Exclusive Bonus: Prologue to the Pearl Series

ONE HUNDRED ONE LUNAR YEARS AGO....


Mother held aloft the symbols of her exalted holy office: the carved citrine serpent and the sacred double-bladed harvest axe and cried: "In the name of Miina, Great Goddess of the Five Moons and the Nine Seas, let the Sacred Contest begin!"

It was the dawning of the seventh day of the High Harvest Festival, which began on the ides of Lonon, the Fifth Season. All five of Kundala's pale green moons could be seen; the gimnopedes swarmed, mating on the fly. For six days and six nights the Kundalan had been celebrating the bountiful harvest. They had sung and danced; they had given thanks to the Great Goddess Miina and had mated like gimnopedes; they had eaten and drunk their fill, only to dance and sing again, give thanks again, and mate again. For the preceding month there had been little save hard work among the populace, for harvest time was most sacred to the Kundalan. All the myriad crops that were their lifeblood were under the beneficent protection of Miina. They had toiled continuously, snatching catnaps when they were too exhausted to continue, sleeping amid the furrowed rows of their verdant crops, protected and enfolded as they always were in the nurturing arms of the Great Goddess. Now, at last, their back-breaking work at an end, they were reaping their reward. There was no more joyous time of the year than this. And the games were the culmination of the festivities-the moment when Miina's sweet bounty co-mingled with the ecstatic, holy joy of her worshipers.

Seven teams lined the courtyard of the labyrinthine palace. Each team consisted of a male and a female, emblematic of the sexual partnership with which every level of Kundalan society was imbued. Thick, verdant hedgerows, taller than the tallest male, divided the packed red-dirt courtyard, making of it a kind of maze. In the center of the maze was a narbuck, a huge and powerful quadruped much revered by the Kundalan as Miina's sacred mount. It was blindfolded, held on a short, heavy chain by a young female Ramahan acolyte whose job it was to care for the beast. The seven couples ringing the maze could not see the narbuck, but the spectators crowding the second-storey colonnaded terraces and columned balconies had a perfect view of the entire playing field.

The female acolyte was watching Mother with great intensity. Mother was a beautiful woman, so big around that three Ramahan males with their arms spread could not encircle her circumference. And yet she moved with the grace of a narbuck. She had the powerful, commanding, goddess-like face that primitive races would trace in pigments on the walls of their caves, carve into stone monuments, bow down to in awe and wonder. Compassion and strength swirled in equal strength inside her, making her loved, admired-and envied. How old she was, not even the oldest Ramahan could say. Swathed in her voluminous turquoise robes, she had always been here and doubtless always would be.

Now Mother nodded, and the acolyte whipped off the blindfold. The acolyte's lameness caused her some difficulty as she maneuvered herself clumsily down a hidden trap door in the center of the maze and vanished. The narbuck snorted and pawed the ground, it's piercing violet eyes rolling wildly. The couples heard the familiar sounds and, having planned their strategies, entered the leafy labyrinth. These couples were unarmed. There was no thought to slay the narbuck; this was not a contest of death, but a celebration of life.

Enormous, long-necked pitchers of cloudy rakkis made the rounds among the packed-in onlookers, and had done so since just before dawn when the revelers awoke from a long night of dancing, singing, gorging and making love-the sacred activities of the Great Goddess. Now these pitchers were accompanied by platters of grilled meats, vegetables, grains and fresh fruit dipped in honey. There was singing and lute-playing and brassy fanfares as the contestants made their way through the maze.

Mother watched the first pair vault over the narbuck's fluted horn, somersaulting to the earth to great cheering and raucous applause. An instant later, something stole her mind from the joyous clamor of the festival.

There was the tolling, as of a bell. Seelin, Miina's Voice intoned in her mind. Seelin comes....

And at once her mind's eye was filled with a seething ocean, and within this ocean danced Seelin, the Dragon of Transformation. Sea-green. Waterspout horns, whirlpool eyes, coral claws, spindrift wings.

Mother's heart constricted in her massive breast and she felt a tingling in every nerve-ending in her body.

Seelin comes... .

She listened to the Voice-Miina's Voice-for what seemed only seconds. Then she rose, and in a rustling swirl of robes, went inside, through the great Listening Hall of Middle Palace, deserted now at the time of celebration, and into the small shrine off it. The palace contained one hundred sixteen rooms; this shrine was one of forty-seven. As in all the shrines in Middle Palace the focal point was the altar to the Goddess Miina: a sacred shanstone plinth intricately carved with a serpent carrying five moons on its back. Each moon bore a beautiful face, each an aspect of Miina. Above, the image of a magnificent butterfly, symbol of transformation, was carved upon a wall marvelously frescoed with the Five Sacred Dragons. The same butterfly image was incised into the double blades of Mother's sacred harvest axe.

Mother knelt, reverently put aside the citrine serpent and the harvest axe, and felt for the power bournes running beneath the bedrock of the palace. She drew them upward, said a Correspondence prayer to open the Channel. She listened for Miina's Voice in her head. "It is too soon, too soon. Where is the Dar Sala-at to bring The Pearl to Earth Five Meetings?" Seelin writhed amid the foamy waves, coming, coming ever closer, bringing The Pearl of Transformation in her teeth....

"Mother?"

"Is everything all right?"

