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by Rune Lai

Tara had run away. Her parents didn't understand. Her siblings didn't understand. Only the dark-haired priest and his followers could offer the oneness she craved. God was dead on Motavia, at least the god that the Palman people once followed. But this priest had another god, and she could feel his power through the words of his vessel. This god was real. This god she could feel. This god she could touch.

When she first came into the dark priest's study, her knees nearly buckled at the strength of his god's power. The high priest, fearfully regarded as Zio, the Black Magician, by the unworthy, watched her impassively as she struggled to make it from the doorway to his place by the window. The young acolytes had told her that he liked the view from the cathedral in Kadary. It allowed him to witness the spectacle of his fortress to the east, from which his army would salute their god at the setting of every day.

"It is hard, is it not?" he said as she came beside him.

On the surface she knew the remark to be directed to her movements, but there was some other meaning beneath it. Why had he called her to his study? None of the acolytes had ever experienced a one-on-one meeting with Zio, and here she was a mere layperson, not even part of the army.

"Yes," she replied, unable to think of anything else to say. She did not want to appear ignorant before him. He had already given her a great honor in requesting this audience. Tara longed to prop herself up against the windowsill, to make the weight more bearable, but didn't dare, not before Zio, the holy one.

"Nothing is ever easy," he said, turning to look out the window. "They, those people out there, say that destruction is easier than creation. That is their justification for saying that we are lazy and weak in spirit, that is it easier to fall than to rise. We would rather ruin our lives than to live them to their fullest. But that isn't true, is it?"


She knew the story of Juza, how Zio had transformed an aging man, living destitute on the streets of Aiedo, into one of his most ardent followers. He gave Juza a reason to live, and Juza became strong, full of energy and belief. Juza knew their god's teachings by heart, and the faithful envied him for his ardor. Juza's awakening was the work of their god at its best, and Zio was the hand of god.

"You're right," he said, "but we must remember that the outside world does not always regard us as such, not even our own army. They work for us for a chance to fight, but the vast majority are not true believers. They sully our name and dirty this holy city of Kadary by their presense. They don't understand."

Few did. Tara's own family could not understand the joy she felt in meeting people who were finally able to accept her without question. Her parents kept telling her to quit being so shy and afraid, but she always felt so awkward. The followers of Zio made her welcome. They promised support and understanding, and she received it. Together they were outsiders against a larger world, and she knew exactly how they felt. She had found people just like her, and she eagerly worked to encourage others to join their numbers.

Zio turned to face her. "Sometimes I have wondered, though, at the willingness of you people to follow me," he said. "The doubtful will say I have used dark magic to deceive you, yet you know you follow me of your own free will. No magic known can command the heart."

Tara nodded, her uncertainty returning.

"Don't be afraid." He raised his right hand, covered by a black gauntlet, and caressed her cheek. "You're probably wondering why I called you here. My request is simply that I do want to know why you follow me. You know our plan leads to death, and most of the people on this planet cannot abide by that."

Her skin burned with the sensation of ice where the metal had touched her. The acolytes said that Zio's right arm had been transformed when he pledged his allegience to their god. At first she thought the words were mere gossip, but now she felt the roiling intensity of that pure, holy power through the gauntlet. There could be no mistaking the shape of their god's will.

"There can be no creation without destruction, nor does life have meaning without death. I wish to transcend this world and leave this fleshly existence behind."

He frowned. "You're quoting from our teachings."

"But they are why I follow you. Destruction and death are the final state of things. I want to see things to the end, to see Algo free of temptation and vice and leave the prison of our bodies. I want to know the harmony of Algo's souls without the barriers created by material and physical needs. You have shown us that this life is an illusion, and that by following our god we can find a new world."

Zio's gaze returned to the window. "I have given no proof of the existence hereafter. Most people are skeptical at best. Why should you believe me?"

"Because you have faith," she said, and those words came to her with sincerity and conviction. "When I look at you I see a man who would do anything for his god. You believe with all that you possibly can, and I don't see how a person who has that much faith can be wrong."

He nodded, a strange look crossing over his face. "Faith. Yes. I had a name, once, before our god dubbed me Zio. My name was Faith." He turned to her. "It was a good name. We could not accomplish half of what we do if not for faith. It makes us strong and sets us apart from those who would not know better. We bring greater suffering and death to Algo than ever before, but who says that is such a bad thing, for when the pain is over, we will be free."

"Free." She nodded, feeling the weight lift from her body, so she could stand straight and tall beside her dark priest.

"Thank you, Tara, for enlightening me." His eyes burned red, and through no trick of the sun. "Our god tells me he is pleased. If only there were more like yourself."

"There are," she said stoutly, "and I will bring more to honor our god. Faith is a matter of believing, and when they see you, they will believe."

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