Sample from Son of the Stars
Jakum hoped the first Nova Day he experienced would not be his last.
According to traditions established by Amoch the first stellant, when an old stellant sensed their lifefire reaching the limits of its store, it was time for a Nova Day. The near-to-death stellant would speak last words to their kin and posterity, separate a distance from their cluster, and release the last of their lifefire in a brilliant explosion of light, color, and matter.
The next generation of stellants could then harvest the energy and material released. The deaths of the old to fuel the births of the new.
Jakum faintly remembered the lifefire of his birth. His mother had released him from her womb to an ignition of stardust, giving him his form, his life, and his own store of lifefire. It had been a similar, but much smaller, explosion of light and color. Radiant greens and reds. Beautiful violets and blues. Olter, chi, mika, himel. Every color in a glorious display of new life given through self-sacrifice.
More than a hundred stellants, his family, floated in the vacuum of space in front of their city. A massive glowing structure. It served as a navigating beacon, and a home.
In the distance, Jakum’s grandmother, Verok, hovered alone. Her legs crossed and her eyes closed. A Nova Day should be a day of peace and love, but Verok’s face wrinkled into a scowl surrounded by an unkempt mess of stark white hair. She had not done as tradition dictated. She had spoken no last words to her family. She floated, not showing when she would begin, apart from subtle gravitational pulses.
“If I’m right, I’ll be immortal. Tell no one what I’ve said. I don’t want anyone in my way.”
She had spoken those words to him when he had stumbled on her researching demons in the forbidden section of the histories. He exerted a nudge of gravitational energy, rotating to his right. His parents spoke in hushed tones. A jittering anxiety to act now tugged at his conscience.
“If a stellant holds their power in instead of releasing it, the Nova Day can be a metamorphosis instead of a funeral. It doesn’t have to be the end.”
Jakum shook the thoughts away. Who was he to judge? He was not even a hundred years old, barely out of his childhood. It was not his place to gossip about his elders. His grandmother was a second-generation stellant. Her father, the great Amoch. Would a prophet of the Beyond and the first of his race have let his own daughter go astray?
Jakum’s grandmother let off a stronger pulse of gravitational waves, manifesting her lifefire’s inner turmoil. If all went by tradition, then those pulses would transform into a brilliant burst of nebulous stardust. And all that would remain of his grandmother would be memories.
The pulsing slowed to a deep, slow rhythm. The two primal forces of lifefire strained: one pushing out, one pulling in. Light distorted, gravitational energy twisted in on itself.
Much like he had heard from regular stars, the high whistle of a supernova began. He felt a moment of relief. Maybe nothing else odd would happen. Maybe she would nova, and the burden of his worries would be lifted. The whistle was cut off by the deep boom of a slow implosion. All went silent. An abrupt rush of gravity tugged at him.
Jakum’s heart sank.
The last of Verok’s light winked out.
Gone was the glow of a stellant. The radiant blue and violet nebula played backdrop behind the silhouetted form of his grandmother.
It’s okay, Jakum told himself. Everything’s fine. Maybe this is part of the process? The lie felt thin.
Jakum’s mother approached the dark form. His father placed a hand on her shoulder. But she gently removed it, raising her own in a calming gesture.
Jakum’s heart plunged deeper into his chest.
“What happened?” A young feminine voice. Rogwis. His younger sister. Barely more than a toddler.
“I don’t know,” Jakum said.
Their mother and grandmother exchanged quiet words. One voice soft, the other bitter.
“Jakum, I’m scared,” Rogwis said, her voice trembling.
Jakum pulled her into a side hug. “It’ll be okay,” he said, speaking more to himself than to her.
“FINE!” a sharp voice shouted. A burst of motion. Mother was no more.
It happened so fast, Jakum could hardly process it. She disappeared into the darkness. Compressed and gone in an instant. Her light vanished without a shout of protest. His father roared. A blast of olter plasma rushed toward Verok. Streams of ultraviolet scattering around it. Surely, she couldn’t withstand an attack like that.
The powerful light silently shrank into the void. Verok laughed. She had just cheated death, murdered her daughter, and ignored what should have been a death blow from her son-in-law. And she just laughed.
With a flourish of her hands and a projection of force, she flung Jakum’s father aside. He tumbled away.
Eyes widened. Bodies froze in trembling fear. Verok approached. Space dust near her sped up and rushed into her dark form. No one spoke, but a few whimpered in fear.
