A cool breeze wafted down the foothills from the greater peaks of the Uxain Mountains. Joivar paused a moment, savoring the soothing movement of the air over him as it wicked away some of the sweat that saturated his tunic. Once his front felt sufficient relief he turned his back to the slope and allowed the breeze equal time cooling and drying him on all sides. Looking back at the land he had traversed, he could barely see the narrow path he had cut through the thigh-high grasses that covered the gently undulating hills spreading out into the haze of the horizon. It was like staring into an ocean of green, the low hills beneath him serving as beach extending to his left and right until they, too, vanished from sight; and looming over all, the cyclopean and snow-capped mountains forming a wall of sheer rock that enveloped all within its implacable embrace.
At any rate, it might appear so at first glance. The Uxain range that served as the boundary between the continentally large valley of Kaleron and the rest of the planet was in reality far from impermeable. It was riddled with narrow passes that cut into the dark granite far below the snowline, although they were seldom used in the present day. The Compass Roads that stretched forth from Lokuzharos, the first city of Man, led through great tunnels bored into the living roots of the Uxain into the lands beyond the valley, and any who had need either to enter or leave Kaleron did so by whichever road lay in the direction best suited to his need.
Joivar, however, was not leaving the valley — not strictly speaking, at least. His object was amongst the mountains themselves, and his mission of so sacred a character that even the journey took on the aspects of a ritual. On foot he had traveled to this point, and by his own legs would he complete the trip and then make his return, bearing his precious cargo to the Warden fatherhouse on the verdant lower slopes of the great Krakaqua Eifëi.
You won’t be bearing anything anywhere unless you get moving, he chided himself. The sun is past its peak for the day, and you have a ways to go yet. If you want to reach the Doors before nightfall, you’re going to need to hurry.
Even so, before he resumed his trek he allowed himself one quick indulgence. Opening himself as he had been trained at the fatherhouse to do, he allowed his mind to dip briefly into the all-encompassing Flow. The weariness leached out of his bones and muscles almost instantly as he felt the warmth and vibrancy of life around him. He could even sense at the very edge of his awareness the fountainheads of vitality that were Lokuzharos and Krakaqua Eifëi. So intense were their auras that he could have pointed straight to each of them, notwithstanding the fact that they were so distant in physical space as to be below the horizon from his current position.
He opened his eyes and turned, waiting just a moment before releasing the Flow so that he could acknowledge his Guardian — although he would never dare to look upon the being directly. Children of Eifë they both might be, but the Higher Powers were still to be treated with honor and respect. He bowed his head, letting the Guardian’s aura tell him that the gesture was received with gratitude and affection, before he once again drew himself back to the purely mundane world. Setting his face along the path he knew he must walk, he resumed his forward march further up and further in toward the dark mountain wall ahead of him.
2. The Hunt
The passage through the foothills was uneventful, and quite solitary save for the occasional bird or herbivore. Still, Joivar made a point of opening himself to the Flow at regular intervals. With his mind in a more receptive state, he could sense impressions of the life forces around him. Being still admidst his novitiate at the fatherhouse, he was not yet skilled enough to pick out specific entities or directions unless they were quite close. Still, things were not as they had been in the earlier days of the Trigentate, and it paid to be at least a little cautious even when still within the borders of Kaleron.
By the time he emerged from the heavily-wooded foothills, the sun was half-gone behind the mountain peaks. Before him, hewn into the living rock of the mountain, was the beginnings of a stepped path that zigged and zagged climbing up the steep granite cliff face until it reached a ledge roughly three thousand feet up. This was the Pass of Crystals, which would take him to his destination. It was a climb of several miles, but the stairs were wide enough for three to walk abreast and not excessively steep — and his novice master at the fatherhouse was not one to tolerate laziness among his charges. Joivar maintained a brisk pace and had reached the mouth of the pass within an hour.
The world of the pass was dim as he walked the trail, rock piled upon rock to either side of him. There would still be plenty of daylight left in which to complete his journey, but the warmth of the sun’s direct rays was lost by the peaks of the range around him. The mountainsides at this altitude were largely traversable, albeit more so for a goat than a man. He would, he thought, stick to the level floor of the pass. Its makers had known their business, and it was as good to walk upon as any paved road.
He was not yet deep into the pass when he once more reached for the Flow, and in that instant, he knew he was not alone. The radiance of his Guardian’s aura was ever-present, but now in addition he felt a number of other auras. He concentrated further, but could discern nothing of detail — although judging from the comparative strength of the presences in his mind, he guessed that he was sensing a group of animals. A pack, he thought to himself, suddenly wishing that the fatherhouse’s proscription on novices carrying weapons was perhaps more lenient. Nevertheless, he had a journey and a task to complete. He steeled himself and continued down the pass — although he kept his hold on the Flow, doing his best to remain attentive for any change in the new auras.
