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Furies of Calderon, Page 33

Jim Butcher

Chapter 33

  Tavi took one look at the thirty odd feet between him and the ground below, then reached a hand up, fumbling at Fade's pack. He jerked the flap open and grabbed the first thing his fingers could reach, though all the squirming made him twist and spin on the rope. He squinted up as best he could and then flung it at the Marat above him.

  Kitai let out a yelp and jerked back in a dodge. A hunk of cheese smacked into the stone beside the Marat's head, clung for a moment, then dropped and fell toward the wax-covered ground below.

  Kitai blinked at the cheese and then at Tavi, his face twisting into a scowl. Doroga hadn't stopped lowering the rope, and so the cut the Marat had begun had already descended out of his reach. Kitai steadied himself against the cliff face, then reached out with his knife and began slicing at the rope again. "Foolish, Aleran. Kinder if you fell, broke a leg, and had to turn back rather than be devoured by the Keepers. "

  Tavi scrambled in the pack and found cloth wrapped around several biscuits. He grabbed the first and hurled it at Kitai. "So I could be eaten by your people instead?"

  Kitai scowled, not deterred this time. A biscuit bounced off his outstretched arm. "We would at least not eat you alive. "

  "Stop that'" Tavi shouted He threw another biscuit, to no effect A thick strand of the braided rope parted with a whining snap, and Tavi's heart lurched as the rope spun and swung from side to side He glanced below him Another twenty feet to ground He'd never be able to fall that far without hurting himself, possibly too badly to continue

  Another strand parted, and Tavi swayed wildly back and forth, his heart hammering high in his throat

  Arms and legs shaking with excitement, Tavi took one last glance down (fifteen feet, or a little more?) He slipped his foot out of the loop at the bottom of the grey rope, and as quickly as he could, he slipped down the rope, gripping with his hands, and letting his legs swing below him He reached the loop and with a gulp grasped onto it, letting his legs swing out far beneath him

  The rope parted with a snap Tavi plummeted

  Between Doroga lowering the rope from above and the few feet he had gained by letting himself farther down the rope, the fall might have been little more than ten feet Not much higher than the roof of the stables, and he had jumped from there several times-always into mounds of hay, true, but he had made the jump without fear He tried to remember to keep his legs loose, to fall, roll if he possibly could

  The fall seemed to take forever, and when Tavi landed it was a shock to his ankles, knees, thighs, hips, back, all in rapid succession as he tumbled to the earth He landed on one side, arms flailing wildly out and slapping down with him, and his breath exploded out from him in a rush He lay for a moment without moving, dimly aware that he was on the ground, still clutching the loop in the end of the rope in his fist

  He regained his breath in a few moments, becoming aware of a couple of incongruous facts as he did First, there was no snow, down here in the chasm Of course, he had seen no snow from above, but the significance of it hadn't quite registered on him until he reached the ground It was warm Humid Nearly stifling He sat up, slowly, pushing himself up with his hands

  The ground beneath him, or rather, the greenly luminous wax beneath his fingers felt pleasantly warm, and he let them rest against it for a moment, letting his chilled fingers recover from the cold wind that had frozen them on the way down from the top of the cliff His ankles stung as though being prickled by thousands of tiny needles, but the sensation faded after a moment, leaving them feeling merely uncomfortable and sore

  Tavi gathered himself to his feet, the pack shifting about uncomfortably on his back, and squinted at his surroundings.

  What was beautiful from high above was, once among it, disorienting and a little disturbing. The waxy growth, the croach, grew right up to the stone walls of the chasm and stopped there, but for one place he could see, where it had crept up the walls, evidently to engulf a lone and scraggly tree trying to grow from a crack in the stone. The luminous glow made shadows fall weirdly, with one engulfed tree casting several ghostly weak shadows on the glowing floor of the forest. Beneath the croach, the shadowy outlines of the trees themselves reminded Tavi uncomfortably of bones beneath flesh.

