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A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
Cover art by Larry Elmore
First printing, September 1997
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Typeset by Windhaven Press, Auburn, NH
Printed in the United States of AmericaTo my daughter ElizabethPART I: The ThreadsChapter 1As a young warrior, Nukurren had heard the demons come. She still remembered the enormous sound that ripped through the sky above Shakutulubac, capital of the Ansha Prevalate. She herself had seen nothing. The sound had awakened her from an exhausted sleep, and by the time she raced out of the barracks there was nothing to be seen but a huge red splotch on the eastern horizon. The strange mark on the sky was terrifying. The Mother-of-Pearl was always a featureless gray. What could turn it red with fear?Others in the Warrior's Square claimed to have seen the Great Kraken itself racing east toward the ocean, spewing molten ink across the sky. So great had been its terror! They had pointed, with quivering palps, to the red blotch.The capital had been gripped with fear. The Paramount Mother had summoned all her priests to the Divine Shell. For days the soothsayers had rolled snails, consulting the whorl patterns and the subtleties of the shellpile. Nukurren had watched them, surreptitiously, from her position guarding the entrance to the Chamber of Mothers. In the end, after much quarreling, the soothsayers announced that the great sound had been a cry of anger from Ypu. The Clam-That-Is-The-World was warning the Anshac to forego sin and corruption. They concluded by calling for eight eightdays of fasting. And, inevitably, for increasing the tithes to the temples.Looking back on it many eightyweeks later, Nukurren thought it was from that time that she first began to develop her contempt for the priests. She did not particularly question their conclusions. But after watching them from the rare vantage-point of a Motherguard, she had decided their motivations were far from holy. In truth, a venal and avaricious lot. As she walked alongside the caravan, she remembered that day long past.I haven't thought of that in years, she mused. Why now? It must be all these rumors of demons. Then, with a mental grimace: Or maybe it's that the rapacity of these slavers brings those priests back to mind.For a moment, she pondered the question. For a number of eightweeks now, vague rumors had drifted across the meat of the Clam, telling of new demons. Not witches, which were feared but understood, but something else. The stories were vague in all details. But most of them placed the demons in the vicinity of the Chiton.Which is probably why the caravan master is so edgy, she thought. Not that Kjakukun doesn't have enough reason to be fearful, entering Kiktu territory in search of hunnakaku slaves.Nukurren looked to the north. The Chiton loomed on the horizon, dominating the landscape like a behemoth. It was not tall so much as it was massive. Great canyons carved the slopes. Its shape had given the great mountain its name.She whistled derisively. Half of the world's legends belong to the Chiton. These "demons" are just the latest.Although, the night before, Dhowifa hadn't shared her contempt for the stories."It's a fact that folk who've gone to the mountain haven't come back," he pointed out. "For many eightweeks, now.""It's a big mountain," countered Nukurren. "Huge. Enough danger in that to kill off any number of small parties."But Dhowifa had not been convinced."And what about this last party? That wasn't a small group of Pilgrims, who just vanished. It was a whole slave caravan. They were found dead at the foot of the Chiton. At the foot, Nukurren, not in the mountain itself. The slaves were gone without a trace. And the slavers and the guards were all dead. Great, horrible wounds they had. So people say. Strange, deep wounds—as if they'd been attacked by some kind of giant uglandine.""Uglandine?" Nukurren had whistled derision. "You'd have to be asleep to be caught by a uglandine! Or crippled."She stopped and surveyed the caravan.Not that asleep or crippled doesn't describe this caravan pretty well, she thought contemptuously.The caravan had stopped for the day, at midafternoon. The yurts had been erected in the middle of the trail, for no one had any desire to sleep amidst the akafa reeds which grew lushly on either side. Akafa was altogether noisome—smelly, and full of slugs.Kjakukun herself had not wanted to stop before nightfall brought cover from sharp Kiktu eyes. But the helots who hauled the slave cages were exhausted. Not surprisingly—Kjakukun had driven them mercilessly for days. The caravan master had attempted to convince the slavers and the guards to haul the cages, but of course they had refused. It was beneath their status, and they had seen no Kiktu. They were convinced there were none in the area. It was Kiktu territory, true. But everyone knew that the Kiktu were far to the west, organizing