6.3

Now, instead of being impenetrably dark, it’s as bright as a clear winter day, and I’m flying through the air. I’m very high… above the tops of the Witherleafs… and I’m passing over the settlement, going west. I feel the Crag Mountains at my back, but I never turn around to see them. I only see the landscape passing beneath me like clouds moving by before a storm.

I’m following some sort of bird. I think he’s a banklite, or some other kind of raptor, traveling over the Pastures like a voice on the wind. I recognize all the places we fly over: the fields to the north of the settlement, then the Tenebre River, then Homestead Sur, out at the edge of our territory. From there, we cross the Range River, and the Stumbling River, and then we’re above the Weary Road, and I can see all the travelers with their pack-horses and caravans moving east and west.

In this vision, it’s not me that’s the bird. I’m… nothing, I guess. I’m just a ghost flying along, following this banklite’s tail feathers. I can’t look away, though, and even if I try to turn north or south, I’m caught up, like I’m stuck in his slipstream. I start to feel a panic after a while, and it’s hard to keep my focus. It’s almost the same feeling as I used to have when I would get mad. I can almost feel that hostile energy rise up, just like back when I would get in those fights.

This all takes a long time, mind you, and I usually break the flow between the Range and the Stumbling River. I almost never make it to the Weary Road, and I’ve only gone past there once, in a moment of complete abandonment. That’s how I got to the third place, where the sunlight disappeared again.

 

The year 3340 was Edzie’s last year of childhood, and Ghada’s first year of full membership in the tribe. Ghada had turned fifteen at the end of that summer, and when the Festival of Release approached, he glowed with desire and anticipation, ready to follow his sister and his older peers into full recognition. He allowed his wide and varied social life to slip a bit… instead, he focused fresh attention on Mistra Eryn’s training sessions, and then on Edzie, who gladly accepted the benefits of his burgeoning enthusiasm.

Edzie had spent the days before the festival running errands for her mother and a small cadre of her close friends. All throughout the settlement, merchants needed to pass messages, request advances, and exchange materials, and Elkansa’s gathering room seemed to be a busy hub for all this kind of activity. Whenever she had a moment, Edzie thought back to her previous years, when the festival was an occasion for novelty and fascination. Now, she was relegated to being an assistant to one of its de facto administrators, and she resented the change.

Her primary consolation was her excitement for Ghada. This was his initiation year… he was fifteen, and the hunters had captured a grasscat for his blade… and Edzie already felt a vicarious thrill, knowing she, his friend and paramour, would share in some of his glory. For several months, he had spoken of little else, even in their private moments, and she had occasionally gotten so tired of it that she had taken special measures to silence him. Even so, his enthusiasm was contagious, and she was waiting hopefully, watching the hours pass, eager for the ritual to begin.

On the day of the festival, Edzie found herself swamped with minor tasks. Elkansa didn’t seem willing to let her pause, even for a moment, so when the time for the trial finally came, she was nearly caught up in some errand for Gransa the materials-trader. She noticed the time, and had the presence of mind to intercept Stray and demand he finish the courier run on her behalf. From there, she sprinted toward the Chronoboros court, where she knew Ghada was getting ready.

Their meeting was brief, furtive, almost desperate… the trial was surrounded with the kind of unsustainable, ominous energy that seems to suck all extraneous emotion into its vortex. Ghada was meditating, trying to steady his nerves, when Edzie settled into place behind him, wrapped her arms around his chest, and kissed him behind his ear. He smiled, clutching at her forearm, speaking to her without moving or looking back.

“Thanks for coming by, Edzie.”

“No problem. I’ll be watching. Are you scared?”

“I was scared, but now everything is just smeared together: fear, joy, frayed nerves. You know.”

“Well, you’ll be fine. If your mind gives you trouble, just let go. Let your body do what it needs to do.”

“Yeah, I know. Thanks, Edzie.”