Already inside the Channel, Mother heard the two young voices only dimly. She had been rocked to her foundations by the implications of Miina's words. Still, her power was such that she could converse with them. Nothing was right; it was all wrong, horribly wrong. But she could not tell them that. She needed guidance.

"Shima Nedhu," she said to the male Ramahan and her closest advisor, "fetch me Shima Kevli."

"The Keeper?" Shima Nedhu said. He was a tall, powerful male with an angular face and avid eyes. "But Mother, does that mean-"

"The Time of The Pearl is upon us," Mother said. "Quickly now."

When the priest had left, she said to the female Ramahan, "Shima Ennda, make the offering."

The priestess complied, lighting the incense sticks she partially buried in the sand at the bottom of the sacred bronze brazier. As the pungent smoke wafted up, Mother added: "The Sacred Dragon Seelin comes. The Prophesy is manifest. A greater sacrifice is required."

Shima Ennda clasped her hands together. "Shall I bring ice-hares from the pens, Mother? Or perhaps a brace of gimnopedes?"

Mother's head swung slowly in the priestess's direction. No one knew how old mother was, but the suspicion was her age numbered in the hundreds of lunar years. Her gray-green eyes locked on Shima Ennda's face. "No," she intoned. "Something greater, of more lasting meaning."

Still not understanding, Ennda bowed her head. "Mother has only to command me."

"Bring me Dar."

Shima Ennda blinked in disbelief. "What? I am certain I must have misheard."

"Dar is needed for the sacrifice, Shima Ennda. Bring her here at once."

Shima Ennda's face paled and one hand clutched at her throat. "But Mother- Dar is only a child."

"She is fifteen lunar years," Mother said implacably. "And what business is it of yours questioning my word?"

"I am not questioning-" The priestess took a shuddering breath. "But Dar is my daughter."

"No, my dear. You may have given birth to her. But when you asked for my help, when in shame you handed her to me still wet with her amniotic fluids, you relinquished all claim to her."

"That is not fair-"

"I am concerned with what is right, not with what is fair," Mother said sharply. "Your need to be with Shima Nedhu overcame your spiritual vows. When the two of you begged me to keep your secret so that you could remain Ramahan and not be exiled to the frozen wastes above the Ice Caves, I did as you asked, perhaps against my better judgement. Shima Nedhu has shown his contrition in ways large and small."

Shima Ennda put her head in her hands. "I don't understand, Mother. Why do you always take his side?"

"I take no one's side," Mother said more sharply than she had intended. It was true, she thought, that Dar always evoked intense emotion within her. "History and objective truth are nearly always incompatible. The way we would have liked things to be often gets confused in memory with the way thing actually were."

"Easy for Nedhu to agree," Shima Ennda cried. "He never cared for the child!"

"And you did? Shima Ennda, listen to yourself. Even now you cannot bring yourself to call her by her name. Dar. Her name is Dar."

"I always despised that name."

"No. You despised the child-she was born lame and different."

"She is retarded-my penance for-"

"No!" Now Mother did raise her voice. "You perceive her as retarded because she does not respond as you wish her to."

"As other children responded."

"Dar is not like the others."

Shima Ennda was weeping silently.

"Can you say her name? Dar. Her name is Dar. Say it!" Mother waited for an answer she knew would not come. "It was I who raised her," she continued in a voice like silk over steel. "If she is anyone's daughter, she is mine."

"Yes, Mother," Shima Ennda said meekly.

"You never wanted Dar, you never understood her. To this day she disgusts you. She is a thorn, a constant reminder of your sin."

The tears were dry on Shima Ennda's cheeks. She was trembling. "It is not I who is ready to sacrifice her."

"Miina restore me! Who said anything about sacrificing her?" Mother shook her head. "You disgust me."

"Yes, Mother."

"Fetch her then." Mother turned her head back to the shrine before which she knelt. "And be quick about it. Our time is running out."

The priestess hurried from the shrine at precisely the same moment Shima Nedhu returned. Mother observed the look of antagonism that sparked between them. In other, less pressing circumstances, she perhaps would have spent some time in meditation, questioning her own course of actions in dealing with them. But there was no time now. Shima Nedhu, obedient as ever, had returned with the Keeper.

Mother rose and faced Shima Kevli, a small, pinch-faced priestess. "The Time is upon us," she said, handing Shima Kevli her red-jade Ring of Five Dragons. "Open the Door to the Storehouse. Miina directs me to consult The Pearl."

Shima Kevli knelt before Mother, pressed her lips to the sacred Ring, rose and hurried from the room. Mother turned her gaze on Shima Nedhu, who had been watching the Ring's transfer with rapt attention. "Miina has spoken. We are not alone in the cosmos. Another species has entered our solar system. Their star-spanning vehicles are making all speed toward Kundala. They will be here in three days time."

Nedhu was nearly bug-eyed. "At last! The prophesied moment of Transformation has arrived."

"It is not for us to interpret events such as these, Shima Nedhu. That is for Miina. As to what we should do, The Pearl will guide us. The Pearl was Miina's gift to us. It has lain dormant for eons, guarded by demons and creatures we cannot even imagine. Now its Time has come."

