Perran was a lamplighter.
It was as far from a glorious job as it was from an easy one. Lamps hung just above passers-by, high enough to avoid even the taller rarras’ sharp-tipped horns but still within arm’s reach; there were lamps on every street throughout the town, lanterns dangling from well-wrought iron posts, a hook and a loop making a simple system. Every fifty feet, there stood a lamp.
The lanterns were glass and dark, ornate metal to match the posts; the lamp inside was a carefully-carved crystal, faceted to shed light as efficiently as possible. Each crystal would last from the longest evening shadows until the sun was visible on the horizon, roughly an hour more than true night.
Perran had an hour to cover the entire dusty town and light every lamp.
He had been offered a wheeler to save time and his legs, but like the other lamplighter who worked when he did not, he refused. Fifty feet was too short for a wheeler to be of use, compared to the time wasted leaning it onto and off its stand, mounting and dismounting, starting and stopping.
Every other night, Perran walked the quiet border town, the desert encroaching with thin layers of sand on the outskirts.
The lamps’ crystals were powered by magic, like nearly everything in rarran society. Even in the dusty pockets of less-civilized areas, like this town, magic fueled the technology they used to survive and eke out a living from the dunes. Hooded cloaks that reached past fingerlessly-gloved hands and leather-wrapped soles shielded the body from the ravages of wind and heat like magic and technology shielded the people from the ravages of the world.
Come twilight, the hood was made optional, the sun low and heat draining from the air. Perran walked bare-headed, long ears upright and free of the heavy fabric. At every lamp, he would remove the lantern from its hook and slide away a glass panel, reaching in a paw-padded fingertip to touch the crystal. Automatically, so well were they designed and carved, it drained exactly as much qki – physical energy, the complement to magical energy – as it could hold. He had a moment before the qki was stored in the natural latticework of the crystal’s structure, before it started to heat up and glow; he replaced the glass paneling and hung the lantern on its hook again.
One every fifty feet. The town was only a few miles from edge to edge, a grid-worked amoeba with uncertain edges, but the streets were close and the buildings were small between them.
It took him a week to learn the timing so that every lamp was lit by nightfall and none faded away to artificial embers before dawn broke. But once he found the pattern, he kept it.
And every night, when he got home, his body was nearly drained of qki, the energy that kept his heart pumping and muscles flexing. He fell into bed nearly senseless, lacking the energy to even think, and slept dreamlessly until the next dawn.
The coast was dazzlingly bright, opalescent sands reflecting the long sunlight like a million minuscule crystal mirrors; the light sprayed in all directions, creating an exotic glow that outweighed the luminance of the distant sun.
The water did not lap at the shoreline, did not foam and froth in the surf, but receded steadily from the gleaming beach; waves rippled the midnight-dark surface of the water as the ocean poured steadily away from the land.
Rai Gerring stood at the edge of the world and wondered how the hells he’d managed to find himself here, blinded by the refracted light, captivated by the darkness of the waters he knew to be ice-cold and stinging with salt. A man would sooner freeze than drown if he tried to swim this sea.
He knew. He’d seen it happen.
The sun was a brilliant point of light far behind him, its slanting rays reaching across the entire disc of the world before igniting the sand to radiance. Between him and the sun, the sky over the world was reddening, a bloody smear left in the wake of the sun’s descension.
The wind brushed him, spitting hard grains of sand against his black cloak and sweeping them from beneath his slippered soles. Rai tucked his hood lower and stared at the empty horizon where the sea dropped away into the void of space.
When he looked up into the ebony sky, away from the shoreline’s glow, he fancied he could see the distant glimmer of sparks so far away from any of the worlds that no one knew what caused them. Perhaps another universe, not quite within sailing distance; perhaps shimmering demon-fires from all the layers of hell that existed above and below the worlds.
Quietly, forcedly calmly, Rai stepped forward, eyes unfocusing as he reached himself towards the darkness sleeping so potently within the retreating water. If he could but bring enough shadows from the depths, he could leave; he could get out of here before anything stupid and fateful happened.
The darkness didn’t budge, latent beneath the surface, heedless of his increasingly insistent tugging. He had never felt such stubborn shadows; he had never been refused even a gentle request before.
I shouldn’t be here, Rai hissed to himself, thin hands slipping from his sleeves. His skin was as pale as the sand, fingers and palms etched in black and red runes. I can’t stay here. This place is a myth. No one reaches the edge of any world. Destiny can go to its favorite hell for all I care.
I want gone.
Since he was alone, Rai figured it wouldn’t do any harm to pull up every pulse of magic he could command and unleash it in a bid to return to the bedroll he had so innocently left behind. He drew a breath, caged it in his lungs, and tilted his head to the black sky of the void above him.
The last time he had used his full power, he had killed a hundred people and destroyed the world magic for miles in every direction.
Rai exhaled. The sky dropped like viscous ink, severing the stretched rays of sunlight, drowning him in shadow. His cloak billowed, outstretched wings made of simple cloth, buffering him against the now-freezing wind as it gusted wildly, shoving at him, trying to make him stop.
