The Last Shrine: first chapter.

            The sun bore down; bright and hot, glaring as it had every day of Skander’s life. He shielded his eyes and squinted as a red-tailed hawk traced a lazy circle through the desert sky. It dove, and Skander imagined himself as its prey, heart beating fast in terror, or possibly, unaware, calmly nibbling a morsel of foliage in its last moments on this beautiful spring day. The young cleric lost the bird among the sharp rocks that towered above his home; the small shrine known as Sundial Spring. Here in the lee of the bare mountains, Skander had lived out the last ten years of his life, tending to the needs of the trickle of worshippers who bothered to make the laborious climb from the cool river valley below.

He exhaled slowly as he turned from the mountains, his eyes settling thirstily on the shimmering blue waters of the spring. Their impassive surface sent a dancing reflection playing against the bright limestone columns that surrounded the pool. Six pillars remained of the colonnade that had once bounded the spring. Skander searched his memory. Had he ever read when the columns were erected? Perhaps they had once seemed impressive, but today they seemed pitifully dwarfed by the massive blades of amber-hued sandstone that towered behind. The highest spire cast its long shadow into the town below, tracing the curve of the Sossin River as it meandered through the valley. Sundial Spring was dedicated to the mountain god Anak, whose heavy-browed, black-bearded visage scowled out from carvings on every stone surface, but Skander saw the god’s true monument in the rocks themselves.

The cleric tugged uncomfortably at the woolen vestments that clung doggedly to his body in several chafing, sweaty places. There were many places in the vast realm of Batarrna where clergy of the mountain gods snuggled cozily in their icy eyries, grateful for such warm vestments. Sundial Springs of the boiling Near South was not one of them. Perhaps Anak, omnisciently aware of the impractical choice of garments, would understand if Skander only dipped his toes in the waters. He leaned over for the thousandth time to see if he could see the submerged cavern that led into the underworld. If he dove in, he could finally glimpse the water’s source. Skander frowned at his own blasphemy, blanching at the dread, statue scowl of the Bone Breaker. The god brandished his fearsome halberd in a threatening pose. “Forbidden!” the cleric shouted; voice gravelly in his best impression of Bishop Gustav. “For the gods have fixed their canon ‘gainst it!” Skander smiled, fondly missing the old man, and a bit in the hopes that he would not look mad if someone saw him talking to himself.

“Skander!”.

The cleric’s heart jolted. It was the first voice he had heard in three days. Making a conscious effort to calm himself, he turned and saw Bodrick, a shepherd who tended a small flock in the nearby hills. Bodrick was running, panting. Skander had run with the shepherd many times over the years, if he was breathless, he must truly have come here at a dead sprint. The cleric watched him approaching. Bodrick was flushed with the run, and as Skander saw his friend’s fit, athletic form, he felt the usual flare of jealousy, his mind drifting to his own failings in that regard. He ran a self-conscious hand over his bulging middle.

“Hey, Skander,” Bodrick breathed, holding a hand out as if to ask for a moment. Even Bodrick’s clothing gave Skander a pang of envy. The shepherd wore a loose practical tunic with short sleeves, perfect for a life in the desert hills. He took off his dingy short-brimmed cap and wiped his brow.

“Who’s minding your sheep, boy?” Skander hoped his face looked impassive. On the one hand, he knew it took very little to break up the monotony of a shepherd’s days, but on the other, he had to admit to a mild nibble of curiosity. Nonetheless, calling Bodrick ‘boy’ was ridiculous. Skander was slightly the taller of the two young men, and the gods knew he was much heavier, but as far as the cleric had ever been able to learn, they were only weeks apart in age. He couldn’t resist the awkward jab though. The last time they had seen each other, perhaps several months ago, they had wrestled. Despite Skander’s size, Bodrick had thrown him and pinned him quickly. Not such a big deal really, but of course Seleriya had been there watching. Skander felt a whirl in his stomach and a rush of blood to his face just remembering the way her beautiful green eyes had flashed with laughter to see him floundering on the ground.