  Tavi heard a scrabble on the wall and turned in time to see Kitai drop the last dozen feet to the floor of the forest, landing soundlessly, absorbing the shock of landing on both feet and on his arms, crouching for a moment on all fours, pale hair and opalescent eyes wild and greenish in the quiet light of the croach. His gaze darted left and right, wary, and his head tilted to one side, listening, focused on the lambent forest before him.

  Tavi's temper flared, fear and pain quickly becoming an outraged anger that made arms shake with the sudden need to avenge himself. He rose and stalked silently toward Kitai. Tavi tapped the Marat on the shoulder, and when Kitai turned toward him, he balled up his fist and drove it into the other boy's ribs as hard as he could.

  Kitai flinched, but didn't move quickly enough to evade the blow. Tavi pressed his advantage, jerking the Marat's arm away from his flank and punching him again in the same spot, as hard as he could. Kitai fumbled for his knife, and Tavi shoved him away as hard as he could, sending the other boy sprawling onto the glowing surface of the croach.

  Kitai turned his opalescent eyes toward Tavi and pushed himself up with his hands. "Aleran," he snarled, "my sire's generosity is wasted on you. If you want a Trial of Blood, then-"

  Kitai stopped abruptly, his eyes going wide.

  Tavi, prepared to defend himself, blinked at the sudden change in the Marat. Gooseflesh rippled up his arms. Silent, he followed the Marat's gaze down-to his own feet.

  Some of the oozing green light of the croach seemed to have spilled onto Tavi's boots. He frowned and peered closer. No. When he had landed, one of his heels must have driven into the croach and broken its surface like a crust of drying mud over a still-wet furrow. Whatever that glowing goo was

  within the wax, it had splashed droplets onto the leather. The droplets gJowed, pale and green.

  Tavi frowned and shook them off. He looked up to find Kitai still staring at him, eyes wide, his mouth open.

  "What?" Tavi asked. "What is it?"

  "Foolish Aleran," Kitai hissed. "You have broken the croach. The Keepers will come. "

  Tavi felt a chill roll over him. He swallowed. "Well I wouldn't have fallen if someone hadn't cut my rope. "

  "I'm not that stupid," Kitai retorted. His eyes moved past Tavi, flicking among the trees. "The croach beneath the ropes is very thick. That's why we chose there to enter. I once saw someone fall nearly six times the height of a man without breaking it. "

  Tavi licked his lips. "Oh," he said. He looked down at the forest's glowing floor. "Why did I break through it, then?"

  Kitai glanced at him and then paced over to the spot where Tavi had landed, crouching down beside it. He touched the glowing fluid with his fingertips. "It's thinner, here. I don't understand. It's never been like this. "

  Tavi said, "Looks like they were expecting company. "

  Kitai turned to him, his eyes wide, body tense. "They knew where we were coming in. And now they know that we're here. " The Marat boy's eyes flicked left and right, and he took several steps sideways, toward Tavi, his back to the stone of the wall.

  Tavi backed toward the wall as well, emulating Kitai, and almost tripped on an incongruous lump in the smooth surface of the croach. Tavi glanced down and then leaned over, peering at it.

  The lump was not large: perhaps the size of a chicken. It rose from the otherwise smooth floor of the forest in a hemisphere of greenish light with something dark at its core. Tavi leaned closer, peering at the shadowed lump.

  It stirred and moved. Tavi hopped back from it, his breath catching in his throat.

  "That," he gasped. "That's a crow. There's a crow in there. And it's alive. "

  "Yes, Aleran," Kitai said with scarcely veiled impatience.
"The crows are sometimes foolish. They come down and peck at the croach, and the Keepers come for them and entomb them. " Kitai cast his eyes to one side, where several other lumps, quite a bit larger, lay only a dozen long strides from the ropes at the base of the cliff. "They can live for days. Being eaten by the croach. "

  Tavi shuddered, a cold sensation crawling down his spine like a runnel of melting snow. "You mean. If these Keepers get one of us. . . "

  "A Marat can live for weeks buried in the croach, Aleran. "

  Tavi felt sick. "You don't rescue them?"

