The Dragon's Path
of freedom and possibility gave way to loss, loneliness, and dislocation. Those, he believed, were more likely to kill him than a hunting cat.
He had been born in hills much like these. Passed his youth playing games of sword and whip using branches and woven bark. Had he ever felt the ambition to join the ranks of the monks in their great hidden temple? He must have,though from the biting cold of his poor stone shelter, it was hard to imagine it. He could remember looking up with awe at the high wall of stone. At the rock-carved sentries from all the thirteen races of humanity worn by wind and rain until all of them—Cinnae and Tralgu, Southling and Firstblood, Timzinae and Yemmu and Drowned—wore the same blank faces and clubbed fists. Indistinguishable. Only the wide wings and dagger teeth of the dragon arching above them all were still clear. And worked into the huge iron gate, black letters spelled out words in a language no one in the village knew.
When he became a novice, he learned what it said. BOUND IS NOT BROKEN. He had believed once that he knew what it meant.
The breeze shifted, raising the embers like fireflies. A bit of ash stung his eye, and he rubbed at it with the back of his hand. His blood shifted, currents in his body responding to something that was not him. The goddess, he’d thought. He had gone to the great gate with the other boys of his village. He had offered himself up—life and body—and in return…
In return the mysteries had been revealed. First, it had only been knowledge: letters enough to read the holy books, numbers enough to keep the temple’s records. He had read the stories of the Dragon Empire and its fall. Of the spider goddess coming to bring justice to the world.
Deception, they said, had no power over her.
He’d tested it, of course. He believed them, and still he had tested. He would lie to the priests, just to see whether it could be done. He’d chosen things that only he could know: his father’s clan name, his sister’s favorite meals, his own dreams. The priests had whipped him when he spoke false, they had spared him when he was truthful, and they were never,
wrong. His certainty had grown. His faith.When the high priest had chosen him to rise to novice, he’d been certain that great things awaited him, because the priests had told him that they did.
After the nightmare of his initiation was over, he’d felt the power of the spider goddess in his own blood. The first time he’d felt someone lie, it had been like discovering a new sense. The first time he had spoken with the voice of the goddess, he’d felt his words commanding belief as if they had been made from fire.
And now he had fallen from grace, and none of it might be true. There might be no such place as the Keshet. He believed there was, so much so that he had risked his life on flight to it. But he had never been there. The marks on the maps could be lies. For that matter, there might have been no dragons, no empire, no great war. He had never seen the ocean; there might be no such thing. He knew only what he himself had seen and heard and felt.
On violent impulse, he sank his teeth into the flesh of his palm. His blood welled up, and he cupped it. In the faint firelight, it looked nearly black. Black, with small, darker knots. One of the knots unfurled tiny legs. The spider crawled mindlessly around the cup of his hand. Another one joined it. He watched them: the agents of the goddess in whom he no longer believed. Carefully, slowly, he tipped his hand over the small flame. One of the spiders fell into it, hair-thin legs shriveling instantly.
“Well,” he said. “You can die. I know
T he mountains seemed to go on forever, each crest a new threat, each valley thick with danger. He skirted the small villages, venturing close only to steal a drink from the stone cisterns. He ate lizards and the tiny flesh-colored nuts ofscrub pine. He avoided the places where wide, clawed paws marked paths in the dirt. One night, he found a circle of standing pillars with a small chamber beneath them that seemed to offer shelter and a place to recover his strength, but his sleep there had been troubled by dreams so violent and alien that he pushed on instead.
He lost weight, the woven leather of his belt hanging low around his waist. His sandals’ soles thinned, and his fire bow wore out quickly. Time lost its meaning. Day followed day followed day. Every
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