A little from the story that starts it all…
‘Odja’ Gateš, eldest of Mora Šivak, sat crosslegged on a mat at the edge of the common area, per tail curled around into per lap, and picking idly at the tuft of hair at the tip. Gateš had seen seven winters, as the Anyuvin had once to reckoned time, and was very old by Anyuvin standards. Per mane and fur had gone gray long ago and were now a silver white. Gateš was of Modjari stock and, to hear Kenan tell of it, was once tall and well muscled, sporting a massive ebony mane and a piercing, green-eyed gaze. All that remained now, were the eyes.
I had been living with Mora Šivak for almost a year, the lone human in this Anyuvin enclave hidden on a disreputable station in an outlaw system. Why they were here was simple – most humans would not suffer those Anyuvin who held to their traditional ways. Why the Anyuvin trusted me I could not say, only that when Djani insisted that I be treated as a guest, and not a spy thrust among them, Gateš had agreed. As eldest, per word carried much weight. Still, that acceptance had limits. I knew they were embarked on some great project, but even Djani, the first and best of my Anyuvin friends, would not speak of it.
It was after the evening meal and the children were gathering around Odja in anticipation of a story. (Odja Gateš was, by all accounts, the very best storyteller.) The youngest children were already tired and half asleep, but among the older ones there was much pulling of tails and grabbing of manes as they wrestled to be closest to Odja. Djanza, with mock fierceness, was just about to claim the mat to the left of Gateš when per stopped the youngster with a shake of the head and a soft smile. Then Gateš called across the tent and waved me over.
By the time I had made my way past the adults playing šači and through the tangle of youngsters, Gateš had lit a stick of nova ičakor. As the citrus scent drifted across the tent the children’s eyes brightened and several of the adults stopped what they were doing and moved closer. “Story incense” was reserved for special occasions. Gateš patted the mat with a paw that looked frail, the three toes and dewclaw bent and twisted by čačav.
“Sit here, Djedi,” Gateš said, per voice cracking a bit. “Tonight the choice of stories is yours.”
An honor, and perhaps a test. I knew a few of their stories, but somehow I did not think that picking one of them was really what Gateš wanted. More than once Odja had made me feel as if per expected something of me. What, exactly, I had never figured out. As I was pondering this, a small paw reached out and tugged at the sleeve of my robe. I turned to see Dovan, one of the youngest, half buried in a pile of siblings.
“The stars,” the tawny furred youngster said sleepily. “When they fell.”
I turned back towards Odja, who was smiling, the corners of per mouth pulled up and those green eyes practically glowing.
“When the stars fell,” I said. “Tell us about that, Odja.”
Djatov Vadya Šivak av Inadji stood on the siradj and waited for the stars to fall. Per right hand stroked Keramo’s neck to steady the ketašo’s nerves and Vadya wished per could calm perself as easily. My tail twitches like an okume’s, per thought.
Keramo reached over to nibble at Vadya’s mane and Vadya cuffed per head away, then straightened the inora, tugging at the auburn locks which had been woven through the djucažok cords. Djani took such care weaving my mane, Vadya thought, being sure, of course, to leave the streaks of gray hidden underneath. As if I was that vain. Vadya barked a short laugh. Well, maybe I am – a little. And, to tell the truth, it was nice to remember what per had looked like when per was younger. Vadya’s honey brown fur was tipped with gray now, as was per rust red stripes, and the amber eyes that Djani so adored were less clear now.
Keramo, too, was old, with gray in the muzzle and about per dark brown eyes. Vadya continued petting Keramo’s neck, even as the ketašo kicked the sand with a hoof.
“M’div, Keramo,” Vadya said, quietly. “The spirit said this would happen. Though it unnerves me as well.”
From the top of the dune, Vadya could see out over the entire valley. To the east, Mora Šivak was camped by a small šigari tucked up against the eastern wall of the Kašav Rift, the light from the family’s tent barely visible through the trees that surrounded the waterhole. They were camped at Kan Ginyandji Čadra, “The Giant’s Shadow”, which sat in shade much of the day and was a cool and pleasant place in the summer. More to the point, there were caves in the cliffs where the family could hide if this went badly. And, unless I miss my guess, Ražad has the family moving into them by now. Per will do well as Šivak’thal, when I am too old. Vadya shook per head. But not as Inadji’thal. Per does not have as solid a grasp of politics as a clan leader needs.
Above Vadya the stars spread out across the sky, bright and hard and cold in the night air. It was only a few months into tova veradi – the second half of summer – but the air was cold and still. The stars so bright and beautiful. All through Vadya’s life the stars had calmed per spirit. How many times have I ridden Keramo up onto a širadj, just to look at them? And now they move. Now I find that my world is doomed and part of me wishes the stars would be still again and that I did not know.
Thinking back over what the spirit in the silver ball had said, Vadya worried. It was easy, at the end of one’s life to say that things were different now – that things were not as good as when one was a child. But is it true? Vadya asked perself. Is water really less plentiful than it was? Was it really sweeter back then? Do I have more trouble breathing because I am 5 winters old, or because the air grows thinner with each passing year? Who is really dying? Me or my world?
