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Lei Pyke Chapter 1: The Year of the King, 1972 Thelembi crouched behind the waste barrels of the slaughterhouse, panting. In front of him, hounds bayed in their frustration; their noses alternatively on the ground and in the air. They wouldn’t find him; he had learned the trick of confusing them. Thelembi was coated in offal from the barrels he crouched behind, covered in rotting hide that had been set out for the waste carter. The carter would not come until the hunt was gone, so Thelembi felt relatively safe. He held open a tiny tin of Dust; a powerful, illegal drug. It was made from the spores of a naturally occurring fungus that was unique to the Undercity. He always had some for exactly this occasion. He could barely breathe for the stink, but the alternative was sure death. One of the dogs sniffed at his pile and he closed his eyes, praying that he would not be discovered. It stuffed its nose into the can and then sneezed, blowing the Dust everywhere. Thelembi held his breath, but too late. He had to stop himself from swearing as the tingle of dust stung his nostrils. His eyes watered as he stifled his own urge to sneeze. Soon, his nostrils burned with the Dust. Other dogs came to sniff the pile. When they began to chew on the hide, Thelembi despaired for his life. To his relief, the master gave a shrill whistle, commanding the dogs to get out of the scraps. With a snort, the first dog hiked his leg and pissed on Thelembi’s pile. The master on his masyth gave the signal to search the next street. It groaned and unfurled its wings a bit. The draconic beast was easily fifteen feet long from end to end, though it was only about three feet across at its widest spot. Its rider sat in the saddle with his bow at the ready, his legs occupying the place where the creature’s arms and front shoulder blades had once been. The master’s hounds grouped around the legs of the masyth, yipping with excitement. The master lifted his horn to his lips, sounded three notes in rapid succession, and waited. Form three or four directions, Thelembi could not quite tell, similar blasts echoed. With a sharp curse, the master jerked his masyth around and
jabbed it into motion. The hounds trotted after, their tongues lolling, their tails erect. Thelembi smiled. Soon, the dogs would be seizing or insane. Still, Thelembi waited. Two hundred feet overhead, the ceiling of B district was lost in a haze of light. It was saffron colored, but Thelembi did not know the difference. He had never seen light of any other color. Newcomers to Undercity claimed that the hunters never came after “night” on the surface, but night was only a legend to Thelembi. The Undercity never got dark. The distant baying of the dogs told him that the hounds had found alternative prey to chase. With a sigh, he climbed out of his gristly hiding place. He stripped down on the spot, scraping the gore and offal off of his pale flesh to the best of his ability. The clothes would be no good now, but he could find more soon enough. Reaching back into his hiding place, he withdrew a pouch. Opening it, he counted twenty gold crowns—a fortune beyond his wildest dreams. This was worth hiding in gore. He had stolen it from a slaver who had come to the outer districts to capture young children for the slave markets. The man had drunk himself comatose on a distilled spirit of wheat and dust called Larq. Thelembi had been watching the market assemble, marking his order of theft from the roof of an inn when the roof had collapsed under his weight. When the slaver did not stir, Thelembi had relieved him of his purse. With luck, the innkeeper would believe that the man ruined the crumbling inn’s roof. He had escaped without notice. The buildings were derelict enough that they collapsed all the time. All of this was common. Illegal fortunes were made and lost in B at the whim of the gods. Now that the unfortunate slaver’s gold was his, he would be changing these coins out for less conspicuous ones. Gold coins were sought after, but not truly wanted. To keep them meant death more often than good fortune, but to reap their reward they were best when exchanged. This left him in a very uncomfortable situation. In only an hour, he would be raving in the effects of Dust. The Hunt was baying and sounding deeper into the district. They would not give up on him so easily, but he had escaped them for now. He knew that he was still in danger.
Quietly, he raced off away from the dogs. He was the fastest runner in B district, though he never revealed it to anyone. He saved his speed only for times like this, when the Hunt would not leave the district. The Hunt was a vicious blood sport popular with the nobles of Arynstar. They would select one citizen of the Undercity to hunt like a beast of prey and pursue that person until it was cornered. Then they would watch and compose poems as the unfortunate was ripped apart by the dogs. It was a foul tribute to the goddess Anim, the King’s deity of stealth and cunning. It seemed that the hunt was always after him. He had escaped twenty of them in his lifetime, including this one, which made him a legend among the urchins of Undercity who regarded him as an immortal hero. Rumors he had overheard said that the hunt, too, regarded him as a master prize. His fame among the urchins and crime bosses kept him safe from the locals but none would aid him either, especially at a time like this. He stopped to urinate, but he couldn’t squeeze out a dribble. Fear still had a stranglehold on his loins. Still, he laughed at his attempt. He scratched his filthy, prominent ribs and tried to think of an escape. He tugged on his long, platinum braid in frustration. He had to get clean somehow or even the hunter would smell him, and he had to get off the streets before the hallucinations started. He was already feeling numbness in his face as the drug was starting to turn off his pain receptors. He was too far from his home to reach it in time, and it was not the safest place to go when he knew he would be raving and insensible. Carefully, he climbed up the crumbling wall of the nearest building and raced across the closely spaced, flat rooftops, praying that each one would hold his weight. There was only one place in B district that he could go for refuge. It was a place where the hunt did not dare to go. It was the temple of Meranna. The temple of Meranna was unlike any building in B District. It seemed to be made of living stone. It towered above all the other buildings, but showed no signs of breakage. Its entire outer surface, from the floor to the lofty ceiling of the Undercity, was intricately carved with arcane writing and images of creatures that he had never seen before. Coming close to the temple, he could smell clean water in the air. He had been
near the place before, and had accepted water from the priestesses who filled the cisterns, but he had never been inside. Chapter 2: The guard at the door of the temple of Meranna appraised him with a look of sheer disgust, holding her left hand to her face and tracing a superstitious sign in the air to ward off disease. In contrast to the impressive natural structure of the building, the door was tiny and obviously man-made. The larger entrance was blocked by the hewn stone of the protective wall. It was high enough and wide enough for guards to be posted along the top, but Thelembi never saw anyone atop it. What he was more interested in was the gate that separated him from the entrance. “Guard, I need sanctuary. I am pursued by the agents of Anim.” The guard sneered, looking around. “You are lying.” “I am not lying! Please. . .I’ll give alms.” he pleaded, flashing a crown from his pouch. The Temple of Meranna normally did not admit any male whatsoever, but they had been known to grant sanctuary to refugees from the king’s gods. This was his last chance. He hated to give up even one of his treasures, but having them would not matter if he was dead. Her expression changed, seeing the gold coin. Thelembi knew that the promise of gold would work. Giving money to Meranna’s temple was illegal for some reason. “I can bring you into the gate and protect you until the hunt disperses, but because you are male, you must gain permission to enter the temple itself.” She unlocked the gate, and Thelembi rushed in. The guard took his coin. “Thank you.” He said as he sat behind the stone wall. The passage through the outer wall was wider than the gate, leaving a lip where a gate guard could hide if necessary, and peek out to assess a situation. “This is all I will need.” Tears began running down his face. He could not stop them. He knew he was safe. “I am Bucera the temple guard.” She said. “What is your name so that I can send it inward?” “I am Thelembi.” He said between wracking sobs.
Bucera turned and whistled. A young girl came out of the small entrance. The guard said something that Thelembi could not understand. The young girl’s eyes went wide and she disappeared back into the temple. The guard eyed Thelembi with suspicion and disgust. He looked up at her with bloodshot eyes. She crouched, handing him a rag for his face. He took it and began wiping, but the rag was soon ruined. Bucera said nothing, but tensed when the sound of the hounds came closer. “They really are hunting you, boy. I believe you.” She said quietly, returning his coin. He shook his head. “Take it into the temple. I won’t need it if I die.” “You won’t die.” She said. Thelembi stood and looked out the gate. He could hear the hounds coming closer. “Lord Cet is on his masyth today. We will have to fight.” Bucera barked a grim laugh and took out her staff. Even in the temple of Meranna, citizens were not allowed to use metal tools. “Is that so? I don’t believe he can. There is magic in this place, and it protects itself. Why do you think I am the only guard here?” “They will scent me through the wall. They will scent my trail up to the gate. I was not careful.” “It does not matter. They will have to leave soon.” “I think that they are determined this time.” “Maybe. I have never known them to be able to distinguish one urchin from another.” She said. “They hunted me too, once. I came here for sanctuary and the priestesses offered me this job instead.” Thelembi’s head jerked. He looked at her. “You were an urchin too?” “Oh, yes. Mine and my sister’s lover was a boy. He had the same name as you. He was famous, you know. You were probably named after him. Has Thelembi become a popular name in the district?” Thelembi shook his head, wiping his eyes . “What happened to him?” “He led me here and dashed off with the hounds right at his heels and his brother on his back. He was fast, you know. He said that we were slowing him, and so he saved
us by putting us here.” He realized that she was talking about him, but he couldn’t understand how she could be speaking about him as if it was a long time ago. “Do you remember what you did together?” he asked thickly. “Hah! As if I could forget. We used to be the talk of the district! If only Zohra hadn’t died, we could have been truly famous.” “How famous?” He asked, a lump forming in his throat. He had known this woman, but he didn’t understand why she looked so old. She had silver in her hair. “Tsch. Maybe famous enough to leave this place. Man, could he fight. And run. And steal. He could cut up an enemy too, with a wooden dagger, no less! A real fighter, that one. And we loved him. None of the merchants’ purses were safe. You know, you really remind me of him. You have his body. I shouldn’t be telling you this.” “This reminds you of that day. I remind you of him.” He said simply. “You are guileless.” Thelembi looked up, confused. He didn’t understand the word. Bucera shook her head. “He was like that too, with women.” “You rutted with him.” Thelembi said, smirking. Bucera colored. “I was one of his girls, right? It never came to anything, but my sister had a child by him. That girl I called to run in. She was born right before that hunt. I think that is the only reason he brought me here at all.” “That’s not possible! She’s too old!” Thelembi shouted. Bucera shushed him and looked nervously out. One of the dogs could be seen out in the street. Thelembi put his hand over his mouth as it lifted its cruel, fanged muzzle and bayed. Thelembi uttered a sharp string of curses. Bucera looked down. Her eyes betrayed fear of Thelembi, not the dogs. “Why do you care, urchin?” she asked nervously. “Is he your dad? Hmm? You sure act like him.” They locked eyes and glared at each other. Thelembi was about to tell her no, but thought better of it, noticing her astonished expression. “Your eyes. . .” Thelembi cocked his head. That was not the response he was expecting. “Excuse me?” The guard pointed her quarterstaff at him. “Can you use magic?” Thelembi’s mouth dropped open.
“What? Are you crazy? This is not the time. The dogs--” “How many years have you?” Thelembi shrugged. He glanced out the gate as the huge masyth landed in the temple square. The dogs rushed at the gate. “I dunno. . .fifteen, twenty. . .ma’am! Your gate!” The guard ignored the first of the dogs as they slammed their bodies against the gate and instantly died in a blaze of light. At the pungent scent of fried canine, Bucera looked over her shoulder and shook her head at the charred corpses. “Priestesses of Meranna! You have a boy in your midst. His hair is long so he may appear to be a young woman. Send him out or let me come in to get him. He would profane your lovely temple.” Lord Cet’s voice boomed across the temple courtyard. Bucera scowled and turned away from Thelembi. “Bastard lord, you have no authority among the churches of the Maestros. Go back to your demons and die.” Bucera shouted. The whole temple seemed to shake and amplify her voice, which thundered across the courtyard. The hounds whined and huddled together. The masyth bowed to the ground, shrieking and honking in terror. Bucera smiled fiercely. “You cannot hold onto him forever. Your god would not permit it. Have you granted him sanctuary?” “We grant sanctuary to all those trying to escape demons.” Bucera thundered. Cet tried to goad his masyth forward, but it would not budge. With a curse, he jumped off and stabbed it in the head with his sword. It stuck in the beast’s head. Bucera cursed. “Killing your mount won’t help you this time. You cannot approach. Meranna knows your sorceries.” Bucera turned to Thelembi. “Hang on, this is going to get rough.” As soon as she said it, Thelembi watched in horror as Cet seemed to draw light and blood from his freshly killed mount. He was muttering in a strange tongue that Thelembi had never before heard, but the sound of it set his teeth on edge. With a muffled thump, a wave of magic rocked the protective outer wall. Bits of stone came loose from the man-made structure and skittered around, somehow missing both Bucera and Thelembi. Bucera grabbed Thelembi and covered his eyes, just as everything around them went white. The ground shook and the air seemed to split and scream around him.
When their vision cleared, they looked out. Every beast and man-at-arms in Cet’s retinue had been reduced to a fine gray powder, but Cet stood in the middle of it, laughing. Thelembi could see his brimstone eyes from across the courtyard. Bucera uttered a foul string of curses. “What is he?” Thelembi asked, shaken. “Not human.” She said, “Demon bred.” “Very well, there will be other hunts.” He said, brushing off his burned skin. Underneath was a layer of inhuman flesh that was so awful that Thelembi could not look at him. Cet was standing with every muscle exposed, yet he did not bleed out. Coating his raw muscles was a net of pulsing green threads. His teeth were jagged and feral and he sported the canines of a dog. “You cannot hold him forever. Anim has marked him, and she will get what she wants in the end. Not even Caius can stop her. Your Meranna has no chance.” “Go on, you bastard, or I will call down another strike and we shall see if you can withstand it without a skin to wear.” The demonic man paced, considering. “You tell that boy that because he was a coward and hid among women, I had to kill fifty in this district tonight, and I will kill another to wear his skin before I leave. Let him chew on that.” Cet walked away, reveling in his grotesque form. Thelembi hid his head in his arms and slumped against the wall. Bucera’s attention instantly turned to Thelembi. “Well, you. Don’t lie to me any more. Are you marked?” “I . . .I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He said, looking up at the butt of her staff. “You are not human at all!” “What? That’s insane!” “No. . .you can’t be. . .Thirty.” She said. “If it’s like they said. . .Thelembi? My Thelembi?” “Yeah, the same as I have ever been. Glad you finally figured it out.” She paled, and brought her staff down over his head, stunning him. “Black Manni.” He groaned, calling her by her street name as he clutched his head. She trembled from head to foot.
“You may enter.” She said venomously, looking into his eyes. She dropped her staff and took his hands, helping him to his feet. Thelembi was confused, but he had the gut feeling from years of life on the streets that though he had been given permission, this was no longer a good idea. He took another step back, but Bucera was ready for him to run. She seized his hand again as he tried to pull it out of her grip. Instinctively he jerked, but her grip was now like iron. “Let me go if you ever loved me! I just wanted sanctuary from Anim’s hunt! Cet’s gone now, so let me go. C’mon Manni!” “It’s not about us anymore. You MUST enter. Don’t you want the blessing of Meranna?” “No! I just wanted sanctuary, that’s all. I’m glad you’re still alive, just. . .whatever we had was a long time ago right? Is that little girl really my daughter?” She squeezed his wrist until it began to pop. Thelembi stopped struggling, and he cried out pain. She shoved him face first through the waist high door and poked him until he crawled in. He was trapped. “Let me out!” He shouted as the door closed, plunging him into the darkness of the entrance. “Your fate is in the hands of Meranna! I don’t want to hurt you, but you cannot leave now. The priestesses commanded me to usher in any with eyes like yours. Though I’d rather kill you for what you did to Zohra.” she answered. Thelembi grasped his injured wrist. “What I did? She was never strong! The kid was too much for her!” “No, you Daitari bastard! Your kid killed her!” “Daitari? I’m not a demon!” “Just go!” said Bucera, her voice laden with tears. “I let you in. Just go. You cannot leave until you speak to the attendant. Her name is Ceras. And if you see your daughter she is called Thanni.” Chapter 3: Thelembi sat against the cool stone, hurt, confused, frightened, and angry all at once. His head brushed the ceiling of the tunnel, obviously designed so that the
worshippers would all come into the sanctuary in a humble posture. As he touched the walls, squiggly lines of writing glowed. Thelembi only guessed that they were prayers of some sort; he was illiterate. There was no way out of the tunnel but toward the other end —into the sanctuary. He began to crawl forward. As he crawled, he cursed his luck, Anim and the Dust, but he held his tongue about his thoughts of Meranna. He believed in gods, but trusted none of them. None had ever done him good. To be cursing one in her own temple when she obviously wished him ill was foolish. He reached the end after what seemed like an eternity of painful crawling on all fours. Even through the dust induced numbness, pain shot up from his wrist. He was blinded as he opened the door to the sanctuary. He had never seen such a bright place before. The light shone pure white, but to him it looked washed in purple. He stopped as spots swam before his eyes, overwhelmed. He backed hastily into the dark entryway once more. He sat there, staring in fascination until the spots cleared and he could see into the sanctuary. Cautiously, he got up, minding his feet. They were numb. It took him a few tries to lift them off the floor without stumbling. As he slowly lurched forward, the young girl appeared before him out of the mist, but squeaked and hustled away when she saw him. It was the young girl—supposedly his daughter. She looked to be about ten, which troubled Thelembi to the core. He did not remember it being that long ago. “Wait, Thanni!” he called, but the girl did not reappear. The magnificent, ancient interior of the temple arced above him as high as the outer building. The white light of the temple hurt his eyes. Strange, humid air obscured the view of the ceiling. Thelembi thought he was starting to hallucinate, seeing that strange air. The floor was a series of causeways over more water than Thelembi had ever seen in his life. He paused to look at himself in the water. He was filthy and his long hair dangled in thin dirty strands, having come loose from his braid in the chase. His face, though coated in blood and offal from the slaughterhouse, was young. Black Manni looked so old, every inch of her looking worn and tired though she was only twenty-five. He still
looked like a child on the edge of adulthood in his reflection. Looking at his reflection, he could not understand how it could be possible that ten years had passed. She had commented on his eyes though. He looked closer, inspecting them. They were much different from their original color. Of all the urchins who prowled and scurried in the streets, none that he had ever seen had threads of gold running through purple irises the way he and his brother did. The change had been a recent one. His eyes used to be gray. The water was so clean and so pure that it reflected his image perfectly. He was ashamed of his filth in comparison to the temple. With all the water in the temple, he figured that it would not be too bad to just take a small bit to wipe his face, if anything to clear it of the lines his tears had etched into the dried blood on his cheeks Just as he touched the water, a jolt wracked his body. He drew his hand back with a cry of pain, but felt somewhat better for having touched it. He considered the water for a long moment before slowly lowering his hand down into the water. It tingled through his whole body, refreshing him as if he had eaten a full meal. He was just about to take some when a female hand jerked him away, making him sprawl on the walkway. He looked up into the face of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Stunned, he could only stare. “That is water directly from the Arynstar Spring.” She yanked him to his feet by his hair. “How did you touch that? Explain yourself!” “I didn’t know, oh gods, is it really? Sorry, the guard just let me in. I . . . I’ll go back out!” He squirmed in terror of what he had done. “Why would Bucera let you in boy . . . Especially before permission was given?” “Ask her!” he said. “What did she say to you?” “She was a lover once, that’s all, I swear! And Lord Cet! And the Light! And then. . . She called me a Daitari! I . . . I’m no sorcerer, I can’t do magic! I’m not noble, I’m just a citizen.” “Look into my eyes.” She said, lifting his chin. He suddenly felt as if there was no other choice but to do her bidding. He looked up into purple and gold eyes that were faded almost white but otherwise just like his. Thelembi squirmed, trying to avert his eyes. She dropped him to the floor with a sigh.