Slowly, the darkness crept out of the water, a roiling layer of intangible sludge, coiling dank tendrils around his ankles as it swept around him. I should not be here, he hissed, bringing everything he could command into an oval sphere around him.
There was a thunderclap loud enough to obliterate a mountain–
–when Rai opened his eyes, he was laying in his bedroll, muscles weak from deep sleep rudely interrupted. Nearby, Brandon let out an erratic snore.
Rai let himself breathe and tried to still the shaking in his limbs. The visions were getting worse.
[First Part: The Birth Of A Pirate]
The heavy wooden door of the captain’s private quarters slid open a few inches, and a grey-skinned face showed itself in the gap. “Captain Masya. We’ll arrive in twenty minutes. The merchantship is still hovering, and no other ships are in sight.”
Masya turned, long legs folded beneath her and half-hidden by a worn quilt, talon-like feet dangling thick toes off the edge of the stuffed mattress. She grinned past long fangs. “Good. Come get me when we enter atmosphere and can breathe on deck. Everyone ready?”
“Aye, Captain.” Lasna flashed an identical smile from a startlingly similar face, features also lean and angular but muzzle whiter with age. “The skies are still clear of other ships. This will be an easy raid, just like any other.” The other rarra slid the door closed with a thump of wood against wood, and the seal was tight enough that her receding footsteps could not be heard.
Falar watched the exchange in silence, most of his nude body swathed in the same quilt that warmed Masya’s legs, his paw-like hands folded behind his head. Masya met his gaze, green eyes ever-startling in their hue, and softened her smile. “Better get dressed, my mage,” she murmured, reaching a short-fingered hand to touch his knee. She traced circles up his thigh with padded fingertips, small claws blunt enough to tickle and not scratch, and he squirmed.
“You too, Captain,” he replied, a grin creasing his muzzle as he wriggled out from under the blanket. The air in the cabin was cool, the local sun’s warmth not yet penetrating the sturdy hull of the Fanged Flower as it swept through the sun system of Do’agnun. The fine hairs covering his tawny-golden skin prickled and stiffened in the chill.
“I could walk over there naked and not get bled,” Masya boasted with a low chuckle, voice smooth and deep. Her voice and her eyes, so unusual for her people, made her stand out nearly as much as her pirating methods. She stretched her arms out and twisted her torso side to side, pretending to ignore Falar as he rummaged for clothing, his back turned.
“Only because of me and Lasna,” Falar retorted. They both knew he was lying, but it was a good game to play, acting as though Masya wasn’t fearfully competent alone, without her lover and her second-in-command. Though rarra were a species born of a magic-rich world, Masya only used bladed weapons in combat; Falar, on the other hand, was a master of air magic, and Lasna was an exceptionally-skilled water mage. Together, the three of them were a force to be feared on the battlefield.
But they never entered battles if they could help it – that’s what made Masya so unique among pirate captains. She had a full crew and a strong ship, and she only picked targets that she could surely overpower. Most of their raids resulted in immediate surrender, no casualties, and plenty of anonymous loot. The crew of the Fanged Flower had remarkably low death rates and an equally low turn-over of members, and since it always chose minor targets, the law did not know the ship’s or its captain’s names.
Falar buckled his leggings around his waist and buttoned the outer seams along each leg. Masya found his undershirt hiding beneath her knees and tossed it at him, laughing liquidly when he stopped it mid-air and kept it hovering until he finished his buttons. Then, he plucked the soft fabric out of his magical grasp and slid his arms through the open holes. “Smooth,” Masya grinned. “I think you’re getting better with your subtlety.”
“I’d better be, with you around,” Falar grinned back. He shrugged into his leather vest and buttoned it across his chest, dressed unimpressively for battle. An air mage’s best asset was discretion, since they made such good targets for the enemy, and he didn’t look like anything more than a deck-swabbing apprentice. It would keep people from realizing how dangerous he could be long enough for him to incapacitate them if necessary.
Masya, on the other hand, wore a full set of leather armor over fine silks and cotton, looking every inch the deadly captain. Atop her clothes, she wore a weapons harness that held half a dozen weapons; few would mess with a rarra whose skin was heavily scarred with experience, whose blade-like horn had lost its tip and been worn to bluntness. Even her long ears were notched with too many close calls.
Falar sat on the edge of the mattress and watched as she dressed, lean muscles flexing like whitewater rivers beneath her silvery skin. He had spent the last three years in her service as a secondary air mage – secondary only because of his unwillingness to kill with his magic, not because of his skill. He had spent nearly as long courting her, offering up his body to her curious hands, waiting and desperately hoping for the day that she returned his love as well as his lust.
Sometimes, he felt like he had loved her from the day they had met, when she took refuge from the local law enforcement in his workhouse. Back when he worked the land as a farmer, a scorned profession that made no use of his magical training and talent. She had bewitched him then, using mind-magic that no rarra would deign to learn, and released him only when she asked him to choose his future.
He had chosen her. He had devoted himself to her, yearned for her, and only four months ago did she finally admit to enjoying him for more than his flesh. It took her an achingly long time to acknowledge that she wanted his company, his companionship, his presence. His love. And he could not imagine being happier, now that they were truly partners, now that he could share her heart and not just her bed.
