Dream of Love Dream of Hate Chapter 7

Calcam and Majelis had very soon been surrounded by the inhabitants of the city, who peered at them curiously and jabbered in some barbarous tongue. Majelis supposed they would, after all, look strange to this pale people.

“Can you talk to them?” Calcam asked, looking especially unhappy. Someone reached out to touch his tightly curled hair and he jerked away, his hand flying to his sword hilt.

“Let me try Malhun,” said Majelis. “Excuse me, could any of you direct me to the oracle?”

One man in the crowd pushed his way through. “Ah, we share a language. Tell me, where are you from?”

“From the south. I am from a city called Tsebiss and my companion is from an island offshore. We are looking for the oracle.”

“See the tall building in the center?” the man said, pointing. “If you want to ask a question, just pay one of the priests in attendance. The equivalent of nine disks or so should suffice. Do not worry about the matter of language – the oracle understands the speech of all tribes. She is animated by the Flame, after all, and the Flame burns in all countries.”

“Thank you,” said Majelis, and he and Calcam pushed their way forward with some difficulty, but came at last to the white stairs and ascended these. There was a man standing next to the dimly lit entrance of the tower, wearing a gold ring around his brow.

Ephelersmi top teolphniont pil?” he asked.

“We are here to see the oracle,” Majelis said, and held out a handful of coins. The man peered at them and then took the majority of what had been offered. He gestured for them to follow and led them inside, into a narrow hall with a number of side doors leading off. One of these he opened to reveal a broad descending stairway. Choosing a torch from a rack on the wall, he snapped his fingers over the top and it burst into flame. Then he guided them down to the bottom, a room with a tall three-legged chair at one end in front of a lit fireplace. In the chair sat a young woman with a white cloth wrapped around her eyes. The man crossed his arms and stepped back.

Majelis and Calcam exchanged glances. “I suppose we ask our questions now?” wondered Calcam. “You can go first.”

Majelis took a step forward, towards the woman. The question was one he had pondered many times since Kasus had given it to him, and he was not sure if it was a good one or not. Perhaps for Kasus, who was always striving for power and luxury, it would be a fine thing to live forever, but Majelis was not even sure he wanted to live for another decade. He shook his head firmly. Now was not the time for such thoughts. Looking straight at the oracle, he asked, “How can I achieve eternal life?”

The woman pressed her hands to her eyes. She spoke in a pure and clear voice, using the words that were common in Malhun. “You must die.”

“What? I don’t understand. What do you mean, I must die?” The woman said nothing further, and a baffled Majelis waved Calcam forward.

Juteng ti unca kaljumen pwi pulcecicet alakujukipet?

The reply of the oracle was in the Malhun tongue again. “Seek the destroyer of cities who stands at the side of the great king of the west.”

Almost immediately after she had finished the attendant stepped around between them and pointed to the steps. Taking the hint, Majelis climbed up with Calcam after him. Once they were out in the open air again he released his breath. “That was very unhelpful, for me at least. Your answer sounded more specific. What did you ask her?”

Calcam didn’t answer, asking instead, “Who is the great king of the west?”

“I am from Sretskalawa, Calcam. I do not know.”

“Your land is much too large. In it a man can hide from justice forever.”

“Sometimes I agree with that. Well, I will be staying here until Kasus comes,” said Majelis. “What plans do you have?”

Calcam grinned at him. “I’ll stay with you, here among the hairy giants, until I decide where I should go.”

On their fourth day in Teolphar, Majelis was using hand gestures to bargain for a couple of apricots when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Looking behind him he saw a bulky woman with a hood trailing red tassels over her face. “Pardon me,” she said in a heavily accented form of the Malhun language. “Kk’utarsu directed me to you and suggested you might need help, as you do not know our language.”

“Oh?” said Majelis, exchanging a few coins for the apricots. “Well, if you are willing to teach me, that would be a great help.”

“My name is Miophareol. You are?”

“Majelis Asra.”

“If then, Majelis Asra, you want to learn our language, my husband and I can teach you. Are you able to clean a dwelling, and to prepare food?”

Majelis laughed, remembering when he had been a king. “I am able, yes.”

“Good. I find such things tiring and servants are expensive. This way, if you will.”

“I have a companion with me,” said Majelis and stood on his toes to look for Calcam in the crowd, a futile task given Calcam’s diminutive height. “You will recognize him if you see him: he resembles a child, with skin as dark as mine.”

“I don’t see anyone like that,” said Miophareol.

Then Calcam emerged from among the people in the market, weaving between them as if they were trees and he was in the jungle rather than this city. He looked at Miophareol with suspicious, wary eyes. “Who’s she?” he asked.

“Miophareol,” she said. “I’m offering your friend a chance to work for me. You too, if you want. I see you have a sword, but can you use it?”

Calcam glowered. “I can show you, if you want.”

“No, Calcam, that would just cause trouble. I can assure you, Miophareol, that Calcam is an excellent swordsman.”

“My husband is a priest,” Miophareol said, “and there may be a place for you in the tower guard. You will both have a warm place to sleep and as much food as you want.”

“Then I accept,” said Calcam, but the suspicion didn’t leave his face.

“If he is a priest, I would like to learn about your worship from him,” said Majelis.

“You are a religious man?” asked Miophareol.

“I spent a little while as an ascetic hermit in the southern hills.”

“Then I’m positive he’ll be delighted to teach you.”

She brought them to a house in a block near the center of Teolphar, inside of which a bearded man was stirring a bowl of yogurt. He looked up at the strangers and with some puzzlement asked, “Miophareol, merten harsenkhee?

Orokonkhoo. Pelemmethrekt pelentesammi ophonlopo: sakiereke olunasmu olunokorumo e harsenreke maranioasammio phemelespherimt.

Riphaerim, asint! Lusorsu…riphaerim!

“This is my husband, Elsasel,” she said to Majelis and Calcam. “He is a priest of the oracle, and he is happy to have you with us. The Flame illumines those who are hospitable to strangers.” Elsasel’s furious puffing belied his wife’s words, but he made no articulate protest. Miophareol continued. “Now let me show you what your duties will be, and then we can get started with your lessons.”

Despite his obvious irritation, Elsasel bowed to his wife’s promptings and found for Calcam a post among the tower guard. Somewhere within the tower: they had tried putting him with the others at the main gate, where he had stood out with comical effect. Calcam himself had been the first to break out laughing. As for Majelis, he found himself running various errands in the city, an occupation which made him rapidly familiar with the language of Teolphar. Direct grammatical instruction came from Elsasel himself, and Majelis soon suspected that he was being taught a fairly high register of the language, mixed as it was with religious instruction. At any rate, when he spoke, he tended to receive rather impressed looks. Calcam, on the other hand, grew frustrated with the lessons and soon abandoned them.

Frequently Elsasel would be engaged in discussions with his fellow priests, discussions which Majelis was forbidden to hear. One day, however, he asked Majelis if the phrase “the ruby in the bosom of leviathan” meant anything to him. After the words had been explained to him, Majelis answered. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anything of that kind before. Why? What does it mean?”

“Oh, I’m just trying to interpret an answer from the oracle. You know about the oracle and her answers?”

“I have an answer of my own that I am trying to unravel,” said Majelis.

“Then you are a true citizen of Teolphar!” said Elsasel with a bitter laugh.

In Teolphar they measured out the year by the feasts of various sacred heroes called Golden Men, and it was nine days after the feast of Golden Zodu that the high priest of the city died after a brief but severe illness. Elsasel’s meetings with fellow priests grew more frequent, and Majelis was even approached by a strange woman who asked him in so many words if he would spy on Elsasel for an unnamed party, an offer which he refused.

Soon afterwards Elsasel sent him to the temple of the oracle with a sealed letter and instructions on where he should deliver it. So he climbed the steps to the tower’s base, told the priest standing in the entrance that he was carrying out a task for Elsasel, and was allowed inside. He ascended a level to a small room where a man was standing on a balcony, looking out over the city. “I have brought it,” he said, as Elsasel had told him to.

The man turned and accepted the letter from him. “Thank you. Wait a moment. You are from the far south, yes?”

“Yes. I was born in a city named Tsebiss.”

“A strange name, though the name of Teolphar sounds strange to you, no doubt. Is Tsebiss near the sea?”

“Yes, yes it is.”

“I thought it might be.” He opened the letter and scanned it quickly, his eyebrows rising as he did. “What sort of religion do you have down there? What do you worship?”

“We have very many gods. I can list the major ones, if you like.”

“No….what do you know about the Flame that we worship here?”

“It is the light that illuminates the world and the fire that heats it. It is holy beyond mortal understanding. In the sweetness of the Flame we are consumed.”

“Well said. Where did you learn that?”

“I have studied with Elsasel and Miophareol. The Flame is very beautiful. It is not one of the ever-quarreling ever-promiscuous gods I had known before. Srulusu, our god of fire, has had seven children with different mortal women, some of whom he took against their will.”

“You love the Flame and that is good. But what do you know of the Beast?”

“I know nothing of it.”

“Every fire casts a shadow, and the more complex the intervening figure the more complex the form of the shadow. But the shadow is never solid. Come with me.” The priest led Majelis up a level and through an arched doorway to a spiral staircase that wound its way up into a dark room. A flickering red flame danced in a bowl mounted upon the wall opposite. “This is the sacred flame,” the priest said, and knelt. Majelis knelt beside him. “Now turn your head to see what is behind you.”

Carved out of the stone, and only partially visible in the shadows, was a monstrous thing of folds and teeth and claws. “What is that?” Majelis asked, his voice hushed.

“It is the Beast that lurks in the dark, kept at bay only by the Flame. It is the enemy of mankind and of all the created world, always hungry and never satisfied. It is unspeakable, and we priests of Teolphar stand with the Flame between it and the greater world.”

Majelis stared up at the statue for a moment, then looked back to the fire. “But the Flame is greater than the Beast, yes?”

“Yes indeed, far more important. You grasp the basics well for a foreigner. This is the chamber of the high priest, where he meditates on the Flame. The recent death of Lurtonol has left it vacant, a vacancy that must be filled. In the next few weeks, the cardinals will decide who will be the next high priest. Their choice must be a man who is wise and pious, authoritative and learned, humble and holy.”

“A difficult set of requirements to fulfill.”

“Yes, which is why our high priests tend to fall somewhat short of the mark. Such is the way of our mortal flesh.” He was silent for a moment, then turned and descended the stairs. Majelis followed, and when they passed out from under the arch, the priest said, “You may go now. Tell Elsasel that many a jewel is found in the bosom.”

Bowing, Majelis made his way out of the temple and returned to the house of Elsasel, who was waiting impatiently by the door. “Did you deliver it? You took long enough.”

“I did.”

“And was there a reply?”

“‘Many a jewel is found in the bosom,’ he said.”

Elsasel appeared puzzled for just a moment, then pursed his lips. “I see. Turning to other matters, you have come along very well in learning our language, and I suspect our paths will part soon. What will you be doing when you leave?”

“I await the arrival of a friend, so I will be staying longer in Teolphar,” said Majelis, wondering as he so often did about where Kasus was and what he was doing, and if he had found the secret of eternal life in the west.

“Good! It is a beautiful city, yes?”

“Yes, it is.”

“I believe you have mentioned that you were a king in your homeland?”

“Indeed I was, though that was far away and many years ago.”

“But you would perform sacrifices, lead armies, carry out justice in your city?”

“I would, together with my brother. My abilities were never anything special – it was through the blood in my veins that I ruled. We were overthrown in the end and banished.”

“It must have rankled to be a servant for so long.”

“I have been a galley slave. Little rankles me anymore.”

“But you must miss the luxuries of being a king. Gold and precious stones beyond count, a different beautiful woman every night, musicians singing your praises?”

Majelis looked down. “I enjoyed those things at the time, when I was a very young man, but time has passed since then, and I find myself longing for something else. I do not know what it is…the Flame perhaps comes close…but it is beyond this world of pleasures and pain.”

“Yes. I know what you mean. Go do what you will. I have many things to consider.”

The next day Majelis went to meet Calcam at the time they had agreed on. It had been some weeks since their last opportunity to talk together about what they had seen in Teolphar in the language of Malhun, which although it was native to neither of them, was somehow comforting nevertheless. As he approached the great tower, an elderly man in the horned hat of a cardinal rushed down the steps to stand in his way. “You are the stranger from Malhun?” the cardinal asked.

“I hail from Sretskalawa formerly,” said Majelis, struggling to recall if he had at any point learned how to act in the presence of a cardinal. He settled on a polite but not obsequious bow.

“Yes, you don’t look much like a man of Malhun. Tell me, if you don’t greatly mind, how it is that you have come to the city of the Flame?”

“To seek after the oracle, your grace,” said Majelis. That was the right word, he thought.

“Ah. Why else? I am Risliel, cardinal of the Flame. Do you know much about what the priests of the Flame do, Majelis?”

“Elsasel has taught me some, your grace.”

“I suppose you have priests in your homeland?”

“Yes, your grace, priests of many of our gods. We knew nothing of the Flame.”

“But you have learned something of it now, eh?”

“I should like to learn more, your grace. I think I have been looking for it all my life unknowingly.”

“Do you know why we drink ashes in water on the Feast of Golden Saula?” asked Risliel. He had seated himself on the lowest step, looking up at Majelis placidly.

“To symbolize the destruction of our sins in the Flame’s heat and to join ourselves with Saula in her martyrdom, your grace. It is one of the principal feasts, and I was pleased to be able to participate in it for the first time a couple months ago.”

“You weren’t a priest in your homeland, were you?”

“No, your grace. I was a prince.”

“Were you!”

“Until I was exiled and sold into slavery, which may perhaps show that I was not the wisest or best of princes. A humble life suits me better, mayhap, especially here in a city dedicated to religion.”

“At times I think that a humble life would suit all of us better,” said Risliel.

Majelis smiled and lifted his hands. “Your grace, when there are as many people as live in Teolphar, some must be elevated to keep order. And as much as I wish it were otherwise, it is so with the religion of the Flame.”

“Well, Majelis, it was good to have an opportunity to speak with you,” said Risliel, standing. “I hope that we will meet again when you are higher up, eh?”

“If the Flame lights our path to it, your grace,” said Majelis, and bowed again. When Risliel had gone on his way, Majelis continued into the tower and found Calcam at his post outside the high priest’s chamber. “You are still guarding him even after his passing?” he asked.

Calcam put a finger to his lips and opened the door slightly so Majelis could see inside. An embalmed body lay stretched out in the middle of the floor, wrapped in golden lineaments and laid on a pure white rug. “Yes,” said Calcam. “The dead don’t leave, you know. They stay here, blessing or haunting us. I stand with him so he will bless and not curse us.”

Majelis rubbed his chin. “I’m not sure that’s quite theologically correct.”

“Theologically? I don’t know what that word means.”

“I’m not sure anyone does. But I’m confident that the high priest was too holy of a man to haunt us after his passing.”

Calcam laughed. “This man? Holy? Lurtonol liked to eat and he liked to sleep, and he did what his friends told him. Yet everyone here calls him holy. That’s another word that maybe no one knows what it means.”

“Maybe,” said Majelis. He was not surprised but disappointed to learn Calcam’s opinion of Lurtonol. Hopefully the next high priest would be more pious.

He and Calcam talked for a while longer, about what they had seen and done in Teolphar since their last meeting. Majelis suspected that Calcam didn’t think Kasus would ever come for them, and if he was honest, Majelis wasn’t sure he wanted him to. He loved his brother and owed him immensely, but he was happier here than he had been in many years.

A few days later Elsasel and Miophareol summoned him to the hearth, Elsasel looking somber and Miophareol somehow both worried and exasperated. “Majelis,” said Elsasel. “You have served us well this past year, but soon you may have to leave our service.”

Majelis bowed his head. “May I inquire as to the reason?”

“We have consulted with the oracle, and the answers we have received lead us to believe that this is our best course of action. Majelis of Sretskalawa, on behalf of the priesthood of Teolphar, I would like to ask you to submit yourself as a candidate to become the next high priest.”

Majelis closed his eyes and lowered his head. After a few seconds he spoke. “No.”

“Why not?” asked Elsasel patiently.

“Because he is not crazy, unlike some others here,” said Miophareol.

“Hush, hush, hush! Let Majelis explain himself.”

“I do not understand the offer,” Majelis said, smiling. “I was but a servant – why would you want me to be high priest unless you wanted the high priest to be your servant?”

“A fair point,” Miophareol said, and Elsasel gave her a sour look.

“In the beginning the priesthood of Teolphar was pure and holy, devoted to the Flame above all else. With the passage of time it became concerned with worldly affairs, with money and power. But you are not corrupted! You have all the purity of far off lands yet to be enlightened. The oracle itself spoke to us and said that we should seek a ruby in the bosom of leviathan: that is, a royal jewel from the lands near the sea.”

“I do not know the intricacies of your doctrine.”

“You greatly underestimate your knowledge, but it hardly matters. The high priest does not teach or instruct, he stands guard and performs ceremonies. You will learn what little more you need to know as time passes.”

“You seem to have mistaken me for a holy man.”

“Aren’t you?”

“If I were, it would surely not be wise to tell me. But in my past there are sins, grave festering sins, that should strike me from consideration. I do not wish to speak of them, but I will if it is required of me.”

“Majelis, you do not need to be a holy man. You only need to be willing to serve the Flame with your body, with your soul, with your life. I know you are willing to do that.”

“Of course I am. And if…if your cardinals decide that an idol-worshipping foreigner who hasn’t even mastered your language yet is who they want to be their high priest, then so be it. I will bow to the will of the Flame, if that is what it truly is.”

“Well. There have been many debates about the councils’ relationship to the will of the Flame, but that doesn’t matter right now. I will take your answer to the cardinals, and then we will wait to see what decision they reach.” Elsasel stood, nodded, and walked out.

Miophareol turned her eyes to Majelis. “Be very careful. My husband enjoys his political games, but there are more fires besides the Flame that one may fall into while navigating the priesthood. I do not want to regret teaching you the Teolphar language.”

“I am not an amateur when it comes to politics, I promise you,” Majelis said, getting to his feet. “Where is Lemephakhe? I promised I would play a game of rolukolumoluta with her.”

“You are far too generous to that child. She’s been spoiled rotten by you. You can probably find her down by the aqueduct somewhere, looking after her brother.”

As the debate of the cardinals went on, and the lesser priests waited in trepidation for them to announce their decision. Majelis spent his time playing with Elsasel and Miophareol’s children or meditating on a candle’s flicker. He gave little thought to the cardinals’ meeting, regarding the prospect of his election an absurd, distant, and unlikely one, and he was eating a small lunch when there was a knock on the door of the room Elsasel had given him. He stood from his cross-legged position and opened the door. It was Kisathel, whom he vaguely remembered as a friend of Elsasel.

“Have you heard yet? No, you must still not know.”

“Heard what? Know what?”

“They made you the high priest!”

“This is not a joke? A problem with my understanding of the language, perhaps?”

“No! You, Majelis, are the high priest of the Flame!”

“I see. The Flame honors me beyond what I deserve.”

“Nonsense. Come with me, I will show you what to do.”

Majelis followed Kisathel to the central temple, where ten or so priests waited on the steps. As Majelis stepped forward they moved to close in around him and escort him to the temple entrance. The cardinals, six men distinguished by headwear that rose into twin points were waiting there, each holding a lit lamp. Majelis dimly remembered that their number was that of the six realms of the old empire of Khiar from which the cardinals had once been chosen, but put the triviality out of his mind.

Juleka lasca no. Put forth your hand,” one of these men said, and Majelis did so. The man who had spoken thrust his lamp forward to singe Majelis’s palm, yet despite the pain Majelis kept his arm still. In the sweetness of the Flame we are consumed. In the sweetness of the Flame we are consumed. The lamp was withdrawn, but his relief lasted for only a moment, as a second man replaced it with his own lamp, and the burning heat resumed.

Juleke-na e buzutaela vozza ha,” this second man said. “May your hands and deeds be purified.”

Du-nu-na e alhamaela vozza ha,” the third said. “May your eyes and thoughts be purified.”

Vasufu-na e xasiaela vozza ha. May your feet and choices be purified.”

Jusa-na e azistua vozza ha. May your heart and passions be purified.”

Zahi hizosti xada Azago zu milhto naevazan a-na. Zahi eza tokan estazae e isa voznokae. Zahi eza Logu xozo aeve-na ti e lapahan Hazmnosce ki ja. Bo hizosti xada suza no!” The pain was excruciating. Majelis was not sure if he could keep his composure any longer. “You are the High Priest of the Flame that burns atop the tower. You are he who sees the farthest and loves with the most purity. You are he who obscures the Beast with your presence and stands in the place of Hazmno. Hail the new High Priest!”

And the burning fire was gone, and cheers went up from all around. Majelis did not dare to look at his hand, but felt something cool and wet being wrapped around it. He was ushered inside, up two levels, and through the arched passage. At the base of the stairs that led up to the room with the flame and the carved statues, one of the priests said, “You will meditate above for three days without food, and when that time has passed, you will be the high priest in truth.”

Without saying anything further all the priests filed out, leaving Majelis alone. He ascended into the dim room above, and there he sat, crossing his legs, in the meditative position that was used in Sretskalawa. He did not know if that was considered improper for the Flame, but if they wanted a man of Tsebiss for their high priest, this was what they would get. He did not close his eyes, though, but focused on the lamp before him. Slowly he fell into a trance, the flame dancing in his vision, all things falling into its light.

~

Majelis stretched and yawned. He was not sure if it was morning, but this was the third time he had awoken from slumber during this period of meditation. His body felt weak and tired, but his spirit seemed to hover just outside of his skin, lifting him up. Hearing footsteps on the stairs below, he moved over to the hole in the floor and peered down.

A young woman with long yellow hair was ascending with a bowl of some sort of dark liquid – soup, Majelis presumed. She set this on the floor. “Your fast is at an end, Majelis. I am Selinel, the great vestal of Teolphar.”

“Hello, Selinel. You know, I presume, that I am not from Teolphar or the surrounding regions?”

“You are from the far south. There has been much discussion of it since your election.”

“Yes. For that reason I am not completely familiar with the words…‘great vestal.’”

“Well, we vestals are the women who serve the Flame in the temple. For the period of our service we renounce marriage and motherhood, so that we may worship in all purity, just like the exalted priests.”

“I see. Would I count as an…exalted priest?”

“Of course. You are the most exalted of all.”

Majelis smiled inwardly. There was a time, in Sretskalawa, when he would have been appalled by the thought of giving up such fleshly pleasures, but many years had passed since then and he had lived with self-denial for long enough that he was comfortable with celibacy. Which wasn’t to say that he didn’t find the sight of Selinel quite pleasant.

The priests of his youth would have chastised him and urged him to pass on his divine blood to future generations, but he was a priest of a new order now. It was only through the Flame that he could make his spirit immortal. Elsasel had spoken of it often, how at the end of time the Flame would consume and take up what was good, while the Beast would devour what was evil, devouring even itself at the last.

“And…oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t notice you were meditating,” Selinel said.

