Lohrehn backhanded me again.
I could taste blood in my mouth and turned my head to spit.
“Have you not heard the old saying: you get more bees with honey than with vinegar?” I asked him. “Whatever bees and vinegar are.”
He gave me a smile that did not reach his eyes. “You’re making this very pleasurable for me, Karane. I would like to thank you.”
“Enough,” Estenosj muttered.
Lohrehn sobered and bowed to the monk. “Yes, brother.”
Estenosj waved him away and turned to me. “We have ways to change you, Karane. We’ve opted thus far to have you join us willingly. I grow tired of your stubbornness.”
“Why do you need me to be a Shadow, anyway,” I asked, curious. “I can assist you without converting.”
Estenosj took three steps towards me and clamped his hand around my jaw, squeezing until I gasped.
“Everyone will convert to the true faith,” he said with deceptive mildness. “Whether now or after the rebellion. You’ll join us before if it’s the last thing I do.”
He let go my jaw and turned away. “We have to keep moving. Those bitches are probably on our heels.”
Lohrehn pushed me towards my lir’tah. I grabbed hold of the pommel and hauled myself onto the saddle.
“Lead the way, Lohr,” Estenosj said.
Lohrehn bowed from the saddle and turned his lir’tah north. He gave the animal a vicious kick.
My lir’tah followed willingly.
We had reached the grain fields days ago and were keeping near the river and away from the patrolled fields.
“There’s a large village further north,” Lohrehn called over his shoulder. “We should be able to get a barge there. Our tracks are easy to spot, and it doesn’t look like rain for a bit.”
“That’s a worthy plan,” Estenosj told him. “Lead the way.”
I had long ago grown numb to the pain in my low back and inner thighs from long hours on the saddle. We only stopped about an hour twice a day for the awful religious instructions and to rest the animals. I tottered at the edge of exhaustion.
I peered right, towards the west. The grain fields this far south had been left fallow for a season. The rich black earth extended all the way to the horizon. Further north, the harvesting had begun, and dozens of harvesters moved among the tall, golden grain. Some paused in their work as we galloped past. They wore loose tunics and trousers and wide-brimmed hats. They went barefoot along the grain, swinging scythes or machetes. I could see the glint of steel as guards walked the periphery. They were too far for me to distinguish if I knew them. And, of course, they would not recognize me from this distance.
Near midday we came upon a large village with an expansive dock for the barges. Here, the huts and cottages were built on stilts several feet into the air. Small boats were set next to each hut or cottage. It was a strange sensation, walking down the main road with the houses hulking overhead.
“Go purchase us a space on the next barge, Lorh,” Estenosj said as we walked our mounts along the dusty main road through the village. “We’ll find a tavern for a hot meal.”
We were garnering quite a bit of attention.
“Right away, brother,” Lohrehn replied, mounting once more and cantering towards the docks.
Estenosj led us to a tavern near the docks. Long wooden stairs led from the ground to the front door.
Estenosj handed the reins of his lir’tah to Kritos. “Find the stables. We need to keep the lir’tah out of sight until it is time to embark.”
The guard bowed and took the three mounts further north.
We walked up the stairs, which were solid and sturdy, if worn by the elements. The front door stood open. A portico wrapped around the building, allowing for outside tables, though few customers seemed to prefer eating out of doors.
The tavern inside was half-empty. Estenosj chose a table away from the windows and near the back wall. He sat with his back to the wall.
“Sit there,” he said, meaning that my back would be to the windows.
The tavern keeper came to our table and bowed. “Welcome. Our special is a spicy river fish stew with turies on two enashas.”
Estenosj smiled at him. “That’ll be fine. We have two more coming. The same for all. And bring us some cider, please.”
The tavern keeper bowed and hurried away.
Lohrehn and the other guard returned shortly, talking softly.
They slid into their chairs and Lohrehn bent close to Estenosj and whispered something in his ear.
The monk sighed and nodded. His hazel eyes snarled my gaze. “Your friends are here. At least two of them.”
“Which two?” I asked, hoping that Yhera was not with them.
“The two nuns,” he replied.
