Pa and Tobias Goatherd returned from the creek around midday. By then, Mary and Laura had recovered from their experience inside that eerie old building that the Mericans had called the Reptilsoo. In the light of day, Laura felt a little foolish for getting so frightened of a silly old skull.
Nevertheless, Tobias Goatherd apologized to Ma and Pa for letting Mabel take them inside.
“Your girls weren’t in any danger, I promise,” he assured Pa. “Those brick walls are sturdy, old as they are. The Mericans who built that place knew what they were about. It’s not like to collapse on anybody any time soon. And I cleared the worst of the hazards out myself years ago, in days when this back of mine was a good deal stronger.”
As he and Pa unloaded a wheelbarrow full of rotted fence posts, Tobias Goatherd tried to explain the mysterious chamber that Mary and Laura had followed Mabel into, with its dramatic murals and strange bones. Back in Lectric Times, he told them, the Reptilsoo of Happy Valley had housed all manner of exotic animals, brought in from the far-flung corners of the Merican Empire and caged there under that very roof. Those animals had all died long ago, of course, but Tobias Goatherd seemed to think that there was still something special about the place. He told them how he had worked for years to restore the site and invited travelers from far and wide to come marvel at the old murals and the strange artifacts he had recovered from the reptilsoo’s hidden chambers.
The candlelit shelf with the monstrous skull, he called the Herald’s Shrine.
“You wouldn’t know it nowadays, but folks used to come from all over to pray at the Herald’s Shrine,” Tobias Goatherd said. “From up in the Northlands. From way down in Flannerista Territory and the so-called Holy Gulf Confederation. Even had a pair of Tang envoys visit once. Not just Lacorians, neither. Had plenty of Deshi folk from out Lildaka way, even a Desereti or two. Word got out about the relics of Happy Valley, and people just wanted to take a gander.”
When the fence posts had all been tossed atop a pile of scrap wood, Tobias Goatherd began wheeling his empty barrow back up towards the main house. He continued talking as he went. He was speaking mostly to Pa, but Laura and Mary trotted alongside, listening in.
“That all changed quite some time back, mind you,” the old man said, his breathing growing heavy with the effort of pushing the wheelbarrow up the path. “Been years since we’ve seen that kind of traffic out this way. Not since Old Man Ortega started suppressing the Faith. Then of course the Spear cut off trade from the Southeast, which was pretty well the nail in the coffin. And beyond that, well, I suppose it’s been a combination of causes, like anything else. Things were one way, and now they’re a different way.”
Tobias Goatherd grunted as he struggled to force his barrow past a rocky patch. Pa tried to take the handles from him, but the old man waved him away.
“Even so,” he continued, once the barrow’s wheel found traction and began to roll again, “we keep up the shrine to this day, Mabel and me. Try our best to care for the valley’s monuments. You never know when a stray pilgrim may show up at our doorstep, seeking the Herald’s blessing.”
They reached the main house, with its wide white porch, where Ma sat with Baby Grace. As Tobias Goatherd set down his wheelbarrow, Laura tugged on Pa’s shirt sleeve. When he bent down towards her, she tried to whisper in his ear.
“What’s a herald, Pa?”
Her whisper was too loud, and the old man heard. He turned and laughed.
“That’s a right fair question, my dear,” he said. “Nowadays, my mind does get jumbled up so. Can’t hardly keep straight who I’m talking to nor what I told them not five minutes back. No, you’ll not know the first thing about the Prophet’s Herald, I suppose. Why, probably your pa has no idea what I’m talking about neither. That fair to say, Ingalls?”
Pa grinned sheepishly and shrugged.
“You’re a kind man, Ingalls, humoring the ramblings of an old graybeard like me. No, of course you’ll not have heard the story of the Herald. Why would you? These days, there’s many good Lacorians don’t know it. You won’t find it in The Letters of Deshawn LaCore nor in The Collected Sayings, and I hear tell that in some fellowships, there’s conduits—otherwise godly men and women mind you—they dismiss the tale as nothing but a bit of folklore made up long after the Prophet’s death. The story’s true, though, every word of it.”
Tobias Goatherd climbed the porch’s wooden steps, clutching tight to the railing. Slowly, wincing every time another one of his joints was conscripted into the effort, he sat down on the top step. He took off his straw hat and wiped the sweat from his bald head with a handkerchief. As he fanned himself with the brim of the hat, he looked down at Mary and Laura and raised his bushy white eyebrows.