Nedhu nodded. "As soon as Kevli has opened the Door I will escort Mother to-"

"No!" Mother held up her hand. "The caverns of The Pearl are not for shima. There is great danger in The Pearl. Miina has told us that its power is so great it can warp the very foundations of reality. Without the proper training one sees what one wants to see, not what is or what is about to be."

"But Mother, you cannot go into the caverns yourself. I cannot allow you to be exposed to such danger."

Mother smiled. "I understand your concern, Nedhu, and I am grateful for it. Still, there are some things I must do alone."

But Shima Nedhu stood his ground. "The Time of The Pearl is too important, too monumental for any one Ramahan to make the decision. The fate of the entire world rests on this fulcrum, this one moment in time."

"Have you so quickly forgotten your Scripture? Miina decrees that I and I alone peer into The Pearl."

"And we only have your word that you are privy to Miina's Voice."

"We? What are you saying?"

Shima Nedhu lifted his arms wide and six male Ramahan entered the shrine.

Mother stared at them dumbfounded. "By what right have you-?"

"By the right that we have given ourselves," Shima Nedhu said as the six fanned out in a semi-circle around him.

"I trusted you, believed in your rehabilitation," Mother said. "Could I have been so wrong?"

A hungry look suffused his face. "My time of servitude is at an end. No longer will I lick your sandals, bow to your every whim, wash my hands obsequiously in your presence." He raised his fists and two of the Ramahan grabbed Mother's wrists, held her fast. "The time for the Rule of One is over. This is the Time of Transformation and Transformation is what we shall have."

Mother closed her eyes, searching for the power bournes that ran, humming, beneath the foundations of Middle Palace. Inexplicably, those sorcerous avenues were closed to her, she was powerless against them. Her eyes flew open. "What monstrousness is this?" she cried. "What heretical evil?"

"Osoru will not work, Mother. Neither will Thripping. All seven of us our using Osoru against you."

"That would not be enough. There is something else at work here."

"Our destiny!" Shima Nedhu cried, his eyes alight with feverish intoxication.

"Fool! You cannot enter the Channel. You are not Mother."

Shima Nedhu ignored her. "From this day forward, we, as a group, will determine the future of the Ramahan and of Kundala."

Mother looked from one to another of the priests until her eyes had fallen upon all seven. "You are all fools," she said. "Deluded, misguided, blind fools. There is great evil here and none of you see it! Renounce this evil now or Miina will take her revenge-"

"We hear the word of Miina and are trained to obey." Shima Nedhu stepped closer to her. "But always it is filtered through you. You speak for Miina, you say. We disbelieve you. Your rule is over. Now we will decide the word of Miina; now we will disseminate it throughout Kundala. We shall rule in Her name!"

Mother screamed as he whipped Miina's axe off the floor and brandished it in her face.

"You would dare use the Great Goddess's sacred axe-an instrument meant for hoeing, for creating life-to take a life? Now, by your own actions, Miina damns you to the endless spiral of the Abyss!"

"Take her away. You know what to do with her."

"No, you cannot!" Mother was in despair for her people and for her Goddess. She saw Seelin coming on and that churning ocean became her reality. "What about The Pearl?" she whispered to the Sacred Dragon. "You cannot ignore the signs- The fate of the world depends-"

Shima Nedhu smiled, not understanding. "The Pearl belongs to us now," he said, "to all Ramahan who, with its guidance, we will lead to glory." He looked up at one of the Ramahan cabal. "Shima Jepsoph, go into the Storehouse and bring us The Pearl so that the Council of Seven may read its depths."

"The Keeper will not allow that," Shima Jepsoph said.

Shima Nedhu tossed him the Miina's axe.

"At once." Shima Jepsoph made the sign of Miina and, hefting the weapon, rushed from the shrine.

Mother was weeping. "Please," she whispered. "You do not know what you are doing."

"Blood," Shima Nedhu said as he pointed to the carving on the wall. "Here is the sacred butterfly of Transformation! The Transformation we have instigated! This day begins with the death of old blood and ends with the ascendancy of the new!"

The remaining five Ramahan shouted their approval.

"Finally, our new blood will flow outward from this central spot and re-nourish all of Kundala." Shima Nedhu had worked up a fervent head of steam. "And what better moment than now, at the time of The Pearl, the prophesied chrysalis of the next phase of Kundalan culture when we interface with a new species. In the meantime, The Pearl is coming. It will help us to understand our own origins, of what lay before the Time of Long Becoming. It will unlock the mystery of who we are, where we came from and where we are going."

He strode to the shrine, reached up and plucked from the niche cleverly designed as the mouth of one of the Five Dragons a small book bound in worn leather.

"No!" Mother struggled. Trying to free herself. "The Five Books of Miina are not for the blasphemer."

"Put a cloth in her mouth," Shima Nedhu ordered. When it was done he brandished the most sacred of Kundalan books over his head. "Here is Utmost Source!" he cried. "Purported to have been written before the Time of Long Becoming. Or so we have been told! More lies fed to us like weak, mentally deficient children! These are doubtless the ramblings of Mother herself! Enough! We will no more suckle at Mother's poisoned breast, I say! What say you all? Does the Council speak as one?"

Their chorus of approval accompanied the sacred book into the bronze brazier where it was immediately obscured by incense. "Now is the moment to seize our freedom!" Shima Nedhu continued. "Now is the moment to make our desires manifest!"

