The bloated opomu spun a delicate thread from spinnerets on its abdomen, working with a mechanical sureness. In the dim light, Mele watched dozens of its sisters doing the same. The thick, musky odor of decaying aeta leaf was heavy in the air, yet he hardly noticed.
He closed the hatch and moved to the next pen. Inside, a mass of squirming grubs devoured the last of the aeta, nearing the end of a two week eating binge. Mele picked up one of the grubs to inspect it. With no sign of disease, he nodded in satisfaction and replaced the wriggling white larva.
Opening the next pen, Mele found it ready to be harvested. He reached in, pulled out some of the sticky web, and began winding it around a wooden spool. As he did, he took mouthfuls of bitter, mineral rich water and spit it onto the threads. They began to clump and thicken into silky cords.
With a full spool, he went to the spinning room and locked the spool into place. Cranking the machine, he wound the threads and let the machine do its job, pulling, weaving, and stretching the threads until he had a nice, soft bundle of silk. He hung it on a wrack to dry. It would soon be ready to take dye, and fetch a nice price in the market.
The next batch of eggs was due to hatch in a week. He would need to get more aeta food. With the weather changing, he might get lucky and find some ybbe flowers to mix with the aeta. It made for a finer silk that could fetch higher prices, but ybbe was tricky and never easy to come by.
Boss N’Yin dozed at his desk when Mele found him. A cough and scraping of a chair woke the old man. His eyes were cloudy and his hands twitched more and more lately. Mele knew the old man was sick, but wasn’t sure what to do about it.
“What is it, boy?” Boss N’Yin shook himself awake and took a long swig of the foul smelling drink.
“I’m out of aeta leaves. Gotta take a trek to get some more.”
“None at the market?”
“Hasn’t been for weeks. I’ve been using some of the old stuff we kept in the cellar, but that’s running out now, too.”
“How long you gonna be gone, you recon?”
“Shouldn’t be more than three or four days, I should think.”
Boss N’Yin began to cough and sputter, until another swallow of the rancid liquid calmed him.
“Boss, you need me to get you anything?”
“A younger body, maybe.” He managed a wan smile, and Mele thought he saw blood on the old man’s teeth.
Mele strapped on leather boots, shrugged into a long coat, and tossed his pack over one shoulder. He pulled a knitted cap over curly hair. With a stop in the larder for jerked meat, dry bread, and two skins of water, he was ready to go.
“I’m off, Boss,” he said, heading for the door.
“Careful out there,” the old man called after him. “There are bandits on the road this time of year.”
“Not much chance of that, Boss.” To himself, he said, “nothing left for them to take anymore.”
He stepped into the narrow alley, deftly avoiding a foul smelling puddle. Hunched against the morning chill, he hurried along the winding path as it doglegged and twisted between buildings.
On the main road, he weaved between the few early rising vendors and laborers. The sun was not yet visible and oil lamps, few as they were, cast deep shadows. Abandoned and crumbling buildings loomed, threatening to collapse upon him with a strong breeze.
At North Bridge, he paused as he always did, to look along the flowing M’Lemzail River, watching the barge crews preparing for their day. He called out a greeting to Kyon N’hatta, Boss N’Yin’s old friend. She flashed a toothy smile and waved as she cast off from the shore. The current pulled the barge away, crew vigilantly eyeing the water for dangerous debris.
At the far end of the bridge, the gate was already open. The guards, both rather portly old men with impressive waxed beards and mustaches, sat with steaming mugs of casse tea. They paid him no mind as he passed beyond the gate, into the broken down remnants of the old Outer City. Once, when Yelemma was a bustling town, many of the workers lived in these houses. These days, with no shortage of space, the city’s few remaining residents lived within the inner walls. Old homes and civic buildings were in shambles, looted to improve the more populous inner city. The wilds encroached, vines and trees growing out of broken windows, buzzing insects making nests in sagging rooftops.
Mele passed the outer wall, now more of a memory than a functioning barrier, as the sun began to brighten. A chilling wind picked up, cutting through the places where his coat had worn through.
Though less traveled than the days when the city was thriving, the ancient stone road remained visible. Weeds sprouted between cobblestones, but grew stunted and gnarled. Mele followed the path absentmindedly, thinking about stories of war and adventure heard from travelers at the market. Gravais, the City of Cities, home of the Church of the Twins, center of culture and civilization. Aranam, the Scholar’s Paradise, red stone towers, dusty with ancient mystery and shadow. The Shield Wall of King Om, holding back Yaro hoards in the lands beyond the Black Mountains. Daan, the sinister home of masked slave-lords, hidden behind sandstone walls and taboo. Umnaiz with its massive lighthouse. He would see those fabled places, he promised himself, and more besides.
Mele kicked a loose stone, watching it skitter across the road into thorny brush. Something darted away in a blur. He caught the scent of rotting meat and decided to speed his step. It would not do to run afoul of scavenging umkac and have his aeta hunt end so soon.
Tall trees rose on both sides of the road. Broad leaves cast shadows, yet did little to stop the chilling wind. Rain began with little warning. At a crossroad, Mele sheltered in the moss covered remnants of an old toll hut. He chewed a strip of jerked meat, watching the treetops sway. Spring might be coming, yet this day had more of winter in it. The rain continued for the better part of a half hour.
When the rain abated, Mele left his shelter and returned to the road. Something stood in his path. He froze, staring at the thing. It was perfectly still, not looking at him, yet he felt the focus of all its attention. Long, sleak, deep purple fur bristling, gleaming black claws dug into loose gravel, its whole presence was warning him to run. Wide mouth slack, its bright yellow eyes stared into the middle distance.
Mele knew if he ran, the thing would catch him before he took a dozen steps. It was an umkac, and it was as deadly a foe as any hunter in this region might expect to face. Mele was no hunter, no warrior. He was perhaps a bold young man, but his days were spent feeding opomu and gathering their silk, not wrestling vicious beasts.
Mele reached into his jacket and withdrew his blade. He’d cut yards upon yards of silken cord with it, yet expected it would not serve especially well in such a violent situation. His fingers tightened around the hilt. He tried to remain calm, tried to take some solace in having a weapon at all to drive the beast away. His heart pounded a fearful rhythm in his ears and in spite of the cold, sweat beaded on his dark brown skin.
Muscles tensed. His mouth went dry. The yellow eyes of the umkac slowly turned until they stared directly into Mele’s. His scalp itched and his knees went weak. His jaw clenched. His breath caught.
It was in motion.
Mele brought his left arm up to defend himself, ready to thrust his small knife if he saw an opening. The beast’s dripping fangs grew to consume his vision. The mouth opened wider. He’d seen carcasses left by umkac. He’d heard stories of trappers who had run afoul of the things.
It lunged for him. He pushed forward, stabbing wildly, closing his eyes as claws slashed toward his face. His blade did not connect, nor did the claw. He found himself tumbling over into the mud, looking around frantically, wiping filth from his face.
What he saw took a few thundering heartbeats to understand. He was no longer in immediate danger. The umkac had bigger trouble to worry about. A tall Una, covered in furs, stood with a foot upon its back, holding a pole with a snare line wrapped around the umkac’s neck. The beast was choking, thrashing about, trying to shake off its tormentor. The Una twisted the pole and gave it a quick jerk. With a muffled crack of bone, the umkac was dead.
Mele shook off his surprise and stood up. He retrieved the blade he’d dropped in his fall and turned to face the intervening Una. The face was familiar.
“Inoke?” he asked. “Inoke N’Pek?”
“You’re Mele.” she said. “Old N’Yin’s boy.”
“I haven’t seen you in a year or more.”
“I’m glad you picked today to change that,” he said, putting his blade back in his coat. “Thank you.”
“What are you doing out here?”
“Collecting aeta leaves for the opomu.”
She bent to remove the cord from the umkac’s neck. “None at the market lately, huh?”
“None worth paying for.”
“I’m not surprised. Things haven’t been right for years. It gets worse every season.”
Mele looked around suspiciously. “What do you mean?”
“Farmers having bad crops. Hunters not finding game like they used to. Fewer pelts for us trappers every year.” She poked at the umkac and turned to him with a grin. “Speaking of pelts.”
