“THE DEMONS MUST BE EMERGING FROM THE SEA AGAIN,” THE overseer said as he entered the storehouse.
Alarmed, Keta the butcher sprinted to the entrance, meat cleaver in hand. He looked toward the distant shore, but saw no monsters. The ocean was its normal blue, not blood-red like the last time. “Are they coming?” he gasped. It had been nearly twenty years since their last incursion into the lands of House Uttara. “How do you know? Have you seen them?”
Yet the overseer wasn’t panicking like most men would if they’d seen such horrors. “Calm yourself, butcher.” The large man scowled as he moved one hand to the whip at his side. He was a hard man but, unlike most appointed to his station, not a totally unkind one. Such disrespectful questions could earn a beating. They were both casteless, but even amongst the lowest of the low, there was order.
Keta bowed his head. “Forgive me. I was little the last time the demons came. They slaughtered everyone.” Realizing that he was still clutching the sharpened cleaver, Keta quickly dropped it onto a nearby table. The Law said his kind were not allowed weapons, only the tools necessary to perform their work. “Fear made me speak out of turn.”
The overseer let go of the whip. “I’ve seen the ocean beasts myself. Only a fool would be unafraid. There have been no raids yet.” Remarkably, he took the time to answer the young man’s questions. “This morning I was told that one of the Protectors of the Law is on his way here.”
Keta’s mouth was suddenly very dry.
“A Protector is coming all the way from the capital.” The overseer scratched his head. “That’s a long journey, and this house isn’t so big to warrant such a visit. I bet demons have been seen along these shores again. What else could attract a Protector’s attention?”
An uprising . . . But Keta didn’t speak. The Protectors kept order between houses and the castes in their place. He could only pray to the Forgotten that it was demons from the Haunted Sea and not another purge that brought such a perfect killer into their midst. What a horrible thing to wish for.
“Regardless of the reason for the visit, the master wants his holdings in top shape for a visitor of such high status.” The overseer glanced around Keta’s storehouse. Cured meats hung from chains. Barrels of salted fish were neatly stacked in the corners. The storehouse was already extremely neat and organized, as Keta had learned a long time ago that the best way to avoid trouble was to never cause any. “I can’t imagine a warrior who can kill demons with his bare hands inventorying meat, but clean everything just in case.”
“As you command, it will be done.”
“And one other thing.” The overseer leaned in conspiratorially. “I heard the master giving instructions. If it is demons, and we’re raided, the warriors are to protect the master’s household first, then the town, then the livestock next, and once the cows and pigs are safe, only then see to the casteless quarter.” The overseer’s disgust was obvious. “It’s nice to know that years of loyal service has made it so that our master values the chickens more than he values the lives of my children.”
Was this a test of his obedience? “That is how they are valued according to the Law.”
“I don’t think demons honor the Law.” The overseer’s eyes darted toward the discarded meat cleaver. “I’d keep that handy if I were you.”
“That is just a tool necessary to fulfill the responsibilities assigned to me,” Keta said automatically. “I would never—”
“Of course.” The overseer nodded. “It’s just a tool. I forget myself. That’s not a wise thing to do with a Protector coming. I will spread the word. Get back to work.”
He waited until the master’s man had left the storehouse before returning the meat cleaver to its place on his apron. The overseer was correct. The master and the Law were correct. A sharpened piece of steel was just a tool. The spears, knives, and clubs Keta had been secretly stockpiling beneath the barrels of fish were also just tools.
His mind was the weapon.
* * *
“I think the overseer might join with us when the time comes,” Keta whispered to his fellow conspirators.
“He strikes me as the master’s man,” Baldev said. “I wouldn’t trust him.”
“I don’t know. He seemed truthful. I think he’s had enough of the Law. Same as us.”
“The overseer’s words are worth salt water.” Govind’s teeth were visible in the dark when he grinned. “Besides, he’s given me the whip one too many times for no good reason. He’s getting his throat cut, same as the rest of the master’s pets, when the time comes.”
There was a constant low level of noise in the bunkhouse, as was bound to happen when you packed over two dozen casteless men, women, and children into one shack, so they weren’t too worried about being overheard. There were many other bunkhouses just like this one on the master’s lands, and each one had its own conspirators as well.
“When the time comes? We keep talking about that like it’s the return of the Forgotten.” Baldev was casual about his blasphemy. “If this Protector is on his way because of us, the time needs to be now. We need to strike soon.”
The dirt floor was covered in straw. Everyone slept on top of their personal belongings to keep them from getting stolen during the night. Keta rolled over on his meat cutter’s apron to stare at his friend. “Are you mad? We’re not ready. There aren’t enough of us.”
