Authors: T. L. Shreffler
Tags: #young adult, #fantasy
(The Cat's Eye Chronicles, Book 3)
T. L. Shreffler
2013. Redistribution is prohibited.
Published by The Runaway Pen.
Edited by LindaJay Geldens.
The Cat's Eye Chronicles
BORN INTO THE colony, they lived without names and without parents. They became in all ways invisible. Brothers and Sisters. Servants of the Shadow. The Hive.
And the highest members of the Hive, those who fought and lived by the teachings of the Dark God—only they were given Names. Titles earned through combat at fragile ages, when children were the most eager to spill blood.
There was no word for
in their tongue. Only the word for the unnamed—
. The same word for silence and sand and stagnant pools of water.
By the age of fourteen, he had waited long enough. He was ready to take a Name.
It was early, early morning. The shrine stood in a clearing of tall grass covered in dew. It was the day before the Naming ceremony. The grass had a grayish hue, as did the dawn. Clouds covered the sky, drifting inland from the nearby ocean, which he could hear if he listened carefully. The air was heavy and brisk with moisture. Trees surrounded him—long, narrow things with smooth trunks, branching into wide canopies above. He had grown up with the smell of salt water, the rush and hiss of the waves.
His teacher Cerastes, one of the Grandmasters that had held the dagger of the Viper long ago, always trained him next to the sea.
“Look at it,”
Cerastes had said the night before, speaking in his low, rough voice like the curl of waves against rock.
“At how it moves, coming and going. Look at all of the life that spills out of it. The ocean regurgitates life like a drunken sailor.”
The nameless savant had studied the ocean with his teacher.
“If it weren’t for us,”
Cerastes had said,
“for our kind, life would overtake the world. It would cram itself into every corner. Multiply out of control. Do you understand the danger in that? Just like the ocean waves, all things have a balance. The wave rushes in, then rushes out. It cannot just come in and in and in—then the whole world would be an ocean.”
The savant had watched the sea, alert.
“It is not beautiful or glorious, what we do,”
the Grandmaster had continued,
“but it is necessary. We are the outgoing wave. The harvesters. Hands of the Dark God. Soon you will enter into our tradition. Are you ready to take a Name?”
Savant had nodded slowly. In that moment, it felt as though he had waited a lifetime, counting each passing minute.
he had thought.
A presence. A history.
He would become more than just a shadow—more than an unknown child of the Hive.
Then they had meditated, looking out across the iron-gray sea. He didn’t let himself consider failure. Those who failed at the Naming were scorned and shunned, often forced to leave the Hive. He didn't have to compete. He could refuse.
At least then he wouldn't risk losing his home.
But that's the way of a coward, not an assassin.
And now it was morning and he was ready.
He walked across the meadow to where the ground caved downward abruptly. Grass turned to gray, rough stone. The shrine of the Dark God was underground, hidden inside a massive cavern that was formed by a centuries-old stream of perfectly green water. The dancing water could be heard throughout the cavern, resonating off the granite rock.
He stood at the edge of the pit for a long moment, looking through the ancient crags. Between the rocks, only darkness gazed back.
After a final glance around the clearing, he started down the rocky crevice. He gripped the loose shale with his feet. His fingers found crooks and handholds in the rough stone. He was quick and nimble, and slid easily downward.
Shadows enclosed him. It was a familiar darkness, soft and cool. A brief walk through the cavern brought him to the stream of green water, illuminated by shafts of sunlight, which filtered through the layers of the ceiling. He leapt the stream easily.
On the opposite side stood a brass door embedded in the wall, wedged into a natural fissure in the rock. It, too, was centuries old, dating back to the founding of the Hive. The door had no key, and it took only the slightest shove of his shoulder to crack it open.
He entered the shrine of the Dark God—a long, stone cavern perhaps a quarter-mile long. The walls were almost five times his height. Dim lanterns hung from the rocky ceiling, rusted by age and moisture. The stone was colored green by its high copper content and crumbled under his fingers, but the room itself was well-swept and maintained. The ceremonial offering of a dead shark had been laid on an altar the night before, toward the opposite end of the hall. This morning, the corpse had no stench. A sign that the Dark God had accepted.
Along the greenish stone wall hung an expansive collection of ancient weapons: dirks, maces, claymores, battle axes, pikes, staves, crossbows, chakrams and whips. Almost every kind of weapon that the world had to offer. The Grandmasters maintained them regularly.
But these weapons were not of average make. Forged from superior metals, blessed by the Dark God's fire, they were each imbued with a Name. When a warrior displayed the right skills, he earned the weapon and its title—and status within the Hive.
There, hanging from the ancient wall, he saw the one he wanted. The weapon he would use in the fight.