  Kitai flashed him a look, his eyes hard, cool. Then, in a few silent strides, paced over to the crow. He drew his knife, reached down, and slashed the blade over the surface of the lump. With a swift, curt motion, he reached down for the crow's neck and drew it from the clinging goo of the croach.

  Parts of the bird peeled and sloughed away, like meat from a roast that had been cooked to tender perfection in a carefully tended oven. It let out a rasping sound, but its beak never attempted to close. Its eyes blinked once and then went glassy.

  "That takes only hours," Kitai said and dropped the remains back near the slit in the wax. "Do you see, Aleran?"

  Tavi stared at the ground, sickened. "I. . . I see. "

  Kitai grimaced at him. He turned and started pacing away, following the wall of stone again. "We must move. The Keepers will come to investigate the break you made and put the rest of the crow back. We should not be here when they arrive. "

  "No," Tavi whispered. "I guess we sh-"

  In the trees, Tavi saw something move.

  It was indistinct at first. Just a lump in the wax on the trunk of the tree. But it shuddered and twitched with life. Tavi thought for a moment that a piece of the croach had broken from the tree trunk and would fall to earth. It had a lumpy shape and coursed with the same luminous green fluid as the rest of the wax. But as the Aleran boy watched, legs writhed free of the lump's sides. Something like a head emerged from a shell-like coating of the croach, pale eyes round and huge. All in all, eight knobby, many-jointed legs stretched free of the thing's body, and then, with a quiet, horrible grace, it paced down the trunk of the tree and across the floor of the forest to the break in the surface of the croach, where greenish glowing fluid bubbled and seethed like blood in an open wound.

  A wax spider. A Keeper of Silence. Silent and strange and the size of a large dog. Tavi stared at it, his heart pounding in his chest, and felt his eyes widening.

  He shot a glance to Kitai, who had also frozen and was staring at the

  Keeper. The creature bent down and spread wide a set of smooth mandibles at the base of its head. It scooped up pieces of the crow and using its foremost set of legs, tucked them back into the open wound in the croach. Then it hovered over the slash, several of its legs working back and forth over it in swift, methodical movements, sealing the wax closed over the carcass.

  Tavi shot a glance back at Kitai, who motioned to Tavi and then covered his own mouth with his hand, a clear command to be silent. Tavi nodded and turned toward Kitai. The Marat's eyes widened in alarm, and he held up his hands, palms out, to tell Tavi to stop.

  Tavi froze.

  Behind him, the quiet rustle of the Keeper's limbs over the wax had come to a halt. From the corner of his eye, Tavi could just see it gather all its limbs beneath it again, bobbing up and down in restless agitation. It began to emit a series of high pitched chirrups, not quite like a bird's voice, or anything else Tavi had ever heard. The sound made shivers slither down the length of his body.

  After a moment, the Keeper appeared to go back to its work. Kitai turned toward Tavi, his motions very, very slow, graceful. He gestured toward Tavi with his hand, every movement smooth and circular and rolling, exaggerated. Then he turned and began to walk away, silent and slow, his steps flowing almost as though in a dance.

  Tavi swallowed and turned to follow Kitai, struggling to emulate the Marat boy's steps. Kitai walked before him, close to the stone wall of the chasm, and Tavi followed until they were several dozen yards away from the Keeper. Tavi felt its presence behind him, bizarre and unworldly, disturbing as the legs of a fly prickling along the nape of his neck. When they were out of its sight, he felt himself relaxing and moving closer to Kitai out of reflex- as different as the other boy might be, he was more familiar, more friendly than that buglike creature entombing the crow within the glowing wax.

  Kitai looked back over his shoulder at Tavi and then past him, eyes wide. There was something in them-tightly controlled terror, Tavi thought. He thought that Kitai looked a bit relieved to see Tavi standing so close to him, and the two boys exchanged a silent nod of acknowledgment to one another. Tavi felt the understanding between them without words needing to be said: truce.

