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Circles and Stones

Circles and Stones

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Circles and Stones

ratings:
2/5 (1 rating)
Length:
537 pages
8 hours
Released:
Dec 15, 2015
ISBN:
9781310845420
Format:
Book

Description

Tribal shaman Sanyel and her friend Izzy have agreed to help rescue a former enemy’s son from the boy’s abductor, a prominent, powerful leader. Their mission takes a strange turn when various people—both known and unknown to the rescuers—inexplicably begin to appear and then disappear before their eyes. As these bizarre events grow in number, the adventurers continue their challenging rescue mission, becoming increasingly aware the ongoing, mysterious appearances and vanishings might hold a greater peril than their bold, risky attempt to free the boy.

Released:
Dec 15, 2015
ISBN:
9781310845420
Format:
Book

About the author

Michael Puttonen is a Minnesota native and writer of action/adventure novels with a touch of fantasy. He honed his craft writing short stories before expanding into writing full-length adventure novels. Always an avid reader, his tastes include an eclectic variety of genres and styles that encompass storytellers both past and present. As a writer, he feels an affinity for action and adventure and loves fantasy for the freedom it offers in creating alternate worlds. His direct influences include the pulp fantasy of E.R. Burroughs and the historical fiction of Bernard Cornwell. His SANYEL series features the adventures of a young, gifted female shaman as she confronts a male-dominated world. This ongoing series currently includes the books SANYEL, DISRUPTER, CIRCLES AND STONES, and BONES OF THE GODS.


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Circles and Stones - Michael Puttonen

CIRCLES AND STONES

Michael Puttonen

Copyright © 2015 Michael Puttonen

All Rights Reserved

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Cover by Vila Design

**

ONE

As a child, I had never given much thought to time. It passed unnoticed. Its demands were few and its supply bountiful. When my father Nanki died, I realized how precious little time the sun god grants a human life. Ra-ta, the enigmatic creator of all things, never tells us why he regulates our existence in this manner. Why we are born, live for a while, and then die remains a mystery, even though countless eons have passed since the first self-aware mind looked inward to solve this riddle. Between birth and death, the sun god gives us time. Time is a tricky thing. As you age, it passes more swiftly; at least that is what Semral, the great Sakitan hunter, tells me. At sixteen, I don’t see it yet, although I am increasingly aware of its burdens and limitations.

I am Sanyel, shaman of the Sakita tribe. Since my ascension to the role of tribal healer and spiritual advisor—a position my late father also held—my time has been everyone’s but my own. I preside over every function requiring my duties, be it a wedding, funeral, or community ceremony of any size or import. I am a conduit to the spirit world, a doctor, a dentist, and much more, as was my father before me. I did not inherit my father’s position without a struggle. Incredible circumstances conspired to make me my tribe’s shaman, a tribe once profoundly opposed to females in positions of authority.

My father once said I was born to lead my people in a time of great trouble. That trouble has passed, and now council chief Semral has reclaimed that leadership responsibility. I am in command of nothing and have no seat among the tribal councilors. Still, over one year ago, with the help of a courageous group of young men and women, I led the fight that brought us freedom from a brutal, arrogant people who had enslaved us. When Semral, our tribe’s most respected warrior, later recommended me as our new medicine man, my grateful tribe had no objection and granted me the challenging post.

Since that time I have grown into the position, though lately, I seem to spend more time away from home than with my tribe. Home is a green, fertile land shaped like a bowl, a land teeming with opulent grasses and lofty forests. It lies within a circle of peaks called the Kodor, a mountain range that surrounds us, allowing but one outlet to the wider world, the sacred Desert of Bones.

Recently, I returned to my homeland after an unusual adventure beyond the straight-line mountains bordering the aforementioned desert. Along with a group from my tribe, I had been endeavoring to find the cause of uncontrolled flooding that threatened to inundate our lands. Alongside me on that expedition were my best friend, the fiery-haired Lillatta; Izzy, the tattooed, one-armed swordmaster; Javen, my at times insufferable mate; and Semral, the Sakitan tribe’s greatest hunter and warrior. I have detailed elsewhere that mission’s subsequent detour into a perilous adventure among a warlike race, the Cruxun.

Borsar, a priest of a people called the Spood (I’ve always said the name sounded like something you might cough up), had come along with us. A year ago, the priest had been among those who had attempted to enslave us, and I had considered him nothing more than an arrogant, murderous thug. The Spood had sent him to oversee our lands after they had conquered our tribe. Their occupation did not last, for my people soon regrouped and defeated his troops. We allowed him and the humbled remnants of his shattered army to return home because we felt both sides had shed enough blood. A month ago, Borsar unexpectedly showed up in our land, alone, asking for my help.

