Read Dawn of the Flame Sea Online

Authors: Jean Johnson

Dawn of the Flame Sea (6 page)

No one commented on the irony that he would be among the slowest to move, and thus among the most in danger, if they indeed were forced to leave this otherwise tranquil, sheltered, nearly perfect-for-settling spot.

***

Animadj Koro came out of his trance with a shake of his head. Blinking, he looked away from the bowl of water he had been using for scrying at a distance. “This place is too strange. Very little water for a day's walk around, though it has known the touch of many a flash flood, and cisterns and channels could be dug by the brave and clever. There is some greenery, enough to graze a few herds . . . but they would have to be scattered for hours in every direction to keep from eating the plants to useless nubs. It would be a hard life for one hundred to live here until those water reservoirs are made, and that would take months of hard work.”

“Can it sustain the White Sands Tribe?” Kuruk pressed. “Who number over two hundred?”

Koro shrugged. “With enough anima, if they can conjure it. We know they have at least a few animadjet. But I cannot
sense
the anima in these ravines. Not as a lingering presence. It all . . . slips from my attention like sand through my fingers. Only it is more like sand that is being pulled away somehow, not just sand that falls down to the ground of its own weight.”

Pak, tending a flat pottery pan which he was baking flatbread for their meal, looked up at his master's words. “That sounds like they may have a powerful animadj in their group. A very powerful one. I, too, have felt the anima being pulled away from my attention in the distance, though thankfully not nearby. It is a disturbingly strong pull.”

Koro shook his head, his gray-streaked braids swinging hard enough to clack together the beads strung on a few of them. “That would take an animadj of such power . . . They claimed they had been pushed out of their lands by another tribe. If they
had
one who could suck the anima from the very land like this, how could anyone have removed them from their land?”

“Unless the other tribe was even more powerful,” Charag grunted. He poked at a pot next to the flat pan. Tureg had shot a lizard, and Charag had found and dug up some edible roots in one of the
wadijt
they had crossed, but it was Pak who did all the cooking for the group. “Is it food yet?”

“Not yet,” Pak asserted, flicking his fingers to make the warrior move away. Charag ignored him and tried to snag a bit of flatbread. Pak slapped his hand down, making the bigger man's knuckles brush the hot ceramic pan. With a yelp, Charag moved back, sucking on the little red spots to soothe them. “Do not interrupt the cook, or you will find ashes and cinders baked into your bread.”

“Behave, both of you,” Kuruk ordered. He squinted at the cliffs and boulders, the crags and ravines ducking down out of sight, then shook his head. “This is at the very edge of how far we can go. I doubt the other tribe, that . . . what did they call it . . . Spider Something Tribe. I doubt they were that strong, or we'd have heard of them taking over everything by now. Koro, is it possible this . . . sand-pulling feeling is something natural, however peculiar?”

“I am not completely certain, but it could be,” the animadj offered. He frowned in thought, scratching at the stubble on his chin. It would need scraping with a bronze knife soon; high summer was coming, and the heat would be unbearable combined with a beard. “I have heard of natural sand devils, and quick-mud that sucks you under to drown, a mix of earth and water. Places where fires rage from cracks in the ground, surrounded by foul scents and strange gushing liquids that burn with hot flames . . .

“Such things usually
spew
anima . . . but if there is anything natural in the world, then where one thing gives, some other thing must take. These ravines could be one of those places that takes,” Koro said, shrugging. “If so . . . the White Sands would be even more weakened, unable to use the anima needed to survive. But I cannot
swear
to this. I cannot scry deep enough into the tangle of canyons and cliffs, because when I extend myself that far . . . the anima is pulled from my grasp.”

Worried by that news, Kuruk paced. He kept his shoulder to the crags and valleys to the north, first the left for several steps, then the right. He kept his gaze on those distant rocks and clefts, too. Finally, he turned and stared at Pak, and the bundle of twigs and such at his side. There were just enough supplies to head back home. Going deeper into the ravines ran the risk of being found and swarmed. There were only five of the Circle Fire Tribe scouting this situation, and over two hundred of the White Sands.