“Very well. You wanted sanctuary, and you will have it. Follow me.” He cowered on the floor, having never before seen a person with such natural authority, strength and ageless beauty. He held his pouch tight to his chest. “Who are you?” He asked, not daring to look up. “Let me go, please. I want to know what I did to invite your wrath. I can make amends. . .” He opened his pouch. “I am the attendant of Meranna, Ceras Indra.” She said, taking his pouch. “You have done no wrong to atone for . . . yet.” She looked at him with distaste and then helped him stand. As he cowered, she looked down upon him. She didn’t stare as intently this time, but Thelembi still shuddered. “So you were under our noses all this time.” She said enigmatically. “You were looking for me?” “I listen to the rumors whispered by the acolytes. I have heard about you and your brother, but little did I know that you should have been sought by us. The priestesses are not allowed outside the temple grounds anymore. Come, you have much to learn, and your nakedness is not appropriate here.” “Sought by you?” Ceras stopped and looked over her shoulder. “You are a daitari, Thelembi. You belong here.” She said. He retreated from her, crouching like a frightened beast. “But. . .” he showed Ceras his wrist, which was already swollen double it natural size. Ceras frowned. “I apologize. Bucera is not gentle. I believe I shall speak to her. She may have gotten overzealous.” She said quietly, “You are not in trouble. I knew when the water’s wards did not kill you immediately that you were not human. Did you know that you are older than you look?” She walked past him, expecting him to follow. “Black Manni—I mean Bucera said thirty, ma’am.” He mumbled. “She said that girl is my daughter.” Ceras stopped and spun to face him. “What girl?” she demanded. “She said Thanni.” He said. “Her sister’s daughter. She was only a baby when I saw her last. How is this possible, ma’am?”
“Thanni.” Said Ceras. “I never thought to test her. . .no matter, I would have found out soon enough. Tell me, Thelembi, how you have survived ten years on the streets without knowing how much time has passed?” “I don’t have a crowd, ma’am. It’s just me’n Rahli these days.” He found that he could not keep secrets from Ceras. “After Zohra and Black Manni, we decided it was safer to live our lives alone.” “Wise enough. So there are no more bastard children from you?” “How should I know? D’you think I keep track?” He shrugged. Ceras looked over her shoulder with a scathing stare. Thelembi fidgeted, knowing that he had said the wrong thing. “Er, ma’am, I’ve made a copper or two, understand? An’ I’m healthy. That’s more than a lot of us can say out there.” Ceras grunted in disgust and motioned him inward. He began to shuffle forward on his numb feet, marveling at how her flawless, dusky skin and raven black hair stood out beautifully against the alabaster and cerulean pillars as she walked away from him. He tried to take in everything at once, when translucent images began to fill his vision. With a feeling of pure dread, he knew he was finally beginning to hallucinate. A strange image of a crystal horned beast of burden walked beside Ceras. She was surrounded in a white aura that only enhanced her beauty. Thelembi shook his head, trying to clear his vision, but it would not clear. “You’re so beautiful.” He muttered numbly, unable to stop his thoughts from entering his mouth. Ceras stopped abruptly, looking at him over her shoulder. “Of all the beauty I see you marveling over, you choose me. I am nothing.” Thelembi blushed, scratching his head, but he could not feel it. He looked at the white causeway and it tilted at an odd angle. He felt himself lose his balance. She caught him before he tipped into the water. She slapped him, trying to keep him from passing out, but he only felt the pressure of the hand as it connected with his cheek. “What is wrong with you?” she demanded. “Dust. . .” she dropped him on the causeway in disgust. He got up slowly, feeling nothing, though he knew he had hit his head hard. He watched as she drew water into a stone bowl from the forbidden pools. With an iron grip, she grabbed him and tried to
force the cup to his lips. Knowing what the water was, he tried to refuse it, bucking against her grip, but her strength was incredible. It was like trying to bend metal. “Please no. . .please. . .I will pay you! Anything, anything, just let me go. I have a brother that cannot live without me. . .please. It’s not my fault! I only use it to hurt the dogs. . .I . . .they sneezed it in my face.” He tried to explain, his tears leaving more grimy trails down his cheeks. Ceras looked down at him without mercy. Finally, she forced the liquid down his throat. A bolt of electricity lanced through him, clearing his head but not quite returning his senses. She sighed and set him down, and then pushed him forward. He stumbled, still unable to feel his feet. “Am I going to die?” he asked, his brain not quite catching up to his actions. She smiled, but it was not pleasant. This time, as she moved, she kept a hand on him to steady him. He stumbled forward. “No.” She led him into the thick mist at the back of the temple. He had never seen such a thing and balked, unwilling to cross it. He couldn’t see Ceras, even though he could feel her hand on his back. “What is this?” He asked, hardly daring to breathe. “This? It is just a fog bank, a cloud.” “What is it?” Ceras frowned. “When there is water in the air itself. I pity you for never having seen the sky.” “What is a sky?” Thelembi was confused. Ceras shook her head and simply pushed him through the cloud bank and into the tunnels of the temple dormitories. There were girls beyond the fog bank holding brushes and towels, but Ceras shooed them away. She led him onward to a private bath. It was carved out of the floor, and made of the same stone as the outer temple. Thelembi hesitated. “Well go on, boy, the water can’t kill you.” “But you said—” “Arynstar spring water is poisonous to humans. You are not human. Step in or I will throw you in.” She picked up a brush and a cloth, and then took off her robes so that she stood only in her shift. Thelembi watched with interest. Ceras ignored his stare. She
took his hand roughly and led him in. Thelembi shuddered as a thrill of magic and electricity enveloped his body. He wanted to bolt, but Ceras held him firmly. “You haven’t had a bath before, I take it?” “Not since I was ten or so, lady. Before the fire. And never in this water. It does not hurt you?” “Ah no. No, it cannot hurt me. I belong to Meranna and this is her water.” She made him sit on the stone ledge. She began scrubbing the grime from him. Though he was filthy, the water did not become fouled. “That fire was almost twenty years ago. It helps me place you. I don’t suppose you ever knew your real parents?” “We were found at an oasis by a slaver. That’s all mama would ever say.” He choked as she poured water over his head and began scrubbing at his hair. He had never cut it in his life, and though it had been singed once, it had never been completely shorn. It never tangled, though. When it was free of its braid, it hung in cascading sheets of absolutely straight hair. “I once had hair like this as well.” As dark as Ceras was, Thelembi found it hard to imagine her as pale as he was. “Your priestesses, are they all human?” “Yes. Thousands of generations have come and gone, young Theli, but I am the only Servant here. The rest fled long ago as Meranna commanded. There, see? Underneath that grime, your fingers are golden.” She examined Thelembi’s hands. He also looked at them, amazed. His fingernails and tips were shiny, as if they had been dipped in precious metal. “They looked normal before. What did you do to them?” He felt them, but they felt like normal fingertips. “I did nothing. They were just filthy. This is natural, see?” She showed her own hands with the same golden tips. Hers were much longer, and there was no evidence of a nail so much as the whole tip formed a sharp claw. “They will become claws like mine in time. That is your linyth ancestry. Now that you are clean, they stand out brilliantly.” “They’re just a bit shinier. Rahli doesn’t have this on his fingertips.” Ceras frowned.
“The light in the district is yellow, is it not? How silly of me! How would you know yellow from white? You’re just like my poor girls!” She got up and fetched the pouch from her robes. Searching in the bag, she pulled out a gold and a silver piece and dipped them into the water to clean them. “What color is this piece?” she asked, holding up the gold. “White, ma’am.” He said. She held up the silver piece. “And this?” “The same, ma’am. Silver is the same color as gold, ma’am.” Ceras sighed. “Well, that will pass if you stay here for very long. The light in here is the same as it ever was, and unlike humans, your eyes will adjust.” “Gold is a different color? Yellow you say?” “You understand yellow, at least.” “The merchants from the surface always grumble about it, but we always thought it was something strange. Surface dwellers talk about crazy things all the time.” When she finished with him, his skin was scrubbed, revealing a color so pale that it was obvious that he was a citizen of the undercity. Thelembi got out of the bath and noticed that all of his injuries were healed. Quietly, like a mother, Ceras dried him and dressed him in a soft robe and hustled him into the sanctuary. He was made to lie on the cold stone before the altar. Strangely, he felt more comfortable than he had felt in a long time. He found that he could not keep his eyes open. Chapter 4: “Rise, Thelembi. We have been waiting for you.” called a voice. Slowly, he opened his eyes, realizing that he was still alive. That he was not dead shook him to the core. With a groan, he got to his knees. “You are truly blessed to be here.” said a young, timid female voice. He looked up, seeing the speaker. It was Thanni hovering over him holding a stone bowl of water. He drank from it and instantly felt better. The shock of it helped him wake up. As he slowly stood, he looked past the girl to the image of Meranna, standing with a staff in one hand and a pitcher of water in the other, from which flowed the spring water that filled the outer sanctuary. Ceras sat on the altar itself, watching patiently.
“Why? Why am I alive?” he croaked, awed by the sheer power he felt coursing through the room. His voice echoed in his head. Thanni handed him another cup of water, which he gulped down greedily. “Because you are not human.” Ceras said kindly. “And Bucera is right. You are Thanni’s father.” Thelembi felt the blood drain from his lips. Thanni dropped the bowl, and it shattered on the floor. “Why?” was all he could think to say. “I know you are not stupid. How else do you think it happened?” Thanni’s mouth worked silently and she bolted. Ceras did not stop her. Thelembi scowled. That was not what he had meant, and he could tell that she knew it. “Such a shy girl. She troubles me, Thelembi. I have never before missed a daitari entering this temple. We haven’t had an infant initiate here for thousands of years and I missed it entirely. I don’t even think I ever thought to divine her ancestry.” said Ceras as she got off of the altar. “Are you comfortable? I have food for you, though I had hoped that Thanni would have a little more courage than this.” “You gave her the water, didn’t you.” “Yes. I broke the news to her last night. She is not taking it well, as you can see.” “You could have waited.” “No. Not about this. I had to take her off of my acolyte rosters immediately.” Ceras handed him a basket full of mushrooms, fruit and bread. Thelembi had never seen fruit before. He lifted up the red globe and sniffed it. It smelled sweet, almost like alcohol. “Those are Fujain from our hidden temple orchard. The god-emperor would have our hides nailed to the wall if he knew that they were still growing down here.” “Why ma’am?” Ceras sighed. “You can thank the god-Emperor for that. These fruits used to feed the entire city, but now, there are only a few trees outside of his control.” She picked one out of the basket and bit into it. The inside was a deep purple, and the juice ran down her chin. Cautiously, Thelembi copied her. The flesh of the fruit was unlike anything he had tasted, and he wolfed it down greedily. The pit in the center
crunched as well, and it had a bitter flavor that was not quite pleasant. Ceras smiled and pulled another from her robe. “You are like a little child. The pit is soft, but you should not eat it raw. We save them and roast them.” She said, running her fingers through his hair. “I suppose that is what comes of life down here.” She smiled and sat next to him. Soon, a priestess came in with Thanni in tow. The priestess glanced at the picnic that Ceras was spreading and frowned disapprovingly. “Attendant, the sanctuary is not a picnic grounds.” hissed the high priestess. Thelembi looked at Thanni, who was struggling to escape. “And so? If I wish to have lunch in the presence of my goddess, I will do so. Be silent or go elsewhere.” The priestess blushed and bowed. “Of course, attendant. I am sorry to have disturbed you. But what about the young daitari?” “Thanni can stay or go. This young man is her father, after all. Let her do as she wishes.” The priestess let her go. Thanni stood, looking between the priestess and Ceras. Quietly, she sat and picked out a fujain. “I will stay, high priestess, attendant Ceras.” She said. “Good girl.” Said Ceras. “You are dismissed human.” She waived away the high priestess. Thelembi watched her leave. “Well, Theli. I have been doing some checking. You are probably about twentynine. That puts you at just the right age.” “For what, ma’am?” “Why, for you to start expressing your natural magic. You must have been guided here to have shown up this year.” “How do I use this magic, ma’am? Can it help me heal Rahli?” “It cannot help what has already died. It cannot heal your brother’s flesh. Not even the gods can restore that.” “Then what good are they?” he demanded. “I will forgive your question, though you should know that they are worthy of your respect.” “I have to bring Rahli here. You’ve been kind. I really am not human?”
“Need you ask again? Yes, of course you should bring Rahli here. I have been very lonely. Even those who come here to seek her path always leave me. Never in all my service has even one daitari come to me from within the city.” “Where do they go?” he asked. “Out. Out of here, long ago. Even the ones that come from elsewhere return to wherever they came from. Nobody lingers in this pit. I was chosen among all of us to remain so that those who came to this temple seeking the long path of the Servant could be guided safely upon it.” “What is this path? Why do they seek it?” as soon as he asked, the entire sanctuary seemed to hum. Awed by the sheer power he felt coursing through the room, he reached out to Ceras, who took his hands. Thanni also clung to Ceras. “Easy, little one. Your father has asked the right question. Meranna is quite anxious that you join me. Theli, you must do so now, but Thanni will have the benefit of training for this. She is too young yet, but what you and I are to talk about, she must also know. She is learning this for the first time as well.” Her voice echoed in his head. “As for the others, they asked because they, like you, Rahli, Thanni and me, are cursed.” Ceras said kindly. Thelembi felt the blood drain from his lips. “Why?” was all he could think to say. The priestess frowned. “I have divined that it was your mother’s sin. Your father was not human. There was an orgy to Ruex of Anim.” Thelembi trembled. “I was hunted from birth?” “Yes and no. I know what Anim does. You were not supposed to have survived. Usually the babies are left at an oasis for animals to devour. That makes you all the more precious.” “You are not going to hand me over—“ “Don’t you dare think that again!” Ceras shouted. Thelembi cowered. “How do you know this?” “Well, I did ask the spies, but I also used divination. I am the oracle of Meranna here.” said Ceras. “I am immortal like you?”
“Not yet. You have to walk the long path of the Servant to be like me. That is the way that Meranna intended for you.” “So Meranna wants to force herself on me.” Thelembi said. Ceras scowled. “Bite your tongue. Thanni! Recite to him Meranna’s will!” Thanni stood and cleared her throat. “Meranna the most holy mother of magic forces herself upon no man. She is a loving companion, aunt, and friend to all who seek her in earnest. It is the law of the Maestros that no human shall have taken from him the right of free will. This is one of the laws that separates humans from the three.” Ceras smiled as Thanni curtsied and sat again, more confidently. Ceras patted her on the head in a matronly way. “You see, it is simple enough for a child to recite. I do not blame you for hating the gods, but watch your tongue. She hears you here. She forces herself on no man, not even daitari, though because half of your lineage comes from the linyth, she would certainly have a right to do so. The choice is yours.” “And if I refuse?” “Then from here forward you will only have about ten years to live, and they will not be pleasant. Your brother will also begin to use magic and change as well. I do not want that for either of you.” “We’ll see.” Thelembi grumped, folding his arms. Ceras sighed. “Our scouts have reported that the hunt is gone. You’ve been asleep two days before the altar. You weren’t lying when you said he was targeting you. We have spies on the surface that say that the Huntmaster family is beside itself trying to appease their demons. Dogs are sacred to them, and Cet was very careless this time. The price on your head is worth more than the gold that was in your purse.” Thelembi cocked his head and grinned. “Yeah, I’m the prize around here.” He said. “I have survived a lot of them. Black Manni could tell you.” Ceras nodded. “It’s not something to be proud of. Bucera and I had a very long chat about you. She is not pleased with you, you know. You abandoned both of them.” “She’s old. . .” said Thelembi.
“And so are you, Thelembi. I am told that thirty is a respectable age for Undercity citizens these days. Life here is not what it used to be.” “What else do you know of us?” “More than you know. I know enough to know that unless you begin your path, you risk Rahli’s life in returning to him. You are still in danger.” “How so?” “Your ability to elude them has gotten the attention of the church of Anim. The priestesses of Anim seek you, believing you to be possessed by a spirit of their lady.” “But. . .the hunt is dedicated to Anim. Why can’t they just forbid it if they think I am a spirit?” Ceras set her jaw. “I hate to speak of her foul practice here in the temple of our blessed Maestro, but you must know what has gained interest in you. Anim is a demon, not a goddess. The lord who chases you, Huntmaster Cet, is a priest of Anim and a possession of Ruex, her immortal consort. He is a demon bred, not a human anymore. He’s an abomination so twisted by his father’s sorcery and his own sorcery that he is himself more demon than mortal. They will drag you to the surface to be a sacred sacrifice. It’s their foul Morim festival. You would be the subject of their worship, or you would become a twisted construct.” Thelembi considered this for a few moments. “But I would go to the surface. . .” “No Thelembi. If you take that path, you will leave this place, true, but you will do so without your brother. Him, they will track down later when they discover your lineage. They will certainly make a construct out of him.” Thelembi shook his head slowly. “And Thanni will go into her destiny with the objective of finding and destroying you both. But you won’t be found until you are hunting down here, a slave of that mandemon.” “But. . .but. . .” he stammered, “I cannot fight and flee them forever.” Ceras shrugged. “That is why you should choose the path. You are invited to join Merrana’s long path. . .to become a Servant. If you do, you can stay here, and Anim cannot touch you.” “I didn’t come here to join your church.” He said, crossing his arms. Ceras sighed.