The fanatical cries of brotherhood and newfound autonomy rose and were almost immediately choked off by the appearance of Ennda rushing into the shrine. "It's Shima Jepsoph!" She was breathless not merely from her run here. Her face was drained of color. So agitated was she that no one paid attention to the smallish female, lame and mute, at her side. "He is dead!"

"Where?" Shima Worq, one of the Council of Seven shouted.

"How?" Shima Lour, another, cried.

Instinctively, she buried Dar's face in her belly, turned the teenager away from the profane sight of Mother bound and gagged. She had known this moment was coming-Shima Nedhu had as much as told her as they lay togther in stolen moments, engulfed in their insatiable lust and pain. Bound together in their sin upon a numinous wheel.

"Just inside the Door to the Storehouse," she answered.

"Shima Kevli?" Shima Nedhu asked her.

"Shima Jepsoph clove her skull in two." Shima Ennda loathed Nedhu and loved him, and despised herself for her abject weakness.

"And Shima Jepsoph?" Shima Worq said. "How did he meet his end?"

"I do not know." Shima Ennda shivered, for her blood had begun to run cold. It was as if she was beginning to revive from a fever-dream. What had they done? Gradually, with a deep horror, she saw how weak she had been to fall into the black pit of Nedhu's dreams of revenge and power.

Shima Nedhu took hold of her elbow in a painful grip. "Quick!" he cried. "Lead us to the Storehouse."

She was clearly terrified. "But Mother- She is the only one who will know what has taken place inside the Storehouse."

Shima Nedhu spat. He did not like being made to look the fool-especially by a female. But he could not deny that she was right. Much as he hated to admit it, they would need Mother's knowledge. He nodded to the two Ramahan holding Mother, and shoved her roughly through the doorway, signed for the others to follow. Shima Ennda stumbled, holding tightly to Dar who had now begun to whimper from the psychic shocks of the emotional storm.

As the group headed out toward the staircase leading to the lower levels, Shima Nedhu came up alongside Mother.

"How I laughed inside while I wept tears of remorse and contrition," he whispered. "My contrite and model behavior made you trust me, rely on me, just as I planned. And all the while Shima Ennda and I continued to couple under your nose like a pair of feverish ice-hares! Ha! Ha!" His face was a rictus of hatred. "My day has come at last! Now I have the power and you-why, you have only the taste of ashes in your mouth!"



The Great Stairway of Middle Palace had a second level. Hidden behind smooth slabs of marble lay a dank curl of a staircase that began as unpolished marble, continued as rusting metal and ended in an uneven flight of crudely carved black basalt.

Pitch torches flickered, flared and occasionally cracked and sparked, created mini-fireworks that briefly illuminated the humped ceilings of the caverns. Water dripped from some unseen fissure. All was echo and shadow and the cool, fecund, sweet-sour scent that grew like rampant weeds beneath the surface of the earth.

The round Door, like the Storehouse itself, had not been hewn out of the bedrock by axe or water-drill. It had been created and installed by Miina's Hand-by a magic long forgotten, had it ever been the purview of the Ramahan. The Door itself was solid black basalt, two-meters thick, bound with iron bands incised with symbols and runes whose meaning had been lost eons ago. By what mechanism it opened and closed no one knew.

Shima Nedhu ran his hand over its cool edge. To look at it now, one could hardly believe that anything could move an object of that size and weight. And yet the Keeper with the Ring of Five Dragons could open and close the Door at will. Shima Nedhu had known that he could not break into the Storehouse no matter how much he wished to liberate The Pearl from its festering grave. Thus he had remained patient, and now his patience had been rewarded. The Storehouse Door was open, the Keeper dead. Mother was controlled. The path was clear before him. He need only walk down it.

He shouldered aside his brethren and had a look for himself. There was the Keeper, stone cold dead, her skull, as Shima Ennda had reported, hewn asunder. Mother's Ring of Five Dragons lay just beyond her white fingertips, the gore-striped axe not a meter distant. Then there was Shima Jepsoph. He was a big man, not merely in size but in strength. This was why Shima Nedhu had chosen him to take care of the Keeper.

Without flinching or hesitating, he walked through the puddles of blood and gore, plucked Mother's ring, rubbed it free of blood-sodden dirt, placed it on his own finger as he crouched down beside Shima Jepsoph. It felt good on his finger, an affirmation of his new power.

The priest lay on his side, in a curious position that seemed to indicate that he had fallen like a doll drained of sawdust. Shima Nedhu reached out to push him onto his back and gave an involuntary gasp. No wonder Shima Jepsoph looked like that: it seemed as if there were no bones left in his body. Shima Nedhu kneaded the corpse's flesh. No bones at all. No blood, either to look at him. Eventually, he rose.

"What has happened to our brother?" Shima Worq said. "How did he die?"

"He fell," Shima Nedhu said in a stentorian voice so all could hear. Above all, he must maintain a sense of control. On the cusp of the Moment of Transformation, the truth would only rouse mass hysteria from its sleep. "He broke many bones and died of internal bleeding."

"There was no time for him to bleed to death," Shima Lour protested.

"One of his ribs punctured his heart." Shima Nedhu's eyes burned fever bright in his skull. "Will you gainsay me?"

Silence.

"Will any of you gainsay me?"

"Perhaps we should ask Mother."

