THE BLOODY CHORUS

Cropped Bloody Chorus.jpg

The Bloody Chorus

The long-awaited epic arrives in early 2023!

Cover art by Felix Ortiz

Two empires...one in decline, the other ascendant and hungry for conquest...

Upon his father’s mysterious assassination, young Haru reluctantly becomes ruler—Tain—of his once-fearsome island nation. Threatened by a world they once dominated, Haru’s people, the Cryori, struggle with the peace the old Tain championed, nostalgic for the violent glories of their past. But across the ocean, an alliance of old enemies has formed, led by a madman bent on righting old wrongs. Enigmatic and fanatical, Reius decries the Cryori and their living gods, determined to erase their influence and beliefs.

Now Haru must get justice for his murdered father and defend his people from the coming scourge over the sea. Promising his ancient, grieving goddess to kill Reius, he reunites his father’s failed circle of protectors—a magical band of avenging misfits known as the Bloody Chorus.

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CHAPTER ONE
BLOOD AND ASHES

     The sea raged for days after the old Tain’s death.

     No one told the goddess of his passing. He was part of the sacred waters, as she was, and just as she could feel the births and deaths of the dragon-whales, so too had she sensed his murder. Her mourning churned the seas of Nesenor, piling broken shells high on the shores and up-rooting kelp from the crystalline depths. The goddess held no dominion over the air, and so the heavens remained still while the seas boiled. Yet beneath the serene sky, in the waters that surrounded her beloved islands, the goddess Clionet made known her misery.

     Haru barely noticed the goddess’ rage. Like Clionet, he grieved too. He spoke no prayers to the goddess, made no offerings of camellia blooms or egret feathers like the mariners and Venerants had. His father’s death had been so sudden, so violent, that he could scarcely recall the last few days at all. He remembered the flash and the blood and the way his father disappeared in fire. He remembered Liadin’s comforting arms. But his ascension to the throne was a blur, a hurried ceremony in the aftermath of tragedy. Today, even surrounded by thousands, Haru felt friendless and alone.

     Within his hands rested a jeweled and golden chest, barely larger than a loaf of bread. Sixteen-year-old Haru stared at it blankly, trying to comprehend the strangeness of its contents. The sea slumbered now. Clionet at last was calm, waiting for Haru out beyond the shore. Beneath his feet crunched the sugar white sands of Dragon’s Tongue, a spit of land on the windward side of Nesenor, the very place where the first Cryori had met the goddess a thousand years before. Haru could trace his bloodline back to Hiaran directly. And that was the only reason—that random act of fate—why he was standing at the shore with the golden box.

     A breeze stirred Haru’s cerulean hair. Half a dozen beast-ships patrolled in the distance, protecting the islanders gathered on shore. Blue were the people, like the ocean they worshipped, with shining eyes and lips that matched their sea-toned skin. Some had come with shinogin, the pear-shaped Cryori lute, playing mournful dirges while children sang and danced in bright dresses. A trio of barefoot boys waded into the water until their mothers angrily called them back. Haru remained detached in the commotion, vacant and broken. Only the golden box held his interest. It seemed so small, far too small to hold the remnants of such an imposing man. There had been so little left of his father after the burning…

     Just ashes, thought Haru darkly. Blood and ashes.

     To Haru’s right stood Shadur, nervously flexing his crystal hand. To his left waited the feline Elsifor. Of the Chorus, only the two of them were in attendance for the ceremony. No one had expected the introverted Valivan to come—the presence of so many people would have shattered his fragile mind—but Haru had hoped Siva would show. She hadn’t even acknowledged his message.

     Haru shrugged off his disappointment. He didn’t really need Siva—two of the Chorus was enough to protect him. Behind him stood Liadin and his fellow Venerants, arrow-straight in their silvery robes. Their sukatai—the curved spears of their holy order—rose up upon their backs. Liadin stood ahead of the rest, closer than either Shadur or Elsifor, near enough to whisper encouragement into young Haru’s ear.

