Demons Of The Past 02: Revolution – Chapter 09
I shook my head to clear it, found that wasn’t doing much good. In fact, I wasn’t even sure where I was.
[anger-and-confusion-curse]! Whatever has done this I shall visit with talon and Hunger!
Vick’s mindvoice was muzzy, about the way my own thoughts felt. I was finally aware I was sitting on something, face slumped down on what felt like wood. A table?
I could hear a faint moan of pain from the EÃ¶nwyl on my left and farther to the right I heard a deep-voiced grunt from Guvthor. A wave of dizziness surged over me; I waited for it to subside while I tried to remember something â€“ anything â€“ that might tell me what had happened.
We’d had our night of rest and recovery, as Guvthor had put it â€“ a relatively quiet celebration of survivors coupled with remembrance of the lost. The next day, Guvthor had sent word out to the other clan leaders (who apparently had no objection to using a few Imperial communicators to eliminate days, weeks, or even months of messengers running across continents to get everyone involved up to date). There had been no immediate response, which left Guvthor looking a bit disappointed and â€“ I thought â€“ slightly concerned. When I’d asked him about it, he’d shrugged. “They may be discussing the meeting time and location amongst themselves,” he said with an attempt at a casual air. “These things can take some time. Hopefully not too long.”
And so we’d had another meal and gone to sleep, and that was all I could remember.
I forced my head up and got my eyes open.
The urgency in my curse caused Vick’s head to snap upright and the EÃ¶nwyl to look up; Guvthor tried to rise and nearly fell to the ground.
Adrenalin had completely cleared my head as I found myself staring into the deep, dark eyes of at least two dozen Thovians, all seated around a tremendous semicircular table that faced us, under a sky roofed over with the branches of some of the largest trees I had yet seen, a roof of branches and leaves through which some stars flickered and on which danced the orange-yellow of firelight from immense firepits spaced around the clearing. We were at a smaller semicircular table â€“ no, I corrected myself as I took a quick glance backwards, they were both halves of a pair of circular tables positioned with the smaller one like the bullseye of a target.
With us as the bullseye.
Guvthor shook himself all over, drew a breath, and rose to his full impressive height, glaring at the others and reaching over his shoulder, drawing out the immense battleaxe and raising it over his head.
To my surprise, I discovered that not only was I properly dressed, my Maradan 500F was still on my hip. I didn’t draw the rannai pistol, though; I didn’t feel all that steady on my feet, and I wanted to see what in the Emperor’s Name was going on here.
“Makthur Chak Nantu!” Guvthor bellowed. When there was no response, he leapt completely over the table, wobbling only a bit on landing, and raised the great axe again. “Makthur Chak Nantu, Rogh!”
For several long seconds, there was no response â€“ not a growl, not a movement, nothing but the eyes now all fixed on the Thovian astrophysicist. As the moments slid by, I saw Guvthor’s pose begin to shift, hands moving to a combat grip, not a ceremonial one.
Abruptly one â€“ at or near the center of the watching group â€“ rose to her feet, fur gleaming red and gold in the firelight, and drew forth a sword nearly twice as long as I was tall. “Rodur Chak Nantu,” she answered.
Guvthor’s hands relaxed the tiniest bit. “Meldas San Kolon’Mak Shasto.”
Another pause, but shorter, but this time the other Thovian slashed her sword through the air at Guvthor. “Shasto Nok Guvthor, Goro Thov!”
Whatever that meant, it shocked Guvthor enough that his axe dropped halfway to the ground. Then he let out a roar and swung, burying the axe deep into the table in front of the female (who was almost his size) and launched into a torrent of Thovian which seemed equal parts outrage, argument, and pleading â€“ the last being something I’d never expected to hear in Guvthor’s voice.
The others responded â€“ first the older female with the sword, then more of them, until the entire clearing echoed with the deep-throated bellows of a dozen three-to-four-meter tall Thovians â€“ and sometimes to quick clashes of weapons, as those arguing often punctuated their incomprehensible points with a swing of a weapon which was parried by their opposite number.
