Chapter One
Bones for Songs

Tarry thy thoughts, Harry thy thoughts!
Ha ha ha ha!
Only a mad man notes his own laughter.
So they say, so They say, so they Say.
I do not believe them. Do you, foolish reader?
Who do I fool? Only fools who believe me mad will ever read this.
Better a Mad man than a Dunce man.
So prove your worth, oh, Worthy! 
Go! Laugh, laugh Out Loud!
And take note of it.

—Tomes of the Touched

Seventeen Days to the Eve of Snows

Robed figures huddled in an oasis of flickering brazier light as bones hit the cave floor with a clatter and bounce. Pips flipped until coming to rest, the dice totaling sixteen. Monks and priests hollered and groaned, their voices a discordant symphony echoing in the hollows of the cavern. Tokodin clenched his jaws, saving his curses for the next roll if it came in over seventeen.

Hawk and Snake, a game of over-under chance, and Tokodin’s weakness. He anguished over his coins falling into other people’s pockets, but relished the rushing breaths and churns of his gut. He leaned, knuckles grinding into the cavern floor as Meliu blew on the dice rattling between her slender fingers.

The two of them had grown up together in Istinjoln Monastery, but within months of pronouncing her vows of priesthood, she’d traveled to serve in the libraries of these Chanting Caverns. It’d been over a year since they last spoke, so for the past two weeks they’d much catching up to do, which included her taking a healthy chunk of his coins. “Not today, girl. Not today.”

Meliu swiped auburn curls from her eyes and blew him a kiss, winking before snapping her wrist.

Numbers tumbled, three white dice and one black, keys to a small fortune for a poor monk.

Too nervous to watch, he looked to Angin, the game’s overseer. The man stood a shave under seven feet tall and would ring the scales at fifteen bricks if anybody bothered to weigh him. Combined with a nose flattened between sagging, lopsided eyes courtesy of a horse’s hoof, Angin scared the wits out of any gambler who thought to cheat.

The dice clattered to a stop and Angin called out, “Seven days and two nights, for a total of nine. Pass the bones and ante up!”

Tokodin pumped his fist and shot Meliu a smirk. She curled her lips and stood to stretch. Five feet nothing and petite, she could make Tokodin’s eyes droop like a hungry puppy’s with a smile and a flutter of her lashes. No matter, the girl didn’t look twice at him with his fat round nose and squinty eyes, and scars marring his face. If he’d earned the priesthood, maybe she’d have taken notice, but failure had sent him on the monk’s path.

Angin shoved songs from the Hawk and Snake lines to the pot, and Tokodin eyed a couple glints of silver amid the copper. The bones were his now, and odds favored the roller.

He snatched the dice from the floor, tossed the ante of two songs into the pot and warmed the dice in his hand with a breath. If it weren’t sacrilegious he’d pray for all ones or sixes, an automatic win on any roll. He rapped his knuckles three times on the ground and slung the dice.

The three white dice yielded eleven and the painted black die a four.

Angin called out, “Eleven days and four nights, fifteen’s the target.”

Gamblers mumbled and coins jingled, but Tokodin focused on the beat of his heart. The rhythm spoke to him: Three snakes. He dug his fingers into his pouch to find coins scarce, but he put everything remaining on the three mark of the snake line.

“You’re due for some luck.” Meliu grinned and matched his bet on the third snake.

“Hope so.” If he had to share a win with anyone, Tokodin would prefer it be her or his closest friend.

He glanced at Loepus as the man contemplated his wager. As first-year postulants they’d shared a cell at Istinjoln Monastery, and despite Loepus making the priesthood they were best friends to this day, but damned if that blond bastard didn’t put his copper on the fourth snake, with a grin his way. Loepus counted on Tokodin’s luck to be good, but not good enough.

A win that stuck it to his chum would make the jingle of coins all the sweeter. Tokodin tapped his knuckles once and rolled. If he hit the target on any roll, he won. Instead of reading the dice, he waited for Angin’s call.

“Seven days and three nights, totaling ten, the game goes snake.”

