Read Dawn of the Flame Sea Online

Authors: Jean Johnson

Dawn of the Flame Sea (4 page)

Sunsteel flashed between them. Metal hit wood as the sword in Ban's hand connected with the hardwood shaft, and passed through. The uneven cavern echoed with a ringing tang and a dull metallic clatter of the bronze point hitting the stone floor. The youth gaped at his beheaded weapon—then yelled and attacked, swinging the now-bladeless shaft. Ban ducked and swung the crystal rod in his left hand. It connected with the other man's skull in a burst of steady, clean, golden white light. Whipped around by the strength of Ban's blow, the youth crumpled with a sigh, slumping across the floor.

Ban eyed him, listening to the youth's breathing. Unconscious, and struck hard enough to awaken with a headache no doubt, but probably not suffering from a serious concussion. He hadn't activated any of his strength-based tattoos, so it wasn't as if the would-be warrior's brains had been splattered across the cave. Ban had far too many years of gauging his strength in more battles than this entire group would see in their combined lifetimes; he would not be so careless. Deliberate, but not careless. Holding the glowing rod off to the side, Ban pointed at the fallen youth with his sword while the others stared wide-eyed at the crumpled figure, silent with fear.

“He still lives. You will take him, and yourselves, out of these caves. I might not spare the next to attack me. Your entire tribe is not great enough in numbers to stop me. I am Ban. I serve Taje Jintaya-ul. Be grateful she is willing to share these canyons with your people. She will not share these particular caves.
If
you behave and are polite, you may be invited to stay, rather than be told to leave this area. If you are rude and attack . . . you will be lucky if there are enough of you left to leave.”

There was no inflection in his tone, aside from a point of emphasis on their choices in this matter. He did not stress their impending deaths if they chose unwisely. Ban didn't bother because he did not care. It had hurt him more than enough to learn after all these years that he could still care for someone. For Jintaya.

“Pulek. Eruk,” the woman with the long spear ordered. “Grab Lutun. We will leave these caves alone. For now,” she added firmly, holding Ban's gaze as if he were some sort of predator. “Taje Halek will decide whether or not we will come back to them.”

Two of the men moved forward at her command. Ban recognized one of them, the older of the two, as the man who had first spied upon the Fae. He had a few scars here and there and was missing the tip of his third finger. He also eyed Ban warily, gaze flicking repeatedly to the blade that had nearly punctured him. The other fellow stooped and thriftily claimed the bronze spearhead, tucking it into his waistband before helping his companion grab the fallen hunter by his wrists and ankles.

Waiting until the group had dragged the unconscious would-be warrior off, Ban paced slowly in their wake, making sure none were lingering to try to ambush him. Every so often, he glanced behind and saw the work of Éfan, sealing up cave after cave in his wake with what looked like blank walls sculpted and colored to match the rest of the wind-and-water-worn rock.

I will have to remind Éfan to make the walls malleable enough that I can get through them at a touch
, he thought, sighing with a trace of impatience.
Otherwise there will come a day I will have to bash my way in and ruin whatever sculpting work they will be trying to do, reshaping these caves into a proper Fae home.

***

Deep in the sand dunes to the south, Kuruk, the leader of the small warband tracking the refugees, scowled at the coarse grains around them. They bore no traces of footsteps, save the ones the five of them had made: Kuruk as leader, Charag and Tureg as fighters, Koro and his acolyte Pak. There should have been signs of the passage of over two hundred tribe members . . . but the winds of the desert, slow and sparse save at dawn and dusk, had erased all the marks. “Are you
sure
the anima can track them? We haven't seen signs of their passage in three days now.”

Koro, their middle-aged
animadj
, made a tsk noise. “You know as well as I that the anima can do many things if the will is strong and sharp. My will is trained by twice as many years as you have been alive, hunt leader.
And
 . . . what do I have in my hand?”

“A torch,” Kuruk grunted, lifting his eyes to the sky. He did not care for the teacher-prompting-the-student tone of the older man but let it pass.

