The Killing Ritual, Chapter 1

If you’re new to the Killing Ritual, I’ve made the first Chapter sticky for easy finding!

 

Two Stones | One Black, One White

Murin’s body revolted as if the Augur had just placed poison into her open and waiting mouth. Her gaze snapped to her siblings. Zaz, her only brother, stared at her. Shock turned his skin as pale as she had ever seen it. Even her little sisters, Ratri and Vana, were alarmed.   Ratri’s mouth trembled, and Vana clenched her fists as the muscles of her slender jaw twitched.

Murin turned back to the Augur, and looked at his feet. Heat flushed through her. The rest of the children were watching them, peering at her and the Augur with their bright gazes. This was a mistake. The Augur didn’t mean what he was saying. He couldn’t.

Murin said, “I’m sorry, what—”

“My… child, if you were to no longer attend, we could hardly blame you.”

She peered around the Augur, through the darkened doorway of the House of the Initiates. Even out here, she could smell the fresh cut timber of its beams, and feel the bare warm glow of the sun floating in through the agate windows. She stepped around him, and again the Augur blocked her with his body.

“Please,” she said.

“I respect your choice to renounce the Initiation.”

“But I’m not. I am here.”

He hesitated before he said, “You are. But you don’t have to be.”

An older boy pushed past her, hissed “Parakya” in her ear and spat as he went by. Little flecks of white flew down and dotted the dirt at her feet. One landed on her dress and stayed there, a tiny white orb, before it disappeared into the fabric and left a wet shadow. The Augur turned to let the boy enter the House, and said nothing.

She forced the tremor out of her hand as she tested the edges of the cloth wrapped around her head. Not one strand of blond hair had escaped. “I don’t understand. I have at least another year of lessons. I’m already—” The word ‘different’ caught in her throat. “I need to be here.”

“Yes, Murin. But we cannot force you to be where you do not want to be.”

“You aren’t listening.” Murin’s voice was tight, came out soft. “My father. He wants me to be here.”

The Augur sighed. “Very well. Come with me. The rest of you, inside and wait there.” His robes flashed as he went by her.

Murin glanced at Zaz, but fat tears were hanging from his eyelids. No. She needed to be strong. Whatever this moment was about was not good. She rushed after the Augur and followed behind him, staring at the ground as all women were supposed to do. Never look into a mans eyes. Do not speak out of turn. Honor the ways of woman. Those were the essential parts of the Praxis. They didn’t make any sense to her. Murin could do man-things ten times better than most full grown men, but those were the codes of Tarska, her homeland.

The Augur stopped in front of the Regent’s house.

Murin checked the stonework again. Yes, it was his house. A decorative piece of hard granite interrupted a wall otherwise comprised of soft sandstone, which looked like it was melting in the sun. The Regent’s symbol, a scepter and scythe, had been carved into the granite decades ago, if not longer.

Sweat oozed from her skin. For a moment, she swayed. The alley darkened at the edges, and the tips of her fingers grew numb. She focused on the ground, on the texture of the fine silt beneath her feet. Somewhere someone was singing. She hummed along, let the music soothe her.

“Don’t linger in doorways, child. It’s poor manners.” The Augur had crossed over the threshold, and had been waiting for her to follow.

“I’m sorry.” One foot and then the next, she drifted up the stairs. She sifted through every single encounter she’d had with anyone in the last week. Nothing. She had honored the Praxis to the letter.

The two men stood in the narrow hallway. There was a small room just to the right. She knew of it because she had gone there with her father once, when the Regent had asked for his advice. Of course neither the leader of the region nor her father acknowledged that was what was happening. There was the Praxis to follow. Nonetheless, that was exactly what had happened. Father had the answer, and the Regent didn’t.

That door was closed. So was the one revealing a set of stairs going up. The only door remaining open was the one she had just come through.

“Mur—in.” The Regent said her name as if he was stumbling over a new word. He did the same thing each time he said it.

She bowed. “Regent. It is a great privilege to be in your presence.” Suddenly, she was grateful for all the times the twins had roped her into their games of pretend.

“We cannot force an Initiate to be an Initiate.”

Words backed up in her throat, made her queasy. “May I?”

“Yes?”

“I love my family. I love my town. I love being Tarskan. And being an Initiate is part of all that. I am sorry if I did something wrong, and I’ll,” she drew a deep breath, “be better. I just need to know what I did.”

The Regent sighed. Murin could feel it. A heaviness that seemed to be part of everything around her, woven into the mere and unlikely fact she existed. “Look at me,” he said.

She looked at her hand instead. As pale as Zaz had been, no one could ever come close to her. Or her mother. Their skin was cauliflower. The flesh of an average apple. Snow. Although, it was hard to tell what people saw first when they looked at her mother and her. Skin seemed to be the most obvious thing, but the ailment extended to their eyes. And their hair. Yellow. As yellow as corn. Mother disagreed, she said their hair was golden. She even gave it a special color-name. Blond.

The Regent stepped closer to her, put his finger under her chin, and lifted it up. “Look at me.”

She swallowed, her gaze darted around the floor.

“Now.”

She looked up. At his face. Into his eyes. They were cold, his expression stern. His skin was the luxurious color of a fawn, and his eyes held a darker tone, like fertile ground. Night flooded his hair. He looked normal, natural.

He looked like the rest of them.

The image of a rabbit flashed through her mind. Her eyes widened. Had that led to this mess?

Instead of saying anything about hunting, the Regent asked, “Do you clean your house?”

“Pardon?”

“In the Spring, after being closed up all Winter. Do you clean your house?”

Her brows twitched. They wanted to frown, but she wouldn’t let them. “Of course. There’s a lot of soot built up from the Winter. We clean—I mean Father and Zaz clean out the chimney. They make sure everything is okay so—well you know. So the house doesn’t burn down.”

“That’s very smart. It’s seems there is no famine of wisdom in your family.”

“But many people do that.”

“They didn’t. Before your mother arrived.”

Arrived? “I didn’t know that.”

“Claire, your mother, dabbles in herbs.”

Murin watched the Augur from the edge of her vision, without taking her gaze from the Regent. Zaz might have been able to read the Augur. He was able to read almost everyone. To her, the Augur was blank. Concealed as tracks over stone.

“Your mother pretends to have knowledge.” The Regent shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe she does. But it is not our knowledge. It is not our way.” He studied Murin, then asked, “She comes to town with this knowledge and these herbs of hers, doesn’t she?”

“I don’t understand.”

“She comes here to try to heal people, does she not?”

Her mother came to town almost every week, carrying her cures in those little leather pouches dangling from her waist. She didn’t even bother to hide them anymore. “People have asked for her before.” After the Augur’s remedies failed.

The Regent smiled. “You are not like us. You and your mother.”

“But we’re Tarskans.”

He looked her over, at the rag on her head. “We,” he nodded at the Augur, “have decided to give you a choice. You may choose to no longer attend the Initiation. Or you may choose to force us to bring you before the people at the next ceremony, and call on everyone to vote.”

“A vote?” she asked. Each person had two stones, one black stone and one white. Whenever a baby was born, the town voted to accept it (black), or shun it (white). She had never witnessed a baby being shunned. “What would happen?”

The Regent’s lips flattened into a thin line. “I would not put your hope in any miracles.”

Murin stared into his eyes. She even looked at the Augur. “What does this mean?”

The men looked at each other. The Augur nodded. The Regent sighed. He said, “Your choice is private disgrace or… public dishonor.”

“Oh,” she said. Numbness invaded her legs, up to her thighs. She was wading in it. “Is this? This is real, isn’t it?”

The Regent nodded.

Her throat tightened, like it was being squeezed by an invisible hand. She choked out the words “I understand”, even though she didn’t.

