Summary: Setena makes contact with the Naedrani and Daulis reads and learns.
When her own village had been attacked, Setena had only just returned from a forbidden swim in the sands and joined her age mates in the ocean. The screaming hum of the Black Shells’ metal birds broke up their frolicking water games. Like the others, she rushed back to the village, rushed to help in any way she could. Before they reached sight of the village, they were set upon by a group of Black Shells. Setena was felled by a Black Shell blade and lay bleeding while the soldiers moved on to other victims. She pushed her way beneath the sands and hid in that safety until the village lay quiet and smoldering.
Days ago at the wall, being unable to help, but unable to look away from the death of the Belurian she did not recognize (but to know he was of her own kind), had pulled her from the insulated place she had existed in since losing all she had ever known, losing her kith and kin, losing her village. The detached peace, which she had gotten from the inevitability of death, from the futility of life, faded and the grief of it all flooded through her. Since then, the covered river failed to refresh Setena. The barloots turned her stomach. Sleep, which before had been hard to achieve wrapped in her thin cloak for the long, cold desert night, failed her entirely.
For you see, Setena was the sort of young that still related its own transgressions with the disconnected misfortunes the world rains into every life, as if her sins brought on retribution. She was also the sort of young that couldn’t see that simplistic connection in itself until faced with an horrific truth, like the one she faced on the desert wall. It was then she realized that evil doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t work in such an understandable way, nor in such a reasonable and workable way. It has no rules, no system and no tit for tat. She could not hold the blame for the invasion of her village or her planet on her shoulders anymore.
She also could truly have done nothing to stop it, no one could have. She had let herself occasionally imagine that she was the foretold Apante’, the reincarnation of Vvadana, that could save her people. Perhaps that too had been naught more than childish imaginings by the leaders of her people, perhaps there was nothing in the world but happenstance.
As she lay, shivering on the sands, listening to the winds across the sands and the whisper of squinkies crawling just below the surface and the passing sizzle of the Naedrani as they moved through the sands, she began to hear more. One of the Naedrani, one much smaller than nearly all the others, was near the edge of her shallows swimming to and fro over the same channel of sands. She got the odd idea that it was waiting for her, almost calling to her. ‘Zzzseteeenaaa,’ it called, buzzing her name with its body against the sand, ‘Zzzseteeenaaa.’ She put her back to the strange sound and incanted for sleep. The incantation, which she had never been particularly good at, did nothing.
‘Zzzseteeenaaa.’ In the dark, in the cold, with nothing and no one left, Setena couldn’t help but listen. She crawled nearer the edge of the shallows and spotted the ripple of the little Naedran a small distance away. She watched it until the imagined light she had been using to see could be pronounced the true and real light of the first sun’s dawn, when the Naedran swam off to join its kin.
The next evening, as she lay, shivering on the sands, listening to the winds across the sands and the whisper of squinkies crawling just below the surface and the passing sizzle of the Naedrani as they moved through the sands, she again heard more. The small Naedrani, the one much smaller than nearly all the others, was again near the edge of her shallows swimming to and fro over the same channel of sands. Again, it called, ‘Zzzseteeenaaa,’ buzzing her name with its body against the sand, ‘Zzzseteeenaaa, Zzzseteeenaaa.’ Again, she crawled near the edge of the shallows and spotted the ripple of the little Naedran. Again, she watched it until the first sun’s dawn, when the Naedran swam off to join its kin.
The third evening, as she lay, shivering on the sands, listening to the winds across the sands and the whisper of squinkies crawling just below the surface and the passing sizzle of the Naedrani as they moved through the sands, she once more heard more. The small Naedrani, the one much smaller than nearly all the others, was once more near the edge of her shallows swimming to and fro over the same channel of sands. Once more, it called, ‘Zzzseteeenaaa,’ buzzing her name with its body against the sand, ‘Zzzseteeenaaa, Zzzseteeenaaa.’ Once more, she crawled near the edge of the shallows and spotted the ripple of the little Naedran. But that time, she didn’t merely watch it until the first sun’s dawn, letting the Naedran swam off to join its kin. That time, she edged closer until she could dip her hand into the sands where he swam. The ripple-sizzle-calling stopped. Perhaps the Naedran had not expected Setena to come to him, or perhaps he was trying not to frighten her. She was not frightened.
After a time, the Naedran came to her, raising his head to her hand. His skin was dry and smooth, like a stone worn by the waves of the Great Ocean or the dusk winds. He reared and whipped himself onto the top of the shallows, laying his body next to hers. They were of a size and, she somehow knew, they were of an age as well. He slipped back into the deep sand and she followed, for she had no other choice.
