Sample


VRIN: ten mortal gods
by John Michael Hileman
available where books are sold


Beyond our waking minds
and past the infinite dark
is a place of such unimaginable importance
God himself has hidden from us.
Until now.


CHAPTER 1
A GOD AWAKENS

So there I sat, wondering how long I had been staring at the same page of my book. My head was fuzzy, and my thoughts were scattered. I could remember starting the book, and I knew it was important that I finish it, but not much more would come to me-- including my name.

Somewhere a log popped.

I pulled my eyes from the page and tried to focus on the lavishly decorated room around me. Light from a fireplace scattered dancing trails of orange on bookshelves lining the walls and in the corner a spiral staircase wound its way up to a balcony where statues of mythical figures sat balanced on delicate podiums.

I shook my head; something was wrong with my vision. The effect was subtle, yet distinct. Every color in the room shimmered with a life of its own and my eyes tingled from the influx of shades and tints. I closed them and gave a squeeze, but the problem persisted. I looked down. Even the hands gripping the strange leather book had a color fluctuation, as if they could not decide on a proper shade of tan.

How long had I been sitting? I reached up and rubbed the back of my neck. The stiffness there indicated it had been awhile-- but I was unable to draw upon any workable memory to confirm that conclusion. Scenes passed before me, but their meanings ran like frightened shadows. Face after familiar face pushed forward from the murky pool of my consciousness, but who these phantoms were and how I knew them was a mystery. Am I dreaming?

I shook the jumbled images from my head, pulled forward in the chair, and put weight on my feet. They tingled but had not yet fallen asleep. Placing the heavy volume aside, I stood and shuffled over to the fireplace where a variety of framed pictures sat lining the mantelpiece. The colors continued to dance, but I managed to bring things into focus.

There were several portraits: a family gathering, children in color, a couple in black and white-- and a panting dog next to a smiling man holding a trout. I sensed these images held a secret to my past, but whatever that secret was, it eluded me.

Something caught my eye, a trophy tucked behind one of the larger portraits. I moved the picture to get a better look. The inscription read, “1976 Bar Harbor Golf Tournament, Second Place, Jason Tardin.” Jason Tardin? Was that my name? There was a faint recollection. But nothing more.

Again I surveyed the room. There was such familiarity in this place. No. More than familiarity-- a sense of security-- like a childhood hiding place. I felt safe here, but safe from what, or whom?

My eyes came to rest on the book I had placed on the end table. I could remember nothing of its contents and yet-- there was something in it I needed to know. I walked over and looked down at the volume. On the cover emblazoned in gold were the words, Davata Notrals, and a line of letters I assumed was the author’s name. I started to reach for it, but froze. Why could I remember nothing before holding this book? Could it have been tainted with a poison or some kind of drug? Crouching down I examined the worn out pages from the side. They appeared to be stained from age but-- could the stains have been caused by something else?

Using a nearby pencil I turned to the first page-- then stared in confusion. It was written in a foreign language! I flipped to the next page, and the next... They were all the same. I stared long and hard at the stylized calligraphy, hoping my mind would string the characters together in some meaningful way, but it was no use. I let the pencil fall from my loosened grip. It didn't make sense. I could remember reading this book. But how?

The door to the study creaked open and a finely dressed man stepped in. "Master Tardin, a gentleman is here to see you, sir. Shall I show him in?" His voice was deep and his manner showed the distinct signs of cultured refinement.

The astonishment on my face must have painted a pretty picture. “Uh, I'm sorry. What?”

“You have a visitor, sir.”

“--Who?” I asked, trying to appear calm.

“A Mr. Sajin Barrows, sir.”

Sajin Barrows? The name held no familiarity. I straightened. “Uh, yes. Show him in.”

“As you wish.” He bowed, and without so much as a raised eyebrow, turned and exited.

Show him in? What was I thinking? I didn't know who this man was-- I didn't know who I was! I felt my head. There was no damage, nothing to indicate an injury. What then? Was this a mental institution? Was I a part of some psychological experiment? Had I been started on some new drug that was messing with my mind? Is that the answer? They've drugged me because I'm crazy?! No. Crazy people don’t wonder if their crazy. They’re just crazy. That’s all.

