The Penitent King

77. Ripples

“My pool is the Cosmos,” Hargis says. “Mankind is the moth.”

Some thing with icy legs skitters down Till’s spine. “And the spider?”

She does not give him an answer to that. “The moth’s struggle, of course, is merely for survival, as are the spider’s actions, for it is driven by hunger, not malice. In that regard, your fate, the fate of your kind, is very different. Your struggle was not simply for life, but for power. A selfish and destructive struggle, which sent forth ripples that invited destruction in turn. And as the spider found the moth by the ripples on my pool, so destruction found you.”

“A Dark One,” Till whispers. “Is that what you mean? What did we do—what did my kind do, that was so bad?”

“Perhaps you might have been spared.” Hargis watches the water, where the last of the ripples have subsided. The moth and its captor have disappeared, as though they had never been there. “Had it not been for one who was to blame more than all others. One whose crime was as the final striking of a bell, sending so loud and clear a note into the night that there could be no more hesitation, no more doubt as to the place where it was struck. The Dark One heard, and came. And like the spider the moth, it will devour you.”

“Who?” He whispers the question, half sure already of the answer he will hear. “Who caused this to happen?”

“The Penitent King,” Hargis says. “Though I doubt what had been set in motion could have been avoided, had he not existed, or done what he did. Even I cannot see all of the Shaper’s designs. The Penitent King may merely have been chosen to seal a fate that was ordained before he was born.”

Till wants to crawl back under the wolf pelts on his bed. Everything Hargis told him at the Sundrance of Silence comes flooding back in his memory, and a terrible dread clutches at him with cold, hard hands. The end, it seems, has come already. “Then the Dark One is here?”

Hargis nods. “Three thousand years it traveled through the Unseen, for the distances between the worlds are vast. And just as long, we here have labored to prepare mankind for its coming. Even so, it may have been too short a time.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I sensed its arrival in your world,” she says. “The moth caused the ripples that led the spider to it, but neither could the spider stir the water without sending out ripples of its own. So it is with all things that move in the Unseen, especially when they pass into the physical world to take shape. But the Dark Ones by their nature are forces not only of destruction but also of deception, for all things that are dark are also hidden, and difficult to see for those whose sight is accustomed to the light.”

Till remembers how at first he could not see the spider, even though he was looking right at the spot where it lay waiting.

“I know it is here,” Hargis says. “But I cannot tell where. Mankind is far from ready to stand against this threat. Our only hope is that there is still time left before it gathers its full strength.”

“But why?” Till cries. “What the Penitent King did was so long ago! And he repented, and spread the Faith! Why would the Shaper still let the Dark One come to punish us?”

“The Parsons teach you that the wicked will be punished and the virtuous rewarded,” Hargis says. “It is enough to teach simple folk how to live their lives in decency. But you are ready for greater, harsher truths. Do you really think the Creator of the Cosmos, He who foreknew all ends and all beginnings, sits watching every deed of every one of His creatures, weighing its merit or fault?”

“You mean the Shaper does not care what we do, and if we’re good or bad?”

“Not in the sense men care about such things. He devised the very fabric of the Cosmos to be such that it resonates with every action that is done in it, echoing it sometimes sooner, sometimes later, but always in kind, and meting out unfailingly that which the Parsons call rewards and punishments. No deed of men remains unanswered. The corruption of the past cannot be undone, but if mankind renounces greed and destruction, the balance may yet be tipped in your favor. Until then, however, it is as though poison continues to be churned out into already tainted air. All who breathe it must suffer.”

“But that’s not fair.”

“Is it not? Those among you who have seen His light must stop those who in their ignorance would allow this poison to spread through your world. Fail to do so, and perish. Or stamp out ignorance, and carry the light of the Faith to every corner of this world, no matter the cost, and be saved. A clear choice. What could be fairer?”

“I don’t know.” Till’s eyes stray toward the crack between the stones, above the water. He can’t see the spider. But it is there. Waiting, watching. Ready to strike.

“In the battle that is coming, none can stand aside,” Hargis says. “You must strive with all your might to weight the scales in favor of survival, and refuse to yield that which you have already gained. Only united in the Faith can mankind hope to escape its downfall. That is the task begun by the Penitent King in atonement for his crime. Alas, it is far from finished. I am here to aid in its completion. You as well must do your part in this endeavor.”

“Me? Help save the world?” Till’s voice rings shrill and terribly loud through the great hall. “But I’m just a boy! What can I do?”

“Little, in your present state,” Hargis tells him. “Yet it is in my power to change that, to change you. Not everything that is needed is as yet in hand. But you will take the first step today.”

She stands up and extends her hand. “Come with me.”

NEXT: Descent