"Call of the Dragon, Part I"
"Call of the Dragon, Part II"
"Ruins and Hopes"
"Shield Maiden" Cornell #3
"Warrior Eternal" Cornell #4
"Childhood of a Fighter"
"The Pledge" Cornell #5
"The Rock of Discontent"
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"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
"The Pilgrims' Trial and Faith"
XXIV. Council of Shadows <=== / ===> XXVI. The Rigors of New Life
Shenaumac was satisfied with the way things were developing. Leaving Decirius’ tower, he smiled to himself and scanned the sky briefly. Lonapal was still up there, accompanied by his eagle pet. For the moment, at least, they were happy.
He shrugged. It shouldn’t take more than a day or two before the happiness would be abruptly cut off. Perhaps, he granted himself the thought, it would be good if Koultirsp took her time. Lonapal might deserve this last respite.
The thought ran a short course through his mind then the god discarded it. A last moment of doubt, a last moment of brightness, that was all this thought represented. Shenaumac had committed himself to his little game, and he would emerge victorious. He savored that word. Victorious. Such a sweet sound that was.
The eagle cried up in the air. Lonapal halted his movement, looking down, then waved. Shenaumac smiled broadly as he waved back. “Enjoying yourself?” he yelled.
“Very much! Thank you!” Lonapal answered, stretched out his arm, and the eagle took hold of the new perch immediately. “I never knew such joy! You were right!”
Shenaumac waved again, then lowered his head and continued walking towards his home, where Tiger would be waiting. Yes, a pet gave you joy. It also made you vulnerable. On the other hand, a bit of vulnerability made the game all the more fun.
Victory was at hand, he knew. Off in the mortal world, his harsnetts were multiplying. He hadn’t bothered with the animal way of procreation. The harsnetts didn’t have separate genders, anyway. They could create new ones from themselves, eating enough for another individual. He had sent twenty-seven harsnetts into the mortal world. By now, a mere month later, there were one hundred and five. Oh, yes, there had been losses. The dragons and other creatures had made short work of a couple of harsnetts, otherwise they might have numbered more than three hundred.
Yet their growth was satisfying. He could feel their worship’s energy within himself. It wasn’t enough, not yet, to really measure up to any of the other gods’ power. For one thing, much of the energy had to be shared with the chief gods of the other abodes; some of it even added to his fellow under-gods.
Soon that wouldn’t matter so much. Soon.
He had reached his home, opened the door, stepped inside – and froze. Darkness surrounded him, not the customary resplendent white.
Shenaumac crouched down, balled his fists, guided strength into them to defend himself.
“Is anyone here?” he called cautiously. There was no presence here beside himself. Not even Tiger. Of course gods could mask themselves; he had done so many times before. Yet now that his power was so much more than before, he should have been able to detect traces, shouldn’t he?
“Hello?” he called again.
Again there was no answer. Slowly Shenaumac unfolded himself, took a step forward for a closer inspection.
The door slammed shut behind him.
Not his doing.
Instinctively the god wanted to transport himself back outside, into the open – yet something stopped him. He couldn’t leave, not by any other mode than his legs. He couldn’t even take another shape! “Who is this? What are you doing?”
A noise came out of the darkness, a soft wailing, a sound unlike any he had heard before. But it had a place of origin, and Shenaumac fired lightning in that direction. The bright flame shot through the darkness, revealing for brief moments his table and couch, Tiger’s scratchpost – then it was gone. Somebody giggled.
A female voice.
“Koultirsp, is that you?” Shenaumac cried. “If you hurt Tiger, I will –“
A hand slid around his shoulder, soft, warm, tender, as its fingers grasped his chin – then jerked it around violently, nearly tearing it off his body. His head twisted sideways, he stared at the lovely face of Alyssa. “No, I’m not Koultirsp,” she said. “Surprised to see me, Shaney?”
“Lys? What are you doing here?” Shenaumac forced a smile to his lips. “Not that I’m not happy to see you. It has been such a long time since we last had a private conversation. I had thought you were outside of the City.”
Alyssa patted his cheek gently, then moved closer, molding her body to his easily. “I was. And,” she put her mouth close to his ear, breathing into it, “you have been in the village, too.”
“What?!” Shenaumac screamed, broke free of her hold, stumbled a few steps into the darkness and gaped at her. “Of course I haven’t! Decirius has ordered us to stay in the Eternal City. Why, Haguen locked up the walls so nobody could leave or get… in…” He frowned. “How exactly did you get in, Lys?”
