewhat gravelly voice dripping with mystical ecstasy. Kiernan started the service with a traditional prayer for cognition to be granted to humans from on high. He asked the Almighty to preserve the minds of men, so they could understand all of the grandeur of the designs of the divine and follow all the commandments that were given to the people. He also asked for the lives of his order to be prolonged, because it was the only fragile thing of value that remained after the dark centuries of chaos and ruin. Kiernan asked for many different things, for mercy, for justice, for protection, but every time his prayers somehow gravitated towards one thing—the desire to live a virtuous and intelligent life that was worthy of a human, not an animal. This was because an animal in human form that was possessed by the devil prowled the earth, consuming the weak and tempting the strong. And this was the very reason that every commandment of the Holy Maus must be followed.
Kiernan climbed on top of the table and started to perform a dance with complex, jerky movements. His mass had reached its second stage. Now he did not just ask, he thanked and praised God for all of the good things he did. The Abbot clapped his hand and his speech became rhythmical and terse, gradually turning into shamanic song. The smell of burning torches intermingled with the smell of sweat.
“Let us praise the Holy Maus!” Kiernan called out and the crowd that had hitherto quietly observed the mass immediately reacted. The people started to clap together with the Abbot and sing along. Rick carefully observed what was going on, feeling the gaze of Paul upon himself.
An assistant gave the Abbot a large vessel full of a yellowish fluid and a brush. Kiernan lowered his brush inside and used the liquid to asperse those present, swinging his arms wide. There was a spicy smell in the air. People gladly put their bodies under this rain. They rubbed the elixir all over their skin, licked the drops from their fingers and jerked their bodies as part of a rhythmic dance. Kiernan moved around the circle organized by the congregation, making occasional exclamations.
“Hail the Holy Maus! Let's praise the Holy Maus!”
“Let us praise him!” chorused the congregation.
Once the elixir had run out, Kiernan was unsteady on his feet and made another pronouncement.
“Holy Maus, protect us! Save us from the machinations of the dark powers!”
“Save us!” the congregation chorused in return.
“Keep your righteous sons safe from the evil eye, the evil word and the clouding of their minds!”
“Yes!” a chorus of voices answered him.
Kiernan accepted a new chalice of the liquid from his assistant.
“The mark of the Holy Maus!”
With these words, he started to dip his brush in the fluid and anointing the forehead of everyone, moving along the rows of the congregation. The paint flowed down along people's brows and chins and the faces of the people soon became yellow. It was Paul's turn. The hand anointed his brow and dripped upon his clothing, as the youth closed his eyes in a fit of transcendent languor. Kiernan continued to mark the flock, moving in Rick's direction.
When they came face to face, Rick firmly told him, “Don't do it, Abbot.”
He wanted to step back, but then felt strong arms grip him on both sides. Kiernan hurriedly swung his hand, aiming for Rick's forehead, but Rick tilted his head back and pushed the Abbot back by kicking out his leg. Kiernan gasped and found himself landing on his posterior on the ground. The chalice rolled along the floor, splashing the spicy smelling viscous fluid.
For a second, everything stood still.
Everyone rushed towards the Abbot from all sides, helping him to get up. Someone picked up the chalice and the brush. Kiernan passed his clouded gaze over all that were present until it stopped at Rick.
“Let him go,” he ordered in a hoarse voice.
The order was immediately followed.
“The Mass is over.”
“I warned you,” Rick told him.
Kiernan looked at him with an expression of stubborn righteousness. He needed to get out of here as soon as he could. The din of unhappy voices could be heard behind him.
When Rick reached the hall where he had left his possessions, there were three strangers busily looking around there. Rick found his clothing among the piles of rags and started to get dressed. After he put on his jumpsuit, he suddenly stood still, as if he was struck by lightning
His weapon and his travel bag had disappeared.
He looked around. The three strangers looked back at him, silently. One of them walked right up to Rick, scuffing his feet on the floor and spoke, revealing a mouth full of crooked teeth and empty gaps.
“Lost something?”
“Yes. My weapon.”
“None may come to the temple bearing weapons!” exclaimed the crook-toothed man.
“Return my things to me,” Rick forced out.
“Better go and air out your brain, pagan,” the stranger answered with contempt.
He smirked again. Rick noticed one of the three strangers quickly slide out into the street with a bundle in his arms with the corner of his eye. That settled everything. Rick rushed after him, but the crook-tooth grabbed him by the shoulders.
“Let me go!”
The crook-tooth did not listen to him. Rick smashed him in the ear with his right hand, knocking him off his feet. However, other men who filled the hall blocked the way to the exit. Rick found himself surrounded. He managed to knock down another three, but still never managed to fight his way to the exit as the crowd that poured out into the hall after the mass completely cut off all escape routes. Rick ended up on the floor in the ensuing melee, his legs and arms held tight against the stone floor. The crowd parted and Kiernan stood above him.
