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Bones of the Gods

Bones of the Gods

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Bones of the Gods

Length:
807 pages
13 hours
Released:
Jan 28, 2019
ISBN:
9780463174876
Format:
Book

Description

Sanyel, shaman of the Sakita and alleged hand of the sun god, has agreed to investigate the bizarre circumstances surrounding the vanishing of a past acquaintance’s wife and daughter. A recurring cryptic image, elusive suspects, strange devices, and an ever-expanding mystery have Sanyel and her adventurous companions often perplexed as they head deeper into danger to uncover a secret hidden for thousands of years.

Released:
Jan 28, 2019
ISBN:
9780463174876
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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Bones of the Gods - Michael Puttonen

BONES OF THE GODS

Michael Puttonen

Copyright © 2019 Michael Puttonen

All Rights Reserved

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Thank you for your generous support.

Cover by Vila Design

**

ONE

My seventeenth birthday had come and gone. I knew it had passed because the early-spring storms that traditionally mark this time of year had dwindled to nothing. My tribe, the Sakita, has no precise means to mark and record time’s passing, so we recognize an important event’s anniversary by the return of the season in which it occurred. I had been born during a spring hailstorm, and this year’s spring had apparently overtaken its midpoint, for the weather had warmed and the wicked ice storms had ceased.

I am Sanyel, shaman of the Sakita tribe. This past year had gone by swiftly, and I reflected on how settled my life had become in that span. My last journey outside our tribal lands had occurred the previous summer when my friend Izzy and I had helped a priest named Borsar rescue his son from his country’s ruler, a madwoman named Danara. My relaxed life since then had consisted of enjoyable hunting trips and attending to my numerous medical practitioner duties. It had been a good year, one of peace and prosperity for my people. Births in our tribe had outnumbered deaths for the first time in a long while. The wild herds had been plentiful and the seeded crops bountiful.

Still, I had begun to grow restless. I had long wanted to learn about other parts of my world, and I knew that a secret facility hidden inside a nearby mountain contained a large spinning globe that could show me what currently existed in those places. With summer again fast approaching, the urge to return to the secret mountain facility began to grow.

A year ago, members of my tribe had found in that hidden place seventeen-year-old Gamaal, now eighteen, a young man still alive after thousands of years in suspended animation. He told us of a virus that had nearly wiped out the world’s human population and how desperate scientists had created this mountain facility. They had designed pods that would allow a small group uninfected by the virus to remain frozen in time. At some point, they hoped it would be safe for them to reemerge into a world they expected to find devoid of human life. They would then try rebuilding that world.

This group, however, had been a bit premature in its assumptions. The virus had indeed decimated the population, but a scattered number of people had managed to survive the illness, and although their world quickly reverted to a primitive level, those survivors started the slow rebuilding process long before the sleepers’ scheduled awakening.

Sadly, the expected awakening never occurred. An unfortunate natural event triggered a malfunction inside the facility, causing the group to remain in hibernation for thousands of years instead of the hundreds they had planned. In addition, a tragic human error had reduced nutrient flow to the sleepers over time, and nearly all had died within their pods long ago of slow starvation. Only two of the brave pioneers survived and only one into our present—Gamaal.

Gamaal’s ancient civilization had been highly advanced, and his culture had trained him in science. He had an in-depth knowledge of subjects beyond our primitive tribe’s comprehension. His intricate familiarity with these complex studies had proved valuable. Just this past year, his expertise had helped prevent the escalation of a bizarre occurrence where time itself had blurred its edges, causing past and future events to overlap with the present. Gamaal had solved that problem, discovering as its cause a power unit malfunction at the mountain facility working in combination with a naturally occurring phenomenon.

Now, I wanted the young man’s assistance in learning what lay beyond the few land areas currently familiar to us, for our tribe had remained isolated for thousands of years, and we knew little of what existed in the rest of the world. Only Gamaal knew how to operate the planetary globe, a device from his time that showed the present state of our entire planet in astonishing living detail.

You want to abandon your shaman duties—yet again—to chase after adventure? an amused council chief Semral chided. The great Sakitan hunter, who was a trusted confidant and friend, ran a hand through his graying hair and grinned. You are aware we need all hands to help plant the next round of crops, aren’t you?

I laughed, for it was our private joke. Semral knew I studiously avoided all involvement with anything associated with planting or growing food. I stubbornly stuck to the traditional tribal role of hunter, for seeding a field was about as exciting to me as weaving a basket, something I don’t particularly enjoy or do well.

You certainly don’t need me to help with the crops, and as for my shaman duties, you know Jasari is capable of handling those.

It was true. Thirteen-year-old Jasari had proven herself a born healer, and she was already a reliable conduit to the spirit world, able to openly receive and accurately interpret communication from that mysterious realm. She had been my first shaman apprentice (I now had four), and her growth in that role had astounded. Her knowledge of how to create proper medicinal mixtures from a wide variety of plants and minerals was already considerable and increasing daily. She could perform tribal rituals and dances flawlessly, and her spirit animal had already revealed itself to her. That animal was a santallis, a beautiful, multi-colored songbird with an exquisite voice. The two seemed a perfect match, for Jasari’s melodious singing could make even the sun god turn an ear and listen.

I believe we must take action on this, I told Semral. We should attempt to determine what potential threats exist out there. We can no longer afford to pretend what happens beyond our borders doesn’t affect us. We don’t want to be caught off guard by outside invaders again.

Our tribe had formed an alliance with the Raab, our longtime enemy, and we had established friendly business and personal relations with another people, the ridiculously named Spood (the word always makes me think of coughed-up mucus), who had once invaded and tried to enslave us. However, nothing guaranteed we could reach similar arrangements for cooperation and peaceful coexistence with societies we might encounter in the future.

