NeoExodus - The Shield of Ignorance: Chapter 2
I could go into the jungle alone, Riss thought, if I wanted to die. With every mosquito that found its way beneath her robes, it grew more tempting.
Awenasa had not been so bad. In the capital of the Reis Confederacy, every street she walked had been a wide boulevard, shaded by tall trees and cooled by canals that, as criers had eagerly informed her, were literally endless. Riss had wanted to inspect one of the enchanted fountains that spilled into the canals in an attempt to prove the criers wrong, half from national pride and half from academic curiosity.
She’d thought she didn’t have time, though, and only stopped in Awenasa to take her lunch. Twelve hours later, the pleasant sting of peppers had faded, replaced with pangs of hunger.
She didn’t want to eat in Miska, though.
It was not one of the Confederacy’s great cities. It only qualified as a city because it had walls to keep the jungle at bay. No cool, clear magical water here, just rain that sizzled on the rough stone streets and the sweat it failed to wash away.
Riss’s Sihr caste robes were not meant for wet heat. She would have broiled in them if her gold equipage had not included a charm for enduring the elements.
Unfortunately, it did not include charms against insects or smells.
Nor did it include a charm to convince one of the hunters who clustered near the Miska walls to act as her guide. Riss had prepared a spell that could do so, but she didn’t intend to use it. She would have to spend at least a week in her guide’s company; if he realized she’d used a magical compulsion on him, she didn’t expect to survive the trip.
The best intentions, she thought, can lead to hell.
As she fought the urge to slap at another mosquito, she wondered if she'd already arrived.
She approached another group of hunters. Crouched in the shadows of the city walls were two Enuka who could have passed for beasts of burden if they’d worn fewer weapons, four gray-skinned Caliban whom Riss hoped were at least semi-civilized Kalisans, and as many humans of the bronze-skinned, black-haired local type.
They were already muttering and laughing when she spotted them, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t directed at her. Riss wondered if they were sharing a joke at her expense. She strode into the middle of their semi-circle and repeated the words she’d spoken so many times. “I am looking for a guide.”
“I will pay well. Gold.”
One of the Enuka snarled something in an unintelligible language or accent and shambled off. The rest of the hunters hesitated. Riss thought she might have at least one, but then the most weathered of the humans gave a little shrug and followed. The rest went with him.
She watched them and tried not to scream.
A man’s voice at her side left her too startled to stay angry. “You look tired, lady.”
She turned, forcing herself to seem calm.
The speaker was human, rangy, with green-and-brown strips in his hair she assumed were dyed and tattoos covering every exposed part of his body, which was almost all of them. He had a spear slung at his back, a knife strapped to his leg, and a string of bone fetishes and feathers on his neck. His equipment radiated enough magic that Riss was sure she’d have sensed it without any spells or charms.
Riss noticed the fading aura around one of the bones, which she recognized from carvings as from a jaguar’s paw; she knew that however stealthy the man was naturally, he hadn’t crept up behind her by entirely natural means.
“What is it to you?” she asked.
“I am thinking,” he said, “you would like to stop looking for a guide.”
I would like, Riss thought, to leave this cesspit and never come back. Burning the moisture out of it is optional, but preferred.
What she would like didn't matter. No amount of discomfort or local intransigence would keep her from finding Hadassi.
“Perhaps,” she said.
“Then you are lucky,” he said. He flashed a golden smile. It might have been a display of wealth, but Riss could only wonder if who or whatever had knocked his original teeth out was available to serve her. More interesting were his eyes, dark but twinkling in the fading light. He had the look of a man with a secret he could hardly wait to tell.
“Fortune has been known to smile on me,” Riss said, “but you’re going to have to explain how it has done so.”
“Because the great Quelpa is at your service, lady,” he said.
Riss raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Are you his herald?”
He laughed. “The lady is bright as well as beautiful.”
“The lady is busy,” Riss said. “If you want to compliment me, you can follow while I look for someone who wants to help.”
“Apologies,” he said, not that he looked the least contrite. “It so happens that I am myself the great Quelpa. I will be your guide.”
“Where I come from,” she said, “an employer usually decides whether or not to hire someone.”
“The lady is not a fool, so I already know she will hire me.”
“In my studies of divination,” Riss said, “I have discovered an interesting fact.”
Quelpa’s grin didn’t fade at this apparent change of subject, but he cocked his head.
“Knowing the future inevitably changes it.” She gave him a thin smile and stepped past him.
He was laughing by the time her back was to him. Since his laughter didn't fade into the rain, she knew she hadn't chased him off. She put her smile away even though it threatened to turn genuine. Quelpa seemed capable, quick-witted, and equipped with expensive magic—exactly the kind of guide she wanted, provided she hired him on her terms.