“I don’t suppose you girls would like to hear the story?”
Laura very much wanted to hear the story, especially if it involved the monstrous beast whose skull she’d seen in the reptilsoo. She dashed over to the foot of the porch steps and knelt down in the grass expectantly. A moment later, Mary sat down beside her.
Mabel, who seemed to have grown more bashful since Mary and Laura had run from her and the candlelit shrine, had been watching from up in the branches of a nearby tree. Now, she climbed down and disappeared behind the house, emerging a moment later with a ladle of water. She handed it to Tobias Goatherd and then hopped down the porch steps to sit in the grass, close but not too close to Laura and Mary.
Tobias Goatherd took a long grateful drink from the ladle. Wiping the moisture from his whiskers, he opened his mouth to speak. Suddenly, he paused. Glancing over at Pa, he cleared his throat.
“Begging your pardon, Ingalls,” he said. “It’s not my intent to missionary to you or your family. I don’t know how much they know of Deshawn LaCore or his teachings up in the north country where you’re from, but every man has his own path to trod. You folks are decent, good-hearted people, I could tell that from the start, and how you worship, well, that’s your look-out. I’d just be pleased to share just this small anecdote from the Prophet’s early life, if you’ll indulge me, and leave it at that.”
Pa tugged at his beard and looked over to Ma, who sat beneath the porch’s awning on the other side of the old man. Ma scooted her stool forward. To Laura’s relief, she said that they’d be delighted to hear Tobias Goatherd’s story.
“Well then,” the old man said happily and began.
THE STORY OF DESHAWN LACORE AND THE FORTY DAYS IN THE SWAMP
“A long time ago, back in the days of the Merican Empire, there was an island called Norlins. It lay in the southernmost reaches of Old Merica, right where the Mighty Misisip River meets the sea. And it was there, in the tumultuous final years of the Lectric Era, that a young boy named Deshawn LaCore was born.
“This boy would one day become the last and greatest in the long chain of prophets sent by the Prezdent Above to guide mankind. Yet, his early life could not have been more humble and inauspicious. He was an orphan. Poor. And, like so many who would be touched by his ministry during the coming Hard Years, he was born into a world that had already descended into chaos and darkness, one that promised a child like Deshawn LaCore little but struggle and sorrow.
“You see, by the time of the Prophet’s birth, the island of Norlins had endured tremendous suffering. Elsewhere in the Merican Empire, the lectric light still glowed. This was before the worst of the wars and the riots, before the Hyperflu and the Ague. But, for Norlins, the Great Bust had come early. Terrible storms had ravaged the island, one upon another. And with every storm, the waters around Norlins rose bit by bit.
“The people of Norlins, those that could, fled to other parts of the Empire or to displacement camps away from the encroaching floods. As the island emptied, bandits and pirates descended on Norlins to scav the abandoned towers and terrorize those who remained. Soon, what had once been a great Merican city like Shicago or Gothim had become a soggy wasteland, all but forsaken by the outside world. A lawless place, devastated by hunger, disease, and the relentless storms.
“Deshawn LaCore’s parents likely perished in one such storm, though nothing is known of them. It is said that he was found floating in a reed basket, tethered to the steeple of an old church that had become submerged beneath the rising waters. The captain of a pirate gang came upon him there. He brought the babe into his boat and took him home—back to the little tin shack on stilts where he and his outlaw brothers slept—to be nursed by a woman in the pirate lord’s hire.
“And so it was that the future prophet of the Prezdent Above came to be raised by a gang of petty thieves and bandits, growing up among them in their little house perched above the floodwaters. To survive, his adoptive family scavved and stole and traded in intoxicating tonics and pills. All in all, the boy seemed destined for a short and wicked life.
“Then, one day, when Deshawn LaCore was nearing his eleventh birthday, he saw a member of his gang being beaten by a Merican Guardsman. It was during the reign of Prezdent Augustus West, who had sent the Guardsmen down to pacify Norlins and restore the Empire’s control over the island. But the Prezdent’s soldiers had quickly grown corrupt and cruel, and soon they were hated by the people of Norlins almost as much as the bandit gangs.
“Young Deshawn LaCore, he was loyal to a fault. Seeing his brother being treated with such brutality, he ran home to his gang’s little tin shack on stilts. He returned with a pistol and shot the Guardsman dead.
