by Fritz Leiber
Category: Science Fiction
Description: GATHER, DARKNESS! is a science-fiction classic. It tells the story of Armon Jarles, a man on the edge, living amidst the disputes of two rival powers at large in the world. 360 years after a nuclear holocaust ravaged mankind, throwing society back into the dark ages, the world is fraught with chaos and superstition. The new rulers over the masses of humanity are the techno-priests of the Great God, endowed with scientific knowledge lost to the rest of humanity. Jarles, originally of peasant descent, rises to become a priest of the Great God. He knows the gospel propagated by the priests to be a fraud, based on illusion and trickery. Even more offensive to him is the paucity of true believers among the priesthood. One day he rebels against his priestly training and attempts to incite the peasants to rise up and demand freedom, but they are not ready. Jarles is not the only dissenter trying to sabotage and expose the false theocracy of the priesthood--witchcraft is slowly gaining strength and support among the populace. Although Jarles is unaware, his rebellion against the power of the priests is about to throw him headlong into the middle of the greatest holy war the world has ever seen.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1950
eBookwise Release Date: April 2001
46 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [299 KB]
Reading time: 184-258 min.
If it's called evil, is it necessarily malevolent and that called sacred necessarily benevolent? Doesn't it depend on who's designating evil and sacred? "Gather, Darkness!" addresses these and other issues including loyalty, duty, fear, and other human foibles. In a planetary struggle for freedom from oppression, the rebels use the strategy of the establishment -- they use science to make what appears to be religious phenomena. The plot is complex and well paced and the characters dimensional -- I felt sympathy even for the worst villain, and frustration with a few heroes of the cause.
I highly recommend this novel. It's good literature and good science fiction. -Marcia Hanson, Fictionwise Recommender
Brother Jarles, priest of the First and Outermost Circle, novice in the Hierarchy, swallowed hard against his churning anger; bent every effort to make his face a mask -- not only to the commoners, for that was something every member of the Hierarchy was taught to do, but to his brother priests as well.
Any priest who hated the Hierarchy as he did during these frightening spasms of rage must be mad.
But priests could not go mad -- at least, not without the Hierarchy knowing of it, as it knew of everything else.
A misfit then? But a priest was fitted to his job with infinite precision and foresight, the very outlines of his personality measured as if with an atomic probe. A priest could not hate his work.
No, he must be mad. And the Hierarchy must be concealing the fact from him for its own inscrutable purposes.
Or else -- everything to the contrary -- he was right.
At the touch of that sickening thought, the Great Square of Megatheopolis seemed to haze and bloat before his eyes. The commoners became drab blurs; the priests here and there, scarlet ones, topped with the healthy pink of well-fed faces.
Fighting for composure and vision itself, he forced himself to focus on the year-stone of a recently-built dwelling in the commoners' section. The inscription read, "139 G.G."
He sought to maintain calm by a calculation. The year 139 of the Great God would be the year 206 of the Golden Age, except that Golden Age dates were not recognized. It would also be the year 360 of the Atomic Age. And finally the year 2305 of the Dawn Civilization and -- what was the god called? -- Christ.
"Hamser Chohn, Commoner of the Fifth Ward! Stand forward, my son."
Brother Jarles winced. In moods like this, that reedy voice grated unendurably on him. Why had he been paired with Brother Chulian! Why, for that matter, must priests never work alone, but always by twos!
But he knew the reason. It was so they might spy on each other, make detailed reports on each other. So that the Hierarchy would know of everything.
Fighting every instant to maintain the mask, he turned back. His eyes automatically dodged the fourth face in the queue of commoners lined up before himself and Brother Chulian.
That fat, blue-eyed, soft-cheeked, shaven priest was consulting the work lists, which were printed in primitive style for the benefit of the commoners, who did not know -- and were not supposed to know -- anything of reading tapes. Really, there was no reason to hate Brother Chulian especially. Just a rank-and-file priest of the Second Circle. Just a bloated baby.