I see we’ve been thinking along the same lines, Semral responded. I do worry about the possible existence of tribes much more powerful than ours. If they should ever become aware of us and prove belligerent, we could find ourselves in deep trouble. However, utilizing the planet globe to search out all these areas would take a considerable amount of time, wouldn’t it? Judging by the land areas I saw on that globe, this world is not small. I can’t afford to have you spending months inside that mountain studying every tiny corner of the planet. We need you here. You have important tribal responsibilities.

I think I have a way we can manage that, I said. I’d like to take Gamaal and perhaps five others with me to the facility. Gamaal can train us how to use the globe properly. We can then rotate the trained operators so that each spends no more than a month at a time at the complex, and we can send a few helpers with each to assist them during their assigned month. The problem I see is I don’t know how we’ll keep track of what we find and learn. How will we remember what we saw and where we saw it?

Wasn’t there a machine at the facility that could hold information for you and then give it back to you when you wanted it?

Semral was right. I keep forgetting that not every culture has to rely on human memory to record information and on human mouths to transmit it as our tribe does. Some cultures document important knowledge using writing, a method I had been unaware of until our tribe crossed paths with the Spood. Gamaal’s advanced culture of the distant past had gone far beyond merely scribbling information onto paper to preserve it. They had built machines that could record and store any amount or type of data fed them. Those machines held knowledge recorded by billions of people over thousands of years and on every subject imaginable, and they stood ready to accept anything we desired to add to that store.

Semral agreed with me on how to approach this venture and gave me his blessing, so I immediately sought out Gamaal to begin its implementation. The young scientist’s assimilation into our tribe had gone well despite his initial struggles with our lifestyle’s demands. They had proved a challenge for him, for he had not experienced the degree of intensive daily labor required to maintain adequate food and shelter. Nor had he had to accept limits to his leisure time or to suffer a lack of personal luxuries. His much more advanced society had utilized machines to handle even the most casual labor, and his world had abounded with clever gadgets that made any extreme physical exertion unnecessary unless deliberately sought. He toughened up in time. Now, he could handle his assigned tribal duties with ease and had earned the tribe’s respect.

Just outside our tent encampment, the young man’s short black hair showed its curly bristles above plants in his favorite garden spot. Gamaal ignored my approach, for he was on his knees, engrossed in examining the leaves of a shrub, one of many he had planted. His visage was handsome in its way, with high cheekbones, a thin, straight-bridged nose, not quite full lips, and flat ears that were on the small side. On this warm, humid afternoon, his brown-skinned face showed dark smudges where he had inadvertently used garden-soiled hands to wipe away sweat.

Are those leaves really that fascinating? I inquired.

Gamaal jumped, showing surprise that I could approach him so easily without him detecting my presence. Where did you come from?

From over there, where else? I said, laughing and pointing to our camp. You’re going to have to learn to pay more attention to your surroundings, Gamaal. What if I had been a hungry can-rak? That creature would now be munching on your scrawny arms and would no doubt be wishing you were a meaty porse instead.

He ignored my jab at his deficient muscularity, stood, and replied, You know, I still haven’t seen a can-rak in the wild. In my time, they were nearly extinct. I believe there were only a few hundred scattered in viewing parks around the world. It astounds me that those few have bred to produce quite a substantial population. And I’m so pleased the porse numbers have exploded as well. We were not great stewards of our animal species, so I’m glad to see this marvelous rebound from what they had been. I still contemplate with awe the vision of the thousand-beast porse herd you showed me a few weeks ago. It’s amazing how ...

I knew Gamaal would continue to ramble on forever if I didn’t cut him off and get to the point of my visit. In any conversation, he tended to branch off into a detailed exposition of something unrelated, gradually losing the conversation’s thread and winding up talking more to himself than the person standing in front of him.

However, before I could direct him to my desired subject, Gamaal said, Should I start carrying a weapon like you do?

He was gazing at my rik-ta, the bone-handled knife that always rests on my left hip. A red sash held the knife’s leather holder in place while also serving to cinch my tunic at the waist. Tunics were standard tribal wear, single piece, short or no-sleeve garments worn over light underclothing and that extended to just above the knees. Today, I wore a pale-yellow one, a favorite color that matched my blond locks.

It wouldn’t hurt to carry a rik-ta, I agreed, although you should practice with it considerably more than you presently do. It won’t help to carry one if you can’t properly use it.

Our tribe’s males train from a young age to master the spear and rik-ta. We are a hunting culture, so skill with weapons is essential if we hope to eat. In addition, the rigorous weapons training serves us well when battling enemies, as it did for centuries when we fought the Raab, a longtime foe, now our allies.

Sakitan women, however, were discouraged from participating in this training. Only recently, two female companions and I proved to our male counterparts that a woman with martial and hunting skills could bring value to the tribe. My lifelong friend Lillatta and I had learned these skills in secret from my late shaman father, and along with a tribal outsider who is now a valued tribe member, the incomparable one-armed swordmaster, Izzy, we had blazed a trail for female equality among the Sakitans. Now, we not only train with our men, but positions once forbidden to women have opened up to us, including the lofty one I currently occupy, tribal shaman.

Would you mind helping me out with something? I asked Gamaal before he could turn the conversation in another direction.

Certainly, Sanyel. How can I assist you?

I explained what Semral and I had discussed. Gamaal agreed it wise to take advantage of the planetary globe to determine what conditions, both positive and negative, existed across the world. He was as curious as I was about what we’d find. His world had been a world of wonders. In his time, machines had flown through the air, traveled rapid speeds across the land, and swum beneath the seas. Towering buildings had crowded together and housed great populations. People communicated over great distances almost instantaneously. That was five thousand years in the past, and much that stood then no longer existed. Nature, it seems, is relentless in its pitiless mission to rip asunder that which man creates. It seems determined to prove human insignificance by ruthlessly dissolving man’s artificial forms back into elemental pieces and replacing those designs with nature’s favored ones.

