Gods of Smoke and Stars
Seeds of Chaos Book 3A: A Seeds of Chaos Adventure
My name is Eve Redding. You may have heard of me.
Since curing the Sickness, my team and I were in high demand. That’s why we were in a remote, smoke-filled desert attending a tournament-style Trial to honor the local goddess. Then, some idiot thief with an agenda beyond simple treasure decided to steal the Oracle’s third gift, a puzzle band that would grant prophetic visions when solved.
They gave it to the local goddess as an offering. If I wanted it back, I had to enter the blood games, and win.
I watched with interest as the craggy stone of the chasm walls sped past. The sun beat down through the distant cleft of the chasm, its blinding brightness throwing distinct shadows off the jagged stone and heating us even through the protection of the ship’s hull.
Small creatures turned to watch us from the shaded nooks and crannies they’d hidden themselves in, even their quick reflexes too slow to do more than take notice as we shot by. The floor of the canyon, channeling only the barest trickle of water, rose upward as the chasm widened. Through a trick of perspective, it looked like the rough walls rushed away from my perch at the portside viewing window into the distance, though in truth the canyon was simply widening and growing more shallow as we approached the mouth. Even as I had this thought, our little ship exited the canyon, flying out over a massive, dry seabed. I could not see far before everything became obscured by the haze of smoke in the air.
“We’re here,” I said, leaning closer to the window as we zoomed over a sprawling mass of tents and stalls. The only area not covered with people was the far side of the dry seabed, which I could barely make out. It seemed to be covered in growths and broken by a glass-shatter pattern of smaller chasms. The seabed ended abruptly where huge buttes broke free of the plain. Each butte was crowned with a splash of greenery, the only vegetation in sight.
Zed bounced over, shoving his face up against the window with a grin. “Finally! Is that the Trial arena? Wow, there are so many people. Are they all here to watch the tournament, too? Where’s the god?”
Kris came over to watch too, directing her new marionette, which was still a work in progress, to hold her tiny form up to the window so she could see out.
Adam frowned and rubbed his bloodshot eyes. “I just want to get off this damn ship. Why did we even agree to this visit in the first place?”
Gregor nodded emphatically, his arms crossed over his small chest. “I vote we don’t accept any more visits to places that don’t have Shortcuts. This was the most boring road trip I’ve ever been on.” Despite his words, he sidled subtly over to the window nearest himself and peeked out with poorly disguised interest.
I pressed the pads of my clawed fingers into the muscle at the base of my neck, trying to relieve some of the stiffness. I knew Adam and Gregor were just grumpy because it seemed the diplomatic missions we’d been on were never-ending. Estreyer had more levels and scattered pockets of civilization than I’d realized. Every sect of the Estreyan world wanted a visit from the godkiller and the members of the Seal of Nine, and Queen Mardinest pushed us to accept their requests as a show of goodwill. She hoped our fame would help offset some of the tension and animosity our collaboration with Earth had stirred up among her rivals, and more allies were always good.
Jacky rolled her eyes at the others, despite the fact that she too had grumbled her way through the entire trip, constantly asking how long it would be till we arrived and challenging everyone to arm wrestling matches. She’d grown so bored she’d taken to using Zed as a workout weight.
My brother had sat on her back while she did single-finger pushups, then pretended to be superman flying around while she lifted him with her feet and walked around on her hands.
Adam had grown so annoyed that he’d made a straight-jacket out of ink to confine Jacky.
I’d thought things might escalate at that point and had been ready to step in, but instead of growing angry, Jacky was delighted. This struggle turned into a game; Jacky’s strength was pitted against Adam’s restraints, and they were a surprisingly even match.
Sam sighed in relief and turned to me. “Uh, do you think we might be able to get a bigger ship next time? One with multiple rooms so we’re not cooped up together?”
“Definitely. I should have realized this ship was going to be a problem as soon as they brought it around.”
Adam grumbled something about how cheap royalty could be, but Torliam ignored him, sulking silently as he shot glares toward the cockpit.