As he moved deeper into the mountains and away from the foothills and their profusion of plant and animal life, it did get easier for him to examine the traces of the auras he had sensed. While he was never completely certain, it seemed to him that there were half a dozen individuals. They were ahead and above of him, he thought, rather than in the pass proper — which he might have been tempted to consider a good turn of luck were it not for the unshakable sensation that he was being observed by at least one of the things, even if he could not spot it. Pinpointing a given creature’s location was still beyond his skill with the Flow, but he could now get what he thought was a fairly accurate sense of distance, and that sense was more or less constant. The pack was definitely moving along with him. The only question remained whether it was out of curiosity or a more primal urge.
The answer was not long in coming. Rounding a bend near what he thought to be the halfway point of the pass, Joivar found himself just a few dozen yards away from one of his heretofore unseen traveling companions. It was a reptile, bipedal, standing four and a half feet tall, with formidable legs bearing unpleasantly large talons. Its body was lean without being gaunt, canted forward at an angle that would surely have caused it to tip over were it not for a thick tail that extended back from the hips a length equal to the main body and head combined. The head held a significant portion of the traveler’s attention, since it was pointed very specifically in his direction — although the creature’s forearms had to run a close second in terms of priority. They only appeared small when contrasted to the creature’s legs, and terminated in dexterous-looking four-fingered hands and talons to match the feet.
Despite his initial surprise, Joivar had not released his hold on the Flow — which almost certainly saved his life. While the bulk of his thought was on the animal before him, its red eyes boring into his own pale green ones, enough attention remained on the sensations coming to him through his more ethereal senses that he was aware when the character of the pack auras changed in several key respects. First, they were all growing rapidly closer, converging on him. Second, as they closed the distance between themselves and him, it became much easier to discern individual presences — his guess that they numbered six had been correct. Third, the sense of observation was now joined by another, unmistakable sensation. The pack was coming, not with malice, but with the emotionless intensity of beings dedicated to their own survival. They were coming to feed.
3. The Fight
The creature directly in front of him — Joivar realized now that it must be the pack leader — drew back its upper lip revealing a mouthful of serrated teeth. That was the only warning he got before the animal launched itself at him. Joivar’s response came with the speed of reflexes forged by the intense training of his novitiate into unconscious instinct. He opened himself fully, taking hold of as much of the Flow as his skill permitted, and vanished.
That was the sequence of events from his attacker’s point of view, at least. In the instant of the attack, Joivar had amplified both the strength of his body and the reaction speed of his nervous system so that from his perspective the reptile’s leap slowed as if the air had become tar, while is own movements became impossibly fast. He side-stepped the attack, “reappearing” a heartbeat later behind the creature as it landed, confused, on the now unoccupied spot of rock where its imminent meal had just been.
It was an ironic property of the Flow that it was far more amenable to act on a corporeal level than on a mental level. The skills that Joivar now brought to bear were among the first that his novice master had taught to them. Unfortunately, a man could not draw this level of power unaided for long before exhaustion set in. He had at most a minute before he would become an even easier snack.
He reached out through the Flow to the floor of the pass beneath the hunter. In his mind he could see the dense molecular structure of the igneous rock, and he commanded it to shift. It obeyed, and the reptile sank to its knees into what was now a quicksand of dissociated components. Before it could react, Joivar commanded the rock to return to its accustomed state, and it was once again solid and implacable. The creature struggled and squawked, but it could make itself no less trapped.
Fifty seconds left.
Joivar’s head jerked to his left as two of his defeated attacker’s pack mates sprang to the top of a boulder overlooking the path. He extended his hand in a gripping motion, and the newcomers lurched, then lifted into the air. He swung his arm out to his side and they flew backwards to crash against the mountain wall and slid down, unconscious.
The next hunter did not show itself immediately. Joivar felt uncertainty mixed with the hunting drive in the remaining creatures’ auras, likely due to their leader’s distressed calls. His mind found three stones, large enough to serve as weapons, and he drew them to orbit around him like small moons, waiting. Seconds ticked by, but there was no sign of the remaining members of the pack.
When the remainder of the pack made its move, it was a group effort. All three of the creatures appeared at once, springing from behind various outcroppings along the edge of the pathway. Finally. The orbiting stones took a moment to accelerate in their orbits before shooting away, each towards a hunter. The first projectile and then the second found their marks, crashing into the side of their chosen reptiles’ heads and sending them to the pass floor. The third streaked toward its target — and shattered against the boulder beside the hunter, missing.