themselves and their tribal allies to meet the Utuku menace.Nukurren did not share their complacency. The Kiktu might be preoccupied, but she knew them well. The tribespeople guarded their territory closely, especially in the vicinity of the Chiton. The area around the mountain had become a refuge for the hunnakaku, whom the Kiktu revered. Slavers would not normally even think of coming here. The Kiktu were ferocious warriors, and they bore a total hatred for slavers.Still, they were almost out of Kiktu lands. The expedition had been a great success—four slaves captured, when most expeditions nowadays considered a single hunnakaku worth the effort. Hunnakaku slaves were much in demand in the great prevalates of the south. Most labor was done by helots, or gukuy slaves, but it was still a mark of prestige to possess a hunnakaku. The most powerful rulers even ate the flesh of the creatures, on occasion, claiming it to be the world's greatest delicacy.The world is full of evil, thought Nukurren. Evil without end. I think it must have always been so, despite what the stinking priests say. And I am certain it will never change.Gazing upon the caravan, she emitted a soft whistle of contempt. She wasn't sure what she found more offensive—the slovenliness of the guards, or the brutality of the slavers. She was a mercenary herself now, of course. Had been for many eightyweeks, ever since she and Dhowifa fled Shakutulubac. But she still had the training and the attitudes of an elite warrior, and she had nothing but scorn for the other mercenaries. She had made no pretense how she felt about them. They resented her deeply, but naturally they did nothing. Except—of this she had no doubt—whisper lurid and disgusting remarks to each other concerning Nukurren and Dhowifa.A loud hooting from further down the caravan line drew her attention. A half-eight of mercenaries were clustered about one of the cages, whistling with laughter. She moved toward them.As she drew near, she saw that one of the slavers was amusing herself by tormenting the hunnakaku in the cage with a blowpipe. The slaver was shooting practice darts at the mantle of the pitiful creature, who was cowering against the far side of the cage, hooting loudly, her mantle brown with misery. The four mercenaries apparently found the sight of the sub-gukuy's pathetic attempts to fend off the darts vastly amusing.The darts were not deadly, of course. The blunted tips could do no more than lightly score the thick mantle of the hunnakaku, and the slaver was being careful not to shoot at the easily-damaged eyes. But the darts were painful; and the hunnakaku were by nature timid and easily frightened.The gratuitous cruelty of the scene caused a sudden rage to swell within Nukurren. She shoved aside the mercenary before her. The mercenary began to protest angrily. Then, seeing who it was who had pushed her, she fell silent. Ochre uncertainty rippled along the mercenary's mantle, shadowed by pink undertones of anxiety.Nukurren ignored the mercenary altogether and advanced upon the slaver. Feeling her presence, the slaver left off her amusement and glanced back. Back, and up, for Nukurren was a huge gukuy. At the sight of the warrior looming above her, the green pleasure tones in the slaver's mantle were instantly replaced by the same pink-within-ochre."What do you want?" demanded the slaver. She eyed Nukurren's mantle, trying to determine the warrior's mood. But Nukurren had long since learned to maintain the gray of placid indifference, no matter what she was feeling within. Partly that was due to her training as an elite guard, and partly to the male secrets of emotional control she had learned over the years from Dhowifa. It was very difficult to master shoroku, as the Anshac called the art of maintaining a gray mantle. As a rule, shoroku was a skill found only among high-clan gukuy. But Nukurren had persevered in the study for years. She found some spiritual solace in the discipline. And, as a warrior, it had the practical virtue that there is perhaps nothing so intimidating as a gukuy whose emotions can't be determined."What do you want?" demanded the slaver, once again.Nukurren made the gesture of contemptuous dismissal."Go," she said. "Leave the hunnakaku be."The slaver slid back two paces on rigid peds. Pink was now predominant on her mantle, and flashes of red fear were beginning to appear. Without moving her eyes from the slaver, Nukurren could detect the same colors on the four mercenaries standing nearby.A surreptitious motion in the corner of her eye. Once of the mercenaries had touched her flail. Without looking at her, Nukurren said softly:"If that flail comes out of its harness, I'll strip the mantle off your body and feed your guts to the slugs."Casually, Nukurren drew her own flail. At the sight of it unharnessed, the mercenaries and the slaver fell back. Nukurren's flail was truly impressive. Twice the size of a normal warflail, it could only be wielded by a gukuy of her immense