But you could hate a bloated baby when he exercised over adult commoners the powers of schoolmaster, minister, and parent.
Only one good thing -- this particular job, so distasteful to Jarles, tickled Brother Chulian's sense of self-importance so much that he was willing to do it all by himself.
The little fat priest looked up from the work lists at the stalwart young commoner nervously twisting a shapeless hat in big, horny hands, pausing every second to wipe one of them against a home-woven smock.
"My son," he piped benignly, "you are to work for the next three months in the mines. That will reduce your contribution to the Hierarchy to a mere half of your private earnings. You will report here to the appropriate deacon at dawn tomorrow. Hamser Dom!"
The young commoner gulped, nodded twice, and quickly stepped aside.
Jarles' anger flared anew. The mines! Worse than the fields, or even the roads! Surely the man must know. And yet, when he had heard, he had looked grateful -- that same fawning look the old books were always attributing to a faithful domestic animal of the genus Canis, now extinct.
Jarles wrenched his gaze away, again skipping the same face, now third in line. It was that of a woman.
The sinking sun sent rich shadows across the Great Square. The crowd was thinning. Only the tail-ends of a few wards were still waiting to hear what the work lists held in store. Here and there smocked or bloused commoners -- the men in clumsy leggings, the women in heavy skirts -- were gathering up the leftovers of homemade goods they had brought to barter or sell, loading them onto their own backs or those of small, burly mules, then trailing off into the narrow, cobbled streets of the commoners' section. Some wore broad-brimmed hats of a coarse felt. Others had already pulled up their hoods, although the chill of evening had not yet arrived.
Looking toward the commoners' section of Megatheopolis, Jarles was reminded of pictures he had seen of the cities of the Black Ages, or Middle Ages -- or whatever that period of the Dawn Civilization had been called. Except that the houses here were mostly one-story and windowless, and everything was very neat and clean. Although he was only a priest of the First Circle, he knew that the resemblance was no coincidence. The Hierarchy did not tolerate coincidence. It had a reason for everything.
An old crone in ragged garments and a peaked hat hobbled past. The other commoners drew away from her. A small boy yelled, "Mother Jujy! Witch! Witch!" shied a stone at her and raced off. But Jarles smiled at her faintly. And she smiled back -- an unpleasant grimacing of wrinkled lips over toothless gums during which her hooked nose and jutting chin seemed about to meet. Then she was on her way again, feeling with her cane for secure places between the cobbles.
In the other direction, Megatheopolis was magically different. For there rose the gleaming buildings of the Sanctuary, topped by the incredible structure of the Cathedral, which fronted the Great Square.
Jarles looked up at the Great God, and for a moment felt fingering through his anger a touch of the same pious fear that vast idol had awakened in him when he was only a commoner's child -- long before he had passed the tests and begun to learn the secrets of the priests. Could the Great God see his blasphemous rage, with those huge, searching, slightly frowning eyes? But such a superstitious fancy was unworthy even of a novice in the Hierarchy.
Without the Great God, the Cathedral was still a mighty structure of soaring columns and peaked windows tall as pine trees. But where one might expect a steeple or a pair of towers, began the figure of the Great God -- the upper half of a gigantic human form, terrible in its dignity and serenity. It did not clash with the structure below. The heavy folds of its drapery became the columns of the Cathedral, and it was built of the same gray plastic.
It dominated all Megatheopolis, like some unbelievable centaur. There was hardly an alley from which one could not glimpse the stern yet benignant face with the glowing nimbus of blue light.
One felt that the Great God was minutely studying every pygmy creature that crossed the Great Square, as if he could at any moment reach down and pick one up for a closer scrutiny.
As if? Every commoner knew there was no "as if" about it!
But that massive figure did not rouse in Jarles one atom of pride at the glory and grandeur of the Hierarchy and his great good fortune in having been chosen to become part of it. Instead, his anger thickened and tightened, becoming an intolerable shell about his emotions -- as red and oppressive as the scarlet robe he wore.
