FATE STALKED THE DARKNESS, and still, the city slept. It’s said that all things must die, even the wonders of the world and the great cities of the ages. Nothing is immortal, the wizened mages whispered.
They were wrong.
However, that wouldn’t save the city. Not this night.
THE CITY’S GRAND TEMPLE gripped the sides of the mountain, a lumbering dragon against which the walled citadel nestled as a pup might huddle at its master’s feet. The Holy Edifice had been built centuries before, and the city had grown around it, a massive organism feeding the sanctuary’s hungry coffers.
The vibrant moon far overhead brushed gentle fingers down the city’s elegant stone avenues. In courtyards and pedestrian malls, fountains sang their liquid melodies, the gift of distant reservoirs and towering aqueducts. The inhabitants had long since been lulled into complacency, and rightly so. This was indeed a city of the ages. The fathers and grandfathers of those who rested within its cradling arms had laid its stones, and not one had ever been overturned from another.
It had endured for ten generations and surely would endure for many more. Such were the dreams of those that resided within its walls.
NESTLED AMONG THE NIGHT-SHROUDED ramparts, stone steps shivered in the shadows. Dust rose from mortarless joints, only to settle slowly back once again. The ground underneath the city’s foundations stirred to life, and that was as it should be. Let the city’s inhabitants rest in the remaining time they had left, for their world’s existence was drawing to a close. Within the darkness, an age-old curse had awakened once again. Even the stones felt the evil that was coming to life.
Parik knew of the power that gathered beneath the bedrock. It drew together for him. The power would come to him, do to him as it wished. It would bring him renewed life, although it was unwanted life, and in doing so, it would rain death upon all he knew.
“Muse?” Deep and resonant, his voice called into the room, echoing in the hollow space. He stood from his blanket in search of his woman. She’d be distressed. The shaking of the stones always drove the Muse from him. It was the wretch his Muse had left behind, now returned to herself once again, who would be awash in pain. She’d be frightened, and he had no wish to see her suffer.
“Muse?” he called again. It was the only name by which he knew her.
Hearing a whimper, he stepped to the girl, and he knelt in the shadowy darkness and took her face in his hands. He looked gently into her eyes to see them filled with fear. He knew those eyes, yet they no longer knew him. What she’d been to him, she could be no more.
“Please don’t be frightened,” he murmured. He reached a hand to caress her hair, a familiar action, then withdrew it just before he touched her.
He felt dust brush the back of his neck, knowing it to be the grinding of stone upon stone, and he looked up at the ceiling far overhead. This woman would die. When the power came, the people around him always did, and there was nothing he could do about that.
She didn’t have to die afraid, however. He could do nothing else for her now that the power had started to gather, but comfort was the one thing he could provide. She surely desired relief from her fear more than anything in the world, and if she desired it, he could give it.
With gentleness in his fingertips, he reached and touched her temple. In that connection, he felt the warmth of power draw from his hand, and the fear on her face melted away.
“I was afraid,” she whispered, her eyes studying his face. “I’m now not afraid.” Even so, she remained still, and after a moment she shivered.
“I wouldn’t have hurt you.”
The man sighed with his exhaustion and stood, his body glistening in the dimness of the moonlight leaking into the interior of the room. Against other men, he was tall, and even the age that held him in its grip couldn’t disguise the power that resided underneath his skin. A stray ray of light found its way through yet a new crack in the ceiling, and where it filtered through the dust-laden air to illuminate his hand, the tip of one finger glowed. He glanced down, noticing it in the light, aware it no longer ached, and knew it as yet another sign that the Muse had fled far away.
His sudden weakness, the tiredness he felt, was more than the age in his body. It was the curse at work. It was the fingernail, and it was a decision that had been forced upon him at the beginning of all that had ever been.
MANY EONS AGO, HE was known as Parikshit Aagneya, Tested-One Born-from-Fire. The mortal son of a goddess, he’d spurned her incestuous advances, refusing to become his mother’s lover.
Wrestling for escape, even as she’d cursed him to eternal misery, the yellow tip of her Second Hand’s fourth nail had come loose in his fist. It was from her Healing Hand of Life, and he’d immediately understood that to ingest the nail was to claim part of her power for his own.
He’d stolen the tip of the Goddess Lamahätsu’s most precious fingernail, and she was furious.
So, with triumph on his face, even as fear raged in his chest, he’d swallowed it whole, feeling the surge of unimaginable power rush through him. For a moment, his feet stumbled in his flight. He looked back, fearing Lamahätsu would be upon him. She stood as if transfixed, however, and he paused to watch. Her Fifth Arm of Death brandished fire and lightning, while her Two Arms of Love traced patterns in the air, knowing he’d see. Laughter danced on her face, and longing was in her eyes.
It was longing for him.
The Goddess of Life, the fire-breathing seductress who had birthed the fires of the world from her womb, desired one who was formed in the Fires of Creation, and those fires were hers. As she’d once birthed the world, she had given life to Parik, knowing that as he grew, he’d become ever more that one who would be there to satisfy her loneliness. As a child she’d doted on him, but it wasn’t a child she needed. She had waited—not always patiently—as he’d approached the chasm separating childhood from manhood. Only then would he be ripe for her needs.
He had known, although sensed was more accurate than known, really, as the mists of the evening will suddenly be there, their beginnings unnoticed until they’re fully around a man.
As his body leaped in a matter of months from child to man, she became ever more affectionate. She teased with him, her ministrations aimed at drawing him out. When she gathered him to her, her Two Arms of Love caressed his newly muscled shoulders, running down his chest, and stroking his lengthening legs.
However, he’d also seen how she’d bristled, how her Fifth Arm of Death had flashed fire, and her storms had lashed the world when he became interested in the mortal girls of the villages. The realization had come upon him until there had been no doubt. Parik’s mother, Lamahätsu, the Goddess of Life, had birthed him, yet she also groomed him to be her consort, her vessel of satisfaction.
Despite his respect for her powers, Parik knew he’d never allow himself to be any of those things.
In preparation for the final days of their relationship as mother and child, Lamahätsu had prepared a banquet of sumptuous proportions. It was to be served on the great stones that rested on the beds of coals that had erupted from the bowels of the earth in the time of creation. The forested bowers of her boudoir smelled sweet, with branches of pine spiced with the aphrodisiac cinnamon of the lower reaches. A crashing waterfall stood in the distance, its billowing flumes at Lamahätsu’s beck and call.
Parik had grown tall, and his back was straight with the strength of impending manhood. His beard had yet to grow, but his voice ran deep. Lamahätsu’s desire for him already waxed strong. It bled from her voice.
“Parikshit, my son, I’ve prepared a Meal of Celebration. Come to me.” Her voice had purred as she called to him, although it sounded more like the rumble of distant thunder across the hills. “Tonight, a dozen seasons and a half more have come to fruition. We will celebrate together.” Her smile was the first flash of the sun’s rays through the storm’s breaking cloud cover.
The storm was ever-present, though. Experience had taught Parik that.
“Celebrate, Mother?” The feast and its attending bowers of greenery, obviously intended for an amorous conflagration, one that would require the quenching waters of the mountain snowmelt, had not escaped the son’s attention. “You are the ageless Five-Armed Goddess, the Womb of Creation, the Bringer of Life. The world celebrates you every day.”
He laughed, but he’d also watched her Two Arms of Love. They were moving in the ways they had moved when he’d first bridged the chasm to manhood, and they were motioning for him to draw near to her.
“Ah, the old names.” Her laughter was the ripple of rain on a summer stream. She moved his direction, and in her Two Arms of Life, she held a platter of red pomegranates. “I’ve grown these especially for you. Do you like the color? Take a bite, my precious Parikshit. For companionship.” She stroked a pomegranate with one of her Two Arms of Love, picking it up to hold it out to him. The distant thunder rumbled her sultry words. “You care for me, do you not?” Her Fifth Arm of Death toyed with her raven hair, drawing it out into spiky snakes that stayed where it left them.
“You’re my mother. You birthed me from your womb. Of course, I care for you.” He reached for the pomegranate, and as he took it, he observed her eyes. They crinkled in anticipation, and lightning flashed across the skies.
“Eat, my son.” One of her Two Arms of Love reached to stroke his shoulder, running up under his leather vestments. “Eat and be mine.”
In the moment of his mother’s touch, Parik’s suspicions were no longer mists in the farthest reaches of his mind. The haze of qualms that had haunted him over the past half-dozen seasons solidified, and without warning, he was in the pine and cinnamon bower. His vestments were thrown off to one side, and he lay bare. His mother stood above him, and her raven hair writhed with anticipatory need. Dark clouds roiled across the sky, and lightning flashed from her eyes. She laughed, and thunder crashed through the heavens.
