Sekher followed the bobbing bead of green light as it led him through the noisy metal corridors with their uncomfortable grillwork floors. A heavy door prominently marked with black and yellow diagonal striping slid open and closed as he passed through. There were metallic servants everywhere, numbers of every different size and shape: from large boxes that rolled through the corridors on wheels to tiny things that scurried among the machinery in the walls. He snorted as the smell of scorched metal assailed his nostrils.
The guiding speck of light turned to dart through another doorway into one of those big, dimly lit rooms filled to overflowing with bins and storage lockers, parts of machinery. A deep growling accompanied a pair of legs protruding from a crawlspace beneath a mass of pipes colored a grotesque orange. Sekher squatted down beside the legs. "Hai!"
There was a metal bar lying atop a handy box. Sekher took it up, hefted it, then pounded on the pipes. The howl from beneath was almost drowned by the clangs.
Seth'Nai was out like a projectile from a darter, glaring at Sekher while stabbing at the translator on his wrist. "What the ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ you think you're doing?! I almost had the little ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿!"
Sekher stood, looking down at the pale face. "Seth'Nai, can we talk?"
Seth'Nai sat, his grey eyes flicking from Sekher's face to the metal bar he was holding. He swallowed. "¿¿¿¿¿¿¿, alright."
The bar clattered when Sekher dropped it and cautiously found a place to lean against a piece of metal. "I saw that story you showed Nersi. We all did."
"Ah," Seth'Nai nodded. "You were supposed to."
"I have a few questions."
The round head bobbed. "I will answer if I can."
"That story... it was true?"
"Then your people are powerful. You said you aren't a God, but some of those things your people do..." he shrugged. "And they are warlike, aren't they." It wasn't really a question.
"Ah..." Seth'Nai understood. "I have to say we do fight."
"And our world is the only one like it you have found."
"Then you could destroy us. What chance would we have if you wanted to take it?"
Seth'Nai sighed and settled himself. "Sekher, your world is beautiful, but it is not only valuable for that. It is you. Your kind. All Trenalbi."
"Until now my kind has been alone. We have looked for a long time, and now we have found someone we can talk to, do you really think we would destroy them?"
"God," Seth'Nai shook his head, "I'm not the one to be speaking for my kind. Anyway, there're agreements and rules about what we would do if we found... something like your kind. They say we stay away and watch from a distance."
"Studying us," Sekher said with distaste.
"Sort of... Yes, studying you. We would stay away, until we could understand each other."
"You haven't," Sekher observed.
"No." Seth'Nai rubbed his narrow nose and twitched his mouth. "I told you, I have been a bad ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿."
"A what?... Never mind. Why would they stay away? You could teach us so much. Your machines... and your metal... Any demesnes would pay a fortune for such knowledge."
Seth'Nai hesitated. "There's more than that. If we gave you... things that made you live longer, stopped diseases, and made sure cubs didn't die at birth. Would you be grateful?"
Sekher stared. "Of course! Who wouldn't be?"
"Would you still be grateful when you couldn't grow enough to feed them all? When they started fighting over the land? When your cities became so crowded that the smell became ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ and Trenalbi were dying in the streets?"
"If we gave you machines. How would you fix them when they break?"
"Then you could teach us."
"Yes, but that takes a long time. And to teach everyone..." Seth'Nai shook his head. "You saw our story. We learned all this ourselves, like cubs growing up."
"You are comparing us to cubs?"
"You said it, not I."
Sekher opened and closed his mouth a few times.
"Imagine if your people suddenly learned the world was round, not flat. If they learned they lived on a ball of rock going around another ball of fire."
"Huh, wouldn't that make the priests' fur stand on end."
"Priests?" Seth'Nai's forehead furrowed. "They were the ones wearing long clothes?" his hands described patterns that could be a priest's robes.
"Do you know anything about their machines? Like the ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ coil?"
Sekher's ears went back. "Huh? Machines? What machines?"
And Seth'Nai flinched back. Sekher had known him long enough to think he could read the creature; the emotions were in the eyes, not the ears, and that particular look meant he was surprised.
"You do not know? The ones that made the lightning I was attacked with."
"Machines?" Sekher was still confused. "They didn't use any machines. They're Priests, they don't need them."
