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YARIM PAAR, PROVINCE OF YARIM
In winter the dry red earth that had given Yarim its name was akin to desert sand. Granular specks of it hung heavy in the air of the decaying province, sweeping it like a vengeful wind demon, stinging with cold.
That blood-red clay-sand glistened in the first light of morning, sprinkled with a thin coating of crystalline frost. The frost painted the dilapidated stone buildings and neglected streets, dressing them for a moment in a shining finery that Yarim's capital had no doubt known long ago, an elegance that now existed only in memory, and for a few fleeting moments in the rosy haze of sunrise.
Achmed reined his horse to a stop at the crest of a rolling hill that led down into the crumbling city below him. He stared down into the valley as Rhapsody came to a halt beside him, musing. Looking down at Yarim from above gave him the opposite sensation to looking up at Canrif from the steppes at the edge of the Krevensfield Plain. While the Bolg were reclaiming the mountain, reaching skyward along with the peaks, Yarim sat broken, fetid, all but forgotten, at the bottom of this hill like dried mud left behind where a pond had been. Where once there had been greatness now there was not only decay, but diffidence, as if even the Earth were oblivious of the state of ruin that was Yarim. It seemed a pity.
Rhapsody dismounted first, walking to the edge of the hill's crest. "Pretty in the light of first sun," she said absently, staring off beyond the city's walls.
"Like the beauty of youth; it's fleeting," Achmed said, descending himself. "The mist will burn off momentarily, and the sparkle will be gone, leaving nothing but a vast carcass rotting in the sun. Then we'll see her for the aged hag she really is." He would be glad to see the glistening vapor go; mist such as this hung wet in the air, masking vibration. It might hide the signature of the ancient blood that surged in the veins of the F'dor's spawn hidden somewhere amid all that standing rubble.
An inexplicable shiver ran through him, and he turned to Rhapsody. "Did you feel that?"
She shook her head. "Nothing unusual. What was it?"
Achmed closed his eyes, waiting for the vibration to return. He felt nothing now but the calm, cold gusts of the wind. "A tingle on the surface of my skin," he said after a moment, when he could not reclaim the sensation.
"Perhaps you're feeling Manwyn," Rhapsody suggested. "Sometimes when a dragon is examining something with its senses, there's a chill of sorts; a presence. It's almost like a—a hum; it tickles."
Achmed shielded his eyes. "I had wondered what you could have possibly seen in Ashe," he said sourly, gazing down into the morning shadows as they began to stretch west of the city. "Now I know. Manwyn knows we're here, then." He gritted his teeth; they had hoped to avoid the notice of the mad Seer, the unpredictable dragonchild who wielded her Seren father's ancient power of vision and her dragon mother's control over the elements.
Rhapsody shook her head. "Manwyn knew we were coming before we got here. If someone asked her a week, or a day, or even a moment ago, she could have told him so. But now that we're here, it's the Present. Manwyn can see only the Future. I think the moment has passed. We're gone from her awareness."
"Let's hope you're right." Achmed glanced around, looking for a high rise of ground or other summit on which to stand. He spied a jutting outcropping of rock to the east. He set his pack on the ground, pulling forth a scrap of fabric that had once been soaked in the blood of the Rakshas, now dried to the same color as the earth in Yarim. "That's the place. Wait here."
Rhapsody nodded, and drew her cloak closer as she watched Achmed lope over to the small hilly rise. She had witnessed his Hunting ritual once before, and knew that he required absolute silence and stillness of movement to be able to discern a flickering heartbeat on the wind. She clucked softly to the horses, hoping to gentle them into a quiet contentment.
Achmed climbed to the top of the outcropping and stood with nothing but the wind surrounding him on all sides, staring down into the skeletal city. Somewhere amid its broken buildings a tainted soul was hiding, one of the nine children spawned of the ancient evil through a systematic campaign of rape and propagation. The blood in his own veins burned at the thought.
With a single, smooth motion he pulled away the veils that shielded his skin-web, the network of sensitive nerves and exposed veins that scored his neck and face, casting a final glance back at Rhapsody. She smiled but did not move otherwise. Achmed turned away.
He knew Rhapsody was aware that because of his Dhracian heritage he was predisposed to disposal, not rescue, of anything that contained the blood of F'dor. This undertaking, should it prove successful, would undoubtedly be the first time one of his race would hunt a creature spawned of the F'dor and not exterminate it immediately upon capture.
The natural detachment that the Dhracians felt when confronting the malignant filth had deserted him, leaving him shaking with hatred. It was all he could do to remain calm, to keep from allowing his racial proclivities to roar forth, launching him into a blood rage that would culminate in the efficient, traceless slaughter of this demon-child and all its misbegotten siblings. He swallowed and began to breathe shallowly, trying to keep focused on the greater outcome.
That ancient blood, which pulsed softly now in the distance like a trace of perfume across a crowded bazaar, could eventually help him find the F'dor itself.
Achmed closed his eyes and willed the landscape from his mind, emptying it of conscious thought, concentrating on the rhythm of his own pulse. As always, when this moment of the hunt came, he could almost smell the odor of candle wax in the monastery where he was raised, could hear his mentor speak again in his memory.
Child of Blood, Father Halphasion had intoned softly in his fricative voice. Brother to all men, akin to none. The Dhracian sage, dead more than a thousand years now.
The hunt required of him a tremendous sacrifice, both mental and spiritual. It was in the power of those words that he had been able to divert his kirai, the Seeking vibration inherent in all Dhracians, to hone onto the heartbeats of non-F'dor, his own unique gift. Brother to all men. He had been known only as the Brother most of his life, a deadly relative to his victims, whose pulses had briefly shared a rhythm with his.
