When first I am awakened from that dreamless torpor to which we had abandoned ourselves, I sense time has passed, but not how much of it, and that beyond the stony vault sheltering us, the world has changed.
It is not a surprise to find Brin has arisen first, gone, and the beasts with her. I am unconcerned for her safety outside the bounds of our covert sanctuary. One does not become Guardian without mastery of certain innate gifts and hers are uncommon. Besides, the tap between us is alive with her customary inquisitiveness and a reassuring sense of ease. I can attest that extraordinary circumstances are required to shake her composure.
The fingers of my left hand have healed well enough. I lost none of them to infection and, although some stricture was expected, the tingling numbness was not. I was fortunate.
Jo’nas begins to stir, rousing from a profound dream, and with neither haste nor delay, we gather up our few belongings and quit the immobile vessel that has carried us from one moment in time to an, as yet, unrevealed other.
The open, mud-walled court Jo’nas and I remember is enclosed now within a crude wooden structure. Stone decomposed to grit still crunches beneath my feet as it did before, a carpet of it from corner to corner and, at the center of this closed quad, the dark aperture from which we have emerged, gapes. Its cap lays where I cast it aside to give us egress. A tangle of tubular metal and fabric protrudes from under it.
Beyond the compact trample Jo’nas and I have so far made, I mark the tracks of Brin and the beasts, a rough depression where someone has fallen, and, near it, an object in the gravel. I scoop it up, a fabric hat with a low crown and a stiff protruding brim. It seems well-worn and trained to a human-size head. An unfamiliar sigil is emblazoned on it.
From here, all footprints describe a retreat to a narrow doorway standing open at the rear of the enclosure. Together Jo’nas and I step into the light and heat of a world transformed.
This world’s brilliant sun rides the sky near zenith. It radiates an illumination more intense than Fayne’s Eye, sufficient to overwhelm my enhancements should I attempt to look again upon its face.
Nothing of the crude khenn I remember remains above the ground. Gone while we slumbered are the rude hovels of sticks and hardened mud occupying an arid expanse. Grown up in their stead are marginally sturdier dwellings and the same sense of exclusion. The great squatting bulk of the mountain remains at the forefront of a humped and folded range marching into distant heat-haze. A sprawling kal’un has established itself across the wide plain and up into the mountain’s splayed toes, engulfing the community that gave us refuge. Beyond it, I see evidence of more sophisticated construction, aggressive enterprise, and lively, regulated movement; streams of vehicles in purposeful transit on the ground and in the air suggest a vital society comparable to any of those on Hevn sufficiently advanced to refine architecture, implement production, and cultivate trade with the Methodists.
The air ripples my hair and tugs at my improvised cloak as we cross the space to where, near a pair of wheeled vehicles, Brin and a knot of four t’sunguc are gathered. One of them, a youngling in some sort of uniform blusters, advancing with a small weapon in his hands. He trains it upon us to gain our compliance, yapping at us in what he must believe to be an intimidating manner. I doubt his toy packs sufficient firepower to penetrate my battledress, but I forego the idea of contesting with him. It is an unfair mismatch, and I am concerned that rebound scatter, should he inadvertently discharge his noisemaker, might harm another. Even as his uniformed ally is plunging forward to offer his support, the hapless newb is distracted by both of the dogs bearing down on him. He trains his little gun on this new menace. Brin sets herself between them and jinks him away, doubtless saving his life.
Perhaps the air and sun-light, after my time underground, have made me giddy. Witnessing the youngster’s unhinged moment of incomprehension as my Guardian took him, strikes me as hilarious.
I have an early memory of being folded between spaces like that, not once, but many times, occasionally in rapid succession, by my newly-bonded Guardian. It was my initiation into a practice the Sisterhood calls “passage”. My first jink with her was merciless beyond any test, any heavy sparring, any punishment I might have received in my training. Subsequent foldings that followed were equally harrowing. I thought I might have vomited out everything I had eaten since I was born, most of my intestines, both lungs, and possibly a fair portion of my spine. The recollection of my own perceived dismemberment and random rearrangement of body parts during a jink was terrifying at first, a reaction of the mind only to the very real occurrence of physical displacement.
Of course, over time, I have acquired a perverse enjoyment in that same momentary dissociation and the peristaltic recoil has long-since abated. Knowing this brash youngster is even now sharing that elementary experience does not enhance my composure by the least amount. Warrior I may be, but I am not immune to a good joke and this one, at the tattered edge of an unlikely confrontation, is rich.
Better none can see my expression, it would not convey the gravity I wish to instill among these t’sunguc.
The remaining man in uniform is blinking at empty air, apparently too stupefied to realize his little handgun is still pointed in our direction. The other man in the group steps forward and speaks to him in a soothing voice. This one carries himself with assurance, presence without pretense. He regards us with an energetic halo of veneration and fear. I wonder what characteristics he has assumed in us. He reaches out to the other and lower’s the hapless sloke’s weapon, a sensible action.
Brin returns, unfolding in front of the distressed functionary. He is unable to marshal his wits sufficiently to affect a flinching withdrawal and she gentles him, transmuting his disbelief into ambivalence and a near-somnolent disengagement. I watch as he moves with a purpose he must believe is his own toward his vehicle and climbs into it. Its doors lower and latch. Its motor scales up and gears engage.
Brin has already dismissed him. While the dogs circle Jo’nas in snuffling welcome, she stands beside me and we face this remaining khennsman. He is similar to Jo’nas in stature with a hard face and straight black hair spilling over his shoulders. He has the characteristics of those who offered us refuge, save that his skin is not yet tanned to leather. He looks upon us with obvious deference.
“This one,” Brin says in low speech, “says his name is ‘Tonjuh’, that he is a human being, and that he has been waiting for us.”
She speaks to this Tonjuh in the language Jo’nas knows as Ing Glish. I have heard little else from those we have encountered here. It seems the low speech of this Land.
She indicates me with an outstretched hand. “This is my a’chi kah. You may call him T’chokt-ot U’chah ne.”
Tonjuh’s gaze shifts from Brin to me and I see him work to swallow his emotions. He straightens and begins speaking in an unrecognizable language. It has the texture of that spoken by the old sha’man, T’loolee, who offered us food and haven. I perceive it as ceremonial expression—an invocation, perhaps, or an extemporaneous articulation to our praise and glory. Either way it is incomprehensible. Courtesy dictates I allow him to achieve conclusion. It takes an impressively long time.