Main Groundbreakers: The Complete Collection

Groundbreakers: The Complete Collection

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Three novellas, collected here in one epic adventure! GROUNDBREAKERS is a fun, fast-paced epic fantasy that’s unlike anything you’ve ever read before. Magic is real, and it’s ruining everything! Gods and sorcerers conspire to gather more power, and hundreds of innocents end up enslaved or dead in their wake. At least one woman is hoping to change that. Her name is Sygne, and she is a scientist. Jamal is a former slave and a skilled warrior who’s hoping to make his own change—from swashbuckler to singer-songwriter. In many ways they couldn’t be more different. Book-smart versus battle-scarred. Empirical versus spiritual. But soon Jamal and Sygne are inextricably drawn into a supernatural struggle to survive—and a race to find the Threefold Key, a relic that might hold the power to rewrite all of creation!

Year:
2020
Language:
english
ISBN:
B084QBKK3T
File:
EPUB, 438 KB
Download (epub, 438 KB)

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Table of Contents


	Map

Book One

Interlude

1 – Carnage in Krit

2 – The Court of the Conqueror

3 – Paean and Suffering

4 – The Gatecrasher

5 – The Rescue Attempt

6 – The Bell Tolls

7 – Dead Bodies

8 – The Deep Down

9 – Mementos

10 – Electricity

11 – The Duel

12 – The Trial

13 – The Road

Book Two

Interlude

14 – The Fleshpots of Sarthoon

15 – Among Savages

16 – An Arrival

17 – Death in the Dark

18 – A Slip of the Mind

19 – A Departure

20 – Quandary at Skeleton Head Mountain

21 – The Dragon Blood Tree

22 – Ambush at the Bazaar

23 – Awakenings

24 – Floating in Limbo

25 – The Abyss Gazes Also

26 – Firearm

27 – Fuel to the Fire

28 – A to Z

29 – The Passage

30 – Death is the Only Escape

31 – Eulogy

32 – A Quiet Night

Book Three

Interlude

33 – Allées of the Garden Reach

34 – A Stealth Mission

35 – The Deep Tower

36 – This Immortal Coil

37 – A Cold Draught

38 – Disclosure

39 – Garden of Delights and Darkness

40 – Homecoming

41 – Entreaties to the Demigod King

42 – The Study of Phrens

43 – The Succubus

44 – Introductions

45 – Escape Plan

46 – Run!

47 – Baptism

48 – The Alpha Protagonist and the Omega

49 – Interior Monologues

50 – Independent Streaks

51 – The Royal We

52 – Best Intentions

53 – Bon Voyage

From the Author





	GROUNDBREAKERS



	Three Novellas; One Epic Adventure:



	– Book 1 –

	MYTHS OF THE FALLEN CITY



	– Book 2 –

	RELICS OF THE DESERT TOMB



	– Book 3 –

	BLADES OF THE DEMIGOD KING





Map





Book One




	Groundbreakers

	MYTHS OF THE FALLEN CITY





Interlude




	Imagine a land of untamed beauty. Soaring mountains and deep blue seas. Steaming jungles and treacherous deserts. It is a land called Embhra, and it exists in history’s first era. A time when mankind was still young.

	You might call Embhra the cradle of civilization. Although it is more like the nursery school of civilization. Nascent empires toddle from one fertile crescent to the next. They are snot-nosed—not yet potty-trained. Watch as these young kingdoms stumble ; into each other. They babble together, and new superstitions and prejudices take root. They throw fits, and these clashes lead to war. They spread germs, and plagues ravage the land.

	In the midst of every war, through every outbreak of plague and pestilence, the people hope that higher powers will bring salvation. The people build idols. They offer sacrifices. They bargain with strange mages and witchdoctors.

	Desperately, they put their faith in magic.

	Because magic is very much a real thing in Embhra.

	You might say, ‘Aha! Well that sounds good at least.’

	But let me ask you: What is so good about magic? Have you ever had a wizard do you a favor? Have you ever had a positive experience with a river nymph? A pleasant encounter with an elemental? I daresay you have not.

	That’s because, ultimately, magic is only good to those who can understand it and control it. Magic is for sorcerers and gods and demons—higher powers who jealously guard their secrets and use them as tools of war and oppression.

	Embhra needs something new. Something that works for everyone.





1 – Carnage in Krit




	Ten days ago, the great and terrible War Warlock Yur vowed that the streets of Krit would run red with blood. Yur had arrived at the city gates with half of the Issulthraqi army behind him, and a hundred cavemen marauders adding their support. King Kritukhaluwat V had refused to yield, and so Yur and the Issulthraqis began their siege.

	Five days later, the War Warlock was victorious and in a position to make good on his promise. The streets of Krit ran red with noble blood. Well, really just Krit’s main avenue. It’s difficult to spread bodily fluids over too wide of an area.

	That was five days ago; now the Kritans’ blood had darkened and congealed, and Krit’s central avenue was paved in scabs. A tall, pale woman walked cautiously along the curb of that gory lane. Her hair was cut short, and it was the color of wildfire.

	Her name was Sygne Eugenia.

	“Hello?” Sygne called out. “Is anyone there? I’m here to help!”

	She hadn’t seen another living person in over an hour—and she had been searching desperately. Occasionally she saw dogs, cats, and macaques—animals that had shared a formerly genial relationship with the people of Krit—but now they scuttled away from her sight as if deeply ashamed of the red smears that ran across their muzzles. The vultures were far more obvious to spot; they croaked in loud outrage as she passed by, as if the city streets belonged to them now. As if she was the intruder.

	But if the fallen city belonged to anyone, it belonged to the flies. Sygne had never seen such a horde of insects—so many, grown so large. They were gleaming and faceted, like cut gems. Emeralds and agates and obsidian. Their constant buzzing permeated the air.

	Sygne pushed aside a door on leather straps and leaned into the gloomy interior of what appeared to be a tailor’s shop. The shop seemed deserted, but it still smelled of incense. A fine wool carpet was stretched across the floor.

	“Anyone here?” she called. “Anyone need...”

	Her breath caught in her throat as a shirtless, muscular man leaped out of the shadows. With a small peep, Sygne finished her sentence. “...help!”

	“Gozir’s gaze!” the man said. “You should be careful! I nearly...”

	He gripped the handle of a shearing knife tucked into his belt. He hadn’t drawn the blade; instead he brandished a brilliant smile at Sygne. He was handsome, and Sygne might have blushed if her face wasn’t already reddened by the strangeness of the scene. The man was of Ardhian descent, with dark, mocha-brown skin. He flexed his muscles as he stood straight and nodded at her.

	Sygne stammered, “I... I was looking for survivors.”

	The man said matter-of-factly, “There are no survivors here.”

	Sygne had been on the verge of crying for the last hour. Her lip quivered; she couldn’t help herself. The carnage she had seen... The stranger’s sudden appearance...

	“No... Don’t...” the Ardhian started. “Don’t cry. I mean there are no survivors here. They left. All of the common folk fled from the city as soon as Yur crushed the city gate. The slaves have all surrendered. They’ve probably already been sold to new homes.”

	“Then what are you doing here?” Sygne asked. “Looting?”

	Again the stranger favored her with his overbearingly charming smile. She noticed that he was holding a gaudy dyed ox-hide vest in one hand. His other hand was still on the handle of the shearing knife. Sygne took a step toward the street.

	“Wait,” the stranger said.

	“You are looting!”

	“I am. I am.” He nodded eagerly, as if this admission of guilt would somehow make her more likely to hear him out. He shuffled across the carpet and touched her shoulder.

	A tiny spark passed between them.

	The stranger pulled back his hand and yelped. Sygne took the opportunity to take a few steps backward, out of the shop and onto the curb.

	“Tiny lightning!” he cried. “You’re a magician? I don’t want any trouble...”

	“That wasn’t magic,” Sygne protested. “That was science.”

	“Science,” the man said in an awed voice. “Are you one of those new mages from the East? A scientician?”

	“‘Scientician?’”

	“Yes. A magician who specializes in science.”

	“No. I’m not a magician. And I didn’t make that spark on purpose. It was probably an instance of electrical attraction.”

	“I don’t understand.”

	“It’s all a bit theoretical. We don’t fully understand the ways that electricity and magnetism work.”

	“This is fascinating,” the man said. “You’re obviously very smart.”

	The Ardhian stood at the threshold of the storefront and stared hard at Sygne’s face. She wondered: What did he see? A pale foreigner with skin freckled by the sun. Orange hair cut very short, in a functional style. What did he see when he stared into the diluted blue of Sygne’s big, wide eyes? A woman who was too naive for her age—and too curious for her own good. A woman who was woefully unprepared for the ambiguities and brutalities of life among the Golden Empires.

	She knew that he was trying to draw her into a conversation—manipulate her intentions. And yet she couldn’t help herself; it wasn’t often that people voluntarily asked her about science. “You see, when you shuffle objects—like rummaging through fabrics in a tailor shop, or crossing a woolen rug—you can exchange energies and build an attraction. Back at the Academy, Mentor Thalekter has studied this using wool and amber—”

	The man said, “We should discuss this further. Perhaps at the palace? I can get you in, you know. My name is Jamal.”

	“I was headed there myself,” she admitted. “But first I was checking to see if anyone needed my help down here.”

	“I need your help,” Jamal said. He puffed out his bare chest. “Will you promise that you won’t tell anyone you found me here, searching for much-needed clothes? Can you imagine what the Issulthraqis would do to a black man who’d been accused of thievery? They’d probably throw me to the cavemen.”

	“Troglodytes,” Sygne said. “You should call them troglodytes. It’s a more culturally conscious term.”

	“Fine. Troglodytes,” Jamal said. “Will you promise you won’t report me to the authorities? You don’t want this to be my big break.”

	“What are you going to break?”

	“No. That’s a phrase I came up with. You see, I’m a poet-singer. Well, an aspiring poet-singer. I’ve heard it’s important for famous poets to invent their own phrases. To call a thing by other words that have nothing to do with it.”

	“You mean a metaphor?”

	“Yes,” Jamal said. “Our language is still young, with hundreds of phrases just waiting to be spun into existence. One good turn of phrase can make a poet famous. Anyway, a ‘big break’ is any horrible event that breaks your heart. And trust me, I’ve had more than my fair share of heartbreak. I was an orphan once. I guess I still am. And I was a slave. And a conscripted soldier. Then a bodyguard. And a seafarer. And a soldier of fortune… Little fortune… How about you? Have you had heartbreak?”

	“I…” Sygne nodded cautiously. “I grew up an orphan too.”

	“See? You and I. We understand each other.” Jamal took a few steps closer, his arms outstretched. “What’s your name?”

	“Sygne Eugenia.”

	“Ah. A very pretty name. Now, are you going to let me live out my dream of becoming a world-famous singer-songwriter? Or are you going to let this be my big break?”

	Sygne heard the scrape of metal on a paving stone nearby. She turned to see a troglodyte emerge from around the corner of the next loam-brick building. He wore a regular-sized helmet and breastplate, which were awkwardly small on his massive body. He carried a bronze sword in one of his hairy fists.

	“Me hear you,” the troglodyte grunted. His eyes gleamed.

	Sygne held out her hands. “Hello. I mean no harm here.”

	The troglodyte lumbered closer, and Sygne’s knees locked. She couldn’t run.

	“Me see more blood to be spilled.” The caveman’s face contorted into an even uglier arrangement of features. One eye squinting, the other bulging. The left side of his mouth peeled back to show yellow fangs.

	“Wait… I…” Sygne glanced to the doorway of the tailor shop. “Help me please?”

	But Jamal was gone.

	She backed away from the troglodyte and began talking very fast. “I am here as a guest of the palace. You don’t understand.”

	“Me not under-stand. Me over-stand!” The troglodyte loomed over Sygne and raised his heavy sword.

	 “Wait!” Sygne cried. “Wait!”