Tokodin exhaled and slapped the ground before sweeping the bones into his hand. “Snake, snake, snake,” he muttered for the dice to hear. He struck his knuckles twice, and dice hit stone.

Angin called out, “Eight days and one night for a total of nine, two snakes and counting.”

Tokodin rocked on his knees, whispering to the dice. “Get me drunk, my little darlings.” With this swollen pot, even split, he’d be drinking the same ale as the priests, not the watery swill impoverished monks endured. He swore even the hangovers were better. His knuckles struck thrice, dice flicked from his fingers.

“Eight days and six nights totaling fourteen, three snakes and counting.”

Tokodin muttered under his breath, “Gods and hells, gods and hells.” A roll over fifteen and he’d fill his purse. He needed to piss. No, just nerves. “Gods and hells.” Four raps of the knuckles and he let fly.

He couldn’t look. 

Gamblers chortled, groaned, and cheered as Angin called, “Three days and two nights totaling five, four snakes and counting.” 

His spirit sank so deep his bladder went away, and Meliu buried her face in her hands with a groan. If the night die had been a one, the whole pot would jingle at his hip. He groped the dice, slow and depressed, glared at the pips. His darlings had become sons of bitches.

Loepus lay an arm on his shoulder, his eyes aglow with more mirth than Tokodin could stomach. “Three ones and a two, the night die taunts you.”

Tokodin smirked at his friend, the dice might still teach him a lesson. “You’re wrong, every damned one taunts me.” He kissed the dice, hope remained. “Fifteen or four of a kind, you worthless bones.” He cast the dice with a rattle and his forehead clunked the stone floor, pain enough to prove the dice hadn’t killed him outright.

“Fourteen days and six nights for a total of twenty! Four snakes is the winner!”

Tokodin glared as Loepus hooted and butted heads with Pindin, the other man with money on the fourth snake. Loepus was a good friend, but right now Tokodin loathed him. A priest’s stipend was four times a monk’s. He tried not to hate him for achieving the priesthood while Tokodin failed, but jealousy was a hard flea to shake. As Angin collected side bets and divvied the pot, Tokodin’s eyes slipped from the celebration and into the blackness of the cavern. Gruel and water for me.

Meliu stood and passed him, gracing him with a smile. “I’ll be back soon, you get ’em on the next round, you hear me?”

“Next round.” He didn’t have enough coins for an ante. He watched the sway of her hips as her form faded into the shadows outside their braziers.

Guntar, the bearer whom he served, slapped him on the back. “I hope your luck on the trail is better than your dice.” At least he feigned sincerity.

Tokodin rose to his feet with a groan of stiff muscles and agonizing loss, wandering from the halo of brazier light surrounding the dice game. More fires burned near a priest who stood watch at the Crack of Burdenis but the murky dark suited Tokodin’s mood. He stopped and looked up, but the cavern’s ceiling hid in deep shadow. The dark hollow appeared infinite, but like life, somewhere above, it, too, met an end. 

He had never seen this cavern lit by the troughs of oil carved in the walls, but folks told him pyrite streaked the ceiling, earning it the nickname The Fool’s Haul for those who thought it gold. Tokodin figured it was better to chase false gold than to throw away real copper. But he knew the moment a few songs jingled at his waist the optimism would return and he’d be back throwing the bones. Optimist or fool?

He grinned, deciding what he really needed was a stiff pour of whiskey to drive away the hurt those dice put on him. Tokodin huffed, adjusting his plain gray robes hanging limp from his shoulders. They wouldn’t serve him any drinks down here anyhow, songs or no. 

He meandered to the ring of braziers surrounding the Crack of Burdenis, a deep hole in the world. Named after the Patron God of Snows, the chasm hid the fifth shrine of Burdenis, younger brother of Sol, King of the Gods. A hundred strides long and twenty across at its widest, the Crack mirrored the ceiling: so deep you couldn’t see its end.

Gods and favored priests like Meliu were the only ones who knew what went on in the hidden caves below. There was only one way Tokodin and his dingy monk’s robes would earn a visit to the floor of the Crack.

