The Burnt World of Athas

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Initiation

Short story by Gabriel Cormier

Perkin knew the old man had power; he could see it in his eyes. And when the old man had asked him to follow him, Perkin hadn't hesitated, although he wasn't as sure about this as he had been when he'd left. But he was here now, and nothing was going to stop him from going through with this.

The old man had kept him up all night, talking about the earth and its need for restoration. Perkin had listened for a while, but halfway through the night his attention had started to wander. He had been thinking about the last few months, when it had dawned on him that he cared more about the crops and the soil than he did about his own parents. His friends had started drifting apart from him, starting to call him names; "earth-worm" was a favorite among them. But he didn't care, the idiots could only see as far as their own nose. Perkin had started to think more and more about the sorry state of Athas, but with a land so ravaged, he felt helpless. He had been about to give up his nurturing of the soil -- that was when the old man had come.

He had appeared late one evening, ten or eleven days ago, just as Perkin was about to leave the fields. As he approached, with a cane to help him walk, Perkin couldn't help but wonder what an old man was doing so far from the normal traveling roads. Maybe he had gotten lost, or maybe he had been attacked on the road, although he had walked quite a long way to get here, and he didn't seem injured. He had yelled to the old man, and the old man had looked up and smiled. When Perkin asked him what he wanted, the old man had replied: "I've found who I was looking for."; and when the old man had asked him if he wanted to serve the earth in a more complete manner, Perkin hadn't given it more than a second thought, and had joined the old man.

"And how do you recognize a defiler?" Perkin's head jerked up. He hadn't realized he had nearly fallen asleep. He couldn't remember the old man's question, and had to ask him to repeat it.

"You must listen while I talk, else the Earth Lords will punish you if they believe you have learned nothing tonight." Earth Lords? What was the old man talking about? Perkin looked up and saw that it was nearly dawn. He was glad the night was nearly over. Then maybe he would learn the true reason they were here.

"Are you ready, young one? Listen to the earth when it speaks to you, and you will have all you have yearned for." The old man stood up, spread his hands in a semi-circle in front of him, and spoke some strange words that Perkin couldn't understand. A hole appeared in the ground, just deep enough for him to completely hide himself.

"Get in." the old man told him. "Fear not the earth, and no harm will come to you."

Reluctantly, Perkin jumped in the hole. Instantly, he was covered with earth. Panic gripped him. Had the old man brought him here to kill him? Was he some sort of evil priest who required the blood of young people? As the words of doubt drifted through his mind, Perkin could feel the earth finding his way in his nostrils; he couldn't move, he couldn't breathe. "Help!" he yelled, and instantly regretted this. He swallowed a mouthful of damp earth and could feel the earth coming down his throat, choking him. He could feel the bugs crawling down his throat. He couldn't breathe! He was going to die here and no one would ever know what had happened to him. How stupid he was! How could he have believed the old man? He had only heard what he had wanted to hear, what he had yearned for a long time.... but just as he thought he was going to die, he heard a voice inside his head. It was a harsh, grating voice, but surprisingly gentle.

"Do not fear the earth. Relax. Become one with the earth, let it support your spirit, let it banish your fears." Knowing he had no other choice, Perkin tried to feel the earth, to let it support him, but had trouble concentrating.

"Try harder, youngling, for the earth will not accept those weak of mind."

At last Perkin thought of the soil he had cared for, the fields and crops he had given so much of his time, and found that he could breathe. The Earth Lord (for he now recognized the voice, although from where, he didn't know), spoke to him, telling him of the earth's plight, of the need to restore Athas to its former splendor, of the duties he will have to perform should he accept the offer of the Earth lord. And the more the Earth Lord talked, the more Perkin could feel a weight bearing down on his very soul, the plight of the earth, the thousands of years of frustration at seeing Athas turned into a desolate waste. And Perkin knew he had finally found his calling.
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