He had traveled from the Spood fortress, Grell, in hopes I would rescue his son from a woman named Danara, the mad widow of former Spood leader Smerkas, a man I had killed. I was reluctant to assist him because of his past transgressions against our tribe, but I soon realized he had become a changed man from his previous temperament. I eventually agreed to help, but our distracting Cruxun side journey, in which Borsar had shown himself a valuable companion, had delayed that mission. Now, it was again my priority.

High summer had arrived, and on this early morning, the waking sun painted red, yellow, and purple streaks to the underside of billowy clouds drifting above the dark silhouettes of the eastern mountains. I had awakened a short while earlier, and in the darkness outside the tent I share with Javen, I had built a small fire to cook our breakfast. I loved the morning breeze’s cool breath as it caressed my face and tousled my long blond hair. I tilted my head upward to breathe in the sweet smell of dewy grass mingling with the delightful floral scents of summer blossoms. Those appealing odors melded deliciously with those of forest mushrooms steaming in a shallow metal pot resting on a grate over the fire. Two generous slices of porse meat sizzled in a metal pan alongside the mushrooms.

Soft footsteps sounded, coming from behind a nearby tent. I smiled as a lean, dark-haired young man strolled into view. He smiled in return, and his teeth showed white against his brown skin. The youth walked over to sit beside me.

The young man adjusted his garment as he sat. It was a simple, unadorned blue tunic with sleeves that reached just short of his elbow, with the garment’s lower hem extending to just above his knees. He sported no belt, and his only other clothing was a pair of sandals fashioned from porsehide.

I wore similar attire to the young man’s, for these lightweight tunics were the standard wear of the Sakitan tribe. Mine was yellow, sleeveless, embroidered at the edges with a strip of brown trim and cinched at my waist with a red sash. I was currently barefoot.

I would feel undressed if certain other items I cherish didn’t accompany my dress. A bracelet made of bone fragments from various animals encircled my right wrist, and a bone-handled rik-ta (knife) hung snug in a leather sheath at my side, its belt loop secured by my sash. The young man carried no weapon, for he had no familiarity with their proper use.

Smells delicious, Gamaal stated as he sniffed the steam rising from the cooking vessels.

I can make some for you if you’d like, I offered. I’ve only enough for Javen and me presently, but I can add another portion if you’re hungry.

Gamaal affirmed he was, so I tossed another cut of porse meat into the pan and dumped a few handfuls of mushrooms into the pot. I added seasoning to both and then sat back.

So, today is the big day, Gamaal said.

It was. It was a day I had not looked forward to, for I had no great desire to return to the land of the Spood, those confounding people who always manage to deliver sharp pains to my lower backside. Still, I had made a promise to the fat priest Borsar to help free his fat son from the madwoman Danara.

We had been in the main Sakitan camp for nearly two weeks, and Borsar was increasingly anxious to set out on the trail to Grell, the fortress home of the Spood. I had deliberately delayed our departure, for I was attending to a personal concern, but finally, the pressure to proceed with the mission reached the point where I had to relent to the priest’s desires.

Yesterday, council chief Semral had taken me aside and reminded me of my duty. It took the words of a man I hold in high regard to persuade me I must end my stalling. Not that my conscience hadn’t nagged me to get moving; something else had held me back, something overriding my usual proclivity to attend promptly to my obligations.

Within five days of our return home from the land of the Cruxun, Javen had almost died. On a hunting outing, while Javen chased a spartok through the tangled brush of a dense kanser forest, the wily beast did something unexpected. It circled behind and attacked Javen from the rear. With no warning the fierce animal bowled into him, driving him to the ground. A spartok tusk stabbed Javen’s side and then tore into his right arm, ripping a deep gash through muscle to bone. A fellow hunter speared the enraged beast before it could inflict further damage.

For three days my beloved mate hovered between the spirit world and the physical one. He had lost a lot of blood, and a fever raged. I had never felt such fear in all my life. The possibility of losing a loved one is always in the back of one’s mind, but you tend to keep those thoughts there, tightly confined so as not to let them overwhelm you. I have related before the stoic acceptance we Sakitans have about death, for it is a common occurrence in our perilous hunter culture. We feel spirit lives on after the body dies, so we try to maintain some detachment over death, but not since my father’s passing had that grim specter come so close to taking someone so deeply ingrained in my heart and soul.

