Spitting dust, Afsan forced himself to climb higher. He had wanted Dybo to come with him. But Pal-Cadool, the butcher who for three days now had been telling the boys stories about the hunt, had been shocked at that suggestion. "One must go alone to join a pack," he’d said in that drawn-out way of his. Dybo had gone earlier today. Afsan had had to wait until his duties to Saleed were discharged. He had not seen Dybo since the young prince had departed, nor, from what he could gather, had anyone else.
It was late afternoon, the sun already bloated, purple, and low. When he’d started the climb, Afsan had been conscious of the background noises: the mating cries of shovelmouths pumped through their intricate crests; wingfingers shrieking as they scooped up lizards; ship’s bells and drums far off in the harbor. But the climb was arduous, and soon all other sounds were drowned out by the thudding of his heart.
The Hunter’s Shrine was atop a giant rock pile, fully as high as any of the Ch’mar volcanoes. But this cairn hadn’t been formed naturally. Legend had it that each of the Five Original Hunters — Lubal, Katoon, Hoog, Belbar, and Mekt — had brought one stone here for every successful kill throughout their lives. The priests of their sect had continued the practice thereafter. Of course, worship of the Five had all but vanished ever since the Prophet Larsk first gazed upon the Face of God, now some twelve generations ago, and so the pile did not continue to grow.
Which was fine by Afsan. It was far too high already. He clattered over slabs of stone. Some were ragged; others, smoothed by rain, by tilting and chafing together, or by the scouring of Quintaglio claws. His hands scrabbled for purchase, his feet dug in where possible. He moved quickly over precarious parts, the slabs shifting beneath his weight. Afsan hadn’t labored this hard in kilodays. That he wore a backpack didn’t help. The straps of shovelmouth hide cut into his shoulders.
Afsan wondered how many turned back before reaching the summit, still a dizzying height above him. And what of poor Dybo, chubby Dybo? Had he failed in the climb? Was he hiding somewhere, ashamed?
Afsan was above the low coastal hills that shielded Capital City from the continual east-to-west wind. Here, up high, the evidence for Land’s breakneck journey down the River was plain: the air bit into Afsan’s hide like needles of ice. He had hoped the breeze would cool him, for he was close to overheating, but instead it just made him more miserable.
Far above, canted at an angle, he could see the summit and, at its crest, the Hunter’s Shrine.
The Shrine, appearing small from this distance, was a stark frame, like a wooden building abandoned before completion. Afsan’s knuckles, shredded on the rocks, continued to find rough handholds to hoist himself higher still. For a long time the building seemed to grow no closer, but at last he was near enough to hear the wind shrieking through its gray members. With a final effort, Afsan scrabbled to the top of the rocky cairn.
In front of him the stones were scarred by a gridwork of shadows as the sun, swollen and dim, dipped behind the Shrine. The strange twisted girders were stained a deep purple in the waning light. Rising to a standing posture, Afsan shifted the weight of his pack and forced himself over the remaining distance to the Shrine.
He was exhausted, his breathing deep and ragged. To steady himself, he grabbed one of the beams that made up the Shrine, a short cylinder knobbed at each end. His nostrils were full of grit; his knuckles were bleeding; his knees were scraped, his tail likewise; chips had been knocked out of the chitinous sheaths that covered his clawbones.
The beam was hard and cool. It glinted in the fading light, apparently coated with resin. Afsan stood back a few paces to get a good look at the Shrine. It was by no means huge: twenty paces in length, half that in breadth, and perhaps twice his own height. The design was an eerie lattice, a twisted skeletal structure.
Skeletal. By the prophet’s claws, the thing was made of bone! Afsan staggered back, seeing the nightmare edifice with new eyes. Gnarled columns of a hundred vertebrae rose over his head. Femurs joined to form archways; ribs and assorted smaller bones traced out geometric shapes. Through the wide gaps between the bones, Afsan saw a large sphere of Quintaglio skulls at the center of the Shrine, empty eye sockets facing out in all directions.
His tail was swishing back and forth uncontrollably. Every instinct told him to run, to get away from this evil place, to scramble back down the tilting, clacking rocks to safety.
No, he could not.
It was a test. It must be. The whole thing: the impossible climb, the terrifying building. A test, to eliminate those not fit for the rigors of the hunt, those too squeamish to face death.
And yet. And yet. And yet.
Afsan hadn’t been able to find anyone who had seen Dybo since he had headed out. Much of the ritual of the hunt was still based on the old worship of the Five Original Hunters, and priests of Lubal had been known for many a perversion, not the least among them cannibalism.
