Authors: Jean Johnson
Ban grunted again and made two plays of his own in a row, completing the game. The last two images broke the end of the conversation into nonsense, so he ignored them. The final score was also three points more for Rua, but that was fine. Overall, he had a higher tally in the accumulated games they had played so far. After scraping the dual-sided marker stones off the grid, half to himself and half to Rua, he placed four in the middle, two white and two black at diagonals to each other, and gestured for her to make the first move.
Eventually, he would be free to explore this world, able to go anywhere and everywhere without fear of being harmed. That was his official role in the pantean, to be their scout, to explore far and wide and bring back knowledge of what he found. It would take him away from Jintaya, but it was how she had convinced her people to let him come with her, to let him stay at her side in spirit, if not always in the flesh. In the meantime, he had nothing to do but be patient, and help whenever and wherever he could.
Ban had already learned how to be patientâincluding those times when he did not
to be patientâlong, long ago. Filling his thoughts only with the needs of the moment, he placed his marker after Rua's turn, and waited patiently for her to make the next move.
The White Sands Tribe spent a restless night, wary of an attack by the black-clad stranger, ambush by any other such strangers who still had yet to shown themselves, or even an attack by the jackals. Animadj Zudu and her three surviving acolytes strove to peer through the rock that had been conjured, to see into the caves, but the strangers' anima powers were too well wielded to overcome.
They then tried to conjure anima, wasting precious wood from the thorny trees they had chopped up and tossed into a bonfire. Fire was one of the easiest ways to conjure it, after all. But every time a wisp appeared, it soared away rapidly, each time drawing down toward the ground in the general direction of the strangers' cave. Even Taje Halek could see how dangerous this was, for it left their animadj and her three acolytes with only whatever anima-force they could conjure and hold within themselves.
When dawn came and the sun slowly sailed its way toward noon, no sign of that cliff-leaping stranger was seen. No signs of any others, either. Even the jackals, unhappy with the presence of so many noisy, armed humans, stayed away.
Three of the youngest hunters, children on the cusp of adulthood who were armed with slings and small spears, managed to bring down a trio of
, the rock-basking lizards that nibbled on plants and took shelter in long burrows. That was quite a coup for the young hunters, as the lizards were known to be fast, well armored, and nervous, never straying far from their burrows.
The shy, arm-long lizards did not flee at the very first hint of the hunters' approach. It was also a good indicator that humans had not hunted here in a very long time, if ever. A good sign of how well trained the children were, too, to not have startled them, and to have hit them so accurately.
Everyone rested at noon, of course; a set of caves not too far from the strangers' provided cool shelter, and even had a bit of water inside, adding to how long they could afford to stay in this place to determine if it could be made into a home or not. That pool in the cave, however, made Taje Halek a bit wary of flash floods. Prudently, he ordered a set of watchers to climb the cliffs and spy on the eight directions of the wind, to see if any rain fell in the distance. As the afternoon wore on, Puna and a clutch of hunters went out scouting again.
They brought back a quartet of oryx they had separated from their herd and trapped in a blind canyon. The sight of them caused a lot of excitement, and not just from the prospect of fresh meat, including the roasted bits of liver the hunting party had not finished. Coming from the southern mountains, the members of the White Sands Tribe were used to seeing the long-horned beasts with beige fur, ranging from light brown to sandy yellow. But here, the flanks of the local oryx were creamy white, even if the legs, nose, and tail were dark brown.
The children in particular were fascinated by the hides and kept wanting to touch them while they were being scraped and staked out to be worked into furred leather. The canyon walls echoed with a great deal of bartering offered to the hunters who had made the killing blows for even a scrap of that fascinating, pale fur.
When night fell, the only troublesome beast was a noisy encounter between a disturbed rattlesnake and a yelling tribesman that roused half the camp just as they started to settle down. At least it was more food; the headless snake was quickly stripped of its hide and buried in the ashes to bake overnight. Another watch was set to guard against wild beasts and strange beings, but again, the night passed quietly. And again, whenever an anima-wisp appearedâthey were easier to spot at nightâit did so only to dart off as soon as it coalesced, vanishing into the ground at the same low angle.