Gamaal could not hide his eagerness to learn what had become of all he had known so intimately. Had every city crumbled to dust? Had the sophisticated technology that once made the unimaginable commonplace all vanished from human experience? Or, was it possible pockets remained where remnants of his world still functioned, places where the advanced culture he knew had survived and thrived?

Grell, a magnificent fortress located in another land still stood and in almost the same pristine condition as when built in Gamaal’s time. However, its manufacture had included a substance revolutionary in its ability to resist erosion. No other significant structure of the time had utilized that material, so anything else that might have survived would most likely be underground, like the mountain facility that housed the planetary globe.

I understand, I said to Gamaal, that we can store inside one of your machines any important globe information we find, right, so we can look at it anytime?

Yes, our main data storage unit has multiple capabilities, and we can directly link it to the planetary globe. With prompting, it can create specific files to store any downloaded globe material. As part of its programming, it will compare the downloaded file information to all other stored data and automatically provide links to associated items, ranking the links according to their relevance to the original information. We can then easily study, edit, or cross-reference the data.

Huh? I said.

Gamaal smiled. Yes, we can store in the machine anything from the globe that’s important to us, and we can find it easily whenever we want it.

Good. Then let’s get started.

We went separate ways, utilizing the remainder of the afternoon to seek out five people capable of learning the intricacies of the spinning globe’s operation and willing to spend time on the project. I ran into my friend, Lillatta, who had become as attached to Gamaal as an extra limb. She was eager to participate.

I think it’s a great idea! the redhead enthused. I have no interest in training as an operator, but I’d be happy to help Gamaal out whenever his turn comes to work with the globe.

Seventeen-year-old Lillatta’s infatuation with Gamaal had grown since they met in the mountain facility a year ago, where she had displayed a romantic interest in the young man soon after he awakened from his suspended animation. I fully expected the two to request a coupling ceremony any day now, for their relationship had been heading that way for some time. Javen, the Raab warrior I had met and fallen in love with during our shared adventure among the Spood two years ago, had unexpectedly asked me this past winter to seal a long-delayed matrimonial bond with him. My mate’s recent near-death encounter with a spartok’s tusk had persuaded him that delaying our official union could no longer wait.

We cemented our bond with a modest, emotionally stirring ceremony that took place on a warm winter day. Warm days in winter are not unusual, for our temperate weather, outside of spring’s ice storms, does not change dramatically from one season to the next, so pleasant winter days are common.

On this memorable morning, the sun, the god we worship, had allowed his rebellious son Kaynar, ruler of the clouds, to join him in the sky. The would-be usurper of his father’s sky throne was in an acquiescent mood and played nice. Kaynar’s white, fluffed clouds dappled the thin blue above us, adhering to the sun god Ra-ta’s desire for peaceful coexistence. The puffy floaters drifted gracefully across the heavens, keeping distance between them so as not to block Ra-ta’s rays for any lengthy period.

Javen and I stood atop a low hill. Riotous color surrounded us as wildflowers bent to the touch of a gentle wind, seeming to perform a dance in honor of our impending union. Our closest friends stood watching in happy anticipation as a dozen elegantly dressed tribal women approached. They carried thin wooden poles wreathed in leafy green vines, holding them with both hands and swirling them in a slow circular pattern above their heads as they all danced gracefully to a drum’s thumping rhythm. Each in turn then laid her pole upon the ground a short distance before us, parallel to each other and with about half an arm’s length between each. This formed the desired appearance of a ladder’s rungs upon the ground.

My fine-spun, full-length white gown billowed in the warm breeze. Javen, smartly attired in all-black hunting leather, took my hand and led me to where my apprentice, Jasari, waited before the first laid pole. The young girl would preside over the ceremony, and as we approached, she smiled at us, reached into a basket, and pulled out a handful of sweet-smelling blossoms she had previously plucked from the surrounding hillside. She tossed the colorful flowers to the ground in the space between the first two poles and beckoned us to step onto the first thin rod, the initial rung in a ladder representing our combined lives.

We did so, hand in hand, as Jasari announced, This is your first step forward together as two entities in a single life joined in the light of Ra-ta. Now, complete the steps to signify your commitment to a combined life journey devoted to a steady upward climb. May you pass safely through trials and tears. May your friendship and love guide you to happiness, and may Ra-ta bestow his blessings upon you until his divine light embraces you to take you home.

We took each step in unison as Jasari spread blossoms before us, with both of us reaching near giddiness as we crossed over the final rung representing our physical sojourn’s end and a continuation into the eternal heavenly realm. Our friends hooted wildly and applauded. We turned to Jasari as heady emotions overcame me. I had not thought this ceremony would touch me to such a degree and with such potency because Javen and I had already lived as a couple for a long time. However, this was different. Making our union official before the sun god and the tribe had both a profoundly emotional and spiritual jolt to it. The joy I felt was almost otherworldly.

You are now both separate and one, Jasari intoned in her sweet, lilting voice. Respect that separateness, for none can ever be alike in every way. Through tolerating differences, one grows in understanding. In equal measure, embrace your oneness, for two together are stronger than are two apart. As Ra-ta’s witness, I now declare you a bonded couple. You may kiss.

We did.

Returning from my reverie to the present conversation with Lillatta, I asked her, Can you think of anyone who would be willing to train as an operator?

How about Izzy?

I thought the large girl with the spiked black hair and the half-tattooed face would be a perfect choice until I remembered her missing arm.

Gamaal says sometimes you need two hands to manipulate controls.

Oh.

How about Brilna?

We both burst out laughing.

Oh my god, I said. Could you imagine letting her loose with that globe?