I couldn’t make out the actual meaning; Guvthor had been telling the truth about his people’s resistance to psionic abilities. Not one of them was radiating thought concepts that could be grasped â€“ it was like trying to make out shapes through frosted crystal. You could tell there were thoughts there, sometimes get an idea of how intense the emotions with them were, but actually reading what they were thinking would require that I bore through those defenses â€“ something that would undoubtedly be at a minimum rude and, at worst, an immediately fatal offense.
I glanced over at the EÃ¶nwyl and Vick. The EÃ¶nwyl had drawn her pistol and was behind the tall pillar-like chair she’d been seated on â€“ similar to the one I was still perched atop. Vick’s eyes were narrow and his tail lashing, but he was not â€“ quite â€“ acting.
But the debate was still getting louder, and I thought there was a darker edge to it now, with tones of fear and anger now on both sides, and weapons â€“ bows, swords, spears, axes, massive hammers â€“ were all out and waving threateningly; a few seemed to be taking Guvthor’s side, but most were not.
I had to do something. I had no idea exactly what was going on, but it wasn’t good for us, of that I was sinking sure. I couldn’t shoot them. I couldn’t run up there with my own swords, unless I was hoping to stop this by making them all laugh; that might work but I sure wasn’t planning on counting on that. Jumping on one of them and trying Tor combat maneuvers was even sillier.
That left some kind of psi stunt. I couldn’t affect themâ€¦
â€¦ but I could affect things around them. I remembered one of the greatest of the psi horror stories, the legend of Maldron the Earthshaker. I couldn’t possibly do what he did, but I had gotten a lot stronger in my telekinetic abilities since that long-ago time I’d been tested by Vick in Shagrath’s presenceâ€¦
I reached out, sensed the bedrock not far under this mountain grove, concentrated, reaching deep within me, stretching mentally until I realized I was doing so physically, my visualization echoed in action. I went with it, rising to my full height and then punching downward with every iota of power I could channel.
The concussion rocked the entire clearing like the detonation of a K-series mine. Guvthor and the other Thovians staggered and went to their knees, the massive tables wobbled, even the trees above shuddered, dropping a shower of dirt and leaves. I nearly fell myself, not from the shockwave â€“ which I’d suppressed in my location â€“ but from complete shock at the magnitude of the effect. I could see more Thovians â€“ tending the firepits and associated ovens and stoves â€“ had also fallen or tripped. Surprisingly, The EÃ¶nwyl remained standing as though the shockwave hadn’t even reached her.
By the Final Lightâ€¦ Vick’s mental voice was both awed and â€¦ joyful in a predatory fashion. The power does continue to increase. A triumph, a triumph indeed!
For a moment, there was absolute silence except for the faint, fluttering sound of leaves and dust still sifting slowly to the ground.
“No offense,” I said, trying to project my voice across the clearing without shouting, “but whatever you’re arguing about has to do with us, and I think we need to know who you all are, why you’re arguing, and what in the name of the Eternal is going on here.”
The older Thovian woman rose slowly to her feet, staring at me. After a pause, she gave a knee-dipping bow. “I am Hargan Hok Hargan, savant of the Keiladonarondalam, holder of the Rodur Hok Hargan. You are the Imperial that the Guvthor has brought to speak with the Thov Hok Shu.”
“Sasham Varan, once Captain of the Mada, the Navy of the Reborn Empire, yes,” I confirmed. “Now what seems to be the problem?”
“Guvthor Hok Guvthor used authority given him by the Thov Hok Shu for purposes we are not agreed upon as necessary,” another Thovian â€“ black-furred, broad, also female. “We were discussing the matter.”
“You were ‘discussing’ the matter,” repeated The EÃ¶nwyl, who was now up and standing near me. “To us, it appeared you were about to discuss it by lopping off some heads on one or both sides of the debate.”
“If you are not prepared to die for your beliefs, are they worth considering?” Hargan said matter-of-factly. “Usually our discussions end with little or no bloodshed, but there are serious matters indeed involved. This axe-eager stripling,” she said with a gesture at Guvthor, who looked slightly offended, “has taken actions which, if we are not very lucky, will put us at odds with your Reborn Empire. That is a weighty decision, not one to be made by one person, no matter how intelligent or convinced of his own correctness.”
