(Biqah, bĕ-kä' – plain, level valley)
The wedding ceremony went off without a hitch. Even though it was a reaffirmation of their vows rather than an actual wedding, Aram was in hog heaven, performing the ceremony before a crowd that would have made most kings green with envy, to say nothing of the priests of the other gods.
The wedding vows themselves, written from Storm's memory, caused such a stir the High Priest had to wait several times for the noise to die down. Women, inside and out, broke into spontaneous cheers at the “forsaking all others and cleaving only to” part when it came up. Polygamy had been a sore point with women on Gaia for generations.
The exchange of rings brought many to tears and Aram's final exhortation proclaiming them husband and wife (singular) and telling Storm “you may now kiss the bride,” nearly brought down the house. His formal introduction of them to the crowd as man and wife triggered a near riot as well-wishers tried to mob them with congratulations. The men-at-arms had to link elbows to keep the crowd from breaking through their line. The noise was so loud Aram was forced to tap them on the shoulders to get their attention and lead them toward the back of the Temple since going down the aisle and out the front was simply out of the question; the men-at-arms had had to collapse backwards to prevent the crowd from overrunning them.
One of the under priests slammed and bolted the door as soon as they were through. The noise dropped immediately; the tumult was still audible but at least they could hear themselves think now.
“Phew!” Lorelei exclaimed. “That's louder than the fight we had in Robling.” The battle which had broken out upon Roderick's death involved two sets of soldiers loyal to each of Roderick's sons, with Niran's men and themselves all fighting each other in a wild melee. The shouts and clash of steel had been deafening.
Storm wiggled a finger in his ear. “I don't know if it's louder or not, but it's close.”
Ralt scooped up his staff, left by the door during the ceremony. “They're pretty close,” he agreed. “The only thing worse is a council meeting.” He glanced at Krista. “You okay?”
She nodded. “You didn't see it because your back was to me, but Thomas made sure I got through the door before he and Durin went back to holding off the crowd.” She wiped tears from her eyes. “Those are really the vows you used on Elder Earth?” she asked Storm.
“Just Earth,” he corrected her absently from habit. “Yeah, pretty much. Not everywhere of course, but for the most part, yeah.”
“I love them,” she smiled. “I want Thomas and I to use them when he gets around to asking me to marry him.”
“Just keep doing what I told you and it won't be long,” Lorelei giggled.
Krista's answering giggle caused all the men to exchange dubious glances.
“Do we want to know?” Ralt stage-whispered to Storm.
Storm gave his head a firm shake. “Not a chance.”
Lorelei stuck her tongue out at them then grabbed Krista's arm and marched down the hall to change back into her fighting clothes. Storm grinned after her then followed suit, doffing the scratchy tuxedo in favor of the familiar feel of his leathers and weapons. He and Ralt were heading toward the front of the Temple when they heard the well-known sound of metal on metal as swords and shields came together outside, followed by screams and shouts. He broke into a flat run, sword in hand, hoping hope-against-hope none of the Lord of Light guards were involved in whatever skirmish was taking place. He felt rather than saw, Ralt hard on his heels, staff at the ready.
He rammed his shoulder into the small door leading out the side, near the front of the Temple. As he peeked outside he saw Lorelei and Durin barreling down the hall to join them.
Tightly packed crowds of people were shoving and pushing, craning their necks toward the front of the Temple, trying to see what was going on. There was no way they were going to be able to make their way through that herd of humanity; he pulled the heavy door shut before they spotted him. “Is there another way out,” he asked Aram, “or maybe a balcony overlooking the front courtyard?”
The High Priest, for all his portly manner, had easily kept up with them, and was now brandishing a heavy, well-worn mace as if it were light as a feather. “This way,” he said, leading them down a short hall to another door, Behind it was a steep, winding staircase. He took them two-at-a-time, going up. At the top he crashed through another door onto a protected balcony with crenelated walls. “The Lord of Light has never been popular with The Six,” he explained, “so this place was built more like a fortress than a Temple, just in case.”
Storm nodded abruptly. “Smart move.” He peaked over the wall.
There were only so many ways armor could be designed or decorated if it was to retain it's functionality, so guards and men-at-arms for the different religions all wore armor which had much the same basic style with only a few minor differences. In combat the only way to tell them apart quickly was by their colors. Soldiers for the Temple of Light wore white tunics with blue embellishments.