Seth'Nai's mouth opened, then closed again. Now he was the one who looked perplexed. "No. There had been a ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ in there. That's the only way you could ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ power like that. Is that how they stay in control, by making a few sparks fly?"
"No," said Sekher, not understanding where this debate was leading. "Some of them make fire. Some of them move things. Some heal or see far or talk without saying." His ears flagged helplessness. "There are too many Gifts."
"What is that word 'Gifts'?"
"Uhhnnn... A present, a gift. Something that is given, out of goodwill."
"A gift," Seth'Nai echoed, his forehead wrinkled. "Ah... Gifts from whom?"
"The Gods, of course," Sekher sniffed.
"Of course," Seth'Nai rubbed a hand across his scalp. "Of course, the Gods."
Sekher frowned at that. "You don't believe me."
"Believe you..." There was a sound that the translator rendered as a Trenalbi laugh, but Sekher felt it couldn't be expressed so simply. "Sekher, I have always understood that there are no Gods."
"No Gods?" Sekher grinned. "Perhaps yours' rejected you, but not ours. Look at the Priests and the temple; how can you not believe?"
"I will believe it when I see it," Seth'Nai retorted.
"What about you?"
"What about me?"
"The fact that you're here," Sekher said smugly.
Seth'Nai stared. "What the ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ has that got to do with anything. It was an accident; just an accident. It could have happened to anyone."
And Sekher grinned. "Anyone? Your kind spends centuries searching, then just as I need help, your 'accident' sends you here. What would you call that?"
"¿¿¿¿¿¿¿!" Seth'Nai answered instantly. "Chance! Nothing more. Sekher, gods are just something I cannot believe in. I have never seen anything I haven't been able to explain."
"Then you haven't seen a priest."
"You..." Seth'Nai began to say, then stopped cold and shook his head, saying quietly, "I should not be talking about this."
"Your rules?" Sekher inquired.
The other didn't answer.
Yah, his rules, Sekher thought glumly. How was this happening? He had thought this creature a godsend, now, he was being told there were no Gods. There must be, the Gifts of the Priests were certainly genuine enough. But suppose...
Suppose Seth'Nai was right.
No. The end of their Gods; the ramifications of that could... would! tear his world apart. Sekher bit at a claw, then spat in disgust. How could it be true?
Was this what Seth'Nai had meant when he said his people had a policy about not talking to other people they might find? He was right! If his kind suddenly appeared, refuting everything Trenalbi believed, with the ability to support what they claimed...
They had planned for that?
Seth'Nai casually leaning back against the pipes, his arms folded, watching Sekher who shook his head and blinked at the outsider and asked, "Why'd you bring us here anyway?"
An expression that meant nothing to Sekher: "I wanted to learn more about you."
"More about us?" Sekher was suspicious about that. "Such as?"
"Your speech. What you are. How you live... things like that. I really don't know anything about you." He paused then, eyeing Sekher curiously. "Such as: what were you doing in that cage in the first place?"
"Ah," Sekher flashed the other a white grin that made him flinch visibly. "Do you have to know that?"
"I was curious. First I thought you were a... a... one who does wrong..."
"Criminal," Sekher growled, then relented and wrapped his arms around himself, dredging up the memories. "No, that I'm not... At least outside the Ch'sty lands I'm not."
"My full name is Sekher Che Meas, youngest son. My home is... was the Che holding to the north. Not a big place in any eyes..."
Give Seth'Nai credit where it was due; those ears may have been absurdly small, but he was still a good listener.
Chaiila was trembling visibly. Her ruff, all her fur bristled and her claws were unsheathed. Fear or anger? Sekher wondered. A little of both most likely.
Beyond the transparent screen was a brightly lit white room, about seven paces by seven, featureless save for the table in the middle.
Nersi lay naked on the table, her unconscious eyes staring up at the ceiling without seeing it while an arch of otherwordly materials covered her lower body and the puckered wound on her leg. Occasionally she would twitch or her jaw spasm soundlessly behind the window.
"Gods, I hate this," Chaiila moaned and asked, "Is she all right?" for the hundredth time.
Seth'Nai cast a practiced eye over glowing pictures of Nersi's body. "She's fine. Don't worry, nothing's going to happen to her."