Her cockeyed smile sent a shiver up his spine. In that gesture and expression, he realized how beautiful she was. Her amber eyes and smooth brown skin. The way her nose wrinkled when she smiled. Her curly hair, tied into four long braids. Her fingers, rough from work, but nimble and sure.
He was staring. He knew he was staring. She was looking at him. She was waiting for him to speak.
“Uh.” It was all he could manage for a moment.
“Are you all right?”
“Uh,” he said again. “Yeah. Sorry. Pelts.”
“What?” She cocked her head to one side, a look of concern on her face.
“The pelt. You want it.”
“I do.” She smiled again.
Mele tried to think about anything else. He focused on the umkac. Now that it wasn’t trying to kill him, he saw that it was a beautiful creature. Its purple streaked fur was soft and shiny.
“You want to skin it?” He asked. “Here?”
Inoke sized the thing up. “I think so. I’ll skin it. You dress it. We’ll cook some meat and have a nice meal. What do you say to that?”
“That sounds great.” He definitely liked the idea of spending the afternoon with Inoke. “But I need to find the aeta.”
“I’ll help you.” She grinned again and Mele felt his heart pound harder. “You help me with the umkac and I’ll help you gather aeta. I saw a nice patch of it last night. I’ll lead you there.”
“It’s a deal.”
The fire cut the bitter chill. Mele savored a piece of charred umkac meat. He slowly turned the makeshift wooden spit, roasting more. Between them, Mele and Inoke made a broth of foraged fungus, salt, and a pour of wine. He held the small pan below the umkac to catch some juices, occasionally pouring them over the top as the meat turned.
In a pot, Inoke boiled releba tea leaves. The pungent odor was heady and pleasant. She gave him another lopsided grin, speaking around a mouthful of umkac. “Not bad.”
Mele nodded. “I miss meals like this. Boss N’Yin used to bring me out of the city on opomu hunts. We’d sit by the fire and he’d tell me stories of what the city used to be like, what my parents were like.”
For a moment, his memory climbed up and threatened to swallow him. He stared at the fire, watching a piece of wood pop and smoke. He’d said too much.
Inoke coughed gently, shaking him from his thoughts. “How is Boss N’Yin?”
Mele paused. How much should he tell her? How much could he let himself believe? “He’s…” Mele swallowed and took a long, slow breath to calm himself. “He’s an old man and I don’t think he has many more springs.”
Inoke’s brow furrowed. “We can’t know when the old will pass. Why my father’s father’s mother only left us a year ago, and she was quite old when my father was a boy.”
“No. Boss N’Yin won’t be surprising my grandchildren.” He shook his head and poured tea into tiny metal cups. “He can’t make the trip to market anymore.”
“What will you do? Take over the silk making business?”
“I think that’s what he wants, but I don’t think so.”
“The Boss has made some mistakes. He owes people. A lot of people.” Mele drained his cup and poured more tea. “I’ve heard things I wasn’t supposed to hear.”
They ate in silence for a time, each lost in thoughts of their own. When Inoke spoke, her voice was like morning rain. “If you don’t take over, what will you do?”
His eyebrow raised as he considered the question. He’d never said it aloud, never let another know his thoughts. “I’ve thought about signing on with a caravans heading to Gravais, like my mother did.”
With those words, he felt a weight lift off him. His shoulders hunched less. It was real for the first time. It was possible, something he might actually do. Telling another Una made it more than a vague dream. Washed clean by his confession, he had a momentary exaltation, not noticing the strange expression that crossed Inoke’s face.
“Here,” Inoke called, pointing to a shaded glen. “I saw a patch of aeta growing around these trees.”
After a night camped in the wilderness with Inoke, Mele was glad for the sun’s light cutting through the forest canopy. He opened a pouch and drew his blade. The ground was rough and the morning dew made the moss covered rocks slick. Low ferns sprouted around the trunks of gisp trees.
Clumps of pale, diamond shaped leaves covered a depression in the rocky forest floor. Mele smiled. “Perfect.” This aeta was young and healthy.
“How much do you need?”
“I’ll take every fifth branch. No need to be greedy.” He looked up from his work for a moment. “This is excellent quality.” He cut stems with a meticulous, mechanical movement. For him, it was muscle memory. Though Boss N’Yin began buying aeta at market several years before, Mele remembered well his time trekking through the woods, in search of a good patch of the leaf.
Inoke stood watch, keeping her eyes roving around the hill. Many dangers might hide in the forest.
When mele filled his pouch, he turned to Inoke with a smile. “The opomu are going to eat well.”
“Good.” She looked at him for a moment, weighing her next words. “You want to see something strange?”
Mele paused. What a question. “I do.”
Inoke led Mele into a hidden valley down a twisting, moss covered path of stone. She pointed to nearly invisible holes in the stone walls. He peered inside, eyes adjusting to the shadowed spaces until he saw the faces. Ornately carved faces of old gods looked out at him from the shadow.
“I don’t know who put them here,” Inoke said.
“Or why?” Mele asked. “Perhaps a warning…a blessing?”
“Who are they supposed to represent?”
“I think the one with the wings is Hermeph-Tling, the Messenger.” Mele knew stories of the old gods, but most of the statues, ten in all, were a mystery to him. “They’re beautiful. I wonder how old they are.”
“I bet they’re older than Yelemma.” She fidgeted nervously for a moment. “They’re not what I wanted to show you, though.”
She kept walking, carefully avoiding a gnarled rock sticking out of the wall. “This way.”
He followed her further into the valley. Plants hung over the lip of the crevasse through which their path took them. The air grew less moist and more earthy. It smelled like new growth mixed with rotting leaves and upturned dirt. He heard the chirps of unfamiliar creatures. Tiny leather winged birds flitted about recently bloomed flowers.
In stories this was the sort of place heroes met monsters, the kind of place people didn’t come back from. He found himself longing for the low ceiling of his opomu pens. He didn’t know Inoke, not really. They’d met a few times. He’d spoken with her father once about some trivial matter. She was a trapper. Was this a trap? Was she going to skin him like the umkac? He’d heard enough stories about what went on in the wilderness, especially in these trying times.
“It’s right over here.”
Her voice was barely a whisper, yet his heart jumped. He took a calming breath, trying to pull himself out of his own fears. He was always a bit nervous when he left the city walls.
“What is it?” he managed to ask.
“Look.” Inoke pointed to a hole in the ground. It was perfectly round and about as wide as he was tall. The edge was smooth and regular. Clearly it was not a natural formation.
Still on edge after thinking the worst about Inoke, he edged closer to the edge of the hole, though he remained cautious. A dry, musty smell drifted out of the dark.
“It’s not a well?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she answered. “But it wasn’t here last year. Or it was hidden.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve camped here three summers and I never saw this. I’ve been through this valley dozens of times, over this very spot.” She gestured toward the opening. “This was a small clearing, a good place to stay a night. Nothing more.”
“Someone came out here and dug a hole? Why?”
“I don’t think that’s what happened..”
“I think it was here and it was uncovered by something.”
Mele was curious now. He inched closer to the edge, peering into the black. “Doesn’t look like stone.”
“I didn’t think so, either. Too smooth and warm to the touch.” She looked at Mele. “Do you feel it? Something in the air. It’s old. Very old.”
“I think you’re right.”
“Look.” She crouched at the edge. “See how it slants away into darkness? Are those steps?”
Mele strained his eyes. “You’d need a rope or something to get down to that first one. Assuming it is a step.”
Inoke gave him that lopsided grin. “I don’t suppose you brought any rope?”
“I did not. Did you?”
“A mystery for another day, then.”
“For another day.” Mele sighed. “I should begin the walk home.”
“Market is in a few days, is it not.”
“When the day draws to a close, let’s meet by the statue of Mot N’tev. Bring a change of clothes, gloves, some dried food. Whatever you think you might want. Bring some rope.”
“You really want to go down in there?” Mele asked.
“I do.” He smiled at her. “I really do.”
“Let’s go. I’ll walk with you as far as the East Road.”
The dim green night’s sky was obscured by streaks of autumn cloud. Mele kept to the center of the road as he passed the ruins of the outer wall. Skittering sounds from the crumbled buildings reminded him to stay wary.
The guard at the bridge was snoring, but woke as Mele approached. Mele recognized N’Teel. He’d worked for years as a lord’s personal guard, but his drinking created problems and relegated him to wall guard work. The drinking and trouble continued.
