Three days into the desert, the water skin was nearly empty. Each step he took under the relentless blaze of the sun was a step deeper into Hell, and in the distance was a line of craggy, flat-topped mountains that never seemed to draw closer.
He looked out across the white expanse, shading his eyes loosely, and saw movement out in the shimmering sands. A shadow moved far out in the distance, a tiny blur on the horizon.
He dropped his hand to the hilt of a knife – a metal knife – stuck in his belt, and staggered on.
The figure turned out to be a man of utterly indeterminate age. He had heavy weather lines that ran from the corners of his eyes along the jutting points of his cheekbones. He was painfully thin, and slightly stooped. A small golden brooch, tied to the top of his walking stick with a leather thong, drew Dariun’s attention for a moment, along with two green-purple feathers hung on either side of it. Set in the middle of the brooch was a tiger-eye gem, but it had no value above the aesthetic.
All of these things were secondary to the man’s physique. He was shorter than Dariun, and much lighter in build. He wore only a loincloth and had absolutely no body hair. The only hair Dariun could see was a shock of dreadlocks that splayed out from the top of his head and hung down to his waist in uneven fountains.
Stranger still were the flagellant scars that striped his brown skin white. They covered his sides and, Dariun was certain, his back. The scars were well healed and clearly very old.
At least a dozen water skins, and several other sacks hanging from the
assortment on his back, burdened the old man.
Dariun waited for the old man to speak, to gauge his reaction. Dariun was tall and broad. His nose was crooked from a dozen of breakages and a single jagged scar clipped diagonally through his eyebrow. Dariun looked mean, and he knew it.
The old man said nothing.
“Fair greetings.” Dariun said, raising his right hand placidly.
“And to you.” The old man replied, and raised his left hand in response. “I am Socorro.”
“Dariun.” Dariun said with a nod.
Socorro nodded in return, squinting from under his mass of dreadlocks. More silence. Dariun looked casually in the direction Socorro was walking, and then back at the old man.
“There is nothing out there, you know.”
A smile briefly graced Socorro’s sun-chapped lips.
“You have been?”
“No,” Dariun replied, “it’s just what everyone says.”
Socorro nodded. “I am on a pilgrimage.”
The old man stared, the corners of his lips curling. He glanced up into the sky, then back to Dariun.
“I don’t know, exactly. I do know that I’m on the right track.”
Dariun took a moment to consider this.
“How?” he eventually asked.
“I just know.” Socorro replied, and he held Dariun’s gaze evenly. The old man’s eyes revealed nothing. The heat made it difficult to think, and the hunger and thirst compounded the issue. Dariun’s head throbbed.
“Water?” Socorro asked.
Dariun just closed his eyes and smiled, and the old man handed him a water skin. Reservedly, Dariun drank.
“Finish it.” Socorro said. Dariun upended the skin and guzzled. Water did not spill down either side of his chin, unheeded. He lowered the skin as Socorro passed him a small sack. It clinked. Dariun opened it up to find a dozen brown pebblefruit, small, hard and edible. He took one and began to chew vigorously.
“Where are you going?” Socorro asked.
Dariun had no response to this, so he gave none. He carried on chewing the tough desert fruit, popping another one into his mouth. The old man’s slight smile graced the corners of his mouth again, briefly.
“The nearest town is a dozen days journey, and I think my destination is half that. I could use help carrying this food and water. Why not come with me?”
Dariun was silent, except for the steady crunch as he ate. Eventually he swallowed.
“Why are you on your pilgrimage?” He asked, creasing his brow.
Dariun shrugged. The words had no meaning to him.
“Living in the shadow of glories past.”
Again, Dariun said nothing.
“Do you have any metal?”
“Yes.” Dariun answered hesitantly. “A knife.”
“Let me see it.” Socorro said, holding his hand out. Dariun’s eyebrows rose and he nearly smiled. Socorro watched him, waiting.
“Alright.” Dariun said, drawing the knife and handing it over, hilt first.
The old man turned the weapon over in his hands, examining it closely. He scoured it intensely, running his fingertips over the faded wooden grip.