The standard reply Sekher noted. He looked at the pictures again. Huh! Sekher suspected Seth'Nai was doing more than healing her leg; to him it looked like he was mapping her insides. Studying her. Learning about them, as he had told Sekher.
There was little talking from then on. They watched over her: Chaiila fidgeting, Sekher standing close by her side, Seth'Nai watching his machines, peculiar light washing across his face and turning it into something from nightmares.
An hour later it was over. Seth'Nai moved the still unconscious Nersi back to her quarters and clipped a small bracelet to her wrist. There was a furless strip around her thigh; where the torn and angry red wound had been there was now only a mere pucker in her flesh. She stirred groggily and mouthed meaningless noises. Chaiila was instantly at her side, touching and reassuring until she fell silent, into a rest far deeper than any Drift.
"Is that normal?" whispered Sekher to the human.
"With your kind, I think so."
Sekher grabbed his arm and hauled him out into the corridor. "Think?" he hissed.
The grey eyes flickered. "I did the best I could. It seemed to go well, but you are different..."
"What? What's that got to do with it?"
"Medicines for me could kill you," the other answered. Sekher blinked, swallowed. "Like your food, you mean."
"Gods!" Sekher glanced toward the closed door. "Look, just don't let Chaiila know about that, alright? She would rip your face off."
Seth'Nai grinned. Those marks from last time were still pale reminders on his cheeks.
There was nothing.
It scared her.
Her? Who was her? She?
Oh. Of course.
It was gradually coming back. Slowly - like ice dissolving under a flame - thoughts and memories began to stir. There was a glimmer of the light of reason after so... long? there wasn't any way to measure the time she had been sunk in a blackness; that hole deeper than drift, the utter depths where nothing stirred. Oblivion. Death...
She snapped to awareness with a strangled cry and lay panting hard.
The room was silent and still. On the other bunk two Trenalbi lay tangled in each other's limbs. Chaiila twitched and shuddered and burrowed deeper into the Che's side, hiding her head.
Nersi lay quietly, just staring at the softly glowing panels above her. That coldness still lingered, a touch of the darkness inside. She needed warmth, familiar company.
Che's head lolled her way when she swung out of the bed, but she was familiar enough that her movement didn't trip his drift as she made her uneasy way to the door. She still limped, albeit more through habit than necessity. It was after she'd left the room that she realised the pain in her leg was gone. The pale line that remained merely tingled when she touched it.
It was almost completely black in Seth'Nai's room. He stirred when she slid into the bed beside him. When she moved to huddle up to the warmth of his back he growled something, then yelped and twisted around, face to face in the darkness. She grinned.
"Nersi?" He wasn't wearing his translator. She could feel his body vibrate with the depth of his voice, the words she could understand coming from a small shelf above the bed.
"A," she murmured.
"After last time I thought I said..."
"I know," she broke in. "I was lonely."
"Alone. By myself. I needed to be with someone."
The translator made a sound that could have been 'oh', then said, "I understand. Lonely."
Nersi shifted and carefully touched his shoulder. He flinched. "Do you always drift alone?"
"It doesn't hurt?"
"Hurt?" He looked confused. "Like pain? Hurt?"
"I don't understand that."
"Seth'Nai," she stroked his ribs, "a Trenalbi can go mad if left alone for a long time. That doesn't happen to your kind?"
"No." He lay back to stare up at the roof. "No, that's why I like my job. I like being alone."
That stung her. She peered at his face, indistinct in the darkness. "You want me to go?"
His head turned her way, yet she knew he couldn't see her at all. Not in this light. "No. No, not now."
His hand touched her arm and his fingers moved through her fur, just touching.
"My leg," she said, feeling his fingers on her arm, watching the pale shadows moving. Darkness, the great equalizer. "I wanted to thank you."
"It... is not necessary," he said. She touched his face and felt his mouth twisted in his smile.
They lay there for a time, just close.
Her hand on his chest could feel his warmth, solidity, the slow drubbing of a heartbeat beneath muscle she had never felt before, ribs feeling completely unlike her own... and her hand moved, down, touching him in that coarse fur between his legs and his whole body stiffened with a jolt of breath. Then he caught her hand and moved it away.
"Hnnn?" She made a small sound, confusion at his rejection. Why? he was responding, doing something, she could smell his scent changing, becoming heavier, while her own loins tingled.