“No, I was just abstracted. What were you saying?”

“As the great vestal, I tend to the various fires kept throughout the temple, except for this chief one of course, which is your responsibility now. I can demonstrate how to tend the flame, if you would like.”

“Yes, yes, that would be a great help. Thank you.”

“You know,” Selinel said as she stepped forward towards the fire, “you are very different from Lurtonol. He would hardly talk at all to me. Said something about me being young, and too great of a temptation. A silly man, Lurtonol.”

Majelis smiled ruefully, suppressing what he had just been thinking. “Silly indeed.”

Calcam alone did not seem surprised by Majelis’s election. To him, perhaps, this was but one more strange thing in a land of strange things. He did, however, seem impressed by Majelis’s devotion to his rituals. “I don’t think that you will haunt anyone after you have gone away,” he told Majelis.

“I certainly hope that I won’t,” Majelis said.

Over the next several months, Majelis learned the routines and patterns of his new life. He learned the prayers he was supposed to lead, the few public ceremonies he had to perform, and began studying the language of the Amber Books that were the sacred scriptures of Teolphar. He found in the middle of all this that he was actually quite happy, happier than he had ever been. For once he had been given a position in life which suited him perfectly. He did not have to pretend to be what he was not, such as a courtier or a general or a judge. He had been good at it, he had thought, but now he could simply be himself: a devoted follower of something far greater and better than himself.

Selinel was a great help in all of this, and to his pleased surprise he discovered that he was attracted to her as a brother to a sister, not as a man to a lover. He was beginning to understand what the oracle had meant by saying that he would have to die to live forever. “In the sweetness of the flame we are consumed,” he would frequently murmur to himself. Through the defeat and conquest of his azistu, his passions, he would become closer to the Flame.

The woman who had asked him to spy on Elsasel tried several times to speak with him again, but Calcam and the other guards kept her from bothering him after the first occasion. Under the pretense of seeking advice she had introduced herself as Tirakhe Halarenkhe, and it being obvious that the name meant nothing to him, told him sternly that the Halarenkhe family were the rulers of Teolphar and that if he wanted to keep his position he had better listen to her. He had her removed and a few days later received a letter from the prince of the Halarenkhe apologizing for Tirakhe’s behavior. Nonetheless, the letter had gone on to say, it would be wise of him, as a foreigner, to let the Halarenkhe family give him some advice, which from the sample in the letter seemed to involve making statements in support of the Halarenkhe.

Another time it came to his attention that there had been a tradition the past few decades in which the high priest would accept a significant sum of money on behalf of the temple, in exchange for which he would not give as discerning an eye as he normally might to the candidates for various servitor positions. After prolonged thought and meditation, he decided that he could not do this and keep a pure conscience, and although the servitors complained vociferously most others seemed to approve.

Elsasel came to him to join in one of his prayers, after which he asked Majelis if the Halarenkhe had reached out to him yet. “They have,” said Majelis simply, and Elsasel chuckled.

“And I suppose they wanted you to do what they say, with a ‘yes, your honor’ and an ‘of course, your honor?’ Some of us live in perpetual worry that the cardinals will pick one of that brood to be high priest. No, they look after the city and we look after the tower. But now to serious matters. As high priest of Teolphar, you will be expected to serve as the highest embodiment of all we who serve the Flame, and from what I have heard you are doing an excellent job of that. But these are dangerous times. There are rumors of war and of new blasphemous gods. Some among the priesthood believe that the high priest should cast out the Halarenkhe and rule the city himself, so that the Flame will more greatly bless us and protect us from the storms that approach.”

Majelis sighed. “And what do you think?”

“Your grace, I would have you make more use of the powers you already have.”

“What would these powers be?”

“In principle it is you who determines who speaks to the oracle, though in past years the doors have been thrown open to anyone, even those who could use the oracle’s words against the Flame itself. It is you who chooses whom to bless with the first portion at the Feast of Golden Iska. It is you who has the power to determine appointments to the neighboring cities. You have a great deal of influence over what is taught and who is honored. If you are wise, you will use it!”

“To what end?” Majelis asked.

Elsasel stepped closer to him. “To make sure that when the storm breaks upon us, we are ready. To make sure that none of us will betray you or fail you. The High Priest of the Flame must stand between us and the Beast, or we all perish.”

“And you chose me to stand in that precarious place.”

“The oracle chose you and the cardinals found you worthy, your grace. I promise that you have my complete support, and that of those who agree with me.”

Majelis thanked Elsasel and spoke a little longer with him, but when he was gone, Majelis lit a candle and stared into its flame, trying to calm his suddenly unsettled thoughts. So he had not escaped from politics, not at all, and now he didn’t even have Kasus to guide him. He had been thrown to the sharks, sharks that at the moment he feared more than the Beast itself. It was only through long prayer and meditation that he found some measure of peace again.

Things were going on this way, and he was even beginning to forget how he had come to Teolphar, when Selinel climbed up into his chamber and told him that the woman who was the mouthpiece of the oracle had asked to see him. Majelis was used to such requests for spiritual guidance, and he quickly rose and followed Selinel down to the deep room where the oracle gave its messages.

Oddly, the mouthpiece was still wearing the blindfold across her eyes to hide her from the physical world and allow the oracle to take control. As Majelis entered she looked straight at him and spoke in the language of Tsebiss, and he knew then that he had not come to guide but to be guided.

“He comes, and for once you must live rather than die. He brings shadows in his wake.”

Who? Majelis thought, but did not say, of course. He had learned by now that the oracle did not respond to further questioning. Instead he said, “Thank you,” and bowed his head, then went out.

“What did those words mean? Do you know?” Selinel asked.

“I don’t have the slightest idea. But I think I will go outside and see if there are any strangers who have arrived recently.” He stepped out into the open air and took a deep breath, pulling his hood over his head. The year had turned and the harsh cold winter of Teolphar would soon give way to spring. He went across to the steps and sat down on them, looking out over the milling crowd of people. His eyes wandered lazily over the unfamiliar faces…and one familiar face, heading in his direction.

“May the Flame burn within you,” he said to the familiar man.

“And you. Could you direct me to the oracle?”

“This is the oracle, and I am its high priest.”

“Ah! I don’t suppose you know anything about a man – he would be as dark as I – named Majelis or something like that?”

“I do, as it happens,” said Majelis as he raised his head. “Welcome to Teolphar, brother.”

“Ma…Majelis?” Kasus looked flustered, a rare sight and one that, since childhood, Majelis had always enjoyed. “Is that really…you are the high priest. You?

“Yes, I have been chosen to fill this role.”

“Majelis, what have you gotten yourself into?” Majelis didn’t reply to this, and Kasus gave a frustrated sigh. “I assume you got your answer out of the oracle, at least? Where is Calcam?”

“Calcam left a while ago. And yes, the oracle answered your question, though I do not know if you will like the answer. Even I do not fully understand what it means.”

“What did it say?”

“I made sure to note down the exact words,” Majelis said. “You know how oracles are. I will be back in just a few seconds.” He went back into the temple and up to the room where he kept his very few possessions. Folded into his spare robe was a tiny piece of cloth with writing scribbled on it. He took this down to Kasus and handed it to him.

“‘How can I achieve eternal life? You must die,’” Kasus read, and frowned. “Is that all?”

“That is all.”

“Meaningless!” He crumpled it in his fist. “I half-expected this, Majelis. I have been chasing an absurd dream these past few years, and I am sorry I wasted your time with it.”

“So what are you doing now?”

“Ah! I have returned to what we were born to do. I am a king once more, my brother, and I lead armies sweeping across the land, bringing cities under my rule. That is why I have come to the north, to make alliances.”

“I wish you the best of health,” Majelis said.

“You can come with me. It will be good to travel together again, brother. I plan to go to Khiar, the hidden kingdom in the mountains.”

“I have duties here, Kasus. I cannot simply abandon them.”

Kasus chuckled and shook his head. “You had duties aboard the Kaghatil too.”

“This is different.”

“If you want, I will make you the high priest of the Flame for my army. Wait, do not say anything yet. I will give you a few days to consider your decision. I am here with a number of companions, including soldiers. Do you know of a place where we can find lodging?”

“There are inns, at a price of course, but as a king you will have no difficulty paying. Excuse me a moment.” Majelis turned to a boy who had been shifting from foot to foot at his side, waiting for him to finish. “Yes, my child?”

“My mother sent me – she’s a seamstress down in the east quarter – she wants a vestal to come bless her new loom.”

“Of course. Come with me,” Majelis said. He waved a hand in farewell to Kasus and started towards the temple with the boy trailing behind. He heard Kasus laugh once before the tower swallowed them up.

~

Alzurid was standing in a windswept pass, his ankles buried in snow, looking down upon a cluster of houses with curious conical roofs. He took a few steps forward, gliding eerily smoothly across the ground, then paused and glanced around. His recent memory was fogged and he found himself struggling to remember what he had been doing even an hour earlier.

He realized suddenly that he was not as cold as he should be, given his environment. Perhaps this was a dream, formed from fragments of past memories. Soon he would be awake…

His eyes opened, and he stretched his arms, sitting up from his bed, looking around the tiny crowded room he and a few of the Sughin soldiers had been given. It was just before dawn, and the others were beginning to stir and awaken. Alzurid tugged his coat out from under his blanket and wrapped it around himself, then stepped out into the chill of the early morning. He took a large piece of tack from his pocket and began to eat.

“You like that stuff?” Semsa asked, emerging from the adjacent door.

“I grew used to it when I spent some time on a Duri vessel on the great western sea,” Alzurid said. “It keeps well, anyway, and it’s good for travel.”

She hummed. “I plan on enjoying the food here in Teolphar as much as possible. We are nearer to the fabled land of spices, after all.”

“Did Kasus say anything to you about whether he found his brother or not? He has told us nothing.”

“No, he is no more open-mouthed around me than around you,” said Semsa.

“Wise of him, I suppose, to keep his thoughts and plans to himself. He will not make many friends that way, but a reigning king needs few friends.”

“He only needs props to demonstrate that his rule stretches from Duri to Alka’al, which it certainly does not.”

“Well, as long as I am able to travel through distant lands, I am content.”

“Something you want to avoid back home?” she asked teasingly. In reply Alzurid chuckled and shook his head. “Have you seen the great temple yet?” Semsa continued.

“No, I haven’t.”

“It’s that tower in the middle of the city. It’s quite impressive from close up, and if we’re lucky we might get to see inside.”

“Shall we go see?”

“All right,” said Semsa, and stepped into place besides Alzurid. He glanced over at her occasionally as they walked, but she was focused on the way ahead, occasionally pointing when the spire of the temple became visible.

Once they reached the circular platform that was the tower’s base, Alzurid paused. “Those men and women with the red shoulder-pieces, are they the priests, I wonder?”

Many people were sitting on the steps around the temple conversing, including families with children, and Alzurid sat near the top, letting his legs stretch out over the two levels of steps below. Semsa rested next to him with her knees drawn up. “This is nice,” she said after a moment. “I had a terrible dream, a nightmare about that dragon we saw. It knew my name and called to me… They didn’t talk, right? They were just animals?”

“From my studies I believe that they were just like giant birds. They said nothing and did not understand human speech,” Alzurid said. “Excepting of course the same legends that feature talking horses and such marvels.”

“Good,” Semsa said firmly, and smiled at Alzurid. “I have been having bad dreams recently, and they are affecting me rather more than they should, I think. But I will try to put them out of my mind and enjoy myself while I can.”

Alzurid could not help but smile back. “Good advice. Dreams are nothing more than fragments of shattered memory, like piecing together a vase broken when shoved carelessly into the back of the mind.”

“Is that really true? That dreams have no connection to what is outside our minds?”

“I would hesitate to say that, but there are times when I wish very much that it is true. The alternative would be terrifying.”

~

Kasus was as happy in the real world as he had ever been, but his memories were becoming more and more foreign to him. He would try to recollect the past but every time he did the hunter was behind him, drawing ever closer with its nimbus of dread. So he relied ever more on writing things down, preferring that to the nightmarish scenes that insinuated themselves into his psyche whenever he thought back.

When he awoke in the morning he immediately turned to the parchment on which he had recorded the important events of the past week and skimmed it. “Majelis,” he murmured. “I promised I would return to talk to you today. I hope you have changed your mind about coming with me, or I may have to take harsher measures, and neither of us would enjoy that.”

He shook his head when the female innkeeper offered him breakfast, then remembered that was a positive response here in Teolphar and put up his hands palms outward. True to his word, Majelis was waiting for him outside the temple.

“Well! Have you come to a decision?”

“I came to my decision when you first arrived. I have been appointed to this place by the Flame, and I cannot abandon such a task. It is a holy calling.”

Kasus laughed. “A holy calling? You naive fool, I am quite confident that nothing brought you here but the ambition of other men, or maybe women for all I know. You were chosen because you were useful to someone, and that someone is not the Flame.”

“Why can’t it be both? Why couldn’t I have been chosen by both priests and the Flame, for different reasons?”

“That is the answer of one determined to abandon reason and common sense to hide in some mysticism that is comforting but comes to nothing in the end. You are emitting empty words, Majelis, to justify yourself being used by those more ambitious than you. If you must attach yourself to some such greater individual, why not make it your brother, your companion since childhood?”

“Since when have you cared, truly cared, about the Flame?”

“A successful king and general must take care to propitiate each of his followers’ gods.”

“That is not good enough,” said Majelis.

“What good has your Flame ever done me, then? I ask it a simple question and it replies with nonsense.”

“It is not nonsense.”

“Oh? I must die to live forever? It contradicts itself!”

“You cannot carry on as you are into eternity. A part of you must die that the rest can be taken up into the Flame. It is simple reason.”

“I like myself as I am.”

“Then you cannot live forever.”

“Five hundred years from now I will be remembered in song and legend, and remembered as I am, not as some pure-hearted saint. That is all I ask for. I admire your piety and your philosophy, in all honesty I do. But such philosophy is not for everyone. I know that I am not the kind of man who can live in such a way.”

“You have never tried,” Majelis said.

“Who by Aratus are you to judge my soul? You have not worshipped the Flame for even two years and yet because this undeserved gift has fallen into your lap, you consider yourself worthy to stand over me?”

Majelis winced and looked down. “Forgive me. It has been said that the greatest temptation to impurity is pride, and the greatest of all pride is spiritual pride. I am beginning to learn that myself.”

“I am not terribly interested in your taxonomy of sins, Majelis. I just want to know, once and for all, if you will help me.”

“I must serve the Flame above all else.”

“Very well, then,” said Kasus sadly. “You will not come of your own unconstrained choice, but you cannot turn aside from your familial responsibilities forever. I will see that you do not.”

“Are you threatening me, brother?”

“Was your political education so neglected that you cannot tell the difference between a threat and friendly conversation?” Kasus smiled as broadly as he was able. “I will see you again, soon I hope. For now we will be going on to Khiar. I don’t suppose you will be able to provide us with information about that fabled kingdom?”

“I will tell you what little we know. I should be able to gather together some stories and accounts by tomorrow morning, third bell, if you will meet me then.”

“Good. Thank you, brother.”

“It is no trouble. None at all.”

~

Majelis duly emerged from the tower the next day with a stack of folded parchment in his hands. Kasus was waiting for him, sitting outside, and stood to take the papers. A bemused smile crossed his face as he flipped through them. “Did you go through all the trouble of translating into our tongue and script?”

“I summarized,” said Majelis.

“And here I was going to be worried about you. Remember our old tutor, and the way he had ruined his brains through endless dry studies. Well, I hope you enjoy your priestly occupations for however long you can. You fulfill old traditions while I do my best to destroy them, for the sake of my memory.”

“You cannot triumph over the Flame.”

“I don’t need to. I only need to triumph over flesh and blood. One last thing. Do you know of anyone who would be able to serve as a translator between us and the Khiar?”

“The Khiar speak a language not dissimilar from the common speech of Teolphar. It shouldn’t be difficult for you to find someone here who you can speak with. When I first came to Teolphar I came across several people who knew the Malhun language.”

“Thank you. Goodbye, Majelis, for now.”

“Goodbye, Kasus.”

Majelis watched as Kasus turned away and started down the steps to the common streets. He bowed his head and said a quick prayer under his breath, then returned to the temple and up to the chamber of his devotion, where the gargoyle faced the fire.

“I strive above all else to serve thee,” he whispered in the phrase from the Amber Books. “Grant me thy eternal strength like a full-grown bull, and shield me like a mother ptarmigan from the cold.” Switching back into his native tongue, he added “I am weak. By myself I am powerless against the ambitions of the mighty, and I need the brightness of the flame to protect me.” Perhaps fasting for a couple days would help, although it was not time for one of his regular fasts. He would have to inform the cooks. Bowing once more to the Flame, he started down the steps.

~

Alzurid was sitting in the middle of the floor, staring into a crackling fire. The setting of the fireplace was carved in a style that was completely unfamiliar to him, using not abstract patterns or animals but domestic scenes of children and matronly women. This didn’t seem like it could be a dream. He lifted himself to his feet and looked around the elegantly furnished room. Where was he?

On the other side of the room a handle turned and a door opened. A man stepped inside, holding a tall black hat in his hand. He set this on the back of a chair and seated himself. Two more men and a woman followed. None of them seemed to pay any attention to Alzurid.

Eth lepenhensmi Kelerensalieps hotompharrokk, karulkono?” asked the first man.

Lepenami…” the woman began to say, before Alzurid’s vision blurred and he was suddenly sitting upright beside a dying fire. He put his hand before his eyes, then looked around him at the wide open plain in which they were camped. He remembered now: they had left Teolphar two days ago, continuing on their journey to Khiar.

He lay back down and thought about the days ahead. He was not satisfied with the little he knew about these lands, as he was more used to being well acquainted with the languages and customs of the lands he traveled through. He had brought this on himself, of course, by traveling so far into the east, but he was eager to spend an extended time in Khiar learning the ways of the kingdom.

According to Kasus and the several unreadable parchments he had bound together and used as a guide, Khiar was bounded by mountains on the north and west, and by the river Phesalikhe on the south and east. Unfortunately, the last bridges had been broken long ago and Kasus judged therefore that it would be easier to make use of one of the passes through the western mountain range rather than risk a crossing. Alzurid was not looking forward to the trek through the frozen heights, especially considering that most of the party had been born and raised in hot flat regions of the earth. The most comfortable with this climate was the translator Kasus had hired in Teolphar, a wandering trader named Anuntokho who could talk with no one but Kasus himself. In Kimu the Duri tongue had been spoken everywhere throughout the land but here things were different, and from place to place there was no guarantee of a common tongue, that Sa would be read as Sa and Ka as Ka. He would have to warn Tailei to beware of the letters Ta and Ka, because they were green…and it was on these rather confused thoughts that Alzurid drifted back to sleep. This time he had none of his visions, or at least, none that he could remember when he woke up at dawn.

Four more of the Sughin turned back over the next week, even though Alzurid could see the signs of the coming spring. The mountains ahead of them drew nearer as they pressed on, and soon they were ascending into the heights. As they ascended the majority of the group found themselves growing tired, more tired than they should have been, and the Sughin especially were gripped by upset stomachs and even vomiting, but as the days drew on they began to acclimate to the heights.

Alzurid was still visited by his dreams, highly realistic visions of landscapes or the interiors of buildings, and as they continued he came to realize that all these dreams were of the same area. When the travelers came at last to stand in the middle of what Kasus called the Lion’s Pass, Alzurid looked down at the barely visible buildings below and recognized them.

He fell back to walk beside Semsa, and said quietly to her, “I have visited this place in my dreams.”

“Truly? Do you think you could be a seer or prophet of some kind?” she asked, her face wan and framed by layers of thick furs. “Do you know what lies ahead?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Only that the people there wear strange clothing and speak what sounds to me like gibberish.”

“Oh. Disappointing.”

“What about your nightmares? Have you still been having those?”

“Not since we left Teolphar. They were just nightmares, nothing more. Why are you so curious about them?”

“I have begun to wonder if our encounter with the…ghost, let us say…with the ghost in Nusgwedn cursed us in some way. I wish I could remember it more clearly, but it has become fogged in my memory. Do you recall it, Semsa?”

She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. “Not very well, and what I do remember frightens me.” Alzurid put his own coat over her and she gave him a grateful look but returned the coat. “I do not like the idea of something messing with my mind like that. Maybe it is just the shock of what happened, but…I am very glad that Ghilik is far away from us now.”

“Yes. It is a tenet of our philosophy in Lazu that all events have a deeper significance. It is becoming very clear to me that the recent history of these eastern lands carries some such meaning, and I think it is past time we started trying to figure it out.”

“I don’t understand. Do you mean that there is a moral to our story?”

“I mean that…well, I am not certain, but I have the feeling that something is guiding our paths, and not out of any kindness towards us. Do you remember what Ghilik said about the basilisks?”

“I have tried not to think about it since,” Semsa said. “We Sughin do not trouble ourselves with the spirits of the world.”

“Neither did we in Lazu, but if such beings are taking an interest in our affairs, it is only fair play if we take an interest in theirs. Keep your senses alert for anything particularly unusual, and may the Good and the True protect us.”

~

Seeing the buildings ahead, Kasus caught up with Taghgos, who was tramping forward in grim silence. “Tell our men to be wary, but not aggressive,” he said. “We do not want to make a bad impression on the Khiar.”

Taghgos grunted. “Remarkably subtle instructions. I hope you aren’t relying too much on the tact of my followers for your diplomatic success.”

“Just keep them under control. I’ve heard enough stories about situations like this going wrong.” He fell back to walk beside Anuntokho. “Khiar is where the empire of the north was centered, yes?”

“That’s right,” Anuntokho said. “There may even be an emperor still reigning here.”

“Good. Make sure when you talk to them that you refer to me as the emperor of the south.”

“I see. And shall I call myself the great prophet Zodu?”

“Believe I am insane if you will, but as far as your speech to the Khiar is concerned, I am the emperor who sits in Apalakki, and I rule lands all along the coast of the great ocean.”

“You pay me well enough. So be it, Emperor Kasus.”

“Emperor Kasus Asra. The longer the name the better,” Kasus said.

“It’s – well, well, I think we’ve been seen.”

They were passing between two towering pillars surmounted by stone lions. Kasus had taken them to be only signposts of the Khiar territory, but now he saw the steps leading up behind them, and the men armed with pikes who were descending to block the travelers’ way.

Ahelistismisera!” one of the men demanded.

Kasus looked expectantly at Anuntokho, who blinked and then started. “Oh, yes, right, of course.” He cleared his throat. “Merten?”

Ahelistismisera!

Anuntokho furrowed his brow. “A! Katimeth…o… Epheltesammi Teolpharleop thonnunt. O…epheltesammi top ramphulrokt oponsa.

It was now the turn of the guards to furrow their brows. “Teolpharleop? Ramphulkho? Etinrimm otonrok asast!

“This is somewhat trickier than I had anticipated,” Anuntokho said to Kasus. “I would ask you to remember that our peoples have been separated for a long time, that words have changed and new patterns of speech have replaced old. Perhaps if you had found a translator from the Kirmnakhe whose lands we just passed through, he would have been better able to understand them. Oh, I see that they are surrounding us. Is that bad?”