“No mortal man has been for me what you will, my precious son. Many have tried, and I’ve killed them for their failure. You, Parikshit, birthed of my womb, will now be the one to rule at my side.” She laughed again and reached toward him.
Parik had been horrified to find the motion of her hand made him prickle with need. He tried to struggle, but his limbs were fastened by some unseen mechanism to the pine boughs underneath his back.
“Ah, my son. Don’t fight. It was the pomegranate, you see.” The rain on the summer stream rippled again, more violently this time, barely heard in the sensations flooding through Parik’s loins. “It’s only half the magic, though. Once we are one, your very essence will return to me, and you’ll want me as much as I want you. We will be drawn together, companions always.” She ran one of her hands along the side of his neck, tracing his collarbone, and sliding it sensuously across his chest and arm, stopping when she reached his wrist. He smelled the trees around them begin to scorch, singed by the fires of Lamahätsu’s blistering passion.
Parik yelled his defiance, and then he was once again standing, holding the pomegranate, with his mother’s hand underneath his vestments. The touch that had been the treasured stroke of a mother’s love was now the vile contact of filthy lust, and he felt his body cringe. He returned the pomegranate to the platter, and as he turned to withdraw from his mother’s side, the sky darkened; and the rumble of her voice became the lightning crackle of a gathering tempest.
LAMAHÄTSU SENSED THE CHANGE in him. After all, she was also the Giver of Death as well as the Essence Eater. In her divinations, she’d sensed he might hesitate; and although the future was never sure, she knew men as men didn’t know themselves. She knew Parik even better. She understood his every nuance, the very shading of his essence, and she’d seen his vision even as he’d seen it. It had been hers to give, although it had been an unintended gift. She wanted him voraciously, needed him intensely, so much so that she’d let her control slip, and her desire had erupted into his thoughts.
When darkness had crossed his face, she knew he was revolted. He wouldn’t partake of the pomegranate, no matter how much she plied him. He’d seen its purpose, and without it, the bonding wouldn’t be complete. When she saw him gather himself to leave, she read the intent in his movements, in the finality of his facial expressions, and she made one last stab to keep him. If he’d just stay, she could employ other machinations to entrap him. She could. She knew it. She was the Goddess of Life, the carrier of the Womb of Creation. She’d birthed Parik, and she would have him.
“My son,” she pleaded, and her voice softened to a gentle breeze, as it rustled the trees in the distance. Her Fifth Arm of Death smoothed her wild, raven hair, and her Two Arms of Life reached to him. “I’ve always loved you, my Parikshit. Please stay. You are safe in my bowers. Trust me.” She lied well, too, although there was the faintest hint of keening in the wind as it spoke her words, and it told of her dishonesty.
“Son?” His voice was brittle with disgust, shattering her hope of reconciliation. He’d been birthed by the Goddess of the Beginnings of the World. His words carried power of their own, even if it wasn’t a supernatural one. “Am I your son or your intended companion, one you only desire so you are not alone?” His eyes were hard, and while his couldn’t shoot fire and lightning, and there was no Fifth Arm of Death hovering above his head, his green orbs, darkened with fury, nonetheless flashed with slicing daggers of hate.
“My son,” her brook of a voice burbled. “You are my most treasured possession. Please stay.” Her need still burned in her, and as much as she tried to control it, forcing herself to let only the sweetest facets of her Many-Armed Self through, she still needed her son’s touch. She couldn’t be satisfied without it. For eighteen seasons her longing had built up, and now she was learning the frustration of denial. Her body needed this man she’d birthed for this express purpose, and the brook became a torrent barely contained within its banks. “The feast. It waits. Please stay that long, my precious Parikshit.”
PARIK HEARD THE ROILING undercurrents in her words, and he was repulsed. “I think not. I will go, Goddess. I think I’ll go far, and I don’t think I’ll return. You’ve been a parent to me up until this day, but no longer. I’m not prepared to be your consort. I bid you farewell, Mother Goddess, Life Giver.” He tucked his vestments to his waist with one bent arm, and he gave a small bow. Then he turned to exit his mother’s presence forever, knowing he’d never return.
“You’ll die out there.” The screech of a hundred crows assaulted his ears. “Without me, you’ll die, Parikshit. You’ll live a mortal’s life, and you’ll die at the end of your time, old and broken. Is that what you want?”
He stopped, but he didn’t turn. “Die? If I stay here, I’m dead already. How can you think to taunt me? Death by companionship or death by old age. The choice seems clear to me. I’ll take old age, Goddess Mother.”
Thunder rumbled his name, and a violent gust of wind whipped around him. In the maelstrom, dust and stone pelted his flesh.
“What now, Mother?” Parik faced her, and the change in her appearance frightened him. He’d never truly seen her as he saw her then. She’d been irritated with him before, most notably when he’d taken his first love from the village, but this was different. This was anger fueled with desperation, and there was something more, something much more.
Sparks flew from the tips of her hair, and violent, roiling dust poured from between the rocks at her feet. The ground shook, and Parik stumbled as he shifted his balance to regain his footing. Fear wouldn’t, however, force him to her bower of pines and cinnamon.
“Parikshit.” The shifting stones at his feet spoke his name. The rising dust whispered of adoration, even while it brushed his legs in an obscene dance of lust unfilled.
“What is it now, Goddess? Will you kill me as I stand? Is old age not enough for you?” His heart beat in fear, but he wouldn’t let her see. He kept his back straight, and he spoke to the commanding presence standing before him with defiance in his words. “Do as you will. I was created in the fires of your womb, and if you choose to take me, then take me as I stand. I won’t stop you, and I couldn’t even if I wished to do so.”
The ground moved again, and new, deeper cracks split the place where he stood, sending new waves of dust billowing into the air.
“Parikshit!” This time darting lightning demanded his attention, and the goddess that was Lamahätsu began to glow. “You are my son, youth-man that you are, and I wouldn’t have you die.” Underneath the building thunder, she murmured, “That wouldn’t serve my purposes. You are more important to me than all the powers I wield.”
Her Fifth Arm of Death stretched its five fingers into the sky, and five lightning bolts flew from them. With a cracking shockwave, rain and hail began to litter the ground, beating the bowers of Lamahätsu’s boudoir, and shearing in twain the great stones that were heated by the coals from the Fires of Creation.
“No, I won’t kill you.” Repeated thunderbolts slammed her words into the hillsides. She laughed cruelly, and a mountain in the distance erupted into flowing lava, showering the surrounding villages with flaming ejecta. Her body growing ever larger, and with her brilliance shining ever brighter, she pointed her five arms at him. “I will give you life, Parikshit, immortal life.” She cackled, and the trees of her boudoir burst into flames. “I will give you life, Parikshit.”
“Life? I have life. Immortal life? Spare me, Lamahätsu, Mother Goddess. Keep your immortal life, your empty gift. I don’t want it.” He sneered, even as he felt the tickling of sweat on the hairs within his armpits and across his loins.
“It isn’t a gift, my son. It’s a curse. You’ll live forever, my paramour, until the fires at the end of time devour the very rocks upon which we stand.” Lightning flashed angrily around her, dancing her words to him. Lamahätsu was now twice as tall as her son, and the light that shined all about her was blinding.
“How can such a thing be possible?” he scoffed. “I’ve none of your powers. I’m a mere mortal. Will you turn me into a god to stand beside you? How can you curse me with such an empty threat? Your words are hollow, Mother. You are the one who’s eternal. Speak the truth to me, or let me walk from this place forever.”
“Forever?” Lamahätsu’s five hands were in constant motion by then, and a reddened, glowing sphere had formed in their midst. It seemed that only by their constant motion was the glowing thing kept contained. “Look for your Muse, my son, for your Muse will keep you safe. He must keep you safe, for if you die, he dies. Or he may try to kill you just for spite.” Lamahätsu’s laughter cackled once again, and the searing lightning that was her voice blinded him with its brilliance. “Yes, you’ll live forever, even as you grow old and die, and in your rebirth, each time you’ll take untold thousands of mortals with you. This is your curse, my son, to be reborn over and over at the cost of every living thing around you.”
Parik laughed disparagingly, even as sweat coursed down his back. He didn’t know if his mother could do this thing, but she might try. She was the Goddess of Life, and she did have Two Arms of Life, Two Arms of Love, and a Fifth Arm of Death. Yet, in his disdain, he rebuked her, brandishing his defiance.
“I won’t have your curse, one where you can pursue me lifetime after lifetime. I’ve loved you as a mother, but I love you no longer. Let me die of old age while you live forever. I wish only to be gone from your presence.”