"Nersi, we can't. I would hurt you."
"No..." she began.
"Yes! I wish I could, but I would hurt you very badly, Nersi. We're just too different." He caressed the side of her face. "Understand?"
She didn't. Not really.
Until she touched him again. Yes, he was responding, but the differences...
"Oh," she said, understanding. Gods and Demons! Their females took that?!
There was another silence before she leaned over and gently lapped at Seth'Nai's neck, tasting the slight salt. "Ah, well. Not your fault."
"Thanks... I think," he replied.
She grinned and nipped at him and for a while the talk wandered around their differences. His kind wasn't like Trenalbi; the females, they birthed fully formed young. She had seen the pictures, but even so it shocked Nersi to hear this, even more so to find it caused pain. Those were nipples on his chest, in the same location as human females', but useless for him. The dimple in his midriff was another peculiarity and she still wasn't sure she understood his explanation. When she let him, his fingers were gentle against the sensitive skin around the nipples in her pouch.
"Feels strange," he said.
"Ah, from you that's irony."
"May I ask you something?"
"Your towns... why are they split into male and female sections?"
She blinked, taken aback at the naïveté of the question. "Uh... because they have to be, of course. Aren't yours'?"
"Oh, Gods. That figures... You mean males and females are... together all the time?"
"Then how do you get anything done?"
"What?" He pulled away and propped himself up with one elbow, looking down on her. "I don't understand."
She sighed. "You are different. Look, when a woman is wanting... when she wants to mate, she scents. We can't help it, and the males, they smell it and it twists them crazy. They'll fight for a female, then when they get close to her and she is ready the scent flattens them. It's like their muscles turn to string; They can hardly move."
"Sekher and Chaiila," he muttered.
"Yah. You had me worried, running after them like that. Males generally don't get on well when there's a mating going on. But you see what it'd be like if we were integrated; a riot at the smell of a scenting female."
"I... see," came the response after a couple of beats. "Then the female sections are really different towns?"
"No... They are under the dominion of the High Lord. Male, almost always. There is a female Medium who acts as an intermediary between the Lord and the Sister Group, also the Guilds of both sexes have their own Pleaders who negotiate trade among the quarters; cloth for metal, embellished tools for rare foods and so forth."
This time there was a longer silence. "I didn't understand much of that," he finally confessed. "It is all one town, but the two sides only talk to each other through special Trenalbi? Like they are ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ different?"
Nersi mulled that over, then said, "There was a word I didn't understand, but yes, sort of like that." She felt him shifting, moving a little closer to her. Perhaps he liked her warmth.
"Then how... how do you choose your mates?"
She grinned and stretched, then began trying to explain the Unity Houses. From there the talk drifted off at tangents, Seth'Nai asking about the most inconsequential things, and listening with fascination to her replies.
And when she grew tired he was the one who made her stop. Nersi listened to his breathing slowing. Several times his legs twitched as the muscles relaxed. Finally he was gone, as helpless as a cub. With a final grin she set a hand on his chest and settled down into the stillness of drift with his heavy scent like a blanket around her.
"Gods burn it! He did! I can SMELL him on you!"
"Cousin! We didn't mate! We can't! He..."
Chaiila wasn't sounding too pleased Sekher noticed. Finding Nersi and Seth'Nai curled up together had not set her day off to a good start. After dragging her cousin out of there her initial shock had rapidly turned to anger and heedless of where they were, she still wanted to go and rattle Seth'Nai's teeth. "Damnit! I saw! He was all over you. He was... he was naked! by the gods!"
"Listen to me!"
Sekher sighed and let the door slide closed.
Seth'Nai was in the common room at the end of the corridor. He was still wearing the ridiculous-looking fluffy robe he'd thrown on when Chaiila stormed into his quarters and literally howled him out of it. Now he had one of the glass cases open and was kneeling before it, meticulously clipping away at the branches of a twisted little bush. Sekher watched this ceremony.
"She's really got her fur in a knot at you, you know," he finally said.
Seth'Nai settled back and studied the bush. "Nothing happened."
Sekher grinned in amusement. "That's exactly what Nersi's saying."
Seth'Nai's flat face turned to stare up at him. "Then why don't you believe her?"
