REVENGE TO THE TENNTH POWER
BY JACK CHAUCER
OFFICIAL RELEASE DATE ON AMAZON/KINDLE/APPLE/B&N: AUGUST TENNTH (TOMORROW!)
CHAPTER 4 — ALL MEN ARE EVIL
Her hands, elbows, knees and feet were scraped and bloodied, but Tenn had managed not to fall off the mountain as she descended uneven rocks and thorny shrubs that ripped and shredded her dirty gray shift. Her left nipple and right hip were now exposed to the world, but so far no one had caught her from behind and no one had startled her from below.
Tenn’s pace quickened as the ledges became less scary and the air thickened slightly on a warm afternoon. Though it seemed like she had made good progress, in reality she had only dropped from about 8,000 feet to 7,200 feet over the precarious terrain. There were many trails and preferred routes on this mountain and its sister peaks, but Tenn didn’t know any of them. Regardless, the pains of this journey felt like a rush of adrenaline compared to what she had endured at the temple. Tenn forced her mind to forget about that and focus on being as sure-footed as possible.
Indeed she was so focused on looking down in front of her that she didn’t even notice the beast just twenty yards to the left of her, toying with some prey on a rocky outcropping.
Strix’s vulture head rotated, its right eye fixed on the girl. The sudden screech that erupted from its curved beak froze Tenn’s body and wrenched her neck with a 90-degree pull. She had never heard a sound like that, and the huge and hideous buzzard staring back at her did not seem real.
Until it screeched again.
She trembled as her stare-down with the beast continued, but for some reason, she did not look away. Whatever happened back at the scene of what was supposed to be her death had given her strength — the kind she had never known before. And the ensuing escape, with its intoxicating rush of proper pain and wind-fueled freedom, had nurtured that power even more.
Tenn quickly made up her mind and her legs followed. She didn’t run away. She ran toward the beast, intent on shooing it off the cliff.
“You’re even uglier than the priests!” she shouted as she sprinted toward it.
But then Tenn skidded on some loose stones and stopped completely when Strix morphed before her eyes. Suddenly she was surrounded by nine snarling gray-and-white wolves. The saliva slowly dripped off their fangs and she felt more than a moment of doubt. Had The Nine come back to claim her life after all?
That thought steeled her yet again.
“I will not go back!” she screamed, quivering as her eyes scanned each yellow-eyed wolf in her vision. She could feel the hot breath of the ones behind her and quaked even more. “I’ll leap off that ledge first!”
Of course, she’d have to break through the ring of wolves to even get the chance.
When the wolves growled and all took a step toward her, she crouched and did her best to look menacing just like them. Then she pounced at the two wolves standing most in the way of the ledge, but there was nothing to grab or tackle when she hit the ground hard. Her forearms burned, but her eyes rejoiced when she looked up to see Strix, back in vulture form, shrieking above her and flying away.
Still in shock from the sensory overload of the bizarre encounter, Tenn didn’t trust her eyes at first when she realized there was a man lying still on the edge of the ledge, just ten feet away, clad only in dirty breeches and leather hiking boots.
Warily, she padded across the rocks to stand over him. Long and pale, lifeless and bloodied, he had a nasty gash zigzagging across his bare chest.
Tenn knelt down and, despite her rightful fear of men, slowly reached out to touch his muscular arm. It felt cold and she recoiled. He seemed too young, maybe even too handsome, to be dead. She hesitantly extended her hand a second time, hovering over the bloody wound and then searching for his heart. When she brushed his skin with her palm, the man’s eyelids fluttered and his mouth opened to suck for air.
Tenn sprung backward like she had rousted a snake, and then instinctively covered her exposed breast with her hand.
Her heart raced as the young man with the long, sandy-brown hair tried to sit up and regain normal breathing.
Antero groaned from his injuries and struggled through blurred vision to make sense of the scene around him. He was only a few feet from plummeting to his death, so he rolled away from the edge and his wounds stung from the sudden movement. As he gingerly shifted position, he sensed someone else move away from him. Slowly, he focused on a tall, thin, bloodied young girl, partly covered in rags. She backed away even more as he became aware of how nearly naked she was.