After the third day, the fever broke, with my medicines finally chasing the demons from Javen’s body. Soon, he eagerly sipped a broth partially made from the juices of a roasted spartok, a fitting irony, I thought.

Javen’s damaged arm worried me, for it was not healing properly. Visions of the disabled Satu kept flitting through my mind, a young boy, now deceased whose devastating injury had denied him the pleasures of the hunt. I knew Javen held great pride in his hunting prowess, and I knew how deeply he identified his self-worth with that hunting ability. The permanent loss of one’s greatest talent can destroy even those with the strongest minds and wills.

I believe in the end that Ra-ta, the sun god, answered my fervent prayers, for the arm began to respond to treatment. Within days, Javen’s elbow showed increased movement, and by week’s end, he had regained full motion of his mangled limb. I removed the spartok fragment from my bracelet of bones and gave it to him. I wanted him to own power over the animal that almost took his life, and I hoped it would serve as a good luck token for any future encounters.

I associated my continued reluctance to organize the rescue mission to Grell with a necessity to attend to Javen’s complete recovery. He was having none of it.

Go, do what you have to do, he insisted. I’m fine, and the more you delay, the more time Danara has to solidify her power. You know you don’t want that.

Honestly, I didn’t care. I didn’t care about Danara, and I didn’t care about Borsar’s chubby son, Porlak, either. Borsar, on the other hand, had proven a trustworthy companion over the last month or so, and my former enemy was—dare I say—now a friend. I no longer regretted my promise to him, and with Semral’s recent prompting and Javen’s continuing recovery, I knew I could no longer excuse doing nothing. After breakfast, the redheaded priest and I along with one other planned to depart on that long-delayed mission.

Gamaal licked his lips in anticipation as I turned the porse slices over in the pan with a forked stick. I had to laugh at how readily the young man had taken to eating porse meat, a food he had never tasted until about a month ago. We had found Gamaal inside a hollowed-out section of a mountain, the only one alive among the long-dead remains of his people. What a strange story he had told: of his ancient, advanced culture; of the virus that had wiped them out; and of the desperate measures his people had taken to ensure survival.

It was all true. I saw firsthand what these ancient people had manufactured inside that mountain in a last ditch effort to escape the deadly illness, a shining tunnel lined with extraordinary rooms that held remarkable devices. They had built pods, as Gamaal called them, within which a chosen group of healthy survivors lived in suspended animation, intending to remain locked inside them for several hundred years before coming out to repopulate a world they expected to be devoid of human life.

Unfortunately, that forced sleep lasted several thousand years due to both natural and human interference. Over time, death found the majority of the dreamers as unforeseen events caused a gradual loss of nutrition and slow starvation within their pods. Only Gamaal Parsa, son of the doomed project’s leader, had survived into our time.

Javen, the dark-skinned, incredibly handsome Raab I had fallen in love with during our adventures in Grell over a year ago finally awakened and crawled out from our tent. He sniffed the air and grinned when he discovered I was preparing his favorite meal, seasoned mushrooms along with a generous serving of porse.

Javen carried his injured right arm in a cloth sling, but his free left hand found no hindrance to directing food to his hungry mouth. His side wound was still sore, so he moved his body gingerly to avoid aggravating it.

Mmm, Javen mumbled, his mouth full of tasty mushrooms. These are good.

Of course they are, I told him. I picked them myself.

"So, why didn’t you pick some janka berries, too? They would be so delicious with this."

You hate janka berries.

Yes, but I was thinking of you. You love them, and I’m sure Gamaal would like to try them, too. I have more refined tastes.

What’s a janka berry?

It’s a juicy, purple-colored, wonderful-tasting berry that grows in wetlands, I told Gamaal.

It’s an awful, disgusting, flavorless berry, Javen countered, as useless as a two-headed starfen.

Gamaal studied the two of us, glancing from one to the other and then said, I believe I know the berry you refer to, although they called it a ‘cantleberry’ back in my world. Rishar Cantle named it after himself, for he had developed it by cross-breeding two other popular berries of the time. As I recall, it had a unique flavor, extremely pleasing to some and utterly repulsive to others. I don’t believe gender played any role in the extreme opposite reactions to the taste, yet ...

Javen and I grinned at each other as Gamaal continued speaking, absorbed in his oration. We were used to the young man’s tendency to ramble on endlessly on subjects that captured his interest, especially if they connected in some way to his own ancient time and had a scientific aspect.

