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In The Beginning
Dark YA Retellings of Biblical Tales
By Stephen Clements, Nicole Crucial, Mike Hays, Sharon Hughson, Marti Johnson, Elle O'Neill, Lora Palmer, Christina Raus, Laureen P. Cantwell, Georgia McBride
Month9BooksCopyright © 2015 Stephen Clements, Nicole Crucial, Mike Hays, Sharon Hughson, Marti Johnson, Elle O'Neill, Lora Palmer, Christina Raus
All rights reserved.
DANIEL AND THE DRAGON
* * *
DANIEL 14: 23-26, NEW AMERICAN BIBLE
23 There was a great dragon which the Babylonians worshiped.
24 "Look!" said the king to Daniel, "you cannot deny that this is a living god, so adore it."
25 But Daniel answered, "I adore the Lord, my God, for he is the living God.
26 Give me permission, O king, and I will kill this dragon without sword or club." "I give you permission," the king said.
DANIEL AND THE DRAGON
* * *
"Your god is a liar!" roared the wizened man in thin black robes, as he pounded his breast with his fist.
Habakkuk stood by the gates of the temple as his master picked a fight with a sanctuary full of the slavish followers of Bel, a blood-thirsty demon god. A fire raged in the fanged maw of a giant, stone head sunken into the back of the temple, there to receive the offerings rendered unto Bel. He had seen this before in other temple raids with his master, though not on such a massive scale, and not at the heart of the demon cult in Babylon itself. The fire raged, as the greatest offering that the Babylonians could sacrifice to their beloved god Bel was their own newborn children, whom they rolled screaming and helpless down a hand-shaped altar into his fiery maw. They offered the fruit of their wombs to their dark god, who devoured the innocent souls sacrificed to him in eldritch rituals.
Daniel had flaunted his defiance and ridicule of the followers of Bel to their faces several times before, but this was the first time he had disrupted a ritual sacrifice. Terrified as Hab was of this grisly den of blood-stained idolatry, and of being honor-bound to defend his master's life (even as Daniel carelessly endangered Hab's), Habakkuk held his ground. There was no one to bar his way should he choose to run, and only his love for the man who had saved his life kept his feet rooted in place.
"You will not shed this innocent's blood tonight, spawn of the black pits!" shouted Daniel. He fearlessly climbed steps blackened by soot and human blood over the centuries, toward the stone hand on which lay the infant, its hands and feet bound with cord, squirming and crying.
Flanked by two nude, shorn acolytes holding aloft brazen cups filled with smoking incense, a flabby bald man stood beside the altar, himself naked save a black goatskin skirt, held up by leather straps that crossed over his sweaty chest. His hate-filled eyes, darkened with kohl, bore into Daniel, the mad Israelite that refused to know his place.
The priest's silky voice slithered an intense warning. "I would crush your skull now. You live only because Cyrus the Persian suffers it so. Leave, Daniel. Persia may not always rule Babylon."
Habakkuk's eyes had been trained, through an unfortunate amount of violence, how to size up an opponent, and he knew that Belshazzar, the high priest of Bel, could keep that promise: he was larger and stronger than Daniel and his hands were skilled in how to bleed out a man's neck with a single smooth cut. Habakkuk kept his grip on the dagger within his robes, as he watched Daniel climb the final step to the altar and take the bound child in his arms.
"Your false god has cursed many innocent souls, Belshazzar, but this one he will not have," said Daniel. Not turning his back on the seething priest, Daniel stepped down from the giant stone hand. The squealing of the child diminished, as though it knew fate had smiled kindly upon it.
Habakkuk's wary eyes broke from scanning the increasingly restless crowd to track the high priest's reaction. He saw the priest's face twist with barely restrained malice, which oozed into his voice as it grew from a grumble to a roar. "Persia's might will not always protect you, defiler. Bel, the Devourer of the Unworthy, may find a king who cannot enforce his own laws too weak to bear the crown."
The outraged cultists looked on in impotent fury at the man who'd been brought in chains from Jerusalem as a conquered slave and who now made off with the feast of Bel. Belshazzar raised his hand, to stay their violent desires: the time to strike had not yet come.
As Daniel whisked through the exit, Habakkuk kept his eyes trained on the room, fearing they would rush upon them as the realization of Daniel's triumph became final. Seeing the way was clear, he made a sign against the evil eye, certain that curses would be made against him upon his departure.
The master and his young servant marched swiftly through the labyrinthine halls they had stolen through to get here, past the bodies of the sentries they had slain on the way, and away from the bowels of the temple into the black-mooned night. Their way was scantly illuminated by the flickering torchlight, ensconced along the mud-brick street.
