Here’s the first chapter from my new novel, Pantheon, available on Amazon here.
Lars flung the torch into the pyre. The oils lit quickly and the flames grew. He stared into the center where his mother lay under a gray sheet. It was almost night. The light from the flames danced in the beads of sweat on his arms and chest. He didn’t feel the heat.
The sun fell. The moon rose and the stars emerged from hiding. He didn’t move. The lizards slithered at the edge of the firelight, leaving serpentine trails. A soft brown tarantula walked slowly across his foot. He didn’t stomp on it.
Centuries or seconds passed before he turned away. A single tear was wet on his cheek. He didn’t brush it away.
In the sand, his belongings waited. A long knife in a leather sheath. A small pouch with strips of dried meat and cactus fruit alongside a bloated waterskin. A long wooden bow and arrows. A sack heavy with coin. Worn sandals.
Beside them, his mother’s final gifts remained; an iron ring embossed with a sigil and a crystal compass. He hesitated to pick them up until the night cries of the Scaled Ones prompted him to action. The ring he slid on his little finger. The compass he pocketed.
Craning his neck, he scanned the sky and found Austir. The Pink Star. He followed her south. Behind him, the fire dwindled and grew smaller until at last it disappeared into the horizon.
The Scaled One came for him at dawn. It waited for him atop a dune, an armed figure in soft, sand-colored fabrics and a strip of cloth around its face that blew out in the wind. Lars did not alter his path, not even when he came so close that he could see its yellow eyes.
“Cave dweller,” the Scaled One hissed as Lars neared. “Far from home.”
He stopped and looked at the Scaled One directly. “She is dead.”
Most of its face was covered but Lars could see mischievousness in its eyes. “Yes. We smelled it. The smoke. The searing. You are sweet, to cook her for us.”
He tensed. “She was sick. So feed on her at your own risk. May you choke on her and die.”
“So sad, certainly. To see your sole companion shrivel up. Our condolences.”
“Enough. Have you come to kill me?”
“Some of us, yes. That is what is desired. I suggested they stay back so we could speak.”
Its eyes glimmered. “Your cave. You have left it?”
“Clearly I have.”
“You shall stay away?”
“I will not be going back.”
“Yes.” Then, bitterly, “She made me promise.”
“So where are you slinking away to?”
The Scaled One nodded. “Yesssss. This is where you should go. Where creatures like yours live. Away from our sands.”
“So I’m free to go then?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. The spring in the cave. You left it unspoiled? No poisons for us? No diseases?”
“Of course. I don’t need it anymore. Your people are welcome to it.”
The Scaled One thought for a moment. “Yes. I trust you. But there are others. They do not trust the scale-less ones. They suggest we slice you open. Slurp your insides.”
“You have tried before.”
“Yes.” It hissed with remembered frustration. “You are slippery. Sneaky. Strong. But your mother. She was worse. She saved you. Now you are solitary. No support. We surround you. Could slaughter you. Serve you to the young ones.”
Lars’ hand went to the knife on his shoulder. The Scaled One took a step back and reached for its cutlass. “If you draw that blade,” Lars warned, “you will be the first to fall. Your people may get me but you won’t live to see it.”
It stared, unblinking. Its clawed fingers tapped the handle of the cutlass as it considered. His mother’s fingers had moved in a similar fashion across the strings of her lute.
Bittersweet memory turned into boiling rage. He was about to lunge when the Scaled One lowered its arm. “Yes. You surrendered the spring. The cave. We are victorious. We shall spare you.”
Trembling, Lars turned and stomped away through the sand. The Scaled One called after him, “Tell them about us in Mundir. Remind them. The deserts are ours!”
The dunes rose and fell like the passing of the ages. He sipped his water during the intense heat of the days and curled up to sleep through the cold of the nights. Lizards and jerboa made up his meals when he could find them.
The predators of the desert, the jackals and hyena, left him alone. His closest brush with death came on the third day, when he woke to a prickling sensation on his arm. Out of the corner of his eye, he could just see the frail yellow body and pointed legs of the voidseeker scorpion that was exploring him. He could have moved, tried to fling it away, but a single strike of its tail would mean death before dusk. So he waited it out and eventually it moved on.
He refilled his waterskin the first time at a small oasis. Then, days later when it ran dangerously light, he found a wide, slow river. Antelope scattered as he approached and fell to his knees at the bank. He splashed the water on his face and ran his fingers through his long hair. A crocodile drifted closer so he filled the waterskin and hurried away.
