“There are things that we, as a race, will never be able to escape. So long as we have breath in our lungs, there will be demons to nip at our heels.”
– Tam Loben, from “Complacent Frontiers”
The city had been beautiful, once. At planetfall, a millennium ago, Rabinadat was the capital of the world’s colonies. Now, both the city and the Attuned temple it housed were far from the height of their grandeur. The great Arken spires and towers had, for the most part, been torn down and re-purposed. As the light of the colonial days receded, the men and women of Rekem pulled their monuments down with them into the dirt.
Row after row of squat buildings filled the former courtyards, connected by walkways of flattened stone. Behind their woven doors, men smelling of sweat and earth stirred in the final throes of sleep. Tufts of smoke peaked from the chimneys of the main kitchens, wreathing the grounds with the scent of burning reeds. Somewhere, the youngest initiates were kneading rough dough into flat discs, preparing them for the fire. Smoked fish were being pulled from the stores, and feet shuffled in the caverns below, hustling from one live trap to another.
The smoke and damp of the morning lay on Toma like a blanket. The heat of their return to the Temple had faded from his limbs, and the chill assailed him as he lay in his cell. The thatch covering his pallet reeked of sweat and charcoal. He’d been too exhausted to flip it when he’d finally slunk back into the narrow room after seeing his brother and master to their beds. He lay on his belly, with the cool air tugging at the hairs on his neck.
He didn’t recall who had awakened him, and the trudge out of the temple was a blur. He came to on the trek to the river, hearing the murmur of its swollen waters against the shore.
“Where-” Someone was at his side, motioning for silence.
“The Ishtus,” said Yoen. “Hush.”
Toma ran his fingers through his hair and over his eyes, trying to shake loose the mask of sleep. This moment of weakness ranked him, and his wrath snapped like a lash.
“I know the rivers, you stumbling tant.” He practically spit the words in Yoen’s teeth. And then, in a moment, wished he hadn’t. He thought of the younger man’s cough as they crept back beneath the city walls, and the anxious tears he’d tried to hide.
“I’m sorry, Yoen.”
Trudging alongside, the younger boy’s expression never changed. He’d learned the curse, along with many others, in the dialect of the world’s oldest city. From Tantulus, the Traitor’s Ark, who fled the gift of god. It was an unpleasant thing to say to a stranger, let alone one’s sworn brother. Toma felt guilt creep down his neck and curl around his empty stomach. “I didn’t mean it.”
Yoen looked over, his eyes steady as they walked. “I know,” he said, “Which is why I’ve decided not to feed you to the river.”
Toma smiled ruefully, and clapped a large hand on his brother’s shoulder. The boy slipped, recovered, and shrugged the hand away. But a grin played at the corners of his hollow eyes, and the older boy felt better.
The Ishtus indeed, he thought. The muddy bank gave it away. The shore of the neighboring Sang’yie was smooth, cut sharp by the swiftness of its current; difficult to fish without a skiff or runner. The Ishtus, swollen though it was, flowed slow and languid, lolling against its banks like the belly of a fat man against his belt. The sun had risen, heating the shore mud and sending plumes of steam into the dank morning. It sucked at his heels, bits of dried and drying sludge spreading their way up his bare calves. This was where the river fish were most likely to come. Spawning season was nearly here.
His eyes strayed to the gentle roll of the current, searching for the taut white of a sail. No, he thought. Too calm here. She’ll be on the Sang’.
Toma felt the bubbles rising beneath his right foot almost too late. He pivoted, leaping to the side just as the spines of the worm broke the surface.
“Yoen!” He turned with a warning and saw that the boy was already moving, legs bent and back arched, fishing spear shifting into a hunter’s grip. Amusement and exhaustion had dropped from his eyes, replaced with something else.
Toma heard the creature hiss as it bucked up and out of the river bank. He spun right, dodging the thrust. A wound from one of its spines would take him off his feet for a week. Watch me, Yoen, he thought, cocking back his spear and thrusting it into the shifting ground just ahead of the writhing needles. Thuunk – The sound of parting mud and skewered flesh.
It was a large one. The worm bucked against the point of the spear, its twisting body nearly as wide around has the young man’s thigh. Toma dug his heels into the mud, throwing his weight against the worm while trying to pry it up from the ground. Too much pressure and the spear could go all the way through, sending him down against its jagged spine. He couldn’t afford to be wounded like that, not now. Not while his family needed him.
The worm shuddered, making one final heave toward the safety of the river mud. Toma’s grip never wavered. The shaft of his spear bowed toward the earth as, with a sucking sound and a final jolt, it emerged completely from the mud. The blade had pierced just behind the creature’s head, where its circular maw gasped in the steaming air.
“Now,” Toma said, and Yoen’s spear was a blur. The blow arced across the creature’s back, knocking the spines out at their roots. Then, mercifully, he brought the blunt edge down hard upon the creature’s head. It jerked once, twice, and was still.
They walked together, through river’s mounting steam. The news still rang in Toma’s ears – A Cenjay had come back. Through Sheol, seared and tattered, an accursed heir spat from the dry mouth of the desert. How long had it been? The last of their line had been banished almost a century ago. If the ghosts told true, as their Sower believed, the Attuned would soon embark on a new holy war.
Toma turned the problem over in his head. Would Rospira be willing to give him up? No, he though. Their young governor had only recently come to power along the desert’s edge. While the local envoys would push her to yield up the blasphemer, the Order was not particularly strong in Rospira. Since the desert nomads had banded together to raise the city, their tribal cults, fueled by visions in smoke and sand, had displaced much of the ancient belief in the great Below. There were few roots in the desert, and little to marvel at beneath the ground.
Besides, Governor Kalen had been groomed to leadership. Young though she was, her family had held Rospira in sway for more than two centuries. The Attuned would need to work fast if they wished to strike a bargain. The longer the Cenjay stayed within the city walls, the more likely he was to remain there. Unless, of course, the Order took steps to send him back into the desert. Or, more likely, beneath it.
The worm twitched in its sling, heavy across Toma’s shoulders. They were on the river path, making their way back to Rabinadat. Here and there, the bones of the once-great civilization jutted through the soil and, every now and then, something would buzz or shift beneath the hunters’ feet. Decades before, it was not uncommon to see sparks blossom from the ground during a heavy rain. Lias himself had seen them, sizzling in the damp and dark. By the time Toma had come under the Sower’s tutelage, such instances were rare.
Most of the underlying technology of Rabinadat had failed long ago. There were still bits and pieces to be found, in the hands of the wealthy or lining the richer shops near the Temple square. The purposes for which many of the pieces were sold were, no doubt, far from the original intent of the maker.
Toma shrugged, adjusting the weight of their catch. He remembered the first time he’d seen the city walls. They’d been taller then, the oldest of the bricks not yet sunken into the earth. In some places, the ancient plaz scrounged from the hulls of the great Arks had still been visible. Now, much of what he’d first known of the Attuned capital lay buried beneath the ground.
“Do you think it’s true?”
The words came from Yoen, pitched low despite their distance from the gates. Toma opened his mouth, not truly knowing until the words left him.
“Yes. I do.”
© Joshua Wussow and ReadRekem.com, 2017-2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joshua Wussow and ReadRekem.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.