Okay, I need some serious feedback. Book 2 is changing rather radically. From being a story about the Triad’s Acolyte, it has now become a story about the Acolyte and Kaati [the Apprentice from book 1]. Initially, Kaati’s story was going to weave into the story of the Acolyte, but in a subordinate, sub-plot kind of way. Now, just as in book 1, Kaati is demanding more space.
I kind of like where Kaati’s story is going but… if I continue I am going to have to change book 3. A lot. The following excerpt is a whole chapter because I need to know if I should let the story unwind or reel it in by making Kaati’s return to power a more straightforward process. I really would appreciate knowing what you guys think. Oh and this is only a first draft so be warned.
The small group of Watchers were sparring under the watchful eyes of the Old One when the guard stationed out in the main cavern came jetting in on a whisper of air.
“Intruder!” it called softly.
The three groups of Watchers immediately broke apart, each drudge hurrying to a torch and burying it in the sand. In moments the cavern was dark, except for the one torch held by the Old one.
As the six Watchers took up their positions in the deepest shadows, the lookout returned to its position in the outer cavern.
When all was in readiness, the Old One walked to its assigned place in the centre of the cavern, and sat down with its back to the entrance. It was the bait. It would distract the Intruder, allowing the others to seize the element of surprise. If the intruder was a Teller it could not be allowed to send an alarm.
The Old One sincerely hoped the intruder would not be a Teller, but it was also relieved the long wait would soon be over. It had taught the Watchers as much as it could, and had trained them until their responses were automatic, but neither they nor their strategies had ever been tested.
As the wait dragged on, the two Watchers hidden on either side of the entrance gripped their short wooden rods a little tighter as sweat made their palms slippery. The whole group had trained for this eventuality, but as the ultimate success of the strategy depended on them, both were nervous.
When the first soft footstep sounded from outside the cavern, the Old One made the sign for calm as it sat a little straighter. It was time.
* * *
Kaati had almost reached the bottom of the winding ramp leading down to the lowest level of the Quarter when something made all the fine hairs between its cilia stand on end. It could not pinpoint what was wrong, but the very air seemed charged.
It stopped, closed its eyes and reached out with its talent. In the last ti’m’akh it had become very adept at sensing the presence of the Tellers without them being aware of its probing. That skill had saved it a number of times already, but this time it could sense no minds nearby.
…becoming as nervous as an ipti…
Shrugging off the sense of being watched, Kaati walked around to the western edge of the lake and sent out a soft ping. The huge subterranean lake shelved sharply, and was a dangerous place to bathe, but it knew where all the shallower areas were, and was not afraid of drowning. Nonetheless, as it scrubbed sweat and dust from its body with fine sand from the bottom, it could not shake the feeling it was in danger.
Cutting its ablutions short, Kaati waded out to dry land and stood there, shivering with cold as it scanned the area again. It still could not sense anyone with the talent, but that only confirmed there were no Tellers in the area. Many Traders only had a very rudimentary talent, and drudges could not mindspeak at all, so they might not show up at all.
But why would any iVokh be down here in the middle of the night unless it was trying to hide something?
Kaati had gone to extraordinary lengths to keep its presence in the Quarter a secret. So far it had revealed itself to just two Traders – the Elder of the Plodder Clan, and one Flyer. It would trust its life to both of them, but they had been entrusted with the task of sounding out the other Traders. Had one of the others betrayed it?
…pah… if being betrayed then Tellers being here, not an ordinary Trader…
But still, if there was someone down here, that person would now know that someone else was sneaking around the Quarter at night. If it started gossiping about what it had seen, the Tellers would soon hear of it too…
As the young Trader gave itself a vigorous shake, it sent a delicate ping towards the southern end of the great underground lake. That whole area was riddled with smaller caves and passages that led nowhere. If someone was watching, that was where they would be.
The echoes did not reveal anyone, but Kaati had not really expected them to; pings could not go around corners so could not penetrate far into confined spaces. An iVokh who did not want to be found would have no trouble finding places to hide.
Moving quietly, but without making any great effort to disguise its footsteps, the young Trader walked quickly towards the ramp leading up to the main level of the Quarter.
* * *
Just before the footsteps reached the entrance, they stopped and a low whistle came from the cavern beyond.
“Intruder gone!” the lookout called softly as it came through the entrance to join the others.
An audible sigh of relief came from one of the hidden Watchers, but most of the others grumbled in disappointment.
The Old One remained impassive, but it too was disappointed, and a little concerned. If there was someone wandering around the Quarter, the group would have to find a safer place in which to train. Unfortunately, few other caverns were large enough, and private enough for the whole group to train together.
Rising to its feet with a sigh, the old drudge clapped its hands for attention.
“This cavern not being safe anymore,” it said. “Will sending word when-…”
“What happening here Old One?”