  Kitai let out a breath, slowly. "You must be quiet," he said, whispering. "And move smoothly. They see sudden motions. "

  Tavi swallowed and whispered, "We're safe if we're still?"

  Kitai's face grew a shade paler. He shook his head, giving the gesture a circular accent to smooth it out. "They've found even those who were still. I've seen it. "

  Tavi frowned. "They must have some other way of seeing. Smell, hearing, something. "

  Kitai rolled his head in the negative again. "I don't know. We do not stay where they are to learn of them. " He looked around and shivered. "We must be careful. It called. Others will come to search. They will be slow for now. But the Keepers will come. "

  Tavi nodded and had to swallow and force himself to make the gesture slowly, not in nervous jerks. "What should we do?"

  Kitai nodded toward the ancient tree rising from the center of the forest. "We continue the trial, Aleran. "

  "Uh. Maybe we shouldn't. "

  "I will continue, Aleran. If you are too afraid to go on, then stay. " His lips curled in a mischievous sneer. "It is what I would expect of a child. "

  "I am not a child,'' Tavi hissed furiously. "I'm older than you. What are you, twelve years old? Thirteen?"

  Kitai narrowed his eyes. "Fifteen," he hissed.

  Tavi stared at the other boy for a moment, then started smiling. He had to struggle not to break out into sudden laughter.

  Kitai's scowl deepened. "What?"

  Tavi rolled his head in a slow negative, and whispered, "Nothing. Nothing. "

  "Mad," Kitai said. "You people are mad. " With that, he turned and glided deeper into the glowing forest.

  Tavi followed close behind him, frowning, struggling to keep the irrational laughter from his lips, his steps silent. After they'd put several dozen more yards between them and the Keeper they'd seen, he reached back and unslung the pack Fade had pressed onto him from his shoulders. He opened it and rummaged inside.

  The pack contained two small jars of fine lamp oil, firestones in their two-chambered black box, a small lantern, a box of fine shavings to serve as tinder for a fire, dried meat twisted into braids in a fashion odd to Tavi, two fine, warm blankets, several slender lengths of wood that could be fitted together into a fishing pole, lines, and fine metal hooks.

  And at the bottom of the pack, a cruel, curved knife, heavy and with a spiked guard that covered the knuckles. It had a blade twice the length of Tavi's entire hand. A combat weapon.

  Where had Fade got something like that? Tavi wondered. Why had the slave had this pack stored with such efficiency inside his chambers, presumably ready to go at a moment's notice? He had returned with the pack so quickly that he could not possibly have packed it. It had to have been ready to go.

  Tavi shook his head and almost bumped into Kitai, who had come to a sudden stop in front of him. He came to a halt, close enough to the other boy that he could feel the nearly feverish heat of the Marat's body.

  "What is it?" he whispered.

  Kitai shivered and moved his head almost imperceptibly.

  Tavi looked to his left, moving only his eyes.

  A Keeper squatted o
n a gnarled root that rose from the forest floor, draped in a mantle of glowing croach, not ten feet away. Tavi looked the other way, seeking the nearest means of moving away from the Keeper.

  A second spider-like creature sat on a low, wax-shrouded branch, on level with Tavi's head. It let out a high-pitched chirrup, bobbing up and down on its knobby limbs.

  The first Keeper answered it in a different pitch. It too began to bob in fluid, steady motions. Other chirrups sounded from around them, out of sight. Many of them. A great many.

  Tavi shuddered. He hardly breathed as he whispered, "What do we do?"

  "I. . . " Kitai shivered again, and Tavi saw that the other boy's eyes were wide, panicked. "I do not know. "

  Tavi's eyes flicked back to the nearest of the two Keepers. It shook its head, pale eyes peering this way and that, twitching in independent motion, a dark dot at their center the only thing that resembled a pupil. Then, as Tavi watched, something strange happened. The Keeper's eyes changed color, right there before his own: They changed from a pale shade of maggot-white to something as bright orange as a candle's flame.

