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Gods Among Men
by Oswego del Fuego

BW 1716

The wanderer Hereha and the seer Darashahamna brought Grandfather Sulakar, warlord of the central desert, to the den of the farmer Neju to see the stranger from another world. Neju's home was a squalid pit, more cave than house, with stone walls and dirt floors. The few rough bits of furniture, even the dishware, were all made of adobe or stone. The merchants of the higher classes would have found the accommodations disgraceful, and incompletely unsuitable for a person as notable as Sulakar. Sulakar, however, cared little for material luxuries, and even less for those who valued them. The home of Neju was sufficient to protect the farmer and his family from the wind and heat and raiders, and that, in Sulakar's opinion, made it a worthy place in which to live, or meet an honored guest.

That said, Sulakar felt confined within the home of Neju. He had to duck to pass its entrance, and the narrow halls were ill-suited to his considerable girth. Sulakar was, quite simply, a giant. He was half again as tall as the average Motavian male, and powerfully built. He was a freak of nature, a titan, and he relished this fact. It was largely through his megalithic stature that Sulakar had achieved his present level of power and respect. He was a wise and benevolent ruler, a skilled warrior, and a shrewd tactician. All of this was beyond doubt. Yet, it was his intimidating figure that assured his victory in distant lands where his reputation had not yet reached, or in the heat of battle, where Sulakar's ability to impress and terrify helped save him when bad luck or poor choices would have cost another man dearly.

Sulakar was the most intimidating opponent imaginable. The force of his presence was amplified by his weapon, the double-headed battle axe called Lacernium. Said to have fallen from the sky in ancient times, the Lacernium was nearly as large as a grown man. It had felled many, and was often stained with blood, yet the mirror-like finish of its silver face never tarnished or chipped. The axe, like Sulakar himself, was a miraculous and inexplicable aberration.

Despite his personal might, Sulakar was unnerved as he moved deeper into Neju's home. The stranger from another world had asked for Sulakar by name. Sulakar wondered how the stranger could know of him, if he truly came from the stars as was claimed. And how, then, had this man come to be on Motavia? There were tales of other worlds from the time before the Fall, when, it was said, water had been plentiful on Motavia. That, however, was in the long ago days, thousands of years before. Could something of that distant time really have survived into the present age? An intriguing idea, to be sure. Sulakar was determined to know the truth of it.

The stranger waited in the most remote chamber of Neju's home. They had descended and, Sulakar knew, were far below ground. The only light came from a single candle on a table in the center of the room. Before entering the room, Sulakar indicated that Neju, the seer Darashahamna, and the wanderer Hereha should leave. They complied unquestioningly. It never occurred to them that Sulakar might be afraid, but he was, and he did not wish for his companions to see it. Indeed, he would have rather died--or killed--than had his friends realize his fear. His image as indomitable warlord was so precious to him. Yet, how could he not be apprehensive when faced with an alien entity of unknowable nature, especially when this entity seemed to know him, somehow? If Sulakar must question such a creature, he wished to do so in private.

The stranger stood at the wall on the far end of the room. His back was to Sulakar, one arm raised to rest against a natural column of stone that supported the ceiling. He was cast in shadow, but Sulakar could see at once that he was indeed an alien being. He bore no resemblance to a native of Motavia. His body was furless. The short hair on his scalp was yellow and curly. His hands and feet were small. His fingers were long and spindly. He looked lithe, even delicate, compared to the stocky form of a Motavian, but a powerful musculature was evident beneath his bronze flesh, in the exposed shoulders and arms and legs and upper torso. In every way the stranger matched the description of the oppressor race who, it was said, had come from the stars, and had brought bondage and war and much suffering to Motavia in the days before the Fall.

