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Third Thunder

by MSI

 

Part I
Gurion, The Claw of the Hawk

 

Chapter 1

A Dancer of Etan

Orah stood alone on the high cliff as the winds of dawn whirled his golden hair behind him in soft rhythms of glory. As was customary among the Lords of Etan, he was wearing a sleeveless argent robe; on his feet were molded wooden sandals laced halfway to the knee.

The Etan Lord was strong: even standing relaxed, his powerful body flowed in innocent rhythm, expanding and contracting in divine harmony from nothing more than the throbbing of his pulse.

The Etan Lord was beautiful: if the unknown land below held observers, they might easily mistake him for a god. Vestige of his pre-dawn climb, his slightly azure skin glistened, accenting his perfect features in the same way as the morning dew dances over a flawless copen hyacinth.

The Etan Lord was sad: again today, expanding his awareness to the north had revealed nothing new.

At last Orah sighed, gave up trying to wrest impossible solutions from the virgin land below and strode swiftly down the scree and shale, thinking, Two months northward without a sign. How much further will Althea’s request propel me? But even as he asked, he knew the answer was in the question: to fulfil a desire of his sister, the Healer of Etan, he would travel to the end of their world.

"Seven rivers," she had told him soon after the birth of the new year. "Find me this lost land of seven rivers, Orah. There lies a treasure so precious no price can do it justice, a secret warded by a power so heinous the future of Etan itself is held in the balance."

"What force of this world could challenge our father Swayam?" he had laughed back at her words in utter disbelief.

But Althea had only repeated, "Find me this land of seven rivers, brother. For there the fate of the Etanai will be determined for all time."

And so, understanding nothing, Orah had that day left his father Swayam and mother Shatarupa, his wife Chavva and his many brothers and sisters and walked northward from Etan across the ice and then the vast barren plains.

~ ~ ~

Seven rivers. The one below running westward to the sea I shall count and name. For this much I know: none has passed this way before.

Orah was saddened by this long and so far pointless journey over the desolate plains, but his sadness was tempered by gratitude that he was at last coming down from Vadil’s continental plateau. Perhaps these lowlands might hold something more interesting than rough heath and small scurrying rodents. Nothing of the world outside of their paradise Etan seemed worth even a moment’s passing glance. Treasure? Danger? What was she talking about? As Swayam always told us, I have confirmed in these two months: save for Etan, Martanda is dead.

~ ~ ~

The river passed near the base of the cliff. It was broad, languid, yellow, green, oddly warm for early spring. " ‘Haskel,’ I name you, first river," Orah said as he waded into the water. "For truly, I am in need of wisdom."

Fording the river proved easy — a short, effortless swim. Here the Etan saw the first animate life in the lowlands — small, silver-gray fish, primitively scaled and armored.

The jungle on the far shore was dense; Orah followed the narrow beach eastward until he discovered a small tributary heading due north. Here he discovered that the water of Haskel had stained his robe a light ocher. A sudden wave of dismay flowed through him, followed by mindless fear. Pushing his heart away from the unfamiliar emotions, he reasoned that the two months of solitude had started affecting him.

Orah did not at once recognize how the malefic power of the land was responsible for altering his mood. But marking his return to calmness, he discovered he no longer felt alone! He felt two others closely watching him, studying his progress. One, with a deep hope and fathomless love imperfectly cloaking a profound despair; the other, with emotions never before encountered and therefore not understood: contempt, hatred, a dark, brooding malice.

Orah searched the jungle but found no source for the feelings of these two. Was his mind creating them from loneliness? Fantasizing to compensate for his long solitude?

~ ~ ~

After leading Orah northward through the jungle for an hour, the small stream bent westward. The Etan continued along it for awhile as its banks steepened and its current accelerated, but soon its path ended in a small pool and spring.

