Lord Osdath gazes into the coals burning in the brazier as though he can see there the soul of the sinful king writhing in torment among the flames.
“When he witnessed his slain children rise to new life in that dark pit, the king knew that he stood in the presence of power divine. Struck with holy terror, he cast down his sword and fell to his knees, for at last he saw the evil that he had wrought in his madness, and he feared that his destruction was at hand.
“Again the queen bade him do penance, and the king saw that the radiance that filled the dungeon issued from her form, and that her being was afire with a might not of this world. For the Shaper had seen fit to choose the queen as a vessel for His Light, and to remake her as the bearer of His message to mankind.
“And so the king gained the very knowledge he had sought, though it would make of him not a god but a servant.
“You shall not know extinction, the queen spoke to him, and to toil until the end of your days to spread the true Faith into every corner of the world, that all mankind shall know the Shaper’s Law and none ever again turn to such trespass as you committed in this vain and futile quest. And henceforth all who attempt what you attempted are in defiance of His Law, and for their mere desire shall be harshly judged.
“Weeping, the king pledged himself to this task, and received from the lips of his queen the revelation of the Shaper’s Truth, and he swore a sacred oath not to rest in his labors until every last soul in the world had embraced it. From that day on he was known as the Penitent King. His wife, however, who first proclaimed the Shaper’s divine wisdom, was ever after by all men named the Hallowed Mother.
“For long years the Penitent King toiled to spread the Faith through the lands known to him, until at last his life was drawing to an end, and death was upon him. But his penance was far from achieved. And so he passed his task on to his eldest son, who became filled with his father’s ardor and devotion and continued the great labor until his years as well were spent. Then his own son toiled on in his stead, and so on and on and on to our day. For the Emperors of the House of Vulth who sit on the throne of Hestia and its Realms trace their Sacred Bloodline back to the far mists of time when their sinful forefather took his oath of penance. Never have they faltered in their sacred duty.
“To aid these future Emperors in their labors and succor them with counsel, the Hallowed Mother in her wisdom created the office of the Guardian, which she herself was first to hold. In accordance with her decree, this title was not to be passed on by blood, but always to the successor most suitable in terms of spirit and devotion, though in honor of her with whose tongue the Faith was first proclaimed in our world, it has always been held by a woman. And she who holds the title Guardian is a woman unlike any other, for she renounces motherhood and matrimony, in order to devote herself to the Faith alone. None are so wise as she in its sacred learning.”
Lord Osdath pulls the furs up over Till’s shoulders. “There. I believe I’ve answered your question, and others that no doubt you didn’t know you had. Now be a good boy, and go to sleep.”
But it takes a long time before Till can sleep.
Although he is curled up in his nest of warm furs, he feels as though from somewhere a cold draft passes over his skin. What a strange tale that was!
Much of it was hard to follow, and he wonders if Lord Osdath has ever told stories to children before; he used so many difficult words and strange ways of saying things. But Till understood enough.
Stellia was right, it was a scary story, and very sad, too, but mostly scary. He wishes Lord Osdath had waited to tell it to him in the morning and not at bedtime. Now he cannot stop thinking of the terrible deeds of the maddened king, and so troubled is he by this that he nearly forgets his resolution to remember his loved ones before falling asleep.
Even as he silently forms their names on his lips, his thoughts stray back to the dreadful tale. His fingers with a will of their own find the Shard and lift it to his eyes. The soothing light eases him across the threshold of sleep, but he finds no comfort on the other side. The luminous queen awaits him in his dreams, surrounded by her murdered children.
And it is their names now that she commands him to recite.
NEXT: A Reunion