In the Shadow of the Gods (2 page)

“Seeker Joros,” a deep voice murmured.

“Atora beyan!”
Joros shouted instinctively. As a low laugh
sounded, his weary brain remembered that the Sentinels gave no warning. He shoved the torch forward and the light reflected off a doughy face. Sagging jowls, drooping cheeks, piggish little eyes sunk into rolls of flesh. “Fraro Borghen.” Joros's lip curled. “A pleasure.”

The fat man waved his words away, thick fingers made heavier by a king's ransom in jewelry. “The Ventallo wished me to conduct you into their presence with all haste. They have been waiting most . . .
impatiently
for you to arrive. What have you brought them this time?”

Joros stepped in front of Verteira. “I answer to the Ventallo alone.”

Borghen's layers of fat shifted in what might have been a shrug. “Politeness, brother, politeness. It is a skill you could cultivate.”

Joros spat at Borghen's feet and pulled Verteira behind him. He barged past the fat chancellor, who followed with a chuckle.

The tunnel grew gradually brighter, light creeping along the floor, until it opened onto an enormous cavern, ceiling lost in shadow far above, tunnel-speckled walkways spiraling lazily up and down the perimeter. The hollowed-out heart of Mount Raturo. Torches were placed at even intervals, just enough to alleviate some of the gloom. Black-robed men and women walked here and there, all far enough away to make Joros feel like the only living thing in the vast space. He shook off the feeling, and said to Verteira, “Welcome to your new home.”

“We'll see about that,” Borghen murmured.

It was another long walk down, though not so long as the
walk up. Raturo was smaller within than without, though one would hardly think it. Verteira looked ready to collapse with exhaustion when they finally came to the end of the spiraling path, the floor of the great cavern.

The walk across the chamber was a sobering one, as it was intended to be. They didn't speak, and the only sound was the press of their feet against the floor. Verteira walked with her head craned back and mouth hanging open, gaping up at the specks of torches flickering far above, circling into oblivion. Joros kept his eyes fixed straight ahead, on the carved archway. Three times the height of a man, it depicted the Fall of the Twins: Fratarro on the left, reaching up as he fell, pleading for mercy; Sororra on the right, falling headfirst, refusing to look back; and above, haughty and pitiless, the Parents. Joros pressed his fist to his brow as he passed beneath the arch, a gesture of obeisance—not to the sneering Parents, but to the ill-fated Twins. Borghen echoed the gesture, but Verteira's eyes were fixed on Sororra's hard, ascetic face.

Beyond the arched doorway was a circular room, claustrophobic after the huge cavern. A curved table dominated most of the room, twenty carved-stone chairs facing the entrance. Nineteen stern faces gazed out at them, nineteen men and women in robes the color of darkest night with the red sparks of Sororra's Eyes sewn over their hearts.

Borghen stepped forward and swept his low bow. “Exalted Ventallo,” his voice boomed around the chamber, “I bring you Shadowseeker Joros, returned from his foray.”

The old man sitting at the apex of the table waved a wrinkled hand in dismissal, and Borghen bowed his way from the room. Joros dropped to one knee, fist to his forehead, and saw
Verteira from the corner of his eye laboriously assume the same pose.

“Stand, stand,” the old man called querulously. Delcerro Uniro, first among the Fallen, was not a patient man. Joros rose, and Verteira glared up at him as though she expected some sort of help. He let her struggle to her own feet. “What have you brought us this time, Seeker Joros?”

“A woman, Reverence. A woman the world has turned its back on. A woman who has nowhere else to turn.” He pulled Verteira forward, was pleased at how she clutched at her stomach. “This is Verteira. She was cast out by her village, beaten, left for dead.”

“And why, Verteira,” Uniro asked, “is that?”

To her credit, she held her chin high and met his glare. “The midwife said I would bear twins.”

A rustle of clothing shivered around the table, a few murmurs, eyes brightening.

“Twins?” Uniro asked, and a slow smile stretched his wrinkled face. “You are welcome to stay here, Verteira, for as long as you may wish. This shall be your new home.” He made a discreet motion, and a servant hurried forward to touch Verteira gently on the arm. “Tomo will show you to a chamber where you may make yourself comfortable. A midwife will attend to you”—and he chuckled, the dry sound of rustling paper—“better than the previous one.” Verteira looked wide-eyed at Joros as the servant led her from the chamber, an expression almost like fear. Joros turned his eyes back to the Ventallo.