The stranger's manner of dress was unusual, too, at least to Sulakar's eyes. The stranger wore a lightweight tunic that appeared to be made from cotton or a similar material. It was white and hung off of one shoulder. Sulakar had no way of knowing that this garment was called a toga. He also did not know that the shoes on the stranger's feet were called sandals, or that the golden circlet in the stranger's hair was a mark of royal standing. Nor did he know, though he might have guessed, that the three armaments resting upon the table--a golden robe made of fleece, and a spiked, silver cudgel and mirrored shield both reminiscent of the Lacernium, were all imbued with powerful magic.

The stranger did not turn to face Sulakar. The only sign he gave that he was aware of his guest's appearance was a slight nod of his head. His face remained unseen. He waited for Sulakar to step completely into the room and close the curtain flap behind him. Then the stranger said, "I greet you humbly and with gratitude, noble Sulakar." His voice was smooth and even. It was musical. It was utterly unlike a Motavian's voice. "So far did I travel to meet you. I am honored by your presence."

"Then why do you not face me?" Sulakar asked gruffly.

"I mean no disrespect," the stranger said. "Simply put, I do not wish to alarm you with my appearance."

"I am already alarmed," said Sulakar, "but the shock is passing. Now face me. I am king of this land, and refuse to speak to your back. I want to see the truth or the lie behind your eyes."

The stranger laughed. "It was not my alien nature to which I referred, but rather to the Black Blood, which refashions my body even as we speak. I no longer look like myself, I fear."

"The Black Blood!" Sulakar said in horror. His hand went to his axe. "Years has it taken me to cleanse my lands of that pestilence, and at such a price! Speak quickly, friend, and speak well, or I shall kill you where you stand."

The stranger turned his head slightly, casting his cheek in the candlelight, though Sulakar still could not make out his features. The stranger said, in a quiet voice, "I do not hold your words against you. You are wise to hate and fear me as you do. However, I have come to petition for your help in ridding us all of the Black Blood, forever. Will you listen?"

Sulakar clenched his jaw. Ramyira, his wife, had been a brave warrior and fierce fighter, just like Sulakar himself. The year previous, the valley Maharu, on the northern periphery of Sulakar's dominion, was overrun with demons. Sulakar and his band managed to kill the creatures, but Ramyira was bitten on the leg by one of them even as it died. Within hours her leg turned black and shriveled like a rotten fruit. The Black Blood--the most terrible of all curses, thought to be little more than legend until recent generations--oozed from the entire surface of the leg and turned into tar as it congealed. The disease showed signs of spreading throughout Ramyira's body. As such, it was perhaps fortunate when Ramyira died after only two days of that unspeakable horror and agony.

"My wife. . ." Sulakar began.

"I know of brave Ramyira," said the stranger. "The farmer Neju informed me. You must know, however, that my case is very different from hers. You see, Sulakar, I did not contract this sickness through a poisoned wound or any other similar means. I was born with the Black Blood inside of me."

Sulakar's face twisted into a mask of utter contempt. "A tainted mother gave birth to a tainted child?" he asked, incredulous. "Is that possible?"

"No," said the stranger. "It is not possible, and not correct. No afflicted woman could live long enough to bear the child."

"Then what are you," Sulakar asked, "that you are born afflicted?"

"My mother was a mortal woman," the stranger said. "She was ordinary in every way, save for her remarkable beauty and purity of spirit. My father, however, is of the darkness. He is, in fact, the king of all demons. His blood is the Black Blood, and I was born with it inside me. As I grow older, I grow sicker."

Sulakar frowned. "The king of demons, you said . . . ?"

The stranger nodded. "Yes," he said. "My father is a thousand score worse than those spawn of his whom you faced at Maharu." He laughed ruefully. "My half-siblings, I suppose, though not begotten as I was. My father assumed a human guise and impressed himself upon my mother, claiming to be the greatest of the gods worshipped by my people. In a sense, he spoke the truth, for he is a god--as am I. However, as a half-mortal, I, unlike my father, am restricted by the limitations of the flesh. My magic is sufficient to transport me to this world, and to allow me to communicate with you, honored Sulakar, though I can no more speak your language than you can speak mine. However, my power is not sufficient to save my life, nor is it enough for me to destroy my father on my own."

