The Devils' Crucible: Opening Pages

Through the Currents

        Peramnes Bashtans drew the wooden gate closed across the mouth of the low, dim cavern where his goats were already getting reacquainted with the other flocks. Their collective body heat would keep the space warm and prevent the long trough of water along the back of the cave from freezing even on the harshest winter night. But the hiemal chill had begun to wane in recent weeks, and anyway the real danger at night was not the temperature or even nocturnal predators. Almost the riskiest thing a human or animal could do was sleep outside. If you had to do it, you slept lightly and with several others standing watch.

        Peramnes’ billy goat butted his head lightly against the gate, and with a smile Peramnes reached over to scratch his rough head and cheeks. The animal gazed at him with those alien goat’s eyes in what Peramnes imagined was affectionate gratitude.

        “Get some rest, Cernos,” he told the billy with a pat on his muzzle. “I’ll whistle for you in the morning.”

        His mind already drifting in the margins of nahan, Peramnes gathered the light hanging sourceless in the air so that it surrounded him like a halo, leaving the goats in darkness and illuminating only the area a little more than an arm’s length around him. Nahan’s heat seeped into the halo, warming his face and hands; he’d been careless. As he pulled off his thick coat, an invisible jolt tried to jerk it out of his hands, but he dispersed the hostile energy without thinking and went down the rough-hewn corridor, deeper into the bowels of the massive granite outcrop.

        The earth all around groaned faintly, and occasionally the stone beneath his feet shifted or rippled slightly like a sleeping animal taking a deep breath. Here fine sand rattled from a crack in the ceiling; there beads of water slowly bulged off the points of tiny stalactites and dripped to the floor with surprisingly loud splashes. Sooner or later the whole system of caves and tunnels would shift enough to bring the ceiling down or at least close off the exit. Herdsmen and goats alike would be crushed by tons of rock or suffocate slowly as they strove to burrow out. Even a score of powerful dynamists would be hard pressed to escape from that.

        But in the meantime it was still safer than sleeping outside.

        Something pushed Peramnes between his shoulder blades at the same moment something else tugged his left knee. He ignored both, not even bothering to dip into talieth or vargoda. Their currents swirled about him constantly, imperceptible except when they made contact with his body, like tiny insects buzzing in and out of his ears. An annoyance he’d gotten used to a long time ago, as everyone did. Here, inside the solid shelter of the cave, he could relax in the assurance that, until the day the warren collapsed altogether, the currents would remain small and annoying even if their larger cousins were tearing apart the world outside. Which of course they were. They always were.

        That wasn’t anything to worry over. If it rained for a week straight, you didn’t get worked up about it; you just stayed under shelter as much as possible and thanked your luck if the roof only leaked in one or two places.

        The corridor took Peramnes past three more caverns like the one where he’d left his flock, all full of goats bleating softly and rustling against the stone as they settled in for the night. He’d known these spaces would be occupied already: no fewer than four clans pastured their animals in the area, and Peramnes was always one of the last herdsmen to come in from the fields. At twenty-five years of age, he could make it through a long day outside more easily than the older men, and he’d never been in a hurry to get back and share a drink with his friends before bedding down. That was the business of people who had friends.

        At last he emerged into a cavern not much larger than the ones with the goats; but its ceiling was higher, and it was full of the brightness and boisterous cheer of herdsmen enjoying the end of another day’s labors. Peramnes let his halo of light dissipate. Most of the light here was provided by actual lanterns, though no few herdsmen maintained their own halos as they worked and chatted. At the right side of the cavern was a massive iron stove with a chimney leading up to the ceiling. A grizzled fellow with thick sideburns hovered around the stove, monitoring the fire and occasionally feeding it from a stack of wood nearby.

        “Fiery breath pumped from the heart of the beast, and its fuel was anger,” Peramnes murmured, quoting Shendos Loklantens’ Arkteia without thinking. To his right, another man busy crushing herbs in a mortar quirked an eyebrow at him, and Peramnes moved away with an uncomfortable shrug.