“Macey’s got them,” answered Bodrick. There wasn’t a trace of wind in his speech. Skander marveled that he could have recovered so quickly from the run. “Ever since she scared that big Merino, the rest just fall in line. She’ll be fine. Look at this.” The shepherd fumbled for something in his belt pouch.

From what he could see, the small object Bodrick found was a stone. “A stone, Bodrick? Your pastures are practically desert. I’m sure that’s not the first stone you’ve found.” He couldn’t help teasing a bit more but immediately felt he had gone too far. Since the shepherd’s father had died, he and his mother lived in poverty, eking out a living from a small plot of the least productive land in the valley. He was ashamed of using it against his friend and promised himself he wouldn’t do it again.

Bodrick came closer and seemed to brush aside the barb, or at least not to let it diminish the proud grin on his wide-featured face. He held out a thick, callused palm. In the middle of his hand was a hunk of rock that even Skander’s untrained eye could see was more than a mundane pebble. It was green; the subdued glassy green of jade, and its smooth surface was pitted with craters like the surface of the Great Moon seen through a scope. “It’s not natural rock,” said Bodrick. “I think its manmade. You know? Like something left over from mining…” He accented his final word, raising his eyebrows suggestively.

Skander began to see where his friend was going with this. “Mining? You mean like…”

Bodrick cut him off excitedly. “It has to be from the mines! When I asked him about the legend, my father told me that if there were mines in these mountains, there would be slag left. And he’d never seen any sign of it.” The shepherd shook the stone between two fingers, smiling. “Well, I think I found it. This has got to be it. Right?”

Skander was genuinely surprised to hear anyone over the age of eleven saying such things. He knew the myth of Enderion’s Delving. Of course, he did, just as every person in North Bend Valley knew it. He remembered asking Bishop Gustav years ago and receiving a similarly dismissive answer. The legend claimed that centuries ago the last of the Lonely Kings had drawn valknite from the ground here, refined it, and turned it into the enchanted weapons that had unified an empire. As an adult and a scholar, Skander knew the stories for a fantasy. He had read many of the histories of the early imperial conquests. Enderion hadn’t needed magical rocks to unify the Batarrnan realm. The great king had updated his army’s weaponry, crafted new echelon formations, and adopted innovative methods of conscription, all to brilliant tactical effect. Skander agreed with the historians, that was how you won wars, not with mystical stones. He felt the same thrill he always did when dredging up facts and figures from his learning. Skander’s pride left him feeling of magnanimous. He knew valknite was a figment of the folk imagination, but he decided to humor Bodrick.

Skander held out his hand and was surprised to see a flicker of hesitation before his friend placed the stone in his outstretched hand. Whatever the truth of the stone, the cleric saw that Bodrick believed it held power. Skander turned it over, feeling the smooth and rough surfaces alternately slide pleasurably against his skin, then lightly abrade his soft fingers. The color was unique and called to mind the volcanic stones that were common in the Near South; but those were red, brown, even glassy black, never green. He tried to affect a scholarly frown of concentration for his friend’s benefit. “It is strange, Bodrick. Like nothing I’ve ever seen.” Skander meant it. “But that mine is just a silly legend.”

Now Bodrick smiled, a strange, confident smile that Skander hadn’t seen before. Without speaking, he held out his hand. Bodrick’s lips were an inscrutable grimace, but his eyes danced mischievously. Now Skander felt a slight reluctance as he handed back the nugget. He watched as Bodrick drew out a worn piece of leather attached to a cord. The cleric watched as the shepherd nocked the stone into what he realized was a sling. “See that little hollow near the top of the spire?” Bodrick asked.