“Father Thelembi, Meranna is not evil! She saved Auntie’s life and yours too. And mine. It’s all right!” Ceras raised an eyebrow. “Your daughter is already well dedicated.” “Because you’ve trained her from birth.” “Nuh uh, I chose to follow her when I was eight!” Ceras barked a laugh. “Bucera does not follow her, yet she stays with us, though I think that even she is considering it after the temple gave off its show for Lord Cet. Like you, she has grown up hating the gods, and we have been patient with her.” “So be patient with me.” Ceras shook her head. “I can’t. You have very little time left before you start changing. We alone can save you that pain. I would rather you stay here and we will send for your brother. We will care for him for as long as we can.” “When would that be?” the hairs on the back of his neck raised. She gave him a piteous look, but said nothing. He answered, for her bitterly. “So. . . you, too, want to kill him.” Ceras set her jaw. “It would not be our choice, but only to end his suffering. Once, long ago, there was a way. People who did not wish to follow the path of the Servant could sail beyond the sea. There, amid the mage-wrought pillars of the temple Ashakiran, one such as we are could choose the path of the Linyth. In that ceremony he could have emerged whole, but it was not meant to be your destiny. You and he are citizens of the Undercity, and you are trapped here just as surely as any other citizen, even me.” “I will find a way.” “You may try, but the hours are against you. You will soon become a twisted horror as well, if you are not destroyed for practicing magic or captured by the King’s gods. That is the end result of all of our lives outside the guidance of Meranna.” “He is my brother.” Thelembi whined. “Yes, and I curse that fire for maiming him. It will be very hard, I know, but we cannot let him join in the path. It would be too hard for him.” Ceras said quietly, her voice full of sadness. “No deal. Let me go.” He said stubbornly, and stood. Ceras stood as well, and towered over him, blocking his path.
“You are a selfish boy, do you know that? There are options that we will consider before we act with finality, but he must be watched just as closely as you. When the curse manifests in you and in him, we will do as we must. He is too damaged to survive on the path.” “And me? What will become of me?” “You will be a Servant of Merrana just as I am, and as I hope Thanni will choose to be.” Ceras said, stepping forward. Thanni nodded as if she had already decided “You will be cleansed of your magic and the process will make you nearly immortal.” “But not Rahli?” “Rahli cannot. It is not his destiny. I cannot read his future, but yours is clear. You will choose Meranna.” “No. You are lying. If she really wanted us she would have found us before the fire! Before mama had to lose her eyes! It sounds like I should not have even been born!” Thelembi stamped his feet. “I am tired of this. I hate the gods, even her!” “I do not lie!” Ceras shouted. Her voice cut into his mind, and he was driven to his knees with the power of it. It seemed to shake the temple itself. “There is always a choice. I may have seen only the path for you that I desired, that is true, but it is there. Not Rahli. Him I cannot see at all. That you could possibly choose is significant to me! Trust me it is better if you do!” “Why?” Thelembi demanded, trying to lift his head to face her, but something kept him prostrate. “Unless you are dedicated to Meranna, we cannot risk you being corrupted, and using the magic for evil purposes. We will kill you if you fall to Anim or Thrass.” “And if I refuse?” he asked, feeling trapped. “Will you kill me now?” instantly the pressure on his body released. He stood defiantly, but still trembled in fear. “No. You may refuse for a while yet, but the time will come when the curse inside you manifests on its own. When that happens you will understand why Meranna’s path is so vital to you.” “I wish I had never come here.” He said weakly. Hearing that, Thanni looked absolutely devastated. Her eyes filled with tears. “No wait!” Thelembi said, looking at
her. “Wait, I didn’t mean—” This time Ceras did put a hand on Thanni to keep her from bolting. “I am surprised at you, Thelembi.” She said scornfully. Thelembi felt absolutely miserable. He looked over at his daughter, who was quietly sobbing. He reached out to her instinctively, but she shrunk against Ceras. “I didn’t mean it like that. Thanni. . .Lady. I am glad I know she is alive still.” “You could have eternity with her, you know. You abandoned her when you did not come back. If you decide to join us, you could get to know her over the long years. . . Or, you could go, and abandon her again.” “I. . .I don’t believe you. I want to go. I’ll come back to see her!” Ceras sighed, putting her hand on his bony shoulder. “You may, if that is your choice.” Said Ceras, “But just know that soon the hunt of Anim will come for you, if her priestesses don’t find you first. Only Meranna can offer you protection. These halls will never be closed to you, but we will pray that you decide to join us.” “I must think on it.” He said, hoping they would accept that. Ceras frowned. “That is fair enough, but please remember that you are not fully human, Thelembi. Only by choosing the path can you be safe.” “I am not cursed.” He set his jaw. Ceras shook her head, sadly. “Don’t be so foolishly stubborn, you know I do not lie to you.” “But what will happen?” “We will tell you more as you grow. There are secrets shared among those on the path, but you must choose it first.” “Not without Rahli.” He said, crossing his arms. Ceras shook her head. “I told you we cannot accept him.” said Ceras. “He would only suffer if he was allowed the path. Think about him, Theli. Would you wish to be granted eternity in a broken body? Would you force that fate upon him?” “I don’t really have a choice, do I?” He asked sadly, feeling trapped. “Yes, there is always a choice.” Ceras said, suddenly looking very tired. “I have already said too much.” She took his hand, which he grudgingly allowed, but only because she began to walk him out.
All the way through the temple, the priestesses and women of the temple stopped their activity to watch them pass. He could feel their eyes boring into him, and glanced at them to find them whispering to each other. Once he was safely standing against the narrow tunnel leading outside, Ceras gave him a stern look. “You always have a choice, but I wish to make it easy for you.” She said. “Just like a mother, right?” “You. . .but I have to care for Rahli.” “Talk it over with him. That is all I ask.” “I might.” “You must. I feel that the time is very near when your magic will manifest. Please understand that it is the only way to avoid the suffering you will endure. Just think on it as an adult, that is all we ask for now.” “I don’t make promises.” Thelembi growled. Ceras sighed, clearly frustrated. “Very well Thelembi, if you do decide, we will do our best to find a solution for Rahli.” Thelembi’s eyes went wide. On the other side, she handed him a bundle of fresh clothes and a bag that was several times heavier and larger than his pouch. It was filled with coins, water, food, and items that could be readily fenced. Ceras’s face was carefully guarded. Her voice was strictly official “This will aid you. We have exchanged your prize. Go, and take care of Rahli.” “What? My. . .prize?” Thelembi asked. She chewed on her lip before helping him put the pack on his back, but said nothing about it. “We want you to live, Thelembi. Nothing else in this world wants that of you. Please, as you think on this, do not forget Thanni. Don’t throw your life away to Anim.” “But what of other gods like Meranna?” “Only Lord Sorrith would take you. He also accepts those of our kind, and so would Lord Asair for a season or two longer because you are twins, but Lord Asair’s priests in F district will still return you to us or to Lord Sorrith once your magic manifests. As for becoming Sorrith’s chosen, they are all. . .” she shuddered. “You do not want to go there, though that may be a path for Rahli. His Enlisted. . .”
“I have heard the legends of C district.” he said quietly. “I’m not sure I believe you, but I said I will think on it. From what you say, it doesn’t matter if I go to Meranna or to Anim or Sorrith, Rahli will die any way.” She looked at him helplessly. “You must not see it that way. If you choose Anim, you will be destroyed! There are things worse than death--” “Yeah, like living without my brother. I will find another way. I will not let Rahli be murdered.” He said, turning his back to her. “The way I see it, all the gods share the same philosophy—the weak and injured will die. But you are wrong, Rahli is not weak.” He adjusted the pack she had given him and raced off into the labyrinthine streets. Chapter 5: Thelembi’s only thought as he neared the crumbling, abandoned structure he called home was of Rahli, his identical twin. They had seldom been apart for more than a day, and he knew that Rahli would be beside himself with worry. He couldn’t get around like other boys. When they were very young, they were caught in a riot that set fire to their home and killed their stepmother. Thelembi was fine, but Rahli’s legs were crushed. He remembered pulling Rahli out from under the beam and seeing his legs separate from his body. The fire had cauterized the wounds, and so he had lived. A priestess of Lemari, providing care after the blaze, had cut off the dead tissue and stitched up the remnants. He had healed without a scar, but his skin had somehow melted instead of burning so that he appeared to be a misshapen horror of sagging skin with hands twisted by the fire into nearly useless claws. After the fire, they were alone on the streets. Thelembi swore to protect his brother. He fashioned a sling that Rahli could ride in, and carted him on his back. Thus, the urchins dubbed him “The Porter,” even as they mocked Rahli for always being carried by naming him “The Prince.” Thelembi never minded. Without Rahli he would be alone, and being alone on the streets of B district was a death sentence. He pushed open the door of the crumbling building and entered the ruins he called home. The smell of human urine and feces washed over him and he gagged after being in the clean, fresh smelling temple.
It was a three story building, but the top two floors had caved in, leaving only the walls standing. Every few years, the bosses would chase away the squatters and rebuild houses like these for outrageous rents. For now though, it was his home. Thelembi had managed to chase off other squatters while he was there, but he was never there long. It was time to move on, especially in light of what he had learned. “Theli!” cried the normally quiet voice of Rahli from the pile of filthy rags he slept on. Thelembi set the pack on the dusty floor and rushed to Rahli. Rahli had been reading again. His most recent book was thrown up against the wall. “What did you do to yourself? You are clean!” “What is it?” he asked, pointing at the book. Rahli shrugged, squinting at the squiggles and pictures. “It was donated to me yesterday. I crawled out to the market square to beg, and this woman dropped it in my basket. I think it just fell out of her pocket. She looked really religious and this is really valuable. It is a book of prayers and poems.” “Does it have anything about Anim?” Thelembi asked. Rahli’s eyes grew wide. “How did you know? This whole book’s about her!” He pushed aside his rags and picked up the tattered book. He showed Thelembi a page of neat squiggles and symbols with a picture of a creature he had never seen. Rahli had been able to decipher the writing, but Thelembi had never figured it out. What interested him was the picture on the page next to the writing. It was a six limbed, fuzzy carnivore with huge ears, a bushy tail, and wings that were too thin and fragile for flight chasing a tiny mouse, while being chased by a hound, which was in turn pursued by a human, who was silhouetted with the holy symbol of Anim. “Ahem. Praise to Anim, beautiful goddess! She who designed the trembling Morim in its hole and the baying hound that chases her. . .” Theli scowled. Rahli stopped. “Why?” “That is a hunt.” He said pointing at the pictures. Rahli nodded. “Yes, yes, the Morim hunt is her most sacred activity according to this.” “She is after me. . .”
“Oh gods, A hunt? The hunt?” Rahli’s voice pitched with fear. He dropped the book as if it had burned him. “You were the one the hunt was after?” Theli nodded. “No wonder you haven’t come home.” “The priestesses of Meranna told me. I have been there, in hiding.” He said. Rahli dropped his book. “No. . .but that’s impossible! You got to see all those women without me?” Theli tugged at his braid. “I didn’t have much of a choice. I had to use the Dust and the dogs sneezed. The temple was the nearest refuge.” “Then I suggest that you ignore what they said. They are priestesses, simply taking advantage of you because you were on Dust. Why do you worry? We have never worshipped the gods any more than we have given in to the crime bosses. Why start now?” Theli took a deep breath. He didn’t want to tell him exactly what he had learned, even about his daughter. “Anim wants me dead or alive. I think we have tempted fate one too many times. Now, Meranna wants me too.” “Wow. What are we going to do?” he said, closing the book. “We are going to leave B.” Rahli’s jaw dropped. “You can’t be serious! How?” “We can’t stay here.” Reaching in the pack, he pulled out a long tunic and cord and threw another tunic to Rahli. Rahli grinned in surprise. “They’re clean and whole!” he cried, stripping off his own filthy rags. “We’re like lords!” He stuck out his chest. The cream colored tunic stood out bright against his filthy skin. “What did you say to them? What else is in there?” Theli grinned. “Aw. . .I came in there and they couldn’t resist me.” He ginned, “They didn’t want to let me go, but they sent me home with food and fenced my loot. You wouldn’t believe what I got. . .” he began pulling things out of the bag. Rahli’s eyes got wider with each item that came out. As Thelembi mentally appraised the things he pulled out, he realized that there was more worth here than the twenty gold crowns. They had given him rings and baubles that could easily be strung and carried without detection under a tunic, but either the
priestesses knew nothing of market value, they were setting him up as a temple thief, or they were trying to win him with material goods, because the total appraisal was at least twice the worth of those coins. Rahli, who was better at figuring and appraising, could not believe the items in front of him. He found his pouch in the bag as well, buried deep and full to bursting with copper and silver pieces. Carefully, he divided the coins into Rahli’s pouch and rolled the rest of it up into the robe. “Wow. . .with this we could buy a house on the street of tears! We’d be set for life!” said Rahli. Thelembi shook his head. “That’s the last thing we want.” He said quietly. “Rahli, they would hunt us anywhere in B, even through the inner wall.” Rahli paused and then nodded. The street of tears was the street next to the Purple Gate. The colored gates were the exits out of the undercity from each district. In B, it was the only place where there was a semblance of law, but that was only because the guards at the Purple Gate upheld most of the laws of the surface. The inhabitants of the street of Tears were mostly rich citizens of the Undercity. “No.” Thelembi set his jaw. “We’re going to string these and leave through the outer gate.” “But our contacts, our legend. . .we will be unknown in A or C or. . .” “Not C, Rahli, A only. We are rich enough to pay our way through all the gates and still live like princes in D.” “Yeah, but C would be the cheaper route to D, if that is where you want to go. We can fight through.” “Maybe. But with this much money, there is no point in risking it. Why fight the ghilan when we could peacefully and innocently migrate?” “Yeah, but we had always planned for C district.” “No.” Thelembi said with finality. Rahli sighed. When they had distributed their loot, Rahli climbed into his sling, grabbed the bag, which contained only their clothes, and Thelembi hoisted his brother onto his back. They left the crumbling ruin, knowing that neither would ever return to it. Just as he left he buried a silver piece in the dust. It was a superstition, but such a coin had been in
there when he found the place. It was customary to leave a coin behind for the next squatter if possible. It was considered good luck. Thelembi hustled through the streets toward Broad, the richest street in the district. Being in the clean temple had alerted him to the stink of Rahli. He needed to get him clean. Broad was the only place where there were bath houses, the most expensive places in Undercity, which catered to the bosses and the visitors. He selected one that looked relatively empty. There, after paying the exorbitant fee--not only for the bath, but for silence, he let the attendants haul Rahli into the bath of his life. The blind attendants scrubbed Rahli roughly. Thelembi allowed himself to be bathed again, but carefully watched his brother and the people around him. Thelembi had reason to hate the bath house. Looking at the blind workers reminded him of the woman that raised him. She had given her own eyes in return for this job, and it had cost her life in the fire. When Rahli was clean, they lounged in the bath house, reclining and dreaming as the attendants massaged the knots out of their young muscles. They no longer stank like the streets and their skin and hair could be easily mistaken for a lord’s features. Lounging in the safety of the bath house, he had the freedom to plan their escape. It seemed to him that perhaps it would be best to wait and scout out the gate a little before moving on. He had not paid attention to rumors from the other districts, but now they seemed important to him. If he planned it right, he could make to D district, paying guards around the wheel of Undercity back through A, F, and E. He wanted to avoid C entirely. The guards at C gate let anyone pass into the district for free, but it took a favor from the Bosses in C to get out, and he was not sure that the bosses of C were even living creatures. It was not by accident what C was accursed in the Undercity. He had only heard rumors, but everyone growing up in the Undercity knew that C was crawling with cursed undead nightmares. C district was a place where not only did the undead reign, but the true scum of the Undercity crawled. There, the mass murderers and the insane mingled freely with the horrors from beyond the pale. That was where they sent them, hoping for their deaths.
Rumors and horror stories of C filled the minds of Undercity youth and terrified the children and adults of the surface. C was where convicted criminals of the surface were sent for execution. C was where the undead of Sorrith and the undead of Thrass and Ixah prowled the streets. Even the hunt of Anim feared to go there, but then, so did Thelembi. He had heard that the reason the gates were free to enter the C district was that the monsters that dwelled on the other side took the fee in blood. He dozed, thinking of ways to escape, knowing that Rahli would watch while he slept. “Theli, get up. They’re asking for more.” Rahli was poking Thelembi in the ribs. “This is not an inn, citizen, you can’t sleep here. If you desire, we can find accommodation for you, perhaps send word to your parents. . .” the bath house owner scowled at him. Thelembi sand Rahli both scowled back. “We have no parents, citizen. We lost them in a fire a while back.” Rahli growled. “Who are you to dare bring up a sensitive subject?” “I am Talcha, the bathmaster and proprietor.” He said with small pride. Thelembi held up a hand to silence Rahli. “Ah, citizen Talcha. Thank you for waking me. I hadn’t intended on dozing, but your comforts eased my mind. I do not trust the inns. I’m sure you understand.” Talcha’s eyes went wide and he nodded. “But you are right; I think we will be going.” Thelembi got up, rubbing his eyes. The man put his hand on Thelembi’s arm. He leaned in quietly. “It is not seemly for a citizen with such. . .assets. . .to be carting that one like a street urchin.” Thelembi bristled. “Watch yourself merchant. He is my brother, my twin.” Talcha licked his thin lips. “Truthfully, we. . .we are returning to the temple of Asair.” He lied. The shocked gasp from Talcha and the attendants warned Thelembi that he had said either the right thing or the wrong thing, but at least a significant thing. The blank looks on everyone’s faces were unreadable. Rahli looked at his brother in amazement. “That is right. We were told to take a message to the temple of Meranna, and now we are going back.” Rahli added. Thelembi looked at Rahli, who smiled.
“Of. . .of course, how could I mistake. . .it is just that. . .if you but give me a few silvers, I could procure a cart for you, priests of Asair. Or for him. . . a slave to haul him wherever he desires.” He looked at Rahli nervously. Thelembi frowned. “It would only be a fleeting freedom. Give me his sling.” The man bowed, trembling. Anim’s hunt was not spoken of lightly. “Of course you are correct, priest. I did not mean to intrude.” “Stuff it merchant. Bring me his sling. I have had my fill of this place.” Talcha gave Thelembi a sly smile. “Our seamstresses have repaired your sling; you may have it returned for a gold crown.” “A full copper, and be glad I don’t beat you for stealing it.” Thelembi frowned. “But the thread is of silk. . .” “Impossible. I don’t believe you.” Talcha snapped his fingers and a pair of ugly crones came out, bearing the sling. It had been cleaned and repaired and the threads were indeed silken. “Who do you work for?” Thelembi growled, threatening him. He cowered, his eyes darting to the barber. “This. . .you dare not threaten me, this is a watering hole! I. . .I work in the interest of Lord Cet and Boss Yalim.” He said. “I thought you knew; it’s on the water rights license.” He pointed to a piece of parchment on the wall. Thelembi made a show of inspecting the squiggles. He could not read them, but he understood the sly way of Boss Yalim, the de facto mayor of B district. Lord Cet’s name, however, panicked him. He hadn’t known that boss Yalim was Lord Cet’s pet, but he knew what “Watering Hole” meant. Everyone knew that a Watering Hole was a place where the hunter and the hunted could be seen together. It meant that the place was holy to Anim and by law, death was forbidden. He barked a grim laugh, realizing that he had made it into one of Anim’s shrines. He had to get out, fast. The guard serving as a barber might not know him, but others in this place could potentially put him in danger, if he wasn’t already in a trap. Straightening, he stuck out his bony, undernourished chest and stared at Talcha, who fidgeted.
