"Seek not to follow in the footsteps of wise men of old; seek what they sought."
~ Matsuo Basho
Two robed figures descended down an endless stair, at the end of which awaited God. Their faces were obscured by heavy hoods, but they could not be mistaken for anybody: These were Guards of Galavar, for between them strode Galavar himself, in his black armor. The three of them were quiet, and Galavar himself thoughtful, still very much astonished at the crime he was about to attempt.
All about them was bleak gray stone…stone steps at their feet, stone walls brushing against their hips and shoulders, stone slabs only a few hands higher than their heads. The closeness of it was a tomb, and the monotony of it pressed against their minds even more tightly, challenging their sanity as the hours wore on. They were far below the Shos Plateau now; that was all that could be said. The number of hours, the number of steps, had no meaning. In the Steps of Sourros, Corridor to the Realm of the God of Logic and Wisdom, the flow of time and space suited only the God's own desires.
It was not their first time on this journey, but it was the strangest.
Around them the light, usually so solid and radiant here, quivered in uncertainty. It offered only a cold, white glare, ever-present yet originating nowhere. There were no torches or lamps. It was the light of reason that shone out, the Asash Rhya, the Power of Wisdom, not from any temporal source. In truth it was pitch black here. Only with reason could one gain entrance to the Steps of Sourros, and only with reason could one keep their way. To lose sight of intention or be seized by emotion would bring more than darkness. The way itself would be lost, and the wayward mate devoured by stone.
So it was said. Those who survived had no way to know for sure.
Any diversion would have been welcome, but there were none down here, not the creeping of bugs, nor a single draft of air, nor so much as a drop of water to weep from the stone. Relance had long ago fallen behind them and the Realm of God begun, and in this tedium were few of home's conceits. It was one of the simplest of Sourros' questions: Can you bear to be alone with yourself?
Galavar could see the tremors in the light. In this close proximity the three of them shared their fate, and he could see the doubts of his companions for the obscurities that the Asash Rhya flicked off the drab stone. And he knew, he knew, a small portion of it was his own.
"We will arrive soon," he said to his Guards. "We can never hide from our doubts, least of all here, so let us face them before we face their consequences. It is time I tell you my purpose exactly."
"Your young counterpart has been in Tanzibay for some days now. There I have set him against a strong enemy, to whom he will shortly perish.
"Yet he also carries with him the conscious will of Sourros. As the one falls away, so shall the other."
Again there was no reply, but Galavar knew it would come.
As he waited, he returned his thoughts to the preeminent question before him. He was about to test an ancient axiom, that all Relance was made according to the will of the Gods and that the Gods therefore foresaw all of history. If that were true, then it did not matter that he had kept his plot a secret. Sourros would know anyway, and Galavar would presently step into his mercy. But if it were untrue, then Galavar would have one perfect chance.
It was the robed figure in the van who spoke next, the gentle voice of Arderesh Valeran, Captain-Lieutenant of the Guard and Galavar's own greatest friend.
"O, I dearly wished I could discuss it with you—with all of you—but with Sourros in my mind it was not possible until now.
"On that evening, when I stood atop the Fortress of Galadrim and slew Rennem, and looked down and saw my city on fire by his hand, I knew that everything we had worked for was lost. And I began to understand that we had been betrayed. Sourros had surely seen the Davoranjan army coming, yet told us nothing. So what was the use of his years of guidance and succor if Gala were simply to be destroyed before it ever truly began, or at least set back so far that none of us would live to see the opportunity to try again?
"It was in the depth of that black thought that I saw him, Benzan, standing on the bridge, just the slightest bit too naïve and conceited for his own good, and in Benzan I saw the opportunity to do away with Sourros. I wasn't prepared to commit to that choice yet, but I invited Benzan to join you on the Guard so that I might keep the possibility open.
