Last of the Wilds

Prologue

Reivan detected the change before any of the others. At first it was instinctive, a feeling more than a knowing; then she noticed that the air smelled duller and that there was a grittiness to it. Looking at the rough walls of the tunnel, she saw deposits of a powdery substance. It coated one side of every bump and groove, as if it had been blown there from a wind originating in the darkness ahead.

A shiver ran down her spine at the thought of what that might mean, yet she said nothing. She might be wrong, and everyone was still deeply shocked by their defeat. All were struggling to accept the deaths of friends, family and comrades, their bodies left behind, buried in the fertile soil of the enemy. They didn’t need something else to worry about.

Even if they hadn’t been all scurrying home in the lowest of spirits, she would not have spoken. The men of her team were easily offended. They, like her, nursed a secret resentment that they had not been born with enough Skill to become a Servant of the Gods. So they clung to the only sources of superiority they had.

They were smarter than average folk. They were Thinkers. Distinguished from the merely educated by their ability to calculate, invent, philosophize and reason. This made them fiercely competitive. Long ago they had formed an internal hierarchy. Older had precedence over younger. Men had credence over women.

It was ridiculous, of course. Reivan had observed that minds tended to become as inflexible and slow with age as the bodies they rested in. Just because there were more men than women among the Thinkers didn’t mean men were any smarter. Reivan relished proving the latter… but now was definitely not the time for that.

And I might be wrong.

The smell of dust was stronger now.

Gods, I hope I’m wrong.

Abruptly she remembered the Voices’ ability to read minds. She glanced over her shoulder and felt a moment’s disorientation. She had expected to see Kuar. Instead a tall, elegant woman walked behind the Thinkers. Imenja, Second Voice of the Gods. Reivan felt a pang of sadness as she remembered why this woman now led the army.

Kuar was dead, killed by the heathen Circlians.

Imenja looked at Reivan, then beckoned. Reivan’s heart skipped a beat. She hadn’t spoken to any of the Voices before, despite being part of the team of Thinkers that had mapped the route through the mountains. Grauer, the team leader, had made the task of reporting to the Voices his own.

She stopped. A glance at the men before her told her they hadn’t noticed the summons, or that she was falling behind. Certainly not Grauer, whose attention was on the maps. When Imenja reached her, Reivan began walking again, remaining one step behind the Voice.

“How may I serve you, holy one?”

Imenja was still frowning, though her gaze remained on the Thinkers. “What is it you fear?” she asked in a low voice.

Reivan bit her lip. “It is probably underground madness, the dark upsetting my mind,” she said hastily. “But… the air was never this dusty on our previous journey. Nor was there this much on the walls. The pattern of it suggests rapid air movement from somewhere ahead. I can think of a few causes… ”

“You fear there has been a collapse,” Imenja stated.

Reivan nodded. “Yes. And further instability.”

“Natural or unnatural?”

Imenja’s question, and what it suggested, caused Reivan to pause in shock and dread.

“I don’t know. Who would do that? And why?”

Imenja scowled. “I have already received reports that the Sennons are causing trouble for our people now that the