Behind the šigari, the great wall of the Rift rose in vertical steps, from the Sands below, step after step until it reached the Highlands. Each step was a hundreds of kadi high and there were too many to count. Legend said that the Rifts had been dug by giants, back when K’mora was new, and that the steps were their stairway home. Vadya found it hard to believe, but there was no way to tell, as the Highlands were so far up that there was no air to breath there. And yet the spirit had known things, had shown Vadya things. Things that only a spirit, or a god, could know and if even half of it was true…
And to fly among the stars! Now there was something that spoke to Vadya. To move among the stars, to see them, not as mere points of light, but as giant furnaces, burning fiercely in the black. The images the spirit had shown Vadya could not do them justice, Vadya was sure of that, but they tantalized. And per burned to see them.
Vadya howled in frustration. I am of two minds on this. To leave K’mora, to die someplace far away from the Sands? How would per spirit find it’s way back? How would it find the Great Tent of per ancestors? To live among the stars, yes, that held Vadya enthralled, but to die among them – now that was a different matter.
They could save us, the spirit had said, but everyone knew spirits were deceitful, that their motives were not the same as people’s motives. The spirit had said it only wanted to help, but…
But Vadya had worn armor none the less. And was grateful now for whatever comfort it might give, though Vadya doubted it would make much difference. They fly among the stars, per thought, fingers rubbing thoughtfully at a gouge in the hardened leather breastplate, it barely turned that lance, what will it be worth against such as those?
Vadya started to loop Keramo’s reins around a tether stake, but changed per mind. If this went badly, Keramo deserved a chance of escape. Vadya gave the ketašo one last thump on the neck as Keramo butted per head against Vadya’s side. “Votaše čorakad, van.” Vadya said, and barked a short laugh and laid per forehead against the ketasho’s. Patience was never one of Keramo’s strengths. Or mine, Vadya thought. I can do it, but I do not like waiting.
“Be careful, you. If this goes badly, find Ražad and the others.” Vadya ruffled the ketasho’s mane, then turned to look back up at the night sky.
“At last,” Vadya murmured.
In the night sky, the stars had begun to move some time ago, seemingly at random, but now groups of them moved together, heading in every direction. All but one star, which grew steadily brighter until Vadya could see that it was not a star, but a great flame of the brightest blue. So bright that Vadya’s eyes went black, their dark nictitating membranes dropping to dim the incredibly bright light. It might as well be a part of the Great One itself, come down to the Sands, per thought. As it grew closer, Vadya could hear it roaring – one continuous, overwhelming sound that was nothing but the voice of raw power. A dragon must pale in comparison.
At last the flame danced over the sands of Waša Morek and where that flame touched the sand it glowed as red as Vežni. The great noise was joined by a blast of hot wind that swept past carrying the smell of hot metal and burning sand. Vadya watched as the flame grew steadily closer, settling at last just below the dune where per stood. When the flame died Vadya stood for a while, until per vision had cleared, then started walking down the slope to meet – what? A spirit? No, a god. Nothing else could command such power.
Down below, a great dark shape lay on the smoldering sands and out of that darkness something emerged. As it drew close enough to see, Vadya could only think of a giant betevaš. It had a long, ebony black body, the carapace inlaid with patterns of gold and silver. Two great legs moved it slowly, but gracefully forward, its forelimbs held tight against it’s body, and the head swiveled, moving the faceted eyes from side to side. As it drew closer, Vadya could occasionally hear a dull, thrumming sound, interspersed with pops and clicks.
It stopped in front of Vadya, it’s head tilted to one side so that one giant faceted eye looked down at Vadya and a mandible clicked. Suddenly, there was the voice Vadya remembered. The voice of the spirit.
“At last, Vadya,” it said, “we meet face to face.”
Vadya could say nothing. Was it just the inhuman look of it that made per fear it so? Or was there something else? Would per have listened to it, had per known what it was?
It spoke, “Tell me, Vadya, are you loyal?”
What was there to say to such a statement? It presumed things – that loyalty could be commanded rather than earned.
“Are you loyal, Vadya?”
One forelimb reached out. Vadya could see the serrations on the inside of it. If per was caught in that, there would be only death, fast or slow as the spirit chose.
The chill of camadjana swept through Vadya. The premonition left no doubt. No, not a spirit, Vadya thought, nor a god, but a monster. One of many who would be their masters for longer than per cared to think about and Vadya’s heart sank, for in that moment per knew it was already too late.
“I will not ask again, Vadya. Are you loyal?”
There was nothing Vadya could do to match the spirit’s power – although, if per was quick enough.
“Yes,” Vadya said, and the forelimb relaxed, retracted a bit.
Then the lance was moving, almost of it’s own volition, toward the joint between the thorax and the head. As it struck, Vadya added, “but not to you.” There was no expression on the monster’s face to change, only a flood of something bitter smelling. Then Vadya twisted to one side, severing the head from the body.