“Give us what is ours! I will maim you if you don’t return it.” Thelembi bellowed, but his high pitched voice didn’t carry like he had hoped. The blind attendants flinched, but Talcha didn’t seem to mind. “Ah heh. . .young priest. Yours? Shall we ask the guard what he thinks of your ownership of the thing, especially after we have put such fine work into making it worthy to hold a priest.” He nodded his head to the guard, who was calmly watching the transaction. Thelembi and Rahli both chuckled. They knew better. “He doesn’t care. If he is a guard, then he will follow the tenet of Anim and you know it. He is a person. You and I are nothing to him. I think he would rather like to see me maim you.” Talcha paled. “But the thread. . .” “Thank you for repairing it with such finery. We will tell Boss Yalim that his gift to Asair on your behalf was lovely.” Now Talcha backed up, working his jaw silently. Citizens were not allowed to donate to the Maestros’ churches according to the King’s law. Thelembi grinned confidently, believing it had worked. Then, the man’s eyes went cold as he clenched his jaw. “Smash it!” he commanded the ladies. “NO!” Rahli and Thelembi both yelled. Thelembi acted before he thought and tackled the man, driving him to the floor. The man tucked so that his back, not his head, was the first to impact. He kicked his legs into Thelembi’s stomach and pushed him off, throwing Thelembi into the seamstresses. The sling flew out of their hands and skidded across the floor. Rahli was quick to drag himself to it, holding it tight. Thelembi rolled, leaping to his feet, and attacked again, but Talcha was ready; he countered his blows strike for strike. The man was not as experienced, but he had height and weight on Thelembi. He backed off, circling the man. “I will be going to Boss Yalim immediately.” Talcha bragged, suddenly not as simpering as he first seemed. “You seem to be in a hurry to leave, young priests. Why don’t you stay for lord Cet?” Thelembi sneered, glancing back at the guard and the attendants. He was not worried. The guard had a cruel smirk on his face and the attendants stood very still. Since they were blind, they were unable to capture Rahli without risking a fall into the tiled bath. He was safe. Thelembi flexed his shoulders,
built up from years of carrying Rahli. He lowered his head and looked at Talcha under his brows. “You are stupid. If you knew Boss Yalim or Lord Cet you would know that this would only amuse him. Describe us to him when we leave. I bet that he will be amused by it.” This was a dangerous bluff. He had to stop the man from leaving for a long while and convince the man that Thelembi was nobody to mess with. With a bold, swift move, intended to take the man off his feet, he ducked under the man’s arms and grabbed, aiming for the man’s knees. He wanted to knock the man into the water, but the man tried to balance, bracing himself. With a crunch, his right knee buckled and Talcha crumpled to the floor, howling in pain. Calmly, forcing himself to be quiet, Thelembi got up and stepped on his neck. At that, the guard stirred, ready to act. “I will pay you a silver piece for the repair, and I’ll give you another if you give Lord Cet a message. That is my final offer. Blink if you agree.” He put pressure down on the man’s trachea. The man blinked. Thelembi backed off. The man sat, looking at his ruined leg. He would not meet Thelembi’s eyes. Thelembi wiped off a trail of blood from his mouth and nose and stood, still ready to fight. The guard was smirking, obviously amused and no longer ready to kill anything. One of the crones had fled, but the other, the thinner of the two, watched with a wary, appraising expression. This stunned Thelembi. Why was she sizing him like a slave at the market? “Indeed. . .as my young priest wishes. . .” said Talcha, defeated, “But lord Cet has never spoken of you. May I have the pleasure of the young priest’s name?” “No. Fetch my brother the means to write a note.” He said, acting like a boss. The man snapped his fingers and a piece of hide and a feather with a vial of red ink were placed before Rahli. “Write a note telling Lord Cet who has come to his little. . .watering hole.” He looked at Talcha, who was wringing his hands. “I hope the young master is not an enemy. . .” “Huh.” Thelembi grunted.
“Lord Cet still considers us as the Morim.” Rahli said lightly as he scribbled something into the hide. At that, both the guard and the crone chuckled. Rahli’s brilliant comeback gave Thelembi time to recover. “We’ll not reveal our name to the likes of you, but we’re sure you’ve heard him speak them. Everything he needs to know is in that letter.” He tossed two silver coins at the man’s feet and gathered Rahli and all their belongings. Confidently, he walked past the guard and out onto the street. “What did you put in that letter?” Thelembi asked when they were safely away. “Just what you said,” he shrugged, “And I added the poem of the Morim in the letter to stick in his craw. I remembered it from the book. I couldn’t understand most of it, but that morim creature sure seems to be a crafty beast to eternally escape hounds. Just like you.” “I don’t know about that. I almost didn’t, last time. You are so clever.” “Not as cunning as you Theli. We’re priests of Asair? That was sheer genius! We will have to remember that excuse for the gate guards. I hope they don’t require papers. How did you know about Asair?” “The priestess told me that he accepts twins.” Said Thelembi. “We might seek refuge there while we are in F.” “Where to now?” “Oh, I want to go scout the best way out of here.” He said, pausing to check around the corner for potential threat.
Chapter 6: Lord Cet rode through the streets of B district, paying no mind to the offal that passed for humans peeking at him from the crumbling structures. There was only one of these stinking creatures he wanted, and he had to get to him before the priestesses got their claws on him. They were down here too, now. He had tried to explain to them that he was a cunning creature, not possessed, hardly worth the merit of the priestess’
attention, but they would not be dissuaded from their notion. That made life more difficult for him. That made the chase all the more fun. It had cost him a great deal to change his hunt plans. Thelembi the Porter was a prize, to be sure, but the damn priestesses ruined the hunt. Secretly, he had hoped to be chasing the whelp for another few years. The boy was strange; he never seemed to grow much in all the years he had given chase to him. He knew the boy had to be the age of a man in the Undercity, a man of late middle age, in fact, but he did not look it. He appeared no older than fifteen, with the features of a lord under all the grime of Undercity. No wonder the priestesses who had spied on him were worried about him being a spirit or a possessed one, already a holy child of the King’s pantheon. Well, it would not be long now. All the hunts before had been sport. Usually, Affluent people of Arynstar could pay money to be guided down here and hunt the urchins. Sometimes it was fun, sometimes it was a slaughter, but there was always poetry in it. Today, he hunted for the Goddess alone. At the last hunt, his flesh and blood hounds had caught his scent and gone after him, but had lost him in the alley behind the slaughterhouse. Somehow the brat had drugged the dogs in the pursuit, though he had seen the boy only once in the whole hunt. They had concluded the hunt with a disappointing slaughter, in which he had composed a crude poem about the wounded Jendir losing the choicest meat and having to settle for carrion. He lost half of his pack to Dust poisoning and the remnant to Meranna’s magic, but it had been worth it. He had been close, he knew it. The boy had more hiding places than a Morim in a sand dune and he moved around the district so often that all of the streets were coated with his stink. This time, as the servant of Ruex, he was required to track the boy down as a prize. As a sorcerer, and the son of a sorcerer, he had little choice when it came to the church of Anim, of which Ruex was a part. As a demon bred, he was born without skin, but with the unholy magic to accept the skin of other creatures as a cover. It was a sorcery that had been done to him during his birth in accordance with an ancient family rite, which demanded that the first son in each family be tainted in this way to maintain the family’s power and standing with the church.
It had taken him a month to get it settled, but now, the skin he wore was as tight across his form as if it were his natural hide. This time it was dog skin. He had tried to bring back human skin, but the priestesses had burned it in front of him and patched on the rough hide of a dog to punish him for losing his pack. He had gotten as greedy as his dogs in the last chase, and it had cost him dearly. The immortal Ruex, the source of his magic, was not happy. Ruex had commanded him to capture Thelembi alive. Ruex wanted his soul for the Forged Company, the constructs that were crafted for use as guardians and beasts of war in the army and slaves of the inquisition. Souls worthy enough to be captured for the constructs had to be among the craftiest, most cunning, and strongest of his prey if they were to survive the forging process. Even though Thelembi the Porter was barely human by his estimation, he had to admit that the boy fulfilled the requirements. It was such a pity. He believed that the boy had not yet reached his potential, but the will of the church held him. If he caught him today, the magic would seal him as he was, and the boy would never reach the height if his cunning. The priests would not listen and agree to wait, and he hated that. He had protested it and they had threatened him. They refused to let the priestesses get to him first. That was why the priestesses ruined it. They wanted him as a consort to Anim herself. A human consort was blessed to be the sacred Morim in human form, the prey who was both hunter and hunted. The priestesses knew from witnessing the hunts that Thelembi was a prize worthy enough for the honor of the ritual. If they caught him there would be no soul for the Company, and he would have to instead bow to his former prey as Thelembi became a sacred consort, a creature imprinted with the sign, essence, and seal of Anim herself until the annual tribute. If it wasn’t for the fact that he was bound to Ruex, he would have agreed with the priestesses. It was now a race between the two possibilities and all of the high priests and priestesses watched, waiting to see the outcome. He neared the Watering Hole bath house, his personal favorite in Undercity. Here, he could focus his mind and prepare for the long hunt. Beside him, a dog shaped construct followed his every step. It had been granted to him by the church for this special hunt. It could track like no living hound
could. Somewhere inside that construct, forged into the very clockwork of the unnatural beast, was a human soul with all its own memories and cunning. The simpering citizen owner of the house waited for him at the door, bowing and scraping, though wounded. Something in the last two weeks had broken his leg. “Talcha, have you prepared my bath? I wish to be clean so that my prey does not scent me.” The bath master limped away to tend to it personally. Soon, they led him back into his personal bath, where he sank in, commanding his muscles to let go of their excitement. His construct watched him, and he knew it was remembering and agonizing. He smiled at it, torturing its memory. This was its first hunt. Its soul still remembered that it was once human, and in its eyes the flames of the pyre on which its former body had been burned still blazed. It would kill him if it dared, but it was bound to obey him, no matter how cruelly he treated it. The ritual of bathing was a mere formality, used only when hunting a human. B district stank so badly that it was a wonder that these people had a sense of smell at all. Unless he was badly mistaken about the boy’s humanity, it would not matter. Resting with his eyes closed, he heard the patter of quiet feet and the rustle of hide on stone. He opened an eye. A small note was folded and laying at his elbow. He opened it: To the stinking Lord Cet: Your watering hole was pleasant. My brother and I enjoyed it. Thank you for allowing it to be a refuge for us. The Morim’s ears prick for the coming hound. He drinks by Asair’s light, ever wary, ever watching. He hears the mouse in the dry grass, his meal for the coming night. His holes are many, his trails covered. Anim, his lover, watches, the author of the chase, But the Morim will not be caught His ears hear the steps of the hound, And he will forever be free Praise to Anim. --Thelembi the Porter
Lord Cet stood up in the bath and laughed. He tossed the note to the hound, which read it, sniffed it, and howled in its unnatural way. It knew the scent of its prey. All of the servitors cowered at the sound. “So! The boy has discovered the book of Prayers! Ha!” Cet carefully picked up and folded the parchment, wondering where the boy learned to read. That the poem was in there demonstrated that the boy, too, was learning about the worship of Anim on his own. “Well, well. So he knows it’s but a game. How lovely. I wonder if he understands the meaning of that poem.” He mused, “How appropriate. How refreshing.” If the boy also thought of it as a game then it would be all the easier to indoctrinate him to either path. He shouted for Talcha, who came, practically crawling on his belly. “Citizen! Who gave this to you?” “Ah. . .nothing of importance sir. It was only two young citizens, sir. . .wealthy. They looked to be children of the bosses or bastards of lords. One was whole, the other maimed, but the injuries were not recent. They bought their silence. They said they knew you—“ “And so they do, so they do.” He mumbled, scratching his chin. “They apparently know me very well.” He grabbed the man by his throat and squeezed, and the man wet himself in his terror. “You did not know them by sight? You let Thelembi the Porter in and out as if he were a common citizen!” “There are many maimed citizens here! How was I to know it was the legendary Thelembi and his brother? I have never seen them before in my life sir! These were not common like the rumors say. They were well dressed and rich, not urchins! I thought. . .maybe the whole one was lying about the other being his brother. That one was certainly filthy, but gold is gold, sire.” he said between gurgling and wheezing, “This is a discreet establishment sir, by necessity. Doesn’t the waterhole mean neutral ground to both prey and predator? Isn’t it sacred to holy Anim?” Lord Cet loosened his grip on the man’s throat but did not let him go. “Aye yes. Yes it is.” He said with a murderous smile, “But you should have sent word by the guard. I did not pay you to simply get fat and lazy here. You were my eyes and ears in this stinking cesspit. There is something else that you did not learn.” He dug
in his fingers. With a crunch the man went limp. Lord Cet ripped out the man’s throat and threw the body on the floor. Once again, he settled into his bath, watching the blood curl and dance as it hit and blended with the water. Playfully, he stirred it with his finger. “Even at the waterhole, the prey watches the predator. The predator is never to be trusted. Farewell, mouse.” He laid back and thought of the perfect words to describe the situation. “Truer words were never spoken, Lord Cet.” A dry, grating female voice disturbed his poetry. He looked up into the face of the ugliest woman he had ever seen. She was covered in scars and burns, but her muscles were tight and lean. She was not old, but her rough life had made a crone of her. “Priestess, why didn’t he send word? Why didn’t you?” the priestess kicked the body aside and crouched, willing to talk, but ready to spring and run at any moment. “He never did know what you were saying. You are wrong about one thing. He was your eyes, but never your ears. He was deaf, Lord, an expert lip reader. He feared to reveal it, lest you slaughter him.” She said with amusement. She chuckled. “Are you surprised? He spoke so well, and his attendants could alert him at a moments notice. The guard would have known, but this one is new, replacing the last one who became addicted to Larq. As for me, you know our order. We would not turn over prey to the predator. The Morim does not work for the hound. We have our own plan for the boy.” Lord Cet sneered. “So why didn’t you take him here?” “We watched him while he was here. He was the one who wounded this mouse. We did read his note. It was not sealed. His brother may not be as weak as we thought. He can read and write. Perhaps the maimed one is the more cunning of the two. After all, though Thelembi has eluded us with his feet and his trickery, it is Rahli the Maimed who has lived just as long and with his injuries. As this offal said, this is a place of refuge. Now that he knows it, we will let him return to tease you. At last, my lord, he has comprehended the nature of the game. He is already almost ours. We would prefer not to take him by force.” “Don’t feed me your prey’s doctrine; I’ll hear none of it.”
“Oh, but you should, Lord. There are things that will prey on you in turn. You are not a god or a human. You are a hound. Thelembi is something else.” She said, jerking on the fur on his back. Lord Cet scowled. “Oh? Have you figured it out then?” “He troubles you, Cet, because he is not human. He is even less human than you. He is a Daitari.” At the word, Cet’s mouth pulled back, revealing his inhuman, bestial dentition. “Daitari?” he hissed. “Daitari? How is it possible?” all of his senses trained on that thought. It would explain why the boy never seemed to age. It was the last proof necessary to unraveling the boy’s mystery. “It would seem that a human picked up one of our sacrifices to Anim. We know which one. There have ever been only four sets of twins since the god-emperor set foot on the surface. The last set was almost thirty years ago, your sister’s sacrifice.” Cet’s eyes lit with molten rage and excitement. “It is as if the boy was destined for Anim.” He purred, more ready than ever to hunt Thelembi. “Oh, yes, we agree on that. We are beside ourselves with excitement over the masterful planning of our Huntress. “I will get them, and I will offer both of them up to the Forged Company.” At the mention of that company, the hound crawled on its belly to Cet’s waiting hand. He stroked its stone head. The priestess grinned, a display of threat as much as excitement. “I came here to dissuade you. We will sway him first. At least in our method he will not die. We offer him a chance to go to the surface as a living man.” “Before you slaughter him in the hunt! No! Daitari go to Ruex! They always have.” “Not always, Cet.” “They do when they carry my family’s blood.” He growled. The priestess did not flinch. “Do not underestimate us, Lord Cet. How do you think they got hold of the book of prayers? We have discovered Rahli’s literacy. We have watchers out there, already whispering the doctrine of Anim: some of the whores on the corner, the beggars in the
market, the urchin cutpurses . . . all of them are spies, blending in with their fellows. To hide from you, if they are cunning, they will seek us out and we will give them the protection they desire. They will be ours. . .” she broke off, half smiling. “Or perhaps. . .” “Perhaps. . .” he prompted her, not liking this game of words and deals. “Let us make this easier. Let us have Thelembi. He will be an ideal consort. We will let you take Rahli. I bet that he will be all too happy to escape his ruined body for the power he can have as a construct. When Thelembi is made a consort, he can accept his brother as a companion.” “But the hound does not share prey with the Morim.” “No, but the human shares prey with the hound. Work for us, and I will see to it that you become part of the human order. I know you desire the title of High Priest.” “No. If we are to split the prize, I want Thelembi. He has eluded me alone as well as with his brother. Rahli can be the consort and whore himself before Anim to his heart’s desire. Thelembi’s soul will make the ideal construct. He can serve Rahli as his mount as he has always done.” The priestess raised her eyebrows. “That is an amusing proposition. How about we make it a game?” “Ah, a game. What did you have in mind, priestess?” “Let whoever captures them first gain Thelembi for their own designs. Let us then give Rahli the choice. He is new to our plans anyhow. Even I admit that before I saw them both here and noticed that they were daitari I accounted Rahli to be a mouse.” “And if Rahli should die first?” “Then you will have, in all probability, captured Thelembi as well. They are never parted now. They have been scouting and listening for rumors of other districts, and they have not returned to their holes. Our time is short. They have come into enough wealth to bribe the guard of A. “But what of C or the inner district?” “They are wise enough to have abandoned thoughts of the inner district. He is not foolish enough to go to C. He knows the rumors quite well. Thrass’s minions are even more of a threat to them and they have long been trained to fear the minions of Sorrith. They know that they will be stuck in that pit if they go that way.”
