The Blackgod-1#
Author:J.Gregory Keyes
    PROLOGUE Death

    GHE plunged his steel into the pale man's belly, watched the alien gray eyes widen in shock, then narrow with terrible satisfaction. He yanked to withdraw his blade and, in that flicker of an instant, realized his mistake. The enemy edge, unimpressed by its wielder's impalement, swept down toward his exposed neck.

    Li, think kindly of my ghost, he had time to think, before his head fell into the dirty water. Even then, for just a moment, he thought he saw something strange; a column of flame, leaping out of the muck, towering over Hezhi. Then something inexorable swallowed him up.

    Death swallowed him and took him into her belly. Dark there, and wet, he swirled about, felt that last, bright blow like a line of ice laid through his neck flutter again and again and again, hummingbird-wings of pain. It was most of what remained of him, though not all. The little spaces between the memory of that blade stroke were like a doorway into nothing, opening and closing with greater and greater speed, and through that portal danced images, dreams, remembered pleasures—danced through and were gone. Soon all would gambol away like fickle ladies at a ball, and he would be complete again, just the memory of his death, and then not even that.

    But then it seemed as if the sword shattered, raced up and down his spine like rivers of crystal shards; and the belly of death was no longer dark, but alive with light, charged with heat and lightning, burning, pouring in through that doorway. The light he recognized; he had seen its colors blossoming from the water as his head parted from his body. The doorway gaped and wrapped around him, bringing not darkness, not oblivion, but remembrance.

    Remembrance carried hatred, bitterness, but most of all hunger. Hunger.

    Ghe remembered also a word, as strands met and were torturously yanked into crude knots within him, tied hurriedly, without care.

    No, he remembered. Ah, no!

    No, and he fought to hands and knees he could suddenly feel again, though they felt like wood, though they jerked and quivered with unfamiliar weakness. He could see nothing but color, but he remembered where he wanted to go and had no need of vision. Down, he knew, and so he crawled, blind, whimpering, hungrier by the moment.

    Down for he knew not how long, but after a time he fell, slid, fell again, and then plunged into water that scalded so terribly that it must have been boiling.

    For a while, he could think of nothing but boiling water, for pain had returned to him, as well.

    No. The pain went into him like a seed, grew, spread roots, sent limbs out through his eyes and mouth, shoots from his fingers, and then, very suddenly, ceased to be pain. He sighed, sank down into the water, which now enfolded him like a womb, utterly comforting and utterly without compassion; just a womb, a thing for him to grow in, but no mother or love wrapped around that. There he waited, content for a while, and after he was sure the pain was gone, he looked about for what had not blown through that dark doorway into nothingness—what remained of him.

    He was Ghe, the Jik, one of the elite assassin-priests who served the River and the River's Children. Born in Southtown, the lowest of the low, he had risen—the memory stirred!—he had kissed aprincessl Ghe clenched and unclenched his unseen hands as he felt the ghost of his lips brushing hers. He realized, dully, that he had kissed many women, but that the only actual, particular kiss he could remember was hers.

    Why was that? Why Hezhi?

    They had sent him to kill her, of course, because she was one of the Blessed. His task had been to kill her, and he had failed. Yet he had kissed her…

    Abruptly his memory offered mirror-sharp images, a scene from his past—how long ago? But though his mind's sight was keen, the voices floated to him as if from far away, and though he saw through his own eyes, it was as if he watched strangers dance a dance to which he knew only a few steps.

    He was in the Great Water Temple, in the interior chamber. Plastered white, the immense corbeled vault above him seemed to drink up the pale lamplight in the center of the room. More real, somehow, was the illumination washing down from the four corridors that met in the chamber, though it was dimmer still than the flame. He knew it for daylight, rippling through sheets of falling water that cascaded down the four sides of the ancient ziggurat in whose heart they stood, curtains of thunder concealing the doorways of the temple. In that coruscating aquamarine and the flickering of the lamp, the priest before him seemed less real than his many shadows, for they constantly moved as he stood still.

    On his knees, Ghe yet remembered thinking of the priest standing over him, You shall bow to me one day.

    “There are things you must know now,” the priest told him, in his soft, little-boy voice; like all full priests, he had been castrated young.

    “I listen for the fall of water,” Ghe acknowledged.

    “You know that our emperor and his family are descended from the River.”

    Ghe suppressed an urge to rise up and strike the fool down. They think because I am from Southtown I know nothing, not even that. They think I am no more than a throat-slitter from the gutter, with the brains of a knife! But he held that inside. To betray his feeling was to betray himself, and betraying himself would betray Li—Ghe-in-the-water wondered who Li was.