The air around them, dry and dusty, hurt Kuruk's desert-accustomed nostrils. Grunting, rubbing at his nose, he made up his mind. “After we eat, we head south again.”

“Why?” Charag asked, frowning. “Shouldn't we scout closer?”

“We are few, and though they are weak, they are still many. We are at the edge of the range that Taje Barrek said was an acceptable distance to consider raiding and seizing them, should they have found a place to settle. They may have done this, or they may have chosen to move on . . . but right now, that does not matter. There is something draining the anima, which would weaken our ability to fight and survive. It is wiser to head back for now.”

A scowl creased Charag's face. He settled back on the rock serving as his seat and sulked. “I want war slaves.”

“If they cannot survive here, then they will move on and will travel well beyond the range of our war bands,” Kuruk pointed out. “If they
can
 . . . then they will settle here, making improvements, and thus will still be here when we come scouting again. Right now, we have enough provisions to return safely and report to the taje on what we saw, but not much more than that. This anima-draining must be considered carefully before we risk our own animadjet. Let White Sands take all the risks, not us.”

“I cannot draw the water as well as Koro can,” Pak added in warning, stirring the pot of lizard meat and roots frying in the beast's own grease. With the help of a few herbs added earlier, the combination was starting to smell good. He pulled the current batch of flatbread off the pan, shifting them to a rock to cook, and added more rounds of flattened dough to the pottery griddle. “I am certainly not strong enough to resist whatever is draining these energies. To explore safely, even I know that it would be wise to have several animadjet here, with ones held in reserve to see to the safety of the others while the scouts among them investigate.”

“Exactly,” Kuruk agreed. “So we will return, report what we know, and see if the taje wishes to send a bigger expedition, or if he wishes to wait.”

“Wait? Why wait?” Tureg asked. Then he answered his own question, raising his eyes to the sky. “High summer. Of course. We would have only a narrow window to come investigate before the heat descends and the desert becomes impassable without great numbers of animadjet for water summoning and shade crafting.”

“That's another reason to return later, rather than try to attack them now. If they can survive high summer in this place, being over two hundred in number,” Kuruk reminded them, “then it is an oasis, however oddly formed, that would serve the Circle Fire equally well. If they die or are forced to move on, we will find out when it is safe for us to return.”

“Which will be after the season of high rains,” Koro stated. At Kuruk's frown, he lifted his chin at the ravines. “That place is nothing but wadijt. We do not know the flood patterns, and there are steep walls, places where you cannot climb or get out of the way of floodwaters. We certainly cannot see the clouds save for directly overhead in a place like that.”

“The animadj has a point,” Tureg confirmed. “I do not like such narrow confines in uncertain weather.”


I
will not advise sending anyone of the tribe into those canyons just to have them drown,” Koro continued. “Either they will be gone, and far beyond our reach, or they will still be there and will have found ways to live through high summer and high rain alike. Better that they suffer from both if they can survive, so that we can learn from their mistakes.”

“Those are good enough reasons for me,” Kuruk agreed. “And another proof. If the White Sands
can
survive high heat and hard floods, then we will find out when we come back, and we will take this land from them . . . and yes, Charag, you will have your war slaves then.”

The muscular warrior perked up at that. He waited patiently a few minutes more, then sniffed the air and lifted his chin at the pot. “Is it food yet?”


Yes
, it is food. But you have to
share
,” Pak added tartly. “You will eat what I give you, and no more until the rest of us have had ours. We will not have a repeat of our second night on this trip.”

Charag went back to scowling but didn't argue. Pak was short and wiry compared to Charag's tall, broad, muscular frame, and Charag could probably snap his neck in a single blow, but as an animadj, Pak could just as easily boil Charag's blood in his veins.

Off to the side, Tureg sighed and scanned the horizon, looking for signs of movement that might be a precursor to their next meal. Seeing nothing to the northeast, he paced a few lengths away to where he had a better view of the northwest, where there were signs of bushes and possible water. Birds flew and dipped, and branches rustled in the occasional breeze, but otherwise nothing stirred.