"I do," Sekher said then crouched down on his haunches. "Chaiila probably does too. It's just that you and Nersi... uh..." he hunted for words. "Drifting together... Chaiila's scared of you. She doesn't understand you."
"And you do?"
Sekher blinked, nonplussed. "Ah, well... good point."
The other bared teeth and carefully snipped a few of the miniature leaves from the tiny tree, click, snick. Sekher watched the ritual, fidgeting uneasily. How was he going to put this? And he already had a good idea what the answer would be.
"Can you help us?"
He cringed. The way that blurted out... that wasn't what he'd planned.
Seth'Nai's hand froze, then carefully set the clippers aside. "Help you?"
"I told you," Sekher tried to explain. "I told you about the Ch'sty Rim... our homes. Chaiila and Nersi lost theirs'; under Kissaki's claws. My land... I don't know what's happened to it."
The other looked away.
"Ah... you..." Sekher licked his lips. "You've got so much power. Can you help us?"
Just that. Flat and straight. Seth'Nai gathered up the tools in a small pouch and stood to leave.
"Hai! Wait!" Sekher scrambled after him, through to the galley. He stopped in the doorway: "Why?"
The human's pale, long-fingered hands worked at a cupboard latch, then froze and he leaned his head against the white wall. "Sekher..." He sighed and moved across the width of the galley to prop himself against the edge of the table. "I wish I could, but it's impossible. I have already done far too much I am not supposed to. I can probably justify what I did against Kissaki, but interfering with your wars... it is out of the question." He rubbed at his face.
Sekher stared. "People are dying."
"Sekher!" Seth'Nai's hand clenched, then pounded against the tabletop. "Don't! There is nothing I can do."
"Then what ARE you going to do?!" Sekher snarled. "Just sit here until the Ch'sty Rim troops find you and lay siege to you?"
The human's lips pressed into a straight line. "And what am I supposed to do? A?"
He nodded. "A. How? I am not a fighter. This is a mining ship. It is damaged."
"All the machines..."
"Are for work. They are not ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ to fight. They cannot and will not. There is simply not enough power left to do anything that would help you. And the Rim will not find me. As soon as the repairs are finished I have to use what's left to leave."
Sekher's short fur stood bolt upright. "You are going home?!"
"I can't do that. I just have to get the ship away from here. It is not exactly inconspicuous, and someone's going to see it and report. Then..." His head shook from side to side. Sekher had thought that meant 'no', but apparently it could mean more than that.
"Then where are you going?"
"Wherever I can. The other side of the mountains. Somewhere."
"There is no way to change your mind?"
Again the head shook. "Please, Sekher."
His tail dragged on the floor as he turned and left to tell the others. Behind him the human slumped, then drove a fist into the wall.
"Gods ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ it!"
The trio of shen picked their way through the charred skeletons of incinerated trees at the edge of the river plain. Green buds were only just beginning to force their way from the blackness. These plants were used to fire. Lightning-struck blazes weren't a rare occurrence on the plains, but always the trees grew back. The two riders hauled their animals to a halt at the very edge of the riverbed, smelling the carnage before they saw it: a ripe stench hanging on the breeze. There were blackened Trenalbi corpses and skeletons scattered among the rocks and wood; just bone, metal, and tatters of rotting flesh rejected or missed by scavengers.
The larger Hunter chittered: impressed.
His smaller companion glanced down at a half-decayed skull. It grinned back at him: "You still think they're paying us enough, Travi?"
"Huh!" Travi's head turned on his massive shoulders and he settled his heavy darter in its saddle holster, dark-brown roadcoat shifting. "All right, so the illegit cheaped us. We still do the job?"
Yenitira scowled. They had a reputation: anyone, anywhere. They had never missed a target, and he wasn't about to start. Not for anyone, not for this. The scent was still there.
"Yah, we still do it."
The shen picked their way down the bank to the riverbed, hooves clattering on the rocks. There were more corpses here, both Trenalbi and shen, scattered like chaff. Yenitira noticed the fur on the bodies, the front burnt away, the back only slightly singed. There were only a few where it was the other way around. So whatever had happened to them had happened quickly.
There was a crater, now a circular pond, on the edge of the river. The ground crunched under their feet as the Hunters dismounted. Glass. The sand was crusted with a thin film of blackened, cracked glass.