Jarles flinched at the name chirruped by Brother Chulian. But now the moment had arrived; he realized he would have to look at her. Not to, would be cowardly. Every novice priest experienced great difficulties before he finally succeeded in breaking all emotional ties that linked him to the commoners -- to family and friends, and more than friends. Face the fact: Naurya could never mean anything to him.
Nor he to her, he realized with something of a shock as he quickly slewed his head around so that he was looking up into her face. For she did not seem to recognize him or take note of him, although, save for his robe and shaven pate, he was the same as ever. She stood there quietly, showing none of the cringing nervousness of the men. Her hands, calloused by the loom, were folded at her waist. Her face, paler for the masses of dark hair, was without emotion -- or else a better mask than his own.
Something -- the way she threw her shoulders back -- the air of hidden purpose sunk deep, deep in her green eyes -- thrust through the shell of his anger and prodded his heart.
"My little daughter, Naurya," Chulian cooed importantly, "I have good news for you. A great honor is yours. For the next six months you are to serve in the Sanctuary."
There was no change in her expression, no outward indication of her reaction, but it was a few seconds before she replied.
"It is too great an honor. I am unworthy. Such holy work is not for the likes of a simple weaver."
"That is true," said Chulian judiciously, bobbing his chubby hairless head up and down within the stiff funnel of his collar. "But the Hierarchy may lift up whom it will, even from the ranks of the most humble. It has deemed you worthy for the holy work. Rejoice, my daughter. Rejoice."
Her voice was as quiet and grave as when she first replied. "But I am still unworthy. I know it in my heart. I cannot do it."
"Cannot, my daughter?" Abruptly Chulian's voice became querulously stern. "Do you mean 'will not'?"
Almost imperceptibly, Naurya nodded. The eyes of the commoners behind her grew wide, and they stopped their nervous fumblings.
Brother Chulian's soft little mouth set in an implacable pout. The work lists crackled loudly as he clenched them in his red-gloved hand.
"You understand what you are doing, daughter? You understand that you are disobeying a command of the Hierarchy, and of the Great God the Hierarchy serves?"
"I know in my heart that I am unworthy. I cannot."
But this time the nod was very definite. Again Jarles felt something thrusting at his ribs.
Chulian bounced up from the bench he shared with Jarles. "No commoner may question the judgments of the Hierarchy, for they are right! I sense more here than simple stubbornness, more even than sinful obstinancy. There is only one sort of commoner who would fear to enter the Sanctuary when bidden. I sense -- witchcraft," he announced dramatically, and struck his chest with the flat of his hand. Instantly his scarlet robe ballooned out tautly, until it stood a handbreadth away from his body at every point. The effect was frighteningly grotesque, like a scarlet pouter pigeon. And above his shaven head a violet halo glowed.
The faces of the commoners grew more pale. But Naurya only smiled very faintly, and her green eyes seemed to bore into Chulian.
"And that, once sensed, is easily discovered!" the swollen little priest continued triumphantly.
He stepped quickly forward. His puffy scarlet glove clutched at her shoulder without seeming quite to touch it, yet Jarles saw her bite her lips against sudden hurt. Then the scarlet glove flirted downward, ripping the heavy smock, so that the shoulder was uncovered.
There were three circular marks on the white skin. One burned angry red. The others were rapidly becoming so.
Jarles thought that Chulian hesitated a moment and stared puzzledly at them, before gathering himself and shrilling out, "Witchmarks! Proof!"
Unsteadily Jarles got to his feet. His anger made him retch, a nauseating force. He slapped his own chest, felt the uniform inward pressure of the field at every point of his body, like a bath of warm wax; saw from the comer of his eye the gleam of his halo. Then he launched his fist at Chulian's neck.
The slow-looking blow did not seem to reach its mark, but Chulian tumbled down and rolled over twice. Even as he rolled, his robe stood out between him and the ground, as if he were inside a red rubber ball.
Again Jarles slapped his own chest. His robe went limp and his halo vanished. And in that instant his anger exploded hotly, burning the mask of hypocrisy from his face.