        Several men were occupied with sundry preparations for the evening meal, while others laid out their blankets or tended to their sparse gear. Herdsmen didn’t carry much with them in the field, and they didn’t leave much inside while they were out. A couple fellows were mending small rips in their clothing, and another seemed to have some problem with his leather canteen. On the far left side of the cavern, well away from the serious work, a pack of boys thirteen or fourteen years old was expending their boundless energy on bouts of arm-wrestling and other sorts of tumbling about.

        Everyone present was male, everyone except Peramnes was either in his early to mid-teens or past forty, and only about half of the latter wore the tight, braided kaelinex of a married man around his neck. Most gave Peramnes only a glance as he picked his way through the activity to the wall opposite the tunnel entrance; the watchman on duty nodded a neutral greeting.

        A steely sentinel, seemingly seeking solace. That line belonged to Phalermos Nebendons, who’d had a conspicuous weakness for insipid alliteration. This time Peramnes bit his tongue on the quotation and simply returned the watchman’s nod.

        His customary spot was a natural alcove in the stone wall, more of a shallow recess than a separate space, but it offered him a semblance of privacy. His bedroll was right where he’d left it loosely rolled up. He spread it out in the alcove with his wool coat wadded up for a pillow, then sat atop the thin blankets with his legs crossed and his back against the rock, idly combing his fingers through his unruly chestnut hair while he watched the busy herdsmen. In a while, after the others had finished chopping, mixing, and stewing, he would use the stove to prepare his own meal of toasted bread and goat cheese. Until then, he could afford to sit quietly and take some time for himself.

        “Though he has the power of deliverance, he shall sit alone,” Peramnes whispered to himself. “Though gifted with insight, he shall appear incomplete, ungiving of himself.”

        They were words of prophecy, not poetry, and they didn’t apply to Peramnes but to the Deliverer, the one who would someday bring the people to a more hospitable land, or perhaps bring it to them. The interpretations were various.

        “Prophecy is mine and not mine.” That was Galgas Valorans, some five or six generations ago. “The knowledge eludes me, the vision is shattered and refracted, light through myriad, minuscule shards of glass. The sounds of the future rush past my ears in a wild tempest; where can they be going? But the thrill is all mine. It calls me; it defines me.”

        Resting his head back against the wall, Peramnes closed his eyes and reached for nahan. “Reached” wasn’t quite the right word, as if he remained where he was while stretching out an appendage to touch something nearby. His body didn’t move except for the slight rise and fall of his chest with increasingly somnolent breaths. But though his pulse slowed and his other internal functions dithered like workmen just before quitting time, his mind—his soul, the very essence of his conscious self—came fully awake. Nahan was everywhere, all the time: in his blood and brain and organs, in the warming rock at his back, the people around him, the sparks and flashes of the fire, the lanterns’ steady glow. Like talieth and vargoda, it was simply there, a potential energy waiting to be used in any one of countless ways.

        But Peramnes didn’t need a bright halo now; he didn’t need a burst of warmth for his blankets or fire for his food. Nothing so pedestrian. His mind plunged past the margins of nahan where he had dabbled before, deeper and deeper into this principle of light and heat, this principle of movement that could not move other objects and could not be moved by anything. Talieth and vargoda held no sway over nahan, nor it over them, though all three were essential to the functioning of the world. Peramnes had always admired nahan’s autonomy, if one could admire an inanimate element of energy.

        As he ventured into that element, he left his body behind. Not physically; the mind could not be pulled out of the body. But his awareness of his physical state diminished, and though his eyes were still closed, he could see and feel after a different fashion. There was warmth, brightness—flickers and sparks somehow perceptible against the stark whiteness all around. The heat intensified and the flashes glared, large and swift like bolts of lightning.

        Peramnes turned. In a world with no landmarks, no features at all beyond the blazing whiteness, he oriented his self toward the lightning. The heat faded as he moved into a veritable forest of fulguration, cold white flashing on every side. The light became blinding enough to sear his eyeballs, if he’d had eyeballs, if there’d been any heat to the light. Most people would have turned back at this point. Nobody would lend so much of his soul to nahan just so he could light his home or workplace.

        Most people were not prophets.