“What happened here?” he exclaimed.
“This pagan maimed Brother Jeremy, knocked Simon's teeth out and broke Blaze's jaw!”
Kiernan passed his cloudy gaze over the crowd and then stared at Rick.
“Take him away,” he ordered.
Rick tried to break free, shouting that it was all a lie, but none listened to him. The crowd carried him out of the hall like a tidal wave.

C

The sound of steps rang out in the darkness of the corridor. Rick warily sat up on the bunk. His hearing was well developed, as it was a vital quality in the gloom of the world that birthed him. So, there were two people approaching the cell. One had a heavy step, while the other stepped lightly, limping along. The steps fell silent by the door to his cell.
Rick imagined how these two followed the path that he did on the day of the Mass. While they dragged him to this place, he carefully memorized the way. He was lowered into the shaft which was under the explosion-ravaged structure. The shaft was twenty levels deep—a huge well, with walls comprised of residential blocks and places that had once been industrial unites. Rick was taken down along a spiral corridor that encircled the well down to the lowest levels. Once they reached level five, the convoy dragged him along a narrow corridor and threw him into a damp cell which was full of boxes.
There was a clang as the bolt slid open. The light of a lantern dazzled Rick's eyes and he saw the squat outline of a man in the doorway. The stranger waited for a moment before entering, as if he was afraid of taking a step.
“Shout if anything happens,” someone grumbled in the corridor.
There was some rustling noise, the bolt clanged again and retreating steps could be heard.
Rick blinked after the bright light and glanced back at the door. Paul stood there. He looked around helplessly, getting used to the half-light. At last, he noticed Rick sitting on a bunk made out of a row of boxes.
“Come in,” offered Rick, pushing an empty box towards him.
He actually knew that Paul would arrive ahead of time—he had requested the meeting himself.
Paul took a faltering step forward and stood stock still, staring at the box. Rick could not resist smiling—Paul was even more afraid of him now.
“I'm in no hurry,” Rick told him. “I can wait.”
Paul swallowed and got his breath back. He frowned, trying to make his face assume a severe expression, but the way he looked amused Rick even more. Paul carefully lowered himself onto the box, squinting in the gloom.
“A little dark, is it?” Rick smiled again. “I know what darkness is.”
“I have no doubt,” Paul blurted angrily. “What do you want from me?”
“Information.”
“What sort of information?”
“What is in the east?”
Confusion rippled across Paul's face. He was so tense that his fingers contracted into fists. Of course, the Abbot had given him detailed instructions before his visit, so Paul was going through the guidance of his mentor—be harsh and strict and aggressively provocative.
“Why do you want to know?”
“You're careful,” Rick complimented him. “It's a good quality. A useful one. I observed you on that day. You were the only one that took your horse out of the column, while the rest were still trying to work things out. You were the first to notice the possessed.”
Paul tensed up again, trying to look even more severe.
“I could stop interacting with you,” he replied.
“Was that what Kiernan ordered you to do?” Rick enquired, leaning back against the wall. “That Abbot of yours is a cunning guy. He did a good job there.”
“What job?”
“The Mass and all the rest. He used you as bait. He took advantage of my trust and sent his men to look at my possessions while we were listening to his howlings.”
“That's not how it was...” Paul started to reply.
“I don't want to talk about it,” Rick cut him off, suddenly leaning forward. “Tell me about the east. If you don't want to, leave.”
There was a hard glint in Paul's eye for the first time. He jumped up, closing and opening his fists and breathed heavily as he looked for an insulting reply. But it was Rick who spoke.
“Hey, man, I did not want to offend you. I just spoke straight. Hard times require honest words and actions.”
Paul calmed down somewhat, but did not sit back down on the box.
“A ruined canal leads to the east and there are the Tombs beyond that.”
Some facts at last. Rick carefully pulled on the yarn to unravel the ball.
“And further along?”
“I don't know. None of the brothers ever went that far, of those that returned.”
“So there were some expeditions?”
“Yes. Borislav, who was our previous Abbott, left with three dozen men and vanished without a trace. That was almost twenty years ago. We have been wary of the east since then.”
“I see. What about the north and south?”
“Mountains to the north, wastelands to the south.”
“Did anyone come to visit you from those directions?”
Paul thought on it for a moment.
“Some sort of nomads,” he tentatively ventured. “I think they were wild tribesmen. Pagans. Those that live at the edge of the Abyss.”
“Did they try to attack you?”
“Some did, but many of them just went away.”
