Authors: Eddie Han
Copyright © 2013 Eddie Han
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Saboteur Press.
All production, artwork and design by Curt Merlo
Printed in China
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
FOR MONICA AND ERIC
Twenty Shaldean Riders raced across the Saracen deserts of Loreland. Like a sandstorm, they sped toward the Emmainite village—a lone outpost in the vast emptiness. Keffiyehs covered their faces, scimitars were sheathed at their sides and long rifles were strapped to their backs. Behind them, a ruby sun melted into the sea of dunes.
” the village gatekeeper shouted. “The Shaldea return!”
The chieftain emerged from his home. He was an old man with dark, leathery skin. His robes were made of airy white cotton, common to Emmainite tribesmen.
When the Shaldean Riders entered the village, they were greeted with skins of water from the well. The lead rider dismounted and greeted the Emmainite chieftain with a kiss.
“Peace be upon you,” he said. His face was sun scorched and heavily bearded.
“And you,” the chieftain replied.
“Where is he?”
“In the parlor.”
The chieftain nodded.
“You sure it’s him?”
“I have seen all matters of darkness in my life—none so dark as this one. I am sure he is who he says he is.”
“How long has he been waiting?”
“Since before the sunrise. He hasn’t spoken a word. Hasn’t eaten or slept. You have brought a great evil into my village, Shaldean.”
“It is a risk we must take,” said the lead rider. “We cannot defeat the Republic alone. This is the only way. I do this for us, for our land.”
“Noble words. But I see no wisdom in summoning a Greater Evil to battle a Lesser Evil that Good alone has failed to overcome.”
“The Republic is no ‘Lesser Evil.’”
“Do what you will. But be quick about it. The sooner he leaves, the sooner God’s grace can return to this village.”
“God has long abandoned us.” The lead rider walked past the old Emmainite into an annex of his home that served as both a meeting room and a reception for guests.
Inside a black-robed figure sat cross-legged in front of a glowing coal pit, the face hidden by a deep hood drawn over his head. He didn’t so much as move. The Shaldean walked over to the basin and washed his hands. After drinking a ladle of water from a bucket he settled himself across from the dark figure.
“We are humbled by your presence,” he began. “We did not think you would come. We hoped. But we did not think…forgive us for keeping you waiting. I came as soon as I received word. My name is Yusef Naskerazim. I am
of the Shaldean Riders.”
The shadow said nothing.
Yusef cleared his throat. “Our people are known for their hospitality,” he added. “I hope they did not disappoint.”
The shadow finally spoke. “Why have you invoked our name?”
Relieved with the break in silence, Yusef was about to offer some food before he noticed an unmolested plate of cheese curds and a tea set sitting next to him.
“Can I have the chieftain bring you anything?” he asked instead. “Perhaps a smoke?”
“Why have you invoked our name?” the shadow repeated.
He had an accent that sounded vaguely like that of the gypsies of the Greater North. And he spoke without looking up from below the shroud of his hood.
Yusef took a deep breath to collect his thoughts. He stroked his thick black beard as he began.
“Because we need your help,” he replied. “We want to see the Meredine Republic burn and we cannot stop them alone.”
“Why do you seek its end?”
Yusef let out a bewildered chuckle. “The crimes of the Republic are too many to recount—like the grains of sand in the desert.” He grew animated as he continued. “Everyday, we see more and more of their troops marching through our villages. Just last week, Republican Guards came through here, lined up the people like common thieves, women and children, and held them under the sword while they ransacked their homes.”
“Looking for you,” said the shadow. “You prod the beast and hide behind your kin.”
“And what shall we do? Sit on our hands while they humiliate us and ravage our families, our children? They occupy our land, exploit our people, and rob us of our resources with their mines. They manipulate our markets and arrange unfair trade agreements with our ruling parties. Always meddling. Always deceiving.”
“Then your grievances are with your rulers.”
“Yes. They are weak. But whose crimes are greater? The tempted or the tempter’s?”
“We are not judges. Only equalizers.”
“If equalizers, then you must see that the Republic’s reign is an affront to any notion of equality. Our just struggle, they call terrorism. Their terrorism, they call justified occupation. This is not equal,
. This is tyranny.”
“And not the first of its kind. This is the nature of men. What empire has existed before the Republic that did not abuse its power? Who would not do as they please if given the chance?”
“You do not,” said Yusef. “You exercise restraint even in the face of injustice. Even when it is in your power to intervene.”
“You assume to know much about us.”
. We merely want to see the end of the Republic. We want justice.”
“Justice or vengeance, Mister Naskerazim? What price are you willing to pay? Would you, yourself, die to see the destruction of your enemies?”
Yusef recoiled. Softly he asked, “Why must the innocent die with the guilty?”
“You are not so innocent. What you fail to understand, Mister Naskerazim, is that today’s rebels are tomorrow’s tyrants. The lust for power is great. Were your people to reign in the Republic’s place, you would be different only in nationality. And I would be sitting across from another, negotiating the terms of
“I would not have braved this meeting if…” Yusef’s voice trailed. He knew better than to appeal for sympathy from what the village chieftain referred to as “a Greater Evil.” His gaze fell.
There was a long pause. Then the shadow said at last, “The balance of power will be reset. The Republic
Yusef’s eyes widened with renewed hope. “Then, you
help us?” he asked.
“We help no one. You and your Shaldea would be wise to simply fade into obscurity. For when we undermine the Republic, we will undermine with it those who would try and profit from its end.”
The shadow looked up for the first time. He was a young man with a pale face, marked with what appeared to be a broad smudge of dried blood around his mouth. Upon closer examination, Yusef realized that it was a dark crimson tattoo—a tattoo of a handprint covering his nose and mouth. His teeth were silver and his eyes like that of a coiled asp. “In the reckoning, we will destroy
Leaving the speechless Shaldean to mull over the catholic threat, the dark figure stood and left the parlor. The others waiting outside parted as he passed. Then he disappeared into the evening desert like a ghost.
Dale Sunday was clever enough; he had a quick wit. But in class he pulled middling grades. He wasn’t particularly handsome, nor was he of any great stature. He didn’t come from wealth. He was not the strongest, not the most athletic. He was not popular. Dale was fairly artistic; he could hold a tune, but he wasn’t a talent. By all standards, Dale Sunday was mediocre. Yet, he thought himself special—set apart. Because while most children his age were thinking about school and play, boys and girls, and holidays, Dale was thinking about things like mortality, the origins of man, the longing heart.