“Here! Look!” he exclaimed, thrusting the knife flat at Dariun, and pointed to a faint scrawl carved into the blade. Dariun looked at them, and quizzically raised one eyebrow.
“They are nothing but sigils.”
“No, they are more than that,” Socorro enthused, pointing with a calloused fingertip. “They represent numbers. This sigil is equivalent to one, this one nine, this one six and this one three. The number is one thousand, nine-hundred and sixty-three.”
“Even if they are numbers, what significance does it have?”
“I think this number is a Date. A Date before Black Monday.”
Dariun shrugged and Socorro’s face-creasing little smile returned.
“You carry a relic of Black Monday and you do not even know it.”
“Is your talisman a relic?” Dariun asked, pointing to the tiger-eye brooch hanging from Socorro’s staff.
Socorro nodded. “Yes, I believe so. The number on my relic is one thousand, nine-hundred and forty-seven.”
A carrion bird screeched far off in the distance as Dariun mulled this over. He tied the bag of pebblefruit and tucked it into a pocket on his trousers.
“What does it mean?” He finally asked.
“I don’t know.”
“So tell me, where were you going?”
Dariun, now carrying half of the water skins and food sacks, glanced at Socorro as they walked. Sweat stood out on his brow for moments before the sun mercilessly stripped it away. Even though the day was drawing to night, it was still hot. Dariun thought of a bolthole he had near a tent village at the edge of the desert.
“I don’t know.”
Socorro did not reply for some time. He kept trudging on, looking down at the ground.
“You are a fugitive?” he eventually said.
“Yes,” Dariun replied, and vivid images of violence and blood flashed through his mind, “cattle rustling.”
They traveled for another hour before Dariun spoke, and another day drew to and end.
“Let me ask you a question.”
“Okay.” Socorro replied.
“Where are you from?”
This time, Socorro glanced at Dariun.
“Why do you ask?”
“You talk strangely and you know strange things. How did you know about the sigils on my knife?”
“I come from a village a long way away.” Socorro replied, gazing off into the distance.
“What was it called?”
Dariun gave a derisive bark of a laugh. “Weyrin is a ghost town.”
Thoughtfully, Dariun looked up to the sky, and examined the stars.
“Still, I would know how you knew about the sigils.”
“In my village, my father was a learned man. He had ancient tomes of knowledge, written by scholars of a thousand seasons past. They said many things about the demons of the world that lived only to harm, and about Black Monday. Whoever had written these tomes had found a parchment on which existed a language none knew. The greatest sages spent lifetimes piecing together a translation for it, and it is from their efforts I learned to understand the sigils.”
Dariun nodded as the old man spoke, listening carefully.
“Tell me more of Black Monday. I do not understand.”
“Do you ever dream you are someone else?” Socorro asked, unexpectedly.
“No.” Dariun answered. “I wish to know about Black Monday, old man.”
Socorro slowed and then stopped. He sat on a rock and winced as he rubbed his thighs.
“I have told you all I know.”
Dariun stopped, although he could have gone on longer, and searched his memory for a moment.
“‘Living in the shadow of glories past’?” he asked, turning to face the old man.
“Yes. Also, we are being followed.” Socorro remarked as he flipped his dreadlocks back from his face.
The moon was full and distant, and it bathed the desert in violet hues. Dariun used a few precious drops of water to wash his hands as he arrived back to where Socorro had stayed. The old man was laying out on the ground with his head propped on a rock. Dariun could not see how it could have been comfortable.
“I found out who was following us.” He said, to no reply. “It was bounty hunters, but they turned back. I guess they ran out of water.”
Socorro twitched slightly. As he drew closer, Dariun could make out the old man’s eyeballs swiveling madly under his eyelids. Flushed with concern, Dariun sprung forward, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him to wake him.
“Socorro!” he bellowed, and Socorro’s eyes sprung open.
He clawed at Dariun and stared manically at him through a haze of incomprehension.
“We must follow the sun to Black Monday!” he hissed, gritting his teeth and spitting the words into Dariun’s face.
“Tell me again what you know of Black Monday.” Dariun requested the next morning. After breakfast, they were down to half their supplies. Dariun hoisted his load onto his back, disturbed at how light it was getting, and faced Socorro.