Unknown to Gamaal, we were not listening, for feeding our faces captivated us more than the properties of plants. I find it surprisingly easy to tune out that which bores me or that which I do not understand or care to understand. I’m not rude about it, of course. I do nod occasionally and make eye contact with the speaker, as I just did with Gamaal, but I hadn’t heard a word he said since he started detailing the intricate botanical properties of some exotic fruit or other.

The arrival of Borsar cut short Gamaal’s snore-inducing exposition. The stout redheaded priest walked over from his tent to stand before our fire. I glanced up at his eager, impatient face and continued my leisurely breakfast.

My things are packed, and my droove is ready, Borsar stated after about a minute of standing with no one speaking to him.

Good, I said, grabbing another mouthful of boiled mushrooms.

The priest continued standing as we ate.

Will you be finished soon? he then asked.

With what? asked Javen. He looked up at Borsar with a face as innocent as a newborn sartel fawn. I almost burst out laughing.

Why, with eating, of course.

Yes, we’ll be done soon, Javen answered. Why do you ask?

At last the Spood priest caught on, and he smiled. All right. I get it. We’ll leave when the Disrupter is ready. He turned and headed to where his droove stood inside a nearby corral. The pack animal was loaded down with supplies for the trip to Grell.

Grell was both the name of a sizable fortress and a city within that fortress. The Spood had once lived exclusively within the high walls of that bastion until their expansionist delusions took them outside and brought them into a collision with our people. How broad or strong the Spood influence in the world currently was, I had no idea. Borsar had spoken of the death and terror brought by ten can-raks I had unleashed on his people, massive beasts I can control by merely talking to them. I had sent them into the city of Grell to destroy all who strongly supported the Spood’s evil agenda, and from Borsar’s account, the ferocious animals had done the horrific job well.

Disrupter, they called me. It was an appropriate moniker. I, along with several companions, had brought chaos into their world. The Spood got what was coming to them after trying to enslave my tribe along with countless others. Their central seat of authority had been our primary target, for we had desired to weaken their command structure by killing those at the top, those with the most power to continue implementing their cruel design of conquest and enslavement. Still, from Borsar’s report, at least one evil one had survived the can-rak rampage and started a new reign of misfortune. Danara, the late High Priest’s wife, had Borsar’s son and other children under her wicked spell. My obligation was to rescue the son.

Izzy, the one-armed swordmaster with the half-tattooed face, was coming with us. I was pleased that this fearless spike-haired warrior wanted to accompany us. I knew from our past exploits involving the Spood, and later the Cruxun, that she could not pass up an opportunity for an adventure. She arrived as Borsar left to check on his droove, ambling over with that graceful stride that belies her sizable physique.

Izzy informed me, as Borsar had, that her gear was packed and her droove ready. She carried her stirka, a thin-bladed sword, in a leather scabbard belted to her waist. A short knife rested firmly in a holder opposite the sword. I still marvel at how Izzy can snatch sword or rik-ta from either side of her body with as much ease as people with two arms can. Having only one taught her how to compensate, so now she can accomplish any task with more skill and celerity than most fully limbed individuals can.

Borsar made his way back to us when he noticed Izzy’s arrival. Only the three of us would make this trip. Semral was busy with his council duties. Javen was still recovering from his injuries. My best friend, Lillatta, wanted to come, but she had taken a romantic interest in our newest tribal guest, Gamaal. Since he was still accustoming himself to our tribal lifestyle, Lillatta had become his unofficial tutor in all things Sakitan, and nothing was going to distract her from that essential and stimulating role.

Other tribal members had volunteered to accompany us, but I decided a small group would suffice. We were not invading Spood territory to conquer. Our tribe still could not match power with Spood forces even if that were our goal. It wasn’t. This trip required stealth and an ability to move quickly and unhindered by numbers. We planned to snatch one child from a woman Borsar had described as insane. What trouble could there be?

Borsar insisted that a good part of the Spood population had embraced the sun god, Sester, as I had instructed them to do after my friends and I defeated their forces over a year ago (Sester was what the Spood called the sun god; we Sakitans called him Ra-ta; Izzy used the female name, Mim). I had given a speech to the beaten soldiers, advising them to return to worshiping the sun god over the fake god they had been following. They listened to me because they believed I was the Disrupter, a powerful and feared person whose arrival an ancient Spood seer had forecast. The prophecy had said the Disrupter would arrive one day with two accomplices who the seer called the the Blades of Sorrow. The forecaster predicted that these three would bring upheaval to the Spood way of life. The Blades turned out to be my friends Izzy and Lillatta, and last year we three had indeed brought the chaos the prophecy foretold. As a result, the Spood understood I was not one to trifle with, so perhaps I could use that fear to my advantage. The fat priest assured me that Sester followers would assist us in our mission, for Danara had also abducted many of their children.

