Authors: Stephanie Beavers
“Mages. Definitely a matter for the Council then. It will be no problem convening them, at least, since you are the one asking. You know how protective we are of our mages though,” Tseka reminded him.
“I know. But this shouldn’t be dangerous.” He hoped not, anyways. They would probably know more about the risks they’d be assuming, since the mages would know their abilities far better than he did.
“What about Salithsa? How are the Nadra recovering?” Esset asked.
“We fare well. Very well. We’ve rebuilt and repaired the damages caused by the Reshkin and returned it to its former glory. Including the library.” Tseka eyed him—last time he’d been there, the library had been inaccessible, and then under a salvage operation. He’d desperately wanted a look at their literature, but he and Toman had left before the library had been reopened.
“I doubt I’ll have time now, but if I get a chance I’d love to look,” Esset said with a smile. Tseka just shook her head like she thought he was crazy.
Tseka continued to speak about the city until they actually reached it; as before, Esset paused to take in the sight. Salithsa sprawled in a network of underground rooms, caves, and tunnels, but the heart of the city was before him now. The cavern was massive, with a towering ceiling sporting luminescent stalactites and a deep, terraced bowl below. The city heart was built from the terraces in the rock—a walkway spiraled down to the pool at the bottom so that the various entrances to room and other systems could be accessed.
There were no doors, only bead curtains, and there were no railings, either, just a lip on the edge of the walkway to warn Nadran coils that were about to slip over the edge. But as always, Esset was struck by the colors in the underground civilization. The Nadra loved their paint, and every available surface was painted with a myriad of complementary colors and patterns ranging from geometric to abstract, soft to bold, and bright to dark.
Tseka shoved him right up to the ledge but kept her hands on him to stop him from tipping right over.
“Summoner Esset is back!” she shouted to the city. A number of Nadran faces around and below turned in their direction, and Esset was embarrassed by a few small, spontaneous cheers that broke out.
“Surely you knew I wasn’t going to pass up embarrassing you,” Tseka whispered in his ear, her tone downright gleeful. Evilly gleeful, Esset decided.
“I should have known,” Esset agreed, trying to step back against her and escape from the attention. Finally she let him, and by that time those who’d been nearby had come up to greet him. To the Nadra, every greeting meant touching in some way. The Nadra had an extremely tactile culture, which was why Esset had thought nothing of the garrulous and
greeting he’d gotten from Tseka earlier. Now hands found his arms, shoulders, and back, and coils would slide up against his legs or tailtips coil momentarily around his ankles. Almost every Nadra they passed wanted to pay his or her respects, so it took them awhile to get to the council room. At least that gave Tseka time to put word out that he sought to speak to the council.
Just outside the council room, another familiar face greeted him.
“Kessa!” Esset called, and the Nadra made a hole for one of their own to come through. Nadra came in a myriad of natural scale colors, but those who weren’t warriors polished and painted their scales to make them even brighter. Esset had always liked the colors and patterns that their friend Kessa painted on herself.
Kessa’s scales were a beautiful violet shade, and she accented them with blue, dark purple, and dashes of yellow in intricate designs. Like all Nadran women who weren’t warriors, she wore her hair long and loose, which had taken some getting used to for Toman and Esset, since the Nadra saw no need for clothing. It was surprising how used to that they’d gotten, but at least Kessa wore her hair so it covered her chest. Her hair was beautifully curly, so dark a black it was almost blue. Her brilliant sapphire eyes were brimming with tears, and the two heat-sensing pits on either side of her slender nose were stretched shut, a sure sign of emotion.
Not unlike Tseka, Kessa launched herself at him, but unlike Tseka, she didn’t knock him over. Instead she lowered her torso so she could bury her face in his chest and wrap her arms around him. Esset needed no urging to hug her back—Toman was closer to her than he was, but even so, he’d gotten to know her quite well. She hugged him for several long moments before moving back so she could look at him.
