Reluctant gradations of awareness begin to return without the slightest suggestion of urgency.
The first perceptions to infringe upon the heaviness is the trickling of water over rock and a distant melodic trilling, familiar, as though I have heard it before. It comes again, closer now, and then echoed back from two directions. I have been overhearing this conversation at the tattered extremity of consciousness for some time.
My body is inert, melded to the ground upon which I lie. My eyelids are stones. It is the work of several minnits to open them. That accomplished, I have a spectacular macroscopic view of loose, pebbly soil pressed against my Face. Movement of my limbs is a far more complicated proposition, but I am encouraged by the fact that I have such a simple puzzle to resolve. The flood of power that found expression through me could just as easily have left me a ribbon of cinders on the wind.
The act of commanding unwilling nerves and muscle to respond awakens in them delicious currents of pain. Arms and legs cramp. Hands and feet, conveniently numb before, are now sheathed in needles. My head feels as though it is inside an ore crusher. My hair hurts.
The taproot is, by its nature, also a recipient of my immediate physical anguish and exploits its intimate connections to my nervous system by quieting our shared discomfort.
I sense Brin nearby, but the tap is tenuous. Both she and her symbiote are holding on to life by the same thread.
At the last, Brin was able to accomplish not one, but two Passages with me in tow. The first to a point high in the air above the broken tableland, away from the maelstrom already tearing into the fabric of this world; its scream obliterating nightsounds as the void at its core fed on everything within reach.
Its existence was a blink in time. The shredded athrah healed. Not so the physical consequence of its hunger, but that was only one more scar upon a landscape already scarred by time and nature.
From our great height, we plunged together just long enough for Brin to observe another of the shallow chan’nons that rake the wasteland. I vaguely recall seeing it too, a fair distance further along the land drop.
Released by the power that held me only a few heartbeats earlier, a swirling darkness rose up in its place. I tried to struggle against it, but the last thing I remember is falling with Brin beside me.
I do not know how Brin, at the end of her strength, managed the second shift.
. . .
The sky above has turned and there is a most delicate blue halo washing over the rim of the shallow chan’non in which we lie. This is most peculiar. Gray lands do not awaken in Colors on Hevn and there is no mistake about the neutral energy of this place. But I am no longer on Hevn, am I?
My legs are unable to uphold me. Although the pain that wracked me has been blunted by the taproot, it is with difficulty that I am able to crawl the mere pace that separates me from Brin’s prone form.
I peel off her Face. Her features are in repose. She does not appear to be broken, or injured, but she has spent herself to reach this place with me.
My Face lifts away and, with my teeth, I remove my right gauntlet. The left one’s separation from the lacerated flesh beneath and the protective fics over it is not practical. The damage is significant and the least of my present concerns.
Movement is clumsy and slow, but I manage to hold Brin in my arms and caress her face, my damaged hand over her heart.
Spent I may be, but it takes not the slightest of my own energy to channel Source through me into her. Her body absorbs it like a sponge. I close my eyes and become hollow, an unrestricted channel for the stream of life-force that bathes us both.
I do not know how far away her consciousness may be. I speak to her aloud as well as through our shared connection in hope that something might reach out to her, call her back from her own private Edge. They stumble out of my throat in a croaking whisper.
“Brin… Can you hear me, Guardian? I know you. It would be so like you to give the last of yourself to save me.
“Do you remember when we were matched? We were so unalike; it seemed we would never find commonality or accord. I believe our Warders thought there had been a mistake, that we would never Bind and they would have to start anew with each of us.
“Do you remember when that changed?
“You approached me in the gathering hall one first-rise and, in front of the Brethren assembled there for firstmeal, confronted me. You called me out for my arrogance, my inability to hear the wisdom in your Sisterhood’s training and experience, and my ‘strutting overconfidence’ in my own.
“To make your point, you stepped up and struck a blow that might have killed one less wary of you. I never told you the reason I did not return the strike, as you were no doubt prepared for it. I was stunned, not as much by the force of your blow—though it was masterfully delivered—as with the sudden clear vision of the warrior spirit within you that I had not been willing to acknowledge.