Had he still been looking off to the northeast, his sharp hunter's eyes would have seen an odd ripple and shift in the colors of some of the cliff edges. By the time he thought to look that way again, Pak distracted him by calling out his name, offering a bowl of hash-topped flatbread to eat. When they were done, they were all too busy packing up their few things and working to erase the signs of their small camp to notice the pale, mottled grays of granite flowing into existence among the golden striations of sandstone in the distance.

Chapter Three

Year 0, Month 0, Day 4

Even the most skilled and powerful of Fae could not enchant forever, for all they were being fed by the strange energies of this world. Literally fed, Jintaya discovered when the quartet did not take a break to stop and eat. As the healer of the expedition, she knew exactly what to look for when someone was too absorbed in a task to notice their body began to starve, to dehydrate or worse. Magic was one such task, but she found no signs of weakened or thirsty flesh.

They were fine on the first day, so she did not press the matter. When she checked on them on the second day, and the third, Fali, Adan, Parren, and Kaife were all still doing fine. The sheer span of stone they had changed, reshaping the caverns into useful, flat-floored structures, should have left them exhausted at the end of their first full day. They should have been thirsty, starving even, yet their bodies were doing fine.

It was Éfan who broke into their work on the fourth day, insinuating himself into the meld and murmuring instructions to ease and cease the flow of their efforts. When they finally unfolded their bodies, Jintaya was amazed to see them moving easily, rather than stiffly. She envied them their energy and grace, until their chief mage came over to speak with her.

“I do not like how quickly and easily their bodies are absorbing these energies . . . this
anima
, the locals call it,” he told her under his breath. “I have watched the locals trying to manipulate it, and only with great effort do they succeed. This stuff . . .
infuses
our Fae flesh. Melds with it. Breathes with it, for we seem to be able to use it as easily as breathing. I am not certain what the long-term effects might be, other than that magic may be
too
easy for us in this realm.”

Jintaya was not slow to grasp the implications. While the Fae, and in particular the Fae Rii, those of their kind who traveled to other worlds to set up trading posts with the locals, preferred to ask rather than take, to trade rather than steal, a world wherein magic was so intimately absorbed into their bodies that they would not need to eat or drink, or even sleep, was a potential point of danger. Those whose willpower and sense of ethic were weak should not be allowed onto this world.

Still, that was the reason why an expedition like hers was always sent in first. It was always a risk to try living on a new world—the world where she had found Ban had forced her people to abandon it, as it had been too hostile to be interacted with for long, both in terms of environment and of the rather brutal local culture. Ban was the only thing worth salvaging from that world; he had been Shae even there, and certainly an outworlder to her homeworld of Faelan.

“Keep them away from their shaping tasks for at least two days,” she instructed Éfan. “You and I will monitor them. This anima seems to be feeding them, but without it, they will grow hungry. Let us see how long that takes.”

He bowed his head, acquiescing, and moved off to rejoin the two couples. Jintaya frowned softly, then left the heart of their new, possibly temporary home. Sun crystals illuminated her path, a piece of magic picked up from a world visited by the Fae long ago. The mineral threaded through rock, leading from chamber to chamber up to a mass of crystal that absorbed sunlight all day long. It reflected some of that light down into the rooms below, and released the remaining stored light through the night, efficient and gentle.

There were spells to control how much glow each room and corridor received, particularly in the rooms she visited, but she didn't bother brightening the dim light. Ban and Rua, having little to do with the shaping of their new home, had taken to occupying their time by selecting rooms for various uses and moving furnishings and supplies into each place. Each one of the pantean members now had a private suite with bedchamber, bath, a sitting room for guests, a workroom or three for personal projects, plus spare suites for guests, rooms for storage, and more.

Previous outposts had not been nearly so lavish, but apparently Kaife had decided that since they had an excess of magical energies to work with, he would craft an excess of chambers and passages. Most of those rooms were empty of all but a few furnishings and supplies. None of them held the tall, black-haired foreigner. Neither did she find Rua in her quarters. Guessing where the other woman was, Jintaya climbed one of the many winding sets of stairs, shallow and gracefully curved. It took her a few minutes to make her way to the chamber that, if their entry point was the heart, would correspond with the stomach of the stronghold.