"It was on that same night, as you recall, that I conceived to use the Power of Sourros to wrestle with the minds of the people of Davoranj, and restore hope to our incredible endeavor. Sourros agreed to lend me his power, yet said nothing of the terrible consequence that awaited. In the seasons that followed we all learned that consequence, and me most dearly. Again Sourros had betrayed our purpose, and at such a great loss.
"Let me dispense with the trivialities, Resh. Beginning now, we will determine our own destinies. Sourros will die, and when he does I will reach out and take his power for myself, that we may avail ourselves of its incredible potential without the burden of its two-faced master."
The other Guard, the one in the rear, spoke. It was Gregor, the heatho-dwarf.
"Sourros has many faces. And in all the history of the world, there has always been Sourros," he said. "He is the greatest of the Gods and the great sponsor of Vardas Gala. To take such a decision alone is rash, if not mad."
"That is why I brought the two of you with me. More so than protect me, you must help me see clearly. I am sorry you have so little time to think it through."
"I think…that Sourros would have seen this coming," Arderesh said.
"I considered that as well, and the possibility remains that we are about to step into his vengeance. However, when I reflect on my life, I can see nowhere else I would rather be than here. And given what I knew at the time, I would choose every decision the same way again. If Sourros does know the future, he would have had no reason to bring me this far only to strike me down now."
"I can think of several reasons. Perhaps he thinks you have fulfilled your usefulness to Gala. Or perhaps he wants you to be his successor. Anything, really."
"If my being here is his game, then let him play it. It ends tonight, with his death or mine."
"That is uncharacteristically stubborn of you."
"You forget what a long time I have had to think this over. So tell me, what do you think? And you, Gregor."
"What of Benzan?" Gregor asked.
"I never intended for Benzan to be a permanent member of the Guard, and that is why all of you puzzled over his appointment. Your apparent lack of understanding was in fact a great insight, for he does not belong among you."
"Whether or not he deserves to be a Guard, it is your doing that he is. You have betrayed him."
"It is not without remorse. He did no wrong against us, except to fall short of his potential, and who can be found innocent of that? Yet because of his flaws, I take solace in knowing that all I have really done is elevate him into the person he wishes to be. I asked him, at the beginning, would he have one hour of greatness?"
"I don't object to that," Arderesh cut in. "However, even if he is the instrument of his own demise, you are the one who orchestrated it, and without his consent. If your plan were worthy, you should have let him decide for himself and he would have agreed."
"There was no way to do that, not with Sourros in my mind. But I did not command him to die. Benzan could change his destiny at any moment, even now, yet he will not, and that is because people must be who they are.
"As I must be who I am. So have I set him on the road to a destruction of his own making in order that the wider world may flourish. I am at peace with that decision."
"Then why bring us, after all?" Gregor asked.
"To take a side, as always. To take a stand." Galavar smiled, for the first time, though neither of them saw it, and he noticed the light did not flicker so badly. "And, as I said, to help me see clearly. Sourros has guided me throughout my life, and has been Gala's greatest sponsor. He has graced us at every step. But now we have outgrown him, and at the cost of Benzan's life I think we can be free of him. What do you think?"
Arderesh deferred. "Gregor?"
"I know you would not undertake this idly or blithely," Gregor mused. "Nevertheless…I would need some time to decide whether I agree with you. There are many possibilities you could have explored that would have been less final, and less awful, than this one."
"You could have asked Sourros. Perhaps you still can."
"No, unless he has foreseen our actions, it is too late to save him. His fate is tied to Benzan, and Benzan will die. I can sense his end drawing near even as we speak. The fight is already joined."
"Then it is too late to seek our counsel as well," Gregor said simply.
At last, the Steps of Sourros yielded a wall of light, and they emerged into the Depths of Sourros, seat of the God of Logic and Wisdom. This was the Great Anteroom, one vast chamber, with sparkling lights everywhere, beneath an immense fluted dome of white and orange marble with ribs of black slate. On the ground lay slabs of coppery orange granite, pitted by time, with a huge black glass inlay on the floor—the Seal of Sourros. To cross this seal would mean to enter into the inner sanctuary of God. On the far end was an arched wooden door with a single iron ring in the center, granting admission to the Gallery of the Sapient.