“Not necessarily,” Kasus said. “Just come along, and do the best you can to figure out what they’re saying.”

“And if they try to kill us?”

Kasus smiled. “Then we try to kill them back.”

They walked down the slope, led by the Khiar guards along its winding path. Before nightfall they were passing among the houses with the conical roofs that Alzurid remembered so clearly. The guards halted at an especially large such house, and opening the door gestured for them to enter. “Arossmi.

Once they were all inside, the door slammed shut and there was the sound of a bar falling into place, leaving them in darkness. “And now they burn us alive,” said Anuntokho.

“Enough of that,” Kasus said. “This is nothing more than a way-station for us to spend the night. If you were better at translating, no doubt we would be less perplexed, but we must make do with what we have. I hope you rest well.” He raised his voice. “Everything is going as I have planned. We will sleep here and continue on our way to the Khiar city in the morning. I thank you all for your service to me and assure you that you and your families will be greatly rewarded.” This having been said, he sat down against the rude stone wall and closed his eyes.

The next day the doors were opened and the travelers from the south were ushered out to go onwards once more through the Khiar realm. As they walked they passed barren snow-covered fields and villages surrounded by short walls, and Kasus noticed everywhere a shield-shaped banner divided into halves, with a tongue of flame emblazoned on the left and a falcon on the right. After seven days’ travel, they came within sight of a city, and gesturing to it one of the Khiar said, “Khitharenes.”

It rose in levels and levels up the side of a grand hill, a fortress that Kasus’s practiced eye saw to be an immensely strong one. He recalled from the history of Khiar that the city Khitharenes had been built over centuries and had survived countless barbarian onslaughts, and he was glad to see that it still stood, if this was indeed it.

After a brief conversation between their guides and the guards standing on either side of the city gate, they passed inside. The first level was the widest, but houses filled it to such an extent that Kasus and the others with him were forced to wind their way through a maze of narrow streets. He noted this approvingly. Stage by stage they climbed upwards, coming eventually to a tall archway on the third level. They went through this into an open courtyard where a group of men and women sat at a round table, playing some sort of game with painted stone tokens.

One of their guides went forward to this seated group and after a couple minutes one of the men stood and approached the travelers. “Phalep. Kaniokheo Ralemperathikhe lunonkho paramphullopp Meseisalkineps.

Anuntokho swallowed. “He says that he is a…a servant, I think, of the emperor. His name might be Ralemperathikhe.”

“Tell him that the emperor of the south has come to treat with the emperor of the north, as it was in days of old,” Kasus said.

“I suppose if I use archaic phrasing there might be a better chance of getting the message across. Ramphulkhot plorunnunt tipeltesahi top ramphulrokt sarennint oponsamul.

Paramphulkho loronunn? Paruro asinese nok, paramphulkho loronnunn? Apestinrekk roloptasi?” said Ralemperathikhe in a clearly questioning tone.

“Um. I think he wants some kind of indication that we were sent by the emperor of the south. He seems dubious.”

“Tell him that I am the emperor,” Kasus said, “and that if he will not believe me then there is no token that will persuade him otherwise.”

“The chances of him understanding all that seem rather low.”

“I don’t care. Translate.”

Anuntokho took a deep breath. “Right.” He pointed to Kasus. “Harsenkhet ramphulkhot, e yl hyseonsyakh lam sakh kaphukhot…kaphukhot senthekkelkhet.

Ralemperathikhe looked puzzled. He gestured the guide over to him and they engaged in a whispered conversation. Kasus took the opportunity to look back at his companions. The Sughin soldiers were standing in rigid formation, staring around warily. Alzurid was sitting on the ground with outstretched legs, talking with Semsa and Tailei, and Kasus wondered again what Ghilik had been thinking when he had asked Kasus to bring them. All they were good for that Kasus could see was to tell stories, a good thing but not quite worth the emphasis Ghilik had placed on them.

Ralemperathikhe turned back to Kasus and Anuntokho and spoke. “Otonrokk thiornasammio. Paramphulrokk arenasami, it aemlitakelrimm hol kaparesthinn aparessmi.

Paresthinn…paresthinn…a! Paresmethnint!” Anuntokho said in a low voice, then nodded to Kasus. “We are to stay here until the emperor does something or other.”

“All right,” said Kasus. “But, Anuntokho, I think we should take pains in the next months to acquaint ourselves with the language used here in Khiar, yes?”

Anuntokho grimaced and nodded. “Yes.”

~

It was no more than a couple days after this first meeting with Ralemperathikhe that Anuntokho came into the room Kasus had been given and told him that a reply had come from the emperor. “We are to be taken before him.”

“Exactly as I had hoped,” Kasus replied. “Do you know when?”

“I got the impression that it was very soon.”

Kasus stood up and rubbed the back of his neck. “Tell the others to prepare themselves. No more than a couple of the soldiers should come – we are a delegation of ambassadors, not a military force.”

Before midday a group of Khiar men arrived to bring the travelers to the emperor. The fur of the tall hats that these men wore was pure white rather than brown or black, and they carried spears of a more primitive design, almost resembling stone points bound to unpolished shafts of wood. Without a word they gestured with the spears for Kasus and his companions to fall into line between them.

They marched out of Ralemperathikhe’s compound and resumed their ascent through the city. Almost before Kasus was aware of it, they had come to a vast and dark entryway carved into the side of the hill and bordered by immense pillars. They proceeded into the shadows and then into a sudden light emanating from hundreds of lamps all along the walls and hanging from the ceiling. Kasus understood the effect of this very well: he had done similar things, on a lesser scale, to impress others with his divine descent.

The great open hall into which they had entered was decorated in three levels. Closest to the floor the walls were lined with elaborate patterns of color, but ten feet up were life-size murals of men and women occupied in positions of dancing. Above the murals windows alternated with alcoves in which were set tall statues, too high up for Kasus to see clearly what they were.

They continued forward, past the couches from which men and women in bright pastel costumes watched them, past the tiled floor where two lines of soldiers stood absolutely still and silent, to a dais and the throne atop it. Behind the dais, in row upon row rising up the wall, were spaces in which rested seemingly human figures wrapped tightly in linen.

The legs of the throne were carved in the forms of standing lions with serpents winding about them. It was much wider than its occupant, an aged woman who seemed frail and tiny beneath her tiara. But as they approached the dais her eyes opened, and her expression was like iron.

A trumpet blast resounded through the hall, and a herald cried out, “Meseisalkines paramphulkho aretkhe it haotokho, opolokho harenrelep it nunlokho mepharlepp tharenepps!

Anuntokho paled, and Kasus sighed when he saw this reaction. Fortunately, the herald was obviously just giving the empress’s list of titles. Now the empress herself leaned forward and spoke. “Eok hilenreke ophonrumm aenhensi, pherulkonn?

“She…she…” Anuntokho stumbled over his words, then straightened suddenly. “She wants to know what brought us here.”

“So you have been paying attention. Tell her that I would like to renew the old bonds between our empires so that we may stand together against the enemies that surround us. We ask for her hospitality while we acquire a better knowledge of the tongue of her people.”

Anuntokho swallowed, his throat bobbing. “Ramphulkhot ploronnunt harenrekt parolomt pheokyrnyneo toluk eseklerasi top phothorosroko san haroph. Tasekhintellept pilammi phoarunrakolnuno melespherekt takyrleopt.

The empress conferred for a minute with some of her nearby ministers, then they stepped away and she answered. “Alaluspoassmu it aotolkoassmu paphemlakelrekk hoholakoloss nok.

“She told us to return when we can something speak…know how to speak, that is it, when we know how to speak.”

“Very good,” said Kasus. “Thank her, and…or maybe not.” He added these last words as their guards closed in between them and the empress and began to herd them back through the great hall. Anuntokho cast several glances back as they went, but Kasus kept his gaze ahead, thinking on his plans for the future.

~

Alzurid adjusted the angle of the scissors and clipped the scraggly edges of his beard, examining his face in the bowl of water as he did. And as he looked, he was reminded of a time long ago, very far from these mountains, when he had stared into a pool in the middle of a garden and seen the moon glistening argent above.

Motion in the water’s reflection drew his eye. “You look a lot better,” Semsa said from behind him.

“Better than what?”

“Than you did when we were walking on and on through the frozen plain.”

Alzurid laughed. “I have been told that travel adds to my rugged charms.”

“Did the person who told you that happen to be blind?” she asked with a smile.

“Well, whatever the case may be, I am ready for civilized life again.” He put down the scissors and turned to face her. “Have you had any more dreams?”

“No. Have you?”

“Sometimes,” Alzurid said. “In my sleep I saw the hall of the empress days before we set foot inside it. I walked all around that throne and listened to the conversation that surrounded me.”

“But it is a good thing, surely, to be able to travel the land in your dreams.”

“It may be. I imagine you’ve never heard the story of Leal and the sailor’s gift?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Come, let us see if there is any breakfast left. I will tell you on the way. Leal was a boy who lived with his father, his sister, and his beautiful but wicked stepmother, in a house near the place where the Berisyl river meets the sea. They were not wealthy, but for a time made a sufficient living from fishing and gathering oysters. Yet a day came when they found their supply of food dwindling and dwindling.

“The stepmother said to the father, ‘Why are these children eating at our table, filling their mouths and driving us to starvation? Send them away to make their own living!’

“So with a sad countenance the father bade Leal and his sister goodbye. The two of them went north along the coast, hand in hand. After an hour or so had passed, they stopped to rest and eat the little food that they had brought with them. And Leal looked out at the ocean, and he saw a strange ship approaching, a ship that seemed to be made from human bones.

“The man piloting the ship was a curious man who wore his shoes on his head and his hat on his feet. He dropped anchor and began rowing a boat to shore, waving to the children as he did. Leal’s sister was frightened, but Leal himself stepped boldly forward. ‘Who are you?’ he asked.

“‘I am the Night Watcher,’ the curious man said. ‘I wonder if you could help me carry some of my things to my house? It is not far from here, and I can reward you with a meal of the finest delicacies from distant lands.’

“Now Leal and his sister were very hungry, so they agreed, and here is our breakfast. Eggs and bread, I see.”

Semsa gave him a look. “And then what happened to Leal?”

“I am eating right now. You should eat too, unless you plan on becoming an ascetic holy woman.”

“What does this story have to do with your dreams, anyway?”

“Well, what I am trying to say is that I do not expect only good things to come of them. Given all else that is going on, I rather suspect that there will be a price to pay. I wonder, for example, if there is anyone else walking in their sleep.”

“Where is Tailei?” Semsa said, glancing around at the others in the dining room. Most were Sughin, although the interpreter from Teolphar was there too, staring down at a piece of bread in his hands.

“I am not sure. Did you see her at all this morning?”

“She was gone when I woke up. I hope nothing has happened to her. This is a strange country.”

Alzurid shrugged. “I do not know. It reminds me in certain ways of my home, and Tailei’s people, the Zconr, are distant kin to my own. She may feel the same way I do. Say, this yellow sauce is very good.”

~

A cool wind from the northeast swept down and caught Tailei’s hair, tossing it about. She had spent so much time in the arid heat of the south that she had become quite used to it, but the climate of Khiar now invigorated her again, filling her with the energy to do…well, she did not know what. As she stood at the city wall she looked out over the lower levels of the city and the plains of the realm stretching out beyond, and the nightmares of Wyscdu’s death and Ghilik’s necromancy seemed long gone. She took a deep breath, pulling the wind into her lungs and invoking its spirit.

“It is amazing, isn’t it?” asked Malg’us, stepping forward to stand beside her. “The prophet Maghd’u taught that the desert is a gift to us, but I often think these days that the children of Sughin were cheated out of the better half of their inheritance.”

“How could the desert be a gift?”

“We were kept humble by the desert, or so our elders taught, and we dwelt in tents rather than building edifices as monuments to our pride. But Hekkzaghin was sent by the Fates to teach us that we had been appointed to take those edifices for our own use.”

“You believe that the Fates made Hekkzaghin your leader?”

“Who else, if not the Fates? All things are subject to them, in life and death. But I know you don’t like to discuss the conquest. What do you think about these Khiar?” Malg’us asked.

“It is hard to say, as I know almost nothing about them yet. They are certainly more hospitable than the tribe in Jibun that tried to kill my companions and me.”

“Their food is bland, but they enjoy large breakfasts, that much I know. Is it the custom of your people to eat upon awakening?”

“Whenever the people around me eat, I eat also. Traveling with Alzurid has eroded any fixed schedule I might have had.”

“He must be a remarkable man for you to leave your home to travel with him.”

“Oh, it is not Alzurid but the travel itself that enticed me to leave. I was not happy with the life that was ahead of me, so I left to see what adventures awaited me elsewhere. There were quite a few, as it turned out.”

“So you are not Alzurid’s woman?”

“Of course not!” Tailei laughed. “I thought once that he did not care for women at all, but I have seen him and Semsa together and I do not believe that is true.”

“Would you like to share a meal?”

“Shouldn’t you be performing exercises under Taghgos’s eye, or standing guard over Kasus, or something like that?” she asked playfully. “What are you doing here bothering me?”

“I was actually wondering if you were lost.”

“As if you know the city any better than me.”

“Taghgos does have us marching back and forth in it enough. I tell him that if the Khiar decide to betray us, there will be nothing we can do to save ourselves, but he just tugs on his mustache and tells me to get back in line.”

She laughed again. “I am sure you will die nobly should it come to that.”

“I hope we will not be here for very long,” Malg’us said as they started away from the wall. “You may enjoy this sort of air, but I would give anything to return home.”

“So why didn’t you go back when you had the chance?”

“Well, I would give up almost anything.” He glanced sideways at her and half-smiled.

Pirlisu with the raven’s eye,
Pirlisu called to sea and sky.
He asked them who his father was,
And swore to them that else he’d die.

The serpents whispered, hissing cold,
The birds they sang in voice of gold,
“The son of Malhun Antark thou,
“The king of gods, and now be bold.”

-Epic of Pirlisu

Advertisements

Dream of Love Dream of Hate Chapter 6

It was morning on the seventh day since the fall of Apalakki, and Kasus reclined upon a couch in the palace that had just a month ago belonged to the king of the city. That king was now dead, strangled to death as was proper for an unworthy ruler, not to mention poetic justice for the violent manner in which he had taken the palace from the king before him. Kasus had acquired from the P’ugdaghun a rather romantic view of the Apalakki rulers, but Ghilik informed him that there hadn’t been an emperor – a real emperor with the lion banners and all – for five hundred years, and that many of the kings since then had been bloodthirsty megalomaniacs kept in check by the council of elders. He suspected that Ghilik exaggerated somewhat, but it was very useful to be able to present himself to the people of Apalakki as restoring virtue to the throne, especially given the devastation his armies had wrought in their allotted period of violent looting. There was also apparently a legend that the Sughin, cousins of the Lakki, would someday come to reclaim their patrimony, and many saw that prophecy fulfilled. Which he supposed it was.

“You are practically emperor now, you know,” Ghilik said, as if reading his thoughts. Ghilik was standing by the window looking out over the buildings of the city.

“We will discuss such things later. You were introducing me to your friends, whom I vaguely remember from the western wastes, and saying something about a third?”

“I fear that the weather and the rigors of the journey have had an adverse effect on a woman of the Sughin who accompanied us. She has taken ill and was unable to come to the palace.”

“A pity,” Kasus said, letting his eyes travel over Alzurid and Tailei, who were seated stiffly on the couch facing him. It was very good to be a prince again. “Do not worry,” he said to the pair. “You, and the other woman, are all under my personal protection. You may go where you wish without molestation. I make my guarantee of that.”

“Thank you…” Tailei began, but trailed off in some confusion.

“I have no official title as of yet. You may simply call me Kasus. Now, Ghilik, I think I am warranted some kind of explanation.”

“Of what?” Ghilik asked without turning. “All the world and the heavens above?”

“You are not the man you were when I last saw you. For one thing, I recall a distinct lack of ability to summon lightning. Did you find…” He switched from the Sughin language into the P’ugdaghun. “Did you find eternal life?”

“I found very many things, but not quite what we once sought.”

“Well. I have long given up on that anyway.”

“What matters most now is that I have the power to sweep your enemies before you.”

Kasus raised his eyebrows. “All the way to Alka’al and the Lord of Dreams?” He saw the muscles in Ghilik’s face twitch twice before Ghilik recovered himself and answered.

“As far as you wish. It is a divine gift.”

“And is there a price to pay?”

“I have already paid the price. And it does not matter what you say, I will help you regardless.”

“Why?” Kasus asked. He glanced over at Alzurid and Tailei. “Oh yes, you may go.”

Ghilik finally turned around to face the others. “Not yet. Kasus, you must simply accept that I want to help you, and I will. Remember that you are a son of the gods.”

“You are not Ghilik,” whispered Kasus. “Who are you?”

The man facing him took a step closer, and another, so that he was now only a foot from Kasus’s couch. “It does not matter who I am, it only matters what I can do. Those two on the other couch, they are powerful too in their own way. If you want to establish your rule over all the south, to leave your name to be repeated for countless generations and taken up into legend, you need us.”

“Do I?”

“Malhun lies before you, a young and vigorous kingdom. You can halt here if you want; you can sit in comfort and enjoy your spoils, or you can claim the horned throne as part of an empire that rivals any the world has seen for seven hundred years.”

“Ghilik knows me too well to doubt what my answer will be.”

“Good.” Ghilik addressed Alzurid and Tailei now, in the Sughin language so that they could understand. “Kasus has no need of you right now, but it would be best if you stayed in Apalakki for the foreseeable future. It is, I hear, a delightful city, and you should not find your time in it wearisome.”

When they had gone, Ghilik sat down on their couch and lay back with his hands crossed over his chest. “You may go also,” Kasus told him.

“I would prefer to stay a while longer, and talk about Hekkzaghin’s ambitions. That is a subject you are keenly interested in also, yes?” He closed his eyes and smiled.

~

Semsa opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling above, which was painted with some kind of scene of powerful spirits fighting each other. She assumed they were spirits and not men because they had feathery wings instead of arms. However, she couldn’t be sure that the painting was actually there. Her very bones were weak and her dreams seemed to mix with reality. She thought that on the other side of the left wall were four beings wrapped up in their robes and a horrible coffin of black stone, but she did not know if they were really there, or a phantasm of her affliction, or dread servants of the Earth come to bear her away.

“How are you doing?” a voice asked from nowhere, but it was a comforting voice.

“A little better than yesterday. Where did you go, Alzurid?”

“The physician says you are in no danger. You just caught a very bad chill.”

“You went somewhere with Ghilik. I worried about you.”

“We were obtaining the protection of the new king. You might remember him: a man from Sretskalawa named Kasus.”

“Mmm…he came to Sughin just before we left. What about Hekkzaghin?”

“I do not know. Hopefully Kasus, who seems reasonably sane, has him under check.”

“What do we do now?”

“First of all I was intending to start studying the language. It does not seem terribly dissimilar from yours.”

“Half the time it sounds familiar, the other half it sounds like gibberish.”

“A great concern is money. Up in Kimu I sustain myself as a…what is the word? An itinerant merchant, but all my wares have been sold.”

She managed to prop herself up on her elbows. “Oh, I suppose Ghilik can hocus-pocus some tutors from thin air to teach you,” she said, and laughed.

“I rather suspect that he would prefer to keep us as ignorant as possible of what is going on around us. I do not know his intentions for us, but it is well past time that we started choosing our own way. As far as money goes, I –” Alzurid broke off suddenly, and craning her head, Semsa saw that Ghilik had entered.

“Are you improving, Semsa?” Ghilik asked briefly.

“I think so.”

“Good. Kasus sends his regards, and also this.” There was the clinking sound of metal. “He apologizes for the unsettled nature of the city and offers this monetary recompense. He also requests your continued presence as part of his retinue, yours, Semsa’s, and Tailei’s.”

“Do you happen to know why?” Alzurid asked.

“The whim of a king is the whim of a king,” Ghilik said. He added something else, but Semsa’s head pounded suddenly and she fell back. Alzurid was immediately next to her and comforting her as she closed her eyes wearily. In less than a minute she had drifted off into sleep.

~

Tailei discovered quickly that the markets of Apalakki seemed to have come to a standstill with the city’s conquest, as vendors and merchants retreated into hiding out of fear. That fear certainly was justified in her eyes – she had seen the buildings stripped of gold and jewels and the innocents dead in the streets with mutilated bodies – but it meant that she and her companions were totally reliant on Kasus for their support. Kasus was apparently Ghilik’s friend, and she found herself leery now of anything to do with Ghilik. She thought back to the awkward bookish man he had been before Nusgwedn, and was saddened.

As she walked back to the house where she was staying with her companions, she saw Ghilik was just leaving, his four followers bearing the sarcophagus between them. “Hello, Ghilik,” she said in greeting.

He seemed distracted, preoccupied with something, but did glance up at her. “Oh, Tailei. Hello.”

“If…if you ever want to talk about what happened at Nusgwedn, I will be there to listen.”

Ghilik looked puzzled for a moment, then pained. “I am busy with greater matters. Far greater.”

“You have seemed different since then, and if there is something wrong…”

“Something wrong? Do you not know that this is my hour? My power is almost at its fullness!” said Ghilik, his eyes widening. “Ah, Tailei, and yet it does not even begin to compare with what you will do. If you would have a foretaste of what is to come, then follow me.”

“Where are you going?” Ghilik did not answer, but turned and continued on his way, the sarcophagus following upon the shoulders of its bearers. Tailei hissed in annoyance and, making a quick decision, joined the group. They took a winding path through the streets of Apalakki before arriving at a building with a conical roof and carvings of fish-men with bulging eyes on its exterior. “What is this place?” she asked.

“It is a temple to the god Hilagghus. He will not interfere with what we are about to do. Our power is greater than his.”

“What are we about to do?”

Again, Ghilik said nothing, simply entering the temple, Tailei and the others right behind him. It was dark for a moment, and then a fire blazed to life in a brazier hanging from the ceiling. Surrounding them were altars of a squat round shape. “Now,” Ghilik said simply, and the four pallbearers set the sarcophagus on the floor and straightened. All moving at the same time, they pulled away the veils from over their faces. What was behind the veils remained indistinct, but as Tailei narrowed her eyes she could begin to see constant motion within those hoods.

“Now,” Ghilik said for the second time, and the robes suddenly collapsed, hollowed out as clouds of whirling particles burst loose from them. Tailei covered her nose and mouth, closing her eyes as the clouds expanded to fill the room, flinching as they abraded her skin. When it ceased she looked again and saw that a thin layer of sand covered the altars and floor. “Servants called from the desert earth,” Ghilik said. “Called and now dismissed. Would you like to see what they have been carrying?”

“Yes,” said Tailei, her curiosity warring with her fear.

He reached into a pocket of his robes and withdrew a spherical milky crystal about the size of an eye. “Open it.”