The Regent smiled. “Good.”

~~~

Author’s note: I’ve been working on this book project for years.  It used to be called “Fire and Blood”, but that seemed a little pretentious and esoteric, so I’ve moved to a new working title of “The Killing Ritual”.   I’m not sure how many chapters I’ll be sharing on the blog; in the meantime, here’s at least one more.

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The Killing Ritual, Chapter 21

The Witchcraft of Revelations

Murin collapsed in the mud. Tears blinded her and emotions thrashed inside her, slipped up the strands of her muscles. It smothered her voice like sand on fire. She tried to pull herself up, but the mud was like mortar, entombing. She rolled over on her hands and knees. That much she could do. Now face to face with a puddle, she leaned over the glassy surface, looked at her face reflected in the water.

An image materialized, her image. She blinked once, then again. Something else lurked there. At first she had seen her face. Plain normal Murin. It was the face she recognized with blonde hair, grey eyes, a wide elastic mouth and ears with oddly pointed tops, which Anagata had always warned were an ill omen.

The first shift was subtle, the corners of her eyes slanted upward. Then her brows arched wickedly. The next changes came all at once. The bones of her nose, cheeks and jaw elongated, stretched and distorted until they looked like a snout more than a nose and mouth. At the same time her forehead sloped back. The hair of her brows transformed into spiny protrusions. Spikes grew along her new jaw line and her hair became a tangle of quills.

Her skin plated, and her eyes—

Grey they were no longer. Confused yellow stared out at her. Dark vertical pupils. Yellow striations crisscrossed in a complex chevron weave, which radiated outward from the abyss at the center. It wasn’t her anymore.

A monster gazed back. A terrible monster with gleaming teeth, a powerful jaw to snap the bones of its prey, and cunning eyes. She screamed—or tried to, but silence squeezed her throat. Her hands stuttered across her face. Normal. The same.

But the water rippled, and the beast emerged scale by scale. Water dripped down the alien surface of its skin. She flinched as droplets struck her. Its long neck slithered out. The head swayed in the air, relishing the freedom.

She whimpered.

The head snapped to her.

***

Murin sat up in bed and clutched her chest. The blankets had tangled around her body and her skin was cold with terror. She panted in the darkness of the room. From the deep silence, she could tell morning was far off. Thankfully she was alone in the room. She rearranged the blankets into a semblance of order and smashed her body back into the pallet, as if she could hurl herself into sleep.

After a time, Zaz’s snoring was all she could hear. The sound grew louder the more she tried to ignore it. That and the fact that each time she closed her eyes she saw the monster—as clearly as she had seen her own face in the water just the other week—was enough to make sleep impossible. No creature like that existed on Tarska. Not in myth or reality.

She threw back the blankets and stumbled toward the door. Might as well make some tea instead of fretting over some nonexistent monster. Chamomile would calm her, bring her to peace. Its bright yellow-eyes surrounded by petals of white grew around the house. They used it as a medicinal tea rather than regular everyday tea. Apart from upset stomachs and occasional muscle pains, Murin used it to help her sleep.

The fire in the kitchen still glowed, lighting the bottom of the stairs. So that was where Claire was. Not caring, she started to descend to the warmth it promised. Father’s cold harsh tones stopped her on the treads.

“Listen, Claire, she’s my daughter.”

“Hardly.”

“Fine! She’s our daughter, then. Can’t you see something’s wrong with her?”

He knew.

“There is nothing wrong with her, Vapan.”

“You don’t think she’s acting strange?”

“I know her better than you do.”

Father growled like a beast. A cup rattled against the table. “Really? And how well do you know the rest of your children, wife?”

“Do not dare call me wife,” Claire said between teeth.

The room quieted. A long pause drew out.

Murin thought she heard a sigh, but it was so faint and vague, after a moment she wasn’t sure she’d heard anything at all.

“This is my house and the people living in it will do what they are told,” Father said.

“This may very well be your house, but that doesn’t give you the right to wantonly abuse those who live within its walls.”

Murin pressed a hand to her mouth.

“Abuse? You call it abuse?” Father cawed like a wounded crow. “Woman, who do you think you are? I took you when no one else would.”

“Oh, please. Don’t be so pathetic, Vapan. Now you’re the one telling lies.”

“I saved you.”

“A lie. There were others who would have had me in their homes. You Tarskan men were so desperate for a healthy, child-bearing woman. Even so, I could have stayed with Acala and Adri. Happily. I should have done that instead of subjecting myself to this hell.”

“Hell?” His voice grew louder. “That’s what this is for you? And what do you subject me to?” His voice dropped to a tormented whisper. “I thought you were different, Claire. I thought you came wanting nothing. Taking nothing. I watched you limp through the mud into Tolslovel. I made sure you got there when my real duty—my duty to my people as an Initiate of the Svarasa—was to kill you. I thought that maybe, after all those years, I had found a woman fitting enough to be my wife.”

Claire snorted.

“You don’t think everyone talks about me, about how I was the only one stupid enough to take you in, to take in Other. To share my hearth with Other. Mix my seed with Other. Tainted.”

“I am the one who should be railing against the injustice of it all, but that would hardly change anything, would it?”

“We’re better off without your kind.”

“My kind?” She asked.

“Yes, your kind. Tainted strangers.”

Was he really going to say it? Murin closed her eyes and leaned her head against the wall.

“Tainted? You backwards idiot. You belligerent, evil, small-minded fool of a louse.”

“Silence! Gods, woman, you have no sense.”

“I have too much sense. That’s the problem. Much more than you.”

“I have heard enough of your prattle. From this moment on, you will do as I say.”

“Really?” She sounded oddly, eerily amused.

“You are in Tarska and have been for the past 16 years. You will abide by Svarasa traditions.”

“Abide by murderers?”

“You will mind the blade.” His voice had a crazy lilt to it, almost as if he was pleading with Claire to back down. “For the sake of tradition.”

“Tradition? You call treating women as common house slaves tradition? Criminal is what it is, Vapan. And you should know how other people really see us. They are amazed all four children thrive. They’ve escaped diseases that kill every one out of their three children.” Claire sighed. “You are so obsessed with this notion of being persecuted just because I am different. Because Murin is different.”

Murin eased down the stairs to risk to seeing it as well as hearing it.

“No matter what I say, no matter what tradition dictates,” he paused, “no matter how I feel about you.” His voice cracked, like a tree splintering. He drew a ragged breath. “You won’t change.” Something thudded against the wood of the table. Murin imagined it to be his fists. His next words came out haltingly, like the jerking motion of a wagon braking down a hill. “We should. Have dealt with you. The way. The Svarasa deal. With. Your kind.”

“My kind? Why don’t you just say it?”

Holding her breath, Murin leaned forward in the stairwell. Please don’t—

Father’s voice dropped to a low threatening tone. Bitter and barbed. “Stupid Parakya.”

“What did you just say?” Claire asked.

Willing her body to be silent, Murin waited for Father to say something else. He must have said “parsnip” or “potato.” Something benign. It was still mean, but calling someone a vegetable wasn’t malicious or cruel. It didn’t hold the vicious hatred that Parakya did.

But he had said it, and he said it again with all the calculated precision he could muster. “Parakya.”

“You pathetic excuse for thinking feeling flesh.”

Murin tasted their fury, even though she sat away from their heat, in the shelter of the stairs.

“I warned you. You will be punished.” Furniture scraped against the floor. A cup fell from the table, broke.

Murin leapt up, and was about to plunge into the kitchen when Claire’s voice, clear as a winter morning and sharp as a new blade, sounded.

“UIST!”

Murin froze. She froze not because of the force of the yell, not because of the authority in Claire’s voice, or the way the word reverberated off the walls and inside her skull. She froze because she simply couldn’t move. At all. She couldn’t even wiggle a finger. The only thing she could do was think and breathe.

Two refrains alternated in the space of her mind. My mother is a witch! and Silence!

Vapan had not named Claire Parakya without reason. It was truth. And it was Claire’s fault. Everything that was happening to her, every breath of fire, every scale, was Claire’s fault.

“What do you know of Parakya? Nothing. You throw your words and beliefs around carelessly. It costs you nothing. It’s so easy when you’re one of them.” Claire sounded off-key. “You have no idea—” She broke off, choked on a sob. “I fled my home. It was nearly as heinous as this place. I had to, to save the life growing in me.”

What had she just said? Murin struggled to breathe. Whose child was she?

“Ketu was my best choice. My only choice, really.” The emotion slipped out of her voice. “I crossed the Dragon’s Tongue alone. And those despicable ill-educated mountain people. The ones you revere for their pure Tarskan attitudes. Your Svarasa,” she said harshly.

“They knew nothing of me. Nothing. But because of that awful tradition of yours,” Claire started stringing the words together, “thatinsane fear youhaveofanything different…outside of your experience. They hurt me. Knocked myskullwitha rock, bound my mouth with a dirty rag, they threw a bag over me.” Claire cried quietly.

It would have been better if Claire had never emerged from the mountains. Then the choice would have been made for Murin, and she wouldn’t be here, in this moment that was shredding her.

“I don’t know how long I was unconscious. The beating revived me. I-I had to save the child. After, I fled from the mountains. How many other people suffered that fate? If I had no magic, if I had been another helpless girl seeking refuge—they would have murdered me. With sticks and rocks. They would have beaten Murin out of me and thrown us into the sea.” She paused again. Her voice was low and dangerous and thick with emotion.

The attack was their duty. The Svarasa had protected Tarska for centuries from the outside. That was their purpose. To keep the dangerous, terrible outside away. It wasn’t wrong for them to do their duty. It wasn’t.

“And for what? Some archaic concept? Some immoral edict?”

Claire lied. She had betrayed not only her family, but also all of Tarska. Murin’s heart fluttered. Panic smothered her as a realization took shape in her mind. Mother is Parakya. I am Parakya, she thought. That’s what’s wrong with me.

The answer to her problems came to her. It wasn’t the answer she wanted, but it was the right one. The ritual. She had to submit to it.

“Do you want to know what Parakya really is? It’s a blossom of hatred, thorned with rusted nails and tended by blind men. It is violence, that word. A barrier between Tarska and the rest the world. Parakya is a black and white vision of a world that exists in tones of grey. Grey, damn it.”

Murin balked. Parakya was Parakya. The concept and ritual death protected the people of Tarska. And Parakya were evil.

“What?” Claire asked. “You want to speak? Very well.”

An unseen hand loosened its grip on Murin’s throat. She experimented by swallowing the spittle, which had been collecting in her mouth.

Father’s first sounds were of choking. He spat and gasped. His breath came and went too fast.

Flaring her nostrils, Murin sniffed the air. Fear and anger.

“You are an abomination,” he stuttered, falling over his words, voice wounded and bleeding profusely in vowels and consonants. “I deserve to be sacrificed for marrying you. I deserve the harshest death possible. And so do you. We all do.”

Claire laughed out loud. Her laughter unraveled. Another long pause filled the night that had become predawn morning.

“I would rather my line end than breed with a Parakya.” It was at this Father began to sob. Murin had never heard the sound before. She wanted nothing more than to silence it.

“I have tainted Tarska.”

Tears covered Murin’s cheeks, too.

“Neuchooinghtyn,” Claire whispered.

Oblivion? What did she mean by that?

 

Murin found herself on the stairs, wondering how she had gotten there.

The Killing Ritual, Chapter 20

The Cold Face of Knowing

“Why have you stopped?” Old Philan barked for the second time.

“Because,” Torek said, “we’ve been riding for 12 hours.”

“Excuses. All you care about is getting out of this. You have no intention of actually helping Kai.”

“I’m getting sick of doing this with you, old man. We have to stop and you know why.”

“Dragonshit.”

“Philan, we may be close, but we have no idea where Kai is. If we continue we could go leagues off course.” But yes, he did really want to get the hells out of there. He wanted to leave the lot of them and spend the rest of his days on the beach as some faceless nameless person.

“And you need to dreamfast to see where he is,” Philan said in a mocking tone.

“I don’t like it either.”

“It’s taking too long.”

Torek scoured his face with his hands. “It’s taking as long as it needs to.”

“Listen up, boy—”

“Boy?”

“Yes, boy. You’re in the thick of your adolescence, so don’t presume you know more about the world than I do.”

“Philan, by the Grove, I’m 31.”

Philan flicked his gaze over Torek. “In human years, that may be something. What is that? 15 to a half elf?”

“Enough of this,” he said. “We’ll find him.”

The old man threw up his hands and disappeared into his wagon. Probably to sulk. It was just as well. No one could stand his company right now.

Torek shoved Philan out of his mind. Without even acknowledging the rest of them, he unfurled his bed roll in a nearby clearing, laid down and began to breathe rhythmically. Methodically. The thick gnarled trees, the swooping birds, and insects hovering in the late afternoon faded, and all around him the world stilled and he detached mind from body. Then he slipped into the dreamfast. In a whirl of motion, his energy released from his body and dispersed, like a mist, into the stream where others were.

He pictured Kai’s face, which he’d come to know quite well, and thought his name. Instead of Kai’s distinct tuft of grey, flashes of blonde hair trailed through his mind’s eye.