“If I threw myself down this hole would I come up fifteen?”

Tikotu, Third Priest of Burdenis, was in his fifties and his gut suggested they feasted well at the Crack when there weren’t guests to feed. “With your spit-poor luck I’d say you’d come up dead by the third stair.”

Tokodin chuckled, throwing the priest a smirk. “Your holy compassion soothes me to the marrow.” His humor ended when he gazed at the steep, zigzagging stair carved in the wall of the chasm and nauseous waves passed through his head. He counted twenty torches set into the descent before darkness consumed their meager lights in its depths.

The old priest suffered a phlegmy cough and spat. “You didn’t even lose a poor man’s fortune. And if you had, who’s fault but your own?”

A poor comfort that a poor man’s fortune had been his own. “I had fifty songs, you should know, for walking escort.”

 “Gutted and bleeding out from a Colok’s claws, would you think it a fair wage?”

Tokodin squirmed, the sentiment was a lifetime from Guntar’s rousing recruitment speech. “Colok are stupid animals, nothing more.”

Tikotu guffawed, chins shaking. “Dumb beasts, sure. Who run in tribes, forge weapons and armor, and pray to false gods for power.”

Loepus called out. “Tokodin! You in the next round?”

He raised his pouch and gave it a silent shake before slumping to sit at the edge of the Crack, leaning his shoulder against the pulley-post, making sure not to jostle the bell dangling from its arm. He peered into the bucket hanging from the pulley’s rope, a method for transporting messages faster than the fifteen-hundred steps to the bottom, and found it empty. What the hells did he expect, a song to buy a pint? 

Tokodin rubbed his eyes and gazed into the black hole. A dim pulse of light shook his malaise, and a rumble echoed the lower caves. He glanced to see if anyone else heard and found Tikotu standing over his shoulder and the game of Hawk and Snake strolling his way.

His body took a chill, goosebumps pimpling his arms. He jumped to his feet and prayed for heat.

Loepus thumped his shoulder, breaking his prayer’s concentration; no warmth came and his goosebumps multiplied, the reason he’d failed the priesthood. The power of the gods required focus, even for a lord priest.

“What’d you see?” Loepus asked.

“A flash of light, deep enough to be bottom.”

Another flash, brighter, and followed by a rumble deeper and more powerful, shook the caves. The quivers beneath his feet reminded him of a rumored collapse in the Ihomjo mines, only a wick or two of a crow’s flight from where he stood right now. These caverns might have stood for millennia, but a jab of claustrophobia squeezed the beat of his heart.

Guntar edged through the press of milling adherents. “We should head down.”

Tense but composed, he had a way of appearing at the brink of fisticuffs on a happy day. Now his teeth ground, spoiling for a fight. 

Tikotu grumbled. “You go rushing down them steps and half of you’d be dead from the fall before you got there. We wait.”

Guntar’s jaw muscles flexed in clenching pulses near his ears, and Tokodin feared the man’s words. Guntar carried a temper, and as a bearer for Istinjoln, charged with delivering important messages, his status in the Church lay beyond his years.

Guntar’s diplomacy suggested the answer to who bore the weight of authority. “I bow to your wisdom, of course.”

A pulse of light and another rumble echoed from the deeps, interrupting the power play. In the bass of the echoing thunder, a subtle, higher-pitched shriek caught his ear. Could humans scream so loud? A chill prickled his skin, pervasive, unfading even in the ensuing silence. 

The chasm went black and silent. Monks and priests meandered from the Crack, muttering reassuring words as time passed. Tokodin could not. He stood pensive, staring, ears strained for any sound.

A quarter candle later the notion of screams hiding in the rumbles still haunted his ears. “What were they doing down there, Tikotu?”

The older man scrunched his face and rested his arms on his belly. “I haven’t the slightest pissin’ idea.” He chortled, his eyes nervous. “But don’t ever believe our betters don’t come up with damned fool notions.” The priest’s eyes scanned for listeners. “I did hear—”

The pulley bell clanged four times, echoing through the hall, and explosions followed. Flashes of white as intense as a thunderstorm crackled across the depths of the Crack and streams of fire lended hues of orange and yellow and blue. This time the screams were of men dying.

