Pal-Cadool looked up at Afsan, balanced atop the tube-crested shoveler. The One, still small and always scrawny, had eyelids closed over rent orbs. His voice, unaccustomed to addressing multitudes, had become strained.
Cadool then looked out across the square. The Lubalites filled most of the eastern side. Some were atop hornfaces, half hidden behind the great bony neck frills. Others were riding running beasts, both the green and the beige variety. Still others were on shovelmouths — hardly a fighting creature, but still a good mount. And a few hunters stood on the wide knobby carapaces of armorbacks, ornery plant-eaters mostly encased in bone.
But Cadool saw that the bulk of the five hundred hunters were on foot. They had been rapt with attention, drinking in the words of Sal-Afsan, The One.
But now those loyal to the Emperor, led by Del-Yenalb high on the back of a spikefrill, were moving into the square through the Arch of the First Emperor.
The hunters turned, those on foot swinging quickly around, those riding atop great reptiles prodding their beasts to rotate through a half circle. With grunts and hisses the animals obeyed.
Cadool guessed there were seventy paces between the two forces. On this side, 500 hunters. On Yenalb’s, perhaps 120 priests, scholars, and palace staff members, each atop an imperial mount.
The palace loyal were a sorry lot: many of them had lived soft lives, relying on butchers such as Cadool himself to do their hunting and killing. No, they were no match for the Lubalites, either in number or skill. But their mounts were fresh, not exhausted from the long march to Capital City. Cadool took a moment to size up the animals they rode. Armorbacks had daggers of bone coming off the sides of their thick carapaces and had solid clubs at the ends of their muscular tails. A hunter would never use such a club in battle, but scholars and priests might indeed sink so low. One swing from an armorback’s tail could stave in a Quintaglio skull.
And then there were the hornfaces, with three pointed shafts of bone protruding from the fronts of their skulls: a long one from above each eye and another, shorter horn rising from the tip of the muzzle. In his time, Cadool had seen many hunters, either too daring or too careless, gored by such beasts. Even Dem-Pironto, who, excepting Afsan, was the finest hunter Cadool had ever known, had been felled that way. Further, the great neck shields, rising like walls of bone from the back of the animals’ skulls, would help protect the scholars and priests.
And then there were the spikefrills, such as the one Yenalb was riding. These were a rare breed of hornface with long spikes of bone sticking out of the short bony frill around the neck. They had only one real horn, a huge one sticking up from the snout, although there were small pointed knobs above each eye.
But even as he tried to make a critical assessment, Cadool realized that his own control was slipping away, his blood coming to a boil.
"Advance!" Yenalb had shouted through his brass speaking cone. "Clear the square!" The palace loyal began moving slowly. The square was crowded; their mounts jostled each other. Beasts that size could crush the foot or tail of a Quintaglio without noticing a thing.
It’s madness, thought Cadool. Absolute madness. And then he growled, low and long…
Afsan felt the ground shaking slightly, knew that imperial mounts were starting to move toward him and the hunters. The air was thick with pheromones. He didn’t want this, had never wanted it. All he’d wanted was to tell the truth, to let them see — see what he no longer could see.
The blind leading the blind.
Afsan felt his claws unsheathe.
Cadool charged, pushing through the crowd of hunters. Other Lubalites were lunging forward, closing the gap between themselves and the imperial contingent. Being on foot, Cadool had greater maneuverability than those upon mounts. He and a hundred others surged ahead, three-toed feet kicking pebbles and dirt into the air, a cloud rising around them.
Cadool’s heart thumped in time with his footfalls. The hunt was on!
Forty paces. Thirty.
The air filled with wingfingers, rising in droves from statues at the periphery of the square. Their squawks, like claws scraping slate, counterpointed the dull thunder of feet pounding the paving stones.
Twenty paces. Ten. Cadool could smell them, smell their stimulation, smell their fear.