“I’m so glad you’re alive,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Me too. It’s good to see you, Kessa,” Esset replied. He suddenly noticed the changes in her—she’d always been tiny, but while she was still petite, she’d grown since the last time he’d seen her. She also wasn’t as meek as he remembered—once, she’d been terrified of Tseka, but now he thought she seemed an elegant young lady instead of a shy little girl.
“What of Toman?” Kessa asked—of course it would be her first question. Esset was sorry for the circumstances that had brought him back, but hopefully Kessa would get her happy reunion yet.
“I don’t know. That’s partly why I’m here,” Esset confessed. Kessa nodded, fighting back more tears. One of the other Nadra ran a hand down her arm in reassurance.
“The council is gathering inside,” Kessa said, taking his hand and leading him forward. “And there are still those who want to see you.” They pushed aside the long strands of beads that acted as a curtain over the entryway to the council chamber. It looked like about half the council was already there, but as serpentine bodies shifted, he saw familiar faces, one by far the most surprising.
“Sergeant!” Esset exclaimed, his eyes fixing on the one human form among the Nadra.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Sergeant Gretchen Warthog replied. She was a tough old woman, an ex-mercenary and current guru for any intelligence that passed through her world of fighters, spies, and mages. Esset knew she was friends with the Nadra, but he hadn’t thought she’d be here. He and Toman had worked with her for a long time, and they considered her a good friend and one of their most valuable allies.
Sergeant Warthog’s mostly grey hair was pulled back into its usual rough ponytail, with most of the fly-aways caught in the string of her eyepatch. Even in this safe environment, she still kept her sword across her back—she was alive because she was always wary. In other words, the sergeant looked exactly as Esset remembered her.
“For once, I’m glad to see someone make a liar out of me,” she said, standing an extending a hand to him. He clasped it and she pulled him forward to give him a half-hug and a slap on the back. She wasn’t one for sentiment, but maybe the Nadra were influencing her a little bit.
“I’ve been telling all these folks you were dead,” she continued. “I couldn’t find out what happened exactly, just that Moloch was still alive and you two were nowhere to be found. I sent someone up to the battle site, and the reports weren’t good. I presumed you dead and went underground in case anything was traced back to me.”
“I know,” Esset replied. “I talked to my folks already. Moloch was way ahead of us; we didn’t stand a chance. But that goes into what I need to talk to the council about, so I might as well wait and tell it all at once.”
“Wise,” said a voice from behind him, just as a pair of arms wrapped around him from behind. Esset recognized the voice and the dull teal of her scaled arms.
“Nassata,” he greeted her warmly—she was another close friend. In fact, she was the first Nadra they’d ever met, since she’d been the one to leave Salithsa seeking Sergeant Warthog to help them stave off the invasion in their home in the first place.
Nassata was both a warrior and a diplomat. She had more experience with humans than most other Nadra, but around humans familiar with Nadran ways, she didn’t bother with human niceties like personal space. Her thick black hair was braided around her torso in the Nadran warrior fashion and her eyes were bright teal—it was usual for a Nadra’s eyes to simply be a brighter shade of the same color as her scales.
“Esset,” she greeted him back. Little else needed saying, and there was little time to say more, since the rest of the council was slithering in. Nassata glided to the sergeant’s side and rested her hand on the woman’s shoulder. Tseka moved between Nassata and Esset, although Nassata’s tailtip wound underneath Tseka’s coils to curl around Esset’s ankle. Kessa stuck by Esset’s other side with one arm slipped around his waist. All around the council table the Nadra were comfortably in contact with one another as they assembled.
Councilor Ksendra, a red-scaled, painted Nadra, was the last in and called the council to order. She lifted her torso higher than the others at the table to gain their attention and begin the session.
“I think I speak for all the Nadra when I welcome you back,” she said with a nod. Unlike the war councils he’d attended, this one seemed fairly informal, which suited Esset just fine.
“It’s good to be back,” Esset replied sincerely.
