Kronos squinted up at the bloodied figure waving its arm, spattering drops onto the fine sand at his feet. A drip hit his lips and he licked it away. "It's not. Come down and die like a man. Die like a scorpion, die like the beggar scum you are."
"...lyground..." drifted down.
Up, up, up. The dark figure climbed the wide stone pillar, into the sun, shinnying for his life. Kronos squinted up again. Holy Ground, his right rosy ball. "If it's Holy Ground, why can't I feel it?"
"Holy Ground, you camel-buggered fool, not Holy Platform Up a Fucking Pole." Up, up, up. Kronos bent his neck back and looked up at blue flat sky, black bobbing crab, white blinding sun. He wasn't up on his recent sects. It could be some new sanctified cult of things long and tall and baked on a sand-blasted stick. Glare knifed his eyes. He swayed, he caught the pillar to right himself. Was that a tingle along his fingertips? He snatched his hand away and cursed.
"I can wait!" he called. He thumped down on the sand with his back to the vibrating stone trunk and took another long hot look at Syria. Probably Syria. Syria the last time he asked. Sand under his ass, low shelves of rock off to his left, a shimmer of heat over pebbles at the far reaches of the flat. Tall, tall, monumentally tall stone pillar at his back. With his prey up it, climbing still.
He could wait. He knew the direction back to the well. The camel was watered and good for a long ride. It knelt in a stinking heap, grumbling to itself. An inelegant mount, but efficient. Sufficient, after he dealt with this scum, to carry him on and on, out of this wretched place to the next bit of earth he hadn't seen before.
The earth had changed. Centuries he sat locked away while the world drove itself daft and religion mad. Gods, new gods. God of Light, God of Love, God of endless, endless Words and droning cant. God of Peace. He snarled. The sun crawled a thumb span across the sky while he gnawed the familiar, angry bone. Gods changed. Weapons changed, for good and ill. Empires, it seemed, rose and fell and scattered their leavings across his table lands. He'd missed quite a party, down that well. Trade routes criss-crossed territories that were his by rights, by iron, by blood. Caravans paraded the opened ways with armed guards who never blinked at his armor or his name. Oh, there was that text, that babble scribbled by a madman on a rock... but those Horsemen were just ink and legend, those Horsemen rode out of a holy flaming book, doing some pale angel's bidding in a time that was yet to come. Not here, not now, not their own free selves, bathed in fear and awe and blood. Much blood.
He licked his lip again and squinted up along the column. "Lizard! Are your brains baked yet? Is the marrow boiling in your bones?" Something hissed in the arid, thirsty air, something steamed and pattered down upon his lap--the skink was pissing on him?
"I'll eat you!" Kronos bellowed, jumping up and shaking out his cloak. "I'll chew your head off with my teeth!"
"...gone, Devil," drifted down, with a last few stinking drops.
"Devil, I'll show you Devil, I'll rip your bladder out through the slit in your prick and cram it back in through your nose..." Rather a Devil than a God's lickspittle pissing from a platform on a pole, he comforted himself. Oh, far rather me than you. That insect, Immortal. That bag of rags and bones and stinking hair, who dared cast a shadow on his path. Years since he'd felt a Quickening, and here had come all unlooked-for a grubby snack, a dirty, easy kill his camel kicked up at the pass--a rat, a lizard, a spineless snake, gone to ground up a pole in a wilderness. Who put a stone column in a sand flat? Who knew this was even here?
A black dot caught the edge of his vision, a dot growing against the distant shimmer of heat. Oh, company, company on a horse. Oh, hell. He slapped his sword against his thigh; he looked to where his camel knelt, casting a sliver of shadow on the sand. She bared her yellow teeth and farted.
The rider trotted slowly up. He stopped at a decent distance and raised a hand in greeting. Kronos scowled. He didn't recognize the stranger's robes or trappings. He could live, if he had some information to share. Kronos raised a hand back, and the stranger rode up, scattering sand. He was dark, open-faced, and not a fool, for his hand never strayed a finger's width from the dagger in his sash. Smiling, though.