Whether that promise was true or not, I couldn’t guess. What I could almost certainly rely on was that Sester would throw in an obstacle or two just to make things interesting.

**

TWO

My obstinate droove, Teenat, refused to obey my orders, shying away from my touch as I tried to force her to kneel so I could mount. These long-necked, long-legged beasts have an ornery reputation. After several thwarted attempts to get Teenat to obey, I resorted to the bracelet of bones around my wrist.

I didn’t want to. I try to avoid using the power of the bones for such mundane things. At one time, few knew the secret of the bones I carry, but my tribe was now aware that I could control animals by utilizing them. All I had to do was touch a bone or bone fragment of a particular animal species, then speak my command, and the creature would obey. It was a little more complicated than that, of course. I had to be carrying a piece of the animal’s bone on a bracelet around my wrist, and the command was effective for only twenty minutes.

This strange ability was not my only one. A peculiar arm strength that allowed me to toss weapons incredible distances with astonishing accuracy was another. My father guessed that these extraordinary talents were favors from Ra-ta himself. Why the sun god chose me to receive these gifts remains a mystery.

I touched the droove bone fragment on my bracelet and said, Teenat, kneel. The animal promptly obeyed. After mounting, I headed the beast out the open corral gateway to join Izzy and Borsar, who already sat their drooves, awaiting my arrival. A young woman with a thin frame and limp brown hair suddenly stepped in my path, causing Teenat to rear. The slight girl’s eyes grew wide as I reined in my startled droove.

Dammit, Brilna! You know better than to do that.

Brilna looked up at me with a tortured face, devastated that she had displeased me. Displeasing me came easily to Brilna, and she did it with baffling regularity. She would aggravate me to the point of anger and then make me regret the outburst. Brilna had a delicate psyche and the brainpower of a child. Well, I won’t go that far. She was intelligent enough, but her thoughts were often scattered and unfocused.

Brilna was another of those outsiders who had found their way to my tribe and then become de facto members. Izzy was another. We had all bonded as friends amidst the harrowing circumstances that had brought us together in the fight against the Spood, relying on each other to get through that mutual peril. Brilna had saved my life, and I had hers. My respect for and loyalty to her were immense, but she sure could annoy.

What is it, Brilna? I’m about to leave for Grell.

Porsalla says you didn’t want me to come along. She says you told Lillatta I was a burden.

That damn Porsalla. The tribe gossip seemed to know everything, and she didn’t hesitate to tell what she knew to anyone who would listen, either. I couldn’t deny I had said what she claimed, but I hadn’t expected it to get back to Brilna. Now, she was in a pout over it.

I didn’t mean anything by that, I explained. I just meant that we would face danger, and you don’t want to be part of that, do you?

You’ll protect me, Brilna answered with blithe certainty.

God, that girl is something else. Sometimes she doesn’t have the insight Ra-ta gave a janka berry, and at other times she pulls jewels of wisdom from the dream-filled air around her. She is fearless one moment and then needs convincing her own shadow isn’t a threat the next. What she never seems to grasp is that having to protect her is what irritates me. On top of all the others I carry, that responsibility is often just too much.

I need you to stay here and help Lillatta with Gamaal. He’s trying to learn all about our tribe, and I’m sure you could assist him with those things.

What things? asked Brilna.

My irritation level rose again. She probably expected me to list all the things I wanted her to help our newcomer with, but I had no time or patience for this.

Ask Lillatta. She knows.

Brilna did not offer further objections and went to find Lil. Nay-tan, an astute Teron boy I had met on our just-concluded adventure among the Cruxun, had once called Brilna remarkable. I knew foisting the remarkable one on Lillatta, who would rather spend time alone with Gamaal, would not sit well with her. She wouldn’t welcome a third party, but Lillatta was shrewd enough to find some distraction to occupy Brilna while she pursued her romantic interests.

I continued my interrupted progress toward Borsar and Izzy, directing my droove to where they sat their mounts. Those animals, in addition to my own, carried everything we thought essential to our journey. Cinched to the backs of each were leather pouches and cloth sacks. One pouch held flint and metal kits to start fires, one for each of us in case we found ourselves separated. A number of the sacks contained food items. Smoked and salt-cured portions of porse, spartok, and blue-tailed barster would serve for meat, and we had packed away an assortment of fruit, nuts, and other items the Spood had introduced to us.