“They have not yet crossed to A? Why?” “Because they are wisely cautious to leave their territory. If you wished to catch them, now is the time.” “Oh ho! So you have already begun to move.” Lord Cet smiled. The crone pulled out a black vial from her robe. Cet knew that it was a non-lethal debilitating poison. “So! You knew there was a chance that both would die.” “I only carry this to you on the chance that we would come to this conclusion. I am glad you have listened to my reasoning on Rahli. The high priest and priestess agree with me, and ordered me to give this to you, the next time we met. After all, this is a game. They knew you would not be prepared for two prizes. But I do pray that you need not use both. Do we agree to this game?” “Indeed. Let us play in the name of Anim.” He said, grabbing the vial, his eyes glittering as he stepped out of the bloody bath water. Chapter 7: Thelembi and Rahli sat in the street facing the A district gate. It was the only way through unless someone could fly over the top of the wall, between the thick columns that stood between the wall and the ceiling. The walls dividing the districts were thick, made of manufactured stones and at least forty feet tall. The ancient, magewrought columns, which the walls and gate had been built between, extended from floor to ceiling at regular intervals up to the ceiling, supporting it. Between the columns and above the wall, the Red light of A district shone outward at him, bathing the immediate area in orange. It promised a better life for a while, but only if he could get through. He walked up to the guards, who moved to block his path. “Go home citizens.” They said. “Gate’s closed.” Thelembi knew from watching that the fee began at five silver, but he knew that the guards could be as corrupt as the people they guarded. Thelembi hated using silver. A silver piece was supposedly enough money to sustain a person for a whole year on the surface. Ten silvers were equal to a gold crown, and they had already used up one crown’s worth in preparation. “Oh, come now. I have coin.” The guard appraised both of them.
“I don’t got time. Come back when we change and we’ll see.” Thelembi didn’t like the leer the left guard gave him. “Oh no, not that kind.” He said thinly. This was going to be trouble. Coin was a euphemism for something else. “I have enough here to get better than us on the market. You can take it there when you can, of course. . .” “You’re not gettin’ through today boy. I said, go home. . .unless of course you’ve got no home.” The left guard said. “Tell you what boys, you wait in those shadows over there for the change of the guard.” Said the right. “Aye, lads. Please us and we might remember your names for when we can let you through.” Thelembi was disgusted, but not surprised. In his experience, all the guards were sick bastards like these two. “No Theli. Don’t do it. I refuse. Never again.” Rahli was trembling. He had been on the receiving end of many a bad deal like that, as had Thelembi. The last time had nearly killed both of them. Such ways of payment were often not worth the trouble. The majority of guards seemed to like torture, from what he’d experienced and what he’d heard from the whores and slaves. “I will give you ten silvers a piece to let me through the gate. That is twice the standard fee.” He said, stating his price. It was already too high for his taste, but he needed to get through. Much higher though, and he would not be able to go through the next gates. This got the guards’ attention. One silver piece a day paid a soldier. “Two gold eh? Where did you come up with that? You ain’t pretty enough to get it at the market.” “Aw Cronus, don’t sell them short. They could pass for the lord Cet’s cousins, to look at them. I bet they bring a pretty sum. . .boys lookin’ like lords. They’re even clean. Must be sommun’s dainties. Wouldn’t mind samplin’ these two, seeing as how they’re not dirty little mice like the rest of these filth.” Cronus, the left guard, scratched his chin. “ ‘specially that one. I like the idea of one that can’t kick. His face looks very much like the cap’n’s.” he chuckled, “Might even be one o’ his get.”
“You’re a sick bastard, Egwer. I bet you like to kick around C district too.” Egwer’s smile went away quickly. “These boys’re probably tryin’ to get out of the district with their boss’s money.” Thelembi backed up a pace. “We are not a Boss’s boys. We’re priests of Asair.” Thelembi said adamantly. “I will give you fifteen—“ “No deal, mouse. You’re lyin’.” “Oh come on now.” said Rahli, “With fifteen you could . . . buy yourself all the boys you want. . .ones that you can make to look just like me. . .” Rahli’s voice went very thin as he spoke. “Oh I don’t know ‘bout that. Come on, make us another offer.” Egwer said. “No. Good day to you, lord guards.” Theli squared his jaw and walked away. “Aw, come on, have a go.” Egwer called after them, “We’ll make it gentle. We’re gonna have a rough day of it anyhow.” Said Egwer. “You seem real keen to give it out. Maybe you need relief too. We was just offerin’. But don’t worry lads! We’ll find yeh later! ” Thelembi shuddered and began jogging. When they didn’t turn, he called out again. “If you’ve got the money you’re talkin’ ‘bout, I’d keep it here. There’s plague in A, and my bets are on the spread to here first. You might die tomorrow lads, why don’t you get a little of your betters in you. Forget the money, we’ll pay you. We’re just all jumpy and it’s no good for watchin’ bein’ like this. We’ve turned away a dozen already this mornin’ and you’re the first that’s been good to us all day. We just want a bit of relief that’s all.” Thelembi’s stomach churned with revulsion at Cronus’s final plea and bit of advice. He turned the corner, joining the people in the market and drowning out the sounds of the two guards. “Theli. . .I think they worship Anim. Not Thrass.” Rahli whispered as Theli walked away. Theli stopped, his toes cold with fear. Guards usually worshipped the God-Emperor or Thrass. Cautiously, he sped up as he walked through the streets, watching around every corner before he stepped into the next. They almost made it to their inn. Rounding the last corner, Thelembi stepped in before he noticed something very wrong. The street was suddenly deserted. Instinctively, Rahli flattened himself to Theli, who flattened himself to the crumbling
wall of the nearest building. From every direction came an unnatural, howling bay. All the hairs on Theli’s neck stood on end. It was the hunt. He bolted for the inn, but he could not make it. A huge stone and clockwork dog blocked his way, his jaws still wet from the killing it had done inside the inn. From its iron teeth, shreds of human flesh hung. It saw him with its terrible, jeweled eyes. Throwing back its head, it bayed again, a sound that brought terror to Theli’s heart. He froze staring at this fearsome beast, rooted in fascination, knowing that he stared into his own death. “RUN THELI!!” screamed Rahli, bringing Thelembi out of his trance. He bolted into action more on instinct than thought. The terrible stone dog gave chase, its mouth open, revealing bloody, iron jaws. It was a scene from Thelembi’s worst nightmares. Thelembi tried to employ all of his tricks. He hopped into offal, tore broken stalls across the streets, and ran through narrow alleys that masyth could not enter. He couldn’t see the hunter yet, but this demonic hound gave chase to him. None of his tricks were going to work. Still he ran, where people had abandoned their work to escape the hunt. Thelembi still tried to slow the construct, grabbing things that Rahli could throw at it. With a crunch of metal like an ankle trap, the monstrous jaws snapped within inches of Rahli’s face as Theli ran. Rahli screamed, even as he beat the dog’s nose with a sharp stone. The dog backed off with a yelp. Rahli had caught it directly on its leather nose, and the leather had come off. Rahli laughed as the dog stopped, rubbing its ruined face. Theli took the advantage to take to the rooftops. These were normally safer than the surface for the citizens who could use them. The rooftops would be too fragile for either the masyth or the construct. Even the hunter would be hard pressed to follow, his weight being almost too much for the ancient beams and rooftops to bear. Once again, the thing gave a terrible howl and barked with his ruined face pointing up to the rooftop. Theli might be safe enough to catch his breath, but he wouldn’t stay so. The howl would bring the hunter. He panted as he got his bearings. He had been caught in the market, which was in the center. The hound blocked the path to Meranna’s temple. In the distance, he could hear Bucera’s frantic shouting. He couldn’t return to the A district gate. The hound had
chased him out toward Broad, but there was no exit there. With a sinking feeling, he knew he would have to make a desperate run for C district. Over their heads, an arrow flew. “Come on boy, run!” called the voice of the hunter from the ground. Theli stole a glimpse of the man. It was Lord Cet, but coated in the fur of a dog. Seeing him, he trembled. Cet’s eyes practically glowed with evil intent. With a daring leap, Thelembi jumped to the next building. This rooftop was not stable, and the beams groaned under him as he ran across. He heard Cet laugh triumphantly. With a roar, the hound leaped the three stories, landing directly in front of Theli. Rahli screamed as the beams gave way under the heavy construct, and Thelembi lost his balance as the beam supporting him crashed into the room below. The construct howled as debris fell on it, pinning it for crucial moments as Thelembi scrambled out of his section of the room, looking up at the children he had disturbed. They stared wide-eyed in fear at the hound construct. Rahli was limp in his sling, knocked unconscious. Theli had no time to look after him as he darted for the door, knowing that there was no chance to take to the roof. He closed and barred the door, hoping it would give him time. From out of the shadows, a hand grabbed him. He screamed, but the sound was cut short by a rough hand. It was the crone from the Watering Hole. “Hush Thelembi Porter. I can aid you.” She croaked. Chanting a series of foul words, she touched Rahli’s head. Rahli came to, screaming. “This is the blessing of Anim, from one beast of prey to the next. I can save you from the predator, Thelembi. You only need to come now.” “I will worship no demon, crone.” Thelembi yanked his hand out of her grasp. He suddenly realized that the Ceras had been serious. Grabbing onto a fallen beam still attached to the roof, he walked back up and leaped, but lacking momentum, it was all he could do to grab the edge. As he struggled to get up, an arrow clattered off the wall. “Wait!! Thelembi come back! You don’t understand!” called the crone. He also heard Lord Cet’s curses as Theli pulled his feet over the edge and took off again, over the crumbling rooftops. If he could make the gate, there would be no trouble. The gates
were never guarded by the living. Things went freely into C, but they never left. He only prayed that Lord Cet would not follow. Behind him, the sound of the dog crashing over the rooftops alerted him. Its eerie bay echoed in the air, chilling him. He was closer to the gate. Lord Cet remained close, shooting arrows at him but missing every time. Finally, Theli came within sight of the gate. To his amazement, the doors were locked and barred. What was worse, the gap between the last rooftop and the open spaces between the pillars on top of the wall was too far to jump. The rooftop he was on was too weak for the dog, and it sensed that, waiting on the previous roof. The crone, however, was light enough. She had followed behind the dog, and now, with the dog waiting, Lord Cet on the ground and the Crone near enough to grab him, he knew that he could not escape. “Oh, gods. . .” whispered Rahli. “She means to make you a consort.” Rahli said. The crone nodded. “Listen to your brother, Theli,” said the crone. “It sounds like he has learned his lessons well. That is good. I offer you power, power beyond your wildest dreams, Theli. Just agree.” Theli set his jaw. “No.” he choked, “I won’t be possesed.” “You should not listen to those fools in the temples down here, we are not evil. The hunt is a part of nature! You have been a creature of prey until now, Theli, we know. But we offer you a chance to rise above, as it was only given to humans to do! Come with me, embrace humanity. We will take care of you for the rest of your natural life. I will take you out personally so see the world. You will see it if you come. Would you like that? Every boy needs to see the light and join in the hunt. This place is too small for one like you.” “I would rather die.” “That can be arranged!” Cet called from the ground as he nocked another arrow. “Thelembi, please. I can call off both the construct and that dog on the ground too, just hear what I have to offer.” The crone pleaded. “I know what you have to offer.” The crone shook her head, disbelieving. “I offer you the surface Theli, for you and for Rahli. My church has agreed that Rahli is just as worthy as you.” Theli froze. This was not at all what the priestesses of
Meranna had said. “You will have a goddess at your beck and call! Lady Anim never ceases to answer the prayers of her consorts. “Come now, I don’t know how long it will be before Lord Cet acts upon you. You don’t want that. You’ll become one of those. . .” she pointed to the construct, who howled in rage. Thelembi looked over the edge, and up to the top of the wall. It would take a miracle or a magic to get there. Lord Cet had an arrow trained on him from the back of his mount. “You’ll keep Rahli alive?” He asked. “Yes! Oh, Theli, come back from the edge and we will talk. I’ll find you both the finest tutors, the best of women, boys, or whatever you prefer. . .you’ll have all the food you ever desire, and you’ll be able to tell that nasty bastard down there to die, and he’ll have to obey you. Your only superiors will be the king and the gods. . .think about that. You choose death today, and you will become a slave. Just a stupid construct who will lose his humanity after a few short years.” The offer sounded too good to be true. “Rahli. . .do you want to go?” asked Thelembi quietly. “I’ll go if you go.” “Do you wish to go?” Rahli asked. “But. . .being possessed. . .will we really know what is happening?” Rahli frowned. “But if we die today, we become one of those. . .” “Become one of those and you can walk again.” Thelembi said. “Yeah, but. . .not like that. No. . .What about Meranna? It seems to me that if she is real and allowed you into the temple, she must approve of you. Why not pray to her? Everything I have read says that she is good.” Thelembi paled. “There’s something I didn’t tell you about that. . .” “Well, boys? Have you decided?” called Cet. “Do you choose life or death?” Thelembi dropped to his knees. “We have no choice.” He said to Rahli. “We can’t give up. But how can we get out of it?” Thelembi looked once more at the distance between him and the top of the wall. “Whatever you choose, I will go with you.” Rahli said. Thelembi set his jaw and bowed.
“Lovely Meranna, I saw your image above the priestesses. I ran from you, but don’t be angry. I will pledge my life to you if you help me get away.” He prayed in a whisper that even Rahli couldn’t even hear. Then he got up, staring at the crone. He took several steps toward her and stopped. “You made the right choice—“ “I choose neither.” He spat in her face and turned, running. When he reached the edge he leaped off. Farther and farther he went, past the normal bounds of his ability. As if in slow motion, he saw the arrow fly off the string for him. He felt Rahli buck against him, and something sharp poke into his back just before he reached the top of the wall. He landed on it just as time seemed to catch up to him, and he slid down the other side, turning his ankle as he landed. Rahli said nothing. He was still. Thelembi stopped, cold dread creeping down his spine. He stopped, listening for any sign of life from Rahli, but not daring to shake the sling. The arrow tip was digging into his back, and the slightest movement scraped it across his skin. Past his own thundering heartbeat, he could feel Rahli’s, and hoped that the arrow had missed him and simply gone through the cloth. He thanked Meranna for preserving his bones, knowing that it could be much worse than a turned or broken ankle and limped away from the area, though the pain was excruciating. As he turned a random corner the gate slammed open, and first the dog, and then Lord Cet, charged through. Thelembi could not go far. The green light in the district was disorienting. His ankle began to buckle with each step, and it was a miraculous effort just to stay conscious. He knew Lord Cet had tipped his arrows with some sort of poison. He wanted to just lay down. Turning a final corner, he reached the end of his flight. Pulling the sling off his back, he set Rahli down. What he saw made him cry out in despair. The arrow hadn’t simply stuck in the fabric of the sling, it had gone clear through Rahli’s belly, where it had poked out enough to scratch Theli in the back. Rahli was still alive, but a trickle of blood ran down from is mouth. He gave Theli a helpless look. “Go. . .run Theli. I am dying. Distract them so that my soul can flee before he gets it.” Theli sat, putting the sling under Rahli’s head. “I can’t. I can’t run anymore.” He showed Rahli his ankle, which was purple and swollen. “I will fight to the death.”
“Good boy.” Growled Lord Cet as he entered the alley, “The Crone almost had you. Come lad, if it’s death you seek, I can give it.” He threw Thelembi a short sword. “I will take Rahli and he will live and walk again. You can be martyred for him, and screw the Forged Company. I’ve wanted your blood for a long time. I might even wear your skin.” Thelembi had never handled a sword in his life, but he had seen the guards use them. Not knowing what to do with it, he held it like a club and charged, knowing that he had no strength or skill to do anything else. “Stop!” Cried a new voice from the rooftops, and a figure dropped, taking both Thelembi’s and Cet’s strokes. Another form dropped behind Thelembi even as the first one slid into three pieces--one from shoulder to waist, one from waist to foot, and the other the top half of its skull. Lord Cet backed away, a look of sheer terror on his face. He ordered the dog to attack, but the one behind Thelembi pounced and broke the dog’s stone neck with his bare hands. As the dog crumbled into pieces, he rose, and Thelembi felt the creature’s ire. As he spoke, he seemed to shine with power. “Lord Huntmaster Cet, hound of Ruex, in the name of Sorrith, I curse you. May your flesh rot from your bones even as death eludes you. Let your limbs wither while your heart and mind remain strong. Let this curse fall immediately. So let it be.” At the instant he finished his curse, Lord Cet cried out in agony and fled, throwing himself into his Masyth’s saddle. The creature roared in protest as he jerked its reins and jabbed it into a run. Thelembi didn’t watch him. He was looking at the broken dog and the fallen creature. It oozed a pinkish gel all over the ground. “Vallus, a little help, please. . .” it said, though its body was in pieces. Strangely, there were no organs among the mess. The second creature turned and crouched, piecing its friend together. Thelembi’s eyes were failing him, and as he watched, his vision dimmed until he could only see shadows in the green light of C district, but what he had already seen chilled him. He moved, stumbling to crouch over Rahli. “They’re going . . .to. . .suck our blood out.” Rahli despaired as he struggled to breathe. “I will stop them. Meranna is on my side.” Somehow, invoking her name gave him a bit of strength. It also made the creature called Vallus look up. He tied off
bandages that held the two major halves of his ally together. The wounded one sat up and began to scoop gel back into its head. Vallus approached cautiously. Thelembi stood over his brother, holding the sword Cet had given him. “It is good of you to think that, boy. Let me see your brother.” Said Vallus. “No.” He held the sword up, daring the creature to come forward. “You will not have his blood before you have sampled mine.” The thing that called itself Vallus reached out and Theli swung at it, but his strength was gone. It caught the sword and ripped it out of his hands. Overhead, mist gathered, swirling darker. It obscured the lights. The creature looked up, confused. “What is . . .” Rahli whispered as he also gazed helplessly up. Theli couldn’t see what was happening. He could only feel and smell the same scents that were in the outer sanctuary of the temple. Fat drops of water began to pelt him. Screams erupted across the district, but Thelembi didn’t care. “Proud warrior, child of Meranna. . .stop this. It is not natural here.” “Nnnh. . .”groaned Thelembi, unable to work his tongue. “You don’t understand. We are not your enemy. I am Vallus and this is Corval. We are sacred watchers. Let us tend to your brother, child. Only we can aid him now.” Corval put the severed top of his head back on and approached. Overhead, thunder rumbled. Both of the creatures looked up. “No. . .” he said weakly, forcing himself to speak. He sat helplessly as the thing scooped up his brother. Just as Corval stood, a bolt of lightning lanced through everyone. The creatures only grunted. With that, Thelembi collapsed, his strength absolutely gone. Vallus sighed and stroked Thelembi’s hair. The shadows connected in Thelembi’s sight, covering his world in darkness, though he was painfully aware. “Brave warrior, you have the hospitality of Sorrith. We will care for your brother. Your enemies are our enemies. Sleep now. We will be with you when you wake.” Thelembi felt his consciousness slipping, though he desperately wanted to fight, and fell into oblivion.