        As Peramnes pressed on, he began to see with this eyeless sixth sense that the pure incandescence was populated—not by living beings or even images but by thoughts, ideas, emotions, dreams, memories. All his, all the things that made him who he was. All the major events of his life; all the memories and experiences that withdrew below the level of consciousness in his ordinary life. The first time he heard his mother’s voice. The day she died. The day his little sister died. The feeling of wool blankets against his skin. The smell of roasted carrots. The girl he’d fallen in love with when he was sixteen. The times he’d broken a bone. Every scrape and bruise he’d ever sustained. Every line of every poem and song and prophecy he’d ever heard. His siblings and playmates and fellow herdsmen, at all ages, doing all the things he’d ever seen them do.

        It was enough to drive a strong man mad.

        He forged on without attempting to capture even the smallest part of the acute self-knowledge gusting and swirling around him. That was key: to ignore the awareness nahan forced upon you.

        Awareness intensified; the jumble pressed closer, squeezing him, crushing him with things he never could have known about himself: the number of hairs on his head, on his entire body; the volume of air he breathed each minute; the exact shade of his irises.

        He couldn’t grasp any of it. There was too much and no way to sort through it. No way short of complete insanity, a common fate for those who drew near to the realm of prophecy.

        Knowledge of his own future whisked by as his view rose and expanded to encompass the whole world and all that ever had or ever would exist in it. Catalogues of birds, reptiles, mammals, insects. Colors of every spectrum, hues he couldn’t even begin to name. The square root of 26,896. The date of the closing of the Crucible. The distance between the earth and the sun. The greatest warlords in history. Something called a galleon. The complete works of Martius Tellaxus.

        It all washed through his mind, his very sense of self, threatening to sweep him away like a tiny bit of broken shell on a beach pounded by white waves. He clung to himself—Peramnes Bashtans, son of Katrena—as he pushed on through the cascading torrent of facts he would never really comprehend. He turned again, to where he instinctively knew the future lay.

        Some parts of the deluge stood out, though he couldn’t have said how. They were like dark rocks beneath the surface of a large body of water. He glimpsed them as he passed and recognized that they were significant. How significance was measured in a place like this—by the gods, by his own perception, by the number of people affected—he had no idea.

        Nothing in particular marked the entrance to the realm of the future. After all, the entire place consisted of pure knowledge constantly ebbing and flowing, crashing and breaking, the future always becoming the present, and then the past. The flood could engulf an inattentive prophet in an instant. Peramnes tightened his grip on his sense of self.

        A craggy reef of future events loomed large on his right and he plunged into it without resisting. A prophet had very little control over what he discovered. Insignificant events were all but impossible to locate, much less identify; important ones, while just as opaque, would swallow the prophet and bear him down inside themselves. The prophecy chose the prophet, not the other way around.

        This one whirled him around, a tiny seed caught in a massive cyclone. There were no images or narratives, nothing to describe or interpret. Just impressions sweeping past too fast and too numerous for his human-sized brain to take in. All he really had to do was exist within the prophecy and the words would come to him of their own accord. He was flung aside, snatched up, and tossed aside again. There was cold whiteness, snow, screaming winds ... seeds exploded in every direction. Then the cyclone collapsed upon itself, hurling him back into the flood.

        Peramnes withdrew as quickly as he dared through the bewildering layers of nahan, wading through famines and fires, mathematical equations and philosophical screeds, dreams and memories, back to the relative emptiness of his own mind and body. He felt his pulse quicken and his lungs fill with air a moment before his eyes snapped open.

        Twenty wide-eyed, open-mouthed goatherds were standing or crouching in a tight, silent semicircle around him, completely closing off his little alcove. As one, they gasped when he opened his eyes.

        “What did I say?” Peramnes asked. Already his brain felt numb, as if he’d spent all day studying something and no longer had the energy to remember any of it.

        One of the boys found his voice; he sounded hoarse, like his throat had been squeezed hard. “You said, ‘Broken, shattered, empty husks driven by a whirlwind.’ ”

                “ ‘The clans shall be riven from their heart,’ ” continued another man, obviously still quoting Peramnes, “ ‘and cast into the furnace. And this before the snows return.’ ”