“My presence?” Lamahätsu now towered as tall as the trees, and the ball her hands contained had taken on a green hue, one lit with yellow fire. The resounding timbre of her voice crushed the grasses and shattered the branches of the remaining trees. “We will be bound throughout the ages. I will live only as you live, my son. You are still mortal, after all. Your immortality will come only in your rebirth.” She leaned forward and held out the glowing orb to him as she smiled. “Come, partake, Parikshit. I have a pretty present for you, a parting gift, so to speak.”
The ground shook violently as she stepped forward, throwing superheated dust up from the bowels of the earth. Parik was pitched from his feet. As he clambered up, he realized he must have been entranced to simply stand there as Lamahätsu reared before him and prepared her curse. Angry with himself, he turned to run, only to feel a massive hand wrap itself around his body, with one finger at his throat, two across his torso, and another crushing his legs. A whirlwind spoke into his ears.
“My gift. You must not leave without my gift.”
The fingers against his torso pressed hard, and Parik grabbed at the hand. In his fury, the yellow nail from his mother’s fourth finger broke off. Lamahätsu released him with a wail, and he dropped to his knees as she howled in pain, drawing her bleeding hand to her side. Without understanding why, he knew he must ingest the poisonous nail—he must—for it would bring him a measure of strength against the goddess.
When he turned, fearing she’d seize him again, there stood Lamahätsu, with her Two Arms of Love weaving a goddess’ magic in the air, her Two Arms of Life holding the glowing sphere, and her Fifth Arm of Death brandishing lightning and fire above her head. A red stain ran from the fourth finger on her Hand of Healing.
Then, with her Two Arms of Life, she threw the ball at him. Just before it engulfed him, a crashing torrent of thunder across the hillsides wrapped her final words about him.
“Remember your Muse. Look for him—or her!” She laughed hideously as the fire-laced green orb engulfed him. Parik’s torso was overwhelmed with burning sensations that surged throughout his body, intensifying as the glowing ball was absorbed into his skin. He collapsed to the ground, writhing in torment. When the burning faded, and he could open his eyes again, Lamahätsu was gone, and he was alone.
STANDING IN THE STONE chamber with the woman at his side, the old man Parik had become sighed heavily. He knew what lay before him. It was time to be reborn, and many would die. He’d continue to live, and others would perish in the process.
All he could do was make things better when he could.
The moonlight once again caught the fourth nail on his right hand, and it glowed yellow, the same color once seen on an old goddess’ hand, a goddess who hadn’t been present in goddess form in more seasons than any mortal could count.
Parik could, though. He could count the seasons. He didn’t need to know the number. He’d lived every one.
CHIARINA LUCANUS TUGGED the small, warm body of her brother tighter. The shaking in the ground distressed her. When he turned in her arms, groaning, she comforted him with a whisper.
“Patience, small brother. The morning comes. Perhaps the people will be more generous. We will have food, then.” She paused in the darkness as the stones in the building shifted again, and once the dust had settled, she kissed his cheek. “Perhaps you won’t be hungry when you sleep tomorrow night.”
She was certain he would be, though. With her crippled leg, it was sometimes all she could do to drag herself from this abandoned room she and her brother called home. It was shelter, but it was also off the main avenue through the city, and not many people walked the side street where she sat with her bowl. She dared not go farther from their room, either. Her brother was very small, and he couldn’t be left alone, not even on the chance she might find additional coins on a more heavily trafficked street. Small boys—abandoned small boys—were sometimes sought out for use in religious practices—sacrificial ones—that took more from the boys’ small bodies than any religion had the right to demand.
As she turned on the hard, stone floor, pain lanced through her crippled leg and up through her loins. She groaned, damping her responses to the mind-numbing torment as her brother stirred and moaned in her arms. The pain was worse since she’d been visited by the goddess. When she was just a girl, the pain was bad, but she’d been able to push it from her mind. Now, though, it was too much, sometimes.
The first time the goddess had visited her, Chiarina had been on the street by her bowl, unsure what was happening. She’d been frantic that she was dying in a new and horrid way. As her fingers had pressed against the pain, she’d screamed, falling to her side and letting the sensations flow where they would.
For weeks she’d lived in terror, but when an old serving woman from the temple stopped by, one who visited regularly in her white tunic with its red stripe, bringing Chiarina alms, the old woman explained the goddess’ monthly gift. She also told the crippled girl that she was sorry she must still beg, but with the pain, she couldn’t be accepted into the temple’s holy order. To carry the basins of water to cleanse the supplicants’ feet, then to stand and listen to their absolutions—a duty required of the temple serving women—wasn’t an easy task.
With the old woman’s words, Chiarina knew her hopes of joining the temple for her livelihood were dashed, and that meant Thaddiaos would continue to sleep hungry most nights.
Closing her eyes, Chiarina thought of the man who had stopped and spoken with her from time to time over the past season, occasionally dropping coins in her bowl. He was tall, with his hair pulled sternly from his face, rolled and in a catch sack at the base of his neck. Often his head was also draped with a cloth.
His eyes were old, although they smiled at her.
Chiarina might be just at the cusp of womanhood, but she knew faces. The man had a very old essence inside of him, and she could tell he’d lived a very long time, far longer than his crinkled eyes suggested.
The woman who sometimes walked with him wasn’t old. She was quite a beauty, although what Chiarina envied wasn’t her face. She wished for the straight legs the woman walked upon, ones that didn’t pain her when she moved at night, or force her to crawl wherever she went. Chiarina envied her for that. What she didn’t envy her for was what she saw in her eyes. Just like the man, the woman was very ancient, an old nimji, an elemental forest creature that should have merged with the new religions many lifetimes before. Nimjis, however, didn’t take young boys for sacrificial rites, and the two had never tried to claim her Thaddiaos. Still, she always made him hide inside no matter who came by, so they wouldn’t know of her brother. It was a risk she couldn’t afford.
A scrabbling sound along the wall caught her attention, and smiling through the darkness, Chiarina reached inside a small pocket in her tunic. She pulled out a dry crumb of bread that was too small and too old to satisfy her or even Thaddiaos. She tapped the stones along the wall, setting the breadcrumb on the floor just beyond the ends of her fingers. Then she tapped again in an odd, irregular pattern. After a pause, she heard her pattern repeated. Keeping her fingers very still, she waited as the sounds grew closer, and when they stopped, she felt the shiver of whiskers on her fingers. That was when she knew her offering had been accepted, and she lifted her fingers to run them across the furred head.
She’d never seen the creature, but she knew it was like her in many ways. It was often hungry, it made friends rarely, and it was crippled. She knew that, because she’d felt of its legs, and one of its front legs was malformed, just like hers. She guessed that was why she saved bits of bread for its nightly visit. She felt a kinship to this creature. Then, after making its trade, allowing a gentle touch in exchange for its meal, the rat would be gone for the rest of the night, its crippled body making the same irregular tapping on the stone the girl had used to call it for its crumb.
After the building was silent again, Chiarina lay very still, listening to the world around her. It was when the floor began to move again that she closed her eyes and tried to squeeze the tears away. The moving floor made the stones shake, and the shaking stones made her afraid. After all, if the stones could move, what would keep them from falling on top of her, and if she were gone, then who would take care of Thaddiaos?
That frightened her very much, indeed.
MOVING HIS HAND FROM the moonbeam, the fingernail’s glow faded, and Parik knelt once again to the woman’s side. She was quite beautiful, really, although she wasn’t his. She could never truly be his. The Muse had only been using this vessel, taking the young woman as her own, and Parik had really lain beside his Muse.
In the beginning, many lifetimes ago, existing with the Muse had been difficult, disconcerting, even. At times, deadly; frightening; without apparent connection.
He always knew the Muse, although he couldn’t search her out. The Muse found him. Parik just knew she was there—or he was—when she—or he—showed up. When she was gone—or again, when he was gone—the Muse was simply that. Gone. Parik didn’t know what caused the Muse to inhabit one person or another, or to leave that person. The Muse refused to answer those questions.
Still, he knew the Muse had saved his life as often as she—or he—had tried to take it. He’d fought the Muse, too, even killed him once, although after that, Parik had learned that the Muse couldn’t be killed, only the Muse’s host. That was back in the early days, before his first rebirth, and he’d been fresh to his mother’s curse. Assured of the Muse’s death, he’d gone on a three-week drunk to celebrate.
He’d believed his companion a close friend, and he had been before the Muse had taken him. Parik wasn’t as proficient at recognizing the Muse then, and when the man had suddenly changed, Parik put it off to a bad fortnight of gambling and lost coin, or perhaps there was an unsuspected change coming in the weather. What was clear was the new quality in their relationship. Verbally confrontational at first, the coarse bantering soon escalated to physical challenges, and then the threats started. No matter what Parik did, his friend wouldn’t be placated.
