Thursday, August 13, 2015

Water: the Cold Below, Book I of the Dragonlord Trilogy - preview chapter

Please enjoy this excerpt from my newest dragon trilogy, coming September 2015.


Chapter One
1635 A.S.

Wind flew in playful tugs and eddies up and around my wings. I nearly sighed with pleasure and gave in to the sensation, but just then my destination came in sight. The mainland had disappeared behind me several hours ago and I’d flown swiftly through a world of perfect blue, lost in the caress of the air and the burning touch of the sun – the two elements that made up the soul of a dragon.
Time had passed peacefully during my flight, my wings neither tiring nor faltering, but rather, buoyed up by the power of the draconian elements. I’d let my mind drift, allowing myself to summon up the ancient tale of the beginning of our current Age. Perhaps somewhere in there lay an answer to solve the current dilemma I was facing.
The island grew closer, individual features becoming distinguishable. It appeared quite barren, surrounded by rock cliffs and little shore. A thin line of lush forest surrounded the main part of the isle, a looming cone that jutted out proudly, a dead volcano echoing the legacy of its fiery past.
Focusing my will, I pushed at the wind to speed me along, hoping to somehow have an answer for what lay before me, something that would quickly resolve what was becoming an unfortunate and embarrassing problem for the Dasodraksion, the Dragon Council.
As one of the drakoniers, dragons couriers who ranged over the world attending to the affairs of the Council, I was deemed the most suitable for the assignment. On the surface, it was simple.
A cult had sprung up on one of the island chains of the southern continent. Every six moons, they sacrificed up one of their virgin daughters, lashing her up on poles and leaving her out for a dragon to devour, in return for the dragon’s protection.
Only the dragon wasn’t eating them. He was bringing them back here, to this island. There was, according to the few reports I’d been given, a growing collection of females. It seemed this dragon was looking for a mate – and it was not voluntary.
I was to investigate and learn the truth, to see if such an aberrant practice did exist. It made the humans on those islands fear us, even worship us a little, which went against the decrees of the Council. We were always to give the choice to our chosen female. Taking away that choice and using force violated our most sacred laws. It was not to be allowed to continue.
Thus, my clan leader and father sent me in to discover the truth and report back to him. And if needed, to the Dasodraksion. It was of supreme importance that I find the truth and report back as soon as possible.
Yet I wished I hadn’t been chosen.
Because this supposed Devourer, cult god, and breaker of laws wasn’t any normal dragon – he was also my only brother.
Wrethrian.
My father had waited a long time after my brother’s birth to mate again. He was one of the few dragons who’d sired two sons – the first out of necessity, the second out of love. Though he hadn’t loved my brother’s dam, he had raised my brother to be a strong leader for our clan after my father died. For his sake, I had no desire to kill Wrethrian, the only other living descendant of his Blood.
Somehow, I hoped to find my brother’s cult was but a myth and my father could remain proud of his lineage.
Scanning the mountain, I spied a large cave opening that looked as if it might lead inside. It was, I hoped, an entrance, for other than that, the ground below me was smooth and featureless I glided closer, the night serving to camouflage me. My mother had been a wind priestess of the griffins, and I’d inherited her eagle coloring. My face was light silver, and I was white all through my underbelly. But my scales gradually shaded from dark gray on my wings up to black on my spine. This allowed me to fly unseen at night and to blend in to nearly any environment, except for open, green meadows.
Hanging in front of the edge of the large opening, I searched it for any sign of life, closing my eyes and using my Fire to sense other living beings. Other than a few birds, there was nothing but the wind. My eyes snapped open and a gust of air blew around me. I clamped down on my emotions, wary of giving my presence away, and the breeze died down.
My mother had also gifted me with her ability to manipulate the wind. All dragons could already control Fire and Air, but my elemental control of Air was nearly subconscious. It responded readily to my emotions, requiring a higher level of control than other dragons needed. I had only to want a stronger updraft and it was there, strengthening my flight.
Thus, as I approached the dark area, Air again blew around me. I willed it to calm as I flew closer to the opening, which grew larger than it had first appeared, hidden by the angle of the slope. The approaching maw giving little away, demanding I bow at its immensity. Terror spread tiny tendrils through me, surprising me with its presence.
Fire built inside my chest, and I snorted out fumes, obscuring the black opening. The dragon spell faded, and I cursed my stupidity for thinking that my brother would have left the entrance to his lair undefended. Nearly any other creature – including many dragons – would have flown away as the overwhelming fear intruded.
