Pal-Cadool knew the trick. He walked to the far side of the giant stone cairn that supported the Hunter’s Shrine. Back there, its base hidden by carefully planted bushes, a stairway had been built. Quintaglios disliked stairs — the steps caused their tails to drag or bounce — but they did have their uses. Cadool parted the shrubbery and made his way up. It was still a long climb, but he reached the top only slightly out of breath, and the steady east-west wind cooled him quickly.
As a butcher, Cadool knew bones well. He always admired the structure of the Shrine, the special juxtapositions of femurs and clavicles, of tail vertebrae and chest riblets.
Inside, he could see hunt leader Jal-Tetex. She stood on the far side of the floating sphere of Quintaglio skulls. The wind was whipping too loudly for Tetex to hear Cadool’s approach. The butcher tipped his body in homage to the skull of Hoog, patron of his craft, one of the five brown and ancient skulls at the center of the sphere. Then he spoke aloud. "Permission to enter your territory, Tetex?"
Tetex had been leaning back on her tail. She turned now, and Cadool saw in her hand a leather-bound volume. Embossed on its cover was the cartouche of Lubal: this was one of the forbidden books of Lubalite rites, a new edition, apparently, made possible by the recent introduction of printing presses. Still, no government-authorized press had produced that book.
"Hahat dan, Cadool," said Tetex, making no effort to hide the book. "You’re late."
"My duties at the palace interfered, I’m afraid." He clicked his teeth. "When Emperor Dybo calls for something to eat, all other business must be put aside."
Tetex nodded. "Before stuffing Dybo, did you get a chance to see The One?"
"Yes. I took him food."
"He is well?"
"He’s frightened and confused, but holding up."
"Fear is the counselor," said Tetex. "He is wise." She looked across Land, spreading out far below. "Now that you’ve spoken with him, have you any doubts?"
"None. Keenir was right. And so were you. He must be The One. He told me something today, something only The One would know."
"He said the world is coming to an end."
Tetex’s head snapped around to look Cadool dead on. "Are you sure?"
"He was quite plain. In three hundred kilodays or so, the world will end."
"Still that far away? But it is as the Book of Lubal said: ’One will come among you to herald the end; heed him, for those who do not are doomed.’ "
Cadool made the ceremonial sign of acquiescence at the mention of Lubal’s name. "It was all I could do to keep from touching him when he said it. I had my doubts until then, but no more."
"Does he know that you know who he is?"
"Tetex, I don’t think he knows who he is. But I didn’t give anything away. Of his own volition, he pledged his life to the cause."
Silence, save for the shrieking wind. Then Tetex spoke: "When I saw him on that first hunt, I knew he was special. I’d never seen a novice hunter with such skill, such determination."
"That thunderbeast he brought down was a giant indeed."
"A giant? Cadool, for the first time, I thought I was going to die. There was no way we could defeat that monster — none! But Afsan succeeded. He saved us all. When Keenir returned with his stories about Afsan killing a serpent that attacked the Dasheter, and that fellow Drawo from Carno told us about Afsan bringing down a fangjaw on his own, I was sure. ’And The One will defeat demons of the land and of the water; blood from his kills will soak the soil and stain the River.’ "
"But now they call Afsan himself a demon," said Cadool. "He was almost killed in the ruling room yesterday. Dybo’s feelings are the only thing keeping Afsan alive, and who knows how long it will be before the imperial advisors convince Dybo to put him to death."
"But to kill a Quintaglio…"
"It’s been done before, Tetex. In Larsk’s time, the hunters who didn’t accept his claims were executed."
Tetex nodded solemnly. "You’re right. We must act quickly."
"Has word gone out with our newsriders?"
"They leave tonight."
"He’s loading provisions aboard the Dasheter now. At dawn, he’ll set sail for the west coast to fetch Lubalites from there. When he landed there with Afsan, he told many hunters the story of Afsan killing the great serpent. He’s sure that most will agree to come back here with him."
"That’s still fifty days or so, round trip, even for the Dasheter." said Cadool.
"That it is. But it’ll take at least that long for any of those who the newsriders contact to assemble here. Everyone who knows the hand sign will receive the special call."
"Where will we gather?"
"At the ruins of the temple of Lubal, on the far side of the Ch’mar peaks."
Cadool’s tail swept in a wide arc. "I hate that place — buildings half buried under lava flows."
"But no one goes there anymore; it’s an ideal spot to wait for the others."
Cadool nodded. "I suppose." He looked back at the floating sphere of skulls. "Afsan himself did not know the hand sign."
Tetex blinked. "He didn’t?"
"Did you show it to him?"
"Well, he knows it now," said Tetex.
"And that’s enough?"
"We must pray that it is. There’s little we can do for him without greater numbers. He has to hold on for sixty-one days."
Cadool looked puzzled. "Sixty-one?"
Tetex patted the cover of the book she held. "That will bring us to the traditional date of the feast of Lubal. At the fifth daytenth, we’ll march into the Capital."