Larwin dreamed of sun-drenched meadows bending in the breeze around a glistening pond. He removed his spacesuit and walked barefoot to the water’s edge. Heart pounding with anticipation at the unheard of luxury of immersion in water, he paused on the shore. As he raised his foot to step into the pond, squeals of twisting metal jerked him awake. Horns shrieked. Messages screamed from the every corner of his space-fighter.
DANGER HULL BREACH
EXCEEDING HULL SPEED LIMITATIONS
LIFE SUPPORT SYSTEMS FAILING
Larwin shook free of the cloying remnants of his dream. “What in Radzuk did you do to my ship?”
“Debris damaged the starboard thruster,” GEA-4 said.
He grabbed the gyrating command-stick and re-centered it. Then, he carefully counted off the seconds. “A-thousand-1, a-thousand-2, a-thousand-3,-” A matte-black empty space in the center of his viewscreen and GEA-4’s snow-white reflection were the only fixed things in the wildly whirling cockpit. Moment by moment the blackness grew in size. I’m going to crash on whatever that is. “A-thousand-4, a-thousand-5, a-thousand-6,-” Every fiber in his body wanted to do something, now, to bring the ship out of its spin, but the only way to recover from this type of situation took patience. “A-thousand-7, a-thousand-8, a-thousand-9,-” The circular dome of Larwin’s environmental uniform fogged. Sweat burned his eyes. The space-fighter’s roll began to stabilize, but the rock-solid blackness centered before him now took up more than half the viewscreen.
“Colonel Atano, you are on a collision course with a planetoid.” GEA-4’s voice sounded sensuous as a wet dream. “Alter course to trajectory Delta-one.” He glanced to his right. Her silver-clad. petite, curvy body looked lush, where her regulation jumpsuit covered it, but her stark white synthetic epidermis looked dead. Obviously the android’s designers either had been dealing with a cost issue when they had failed to add color to the plastoid covering or they had liked white. He shook his head and turned his attention back to the viewscreen. GEA’4’s eerie silver eyes seemed to stare at him as her shoulder-length hair brushed back and forth across her silver-clad shoulders.
A-thousand-10, a-thousand-11, a-thousand-12. “What do you think I’m trying to do?” Larwin said through gritted teeth. He continued to count silently. At a-thousand-19, he eased back the pressure. Though the control stick moved freely, the Pterois Volitan continued to rocket toward the black orb. If he knew what the damned prototype had done, perhaps he could correct it. “What happened to my ship?”
“When The Shimmel exploded, debris damaged the starboard thruster.”
Shimmel? His hands clenched inside his thick, black gloves at the mention of the high commander’s ship being anywhere near the quadrant. Everyone knew The Shimmel had been moored in the Baleen Maintenance Facility for repairs after the pounding it had taken during the Frieberg Revolt. “Of all the infernal, malfunctioning, stupid,” Larwin muttered. “If I survive I’ll vaporize your designer. He or she should have spent less time on your voice and more on your prudence program.”
Larwin raised a fist and looked for something to hit, but the android looked too much like a woman. Worse, all the gray surfaces within reach were covered with delicate bubble-ports, LEDs and readout boards. He had enough trouble; giving in to anger would only make his situation worse.
Assuming that anything could make it more serious.
The android’s competency encoding should have had priority over the mold-makers and speech programmers.
He gripped the command-stick in a strangle-hold, wishing he’d never trusted the programmers. Wishing he could throttle them. Wishing he’d never succumbed to sleep.
“Colonel Atano, your course alteration was inadequate. Collision will occur in five point three six minutes. Five point three five minutes. Five-”
He moved the command-stick to the left. Nothing happened.
Larwin pressed the starboard thruster’s activator. Nothing.
He punched it a second time. Still no response.
He hit the port thruster. An ominous rumbling sent a chill down his spine. Then the circuit light for hull pressure burst in a tiny red spurt.