But I had greater defenses than most beings. My connection to Air expanded the sensitivity of my Fire, so that I was able to sense everything from the tiniest spark of life to the fleeting echo of a smoky spell. The wind in me had sensed the wrongness of the fear, and coursed to my Fire in alarm. The spell faded as my fire powers flared out, burning it to nothingness. The fire then settled back, awake and aware, searching the rock around me, pulling my defenses in place.
After closing off the link to my frustration, I commanded the wind to drop me onto the ground. I spread my wings and floated down, making no sound with them, letting the air do all the work. The wind deposited me soundlessly in front of the cavernous opening, the air stilling around me, ready to respond to any more threats. The vast opening yawned around me, appearing empty and dead. No light leaked out. Not a hint of features peeked from its darkness. It rose above me, three times my height and half as wide. I reached out one of my forelegs and felt the edge. It was as deliberately smooth as the slope. Created, not natural. Hints of old fire and something green and muddy lingered in the stone.
A dragon’s lair.
I had originally thought I might settle in and observe the island the next day, as well as restore my energy from the sun.  But as the last bit of sunlight began to stretch its fire into the sky, lightening the sky to a bright orange, I decided to enter the cave and see where it led.
The barest whisper of air went before me, weak and harmless, a warning beacon more than anything else. It detected nothing, so I crept in, my wings tightly furled against my back. Uneasy about walking along the floor, I unsheathed my claws and climbed up one of the walls, moving forward from a position of greater strength, ready for attack.
But nothing stirred. Had my brother’s arrogance given him the belief that his fear spell was enough?
An inner voice chided at me, reminding me that I had, despite my abilities, almost given in.
I returned my gaze to the bare rock around me. It was hard to find purchase in the even walls, forcing me to dig my claws in deeper. I wanted to call the air to hold part of my weight and ease the burden of my claws. But even as wind started to swirl around me, I pushed it away, not wanting to upset the balance of stillness around me, in case that, too, was another part of a trap.
Still, as my eyes strained to pierce the utter darkness, I saw nothing. Realizing my open eyes were lightening the area around me, I closed them, unwilling to give away my position in so easy a manner. Instead, I focused my Fire sense outward, searching for the heat of living bodies. Finding nothing nearby, I continued forward.
Wind drifted around me and past me. Before too long, it found a small opening ahead. I reached it and realized it was a chamber of misdirection, as it branched off into several directions. For several moments I remained against the wall, clinging there as I sent my awareness down several of the tunnels. Finally, I caught the heat of other beings, but they were small and isolated.
A mass of heat down a larger tunnel caught my attention. I turned and started down it, surprised that I hadn’t encountered any living being in any of the corridors. Perhaps they were all together, engaged in some activity, except for the faint heat I sensed in other directions. But none of the life energy I sensed was strong enough to be my brother.
Unless he already knew I was there and was hiding from me.
Deciding to head towards the largest mass of life energies, I climbed up to the roof of the corridor, hanging upside down to gain tactical advantage in case my brother was waiting to attack me. Letting the wind swirl on the ground as I distraction, I approached the end of the tunnel, my eyes slitted open. Light began to pierce the gloom, dull and gray. Sounds, too, began to echo around me – screams and moans. I sped up, afraid I was about to witness a massacre.
Scrambling the last few dragonlengths forward, I entered a huge room. Dim light filtered down from high above, centered on a space in the center of the chamber. Unable to understand the tangled heat signatures in front of me, I finally opened my eyes completely.
Air seemed to freeze in my lungs as I took in what I was seeing. Naked bodies writhed over each other, groaning in pleasure and abandon. There were about a dozen, and they all appeared female. I shook my head and took a deep breath, then searched further, noticing that they ducked under each other constantly, circling a particular point on the floor. Each female leaned in, caressing some thing there, kissing it and begging it for release.
A body moved slightly, and large, male hands came up to grasp one female’s bottom, while another pushed a head down below its chest.
Again, I sent my Fire out, and felt the familiar touch of dragon magic.
That man was a Sending.
It was time to stop the twisted, lust-filled scene in front of me. Air poured from me, chilling the wind in front of me in a widening arc. Time to announce myself.
“Wrethrian. I feel you here.”
My voice echoed with the sibilant syllables of draconian speech. A few moments passed, then an answering voice came out of a darkened corner, away from the press of bodies in the center of the chamber.
“Rothsarien.”
My brother’s voice hissed out of the blackened corner of the cave. My gaze shifted from the mass of writhing bodies to the source of his voice.
Wretharian’s eyes opened, gleaming out of the darkness, lighting the darkened cave.
Even now, they startled me. They were the same luminosity as my own, clear and nearly a colorless blue, as sparkling as the aquamarines our clan was named for. Only, unlike mine, which could reflect the shades of my surroundings, my brother’s pure white coloring enhanced the clarity of his eyes, leeching them of any possible hue. This left them cold and hard to read, without the appearance of any emotion.