A ferocious battle cry broke the silence. Jeun, Jakum’s eldest brother, charged. Jakum’s heart leaped. Jeun could handle her. He was the greatest yoncrafter Jakum had ever seen. And of his starfire, the others said he carried Amoch’s fire in his veins the strongest.
His brother’s fingers exploded with light, thick beams of matter glowing with high-energy photons. They hit Verok like a collision between a wayward star and an unlucky planet.
Except the planet won.
The shining beams disappeared into the void.
A powerful instinct took hold of Jakum. He had to get away. But the trembling form of Rogwis still clung to him.
Jeun paused. Instead of running, however, he set his stance, arms tucked in to guard his face, and moved in. After all that Rogwis had done in the last few moments, Jeun was going after her, regardless.
Jeun’s moving hands glowed with blue-white starfire. Each position of his fingers leaving a burning glyph, followed by flashes of white with invested yonergy. Jeun closed the distance, shields of yonmatter forming over his forearms. The yonmatter glowed with a light far purer than starfire. By some miracle, when he struck Verok, the weapons damaged her, tearing off pieces of pitch-black matter.
Jakum’s hopes evaporated when Verok ignored the strikes, the wounds filling in with darkness. She grabbed Jeun’s face with her blackened hand. In less than an instant, the void pulled him in and consumed him. His yonmatter shields tumbling away until they dissipated in a flash of fizzling light.
“Verok, stop this!” someone shouted. Other stellants moved in with flashes of starfire and yoncraft. Their light consumed one by one. Uncle Ainrik, one of her own sons, shouted “Amoch wouldn’t have wanted-”
She consumed him before he could finish. “Never mention my father to me!” She spoke with two voices. One was high and strained, the other a low echoing rumble. Like a wave of particles trying to escape the pull of a black hole. Gravitational waves rippled out in ragged, random bursts, forcing Jakum and Rogwis apart. She let out fearful sobs, reaching out to him.
Verok struck stellants down. No matter how well they fought, they died. Every single one. Verok approached Juna, his second cousin. Juna extended her arms to her sides in a protective gesture. Behind her floated a group of children, young ones barely strong enough to manage their own gravitational pull.
She devoured them.
They screamed, faces contorted in agony as she crushed and pulled them in. Jakum’s uncle Igwerg charged. With little more than a thought, he too was consumed.
Several blades of starfire struck Verok in the back. She absorbed them without a flinch. The source of the blades, Jakum’s father, shouted for her to stop, but she ignored him. She moved in Jakum’s general direction now, towards those who stood with or behind his father.
Rogwis whimpered, floating off to his side. She was curled into a ball, crying. Jakum pushed through the fear and propelled himself through space to reach her. She caught his eyes, and despite the tears she smiled faintly. He’d always taken care of her.
Her drifting accelerated toward Verok.
“Verok, stop this now!” his father shouted.
With a growing panic, Jakum moved faster to reach her. Rogwis looked around, saw where she was moving, and screamed.
I should’ve said something… He reached for Rogwis and tried to remember some piece of yoncraft that would allow him to draw Rogwis closer.
“By your will or the Beyond’s, this day will be your last!” Jakum’s father and grandmother stood face-to-face. His father a flaming beacon of starfire, his grandmother a pitch-black shadow, a void with no stars. A chill dripped down Jakum’s spine.
Several glyphs flashed and Jakum’s father drew his own yonmatter shields. Verok fought him with one hand, her body ripped and torn by the holy blades. But for every black chunk of lightless flesh removed; bursts of darkness filled the wounds.
Her other hand she extended toward Rogwis. Jakum’s sister sped up. The tears flowed freely now, and the void pulled them in too. Rogwis’s scream took on the same quality of sound trying to escape. Jakum extended his arm further, but his body wouldn’t move. He needed to get closer, but he couldn’t.
Jakum’s father tried to place himself between Verok and Rogwis, but Verok’s attacks pushed him back. Rogwis’s screams became soundless. Her body tightened until she was pulled into the lightless abyss that was her own grandmother.
Rogwis… was gone.
Jakum looked to Verok, no longer fighting the tears spawned from these horrors. “Why?” His sobs restricted him from saying any more.
She did not speak, only put out her hands, drawing glyphs of yoncraft in lines of pitch black in front of her.