Queen Mardinest had insisted, despite Torliam’s protests, that one of our guards pilot the craft instead of her son. Now he flew us across the pop-up city, doing a valiant job of ignoring Torliam’s jealousy.
The ship slowed once it reached the fancier tents, which lay at the north of the city on either side of the green-topped buttes. Our pilot opened the door on the side, and, after a couple moments to gather our things, my team and I jumped out onto the hard-packed dirt.
The scorching air swept stinging ash into my eyes, and I had to squint to look around. We were near one of the main streets, and plenty of people bustled about despite the heat of the day and the warmth of the very earth radiating into the air. It was like standing in a pot on the stove.
The people, dressed in loose, light-colored clothing that wrapped around their bodies to protect them from the sun, pointed and stared at us, quickly forming into a crowd and disturbing traffic.
Kris hunched her shoulders instinctively, clearly nervous to parade herself before these strangers, but then straightened and turned to the quickly gathering crowd. She gave them a small wave, a strained smile on her face.
They broke out into cheers, waving back at the tiny girl, and some of her embarrassment melted away.
Gregor pressed the back of his hand dramatically to his forehead. “This temperature is inhumane.” He squinted around, sighed, and slipped into his Shadow state.
The crowd loved that even more.
I wished I had a Skill that let me negate the heat and simultaneously avoid interacting with people. My scales lifted a little to let air flow closer to my skin. I didn’t bother to smile or wave to the crowd, merely dipped my chin to them in a perfunctory nod. Luckily, my public persona, especially on Estreyer, relied more on awe and having cured the Sickness than exuding any sense of amiability or approachability.
“Isn’t someone supposed to meet us here?”
As if summoned by my words, a wiry man with wrinkled, tanned skin bustled up to the ship, sidling his way through the crowd. His clothes were more brightly colored than most and were embroidered with complicated designs around the edges. He chattered non-stop while gesturing widely with his arms.
“Welcome! The people of Shaddah greet you, Godkiller. Thank you for blessing our humble land with your presence. I am sure it will bring good luck to those who fight for water. I am Fanir, one of the organizers of the night market and the Trial tournament. Come, we have prepared accommodations for you. You have arrived just in time. The first round of the tournament will begin tomorrow.” He waved for us to follow and scurried off down the packed-dirt road.
We followed through streets lined with vendors selling souvenirs and snacks. Occasionally, they even sold water, which commanded ridiculous prices. Sam frowned, tugging at the straps of his pack. “If water’s that scarce, how are you able to grow crops here? Do people hunt for all their food?”
Fanir laughed. “They are hocking their water at such high prices now because they know that in three days, when the Trial is completed and the water of the Well is released to our people, no one will be willing to buy it. It has been three years since the last Bestowal.”
Birch’s nose twitched as he scampered around, sniffing the air. His second eyelid was closed against the ash, giving his green, human-shaped irises a milky film. His ears perked up and he turned toward one of the stalls, where a man was roasting plump lizards on sticks. Birch ran over to him and stood on his hind legs, holding himself up with his front paws against the edge of the stall. He let out a whine, eyes trained on the lizard currently being cooked.
The vendor’s eyes widened and tracked from Birch over to me. The man grinned widely, bowed to me, and handed Birch the skewered lizard.
As Birch grabbed the snack and swaggered back to the group with a positively smug look on his face, Torliam sighed deeply, dug in the money pouch at his waist, and went to pay the vendor for the treat.
Jacky stole one of the lizard’s legs from Birch, shoving it in her mouth and running ahead to walk beside Fanir before the winged cat could retaliate. “Is there gonna be betting and stuff on the fights?” she asked past the hunk of meat in her mouth.
Adam pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes.
Fanir grinned and gave Jacky a shallow bow while walking. “Yes, Jacky of the Nine, I am pleased to say that we have plenty of wagering opportunities. The betting courts are directly outside the eastern border of the Trial arena. If you wish, I can have a guide come to bring your distinguished self to visit them.”
“My distinguished self?” Jacky grinned and slapped Fanir on the shoulder, almost slamming him forward onto the ground. “I like you!”