strength. And where most warflails were armed with flint or obsidian blades, hers gleamed with bronze. The weapon of an elite soldier. And the mercenaries were well aware that the warfork harnessed on the right side of her mantle was a twofork—the most difficult variety to master. The forks on their own mantles were mere sixforks, or even eightforks.For a moment, all was frozen. Then the tableau was interrupted by the arrival of Kjakukun."What in the name of the Clam is going on?" demanded the caravan master.Nukurren was silent. The slaver began loudly complaining of her conduct. The mercenaries said nothing, but began a slow withdrawal from the scene.After listening to the slaver, Kjakukun stared at Nukurren."So? What's your explanation?" The caravan master's mantle showed only the dim azure-gray of annoyance."Pointless torture offends me. And the hunnakaku are miserable enough.""What torture?" asked Kjakukun. The slaver's account of the events had not touched upon the darts. Nukurren gave a brief and dispassionate sketch of the scene when she arrived.The caravan master's mantle flashed blue. But the anger was directed at the slaver."Fukoren, I've warned you about this before!"The slaver cringed back on hunkered peds. Her mantle glowed scarlet."But—what's the harm?" she whined. "They're only hunnakaku—sub-gukuy!"Kjakukun's blue did not diminish. If anything, it darkened."They're merchandise. Not to be damaged unnecessarily. If they're frightened too much, they get sick, even die. But that's all beside the point! I gave you an order, and you disobeyed me!"The caravan master glared around. The four original mercenaries were now drawn far back into the small crowd of mercenaries and slavers who had gathered to watch the scene."This trip is dangerous enough," bellowed Kjakukun, "without indiscipline and sloppiness! We're still in Kiktu territory, you fools—and now there are these rumors of demons! I won't tolerate disobedience, do you understand?"The caravan master was now addressing herself to the assembled crowd. She paused a moment."I've heard you grumble at the wages I'm paying Nukurren. Three times what you garbage earn. I'm as tight with copper as any, but for this trip it was worth it. I'll show you why."The caravan master turned to Nukurren. Kjakakun's mantle flashed black. Implacable."Kill her," she said, waving a palp at the slaver.Until it was seen, it was hard to believe that a gukuy as huge as Nukurren could move so fast. Before the crowd could even whistle with fear, Nukurren drew her fork and slammed it into the slaver's mantle. Driven by Nukurren's great strength, the two razor-sharp bronze prongs were driven completely through the ganahide armor and the tough cartilage of the mantle. With a twist of her palps on the crossbar of the hook, Nukurren flipped the slaver onto her side. The slaver's two tentacles clutched at the hook in a hopeless attempt to pry it loose. The six arms clustered about her beak were knotted in pain.The killing stroke which followed struck the slaver like a lightning bolt. The blow drove the flail-blades deep into the unarmored soft tissue of the slaver's underbelly. With a great jerk, the slaver's bowels were ripped out and scattered about the ground in a spray of blood. Pieces of gut spattered the crowd. With another quick twist of her right tentacle Nukurren tossed the corpse of the slaver aside, freeing the prongs of her fork.She squatted down on her peds and began cleaning the fork and the flail with a sponge. Around her she could hear the crowd whistling loudly. It was not the death of the slaver which shocked them, she knew. They were as callous a group of gukuy as you could find anywhere on the Meat of the Clam. It was the manner of it—the incredible display of ferocity, speed and strength. Many warriors boasted of being able to deal the kutaku, the single death-blow, but it was rarely accomplished in actual fact."And her gray never wavered," Nukurren heard one mercenary whisper with awe. She found some consolation in that comment, to counteract the great wave of revulsion which flowed through her. Not a trace of her feelings showed in her mantle, but she had to fight not to vomit. She concentrated on cleaning her weapons, slowly and meticulously.I'm not even sickened by the killing, she thought wearily. The stinking slaver deserved it. No, it's the sickness of my whole life. I think Dhowifa's right. But I just can't find any comfort in his dukuna.By the time she finished cleaning her weapons, the crowd had disappeared. The body of the slaver was still lying to one side. The pool of blood surrounding it had soaked into the soil. Scavengers were already approaching the corpse. Within a day, the body would be a festering mass of corruption, filled with slugs, snails, worms and larvae.Typical slavers, thought Nukurren with disgust. Well, if they're not going to bother giving her the rites, I'm certainly not.She rose and began walking toward her yurt. A soft hoot from the cage stopped her. Turning back, Nukurren saw that the hunnakaku was now standing at the front of the cage, staring at her through the bars. The hunnakaku hooted again.Long ago, after their escape from Shakutulubac, Nukurren and Dhowifa had spent many eightweeks living with the Kiktu. Nukurren had gotten along well with the tribespeople, but Dhowifa's pampered existence in the Palace had not prepared him for the hardships of barbarian life. So when the old Paramount Mother died, and the fury of the hunt for her escaped consort died with her, Dhowifa had insisted on returning to civilization. Nukurren had not been unwilling, for though she liked the Kiktu, she found their religious beliefs bizarre. And their dietary fetishes and restrictions had been annoying.But while she was among them, Nukurren had been careful to observe the proprieties. She had even learned some of the strange language spoken by the hunnakaku. For the Kiktu believed that the sub-gukuy were sacred. They called the hunnakaku the Old Ones, and believed that they were the first people created by their goddess Uk when she rained life upon the Meat. They were favored still in her eyes, the Kiktu believed, and their language was difficult to understand because it was holy. All Kiktu learned to speak it—at least, as well as was possible for gukuy.So Nukurren listened. The hunnakaku hooted again. must not do
reeds snails beauty With difficulty, Nukurren translated. The speaking siphon of the hunnakaku, she knew, was fairly similar to that possessed by gukuy. But there were important differences. The hunnakaku lacked the flexible lips and the hard ridges which enabled gukuy to speak their complex languages. Instead, the hunnakaku produced a hoot which contained a single thought couched in various permutations. Dhowifa had once told her it reminded him of a verbal version of the ideograms which the prevalates in the far south used for writing.The central concept was "feed." She understood that immediately. There was both the positive and the negative imperative which was usually present in hunnakaku hoots. The negative was at the center—a reflection, she thought, of the timid nature of the sub-gukuy. "Not feed snails," then. The positive would surround the center, as an alternative course of action. "Must feed beauty. Do feed reeds."With sudden understanding, she stared at the body of the slaver."But why?" she demanded. "She was your tormentor."Another hoot. death not end
life not life Strangely, it made sense. The hunnakaku were plant-eaters. They viewed carnivores, including scavengers, with horror. The horror was not the product of personal fear. Because of their size, the hunnakaku had few natural enemies. (Except us, thought Nukurren.) It was due to their belief that all meat-eaters were parasites, who stole life without returning it back to what they called the "Coil of Beauty." To be eaten as meat was to be denied re-entry into the Coil, to be doomed to eternal non-existence.Or so, at least, the Kiktu had explained it to Nukurren. And it was certainly true that, within the limits available to their fundamentally carnivorous needs as gukuy, the Kiktu attempted to follow similar precepts. It was these attempts, of course, that produced the dietary rules and restrictions which Nukurren and Dhowifa had found so irksome.Nukurren's tentacles twitched with irritation."You can't expect me to bury her!"She whistled with derision at the idea, and began to march off.Another hoot: horror horror horror
horror horror horror She stopped, arrested by the tone of unmistakable anguish in the voice of the hunnakaku. After a moment, she made a decision and marched to the toolkeeper's yurt. The plaintive hoots of the hunnakaku followed her."Give me a hoe," she commanded. Without a word, the toolkeeper disappeared inside and returned a moment later with the tool. Her mantle, Nukurren noticed with bleak amusement, glowed bright pink with apprehension.Taking the hoe, Nukurren stalked back to the cage. She began digging a trench on one side of the trail, but as soon as she started the hooting began again. must not waste
wrong there reeds She whistled sharply with anger. The hunnakaku withdrew fearfully from the bars, cowering in the interior of the cage. Her mantle flushed brick red. Fear, allayed by determination. She continued to hoot the same plea."You're as bad as the Kiktu and their damned fetishes," said Nukurren. But she abandoned the trench she had begun and waded off into the field of akafa. There, even though the reeds made the work far more difficult, she dug a new trench. Finished, she went over and grabbed the slaver's body. She was tempted to use her fork to drag the body, but she knew it would upset the hunnakaku. For some reason, the thought of causing further pain to the gentle giant was repulsive. So, ignoring her disgust at the snails which were by now crawling all over the corpse, she picked up the body of the slaver in her two great tentacles and carried it over to the trench. She lowered the body down. It was short work to hoe the soil back in.When she was finished, she stared at the small mound in the reeds."You're still garbage," she said softly. "But for whatever it's worth, welcome to the Coil of Beauty. Personally, I hope you come back as a slug."She left the reeds and went back to the cage. For a long moment, she and the hunnakaku stared at each other. She saw a creature whose basic shape was similar to her own. Bigger, of course, despite the fact that Nukurren was huge for a gukuy. The hunnakaku's peds were very short and bulky relative to its body. She lacked true tentacles. Instead, she had eight arms instead of six. The arms were bigger than a gukuy's, and clumsy-looking—they ended in a simple bifurcation, instead of the delicate triad which made gukuy arms such marvelous instruments for precise manipulation. The beak which Nukurren could see within the hunnakaku's arm-cluster was blunt and ridged, suited for chewing tough plants. Not at all like Nukurren's sharp-edged gukuy beak.And what does she see? wondered Nukurren. A monster, I imagine.There was no way to tell. Another wave of world-weariness rolled over her.In truth, they are a better folk than we gukuy. But they are timid, despite their size and strength. And slow, and stupid. So we make them our slaves, when we do not butcher them outright. And now they are a dying race. The slavers catch fewer and fewer each year, and they won't breed in captivity. And if the Kiktu are destroyed by the Utuku, more slavers will come to this refuge. Kjakukun is just one of many.She turned away.And I am Kjakukun's flail. For three wires of copper an eightday.On her way back to her yurt, she took some satisfaction in the fearful glances sent her way by those she encountered. As she passed Kjakukun's yurt, the caravan master stepped from between the hides which served as an entryway."Why did you bury her?" she asked. She seemed genuinely puzzled."The hunnakaku asked me to."Orange astonishment rippled across Kjakakun's mantle."Why should you do its bidding? It's nothing but a slave—a sub-gukuy."Anger boiled over, and this time Nukurren made no effort to control her mantle. Blue blazed. Despite her own impressive self-control, the caravan master could not prevent a pink flush from entering her own mantle.And when Nukurren stepped suddenly near, the pink was replaced by scarlet terror."I work for you, slave-master," said Nukurren softly, "because I have to. I need the money, and—"She did not complete the thought. Nor, even though she could have, did the caravan master.Because only a filthy slaver would hire a pervert.Nukurren waited, wondering if the caravan master was bold enough to sneer the words. But Kjakukun was silent.Very wise, slave master. Very wise.The blue faded from Nukurren's mantle."I work for you, Kjakukun. But I am much closer to the Kiktu in how I see the Old Ones."The red faded from the caravan master."The Kiktu will kill you as quick as anyone!""True. Even quicker, for they would look upon me as a traitor."Nukurren turned away, then back."Do not ever ask me questions, slave-master. I am your bodyguard, no more.""I am your employer," protested Kjakukun.Nukurren allowed a tinge of contempt to yellow her mantle, as she walked toward her yurt. Dhowifa was in his usual place, perched on the cushions in a corner. After Nukurren entered, the two lovers stared at each other in silence."It's been a bad day," she said finally.Dhowifa's mantle rippled with the chromatic complexity of which only truemales are capable. Sadness. Sympathy. Empathy. And, the undertone beneath and the sharpest accents, green love."I know. I watched from here."After some silence, he spoke again."I have brought much misery into your life.""Much happiness, also."An intricate wave of pastel humor washed over him. "True. True. But still, I wish—""Wish what?" demanded Nurukken. "That we hadn't fallen in love?""No—never that! But—""The world is the way it is, Dhowifa. Why should you complain? Isn't that the heart of your dukuna?"Dhowifa's arms coiled in a manner suggesting respectful disagreement leavened by good feeling. Not for the first time, Nukurren was struck by the truemale's incredible delicacy of expression."Not exactly," he demurred. "The concept of dukuna has a more impersonal philosophical thrust. It's not really—""Enough!" barked Nukurren. But the good humor was obvious on her mantle. And, glowing ever brighter, the white of passion."You're insatiable," complained Dhowifa. But his own mantle rippled ivory, and there was no reluctance in the way the tiny truemale came toward her, his arms extended.As he climbed into her mantle cavity, his tentacles gripping her head firmly while he extended his arms deep inside, Nurukken whistled her pleasure at his touch.Yes, she thought, you have brought me anguish, Dhowifa. But I wouldn't give you up for anything. Joy of my life. My love, who had none.His arms found what they were seeking. Pleasure turned into ecstasy, and forgetfulness of all pain.