“You have done well, Seeker Joros,” crooned Ildra Setira, an ancient crone, seventh among the Fallen.


Very
well,” put in Dirrakara Quindeira, fifteenth among
the Fallen. At thirty years of age, she was one of the few young members of the Vantallo, her skin glowing with health and a mane of red hair tumbling around her face.

Etengro Duero, second among the Fallen, creaked to his feet. “You may have noticed,” he said, walking slowly around the table, “we are short one member.” His bony tight-skinned hands rested on the back of the last chair on the left of the half circle, the empty chair.

“Poor Tisaro,” wailed Saval Septeiro, seventeenth among the Fallen, then winked at Joros.

“He was old,” Uniro snapped.

“We have been watching you, Joros,” Dirrakara Quindeira said, dark eyes fixed intently on Joros. “
Very
closely.”

“You have done great deeds,” said Shuro Noviro, ninth among the Fallen, bouncing with excitement. “Brought many new initiates, spread the old stories far and wide, and now . . .
this
!”

“Twins!” Setira said wonderingly. “You have been a shadowseeker, what, three years?”

“We are pleased with all we have seen,” said Valrik Trero, third among the Fallen, though he sounded less than pleased.


Very
pleased,” Dirrakara added.

“Oh, so
very
pleased,” Saval mimicked with a broad grin.

“The Ventallo need a new member,” Uniro said impatiently. Joros felt his mouth going dry, his hands beginning to shake. He clasped them quickly behind his back.

“And we are thinking,” said Deuro, pulling the empty chair scraping back, “that it should be you.”

Uniro didn't smile, but his wasn't a face for smiling. “What say you . . . Joros Ventiro?”

“Will you join us, Joros Ventiro?” Dirrakara purred.

“A mighty responsibility,” Valrik Trero cautioned, “and one not all are capable of taking.”

“We think you are, though,” Saval said. “Twentieth doesn't do much anyway. Mostly cleaning chamber pots and the like.”

Uniro glared down the table. “Fraro Septeiro jests, of course. But we are wasting time. What is your answer, Joros?”

Joros swept a graceful genuflection—the one he'd practiced. He pressed his knuckles to his forehead, trying to suppress the grin that threatened to split his face.

It was about damned time.

“Exalted Ventallo,” he said formally, “I am honored by your offer. It has always been my greatest wish to serve the Fallen, and it would be my deepest pleasure to continue serving in a higher capacity.”

“That's that, then,” Uniro said, pushing back his chair and rising to his feet. “Who will stand for him?”

“I will,” Saval said quickly. Joros and Dirrakara Quindeira both gave him a faint glare, though he seemed oblivious to it.

“Very well,” Uniro said as he hurried around the table and toward the great archway. “We're finished here,” he called over his shoulder as he left.

The rest of the Ventallo shuffled out, some pausing to offer congratulations. Quindeira gave him a look that promised they would see more of each other.

Saval Septeiro fidgeted impatiently until they were alone, then puffed out his cheeks in a mighty sigh. “As you can see, meetings are all terribly boring. But bureaucracy is what it is, eh? There are other things that keep us busy. Come on, then.”

There was a wooden door fitted into the wall behind Uniro's
chair, hidden in shadow. Saval pulled a dull metal key from the neck of his robe and inserted it into the lock. “Only the Ventallo are allowed in. You'll have your own key, of course. Don't let anyone else know about it, and don't
ever
let it out of your sight. They're so very serious about secrecy. That's the hallmark of the Ventallo.
Poroshen,
newest brother.
Secrecy
. Though I'm sure you know enough about that, with all your shadow scouring.”

“Does the door actually open?” Joros snapped. “Or does that key just open your mouth?”

Saval laughed, a startling sound in its sincerity. Joros couldn't remember the last time he'd heard a real laugh anywhere near Mount Raturo. “I knew I was going to like you,” Saval said, and swung the door open.