Tailei stretched out her hand and touched the sarcophagus, her hand sliding along its uncannily smooth surface. She got a hold of the lid with both hands and lifted it away. Within the sarcophagus was a dead body, its skin withered and dried against its skull so as to render it unrecognizable. “Who is this?” she asked. “Why have you carried them all this way?”

“She is a woman who should not have died, but the dead do make better traveling companions than the living. Are you frightened, Tailei?”

“I am more bewildered.”

Ghilik leaned over the dead woman and fit the crystal into her mouth. “Watch, then, and witness the power I bear within me.” He tilted his face towards the ceiling and gave voice to a long sustained howl that echoed back and forth in the small temple. The dead woman shuddered, arms and legs twitching. She shuddered again, and the dead skin began to flake off from her. As Tailei stared in fascination, she saw fresh skin underneath the dry shell, rich dark hair replacing the withered strands, until a young woman lay in the sarcophagus as if merely resting, her chest rising and falling softly with her breath.

Ghilik knelt and took her hand. “Awake, G’aghla,” he said.

~

The final map was a detailed one, much preferable to the abstract diagrams that had preceded it. Kasus studied it carefully before looking up at Daghtinli and laughing. “I control so little territory, do I?”

“I could not say, my lord.”

“Yet my name is a byword of terror, my spies tell me. Well, that is good. But Khiar will have heard of it. Malhun will have heard of it. Maybe even the northern barbarians will have heard of it. If they are frightened enough, they will move to forestall any attack I might make on them.” He glanced back down at the map and considered. “Daghtinli, who did you serve before me?”

“King Gutaghsnu, my lord, as you know.”

“What did you think of him?”

“I could not say, my lord.”

“What do you think of me?”

“I could not say, my lord. I do think that you are overlooking the P’ugdaghun.”

Kasus stared, then laughed again. “By Jasse, you’re right. I cannot leave them alone forever, but I judge that a little longer will not hurt.” His finger moved across an invisible line between Alhunvin and Khitharenes, the capital cities of Malhun and Khiar respectively. “Perhaps a combined approach would be best. I do not think I need you any longer, Daghtinli. Leave me.”

Kasus stood when Daghtinli was gone and crossed his arms behind his back. He hoped very much that Ghilik was succeeding with his task, or the next few months would be very difficult indeed. It was time to bring Hekkzaghin under control once and for all.

~

Hekkzaghin stalked through the Sughin camp, glaring all about him. His rapid pace caused even his Sangi companion to trail behind, but he paid little attention to this. His thoughts were focused on Ghilik, and on the message he had just received. “If you lie,” he said through gritted teeth, “if you lie I will do things to you that you could never have imagined. You will suffer far more than any has ever suffered in my care before.”

Ghilik was just outside the appointed gate, and Hekkzaghin only stopped when their noses were practically touching. “You are a little close,” Ghilik said.

“How dare you disturb her? How dare you?

“It seems that you care about something besides Death after all. I am sure you have thought of what you will do should I be lying, but should I be telling the truth…ah, then what? She is waiting for you. This way.”

Step by step Hekkzaghin’s uncertainty and anxiety grew, emerging from dark holes where he had buried them long ago. “I am Hekkzaghin,” he whispered to himself. “The conqueror of Fate. I do not fear what is to come.”

Ghilik stopped by a temple ringed with bizarre statues, and gestured inside. “She is within.”

Hekkzaghin snorted. “I know how to recognize a trap.”

“Hekkzaghin? Is that you?” It was her voice… Almost against his will he stepped forward and into the temple. After a second in which his eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, he saw her. She was seated upon one of several round stools, gazing at him with wide eyes.

“G’aghla,” he said, a brief utterance to avoid showing the emotions that were trembling within him. You…no. You are dead. I held you when you were dead. I saw. Who are you?”

“I am G’aghla,” she said, looking up at him still. “I remember that I was so frightened when the battle started, and then there was a man with a sword and he…but I am not frightened anymore. I do not know how I came to be here, or even where we are, but I know that you are here too, and I will be safe.”

Oh, G’aghla. “If you are G’aghla, if you are truly her, then tell me how we met.”

“It was the Feast of the White Trees. You were sitting alone outside the circle of the glotemo, simply watching the dances within, and you looked so lonely. I saw you and wondered why, and though there were many of the boys who would gladly dance with me, I chose you.”

“I was a good dancer. Dancing is much like fighting. Much has happened since then, and I…I…” Words failed him completely, and she came forward to put a hand on his arm and look deeply into his eyes. Memories flooded him at the sight of her face so close to his. He had to close his eyes, and suddenly found that he was weeping. If his followers could see him, what would they say? It didn’t matter. “You should be proud of me, G’aghla. I have united the Sughin into one grand tribe. I have conquered cities as far as Apalakki, where we stand now. The old Lakki empire is mine!”

“That is incredible,” she said softly.

“It is true. G’aghla…”

“Shh.” She touched his lips, then her hand dropped quickly away. “It is dark in here. Will you take me out to see the light?”

“Yes. Yes. Of course.”

Ghilik and the Sangi were standing outside waiting, several paces apart from one another. Ghilik smiled when he saw them emerge, and spread his hands. “You see? Consider this a token of my further loyalty.”

“Beware,” the Sangi said. “She cannot be defeated forever.”

Hekkzaghin knew what he meant by this, and shook his head. “I do not want forever.” Why was his voice so hoarse? “I only want this moment.”

“Kasus would like to meet with you concerning our future strategy.”

“These are his lands, let him decide his strategy. I will see him when I am ready. Come, G’aghla, I would like to show you the palace. It has not fared too badly from the invasion.”

~

Alzurid liked to consider himself a free man, bound only to his own purposes, but he bowed to pragmatism, and when Kasus, the most powerful man in that part of the world, summoned him, he went. Together with Tailei and Semsa he was brought by a servant through a corridor just off from the great hall, to a small chamber where Kasus sat surrounded by tablets, and in two corners stood Sangi guards.

“You are travelers. What do you know about Khiar?”

Alzurid shook his head. “I know little of the northeast, I am afraid. Tailei?”

“To me Khiar is a legendary domain of power and wealth and nothing more. Iron comes from there, and luxurious woven fabrics.”

“Hmm. Khiar has kept to itself for a long time now, ever since the wars in the south that followed upon the diminishment of Apalakki’s authority. Most of the knowledge here is centuries out of date, I am sure. You see, I intend to go to Khiar, to reinstate the old relations between north and south. And although you apparently will be at no advantage there, I intend for you three to accompany me.” He smiled a thin smile. “You will, of course, not object?”

Alzurid glanced at the Sangi, then at Semsa and Tailei. For the past few days Tailei had borne a pale fixed expression and refused to answer questions about her change in mood, and it was no different now. Semsa looked back at him, and he gave her a tiny shrug. What other choice did they have? And he might as well add Khiar to the places he had visited in his wanderings. “I have no objections,” he said.

“Nor I,” Semsa added.

“What? Oh,” Tailei said, seeming to be startled out of some kind of stupor. “I might as well.”

“I hope that you will be of use to me one way or another,” said Kasus. “I believe there is no need to explain the penalties should you hinder me, but I know that you have no desire to do that. Everything will be provided for you, and I will summon you again when the time is right. That is all for now.”

Later, when they had returned to their temporary house, Semsa asked, “Where is Khiar? To me it is hardly anything more than a name.”

“Tailei knows better than I,” Alzurid said.

“No, you can explain,” Tailei said.

“Very well. Keep in mind what I said to Kasus: I do know very little. Going eastwards from Zconr-nraid one passes through plains inhabited by countless tribes who build no permanent homes. But eventually, or so I have been told, one comes to a mountainous realm where a learned and mighty kingdom has been established, where fire is worshipped and where princes do endless battle against savage northern hordes. Whether these accounts are true or not, I do not know for sure, which is why I do look forward to visiting Khiar.”

“What does he want with us?” Tailei said suddenly. “Why is he bringing us with him?”

“My guess would be that he wants to demonstrate the extent of his rule, even if it would take a great amount of exaggeration to have your lands and mine under his dominion, Tailei.”

She shook her head. “I do not think it is that simple. Ghilik said some strange things to me not long ago. I think Kasus sees in us something that he wants, yet I have no idea what it is.”

Alzurid thought of Raumurehl and the enigmatic words he had spoken, and was troubled. He wished now that he could put those memories out of his mind, where they lay now like a serpent’s egg waiting to hatch.

“I wonder where Hekkzaghin is,” Semsa said. “Earlier he and Kasus were inseparable.”

Tailei sighed. “Probably doing horrible, horrible, things to someone. I pray to the eight winds that he is not coming with us.”

~

Hekkzaghin looked at Kasus for a long time in silence, his thoughts shifting alternately between the lovely face of G’aghla and the blood that had flowed through the streets of this fabled city. He did not know which of the two he longed more to see again, which both confused and enlivened him. For the first time in years, he felt as if it were truly worth seeing another day.

“I have, as you suggested, given some thought to our future strategy,” Kasus said. He was smiling in a peculiarly smug fashion today, and Hekkzaghin felt an urge to provoke him.

“Oh? Enlighten me,” he said, using an extremely archaic verb form.

“Ah…” Kasus cleared his throat. “What was…yes, of course. The next kingdom to fall will be Malhun. Come spring, you will continue to lead the army east, carrying out the usual business of conquering and plundering. I understand your appetites, but I expect you to keep them moderated.”

“What will you be doing, then?” Hekkzaghin asked. Casting a glance around the soft carpets and bejeweled ornaments that filled the room, he added, “Moderating your own appetites?”

“I will be embarking on an important mission to the north, and if all goes well we shall form an alliance that will prevent us from having to fight on two fronts.”

Hekkzaghin grinned. “I have fought on ten fronts before.”

“I am sure you have. Is such a plan amenable to you?”

“The Sangi will obey me?”

“They will, as long as I live and do not order them otherwise.”

“It is done, then. I get all the fun and you all the hard work,” said Hekkzaghin.

“If you like,” replied Kasus. “I have written down my thoughts on the tactical situation ahead, and Ghilik will be available to read them out to you.” He slid a tablet across the table to Hekkzaghin. “Is there anything else?”

“No.” Without any further ceremony Hekkzaghin took the tablet and left. G’aghla had asked for a room in the palace, and it was to this room, a fairly small section on the palace’s second level, that he went now. He found her sitting on the floor eating dried figs from a basket.

“I had almost forgotten the pleasures of food,” she said with her mouth full.

“You know what it is like to be dead?”

“It…I only have vague recollections, like memories of a dream when one is fully awake. But now that I have been brought back, everything seems new to me. The sun, this food, you…” She smiled up at him. It was strange, seeing her happy and confident like this, not the G’aghla he had known once. But then, he was not the Hekkzaghin she had known once. He took a fig and bit into it. It was good. Looking back at her he saw the joy in her smile, the potential for happiness, and found himself having trouble breathing, he wanted that joy so much.

“Will you come with me?” he asked. “I go to war in Malhun, to tear down cities and wave my black flag above nations.”

“I will go wherever you go, Hekkzaghin. I am safe with you.”

A smile crept onto his face. He took her hands and lifted her to her feet, and they stood like this a moment before she leaned closer and kissed him, a brief kiss that left him trembling and staring at her. The memory of her dead visage flashed into his mind, but the face before him now was too real and alive and lovely for him to be drawn away. He wrapped his arms around her – warm as fresh-flowing blood – and their lips met again.

~

“Do any of you know how to ride a horse?” Kasus asked. Alzurid and Tailei nodded, but the Sughin in the group, including Semsa, merely looked baffled. Kasus shrugged. “It does not matter. Now. We will be following the route of Midisnagh, who provided the last credible account of a journey to Khiar. But the land in between has become far more dangerous since his time, and in the event of a hostile encounter, Taghgos here should be obeyed without question. He has been making war for longer than most of us have been alive. Is that understood? Good.” He looked back at Apalakki, its gate and walls still in ruins, then back to the trail ahead.

He had insisted on setting out immediately, even though Alzurid and Tailei had warned him of the fierce cold weather that struck the northlands in winter. Kasus wanted to be on friendly relations with the Khiar as soon as possible, and certainly with a hostile march on Malhun beginning in the spring there was little time to lose. Nevertheless Alzurid and Tailei had insisted that plenty of warm clothing be brought along, and Kasus was not inclined to doubt them, especially as Midisnagh’s account of the journey agreed.

The expedition numbered twenty altogether, the majority being made up of Sughin soldiers, whom Kasus expected to be vital as they passed through the lawless realms north of Apalakki. He was still not sure what exactly Ghilik found so important about Alzurid, Tailei, and Semsa, and did not much enjoy the uncertainty that had been induced in him, but at least it would be pleasant to be accompanied by women. Especially so now that he had left Kkemela behind, giving her a heavy sack of gold as compensation. He had asked Taghgos to make it clear that any of the soldiers who bothered Tailei or Semsa would not suffer a happy fate.

Their route took them north and east to the Mifah river, which they followed inland for many miles. The people they encountered on their way gave them a wide berth, which pleased Kasus though he had expected it. Less expected was the reality of winter away from the mild coast. It began with a sharp chill in the wind, which Kasus paid no mind to at first, but within three weeks was tormenting him, numbing his hands and toes and making him shiver without cease. There was loud grumbling among the Sughin, with only Alzurid and Tailei seeming at all comfortable.

It was not long before five or so of the Sughin came to Taghgos and asked to be allowed to go back. Kasus was unsurprised when Taghgos approached him with this news, as just the previous night he had dreamed that they were all returning to warmer climes, and had been savagely disappointed for a moment upon waking. “Let them go,” he said, “but warn them that they will not receive any of their pay.”

The landscape was changing too, flattening out until Kasus could see straight to the horizon in every direction. It was a vast, empty, scrubland that made Kasus miss the wet forests of his home more than ever. Soon after this point the courses of the Mifah and the Avikkagh flowed together into one broad river, which the travelers continued to follow as they marched on.

A light snow was falling when they began to pass through civilized lands again. They were able to purchase new supplies in a small city despite knowing nothing of the language spoken there. Kasus thought he overheard someone using the Malhun tongue, but passed out of earshot before he could tell what was being said.

Somewhere there was supposedly a bridge crossing the river, but the distances provided by Midisnagh didn’t match up with how far the travelers actually went. Kasus was greatly relieved, therefore, when he saw the road branch left to a well-kept stone bridge. On the other side of the river was a walled city with tall spires pointing towards the sky. Kasus did not need to consult his deep memory for the name of the place. “This is Teolphar,” he said. “At one time it was under Khiar rule, but whether it still is or not I cannot say. And, if all has gone well, my brother should be here.”

“Your brother?” Tailei asked. “I thought you were from Scetsa…”

“Sretskalawa. My brother and I left together, but our paths separated some time ago, and we agreed to meet here. Though I have tarried somewhat, and I will not blame him if he has chosen to leave.”

“What do we do now?”

“I will go into the city and find him. Taghgos, Tailei, Semsa, you can come with me. I think it would be easiest if the rest of you camp outside the city until arrangements are made, whether we are staying here for a time or continuing on immediately.”

So saying, he walked forward, hearing others fall into place behind him. At the nearest gate of Teolphar was a man in white raiment with red stripes running up and down it. “Silenthakhe merten?” he asked. “Soluskolkho heokeon?” Kasus extended a hand with gold pieces, and the man laughed. “Ethet melesphekhet. Akhol, akhol.” He took the money and waved them on.

Once inside, Kasus rubbed his chin and glanced around him. “We are looking for an oracle,” he told the others. “Oracle chambers in Apalakki have a domed roof, but that will not necessarily help us here.”

“Do you know anything else about this oracle?” Alzurid asked.

“It is closely connected with the religion of Aelhigosai, fire-worshippers and all that.”

Tailei pointed at a small shrine set into a wall at eye level, holding a burning lamp. “Like that?”

“Possibly. Possibly it is just a hand-warmer. We do not know the customs of the city.”

“There are more of them,” Alzurid said. “But only on this street leading ahead. There don’t seem to be any on those side roads.”

“Shall we follow them and see where we end up?” Kasus asked, and without waiting for an answer started ahead. The people of Teolphar tended to be tall, their clothing brown or dark red in hue, but there were also men, probably merchants, who obviously came from other lands. Kasus kept his eyes fixed ahead as they walked, and he soon began to see that they were heading for a tall thin tower of white stone, standing upon a platform several feet high which descended into steps on all sides. There was a man sitting on the first step, his face down, absorbed in reading a scroll.

When Kasus put his foot on the steps to begin his ascent, the seated man spoke without lifting his head. “May the Flame burn within you,” he said in the Malhun tongue.

“And you,” Kasus replied. “Could you direct me to the oracle?”

“This is the oracle, and I am its high priest.”

“Ah! I don’t suppose you know anything about a man – he would be as dark as I – named Majelis or something like that?”

The man looked up and tossed back his hood. Majelis gazed seriously into Kasus’s eyes. “I do, as it happens. Welcome to Teolphar, brother.”

~

Apalakki was the greatest of kings that mortal man has seen or shall see, and he ruled over all the lands that Amtaghk had promised to Gidvirin his father and K’itarbul his father’s father with justice and wisdom. Sughin, Eja, Alka’al, and Khiar all came to bow down to him and the rivers of Lakki flowed with gold. Sons obeyed their fathers and there was no famine or plague in those days.

-Generations of K’itarbul (IX)

Chapter 7

Dream of Love Dream of Hate Chapter 5

Alzurid glanced back at Ghilik, who was dragging behind the rest, and Semsa, leading the camels. Wyscdu and Tailei were talking among themselves slightly ahead, with Ed’eghin some distance further making sure of the best way to go. The six of them were passing through an especially rocky area of the Ad Kghalzik desert, following Ed’eghin’s guidance towards the coast separating the Sughin lands from Jibun. The portions of Jibun that Alzurid had visited were the central regions of the Duri empire, but the mountain for which he aimed was outside all civilized lands, in a barbarous area of which he knew little, only the occasional doubtful names given by travelers. And, of course, the holy garden which he always sought.

Ed’eghin stopped suddenly and looked back. “We are almost to the wadi,” he said, “and should be able to follow that for a while. It will not be many more days until we have crossed the desert completely.”

Alzurid wiped sweat from his brow – he was used to cooler climates, with chill fog and bracing winds – and quickened his pace to meet up with Wyscdu and Tailei. Wyscdu had the fixed expression of a man who had suffered so much that he expected nothing in the future but more torment, although Alzurid was never sure how much of that was merely an act. But even Tailei’s cheerfulness had faded. She looked wearily at Alzurid. “Does this garden have fountains of water surrounded by green things? It had better.”

“It is the wonder of all the world, I have heard,” he replied.

“But to get there we have to pass through a land haunted by evil winds.”

“Is that not always the way of life?” asked Alzurid, somewhat amused. “We must achieve success only through painful experience.”

“Or luck,” said Tailei, and Alzurid shrugged.

“We cannot all be lucky,” he said. “Or it would no longer be luck.”

They had not met any other people since ten days ago, when they had encountered the G’eghis tribe, last of the four Sughin tribes of Kghalzik. According to Ed’eghin, there would be nothing but deserted wasteland until they reached the peoples along the coast, the Musrah he called them. But from there on they would have to rely on locals and on memories of old maps, for Ed’eghin’s knowledge ended with the sea, and Ghilik’s knowledge as one of the seafaring P’ugdaghun did not start until further south, and was sketchy even then. “We are a very superstitious people,” Ghilik had explained. “The land where the holy mountain stands is supposed to be haunted by malicious spirits and I have never heard of any ship visiting it, except in ghost stories.”

Ed’eghin had been troubled at the mention of malicious spirits. He confided to Alzurid, “Once I trusted whole-heartedly in the Fates to guide us, and I trust them still, but Hekkzaghin has ushered in an age of uncertainty, and I believe it is best to be wary these days.”

Alzurid had nodded solemnly. “I understand. I have been to many places in the world, many of them likewise haunted. But I am a man of Lazu, and it has been my experience that no local evil can overpower that which protects us wherever we go.”

He took a sip from his water skin and continued to press forward. Ghilik caught up to Alzurid, his right hand gripping his left arm, which had been visibly broken at some point and apparently healed badly. Alzurid saw the appreciative yet cautious look he gave Tailei and smiled inwardly. It was not likely that this nervous inward-gazing alchemist would hold much attraction for Tailei, but Alzurid wished him well regardless. He understood what it was like to be driven far from one’s home by a burning mind.

“It’s been thirty-nine days,” said Ghilik to Alzurid.

“You’ve been keeping track.”

“The operations of the body vary with the day of the month and the season of the year, and such things are important to know for an alchemist,” Ghilik said, his voice cracking with thirst. He was somewhat overzealous in rationing his water. “It is not a particularly auspicious or inauspicious date, but just another day, no different from the one before it or the one after.”

But indeed they came soon upon a wadi which curved towards the sea, and eventually to jagged cliffs which increased in size as they went on, and made it ever more difficult to travel. They picked their way through narrow paths, though they also began to see grass and other plants more frequently. After a day of this they came into sight of a cluster of square houses nestled in a corner of a small valley, and were promptly greeted by a snarling dog. Its master, a broad-nosed man wearing a squat turban, arrived a minute later.

“Have you brought things to trade?” he asked, looking them over suspiciously.

“We are merely passing through these lands,” Ed’eghin answered. “We ask nothing of you.”

“Oh, yes? You have plenty of food and water?”

“We do.”

The man shook his head suddenly and bowed to them. “No, no! I, Huraslin son of Laguh, would be ashamed to hurry you on your way without showing you the hospitality of the Musrah. My nephew will take care of your camels for the night and my wife would be delighted to entertain female visitors. You are not all Sughin, I see.”

“We come from the far north,” said Alzurid.

“Remarkable. My home is this way, if you will follow me. Deggero! Deggero! Where is that boy?”

As they went towards the village they could now discern various people moving among the buildings. A youth ran up to them and eagerly announced, “You’re late, uncle.”

Huraslin cuffed him. “Take these camels from our guests, and be quick about it! No hanging about, chewing weeds!” Sullenly Deggero did what he had been told, as Huraslin led the human travelers to his house, or rather, to the large hut where he lived with his sole wife, for, as he later explained, he was not wealthy enough to afford more. “This is my wife, Led’a,” he said, gesturing to a curly-haired woman grinding something in a bowl, “and this is my brother Zuruxin,” pointing to another man wearing a neckpiece of a rich golden color. “He is the priest in our village.”

“I am Ed’eghin of the Keghum tribe of the Sughin. We are travelers on our way to the southwest,” Ed’eghin said.

“I am Semsa, of the Tanos tribe.”

“I am Alzurid, a traveler from the north together with my friends Tailei and Wyscdu. And this is Ghilik, who hails from the east.”

“Welcome to all of you,” the priest Zuruxin said. “Please sit down and have some g’eleri..”

So they did. G’eleri was apparently the pasty substance that Led’a had been preparing, and Tailei found its taste not unpleasant. She leaned over to whisper in Alzurid’s ear, “I don’t suppose you know what this is?”

“I am curious about this,” Alzurid said to the group in general. “I have not heard this word g’eleri before, and it is quite delicious. How is it made?”