These included legumes and tubers as well as semi-hard loaves made from grain grown in tended fields. Many hunters of our tribe now worked these fields, foregoing the difficult life of chasing elusive animals and letting the fertile soil provide their nourishment instead. Some appeared naturally gifted at coaxing food from the ground, and they professed a keen enjoyment in manipulating the fertile earth and bringing forth its bounty.

I, on the other hand, still followed the life of a hunter. I could not see myself laboring in the hot sun turning up dirt, planting seeds, and then waiting forever to reap the reward. An animal kill brings a food reward immediately. The land workers depended on the weather, on sufficient rain and sun, to raise their crops. Insidious animal and insect raiders forced them to a diligent defense of their fragile and slow-developing plants. I, in contrast, could go out in any weather and at any time to hunt what I needed, and I had only myself to protect. However, I do not claim any superiority over those who no longer pursue game. I will not disparage any who desire to abandon our traditional way of life, for the food they produce from their dedicated toil is rather pleasing to the taste.

We would carry full waterskins on our journey, which we would fill as needed from the numerous streams we knew existed along our route. I also filled a small pouch with various medicinal herbs and roots in case we met with illness or injury. Other items stored in our packs included changes of clothes, a couple of spare knives, and arrows. The latter I insisted on carrying in abundance, for I had grown fond of and increasingly proficient at using the bow and arrow, a Cruxun weapon recently introduced to the tribe.

We carried another weapon that the old warrior Semral insisted I bring. Semral was not overly concerned for my safety, for he held a firm conviction that the sun god protects me. However, he wanted to ensure I owned a distinct advantage over my foes, and the punch gun would provide that edge.

The punch gun came from Gamaal’s time, a technologically advanced one that flourished five thousand years in the past. We had discovered it in the mountain facility that had housed Gamaal and the desiccated corpses of his ill-fated fellow adventurers. His late father had stashed the weapon in a concealed compartment, intending it for personal protection if the need arose. He died along with the rest of Gamaal’s compatriots; they all slow-starved years ago, unaware that death unhurriedly stole their lives as they blissfully slept within pods intended for their salvation.

This punch gun was the only one remaining that still functioned. The others we had examined in the facility’s armory held no charge, for no one from Gamaal’s time had installed their power source, an error they had seemingly not realized. Gamaal had demonstrated the weapon’s effectiveness on a flying insect, and since then, we had confirmed its horrific potential.

This powerful device could stun any living thing, incapacitating it or rendering it unconscious for a short while, or it could fry it to a crisp, burning skin and internal organs into a black, charred mess. I stood horrified as I watched a healthy porse bull turned into a burnt, smoking lump of unrecognizable flesh by merely pointing the gun at the beast and pulling the hand trigger. Even Semral, who had eagerly sought the demonstration, looked shaken and appalled by the result.

We had not used the gun since, but now Semral insisted I take it with me. I had no objection. Who wouldn’t welcome any advantage when venturing into an unknown situation? I can safely say I wouldn’t hesitate to use it if the circumstances warranted.

Semral, Lillatta, Gamaal, Brilna, Javen, and several more tribal members waved their goodbyes. We maneuvered our drooves around our encampment’s outlying tents and then urged them south onto the grassy plains beyond. As we left, I looked back to view the retreating collection of tents, with the massive ceremonial one standing as if a parental guard, towering above the others at the campsite’s center.

I always feel remorse upon leaving my home and more so now that I have all these essential tribal duties, but I knew the capable Jasari would fill my sandals well in my absence. Jasari was my first—and currently only—shaman apprentice. I had chosen her after witnessing her remarkable aptitude for finding medicinal plants. After her selection, she rewarded me by displaying extraordinary ease in mastering the duties required of a shaman. Though only twelve, I am sure her spirit animal will attach itself to her any day now.

My spirit animal, the ferocious can-rak, had come to me when I was quite young, younger than Jasari, but my father had said I was an exception. It often takes years for a shaman’s apprentice to gain the favor of a spirit animal, and the aspirant certainly has to have mastered his craft to some degree. Jasari was as advanced as any apprentice I had ever known, even more so at this stage than Satu from my father’s era.

Jasari was more than capable of attending to the community’s medical requirements in my absence, and if a need arose to perform a ceremonial function, Semral informed me he would allow Jasari to preside. Even he was impressed with her natural ability.