Chapter 8: Thelembi felt as if he was set aflame. Every joint and muscle burned with a throbbing ache that demanded that he move, but he could not. His eyes were bound with cool rags and he was resting on a polished stone bed. The last thing he remembered was praying to Meranna. “Hello?” he asked, “Am I dead?” He reached for the moist bindings over his eyes, but a cold hand stopped him. “You’re not dead, you’ve just been very near it. You’ve been asleep off and on for weeks. The poison was a vile one. There was no antidote known to us short of forbidden sorcery. Not even the spring water helped. Only the fact that you are a daitari stopped the effect.” “Why are my eyes bound?” “The poison paralyzed you. We couldn’t keep your eyes closed. We have preserved your vision, we hope. We should leave the wraps on until the medic examines you. Until then, you must rest. The poison has worked its way out of your body, but it has left you weak.” “Who are you?” “I am Vallus. I have been caring for you. You are quite popular, young man. Ceras Indra herself has come to stay with us. I think she has not left her temple in hundreds of years. She told me a number of interesting things about you.” The man’s name seemed familiar to Thelembi. “Oh. . .I’ll understand if you don’t remember my name. I carried you here.” “Here?” “Why, this is the temple of Sorrith. We have cared for you as we promised.” Thelembi’s mouth went dry. All he knew of Sorrith was that his most devout followers were desiccated, undead monsters that drank the blood of the living. Vaguely, he remembered that Rahli had been wounded, but he could not remember how. Hardly daring to inquire he braced himself for the worst. “And Rahli?” he asked, in a harsh whisper.
“Rahli too.” Vallus said kindly. “When you are well, you may see him. He is quite anxious to see you.” Thelembi relaxed. If Rahli was still alive, nothing else mattered. “How is he?” “He is well. He has been worried for you. But now, you should rest.” Thelembi heard a hint of evasiveness in Vallus’s smooth voice. He set his jaw. “I want to see him now. I don’t believe you.” “Oh believe me, he is well enough.” Thelembi smiled. “He had nearly despaired for your life. This last couple of weeks has been very hard for you. Most of us thought you wouldn’t make it.” Vallus’s voice had been very sincere, which shocked Thelembi. He had expected more evasion. “But how did Rahli—” “Rahli wasn’t affected by the poison as you were. The arrow went completely through him. You were the one who got the full dose.” Thelembi relaxed. There was no reason to disbelieve him yet, though he couldn’t quite understand how Rahli could have avoided poisoning. He closed his eyes behind the bandages over them and sighed, intent on speaking more, but when he opened his eyes again, the bandages were gone. Within moments, he knew he had fallen asleep. The dim light of his room was perfect for his sensitive sight. He sat up and examined himself. He was painfully thin, bordering on emaciated. His body still hurt, but it was pain that demanded that he move. Slowly he got up and stretched; surprised to find that it was so easy considering his condition. His room was small, but it had more than any hole he had ever lived in. The bed was low and narrow, and made of polished quartzite with writing etched around the edge. Next to it, the bedside table held a silver tray with various potions. There were no windows, but the walls were decorated with tapestries depicting ancient battles. There was a small table with three chairs all made of iron. In another corner sat a chamberpot and a stand with a basin, a polished silver mirror, and a pitcher. He went to use the pot and clean himself.
The water in the pitcher was spring water. He was getting used to the feel of it. He took a couple of handfuls of water and stopped, staring at his hands. The top knuckle was now completely covered in what seemed to be a cap of organic metal. Even his fingernails were gone, replaced by the keratinous, metal rich substance. Dimly he recalled his bath with Ceras. “Golden.” He whispered, marveling at them, which extended for an inch and a half beyond his fingertips like a set of claws. For the first time, he was able to see yellow. He continued to wash his face, taking care not to scratch himself. As he ran his hands over his head, he felt spiky growth instead of his familiar braid. Someone had shaved his head. He admired his shorn scalp in the polished metal mirror. Only surface dwellers were allowed to cut their hair. It made him look regal. When he finished, he went to the table. On it, a set of clothes was folded. It was a pair of billowing black pants with a waist tie, a vest, and a pair of cloth shoes designed for indoor use only. The waist tie and the vest were dyed colors that Thelembi had never seen, but looked similar to what he knew as red and blue, respectively. He donned these quietly, and then went to the door. It was locked. He rattled the door, but it would not budge. “Hello?” he called. Silently, the door opened. What he saw made him shriek. The figure on the other side smiled at him, but the smile looked horrid in a face that was sunken, gray, and bloodless with no cartilage on its nose. The sockets held no eyes, but glowed a uniform white. It looked had once been human, but its body was now little more than skin stretched over bone, like a mummified corpse forgotten in a back alley. He wore billowing white pants and a white vest. A blue gem glittered at his solar plexus. Thelembi instinctively struck out with his claws. He felt his fingers scrape across the creature’s bones, but the creature didn’t even flinch. Thelembi retreated to the far side of the room, ready to attack it again. “Oh, come now, little warrior. You weren’t so afraid when you couldn’t see me.” “What? Fiend? Ghoul?” “Still don’t remember, do you? It’s me, Vallus. I am a Sacred Watcher. I have cared for you these past few weeks.” Vallus stepped into the room, ignoring the fact that
his dried flesh hung in tatters from his ribs. Through the holes in his flesh, Thelembi saw no organs, though the wounds oozed red gel. “Excuse me?” Thelembi asked on the edge of panic. Vallus cocked his head. “I am not going to eat you. Calm yourself. We are allies.” “Monster!” Thelembi growled. “Stay away.” Vallus sighed. “I know I am troubling to you, but please stop. I may be reanimated but I am still a human being. I’m not going to hurt you.” “What do you want with me?” “You are a daitari, Theli.” “I know that!” Thelembis’s hands clutched his sunken belly as it grumbled. “Where’s Rahli?” Vallus shook his head. “I have told you this every time you have been awake. Rahli is fine.” “What have you done?” “Only cared for you this whole time. Rahli wouldn’t have it any other way. We would not let a warrior like you just die. Not after giving us the chance to finally curse that demon bred bastard Cet.” “You cursed him? You?” “Yes indeed. I doubt that he will be staging another hunt. You have helped us to end that practice down here for a while.” Thelembi relaxed a little, though he would not take his eyes off of Vallus. “How am I still alive?” Vallus shrugged. “You are daitari. You can exist on energy alone if you wish, though your body might look painfully thin. Unfortunately, lightning is a rare thing down here. We have had to train Rahli to use it quickly so that he could help you.” “Rahli has cared for me? With magic?” “Oh yes.” Vallus walked into the room and sat at the small table. He motioned for Thelembi to take a chair. Thelembi sat on the bed instead. “You are needlessly concerned. Your well being is our priority. Ceras has told us some very interesting things.” “Like what?”
“Your mother was the younger sister of your nemesis, Lord Cet. Your father, Aleen of the Shifting Sands Herd, was a linyth.” “Cet? Cet is my uncle? Gods!” He slunk from the bed to the chair. “You’re not going to drink my blood, are you?” “Not unless you offer it.” Said Vallus. “We are not Ixcara.” “What is a linyth? What kind of beast is it?” Thelembi asked. “A linyth? The Master Race of the air. . .Its. . .” he tried to explain several times, but failed. His frustration gave Thelembi a small glimpse of Vallus’s humanity and he almost seemed alive while he pantomimed ears, horn, and tail. “Ah, I give up.” He finally threw down his hands, “I’ll bring a drawing next time.” “Why didn’t they tell me about Cet when I was there?” Thelembi asked. Vallus winked at him. “You weren’t ready to know then. I’m not convinced that you’re ready to know even now, but there you have it.” “Oh.” said Thelembi, looking at his hands. “But. . .why?” Vallus shook his head with a grim expression on his desiccated features. “It was a blasphemous rite of Anim’s church. The tale is too horrid to be told over dinner. Let us just say that there are things that even the dead find distasteful.” He glanced to the door. “Ceras didn’t want to mouth the rite either.” Thelembi shook his head, not completely understanding. Vallus knew it. He put a hand on Thelembi‘s arm and smiled kindly. It was cold and bony, making Thelembi’s flesh crawl. “Theli, Meranna’s priestesses treated you like a child, because you were a child. Even as old as you are, you were still a child. Now you are a warrior, so certain things will be shown to you very soon. This is the first of those things.” Thelembi believed him. Somehow, despite the fact that he wanted to be suspicious, he knew that what Vallus said was true. “When will they take me? Will Rahli come too?” “He has no place among the followers of Meranna.” Thelembi looked away. “Ceras will take you soon. She has allowed us to keep you until you are well and strong.
You called upon Meranna and pledged your life. You must take responsibility for your choice.” “But they wanted to kill Rahli. How can I go to them?” He said quietly, trying to think of a way to get out of this new obligation. “They can do nothing to him anymore. Believe me. You will understand soon.” Thelembi didn’t like the tone of Vallus’s voice. Vallus sensed his apprehension. “You are afraid.” Vallus said, mistaking Thelembi’s confusion for fear. Just as he was about to continue, there was a knock at the door. Vallus opened it, revealing a bloodless, gaunt youth wearing a white lacquered death mask and the same color of pants as Vallus. His gem was gold in color and so were his fingertips. His pants hid his legs and feet, but they were bent strangely. In his hands, he held a tray containing a decanter of red liquid, a bowl of steaming broth, and another pitcher of steaming broth as well as three empty stone glasses. “We have been instructed to feed you liquid for now.” Said Vallus. Your body is too weak to eat solid food. That is quite well, as neither of us--” he indicated the youth and himself, “can eat solid food either.” He pulled up a chair and sat. The youth glided to his own chair, his feet clicking on the stone floor with a metallic ring. “Well, Thelembi, I must ask you to remain seated. Can you do that?” Vallus asked. Thelembi stared at his reflection in the broth and didn’t look up. “It depends.” He said, looking from the youth’s fingers to his own. Vallus frowned. “Come on, Theli, trust him. He’s the kindest man I have ever met.” The youth said from behind the mask. Vallus clenched his jaw and fidgeted. Thelembi paled and looked up, trembling, as the youth pulled up his mask. It was like looking into a mirror. “I am glad to see you truly awake, Theli.” Thelembi choked up, seeing his brother. He was whole and untouched as if he had never been burned, but he was not alive. Thelembi’s breath caught in his throat. “I was dying, Theli.” said Rahli. “There was nothing else we could do.” Said Vallus. “I was accepted by Lord Sorrith. . .”
“He is Enlisted, and he is blessed.” Vallus said quietly. “I told you that he was well.” He poured red liquid out of the decanter into two cups. The third he filled with meat broth. “You died without me.” Thelembi whispered roughly. “As if you were able to stop it! As if you didn’t already know I was going to go first anyway!” Rahli clutched his gem. “Theli, the arrow went in through my vitals.” Rahli said quietly. “You don’t have to mourn me now, I’m here. I am reanimated.” Thelembi’s jaw worked silently, and he got up, trembling. Rahli also stood. They stared at each other for long moments before falling into each other’s arms, crying. “You have legs again!” Thelembi said as he appraised his brother. Rahli grinned and lifted his white pants. His legs were not human. They were digitigrade, ending in four thick golden claws and a smaller thumb. Thelembi had only seen the like on the bats that were common in the Undercity or the masyth that the hunters rode. “Yes, Theli. In death, what was lost can be restored. Sorrith caused them to grow. . .They’re linyth feet in the ancient pattern, like they were meant to be.” “Did it hurt?” Thelembi asked, reaching out. Rahli let him touch them. They were atrophied and cold like the rest of his body, but they were covered in the smoothest white hair Thelembi had ever felt. “I don’t feel pain. I am dead Theli; reanimated. Pain is a privilege of the living.” “You are . . . happy like this?” Rahli grinned. “Oh yes. I feel as if I should have gone long ago. It’s like a hidden calling that is only realized after the fact. I think I have been called for years to this.” Thelembi smiled, though he couldn’t stop his tears. He turned to Vallus, but could not meet his eyes. “I am sorry. I don’t understand anything about Gods or Maestros. I was raised to believe that Sorrith’s minions were evil--” “Not evil, just troubling. It is our burden to bear. We represent the Maestro who governs the dead.” Vallus said. Rahli nodded. “I . . . I just want to survive.” Thelembi said quietly. “The gods. . .I thought that they would not listen to a street mouse like me. But then Lady Meranna and your Maestro Sorrith and the goddess Anim. . .”
“Anim is no goddess. She is a demon.” Rahli growled. Vallus held up his hand to silence Rahli. “Do you accept your brother as he is?” “Yes. What if I wished to join him?” Thelembi asked. Rahli shook his head. “You can’t. Sorrith has spoken to me on this matter. He knew you would want to, and so he told me to tell you that you should go to Meranna as you chose. You prayed to her first. He will not accept your request to join the enlisted unless she gives you up.” Vallus shook his head. “Then there is no question. If our Lord has spoken, we won’t even let you pass the narrow gate. I am sorry Thelembi. You are still a fine young warrior.” “You spoke to him? A god?” Rahli smiled and exchanged a look with Vallus. “Yes, Theli.” Said Rahli, quietly. Thelembi sat back, shocked. The thought that he couldn’t follow his brother hurt him, and the thought of actually talking to a god made his mind reel. He could accept the fact that Rahli was a Sacred Watcher, but the thought of returning to Meranna’s temple alone panicked him. Suddenly, the broth was not settling well. He swallowed a wash of bile that had worked its way up his throat, but it would not return. The smell of death and meat broth seemed to intensify. Rahli and Vallus stared at him, their faces full of concern. He stood quickly, trying to fight through the dizziness that washed over him and threw up everything he had consumed. Rahli put his cold hands on Thelembi’s back. “Gods, you’re burning up! Here, let me carry you now. . .back to bed.” Thelembi shook his head and stumbled. “Don’t. . .don’t. I can. . .” He said, his voice raw. Rahli gave Thelembi a stricken look as he backed away to the bed. He slumped onto it and stared at Rahli and Vallus, without saying another word. For long moments, the only sound in the room was the ragged sound of Thelembi’s breathing. “Theli. . .” Rahli finally broke the silence with a quiet plea, but Vallus put his hand on Rahli’s shoulder. “Let’s leave him. . .Let’s give him time to digest what he has learned. He has been handed too much at one time.” Rahli gave Thelembi one last, pleading look before he turned away, walking out without another glance.
“Thelembi, rest.” Vallus said sternly. “We are all patient with you, but soon you will have to leave here without him. Do not worry, you will have an eternity to be with him. Meranna will show you the way.”
Chapter 9 Rahli was whole again, and that alone was worth the eternity he had pledged when he had decided to join the church of Sorrith. He felt comfortably numb, and his superiors were treating him kindly, making sure that he had enough blood to remain lifelike for as long as Thelembi remained in the temple. His heart no longer thundered in his chest, but the gem at his solar plexus glittered with a life of its own. It was the same color as his restored fingers and the claws of his new feet. His life was irrevocably over now, and knowing what the dead knew, he was glad that he had been allowed to become one of the enlisted. He stood without tiring, guarding Thelembi’s cell. Painted on the door was the symbol of Meranna. Ceras Indra had put it there. Every time he touched it, he could feel the hum of magic leech into him. Ceras was gentle and matronly to him, just like the older enlisted. She was actually older than most of them. He had been stunned to discover that if she had been a human enlisted, she was old enough to have nearly earned her yellow stripe. Thelembi troubled him, even though he had received his reanimated state with joy. He was not healing correctly, but Ceras had told him that it was because of the curse. They had put Rahli on duty at his door to keep the living from finding him there. If they ever found out that Thelembi was the cause of the flooding, they would try to drag him out. Rahli had other duties to his brother as well. Now that he could use magic, he could accept nourishment as the linyth did, in the form of bursts of lightning. The other watchers could utter binding blessings and curses in the language of the dead, and that was a kind of magic, but only an enlisted daitari--a Karlinyi, could freely cast elemental magic. Rahli had been casting at Thelembi every day in place of meals. He only did it while his brother was asleep, and he never woke from the treatment.
Now that Thelembi was recovered, all of Rahli’s reservations leaped to the front of his mind. He was hurt that Thelembi had lied to him about the temple. If he had known, he would have encouraged him to go back. The truth was that Rahli had been considering taking poison anyway to end a life of pain and ridicule. Sorrith had chastised him for that, but he had forgiven him. He owed so much to the Maestro that called him a son as in addition to a warrior in his army. That his brother had tried to keep that calling from him troubled him to the core. Thelembi was not the same after using magic. What Ceras explained was true. Rahli could use magic freely now that he was dead, but Thelembi was beginning to deform as he began to use his power. Thelembi was preparing to grow. Rahli could hear Thelembi moaning. He cracked the door open and looked in. His brother was tossing in his sleep, jerking his legs. He got a flash of Thelembi’s dreams, filled with Rahli’s dead face and the horrible form of Lord Cet. It was interesting, because in his dreams, Cet was revealed in his true form. He saw the face of Black Manni, lined and thinned with age. He saw his own niece, a lively but timid girl that had obviously never seen a single day of worry. He had thanked Ceras in Thelembi’s place when she had told him about Thanni. Thanni had grown up in the best possible place in B district. She had been fed and cared for, and educated as no urchin could ever have been tended. The drawback was never being able to leave the temple without risking death at the hands of the guards, but at least she was safe. He and Ceras had also talked about serving the Maestros and about magic. She could not use it as a Servant of Meranna, but she was very familiar with it. He was receiving instruction in its use from his fellow watchers. It was a burden that Thelembi would never have to face. He was supposed to become a Servant, but he could feel his brother’s hesitation. Rahli did not understand why Thelembi was still set against his destiny. Thelembi sat up and looked at Rahli, as if sensing his presence. He motioned Rahli in. Rahli left the door open and stepped inside, moving slowly. His supernatural body came with a speed that could not be matched in the living, and he had to be careful not to startle Thelembi.