The Die Is Cast
As Vadya had guessed, Ražad had already ordered the camp struck. It was more than the night air that chilled that Ražad’s bones and per felt that per courage was being tested.
Vadya had left the omezan with Ražad, trusting Ražad to keep it safe and use it well. The skill to grind the lenses was rare and this one was clearer than most. It would ruin most families to own one, but Vadya had always had good trade sense and Mora Šivak was not poor by any means. Ražad’s hands shook each time per took it out and used it, but it was the only way to see what was happening and Vadya had agreed it was important for Ražad to know, so that per could react before it was too late.
Down below, the ǎso had been complaining about being roused from their sleep, but Djani and Riza were good drovers and the herd had quieted. As the massive flame descended, Rhažad was glad of the noise and hoped it would last long enough for Mora Šivak to get clear of whatever it was that was coming. And, even from here, Ražad could sense Vadya’s own unease, could see the way per clung to Keramo, as if for support.
Ražad wished it had been possible to talk Vadya out of this madness, but Vadya would not be swayed. What did that demon show you, Ražad thought, that scared you enough to deal with it? And why wouldn’t you share it with me? It was so unlike Vadya to withhold information – especially where the family’s safety was concerned.
From the rock where Ražad sat, a good hundred kadi up the face of the headwall, per could see for forty or fifty dirkadi around. The demon’s metal ‘fire bird’ had landed in a shallow depression to the northwest and something had come out of it.
Ražad looked through the omezan and stared in amazement as the creature advanced on Vadya. If demons are real, then this is what they must look like. And I do not believe any good can come of this.
When Vadya struck with the lance, Ražad gasped. Vadya was always quick, Ražad thought and then winced as a bright beam of light stabbed out and Vadya spun, fell to the ground and lay unmoving.
Ražad let the omezan fall back into per lap, tears forming in per eyes. It was done then. Vadya had made the opening move. The next was Ražad’s and it had better be good.
If I send Djani and Riza to the south with the ašo, perhaps the demon will follow their trail while the family hides in the cave. If they can make it to the caves further south…
And if they don’t? No, if the demon kills the ašo we will have to abandon everything we own. I will not risk their lives nor will I beggar the family. We live or die together.
And Ražad felt sad, as if this was not a possibility, but a foregone conclusion.
To Hear the Evaširan Sing
Vadya could hear Keramo screaming somewhere off in the distance, but it sounded more like fear than pain. So maybe my old friend got away. The bitter smell of the monster’s corpse filled per nostrils. I hope Keramo had the good sense to run hard and fast.
Vadya’s body would not move. Probably best, Vadya thought, if they think me dead. Then Vadya smiled (or so per thought) as long as I am not really dead. Vadya could feel the heat from the wound and pers heart skipped a beat or two. I will lay here until just before dawn. When the evaširanin sing I will crawl away to cover. If I still can, Vadya thought. And how long will that be? It was barely midnight when I slew the monster, but time is behaving oddly.
Vadya heard thunder. Storms were rare in winter, for the amidaši made wind from heat and there was precious little heat for those spirits to work with tonight. Or is that just my wounds talking? That I feel so cold? Vadya’s eyes were looking to the east. Was that the first hint of dawn? No, Vadya thought, something is burning. Vadya closed per eyes and tried not to cry out. If I have killed my family…
Vadya’s eyes stung with tears. This is the result of my vanity, Vadya thought, or my curiosity. Either way perhaps I should die. Oh, Djani, evadju, have I killed us all? And, with that, Vadya drifted into delirium.
Keramo’s jitteriness got worse as the silver ball moved towards them and Vadya thumped per heels into the ketašo’s ribs.
“M’dzod,” Vadya commanded, but Keramo would not be still and Vadya’s own nervousness couldn’t be helping. As the ball drew near, it rose up to Vadya’s eye level and spoke.
“You lead here?” It said, and there was no doubt left in Vadya’s mind that this was a spirit.
“I lead my family and my clan, yes.”
“We must talk.”
“And we must reach the next šigari before dark. That will be several dirin yet. Come to me in the evening and we may talk.”
“Time is short, but we agree to this,” the spirit said, and flew off so fast that Vadya could not see in which direction it had gone.
Vadya had seen much over the years, but somehow this encounter left per shaken. Vadya signaled the family forward and waited as they caught up. As Ražad reined in Gače beside Keramo, Vadya shook per head.
“I have never met a spirit before, but I think now I have.”
“What did it want?” Ražad asked.
“To talk, it said.” Vadya shrugged and urged Keramo forward, “but who knows, really?”
“Odja knew it was a spirit from where we waited.” Ražad said. “Per fears for our family.”
Vadya barked. “I fear for our people. It wanted to know if I ‘lead’,” Vadya said. “I think it wants more than just Mora Šivak.”
“You agreed to talk with it?” Ražad asked and Vadya nodded.
“It seemed prudent to agree,” Vadya said, “and what harm can talking do?”
Ražad tilted per head and stared at Vadya, who barked. “Cavi,” Vadya said, acknowledging the truth of Ražad’s implication. “I’m not sure I believe it either.”