She needed to know more before she did, even if it meant staying in Miska.
He didn’t try to get in front of her, even though his legs were long enough to. It seemed he understood the place she expected him to occupy. “The lady is a seeress?”
“I’ve been known to make predictions from time to time. Do you want your fortune told?” His equipment said he would see through parlor tricks, but equipment could be inherited—or stolen.
“I would settle for being paid a fortune,” he said.
“You have a very high opinion of your worth, ‘great’ Quelpa. Most people as confident as you are fools.”
“What makes you think I have a high opinion of myself?” It wasn’t that he was wrong, or that Riss took offense. Most were fools. The few who weren’t had earned their confidence. That Quelpa recognized Riss's confidence gave her hope his own was justified.
“Because the last one of you brought dozens with her. You came alone.”
She knew she shouldn’t have shown that he got to her, but she was a scholar, not a spy. “‘The last one?’”
“That is why you are here, is it not?” Quelpa remained at her back. Suddenly, his position felt more sinister than servile to Riss. “Chasing the same ghosts the other Dominion woman was?”
Riss whirled. She had to regain control over the conversation, but she couldn’t manage to master herself. “What do you know about Hadassi?”
“Her name, now.” Quelpa was still grinning. Before Riss could snap at him, he spread his palms and continued. “That her party disappeared into the jungle eight weeks ago with five of the best guides in Miska. That none of them returned.”
“Leaving the rest of the guides spooked,” Riss said. “Except for you?”
“I am braver than any dozen men,” Quelpa said.
He gave a little bow. “I am also cleverer than any dozen. I knew those guides. Any one of them might have made a mistake and died for it. No one is perfect, not even me. But all five? No. Whatever happened to them, it was not in the jungle.”
“You think Hadassi found what she was looking for?” Riss asked.
“Was she looking for something bad and dangerous? Because I know that must be the thing she found.”
Riss thought of Kynon Tehya’s warning. “Sometimes ignorance can be a shield,” he’d said. He’d believed the ruins she was looking for were left by the First Ones. If what little historical record remained of their rule held any truth at all, then “bad and dangerous” didn’t begin to describe it.
Riss said, “It’s possible.”
“Then when you reach it, the great Quelpa will wait outside.”
Riss didn’t bother to claim she wasn’t going to hire him.
Riss glanced over her shoulder. “You’re really staying here?”
Quelpa spread his hands. The motion was the only reason she could see him. Even when she knew where to look, his tattooed body disappeared into the jungle. Six days together and she wasn’t sure if his camouflage was natural or magical.
“The lady must have something to inspire her return.” His grin gleamed from the shadows.
Riss cracked a smile; a man who could swagger while he cowered deserved at least that much. Besides, she didn’t blame him, as he was probably the wiser of them.
“Then I’ll see you shortly,” Riss said.
“Something much to be hoped for.”
Certainly, she thought, since it meant he had not abandoned her.
Between Quelpa’s knowledge of the Wildlands of Bal and the map Riss had pieced together from Hadassi’s notes, they’d made good time through the jungle. The trip could as easily have taken months—or lifetimes. Riss had no illusions as to her chances of returning to civilization, or even Miska, without her guide.
Before she concerned herself with returning, though, she had to find Hadassi.
She turned back to the walls.
They were shorter than Miska’s, but cut from similar limestone and only a little more vine-choked. Riss had half-expected the whole city to be carved from obsidian, like the tablet she’d left in her study in Anidem.
Only the carvings, the same deep, straight, angular carvings, told her the city and the tablet were of the same origin.
That, and the fact Hadassi and her party had disappeared inside.
Riss picked through the underbrush to a gap in the walls. Mud of a different color from the surrounding terrain marked where adobe bricks must once have sat. Riss found no foot- or handprints. Either Hadassi hadn’t come in through this gap or the daily rains had washed away signs of her passing.
The wall surrounded a wide outer courtyard. It might once have held structures of wood or brick, but time and weather had wiped them away. Nothing remained to obstruct her view of the central structure, which looked—well, not quite like a pyramid. Unlike the step-pyramid temples and palaces Riss had seen in Awenasa, Miska, and countless books, the structure at the heart of this city was round. Four limestone terraces, of a height—if not a floorplan—similar to those she was used to, formed the lower layers. Atop those sat the obsidian she’d been looking for, a single too-tall terrace, like a great black beetle overlooking the city.
Riss shuddered. Something about the vista tugged at her mind, but she couldn’t figure out what. She glanced back at Quelpa again. He might not come inside, but she could at least get his opinion.