“What are you doing out there?”
“I was sent by Boss N’Yin to collect aeta leaves.”
“Weren’t ya paying any mind to the sun?”
“I had a long way to walk.”
“You fancy clothes people gonna have to find real jobs soon, huh?”
Mele stared at the guard. He couldn’t imagine an answer that would not provoke more insults.
“You got a lot of your mother in you, don’t you, kid?” N’Teel got a mean look in his eye. “She didn’t like being friendly, either.” An ugly smile formed on his lips.
Mele felt his anger rising. “Is that all?” he managed to get out. “Boss N’Yin is expecting me.”
“What? Yeah. Get going. Next time pay attention to the sun or you’ll be sleeping in the Outer City with the rest of the skum.
He was nearly home when he saw the carriage of the old foreigner Koo’Bish. Two ornate lanterns hung from either side of the driver’s seat, casting cones of light ahead. The hulking tursh pulling the wagon were expertly groomed. The cart rolled by and Mele caught a glimpse of the Old Man himself with his long white beard and fine silk coat.
If even half the rumors about Koo’Bish and his exploits were true, he was the most interesting person to live in Yelemma. The source of his great wealth alone was the subject of speculation too outlandish for Mele to believe possible. Was he an exiled Daanite lord? Was he a pirate in the Red Fleet when they sailed against the Island Kingdom of Lumpeth, plundering the riches of sea lords? Even the unlikely claim that he was one of Gravais’s divine Twins in disguise was whispered by the irreverent and brave traveler.
All that was known for sure was that he arrived twenty years ago as the city began a slow decline into obscurity and poverty. Since that time, few living did not find themselves beholden to the Old Man. Many owed money. Some owed a career or position. A few owed their very lives. Yet the Old Man rarely collected his debts, seeming content to let them build and build. Whispers about the day he would call to collect were dark and ominous.
The carriage disappeared into the darkened gloom, leaving Mele alone with his thoughts. Boss N’Yin owed old Koo’Bish. How much?
A cold breeze sent a shiver down his back. He pulled the coat tighter around his neck and continued toward home.
As he entered, he passed Boss N’Yin in his chair, cup of now cold tea by his side. Mele pulled a blanket over the old man’s shoulders. He stirred in his sleep and a coughing fit wracked his body, but Mele held him until he drifted back to sleep.
Mele stashed the sack of aeta leaves in an alcove and climbed the ladder to his sleeping space. He listened to the ragged breathing of the old man until he too fell into a fitful sleep.
On the morning of market, Mele was awake before the dim green of night gave way to the brightening blue of day. He fed a fresh clump of aeta to the grubs and watched the pale, eyeless bodies wriggle across the food, gorging themselves happily.
He locked a dozen spools of dyed silk into place on his handcart, packed his lunch of nuts and dried fruit, and put on his nicest, least worn clothes.
Boss N’Yin was awake, pale and clammy. Mele made a pot of tea and served the old man.
“You’re a good boy, Mele,” he said, his eyes watery. “I’m sorry I couldn’t give you a better life here.”
“I have food, a roof. I’ve learned a trade. Few have half as much.” Mele didn’t like when the Boss spoke like this. He found the old man’s fatalism and resignation frustrating.
“Your father’s not a bad man, Mele. For all his failings, he loves you.”
“I don’t think he knows me anymore.”
“Maybe not with his eyes, but with his soul.”
This was a road Mele had traveled too many times with Boss N’Yin. “Well Boss, I’ve got to go. Want to be at Market before the best spots are taken.”
“Be careful out there, Boy. It’s getting dark.”
“You said it, Boss.”
The first light of dim morning sun barely cut through low clouds as Mele wheeled his cart into Umani N’Huk Square. Many vendors already had their favorite spots, and more entered the square with each passing moment.
Mele found one of his three favorite locations to display his merchandise, next to Tuk N’Riz, the old pot maker. Boss N’Yin owned a dozen of the old craftsman’s fired clay pots. Mele thought back to the woman who used to cook meals with those pots when he was a boy. She’d died of levinae, the wasting disease years ago, but he remembered the smells of her cooking with fondness.
“Good day, Mele.” The old man gave him a curt nod.
“Good day to you.”
Mele stood for less than an hour when Madam Brekah strolled into Market. A woman larger than life in every way, bedecked in gaudy jewelry and colorful clothing, she cut an impressive figure. Her retenue of hangers on, servants, sycophants, lackeys, and paid guards made an indistinguishable mob of color and flash behind her. An easy, if smug smile shined all the brighter because of three gold teeth.
Everyone knew Madam Brekah. When she came to Market, she came to spend. Though originally from Aranam, she’d immigrated to Yelemma more than a decade past, and spent her time earning and spending money in the most extravagant of ways. The stories that were told of parties she hosted in her massive mansion were the stuff of legends, often told only in whispers among polite company. When the Temple of Omniba still maintained a chapel in the city, the Veiled Monks spent many an hour expressing their outrage at the moral failings of Madam Brekah and any who would associate with her. Mele smiled. The Veiled Monks were gone. Madam Brekah remained.
As she strolled by, a casual flick of her finger sent several lackies to Mele’s cart where they hurriedly pressed him for all his merchandise, giving him his first price without trying to bargain. The whole transaction took less than a minute and left Mele stunned, with an empty cart and a full purse.
“The luck of Trega N’Bell is upon you today, kid,” Boss N’Riz said. “You should go to the Green Brook.”
Mele was not interested in losing all Boss N’Yin’s money in a game of chance. He also needed to be at Market to meet Inoke. He decided to return the cart and put the money in a safe place.
“Boss,” Mele called, entering the old house. “Good luck today. Madam Brekah–”
He stopped short. Boss N’Yin was not alone. The old man shot a guilty glance at Mele, then at the visitor. Intaga, the right arm of Koo’Bish. Even seated, his height was impressive, his long legs and arms gave him the appearance of a wild opomu preparing to strike. Mele suspected the man was destined to be ugly. A terrible scar started on his left cheek, traveled back around his head to where an ear should be, and then down his neck to disappear into his tunic, making sure of it. What caused the scar was anyone’s guess. Intaga didn’t speak of it when he spoke at all. It was vivid crimson with patches of white and it weeped.
Intaga turned very slowly to look at Mele with his cold, gold flecked brown eyes. His features were all wrong, like someone had broken apart a dozen men and reassembled them at random. The scar was hardly the worst part. He felt his bowels tighten. The last thing he wanted was this man’s attention. Only when Intaga spoke did Mele know it could get worse.
“Mele N’Kaho.” The sound of his name coming out of that face, the voice like the grinding of giant stones, was too much.
“What do you want?” He spoke too loudly, his voice going high.
“Mele.” Boss N’Yin’s voice was stronger than it had been for years. He fixed Mele with a sharp gaze. “Put your things away and go back to Market.”
Something in the voice stopped his tongue, stopped any argument. Under the strange eyes of Intaga, Mele stowed the cart and stashed the satchel with the morning’s earnings. With a quick look back at Boss N’Yin, he left, not sure what he should do.
By the time he returned to Market, he was in better spirits. Surely Boss N’Yin had things in hand. Intaga looked strange, but he was little more than an errand boy for old Koo’Bish. His old Boss might be fading, but was still formidable.
Mele shook off the last of his hesitation taking in the colorful excitement of the market. Handcarts like his own, large wagons with ornate tapestries, wooden tables covered in every sort of treasure, and lone hawkers of all sorts, displayed goods and selling services. Fresh vegetables, cuts of choice meat, nuts of all shapes and sizes, fabrics, tools, and works of art made a fascinating maze to explore.
He found Inoke trading a prime hide for salt not far from the statue of Mot N’tev. She was dressed in fine, dyed leather pants, a simple, white silk shirt, and a fur lined coat. Her hair was loose, standing high in a halo of springy coils. She was all angles, tall and sharp, standing out in the crowd of merchants and city dwellers.
His heart raced as he approached and his breath caught the moment their eyes met. Her lopsided smile seemed to cross every part of her face, making it radiant and all consuming. For a moment, he felt she shared something special with him, that the smile on her face was only for him and he might live on it and nothing else.
“Mele!” she called and for a moment struck him dumb. One of the old merchants laughed at his inability to talk and the embarrassment prompted his mouth to work again.