One night on the road, after much carousing, Parik hired two wenches to join them in their room. It was when they lay together with their wenches between them, with just candlelight to see by, that his friend began to tell Parik things this friend had no way to know. The friend began to goad him, telling him of the great Mother Goddess, and how she had a son she’d attempted to take as her lover, only he’d spurned her. When Parik laughed, telling him it was just an old story, his friend had pressed him and ridiculed him, telling him in great detail what he should have allowed the Mother Goddess to do to him, and what he should have done to her in return.
By that time, Parik had heard enough. Angry, he stood up and yelled for his friend to leave the matter alone. He had no idea what he was talking about. There was no Mother Goddess, and even if there were, she had no son. She wouldn’t have taken him as her lover in any case, because he’d have cursed her to the fires that sprang from her womb in the creation of the world.
His friend leaped to his feet to look Parik full in the face. With a leering grin, he gloated. Then he spoke the words that took Parik’s blood to a height he hadn’t known existed.
“Remember your Muse. Look for him. Do you not know me, Parik?”
His friend had turned to his things and grabbed a long-bladed knife, and in two quick motions, sliced cleanly into the chests of both the wenches. As they gurgled their last breaths, their eyes wide with shock, his friend laughed.
“Your mother wanted you, but you give yourself to wenches like this, instead. How fitting that all the females you take should die horribly, just as the Mother Goddess did when you denied her. Would you like to be next, my friend, Parik?” The man had then brandished the blade in the candlelight, its blood-coated surface gleaming wetly.
In one smooth motion, Parik stepped to his scabbard, and his own blade was in his hand. Crouching, he parried with the man he’d once called his friend.
“Tell me how you know these things. Has a wygrog visited you? Is that why you’ve changed?” His old friend seemed as a weredemon that parades as a man in day and steals his essence at night, leaving unnatural knowledge in return. Parik flashed his clean blade as a warning, listening to the women as they finally quit their death throes in the room’s dim light.
The friend sneered. “Has a wygrog visited you? Do you not know me, Parik? I’m your Muse, and I might kill you tonight. What’s one more death, after what you did to your mother?” He twisted his hand in a gutting motion. “Like that? Do you want to die swiftly, Parik, or slowly like these wenches? I’ll let you choose. With haste or ease. Make your choice. Quickly, now.” He stepped onto the bed, his feet moving casually over the two women whose lives he’d so callously taken. Then he dropped in front of Parik, backing him to a corner.
“Stay back,” Parik called, falling against the wall, knowing he had no retreat. “You’ve been my friend. I don’t wish to hurt you.”
“Ha! I’m not your friend. I’m your Muse, and I’m not sure I like you very much. Look at the gift you gave this girl. She spent her final evening with you, and she lies dead because of it. What manner of gift is that? At least your mother gave you life, not death. How could you be so cruel? Your Muse seems to think you don’t deserve to live. Come taste my blade, and you shall enjoy the special gift you’ve given these wenches.”
Then, with quickness unparalleled by anything Parik thought him capable of, the blade was at Parik’s throat. His friend leaned hard into him, pressing his chest into Parik’s, his breath warm on Parik’s face.
Parik whispered, “This Muse is real, then?” He needed to be sure.
“Real enough to kill you. Do you wish to die?”
“No.” Parik’s eyes narrowed, and in a sudden burst of muscles, he threw his arm around his friend.
The man’s eyes grew wide, and his body went rigid for a time. Then, with a cough, blood began to foam from his mouth. The blade at Parik’s throat fell away and clattered to the floor. With a moan, the man who had been Parik’s closest friend fell backwards onto the floor, his eyes blank and blood running down his chin.
Parik stood for a moment with his eyes closed, holding his hand close to his side with fingers spread. Then, taking stock, he looked around the room. Leaning forward, he grabbed his friend’s shoulder and rolled him over enough to pull his knife from his side, wiping it on the bed linens as he stood. He also knelt and picked up his friend’s knife, knowing it as easily might have been red with his own.
Pulling his tunic on, he rifled his friend’s clothing to collect whatever coin he might have, leaving it neatly stacked on his friend’s chest to cover the cleanup. Then, grabbing his own things, he stepped to the door and let himself out.
That was the first time he’d killed his Muse, not realizing his friend was locked somewhere still inside. It wouldn’t be the last time, though. However, the Muse never died, just moved on, and Parik had learned to do the same.
Parik touched the woman’s chin as she sat in front of him, and when she looked up at him, he questioned her, “Do you remember your name?”
“The city?” She reached and touched the wall, the coolness of the stone seeming to surprise her. “I’m in the city?”
“Your name?” Parik brushed the hair from her face. He’d done so many times in the past season, but she was no longer the person he’d bedded. The touch carried a memory for him now, but no emotional attachment. Parik had also learned to let that go as soon as the Muse was gone. There could be no emotional attachment when the woman didn’t know who he was.
“Zekiye.” She paused, and even in the darkness, Parik could see her smile with her returning memory. “Zekiye, daughter of Romy the sheepherder. Do you know Romy?”
Parik wished he did. Then he could send this woman home. She’d have a reason to leave, and she might be saved. The others in the city wouldn’t run, though. They knew their city was safe. It was built of stone, and stone was forever. If there was danger, they could run into the walls of stone, and the walls would protect them.
Parik knew better. The walls would kill them. He lived in a city of dead men walking, and there was nothing he could do about that. Now that the power had started to gather, he couldn’t even leave to draw it someplace else. It would hold him as tightly as when he’d seen himself in his vision lying in the Mother Goddess’ boudoir with its green pine and cinnamon bed. The spell that he’d foreseen there could hold him no more tightly than the one that held him wherever the power started to gather, and the power had started to gather. The Muse taking flight was proof enough of that. The earthquakes were another confirmation. Most of all, though, it was what Parik felt in his inner being. His life was reaching its end. He’d soon walk anew upon the face of this earth, and there was nothing he could do about that.
“PARIK, YOU KNOW I love you.” Once, many existences ago, she’d told him that.
“Sure, Muse. You love me. You’ve also tried to kill me in more lifetimes than I care to count.” He turned on his side and stroked the Muse’s face. She’d been someone else last week, an older woman who was a senator in the city government. Parik didn’t know what satisfaction the Muse had gotten out of that, but she’d pushed some new and quite extravagant legislation through the city’s legal system, laws that had guaranteed rights for female citizens of the province.
“Kill you? No.” She giggled, but the repeated sound wasn’t that of glee. Rather it carried the off-key chords of maliciousness greatly enjoyed. “I wanted you to see that I could, that was all. You need to appreciate how fragile life is. When you live forever, you tend to forget.”
He sighed, then after a moment murmured, “A lot you would know about that.”
He lay back, his eyes tracing the low ceiling. The senator had lived in better quarters, but she also had a husband and grandchildren who regularly came to visit. Parik had only found the Muse during the final weeks of that game, and now she’d become a free woman with coal black skin and the most exquisite carvings in her flesh. Even her earlobes had been stretched to allow great, brass rings to be inserted inside.
She reached long, ebony fingers to his chest.
“I could become a man, again. Would that interest you, Parik? I could become a man, and I could come to you. Would you like me to do that, come to you as a man?” She giggled once more, her playfulness clearly meant to goad.
“I wouldn’t like for you to come to me as a man.” He pushed her arm away. “I’ve had quite enough stimulation for one night, thank you, temptress. I would just as soon you leave me in peace.” He sat up and repositioned himself, separating his body from hers. He turned to appraise her new look. “Black becomes you, Muse.”
“It adds variety, you mean.” She ran her hand up and around her neck. “It still feels like skin, though. Delicious.”
“As a man, do you find your interest in men, still, or in women?” He watched her face, hoping for a moment of honesty.
She ran her fingers down his arm, pausing at his elbow. Then, taking his hand in hers, she held it gently, an unspoken question in her eyes. When no answer came, she released it and stroked his arm once again.
“I,” she paused for emphasis, “always find my interest in you, dear Parik.” She smiled. “Always.”
He laughed. It was the cryptic answer he should have expected. “I’m hungry, Muse.” When she grabbed his hand again, placing his fingers between her lips, he pushed her away. “For food. Fruit, perhaps. You haven’t answered my question, though. As a man, Muse. Tell me. I must know how your desires fall.”
“Why do I still chase you?” Her lips pouted, and she grabbed his hand once more, massaging the knuckles. Then, in seeming randomness, she brushed her touch over his fourth finger, finally stroking the nail there.
“I’ve yet another question, Muse. Answer this if you won’t answer the other. What is it that fascinates you so about that finger? You seem taken with it. You worry it day and night. It aches, besides, any time you’re near. Leave it alone.” It was old Lamahätsu’s power, or at least the remains of it. He’d not forgotten even after all these years, and he wished it left in peace.
