Atop a broad, windswept hilltop littered with twisted scratchbush and weather-worn rocks Seth'Nai stopped his shen then threw back his head and let out a howl that set Sekher's skin to crawling and caused his mount to balk.
"That's it," moaned Chaiila, spreading her arms as if appealing to the Gods. "It's gone mad!"
"Huh! Well something's got him excited," said Nersi. "Anyone curious?"
Seth'Nai was waiting for them, his face contorted in a grin fit to petrify cubs. As the Trenalbi approached he waved his arm in a broad sweep as if offering to them the land that lay ahead.
They stopped and stared, squinting, at a distant shape squatting on a hill.
"So, what is it?" Chaiila asked.
"Can't really tell," confessed Sekher. "Looks like a hut of some kind... Too far to see."
"Seth'Nai," called Nersi. "Is that it?"
The creature looked at her and the grin wavered, then vanished. "Yes. Go there. Please. Not you... you do not be afraid. Not hurt you. No afraid." He stretched out a hand to her, "Please, trust?"
Nersi glanced at Sekher, then Chaiila, then nudged her shen forward and touched the outstretched hand. "All right. Trust." Seth'Nai's pale digits closed around her hand, squeezed, then released her. Without further ado he awkwardly reined his shen around and started it trotting toward the far-off structure. The Trenalbi exchanged glances and set off after him.
It was Chaiila who noticed they were being watched.
"Over there," she pointed at a bush. Something small and many-legged scuttled for the cover of shadows. "Also, have you noticed anything strange about that broadwing?"
Sekher looked up at the circling flyer. "No... It has been up there a long time, ah?"
"Yeah, they don't usually hang around one place like that unless there's something dying, then there's plenty more than one of the greedy bastards... Look! There!"
Sekher snapped his head around in time to see a small, silver thing scuttling through the grass on six jointed legs. Small glassy eyes stared back at him then it was gone behind a rock.
"Ka!" Chaiila was coughing in distaste. "What in all the hells was THAT?!"
"Another of Seth'Nai's toys?" Sekher suggested. "He's got eyes everywhere."
"Huh!" Chaiila was still staring at the spot where the thing had disappeared. "Do you think that's why he was telling us not to be scared?"
"Uh..." Sekher wasn't watching her. "No."
"No. Huhn... I think THAT'S why." Sekher pointed ahead, noticing without a great deal of surprise that his finger was trembling.
Chaiila looked and her ruff went flat.
The structure they'd seen earlier wasn't a hut. It was simply the top of something bigger.
Not quite the size of a garrison stronghold, although coming close, it nestled in a trail of torn, churned earth. A nearby hill had had its crest violently removed and scattered around the construction. Cliff-like walls of a white material etched with peculiar markings rose a sheer forty paces into the sky. Its flat apex was topped by a ridge running from one tapered end to the flared other and bristling with peculiar projections. That ridge rose above the hilltops. That was what they'd seen.
"A hut of some kind." Chaiila braked, then began chittering. "A hutttttt..."
She was chittering still as Seth'Nai led them down toward the edifice. Only as its shadow fell over them did she fall silent. It was there that Seth'Nai dismounted and bade them do the same. None of the Trenalbi spoke as they followed suit, mutely unloading the weary, nervous shen of cargo and tack, then hobbling them and setting them free to graze. They continued on foot.
Sekher could feel his ears stuck firm to his skull, his tail as rigid as a moss-covered stick. It loomed... it towered above them. The torn earth around them was littered with tracks of all kinds, flattened where heavy wheels had rolled. As they moved closer Sekher was able to see the whole structure was raised off the ground on four huge constructions of struts and beams that vanished into slots in the underbelly. The area was alive, was seething, with scurrying shapes, some tiny, multilegged things, others large wheeled things the size of wagons, others with no means of support visible at all. Metal glinted and clanked and grated among the shadows as the things darted about their tasks. Trails of twisted cables and wisps of smoke came from dark tunnels bored into the ground. A large wheeled vehicle would approach a hole, line itself up, then roll down into the tunnel and out of sight. Away in the distance there were metallic clashing noises. Periodically a high screeching sound could be heard accompanied by a shower of sparks from the far end of the edifice.