“No, you didn’t.” Dariun shot back quickly, and Socorro’s hairless brow rose slightly.
They stood staring at each other in a silent battle of wills.
“Alright,” Socorro relented, “I will tell you what I know of Black Monday. A long time ago, I found a relic of Black Monday. The literal translation is ‘living in the shadow of glories past’, as I have told you. I believe that long ago, life was not as you see it now.”
Socorro gestured to the desert around him.
“The planet was thriving with people, and they created fabulous things, relics, of metal.”
“Like your talisman and my knife?” Dariun asked.
“Yes. I believe they had so much metal, entire buildings were made of it. Then Black Monday happened, and it all ended in some way. And that is all I know.”
“So, you do not really know what Black Monday is, you just know it was a disastrous event?”
“Yes. It means many things.” Socorro confirmed.
Dariun nodded, and thought about this.
“So, explain the fit you had last night,” he said.
“Explain the bounty hunters.” Socorro replied without missing a beat.
“I killed them.”
“I know.” Socorro said, blandly.
“Then you know I am telling the truth.”
“So explain the fit.” Dariun demanded. An unreasonable edge crept into his voice, and Socorro frowned.
“It was not a fit, it was a vision.”
“Ah, a holy man on a pilgrimage to find God. I understand now.” Dariun lied, and smiled.
“If you like.” Socorro continued, “last night I was struck by a vision. I have had only three previously, in my entire life.”
“Visions of what?” Dariun said.
“I don’t know. Of great cities of light and size, buildings that stretch up and blot out the sky. Of multitudes of people, sometimes.”
Dariun smiled. “The world before Black Monday?”
“Possibly.” Socorro nodded. “That is what I have come to believe.”
“Is there a purpose to these visions?”
“I think so,” Socorro replied, creasing his brow. “In
each one, I have felt the tension. I think there were millions of people.”
“I don’t know. I think the events I see happen as they happened then.”
“What was the vision last night about?”
Socorro started walking in silence. Dariun caught up with him.
“I am not sure I fully understand it myself. There was a sea of people standing between two great…shiny buildings, and they were all shouting and protesting something. All I really recall is a flood of emotion from them…a…kind of tension; everyone knew something was going to happen. No, that’s not true…likely to happen. They were all scared.”
“Of Black Monday.” Dariun stated quietly.
“Perhaps, although I have not heard it mentioned in a vision.”
They walked in silence for the rest of the day. Dariun thought about what he had learned and concluded that Socorro was not a man of God.
“Why are these visions leading you out into the desert?” Dariun asked as they ate that evening.
“After I left my village, I did not know where to go. I spent years wandering between shantytowns, scratching out an existence. One day, while walking through the desert, I had my first vision. Just a brief flicker of a man dressed in fine black clothing, talking to another. The room was made of metal, but not like your knife. This metal was sleek and grey, with a dull luster. They sat at a table and just passed a piece of parchment between each other. One wrote on it, and then the other did. They both agreed that they were agreed, and that was it.”
“What do you think it signified?”
“I think it was about two men who decided the fate of nations.”
Dariun looked at the bag of pebblefruit as he thought. He ate sparingly.
“So why the desert?”
Socorro sighed. “I spent more seasons, preaching mostly, until I once again had a vision in the desert. I had a map of where I was, and knew where I’d had the last one. I didn’t think anything of it though. The next one was of a great shock; I saw many intense images of people shocked to the core, as if witnessing a massacre. It was heart-stopping and when I awoke, I wanted to run.”
The old man was staring into the dirt between them now, his eyes un-focusing slightly.
“The third one happened twenty seasons later. I was just entering the wastes to travel back to Weyrin, when it hit me. I was walking alone, and woke up with a coyote in my face.”
Socorro laughed, but Dariun said nothing.
“Anyway, in this vision I saw a great congress of men, of all types, but they were men, making a decision of great import. I do not know what exactly, because I am unfamiliar with the word.”
“What word?” Dariun asked hoarsely.
Dariun shook his head.
“Anyway,” Socorro continued, “I checked on a map where I was, and where the other two had been, and it made a perfectly straight line.”