Footsteps approached in the hallway. Frantically I looked about. The colors continued to shimmer; the room shifted at odd slants. It had to be drugs! I needed to get ahold of myself! Just let things play out. Go with the flow. Don’t give anyone a reason to believe you’re crazy! Regardless of what had caused this problem, the best course of action would be to pretend there was no problem. Until an appropriate opportunity presented itself-- if I could just play along-- maybe the answers would come. The doorknob clicked.

I gathered my wits for the performance of my life.

A man entered the room, a distinguished looking gentleman in an elegant gray suit. The material was flawless, almost too perfect, and at his side he wore-- a sword? My memory was messed up, but I was pretty sure I’d never seen anyone wearing a sword before, not in real life anyway. I fought to keep my expression from revealing my confusion.

The man had a strong physique and his short black hair shadowed the determination on his face. Keeping his eyes lowered, he cautiously strode forward and reached out his hand.

“Greetings, Lord Tardin. I have been sent by Vrin’s ruling house to welcome you to our world.”

Our world? I shook his hand and kept my expression neutral.

“I am Sajin Barrows.” He looked up and offered a smile. “But of course you already know this.”

I returned his smile.

“The Prime Median, Daru, apologizes for his absence, but his reason for not being here is my reason for coming. I have come to implore you to consider a matter of grave importance to my people. I have no knowledge of how your kind communicates so if I cover anything with which you are already familiar, please forgive me.”

I nodded stiffly, wondering what he meant by my "kind".

“Since the awakening we have no doubt witnessed indescribable wonders, things we never would have experienced on our own in a thousand years, and most of my people are thankful for the intervention of the gods. We believe the ancient prophecies and we believe you will one day deliver us to Ethral...”

Gods? I was immediately thankful for the quasi euphoric state I was in.

“Nevertheless, there are some who are profoundly affected by the seemingly incidental acts of the gods, and it has caused in my people a troubled heart. We want to believe, we want to trust, but it is difficult to reconcile the contradictions. We need you to lead us to reason.” He paused.

This guy was good! If he was acting, he was totally believable. Fine. If this is the game, I'll play along.

“Too which 'incidental' acts are you referring?” I said, trying to sound broody as I imagined a god would sound.

“My apologies, lord. I meant no disrespect."

"None taken. Please continue."

"It is the war which weighs most heavily on my people." He looked at me, as if I knew to which war he was referring.

"I'm sorry. You will have to give me more than that. There are many wars."

He lifted his brows. "The battle between-- Armadon and Rath?”

“Oh. That war.”

His brows then furrowed. “We know of no other war in which the gods fight."

"Of course. You wouldn't," I said, hoping to cover myself.

"Why do they fight amongst themselves? Does the ancient text of the Marathil not describe the gods as joining together to destroy the evil of chaos? Even as we speak my people are dying by the hundreds, yet the others look on with indifference. Why?” He stared at me expectantly.

His acting was impeccable. His expressions and tone of voice completely believable. There was no hint of pretending as the fairy-tale words fell from his lips.

It wasn't hard for me to stay in character.

"I am very sorry for the hardships your people have faced."

He straightened himself with resolve. “Then you will help us? The others are unwilling to help. You may be our last hope.” Again he stared at me expectantly.

"And-- what makes you believe I am any different from the others?"

"But why would you refuse us?" His voice held a hint of desperation.

What was I supposed to say to that? How long was this little experiment going to last? "--Ah, things are a little confusing for me at the moment."

"We are desperate people. Surely you can see that."

“You don’t understand...”

“Then help me to understand!”

I wanted to scream at him. I don't understand! All I had were questions-- questions I didn't dare share with him-- for fear of who might be studying me, if there even was anyone studying me! The asylum concept was growing sketchier with each passing sentence. None of this made any sense. Crazy people don’t have meetings in large expensive studies with butlers and strange men with swords!