She’d probably find every nasty group out there and somehow let them know exactly where we are and invite them to visit, replied Lillatta.

Brilna was not, shall we say, the ideal choice. She was older than we were by two years, but the skinny young woman had a childlike quality and an unpredictable level of concentration and awareness. In its normal state, her mind had difficulty staying focused for long, and her reasoning process often baffled. At times, however, her comments and observations were unusually sharp and insightful. You never knew which Brilna you’d get moment to moment. She lacked a sense of humor, but you can’t blame a person for that even if it does limit the depth of conversation between you. Brilna had come to us from a tribe she claimed did not like her. We understood why, but that had not prevented us from welcoming her because, despite her flaws, she had proven her loyalty, worth, and friendship in many ways.

Lillatta had a chore to run, so I left her and wandered about the camp in search of viable candidates for Gamaal to train. As I walked, several men mounted on drooves approached the encampment from the south. I recognized the riders as part of the contingent presently posted at the Desert of Bones, sent there to guard the mountain entrance to our lands from intruders.

A prisoner rode among them.

**

TWO

The riders maneuvered their long-necked, long-legged beasts toward the large ceremonial tent at the center of our encampment, where they commanded the drooves to kneel so they could dismount. I hurried over, eager to view the prisoner more closely.

The man, middle-aged, white-haired, and wearing a hooded tan robe designed for desert crossings, had dismounted his droove and was glancing around apprehensively. He saw me approaching and his eyes lit up. He tried making his way to me, but a menacing spear halted his advance.

I recognized him. Kersla. The man had been a long-time slave of the Spood, a once-powerful people who had used forced labor to build a would-be empire. A group of friends and I had played a significant role in bringing those ambitions crashing down two years ago, and the Spood, who had met their match when they tried to include my tribe among their conquests, were now on amicable terms with us.

Kersla had spent his captivity among the Spood cleaning a building that housed his enslavers’ historical archives. During his many years there, he had learned to read the records, attaining knowledge that had proved valuable to me when I later sought information on Spood history. We had escaped together with other slaves from the Spood fortress Grell two years ago. I had known Kersla for only a brief while, for during our escape journey to our respective homelands, he had split from our group to return to his tribe, heading east to rejoin them while I continued north toward mine. His sudden appearance in our lands surprised, for I had never expected to see him again.

What’s going on, Deras? I asked the spearman who had halted Kersla.

He turned to me. Oh, Sanyel, you’re just the person we were looking for. This man claims he came here to find you. We spotted him crossing the desert a couple of weeks ago. He kept riding our way and came a little too close to our mountain passage, so we grabbed him. He says he knows you.

Yes, I know him. He’s no threat. I’ll take responsibility for him.

Deras gladly left the man in my charge. The former slave’s face showed both relief and anxiety as he approached.

I smiled and greeted the man, saying, It’s good to see you again, Kersla. What brings you to our lands?

Please forgive my bold intrusion, Disrupter, but I need help with a personal matter, and I believe you are the only one who can assist me.

Disrupter. That name always gets me. It’s a name the Spood use to describe me, and I know the reason. I have disrupted their society twice, although I feel both times they have wound up the better for my interference, and I think they feel the same way. Kersla, although not a Spood, called me Disrupter because it had become a respected moniker among the ex-slaves I had helped free from Spood control. The name originated in a prophecy a Spood seer had recorded on parchment a few hundred years ago. It told of a person called the Disrupter who would arrive one day with two others, the Blades of Sorrow, to bring chaos to the Spood way of life. It seemed that I along with my friends Izzy and Lillatta fit the forecast’s description of that havoc-bringing trio.

You were once of great assistance to me, Kersla, so I would be pleased to return the favor if I can. I’m curious, though, how you found me. I know I never told you how to reach our lands.

A Spood told me.

That surprised, somewhat, though I guess it shouldn’t have. A good number of Spood knew the directions to my tribe’s once isolated location. They knew we lived within a fertile expanse nearly wholly enclosed by the circular Kodor Mountains. My tribe calls it the Kodor Bowl because the steep peaks resemble the encompassing sides of a bowl, with the land the bowl’s flat bottom.

Before I could ask him what Spood had given him directions to our lands, Kersla said, My purpose for coming here will require a bit of explanation. Could we find a place to sit and talk?

He followed me as we threaded our way through our scattered campsite tents until we came to one at its outskirts, the one Javen and I occupy. Like my father before me, I prefer having a dwelling at our encampment’s outer edge. As did he, I love taking walks under the night stars, and with our tent’s location, I can do that by stepping directly from my abode out into the surrounding wild without disturbing others.

Javen prefers to sleep during nighttime hours and rarely joins me on my nocturnal excursions, but I don’t mind, for I have come to enjoy the quiet time alone. My mate was currently out hunting, and I didn’t expect him back until evening. Kersla and I entered the pyramid-shaped tent through an open flap and sat upon woven mats placed on the dirt floor. I offered Kersla a drink from a full waterskin, and he thirstily emptied nearly a quarter of its contents.

Now, tell me everything, I said as I placed the skin aside.

When I left you two years ago to return to my tribe, Kersla began, I was determined to find a way to fight the Spood and win freedom for my people, the Barala. I had been gone ten years and didn’t know what I’d find. To my surprise, the invaders were long gone. My tribesmen informed me that up until three years prior to my return a mix of Creet (Spood soldiers) and priests had maintained tight control over our community, using my people as slave labor to grow crops. Then, most soldiers assigned to the area received orders to join up with a large force heading east to conquer additional territories. They left a few troops and priests behind to continue administrating our tribal affairs.

Kersla gave me a sly look.