“I see. And you carried on walking in that line to see if you would have another vision?”
“Yes. And I did.” Socorro said.
Two days passed, and they reached the edge of the desert. It ascended up into flat, craggy foothills, with a great mountain in the distance. The wind whipped up against the hills, scouring the rocks with sand.
Darius walked ahead, and saw it first. It jutted out of the sand in the peripheral of his vision. When they reached it, Socorro fell to his knees in the sand.
“Proof! It is proof of Black Monday!” He shrieked.
His hands trembled as he reached out and pointed at a legend inscribed on the side of the demon.
Dariun stared at it. It appeared to be a roughly oval metal tube, half-buried in the sand. Two giant nostrils disappeared down from the tip of what seemed to be a nose, and two broken horns protruded from each side.
“What is it, Socorro?” he asked.
“I don’t know. This legend here,” Socorro hunkered down and pointed to a rusted plate on the side of the nose, under a broken horn, “says ‘Fer ar’.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m not sure. This is so old…look how the metal has rotted so. I think this was the demon Ferras Aryie.”
Socorro reached out with a fingertip and touched the corroded metal demon. He cried out and fell back, fully in the grip of a seizure. He bucked and kicked into the air, making guttural noises of battle. The metal demon protruding from the sand disintegrated into motes and the wind tore it away. After a few seconds, only a black skeleton remained.
Dariun knelt over the old man, and steadied him, holding his down by his shoulders, and Socorro seemed to come back. His eyes focused on Dariun’s face, and his jaw trembled as he whispered to him.
“Ferras Aryie! It was slain here…by a great man. He fought the demon, and he killed it, but was mortally wounded. He died before reaching the final guardian of Black Monday.”
“The final guardian?” Dariun said, standing up.
“I dare not say her name.” Socorro whispered. Dariun stared down at him through narrowed eyes.
“I think you are very careful with the truth, old man.”
“You need to find a way to control your visions.” Dariun
said. They sat on rocks opposite each other, deep in the foothills. They
sheltered in a wide natural bowl in the side of a cliff, and rationed
the last of the dried meat between them.
They ate, and Socorro lay down to sleep. “I will try.” He said, before turning away from Dariun.
Once Dariun was convinced Socorro was asleep, he contemplated how much of what the old man was telling him was the truth. Often, Socorro seemed to pre-empt Dariun’s question before he had a chance go give it. The visions also perplexed him, as was the vision after touching the corpse of Ferras Aryie.
Dariun suspected Socorro could read minds.
Dariun knew he could not think about this while the old man was awake, and so decided to plan a test for the next day. Something he could do automatically, so he would not need to think about it in advance, and so denying the old man a chance to read his thoughts. He slept.
The next morning they ate a small breakfast in silence. After eating, Socorro excused himself and walked towards a shaded rock face to perform his daily business.
Dariun watched him go, making sure the old man was facing away from him, and thought hard. He thought of the two bandits, savagely trying to kill him in the darkness, alone in the desert. He focused on the fear, and panic, trying to alert Socorro mentally.
The old man continued toward the cover, and Dariun smiled.
Dariun looked down from the top of the range of flat-topped mountains, at another stretch of desert. He cursed.
“Do you see that big mountain?” Socorro asked, pointing.
“That is where we need to go.”
Dariun looked at the peak in the distance.
“You are sure, old man?”
“Yes. I believe there will be food and water there too.”
“Good.” Dariun grunted.
Socorro looked at him and opened his mouth to say more, when Dariun spotted a bird flying far off past the old man’s head. Reflexively, he screamed in his mind that they were under attack.
Socorro’s eyes flared and he whirled around, brandishing his staff before him. Dariun smiled slyly.
Socorro turned slowly. “No…I thought I heard something.”
Dariun started climbing down the mountain.
Socorro had two more visions as they crossed the desert toward the great mountain. When the first one came over him, Dariun screamed at him to gain control. Socorro had managed to open his eyes. During the second vision, the old man managed to stay upright.
“I-I see it!” He said, wavering on his feet, eyes closed.
“You see what?” Dariun demanded.
