Authors: Jean Johnson
Year 0, Month 0, Day 0
The season of low summer
Energy shimmered into view, at first forming a single rippling, wavering line, then splitting and curving into an arch. It was pointed at the top somewhat like the pupil of a cat's eye, though if the bottom was pointed as well, its point was lost under the uneven stone floor. It wasn't the only source of light. Within moments, scudding balls of opalescent energy, like overgrown dust bunnies, soared in through the cavern walls. The energy balls struck the edge of the arch, brightening and strengthening it with each impact. Two, five, fifteen, then a trickle of a few more stragglers soared in to join the arch. Seconds later, it stabilized.
A dark-clad body dashed through that shimmering portal into the otherwise dark cavern. The man spun, skidding a little as his boot soles slipped on the gritty, uneven surface. One of the marks tattooed on his tanned face shimmered briefly with an odd, faint, brownish glow. He turned in a circle, sword in one hand, crystal-tipped shaft in the other, ready to stab or smash anything that threatened the glimmering archway.
Nothing attacked. The opalescent lights played over the mottled, spotted granite of the cavern walls and gleamed off the black hair of the only figure in the chamber. The sueded silk and black leather of his clothes absorbed most of the light rather than reflected it, leaving him looking like nothing more than a head and a pair of weapon-wielding hands attached to a humanoid shadow.
” a feminine voice asked. It was projected through the crystalline hoop piercing the middle shell of his ear.
Something about the chamber, with its uneven folds and ragged exit, made him twist and peer all around for several extra seconds. The only sounds he could hear were his own heartbeat and breathing, the soft scrape of his boot soles on the gritty stone floor, and a faint hiss from the Veil. Scents were simple and plain: warm sandstone, dust, his own body, and a hint of moisture in the mostly still air.
Unable to spot what it was, he waitedÂ .Â .Â . waitedÂ .Â .Â . then shook his head slightly and spoke. “It appears to be clear. You may come through now.”
The rippling, opalescent Veil brightened, scintillating in streaks of light that pulled back to reveal a heavily wooded meadow. A cluster of men and women in that clearing moved toward the doorway in the Veil between worlds. Unlike Ban, all of them were golden haired and golden eyed, more lithe and lean than muscular, with ears that swept up to modest points rather than bearing the smooth curves of his own lobes.
One of the three men stepped through and lifted a crystal in his hand. Energy flared outward, bathing the chamber in an opalescent mist before sucking itself back inside. He frowned a little, tilted the faceted oval and studied the shifting colors captured within, then shrugged. “It seems to be safe to use Fae magic, though I'll need to study this realm in depth. There are some odditiesÂ .Â .Â .”
When are there not?”
The voice came from the tallest and most stately of the four women remaining on the other side. Her words echoed eerily, coming through both the Veilway and their communication earrings. “
Can you be specific, Ãfan?
“The portal stabilized much faster than anticipated, my lady,” Ãfan stated, still pacing slowly about the cavern. “A positive sign, but still something to be cautious about. The local aether appears depleted of magic for the moment, but it does seem to be rebuilding in strengthâit seeping out of the air, the stones, everything. And while I can sense a thin trickle of magical energies coming from Ban, joining the aetherÂ .Â .Â . I cannot sense any such emanations from any of my active magics. It's as if the excess energies get used up somehow.”
It is not enough to turn us back
,” Jintaya decided. “
We will continue establishing the
Two of the four women on the other side stepped through. Along with the men, they formed a four-person chain while the dark-haired Ban stood watch by the exit tunnel and the blond male with the crystal egg continued to frown softly at the device. It was not a chain of muscles and limbs, however; instead, each of the four merely lifted their hands, and the various boxes, bags, chests, and crates started floating across the archway. Goods moved from one universe to the other silently, almost effortlessly, though of course using magic instead of muscle would still cost each of them in some way.