His mother had been one of the rare wolvenkind of the north, a giant snow wolf and mage of her pack. From her he inherited her coloring and earth power. This gave my brother the rare ability to manipulate stone. He was, as far as I knew, the only dragon capable of twisting the earth element. I had not thought him so strong in his ability, but the carved entrance and perfectly rounded and shaped corridors of his home echoed with the feel of his powers.
“Wrethrian.”
He closed his eyes a moment, and I felt his fire powers flare as he pulled his Sending back into himself. The bodies tangled in front of him shrieked, crying out in fear.
“My Lord!
“Where have you gone?”
“Master!”
His eyes blinked open, shining even brighter than before, and he surged out from the crevice in which he’d wedged his body. More screams rung out, this time of terror and adoration, and the females flung themselves face down on the ground in front of him, prostrating themselves for worship. Their naked bodies glistened with sweat, and I saw that they were a mix of race, with a few elves, humans, dwarves, and even a snakekin mixed in.
Wrethrian breathed on them, wreathing them in smoke.
“Arise, my chosen. Another Lord has come among us. Greet him.”
As one, they stood up, turned and faced me, and prostrated themselves on the ground again.
“Very good. Leave now, and do not return unless I call for you.”
One by one, they crawled upwards, protest in every movement. They filed out, some still crying with need. I watched them until they were out of sight, my mind still trying to come to terms with what I’d just witnessed. My head turned to find Wrethrian regarding me calmly.
I settled back on my haunches, straightened my neck, and brought my tail up to arch over me, unfurling my wings halfway – the classic drakonier pose that said I came at the command of the clan leader. Our father.
“You know why I am here.”
Wrethrian moved further away from the wall, approaching me much as a lion stalked a deer.
But I was no prey.
“Little brother, come at the will of the Council? No, our father.”
Air eddied around me, and he stopped his advance.
“So it is true. You’ve created a place for the races to worship you.”
“And what concern is that to you?”
”The cult of the Devourer is an abomination.”
He chuckled, interrupting me.
“Is it, little brother?  So you want to wipe it out? To destroy me?”
“I have issued no Challenge.”
He threw his neck up and a whirlwind rose up in front of me. But Wrethrian only shot a short flame upwards before settling back down to face me.
“No, little brother, you have not. Nor will you, once I show you how futile that would be.”
The ground rumbled beneath me, and in the span of an eyeblink, the air shot me upwards, away from the trembling.
“Impressive, little brother. Your wings haven’t even finished unfurling.”
“You know who my mother was and what she could do. You remember her, even if I do not.”
“Oh yes, the mighty Rothsarien, master of fire and lord of air.”
He looked at me almost lazily.
“But do not forget who my mother was.”
A spear of rock flashed in front of me, shooting out from one of the walls around me. I ducked away, barely avoiding it. Angrily, I pushed the air away from me in a menacing arc, hitting the spear and hurling it towards the ground. It clanged down beside my brother, who looked startled.
“I did not come here to talk about our mothers or the abilities they left us. I am here to discuss your actions and those of your cult. Man is learning to worship us, which is wrong. And worse, they carry out murders and other atrocities in your name. They burn innocent children and smash helpless animals under rocks, all in homage to you and your gifts. This must stop!”
“You truly don’t understand, little brother. I do not care what those short-lived people believe. And I am not here on this island purely for pleasure, though that is an agreeable perquisite. In truth, I was called here, to create this place, to become the Devourer. I alone will save our kin.”
“Dragonkind has already been saved. What is it you expect to do? And what do you mean you were called?”
“A vision spoke to me.”
“Wrethrian, this is madness.”
A call out from the mouth of the cave interrupted us. A voice spoke, using the common dialect of the Pact.
“My Lord, there is trouble.”
“Trouble?”
A trembling girl appeared, her face pinched and white with fear.
“The… the sythren-”
“Ah. Yessss.”
Wrethrian turned his head to look at me.
“We will continue this… discussion after I’ve dealt with this problem.”
The wind deposited me back against the ground.
“I will come with you.”
A glint of his cold humor showed through an upraised lip, exposing a long fang.
“As you will, little brother.”
The ground shook slightly as he turned away and began walking towards the corridor from which I’d entered, his power rippling in the rock around him. My Fire and Air flared out to just below my scales, ready to fight.
Because somehow I know our battle had just begun.
 


Stone: the Way In, Book II of the Dragonlady Trilogy - preview chapter

Please enjoy this preview chapter of the second book in the Dragonlady Trilogy, coming Dec. 2015.


