In the Shadow of the Gods

DEDICATION

To my parents,

for every single reason

CONTENTS

797 Years after the Fall

The Parents wept when they saw what their children had wrought, and they cast the Twins forever from the world so that their stain would be spread no further.

—The Tale of the Fall

CHAPTER 1

M
ount Raturo lurched above the forest like an ugly thumb, throwing its broad-shouldered shadow over the trees. Its sides were crisscrossed with hidden paths, crawling all the way to the snow-shrouded peak. Tunnels bored deep into the mountain's heart, entrances disguised by a long-lost magic. Death lurked in the shadows of path and tunnel, waiting for those who didn't know the proper words, for those who didn't speak quickly enough. Dark, hidden eyes watched from every egress, waiting patiently. Bones, human and animal, lay scattered among faint rust-brown stains, among pitted black scorch marks, beneath heartless rockslides. The mountain knew nothing of forgiveness, of mistakes, of second chances.

For Joros, the sight of Mount Raturo sent a rare stab of warmth through his heart. Few enough things could put a smile on his face, but the sight of home after a long journey was one.

“This is it?” the boy, Ranick, asked, a faint quaver in his voice as he stared up the sheer mountain face.

“Do you see another mountain?” sneered the woman, Verteira, eyes gleaming eagerly in their blackened sockets. The smattering of bruises across her pale flesh was fading, but slowly. She bore them with pride.

Odaro remained silent as always, his broad face thoughtful.

Watching his chosen three, Joros was pleased. Mount Raturo
should
bring fear and awe to those who gazed upon it, as it did with Ranick and Odaro. But Verteira . . . she saw Raturo's existence as a challenge as much as a wonder. Joros had been lucky to find the woman. The Ventallo would be pleased with her, and with him, he had no doubt.

“Come,” he said, and walked toward the mountain. Odaro followed, tugging the reins of the mule on which Verteira perched, wincing, the fingers of her broken arm clutching at her swollen stomach. Ranick came last, his shoulders hunched as if he could feel the watching eyes. They had come too far, these three, to let fear turn them back now. Their pasts were dead and buried, their only hope the spire reaching up toward the sky to brush the clouds. They followed Joros as he began the long climb, because they had no other choice.

It was hours before Joros paused. His lungs burned, his breath wheezing through his mouth and nose, a stitch sending stabbing pains through his side with each step. His legs were useless lumps, feet slapping clumsily down, teeth rattling with each footfall. Every part of him ached—and he'd never felt so alive. He remembered his first ascent, his feet torn to bloody shreds, hands clawing at his neck with the desperation of too little air. Sweet memories, his finest triumph.

He stopped a moment to let his chosen catch their breath.
Odaro was heaving in great bellyfuls of air, a hand pressed to his chest as if to assure himself his heart still beat. Verteira clung grimly on to the mule's back, face pale, blackened eyes wide, not so fearless as she'd been at the base of the mountain. Ranick toiled a ways behind, half crawling, hands leaving behind red smudges as he dragged himself up the mountain steps.

Joros looked down at the forest, a dark blanket far below, swallowed up by the night. The ground was gone, a distant memory, a legend overheard, a tale to terrify children. The two red points of Sororra's Eyes hovered above the horizon, glaring over the world as Joros did. He looked up and up, to the light of the moon gleaming off the peak of Mount Raturo. They had a long way yet to go, and he was eager to be out of the cold. “Come,” he said to the three, and he turned his eyes back to the steps and to the black shape that appeared before him.

The Sentinel loomed over him, blotting out the peak, blotting out the moon, a shape made of darkness itself save for its eyes, which were the blue-tinged color of stars in the night sky. “Speak,” it grated, voice like crashing stones.

Shock gripped Joros for a brief moment. The black shape twisted, a shadowy limb rising up, fist poised to crush him. The words fell from Joros's mouth in a rush:
“Tevarro borine.” Long journey,
in the Old Tongue. The Sentinel's head dipped ever so slightly in acknowledgment.

“Tevarro borine,”
Verteira repeated, voice half whisper, half prayer. From behind came Ranick's high-pitched wail:
“Tevarro borine!”
Silent, gaping Odaro stared and said nothing, and Joros smelled the sharp stench of urine.

The shadow moved
through
Joros, chilling him to the bone,
twisting his guts into miserable knots. The Sentinel's raised fist swung, suddenly terribly solid; Odaro flew, crashed into the unforgiving face of the mountain, and exploded.