“Pshaw.” She pushed it away, reaching to his face. She trailed her fingertips around his lips, then up and over one ear. She touched her lips to his and whispered, “I find this more fascinating, but you are unwilling to work with me. So, we rest, and I must banter with you.”
“Banter?” Parik leaned away. Reaching for an apple, he checked it for worms and bit into it. After swallowing, he continued, “You don’t banter, woman. You avoid my question. Men or women? Tell me, and I might be yours, yet.”
“Be mine? You are mine, Parik.”
“Thief.” He looked away, setting the apple aside and hooking his hands behind his head.
“Thief? I’ve taken nothing of yours. I will now, though.” She leaned over, reaching across his body as she took the apple. On her return she looked to see if there was a change in his manner, one suggesting the possibility of continued amorous affections, and she sighed when she saw there was none. “I have your apple, dear Parik. I’ve stolen it. Now, I’m a thief.”
“You’ve stolen your answer from me. Tell me, Muse, or I’ll leave your side. You’ve piqued my curiosity, and I won’t be denied. I must know.” She rarely divulged even the slightest information about herself. It had become a game of theirs for him to try to learn something new, no matter how trivial.
“For this I will tell you.” She grabbed his chin, smiling, before running her hand down his bare chest. She wrapped her long fingers sensuously around his wrist and brought his hand to her face, pressing it against her cheek. Then she squeezed it tightly until he placed his own hand over hers.
“Easy, Muse. I’m mortal, after all, even if you are not. If you injure me, I must heal. I can’t simply take a new body to inhabit for a time.” He let out a sigh of relief when she released her grip on him.
“You’ll give yourself to me if I tell?” Her voice was petulant, as if he made a habit of promising and then not following through.
“No?” She slapped his stomach, and hard, interrupting his words. “You would tease me?”
“I can’t give more.” He laughed, although the sound was hardly that of amusement. “Our ardent endeavors throughout the night have been pleasurable but exhausting. Besides, the day has already begun.” He glanced at the wooden slats forming the walls. The wood was placed with gaps between to facilitate circulation, and already the noise of the awakening city came through.
“What should I care for the morning?” She pursed her lips petulantly, but her eyes had gone soft.
“It will be hot during the day, and morning is here.”
She laughed. “Have it your way, Parik. When I’m a man, I’m drawn by manly desires, and I long for women. Yet, even when I’m a man, I remember being a woman. So, while I’m a man, I still desire you.”
He looked at her for a time, placing in his mind what she’d described. “Yet, you never . . .” He paused and looked at the ceiling, daring her to fill in his unspoken response. He grinned before glancing to her face once again.
“I never what, dear Parik?”
“You’ve never come to me as a man. Instead, you always try to kill me when you are a man.”
Her laughter tinkled. “Jealously, dear Parik. If I came to you as a man, you would rebuff me—”
“I would.” The words came as a sharp interruption.
“You agree much too quickly, my lovely man.” She pouted, grabbing his hand once again and worrying his fingernail. “When I’m male, I can’t come to you, and I’m insanely jealous of those who can. I want no one to have you if I can’t, and since I can’t kill all the women in the world, it’s much easier to kill you.”
Parik snorted as he let out a full-bellied laugh at her reply. “You’ve stabbed me, put poison in my food, and pushed me off sailing ships because I enjoyed other women. How do you know I’ll survive? I do remember old Lamahätsu’s curse even after all these seasons. My Muse will live only if I do. Do you not know that, Muse?”
She was quiet for a moment, letting her fingers dance along his thighs. Then, she smiled brightly, her teeth white against the blackness of her skin.
“You’ve never died, no matter what I’ve done to you. I’ve saved you each time.”
“Saved me?” Parik was incredulous. “I remember the people who saved me, Muse. The pig keeper’s daughter, or a lonely serving woman. Once, even a merwoman pulled me from the sea and set me on dry land. You’ve never saved me, Muse.” He laughed. “Those are the women I truly love. They rescue me out of the goodness of their hearts, not because some ancient goddess pointed them my way. I know you, Muse, and you would never do that for me. You take and take, but you never give. Your one redeeming quality is consistency. You’re always here with me, whether trying to kill me or woo me. One way or the other, I know you’ll be at my side.”
She reached for his hand, stroking his arm. Her lips, full and sensuous, brushed his neck. “I told you what you wanted. May I now?”
He laughed. “Not so fast, Muse. As a woman, what are your interests?”
“Parik,” she chuckled softly. “As I woman, I always have you.”
This time she didn’t ask when she slid next to him, and it did seem that, after all, he could develop an interest in her desired activities once again. It was later when he was asleep that she whispered the rest of her words to him. “I am the pig keeper’s daughter and the lonely serving woman, Parik. I’m even the merwoman who saved you from the sea. Only when you’re at death’s door do you fail to see me for who I am. Only then do you love me because I’m a woman. Only then are you truly mine.”
She drew her jet-black body next to his, and she draped herself over his sleeping form. Together they lay silently in the heat that already ran rampant, and it wasn’t even fully morning. Soon, all was still as bars of sunlight traced the low-ceilinged room, the Muse joining Parik in sleep. Later was time enough to rise, but for now, rest was needed.
A SMALL NOSE SNIFFED along the bottom of a wall, and deep within the new layers of dust lingered the familiar smells that told the rat where to go. The stones along the city street were well-known, and at each crack or unmortared joint, the small animal hesitated, taking in new information, if any was available, learning the latest signals for the path it traveled daily.
The rat would have considered itself very lucky, indeed, if it only knew what luck was, for it had two very consistent food sources. At one location, it always received a morsel of very dry bread, and at the other, the more generous of the two, it could count on a small pile of grain. It preferred the first, because the only price it had to pay was to allow the girl to stroke its fur and occasionally run her hand over its poor excuse for a leg. At the more generous dining location, the man who fed it continually attempted to get into its poor little rat brain.
However, the rat was content to limp along with its irregular little tapping pattern, only dimly aware that there was a better life out there that rats with four good legs were permitted to live. The three-legged rat had little idea of that, and it scurried along, content for the most part in its rendition of a successful rat’s unchanging days.
“ZEKIYE, DAUGHTER OF ROMY the sheepherder, please come lie down. The night is still deep, and daylight won’t come for many measures of time. You must sleep.” Parik motioned to her, his movements clear in the brightening moonlight. “You may have the mat. I won’t molest you there.”
He needed his rest. He could save no one in what was building, but he could help a few, help them to face the coming devastation with as much serenity as any dying person could possibly know.
“Zekiye,” he repeated. “The mat.” She shook her head from side to side. “I can leave the room if you wish.” He’d get no sleep that way, but then he’d get no sleep if she sat huddled in the corner, either. At least one of them would be able to rest.
He saw her stand in the dimness of the room, and satisfied, he made to move toward the door. Before he could open it, she called to him.
“Stay. If you don’t mind. Please.” Her voice was a near-whisper, almost as if she were afraid she’d be overheard. “I’m frightened alone. I feel I can trust you. Sit with me.”
“If you wish.” He chuckled ruefully. If she could truly trust him, he’d have rebuffed the Muse so she would have been freed. However, Parik knew better than that. The Muse more likely would have taken the girl to a brothel and offered her freely to any comers. It had been kinder to the girl to take her in and give the Muse her way. At least this way, he knew she’d been treated with tender hands.
“You must sit with me,” the girl pleaded.
Moving to her side, Parik was surprised to feel her against his leg, and he realized she was resting her head in his lap. He smiled. The Muse had done just that many times, rested her head this way. There must be something of the person that came through even as the Muse had possession, either that or something of the Muse lingered after she left her host. However, this girl was free. He knew of few that the Muse had taken twice. Come the morning, if the city existed that long—and Parik felt it was far too soon for it to fall—he’d see if the girl could be convinced to make her way back to her home.
“I remember I was to be married.”
The voice interrupted his thoughts, and Parik looked down, surprised. “Married?” He’d never thought of that. The bodies the Muse inhabited were just that, bodies that showed up and were there until the Muse ventured on.
“I remember a long white dress, one with openwork along the sleeves. My mother let me try it on, and I was so excited. I ran to my friend’s house to show it off.”
“What happened, then?” Parik remembered the dress. It had been torn and used to stop the bleeding when the girl’s time had come. Somehow, that saddened him. To him, it had been just a white dress. To this girl, it was her future, probably one hand-stitched by a caring parent.
“I don’t know.” She shifted on his lap, putting her hand under her head. “The season doesn’t feel right, though. Time has passed. My hair is longer.” Parik didn’t say anything. “Have we been friends all this time?” Her meaning was quite clear. More than friends drifted through her whispered question. She tilted her head to look up at him, moving against his leg.