“So we grappled, spilling tables and scattering trays. The Brethren all cleared a circle around us and cheered. The Sisters looked on with detachment. You managed to slip every hold I knew and only my own strength kept me from being driven to submission at your hand until, at last it was my laughter that ended the contest. I believe you knew then it was nothing less than my joy in the knowledge that we would be Bound and avowed.
“Have you ever wondered, Guardian, why I have never taken a half-mate? Such is permitted and many of the Brethren have done so.
“I will tell you. I never sought that casual comfort because it is forbidden for Warrior and Guardian to co-habit—doubly so to be Sealed—as long as they are bound by their Oaths. And, my magnificent Sister, there is no other I cherish and trust with my life as I do you. You have unintentionally destroyed in me forever the ability to look with desire upon another.”
I trace with tender care the mark of her graduation around her eye. “You are dearer to me than my own life.”
These words I would never before have spoken aloud, spill out of me now, only to have them tumble to the ground around us unheeded. I lower my face to hers. Her mouth is slack, her cheek cool, her breath a thread.
I can barely hear my own voice, less a murmur now than a dry scratching noise. Some small part of me is actually glad Brin cannot hear my heart baring itself in this way. The rest prays she might hear and step back from the perilous Edge upon which she teeters, a heartbeat from trackless oblivion reaching out to envelop her.
As though I could keep her from it, I hold her to me and, with the last of my voice tell her, “I would not wish to journey further without you.”
A portion of the energizing draught remains in my pouch. The ones who concoct it for us in our garrisons call it opoct’pejut. We call it ‘muscle’.
I do not wish to release or jostle her, so I extract the flask with my injured hand and leaden arms. I trickle the dark liquid onto her lips, a few drops, like a kiss. I am allowed barely time to seal the flask and set it aside before a swift, blissful wave of darkness collides with me and, with Brin in my arms, I follow it down.
. . .
It is the heat I notice first. The air is hot, dry, oppressive. I am sweltering within my hard-wear and battledress. My exposed skin feels as though it is crisping. The source of this phenomenon seems to be somewhere above me.
High overhead in an impossible blue sky is a single disk. It’s brightness is so intense it overpowers my enhancements and I am forced to turn away from it. A fierce after-image blots my vision for several minnits afterward, fading in measured stages.
I recall Shiric’s orry and my self-assured skepticism as he showed me his shadow-replica of a bright sun. If we are where I think we are, this blinding disk is its originator. What a wonder to witness. I think, however, that I will not attempt to look into its unblinking eye again.
My flask is nearby with less than a quarter of its contents remaining. Brin’s is full, its seal intact. I slip that one into my pouch for now and from my own, I place a few drops of the fluid onto her lips. Some will find its way into her system and tissues in time. Cognizant of my own diminished state, I finish off the last of it. My mouth and throat, raw from Helmouth’s atmosphere, respond in protest even as its unique warmth spreads through my body.
Prudence dictates, for a number of compelling reasons, that I find some form of shelter for us, not the least of which is the unrelenting heat pouring down. Water, a gurgling stream of it, searches through a rocky course, threading its way along the narrow bottom of the cleft. The moisture has nurtured plant life along its banks. A few of these are tree-like and, though small, their spreading branches offer a reasonable degree of cover.
Any other turn, I could carry Brin without effort, but depleted as I am, it is a graceless, lurching progress with my Guardian in my arms to reach a less exposed position. And water, which we both desperately need.
I let her down beside the stream, then lie on its bank to drink. I fill my flask with clear water and soak a shred of my garment to cool her. I remove her cloak, sash, her battledress and skin-hugging under-armor. I bundle some of the cloth under her head and, after cooling her body with water, cover her with her cloak.
The effort leaves me exhausted. By the time I remove my own garb and splash cooling moisture over myself, only the symbiote’s ability to mute my screaming muscles has allowed me to accomplish this much. One more thing requires my attention.
