"The way is not too narrow," Minerva's voice came floating back to me through the rock crevice. "Ahwadi has caught up to us and gone on ahead. He says the passage opens up further ahead, but that he cannot enter."
"Uh," I commented eloquently, starting to sweat. We'd just recovered from having some giant chicken-thing with a cat butt pounce on the woman of my dreams and try to eat her, only to find that we were trapped down in a ravine. No sooner had I pointed out a gap between rocks than she had squirmed off into it, into who knows what kind of danger. Don't get me wrong, protecting Minerva had been the most meaningful act of my entire life so far. But I wasn't sure how much good I'd be at it if I was stuck squirming through a little gap in the rocks. If I got stuck, then she wouldn't be able to get back out. If something attacked her, I wouldn't be able to get to it. Or take a swing. If I got stuck, she wouldn't be able to back out.
Did I mention that if I got stuck, she wouldn't be able to...?
"Master Osgun, are you coming?"
"Yeah," I answered feebly and made one last check of my equipment before entering. Coin pouch? A little nicked from the chicken-thing's claws, but still holding. No money missing. Chain? Wrapped around my waist again. Where it would do absolutely no good in that little tiny crevice. Bandages? Still secure, though they would probably get scraped off when I got stuck. We were relying on Ahwadi's scouting, and I didn't like that. I never knew my mother, but I'm pretty sure if I had, she'd-a told me not to trust a dead guy farther than you could throw him.
Reluctantly, I crawled forward and started to squeeze in between the rocks. The air through here was warmer than the stone; it looked sun-kissed to my eyes. No good for looking at small stuff like letters, my eyes, but not bad for seeing hot or cold. It was weird that other people couldn't. Speaking of seeing things that other people couldn't see...
"So, um, Ahwadi says there's a cave in there he can't go into?"
The rock on either side rubbed against my shoulders, but as the gap between boulders straightened out, I was treated to a view that should have been declared one of the wonders of the world. Minerva was having much less trouble fitting through here, and was on all fours looking back over her should at me. Wearing nothing but that close fitting shirt and a pair of man's breeches. Whoa.
"There you are, Master Osgun. Good of you to join me. That is correct. The cave chamber is apparently sufficiently large for us to stand upright and... what are you looking at?"
"Huh?" I snapped my mouth shut and locked my eyes to her face. Face. Face, face, face. "Uh, nothing."
She gave me a look of mild reproach and then turned around to continue on.
Keep the eyes on the feet. Feet, feet, feet... Staring at the bottom of her boots allowed my brain to start working again. "Why can't Ahwadi go into it?"
There was a heartbeat's worth of silence that I was learning meant my fluent friend didn't have the answer she wanted. "Some type of ward, most likely."
"Ward." I frowned, and not just because I had to angle my torso sideways to inch through a particularly tight squeeze. "Like magic?"
"I am not aware of another kind." Her tone was a bit short.
"Hey, kid, I'm new to all this, remember?"
"Well, I apologize if you think I'm leading you into unnecessary danger."
I paused to work on finding leverage to continue moving forward. My ribs were screaming where the chicken-thing had clawed me. It gave me some time to contemplate what was really going on with this conversation. "Do you think you're leading us into unnecessary danger?"
"Look, Master Osgun, my entire homeland is a place of peril, where the most common of fates is worse than any death you might experience back in the sheltered harbor of Bloodport. Magic wards are a common thing. Demons are a common thing. In the Heights, where I am headed, when you die, your soul does not move on but stays ensnared and enslaved to the Demon King, and if you did not serve him properly in life, your lot in death is a bleak one. If a small matter like a magic ward troubles you now, then perhaps once we find a way back to the trade road you should turn around and head home."
Hm. Was she worried I was going to run out on her? "Naw, why would I do that? Once you get this demon business straightened out, I was kinda hoping you'd show me around a little. You're the only person I know who doesn't make fun of me for askin dumb questions."
Her voice was subdued. "The pursuit of knowledge is never foolish."
"So. I'm not criticizing your plan askin why Ahwadi can't go into the cave. I'm just tryin to figure out what to expect. I can't keep you safe if I don't know what to hit with my chain."
"Maybe you should worry more about keeping yourself safe." She sounded positively glum.