She could have if he were visible, anyway. He didn’t wave this time.
Had he left?
No. She had not been fool enough to pay him more than a retainer. To make the kind of coin he had to be accustomed to, he had to find her when she emerged from the city.
She couldn’t emerge if she didn’t enter first.
Riss slipped through the gap in the limestone wall. She dropped half a meter to a floor that had turned to dirt ages ago, and to mud with yesterday’s rain.
She realized what had bothered her when she first looked through the wall. The courtyard should have been distinguishable from the jungle only by the wall’s presence, but all she saw inside was bare dirt, ruined buildings, and patches of limestone and obsidian flooring. No growth, no life. “Bad and dangerous,” Quelpa had said. Riss hadn’t doubted it. Seeing the evidence firsthand shook her in ways speculation had not.
This wasn’t climbing over the skies of Anidem or chasing rumors in its streets. It wasn’t opening burial grounds claimed by families even more exalted than hers. It wasn’t even running into the jungles of the Reis Confederacy with only a glib-tongued guide for company, following in the footsteps of a mentor who had to be dead and gone by now.
Riss had always taken more chances than her colleagues were comfortable with. But for all that, she'd never chanced anything worse than death.
This was worse.
She felt her hand close on the limestone of the outer wall.
And then, she yanked it back.
This city was a scary place, a bad one and a dangerous one. Perhaps even, and Riss did not use the term lightly, an evil one.
But it wasn’t what was frightening her.
She straightened up and faced the empty courtyard. “I did not come this far,” she called out, “to turn back now.”
Quelpa’s voice came from directly behind her. “That is a shame. I did not want to kill you.”
Riss understood several things the instant she heard Quelpa’s voice.
If he was native to Miska, he’d left it long ago, because he’d picked her up in Anidem and followed her through two Nexus Gateways. He wasn’t a hunter, at least not of beasts, and he certainly wasn’t a guide. His mental powers had almost discouraged her from pressing on; they had kept the real guides from taking her custom.
And now he was going to kill her. She felt the impact of his spear on the shield she’d raised with the same breath she had used to call out her challenge. Even blocked, the blow sent her reeling to her knees. Her shield didn’t so much shatter as fade, dispelled or absorbed by whatever enchantments his spear held.
Riss rolled onto her back and flung her hands up, conjuring not a shield—that obviously wouldn’t work—but a wave of flames. If she’d landed on stone instead of soft dirt, it might have jarred her concentration too much, but as it was she managed to keep hold of the spell.
Quelpa ducked beneath the blast, hardly losing momentum. Riss hadn’t expected to hit him; she did it just to buy herself another breath, another spell.
Quelpa whipped his body upright, muscles gleaming in the evening sun, and spun his spear toward where Riss lay.
He pierced the illusionary duplicate she’d left there. It didn’t surprise her that his spear sucked away her invisibility as well, though she’d dared to hope it wouldn’t. She gasped out another spell, audibly this time since stealth had failed her, and lifted into the air a few meters from him.
He smiled sadly. “You should have gone back, lady.”
Under the circumstances, she couldn’t exactly disagree. “I suppose an explanation is too much to ask?”
“I trust you to understand,” Quelpa said.
Riss suspected she did, but she wasn’t about to devote time to thinking about it. “What is understanding worth at spearpoint?”
He shrugged. “You are the scholar, not I.”
Riss tried to thrust her hand forward in an arcane gesture. Her body refused to obey.
Quelpa tapped his temple.
If Riss could have nodded, she would have. She understood, all right. The power he wielded wasn’t magic, not as she practiced it. She could have shielded herself against his psionics if she’d prepared the proper defenses, but considering she’d had a telepath meddling with her mind for days at least, was it any surprise doing so hadn’t occurred to her?
Quelpa’s expression hardened, and he pulled back his spear.
Then obsidian swallowed him.
The black stone erupted from thin air. Before Quelpa could dodge, it snared his arms and legs. Before he could fix on its source, it covered his eyes and mouth. He must have been too surprised to scream.
The obsidian seemed to compress, wrapping itself around the telepath's rangy frame. In seconds, only the crackle of energy in the black stone indicated it was anything but a crude statue.
Released, Riss stumbled to the dirt. She looked up at the terraced structure at the heart of the city. As she’d expected, her rescuer was descending its steps.
Riss didn’t recognize the spell. It wasn’t the kind that mages broke out in casual contests. It didn’t matter.
She recognized the caster, though.
The afternoon sun at her back and the purple energy limning her outstretched hand cast weird shadows across her face. Her headscarf was missing, her skin was drawn tight over her high cheekbones—but she was unquestionably Hadassi Al’meram.