Sidge woke inside the vardo. The drafty enclosed wagon had been his and Izhar’s home for weeks, but he’d been unable to grow accustomed to it. Izhar’s hoarded relics clamored for attention with each bump while incense and oils fought to overwhelm his sensitive antennae. So unlike his sparse, clean quarters at the Stormblade Temple.
The wooden chests which he lay upon felt swollen and smooth, bloated by the water beneath the platform city of Stronghold. The salty smell of their submergence lingered. He pushed up, two hands walking his torso upright and the other two cradling his head. Sunlight streamed through cracks in the wall, cooking the damp air. He winced as each of his many lenses were made aware of how bright the light truly was. Master Izhar’s white stole, now his stole, was balled up where his head had been.
He planted two palms on the travel chest to keep the world from spinning. Everything had been better when it had been black. Asleep, one could say. The last thing he remembered was Kaaliya departing with Chakor, the noble’s hand firmly on her backside and her arm draped over his shoulder. That had seemed good enough cause to blot out the world with a bottle of thornsap. Awake now, without lids to cover his enormous eyes, he no longer had that same luxury as every sway and jostle of the vardo taunted him.
Of course, the Deep Night festivities would’ve had thornsap. Sidge’s “poison” as Master Izhar had put it. An apt description, he mused, but the inky liquor granted him a blissful emptiness he’d never known before. As an Ek’kiru, a bugman, sleep was not to be had. He’d grown up during endless days in the Stormblade Temple toiling away at his studies and chores beneath the Undying Storm.
Shelves rattled. Bottles clattered. He couldn’t help but watch every item shimmying out of their proper places. No. Nothing had been in the proper place for days. Incense and meditation chimes had been hastily flung on the same shelves. Scraps of cloth from the roof rack had been hung around the cabin to dry, slapping wetly against the walls. It would take the better part of a day to re-organize the shelves.
The wheels of the vardo creaked and the cabin lurched, hard. Sidge skittered toward the edge of the chest and steadied himself before being tossed to the floor. Outside, Izhar bellowed at their sole surviving horse, the cantankerous Paint. “Slow down, you impetuous son of a mule!”
Arms out for balance, Sidge stumbled toward the rear. He parted the curtain and reeled at the ferocity of the sunlight. Another lurch and he flailed wildly on the threshold. Another vicious bump and he fell face first.
Instinct saved him from tasting the dirt road. He floated face down, suspended by his wings. In the corner of his expansive vision, the vardo rumbled onward.
He sealed out the virulent sun with his hood. Then, with great effort, he managed to find a relatively upright position and skimmed along the ground after the vardo. Catching up, he dropped clumsily onto the bench.
Izhar jumped. “Ahh, Sidge! Back with the living, I see.”
His Master, or former Master, offered a warm smile through an unruly beard. Deep chestnut, with a gray streak down the middle, Izhar’s wiry facial hair no longer flowed into the white lightning bolt shaped stole of a Cloud Born. A lifelong symmetry had been turned askew.
Sidge grunted and pulled his hood tighter.
“You can continue to ride in the back if you like. Out of the sun.”
“Did I make a fool of myself, Mas…?” asked Sidge, stumbling over Izhar’s old title.
“So late into the celebration? Hardly.” Izhar chuckled. “You left everyone else in the room in utter amazement.”
The memory of the Deep Night celebration at the Living Attarah’s palace returned in blurry streaks. Blank stares. Congratulations. More of the former. He had taken it all in with as much decorum as he could muster. Behind his back, in clear view to his eyes, had been the open-mouthed gawking and suspicious glares. Kaaliya leaving. Shortly after, he’d requested an earthen jug of thornsap from a porter.
He tried to divert the cascade of thoughts. “Where are we?”
“West of Stronghold, about half a day. Should be coming up to the Padmini soon.”
“Give or take. We may have left a little later than the rest. I hope you don’t mind, but I spoke with our raksha, Lord Chakor. Advice, supplies. He’s got some intriguing ideas and we’re fortunate you gained his support.”
“Mind? Not at all.” Sidge didn’t want to think of Lord Chakor and his groping hands on Kaaliya anymore. She’d given too much by helping to convince a member of the nobility into sponsoring his and Izhar’s pilgrimage. He never asked her to do that.
Although, it didn’t hurt that their raksha also held the title of Jadugar, the Attarah’s advisor.
Sidge supposed he should be grateful for supplies, advice, whatever their raksha wanted to provide. Even so, he didn’t have to like the man. He doubted Chakor had any respect for him—the mischievous noble mostly seemed interested in creating a scene—something to do with some history with the living Attarah and the sponsored priest of his royal house, Gohala.
“What of Master Gohala?”
“He’s in the lead, naturally.” Izhar thrust his chin to indicate the road. “He’ll be across the ford first. He seemed to be in quite a hurry. We shouldn’t be crossing paths and it’s a good thing, too. That smug bastard was pissed.” Sidge cringed at the insult, unsure how he should react. Izhar had never been one to mince words but technically, he was an acolyte and speaking about a superior. His former mentor appeared to take note. “Pardon me, Master. That Master of all bastards was displeased by your ascension.”