But no. He would not give in to his fear. Afsan stepped to the Shrine’s opening, a door frame of shoulder blades. The chill wind whistled through the structure, an eerie, plaintive call, like the dying breaths of all those whose bones now surrounded him. He peered into corners in the purple twilight. Afsan’s backpack carried a gift — an astrolabe he had brought from Carno — but he didn’t know where to leave it.
"Hers is the white skull, at the front of the sphere."
Afsan jumped, twisting at the apex of his leap. He hit the ground, claws extended, facing the intruder. A figure stepped from the shadow: bulky, with an ebony leather hunting tunic whipping against her body.
Afsan’s voice sounded hollow, even to himself. "Are you Dem-Pironto?"
The large dark figure silhouetted against the swiftly growing night did not reply.
"I’m looking for Dem-Pironto," Afsan said again. His nostrils caught the intruder’s odor and he realized that this was a female. Her pheromones were different from any he’d ever detected. There was something about them — something that caused him to feel an edginess, a wariness. Afsan felt energized, even after the exhausting climb. He took off his backpack, grateful to be free of its weight. "I’ve brought a gift for Pironto," he said, pulling at the gut ties. "No one would give me guidance as to what would be appropriate, but this object has much meaning to me, and to my intended profession." Her eyes were on him, unblinking. Afsan wished she would speak, knew he was babbling. "It’s a device for measuring celestial angles," he said, pulling an ornate object into view, a trio of freely spinning concentric brass rings. He held it out so she could see the polished metal, the fine care lavished on its manufacture.
"A hunter knows his or her course without mechanical aids." The words were talon-sharp.
Afsan spluttered. "I… I’m sorry." He tried to fathom her expression. "I meant no disrespect." There was silence between them, silence except for the screaming wind. At last, Afsan said again, "Are you Dem-Pironto?"
The dark figure stepped sideways, blocking the exit arch. "Dem-Pironto is dead," she said at last. "She died yestereven-day. She died so others could eat."
Dem-Pironto, leader of the imperial hunt, dead? "How?" asked Afsan, curiosity getting the better of prudence.
"Gored, she was, by a triple hornface. An honorable passing for a hunter."
"…is of little use to her now."
Afsan sighed. He set the astrolabe on the rocky ground.
"Not there, eggling." The female pointed, claw unsheathed, to the sphere of skulls. "Place it near her skull. Pironto’s is the white one, there, facing out from the middle."
Afsan’s heart skipped a beat. The monstrous collection was wider than he was tall: two hundred skulls arranged in concentric spheres. Each skull was twice as long as it was high, with large eyeholes, gaping pre-orbital fenestrae halfway down the snout, and elliptical nares. The lower jaws consisted of separate left and right bones, able to split wide when swallowing. The muzzles were packed with serrated daggers.
Afsan always found skulls frightening: eyeless receptacles, the discarded canister of the mind. These skulls seemed to float a distance above the ground, each somehow not touching the ones near it. A support, then, he told himself, perhaps thin glass or crystal, invisible in this waning light. He reached a hand forward to feel the space between skulls, but jerked it back, deciding he’d rather not know if he was wrong.
"I’ve never seen such a place as this," Afsan said aloud, his back to the stranger. He was grateful even for the sound of his own voice, something warm and alive interrupting the shrieking winds. "A structure made of bones."
Skulls in the inner concentric spheres had darkened over great time to a deep brown, but the skull of the late Pironto was easy to spot: it was whiter than all the others.
Afsan stooped and placed the astrolabe on the ground beneath the overhanging bulge of the sphere of skulls, directly below Pironto’s snout. It disconcerted him as he rose to catch a glimpse of the brass rings of the astrolabe, an object he had cherished since childhood, through the gaping holes in her skull and the skulls beneath.
The stranger was silent for several heartbeats. "They are the bones of hunt leaders from the past," she said at last. "Here rests the hunting spirit of each."
He turned to face her. "Hunting spirits? I thought that was a myth."
"You are so blind." The stranger spread her,arms wide. "I hear them." She closed her eyes. "Irb-Stark and Tol-Tipna. Sar-Klimsan the Scaly and Hoad-Malat. The smooth-skinned Klimsan and Tol-Catekt. And my predecessor, Dem-Pironto."
Afsan swished his tail in comprehension. "You are the new hunt leader."
"I am." Her voice was pure glass. "Jal-Tetex is my name."
"I cast a shadow in your presence."
In the gathering darkness, that was far from literally true. Jal-Tetex’s black eyes did not betray where they were looking, but nonetheless Afsan had the uncomfortable feeling that he was being assessed from head to toeclaw, from the front of his muzzle to the tip of his tail. At last Jal-Tetex spoke again. "No doubt you do. What do you know of the hunt?"