Joros could feel a headache building. Whoever had carved out the innards of the mountain had had an overreaching fondness for circular chambers. This one was low-ceilinged, lit by a single hanging brazier, the fire whispering in the quiet of the room. Below the brazier was an enormous, unadorned stone block, hip-high and at least as long as Joros was tall. Just visible within the brazier's circle of light were a number of doors set into the wall. Twenty of them, Joros soon saw, each carved with an unnecessarily large numeral. The closest on the right, which Septeiro went to, was numbered
20
.

“Yours,” Saval said.

“My, how complicated things are here.”

Smirking, Saval pulled a key from the hook set above the door. It was strung onto a dirty, fraying piece of rope, and Joros wrinkled his nose as Saval offered it. “Paryn, the former Ventiro, is a . . . very austere man, shall we say? All about simplicity. He has one robe he's worn his entire life, and has never
washed it once. You'll want to make sure to stand upwind of him. Come on, take this, put it on a nice chain or something. It's yours now, your most sacred possession. At least until one of those corpses decides to completely fall apart and you move up to Nodeiro. Then you get a slightly shinier key. They say Uniro's key is made of solid gold, though I doubt old bird-neck could carry it around if it was.”

Grinding his teeth and doing his best to ignore the incessant babbling, Joros inserted his key into its lock. The heavy wooden door swung open on squeaking hinges to reveal a small room lit by a pale blue glow. A desk was the room's only furnishing, not even a chair to sit in. There was a book on the desk, thick and dusty and older than death, and quill and ink. And there was the source of the strange light: a tall, translucent candle burning with a steady blue flame. This flame, too, seemed to whisper, a soft hissing sound that slowly grew louder, more insistent. The throbbing in his temples deepened, not quite pain but annoyingly close.

“The ice candle,” Saval said, walking to the desk. “Valrik made it when he was Quindeiro, years and years ago, but it's not ready yet for wider use. There are advantages to leading the Fallen—we get shiny things before any of the others. The light will help with all the reading you'll be doing.” He patted the thick book, smirking. “This lists all the farmers and hunters and fishers who keep Raturo fed. You'll be overseeing them all, making sure they send us enough food and in a timely matter. You'll also send preachers out to remind the farmers of their duties, if they get lax. And they will—they always try to take advantage of the new Ventiro. Don't show them any bend and they'll straighten out.”

Joros could feel a cold disappointment creeping through his stomach. A decade of dedication to the Fallen, and this was his reward? He put a hand to his forehead, trying to press back the growing headache. “So I'm a clerk now?” he growled.

“Oh, nothing so banal as that. You're an important cog in the machine, brother. That's all anyone is. You've gone from a tiny cog to a slightly bigger one, take heart in that. You can only grow from here. And it's only a matter of time until one of the Ventallo finds their dinner poisoned, or a knife to their neck. We're a constantly squabbling little family.
You
have nothing to worry about right now, of course, but once you move up . . . well, you learn to place your trust carefully and keep your back to the wall. Anyway, you'll rise faster than you think. Just scribble and count for a while, and know that it's all toward the greater purpose.”

“The greater purpose,” he mocked, but the whispering was too distracting to formulate more of an insult.

Saval grinned, a feral gleam in his eyes. One had to be crazy, Joros supposed, to be able to laugh inside Mount Raturo. “Oh, goodness me, did I forget to mention that? Oh yes, littlest brother, there is a greater purpose. The
greatest
of purposes.” He flipped open the cover of the giant ledger, crooked a finger beckoningly at Joros. “It's written here, a constant reminder so you know what you're working toward. So you know what machine you're propelling, little cog.” His finger tapped against the page, and Joros leaned over, squinting to read in the pale light.

The page was artfully illuminated, a colorful depiction of Sororra and Fratarro. In every other portrayal of the Twins, they were either falling, cast from the heavens by their holy Parents
for the sin of wanting more to their lives than they had been given, or wrapped in chains, bound in a place deep beneath the earth. This, though, showed them free, broken chains dangling from their wrists and ankles, Sororra swallowing the Mother's sun, Fratarro holding the Parents by their throats. And in bold, flowing letters across the top of the page was written
Freeing the Bound Gods
.

Joros looked up at Saval, frowning. “You act as though this is some great revelation. They've been chanting this at me since I got to the top of Mount Raturo. The Bound Gods are a . . . a symbol—” Gods, his head hurt, and that damned whispering. “Something you can shout about to keep the sheep in line. They're not real.”

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