As Setena followed the Naedran winding his way through the sand in a familiar pattern, one that brought to mind the water games played through the long afternoons in the Great Ocean. He lulled her, playing with her to bring her confidence that he meant her no harm. Knowing with no certainty that she was safe, but not caring what her fate would be after that moment, she played his game eagerly. Soon other, larger Naedrani joined them, and their games grew bolder, the contact longer and closer. The slide of their bodies against her own, the rush of their wings brushing soft sands over her, washed her cleaner than the covered river ever had, cleaner than the Great Ocean’s glory. She sloughed her emotional skin and the apante’ that emerged was smooth as her playmates.
At a time indicated by nothing Setena could discern, the Naedrani quit the game and went home to their nest. The small one, the one who had invited her into the deep sands, invited her again. How he did this, Setena could not explain to anyone who had not felt the gesture against her own skin, but the meaning was true and clear. She followed his wake, tracing his path through the loose sand and thickening barloots.
They came to a place where the vine-y shoots of the barloot plants were so copious that to pass through them one had to know the right channel to avoid getting ensnared. Then suddenly, they passed into a sand-less, open place. In that sand-less, open place the Naedrani huddled together, writhing and communing. Setena was led into the very center of the nest.
The thunderous buzz of Naedrani skin against sand, a sound she never ceased hearing when she was under the sand, ceased. The buzz was replaced by indiscriminant whispers. No, they weren’t whispers; they were thoughts. They felt like her own thoughts, but not ones she’d ever thought before. They faded in and out of her head as if none of them was complete or maybe as if they came from different sources:
“Nothing to fear . . . bliss untold . . . Vvadana’s island . . . black clouds gathering . . . distant words . . . beryl for the birds . . . Sckrimmel keys . . .”
“Please, I don’t understand,” Setena told them, for now she knew that the thoughts were the voices of the Naedrani and they wanted something from her.
“Forgive them, they don’t need words like we do,” a stronger, more lucid voice told her. He was not a Naedran, she knew him for one of her own kind, even if she could not see him.
“Who are you?” she asked the Belurian voice.
“My name was . . . it began with a ‘T’, I’m certain of it,” he answered. “Ttikarn! That was it. I’ve been dead for days; it gets harder to remember such trivialities the longer I’m here.”
“I knew you! You lived in Belus. You were to marry my kinswoman, Gatie. Is she dead, as well?”
“I do not know if I know. It matters not. You must come to have that which they offer you. You must understand,” he spoke, confounding her.
“What must I understand? What is it they are saying? It feels right, but makes no sense,” Setena asked.
“You are needed. Your tasks begin at the invaders’ wall where the Naedrani took me into the bliss.”
“You’re the one I saw thrown to the Naedrani? I’m sorry I could not help you. I didn’t know how.”
“It matters not.”
“Why is your death bliss? The Naedrani killed you. Why don’t you hate them?”
“My life is far greater than my body ever was. Space, no . . . no, time- Time is small. Be watchful of the wall, he will be there soon. They cannot help him, not as you can. Help him or the rest will be nothing, lost to space- no, lost to time.”
“Who is he? How will I know the one I need to help? How can I help him?”
“You must go to the wall now. Naedran will guide you. Blessings of Vvadana on your endeavor.”
“But I don’t understand what I’m to do. Who is he? How do I . . .” The buzz of the Naedrani returned and a small Naedran, maybe the same one, perhaps a different one, nudged her side before wending his way through the barloot vines towards Belus. Setena followed, for she had no other choice.
On this ridge of destiny, they camped for three days, while Daulis read hungrily and Gatie grieved, falling ever deeper into her despair. Daulis seemed not to notice her at all, excepting at mealtimes, when he urged food on her. She ate merely to appease him. She could deny him nothing since the day she had pulled him from the Naedran’s jaws. At dusk on the third day, Daulis sat beside her as she contemplated the setting suns and how much her life had been like a cloudy day; warm enough to survive, but lacking radiance.
He perched beside her silently, meditating as had become his habit. After a long moment, he reached out and pulled her hand into his own, pressing it against his chest and pulling her attention to his face. “We have to go now. We need to translate the unread passage of the Book. Where do you think the Black Shells have not conquered yet? Where might some elders still survive?”
She did not reply for a long time. The words he had spoken jumped up and down in her mind and refused to make sense for a time. When she had deciphered them, she answered, “The first and last place of destruction is Vvadana’s village, on the edge of the Great Ocean.” It was a passage in the Book of All Things that Daulis had assumed to be allegorical. He was not sure the Great Ocean even existed. He could not imagine a place as large and as wet as the Wastelands was large and dry. Gatie, however, spoke of the Village as if it was a real place, one whose dust she had tasted in the wind. In the short time he had had possession of it, Daulis’ memorization of the Book of All Things was nearly complete. He turned to the passage she had cited and read on.