A “weighty decision”? I thought. More like suicidal, and in that point of view they’re right. “You’re saying â€“ as we suspected â€“ that Guvthor arranged the landslide?”
“He arranged for it to be triggered in one of the patterns we had determined likely, yes,” answered yet another Thovian â€“ a brown-furred huge-gutted mountain of a creature, not quite as tall as Guvthor but possibly twice his mass. “Your pardon â€“ Boduras Hok Boduras, holder of the Beidal Hok Boduras. You must realize that while we permitted your Empire a foothold here, to offer us trade and education,” his smile was strangely cynical, “we have never been the sort to trust in the strength of another without strength of our own. We devised multiple methods of removing the Imperial presence from our world if we deemed it necessary.”
Vick was studying the group narrowly, as a predator might size up another predator intruding on its territory. He glanced at me at the last sentence.
That was a â€¦ very disquieting concept. This primitive world, with natives who were still building stone and wood shelters against their weather and using fireplaces as their heat source, had calmly decided to make sure they could erase the Imperial presence whenever they thought it necessary? They had to have a grasp by now of just what kind of power the Reborn Empire wielded; this argument showed they were quite aware of the dangers. What kind of people would nonetheless have arranged such a monstrously lethal way of erasing their visitors from the planet?
As I tried to formulate a useful question, Hargan gestured to another group of Thovians who had been hovering at the edges of the argument and barked something at them. “But your, hm, rather emphatic way of recalling our attention to you has reminded me that we must keep our manners. We had you brought here without your knowledge so that none of you â€“ even Guvthor â€“ can say where the Thov Hok Shu spoke with you, if we elect to return you without further discussion. But we are all hungry, and it is time for Togron Gon Roltav. We can make no decision unless we understand you, and that cannot be done if we speak not to you, and you have no chance to speak with us.
“So take your seats again, please, and food shall be brought, and then â€“ once we have reached the state of comfort, if not completion, in our eating, the Questions may begin.”
“I trust you’ve checked all the food you’re going to serve to make sure it’s safe.” The EÃ¶nwyl made it a statement.
“For human consumption, certainly,” Hargan replied, then glanced at Vick with some uncertainty. “For R’Thannâ€¦?”
The blade-sharp smile flickered under the brilliant crest. If it bled as it died, I can eat it. If it still lives, so much the better, for then I shall drink its life. The People areâ€¦ a most efficient species.
Guvthor nodded slowly. “I have heard tales, indeed.”
“As have we all,” Hargan said. “Another reason we question your judgment, Guvthor Hok Guvthor. Never before have any of the R’Thann set foot on Thovia and lived to speak of it; if this is to be an exception, we must be well convinced.”
I might have found the thought that none of my species had ever been allowed to leave a planet a little intimidating; by the way Vick’s crest rose and the rippling hiss he gave, it seemed he was almost pleased at the thought.
Huge platters of food were placed on the tables; I realized I could probably have laid down lengthwise on the platters and had plenty of room, and the amount of food they carried was fitting. Much of it was meat â€“ not surprising, given our hosts’ dentition and what I knew of Guvthor’s own preferences â€“ but there were roasted vegetables, several types of breads â€“ flat and rising â€“baked in wood-fired ovens, and more complex dishes not immediately identifiable.
For some time we ate, with little conversation on either side; we had a lot to think about, and I’d guess so did they. Finally Hargan â€“ who was clearly the head of this Thov Hok Shu â€“ put down her feeding tines and glanced to Guvthor. “First we shall have yourâ€¦ report, Guvthor Hok Guvthor. Make it a summary and speak only of what you know to be true. Guesses we will hear at a later time. Speak in our own tongue, as I wish your words to have no influence on those of your companions.”
Even a summary report took a lot of time when it covered well over a year that had been as busy as this one. I had time to finish my main courses and start picking at various desserts while the rumbling, sonorous sound of Thovian swirled incomprehensibly around me.
Finally, however, Guvthor stopped speaking and the other Thovians, after a brief dialogue amongst themselves, indicated their acceptance of Guvthor’s description.