The goddess shrugged and stretched her arms luxuriously. Strange how her movement reminded him of Tiger. “Don’t you like being close to me, Shaney? There was a time when you were happy for every moment that I spent with you.”
“Times… change,” Shenaumac muttered. “Since when do you call me Shaney? Lys, really, this darkness, the wailing, that…”
“Did I frighten you?” she asked softly.
He shook his head, feeling out of his place. What was this about? “Well, that seemed to be the idea. Lys, you can’t have gotten back into the City, unless Haguen lifted the block. How can you have left the village?!”
“Perhaps,” a male voice suggested from the darkness, “the same way that you did?”
Shenaumac’s head whirled about. He didn’t need to seek long to detect Darawk stepping out of the darkness. No, not stepping. The darkness receded around him until he was clearly visible. “Dar, don’t be ridiculous. I’ve been in the City all –“
Alyssa was suddenly behind him again, slinging her arms around his chest. In a reflex, he tried to shake her off – but her grasp was impossibly firm and strong. His eyes widened when he felt the strength exuding from her, while she placed her chin on his shoulder and whispered, “But we’ve seen you in the midrealm village this morning, Shaney. And yesterday, too. You’ve also been in the mortal world, looking after your harsnetts.” She reached up with one of her arms to tickle his nose. “They’re quite boring, these harsnetts, you know. Hunt and eat, eat and multiply. You might have done better.”
“Are they part of Decirius’ plan, Shaney?” Darawk asked. The God of Knowledge suddenly stood before him.
Shenaumac couldn’t help but shiver. Alyssa calling him by a nickname he could take, but now Darawk was using it as well? “What plan are you talking about?”
Alyssa moved closer to him, and her arms tightened like coils around his chest, pressing close. “Am I hurting you, Shaney?” she asked conversationally. “I’m sorry, but I am so very looking forward to your answer.” Her arms tightened again. “So very looking forward,” she breathed into his ear.
This isn’t possible! She cannot be this strong! The thoughts raced through Shenaumac’s mind, intertwirling, separating, rushing their diverse paths. He knew how strong Alyssa was – far more powerful than he had ever been, but not like this. She was squeezing him – in more than the physical way -, so easily, as if she could crush his essence with a mere thought.
Darawk shrugged. “How else could you have left the abode, Shaney? You were watching us in the village. Were you there when we fought Lógrims?”
They can’t know! I was masked at the time, I –
Alyssa pressed herself closer to him. Her arms grew spikes that cut into his skin and flesh. “Why don’t you talk, Shaney? You must be getting uncomfortable now.”
“What is Decirius after?” Darawk asked sharply.
“Sweet Shaney,” Alyssa whispered into his ear, “tell us, and you will feel much better.”
Shenaumac closed his eyes, tried to concentrate. There was no way out, there was only increasing pain. “He… It’s about the sapients,” he pressed out.
“We know that,” Darawk nodded. “You’ve let several sapient races go to the mortal world where they only worship a select few gods. Decirius, you, Taurkémad. Their power is gone from us. Is that it?”
“What?” Shenaumac chuckled, as much as the pain allowed him. “That’s all you see?”
Alyssa rubbed her head against his. “Tell us more, sweetie.”
He couldn’t help it. Decirius would be angry, but he’d rather take an angry chief god than these two right now. How did they get so powerful? Their strength might be enough to rival Decirius! “The sapients,” he breathed. “They are reproducing. Making more sapients to… worship us. The new generations – they aren’t as powerful as the first, but… numbers make up for it. Many sapients fueling us, we can… take over… eradicate the other… abodes.”
Suddenly he was free. Her arms were gone, and Shenaumac tumbled to the floor, coughing hard.
“Decirius is planning a war?!” Darawk growled.
Shenaumac raised his head, breathing hard. He saw Alyssa’s legs before him, clad in the simple breeches of a villager woman, and he knew that she would punish him again if he didn’t talk. “Not a… war… Not unless it can’t be avoided. The other abodes… the ones who don’t care about the sapients, they have no idea of the power dormant in the sapients. We will use them… to raise ourselves… make us stronger…”
“What about eradicating them?” Alyssa asked.
Darawk snarled, “That’s his idea, sister of mine. Decirius won’t do that unless push comes to shove. Our Shaney, on the other hand, he would like to have enough power to destroy other abodes.” He paused, then grunted, “Shaney, is Decirius doing this alone? Or are other abodes in on this plan?”