The fingers of my left hand look bad. Torn and raw, they are swollen, oozing an unhealthy fluid. I have too long neglected their care. In some lands on Hevn it would already be too late to save them. Here the unseen organisms are apparently less virulent, or perhaps the frequent immersion in Source has staved off the worst of infection. Either way, in my pouch is a kit and in the kit is a rigid container.
Its contents spray onto my damaged flesh as a bitter cold mist that skins over and the active agent begins to penetrate into the wounds. The first minnit of the reaction is savage, but anticipated, then a merciful numbness settles in and I can breathe once again. There is nothing more I can do.
I fold myself down beside my Guardian with an unintentional groan. Sleep drags me away and holds me captive for a time.
. . .
I swim upward through a syrupy lethargy and surface with reluctance. With wakefulness comes awareness that Brin is lying beside me just as she was before I lost consciousness: slack and unresponsive. Her breathing is shallow, but her heartbeat feels regular. She looks fragile.
The last rays of the second arc are giving way in degrees to Night while, in counterpoint, the myriad tiny shimmering lights spread across its vault begin to reveal themselves. I dress myself against the chill that should not so affect me.
Spreading my cloak over Brin as well as her own, I remain by her side through what I have begun to think of as ‘the sparkling arcs’ and watch over her in the cold luminance of the Night-disk of this land as it makes its transit overhead.
At intervals throughout the night, I focus Source through my hands into the envelope surrounding Brin’s body. My fingers and palms pulse as she absorbs the outpouring of vital energy. I leave her only twice, briefly; the second time to refill my flask at the stream which has dwindled to a trickle. When sleep returns, it is fitful and unsatisfying.
The turn that follows is much like the one before. So many colors surround me, the blue shades of sky, greens and yellows of leaves above us and sparse ground covers, the multiple hues of stone walls and the chan’non’s floor. It is difficult to trust my sense that this is truly a Gray land, but the intrinsic energy of it remains undeniable. It seems to defy all my experience. Such matchless nature would be intoxicating were I not diminished and my soul not drawn so thin.
I have found some fibrous plant material, twisting it into a few short, thin cords. They are rude, but sufficiently serviceable to fix my cloak into the low branches directly above Brin, affording more adequate shade and shield from the uncomfortable light and heat of the arcs to follow. The effort reminds me that my injured fingers, angry beneath the protective second skin, will heal more quickly if I do not continue to infuriate them.
In my pouch is aguya, a thin, hard-shelled cake prepared from the ground meal of the huku nut and a coveted substance called peshneej. It is wrapped in a tough paper that crackles as I break the seal and unfold it. The crisp outer shell crunches as I bite through it into the meaty interior releasing a burst of pleasing nuanced flavors. I take three small bites only, about a third of the cake, chewing each one to liquid in my mouth before swallowing. I chase it down with a single lingering swallow of muscle from Brin’s flask.
As before, I dribble a couple beads of it onto Brin’s lips, letting it trickle into her mouth. I feel my heart quicken as something in her responds to the presence of the liquid. Her mouth works in an absent way to take it in and swallow, and much of a great, fearsome weight is lifted from me.
I lift her head and shoulders in the crook of my arm, prop her slightly upright, and allow her a sip of water. She takes it, and another.
As the bright sun progresses through its second arc, Brin achieves a brief interval of tentative semi-consciousness during which I help her to drink water in measured, but frequent doses. Her body is greedy for it. I tell about this place in which we find ourselves. I describe the bright sun that marches across the first and second arcs of each short turn, the chan’non that shelters us, its rocky watercourse and vegetation, the varieties of flying and small scurrying creatures that inhabit it. She neither speaks, nor responds in any overt manner, but I feel her in the tap and know that she knows I am with her.
And then she lapses back into that distant, inaccessible place far from herself.