Now it was Rick's turn to think of what he heard. It seemed that his way lay in the direction of the Tombs. The Canal was the main point of reference that he should not depart from. The canals were dug by the ancients to connect the domes and the big cities. Over his weeks of wandering, Rick could count the number of domes inhabited by people on his fingers. Most of the settlements were more like sepulchers Coming across the caravan from the Retreat gave him a new hope.
“How long has the Retreat existed?” he asked.
“No one knows for sure. Ever since the first adepts escaped here from the nearby cities.”
“So the dome already existed,” Rick muttered to himself. “Then everything matches... Was there anything left of those who inhabited the dome before?”
“Nearly nothing. The Abbot might keep some important things, but no one knows what exactly they are. Only the Abbot's successor is initiated into all of the mysteries.”
Rick thoughtfully scratched his chin through his scraggly beard.
“Do you know why you are going to help me?” he asked Paul.
Paul kept quiet.
“You are driven by curiosity. An inquisitive man can never calm down until they get to the bottom of things.”
“You can say whatever you want,” Paul looked past Rick into empty space with complete indifference, as if he did not even notice him.
“Fine. Then remember this: Kiernan is lying to you to maintain control of the Retreat and keep me here. It is all about my weapon. Did you see it in action at the Canal?”
“No,” Paul admitted.
“Well, the second survivor saw it all. He told Kiernan everything in detail. A sword can be used to kill one, two or three enemies, while my blaster can cut down dozens of enemies when it is set to wide beam dispersal. I see you don't understand some of the words I'm using?”
Paul was frowning, trying to pretend that he did.
“A blaster is a weapon created by the ancients,” Rick began to explain. “It was made in the ages when man could command machines and change this world. A blaster radiates energy similar to sunlight that has been intensified several thousand times. Do you understand what I am talking about?”
Paul ground his teeth. It seemed that he understood.
“When you own such a weapon, you can destroy the possessed and also make all of your enemies and all who disagree with you bow before you. It is absolute power.” Rick accentuated the last word. “Have you ever thought about who built your Retreat and why people suddenly go insane?”
Paul's lips twitched, so Rick continued, having caught the initiative.
“Let me guess—the people of the Retreat are forbidden to go outside it when they wish to without escort. Because none of you has ever seen the outside world and gone beyond the domed cities. The majority of you are illiterate. The orders of the Abbot must be obeyed to the letter. No initiative, only discipline and obedience. They indoctrinate you by saying that this is a way to get closer to God. Is that right? Touching ancient mechanisms and learning to read signs is forbidden under pain of death. Am I correct? You live in isolation, thinking that the universe is limited by the horizon, and that everything beyond is just emptiness.”
“Do you have any more questions?” Paul almost shouted.
“You suffer from the cold,” Rick concluded. “I know how to bring the heat back.”
“Questions! Ask me questions!” Paul demanded.
“I can make it so that you will not have to travel along the canal to get supplies and risk your lives. You will no longer suffer from hunger and you will have a normal life.”
“Questions!”
“But to do this, you will have to take a risk and get rid of your cult.”
Paul staggered away, trying to hold his ears shut with his hands. He swayed towards the wall.
“I know that you regularly attend all of the Masses and services, Paul,” Rick told him harshly. “But it isn't because you believe in your Maus so much.”
Paul stared at him in horror.
“It's only because you need the holy elixir. You only feel well when you receive it.”
“You are the spawn of hell,” Paul whispered.
“I know,” Rick laughed. “I have one last question.”
Paul contracted, as if he was expecting to be struck.
“What does the Abbot intend to do to me?”
“I have no idea,” Paul exhaled.
Rick tried to catch his wandering eye for a second. He failed.
“Then be on your way.”
Paul glanced at Rick with distrust. Then, he backed towards the door.
“You should not have done that,” he mumbled sadly. “You should have obeyed him.”
“Obedience is the death of will,” Rick replied with disgust. “Subservience is a sign of weakness. That is not my path.”
“I must go. Unlike you, I have many matters to attend to.” Paul turned towards the door and knocked, calling the guard. Unhurried steps rang out from the corridor again and Paul kept completely still as the guard approached. He just stood there, hunched over in silence.
“Paul,” Rick called out. “The world is not the way you imagine it. Think about it.”
There was no reply. Paul darted out of the cell and hurried back up above. Rick imagined the boy climbing up the stairs, constantly stopping to catch his breath like a wizened old man. Rick saw how he gradually returned to the world of light from the kingdom of darkness, but the pale light was but the shine of a cold November day that provided no warmth. A bleak and drab world spread out above.
That world had given someone a serious slap in the face today.
Rick turned to his side and fell asleep, feeling proud of himself. 

Release - February 26, 2018



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