Thief of Souls Book Two In The Star Shards Chronicles
By Shusterman, Neal
Tor Fantasy Copyright © 2000 Shusterman, Neal
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780812570632
Part I Kingdom Gone Continues...
Four shackles. Chains pounded into granite by the blows of the blacksmith's hammer.
They wouldn't kill him--for they didn't think it possible--so instead, they left him to suffer in agony, stretched across the face of an unfeeling mountain, forever facing east.
The harsh Mediterranean sun would rise day after day, year after year over the island where he was chained, bronzing his ruined skin, and heating his blood until he felt it would boil through his veins. Then, at night, the mountain face would cool, draining the heat from his splayed body as the cold wind passed. The fire of day and the chill of night had taken every measure of his energy--but it had not taken his life. He was not an immortal being, as his imprisoners believed him to be. In fact, death would have been the easier choice--but instead he kept himself alive by the sheer force of his will, and year to year measured the passing time by the steady pounding of waves on the shore below.
Each day, in the hours of twilight, the birds would come. They would pick at him as if he were a corpse, and his only defense was his anguished wail. The chains made sure of that. No amount of struggling could tear his arms or legs free from the anchors that held him tight to the stone.
Then at night, when the birds left, hewould will himself to heal, refusing to die--refusing to reveal his own mortality to his captors, who still reveled in the palace far above.
With each sunrise his fury grew--but rather than letting it weaken him, he shaped his anger, and gave it focus. Then he would impel that anger deep into the heart of the mountain. He was a being of profound strength and spirit, and could accomplish such an incredible thing as feeding his anger to the mountain. He was far superior to the high-primates that infested the Earth--superior even to the twelve who dared call themselves gods. He had come to the Earth as a bringer of light. He had gathered The Twelve when they were nothing more than awkward human youths from distant, backward lands. He was the one who had shown The Twelve how to destroy the dark titans that had latched on to each of their bright souls. He had even offered them wisdom from beyond the bounds of this universe, and all he asked in return was that they kept his appetite sated. Yet in spite of all he had done for them, they chose to repay him by shackling him to the mountainside. If there was any goodness in him, it had been maimed by his years of suffering, leaving behind a sinewy scar of evil And he had learned to wear that scar well.
He knew there was a way out of this Hell they had created for him.
If he could survive long enough, his anger would provide him an escape.
Through thirty years of bondage, he forced his anger into the pit of the mountain, seeing in his mind the dense levels of strata that plugged the mouth of the silent volcano. He picked at that stone with his fury, creating tiny fractures in the volcanic rock....
...until the day he finally made it erupt.
After years of waiting, the eruption was sudden, quick and violent--the mountain shook with the force of a thousand earthquakes. Immense boulders sailed across the sea and toward the mainland with the force of the explosions.
Still his shackles held.
He heard a boulder pounding down the mountain above him, but couldn't crane his neck far enough to see it. It hurtled past, for a moment eclipsing the bright sun, before crashing into the Mediterranean below.
Then he felt himself move. It wasn't just the shaking of the mountain--it was something more. He felt himself begin to list forward. The force of the boulder smashing past had fractured the stone face of the mountain! The wall of rock behind him heaved, and fell forward.
The sky and Earth switched places, and switched again as he tumbled, still chained to the careening stone, certain it would take a wrong bounce and crush him--but instead the falling stone cartwheeled him down the side of the mountain and to the rocky shore, where the immense chunk of granite shattered into a thousand pieces against the jagged rocks that surrounded the entire island of Thera.
Waist-deep in the water, he pulled his hands and legs free from the pulverized stone. The heavy shackles still encircled his ankles and wrists, but now they anchored him to nothing but air.
Far, far above, the sky burned as lava spat forth from the bowels of the Earth, threatening the great summer palace high on the mountainside. It was a citadel of splendor, carved from the stone of the mountain itself even more extravagant than the palace on Olympus, where The Twelve wintered. He had taught them how to create such a glorious place--as he had taught them so many things. Now that he was free, it was time for the twelve star-shards on the mountain who called themselves gods to pay their debt to him in full.
He set his sights on the great palace, and hobbling on feet ruined from thirty years in shackles, he climbed toward the home of the so-called gods.
* * *
Human slaves and servants scattered wildly, paying him no heed as he hobbled across the grand marble courtyard, his chains dragging on the smooth stone. It was then that he caught sight of the beasts. They were all around. Strange miscreations that had no business on Earth. Something that was half man, half horse galloped clumsily down the palace steps. A winged lion with the talons of a falcon clawed at a wooden door, flapping its wings. The sight of these things inspired his rage to new heights. No doubt these creatures were forged by the hands of the blacksmith--whose talent for shaping flesh and bone must have progressed over the years. But the smith wasn't the only one whose powers had matured. In fact, all around the courtyard was evidence of The Twelve's supernatural abilities. Black scars in the stone spoke of their lightning tempers. Statuary that was human flesh turned to stone filled the grounds, their limbs and necks broken by the shaking of the mountain. A great golden mural attested to the shifting shape of the King--human to eagle, to tiger, and back again.