The Trenalbi had fallen into shocked, absolute silence, staring upwards with square eyes as they moved beneath that incredible mass. Sekher cringed as a wheeled monstrosity of battered metal rolled towards him then smoothly detoured around to continue on its way. Chaiila yipped and skipped into the air as a scuttling silver thing on legs skittered underfoot. Nersi was staying close by Seth'Nai with one hand clutching almost unconsciously at his arm as he strode arrow-straight through the madness.
Between the massive front legs a thick ramp led down from a door in the underbelly of the behemoth. The opening was easily the size of a peasant's small cottage and flanked by odd symbols, black and yellow stripes, and flashing lights. The ramp was metal, solid metal, and cold against Sekher's toes as they started up. At the top a vehicle with four solid jointed legs, flashing red lights, and a cluster of powerful arms was standing motionless. As soon as they were out of the way it clattered down the ramp.
Sekher was beginning to feel ill. Too much strangeness! Too fast!
And this chamber!
There was metal. Everywhere metal! Gods! There wasn't this much hard steel in the world! It glittered, it clattered. Flashing red and orange lights reflected from polished surfaces and spills of liquid. The floor was a mesh of metal grids that were uncomfortable to stand on. Above, the ceiling was hidden behind convolutions and clusters of tubes and beams and stranger things. Walls were dark, broken faces of shadowy alcoves and dazzling lights, dark metal glistening with condensation, clusters of small glass squares blinking green lights. Small machines with six legs scuttled across the floor, walls and ceiling with equal facility. The air was heavy with the tangy scent one smelled before a storm, along with other less-definable scents and also the faint, underlying spice of Trenalbi fear. Booming noises reverberated as larger devices manoeuvered. Sparks flew as brilliant lights flared in the distance.
At Sekher's side, Chaiila's eyes were eclipsed by the milkiness of her nictitating eyelid. Her lips moved soundlessly and she walked as if in drift, clutching her saddlebag and stumbling occasionally on the awkward footing. With nowhere else to go, the Trenalbi followed Seth'Nai as he led them through the dim confusion to a section of wall that, at a touch from his hand, slid aside in a spill of cool, clean white light.
The noise was abruptly cut off as the door closed behind them. There was a small room with white walls and floor and another door in the far wall. Beyond was an octagonal corridor and more metal, more of that accursed grillwork on the floor. No noise, save for a soft, pervading hum. The light coming from rectangular panels set along the ceiling and walls was bright and even, with none of the flickering or smoking so characteristic of oil or wood.
Another metal door - incredibly thick - slid aside with a high whine as they approached and they entered a room with several more similar doors around its periphery. The walls were covered with what looked like small cupboard doors and nets clamped pieces of what could be either machinery or art or junk to the floor. Seth'Nai slapped his hand against a glowing triangle beside a door and after a pause the door hissed and slid back into the wall. The room beyond was small, and with no apparent exit. It resembled a cell. Seth'Nai stepped in and looked back at the reluctant Trenalbi. "Come," he said, beckoning.
"Uh-uh," Chaiila took three steps backward. "No... I'm not going in there!"
Seth'Nai's forehead wrinkled. "Please. Come."
"No." This time it was Nersi who spoke against him. "Seth'Nai, not until you tell us: What IS this place!?"
Seth'Nai blinked and rubbed at his chin. "Is ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿." The words sputtered into incoherence. "Is my home," he said again. "I am ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿. Come, I show you."
None of the Trenalbi moved.
"Nersi?" Seth'Nai appealed. "Please, is safe."
She hugged the saddlebags she was carrying close to her chest, her claws scoring the leather, then uttered a strangled sound and stepped forward to stand beside the creature. She flinched as Seth'Nai laid a hand among the fur on her shoulder while they waited.
Sekher looked at Chaiila. "You really want to wait around here?"
Chaiila's ears went back and she huddled close by Sekher's side as he walked across the threshold. Seth'Nai's mouth twisted up and he tapped a symbol on the wall. The doors thumped shut, they jumped then abruptly Sekher staggered. It was as if someone had dropped a weight on his shoulders and to judge by Nersi and Chaiila's startled yelps they felt it too. As quickly as the feeling came it turned, like his guts were floating, then he staggered as they dropped back into place. The doors opened and the Trenalbi, all three, leapt out, the fear-stink pouring out after them.