“First, of course, we gathered a number of crickets and grubs,” said Huraslin. As he continued, Tailei grimaced while Wyscdu continued to eat in blissful ignorance. Alzurid smiled and took a large bite of the stuff.

There was also a thin soup provided, following by a burning drink that Alzurid suspected would intoxicate easily if not imbibed with care. The women went into a smaller side room to talk while the men remained, sipping from the cup that was passed around.

“I will not ask why you are wandering. It is none of my concern,” said Zuruxin after some convivial talk. “But you should know that I have seen many ill omens pointing to the south and the east. I do not know what the gods and spirits know about the future, but I would be wary. If you will allow it, I would like to perform a nuris. That is, a sort of ritual blessing.”

“We accept,” Ed’eghin said quickly.

“Very good.” Zuruxin stood up and adjusted his ring-shaped neckpiece, which had drifted off-balance over the course of the evening. “If the four of you would not mind bowing your heads.” He raised his hands over them and began to hum, then chant. “Ald’ukk shield thy children under thy wings, Merfal hold thy children in thy hand, Gurul La feed thy children at thy paps, all ye Sanab’o gather round your sons and daughters. Protect and guard your children and stand between them and evil.” His words became once again an open-voiced hum, which faded into a buzz and then silenced.

“We thank you.”

“It is the best I can do for those not of our people. And we are not great wanderers in any case, so our blessings may not avail you much.”

Somberly for a while they sat, considering the leg of their journey that still remained. Ed’eghin thought of the evil spirits ahead, Alzurid about the garden that he sought, Ghilik about the wise men and keepers of secrets, and Wyscdu about the far away grasslands that he called home. When night fell Huraslin gave them rough blankets, but himself slept without any covering in a sacrifice for the sake of hospitality.

~

“Are you sure you will be safe?” Led’a asked quietly.

“Wyscdu is my brother and Alzurid is a good man,” said Tailei. “I am perfectly comfortable traveling in their company.”

“Good. There are many dangers, many cruel and wicked men, in the world, but I am sure you do not need to be told that. Not having come through the Sughin land. Is it true that one tribe has conquered all the rest?”

“The old law that bound us to constantly kill one another is abolished,” said Semsa. “But now there is a new, darker, law, and I do not wish to speak of it.”

“I am not sure I understand. But your words trouble me. I feel that I must give you an invocation.” Led’a took from a shelf near the roof of the hut a small goddess, a stone figure with four eyes and enormous breasts, and held it tightly. “May good fortune go with you and the great mother look over you, and may you return again.”

“Thank you, Led’a,” Semsa said.

“It was no trouble. It is very pleasant to have visitors, especially from lands as distant as yours! Tell me again about your home.”

As Tailei began to talk, Semsa was reminded of her childhood when she had sat in on her mother’s conversations, listening avidly to the stories told. She had still been quite young when her mother had died, though, and a close kinswoman, Noxagh, had taken her in. But her curiosity had drawn her to B’oli, the seer of future things. She missed him, she realized, more than anyone else among the Sughin. Her closest friend had been Hekkzaghin, but as far as she was concerned he was dead; he was a different person now.

She wondered what Tailei’s thoughts were about leaving her home – she would have to ask her sometime. She wondered, too, what B’oli’s vision meant, and even if she would ever find out. She wondered if she would be able to return to the Sughin.

~

Somewhat refreshed by the time spent in Huraslin’s village, the travelers continued on their way. They sold their camels, having completed the first stage of their journey, and the territory became rougher, forcing them to climb or leap across narrow gaps. One day Ed’eghin pointed to a line of low mountains in the distance with valleys of green just barely visible among the heights. “Wulam,” he said. “Incense is grown there, and we used to sell it in the east before the men of Wulam broke their agreement with us. They never told us why. They keep many secrets, and allow no strangers to enter their land.”

“Perhaps I will go there someday,” said Alzurid.

“If you did, you’d be blessed by the Fates indeed. But I’ve often dreamed of visiting their groves. That is why I came with you, so that I could see Wulam, even if from a distance.” For a while Ed’eghin continued to stare at the peaks, then he shook himself and they continued towards the southern coast, until finally they saw before them the blue plane of the sea, and dimly on the horizon the land of Jibun.

“I assume we have a way to cross that,” said Wyscdu.

“See the buildings down there near the shore?” Ed’eghin asked. “The villages along here subsist on fishing; they will have boats. And if that does not work out, we will find some other way, going around by land if necessary.”

They clambered down the final descent to the rocky coast, from which they could indeed see large coracles bobbing up and down with nets spread in the water, despite the fierce surf. As they approached the village, which was built similar to the previous one they visited, they were greeted with wary hostility. “We wish nothing more than to purchase two of your coracles,” Ed’eghin said, holding out what was purposefully an over-large sum of tiny gold ingots.

The envoy accepted the pile and fondled it for a moment. “I accept the bargain. Follow me.” A crowd grew around them as they were led to a stack of the small leather boats in a rocky alcove behind the huts. Effortlessly the envoy lifted a couple of these over his shoulders and carried them closer to the water.

Alzurid cocked his head as he listened to the mutterings of the crowd, and he observed the envoy’s manner closely. “I believe they think we are uncanny beings,” he whispered to Wyscdu. “What with the suddenness of our appearance and our intention of going to Jibun.”

Without much ado the coracles were handed over to the travelers, together with paddles. “Go about your business now,” the envoy said.

They sorted themselves out, Wyscdu, Tailei, and Semsa in one craft, Alzurid, Ed’eghin, and Ghilik in the other, and pushed off. The two Sughin were obviously extremely uncomfortable, gripping the sides of their boats with white knuckles. Alzurid, born on an island, handled it the best. Many times, though, it seemed that one or other of the boats was about to be overturned and its passengers drowned, but on each occasion disaster was averted. Hours and hours of this passed before they reached the other side at last.

They secured the coracles behind great rocks adjoining a cliff face and looked around their surroundings. This side of the strait was very similar to the one they had just left in its topography. In the distance, maybe fifty miles ahead, was visible a lone mountain, and Alzurid pointed to it with satisfaction. “Nusgwedn,” he said.

“Can we rest for a while?” asked Ghilik, holding his crippled arm with one hand.

“Certainly. Night is coming on,” Ed’eghin said. The procedure for making camp was familiar to them all. Shelter, a fire, some provisions from their packs. And then each fell quickly asleep, weary from the exhausting effort of the day, all except Alzurid who took the first watch.

~

Tailei was awake before dawn, sitting up and facing the waters, waiting for the sun to slowly rise over them, enjoying the cool of the morning that would soon be driven away by the heat in this furnace of a land. It was Ghilik’s watch, and he had been walking around on the other side of the camp, but now he came over to Tailei and sat down next to her. “What land were you from?” he asked, and then winced. “Ah, that is…”

“The plains to the west of the great Dazcean lake,” she replied. “And you are one of the seafarers, I believe. What brought you here, seeking after Nusgwedn?”

“Ah…my research into…āghmabt, we call it.” She looked at him blankly, not understanding the word. “Living and not dying?” he tried. “Yes. I have not met with great success, but at Nusgwedn, I hear, they know more…” She smiled sympathetically at him, and he swallowed.

“If I don’t misunderstand, an alchemist is someone who mixes potions for healing, right?” she asked.

“No, not at all!” he said, his eyes widening. Words poured out of him now. “Alchemy involves manipulating the substances of the happenstance world, true, but we pursue the goal of, ah, breaking through all that is only by happenstance so that we can share in the eternity of the gods and escape death.”

“And the answer is in Nusgwedn?”

“I hope so. I hope so. But I fear sometimes that eternal life is a lie and all the stories and myths are wrong. I’m not certain that I should not have remained with Kasus. What have I done to help the expedition so far?” He reddened suddenly and rose to walk away. Tailei looked after him in amused puzzlement as he muttered in his own language, then she turned back to the east.

~

They continued on, pausing to rest in the middle of the day when it was the most unbearably hot. In the early afternoon they came to an obstacle: a place where the ground fractured and fell away before them, and they were blocked on both sides by sheer rock walls. Ed’eghin backtracked to try an alternative path they had passed several minutes ago, but soon returned to report failure. “We may have to travel along the coast and find a different landing point,” he said, and Alzurid nodded.

So they retraced their steps to the shore, having wasted a day. Early the next morning, although tired from lack of sleep, they set out into the water again and paddled westward, away from the larger ocean, until they neared a flatter stretch of land. Unfortunately, at this point a particularly large swell lifted the coracles aloft, and the one that bore Ghilik, Ed’eghin, and Alzurid flipped over. Alzurid found himself plunged into the warm water, quickly kicking his way to the surface and looking around. Ed’eghin was clinging to the overturned coracle, but Ghilik seemed to be having more trouble, struggling to keep his head up. Alzurid managed to hold him safely afloat and struck out with his free arm to the coracle, and with the help of the others they were able to make it shore without harm. They were, of course, unable to recover the packs that were in the coracle, and it was with concern that Alzurid thought of the skins of fresh water now lost.

Ghilik lay coughing and gasping for breath on the rocky ground, and Alzurid checked him to make sure he was all right. Semsa hovered above them. “No one is hurt?” she questioned. “Ghilik, are you –”

“I’m fine,” said Ghilik, recovering his composure. “Don’t worry, I’m perfectly fine.” He saw Alzurid extending a hand and quickly stood up before he could be helped to his feet.

By the end of the first day the land began to become furrowed again, and by the second foothills loomed before them. As darkness fell, and they camped beneath the crumbling remains of enigmatic ridged towers, Ed’eghin gestured ahead, and when Alzurid looked he could see tiny yellow lights flickering among the hills. “I know nothing about the people here,” Ed’eghin said. “Whether they are friendly or hostile, or what language they speak. We should be careful.”

Alzurid smiled. “I have some experience meeting unfamiliar peoples. But you are of course correct. Great caution is necessary.”

Those standing watch made sure to be especially alert that night for signs of intruders, but there were no such incidents until the next day’s leg of the journey, when without warning a large stone flew through the air near Semsa’s head and shattered against the ground. A huge man set off by his elaborately colorful robes stood nearby with a sling, tossing another stone in his hand. “Púlī́kne!

They froze and the man approached them, looking them over in an uncomfortable way. And then they saw the others surrounding them. Alzurid sighed – but perhaps these people would be able to help. Or perhaps these people would sacrifice them to some god or other. It was always hard to tell at first.

The natives shepherded them up further into the hills, towards a large stone structure, about which something seemed odd until Alzurid realized that it combined two styles: a rounder base with solar motifs around it, and above a more jagged crown filled with horribly twisted masks, their mouths gaping. They passed under these and into shadow.

As they were brought up the polished stone steps towards a long dark hall, Alzurid carefully observed their surroundings. They had passed a number of natives all dressed in the same flowery robes, but no children. Much of what he had seen he would never learn the meaning of: pits carved several feet into the ground, statues of aged men and winged women devouring babies, cairns made up of solely red stones. But now decorations faded and they entered into the hall.

Mā́knū, Ákwélīm.

Doljígma, lugwáhám doljígma. Súrznī́m hâ.

Something hard struck suddenly against Alzurid’s head, and darkness swallowed darkness.

~

Alzurid recovered consciousness held by chains to a flat surface, and although the light was dim he could tell that he had been changed into new robes. There were three others similarly chained around him, and he said in first the Zconr language, then the Sughin, “Hello? Anyone else awake?”

“I am, and this is even more miserable than I expected,” said Wyscdu faintly. “Do you have any idea what they plan to do to us?”

“Letting us go with apologies doesn’t seem to be part of the picture. I don’t know if –”

He heard footsteps and saw out of the corner of his eye that someone was coming down a flight of steps to their prison. Then the noise of the footsteps stopped, to be replaced by a curious rushing sound. As the footsteps receded, he could see water and a thick white substance flowing to fill channels that ran by his head, making it possible, if humiliating, to eat and drink. He was thirsty, but not hungry enough to eat the white stuff without suspicion. It was possible that these people only killed intruders with poison, or that they intended to induce a hallucinatory experience, or…

“Tasteless,” said Wyscdu with a full mouth, “but it has a pleasant texture, and it is filling.”

Alzurid decided to wait and see if anything happened to his companion. He heard the others shifting around as they began to recover, and greeted them in the Sughin tongue. As he had suspected, they were Ed’eghin and Ghilik, meaning the two women were elsewhere.

“We’re going to die, aren’t we,” Ghilik said.

“Hard to say right now,” said Alzurid.

“These are the demons we were warned of,” said Ed’eghin. “They will do far worse things to us than kill us.”

Alzurid strained as much as he could against the chains, but they held him fast. “This is actually the least comfortable prison I have ever been in,” he said in both languages.

“It is laid out cleverly, with these channels and all,” admitted Ghilik.

“There is a bright side to every incarceration,” said Alzurid.

“I have told you that you are a very strange man, yes?” asked Wyscdu.

“Such is my goal,” Alzurid replied.

“We will sit here, and wait, until they come for us,” Ed’eghin said in a monotone. Alzurid decided against commenting about the half-visible stone carvings on the ceiling, whose gruesomeness he was just beginning to discern.

And so, with nothing else to do, they waited. After a period that seemed interminable, there were footsteps again, many more of them. People came into view, all bulky men armed with red spears, some of whom knelt by the chains so that after some swift hand motions the prisoners were released from their bonds. They were hauled dizzily to their feet and dragged out into the harsh light.

They were in a plaza on one side of the great hall, and Alzurid sighed in relief as he saw Semsa and Tailei taken from another dark entrance nearby, apparently unharmed. All six travelers were brought together in a small cluster in the plaza’s center, facing a podium on which stood three men and three women, all of imposing size. Spread out between them were large pots, some full of fresh vegetables and some of broth. There was dead silence until even Alzurid began to feel uncomfortable. His eyes darted around as he attempted to estimate the results of a fight, if it came to that. The results did not favor his group.

Kwa! Kwa! Kwa! Kwáha! Kwáha!” the natives began to sing. At the same time the six on the podium started chanting, the musical tone of their speech pleasant and belying the dread that wrapped around Alzurid.

Humískul sónin, humískul bálap,
Hurízgul stórin, hurízgul ságap.
Lagwáhmā ngwūr re, mjozúlm lapárīh,
Ru gwūr i gwūr wa, i mpápa, i mzāl,
Lagwáhmā bálar, ze, mpoi ku ārág.

As the song died away, Alzurid looked up sharply at the sound of a large drum being struck. He was pulled forward slightly, and simultaneously he whispered in Ghilik’s ear, “I don’t suppose there is an eclipse in the next few minutes?”

“I…I wouldn’t know,” Ghilik whispered back.

Those on the podium prodded at the arms of the prisoners, pinching their skin and feeling their muscles, and conversed quietly among themselves. Alzurid noticed the hooked knives hanging at their sides with some trepidation. He looked at the eyes of the man facing him and found them to be full of an almost childlike greed, rather than the cruelty he had often seen before in similar circumstances, and for a moment regretted that he would never know why these people did what they did. But one way or another, he had no intention of staying among them for long.

To his side he saw a knife move and, in a single horrifying instant, Ed’eghin’s throat was slit. The man holding Alzurid slackened his hold for a moment, and Alzurid lunged forward to tear a knife away from the man in front of him. As he ducked a spear thrust he saw Wyscdu following his example, but had no time to observe anything else, as he was caught up in a fight that very quickly reminded him how far his youth was behind him.

And in the end it accomplished little. The prisoners were brought roughly to heel, with Alzurid thrown next to Semsa. He saw that the lower side of her arm was bleeding. “Are you cut badly?” he asked, ignoring the pain that ached in his own bones.

She looked at him despairingly, tears gleaming in her eyes, and said nothing. He tried to examine the wound, but their captors herded them back to their positions in front of the podium. Now the six judges did have anger in their eyes. But Alzurid saw Ed’eghin propped up in a sitting position, dead, and he had more than a little anger of his own.

At that moment a wiry man whose robes were colored in a simple light blue pattern appeared among the judges and stood on his toes to whisper in an ear. Muffled but fervent conversation broke out, and after a while a judge shouted, “Ludn luhábel hâ,” and the men around the prisoners stepped away. Tailei caught Ed’eghin and lowered him to the ground.

Slowly each of the natives in the plaza moved to allow the prisoners an open route out of the complex and into the freedom of the hills. Alzurid looked with bafflement around him, but he was not about to delay any longer. He and the others moved cautiously away, down a long row of steps and through a gate to a path that wound through the rocks outside, Alzurid and Wyscdu bearing Ed’eghin between them. Alzurid glanced back for just a moment at the stone temples and then turned and pressed onwards, keeping an eye out for any traps.

They buried Ed’eghin according to Semsa’s instructions, leaving no cairn or mark of any kind. “The Fates have taken him,” she said, laying her hands on his heart. “Let Earth receive his body; let the Fates use his soul in their work. We will remember Ed’eghin Keghum until we too are forgotten.”

They were now close enough to the great mountain to see that it was ringed with buildings which climbed to perhaps a third of the way up its slope. However, they now faced the serious problem of food and water, as everything had been taken by their captors, and their only possessions were the loose robes they wore. There seemed to be enough small streams that thirst would not torment them, but they would be forced to increase the amount of time they spent gathering various edible plants – or hunting, if they could construct new weapons and if the game grew more frequent.

Despite their efforts, it was with hunger gnawing at them that they came to the first of the buildings around Nusgwedn. These were crumbling towers with dome-shaped entrances around the base, and when Alzurid looked inside he found them unnervingly empty of any decoration or furniture. “Who were these people?” Semsa asked, following him. “What happened to them?”

“I do not know,” Alzurid said. “But after our recent encounter have had my fill of unexplainable mystery. We should solve this one, yes?”

Ghilik, despite his learning, showed surprisingly little interest in the ruins, or in much of anything. He simply followed the others with his gaze fixed on the ground, which Alzurid found troubling. He knew very well from his own experience that extreme melancholy was a dangerous thing.

In one building they found that a mural was painted on the ceiling, and although it was damaged and dust-shrouded, Alzurid was able to make out the image of a garden: green leaves interspersed with flowers of all colors. But it was just a garden, not the garden, and without further delay they continued towards the heights of the mountain.

Now the lack of water was becoming a pressing issue, as they were some distance from the last stream, but Tailei discovered a thin marble canal through which water flowed clean and fresh, presumably down from higher up the mountain. They camped that night among a number of short spires of unknown purpose, capped with spheres of a golden color. As he dropped off to sleep, Alzurid could not escape the feeling creeping over him that he was being watched intently by invisible eyes.

Before noon the next day they reached a part of Nusgwedn empty of buildings, where the ground rose more steeply. The canal turned aside, and so they prepared to follow it, when Wyscdu suddenly shouted and pointed up.

Straight ahead the slope of the mountain turned vertical, and carved into its side were vast figures of men and women with flames for hair holding objects of unguessable purpose. Even among the ancient pillars of Turisu, Alzurid had never seen any work of stone so grand. To his side he saw the others fall to their knees in awe, but he remained standing, only a broad smile giving away his feelings. After a moment he turned away and began to walk on. After another moment the others followed.

Up they went, until the path opened up onto a broad ledge where a number of canals from various points merged into a single broader waterway, which flowed into a great open space hewed into the mountain’s side. “Where do you think we should go from here?” asked Alzurid in both the languages of his companions.

Semsa was peering ahead, and she pointed to the open space. “That way looks interesting.”

“I have no opinion,” said Wyscdu. “I will go wherever you and Tailei do.”

Tailei shrugged. “Inwards is as good a direction as any, I suppose.”

“Very well,” said Alzurid, and they entered into the rift. As they walked Tailei noticed a faded mural on one side of the rock wall, and pointed to it.

“What is that?” she asked.

Alzurid squinted. “It’s green, but the shape is hard to discern. Perhaps a snake or a lizard?”

“It has great wings,” said Semsa.

“A dragon,” Alzurid declared. “It must be. We have legends about them in Lazu, and it is intriguing to see a depiction of one so far away.”

The ground began to slope gently downward, and although the number of murals increased it became impossible to tell anything about them other than the vague suggestion of color. Alzurid found his constant hunger easy to ignore in his excitement to discover the secrets of the city.

“I’ve been chasing after a ghost ship,” said Ghilik, half to himself. “No writings, no wise men, so many failures, so many chances at happiness scorned. The immortals of Nusgwedn are a legend, and there is nothing left for me.” Then he raised his voice. “Do you feel that?”

“Feel what?” asked Tailei.

“It feels like someone is staring at us.”

“It’s easy to imagine things in ruins like these,” said Alzurid. “I could tell you many stories about places I’ve been in the past where I felt such things, but it was only my imagination. Most of the time, it was my imagination.”

“They’re observing my mistakes,” Ghilik said. “Gloating over my weakness.”

In time the slope of the ground leveled out again, and they came to an iron railing barring a precipice that overlooked a vast shadowy space before them. Rising from the floor below were hundreds of low oblong shapes, each large enough to encompass a small house. “What is this place?” Tailei wondered.

There was a stone stairway descending towards the bottom of the chamber, and as they trod this, Alzurid felt a curious thickening in the air around him, and was suddenly aware of the blood moving through his veins as it was pulsed out by his heart. Thump. Thump. Thump. In the middle distance, along the chamber’s wall, was a smaller protrusion from the ground, shaped like a cup with a narrow neck, with an opening set into the base. The air seemed to be breathing in time with Alzurid and trembling with every step he took. The quietest noise seemed ready to echo through the chamber and shatter its walls.

He found his eye drawn to the nearest of the oblong structures and its impossibly polished surface. It was like an egg, he realized as he looked at it. His head throbbed, and the chamber shook with it. It took him a few seconds to realize that the shaking was not just an illusion, by which time it had stopped again. “I do not know if this area is safe,” he said. “We should not spend more time here than we have to.”

Inhale. A chill of cool air. Exhale. Distant rumbles in the darkness. A step forward. A thousand echoes of feet on ground. The opening for which they aim drawing nearer. Five hearts thudding. And in the depths, something stirred itself.

One by one they entered the cup-shaped building, and as Alzurid crossed the threshold, the earth shook and seemed to drop away from under his feet. Instinctively he dove forward and behind him there was a tremendous noise of breaking rock, shards of stone pelting his back. He landed against a curiously soft table as darkness fell over the room, and a few seconds passed of utter blindness before the table itself began to glow, emitting a warm greenish light. The room in which he found himself was small, but a series of steps led down through a round hole. Tailei and Semsa were nearby, although Semsa seemed dazed. He helped her to her feet.

“Wyscdu,” said Tailei. “He is out there still.”

“For now we must hope that he and Ghilik are fine. At the moment we are the ones who are trapped, and we need to find a way out of here,” Alzurid replied. He went to the stairs and peered down. The room below was dimly illuminated with a blue glow. “It doesn’t look like there’s anywhere else to go,” he said, and descended.

The lower level was a broad empty space, its only apparent feature a pool of water in the center. Alzurid approached this and was startled to see a human figure lying at the bottom, naked but androgynous, with a mane of golden hair surrounding its head. Its eyes were closed, and it seemed to be dead.