  In that instant, the Keeper went deathly still. Both eyes swung to orient on the boys, and it let out a piercingly loud whistle, something that sounded like a mad bird's scream.

  Kitai's breath caught in his throat, and the boy leapt forward.

  Tavi's eyes swept left and right, and he saw what the Keepers did very clearly. The further Keeper's eyes swirled to orange as well, and oriented immediately upon Kitai's form. It too let out a shrill shrieking scream, and, mirroring the first, started after the Marat boy with a deceptively languid, deadly grace.

  In that moment, Tavi saw exactly how the Keepers had detected them, and how they might be able to thwart them. "Kitai!" he shouted, and then bounded after the other boy. "Wait!"

  More shrill whistles went up all around them, as Tavi raced to catch up with Kitai. It was all but impossible. The Marat boy carried no pack and moved with the grace and speed of a terrified deer. Tavi could barely keep the Marat in sight as he ran-and all around him gathered the glowing orange eyes of the wax spiders, standing out in sharp contrast to the green glow of the croach.

  If Kitai hadn't tripped on a sudden dip in the croach, perhaps where one of the wax spiders had recently raised itself up out of it, Tavi didn't think he'd have caught up to the other boy. Instead, he swooped down and hauled Kitai to his feet by the boy's wild hair.

  "Ow!" Kitai hissed, eyes wild.

  "Shut up!" Tavi said, his voice sharp. "Follow me. "

  Kitai blinked in startled surprise, and Tavi gave the boy no time to argue with him. He looked to his left and darted forward, tugging the other boy forward a few steps to get him moving, then sprinting as quickly as he could toward the rocky wall of the chasm. A Keeper suddenly appeared on the ground in front of them. Tavi stifled his fear and kept running at the creature.

  The wax spider reared up onto its rear sets of legs as Tavi approached, but before he reached it, the boy began a spin, holding the heavy pack out in both arms. The pack almost pulled him off balance, but instead he took a pair of whirling steps and felt the weight of the pack slam hard into the creature. The Keeper was lighter than it looked. The blow threw it to one side and slammed it hard into the wax surrounding a tree. It crumpled into the impact, legs curling up around it.

  Tavi ran on, and behind him, around them, the chirps of the Keepers grew louder, more shrill, filled with what Tavi imagined must have been a chill and alien anger.

  They reached the stony cliff face, both of them panting. Tavi dropped

  the pack long enough to put both hands against the stone, staring up and then to either side of the face, studying the dark stone as best he could in the faint light of the glowing croach.

  "The ropes are far from here," hissed Kitai. "There is no escape for us. "

  "We don't need escape," Tavi said. He pressed his mouth to the stone and touched his tongue to it briefly, then spat out the sour taste of lime. "This way," he said. He picked up his pack and continued on through the green light of the Wax Forest, the rocky wall on his left. He dug in the pack as he went.

  "They are surrounding us," Kitai said, voice cool. "Boxing us in. "

  "We don't need to get much farther," Tavi said. He tossed back one of the jars of oil to Kitai. "Hold that. "

  The Marat caught the jar awkwardly, then scowled at Tavi as they both ran on. "What is this?"

  "Hold it a minute," Tavi said. "I have an idea. "

  Orange eyes flickered on his right, and Tavi didn't see the Keeper hurtling toward him until it was already halfway there. Kitai's foot kicked at his own and sent him stumbling to the forest floor.

  The spider hurtled over him, missing him by a hair. It landed on the wall, its legs clinging to the nearly vertical surface, then spun on all of its legs, whistling. Its mandibles clicked and snapped against its carapace.

  Tavi watched as Kitai drew his stone knife and hurled it. The glassy blade entered the creature's head, drawing a sudden fount of greenish glowing fluid, mixed in with something dark and acrid smelling. The Keeper hurled its body out again, but unguided it simply bucked in a high arch and landed on the ground, twitching and convulsing.