His father renewed his attack, rage and fury adding power to his strikes. But he was not enough to distract her. With one hand she pulled in many other stellants. She broke away from Jakum’s father and zipped around, consuming in a mad rush. Jakum’s pregnant aunt whose belly glowed with the form of a growing stellant inside. Cousins, young and old. His second cousin and the tiny form of her daughter, born three days ago. Drawn in with screams of terror. He couldn’t fight. He couldn’t run. He could only watch.
Jakum met his grandmother’s eyes. Her pitch-black body hunched in a primal pose; fingers stretched into long black claws. A predator, like the beasts that prowled the worlds below.
Jakum’s father blocked his line of sight. With a flash of yoncraft a wall of white light appeared. Massive and wide. His father gave Jakum a determined look. His lips set into a serious line, his brow tight and unmoving.
Jakum, despite being ninety-five, nearly an adult, grabbed his father’s arm in terror. Their eyes locked, even as the others screamed or fought around them.
“Everything will be okay,” his father said. Tears floated from his eyes. “The Beyond watches over all.”
Gently, his father removed Jakum’s grip and gave a sad smile of acceptance. Did he know? Did he know what Jakum had done? What he had let happen through his failure to speak up?
An unnatural scream. His father flinched. The yonmatter wall dissipated. Revealing Verok, ready to consume.
“I accept the will of the Beyond.” His father’s voice betrayed no fear. He ignited, glowing brighter than any stellant Jakum had ever seen. His hands moved, creating glyphs Jakum couldn’t discern.
Time slowed. Verok charged, claws outstretched. Ignoring her, his father smiled at Jakum. Even as the dark form distorted his body, pulling him in, he mouthed three distinct words. I love you.
Light exploded from his father the same moment he disappeared into the void. The burst hit Jakum in a concentrated rush, hurtling him backward through space, faster than he had ever gone before.
Stars streaked past Jakum in a trillion streams of brilliantly colored lines, their hues distorted as he traveled a thousand times the speed of light. The nebula dwindled out of sight. He entered the abyss between galaxies. He turned his head. He hurtled toward a small spiraled galaxy.
As he approached, he slowed tremendously. In front of him, a little solar system. He approached one orbiting world. It was shaped like a disc. Impossible. Worlds were spheres. The half second of thinking was gone as he entered the atmosphere, grinding against heat and pressure.
Jakum fell from the heavens and slammed into the earth, tearing a broken, smoking line a kilometer long. His body’s heat and light extinguished. He came to a sudden crushing stop a few tumbling moments later.
He lay at the center of an impact crater at the end of a great trench; now seared into glass. He groaned. He tried to calm his mind, but it refused. He trembled with pain he had never felt. Not only his flesh, but his very soul ached.
Agony pulled at him like a massive gravity well. Everyone was gone. His home. His family. His life. Everything he had ever known.
He looked headward. Stars flickered in a canvas of black. He flinched. Were they disappearing? Their fluctuations of light displaying a tenuous existence? The emptiness of space threatening to extinguish matter into the last fruits of entropy? All scattered. All lifeless. Leaving only the void.
Too tired. Did it matter? Where would he go? He closed his eyes. He had to block it out. The darkness of his closed eyes blocked nothing. It only served as a black canvas for the recent horrors to replay in his vision. His father’s voice. Screams of the innocent. Bodies shrinking painfully into the hungry void.
The void. It comes for me. He opened his eyes to escape the images.
Time held no sway over his thoughts. He lay in the glassy crater. Too tired to move, too terrified to close his eyes. He urged his limbs to act, but his body refused to obey his commands. He lay, torn between the haunting dark of the night sky, or the reddened-black of his heavy eyelids.
He had extinguished involuntarily. That had never happened before.
The dark sky lightened a shade. The light of a nearby star slowly overpowering the distant ones. He hoped this new light would grant him some relief.
It was a futile hope.
The light was wrong. Alien. Garish. Overpowering. Its brightness mocking his extinguished state.
He begged his limbs to move. This world’s gravity hung about him like chains. This world knew his mass and would crush him for it. Imprisoned. Like a child trapped in the core of a star, praying that an adult would release him. Hydrogen and oxygen molecules pushed on his entire body. How could Dusters think with such pressure?
His heart uttered a silent prayer for release, another avenue of action, or at least the mindlessness of sleep.