"Mother will lie to us," Shima Nedhu snarled, "as she had always lied to us."

"Nevertheless," the other members of the council said in unison. One of them removed the wadded-up cloth from Mother's mouth.

"Mother," Shima Ennda said gently, "tell us what has happened here."

"The Hagoshrin happened."

"I told you she would lie!" Shima Nedhu shouted.

Shima Jaxsus looked fearfully at Shima Jepsoph. "But if it's the truth-"

"It is the truth," Mother said. The Hagoshrin are Miina's guardians, but they are also Her executioners. Shima Jepsoph sought this death when he killed the Keeper."

"Enough of this!" Shima Nedhu boomed, jamming the sopping cloth in Mother's mouth. Everyone fell silent. The silence stretched on, save for Dar's continued whimpering, which sounded to Shima Nedhu's ears like the cries of a whipped cur. He glared at Shima Ennda. "For the love of Miina, shut her up!"

"You have lost the privilege to use the Great Goddess's name," Shima Ennda said.

"I will deal with you in a moment." Shima Nedhu turned his attention elsewhere. "Shima Worq, you will take Shima Jepsoph's place." He jerked his head in the direction of the Storehouse. "You will fetch The Pearl."

Shima Worq came hesitantly forward.

"What is this?" Shima Nedhu stood with fists on hips. "Only minutes in power and you have already lost your nerve? What kind of leader will you make?"

Shima Worq, stung, squared his shoulders. "I am honored to be chosen. I will not fail the Council." So saying, he strode past Shima Nedhu and disappeared around a sharp bend to the left. For some time, Shima Nedhu could hear the soft tread of his footfalls echoing down the cavern's walls.

Then silence.

They waited. The remaining four members of the council eyed each other nervously; Shima Nedhu glared at Shima Ennda. Dar continued her whimpering even through the muffling of Shima Ennda's hand over her mouth.

"That thing, that horror, that travesty of life should never have been allowed to live," Shima Nedhu said. "It was damaged at birth, before birth, for all I know." Shima Ennda flinched at his cruel words that implied Dar's existence was entirely her fault. But she could not have made the child without his seed, growing in her belly, flowering into this female-

They all jumped at once at the short, sharp, piercing cry. All eyes turned toward the Door to the Storehouse inside which Shima Nedhu stood. They stood transfixed, waiting for they knew not what. So preoccupied were they that they failed to hear that Dar had ceased her whimpering. She stood wide-eyed, hands splay-fingered at her sides.

Because of his position, Shima Nedhu saw Shima Worq first. The Ramahan came stumbling around the turn and Shima Nedhu wanted to rub his eyes in disbelief for it seemed to him that Shima Worq had grown a tail, thick, armored, articulated, oozing blood. Shima Worq's blood.

Then the priest gave out a sigh and collapsed just as if everything that had made him alive and vital had been suddenly sucked out of his corpus. He hit the floor of the Storehouse almost at Shima Nedhu's feet. No tail could be discerned. No trail of blood. Nothing out of the ordinary. And yet, he was dead, just as Shima Jepsoph was dead.

"By Miina's Five Faces!" Shima Nedhu breathed.

"What is it?" Shima Lour's quavery voice floated through the open Door.

"Worq has returned," Shima Nedhu said in a disgusted voice.

"Does he have The Pearl?" another in the Council asked.

"Come see for yourself."

The others crowded through the doorway, including Shima Ennda and Dar, limping heavily as she came.

"Dead," Shima Lour breathed. He looked up at Shima Nedhu. "What does this mean?"

"It means someone else must fetch The Pearl," Shima Nedhu said.

"Not me." Shima Lour shook his head vigorously.

"Nor me," Shima Jaxsus said.

Shima Lour was closest to Shima Nedhu so it was he who was the recipient of Shima Nedhu's rage and frustration. Shima Nedhu drove his fist into Shima Lour's side. The Ramahan fell to the cavern floor, screaming. With a well-aimed kick, Shima Nedhu knocked him unconscious.

Shima Nedhu turned and glared at the three remaining members of the council. "Who else disobeys my orders?"

They bit their lips but he cursed to see the fear in their eyes. He did not deserve such weak and cowardly accomplices. He would have to do away with all of them and re-form the Council of Seven. But not yet. He needed them for-

"Why don't you go, Shima Nedhu?"

Shima Ennda's words broke into his thoughts. He was about to glare at her, to do something that would really terrify her, when he had a thought. It was so neat and simple he was greatly pleased. "I have a better idea," he said. He raised the bloody axe in her direction. "She will go."

At first, Shima Ennda was at a loss. "Who? Me?"

"The girl." He came toward her. "What's-her-name."

Shima Ennda's heart constricted. "Dar? No, Nedhu, you can't mean-"

"I most certainly do." He reached out, jerked the girl away from Shima Ennda's side.

"No, you-!"

He put his lips against Shima Ennda's ear. "Listen to me. This is perfect. How many times have we spoken of how we wished she had never existed? Now is our chance! Send her into the Storehouse and it will be just that. As if she never existed."

Shima Ennda trembled. She wept with fear, but also in recognition of her own fatal weakness. She would let him do it. She knew she would. Deep down she wanted to be rid of the malformed girl as much as he did. Mother had been right: Dar was a thorn, an evil worm crawling through her insides, a living symbol of transgressions she could neither forgive nor forget.