At her innocent touch, he felt the beginnings of desire, forcing it from his thoughts. He shifted his position, certain she must be able to tell, but she gave no indication she was aware of his discomfort.
“You can tell me, if we have,” she implored. “My great-great gran was taken by the goddess once. She was no more than the daughter of a pig keeper, but she woke up in the arms of a man who said she pulled him from a deep ravine and nursed him back to health. My great-great gran didn’t remember a bit of it, but everyone around her said it was true. That’s how my great gran was born, and she never had another father.”
In that moment, an overwhelming ache overtook Parik. He did remember the daughter of the pig keeper and her sudden question when she awoke. He’d thought it just disorientation. They had been together for weeks, already, when she questioned him. She was reassured when her family supported his story, but he had no idea she’d become with child. He should have known, he guessed. That meant this girl was his child, or, to be more accurate, the distant daughter of his child. He was her father—after a fashion—and if she hadn’t told him this, he never would have known.
She gushed, her voice suddenly breathless with giddiness, “I know it’s true, now, about the goddess. The goddess has taken me, and I’ve been with a great man. Tell me so before I return to my people. They’ll understand.”
He stroked her face without moving more than his hand. “When you arrive, will your man take you back? Will he marry the woman whom the goddess allowed to be with another man?”
“I don’t care,” she said with sudden desperation in her voice. “If you don’t tell me it’s so, my people will think it anyway, and if I return with a child, they’ll remember my old great-great gran. My child will be revered. Please.” She grabbed his hand, the one with the fingernail that glowed, and she stroked it, her eyes drawn to it in the moonlight.
“Why did you do that?” It didn’t ache with her touch as it had the past season and a month. His breath caught with the intenseness of his sudden need.
“What? I did nothing except take your hand.”
“My fingernail. Why did you stroke it?” His blood beat fast, but he had to know this thing.
“It glowed in the light. I was fascinated. You, I think, have been blessed by the goddess. If I’m blessed with a child, I’ll call him after you, and all will know he’s blessed of the goddess. What shall I call him when he’s born?”
“I’m no one, and you are far from the truth to think I’ve been blessed by the goddess.”
“No One’s Son.” Her voice tinkled with laughter, even as the muskiness of the night laced her words. “What a name that would be! You mustn’t force me to call my child No One’s Son. He’d be horrified.” She slid closer. “What’s your real name?”
“I’m known as Parik.”
Her laugher was high and melodious. “Parikson. Parik, the son of Parik.” She brought his fourth finger to her lips, whispering her words, “Blessed by the great Goddess of Life, from whom life flows eternally. Parikson, the son of one who is the most favored of the goddess.”
Parik’s thoughts were far different. Cursed by the goddess, he thought. Not blessed, Zekiye. No, not blessed at all.
CHIARINA OPENED HER EYES to rays of light filtering through new chinks in the wall. Each beam lighted uncounted motes of dust that still hovered in the air. It was clear the detritus from the stones that had shaken during the night had yet to completely settle. The lack of ventilation in the close room didn’t help, either. Perhaps the heat of the day would pull the dust up and out of the open window slits at the top of the walls.
She touched her brother’s face to wipe a layer of dust away, only to have him shift and cough at her touch.
A scrambling sound caught her attention, and Chiarina looked to see a slender tail twitch as it disappeared through a small crack where two stones didn’t quite meet. It was the most she’d ever seen of the elusive, three-legged creature, and it pleased her immensely to have caught sight of it. The dust it stirred in its passing pleased her less. It was all over the room, and she’d have to remove it before Thaddiaos could be allowed to play. It would make his cough worse.
Thaddiaos coughed again, harder. Then again and again. Chiarina patted his thin back, knowing she couldn’t go look for herbs to ease this for him, and with no coins in her bowl, she had no money to buy him food. The coughing would have to be endured, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t hurt for him each time his body was wracked by the fist inside his belly.
“Hungry, Chini.” The small voice whispered the day’s most immediate concern into her ear. “Please, Chini. Will there be food today?”
“Maybe, little brother.” She patted his back again, then began to rub the flat of her palm down his side, aware how each of his ribs was sharp beneath his skin. She tried to show him a bright smile, but she couldn’t hold it. So, she teased with him. “I’ll try to look especially pitiful, today. How is that, little Thaddiaos? Perhaps someone will feel very sorry for me and toss two coins into my bowl. We could eat two days on two coins,” meaning Thaddiaos could eat two days, “and you’d no longer be hungry.”
“How, Chini? How will you be especially pitiful? Will you cry, and with real tears, too?” He grinned, distracted from his hunger. From the coughing, as well. He’d never seen his sister cry, except one time when a very rich woman came by. Then she’d cried. His sister had winked at him through the door and thrown sand into her own eyes. They had immediately reddened as she gasped with the sudden sting, and tears had flowed quite freely, indeed. She’d gotten three coins from the woman, and she and her brother had feasted that night. “Will you cry for a rich woman, Chini?”
She chuckled and felt her leg twinge. When Thaddiaos shifted against her,the pain intensified, and she squeezed him tightly to make him lie still.
“Too tight, Chini. Let go!” Thaddiaos’ words hissed at her in his little boy voice, but it was a weak hiss, and he couldn’t fight her. The coughing had taken too much from him, that and the hunger.
“Be still, Thaddiaos.” Her words were at the edge of sharpness, and he relaxed against her. She let her eyes flick along the stones that ran around the ceiling of the room, holding up the massive wooden beams that supported the stone ceiling, and she found the one she remembered from yesterday. Two rows and three more stones meant the goddess would deign to visit today. It was always the count of two rows, and after three more stones, the pain would start. No one would come near to put coins in her bowl. She’d counted the stones yesterday, and yet the hunger and the shaking of the stones had made her forget. She couldn’t beg today, and yet she must, or she and Thaddiaos would be hungry again during the night.
As tears began to leak from her eyes, she had another thought that caused her even deeper pain. It was unreasonable, she knew, but it was there, nonetheless. She had no more crumbs for her three-legged friend, and if she had no food to give the animal, she was afraid it wouldn’t return. She couldn’t lose the friendship of one that understood what she lived every day, even though that one was only a rat. She’d be too lonely to live if she did.
PARIK TENDERLY WIPED GRAINS of dust from underneath Zekiye’s sleeping eyelashes. He stoked her flat stomach, knowing what he’d given her during the night.
She would bear a son.
When the Muse took a woman, the one she possessed never became with child unless the Muse wished it. However, Parik had a power of his own, the one small power gifted from his mother’s fingernail. It had been from her healing hand, and it enabled him to sense what needed to be healed within a person. If the person were willing, if the person desired it, then the touch of Parik’s hand could bring healing to the essence inside of the person. That was his gift, the one he’d stolen from old Lamahätsu before she’d cursed him with immortality—and then cursed him also with his Muse. That was the gift he could share with the people around him.
Zekiye had wanted this, wanted it with all her heart. A boy child. It was growing in her flat belly even as she lay beside him, and he smiled at the idea the child would be called Parikson, the son of the son of the Goddess of Life. Poor Zekiye had no idea how true that was.
One thing had surprised him, though. She’d praised the old goddess. He hadn’t thought his mother to be remembered anywhere after all this time. No one in the city recognized the truly old names: Ageless Five-Armed Goddess; the Womb of Creation; the Bringer of Life. More forgotten names were the Giver of Death and the Essence Eater. No, those names had faded with the dawn of creation.
Zekiye had known, though. Her people, pig keepers and sheepherders that they were, had somehow kept the old ways alive, and she’d known of the old goddess, Lamahätsu.
Hearing noises outside, Parik glanced up at the window slits. Shafts of light filtered through, falling on the opposite wall, and with that, he knew the day was early, yet. He hoped it would remain cool for Zekiye’s sake, but he also hoped she was gone soon. This room would exist for a short time more, but it would fall, taking all within it when it did.
He stood, reaching for his vestments. He moved his blade aside and pulled his loincloth free, wrapping it around his waist and underneath his legs, tucking it in at the front. Then he slipped his leathers over his head, pulling his hair from inside. With a practiced motion, he rolled his long locks into a tail and dropped them into his catch sack, tying it up neatly at the base of his neck. He let it fall at his back before pressing the selvage edge of a cloth to his forehead and flipping it over his head. Tucking it behind his ears, he moved toward the doorway, stopping to slip his feet into rope-topped sandals. Then, with a sure motion, he belted his blade to his side.
He paused before swinging the door wide. He’d oiled the hinges when he and the Muse had started using these rooms. However, with the shifting of the stones, he half expected it to wake the sleeping woman. He missed the old hinges of wood that simply rested in the stone. They wore more quickly, but they never needed oil, and they never cried their pain to wake everyone in the room.
