Against the tide, p.1
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       Against the Tide, p.1

           Tui T. Sutherland
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Against the Tide

  For Elliot and Jonah, and for my spirit animal, Sunshine

  — T.S.


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  They knew vaguely where it was, deep in the scorched, arid interior of the continent. They knew of the muttering sound that made the earth tremble for miles in all directions around it.

  And they knew the name of the dark, sinister creature imprisoned there.

  Most of all, they knew never to go anywhere near it if they wanted to survive.

  So no one had visited Kovo the Ape’s prison in hundreds of years. Not that it would be easy, if anyone had even wanted to try. Muttering Rock was far out in the Stetriol desert, many days from the nearest source of water. Each side of the rock was a sheer cliff face with no handholds, as if someone had sliced away the edges with one swipe of a powerful blade.

  The top of the rock was baked by the sun to a blistering two hundred degrees or so — no one had ever measured the exact temperature, of course, but it was enough to instantly and badly burn any foot, or boot, or paw that tried to step onto it.

  The cage itself seemed to be growing out of the top of the rock, a vast network of impenetrable branches as hard as diamonds. It glowed a pure, blinding white, particularly at its sharpest points, where it still had the vague shape of the giant antlers planted centuries ago by the Great Beast Tellun.

  And of course, there was the eagle overhead: Halawir, the sharp-eyed guard who watched Kovo every day and all night too.

  So: no visitors. Not in a very, very long time.

  Hence the muttering.

  “First I will peel off their skin,” growled a voice like thunder in the distant mountains. “I will crush their skulls between my fists. I will wrap their bones in their green cloaks and set fire to their homes. Their fortresses will be dust beneath my feet.”

  The malevolent eyes of an enormous silverback gorilla glowered through the gaps in the cage. His thick black fur was heavy in the heat. There was no room in his cage for pacing, so he sat, brooding and waiting, as he had for generations. Kings and empires had risen and fallen since his imprisonment, but still, he waited.

  And while he waited, he dreamed of vengeance.

  “I have killed four Great Beasts,” he murmured. “When I am free, I will punish those presumptuous Greencloaks who follow them. I will tear their spirit animals apart and then I will kill all the feeble humans myself. Some of them I will strangle slowly, and others I will drown, and some I will crush beneath my feet.” He brushed one leathery palm against the antlers that hemmed him in.

  In the distance, a bird of prey shrieked, piercing and desperate in the broiling air.

  “Not much longer. Worthless humans. If I were free, we’d have all the talismans already. We’d be the kings of this world and everyone would bow to us.”

  His colossal muscles rippled as he pushed against the cage walls. “Soon. My time is coming. They’ll come for me soon,” he muttered, squinting out at the small square of empty desert he could see. “Gerathon has been free for weeks. Slow, despicable humans. Perhaps I will rip off their toes.”

  He lifted his head, his giant nostrils flaring as he sniffed the air. A slow, cunning smile spread across his face.

  “Gerathon,” he rumbled. “At last.”

  “I understand your eagerness to spill the blood of your enemies,” said a voice from behind him. “But after the centuries you’ve already waited, what does another month or two matter?”

  “I will wait as long as I have to for my plans to come to bear,” said Kovo. “Stand where I can see you.”

  A brown-haired boy inched into view and stopped a few steps away from the cage, not far from the sheer edge of the cliff behind him. He was thin and small, barely old enough to drink the Bile, and terribly sunburned. Long, bleeding scratches marked his shoulders, and he didn’t seem to notice the smoke rising from the burning soles of his shoes. But perhaps that had something to do with who was really inside him, looking out through snakelike yellow eyes, pupils huge and dilated.

  “An unusually small creature for you,” Kovo growled. “Looks more like one of your snacks than a messenger.” He glanced at the sky, but there was no sign of Halawir. Useful timing, that: his ever-watchful guard missing right on time for his visitor.

  “Oh, I am sure I shall eat him later,” the boy said, and although it was not Gerathon’s voice, not exactly, there was still an eerie hiss to it that echoed the serpentine Great Beast. “Sssso . . . it’s been a long time. What have you been up to?”

  “Terribly amusing,” Kovo snarled. His dark eyes gleamed from deep beneath his forbidding brow. “Did you come here to flaunt your freedom?”

  “No,” Gerathon said, almost sympathetically, for her. “I came to tell you how well we’re doing. The Conquerors just stole the Crystal Polar Bear from those scruffy Greencloak midgets. Plus I was able to do some entertaining mental torture on one of them, since his mother is one of my creatures. Oh, his face when she tried to kill him. It was delightful.”

  “Marvelous,” said Kovo. “Leave me here for eons if you like, just as long as you’re having fun.”

  “Your time for fun is coming too,” Gerathon said, covering the boy’s mouth as she made him yawn deliberately. “We have almost enough talismans to free you.”

  “That is . . . almost what I want to hear,” Kovo said with glittering menace.

  “Trust me,” Gerathon said languidly. “We have our ways of knowing everything the Greencloaks do, and we know exactly where the Four Fallen are going next. As always. We’ll get the next talisman, and then we’ll destroy them.”