Let your identity die, the Grandmother had instructed him; the ancient guardian and mentor so recently gone. It was more than his identity, however. At the moment when he subdued his own vibration, even that part of him which might be called a soul disappeared without a trace, replaced by the distant, thudding rhythm of his target.
He once wondered casually what would happen if instead of emerging the victorious stalker, he were to die while following his kirai. The place to which his identity went while in the throes of the hunt was undoubtedly the Void, the great emptiness of space, the opposite of Life. He suspected, when he allowed himself to think about it, that should luck turn against him and his victim instead overpower and kill him, everything that had been part of his identity would dissipate instantly, shattering in that empty space into tiny particles that would burn out forever like firesparks, robbing him of any existence in the Afterlife.
It was a risk he could abide.
All thought receded, replaced by a distant thudding that grew ever louder with each breath.
The pulse was at the same time alien and familiar to him. There was a hint of the old world, a hum that had beat in the veins of every soul born on Seren soil; the deep magic in the Island of Serendair had a unique ring to it, and it permeated the blood of those whose lives had been brought into existence there. But this was only the slightest trace in the rhythm that made up the rest of the heartbeat.
When he had first learned to listen to his skin, he had heard a roar of drums. Countless chaotic, cacophonous rhythms had thundered directly into him, threatened to overwhelm him, to drown him like the echoes of waves in a canyon. Here he heard barely a whisper.
Because the blood that pumped through the demon-spawn's heart was almost totally of this world, he could not discern its rhythm, could not track it. The blood of the new world swirled around the evanescent flutter from the old world like ocean waves, like a windstorm of dried leaves in the last vestiges of autumn; and occasionally he could taste some of its traits. He chased them with his breath, tasted the mix and dip of tones, looking for the deep shadow tone he was hunting.
There would be warmth in a pulse-wave that broke over him—that must be from the child's unknown mother—followed by the chill of ice; bequeathed by its father, the Rakshas, the artificial being that had sired all these cursed progeny of its demonic master. There was something feral in there as well, something with red eyes and a wild, brutal nature. Rhapsody had said the F'dor used the blood of wolves and other night creatures when it constructed the Rakshas. Perhaps that was it.
Still, each passing moment the ancient rhythm grew slightly louder, a bit clearer. Achmed opened his left hand and held it aloft, allowing the gusts of wind to dance over his palm.
Each intake of breath became slower, deeper, each exhalation measured. When the pattern of his breathing matched that of the distant beating heart, he turned his attention to his own heart, to the pressure it exerted on the vessels and pathways through which his blood flowed. He willed it to slow, lowering his pulse to a level barely able to sustain his life. He drove all stray thoughts from his mind, leaving it blank except for the color red. Everything else faded, leaving nothing but the vision of blood before his mind's eye.
Blood will be the means, the prophecy had said.
Child of Blood. Brother to all men, akin to none.
Achmed held absolutely still, remained utterly silent. He loosed the pulse of his own heart, willing it to match the distant heartbeat. Like trying to catch a flywheel in motion, he could only synchronize with one beat in every five, then every two, until each beat matched perfectly. He clung to the tiny burr of the ancient blood, followed it through distant veins, chased its flow, gathered its ebb until from that whisper of a handhold he crawled into his victim's rhythm. Their heartbeats locked.
And then, as the trail became clear, as his prey became unerringly linked to him, another tiny, discordant rhythm shattered the cadence. Achmed clutched his chest and staggered back as pain exploded like a volcano inside him.
Over his agonized groan he could hear Rhapsody gasp. His body rolled down the rocky outcropping, battering his limbs against the frozen rock ledge. Achmed struggled to find consciousness, catching intermittent glimpses of it from moment to moment, then fading into darkness between. The two heartbeats he had found wrestled inside his own; breath failed him. He clenched his teeth. The sky swam in blue circles, then went black.
He felt warmth surround him. The wind that tickled his nostrils was suddenly sweeter. Achmed opened his eyes to see Rhapsody's face swimming among the circles.
"Gods! What happened?" Her voice vibrated strangely.
Achmed gestured dizzily and curled into a tight ball, lying sideways on the ground. He took several deliberate, measured breaths, the cold wind stinging his burning chest. He noted absently that Rhapsody was still beside him, but had refrained from touching him. She's learning, he thought, strangely pleased.
With the grind of sand in his teeth and a painful growl, he forced himself into a crouch. They sat in silence on the windy hilltop above the crumbling city. When the sun was overhead and the shadows shifted, Achmed finally looked up. He exhaled deeply, then rose to a shaky stand, waving away the offer of her hand.
"What happened?" Her voice was calm.
Slowly he shook the sand from his clothes, retied his veils, staring down at Yarim below. The city had come to life of a sort while he had been coming back to himself, and now human and animal traffic shuffled through the unkempt streets, filling the distant air with sound.
"There's another one here," he said.
Achmed nodded slowly. "Another heartbeat. Another spawn of some sort."
Rhapsody went back to the horses and pulled open one of the saddlebags. She drew forth an oilcloth journal and brought it back to the rim of the hill.
"Rhonwyn said there was only one in Yarim," she said, rifling through the pages. "Here it is—one in Sorbold—the gladiator—two in the Hintervold, one in Yarim, one in the easternmost province of the Nonaligned States, one in Bethany, one in Navarne, one in Zafhiel, one in Tyrian, and the unborn baby, in the Lirin fields to the south of Tyrian. Are you certain the second heartbeat belongs to one of the children?"
"No, of course I'm not certain," Achmed spat crossly, shaking more grit from his hair and cloak. "And perhaps it's not another child. But somewhere near here is another pulse with the same taint to it, the same clouded blood."
Rhapsody pulled her cloak even closer. "Perhaps it's the F'dor itself."
Copyright © 2001 by Elizabeth Haydon