Xenolith, Page 42A. Sparrow
Chapter 34: Pana and the Cuerti
Moonlight framed the silhouette of a deer against a spit of pale gravel as it drank from a still pool beside the river. Circles expanded on the silvered surface of the eddy as the deer lapped. Pana imagined his own chiaroscuro figure in the sights of a crossbow, so he moved out of the open gravel and into a pitted waste clothed densely in dark shrubs. The clatter of stone underfoot startled the deer and it bounded away, white-tail swooping like a bird.
He walked away from the river until he found a berm cutting north along a strip of metal-walled buildings surrounded by lots. Glaring lights on tall poles bathed every structure but for one, lurking in the darkness like a ghost ship adrift in a sea of pavement. None of the buildings bore signs of human occupancy; all appeared abandoned for the night. Pana kept away from the wash of light as though it were toxic, remaining on the dark side of the berm.
A pair of massive, articulated vehicles rumbled down the stilted road beyond. They reminded Pana of stiff caterpillars with glowing eyes. Where not held up by pillars, the road they traveled on carved through every ledge and outcrop in its path, defying the land’s natural contours in a manner never tolerated in Sesei. In this matter, the Urep’o had much in common with the Venep’o, who were said to flatten mountains whose heights offended them.
Over the berm, the side road serving the boxy buildings ended in a cul-de-sac. As he moved beyond it, the lights receded and the berm itself petered out into a darker place where scars of exposed gravel no longer revealed the shape of the land. The shrubs grew thicker here, the grass taller, absorbing the meager light shed by the crescent moon.
He looked to the horizon for guidance and could see that just upstream, the valley walls shouldered in and squeezed the flats flanking the river into a narrow wedge. The relay point, as he remembered, sat exactly where the valley began to broaden so he knew he must be near. He veered left towards the blackness that held the river.
The land stepped down to the river via a series of shallow terraces cutting through layers of sediment. He could hear the liquid music of the riffles now. Passing through a fringe of willows, he came upon water that flowed like liquid anthracite, distorting and reflecting every bit of light it caught from the sky, the road and the occupied lands downstream.
He stood close to the lip of the bank and let the sand crumble down, riding a mini-avalanche to the graveled flat. He stepped out to the water’s edge to seek his bearings. Nothing close by looked familiar, but far downstream he recognized the jutting, tooth-shaped boulder beside which a fisherman stood casting his line the day before. He had overshot the relay point by at least a hundred paces.
Choosing his steps with care to avoid clattering the pebbles, he started back to the bank. A shape moved to the water’s edge downstream about fifty paces. Pana froze. This time it was not a deer. The person paused, leaned over the water to gaze downriver, then turned and ambled slowly back to the bank.
Pulse pounding, Pana sidled over to the sand bank and scrambled back up. He checked his weapon, ensuring that its single bolt was slotted and the mechanism fully cocked as he thought. He patted his long dagger, and shifted the sheath on his belt so it wouldn’t snag on his clothing when he withdrew it,
He glided through the shrubs, yielding to any pressure from the branches lest they slap or scrape. He flowed into any emptiness he sensed until he happened upon a game path. He dropped down, crawling slowly, stopping frequently to look and listen.
He discerned a faint murmur, almost a wail, pleading, praying, rising and falling rhythmically, repeating. He crawled closer. It came from just beyond a thicket. When the game trail veered away, he diverged, spiraling closer until he found a gap between two bushes that offered a glimpse into a clearing.
Too dark to see clearly, there appeared to be a person lying prone just before Pana on the ground. Another person paced across the clearing and back. Yet another, the one who was praying, hunched at the far edge of the clearing, head to the ground.
It startled Pana to hear the prayers shift from Venep’o into Sesep’o. A young priest, probably an Initiate, was hedging his bets in case the god of xenoliths might be a son of Sesei. His voice sounded reedy and distressed. The one who paced and the one lying on the ground were probably Cuerti guards. The thought of tangling with a Cuerti made the hair prickle on his neck. They had a reputation for fighting prowess and cruelty that was likely hyperbolic but no less daunting in the absence of direct experience.
The Initiate, he could handle, but the presence of the Cuerti made him reconsider his task. He had a single shot in his crossbow. If he missed, he would die, for nothing. If his single bolt flew true, but the prone one awoke and was also a Cuerti, he would also die, for he had no more bolts, and could not expect to take on a Cuerti with his meager dagger.
And his death would yield nothing because the Initiate would still live and would possess the xenolith. Because it was clear from his improvised and broken Sesep’o that he prayed to the stone for a convergence:
“May Cra reward you, stewards of your mystic door. Make it open for the children of Fanhalahun. Allow us to pass and Cra will bring mercy to all your dominion. Please, gods of Sesei, open this door. Open for us so we may pass to the world of our birth. Send us a sign that the door will open. Open for us and Pasemani shall praise you.”
He alternated to Venep’o and back, never flagging, though his tenacity took a toll on the timbre of his voice.
Pana considered retreating downriver. How could he overcome even one Cuerti on his own, never mind two? He needed to gather help from Seor and the others wherever they were, though they might already be dead or captured by Urep’o. What if only he, Pana, stood between these Venep’o and the precious portal whose secret he had sworn to protect?
But why should he sacrifice, if he could not be certain that sacrifice would be rewarded with success? Why should he waste the chance of a future life with Ikarin?
If Ikarin still lived. If she still cared for him and not for another. More than a year had passed without a word between them.
What odds might exist for a future together? How small a chance for such a future would be worth shirking his duty? How large a chance of death was worth risking his life? The odds of being with Ikarin again would be precisely zero if he perished under the blade of a Cuerti.
But he could not bring himself to retreat. The insult it would inflict on his pride would be too deep to bear. It galled him to watch these invaders pray to a xenolith, the last hope of Sesei, entrusted to its defenders by the country’s greatest Philosophers, despite their fears of exposing their world to the threat imposed by Ur and its apocalyptic weaponry. In Venep’o hands, who knew what terrible alliances might derive?
The prone man made no movements or sounds of breath. If he slept, he slept as still as death. With only one Cuerti alive, Pana would only need one clear shot. The Initiate would have no chance before his blade.
So he stayed beneath the bushes, waiting for enough light to aim his crossbow true. He settled into the sandy earth and threaded bits of plants into the holes and tears in his clothing so that when daylight came, he would blend in better with the shrubs. Hours remained before morning, but he dared not sleep.