	In a blur, Jamal swung out from the doorway of the tailor’s, appearing behind the troglodyte and kicking hard at the back of his leg. The troglodyte stumbled to his knee, using one hand to catch himself. He squatted there for an instant; then he twisted his body backward and swung his sword at Jamal.

	Sygne shrieked. She was certain that she would see the caveman’s sword cut through the aspiring poet’s guts. Instead the sword stopped short with a clank of metal against metal. Jamal looked as shocked as Sygne felt. She glanced from his face to the shearing knife clenched tightly in both his hands.

	For three seconds they struggled against each other, their two blades grinding together. It was nearly ridiculous. The troglodyte’s bronze sword was three feet long. Jamal’s blade was less than six inches. The brute was sprawled awkwardly on his knees, and he held his sword with only one hand. But still, Jamal must have been very strong. Most troglodytes were powerful enough to heave boulders or crack sapling trees with their bare hands.

	“Ugh,” Jamal grunted at his hairy foe. “You’re mouth-breathing on me.” With that, he leaped backward.

	The big hominid stood to his full height. He chuckled and slashed the air with his sword.

	“Me has big sword. Big sword BEATS puny knife!”

	Jamal’s blade flashed in the sun as he drew his knife hand back to his ear. Another flash, and his arm arced out and down.

	A loud thwack cut short the troglodyte’s laughter. The caveman turned until he was facing Sygne. Jamal’s knife was buried up to its handle in the troglodyte’s eye socket. The caveman burbled some inscrutable curse, and blood streamed from his nose.

	“Ah,” Jamal said. “‘Puny knife’ emerges victorious after all.”

	The troglodyte swayed, staggered off the curb, and fell face first onto the scabbed street.

	Sygne was stunned, but Jamal blithely slipped into his purloined vest and brushed a fleck of dirt from one shoulder. “We should leave this area.”

	“You’re just going to leave?” Sygne asked. “You just killed a man!”

	Jamal shrugged to the street. “That wasn’t a man.”

	“But…”

	“I just saved your life, Sygne. I didn’t have to come back for you just now.”

	“That’s true.” Sygne let her hands drop to her sides. “And you only had a knife. You beat an armored troglodyte with one puny knife.”

	“Well,” Jamal shrugged with ostentatious modesty. “If you thought that was impressive, wait until you hear me sing!”

	“I...”

	“Did I hear you say that you’re headed to the palace as well? Are you performing?”

	“Yes,” Sygne couldn’t take her eyes off of the troglodyte. “I... I’m going to show the War Warlock a display of pyrotechnics.”

	“Pyro. Technics?”

	“Colorful explosions of flame,” Sygne explained. “I’m hoping he’ll be impressed with my science and...”

	“Hey.” Jamal pointed to the place on her shoulder where they had exchanged a charge of electrical attraction. “You should show him that lightning bolt trick. I bet he’ll be really impressed by that. It’s a nice, violent surprise.”

	“No,” Sygne said. “Not violence. I want to impress him with the altruistic benefits of science.” She sighed. “Yur has conquered so many lands... If I can convince him to use science to improve the living conditions of the people who live under his rule, it could save hundreds of lives. The benefits of proper hygiene alone—”

	“But what if he only wants to use your science-powers to create better weapons?” Jamal held up his finger. “Like larger pyro-technics to kill his enemies?”

	“I suppose I hadn’t thought of that.” Sygne shrugged. “I hope that once he learns about science, he will become so enlightened that he won’t even consider waging war anymore.”

	Jamal rolled his eyes. “Wow. You are so naive. It’s almost adorable.”





2 – The Court of the Conqueror




	A pleasant sea breeze passed through the courtyard of the Kritan Palace-on-the-Peak. Regal fabrics, all in the deep crimson of the conquering Issulthraqi Army, hung from every wall and colonnade. The banners billowed like sails in the breeze. In the hanging gardens, flowering vines opened their blooms and sighed with fragrant breaths. The ferns shivered and made shushing sounds.

	The sea breeze had the added benefit of driving the flies away. Swarms of flies had infested the formerly proud city-state of Krit, but the Palace-on-the-Peak was well elevated on its mount of black basalt—and protected from the swarms by the wind. Jamal could almost make himself forget about the carnage he had seen on the streets below.

	His venture had gone fairly well. He’d returned with a new ox-hide vest that fit quite flatteringly over his wide chest. There had been one witness, but he had convinced her to not inform on him—saved her life, really, and looked quite glorious in the process. Now he had to carry out the next part of his plan, and then he’d be one step closer to his dreams of fame and fortune.

	On the table in front of him stood a hammered metal cup filled with honey-and-hibiscus lemonade. Tart and sweet. Next to the lemonade squatted a kiln-fired mug filled with wine. According to Jamal’s drinking companion, Hadat the Harmonious, the wine was a rare vintage from the faraway coasts of the Sanguine Sea. Hadat claimed it had a nice, dry quality, with hints of oak and roses. Jamal wasn’t a termite, so he didn’t see how oak could be a desirable flavor. He was happy to stick to his lemonade, and luckily Hadat had stopped paying attention to Jamal’s cups. They had been trading drinks for the past two hours, and Hadat was nearly past the point of paying attention to anything.

	“To ambition!” Hadat toasted.

	“I’ll drink to that,” Jamal said.

	Hadat the Harmonious drank directly from their two-foot tall amphora of wine. “To more Ardhians earning their way in the Golden Empires!”

	“Yes.” Jamal tipped his mug in Hadat’s direction. They were both ‘Ardhians’—with tightly curled black hair and dark skin—but that was where their physical similarities ended. Hadat was a good ten years older than Jamal—and fifty pounds heavier. Hadat wore a full beard, speckled with gray. Jamal sported a tightly trimmed mustache and goatee.

	Sweat gleamed on Hadat’s brow, despite the late evening breeze. “Through hard work, now. You understand that?”

	Jamal let his wine slip from his mouth back to his mug. He moved his throat with a dry swallow. “Of course. I was a slave—remember?”

	Hadat the Harmonious exhaled hard, and his lips flapped together like a camel’s. Jamal glared over the rim of his cup; the fat poet sounded almost disdainful. Hadat said, “Of course I remember, my virile valet. Excluding myself, I believe every Ardhian I’ve met in the Golden Empires has been either a slave or a former slave. But that doesn’t mean that any of them understand the true meaning of hard work. In fact, quite the opposite.”

	Jamal couldn’t help himself; he scowled at his fellow Ardhian. Hadat was from the diamond-rich, mountainous kingdom of Bombasa. From what he’d been told, Jamal’s family originated from the primeval forests of Kubtu. But Jamal had no idea if that was true; he’d been separated from his family and his home continent at the age of two.

	Of course, to the people on this side of the Slumbering Sea, Hadat and Jamal were both simply ‘Ardhians’—they both hailed from one steaming, uncivilized continent named Ardhia. And Ardhia was better left ignored, unless the empires of Embhra were in need of slave labor or precious jewels.

	That didn’t stop Hadat from drawing contrasts between the two of them, even if he was the only one who would appreciate his distinctions. He said, “I’ll show you what I mean. Let me ask you a few questions.”

	Jamal sighed. “We’re going to need more drinks for this.”

	“Yes! You’re right.” Hadat lifted the amphora to his mouth and slurped greedily.

	Jamal drank as from his tin cup, enjoying the texture of honey slipping down his throat.

	The fat poet asked, “What gods do you believe in?”

	“The Specularity,” Jamal answered. “The Lords of the Sky.”

	“The gods of Gjuir-Khib? And the Gjuirans bought you straight off of the slavers’ galley?”

	Jamal nodded.

	“And you truly believe what they believe? That all mortals exist simply as a source of entertainment for the ‘Lords of the Sky,’ the Specularity? Isn’t that a sad way to live your life?”

	“That depends on how entertaining you are.” Jamal winked.

	“Fair enough. Let me ask you: How did you become a soldier? And a free man?”

	Jamal’s fingers ran across the scars on his forearms. “That’s a long story. I’d rather not talk about that.”

	“And now you are an aspiring poet-singer. And what type of music do you play?”

	Jamal smirked. He had been Hadat’s manservant, bodyguard, and occasional apprentice for the last two months. He asked Hadat, “Are you too drunk to remember? I like Melodic Post-Diluvial.”

	“Ahh. A genre that is most popular in Gjuir-Khib. Your former masters have decided your tastes.” Hadat the Harmonious crossed his arms over the bulge of his belly and nodded knowingly. “Again.”

	“I don’t see your point,” Jamal said. “How is this proving that I don’t know about hard work?”

	“You don’t know about choosing to work. Sadly, you’ve been reared to let others make your choices for you. You’ve settled into that luxury.”

	“Luxury? I was a slave.”

	“Yes. And you have a slave’s typical sense of entitlement. A freedom from choice. From ambition. Not that I blame you for it. It’s been bred into you.”

	Jamal stared at his crude mug of bitter wine. He was quite tired of listening to Hadat the Harmonious prattle on. He reached for a vial tucked in a hidden pocket of his baggy dimije trousers.

	Hadat patted the table. “Don’t look so forlorn, my muscular manservant. Let us toast again.”

	“Wait,” Jamal nodded to the amphora. “Let us toast properly this time. Cup-to-cup. Allow me to pour you a draught.” He uncorked his vial and palmed it, so that he could pour wine (and the vial’s contents) into Hadat’s mug.

	Hadat chuckled. “You see? Former slaves are always so eager to serve. Old habits are hard to break.”

	“I’ll break this jar over your head,” Jamal muttered.

	“What’s that?” Hadat hummed as he drank.

	“Oh nothing. You know, you certainly do have an endurance for drinking.”

	“Ah. Thank you.” Hadat touched his chest. “My father was a drunk.”

	“I see.” Jamal put away his vial. A drop of liquid spread over one fingertip, and he carefully wiped it against his trousers. He didn’t want to dose himself with a Mizzuline Elixir. It was said that the Mizzuls ensorcelled their opiates so that they induced the quickest, most complete…

	Hadat’s pupils rolled back in his head, meeting with his dropping eyelids. He fell forward, and Jamal had just enough time to catch the fat poet’s forehead in one hand, like a coconut, before it bashed into the table.

	Jamal’s eyes cut from side to side. Issulthraqi guards patrolled the courtyard, but none were close enough to see Hadat’s sudden collapse. If they saw the poet now, sleeping peacefully on the table, they would assume he had finally passed out from too much wine. Would anyone be alarmed that one of the night’s premier performers had blacked out, just a few hours before War Warlock Yur’s celebration was set to begin? Jamal reached under the table and pulled Hadat’s genuine tortoise-shell lyre over to his chair. He knew how the people of Embhra thought. One black man with a lyre looked just like the next black man with a lyre. By the time Hadat the Harmonious woke up, it would be morning, and Jamal would have already taken his place.

	Jamal straightened his ‘borrowed’ vest and strummed his ‘borrowed’ harp. “You want to teach me about ambition?” he asked the sleeping man. “I think you need a few lessons yourself.”

	***

	As she entered the palace courtyard, Sygne found her eyes drawn immediately to the megalithic statue of the Kritan love goddess Ulthal, which stood thirty cubits high in the garden’s southeast corner. The fables said that Ulthal had four breasts (all the better to succor and feed the passions of men). By comparison, the conquering Issulthraqis worshipped a goddess of passion named Bliss, and Bliss had a bosom that was more anthropomorphic in its wondrous abundance. So craftsmen had removed two of Ulthal’s teats in an effort to create a closer accord with the Fabled Pantheon of Issulthraq. Ulthal’s extra breasts were currently propped onto a construction platform that had been raised on a massive pile of sand around the goddess’s thighs.

	 “It’s a shame, isn’t it?” asked the woman at Sygne’s side. She wore a bodice that was bedazzled with dozens of tiny bronze coins. Several layers of semi-transparent fabric were draped over her hips.

