CHAPTER 2 The Utandis Cradle "Now children. Who can tell me what a god is?" The class knew their Mentor's tricks. There would be no impulse answers; no strenuous raising of hands nor cries for attention. Children of Pegulis knew better. They followed the scholar as he trod the foot-wide trench around the Butcher's Chamber. It was an ice gulley worn smooth by the feet of a hundred classes before them. "No one? What about you, Willem?" A Nocturne child, pale as the chamber wall, spoke up from the back of the group. "It's an episte-- ... an epist-er-mological placeholder." "I see you've been paying attention. Now what does that mean?" A Draken child, bundled up in furs, raised his arm. "It means it's something we haven't proven yet." In the chamber's centre was a hive of industry. The great carcass of the dragon stretched from one end of the cavern to the other and scraped the ceiling with its dorsal spines. Other gulleys, like the ones the school-class walked in, took the run-off of blood and stomach juices. Close to a hundred Barvelle workers swarmed like ants across the corpse. They were joined by ropes and bonesaws, canvas sheets and arcane shackles. The greater number worked on prizing the scales away and conveying them in wagons to other chambers. There was also a group cutting membrane from the wings - a task requiring careful cooperation with both ends of a tree-saw. And by far the most cautious group were the wizards by the dragon's head, who delicately siphoned off the fire mucus from its lungs and airways. It was dissection on an industrial scale. The Butcher's Cavern had only ever seen the likes of fish and gar mammoths before this day. Nothing like this. Through the din of shouts and magic discharge, the mentor chuckled. "Proven? Look around you, Mysah!" The old man held his hands out and turned a slow circle. "It is known empirically, beyond a doubt, that there were once creatures who tore apart the sky and plunged us into an ice age." Katerin, a human girl, was quick to retort. "But to be empirical it has to be testable." She crossed her arms. "Since the gods are dead, they cannot recreate the conditions that proved their existence." The mentor led them down a tunnel between the wagons. The next cavern ahead was dripping - a veritable rain of melting ice. The children pulled their hoods up and moved between long rows of granite blocks where acolytes worked the dragon bone. In powdered form, the bone dust was tossed and scattered by their incantations, and polished gems began to glow with thermic resonance. "Do you remember your grandfather, Katerin?" "No." "Then how are you sure he existed?" "Mother has a painting of him at the the Feast of Randuc, and she kept his fur cloak in a tr--" The old man waved her off. "Oh, hearsay! Hearsay! You can't prove anything." Another child retorted. "So because the world is frozen, we must think a god responsible?" At the chamber's far end, a rock wall was decorated with flowers, their stems pushed into cracks and hung with parchment scrolls. Prayers and good wishes for the Northern Archon, who had woken that morning from her coma. Here the mentor paused and gathered the children around him. "Precisely not. We must not think anything. This is not Kaustir. There is a gap in our knowledge and we are free to fill it with whatever we choose. The popular notion at present is that there were gods." He raised a finger to the class. "However, the error, children, is in mistaking popularity for whimsy. The belief in gods is held by scholars, farmers, soldiers and sages all over the Blue Kingdom. Tribes separated by thousands of miles, raised in isolation, subject to opposing extremes of terrain and temperament. People who, like you, have been taught to question every facet of their existence, even the folklore of their elders. So when the assorted strata of learned men conclude that there were gods, we must not take this lightly. For so many of us to feel to intuit that there were once such beings - is a proof greater than any empirical method. And you may think me irrational to say so. But which of us is the teacher now?" The children laughed and followed the mentor onwards, past the stairway of the observatory tower, where armoured guards stood watch. The heated squabbles of meteorologists drifted down the spiral steps. "So tell me, children: knowing what you know and do not know - what is it you feel about the gods?" Messengers rushed by, sprinting with sudden urgency. Whispers of avalanches and Golems jumped through the main thoroughfare; and the greater part of the class were distracted. But a few remained and stared hard at the old man. "That they are not gone." "That they left something behind." "The Weapons..." The mentor smiled and nodded. * * * * * "Yes." For the third time, Arcantos assured the healer he was warm enough. Huddled in furs, with a brace of thermic gems around his neck, the Draken messenger slumped against the cave wall. He was one among two dozen who had sat there for the better part of an hour, quiet and sombre as the healers tried to save the less fortunate. The avalanche had blocked the cave entrance and left only torchlight to see by. Not fifteen foot away from Arcantos himself, the fallen snow was compacted. Impassable. Some had tried to dig through it and failed. The cave was little more than an alcove, formed beneath an overhang in Fissura Pass. A pocket of air that had missed the shower. The instinct of panic had sent many here as the convoy scattered, and Arcantos was among them. Those who had stayed with the wagons and horses had perished. Those who had fled were trapped beyond the pass, bound alone for Aldus or Barvelle. Yet those who had sought cover... those who had stumbled blindly for the canyon walls and the comfort of darkness... those were the ones who now huddled in this cave, alive enough to partake in their slow death. A white dragon, the size of a wolf, rested its ethereal head in Arcantos's lap. Since the avalanche his aux had been quiet. As had many. It was to be expected in times of shock. The Draken made a show of stroking the creature, feeling only the slightest warmth on his soul as he did so. His brow was knitted. The wizard Medwick had sent him to warn the cities, and now he would die in the endeavour. The Ghoul Sage would triumph. And darkness would swallow the land. He pushed the thought away, just as he pushed away the hunger in his belly. Looking up, the Draken watched his fellow survivors and saw among them the assuring sights of Captain Ilsa and the hunter Castigarian. They were helping wrap the dead. At least for now the best of Aldus still lived.