Chapter 1 – Into the Wasteland

Eastern Hguted

Sometimes the enemy I think I see is only a cheap disguise for another.  And that if I can just believe in my wild hopes and strange dreams, I might be able to survive.
But first I had to remember how to trust. How to believe.
And how to learn.
Because more than anything, I needed to be able to survive on my own.
You see, all the years I’d spent lonely and lost, I’d been blind to all the life around me. It was only when, confronted with the vast, hostile, barren wastelands, that I truly understood what it meant to be alone.


The turkhai was huge with wide shoulders and large, cruel-looking hands. He looked us over carefully, noting who seemed afraid, or defiant, or dazed. I didn’t understand what was going on, my mind unable to focus beyond the sound of screams floating around me. I was terrified by the looming presence of the dark, ugly brute walking down the line.
“Mama?” I whimpered softly.
“Hush, child,” a voice roughly chided, squeezing my arm tightly to remind me not to talk, not to question, not to ask for anything at all.
Flash.
Black. Pounding, aching, pulsing agony. Separated into pieces of nothing, small bits that used to be… myself.
“Grashik! Grashik!”
Faster. Faster.
The lash taught me their language so quickly. I tried to learn. I tried. But he was so big and mean, and no one cared. No one helped me at all. What could I do? 
Flash.
There was no body. Just disconnected motions and lancing pains as I floated there, lost, breaking apart under the onslaught of memories I wanted so desperately to lose again.
“Rane? Rane!”
I ran as fast as I could away from my guard to her open arms.
“Mama? What’s going on outside? Where is Da? Where is every–“
“Darling, listen. Listen!” she said sternly, stopping my questions into respectful quiescence. “I’m going to send you away with Germand. You do exactly as he says.  Everything. Don’t ask any questions, especially about me or papa or your sisters. Do you understand?” 
She shook me urgently, and I started to cry, shaking my head in growing anxiety.
“Oh, darling.” She softened for a moment, pulling me close and hugging me tightly to her bosom. She smelled so sweet, like fresh salt and the white flowers she would tuck all around our rooms. I clung to her, crying, for just a few moments, before she pushed me back into Germand’s waiting arms.
“No. Ma? Maaaaa!”
 I started to scream and cry for her, but she pushed me away, her own eyes bright.
“Rane, you must go now. Go! Don’t say anything about us. Be good. I love you.” 
She looked at me, her eyes full of love, as if trying to memorize my features. I looked back at her, my eyes full of fear. A single tear dropped onto her cheek before she abruptly turned and started running the other way.
I tried to follow her, but Germand caught me and started hauling me in the opposite direction, away from the Outer Gates towards the lower levels and the beaches. I started screaming and fighting and with him.
“Ma! Da! Maaa!” I clawed at the arms restraining me until Germand had to pick me up and restrain me.
“Hush, child Rane. Hush. We have to go. I will take care of you.” 
I stopped thrashing, finally falling limp with my sobs. I was a good mer, always obedient. Though I wanted to disobey, I also wanted to do what my ma had asked. Still, Germand set me back down carefully as if afraid I would try and run away, a cautious hand still against my back.
A splintering crash shook the walls and suddenly a roar of voices flooded the far end of the hall where my mother had been heading.
“Run, Rane, now! Don’t look back!” Germand shouted as he grabbed my wrist and started pulling me along.
I ran away, crying, confused and scared.
But I looked back.
Why did I look back?
Flash.
Tightening, spasms threatening to choke me into myself, to force my mind to explode. A thought floated through all the mess – No more. Stop. I must stop… I… I…
Scaly, damp hands with thick claws slowly made their way across my face and down my body until they came to my hip.
I shuddered in disgust and fear, and tried to back away, but the wall behind me stopped me after only a couple of steps.
“No, please, no.” 
My voice was thin and weak, only a child’s.
The grotesque hands reached out and grabbed me, a low chuckle filling the air.
“Grasne s’lnth rrsng rlan.”
Such a sweet smell of fear.
Flash.
I…am. A whole. Find those pieces – those parts of…me.
Cold hands wiped gently against my brow. Voices murmured over me.
“I’m worried about the child.”
“Yes. Ever since she came back, she’s done nothing but lie there, staring at nothing. She moves when she’s told but on her own, she’s – she’s nothing but a shell.”
 “Her body recovered. Many others did not. But her mind–“
“Did we save her only to give her a longer death?”
“I’m surprised she’s still alive, actually. That she survived so long with the turkhai-gren is unbelievable.”
“Three months.”
The hands paused in their rhythmic stroking.
“He. We must refer to her as he. It was what Leader Melo wanted.  To give her – him – a chance.”