My heart gave a sickening lurch that left me lightheaded. I had no hope that I wouldn’t be gutted by them for my disappearance. They would be sick of my disappearances by now and probably figured I would serve them better dead.
The tavern keeper brought four specials. Estenosj thanked him.
“Eat and quickly,” he murmured when the tavern keeper had walked away.
The stew was good, but I could barely swallow past the lump in my throat. It was the same for me before every battle. I could not eat anything until the battle was done.
I picked up my glass of cider and swallowed my mouthful of fish stew.
Estenosj pointed his chin at Lohrehn. “Do you think the nuns saw us?”
Lohrehn shifted. “They came from the east, brother. I just spied them cantering into the village.”
“But they’ll recognize our guest, of course,” Estenosj muttered and sighed. “I’m suppose we’ll have to take care of this now. Finish up.”
I pushed my plate away.
“Eat,” Lohrehn growled.
“I can’t eat right now,” I hissed. “I can’t get the lump of food down my throat.”
“Leave him be,” Estenosj said firmly. “The rest of you – finish eating.”
They were done quickly, sopping up the remains of the stew with some bread.
Estenosj rose and reached into the inner pocket of his coat. He hailed the tavern keeper.
The man hurried over and accepted the coins.
“When does the next barge leave?” the monk asked him.
“Within two hours, sir.”
We left the tavern and stood at the door, glancing left and right. The main road was busier now than when we arrived. Most foot traffic seemed to be headed to the docks.
“I don’t see them, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t there,” Estenosj declared. “Let’s head to the stables and see what we can see.”
We walked sedately down the dusty road. I kept my head down and followed between Estenosj and Lohrehn and the other two guards.
The stables, being built on the ground, were located almost a sepek east of the main road. We entered a warmer, dimmer space. The smell of feed and sour animal waste clung to the still air.
It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dimness.
“You led us a merry chase,” said a silky female voice.
She stood just inside, arms and legs akimbo.
Where was Ohna?
“I don’t like your odds,” Estenosj declared lazily. “Why don’t you be a good girl and step aside?”
Her face became stony, her eyes glittering.
Without taking his eyes off the nun, Estenosj said: “Dohron, Kritos, go outside and around. Find that other nun.”
The two guards jogged away.
Estenosj and Lohrehn stepped apart. Estenosj took hold of my elbow and propelled me closer to the right-hand wall.
Lohrehn smiled grimly at Lhara’h. He lifted his hand and said a few words so softly I could not catch them.
The palm of his hand glowed.
Lhara’h’s eyes bulged.
Lohrehn repeated the words and hurled a ball of light towards her.
She threw herself on the ground. The ball of light sailed past her and out the back wall.
She rose, her hands a blur as she unsheathed a dagger and threw it with deadly precision at Lohrehn. He shouted a word and the dagger stopped in midair and fell with a plunk to the ground.
The ball of light by then had returned and was headed towards Lhara’h.
I opened my mouth to warn her when a hand clamped over my mouth.
“Shut. Up,” Estenosj hissed.
As I watched helplessly, Lhara’h threw three daggers in a row, so quickly one could barely see the action, but Lohrehn stopped them with a mere word.
“What witchery is this?” Lhara’h demanded.
Lohrehn laughed. He murmured three words and the ball of light expanded.
She finally must have seen the light at the edge of her vision, for she whirled around just in time to be engulfed.
The light shrunk until it pressed against her body and she was gasping for air.
Lohrehn strode to where she stood and murmured more words. The light seemed to flicker and then it sank into Lhara’h’s skin and disappeared.
“Nicely done,” Estenosj said. “Let’s get our mounts and leave, shall we? Bring the nun.”
The monk put his hand on my back and pushed me savagely forward.
I lost my footing and fell with an oomph.
He squatted eyelevel to me. “You’re proving quite the pain in my ass, aren’t you, Karane? Even if you had warned her, she wouldn’t have been able to stop it. Get up. If you want to live to see your next natal day, I propose you get onboard with us.”
I swallowed, looking away from his glittering glare. I stood up and followed him to where Lohrehn was saddling our mounts.
Dohron and Kritos returned.
“Well?” Estenosj demanded.
