The kiss lingered on his lips and in his memory, an echo of what might have been, and, when he dared to hope, what yet could be.
Dravid leaned on his staff in the glow of the Otherworld’s stars and thought of Seri. Always Seri. He needed to constantly remind himself of her, that her life continued because of what he had done. Without that reassurance, he would have long since given up.
The former member of Marshal’s squad known as Wolf, now revealed as an ancient god named Calu, had demanded a price to save Seri’s life. The price was Dravid’s enslavement, probably until he died. Such was the cost of making a deal with a god.
“Hey, crip! Get a move on!” The ugly voice intruded on Dravid’s reverie and he took a step forward. The army moved on again, and so must he. He glanced at the other slave who had reproved him. Dravid never learned his name, but he sounded antagonistic every time he opened his mouth. He blustered, but he was a coward, terrified of offending the gods or the Durunim who also served them.
Most of the other human slaves seemed to have been taken from the primary world from Varioch and Rasna, though a few came from Ch’olan. Even if Dravid hadn’t been missing a leg, he would be an oddity among them.
He looked out over the slow-moving army of Durunim, the strange warriors of the Otherworld. They seemed like Eldanim, yet so frightening. Their bizarre skin absorbed all light, appearing completely black one moment, but iridescent the next. Dravid tried to avoid them as much as possible.
His duties thus far had been vague. Calu required Dravid to wait on him at the morning and evening meals, and any other time the army stopped. He complained about Dravid being slow, but had not given him any punishment for it. Other slaves were not so lucky. Their masters, the other gods, were fickle and some were quick to anger. Dravid had seen open wounds on faces and scars on the backs of many of his fellow humans.
Far ahead among the crowd, a chariot of some kind detached itself and circled back. Dravid watched it kick up dust as it moved. Considering the size of this moving army, he would think the whole region should be covered in a dust cloud. Though Marshal’s grandfather had destroyed a huge portion of the army, others had come to join, swelling its ranks back up to at least its original size.
The one thing Dravid couldn’t determine was their destination. He had no sun to provide compass directions, and the landscape was wholly unfamiliar. The stars probably provided direction for those who knew them, but of course he didn’t.
The chariot came to a stop almost directly in front of him, throwing dirt and debris into the air. Dravid and the other slaves around him choked on the dust, coughing and trying to escape the cloud.
“Cripple!” a voice cried out. Dravid stopped, coughed again, and waited for the dust to settle.
As it did, he found himself looking into the face of the creature pulling the chariot. Up until now, Dravid had done his best to avoid the various animals he saw among the gods and Durunim. This one stared back at him, not with intelligence, but a gleam of something antagonistic and challenging. It snorted and jerked its head up. Vaguely horse-shaped, the head was topped by two spiraling horns that jutted backwards above its neck. The rest of the creature also resembled a horse, though somewhat lower to the ground with thicker legs. Dravid thought it must be brown, with a lighter underbody, but that might be the dust.
His eyes moved beyond the animal to the chariot it pulled and the god who stood there, looking down at him. Golden-skinned like all of them, he wore red and yellow clothes draped over his muscular body in multiple layers. A tall crown sat on his head, matched in gaudiness by enormous earrings. He tapped a long scepter of some kind against the chariot wall and chuckled.
“Do you recognize me, mortal?” Like all the gods, the charioteer’s voice vibrated with the magic inherent to his nature. Every time one of them asked a question or gave an order, Dravid felt compelled to obey.
“No,” he answered.
The charioteer looked sad. “Not even from old drawings in books, perhaps?”
Dravid shook his head.
“Then it is as the others said. You truly have forgotten us.” The god heaved an enormous sigh and looked away for a moment. “Your people once knew me well. I am Vayan. I am one of the gods of your people, from long ago, before you named your new land Kuktarma.”
Dravid didn’t know what to say in response. His education had not gone into any detail on ancient gods, beyond deriding them as false and forgotten.
The god studied him, waiting for recognition perhaps. When none came, he gave a short nod. “I have persuaded Calu to turn you over to me. He grows weary of a slave who cannot keep up.”
“And you won’t?” Dravid bit his lip. That might have been too impertinent.
Vayan laughed. “Unlike Calu, I recognize your impediment and will allow for it.” He leaned over the chariot wall and stared intently. “I also know of your other abilities and I am fascinated. I will know more.”
Vayan straightened and gestured. “You may sit at the rear.”
