Authors’ Note: Asher has appeared in numerous stories in The Arbitratus Universe, and remains, even to us, something of a figure of mystery. He was inspired by the myth of Ashor, the Black Knight, a story that continues to intrigue us. In this instance, our Asher, works to usher in a new age, important to the Balance he serves.
Covenant, Light, and Oath
Then he paced some more, tugging on the hem of his robes.
His followers were growing quiet in their devotions.
With the Solstice fast approaching, the opposite should be true.
He stopped to chew his thumbnail for a moment. Perhaps he should perform some sort of miracle, send some sign … Or a plague. That ought to get them in line again.
He started pacing again.
He jumped at the sound and turned to interloper behind him.
An unassuming man, dressed in black offered a sympathetic half smile. “Want to talk about it?”
“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded, furious at the interruption of his contemplations. “I was clear in my command to be left in peace!”
Another half smile. “Don’t take it out on your servants. I let myself in.”
One fist slammed into the opposite palm. “Who are you and what are you doing here?!?” Mithra roared.
“Calm yourself, Mithra. Your anger is misplaced.”
Without another word, Mithra closed the distance between himself and his uninvited guest, drawing a blade from within his robes. The man in black took a graceful step to the side, grabbing the god’s wrist, and effortlessly flipped the furious deity onto his back. “Keep this up, and it won’t end well for you.” Mithra continued to struggle. The man in black twisted the god’s wrist. “Calm yourself. We need to talk.”
“Fine,” the god bit out angrily. The man in black released him and he leapt to his feet, knife held in front of him. “I’ll have your head for this!”
“Doubtful.” The man’s smile became a shade less sympathetic. “If you’re done with all this needless bravado, I am ready to forget these aggressive acts and talk.”
Mithra’s face went red, but he held himself in check, unnerved by this intruder and how easily he’d been physically subdued by him. “Who are you?”
“I am Asher,” he said simply.
Mithra snorted. “You can do better than that. Asher is a myth.”
“And yet, here I stand.” The man’s lips quirked in a wry smirk. “The man, the myth, the legend.”
Moving faster than any mortal’s eye could follow, Mithra again lashed out with his knife.
And he once again found himself on his back.
“Really, old boy, I can do this all day. But I’d much rather have the talk I came here for before you hurt yourself.”
He released the god’s wrist, and took a step away, hoping Mithra would use the space to rise with dignity and be reasonable. Mithra climbed to his feet, eyeing the man with apprehension and continued anger. He looked at his knife longingly, but put it away. “Fine. We will talk. But only because I wish it.”
“As you say,” the man agreed with a polite nod.
“First I will have your name and title.”
The man in black shrugged. “I’m still Asher. But if the title will help, Keeper and Humble Servant of the Balance.”
“More mythological nonsense.”
“Said a minor god who is bleeding followers as we speak.” Mithra reached for his knife again, but Asher made a gesture that said if the god did so, he would draw his own. “I am who I say,” he affirmed calmly. “But if it makes it easier for you, you can call me Bob.”
“Bob? That sounds ridiculous!” Mithra scoffed.
The man in black smiled. “Then let’s just stick with Asher, shall we?”
The god shook his head. “Fine. I will call you Asher. But I don’t believe in you.”
“Fortunately, you belief is not required. Shall we begin?”
Mithra scowled. “Speak your piece, then leave me.”
“Very well. Why don’t we sit down?” Asher inclined his head to the large, nearby table taking up much of the room.
“I prefer to stand,” Mithra said, the sullen note unmistakable.
“As you like,” Asher said with a shrug. Then he paused, considering his next words. This wasn’t a particularly pleasant task, and Mithra’s response so far didn’t bode well for its outcome.
Mithra didn’t care for being toyed with and the silence felt intentionally unsettling. “Don’t play coy, Creature Who Cannot Possibly Be Asher. This is a busy time for me. The Solstice approaches.”
Asher shook his head. “As you may have noticed, the time isn’t as busy as you’d expect, is it?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mithra took up pacing again.
“I thought perhaps you’d already come to the appropriate conclusion.” Asher paused. When Mithra darted a murderous look his way, he sighed, and went on. “That the time is no longer yours.”
Mithra stopped pacing suddenly and faced Asher fully. He looked angry, but the glint of fear was now in his eyes. “Explain yourself.”
“I thought I was quite clear. Your time has passed, Mithra. You’re being replaced.”
Mithra let out a boisterous laugh. “Replaced by whom? Odin with his sad little bag of gifts. Ridiculous!”
Asher shook his head. “No, not Odin, I’m afraid. The news I have for him is no more auspicious for him and his line than that which I bring to you. This time is being claimed by Jesus of Nazareth.”
Mithra started to laugh, more genuinely this time. He made several attempts to speak, but couldn’t get his mirth under control. He gave up and sat down, trying to get enough breath to respond. Part of him was convinced this man in black was here to play some ridiculous prank. Maybe Odin’s adopted brat was trying to be funny again. Finally he managed, through tear-soaked laughter, “So, you mean to tell me, the Cult of Christ is usurping my day? Oh, oh that’s too funny.”
Asher grew serious. “They are hardly a cult at this point. His words will come to dominate your world. Your people especially are primed to accept Him. As I said, your time has passed.”
The expression on the so-called Asher’s face brought Mithra’s laughter to a halt. “That’s not possible. I … I was here first.”