Tokodin’s fingers tingled in panic, chest pounding faster than the rhythm of the thunder below. “Twelve Hells.”

Tikotu hefted a lead brick, trembling fingers fumbling its weight until it dropped in the bucket, and it plummeted into the abyss. Adherents swarmed the edge of the Crack to gain a view as the rope whirred, but the pulley jerked to a sudden stop. The post strained as a fishing pole that’d caught a whale. The oak cracked then snapped, its tip and pulley spiraling into flashes of fire and lightning.

Guntar fumed. “We’re headin’ down.”

Tikotu clutched the bearer’s robes at the chest and shoved him backwards. “Down is dead! Gather your faith and prayers. Spread out. Anything that pokes its head from the Crack that ain’t a man, you burn it to the Forges.”

Guntar found his footing and stared hard at the big man, but he didn’t make a move. “You heard the Third Priest! Fan out and hold faith in Sol.”

A gong sounded in the cavern, deafening Tokodin to further commands; he knew the reverberations in his ear from training, and they straightened his spine with a tingle. The call to battle, to defend the Church with prayer, steel, and blood.

Tokodin rushed to snatch his staff amid others scrambling for weapons and gear. The nine hands of oak reinforced with iron caps stood a finger or two taller than him, and its heft in his hands lent small comfort. He trotted back to the Crack and edged close to Tikotu as the gong’s echo faded. “What the Twelve Hells is going on?”

The priest glanced for eavesdroppers. “Them dice may be the best part of your day.”

Tokodin stared, stymied. “Colok?” The beasts had slaughtered priests on hallowed ground before, but not a major shrine so well protected.

“No.” The man gnawed his lip. The old priest wanted to let slip the secret, but Tokodin never expected the man to break. “Shadows from the Stone, that’s what we call them.”

“Shadows? Stone? What the hells does that mean?”

The priest shook his head with a snarl followed by a panicky laugh. “You’ll regret finding that answer.” The priest pushed him back and faced the top of the stairs.

The Crack of Burdenis returned to darkness and remnants of thunder trailed into silence.

Guntar shoved past him, his shouts booming. “Focus. Prayer. The gods will listen and answer.”

Tokodin found Loepus and stood by his side. “Not liking this.”

His friend sported a nervous grin, and he cleared his throat after his voice cracked. “Well, we didn’t join an escort to meditate.”

They waited in the dim light of braziers and torches, the only sounds their breathing and shuffling feet. Too quiet, too long. The adrenaline of a game of dice couldn’t compare to the chilled blood in his veins as time drug on. Nothing was coming up those stairs, friend or foe. Eyes meandered from the Crack, looking to each other for answers or questions, perhaps reassurance or inspiration. But no one dared utter a word.

A soft sound came from the chasm with a stuttering cadence, and all eyes retrained. Waited. Gasping breaths and the slap of leather soles and hands on stone. A priest struggled from the stairs and collapsed to his knees, his chin sagging and rising from his chest with every desperate breath. His words were a fight for air as he raised a quivering arm with tubes clutched in his fist. “Diamond failed. Hells’re comin’.”

Tikotu grabbed two scrolls from the man’s shaking hand, opening the one unsealed. His eyes flicked across the page as Guntar stepped to kneel before him. The Third Priest exhaled a deep breath and handed the bearer the scroll sealed in a leather tube. “To Istinjoln with haste.” The big man leaned to the bearer’s ear, but his nerves made his whisper loud enough to hear. “No aid from Istinjoln, and every soul here is forfeit.”

Guntar took the tube and bowed his head, his voice determined. “On our lives, we swear it.” He leaped to his feet and raised an iron-clad staff over his head. “Ready escort!”