“You look good.” Said Thelembi, scratching his head. Vallus had shaved it again, and it itched. “I am as I will ever be.” Said Rahli, uncomfortably. “You do not look so good. I mean, I thought you’d be better by now.” “Yeah me too. But I ache all over, Rahli. It’s like something is trying to crush my bones slowly.” “You are growing. The change happens quickly, Ceras told me. She told me she let you go. She told me that you were supposed to tell me.” Thelembi could not meet Rahli’s eyes. “I didn’t want to tell you. It was all too much.” That statement stirred Rahli’s anger. “Didn’t want to tell me? Are you kidding? There was nothing worth keeping a secret from me!” “You are not telling me everything right now.” Said Thelembi. “Not by choice!” growled Rahli. “Things are different now. I am dead and you are not. But you! You would have kept even this choice from me! I know that Ceras hinted at it! No wonder you wanted to avoid C district! I thought it was out of prudence, but it was out of cowardice! You lied about the girls! Hid the truth of our bodies. . .abandoned your daughter again without even telling me I was an uncle! It’s unbelievable!” Thelembi blushed with shame. “I. . .I didn’t mean to.” Thelembi whined. “If I had known, I would have. . .” Rahli put his hands to his temples. “Oh gods, I don’t know what I would have done.” He struck out with blinding speed and slapped Thelembi. The force spun him around. Thelembi knelt at Rahli feet, clutching his face. “How dare you take the choice from me! Did you think you could have saved me from this outcome? You don’t even know what you risked.” Thelembi stood unsteadily, his face filled with shock, confusion, anger and pain. “What did I risk? Your death!” Thelembi struck back, but striking Rahli was like punching a wall. His claws left tracks in his skin, but Thelembi knew that Rahli couldn’t feel them. He stepped back. “Yeah, fine. So I shouldn’t have worried. I hope you like
being undead.” Rahli’s hand moved before Thelembi could think. He took his brother by the throat and slammed him against the wall. Thelembi wheezed as the air was knocked from his lungs. “Reanimated. Say it. I chose this! I am not undead!” Rahli’s pupils blazed with white light. Thelembi’s eyes also flashed and a sharp gust of wind knocked Rahli away. The gust actually left an indent across his chest. Thelembi was shocked, seeing the wound. Rahli got up, his face full of cold rage. As he did, he nearly lost his balance as his top half threatened to separate backwards. The only thing keeping it attached was his spine. To Thelembi’s horror, Rahli didn’t even wince. Thelembi coughed, trying to get a breath and clutching at his throat. “What in Pathir’d I do?” Thelembi grated. “Don’t touch me.” Rahli took a step forward, his face filled with anger and grief. “I know you can’t control it, so I am forgiving you, but just don’t. You don’t know what you are doing. You don’t know what you have already done.” He said, his voice echoing from his gem rather than his mouth. He lifted his hand and began to draw a sign in the air. “A cage to bind him, to stop him Daitari Thelembi of Meranna, the size of his height and three paces in all directions. He will not move from his spot. In the name of Maestro Sorrith and the power in my soul as a Karlinyi, so let it be.” Thelembi watched as a cage of air appeared around him. He could see the magic working to contain him. He touched the bars, but he could not pass through. Once again, his magic leaped out, but it ended as soon as it touched the magic bars. “Gods I. . .I’m sorry! Don’t do this Rahli! What did I do?” he asked. “By the gods, I just woke up and you attacked me! Who is the one keeping secrets now?” “Not with me!” cried Rahli. “By orders I cannot ignore! You had no such. You ran out of fear.” “Out of choice.” “I know you better than that. Are we not twins? Death cannot change that.” He put a hand to his belly. “You will stay there where your magic can’t escape. You gave your life to Meranna. There will be no more running. Gods, I can’t believe that my own
brother is such a coward!” he said, and turned on his heel, storming out of the door. Unable to break the enchanted bars, Thelembi curled up and sobbed until he fell asleep. “Hey, brave warrior! Wake up! Go on get up!” Thelembi startled awake and looked up at two watchers standing above him. “Do you remember us?” said one of the two. “I am Vallus, this is Corval.” “Yes, I am sorry! He’s crazy!” Thelembi sobbed. “Let me out.” Vallus and Corval looked at each other and shrugged. “You are the one who tried to kill him. He backed off as he should have.” “I didn’t mean to.” Vallus looked at Thelembi with pity. “Magic is like that.” “What did I do?” whined Thelembi. “Just tell me what I did!” “You know the answer to that. We are not sure we should let you out.” “Is it magic? I won’t use it again!” “No, Theli. You cannot stop using it. We will let you out only if you come with us.” They said. Thelmbi nodded. “Very well,” said Corval, “Blessed word of binding unravel. I, Corval of Sorrith Command it!” With a sharp clang, the bars on his cage broke like a harp strings. Thelembi winced at the sound. Two desiccated hands were held out to him, which he took. They jerked him to his feet and marched him out the door. The temple of Sorrith was nothing like the temple of Meranna. There was a regimental air to the entire structure. Images of battles were captured in stunning mosaics. The floor was not polished, but made of rough stone and sand. Where there was sand, training dummies stood, ready to be used by soldiers. Statues were all decorated with ancient arms and weaponry. Amphorae of clear water were painted with scenes of gory fights. Whereas Meranna’s temple was filled with whitewashed marble pillars and the tranquility of the water with the powerful current of magic flooding it, this place felt as if it was on the very edge of the divide between life and death. It made Thelembi feel cold inside. Everywhere there was evidence that this temple was more of a barracks or a tomb than a place of traditional worship. As they walked through the temple, Thelembi saw that nearly every square inch of the temple was occupied by the living. It was as if the entire population was in the
outer sanctuary, the waiting rooms, the cells, and the dining halls were all packed with people. The living priests bustled through the rows of humanity packed into the temple. At a point halfway into the sanctuary, the throng of people ended. Beyond it, he could see the shapes of the enlisted, going about their duties. In the back was a large idol of a skeletal human wearing a crimson robe and holding a huge sword. Thelembi stopped to look at it. “Why aren’t they sleeping all the way in? There’s a lot of room there. Is it forbidden?” Vallus and Corval stopped, shocked. “What do you see?” Vallus asked nervously. “That idol, is it Sorrith? He’s horrible! It makes me go all cold inside just looking at him.” Corval nodded. “You are seeing something that not many of the living are meant to see.” “Corval, I can take him up. You should go see Scout Major Zamed.” Said Vallus. “Yeah. Are you taking him to Ceras after this?” “I can do that.” Said Vallus. “I have done something wrong?” asked Thelembi. “No brave warrior, just something extraordinary. Those who cannot see the wall can pass through it. Not many mortals can do that. If you can’t see it, we should not linger here.” He took him to a rampart of the temple wall. The structure of the temple was a like a castle or a fort, constructed of hewn stone. Along the wall, the enlisted kept watch bearing slings, spears, and stone knives. “These are the Ramparts of the Eternal Watch.” Said Vallus. “We who are dead keep a constant vigil here. Once, we protected this city. There was no need for a living army. The god-emperor usurped our power and locked us here. Arynstar has always belonged to man, and so we have bowed to the will of men in some ways, but we still wait and protect when we can. Right now, it seems that we merely wait for the Emperor’s destruction. Your magic has gone a long way to reminding him that we remain.” He swept his bony arm across the scene. As Thelembi stepped up to the edge, he looked out on a sight that he could not comprehend. There as a thick bank of clouds hung over the district. From these, rain
pelted the Undercity, soaking everything. The streets ran with water, filling it to the top of the ramparts. Only the tallest of buildings remained. “The rioting is mostly over. Thousands are dead. The Undercity is flooded for the first time in its long history. The gates to the surface are locked magically. Nobody comes to aid us, and none can escape it.” “Meranna did it. I prayed to her. It’s her fault.” “No, it is not. Meranna is just using your magic for some reason. You cannot tell, but all of the water flows into her district. It has actually begun to recede.” “Are they alllike this?” Vallus looked at him, his face full of sorrow. “Flooded completely. Those that live have fled to E district where the pantheon of Man keeps their streets dry. We do not go there. That is Ixah’s territory. Other districts’ people have either fled there or taken refuge within their local temples. Most of the living citizens have done so in every district to their temples of their Maestros.” “How long has this been?” “Ever since you came here. The effects would have been worse, but Ceras sent runners out to the other districts heralding the event. She saved many lives while risking her priestesses.” “Then I have to go back. She has taken the choice from me. Ceras said that Meranna doesn’t. . .she lied!” Said Thelembi. Now Vallus smacked him. “You are stubborn, but you are wrong. Don’t you ever blaspheme in this temple again. You have made the right choice to return, and yet you curse it with every breath! By Sorrith the living irk me! You’re a warrior one day and a coward the next!” “Some choice.” Thelembi mumbled. “Ceras told you that you would be stubborn, but she didn’t say that you were honorless. You pledged your life to Meranna!” “I have no honor! I’m just a citizen. I just survive.” “Liar. I know you are not like that. If it were so, you would have joined with Anim. That is her tenet. It is time to mature, warrior. Face it as a man for the first time in your life. The Maestros have been harsh with us this time, but in the end, it will be for the best. Sometines what they do is beyond living comprehension.” “But not beyond undead comprehension?” Vallus tensed with anger.
“You would do well to remember that there is a difference between being reanimated and being undead. Some of us might attack you for confusing it. And yes. We comprehend much more. We can even hear the magic as it is being sung. We can comprehend the words.” Thelembi winced. Now he understood Rahli’s anger. “What is it like, this language? Is it like the language Cet used, or Black Manni?” “No. Cet’s language is that of Demons. He speaks it because he has demon blood in him. Your Black Manni speaks the ancient Tongue of Man. All of us who serve the Maestros must learn to speak that. It is the language of the Temples. No, this is the language of the Dead. The living can’t comprehend it. Rahli said he used it on you when he drew the cage.” “I didn’t hear any strange language. Just Rahli saying muuuhhh.” His tongue failed as he tried to repeat what Rahli had said. He tried again, but again his tongue tried to stop working. Vallus looked at him strangely. Frustrated, Thelembi turned away from him, but the scene of flooded streets horrified him. Shutting his eyes, he curled up beneath the rampart. Overhead, the clouds rumbled menacingly. “Er, I think that we had better get you back down from here.” Said Vallus. Thelembi looked up at him. “What would all Maestros want with me anyway? As far as I know, I am just a cursed creature!” Thelembi shouted, jerking away as Vallus tried to get him to stand. “This is not your fault entirely. You were just a catalyst. To be fair, we did warn you to stop.” “As if I knew how! As if I could while I was passing out!” he shouted. A bolt of lightning lanced from the clouds and struck him. He gasped as it went through, leaving no evidence of its passage out. There were burn marks on his shoulder where it entered, though. The watchers gathered around, their weapons at the ready. Thelembi sat back against the wet stones and concentrated on the feeling of the rain pelting him, cooling his shoulder. Vallus cautiously stepped forward. “You should come in now. That will happen again if we stay.” “I don’t care.” Said Thelembi. “It only burns when it goes in.” “Yeah. Doesn’t it hurt?”
“It’s what I deserve, Vallus. And I feel better afterward. I think this is what Ceras was trying to explain to me. I’m not human. I am not too sure, but I think I remember Rahli doing this to me a couple of times.” “Yes. Yes, he did do that at Ceras’s instruction. You were supposed to have been unconscious.” “I sort of was. I mean, I couldn’t move but I was still sort of aware. Spring water will heal this, right? It can’t kill me. Don’t worry.” “How do you know?” “I dunno. I just do. It’s like how you just know to eat. Somehow, I just know that I have to be struck.” Just as he said it, another bolt lanced through him. He cried out as it bounced around inside his body. The bolt had entered through his head, leaving a bald spot on the top. Vallus jerked him into one of the guard stations on the wall. Thelembi wobbled as if he was drunk. Vallus made him sit against the stone wall of the tiny room in the only place without a weapon rack. Thelembi’s heart fluttered in his chest, beating impossibly fast for any human. “How do I stop this?” Thelembi asked quietly. “We do not know.” Said Vallus. “Innocent people are dead because of me!” cried Thelembi. “Yes. Innocent people.” Said Vallus. “When a king is taught a lesson, it is always the people who will suffer first.” “I didn’t want to kill everyone! I don’t care about the god-emperor! Just Lord Cet!” “That is one of the risks in using magic. Sometimes, it uses you. Do not worry about your uncle any longer. He is cursed. All you need worry about now is doing your own duty as you swore.” “To Meranna.” “Yes, to her. Come on, follow me.” Thelembi followed with no more hesitation, his mind filled with shock at the thought of what his magic had done. His heart was slowing, making him slightly dizzy, and Vallus knew it. He held Thelembi up as he began to stumble.
As they returned to the outer sanctuary, Thelembi looked at the people again. They did not seem desperate, only sad. None of them looked starved. “How are you feeding all of them?” Thelembi asked. Vallus smiled. “Ah, that is the providence of the true faith. When the people turn to the maestros, they are sustained. That is the ancient law of Arynstar.” “But, why now? People starve here everyday! I’ve almost starved before! Why now?” they picked their way across the rows of people, stepping over sleeping forms and bags of goods and possessions. Those that were active hastily got out of Vallus’s way. “Oh, well, you know people. They depend on gods when it is convenient, and forget them when they feel self reliant. When things get back to normal, people might worship here for a while, but they’ll go back to their old habits soon enough. Unlike the demons, the Maestros do not force themselves on humanity unless it is absolutely necessary.” “Why?” “I don’t know.” Said Vallus. “But if you were a god what would you rather have, forced loyalty or a free and devoted following?” “You are not free.” Said Thelembi. Vallus barked a laugh. “When I made the choice I was free. I chose service, and Sorrith accepted that choice. Your brother did the same. You chose Meranna’s service, though you have not yet entered it.” Vallus dragged Thelembi through a series of corridors and stairways that went deep underneath the temple. Some of the rooms they passed were filled with tombs, and others were filled with records. As they descended, Thelembi could smell the scent of spring water growing stronger. At last they came to a large set of doors which opened at Vallus’s command. They opened upon a chapel with a fountain of spring water burbling into a pool in the center. A statue stood in the center of the fountain. It was of a powerfully built warrior in full bronze armor. He carried a sword that was identical to the one that the skeletal idol held. On the walls, images of an ancient tribe were painted in relief. Unlike the gristly pictures of war and death that were on the walls above them, these were very peaceful,
depicting everyday activities. The picture representing the statue was in them as well, acting as a fair judge over the people and talking with another immortal. “Behold the hidden chapel of Sorrith. This is the source of water in C district. Meranna’s temple sits on the main source, but there is one lesser one in every district.” “That is Sorrith?” “Yes. Long ago he was like this. One day, after your initiation, you should come back here. I could tell you what all of these panels mean. Come on. Ceras is in the maintenance suite.” The Maintenance suite was actually built fro the followers of Meranna. Images of her were painted on the walls, and the whole room looked like it had been taken directly from her temple. The huge stone bed in the center of the room was circular and decorated with writing. The light in the room was brilliant, dazzling Thelembi’s eyes after the dim functional lights of the rest of the temple. There were green plants in the room as well. Thelembi had never seen plants, even in the temple of Meranna. Ceras was lounging with Rahli next to a private bath. Ceras looked up at them as they approached. She looked worn, as if she had not slept in a long time. “Caras? I have him.” Said Vallus. “I can see that.” said Ceras, grimly. Rahli sipped from his cup and scowled. His injury had not yet healed. Thelembi looked at his feet, unable to even look at them. “I see that you have been struck a couple of times. Good. I know that you are still having trouble with food.” “I haven’t eaten yet.” “That is probably a good thing; given the other times we have tried to feed you human food. Don’t worry about that. We can live on pure energy just as the linyth do. Even an old Servant like me can still do that. Quite likely that problem will be corrected when you go through initiation.” “Is this all my fault?” he asked. Ceras shrugged. “Would it have happened if you had just come back as you should have?” Ceras asked. Thelembi squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block the tears. “You. . .you didn’t tell Thanni. . .” Ceras held up a single finger.
“What would I say?” Thelembi’s mouth worked, but no sound came out. “Lady Ceras, tell her that Theli caused this. ” Said Rahli. Ceras shook her head. “You speak with the candor of the dead Rahli, the wrath of the vengeful and the foolishness of the young. I did not ask for the opinion of the departed. I speak to the living responsible.” Thelembi sat in the nearest chair, facing his brother and Ceras. He had never been so miserable in his life. “I caused this. . .Make it stop.” He said humbly. “See? He finally gets it!” Rahli pointed his finger at Thelembi. “The truth feels good, doesn’t it!” Ceras smacked Rahli’s hand down. “How could I tell a ten year old girl something that not even her thirty year old father can utter or even fully comprehend without shattering his spirit?” Rahli looked away. Ceras slapped her hand on the arm of the chair, causing Rahli to startle. “There seems to be a problem of communication here. That is what happens when the dead try to interact with the living. Feelings are always hurt. Intentions are always misconstrued.” Ceras’s voice was cold and irritated. “You are wise, Lady Ceras, as usual.” Said Vallus, calmly. “Not really. I’m just an old lady.” She said. “But if you know me, you know that I cannot stop it, and neither can Theli.” “I am sorry I called you undead, Rhali.” Thelembi mumbled. Rahli tensed and sighed. “What can you do? You did not know any better. Ceras has been helping me sort things out.” Ceras struck out at Rahli’s shins with her slippered foot. “And also?” she demanded. Rahli balled up his fists and cleared his throat. “I am sorry I used magic on you, but you did nearly cut me in half.” Said Rahli. Ceras raised an eyebrow. “And what else happened that made you upset? Tell him why you attacked him just as he woke up.” “I was watching your dreams.” He mumbled. Vallus and Thelembi both made noises of astonishment and disappointment. “Well! Don’t we all have our little gifts.” Said Ceras, standing. “It’s time for the boy to go.” She said. “He can’t stay here any longer.”
“He has not been cleared to leave.” Said Vallus. “Something has come up.” The door to the suite opened and Corval stood there with another watcher. This one was just as desiccated, but he radiated power. His gem shone a brilliant white. Ceras sat down again, her brows knit in concern. “Daitari Thelembi, I am the high Priest of this temple. My name is Zamed. Listen to me carefully and answer my question. Do you understand what I am saying?” Thelembi shrugged, confused. “Is this a test? Of course I understand you, Lord Zamed. Lady Ceras, what is going on?” “He is not speaking a mortal language Theli.” Said Ceras. “Do it again, Zamed.” “What do you mean he’s speaking the language of the dead?” “That’s not right!” Said Rahli. “Is it true, can you really understand?” “Of course he understands.” Said Zamed. “You are a medium, aren’t you.” “What are you talking about? A muuhh. . . Muhhh.” Thelembi looked at Ceras. “He can’t discern mortal speech from the other.” Said Ceras. “The word is Medium.” Said Ceras. “Don’t even try to say it in their tongue.” “A medium? A ghost talker?” Ceras rolled her eyes. “One who can talk to the dead. Like me, one of the living who can understand the language of the dead even if we cannot speak it. You did not have this gift before. Zamed, why does he have it now?” “You should know well, Ceras. The trauma of his near death, his brother’s enlistment, the awakening of his magic, any one of those things alone could awaken a latent human gift.” Ceras’s eyes grew distant. “Can it really be possible after all these years. . .” She wondered quietly. “What does this mean for him? What has Lord Sorrith commanded?” “He can also see through the dividing wall. Under any other circumstances he would have to remain with us.” “He belongs to Meranna as a daitari.” Ceras growled. “Lord Sorrith rejected him! What do you mean—” “We mean he has to go with you, but he has to be trained. You do remember your own youth, don’t you, Ceras?”