Seth'Nai shook his head and picked up the bags the Trenalbi had dropped before joining them.
This wasn't where they'd entered...!
Sekher stared, trying to understand. The room was gone, as was the bare metal and noise. This was a corridor, octagonal like the others, but the walls were a clean white, washed with bright light. The discomfort underfoot was gone, the metal grids replaced by a beige floor covering softer than sand. The air...
And Sekher inhaled deeply, curling his tongue to taste the scent the better. It was... strange. Fresher, for certain, but also laced with unfamiliar traces that told him nothing.
It was less intimidating than the scenes they'd seen just beats earlier, but all these changes, one after the other...
"All right?" Seth'Nai asked, touching his arm.
Sekher sucked a lungful of air and shook his head to clear it. "I think so."
"You be fine," Seth'Nai assured him. "Come."
The floor covering was warm underfoot. Along the corridor walls were floor to ceiling white rectangles that could have been doors. Spaced along between them were pictures of things that made no sense to Sekher: brilliant balls of light beyond a desolate rock landscape; forests with strange plants and multicoloured creatures flying; a ball of blue and white and green suspended against black... There was simply no time to study them.
And the room the corridor opened out into was enough to take his mind off such things.
There was bright light, a room with a sunken section in the middle in which large cushions embellished with exotic, almost alien, designs were set. Boxes of what looked like glass were set around the rim of the sunken area, with dew beading on their inner faces. Sekher moved closer and saw a tiny bush, no... tree, set amidst immaculately kept sand.
It was no plant he had ever heard of.
Chaiila was staring at the windows situated around the room. Huge strips of glass from the floor to the ceiling, then Sekher realised that beyond the windows, instead of the plains, mountains and valleys that surrounded them, the view was as if they were atop a high peak. Pictures again? No, they couldn't be; there were distant flyers riding the skies.
There was a motion in the corner of his eye. He jumped again and shied back as one of the many-legged things scuttled up to him and just stood there, its glassy eyes locked on him. Another of the things approached the females who hastily backed away. "Ah, give bags," Seth'Nai told them. By now Sekher was certain the grin it gave at times like this bespoke amusement. Gods burn it!
He stepped forward and handed over the weight of the saddle and tack, then unslung the bag. The forelegs came up and the feet seemed to... reform, parts slipping and realigning, turning into pincers that took the burden that was easily the same size as its carapace. Without a sound the things turned and scuttled off down another corridor.
"Please," Seth'Nai waved a hand toward the cushions, "sit."
An intimidated procession of Trenalbi moved across to sit. Their surprised yelps sounded as one as the cushions moved and shifted under them. They sat motionless, hardly daring to move while Seth'Nai left them and returned a few beats later bearing a tray with four glasses on it. He passed one to each of the Trenalbi, who cautiously sniffed them then looked at him.
He took a sip then noticed their stares. "Just water," he assured.
Sekher plucked up the courage first. The glass was made of something that wasn't glass. It rattled against his teeth and the water tasted like... water. He stared at the cup, somewhat surprised at this mundanity.
"Seth'Nai," Nersi leaned forward, holding her drink between her knees in shaking hands. "What... what is this... place?"
The creature took another drink before answering. "My home," he said. "I come here... couple day before I see you, Sekher. I not know Trenalbi here. Mistake."
"But this place! The metal! Where...?" Nersi's mouth opened and closed as she tried to give voice to the logjam of questions.
"I am a ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿." He frowned as his words were garbled. "What I do. I... dig. I find metal."
"Miner," Sekher provided automatically, then shrugged when the females looked at him.
"Yes, miner," Seth'Nai bobbed his head. "I have accident, have to come here, then find Trenalbi. Not... not what I wanted to do. Now I have to stay. Not able to leave for... two around Lightbringer."
"Two around Lightbringer?" Nersi puzzled.
"Two years," Chaiila provided.
"Two years, yes," Seth'Nai agreed.
"Seth'Nai," Sekher leaned forward, his muzzle wrinkled. "You came a couple of days before you met me. How can you build all this," he swept an arm, "in just two days?!"