The abstract images aligned into a cohesive picture. He was standing in the middle of a field. The image came complete with fatigue, the emotional kind that sapped the strength from his limbs. But there are more crops to bring in, a female voice said in his head. One moment he was swinging a scythe, the next he was tripping over his own legs and beating his fists into a puddle of water. His throat constricted and a fever enflamed his skin. Then the grey camp he’d grown up in buried the golds and browns of the harvest. He was wrapping a blunt knife in his rags, wondering if he had the courage to do it.

He fell through that scene into another. This one caused his energy to slow, like a heartbeat, to a near fatal stillness. An arm drifted up in front of him, covered in grey clothe with a subtle monogram stitched into the hem. A pale finger traced the horizon. It carved out a path through the soft folds of the hills to where the fog gathered in the distance. Ghostly shapes ambled across the landscape.

“There he is,” a voice said.

Torek pulsed yellow with fear at the sound of the voice and the accent it carried. Crisp and stern, it turned a benign phrase into a threat.

“And someone else is looking for him.” The grey arm dissolved into light, which reformed into a face looking at Torek. “Hello, Guardian.”

Then something shoved at his mind. He tumbled into another vision. The one he had anticipated when he first began this dreamfast. Kai’s energy was bright and familiar.

Torek fused with him, mind-to-mind, still sick with yellow.

Kai threw up feeble mental blocks.

“I am a friend. This is called synching.”

Kai’s mind pushed against Torek’s with all the might of a kitten pushing against a tiger. “Be gone, demon.”

Torek eased through the cracks in the old man’s defenses with care. Minds were fragile things. Easily torn and broken. And synching required patience and attention, which Torek never thought he had. Now there was no choice. He scanned Kai’s memories from the day, scouted for landmarks he could use to guide the group to the Kai.

“I said get out, you wretch! I’ve been through too much to put up with this.”

“Calm yourself.”

“Go find some other plaything to torment.”

“I’m not here to torment you. You’re in trouble.”

“So you keep telling me. Now for the last time, demigod, be gone!”

Torek snapped back to the physical world. His muscles shook and a layer of sweat coated his face, and wet the edge of his hairline. He opened his eyes, not to the sky, but to the faces of his travel companions staring down at him.

Edrish and Tarvis stood together like brothers. Their energy harmonized to the same rhythm. Philan merely glared at him. Hedric was there, too. She was frowning. Her pale green eyes were less their own usual color and more resembled the glaciers hugging the Chronoberg Mountains, tinted—some said—by the towering evergreens of the Ancient Grove. Her gazed moved from his face to Nymos, who was standing by the wagons and staring at the road in the direction from which they had traveled. Tendrils of red traced between the two.

“What happened?’ Torek asked. He felt as if he still had one part of himself in the dreamfast and the other in this parody of reality.

Philan barged in with a question of his own before Hedric had a chance to respond. “Which way?”

“East,” Torek said, then waited for the old man to disappear. He stared at Hedric.

“She’s contaminated,” she said.

He frowned and glanced at Nymos.

“I mean, you shouldn’t trust her. Not really.” Hedric turned, and walked to her wagon.

Tarvis held out his hand. “Come on, you.” The firm grip devoured Torek’s hand, and hefted him up. “What do ye really have to say?”

The scar on Torek’s chest seemed to swell, catch on his shirt. “Kai is in danger.”

“Ach, we already knew that.”

 

They traveled eastward most of the morning. Fog thickened the air into visible specks of grey. Ghosts of trees lurked in the mist. Even through the mysterious filter of the fog, Torek recognized the land. The trees looked familiar, as did the bend in the road. His heart quickened. This had been in both visions. The Seduman assassin’s, as well as Kai’s. The road would divide again. This time they had to take the branch in the rode which led south. And maybe they weren’t far behind.

Torek stopped. He closed his eyes, forced his breathing to become deep and even. Noise dropped away, and so did sensation. Breath was all there was. When he opened his eyes, he was in a waking dreamfast. Mist was replaced by the dull glow of energy, the energy of the earth, the trees and air. The tracks of the people who had passed before.

He found Kai’s energy splashed all over the road, and glowing brightly. Another trace lurked beneath a smudge of wolf. Except it wasn’t a wolf. Peering into the layers of the track, a bitter taste coated Torek’s tongue. The sign flickered, and in those gaps, another stream of energy emerged. Four riders on horseback. Dressed in grey and magic.

He leapt from the wagon. “They’re close,” he said to the others. “I think they’ve been stopped by four riders.”

“How far?” Philan asked.

“Not sure.”

His travel companions watched him. Bright turquoise sparks zinged through their energy fields. They felt it, too? Didn’t they?

“Do any of you know magic?” Now Grimshader and Sorchaich’s company didn’t seem so dreadful. He couldn’t stop the trickle of fear, again that putrid sickly yellow, from tracing through his nerve threads and veins

Edrish flared, bright as a tube of magnesium thrown into the fire. In the next moment, his light drenched Torek with its nearly white, barely pink glow. It was the kind of light that ate away all other kinds of light. It devoured his fear and left him seeing the world as it was. Knowledge without judgement.

“Stalling again?” Philan pulled his lips over his teeth, baring them like blunt little threats.

“Seduman assassins follow Kai.”

Silence grew in their throats and their bodies, and Torek could almost hear them. The assassins halting the wagons, and ordering everyone out.

“Then he’s dead,” Nymos said.

Philan stayed mute as horror slackened his face.

Hedric shook her head. “We go on.”

“He said Seduman.”

“Nymos, he could have said the darkest, meanest, cruelest thing in this world, and we would still have to go on.”

“Are you addled?” Nymos asked. “Isn’t that exactly what Seduma is.”

“You can do whatever you want. You weren’t supposed to be here in the first place.” Hedric turned to Torek. “We go on.”

“By foot,” Torek said. “Now.” He pointed at the branch to the south.

Nymos grabbed Philan’s arm. “He shouldn’t go. Someone should stay with him.”

“The wagons had better be here when we return,” Hedric said as she armed herself.

“If.”

“When.” Torek walked down the road, away from escape and into consequence. After a few paces, the fog grew more dense. It stuck to his eyelashes and tried to slink down his throat. The barren strip of land that constituted the road was rutted with deep tracks carved by countless wagon wheels. To the south, it slipped down into an undulating flood plain, where bay trees and elms interrupted the land. To the north, a brim emerged, hovering over the road just ahead.

Tarvis wandered up its slope. His red head descended out of view. A birdcall trilled over the landscape.

Torek, Edrish and Hedric turned at the same time, stepped into the tracks the giant had left. A ditch ran along the other side of the berm, parallel to the road.

“Micht as well be a speck of a surprise,” Tarvis said.

To delay their ending by a larger fraction of time, Torek wanted to say, but the light Edrish has inundated him with wouldn’t allow it. Instead, he nodded at the logic and took the lead, as if he was responsible and knew what to do.

“Get out of the wagons.” A voice cut through Torek’s thoughts. The accent was almost aristocratic. “All of you.”

“He’s in charge,” a voice responded.

“You’re a damned fool.” And that was Kai’s voice.

“Stand there,” said the aristocratic voice. “All of you. Close in. Good. Now, tell me from where you come.”

Someone began to say something, then there was a thump and a hiss.

“And what is so dangerous about telling us your origin?”

“Why is it your concern?” Kai asked. “And why is it so important that you should bar passage, make us captive and threaten us?”

“You have not yet been threatened.”

“You have ice in your gaze. I know what winter does to hearts and minds.”

“Well then, let us not stand on pretense and formality.” Then dragon tongue rushed out of the aristocrat’s mouth.

There was a thud and a choked scream.

Torek ran to the point closest to where the talking was. He undid the scabbard from his soldier’s girdle and laid it on the slope.

“’Tisna goin’ ta do ye any good there,” Tarvis said.

“If you think it’ll do me any good there,” Torek pointed at the source of the strained sounds of pain, “you should explore more of the world.”

Edrish and Tarvis both looked at Hedric.

“It doesn’t work that way,” she said.

“No’ even a hint?” Tarvis drummed his fingers under the pummel of his sword.

Her lips pursed together. She looked ahead and stared at spot of nothing.

“Come on.”

“Leave her alone, Tarvis.” Torek started up the embankment as if he didn’t need them, or want them to come. The rest didn’t matter. All that mattered was the assassins, and how they had chosen to punish Kai.

Edrish stripped away his weapon and followed.

The grey-clad, blonde-haired assassins, tall, and grotesquely muscled, watched the man on the ground twitch, their faces rigid, but somehow still smiling.

Kai, with a tuft of hair swirling from his forehead, pointed a shining sword at the assailants, and stood over the fallen man. He was traveling with a small group of traders, who all had his same dark walnut skin and black eyes. Their horses tamped at the ground, tore pieces of sod with their hooves. A robust man swaddled in fine robes huddled against the wheel hub of one wagon. Two others cowered behind Kai.

“Shall we continue?” The aristocrat asked. It was the man Torek had first encountered as a face composed of pinpoints of light in the dreamfast.

“Continue what?” Kai asked. He kept his hands clenched around the pummel of the sword, which had clearly never been used. “This madness? This torture?”

“By my own name, Oten, given to me by my father, this is not torture. Just a bit of sport.” He uttered words in the ancient dragon tongue.

The man at Kai’s feet screamed. His body convulsed and jerked into violent angles.

“This is torture, you monster,” Kai yelled.

A sharp crack split through the air. The arm of the man on the ground was rigid up to the middle of his upper arm bone. The rest of it dangled to the ground.

“No!” Kai dropped the sword and knelt by his fellow Ketuan.

“Everybody likes a show,” Oten said. Turning away from the Ketuans, he directed his attention to Torek. “Don’t you, Guardian?”

“You have no business in Artesia. With these men.” Torek pushed the words out.

Oten looked at his fellow Defenders, which was what Sedumans called assassins in their homeland. “I am Seduman, half-elf. The world is my concern.” Oten glanced to either side of Torek. “You’re companions are quite,” he paused, “interesting.”

“Ye’ll be lettin’ those men free,” trilled Tarvis. He stepped in front of Torek. His broadsword angled out in front of him, heavy as a wagon axel. “Then ye’ll be movin’ on yer way.”

Oten smiled. A cold sly affliction of the lips. “From what hovel did you emerge? No. It doesn’t matter. Your friend, son of Astasiana,” he acknowledged Torek with a slight incline of his head, “was so kind as to let you keep your plaything. But really, you should put it away now.   Ruathar.”

Tarvis spun around and raised the sword above his head.

“Shit.” Torek dove out of the path of the blade just as Tarvis swung the sword down at his head.

“What are you doing?” Edrish asked.

“You’re surprised?” Torek said as he rolled, and hopped to his feet. Crouched, he watched as Tarvis staggered. The giant’s face twisted in a grimace.

The Ketuan on the ground shrieked in agony.

“I canna help it.” Tarvis sliced the blade at Hedric. She dodged, and almost walked right into Tarvis’ counter-stroke.

Torek shook his head, then sprinted at Tarvis.

“What are you doing?” Edrish asked, even more shocked than the first time.

His shoulder hit Tarvis mid-back. The force knocked him off balance, and he teeter-tottered before falling. They hit the ground. Hard. Torek gasped, but didn’t stop. He threw his elbow into Tarvis’ face, then jumped up and stomped on the giant’s hands.

Tarvis howled, let go of the sword.

Torek picked it up. Words danced through the air all around him, but he ignored them, pushed them out of his nerve threads and veins, purged them from his ears. He rocked the sword to the right, then flung it, body straining, muscles tearing, toward the embankment over which they had just come.

“Fly, damn it,” Torek said. He stumbled away from Tarvis, and brought his hands up, made fists of them. By some luck—it couldn’t have been strength—the sword twirled just over the dirt at the peak of the embankment, and disappeared over the other side.

Torek took five more steps away from Tarvis, toward Kai and Oten. He opened his ears only enough to tell the difference between normal talk and magic-spiked dragon tongue.

Tarvis did get to his feet; he did look at Torek. His expression was a mixture of two things. Mostly it was shame.

Torek waited. It was usually a never-ending attack. That’s the game he remembered from the camp. Instead, Tarvis stayed still, a body at rest. Torek turned back to the Ketuans and their tormentors.

The man on the ground was still now, and quiet. His pant cuffs gathered at his knee caps, and his torso was bared and mottled with bruises. The clothes were saturated with the stench of urine. Torek looked at the other Ketuans. Their faces, slack, were bowed to the earth, where they fixed their gazes.

“Is this the only way you people have fun?” Torek strode to Oten.

Oten’s brow twitched. “That ended rather quickly. And with much less blood than I hoped for. Uist.”

The spelled froze Torek. Oten drew his sword and cut through the laces of Torek’s shirt.

The exposed scar made the emotionless murderer smile again. “They gave this to you. Your gift for winning the first time. What should we give you now, Guardian.” He spat out the last word.

Movement flicked at the edge of Torek’s vision. Kai had reached into his pocket, pulled out a necklace, and drew it over his head.

A vague look suffused Oten’s face. “But you are inconsequential, aren’t you? A distraction. As much as I’d like to educate you, I must interrogate the Ketuan about Naimh.”

Kai’s fellow traders draped their own identical necklaces over their heads.

“What’s this?” Oten practically sneered at the men, as if he could think any less of them.