Here the cavern was vast, if still somewhat natural looking with its rugged granite replacing the old former sandstone. Great pillars of stone had been left in place here and there, supporting and anchoring the vaulted domes of the ceiling. Those domes were made of thick, sturdy sun crystal, concealed by illusions on the outside to look like solid, bare rock. The amount of sunlight that got through, with much of it diverted to the rest of the stronghold, made the cavern perfect for growing things.

Below those vaulted panes, racks of dirt had been erected by spell and will, filled with good soil imported from home, and planted with seeds. Already, a tiny shimmer of green graced those beds, which were being fed by a watering system created by Parren. A spell pumped water to the top, where it trickled through all the beds, layer after gently sloped layer, before dropping into a basin filled with fish eggs. Unlike the plants, those could not be spell-rushed in their growth. Still, once they were grown, the pantean that Jintaya still hoped to establish on this world would be able to eat without worry.

That was the key to a good pantean; expeditions visited other worlds in the hopes of gaining new ideas, new objects, new sources of information and trade. Some worlds might have much worth trading for, or beautiful, exotic things to see, but nothing in the way of foods considered edible by Fae standards. She often thought Ban was lucky that Fae food was not just edible to him, but tasty as well. There had been that one world she had visited in her youngest days where everything had smelled and tasted like rubber sap to her . . .

She found the missing pair working near the far end of the sprawling, winding cavern. The sheer number of planting beds impressed her. It also bemused her. Coming to within conversation distance, she waited politely for the dirt-and-gravel-slinging pair to notice her, then gestured at the latest set of tiered, sloped beds. “Are you planning on feeding all those natives as well as ourselves, Rua?”

The younger Fae looked up at her, wiped a smudge of dirt from her cheek—or rather, smeared it around even more—and shrugged. “They know we are here, and they seem to be refugees . . . I thought it would be advantageous to allow them to remain. To integrate them into our outer stronghold. We will be able to question them directly about their world, in exchange for food.
If
they can eat it,” she amended, looking at the beds. “Not all of these are planted yet, nor will they be for a while. I want to talk with the natives about what local plants and such are edible by their standards, and have simply made enough places to start growing what
they
can eat.”

“A wise choice,” Jintaya agreed, though she sighed as she said it. “I would much rather have started by observing from afar, testing carefully and living secretly until we knew more, but that choice was lost to us.”

“We are here, and they are here, and we know about each other,” Rua pointed out pragmatically, returning her attention to the bin of dry soil—local soil, Jintaya realized—which she was mixing with water and dead bits of plant matter to hopefully get it to mulch while waiting for word on what could be grown. Ban came down from the stepping ladder and scooped up another bucket of the prepared stuff from the wettest end of the bin while Rua continued. “Speaking of which, when shall we meet them?”

“Éfan has awakened the other four from their labors. They are still remarkably well, though their use of this world's magic must be studied in more depth. Today we will all rest,” she said. “Tomorrow we will clean ourselves, dress nicely, and go visit the natives. We will introduce ourselves politely, in the hopes that they will be equally polite, and learn what we can of this world.”

Her gaze flicked to Ban, who was not in the least bit perturbed by her pointed phrasing. “I am always polite, Jintaya.” At her arched brow, he added smoothly, “It is still very much a part of the word
impolite
.”

Chuckling, she lifted her hand to his cheek, cupping his tanned jaw. “My Ban, you are the greatest treasure I have found, in all the worlds that yet exist.”

Eyes closing, he turned his face into her touch, not quite kissing the edge of her palm. Letting her fingers slide free after a long moment, Jintaya studied the cavern. The way he felt for her, and she for him, was complex even by Fae standards. It was better to let it unfold at its own pace; her race lived many centuries, barring injuries, and he would outlive even her. A fact she knew troubled him. So she focused on the planting beds. “Are the beds wrought from stone? Did Kaife do the work?”