“We couldn’t locate her, brother.”
Estenosj chewed on his lower lip. “Keep aware. Let’s head to the docks.”
I kept my eyes out for Ohna.
Lohrehn rode with Lhara’h before him on his mount.
I looked at the nun. Her eyes were glazed and her mouth slack. I began to like this less and less.
I had heard stories of warlocks and witches, but those stories were meant to frighten children. I did not think I was dealing with warlocks. But if Lohrehn was not a warlock, then what was he?
We made it to the docks without event and dismounted. Dohron led the mounts onto the barge, towards the stern.
Lohrehn slid from his saddle and pulled Lhara’h gently down. He put his arm around her and chuckled.
“Let’s go, missus,” he murmured.
Kritos laughed uproariously as if it was the best joke he had ever heard.
I looked away, feeling sick. I hoped they would not hurt her any more than she was already.
Estenosj clamped his hand around my left elbow and kept it there.
Would they do to me what they had done to Lhara’h in order to keep me docile and agreeable? The thought choked me with fear. I looked around, hoping there was something I could do to escape. I no longer cared if I died of poison. I just wanted to put space between myself and the Shadows.
Lohrehn reached into his coat and retrieved five tickets. “Here you go, brother.”
Estenosj sighed. “That’s good.” He frowned. “Why do I get the feeling that other nun saw us in the stables? Lohrehn, you and Kritos go and have a look around, but be back within the hour and a half.”
Lohrehn bowed. “Yes, brother.”
Dohron had returned and now took Lhara’h from Lohrehn and led her onto the barge.
Goods were being loaded and unloaded from the barge now. We headed towards the stem. A few passengers were milling about. Some had set up tents on the deck. The stern of the long barge was reserved for goods, wagons and animals. I could see the tall stacks of sturdy crates. There was a small pilot house at the front of the barge. There were long poles secured on either side of the barge. How I understood barges to function, there would be up to 20 men using the poles to propel the barge forward. The men worked in shifts of five hours with two hours off.
I walked to the railing and leaned against it, looking ahead towards the north. The Kahi River was a source of awe to most Tjish.unen. Its length numbered in the thousands of sepeks. There were areas of the river where the width could be longer than 10 sepeks. The further north one went, one could see where the natural banks of the river had been added to in order to keep the grain fields from flooding during the height of the monsoon season. Right now, the river was moderately swollen, as the rainy season had been less than generous. As the monsoon season grew old, more rain would come, and the river would outgrow its banks and flood the southern lands. The river was forever changing its course depending on the season.
Estenosj joined me at the railing. I stiffened and forced myself to relax.
“What are you going to do with the nun?” I demanded softly.
He flicked me a disinterested glance. “We need to extract information from her.”
“Please don’t hurt her.”
He snorted. “She was ready to kill Lohrehn back there. She would have probably killed you, too, given half the chance. Yet you plead for her life.”
I swallowed and looked away from his hazel eyes.
“She won’t recall what she’s seen,” he told me after a time. “I can’t promise she will be the same girl as she was before, but she’ll be alive.”
I looked at him. “What do you mean – she won’t be the same girl as she was before?”
He shrugged. “The magic is hard to predict. Sometimes it does what it wants. It could well be she’ll remain a simpleton the rest of her life.”
“Then perhaps death is better.”
“That is not for you to decide.” He spat into the water. “Now, we’re going to continue your education.”
I refrained from rolling my eyes.
“What is the role of God Khahn in the pantheon?”
I took a breath. “He is the lord of death and rebirth. The lord of change and beginnings.”
He inclined his head. “Very good. Who was his mate?”
“The God Kahi,” I replied. “But how is that so?”
He pursed his lips. “Don’t tell me you’ve learned nothing about God Kahi!”
I looked away from him again.
He sighed. “Kahi is a dual-sexed God. He is both male and female and appears as both all the time. He is availed of a womb and testicles. The perfect being, poised at the very pinnacle of perfection. Capable of self-reproduction. But the God Kahi fell in love with Khahn.