Seth'Nai mulled that over, then shook his head. "Not make. I come in this."
The Trenalbi exchanged glances.
"From where?" Sekher asked.
Seth'Nai stared at him.
"BURN YOU!" Sekher howled. "Tell us! You drag us halfway across the Gods-spawned world, you owe us an explanation! I asked you before and you turned your tail: are you from the sky?!"
Seth'Nai stared, his throat bobbed. He growled something, then said, very softly, "Yes."
There was silence.
"Are you a God?" Chaiila asked.
Seth'Nai blinked. "What is a 'God'?"
They looked at one another. What WAS a God?
"Uh," Nersi scratched an ear, "a Creator. One of the Balance, the essence, the all. They are everywhere. They build the world, all life, the Lightbringer."
Seth'Nai looked at one of the windows and growled something. There was an answering growl from nowhere and the window vanished, to be replaced by a smooth blackness on which lines of peculiar green symbols appeared. For a few beats Seth'Nai studied these, then said, "No. I am no God."
He hung his head and the whole strange body heaved. Then, with a peculiar grimace he met Sekher's gaze with stone-grey eyes. "I am human," he said. That word, it was a sound never intended for normal mouths: low and moaning. "Like you are Trenalbi, I am human. I come from... ah, I think you call the Hole."
"There," Seth'Nai grinned. "I have just broken all ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ in the book telling you."
"This..." Sekher choked, "Can you prove this?"
Seth'Nai's other voice rumbled.
The light dimmed, the windows vanishing, until only a minute glow lit the room. In the blackness a blue-white crescent swam into sight. Slowly it moved toward them, rotating until they appeared to hang above it as it slowly rolled below them.
There were gasps from the Trenalbi as a rim of fire flared over the horizon and a brilliant white orb climbed above them. Below, white swirled and circled across blue, then the blue turned to browns and greens.
The view tilted and the horizon shifted and began climbing the screen. Gradually the blackness began to fade to blue, to black, then back to blue. The whiteness reappeared, this time directly before them in a solid mass that ripped toward them in an eyeblink and parted...
The land below...
Sekher watched, spellbound. He saw the world, the circle of mountains upon the face of that giant ball. Beyond the Ramparts... lands only dreamed of. It was as it had been back in the tower, the air above Seth'Nai's wrist shimmering with that blue-white ball...
The sea, glinting like grey metal under the sun, flashing by too fast to follow, then land again, then the nightbound Ramparts. If the world was that big, yet appeared small on the face of the ball, and they had just circled it, then how FAST...?!
Clouds. This time black, threatening, and they were in them. Lightning flared, dazzling them. They were slowing, circling and dropping from the clouds and the ground was huge, coming up everywhere, a hill.
Instinctively Sekher threw his arms up and the lights came on.
Chaiila started chittering and gasping uncontrollably.
Seth'Nai moved toward her, "She is all right?"
"KEEP AWAY!" Chaiila yowled at him.
A shaking Sekher touched the creature's arm. Seth'Nai turned toward him, his eyes... confused? "I am sorry," he said. "I didn't know..."
"Please," Sekher said. "Just leave her for a while."
The pale head bobbed. "For Chaiila and Nersi. There is a room to rest and wash. Another for you."
Sekher tipped his head to the side. "That would be appreciated."
The room was back down the corridor they'd entered by. Seth'Nai demonstrated how to open the door. Inside was a short corridor, just a couple of paces long where he touched a glowing square and the lights came on. As with the rest of Seth'Nai's domicile the room was odd, with angled walls panelled with a dark wood with a peculiar grain. Hanging plants nestled in recessed niches while above what looked like a chair and a desk of some black material, a wide window looked out over jagged mountains. Set at right angles to each other in the corner to the left of the door, two beds were set into alcoves in the wall. Shelves enclosed by a faint shimmering on another wall supported a multitude of small objects. Spots of light from no discernible source were cast on the walls, illuminating the room in a comfortable light.
Seth'Nai pointed at another door opposite. "Water in there," he said. "To wash. I show you how to use..."
"Not now," Sekher stopped him. "Thank you, but can we rest now?"
Seth'Nai blinked at him, then bobbed his head. "I understand. I go. If you have questions, just ask."