Kai straightened his spine and seemed as tall and steadfast as a mountain. He looked at Oten with a calm and steady gaze. “I am of Tarska. This is an amulet of protection. And we are finished here.”

Sedumans loved challenges. They loved to dismantle proud men in the most humiliating and painful ways. “Stop,” Torek said.

Oten’s face became hard and impassive again. “You may have one more chance to tell us what you know of Naimh. We are fairly certain she is hiding on your pathetic trash heap of an island. And of course you’ll have to apologize for your transgression.”

“I will apologize for nothing,” Kai said. “You will leave us, and never attack another Tarskan for as long as you take air into your body.”

“Stop.” Torek hissed the word between his teeth.

“Listen to the Guardian. He knows better than most the consequences of insulting Seduma.”

“We listen to the heartbeat of our mountains. We feel the rush of our streams. Our force is the force of boulders hurtling into valleys. Of the sun searing. We listen to our songs. And to no other.”

Oten looked over his shoulder at the other Defenders. They were all the same: yellow hair, pale skin and slate grey eyes. And of course their frames all bore a ridiculous amount of muscle, cultivated by dogged training every day of their existence.

Whatever connection they etched out between themselves released Torek’s body from the freezing spell. “Go,” he said to Kai.

“I stand.” The old man spoke through tight lips. His face, which had been soft and friendly in the dream fasts, was unyielding now.

“Whatever they are doing right now will destroy you. Probably all of us.” Torek stepped back as the Defenders realigned themselves, and encircled the Ketuans with their massive bodies.

Edrish’s light, that objective clarifying influence, evaporated.

The Ketuans and Sedumans pressed into a dense cluster on the road, while all around was space. Hills, open fields and sky. Torek took several more steps back, and stumbled over his own feet. Or maybe it was fear he was stumbling over. Tarvis and Edrish pulsed with the same uncertainty. But Hedric. Despite the tears on her face, that little witch was the most calm and tranquil person.

A cacophony erupted from the Sedumans. A stream of precise staccatoed sounds ricocheted from their prey, the wagons. The air itself seemed to amplify with the jagged words.

Torek’s insides shook. He struggled between wanting to run, and wanting to dig a hole in the roadside, into which he could escape. And then the other sound emerged. A song. A steady cadence of rhythmic force. Energy zinged through the air, and resonated in Torek’s own body. Blinking, he studied the combat of words, and then listened to the song the Ketuans wove.

My body is the earth,
my blood, the water.
My spirit lives in Svarasa,
I am true, I am Tarska.
These demons disguised
seek to harm and to take.
In our midst, Parakya we name.
To the earth, bind them,
strip their flesh of power.
To the earth, bind them.
Now begins the killing hour.

The Defenders faltered.

The Ketuans joined hands and spoke their song louder, cycling through the same words. Torek took up the chant, too. Tarvis and Edrish merged their voices with his, and finally, Hedric drew the words through her throat, over her tongue.

Just like that the Defenders crumpled to the ground and clutched their heads in their hands.

Kai nodded, and with heavy steps, methodical steps, he walked to one of the wagons, and returned with four massive bladder bags. Runes riddled their cured surfaces. One by one, he slipped the bags over the heads of the Defenders. The leather slid down their bodies and gathered in folds at their feet. He tipped them over and cinched the bags closed with a leather cord woven through the opening. Only when the last Seduman body was imprisoned did the Ketuans cease the chant.

Torek and his companions quieted, and waited for the Sedumans to erupt from the bags, cursing and shouting the spells that would inflict long and torturous deaths. Instead, the whispers of birds slowly reemerged, and articulated the quiet with euphony.

Kai and his countrymen had gathered around their fallen. They rearranged his body into a semblance of a human, rather than that of a discarded doll. Someone had retrieved a rag and some fresh clothes. These all in black. They stripped the urine-soaked clothes from the man’s body, cleaned and dressed him in the fresh garments. Once they enshrouded his body with a sheet, they began chanting a new song in a language so ancient Torek could only decipher a sense of what they were conveying. Eagle spirit dwelling in Svarasa.

After the body was transferred to one of the wagons, after the men had bowed their heads together, touching each forehead with their own, after all that Kai acknowledged Torek.

He scanned Torek, pausing at his eyebrows and ears, and wandering back to his eyes. Kai leaned toward Torek and said, “I know you even though I’ve never seen you before in all my days.”

Torek smiled weakly and held out his hand. It shook.

Kai grasped it in his own dry, steady grip.

“I’ve been haunting your dreams.”

“That was you?”

Torek nodded.

Kai scowled. “You think just because you can, you should? Have you no respect for a person’s privacy?” He stabbed a finger at Torek. “A mind is no plaything. Didn’t your mother teach you that?”

The slow creak of wagons approaching startled them. Philan came into view. He had connected the wagons to form a single-driver train.

“Where’s Nymos?” Torek asked.

“Gone,” Hedric said. “Hopefully.”

Philan hobbled down from the wagon while it was still in motion and went straight to Kai. He placed his fingertips to the opposite shoulder, and bowed his head as unwound his arms and held his hands palms up before Kai, like an offering. Kai did the same, and placed his hands beneath Philan’s. Tears wet Philan’s face. Kai held his sobbing friend tightly.

The large Ketuan dressed in fine clothes emerged from behind the wagons. “We’re leaving this place. We can still make Azure Stables by nightfall.”

“Have you been there all this time?” Torek asked.

The man frowned.

“Hiding?” Torek asked.

“We are alive because of me,” the man said.

Torek looked from him to Kai, who was struggling to keep his lip uncurled and his attention focused on Philan.

“Who the Grove are you?”

“Dorin! That’s who I am, boy! And you’d best remember it. You there. Philan. Your people take up the rear. I’m in the lead wagon. Everyone follows me.”

Dorin snapped his fingers and waved the other Ketuans into motion. They slowly gathered themselves into their wagons, and left the bagged bodies on the road.

Torek turned to Philan and Kai. “What about them?” He nodded at the four shapes in the road.

“They will be left,” Kai said.

“But—”

Kai shook his head once. “Their fields have been decimated.”

Torek frowned at the phrase.

“They are impotent. They no longer have power.”

“And Dorin?”

“He runs the caravan to Ketu,” Kai said, his hand still gripping Philan’s.

Tarvis laughed. “That man couldna run a fish ta the river.” He and Edrish went to the wagons and undid Philan’s handiwork, readied them for the journey to Azure Stables. “Why is he running the trade?” Philan asked.

Kai shook his head and said, “I’ll explain after we reach the town. I have the distinct feeling we all have tales to tell this evening.” He gazed at Philan and squeezed his hand before returning to his wagon.

Nymos appeared on the road. She had woven a bolt of fabric around her throat, as if she was cold. The dark clothe made her skin seem unnaturally pale. Her eyes were wide as her gaze darted about the scene, taking in each detail.

Hedric glared at the woman, but said nothing.

Once the wagons were ready, they followed the south road, behind Dorin’s caravan, to the Azure Stables. And one step closer to Ketu, Torek thought. His stomach heaved, like a boat in stormy water. The sacks of bodies moaned as he passed them. 


They arrived in the town near sundown. The horses were taken to the stables, and the wagons were secured. Normally the routine was comforting.

Torek stumbled into the Dragon’s Breath Inn after the strangers who’d invaded his life. But maybe they hadn’t invaded it. Maybe they were invited into it by the Cuff of Consequence. Philan sat near Kai, and kept looking at him, touching him. There was something different about the relationship between the two. It was something he had not seen before and for the simple reason of that lack of exposure, their affection seemed strange.

They talked as they ate. Philan explained how Torek and the rest had found Kai, and knew of trouble.

“A vision?” Kai asked Torek.

Torek looked at Hedric, but the little snake pretended not to notice. “Sort of,” he said.

“Quite spectacular,” Kai murmured.

Hedric smiled crookedly. “Not really.” Then she stuffed a baked baby potato into her mouth.

Kai leaned forward, elbows on the table and brown eyes glittering. “You were born with magic?”

Hedric nodded as she chewed.

“And you.” Kai stated it, already certain Torek had magic vibrating at his nerve endings.

He sighed. “No.”

Kai frowned. “How else did you find me if not with magic? .”

“No magic was involved.”

“Bah.” Kai’s lips soured and he waved his hand. “You must have studied then?”

“No,” he said.

“But you connected with my thoughts? How could you do that if not with magic?”

“That’s not magic. It’s just not something everyone can do.”

“Do explain.” Hedric smiled broadly.

“Why do you even care about this?” Torek asked. “It’s not important.”

“Don’t be such a snot,” Hedric said, rolling her eyes.

Edrish held his gaze, a challenge dancing in his eyes.

Torek steeled himself for what he was certain was coming next. Some snide comment about how he shouldn’t be on solid foods, about how babies only drank mother’s milk.

“Perhaps he doesn’t know,” was all the enigmatic man said.

“Yes I do.” Torek grimaced at hearing the childish ring in his own words.

“Well?” Kai asked.

Torek closed his eyes.

“Go on,” Hedric said, smiling faintly.

“Fine. We are all part of this… let’s call it a stream. Our thoughts and actions give off energy. We each have a peculiar signature in this purified space.”

“Where is this stream? Is it water? How can you be sure?” A mischievous glint lit her tired green eyes.

“It’s just a way of understanding how things work,” he snapped. “We don’t have words for everything we experience. It’s something you cannot perceive because you were not built to. I am built that way, so I can.”

Nymos, who had been silent up to now, glared at him. “Something that’s not magic but looks, sounds and behaves like magic.”

“Look at my eyes,” Torek said. “They’re not like yours, are they?” Everyone agreed without hesitation. “They not only appear different, but they see differently, too. The shape of my eyes, the things inside them, the way the dark part consumes the whole eyeball and the shape of my pupils are all things that help elves see in the dark and detect more subtle things. Like fear, anger, aggression, fatigue.”

“So, you see this stream?” Kai asked.

“No. It’s not really seeing it. That’s one way to understand the experience, but it’s not accurate.”

Kai tapped his finger on the top of Philan’s hand as he thought. “Experience. Like a sensation? Or maybe a way of thinking? Your mind is like your eyes? Is that what you’re saying?”

Torek blinked at Kai. He was pretty damned smart for a Ketuan. Pretty remarkable all around. “Exactly,” Torek said. “If I know someone’s name and something of what they look like, these things act like coordinates to the person and I can connect with them mentally. But the question of the night is why were Seduman Defenders after you? And how in the Grove did you do what you did?”

“Those devils.” Kai said, as if he knew what Seduma was.

“Aye,” Tarvis said.

“I don’t know the why of it. Just that Oten was tracking us the same way as you were, young Guardian.”

“I’m not a Guardian,” Torek said as his insides churned at the word at the same time as he wondered how Kai knew it at all.

Philan shook his head. “It’s over, you’re safe. The only question worth anything is why is Dorin leading? It’s your run.”

“I’ve decided to become a mainlander,” Kai said.

“But Tarska is your home.”

“It was my home. These twenty years of travel and trade, going to places I never dreamed existed—there is more to the world. And I want to see it before I pass.”

“What is Tarska?” Nymos asked.

Kai swiped his mouth after taking a big gulp of wine. “Tarska is what you call Ketu. Not common knowledge. I admit it.”

“What made you come out of Ketu?” she asked.

“An infestation destroyed our crops and all our seed stocks one year many years ago. Hunting grew scarce and folk became sick. We had to trade to survive.”

“The Sedumans called it the Hell of Sticks and Stones,” Nymos said, her voice distant and absent.

Kai smiled. “That’s…interesting. In any case,” he patted Philan’s hand, “they consider me an outsider now. Because of all this. I’d rather soak up the rest of the world while there’s still time. I want to die saturated with it.” He turned to Philan. “Are you planning on doing the run?”

Philan frowned at his plate. “Unfortunately my dear, I have to—I already bought for it. What about your home?”

He shrugged. “What about it?”

Philan’s mouth gaped open. “Your possessions, your – your collection. What about your land?”

While they were jabbering about pointless things, a dragon paced in Torek’s gut. His head throbbed. Murin. Ketu. Tarska.

“I have everything I need.” Kai smiled. “When you return, we can travel together.”

“Are you sure you aren’t returning?” Philan asked.

Dorin ambled up to the table just then. “I need traders. You folks could get some decent business if you’re willing.”

Hedric, nodded with regal authority and certitude. The others mimicked her as if the vision had been their own. When Torek remained still, Philan narrowed his gaze at him. “Isn’t this exactly what you were looking for. A late season run.”

Torek said nothing.

“Please. Trading is the least important aspect of all this,” Hedric said as she tapped the table. “Have you forgotten my vision, Torek?”

“Kai was the important part of it.”

“Philan, you are fantastically self-centered. We go into Ketu, and the vision goes blank. That is the important part of it.”

Torek stared without seeing, spoke without feeling the words, or even believing in them. “Philan’s right. Saving Kai’s life was the most important thing.

Edrish laughed, elbowed Tarvis and said something to the giant quietly. They laughed, heads thrown back. The sound reverberated off the ceiling.

Philan frowned. “But I thought you needed business?”

Torek shrugged.

Hedric thumped her mug against the table. When he didn’t look at her, she pounded the table with her fists. “Torek, need I remind you of the vision? We all go to Ketu.”

“Yeah. Sure.”

“Oh, no you don’t. I have your reading burned into my mind.”

Kai tsked. “Young man, visions are nothing to evade. The Vizva—the Universe, that is—knows.”