Dravid made his way to the back of the chariot and sat. He had barely pulled his leg up from the ground when Vayan snapped at the beast and the chariot lurched into movement again.
Only then did Dravid notice the chariot itself appeared to be entirely fashioned from the golden magic wielded by the gods. Dravid himself could channel the same magic, except he could only create small items, and then only for a short period of time. The power to create something like this—with moving parts!—staggered him.
He almost fell the first time the chariot struck an uneven spot. He had nothing to hold on to. This would not end well, unless…
Dravid held his staff at chest level against the two side walls of the chariot. He concentrated and reached out. A familiar heat rose within his chest. He pulled at the chariot wall and was delighted when he managed to reshape a small piece of it. He wrapped it around the staff, then repeated the process on the other side. Now he had something to keep him in place.
Not a moment too soon. The road grew rough. Dravid held on to his staff. And Vayan laughed.
Dravid didn’t know what to make of this strange god. He drove his chariot like a maniac, swerving here and there. Sometimes Dravid thought he deliberately selected the roughest terrain. Since the chariot moved faster than the rest of the army, Vayan would take it out far ahead of the main column, then spin around and shoot all the way back to the rear.
Throughout all this, Dravid could only hang on, wondering. What would happen when they finally stopped for the night? What did Vayan want from him? Most important, Dravid considered his debt to Calu paid. He had said Dravid would serve him until death… “or until I grow tired of you.” Isn’t that exactly what had happened?
“Tell me of Kuktarma!” Vayan called over his shoulder.
Dravid turned to look at him, though it made for an awkward position. “What do you want to know?”
Vayan shrugged. “The royal family. What are they like?”
Now there was a subject Dravid could talk about. No one knew the stories of Lord Meluhha’s sons more than Dravid. But where to start?
“Lord Meluhha rules over Kuktarma. He has seven sons and one daughter. The eldest son became engaged to the daughter of Lord Sundinka of Mandiata. However, things did not go quite as planned. What happened was…”
Over the next two hours, Dravid told story after story. Vayan listened to them all, voicing a question only now and then. During a break, while Dravid tried to decide which story to tell next, he noticed Vayan had let the chariot slow. He took a deep breath, but before he could say anything else, Vayan spoke up.
“When we return to power, I believe I will have this seventh son exiled.”
Dravid blinked. Exiled? “I, I don’t understand.”
“He irks me. He saves people from the consequences of their actions far too often.”
“Isn’t that a good thing? Sometimes?”
“Pain is necessary. Until I take it away.”
“Take it away?”
Vayan waved dismissively and gave the reins a snap. The chariot sped up again. “I don’t like him.”
“Uh, these stories are not… they’re not all completely accurate, you know.” Dravid hated to admit it, but circumstances demanded the truth. “Many of them actually happened to previous royal families. They’re… adapted to the current Lord and his family. It’s how we do things in Kuktarma.”
“I am aware,” Vayan said. “It was done that way before your people came to this place also.”
“The seventh son’s character is still revealed by his position in the stories. Were he not the kind of person so described, the stories would not continue.”
Dravid didn’t know how to answer.
The chariot moved ahead of the main column again. Vayan let it go a little further before turning around. Once they started back toward the rear, he spoke again.
“Your people have not forgotten how to tell stories. That is well. But they do not know the right stories any more. That will have to change.”
“What are the right stories?”
“Stories that honor your gods and direct you to them for what you need.” Vayan lifted his hand in a wave to another god who responded with a brief wave of his own. Dravid watched as they passed. The other god, imposing in size even among the others like him, sat atop the largest of the creatures known as tunaldi. Dravid couldn’t see as clear as he’d like under the starlight, but the god’s clothing seemed similar to his own people’s.
“Who was that?” he asked Vayan.
Vayan shook his head. “You have even forgotten him? How far you have fallen.” He glanced over his shoulder down at Dravid. “That was Murdak, greatest of your gods. He leads this journey.”
“Where are we going?”
“I understand you have seen power in your world, and you have seen a taste of our power from Calu, no doubt,” Vayan said, ignoring his question. “But all of that pales next to the power of Murdak. Though you remember him not, that much you should know first and foremost.”
Dravid watched Murdak and his steed grow smaller as the chariot raced away. On one hand, knowing the leader of this group would be important if they were to be defeated. On the other, he couldn’t help but wonder about the power Vayan described. Did Murdak’s power rival that of the Lords of Antises? Or Marshal?