“Inoke. Greetings.” His voice was formal.
She laughed and smiled again. “You city folk. Always so proper.” She stepped close to him, eyeing a snickering rug seller. She spoke just loud enough for the woman to hear. “You weren’t always so proper, were you?” She flashed Mele a fleeting, knowing look.
He darkened, almost imperceptibly, but chuckled, thinking about the merchant spreading her shocking stories of Mele’s wild affair with a savage forest woman.
“Come with me,” he managed to say through an awkward smile.
Mele led the way through a mass of vendors and performers. The smell of cooking food, of animals, and Una mixed in a simultaneously noxious and reassuring stink of life, something too rare in Yelemma these days. With a flip of a coin, he purchased two roast lizards, skewered and spiced, passing one to Inoke.
“Where are we going?” she asked before tearing a strip of meat away with her teeth.
“There’s someone I want you to hear.”
Laiwak Nel possessed that rare voice, low and gravely, yet clear and resonant. Soothing, comforting, a voice that made the listener constantly hungry for more. Some said he could read a list of names and find an audience fully engaged.
Upon first hearing him speak, Mele understood why he took up the calling of traveling storyteller. Inoke and Mele sat side by side among a dozen rapt audience members of various ages.
Laiwak Nel took a sip of tea, cleared his throat, and began his tale.
In the days after the Fall of the Yin-tain, the First Folk, the world was chaos. Leaderless, directionless, without the order of the Church, Una turned to desperate violence and strife. Sister turned against sister, brother against brother. The Yaro, once our beloved cousins in spite of their bestial nature, fought and fled North and our Una ancestors fortified the South. An age of total war, of great heroes and villains swept the world, burning and breaking down all in its path.
Tenut was an old man when he first saw the Spark. It is said he was old enough to remember the face of the Yin-tain, that he was there when They fell. As old as he was, his wife was older still, and she died on the third day of the third month of the Year of Endless Night. Tenut’s grief was so profound, madness came upon him and he fled from those who tried to bring about Civilization once again.
He wandered until he wore out his shoes and the very robes upon his back fell away in tatters. He collapsed and slept for three days and nights. He awoke to find the Spark in the form of a helix of blue fire with the voice of his beloved wife. With it came the new Sun, shining upon the world for the first time in a year.
It spoke to him of marvelous deeds and terrible crimes, of heroes and monsters, of the beginning of the world and the end of all things. When It spoke Its final words, Tenut was remade as Umtenut and he was marked with the sign of the Sun.
From the very bedrock, Umtenut created the Keep of Ages from which he ruled the land for centuries. He drew to his banner the Twelve, legendary Una who had stolen the powers of the gods, becoming as the gods themselves.
By the grace of the Spark and the aid of S’sahsha envoys, Umtenut built the Radiant Configuration, a machine of limitless power he used to reshape the lands around him. For an age, there was peace. Then the spirit of his beloved entered the world again in the form of a beggar girl. When Umtenut saw her, he fell in love and could not be dissuaded. This created jealousy among the Twelve, and fractured old alliances.
The beggar girl, now called Tema-Haut after the buzzing insect of the Southern Jungle, became a powerful figure, raising her own army of jade helmeted soldiers and founding the white stone city of Hess.
When the Naha people rebelled and the great hero Lesmatta was slain with a stone, the War of Ten Thousand Dead began. Umtenut’s heart was broken again, in spite of Tema-Haut’s presence. After the betrayal at Kybo Pass, the pair fled into the wilderness, never to return.
From their tears sprouted the Forest of Memt and when they died, the Yelm Mountains formed over their bones. When Yelemma was founded, it was with stones from the Yelm and some say the strength of Umtenut and Temu-Haut is in the very soil, that it seeps into the fruit and nuts and grains of this land.
Nods of approval greeted this prospect. Many in the audience knew the story, taking pride in their connection to the ancient Una heroes of old.
A young boy called out, “what of the Configuration?”
“Ah, yes.” Laiwak Nel smiled gently before his face took on a theatrically serious aspect. “The Radiant Configuration had a will of its own, and when Umtenut lost his way, it left him and found a new master. What Una could equal Umtenut? The Configuration was unable to find a fitting being to take its place. Finally, fed up with lesser Una, it possessed a weak young man called Xem and used his body to carry it into the wilderness, perhaps to find the resting place of its former master.
“Some say the Configuration found the tomb of the lovers and in its grief, died, leaving Xem a twisted shell, filled with corrupted energies of the Configuration.
“Queen Matahob, with the vision of an oracle, whose hand in marriage I once had the honor of declining, told me the Configuration’s dark energy, still inside the body of Xem, haunted the grave of Umtenut and Tema-Haut. If it escapes it will bring a blight upon the land.”
Many in the audience looked at each other knowingly, some with fear in their eyes. Laiwak Nel seemed to sense his audience’s trepidation and not wanting to lose them continued, “she told me this dark energy would one day be extinguished by a brave young hero who would descend into the underworld and face what she called the Heart of Fear.” Satisfied nods greeted his hint of a solution.
Inoke whispered in Mele’s ear, “do you think the story is true?”
“Boss N’Yin says there is a truth to every story. Understanding what is true is the real test.”
“Let’s go back to the hole.” She smiled her lopsided smile and he felt a warmth in his chest.
Mele peered into a hollow in the rock wall of the path, staring at the stone effigy. A handsome, androgynous face with tight curls and large, beak-like nose.
“It might be Iabba-Hai the Shadow,” Inoke said, peeking over his shoulder.
“I think you’re right. I think these statues represent the Twelve.”
“Shrines to the Twelve out here, hidden in the middle of the wilderness.” She scratched her chin absently. “I know you said legends have truth in them. This must have been a sacred place.”
“The storyteller called it the Keep of Ages. What if it’s underground? Buried?”
“The hole? My mother says if you dig far enough, the ground alway reveals secrets.” Inoke’s brow furrowed in concentration. “Isn’t Yelemma supposed to be built on top of an older city?”
“Clausia. I’ve heard stories of sunken rooms and mysterious passages, though I’ve never seen one.”
“Maybe it’s the same here but nobody built a city on top of it. Maybe the Keep was here and the forest grew over it.”
“We might be the first Una to set foot inside for a thousand years.”
The clearing had not changed in the several days since last they’d seen it. In spite of the warm spring day, no insects buzzed around the recently bloomed flowers and no birds croaked or chirped in the trees above. The sun blazed with midday heat, yet a misty haze still clung to the forest floor.
As they drew closer, a faint odor of decay wafted from the shadowy opening.
“The smell,” Mele said. “Something fresher A more recent rot.”
“You have a good nose for a city boy, Mele.” Inoke smiled over her shoulder at him. She put out a hand to stop him, investigating the ground around the hole. “There are tracks here. A mesok, though the prints are blurred by rain.”
“They’re not too common in these hills, are they?”
“More than you’d think.” She crouched to examine a darker patch of ground. “Look here. It made a kill.”
Mele crouched for a better view. The mud and underside of a few leaves were stained with the sign of violence. A tuft of fur hung limply from a branch.
“Is it waiting for us in the pit now?” Mele glanced nervously at the opening. Mesok were not terribly dangerous, but he would not want to face one in the dark. “Wild animals are most dangerous when they’re afraid or trapped.
Inoke reached out to touch Mele’s shoulder. “We don’t have to go down there. If we do, there’s no sense making ourselves more worried than need to be. We’ve got lamps. We’ve got weapons.” She touched the hatchet hanging from his belt. “We can face a mesok or whatever might be down there.”
Mele held her gaze for a long moment before releasing a held breath and letting a slight smile settle on his face. “You’re right.” He motioned to the woods around them. “Being out here puts me on edge. I love it, but it’s not the world I’m used to.”
“I’m ready. You?”
She shook her lamp, opened the flap on the side, and let the green glow escape. “Let’s go.”
They secured rope to a large tree, letting it drop into the hole. Inoke insisted on going first and Mele didn’t argue. She climbed over the edge, the green light of her lamp illuminating enough of the perfectly round passage to reveal the first distant step.
Mele shook his own lamp until it glowed. Letting it hang at his chest, he took a last look around the small clearing and climbed over the smooth edge. It struck him again how strange the material of the rim was. More like glass than stone, he didn’t believe it would shatter if he struck out at it, however.