They lingered there for a few minutes, and then Ghada’s entourage led him away: his parents, Bellaryn, Mistra Eryn, and several younger students to whom he had given private tutelage. Edzie followed, far enough behind that she wouldn’t attract attention. The companions led Ghada to a wooden platform, the ritual circle, which was entirely enclosed by wooden planks barely a hand-span apart. He stood outside the east gate, brandishing a katsun provided by Mistra Eryn. Edzie watched, nurturing an echo of pride and jealousy, and took her place in the open lot to the south of the enclosure.

At last, Ghada stepped into the guarded circle, taking his place at the east end and closing the gate behind him. He tested the tribe’s katsun, slashing and thrusting with a flourish, and then stood at attention as Elder Amiaverta’s assistants hitched the grasscat’s cage to the arena’s holding area. Ghada nodded to the elder, and she nodded, in turn, to her assistants. One of them dutifully pulled aside the barrier between the holding area and the arena floor, freeing the grasscat.

The grasscat leapt out of its enclosure, feigning a full-on charge, but she hesitated after a few steps, drawing back into a prone position, eager to pounce. She was a respectable specimen, two or three times a woman’s weight, her fur matted from her struggle with handlers and cage bars. Her mane was little more than a puff of fur around her ears and neck, and there were bare patches on her back and underbelly. Her eyes were narrow, a piercing black, and already fixed on Ghada from across the arena.

Ghada advanced, as he was expected to do, executing attack form three with a fluid dip and a flourish. Absent a violently aggressive opponent, he was obliged to press the cornered beast and prompt it into a reaction. She didn’t disappoint him… when he was within several steps, she sprang at him, rearing up on her hind legs and engaging with both paws and muzzle. Ghada switched into withdraw form two, taking generous strides back and to the grasscat’s right, avoiding the bulk of her considerable weight, but she was faster than he had accounted for… her right paw clipped his shoulder, and he grunted audibly, feeling the claws rake through muscle. A sympathetic gasp issued from the audience.

The grasscat landed on all four paws, already turning in Ghada’s direction. She didn’t continue the attack, electing to revert to her stalking behavior. Her entire attention, the full focus of her black eyes, was trained on Ghada now, and she seemed to be moving to flank him. Ghada turned slowly, keeping his foe in front of him, holding the katsun at the ready in case the animal made another lunge. A bloody patch was spreading across his left shoulder, just outside his collar bone.

When the grasscat realized she couldn’t outposition her prey, she made another attack, more hesitant this time: she tried to strike low, clawing at Ghada’s calf. Ghada was quicker now, fueled and lubricated by adrenaline, so he avoided her claws cleanly, opening another few steps between himself and the animal. Having won some space, the grasscat backed up, cautious, hissing as she moved and doing her best to regroup.

Ghada wasn’t used to fighting with a wide, swollen gash opened up on his shoulder, and as the pain mounted, flooding his synapses, he found his focus beginning to flag. This wouldn’t do in an actual duel, he thought to himself… pain could very well be an ongoing distraction in an extended exchange of blows. If he was fighting a fully effective, capable human opponent, he thought, what would he do now to ensure his victory?

I would stop playing and finish her, Ghada finally realized. This was bloodsport, not a sparring match; the longer it went on, the more chances his opponent would have to land a single mortal blow. Ghada’s frame of mind shifted dramatically: he realized he wouldn’t have time to learn about the cat’s rhythms, or to find an elegant way to slip under her guard. He should focus on killing her, immediately, in a way that was as crudely effective as necessary.

I can still have my dignity, though, he thought. His intended killing blow would still work, even if he had to expedite it.

The grasscat had receded back into a crouch, perfectly still, her fat tail flicking above her haunches. Her back legs quivered, ready to spring, and her ears twitched, but her spine and head and forelegs were absolutely motionless.