He coughed and tried to speak, but his throat was so dry. He recalled Ione’s Stream and wished for a gulp of cold water, but then he remembered the blood, and Hagema and Zakk, and their shocked faces as the grotesque vulture seized him, squeezed him and stole off with him.
“Who are you?” he finally managed to ask the timid girl with the dazzling sea-green eyes.
She looked so out of place, maybe even lost, this high up Mammyth, but then again, perhaps so did he.
Though she was half-turned to flee, the girl still looked him in the eyes as she tried to form a reply.
“I’m, I’m … I’m in a lot of trouble,” she stammered.
Antero was so incredulous at that answer that he laughed and paid for it with searing pain, causing him to groan again.
The girl shook her head and began walking away.
Antero stood up too fast, felt woozy and dropped back down on one knee.
“Wait,” he pleaded, reaching out to her.
She stopped and turned around once more.
“All men are evil,” Antero heard her say, this time with no stammer. “I must go.”
Stunned, he watched her run back toward the ridge line and disappear into the mountain.
CHAPTER 5 — NERA’S COUNSEL
The Passage to the Gods could only ferry the king so far. At 12,800 feet, Ryzthar had to leave the snorting, laboring oxen behind and climb the summit dome himself, one rock at a time, like any other mortal.
He told his soldiers to stay behind with the cart — only a king could hope to meet with The Nine, and even his presence, he feared, would be taken as a brash and desperate affront to the immortals. High clerics always had forbid monarchs from appealing to the gods directly. That was their role. But Ryzthar had no high cleric or any of his eight immediate possible successors to worry about at the moment. They were all dead. So in the interim, before the temple elected a new top tier of seers, he aimed to seek an audience with The Nine himself and beg for counsel.
With an oak-hewn staff in his right hand and a wineskin latched to the belt around his black-bear robe, the stubborn king ascended into the increasingly brisk gales and thickening clouds. It may be summer down at the lower elevations, but the goddess Ione usually defended the summit with wild or wintry weather. Hurricane-force winds, thunderstorms, ice storms, snow storms, dense fog and even hail the size of human heads — any or all of these could be awaiting the intrepid monarch.
Ryzthar, a husky man but still relatively fit at thirty-five years old in a realm where forty-five was considered knocking on Arus’ gate, stared into the swirling gray and gasped for as much of the thin air as his lungs could hold. Then he took a quick drag of red wine to boost his courage and resumed climbing.
In less than an hour, he stood within 100 feet of the summit, but he could not see it. The gray-and-white howl blasted his face. Even when he did open his eyes, the black spots crowded his vision — his exertion in the high altitude was bringing on a migraine and unrelenting wooziness. The buffeting wind intermittently carried pellets of ice, stinging his face and crystallizing his beard.
The king then stumbled on an uneven rock, dropped his staff and fell, banging his right shoulder into the base of a boulder. As he rubbed the painful bruise, the boulder seemed to give off heat, warming him.
Slowly, he stood back up and placed both hands on the rock, which was as high as his chest. The warmth pleasured his hands, and soon radiated and tingled through the rest of his body.
“What is this?” he asked as the winds of Aurai whipped against him from ever-changing directions.
“Stone,” a young woman’s voice answered.
Ryzthar kept one hand on the boulder as he turned to find the source of the voice, but all he could see were the clouds and the damn black spots eating away at his field of vision.
“Who speaks to me?” the king shouted, again placing both hands on the boulder and rubbing it.
“Nera,” the goddess announced.
The king quickly dropped to both knees, his hands still attached to the boulder.
“Nera … beautiful sun goddess, may I see you?” Ryzthar asked, his voice crackling with anticipation.
“No,” she replied. “Ione has dressed me today and, for once, I am grateful. What brings a troubled king up so far? To catch sight of me naked?”
The king paused to weigh her words, delivered in a saucy, mocking tone that made the monarch shiver.
“Not at all, Nera. You say I am troubled. Why do you speak to me this way, beautiful sun goddess?”