Gore flew in every direction, chunks of meat and bone raining around Joros, covering him with a sticky red warmth. A severed hand hit the mule squarely on its nose and it reared, screeching, and tossed Verteira sprawling down the stone steps to fetch up against screaming Ranick. The mule twisted and plunged over the side of the mountain, and Ranick screamed louder.
“Tevarro borine,”
the Sentinel murmured, and melted back into the mountainside.

Joros straightened as sick relief flooded through him, and hurried down the steps to help Verteira. If she was dead, it would send all his hopes bursting like Odaro. She lay on her side, but she was already struggling to rise, alive and angry. “Are you all right?” Joros asked, hauling her to her feet.

“No more battered than before.” She reached out and gave Ranick a sharp slap across the face, cutting his scream off abruptly.

“Then we carry on. You'll have to walk the rest of the way.”

Ranick was shaking badly, and his voice even more than usual. “It killed Odaro!” he whimpered. “Killed him,
killed
him—” Cut off as Joros pressed the point of his knife against the boy's throat.

“Yes,” Joros said evenly, holding Ranick's wide-eyed gaze, “the Sentinels of Raturo found Odaro unworthy, and he paid the price. You, in your infinite luck, have been spared.” He pressed ever so gently forward, the knife's tip pricking into Ranick's flushed neck. “For now. I brought you here because
I
judged you worthy, judged that you had the tiniest trace of a spine.” A slow twist to the knife, a drop of blood trailing down the boy's neck and into the sweat-soaked collar of his shirt. “I thought you had more courage than some wailing woman.” Verteira sneered at his words, pursed her cracked lips to hawk a gob of spit at Ranick's feet. She had a sense for theatrics; she'd fit well, inside Raturo, should she make it to the end. “Was I wrong?”

Ranick's head twitched, trying to shake a negative with as little movement as possible.

“Because if I was wrong,” and Joros twisted the knife back the other way, digging deeper, drawing a choking sort of whimper from the boy's throat, “I can spare you the trouble of having to climb hours more only to die at the hands of a different Sentinel. If you're as much of a coward as I'm beginning to suspect, that's the only way this will end, after all. So tell me, Ranick.” He held the boy's eyes, watching the panic wash through him. “Are you a coward?”

For a moment Joros thought he would start wailing again, and tightened his grip, ready to plunge the knife home. But the boy's eyes hardened and his back straightened, the knife jerking a shallow slash through his neck. He didn't flinch. “No. I'm no coward.”

Verteira spat at him again, and Joros was almost tempted to do the same. But judgment was not his to make, so he pulled the knife away, wiped its bloody tip clean on Ranick's shirt, and returned it to his belt. “Then we carry on.”

“When do we sleep?” Verteira asked.

Joros laughed, and the sound of it tumbled down the
mountain like the mule. “Raturo never sleeps. Best if you don't either.”

“Food, then? We haven't eaten since last night.” She splayed her fingers pointedly against the bulge of her stomach.

“If you feel like searching for the mule, I'm sure you can cook yourself a fine feast.”

She looked up to the mountain's peak, so far away; then down, back the way they'd come, not so terribly far when compared to the way ahead. Not too late to turn back.

Joros turned away from her and back to the steps, lifting his aching feet and setting them ever upward. He heard Ranick behind him do the same, scrabbling at the stone. And after a moment, Verteira's ragged breaths, following.

They climbed as the sun touched the outer edge of the great forest; as the sun beat down mercilessly upon them, not quite enough to burn away the chill that began to seep into their bones; as the sun disappeared once more behind the distant peak, wreathing Mount Raturo in brilliant fire. Joros stopped then, panting, hands braced on his thighs, and gazed out over the southern lands of Fiatera. The forest spread out far below, leagues and leagues of it, trees eventually giving way to the nameless plains beyond, a vast sea of sere grass that slowly faded and died and became the Eremori Desert, a lifeless, blighted wasteland.

Fiatera, the fire lands. Lovingly shaped, as the priests would tell it, by the hands of Metherra and Patharro, the Divine Mother and Almighty Father. Joros heaved in a breath of air and spat over the edge of the mountain. That, for all the Parents' hard work.

Ranick was drudging behind, of course, but not nearly so
far behind as Verteira. Joros sat down on the narrow-cut steps, back resting against the mountain's face and legs dangling into open air, and glared out over the world. The sun cast Mount Raturo's shadow farther and farther across the forest, reaching, reaching.