The cavern selected for this transfer was fairly large, if uneven. The Veil had been pierced at one end, the exit tunnel at the other, with a dip and three terraces between the two. Bags and boxes, chests and bundles floated through and settled to either side, sorted by color-coded ribbons and tags to differentiate between personal belongings and shared materials. This cave was at the bottom of a long chain of caverns and tunnelsâaround a dozenâleading up to the surface. It would make an excellent, defensible home base.
The last of the crates and barrels came through, and now furniture floated past. Everything they would need to set up an initial observation outpost would be sent through for their use. That included stores of food to last them long enough to either find edible things to cultivate and domesticate here on this world, or realize nothing was edible by their kind, in which case other plans would be made. The upper caverns would be claimed and occupied as rough living, working, and storage quarters, and eventually they would reshape the very rock of this place into something much more civilized. But that would take time.
With the Veil portal opened and stabilized, the light pouring from its magics was now equally steady. However, a hint of light off to the left of the archway flickered faintly, erratically. Narrowing his eyes, Ban watched it out of the corner of his eyesâand sprinted for the spot, sword stabbing into the narrow rift even as he reached it. A frantic yell from the other side of the crack stopped his thrust, but only so he could pull the blade out and peer inside. Flames flickered and wobbled, casting weird shadows, but it did allow him to see a man running away from the crack, up a twisting tunnel raggedly illuminated by the burning torch in his hand.
“Ban! What is it?” Ãfan called out. Parren and Fali looked up briefly from their levitation efforts but had to keep working.
“A spy!” Unsure if that passage connected to the others, he wedged his hand into the narrow crack and flexed the muscles under one of the many tattoos painting his tanned hide. Between one breath and the next, he shrunk down, scrambled through, and re-enlarged himself as soon as he could. Ban flexed another tattoo to keep track of the twists and turns of the mazelike caves so he could find his way back, and gave chase.
The wand in Ban's hand was brighter than the torch in the native's, making his passage hard to see whenever the other man rounded a bend. The smell and sight of the torch's soot lingering in the air; it and the thumping of native feet on the cavern stone kept the black-clad warrior on the fleeing man's track. A spy who saw the Veilway was not allowed to speak of it to anyone else. That meant catch, or kill.
Jintaya will want him caught so that we can attempt to erase his memories
, Ban thought, long legs catching up on the fleeing native slowly at best, thanks to the smaller man's evident agility.
Now how did he get in so close, on a path we could not seeÂ .Â .Â .Â ? Ah.
These caverns were indeed connected to the others, though the connecting point was so low, he had to drop onto his belly to slither through the low gap the other man used more readily in a rapid, scuttling crawl. Ban's glowing wand remained steady, but the native's crude pitch torch nearly guttered out from being scraped along the floor. It didn't stop his flight, though. By the time Ban got through, the native was halfway across the sunlit cave. It was not a direct exit, but the next passage was broad and led out to a cave that was half-crevasse.
Finally free to run unimpeded by twists and turns in the granite face, Ban let his longer legs close the distance between him and his fleet-footed quarry. In the bright sunlight angling down from overhead, he could see the young man was about as heavily tanned as he was, with matted dark hair, some sort of primitive leather kilt wrapped around his hips, and very worn leather sandals strapped to his feet. One of those straps broke as he darted out of the crack they were following. He tripped, stumbled, then started yelling and waving his free arm, torch still held aloft. Sour sweat trailed in his wake, the scent of fear and an unwashed body, along with hints of pungent greenery and a drier kind of air than the caverns held.
Abruptly wary, Ban skidded to a stop at the edge of that opening. Beyond it lay the green-speckled, wind-and-water-carved ravine that the scrying spells of the others had scouted and checked. There should have beenâand indeed wereâa number of wild-growing bushes, trees, grasses, even a few flowers, and a half-dried, somewhat muddy pond suggesting that this area did flood from time to time, despite the palpable heat radiating off the rocky walls of the canyon.
have been a good two hundred and more men, women, and children, ranging from babes in arms to graybeards. Most of whom looked thin, dusty, haggard from hard travel on little food and whom had apparently pulled sledges of primitive belongings, leather goods and grass-woven baskets. Though the wind shifted the air only a little bit, he could smell how desperately everyone needed a bath. There was water nearby for bathing, and he could see dampness on clothes and skin where some had slaked their thirst, but they must have reached this part of the canyons out there within less than an hour.