They were silent for a moment.
“But Rane didn’t survive,” the voice nearest me said fiercely. “Something is dead inside… him now. Even if he starts moving or eating or talking on his own again, he won’t be whole. How could he?” The voice broke, pausing before finally whispering, “He will just go through the motions, and be an empty nothing.”
“Surely death, just a different sort.”
The hands resumed their stroking.
“Like the rest of us, someday. Perhaps soon.”
“Why didn’t the turkhai-gren give her to Nabor and T’nend?”
I wanted to answer the voice, but the words were locked inside me. All my joy and innocence was gone. My childhood was over. I could only lay there, willing myself to forget.
“We need to get someone out. We need help. If we could just get someone through the Hguted…surely there are still paths through to the Liranth Mountains.”
“Yes. That is where the witch, Naris, lives. She’ll know how to help. How to find – Them – wherever They went.”
“She’s the closest Guardian we have.”
A pause in the conversation, while each one considered what she was supposed to guard.
“I wish–”
“No. There are no more dragons left.  If there were, would this have happened?”
Flash.
Yes…help… I… need… me. Me. Rane. A name. My name. I’m not broken.
Slowly, instinctively, I pulled myself together, strange fragments that fit together uneasily. I pushed back the breakage and the black nothing inside of me receded, leaving in its wake an awareness of my body and a return to my senses. The pain in my head finally pushed me back into a groggy consciousness. The dark around me became no deeper than the closure of my lids. 
A rustling above quickly caught my attention, jerking me into full awareness as the last of the images faded away, retreating before the onslaught of heat and brightness pressing in on my face and the alarm of the unknown intruder. I heard another scuffle and my eyes flew open, afraid. Only, they didn’t respond quite as I’d expected, moving only into tiny slits. The small increase in light intensified the spears of pain running through my head, involuntarily causing me to groan, which only seemed to magnify the pounding.
“Shh, child, don’t ye move,” said a warm voice to my left. “Believe me o’ no, the pain will begin to subside in a wee bit. Oy don’t know what possessed ye to try and outrun a sandstorm. Then again, from the looks of ye, lad, it’s fairly obvious ye’re willin’ at run away from anything.”
As the voice continued talking, I noticed that the pain had subsided enough to feel that I was lying flat on the ground. 
I gasped out, unthinking, voice dry and uneven, “Why haven’t you killed me?”
The voice began to chuckle. 
“Well, ye see, that’s no exactly what me job is for. Now, try an’ sit up a bit, there ye go.”
Hands firmly - but not roughly - helped pull me up.  They moved away for a moment before returning, putting my hands around a sloshing bowl.   
The voice continued.
“Yes, oy know yer dizzy.  Drink some o’that fresh water. Yer looking a bit flat. Let it come. And now, ye see, it’s startin’ at fade a bit more. Now, don’t ye know, ye kin start to open yer eyes a wee bit more.”
Surprisingly, as the voice continued talking, I felt myself relaxing, my body losing some of its tension as the pain in my head lessened to a manageable level. I drank greedily, emptying the bowl before I realized it.
“Why are you helping me?” I asked slowly, clutching the bowl, afraid of the answer but determined to understand.
The voice, which was now a vague figure, was silent for a moment.
“Well, that’s a bit more complicated than ye might think. Now ‘ere, lemme get ye some more water for the bowl.”
He took the bowl, returning it a few moments later, placing my hands once again around it. I drank again, more slowly this time, waiting for his explanation, trying to get my eyes to open all the way.
 “Hmm, perhaps, when ye can look at me, that might shorten the explanation.”
Anxious now, I began to squint, afraid of the harmful effects of the bright Rising. Fortunately, that time was much easier and the white haze of the sun did not split my head open as it had the first time I tried. Everything was blurry, all shadows and strange angles. But as I blinked my eyes, they gradually turned into more familiar shapes. I turned my head towards the voice.
And started in disbelief.
“You’re…a Lukd’an’dhi?”
“Certainly,” he replied with a wink, bowing from his waist.
Not quite believing that a once childhood myth was actually a reality, I tried to take him all in.  He wasn’t short, but not at all tall.  His pupil-less black eyes were large, round, and twinkling with an inner energy.  His general appearance screamed attention, from his pink, satin covered boots to his slightly discolored brown leggings.  He wore a purple tunic covered by a green vest and a sunshine and sky-blue hat dangled from his hand.  I almost didn’t remember the names to all those garish – yet strangely moving – colors.  His face was completely hairless, with a deep dimple in the center of his right cheek. 
 “You look so young,” I blurted to him.
He laughed loudly and replied, “We don’t quite age the same way as ye do, lad.”