"Perhaps they killed themselves off," Travi suggested.
"Perhaps." Yenitira's eyes lost their focus as he looked around. "Perhaps, but I doubt it."
"You still feel them?"
There was a pile of boulders, large enough to form a small island when the river filled its banks during the rains. There was a small pile of weapons tucked undisturbed under one edge of the rock. This place had gained a bad reputation for a good reason, so the dead were left to their peace. If there had been tracks the weather had erased them days ago, yet it was here that Yenitira went to stand, letting his hat fall back on its strap, head turning from side to side with nostrils working as if he could scent them. Travi crouched nearby, watching his partner and holding the shen.
"They were here?" he asked.
Traces, not scents, but more like colors he could smell in his head, each distinct and unique. He KNEW, knew without a doubt they had been here. There was that one trace that was unlike anything he'd ever encountered. It... felt, for lack of a better word, disquieting. If he was to describe it, it would be a bluegreen sense, not the shifting orange sensations of a Trenalbi. He stood and stared westwards. "That way. Ah... Fourteen days. On foot."
Travi brought the shen over and they mounted up. Yenitira settled his hat and roadcoat and stared westwards, towards the invisible Ramparts. West, huh? Very well. They had never lost one yet, but this one was like nothing else he'd ever sensed.
This one was going to be very interesting.
Chaiila was inspecting the shen, going over them a span at a time. Sekher lounged back in the warmth of the Lightbringer and watched through slitted eyes as she examined hooves and claws and teeth. Fussy. Always wanting to be sure. He grinned and rolled back in the grass. Gods, but it was a pleasure to feel the breeze again.
The castle-sized bulk of the human's vessel was a scorched white cliff behind them with metallic shapes scuttling around in the shadows beneath it. Whatever they had been doing around the rear of the vessel appeared to be nearing completion and now esoteric equipment was being carted back up the underside ramp on battered and tough-looking machines.
He blinked when he saw Seth'Nai and Nersi emerge from the shadows near a piece of machinery, engaged in animated conversation. At least Nersi was; Seth'Nai seemed unable to meet her eyes. Abruptly he put aside the bundle he was carrying and set hands on her shoulders and hugged her close, touching her forehead with his lips. When he released her she stared at him, then cast a worried glance towards the other Trenalbi.
Sekher hastily looked away. Chaiila, thankfully, hadn't seen that, and Gods strike him down if HE had.
Grass rustled under Nersi's feet. "He said he was sorry..."
"But he won't help us," Sekher finished for her. "Yah, I figured." Yah. The same as yesterday.
"He spoke about it last night. He really did seem sorry. I think he..."
He what? Sekher wondered. "You were with him again, a?"
Nersi cast a glance across to where a stone-faced Chaiila was arranging gear on the shen. She knew where her cousin had spent her evenings, and now she had given up trying to stop it. She would be rid of Seth'Nai soon enough. They were leaving.
And you, Nersi, Sekher thought, How do you feel about leaving him?
And Seth'Nai... He had never asked what he thought of Nersi, but there was that parting gesture; disturbingly intimate. How far have you gone? You're denying it, but...
Nersi shook her head as though clearing her own thoughts from her mind and went to see to her own mount.
No; There were some things that weren't meant to be.
"I've got your weapons," said Seth'Nai as he rummaged through his bag. "Ah, here."
The Trenalbi took the swords he handed them and it wasn't a heartbeat before Chaiila snapped, "Hai, these aren't our blades!"
"I'm giving them to you," Seth'Nai replied, "So they're yours."
Sekher examined his. Chaiila was right: it wasn't his old weapon, the one taken from the Rim troops. This one was new, so new he'd never seen one quite like it before. Excellent weight and balance with a grip that seemed to melt into his hand. The crossguard was pierced and engraved with intricate patterns of interlacing curls and loops in a design that brought images of clouds to mind. A simple disk was used for the pommel, carved to resemble a stylised Lightbringer: a Trenalbi face with flames around it. Overly fancy perhaps, but it still had a good heft to it. The blade...
Gods, the blade!
Lighter than any Sekher had ever wielded. It gleamed as he withdrew it from the darkwood, silver-bound scabbard. The metal carried a slight, bluish matt tint and was utterly smooth; without a single rune, marking, or other embellishment. Sekher squinted to see what kind of an edge it carried. It just seemed to fuzz out of vision.