Torek signaled the barkeep for a shot of Dragon’s Breath.

Giving a little growl of frustration, Hedric leaned across the table and wiggled her fingers. “Give me your hand.”

Torek snatched his hands off the table. Edrish and Tarvis looked at each other. Amusement shook their bodies. When the barkeep arrived with the drink, Torek downed the caustic liquid in one gulp.

“Shouldn’t ye be drinking milk?” Tarvis asked.

“That is what nourishes babes to grow into strong healthy men,” Edrish said, nodding at Tarvis.

Torek’s face felt like a furnace. “You two should be more original.”

“The sun has set, and the stars are in view.” Edrish waved his hands around his head. “Surely this is an hour for men and women. And not young fledgings, such as Torek.”

“Most certainly. Tis late for a little guy like ’im to be up.” Tarvis followed up with another verbal punch. “Ye should coorie doon with your ma, wee one.”

Torek clenched his fists and glared at the two men. “Are you calling me a child?”

“No,” they said at the same time.

Edrish smiled. “Babes become prickly at this hour. Their red faces and squirming.”

And that was just the start of their poking and prodding.

Finally Torek burst from his chair. “Enough. I’ve had enough,” he shouted at them. There was a rational part of him buried behind the reactive part of him. It observed the mistake he was making as if watching from beneath the clear ice of a frozen lake. Trapped and incapable of action. His fiery emotions were in full control of his mouth when he said, “An ocean and an army of mages couldn’t keep me away from Ketu.” He punctuated his words with the jab of his fingers and stomped out of the Inn.

***

What a mistake that had been. He knew it the moment his wagon had rolled onto the land bridge, when he heard the air whisper her name.

Murin.

The Killing Ritual, Chapter 19

On the Threshold of Knowing

Zaz trudged to the trunk, opened it, and took out the dress. He stared at it for a long while. Yes, it was Mother’s dress. The long golden thread of hair still clinging to the collar told him so. Why did Anagata want a dress? And the other things he had asked for. It made no sense. Looking at it more closely at the fabric, stains emerged. The light rust of blood. Flashes of a younger version of her beat at the insides of his eyes. Weary. Cut and bruised. A massive purple-blue lump marred her temple and made her seem that much more pale. Like a ghost.

He ground a fist to his own head. “Go away,” he mumbled. The images of her kept lashing at him. Only this time she wasn’t moving backward. This time an entire day played out before him. Rocks were hitting her. People surrounded her. Someone had the ritual bag. She screamed a word. Everyone froze. This version of mother fell to the ground and sobbed. She cradled her stomach and rocked. When the tears were dried, she spat out a stream of words. The cadence of them reminded him of the strange word Murin had uttered the other day in the forest.

“Zaz.”

He jumped.

Mother stood in the doorway. Lips pursed, she looked behind her, into the hall, then she rushed into the room and shut the door. “What in Kali are you doing?”

He looked down at the dress while his mind puzzled over yet another strange word. What was a ‘Kali’?

“Answer me.”

“Just looking.”

“Just looking. Just looking?” Her voice became shrill. “You know that’s not the truth.”

He dropped the dress and backed away from her.

“Zaz, you will tell me one way or another. You do not want to push me.” She took two more steps toward him.

Fear drenched the room. Anger teased at its edges. He paced in the corner, knew where she stood, the look in her eyes. Murin’s spare knife sat on the shelf, buried under her neatly folded clothes. Corners and edges. And the blade, it glittered.

He dragged his hands through his hair. Where were his hinges? Where were the ties that kept him together? “He wanted it.”

“Who?” she asked.

“The Augur.” His voice pitched like a wagon axle breaking.

“Why does that cretin know about the dress?”

Tight. Cautious snake wrapping tight, and venom filled, the mouth heavy and ready. “Because I told him!” Shouting at her was the only way to make her hear. “Because he wants to know about you. Everything about you.”

The skin between her brows pinched. Deep lines etched around Mother’s mouth. “How could you?”

“To help my family.”

She snorted, shook her head. Hatred roiled off her. “I fail to see how this could help your family, Zaz. Unless by helping, you mean coming to bear witness your sister bound in a bag and stoned to death. While they make me watch. While they make you throw stone after stone. All that before they do the very same thing to me.”

The anger and fear drained from him. Emptiness was left. “Anagata wouldn’t do that.”

“Pathetic.” Mother sneered. “You’re a follower. That’s all you’ll ever be.”

She meant for it to sting. It didn’t simply because he couldn’t feel anything.

“What else did you tell him?”

The herbs. Her manner with father. Murin hunting. He told her the same stories he’d told Anagata. With her, he made them softer and less important. She only helped people once they had gone to Anagata, so everyone would know it was his cure taking hold, and not hers. The tunnels and rooms below the House of the Initiates tickled his tongue, wanting to be spoken. He swallowed them. And the vials: he had swallowed those, too. His body kept twitching.

She shook her head again. Her shoulders slumped and her back curved as she hugged into herself. “I cannot have this. I will not accept this. You people. Nothing but trouble since the beginning. Seduma should have taken care of it then.” She laughed. “But then I’d have nowhere to hide. So. Here I am. Cleaning up after them. Again.”

You people? “What’s Seduma?”

Her face grew calm. Her arched eyebrow was the only sign of emotion left. “Nothing. Just like you.”

Shock slapped him, left him stinging.

“Zaz, we are going to rewrite some things. You will not be telling Anagata anything. Or the Regent. In fact, you won’t remember a thing.” Strange words flew from her.

They attacked him, like a raptor. Claws and beaks stabbed at his mind. Picking, picking, picking. Huge chunks tore away. The beaks swallowed him and attacked again. He dropped to his knees, and clutched his head. “Stop,” he tried to say, but it was muffled into nonsense.

Neuchooinghtyn was the last word he heard Mother say.

 

Mother hovered over him. Her skin looked sickly, yellow and grey. Satisfaction leaked from her, even though her face was its usual mask of stillness and poise.

“Mother?”

“You weren’t feeling well. I tried to get you to your room, but you collapsed here.”

“Oh.” He looked around at the floor. “I-I have Initiation today?”

“Yes. The girls are waiting for you downstairs. You should go if you can manage it.”

He stood up. His head felt as if it had been cleaved by a dull axe. Weaving on his feet, he grabbed Mother’s arm to keep himself from falling. She teetered, stiffened. He let go. She couldn’t stand it when he touched her, when anyone except Murin touched her.

“Sorry.” The word propelled him into motion. He hefted his satchel and escaped down the stairs, and out to the wagon. Vana and Ratri were there. He barely heard them the entire way to town. Eyes half closed, he stumbled to the House of the Initiates. Anagata and the Regent separated the older boys from the older girls. The younger children left with a lesser Augur. The older girls went with the Regent. The boys stayed with Anagata.

The girls drifted away, smoke on a breeze, to a small room at the rear of the House. When he looked back, he saw the last boy dissolve through the light at the main door. He grabbed his satchel and followed. Through the narrow alley they went, around to the right. Zaz paused. Why weren’t they going to the left? Something was there. Something important, he was sure of it.

Instead he trailed behind. His head pulsed. Dull pain picked at his skull, knock, knock, knocking. Who’s there? he wanted to ask. A ghost of a laugh tickled his throat, bubbled over without him saying a word, even though his lips never moved and he made not one sound.

The alley was half light and half shadow. They followed the twists and turns until they reached a door hidden in an ancient section of the town wall. Instead of leading out, it led down into a tunnel. His Tarskan brothers disappeared into the darkness. Secrets. This place was built on them.

He frowned. Where had that come from?

Water dripped from the jagged ceiling. It collided with puddles on the floor and made a shallow melody. Murin probably would have crafted a song out of it. Bhas looked back at him, his eyes wide and his mouth tight. Up ahead the other boys squeezed around a broken beam. Pebbles trickled down the massive slurry, which had spilled around it. Another song. The collapse had happened ages ago. Further ahead, newer logs seemed to prop the ceiling up. On and on they went.

Just as Zaz’s lungs began to hurt from the old air of the tunnel, grey light sifted in. Moments later, they emerged.

They were deep in the forest. No landmarks were visible. The trees here didn’t cast shadows. The light diffused through the canopy above, and everything seemed to glow green. The tree trunks stood as dark sentinels observing the passage of time.

He paused. His eyes widened. After a couple of steps he could see it more clearly. A decrepit temple. The walls were intact. The roof had fallen long ago. A flight of steep stairs led up to an empty doorway, which led into the temple.

“Enter,” Anagata said. He waited for them at the foot of the steps. His face was solemn, almost stern.

Zaz’s brothers lined up and ascended into what used to be a great hall. His foot was on the first riser when the warning took him. He shouldn’t have been there. None of them should have been there. There was reason why this place had been abandoned. It revealed things. Opened things, which should be left closed. How could the Augur not know this? Zaz sought the answer.

He flinched. He’d looked into the Augur’s face, directly, as if he they had always been equals. There was no sharp reprimand, only a hand lightly pressing at his back, guiding him into the danger. Dimming his fear, he joined the others. Somehow light permeated through the floor, illuminated the room and everything in it from below, even through the massive piles of debris. Zaz did the same as the rest of them. His mouth dropped open as he faced the painted walls. A riot of color and shapes, at first they made no sense, seemed haphazard. As Anagata circled the room, his gaze fixed on one wall.

“You have come to a special point in the Initiation. Lessons learned within these walls are only for the men of Tarska. This is our history. This is the story of our Great Rebellion.”

History. Story. The words stirred something in him, but he could only feel around the edges of it. Sourness clawed through his mouth. And the pictures, too. He didn’t understand the strangeness, but mostly he didn’t understand the familiarity.

Images filled the walls. They weren’t of farming. They weren’t of ceremonies, or women casting their gazes to the ground, or of the movements and whims of the heavens. They were of people. Tarskans. And others. They were actions.

“Great Rebellions do not start in the midst of a battle. They are not the sum of blows exchanged. They are far more complex and rich than that. They are more like trees. Deeply rooted and snaking through our earth. With and apart. They are the fully grown thing, choking out everything else. They are the younger tree in bloom. They are the sapling, and the seed. They are the hole dug, and the digger. They are the trees that came before. They are the wind and rain and sun.

“Great rebellions start when something is wrong, and only a critical few have the ability to see it.”

Zaz could feel the boys watching, all of them, but he couldn’t stop looking at the walls. At the Parakya on them. Men and women with skin like snow, eyes like sky, and hair like wheat. People that looked like Mother. And Murin.

The Killing Ritual, Chapter 18

Sightings of Gold

Murin burst through the door just as Claire was collecting the empty dishes. She looked around the room. Her gaze dove to the ground as soon as she saw Father sitting at the table. He was angry. She could smell it. “I’m sorry, I—”

“Our family trickster.”

Tension gripped the kitchen. Zaz, Vana and Ratri all sat as still as death. Claire moved with a kind of tight-lipped economy that said she was being careful. Obviously Father had been ranting through breakfast. Now his anger had cooled to a dangerous point. When he hollered and raged, he was a dog barking ferociously without lunging to bite. When his anger was quiet, he was at his cruelest.

“You’ve mastered the art of how to disappear.”

“I wasn’t feeling well,” Murin murmured. Her fingers plucked at her skirts and settled into gripping a fistful of cloth over the two new holes blighting the fabric.

“You know, I do not feel well either.” He stood up and walked toward her until he was practically stepping on her toes. It was supposed to intimidate her, but they both knew it didn’t. Maybe that made Father even more angry. If she had been permitted to look up, they would have nearly stood eye-to-eye. Another thing against her. Most of the neighbors grumbled it wasn’t right for a woman to be so tall. They could hardly blame that on Claire, though.

“I think I might stay in bed today.” Father continued his taunting. “Or maybe I’ll work for a spell and then run from the fields around midday and hide until supper. How does that sound?”

Murin leaned back slightly, trying to get away from him and the stale smell of his breath.

“What do you think, Zaz? Let’s you and I take a break from working the fields. Murin will bring in the harvest the deer and raccoons have started eating because the crop’s been sitting for too long.” Father’s voice thundered.

She drew in a shaky breath.

It was true, they were behind in bringing in the crops. The weather was becoming sharded and cold. Each morning felt like broken glass and the near constant rain threatened to rot that which remained in the fields. She hunched her shoulders, though she couldn’t tell if it was from thinking about the cold or being too close to Father for so long.

He grabbed her by the arm and thrust her out the door. “You’re going to the fields, girl.” He hissed in her ear, the stubble of his beard scratching her skin.

She nodded, opened her mouth to say ‘I’m sorry’, but nothing came out.

Father’s bitterness evaporated. “You know you need to work the fields, Murin.” His voice was soft and full of breath, like he talked air instead of words. He sounded like a woman begging; and that chilled her. “It is difficult when there are only two men in a family of six. Take the plot near the forest. Maybe you can kill a deer while you’re out there. Redeem yourself.”