He leapt, kicking off the cobbles, flying into the air, cutting across the distance between himself and the closest of the opposing forces, one of the ceremonial imperial guards, straddling the back of a hornface.
The tri-horned brute bucked at seeing the screaming Quintaglio flying toward its flank. It tried to move to the left…
…and crashed against an adjacent hornface, this one of the rare variety with a boss of bone where the nasal horn would normally be…
Cadool hit the tri-horner’s huge side, rippling waves moving through its tawny flesh, radiating from the impact point.
The butcher’s claws dug in, pulling him up onto the beast’s back.
The imperial guard, a female slightly bigger than Cadool, fumbled to get out of her saddle…
…and Cadool’s jaws snapped down upon her throat.
He released the leather restraints holding her dead form to the beast’s back and let it slide to the stones below, splattering them with blood…
…and then leapt from the back of this hornface to the adjacent beast, his feet forward, toeclaws out, smashing into the chest of its horrified rider, a scholar Cadool knew slightly, knocking him to the ground.
He swung to look at the skirmish line. Every imperial loyalist was engaged by a Lubalite. Jaws snapped. Claws tore. Blood washed stones, dappled the hides of mounts, smeared muzzles of individuals on both sides. With a bone-crunching crack, Cadool saw Pahs-Drawo from Carno dispatch a loyalist atop a running beast, but then watched in horror as Drawo himself fell victim to a choreographed lunge by Yenalb’s spikefrill, the beast’s huge nose horn impaling Drawo, running through his gut like a fingerclaw through rotted wood.
Yenalb stood on his hind legs atop the spikefrill, dewlap puffed into a giant ruby ball…
Cadool was sickened. To be stimulated in that way by this … Chest heaving, vision blurring, Cadool had one last clear thought before he gave himself over to the madness: Yenalb was his.
Afsan knew there was nothing he could do, but he tried anyway. The cries of wingfingers, the thunderous calls of shovelmouths, the pounding of feet all drowned his words.
"Stop!" he shouted in the loudest volume his raw throat could manage. "Stop!"
But it would not — could not — stop.
Suddenly Afsan felt the shovelmouth he was standing on buck wildly in panic. Afsan shared the beast’s emotion as he found himself catapulted through the air. In his perpetual darkness, he had no idea where he was going to land. Air whipping about him, he quickly rolled into a ball, tucking his muzzle into his chest, wrapping his arms over his head, retracting his legs as much as possible, and folding his tail up and around.
And then he hit…
Cadool slid down the rump of the boss-nosed beast, lashed out with his claws to stop a toppled loyalist who tried to intercept him, and made a dead run for the high priest.
Det-Yenalb had been shouting orders through his speaking cone, but each successive proclamation became less recognizable speech and more animalistic hiss and growl. His spikefrill had tipped its head low and was using a stubby forefoot to pull what was left of Pahs-Drawo off its nasal horn.
Suddenly Yenalb became aware of the charging Cadool. He yanked on the two largest of the giant spikes that protruded from his mount’s neck frill, as if to get the beast’s attention. It looked up, Drawo now discarded, just in time to try to intercept the butcher. The spikefrill’s beak snapped viciously at Cadool, but Cadool danced and weaved to stay out of its way.
The square was too crowded. The spikefrill couldn’t turn enough to get at him. Cadool leapt again, this time grabbing two of the spikes coming out of the crest of bone around the beast’s neck. He used these as handholds, pulling himself up onto the creature’s back. Yenalb tried to push him off, but the priest was no match for the butcher, none at all … Cadool opened his jaws wide, let out a primal roar, and…
This is for Pahs-Drawo!
Snapped his mouth shut on Yenalb’s dewlap, ripping it open, air hissing out
… And this is for Afsan!