As the sun set, Ranick finally caught up to him, sprawling inelegantly along the steps. Joros cuffed him, growled, “Stand.” Ranick dragged himself whimpering back to his feet, slumping against the mountain but standing nonetheless.

“What do you see?” Joros asked as the last traces of sunlight leaked away.

Teeth chattering, Ranick sniffled, “The w-world. It's s-so b-b-beautiful. I f-feel like a g-god.”

Night closed its hand, and all was silent halfway up Mount Raturo save for Ranick's clicking teeth. The forest, plains, desert—all were shapeless, colorless, indistinguishable. A solid black, spreading out in every way to the ends of the world. The mountain cold sank through Joros, blood now creeping sluggish through his veins. His heart thumped slow, steady.

“Fecking mountain,” Verteira wheezed as she sagged next to Ranick.

Joros breathed in deep, the frosty air searing his lungs. “What do you see?” he asked her.

She stood at the edge of the mountain, the edge of the world, and was silent for a long moment. “Darkness,” she whispered. “Glory.”

“Glory?”

She didn't look at him, just stared out over the blanket of the night. “There was a man who visited my village, years ago. He called himself a preacher of the night, just like you.
Said Metherra and Patharro were doomed, that their Twins would be unbound one day and rise to destroy the Parents' tyranny. That they would bring down Metherra's sun and cast darkness over the world. That the heart of every man would be laid bare and judged. That we'd all be made equal under the Twins' rule.” She shivered, wrapping her good arm tight around herself. “They drove him out of town, of course, but I always remembered his words. This far above the world, and this dark . . . it almost feels like he was right.”

A chill, deeper than the night air, ran down Joros's arm. A voice murmured in the back of his mind,
Her.
Joros didn't bother hiding his relief, lips twisting into a smile. He reached, his cold fingers wrapped around an ankle, and he
flung
.

Ranick screamed as he tumbled past Verteira, screamed as he fell through open air, screamed long after they stopped hearing him, if Joros was any judge. It didn't matter.

Verteira gaped at him, eyes wide in their blackened sockets. “One,” he told her as he rose to his feet. “Only one is allowed in. You are judged worthy.” His fingers tingled, blood racing into cold flesh. He pressed the other hand against the mountain, and a hidden door of solid rock cracked open to reveal the black mouth of a tunnel. Old magic, woven when gods still walked the earth.

Verteira looked up at him, hard exterior melted away, fear written plainly on her bruised face. “What is this place?”

“Don't you know yet?” He stepped into the darkness.

They walked through the blackness, a dark more solid than any night, until he could hear Verteira's short sharp breaths hissing shallow through her teeth, her feet stumbling, her hands clutching at his back. Smirking, Joros stopped to light
one of the torches placed evenly along the wall. Verteira gasped in relief, shaking hands clutching at her stomach.

“Scared?” Joros asked her.

“No,” she lied quickly.

“There are many who find the
idea
of a darkened world appealing, where all are blind and equal. In practice, though?” The harsh sound of his laugh echoed around them, leading the way as he continued down the tunnel, torch held high, Verteira close on his heels.

Time was meaningless inside the tunnels of Mount Raturo. He was tired, so tired. Three days, at least, they'd been walking. No food, no sleep. Verteira was flagging, bruised ankle dragging, blowing like a hard-ridden horse, black-ringed eyes standing out in her pale face. Joros couldn't afford to show weakness, couldn't afford to be weak. He was hollow, empty, legs screaming, stomach clawing at his rib cage. He always forgot how exhausting the return journey was. Forgot how many people died making it, even the ones who'd done it hundreds of times before. The bones were a good reminder. Full skeletons, curled up into helpless balls. Stretched out flat, bony hands reaching toward salvation. Torn apart, scattered, broken. Charred piles of splinters. Fools who'd been too slow to speak, too tired to think. Joros didn't intend to become just another warning; he was better than that.
“Atora beyan,”
he murmured with every footfall, weary eyes flickering at every shadow, every noise. In the Old Tongue,
safe passage
. In case the shadows moved, solidified, tried to turn him into a lingering reminder for caution.
“Atora beyan.”

Other books
Angel Of Mercy (Cambions #3) by Dermott, Shannon
The Forgotten Fairytales by Angela Parkhurst
Gone Rogue by A McKay
Heartbreak Bronco by Terri Farley
Her Wedding Wish by Hart, Jillian
Saira - TI5 by Heckrotte, Fran
Beautiful Assassin by Michael C. White
I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora