Chapter 5: Offering (draft)

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Niht spent the rest of the day with Avalyn. She had a story for everything.

Later that night, he snuck back into the communal room and slipped into his bed.

*Iarann asked where you were.* Airoh said in his mind.

*What did you tell him*

*That you needed some time to yourself.*

The next morning, Niht woke up early and picked one of the crystal basins from the shelf of oracles. He lit and candle and watched the patterns of light in the water while practicing his meditations.

When he woke up, Iarann joined him in the center of the room. “Where have you been hiding?”

“From myself.” Niht chuckled. “I just needed some time to get out of my own head.”

“That’s what I am here for.” Iarann said.

“And you shouldn’t hide from me either.” Amhran said. “Our fate’s are intwined whether you believe it or not.”

“What matters is that you do.” Niht nodded apologetically.

“So,” Iarann said, “You can scry?”

“Not yet, but I am learning.”

The three of them joined hands and did their morning meditations. Iarann pulled out a pack of cards he’d become partial to, and he and Niht tried to read Amhran. Since she had premonitions, she didn’t have much to practice other than the meditations.

This became a regular morning ritual for them.

Iarann was first to make a prediction that didn’t sound like a coincidence, when he pronounced the number, species, and genders of the next group of pilgrims to visit as well as the day and time of their arrival.

Niht teased him that he found a copy of the ships manifest, but he knew that was unlikely. 

The three of them were virtually inseparable. Besides, he’d seen the vague shape of pilgrims in the basin, and while he was right about the count, that is all he knew.

The next morning, when he woke up, there was a bowl made of opalescent suudana wood next to him. Even though it was empty, light rippled in bright lines like the sun shone through water.

“What’s that?” Iarann asked.

Niht picked it up and noticed a small slip of paper that read, “This will help. Avalyn.”

“A gift.” Niht put the paper in his pocket and stared into the bowl.

“Who is Avalyn?” Iarann asked.

“A Phersu who is having visions about me.” Niht closed his eyes and sighed. “That’s not a good thing, is it?”

“It is what it is.” Amhran said. “If you are going to be a part of this order, you will have to get used to things like this.”

Niht nodded. Fate was the excuse we use to justify where we are. It was an odd attitude for someone in an order that served the goddesses of fate.

Running his fingers in the bottom of the oddly smooth bowl, vibrations permeated him as he strummed each luminous line. Something in the wood spoke to him, a distant echo of a lost life where he lived free and without fear.

He ran up the hills and leapt into the air. Airoh would catch him and carry him away.

*I miss those days.*

*Me too. Maybe this is what we needed to remind us of who we used to be.*

Airoh landed on the bed next to Niht and nuzzled into his side. *Don’t worry. We will get through this. With a Raewyn helping us, how can we not.*

Niht chuckled.

After morning meditation, Niht set the bowl before him and poured water into it.

A chill flickered through him. He lost his breath and body. The shimmering light on the surface of the water stole his vision. His eyes watered.

“What do you think you are doing here?” A deep voice said behind him. “You weren’t invited.” The speaker’s breath forced the hairs on Niht’s neck to stand on end. “Dearest Niht, I can call you Niht can’t I? You have made a bit of a mistake.”

“No, I haven’t.” He said, but didn’t hear his own voice. “Her hand guides me.”

The speaker laughed. “My sister guides no one. She moves her pieces on the board to positions most advantageous to her, but that is not the same thing.”

Sister? “Rath? Why are you here?”

“I got bored, and you looked like a fun time to toy with.”

Niht spun around.

Gnarled trees grew amid tufts of purple grass. A young sen man lay in their boughes dressed in black. “Poor child, lost in time and space, you have come to me to meet your end.”

“You are no god of death.” Niht said, noticing Airoh’s profound absence.

“True, but you are not a prophet, a saint, or a sage. You are a coward running from your own shadow.”

Disgust covered Niht’s face.

“You don’t have to be though. I can help you, if you were only to ask.”

“I may not be the brightest student here, but even I know whatever you’re offering comes at a cost.”

Rath clapped his hands slowly, and cocked his head to look mockingly at Niht. “Yes, yes, nothing is free, and you have yet to pay for your salvation from that army invading your home.” Rath laughed.

“You think the suffering of my people is funny?”

“Not at all. I think it is funny you thought they were invading. Only puerile fools invade other planets, the cost is too great and the reward too small. They were raiding you, foolish boy, taking what they wanted and leaving your leaders to learn from their mistakes.”

“How was I supposed to know that?”

“You weren’t. You panicked. That was the purpose of the exercise. Your people wouldn’t sell well on the galactic market, and your planet’s resources aren’t ample enough to justify the cost of occupation.”

“Why are you telling me this now?”

Rath shrugged. “Just thought you should know. It wouldn’t be so entertaining if you hadn’t committed your life to a path your are unsuited for.”

“So, you are saying that I am going to die?”

“If you want to, I mean, I can help you, but like you said, it wouldn’t be for free.”

“What could you possibly want from me?”

“From you?” Rath laughed so hard he rolled off the branch and onto the ground. He leaned against the silver gray trunk to steady himself. “No, no, I don’t want anything from you. I want you to do things for me.”

“Like what?”

“Cultivate yourself into a sword of truth. Let me whisper into your ear from time to time, and ensure that my order is maintained.”

“And what is your idea of order?”

Rath grinned. “Nothing too extreme, nothing that would embarrass you. You are familiar with the stories about me, aren’t you? I mean, I’m not Phara-un.”

Zosia’s words floated through Niht’s mind, “Never trust a vision, it always tells you what you want to hear.”

“Look, kid. I am bored, and looking for something to occupy my time. Let me make this easier for you. I promise to help you get out of here alive and all you have to do is listen to me and follow my advice.”

“I won’t hurt anyone.”

Rath laughed. “You are in the wrong universe kid. No, I will not make you hurt or kill anyone. I mean it. I want to play my sister’s little game and win it.”

Niht sighed. “It isn’t wise of me to get between family in circumstances like these.”

“It’s not cheating.” Rath walked toward him. “It is a game we play. I am not the only one picking a champion. Tiur, Aminth, Calu, Laran, and Nethuns have already chosen theirs. I picked you.”

Niht winced as the deity rested his hand on his shoulder. Not because it hurt, but because he feared contact.

“What do you say? Partners?”

“I have to think about it.”

“Sure, no rush, I wouldn’t want you to feel like I pressured you into anything. When you make your decision, call my name.”

Niht looked up from the bowl into Amhran’s eyes.
 “Did you see anything?” She asked.
 Niht rubbed his eyes. He did see something, but didn’t want to share the strange fantasy with her. It was something that belonged to him, besides, the likelihood that he actually saw one of the gods, let alone was called to serve one was too much for him to accept. Why would anyone else believe him?
 He paused for too long to say no, but he didn’t want to lie. “Something,” he said in as disinterested a tone as he could manage.
 “Tell us.” Iarann said.
 Against his better judgement, Niht told them the story about the god in the tree, the call to be a champion, and the game against the other gods.
 “That is why I was drawn to you.” Amhran smiled. “You are the key to our victory.”
 “I didn’t say yes.” Niht said.
 *And you didn’t say no.*
 Niht glared at Airoh. 
 “But you still can, right?” Amhran asked.
 “He said, all I had to do was call his name.”
 “You think we could meet him?”
 Why were they all taking this so well? The last thing he wanted to do was get caught up in the machinations of the gods. He read the stories, and it rarely ended well for the chosen ones.
 *Stop worrying about this so much.*
 *Why shouldn’t I worry? We got on that ship to escape the fighting, not to get involved in something like this.*
 *Imagine the look on your brothers’ faces when you tell them about this.*
 *Haven’t you been paying attention? No one can ever know about this. The Phersu are a secret order, that’s why they wear the masks. As far as they will ever know, I lived and died a coward.*
 *Then to hell with them. Hunt them down when you get your license.*
 *Airoh, I am not going to kill my brothers.*
 *Fine, then stop whinging about them then. I’m tired of it.*
 “Well, do you?” Iarann asked.
 Niht shook his head and came back to his senses. “I don’t know. I just don’t know. This was all a terrible mistake…”
 A black wing slapped Niht in the face.
 “I take it you two were having an argument.” Amhran said.
 Karom, Iarann’s ceeri landed on his shoulders and studied them closely.
 “I was being a bit of an idiot.” Niht said. “A spoiled, frightened idiot.”
 “Yes, you were.” Airoh hissed.
 Iarann laughed. “I recognize that wing buffet.”
 The station rocked.
 Explosions peeled in the distance.
 “We’re under attack!” Zosia ran into the common room. “Run, hide, survive!”
 The students screamed and scrambled to their feet.
 Airoh leapt onto  Niht’s shoulders while he picked up the Suudana wood bowl.
 Amhran bolted upright, and Karon hopped onto  Iarann’s back.
 “Where do we go?” Amhran shouted over the chaos.
 “Away from the clatter.” Iarann said with a calm confidence.
 The room emptied as students fled into the spiderweb of corridors that radiated out from the common area.
 Iarann grabbed Amhran’s and Niht’s hands and a pulled them behind him down a hall off to their right.
 Weapons fire rang out behind them.
 Niht’s heart pounded in his ears to the beat of the rapid blasts and explosions behind them. Had the Onori tracked him here? Did he doom the Phersu to death?
 Fate only justified the circumstances he found himself in. He neither called them, nor led them with a trail of clues to this station. If they were going to attack, there was nothing he could have done to stop them. That shuttle was coming here with or without him.

 Terrified screams echoed from the halls behind them.
 Iarann pulled them into a classroom and into a supply closet. He closed the door and braced a chair against it.
 “What are we going to do?” Amhran said.
 “The Ifreann Tan will save us.” Niht said, willing his entire being into the words.
 “If they aren’t outnumbered by the raiders.” Iarann said.
 “Don’t say that.” Amhran’s voice cracked.
 “We have to assume we are on our own, because the worse that can happen is that we are wrong and the Tan save us.” Iarann searched through the supplies.
 “What can we do?” Niht asked. “I don’t know how to fight, do either of you?”
 Amhran and Iarann turned and nodded to him before returning to their search.
 Of course they did. They were Phersu.
 Niht rolled his eyes. “Well, I don’t.”
 “But you can call on Rath to defend us.” Amhran said.
 This is why Rath was so confident Niht would invoke him. The bastard knew this was going to happen. It was a trap. He called on Rath or risked not only his life, but that of his friends. 
 Niht roared.
 Was it worth selling his soul to survive another day? What kind of life would he have if he tied it to the will of a capricious god who saw him as a pawn in a game with his siblings and not as a person in his own right.
 Voices rang out in the room beyond the door.
 The invaders were so close.
 Niht whispered as quietly as he could, “Rath, please help me. I am yours.”


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