In that moment, Ghada’s mind, spurred on by the natural stimulant of battle, managed to process a great many thoughts. He looked into the big cat’s eyes, and thought: we’re doing the same thing, the grasscat and I. There’s a broad, sensitive surface spread out between us, and we’ve both got all our senses and instincts in contact with it, waiting for some vibration, some break in the other’s rhythm. And from the beginning of this confrontation, she was already at the point that I’ve just finally arrived at: the point where she’s desperate to kill me at the first opportunity, in defense of her own life.

Ghada made his next movement with all of these revelations in mind. At the height of a breath, he tensed up, and then he launched into a conspicuous charge at the beast, telegraphing his intention as clearly as he could. It wasn’t subtle, but the feint worked: the grasscat was provoked into charging, and she came at him like a charging bull, barrelling across the arena.

The grasscat covered the whole space in a bounding leap, and Ghada had less than a second to react. He halted his own charge, catching himself on his toes and changing direction, and drew up his katsun. The grasscat rose to her hind legs, lunging at him, but because of Ghada’s footwork, she was a stride too early. She came to her full height before her claws or teeth could reach him, and she teetered there for a moment, her forward momentum suddenly spent.

Ghada executed attack form four, flicking his katsun horizontally between himself and the grasscat, and the tip of the blade – its top four centimeters – slipped into the grasscat’s hide, just above her breastbone, at the bottom of her neck. Her bite was arrested as she choked on her breath, and her claws didn’t stay extended long enough to catch onto Ghada’s neck or shoulders… instead of tearing into him, as she had intended, the grasscat fell into a convulsion and rolled to one side, caught in the throes of sudden suffocation and blood loss.

Ghada straightened his back, flicked the blood off his katsun, and watched the grasscat as she died on the orebark planks of the arena platform. He bowed his head with respect, trying not to smile as applause rose in a wave from the crowd.

Edzie was forced to wait until a whole menagerie of friends and family members congratulated Ghada on his courage and grace under pressure. He received their adulation with an almost childlike humility, his voice affected with a shyness that Edzie rarely heard in it. He knew how to manage this kind of attention… you were gentle with it, receptive without being needy or desperate, and it would continue following you. Some of the older Denorians, Ghada’s friends who had been initiated in recent years, tried to pull him directly to the tables in the central court, hoping to get him started early with eating and drinking. Ghada promised he would join them shortly, and begged for a few minutes to himself, to let his nerves settle.

Edzie waited for him along the path behind his dromo, just out of the way of the spirited festival traffic. She embraced him and told him she was impressed and intimidated, and she thought he would make a fighter as capable as any woman, now that he was officially a citizen. They stole another half hour, pawing and caressing beyond the eyes of visitors, before Ghada remembered his obligations. He took leave of Edzie, asking her to come by his table later that evening, and headed back to the central court.

Three more hours passed, as meetings and trials and rites were held at various sites around the settlement, before the Denorians settled in for the feast of passing, the great meal that served as the centerpiece for the festival. The feast was preceded by an hour of casual drinking, leading to several drunken young tribesfolk, a great deal of noise, and a jubilant population, excited to hear from the elders.

Edzie did her duty, making an appearance at Ghada’s table, but his older friends were the socialite warrior-women who jostled for parents’ and elders’ favor. Bellaryn was there, which was reassuring, but in general, it wasn’t a crowd that made Edzie comfortable, and she was further bothered by Ghada’s obvious disadvantage among them. To Edzie, Ghada seemed to be treated more as a mascot than as an equal or a competitor. She preferred him in his pure, beautiful glory, alone in the sunlight or reclining by a fire in a private gathering-room. She hoped he understood when she left his raucous table to return to her own family.

After the third course, the Gathered Feast of fermented fruit and root vegetables and wine, the elders appeared and called forth the initiates, reciting their names and sending out couriers to fetch them. Ghada was twenty-sixth out of ninety-four, and Edzie scrambled between tables to get a view of the ritual. At first, she could only see Treya and Kosef’s heads, emerging from the crowd around the bonfire.