Acutely aware of my vulnerability should my disguise be discovered, I quickly sobered.  “So… why help me?”
“Well, it is true that I’m no’ in the habit of helpin’ runaway slaves, especially from a Yinn where draonds are running everythin’, no matter how minor.  And then add the fact that ye might be stupid, running away in the middle of the biggest sandstorm that I’ve heard of in many a year while the High Lord is visitin’.  And especially, add that me help, so far, has been completely free.”
At this point in his speech, between the soft rolling sounds of his voice and his facial expressions, I began to lose track of what he was actually saying.  “So then why-”
“That’s the bottom of everythin’, ye know.  The reason for action.  Motivation.  And don't ye know it but money's the best motivator.  But, if ye add the fact that yer in the middle of the Hguted and still alive, ye managed at pull yer mind back, and that ye managed to land on a witme, me thinks that ye’ve got a bit o’ luck in ye, and anybody wit’ their own luck has definitely got something they need to do before they die.”
During his speech, I had been alternately gazing at him in fear and distrust, trying to figure out how he knew about the High Lord’s visit, my escape, and especially, my Remembering.
“What do you mean by pull my mind back?” I rasped, conscious of the suspicion in my voice.  “And… how did you know what I had done when you found me?”
He looked away a moment, thinking. He finally looked at me and smiled, small wrinkles crinkling the corners of his round cheeks. 
“Weel, ye do know that part of me business is the sellin’ o’ magick spells and such, yes?”
“Not exactly,” I replied.  “Actually, I didn’t think your kind existed.”
He started laughing at me then.  He snapped his fingers and a whirl of sand flew up my nose.  I sneezed and he snapped his fingers again, causing the sand to fall back to the ground.
His laughter subsided and he continued.  “Part of what I am is Magick.  And I can recognize when someone is using somethin’… other.”
“I was doing Magick?” I interrupted, lifting my head off of the ground.
“No, child, ye were…” He stopped and sighed. “I canna tell you just what yet, but I will say this. There are some who are born with… with the ability to Remember everything they’ve ever experienced in perfect detail.  The way ye were layin’, completely outstretched with yer hands over yer eyes - that’s almost always a sure sign of Seein’.”
I was quiet for a moment, absorbing his words one at a time. 
Was it called Seeing, what I had done? 
“How many are born able to Remember the way I can?” I finally asked.
He went still, his body seeming to freeze, and I looked up at him. His face was tight with sorrow. He blinked and the expression disappeared.  I might have thought I imagined it had his voice not been full of some deep emotion when he answered me.
“Not so verra many now.”
I regarded him solemnly, sure I was missing something, but unable to find the words to ask him. Instead, I carefully sat up. I was still dizzy, but I managed to pull myself into a sitting position. My skin felt tender from the both the abrasions of sandstorm and the dry, hot air. I looked around, and saw few scrubby grasses and sharp-looking, low bushes. The ground looked burnt, covered in a black sand and dirt mixture. It went on farther than I could see, a haze thickening the air in the distance, dim shapes of large rocks the only interruptions in the flat landscape. There was no sign of any living creature. When I turned my head, I saw there was a small brown boulder next to me. I tried scooting towards it, groaning.
“Ach, child, let me help.”
The Lukd’an’dhi reached towards me and I flinched involuntarily. He paused, watching me.
“Now, lad, if I wanted at hurt ye, don’t ye know I would’ve already?”
I nodded, and he put his small hands out towards me again and I let him help me move to where I was leaning against the boulder, body partially hidden in its slight length of shade.  He was definitely stronger than he looked.  He backed up, refilled the water bowl from a jug near the large pile of his traveling packs, and brought it to me.  I nodded my head in thanks, unable to speak so soon after the effort of moving, my skin prickling with pain and my throat on fire. I accepted the bowl and took a large swallow. I then looked back at the Lukd’an’dhi, who had moved back and was squatting a few paces away from me.     
“But how am I still alive?  I wondered aloud. “The storm was so violent. I felt… it wanted to hurt me. It was almost as if something followed me.”
At that the Lukd’an’dhi stood up and walked away. He stared out into the red haze of the wasteland. I saw his fingers come up and make a complicated pattern in the air. He waited for a moment before sighing in relief and coming back to crouch next to me.
“Weel, lad, there is nothing searchin’ for ye now.”
I thought back to what he said about how I had escaped the storm by landing – here?
“What is a witme? 
The new word flowed smoothly out of my mouth, the odd pronunciation sounding very natural in my ears.
“Well,” he replied, “that has at’ do wit’ where a witme is.” The Lukd’an’dhi settled himself more comfortably on a small rock in front of me, as if he was about to give a lecture. “Ye’ve probably noticed that we are here, sittin’ somewhat happily and securely in the middle of this dead and unhappy place. The question here is how.”