     “Look at them,” urged Liadin. “Do not look down.”

     Haru straightened at the advice, meeting the gazes of the gathered Cryori, an ocean of azure faces with sapphire eyes, no two significantly different. They had come from across Nesenor, men and women and shoeless children, old mariners, pretty young girls, decedents of the royal blood and nameless fisher-folk, all to mourn their dead Tain and to glimpse his son, their new ruler.

     They had come, too, for the spectacle of Clionet.

     At the edge of the shore an ornate raft swayed with the tide, beached but eager for the sea. Festooned with flowers and ribbons and hand-written notes, the raft would take Tain Sh’an’s remains to the goddess.

     First though, words were required. Haru cleared his throat, and the throng fell quiet. The shinogin players silenced their instruments. Attention gripped the crowd. The sharp exhalation of a dragon-whale pierced the waves with a cone of steam and fire. Clionet herself had called the creatures from their watery caves near Jinja. Except for her, only the Tains of Nesenor could summon the beasts. Today the dragon-whales were Clionet’s heralds, and though their numbers had dwindled over the centuries, they were still an astonishing sight.

      In the days when Nesenor dominated the waves, the shenenra—the dragon-whales—numbered in the hundreds. Together with the beast-ships they were the terrors of the continent, spreading Cryori terror to the barbarous east to bring back riches and slaves. Some recalled those days as glorious and lamented their loss. Others thought the past well buried. Haru had little opinion about these things. Until just a few days ago, he thought only about girls and sailing.

     “Speak now,” said Liadin. The Arch-Disciple touched his shoulder. “And remember who your father was.”

     Haru raised the golden chest high above his head. There hadn’t been time to fully rehearse the charm, so he’d memorized just enough of it to please the goddess, spending hours the night before with Liadin as the old priest taught him the ancient phrases. At first he’d stumbled badly, the words impossible to recite. But gradually he improved, until at last Liadin declared him ready. Haru took one breathe…then spoke the charm.

     “Eyi-hrawl, U’uulia Tat yuonn. Eyi-hrawel, Clionet, Gaj-Kwyoan Midia!”

     They were simple words really, difficult to speak but clear in meaning. And all the gathered Cryori, even the youngest ones, understood their significance.

     To water return us, bound by blood. To water return us, Clionet, immortal mother.

     “Louder,” urged Liadin. “You are Tain now. Demand that she come!”

     Haru had never called the sea goddess before. Like most Cryori, he had never even seen her. But his father had called her upon the death of his own father, and so it had been since Hiaran, Haru’s long-dead ancestor. Liadin had summoned her too, because he was Arch-Disciple and knew the charm to bring her forth. Yet it was a rare thing indeed to summon Clionet, and it seemed to Haru that all of Nesenor had come to witness it. So he did as Liadin urged, repeating the words with authority, imagining how his dead father would speak them, loud enough so the men on the distant beast-ships might hear.

     “Clionet! Gaj-Midia! I am Haru, Tain of Nesenor, son of Sh’an! U’uulia Sh’an! Come, Blessed Clionet! U’uulia! Take him!”

     The thousands gathered on Dragon’s Tongue stared seaward. Except for the ripple of the submerged shenenra, the waves remained still. Haru froze, his face hot with embarrassment. Had he mangled the charm? Surely Clionet was out there—she had summoned the dragon-whales. He turned toward the clerics behind him, all of whom wore the same troubled expression.

     Except for Liadin.

     Ever confident, Haru’s old tutor allowed a tiny smile to crack his bearded face. “Capricious,” he jested.

     “She won’t come,” said Haru. “What should I do?”

     “Seduce her,” replied Liadin. “Pretend she is one your giggling girls.”

     “What?”

     “Clionet is full of vices,” said Liadin. “You think because she is immortal, she is so different from the rest of us? Make her come to you the way you get the girls to kiss you, Haru. You are new to her. Make her trust you.”