To see this place, one would think the so-called gods had been here for eons, instead of a mere thirty years. To glimpse their powers now, one would think they sprang full-grown from the heavens and seas. No doubt the ignorant masses of Earth were already spinning tales that implicated The Twelve in the very creation of the universe. And all because they were lucky enough to be born filled with the luminous soul of a shattered star. What would the masses think if they knew these gods they worshiped were born to the same race as themselves, only forty-five years before?
It had been an amusing-enough diversion to take these twelve, and set them above the rest of mankind--but a diversion was all it was supposed to be. He had not foreseen them turning on him as they had. Now, in the intervening years, their powers had grown unchecked, swelling wildly out of control. They were weeds, and like all weeds had to be torn out at the root.
An arch collapsed behind him as he crossed into the great hall. He barely flinched, for his mind was focused now. Time was short and the task immense. He could not be sidetracked.
He descended a narrow set of stairs toward the forge, as the shaking mountain settled to a slow rumble.
There, in the dungeonlike cavern of the forge, he found the blacksmith, cowering from the heaving force of the mountain. On the table lay the bronze form of a new creation: a hideous thing with snakes growing from its skull, like hair. It did not yet live, its metal not yet turned to flesh by the hand of the smith.
All around were living monstrosities in cages. Creatures clearly too vile to be set free on the island. The cages shook and rattled with the rumble of the erupting volcano. Seeing this place made it clear that this day of reckoning had been too long in coming.
"Hephaestus," he called out to the cowering blacksmith. The blacksmith stood, a full six foot five, but still as hideously ugly as he had been at fifteen...on the day Hephaestus had shackled his teacher to the mountain. All that talent in shaping flesh, yet the homely blacksmith did not have the power to change his own unattractive features.
"Prometheus!" wailed Hephaestus. It was a name The Twelve had given him. Forethought. Premeditation. As if he were the divine embodiment of some greater plan. He abided the name, as it served his purposes, although he much preferred to be called the Bringer, for he had brought them all into the glory which they now abused.
The Bringer looked with scorn on the snarling, caged teratisms. "Thirty years of practice, and these monsters are the best you can create? How can you call yourself a smith?"
Hephaestus quaked in his sandals, and spoke in a voice far too weak for such a large man. "They.... They are for the King's amusement."
The Bringer nodded. "After today the King no longer needs to be amused."
He strode forward, and Hephaestus quickly ran to the other side of the stone table. "We grew afraid of you," he tried to explain. "They made me build those shackles. They made me hammer you to the mountain. I couldn't go against their wishes..."
"You had nothing to fear then," the Bringer told Hephaestus. "But you do now." He held Hephaestus in his gaze as he moved around the table. "In these years I have come to realize that your species is not only corrupt, but pathetic. Unworthy of the slightest charity or sympathy."
"Let me live!" pleaded the homely blacksmith. "I'll do better! Kill the others if need be, but let me live!"
The Bringer thrust his hand forward, and grabbed the blacksmith by his tunic, pulling him closer. "Your selfishness disgusts me," he said. "But enough chatter. I'm hungry." And with that, the Bringer smiled, and, for the first time in many, many years, prepared to dine.
As he held Hephaestus, he forced an ounce of his true self up from the depths of the human body he wore. He opened his mouth, letting red tendrils of light stretch through the air, probing forward like roots seeking water.
Hephaestus gasped, but could not squirm out of his grip. The hungry tendrils latched on to the struggling blacksmith's face, and the fight drained out of him as the Bringer began his feast.
"No," the blacksmith screamed, but it was already too late. The Bringer cast him aside. Weakened, but still alive, Hephaestus felt his arms and chest. His body was unharmed, but something was different. Something was wrong.
"What have you done to me?" he demanded.
"I've taken from you what you never deserved," said the Bringer. "I've devoured your soul."
As he said it, the Bringer could see the weight of the loss beginning to take effect in the blacksmith. A living, thinking brain suddenly robbed of being. A body going through the motions of life, with nothing living inside. Unbearable emptiness.
The soulless blacksmith fell to his knees, covered his eyes, and wept the dry, anguished tears of the living dead.