"Just ask." Seth'Nai waved an arm, "¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ will answer."
"Oh," Sekher's ears wilted in confusion as Seth'Nai turned and left the room. The door made a hissing sound as it closed behind him. Sekher waited a few beats, then went to the door and pressed his hands against the pad in the wall. The door obligingly whipped open almost too fast to see. He waited and it shut again.
Chaiila slumped on the edge of one of the beds, staring across the room at the window beyond which the mountains rose like jagged teeth to sink into the underbellies of clouds. Nersi had opened the other door and was poking around in the next room.
Sekher sat down on the other bunk without speaking. Nersi's small bag of belongings had been set there.
Chaiila was regarding him with wide eyes. "How can you be so calm! How can you... Che, what's wrong with me?!"
"Wrong? Chaiila, I'm as scared as you, we all are, you can smell it! There's nothing wrong with you. Chaiila, you smoothtalked your way into one of the most heavily guarded places in the world, then practically walked out again. You've weathered things that would have most Trenalbi shedding."
"It has," she sighed glumly, reaching up to pull several strands of fur from her ruff. "That... picture he showed us... That was the world, wasn't it. He does come from the sky."
Sekher's ears twitched. "Yah, but he is no god."
From the adjacent room came the sudden sound of running water and an insulted yowl. Nersi emerged, dripping wet. "I think I just found the bath," she said sheepishly as she wrung her cloak out.
Sekher caught his tail to stop it lashing and moved across to the desk while Nersi tried to dry herself. The chair would be uncomfortable; there was no provision for a tail. The desk was a featureless slab of something that wasn't stone or wood or metal. He leaned on it to examine the window behind it.
"Does this view change too?"
"Yes," said the desk.
A bodylength from a standing start. In retrospect it wasn't a bad jump, but then a severe shock can be a great motivator. This was going beyond a joke, the thought spun through his head as he crouched, panting hard; too many things were starting to speak.
It had been Seth'Nai's voice, but he was nowhere to be seen.
"Who said that!" Sekher snarled. "Seth'Nai?!"
"I am ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ ten-tens and five. Made thinking machine ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ at ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿..."
"SHUT IT!" Sekher yowled.
The voice stopped.
"Now," he was trembling again, damnit all to the deepest hells, "you are not Seth'Nai."
"What was that you said... machine?"
Sekher's mind whirled helplessly. A... machine? Talking to him? No. A machine was a water-clock, an arbalest, a wagon. They didn't talk, they didn't think.
Yet all those devices down below were working by themselves, with no guiding hand.
He sank down on the chair, rubbing at the bristles on his face. Well, Seth'Nai had said to ask questions...
"Do you have a name?"
"To say your way may be 'first-female'. Or cooking tool."
He frowned. "You're female?"
"Not male or female. Just a name."
He thought about it and supposed it made sense. "So... First, can you change the picture?"
"Yes. To what?"
"Show us a town."
"I cannot do that," the machine replied.
"I am forbidden."
Sekher's lip began to curl in a snarl and he glanced around at the other Trenalbi. Nersi had backed away and was watching warily, but with interest. Chaiila...
Chaiila was curled in a ball up on the bunk, ears plastered flat, hands locked across her eyes.
"Gods burn it... Show something restful; water, plains, something flat! Then shut it!" He spat the words, heedless of the result as he turned to Chaiila. Behind him the window flickered and they were looking out across a golden savannah, distant herds moving against a backdrop of purple cloud, the rain below nearly a solid column supporting them. The air in the room also seemed to change: he could almost smell rain and freshness.
Chaiila flinched as he touched her shoulder. Her muscles felt like darter springs. "Chaiila? It's alright. You're safe. Ah? Come on, nothing's going to hurt you."
She made a small sound.
Slowly Sekher began ruffling the fur on her shoulder with his fingertips, carefully preening through it, then tonguing it smooth, tasting the dust, the dirt, her scent as he cleaned her slowly, the ancient way, then grooming again with his fingers and stubby claws...
She rolled over and wrapped her arms around his neck, burying her muzzle against his chest. She didn't speak, didn't move, neither did he; they just lay there, taking their comfort from the other's heartbeat.