A dark silhouette in front of him blocked the star’s harsh light. With an involuntary, and painful, motion of effort, Jakum covered his face with his hands. She found me!
His eyes adjusted. A tall man stood there. His face wrinkled with age; his clothing made of many layers. The relief almost drove Jakum into unconsciousness. Just a human, Jakum thought. A harmless Duster. The man’s green eyes watched Jakum closely.
“Calm yourself, young man, you’ve come a long way.” The stranger glanced at the path behind Jakum, eyebrow raised. “And you’ve had a rough trip of it.” The man’s accent was smooth, and he spoke one of the Duster tongues Jakum’s father had taught him.
Jakum inspected his robe. The impact had torn it to shreds.
“How do you feel?” the stranger said.
Jakum tried to lift himself up on his elbows. The ground shifted beneath him, shards of newly forged glass cracking under his weight. He slipped and fell again, muscles weak. The unsteadiness of the earth beneath him serving as a harsh cushion.
“I can help,” the man said, stepping closer. “I am well-trained in the arts of the Beyond.”
The Beyond. Jakum tried to ignore the image of his father performing those final glyphs of yoncraft. Jakum grunted, trying to move again. He shook the memories away, turning his attention to the man. Jakum doubted the stranger knew as much of the Beyond as he professed to.
“You’ve been injured. Beyond natural repair.”
Screams of the little ones replayed in his mind. Darkness swallowed them. Everyone he knew or loved torn away violently, any hope of joy strangled by despair. A liquid sensation on his face brought him to the present. His eyes dripped tears.
“I can perform a glyph, one that will strengthen you to handle the pain. Body and soul.”
Jakum scowled. “I can’t grant you a wish in exchange.”
The man chuckled. “I don’t believe the superstition that stellants grant wishes. I serve a power beyond this universe. I follow its commands in serving my fellows. And I look to it for my reward.”
Terror inducing images continued to assault his mind. His sister’s face, staring over her shoulder in fear and horror at what lay behind. His eldest brother, fighting the darkness until he too was consumed.
Jakum tightened his fists so hard they hurt and slammed his eyes closed. Nothing would make the memories flee. “Do it.”
The man nodded and stepped closer. “There will only be a momentary pain.”
Jakum’s fears and memories came in a sudden deluge, disrupting comprehension of what happened next. The stranger’s hands snapped into unique positions, a flash of burning white fire after each. Leaving bright afterimages of glyphs in Jakum’s vision.
A memory of the Nevrun nebula filled his sight, a tiny scattering of red and blue stars and spacedust. His home. His past.
A tension-loosening relief brought him to the blissful void of unconsciousness.
The dark gave way to light. Jakum lay on some sort of soft rectangle. A… bed? He half-remembered the term from a lesson about dusters, teachings about the cultures and lifestyles of humans. Another duster creation brought light to the room. Electrical lights, their spectra weak and missing colors.
Next to the bed sat the stranger. He leaned back in his chair; feet propped up on a stool. He held a small pipe in his mouth, the faint white smoke drifted up from it.
Jakum looked under the blankets. His clothes were gone. He flinched at the stranger in confusion.
“Your stellant robe was beyond repair,” he explained.
Stellant. That word triggered agonizing memories. He grunted and tried to shove them down. “I thought you fixed that,” he said through gritted teeth.
“I numbed it for a time, but my skills can only do so much. Here.” He removed his pipe and offered it to Jakum.
Jakum hesitated. His father had taught him about human vices. Many humans have come to overrely on chemicals to manage the chaos in their lives and in their minds. Jakum shook his head. “My father taught me–”
“Your father isn’t here,” the man said bluntly. “You are. Trust me, it will only serve to calm your mind. No harm will come of it.” His smile was assuring.
Painful memories circled Jakum, threatening to overwhelm him. He extended a hand, taking the pipe. Upon urging from the stranger, he took a deep breath from the mouthpiece. The smoke tangled his throat, his air cut off with a choking sound. This elicited a laugh from the man. The next breath was even worse, he almost gagged. But the third was easier. He took the smoke in through his mouth, let it fill him, and pushed it out through his nose. Smoke not only clouded the room, but it clouded his pain.
He accepted everything offered to him. Distraction overcame pain. Pleasant sensation drowned out agony. He ate duster food for the first time, relishing in plants smothered in spiced sauce and devouring sweetened delicacies. He continued to smoke the pipe, ate small tablets stuffed with condensed minerals and chemicals the stranger called “pills.” Each time the memories surged, he shoved them back down again.