I nodded my head and him and sipped more water.
“Weel,” he continued, “there are many dangerous and deadly things in this world - sometimes it seems as if there are more dangers then anything else.  But know that there is also Good in this world, even if it doesn’t seem too active.  It is part of what we Magick folk call Balance.  This Good has some defenses in the least likely places, some of which are even here, in the Hguted.
He paused for a moment, as if waiting for me to ask him something. I thought through his words.
“There is no true Balance now, is there? Because… because the dragons left.”
He started in surprise, looking at me carefully. 
“What do ye know about dragons?”
“I – I just dream about flying, sometimes.”
He smiled at me, his entire face alight with joy.
“Strange thing for a mer to dream of, eh?” he said, laughing again.
I looked down, embarrassed.
Why did I tell him about my dreams?
“I know it’s silly,” I said defensively. “The ocean is inside me. I don’t understand.”
“Weel, lad,” he interjected, trying to suppress his grin, “I wouldna worry about yer dreams just now.”
I shook my head in irritation at the humor I still heard coating his voice.
“What defenses does the Good part of Balance have here in the Hguted?”
“Ye could probably think of the wa’ais as paths that run through the wasteland and provide a way at travel safely. But this here is a witme. It’s actually quite a bit larger, something like a small island. For instance, that rock that yer leanin’ against is the center part of this one, and it extends about four strides all around it before becoming less o’ a clearing and more o’ a narrow path.”
“Are they all the same?”
“No, o’course. In some places, the wa’ais can be very wide, but it can also be as small as a half-stride. The thing is, that which made the Hguted is very strong, and so where the paths might have once have been continuous in some places, now some of them are not.”
He unexpectedly grinned, showing me a row of shiny white teeth, sparkling and studded with gold specks that shimmered in the bright light.
“Unless, a’course, yer a Lukd’an’dhi like me – made o’ Magick and Luk - or skilled in some other way, ye can’t survive it.” 
I nodded slowly, absorbing these facts in a still painfully throbbing head.
I asked, feeling each word shaping itself out of my dry mouth.
“So, then, because I should be dead, and I’m not, and I ended up here, you’ve decided to help me… and for free?”
The Lukd’an’dhi began to shake with laughter.
“Weel, I have no heard of that kind of offer in a while.  For free, weel, are ye askin’ or expectin’?” 
He looked at me quite sharply, and the twinkle in his eyes did not quite hide the shrewd cunning I could see next peering out from behind his amusement.
I struggled to sound uncaring.
“No, I’m not expecting any help. I’ll be fine, uh…”
I paused, searching.
“What is your name by the way?”
He smiled again, flashing his teeth, and said, “Weel, that’s a relief about yer expectations. But oy don’t know if oy should tell ye me name just yet.”
“Right, I’m sorry–”
I abruptly broke off mid-sentence and began coughing, choking on my own words. 
“Lad, stay wit’ me now, okay, here’s some water for ye, there, drink up. Don’t worry, drink it up, there’s plenty left, there ye go, just lay back and relax.”
While he kept muttering on next to me, I was trying to drink the water, which suddenly became the best thing I had ever tasted.  A few minutes later, the coughing subsided.
“Lad, I hope yer not getting’ sick.”
“No,” I gasped in a small voice, “I think… I’ve just never been this far from the ocean, in air this dry.”

I paused and swallowed.
“Or talked this much in turns.”
The Lukd’an’dhi’s eyes clouded over with sympathy as he remembered again where I had just recently been. Surprisingly, I found myself looking away in shame.
“Weel, lad, I won’t tell ye me name, but mostly because I don’t want ye tellin’ anyone I helped ye for free.”
     I looked up, surprised, to see him grinning at me.
“I - I don’t understand.”
     His grin turned into a cough, as if he was hiding a laugh. Again, I found myself completely mystified by his behavior.
Then again, it had been a long time since I’d heard true, sweet laughter.
“Hush, now,” he continued. “Oy’ve got something that I think will ‘elp ye get out of this place. Now don’t look at me like that, oy ‘ave a different route oy’m travelin’, an’ oy can’t stay here much longer, although oy think ye should. Now, where ye headed, lad?”
     I was afraid to lie to him.  I thought it might be a test, and I wanted to win whatever prize there might be. But he was asking for my trust, and I thought I’d already extended far more than I was capable. 
     Perhaps I’ll give him only part of the truth.
“I’m looking for someone,” I said after a tense moment.
