Sha'an & Serum Excerpt
Prologue: The Deep Dark, Microsha
The endless Deep Dark had not scared Gasa in eons, not like this at any rate. Arbitors like herself were born in the darkness and lived their entire lives in it. Fear of such things faded as quickly as youth. She was not prepared for the feeling, was not equipped to deal with it. Even when one could not see, there were signs of life and ways to move through the earth if one knew how. When she finally caught a glimpse of light, Gasa moved with all haste. Her destination was close, and the warmth and light of the sha'an would bring some ease. The bony cluster of spikes that were her legs skittered wildly across sand-covered rock; faster than most other creatures but not fast enough for her taste. As she ran, cold air whistled against the sharp edges of her gnarled headpiece and her thick bone breastplate that protruded from her opalescent skin. The noise was a blessed relief. For days she had traveled without a sound or a light that she did not make herself. Emptiness, not darkness, frightened her. Was The Oracle truly so terrifying that nothing dared come this close?
It was said that Opri was one of the first Arbitors. Her gift was knowledge – past, present, and possible futures – which earned her the honorable title of Durai, a Lord among gods. But Opri was more than that, a level above those Arbitors who had names, titles, and ranks remembered by all; the kind of status that seemed mythical. Everything about her was steeped in reverent whispers. Opri, though titled and ranked, had no followers. She did not contact any other Arbitors. Rumors said that she was made of something strange even among their kind: earth, and stone that glowed brightly in the darkness. Gasa didn't know if she believed the myths, but Opri's abilities were true. They had to be.
As Gasa approached the sha'an, doubt seeped into her mind and she slowed to a stop. She could feel the warmth of the lake before her, the steam rising up to welcome her as home always did. Yet, this sha'an was unlike the others she had seen. The completely still water was brightly lit from a fine sheen of luminescent moss blanketing the bottom of the pit. The blues and greens illuminated in a kind of beacon that could be seen for miles, though no one else was around to see it.
Gasa shivered. There was still time to turn around, go back into the Deep and back to her master.
"It is beautiful, no?" a rich voice asked, though Gasa was not sure from where. If she thought it were possible, she would have said it was coming from inside her head.
The water splashed against the shoreline. Something had disturbed the surface. Walking along the crumbling beach was a set of deer's legs, the tops faded into the air. Gasa took a step backward. As the legs stepped closer, more of the Durai's body materialized. Opri's size was a thing to behold. She stood nearly a hundred feet, and her antlers added extra height. It was said that there were a thousand spikes on her head, and they had once sliced through a horde of Arbitors as if they were nothing more than vermin. Opri's body was dark, made of dirt and patches of flat stone that laid together like scattered, scaled armor. Throughout the cracks, blue moss hung and red-orange mushrooms grew, some so bright it looked as if she was on fire.
Gasa was not a small Arbitor by any means. In court, she was one of the largest and most powerful. Yet, she only stood three-quarters of Opri, and Gasa felt diminished and brittle in comparison.
"You stare," Opri spoke again, though she did not move her lips. "But you do not answer my question."
"Forgive me," Gasa said, lowering her eyes. "The sha'an is beautiful."
Opri carefully sat down on her rump and folded her legs beneath her. "So, what does Gasa the General have to ask of me?"
"You knew I was coming?" Gasa asked.
The Oracle nodded. "In a fashion. I knew about Eldrun's move for power, and I knew that there is a band of foolish academics that Eldrun wants for himself." She sighed. "I also knew that, for you, honor holds a higher place than loyalty."
Gasa glared. "You think I come to you for honor?"
"You come to me because you fear that you will have to sacrifice honor for your master."
Gasa pressed on. "Do you know what I will ask?"
"No, I do not."
She had hoped that The Oracle already had an answer. Asking the question felt like betrayal, and if Opri already knew then she could get an answer without having to taste the words.
Gasa proceeded, calculated, "What will happen if Eldrun wins this war against Dranul?"
"What could happen," Opri said. "There are some things that will, but some things that only might."
"Then start with the definitive ones," Gasa snapped. It earned a scoff from Opri. Gasa swallowed and lowered her eyes. "Apologies. I did not mean–"
"Often it is the things that we do not mean that betray our true feelings," she said, then let out a long, slow breath. Dust blew out of Opri's mouth and landed on the water's surface. Opri's brilliant blue eyes closed, and when she opened them they glowed white. Slowly, the Durai's body was turning the same color, spreading like ink moving up wet cloth. "Eldrun, the Great One, will win, of that I have no doubts. All roads before him are open and welcome. The Adi'i are feared and hated enough, and Dranul, the Dark One, is too weak to protect them. There are few who can withstand the Great One's wrath, just as it was the last time Eldrun and Dranul fought. This time is different."
"The Adi'i are coming into the Deep. Eldrun will take advantage of that and break his enemy's spirit."
"You mean Dranul," Gasa clarified. "Dranul is Eldrun's only real enemy."
White eyes turned to her, and Gasa felt like ice had been injected in her blood. "Dranul, the Dark One, has weakened. He will not win. He is blind to dangers in his current state and he makes poor decisions. Eldrun will destroy him, his sha'an, and all the Adi'i Dranul ever protected. Millions will perish. That place they now call Microsha will burn and melt, until there is nothing left for the surface to exploit. Eldrun will rule in the light, and only the loyal shall survive by his grace."
It was as Gasa feared, the recycling of history. Arbitors never learned, and the stronger the person the more eager they seemed to repeat their mistakes. Dranul's love for the humans, who called themselves Adi'i, was what caused the fight last time, and Eldrun's revenge had stewed in his mind for thousands of years. She doubted that the ignorant, new generations of the Adi'i would be prepared for Eldrun's wrath.
What to do?
Opri let out another breath, this time fire came out with the dust. "A star fell from the surface centuries ago. She will come to the Deep. She is the key piece."
"Why?" Gasa asked.
"Because she could destroy the world."
"Should I kill her?"
Opri laughed, showing sharp fangs that lined the inside of her mouth in endless rows. "Dranul would lose heart and wither. There would be no one to stand in the Great One's path, then. Kill her, and the world will be destroyed. "
"What should I do?"
"That is not a question you ask of Fate," Opri said, her eyes heavy. The Arbitor sank to the ground, resting her head near the water's edge. The white light receded quickly, returning Opri to her normal colors. "I tire. There are too many possible futures to see all outcomes."
Gasa turned away, angry. There was no good in possibilities; only certainties would make her decision right or wrong. Though she wanted to pace she stood still and waited for Opri to speak. When she didn't, Gasa swallowed and began, "Will you tell Eldrun I came here?"
"I have not spoken to any Durai in eons," Opri said. "Little Arbitors come seeking the future, and are always disappointed when I cannot deliver what they seek. Those like Eldrun and Dranul have learned this, and so do not come asking anymore."
"But if they do ask?"
Opri opened her eyes and looked up at Gasa. "No, little Arbitor, I will not say a word."
"Would he kill you if you lied?"
A smile dawned on The Oracle's face. "He knows better than to challenge me." Opri shut her eyes again and let out a sigh. "What will you do now that you know?"
"I don't know," Gasa whispered. "I'll have to find a way to approach Dranul."
"You would give him the advantage?"
Gasa wished that Opri was facing her straight on, give The General some indication of why she was asking. Instead, she saw an exhausted body and a peaceful expression that betrayed nothing. "You said that you see only possibilities. That means I can still change the future."
"You can try, little Arbitor."
Gasa turned and ran. There were too many miles between her and Microsha, and not enough time.