“The master’s house only has a hundred warriors. We’ve got twice that now.”
“Have you been out in the sun too long, Govind?” Keta was actually surprised the fisherman could count that high. “Your duty is to mend the nets. That’s all you do. Sleep, eat, shit, screw, and mend nets, and then complain about mending nets to us before you repeat it all the next day. Your whole life you’ve worked on nets. How good are you at mending nets?”
“I’m really good at mending nets.”
“So, if I grabbed any two men here, and sent them to the beach tomorrow, they together would be able to handle nets as good as you by yourself?”
“Of course not. It takes time.”
“Exactly, stupid. The warrior caste’s only duty is to fight and train to fight. That’s all they do. That’s all they care about. You hear them on the other side of that fence, hitting each other with wooden swords from dawn to dusk. They’re as good at their duty as you are at yours. No, we wait until we have enough to overwhelm the house all at once. And then when we win, we win fast and clean. All of the casteless in this province will rise up and kill their warriors, too.”
Baldev was the strongest, but he knew Keta was the smart one. “And there’s so many of us that even the other houses won’t be able to do a thing.”
“This province is the ass end of the land. We’ve got cursed ocean on three sides. The other houses are too busy fighting each other to send an army to deal with us, and by the time they do, we’ll have formed our own army. A real casteless army. Only then, we won’t be casteless anymore. We’ll be whole men, like them, and even the Law will have to recognize us.”
“Just because you’re the only one of us who can read makes you think you’re so smart,” Govind snarled. “You steal one of the master’s books about strategy, and you think you’re such an expert. You’re a dreamer.”
The book had merely given him new ideas. Govind had no idea just how much of a dreamer Keta really was. They were focused on freeing themselves, but Keta wanted to free all of the casteless in every province. He wanted to see the great houses in flames. Even though they weren’t allowed to speak of the old ways or practice any of their traditions, Keta knew in his heart that the Forgotten was real, and though they had abandoned their god, their god would never abandon them.
“We keep doing what we’re doing. Find more like us, willing to fight and smart enough to keep their mouths shut. When the day comes, we’ll know. Soon, my friends, it’ll be very soon.”
Govind grunted. “Fine. We’ll wait then. And while we wait, this Protector will show up, breathing fire, kill us all, eat our souls, and we’ll be so much better off. I’m going to sleep.”
Keta lay on his back, stared at the logs of the ceiling, and tried to ignore the screaming of hungry babies.
Baldev waited a minute before whispering again. “What are we going to do about the Protector, Keta?”
“Nobody will talk. Our plan is safe.”
“And if it’s not?”
They’d all heard stories about what the Protectors of the Law were capable of. “The Protectors are only men, Baldev. They’re only men.”
* * *
“You are wrong.”
Keta woke up with a start. He sat up in the straw, and his first instinct was to move his hands about to make sure no one had stolen his belongings or the meager amount of food he had stashed. It took him a moment to regain enough sense to understand that it was very late, and the bunkhouse was too quiet. The snoring, grunting, and farting of the packed in bodies seemed muted, like his ears were plugged. But he’d heard a voice. Keta looked around and flinched as he realized somebody was sitting in the straw behind him, only a few feet away.
“The Protectors are more than men now. It is best to think of them as a one-man army, or perhaps a one-man inquisition. They are warrior monks of the highest caste, whose bodies and minds have been broken by hardship and reformed by magic, and if one of them is trying to kill you, then you will more than likely die.”
Keta slowly put one hand on the handle of his cleaver. Squinting, he tried to make out the visitor’s features in the dark. The stranger was very old, probably forty years at least, thin even by casteless standards, and dressed in fabric made of the coarse woven fibers common to one of their station. “Who’re you?”
“Someone who has been listening to your plotting and been rather amused by it. Our people were thrown down forty generations ago. Do you really think in all those years you are the first who has thought he could destroy the Law?”
“Quiet!” Keta hissed. The old man wasn’t even whispering. He scanned the room, but everyone appeared to be asleep. “Are you trying to get us killed?”
“You are doing a fine job of that without any help from me. Besides, none of them can hear us. We may speak freely.”
Keta snorted. “What? Are you supposed to be a wizard or something?”
“Yes, Keta the butcher, something like that. I am the Ratul, Keeper of Names, and I have come to help you shake the foundations of the world.”
* * *
Keta did not speak of the strange visitor to anyone, especially his fellow conspirators. They would’ve either thought he was mad, or that it was some sort of elaborate ploy to expose them. But a Keeper of Names? They were a tale that casteless mothers would tell their children to give them enough hope to sleep at night. Even talking of the Forgotten’s clergy was a violation of the Law. Only a babbling madman would claim to be one. Yet, Keta had to know the truth.