“A torch,” Koro agreed, his tone bordering somewhere between chiding and pompous. The animadj had earned the right to be proud, however. “I draw my will from the fire that named our tribe. I draw my power from the encircling energies of the flame as it consumes all that it can eat. The torch flames point firmly north, while the wind, when it stirs, travels to the southeast. The fire I have bound with my will to the anima, and the anima knows where they have gone. We will find them.”

The scouting leader eyed the torch in question. “Well, it looks like it needs more
dromid
dung.”

“We still have another finger or two before Pak will need to make another torch,” Koro reassured Kuruk. “When we stop for that, I will use a bit of anima to pull up a little more water for us to drink.”

“Good,” Charag grunted. “Marching in sand with my battle-axe is thirsty work.” Unlike the long, bladed pole Kuruk used as a walking staff, and the lightweight bow and quiver of arrows Tureg wielded, he carried a heavy axe crafted of stout hardwood for the shaft and fastened with the wealth of two thick blades made of sharpened bronze.

“Try marching with enough firewood for fifteen days,” Pak grunted.

Charag gave him a disdainful look.

Pak stuck out his tongue, then started to purse his lips.

“Enough, Pak. No conjuring sand devils,” Koro added. “We don't need them to be seen.”

“Heed your master,” Kuruk agreed, chiding the young male with a jerk of his chin. “We are here to track those White Sands fools. Their animadj seemed to know of a place to settle to the north. For that many people, it would have to be a large and lush oasis. If they find such a place within half a moon's travel—”

“Then we will attack and take them over as war slaves, claim their land for our own, and crush the Water Spears from each side,” Pak recited, lifting his own eyes to the sky.

It was said that sky-anima was the rarest of all kinds that could be conjured, and thus the most instantly powerful, if the most fleeting, for it made the lightning strike and the air boom and tremble. Stone anima lasted far longer, was the most reliable, but air anima combined with fire or water was most impressive. Air caused the rains that made the landscape flood, which could kill people even on a cloudless day. Everyone therefore implored the anima in the sky for kindness, patience, and mercy. Or mostly just for patience with others.

Pak glanced next at the torch in his teacher's hand. “Koro . . . Kuruk is right; the wind is picking up and devouring the torch faster than we estimated. We should stop now, or as soon as we reach the next flat stretch. Those low rocks we saw from the last dune are near; it may be over the next rise, or the next two or three. We should check to see how close we are, and create a new one.”

Pursing his lips, Koro eyed the pitch-and-dung-wrapped torch tip for a long moment, turning it a little to check how short the flames had become in the last
selijm
of travel, and nodded. The wind could and did disperse the smoke it gave off, but it was starting to smolder a bit more and burn a bit lower than it should. It would be better to prepare a fresh one. Fresh burned clean; the thin smoke from a mere torch would be lost in the wind, up until it started to gutter. Conjuring a sand devil, by contrast, was something that could be seen for upward of a full selijm, the distance a healthy person could walk in an hour.

However, when they crested the next dune . . . they found the sand rippling down into hard-packed earth, and a slight rise of rugged rocks. Hard desert, as opposed to the soft stuff they had slogged through. Squinting, all five men stared at the new terrain.

Finally, Tureg spoke. “I see cracks in the terrain ahead. Canyons,” he stated, shading his eyes from the sun's glare. “There may be water in there, or there may be game. But mostly, there will be a lot of backtracking as we try to follow the flames, which point straight and true regardless of what the actual trail chooses to do. This is where the anima-flame can do less for us than clear tracks would.”

Kuruk grimaced. “That may be true, but we still have a job to do. If there
is
water for two hundred or more, and game and places to grow things, it is our job to scout it and decide if it's worth claiming, as well as continuing to pursue. Pak, start your torch making in the valley behind us. Koro, draw upon the anima for water. We will take a dune-break behind this crest. Bury your waste, and keep an eye on all directions, just in case.”

Scattering to their tasks, the other four followed his orders in willing silence.