She stepped back, deliberately ignoring Dar's spastic fingers as they tried to grab a handful of her robe.

"Evil bastard," she breathed so that only he could hear.

The grin of triumph lurked on Shima Nedhu's face. "But I am your evil bastard, aren't I, Ennda?" He looked deep into her eyes. "Aren't I?"

She bit her lip until she tasted blood. She felt her gorge rise at her answer: "Yes."

With an almost feral growl, Shima Nedhu swung Dar around until she was facing the path into the Storehouse. "Go there!" he shouted into her ear, for it was widely believed that she was almost fully deaf. "Let nothing stop you or slow you down! Find The Pearl and bring it back to me!" He jerked her hard enough that her teeth rattled. "Dim-wit, do you understand?"

Dar nodded. She never looked at him. Instead, her gaze was fixed on the path into the Storehouse.

Shima Nedhu grunted, gave her a hard shove in the small of her back so that she stumbled forward, falling to one knee. She stayed down for a moment.

"Go on!" Shima Nedhu shouted in a terrible voice. "What are you waiting for?"

Dar righted herself, then set off in her odd, asymmetrical, loping pace.

"Gone," Shima Nedhu whispered to himself as she disappeared around the corner. "Gone, gone, gone, as if she had never existed."

The torchlight flickered and flared, making dangerous-looking shadows dance along the curving walls of the caverns. Shima Nedhu could hear the susurrus of shallow, anxious breathing. The three remaining Council members stirred. They sound like locusts lost amid the barren sand dunes of the Great Voorg, Shima Nedhu thought. His hand closed into a fist. How he despised weakness of any kind!

"Shima Nedhu, what will happen now?" Shima Jaxsus said, and the others nodded. He had gotten Shima Lour into a sitting position and had slapped him back to consciousness.

Ah, they have elected a de facto leader, Shima Nedhu thought. He had foreseen this possibility.

"Casualties were expected," Shima Jaxsus continued. "But three of our own lie at our feet. This we did not expect."

"Fools!" Shima Nedhu cried. "What part of life is neat and tidy and comes out just as you wished?"

"But perhaps this is a sign," Shima Jaxsus said, clearly agitated. "Mother spoke of the Hagoshrin exacting Miina's revenge. What if this-"

Shima Nedhu sneered. "'What if? What if? What if?' Listen to yourselves, baying like a murder of frightened lemurs. We have won a great victory today, we have struck an historic blow for freedom. Transformation! It's what we all wanted, yes? But transformations-all transformations-come at a price."

"We understand that, Shima Nedhu. But when does the price become too high?"

"The world is ours," Shima Nedhu said to them all. "It remains for us to have the courage to take it."

"We're with you," the council members said as one.

He looked to Shima Ennda.

"I will never leave you," she said.

They all heard the echoes at once, and turned, peering into the depths of the Storehouse. Someone was coming, someone with a slow and ponderous gait. Shima Nedhu brandished the axe. He did not know who or what had killed Shima Jepsoph and Shima Worq-did not, in fact, want to know-but he was taking no chances. Blood had blinded the eyes of the butterfly incised on the double blade. Blood ran down the haft, making his knuckles itch. He tried to flick the blood off his hands, found the bunched muscles of his forearms trembling with tension.

A shadow on the inner wall of the Storeroom moved slowly, haltingly toward him-a shambling motion that could only come from some unimaginably hideous beast pent up in the caverns for eons, bound by Miina to guard her precious Pearl. He swung the axe back in a shallow arc. No matter what happened, he promised himself that he would inflict as much damage as he could. He would not die as the others had, with a sigh, sucked of all essence.

His eyes grew wide as he saw Dar. She came around the corner in her odd, lame manner. She did not sigh. There was no articulated tail dragging behind her, no trace of blood, only sorcery.

Sorcery it must be, Shima Nedhu decided in an instant, because she was unharmed and she carried in her arms a box in the shape of a decahedron. It was all colors and no color, this decahedron, seemingly spun out of thin air for though it seemed solid enough one moment, the next he was certain he could see what lay nestled within:

The Pearl.

He lowered his weapon as Dar limped toward him. "Miina save us!" he breathed.

"She succeeded where the others failed," Shima Ennda said with a gasp.

"But how?" Shima Beregg and Shima Vedd asked in unison. "How is this possible?"

"It's a miracle!" Ennda cried. "Miina has provided us with a miracle!"

"It's only what we deserve," Shima Nedhu said as he dropped the axe.

He tried to snatch the decahedron, but Dar held it fast to her breast.

"Let go, dim-wit!" His voice was louder than it had to be owing to her supposed hearing deficiency. "I sent you in there to get The Pearl, now you must let me have it!"

"It is not yours," Dar said in an oddly-accented but startlingly clear voice. "It is not for you to possess."

Shima Nedhu was momentarily rocked back on his heels both by her use of words and by her authoritative tone, but he recovered his acid tongue soon enough. He inclined his upper torso toward her menacingly. "And how would a dim-wit like you know that?"

Dar's eyes were soft as the down on the belly of a hindemuth, but when she spoke those who heard her shuddered. "I have gazed into The Pearl," she said. "I have seen the future. I know the Truth."