A solid line of them stood in the gate of the courtyard, facing out, while more, armed with bows, lined the walls overlooking the street below. They were tense, but unmoving. All the action was taking place outside the Temple of Light in the open square that fronted the various temples. Through the gate, and over the top of the wall, Storm could see men from the Temple of Ashima in black colors with red piping, battling with others who were wearing solid green. “Who are the ones in green?” he asked Aram.
“Temple of Adrammelech,” he said shortly, surveying the scene. He craned his neck, trying to see as much as possible. “It doesn't look like any others are involved, as least that I can see.” Around the great plaza, guards standing in front of the other temples were tense, their weapons in hand but for the time being doing nothing other than watching. He leaned over the wall. “Brother Barmus!” he shouted at someone below.
There was an indistinct reply, then he shouted, “Check the guards in the watch tower. Find out how this started, and who all is involved.” A faint, affirmative reply was barely audible over the noise.
“You should close the gates,” Storm advised Aram. “We don't want the fighting to spill in here.”
Aram shook his head decisively. “Closing the gates would be interpreted as a warlike gesture. They'd attack to try to keep us from closing them,” he gestured at the men fighting beyond the walls.
Storm ran a practiced eye over the forces protecting the Temple of Light and the ones outside; it was too lopsided for his taste. Krista appeared from nowhere to stick her head over the wall beside him. “We're outnumbered!” she exclaimed in alarm, voicing his own thoughts.
“You should be inside,” Storm told her. “I thought Thomas knew better.”
“I do,” the lanky bowman snapped, coming up behind her, “but she wouldn't listen.” He threw an irritated look at her.
Storm closed his lips over the angry words he wanted to unleash. “Durin! That line of soldiers doesn't look strong enough to repel a group of school children, let alone all those fighters out there.”
The dwarf nodded his agreement. “Aye. And all our men are having their hands full controlling the crowds inside the Temple.” He cast a sidelong glance at Aram. “Don't ye have more men?”
“I wish,” the priest returned shortly. “But we're still the smallest faith on Gaia. Good soldiers are hard to come by.”
“Well, you've four more right here,” Storm said grimly, hefting his sword. Durin, Ralt and Lorelei echoed his fighting smile with raised weapons of their own.
“Five,” Thomas corrected, knocking an arrow in his ever-present bow.
“Six,” Krista interrupted primly. She gave Thomas an arch look. He hesitated, then nodded reluctantly.
Aram twirled his mace. “Seven,” he concluded. He met Storm's eyes. “Whenever you're ready.”
Storm bared his teeth in a savage grin. This was more like it! He might not be a barbarian by birth but their delight in battle ran through his veins nonetheless. It helped propel his meteoric rise through the ranks in the Marines on Earth and through the caravan guards here on Gaia.
“That would be now! Follow me!” he shouted, vaulting over the wall to the ground below, aiming for the tiny open area between the crowd and the gate. He whipped out his second sword as the others landed all around him. Two quick strides brought him to the gate where he shouldered his way through the soldiers to stand squarely in the middle. He felt Ralt take position on his right and Lorelei on his left, Durin beside her. Thomas and Krista fell in beside Ralt while Aram took a place beside Durin.
The tall, muscular Captain of the guard, a seasoned veteran, was encouraged by their presence. “So far they've ignored us,” he shouted, “except for few, now and then that stagger into our lines. We just shove them away. It seems to work.”
Storm nodded to let him know he'd heard him, but his main attention was focused on the battle raging before them. As near as he could tell, close to a hundred men from the Temple of Ashima were fighting roughly an equal number from the Temple of Adrammelech; which gave them a four-to-one advantage if they combined forces to attack the Temple of Light. That didn't look likely though; from what he could see they appeared determined to exterminate each other. The sheer hatred on their faces was readily apparent. Bodies were piling up on the ground as he watched.
Then, two great rainbow flashes of light split the morning air. Everyone had to shield their eyes to keep from being blinded. When the dazzling radiance faded, two mighty figures were standing in the great plaza.