Taking a second, deeper bite into the priest’s meaty throat, serrated teeth ripping through muscle and cartilage and tendons, a semi-ten of Cadool’s fangs popping free as his jaws banged closed against Yenalb’s cervical vertebrae…
And this is for the truth! —
But suddenly the animal beneath him was shaking — the whole square was shaking. Through the haze of instinct, Cadool thought some great monster — a thunderbeast giant, like the one Afsan had felled on his first hunt — had made it into the city, the guards having left their stations to be here.
But, no, the rumbling continued, the shaking growing more pronounced, the horizon jumping wildly…
Afsan was sure he had lost consciousness upon hitting the ground, but for an instant or for many daytenths, he couldn’t tell.
He heard the crowd rioting around him, screams of Quintaglios pushed into fighting rapture.
Afsan’s left side hurt badly. He knew he’d cracked some of the ribs that were attached to his backbone, as well as some of the free-floating ones that normally lay across the belly. He’d also knocked out a few teeth…
And then, suddenly the ground began to shake. I’m to die here, he thought, crushed under some giant beast, in the same square I thought I was going to die in all those days ago.
But the shaking wasn’t because of footfalls, wasn’t because of stampeding reptiles.
The ground shook…
Cadool listened to terrified roars of the animals, then stole a glance at the cobblestones below. Pebbles and dirt jumped.
Fear washed through him. In an instant, his fury was forgotten. He looked at the corpse of Yenalb, flopped on the back of the spikefrill, twin geysers of blood shooting from where the nearly severed head still joined the chest. Cadool pushed the body from the spikefrill’s back, letting it fall to the heaving ground. The head twisted around as it landed, facing backwards. The beast next to the spikefrill — an armorback whose old rider was cowering in fear — panicked as the land continued to quake. It moved backwards, trampling what was left of the high priest.
Throughout the square, Cadool could see statues tottering on their pedestals. As he watched, Pador’s great marble rendition of the Prophet Larsk wobbled back and forth a few times, then toppled to the stones, crushing a hapless hunter beneath it.
Many of the riding beasts were bucking, and it was only a matter of time before a stampede would begin. Some of the Quintaglios were already hurrying to get out of the square, even though it was probably better to be here in an open space rather than near any buildings.
For an instant, Cadool thought the spikefrill was bucking, trying to throw him from its back, but he realized in horror that the whole square was lifting, heaving, like a slumbering monster shuddering into wakefulness.
The One! thought Cadool. What about The One?
Several of the hornfaces near him turned and charged out of the square, their round feet crushing whatever happened to be beneath them. But Cadool was a butcher; he knew the ancient art of guiding animals.
Standing erect on the beast’s back, he grabbed firmly onto an upward-angled spike on either side of the frill.
Spikefrills, like all hornfaces, had ball joints connecting their massive heads to their bodies. Using the long spikes like the prongs on a captain’s wheel aboard a ship, Cadool steered the mighty beast.
The spikefrill moved, Cadool and his mount acting as one, sailing through the sea of Quintaglios, riding high and fast and firm through the rippling waves of the landquake…
"Out of my way!" shouted Cadool above the screams of the crowd, but most Quintaglios and animals were too deep in panic to heed his words. The spikefrill cruised forward, toward the east side of the square.
Cadool glanced back. In the distance, fools were trying to exit through the Arch of the First Emperor. He watched as the arch’s keystone rattled its way up and out, and then came crashing down. The rest of the arch stood as if suspended for half a beat, and then the huge cut stones fell. Splats replaced screams in mid-note. Dust rose in a great gray cloud.
His mount sailed on, Cadool’s hands firm on the animal’s spikes. Standing upright atop the beast’s massive shoulders, he could see clear across the square. But where was the face he sought? Where?
Three Quintaglios were in the way, apparently dazed. Cadool dug the single claws on the back of each of his feet into the spikefrill’s hide, driving it on. Two of the Quintaglios managed to stagger out of the way; the spikefrill, in a surprisingly gentle gesture, nudged the third out of its path with a sideways motion of its pointed beak.