Pulling the wooden door slowly, he was relieved to hear its silence. He was less relieved to find the stone lintel had shifted enough to grab the corner of the door, forcing him to yank it hard past the thick opening.
Outside, the sun was in full bloom, and the morning was already as warm as any in the city had ever been.
A wizened old man pulled a two-wheeled cart up the incline of the main street, its wheels clattering against stone paving that was freshly uneven. When the cart bounced hard on its wooden rims, a leafy vegetable fell to the pavement and skittered away to the curb. Cursing, the old man turned the cart sideways and dropped the pulling poles he’d been holding, hurrying in his hobbling way to grab the vegetable before it fell in the gutter.
Parik grinned. If the water flowing there was clean, the old man could put the vegetable back on the cart, even if it landed inside the gutter. If the water was filled with waste, he dared not retrieve the vegetable. If anyone was watching and happened to see him selling in the market, the quality of his harvest would be in doubt, and people wouldn’t pay the best prices.
Parik stepped to the vegetable and stopped its roll with his foot, waiting patiently until the old man made his way to retrieve it.
“Thank you, good sir.” The seller of vegetables bobbed his head repeatedly, holding up his rescued vegetable. “You are kind to an old man. Would you like a tomato from my cart? A lemon?” His voice strengthened in forced excitement. “I have four lemons, picked just this morning. Take one.” He didn’t offer the leafy vegetable, though, pulling it up under his arm as he stood.
When Parik didn’t immediately respond, the vegetable seller paused and studied the tall man’s face. He knelt and held the leafy vegetable up to the one who had rescued it. With a quaver in his voice, he murmured, “It’s yours, if you wish it, the gods be praised.”
Parik reached for the vegetable, and he hefted it in his hand. “The gods don’t deserve your praise, my good vegetable seller. This one will bring a high price in the market. Keep it.” He tossed it back at the man and smiled to see him scramble to catch it before it fell to the ground.
“A lemon, then? You’ll take a lemon? Or a tomato?” The man pulled the leafy vegetable to himself again, clutching it tightly.
Parik paused in thought, and then he reached to the man and touched the vegetable. “How much will this bring at the market? Four coins?”
The man smiled, his pride showing through. “More. Five, maybe six or more.” Then he looked up at Parik, and he let a pretense of sadness fall across his face. “Or three, perhaps. People always look for bargains. They never wish to pay the true value. Two, maybe.” He rubbed his hand lovingly over the leafy surface.
Parik laughed. “Two, then. This prized vegetable of yours will bring two coins, you say.”
“Prized?” The man acted shocked at the word. “It’s only a poor plant, and no one will want it.”
“Prized.” Parik chuckled. He knew it to be certain. He’d seen the wagon. This one item was clearly the best of his crop. “But worthless if it had fallen in the gutter. With the smell of the sewers on it, no one would have purchased it. You’re lucky I was here to save it.”
“Lucky,” the man murmured. “Yes, so very lucky.”
Parik motioned for the man to stand. “A lemon.” The man’s expression eased. “A lemon, you offered. Will it sell for one coin?”
“Or two,” the man exclaimed. “The lemon is a very good choice.” He made to stand, to move toward the cart.
“No,” Parik called to him. “Sell your lemon. I wish you to give the coins away.”
“Away?” The old man appeared puzzled.
“Away.” Parik looked at him, reading his eyes. “There’s a girl, a crippled beggar girl who lives up this street.” He pointed beside his rooms at a series of steps that climbed one of the city’s many slopes. “I see her from time to time. I’ll know. Two coins. For two coins, your vegetable is yours.” Parik winked, but the rest of his face was stern. “Fourth room to the left. She’ll tell me.”
The old man’s face fell. “Two coins to the girl. I’ll see her today when the market is closed.” He stood. “Fourth room, you say?”
Parik nodded at him. If this seller lived far from town, he might survive. If not, the coins he received or didn’t receive today were of little importance. It was vital, however, that the girl eat. Her brother, too. She didn’t think Parik knew, but there had been no mistaking the protectiveness in the girl’s manner. There was a brother, and today, the two of them must eat. With the seller’s coins, they would, and probably for more than one day. That might be as long as they needed to worry about, and if the time was longer, Parik would face that when the moment came.
At that instant, he felt his stomach turn. This would be a strong shaking. He could feel the strong ones before they hit, and they were always strong when his rebirth was near. He braced himself against the door and looked at the seller in the street.
“Guard your cart, old man. The ground is about to shake.” When the man didn’t move, he growled, “Now!”
The man did move, faster once the stones underneath his feet began to shift. It was bad, too. Dust flew from between the stones of the city’s walls, and somewhere off in the distance, a scream could be heard as something heavy shifted loose and fell loudly to the ground. Then, after a moment, the shaking stopped. The old man looked at Parik with fear in his eyes.
“You’re the son of a god. You even know the ground, when it will shake. Four coins. I’ll bring the girl four coins.” He grabbed his robes and settled his crops safely onto his cart, grabbing the pulling poles with his arms.
“Two will suffice,” Parik called to him, suddenly tired. He was the son of a goddess, not a god, and that hadn’t helped his life. It was nothing to be proud of, nothing at all.
“Four,” the man called back over his shoulder. “I’ll bring her four. Four coins for the son of a god.”
Parik sighed. The shaking had been bad, and when he felt it in his gut before it even happened, he knew the power that was gathering was drawing to him quickly. Two coins would be enough. The girl wouldn’t live longer than that. This city wouldn’t live longer than that. Parik would, though. He would live forever. His Muse would see that he didn’t die, although that wasn’t the blessing most men would seem to think.
Parik put aside his concerns. The crippled girl and her brother would eat today, the sun was shining, and the city hadn’t fallen around its inhabitants’ ears just yet. He stepped from the stoop, and as he did so, he felt a twinge in his back. The gathering power aged him quickly.
Curse you, Lamahätsu. Curse you to your own fiery hell forever and ever.
He knew his words were empty. She’d created the hells of this world, and she’d probably enjoy spending time there just fine, indeed. He was the one who was cursed, and there was nothing to be done about that.
THE BREATHING IN HER EAR was very shallow, and that concerned Chiarina. Little Thaddiaos had fallen back asleep, but he hadn’t eaten in two days. His skin was also very hot. Sometimes she thought it would be better if he never woke, especially on days like this one, days where she hurt too much to beg, days where he hurt too much to stay awake. She shifted him to her side, biting her tongue at the pain that shot through her body.
“Sorry, small brother. You must rest alone for a time. The goddess calls to me.” Has cursed me, she thought, but that was something she couldn’t say aloud. She’d been cursed, though, with more than her leg: this blessing of the goddess; her brother’s illness; even her parents’ deaths. Yes, her parents’ deaths had been a curse, although at the time she hadn’t been so sure. They had been ill for so long, and before that, they had been ashamed of her, refusing to gift her with a last name. Only when they could no longer care for themselves had they allowed her to crawl across the floor of their hovel to minister to them. Only then, when all she’d wanted her entire life had been for them to approve of her. Still, even as they lay dying, they spat their vile words at her, that she should have died at birth, was an abomination, and the gods would curse this city because of her.
She was glad when they were finally gone. She then had peace, and she also had her brother, taking his surname for her own. It was comforting to whisper the words Chiarina Egidius-Lucanus in the depths of the night, even though no one else could hear.
Now, though, she knew her life was even worse. She couldn’t take care of her brother, couldn’t provide for him properly, and now he had her parents’ cough, the cough that rarely ended in anything but death. Chiarina tried to push the knowledge of it away, but she was so frightened. She wanted to place her head on her knees and cry until the nights went away, and her parents, as cruel as they had been, were returned to her. She couldn’t even do that with her withered leg. She couldn’t pull it up to her chest. Her arms wouldn’t wrap around it.
Now she had to stop the goddess’ gift. If the pain weren’t bad today, she might still be able to sit beside her door and rattle her bowl when people walked by on the wide street below. A few might step to her to drop in a coin, or maybe just a half coin. As little as a quarter coin would do. That might be enough to buy a dry piece of old bread, something to fill Thaddiaos’ belly, something to ease the cough.
As she tore a piece of rag to press against the pain, she felt the rattle of the stones. The new shaking was hard, and it dislodged a small stone from high in the wall, sending it crashing to the floor near Thaddiaos’ head. He didn’t stir. He was too hungry and weak to notice, she guessed. When the movement finally stopped, she knew it had been bad this time, and long. Too long, and worse than before.