* * *
Seeking out the others was a simple matter. He found most of them in their temples, still playing the parts of gods to the servants who had gathered there, seeking salvation from the erupting mountain. The "gods" must have sensed he was coming, for there was no surprise in their eyes--only fear. They knew of his hunger for souls. In fact, they had helped him gorge on the boatloads of virgins and eunuchs their loyal followers were so fond of sending from the mainland. They helped, that is, until they grew disgusted of the endeavor, and fixed him upon the mountainside. Now it was their souls that would be devoured, and they knew it. Some ran when they saw him coming, but he caught them as they fled. It was their fear of his hunger that gave him the upper hand. Even in his weakened state, the Bringer could latch on to their powerful souls and tear them loose as easily as a human might skin a rabbit. Others held their ground and fought him. Hera, Apollo...Yet with each soul he drank in, the stronger he became for the next confrontation. The self-proclaimed Goddess of Love did not resist him. Instead she wrapped herself around him, giving herself to him in one final moment of dark sensual ecstasy. Ares, on the other hand, proud and warlike as always, raised a sword and tried to cut him down, but in the end spat forth his soul into the Bringer's devouring tendrils just as Hephaestus had, and the Bringer set his empty shell free to wander the crumbling halls of the doomed palace. Only Athena, seeing there was no hope, had the wisdom to take her own life before he arrived.
Finally, only one remained.
The King sat alone in his grand throne room, like a captain going down with his vessel. He must have heard the screams of the others, but did not lift a finger to help them. Even now they could be heard wailing in the crumbling chambers below, their soulless bodies still mimicking life.
The Bringer had dined on the others and was now bloated with power. He had never before dined on such great souls, and felt as if he would burst out of the human host-body that held him. Still he kept all of that energy contained within as he approached the King. He knew that this was his true adversary. The King was the strongest of them all, and would not be as easily defeated.
The King's hair was white. Although he was no older than the others, he looked more weathered. Still his eyes were the same as they had been when he was fifteen. They held depth, and a hint of true greatness.
The King's manner was calm, but the Bringer could feel his fear.
"Get off my island," proclaimed the King.
The Bringer let loose a cold and bitter laugh. "It was not your island until I gave it to you, Zeus. You had nothing until I came to teach you of your powers."
Then the King stood, stepping down from his heavy throne. "We would have defeated our titans, and learned of our powers without you. We would have achieved greatness all alone."
The Bringer felt his lips curl from his own rage. "I see no greatness here. Only decadence and waste."
"And you intend to end it?"
The Bringer smiled cruelly. "With great pleasure."
Suddenly the King's form began to change. His particular talent was the shifting of form. It was a formidable skill--something the Bringer himself could not do...But the Bringer had a defense against it. He had had thirty years to plan for this confrontation--and for once he would fit the name they had given him, for the murder of the King was indeed a premeditated act. He only hoped the King had become so arrogant that he could be caught off guard.
In an instant, Zeus had transformed into a white tiger that pounced in a single bound across the great throne room. The Bringer felt the animal's hot breath, and then pain as its yellow teeth dug into his shoulder. He tried to reach out and devour the King's soul, but, as he suspected, Zeus was far too powerful and strong-willed to ever be devoured. So instead, he forced an image into the King's mind.
A vain, ridiculous bird. A useless creature whose colorful plumes hid its stupidity.
The thought entered the King's mind through an unguarded path, and instantly the magnificent tiger-king unwillingly transformed into the scrawny, flightless bird. It opened its mouth to roar, but could only squawk.
The moment the transformation was complete, the Bringer grabbed the bird-king by its long slender neck, and looked into its eyes. The eyes of the King, in the body of the peacock, no longer appeared wise. Just frightened.
"A fitting form for you, boy," the Bringer told the King, for he still thought of him as the boy he once knew. Then the Bringer smiled broadly, and with a flick of his wrist, snapped the King's neck.
He hurled the dying bird onto the throne, and the King reverted in midair, back into his white-haired self, before smashing down on the throne, neck broken. The light of his great soul left him as he released his last breath. Nothing remained of him but his broken body, slumping limply in the chair, his royal-blue robe now a shroud around him.
With the King dead, the Bringer focused his energy on the final deed to be done. He turned his thoughts to the center of the island, and spat forth all the energy he had collected from the devoured souls of the others, sending a shattering force to a single point beneath the island.
And something tore.
Although it could not yet be seen, the Bringer knew what he had done--he could see it in his mind's eye. He had created a tear in the fabric of the world beneath the island--a rip he stretched wider and wider with every last ounce of his strength, until the entire erupting island was poised above the hole like a stone about to fall through a sheet of cracking ice. The entire island rumbled with greater urgency, as it began to sink into the great abyss.
As the island dropped, the ocean began to spill back into the bay. The lush green lowlands were flooded first, swallowing man and beast. The many servants of The Twelve drowned as the sea washed over them.