The next day, Halek sat on a mound of grass covered by a leather hide, trying not to let his half-healed wounds bother him. At least the acacia tree gave him and many of the others a good bit of shade. The respite from the hot sun and the breeze that wound its way past the pond, bringing a bit of cooling moisture to the air, made it very appealing, even if technically the cave was more secure. Then again, it was the easiest place for the tribe to find their leader. To find several people, really, for the ravine-sheltered tree shared enough shade for many to gather around him while they worked on projects, weaving grass for mats and baskets, fixing broken sandal thongs, scraping and working the furred hides with a slurry of oryx fat and brains to help cure them, and more. Others explored the maze of valleys, the narrow defiles, the meandering ravines, only to come back and report where water could be found, greenery, even a few edible plants and an occasional desert hare or snake for game.
By midmorning of their third day, however, everything changed. The first indication that something was wrong was the sight of Shorno pelting for the broad shade tree. Halek caught the movement out of the corner of his eye and frowned, peering that way. The golden-brown-haired warrior had originally been one of the Green Teeth Tribe but had refused to fight the White Sands. He had said it was not honorable, for the White Sands were only traveling in great numbers because they had been run out of their home territory; they did not mean to invade. For his pains, he had been spurned by his mate and exiled by his tribe. Halek had agreed to take him in, and Shorno had proven his loyalty through his efforts since.
Dust puffed up in the wake of his passage. The warrior skidded to a stop on the patchy grass, hands braced on his knees while he breathed a few times, then blurted out, “The stone's changing. In the strangers' ravine. It's not sandstone anymore!”
That caught the attention of more than just their tribal leader. Halek grabbed his crutch, pushed to his feet, and started limping that way. He wasn't the only person to set aside their current tasks, too. A clutch of over twenty people, young and old, went with him to have a look. Some streamed ahead; some stayed with the wounded elder. But despite the fact that there were many who went, everyone had a clear view of the phenomenon.
It wasn't too far to the ravine, and what Halek saw astounded the aging human, as it did the rest. The rocks
changing. The striped sandstone, laid in layers of cream and red, orange and brown, rippled and shifted. Stretches of pale, grayish white granite blossomed on the cliff face. For every heartbeat they watched, another golden section of stone the size of a spread hand vanished, replaced by the incoming whites and grays of the invading rock that should not have been here. They had not seen the speckled, tough stone since leaving the southern lands and crossing far into the desert in search of a safe place to live.
Zudu was already there, jaw sagging. Catching sight of Taje Halek among the others, the animadj shook her head. The bone beads attached to her leather head wrap danced and rattled over her dark, thin braids when she did that. “This is far beyond anything I can do, Taje. Beyond anything
can do, my apprentices and I together. I can make a pile of sand as hard as stone or fuse the finest sand into beadsâadd in salt, and let it make its own glaze when it dries, even heat it hot enough to solidifyâbut I cannot change one type of stone into an entirely different type. No animadj that I know of can do this.”
Halek nodded solemnly. The others gave him frightened looks. He thought about it and tried to sooth away their fears. “The stranger did
attack us. He just forbade us to go into that particular ravine and the caves it holds. He and whoever else is with himâthey may simply know more than our tribe knows. Perhaps they can teach us how to do such a thing?”
“Can, perhapsÂ .Â .Â . but will they?” the middle-aged animadj asked him pointedly. She shaded her eyes from the glare of the sun on all the stone around them and shrugged. “That we have yet to see.”
Both returned their gaze to the morphing rocks. As the boundary point of the change from sandstone to granite came near, they realized the rock was moving oddly; in fact, right at the edge, the rock
. The bands of deposited, compressed minerals swerved out of their more or less horizontal lines and poured into the ground in a stretch narrower than the width of two fingers. At the same time, speckled dots of minerals embedded in the granite flowed up into their place. In the shaded parts of the actual boundary, impressions of anima-wisps formed before darting off in the same direction as all the others of late.