“She hasn’t had breakfast,” Claire said.

“That’s her problem.” He shoved Murin in the direction of the fields.

 

Puddles wet Murin’s shoes as she tramped through the barley fields towards the plot Father wanted her to work. The rye. The handle of the scythe bounced on her shoulder as she made a straight, determined line to her destination. The musty smell of the rain-soaked crops overpowered the smell of anything else. Her empty stomach contracted painfully. Penance. She deserved this. For breathing fire, lifting impossible weights, for crying at the rattle of dragon bones, and dreaming the future. She wanted to see blood coming from the palms of her hands, some tangible evidence of a sacrifice for Father to nod approvingly over.

She started at the farthest corner of the field and cutting down one full row, then moved to the end of the next row and worked her way to the beginning. Again and again. Mud stuck to her shoes and threatened to entomb her feet. It didn’t slow her, though. Guilt urged her to work with the speed of windswept clouds. Her tears added to the rainwater collecting in the fields.

After hours of work, there was no blood. Enough tears to blind her, but no blood. She tripped on a rock and fell to the ground. It figured. It wasn’t like she deserved for anything in her life to go right. Staring blankly, she panted, tried to ignore the splitting pain in her chest and the strange animal sounds coming from her own throat. Between a whimper and a hiss. Mud stuck to her skirts. Sitting in the muck of the autumn harvest, she gave in and indulged in hard, body shaking sobs. Her lungs burned from them.

She wiped her nose and eyes on the sleeve of her blouse and looked to the sky. The sun had emerged from a cloak of clouds and warmed her for a second, only to disappear again, leaving her colder than she was before it had come.

She shook her head. She’d wallowed enough and there was more to be done. The mud squelched as she tried to stand up. It was like a tomb binding her to Tarska.

Great Kenara, she was so inept now she couldn’t even lift herself from a puddle of mud. A hysterical giggled wormed its way out. It sounded less like her and more like Zaz.

“Stop it,” she muttered sternly. She rolled over onto her hands and knees for more leverage. Her hand splashed into a puddle of water. Leaning over it, she watched her reflection emerge as the water stilled. With the sun behind the clouds, the water was a near perfect mirror.

A few times, she had caught glimpses of herself in the polished metals the traders brought with them each year. She knew she had pale skin, blonde hair and grey eyes. The same as her mother’s. Different from everyone else’s. Her eyebrows were thick and angular like a bird’s wings in flight. Her eyes were large, though they slanted up at the outer corners. Claire was the only one who considered her pretty. Her sisters were fond of telling her she might be beautiful if only she wasn’t so ugly.

Murin moved to see her reflection more clearly. Shock froze her face.

Her hair was still blond. That wasn’t the problem. Now her skin had a strange hue, like the way a handful of sand glimmers in the sunlight. She inspected her arms and hands. Instead of the normal pattern skin had, she saw a pattern of scales.

It was slight, so minuscule that when she extended her arm no more than six inches away, she could hardly tell that her skin was less than ordinary. Aside from the subtle sheen of gold, she might have been looking at Claire’s arm.

She leaned back over the puddle, peered into it.

“Oh, Kenara,” she whispered. Her hand paused at her trembling lips. “No, no, no.” She said the word like an incantation to ward off evil. She stretched her lower and upper eyelids apart with muddy fingers to study her eyes. “No.”

Her eyes were changing. And not a subtle change either. Not like going from steel grey to iron grey.

The rim of her iris had changed to bluish-green. The iris itself was a tempest. The outer boundaries had transformed to the color of yellow topaz, brilliant at the edges. The hot color crept towards her pupils, devoured the grey out of existence as maggots devour a corpse. As the yellow topaz hue took over, the striations of her irises shrunk and smoothed themselves. The inky center of her eye was losing its regular circle shape. It was slitting. Like a cat’s eye.

Murin sat back.

Maybe it was better this way. She was tainted, after all. She needed go into town and scream, “I am Parakya!” Right now.

No, that would be stupid.

But wasn’t it the only way to save herself? To give herself over to tradition. It was her duty.

Without duty, she was nothing. She would have been perfectly content to be like every other woman on Tarska. Quiet. Delicate. Wise. Respectful. Happy to sew and be a helpmate and have kids.

Right. And never wander the woods by herself? Never see the ghostly trees with silver bark and leaves in the old growth part of the forest? The ones that no one knew of. She really wished to never know the pride of tracking deer, bringing meat home to the family? No. She was Murin. As convenient as it would make her life, she didn’t want to be anyone else.

The fire breathing could be hidden. Eventually she’d run out of unscarred clothes, but maybe she could learn how to control it before it got to that point, hide it so no one ever knew. She just needed some time.

But these things, her eyes and flesh, couldn’t be hidden. Whatever was going on was marking her, claiming her one piece at a time. Reshaping her—one piece at a time.

With a shriek, she thrashed at the puddle with her fists. The filthy water splashed her. “What is happening to me?”

She looked at the fields yet to be harvested. Their golden color did nothing to soothe her. Though she was in control of herself now, she felt less like a person and more like a sweater come undone. Her breathing shifted from erratic to even as calm settled over her.

She would finish the harvest—all of it—today. She threw her anger, confusion, self-hatred and loathing into the task of slashing the rye. She imagined the grain to be her hair, her skin and eyes. Her scythe hurtled through the elegant glow with startling speed. And violence.

In a little less than four hours, she had cut all the rye, bundled and moved it into the barn, where Father and Zaz were. There the fruit would be separated from its hull. She was well-covered in mud. Fragments of grain stuck to her. It turned her into a wild, bristly beast.

Next she moved into the field thick with buckwheat. She stomped through the mud as if she was trying to kick it out of existence. Her shoulders were loose and jagged as she hacked at the stalks. It was an attack. Someone had to bear the stone. It wasn’t her fault. None of it. She slashed at the grain. It was no longer food to her. It was Claire. Anagata. It was the Regent. And all those stupid children who tormented her. It was what she could never be.

Zaz’s scent rolled over her, tangy with irritation, bitter with resentment, and sour with guilt. He called from a safe distance. “Murin, come on. It’s time for lunch.”

Go away Zaz, she wanted to say. He was so good at reading people, why couldn’t he know to leave her alone? Instead his sigh whispered over the fields. Heavy and hesitant, he didn’t want to do whatever he was supposed to do. Then in a snap, he changed. Spiced and broiling with aggression. It burst from him so potently she felt the heat of it. Her own anger sparked in return. Her gaze slid to snag his shape. He was taking a deep breath, shaking loose the tension gripping his shoulders. Then he was closer to normal.

“Hello? Food?”

She smiled. “I’m not hungry.” His worry rolled over her. Sickly sweet.

“I know you’re upset about this morning,” he said.

Zaz watched her. Probably gathering evidence for them.

“If you told us what was going on,” he said, “we could help you get through it.”

She stopped working and pointed the sharp tip of the blade at him. Before she could stop herself, the words flew from her mouth. “You’ll just go if you know what’s good for you.” As she spoke, her heart skipped and hollowness pricked her stomach.

Shock played across his face. He spun and left without uttering another word.

Murin dropped the blade to the ground. She leaned against the scythe and stared after Zaz as he jogged to the house. He was running away from her. Again.

“What is wrong with you, Murin? Were you raised by predators?” She hissed at herself.

Sometimes anger is a good thing, a small voice said from the back of her mind.

“Not when it hurts the people you love,” Murin whispered and turned back to the field.

People who will gather stones the second they see you breathing fire? The voice persisted.

She stopped. Was she really talking to herself? Did she really think the things this other voice was saying? “Shut up, whatever you are.”

Is that the best you can come up with? The voice in her head replied.

Murin ignored it, gripped the scythe.

Such a good little Tarskan, ready to die.

“Who are you and what do you want?” She snapped.

To her surprise, the voice answered. I am you and I want to survive.

She paused for a moment, then hacked through the grain. She continued at the same pace, even when Claire emerged from the house with lunch scraps and when her father appeared with a shadow haunting his eyes.

As night approached, the buckwheat and barley had been threshed and gathered in the barn. Next she moved to a late crop of oats, which she finished just after she refused supper. By the end of the night, the fields lay bare. Not weary of her self-castigation, she set about removing thorny hulls from the grains.

Near dawn, when her eyes felt like ash and her body swayed with weariness, she was still waiting for her palms to bleed. She was still waiting for some sign of redemption.

The Killing Ritual, Chapter 17

Wounds that Never Heal

Night bruised the sky, but at least the town of Air Leth Mor was visible on the horizon. It started to glow as the lamplighters did their work. Shadows danced to a sinuous rhythm. Songs drifted over the wall in a language Torek couldn’t understand. His heart knew it, though. It shuddered and raced. A mixture of elation surged in him, but it was the horror that made his teeth hurt.

He wanted to roll right by it, however continuing in the darkness wouldn’t do anyone any good. They nearly crashed into each other last night. He took a deep breath before he called back to the next wagon. It was an effort to say, “Stopping here.” As the order trickled through the line, Edrish to Hedric to Philan, it drummed into him. Here. Here. Here.

“Oh no, we aren’t.”

“Yes.” His throat closed. “We are,” he choked out.

Philan shrieked at him again. “Stop. Stop this instant.”

He grit his teeth, pulled the horse up short. The wagon train had barely creaked to a stop when Philan’s snowcapped head appeared.

“The horses need to rest,” Torek said.

“Nonsense. Kai is out there. We must keep going.”

He pushed his hat back on his forehead. “Philan, we don’t even know where he is. We haven’t rested in days. As much as I hate to, we need to stop.”

“You’re just stalling.” Disgust twisted the old man’s face. “You’ve been looking for a way to slip out of this—this duty. This obligation. It must be so difficult for you. To save someone’s life. Especially a lowly Ketuan.”

Torek stared at him, at the raged turning the man’s mouth white. “We stop. We rest. We continue.” He clicked his tongue at the horse and continued forward. His body jostled as the wagon wiggled over the ruts in the road. He barely felt it, though. Just the same as he barely saw the town getting closer and closer.

At the gate a towering figure, backlit by the fires dancing in small iron vessels mounted on the walls, seemed to wait for them. The town was like others throughout the Plains of Artemis. They didn’t have the same crafted elegance Sena radiated. The rock quarries were too far away for hauling pretty stone, so these towns were built mostly out of wood, in small defendable clusters. Practical. The people here had a rawness to them. They seemed more… primitive. His mother had been right when she said they had a mystery all their own.

Maybe it was their connection to the land; maybe it was the terrible openness of the Plains, which made them so enigmatic. He couldn’t define exactly what it was, but Torek could feel an ancient presence beneath everything. It was a familiar mystery, like a memory floating just out of reach. It wasn’t nearly as dangerous as Seduma, but still, it made his blood pace. He kept his eyes trained to the darkness, expected something to emerge.

“Greetings, half elf,” the Watch said as Torek stopped in the portal. His voice was like boulders grinding together. He had flaming red hair and his eyes twinkled a color hard to discern in the flickering lamplight.

“Hello?”

The man smiled at him. Maybe it was a trick of light. He suddenly reminded Torek of Edrish. “We’re just looking for board for the night,” Torek said.

“Looks ta me like you’re traders.”

“Normally.”

“And this isna normal?” Again, he smiled.

A shiver scurried down Torek’s spine.

“Doona get yerself inta a fankle, younglin’.”

“I’m not.”

“Of course you’re not. The dour expression on yer face was but a trick of licht.”

Did these people even speak proper common tongue? “Licht?” Torek asked.

“As in licht and dark. Ye arna educated?”

“I can even read and write.”

“No need to gang oan aboot it. I dinna know half elves were so sensitive.” The Watch yawned and waved him in. “Ye can dreamfast later. Go on. Set up. Nymos willna mind.”

“Who is Nymos?”

“The other trader.”

Torek was still pondering the strange conversation as the wagons inched into the square. Nearly every adult met Torek eye-to-eye, though he rode high in the wagon. This place was a land of giants. Hardly a woman stood under six feet and most of the men towered closer to seven feet.

Torek’s shoulders were stiff and tight. His eyes gritty. The others looked as bad as he felt.   They were all weary and dirty. People looked over what they had for trade as a long-limbed boy ambled up and offered to take their horses to the stables. After an hour of business and sharing news, they staggered to the only tavern in the town. Torek smirked. It was called the Gentle Giant.

“Aptly named, don’t you think?” The other trader caught up with them before they crossed the threshold.

“Indeed,” Edrish said.

Philan huffed and shuffled past them into the tavern. Hedric stared at her, then looked at Torek. If that look was supposed to mean something, he didn’t get it. He winced, rubbed at the cuff on his wrist.

This woman even seemed to make Edrish stumble. “Please. Join us?”

Nymos crossed her arms tightly over her chest, glanced back at the shadows twitching against the walls.

Edrish’s smile stiffened as he held the door open for her. She continued to study the shadowy stonework.

“Well?”