	Sygne nodded. “It’s true, Ramyya. They’ve ruined a beautiful statue.”

	“Forget the statue,” Ramyya said. “Once Bliss has taken Ulthal’s place, Ulthal will be forgotten forever. Her and all of the gods of Krit.”

	Ramyya pointed to the statue in the courtyard’s southwestern corner. This was a representation of Xir, the Kritans’ beardless god of war. The Issulthraqis worshipped a war goddess, called Victory, and soon Ulthal’s extra breasts would be rolled across the lawn so that they could augment the southwestern statue. Xir would transition to the goddess Victory, and the deities of Krit would be another step closer to being supplanted by the Fabled Pantheon of Issulthraq.

	“It is a shame,” Sygne said, although she only half meant it. She knew that magic was a real thing; she couldn’t deny that. But she hadn’t seen conclusive evidence that immortals actually existed. Instead, Sygne was much more concerned about the fates of mere mortals. She asked her new friend, “Ramyya, are you sad that Kritukhaluwat and all his lineage are dead?”

	Ramyya continued staring at her god of war. “Don’t forget his bodyguards and generals.”

	“What?”

	“All of his henchmen are dead too.” Ramyya straightened her back, and her cleavage pressed tight against her glittering bodice. “And why should I feel sad for them? For generations they treated us dancing girls like pieces of meat.”

	Sygne sighed unhappily. “And now they’re pieces of meat.”

	Ramyya stifled a laugh with the back of her hand. “Oh, that’s funny. Thanks for trying to brighten my spirits, Syggie. Now, tell me how I can help you set up your scientician spells!”

	“They’re not spells,” Sygne said. “They’re pyrotechnics.”

	Sygne saw two men walking along the far end of the courtyard. Actually, one of the men was walking, and he seemed to be supporting the other man’s weight as they lumbered through a line of olive trees. The walking man looked like Jamal, the aspiring poet-singer that Sygne had met that morning.

	“Syggie?”

	“Oh, sorry. I was distracted. Thanks for your help with this, Ramyya.”

	“Of course! I need something to distract me as well. I can’t remember ever feeling this nervous. I want my dance to go perfectly tonight.” Ramyya glanced around to make sure that no one was eavesdropping. “I’ve heard that the War Warlock can be very moody. And Sessuk has been very short-tempered lately.”

	Sygne led the dancing girl to the center of the ceremonial stage. War Warlock Yur’s chair was stationed at a place of honor on the dais, giving him a sweeping view of the stage and the beautiful blue pool that marked the center of the Kritan courtyard. A series of squat bronze braziers lined the pool, and Sygne decided that was where she would arrange her pyrotechnics—where their light would be magnificently reflected by the water.

	Sygne paced toward the pool where it butted against the open edge of the stage. The water was far too deep to be a wading pool. In fact, Sygne could not see its bottom at all, even though the water seemed to glow eerily, as if it was illuminated from underneath. She’d heard whispers that some sort of mythical entity lived in the tidal caves beneath the palace’s basalt peak. Was this glowing water a sign of that creature’s magical energy?

	A huge bronze bell dangled over the center of the pool. It was suspended by a massive archway with a webwork of ropes and streamers branching out from it. It was obvious that the pool and its enormous bell were meant to be the centerpiece of the courtyard—and of the War Warlock’s victory celebration. She wanted her portion of the spectacle to be as bold and as glorious as possible—a display that would leave Yur feeling intoxicated on his own sense of triumph, and more receptive to Sygne’s proposals about water purification, medical sterilization, and techniques for sanitary food storage.

	In all, Sygne and Ramyya prepared two dozen fireworks. Charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter—all rolled into small tubes with additional chemicals to add color. She had a combustible compound for every hue of the rainbow, if she didn’t count indigo. (And several Mentors at the Academy had argued vociferously that you shouldn’t.) Sygne tied at least two cylinders to the edge of each brazier, using knots of nearly invisible thread. She would pull the threads during her performance, which would slip loose the knots and let the tubes roll into the lighted braziers. A few seconds in the fire—and boom!

	When she was done, Sygne stood straight and dusted her hands against her thighs. She was proud of her work.

	“Ramyya? Sygne?” Vizier Sessuk strolled briskly onto the stage. Five days ago, Sessuk had been King Kritukhaluwat V’s chief adviser; now he was acting as War Warlock Yur’s ‘counselor pro tem’ in charge of the transfer from Kritan to Issulthraqi rule. Sygne had just arrived in the court, and already she had heard whispers that Sessuk was an unapologetic traitor. But others, including Ramyya, had pointed out that Sessuk had prevented additional bloodshed by quickly earning Yur’s trust and then pointing out the most appropriate loyalists and successors for execution.

	Sessuk wore a resplendent black robe with a collar and epaulets embroidered in gold chains and beads of green malachite. Those extra flourishes on the top portions of his robe showed that the vizier had originally hailed from Gjuir-Khib, far to the west. The Gjuiran Empire was so distant and so large that it shared a begrudging detente with Issulthraq. This was another reason why Sessuk had kept his head, while the rest of the royal entourage had been smeared in the streets.

	 “Most honored, Sessuk.” Ramyya curtsied.

	“I trust you will both be ready to perform in the Issulthraqi celebration?”

	“Yes, Sessuk,” Ramyya said. “I’ll be going to my quarters soon. To finish getting dressed.”

	“Ah. But in your profession, being ‘ready’ and being ‘dressed’ are two entirely different things. Are they not?” The vizier topped off his jest with a smarmy grin. “Sygne Eugenia? Have you made your alchemical preparations?”

	“Chemical. Not alchemical,” Sygne clarified. “But, yes, I have. Ramyya helped—”

	“Ah. Excellent.” Sessuk turned to leave. “I’m sure—in one way or another—you will both give the War Warlock a show that he will remember—for the rest of his life.”

	The vizier exited stage right—his robe swishing dramatically behind him.

	“Don’t say it,” Ramyya warned.

	“What?” Sygne asked.

	“Don’t make any comments about the vizier. He’s a great sorcerer, you know.”

	“You think he’ll magically know if we talk about him?”

	“That’s why I called him a great sorcerer.” Ramyya winked. “Not to mention handsome.”

	Sygne laughed. She glanced again to the far end of the courtyard. Had that been Jamal she had seen? Who was that man he’d been carrying? What was he up to?

	Ramyya grabbed her hand. “Let’s head back to the dressing rooms. It will be sundown soon, and I have a feeling this will be an eventful night.”





3 – Paean and Suffering




	A small swarm of flies had infiltrated the courtyard, just in time for War Warlock Yur’s celebration. Sygne watched the insects whirl in the air over her head. Their restless, nauseous motion made for a good impression of her stomach. Ramyya was currently performing. Jamal the poet would go next, although for some reason Sessuk kept introducing him as ‘Hadat.’ After Jamal, it would be Sygne’s turn.

	From her spot hidden behind the braziers at the left side of the stage, Sygne studied the dreaded War Warlock Yur. He was a heavyset man, with a bald, pointed head that looked like an egg settled in a nest of jowls, chins, and neck-fat. Yur had watched the night’s festivities with a perpetually glum look on his face, even as his soldiers and sycophants hurried around him, offering drinks and tiny plates of food.

	Issulthraqi emissaries and devotees from many leagues away had converged on Krit to take part in the night’s celebration, and so the garden was filled with guests. Dozens of finely dressed Issulthraqi nobles were lined up along the dais—and at the edges of the courtyard pool, which emanated an unearthly turquoise glow.

	Many of the guests had come out of a morbid sense of curiosity—to see what had been done to the formerly proud rulers of Krit and to see the wonders and riches that had been plundered from them. Others had come as a political maneuver. They planned to pay their respects to Yur—and vicariously to the Emperor in Issulthraq. With tonight’s celebration, Emperor Avrarrnuvanin would officially add ‘Regent of Krit’ to his growing list of honorifics. In the name of Avrarrnuvanin, War Warlock Yur had conquered two minor empires, three middling city-states, one smallish plutocracy, two nomadic tribes, and a half-a-dozen unaffiliated villages. It was widely accepted that the Emperor was quite pleased with his growing list of titles and territories, but most assumed Avrarrnuvanin would never see his new fiefdoms. Supposedly Avrarrnuvanin’s feet were swollen with gout and his brain was withered with syphilis. He rarely waddled beyond the front door of his harem.

	In Sygne’s mind, that fact made the fall of Krit even more tragic. It was simply another hollow accomplishment meant to feed the egos of two men: Yur and his Emperor. Could such men ever truly care about the altruistic power of science?

	For a moment Sygne tried to focus on the dancing girl gliding across the stage. Ramyya’s performance was long and lithely exaggerated. With each minute, she shed a few more layers of clothes.

	Sygne felt fairly underdressed herself. Upon Ramyya’s recommendation, Sygne had dressed in the current fashion of an urbane Issulthraqi woman. That meant she wore a pair of elegant, strappy sandals that laced up to her knees, and a tiny pair of bloomers that barely covered her backside. Ramyya had advised, “Just in case Yur isn’t impressed with your brains, you better show off some of your other assets. The Issulthraqis have historically appreciated a pair of long legs.” Sygne was tall, like most folk from the Northern Hinterlands. But her long legs were also very pale—and here and there they showed blue veins running underneath her skin. Also the smudge of a bruise on her left thigh. Her top was a very loose and blousy kaftan, but its hem ended at a point slightly higher than her hips.

	Someone leaned close and murmured in her ear. “It may be too late to tell you this, but I think you forgot your pants.”

	Jamal had strolled up behind her. Every other eye in the courtyard was glued to Ramyya, but Jamal was staring keenly at Sygne’s short shorts.

	“These are my pants.” Sygne tugged at the tail of her tunic, but it didn’t provide any extra sense of modesty. She felt her face turning red. “Aren’t you supposed to perform next? Shouldn’t you be preparing?”

	Jamal shrugged. “I’m ready.”

	“Aren’t you nervous at least?”

	“What’s there to be nervous about? My belly is full of butterflies—bright and airy and ready to burst free of their cocoons.” Jamal patted the ‘v’ of satiny skin that showed through the gap of his unbuttoned vest. Sygne wondered if he had visited the palace harem to slather scented oils on his rippling abs. “I’m ready to unleash!” he said. “What’s that?”

	“Hmm?” Sygne followed Jamal’s pointing finger to the leather-bound contraption propped open at her feet. “Oh. That’s my pocketbook. Do you know what a book is?”

	Jamal stared hard at her. “Of course.”

	“Sorry! I mean… Most city-states still use scrolls—or cuneiform tablets. I wasn’t sure…”

	“I know of books.”

	Sygne picked up her pocketbook. It was a heavy tome, weighing twenty pounds. “In truth, this is more than a book. It is my own invention. It’s a travel journal.” She leafed through a few pages. “But also I sewed folios between some of the signatures.” She flipped to a thin leather satchel sewn into the spine. The folio was stitched with pockets, Sygne pointed to each of them. “On this page I have tweezers, a scalpel, a flint, a knotted measuring string, a protractor, and a pouch filled with various seeds. My whole life is tucked within the pages of this book.”

	“That’s just sad.”

	“What?”

	“That joyless old toad.” Jamal nodded to the War Warlock, who was glowering through the final gyrations of Ramyya’s dance. The dancing girl fell to her knees and flung her body backward so that she was splayed out before him. The audience erupted into applause, but Yur sat very still, like a lion watching a lamb. The noise of the crowd quickly died down, as they awkwardly adjusted to match the conqueror’s mood.

	Yur tossed a dozen gold coins onto the planks between Ramyya’s thighs. Ramyya looked almost pitiful now that she’d stopped swaying and twirling seductively. The bones of her ribs and spine stuck out of her back as she hunched to swipe her veils from the floor.

	“Girl,” Yur called to her. “I like your pretty silks.”