Chapter Two

Puna, chief huntress of the White Sands, waited for Taje Halek, the tribe's leader, to digest her words. His left cheek still seeped pus occasionally, and he could not see fully out of that eye, but it was an awkward spot to place maggots to clean up the rotting flesh—unlike his thigh wound, which had finally stopped bleeding. His arm was still in its sling, held together by splints wrapped in rawhide.

Squinting a little, he looked up at her. The sun was at her back, but the large acacia tree he had picked for shade blocked at least some of its glow. His wits were slowed a little from the pain of his wounds, but they were still sharp enough underneath the chronic pain. “It sounds . . . as if they are willing to share this place. If we do not trespass on those particular caves. There are others . . . yes?”

“In the other arms and spans of the canyons, there are a few, yes,” Puna confirmed. “A pack of sand jackals has claimed one gorge and its caves; others have scorpions and serpents. I have asked Pulek to watch the children in the use of their slings, taking aim at the latter caves to flush out those creatures. So far, the jackals are wary of us and the smoke of our torches. I have set people to watch against them, but haven't driven them off yet.”

He frowned a little, then grunted, nodding. “Yes, the strangers are more dangerous. Jackals, we understand. These strangers, we do not. Or rather, stranger. I only caught a glimpse of him when he chased Lutun out of the caves. I wonder if they all have colors painted on their skin . . .”

“I would like to know what beast's hide he claimed, to have leathers as black as soot and as supple as skin, rather than stiff and brown like ours,” Puna muttered.

Taje Halek smiled with the uninjured side of his face. “Perhaps he will be willing to tell us.”

He would have said more, but a young girl, barely into the bloom of physical maturity, ran up to them. She stopped, panted a moment with her hands on the dusty knees visible below her wrap-skirt, then said quickly, “Taje Halek, Huntress Puna, the caves are gone! In that little canyon, the caves are gone! Zudu was watching them with the water eye, and they vanished, filled in by stone!”

Both elders stared in dismay. Zuki was one of the animadj Zudu's three surviving acolytes and quite reliable for her young age. Unlike Lutun. Based on their expressions, most of the others felt the young hunter deserved it, having attacked the stranger without true cause, for there had been no direct physical threats aimed at them before his blow. Puna had left the young hunter with an older hunter who could hopefully calm him down . . . but the youth had been growling about how he would return blow-for-blow to the stranger and beat him with his fists, with his feet . . .

Halek realized his wits were wandering in his pain, and focused when the hunt mistress spoke, covering his silence.

“Thank you, Zuki,” Puna told the girl, hiding her unease whenever the girl glanced her way. Whoever their animadj was, they were surely more powerful than even Zudu, who could shape and fire with just her mind the
fajenz
beads the White Sands Tribe had been renowned for, before being attacked by the Spider Hand people and driven off by tribe after greedy, spiteful, territorial tribe. To be able to fill in a whole cave mouth with stone was disturbingly powerful.

“Did you see their animadj at work?” Taje Halek asked the acolyte.

Zuki shook her head. “No, Taje. Just between one breath and the next, the cave opening was replaced by solid stone.”

Grunting, Halek pondered on that. “Go back to animadj Zudu,” he finally said. “Tell her we will continue to explore the other canyons, with a wary eye on where that cave used to be. The anima led us here, to a place Zudu searched for with ample room to spread out and live, but it could not tell us if there were others already living here.

“Puna, tell the others to be watchful and wary of other walls of stone. We have seen no anima-wisps since just before young Lutun was chased out of those caves,” he added. “If these strangers are able to capture and keep the wisps to themselves, we may not have the strength to be able to counter anything their
animadjet
can do.”

Nodding, both females left their wounded leader to continue to sit and think under the shade of a large, thorny acacia tree not far from the pond.

***

With the largish complex of caverns and tunnels sealed off from all but the passage of fresh air, Jintaya decreed that the reshaping of those caves and passages should begin right away. She herself focused on crafting fresh translation potions for the expedition members, occasionally stopping to check the activities in the scrying bowl. Éfan focused on monitoring the flow of magics, and Ban . . . had nothing to do.