The space fighter tilted left. Not good. Then, it slowly rotated around, as it dove toward the planetoid. He blinked sweat out of his eyes. Instead of featureless blackness, the viewscreen now showed jagged black mountainous ridges and uneven plains.
His suit’s air supply smelled like bile.
GEA-4 ticked off seconds until impact.
Larwin turned and glared at the malfunctioning piece of scrap metal. “Some Anthropoid-Guide you are. Experimental version four be damned. If you’re the latest and greatest, I’d hate to have tested your predecessors.”
“…Four point zero six minutes. Four…”
The starboard thruster’s red light LED burst sending tiny red shards across the control panel. The oxygen sensor’s LED blew. Then like miniature fireworks discharging at the climax of a light show, the entire array erupted. Within a heartbeat, the interior filled with plastoid splinters.
At least the cockpit’s ominous crimson glow had plunged into darkness. Though black didn’t look much more promising than red.
“…Four point zero minutes. Three…”
Though the softness of GEA-4’s voice could barely be discerned over the din of the warning sirens and the wailing of Pterois Volitan’s overstressed hull, the G-series’ sultry tones were all Larwin heard as pressure and blackness encompassed him. He’d never imagined dying while listening to the android count off the last hundredths of a minute to his existence.
Larwin quit fighting the inevitable. Closing his eyes, Larwin forced himself to think of his limited future. Then, he dedicated his essence to the Creator. Next, he petitioned Kues, the God of War, for a quick, painless death and an honorable reception. If Larwin had been telepathic, like his mother, he would have sent a message to her, but he wasn’t, so he couldn’t.
“…Point zero three minutes…”
At least he’d died on duty.
“…Point zero two minutes…”
The hull sounded like madrox claws were ripping it asunder.
“…Point zero one minutes…”
Larwin sensed a sudden decompression and knew he’d never see a meadow or swim in a lake.
Then the ship tilted sharply to port. He hung by his flight-harness and waited for the hull to collapse. Death waited a moment before the Pterois Volitan imploded.
Black oblivion engulfed him.
Nimri tilted her head back and studied the harsh face of Sacred Mountain. Her marrow-deep sense of foreboding intensified. No one in her lifetime had ever returned from the holy journey.
As the sun dipped toward the treetops, a balmy breeze fanned the perspiration from her forehead. Oblivious to the mingled scents of mint, pine and rich humus, Nimri weighed the consequences of predestination. She shook her head at the thought of the impossible task she’d been dealt. Then, rubbing the aching muscles at the back of her neck, she gazed around her high plateau garden, pausing over each patch of medicinal plants.
This may be my last look.
She knelt among the foliage, burdened by the worry that she didn’t have the courage to keep the promise she’d given her great-grandfather, Rolf. Burdened by the anxiety that even if she tried, she’d fail to carry his ashes to the holy grove at Sacred Mountain’s peak. Burdened by the knowledge that her best had never been good enough for Rolf while he lived and it wouldn’t be good enough now.
Yet, she dare not disobey for fear he would rise as a vengeful spirit and seek retribution for the broken oath.
Since she had no mystic power, which would make it possible for her to fulfill her destiny, death by avenging spirit might be the best alternative.
She collapsed onto the fragrant ground-cover. If only she had never been born – at least not born a Tramontain, the last Tramontain in the ancient line, which made it impossible for her to avoid her hereditary duty. She sighed. How could she serve and protect her Tribe, when she couldn’t even protect herself? Nimri tried to swallow the knot of misery in her throat.
The lump didn’t budge.
A pine-bough waved across the face of the sun. Even the plants, which had been her one certainty, were mocking her. She closed her eyes.
The combination funeral and induction ceremony would begin at sunset. She wished she could hold the sun in the sky, as her great-grandfather had. Her heart thudded frantically against her ribs.
She knew the healing powers of plants, but no one really valued the small bit of knowledge she had. Worse, those that remembered her great-aunt Violet, still looked at her feeble attempts to cure and asked when she would learn to myst-mend.
Even if she had learned the lost art, with her great-grandfather gone, it wouldn’t be enough to save her Tribe.