Afsan’s shovelmouth was nowhere to be seen. Had The One gotten away safely?
But no. At last Cadool spotted Afsan, on his side, lying in the dirt. He was surrounded by a ring of hunters, muzzles out, teeth bared, forming a living shield around The One, even in the panic of the landquake not willing to leave him. His tail was a bloody pulp, apparently having been trampled by some beast in a panic to escape before the hunters had been able to protect him.
The ground heaved again, and Afsan looked briefly like he was convulsing. If only that were true, thought Cadool, at least it would mean he was still alive. There was blood on his face and a huge bruise on the side of his chest.
Cadool pushed against the spikes, commanding his mount to tip its head. Grabbing a spike halfway down the frill, he swung himself to the ground and hurried over to Afsan.
The hunter closest to Cadool bowed concession and got out of his way, opening up the protective ring. Cadool rushed in, stones still rippling beneath him. He placed his palm above the end of Afsan’s muzzle to see if he was still breathing. He was. Cadool mumbled four syllables of Lubalite prayer, then spoke Afsan’s name aloud.
No response. Cadool tried again.
Finally, faintly, confused: "Who?"
"It’s me. Pal-Cadool."
"Yes. Can you stand?"
"I don’t know." Afsan’s voice was hissy, faint. "It’s a landquake, isn’t it?"
"Yes," said Cadool. "The fight is over, at least for now. The loyalists are running for safety." Most of the hunters had run off, too, but Cadool was glad that Afsan hadn’t been able to see that shameful sight. "You must try to stand."
Afsan raised his muzzle from the ground. A small groan escaped his throat. "My chest hurts."
"I’m going to touch you; let me help."
Cadool’s hand went under Afsan’s left arm. He saw that Afsan was too dazed or too weak to have his claws respond to the intrusion. He rolled the ex-astrologer slightly, then gently brought his other hand under Afsan’s other arm. The ground rattled again, and Cadool simply held Afsan until it subsided. The screams of the Quintaglios were fading; many were dead or dying, many more had retreated far from the edges of the square. Cadool dared look up. The new statue of Dybo’s mother, the late Empress Len-Lends, was directly behind them, rocking back and forth on its pedestal.
"Get up. You must get up." Cadool helped Afsan to his feet.
Suddenly the air was split by a crack greater than any thunder. The ground shook even more violently. Even the hunters who had been shielding Afsan ran off in panic. Cadool pulled Afsan to his feet and propelled him to the left. The marble Lends crashed down, hitting exactly where Afsan had been lying. Chips of stone bit into Cadool’s leg.
He looked for the source of the massive explosion. There, in the distance, the rightmost of the Ch’mar volcanoes was erupting, black smoke spewing into the air.
"We must move quickly," said Cadool. "Trust me; let me guide you." He put one arm around Afsan’s shoulders and cupped Afsan’s nearest elbow with his other. They began to trot in unison, small moans escaping Afsan’s throat with every footfall.
A second explosion cut the air. Cadool glanced backwards. The top of another of the Ch’mar mountains was gone. The sky was filled with a hail of pebbles, some even falling this far away, here in the square.
Head over heels, cobblestones scraping skin, landing in a heap with Afsan…
"I’m sorry, Afsan!" Cadool shouted above the roar from the volcano, "I wasn’t watching as carefully as I should. Come; the Ch’mar peaks are erupting." He grabbed Afsan’s arm, hoisted him to his feet. But Afsan’s pace was more cautious now, holding them both back. Cadool tried as best he could to keep them moving.
Through his pain and despite the exploding mountains, Afsan heard something. He lifted his muzzle. A sound was coming at them from the direction of the harbor.
Alternating loud and soft, bells and drums, bells and drums, the sound he’d grown sick of during his pilgrimage — the identification call of the Dasheter.
"Cadool," said Afsan, some strength returning to his voice, "we must hurry to the harbor."
The roar behind them continued. "What? Why?"