“I’ll be a minute.”

“Charmer, don’t you think?” Torek asked as he walked past Edrish. He sank into a chair, relished the warmth of the polished wood, and leaned his elbows against the tall table. The same gangly boy who had taken their horses asked what they wanted for food and drink.

A moment later, Nymos stomped in, gave a stiff nod to the group.

She had a pleasant face, though it was pinched in a perpetual frown. She was a dwarf compared to the women in the town. In the rest of Raia, she was a little taller than average. Her golden hair was straight and cut short, with the ends of it barely reaching her jaw. Practical. Close-set, narrow brown eyes moved constantly. Delicate lines etched around her eyes and mouth, but also between her brows. If wrinkles were any sign of experience, Torek would have guessed that this woman had seen as much happiness as sadness.

She dragged a chair out from the table and sat. Instead of sinking into it, she hovered at the edge. Her gaze was wide, took in each movement, even things so simple as Philan scratching his hand.

Hedric sneezed.

Nymos jolted. She closed her eyes and rubbed the back of her neck. Her lips moved as if she was talking to herself.

Torek and Hedric looked at each other. He was pretty sure they wore the same expression on their faces. Disbelief. Even the cuff and Murin’s haunting name hadn’t made him that jumpy.

Once Nymos finally calmed down, everyone except Philan introduced themselves. He picked at his fingernails and stared blankly at the candle at the center of the table.

Nymos flinched as a huge mug was plunked down in front of her. She hefted it, sipped, then asked quietly, “Where are you traveling from?”

“Sena,” Torek said. He blinked as sadness and a kind of anger sifted through her blood. “Where are you headed after this?” he asked, changing the subject.

“Planning on heading south. The north will be too cold.”

He nodded.

“I might be able to squeeze out more business in some place like Artesia before the winter comes.”   For some inexplicable reason, she turned to Philan. “And you?”

Torek answered her, and hoped Philan hadn’t noticed. “We have different business. Our plans take us south for now.” No way was he going to tell her they were chasing a Diviner’s vision.

“We should travel together? You seem honest. Good to travel in groups. Especially these days.”

Before Torek could say no, the flame-haired Watchman who had ushered them into the village of Air Leth Mor clamped a hand on Edrish’s shoulder. Instead of jumping at the unexpected touch, Edrish smiled and nodded at the man.

“Ye folks have a place ta stay for the nicht?” the Watch asked, his accent thick and rolling like the country he lived in.

“We don’t.” Torek answered for the group.

“Ye’ll stay with me then. I’ll travel with ye in the morning.”

“I really don’t think that’s a good idea. No,” Torek said, shaking his head. “Definitely not. No room in the caravan.”

Edrish patted Torek on the arm as if to restrain him. To the giant, he said, “You are welcome with us wherever we go, Tarvis.”

Torek gaped at Edrish. “How do you do that?”

Tarvis smiled at Erdish with something close to reverence glowing in his eyes. He bowed his head.

Edrish lifted his brows and, with a face bright with happiness, he asked, “Do what?”

“No one told you his name. And no one told you mine.” He searched the yellow-eyed man for the signs of magic. He saw only the red and blue branches of veins, white ropes of nerves humming with energy, the subtle pulsing of his organs and an aura of bluish white that surrounded him like a membrane. This man was neither a wizard nor a sorcerer. He was wholly with magic.

Leaning away from the table, Nymos glanced from Edrish to Torek. “What is your real business?”

Torek shook his head and tried to think of another topic. Announcing they were on a mission to save someone’s life based solely on the vision of a Diviner of the Palm could only invite trouble.

Before he could say anything, Edrish smiled broadly and said, “We are chasing destiny.”

“We’re going to prevent the death of my friend.” Philan finally spoke.

“Is he ill?” Nymos asked.

“The diviner saw his death.” Philan gestured absently toward Hedric.

Nymos changed. Instantly. She blanched, and clenched her hands into fists. It was in her blood as well. Torek saw fear and hatred plainly. Her heart quickened, muscles flooded with blood. Tiny bits of light escaped from her head, where her neck and skull connected, and glowed brightly down the length of her spine. It multiplied, and pulsed. The reaction was powerful and migrated through every part of her.

As if sensing a change in her mood, the tavern grew quiet. All gazes turned to the table.

Nymos leapt from her seat and ran of the tavern. Torek looked at the others, who were just as bewildered. Moments later, the door swung open again. The fear surging through Nymos had matured, deepened to a ripe putrid yellow. Just as suddenly as she had bolted from the group, she marched back over to the table. Throwing her body into the chair, Nymos folded her arms over her chest and glared at the diviner.

The tops of Hedric’s cheeks flushed and her face went slack.

“Don’t try your witchery on me.” Nymos’ spit flecked the table.

“I am not a witch.”

“You people are all the same.”

Hedric glared at the woman. “What do you mean, ‘you people?’ By the Grove, you’d think I was a murderer.”

“That’s all magic does,” Nymos said as she glowered at Hedric. “Murder. And hurt.”

“Excuse me?” Hedric started to rise from her seat.

Torek grabbed her wrist and pulled her back into the chair. He turned to Nymos next, and quietly said, “I’m not saying it’s all good, but not everyone uses magic the way Seduma does.”

“What?” Her voice snapped like a whip.

“We cannot judge all magic users by what Seduma does.” Torek enunciated each word with labored precision, as if that would help Nymos absorb the message.

Nymos paused. Her rage lessened as she regarded him with a new expression. Confusion. A long silence passed. “How do you—what do you know of Seduma?”

She didn’t trust him. Torek smiled wryly, and took a deep breath. The cuff tightened on his wrist. He ignored it, pulled the collar of his shirt down and revealed the top part of a scar, which covered half of his chest. The Sedumans had branded him with the symbol of the Guardians of the Pearl when he was eight years old. They’d held him down, screaming. His mother and father were bound and forced to watch. The scar, what they did to him would stay with him his entire life, and he’d known it even then. The thrashing only made it worse, made the brand gouge into his flesh. But he couldn’t not fight.

Nymos inhaled sharply. She stared at the raised skin. He knew how the reddish-purple scar looked against his normal, smooth pale skin. Ugly.

Torek took the chance of looking into Nymos’ eyes. She didn’t flinch when she saw his were entirely black, even the parts that should have been white. “Magic is neither good nor evil, Nymos. How it’s used depends on the person wielding it.”

Her gaze drifted to Hedric.

“Maybe I can say something that will help.” Hedric offered.

“You can try,” Nymos said. The last word hovered between a challenge and a threat.

“Can you read words on a page?” Hedric asked.

“Yes.” Her lips curled back as she scowled. She looked as if she had just walked through the ripped open and scattered intestines of a massive bearded mammoth.

“Don’t get all crazy again. Just calm down,” Hedric said. “As you read a book, I read the lines on a person’s hand. Some even say there is no magic involved.”

Nymos huffed, slowly slid her hands off the table.

“I’m not asking you to change your mind here and now. Just think about it.”

“I can do that,” she said finally. “So when are we leaving in the morning?”

Torek glanced at Hedric. Instead of nodding, she shrugged. “It wasn’t written.”

“It’s better if we travel separately,” Torek said. No chances. If it wasn’t in the vision, it wasn’t happening.

Then Philan spoke again. “No, no. The more people to help Kai, the better. Don’t be selfish, you.”

Torek fell back into the chair. He didn’t need to feel the cuff tightening to know it was a bad idea.

The Killing Ritual, Chapter 16

Ways to Dismantle a Rabbit

Zaz shifted from side to side. Mother looked past him, and right at Murin. Mother’s mouth was in a straight thin line, which turned down at the corners. Her eyes were soft, though, and she was reaching around him to grab Murin right in the middle of the village. Another one of their precious moments was about to happen. He could feel it. It didn’t matter that they’d return furious and sullen.

Mother swept him aside, and dragged Murin away from the square. He just didn’t understand her. Even if Mother had the right coloring, she would have stood out. It was the way she walked. As if the village, and everything in it, belonged to her. As if she was the Augur, the Regent, and the Svarasa all mashed into one.

A giggle tickled his throat. He coughed, snuck a peek at Father.

Father was frowning at him. Heavy. It quashed any laughter that might have been lingering.

“Son.” The look was enough of a warning. That one word wound shame around Zaz’s heart, gave it a squeeze before etching the surface. Because one must remember. A jolt surged through him. The next moment he was light, hopeful.

“Gupti. A fine day.”

“Yes, yes, Vapan.” Gupti ambled up. Wisps of hair trailed off his head, like the moss on some of the trees. Dark patches of skin glistened through in the afternoon sun. His teeth were tinted either grey or yellow. “How is your family?” He nodded at Mother and Murin, rubbed his calloused fingers together. And rubbed and rubbed, not as if he was trying to get something off his skin, but as if he was trying to feel.

Zaz frowned. He could taste it, a hunger. Nonsense. He passed a shaking, sweaty palm over his face.

“Just fine. It’s been a good harvest so far. Should have enough to trade for good seed from Kai.”

Gupti nudged Father, clamped a hand on his shoulder. “Must be nice to have a house so full.”

He nodded. “It can be a blessing. More people to help. It’s more work, too.” Father was still studying Gupti. “I noticed your fields. Looks like you’ll have a bountiful harvest.”

“Yes. Yes. And I have two extra acres. They let me keep the offering from the last helpmate.”

“They seem to leave this life as soon as they come into your keeping.”

Gupti swiped his hand through the air, as if the thought was a fly he was batting. He spit at the ground. “The women folk are too fragile. They don’t know how to work hard without crying sick. I swear, your Murin is the only one who can do the work and take the strap without a word. ‘Course they don’t like her. Being marked as she is.”

Father leaned closer to the old lech, and nodded thoughtfully.

Zaz’s eyes widened, and at the same time, sensation coursed through him, centered at his man parts. There were two things he couldn’t believe about that moment. That he felt desire, and that Father was agreeing with Gupti. Gupti was a four-time widower. There were rumors about him. About the way he treated his helpmates. Used them worse than animals, according to the stories. His woman always limped into town with fingers wrapped in splints or bruises bouncing down their arms.

“Murin is a problem,” Father said.

Zaz pressed a fist hard against his groin and swallowed against the bile surging into his mouth.

“You won’t be able to marry her off. Not with her refusing the Initiation and all. Even if there was some young man willing to take her on, the Regent wouldn’t allow it. There are rules to follow.”

Zaz panted, each breath a frantic sip. His lips trembled; what else could they do with all the emotions swarming inside? Hope, longing, hunger. A darkness he couldn’t explain. He wanted to run from it. Amusement danced around inside, too. None of these were him. He squeezed his eyes shut, pushed them all away. Where in Naraka was he, where was Zaz?

He dug, descended deeper, like diving in the lake to touch the bottom. Further, beneath it all, he found himself. He was horror and disbelief. He was revulsion.

“Father.”

The word came out so loud, both of the men jumped, and looked down at him.

“Son, leave us.”

Zaz shook his head. Murin wasn’t a problem. She wasn’t something to get rid of. She defended their traditions just as much as Father did. She knew the land. The animals. Much better than most of the boys her age. Kenara, better than most of the men twice her age. Murin wasn’t the problem. She never had been. It was the rest of them.

He wanted to look up at Father, just this once. What was Father thinking? Instead, he mumbled, “Alright,” and turned away from them. He’d almost made it to the passage that led to his hiding place when Anagata swooped down on him.

“Just the boy I wanted to see.”

“Augur.”

“But you sound glum. I’m sure I can shine on your fields.”

“Why?”

“I have something special for you today. Come with me. To the House of the Initiates.”

Zaz glanced at the other end of the square where Father and Gupti still talked. Their hands waved and dashed. Gupti was nodding furiously.

Anagata placed a hand on his shoulder. “Come along, then. Mustn’t keep your elders waiting.”

Zaz let the Augur push him through the streets. They went into the main interior of the House instead of its bowels. The musky incense clouded him with a sleepy peacefulness. He loved it in here. Light filtered in and made everything golden inside. Different types of wood made the floor writhe with color. They had even painted the ancient stories on the walls. It was just a room, maybe, but Zaz felt Tarska all around him here.

“Here you are.”

Two vials appeared before him this time. “Two?”

“Yes. We think you’re strong enough for the next phase.”

He reached for them as he said, “I’m not sure I have any new stories for you.”

“Not to worry.” Anagata leaned forward. His eyes were a mystery. “Your recent ones have been quite good.”

Zaz’s fingertip quivered as it grazed the vials. He snatched his hand back. “I want them,” he said as he was curling his hands into fists. It didn’t feel right. That wanting that was more than wanting. A giggled erupted. It jumped off the walls, seemed louder each time it did. His head dipped low, though he was still laughing.   “What’s the next phase?”

After a long pause, Anagata asked, “Do you yet feel strong?”

“No.” Right now, in that moment, he felt less like rock and more like mud.

“Well, that is because the other vials were getting you ready for this part.”

He looked up. Anagata was frowning. He had to sit on his hands to keep from reaching out for the vials. “This was supposed to help my family.”

Anagata nodded. “It’s helping all of us.”

“I laugh a lot. They notice. The potion’s doing that. They ask me about it, and I don’t know what to say.” He tittered again. “I don’t know how to stop it, or make it go away.”