It seems, he continued, they didn’t quite leave enough of them. My fellow tribesmen had grown tired of the Spood occupation, for they treated my people with a harsh and brutal arrogance. Those despicable priests were always demanding human sacrifices to their god for the flimsiest violations of their rules. Our shaman had hidden his identity from the occupiers for years, and now he saw an opportunity to rid the tribe of them for good, for the Spood had thought my people pacified enough that they could risk leaving only a few men to govern our rather small community. That proved a mistake, one they compounded by choosing the most vicious priests and soldiers to remain, the ones who had committed the worst atrocities against our tribe. During a community feeding, my people took their revenge. As the occupiers fed, they became violently ill and began vomiting and shaking. All dropped dead within minutes.

Bad food, I’m guessing, I said in dry response.

Kersla smiled. Yes, you could say that. Poison does tend to make even good food bad.

Uh, that might be an efficient way to rid yourselves of those few, but why would your tribe believe it the smart thing to do? Did they not fear the Spood returning in great numbers and exacting brutal revenge?

Oh, they expected their return. The departing soldiers had made it clear they would come back. However, during their long captivity, my tribesmen had discovered several deep, well-hidden caves in the rocky hills not far distant from our village, these in an area not normally traveled due to its thick, barbed shrubbery. The Spood had trusted letting a few people tend to domesticated herds out of their sight, and those people had found and explored the caves. Those caverns served no purpose for my people until the soldiers received orders to depart. Our shaman recognized the opportunity to rid the tribe of those who remained, so he concocted an effective poison. Afterward, my people stocked those caves with enough food and supplies to sustain our tribe for a long stay if necessary, and they kept a close eye on the surrounding countryside to give them fair notice of the Spood return. They would move to the caves upon the first troop sighting and hope to vanish without a trace. They figured the Spood would quickly give up looking for them, for the paths to the caves led over terrain that would frustrate even a veteran tracker. The soldiers, however, never came back.

And while your fellow tribe members enjoyed this freedom from the Spood leash, you remained a slave for several more years. I’m sorry I couldn’t have freed you sooner.

Kersla shrugged. No need to be. I received an education while with the Spood, and I’m now teaching my people to read and write. It’s gratifying, so perhaps my extended enslavement served a greater purpose.

Kersla’s outlook was refreshing. He had taken a difficult life circumstance and turned it into value for himself and others. I wouldn’t pretend to know the truth of this, but perhaps within all negative life experiences resides the potential for growth in some positive direction. I would hope that is the case.

So, what’s the rest of your story? I prompted. Why do you require my help?

When I returned to my tribe, my greatest concern was discovering my wife and daughter’s whereabouts. The Spood had separated us when they conquered my people years before, and my family had remained behind when our captors placed me in a slave caravan bound for Grell (Spood fortress and primary city). Imagine my astonishment and delight when upon my return I found them both alive and well. My daughter had been an infant when the Spood took me away, and now she had just turned ten.

Kersla paused, a smile creasing his face, and then said, These past two years with my family have been among the best I’ve ever experienced. I’ve established a strong bond with my daughter, and my wife and I have never been closer or happier. Then, last month—

Kersla stopped and his body stiffened. He cocked an ear as if hearing something. His eyes grew wide and fearful.

What’s wrong? I probed.

Do you hear that? he asked, his tone anxious.

I listened and heard nothing but the low buzzing of a large flying insect that had gotten inside the tent.

Kersla spotted the winged bug and shook his head. Sorry. I see it’s just an insect.

My concerned look over his odd behavior led him to attempt clarification.

I apologize for my strange reaction, Disrupter, but I assure you I had a good reason. Let me explain. A month ago, I journeyed with my wife and daughter to a nearby community, one with which our tribe had recently established friendly relations. We had gone to barter with their merchants, to offer fresh vegetables in exchange for cloth and utensils. About two hours into our journey, we stopped beside the road to eat. No others walked the road within our sight. When we began our meal, a low droning noise similar to that of that insect reached our ears, seeming to come from nowhere and everywhere.

Kersla swallowed hard. The noise did something to me, causing me to fall asleep. I woke up an hour later. To my shock, I was alone. My wife and daughter were gone! I’ve not seen or heard from them since. Please, I need your divine help to find out what happened to them.

The man’s words astonished me, for my recent encounter with several odd appearances and vanishings due to a disruption in our timeline was still fresh in my memory. However, this disappearance, despite involving equally strange circumstances, seemed unconnected in nature to those of last year.

I’m so sorry about your family, I said to Kersla, feeling distressed that life would deliver such a blow to a man who had already suffered so much. To lose loved ones in such an abrupt and bizarre manner and not know if they were alive or dead had to be devastating.

Under normal circumstances, that alone would have given me no second thoughts about helping him. Also, the mysterious droning that apparently caused sleep and its connection to the disappearance intrigued and alarmed me enough to want to investigate because I had never come across anything like that. However, I was unsure if Semral would approve of me committing to help Kersla, knowing it could result in yet another extended tribal absence.

Will you and Sester help me find my family? Kersla entreated.

The man, by mentioning me in the same breath as the sun god (known as Sester to some, Ra-ta to my tribe, and Mim to yet others), indicated he held conviction that I was favored by that inscrutable deity, a belief many others shared. I didn’t know how he had come to that belief, for when I knew him, I had not yet started a deliberate effort to encourage people to believe a link existed between the sun god and me. I had not yet begun suggesting that I was the deity’s chosen hand in this world. Perhaps the person who had told him my whereabouts had known of and mentioned the alleged divine affiliation. Perhaps that was why he sought me.

In any case, it’s tough to look sincere, honest people in the face and let them believe I hold some sort of holy position among humans. I see myself as merely a fallible person who happens to have a few unusual skills. I can neither prove nor disprove that Ra-ta grants me his favor and insight. Kersla obviously had no doubts.