The whole group froze as the Intruder stepped through the entrance, cowl raised to hide its face.
The young Watcher to the left of the entrance was the first to react. Lunging forward, it swung its rod at the Intruder’s head.
* * *
When Kaati crept back down the ramp, it held its wings off the ground to stop them from rustling, and tested each footfall before setting its foot down. Like a nightwing on the hunt, it did not intend to alert its prey until it was ready to pounce.
The iVokh watching from the caverns was skilled in the ways of stealth as well, but it still made a slight noise as it rose from its hiding place just inside the first small cavern.
That small noise was all the confirmation Kaati needed. Someone had been watching, someone who was not a Teller, yet used Teller skills to good effect. And now that someone was headed deeper into the warren of caves.
Who could it be? And what was in those caves that had to hidden so carefully?
Kaati knew that some mating couples preferred to do their fighting in private, but even so, it could not imagine why they would meet so late, and in such extreme secrecy. As it crept after the other iVokh, it also burned to know how this particular Trader had learned skills reserved for Tellers.
Despite its greater skills, Kaati did not find it easy to track its prey as the other iVokh was still being very cautious. More than once, the young Trader had to stop and listen for some time before it caught another small noise.
The iVokh was some distance in front when it suddenly stopped and whistled – almost as if it were warning someone else of its presence.
The young Trader was still wondering who these iVokh were when it heard a voice it knew, a voice it had thought long dead.
One of the first things Kaati had done after returning to the Quarter was to try and find the old Quartermaster’s retainer. It had hoped to enlist the old drudge’s help in setting up meetings with the Traders most likely to be sympathetic to its cause. Unfortunately it had found no trace of the Old One, and had eventually learned that it had gone out into the Wild soon after the Quartermaster’s death.
Hearing that distinctive voice now was a shock. Not only was the Old One alive and well, it also seemed to be the leader of some clandestine group.
Hope and concern combined to create a slight disharmony in Kaati’s voice as it said, “What happening here Old One?”
At the sound of the young Trader’s voice, all the iVokh in the cavern spun around to face the entrance. All that is, except the Old One who stared at Kaati as if it had seen a ghost. The torch in its hand trembled, sending smoky shadows leaping across the walls.
Stepping lightly into the cavern, Kaati allowed its cowl to relax so the old retainer could see its face.
The rush of displaced air coming from behind alerted Kaati to the danger, and it reacted without thought. Lunging backwards with its left leg, it brought its left arm up to shield its head. The blow deflected off its forearm, numbing its whole arm, but the young Trader was still moving. As it completed the turn its right fist hammered into its assailant’s chest.
Both iVokh hit the ground, but Kaati was on top. Rolling to its feet, it spun back and threw a savage necklock on its assailant. Using its right knee as a fulcrum it bent the iVokh’s back into a bow.
“Move and breaking neck!” it hissed.
“Stop!” the Old One croaked, finally managing to find its voice. “Na-Quartermaster? Being truly alive?”
“But being dead!”
As the astonished whispers flew from iVokh to iVokh, Kaati nodded its head, but did not release the pressure on its assailant’s neck. It had recognized the other iVokh as drudges almost immediately, but was still reeling from the shock of being attacked by one of them.
Who were these drudges? And why was the Old One apparently leading them?
“Begging,” the Old One said in a stronger voice. “Not killing young Watcher!”
The Quartermaster had never openly admitted the Old One spied for it, but it had once mentioned that it had Watchers amongst the Traders. Could these savage young drudges be the Watchers it had referred to?
“Believing this young Watcher trying to kill self,” Kaati said in a flat voice.
“Forgiveness. Thinking being Teller…”
The Old One’s words made Kaati’s mouth fall open in astonishment. This drudge had knowingly attacked someone it thought might be a Teller?
Looking around at the other drudges lining the walls of the cavern, the young Trader noticed that all of them were brandishing rods, and looked as if they knew how to use them.
“Who training Watchers to fight?”
Something like embarrassment flitted across the Old One’s features, but it kept its voice steady as it said, “Watchers not attacking again. Please releasing, then explaining all.”
Kaati was not at all sure it was prepared to trust the Old One’s word, not any more. However it was in an awkward situation. By revealing its presence, it had already entrusted all these drudges with a secret they should not know. As allies, they could prove useful, but as enemies they could ruin everything it had worked to achieve. It might be able to kill two or three of them, but not all…
“Not making any sudden moves,” the young Trader commanded as it slowly released the Watcher, and stepped back.
“Now walking to Old One.”
Nodding to show it understood, the Watcher rubbed at its neck as it trudged towards the old iVokh, head down in shame.
“Others too,” Kaati demanded.
At a small hand gesture from the Old One, the other Watchers left their positions, and joined the small group in the centre of the cave.
