The stench of sulfur grew stronger as they traveled down the tunnel.

            “We’re not heading toward Knud are we?” Celeres asked.

            Khenet snorted in amusement. “The entrance wasn’t that long, boy. Besides, the common assumption that Knud’s path is a tunnel is simply wrong. Knud and Ankine actually swim through rock melted by the flame he uses to keep Ankine alive. Heat rises, so some of the rock vents through the volcanoes that ring the edge of Tiran. That, along with Zonneshin, makes the surface of Tiran warmer than the ether it rests on.

            Khenet paused. “What was the question?”

            Celeres shook his head. “Quite frankly, I’ve forgotten. How do you know all this stuff?”


            “She’s a wise woman of the wood folk,” Sanura interrupted. “She has to be. She’s old. She’s strong. She knows too much.”

            “Braen did call her ‘coyote woman’ before he died,” Celeres said, “but that doesn’t explain the proxies.”

            “Their elders are almost as skilled at magic as the Cheldeans. She’s certainly old enough,” Sanura said.

            Khenet looked back them and grinned. Celeres noted how strong those yellow teeth looked.

            “So,” he asked, “what were you doing in Tagerden? I mean, I thought cities made the wood folk sick or something.”

            “No, the coyote people avoid the cities because of the treaty,” Khenet said.

            “Wait, one of the hirudin mentioned a treaty. You mean your people made a treaty with them?” Celeres asked.

            “Yes. We were the first people to live on Zonne. Our ancestors left the Island of the Western Sky before Lord Zonneshin expelled humanity out of his home. We settled here, as far from our cousins as possible, and missed the disaster that came afterwards. Instead, we learned proxies to change our shape, to grow strong, and to heal fast. By the time the descendents of our cousins reached these shores, we had been here for centuries, living as often as beasts as humans. The cousins were few at first, building small villages here and there. Some even joined us, learning our secrets and feeding their new tribemates with game caught by fang and claw.

            “Some of us joined them instead, tempted by the securities of farming or by interest in the knowledge our cousins had discovered that we had not. A few even became Cheldeans before that order banned our people from their ranks.

            “Still, as the villages grew and more were established inland, conflicts inevitably developed. Our elders were not stupid. In the brief period they had lived on Zonne, they had seen the proliferation of the five-spotted moth, the decline of the hopping bird, and the genocidal war between the ants and the termites on the corpse of the long tree. No cycle is perfect. From ether we came; to ether we will go, no matter how great an effort is made to delay it. Eventually, the villagers would subsume us simply by their expansion. Some proposed to accelerate this process and join them immediately. Others thought to avoid it by using our skills and powers to move into the waters of the ocean, where no true human can live.

            “In the end, they did both. The new villagers gradually forgot the old secrets, producing only the occasional village healer that remembered a trick or two. Others took to the sea, joining the Ou in the deep blue waters and gradually losing their humanity.

            “A core group refused to leave. We maintained the old ways, living and hunting in shapes that were not ours. We retreated far into the woods and mountains, seeing humans only rarely. Thus, we missed the coming of the hirudin.

            “They look like humans but derive special powers from blood. They preyed upon the humans during the day, resting during the dark of night when they are weak. Soon, they had insinuated themselves into influential positions in the cities. That’s when we discovered them.

            “The hirudin had taken a small village near one of our forests. One of their victims fled into the woods, where the hirudin pursued and killed him. We saw the slaughter and were repulsed by their actions. When the hirudin tried to leave, we attacked. They were strong, but we were stronger, harrying them as they ran. Two escaped.

            “We came for them that night, sneaking through the village, tracking their scent. They had set a trap for us. They told the villagers that we had been the ones causing the deaths that plagued them. The hirudin claimed that when they had been out in the forest, hunting the killers of the villagers, we had revealed our true nature by attacking them.

            “Half the village died before the second hirudin was killed and we withdrew.

            “This began a slow war between the hirudin and the woods folk. The hirudin would incite the humans to fear and hunt us. In turn, we would slaughter the hirudin when they came within our reach. Eventually, the hirudin burned down a couple of forests. In turn, the wood folk snuck into towns to kill hirudin when the sun went down.

            “Finally, a truce was called and a treaty was signed. The coyote people would stay away from the towns, and the hirudin would not use humans as cattle. After all, it was the attack on a human that started the war, and the blood hirudin need to survive does not have to be human.