Should he turn again northward here or retrace his steps to the bend? The jungle looked equally impassable everywhere. But when he knelt to fill his pouch from the pool (When might he find such clear water again?), Orah saw an odd little rock shaped exactly like a hand, pointing directly northward. He pulled the moss and lichens from it but could not learn if it were carved or natural. How can I question its origin? he asked himself, surprising himself again by the possibility of doubt. No one else has come here since father Swayam and mother Shatarupa planted Etan. Of this much I am certain.

Grateful for the sign, Orah shrugged off the mystery. Muttering, "North, always north," he adjusted his few belongings in his shoulder pouch, then clambered up the hill and into the jungle.

~ ~ ~

The trees seemed tightly woven from the stream, but they grew closer and thicker until the passage was virtually impenetrable toward the true north. Whenever there were openings, even crawling holes, they led westward. He fought his way until twilight; a more or less dry and open place in the multiplying swamp was too inviting to ignore.

He did not trust the plants enough to taste them — he had seen nothing since the plains that he knew. And the fundamentally disquieting feeling of the land was increasing; Orah felt anything growing in such an emotionally distorted space would have a questionable effect on his mind. But the Etan had carefully portioned his waybread through his two months’ journey, fasting often rather than partaking of it. As he felt the life from her work restoring his mind and spirit, he was thankful again that his sister Althea was an incomparable master of the subtle powers of life, of the earthbreath.

Orah lay back on the moss, contented with life, dreamily identifying his newly discovered constellations, Archer, Bull, Ram, Lion... "Lion!" He leapt to his feet, gaping at the firmament. "The eye! Where is the eye?" The brightest star of the group was missing.

The Etan waited impatiently for the cloud to pass as he quieted his heart, but no vapor covered the heavens: the eye of the Lion was simply, irrevocably gone. An eclipse! It must be eclipsed, he thought, but knew it was impossible. Searching the sky feverishly, he found nothing else amiss.

Orah stared until the Lion was hidden by the trees, but could wrest no further meaning from the suddenly imperfect order of Narain’s Garden.

The remaining few hours of night were not restful. But at dawn, Orah quieted the inner conflict, telling himself there was always a logical explanation for everything.

The jungle had remained utterly still during the night. Apparently neither diurnal nor nocturnal animals existed below the plains. "A land of questionable plants and no beasts!" he cried, already learning much of contempt. "Hah! That is too generous. ‘Nilfecund Swamp’ I name you, first river’s land: you are riotous with deadly malodorous plants, devoid of animate life."

~ ~ ~

The Etan came to a second river by noon of the third day following. A few noxious insects had made their appearance, still no mammals. He had therefore confirmed his mistrust of the plants and moved warily, almost as if fearing they might attack him for crossing their demesne.

Dry land was a memory; he had constantly waded and swum for the past two days. The first warning he was finally through the Nilfecund Swamp came when he pushed through two interlaced trees and was pulled by a gentle current.

The new river was a lighter green than Haskel, but not as wide. Golden light filtered through the trees to sparkle and dance on its water; dappled fish leapt for the iridescent lacewings and enormous variegated butterflies flitting everywhere over its surface.

"‘Camlo.’ This is your name, river; you are lovely," he murmured as he swam across. He felt the vibrant life of the many small creatures of the new shore; he knew the plants here would not harm him.

He washed his robe, but it was permanently altered: erratic gray and amber blotches competed chaotically with dull umber stains, the unpleasant memories of the foul waters and poisonous secretions of the hanging plants and grasping vines of Nilfecund. Orah lacked the skill to cleanse it.

The trees grew less closely together on this shore, as if they had abandoned the primitive struggle of the far side, or had once even felt the touch of a civilized hand. Yes, this land could be the remnant of a garden! badly deteriorated, but intelligently planted and maintained in the not-too-distant past. Finding what might have long ago been an orchard, he filled his nostrils greedily with the blossoms’ sweet scent, wondering the improbable, How? almost as much as the impossible, Who?