They were over eight feet tall, perfectly proportioned men with angelic faces that were stern but noble. Ash white hair tumbled down to their shoulders in curly locks. Piercing blue eyes that glowed with power swept over the masses of humanity staring at them in shocked awe. One wore a robe of pure emerald green. The other wore a similar robe that was black with red stripes down each side. But for their robes they could have been brothers.
They glowed with power.
Storm felt Lorelei shift at his side. “Adrammelech,” she muttered in shock. “It’s Adrammelech!”
“What?” He stared at the figures. They were actually real? He’d always heard that they were, and Lorelei had claimed to have seen Adrammelech before but somehow he’d never really believed it. He switched on his sight and felt his heart stumble in his chest at the sheer power of them.
“Who’s the other one?” he asked her.
She shook her head wordlessly but Aram answered for her. “Ashima.”
“Uh oh,” Ralt muttered.
Storm snarled defiance, crouching over his swords. Two gods showing up at the same time? What could they possibly want?
Dead silence had fallen over the plaza at the appearance of the gods. People shrank away from them on all sides, except for the priests of their respective temples who hurried forward to prostrate themselves before their deities. Ashima extended his hand benevolently over his faithful but Adrammelech ignored them, walking past them as if they didn’t exist, his eyes fixed on Storm.
He paused about halfway to him. “So, you’re the one who killed our servant, Niran.” His voice sounded like thunder, echoing and rolling off the temple walls around them.
Storm recognized death starting him in the face when he saw it. Adrammelech was going to kill him no matter what he said, and his magic sight assured him the creature before him had more than enough power to do it without breaking a sweat. Since he was going to die anyway, he had nothing to lose by telling the truth.
He steeled his nerves. “Niran was a blood thirsty monster, just like you!” he shouted, his voice tiny in comparison to Adrammelech’s.
Gasps of horror and outrage rose all around the plaza as people reacted angrily to his open blasphemy. They were shaking their fists and yelling at him.
Lorelei tossed her head at the crowds. “He’s telling the truth!” She was terrified but hiding it by getting mad.
Adrammelech turned his burning gaze to her. “Oh yes, the adulterous slut,” he said mockingly.
“I'm faithful to my husband!” she gasped in outrage.
“I AM YOUR HUSBAND!” he roared in anger. The ground shook from the power of his voice. “You were conceived and born to be my priestess, but instead you ran off and played the harlot with a foreign god!” He calmed himself. “Leave that god and come back to me.”
She clenched her fists to keep her hands from shaking in groveling terror. “No! I'll never come back to you or Menewa! I'll never marry him!”
Storm glanced sideways at her in confusion. Who was Menewa?
Adrammelech smiled benevolently, “Of course you won't marry him.”
She was surprised. “I won't?”
“Of course not, because the prophecy was a false prophecy. You've been led astray, my dear,” he purred gently. “But you can still be forgiven. Slay the madman beside you who claims to be from a world long gone, kneel before me to swear your undying allegiance, and you will be elevated as none before you have been elevated or honored. I will even reunite you with your father.” He spread his hands benevolently, inviting her to him.
“You can bring him back to life? But, but I thought healing and such were abominations against nature,” Lorelei protested weakly. His words sounded so reasonable, so reassuring, she found herself suddenly doubting everything she'd come to believe.
He smiled benignly. “I'm the god of nature. I decide if a thing is an abomination or holy. Come to me and be holy, as I am holy.” He lifted his arms wide. “Come to me, my child. Come to me.”
Adrammelech's claim to be holy was almost more than Storm could bear. He was taking God's words and twisting them to suit his own purposes. He’d never been much of a church goer, but this was more than he could stand. “If you’re going to kill us then kill us and be done with it,” he shouted, “but quit trying to pretend to be something you’re not – monster!”
Adrammelech's eyes narrowed angrily at the insult and for a moment Storm thought he was dead. Then the creature – he refused to think of it as a god – gave him a condescending smile. “I won’t dirty my hands with the likes of you,” he snarled. “Ashima and I have jointly decided you must die for killing our servant and stealing our property.”
“The bloodstone gem,” Ralt muttered beside him, finally overcoming his awe.
“Ya think?” Storm returned shortly.
Adrammelech and Ashima suddenly rose into the air until they were floating together a hundred feet over their heads. They looked down at their faithful staring worshipfully up at them. They pointed at the Temple of Light.
“Kill them! Kill them all!”