Thursday, August 13, 2015

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.”
 

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