  Kitai hauled Tavi to his feet and said, "I hope it is a good idea, Aleran. "

  Tavi felt himself quivering with terror and nodded jerkily. "Yeah. Yeah, so do I. " He started running again, Kitai close behind him.

  The sound of trickling water came to Tavi a moment later, and he lengthened his strides, leaping over another twisted root. Before him, the rock wall had parted in a long, narrow fissure. Water trickled out of it in a slow, steady stream, meltwater from the ambient heat of the croach. At the base of the fissure was a long, narrow pool, an area where the croach had not grown over the bare earth. The pool looked hideously dark, and Tavi could not see how deep it was.

  "We cannot climb this, Aleran," panted Kitai. Another shriek sounded from near at hand, and Kitai twisted in place, body crouching in tension.

  "Shut up," Tavi said "Give me the oil" He took the jar from Kitai's hand, jerked the broad cork out of its mouth He turned to the area behind himself and Kitai and stomped hard on the ground several times, breaking the surface of the wax and drawing out more of the sludgy, glowing fluid

  More outraged, chittering shrieks rose through the glowing forest

  "What are you doing'" hissed Kitai "You show them where we are'"

  "Yes," Tavi said "Exactly " He dumped the oil onto the croach, into the depression his boots had made, and took the firestone box into his hand He opened the two separate chambers and took the firestones into his hand, kneeling beside the oil He looked up to see the glowing orange dots of dozens of eyes closing in on him with that same weird, alien grace, knobby legs rippling across the surface of the croach

  "Whatever you are doing," Kitai half-shouted, "hurry'"

  Tavi waited until the eyes were close And then he reached down to the oil and struck the firestones together

  They sparked brightly, glowing motes falling down, into the spilled oil One of them found a spot where the oil was not deep enough to drown it, and in a rush, the whole of the small pool took sudden, brilliant flame Fire leapt up from the depression in the croach, as high as Tavi's chest

  The boy recoiled from the flames, grabbed Kitai by the Marat boy's one-piece smock, and hauled him toward the pool They tumbled into the cold water together, and Tavi pulled them both down

  The water was shallow, no more than thigh deep, and viciously chill Tavi and Kitai gasped together at the cold Then the Aleran boy stared at the Keepers

  The wax spiders had gone mad at the kindling of the fire Those nearest to him had fallen back and were scuttling in circles, letting out high pitched shrieks Others, farther back, had begun to bob up and down in confusion or fear, letting out high-pitched, interrogative chirrups

  None of them seemed to see either of the boys
in the pool

  "It worked," Tavi hissed "Quick, here " He reached into the pack and drew out both blankets He shoved one at Kitai, then took his own and dipped it into the water A moment later, he lifted it and draped it over his shoulders and head, shivering a bit with the cold "Quick," he said "Cover up "

  Kitai stared at him "What are you doing'" he hissed "We should run while we have a chance "

  "Quick, cover up"


  "Their eyes," Tavi said. "When they were close to us, the color of their eyes changed. They saw you and not me. "

  "What do you mean?"

  "They saw your heat," Tavi stammered, lips shaking with the cold. "The Marat. Your people feel like they have a fever to me. You're hotter. The spiders saw you. Then when I lit the fire-"

  'You blinded them," Kitai said, eyes widening.

  "So soak your blanket in the water and cover up. "

  "Clever," Kitai said with admiration in his voice. With a quick motion, he jerked the hem of his smock up out of the water in an effort to avoid wetting any more of it. He tugged it over his hips, then bent to dip the blanket in the water and shroud himself as Tavi had done.

  Tavi stared at the Marat in sudden shock.

  Kitai blinked back at Tavi. "What is it?"

  "I don't believe it," Tavi said. He felt his face flush and he turned away from Kitai, drawing the soaked blanket further about his face. "Oh, crows, I don't believe it. "

  "Don't believe what, Aleran?" Kitai demanded in a whisper.

  "You're a girl. "