I care for the needs of her unresponsive body as best I can. I make sure her mouth and lips are kept moist as she breathes the hot, dry air of the second arc—the downward path of this world’s sun beyond its zenith. At its hottest, I bathe her in cool water, as I did the turn before, wrung from a torn fragment of my battledress.
I have watched the meager volume of the creek diminish until it is now barely more than a seep. I will need to go in search of more water soon. And food. Yet, as long as Brin remains so vulnerable, I am reluctant to leave her for more than minnits at a time.
The sun has dropped to the rim of the chan’non and shadows are quickening. I know from the previous night that cold will follow. Both depleted, we are far more sensitive to these wide temperature variations, this in addition to the observable fact that there are ambient conditions unique to this world that seem to make us more susceptible to such changes.
I disassemble our impromptu awning and lay both cloaks over Brin’s still form. Then, I set out at a quick pace up the stream bed. I do not have to look far.
A pool of still, clear water trapped in a natural basin shimmers in the failing light. It is almost a reach across and nearly as deep. My approach startles several four-legged animals of moderate size gathered there to drink. They are long-legged and lean-bodied, almost delicate in appearance, but swift. They bound into the brush and gone making surprisingly little noise. Watching them bolt away, I almost fail to notice the creature stretched out upon the moist ground between the pool and myself.
It is a peculiar thing with a muscular, tubular body like a wurm, but unlike a wurm, it moves swiftly at the sight of me with a powerful sinuous motion across the ground. It is very like a snayk, though I have never seen one on the land. As I continue to advance, it bunches itself into a tight coil, raising its flat, triangular head, fixing me with tiny, bead-like eyes. Its mouth yawns open, displaying a pair of serviceable, needle-like fangs. Its segmented tail shudders, twitching back and forth. It makes a dry rattling noise.
I approach it straight on. It springs forward to strike and my blade meets it in a blur. Its head bounces once and rolls into a gap between stones even as I stride past its flailing body to refill my flask at the pool. That accomplished, I turn my attention back to the body of the belly-crawler, twisting out its last impulses.
Brin will be, of course, too unresponsive yet. Perhaps later, when she comes around again, we will explore that possibility further. For now, this narrow prize represents a potential meal.
It takes less than a minnit to flay and gut the thing and another to bury the waste, which I do before returning to our bivouac. I hang the rope of meat in a tree-branch a long cast from our place of repose.
Throughout the night Brin rouses only once. I hear her breathing change first, then movement as she shifts her body, rising up on an elbow to look at me with bleary, but cognizant eyes.
She asks me to help her stand. Her voice is thin and dry. She wraps herself in her cloak and, providing an arm to steady her, I help her walk a short distance from our resting place. She is wobbly, but otherwise seems intact and free from pain.
Like a caat, she scrapes a depression in the rough soil with her foot and squats over it, still holding onto my hand to steady herself. She tugs at my arm. The scrap of fabric I have been using to keep her cool throughout the turn changes hands. She doesn’t return it, but raises herself upright on trembling legs and braces herself against my shoulder while she scuffs coarse dirt back over the spot.
We shuffle back to our place beside the creek bed.
Brin is shivering from the cold and, still leaning on me for support, dresses herself. Then, wrung out by the effort, she sags to the ground. I hand her my flask filled with water, which she accepts with a simple, grateful nod. She drinks. I offer her the remainder of the aguya cake. She is indelicate with it and returns the stiff paper wrapping free of crumbs.
I encourage her to take one more drink of water. She does so. Touching my face with an unaccustomed tenderness, she lays down her head and drifts away. I am content for the longest time to sit in the glittering darkness listening to the exuberant Night-sounds of tiny creatures, and watching my Guardian breathe.
My long watch affords me an opportunity to observe that the tiny lights in the Night are in motion. Their movement is intricate, as are the transits of the two larger bodies encircling this world. On Hevn there are four objects that encircle in the ever-Night above us. Their paths never alter; they rise here and they fall there, in this order, every turn identical in procession since the First Turn.