That hand gesture chilled Kaati almost as much as the thought of drudges knowing how to fight. It was part of the sign language all apprentice Tellers were taught, and was a closely guarded secret.
Despite having learned to hate and fear the Tellers, Kaati still found the thought of drudges wielding such power disconcerting. Why would any Teller betray its clan and side with drudges?
“Who training drudges?” the young Trader asked again, its tone uncompromising. “And for what purpose?”
“Who being self,” the Old One said with a touch of pride, “and the why being to avenge murder of Quartermaster!”
“But how…? Ki! Wait! Quartermaster being murdered?”
* * *
The Old One had lived with the knowledge of the Quartermaster’s murder for so long the rage had become a cold, hard thing. But now, seeing the shock and disbelief on the young Trader’s face, it felt the outrage welling up again, fresh and raw. Its hand shook a little as it gestured for everyone to sit down.
Speaking in a monotone to hold its emotions at bay, the Old One told how it had found the cushion that had been used to smother the old Quartermaster, and how it had realized that only Teller assassins could have overpowered the old Plodder.
“Stop!” the young Trader said. “How Old One knowing so much about Tellers?”
“Because training as Teller apprentice once too.”
When the young Trader said nothing further, the Old One continued its tale. It touched briefly on how it had found the Watchers, and persuaded them to join its quest to find the murderers.
As the Old One spoke, the seven young Watchers all sat up a little straighter, and nodded solemnly. However, when it began talking about all the Traders involved with the old Quartermaster’s death, every iVokh present fell still.
“Master Teller, Runner Seneschal and all of top ranking Tellers?” the young Trader asked, its face ashen.
“S’so. Together with at least five high ranking Runners, including current Clan Elder.”
“Almost third of all Traders…”
Knowing how devastating this news must be, the Old One said nothing more, allowing the young Trader to absorb the news at its own pace.
* * *
The Old One’s news hit Kaati hard. It had known the old Quartermaster as a gentle giant who had always had the Traders’ best interests at heart. It had had its faults, but it had never allowed those faults to affect the Traders.
More disturbing still was the realization that so many Traders had hated the old Plodder enough to murder it. The only other Quartermaster to ever die at the hands of the Traders was the one who had initiated the Great Unrest.
“Why Old One? Why hating old Quartermaster so much?”
“Pride and ambition for some, fear for others,” the old drudge said.
“Fear? Why fear? Old Quartermaster never doing harm to any Trader!”
“Ki. But perhaps those Traders knowing Old Master would not believe about… life-debt.”
There was no hint of accusation in the old drudge’s voice, but Kaati still felt a rush of guilt. It knew it had done nothing wrong in bartering for the healing of the young Flyer on the Spine. That healing had been a fair trade. Nonetheless it knew it was not completely innocent of all blame. If it had not been so proud, and had trusted the Quartermaster’s judgement more, the old Plodder would have had warning of the brewing crisis, and might have been able to avert it. Instead it had known nothing of what was happening, and had died because of it.
“Healing of Flyer being fair trade Old One. But blaming self for not informing Quartermaster of conflicts in caravan…”
“Hearing some rumours, especially amongst Plodders, but those rumours also saying na-Quartermaster dying on Spine. Killed by to’pak.”
Kaati knew the way rumours could feed upon themselves, growing with each re-telling until they bore no resemblance to the truth. Nonetheless the specific nature of this rumour had it baffled.
“Why saying being killed by to’pak?”
“That being what Messenger saying,” the Old One replied.
“Messenger? Telling exactly what Messenger saying!”
“Only hearing gossip,” the Old One said with an apologetic shrug.
As the Old One spoke about the conversation the Messenger had had with one of the Flyers, Kaati’s eyes grew round in astonishment. If that particular rumour was true, the Messenger had deliberately lied to save its life.
However when the Old One spoke about the Messenger fighting and killing the Leader of the Tellers, right in the middle of Needlepoint gather, the young Trader jumped up and began pacing. As it paced, memories of that last night on the Spine came back with chilling clarity.
The Messenger had asked Kaati about its plans, and it had been tempted to ask for help, but then the conversation had abruptly veered away, and the moment had been lost…
…because of ‘Guild business’…
And then, the next morning, when they reached that small cave, the Messenger must have done something to put it to sleep because when it finally woke up there was all that food in the cave. And those credits.
Had the Messenger planned the whole thing… just to help Kaati survive?
No wonder the Tellers had killed the Messenger. After the Leader’s death they must have tracked it, and ambushed it as it was returning to the cave.
But why would the Messenger go to such lengths to help a Trader? Even if it had hoped to create a life-debt for the future, it would have had no guarantee that Kaati would even survive to pay that debt.
Had the Messenger truly been so calculating? Or had it been motivated by the same loyalty that Traders felt for each other?