     Haru’s panic grew. He leaned closer and whispered, “Liadin, I don’t know how. Everyone’s watching…”

     Liadin radiated calm. “You are her new lover, Haru. Her chosen. She will obey you because that’s her promise. I’ve taught you the words; the rest is up to you.”

     None of it made sense to Haru. None of it was how it was supposed to be. He felt stupid with all of Nesenor watching, wondering why their new Tain couldn’t do what all other Tains before him had managed. He looked helplessly at Liadin, then at Shadur and Elsifor, his bodyguards. They too had patron gods, but their gods paid attention. Their gods didn’t leave them looking like fools. Angered by Clionet’s disregard, Haru broke away from the others and trudged down the beach with the golden chest. He reached the raft, refusing to place the chest upon it as planned. Instead, he splashed into the water beside it, wading in up to his knees.

     “Clionet!” he shouted. “I know you can hear me! I know you’re powerful and I know you’re angry, but he was my father! What was he too you but another Tain? You weep for him? I weep for him! I…”

     The emotion came over him so fast he couldn’t quell it. Suddenly all the tears he had restrained for days came gushing down his cheeks to stain his satin blouse. Furious, he lifted the golden chest over his head, barely able to check himself from hurling it into the sea.

     “This is all that’s left of him!” he bellowed. “Not enough to fill a box! You want him? Take him!”

     The sea stayed silent. Haru tossed the box onto the raft and cursed his tears, wishing a wave would come and drown him. Better that than face his people, he decided. Better than being the failure his father had predicted.

     “Come. Don’t come.” Haru shrugged. “He’s dead. And you can’t bring him back, Clionet. No one can.”

     Up on the shore he caught a glimpse of Liadin. There was no reassurance on the old man’s face. Only pity. The mystic Shadur stared at him. Elsifor shifted his cat-shaped eyes down the shore. A small boy at the front of the crowd asked his mother what was happening, but the woman didn’t answer. Confusion had been all Haru could feel since his father’s murder. Confusion overrode everything, even his grief. He began trudging up the beach, ready to offer apologies to Liadin and the other Venerants. They would be polite, he knew, but they would think his father was right—he was a silly boy who’d never be Tain.

     He had taken only a few steps when he felt the water dragging him back. The receding tide grabbed his ankles, nearly pulling him off his feet, but when he looked back the water wasn’t leaving the shore. It was moving though, suddenly alive, as though great invisible ropes were swishing beneath the surface.

     Not ropes, thought Haru. Arms.

     He peered into the water and watched as the liquid appendages drew themselves around the raft, churning up the sea and snatching the raft from the beach. A gasp went through the crowd, then a roar of approval. Instead of retreating Haru trudged deeper into the water, following the raft until the water was at his waist.

     “Come out, goddess!” he cried, and swept an arm toward the thousands on-shore. “Let us see you!”

     The water roiled and the little raft pitched as the magical current drew it further and further from shore. Then, when it was some hundred yards away, the sea opened beneath it like a maw, swallowing it up in a waterfall before snapping shut. It was simply gone. The waves becalmed. Haru waited, wondering if it was done. Before he could turn or utter a word, a purple tentacle whipped from the water, wrapping itself around him and snatching him off his feet. He fell face-first, smashing against the water and feeling himself being pulled across the surface. He heard the shocked cries of the crowd dying away behind him as water filled his ears.

     Deeper and deeper he went, dragged into the inky cold. The powerful tentacle tightened around him but he didn’t struggle. It was the sea goddess, he knew, and there was no way he could break her hold. He held his breath as the sunlight faded above him, growing ever paler as he fell down, down through the depths. Panic rose up in him; his insolence had doomed him. She would drown him, and that would be the end of his brief rule. He let out the last of his breath in a bitter curse.

     Then, he saw her…

     Clionet.