Let them blast him! Let them blind and deafen him with excommunication! Let them drag him screaming to the crypts below the Sanctuary! The Hierarchy had seen fit to let him go mad without interfering. Very well, then! They would have a taste of his madness!
He sprang onto the bench and held up his hands for attention.
"Commoners of Megatheopolis!"
That checked the beginnings of a panicky flight. Eyes turned to stare at him stupidly. They had not yet begun to comprehend what had happened. But when a priest spoke, one listened.
"You have been taught that ignorance is good. I tell you it is evil!"
"You have been taught that to think is evil. I tell you it is good!"
"You have been told that it is your destiny to toil night and day, until your backs ache to breaking and your hands blister under the calluses. I tell you it is the destiny of all men to look for easier ways!"
"you have let the priests rule your lives. I tell you that you must rule yourselves!"
"You believe that the priests have supernatural powers. I tell you they have no powers you could not wield yourselves!"
"You believe that the priests are chosen to serve the Great God and transmit his commands. But -- if there is a god anywhere -- each one of you, in his ignorant heart, knows more of him than the mightiest archpriest."
"You have been told that the Great God rules the universe -- earth and sky. I tell you the Great God is a fake!"
Like whiplashes, the short, sharp sentences flicked into the corners of the Great Square, turned all eyes toward him. The words were not understood, except that they were very different from what the priests ever said. They frightened. They almost hurt. But they tugged irresistibly. Everywhere -- even in the work queues -- commoners looked at the nearest priest, and getting no contradictory order, trotted over toward Jarles.
And Jarles now looked around him in bewilderment. He had expected to be silenced almost at once. His sole object had been to say as much as he could, or rather to let his anger say whatever it wanted to in its brief moment of freedom.
But the blow did not fan. No priest made a move toward him, or acted as if anything out of the ordinary were happening. And his unquenched anger continued to speak for him.
"Commoners of Megatheopolis, what I am going to ask you to do is hard. Harder than work in the mines, though I won't ask you to lift a finger. I want you to listen to what I say, to weigh my words for truth, to make a judgment as to the worth of what I tell you, and then to act on that judgment. You hardly know what all that means, but you must try to do it, nevertheless! To weigh my words for truth? That's to see how they square with what you've seen happen in your private lives -- not what you've been told. To make a judgment? That's to decide whether or not you want something, after you've learned what it is. I know the priests have told you all that is wrong. Forget the priests! Forget I wear the scarlet robe. And listen, listen!"
Now surely the blow must fall! They wouldn't let him say any more! Involuntarily he looked up at the form of the Great God. But that serene idol was taking no more notice of what was happening in the square than a human being might take of a swarming of ants around a bit of sugar.
"You all know the story of the Golden Age," he was already saying, his voice now richly vibrant with secrets to unfold. "You hear it every time you go to the Cathedral. How the Great God gave divine powers to all men, so that they lived as in paradise, without toil or sorrow. How men grew restless and dissatisfied, wanting still more, and sinned in all manner of ways, and lived in vice and lechery. How the Great God in mercy restrained his anger, hoping that they would reform. How, in their evil pride, they finally sought to storm heaven itself and all its stars. Then, as the priests never weary of telling you, the Great God rose up in his wisdom and wrath, and winnowed out the few men who had not sinned against him and were still obedient to his holy laws. Them he made into his Hierarchy and gave them supernatural powers even greater than before. The rest -- the sinful ones -- the cast down and ground into the dust, and gave his Hierarchy power over them, so that those who had not of their own free wills lived virtuously would be made to do so by force! Then he further decreed that his Hierarchy select from each generation of men the naturally virtuous to be priests, and reject the rest, to toil in blissful ignorance under the gentle but inflexible guidance of the priests, who are the Hierarchy."
He paused, looked searchingly into the staring faces. "That much, all of you know by heart. But not one of you dreams of the truth behind the story!"