He was gesturing back in the direction of the sun and Skander had to squint as he followed the pointing finger. The sun made his eyes water as he strained to force himself to look. At the highest point of the formation known as Twelvespike, the gnomon of the sundial that cast its shadow over North Bend, he could just make out an indentation. It was hard to gauge from here how big it was. “I see it,” he said, careful not to say anything stupid. “But that must be 300 feet up,” he added. He knew next to nothing about slings, but he could guess what Bodrick had in mind and it seemed like an impossible shot. Many times, he had watched Bodrick sling with deadly accuracy, training on improvised targets and even hitting the occasional predator that troubled his flock; but at this distance, with such an oddly shaped bullet? He sensed an opportunity. “Why don’t you let me put a few flinders on it?” Skander said and winced, realizing that once again he had forgotten his friend’s situation. He wondered if Bodrick had a single coin to his name, much less anything to bet.

Bodrick answered with a wicked smile and a violent, lightning-like underhand spin of the sling. The smooth, practiced motion was a blur that Skander tried and failed to follow, but the puff of rock dust a second later was clear enough. The cleric felt a thrill seeing that the impact was right in the center of the target and felt a cheer burst from him despite how wrong Bodrick had just proven him. Instead of griping, he slapped Bodrick’s outstretched hand hard. Without thinking, Skander followed through and caught the shepherd’s hand again on the reverse, the way they had done as children. “Astral,” he heard himself congratulate, a strange feeling of pride for his friend swelling inside him. “So, we’ve established that I know nothing about slings, which we already knew. What of it?”

Bodrick shook his head. “No, you were right ‘mano. I could never make that shot. Straight up? With a stone shaped like that?” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Skander noticed for the first time that a few dark hairs were poking through and felt another wave of nonsensical jealousy. “Maybe with the smoothest rock from the river. Maybe on my best day. But maybe not even then,” Bodrick continued.

“I’d like to see you do it again.” Skander meant it. He pictured himself accompanying Bodrick to the games this coming harvest season. The shepherd was unlettered and naïve, perhaps he could use a friend if he went to compete, a more educated, sophisticated person to help him avoid the pitfalls of the city. A realization cut Skander’s reverie short. “Voids,” he cursed. “Too bad you wasted it on target practice. We’ll never find it in all those rocks.”

Bodrick’s expression was another Skander had never seen. For a few awkward seconds, he watched his friend’s face, looking for some hint. Then Bodrick seemed to make a decision. “Skander,” the shepherd said. “That’s where it gets really weird.” Without explaining further, he strode uphill leaving the cleric to follow. He hadn’t gone far when he bent to the ground and picked up what appeared to be the same stone from the broken jumble of sandstone talus that littered the slope.

Skander felt his eyes widen. “What the?”

“I know,” answered Bodrick. “I’ve been shooting it all day. The first few times I kind of accidentally found it again, but then I realized I seemed to know just where to look. I never find the normal stones I shoot. You’re right, my pastures are filled with stones, but every week I walk down to the river and find more of the smooth, round ones that are best for bullets. This is…” Bodrick paused as if unsure whether to say more. “It’s a little scary,” he finally admitted. “And you haven’t even seen what the stones do to the things I hit. You think it’s easy to make a cloud of rock dust we can see from three hundred feet away?”

Skander felt an odd, boyish thrill. He couldn’t contain his excitement anymore. “Could it be valknite?” he asked aloud, letting the words linger.

He had meant the question rhetorically, but Bodrick surprised him by answering. “I don’t think so,” he said. “You would know better than me but wasn’t valknite a shiny metal. Like silver or something?”

The cleric was flattered as he always was when his friends came to him with such questions. He focused. Pages turned in his mind like a book in his hands. Yes, there it was in an illustration he had seen; a metallic sheen like silver twig coins. He had seen precious few silver coins in this backward region, but those he had were imprinted in his mind as well. Skander’s mental eye rarely failed him. He smiled as he realized they needed more information. “There’s only one way to be sure. Let’s go to the library.” As usual, the thought of heading into the book collection brought a broad smile to his face. Without waiting for Bodrick’s reply, he whirled and walked toward the three-story building attached to the shrine.