“When the Gods and Goddesses created life, they did not imbue their creations with desire or lust. So, their creations fought each other instead of seeking to mate. The Gods and Goddesses needed to create a being who could generate desire and lust in others. Thus, they came together and Leh pricked each God’s or Goddess’ finger and took one drop of blood from each deity. This blood was mixed with earth. Then Leh blew holy breath into the being’s lungs and Kahi was born. Kahi has a bit of ability from each of his parents: beauty from Bah’nah, the ability to love from Ike’rheu, the ability to destroy from Sene, and the ability to regenerate from Khahn.
“When he came alive, Kahi fascinated the Gods and Goddesses. He was beautiful, exotic, capable of charming. But he also has a darker side – he is the God of excess and madness. He is the God, too, of atoliye.”
I frowned. “I have never understood that.”
He shrugged again. “He fell in love with a male.”
“But he is both genders, so why is he the God of atoliye?”
“We’ll discuss that another time, shall we? Let’s finish today’s lesson. When Kahi awoke into life, he gazed first upon Khahn first and fell in love. When Khahn was expelled from the Pantheon by the High Priestess Sefara’h, she made the worship of Khahn a matter of death. She also relegated Kahi to the edges of faith.”
“That’s unfortunate,” I murmured. “We don’t have the right to exile Gods.”
He smiled. “Exactly! Hundreds of monks and priests who worshipped Khahn were murdered by Sefara’h and her daughters and descendants, unto this Empress. The total of our brothers killed for their beliefs now number in the thousands. It has been a genocide.”
“They were killed in the most exquisitely painful manner, too,” he continued in a conversational tone. “They were tortured, beaten to death or their flesh was peeled away. Drawn and quartered. You name it, it was done. We are done hiding in the shadows, Karane Truvesto. No more of us will die.”
He spun on his heel and strode away, his shoulders stiff.
I reached up and touched the decoder through my tunic.
Lohrehn and Kritos returned a few minutes before the barge was untied from the dock.
I went to see what they had to say about Ohna.
“Did you find the other nun?” Estenosj demanded.
“No, sir,” Lohrehn replied. “If she saw, she must have fled with that knowledge.”
“We’ll have to catch her another way,” the monk murmured. “Now, set up our tents.”
The guards got busy setting up three large tents.
I knelt next to Estenosj. “How will you catch her?”
He smiled humorlessly. “That is none of your business. Here.”
He reached into his saddlebag and removed a tome. He slapped it against my chest, knocking me over.
The tome smelled old and had fragile, yellowed pages.
“Read the Book,” he told me. “Before the light is gone from the sky.”
I sat cross legged at the stem, the Book on my lap. Reading it was slow going, as I had to use the decoder to do so. I asked for paper and a pen and was resoundly denied. I guess I understood the Shadows had to take care of how much of their knowledge got out, which would include the contents of their holy book.
I was worried about Lhara’h and Ohna and found my mind wandering again and again towards Yhera. Where was she now? Was she safe?
With a sigh, I closed my eyes and concentrated. Already most of the sunlight had been leached from the sky. The sun clung to the west, draped in dark reds and purples. The edges of the light was golden.
“Come here, Karane,” Estenosj called softly from the double tent I would be sharing with him.
I closed the book carefully and rose, striding to the tent and kneeling before him.
“What did you learn?” he asked, taking the tome from my hands.
“When the creatures the Gods created began to multiply, the entire world filled with them. Then the Gods grew jealous of one another as the creatures began to choose which of the Gods they would worship. Every God and Goddess wanted to have more worshippers than the others. A great battle ensued, during which all the creatures were destroyed. The world came to brink of its undoing. Da’hrisjah saw this and became angry. He banished the gods to another dimension, where they could influence their creations only through persuasion and promises, manifesting only through dreams. Da’hrisjah then created the beings on this world, the isili, the Isemi and others. He created all manner of beasts and flying animals. The progenitors of human beings came to this world on an ark, guided by Da’hrisjah.”
Estenosj smiled. “Very good, novice. What else did you learn?”
“Not much else, given I have no pen and no paper with which to write down the words I am decoding.”
“Soon we will be in the capital and there you shall learn what you need to know,” he promised.
I did not care, but I did not tell him that. I bowed my head like a good servant and promised myself I would escape at the soonest opportunity.