With her hand still pressed to the rag, forcing the pain away, she looked at the new dust floating down around her. A white film had already begun to coat her brother’s skin and hair, and looking closely, there were more spaces in the stones than ever before where light could be seen forcing its way in. That unnerved her. Would the entire city fall around her ears? She’d always thought the stone buildings to be forever, and now she could no longer be sure.
At least little Thaddiaos was resting, and she didn’t have to calm his fears. He needed this time to sleep. As unlike him as it was to remain still once the sun was up, she wasn’t sorry to see it this time. He needed his sleep more than he could know.
THE MUSE SHIFTED IN HER bed, puzzled. The darkness around her smelled wrong. Parik had a smell, and it was one she always recognized, no matter how many lives they chased each other through. It felt wrong, too. Between her legs it felt wrong.
Then there was her inner sense of Parik. It was the fingernail. That was how she tracked him, although he didn’t know. It was one of her secrets, one that she kept well hidden. At the moment, she couldn’t sense the fingernail.
Without warning, the walls began to shake, and there was a loud crash nearby, with someone screaming in terror. Then, hands grabbed onto her, and a panicked voice called, “Kaius, protect me.”
It was a woman’s voice, and in that moment, the Muse knew. It was Parik’s power that was shaking the stones. This wrongness was Parik, the drawing of the power, and it had ejected her from the woman’s body she’d been in. It had thrown her—how far she didn’t know—and she’d found refuge in this new body. With the stones around her still moving, she must have remained in the city, though. She felt between her legs, and she confirmed what she suspected. This was a man’s body, someone, if she could trust the voice that called to her, by the name of Kaius.
“Parik!” The Muse screamed the words. “You could have warned me!” The admonition came out deep and raspy. “Keep away from that woman, Parik! She’s no longer who you think she is!”
“Kaius?” The woman at the Muse’s side drew back, suddenly oblivious to the dust filtering down between them. “Who’s this Parik? Have you been fighting again, Kaius?” She pushed on his arm, obviously rehashing an old disagreement. Then, as the shaking stopped, silence filled the small room, and the woman threw her arms back around the Muse.
“Kaius, hold me now. I need you. You were filled with wine last night, and you pushed me away. Now we might die, and I want to feel your arms around me. Please, Kaius. I’m so frightened. I need you.”
The Muse was momentarily disgusted at the thought of being with this woman. He’d just been female and had longed for Parik’s arms. However, this was a man’s body, and it was designed to hold a woman. Feeling a response from his loins, one he couldn’t help, he was surprised at how quickly the unknown man’s body reacted to the woman’s touch.
The Muse resigned himself to the inescapable physiological responses coursing through this new body. He couldn’t fight the sensations any more than he could shift to another host again now that Parik’s power had begun to draw itself together for his rebirth.
He reached his arms to her.
If he were far enough from Parik, he might remain in this body for a time, possibly until the city was destroyed and Parik reborn. If not, with each new shaking, the Muse would be forced to shift to another person, never knowing just where he might land. Rarely was he able to fight it, and never if he was too close to Parik.
“Your name?” The Muse questioned the woman he held in his arms.
“My name?” His companion wrapped her fingers around the side of his neck. “Kaius, you know my name. Don’t be silly.”
In a sudden burst of determination, he reached to her, pushing his fingers into the woman’s hair, grabbing it hard on both sides of her head, and forcing her to look at him.
“Your name, woman. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t want to know.”
“Rena.” Her eyes flicked back and forth as she peered intently into each of his in turn. When he didn’t respond, she pushed at his chest. “Kaius, it’s me, Rena Gracchus. What’s with you? Why are you asking these questions? I’m frightened, Kaius. The shaking. Now this. It’s you, is it not, Kaius? Please say it is.”
“Rena.” He grinned, relaxing, reaching to brush her on the neck, the act one of supposed affection. “If I were not Kaius, who would I be, sweet Rena?”
“A wygrog, or maybe a weltie. Are you a weltie, Kaius?” Shape shifters were known to visit unwary women at night.
He laughed softly. “Of course I’m not a weltie. I’m Kaius, and I’m here with you to protect you.”
“Then why did you grab me that way? You never do that.”
“Because I felt it necessary. Can you understand that?” He chuckled into her ear.
“It’s not like you.”
“Maybe I’ve changed. Do you like the new me?” The Muse licked the outside of her ear as he began to hum a very old tune that had once been sung around countless campfires long before this city was built, and this was a very old city, indeed.
“I think so,” she murmured. “I like that tune. Do I know it from somewhere?” She finally relaxed, and she began to move with him.
He tried to answer her, but he found the effort very distracting. “I don’t think. That is possible. Sweet. Rena.”
Then the Muse could say no more. He held her in his arms, experiencing what being a man was about. Nothing else mattered, not even the stones that had shaken around them, telling them the city was about to fall.
THE RAT SNIFFED. It could tell the man had walked nearby. His scent was in the small particles of odor that he left spread along the street. It was in the air. It was where he’d stepped. It was in everything the rat sensed.
The big man hadn’t walked up the series of steps towards the rat’s other food source. Although the man gave better food, the girl asked less of the rat. Now the rat was out in the daylight, and it didn’t like that. The daylight was dangerous. There were no hiding places in the light, and the rat always felt the need to hide.
It was the shaking that had drawn it out—that and the man. The shaking was the man. The rat knew that, could tell it with every fiber of its being. The shaking would follow the man, and while the rat didn’t know why that drew it to the man, the drawing was there, nonetheless. The small creature simply had to follow him, had to sniff out the man’s pheromones, be where he was. That was all the rat knew.
After all, the small furred creature was just a rat, and rats couldn’t reason out the intricacies of the gods . . . or of the goddesses . . . or of their children. A rat could only do exactly what its senses told it to do.
Follow the man.
So the rat did.
DEEP WITHIN THE EARTH’S crust, forces gathered, drawing together to bring new life to Parik.
They offered immortality, of a sort.
For those who walked the face of the spinning orb that long ago had been belched from Lamahätsu’s loins, immortality wasn’t in the natural order of things. Many other things were, just not immortality.
Creation fell into the natural order of things. So did death. Somewhere in the middle there came life. Procreation, first. Life, afterwards. Then, the finality of death. For mortals, immortality fell into a completely different spectrum, not part of the pattern.
The gods and goddesses could supersede this pattern—for a time—and that was in the natural order of things. If people knew them—or of them—the great powers that ruled over the world were just that: great. However, when the gods and goddesses faded from racial memory, so did the power they wielded upon the face of the earth and upon the people who inhabited it. They never actually died, though. Gods couldn’t die. Neither could goddesses. They just sort of faded into the background, advisors of a sort for the new generation of those who would wield power over the face of the earth.
Immortality wasn’t normal, though, not human immortality, anyway. Even what the gods and goddesses had wasn’t really immortality, not in the aspect of living forever. It was more like shelf life. They had a very long shelf life, but eventually being packaged and put away on a shelf was no life. The fun in living was being in with the action, and only the gods and goddesses that were currently in vogue were “in on the action,” so to speak.
Parik wasn’t immortal, not in the strictest sense. His body lasted no longer than that of a normal human, but his mind and his essence continued on, thanks to one very defiant Goddess of Life, otherwise known as Lamahätsu. He simply got a new body every fifty, seventy, or a hundred seasons.
He didn’t die, either. The Muse took care of that. She refused to let him die. She might be flooded with desire to kill him when he loved other women, but if he died, she died, so he had to be kept alive. It was a balancing act she strove to perfect, and sometimes it almost drove her mad.
Or perhaps she was mad already.
Parik was ending a very long run in this particular life. He never contracted illnesses, and he wasn’t prone to any of the symptoms of old age that normal humans had to face. After all, he fell in the direct lineage of a very powerful goddess. His rebirths hadn’t hurt him any, either. Each one had fine-tuned his physiology until he was nearly perfect, superhuman, in fact. However, once the power began to attach itself to his essence, age came upon him all at once. It was painful, devastating, and totally humiliating.
Far below the city, unseen to mortal eyes, the process had begun. It was quite amazing. Water was needed. Yes, water had to gather, and from wherever it was, too. It had to collect right where Parik was. Minerals, also. Manganese. Iron. Gold. Many, many more, in addition, no matter whether they were naturally found in that location or not. Parik had to have them. Calcium, for sure. Parik had to have new bones and teeth. Electricity. Lots of electricity was needed. Human bodies run on electricity, and a very big jolt was needed to bring about life.
The final ingredient was heat, heat from the bowels of the earth. Volcanic heat. Magma. Magma that creates steam that creates pressure that creates earthquakes that create destruction that creates death. Lots of death. Lots of death and one renewed life.
Parik would live, and everyone else would die. The Muse would guide him, but when the power began to draw together, even the Muse was at the mercy of the power. No one was safe.
Immortality wasn’t in the natural order of things.