Tears burned her closed eyelids. The pain of failure wracked her body. Nimri rolled into a fetal position and shuddered.
Surely, she would die before dusk.
But if she did, she doomed her Tribe.
If she didn’t, they were still doomed.
Tears scalded wet trails down her cheeks and saturated the aromatic thyme.
Wind gusted against her back. Her white ceremonial robe whipped her shins like a lash. The current of air also brought distant voices.
“What are we going to do without Rolf?” a high-pitched voice asked.
If she died, now, she would only be the first of many. And she would pass on without even trying. Nimri summoned her waning strength and rose to her knees. She feebly wiped away her tears, but she couldn’t rub out the throbbing pain in her chest. She crawled to a foxglove plant, plucked a leaf, and laid back down as she chewed it. Slowly, the spasms subsided.
No one else knew how to make the medicines the Tribe needed. If she died, that meager bit of knowledge would be lost.
Heart steadier, Nimri rolled onto her back and squinted past the treetops. The gloom deepened. Still, the rugged face of Sacred Mountain seemed to mock her. What were they going to do without her great-grandfather?
“Who will protect us?” A child’s distant voice whined, as if reading her thoughts.
“N-ri,” a woman’s wind-buffeted voice answered.
Nimri’s heart gave a panicked lurch. She gasped and clutched her chest. If only she could protect them. “Auuuuuuughhhhhhhhhh!” Her high-pitched keening startled birds from the surrounding trees.
“How come we need a–a–a whatever?” the child whined.
“A Keeper of the Peace,” a deep voice said.
Searing pain exploded in Nimri’s gut. She rolled over, landing face-first in mother-of-thyme.
“Old Rolf never even come down ta’ the village, how come he was so important?”
“Seen or not, the Lost knew Rolf was watching.” The bass voice sounded confident.
“For now they wait until they find out if the rumors of his illness are true.” Zurgon’s contralto tones were unmistakable. “Once they discover he’s dead, they will attack.”
“Isn’t Cartwright as powerful as Rolf?” a soprano asked.
“He’s stronger,” a tenor said. “I don’t understand why Cartwright hasn’t given the Lost his blessing before now. I’ve been prepared for an attack since Rolf became ill.”
The child wailed.
“Don’t listen to Talon,” said Pearl’s unmistakable singsong voice. “Fighting isn’t always the way. Cartwright knows that, just as our peacekeepers always have.”
“Before he left this realm, Rolf assured me that Nimri would be a worthy Keeper of the Peace,” Zurgon said.
“But how can she carry the Staff of Protection and be our healer, too?” Pearl asked.
Pain wrapped Nimri in suffocating coils of knowledge that she could not kill to save them any more than she could myst-mend.
“No woman will be able to protect us from the Lost,” Talon said. “Since Rolf’s illness they’ve tested our defenses. They found my farm invincible, but what about the soft-muscled merchants? What will happen when they’re tested?”
“There have only been petty paybacks when the sellers bartered defective merchandise. No one has been hurt.” Nimri recognized Tansy’s hesitant voice. “Some of the Lost are nice.”
Talon’s guffaw sounded disparaging.
The breeze died and with it, the conversation, but Nimri could still imagine shy Tansy cowering under Talon’s condescending look.
“Rolf assured me Nimri would be a worthy Keeper of the Peace.” She shivered at the lie. How could she protect her Tribe, when she couldn’t even protect herself?
At least she could die trying to keep her vow. Nimri pushed herself upright and glared at Sacred Mountain’s imposing granite face.
If she kept the vow she’d made to her great-grandfather, she had to climb that rock. Head tilted back so far that her long dark braid nearly hit the grass; Nimri stared upward at the impossibly high, smooth rock face which she had promised to climb. Bile rose in her throat. Tomorrow she would die. Tears blurred her vision.
“Rolf assured me Nimri would be a worthy Keeper of the Peace.” Why had her great-grandfather demanded the vow? To test her? If by some unexpected fate, she passed the test, would she be worthy to hold the Staff of Protection? The twisted black staff, which focused power, seemed impossibly slick to hold, but Bryta, who had no more myst power than a frog, picked it up with ease.
