Read Storms of Destiny Online

Authors: A. C. Crispin

Tags: #Eos, #ISBN-13: 9780380782840

Storms of Destiny (7 page)

His eyes narrowed as he took in her reaction. “Child, calm yourself. You trust me, yes? Come, I will take you to a place where you will be safe, and we can talk.”

He extended his hand, smiling reassuringly.

He was lying, and Thia knew it as surely as she knew the sun would not rise without the predawn sacrifice of the Chosen each day. She shook her head and backed away farther.

“I’m afraid. It was horrible.”

“I know,” he said, speaking truth. He hesitated, then repeated, “Child, come here …” Thia realized that he was torn, truly torn, between his duty to the god and his genuine affection for his protégé.

She stood there, wondering what she should do. He was between her and the way to freedom, the corridor that led outside, to the open air, to the postern gate that led away from the temple courtyard, to the path that was the shortcut down the mountain to Verang.

A brief memory flashed into her mind. Once, in the streets of Verang, she had seen two streetboys fighting, and the smaller one had disabled the other in a most decisive manner …

Thia took a step forward, her hands going to the skirts of her habit, still partially kilted up. She took another step.

Varn smiled, his mouth curved upward, but there was no warmth in his eyes. “We will talk, child,” he said.

Thia took another step—

—and then her foot flashed upward with all her strength in a hard, swift, kick. Her scrunched-up toes buried themselves in the space between her Mentor’s legs, bunching his robe around her. For a second her foot was encased in warmth and softness.

Then she leaped backward, in time to see Varn’s eyes roll back in his head. The High One dropped to his knees, then rolled over on his side, gagging and writhing in agony.

“Master Varn, I’m so sorry, please, please forgive me …”

Thia fell to her own knees, wondering if she had killed him.

But he was still breathing, though he did not seem aware of her or her babbled apologies. The novice made the Sign of the Incarnate over his gasping form, then began to pray.

“Boq’urak Incarnate, save thy servant, heal him, bless him, let him not know pain, only thy blessed succor—” Realizing what she was saying, Thia stopped, shook herself, and scuttled backward. What was she doing? Praying to that … that thing? That obscenity? Never again! Not if they sacrificed her a thousand times!

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, edging around her fallen Mentor. “Farewell, Master.”

Grabbing up her skirts, she began running again. Corridors and doorways flashed by, until she was at the portal leading to the courtyard. She eased the big door open and slipped out, into the yard where patches of frozen slush made her feet burn as she stumbled and slid through them.

Across the courtyard, dodging into the blessed shadows, she scurried to stay out of the torchlight. Thia shivered as she felt the first lash of the wind.

Even the mountains seemed to bend down and look at her, making her feel hemmed in as she wrestled with the latch of the postern gate. Surely the god would not let her get away!

Surely she would be struck down at any moment in a blast of fire—or perhaps He would turn her to stone, as a lesson to other erring novices.

Through the postern gate, now, and the pathway down the mountain stretched before her. No alarm yet sounded. She was outside at night, and that alone was an offense worthy of being declared tomorrow’s Chosen and being offered to the god to ensure the sunrise.

Freezing, snow-laden air assaulted her shaven pate, her bare feet. The first storm of the season had arrived. Pulling up her hood and hunkering low against the blast of the wind, Thia began to run again, her arms wrapped around her, holding her warmth in, holding her life to her. It was all she had … and who knew how long Boq’urak would choose to toy with her, permitting her to remain alive?

Perhaps it would be better just to sink down into the deepening snow, stay still for a very few minutes and let the blizzard work its will. It would be a brief, merciful death, compared to what the High Ones would do to her.

But something in Thia’s nature would not allow that.

While she lived, she would fight to keep on living.

Her jaw tight with resolve—and to keep her teeth from chattering—Thia trotted on, down the path, down the mountain.

She did not look back.

Khith

The ruins of the Ancients stood deep within the Sarsithe Jungle, surrounded by monstrous trees that seemingly challenged the clouds. The ruins were so old that trees had grown and spread amidst them, and the roots of the forest giants cradled, clenched, and, in some cases, crushed the strange building materials of the Ancients. Gnarled gray roots stretched down like talons to enclose the opalescent material of the cracked domes. Broken spires shimmered with bands of oil-slick color amid the lacy green curtains of selshir leaves. The caved-in domes and the ruined spires seemed to sprout from the soil and the broken paving like giant fungi.

None of the Hthras, even Khith, who had been studying them for nearly thirty years, knew who those Ancients had been. They had left no images of themselves. They were not Hthras, that was certain—the dimensions of their buildings, their doorways, their furnishings, proved that. Even a tall human could walk into one of the ruined domes without stooping. Khith was tall for a Hthras, yet the scholar stood barely half the height of one of those vine-tangled doorways.

Khith’s people lived in the giant trees, avoiding the ruins as forbidden. But Khith was … different. Had always been different. Ever since it had reached the age of responsibility— though not maturity, for Khith had never developed a sexual attraction for another Hthras, and thus remained in the neuter phase—the scholar had made frequent trips into the places other Hthras shunned, searching out the secrets of the ruins.

Unlike most of its people, Khith enjoyed solitude. The scholar’s father had been a trader who did most of his trade with humans, and as a result, Khith had spent more of its childhood years interacting with human children than with its own kind. The ruins fascinated the scholar; their mysteries beckoned the young Hthras into defying one of the most basic tenets of the Hthras culture—that the ruins of the Ancients were forbidden ground.

The Hthras authorities had spoken to the young scholar several times, cautioning it against such investigation. Once, the scholar had even been summoned to a meeting of the Council of Elders.