"So I'll do both," I sighed. "Here, follow my logic, kid. A normal guy can look out for number one, right? And I'm twice as big as a normal guy. So that means I should be able to keep an eye out for twice as many people. That's me and you. Now that means Riordan is screwed, but there ain't a person alive who likes him anyway, so everything works out just fine."
My heart stopped as Minerva gave a little grunt, coinciding with her feet disappearing from in front of me. Then ahead of me in the passage, her face appeared, coral colored lips curved in a smile that did nothing to get my heartbeat back to normal. "You have a unique grasp of logic, Master Osgun; has anyone told you that before?"
"Uh," I said eloquently, brain locked up in a display of more intellectual brilliance. Fortunately, she had disappeared already. Blinking, I realized we were at the cave already. "Hey, uh, be careful out there."
When utter silence greeted my remark, I started to panic again and began wiggling myself free in earnest. I must have looked like the world's biggest, ugliest caterpillar. There wasn't enough room for me to get a leg forward and go feet first out the hole, so I ended up falling nearly on my face. I could touch the cave floor with my hands while my legs were still stuck in the passage, but I didn't want to waste a lot of time in a vulnerable position. I tumbled out and lurched onto my feet into the dimly lit chamber.
Light was coming in from gaps in the ceiling, where the monolithic slabs leaned imperfectly against each other. They shed a dim light, with hazy swirls of warmer and cooler air adding an ephemeral loveliness. Lovelier still was a brilliantly sun-warmed, man-sized corridor, leading out toward the surface. "All right! Hey, kid, let's go." I took a few steps that way, then paused. "Minerva?"
When I turned to look, she was staring at the walls. She was paralyzed! She was scared! She was sick! She was waiting for something I couldn't see to devour her! I unslung my chain, eyes darting about to see where the threat might be coming from. I think I kind of danced in place for a second, trying to see all around me to figure out what was wrong. "Can you move? What is it?"
"Master Osgun," she finally spoke in a low voice. "Do you... perchance have a writing quill and ink on your person?"
Sure, all the time. So I could write epic love ballads that I wouldn't be able to read... a light went on in my head like a lamp being given more wick. Taking a few steps forward, I tilted my head and squinted at the wall. Sure enough, I could make out the tell tale blurs of writing. I squinted harder. "Huh. It ain't words. Just pictures."
"They are a very old form of written language, Osgun," she murmured with the same hushed, almost reverential tones. "I believe what we are seeing here are ancient tales of the old gods, and this... this is a rite that has been lost to my people since the coming of the demon king." The look of regret on her face was tragic. "Are you certain you do not have a quill and ink?"
"I, ah, left em in my other pants, kid."
She knelt down in front of the wall and I was momentarily jealous that she could make sense of the squiggles from that distance. "I will simply have to memorize them."
I fidgeted with my chain, undecided if I should put it away or not. "Um, wouldn't it be easier to go back to the caravan and get some parchment and writing supplies?"
"No. If anyone were to catch wind of the existence of these writings, they would be destroyed. The demon king pays handsomely for such old writings to be broken away from the rock in which they are embedded and brought to him. Most of the old temples have been plundered. It has accelerated the rate at which my people have forgotten the old ways. All that is left is hearsay, fragments of lore whispered in fear to be exaggerated, distorted and diminished in each retelling."
"So, um, this is the real deal?"
"These tales would have been recorded by the priests, given to them by the god. They contain truths that I'm sure require reflection to understand."
"And the demon doesn't want these old stories getting out. Because the people might remember."
I looked around the room, trying not to be a pest. But obviously I wasn't getting something, because I really couldn't figure out how some old story was going to make much difference one way or the other. "Um, remember a god that you, for instance, haven't forgotten. I mean, you seem to have, like, recognized that the stories are about him. Or is that because you hear his dead priests yammering about him all the time?"
Minerva sighed and sat back on her heels to look at me. "Forgive me, Osgun, I don't believe I was very clear. People recall that there was a river god and that the people depended on him for sustenance. But beyond that, they know no specifics. The old stories are fragmented, difficult to reconcile with each other, contradictory even. This text here," she pointed, "tells how one god gave birth to many others. On the surface it seems very simple, but I believe this god was associated with earth and this god with the sky, so the tale is not merely a birth announcement or a decree of lineage, but in fact describes the creation of the world. There are doubtless more mysteries contained within the writings here, subtleties that a priest might infer through long study and divine inspiration from communing with the gods, that you or I would never notice with only a hasty perusal. Are you beginning to understand?"