Galavar came to a stop and took a moment to marvel at the beauty of it all, but continued speaking.
"Even if my decision is taken," he said, "it is not too late for me to know what you think of it."
Gregor looked around.
"I think, at the moment, I do not care for it. I did not wake up this morning prepared to destroy God."
Galavar frowned. "Fair enough. What about you, Resh?"
"I have learned to trust your judgment, and I have learned to spot the areas where your judgment is weak, and less trustworthy. On this occasion I think would have been inclined to support you, but—"
"But you don't?"
"I cannot help but remember how badly Silence was troubled by this. She knew before any of us that you were up to something, and she was very much opposed to it. Even afraid of it—and she's fearless. She created the Sineish Dsagan on the basis of that fear, you know. This was what she feared, isn't it?"
They stepped across the Seal.
"Silence did not know my plot. Her fears were based on superstition."
"Not her. She knew something…something that we still don't. Maybe something that you don't know, Galavar."
"It is true that I would have loved to hear her advice."
They stopped at the door.
"I take some comfort, though, in her aversion. If Sourros does strike me down, I hope she will be spared, and able to continue in my place."
"If Sourros strikes you down, I expect he will be no more lenient with your hopes."
Galavar let out a breathy chuckle.
"Well, friends, shall we find out our fates? Or do you oppose me enough to make a stand against me now?"
Arderesh and Gregor looked at each other.
"I am with you," Arderesh said.
"This is a nest I never thought we would leave," said Gregor, "but I will follow you."
Galavar bowed to them both.
"We are not truly alone here," he said. "This is only the gloom before the sunrise, and, though we could bear to be alone on this journey if we had to be, we are in truth carried here on the hopes and achievements of all of Vardas Gala—all who have seen us to this day. We have their trust, and their encouragement, even if we lack their agreement and their understanding.
"Half of my life so far," he continued, "I have spent to become who I am. The other half, to prepare for our Conquest. I did not expect to be delving into these Depths now, not for this purpose. It was never my intention, before Rennem came to us with fire and blood. But because he came, reason has guided me to this place now, reason and the confidence of our peers, and, although doubt can never be eradicated outright, nor should it, I am for the greater part confident in what I am about to do."
Then reached out and with his left arm pulled open the wide and heavy door, and the three of them walked in together.
He was not two steps inside when he stopped in his tracks, and gasped. There stood Silence Terlais, halfway across the gallery, with her sword drawn and stretched out in her left arm, facing him.
"Impossible!" cried Galavar.
To his left and right he heard the sound of his Guards being flung backward, pinned against the wall, suspended off their feet. Had she done it to Galavar, he would have sailed back through the door, but him she left untouched.
"There's nothing here for you!" Silence shouted at him.
"You were all the way across the Sodaplains. There is no way you could be here! Unless…unless Sourros brought you?"
"Sourros wouldn't need to use us as his intermediaries," Aredresh grunted to Galavar, straining uselessly to free himself. He was held so tightly that he had to squint to see. "Silence, is that really you, then?"
"Turn around and leave!" she said, still facing straight at Galavar. "That is your only choice! Leave, or I will kill you!"
She was acting like a cornered animal. He could all but see the hackles rising out.
"Let's discuss this reasonably," Galavar began.
"I don't think she's going to do that," panted Gregor, who for all his titanic muscles was completely immobilized against the wall.
"No discussion!" Silence shouted. "Leave here now! I won't say it again."
"You can't just—"
But she didn't listen. With all her speed she lunged forward toward him. Galavar barely even had time to draw his twin broadswords, and was immediately pressed back into a desperate defense. Nor would his famed black armor help him; her sword Swift would cut through it easily.
And she was the better swordsmate. She would win…
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!