Without anger whipping him on, Jarles might have stopped then and there and walked into the Sanctuary and down into the crypts, so stupid and uncomprehending were the commoners' reactions, so obviously did they misinterpret every word. At first they had seemed only shocked and bewildered, though attentive as always. Then -- when he had called upon them to think and judge -- they had looked vaguely apprehensive, as if all this rigmarole were merely the introduction to some assignment of physical labor, literally harder than work in the mines. The story of the Golden Age had lulled them. It was something familiar. His last sentence had shattered the lull and brought them again into that state of stupid, anxious gawking.
But what else could he expect? If he could only manage to plant the seeds of questioning in just one commoner!
"There was a Golden Age. That much is true. Though as far as I know there was plenty of toil and sorrow in it. But at least all men had a little freedom and were getting more. The getting of it meant trouble -- lots of it -- and at one point the scientists became frightened and ... but you don't even know what a scientist is, do you? Any more than you know what a doctor is, or a lawyer, or a judge, or a teacher, or a scholar, or a statesman, or an executive, or, so help me, an artist. Because the priests are all of those things. They've rolled all the professions, all the privileged classes into one. You don't rightly know even what a priest is! There were religions in those days, you see, and worship of a god -- in the Golden Age and the long ages before it, ever since man fought his way up, with hands and brain, to mastery of this planet. But the priests of those religions dealt only in spiritual and moral matters -- at least at such times as they were wise and good. Other work they left for other professions. And they didn't use force."
"But that's getting ahead of my story. I want to tell you about the scientists, and how the Golden Age ended. A scientist is a thinker. He's a thinker about how things happen. He watches things happen. Then if he knows a thing can happen, and if it's a thing men want, maybe he can figure out -- by thinking and hard work -- how to help it happen. No magic, see? No supernatural powers. Just watching, and thinking, and working."
He had forgotten to wonder why he had not been silenced. He thought only of how to choose the right words, how to hammer or ease them home -- anything to get a flicker out of those faces!
"The scientists of the Golden Age became afraid that mankind was slipping back into barbarism and ignorance. Their position as members of a privileged profession was threatened. They decided that, for a time, they must take control of the world. They were not strong enough to do it directly. They weren't fighters. So they got the idea of establishing a new religion, modeled on the old religions, but powered by science. In the old religions, blessings and cursings worked through men's minds. In the religion the scientists established, blessings and cursings worked directly, by force!"
"You want proof? You should want proof. Here it is!"
His hand whipped downward from collar to hem of his heavy, scarlet robe. A metal-edged slit appeared. He quickly stepped through it, bare except for a pair of scarlet trunks. Many of the commoners shuddered and shrank back, wincing. To see a priest unrobed was blasphemous. True, the priest had done it himself. But somehow they might be to blame.
"You have been taught that inviolability proceeds from the priest, a divine aura projected by his holy flesh and controlled by his will power. Watch!"
He slapped the breast of the empty robe smartly. Instantly it mushroomed outward. He pushed it away from him. It floated out and down from the bench. Commoners shoved wildly and clawed at each other, in their desire to avoid being touched by it.
It came to rest about two feet from the ground, jogging up and down gently, for all the world like a recumbent priest, complete even to the puffed scarlet gloves -- except that there was no gleaming shaven head under the eerily glowing violet halo which all men knew to be an outward sign of the priest's holy thoughts.
The panic-stricken ones regathered in a circle around it, at what they hoped was a safe and reverent distance.
Jarles' voice was bitter as medicine. "Maybe you can get to the Hierarchy's heaven the way that robe's trying to. I know of no other. Can't you see it's a trick? Rip open that robe" -- a commoner gaped horrifiedly at him for a moment, thinking the words a command --"and you'll find a network of fine wires. What does the Great God need with wires? They make what's called a bilateral, short-range, multi-purpose repulsor field. Something that pushes, see? Something very useful for protecting a priest from injury and powering his flabby fingers so that they're stronger than those of a smith's. And it props up his halo! Stop gawking at it, you fools! It's just a trick, I tell you!"