Where was Lhara’h, I wondered.
“Get in the tent and get some rest,” the monk urged, pulling the tent flap back. “Go on.”
I crawled into the tent and found the pallet that had been given to me. I pulled the rough blankets up to my chin and kept my eyes on the tent flap. It swayed in the soft breezes. I had to save Lhara’h, but how?
I soon fell into a restless slumber. My dream was fractured and disturbing. Images of blood and death, destruction, and great suffering. In the dream, I knew I dreamed, and I also knew the dream was not just a dream. Pay attention, a voice said in my mind. Wake up or all is lost!
I gasped and came up on an elbow. I was soaked in sweat and trembling in the cool breezes rifling my hair. I lay on a world on the brink of death. The ground upon which I lay was charred. The skeleton of burnt trees filled the horizon like jagged fangs. The world had the odor of char. The sky was blood red, the sun a small black pearl on the other side of the thick smoke and fumes. I rose, naked and pale as a ghost. As I walked, I saw the burned remains of beings and animals. I walked around them, careful to touch nothing.
“Wake up and pay attention.”
I turned. A God stood there, golden, and beautiful as starlight. His hair was long down his back, and he wore a warrior’s garb – golden armor studded with exquisite precious jewels. The cuirass was solid with jewels. He wore a short skirt of gold and greaves to protect his lower legs. He went barefoot. In his right hand he held a golden javelin and on his left hand a shield. Where his eyes should have been there was light. His golden hair moved lazily in the breezes.
I went down on one knee. “Lord.”
“I have brought you here to tell you that my teachings have been perverted. Find the actual meaning in the Book of Death and you shall set my worshippers free.”
I opened my mouth to speak his name.
“Desist! Lest you die.”
His name died on my tongue.
“You must become a worshipper to change the Way. The Shadows are wrong, and you must set them aright.”
“How do I do this, Lord?”
“You learn from them and become one of them. Not all the Shadows believe the perversions; they only seek to change the world. One by one, convert them, but first you must learn the teachings of the Book.”
“I will, Lord.”
“I will ask much of you, Karane. But this is what I will give you.”
He stepped forward and placed his hand on my chest.
I began to heave. Pain lanced through my abdomen, my veins, my chest. I opened my mouth and vomited a vile black substance that stank to the heavens. I vomited until my stomach hurt.
The God placed his hand on my head. “Now, awake!!!”
I gasped. My heart clamored in my chest. My chest felt tight and hurt. I could not catch my breath. I was drenched in sweat.
I looked to the left. Estenosj slept on undisturbed.
I crawled to the tent flaps and poked my head out. I could see the outline of Kritos near the railing. Rain pattered gently. The deck was wet. The sky was still dark, and I wondered what time it was.
I crawled out of the tent and stood.
Kritos turned around. “What are you doing up? Return to your bed.”
I swallowed the bitterness at the back of my throat. I turned my face up to the sky. The coolness of the rain soothed me.
“I had a dream–” I began.
He shook his head. “That matters not. Return to your bed before I make you.”
I sighed and crawled back inside. Removing my tunic, I dried the sweat from my skin and underarms, rubbing my face until it burned. I smelled of something strange – bitter and medicinal. Could it be true? Had the God healed me?
I closed my eyes and said a short prayer of thanks.
“What are you doing awake?” Estenosj demanded.
I started and turned to him. “I had a dream.”
He came up on an elbow. “What kind of dream?”
“Khahn healed me of the poison.”
He sat up promptly. “What jest is this?”
“No jest. He bid me join the Shadows–” I felt a heaviness on my tongue and knew Estenosj was not to be trusted. “In exchange for a cure.”
He frowned. “Why do I think you just lied to me?”
He turned to his left and picked up two ca’ahl stones, striking them and lighting an oil lamp. The smell of oil filled the tent.
Turning back to me, he held the lamp aloft.
“Now – what you told me, is it true?”
My heart gave a sickening jolt. Then a deep serenity filled me.
He watched my eyes. I did not flinch from his sharp perusal.
“Tell me the dream.”
I told him everything but the God’s assertion that His teachings had been perverted.