The next night he waited for everyone assigned to his shack to fall asleep before sneaking out the back window. His sandals didn’t make much noise on the grass. There were so few warriors here that he wasn’t worried about being seen, but even if he was, he’d never been caught violating curfew before and more than likely could plead his way out of it by saying that he was going to visit one of the women assigned to a different shack. He’d probably only get a beating to show for it at worst. As much as the higher castes would never admit it, Keta suspected he was far too valuable at his duties to start chopping his limbs off for such a minor infraction. He did the work of a butcher and a storekeeper, and it would take far too long to teach another casteless to read the inventory ledgers.
The tide was high. The surf was crashing against the black rocks. Ratul was waiting for him there.
The madman did not turn to look as Keta approached. “Did you know that in the days before the sky opened and the demons fell from the heavens, that man actually moved across the waters in great vessels?”
“That’s foolishness.” The ocean was pure evil. There were only two things to be found in the ocean: death and fish. And fish were only good to feed to the casteless, as whole men would never touch something tainted by unclean salt water. “Why would anyone do such a thing?”
“Because we are not alone, or maybe we are now, but we were not then. There are other lands, as big or bigger than this one, and isles, so many isles, thousands of them in between.”
Keta knew that there were islands. On a clear day some could even be seen on the horizon. He remembered a time many years ago when some of the casteless decided to try and make it to one. A false prophet had a vision, saying they could go live in a place beyond the Law’s reach, and be whole men there. He said the Forgotten would protect them during their journey. Many fools had gone with him on their pathetic cobbled-together boat, while the rest had watched, curious, along the shore. Of course, the demons had come from the deep and consumed them, and the master of the house had laughed and laughed at the foolishness of his non-people.
“There used to be trade, of ideas, things, animals and crops. Men explored and settled and made new lives and bore children who’d do the same. Now that the demons own the sea, I wonder if those other lands have become as dark and isolated as this one, or if they still live at all. Here, Ramrowan pushed the demons back into the sea. Maybe the Forgotten didn’t send other lands such a hero.”
He had heard so many conflicting myths and stories, but this was new. “Ramrowan?”
“They’ve done such a fine job stomping out our history here.” Ratul looked at Keta for the first time. “When God defeated the demons in the War in Heaven, they fell here and began a great slaughter. Mortals could not slice the hide of a demon, so God sent one of his generals to the world to protect us. It was Ramrowan who united all the houses and pushed the demons back into the sea. Thus Ramrowan became the First King. We built a great temple at the spot where he fell to the world, and a city sprung up around it. It is still the capital today.”
“The Law says that there are no gods and no kings,” Keta said suspiciously. “There is no temple in the capital, and there is certainly no king over the houses.”
“The Law did not exist then. In those days there were prophets who taught God’s will. After Ramrowan died, the prophets said that the demons would return again, and only the blood of Ramrowan would be able to smite them. If this bloodline died out, we would all perish with it. The Sons of Ramrowan were to defend us, and their bloodline could never die, or we would be defenseless before the demons. They each took a hundred wives and had many more sons who each took many more wives. Their lives were sacred, and far more important than lesser men, so the first caste was born.”
“There have always been castes!” Keta insisted. “I read it in a book!”
“Heh. You can read? I knew that I chose well. No, butcher, the Sons of Ramrowan were the first caste, and as time went on other castes were created to serve their whims. First were the workers, then the warriors, then the merchants and most of the others that we still have today, all of them created to see that every desire of the Sons was granted. All wealth was theirs to take. Any woman they desired was granted as another wife, because what are the wishes or property of any one house compared to our eternal security from the demons? The priests enforced the will of the ruling caste. They began to replace their god’s teachings with the desires of the Sons of Ramrowan. As the numbers of the first caste grew, so did their greed and pride.”
“We will rise up and kill them all,” Keta spat. “They are still horrible today!”
“Yes . . .” Ratul turned back to the waves. “Yes, they are.” He sighed. “Things changed over the generations. The priests began to forget their god, and the prophecies were merely tools to gain riches. The church and the Sons of Ramrowan became one and the same, and the priests even bore their name. Eventually, the great houses grew in unbelief until they only saw the priesthood as oppressors. The Sons of Ramrowan, who had grown fat and indolent, were no match for the brutal warrior caste they’d created to protect them. The great houses were so angry that they destroyed the church and killed every priest they could find. The temples were burned and the statues were smashed. The Law was written to correct the excesses of the First Caste, but it went too far. It declared there was no before and no after, so it only set in stone corruption. And thus our god was Forgotten.”