Normally, when Daniel acted rashly in public or mocked Bel's faithful, Habakkuk simply looked down, embarrassed for the spectacle his master made while they bought bread in the market, afraid that he would one day provoke a fight greater than he could handle or provoke another assassin to steal into his house with dagger drawn.
The weight of what they had just done, killed two temple guards and stolen the offering of an unholy rite, overwhelmed the tactical calm he had been using to rule his mind. Hab wanted to voice his objections to the myriad insults Daniel had done to the cult of Bel before, but this time his fear of his master's disapproval could not restrain his words.
"Master, why must you do this? All religions are to be respected in Babylon — King Cyrus decreed! You had no right to steal their offering!"
Daniel gave those words little notice, continuing his charge ahead. "All that leads men to the light of the Divine, I respect. That was infernal darkness."
Hab persisted; his body started shaking with unspent adrenaline. "Master, we are not the lords of this land: our people are slaves, while Bel's priests rule. They just want to live in peace," as did Hab, who kept that thought to himself.
"Our people have a true God on our side. We need have no fear of Bel, or his servants."
Desperation entered his voice and unwanted tears entered his eyes, as Hab said, "We could have been killed in there! That is what Bel's chosen people do! They kill people! They eat their flesh and feed their souls to Hell! This isn't some lone necromancer or isolated witch! We have committed a high crime against them now! Do you realize what we've done!"
Hab was more terrified than he had ever been before. Tonight's deed couldn't be undone, and the high priest's wrath could be no less horrid than his foul god's.
Daniel stopped and turned to face Hab. "Hab ... this child is worth our lives. The Lord spoke to me last night in a dream, that this day, one innocent life would be saved," he said, holding the infant toward Hab. "And it has come to pass. The Lord promised me our safety, as we did His bidding," he said with fervent eyes.
Tears streamed down Hab's face. He never again wanted to be as close to death as he had been when he'd first met Daniel, and he knew that as long as he stayed with the man to whom he owed his life, that dark specter would never be far away.
* * *
That night, Hab tossed and turned, his tortured dreams making his mind a wasteland of unbelievable nightmares sewn from his waking reality, where those horrors lived and breathed. A young man of fifteen summers, he was just beginning to grow his first wisps of beard and had already experienced a lifetime of terrors. His earliest memories were hazy: blurs of sand, the open sky, and a woman who may have been his mother. She was very young.
He saw it again, as his mind turned in on itself: from between wooden slats, he saw burning tents, blood spilled on the sand, and raiders looting the meager possessions. They did not spare his life: the putrid stench of the filth vat he hid in was so strong as to convince them nothing therein was worth having. Hab was only five summers old then; he couldn't remember how he got in the vat. He stayed there because he was scared, coming out a day later when a kind man gently coaxed him out. The only answer Hab ever knew as to how he had been found by the man was simply, "God willed it."
The man who saved him from a rotting death in the desert was Daniel, who the captive Israelites in Babylon said spoke with their God. Daniel became a man of power and wealth in Babylon, the chief of cities, and enjoyed the favor of kings thanks to his miraculous gift for reading dreams and seeing the future. A bachelor, Daniel had no family to call his own; he had a few slaves he treated well, plus Hab.
From fire in the desert, his dreams turned again. This time he felt almost crushed by the press of bodies in the city's lone synagogue. Daniel had used his favor with the King to build a house of worship for his people, but the stench of human filth and animal blood was strong, nauseating, as regular bathing was too expensive of a luxury for the captive Israelites, and the synagogue was the site of ritual, animal sacrifice. Combined with the heat, Hab's stomach knotted, but also with shame. He was surrounded by people who looked down on him for being an orphan, for never having been adopted by his master.
His dreaming mind felt a cold wind that seemed to bring welcome relief, but it brought a darkness with it. He was back in the mountain fastness where a den of horrors dwelt. He was ten summers old, and Daniel had sent him to infiltrate the lair of a conjurer who made pacts with devils and brought the dead back to a horrible form of unlife. Hab had to crawl through a cleft in the rock to unbar the gate leading inside, Daniel being too large to fit. Down the shaft Hab had crawled until he stood by the gate leading out, alone, knife out and bloodied, shivering over the dismembered form of one of the demon- possessed corpses.
That expedition had been one of many Daniel made Hab go on, for Daniel sought out the demon cults that thrived between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. He learned their deepest, most blasphemous secrets (secrets already old when Caine's city was swallowed by the flood) and destroyed them, sometimes through persuasion, sometimes through unbridled violence. Hab witnessed the horrors of these dens of iniquity, the unspeakable things, the disgusting orgies, fire-charred bodies, crawling things, and the altars decorated with eldritch signs that leave their marks on those cursed to behold them.