“I understand you wish to ask aid of us. We would like to help; we are indebted to you and the Animator Toman. Please, tell us what you need.” Councilor Ksendra lowered her body to give the floor to Esset.
“First, you should know something of the events that brought me here,” Esset replied. “Some of you know that Toman and I wanted to bring down a mage named Moloch. Plainly put, he’s evil, and given his abilities, his lifespan is indefinite.”
“He’s also the one who trained and encouraged Ateala, who was responsible for the monsters that invaded Salithsa,” Sergeant Warthog cut in to remind them all. There were grim nods from the Nadra around the table.
Esset continued. “We believed we were strong enough to put an end to the unimaginable misery he’s caused and will keep causing until he’s stopped. But we underestimated him—there wasn’t even a battle. A long time ago, Moloch killed Toman’s parents but left Toman alive. What we didn’t know was that Moloch knew Toman had survived and planted the seed of a spell inside him in case he ever came after him. When we tried to face Moloch, he activated the spell.”
Esset could feel Kessa quiver against him. The rest of the Nadra bore expressions ranging from concern to consternation. Tseka looked angry. Esset kept going.
“The spell was a geas. That’s a spell that places a compulsion upon the victim, a compulsion that varies depending on the caster’s requirements and abilities. I don’t know the exact parameters of the spell on Toman, but it turned him against me. Toman couldn’t fight against Moloch, and the stone army he’d created came after me instead.” Esset smiled humorlessly. “I could never be a match for my brother when he’s well-prepared, much less Moloch too. I knew the cost of failure, so I summoned the phoenix.
“Calling the phoenix allowed me to destroy the stone army and injure Moloch, but Moloch escaped death and took Toman with him. The cost of calling the phoenix was my life, but the summon took only two years instead, and spared me. You weren’t entirely wrong, Sergeant. For all intents and purposes, I
dead.” Esset’s acknowledgement earned a brief nod from the sergeant before the summoner continued.
“Now I need to find out if Toman survived, and if he’s still alive, I need to get him back.”
“You know how we value peace,” Councilor Ksendra said. “As much as we’d like to see Animator Toman safe among us again, we will not seek a fight, and our magics are not such that we know aught of the spell you speak of.”
Tseka listened, but she couldn’t be still. “Some of us would be willing to fight,” she said. There were a few disapproving looks around the table, but Tseka was unashamed of her offer.
“I know,” Esset replied. “And thank you, Tseka, but that’s not what I need. I won’t ask you to fight, and I wouldn’t put you in danger. But I think, if Toman is alive, and I can get him back, that you might be able to help remove the geas.” He reached into his bag where he kept his summoner’s tome and a few other things. He pulled out the scroll tube that contained the information he’d been able to find on geases.
“Your mages… I don’t know a lot about their abilities, but I’m guessing that they specialize in the manipulation of water, earth, and heat, right?” He knew they were responsible for laying out and maintaining the underground waterways, including veins from hot springs and such. Kessa had once told him that the patterns the heat made in the walls of the city were quite beautiful to those who could see them.
“Yes,” Councilor Ksendra confirmed. “Our Shapers are earth and water elementalists, mostly. But I’m not sure how that helps.” Esset felt a thrill that his guess was correct.
“Here,” he said, spreading out the scroll and pushing it towards her. She beckoned another Nadra over.
“Shaper Sosen, you’d best look at this,” she said. Sosen was an amber-scaled male, his scales painted with an array of earth tones—rich browns, a hint of black, and a few yellows and oranges. Unlike some of the other male Nadra, he had no hair, but a pair of ridges atop his head instead. Sosen’s amber eyes looked over the scroll as Esset explained.
“According to the research of Jionar Atah, we should be able to undo the geas by manipulating natural energy using salt. All we need to do is arrange the salt around him as shown in these diagrams. To my understanding, the placement and quantities have to be perfect, so it will take exquisite control. If you place Toman in water and use your elemental abilities to control the water and salt, then these natural energies that Atah talks about should undo the geas.”