Vvadana’s Village is north of south and east of west,
Above the frost and below the rains.
It is a place of great beauty and ruin,
A place of birth and destruction.
It is the beginning of the end and the end of the beginning.
No one has been there but everyone began there.
The One and Vvadana\Gatie will journey there.
They know how but do not know how.
All will be revealed to them but they will learn nothing they did not already know.
Closing the Book, Daulis realized that Gatie was speaking without her wits, out of shock and grief. He must make this choice on his own. He chose to try the city because the Nolpars spoke a different language than his people. He still had his father’s maps so he was confident he could find the city. He gathered up the articles he deemed necessary, and the ones Gatie refused to give up, (the gazing glass, her Beryl stones and the medallion given her by the Black Shell) and convinced Gatie to her feet. They left the ridge at dusk. They traveled at night because the season was nearing full summer and although Gatie seemed not to mind the heat, Daulis could not bear it with the limited amount of water they had.
Mid-morn two days later, they arrived at the former site of Recatt, the next town on the trade route to the city. It was ruined and fetid, so they camped nearby that day, eating the few barloots Daulis could find on his own and refilling their water from the town well. In the late afternoon, they again set off for the city. Gatie traveled because Daulis asked her to, but she did not care where they were bound. They camped three mornings later in the ruins of Hullty, the last Alurian town before the city. The city laid four day’s walk through a dense and dangerous forest. They stayed at Hullty a night, a day and another night so that they could travel the forest in daylight.
The edge of the forest teemed with life, small animals peeking out from under myriad varieties of shrub and blade grasses before hopping unafraid across their path. Farther in, the light began to wane and the animals were more scurriers and slitherers than peeking hoppers. Daulis tried to keep a hearty pace, alert for both roots and predators, but Gatie followed in her own plodding time, as she had for days now. She had spoken little since Pedar and he was finally beginning to wonder why. They had managed a day and a half over the rough, gnarl rooted ground and were resting and feasting on berries at mid-day. Truth be told, Daulis was feasting on berries. Gatie was leaning her head on his shoulder, sipping water from a flash they’d filled in Hullty and watching the few sunbeams that reached the mossy ground around them change as the treetops swayed in the breeze.
From behind them came a shrieking ruckus as something large and aggressive moved through the undergrowth, snapping branches and sending rocks clacking against each other as they were kicked out of its way. Daulis was to his feet in a trice, pulling one of the Sckrimmel blades from the makeshift sheath he’d fashioned for them and twirling around to face the danger. Gatie seemed not to notice his absence, merely letting herself slide down to the surface of the log they had been sitting on, laying her head on her own arm and closing her eyes.
The great, loud thing came closer and Daulis steadied himself, checking his grip on the blade in his hand and chanting for strength from the life around him in the trees. He surprised himself by succeeding in that spell. On the Wastelandss he’d never felt any difference when he’d tried it. Of course, it was more likely that the large number of creatures in the forest had more to do with his accomplishment than any change in his ability in the last days.
Into the small clearing where Daulis stood, surged an enormous, dark and winged fiend. It snapped and scratched menacingly at him. Daulis drew his blade over his head making ready to strike at the heinous bird. The beast might get to Gatie, but it was going to have to take him first. It charged forward, beak and claws ready to gnash at his flesh, tear him into delectable morsels. A split second later Daulis stumbled to halt his onslaught. Gatie had placed herself between him and the monster, standing read to receive the slashing talons aimed at her beloved.
“You’ll not take him without me,” she stated weakly.
“Gatie!” Daulis exclaimed as he strived not to collide with her. The Sckrimmel Blade fell from his hand, landing at the great bird’s feet. Daulis wrapped his arms around Gatie and tried to twist them so that his shoulders would take the brunt of any blow from the claws. The blow never came. The monster stopped being a monster and began being a still large bird-man with lush, shiny blue feathers over all his body, save for his face. His face was more like that of a Nolpar, smooth, wide and open. The Nolpar-ish bird bent down and picked up the blade, inspecting it carefully.
“So, she read the stars rightly. It has begun,” he noted, turning the Sckrimmel over in his hands again and again. “Do you not know what you have, boy? This is the last thing to use in defending.” He looked pointedly at Gatie and Daulis was not sure if the bird was asking about the blade or the apante’.
“Who are you? What do you know of the Sckrimmel Blades?” Daulis asked.