Semsa and Tailei had followed him down, and now stared at the pool and its inhabitant alongside him. “I wonder who that is, and why he is here,” Semsa mused out loud.

I wonder who you are, and why you are here, Alzurid thought. No, that was not his own thought, but something else intruding into his mind. “Did you hear that?” he asked his companions.

“Y…yes,” said Tailei. “What-”

My name was Raumurehl, and I welcome you to the Garden of the Sun. Forgive any discourtesy; I have not had visitors for long ages of time. Two thousand years, perhaps, I have pursued my work here alone.

“What is this Garden of the Sun?” Alzurid asked.

It was the greatest city of my people and a holy place under Heaven. It was the navel of the world and the center of all magic. Glorious and magnificent it was once.

“But now? What happened?”

We sought more than the priests thought we should, and we fell into strife. Dark things feasted upon our ruin, and we fled, some across the western sea, some to the north or the south, all across the lands.

“You are the fair folk,” Alzurid said.

I do not know what we are called by you children, or what legends have grown about us. I was one of those who stayed behind to grow in power.

The water stirred, as if touched by a wind. The one lying at its bottom began to move, rising to the surface, and as he emerged the water seemed to solidify and wrap itself around him as a cloak. Raumurehl stepped forward, his large eyes wide open now.

“What is happening outside?” demanded Tailei. “To Wyscdu? And Ghilik?”

Ah, children. Why have you sought me? asked Raumurehl.

“We came to Nusgwedn not knowing that you were here,” said Alzurid.

Yes, but you have found me nevertheless. Do not confuse your reasons with the great purposes. The being looked carefully at each of them in turn. There is nothing of value or interest left in the city; I have taken it all into myself.

“What of the holy garden?”

Ravaged by fire long ago. You are disappointed, I see, but do not be anxious. I was not planning to send you away with empty hands.

“And what do you mean by that?” Tailei asked.

I am a relic of a dead age, content to sleep forgotten, and I have many gifts to grant that are useless to me, but that you may find valuable beyond imagination. The power to awaken the cold and deathless, perhaps? Or to preserve forever what you caress? Fine gifts, those. Let me see. Arms hidden by perpetually flowing water reached out and took Semsa by the shoulders. Receive this gift. You shall be called mother of serpents.

Semsa recoiled, and Raumurehl let her go before turning to Tailei, who stepped back. “I am happy as I am, thank you,” she said.

Brave, to refuse one as mighty as I. Would you like power to match your bravery? I can grant that.

“I would like nothing more than to be reunited with my companions outside.”

Very good. Very loyal of you. I give you that loyalty reshaped and remade, so that even the dead shall walk at your side. Raumurehl extended its arms again, and Tailei shuddered. Last of all, you. Are you also hesitant to take of my largess?

“I would ask how you choose what gifts to give,” Alzurid replied.

By my great wisdom. I consider you and the span of your life, and a voice comes to me, whispering what I should do. You, you are a wanderer, banished from your home and forever searching for it again. You are more than you appear on the surface. Yes…perhaps you need to be able to wander the land while still remaining rooted to one place.

“I don’t,” said Alzurid.

Raumurehl chuckled. It is too late. What has been done has been done. You three must now follow whatever voices murmur in your own ears; my part is over, and I will return to my slumber. It is likely that we will never meet again. It stepped backwards into the pool and was swallowed up by it again. Fare you well, or not so well, however your destinies are decided.

From above came a loud rumbling which quickly died out. Semsa went up the stairs and called down, “The opening is clear again…oh Fates, what is happening out there?”

There was a piercing sound, like the cry of a bird but far louder. “Winds!” Wyscdu yelled, and Alzurid ran after Semsa. Wyscdu and Ghilik were on the other side of the chamber, standing near one of the oblong domes, which was breaking apart smoothly along the top even as the earth seemed ready to follow suit, and from within the dome emerged—

Something of hairy skin and great flapping wings and a long-jawed head from a nightmare. Something with enormous claws on its feet, and fierce yellow eyes. Something that rose up into the air and circled the interior of the chamber before diving downwards toward them. “Dragon,” Alzurid whispered. Semsa had fallen to her knees, but Tailei was holding up her robes and running as fast as she could straight towards her brother and the dragon, for whatever good a lone unarmed woman could do.

Ghilik hurled himself aside as the dragon skimmed along the ground and swooped upwards again. The dragon called out again, and Alzurid’s ears rang with the sound. He looked desperately around for anything that might be able to hurt the dragon, or any way to escape, but the chamber and the passage to the outside were open enough that it seemed impossible to avoid the dragon’s flight.

The dragon turned its head towards Ghilik and opened its mouth wide. Ghilik began to run to the place where Wyscdu stood, apparently paralyzed by fear, but stumbled over a loose rock halfway there and fell sprawling on the ground. Now Alzurid too began to run their way, but in a single second the dragon was atop the screaming Ghilik, lifting him with its claws into the air and throwing him against a rocky wall.

The dragon soared in great circles through the chamber, coming close enough to Alzurid that he could see the nostrils atop its beak dilate, before perching upon one of the pods near the entrance to the chamber. It swiveled its long neck back and forth before raising its head and giving a high-pitched mournful cry. Then something seemed to seize Alzurid and drag him forward helplessly towards the dragon’s perch. “Omnipotence, deliver me,” he prayed. “All-Good, protect us.”

Wyscdu, Ghilik, and Tailei were walking towards the dragon, apparently taken by the same invisible force that had taken Alzurid. Ghilik was hunched over and in obvious agony, and when they reached the dragon it looked back and forth between them, then its wings raised slightly and its head shot forward, catching Wyscdu suddenly in its beak and shaking him back and forth. Wyscdu fell away and did not move.

The dragon made a hissing sound and the earth shook so that Ghilik was thrown forward to roll along the ground to the very feet of the creature. And then Ghilik stood up, and Alzurid felt himself free again to turn aside if he so chose. But he kept running, and just before he reached them the dragon spread its wings and flew up into the heights of the chamber and did not return.

~

Tailei knelt by the broken and bloody Wyscdu, whose wounds were more grievous than any she had seen caused by bear or bull or man. Messy puncture wounds ran up and down his body, with an unpleasant color to them around the edges. Blood trickled down his chin. “I…” he coughed out.

“Shh…”

“I would give anything for an apple,” he said, and then his head fell back, and his labored breathing ceased. Tailei clutched him in her arms and wept.

“This is my fault,” she said to Alzurid and Semsa as they drew near. “He followed me to keep me safe, and now look what has happened.”

Alzurid knelt, closed his eyes, and with his finger traced a complicated symbol on Wyscdu’s forehead. “But where is Ghilik?”

“I am here, and there is no need to worry,” said Ghilik, emerging from around the side of the shattered egg. “It is time we returned home, I believe.”

“How did this –” Tailei began to demand before choking on her rage and grief.

Ghilik looked down. “You were correct, Alzurid. This city’s history is deeply entwined with the long-vanished dragons, and we inadvertently awoke one of them. But in the end I prevailed.”

“You?” Alzurid asked.

“With the help of the basilisks,” he replied, and waved a hand. “Yes, it is a word you do not know. Semsa would tell you it means ‘demons’, but it has been a very long time since her ancestors had dealings with them, and memory has been replaced by legend. They are what I have sought for all my life. Knowledge, health, power given form. I cannot properly explain them without a hundred more terms of philosophy that you do not know, but what you can understand is that I have found what I came for, despite all my worries. Have you found what you were looking for?”

“No,” said Alzurid curtly, looking down at Wyscdu’s body.

“Unfortunate. Where are we going next?”

“I think we should honor the dead first.”

Ghilik frowned. “Of course. After all, it is not yet time…”

He and Alzurid lifted Wyscdu gently onto their shoulders and carried him out into the evening’s fading light. Over his body they built as large a pile of rocks as they reasonably could, and Tailei encircled this eight times, on each round giving a cry of grief. With Semsa comforting Tailei, the four survivors returned down the mountain, choosing as best as they could remember a route that avoided the hostile tribe they had encountered.

As they passed once more the ridged towers, Ghilik indicated them and said, “They were a great civilization once, the people who dwelt in these hills after the tenders of the holy garden had departed. Mighty architects and great artists, they deemed themselves near to the gods – and they were not wrong to boast so.” He licked his lips. “They have fallen now into uttermost ruin.”

“Perhaps that is indeed what happened,” said Alzurid. “I can think of many generations of wonder-workers that have thus vanished.”

“Oh, I can assure you that is what happened,” replied Ghilik. “Much knowledge has been given to me.”

Alzurid drew closer to Ghilik, and so that only he could hear, asked “From Raumurehl?” Ghilik only smiled in response.

When they returned to where they had hidden their coracles, they consulted with one another concerning their next move. “I intend to return to Kasus and the Sughin immediately,” said Ghilik. “I have been away long enough. A great storm is brewing. I assume you will be returning too, Semsa?”

“I do not know if it would be wise. I wish more than anything else to go home, but B’oli’s dream foretold that great danger would surround me.”

“I do know something about dreams, and would be glad to advise you. What about you, Alzurid?”

Alzurid looked up from where he had been deep in thought. “You seem very different from the man who went with us to Nusgwedn,” he said.

“Do I? Well, then I was in search of something that even I only half-understood. Now I have found it, and very many things are clearer to me then they were.”

“You are fortunate,” said Alzurid. “As for me, I will continue to seek what I have always sought, and to wander as I have always wandered, and I might as well accompany you for the while.”

“I will go with you too,” said Tailei in an undertone. “I do not dare to return to my home with my brother’s blood on my conscience. May the eight winds guide me to a resting place.”

Alzurid continued to watch Ghilik closely and suspiciously, not satisfied by his explanation with its vague details, and wondered what exactly had happened between him and the dragon, and why he had changed so remarkably. No, he would keep a careful eye on Ghilik, especially around Semsa and Tailei.

He woke from his sleep that night to see someone leaning over him, attired in white feathers, face concealed by a blank mask. He was quiet until it became apparent that the being was not going to speak first, and then he asked, “Who are you?”

“A messenger,” was the reply, in a muffled voice of even tone.

“Why have you appeared to me?”

The birdman’s hands, which Alzurid saw to be a rich dark brown in color like those of the tribe that had killed Ed’eghin, touched him on the shoulder. “Because you have visited the mountain of the serpents.”

“The dragons,” said Alzurid.

“No,” said the birdman, drawing back. “Not at first. You do not understand. Perhaps you never will. I only hope that you can bring something out of the fire.”

“If you are a messenger, who is it that sends you?”

“Oh? I tell you, and you will come to find us, and you will change us. That is not why I have come. When dawn comes, you may not even remember that I was here. You are too inquisitive for our purposes.” The birdman laughed, not unkindly. “And no, I will not satisfy your curiosity about those purposes.”

“So it seems that by speaking to me you are just wasting your time.”

“Am I?”

“This is absurd,” said Alzurid. “Either do or say what you have come for, or leave.”

“You give commands easily. It is natural to you, isn’t it?”

Alzurid smiled. “I think I will be going back to sleep now.”

“Well said. And I am satisfied that you are carry no serpent on your shoulders.” There was a rush of feathers, and the bird was gone.

~

Semsa woke and for a moment, squinting in the dark, she saw no one but her traveling companions and the stars overhead. Then something moved, blocking out the stars that made up the Sword of Oghos. She sat up.

“Child of the desert,” she heard it say. “I am sent from the mountains of Wulam. If you were to ask me for one boon, what would it be?”

Whether this was a dream or not, she could only say one thing. “You know what you did to my people. Bring us the incense again, and let us trade as we used to…unless you want to destroy us and our children.” There was no response to her plea, and she continued. “The incense was as precious as water to us. Why did you stop it?”

“Because if you had it now, your land and ours and many others would fall into eternal bondage. It is a powerful thing, and not for the hands of the wicked.”

“Are you magicians, as I have been told?” she asked. “And, as I have heard, are magicians willing to sacrifice entire nations to accomplish their goals?”

The man of Wulam seemed to be studying her. “Will your people truly do nothing but die?”

“No,” Semsa said. “We fight.”

“You see? We have not killed you, but redeemed the world.”

A rich scent filled Semsa’s mind, overwhelming all thought, everything but the image of tall trees in a shadowed grove.

~

Tailei woke, and she twisted around immediately, falling to her knees before the presence that was nearby. She felt a single drop – a tear? – fall on the back of her neck, and then the presence moved on.

~

Ghilik woke in the midst of the darkness, where there was nothing but a single voice – a voice that was like soothing balm compared to the cacophony of his nightmares. “You must walk in the path that you have chosen, but I am allowed to comfort you with this: you will know a single happy moment before you die.”

~

The fifth woke, and immediately a foot was on his neck, pressing him into the dust. He writhed and clawed at the foot, biting and scratching until the pressure relented, but he did not stop, and instead wormed his way up, until with a great kick he was sent spinning through the air, and he laughed for pleasure. He was stronger than they, and he would be back before dawn.

~

They had crossed the waters again and continued eastward, with Ghilik apparently determined to avoid contact with the intervening peoples as much as possible. “You said you could help interpret B’oli’s dream?” asked Semsa, approaching Ghilik now as he sat on an outcropping of rock. He turned to her and nodded.

“Yes. Do you happen to know the details?”

“He…he saw me giving birth to fiery serpents. That is all I remember of what he described, but he added that danger would come to me and those around me.”

Ghilik tilted his head. “Well! I think the danger has come and gone. What are the dragons of Nusgwedn but fiery serpents? We have passed through that difficulty, though with grievous harm. Be reassured, Semsa, the dragons of Nusgwedn are behind us, and, in any case, certainly are no match for my new magic. You do not need fear for your friends and kin when you return to them.”

She traced a line in the sand hesitantly. “Are you sure?”

“I would stake my life on it.”

“Then I will trust you, and I thank you.”

“It is my pleasure,” Ghilik replied.

Although Semsa was not put completely at ease, her spirits rose as they trekked across the waste towards her homelands. She observed that, of the four, Ghilik was the only one who gave the impression that the expedition had been anything but wasted. He alone had gained something, it appeared even if he never made it clear exactly what that was. He had mentioned the basilisks, but she knew them only as goblins from old tales.

Alzurid in particular seemed downcast. He, too, had never elaborated on what he sought, other than that it was a garden of some kind, but Semsa could not help but infer that Nusgwedn had deeply disappointed him. And Tailei grieved of course for her brother, and although Semsa had no siblings she knew how it would feel if she lost B’oli. Knew how it had felt when she had lost Hekkzaghin to something worse than death.

They had a surprising amount of luxury to reflect on their disappointments and sorrows, for enduring the desert of Ad Kghalzik was not difficult on the return journey. Ghilik knew somehow the best routes to take between oases, how to avoid especially strenuous terrain, and when the vagaries of fierce winds would come upon them. Semsa began slowly but surely to believe that he, who had been so uncertain and out of place before, was now in tune with whatever principles or spirits governed the world.

They were, however, beginning to run out of food, and it was with enormous relief that Semsa saw a Sughin encampment looming before them one day. A middle-aged sentry went out to meet them, his eyes passing over them tiredly. “Name yourselves,” he said.

“I am Semsa of the Tanos tribe, and these are my companions, travelers from distant lands who are friends of the Sughin.”

“Hmm. The Pelnagh tribe gives you welcome. Are you weary? Are you hungry? Follow me. I will take you to my home. My wife will be glad of visitors: we have been so lonely since my sons left for Hekkzaghin’s war.”

Semsa looked at him worriedly. “Hekkzaghin’s war? I have been away for some months and have heard no news.”

“I will tell you all about it. Far more, no doubt, then you want to know. This way, if you will.”

Over bowls of thin yogurt with seed clusters stirred into them, their hosts told them of Hekkzaghin’s new campaign, his violation of the ancient bounds laid down by Maghd’u and his plans for the lands in the east. “The Fates know that this is a harsh land for us to live in, but for my children to shed their blood fighting outsiders…I do not know what I think about it. Maybe I am just too old, and my time is past. These are strange days.”

“Days of legend, maybe,” Tailei said, quietly at first but gaining confidence. “Perhaps we are forming the great tales that will be told generations from now, just as we recite the stories of the forefathers of our tribes.”

“If it be so, I hope that the tales will end happily. I have little else for which to hope.”

~

And, true to their host’s word, when they came at last to the settlement from which they had set out, they found it abandoned by all except a portion of the Tanos, that tribe which had originally dwelt in the area. When Alzurid asked about the change, he was told that a new age of conquest had begun for the Sughin, and a frown settled on his face. He had suspected that Hekkzaghin was stirring up something of the kind, but he imagined the strife – the pointless strife – to the east and his mood became dark.

Tailei had gone off with some close friends of hers, Ghilik was…somewhere, but where had Semsa gone? Probably to B’oli. It would be a good idea to talk with the blind seer and discover what he had to say about a number of matters.

Alzurid was approaching B’oli’s cave when he heard someone rushing up behind him and turned to see Semsa. “Alzurid!” she cried. “Did you…did you hear?”

“What should I have heard?”

She stared at him, her face contorted in horror and pain. “B’oli has been murdered!” Then she wavered on her feet and he reached out to hold her, closing his eyes. After a few seconds she recovered herself and stepped back. “It was Hekkzaghin, it had to have been. Only a few days afterwards he produced Gesil as a new seer, and Gesil supported him fully. I knew Hekkzaghin had…had changed, but not so much that he would do this. Oh, Fates, how could he?”

“I have known many that I once considered friends who were altered by a gift of sudden power,” said Alzurid.

“He is not the man I knew before we overthrew the Ad’os. And am I to stay here and wait for the triumphant return of our warriors, with B’oli lying under the ground?” She exhaled in a hissing breath. “What do you think?”

“For myself, I try to stay out of the way of the mighty, preferring to be simply a wanderer. But that is not the life suited for everyone. I would say that if you loved B’oli you should do what he would urge you, and honor him thus.”

“He would advise patience,” said Semsa, “to wait and let events unfold before choosing to take action. But such was his role among our people. I am not blind, and Earth does not speak through me. Tell me, Alzurid, do you have family where you come from?”

“I do, even if I have left them behind. Why do you ask?”

“Because I have no family left.” She laughed nervously. “Like Tailei, I have nowhere to go. I have acquaintances here among the Tanos, and they all would certainly be glad to help, but will I ever truly belong?”

“I would say also that you should devote some time to thought. Decisions made in haste can be very dangerous.”

She looked at him with a sad smile and reached up to touch his cheek. “Thank you, Alzurid, for your words. You know, I find that I trust you more than anyone here, though I know almost nothing about you.”

“Perhaps some time we could exchange our stories,” he said.

“I would like that.” She adjusted the folds of cloth that hung over the side of her face and went forward with head bowed into the cave. Alzurid watched her vanish into the darkness, then turned away, intent on finding a new source of hospitality now that Hekkzaghin was gone. The lack of security in these lands made it more difficult to travel as a solitary peddler than in the Duri empire, but at the same time there was a stronger tradition of generosity that somewhat made up for it, and he knew something of the art of medicine. He was perfectly willing, too, to work for his bread, even if he was not as young as he used to be.

The thought occurred to him that he did feel younger around Semsa, and he dismissed it ruefully. This was certainly not the time or the place to start pestering women with his attentions. As he walked along he marked the solitary black-and-white flag hanging loosely in the dead air at the edge of the camp. Standing next to it was a man facing away from him out into the endless sands. Alzurid took a curious step closer, and the man turned his head just enough that Alzurid could see that it was Ghilik. Their eyes met for an instant and a chill ran up Alzurid’s spine as Ghilik continued to stare blankly, as if he were looking straight through him. Then Ghilik’s head swung back around, and hurriedly Alzurid continued on his way.

Despite his expectations, he met with little success in his efforts to find accommodation. He was viewed with suspicion on account of three things: his foreign origins, the favors granted him by Hekkzaghin, and his journey into strange lands. Evening was coming on when he finally returned to what had been B’oli’s cave and found Semsa and Tailei sitting in front of the entrance dining on small brown cakes and conversing in low tones. They offered him a few of the cakes, and he accepted gratefully.

“Dear Noxagh has offered to take me and Tailei in,” said Semsa. “What will you be doing, Alzurid?”

He shrugged. “I would be honored to stay in this cave, since I have had little luck elsewhere. You mentioned that the grain stores had been taken elsewhere?”

“Yes. But remember that it is a sacred place for the Earth.”

“We in Lazu do not venerate the Earth as you do, but it is a respected sister to us nonetheless. Do not fear that I will do dishonor to the place.”

~

Semsa awoke early the next day and, careful not to awaken any of the others in the tent, went out into the still-cool morning. She took a deep breath and hugged herself tightly, seeing a possible future before her of living here in peace and security until old age took her, of perhaps marrying a returning warrior and raising up children to fight in Hekkzaghin’s wars…it was a pleasant vision in many ways – the constant killing and slavery she had known all her life finally at an end – but she could not but feel that a new evil had replaced an old one, and she feared what its ultimate fruits would be.

“Hello, Semsa,” said Tailei, emerging from the tent.

“Tailei. How are you doing?”

Tailei ran a hand through her light hair. “I should ask you the same. The winds have come harshly upon both of us these past months.”

“Sometimes I am afraid that the Fates have abandoned this world, throwing it all into chaos,” said Semsa.

“And what do we do now? My fancies of wandering the earth appear much darker now than they did when I left Zconr-nraid. By the eight great kings, I wish I had never left, for Wyscdu’s sake if not for mine.”

Semsa closed her eyes tightly for a moment. “I am beginning to think –” she was saying slowly, when someone cleared his throat behind them.

“Excuse me.” Semsa turned around and saw a young man – Paghkken, she remembered his name being – had approached them. “It is good to have you back, Semsa.”

“Yes. I see that much has changed.”

Nervously, Paghkken rubbed his upper back. “That is something I wanted to talk with you about. I have a message from B’oli, in case you ever returned.”

Semsa inhaled sharply. “What did he say?” Paghkken glanced at Tailei, and she sighed. “Is there a reason Tailei cannot hear this?”

“I suppose not. He said to forgive him, and that although his vision of you was true, he also wanted to send you away so you would not be in danger because of your closeness to him. He…is very proud of you, and knows that you will do the right thing in the end.”

“Thank you. Thank you.”

Paghkken shifted from foot to foot. “There is something else I think you should be aware of. I do not know if B’oli would approve of me telling you, but I feel you deserve to know. And we should speak of this alone.”

Semsa gave him a wary glance. “Why? What about Tailei?”

“Where do her loyalties lie?”

“With myself,” Tailei said firmly. “But I would never do anything to betray a friend.”

“But even we three are not alone. We are standing in the middle of the Tanos, if you haven’t noticed,” Paghkken said, a bitter tone slipping into his voice. “Meet me in B’oli’s cave at high noon. Bring Tailei if you do not trust my honor.”