Do you have any evidence at all to indicate what might have happened to your family? I asked. Did you look for tracks, either theirs or someone else’s?

I’ve no experience in that. We were on a hard dirt road that showed no footprints as far as I could tell. We had flattened the grass beside the road where we had sat to eat, but I saw no disturbance to the wider area surrounding us. If someone took them, they might have disguised their tracks, I suppose, but I couldn’t detect any obvious trail.

A voice interrupted us. Sanyel? Are you in your tent?

I welcomed Semral’s arrival, for now I could obtain his thoughts on the matter.

Yes, I’m in here, Semral, with a guest. Come on in.

The tall council leader bent down to enter, poking his gray head through the tent opening. He spotted Kersla and registered no recognition, for the two had never met. Semral seated himself upon an offered mat.

I introduced my guest to the council chief and then asked Semral the reason he had sought me out.

I heard we had a visitor and that you had vouched for him; I was simply curious.

I explained to the old hunter my past relationship with Kersla and the reason for his visit.

A dumbfounded and disturbed Semral shook his head and rubbed his beardless chin. Just vanished, you say?

He then turned to Kersla. I’m sorry for your loss, my friend. The pain of losing one’s family—twice at that—is something no one should have to endure. However, I would have to think your wife and daughter are still alive. Not murdering you while you slept would seem to suggest that whoever took them wouldn’t harm your family, either. I would see that as a sign they have some other purpose in mind. Of course, if this isn’t the work of humans, then I’m afraid I cannot guess what we might be dealing with.

But you can find out, right? a hopeful Kersla directed at me.

Semral interrupted before I could answer, saying to me, This seems a situation that could, ah, benefit from the venture we discussed earlier.

I caught on at once, pleased to hear Semral suggesting I use the planetary globe to assist Kersla, thus indicating he did not object to me using my time to help the man

It could, I agreed. It might be a tremendous help in conducting a search.

What is this venture you speak of? asked an eager Kersla.

I’m afraid we can’t tell you any details about that, I told him. It’s a security issue for us.

Kersla acknowledged my reluctance to disclose sensitive information to a relative stranger. I understand, Disrupter. It’s not for me to know.

I can tell you this much, I said. Several of my tribe will need to travel a fair distance to a secret place. There we can gather information that might assist us in helping you. You can’t come with us, though; you’d have to remain here until our return. The information we gather there might give us a direction we can pursue to find your wife and daughter. Will you agree to this?

"Will you let me come with you after you return, to help with the search?" Kersla asked, his eyes pleading.

Of course. We’ll need your guidance to show us exactly where the abduction took place and to help us find our way around the surrounding area.

Relief flooded Kersla’s face. I’ll show you anything you wish to see.

Before we depart for the secret place, I said, we’ll need a fairly detailed description of your tribe’s location, and we’ll need to know how to distinguish your tribe from others whether by landmarks, tribal dress, or some other means.

But, won’t I be taking you there in person when you return from your secret place? said a confused Kersla. You can learn all this when I show you.

We need to know these things before you take us to your tribe, I explained. We’ll use the information you give us to dig up more information at the secret location.

I realized my convoluted explanation sounded nonsensical to Kersla. By trying to avoid giving away what the spinning globe could do, I was creating confusion instead of enlightenment. Semral came to my rescue.

Sanyel will give your information to the sun god in this secret place, and he will grant her more information in return, he told Kersla.

The man’s eyes lit up, and he looked at me with increased awe. This, he understood.

Still curious how Kersla had found his way to us, I asked, How did you get a Spood to tell you where to find us? And who was this Spood?

"An interesting coincidence brought that about. I had just returned to my tribe right after my wife and daughter vanished, frantic to enlist them in mounting a search. When I arrived, our village leader was entertaining guests, a young Spood woman named Clarina and her two brothers, Falcer and Beran. They had journeyed to us seeking answers to what had happened to their father, a Creet soldier who had once passed through our area five years ago.

"My tribe, of course, hoped he had not been one of those they poisoned, but it turned out he couldn’t have been. This soldier had come to our village as part of the greater force intending to conquer lands to our east. The young woman told our village leader a remarkable story about that force: not a single soldier from that large company ever returned to Grell. Their disappearance had conjured numerous speculative tales of what had befallen them, from brutal annihilation to divine ascendance to heaven."

I would tend to believe the former more likely than the latter, I interjected with a wry smile. The Spood made a lot of enemies. But I’m guessing you think there might be a correlation between this army’s disappearance and your family’s?

It crossed my mind. We couldn’t help Clarina and her brothers, but while my tribe organized the search party for my family, I did get a chance to talk to the three before they left. I brought up what had happened to my wife and daughter, and they surprised me by saying they had run across a man from a tribe a great distance southwest of us who had told them a similar tale. His young son, about seven at the time, had disappeared five years ago. The man claimed he had fallen asleep after hearing a droning noise, and when he awoke, he found his son had vanished. He never saw the boy again.

That information troubled. If Kersla’s family had not been an isolated disappearance, then that probably meant there was an organized and deliberate effort on someone’s part to abduct people, and seemingly in a selective manner. That a vanishing had occurred five years ago was disturbing, meaning whoever or whatever was behind this had been at it a long while.

Five years ago was when the Creet army disappeared too, right? said Semral.

Oh, you’re right, a surprised Kersla answered. I hadn’t thought of that.

I had been thinking the same thing as Semral. I didn’t know if any connection existed between the two incidents of five years ago, but it seemed curious no one involved in either ever showed up again. That fact made me worry about our chances of finding Kersla’s family at all, let alone alive.

So, you still haven’t told me how you found your way here, I said to Kersla, "or why you sought me to help you."