Just over one hour ago, when Jintaya herself had checked through the initial hair-thin opening of the Veil, the cave system and its immediate surroundings had been native free. Natives who now grabbed for their spears, their slings and primitive bows, and who pushed their children back out of harm's way as they faced the black-clad stranger chasing one of their own out of the caves.
Ban, what is happening?
” he heard Jintaya demand, even as the man he had chased, a middle-aged fellow with a good amount of stamina, started pointing his way and babbling in the local tongue.
“JintayaÂ .Â .Â . we have a problem,” he murmured, carefully lowering his sword so that it was not quite so threatening. The subtle blue tattoo marked around his eye, his ear, and all the way down to his throat twitched and itched a little, struggling to comprehend and translate their language.
Tell me you did not kill the spy, Ban
,” she stated reprovingly.
“No, but I should have,” he replied quietly, counting numbers, gauging weapon skills, and debating just how much of a fight he might have on his hands. The pale blue tattoo marking him from right eye to ear to throat and linked permanently to his personal, alien magics, finished making sense of their language. Syllables, vowels, and consonants became sounds imbued with meaning. Words such as
was, made him flinch. “He's now telling aboutÂ .Â .Â . two hundred twenty people what he has seen. Male and female, young and old. A tribe of some sort. They look like they have traveled far to get here and have only just arrived.”
Shae? Tash keleth!
” she swore. He blinked a little, not used to hearing the great lady curse like that, but otherwise kept himself calm and readyÂ .Â .Â . until he heard several more running up behind him. Twisting sideways so he could face both groups, he held out his curved blade in warning, the pale gold metal reflecting the light like a slice of the sun.
Five more men and two women, for a total of seven humans, appeared behind him. Carrying torches and wrapped in rough leather garments held on by crudely woven cords, they stumbled to a stop in the ravine behind him. They eyed his weapon and unfamiliar, neatly tailored garments with wide, wary eyes. The crevasse was narrow enough; Ban could easily keep them blocked off from the rest of their tribe. He could hold off both groups, too, so long as he stayed in the narrow opening, unless the larger mass of natives decided to start slinging spears and shooting arrows at him all at once.
That might make this trickier, if Jintaya doesn't want me to kill.
“I need guidance, my lady,” he murmured, verbally prodding the woman on the other end of the crystal earrings linking the expedition members together. “Do I kill them, or not?”
She sighed heavily. “
The damage is done. Do not harm them. Return to the pantean.
Seven versus one, fully blocking his path, with an order not to harm any of them? Sighing roughly, he shifted his weight, rolled an ankle to activate another tattoo, and leaped at the wall on his right. Foot clinging for a brief, magic-assisted moment, Ban whirled and leaped higher, bounding back and forth across the gap of the narrow chasm. Each step angled him back, up, and over the heads of the gaping men and women, until he was free to drop to the ground and sprint back the way he had come without fear of being in range of an attack.
Or rather, he ran back almost the same way. Taking the main passages their spells had scouted, he reached the mouth of the innermost cave in time to find all seven of the others waiting for his return, and the Veil Arch sealed against normal eyesight. He could still feel the Veil, the traces of warm, sunlight-like Fae energies radiating from where it had stood, but the portal now hid behind an illusion of the cavern wall having been moved forward by a few feet.
Only Fae powers could shift that wall back. Of the eight members of the pantean, Ban had not the right kind of magic to move it and access the way back. Then again, of the eight of them, he had no reason to go back. As soon as he crossed into the cavern, Ãfan passed his hand over the opening. More rock sprang upâan illusion of rock, sealing them inside for their protection. A glance to the left showed the crack in the wall had a similar faux-stone patch.