Maso walked into the wasteland again for the third time that week. The animals had been getting out of their pen and he needed to find the gluster cow that hadn't come in with the rest of the herd. If he didn't hurry he'd no doubt find an eviscerated corpse after the Glaivers found it.
He could feel the heat of the sun on his neck, cooking him alive. The heat was brutal in the middle of the day in the desert. There was nothing for miles except ruined husks of settlements from the times before. Big rock and metal skeletons that had been picked over by vultures for years. If the cow found its way into one of those there was no doubt he'd find it dead or maimed with a broken leg. Those places were treacherous and full of pits and holes that the stupid glusters had a special knack for finding their way into.
Fortunately, the cow had left tracks that Maso could follow for a ways. Inevitably the the wind swept away the tracks as he followed them, and they disappeared into the desert. But he had his direction now. The cow had headed towards the mountains. He would catch up with it long before it ever made it there, so his luck had stayed with him in some small way.
A short time later he passed by a metal skeleton that still had pieces of transparent rock jutting out in jagged shards from its frame. He'd seen this substance before, but it wasn't common. It had all been picked away from the skeletons in ages past. If he could pry a bit of it out, he could probably trade it for some new waterskins. But after a moment of consideration he decided against it. Losing the cow would cost him dearly, more dearly than a few waterskins could make up for.
Maso had come to this place when he'd been driven from his home. The village he'd grown up in had been destroyed by the Sistern. The buildings in the village had been set aflame, those who tried to flee were slaughtered by the laughing crows. Those who stayed were raped and enslaved. Maso had served his current master since that time, tending the animals and ensuring their safety. His master had been kind, giving him plenty of food and letting him roam freely in his tending to the animals. But that trust only extended so far. If he failed to bring back this gluster, the consequences would be dire.
As he neared the mountains, the sun sunk lower in the sky, nearing the crest of the mountain ridge. In the twilight Maso could make out a campfire in the distance. Normally he'd stay away from anyone wandering in the wastes. Strangers were as likely to be cannibals or thieves as harmless traders. It was better to give them a wide berth. But in his current situation he couldn't afford the extra time to take the long way around this traveler. The longer he took, the greater the risk the cow would be dead when he got to it. He gripped the staff in his hands tightly. If he had to, he could fight. But he hoped it didn't come to that.
The fire grew in his vision, and Maso began to see that it wasn't a campfire. It was a tree. A tree that was burning in the middle of the desert. There was no water here. There was no way a tree could be growing here. There was no way a tree could be burning continuously for the hour since he'd first seen it. Maso continued towards the tree, and could see no one near it. This was unlike anything he'd ever seen.
Why wasn't this tree burning up? His curiosity overshadowed his concern for the escaped cow and he approached the tree slowly. The tree was of a kind Maso had never before seen in his life. It had a thick trunk, with deep knobby bark. No trees in the desert had bark like that. The tree had bright green leaves that seemed more numerous than stars in the night sky. And they were on fire! Every one of them burned but did not burn up: not one leaf curled up in the heat.
As Maso got closer, a voice came booming forth from the tree: "Maso! Maso!"
Stunned, Maso answered without thinking, "Yes?"
"Don't come any closer." the voice commanded. "Take off your shoes. The place where you are standing is holy ground."
Maso obeyed without a word, placing his shoes on the ground next to him.
"I am the God of your fathers. I am the forgotten God that the mightiest rulers in the world once worshipped, but whose name has been forgotten."
Maso couldn't speak, frozen in place by terror and awe.
"I have chosen you Maso. I have seen how you have suffered Maso. I know what has become of your family and your people, and I want to help you."
Maso stuttered, "What are you? Who... Who are you?"
There was silence.
The voice whispered in his ear: "I am that I am."
"Long ago my worshippers covered every corner of the world. But man forgot about me. As the ages passed, my name was forgotten by all but the most loyal. The loyal died with my name in their hearts, never to be spoken again.
I will never tell my name to men again, but I will make a new covenant with you. I will give you the power to free your people from their slavery. I will give you the power to drive back the darkness that the vile Glaivers have brought to this land. I will give this land to you and your people, and it will grow lush with vegetation and fat with livestock."
Maso stifled a laugh. Who was this voice from this burning tree in the middle of the desert? How could the desert ever become fertile with plants?
"Why do you laugh? Do you doubt me?" the voiced boomed angrily.
"No. Of course not." Maso couldn't restrain his words, they flowed out of him as if they weren't his own. "Who am I to challenge you? I am nothing."
"What is that in your hand?" the voice asked.
"This... is my staff." Maso replied, perplexed.
"Throw it on the ground." the voice commanded.
Maso did as the voice asked. Immediately it became a snake. Maso shrieked and jumped back. The snake became a his staff again.
"Nothing is too hard for me. If I say this desert will be fertile, it will be fertile."
How had this "god" known his thoughts? He hadn't spoken out loud, but the voice had replied as if he had. What was a god? What powers did this god have?
"I created this world. I created man to serve me. You will bring me a sacrifice to prove your loyalty to me." the voice stated.
The sun was setting over the mountains, and Maso realized the gluster cow was there. On the other side of the tree, looking straight at him.
"What do I need to do?" Maso asked, fearing the answer.
"Take this gluster cow, slaughter it, and burn it as an offering to me."
A shiver rippled through Maso's body. He couldn't do this.
"WHO DO YOU FEAR MORE? YOUR MASTER OR ME?" the voice blasted, its breath hot on his face, the flames burning brightly as it demanded an answer from him.
There was no question, Maso feared this creature more than anything he'd ever feared in his life.