Oh, yes, I forgot. One of the Spood brothers I spoke with, Beran, had been in the Creet army, and one of his close friends had been part of that force that invaded your land two years ago. He said the man told him of the grand speech you gave after defeating their army, inspiring many soldiers to return to worshipping the sun god Sester over their false one. My tribe has always prayed to the sun god, too, so I was surprised when Beran told me you were not only the Disrupter but also Sester’s right hand, his chosen human messenger in our world. This I had not known, and the knowledge greatly impressed me. I felt at once that you were the only one who could help me. Beran’s friend had described to him the entrance to your land. Beran told me how to get here, but I had to closely follow the mountains and look for it because he did not know many details. He couldn’t describe the exact location or any landmarks that might aid me in finding it.

Well, you did find us, so perhaps the sun god gave you guidance.

Kersla had already come to that conclusion, convinced Sester had indeed steered him to the woman who would bring his wife and daughter back to him. I wasn’t so certain, but I gave him what assurance I could, saying, Kersla, I give my pledge that my tribe and I will do whatever we can to find your family.

Thank you, thank you, Disrupter! It’s all I could hope for.

Semral then took our guest to find a meal and an empty tent to use during his upcoming stay.

Meanwhile, I sought out Gamaal to inform him of our new mission.

**

THREE

While I had been conversing with Kersla and Semral, Gamaal had managed to find five tribal members willing to learn to operate the spinning planet replica hidden in the ancient mountain facility. The five were two males and three females of varying ages. Gamaal was speaking to them near the large ceremonial tent at the center of our encampment when I approached.

We need to talk, I told him.

He separated himself from his group, whereupon I informed him of the plan to help Kersla.

If your friend can describe the general location to us, he said, then we can certainly conduct a detailed search using the globe.

I think we should take only a small party to the facility, I suggested. Your students can wait for another time to begin training.

I agree. I’ll operate the globe and arrange for data filing and storage. There’s a lot of information we can glean from even a small geographical area, so be prepared for a deliberate process. We don’t want to miss something and have to go over a region twice.

Yes, we’ll be as thorough as we can, but we can’t let it affect our progress. We have a time factor involved here. We don’t want to have to tell Kersla we spent three hours studying a rock or something.

Gamaal chuckled. Unless that rock is a valuable clue.

I smiled. Well, in that case, I might allow two hours to examine it.

The sky had darkened as Ra-ta sought his bed below the horizon. Sunset clouds reflected his dying light’s fiery colors. Gamaal and I, alone, would undertake the journey to the mountain location at daybreak, for we had decided it unnecessary to bring anyone else. Lillatta had wanted to come, but Semral reminded her she had committed to help with a recent harvest. Javen had returned from hunting and expressed a willingness to accompany Kersla and me to his country once we began the primary search. I welcomed his companionship and looked forward to sharing another adventure with him. We would decide how many others to take with us when Gamaal and I returned from the mountain facility.

After a solid night’s sleep, morning came and with it a grumbling sun god. A bustling cloud mass filled and blackened the sky, screening the sun god’s fiery face, denying warmth and light to the world. Kaynar’s mood was foul, and he had sent his cloud army to make a bold, angry push to seize his father’s domain. Ra-ta threatened his son with flashing bolts of light and furious, booming shouts, but he could not wrest sky dominion from his petulant offspring. Soon, the frustrated sun god’s tears fell in torrents, drumming upon our tent skins, seeking entry but finding none.

After a few hours, Kaynar gave in and ordered his clouds to disperse, allowing the sun god to reemerge, dry the earth, and return his fallen tears to his domain. Gamaal and I had put the rain delay to good use, meeting with Kersla a second time (we had questioned him the night before) to gain every additional tidbit he could provide that might prove useful. This included describing landmarks and other identifying features in more detail as well as that of terrain and even the local dress. At last, we felt confident we had enough material to conduct a productive search using the planetary globe.

Normally, I would have consulted my friend Izzy before departing on this trip, for she always has keen insights on how to approach a mission, but she wasn’t in camp. Along with Brilna, she had journeyed to Raab territory as part of an exchange program between our two tribes. The Raso River, usually uncrossable this time of year, had not risen to its expected spring level due to a reduced snow buildup in the mountains and infrequent spring rain, notwithstanding today’s downpour. That still would not have allowed safe crossing of the wild, deep waterway except that earthquakes had struck the area a year ago, changing the river. We found the riverbed had risen in certain locations, forming shallow crossing areas. This allowed both Raab and Sakitans to traverse the river without having to wait for the summer dry spells.

The Raab were keen on developing expertise with a still unfamiliar weapon, the stirka, so who better to train them in that discipline than Izzy, the swordmaster. Brilna, to everyone’s surprise, had a skill worth teaching the Raab as well, one no one suspected she possessed. Her former tribe had relied mainly on fishing for sustenance, and she had learned everything about that art form, from the ideal bait to lure different species to how to weave a strong, durable net. Earlier, Brilna had taught us how to make bread from grain and now, thanks to her, we knew how to guarantee a bountiful fish harvest. Her hidden talents seemed to pop up unexpectedly, and I wondered what other glorious skill she’d spring on us in the future.

By mid-morning, Gamaal and I had set out for the secret mountain facility, with our well-packed drooves easing their long legs through the now dry grass. Ra-ta had reclaimed the entire sky, and the morning’s cool breeze and clean, fresh smell after the spring rain had begun to dissipate. The sun god’s harsh rays beat down upon us as if we were convenient outlets for his anger over his son Kaynar’s earlier insurrection. Our main camp presently stood well south of the Raso River, so we estimated the Desert of Bones to be no more than a two-day droove ride away.

That proved to be the case, and when we arrived at the mountain fracture separating our lush lands from the desert, we informed the tribesmen guarding the passage of our undertaking. After an hour traversing the crooked mountain fissure, we rounded the last turn, expecting to sight the blistering desert sands ahead. However, as we made the final turn, the vision we beheld astonished us.