            “It has been an uneasy peace. Humans still fear us. Hirudin still occasionally prey on them. But mostly the treaty has worked.”

            “So the hirudin live among us,” Celeres said slowly.

            “Oh, yes. I think you would be surprised by just how many there are.”

            “So, the rouge hirudin can’t leave their victims alive because such a witness might prove that the treaty was broken,” Sanura said.

            “No,” Khenet corrected her. “They kill the victims to keep the humans ignorant of how many hirudin live among them. A fight with humanity would make our war look like a skirmish.”

            They considered that for a while, the cold creeping into their knuckles, their cheeks, and the tips of their noses. They traveled quickly, marching across a floor pocked with claw marks. Passages leading into the dark opened periodically in the walls and occasionally in the floor. They took some of those, turning back and forth until Celeres felt quite lost. Eventually, the claw marks grew more sporadic and then disappeared entirely. Sanura asked Khenet about that.

            “Groundlings aren’t the only things that make tunnels,” she answered.

            “Are we going to see them?”

            “Not if we’re lucky.”

            “I thought you said we didn’t have to worry about getting into a fight,” Sanura said.

            “If we ran into Gota, it wouldn’t be a fight. It would be a slaughter,” Khenet said. “Don’t worry about it. The reason he built it has long since passed, and so has he.”

            Celeres thought he heard her mutter something else under her breath. “What did you say?” he asked.

            “I didn’t,” she said. “Just ignore it.”

            Gradually, they all became aware of a constant murmur of voices that grew louder as they traveled. Eventually, they could make out a few words that rose above the mutter of what seemed like thousands of speakers.

            “. . . coppers a dozen. . .”

            “What is it?” Sanura asked.

            “Whisper Point. Anything said on Tiran eventually makes its way to a cave we are approaching. It was made during the Shard War so one side could spy on the other.

            “. . . water, please. . .”

            “. . . hard ‘c’, then. . .”

            “How could anyone make sense out of all of this?”

            “Most can’t. It wasn’t built for normal humans.”

            The sound swelled until they had to yell to hear each other over the voices of the world. At that point, they walked out onto a shelf that overlooked a cavern. It was huge, swallowing Khenet’s light and revealing neither the floor nor the wall on the far side.

            “. . . hurt this. . .”

            “. . . loop the thread. . .”

            “. . . three fingers. . .”

            Khenet lead them to the left, stepping surely along a narrow ledge. It drifted down until it became steep enough that someone had carved stairs into it. The ceiling receded out of the light while the ground remained lost in the dark. Celeres eventually lost count of the number of steps they passed over. After an interminable amount of time, first the obelisks and then the floor came into view.

            “. . . great wings over. . .”

            “. . . delicate green. . .”

            “. . . traitor’s wrath. . .”

            Celeres stepped off the stairs and followed Khenet out among the obelisks. They towered above the travelers like strange, angular giants. Their shiny black surfaces gleamed with oily patterns in the lantern’s light. As they passed further into the cave, the obelisks became smoother, curving towards the center of the bare stone forest. The babble of voices fell back closer to whispers with every step.

            “. . . bitter well. . .”

            “. . . furry bug tickles. . .”

            After almost half an hour, they reached the focus of the room. On a dais that was as tall as a man rested a throne made of the same oily black stone. The throne faced a wide, squat obelisk with a hemisphere of material carved out of it.

            “Whisper Point,” Khenet said, pausing before them.

            “. . . jump down. . .”

            Celeres ambled past her, eyeing the throne curiously. When he crossed the point where the hemisphere began, he was blasted with voices.


            Hurriedly, he stepped away from the obelisk, until the voices subsided again.

            “Loud, isn’t it?” Khenet grinned.

            “. . . need three men over. . .”

            “Oh, yeah.”

            A movement on the throne caught his companions’ attention. He turned to find out what they were looking at. At first, he did not see it. The throne was as empty as it had been, filled only by light and shadows. Then it moved.

            “. . . head down spout. . .”

            It was transparent, distorting the light just a bit as it leaned toward them. When it spoke, Celeres finally wrapped his brain around what he was seeing: a transparent man was sitting in the throne.

            “. . . that old mule. . .”