The fatigue hit Joivar like one of his stones. He staggered, feeling his grip on the Flow slipping through is fingers like so much water. The world began to return to its regular speed, and the last standing hunter eyed him, seeming to suspect a trap. That wouldn’t last, he knew. His time was up.
He glanced in the direction he knew his Guardian to be, still taking care not to look directly at the being — the habits instilled by training were too strong to break, even though he was about to die. As the last of the Flow slipped away from him, he heard his companion speak into his mind: BE NOT AFRAID. He went to one knee, unable to stand, but finding himself filled with an overwhelming peace from the Guardian’s words. The last thing he saw before he slipped into unconsciousness and the world faded to black was the hunter, already sailing through the air at him, jaws parted and ready to kill.
The first thing that Joivar noticed as he returned to consciousness was that he wasn’t dead. This initially led him to conclude that he had blacked out for a fraction of a second, and could still expect the sensation of the hunter’s wicked teeth upon his neck at any time. This led him to his second observation, which was that he could not see — followed immediately by a third epiphany, namely that the air around him was both far too still and far too moist for an elevated mountain pass in the waning hours of daylight. The only sensation that seemed unaltered from his last memories was that he was laying on a flat stone surface.
He moved his arms and legs. Everything was present and intact. Raising his hands to his face, he felt for anything that might be obscuring his vision and found nothing.
“Ah, you’re awake,” said a voice out of the darkness. It’s cadence was peculiar, placing emphases in entirely incorrect places, and every syllable emerged from the darkness with a subtle vibration, as if the speaker was using his vocal cords continuously.
“This is good,” the voice continued. “For a moment I was worried that I had arrived too late, but you seem to have healed.”
“Where am I?” Joivar said into the inky space.
“Do you not know?” asked the voice, amusement coming through the alien lilt.
The prostrate man paused at that before answering, slowly, piecing the answer together for himself as he spoke.
“I was traveling on business from Krakaqua Eifëi when I was ambushed by a pack of large reptiles.”
“Ukrak, they are called in your language.”
Joivar nodded, darkness notwithstanding. He had heard the name before but never seen the animals before.
“I was able to take down all but one of the pack that attacked me. I was not expecting to live.”
“Nor would you have, had I not come along,” said the voice.
It grunted, and Joivar heard a grinding noise not unlike stone on stone.
The voice continued, amusement again leaking through the odd enunciations, “Your little brawl with the pack sent out waves in the Flow that were about as subtle as a fireball by a cavern lake. It was the right season for the fatherhouse to send someone on pilgrimage, and in my rather lengthy experience it is almost always a novice, so I surmised that whatever trouble the traveler had gotten himself into, he was going to grow weary quite fast. Fortunately I am somewhat,” the sardonic emphasis here was unmistakable, “familiar with the use of the Flow myself, so I was able to cut down on the time it would have taken to reach you from the Doors. Even so, I arrived barely in time to stop the last of the vermin from tearing you open and scattering you across the mountainside. Humans are entirely too squishy for those old ninnies in the fatherhouse to send unarmed novices on this trip with things being as they are.”
The last of the fog in Joivar’s mind cleared away, and the realization hit him. There was only one being that would have been at the Doors, and been sufficiently adept with the Flow to cover the distance to where he lay at the mercy of the ukrak to perform a last minute rescue. No wonder his guardian had said to not be afraid.
“You’re the Custodian,” he said, repressing the urge to gulp.
“So your people tend to call me,” the voice replied amidst more shuffling and grunting.
There came another scrape, followed by crackling, and Joivar found himself forced to squint as the darkness was pierced by the flame of an oil lamp. The lamp stood on a stone table — he could now see that everything in the small domed chamber was stone — standing next to which was the figure who had lit it. As Joivar had finally realized, it was a Wangar. It could have been no more than five feet tall, though its apparent height was enhanced by how broad it was. It stood on two-toed feet that rose into a lumpish torso. Two pairs of arms emerged from twin shoulder sets near to top of the torso, each arm thick and muscular and ending in a hand of two fingers and an opposable thumb. The mouth was a set of maxillipeds that lay over the mandibles when not in use, although since the creature had been talking they lay slightly open. Its primary eye, an orb of sapphire blue shot through like some kind of marble with veins of differing shades and hues — there were various sense organs that lay out of sight and had no human analog, which gave the being a significantly greater sense range than mere sight, scent, and hearing — sat at the top of a flexible stalk that bobbed in a way that seemed good-natured.
Joivar scrambled up to a sitting and then a standing position, then stared dumbly at the being before him for a moment before making and holding a deep bow.