Conveniently, Alzurid had gone somewhere else at the appointed meeting time, allowing Paghkken to meet with Tailei and Semsa without further concerns about secrecy. Paghkken’s nervousness, however, did not abate. “In his last months,” he told the women, “B’oli became increasingly concerned about Hekkzaghin and the path down which he was leading the Sughin tribes. Maybe there were dark visions which he communicated to one, but in any case he began to…gather together those who tended to…agree with him.”

“Rebellion,” whispered Tailei.

Paghkken shrugged awkwardly. “Ah…perhaps. But I will hear no word against B’oli. I was there when the butchers murdered him. They did not even try to hide their deed.”

“Why are you telling me this?” asked Semsa.

He swallowed. “So that you would know that there are plans to avenge B’oli once and for all.”

Semsa stared at him in complete silence for several seconds, then collected herself. “I understand,” she said. “I…please, say no more. I think your impulse to keep this as quiet as possible was very wise.”

“Your politics mean nothing to me,” Tailei said. “I can forget that I ever heard a word of this matter.”

Paghkken was sweating heavily now. “But under duress? Under the horrible tortures of Hekkzaghin? These are dangerous times. Hismogh!” he swore suddenly. “Ah, pardon my language. I am sorry I opened my mouth to begin with.”

“No,” said Semsa, trying to reassure him. “I am glad to know. But we should speak of this no more, true?”

“True,” he replied, and was gone in a flash, leaving Semsa and Tailei to look at one another in silence, surrounded by the half-dark of the cave.

At last Tailei laughed softly. “A nervous youth, isn’t he?”

“I do not think he was frightened for himself, but for us,” Semsa said, shaking her head. “From what I remember, he was almost brave enough to take on all the armies of Duri by himself. But he would not put another in danger willingly, especially not a woman.”

“Still, he is imagining things, I warrant. We are in no more danger than we ever were. Less, in fact, now that Hekkzaghin and the Sughin warriors are gone.”

“You are right – you usually are. Would you greatly mind leaving me alone for a few minutes?”

“Of course not.”

When Tailei was gone, Semsa leaned against one of the jagged stony walls and wondered if the Earth could speak to her, wishing fervently that it could assure her that all would be well in the end. Only the outside sounds of braying animals and fierce conversations reached her, and she opened her eyes and stepped away, stumbling right into Alzurid. “Oh! Excuse me.”

“My fault entirely,” he replied politely.

“I was just thinking about B’oli.”

A sympathetic smile passed over his face. “Of course.”

“He was always kind to me even when I was a child, and after my mother died I sought him out, so we could have long conversations about the past and future of the Sughin and of our Tanos tribe in particular. His old caretaker was not as enthusiastic as I proved to be, and so I took on that role. I never knew my father; that was the role B’oli filled for me, I suppose.”

“My mother died too when I was young, after our family suffered a great loss, and even my father was never quite the same after that.”

“It must have been a terrible tragedy. I am sorry.”

“Mmm. We of Lazu are a conquered people, and we are used to tragedies. It is no matter.”

“No, tell me about it. It will do me good to think about someone besides myself.”

“If you wish. In this case it was a garden we lost, a holy place that goes back into our oldest legends, the heart of our kingdom since it was founded by the Father of Swans. It was a place more beautiful than I can say, as I am no silver-tongued poet. One night the Duri soldiers at the nearby garrison became maddened with drink and went on a rampage, breaking into the garden, throwing down the stones, desecrating the pool. Some efforts were made to repair the damage, but the spell had been broken and nothing could be done.”

“And that is why you were looking for a garden in Nusgwedn.”

“Yes. When I was a young man, rather than follow in my family trade I chose to wander about exploring the world, and in particular seeking something that would fill the void in my spirit left by the garden. I know it may sound humorous – especially to a woman of the desert – but the garden of Lazu was more than just a material place.”

“There was a sacred power to it. I have heard of such things.”

“Well. It hardly matters. Over the past forty years the pull of the garden has faded within me. No doubt I shall die a disappointed old man.” His smile made his words jocular rather than bitter.

“Where will your wanderings take you now?”

“I was originally planning to go east, where I understand there are cities much like the ones I am used to, going at least as far as Apalakki. Recent events rather persuade me to return to Duri lands, where there is somewhat less upheaval. I do not think Tailei will accompany me. The current relationship between the Duri empire and the realm of Zconr-nraid is not a friendly one on either side.”

“It would be a pity to think that we would never meet again.”

Alzurid raised his hands palms upward. “I cannot say what the future will bring. Mortal sight is bounded when we look in that direction. But no doubt I shall have opportunity to return this way in the years ahead.”

“Do you see your family often?”

He considered. “No, no, I cannot say that I do. Most of my kinsmen have very different ideas about how to fulfill the Good in life than I do.”

“I am not quite sure what you mean, but that is often the way of families, isn’t it?”

He smiled again. “Perhaps.”

“Well. I should be doing some chores for Noxagh right now, so I should go. Thank you.”

“For what?”

“I am not sure.”

~

When Semsa was gone, Alzurid sat down against a wall near the entrance of the cave and, whistling softly, took a withered piece of wood from his satchel to continue whittling it into the form in his mind. He had been engaged in this task for about an hour when a shadow fell over his face. He looked up and saw Ghilik.

“Am I interrupting anything important?” Ghilik asked.

“No, not at all.” Alzurid sheathed his knife. “Did you need to talk with me about something?”

“I was just curious. I believe that you have an interest in traveling through the various regions of the earth?”

Although Alzurid was by now thoroughly fluent in the Sughin language, there was something about Ghilik’s phrasing that took him several seconds to unravel, and which he ascribed to Ghilik’s own imperfect grasp on the language. “Yes, I do.”

“Have you ever been to…oh, Apalakki?”

“No, and with things the way they are I doubt I ever will. It is a pity: I have heard that Apalakki is an ancient and glorious city.”

“It is that. I assume you refer to Kasus’s conquest, and that is what makes you hesitate to go east?”

“Kasus? I was under the impression that Hekkzaghin led the Sughin armies.”

Ghilik chuckled. “An easy mistake to make. You underestimate Kasus, I think, for he has much more power than most people are aware. Much more. I will soon be setting out to rejoin him, and if you desire to accompany me I can make sure that no harm comes to you.”

“You, then, have that much power?”

“Oh, never doubt my power. I told you that the basilisks were with me, did I not?”

“Yes, but you never explained what exactly the basilisks were.”

Ghilik broke into a broad smile. “I have explained as much as I can. It is as if instead of speaking to another material being, one could speak to knowledge itself, or to power over the physical world, questioning it and…exchanging with it.”

“We in Lazu have our own ideas about such things. What you are describing sounds very dangerous.”

As if lost in thought, Ghilik twisted his head sideways, reminding Alzurid somehow of the way the dragon had moved its serpentine neck. “Trust me: I know what I am doing. In any case, I am a friend of Kasus, and you can travel under my protection to Apalakki.”

It was an extremely tempting offer. Indeed, Alzurid had allowed himself some idle thoughts along that line. The difficulty was that he was, in truth, frightened of what might be going on inside Ghilik’s mind and soul, and if the temptation of safe travel to the east was not so great, he would be fleeing homeward as quickly as possible. Every spiritual nerve that he had was warning him away, and yet he held out his hand. “I accept your offer.”

Ghilik eyed the hand a moment before taking it. “Then the treaty is made between us. I will see that you are not harmed in any way for as long as you travel with me. I believe I will be setting out, oh, in a few months. Maybe once the heat of summer has passed.”

“I will be ready.”

“Good.” Ghilik left Alzurid to rub his chin thoughtfully, anticipation and worry mixing in his mind.

~

Semsa was watering a group of visiting merchants’ camels when Ghilik came to her. “I have heard of your loss, and I offer my condolences,” he said.

“Thank you,” she replied.

He gazed up and all around, and Semsa was suddenly very aware of the emptiness of the sky and the broad barrenness of the land surrounding them. “I can understand how one would go mad here,” said Ghilik. “It is a place where there is little to distract one from the powers behind the world.”

“Hekkzaghin preaches death, if that is what you are referring to, but I will always believe that life is stronger.”

“A pleasant belief, but somewhat lacking for evidence. The only life that I have known to come from death is life of the most vile sort: flies and worms and drifting miasmas. But I was not intending to speak about philosophy. I wanted to point out to you that B’oli’s death cries out to be avenged, by the law that the Fates gave to Maghd’u.”

“That law has been broken, or so Hekkzaghin says.”

“But surely you do not believe him.”

Semsa shook her head slightly. “I would rather not talk about this.”

“Very well, if such is your wish I will treat a different subject. Alzurid, for example. Did you know that he has changed his mind? He will be coming east with me to Apalakki.”

“You will be in grave danger, I fear.” The last camel finished its drink and raised its head to look at her unpleasantly. “Who can say what Hekkzaghin and his followers have wrought in those lands?”

“You need have no fear,” said Ghilik, walking alongside Semsa as she walked away. “Alzurid and I are both well able to deal with whatever threats face us on the road ahead. In fact, I am confident that we will be able to safeguard anyone who accompanies us also.”

She stopped and turned to face him. “It sounds as if you are giving me an invitation.”

“I am. Nothing of importance is happening or will happen soon here; these wastelands have been passed by in the plans…well, in the plans of the Fates, as you might call them. Do you want to see the great events of our time? Do you want to see vengeance fall upon Hekkzaghin’s head and crush him?”

“No. I do not. I think you misunderstand me. I only left here in the first place because of B’oli’s vision, which…if it was genuine…you have satisfactorily explained. I certainly do not want to involve myself in whatever is going on in the east.”

The muscles in Ghilik’s face tightened visibly. “You may not be as safe as you think you are.”

She waved a dismissive hand and started to walk again. “First you reassure me that I will be safe here in Sughin, now you try to get me to leave. Decide what you want me to do before talking to me about it!”

“All I want you to do is what has been appointed for you to do!” Ghilik half-howled. But almost immediately he had calmed himself. “Please, Semsa, forgive me. Occasionally I see glimpses of what must be, and they can be quite overwhelming. I apologize for any disturbance I have caused you, and would regret it if careless words caused any rift between us.”

“Nusgwedn did change you, Ghilik. I think sometimes it was not for the better, but you know that I will overlook your discourtesy a moment ago. Be aware, though, that I have no intention of leaving Sughin again.” Yet even as she spoke she envisioned Alzurid and the half-smile that crossed his face sometimes, and she wondered at herself. No one, except maybe B’oli, could be worth traipsing into the land of cities and rivers to trail after.

“Thank you. Sleep well,” Ghilik said.

It was an odd farewell, given that the sun would not set for another couple hours, but Semsa replied in kind and went on her way. By an unfortunate coincidence, she did not sleep very soundly at all that night, tossing and turning with an uneasy feeling of being watched, even though Noxagh was snoring and Tailei was curled up facing away from her. When she finally drifted into slumber, she found herself in the middle of a nightmare. She was standing on a ridge of torn and broken rock beneath a dark sky, but before her in a valley was a beautiful city shining like the sun. In one hand she held a staff in whose surface was carved winding reptiles, and she raised this above her head while calling out nonsensical words.

Distant thunder rumbled. A scorching wind washed over her, and at her call grotesque shapes passed above, descending towards the city with their vast wings. And then fire blazed in the valley, burning, consuming, destroying.

She snapped awake, her heart pounding. Although it was night, for a moment she thought she saw a shadow, blacker than black, moving across the side of the tent. A fancy of the night. Best get back to sleep, and in the morning all this will have faded. Licking dry lips, she closed her eyes again. This time she fell asleep much more easily, and was untroubled by dreams.

Ghilik did not come to her again for some weeks, a more or less pleasant time in which she occupied herself with chores for Noxagh and visiting merchants, talking with Alzurid and Tailei, and took part in the various communal activities of the tribe. However, as the time passed she began to see problems developing among the Tanos. Rifts between various families to which she had paid little attention before were growing: descendents of Doslan would not even acknowledge the presence of Hilagh’s descendents when they walked past one another. Hekkzaghin had drained away the strength of the Tanos tribe for his war, and now that there were no more slaves there was always a shortage of hands for work.

“Well, in theory warriors should begin returning soon with wealth and slaves,” Alzurid said when she mentioned this to him.

“Hekkzaghin is a fanatic,” she said in reply. “Practical things mean nothing to him. They never have.”

“Emperor Zurulas of the Duri was a fanatic who warred on the neighboring Taraqh states simply because of a prophecy made at his birth, and I was told that he nearly ruined Duri, yet in the end the empire flourished.” His lip twitched. “Flourished somewhat too much for my tastes.”

“Hekkzaghin would be perfectly content, I think, if all of Sughin was utterly ruined. He does not care about our people, or about anything really anymore. He has lost his mind.”

“All his desires are disordered,” Alzurid said. “It is a terrible thing when one’s people are in the hands of a wicked man or a wicked woman.”

“I do not like to think of a future without us who dwell in Sughin, but I fear that it has come to pass already. Thinking back to what B’oli told me…even before Hekkzaghin we were no longer the people we had been just a few generations ago. We have grown in wealth and numbers, too much for our land to hold, even while fewer and fewer heroes arise among us. Maghd’u has receded further into the past and the lands in the east fall apart into tempting disarray. Perhaps Hekkzaghin was inevitable. Perhaps the Fates have given up on us and this is the end of Sughin.”

His face was perfectly somber as he looked at her and took one of her hands. “No nation can die as long as one of its daughters still breathes and walks the earth and remembers it.”

Semsa swallowed and gripped his hand firmly. “What if I wish to do more than remember? What if I wish to fight?”

“Then you had best ask someone other than me,” he said, shaking his head. “I gave up fighting before I even began. And what is more, I do not think I was wrong.”

“Your life must be a lonely one.”

“Sometimes. I have made many acquaintances and friends throughout the realms of Kimu and Jibun.”

“Many women?”

His eyes met hers quite suddenly. “Some. None very close.”

“I find that hard to –”

“Did you hear that?” Alzurid asked, tilting his head, and then Semsa heard the noise also. “It sounds like a great number of people are nearby.”

“I will go see.”

“I have both my eyes. I can come with you.”

“Yes, of course.”

The cause of the noise turned out to be a band of warriors, raising their weapons high in the air as they marched through the midst of gathered onlookers. Behind them they led camels and donkeys who bore piled high on their backs sacks and chests. Joyous shouts filled the air in such a cacophony that Alzurid was unable to discern what was being said. However, he had no doubt as to what this was: the return of a group well satisfied with their spoil.

Curious as to what stories they had to tell and what places they had been, Alzurid tagged along with the crowd as it proceeded to the house of the elders. Three great cries went up, and one by one men wearing large colorful turbans emerged from the house. Appearing somewhat surprised, one of them asked, “What is all this commotion?”

“The victory of the Tanos!” was the reply of the crowd, and Alzurid understood now that they were enacting an old ritual.

“What have you brought for your brothers?”

One of the warriors stepped forward to face the elders directly. “We have brought gold and pearls, purple dye and crimson wine, and we have shed the blood of many enemies for our gain. We have brought wealth and luxury to our brothers; we have brought relief from the burning sun and the freezing moon. Death has guided us well.”

“Let all the Tanos praise you, and thank the…” the elder began to say, but stumbled over his words. Another quickly filled in for him with, “Thank Hekkzaghin. Let all the Tanos praise the swift spear and the plunging sword.”

“Praise the warrior and the stars that he walked below,” the people shouted with one voice, and immediately plunged into a chaotic frenzy of questioning the warriors and embracing them. Alzurid noticed Semsa again, close by his side.

“Does this happen often?” he asked.

“More or less, although I think we are particularly happy now, after all the turmoil and uncertainty we have faced. This is a return to a familiar way of life.”

“You do not seem ‘particularly happy,’” commented Alzurid.

She looked up at him, raising a hand to shadow her eyes from the sun. “There are some, certain people and spirits, that I would not thank for anything, not if my life depended on it.”

“Yes. I understand. Do you know any of these returning men?”

Semsa tilted her head and smiled. “Some. None very close.”

“I see,” he replied, and smiled back. “But do you suppose any would be amenable to telling me about their adventures?”

“Amenable? Half of them are dying to tell you all about it.”

“Excellent! I suppose it would be best to wait until all this has died down to ask them. Now, what were you saying earlier?”

She blushed. “I do not remember, I fear.”

“Well, perhaps you will remember given time and thought. It often works that way for me, when I have forgotten something important.” Alzurid grinned and, shading his eyes, looked out over the crowd. He suddenly noticed another man who was similarly standing apart from while gazing at the majority of the Sughin. This observer wore entirely black except for his turban, which was of an originally light color now dirtied by time and travel. His eyes met Alzurid’s, and Alzurid looked away but it was too late. The observer crossed his arms and walked towards them.

“Forgive my curiosity,” he said in a tone that belied his words, “but you are not from this land, yes?”

“The place where I was born is called Lazu,” said Alzurid. “You are correct; it is far from here.”

“What draws you away from your home, then?” the man asked. His lips were barely moving.

“Wanderlust. If you will excuse me?”

“Stay a moment. Life is not too short for you to talk with me. Yet. Tell me, what gods do you worship in your land, blue eyes?”

“I would be glad to tell you all about the ordered pantheon of the Duri and the wild gods of Kimu, the shamanism of the Zconr and the peculiar mixture of myth and philosophy dear to my own people in Lazu. But another time would be better, perhaps.”

“Another time would not suit me.” The man gripped Alzurid’s shoulder. “It is my business to know who draws breath among the Sughin and my business to decide how long that breath continues.”

“He is under the protection of Hekkzaghin and Kasus!” Semsa protested.

The man released Alzurid and turned his attention to her. “Is he really? I know you – you were the companion of the Earth-bound seer. I would not draw attention to myself if I were you. Death has taken him, and it might scent you next. Where did you go these past months? Who did you speak to?”

“Who are you? Under what authority do you ask these questions?” Alzurid asked, stepping between him and Semsa.

“I am one of the Sangi and it is by the authority of Death herself that I demand answers. Do you understand?” He struck Alzurid’s face. “Do I need to kill someone before you will take me seriously?”

“Kill yourself!” It was Ghilik who spoke now as he strode towards the altercation. “For shame, Mub’is, have you forgotten the Second Law of the Sangi?”

Mub’is darkened. “What do you know of the Sangi?”

“You have looked upon Death and loved her, and yet you concern yourself with being taken seriously? Do you think that bloodshed is a tool to keep people from laughing at you? It is no wonder that you find yourself interrogating the honored guests of our grand chieftain Hekkzaghin and of Kasus himself!”

Mub’is’s eyes shifted back and forth, and he took a hurried step back. “My apologies. I was not aware.”

“Death is aware of everything, Mub’is. If my dear friend Kasus knew of your actions here, he would be very disappointed. Go and do whatever penance you see fit. Pain is the only way to purge your transgressions.”

“Yes. I must seek to hollow myself out and make an inner Death to match the outer. If you are guests and friends of Kasus, I salute you for your nearness to the gods.” Mub’is abased himself and went away with lowered head.

Ghilik looked over Alzurid and Semsa. “Did he do any harm to you?”

“No,” Alzurid said, rubbing his cheek. “I have had a worse time dealing with members of my own family.” Semsa put a hand over her mouth and stifled a giggle. “Thank you, Ghilik. You seem to be well acquainted with these…Sangi. I recall that is the name given to those two bodyguards that came west with you and Kasus, but confess puzzlement as to its meaning.”

Ghilik gave an amiable shrug. “Oh, one of those innumerable religious orders that flourish in far Sretskalawa. Their words are harsher than their deeds: after all, they can only kill the body.”

“Still, it is a loss I would rather forego.”

For a moment a shadow seemed to fall over Ghilik’s face, and his eyes became sad and distant. His next words were in the halting voice he had of old. “There are worse fates, Alzurid. Worse fates.” Then his expression hardened. “You do not need to worry about the Sangi. They believe that the blood of the gods flows in Kasus’s veins – they believe curious things about the gods – and as long as you do not offend him they will not harm you. And that is one occasion on which I have preserved you from danger. Have you given more consideration to my offer, Semsa?”

She gave him a surprised look. “Ah…no. I gave you my answer and have not changed my mind.”

“I suggested that she accompany us to Apalakki,” Ghilik said to Alzurid with a flicker of a smile.

“Oh?” said Alzurid.

Semsa crossed her arms. “Yes, and I gave the idea all the consideration it deserved. Ghilik, I will not be marching off, away from my home, for no good reason.”

Alzurid saw Ghilik’s fists tighten, but then relax slowly. Ghilik tilted his head to one side, as if considering something. “I understand. If you have any more trouble with any of the Sangi, I would be glad to extricate you.”

“You can be sure that if I ever need your help, I will seek you out,” said Alzurid. Ghilik didn’t seem to notice the implied dismissal, but bade him and Semsa farewell and went off to do whatever he occupied his time with. From their previous chance encounters, Alzurid suspected that Ghilik spent a great deal of time in silent meditation.

The people nearby had been, little by little, shying away from Mub’is, leaving Alzurid and Semsa now somewhat isolated. Semsa glanced around and said, “I should be checking on Noxagh. I will see you later, Alzurid?”

“Yes.” He made a quick decision and, raising her hand to his lips, kissed it. “A Lazu custom,” he said when she looked at him with flustered confusion.

“Of course.”

~

Semsa was still somewhat flustered throughout the rest of the day, and when she slept her dreams were troubled visions of a sort she had not had for weeks. Over and over she was surrounded in a whirling black cloud of smoke and heat. She caught glimpses of shapes behind the cloud, of scales, of watching eyes, of terrible things she could not name. The same dream repeated night after night, and although it was frightening she would have preferred it greatly to the one that visited her on the sixth occasion.

Something was terribly wrong, in that oppressive way of nightmares where every detail of place, where the space around her, was perverse in a way that could not be articulated. The colors around her were faded and there was a faint tingling in the air. She stood in the middle of a dry plain, devoid of sand. Rising from this plain were a cluster of oblong shapes, of smooth polished stone, like those within Nusgwedn.

She gazed upon these for a time, but it was not until she took a step forward that she noticed an old man in faded and tattered clothes sitting cross-legged on the ground. He looked up at her and grinned, revealing an unsightly mouth. “Any alms for a beggar?”

“I have nothing.”

“I’ll look into the future for you.”

“All right,” she said with the curious passivity of dreams, and gave him a golden piece.

“Many birds and a copper horse, find the flowers on the proper course,” he sang. In the dream this seemed to make perfect sense, even if she could not fully grasp its meaning. “Ah! Would you know more?”

“Where is Wyscdu?” she asked. The old man put a finger to his lips and said nothing. “Where is the dragon?”

“The dragon has gone back to sleep,” he answered, drawing out the last word. “It is not the dragon you need to be afraid of. Fear yourself, Semsa daughter of Tanos! Fear what you will do to your friends! Fear the dragon that is within you!”

She twisted her head away, thrills of horror running up and down her body. Was that thunder, somewhere in the distance? When she looked back she saw that the old man was gone, and in his place was a woman lying on the ground, as if asleep, long yellow hair splayed around her head. But although the woman’s eyes were closed, her mouth opened and she spoke. “Call the serpents and destroy your enemies.”