The transition moved so fast on each side, the boundary looked both hypnotic and dangerous. Concerned mothers and fathers pulled their children back. Halek and the animadj stood far enough back that they felt reasonably safe despite their awe, but the parents in the group wisely hustled their little ones away. As they moved, more stone rippled, and with it came a fresh, tumbling set of anima-wisps. They passed through the cliff in their line of flight, visible only as a brief flash of sparkling energy on their way across the narrow ravine toward the back left.
Zudu shook her head, awestruck eyes watching those wisps darting off into the shadows of the cleft. “This is beyond anything I can do. Anything I have ever heard of
doing. Not only are they changing the slowest and most difficult of the elements faster than water can pour out of a skinÂ .Â .Â . They are
anima to make changes! This isÂ .Â .Â . Whoever doing this mustÂ .Â .Â . They must
anima, to have such control over it!”
It wasn't until they realized the
also changed that Zudu and Halek moved back. They watched in awe while the stones continued to exchange themselves at a dizzying rate.
“Animadj,” her second-ranked acolyte, Keppa, murmured. “Could it be thatÂ .Â .Â . that we have found the
of all anima? The place where it is born, fresh and young and fast? OrÂ .Â .Â . or perhaps the place where the first animadjet came into being? If their lineage is this long, their training must be beyond beliefÂ .Â .Â . and
is beyond all belief.”
“I do not know,” Zudu admitted.
Eruk, a scarred but strong hunter-warrior, spoke up. His tone lay somewhere between disappointed and scathing. “What good are you if you do not know these things?”
Zudu turned swiftly to face him, Halek less gracefully. She spoke before Halek could, her dark brown eyes gleaming with righteous ire. “It is far wiser for one to admit ignorance, and thereby open the ears and the mind to the chance to learn something new, than to speak without thought, act without caution, and assert without learning anything.”
“Eruk,” Halek stated in the silence following her words, a silence broken only by an odd hissing sound, like sand being poured across stoneâthe sound of sandstone being exchanged for granite. “Find five others, split into two groups of three, and investigate the other ravines carefully. See how far thisÂ .Â .Â . stone exchange has spread.”
“Do not let
get near the edge,” Zudu added. She turned back and lifted her chin warily at the blurred boundary. “For all we know, the rock has been softened, and it could suck someone down like quicksand, drowning them in stone.”
That made several of the others move back even farther. Parents herded their children completely away, returning to the tasks across the wide canyon, over by the shade tree in the distance. Eruk eyed them, studied the wall, then picked up a stone and flung it. His aim was good; it struck the boundaryâand stuck. Stuck, and tumbled. Tumbled and spun, trapped between sandstone flowing down and granite flowing up. Anima-wisps started to glow around it, and the boundary ejected the stone like a child spitting out a seed from a mouthful of fruit.
The rock rolled over the uneven, sandy ground. The chunk the warrior had tossed at the barrier had been just that, an uneven oblong with rough edges here and there, though at least half of it had been smoothed by some force, either water or sandstorm. Now, however, it was rounded and smooth, as if some great stone bird had laid it as an egg.
Frowning, Eruk moved forward. He scooped up the rock and hissed, tossing it from hand to hand before letting it drop again. “It's hot! As hot as a boiling-stoneÂ .Â .Â .”
Zudu nodded. “I wondered if it would be, given how much anima was being formed. Thank you for testing the boundary. I suggest we all move away and keep a wary eye on it.”
“I agree,” Taje Halek said. Turning on his crutches, he gestured at the others. “Everyone, move back. And fill your waterskins, all of them. Eruk, pick out those observers, and go looking to see how far the boundary extends. If we have to move to avoid being sucked in and burned, or drowned, I want everyone to be able to move quickly. I do not want anyone endangered by thisÂ .Â .Â . this animadjic.”