“This is it! The Vault of Gods, the last bastion of Black Monday!”
Socorro looked haggard. Dariun cocked his head.
“Tell me, are you really from Weyrin?”
“Everyone there died. How are you the only survivor?”
Socorro looked toward the great mountain, then at the ground. His dreadlocks fell down around his face.
“I killed them all.”
Dariun thought about this, and Socorro listened.
“Yes,” Socorro said, “I killed them with my mind.”
“Tell me what happened.” Dariun said, kindly.
“No. We have too far to go yet. And I fear that Black Monday’s last guardian does not sleep.”
“Who is the last guardian?”
Socorro looked up at him, and fear crossed his features.
“Black Maria. The last and greatest demon of Black Monday. If she wakes, we will die.”
Dariun nodded, and carried on walking toward the Vault of Gods.
The entrance to the Vault of Gods was a huge black tunnel, ringed by a crumbling arch of stone blocks. From deep within the darkness, metal rails extended out and into the desert.
“Do not touch them!” Socorro hissed as Dariun investigated the tracks. “They are unholy; to touch them is to wake the demon!”
Dariun stared at him, one hand outstretched.
“Are you sure?”
Dariun sighed. “Then we will have to negotiate the entrance to the Vault carefully.”
The tracks were spread nearly the width of the tunnel, and Dariun could not see how they would manage the journey without waking Black Maria.
“I will walk in front. If we just judge the distance between each link on Black Maria’s path then we can manage it in the dark.” Socorro said.
They entered the tunnel, Socorro first, and carefully walked along the tracks of the last guardian of Black Monday.
They had not gone far into the darkness, when a low, rumbling sound came echoing down to them. Dariun froze in fear. He was certain he had not touched the forbidden track.
“Did you touch it?” He screamed at Socorro.
The old man did not reply.
“Socorro!” Dariun bellowed.
The rumbling increased in pitch, and a hellish siren wailed further down along the tunnel.
“Damn you old man!” Dariun yelled, and groped forward for Socorro.
The old man lay across the track. Dariun felt down and realized he was fitting again.
“No, you old bastard!” he yelled at him. “Now is not the time!”
In the distance, a baleful cyclopean eye opened.
It was a mere speck of light against the darkness. Dariun looked up into it, and his knees began to tremble.
Black Maria woke, and saw him.
Dariun grabbed Socorro by the arms and hauled him over his shoulder. The old man’s walking stick and talisman lay on the track as Dariun turned and started running towards the bright glow of the desert. The old man was not heavy, and he ran fast.
The rumble of Black Maria grew louder.
Metal shrieked against metal as the ancient beast began to move. The ground shook and the noise deafened.
Dariun panicked and ran faster.
His heart pounded in his chest and he nearly lost control of his legs when the terrifying white light streaming from Black Maria’s single evil eye started to catch up to him.
Dariun dared not risk a look over his shoulder, but he could hear the demon hammering down its ancient track, the noise from its progress boomed.
He approached the brightness of the desert as the malevolent glare of Black Maria filled his vision and her demented shrieks filled his ears.
He threw Socorro aside and dived as he burst out into the light.
Black Maria clipped him.
Dariun rolled as the demon smashed into his right shoulder. He tumbled into the sand with a cry of pain, and instinctively rolled on his back.
Black Maria thundered past, and he gazed in awe at the sleek black monster as it roared out into the light. Its long body rushed past his face, blowing his hair wildly around his head. It was massive. Dariun gawped, and cradled his right arm to his chest.
As abruptly as it had begun, Black Maria’s tail left the tunnel
and the demon raced into the desert.
Socorro used Dariun’s shirt to make a sling for his broken arm, and explained while he worked. “Black Monday, one thousand, nine-hundred and eighty-seven, was the Date on which it all began.”
“What all began?”
“The fall of the world. It started small, little things building up to a war, a world war. A war in which a million million people would die.”
Dariun gritted his teeth as Socorro tied the sling around his shoulder.
“So why have we come here?”
“This is where it all ended.” Socorro replied. “Or when the end began, at least.”