“You claim to be of the old priesthood.” Keta didn’t know what to believe. “Why are you telling me this, Ratul?”
“Because the Protector of the Law isn’t coming here for your pathetic rebellion. He is coming here for me.”
* * *
Govind, the net mender, was at his left, and Baldev, the stone lifter, was at his right. Today they were not casteless net menders, stone lifters, or butchers, they were soldiers, and they were striking back against the house that had kept a boot on their face their entire life. Twenty more casteless were crowding against the doorway behind them, eager to begin.
This is what it must feel like to be a whole man.
The sound of woodcutter’s axes falling on sleeping heads was far louder than expected. The warrior’s barracks was coming to life. Men were springing from their beds—the warrior caste got actual beds—and taking up their swords.
“Kill them all!” Keta lifted his meat cleaver and hurled himself, screaming, at the nearest rising warrior. He lashed out and caught the warrior’s wrist as he reached for his sheathed sword. The stump came back, pumping red. Keta snarled and hacked away. Steel parted flesh, opening the warrior’s neck clear to the vertebra, and he flopped back into this blankets.
Keta had never killed a man before, but he found they died not so different than butchering a pig.
Until they fought back.
The warriors collected themselves far too quickly, and then their swords were slicing back and forth through the darkness. They stood shoulder to shoulder, each one knowing what to do because they’d practiced together for thousands of hours. A handful of assassins rushed them, and casteless blood splattered the walls and pumped out onto the floor as a result. Another group hit, but the warriors split the wave like a cliff rock.
They were a wall of steel. The warrior’s backs were to a stone wall. Keta had expected this would happen. They needed to be pulled into the open, so Keta could surround and crush them with superior numbers. “Outside! Everyone run!” Keta slipped in a puddle, but then Baldev had him by the arm, hoisting him and carrying him back toward the door. “Run!”
Of course, the warriors gave chase, because that was what a predator did when its prey fled. Even naked and barely awake, the warriors didn’t hesitate. They rushed out the door after the assassins, and right into the waiting spears and hurled rocks of a casteless mob. The pursuing warriors had not expected so many foes, and they died quickly as a result.
There were other barracks, but they were made of wood, so they’d been set on fire. As the coughing warriors tried to come out, they were shoved back with spears. Impaled or burned, Keta didn’t care. The manner of their deaths didn’t matter. Only that they all died.
Keta climbed on top of a barrel so that everyone could see him. He waved his bloody cleaver overhead. “Tonight we show them we are whole men. To the master’s house!” If everything had gone as planned, the master would already be dead, throat slit by a casteless pleasure woman who was part of the conspiracy, but Keta didn’t want to dampen his new army’s enthusiasm. “Onward!”
“Drag him from his hiding place and hang him on the punishment wall!” Govind bellowed as he brandished the dead overseer’s whip.
The mob surged toward the master’s house. Other warriors would be waiting, and these would be alert, ready, and possibly armored, but there would be no stopping the tide of blood tonight. Keta hopped down from the barrel.
A hand fell on his shoulder, so hard and strong that at first he thought it had to be Baldev, but instead it was the frail old Ratul, the supposed Keeper of Names. “What are you doing?” he demanded.
“Creating an army. Creating a future!”
“All the time I spent teaching you the old ways, and you’ve learned nothing, hot-blooded fool!” Ratul pointed toward the gateway of the master’s house. “You’ve doomed them all.”
Shadows created by several torches bounced wildly across the stone walls. There was a lone figure silhouetted in the entrance, blocking the way. Keta had to squint to see. There was a man, tall, broad of shoulder, just standing there, without so much as a tremble before the rushing mob of furious bodies. He had a forward-curving sword in one hand, the tip resting on the steps. His armor was strange, and ornate, each piece of steel intricately etched and filled with silver. The stranger looked at Keta’s army . . . and smiled.
It was the Protector of the Law.
“He’s not supposed to be here yet,” Keta stammered. “There’s no way he can—”
The Protector stepped forward, directly into the mob. His movements were quick, difficult to follow, impossible to predict. Spears were thrust into the space he’d been filling and rocks were hurled uselessly through the air. The Protector took another step forward as the first wave of Keta’s rebellion fell dead and dying behind him.
Only a few seconds had passed. The rest of the mob didn’t even know that there was a nightmare in their midst yet, but then the screaming began, and blood sprayed into the torches and burned, sizzling with that familiar smell. Arms and legs were separated. Heads went rolling. And still, the Protector was untouched. Some tried to fight. All of them died. Others tried to run, a few of them made it.