As the unforgivable memories swirled in his tortured nightmare, a carved, many-mouthed thing opened its slitted, cyclopean eye, and he knew damnation would claim his soul if it saw him. Panic spilled out of his heart. He felt as if it would burst forth from his mouth, but he was awakened before the lolling eye could fix on him.
"Up, up," came his master's voice. Hab was shaken by the night terrors, cold but glad to be pulled back to this world, far enough for his dreams to not reach him for a few more hours. "Come. We must prepare and humble our spirits before the Lord: this day, Cyrus, King of Kings, will come before us with judgment."
Hab knew nothing about this. "The King of Kings? Here? What, master?"
"The answer to a supplication made by a spirit drowned in darkness will be given this day, by the one who loves the light above all the myriad idols of the void in the city of the yawning womb."
Hab knew better than to ask for more details: Daniel often spoke this way, and he was always right.
* * *
Lounging in his golden throne, the royal governor was not amused. "I know from whom you bring this message, but no courier has come from Our King, and my scouts that surveil the environs of our city have seen nothing. I am not convinced of a word you've said," the curly-bearded man, bedecked in silk robes, concluded, catching a slim, jeweled rod he had been absent-mindedly twirling around ever since Hab had been shown into the throne room. He smirked at his courtesans, who giggled in accordance with his derision for "the prophet" Daniel's lackey.
Hab went to protest one last time that his master was never wrong, but was interrupted by the sound of hooves on marble. He looked over his shoulder to see a flurry of guards and courtiers following after a man on horseback, who had the arrogance to ride into the royal court. The royal governor's jaw dropped, as did he to the floor, to commence groveling.
While he had never seen this man on horseback before, Hab knew he had to be none other than Cyrus the Persian, King of Kings. Besides the fact that everyone in the room prostrated themselves on the ground as the man swung out of his saddle, he had the bearing of the Greek demi-gods Daniel had insisted Hab read about.
Standing more than two heads above Hab, he was as broad and as powerfully muscled as a prized sacrificial bull, his long black hair curled in rings beneath his helmet, and he bore a prodigious beard to match. He moved with the grace of an athlete and had the predatory eye of a hunter. Hab looked into the man's eyes and saw a man who could be of great generosity and kindness — and shades of a man who would ruthlessly kill for power.
Looking around the room, the titan seemed unimpressed by the people lying on the ground, making themselves smaller so that he could appear the greater. His eyebrows raised upon seeing the royal governor on his belly, but then his eyes filled with bemusement at the coarse- garmented Israelite boy kneeling and staring him right in the face.
"Greetings, young man," boomed the man's hearty voice, the power of which shook the very pillars of the hall. "I am Cyrus, King of Kings, Ruler of the Known World, descended from Perseus and his sons. And who might you be, one so brave as to meet my gaze?"
Hab tried to mouth an answer, or to look away, or to do anything other than continue insulting the most powerful man in the world by looking him in the eyes.
Cyrus took one resounding step after another, slowly walking toward the young man. "By your skullcap I know you to be an Israelite. You worship the God of Abraham, yes?"
By now, the King was standing next to Hab, who'd gone pale, the color drained from his olive skin. "Yes," he mumbled. "I am a son of Abraham, of the Tribe of Levi, student of Daniel."
A broad smile crossed Cyrus' face, as he extended his enormous hand to take Hab's arm and raise him up. "Well met, good and faithful servant. You honor a most worthy divinity, who brings light to the world. Now go, fetch your master and bring him to me."
His eyes wide and dazed from standing so close to a man whose armor shone like the sun, Hab only managed an awkward nod, before shuffling away as fast as he could.
* * *
Sitting quietly on the rug behind Daniel in the study, Hab finally remembered to avert his gaze from the King of Kings, staring intently at the knotted patterns of the fabric. Even so, he could not help but overhear a conversation between the old friends. Hab knew that the two men had written letters to each other, and that Daniel had been to the King's court on several occasions, but the relaxed familiarity he heard in their voices was surprising.
The king stood upright, one hand on his hip, sipping beer from a chalice, still wearing his dusty, leather riding clothes.
"Thank you for joining me on such short notice," Cyrus said to Daniel, a man at least ten years his senior.
Daniel bowed. "It is good for those who love the light of the Divine to have fellowship together. In this evil-haunted land of Babylon, there is no rest for those such as us."
Excerpted from In The Beginning by Stephen Clements, Nicole Crucial, Mike Hays, Sharon Hughson, Marti Johnson, Elle O'Neill, Lora Palmer, Christina Raus, Laureen P. Cantwell, Georgia McBride. Copyright © 2015 Stephen Clements, Nicole Crucial, Mike Hays, Sharon Hughson, Marti Johnson, Elle O'Neill, Lora Palmer, Christina Raus. Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
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