     She was monstrous, beautiful, a luminous blue being as large as a dragon-whale and as insubstantial as a jellyfish, floating naked near the sea bottom. Beneath her torso squirmed a mass of tentacles, but above that she was woman-like, with breasts that bobbed in the current and strands of seaweed circling her arms. Her hair shined golden, her eyes a grassy green. She parted her lips, birthing an enormous bubble from her mouth that grew larger and larger until she herself was inside it. The tentacle ensnaring Haru drew him into the bubble. Suddenly he could breathe again. He gasped, staring into Clionet’s enormous face a hundred feet beneath the surface.

     “Goddess!” he sputtered. He dug his fingers into her tentacle, terrified but not wanting to show it. “Take me back up!”

     Clionet drew him closer, then pursed her lips to gently blow on him the way a mother would a crying child. Haru jerked back, making her laugh. Even through his shock Haru noticed her unnatural beauty. She astonished him.

     “Speak, please,” he implored. “Say something!”

     “Do you want me to release you?”

     “Yes!”

     “If I release you, you will surely die.”

     “Then take me back to the beach!”

     Clionet smiled with white coral teeth. Her skin shifted colors as she spoke. “Your father knew how to speak to me,” she said. “Why didn’t he teach you? He was Tain long enough to instruct you.”

     Haru groped for an answer. “Liadin tutored me. My father…” He stopped himself. “My father’s death was sudden.”

     “Yes,” sighed Clionet. The tentacle around Haru slackened. For a moment he thought he might fall, right through the bubble to drown. “Your father was my beloved. He knew all the words. You know none. Your tutor has failed you.”

     “I spoke the words the way Liadin taught me,” said Haru. “I spoke them properly, I’m sure of it.”

     Clionet nodded. “The words, yes,” she granted. “But I knew your father’s heart, while your heart is a mystery to me. Even your mother accepted the love I shared with Sh’an. But you—he kept you from me. His only child.” She considered him curiously. “Why?”

     Haru couldn’t bear to tell her. “My father loved me,” he answered. “Till the day he died, I never doubted it. Tell me what you want of me, goddess. Tell me and I will serve you as well as he did. No! Better. Tell me and I will prove it to you.”

     “Prove it to me? Or to someone else?” probed Clionet. Her lips glistened, wet with sea water. Her smile enchanted Haru. “I wonder why you are so eager to please. But oh, you are a beautiful boy.” She lifted him closer, turning him a bit to see his profile. “Handsome. Do you have many lovers?”

     Haru hated blushing but couldn't help himself. “I have...girls,” he said, though in truth he’d only been with one the way Clionet meant, and she hadn’t meant anything to him. He had always been a favorite of the girls in the castle, though. But those girls were people, and he had no idea what the goddess was hinting at. “You and my father…were you...lovers?”

     “I have been the mistress of every Tain since Hiaran,” purred Clionet. She reached out a giant, glowing finger and smoothed down his blue hair. “Each has pleased me in different ways. Now it is your turn...Haru.”

     There was heartbreak in the way she spoke his name. Haru looked into her sparkling eyes, wondering how to ease her pain. She retracted her blue finger and leaned back in the giant bubble. A school of minnows circled outside the magical chamber. Clionet’s tentacles shifted to a luminous silver, mimicking them. Haru had a thousand questions for her, but asked only one.

     “Do you know who killed my father?”

     “If I knew that, I would lock the villain in the dungeons beneath Jinja Castle and feast on his marrow. But I do not know. Whoever took Sh’an away from us is far away from here. Somewhere in the Alliance.”

     “You’re sure of that? How do you know?”

     “The Alliance,” repeated the goddess.

     The Alliance was what the people of J’hora—the continent—called themselves now. For centuries they had warred against each other, leaving Nesenor the only real power in the world. The rise of the madman Reius and his new religion had changed all that.

     “It was old magic that killed him,” said Haru. “That’s what Liadin says.”

     “Some in the Alliance remember the old gods,” said Clionet. “Not many, but J’hora is too vast to find them. I would discover these plotters but away from these waters, I am weak.”

     “The Venerants think Reius himself gave the order to kill my father. I’ll find them, whoever it is. Even if it is Reius.”