"The Truth!" Shima Nedhu cried. "As if a moron like you would know the Truth!"

His followers laughed a bit too long and too raucously, and he picked up an undertone of unease that made the hairs at the nape of his neck stir. It was wholly instinctive. The most primitive part of his brain had recognized a mortal enemy and was mobilizing its forces accordingly.

But he was just as aware of something else: that the contents of that damnable decahedron was resetting the pulse of his inner clock. So close to The Pearl, he felt as if every nerve ending was on fire, as if he had been dipped in a cauldron of molten metal. He felt inordinately heavy and yet able to perform half a dozen tasks simultaneously should it be required. His mind raced, familiar thoughts chasing odd, alien, terrifying concepts, the pace accelerating faster than he could

come to grips with. He felt dizzy and exhilarated at the same time. He could scarcely pull a full breath into his lungs, as if the very atmosphere of Kundala had become intoxicating or poisonous to him.

"I feel it," he said without even knowing he was speaking. "I feel The Pearl."

Dar backed up a pace, the decahedron pressed close between her breasts. "The Pearl has spoken," she said. "The Moment of Transformation is upon us."

"We know that already, dim-wit!" Shima Nedhu shouted. He was becoming increasingly unnerved by the alien thoughts shooting through his mind, flares behind his retinas that seemed to be causing momentary short-circuits in his thinking. "We are the initiators of-"

"The V'ornn come," Dar intoned.

"The V'ornn?" Shima Ennda said. "Who are the V'ornn?"

"The Others." Dar's eyes settled first on Shima Ennda, then, one by one, on Shima Vedd, Shima Beregg and, finally, Shima Nedhu. "After millennia of equilibrium, we are entering another Moment of Transformation."

Shima Vedd's face had drained of color. "What-?"

Dar's gaze silenced him. "Everything will change."

"She's a half-wit," Shima Nedhu said. "How can you believe the word of-"

"Every truth you believe is a lie," she said. "Every lie is the truth. This day, every thing you know and care about will end..."

"You see, she is quite mad!" Shima Nedhu swung Miina's axe back and forth, back and forth.

"...and be born again."

"Enough!" The axe reached the apex of its arc.

"Nedhu!" Shima Ennda shouted. "She is just a child!"

"A wilful, disobedient child!"

"She is an innocent."

Shima Nedhu winced at the chaotic buzzing inside his skull, like ten-million voices trying to communicate at once. "No innocent spews talk like this! These ideas are dangerous-"

"I swear you will not harm her."

He laughed, ignoring Shima Ennda's impotent threat. His gaze was fixed on the decahedron and its contents, phasing in and out of his vision. His mind felt as if it were trying to expand past the limits of his skull!

"Give me what I want, dim-wit," he ranted. "Or suffer the consequences!"

"Miina has spoken." Dar retreated another step. "The Pearl is not for you."

Something snapped inside him and he began to howl like a wounded perwillon. "Why is it that Miina talks to everyone but me?"

The air seemed to sizzle as the harvest axe began its final forward swing.

"No!" Shima Ennda cried as she leapt forward.

The blow meant for Dar struck her just above her left ear. The blade meant for hoeing fertile ground pierced skin, sank through flesh and bone, felled her like a tree in the forest.

As she collapsed, the sacred axe fell from his nerveless fingers. He dropped to his knees beside her.

"Ah, Miina, what have I done!"

He cupped Shima Ennda's head in his hands. He could not believe that she was dead-the only one he had ever cared about. Gone. Gone, gone, gone....

Dar used the window provided by his grief to dart past him. With a cry of rage, he leapt at her. Those damnable voices, talking to him in tongues he did and did not understand! Shima Nedhu staggered, massaging his pain-racked head. She stood, staring at him, as if daring him to take her.

"The V'ornn," she said through the cacophony of voices within and without. "The V'ornn are coming."

What foul sorcery was she inflicting on him? In his mind's eye Kundala spun in its solar system, the stars distorted by waves of energy that flowed in the wakes of huge vessels. And riding upon this cosmic ocean, Seelin, the Sacred Dragon of Transformation. The alien voices rose to a mind-splitting crescendo.

He lunged for Dar's throat but staggered in the slimy gore. She whipped around the bend, heading back into the Storehouse. With a roar of frustrated rage, Shima Nedhu grabbed Mother by the arm, pushing her forward after Dar.

Almost immediately, the Storehouse floor began to slope downward. The walls narrowed drastically and all at once the pitch became precipitous. Shima Nedhu ran on, holding onto Mother's bulk with one bloody hand while he held the other in front of him, pressed against the dank rock so that he could maintain balance for them both.

Echoes of Dar's footfalls came back to him, mixing with the sounds of his ever more labored breathing. At least the fevered shrieking inside his head had abated somewhat and he gained renewed strength as he hurried on, pushing Mother ahead of him.

"Where are we?" he said to Mother. "Where is she going?" He hit her when she remained silent. "Do you think I brought you for nothing? Answer me!" Belatedly, he remembered the gag and took it out.

"She goes to find the Hagoshrin," Mother said. "She goes to summon your death."