            “Well, you don’t get many visitors down here that walk on two legs,” a voice said.

            Khenet considered the throne for a moment, then said, “Ignore it.”

            The impression of a man laughed with delight. “Now that’s an unusual response. So, what do we have here?” he asked, swooping off the dais to examine them.

            “. . . gold into round. . .”

            The coyote woman grimaced but answered his question, “Khenet.”

            The distortion floated close to her, studying her face. “Hmm. Khenet. Let me see. Are you sure? You resemble-”

            “Just Khenet, Thacker,” she said sharply.

            “. . . take the bag. . .”

            “Really?” Thacker chuckled. “Well, imagine meeting the great troublemaker down here. What are you up to?”

            “What are you doing down here, Firstborn?” she challenged.

            “Listening to the many voices of Tiran. Gota did a good job making this place. It seems a pity to leave it neglected. Who are you friends?” he asked, drifting toward Sanura and Celeres.

            “. . . Keller said. . .”

            “Pups in over their heads.”

            “Have you really been reduced to such petty amusements as humans, Khenet?”
            “My business,” she shrugged. “We’ll leave you to your amusements.”

            “. . . kitty’s sick. . .”

            “Now, now, there’s no hurry. Anyway, I might be as interested in helping them as you are.”

            Khenet let out a short barking laugh that Thacker ignored.

            “My children, what is your problem?” he asked.

            “. . . causing trouble again. . .”

            Celeres stepped back, unsure of the bodiless Firstborn despite Khenet’s attitude. Sanura looked over to the old woman to see if she had any objections. Receiving a resigned shrug from their guide, Sanura answered Thacker. “Hirudin problems,” she said.

            He tutted sympathetically. “Zonneshin’s plague still troubles humanity, does it? I warned him that it would only cause unnecessary complications.”

            Sanura and Celeres exchanged puzzled glances. “On. Zonneshin created the hirudin?” Sanura asked.

            “. . . ow! Sharding hammer. . .”

            “But Zonne is his chosen empire,” Celeres protested. “Why would he make something to hurt his people?”

            “Oh, he’s always had mixed feeling about all of Maand’s children. He drove humanity from their home on the Island of the Western Sky half-hoping to wipe them out. It was stupid, of course. Cheldar warned him that the Destroyer would reappear in a form most like what he had been, which meant humanity. Sometimes there’s just no talking to the Sun Lord.”

            More confused than ever, the lovers had no response to Thacker’s rambling.

            “. . . best haul in ages. . .”

            Oblivious, Thacker continued. “Speaking of Zonneshin, Khenet, you wouldn’t happen to know what happened to the Isole? He had plans for it, and it would be like you to interfere.”

            “Not me.”

            “Then these humans are more interesting than the play of the Firstborn.”

            “. . . sentence you. . .”

            “Despite what you may think, the universe is not solely the province of the Firstborn. You may prefer to haunt caves or dance among the verhaler, but even Gawlchmai walked among the mortals. I might suggest you take a greater interest in the smaller creatures living on Tiran.”

            “You know, I think I shall.”

            Celeres tried to dodge as the bodiless Thacker rushed him. A blast of air hit his face as he twisted away. Ruthlessly, Thacker gripped him and forced open his jaw. The Firstborn poured himself into the mortal’s lungs, choking him. Celeres collapsed, a ragged, hacking cough consuming his body.

            “. . . plow the north. . .”

            Futilely, Sanura drew her blade and hurried to his side. Khenet stayed rooted to her spot, watching Celeres’ convulsions with hard eyes.

            “Do something!” Sanura yelled at her.

            “Patience,” Khenet advised.

            “. . . stop it now. . .”

            For several more moments, Celeres struggled. Then he threw his head back and with a gargling cry, Thacker jumped from his body. Sanura pressed her hand on Celeres’ panting form.

            “This simple thing is what provides your amusements?” Thacker contemptuously asked Khenet. “You disappoint me, trickster.”

            “And your approval means everything to me, Firstborn,” Khenet answered coldly.

            “. . . angels came. . .”

            Holding her sword between Thacker and herself, Sanura helped Celeres to his feet. She pushed him gently in the direction they had been heading. She grabbed up the sack and followed while keeping a wary eye on the Firstborn.