  “I notice you haven’t destroyed them yet,” Kovo pointed out. “Care to explain why they’re still alive?”

  Gerathon waved the boy’s hand dismissively. “They’re still useful to me. To us. To our Reptile King. Don’t worry, they’ll all be dead soon.”

  The boy suddenly let out a cry of pain and fell forward onto his hands and knees. Scorching burns immediately blistered along his skin.

  “Oh, curses,” Gerathon hissed, a weirdly calm voice coming out of a face contorted with agony. “This pathetic little costume isn’t going to be much use to me for much longer. Perhaps I should call back his buzzard to carry him away.”

  “Ah,” Kovo said. “That’s how you got him up here.”

  “Yes. We chose the smallest human and bonded him with the Bile to a giant bird,” she answe
red. Kovo squinted at the sky and saw large wings circling — not Halawir’s, for once.

  The boy collapsed completely, and the sizzling smell of burning hair filled the air. “Ah, well,” Gerathon went on, “this one’s almost dead. How boring of him. I suppose this is good-bye for now, Kovo.”

  “Wait,” he growled, clutching at the antlers. “How much longer will I be stuck in here?”

  “Next time I see you,” she hissed, her voice fading as the boy’s eyes closed and the life drained from his body, “we will both be free.

  “And then . . . all of Erdas will be ours.”


  Abeke stared across the dark, rushing waves at the shore slipping past them. The afternoon sun was warm against her skin and cast bright golden sparkles along the ocean, but the wind was colder than it seemed like it should be.

  Nilo. My home. My family.

  All she could see of it was a strip of beach and thick green jungle beyond. This part of Nilo didn’t look anything like the dry savannah around her village, but it was still as close to home as she had been in a long time.

  I wonder what Soama would think if she could see me now. Or Father. Abeke rubbed the wound in her left shoulder where a Conqueror had buried a knife during their last battle. It had healed enough for her to use her bow again — a new bow, to replace the one shattered by a Conqueror’s war hammer — but it still ached sometimes, especially when the air was chilly. Would my family be proud of me after all this? Or would they still think I’m a disgrace and a disappointment?

  She tugged her green cloak closer around her shoulders and reached out, almost unconsciously, for her leopard.

  “Rrrreowr,” Uraza grumbled, shoving her head under Abeke’s hand. The leopard sat for a moment, letting Abeke stroke her fur and glaring balefully at the ocean. Then she sprang up again and went back to pacing up and down the ship with long, rolling strides.

  Maybe I’m only feeling out of sorts because she is, Abeke thought. Uraza, like most cats — giant or otherwise — strongly disliked water, particularly enormous bodies of water, and most particularly enormous bodies of water that surrounded her on all sides and smelled of fish she couldn’t catch herself.

  “I know,” Abeke whispered, watching her spirit animal pace. “I wish we were back on land too.” It was hard to be cooped up on the ship for so long, but Tarik insisted that going all the way around Nilo was the safest route to Oceanus. The usual sea route — the passage between Nilo and Zhong — was sure to be swarming with Conquerors now.

  Abeke was about to call Uraza back and offer her the choice of going into passive state, but right at that moment, Jhi the giant panda emerged from belowdecks directly into the leopard’s path.

  Startled, Uraza leaped back and snarled, raising her hackles. Her teeth gleamed ferociously in the sunlight and her claws left gouges in the wooden boards of the deck.

  “Uraza!” Abeke called.

  Jhi blinked placidly at the leopard and then turned to amble away. But behind her was Meilin, who scowled at Uraza with one hand on the knife at her waist.

  “She didn’t mean any harm,” Abeke said, hurrying up to them. She put a calming hand on Uraza’s back. “She’s just jumpy. We all are.”

  “I wonder why,” Meilin said. Abeke knew what she meant, of course: another lost talisman, another pointless journey, and the little matter of Rollan’s news that someone was passing information to the enemy. Meilin looked hard at Abeke for a moment, then added, “Do us all a favor and learn to control your bad-tempered cat.”

  Uraza hissed softly as Meilin stalked away.

  “It’s all right,” Abeke whispered, stroking the leopard’s fur. “I understand why she’s worried.” But I’m not the mole. I’m loyal to the Greencloaks. Yes, I like Shane and happen to think he’s not totally evil, but — I would never, never betray my friends.

  It wouldn’t be betraying them if I went home, though, would it?

  For a moment she let herself follow that fantasy. She could sneak up onto the deck in the middle of the night, borrow one of the small rowboats, lower it over the side . . . and strike off for Nilo on her own, gone before anyone even noticed. She knew she could survive the trek back to her village, using her hunting skills and the bond with Uraza that made her swifter and stronger than ever.

  Meilin would be relieved to find me gone. Rollan too, probably. And why should I stay with people who don’t trust me? She squinted up at the sun, thinking of Conor. She thought Conor would miss her . . . and she knew she would miss him. Back in Arctica, he’d said being with you is like being with family. Except that Abeke’s family usually made her feel uncomfortable and small and worthless, while being with Conor was easy and warm.