The sympathetic smile was back. “That’s certainly true…”
Mithra interrupted. “I was born on the Solstice … I … I was slain, but I rose again on the Spring Equinox. I … It’s my day.”
Asher shrugged again. “All that’s true. But it’s true for Christ as well. Or at least it’s what his followers believe. Your followers don’t seem to believe much anymore. And that’s the important point, you see.”
“So … he copied me and I’m just supposed to … what? March off into oblivion because …”
“Not necessarily oblivion. Many of your fellows have chosen rather pleasant retirements.”
Mithra shook his head in utter disbelief. “I’m supposed to just accept that?”
“How you choose to proceed is up to you. But I’d recommend taking the retirement package.”
Mithra pushed away from the table, his face reddening. “Retire from being a GOD! Outrageous!”
Asher rose as well, sensing this was not going to play out amicably. “I get it. Change is hard. But you had a good run.”
“A good run?” Mithra sputtered.
“Yeah, but let’s face it, your faithful have been going over to Jesus for a while now. Even the Romans are getting on board these days. As goes Rome, so goes the world, at the moment anyway. Their leaders are starting to embrace this new faith.”
“Baaa! It’s not a new faith. It’s just repackaged.” Asher sighed, but let Mithra rail for a bit. “A savior, born of a virgin on the Solstice, grows up to be killed as a sacrifice, to rest in his tomb three days, and be resurrected to least his people … It’s been done. By me!”
“And my others before you, Mithra. Surely you remember Horus.”
“Horus had no sense of style.”
“Perhaps, but his story was no less compelling than yours.”
“So people are just going to swallow this Jesus’s story because … what? It’s comforting and familiar?”
“That’s the beauty of it. It resonates with people. Say what you like about Jehovah, love Him or hate Him, but he’s the master of the long game.”
Mithra sighed and came back over to the table. He sat down heavily, and placed his head in his hands. He could see the truth in Asher’s words. Each year he had noted fewer and fewer of his faithful attending to his worship. And many who still did, did so halfheartedly and without zeal. “So … What now?”
“Now you step aside, go experience the universe. When’s the last time you took a vacation? And I don’t mean lurking in some grove somewhere to get a minutes peace from the petitions of your followers. When’s the last time you left Earth and had some fun?”
Mithra shook his head. “Not since the Dawn Wars, I suppose.” He sighed again. “And to think I fought on his side. This is the thanks I get.”
“Don’t look at it like that.”
“And exactly how should I look at it?”
“As an opportunity! Go enjoy yourself. Explore. You’re not being stripped of your powers, just being asked to make way. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find another planet, one that needs a god. If you play your cards right, that god could be you.”
Mithra’s brow furrowed. “No … You don’t think … That’s not possible. Earth is the only place where man exists.”
Asher shrugged. “Well, sure. Humans are Earthbound. But it’s a great big universe, Mithra. And believe me, it’s populated. Earth is but a speck in the grand tapestry of existence. There’s room out there for plenty of gods. Just not here.”
He seemed to think about that for a while. He sighed again. “Why can’t things just remain as they are?”
“Because a time of prophecy has arrived. Actually I’ve been working out some things to make way for it for a while. Making sure certain other players are in place. This prophecy is important to the Balance, which I serve and maintain above all else in the universe. Therefore that prophecy is of utmost importance to me. And it requires a dominant religion.”
“But why Christianity?”
Asher smiled almost sadly. “Because from the fruit of that faith will rise the instrument of prophecy. My purpose here is to clear the way.”
Mithra nodded, thinking. “But what of the other gods?”
“I will visit them each in turn, just as I came to you. I will offer them a choice as well. Support the Balance or don’t.”
“What if I refuse to go?”
Asher’s jaw hardened and his shoulders squared. “Well, then … Things may become unpleasant.” His eyes were hard as flint. “You may doubt my identity, but trust me when I say, do not test me.”
Mithra considered his words carefully, then he rose and faced the man in black. “I have no interest in leaving. And I … I will not accept … I don’t believe you have the power to make me leave.”
“You’re right. I don’t have the power to make you leave.” Asher shook his head, almost imperceptibly. A shining sword materialised in his hand. “But I do possess the power to end you.” Mithra eyed the blade, but stayed silent. “I ask you not to demand that of me. You can have an existence far beyond what you’ve ever imagined on this tiny backwater planet. Believe me when I say your death will bring me no pleasure.”
Mithra’s eyes narrowed. Images of Solstice past came unbidden into his mind. The feasts. The sacrifices in his name. The sweet, heady scent of burnt offerings. The pleasures of the flesh taken in his name. The bodies offered up for him to enter so he could partake himself. “No. I won’t do it. My faith will rise again. I refuse to cede my place.” He drew his dagger from the folds of his robes. “I am prepared to fight.”
“As you wish.” Asher stepped forward, raising his sword. The movement was so swift, no one but a god could have seen it. And no one but a very powerful god, in the full flower of his faithful’s attention could have countered the blow. Asher shook his head and wiped the blood from his blade. “Such a waste.”
He turned to go, mumbling to himself. “I hope things go better in the North.” He left Mithra’s home by the front doors, noting the god’s servants already trickling out themselves, sensing the god’s absence and looking for a place to go. “Thank the Balance I don’t have to work my way through the Hindu pantheon.”
He headed out for his next stop. His work was in the West, making room for this new faith, so that one day a girl would be born, and upon her shoulders would rest the fate of all mankind. And, more importantly to Asher, the fate of the Balance itself.