He gasped for air and clutched at his shoulder but smiled even brighter, seemingly unperturbed. “Perhaps you are also interested in greeting some of the dignitaries visiting from other lands? Or, perhaps you wish to display your strength as warriors. It is not too late to enter the tournament!”
Torliam frowned at the man. “We have not agreed to any other promotional activities. We were told only our presence was requested.”
Fanir flushed a little, though it could have been because of the heat. “Of course, of course. I was only making a suggestion for your own enjoyment. You have no obligations.”
We arrived at a large, multi-storied tent. Even though everything was made of fabric, the walls and floors were somehow stiff enough to support multiple levels, coming together to create a hotel of sorts. Despite my assumption that I would be able to hear everything going on within the tent, sound was thoroughly muffled as we passed from room to room. Estreyan technology never ceased to amaze me.
Fanir showed us each to a room, assigning the best rooms—the ones with balconies—to Torliam and I, on either end of the topmost level. Then, he left us to our own devices, promising to send a servant with food and come back for us when night fell.
I dug my toes into the carpet and looked out onto the open balcony and the somewhat haphazard sprawl of the streets and tents below. I shrugged off my backpack and dug in it for the Oracle’s third gift, still unsolved. Now that I had more time and wasn’t dealing with a crisis, I found it relaxing rather than frustrating to work on, though I was beginning to wonder if I would ever solve it. I settled on the shaded divan next to the balcony, letting the breeze cool me.
The door flap opened behind me, and I turned to see a red-headed woman with tan skin and freckles walk in, carrying a tray with a glass of cold water. “Hello, Eve-Redding,” she said with a slight smile.
I stood and grinned back, more for the cold water than out of any sense of politeness. “Hello. Thank you.”
She bowed politely as I took the water, but didn’t leave immediately. “I am here as your guide and attendant. Do you have any plans for entertainment or desires I can help facilitate? The blood games do not happen frequently, so you will wish to take full advantage of this opportunity to experience our culture and entertainment.”
I drank before answering, then handed the glass back to her. “I don’t have any plans. Do you have any suggestions?”
She reached out her platter for me to set the gold glass down on. “You don’t plan to enter the tournament? The Trial is an important part of our culture, and you are a powerful warrior. Surely, you do not fear the danger?”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Why did all the Estreyans I’d met so far on this level want me to participate in the Trial? Wouldn’t the god’s Bestowal of water be enough without me?
“I’ve had plenty of fighting. Enough to last me a lifetime. There’s no reason to put myself in danger when there are plenty of other warriors who are happy to do so instead.”
She nodded. “I thought as much.” Something in her tone was off.
Before I could pursue that thought, the room swirled around me. I tried to focus on her face, but instead, I found myself tripping and falling back onto the divan. Colors swam through the air and the light twisted, making it seem like the world was a photo negative of itself, wherever the shadows existed. My head pounded.
Something neon purple and made of shifting tentacles rose out of the shadows underneath the divan. Its limbs wrapped around my own and held me down. “The sparkly thing she was playing with earlier,” a new voice said, high-pitched and distorted. “Grab it.”
She leaned over me, reaching past my collapsed form. Unnatural green light seemed to glow from her eyes in the not-light of the shadows.
I reached for Chaos, and it bubbled up around me, dizzy and sluggish.
She drew back before I had the chance to attack, something sparkly surrounding her fist with halo-like lines. My puzzle band, still unsolved. She was taking it. Stealing it.
“Nno,” I slurred, even as the purple tentacles withdrew, retreating into the shadows below me. I tried to get up, to lash at her with Chaos, to do anything to stop her.
She paused, staring down at me with a complete lack of concern. From the edges of the room, under the furniture, and behind the curtains, little glowing beige and green fairies appeared. They were made of sand and wearing lizard skin for clothing, and they chittered brightly as they surrounded her.
She stepped backward into the deeper shadow against the wall, and with a flash like a black light in the darkness, they were all gone. Though she had vanished, the light around me remained distorted.
My dizziness grew. Blackness slipped over my eyes like a shroud, and I slipped into unconsciousness.