"Will you help us, lord?"

Was this guy for real? "I..."

The sound of breaking glass startled us and I twisted around to see a man dressed entirely in black crouching before a shattered window. In his grip, was a crossbow, and upon his features, a look of vengeance. Slowly the man rose from the debris, carefully aimed the weapon at my head, and began a slow advance.

“Put that down, Dirm! You cannot harm him, he is one of the Ten!" came Sajin's voice from behind me.

“They die!” His voice dripped with hatred. “And I will prove it!”

Was this for real!

I had to think fast. Think! These men actually believe I'm a god! Okay. But am I indestructible? The man with the crossbow apparently had his doubts. If I gave him any reason to trust those doubts he would kill me! “Do you love your family?” I found myself saying, with a tone of warning that shocked even me.

I must have struck a chord, for my would-be assassin paused his advance. “What do you mean by that? Demon!”

With all my strength I suppressed my fear, put on my best poker face, and looked the man dead in the eyes. In a cold calculating tone, I asked, “What kind of terror would a demon unleash on your family, should your assassination attempt fail?”

Sajin's voice was near panic. “Listen to him, Dirm! You have seen what they can do!”

I kept my countenance solid and my eyes locked on those of my adversary. I sensed this was not the first time I had stared down an opponent, and something told me I was good at bluffing. Very good.

His hand remained steady on his weapon as he searched my face for a hint of fear. But he found none. Slowly the tension in his stance visibly melted away. His body went limp with despair. With a muffled curse he lowered the crossbow and held it loosely in his grip.

Sajin stepped forward and relieved the man of his weapon. “We told you to stay out of this,” he said in a low voice. “It was agreed we would seek aid, not incite war. I know your son is dead, but this will not bring him back. Nothing can bring him back.”

"Nothing?" The man's eyes lifted, he glared at me with contempt. "Can they not bring him back?" His inflection was filled with bitter distrust.

Sajin turned to me. “My humble apologies, lord. We had no way of knowing he would act in this manner.”

“No harm done,” I said, trying desperately to keep my voice from shaking.

“You can be assured he will be severely punished for his actions," he said, gripping the man by the arm.

"Please, don't," I said.

Both men looked up, surprised.

Sajin bowed, "You are very merciful."

"It is not mercy. His anger is justified and not deserving of punishment. However, I'd like to assure you, I had no part in the events which claimed his son's life."

"Our understanding is limited. We do not know the workings of the gods, we can only judge by what we've seen-- and there has been much pain. Pain which has blossomed into this violence. Thankfully it has ended here. If he had succeeded your death would have no doubt caused a revolution.

A revolution? Against gods?

Sajin sighed. "My people are painfully divided. I wish it were not so."

“Have we caused only hardship?” I said, surprised to note it was a genuine question.

“It is mixed, lord. Some have been generous, picking up the pieces where the two have done battle, but others protect their own interests, or stay out of the affairs of man altogether-- unless they are directly affected.”

“I see.”

“If only we could speak with Gaza,” he said, almost to himself.

I paused a moment, contemplating his statement. “You think Gaza can change this?”

“He is the Maker, the god of birth. The great book reveals that none among the gods are more powerful than he, with all due respect, lord.”

“You speak highly of my brother Gaza,” I said, now irrevocably submerged in my role.

“As your leader, does he not decree the conduct of the gods?”

I dodged the question. “He does as he pleases.”

“Would you consider waking him to ask if he will give our Prime Median an audience in his court?”

“This is all you ask, a meeting with Gaza?”

“Yes, lord.” He bowed.

“I will think on it,” I stated curtly. "You may go.” With a wave of my hand, I ended my performance and turned toward the fireplace.

As the door closed behind me, my body loosened, and I was left to sift through the preposterous mystery I'd found myself entangled in. If this was a trick it was an elaborate one-- but if it was not-- I was in way over my head.

For a long moment I stood motionless, then slowly sank back down into my comfortable chair, feeling considerably less than comfortable.