His foot caught the first step, and relief washed over him, though he didn’t let his grip on the rope slack in the least. Inoke stood several steps below. It was a spiral staircase, wrapping around the circumference of the well-like pit. He was sure the steps were not crafted for Una.
The smell of recent death mixed with the dry, musty scent of great age. Inoke whispered, “I found the kill.”
Mele saw the half shredded rodent encased in resinous webbing, stuck to the smooth wall. The mesok would return to finish its meal. Mele breathed a sigh of relief, knowing it was not waiting for them.
“We continue?” Inoke asked, her eyes sparkling intensely in the green glow of his lamp. The white of her crooked smile glowed back at him.
“We continue.” He felt more bold with each step. This was the sort of adventure he’d heard a hundred storytellers describe but was always out of his reach.
They reached the bottom of the stairs much quicker than Mele anticipated. He looked back the way they’d come, and the tiny disk of light that marked the opening of the well felt a world away. The floor around him was thick with wet leaves and branches, covered in mud. Animal bones dotted the detritus, no doubt left by the mesok.
Though he had never seen the like, Mele recognized the room’s sole feature, a large door. Inoke, shining her light on the mat black surface, reached out to touch markings. The symbols were like nothing Mele had seen before yet seemed familiar.
“I don’t know if you should-” Words caught in his throat. As her outstretched finger touched the surface of the door, a vibration rippled through the room and a low hum rose up from all around them.
By what means the door moved Mele could not say, yet move it did. Sliding smoothly into the wall, it disappeared almost before he knew what was happening. His ears popped as a wave of thick air rushed past, chill and dusty. Dim at first, but growing brighter by the second, an ethereal blue light leaked from the walls.
Mele heard Inoke gasp as he felt his stomach lurch. The light was unnatural and harsh and Mele wanted to flee. He knew deep in his guts it was something left by the First Folk. No Una created this light.
When his shock faded, he found himself at the mouth of a long hall, smooth walled and precisely square. Thirty or so feet beyond the door, the lights dimmed and the hall was lost in darkness.
Without willing himself, Mele stepped forward. His foot bumped something on the floor, bringing him to a quick halt. Looking down, he saw the dessicated body of a long dead Una. Perhaps it was not an Una after all, as its features were strange, heavy browed, with extremely large teeth. Una-like, yet slightly off. An expression of pain and terror on its twisted face. One mummified hand stretched out as though reaching for the door and the world beyond.
Inoke crouched to investigate. “Look at him, Mele. He’s been dead a long time.”
“A thousand years,” he whispered.
“Hardly. There’s no way a body would remain intact for so long. Something would have eaten it. It would have rotted.”
“What is this made of?” she asked, gently touching the fabric that clothed the body.
Mele looked closer. “Not silk. It’s not woven. More like leather, but no hide I’ve ever seen. It’s soft like silk.”
“Mele, look at the skull.” She directed his attention to the back of the dead man’s head where bone fragments hung from strips of paper-like flesh. “It’s been smashed.”
“It looks like it was broken from the inside.”
“You can’t be sure of that.”
“Maybe not, but that’s what it looks like to me.”
Inoke stood and looked deeper into the hall. “I wonder how long this place has been closed. You felt the air, like opening a jar of fermented fruit.”
“I don’t think anyone’s been through that door in a very long time. Maybe not a thousand years, but near enough.”
“Where is that light coming from? And how does it know we’re here? Some Old World magic?”
“There are a lot of stories about the First Folk using the energy of the Sun and capturing lightning to power their war machines and cities,” Mele said.
“They weren’t gods.”
“If they weren’t gods, they were the next thing.”
Inoke shook her head in dazed awe.
He reached out, letting his fingers linger over an area of wall where light shone at an unnaturally steady brightness. “No heat,” he said under his breath.
“There should be heat. Light makes heat. Like the Sun or a fire. Even the lanterns we use. When you shake the hap algae, it lights up and gives off a bit of warmth. It doesn’t make sense. Light this bright should be hot to the touch.”
“What about our friend here?” she asked, pointing to the mummified body. “What are we going to do about him?”
“I don’t think he has family looking for him. I suppose we should give him a proper send off.”
“Agreed.” Inoke looked further down the hall, narrowing her eyes. “But we should probably see what’s down here, right?”
“We’ve come all this way,” Mele agreed.
Inoke made a hand gesture of blessing over the body before joining mele as he crept deeper into the underground passage. The light reacted to their presence. The hall ahead grew brighter as they progressed, while the area behind grew darker.
“How far does this go?” Mele asked after several minutes of cautiously walking along the near featureless hall. “Surely there is more to this place than a passageway.”
“Who can say what the Ancients thought or why they did anything?”
“There!” Mele pointed.
They reached a four-way intersection, where two narrower passageways split from the main one at perpendicular angles. Mele stared down one satellite passage and Inoke down the other.
“I don’t want to get lost in here,” she said.
“I see something. I’m going to go a little way down, see if the lights will come on.”
“Be careful Mele.”
He walked very slowly along the branch passage, letting the light grow in intensity as he progressed until he made out what was ahead. The passage ended at a glass-like wall, through which he saw a huge enclosure, filled with dry, dead vegetation like he’d never seen before. Just on the other side of the transparent wall was the desiccated remains of a huge creature, alien beyond his ability to comprehend. Even in death, his eyes strained to see it, as though his vision slid off its skin. Limbs and digits sprouted in a pattern he didn’t understand. Sunken pits of blackness dotted the body, and he was sure they had been eyes once, or something like eyes. There were stories of beings and gods from other worlds, like the S’sahsha with their quicksilver skin and unfathomable plans. Perhaps this thing before him came from one of those other worlds. It surely didn’t belong in this one.
Mele wiped away tears. He hadn’t realized he was crying. Turning away from the ancient dead, he walked back the way he’d come.
“What did you see?”
“I don’t know. A kind of pen, like they were keeping animals for some purpose.” Mele wondered if animal was the right word.
“Do you want to go back? Get out of here?” Inoke asked. She looked at him with concern.
“No.” He took a long breath and let it out slowly. “No. Let’s go on a little further at least.”
After passing several more intersections, they reached another solid door of the same strange material as the first.
“Maybe it’s a way out,” Inoke said, absently.
“Who can say?”
Again Mele reached out and again the door slid in the blink of an eye. Once again, air rushed past them and light flared. This time they were prepared.
Beyond the door, they did not find a passage to the world above. Instead, a cavernous room filled with unknowable objects, shining silver and gold, lit with ethereal colors emanating from myriad unseen sources.
Near him stood a shoulder high table, various instruments suspended above the table, reminding Mele of craftsman’s tools. On the table, dried and desiccated like the corpse in the hall, lay another body. It showed signs of having been carved into pieces.
“Is this a doctor’s table or a chef’s?” Mele asked. “I don’t know if either answer is comforting.”
“How do you mean?”
“This wreck of a thing looks Una. Something much like us, anyway. It’s either been carved up for a meal or for some other dark purpose. This wasn’t healing.”
“No. It doesn’t look like it.”
Tubes of transparent material that didn’t feel like glass had the residue of long dried liquids. Tanks with mummified remains of long dead things, some recognizable, some not, were scattered about. Other bodies on other tables showed similar signs of being sliced into pieces.
Inoke called out to Mele. As he approached, he found her closely examining one of the dead things.
“Look at this.” She pointed at the back of the thing’s skull. “It’s like the one we found by the entrance.” The back of the skull was smashed, pieces of it mixed with papery strips of skin.
Inoke looked at Mele, a shadow of concern darkening her face. “There are others.” She motioned to other tables nearby, also showing similar signs of violence.
“What were they doing down here?”
A sound from deep inside the strange room drew their attention. Cautiously, they approached the area. Mele picked up a metal pipe, swinging it like a mace. Inoke drew a hunting knife, her eyes scanning the shadows.
They found a glass tub filled with grey-black ichor, like wet ash. An acidic odor burned their nostrils. Mele and Inoke stood together, staring at the weird pool of jet and grey. As he watched, his eyes refused to focus. Was something moving under the ashy surface?
“I want to leave,” Inoke said, her voice distant, dazed.