            The voices from the hemisphere opposite the throne quickly overcame her ability to hear anything other than the millions of voices.


tell-gold masks-”

            She could see Khenet and Thacker speaking but could not hear what they said.

            As Sanura exited the multitude of voices, Khenet turned away from Celeres’ tormentor and crossed toward them, her expression grim. Pausing only long enough to take the young man’s arm, she led them away from Whisper Point and back out among the obelisks. Sanura tried to keep an eye on Thacker behind them, but his transparent form quickly disappeared in the receding light of the lantern.

            “. . . take a right. . .”

            “. . . names are approximations. . .”

            Their hurried steps brought them to another set of stairs in the wall in almost half the time it had taken them to reach the throne. Sanura rushed up the stairs, wishing she had borrowed the lantern from Khenet so she could see her way more clearly. Celeres grabbed the sack from Sanura and followed her up. The old woman took up the rear, searching the light cast by the petal for any sign of Thacker.

            “. . . try me boy, and. . .”

            “. . . mind focused. . .”

            “. . . carriage coming. . .”

            Soon, they reached the landing and entered another long tunnel. They marched along, accompanied by echoes of the clatter from Celeres’ sack. Sanura considered sheathing her blade before deciding she was happier confronting the gloom of the tunnel with the solid steel in her hand.

            “. . . good time. . .”

            “. . . scrapped my knee. . .”

            The cessation of Celeres’ clatter warned her that something was wrong. Looking back, she saw Khenet with her hand on Celeres’ shoulder, her head cocked to listen back the way they had come.

            “. . . the sail. . .”

            “Go,” Khenet said sharply.

            When they hesitated, Khenet pushed Celeres forward. “Run!” she yelled.

            “. . . watch out. . .”

            Fearing whatever had set off Khenet, Sanura threw herself down the tunnel, awkwardly sheathing her sword so she could run faster. Close on her heels, Celeres clattered along in the shadows. Horrible possibilities began to fill Sanura’s head. Maybe Thacker had turned into a giant spider and was chasing them down, or a thousand nasty boggies were pursuing them at his command.

            “. . . mmmmmm. . .”

            She was so caught up in these fantasies that she missed the humming at first. When she stumbled, she assumed she had tripped over something. Then she heard the noise and realized the tunnel was shaking. In addition to the unholy racket of stone twisting against stone, there was a violent hum that got louder and sharper with every passing moment.

            “. . . MMMMMMMM. . .”

            As the shivering walls shed motes of dirt, Sanura panicked. She knew-knew-the tunnel would collapse. Worse, the crushing weight would not kill her quickly. No, she would die in pain, body broken by stones as she slowly suffocated to death.

            “. . . RGRGRGRGRGRGRGRGRG. . .”

            Sanura practically flew down the shaking tunnel, oblivious to the sounds of Celeres struggling behind her. She moved so quickly that she almost ran into the wall before she realized it was there. The tunnel had abruptly ended in a very steep hill. Dimly, she could see the night sky above her through the trembling hole of the exit. Hardly pausing, the soldier switched from running to climbing, digging fingers into the exposed dirt and pulling herself up. Ignoring the tumbling pebbles and dust, she rushed toward the sky.

            Right as she was within reach of the lip, she remembered Celeres and slipped down two feet before catching herself. Desperate, she twisted around and saw Celeres leaning on Khenet. They had just reached the hill. Khenet frowned at Sanura and waved at her to continue the climb.

            With deliberate movements, Sanura fought the shaking earth and pulled herself out of the hole. She immediately settled herself on the ground to help her lover when he reached the top. Looking down, she could see her companions quite clearly. Celeres climbed steadily, ignoring the shivering of the earth. Khenet had abandoned her lantern on the floor and had somehow reached the ceiling of the tunnel above Celeres. The old woman clutched the bag in her left hand while deftly picking her way along against gravity with the other hand and her feet.

            Khenet reached the lip first, throwing the bag out of the hole and then emerging on the side opposite Sanura. The old woman turned to help the young ones, but by then Sanura had already grabbed her lover and pulled him out.

            The three lay there for a moment, catching their breath under the light of the moon. Sanura looked over to Khenet to see if they were in further danger, but the old woman did not seem inclined to hurry away.

            The next moment, Sanura could only watch helplessly as the ground gave away beneath their guide.