Bishop Gustav’s small library was a calming place for Skander; his favorite part of a small world. He had no other words for it. Since he had come to live with the bishop, and he had very few memories of the time before, the cleric had whiled away many happy hours among its shelves. He knew the tomes and scrolls lining its walls like friends- perhaps better than he knew he friends- but somehow there were always new possibilities for exploration.

Skander stood at the entrance to the library, an intricate series of columns, doors, and hanging panels that formed a maze of sorts. It had been a long time since Skander had thought about the path he needed to tread to get through, but now he looked at Bodrick. Something about the shepherd’s appearance troubled him. “You’re filthy. Scrape your boots here.”

“Really?” Bodrick said with a raised eyebrow.

Skander felt annoyance. “Yes, really. I know you’re not much for reading, but this place is as holy as the waters outside.” Canonically speaking that was not true, but it felt right.

“Fine,” grumbled Bodrick. “But quit brushing at me like my mother. Next thing you’ll be licking your hand and smoothing my cowlick in place.” He stamped his boots and brushed his tunic, knocking a cloud of grime and dust.

Skander watched in fascination as the warm air leaving the library lifted the dust, gently dragging it and wafting it away. The cleric remembered Gustav’s explanation that the elaborate labyrinth served to bring cooling air into the main chamber of the library. The room was lit by an ancient six-foot-high stained-glass window. Its ornate panes told a visual story of the legend of Bimmuk the shepherd. During the day, the images cascaded onto the worktables from the window. As an acolyte, Skander had often traced the projections into his copybook, laboring over Bimmuk’s battle with the mole dragon. He winced remembering the raps on the knuckles when Gustav had seen him wasting paper. The brilliant windows should have filled the library with air heated by the desert sun, but in some way, the builders had created the maze at the doors so that warm air would filter out and cool mountain air could get in. Gustav had called it an ingenious feat of ancient engineering, but as Skander watched the dust gather up and leave as if on its own, he suspected there was some glamer of minor magic on the building.

“There, your fussiness. Am I presentable?” Bodrick performed a mocking bow.

“It will do.” Skander moved over the worn flagstones toward the shelves. His instincts guided him to the southeastern wall, to a stack just below the great window. He passed over the reflected image of Bimmuk loosing a sling bullet and for the first time felt a glimmer of recognition. He said nothing about it to Bodrick, staying focused on the task at hand. “I thought I saw something here once.” He ran his hand gently over the books, calmed by their familiar feel, passing the thick leather spines of Tridorio’s Great Trees of the Northwest, The Uses of Ever Blessed Cinnabar, and Fifty Beasts of the Dryptic Deeps. It was exactly where he expected. The book was a broad tome of light tan hide: The Tales of the Lonely Kings. Wrinkling his nose at a musty smell both acrid and faintly pleasant, Skander pulled the volume down. He couldn’t make out what animal the hide cover had come from, but it bore large, black spots and was worn through to the leather in several places. The fine hairs edging the title were green with age. A sensation of deep time made the cleric woozy as he wondered just how old this book was; a hundred years, two hundred? He gingerly opened the cover and thumbed through the pages with a sense of purpose, sensing rather than actively remembering what page he was looking for.

“Here.” He held the heavy book out to Bodrick, hoping his friend wouldn’t see the slight quiver he felt in his arm muscles. The page was an illustration; a drawing of a bulbous blue nugget of brilliant blue with a caption that read: valknite in victorious sunlight, middle latitudes. What in the dark, black void did victorious mean? “It’s blue not silver, but it still doesn’t look like our stone.” He felt a surge of disappointment, but a lingering doubt nagged at him. Skander never forgot a picture. So, where had he gotten the idea that it was silver?

“So, it’s not valknite,” said Bodrick. Skander heard annoyance. “What is it? Ore? Something else?”

The cleric knew Bodrick had little time for books and the things written in them, but he found himself frustrated with the shepherd’s impatience. “Give me a second.” He ran his finger over the lines below the drawing. Skander had a sudden flashback to a long-ago session with Bishop Gustav, making his way through Zalanday’s painfully translated version of the epic of Dressik. There was a poem covering the bottom half of the page. He felt a revulsion. What was wrong with prose? “I can’t get anything from this,” he complained.