Our two-week journey south to the desert proved uneventful. Each day we followed our course as Ra-ta, the sun, traveled his high path across his heavenly domain. Each night, as the sun bid farewell and darkness poured in to fill the Kodor bowl, we arranged our bedding and slept until the morning light again emptied the bowl of shadows.

Near the end of our trip’s first leg, as we passed from negotiating a series of low hills onto an open plain, a wispy cloud overhead caught my attention. In an otherwise clear sky, the presence of any cloud was startling, but I found the shape of this cloud unusual. It had formed into a spiral pattern like that created by stirring a finger in water or from wind-swirled smoke or dust. The faint cloud moved leisurely across the empty blue expanse without any noticeable alteration to its features, which struck me as highly unusual, for clouds always change shape as they progress.

With my attention distracted by the odd sight, I failed to notice the approaching riders. Izzy alerted me. In the early afternoon of this sweltering day, shimmering heat waves blended with the motion of two droove riders against the horizon, giving them an illusory consistency as if images viewed through disturbed water.

It’s Oster, Izzy determined, and I don’t know who the other is.

Oster must have ridden from his current post at the entrance to our lands, the singular mountain fissure where the soaring peaks of the Kodor range part to meet the dry, dead sands of the Desert of Bones. That small rift is the entryway to our precious domain, and it is where we station watchmen to guard the mountain cleft and alert us to intruders. Oster would not have left his post unless on urgent tribal business.

Oster steered his droove on a course directly for us, guiding the second droove by holding its reins in a free hand. Upon that second animal sat an older woman dressed in white. As we patiently waited for Oster to make his way to us, the inexplicable happened. Oster and his companion vanished!

Holy Mim! Izzy exclaimed. Where did they go?

I stared open-mouthed at the location where seconds ago two riders approached us and then disappeared as if absorbed into the heat waves undulating about them.

Is there a hollow over there we can’t see? I asked. Possibly the two had merely dipped into a small ravine and would presently reappear.

They didn’t.

Borsar crossed himself, moving a finger shoulder-to-shoulder and then down to his navel, the pattern of the grottis symbol (Y) representing the Spood culture’s former god, Gor-jar. That ritual puzzled me, for I thought it an inaccurate re-creation. I once asked a Spood priest why they did not include touching the heart in the signing, for that would cover all points of the symbol. He told me no one had ever thought of that. That was probably because the heart was not an organ the Spood used that often. Their past tendency to devalue and enslave all they encountered indicated as much.

Borsar had long ago abandoned the false god, Gor-jar, for the sun god, Sester, but it seemed he had found it hard to kick his ritualistic habits, especially when encountering the unknown. Both the superstitious and the strongly devout often look for supernatural or evil meanings when the inexplicable occurs, and Borsar was both of those. I was more inclined to seek a rational explanation for the strange scene just witnessed.

I kicked Teenat in the ribs, and she shot out toward the spot where the two riders had taken abrupt leave of our sight. Izzy promptly followed, and a reluctant Borsar trailed, no doubt convinced we would find nothing holy at our destination.

Izzy and I agreed we had reached the correct spot moments later, but we found nothing there. The knee-high grass swayed in a light breeze and appeared undisturbed, with nothing trampled and no sign of a trail leading south—something two droove riders would undoubtedly have left. I tested the ground with a few foot stomps, seeking weakness. It was as stable as one would expect, with layers upon layers of compacted soil extending who knows how deep. Izzy checked and found no holes in the ground.

This disappearance could not have happened. Oster should be here along with his unknown companion. There was nowhere else to go!

Borsar brought his droove up as we examined the unbroken grass, cautious in his approach. Spying no visible manifestation of evil, he relaxed and began to assist us in scouting an expanded area, just in case we had erred in pinpointing Oster’s last location. Finding nothing, and with no other option, we remounted our drooves and continued south toward the fissure, where we hoped to learn why Oster had left his post and who that older woman was.

We rode in silence for some time. My thoughts—and perhaps those of the others as well—centered on what had happened. I liked Oster, and seeing him vanish before my eyes was more than disconcerting. Was he dead? I didn’t get that feeling, for my instincts told me something else was at play, something foreign to anything I knew.

That was strange, Izzy understated as we rode three abreast across the grasslands. Are we sure we saw what we thought we saw?

What do you mean? I asked.

Could it have been an illusion, a trick of the weather or something?