  But she was still worried about them — her father and Soama. Her whole village, in fact. What if they needed her and Uraza to protect them?

  Uraza growled under her fingertips, and Abeke wondered if the leopard had guessed her thoughts. “Oh, I won’t do it,” she said, crouching to talk to her spirit animal. “No need to make that bossy face at me. I’m not an idiot; I saw what happened when Conor and Meilin chose their families over our quest — and when Rollan nearly did. I know the best way to protect Father and Soama is to find the talismans and stop the Devourer.”

  She sighed. Besides, my family would probably be about as pleased to see me as Meilin usually is. “Oh, you’re back, are you? The Greencloaks didn’t want you either? Well, of course you failed. We knew that was going to happen. And don’t even think about bringing that leopard in here.”

  No, she was staying right where she was. She’d just have to find some other way to convince everyone to trust her.

  Uraza let out a kind of “you better” grumble-purr. She nudged Abeke’s hand with her head again and then stalked gracefully away, lashing her tail. The wind sent ripples across her black-spotted golden fur.

  “Everything all right?” Lenori said from behind her as Abeke stood up.

  Abeke nodded. They’d stopped at Greenhaven only long enough to pick up Lenori and leave Maya — poor, devastated Maya. And then Tellun’s Pride had sailed, with Lenori’s visions driving them onward to Oceanus, where apparently a giant octopus really, really wanted a word with them.

  “Couldn’t we —” she blurted out, and then stopped herself.

  “Couldn’t we what?” Lenori asked gently.

  “Couldn’t we stop in Nilo?” Abeke asked. “Isn’t there a Great Beast there? The lion, right? We could look for his talisman and then go to Oceanus, couldn’t we?” And maybe we could stop by my village . . . just to make sure they’re all right. She wondered if the rains had ever come. Or if the Conquerors had reached them first.

  The Greencloak tipped her head sympathetically. “You miss your family. I understand; I miss mine too. And it’s so much harder for you — at least mine are in Amaya, where the enemy has not yet penetrated.”

  “I don’t know if I so much miss them,” Abeke admitted. “But —”

  “You’re worried about them.” The sea wind whipped through Lenori’s long dark hair, and her rainbow ibis stood close within the shelter of her green cloak.

  Abeke turned to look at the tangled green coastline again. “I wish they knew what I was doing, that I’m not with Zerif anymore. I wish I could help them figure out who to trust and who not to trust. I wish — I just wish I could see them again and be sure they’re all right.”

  The beads in Lenori’s bracelets clattered softly as the older woman touched Abeke’s shoulder. “I believe they are,” she said. “You are doing what must be done to save them. To save all of Erdas. You’ve been very brave.”

  Abeke wished she had Lenori’s calm certainty about anything.

  “I hope you will have a chance to see them again soon. But as for going to Nilo right now, I’m afraid it’s too dangerous,” Lenori went on. “All reports indicate th
at the Conquerors have overrun the whole continent, the way they’ve taken over Zhong.”

  All the more reason to go now, Abeke thought. What about Father and Soama? What might the Conquerors have done to them? She imagined them forced to drink Bile, joined to twisted and horrible animals, and controlled by the enemy. A shudder ran through her whole body.

  “And it’s not just the Conquerors,” Tarik added, strolling over from the stern. Abeke jumped; she hadn’t realized he’d been listening. “Cabaro the Lion is one of the most deadly of the Great Beasts. Before we approach him, the more talismans we have, the safer we’ll be.”

  “Besides, Mulop is calling us,” Lenori said, her face clouded as if she were watching something a great distance away. She held out her hand and her ibis leaned in close to her, staring at Abeke with its unsettling eyes. The rushing spray of the ocean below them nearly drowned out Lenori’s quiet, musical voice as she murmured, “I have heard him in my dreams every night for a few weeks now. It starts with the sound of whales singing, and then the darkness around me turns blue, and I realize I’m underwater. The light is drifting down from far above, but it barely illuminates the cavern where I’m floating. And then a bubble spirals up past me, and another, and I realize they each contain a word, so I start trying to catch them, but they all pop as soon as I touch them. Except the words are left in blurred ink marks on my skin, so I can almost see a pattern, a message linking them all together.”

  “Almost?” Abeke asked.

  “Visions are always a little cryptic,” Lenori said. “Visions from Mulop, even more so. But what I can figure out says that he wishes to see the Four Fallen and their companions.” She shook her head. “We shouldn’t keep him waiting any longer than we have already. You don’t say no to Mulop.”

  I wasn’t going to say no, Abeke thought. Just . . . right, sure, yes, be there soon, just give us a minute.

  “Especially since this is the first Great Beast who’s reached out to us,” Tarik observed. He gave Abeke a wry, sympathetic smile. “After our experience with Suka, we could use a more pleasant encounter, don’t you agree? Somewhere with sunshine instead of frozen toes. Just imagine, a Great Beast who actually wants to see us. He may even be able to tell us more about what’s happening. All the tales agree that Mulop is a powerful seer.”

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