This story is continued from last week's story, "Quickly, Staunch the Wound", and is based on today's A to Z Challenge post, "W is for Whetstone"
The stub of thumb was enough to let Potemkin cup the whetstone in his left hand, but not enough to let him grip it properly. It was one of his favorite old stones, an oblong slab of fine-grained soft marble. The blood and pus that oozed from what remained of his left thumb lubricated the stone. Instead of the bright shhhhick, shhhhick sound of sharpening with water on the stone, he heard a wet, sucking shhllllock! shhhllllock! with every pass of the blade.
It didn't matter, not really. The black blade was full of moonlight and blood and sorrow; it needed no further honing. The action was only to pass the time until the Bishop of the Grove woke up. Then...
Then, Potemkin knew, his long journey would come to an end.
Atop his own altar in the middle of the sacred grove, the Bishop was bound with copper wire and packing tape that Potemkin had purchased at a hardware store near his hotel. Despite the unconscious old man lying before him, incongruous in the quilted robe he'd been in when the trees had torn him from his house, Potemkin wasn't thinking about the Bishop or what the next hour would bring.
He thought about all the hardware stores, lumber yards, wood brokers and tool shops he'd first worked at, then patronized, then owned. So many years since he was first dumped in Chicago without a word of English, claimed by a "relative" who wanted only cheap labor. That was sixty years and a hundred million dollars ago. Now, at long last, after all the decades of aching without understanding, and then hearing the wood speaking clearly to him, urging him on...
The Bishop woke, blinked, and tried to move his arms. He looked around and realized where he was, exactly what he was tied to. As though he'd been set afire, he struggled against his bonds. Bellowing with commanding rage, he called on his followers to come to his aid, to free him, to strike down whoever had dared such a thing.
Potemkin let him go on for almost twenty minutes. When the Bishop's cries fell off to a heavy, panting silence and the noise of the woods covered all, Potemkin stepped forward into his line of sight and lifted his knife.
With renewed fury (and a perceptible trace of fear), the Bishop of the Grove cried out again for assistance. Potemkin waited.
After a time, when the Bishop was again reduced to quietude, Potemkin said, "All of this ends tonight. Here and now. For the sake of the murdered innocents, it ends."
"Who are you? Release me at once! I know nothing of murdered children!"
Around them both, the trees hissed and moaned. The Bishop looked from side to side, fear widening his eyes.
"Will you meet your final moment with a lie on your lips?" Potemkin asked. "Can you not admit and accept the enormity of what you and all your kind have done?"
"We followed the sacred rule! We did nothing wrong!"
Kill him... whispered the trees... kill him... kill him...
Potemkin held his mutilated hand high; the trees fell back to vengeful murmurs.
"Even if your bloody rites had a place in the Old World," Potemkin said, "they have had no proper place in the new, not for centuries. But even if the Old Ways lived on, you and your followers wanted nothing but wealth. The wood that sings and cries let you live a life of luxury and debauchery. For this, you murdered by the score, by the hundreds. You led a blackened cult of empty greed, founded on pain and death. Your inner circle of followers are all dead. Soon, you will join them and it will all end."
On the altar, the Bishop drew back his head and spit at Potemkin. Then he began to laugh, a sneering, foul sound that filled the air between them like the stink of a bog fire.
"You think killing me will end this? That wood is worth more than gold, more than platinum, even more than the enriched uranium from the old Soviet missile warheads. It's the most precious substance on earth. What makes you think a hundred, a thousand men won't rise up after I'm dead, eh? Any one of them would happily renew the Old Ways to get that river of money flowing into his pocket!"
"Corruption and greed, right to the end. Have you no shame? The Old Ways called for giving up the blinded orphans of murdered parents in spirit of kindness and mercy. They were to be offerings to the trees so that they could have long lives of peace within the Living Grove, not be a ghoulish feed for your bottomless pockets."
"These trees belong to us! It is our sacred rites that imbue them with their power! We are free to do with them as we see fit!"
"And were you free to expand the grove into a stand of timber? To create the hundreds of Sacred Children by first murdering their parents and then blinding them? You are a perversion."
KILL HIM... KILL HIM...
The Bishop shouted to be heard over the trees. "Yes, kill me! Kill me and see how much good it does you! You have no standing here, no place from which to act! An American outsider, flying in like Superman to put a stop to evil? BAH! Your knife is sharp, old man, but nothing you do here will change ANYTHING!"
Again, Potemkin held his hand up. The trees hushed, knowing what was to come.
"You are wrong. I am from America, but I am no American. I was born in the village of Niechevogorsk."
The Bishop's eyes grew wide. "No. No, that's not true. It's not possible."
"I was away in Moscow when your acolytes fell upon the village. Six years old, alone in a strange hospital in a strange city, and half-dead from tuberculosis. It took me many years to understand how lucky that made me. You killed my parents and blinded my twin sister and my brothers along with all of my cousins and every other child in the village. Then, you sick, blasphemous bastard, you sliced each of them open on this very altar so that their souls would be enslaved forever to serve your greed."
"You... you can't stop us! You're not... even if you are one of the orphans, you're not blind!"
Potemkin held up his right hand, the one with the razor-sharp knife. In one slashing motion, he drew it across both eyes, slicing through the bridge of his nose in the process. Pus and blood and vitreous humor spilled down onto his face.
He felt nothing but joy and power. With that stroke, Potemkin had become one with the Grove, one with all the thousands upon thousands of slain children whose blood soaked the roots beneath him. The Bishop screamed and screamed beneath him, but Potemkin hardly heard him amid the rushing leafsong of the trees.
"Guide my hand," he whispered, "guide my hand. From here and from wherever you are kept around the world, you will be free. I offer myself as the last of the Sacred Children. I promise you, it all ends with me. Let me be the Guardian of the Grove for the rest of all time. Guide my hand and free yourselves."
From the canopy above, slender branches reached down and wrapped themselves lightly around Potemkin's wrists. They led him forward and guided his hands upward. The Bishop's screams were scarcely audible to him.
His dead eyes filled with moonlight and love, Potemkin brought his strong arms down, driving the blade through the Bishop's heart and into the wood beneath. Shrieks of rage and pain spewed and burbled, the unearthly agony of it mixed with a joyous chorus, an explosion of sound and light that drove Potemkin backward.
Alexi... Alexi... thank you... thank you...
Potemkin fell to his knees amid the chorus. Blackness closed in as his life and soul poured out from the ruin of his eyes. He felt the soil well up to receive him, felt the thirsty roots drink him up.
Peace settled over him. His heart jerked, slowed, jerked again. The rush of wind buffeted him all the children flew up and away, freed from the soil, the stones, the trees... and as he settled down to take their place, to become one with the woods.
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