     “If you were older, you would know how ridiculous you sound,” said Clionet. “You think too much of yourself. It is not just me and my family that are weak. Nesenor is weak. The dragon-whales, the beast-ships—they are too few to make war on J’hora. Your father was wise enough to know that. Are you?”

     Haru bristled at the question. “Maybe I’m stronger than you think. You want a lover, you want a leader…but you think I’m weak? I won’t just sit back and weep, Clionet. I was there, remember. If you’d seen how they killed him, maybe you’d be hungrier for revenge.”

     The long, silvery appendage tightened around Haru.  “I do hunger, boy,” she hissed. “I rage like a storm! Any J’horan ship that dares sail my waters will be brought down for the eels to consume. If I could reach that recreant Reius I would suck out his eyes and feed him his own bowels. But I cannot reach him. And neither can you.”

     “I will avenge my father, Clionet.”

      “How?” asked the goddess pointedly. “How will you avenge my beloved Sh’an?”

     “I’ll figure it out,” argued Haru. “I've only been Tain a few days.”

     “Which means you don't know anything yet. Your head is empty, but your advisors will try to fill it. Men like Liadin who think they know everything. Men who are cowards and men who crave war. They will crawl over you like insects. They will want favors of you. They’ll offer you fealty. But who will you listen to, Haru?”

     “I trust Liadin,” said Haru. “As my father did. As you always have.”

      “And what about the Chorus? Two of them have already abandoned you.”

Haru writhed in her grasp. “Why are you taunting me? I have said I’ll avenge my father and I will!”

     “How?”

     “I don’t know yet!”

     Haru slumped, unable to break her grip and knowing he couldn’t survive without her anyway. “I need time.” He looked up at her. “Will you give me time? Will you accept me as Tain? Come when I call you? Give me power over the dragon-whales?”

     “How will those things help you make revenge?”

     “Answer me, Goddess—Am I your Tain or not? No one else will follow me if you don’t believe in me. My father never did. Will you?”

     “I promised my loyalty to your family a thousand years ago,” said Clionet. “Some Tains were wise, some evil, but all had my devotion because I had theirs.”

     “You have mine. I swear you do.” Haru placed a kiss upon his palm and held it up for the goddess. She tilted forward to accept it, letting Haru touch her cheek.

     “Then we are one,” said Clionet softly.

     “One,” Haru agreed, “until the day you take my own remains.” He looked curiously at her. “What will you do with my father now? I’ve always wondered. Some say you eat the bodies of the Tains. Is that true?”

     Clionet made a disgusted face. “If you believe that, you truly are too young to be Tain. I return their bodies to the sea. Your family belongs in the sea. I found Hiaran in the sea, remember.”

     “I remember,” nodded Haru. Every Cryori knew the story.

     “Your bloodline is uncommon, Haru. Let others bury their dead in the dirt. Let them be worm food.” Clionet smiled with satisfaction. “Every Tain since Hiaran has been returned to my sacred waters. The promise has never been broken.”

     “But where’s the box?" asked Haru. He glanced around their magical bubble but saw nothing but himself and the goddess. “Did you already open it? We had to cremate him,” he added. “You must have seen that.”

     Clionet had so many tentacles, and Haru had barely paid attention to them. Now one of the appendages emerged from beneath her, expertly gripping the golden box in its pink suckers. The sea goddess said nothing. She simply stared at the box—at the remains of the man she called beloved—for a very long moment. The look of grief returned to her face, and then one of sad acceptance. Then, she stretched out the tentacle, slipping it through the wall of air so that the box was once again in the water. Miraculously, the bubble didn’t puncture. Haru watched as the tentacle squeezed open the chest, popping the lid. As water rushed inside, the dark plume of his father’s ashes floated into the sea. The school of minnows darted through them. The current caught them like a breeze. Quickly, they vanished into the vastness.

     Haru realized his father was gone forever.

     “I’m ready, Clionet,” he said. “Please… take me back now.”