Several human women walked into the room—scantily clad, eyelashes fluttering, smiles promising escape. He didn’t resist. He reveled in his newfound freedom. The experiences so novel and thrilling he doubted his father had even heard of them, much less would have warned him against them. All this activity to activate little chemicals with the power to relieve his pain.
Thoughts of his father faded to gray. His memories faded to gray. These humans had found true freedom. The answers to mortal suffering. The thrills of life in their purest forms, free from chains and darkness.
Repeatedly, a soft voice issued warnings in his thoughts. He ignored it. His conscience tried again. He continued to ignore it until it shrank to little more than a whisper. If he considered the morality of his actions, the pain would come as a nova. He forgot about the voice long before it stopped speaking. Primal lusts and excitements absorbed him until awareness wasted away. One thrill after another.
There were breaks, moments when he emerged from the haze. Awareness pressing down on him. But, inevitably, the trembling grew too great, the air he breathed too foul. Again and again, he dove back in. He wasn’t here for the pain. Only forgetting mattered now.
Some time later, whether weeks or months he didn’t know, Jakum stumbled to the edge of the duster settlement. His massive headache had faded to a dull throb.
His life was unrecognizable from what it had once been. A jittering energy drove him to find more. Something to cloud his mind. Something to calm the fire in his nerves. Some carnal pleasure to feed the lust of the flesh. He shuddered in longing. Where had these been all his life? Even before the darkness, when melancholy struck, when others ignored him. When he felt like a stranger in his own home.
He hungered for that mind-shattering thrill.
He patted his pocket. It lacked the fireroot he sought. In his stupor, it was funny. Of course, I’m out, it always runs out. Since Jakum had no possessions to trade, he’d have to find someone to work for. He could clean, dig, whatever would get him enough to buy more.
He swayed, then slapped himself in the face. He glanced over his shoulder. He didn’t want to get robbed again if he passed out.
An insistent thought pulled his attention upward. It seemed to pull on his heart. He placed his hand on his chest. His eyes followed the pull until he looked up at the sky. The sky. It had been so long since he’d even thought of it, let alone looked at it. Streaks of pink and orange light bore through the clouds, illuminating the clay buildings of the duster settlement.
He tripped and barely regained his footing. The pulling on his chest, on his soul, multiplied. Primal pleasures did not hold the demons back half as well as they once had. Memories resurfaced. Terror tore through his psyche like claws.
Like blackened claws.
He needed a new distraction. Or… an old one? Maybe the freedom of flight would help him escape the shackles of pain. He had put it off. Had thought of it many times, but thoughts of flying often triggered terrible memories.
But now, he had to fly, to make all the pain worth it. He would not let her take everything from him.
He stepped beyond the city limits, scanning the rocky landscape. Only a scattering of dead plants littered the dirt, not packed enough to start a fire. He also needed to be far enough away that no duster would question what he was doing.
He climbed a boulder, dusted off his pant legs, and stood straight. His gaze met the clouds, and he called upon his inner fire, ready to become a blazing streak through the sky.
He shook his head, rolling his shoulders and loosening his hands. He just needed to focus harder. He tried again.
No light appeared. No heat. This tiny world bound him with its strangling gravity. He tightened his forehead in focus. Still, nothing happened. His body ached. His mind strained. He thought about his time before arriving here, the effects of planetary forces too weak to tether him down. He was a stellant!
Doubt prodded his mind. He shoved it aside, trying again. He screamed in rage and concentration. He took breaks and tried again. He tried through the night. An odd pain struck his stomach. He ignored it.
After a dozen more attempts to fly, he finally recognized that pain as hunger.
Sample from Two Masters
Revin burrowed his fingers into the chilled earth and raised a handful of moist soil to Blackfire’s nose. The wolf’s nose twitched. Through their psychic link, Revin found the grimy, putrid scent. He grinned.
They were still headed in the right direction.
They marched through forested slopes as Blackfire sifted through scents of pine and just-fallen rain. Often, they didn’t need an odor, as the giant serpent’s body had left long, deep grooves wherever there was earth instead of stone.
Revin didn’t know which of them first recognized when the sinuous tracks started leaving deeper, more tightly packed marks, but they confirmed his worst fears. The serpent had detected their scent and quickened its speed. Revin paused, the breeze pressing against the back of his neck.