…some Traders only…
That thought brought Kaati to a standstill. Traders had been loyal to each other, for generation upon generation. But not any more. Now something ugly had taken the place of loyalty. Traders might still talk about loyalty but their words were empty. Loyalty, like honour, came from actions, not words.
The first signs of that rift between word and deed had occurred on the Spine, when the Tellers had tried to force the Plodder into leaving the Messenger behind. And the cracks had just widened from then on.
And now the only Traders prepared to act to avenge a foul murder were drudges…
Turning towards the small group of clustered around the Old One, Kaati stared at the old drudge, as if seeing it, truly seeing it for the first time.
“Why doing this Old One?”
* * *
The Old One met the young Trader’s eye for a long moment before it looked away.
When it had first begun hunting for Watchers, it had been motivated by rage and a sickening sense of injustice. It had seen its vengeance as being a last act of service for the Quartermaster. But now, after getting to know all these bright, passionate young drudges, it was starting to see that what they were doing went far deeper than just vengeance.
But would this young Trader understand? It had spent the formative part of its young life wanting and expecting to be part of the elite. On the Spine it had defended the Trader Way, but just now it had made no attempt to hide the contempt it felt for the Watchers. Would it just use them and discard them when they were no longer useful? Could it really be trusted?
“Quartermaster being an honourable Trader,” the Old One said. “Not deserving to be murdered. Once having enough Watchers, intending to kill all those responsible.”
* * *
Kaati could sense the Old One was not being completely truthful, but at least it was not lying about its desire for vengeance. The cold resolve in its voice was genuine. It would kill those responsible for the old Quartermaster’s death, or die trying.
But would it risk its life for the Traders as a whole? Or for a na-Quartermaster newly risen from the grave?
“Forgiveness, Old One,” Kaati began, “but Watchers being no match for Tellers. Even if training for years, rods and physical skill still not being enough against Tellers. Tellers being trained to fight as a group, using mindspeech to co-ordinate attacks…”
An expression of pain crossed the old drudge’s face.
“Knowing,” it said. “But if can catching Tellers one by-…”
“Like catching self?” Kaati asked softly.
At the young Trader’s words, all the Watchers rose to their feet, bristling with anger.
“Taking by surprise!”
“Not happening again!”
Really? Kaati thought as it half inflated its wings.
Distracted by their anger, none of the Watchers noticed what the young Trader was doing until it suddenly leapt towards them like a stone released from a sling.
Kaati flew through the air, its leap powered by the thrust of air from its jets. It barreled into the group at head height and half of them went down immediately. Rolling to its feet behind the remaining Watchers, the young Trader struck left and right with its elbows. Two more Watchers went down as it somersaulted over them.
In moments, just two Watchers remained on their feet, but the young Trader ignored them. Turning towards the Old One it grabbed the old drudge’s arm and twisted it up behind its back… but gently.
“Now imagine,” Kaati said, “what damage could doing if being a fully trained Teller.”
A stunned silence met the young Trader’s words. It had not done any permanent damage, to any of them, but all those now struggling up from the ground were hurting, and would bear ugly bruises for a ti’m’akh.
“Enough, young one,” the Old One said. “Proving point. Releasing.”
As the young Trader released the old drudge’s arm it took two steps back, and stared at the group. Its expression was still wary, but all of the Watchers looked cowed, even those who had not been hit.
When it was sure it had their attention, Kaati began speaking.
“If helping regain power amongst Clans, promising to teach Watchers better techniques.”
The Watchers continued to look surly and defeated, but at least they were still listening.
“But needing still more. Needing one member of each group to have mind-speech. That means needing help of Traders.”
None of the Watchers looked pleased by the thought of being dependent on any Trader, but as Kaati explained how it would co-ordinate these groups into a deadly fighting force capable of taking down even the most highly trained Teller, their expressions changed to looks of grudging respect. Only the Old One continued to look defeated.
Turning to face the old drudge who still sat on the ground, Kaati extended its hand as it said, “Vengeance not being possible, unless working together.”
The Old One ignored the young Trader’s hand as it pushed itself to its feet.
“Together?” it asked. “Drudges and Traders, together?”
Kaati was taken aback by the vehemence of the old drudge’s words.
What had the Old One expected? To be praised for training these young drudges to die? Some of them would still die, that was inevitable, but at least now they would have a chance to actually accomplish something!
Looking around at the circle of drudges, the young Trader noticed that their expressions were all grim again. They had had a moment of hope but now it was gone.
What in Takh’s name did they all want if not vengeance?
…perhaps wanting some respect…
The voice in Kaati’s head was its own, but the words felt like something the old Quartermaster would have said. It had always been strangely courteous when talking to the Old One…
“Ki,” the young Trader said, loud enough for all the drudges to hear. “Not drudges and Traders. Watchers and Traders. Together.”