Izzy quickly dismissed her explanation by saying, Nah, that can’t be right. It’s a bit elaborate for a weather quirk.

Not necessarily, Borsar spoke. I’ve heard tales of desert travelers viewing a vast expanse of water ahead of them, only to realize it does not exist. Conditions involving air masses and rays from Sester interact somehow, causing an illusion of water.

Well, we’re not on a desert, I countered.

Feels like one, said Izzy, only with humidity.

I believe it was too real to be an illusion, Borsar continued. The detail was astounding. I think we saw actual people out there. What happened to them I can’t guess, but I feel a chill just thinking about it.

The priest then reenacted his habitually ingrained grottis ritual, leading me to tease.

You do realize you are paying tribute to Gor-jar by doing that, don’t you?

Borsar shot me an alarmed glance. Fear showed in his eyes.

Please, please forgive me, Disrupter! I did not know I was making the sign. I assure you, I am now a devoted follower of Sester, and I have no desire to return to Gor-jar. I truly did not mean to offend.

The priest was sweating more profusely than any man had a right to, and his genuine fear startled me. Did I give him the impression I was angry? What did I care if he made hand gestures? They were meaningless as far as I was concerned. Did Borsar fear to offend me because he believed he also offended Sester by association? Did he think Sester would strike him down for his error—or that I would? I’ve stated before that the sun god is not my close companion, be it Sester, Ra-ta, or even Mim, the female version of the sun god. We do not converse. We do not exchange thoughts on the weather or on where to find the nearest porse herd. I have no clue what the sun god thinks or what he expects of me—or of anyone else, for that matter. I was not going to strike the priest down for something as innocuous as waving his arm around. Of course, if Sester wanted to send a lightning bolt to Borsar’s heart, that was up to him.

Relax, I reassured the redhead. I couldn’t care less about your little ritual, and I doubt Sester cares either. It’s not like you’re summoning Gor-jar from the dead with your magic hands. I paused and then in a mock-serious manner added, You aren’t, are you?

Borsar’s terrified expression and anxiety returned as he asserted, No, no, I assure you I could not and would not do such a thing. My hands have no magic. I am but a simple priest.

I stifled a laugh. Borsar’s past position of power belied that simple priest drivel. I had learned from his fellow Spood priests that the fat man had been next in line to succeed Smerkas, the now deceased High Priest. His hands might contain no magic, but they were as bloody as the hands of any of his countrymen. Good thing he had sworn off his former life and the inhuman practices his culture had once engaged in, practices he had once vigorously defended.

We continued on and around noon the next day spotted the rift leading from the Kodor bowl to the Desert of Bones. We knew that ten hunters presently invisible to us watched us from stations overlooking the pass. These warriors were part of a group of twenty assigned to guard the fissure against intruders. The other ten presently slept or relaxed at a nearby camp until their turn to man the lookout stations.

After the Spood invaded over a year ago, we determined that having only two men guarding our entry, as we had always employed, was an inadequate force to serve as a deterrent or warning against invasion. After a detailed study, we realized we would need to station at least twenty men at the rift. Attentiveness was a concern with only two as was their susceptibility to capture. Twenty could deal with a small group of raiders, and if confronted by a more significant force, they could spare to send a man or two back to the main camp for help. Twice daily checks on the rift’s desert side provided a measure of warning, for the approach of any across the sands would be visible for hours in advance of arrival. However, even with twenty men, we learned boredom would result in waning attention to duty, so we limited each man’s shift to two weeks, which worked wonders for morale and efficiency.

I was aware of the schedule and knew Oster was in the second day of his two-week stint. Why he had chosen to depart his post for our camp with a stranger in tow would be the first question I asked the remaining guards.

As we approached the rift, two watchers appeared, scrambling down from the rocky incline to our right. Both wore head coverings woven from reeds for protection from the sun. Our arrival incited no apprehension from the hunters, for we had come from the direction of the homeland and thus presented no danger. As our drooves moved closer to the two men, one lifted his headgear. Borsar uttered a startled cry, and I stared in disbelief.

The man was Oster.

**

THREE

"What are you doing here?" I blurted.

Oster’s pale-blue eyes stared up at me. He was a wiry, athletic man whose locks of dark-blond hair flowed in generous waves down to his shoulders. His smooth, youthful skin, as with all Sakitans in mid-summer, showed a rich brown from relentless daily roasting by Ra-ta’s rays.

I’m scheduled, he answered. He gave no indication he was aware he had vanished only a day ago before my eyes.

"But you were out on the

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