"How do I know all this?" he fairly bellowed at them. "You ought to ask that question. Well -- the priests told me! Yes, the priests! Do you know what happens to a young man when he passes the tests and is admitted to the Hierarchy as a novice?" That got them, he could tell. It took a racy question like that to whet their dull curiosity. "A lot of things happen to him you don't know about. I'm just going to tell you one. He's told, gradually, in small doses -- but unmistakably -- that there is no Great God. That there are no supernatural powers. That the priests are scientists ruling the world for its own good. That it's his duty to help them and his good fortune to share in the benefits."
"Don't you see? The scheme of the Golden Age scientists worked. Their new religion swept the world. And as soon as they got the world firmly by the throat, they were able to mold it just the way they wanted. For themselves, they made a regimented, monastic paradise. To find a model for the commoners' world, they went back to a time called the Middle Ages and dug up a nice little thing called serfdom. Oh, they cleaned it up a bit, made it orderly and healthy, and added a few touches of downright slavery. But otherwise they didn't change it one jot. It was just the thing to keep a whole world in a state of frightened, ignorant, back-broken, grateful servitude."
"Surely, they averted barbarism. By establishing it!"
"There was one very special wrinkle about the Middle Ages that you got a taste of today. My priestly educators haven't got around to telling me about it, but I can see the why and wherefore of it all right. Witchcraft! Don't cringe, you idiots! It's just another of their tricks, we can be sure. Some of the old religions had witchcraft mixed up with them, catering to the cheapest superstitions and fears. The scientists decided their religion ought to have a witchcraft, too. So they let scatterbrained old women like Mother Jujy go around pretending to tell fortunes, cast spells, and brew love potions. Just the thing to strengthen superstition and give commoners a bit of an outlet. And a marvelous straw man to knock down with their scientific exorcisms. Besides providing a neat excuse for getting at people they don't like, such as that girl you saw accused today."
He looked around for Sharlson Naurya, but could not find her in the crowd. Or Brother Chulian. It was getting dim. The small white sea of faces was beginning to smudge a little. He realized, with a start, that the sun had set. A chill breeze was trickling down from the hillside farmlands, making him shiver in his nakedness.
And still the Hierarchy held its hand. Round about the Square priests stood by twos, watching, doing nothing -- wine-dark shadows.
But he fancied he saw a trace of something more than ignorant curiosity and bewildered awe in two or three of the white faces spread out before him. And, as a man in polar snows nurses the tiny flame that is all that stands between him and death by cold -- cupping his hands around it, breathing upon it with infinite gentleness, shredding upon it tiny crumbs of tinder -- so Jarles nursed that trace of genuine understanding he fancied he saw, but which might be only a trick of the shadows.
"Some of you heard why Sharlson Naurya was accused of witchcraft. She was ordered to serve in the Sanctuary and refused. Refused with courage and simple decency. So a priest of the Great God reached forward those chubby, uncalloused fingers stronger than a smith's and made witchmarks on her shoulder before he ripped down her smock."
"All of you must guess why Sharlson Naurya refused. All of you know who lives there." He pointed down a dark little street next to the Sanctuary. Eyes followed his finger. "Fallen sisters, they're called. Girls chosen by the Hierarchy for the holy sisterhoods, who then so sinned against the Great God that they could neither be suffered to remain in the Sanctuary nor permitted to return home to infect the innocent. So the Great God in his infinite mercy gives them a place where they may live apart." His voice was thick with irony. "You know! Some of you have been there yourselves, when the priests would tolerate it."
At that, the faintest of murmurings came from the crowd.
"Who takes your sweetest daughters for the sisterhoods, Commoners of Megatheopolis?"
"Who sends you to the fields, the roads, the mines, to waste your years and break your backs?"
"Who gives you fake thrills to deaden the pain?"