He cocked his head. “God preserves! You tell the truth. Are you a prophet?”
“It is His wish that I be, but first I must learn the Book of Death.”
He gaped. “But none of us…our Leader has the only copy, Karane.”
“Then I must see him.”
He sighed. “I will attempt to get you an audience. He is a prophet also.”
A false prophet, something whispered through my mind and I shivered. Kill him and set what is perverted to rights.
“Yes, Lord,” I whispered.
Estenosj’s eyes widened. “He speaks to you?”
“Yes. I know his True Name.”
Estenosj set the lamp down. His hands shook badly.
“Tell it me.”
“I cannot speak it, for it would mean our deaths.”
Estenosj rubbed his face with his hands. “Alright. I had read that, but you had not. You must be speaking the truth.”
I said nothing.
He sighed. “Very well, Karane. We must find you a name – a prophet’s name.”
“The God will name me,” I retorted.
“Of course,” he said and bowed. “Forgive me, Prophet.”
I held my left hand out. Pain lanced along the joints and connective tissues. As we looked on, a light crackled across my fingertips and palm. It looked like lightning. I curved my fingers and the light bent to become a small ball.
Estenosj gasped and fell upon his face. “Forgive me! I doubted you, but I can see you speak truth!”
“Brother?” Lohrehn called from outside. “Are you alright?”
“Yes,” Estenosj called in return. “Give me a moment.”
He put his hands together and bowed his head. “I honor you, Prophet.”
I nodded. “Teach me and lead me to the Book of Death.”
“At once, Prophet!”
He rummaged through his knapsack and retrieved a shirt. He handed it to me.
I pulled it on. I undid my braid and combed my hair with my fingers. He stepped behind me and re-braided my hair.
“Let’s tell the others, shall we?” he asked.
We crawled out. Lohrehn, Kritos and Dorohn stood in a line, daggers drawn.
“Put your weapons away,” Estenosj hissed. “Are you mad?”
“You were yelling, brother,” Lohrehn said.
Estenosj indicated the three guards. “Tell them.”
“The God visited me in a dream. He has named me a prophet.”
Lohrehn snorted then laughed. The other two looked enraged.
“I don’t believe you,” Lohrehn stated. “And if you take the God’s name in vain again, I will cut your tongue out.”
“Show him,” Estenosj urged. His eyes glittered.
Lohrehn turned to Estenosj. “He has enthralled you.”
I lifted my hand. Light crackled over the skin. It hurt but I was not afraid. I placed my other hand over it and squeezed. When I removed my top hand, a small ball of light remained.
“How–?” Lohrehn gaped. “How do you do this?”
“One cannot teach magic,” Estenosj stated with quiet triumph. “It is innate or given by the God.”
“Other false Gods can give magic, too!” Kritos hissed.
I turned my face to the sky, allowing the rain to wash the sweat from my skin.
“When we are away from this barge,” I said without looking at them. “I will give you proof.”
“I will know now,” Lohrehn hissed and in a blur and threw his dagger at me.
Before I could say a word, the blade sliced through my tunic and flesh, cutting through my heart. I fell onto my back.”
I gazed up at the cloudy sky. The rain continued to fall. I heard Estenosj yell in anger.
Rise, Karane. Take the blade with your hand and pull it free.
I sat up, reaching for the blade, and pulling it free. At once, a deep warmth filled me. My heart hurt and spurted blood, soaking the front of my tunic. I placed my hand over my heart. The God whispered words of healing that I recited under my breath. Slowly, the pain increased until I wanted to scream. It was like being on fire from the inside out. The drops of rain fell on my skin, hissed and evaporated. My eyes felt as if they were being cooked in their sockets, but I could clearly see the fear in Lohrehn’s eyes. Kritos and Dohron fell upon their knees; Estenosj followed suit.
I spoke Lohrehn’s name. Wisps of smoke rose from my lips. I fell upon my hands and swallowed my screams. I began to thrash in a fit. I struggled to hold myself up. I was drenched in blood but still I did not die. The pain brought me to a sharp edge inside myself. Fear and hope warred and began to tear me apart. I fell face first to the ground and darkness swallowed me.