They walked to the entrance of the tunnel again. Dariun glanced behind them, but there appeared to be no sign of Black Maria returning.
They entered the Vault of Gods unopposed.
They traveled through miles of darkness. They followed Black Maria’s tracks until they reached a vast chamber. Thick layers of dust covered everything.
They felt their way slowly through the umbra and found a door. It was metal. Dariun was amazed. He had felt enough metal beneath his left hand to make himself the wealthiest man he had ever met.
“Are there any more guardians?” He whispered to Socorro.
“No, Black Maria was the last. You did very well to save us. I believe we are the only ones to have passed her.” Socorro opened the door and weak grey light shone out.
Inside was a small corridor, made of the same grey metal Socorro had seen in his visions. Glass squares mounted high in the walls gave off light still, with strange white and grey lines humming up and down across them. Dariun looked at them confused, and went to brush dust off a panel beneath it.
“Touch nothing!” Socorro hissed as Dariun held out an inquisitive hand. “This place holds the weapons of the ancients! They have the power to destroy planets. Touch nothing!”
Dariun let his hand drop, and his brow creased in thought.
“Would they still work after the war of Black Monday? After all this time?”
“Men did not destroy us, God did.”
Dariun blinked Socorro in the dull light, trying to fathom this.
Socorro’s voice became a whisper. “We only seemed capable of conflict. Nations warred with each other, and the world became a boiling pot of anger and frustration. And everyone had access to weapons of terrible power.”
“You saw this in your last vision?” Dariun asked.
“I am seeing it as we walk.”
Miles of corridors later, the pair entered a room full of flashing panels and buzzing screens. Socorro gasped as they walked into the small room, grasping out at thin air with his hands and staring into space.
“What is it, old man?” Dariun asked, standing behind Socorro.
“This is it…God decided to scorch the earth of humankind and start again. The men here…they would be the destroyers of worlds. They decided to unleash a weapon so terrible that generations that came afterward would suffer. Atomic.”
Dariun watched him, and the old man continued talking.
“God saw what we were doing and plunged his hand into the sun, scooping up flame and fire and sent it hurtling toward us. The men here were unable to destroy, because God did it first.
The old man had become crazy. Ever since they entered the Vault of Gods what he talked was non-sense, and now Dariun was convinced he was dangerous.
“How did you kill your village, old man?” He said, ominously.
“When I was a young man, I was arguing with my parents.” Socorro said, still not turning to look at Dariun. “I don’t even recall the subject, but I was so angry! I wanted to show them just how angry I was, and I lashed out with my mind. They fell to the floor, and I screamed.”
As Socorro talked, Dariun drew his knife and took a silent step forward.
“I was scared,” the old man continued, “and the villagers rushed in. They called me a witch and dragged me into the center of town, to the stocks. They strung me up and lashed me over and over. I begged them to stop. Not because I wanted an end to the pain, but because I could feel it building. I told them to run, to get out, save themselves before it happened, but they just jeered and called me a murderer. I felt the energy explode in a nova. I destroyed their minds. I saw it physically tear through their heads, and they fell in a crescent around me. And I hung there, bleeding and crying.”
Socorro’s head bowed, and he fell silent.
Dariun raised the dagger to strike and the old man still did not turn.
“I killed everyone I knew. Everyone I loved, so do not think for an instant I would regret killing you.”
Dariun froze, mid-strike, and Socorro turned.
Socorro ploughed into Dariun’s mind, taking control of his body and riveting him in place. Dariun panicked, trying to flee.
“I heard every thought you had, you know. Right from the start.”
Socorro gazed at Dariun impassively. Dariun’s eyes bulged down at him.
“I knew you were a murderer, and I knew you figured me out. I knew you were scared of me and I knew you planned to kill me once we got here. I knew you would try to stab me in the back for the riches contained here.”
Dariun’s mind raced as he tried to push against the greater force of Socorro’s will.
“What I don’t know, is why you saved me from Black Maria.”
Dariun, still frozen, had no choice but to consider this. He did so, honestly.
Socorro watched him silently.
“I don’t believe you. You have never before cared about another’s wellbeing.” Socorro stated, flatly, and destroyed Dariun’s mind.