If she failed, would death come quickly?
Did it matter?
Nimri struggled to her feet and squared her shoulders.
Behind her, a door groaned open and soft footfalls padded across the garden path. Moments later Kazza, her feline companion, rubbed against her thigh, nearly knocking her over. Nimri placed her palm on the back of his neck to steady herself. Energy seeped into her. She tickled the base of Kazza’s tufted ear and the inner pain receded further.
Kazza purred deep within his massive six-hundred-pound body.
Nimri breathed in through her nose, then out through her mouth as she stroked Kazza’s powerful gold, black, and white striped flanks. His tail wrapped around her waist in a companionable caress.
“You left the door open.” Bryta’s accusation carried across the garden.
Kazza snorted. Nimri tickled his ribs, as she turned away from the sheer rock to look at the only home she could remember. The spiral-shaped house twisted around and around the sequoia as if part of the tree.
“You could learn to close doors if you wanted to,” Bryta taunted the feline from the kitchen window.
Kazza’s ears flattened and his tail slapped Nimri’s leg.
Bryta slammed the kitchen door, which was at the base of the series of chambers connected by stairs that spiraled upward around the massive trunk of the millennium-old sequoia at the garden’s center.
Nimri gave Kazza a final caress, then trod over the dragon-grass covered path to her surrogate mother.
“They’re coming.” Nimri swung her knee-length black braid back over her shoulder. Bryta looked at her, as if she were a mud-covered two-year-old. Nimri looked down; green stains splotched her robe.
“More than the high council?” Bryta’s pudgy hands flicked away a leaf. She looked ready to drag her into the kitchen for a bath, but the wind brought more voices. “You must learn to rectify your appearance.” Bryta shook her head, at the untidiness, then touched her own silvery halo of braid as if to assure herself that at least she looked presentable. “With position comes responsibility. Not grass stains.”
Nimri cocked an ear to the wind. “I hear a child’s voice.”
“Good.” Bryta looked satisfied. “By rights, the entire Tribe should attend.” She tugged at her best tunic to get it to hang just right over her wide-legged trousers.
“What will we do with so many?” Nimri looked from Bryta to her beloved garden and swallowed hard.
“Nothing. They come to escort a great man into the mystic realm, and to see you take up his staff. They did not climb up to the bluff for dinner.” Bryta chucked Nimri under the chin. “Don’t worry child, they’ll stay by the pyre, no one will so much as sniff your basil.”
Nimri looked down at her plump companion. Bryta had been her great-grandfather’s housekeeper for half a century before his granddaughter’s half-dead orphan had come to live with them. Perhaps Bryta had learned his mind-skills and would be better suited to replace Rolf. At least she had been able to place the staff on the pyre without it slithering out of her hands.
Bryta gave Nimri’s hand a motherly pat. “They’ll never get another chance to attend the last rites of a man of Rolf’s standing. It’ll be something they can tell their grandchildren.”
As if any of them would live to see that day. Would she even be able to pick up the staff, which seemed impossibly slippery in her hands?
“No one else in our 1064-year history produced such a flood.” Bryta launched into her favorite story. Nimri gritted her teeth to hold back her scream of despair. “Never before, nor since, has the river been so fierce and deadly. Nor a storm so wild.” Bryta’s face flushed with pleasure at the memory. She placed her fists on her ample hips and raised her triple chin, in imitation of Rolf’s arrogant stance.
“I wish I could have seen Rolf raise the staff and shout out across the water,” Bryta said, then she began the familiar quote, “‘Any Lost who sets foot on the land of the Chosen with evil intentions will call yet another storm against their land! Next time, I will spare no one!” Bryta’s eyes flashed as she copied Rolf’s arrogant tones and gestures.
Nimri put her hand to her mouth in a vain attempt to hold back a laugh.