	“Thank you, War Warlock.”

	Yur’s face seemed to sink farther down his egg-shaped head. He croaked, “I like your silks. Very much.” His fat-fingered paw protruded from the folds of his embroidered robe. His fingers were tensed. Grasping.

	Ramyya’s eyes flickered to Sessuk, who stood behind Yur’s chair. Sygne knew that Ramyya’s dancing clothes were family heirlooms. Her veils were priceless. Sessuk knew that as well. But the vizier nodded indifferently at the dancing girl, and Ramyya silently conceded to the combined authority of the two finely robed men. These were wicked times. Many legacies had been disassembled over the last ten days. Royal lineages. Religious icons. What were a few scraps of fabric to all of that?

	Ramyya stepped close to the conqueror and stuffed her wadded veils into his hand. Then she fled from the dais before Yur could ask for more. She disappeared to the far side of the stage, where Sygne couldn’t see her, couldn’t console her. But the sounds of weeping drifted on the night air. A few members of the audience glanced around and shifted restlessly on their feet.

	Sessuk strode forward. He looked particularly theatrical in a robe that shimmered between shades of purple and black, and he carried a wizard’s staff with him. His staff was capped with a tumorous bulge, and two branches extended like goat’s horns from the gnarled wood. Sessuk tapped the pole loudly against the stage. “Let us not stop the show! Who is ready for a song?”

	The vizier beckoned to Jamal.

	Jamal winked at Sygne. “Shouldn’t be too hard to keep the festive mood…”

	***

	Jamal swaggered to the center of the stage; then he did a spin, arms outstretched, to take in onlookers from every direction. He darted a sidelong look at Sessuk. The vizier had hired Hadat. He might recognize Jamal as an impostor. Jamal decided his best strategy was to take the stage as boldly as possible and not offer Sessuk a chance to challenge his right to be there.

	Jamal asked the audience, “Why so somber? It’s not as if anyone died…” He paused for effect. “Oh right. Those hundreds of Kritans.” A few people chuckled nervously. Jamal plowed ahead, “But truly, the Kritans had it coming, didn’t they? Our gracious host offered them a chance at mercy,” Jamal gestured to Yur, who was still sniffing Ramyya’s silks, “and they rejected him. Perhaps if they had heard this song they would have made a better decision.”

	Jamal cradled his tortoise-shell lyre and caressed its strings. He closed his eyes and began to croon.



	“Oh golden prince, tremble now,

	Before you stands your doom.

	Yur the fearsome, your fears come true.

	He stands a great warrior whom,



	“Would end your world, trod you down.

	He has buried many a foe.

	For he raises his gods higher,

	While bringing kingdoms low…”



	Jamal was sure he had the crowd enraptured. He opened his eyes now to see how the War Warlock was responding.



	“Yes, Yur is fearsome, your—”



	Yur croaked, “Enough.”

	Jamal jumped, and his tribute abruptly ended. In an instant the courtyard fell silent. Jamal didn’t dare look to any other faces; he quickly recovered and bowed briskly to Yur. “Yes, Your Bellicosity? I hope I haven’t offended…”

	The War Warlock flitted his stubby fingers. “No. You could not offend me, black man. But you do bore me. Do you know how many songs of praise I have heard in the last three years? Too many to count.”

	“I see. But—”

	“I want to hear something different,” Yur said. “A song about…” He dangled a veil out in front of him so that the firelight shone through it. “…beauty.” Yur’s head dipped, and he stared at Jamal from beneath furrowed brows. He did not seem to be in the mood for appreciating beauty. Was this a test? Or some sort of trick?

	Jamal glanced to the redheaded scientician. She stared back with eyes wide. He cleared his throat. “Do you want me to sing of a beautiful victory?”

	“No, foolish poet. Sing me a song about a beautiful woman. Someone you’ve loved… Or lusted after.”

	 Some men in the crowd cheered at that, and Jamal smiled ruefully. “I must tell you, War Warlock… Long ago, I lost that part of me that could ever love another woman. But before that there was one woman I loved. I can sing to you about her.”

	“Then do it. And do not bore me again.”

	Jamal closed his eyes and tried to clear his head. His fingers tapped a beat against the rim of his lyre, and he swayed to the rhythm. He took in a deep breath through his nose. The smell of wood smoke. Of roasted meat. The cool smell of night air in a garden near the sea. Finally Jamal’s hand found the center strings of his lyre, and he wove together a melancholy tune.



	“She was a golden star in the west,

	A rival to the setting sun,

	Who’s light in the day kept us away,

	But we joined when the day was done.

	Yes, we joined when the day was done.



	“She was a beauty most-splendid, a lady well-attended.

	With hair that was gilded and fine.

	In the dark of night we sparked our own light,

	In shadows where her fair skin matched mine.

	Ohh, where her fair skin matched mine.



	“Those moments we shared, our souls both bared,

	Did glow like a beacon in the night.

	And others did see, and decreed we could not be,

	So my lady begged I take flight.

	Ohh, she begged I take flight.



	“I had bowed as a slave for most of my days

	For her, I would die as a man.

	I bared my teeth and readied for death,

	But the gods had a different plan.

	Lo, the gods had a different plan.



	“They spared my life on that hideous night,

	A small mercy that turned to great pain,

	For I lost the light guiding my soul,

	And I shall love now never again.

	I shall love now never again.



	“Now I live forlorn, my heart is torn

	From a love that was utterly flawless.

	My days are long dark, a scar on my heart,

	And my nights have all gone starless.



	“We were not meant to be, my lady and me,

	And all of us know what the cause is.

	Now days are long dark, I wander apart,

	And my nights have all gone starless.”



	Jamal closed his song with a sorrowful hum, holding the note until his lyre fell quiet. He opened his eyes and let the silence linger for two beats. Three. Four. He smiled and bowed. The silence continued. Was it possible that the War Warlock and his guests had been rendered speechless by the naked emotion of his song?

	Yur clapped. Slowly. One other person eagerly joined in—Jamal realized that applause was coming from Sygne’s direction. But elsewhere a grumble moved through the crowd. A woman cackled. On the dais, a soldier snorted and spat out a wad of phlegm. Yur continued clapping in that same lethargic beat. He was clapping sarcastically.

	Jamal started, “I…”

	Yur said, “That was truly awful. Trite and overwrought. And your rhyme schemes were quite weak.”

	The crowd muttered in agreement. They began jeering and booing. A woman wailed dramatically, “Ow! Your sappy music hurt my ears!” The people around her chortled. Jamal dodged as a half-eaten pomegranate flew toward his head. Other audience-members lobbed insults.

	“Idiot!”

	“Your musical skills are substandard!”

	“So full of yourself…”

	“‘Pain’ doesn’t rhyme with ‘again!’”

	One of Yur’s lieutenants stood from his chair. “My name is Dij the Disemboweler. I am famed for disemboweling people. And even I am sickened by your song!” Dij the Disemboweler pushed a finger down his throat and gagged up his dinner onto the planks of the dais. The entire courtyard exploded with laughter. Even Yur seemed amused.

	Yur shouted, “What’s your name, poet-singer? So that I can spread a warning of your talents to the next people I conquer.”

	Over the roar of the crowd, Jamal called as clearly as he could, “I am Hadat the Harmonious.”

	Then he backed toward the edge of the stage. As he eased into the shadows, Sygne touched his arm.

	“I didn’t think it was that bad.”

	“Everyone’s a critic,” he muttered.

	Jamal swept past Sygne. He didn’t want to hear anything from anyone. He was beginning to shake. He couldn’t decide if he wanted to pummel every face he could reach, or throw back his head and bawl like a baby. A young Issulthraqi soldier wheeled backward as Jamal stormed past him; it was as if the boy was afraid that Jamal’s horribleness was contagious.





4 – The Gatecrasher




	Sygne watched Jamal disappear into the crowd. She felt bad for him. Despite the questionable way in which they had met, Jamal seemed like a good man, and he had made a noble choice in changing his profession. But that didn’t change the fact that his songs had been fairly bad. ‘I live forlorn, my heart is torn?’ Those lines were the work of a novice or a hack. Or both.

	The crowd quieted down, and Yur spoke loudly to Sessuk. “Is this what passes for entertainment in Krit? Perhaps the dung-people of Djunga will offer me finer songs?”

	Sygne knelt and leafed through supplies in her pocketbook. Did she have everything she needed for her show? She was on next, and she knew Sessuk would be counting on her to lighten the mood after two performances in a row that had ended on a sour note. (In Jamal’s case, that ‘sour note’ had been literal.)

	She chanted to herself, “I can do this. I can do this.”

	Sessuk nodded to the War Warlock and stepped to the center of the stage. He raised his arms over his head and bellowed, “Enough of the opening acts! Gather your courage, Issulthraqis and distinguished guests. Brace yourself for a monstrous wonder!”

	Murmurs shivered through the crowd. The great bronze bell seemed to sway ominously over the glowing pool, as if the crowd’s excitement had stirred up a breeze.

	Sygne stood straight and glanced around. Was Sessuk skipping her performance? She knew that some sort of tall tale would eventually be presented about the mythical creature that supposedly lived in the caverns beneath the Kritan palace, but she hadn’t expected to hear the story so soon.

	Sessuk shouted, “Bring in the oblations!”

	The crowd groaned ecstatically. A nearby woman clapped. “It’s the Dweller! He’s going to show us the Dweller Under Dreams.”

	“Quiet! Everyone!” Yur demanded. He pushed his bulk closer to the edge of his seat. “Are you saying that I finally get to see your city’s great mystery?”

	Sessuk bowed. “Yes, War Warlock. But I know that, as part of your Issulthraqi religion, it is considered blasphemy to speak openly of the Ancient Ones. I do not wish to overstep and offend.”

	“I am not afraid to see anything that the Kritans have seen. And I am not afraid of the priests of Issulthraq.”

	“If you are certain.” Sessuk nodded with theatrical humility. “Then let me tell you a story… A story that many faiths across Embhra hold to be the One Truth.

	“Long, long ago, in the First Times, the Slumbering Sea covered all of Embhra.” Sessuk swept his arm out to the Slumbering Sea, which waited beyond the cliffs on the southern edge of the Kritan courtyard. “The world was very wide—even in those days—and the sea had to stretch itself thin to cover all of it. In many places the Slumbering Sea was barely knee-deep, and the rays of the sun could shine down straight to the sands underneath. The three Ancient Ones lived in these shallow, sun-drenched waters. They were the Firstspawn, and they existed before both men and gods.”

	An Issulthraqi woman turned her head to the recently expropriated statue of Bliss and whispered a mantra, “Everywhere and everlasting.” Sygne knew that the Issulthraqis summarily rejected the notion of anything existing before their Fabled Pantheon. But most people fervently believed in the Ancient Ones. As far as Sygne was concerned, all of it was mostly nonsense. Every myth was a distortion of truth, meant to benefit those in power. Yes, monsters were real. Yes, sorcery was real. But that didn’t mean that magic-wielders didn’t gather more power to themselves by weaving together a web of obfuscations and lies.

	Sessuk continued, “The three Ancient Ones were mighty, and their terrible powers were beyond anything we could ever imagine. But for many millennia, they were happy enough to doze in those lazy waters, coiled in the silt. And in that time they dreamed. They dreamed, and mountains rose from the ocean. They dreamed, and stars were scattered across the darkness. The sun ignited as a ball of flame in the sky. Even the gods started as daydreams of the Firstspawn.”

	Sessuk had noticed the pious Issulthraqi woman in the crowd. He nodded calmly to her. “Some believe that this is where the gods derive their power. Because they were born of the dreams of the Ancient Ones—where anything was possible.