“Yeah,” Mele agreed, taking a step back. He felt a shiver and goose flesh rose on his arms. Something was horribly wrong here. He felt like someone was watching him, lurking over him, a menacing shadow. “Let’s go.”
They turned to leave, each fighting the urge to flee in a panic. Mele bumped a table, sending metal tools and mummified body parts crashing to the floor. Through the clamor, Mele heard another sound. Something in the tub of ash shifted.
“Run!” he yelled and Inoke took off at a sprint, Mele close on her heels.
She reached the door to the passage. Mele saw her pass through and was almost through himself when something struck him between the shoulder blades, followed immediately by a blinding white pain. The world spun and he heard the sound of his own screams. Blackness swallowed him in welcome oblivion.
END OF PART ONE
There was pain like he’d never known. Beyond the pain an unfamiliar voice yelled words he didn’t understand. His eyes opened. What he saw made him long to shut them again. Light and color jumbled Mele tried to sort out the images and failed.
His body was beyond his control, as though he were nothing more than a passenger in someone else’s form. He moved without direction, gripping something cold and metallic. He yelled with the voice of another, the words meant nothing to him.
Something shifted in his mind and he knew finally what he was looking at. It was the room he and Inoke were trying to leave, with the metal tables and strange devices. Yet it was different, the colors and the lights carried a new aspect. A swarming activity of beings who were not Una whirled about him. In his unfamiliar vision, they appeared as glowing outlines, outlandish shapes, yet he knew them to be people, if not people as he had known.
The pain at the base of his skull lanced through him like fire, and black nothingness returned.
The voice was a light in infinite darkness. Through swirls of thick black, his mind swam toward the sound.
He could not reach it. The pain crawled into his consciousness again. He screamed, but there was no sound.
He was on the metal table again, head tilted to one side, staring at the activity of the un-Una beings. His eyes refused to move, to focus. His body would not respond. The body he looked out from was dead. Vision faded. Pain faded. He was alone in darkness again, feeling trapped in the lifeless meat of a dead thing.
His eyes opened with great difficulty. Cool water washed over his forehead and gentle, calloused hands stroked his face. Inoke’s beautiful amber eyes looked down into his and he saw in them equal parts relief and fear.
He tried to speak, but she quieted him. “Drink first,” she said, pouring a bit of water into his parched mouth. He swallowed gratefully, the water washed away some of the fog upon his thoughts.
“What happened?” he was finally able to ask. He still felt pulses of pain radiating from the back of his head.
“You’ve been unconscious for two days.”
“What? Where are we?” He smelled fresh air and heard the buzzing of distant insects.
“I dragged you outside,” she said, letting him have a bit more water. “You were in a bad way.”
“Did something hit me?” A sudden searing agony burned in his head and his hand reached to touch the back of his skull. Inoke tried to stop him, but was too slow putting down the water.
His fingers felt around the warm metal thing lodged in his skull. It twitched under at his touch, sending out another ripple of pain, less than before. A flash of the strange, un-Una beings came to him but was gone in an instant.
“What is it?” he asked, fear in his voice. “What’s it doing to me?”
“I don’t know, Mele,” Inoke said. “It latched on to you. I couldn’t get it off.” Tears formed in her eyes. “By the time I got you outside, it was…I thought it was killing you. Last night though, you started talking.”
“I didn’t recognize the words, but you spoke.”
“We have to get it out.” He clawed at it, but couldn’t get a grip. Even the skin around its edge seemed woven together with the metal so he could not tell where one stopped and the other began.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Inoke said.
“I have to get it out.”
“Remember the bodies, their skulls.” Inoke reached behind Mele and touched the metal bump. “I don’t think you’d survive taking it out.”
Mele grew stronger and more aware by the moment. He was able to sit up and move his head without pain. “What’s it doing to me?”
Inoke supplemented their rations with a few snared birds. Mele was famished. He felt he could keep eating and never be full. He forced himself to stop, feeling like a glutton.
Consciously, he avoided touching the metallic lump on the back of his head. He sensed it, though it no longer hurt. He caught Inoke watching him with concern and perhaps wariness. He understood. Whatever the thing was, whatever it had done or was doing, it had a purpose and was dangerous, if not openly hostile.
He held her gaze. “I’m still me,” he said.
“I know.” She passed him a waterskin. “I’ll watch for any change.”
“Do you think there will be one?”
“It must do something.”
“We should talk to someone about it.”
“I don’t want to trouble Boss N’Yin with it. Not in his condition.”
“I don’t know anyone who knows about the First Folk or their secrets.”
Mele thought about all the stories he’d heard, about the people who’d told them. Stories were one thing, but real answers, the truth about things, that was something else.
“What about the Dayate?” Inoke asked.
“I don’t know.”
Inoke looked at him, raising her eyebrow.
The Dayate are a strange folk.”
“The world is full of strange folk. This is strange. I heard the Dayate know things about the First Folk, that they’ve dug around in the old ruins and found things.”
Mele munched on roasted bird meat for a moment, staring into their small fire. “The Dayate temple in Yelema has at least one of their priests living in it.”
“We’ll set out tomorrow.”
“I need to check on Boss N’Yin.”
“We can do that, too.”
They set out the following morning, Inoke leading the way. She helped Mele when he felt weak or clumsy. He pulled a silk cap around his head, trying his best to hide the lump of metallic flesh at the base of his skull.
“We should find somewhere to shelter,” Mele said.
“What storm?” Inoke looked to the sky, listened to the wind. “I don’t feel anything.”
Mele stopped and looked around. “You’re right. I’m not sure why I thought that.” He slowed and leaned against a tree.
“Your head hurt again?”
“Yeah. It’s throbbing.”
Inoke frowned for a moment. “We’ve made good progress, but let’s try to push on a bit more. I know a good spot ahead.”
“I can make it.”
The forest opened into a wide, rocky clearing. Sprouting between gray and blue stones, Mele saw a gnarled bramble of thorny, flame colored berries. Towering in the distance, the snow capped peak of Mount Mehabba-Ye.
In the center of the clearing stood a bluish stone tower, with crumbling wooden roof and tattered hangings. The colors, faded as they were, were of one of Yelema’s old houses.
“We use this place when spring storms roll through the hills,” Inoke said. “Sometimes when it’s too cold, we hold up in here for a few days. Keep a fire burning.”
As pain suddenly wracked his head and his flesh felt like it was on fire, he dropped his pack and stripped off his jacket. Steam rose off his skin. He sat on crumbled stone and tried to slow his heavy breathing.
Inoke was at his side, offering a skin of water. She took some in her hands and rubbed his forehead and neck. “You’re burning up.”
“I can feel it. My heart and lungs sped up for no reason.” He was returning to normal. “I feel like I ran for miles. I feel spent.”
“Are you hungry?”
“I could eat a tursh.”
A low rumble drifted across the hills.
Inoke looked to the west. “Did you hear that?”
Mele pulled his jacket tighter, huddling against the chill wind. He listed to the rain crash upon the stone walls. Lightning lit Mount Ung’lab for a moment, leaving a trace on his eyes when darkness returned.
Inoke slept by his side, snug under a trail blanket. The cooking fire burned low and Mele put a few dried sticks on, watching embers dance in the swirling air.
He looked out into the dark again just as lightning split the sky and cast light on the clearing. Not more than twenty yards away, a cloaked figure stood stark against the forest.
Mele’s breath caught. His chest tightened. Had he really seen it? Was it some trick of the light? His eyes strained against the darkness. For a heartbeat, his vision cleared, like a light had been suddenly uncovered somewhere. He saw with clarity. Someone was there, huge and hulking, battered by the wind and rain, moving toward the tower. As quickly as the clarity came, it was gone. His head ached.
He shook Inoke gently as he made sure his work knife was handy. She opened her eyes slowly and started to ask something, but Mele put his finger to her lips and she understood. She peered into the darkness, trying to see past the sheets of rain.
A tingle shot down his spine and jerked away from the door just before the huge form stepped out of the darkness, into the dim light of their fire. A flash of lightning silhouetted the stranger for an instant.
Inoke stood, hand instinctively reaching for her hunting blade. Mele too found his fingers wrapped around the hilt of his work knife.
The figure shifted and the carcass of a nasek dropped to the floor in front of the fire. “Hold your blades,” said a thickly accented voice. “I’m near blind from that storm and have no wish to fight.”