Now even the wind worked against him.
“Let’s pick up the pace.”
Over the past three years, Blackfire and Revin had traveled often, sometimes to hunt for Blackfire’s meat and sometimes just to explore the Hiriv. He’d crossed the full length and breadth of the isle in his travels, spending many a night lingering in the chill and the rain.
Revin shoved branches aside as he and Blackfire raced. His metalweave mastersuit threatened to slow him, but he pressed on ahead, the thrill of the chase lending him strength.
They stopped sporadically, checking the earth and smelling the air. Each clearing they hit could have given another clue, but there was little in sight and scent. This serpent was fast. One false step could get him killed.
The serpent had only eaten sheep and ostrich eggs before it attacked two monks in the village. One had died, constricted until his bones broke. Revin wished he’d been there to stop it. The boil-brained saddle-gooses had chased it off with sticks, torches, and dogs. Revin had only seen the aftermath, but while his leaders debated what to do, he was here. Hunting it. Alone.
Just how he liked it.
The other monks had told him it was suicide to use Beastspeaking on a wild wolf, to link his mind to a dangerous beast, but he’d done it. Not only that, but Blackfire had been his constant and loyal companion since then. He could do this too.
He and Blackfire came to the top of another ridge; pushing past the pines which lined its top. Ahead of them was a small dip in the earth which formed a large, shallow bowl covered in grass and dirt. The perfect place to trap the beast.
The creature’s musk intensified. It was close.
They rounded the ridge. Revin closed his eyes, feeling the breeze on his skin. The curve to their path placed them downwind from the serpent. Blackfire sniffed and listened. Revin sensed a fetid smell, then heard leaves rustling on the far side of the bowl.
It was there.
Revin pulled out a mint-wrapped canvas sack from his travel bag. He tossed the mint leaves aside and retrieved the large ostrich egg from within the canvas sack. He removed the canvas wrap around it, letting out the smell of fresh egg. He set it at the crest of the bowl, letting it roll down the slick grass to the center.
He and Blackfire sat to wait.
The rustling of scales on leaves and branches grew louder. Revin’s heart jumped. It wasn’t the soft rustling of a small creature making its way through the brush, this was something so big that it cracked branches, and broke or uprooted smaller trees. How big was this thing?
The rustling stopped.
Did it know they were here? Blackfire growled and shifted. Revin smiled. He reached for the bridge where their minds met and told Blackfire where to go.
Blackfire rounded the edge of the clearing, jogging closer to the serpent. Revin watched through Blackfire’s eyes as the wolf pushed through the greenery, the branches revealing a huge scaly head. Fear reverberated across Revin and Blackfire’s mental bridge. Blackfire bared his fangs and growled in warning.
The serpent’s enormous maw opened. Its black tongue slaked out. Its half-meter long fangs descended from the roof of its mouth. Revin had expected a hiss, but it uttered a ground-rumbling growl. Blackfire’s growl were squeaks in comparison. The wolf stepped back.
Revin was ready for the strike.
The fanged beast lashed out. Blackfire hopped to the side and the serpent’s head smashed into the dirt where he had just stood. The serpent swayed, dazed. Blackfire followed Revin’s command to head to the center of the bowl.
The serpent followed.
It was far longer than he’d expected, as long as four men at least. Its massive body looked strong enough to shatter the trunk of a great pine. Revin’s heart skipped a beat as doubt filled him.
Blackfire gave him a questioning glance.
The serpent headed down the bowl, straight for Blackfire. Revin held his ground at the edge of the clearing, looking down into the depression in the earth where the serpent and the wolf faced each other.
The creature hesitated, scanning the area. Revin wondered if it heard him.
Growl, he thought, and the wolf did. Blackfire walked in a wide circle, putting himself between Revin and the serpent. Revin felt Blackfire’s heart thundering with anxiety.
I’ve got this.
Revin commanded Blackfire to howl. The serpent hissed and reared its head, body tensing. Revin urged Blackfire to jump back. The serpent’s head shot forward and snapped where Blackfire had just been, sending up clumps of dirt and grass.
Revin jumped and grabbed its extended neck just below the head. The serpent thrashed. Revin held on with his arms and legs. It couldn’t bite him, but it rolled, smashing him into the dirt. Sharp pain shot up his chest as he held on. He sucked in a breath, closing his eyes and beginning the process of Mastery.