"Destroy him?" Sulakar asked. "Can even you murder a god?"

"It can be done," said the stranger. "Even a mortal can do it, if properly armed. It has happened before. It must happen again. If it does not, then all creation will sicken, just as my body does now, and as your wife did before me. Creation itself will wither."

"But why have you come here?" Sulakar asked. "And how do you know who I am?"

"As I said, I am a god," the stranger told him. "I know all that happens on all worlds, despite being far removed from the events that transpire there. You, Sulakar, are the greatest warrior in any world, even mightier than myself. That is why I sought you out. I will not beg for your assistance, but I do ask for it, as one who respects you greatly, and as your equal."

Sulakar bristled at this. No man had ever dared call himself the equal of Sulakar.

"What say you?" the stranger asked, half-turning again. "Will you let what happened to Ramyira happen to your entire kingdom, and then to your entire world? And then to the great plurality of other worlds, as well? The power to stop this is yours, Sulakar, as is the choice. Refuse me if you will, but know that the blood of every living being will be on your hands if you do."

"I would kill another man for such petulance," Sulakar grumbled. "But I cannot deny the power of the demons. Though I never speak it aloud, I know well that luck alone was the source of our victory at Maharu. We were nearly overrun."

The stranger said, "That was merely the first wave of my father's--"

"If that is the case," Sulakar spoke over him, "then I cannot stand by idly. And I tend to believe your story, stranger, for you are clearly not of Motavia, and it seems to me that only a god has the power to traverse such unfathomable distances."

The stranger nodded, and Sulakar sensed that he was smiling. "Very well," he said. "I accept your offer with boundless gratitude. There are others, now, who we must seek out together--a mighty wizard from my world, and another from the world of ice, and other friends, as well. There are also the mightiest arms, scattered between the planets, with which we must arm ourselves." He turned to the armaments on the table. "The Amber Robe there is one of these, as is your axe, Lacernium. It was forged on the ice world but lost ages ago. My mace is of a similar origin."

"What of the shield?" Sulakar asked. "It seems to be made from the same silver."

The stranger's arm slid off of the pillar and he turned his face completely away. "The mirror shield was a gift from a goddess, another of my father's children. It is called the Aegis. It alone has the power to repel the Blood."

Sulakar took a deep breath and crossed his arms. "I will go with you, stranger," he said. "I will fight beside you, and call it an honor to face death in the company of a god."

The stranger laughed softly, and then he turned, his form fully illuminated by the light of the single candle. The right side of his face looked healthy and well. Despite the alien appearance of its features, Sulakar could have easily believed, had he been told, that this man, to others of his kind, possessed a level of beauty that most would find appropriate for a god.

The left side of his face, however, was a ruin. The flesh had blackened and largely rotted away, exposing the brown and moldering bones of his cheek and jaw. The left half of both lips were gone, as were most of the gums. What remained of them was dark purple, with the teeth yellowed and exposed even when the intact side of the mouth was shut. The left eye was still the mirror image of its twin, with its crystal blue iris and pristine, perfect whites, but it had sunk so far back into the cracked, bony socket that hardly any light reached it. The ear was so dark and shriveled that it looked burned. The tendons and sinew of the left side of the neck were exposed. The disease had spread into the stranger's shoulder and chest, as well; underlying structures were visible through a layer of thin, slimy, membrane-like skin thick with plump black veins that looked congested and ready to burst. A thousand cracks and sores oozed milky green pus.

Even a man of Sulakar's bravery and fortitude could not help but shrink back in horror at a sight such as this. Sulakar covered his nose and mouth with the back of his arm and reached back to draw his cape in around him.

The stranger smiled. The black skin around his mouth and left eye cracked and broke anew as he did so. His expression was meek, even shameful. He put his hand out to Sulakar who, after a pause of several seconds and another deep breath, bravely stepped forward and shook it with vigor.

"I am Perseus," said the stranger. "Welcome to the battle."

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