Chaiila sniffed at hers. "Doesn't seem very impressive." Seth'Nai grinned and reached back into his bag, pulling out a bronze sword. He held it upright with a two-handed grip. "Try it."
"What?" Chaiila looked confused.
"Swing at this."
She did so. There was a sharp clang, then the top half of the sword Seth'Nai held spun to the ground.
Chaiila stared at her sword with newfound respect.
Seth'Nai grinned. "You won't be able to break it, and it will never need sharpening or cleaning. Just make sure you always use these sheaths and don't touch the edges. It will go through your fingers a lot easier than metal."
Sekher moved his hand and carefully sheathed the sword. "Also, there are these." Seth'Nai produced a trio of circlets of gold metal with a strip of green stone around the circumference. He passed them to the Trenalbi.
There were fine inscriptions on the metal, the same marks that decorated Seth'Nai's machines, while the raised strip of stone around the equator of the circlet was of a deep, beautiful green and unbroken save for a small, silver disk set into it.
"What do we do with these?" inquired Sekher.
"Put them on your wrists. Just pull them and they'll open." Sekher tried and it did. It clicked shut on his wrist, snugly. With a lurch of apprehension he tried removing it. It popped open again as easily as it had gone on. He hissed air through his teeth and replaced it.
"Only you can open them," Seth Nai told them. "And they've got their uses. Point that dot at the sword and squeeze the bracelet with your other hand."
Nersi tried it. There was a hissing sound and a curl of smoke rose from the ground beside the broken sword blade. She moved her arm and bronze spurted into nearly invisible flame and a flare of molten metal as she cut the blade in half. Sekher and Chaiila tried it; quartering the halves.
"It does not go far," Seth'Nai said, "and will only work for a short time before it has to be ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿... the power replaced. Just leave it in strong light for a while. They would make good fire lighters. You can probably find other uses."
He had other parting gifts. There were pieces of clothing, breeks and cloaks that looked perfectly normal, but these produced their own warmth. There were pouches that kept food fresh, canteens like Seth'Nai's, and purses filled with silver and gold.
"I'm sorry that's all I can do," Seth'Nai apologised.
"A, so are we," Chaiila retorted, then looked slightly guilty and reluctantly added, "But thanks."
"You're welcome. Good luck," Seth'Nai said, then took Sekher's hand in a firm grip and clapped his shoulder with the other. He went around the females and did the same. Astonishingly Chaiila tolerated it. Sekher would have been less surprised to see the Lightbringer go out.
"Gods smile on you," the human wished them.
"Thought you didn't believe," Sekher grinned.
"Sometimes I hope I'm wrong."
"Perhaps we'll see you again?" Nersi said, making it sound more like a hope.
"Perhaps." The human stared at her, swallowed. Then said, "Go on; get out of here. I hate long farewells."
Hours later and the Trenalbi noticed the faint second shadow that began to appear before them. As one they turned to look back in the direction from which they had come.
Another Lightbringer was rising into the heavens. A pale speck rising on a ball of white light. It seemed to hang in the sky a short time, pulsing like a heartbeat against the azure backdrop. A faint rumble like faraway thunder rolled across the plains. The light flared, moving. Slowly, then more swiftly the light began to recede, shrinking with the increasing distance until it vanished over the Ramparts to the west, faint trails of white cloud marking its departure.
Thunder faded to a growl, then died.
Flyers hauled their way into the sky, shrilling in fright.
"So, he's really gone."
Nersi was still staring at the mountains where high wisps of vapour were slowly dissolving. "I'm going to miss him," she murmured.
"Don't." Chaiila's voice sounded distressed, taut. "Please, don't. He's gone home. Where he belongs."
"No," Sekher murmured.
"A?" Chaiila looked startled. "You know something we don't."
"He hasn't gone home. He said he couldn't. Not at the moment. Just away from Trenalbi. He's still over there somewhere." He hissed meditatively and cocked his head as the final remains of vapour trails were dissipated. "He might turn up again, somewhere."
Snow on distant mountaintops sparkled; grey and white. Like pale eyes. Sekher grinned:
"You never know."
End Godsend part 13