“Now, you must understand that, in those days, the killing of a Guardsman was the greatest crime that you could commit in the land of Norlins. The Mericans who occupied the island might turn a blind eye to banditry or the selling of forbidden pills, but a man who killed a Guardsman, they would never rest until he had been hunted down. Deshawn knew this. He knew that he would be a danger to his friends and family. He knew that he must run far away. And so he hurriedly packed supplies into an old canoe. And then he fled into the Swamp.
“Have you girls ever seen a swamp? I’ve no doubt you have marshes up north, come across a bog or two in your travels I reckon. But the Norlins Swamp was something different altogether. It surrounded the island city, beginning at its edges and stretching for kims and kims in every direction.
“The Swamp, it was like a labyrinth. Shadowy corridors. Twisting canals filled with murky brackish water and flanked by gnarled trees. Everything obscured beneath a shroud of moss and hanging creepers. The Swamp was deep and dark and unknowable, and many a man entered the Swamp never to return.
“For forty days and forty nights, Deshawn LaCore wandered the Swamp alone. He ate snakes and lizards and swampmoss, and at nights he slept beneath his overturned canoe. But gradually the Swamp consumed him. Insects tormented his skin. The damp, fetid air settled into his lungs. He grew sick.
“Finally, one day, as a fierce storm began to batter the Swamp, the Prophet’s canoe ran aground amid a tangle of tree roots. There the boy lay, on the floor of the little boat, shaking with fever, too weak to extricate himself from the twisted claws that entwined his vessel. He closed his eyes against the rain which pelted his face and tried to accept the numbing embrace of the end.
“But the Prezdent Above had other plans for Deshawn LaCore. Suddenly, the water beside the canoe began to bubble and churn. Waves rocked the boat, knocking it violently against the tree roots. Deshawn opened his eyes and struggled to drag himself to the side of the canoe. White-knuckled, he grasped the lip of the boat and pulled himself up to peer over the side. To his astonishment, from the swirling water beside him there arose a gigantic alligator.
“Do you girls know what an alligator is? They are ancient creatures, as old as the dinosaurs depicted in those creetrock idols yonder. I’ve never seen one in the flesh myself, but I’ve spoken to travelers from the Gulf Confederation who say they still lurk among the rivers down south. Been on the earth long before us and aim to be here long after I reckon. They are reminders from the Prezdent Above that the works of man are but one cycle in His design.
“But this was no ordinary alligator, mind you. This was an angel of the Lord. Long ago, the Prezdent Above had chosen Deshawn LaCore to be His prophet and to guide His people through the changes that would soon come. And so He sent the Herald to protect His chosen one and direct him towards his destiny.
“The Herald was larger than any alligator Deshawn had ever seen. What’s more, its skin was a ghostly white, and its eyes were red. Seeing the great scaly body emerge from the swamp, fear overwhelmed the boy, and he fell backwards into his boat. Too weak to cry out, his mouth hung open in mute horror, broken only by soft, ragged gasps. Somehow, the white gator managed to lift itself fully from the water, its head and shoulders looming above the canoe. The creature looked down upon the Prophet and spoke.
“’Sit up, Child of Dust,’ it said. ‘And fear no more. For I come not to deliver you unto your death but unto your call. I am the Herald of the Prezdent Above. You have been chosen to bear His light among the peoples of the world that they may know His design and not despair.’
“Closer the great white alligator approached. It tilted its head to stare down sidelong at the boy with a single reptilian eye, and Deshawn could see his own terrified reflection glistening within the terrible pink sphere.
“’God knows you, Deshawn LaCore,” the Herald continued, and the deep hiss of its voice seemed to echo from everywhere at once. ‘You have walked a path of darkness. But that is over. You have been called. You shall emerge from Swamp changed. You shall return to your town and your tribe, and there you shall share the sacred light that the Prezdent Above has already hidden within you. And when you have knit their hearts to yours in fellowship, you and your sisters and your brothers, together you shall spread God’s light to other towns and other nations until the world is united once more by faith in the design of the Prezdent Above.’
“Deshawn could only stammer. Fervently did he wish to appease this frightful Herald, but how could he explain to the creature the futility of what it asked? Deshawn had long since lost his way in the boundless Swamp. He was not certain he could even find his home again, much less muster the strength for the journey. What was more, even if managed to return to Norlins as the Herald seemed to demand, the Guardsmen would surely kill him for his crime. Whatever sacred light might lie hidden deep within him, there it would surely stay once his body was left to bleed out upon the streets of island city.