The difference is small, but I am certain the incomplete Night-sun is becoming more fully round with each turn. How could this be possible? In the oft-repeated words of my Warder, Barth, “How should I know? I’m not a Methodist.”
I wonder what the secretive Methodists might think of a world where the sun is a disk of blinding incandescence and heat and the Night is filled throughout its depth with points of light and one, a disk reluctant to show itself, seems to begin its arc across the Night later each turn.
I wonder, but I cannot imagine the answer. Methodists are inscrutable.
Sometime before the halo of the dawning of a new turn paints the sky, my back propped against the sturdy contour of a friendly tree, I doze.
. . .
I am unsure how much later the sound of movement nearby brings me back to the moment, awake and motionless. Brin is beside me, curled on her side, asleep, her breathing soft and regular. It was not her movement that awakened me.
My breath mists in the air. All is quiet. Sounds of movement. Animal sounds.
In the half-light between Night and first-rise, I see them, a small group of four-legged creatures, five in all, passing by in a file. They are all of a kind with heads seeming almost too large for their stout, low-slung bodies. They are covered in coats of bristly hair with sharp ridges on their backs. Their split hooves look sharp and dangerous, but not as formidable as the forward-curving tusks sprouting from the snouts of the three largest of them. The other two bringing up the rear appear to be younglings.
They look and smell very like the pugnacious pors’uc that, regardless of Color, herd together in some of the wild areas of Hevn. If these share any of the same characteristics beyond a singular ill temperament, their hearing and sense of smell is more acute than their eyesight. This may explain why the first in line, the largest of the group, almost past us along the moist creek bed, stops short with its snout in the air
Its breath lays down a brief swirling fog as the rest crowd up behind and mimic its posture. It is a burly thing, big enough to create a serious disturbance and of sufficient size to provide adequate meat to satisfy an intensifying hunger.
Other than a few bites of aguya, I have not eaten since before the last time I witnessed Gog rise on Hevn. I am afraid I no longer have a clear idea how many arcs, or even turns might have passed between that moment and this one, but dire combats have been engaged and vast distances traversed. I know, too, that when Brin wakes again, she will be ravenous as well.
Pivoting on sturdy legs, the pors’uc faces my resting place with a show of snorting and grunting that I interpret as the enjoining of a territorial dispute. I am unsure what it is about the nature of my presence that could have sparked such marked hostility. Five sets of black eyes fix me with a sharp mixture of curiosity and enmity.
I do not know what these tuskers eat. Judging by their rough appearance, aggressive posture, and my experience with their counterparts on my own world, I would guess they will eat whatever they can scavenge, uproot, or kill outright.
My fingers find the handle of the blade at my belt and curl with reassuring familiarity around it. I am unenthusiastic about a confrontation with fast, belligerent creatures in my present state, but unless they are able to shield themselves, or come armed with energy weapons, I believe I may yet hold at least a precarious advantage.
The lead brute advances. It is tentative at first, clacking its teeth together, tearing at the dirt in front of it.
Ha’eh, I know this kind. It will cautiously close the gap between us until either movement on my part, or its own proximity will prompt it to storm forward with tusks poised to disembowel, hooves and teeth to rend and tear.
Only a few more deliberate steps remain to be within range to strike for either of us. When the moment comes, it will be swift. Motionless I wait, gauging its commitment.
I observe the subtle shift of its musculature, an evident compression. I draw a silent, charging breath.
Its head jerks up and around, away from me. Its body follows like a whiplash.
A sharp concussive blast splits the air and some kind of projectile tears through the creature’s neck spraying blood and bone. The beast is flung to the ground almost at my feet, helpless, its life twisting out of it. The rest of its family, startled into flight, scatters into the brush further down the stony cleft.
I am on my feet, shield up, blade reconfiguring itself for throwing. At the far wall of the chan’non, just where it cuts away and out of sight, sheltered behind a pair of large downfallen rocks, is a human. Another Gray t’sunguc, so he appears. His weapon is trained upon me.
◄ ~ ~