Fewer and larger grew the trees as the ground rose and became rockier: willow and cottonwood gave way gradually to spruce and maple, then hemlock and cedar. The Etan saw a bare hill to the northwest and decided to climb above the forest and finish recovering from the swamp in the warm afternoon sun.

~ ~ ~

The hill was strange — smooth, spherical, a polished dome of fused ebony metal. He examined it carefully but could discover no reason for its existence. "Yehokhanan-Ishtar could perhaps explain it," he said, thinking fondly of his brother, the Architect of Etan.

The hill responded to his emotion, coloring the metal slightly lighter. His surprise one of delight, he played with different feelings: friendliness, love, happiness. With each impulse, the hill brightened; by the end of an hour, it was a brilliant scarlet.

Orah laughed and, abandoning all caution, danced a movement of unrestricted joy on the sentient hill, wedding his graceful talent to the flowing color beneath his flying feet. Faster and faster he leaped and spun; the metal returned his perceptions in graceful moving patterns, dancing lightning in harmony with his soaring spirit.

But as his expression rose closer and closer to the supreme catharsis of universal ecstasy, a doubt erupted in his mind, Who created this hill? At once the metal changed to an angry carmine, spotted by a rapidly returning ebony. Orah at once started down, thinking with fear, It could be a beacon...

Perhaps the Etan might truly have gone on then; the fate of the Lion Lords of Gurion would have been vastly different. But as he was about to step into the forest, a message from Althea flew to him, bearing the form of a golden dove. The bird landed gracefully on his hand, folded her aureate wings with the deftness of a master, then sang in Althea’s voice, "Pass the night on my thought-hill Ezera, brother; your dreams will be of truth, they will direct you well into the unknown north."

The bird ruffled her feathers, cooed once softly, then disintegrated with a gentle cascading of sound and light — like a thousand tiny golden bells dulcetly ringing, then collapsing into rainbow prisms. Ezera responded with a flash of purest silver and then with a kaleidoscopic display centered around the dual themes of aureate and argent. Its gradually slowing rhythms lasted well past sunset.

When the hill at last ended its changes in a gentle saffron, the Etan found a depression near the summit and lay down to watch the stars appear. A low haze had hung over the swamp every night after the first; he had not yet confirmed the strange damage to the heavens. But now the sky was crystal clear, there could be no doubt: the Lion’s eye was as gone as if it had never been. With this discovery, he heard distinctly what he had subtly felt since descending from the continental plateau: a distant, persistent sobbing and an answering, dark laughter of hideous malice, of conscious desecration, of purest hate. Hearing these perversely related voices was at once a challenge and an abomination far beyond the range of previous experience. Orah stared toward the missing star and let the sounds carry him, sure his imagination must be creating such odd violations of the silence.

As Orah drifted to sleep, the keening of sorrow and the echoing scorn gradually transformed to become the background music in a large hall filled with strangers, men and women with black and white and yellow and red skin, men and women not of Etan.

Orah had never before known anyone other than his immediate family: they were the only inhabitants of their city Etan; as far as anyone knew, the only people on Martanda. And this was his first journey, the first of any Etan toward the north.

His father Swayam had not forbidden his odd desire, but the absence of approval was still a heavy burden. But Althea had constantly nourished the sapling of his intention, until it had grown to become a mighty oak of unwavering desire.

Dancing was no longer Orah’s great passion in his dream. Now his life’s duty was simply to hold a torch. At first he felt it a unique honor, but then saw that everyone in the hall held similar torches or gems alive with radiant fire.

They are all expressions of the One, he thought; the walls vanished as the Oblation Bearers floated away in every direction. No one moved with effort, yet all retreated from him alone. With a flash of intuition, he realized they all shared the experience. Like the suns of the expanding universe, he thought, wondering how to become a star.