"Huh," I grunted thoughtfully. I guess I had never given the matter of sacred scriptures any thought before. "Can't they just ask the god to tell em all that so they can write it down again somewhere new?"
"How would they know who they were asking?" Minerva pointed out. "Noksheoth has extended a great deal of influence and claims that the old gods are dead. To simply draw upon divine power, one would most likely be interacting with him. How might you find a diminished god?"
"Uh. I dunno."
Minerva stood up and moved a few yards to kneel in front of a different series of tiny pictures. "Listen: 'The maker of whatsoever is, who formed the company of the gods and who made man upon his potter's wheel. The maker of the stars. The creator of the gods, who was never born, and whom no man can understand or comprehend. King of the South and North, the Ram which stirreth up the passions of love, the Ram of rams whose gifts are brought forth by the earth after it hath been flooded by the river, the god who riseth in the heavens and the earth, who appeareth in the form of the river, who vivifieth the earth. The primeval watery abyss, and the river who riseth to give health to those who toil.' Does that not sound more specific?"
"Sounds a little repetitious."
"But the more of his names and titles one knows, the more of his rituals one performs, the greater the chances of attaining his divine notice."
This was all pretty confusing. "I thought he was dead."
"A god dies when his worshippers are all gone. By performing his rites and seeking his wisdom, one performs acts of worship."
All of the sudden I got a little uncomfortable. "You sayin... you're gonna bring a god back from the dead?"
"I am saying that these are the tools to do that."
"Forgive me for sayin this, kiddo, but can't anybody from the West let dead things just be dead?"
"I shall be happy to forgive you if you shall forgive my own observation that death is not as final as you Easterners choose to believe."
I groaned. "You tellin me when I die I ain't gonna escape all this bullshit?"
She looked over her shoulder at me. "I am saying that it would indeed be wise if you care about what type of 'bullshit' you experience when you die that you take precautions now. Death lasts much, much longer than life."
I am not stupid, looks notwithstanding, but this was completely beyond anything I'd ever thought about before. "So what kinda precautions can you take to make sure you don't hafta put up with crap when you die?"
"Osgun, please. We need to get back to the caravan before Riordan or the guards grow suspicious and come searching for us. I doubt we would be too difficult for a skilled tracker to find. Let me concentrate that I might remember as much of this as possible."
I paced around the chamber for a while, then took a peek out the passageway. Blue sky and rocks, though the angle of the boulders disguised the fact that there was an opening. You couldn't take a horse down that slope, but there were plenty of ledges and handholds for climbing. Minerva and I should be able to make our way back to the road, even injured. I headed back inside just in time to hear Minerva heave a deep sigh.
"What's wrong, kid?"
"This symbol." She pointed to a picture on the wall that was actually large enough for me to see.
"It's got four heads."
"Yes. Four heads of the ram, holding the lotus and the papyrus. But I don't know the significance of everything here. I fear I will forget important details."
She looked really upset. "'So' the drawn symbol is a powerful device, a very specific part of the rituals. 'So' there is a chance here to weaken the demon's hold upon my people. He is neither a kind nor a just ruler to the living. To die under his rule is to enter a realm where his rule is even more absolute. 'So' I am about to go back within the reach of his torments once more. 'So' if I wish so desperately that someone else would do this to spare me, how can I not do my best to try to assist those enslaved before me?"
"Easy, easy, easy, kid," I squatted down beside her and put my hands on her arms to try to stop her shaking. "I just meant you can only do what you can do, and there's no sense beatin yourself up over not being able to do more. That little picture thing is important, right?"
Minerva took a deep, shuddering breath, trying to hold back her tears. "Yes, Osgun."
"Good. I got an idea. Still got your dagger?"
Maybe half an uncomfortable hour later, we were making our way down the rocks toward the road. Underneath the chain mail and soft leather body purse strapped around my midriff, the bleeding had mostly stopped where I had convinced Minerva to carve the symbol into my skin.
"Osgun," she had looked at me gravely when I suggested it, "should anyone see this symbol, the penalty will be death."
"No worries, kid," I brushed her protests off. "There's a lot of things under my shirt people'd kill me for. Besides, it's a good thing, right?"
She had nodded solemnly at me. I flashed her a smile and said, "Good. I'm countin on it bringing me less bullshit in the afterlife."
"Either much less or much more," she had replied.
I wasn't sure I liked the sound of that.