Neither did Rua, who was there as the team's agricultural expert. Until they had access to flowing water and a place with sunlight where she could erect planting beds, she had to exercise patience. She did so by finding and pulling out a gaming board. Ban brought out a bench from the stacked furniture, and they both straddled it to play the deceptively simple strategy game of little discs that were white on one side, black on the other.

The object was to “cap the ends” with the same color, reversing all opposite colors to “capture” them; the simple version of the game was to see who had the most of their color at the end, but the Fae liked to also “win” by making images and symbols out of the interplay of black and white on the board—every single turn created a new picture-word in an ongoing conversation. Some of those conversations became disjointed, even absurd, but some could be downright poetic.

It was one of the few games Ban enjoyed, and even found thought-provoking in its own way.

For the moment, however, all the main work was being done by the four married Fae. At first, it seemed like they did nothing; they just laid out cushions on the ground, folded themselves onto the makeshift seats, rested their hands on their knees, and closed their eyes. But while “seeing with the inner eye” was not flashy, there was a lot of work being done.

Fali sought out the wind patterns above, in which she would make tiny tunnels through which air could pass, keeping even the lowest and deepest of caverns fresh and breathable. Adan sought out all the crystals in the local rocks surrounding them, discerning which could be strengthened and purified into conduits for sunlight, even moonlight, since this world did have one moon to help illuminate its skies. Parren turned her attention first down and out, then up, seeking the waterways of the local region, the paths where floods raged and streams trickled, where the ground was porous and where it was solid; air and liquid water were life, which meant they were the greatest priorities to acquire and secure.

Kaife looked to the rocks around them as well, but his trancings were meant to build up two mental maps: one of where every cave and tunnel, nook and cranny currently sat, along with the types of rocks surrounding them; and one of where things could be shifted, moved, thinned, strengthened, and altered to suit the Fae's needs. Air had to flow in and out, yes, as did water, but waste materials also needed places to go. There needed to be more than one entrance or exit—and there were—but they had to be reduced or enlarged, and each one needed fortifications and concealments, both magical and mundane. And of course the shapes of each passage and cavern would have to be altered.

When he was ready, Kaife held out his hands. The others, resting quietly with their own ideas firmly in their minds, linked hands with each other and him. Fae magic didn't always have to be showy; the largest of magics, however, did have to be balanced in some way, either by compatible energies or by contrasting energies. Or in a group of four, male and female, mated and kin related. Golden white energies pulsed outward, rippling through the air, sizzling along the rocks, and subtly reshaping as they moved.

As the game of black-white continued, Ban noticed Éfan frowning occasionally. The mage's agitation increased when the quartet started working their magics. Ban wasn't sure what to make of it . . . until a shimmering white ball of energy only a little bit bigger than a fist came spinning slowly down out of the stone ceiling, swirling toward the four Fae seated in the center of the floor.

“By the stars . . . what is
that
?” Éfan asked, eyeing the apparition. He glanced between it and the scrying orb in his hand. “It's . . . pure magic? This world's magic?”

Idly waiting for his turn, Ban watched Éfan step forward and reach up, trying to intercept the wisp. Instead of sailing on toward Kaife, however, it detoured and zipped right into those outstretched fingers. Blinking in shock, Éfan quickly swept the orb over his own body.

“Amazing . . .”

“What is?” Jintaya asked him, looking up from her task.

“The energies of this world have restored themselves locally. They seem to collect, and manifest in . . . Here comes another one from above!” He raised the orb toward it, invoking his scrying powers, and the wisp swerved and arrowed straight toward him. Flinching a little, he absorbed the silent impact with a sudden indrawn breath. “Invigorating, as a mage. But . . . frustrating, as a scientist,” he added, frowning.

After several seconds, another one arrowed in from the side. Muttering to himself, Éfan tried caging the magic—only to have it arrow straight at him. The next one came up at an angle, skimming along the floor before it sucked its way into Fali's hip. Frowning, their magic expert turned in a slow circle.