	“For a long time the world was this way, with the Ancient Ones existing and dreaming of our gods. But slowly new creatures rose up out of the muck, simply by happenstance. First, tiny iotas of growing things, so simple you could not tell if they were plant or animal. Then spineless bottom-dwellers. Then fish. Then frogs that rose onto land. Then rats. Then monkeys. And finally humans. And this is why humans are so meek and crude; because we rose from simple creatures crawling out of the muck. The only thing special about humans is that—unlike all the creatures that came before us—we can dream.

	“Over time, the gods realized that we could be useful. They came to us and showed us their wonders and captured our imaginations. And we dreamed of them and we worshipped them. Like shepherds gathering and protecting their flocks, the gods eventually chose their favorite peoples and kept them in their favorite places. Those deities who became the Fabled Pantheon chose to live in the East, where the peoples are brave and bold and as tough as the granite hills.” With that, the Issulthraqis erupted in hoots of self-praise. “The gods who became the Specularity of Gjuir-Khib were drawn to the fragrant Sjayl Valley that opens to the Sanguine Sea.” No one responded to this mention. If there were Gjuirans in the courtyard (besides Sessuk and Jamal), they chose to stay silent.

	“The gods learned to live in the minds of the mortals who worshipped them. They separated themselves from the dreams and whims of the Ancient Ones. And this became the Ancient Ones’ downfall. Since then, the Ancient Ones remain mostly unseen. They sleep more deeply now. But they are still monstrously powerful, and they can foment the very essence of reality when they are roused into dreaming.”

	Sessuk had been monologing for a long while. Sygne could understand how he had survived the palace purge. He was quite eloquent—and almost charismatic, in a smarmy sort of way. He paused now, and the audience remained enraptured.

	Yur broke the silence. “That was a pretty story, Sessuk. But rather farfetched. How could it be that men are descended from monkeys?” The Issulthraqis laughed. “But if you continue blabbering like this, it isn’t just an Ancient One you will have to rouse. I will fall asleep as well.”

	“Very well, my liege,” Sessuk said. “Let us witness the power of the Dweller Under Dreams. Bring forth the oblations!”

	 Sessuk beckoned to the right side of the stage, where three prisoners were lined up, each dressed in simple tunics of thin, white wool. Their wrists and ankles were bound in chains.

	“No,” Sygne murmured. “No. It can’t be.”

	Blood sacrifices. Of men and women. When Sygne had left the cloistered squares of the Academy, her mentors had warned her that she might run into some atrocities like this, but she hadn’t expected to see something so brutish in a supposedly sophisticated city-state. Or was it possible she was misunderstanding what she was seeing? After all, the prisoners’ shackles appeared to be made of gold, which should have made them fairly easy to bend. Was this some sort of symbolic ceremony?

	Sygne could have gone on tormenting herself with possibilities for a good long while, but at that moment a voice crashed through her head, descending from the night sky with the weight of a sandbag.

	“I demand you wait!”

	The voice resounded across the garden, and Sygne instantly dropped to her knees. She wasn’t alone in this sudden involuntary reaction. Nearly everyone dropped to the ground. On the dais, several men-at-arms flopped out of their chairs, spilled their wine, and genuflected in the sticky puddles.

	“Mine servants. I ask, have you lost your meager senses?”

	Sygne at least kept her head up. She could see that Sessuk was still standing. And Yur sat straighter in his chair. The voice seemed to come from the statues at the back of the courtyard, but also from the large resonant bell above the glowing pool. Or perhaps from behind the palace. It came from everywhere at once.

	Then an orb of flame appeared floating in the air between Sessuk and Yur. It was the color of blood dropped in crystalline spring water. Here and there, the edges of the orb turned dark red and magenta. In other places the color wavered in frills of pink. Sometimes the orb resembled a mutating flower more than a ball of flame. No matter what its shape, the apparition was deeply disturbing. Its light was soft, and yet Sygne’s eyes watered as she stared at it.

	The air shimmered around the orb, and through the scintillations a body began to take shape. Slender arms. Shapely legs. A tapered neck and a beautiful face with hair that flowed around it, as if underwater. The orb of magenta flame was still set like a molten core in the woman’s chest. Its light radiated out from her center and made it hard to focus. Was the woman nude? Was she clothed in flame? Or was she sheathed in a formfitting gossamer gown? Sygne’s mind couldn’t quite take in all of her beauty. Only one thing on the woman remained constant: a naked short-sword that hung like a pendant from a girdle at her hips.

	It was Bliss, the Issulthraqi love goddess. Sygne knew this instantly.

	Growing up in the Academy at Albatherra, Sygne had often heard the Mentors say that there were more than enough wonders in the world to inspire awe or fright—that humans didn’t have to resort to superstition to make up new mysteries. But some of her instructors hadn’t left the confines of the Academy in three decades. These days Sygne didn’t have the luxury of denying magic. She had seen it—on the bone-altars of the borderland villages to the east. In the hands of the desert shaman who had chased her from his yurt for teaching children to read. Some Mentors allowed that magic was real, but they stated that believing in deities was a step too far. These Mentors declared that all deities were fakes; they were mortal magicians who were exceptionally charismatic and skilled at creating illusions. There was no such thing as a higher being with the ability to warp space and inflict its will on the human mind—no such thing as a living being that would not eventually succumb to the universal law of entropy.

	But at that moment, Sygne was struck speechless with the certainty that Bliss was both undeniably real and intimately known to her. The goddess’s voice was like a finger coaxed into her ear. Bliss spoke primarily to Yur, but Sygne could feel the power of her words thrumming down into the marrow of her bones.

	“Do mine ears hear blasphemy?” Bliss asked. “Proclaimed so boldly, among so many?” With a ripple of light, the goddess’s face changed. Darkened. Her nose became flatter. Did Sygne see a crown of feathers protruding from her head? In the next second, the crown was gone. “I am your goddess of passion, everywhere and everlasting. What other wonders do you need? I demand an answer, ungrateful Yur.”

	Sessuk made a show of being humbled by this question, even though it wasn’t directed at him. He bloused out his robe before kneeling to Bliss. Yur, amazingly, seemed unimpressed by the goddess.

	“I am merely curious,” he said. “I have sacrificed much to obtain this Ancient One for the Pantheon. I want to see what it is that makes the Kritans so reverent.”

	“These are low people, I say. Brought too quickly into our fold. I hear them speak reverently of foul bottom-feeders. False gods. And yet mine confusion grows—you choose to believe their foolishness over our Divine Truth?”

	“I have faith in the ‘Divine Truth,’” Yur said without much enthusiasm. “Everywhere and everlasting.”

	The orb of flame in the goddess’s chest flared, as if it had been stoked. Bliss’ anger was made manifest in her physical state, which shimmered like a heat-mirage around the fiery light at her core. “And yet I see you overstep your bounds, servant. You forget your place.”

	Sygne had noticed that the resonance of Bliss’ voice was particularly intense when she spoke the words ‘I’ or ‘mine.’ Bliss said the words often, and at those moments the air buzzed around Sygne’s ears. The buzz carried an undeniable thunder of warning, but also there was a sort of symphonic tone to the way Bliss drew out the sounds. ‘I’ and ‘mine’ were obviously her favorite words, and she used them as both a threat and a narcissistic self-soother.

	“I have forgotten nothing.” Yur leaned forward, speaking with slow, casual disdain. “Name one Issulthraqi who has done more for the Fabled Pantheon… I am a very rich man, with a very big estate, and yet I’ve slept in a tent on desert rocks for the last three years. No one has sacrificed more than I have. Goats. Oxen. My third wife.”

	“I say you endeavor for your own glory.”

	Yur shrugged. “I don’t hear other gods questioning my motives. I only hear appreciation for my results. I’ve added hundreds of miles of new, fertile lands to the Empire.” He pointed to the statue towering over the far end of the courtyard. “And scores of new churches and totems where mortals will offer tributes to your beauty.”

	Bliss glanced contemptuously at her newly appropriated likeness. “That mangled hunk of stone is no tribute to mine beauty.” As if to prove this point, her body shifted into new shapes. Her ample hips expanded, growing wider and fuller until she was almost spherically fecund. Then, as quickly as they expanded, her hips retracted to waifish proportions. At the same time her face continue to pass through phases, growing rounder, then more angular.

	The only thing that stayed immutable was Bliss’ short-sword. Sygne remembered that it was called Heart-Piercer, and she felt her own heart flutter as Bliss brandished the blade so that it flashed in the light coming from her chest. Palpable waves of anger rippled out from the goddess. Sygne felt them in her gut, and her body quivered through surges of nausea.

	Yur sat squarely in the riptide of that mystical fury. How was it possible that he was not yet doubled over? She remembered that the War Warlock was supposedly immune from all magical attacks. Apparently that also included divine attacks.

	Bliss sneered. “Mine promise to you, oh smug servant—you will regret this impious display.”

	Yur’s mouth curved into a shape like a newly strung bow. “We will see about that.”

	All around the stage, Issulthraqis were crawling on hands and knees in a torturous getaway from the goddess. Sygne felt lightheaded. Dizzy. Her heart flitted like a wounded bird in her chest. She realized she felt lovesick. According to her Mentors, lovesickness wasn’t supposed to be a real thing, but suddenly it was hard to deny that some unreal things did exist.

	Sygne closed her eyes and lowered her forehead to the ground. She moaned; it was the only thing she could do to alleviate her discomfort. She rocked back and forth, hands over her belly, and hoped against hope that the goddess would hurry up and kill Yur. It seemed only right. He was only a low, filthy mortal…

	Then Sygne realized the throb in her chest was gone. She rose to her knees. Other people were doing the same, all emerging from various states of confusion and dishevelment.

	Bliss had vanished. She had come to impart a warning to Yur, and now she was gone.

	The conqueror smiled casually, as if he had just dismissed some meddlesome aunt, not an angry deity who could defy the laws of nature.

	“Come,” he said to Sessuk. “Wake this Firstspawn and let me see what it offers.”

	Sessuk asked, “Are you sure you want to proceed? The goddess…”

	Yur simply nodded.

	“Then let’s introduce the oblation candidates!” Sessuk motioned to the guards and prisoners, huddled together on the floor. The prisoners stood before their keepers did. One of them turned and tugged his guard by his halberd until he rose to his feet.

	Sessuk announced to the crowd. “Remember. Only one oblation can be chosen for the Ceremony of Transfixion.”

	The white-garbed prisoners strolled to the center of the stage and stood placidly as Yur surveyed them. Sessuk introduced the tallest man first. “If you are looking for a vicarious thrill, then your choice should be Onnir the Unstoppable. He is one of Krit’s finest gladiators—a hellion with a whip and sword, with twenty lethal victories to his name.”

	Sessuk prodded the hard muscles on the prisoner’s arms. “Onnir is a true champion of the sand pits, and a once-in-a-lifetime oblation.”

	Sygne watched the man in the white tunic, and she didn’t doubt Sessuk’s words. There was a hardness to Onnir’s face, and his eyes glinted like weaponry.

	Sessuk pointed to the second prisoner—a wizened old man with gnarled hands and a stooped back. “This is our finest scholar-oblation,” Sessuk said. “Fazzin is aged and wise, but not yet senile. He has been reading and studying in libraries throughout Embhra for thirty-seven years, always knowing that one day he would be asked to pass that wisdom on through Transfixion. That day will be today, if you so choose. He is your second oblation.”

	The third prisoner was a petite young woman in a sheer white shift. “And this is the Princess Ilona. Yes, she is of royal lineage, but her mother was a concubine. She is not a part of the Kritan line of succession. At the age of two, Ilona was devoted to the path of oblation. She has lived her entire life expecting to commune with the Dweller Under Dreams one day. If you are interested in the most luxurious of experiences, then Princess Ilona would be an excellent choice.”

	The crowd was recomposing itself. A few women in short Issulthraqi tunics (like Sygne’s) touched their hands to their chests and whispered coyly to each other. They were quite enamored with Onnir. What had Sessuk meant when he said Onnir would be a good choice for a vicarious thrill? She felt like the only person in the palace who didn’t understand what was happening.