And now the muttering had become an angry murmur-hag. Stone-blind resentment, except perhaps in two or three cases, but dangerous. Around the edges of the square, violet will-o'-the-wisps began to glow, and there was a slight bulging of the wine-dark shadows, Jarles instantly caught at it.
"See them switch on their inviolability! Puff themselves up for safety. They're afraid of you, Commoners of Megatheopolis. Deadly afraid."
"With their holy gadgets the priests could farm the whole world, web it with perfect roads, honeycomb it with mines. And not one man lift pick or spade."
"There's another story you're told. How, when the Hierarchy has finally purified all mankind, the Great God will usher in another Golden Age, the New Golden Age, the Golden Age without Dross."
"I ask you -- and especially the old ones among you -- doesn't the New Golden Age get further and further away every year? Don't the priests keep pushing it further and further into the future? Until now it's only a hazy dream, something to lull your little children to sleep with when they're half dead from their first day's work and crying?"
"Maybe those Golden Age scientists did intend to restore mankind, when the threat of barbarism was finally past. I guess they did."
"But now the priests think only one thing. How to hold on to their power as long as mankind lasts -- until the sun darkens and the earth freezes!"
Then he realized that the muttering had died and that the commoners were no longer looking at him, but upward. An eerie, leaden blue light was illuminating their faces, until they looked like a crowd of drowned men. And this time his eyes followed theirs.
The Great God had leaned forward, blotting out the first, faint evening stars, until his gigantic face was peering straight down at them, his blue nimbus blazing in all its deathly glory.
"Behold their greatest trick!" Jarles shouted. "The Incarnate God! The Almighty Automaton!"
But they were not listening to him, and now that he had stopped speaking, his teeth were chattering from the cold. He hugged his arms to stop the shivering, alone on his little bench that now seemed very low.
"It has come," the commoners were thinking. "It was all a test, as we might have known. Unfair -- except the priests are never, never unfair. We should not have listened. We should not have been moved. And now we are to be blasted for our sin, for the greatest sin -- to think a thought against the Hierarchy."
The hand of the Great God thrust downward, like a falling steeple checked in mid-air. The extended index finger, thick as a tree trunk, pointed at the puffed robe Jarles had cast aside, and which still hung two feet above the ground.
Crackling, coruscating blue light snaked from nimbus to mountainous shoulder and down the arm, spat like lightning from the fingertip. The empty robe glowed, frizzled, puffed a little more, then burst with a hollow pop, like a seaweed bladder in a fire.
That sound, and the spatter of red-hot fragments, thawed the frozen panic. The crowd broke, began to race toward the narrow, dark mouths of the streets -- any street, it made no difference, so long as they got out of the square.
The crackling beam moved slowly toward the bench on which Jarles still stood, fusing the cobblestones, leaving a red-hot trough in its wake -- a sign and mark for all times to come of the Great God's divine wrath.
He waited for it.
There was a swooping of blackness, a beat as of gigantic shadowy wings. And then around the renegade priest had closed an irregular sphere -- mottled with blackness, inkily smeared, so that through it his naked body was still vaguely visible.
And the irregular sphere had the form of two great clawed hands, cupped together.
The blue beam from the Great God's finger moved swiftly then, impinged upon the sphere, crackled against it, showering blue sparks.
The sphere drank the beam and grew not one whit less black.
The beam thickened to a writhing pillar of blue light, turning the square to day and driving back the air in hot waves.
And still it only spattered harmlessly against the black-streaked, irregular sphere of the cupped hands.
It was still possible to glimpse the form of the renegade priest inside them, like an insect miraculously alive in the heart of a flame.
Then a great, evilly mirthful voice that seemed to blow the hot air from the square in one breath, that stopped every fleeing commoner in his tracks and turned him around to stare in paralyzed terror at the black and flaming spectacle.
"The Lord of Evil defies the Great God!"
"The Lord of Evil takes this man for his own."
The cupped hands jerked away, upward, off, and out of sight.
Then gales of satanic laughter that seemed to rock the Sanctuary itself.
Copyright © 1950 Fritz Leiber