There must be nothing left of them, thought the Bringer. No memory, no evidence. There must never be an artifact found, or a site unearthed. This place had to be cut out of the Universe forever.
With the palace collapsing around him, the Bringer dragged himself up the King's private stairs, to the high stable. He was bloody and crushed from his battle with the King, but he knew the rift he had created beneath the island left him little time.
He found the King's mount in the high stable; a white, winged horse, kicking and neighing in terror. The flying horse was another one of Hephaestus's creations to amuse the King. With no other way off the island, the Bringer climbed onto the back of the Pegasus, kicked it with his shackled feet, and the horse leapt off the ledge of the high stable, frothing at the mouth as it struggled toward the sky.
Down below, the size of the rift was clearer, and much more impressive. The island was sinking faster than the ocean could rush in to fill the void. It was as if a great sinkhole had opened in the ocean floor, and, as the entire island plunged through the hole, the Bringer caught a glimpse of the place he was sending it. Through the hole, he could see distant red sands far, far below. The hole had opened above a strange alien sky. A place of nothingness. An "unworld" that existed between the walls of worlds. This is where he had consigned The Twelve, their servants, and their miscreations. He watched from high above as the island plummeted out of this world.
Now all that remained of where the island had been was a circular waterfall, miles wide, pouring down through the hole in the world, and into the strange sky of another. The hole quickly healed itself until the waters met, becoming a whirlpool, and then the simple crashing of waves as the tear sealed itself closed. The ocean would rage for days from the cataclysm, and people on far shores would say that Poseidon was angry. But the truth was, Poseidon was gone, along with the King and the Queen, the Blacksmith and the Beauty, the God of War, the Goddess of Peace, and the rest of their accomplices. In spite of their vain pretensions, and their powers, they were not the gods they claimed to be. In spite of their luminous souls, they were hopelessly human after all.
It was now that the Bringer realized his own folly--for the Pegasus, however beautiful, was a useless beast, like so many of Hephaestus's creations. Although it had wings, its stallion's body was too heavy to stay aloft for more than a few minutes at a time. Time enough to amuse the King, and to generate a host of overblown tales among humans, perhaps, but not enough to reach the mainland. The Pegasus flapped futilely above the raging sea, already exhausted. A few moments more and it lost the battle. The beast and the Bringer plunged from the sky into the churning ocean.
The Bringer might have found the strength to swim, had he not used everything he had left to tear the island of Thera from the world. He might have floated on ocean currents if he didn't still have shackles on his ankles and wrists--heavy shackles that weighed him down like anchors.
The roar of the ocean became the muted churning of water as he sank beneath the waves, dropping toward the ocean floor.
The winged horse lost its battle as well, and drowned, its heavy mass sinking into the depths with him.
No survivors, thought the Bringer. Nothing left.
Perhaps there would be stories of this place, but nothing more. The legends would become twisted and confused, the tales divided and reformed age to age until not a single truth remained. The short reign of The Twelve would be remembered as curious invention from an ignorant time--excised from history and dropped into the boggy depths of myth.
He had finally destroyed them, and his satisfaction was so immense, that it almost didn't matter that he was sinking into colder, darker waters. The Bringer held his last breath of air until it was crushed from his lungs by the building pressure around him as he sank, and he felt the human body he wore begin to die. So he shed it.
Tearing free from the human host-body he had used, he struggled to create a rift in space through which he could escape back to the universe he came from...but such a feat would take more strength than he had left. As the body drifted away from him down into darkness, he fought a battle to hold on to life. He needed a new host--some sea creature large enough to hold his being--for he had no flesh of his own--not in an earthly sense--but survival in this world required a body to live in. It was inconvenient and impractical; just like everything else in this universe of matter.
He reached his mind out, but found no large sea creatures he could inhabit, and he knew he would die in this awful, awful world.
It was the fault of The Twelve. It was their fault and the fault of every human infesting this place. His sole consolation was that the twelve star-shards--the only ones ever born to the undeserving human race--had been squelched. And soon, he imagined, this entire race would no doubt destroy itself with its petty and selfish ways.
If it was in his power, he would do the job for them. He would draw out the soul from each human that ever lived, and cast their weak bodies to the red sands of the Unworld. He would blot out this world from creation, just to make sure no star-shards were ever born to humanity again.
He held on to his anger and his hatred of human kind as his life slipped away. As he died, his spirit dissolved into the ocean depths, and his thoughts were carried by the currents to the far corners of the Earth. Lost in the waters of death...for three thousand years.
Copyright 1999 by Neal Shusterman
Excerpted from Thief of Souls by Shusterman, Neal Copyright © 2000 by Shusterman, Neal. Excerpted by permission.
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