“Oh, stop that,” the Custodian buzzed in what served his kind for laughing. “I don’t know what those addled old men on the High Council let the novice masters teach you pebblings, but in these caves I am merely the first Wangar amongst a host of equals. I won’t have any scraping and bowing from you.”
“Yes, my lord, I’m sorry.”
“None of that, either. You can call me Chigrish. Or you can keep quiet. Now, seeing as you are clearly in good shape, come along.”
Without another word, the Custodian turned and stumped toward a door at the far side of the chamber. Joivar recovered what little poise he had left and followed. He entered another domed chamber, more furnished than the chamber he had woken up in, albeit once again everything was made of stone. Chigrish did not stop but went to a pair of doors at the opposite side of the new chamber and pushed them open.
Joivar’s mind initially registered that he had stepped outside, although technically that was inaccurate. They had emerged from what was now quite obviously a house, a collection of domes built of rocks cemented together with a kind of mud mortar, and were now stood under a the vault of a truly massive cavern. It was illuminated by clumps of egg-like fungal growths that clung in clumps scattered across the ceiling and gave off a powerful yellow glow that was almost if not quite as bright as the sunlight just before dusk. By that light, Joivar could see that the floor of the cavern where they stood was the top of some raised structure akin to a butte, and that it was one of many scattered throughout the space and connected by bridges. What lay further down toward the true floor of the space he could not yet see; though if he continued following his guide it would soon become apparent, for Chigrish upon exiting his house had continued walking and was now approaching the rim of his personal plateau.
Not wanting to risk irritating the Custodian by hanging back or appearing uncertain, Joivar joined him at the edge. His breath caught as he took in the scene spread out before him. The butte they stood atop went down what must be a hundred feet to where it met the actual bottom of the vast gallery. Dotting the floor like warts on the skin of a frog were clusters of large, irregularly-shaped basalt spheres, among which moved Wangari singly or in groups ranging from two to five. They carried tools the purpose of which Joivar did not understand, and they would make brief stops as they moved from cluster to cluster, conferring amongst themselves.
“Those are the soulstone fields, aren’t they?” he asked his guide.
Chigrish dipped his eyestalk by way of a nod. “Indeed they are. My people are making a final check to ensure that any stones suitable for harvest have been gathered to accompany you on your return trip.”
“They needn’t be too meticulous. There’s only so many I’ll be able to carry.”
Chigrish buzzed, and Joivar realized that he had accidentally amused the Wangar.
“True enough,” replied the Custodian, “though I wouldn’t worry about the burden. My people know their business. Now let’s get going. The sun will be rising above the mountains soon and the trip is long.”
With Chigrish as his guide, Joivar crossed the bridges from butte to butte and made his way across the cavern with surprising speed, despite the unhurried, plodding pace at which the Wangar preferred to move. At one point in their trip, Joivar glanced down to the fields below to see a geode shell substantially larger than any other he had seen. It stood alone, with proportions more like those of a petrified tree trunk than a stone. When he pointed it out to his companion and asked its significance, the Custodian declined to say much.
“Call it a contingency,” he said, “and pray that it never need be used.”
A half an hour’s walk brought them to the head of the cavern and a wide tunnel, which they entered. After continuing along a flat plane for roughly a hundred yards, it began to curve to the left and climb in pitch, turning into an upward spiral that continued for another twenty minutes or so until it ended, depositing them in a cavern that appeared to function like a depot or staging area. Crates, sacks, and barrels were grouped in precise arrangements across the floor of the space, at the far end of which stood a pair of massive carved stone gates which stood open, admitting what Joivar realized was natural sunlight and fresh air from the surface world. He was, it struck him, looking at the Doors — the entryway for travelers into the caverns of the Wangari.
His eye was drawn away from the great gates by a nearby chuffing noise, and nearer at hand he saw a train of bridled and saddled lizards — much larger and more herbivorous-looking than the ukrak he had encountered on his way here. As he eyed the creatures uncertainly, Chigrish informed him they served the Wangari as beasts of burden, and that this particular train and their handlers would be accompanying them back to Krakaqua Eifëi.
“Accompanying?” he said.
“Yes,” the Custodian said. “Us. Accompanying us. I told you not to worry about being over-burdened with the crop, after all.”
“You’re coming with me?”
“If you don’t object.”
That had to have been sarcasm, Joivar reflected.
“Of course not, my lor—I mean, Chigrish.”
“Good. I haven’t been out of the caverns in decades. And since my office as the Custodian requires me to watch over and protect the soulstones, I think I should probably be where the majority of the mature stones are. It’s only logical. Now come, we’re burning daylight, as your people like to say.”
And with that, he stumped off to join the caravan. Joivar followed, a voice in the back of his mind whispering that things were only likely to get more interesting from here on out.