"I hear the Dasheter. We can escape by water."
Cadool changed course immediately. "It’ll take us a while to get there."
"I know we don’t have much time," said Afsan. "I’ll try not to slow us down."
Cadool’s firm hand propelled them on. "I was wondering what had become of Var-Keenir. He had pledged to be here for the march of the Lubalites. Trouble upon the waves must have delayed him."
"He’s here now," said Afsan. "Hurry!"
They ran through the streets of Capital City. Some Quintaglios seemed to be going the same way they were; others ran in different directions. Afsan heard the wails of children as they passed the creche.
At last he felt a cold wind on his face; the same steady wind that, thankfully, was blowing the smoke from the volcanoes away from the city. It meant they were out of the lee of the buildings, and must now be overlooking the harbor.
"It’s there, Afsan," said Cadool. "I see the Dasheter." They started down the long ramp to the docks. "The waves are higher than I’ve ever seen; Dasheter is rocking back and forth like…"
"Like a student bowing concession to everyone he passes," said Afsan, finding the strength to click his teeth once. "I know that feeling well. Hurry!"
As they got closer to the docks, Afsan could hear the crashing of the waves, louder now than the roar of the volcanic explosions to the west.
"Careful," shouted Cadool. "We’re about to step on the gangway." There were several others on the adabaja planks, jostling to get aboard. This was no time for worrying about the niceties of territoriality.
Afsan felt spray on his face, and almost lost his balance as he stepped onto the little bridge of planks leading up to the ship, swaying, swaying…
Up ahead, Cadool saw a short, pudgy figure scurrying up the gangway.
The Emperor escaping. Cadool thought briefly about rushing forward and pushing him into the choppy water before he could make it to the ship’s foredeck.
And there, up on deck, old Var-Keenir helping the Emperor board!
Of course. Keenir had been cut off aboard the Dasheter for some sixty days. At the time he had left Capital City, The One hadn’t yet been blinded. All Keenir knew was that Dybo’s intervention had saved Afsan from being executed in the throne room by Yenalb…
Suddenly the ropes holding the gangway to the dock snapped. The planks swung across the open space, and Afsan and Cadool were dunked into the water.
"Climb!" Cadool shouted. Afsan’s mangled tail was still bleeding, and the waters around him were stained red from it. Guided by Cadool, Afsan grabbed hold of the first plank, his claws digging into the slippery wood, gaps having appeared between each board as they began to slip down the ropes. He hauled himself up, hand over hand. Cadool did the same. Up above on the deck, looking over the railing, Cadool could see Keenir and Dybo. Much to his surprise, both were leaning over the side, helping those still on the dangling gangway get over the railing and onto the ship. Afsan and he pulled higher and higher, the planks like thick rungs in a ladder. The Dasheter rocked. Cadool felt his knuckles smash as the gangway slapped against the ship’s hull.
"I don’t … know … if I can … make it," Afsan wheezed.
"It’s not far!" shouted Cadool. "Hang on!"
The ship swung back, the gangway dipping into a crashing wave. Cadool felt chill waters on his legs and tail.
Soon hands were all over Afsan, hauling him aboard. A moment later, the Emperor himself reached out to Cadool, helping to pull him onto the deck of the Dasheter.
Cadool turned and looked back. On the sandy black beach, many Quintaglios stood helpless. A few were trying to swim. Other boats were turning, heading out of the harbor into open waters.
Two other Quintaglios were hauled aboard with lifelines, but then Keenir ordered the ship to set sail. "We’ve got forty people on board now," he said to Dybo in his gravelly voice. "Any more and we risk a territorial frenzy of our own."
The Dasheter bucked under giant waves. The four sails, each depicting an image associated with the false prophet Larsk, snapped loudly in the wind.
In the background, silhouetted, Cadool could see the tumbled and broken adobe and marble buildings of Capital City, and behind them, a false red dawn as lava spewed forth from the Ch’mar volcanoes.