At last, pushing past a bulky voraish in decorative blue chains, Edzie found a gap with full visibility. She looked up to see Ghada, his shirt already removed, his chest showing the slightest dusting of blond fuzz… a nubile feature with which she was already scandalously familiar. Ghada’s parents stood on either side of him, holding his hands. Elder Amiaverta had already pulled a katsun – an unusual type, made entirely from metal – from the bonfire, where its blade had been heated to a dull red glow, with yellow sparks along the sharpened edge.

The elder and Ghada’s parents exchanged a litany of pledges and promises, with Ghada acknowledging each in turn. Edzie couldn’t hear them herself, but she could have repeated them by rote, she had heard them so many times before. Finally, there was a lull in the incantations, and Edzie saw Ghada nod.

Elder Amiaverta moved slowly, but not so slow as to be cruel – like an experienced butcher making a particularly sensitive cut. With the tip of the katsun, she traced a shallow V, from just below Ghada’s left shoulder, to a point just above his solar plexus, to an endpoint just below his right shoulder. The design was precise, perfectly symmetrical, and absolutely fitting for a boy who had learned to fight with a katsun so technically, so aesthetically and immaculately, that he looked less like a human teenager and more like an illustration in a storybook.

Edzie could see the veins flare on Ghada’s neck, and his jaw contort as his teeth clenched, and she saw his knuckles turn white as they gripped his parents’ hands. She couldn’t hear him groan with the pain of the wound, but she could confirm that he didn’t cry out or try to turn away, and so his scar was as perfect and precise as any that had ever been inflicted.

Edzie watched him slump backwards into his mother’s arms; when he opened his eyes, they were wet and red, but no tear escaped them. Finally, summoning the last of his dignity, Ghada stood up and left the altar, returning to his friends in the center of the feast. They would spend the night pouring wine on his chest and down his throat until he couldn’t feel the searing pain of that scar. Edzie, who had spent so long reveling in his attention, found herself hoping that proud sleep would finally, mercifully, come to claim him.

 

I’ve only been to this third place one time, when I let myself follow the banklite as far as my consciousness would allow. As we flew past the part of the world that I really knew about, into the parts I don’t even remember from looking at Mistra Septa’s maps, the sun seemed to sink into a bank of fog, and everything was consumed in total, palpable darkness. I felt like I was falling for a moment, and then dizzy and reeling, and then I got hold of myself.

It felt like I had traveled a great distance, and ended up in this sealed chamber that I’ve never seen, but I was sure it was real. That fast, hazy feeling of flight was gone… now the surroundings were perfectly still and clear in my head, like an imprinted memory. It felt like I was taken there by force, and when it ended, it was just as strange and abrupt, like I was lifted out of it by some invisible hand.

It was a vertical shaft of black rock… obsidian, or something… it must have been carved out of the inside of a mountain. It was maybe a kilometer deep, and two hundred meters across, with a staircase spiraling down the interior wall. There must have been a door, up at the top of the cavern, but I couldn’t see it. I think it was closed, maybe for a long time.

There was no sunlight, but I could still see. In the center of the chamber, there was a single column, no more than a half-meter wide, that stretched, vertically, into the center of the chamber. And at the top of the pillar, there was something that gave off some kind of cold, dull light. In fact, the object itself was barely illuminated, which is why I don’t remember its shape. But it made all the cavern walls visible, and cast no shadows.

I was alone, and there was nothing except me and the chamber, but it was… terrifying. In that moment, I felt like the whole universe was there before me, and when I looked into it, I saw that it was… nothing. It was an empty surface, and at any moment… at the merest touch… it could collapse and we would all come to nothing. And then I looked back on myself, and it seemed like I was nothing, too. And I felt a wave of numbness wash over me, and the anxiety came with it. And for a moment, I was caught in the meditation. I had to turn my mind away from that feeling… that abyss… and tear myself back awake by force.

I know meditations aren’t supposed to be dangerous, but this one felt like it was. I don’t think I’ll be letting it go that far again.