Afsan couldn’t remember the exact words to the Scroll of the Hunt, but he came up with what he thought was a good paraphrase. "It is the ritual through which we purge emotions: hate and violence. It is the endeavor through which we gain self-sufficiency. It is the activity that brings us together in camaraderie and cooperation."
"And who is the greatest hunter of all time?"
Afsan’s tail twitched. A trick question? There were five original hunters. To pick one as better than the others might be considered blasphemous. Even though the religion of the hunt was all but extinct, there was deep respect for all five. Lubal was the one whose cult still had the most adherents, and those who didn’t understand fine distinctions often referred to the Worship of the Five and the Lubalite Cult as one and the same. Still, to name only one — And then it hit Afsan: "Why, you, Jal-Tetex, as imperial hunt leader. You are the greatest hunter."
Afsan saw Telex’s jaw work, but he couldn’t tell over the howling wind whether she was clicking her teeth in amusement. "You’ll go far at the palace," she said at last. "But you’re wrong. The greatest hunter of all is The One yet to come. the one foretold by Lubal: ’A hunter will come greater than myself, and this hunter will be a male — yes, a male — and he shall lead you on the greatest hunt of all.’ "
Afsan had heard the story before, and mentally whipped himself with his tail for not remembering it in time. "Of course," he said. "The One."
Tetex seemed satisfied. She nodded slightly at Afsan. "And you are?"
"Afsan, from Carno Pack, part of Arj’toolar province. I am a student astrologer, apprenticed to Tak-Saleed."
"Why do you climb the rocks of the Five? Why do you come here?"
"I wish to join the next hunting pack."
"Afsan, did you say?" Her face was impassive. "You’re a friend of Prince Dybo, aren’t you?"
"Dybo climbed the rocks earlier today. He brought a gift of precious stones."
Afsan was delighted that his friend had made it. "Dybo has access to great wealth."
"Not to mention influence," said Tetex. "You used that influence to get bumped to the front of the queue."
The wind whipped, but it was her voice that stung. "Eggling, do you seriously believe that princely influence will save you should something go wrong on the hunt?" Afsan said nothing. "Look there!" She pointed at the floating skulls. "Those were all great hunters, with kilodays of experience. Every one of them killed on the hunt. There are others who were swallowed whole, for whom we don’t even have a skull by which to remember them."
Afsan stood tall. "I am not afraid."
"Fear is important, young one. Fear is the counselor. Those who don’t know when to fear wind up dead."
Afsan was confused. "I am not afraid," he said again.
"You lie!" Tetex’s voice cut across the shrieking wind. It was now dark enough that the color of Afsan’s muzzle would not have betrayed him if he were telling a falsehood.
"I am not afraid of the hunt," said Afsan quietly, his tail twitching uncomfortably among the ragged gray rocks.
"Are you afraid of me?" Tetex demanded.
Afsan was defiant. "No."
Suddenly Tetex was moving, a black blur against the gathering night. Afsan’s claws sprang from their sheaths: she was charging at him, attacking another Quintaglio. He didn’t know what to do; one does not attack one’s own kind. But instinct, mighty instinct, took command in his hesitation. He dived to the left, avoiding the impact of her body, twice his own bulk. But Tetex pivoted, her tail slicing the air as she wheeled around. She caught Afsan’s arm and flipped him, sending him sailing. He crashed into the gridwork of bones that made up the nearest wall and tasted salt blood in his mouth. Penned, no way to resolve the territorial ambiguity, he leapt forward, arms up, claws out, jaws agape. Tetex ran directly into his leap, muscular legs propelling her. They smashed together. Afsan landed on his back, an agonizing position, his tail bent aside. Tetex’s triple-clawed foot slammed into his chest above his heart, pinning him. She flexed her toes, the claws sending sharp pains into his chest.
The tableau held for a semi-ten of heartbeats, wind whipping around them. Finally Tetex spoke again. "Do you fear me now, astrologer?"
Afsan’s eyes narrowed in shame. He spoke in a whisper rarely audible above the wind. "Yes."
Tetex pulled her foot from his chest, and then, to Afsan’s amazement, stooped to offer him a hand in getting back on his feet. "Good," she said. "Learn to listen to your fear. Perhaps then you will survive." Tetex nodded concession to Afsan, and he felt the instinctive reflexes drain from within him. She looked up at the stars, at the rising constellation of the Prophet/Hunter. "We leave at first light tomorrow."