It was a recurved dagger with a trailing point, serrated toward the hilt, about twenty inches long. It hung from the end of the bottom row where all the unclaimed blades were stored. He couldn’t touch it, not yet. But it was the same one his Master had used, the one he had been trained for. The Viper.
He who hides in the grass.
“Aye!” a voice suddenly reached him. It echoed around the stone walls with startling volume. “I know you’re in there!”
The voice was immediately familiar. He glanced out of the shrine, into the shadows of the underground cavern.
She stood ankle-deep in the dewy green water, a piece of oatbread in one hand, her shoes in the other. His eyes flickered over the girl’s plain black uniform. Although most in the colony were without names, he always thought of this girl as “Bug,” both because she was small for her age and because she often trapped moths, putting them in small boxes or jars around her hut.
“Preparing for the Naming?” she asked, a slow smile spreading across her face. A dimple stood out on one cheek. He was surprised by it. The Hive did not encourage smiling—or any show of emotion, for that matter. He felt something swell within him: a certain strength.
“I am already prepared,” he said. “Will you be watching me?”
“I will be competing too.”
“What?” He stared. She was only twelve, far too young to fight for a Name. Most of the boys competing would be older than even he was, sixteen or seventeen.
She nodded. “My Master says I must. She says that she has no other students to compete in her Name.”
He watched her with careful eyes. There was uncertainty on her face. Adults knew how to mask their emotions, but she was still young.
To fail at the Naming was to be shunned from the Hive. Everyone knew that. He wondered why Grandmaster Natrix would force her to fight....Maybe she wanted to get rid of her. It was not unheard of, and Bug had always had it rough. She was small for her age and showed too much kindness toward animals. He couldn’t count how many times he had caught her leaving food out for wood-cats and squirrels.
“Come on,” he said, and held out his hand. “Let’s look at the weapons. Show me which one your Master used.”
She nodded. As they entered the long, cool stretch of limestone, she turned to glance at him, her green eyes still uncertain. All members of the Hive had the same make and coloring: black hair and green eyes. It was a trait of their people.
“I knew I would find you here early,” she said, perhaps shyly; he couldn’t tell. “I watch you practice sometimes. You are very good. They say Cerastes sired you himself; that is why he wanted you as his student.”
Savant only shook his head. “That’s rude,” he said. “We’re all brothers and sisters in the Hive.”
She shrugged, still grinning. “Perhaps. But not by blood. The humans say that you can only be related by blood.”
“We are different.”
“You think so?”
Savant didn't answer. The only ones who knew the true bloodlines of the Hive were the women, and they kept that knowledge well guarded. Biological siblings were usually traded with other Hives to keep them from intermixing blood. Every now and then, a mother would be reprimanded for favoring her own child over others. All children of the Hive were supposed to be raised communally. All elders were to be treated with equal respect except for the Grandmasters, who were revered.
“Which weapon?” he asked, turning to the wall, hoping to change the subject.
She pointed at a short, curved sword. “The Adder,” she said. Then she wrinkled her nose. “To be honest, I don’t want that one. I want the Krait or the Asp. I’m much better at them.”
He glanced over her in thought. She referred to the whip or the shortbow. To be honest, he couldn’t imagine her with either one. She was too small. Too skinny. He felt his heart sink at the thought, though he quickly quelled the feeling. It was not the assassin’s way to show pity.
And yet, here they were. “Do you want to practice?” he asked slowly.
She blinked. “Practice? With the Named weapons?”
“But...it is forbidden!”
He shook his head. “Only if they catch us. I’ve been training for the Viper for seven years. Let’s try them out.”
She watched him warily for a moment, her assassin’s mask slipping back in place, then she grinned again. “Alright,” she said. “But only for a half hour, and in the forest where they won’t find us!”
He nodded, looking up at the dagger of the Viper.
What’s come over me
? he wondered, suddenly uncertain. He wasn’t one to break rules. It was especially forbidden to touch the weapons in the shrine...but something about Bug made things different. Something about her large, wide, slanting eyes. Their particular shade of green, like moss grown over a lake.
And the fact that he truly felt sorry for her. He doubted that she would win a Name. She might even be killed.
He grabbed the dagger before he could change his mind.
At first she went to take the short sword, but then she hesitated. She took the whip instead.
They dashed into the forest, the dawn light ever brightening, leaving the gray meadow behind.
* * *
Toward the back of the cavern, the rocks narrowed into a series of tunnels, leading to a secret exit shrouded in ferns and bushes. The green water of the stream led to a dense woodland. They walked into the forest and found a place about a half-mile away from the sacred ground. Large, mossy elm trees swayed on each side. Ivy coiled across the ground.