Then the earth shook violently, and plumes of fire erupted from the ground at Semsa’s feet. Somewhere far away people were screaming, and she knew it was because of her…

It was morning, and she was in the camel-hide tent with Noxagh and Tailei. There was no fire, no screaming, and she felt all the relief that the sun brings with its dismissal of night terrors. She felt certain that it was going to be a good day.

That same night she dreamt about the old man and the fire again.

~

Alzurid was normally a patient man, but as the hottest part of the year passed by he found himself looking forward with unusual eagerness to the eastward journey. For one thing, the nearness of the sea would no doubt mitigate the ghastly heat. For another, he found little pleasure in lingering among the Sughin, what with their growing unrest and the always-present Sangi watching over everything that was done or said.

He did, however, enjoy hearing from the returned warriors about what they had experienced. This band had turned back after conquering much of Kupavim, a fertile realm between two rivers, and had not reached Apalakki, but he listened avidly to their accounts of the regions through which they had passed, of the brick-built cities and the marvelous statues.

Semsa, too, was a bright spot, and in her case he found a simple delight in her company, regardless of the conversation. His wandering had always made it difficult for him to consider the possibility of marriage, but… On such thoughts he did not dwell. They would be separated soon, as his path took him further into distant lands, and that would be the end of that, and he resolved therefore not to encourage her in any false hopes.

He was seated in his cave finishing off the carving he had started months ago, of a wide-eyed owl, when Semsa appeared in the entrance and halted for a moment before coming nearer. “I have been thinking,” she began, and paused again.

“Go on,” he said.

“Perhaps I will come with you when you leave.”

He was taken aback and fumbled with the owl in his hands. “All the way to Apalakki?”

“I may have acquired something of a taste for travel,” she said, her eyes glancing away.

“Well, I understand that. But are you sure you want to leave the safety of your home for the rigors of the journey?”

“I am not at all sure that it is safe to remain here, especially if Ghilik and, well, you will be leaving. I am not sure I trust even the brethren of my own tribe anymore, and then there are the Sangi…” She was trembling slightly, he realized. “I have been having dark dreams recently, and I am beginning to doubt if Ghilik was correct when he said the danger had passed. I cannot find words to say what has happened to the Sughin recently, what changes we have gone through, but I will not put them at further risk.”

He was silent for a while, then said, “I do not think you would ever willingly put your people or anyone you cared about into harm.”

“The world has grown dark in the past few years, and things that were certain have been torn down and brought to ruin. Even a seer cannot say with true certainty what the future will bring. Do you remember what that….person in Nusgwedn said to us?”

“Not in detail. What I do recall troubles me, though. That whole expedition to Nusgwedn troubles me. We know nothing of the significance of the events we took part in, and how it may have changed Ghilik. And how it may have changed us.”

“Maghd’u had set out the future clearly for us like a drawing in the sand, but it has been wiped away now by Hekkzaghin. I know only that whatever happens next, I would like to go with you.”

The declaration did not surprise Alzurid. He considered what he could possibly say, and finally admitted, “I would like that also. But are you sure that is what you want?”

“I am sure.”

“Tell Ghilik, then. Oh, and Semsa?” he called as she turned away. He could never remember afterward if he had actually had something to ask her or if it had been just an impulsive desire to see her look back.

“Yes?”

“It…it was nothing important.”

It was then that Alzurid realized that the attraction he felt towards her was much the same as the pull he felt for the garden of his youth. The latter was not, as he often described it, a simple nostalgic memory, but a deeply rooted, almost supernatural, ache that sat at the bottom of his heart and had shaped all of his life into its present form. It was not her dark beauty, or her kind nature, that had spurred this realization, but something about the way she had spoken, the way she had looked at him just now.

It would be well in keeping with his unusual experiences of the past year if he found himself engaging in a romance. He laughed and put the owl aside. It was time for him to get some light and fresh air.

~

Semsa was never sure where exactly Ghilik was to be found, except that he was usually on the outskirts of the settlement, alone. She was mildly surprised to find him in the standing in the middle of a circle of seated people, his eyes closed but his hands jumping in spastic motions through the air. “Ghilik?”

He did not answer for several minutes, nor did the people around him move. They were heavily shrouded and wore thick veils so that she could make out nothing of their appearance. Finally his eyelids raised and he brushed hair away from his face to look at Semsa. “Do you have something to say to me?”

“I have changed my mind. I will go east with you and with Alzurid.”

“I knew that you would, given time. Very good. Excellent, in fact. Your company will be greatly appreciated. Have you spoken with Tailei at all?” he asked eagerly.

“No, I have not.”

“Unfortunate. Well, I suppose it does not matter much in the grand scheme. Thank you for informing me, Semsa.”

She glanced at the seated figures. “Who…”

“They are of no concern to you. When the proper time comes, they will do what is needed of them.”

“All…all right then.”

“I will tell you when we are to leave. It will not be long now. I can feel it in the way the earth shifts beneath me and by the motions of the stars.”

She was not sure what to say in reply to this, so she merely nodded politely and turned to go. Behind her, Ghilik began to ululate, not loudly, but the sound unnerved her at a deep level. She quickened her pace as she walked away, and the wail continued.

~

Tailei whistled a mournful Zconr tune as she helped Semsa stitch together a tear in the side of their tent. It had to be a sad song, for thinking back on her home brought up only melancholy feelings. She missed her tribe and its traditions; missed the lively dances; missed the cool winds and chill rivers; missed her native tongue; missed her parents and cousins; missed Wyscdu, who now lay buried more than a thousand miles from his birthplace. Even her friends among the Sughin could do nothing to relieve the sadness that had descended upon her recently. At one point she had believed that eventually she would come to see the Sughin desert as her true home, but now that Alzurid and Semsa were leaving she knew that she would go with them, and see what new lands would bring.

They finished repairing the tent, and Tailei sat back with a sigh. “There. Now I am dreadfully thirsty.”

“Me too.”

“There is plenty of water in the canals and rivers of the east,” Ghilik said, appearing before them and giving them a forced smile. “We are ready to depart.”

“You may be, but I am not,” said Semsa. “Not at this short notice. Tomorrow I will be prepared.”

Ghilik raised his eyes until they seemed about to roll back into his head. “If it is necessary. But time is growing very short.”

“Time for what?” asked Tailei.

“You could not begin to understand how tightly, how intimately, things in this world are interconnected. If you tug on a loose end in one corner of the land you unravel an entire fabric in another corner. I think a day will be acceptable, but no later! You are both quite positive that you are coming?”

The women exchanged puzzled looks and gave an affirmative answer.

“Good, good.” He swung around on his heel and was gone.

True to their word, Tailei and Semsa were ready early the next morning to set out. It felt eerily similar to the start of their previous expedition (it was hard for Tailei to believe that nearly a year had passed since then). Alzurid was there, lifting his heavy pack onto his shoulders, and he smiled at them when they arrived at the meeting place Ghilik had assigned. “Here we are again, it seems. Do we all have what is necessary to sustain our flesh and blood?”

“By the winds, what is that?” Tailei asked suddenly, pointing to what she had seen. Ghilik was coming their way, leading behind him four others who were concealed behind heavy shrouds and veils. They carried between them a large box about the length of a man, pure black in color and with a carving on its lid in the shape of a dancing skeleton.

“It looks like a sarcophagus,” Alzurid murmured. “I have seen such things in northern Jibun.”

“A what?” Semsa asked quietly.

“A container for the dead.” Alzurid raised his voice as he turned to Ghilik. “Are you bringing that all the way to Apalakki?”

“And further, if need be,” was the response. “Its bearers will not grow tired.”

“Who are our new companions?”

“Slaves of mine. They are completely loyal to me and my power, so do not concern yourself with them. My business is my business, not yours.”

“I have usually found that secrets make a difficult expedition.”

Ghilik smiled gently. “You must have many difficult expeditions, then, Alzurid, being who you are.” This did not make sense to Tailei, but she saw Alzurid’s entire body tremble. “All right then,” Ghilik said after a pause. “We should start on our journey. We have no need of maps or of navigational instruments anymore. All such knowledge I bear within myself, and I can feel the proper route in my spirit. Follow me.”

He began to walk in the direction of the rising sun, the pallbearers falling into place behind him, their movements smooth and flowing. Semsa put a hand on Alzurid’s back, and the two of them went after Ghilik. Tailei swallowed and ignored her trepidation as she took her first step. That was the hardest one. As she went on she felt a strange sensation as if someone was staring at her, scrutinizing every motion she made; she shook her head and dismissed it. Who would possibly be interested in watching her?

~

The first night they were still well within the bounds of the Sughin waste. Ghilik’s four slaves set down the sarcophagus and without making a sound lay in a rectangle around it, one on each side. “Do they…do they need to eat?” Semsa asked cautiously.

“No. They are beyond that,” Ghilik replied.

“I see,” she said, and taking out a dried wheat-cake from her pack broke off a piece and put it in her mouth. Ghilik stretched his arms and went to sit on the far side of the sarcophagus, leaving Semsa and Tailei to sit together near where Alzurid was preparing a fire.

Semsa was desperate to ask the others what they made of Ghilik’s strange words and his peculiar companions, but the danger of being overheard was far too great. She cast nervous glances over at the dark blocky shape that rested on the ground, and as the shadows lengthened and a chill fell over her she curled up and closed her eyes, wistfully dreaming that in the morning sarcophagus, pallbearers, and Ghilik would be gone, all vanished together with the rising of the sun.

Alas, it was not so, and the peculiar company continued on its way, before long passing out of the desert and reaching the coast of the great sea. Here Ghilik deigned to tell them something more of their route. “We will be passing into Istis, the realm of the P’ugdaghun. They are seafarers, the undisputed rulers of all the ocean. But their power is brittle, and soon it shall crack. Take care. They are not friendly to outsiders, but if you stay close to me they will be able to do nothing to you.”

“And this is the path we must take?” Alzurid asked, a wry smile flickering across his face.

“Since Istis was untouched by Kasus’s march it will be less stirred up, you might say, by recent events. It was also my home once, and some of my former acquaintances live there.”

“Lead on, then,” said Alzurid.

The edges of Ghilik’s mouth went up. “I am glad you do not disapprove.” He waved to the pallbearers and, lifting the sarcophagus again, they resumed their walk.

~

Hearing that the P’ugdaghun were sailors, Alzurid had formed an image in his mind of Istis as dotted with port towns much like those of southern Kimu, places of bustle and commotion where the rude but cosmopolitan crewman rubbed shoulders with the cultured merchant. It was in fact dominated by one large city sitting upon the mouth of the Avihilun delta, and as the travelers emerged from a pass between two furrowed hills, they saw before them a loose cluster of triangular houses, and children playing outside. Visible in the distance was the Avihilun itself and the dark looming shape of the shipyards.

A woman was walking nearby with two pitchers of water suspended from a pole over her shoulders, and spotting the travelers she froze for a moment. “Dufiv vilakgī?” she asked.

Ghilik raised his hands in the air, showing the involved tattoos running up and down his arms. “Vilā bīt ghik zilghintasugh tukilt zi.

The woman’s eyes widened. Without saying a further word she hastened away, the pole balancing precariously behind her neck. Ghilik gestured for the others to continue, and they made their way down into the village. Alzurid could tell now that the forms of the houses strongly suggested the prows of ships, as if projecting from the ground. The children shied away or ran to their mothers as the travelers passed, and a couple of men emerged from houses to stand in their path.

Ghintīluhif sān,” one of the men said. “Mag ghakkāls t’āghlamus?

Ghilik held out his arms again and the men peered closely at them. “Pufisnat,” he said, in a clearly impatient voice.

The men stepped back and held a brief conversation in low tones. One turned back to Ghilik. “Huldabukk dī zisasugh duln bīt kup lūgh. Bīt kup lūgh!

Nin dinsugh duln. Abamif tuh kkagh bī igh ghilhūf, igh ul. Ifsulif t’āghin.

T’āghin iv ānaghīn. Pilaghamt duln; iv uk’imud kistintaf bit usikat valuhun.

Ghilik spoke very clearly and slowly now. “Nin talag.” He then looked over his shoulder at Alzurid and the others. “We will be staying here for the night. I have made a bargain you will like, Alzurid. They will refurnish us with provisions, and we will tell them stories of our travels. That should be no inconvenience, correct?”

~

Though it was not easy, Semsa could understand the P’ugdaghun when she concentrated, their speech being not terribly dissimilar from that of the lands that bordered the Sughin to the east. A woman named Luhkkagh had opened her home to the strangers, and it was now packed full of people all curious to hear where Ghilik had been and what he had been doing. The dark cloaked beings, of course, had remained outside guarding their burden.

“So, Ghilik,” said Luhkkagh, leaning forward eagerly. “What took you away from your ship? I hadn’t thought anything would be able to do it.”

“A dear friend convinced me that there was much to learn in the kingdoms of the earth,” Ghilik said. “Oh, I have visited many lands. Sretskalawa, Malhun, Lakki, Kupavim, the Sughin desert, and places beyond the desert. And I have indeed learned a great many things.”

“Is it true what they say about dark powers ruling the land?”

A smile drew up half of Ghilik’s face. “Some would say that the ocean is the home of dark powers. What is dark and what is safe depends greatly on your point of view.”

Thunder rumbled outside, and some of the P’ugdaghun spun their index fingers in circles: was that to ward off evil? “And what will you do now that you have returned home?” Luhkkagh asked.

“I apologize very sincerely, but I have not returned to stay. I am simply passing through Istis on my way further east. I have business in Apalakki.”

“You have heard about the Sughin army, right?” one man asked, crossing his arms.

“I have heard, Hilmat. But as I am not a king or a city, I expect that I will not have a problem.” This brought laughter, but it was distinctively nervous laughter.

“What about your friends?” continued Luhkkagh. “What brought them together with you?”

“They have come from many places to assist me. Alzurid here is from a far northwestern island in the Duri empire. Semsa is of the Sughin, and Tailei is from the shores of the great lake Dazcean.”

“And the others, the ones outside?” Hilmat asked sharply. Semsa saw Luhkkagh give him a weary look.

“They are from farther still. They too have come to help me.”

“With what? What exactly is your business in Apalakki?”

Luhkkagh tittered and apologized to Ghilik, saying “Hilmat is perhaps overcurious.”

“Well,” said Ghilik, exhaling slowly as his eyes met Hilmat’s. “We all know that there are things in the world that should not be disturbed for the sake of curiosity. But I do not mind his questions. My friends and I are traveling to Apalakki so we can…put on a sakulis.”

“A sakulis?” several people asked at once. A broad smile began to form on Ghilik’s face. He seemed to be enjoying himself as he glanced at Semsa, Tailei, and Alzurid in amusement. Semsa wondered if he knew that he understood what he was saying. Most of it, anyway. What by the Fates was a sakulis supposed to be?

“Oh yes. A grand, tragic sakulis where everything falls into place piece by piece. It will be a glorious thing to see unfold.”

“I saw a sakulis in Tiggras once. What, are you telling me you’re one of those foppish sakulun afalilun prancing around in flowers and robes?” asked Liristun, scratching his chin.

“I am the writer of the sakulis, really,” said Ghilik, and finally broke out into a grin, a huge mocking grin.

“Are we to have stories or not?” Hilmat asked, clenching his fists.

“Stories? Very well, I can tell a story. As I promised. Not long ago the three of us visited a mountain called Nusgwedn, a very interesting place.” Semsa looked up at this, startled.

“I have heard of that country,” said a black-skinned man from where he was sitting near the back. He did not look happy. “Luhkkagh was correct that much of the dry land is ruled by invisible powers that are not friendly to us, but Nusgwedn! That is a wicked place indeed.”

“Zakknabi is right. We should not be talking about such things, not ever but especially not at evening when a storm is brewing,” Hilmat said. “It is to invite evil into our presence.” A number of other voices assented. Luhkkagh seemed to be one of the few who were disappointed by the abandoning of this topic.

“Very well,” Ghilik said. “What then would you have me talk about, if Nusgwedn is forbidden to me?” His lips twitched, as if at a joke only he understood.

“What ship were you on, again?” asked Luhkkagh, desperately trying to fill a gap in the conversation.

“The Kaghatil. I have an idea, I could tell you about the Sughin army! Information of that sort should prove very useful indeed to you.”

“Ah-ha, sense at last,” Hilmat said under his breath.

“They are on a religious crusade,” Ghilik said. “For centuries the thirty-nine tribes of the Sughin have been forbidden by their laws to leave the bounds of their territory, but a new leader has arisen among them, a bold young man who has united the tribes under his hand. Once they believed they were bound by fate; now he teaches them that it is their mission to serve death itself. He has mingled his own ideas with a morbid cult from Sretskalawa.”

“What about Kasus?” another man asked.

“You were punished because of our departure, weren’t you, Lighistun? Now while you’re in exile here, he stands at the head of Hekkzaghin’s cult of death. I met him once, and I can tell you that they are a matched pair, he and Hekkzaghin.”

“Do you think they will try to annihilate us in Istis?”

“I do not believe they will be satisfied until all the world is in their grasp,” said Ghilik, casting his gaze around the room. “And I believe that they may very well succeed.”

~

“So what were you telling them?” asked Tailei as the travelers continued on their journey. They had left the group of P’ugdaghun amiably, but there had been a definite unease in the farewells they were given. Now as they continued through Istis, steering clear of the busy shipyards, Tailei’s curiosity got the better of her.

“Are you troubled by suspicion?” wondered Ghilik. “It was merely an account of some of my journeys, and certainly nothing that concerns you. That was the agreement made with them, you will recall.”

Touching Tailei’s hand, Semsa whispered in her ear, “I understood, and I will tell you later.”

“What languages are used in Apalakki? Are they all greatly different from the Sughin tongue?” Alzurid asked.

“All these languages really do cause confusion, don’t they? We should abolish them. To answer your question, you will hear the native speech of Apalakki, the speech of the P’ugdaghun, the eastern tongue of Malhun, and a hundred shadings in between, which are all, if I recall correctly, related to that of the Sughin. But if you could not understand my recent discourse with my countrymen, you will be at a loss in Apalakki also.”

“Very well. I will be prepared.”

This second leg of their journey was the longer by several days. To Semsa this land was a wonder in its availability of fresh water, even though Alzurid and Tailei found it less appealing compared to their own homes. This was the southernmost portion of the realm between the twin rivers, and although it contained several cities Ghilik led them on a course that bypassed all of these. They came to the river Avikkagh and when Alzurid asked about ferries, Ghilik laughed and shook his head.

“We have no need of such inconveniences anymore,” he said, and gestured to the cloaked pallbearers. Four arms enfolded in cloth went up, and four gloved hands spread themselves flat. A sudden dizziness came over Tailei; the land and the water seemed to spin around her; there was a roaring in her ears. She fell to her knees and closed her eyes, and when she opened them again the view on the other side of the river had changed.

“What did you do?” Semsa asked in disbelief.

“A minor trick. A foretaste of the wonders to come.”

Alzurid was frowning as he looked from one bank of the river to the other. “So you moved us somehow across the Avikkagh –”

“A concise description.”

“Why not just send us straight to Apalakki?”

“Because,” Ghilik answered with obvious, exaggerated, patience, “that is not possible. Rivers are very special places for these purposes. Don’t you Lazulhi understand that?”

Alzurid turned to face Ghilik and lowered his head so he could stare straight into the shorter man’s eyes. “Do we understand that, we who live in the embrace of the three rivers Berisyl, Syvan, and Trosin? We know very well how the flowing lines of water join and separate the land on either side. We have accepted you as our guide, but not as our master.”

“You have accepted us as your guide and protector,” Ghilik said. “What is it that makes a lord a lord but the power to guide and protect?”

A half-smile appeared on Alzurid’s face and he stepped back. “There is the issue of sacred responsibility.”

“I worship gods too, even if they are not the same as yours. Now! We should be on our way.”

“A minute’s rest,” pleaded Tailei. Her head was still spinning.

“If you find it necessary.”

After a moment Tailei was able to stand without her legs giving way, and when Ghilik saw this he gave a signal for the pallbearers to lift the sarcophagus and march on again. His three companions followed suit.

~

The rest of their journey was without much incident, although as they passed into the Apalakki peninsula Alzurid began to worry about their supply of food. But his worries were for nothing, as with a little rationing they made it without starving to Dilt’igh, a town not far from Apalakki which had been recently conquered by Kasus and Hekkzaghin.

They stopped here briefly to rest and purchase a few provisions at the market, even though Ghilik assured them that they would be welcomed grandly by Kasus, and would be honored guests at feasts. There were few obvious signs of Dilt’igh’s new allegiance, and when Tailei wondered about this Ghilik explained that Dilt’igh had been rewarded for its quick surrender by gentle treatment and continuity between the old and new regimes. “Right now everyone’s too scared to cause any trouble. They’ve seen the Sughin hordes – my sincere apologies, Semsa – and they’ve seen what happened to nearby Mightihis when it offered resistance.”

Alzurid was faced away from the others, peering at the horizon. “A storm is coming,” he said without turning. “A great one.”

“We are the storm,” said Ghilik. “We keep going.”

From Dilt’igh to Apalakki it was only a few days of travel. Well before reaching the city itself, however, they reached the army that surrounded it. And before reaching the army the storm was upon them, and they struggled through the pounding rain, following Ghilik’s apparently faultless sense of direction. Water collected in the hollows of the sarcophagus’s carving and overflowed to run down the sides. Even the four pallbearers seemed to be affected by the water, hunching angular shoulders and cringing into themselves.

They were stopped by a sentry, who aimed his spear at them and in the Sughin tongue demanded their names and purpose. Ghilik raised his left hand, bending his fingers like claws, and the spear slowly fell, allowing Ghilik to come near the sentry and whisper in his ear. “Ah…yes, of course,” the scout said.

“Wait here. I’ll be back in an hour,” Ghilik told the others, before walking on alone. The pallbearers lowered the sarcophagus and arranged themselves around it in silence.

“All right, we’ll just stand here in the rain getting soaked,” said Tailei, and crossed her arms.

“What did he tell you?” Alzurid asked the sentry, who made no reply. Sighing, Alzurid looked towards Semsa. She was shivering and hugging herself tightly. “Are you all right?” he asked softy, touching her shoulder.

“I’m miserable,” she said. “What is Ghilik doing? Did he know that the city was under siege?”

“I am beginning to think that he knows very many things that he shouldn’t. I am beginning to think, too, that we should not be so quick to follow his direction from now on.” With the weather raging he could barely see Apalakki beyond the massed army and crude siege engines. There was suddenly a great flash of lightning arcing to the city, followed by a great inarticulate cry from the Sughin. Semsa shuddered, and Alzurid put an arm around her and held her close.

~

The high gods sat in council when they made the land of Lakki. They sent Hilagghus to pull the sea away from the land, and then Silahu drew the rivers up to the mountains. The rivers named Avihilun and Avikkagh were set near to one another, and they loved one another with a very great desire, so that the land between them became fruitful. Men and women spilled forth from Duvan’s mouth and multiplied in Kupavim.
-Generations of K’itarbul (I)

Chapter 6