Kronos stood, while the stranger sketched a greeting. "What is this place?" he asked him.
"Are you lost?" The man seemed to find the idea amusing. "God guided your steps, then, Brother."
"Not that I've noticed," said Kronos. He put his hand closer to his own sword and grimaced. Brother, indeed. "What is this place?"
"Pelagius's pillar. The holy hermit Pelagius worships here." He shaded his eyes with his non-dagger hand and looked up the damned pole. "The closer to God's Eye, the closer to salvation. He spends his day bowing and praying to the glory of…" Kronos rolled his eye and the traveler paused. He smiled again. "Ah. Are you a non-believer?"
"I am Kronos." Tremble, he thought to himself. Believe in death and believe in me.
"I beg pardon, Brother, I forget myself. I am Diodorite, of Palmyra." He inclined his head. When there was no response, he looked back at the sky. "It's a great wonder. He needs neither food nor water, rest nor sleep. He lives on God's grace alone."
Kronos grinned. "And how do you know that? Been up to visit, have you? Room for witnesses, up there?" There was no ladder, just chinks in the stone; the platform at the top could not be four feet across. He doubted his rat was having tea with a saint. "Skinny fellow, this holy man? Little wretch with a beard?"
Diodorite smiled. "I've never had the honor to see him. I hear he's a tall man, slender, true, upright and shining in the…"
"Eye of God, yes. Anyone seen him lately? Maybe he sneaks out for a visit to the wells. Maybe he's dead up there." He sent a malevolent wish skyward, to his treed vermin.
"God took the second Stylites up to heaven whole, they say. Thirty years he spent atop his column." He shook his head. "These are not mere mortal men, these hermit saints." He stepped his horse closer. "If you are not here on pilgrimage, may I ask…"
"Hunting," said Kronos. "A serpent that swarmed up that pole. Maybe your saint ate him."
"You are waiting for a snake?" The smile split the leathery face wider. Diodorite laughed, a high, whinnying sound. "Patience indeed is a virtue, Brother. Unbeliever, I'm impressed."
Kronos scowled. Was the ass laughing at him? Was he ridiculous? The camel farted again, long and smelly and loud.
"Come, Brother, let us leave this holy place. I know a settlement nearby, a camp with deep wells and fragrant women. Let your serpent repent his sins in peace."
"Is this truly a holy place?" It was a tempting offer, even coming from a fool.
"The earth itself around the pillar is blessed. Pilgrims come from great distances just to fetch a handful of the sacred sand. But it is no place to take one's ease."
"There's a specially blessed bit here, where it's dark," said Kronos. Fuck, then. He had better things to do than to camp under a pole until the chill night came. He had better men to kill than that rodent. He eyed Diodorite's horse and trappings once again. No Quickening to sustain him, but palm wine and a hot meal, and a bit of pain inflicted, too, when he'd had his use of this ass.
Knee to knee on the tiny platform they watched the figure below mount up and sway away, after the man and horse. The ragged Immortal shivered and tried to make himself smaller still. "They're going, praise God. I thought we were dead when you made water on him, I thought the Devil would swarm up and savage us, Holy Ground or no."
"Not he," said the saint, sucking on a date stone. The pouch of provisions, liberated from his guest, sat snug in his lap. "That particular Devil has a fear of heights."
The ragged man grunted as the two travelers plodded out of sight. Diodorite was a frequent visitor here, a guard of sorts for their precious tourist attraction. He'd lead the Devil into the proper hands, hands with swords and pikes, may the dog lose his evil head among them. He spit over the platform edge. Sunset, he'd wait until sunset, and then he'd go.
The saint sighed and scratched himself under his filthy robe. A week, he'd wait another week, then he could finally slide away. He considered kicking his guest off the platform (he'd bounce, he'd die, he'd live) to ease his cramping legs. He refrained. He'd wait. "Patience is a virtue," Methos told himself, not for the first nor final time.