Bryta glared at her, then lapsing into her own persona, she fanned her face and relaxed her spine. “To think Pearl actually witnessed the great event.” Her wistful tone stifled Nimri’s mirth.
“At least you got the honor of cleaning the mud off his moccasins.”
“There was that.” Bryta raised her chin. “I still have it, too. All Pearl has is the memory.” Her jowls jiggled with pride.
Nimri felt another bout of senseless laughter threatening. To distract herself, she grabbed a torch. “We need to get down to the funeral pyre.” Nimri snapped a branch off the sprawling rosemary bush, which an ancestor had planted beside the kitchen door to bless the dwelling and protect its inhabitants. She sniffed its piney scent.
Bryta tipped her torch toward Nimri, an expectant expression on her face. Nimri took a deep, cleansing breath and prayed that for once she could work the myst-power. She snapped her fingers. A pale yellow glow ignited on the torch’s tip. It flared for a brief moment, and then fizzled into a puny wisp of smoke. ‘Rolf assured me Nimri would be a worthy Keeper of the Peace.’ If her great-grandfather had told Zurgon the truth, she could do this. She snapped her fingers, again. This time, the flame caught and held.
Bryta smiled as the torches blazed. Head and flame high, she assumed the ceremonial gait and paced toward the steep trail, which led into the gorge. Step-step-pause, step-step-pause. Despite her age and portly build, Bryta embodied the dignity of the solemn occasion.
Nimri watched Bryta’s proud posture descend over the lip of the cliff, and then looked at the secluded lodge where she’d been raised. She turned and gazed up at Sacred Mountain’s peak. A huge black shadow shrouded the summit. Did the harsh, barren rock truly conceal the magic magenta of the balata grove, or were the trees merely another story only meant to entertain children? Nimri shivered.
Abruptly, the last rays of the setting sun bathed the harsh rock in blood red. Nimri gasped and fled toward the gorge trail. When she caught up with Bryta, Nimri skidded to a halt. The older woman appeared too focused on the coming ceremony to notice. Nimri adapted her longer legs to the tedious ceremonial gait. They slowly approached the waterfall, which drummed the same beat. When they came to the place where she usually dived over the precipice into deep, rock-free water, Nimri missed her step.
If she couldn’t even walk to the ceremony, how could anyone expect her to shield them?
Despite her doubts, they arrived at the pyre without major incident. They turned their backs to the drumming waterfall and looked silently at Rolf. His frail hands clutched the twisted wood of the black Staff of Protection and his best robe flowed in a violet cascade over the high wooden platform, which looked like a ceremonial bed. Her great-grandfather looked more relaxed than he had in years. If she hadn’t known the fabric concealed the firewood beneath the pyre, and if she hadn’t confirmed his death a dozen times, she would expect his eyes to open.
If only he could arise!
Bryta jabbed her elbow into Nimri’s thigh. With dignity, they turned to face the head of the valley trail. Within moments, Zurgon appeared at the head of the now-silent column. Dressed in his crimson chief’s robe, and chin as high as Bryta’s, he led the procession into the clearing. Slowly, they circled the ceremonial pyre three times, then shoving Bryta aside, Zurgon stepped to Nimri’s left.
Nimri’s jaws clenched at the subtle insult. Zurgon had always stood on Rolf’s right, granting him highest Tribal status. Other Council members, attired in their flowing rainbow hues, took their places in order of rank on her right. Her spine straightened at their show of support. Flame, clad in her white baker’s smock, defied tradition and slid between Nimri and Talon.
Pearl failed in her attempt to insinuate herself between Bryta and her husband. Lips thin, she settled for stepping on Bryta’s foot as she took the place on Bryta’s other side.
The corner of Bryta’s lips twitched as she straightened her spine.
Meanwhile, the council members gave Flame furious looks, but she ignored them. Beneath the folds of her white healer’s robe, Nimri touched her best friend’s hand in silent thanks.
Masses of tribe members continued filing into the clearing, until every inch of land filled with farmers, millers, carpenters, weavers, blacksmiths and potters. The stragglers were forced to wade into the pond.