It wasn’t a sword. It was like a farmer’s sickle. And the casteless were wheat.
He walked through the trailing edge of the mob, only it was no longer a mob, it was a mass of severed tendons and broken bones. It was like the floor of Keta’s butcher shop on the busiest day of the year, magnified and spread over the entirety of the master’s grounds.
Baldev was the strongest of them all. He roared as he swung his mighty hammer. The Protector stepped aside and let it shatter the stone where he’d been standing. With barely even a flick of the wrist, Baldev’s guts were suddenly spilled everywhere in a tangled purple mass. Govind struck with the overseer’s whip. It was clumsy, missing the snap of the overseer’s skilled touch. The Protector merely caught the leather, tugged Govind toward him, and sheared the top half of the fisherman’s skull off.
Calm as could be, the killer strolled down the path, silver reflecting the light of torches dropped from nerveless fingers. And, at that moment, the uprising against House Uttara was broken. Keta’s brothers dropped their tools and ran like the sea demons had come to swallow their souls.
Keta would not run. This was his doing. He lifted the meat cleaver in one shaking hand. “Damn your Law!” he screamed at the Protector. “I will die a whole man!”
“No.” Ratul pulled Keta around to face him. “Take this.” He shoved a heavy bundle, wrapped tightly in oilcloth, against Keta’s chest. “Keep it safe. Go south to the Ice Coast.”
Ratul shoved him away with surprising strength. “Flee, Keta the butcher. A new prophet has been called in the south to guide us. God will choose a general like unto Ramrowan of old to lead us. You will serve them both as they forge a true army. God will guide your path. I have seen it.” Ratul reached down and picked up one of the fallen warriors’ swords. He spun it smoothly once, as if testing the weight, and the old man did not seem unused to such an implement. Ratul began walking toward the approaching Protector. “It is time for our people to remember what has been forgotten.”
Keta watched, horrified, as the Protector approached. He stopped several feet away from Ratul, and then did something that Keta had never seen nor imagined he would ever see from someone of such a high station. The Protector politely bowed to Ratul. “Greetings, Keeper.”
“Good evening, Devedas.” Ratul returned the gesture, as if he were an equal. “I’d always hoped it would be you.”
The two lifted their swords, their stances a mirror image of the other.
Keta the butcher ran for his life.
* * *
He ran for hours, across rocks, down the beaches, through the tide pools shallow enough to be free of demons. When he didn’t think he could run any farther, he ran some more, vomiting in the sand, but never slowing. When he thought his heart might burst, he still pushed on, terrified, afraid to look back toward bloody House Uttara. He tripped and gashed his head open on the rocks, but he never dropped the heavy bundle Ratul had given him.
When Keta could run no more, he collapsed into a quivering mass of burning muscle, crawled into the hollow of a tree, and pulled branches and leaves over his hiding spot as the sun rose. He’d sleep during the day and run at night. There would be a purge. There was always a purge when the casteless sinned against the Law. Everyone he had ever known was dead or would be soon.
* * *
When he awoke hours later, Keta found that Ratul’s bundle was still in his hand. The oilcloth had been wrapped tight and cinched with leather straps. Curious, he carefully unwrapped the package.
It was a book. The thickest book he had ever seen. It was nothing like the plain things he’s stolen from the master’s library over the years. This was bound in a thick, black leather, unbelievably smooth when handled one way, but sharp enough to draw blood if rubbed against the grain. He’d heard of such a thing. This was the supposedly indestructible hide of a demon. Keta opened it hesitantly. Each yellowed page was magnificent, packed with letters so small he could barely make them out.
They were names. The book was filled with names and numbers that had to be dates. Linking the names were lines. Page after page, there had to be as many names and lines as there were grains of sand on the beach. It wasn’t that different from the ledgers he’d kept all his life, only these were people, not supplies or animals. The master had such a thing for his house, a wall painted with the names of fathers and sons, stretching back for generations. The master called it a genealogy; only that one had been insignificant in comparison to this.
One page had been marked with a folded piece of parchment. That page said House Uttara across the top, and it was dense with inked names and lines.
He recognized many of the names. These were casteless names.
But it couldn’t be. Each entry had two names. Non-people didn’t get two names. Only whole men had a family name. The Law did not allow the casteless to have families. Casteless were property. Not people.
Hesitantly, Keta traced his finger down the page until he found his own family name.
Heart pounding, hands shaking, he closed the book, then wrapped it tightly in the oilcloth, extra careful to make sure it was sealed and the straps were cinched tight.
Then Keta, Keeper of Names, began his long journey south.
Copyright © 2014 Larry Correia