He jabbed her sharply between her shoulderblades to let her know he did not appreciate her pronouncements of doom. They continued on. He judged that they had descended perhaps twenty-five meters when the walls widened without warning. He paused to get his bearings. There were no torches down here and in his frenzy to get his hands on The Pearl he had neglected to take one from the ante-chamber above. A pale blue phosphorescence bathed sections of the chamber, enough for him to see that though the Storehouse itself was huge, the path through it was anything but. In front of him lay a bridge so narrow that two people could not walk along it side-by-side. There were no handrails, nothing whatsoever to guard against a false step that would send an unwary or clumsy traveler over the edge. Moving out onto the bridge, he peered down but the blue phosphorescence petered out before he could gain a sense of the depth lurking below him. Despite her outsized girth Mother had no trouble maintaining her balance. She walked with one dainty foot precisely in front of the other and never faltered.

"You have been here before, haven't you?" he said, cuffing her from behind.

"Many times," she said.

He froze as he heard the chink! of a pebble as it clattered across the bridge somewhere ahead and over the side. He waited, holding his breath, for the sound of it hitting bottom. He waited a long, long time, was already far along the bridge when the faint echo of its terrifying end reached his ears. Cold sweat started out on his forehead and he felt the first trickle of fear creep down his spine like an unannounced guest.

He struck Mother, drowning his fear in rage and hurried them on, knowing that the girl would be slowed both by her deformities and by her burden.

"Tell me which way to go," he ordered.

"Straight ahead," Mother replied. "There are no branchings on Miina's span. You cannot lose your way."

Sure enough, up ahead, he could make out movement, the familiar shuffling gait of the deformed girl. Even now he found it impossible to believe that she had been created from his seed. Secretly, he was certain that Ennda had lied to him, that she had lain with another Ramahan, that this abomination had been the result of that liaison. She could not be his-she could not.

He quickened his pace, dragging Mother along behind him. An abrupt change in the pitch and duration of echoes told him that this section of the cavern was coming to an end. Moments later, a sheer rock face emerged into the cool blue spots of phosphorescence. He could see the girl more clearly now. Inexplicably, she had stopped, was standing in the center of the span, facing him, still clutching the decahedron.

"This is the end," he told her as he approached. "You cannot hide from me." Still he came on, relentless. "I give you a choice. Hand over The Pearl or keep it a moment longer and die with my hands around your throat." He was less than a body's length from her. "Make your choice. Which will it be?" He could see her eyes staring at him without animosity, but also without fear. There was something in them that acted like a thorn piercing the cartilage between his ribs.

"Answer me!" he screamed. "Or I will choose for you!"

There came a rustling, not from her, but from the deep gloom immediately behind her. Shima Nedhu sucked in the pungent, unmistakable odor of bitterroot. It was so strong he almost gagged. Something huge was emerging out of the darkness at the far end of the cavern. The same terrifying something, he was certain, that had sucked all the life, all the bones, all the blood from Shima Jepsoph and Shima Worq.

He did not wait to get a closer look, but darted forward. He jerked the girl toward him, slapped her hard across the face. She whimpered and Mother made an odd ululating cry. Was she calling to it? The thing-whatever it was-made a sound that made Shima Nedhu wanted to vomit. It came toward him.

The voices in his head had returned with a vengeance, boiling through the convolutions of his brain like hot tallow. Bellowing with rage and fear, he tore the decahedron from the girl's desperate grasp and shoved her with all his might. She toppled head over heels over the side of the span, vanishing into the blackness without even giving him the satisfaction of a scream. Shima Nedhu's insides quaked at the unknown thing's approach. A stain appeared in his crotch. He turned, moaning, and ran. As he passed Mother, he flung her backward into the embrace of the oncoming horror.

He kept on running, keeping the precious decahedron tucked into the crook of his arm. Behind him he heard terrible sounds-gnashings and grindings, moanings and ululations that made him cry out and weep. His sandals slapped against the cold stone span of the bridge as he raced back out of the cavern, panting as he hurled himself up the steep incline and burst at last, dizzy and sick with terror and elation into the charnel house of his own making.

The council members welcomed him with relief. They held the decahedron in trembling hands. Their curiosity and avarice fed upon itself, growing like strange living things. In unspoken assent, they unsealed the decahedron.

Inside was The Pearl.

It was more beautiful than they could have ever imagined. It shone and shimmered with a werelight of its own making. Here were all the secrets they had longed to know. Here was laid out for them the Moment of Transformation, the Future, the Truth. They sat, stunned, and absorbed it all, as the voices in Shima Nedhu's head continued their quasi-intelligible chittering.

The Pearl told them who the V'ornn were, why they had come, how to interface with them and, most importantly, how to profit from their weaknesses. The dim-wit was right about one thing, Shima Nedhu thought. Now, in the Moment of Transformation, nothing would ever be the same again.

"Because of us," Shima Nedhu said, "because we control The Pearl, a great day is about to dawn for the Kundalan. The greatest day since the time before the Long Becoming!" And he, Shima Nedhu, was at the nexus of it all.

"Thank Miina in Her wisdom," he continued triumphantly. "The Great Goddess has kept us alive-us among all the others who lusted for The Pearl. Mother would certainly have smiled at the V'ornn and stupidly offered her hand in friendship. The others of our Council of Seven lacked the guts to face the V'ornn and take advantage of them." And the dim-wit, he thought, well, she lacked everything that was needed to interface with a new species.

"Yes, my brothers, the Moment of Transformation has found its catalyst in us...!"