Torches held high, they silently watched the setting sun. As the last ray of sunlight disappeared, Zurgon took a small step forward. “We come to pay our last respects to Rolf Tramontain,” he said in his most sonorous voice. The greatest Peacekeeper in the thousand-year dynasty.” He stepped back in line.
“Rolf’s revenge was wonderful,” Pearl said to the sliver of dark sky outside the deep cleft. “When he pitted the natural forces of Chatterre against the Lost, he gave us one hundred and sixty-seven moons of harmony.”
Her great-grandfather’s vengeance for her parents’ death had started with angry black clouds, which had formed at Rolf’s command; then fire had streaked down and scorched the Lost’s boats; balls of ice, big as cantaloupes had then pummeled the enemy’s land. Nimri tried to hide her revulsion.
“Rolf understood the laws of Chatterre: the cycle of the seasons; the movement of the stars; the patterns within the weather,” Bryta said. “He knew things he should never know, sometimes years before they occurred. He was a worthy Keeper.”
“Rolf was a good and honorable man,” Talon said.
The soft crackling of the torches grew loud in the ensuing silence. Nimri’s skin crawled with the knowledge that they expected her to say something worthy, but she couldn’t think of anything to say. A drop of sweat trickled down her spine. Then another drop fell and another, until it felt like the waterfall spattering her.
When the stillness nearly became unbearable, Pearl started the long low-pitched “Hummm.” One by one, the others joined in. Soon, the sound surged, bass to high soprano, growing, expanding and building until it became strong enough to transport Rolf’s myst to the Otherworld.
Step-step-pause the Tribal Council began pacing around the pyre. One by one, they thrust their torches into the kindling. The flames licked at the wood and leaped up the violet robe.
Without warning, a whoosh of flame shot skyward like lightening. It cast light and shadow across the faces and consumed the air.
“Oooohhh!” a hundred voices exclaimed. Only Pearl continued toning, her rich alto consecrating the ascending myst-power.
As the rest of the Tribe again added their voices, the blaze consumed Rolf’s body.
Nimri thought she saw the black staff aflame. If it were consumed, her fate would be averted. Her throat felt suddenly dry at the unexpected possibility of reprieve. Afraid to stare, she focused on the steps and tones of the all-night ceremony.
As the first ray of dawn appeared over the lips of the cleft, the glistening black staff lay unharmed atop a smoldering mound of ash.
Zurgon’s pitch lifted, as he changed tune to the induction ceremony. The Tribe joined in with the uplifting tone. When the sound peaked, everyone looked toward her. Nimri swallowed, then leaned forward and picked up the cool, slick staff. It tried to slip from her grasp; she grabbed it with both hands and tried to hold onto the impossible stick, which looked like solid wood, but felt slick as taffy and just as flexible. Satisfied that she’d accepted her duty, the Tribe turned, as one. Left right kick, right-left-kick, all except Flame and Bryta moved toward the mouth of the valley trail.
Quark trailed at the end of the column; as he passed them, the potter paused. “I’m not good at words,” he told Nimri. “But, I made Rolf this pot. I hope you find it worthy.” He pressed a wheat-colored crock decorated with the Tramontain hawk into her hands, and then hurried after the Tribe. Nimri struggled to hold it and the untrustworthy staff.
With a disdainful snort, Bryta grabbed the staff of protection, wrapped it in her apron and marched back up to the house. Nimri bit her lower lip, knelt and fought back tears of shame, while she scooped ash into the crock.
“Where will you release his essence?” Flame asked, as if she hadn’t just witnessed anything significant.“I gave my word.” Nimri looked up at the high sun-bathed peak. In the golden light, it looked magical and deadly. She must have been under a spell when she’d given her grandfather the promise. “I will scatter his ashes at the Guardian’s feet.”
Flame gasped. “But no one has ever returned.”
Nimri swallowed, but the lump of despair in her throat refused to budge. “I know.”
____________ End of Chapter One __________
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