he nomad tribe had stopped for the night. Their fires were burning low, and most of them, exhausted from the day's march, had bedded down to sleep. Some remained awake: sentries, and others who tended to the animals or squatted about the fires, conversing in low voices.
They were a moderately sized army, perhaps close to twenty-five hundred in number, and their van stretched out almost a half a mile. For the last forty-five days they had traveled steadily up from the south over the rugged, pitiless land, driven by the iron will of their leader, sustaining themselves after the first few weeks from whatever food and water they could find on the journey. Those unfortunate enough to encounter them had been either killed or enslaved. The captives were forced to assist with the baggage train without water or rest; when they expired from exhaustion, their bodies were left where they fell.
The barbarian leader emerged from the largest tent. He was tall and heavy-set, his face weathered and cruel. He wore a stylized helmet which hung below his jaw line; it did not completely conceal his head, and a thick tangle of black hair protruded on either side of a central metal strap which ran from forehead to occiput. His right arm was missing from the mid-forearm, and in its place a sophisticated prosthetic hand had been fitted with three large fingers and an opposable thumb. A circular silver amulet with a distinctive reverse-Z symbol hung from his neck. It flashed brightly against his black undershirt.
He adjusted the belt which secured his red, black-trimmed cloak. The gruesome trophies hanging from it swung to and fro--grotesque reptile heads, faces shriveled, eyes slit-like.
In the south, in the lands of his birth, he had at one time been the head of a single clan. Over time, however, through a skillful mixture of force, artifice, and leadership, he had united seven tribes under his rule. He now led a picked army of his united nation.
As he surveyed the camp, an enormous sphere, glowing green in the night, appeared on the horizon and streaked across the starry sky. It was not uniform in color; the many shades of green on its luminous surface seemed to shift and change in a flickering, malevolent fashion. With a thunderous whoosh it passed directly over the barbarians' camp. The wash of displaced air blew like a strong, warm wind over the field, fanning the fires and rattling the tents. Sparks flew and spun briefly in the agitated currents. Some of the animals reared or cowered in fright. Everyone was immediately awakened, some emerging from under tent or blanket, blinking the sleep out of their eyes and staring upward in awe.
The barbarian chieftain watched the sphere with a mixture of curiosity and fear. It continued in a linear path, growing smaller as it approached the opposite horizon, and then disappeared. They heard, and felt through the soles of their feet, a monumental explosion somewhere behind the ridge of mountains which lay in that direction.
He turned and spoke to one of his lieutenants in a low voice. In response, the man ran to another tent in the encampment, and shortly thereafter, returned to the chieftain accompanied by a short, huffing, wizened man in a nightshirt. His wispy, white hair hung about his wrinkled forehead in tangled corkscrews. His ice blue eyes betrayed a man wildly frightened by what everyone had just witnessed, and by being abruptly summoned to his master. In his gnarled and arthritic hands he held a thick, leather-bound book. Together they re-entered the chieftain's tent, and gathered about a rough-hewn, circular wooden table.
"What is the meaning of this prodigy?" demanded the chieftain. "Does Scripture speak of it?"
The old man rested his hands on the book and was still for a moment, his eyes closed. He then opened them, and began to flip through the tome. "In the Book of the Sibyl Rikiva . . . I believe there is a passage . . . . let me see . . . ." Bent closely over the book in the poor light, he scanned down the closely written text with his finger. "Ahhh . . . here it is . . . ."
"A shadow shall fall over the universe. Evil will grow in its path. Death will come from the skies."
The chieftain leaned back in his chair, and inclined his head to stare at the ceiling. He thought for some time without speaking. Then, he brusquely gave orders to his officers to strike the camp. They would follow the object immediately.
Inwardly, he was simultaneously fearful of the sphere, yet powerfully attracted to it. He had experienced dreams of bringing his tribes north in a journey of conquest and expansion, to destroy or enslave the weaker peoples thought to inhabit the northern territories. Now, seeing the sphere, he had an odd sense that he had been here before, had seen it before. For the first time, he realized that the sphere, too, had been a part of his dreams. It had been calling to him, had been driving him on, and was calling him now. He would respond, and bring his people to it. The thought filled him with excitement, and he felt an alluring taste of foreknowledge that great power and glory would soon be his.