“You sound troubled, King Ryzthar,” she replied. “Do you grieve your queen?”
“My queen is very mu-mu-much alive,” he yammered. “Ola is …”
“Do you take me for a fool? The very goddess who lights your kingdom and your brother’s kingdom across the sea? The goddess who feeds your subjects and feeds you?”
“No, great Nera, I beg your pardon,” the king said, his head bowed by the blasts of wind and his own stupidity in the presence of an all-knowing immortal. “I see now that it is Brinsma of whom you speak.”
“Do you grieve her?” the goddess asked a second time.
Ryzthar again paused, cursing at himself for this high-altitude gamble; this avoidable predicament.
“No, I don’t,” he admitted, not wanting to cross Nera again. “She didn’t revere the gods. She practiced black magic … witchcraft! Surely you don’t take her side, beautiful sun goddess?”
“You called Brinsma beautiful many, many times … and yet you had her stoned to death. Is she still beautiful, King Ryzthar? Beautiful like me?”
The trick questions and the waves of heat now crashing through him from the stone made him sweat underneath his bear robe. He snatched his hands off the rock and wrung them fretfully, unable to stop the burning and itching.
“This was a mistake,” he mumbled.
Nera heard him just fine despite the four-pronged howl of Aurai.
“What was?” she ridiculed him. “Coming up here? Killing your queen over your lust for another? Casting away your first-born daughter, Marinde, so she could be turned into a sexual play toy for the depraved creatures who make a mockery of the beautiful, ancient temple … a temple dedicated to us?”
“Please stop!” Ryzthar shouted into the unrelenting gale.
“Yes, that’s right. That’s what your daughter screamed. When you were cozy in your castle, did you hear her cries from her underworld cell?”
Ryzthar looked down at his fallen staff and cursed himself loudly yet again.
“I want to thank you,” Nera said.
“Why?” he pleaded, gazing up again into the clouds, desperate for hope.
“For killing Volz Yth … he was such a disgrace to Mammyth, to all the gods really,” she said. “Rather, thank your guards for that. They killed him. You couldn’t quite finish the job.”
“I could have,” Ryzthar protested. “I let them finish him off. That’s their job.”
“And what is your job, your grace?” Nera toyed with him.
The king scowled at her tone.
“To rule this pile of rocks and keep you immortals happy,” he shouted at the stone. “A fuxing impossible task.”
“So jaded,” she said. “So ungrateful. So hopelessly incapable.”
Ryzthar shook his head and spat at the ground.
“Oh do fux off then. You think it’s easy being a mere mortal? I don’t need your immortal superiority ox shit!”
Nera laughed, her echo bouncing from boulder to boulder, up and down the summit cone.
The king, rattled by fear and anger, began to twitch.
“Still think I’m beautiful?” she asked. “No … now we’ve arrived at some truth.”
Ryzthar searched his shaken soul for some words, some courage.
“The truth is I should have believed in bloody witchcraft instead of you and your kind, goddess. Then maybe Brinsma would still be alive and I wouldn’t be up here acting like a simpering fool right now.”
“Believe whatever you want to believe and say whatever you want to say to suit your purpose … just like you always do,” the goddess said.
“The truth is betrayal and murder and abandonment of one’s heir, no matter the sex, are some heavy stones. Do take care not to get crushed.”
“Is that a threat?” he snapped.
Nera’s voice suddenly cranked up in speed and force to match the pummeling winds.
“You should be troubled, King Ryzthar. My son, Agan, appeared to your queen before her death and agreed to watch over your daughter. He watched and watched while you forgot and forgot about her, your own royal blood. He could not truly help her until the seers commenced with your sacrifice — we did not accept your sacrifice of her to us. That was another of your mistakes, and a very grave one indeed. Royal blood mixed with witch’s blood pooled with the powers of the blood god himself and backed by his mother, the goddess of the sun — Marinde is someone else now. Someone far more powerful, and she barely knows it yet.
“So if you came up here to ease your troubled mind, you came to the wrong place. And if you came up here for counsel, here it is: best stay out of my light or she will find you sooner.”