“Though Deshawn could not form the words, the Herald knew his thoughts. It made a low guttural noise that might have been a laugh.
“’Do you doubt the sovereignty of He that made and renews the world, Child of Dust?’ it said. ‘The Prezdent Above made men free that they might craft their own hope and be their own salvation. But He has filled the world with tools for your use if you but have the wisdom to reach out and grasp them.’
“The Herald lowered his head until his giant white snout filled the boat. It opened its jaws, revealing an endless procession of knife-sharp teeth, each bigger than Deshawn’s thumb.
“’Reach into my mouth, Child of Dust. There you shall find a loose tooth. Pry it out. Take it with you when you return to your home. This shall be your talisman. While you carry it, men will sense its power and hesitate to do you harm. The path ahead will not be straight or easy. You will be met with scorn and hatred. You will be slandered and obstructed. But draw strength from this talisman you bear, and let it remind you that you do not face these trials alone.’
“What could Deshawn do but as the Herald instructed? He leaned forward into the beast’s waiting jaws, half expecting them to snap shut at any moment and cleave his body in two. He spied a tooth, smoother and larger than the rest, near the back of the creature’s mouth. Warily, he reached out and grasped it.
“No sooner had he touched the tooth than Deshawn felt his fever subside and his hands steady. Gingerly, he nudged and twisted. He felt the tooth give way. A moment later, he had pulled it free of the Herald’s bone-white gums. He clutched the enormous fang in his fist and backed away to gaze once more into the big red slitted eye.
“’Well chosen, Child of Dust,’ the Herald said. ‘Now climb upon my back. I will bear you to the swamp’s edge. You shall return to your people before day next breaks.’
“And so the Prophet rode the great white alligator through the swamp and all the way to the outskirts of Norlins. What he did when he arrived, well, that is a separate tale. Enough to say that, indeed, God saved him from execution at the hands of the Merican Guardsmen, though whether it was his talisman or the Prophet’s own wits and words that stayed their guns, as to that the stories differ. In time, many Guardsmen would set aside their uniforms to follow the Prophet and would be counted among the most fervent of the First Called.
“As to the Herald, little else is said. Most assume the ancient creature vanished, its role fulfilled.
“But you girls know better, do you not? That’s right. A hundred years later, long after the Prophet was martyred and laid to rest, God sent a dream to a man who was a former bandit himself. A man who, like the young Deshawn LaCore, had done many shameful things in the name of survival. The dream led that man here to this very place, this valley full of strange idols from Lectric Times.
“When I first laid eyes on these ruins all those years ago, I sensed that a sacred energy must flow through this place. Why else had its Merican builders chosen this remote site to erect their monuments? I knew right away that I had reached my destination, that this was what the Prezdent Above had sent me out upon the old number roads to find.
“And then, as I cleared out the rubble from the abandoned buildings, I discovered old lectric pictures buried within. And what do you suppose they showed? A huge alligator. White with red eyes.
“Astonished at the revelation, I continued to excavate. From the ruins, I began to pull bones, the skeletons of all manner of exotic creatures. Until, one day, I came upon the relics that I was seeking. The true earthly remains of the Herald.
“How this divine being made its way from the Lost City of Norlins all the way to Yowa Country, I cannot rightly say. Perhaps it was sent here by the Prezdent Above to perform some further service or to bless this place with its presence. Or perhaps, once the Herald’s duty was complete, its earthly vessel remained to live out its days as a simple creature of the swamp. Perhaps it was later snared and brought here in captivity.
“However it came to pass, I knew it was my calling to build a shrine here, a proper place to house these holiest of relics. And so I have. And here the Herald lives. And many a Lacorian pilgrim has felt its power.
“And if you doubt, as some have, that the Holy Restup and Reptilsoo of Happy Valley Orchards holds the true remains of God’s own messenger, I invite you to stand once more before the Herald’s Shrine. Feel its presence. Look upon that skull. Observe how unnaturally well preserved it is. Then examine its jaws. You will notice—through what can only be judged a miracle—that every one of its teeth is still present.
“All but one. Look closer. You will notice, on its bottom jaw, near the back, in a gap larger than the rest, the space for a single missing tooth.”