     He regarded me somberly, looking, no doubt, at the bruises on my face and arms, the welts on my back and shoulders peeking up around the loose neckline of my top. The bite marks on my neck.  Some emotion darkened his eyes, and I felt a strange lance of emotion clutching my throat.  
But he only replied, “I thought so, lad. Weel, I don’t suppose ye know which way at go?”
     I shook my head silently, berating myself for my stupidity.  Go west for a long time. But I didn’t know, not really, just what that meant. Just that I needed to go in the opposite direction of the Yinn. 
Jerking my head up, I said, “But I know I have to get to the Liranth Mountains –”
     At his glower, I quickly shut my mouth. Had I said too much?
     “Lad, oy know where ye need to go, and believe me, it won’t be easy or quick, and oy can’t stay and help ye much longer, so listen up.”
I nodded my head again to show him I was listening.
Now, to get to Liranth Mountains, ye need to get through de Hguted an’ de Giewsaqz, er, another unhappy place. Ye know ye are protected somewhat from de creatures of de Hguted as long as ye stay on the wa’ais or in the witmes? 
“Yes. I just need to stay on them.
Weel, only as long as the paths remain unbroken. But the Giewsaqz is different. It is a place of despair. Hopelessness.” 
He was silent for a moment, his eyes shadowed by old grief.
“These feelings creep in despite the barriers of Good around de wa’ais,” he continued softly,and make a traveler want to give up. And that is no’ so good because there is verra little water in that place. Even less than ‘ere.” 
He took a deep breath before looking up into my wide eyes.  Then he smiled, gently, and reached out a hand to pat my shoulder.
“It is especially hard on someone like ye who is alone.”
He laughed abruptly, shaking himself out of his dark mood.  I looked at him in bewilderment. 
“But that is why havin’ some good Luk is so important.”
“And I need Luk to get to the mountains?” I asked slowly.
“No’ exactly. But Magick can be a verra powerful tool.” 
He glanced up at me again before reaching into his bag and pulling out an oddly colored object, glowing with its own dim luminescence despite the brilliance of the day. It had a deep blue stalk with a thin, white line running in the middle, and three orange leaves, like some strangely shaped vegetable, fixed to the top and on both sides. The entire thing was about the size of my hand. He fixed me with an intense stare.
“This, here, is a kliec,” and he gestured to the glowing shape in his hand, “an’ it has some of my good Luk in it, instead o’ me bad.  That means when the odds are most against ye, it is at its strongest.  So, listen verra carefully to these directions.”
He looked at me challengingly, and I nodded back calmly.
I can do this.
“Now the kliec is good to help the body live without much water.  It is also good a finding things.  First, each o’ these leaves is good for five days.  That is, ye take one, peel it away from the stalk, and chew it verra slowly.  It will give ye energy, but ye won’t feel full or rested.  Ye will just have more strength then ye believe.”   
He stopped and brought it closer to my face. His short finger lightly tapped the center of the stalk. 
“This line here in de middle – that is yer map. Ye must wake it only at sunset and tell it where ye want to go. Then hold it in yer hand and it will move itself in that direction. But be careful.  It will only last long enough to get ye there – if ye don’t stop!”
He then deposited the glowing plant carefully into my hand. I stared at it as he stepped back and began to dig a little hole in the ground.
I stared at the kliec in my hand for a few moments before grabbing my pack and placing it tenderly inside. 
“How long is it to the mountains?” I finally asked.
“Ach, weel, if ye don’t stop and the paths are whole, twenty cycles. Maybe a few more.”
I looked up at him, stunned.  I had no idea about the true distance to the mountains. Or even that people would know about someone who lived so far, and think they would help.
Will Naris travel so far for me? For them?
My dismay must’ve shown on my face, because he gently pressed my shoulder.
“Lad, did ye not make it here? Against all the odds?”
I nodded dumbly.
It may be that ye have a bit o’ yer own Luk in ye. That makes a difference. Can’t ye trust in yerself now?”
I bit back a retort, and said instead, “I don’t really trust anymore.”
          “Lad, not everyone in this great world lives the way ye did in yer Yinn.”
I started, rearing away from him and scrambling up.   
“How did you know…that I – “
I stopped, ashamed, humiliated, angry.
Of course I look like a slave.
He merely sat there for a while looking at me calmly until I settled myself back on the ground, pushing my churning emotions back down.
“Ye cannot change where ye were, or what ye were. Or even what ye did. But ye have left that now, yes? So ye must learn to live the right way again.”
I looked down, anguished.
He finally said into that charged and unhappy silence,
“Corregan.”
I looked up, and the twinkle was back in his eye.
“Corregan,” he said again.
I thought fiercely for a moment.
Why remember it, then not use it?
I swallowed, attempted a small smile, and replied, “Rane.”