Authors: Ken Scholes
The girl wrinkled her nose. “Do you happen to know,” she asked, “where you might have misplaced your clothes?”
Neb blushed, feeling the heat of it move over his body. He turned away and tested the instinct that suddenly prompted him. “Clothe me,” he said in a quiet voice.
Mist lifted from the garden and moved over him, forming itself to him until he wore a robe like hers.
“That’s better,” she said. “Now who are you?”
“I’m Nebios ben Heb—” He cut himself off when he realized he was answering by habit.
That is not who I am anymore.
He swallowed. “I am Nebios Whym,” he said.
“Nebios Whym.” She cocked her head to the left.
“Are you kin then to General Whym?” She paled. “Do you bring word of the Downunder War?”
Her voice lowered. “Did my father send you?”
Neb bit his lip against the intensity of the emotion and intent she pushed at him along with her words. “I don’t know about the war,” he said. “But Whym is my father. I do not know if he is a general. And I don’t know who
“I am Amylé D’Anjite,” she said.
He recognized the name and reached for the recollection. D’Anjite was the Younger God who had bridged the chasm that divided the Churning Wastes thousands of years earlier—the very bridge where the mechoservitor had broken Renard’s leg and taken Neb to Sanctorum Lux. “I’ve heard the name D’Anjite,” Neb said.
“My father is a captain in General Whym’s army.” She moved closer to him, regarding him with brown eyes that pulled at his own. “Where are you then? You must be nearby.”
Where am I?
What kind of question was that? He blinked at it. “I’m here,” he said, “with you.” Neb looked around them. “On the Moon Wizard’s Tower.”
He repeated himself. “The Moon Wizard’s Tower.”
She laughed. “There is no such thing as wizards.”
Neb flinched at the sudden, stabbing memory of Windwir—handiwork of the Wizard King Xhum Y’Zir. Once more, he saw the ships that sank burning in the river as fire rained down upon the city. He thought about correcting her, telling her there certainly
wizards, but didn’t. Instead, he took in the garden around them and the vast carpet of jungle below. “Then what do you call this place?”
She chuckled. “It’s the Firsthome Temple. How can you not know that?”
The meaning was lost on him, but when she said it, the words were accompanied by an emotion akin to reverence and longing that settled into his mind alongside it. “There are a lot of things I don’t know,” Neb said.
Once again, he felt his muscles seizing, and the force of the tremor staggered him. Something like panic knotted his stomach, and he closed his eyes against it until her voice brought them open. “Are you okay?”
Neb saw the girl had taken a step forward. He found himself stammering, blushing once again. “I’m … I don’t know.”
The smile she offered held sympathy in it. “These are hard times for us all. But my father says the thief Y’Zir will not prevail, no matter how much he stirs up the ’unders.”
Neb pulled what meaning he could from her words but found her difficult to follow. He reached back into the mythology he’d spent his childhood studying in the Androfrancine Library. “You mean Raj Y’Zir?”
She shook her head. “Not Raj …
. I’ve never heard of Raj Y’Zir. But I’m sure they must be kin.” She studied him again, biting her lip. “Well,” she finally said, “I’m not quite sure what to do with you, Nebios Whym. You’re the first of the People I’ve encountered here in more years than I can count. When did you arrive?”
“Only just now,” Neb said.
“Hopefully,” she said, “more are coming. It’s been so long that I thought maybe I’d been forgotten.” He wanted to ask how long she’d been here and who exactly she thought might be coming, but she moved past him before he could speak, calling to him over her shoulder. “Still, at least
here, Nebios Whym. So come along or you’ll miss it.”
He turned to follow her. “Miss what?”
“Something beautiful,” she said.
She moved quickly now and he followed her, feeling the wind move through his hair. The sensation startled him, and he raised a hand to his head, running it through his thick silver mane. He remembered the smell of it burning what seemed like hours ago. Was it possible that it had grown back so fast?
He pushed the question aside and focused on the girl’s back. Her shorter legs carried her forward with deliberate purpose, and he relaxed into a stride that caught up to her easily as they skirted the grassy ridge. He wasn’t certain what direction they faced when they finally stopped, but when she sat down quickly in the grass, he did the same.