Inoke remained wary. Mele released his weapon. He knew he was no match for a trained fighter anyway. How he knew that she was such, he was unsure.
“Please,” he said. “Sit by our fire and warm yourself.”
Inoke’s eyes darted to Mele and back to the woman. She did not seem to like the idea.
“Much appreciated,” said the stranger.
She stepped fully into the tower, barely fitting her huge frame through the door. She unslung a bow and unbelted a sword, placing each next to a large, leather sack. After some work on her sopping wet cloak, she drew back her hood.
Mele heard Inoke’s intake of breath and felt his own catch in his throat. Her face was pale, almost white, like an albino he’d once seen in a traveling show. Yet her hair, a wild nest of curls, was black as pitch and her eyes a sharp green. This was no albino. He felt a creeping realization rise from deep in his memory. He knew who this must be, the famous briggand and mercenary. The bloody handed barbarian who left chaos and death in her wake.
She removed the cloak and turned to face them. She was huge, towering over them both of them. She smiled briefly, opening her hands and holding them away from her body.
“Greetings,” she said. “I am Baal.”
They both stared at the woman.
She began again. “I am Baal, a stranger to these parts, and I would share the bounty of my hunt with you, as you share your fire and shelter with me.”
Baal. That was the name. The stories he’d heard. Something twisted in his stomach.
Mele sensed memorization in her greeting, as though it were in some way formal. If there was a proper answer, he knew it not. Yet he must say something.
“Sit,” he finally blurted out. “Welcome.” He motioned her to sit and did so himself. Glancing at Inoke for encouragement, he found her looking at him as though he were mad. Yet she sat, too. What else could she do?
Mele put more wood to the flame, building it until it roared once again, filling the room with heat. While the wind and rain raged just outside, this little pocket of the world was comfortable and cozy, or would have been without the dangerous stranger in their midst.
Baal drew a blade and made quick work of dressing the beast. She tossed much of its innards into the raging storm, plucking out a few choice bits. The hide she hung, allowing it to drip dry not far from where they sat at the fire.
“I have a pot for stew, and of course we can roast some meat in this fire,” she said.
“We have some peva, a few vegetables, and malbe biscuits,” Inoke said, still eying the newcomer with trepidation.
“Excellent.” Baal pulled the pot from her sack, set it in the rain until it was full, then placed it in the fire. When it came to a boil, she dropped the vegetables in, along with chunks of meat. She cracked two of the nasek leg bones, scooped out the marrow and dropped it into the stew as well.
Mele’s mouth was watering by the time it was ready. Baal ladled stew into a bowl for each of them. It warmed him, reminding him of nights camping in the wilderness with Boss N’Yin when he was a boy. He recalled one night, not unlike this, sitting by a fire with his mother and father. There were laughs and joy, but that was a long time ago.
Mele looked at Inoke, eating her stew in silence. Baal acted as though she didn’t notice, but Mele suspected she noticed everything. The look in her eye remembered from those wary soldiers who passed through Yeleme on their way to one conflict or another. She was a hunter, not only of beasts he knew.
“Baal,” Mele finally said. “What brings you to this place on a night such as this?”
She looked at him and a slight smile touched her lips. “I traveled with a band of soldiers. On our way East to fight some Daanite lord who’s grown too powerful for his neighbors’ liking.” She dipped a biscuit into the broth and ate it with relish. “There was a disagreement. A few people died. I thought it was best to part ways with those who remained. The money wasn’t so good and their motivations incompatible with my own.”
“Deaths?” Inoke asked.
“Yea. I killed three who decided to vent their frustrations upon a few locals.”
Inoke and mele exchanged nervous glances.
“Where then are you traveling now?” Mele asked.
“Yelemma is nearby, is it not?”
“Then that is where I’m bound. No doubt there will be work for me. Dockhand, field work. I am not particular.”
“Times are hard in Yelemma, Baal,” Mele said. “Work is scarce.”
“I’m sure a strong back will be welcome, and I won’t need much to book passage further on.”
“To Gravais?” asked Mele.
Mele nodded off. He tried not to, but one train of thought led to another and he found himself sliding into strange dreams about tall, Una-like things with liquid silver skin and of the uncomfortably familiar faces of companions he’d never known.
His mate stood above him, calling his name. He felt the love in her voice as she called his name. Images of their life together welled up from deep in his memory, fading as they touched the surface of his mind. She spoke his name, a name he didn’t recognize, a name unlike anything Mele had ever heard.
His eyes opened. Baal watched him, thick arms folded across her barrel chest. She reclined against a store wall, using her sack as a pillow, at home in this storm-blown ruin. Her pale skin might have been made of stone, impassive and eternal.
“What did you see?” she asked, her voice just audible above the howling winds.
“Just a dream.”
“I doubt you’ll ever have ‘just a dream’ again, kid.”
“Your companion,” she said, tapping the back of her neck. “I think it’s going to make your life very interesting.”
“What do you know of it?”
“I don’t. Not really.” Baal slid close to Mele. Inoke stirred in her sleep, but quickly settled back into steady breathing. Baal’s massive frame made him feel small. Her scent was strong, though not unpleasant, making her presence so close to him all the more strange and imposing.
“I’ve seen things like this.” She reached behind his head and touched the lump of metallic flesh. Mele wanted to shrink away, to run from this giant beast of a woman. Yet some half-buried thought stream kept him calm, told him there was no immediate danger.
“You have?” Mele self consciously touched the alien patch. “What happened?”
“Nothing pleasant, I can assure you.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.” She shook her head and gave Mele a sympathetic look. “Remnants of the things that ruled this world before you Una or the Yaro built your first cities, perhaps.”
“What do you mean, ‘you Una?’”
“Don’t let appearances fool you, lad. I am not Una.”
Baal saw the look of incredulity on Mele’s face. “Oh, I know,” she continued. “We seem like enough on the outside. Inside, we are not the same. It’s not just my pale skin. My people did not come from Etta as yours did. Many, many generations ago, we came from another world, out there beyond the edge of this one.”
“Madness. There is nothing beyond the Wall of the World.” He said it, but his eyes betrayed the wonder and awe he felt at the thought.
“I don’t have all the answers for you, Mele.” Baal leaned back again, her voice low. “I have an idea of what happened in those lost days before the rise of Gravais. I think the First Folk, or whatever you want to call those beings that called this world their own, before you Una ever did, they achieved things beyond their abilities to control. It killed them. You, the Yaro, even my people are here because of it. What’s more, I don’t think it’s the first time.”
“What do you mean?”
“Among my people there are stories of the world we came from. In many ways it was like Etta, but it is somewhere out there, beyond the Wall of the World. We too were by ancient beings much like your First Folk, likely for the same reason. We were their slaves, built strong and tough to do the work our masters no longer cared to do. Like the Ancients of this world, our masters became weak and dependent, unable to control the tools they created. My people rose up and threw the masters down. In the chaos, some of us fled our home, escaping to Etta. Here we found the Una and the Yaro, living as savages in the ruins of First Folk cities, having already forgotten their struggle for freedom. We had no wish to become masters, as those who had subjugated us had been. We found our islands and settled there to tend our gardens and live quiet lives.”
“You said you don’t think it’s the only time it’s happened.”
“I don’t. I think the beings that made my people and the beings that made your people, were themselves the creations of others at one time or another. Their masters rose to great heights and fell, too. I think there have been successive waves of civilizations and of beings like you and me, who play at power and dominance, until they too pass like autumn rain.”
“Madness,” Mele said, though without conviction. He stared at her for a time, thinking about what she’d said, feeling small as he contemplated the depth of ages she implied.
“What about this thing?” He indicated the lump of metal flesh on his neck.
“I can’t say for sure. I have seen artifacts left over by the Ancients that have done great harm, possessed their victims, laid waste to families and cities.” Baal grew silent for a time and Mele could not bring himself to speak.
Finally Baal looked at him and said, “perhaps you are different. Perhaps you can keep your mind and defend yourself against whatever plans those long dead makers planted in your head.” She looked down at the sleeping form of Inoke. “Keep those you trust close to you. Listen to them if they tell you that you’re acting strange. Stay strong and vigilant. I’ve seen enough of this world and learned enough to know that there are many mysteries and more to know than I could ever learn in a thousand lifetimes. I’ve learned that people can do amazing things if they put their mind and will to the task.”