“They seem to be stirred whenever one of the four do something magical to the stones, and to the water table . . . but they are unusually drawn to us,” he reported. “Ban, try some magic—regular, not your inked kind.”

Sighing, Ban changed the play he had intended to lay on the black-white board. Instead of forming the partial image for
temple doors
, which would have spoken of shelter and succor in the face of Rua's last play of
water rising
, he laid his counter on a different square. That made the image
turkey beard
when the play magically flipped over all the intervening white pieces in between the two black now lined up on the board. Conversationally, it was a bit of an insult aimed at Éfan for his request. Rua grinned, her goldenrod eyes alight with mirth, and laid down two plays in a row, since the first of her moves had locked Ban into an unplayable turn.

Shifting away from the bench as he rose, Ban eyed the chamber, which was beginning to ripple and take on a new, more formally terraced shape. He didn't want to interfere with what the others were doing, so he just aimed his will at one of the chests. “
Tessolo.

It levitated. Éfan frowned. “Keep doing it.”

Ban flicked two fingers, sending the chest soaring around the chamber. He even guided it in a tight spiral around the Fae with the wheat gold hair and honey gold eyes, but the master mage didn't flinch. Instead, he frowned. Setting the chest back down, Ban asked, “What's wrong?”

“Your magic isn't causing the same spikes in the local aether. Three of these . . . mist balls . . . came swerving in from below and went into Parren, Adan, and Fali, but none deviated toward you. I
want
to study one,” Éfan added, “but I cannot do that, because the moment I try to cage it with magic, it swerves straight into me—there! That one!” he called out, pointing off to the side, up near the ceiling. “Catch me that one!”

Ban rolled his eyes but readied his limbs. Within moments, a swirl of light soared through the stone. Éfan did something, muttering some magical mnemonic that swerved the wisp in his direction. Bracing himself, Ban darted in, reached up, and caught it with a feeling of warmth and pressure against his fingers. It resisted, straining toward the Fae. With a bit of careful effort, Ban brought it down to a level where he could cage it with both hands.

“What are you feeling from it?” Éfan asked him. “It absorbs so fast into me, all I feel is warmth and a rush of energy.”

“It
is
warm,” Ban agreed. “Like sunshine on my fingers. It has a pressure. Subtle, seemingly soft, yet strong, like a wind but with no accompanying cooling sensation. It wants to go to you,” he told the other male. He squeezed experimentally with his fingers. “It is springy. Like a
laticific
, a rubber sap.”

“Fascinating,” Éfan murmured, eyeing the ball of light. “Can you . . . absorb it? It doesn't seem to be diminishing in your hand, yet it absorbs into us and feeds our inner energies.”

“I am shielding to keep myself separate,” Ban told him. “You should have done the same.”

“I
did
do the same,” Éfan retorted. “It doesn't react to the Fae like it does to you. Until we can speak with the locals about how they manage their magical resources, you are the only non-Fae I can ask.”

Sighing, Ban opened up his inner senses to the power. The wisp dissolved slowly, shrinking; he tightened his fingers to keep it from slipping free. “I can feel the warmth entering my nerves, and my blood. It is . . . invigorating, like drinking a good tea, or that brown Fae stuff, that coffee, only not bitter, of course.”

He wiggled his fingers a little, and the remainder of the wisp slipped free, arrowing straight into the mage. Éfan sighed as it vanished beneath his robes. “I see I will need to experiment more. With your help, I think, or I'll have nothing but an energy rush with which to experiment. You may go back to your game—thank you.”

A grunt escaped Ban, but like the image
turkey beard
, the meaning behind it was left unvocalized. Éfan wasn't a bad person, just someone who was accustomed to commanding, not asking. Ban preferred people to ask.

Upon returning to the bench, he straddled it and studied the board. Rua had managed to complete most of the board with her two moves; the current image was
horses scraping the fence
. An image of wanting to get out of a current situation, however calm it might seem.

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