	Yur was silent for a long time, staring at Ilona. Sessuk interjected, “My deepest apologies, War Warlock. There were other male luxuriants, but we had them killed upon your order that no male successors were to be left alive.”

	“You have done well, Sessuk,” Yur said. “I will give you my decision. First of all, why would I choose to experience the life of another warrior? Blood sport—as invigorating as it is to watch—is still just a game. Victory in war is something else entirely.” Yur gazed at the second prisoner. “And despite what I might have said to Bliss, I am not curious enough to waste tonight’s ceremony on a pursuit of wisdom.”

	“I understand, War Warlock. Perhaps I can—”

	“But the young princess… She intrigues me very much. Obviously she has led a life that I have not. I am curious to know what she has seen. What she has tasted. What she has felt. She will make a most stimulating choice.”

	The young woman had been standing like a statue, but now a momentary tremor passed across her face. Sygne suspected that Yur had seen the same thing; the War Warlock licked his lips.

	Sessuk blinked. “An excellent choice, War Warlock.”

	“Tell me, Sessuk, what exactly will happen here this evening?”

	“Of course. First let me explain about the Dweller Under Dreams. Each of the three Firstspawn take different forms, varied and indescribable. A mortal risks insanity if he peers upon an Ancient One with his naked eyes. For this reason, very few men have seen the Dweller Under Dreams. But the Dweller lives very close—in the basalt caves under this very palace. And there have been men who have descended to the Dweller’s lair and returned to describe it.”

	Sessuk thrust his arms out and drew as wide of a circle as he could in the air before him. “They say that the Dweller is a spherical creature—an orb—with a surface anatomy that is both magnificent and appalling. Imagine, if you dare, a terrible eye that sees in all directions at once. Backward and forward through time. Through the tiniest gaps in our pores, and past the most abysmal corners of the cosmos. The Dweller’s lines of sight go everywhere, as straight as needles that can penetrate every iota of existence—both what we see now and what we have seen. It is said that the quills of the Dweller’s gaze are so long and sharp that they jabbed pinpricks into the very heavens, and those are the stars we see in the night sky.

	“Every day, every moment, we walk through these quills, but they are of ethereal materials so rarefied that our physical bodies pass straight through them. In fact, at this very moment all of us are probably transfixed by hundreds of the Dweller’s quills. They are invisible and intangible to mortals. But we have learned that when the Great Bell,” Sessuk nodded to the bronze bell looming over the pool, “vibrates the azure water of the Pool of Transfixion, the hundreds of needles passing through that water become corporeal. An oblation who is submerged in the pool at that time will be pierced by the Dweller’s quills—and die a most sublime death, communing instantly with the primeval mysteries of the First Times.”

	The princess filled her lungs with a deep breath, and seemed to center herself. To Sygne, she looked like a student preparing for a major exam. Her religion had probably taught her that dying in this pool was a beautiful thing—a high honor.

	Sygne took her own deep breath. No wonder the prisoners’ chains were made out of soft gold; they were there for ceremonial purposes—to add a touch of glittering sadism to the proceedings. She’d been right to fear that this was a human sacrifice. And whether Princess Ilona had been indoctrinated or not, her death would still be an atrocity.

	Was there something she could do now to help this poor girl?

	Sessuk continued, “When Princess Ilona is transfixed, her essence is transfixed as well. Her memories, her joys, her desires, even her sorrows. They will be suffused into the needles of the Dweller Under Dreams.” Sessuk turned to the girl and raised his voice to ask, “Princess Ilona, do you agree to share your essence with the people gathered here today?”

	Yur had the princess locked in his gaze, and Ilona did not look away as she solemnly nodded. “It would be my greatest honor to commune with the Dweller Under Dreams. I will be happy to join my brothers and sisters in the underworld.” She squinted at the War Warlock. “I care not what heathens take advantage of my bodily remains once I am gone.”

	Yur burst out laughing. “Good! Good! I am very happy with this choice. She has quite a spirit. I look forward to seeing her…” Yur flexed his hands, grasping for the right word, “…perforated. And once she’s filled with quills, I can use those quills to inject myself with her memories?”

	“Yes,” Sessuk said. “For each pin you use, you will experience just one memory. But it will be an important memory. A pivotal moment. And a vivid experience.”

	Yur ran his tongue across his lips and nodded to the princess. “So vivid that I’ll believe I am a skinny little girl?” The captains behind Yur all laughed and elbowed each other, but Yur didn’t appear to be jesting.

	“Yes… You will.”

	“Excellent,” Yur said. “Most excellent. Then let’s see it.”

	Sessuk announced, “Let the transfixion begin!”

	The crowd roared. Sessuk made a showman’s retreat from the stage, bowing and gesturing to a team of attendants as he backed away. Twelve Kritan maidens rushed to fill the stage. They wore robes of white cloth and crowns of needles perched on their heads.

	Behind the maidens marched two rows of drummers, and soon Sygne lost track of Princess Ilona among the sea of needled heads. A narrow bridge was extended over the glowing waters of the pool—and under the Great Bell. Ilona re-emerged from the crowd, treading regally across the bridge. A pair of maidens followed behind her.

	Princess Ilona turned to the stage. Her face had turned proud, ceremonial. Several attendants had kissed her goodbye, and now those marks of red lip-stain helped to disguise the blush that clung to her cheeks.

	The male attendants continued drumming—the tempo growing faster, filling the air. A new team of Kritans appeared in tandem at opposite sides of the pool. They pulled at cranks and lowered a strange apparatus that had been hidden among the webwork of streamers and pennants on the bell’s archway.

	It was a prisoner’s rack, glittering busily in the firelight. Like the princess’s restraints, it was also made of gold—or more likely, coated in gold. It was constructed with a stout central framework and two bits of scaffolding that protruded from the center like arms. When the rack was low enough, Princess Ilona stepped close and her two attendants clamped her manacles to the scaffolding. One last set of fetters went around the princess’s neck. The attendants had to unhook the chain and yank it tight.

	The drummers had worked the crowd into a frenzy. Kritan maidens swirled across the stage, throwing their heads back and wheeling their arms. The Issulthraqi citizens shrugged to each other and began ecstatically dancing as well.

	On the far end of the gyrating crowd, Sygne saw Jamal. He had retreated to a series of steps leading to the grove where she had first met him. In the torchlight, she couldn’t make out his features, but he was standing stiffly with his fists held out at his sides. From his posture, she guessed he felt as uneasy about this as she did.

	Human sacrifice.

	But what could she do?

	If only she could be as heroic as Jamal have been with that troglodyte. If only she could be as capable in a moment of action… But she had no skill with a knife. The closest thing she had to a weapon was a scalpel and a pair of scissors in her pocketbook. What else might help? A magnifying glass? A spool of thread?

	Sygne almost gasped with the realization of it. There was something she could do.

	She slipped onto the stage, snaking her way through the dancers to get closer to the edge of the pool where her pyrotechnics were tied with thread to the flaming braziers. The gossamer lines were impossible to see in the dim light; her fingers floated through the air until she caught one.

	Then she tugged it.





5 – The Rescue Attempt




	Jamal was feeling stupid. Part of that was an aftereffect of Bliss’ visit. Everyone knew that deities could do strange things to mortals. Leave them intoxicated and highly susceptible to extreme acts of generosity, passion, or courage—acts that were often self-destructive.

	Self-destructive. That was another good way to describe Jamal’s mood. Everywhere around him people were dancing in a communal, transcendent frenzy, giving in to Bliss’ divine afterglow. Jamal felt a restless energy building in him as well, but there was nothing jubilant about it.

	Yur’s public rebuke had stung him hard. His love song had been good. He knew it was! Jamal wondered: Had the audience assumed his song had been based on a fake story? A bittersweet daydream? Had they assumed there was no way that a fair-skinned noblewoman could fall in love with an Ardhian? No. Lady Nemeah of Gjuir-Khib had loved him—and he had loved her too.

	Again and again, Nemeah’s parting words came to him. ‘Just bring good to the world. Just bring glory. Even if the gods were never watching, act like they are.’

	When he had first met Nemeah, she had been as young as Ilona was now. Ilona was more waifish, with raven-black hair, but the similarities still weighed heavily on his mind.

	Nemeah.

	‘Just bring glory.’

	Jamal clenched his fists and took a step toward the pool. If he tried to save the princess, he’d only succeed in adding his own death to Ilona’s. But that might be worth it to see the smirk melt off of Yur’s face, even if only for a moment.

	The drums had turned his pulse relentless. His head was pounding—his vision going red. He swerved between revelers, their shadows passing over his grim face.

	He almost didn’t notice the first explosion.

	People stopped dancing around him, and greens and yellows and oranges flared to life around the Kritans’ glowing pool. The drumming ceased as a new explosion cracked the air, spewing forth a peacock’s display of glowing purple.

	The crowd shrieked. Women held their heads. Some partygoers dropped to their knees, but most simply began to flee. Jamal had to jostle hard against the surge of bodies.

	A nearby courtier shouted, “It’s Bliss! She’s come to teach us another lesson!”

	Jamal knew better. He caught a strong smell of sulfur, and there was a thick haze of smoke in the air. Deities left behind rapturous afterglows, not noxious byproducts. This was something else. But what?

	Jamal found an armored Issulthraqi soldier standing like a rattling breakwater among the crowd. Jamal stood close to him, and the soldier said, “Bliss has come back to take that pretty girl. She’s going to turn her into a beautiful constellation!”

	Jamal nodded at him. “What if she turns the rest of us into beautiful constellations too?”

	“No…” The soldier’s face drained of color.

	“You have to get out of here before that happens,” Jamal said. “I’ll stay and try to save her. Will you give me your sword?”

	The soldier stared vacantly. “You want to be turned into a constellation?”

	Jamal shrugged. “I’m a Gjuiran. We’re strange like that.”

	The Issulthraqi unbuckled his belt and scabbard and eagerly handed the whole thing to Jamal.

	Jamal didn’t turn to watch the soldier run; instead he took his tortoise-shell lyre and slipped his forearm through the strings to create a makeshift shield. The crowd had pushed its way past him, and the path to the princess was now clear.

	Suddenly a rescue attempt didn’t seem quite so suicidal. But it would certainly be glorious.

	Jamal unsheathed his borrowed sword, clenched his teeth, and rushed forward.

	***

	Sygne’s pyrotechnics had worked perfectly. Within moments, most of the Kritan attendants had fled the stage. Sygne glanced around for Sessuk. He was the one person who knew about her fireworks—who might have realized what was truly happening. But Sessuk was nowhere to be seen, and no one tried to stop her as she ran onto the narrow bridge leading to the princess. The planks swayed beneath her, and the nearby explosions were loud enough that Sygne flinched at them, even when she knew they were coming. But she never came too close to losing her balance. She didn’t look back—didn’t check to see if she was about to be speared in the back by a guard. Instead she kept her eyes locked on Princess Ilona.

	As Sygne pulled at her chains Ilona protested, “What are you doing? Stay away from me!”

	Sygne took a moment to calm herself before she spoke. “I don’t know you, and you don’t know me. But I have to assume you don’t really want to die for the amusement of these people.”

	The princess blinked, and her veneer of haughty outrage broke apart. “I don’t. Not truly.”

	“And there’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong at all. Now let me just work on—”

	Another hand pulled the manacles from the other side of the rack. A sword flashed through smoke, moving close to slash the princess’s wrists.

	“No!” Sygne thrust her fist through a gap in the scaffolding and struck the man in the chest.

	“Ow!” he cried. “Sygne! What are you doing?”

	It was Jamal. Sygne shouted back at him, “What are you doing?”

	They yelled simultaneously, “I’m trying to save this princess!”

	“Oh,” Sygne said. Again Jamal brought his sword up to one of Ilona’s shackles.

	“These chains are just gold,” Sygne advised him.

	“I know!”