The Augur said nothing, only set those two little vials down right next to him.

Finally Zaz picked them up, rolled them around in his hands. “We’re good people, you know. Even Mother.” He pulled the stopper from the vial he knew, sipped at the contents. “I know she’s strange, but she means well in her heart. And Murin,” he finished the first, opened the second. “She just wants to be normal.”

It smelled like a more intense version of the first. He dabbed a little on his tongue. Light saturated the room, pushed the walls away. He could see people moving all around him, through him. They weren’t moving forward, but backward. An entire day compressed into half a second. Anagata and the Regent were talking, talking, talking fervently in a corner, then by the door, on one of the benches. And on back it went. The House melted around him, vanished into light and air. The houses next door opened their eyes. Murin, no— that wasn’t right. Mother was stumbling through the streets. People spat at her. She was gone and suddenly the town seemed new, and just as quickly, the stones melted and in their place was a different town. This one made of wood steeped in pride and fear. The further back it went, the more fear drenched him, plugged his nose, wet his skin and filled his lungs. Then he saw a glimmer. And another glimmer. They were people who looked just like Mother and Murin.

Zaz blinked. He was in a dark room with Anagata. His gaze drifted to the vial. “What is it?” It wasn’t supposed to make him strong. It did other things. His eyes closed. His body swayed uneasy, like it wasn’t under his control. Like it wanted to fall over.

“Zaz, we already—”

“I know you’re lying.” His head lolled back. He crashed to the table. Lifting his hand, he waved it in front of his face. It seemed solid enough. Real enough. Except it glowed. Light pulsed along the rivers of his body, leaked into his muscles. It dusted his skin. Laughter bubbled out. Nothing was real and he wasn’t here.

Anagata had a strange glow, too, but it looked different. The color was dim and dirty. Instead of pulsing, it rolled and hovered like smoke.

“Must be sunset,” Zaz said as Anagata grew dark.

He sighed, took the full vial away from Zaz. “It is too potent. I told him so.” A new, third vial appeared. “Take this with you. It’ll help with the laughter.”

“Good.” He closed his eyes. A soothing cold enveloped his head. He wasn’t meant to see so much, that was why his brain hurt.

“I’ll see you next week.”

“Maybe.”

“Zaz. Focus. You are to bring us the dress. Any bundles of herbs. Anything that looks out of place.”

He opened his eyes, looked at the Augur. “How is this supposed to help my family?”

“It will bring them back to Tarska.”

Zaz closed his eyes. They had never left.

The Killing Ritual, Chapter 15

Mysteries and Stitches

A soft wetness tickled her throat. Murin blinked. A flash of mottled brown scurried away. Her nostrils flared. Rabbit. She could almost hear its heart pounding, smell the sickly scent of its fear.

Her head pulsed with pain. She pushed herself up to sitting, and rubbed her temples.

There was an eerie stillness in the forest where chirps and whispering leaves should have been. “Why am I here?” she asked out loud. Being in the forest itself wasn’t so unusual. She escaped there as often as she could, even before. Now it was sanctuary, a place she could move and breathe without fear.

Bits of the forest floor were charred. The edges of dead leaves hovered between the grey of ash and the glow of heat. She reached out, snatched a handful of the char. Her fingers trembled as she crushed it into fine black specks.

She’d blacked out.

Again. The morning was gone. Waking up, eating breakfast, enduring Father’s disappointed glances and evading Claire’s schemes to get her alone to reveal some heinous truth. Everything that should have been in her memory was gone. Instead, scraps of black fabric cloaked the gaps. Peeling them away would do no good. Only reveal deeper, darker holes.

She was being yanked into pieces. And those pieces were bits of her mind, her hopes. Her place in this world. Instead of having gaping wounds, there was emptiness. Instead of scarred flesh, a person she didn’t know was emerging.

Routine. That’s what she needed. A bit of normal. She searched for burn marks on her clothes. Her fingertips glossed over the fabric, and detected the aberrations.

“Damn.” A large hole had burned through the leather pants.

They used to be Father’s, but he couldn’t fit into them anymore. At first Zaz was going to take them, but they needed to be altered to fit him. He was too short. It was decided Murin should have them, since she did most of the hunting for the family anyway.

She traced the edges of the hole. There was no way she could stitch it up easily. The repair would leave a scar. Forever there and visible.

“Damn.” She repeated as she fished out a needle and thread. Of course Claire had noticed it was missing, but that was minor compared to what might happen if either she or Father spotted the mysterious burn marks in her clothes. Murin had to hide her malady for as long as it took. She was going to make a liar out of Anagata.

Flicking the thread through the leather, the gap eased shut. Murin touched the new seam. It was obviously repaired. The leather puckered, the stitches strained. It looked like a deformed mouth.

“It will have to do.”

She covered the tip of the needle with wax, and tucked it and the thread into the secret pocket she had stitched into the inside of her shirt. It was on her side, by her ribcage. When she’d first started doing it, the needle kept pricking her, drawing blood and adding even more stains to her shirt. She smiled.

A memory.

She finally faced the forest. She had been hunting, that much was clear from her pack, and bow and arrow. Tracking rabbits, she had to guess, since one woke her up.

Murin frowned. What in Kenara was she doing hunting rabbits? They needed deer for the winter. She’d have to kill near a hundred rabbits to get the same amount of meat one red deer could provide.

Then she saw a chaos of movement written in leaves and dirt. Zaz? She peered at the terrain. Yes, Zaz. He had slashed through the forest. She followed the forward leaning impressions of his prints. Deep dents at the toes, the scattered leaves, and the fresh wet dirt he kicked up as he went spoke of anger. Or fear. A constant driving motion away from her.

Had she spit flames at him? Growled at him? Confessed the whole sordid thing?

Betrayed. She didn’t have to wait for anyone else to do it; she’d done it to herself. Maybe this was the moment. Likely as not, he was raising the alarm.

As she traced Zaz’s escape, the light grey of the fog deepened, darkening the close space of the forest.

She paused, smelled the air. He was near. When she finally tuned her attention to where Zaz’s tracks led, Murin shook her head. Massive boulders piled on top of each other in a ravine. A branch of the river bringing water from the mountains murmured below. The red and yellow leaves rasped in the breeze, and heralded the approach of evening.

Had she not been able to track him, she might have guessed he would come here. It was Zaz’s refuge in the forest. He could see the most important things in his life from his perch on the boulders. He came to watch the fields, the sky, the river and trees. Their house, and the barn were visible, too. Steady monoliths guarding in the distance.

His body was silhouetted against the dimming sky. Alone. Had he already told Father? Did he have regrets? She pinched her eyes shut, shook her head. He was probably mourning the disgrace of their family.

She plodded to the boulders, as if she could delay the next moment forever by moving slowly enough. She slipped up the smooth slanted side of one and hopped over a deep crevice to the next boulder, and one more to reach him. Quietly she sat down beside Zaz.

He kept his gaze fixed straight ahead.

“Have you been here this whole time?” she asked.

He snorted. “No. I killed five deer and harvested a field while you were hunting rabbits.”

“You haven’t talked to anyone?”

“Like who? The spirit of the forest? The hoards of boys scurrying over the boulders to be in my presence? Zaz the anything-but-amazing.”

She fell back onto the rock and stared up at the sky. Her breath scraped along the back of throat and came out as a half sob. The secret was safe. “I can’t believe it.”

He turned his back to her.

She stared at it. At her brother. Her hand floated up and hovered over his back. Heat radiated from him. This she could fix. Sitting up, she draped her arms around him. “I’m sorry, Zaz.” They were easy words that didn’t cost anything, or give any secrets away. “I didn’t mean it.”

Zaz slipped out of the hug. He shook his head and, in the dying light, she could see trails of wet cutting across his face.

“We can’t all be as good as you.” He spat out the words.

Her mouth dropped open. “Are you angry?”

“What does it look like to you?”

Angry. And bitter. “But you never get mad.” Upset, yes. But the Zaz she knew just wasn’t capable of meanness. He had always been more sensitive than the rest of the family. He could predict Father’s violent moods with greater accuracy than Anagata predicted the winter weather.

He laughed at her. “What? You thought you could just say ‘sorry’ and everything would be as fresh as plowed earth?” His eyes were hollow pits in the twilight and on his face was an expression that reminded her of Father when he was rabid about something.

“I—no Zaz. I didn’t think that.” She faltered, tried to find the words. Her heart fumbled again at the expression on his face. “I’m sorry you’re hurt.”

“Well, that was pathetic.” He glared into the twilight, knees drawn up and arms loosely hugging his legs. He flicked his thumbnails together. The air between them bristled with energy.

Uncomfortable in the gloom, she tried to decide how much to tell him. They were close enough that she had told him about her Kusumavat before telling Claire.

But this was different. No one could know about this.

It was like having a demon inside her. She felt possessed, a twisted Parakya power killing her from the inside. She wanted nothing more than to dig out the invader and incinerate it with one last stream of fire.

“It’s hard being … different,” she said. It was an easy excuse and completely believable. How many times had Zaz watched boys chase her down when she was younger and smaller, as if she was a crippled stag, just to touch her or rip out handfuls of her hair? Just to have.

Silence still lurked between them, but the edges of it dulled. It was more comfortable to let it be. Murin encircled her knees with her arms, too.   She rested her chin on her knees.

She wished it was lighter so she could see Zaz’s eyes, their soft brown color, the fringe of thick black lashes surrounding them. They were kind eyes. His gentleness and empathy were his greatest strengths.

Twilight expanded into evening. She trembled as the cold stabbed at her and dug into her bones. She was about to suggest they return to the house, when he began to speak.

“I know I’m not like you,” he said. The words came out stiff. He played with the laces of his boots.

“I—Zaz, you’re—”

“She favors you and you know it.”

“What are you—Claire?”

“It’s true. Look at the way she fawns over you. Great Kenara! Every time you fall she practically upends the world to make sure you’re safe. What do the rest of us get? The look of a hawk swooping in for the kill and the bedside manner of an eggplant.”

“You want her to track your every move? To the point that you can’t move because you’re being suffocated? Take it.” She paused. She could write volumes about Claire and still not capture her spirit, still come away feeling an emptiness where devotion to her mother should have been. “You think I like the way she—she scrutinizes me. Good Naraka, Zaz!”

“That’s not the point, Murin.”

“It’s not? Fine. I’ll examine you every morning to make sure you’re satisfactory and if I don’t like what I see, I’ll invoke the Vizva to set it right.”

“At least you have her attention to complain about. What do the rest of us have? Motherly duty performed to perfection. Without—” Zaz’s voice broke. After a second he said, “Love.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, she loves you, and Ratri and Vana. Of course she does.” Murin inched closer to her brother and wrapped one arm around his shoulders. He felt slight, fragile. “She’s not very,” she searched for the right words to explain Claire, “maternal. I mean, she’s very detached. Even with me, who you argue she loves so much.” The more she tried to reassure Zaz that Claire cared equally for all of her children, the less confident she was. “She’s a rún-díomhair.”

“A what?”

“A mystery. You know. As in she’s a riddle, unknowable.”

Zaz frowned and stared at her. “But that’s not what you said.”

“Yes it is.”

“No, you said run-der hair, or something like that,” he said, looked at her as if she had just proclaimed the sun was green. And meant it.

She bit her lip. “You get the point.”

He still had the “you’re crazy” expression planted on his face.

Murin laughed. It was unsettled, and shook her insides. “I’m going to be a famous bard. It’s my prerogative to make up unusual words.”

After staring at her a moment longer, Zaz chuckled. He turned his face to the sky.

“I guess we should be getting back.”

“Yeah.”

They climbed down from the rock in the dark.

She kept one hand pressed to her stomach, which hurt the way a muscle hurt after working a scythe in the field all day. “Why do you think they chose each other?”

“Does it matter?” He shrugged.

“Ratri and Vana always talk about love. They believe that there’s one person made for another by the Vizva.”

“Chimney soot. Those are old janah tales.”

She smiled. “It does sound nice, though.” Then she remembered all the boys who used to chase after her. They wouldn’t come near her now, unless they were dared to. Most girls her age had already had at least one marriage proposal. A few were even married. “Maybe too nice.”

“And impractical. There’s a reason they use the word helpmate. It won’t matter if my wife is beautiful or the song of my soul. She has to know how to run a house, cook and mend. She has to know how to help us survive.”

Murin stopped. She tried to distract herself from the uneasy feeling that prowled in her gut by searching for breaks in the clouds to peek at the stars. “But maybe if there was a little love, at least friendship, maybe neither of them would be so cold,” she said.

Zaz nudged her forward. “Maybe. But that’s not the way it is.” He sighed, threaded an arm through hers and leaned his head on her shoulder.

As they walked, she wondered about the strange word that had made Zaz stare at her as though she was Parakya. She wondered if the word really meant “mystery.” As they got closer to the house, she wondered how she knew the word at all.