With the question, his dream changed: he was back in Etan with his family. But now he alone held a torch. Perhaps because of it, the old familiar understandings no longer applied to him, no longer bound him to their implicit demands. It was not that he loved Chavva or the others any less, but now his mind appreciated a more complete truth. Althea alone empathized fully; the others considered him with a peculiar admixture of amusement and curiosity, but did not, could not, understand. "How can it matter? All limited pain leads to universal good," said Yehokhanan-Ishtar. And Bhishaj, Althea’s husband, said, "It is beautiful, but what of your dancing? Is not Father’s gift enough?"

The answer was on Orah’s lips, "Dancing is my all!" but his dream changed again: now he was once more fording the river he had named Haskel. He crossed as before, but the sculpted stone hand on the tributary was now living but ulcerous flesh, grotesquely beckoning him northward. The Nilfecund Swamp was rife with quicksand and poisonous serpents; the Camlo River no longer deserved its name — it was moiling with crocodiles and small deadly water snakes. Ezera was the decaying skull of a dead giant, Orah a small black ant picking at the rotting flesh.

The dove Althea sent to him was pursued by a blood-red hawk, screaming in his father’s voice, "The desire to possess opens the gateway to hell!"

Althea’s message also changed, "Run Orah! Flee northward! Etan dissolves!" The dove disintegrated with a shriek of agony into a flood of gray and sanguine teardrops.

A dark emptiness, a nothingness, was pushing into Orah’s mind, struggling to gain form. It swallowed Etan, then the world, then devoured entire suns from its insatiable need. Orah tried to run from its terrible hunger but found it surrounding him everywhere. It choked him, attacked his soul, inexorably forced his spirit to mimic its vile nothingness.

Orah awoke with heart palpitating. But he was thinking calmly, A satellite in a synchronous orbit could block a star’s light. But why would it not reflect the sun? He sat up. At first the hill seemed covered by pustules, cankerworms and carbuncles, but then, as he rubbed his eyes, he remembered where he was and saw the Red Moon Rohini rising through the quiet beauty of the starlit night. Orah laughed, remembering dancing under Martanda’s seven moons with Chavva. Ezera responded by transmuting into a crystal sphere of lambent sparkles and reflections.

The depression in the rock which at first had felt perfectly molded to his body now seemed two sizes too small. He reversed his position so that his head was toward the south, then let his mind explore the heavens. He sent a triple fiber of earthbreath toward the Lion’s eye, but something blocked his power so he could learn nothing.

The effort led him gently back to sleep; his energy trine carried him in dream to a silver castle hidden in the mountains of the distant north. This vision transformed into a beautiful woman, golden haired with a pale sky-blue hue to her skin, yet unfamiliar, not of his family.

"I am Leor," she said in a gentle, wise voice. "I have waited for you throughout time." In spite of (or perhaps, because of) the lovely melody of her voice, the distant hopeless sobbing and scorning laughter returned.

"Who are you?" Orah asked, trying to ignore the increasing cacophony of despair and contempt.

"Your youngest sister," she answered, her sweet tone not masking the fact that she also heard.

"I could not have failed to see your birth." It was the habit of the Etanai to attend every nativity.

The laughter had become so obtrusive he feared Leor might not understand him. But she replied, "You did not fail, yet did not know me. Althea carried me here. I am the hidden and forgotten fourth child. To him that can discover and release me I shall reveal all knowledge. Behold!"

Leor raised her hand in a commanding gesture; the wailing and the dark laughter at once stilled. Then she expanded toward him, around him, became more and more refulgent until sunlight seemed like shade. Orah was alone in the light, became the light, lost everything of himself other than the infinite, unchanging, perfectly still yet vibrantly alive light.

~ ~ ~

Etan’s farsighted Healer saw her brother’s dreams reflect in her thought-hill Ezera, gaining much of hope and grief in the experience: she alone of her kindred knew of the ill decaying the firmament.

But the further unexpected and unfortunate fact was that the Lady Althea of Etan was not alone in viewing Ezera’s answers to Orah’s first dance in Riversland. And far away, a saprophagous mocking laugh fed itself on purest malevolence, fed itself and grew stronger.

 

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