	“Use your sword to—”

	“I know!”

	Jamal pressed the point of his sword into one small link in the chain and began prying it apart.

	“Wait,” said Ilona. “I have a key.” She looked to the pendant chain that descended beneath the collar of her shift. “We all have keys. The shackles are just for show.”

	With trembling hands, Sygne pulled the necklace free, found the key, and tried to fit it into the manacle on the princess’s left wrist. The fireworks had ceased, but a haze of smoke hung over the pool. Sygne hoped it would provide some cover.

	“Hurry, Sygne,” Jamal said.

	“I’m trying…”

	One Issulthraqi soldier approached the bridge from Jamal’s side. Jamal called out to him, “Stay there! We’re saving the princess… so that we can kill her properly later.”

	A muscular Kritan drummer stepped close to the pool and helpfully suggested, “Throw her in the water! I’ll ring the bell so she can die right away.”

	Jamal muttered, “The maniacs are closing in.”

	Another voice bellowed from behind Sygne. It was the War Warlock himself. “Stop that!” Yur demanded. “That’s my oblation! Guards!”

	Jamal swung his sword at the last manacle clamped to Ilona’s right ankle. She pulled her foot loose, but a cuff and a stub of chain still held to her ankle.

	Yur squinted through the smoke and pointed at Jamal. “You! You’re that awful musician. Stop him!”

	Jamal puffed his chest. “I am no mere awful musician. I am Jamal, the Singing Swordsman. The Demon of Uhl-Arath. The Lion of the Blood Coast—”

	“Don’t taunt them!” Sygne cried.

	Jamal glanced around the pool. “They’re only four guards here. I can take them. Prepare to be impressed!”

	“That’s what you said about your singing.”

	“Come on!” Jamal turned the hanging rack and swung it out of the way so that Ilona and Sygne could brush past. They ran across Jamal’s section of the bridge, toward the south side of the courtyard. A single Issulthraqi spearman stood in their way.

	Jamal brandished his sword. “Back away. We want to protect this fair princess. Do you have the honor to let us pass?”

	“Don’t chat with the man!” Yur shouted from the other end of the pool. “Skewer him!”

	Jamal shrugged at the Issulthraqi. “Come on, friend. I’ve earned money as a soldier. I know what it’s like. You don’t want to risk a fight with me, just to save a party favor.” Jamal glanced back at the princess. “No offense.”

	Three more soldiers tromped along the edge of the pool, their armor clattering loudly as they rushed in to join their hesitant comrade. Jamal took advantage of the distraction and tugged the soldier’s spear. The Issulthraqi was caught off guard—and pulled off balance. He tumbled into the pool.

	Jamal still held the soldier’s spear. He pointed with the weapon’s butt-end toward the statue of Bliss. “That way!”

	In the waters behind them, the soldier came up splashing and screaming. The sounds he made were bloodcurdling enough to halt the other Issulthraqis in their tracks. Jamal ran ahead. Sygne and Ilona followed him, weaving between empty tables that were littered with abandoned drinks and food.

	Sygne protested, “But there’s no exit that way!”

	“Do you want to run toward the spearmen?”

	The eager Kritan drummer was rushing to block their escape. Sygne grabbed a mug full of ale and chucked it at his head. The Kritan blocked it with his drum, which made a beautifully resonant bong as the mug bounced off of it. He proudly beamed and lowered his drum, just in time for Sygne’s second mug to smash him squarely across the forehead. She huffed indignantly as the man fell to the ground. “Perhaps we should stay here and fight. We’ll be cornered over there.”

	Jamal scowled. “Who do you think is in charge of this rescue?”

	“I thought I was!” Sygne said.

	The trio of soldiers had regained their composure (and collectively decided to abandon their wet companion). They were weaving between tables, advancing quickly.

	Princess Ilona tugged at Sygne’s arm. “There are passageways hidden behind the statues. We can escape there.”

	“Don’t you see, Sygne?” Jamal asked. “The Specularity don’t want this show to end just yet!”

	They ran toward the statue of the love goddess formerly known as Ulthal. The Issulthraqi soldiers gained on them with each second. Despite her small size, Princess Ilona wasn’t particularly nimble or fast. Sygne had to pull her by the wrist to make her keep pace. The soldiers were nearly at their heels as they reached the statue. An immense cone of sand was piled up over Ulthal’s legs. A series of planks ran up the slope of sand, creating a ramp that led to the platform at the statue’s waist.

	At the foot of the ramp, Jamal turned to face the Issulthraqis. They squared up into a small phalanx with three spears pointed at Jamal’s chest. Through gritted teeth, he told Sygne, “I’d rather not kill these men. Not if I can help it.”

	Sygne took the spear from Jamal’s shield hand. “I have an idea. Lure them up onto the ramp on your right side. When I call, run as fast as you can toward me.”

	Sygne beckoned for the princess to follow her up the ramp. At the top of the incline, Ulthal’s spare breasts were balanced on their nipples. They were huge hemispheres of stone—nearly as wide across as Sygne was tall—but they were stabilized by rope-slings and chocked in place with wedges of wood. Behind her, Sygne could hear the sound of metal clashing together, coming closer up the ramp. Jamal had done well against a caveman—and at least this time he had a sword—but how long could he last against three opponents attacking at once?

	Sygne used her spear to chop at a set of ropes holding one breast in place. The lines snapped quickly, and the bowl of stone immediately wobbled. Sygne kicked away the chocks; then she jammed her spear into the base of the hemisphere. The princess had just made it to the top of the platform, and she stared, slack-jawed and struggling for breath, as Sygne worked. It was obvious that she wasn’t going to help. Sygne couldn’t tell if she was intimidated by the huge wobbling stone, or just stupefied by the profane intimacy of it all.

	Sygne ignored her and heaved at her makeshift lever. “Now, Jamal! Run!”

	The platform creaked as the massive stone shifted and ground itself against sagging planks of wood. There was a growl and a groan; then the piece of severed statuary gave itself over to gravity.

	“Whoa-ahhhh!” Jamal screamed as he saw what was tipping toward him. He was quick enough to leap aside as the stone struck the ramp and sprayed pieces of shattered wood everywhere.

	The pursuing soldiers turned and ran as that giant stone rolled after them. They barely avoided being crushed as the stone came to a thunderous rest at the foot of the statue.

	Jamal sheathed his sword. “Great idea, Sygne! I never would have thought to cut through that boulder holder.”

	Sygne nodded. Down on the stage, she could see War Warlock Yur going apoplectic. He was flailing his fists and stamping his feet, and a new clutch of Issulthraqi soldiers were milling about around him. “Let’s find that passageway,” she said.

	Jamal bowed quickly to Ilona. “Princess, if you would do the honors…”





6 – The Bell Tolls




	Dark. Cold. Wet.

	Jamal glanced around at the vaulted cavern that had become their hiding spot for the last hour. They were surrounded by tall, six-sided columns of gray rock. The slanting walls were made of them. The ceiling was a staggered pattern of hexagons. The basalt columns were tightly packed together, like bundles of timber, and it was easy to imagine a massively powerful deity paring the stones into poles and fitting them together to make his subterranean lair.

	Dark. Cold. Wet. And eerie.

	Princess Ilona had explained that these caverns ran everywhere beneath the palace—to the Pool of Transfixion or to the seashore below the cliffs.

	“Foreigners will never find us down here,” she said. “It will be like searching for hay in a needlestack.”

	Sygne asked, “Don’t you mean a needle in a haystack?”

	“No,” the princess said. “If you were from Krit you would know about needlestacks. By comparison, searching through a haystack sounds positively pleasant.”

	They had chosen to rest in this cavern before venturing farther into the labyrinth of tunnels, but the princess’s confidence had faded as the cold damp of the cavern began to settle over them. Now Princess Ilona sat on a stubby column with her arms wrapped around her knees. She shivered in her papyrus-thin dress, and Jamal could hardly stand it. After years of professional adventuring, he was quite accustomed to spending long nights in cold, hard places, but he felt strongly that a royal lady shouldn’t have to bear such things. He gave Ilona his ox-hide vest, making sure to flex the muscles on his bared chest as he handed it to her.

	She took the garment and smirked at him. “Thank you. But don’t presume I’m indebted to you.”

	“I would never presume that, Princess.”

	“Good. I know how you Gjuirans think.”

	Sygne was kneeling by one of the puddles of ghostly blue water that helped to light their cave. She asked, “What is she talking about?”

	Jamal kept flexing as he turned to her. “In Gjuir-Khib, we believe that every person has a role in life.” He tapped his fist against his bulging chest. “I, of course, am the dashing hero. Reluctant to take up the mantle of warrior, but also brave and keen once adversity has been thrust upon me. If I play my role well, I can bring good to the world. And bring glory—which honors the Lords of the Sky.”

	“You mean your gods? The Specularity?”

	“Yes, Sygne.” Then Jamal gestured to the princess. “In the gods’ great story, Princess Ilona is the beautiful damsel. She’s supposed to be alluring and demure—and also gracious.”

	Ilona rolled her eyes. “He means that I owe him a kiss. I owe him nothing.”

	“She’s right,” Sygne said.

	Jamal asked, “Would it really be so bad to give me a peck on the cheek?”

	Sygne stood up. “If everyone has their role, then who am I?”

	Jamal considered this. “You… I hadn’t thought about you, Sygne. The helpful citizen? That might be you. The comedic relief? You’re amusing. But not in a witty way.”

	Sygne grinned. “Maybe I’m the hero too?”

	“Hmm? No, no. Maybe you’re my ‘plucky sidekick.’ That’s possible. At least until we complete this rescue and part ways.”

	“You Gjuirans,” Ilona muttered. “You’ll chat a person’s ears off, talking about yourselves.”

	Sygne said, “Isn’t that a bit depressing to think that these ‘higher powers’ stick you into a role and you have to play it out for the rest of your days?” Sygne nodded to Jamal’s lyre. “Aren’t you trying—”

	“Sygne. You misunderstand. You can change your role, if you work hard enough to do it. For example: I used to be a slave. That was my role, through my entire childhood. At least the parts I can remember. But in Gjuir-Khib, boy slaves—when they come of age—can choose to join the army and earn their freedom. Most don’t. They settle into their roles because slave recruits are sent off to the harshest, most deadly fronts.”

	“Where did they send you?” Sygne asked.

	“To the tin mines of Uhl-Arath. A clan of cavemen had been squatting in those hills for three years. We had to go from cave to cave, cutting them out. It was not a pretty fight.”

	“That’s why you hate troglodytes.”

	“No, Sygne. I hate them because they’re sadistic, inbred, cannibalistic savages.”

	Sygne shivered.

	“Are you cold too?” Jamal asked. “I could offer you my pants…”

	“No!” Sygne and Ilona shouted together.

	“If I was shivering, it was because of your story,” Sygne said. “I can tell that you’ve had a hard life. But you seem like an optimist, in spite of it.”

	Jamal bowed. “Well, thank you. I’m glad to see one lady here is gracious enough to appreciate my charms. But let me know if you get cold, Sygne. After all, your legs are quite bare.”

	“I think I’ll be all right.”

	 “Yes,” Jamal said. “I suppose your Hinterland blood and pale skin keep you accustomed to the cold.”

	“’Blood and pale skin?’” Sygne glanced down to her freckled thighs. She wondered where Jamal had developed his dubious ideas on human anatomy.

	“You’re from the North?” Princess Ilona swiveled so that she could look at Sygne. “What gods do you worship?”

	Sygne vaguely shook her head. “I was born in the Northern Hinterlands. Yes. But at a very young age I was brought to the Academy at Albatherra and raised there.”

	“Oh,” Ilona said. “So you’re an anti-theist.”

	“No,” Sygne crinkled her brow, as if she thought Ilona’s assumption was slightly insulting. “We’re scientists. And philosophers. If anything, we’re pro-mortal. We want to uplift people, not force them down onto their knees.”