“Our turn,” I said; Hargan looked almost ready to argue, then shrugged and nodded; obviously she realized that if they were going to be playing this by their rules, they’d better stick to the rules if they wanted me to play at all. “You used the word report deliberately. Guvthor was sent by you, wasn’t he?” I looked her in the eye. “As a spy on the Empire itself.”
She returned the gaze with a grave nodâ€¦ yet there was another disquieting twinkle in her eye as well. “Precisely so. Guvthor Hok Guvthor volunteered â€“ as did others â€“ to allow the Imperium to educate them in appropriate fields and then become part of the Reborn Empire for some years, eventually to return here and tell us of the current state of the Galaxy around us. We will not pretend that this is anything other than spying; whether we agree with his most recent actions, Guvthor’s loyalty was always to Thovia and the Thov Hok Shu, never to your Empire, and always intended to return whatever information he might gain while there to us, to allow us to truly assess the promise, and potential threat, of the Reborn Empire.”
I blinked at the implications of that answer. But she shook her head with a smile of bared teeth. “As you said, our turn now.” Hargan studied us in silence for a moment, then nodded at Boduras, who heaved himself slightly more upright to gaze at us, finally settling his stare at me. “Tell us a story, Sasham Varan. Something that will tell us something of who you are, or who you were, or what you believe.”
I had known something like this was coming â€“ Guvthor had been preparing us for this in his own way â€“ but now that the time had come I didn’t know exactly what to choose. Certainly the story of our escape from Teraikon was known already â€“ that had to have been part of Guvthor’s report. At the same time, I felt a little embarrassed to talk about any of the so-called heroic things I’d been involved with. I’d already told those to my companions and telling them again would sound like bragging.
But Boduras had said “what you believe”. Soâ€¦ yes. Exactly.
“I am what my people call one of the Seekers. I believe in the legend of Atlantaea, in the Eternal King and the Eternal Queen, and how a reign of a thousand centuries ended in a single day of black fire and betrayal and demon-hate,” I began. “And the story I remember most now, the story which takes me through the very path of darkness and back to the light, is from that very day, from the very moment that Torline Valanhavhi returned to hear the screaming of his world and the dying cry of his Queen, saw only the shadow of her killer and then the black outline of the King of All Hells, bestriding the First City as he struck the final blow that would send the Galaxy into darkness, and the ground shuddered, and Torline’s city, his first city, began its descent into ruin.”
I felt the words coming back to me as they were written in the Book of the Fall, as they had come to me the last time I told this storyâ€¦ to myself, on my way to Oro, and â€“ though I hadn’t known it at the time â€“ to Taelin as he watched me. “And as the Tower of Eternity sank beneath the waves, he took up the body of his Queen, and strode across the waters, never looking back, for he knew that a heart can break more than once.” I told of his journey as the stars went out and the land was changed, carrying the Queen still until he came to a place where a single ray of sun illuminated the shore of an island of gold and emerald, where he laid her at last to rest.
“And Torline turned, and left the place where forever would lie Niaadea, his Eternal Queen whose eternity was ended,” I continued, feeling my throat burn at the memories this made real again; but I pushed on, through the Eternal King’s greatest battle, a battle not against the forces of Hell, but against the mightiest of sins, despair, and how in the final moment he triumphed. “And so he taught, and so we pray, that always there is hope.” And I heard in the back of my mind Taelin’s voice, echoing the final line, as though he was still there.
The Thov Hok Shu were silent until Boduras leaned back slowly. “And do you believe in hope, or only in prayers for hope?”
I looked at my friends and allies, and looked back to the gathered council with a smile and an unexpected lifting of my heart. “The universe has showed me that even in moments of despair, there is always hope. You just have to be willing to see it.”
I gestured to the three of them, Vick, The EÃ¶nwyl, Guvthor. “Three times I could see no escape from certain death, or worse; but three times I believed that there must be some chance, and reached out, fought for that chance â€“ and it was there; an exile willing to risk his own life for mine, a scientist offering escape instead of death, a trader willing to bet her ship on a dream.
“So I do not believe in hope; I know there is always hope.”
And by the slow smile that spread across Hargan’s face, I knew that here, too, was hope.