The sky was clear and a chill wind pushed from the south. Mele and Inoke walked on the damp flagstones, keeping close. Baal followed, matching their slower stride with some effort.
An hour after leaving their shelter, they came across a wagon on the side of the road. The yoke was empty. From the state of the thick canvas that covered much of the wagon, it was obvious that the storm had done its best to wreck the wagon. Half buried in the mud nearby were various items blown about by the ferocious winds. The thick silence was broken only by the breeze through the reeds.
“Be wary,” Baal said.
“What is it?” Inoke asked.
“Something is very wrong here.”
“The storm?” Mele asked.
“I don’t think so,” Baal answered. She moved off the path into the underbrush. “Look. Tracks.”
Inoke nodded in agreement.
Mele saw several Una footprints, but also those of a large, three-toed beast.
Baal pointed at the animal tracks. “These were made by an al-arr.”
“They look big for an al-arr,” Mele said.
“Not for some of the wild breeds you find far to the south of here.”
“Why would one be so far north?” Mele asked.
“It looks like more than one,” said Inoke.
“I don’t think they would come this far on their own. But who would be crazy enough to capture them and move them?” Baal scanned the wilderness around them suspiciously.
“Whatever happened here, I think we should try to reach the city before it gets dark,” Inoke said.
Baal and Mele nodded.
“Inoke,” Mele said quietly when the. “Why don’t you stay with Boss N’Yin and I tonight. Just to be safe.”
Inoke looked at the tracks again. “If you don’t think he’ll mind.”
“Not when I tell him what we’ve seen.”
With Baal safely directed toward one of the better inns, Mele and Inoke walked through the narrow streets toward his home. The sun was just beginning to dim as they reached the door.
After a moment of fiddling with the lock, Mele swung the door open and stepped inside.
“Boss N’Yin, I’ve brought someone.”
Silence answered him.
Something felt strange about the place. Mele lit a small lamp, putting an arm out to slow Inoke.
He knew. He knew before the light reached Boss N’Yin. The old man’s face was slack. His eyes slightly open, unfocused. His mouth was stained with flecks of dried blood. More blood showed brown and black on the rag still clutched in his lifeless fingers.
Mele had been waiting for this moment for a year, yet he found he didn’t know what to do. He stared at the kind old face, no longer lined with concern or twisted in pain. No longer smiling with laughter or lit with warmth.
Mele wiped tears from his eyes as he turned to Inoke, who still stood at the door. She stepped forward and put her arms around him and he began to weep. Sadness, fear, and relief washed out of him in sobs.
Mele was the closest thing to family Boss N’Yin had, so it fell to him to post death notices. He walked about the city posting signs announcing the death of Umaal N’Yin, on the corners of a few major intersections, near a few of his favorite spots, at the edge of Umani N’Huk Square. Mele worked mostly at night, avoiding crowds and questions. He sat for a long time at the edge of Umani N’Huk Square thinking of those Market days when Boss N’Yin taught him to negotiate, how to spot a wealthy customer, how to avoid a con.
Near morning, he was alone on his bed. Inoke was gone, returned to the wilderness to tend traps. Baal, that strange, pale giant was gone, too. No doubt she was making a barge pilot or caravan driver by turns thankful and nervous about her presence. Mele had no friends of his own. Most of those he might call friends he knew through Boss N’Yin’s business dealings or from his own time spent in Market. He imagined this would be the time a young man might seek comfort in the arms of his family, but with his mother long since gone and his father’s mind fled, he found no solace in family.
He wandered the small house, checking on the opomu, drinking a glass of Hrumble, collecting Boss N’Yin’s personal things into a few small crates.
A pulsing in his ear grew louder and more insistent when he sat down. Mele thought it was the Hrumble. He’d never had a head for alcohol. The pulsing grew. The lurking presence of the strange thing in the back of his skull made itself known. Mele tried to shake it off, tried walking around the house again, checking on the opomu again. Nothing worked.
He thought about the future, about what would happen to the only house he had known since he was a small child, about the opomu he’d cared for so many years. Where would he live? How would he eat? He had some money, but not enough to set up a silk-making operation. Few silkmakers remained in Yelemma and none needed an extra set of hands or mouth to feed. Inoke was gone. He desperately wished she wasn’t.
He tried to sleep, but the pulse thundered in his head. A throbbing ache made him rub his temples. He was sweating. His hands began to shake. He felt cold and hot at the same time. His mouth was dry. His chest was tight. He missed the sound of Boss N’Yin’s snoring. He wished Inoke was with him.
The world slid off its foundation and he fell to the floor. The ache in his head became a lancing, burning pain. He felt himself screaming, but heard nothing beyond the thundering pulse.
The ghostly image of a strange being hovered in front of his face, like him yet not. The face wasn’t Una, yet it was familiar. He knew who the face belonged to. The feeling of seeing an old friend or a near forgotten relative swept over him. He tried to say the name that came to his lips but the pulse hit again and a white light of pain claimed him. As consciousness faded, he saw the room from the cave, alive with strange beings he could almost name. In that moment, he knew that he was one of them, ready to take a great leap into the unknown, to discover some great secret about the world, the answer to a profound question.
Mele lay unconscious upon the stained wooden floor, deaf to the sound of a fist pounding on the door.
Mele opened his eyes to see the frightening, scarred face of Intaga hovering above. The sight of it shook off Mele’s unconsciousness. Images of strange beings and horrible experiments faded.
His throat was dry and he welcomed the tea Intaga offered. Mele waited for the inevitable questions, but they never came. Intaga sat silently, occasionally refreshed the cup of tea, and waited.
Mele noticed the door. Splintered wood and a jagged piece of metal spoke to the force Intaga used to open it. He finally spoke. “Yes. I will repair that.”
“What- why are you here?” Mele asked, rubbing his eyes.
“Boss Koo’Bish wants to know how you’ve fared since Boss N’Yin’s death.”
“As well as I can.”
Something flashed across Intaga’s face, an alien expression to his frightful village. Mele thought it might be concern or worry. It was gone as quickly as it appeared. It left Mele shaken. That this man, servant of the foreign power broker Koo’Bish should be concerned for Mele’s well being did not seem right.
“Have you arranged for a funeral?”
“I posted notice. There is very little money. Just enough to cover Mother Axevo for a few hours.” Mele sighed and hung his head. “My hope is some of his friends will bring food.”
“Mele, do not concern yourself with any of that. Boss Koo’Bish will take care of everything.”
The tickling pain in the back of his skull began again. He felt his blood pumping, heard his pulse thudding in his ears. “What do you mean?”
“You may not know this, but Boss Koo’Bish considered N’Yin a very good friend. He is greatly saddened by the loss, and wishes to make the transition as easy for your as possible.”
“To Boss Koo’Bish’s household. You will finish your apprenticeship under his auspices.”
Mele rubbed the back of his head, the itching pain spread around his scalp.
“Mele, you have nothing to worry about,” Intaga said, reaching a hand out and grasped his shoulder. “Six more months of apprenticeship and you can choose. Work for Boss Koo’Bish, set up your own shop, or maybe travel to Gravais. It will be up to you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Mele, Boss Koo’Bish owns this place. He owns all of N’Yin’s assets. He has for years.”
“But…” Mele didn’t want to believe it was true, but he knew that it was. He felt it. A pattern of little moments played across his mind’s eye. Looks, gestures, partially heard sentences, he pieced them all together into a web of understanding. Boss N’Yin had gone deep into debt, his business failing long ago. Yet the business had continued.
With absolute clarity, Mele saw dozens of paths he might take. Each played out in excruciating detail. The itching in the back of his head faded. He looked into Intaga’s eyes, no longer feeling any fear of the man.
“Six months is not such a long time,” Mele said.
A moment of relief showed upon Intaga’s face.
END OF PART TWO
To be continued…
So, that’s part 1 & 2, which consists of the first 26 episodes of the serialized story I’ve got going on Patreon. I took a break, but have started “season 2” of the serial. Episode 28 will be posting soon. If you like what you’ve read and want to follow as the story develops, please think about contributing. I’ll be using the money to commission artwork, among other things.
As always, you can check out some more Conquest of the Sphere with my Amazon ebook.