The thrashing lessened, disorientation setting in. Just a little longer. It was intelligent, hungry, and desperate to escape his grasp. Its mind was more resilient than most he’d seen, more than Blackfire’s. But he’d mastered Blackfire. He’d mastered everything he’d tried to master before.
With a determined grunt, he made lassos of his will and lashed them around the beast’s mind, commanding it to obey. It growled in defiance, trying to buck him off again, but the effort wasn’t as strong as before. He lassoed it a few more times.
The serpent flailed again, throwing Revin’s arm loose. He opened his eyes, his mental cords snapping and the connection shattering. Revin had slid down a few feet. His eyes widened. The coiled around Revin’s arm, tightening down with extreme pressure. Crushing pain shot up his forearm.
The serpent’s massive body began to twist around him, and panic rose. He’d seen smaller serpents do this to rodents, hold on hard, squeezing until the breath was gone and bones were broken. Then they would swallow them whole.
His disorientation turned to terror as the serpent’s coils constricted around him. He could only force the tiniest of breaths. His bones creaked, his arms and legs went numb. He blinked away white pinpricks in his vision, shooting in scattered lines. He was going to die. His bones would soon shatter and puncture his organs, leaving him to be swallowed whole. A rat with a garden snake. His vision darkened, and his mind strained to think of anything more than just breathing.
Blackfire bit the monster’s tail, its vice-grip lessened. Revin sucked in a deep breath, the strain lessened. He closed his eyes and, reforming his mental lassoes, reached around the angry mind. He tensed with the effort, every muscle tightening, every vein bulging. The serpent ignored Blackfire’s bites and focused on crushing Revin again. Blackfire whimpered in concern.
He made one final cord of willpower, thicker than the others, entwined into a hyper-strong cord of thought. Revin smirked and tossed the super-lasso around the serpent’s mind.
And with that final effort, the mental gateway opened. And like water through a shattering dam the thoughts rushed in. With a quick mental command from Revin, the creature released him and relaxed.
Revin fell, breathing hard. The creature stared at nothing, analyzing their new connection with a cold distance. With a smile he realized it was a female. Revin directed her thoughts to the ostrich egg. She jumped forward, her jaws opening wide to swallow it whole.
Blackfire approached. Revin scratched the wolf’s ears and sent reassuring thoughts. Revin surveyed the area. Grass and dirt sat in overturned heaps, and shattered tree branches lined the bowl’s edges.
He had done it. They would call it impossible, but he had done it. He had mastered a great serpent of the western continent before it could eat him. The others wouldn’t believe it. He didn’t care. When the passive monks disapproved, he knew he was living. The other monks stayed in their homes, wasting their days farming and studying scripture. So many of them seemed satisfied with just letting their lives pass by, not doing anything interesting. They called it peace, Revin called it boredom. The stories told of monks who’d gone out into the world, went on adventures, made a difference. Revin’s fellow monks were fine with mastering goats and donkeys.
That wasn’t enough for Revin. He wanted to experience more.
He dug through the serpent’s memories. Her mind felt so different from Blackfire or anything else he’d mastered before. Where Blackfire was passionate, the serpent’s thoughts and memories were so… calculated. Practical. Like a clock. She sought food and had ended up here. He looked for the memory of swimming here, and just found instincts. Instincts of seeking food. Of swimming. Of climbing trees to eat a bird. She had no memory of crossing the waters.
But as he dived into the technical creature’s mind, her hunting and navigating instincts gave him the clues he needed. This beast had swum from the western continent. He knew that from the grey-green trees and the massive warthogs in her instinctive memory. Not too far sailing, but it was quite a swim.
His commitment to sending her away waivered. He pictured the monks’ surprised looks if he walked into the village with a giant serpent. Their reactions would be worth the struggle.
He sighed. Blackfire was hard enough to keep in the village without starting an angry mob. Other monks had domesticated wolves long ago; bred them to be smaller, more timid. Weaker. Wild wolves had killed no one in decades.
This beast, however, had killed a monk just a few days ago. It was hungry, and the others wouldn’t understand. Despite their patient natures, they wouldn’t forgive a carnivore for following its instincts. For having a religion around patience and acceptance, the monks’ bore little tolerance for beasts that ate meat. Fear of wolves and other predators certainly contributed to that intolerance.