Onward from the river, the desert transitioned to dry clay and sparse green grass. The temperatures cooled. His muscles ached and his stomach growled but he never paused longer than necessary, driven as much by a desire to reach his destination as the need to distance himself from his mother’s pyre.
One early morning, he saw the first of his kind, the first human people he had seen in a very long time. On horseback, they rode over the crest of a faraway dune with their robes trailing. He stared after them even when they were gone from sight.
Pushing through ferns at midday, he stepped out onto the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. Clear blue like his mother’s eyes, it glittered as if on fire with the sun’s light. It met the shore a half-mile below him, where a few squat wooden buildings gathered around a pier.
He followed the cliff to a path he remembered from long ago. Narrow and dangerous with no rail to keep him from falling, it cut back and forth across the face of the cliff as it descended to the beach. The last time he had come, he had held his mother’s hand to steady himself. This time he put a hand against the black igneous for balance.
The town seemed empty. He stood at the end of the single road and enjoyed the sea air on his face. Then he went to the long building just next to the dock.
Inside was dark, the windows closed save one on the side opposite the setting sun. Lars could only make out a long wooden desk and a pair of empty chairs in the corner. He knocked against the flat wood of the desk and a voice grunted from another room. Moments later, a short, balding woman with a toad-like face emerged and scuttled to her chair behind the desk.
“Pardon, pardon, pardon…” she muttered as she came. She squinted as she sized him up. “Who you? One of the desert folk? Mua k’tir?”
“No, ma’am. I mean, yes ma’am. I’m from the desert. But not one of the tribes.”
“Eh? Least you speak Mundiri.” She clucked her tongue. “My Tyknish is rusty.”
A moment of silence. She broke it. “Looking for passage?”
“Yes, ma’am. To Mundir.”
“Aye, aye, aye…” She licked her finger and turned a few pages in the ledger. “You’ll have a bit of a wait. Ferry won’t be back until tomorrow after midday. If you’re in a hurry, you can try your luck with the olive traders. Should be arriving overnight with a shipment. May take you back with them. Be here early dawn if that’s your fancy.”
“I prefer the ferry. I have money.”
She was unimpressed. “Good on you. Ferry ride will be three bolo.” She stopped him as he reached for his coin purse. “Nah, nah, nah… Just you pay the ferryman. You staying here in town?”
“I hadn’t decided.”
“Get on over to Maller’s. Cross the street. He’ll put you up. Feed you. Give you a bath, and that’s what you need right there.”
“I’m more comfortable sleeping outside.”
“Yeah, well, those you meet will be more comfortable with you after you’ve had yourself a bath, believe me. But do what you will.” She clucked again and shuffled back to the other room.
He crossed the street to Maller’s, identified by a worn wooden sign. Inside, the place was brightly lit with oil lamps. Maller, a rotund old man with black hair and mustache, greeted Lars with a gap-toothed smile. “Hey there now! Look at you now! Coming in from the desert, are you? Shake off your sand there in the entry, thank you kindly. I just swept these floors last month!” He cackled. “What’s your name there, boy?”
“Come on inside now, Lars! Let me pour you a drink.” Maller took a bottle from under the desk and tilted it over a dirty glass but paused before a drop poured. “Your momma lets you drink the good stuff now, don’t she?”
Lars’ lip trembled. Maller saw it. Shaking his head, he poured a heavy drink and slid it down the bar. “Apologies, boy. I didn’t mean nothing by it. Go on now, take a stiff drink of that.”
He did. It burned going down but he stifled the cough. Maller nodded. “Good boy. I’ll draw you up a bath. Seems you’ll be needing one. You got coin?” Lars nodded and Maller brightened further. “Good, good! I’ll make you up a plate while you’re soaking.”
After he had fed and bathed, Lars went to the room Maller provided. It was simple; a bedframe of light-colored wood with a thin mattress and sheets, a single chair with uneven legs, and torn curtains. Yet it was infinitely more luxurious than anywhere he had ever stayed. He nestled into the soft pillows and thought of his mother’s last words.
“Go to Secorrae, in Mundir. Find the Manova. Show them the ring. Tell them I am sorry. Tell them I am gone and you are heir to their fortune. Never draw your blade, for every drop of blood you spill will draw you further into a darkness you can never leave.”