Tokodin trotted to the gaming braziers with a snort and snagged his dice from the floor before grabbing his pack. He tested the buckle strapping snowshoes, a shovel, and a hatchet to its side, and made certain his jerked deer and canteens lay buried beneath his fleece-lined trousers. The latter in case the weather took an unseasonable turn. Wool wax coated the soft-soled elk hide boots and wool robes he wore, to repel snow or rain, but extra gear never hurt in unpredictable mountain weather. He yanked the drawstring and pulled its straps over his shoulders, praying he wouldn’t need any of these things.

Priests and monks rushed into the cavern from several directions, answering the gong’s alarm, but the auburn locks he sought were nowhere in sight. He banged the butt of his staff on the floor in frustration and strode toward the bearer. He’d dreamed of important missions when he clasped arms with Guntar and pledged his life, but with the moment upon him, his stomach knotted.

“Leaving so soon?”

Lovely Meliu, such a relief to hear her voice.

He turned, caught by a hug. He smiled despite his terror. “Whoa, girl, no time for that. Well, all right.” He grabbed her hand and dragged her several feet into darkness before she pulled free and slugged him hard enough to sting.

“Naughty boy.”

The humor faded and his grin died as he looked into her eyes, wishing there were more light to see their soft beauty. How many monks and priests served this shrine? How many were friends? Everyone’s lives were in danger. Meliu’s life. “Shadows from the Stone?”

She shot him a cockeyed glance, her mouth opening and closing without a word before she planted her feet. “You shut up about those, you hear?”

“I hear you.” A dead subject, whatever those words meant. 

“No time for kisses, monk!” Guntar and the remaining escort stared, waiting on him. 

He ignored the bearer at his peril. “You’ll be safe?” Her prayers were those of a scholar, not a killer.

She fidgeted and giggled, forced a smile. “I’m damned good at hiding, if it comes to it. Next time you’re here, stay longer.” 

He wanted to kiss her, but a lack of courage turned him to stone. No need to prove himself a fool. “It’s come to it, wherever you think is safe, go now.” The smirk on her face hammered his confidence in her. “The diamond failed, and the hells are coming.” She blanched. Tokodin didn’t know what these words meant, but she sure the hells did.

She shrugged her shoulders and righted her habit before tromping up to and right past Guntar. “Shortcut. Follow me.”

Guntar bellowed, “You heard the priestess.”

Tokodin swiped his forehead and exhaled with a moment of relief, knowing she was with them for a stint. His eyes focused ahead but his ears listened to the caterwauling from behind.

The clamor of coming battle mangled shouts and screams into a cacophony, but a few rang distinct over the din. “Ignite the fires! Slings with oil!” The voice belonged to High Priestess Endelu if he wasn’t mistaken. Her reputation left no doubt to the power of her prayers, but the pitch to her shouts left no doubt of the edge her emotions walked.

The cavern narrowed as they traveled with hurried steps, and as the tunnel turned thunder bellowed and a breeze swept over the back of his head, warming his ears. He stopped, afraid to look back even as the bearer’s torches disappeared around the bend. Tokodin never had faith in the gods to answer his prayers, but he kissed two fingers and touched his forehead before he turned.

The cavern’s walls blazed in ribbons of fire, lightning crackled and sparked, and smoke roiled in billows, as robed priests formed a wall facing an unknown foe. Angin’s hulking form stood out from the rest, whirling a staff wreathed in flame. The holy held their ground against evil by the grace and with the power of the gods, and for a flicker he held hope. Then Angin froze, his arms splayed, his staff dropping from his hands and growing dark, his mass of flesh and bone lifted from the ground, stiff as a straw doll before slammed into the stone floor by an unseen force. Tokodin’s hope drained with the blood from his face, and he ran until catching the escort, panting, unable to bring words to his tongue.

Guntar asked, “What’d you see?”

Flames and sparks and smoke and death, but the words stumbled and tripped before reaching his tongue.

The bearer slapped him in the side of the head. “What’d you see?”

An oracle, poet, or minstrel might find words for the terror, but there was a deeper truth to utter: “We need to move faster.”

Background Art by Jon Gibbons

© 2018 L. James Rice