From the mountain foothills, extending south into the desert for a distance of about three hundred walking paces, a swath of gorgeous colors had replaced the desert’s normal tan tint. Flowers of blue, yellow, red, orange, pink, and myriad other shades dotted the landscape, all packed so tightly as to seem an unbroken carpet. To both the east and west the colorful band maintained its uniform width and extended as far as sight allowed along the mountains.

Gamaal stared wonderingly at the vivid ribbon of flowers before saying, Why would they extend only so far out and then stop? It’s as if they ran into an invisible wall.

What would even cause this? I asked, mesmerized by the remarkable sight. I’ve never seen desert growth like this.

Sudden realization lit Gamaal’s face, and he gazed upward. My eyes followed his.

Holy Ra-ta! I exclaimed. A scattered mass of white clouds occupied a sky section directly above us. I had never before spotted a single cloud over the desert, so their appearance was as surprising as that of the flowers.

I see what happened, said Gamaal, concern in his tone. These flowers could not have bloomed without rain, so there must have been a recent downpour, but it only occurred in this narrow area. See how the clouds extend out to an invisible line in the sky and go no farther? They’re running into the weather shield’s edge, the same obstacle the flowers ran into. The shield has slightly shifted, probably due to some new malfunction we’ll have to deal with.

Gamaal’s people had built this weather shield thousands of years ago to prevent moisture buildup around the mountain facility. Excessive moisture, especially from flooding, could have affected the equipment housed there, including the pods they depended on for survival. An event occurring in the distant past had caused the shield to shift its position away from the mountain and to settle over nearby flatlands. Since the shield allowed no cloud buildup and thus no rain, the new area the shield covered gradually formed into the Desert of Bones.

What will happen if the shield continues to move? I asked.

Well, it prevents rain in any area it covers, so it would negatively affect any inhabited region it might cross into.

Then I guess we better get to the facility and see what we can do to stop this.

I steered Teenat, my droove, west. We would follow the mountains to the desert’s edge, and from there we would continue across grasslands until coming to a mountain cave entrance that led into the hidden facility.

As Gamaal and I rode abreast, he said, You know, Sanyel, that rain we encountered two days ago was probably the same one that caused the flowers to grow.

He then explained that seeds lying dormant for ages in the desert sand needed only that brief rain to awaken them from their long sleep. He said the entire desert would bloom if the shield no longer prevented it from receiving rainfall.

Gamaal had mentioned before that he could return the shield to its intended position over the mountain and that the desert, in time, would then revert to its original lush form. Semral and I had spoken against that, for the desert held a prominent place in our tribe’s long history, with its forbidding sands embedded in our psyches and our souls. Many in our tribe consider the Desert of Bones holy, despite its unnatural origin. It had received its name from the many who had perished upon its parched sands, unable to find food or water, doomed to give up life and flesh, leaving only white skeletons to remind others that defying the sun god’s will is futile.

Those bones were my people’s bones. Even though most had met their death upon those sands because they broke our tribe’s laws and received exile, we still felt the desert sacred simply because it was a place of the dead. Tradition held that any land serving as a mass burial ground was holy, no matter whose bones rested there. As tempting as it might be to open up a vast new area for growing crops and for tribal expansion, to me, disturbing the desert would be like disturbing a graveyard

Within a couple of days, Gamaal and I had reached the grasslands on the desert’s edge, and not too long afterward, following a brief search among the rocky foothills, we found the cave leading into the mountain facility.

Tethering our drooves to a nearby bush, we climbed the steep incline to the cave mouth by using sturdy fordanda plants as handholds to aid us. We entered a chamber that appeared naturally formed but was, in fact, artificial, for Gamaal’s people had designed it that way to discourage the curious. A doorway at the cave’s rear was open, the gateway to a shining tunnel beyond it.

The ancients had built the cave to look in every respect like an ordinary one so no one entering it would know it was the entrance to a highly secret government facility. The back wall of the cave held a hidden doorway accessible only by directing a coded series of tones at a barely visible crystal eye embedded into the cave wall. Izzy discovered by accident two years ago that a rare and mysterious metal called bidium (known as the singing metal) would open those crystal-eye doors naturally. Somehow, it would emit the proper tones whenever near an eye. Izzy has two rings made of this metal, and we use them on such entries.

We had decided to keep the cave’s back door permanently unsealed because, on occasion, the rings Izzy uses to open such doors fail to work. That was because everything remaining from Gamaal’s world of five thousand years ago was in some degree of decay, even the relatively undamaged items in the mountain facility. Gamaal had informed us that our world has access to free, renewable energy through a field that surrounds our planet, the Kasor field. Gamaal’s people powered their diverse items, small and large, including those inside the mountain, by using energy conversion devices that transformed the Kasor field energy into usable form. Conversion units provided the power used to open and close this cave door (and that of a second cave at the long tunnel’s opposite end) as well as hidden doors located at intervals along the shining tunnel’s walls, doors that led to every room within the mountain facility. The lights within those rooms and those lining the tunnel’s ceiling ran off those energy converters as well.

Looks like nothing’s been disturbed, Gamaal said as we passed into the dimly illuminated tunnel, its dimness due to a paucity of working overhead lights. With the doors at the back of each cave permanently open, we knew it possible that passing strangers might discover and explore this secret place, but that didn’t concern us. The doors to the facility’s rooms were nearly invisible against the curved, metallic tunnel walls, and only Izzy’s two rings (one in her nose and one on a finger) could open them. Izzy had discovered early in our Spood adventure two years ago that her tribal rings could open nearly any door built by the ancients. Luckily, I had Izzy’s finger ring with me, for she had insisted a ring always remain with the tribe, feeling

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