Shenaumac closed his eyes. His ribs hurt. They had never done so before. A layer of pain surrounded his upper body where Alyssa’s spikes had dug in. “The five abodes, the ones who created the sapients. They are running the scheme.”
“What’s your part in this?” Alyssa asked, folding her arms before her chest.
Shenaumac shrugged. “I help out. My harsnetts are easy to control, they multiply well. That’s why Decirius told me about it.”
Darawk smiled. “Also because you are far too weak to trouble him.”
“Well,” the God of Sharpened Things rolled his eyes, “nobody ever said Deecee was stupid, right?”
“Who else knows about this?” Alyssa continued the questions. The skin on her arms wobbled slightly, as if the spikes were ready to burst out again.
You don’t have to do that, Shenaumac muttered in his mind, remembering the pain vividly. On the other hand… An idea flashed through him, made it hard for him to subdue a smile. “Well… You know Deecee, he doesn’t like to talk about his plans. It’s just me… and Haguen.”
“Haguen?!” The goddess squinted at him. “He was as surprised as all of us when Decirius locked us in.”
“Sure,” Shenaumac shrugged. “That old man of yours – Olmawi -, he didn’t figure in the plans. Our guardian friend thought there’d be a couple of weeks left. Now he’s keeping a watch over Deecee’s home. You know, just in case some other abode is trying something. After your encounter with Lógrims, Deecee just wanted to be safe.” He grinned. “You’ve been a pretty good distraction, by the way.”
Alyssa frowned, Darawk muttered inaudibly.
Shenaumac rubbed his ribs. “You didn’t do anything to my pet, did you? No, of course not. If I may ask, how come you’re this powerful? It’s not exactly –“
“Don’t mind that,” Alyssa cut him off, glanced at her brother. “Decirius?”
Darawk shook his head slightly. “Haguen first. He might alarm somebody otherwise. Let’s keep this as quiet as possible.”
“Agreed.” She looked at Shenaumac.
The god shrugged. “You don’t want anybody to know, fine. I’m not going to tell about what you’re doing here. Or anything else. I’m good at keeping secrets.”
“Especially if you know what’s good for you.”
“Especially then,” Shenaumac readily agreed. “Where is my cat? Do you know?”
The other two gods were slightly disconcerted by the question, then Alyssa shook her head, reached into midair and withdrew a small, protesting ball of orange fur from where it had been hidden. Tiger’s claws flashed, tried to find purchase, instead the cat found itself thrown towards Shenaumac. The God of Sharpened Things caught him deftly, hurriedly started to stroke and calm the cat. Tiger didn’t want to be calmed, kept struggling for a long time, until he finally subsided and accepted that the trouble was over.
Then Shenaumac looked up to see that his home had returned to its customary appearance, bright and airy. The sibling gods were gone. “Gone to talk to Deecee, I presume,” Shenaumac shook his head. Where had they gotten their new power?
It seemed so unlikely. After all, the villagers had been worshipping the gods for quite a while, without ever proving a noteworthy source of power. Shenaumac knew about that, in his quest for any additional jot of strength he had checked them exhaustively. Or so he had thought. Maybe he ought to examine them again.
“Later.” He looked down at Tiger. The cat was stretching, purring softly. “We’ve got things to take care of, you know? Koultirsp has been a bit slow. I think we need to speed things up a bit.” Tiger raised his eyes sleepily. “No, I’m sorry, you’ve got to stay awake a little longer. Now that Darawk and Alyssa are going to occupy several of our other gods here, we’d better use that opportunity, right?”
“Sorry,” Shenaumac repeated and gently deposited the cat on the ground. Tiger shook himself, looked around for the nearest soft spot to sleep – then he hissed in shock.
He was growing! Within moments his tiny frame expanded to become as tall as Shenaumac – and majestic wings spread from his side. Tiger craned his head around to look at the new appendages, mewing. The sound seemed unsuitable to a cat his new size, and in mid-mewing his voice changed to a ferocious roar.
Tiger shut up, blinking hopefully at Shenaumac.
The god patted him on the head. “Don’t worry about it too much, Tiger. You’ll be back to normal in a short while. See, you’ll be having a bit of fun here. And a good meal.” He grabbed the sides of Tiger’s head, turned it right side up, then left side up, smiling at the winged cat. “Doesn’t that sound fine?”
Tiger hissed, utterly unconvinced. He spread his wings carefully, testing their feel.
“We’ll have fun,” Shenaumac assured him. “Come on, boy, you’ll have better luck with these wings outside. We’re going eagle hunting!”