“No, I did,” Rua told her. She straightened and tucked a strand of her long, goldenrod hair behind an ear, ignoring the fact she streaked more dirt on it. Her outfit of fitted knee-length shorts and sleeveless tunic were equally dirty, but the agriculturist did not care. Rubbing the small of her back with one hand, she eyed the ranks of tiered, tilted cultivation beds and rolled her other hand. “The local aether . . . It feels very good to work magic on this world. Particularly when those little light-balls come to you and fill you with warmth and vigor. But that was just for the tier frames. I could also mix the soil via spells, but . . .”

“You prefer getting your hands dirty,” Jintaya agreed, smiling. “I shall leave you to it, but as soon as this particular task is done, you should rest—both of you. Thank you, Ban, for helping Rua.”

He dipped his head in acknowledgment, then watched her turn and leave. Rua glanced between the two of them, but she kept her thoughts to herself. Jintaya was Fae; Ban was Shae, an outworlder. Such pairings were often complicated and best left alone to work out—or not to work out.

To the agriculture specialist, Ban was a fellow member of the pantean, the expedition, and though he was not always sociable, he pulled his own weight. He didn't talk much, but he worked as hard as the others. That was good enough for her. Together they went back to mixing and hauling soil and stone chips without words, prepping the beds for future local plants to use.

***

Year 0, Month 0, Day 6

After scrying and eavesdropping for six-plus days, the Fae Rii pantean knew that this tribe called itself the White Sands people, and that they had been forced out of their home territory by warring tribes far to the south. They knew the leader was the wound-crippled middle-aged man who sat most of the time under one of the bigger shade trees in the local valley. His name, they had learned, was Tah-yuh Halek, and that despite the wounds slowing him down, he was a good leader.

They also knew he had two women he looked to for advice: the huntress Puna, who had given orders during Ban's second confrontation with the natives, and a woman draped in bone-beaded fringes, Zudu the animadj, so named because she could manipulate the anima and anima-wisps that were the local names for magic, both free-flowing and condensed. There were others observed who had some rank, and some who were potential troublemakers, but those three were the primary ones to contact and hopefully befriend.

Naturally, Ban was the one sent to inform them of their impending visit. Not because he could be tactful when needed—he could—but because if the natives reacted badly and attacked, he was the one member of their group who would survive an ambush. Of course, he knew that, and the Fae knew that. It was hoped the White Sands Tribe would not react harshly, however; there was no need for them to learn of it. One hoped.

Ban wouldn't care either way, save that it was Jintaya's wish for him to remain inconspicuous. Difficult considering his clothes, his height, his tattoos and foreign features, but that was her wish. Walking calmly, quietly, politely up to the cave mouth where the tribe had taken refuge, he saw the two hunters on early-morning watch start and grab for their spears as he came into view.

The mouth of the cave they had chosen was a bit too wide for them to get into position to block his entrance. The nearer of the two men called out quietly, torn between a warning and not wanting to awaken and alarm everyone still asleep. “You, stranger—stop!”

“I will speak with your leader, Halek. You may accompany me inside.” There, that was his gesture of diplomacy. A brief glance behind showed the hunter debating a moment, before he gripped his spear and followed Ban, gesturing for the other one to remain at the mouth of the cave.

Entering the cave without breaking stride, the tall outworlder stepped around, and in some cases over, the bodies sprawled out or curled up on the ground, depending how each person preferred to sleep. Some stirred, awakened, and started at the sight of him. They whispered among themselves, nudging and waking the others. With the dim glow of dawn at his black-clad back, they probably couldn't see him well, but he had no problems with the dim lighting. Not with the aid of his magic-infused tattoos.

By the time he got to the back of the cave, where Jintaya had shown him a scrying of where their leader slept, the middle-aged man named Halek already sat upright. He calmly followed Ban's movements, while a couple of men who had been resting nearby quickly worked on stirring up the coals of the nearest campfire, eyes flicking warily between the coals and the stranger in their midst.

“Ban,” the graying man acknowledged as their visitor came to a stop.

“Halek.” Crouching, forearms resting on his knees, Ban looked the bearded man in the eyes. He knew the others had reported everything they had heard and seen about the pantean's many activities to their leader, from his very first encounter with their tribe all the way to the cessation of stone types being exchanged, earlier. “Tomorrow, when the sun touches the third band from the top of the ravine we have claimed, Jintaya will appear.”

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