The bird stifled a laugh. “Dau made these Kreemal Bell Aids for a vastly different purpose than the one for which you use them. Should you not be taking it back from her by now? The weight of it drags her wings down too much.” He nodded at Gatie, whose momentary rally of awareness had ended, leaving her leaning heavily on Daulis, her face buried in the crook of his arm.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with her, or I’d help her.” He answered, ashamedly.
“You’ve the Book?”
“The Book of All Things?”
“Perhaps that is the name given it, yes.”
“Yes, I have it, but there is so much to read and much of it I can’t understand. Some I don’t even recognize the lettering.”
“That will come in time, but don’t make her wait. Find it now.”
“I don’t even know what it is I need to find in the Book. How can I help her?”
“Disquieting question, isn’t it?”
“You’re Dau, aren’t you, the fallen bird, the lover? She is my Gatie. I need her. Please, won’t you help her? You must have great power to be able to change form . . .”
“My time is long past. I can do nothing to change your world anymore, at least not much.” He began to chirp an odd song, almost singing, but with words Daulis didn’t recognize. Then he released his grip on the Sckrimmel Blade and it hovered in the air as if placed on a table. After a moment, it slowly pointed east towards the Nolpar city. A similar looking bird creature, this one obviously a female with near white plumage, appeared at the edge of the clearing and the blue one glanced back at her. “She calls. Follow where the Kreemal Bell Aid leads,” he told Daulis before rushing off to join the white bird. Daulis tried to watch them go, but they seemed to vanish into nothingness as soon as the blue bird reached the white one.
Daulis turned Gatie back to face him, ran a gentle hand over her cheek, caressing her whiskers and looked into her empty eyes. “He was less help than I would have hoped, don’t you think? Don’t fear, apante’, I’ll find it. I’ll find what you need and we’ll follow the Kreemal Bell Aid and save what there is left to save of Be-luria.” Then he repacked their meager belongings, replaced the Sckrimmel Blade in its sheath and pulled Gatie by the hand towards the city.
Setena had come to realize that the concept of time was different to a dead man and a bunch of sand dwelling rays than it was to a young Belurian with nothing to do but wait. The Naedrani kept her company as she waited, spending her time- days at a time- watching the wall of Belus. Sometimes she would swim up through the well and try to listen to find out if the Black Shells had anyone prisoner, anyone they were planning to throw from the wall. But, days passed and there was nothing, no one to save. She tried asking the Naedrani if they could tell her more about who she was meant to help and when he would arrive, to no avail. They either would not or could not speak to her again. She also tried to return to the Naedrani’s nest, hoping that they might let Ttikarn speak to her again, that she might ask him questions. They would not let her pass through the barloot vines, darting into her path again and again diverting her away from the nest. So she waited.
After some days, she began to know the comings and goings of the Black Shells in Belus. Every third day one of their great birds came, whipping the surface sands into a frenzy for a short time. Then food was brought from its belly for the Black Shells to eat. Soon after large crates filled with something heavy, something which they named in their own tongue, were loaded into the bird’s empty belly and it left, tossing the sands again as it went. This regular event seemed to be of great importance to the invaders. Setena began to wonder how important it was and devised a strategy to find out.
While Setena was never particularly good at incanting, there was one spell she always managed fairly well: she could command squinkies. Most Belurians could call squinkies. They were taught to as children because squinkies were used for restoring the very ill and it was good to be able to send the children off on that errand while the adults handled more complicated tasks. Setena, however, could do more than the others could, she could impose her will on them. She hadn’t even had to work at mastering the skill, it was as natural to her as swimming the sands, it was part of her.
On a day when she knew the Black Shell’s metal bird was coming, she made her way under Belus, hovering under the open sand just at the edge of the village, where the bird was known to land, and began calling squinkies. She called many more of them than she had ever called before. They swelled in from the sands surrounding her, but did not reach the surface. There the wriggled and squirmed, and waited with Setena. Soon enough, the metal bird shook the sands and perched above them.
Finding a place alee of a large rock, she raised her head above the surface and watched the Black Shells open the metal belly to bring out the food stores. She set the squinkies surging towards them. After a moment, the foreign soldiers were besieged with the tiny desert crustaceans. The squinkies wormed their way over the men, writhed up the legs and open belly of the metal bird, and found their way into the crates of food to eat their fill. Setena and the Naedrani spent the rest of the day watching the almightily Black Shell soldiers failing to capture the squinkies and save their dinner. Then they celebrated with a rollicking round of sand tag, as Setena had begun calling their under-sand games in her mind. She decided that that was the best day she’d had in many months and vowed to repeat it all in a few days.
Author’s note: This is the conclusion of the section, but not the end of the story. Brave the Arid Ocean continues in January 2009.