Sidge watched the road disappear under the Paint’s hooves. The land around them had flattened from the hilly Paharibhumi into a grass-covered plain. Trees sprouted in green copses, their trunks obscured from ground to canopy by tufts of leaves. He dared tilt his head so his hood no longer obscured the sky. Thin horsetail clouds striped the horizon. A storm in the making.
More memories of the Deep Night celebration returned: Izhar surrendering his corestone pendant and robes of office to his sole acolyte, Cloud Born Gohala demanding Sidge prove his right to wear them by doing something he’d never done—channeling the mighty Storm Dragon’s Fire. Sidge did so in front of the entire assembled royalty of Stronghold. He had tried again and again until the impossible just…happened.
Izhar hesitated, then answered. “Yes?”
“Did I really channel?” Sidge waited for a response. He turned his head to look, but only succeeded in sinking deeper into his hood. “Well?”
“Of course you did. We all saw, Master.”
He recalled the unusual acrid smell and the absence of Vasheru’s Kiss, the charged air which always preceded a channeling. Yes, there’d been a spark, a flash of power, but it hadn’t felt the same. Or was his throbbing head playing tricks on him?
“It felt different than I thought it might.”
Izhar pulled the reins and the vardo slowed to a restless stop. They sat amid the clinking of crystals and chimes dangling from the upper roof rails and the hollow clank of the Paint’s tack against the shafts. A breeze carried the smell of damp grass and for the first time in days, Sidge realized the mystical song of Stronghold’s palace well was gone.
“You’re different, Sidge,” sighed Izhar. “Stop doubting yourself. You’ve every right to the title of Cloud Born, but if you don’t believe it, neither will the rest of them. Gohala. The Stormblade. None of them.”
Sidge withdrew the corestone pendant Izhar had given him. He stared into the hollow space running through the irregular lump of fused earth. He could almost feel the energy skinning the surface. A force familiar, yet unknown.
“When we return to the temple, I’ll enter the Sheath to seek my own corestone. You’ll have this back.”
“Do as you must. I already told you, the trip is overrated.” Izhar urged the Paint onward. “As far as I’m concerned you own the damn thing and the title which goes with it. Keep that straight, Master.”
Eventually, Sidge surrendered to Izhar’s continued admonishments and rode in the back of the vardo. Despite a constant flow of curses directed at the Paint and the uneven road, Sidge did his best to meditate. He gripped the corestone between two palms, then four, staring into the setting’s copper threads and the stone’s craggy surface. He called to Vasheru and recited the fifteen mantras of the Storm’s Plight. The Thirteen Falls of Gambora’s Sacrifice. The First Mantra of Fire.
None helped him call forth Vasheru’s power.
How had he done it in the palace? All he’d ever wanted rested in the palm of his hand.
His entire life he’d absorbed the mantras chanted in the halls of the Stormblade Temple. These holy phrases, delivered in metered chants and spoken in a tongue older than legend formed the foundation for the world he knew. But no, that life had begun to unravel as soon as he left the hallowed halls. More real than each of the twelve thousand one hundred and sixty-two mantras were the experiences of his journey and the visions he’d shared with Master Izhar.
Izhar and the mysterious man they’d come to call Chuman.
Yet none of these visions had made sense. In them, he’d driven the vardo underneath the platform city where the sea should have swelled, and been transported to a forest older than time itself. They’d escaped up through the palace garden’s well, ferried by the hands of countless water spirits. The last “vision” had left him, the vardo, and Izhar soaked to the core with the briny water of the city canals.
In another, his Master, appearing as both Vasheru and a festering worm, had asked him to drink a cup of blood and gore.
The mantras, his foundation, his world, held no blood rites. No wells full of water spirits. No curious men with miraculous strength. There was only the Attarah and his people and their flight from slavery under the glorious protection of Vasheru.
And those evils would return, the mantras said as much. Others may have grown complacent in their beliefs, but he hadn’t.
Then there were Izhar’s teachings. His old mentor stood alone in the temple as an ardent scholar of the mysterious and near apocryphal Trials. While Sidge hated to admit it, those teachings made more and more sense.
Sidge’s wings chirped, and he tossed his hood back. He couldn’t let Master Izhar down, and he had much to prove. When they returned home, he would venture into the Stormblade Sheath and either retrieve his own corestone or be burned in Vasheru’s righteous flames.
Until then, they would complete the pilgrimage as tradition demanded. He’d have time to practice this new blessing from Vasheru. They’d even return to Stronghold as they made their way home. Perhaps he’d see Kaaliya again. Time spent with her wasn’t time at all—both unending and fleeting. A respite from the sudden rigors of temple life, a life he’d once fully understood.
Sidge took up the corestone and returned to reciting the First Mantra of Fire.