“Yeah, me either,” said Bodrick flatly. Skander noticed he hadn’t even looked at the page.

It was hard to strike a thoughtful pose with three wispy, nearly translucent blond hairs on his chin, but Skander made the gesture anyway. He turned a broad page, gently, attempting not to crack the dry leaf. “Maybe there’s more, something about slag, or mining,” he murmured. He found another illustration, a black and white copy of an engraving depicting a trapezoidal building with a cavernous opening. Men in heavy leather aprons busied themselves around the building. There was a caption: Of the extraction of the Godsmetal from the sully earth. Skander sighed in frustration. Beneath the drawing were more lines of verse. He read the first line four times without getting any sense of the meaning. “Who wrote this damn thing?” he grumbled. The cleric felt Bodrick pacing behind him. It wasn’t doing anything to help his concentration. “Can you sit down or something?”

“Did you find it? Is it slag? Is it ore?”

Skander fought the impulse to shove Bodrick into a chair. “I don’t know. Give me a few hours and I might be able to puzzle out this page.”

“Hours? Forget it. If it’s slag, there was a furnace.”

“I didn’t exactly say it was…”

“If there was a furnace, there was a mine. Let’s go find it,” he said beaming. Bodrick’s voice had gotten much louder, his eyes were wide with excitement. He looked ten years younger.

The shepherd was heading out the door by the time Skander had carefully closed the book. He left it on the table with a sharp regret not to have placed it back on the shelf. The cleric promised to finish reading later. “Wait for me!” he called out, tracing his usual quick path through the maze. He emerged into the morning sun, blinking. Bodrick was nowhere to be seen. Skander toward the hills. Was the shepherd that much faster than he was?

An echoing voice gave him his answer. “Voids, Skander! How do you get out of this damned thing?”

Skander laughed to himself as he retraced his steps. In the gloomy labyrinth, dazzled as his eyes were, he strained to find Bodrick facing the wrong direction, his face six inches from an enameled wooden panel. Skander reached out to help him.

“I know you’re not trying to hold my hand,” said the shepherd suddenly, startling Skander with a rapid about face.

“Of course not,” lied Skander. Bodrick had just looked so childlike for a second. “Follow me.” He led the way through a quick series of turns.”

“I swear I followed your path exactly,” complained Bodrick.

Skander ignored him. “Where should we go?” he asked. He hoped to salve Bodrick’s pride with the admission of his own ignorance.

The shepherd studied the hills and Skander admired the way his cool gaze projected authority and knowledge. “I found the stone… there. At the north end of my fields.” He pointed to his hardscrabble plot. “It must have washed down from the mountains somewhere above. What do you think?”

Skander tried not to smile. There was nothing he could offer Bodrick by way of advice about this landscape. The shepherd knew every inch for ten miles in every direction, while Skander spent most of the sunny days in his library. Of course, that had taught him a bit about water and gravity. “I think the stone probably came down, yeah.”

“I’d say Twelvespike Arroyo is the most likely place.”

Skander followed his gaze to a small canyon that opened high above them in the mountains. Above it stood the massive plinth of Twelvespike. The formation got its name from the shadow it cast down on the town, but Skander had always seen in it the finger of Anak, pointing ominously toward the town of North Bend. He frowned, realizing what Bodrick had in mind.

“What do you say? You up for a bit of a hike?”

Skander wasn’t, not even remotely. It wasn’t quite noon, and he was boiling already, standing here on flat ground. The thought of trudging into the mountains made him queasy. Skander looked at Bodrick; hale and healthy, rocking on the balls of his feet like a player about to run onto a ballcourt. He would be damned if he would let his friend know how little he wanted to climb into the mountains. Skander breathed deeply and summoned a smile from the depths. “Lead the way!” he commanded. His hoped his false enthusiasm was convincing.

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