He was surprised but did not resist when she reached over to hold his hand. “Sing with me,” she said in nearly a whisper.
But as she started singing that familiar song again, Neb found he had no voice for it despite the emotions that flooded him from her. Joy. Hope.
It started far out beyond the jungle on a horizon that glinted in the afternoon sun. At first, there was a sliver that slowly grew as a massive world rose to fill the sky. Only this world was unlike the scarred and dying planet that he’d seen in his dreams. It rose, blue and green, and as it did, Neb saw once more a geography familiar to him.
Only this world is whole.
The girl must’ve heard his sudden, indrawn breath, because she stopped singing and squeezed his hand. “Are you okay?”
Neb felt his lips moving, but no words came out. He swallowed, tried to take his eyes off the place that had so recently been his home. Finally, he found his voice. “It’s … beautiful.”
the girl whispered in his mind with a warmth that he felt beneath his skin as she squeezed his hand. They sat in silence for a time, and Neb felt a calm settle over him even as the sky grayed toward twilight. Finally, the girl spoke again, and when she did, Neb found his mouth opening suddenly with the quiet force of her familiar words.
“This dream,” she said, “is of our home.”
Vlad Li Tam
Hot wind pulled his tattered robes and shaggy hair as Vlad Li Tam stood in the surf and watched Behemoth descend back into the sea. His beard and hair, now longer than he remembered ever having them, stank of dried seawater, and he felt the breeze moving through a dozen tears in the light cotton fabric he’d worn nearly bare over the weeks. He could feel the dark sand beneath his toes, the warm water against his legs, and he could taste the bitter smell of salt—and some unidentifiable other scent—on the air.
He kept his eyes on the metal serpent until it was completely submerged, and then he turned back to the shore to take in this new place.
The sun had barely risen though the temperature already had him sweating. The beach was a ribbon of black at the base of high dark cliffs that ran east and west as far as the eye could see. Overhead, wisps of cloud raced past, and the absence of birds was noticeable.
Were these the Barrens of Espira?
He wasn’t sure how many days had passed; he’d spent them underwater as the Behemoth steamed south. But not long ago, the ghost of Amal Y’Zir, his inexplicable beloved, had told him the metal beast would bring him here, her father’s staff in hand, to find her father’s spellbook.
Much of what she’d told Vlad was lost on him, and he wished Obadiah were with him so he could ask the metal man. After all, he was more familiar with the dream they followed. He’d known about Behemoth, after all. But would that dreaming mechoservitor have known anything about the Continuity Engine of the Elder Gods? And who was the heir of Whym that the staff was meant for? Cryptic, unfamiliar terms that were compelling when combined with the urgency in her voice. What was it she had said there near the end?
We have bargained in the Deepest of Deeps that the light once more be sown in the darkness that contains us all.
Regardless of understanding, Vlad knew he would let the Moon Wizard’s staff lead him where it would, fueled by the conviction of a love so deep that it ached in his veins and bones.
The sun rose higher now, and the sky went from mauve to blue as Vlad approached the shade at the base of the cliffs. Here along the rocky wall, there was little in the way of tidal debris and nothing at all that spoke of life. He stood there looking east and then west, uncertain of what to do.
The staff will lead you to it.
He extended the staff out ahead of him but sensed nothing—not even a tingle—as he turned each direction. Vlad scratched his head and then nodded slowly.
He placed one tip of the staff in the sand and stepped back as he let go. For a moment, it stood straight and then began to lean to the west.
Vlad smiled, took back the staff, and started walking.
By noon he’d covered a dozen leagues, the landscape around him never changing. Heat shimmered off the dark sand as bitter-tasting winds blew in from the north over the water. Overhead, the cliffs continued their jagged march.
I should be thirsty.
But he wasn’t. And now that he thought about it, he’d felt nothing he would normally feel. His muscles didn’t ache, and his breathing wasn’t labored after hours of walking in unrelenting heat. It made no sense.
Yet nothing has made sense these last few months.
