The old man and his son clambered to their feet, groggy from sleep.
"What is it?" the father mumbled.
Zhota held his hand up in a gesture of silence. He crept toward the darkness, a black abyss devoid of movement or form but heavy with the presence of what he now recognized as minions of the gods of chaos. Although he could not see them, they were so close that he believed he could reach out and touch them. They were everywhere around him, in the soil, the air, the trees.
In the trees.
The ground heaved beneath Zhota's feet as realization hit him. A mass of tree roots exploded upward in a shower of damp soil, flinging him through the air. He rolled with the fall, coming to his knees at the other side of the camp.
The trees around him swayed and extended their boughs, creaking and groaning like giants awakening after eons of slumber. Motion flickered in the dim firelight all across the camp as numerous roots slithered up from the dirt and began blindly lashing out toward Zhota and the refugees.
"Stay near the fire!" Zhota barked at the other men.
The father and son scrambled to fish out logs from the flames, waving their makeshift torches at the exposed roots that had reached the camp's center. Zhota charged toward a nearby pine, swiping at the roots that lunged at his feet. He struck the tree with his staff in a flurry of blows and then slammed his open palm against the trunk. Cracks rippled out from around his hand, spiraling up the pine. He leapt backward as the trunk erupted in a deluge of tinder and the tree's upper half toppled into an adjacent birch.
Yet with the pine's destruction, Zhota did not perceive that the demon within it had died. Rather, it seemed that the unholy presence had merely diminished in power. He opened his mind to the trees encircling the camp. They were all tainted, but they were only puppets being controlled by a single entity.
His eyes settled on the ancient oak, which had remained still and lifeless. Within its weathered trunk, he could suddenly feel the demon spreading its influence into the surrounding forest.
In response to Zhota's discovery, the oak's trunk wrenched open to form what resembled a gaping maw frothed with moss. It wailed a shrill cry that pierced the night and made Zhota's knees go weak. The refugees dropped to the ground, clutching their ears and screaming in agony.
The other trees stilled as the demon coalesced its power, drawing it all back into the oak. The boughs swung down across the camp toward Zhota like dozens of jagged-edged lances. He dove to his side and swept his bo in a wide arc, sending an invisible blade of pure air ripping through the gnarled branches.
The oak shrieked in fury and renewed its attack with what was left of its broken limbs. Zhota somersaulted over the branches as they whipped through the air, landing at the base of the oak. With one vicious thrust, he plunged his bo into the tree's jaws, focusing his mind on a single point at the end of the weapon.
The oak convulsed, its trunk pulsating as a torrent of divine fire flared out from its maw. The flames burned through the tree's core, and it withered into a blackened, smoking husk.
"Holy one!" the father yelled behind him.
Zhota turned and saw that one of the oak's limbs had pierced the son's shoulder, pinning him to the ground. The young man was unconscious but alive.
"A flesh wound. He will live with your help, holy one," the father said as he knelt next to his son.
Yes, Zhota wanted to say. Like all monks, he had been trained well in the arts of healing. He inspected the skin around the severed oak limb. The blood was a healthy crimson with no sign of corruption... yet.
The father stared up at Zhota, eyes full of hope and expectation. "Surely you can heal him?"
Zhota forced himself to speak the empty words that he had been ordered to recite. "He is tainted now. The corruption will evade my holy powers until I am gone. Only then will it emerge and overtake your son's mind and body. We must give him to the gods so that he may be at peace."
"No!" the old man cried in shock. "He will fight it. He is strong. Leave him to me. I swear to the thousand and one that if he shows corruption, I will kill him with my own hands. He is the last of my blood."
The father grasped feebly at Zhota's feet, pleading out of sheer desperation. None of this seemed right to the monk. He should be giving others hope, not stripping it away from them. For a moment, he considered leaving. But as soon as the thought had arisen, memories of Akyev came unbidden to him.
Zhota could almost see his master standing before him in the campsite now, looking at his former pupil with shame and disgust. The last time he had met Akyev had been weeks ago, after Zhota had passed the rites of monkhood and been tattooed with the circles of order and chaos on his forehead. It was a day after the heavenly fire had appeared over Ivgorod that his master had called him out to an open-aired terrace of the monastery, the mountain winds whipping at the elder monk's earth-toned sashes of brown, black, and gray. The Unyielding, Akyev was sometimes called. His strength and resolve were everything Zhota strove to emulate but feared he would never achieve.
"Those who are touched by the spawn of the gods of chaos must be purified. Do not ask questions. Do not attempt to mend their wounds. We must make certain the taint is staunched quickly," Akyev had said, relaying the instructions passed down to him by the nine Patriarchs—the heads of the Sahptev religion and the supreme rulers of Ivgorod. As the militant arm of the faith, monks were charged with carrying out the decrees issued by the kingdom's divine leaders.
"The Patriarchs ask a hard task of you, one reserved only for the most devout of our order," the Unyielding had continued. He stared at Zhota for a moment, furrowing his brow. "You have attained the rank of monk, but there are times when I wonder if you are truly ready. There are times when I think you are still that fool boy who first came to the monastery. More beast than man, really... a wild thing with eyes clouded by emotion and intuition and all those other fleeting feelings that change on a whim just as swiftly as the winds. Are you that boy, or are you a monk?"
"That boy is dead," Zhota had answered.
"Then prove it. And remember that when the ill wind blows, the tree that bends will break."
The next day, Akyev had set out from the monastery on his own mission. Zhota had departed not long afterward, but his master's words had stayed with him, a constant reminder of his past failures.
Akyev's voice was louder than ever now, the sound grating in Zhota's ears like the keening of steel swords. Anger filled him at his previous thoughts of abandoning duty. It was enough to push him forward.
Duty is everything, he told himself. The word of the Patriarchs is the word of the gods. Who am I to question their methods? I am their instrument.
Ivgorod's hallowed leaders were the reincarnations of the nine original humans who had been chosen by the gods to rule the kingdom. Four were pledged to order, four to chaos, and one remained neutral. They had always worked to uphold balance. Sometimes this meant asking the monks to perform difficult acts, but such was the nature of the world. It was all part of maintaining equality between order and chaos so that neither side reigned over the other.
"Step aside," Zhota ordered, but the old man did not move.
"My boy never dishonored the Patriarchs! This is how they reward him?" The refugee drew back and pulled a dull knife from his belongings near the fire. He lunged at the monk in a wild swing.
Zhota caught the old man's wrist, twisting it until he dropped the knife. The father yelped in pain and crumpled to his knees. "He is my only son," he sobbed.
By then, all the fight had gone out of the man. He slunk down and groveled in the dirt.
Zhota slowly moved toward the son, reciting one of the monk order's ancient oaths in his head. I walk among the gods of order and the gods of chaos. I channel both, becoming neither. I am the warrior who straddles the divide. So long as I act to uphold the balance, I am without sin.
Without sin. He mouthed the words in silence as he placed his palm on the young man's chest. Zhota closed his eyes and then whispered a mantra to fill the son with holy energies. It was a form of mercy killing that the monk had learned from Akyev, used to grant a peaceful and painless death to those who had been mortally wounded and were beyond the order's healing powers.
He felt the young man's heart beat slower and slower, until at last it stopped. Afterward, Zhota built a wooden pyre and purified the corpse in flames.
The light of dawn was creeping through the forest by the time the bones were charred black. Zhota set out alone, knowing that he should raise his head high in triumph at having fulfilled the Patriarchs' will. Instead, all he could think about was the broken old man behind him, the last vestiges of hope fading from him as he kneeled over his son's remains and prayed to gods who no longer listened.