	Princess Ilona shrugged. “Sounds like anti-theism to me.”

	“Well it’s not. I believe that the natural and the supernatural can coexist. For the last two years, I’ve been traveling across the middle-reaches of Embhra. I’ve visited all kinds of tribes and villages. My goal has been to show them how tried-and-true science can safely treat their illnesses, or deliver their babies, or grow food. That they can be better off using science—sometimes—instead of putting their faith in deities or shamans.”

	Jamal cocked an eyebrow. “Sounds dangerous.”

	Sygne nodded. “That’s what the Mentors said. They worry that Embhrans will be threatened when we try to share our wisdom with them. But I think it’s worth the risk if we can make the world a better place. I lived sheltered in the Academy for so long... I was beginning to feel like I was wasting my—”

	Sygne didn’t get to finish her sentence. A resonant, gut-shaking thrum settled over them. It moved down through the basalt columns in the ceiling, which vibrated like pipes in a pan flute.

	“It’s the Great Bell!” Princess Ilona scrambled to the nearest glowing puddle, which was just beginning to ripple from the sound. Sessuk had said that the Great Bell could vibrate the magically imbued water in just the right way…

	He stepped back as Ilona threw herself into the inch-deep puddle.

	The thrum faded into an echo, but the princess continued to wallow in the puddle, rolling around and wailing.

	Sygne tried to pick her up. “Stop! Ilona! Ilona! Stop.”

	“It’s the transfixion!” Ilona cried. “They carried through without me.”

	Jamal studied the ceiling of the cavern. What was going on in the courtyard above them? Had they truly sacrificed another person in Ilona’s place?

	“Stop,” Sygne said quietly. “You’ll hurt yourself.”

	“And ruin my vest,” Jamal added.

	Sygne cut him a dirty look, but Jamal shrugged it off. “It was a very fine vest.”

	Eventually Ilona pulled herself out of the puddle. Her hair hung in wet tendrils over her face. Her shift was plastered to her thighs with dirty water. Kohl ran from her eyes and down her cheeks.

	“That was supposed to be me.”

	Sygne hugged her. “You didn’t want that. Remember? And you were right to not want that.”

	Ilona wept against Sygne’s shoulder. “My family is all dead. I was going to join them.”

	“You’ve been through a horrible week,” Sygne said. “You’ll see—it will get better. You’ll be glad that you didn’t let yourself die.”

	“Why would I be glad?” Ilona tore herself away from Sygne. “What am I supposed to do?”

	“You live on. We’ll help you.”

	“How will you help me? Help me live as a fugitive? Help me grow up to be an old wretch with no family?”

	The princess wrenched herself out of Sygne’s arms and stumbled away.

	“Come back here!” Jamal demanded. “Sooner or later you’re going to realize we did you a favor. You’re going to realize you wasted your whole life training to be a pincushion!”

	Ilona sneered. “Is that what you think it means to commune with an Ancient One? The Dweller Under Dreams holds a power that goes beyond godhood. Why do you think the Issulthraqis fought so hard to conquer Krit?”

	Jamal said, “I don’t think they had to fight that hard.”

	Sygne rushed forward and grabbed the princess’s arm. “Ilona, please...”

	The princess was still shrieking at Jamal. “The Issulthraqis have the Dweller, so they’re one step closer to controlling the world.”

	“Controlling the world?” Sygne asked.

	But Ilona was on a roll, and not ready to clarify. She continued, “They’re one step closer to destroying Gjuir-Khib and every other city in Embhra.” Ilona jabbed her finger at Jamal. “Let’s see how calm you are—” she sneered at Sygne “—and you—when they kill everyone you love!”

	Sygne let Ilona go, and the princess stumbled away to a far corner of the cave where she wept with her face in her hands.

	***

	Sygne didn’t wake up as much as she became more and more aware of a bone-grinding ache radiating through her body. She opened her eyes and peeled herself off the wet, unforgiving floor of the basalt cavern. Her neck was stiff, and her hips and shoulders were throbbing.

	A blue glow still illuminated the cave. Sygne twisted at the waist (to compensate for her immobile neck) and found Jamal sleeping in a seated position on a slanted formation of igneous rock.

	Where was Ilona?

	There were plenty of breaks in the floor, and uneven segments of basalt that could have concealed the princess. Sygne trotted between nooks and hollows, trying to find her. Soon she was yelling, “Ilona! Princess? Where are you?”

	She was relieved when her shouts woke Jamal. He grumbled, “Sygne. What’s happening?”

	“She’s gone!”

	Jamal’s hand went for his sword. “Be quiet for a moment. There could be Issulthraqis in these caves.” His head swiveled, checking each tunnel that led out of their current hiding spot. For a minute, they wordlessly searched for any signs of the princess. Smudged footprints on the wet stone. Scraps of fabric. Anything.

	Jamal rubbed his goatee. “She must have left a long time ago. As soon as we fell asleep.”

	“She was so upset… She’s not thinking clearly. What did she mean about the Issulthraqis controlling the world?”

	Jamal shook his head. “More mythical conspiracy theories. People believe that the Issulthraqi clergy and their gods only pretend to not believe in the Ancient Ones. The theory is that they’re secretly planning to reunite the power of all three Ancient Ones.”

	“Oh,” Sygne said. “Do you mean the Threefold Key? But isn’t that just a...” Sygne stopped herself. She was going to say ‘fairy tale,’ but already this day she had seen a goddess and the beginnings of a blood-sacrifice ritual in the center of a supposedly civilized city-state. Her definition of ‘farfetched’ had been seriously stretched in the last few hours.

	Jamal shrugged. “I don’t know if the Threefold Key can truly exist, but I can understand why the Issulthraqis want to try to assemble it.”

	“Because it can supposedly remake the entire world?”

	He nodded. “Rewrite the rules. Redefine… everything. They could change what it means to be a god.”

	“Do you think Yur… wants to become a god?”

	Jamal shrugged. “I think that Bliss and the rest of the Fabled Pantheon want to become more than gods.”

	 “Well,” Sygne said, “I’m not sure there’s anything we can do about that now.”

	 “Right.” Jamal sighed. “Let’s focus on problems we can solve. Like getting out of here.”

	“What?” Sygne exclaimed. “No! We have to find Ilona.”

	“She’s made her choice, Sygne.” Jamal punctuated his sentence with a soft clap of his hands. “We tried to save her; she decided she wanted something else.”

	“Dammit. First the Issulthraqis sacrifice someone else. Now Ilona’s lost… She might try to hurt herself. Or she might head back to the palace.”

	“I get it. I’m frustrated too. And she stole my shirt.” Jamal twitched his pec muscles as he said this, apparently admiring the way his dark skin gleamed in the eerie light.

	“So what do we do now?”

	“We look around for a tunnel that leads out of here.”

	Sygne grimaced. “If only I had my compass.”

	“What’s a compass?”

	“It’s something we could use to orientate ourselves. But I left it behind in my pocketbook when I started rescuing Ilona.”

	“You rescued her?”

	“We rescued her,” Sygne conceded. “But I really wish I hadn’t forgotten my pocketbook. Do you think it’s still there?”

	“Possibly. Along with a regimen of angry Issulthraqis.”

	“We can’t go back there, can we?”

	Jamal sighed. “I don’t know, Sygne. The palace is a big place. There’s a chance we could get in there and find a way to the outside without being seen. Honestly, Yur’s soldiers are probably searching the beach for us right now. Heading back toward the palace might be the one thing they’d never expect us to do.”

	“But then again,” Sygne said. “If anyone sees us in the palace, we would be in trouble.”

	“That’s true. As a black man and a redhead, we’re likely to stand out.”

	Sygne sighed. “I suppose we should look around and see which tunnel seems most promising.”

	They spent the next few minutes walking opposite halves of their perimeter, examining every passage they could find.

	“Here’s the one we came in from,” Jamal said. “But without Ilona, I doubt I can remember which forks lead back out.”

	Sygne called, “This hole has driftwood in it. It must lead to the ocean.”

	“Essoth’s eyeful! This one has rats in it. Two big ones!”

	“That means it could lead to the palace. Where there are pests there are people.”

	“So you’re saying the rat tunnel is a good option, Sygne?”

	“Here’s a gap, but it looks awfully small.”

	“No, thank you,” Jamal said. “I don’t like tight spaces.”

	“That’s a funny thing to mention, now that we’re in a cave.”

	“At the time, the choices were ‘cave’ or ‘skewered by spears.’”

	“That’s true.”

	They converged on the largest egress from the cavern—a wide tunnel with a healthy amount of glowing water running down its center.

	“This looks… promising.”

	Jamal held up his hand. “Shhh. Listen. It sounds like the ocean.”

	Sygne leaned into the mouth of the tunnel. She could hear the purr of ocean waves. A suck and pull of air. A brackish odor permeated her nostrils, salty with a strong hint of decay. The sound grew louder. Somehow phlegmy. And angry.

	She whispered, “It almost sounds like a breath.”

	“It does…”

	Sygne backed away. “Perhaps we should go through the rat tunnel.”

	“The rat tunnel?”

	Sygne shrugged, and Jamal warily studied the wide, breathing passage with a sidelong glance.

	“Yes, Sygne. I think I agree.”

	***

	Jamal felt sure that they had chosen the wrong passage.

	The floor of the ‘rat tunnel’ grew higher and higher, as if some current of wind or water had settled sand and silt into the passage. Soon they were crawling over piles of pebbles and sand, with their heads scraping against the rugged ceiling. Then the pebbles became larger and more jagged, and Jamal worried that they were crawling toward the site of a recent cave-in.

	At least they had light.

	Sygne had gathered up a bundle of driftwood and made it into a torch using her last match. Her torch showed the way with a greasy, nervous light. Its constant flickering made the shadows move, like rats squirming across the rocks.

	Jamal really didn’t want to put his hand down on a rat’s slimy back.

	“Maybe we should go back, Sygne?”

	“Why do you keep doing that?”

	“Doing what?” Jamal turned, but the scientician’s face was obscured by the glare of her torch.

	She said, “You keep mentioning my name as we talk.”

	“I don’t think I’ve been doing that, Syg—”

	“See?”

	“Sorry.” Jamal stopped for a moment, resting his knees on the least jagged rock he could find. “That’s a habit I learned in Gjuir-Khib. I call it name-raising. It helps to keep my story straight. Also, you should be flattered that I keep raising up your name to the Specularity. Everyone likes a little recognition.”

	Sygne said, “So the Specularity are omniscient enough to observe every minute of every Gjuiran’s life, but they’re not smart enough to keep everyone’s names straight?”

	“Consider it a narrative aid.”

	Sygne laughed. “Just know that it’s very annoying to hear people’s names repeated again and again,” said Sygne.

	“Fine. I’ll try to be less expository with my language. But truthfully, it’s a very healthy thing to imagine yourself being constantly watched by a righteous presence. It makes you act nobler. It makes you stand straighter… when there’s room to stand.” Jamal smacked his hand against the low ceiling.

	Sygne was quiet for a moment. Then she said, “And you were saying you wanted to turn around? Before you answer, remember the Specularity are watching. Jamal.”

	He nodded. “Let’s keep trying.”

	After another minute, Jamal came to a point where the piles of rock abruptly sloped downward. The cave expanded in all directions, opening into a spherical cavity that was high enough to stand in. For a moment Jamal was relieved. Then Sygne’s torch came closer, and he saw that the bottom of the cave quickly curved down to a dark pit in its center.

	“Look at that.” Sygne pointed to a rind of melon that had settled at the edge of the pit. She held up her torch to show a square hole in the ceiling.

	“It’s part of a trash chute!” she said.

	“What if it’s a latrine hole?”

	“Oh, it’s not a latrine hole. That would be a lot smaller. And also there would be a buildup of uratic salt. Not to mention the distinctive smell!”

	Jamal wrinkle