“It’s hazy. It was so long ago. No.” she said tightly. “Ah, Ceras. You were always a very bad liar. The dead remember. I was still a living man when I first saw you, but I knew you had the gift. We went into our service at about the same time, you know. My first task as a high priest was to tutor a young Servant because her magic unleashed a human gift. We comforted her after she made a very bad mistake and called upon one that nearly undid her binding to Meranna and devoured her soul.” Ceras looked away. “You remember that. . .” she said, shuddering. “Of course we do. We were witnesses when your cursed hybrid soul was brought before Meranna and Sorrith themselves. We remember your mistakes, Ceras. We know why you dislike being here.” “This is not the same.” She said. Zamed wagged his skeletal finger at her. “This is exactly the same and you know it. The wall is transparent for you as well. It will only be a short time before he starts seeing spirits too.” “So how does this affect Theli?” she asked. “What does the blessed General want with him now?” “He must have a tutor. He cannot come back to this temple for a while. It would upset Rahli’s training.” “We don’t need one of your men in our temple. I can—” “No, Ceras. You know quite well that only the dead can teach him about the dead.” “Then why can’t Rahli come?” asked Thelembi. Zamed shook his head. “He has his own training. Being a Karlinyi is quite a challenge by itself, and you need to be separated for your own good. There is a divide between you two that cannot be crossed. No, he is commanded to stay here and learn.” Thelembi wiped away the tears that flooded his eyes. Ceras took his hand. “Vallus will go with you. He likes you, Thelembi. He will teach you what to do.” Said Zamed. “If that is all, then we should go. There is no sense in waiting.” Ceras said. Zamed reached out for Thlembi’s hand. Thelembi stood and took it. He averted his gaze though, unable to face the high priest’s glowing sockets.
“We are difficult to look at, young daitari, I know. I would spare you watching Rahli as he becomes as desiccated as we are. You will do well. I am confident in the direction of the Maestros.” “I don’t know sir.” Said Thelembi. “What I did. . .” “You are facing something more serious than any human will ever face. You are fighting for your very existence and hope of salvation now. Put Rahli out of your mind as if he was truly dead and burned. When the time is right, you will see him again.” Zamed wiped tears off of Thelembi’s cheeks as Thelembi looked at Rahli. “It is good to cry, brave Warrior. You have fought for a long time. Now, Rahli will be fighting here. He will be a legend in this district, just as you are a legend in your own already.” Rahli stood and walked out with Corval. “Rahli!” Thelembi cried, and lunged. Zamed stopped him. Wind whipped everyone in the room. Suddenly, Ceras’s hand came down on his neck. Blinding pain shot through Thelembi’s head and he passed out. He woke in a small rowboat. A pale man with dark fuzz on his head pulled at the oars. He was fully dressed in a shirt, vest and loose pants, but Thelembi could see the pulsing blue light under the cloth. His eyes were green with white light behind them. Ceras stood in the front, surveying the district. She had a wooden staff in her hand that was carved with writing. The rower stopped as soon as he saw Thelembi stir. “Hello Theli, It’s me, Vallus.” Thelembi sat up and stared. “I didn’t even get to say goodbye.” He said miserably. “You will see him again.” Said Ceras. “You don’t look dead anymore.” He said to Vallus. “He received a lot of blood.” Said Ceras. Thelembi could tell that she was not happy about having Vallus along. She was more pale than usual. Thelembi suspected that she had donated it. He rubbed his neck and popped it. “That really hurt.” He said. “What would you have? Me knocking you out or you killing us with that magic? I swear to you that if I could, you would leave this place for Ashakiran. Maybe by the time you got there you would learn to control your damned emotions.” Vallus chuckled.
“You are quite powerful, young warrior. Not even Rahli is as powerful yet. Ceras is right, it is a great shame. As a servant, that will all be kept with Lady Meranna.” All around the boat, only the peaks of the buildings stood. Though Vallus had stopped rowing, the boat was still moving forward, following the current. There were no people atop the buildings, but occasionally, a body floated past. There was no rain or clouds in the air. The light around them blazed yellow, and the air was stifling. Thelembi had never experienced heat. “What is this?” Thelembi asked. “The heat? This is how the magic of Arynstar recovers. It has been a long time since this has happened, and it has never come as a flood before.” Said Vallus. “It was Rahli who delivered that answer. He is to be the oracle of Sorrith now, and it was his first declaration. He said that the city would drain when you fulfilled your obligation. This was triggered by your magic, and it will be ended when your magic ceases.” “How long have I been out?” “Not long. He had it right after Ceras knocked you out. It came as a shock too. Sorrith called him right up the moment he did it. He also said to prepare for war, and that the God-emperor would be brought down by the Beloved. And some other things for Ceras.” Ceras had a very distant look. “He’s like Ceras? He can tell the future?” “Yes, and you will share that position with me in our temple.” said Ceras, distantly. “He’s not in trouble though. . .” “Ah, no, far from it. Don’t worry about him. Sorrith is thrilled that he finally has an enlisted oracle. All of his others have lost the gift after attaining their enlistment.” Thelembi looked over the side. The water was strangely crystal clear. He touched it and it reacted, sending magic up his arm. “It’s spring water! Oh gods!” he cried, looking down. Below him, the streets of B district were overturned. Not even the buildings stood. “The Maestros have alerted their clergy, do not fear. All the humans are either in the temples or in E. They are all safe from its effect.” Ceras said, scanning ahead. “How many?”
“We do not know. Not even the Enlisted know.” She sat down. “Hold on.” Thelembi grabbed onto the side of the boat as the current picked up. The bottom of the boat scraped against the outer wall of the temple before toppling down into the courtyard. There, the water magically dissipated into fine mist before it touched the ground. The boat smashed underneath them, but they were all uninjured. Thelembi looked up at the outer wall. The water was well above it, which made him dizzy and nauseous. He could hear the sound of the water falling, and it was deafening. Drawing in the atomized water made his whole body vibrate with magic. Ceras looked up as well. “You see there? That is the protection of Meranna! Come inside, quickly now!” Ceras shouted, and dragged Thelembi away from the wall. The narrow, manmade corridor into the temple was gone as if it never existed. Bits of rubble littered the courtyard. In its place, the original doors stood, easily twenty feet high and thirty feet wide. They were thrown open, and a deep channel had been cut by the water, which flowed into the temple through the outer gate. The scene was so surreal That Thelembi had to be marched in front of Ceras to keep him moving. Inside, the pools between the causeways were strange columns of water, suspended vertically in the air from floor to ceiling like massive jellies. The water was not clean, but brown and full of debris. Once they passed the threshold, the sound stopped. Thelembi could feel the raw magic coursing through the temple and it took his breath away. “We should not stop here.” Said Ceras. “The magic is thick enough here to choke an immortal.” Thelembi nodded, but couldn’t tear his eyes away from the water. “Will it ever be clean again?” “The water is dissolving everything in it. All debris throughout the Undercity is being swept here. It is a miracle of the Maestros. You may not know, but all of the Undercity’s waste winds up here to be destroyed. That is the true purpose of the outer pools.” “What happens on the surface?”
“I am told that the people are in a panic because the wells have run dry.” Said Vallus. “They will start again once the flooding here ceases. There have been riots up there that have cost may lives. We will see what the god-emperor does next.” “Is he really a god?” Both Ceras and Vallus laughed. “Absolutely not! He is a mortal who extended his life through sorcery; a foul, baseless one who followed the path of Man to its end.” Said Vallus. “He is undead?” “No. He’s infused with demon blood, like Cet. He’s not immortal, or a god, or even anything worth politely mentioning.” Said Ceras. “Kings and emperors always wind up like this. That is why the Maestros despise them.” Thelembi walked up to one of the pools. Inside were rotting carts, bodies, and goods. Looking hard, he could also see people inside, wandering confused and lost. He reached out to touch the edge, but Ceras knocked his hand away. “It is acid right now. Don’t touch it.” She said and pushed him down the causeway between the pools. “But there are people in there!” Thelembi cried. Ceras and Vallus both shook their heads. “Those are spirits. Vallus, maybe you should stay in here, come to think of it.” “You are right about that!” he said, and touched the water. Instantly, his whole arm disappeared. Red colored gel oozed from his amputated arm. Thelembi clung to Ceras in shock as Vallus stared at his arm. Ceras rolled her eyes and put out her hand. “I just finished explaining, and here you go ruining yourself. It’s acid. Give me your gem, fool. As long as your gem is with me, you can manifest anywhere in the temple.” Vallus gave Ceras a worried look. Carefully, he reached down and pulled out his gem. As soon as Ceras took it, Vallus’s body collapsed. “Pick that up for me, would you.” Said Vallus’s voice to Thelembi. A spectral image of Vallus appeared next to Ceras. Thelembi cautiously picked up the body. It was lighter than he expected, but it was still a corpse. “I shouldn’t witness this rite anyway.” He said, and dived into the wall of water. Thelembi watched him swim out and snatch the first spirit that crossed his path. Ceras tugged at Thelembi’s shirt.
“You should not watch what he is going to do. Come on.” Thelembi followed, carrying Vallus’s corpse. Ceras led him to a small cell, where he put the body down on the stone bed and arranged its limbs so that it looked comfortable. Ceras patiently watched. Deep in the temple, the altar to Meranna stood, with her idol towering over it. Thelembi balked at seeing it, knowing that he would have to go up to the idol. Ceras pushed him gently. “Go on. You know where to go.” She said. Thelembi trembled and shuffled forward. The idol loomed over him, its head brushing the top of the sanctuary forty feet above. Her outstretched hand with the fountain of running water was a torrent, cascading down and rushing out of the inner sanctuary. He walked under the water, shivering as he was soaked in magic. Beyond it, between her legs was a small door. When he touched it, magic symbols appeared. His vision blurred and his legs gave out under him. He suddenly felt pressure in his chest. He could not breathe. Fiery pain engulfed his body, and he felt something lurch in his belly. When his eyes cleared, he was standing on one side of an immense, bottomless pool. The walls around him were hidden in fog. Light seemed to come from every direction. On the far side, a woman stood. She was beautiful, but even from where he stood, he could see her red rimmed eyes. “Goddess Meranna?” he asked. A gust of wind enveloped him. “Step across.” Came the voice from the opposite side. The power of that voice drew Thelembi to his knees. He could not stand upright, but he could not disobey. He began to crawl forward, but as he did, he was aware that he was not crawling, he was walking. By the time he reached the pool, his hands had become hooves. He had grown gangly and awkward as a young beast of burden. When he looked into the pool, though, he saw himself only as a human. “Come, Thelembi.” Said the voice again. This time, it sounded like his stepmother. He jerked his head up and looked. There she was, just as she had been in life. He took a step into the pool and his hoof stayed on top. “Is this a vision?” he tried to ask, but from his mouth, only a lilting cry came out.
“No. This is real.” Said the voice, and beckoned him forward. Thelembi stepped onto the surface of the water and unsteadily walked forward. Above him, stormclouds gathered and lightning struck out, smashing into his forehead. The sensation energized him and took away the pain. It gave him the confidence to move more quickly. The pool was deeper and wider than he realized, and soon, he was galloping across the mirrored surface, kicking out as each bolt struck him. He let out a screech of joy. He felt as if he had waited all of his life to run like this. With the final bolt of lightning he leaped, and his hooves made contact with solid ground. He shook himself all over, glorying in the feeling of his ears as they flopped and his tail as it swayed. In front of him, Meranna stood, and he instantly bowed to her without hesitation. The goddess put her hands on Thelembi’s head. “Cursed child, this is what is inside of you. You are a Linyth as much as you are a human.” “This is a Linyth.” He repeated, awed. “But Rahli does not have feet like these.” He said, stamping his golden, cloven hooves. “The Linyth have grown into their form more completely than we ever anticipated. This form is no longer a curse for them, and they enjoy their lives though they do not use magic like the other two. Only the Karlinyi and the Linyth watchers express the traits of the form they once wore. Look into the pool.” Thelembi stopped and looked down. A strange creature looked back. It had feet just like Rahli’s, and huge chiropteran wings that could actually grip objects with its two jutting fingers, but its body looked very human. From its forehead jutted a single crystalline horn, which was smaller but similar to the horn that now jutted from his forehead. “This is a Linyth. This is how we originally made them. They were led into sin by mating with humans and by practicing sorcery. They produced the first daitari, and we cursed them for abandoning us.” As he looked at the image, it twisted into a reflection of his body. “No longer were they to use magic, nor were they ever to speak, but their daitari children were not affected by it in the way we planned.” Pain lanced through his body and he began to twist. Parts of him remained Linyth, but other parts became human again. He could feel his bones popping and shifting as they broke and reformed. His reflection mirrored his transformation. His
arms became deformed masses that fused at every joint. His middle fingers extended into hooves, but the rest remained human, wriggling uselessly from his legs. His hind legs were fully human, but his feet extended like his hands. He was even more misshapen than Rahli ever had been, and even the act of moving caused incredible pain. Meranna took his head. “We thought that this would kill off the daitari, but it did not. We thought it would stop their magic, but they held onto it somehow. We underestimated the effect that a human soul has on our worldly magic. When we cursed the linyth, the daitari too changed. They used to be quite striking, but the change deformed them. As you are now, so would you have become if you had not come to me.” “Make it stop.” croaked Thelembi. Meranna walked away. Thelembi tried to follow her, pulling his twisted body along. Meranna led him away from the pool, watching him as he tried to walk. The effort exhausted him and he collapsed, sobbing in pain. Meranna returned to him and lifted his body. Suddenly, they were in a strange sanctuary shaped out of molded clouds. He was set upon the altar with his feet and arms dangling. Meranna looked at him with pity. “The daitari cried out to us. Even after we scorned them they still cried out. Even after they died they gnashed their teeth and pleaded for mercy that we could not give. There are deeper laws that prevented it, laws that even the immortals are bound to. We knew then that we had made a mistake that could not lightly be undone.” She touched him and his whole form seemed to shatter. When he opened his eyes, he was human again, and Meranna stood next to a linyth that was as black as pitch. He tried to get off of the altar, but he was stopped. “What is worse is that their blood follows down the lineage. Daitari mated with humans and with linyth freely. Even if those children seemed pure to the end of their lives, they still carried to potential to produce a daitari. These were not the product of blasphemous encounters. They were innocent, Thelembi, and we realized the depth of our mistake. Even though some of them were devout followers, they could not reach us after death. Their souls were eternally cursed by their hybrid blood, and we could not undo what had been done.” The linyth stepped forward, and Thelembi reached out to it. The instant he touched it, he knew he was looking at himself.
“You were born by an illicit pairing.” “But I am innocent too!” Meranna nodded. “We are not omnipotent, Theli. We are not infallible. But we are still gods of a sort. Not the kind that the demons claim to be, but we made this planet’s life. You have not worshipped us, but you have not worshipped them either. Would you join me? I can help remove this from you.” “Ceras said I would lose my magic. I don’t want it! Rahli, the Undercity—“ “No Theli. Arynstar needed to be cleansed.” “If you are powerful, then get us out.” “It does not work that way, Theli. One day, when you stand here at the close of your life, or at the close of existence itself, you will understand. I hope to have you here beside me at the end of days.” “What is going to happen to me?” Meranna smiled and stroked the linyth’s back. Thelembi felt it as if his own back was being scratched. “You may choose the path of the servant, or you may choose to go on with your existence as you please. Just know that if you choose the second, you will only have about ten agonizing years to live before you wind up in that twisted form and die, or if by chance you get out, you must get to Ashakiran.” “What have you done?” he said, looking at the linyth. “Ah, I have called out the part of you that is not human. The human part of your soul remains inside your body.” “And if I wanted my human soul to stand beside you?” “That cannot happen. It cannot do so until it has passed judgment. For that, you would have to die.” “Like Rahli?” “No, not like Rahli. Rahli chose a different path. His path is much more difficult. I mean that you would have to leave the Undercity and go to the hidden temple of Ashakiran. As a servant on my path, Sorrith would send you to me, but as a dead spirit. That is the fate of my Ashakiran servants. Your human side would die absolutely to be with me, and your body and linyth soul would no longer be Thelembi at all. It would
have a new name, and it would be reborn without any memory of you human self, or of your past. Rahli would never see you again in this world or in the next.” “There is a divide between us. . .” Thelembi mumbled. “Zamed said.” “Zamed told you a very sad truth, Theli. I would have you and Rahli closer. If you choose the path of the Servant, you will be his equal across our followings. If you die, I am not sure that even having walked the mortal path you would pass judgment. You really do take some blame in the flooding of Arynstar.” “Not me alone! Didn’t you . . . I mean. . .” Thelembi blushed. Meranna sighed and ran her hands through his hair, which had grown long in an instant. “The city was made for humans, Thelembi. It runs on its own magic. It was never designed to have rain, but you introduced it. It was our magic, yes, but it is actually the city’s defenses. You caused it to rain, and triggered a cleansing cycle, which is necessary for the health of the city.” “Ma’am?” asked Thelembi. “Long ago, we used to have these regularly. Ceras didn’t know, and all of the oldest of Sorrith’s army have long since left this place. Humans are dirty creatures, you know. There hasn’t been one since the pretender crushed the temple of Caius in E district.” “So this was not bad?” “Oh it was bad. I can hear from your mind how they have been explaining things. Some of it is right and some of it is not. There is a lot of blood on your hands. There is a reason the cleansing cycles were stopped when the pretender took power.” “Then you are going to kill me?” Meranna looked annoyed. “I could, but that would be a waste. I would rather forgive you and let you grow up correctly. You have lived a very selfish life. When you follow me, you will have to mind that. Listen to Ceras. She is one of my most faithful Servants.” “Will this hurt?” “Not in the way you think.” “Then do it.”
“Very well. Close your eyes.” Thelembi obeyed. Throughout his body, he felt as if he was being torn in half. It didn’t hurt, as Meranna said, but when he opened his eyes, he felt hollow inside. He was sitting on the altar in the Arynstar temple, shivering. He was soaked from head to toe and his hair was long and black. Water pooled in the sanctuary. Ceras watched him as he slid off the altar and stumbled forward. He could feel the magic pressing around him, but he felt disconnected from it. The separation made his skin crawl. “Lady Ceras. . .” he said, and collapsed into her arms. “It’s sister now, little brother. Here, drink.” She handed him a stone bowl filled with water. It still tingled through his body. “I can still feel it?” “Yes, of course you can. Meranna has taken half of your living soul to her sanctuary, but you will always be able to feel the magic around you. You will also be able to feel her moods and directives. She keeps our souls up at her temple in the sky.” “The place of sculpted clouds.” He said. Ceras nodded. “That is the place. Your linyth half will live there for as long as you live here.” “I feel all hollow inside.” “That feeling will never go away. You will learn to live with it as I have.” She said, and dressed him in a white robe. “Welcome home, Servant.”
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