    “Know,” the priest went on, “that because they carry his water in their veins, the River is a part of them. He can live through them, if he chooses. The power of the Waterborn has but one source, and that is the River.”

    Then why do you hate them so? Ghe wondered. Because they are part of the River, as you will never be? Because they need not have their balls cut off to serve him?

    The priest wandered over to a bench and sat down, taking his quivering shadows with him. He did not sign for Ghe to arise, and so he remained there, prostrate, listening.

    “Some of the Waterborn are blessed with more,” the man went on. 'They are born with rather more of the River in them than others. Unfortunately, the Human body can contain only a certain amount of power. After that…”

    The priest's voice dropped to a whisper, and Ghe suddenly realized that this was no mere rote litany any longer. This was something real to the priest, something that frightened him.

    “After that,” he went on, sounding like nothing so much as an eight-year-old boy confiding some terrible childhood discovery, “after that, they change.”

    “Change?” Ghe asked, from the floor. Here was something he did not know, at last.

    “They are distorted by their blood, lose Human form. They become creatures wholly of the River.”

    “I don't understand,” Ghe replied.

    “You will. You will see” he answered, his voice rising to a firmer, more dissertative pitch. “When they change—the signs are discovered in childhood, usually by the age of thirteen—when they change, we take them to dwell below, in the ancient palace of our ancestors.”

    For a moment, Ghe wondered if this was some silly euphemism for murder, but then he remembered the maps of the palace, the dark underways beneath it, the chambers at the base of the Darkness Stair behind the throne. Ghe suddenly felt a chill. What things dwelt there, below his feet? What horror would disturb a priest merely to discuss it?

    “Why?” Ghe asked cautiously. “If they are of the Blood Royal…”

    “It is not only their shape that changes,” the priest explained. He looked squarely at Ghe, his pale eyes lapis shards of the light shimmering down the facing hall. “Their minds change, become inhuman. And their power becomes great, without control. In times past, some River Blessed have passed unprotected; we have missed them. One was even crowned emperor before we knew he was Blessed. He destroyed most of Nhol in fire and flood.”

    The priest stood up and walked over to a brazier in which coals glowed dully. He nervously sprinkled a few shavings of incense on them, and a sharp scent quickly filled the room.

    “Below,” he whispered, “they are safe. And we are safe from them.”

    “And if they know their fate?” Ghe asked. “If they try to escape it?”

    “We know what happens when the Blessed are not contained,” the priest murmured. “If they cannot be bound beneath the city, then they must be given back to the River.”

    “Do you mean…?” Ghe began.

    The priest nearly hissed with the intensity of his reply. “The Jik were not created to carry on assassinations of enemies of the state, though you now serve that purpose well. Have you never wondered why the Jik answer to the priesthood and not the emperor directly?”

    Ghe thought for only an instant before replying. “I see,” he murmured. “We were created to stop the Blessed from running free.”

    “Indeed,” the priest replied, his voice relaxing a bit. “Indeed. And more than a few have been killed by the Jik.”

    “I live only to serve the River,” Ghe replied. And he meant that, with all of his heart, both of him; Ghe then and Ghe in the water.

    BUT now he could see the lie, of course. The great lie that was the priesthood. They existed not to serve the River but to keep him bound. Those whom the River blessed were given their power for a purpose, so that he might walk the land rather than live torpidly within his banks—so that the god of the River might roam free. And the priests bound the River's children, though they pretended to worship him. If one worshipped a god, would not one help it realize its dreams? What matter to the River if a few buildings were crushed in the pangs of birth, a few Human Beings died? The River took in the souls of all when they died anyway; he drank them up. All belonged to him.

    Far from worshippers, Ghe could see now, the priests were the enemies of the River. They had fought for centuries to keep the Royal Blood checked, diluted. That was why they had set him to kill Hezhi, the emperor's daughter—kill that beautiful, intelligent girl. And he would have done it, had not her strange barbarian guardian been unkillable! Ghe had stabbed him in the heart with a poisoned blade, and still he stood back up, chopped off Ghe's head—

    He flinched away from that thought. Not yet.

    However it had happened, it was fortunate that he had not slain Hezhi. Much depended upon her, he realized. The River had many enemies plotting against him, and now Ghe, the River's only true and loyal servant—now he had those enemies.

    And he knew his task with a wonderful, radiant certainty. His task was to save Hezhi from her foes, for she was the River's daughter, and more. She was his hope, his weapon.

    His flesh.

    Soon enough, Ghe knew, he would open his eyes, would creep back up to the light, take up his weapons, and make his way where Rivers do not flow. A wrong would be righted, a god would be served, and perhaps, just perhaps, he would once again kiss a princess.

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