After swallowing the ostrich egg, the serpent looked at Revin, waiting placidly for what he would do next. She was uncertain of what to do with a creature whose thoughts were in her head.
He let out a sigh. “Time to go.” The beasts didn’t respond. He could communicate through thoughts alone, but sometimes, on his long treks, with only his beasts to keep him company, he did miss human voices.
They walked through the hills. Revin felt Blackfire’s suspicion of the serpent. Revin thought Blackfire would be familiar to prey becoming friend by now. But the wolf would obey Revin’s command to leave the serpent alone. He told Blackfire the danger was no more.
They walked throughout the night. Revin had to take quite a few breaks, as his arm and ribs still throbbed. Consciousness was a battle every second. He wanted to stop and relax, but he needed to get the serpent off the Hiriv before they sent a hunting party. He fell asleep. She wouldn’t attack him, but Blackfire would be at risk. There bond was so new he wasn’t sure how strong of a command he could leave while he slept. And in Revin’s exhausted state, he didn’t know if Backfire’s pleas would wake him. The thought terrified him. He’d mastered this serpent, but she was still a beast. If he weren’t conscious to stop her, what would she do?
Another reason to hurry was so that neither himself nor the serpent would become too attached. But the damage had been done. She saw him as a great source for sustenance. It would take a hard push to get her to return to her lands.
The pines thinned out. Through Blackfire, Revin smelled the crisp ocean air, heard waves crashing and birds’ faint squawks in the distance. His stomach flipped in excitement and his steps lightened, a rush of energy cascading down his body. The ocean felt like freedom. Limitless possibility. He smiled as they crested the final hill.
Hello, old friend.
The grey-blue ocean lay before him. A textured and shifting plane as far as he could see, white tips rising and falling with a hypnotic rhythm. A grey-black speckle of rocks covered the shore, smoothed over time by the waters’ ebb and flow. The cresting waves collapsed in a spread of white foam, covering the stones then pulling back with a quiet crackle, pushing the pebbles in and out. A soft white clouds spanned across the sky, like a crumbling arch miles overhead.
The cool breeze was sweet, and the smell of rain hung in the air. He closed his eyes. Listening to the soft rumbling, feeling the wind pushing through his sweaty hair, cooling his head. He took a deep breath.
And his bruised rib protested. He reached for it, testing its sensitivity. Much like the walk here, the walk back would hurt. But he’d take his time.
He grabbed his spyglass, thanking the Highest he’d removed the sack before his tussle with the creature, and scanned the horizon. He hoped to spot a ship from the west, one that brought trade, travelers, and the opportunity for adventure. Occasionally, a monk would go with them to seek a Lord to serve. He saw no such ships today. And besides, he needed the council’s permission before he could leave. He prayed it would be soon.
The day was clear enough, however, to see the tip of the western continent. He turned to the serpent. She stared back with her slitted eyes, double-lids blinking. She was thick, strong, her dark green scales glossy in the morning light. And he wished he could have more time to study her. Her mind was just so… alien. Unlike any beast he’d mastered before. The almost-memories and instincts in her mind were sorted into two categories; that which helps me survive, and that which does not. The serpent seemed to care for little beyond that. Even now, she felt no animosity toward Revin or Blackfire. Revin, she considered good, as he had brought her food. She was ambivalent toward Blackfire, however.
On Revin’s command, the serpent entered the water. He felt the battle in her mind as the cool water enveloped part of her body. Her instincts told her to go back, to return to the island with food, to stay with the human who gave it. But Revin nudged her away. He forced her to focus on her home.
The beast moved in a sinuous line. His research told him the great serpents could swim well and were surprisingly buoyant. He looked through her eyes, she blinked, knowing the direction but still unable to see home.
There was hardly an ache in her muscles even as she reached halfway to the mainland. Their connection weakened, but his commands were deep in the creature’s mind. She would not turn back. She passed the three-quarters mark and Revin’s connection grew weaker still. He sent her a final goodbye. He got one last impression, the serpent’s head bobbing above the water, seeing her own pine-covered continent. Their connection severed with a sharp snap, leaving only his and Blackfire’s thoughts.
He scratched behind Blackfire’s ear, who now exuded relief. Revin didn’t feel the same. He wanted to go with her. To land on those foreign shores. To find a new land and new beasts.
He let out a disappointed sigh.
“Let’s go home.”