“The Ancients had great powers, but they were reckless, and at the end, wicked,” First Elder Nkotha had admonished, shaking a bony digit at the younger Hthras. “They unleashed such destruction as has never been seen, according to our legends. There are even hints that
they
caused the Great Waste that lies to the east of the Sarsithe. Before their time, that land was a garden. Now it is death for any who walk there for more than a handful of days.”

Khith stared at the Council of Elders, fascinated. “How could that happen? The Great Waste is larger even than the Sarsithe! And our forest is larger than the islands of Pela and Taenarith put together. The Ancients’ sorcery must have been as far above our magic as we are above the animals of the forest! How could they control such power? Elder, if we could but solve their mysteries—”

“Control … that is the point, youngling!” old Nkotha broke in, pounding a veiny fist on the table. “They
had
no control! They unleashed what they did not understand, and could not control! We Hthras will not make that same mistake … we will
not
!” Nkotha sank back in her seat, panting, and her attendant bent over her solicitously.

“Nkotha is the wisest among us,” Second Elder Sthaal declared. “We are determined never again to delve into those forbidden things, lest the fate that befell the Ancients become ours. Cease your investigations, youngling!”

With an aching heart, Khith had bowed its head and spoken the words the Elders wanted to hear. “I shall obey, Elders. I respect your wisdom.”

And, for many years, Khith had kept its promise. The scholar had gone back to live with its people among the treetops, in their cities of bell-shaped dwellings Hthras Growers had ripened in their nurseries. Hthras knew plants, knew growing things, as no other creatures did. Rather than maim or destroy the jungle to accommodate their species, they cultivated, coaxed, and “convinced” it to do their bidding.

But after another handful of years had passed, years of frustration when none of the unmated Hthras caught its eye, Khith’s curiosity about the Ancients proved more than it could conquer, and one day the scholar went out for a walk … and never returned to the treetops. Instead, Khith stole back to the ruins and resumed its studies there.

The Hthras scholar had always been good with the magic of its people: herb lore, healing, a little farseeing, magics to sooth, confuse, or frighten. But the Ancients had delved into so many powerful magics! Deep in vaults beneath the ruins, the Hthras scholar found ancient texts, some crumbling, others miraculously preserved. Khith spent days laboriously copying the most decaying tomes. Slowly, the Hthras worked at deciphering their language, puzzling out their letters and numbers, slowly piecing together words, phrases, and finally reading the ancient texts. It took the Hthras scholar nearly two years to learn to read the language of the Ancients, and longer still to be able to understand and put into practice what it had so painstakingly translated.

At first Khith had maintained some discreet ties with other Hthras villages, trading with them for food and supplies, but then, sensing the disapproval of the Council of Elders and realizing it was under observation, the scholar went underground, literally. The domes and structures still visible on the forest floor represented only a small part of the Ancients’ city. Beneath the ground were networks of chambers and seemingly endless tunnels. There were also many record storerooms and several libraries. For the past half-year Khith had ventured out mostly at night to search the jungle for herbs and food.

The scholar had been content with its search for knowledge. Content … until the dreams had started.

Dreams held great import for the Hthras. And every night for the past tenday, Khith had dreamed of jaws in the night, of teeth tearing, of trying to run from an unseen foe while weighted down with invisible chains.

Khith knew that such dreams should be taken seriously …

but these warnings were so vague, so formless. It was not enough for the scholar to sense danger approaching—Khith needed to know what the danger was, and who presented it.

Reluctantly, the scholar had realized that it must find out what those ominous dreams portended.

So it was that one afternoon Khith sat perched atop a tall stool in one of those underground chambers where the Ancients had practiced their version of alchemy. The scholar frowned as it stared uneasily at a bowl of oily black liquid resting on the high table before it.

Hthras foretelling spells usually caused the worker to dream in highly symbolic terms of danger. Such dreams could be useful, but they required interpretation, and they were never precise.

But the spells of the Ancients were different.

Khith had found this spell in a crumbling tome, and it had been extremely difficult to translate the fragmentary and vermin-chewed pages. And even when it had determined the proper ingredients, there was something missing—the correct proportions. For that, Khith had to experiment, trusting instincts honed by years of experience in brewing potions, tisanes, infusions, and teas.

This brew was the strongest it had ever made, the most distilled. Khith stared at the concoction, thinking perhaps that knowledge wasn’t worth the risk. The scholar wasn’t sure exactly what the effects might be, but it knew lian roots were a powerful hallucinogen. There were tales among the Hthras of magic workers who had taken potions to farsee, only to leap to their deaths from their homes in the forest giants, thinking themselves winged or invulnerable.

But even now the council might be meeting …

Khith stared at the dark, viscous liquid, feeling a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature control that still prevailed, deep in the bowels of the ancient city. It had worked for two days to decoct this mixture. But … would it work for anyone but an Ancient—whatever they had been like?

What if it poisons me?
Khith thought.
I could die down
here and no one would ever know.
The thought caused the silky fur on its arms and back to stir and rise up in reaction to danger. Its tail lashed back and forth.

And yet, to have the power to see things happening far
away, or possibly even the future …

The mixture was a distillation of lian roots and vilneg leaves. The Hthras had combined them, adding a dollop of its own blood to give the spell strength and focus.
But if I
haven’t the courage to use what I’ve learned, I might as well
go back to my village, give up sorcery,
the scholar thought.

There is no gain without risk.

Khith stared at the potion for another moment, then resolutely picked up the bowl, balancing it on its slender, four-digited hands. Cautiously, it sniffed the brew, its nostril-flaps quivering at the sharp, bitter odor. It hesitated for only a second.
I must know!

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