He’d chased a ghost across an ocean to find the Moon Wizard’s Ladder, and then he’d descended into the basement of the ladder to confront his grandson, Mal Li Tam, and be commissioned by his water ghost to come to this gods-forsaken place.
He looked at the plain silver staff in his hand and remembered what she’d told him about it.
Use the staff to aid you; but use it with care. For the tools of the parents are not made for the hands of their infant children.
He suspected that somehow Y’Zir’s staff aided him now, extending his stamina far more than any scout magicks he could use.
Using the slender, lightweight rod as a walking stick, he continued west along the shore.
This place was familiar, though he knew he was far from home. It reminded him of the Churning Wastes, only much older. The air here had a deadness about it that tasted like dried blood on his tongue, much heavier than the air of the Desolation he was most familiar with. And there was still some life there in those wastelands beyond the Keeper’s Gate. Here, nothing moved and nothing grew and there was no sound but the waves and wind moaning over dark stone.
A tomb at the bottom of the world.
Two hours later, he saw the kin-raven.
There was no doubting it—the bird was massive and dark, soaring high above. Vlad moved toward the shade of the cliffs, extending the quicksilver staff ahead of him to get it out of the sun.
The kin-raven circled once and then descended quickly. For a moment, Vlad thought the bird might be diving on him, and he pressed himself against the cliff, the hot stone burning his back.
It landed heavily in the sand and regarded him with a dead glassy eye. It cocked its head and took a step forward, its beak open.
Vlad raised the staff, keeping it between him and the kin-raven. He was far better with a knife than a staff, but the massive talons that now tore up sand were such that he’d want to keep his distance. The bird took another tentative step, its head still cocked.
It’s only a bird,
he thought. Then, he took a deep breath.
“Be gone,” Vlad shouted, lunging forward with the staff. The bird scrambled and then hopped backward, its wings unfurling. When it was well out of reach it closed its beak, cocked its head the other direction, and opened it again.
“Be gone,” the kin-raven said, and Vlad realized the voice was his own.
He’d not seen one this close before, and the decaying smell of it was heavy on the air. It hopped from left to right now, its eyes never leaving Vlad.
He knew little about this species. They’d been considered extinct for two thousand years and had only recently begun to appear—not long after Windwir’s fall. At first they’d appeared in the Wastes. And then at sea. Nothing good ever followed the sighting of a kin-raven.
“Be gone,” the kin-raven said again.
Vlad Li Tam thrust the staff forward again, and once more the kin-raven hopped back. Then, Vlad leaned on the silver rod and studied the bird.
“What brings you here?” he asked.
Once more, the beak snapped closed, the head tilted, and it repeated back Vlad’s question. “What brings you here?”
Love or madness,
he thought. Or both.
Turning west again, Vlad Li Tam set out, and the enormous bird took flight, racing low and ahead of him down the narrow, dark ribbon of beach. It pounded its wings against the wind and sped west a league, becoming a dark speck before banking out over the ocean and gliding back.
Vlad kept moving, his eye following the bird’s antics as it repeated its flight out and back, staying well below the cliff line. As the hours slipped past, the kin-raven stayed near him, and each time the old man paused, the bird would land nearby and ask once again why he was here.
Sunset found him still pressing westward into the gloom, accompanied by his dark companion. Still without hunger, thirst or weariness, he gave himself to walking. When the stars guttered to life and the blue-green moon pushed up behind him, the bird vanished, rising up and over the cliff top and vanishing to the south.
madness,” he whispered to the night that he suddenly found himself alone in.
Then, with the moon casting his shadow long upon the dark beach and reflecting back to him in the silver of his staff, Vlad Li Tam walked toward whatever waited ahead.
Jin Li Tam
A cold wind whispered across the deck, and Jin Li Tam pulled her coat tight around her as she paced fore and aft along the rail. They’d lowered their sails sometime in the night, and the ship now moved forward, the deck vibrating from an engine somewhere below and aft that she suspected was much like those that powered her father’s iron armada. The clouds that had hemmed them in two hours ago were breaking open as the wind rose, letting the moon and stars cast dim light over the quiet ship and the ocean that surrounded it.