Masya turned to him, resplendent in her red-dyed armor, every knife snug in its sheath. As though on cue, the door slid open again and Lasna’s sharp voice filtered through. “Air on deck, Captain. We’ve unsealed the ship. The boarding crew is ready and in place.”
“Perfect,” Masya said, her smile reserved for Falar as their eyes met. “Let’s go.”
Morning in the flatlands was warm and promised to blossom into a steamy day as the sun continued to rise. Falar was working the fields, tentatively fertile earth roiling beneath his bare talon-like feet as he scattered tiny seeds into a breeze of his own making. He was close enough to his workhouse to see his two guardbeasts dozing beneath the tall porch, already taking advantage of the shade. Close enough to see the only marked trail that led up the slight hill to the small building, the only capillary of Ryarna roadways that reached his little plot of land from the nearby town.
Close enough to see a two-wheeler and its brown-garbed rider nearly fly up that trail, half-hidden in a cloud of dust and coarse gravel, and slide-stop so neatly that the wheeler skidded under the porch and nearly killed the slower of the two guardbeasts. The rider was already across the wide porch and into the workhouse before the dust settled.
Falar froze, uncertain, his hold on the air around him lax. A stranger just rushed into his workhouse and he… should… do what? He was naked but for the harness that held his seed pouches, his hands and feet filthy with topsoil. Even the guardbeasts were confused, hissing and disconcerted. The younger hopped onto the porch and paced, but it made no move to push open the mesh door and enter the house.
Quietly, the sun-darkened rarra cinched his bag of seed shut and tucked its strap into his belt, then approached the workhouse, gathering more magic to him in case he were confronted with violence. As he crossed the seeded portion of the field, two other wheelers pulled up the trail and idled next to the workhouse, marked in the traditional colors of the Riders. One uniformed rarra was gesturing animatedly from the ground to the house, and the other was already dismounting.
“Hello there,” Falar called to the two lawkeepers. He kept his posture straight, refusing to let his discomfort at his immodesty be detected. He didn’t often receive visitors, and the temperature had been warm enough to warrant working naked; he tried not to regret it.
“There are the marks,” one of them said to the other, pointing to the skid lines that led beneath the porch, where the stranger’s two-wheeler was surprisingly well-hidden in the shadows. “So where is she?”
“What’s going on?” Falan asked, lifting his voice slightly to be heard over the hum of the two magic-powered vehicles. His thought processes still felt as slow as cold honey.
“Fugitive,” the second Rider said, flashing him a hard, half-sympathetic smile. “Suspected pirate. She was stealing food in town.” His voice gave away his sex, like the first speaker’s had given away hers, though Falar couldn’t see the either face past the sun-blocking riding goggles and fine chain-link veil protecting muzzles and throats.
The first Rider swung a long leg over the seat of her wheeler and dismounted, leaving the machine upright on its own power. “Look, she’s probably hiding in your house – do you mind if we look around?” She said nothing about the gathered haze of magic that he still kept close to his skin; either she didn’t notice, which was unlikely, or she didn’t begrudge him his wariness.
Falar couldn’t think of a good reason to refuse, nor was he sure he wanted a thief in his workhouse, so he splayed his long, tapering ears in a shrug and gestured towards the door. The two Riders entered, an invisible aura of ready-to-use magical energy surrounding the first, the second with his short-fingered hand on the hilt of a thin sword.
The door swung shut behind them, and Falar waited at the base of the porch steps, listening with his ears and his magic-sense to detect the first sign of a struggle. The older guardbeast sat next to him, huffing in the heat; he imagined it was still unnerved by its close call with the hard end of a well-crashed wheeler. The younger of the pair sat on the porch and stared down the door, thick tail thumping rhythmically against a post.
Half an hour later, the lawkeepers emerged, empty-handed and disgruntled. “She must have kept running,” the one said to the other, who looked dour.
“Nothing?” Falar queried, a worried expression crossing his face.
“Nothing,” the second Rider said. “Sorry to disturb you. We didn’t leave a mess.” He offered a warmer smile than the other rarra had, and Falar nodded as they mounted their wheelers and rolled down the trail.
After they’d been gone for a few minutes, Falar looked at the wheeler under the porch, then at his workhouse. “You come with me,” he told the younger guardbeast. It rose, all bristly hairs and patches of armored skin, and entered the house first when he opened the door. He followed the shambling creature into the unlit hallway that led through the belly of the building. It was still dark and cool inside.
“Um, whoever you are – they’re gone. They didn’t see your wheeler. I–” Falar stopped talking when he felt the chilling touch of steel glide across his throat. The guardbeast turned several seconds too late, snarling, but it stopped its charge when Falar lifted a warning finger. His hands were shaking.
“Thanks for not squealing,” a smooth voice purred in his ear. He shivered. “Curious, though – why say nothing? I could kill you now. Didn’t you think of that before they went on their merry way?”
Falar tried to keep his voice from going shrill as sweat crept down his back. Even his mastery of air magic would not stop a knife from cutting through his flesh at such intimate range. “People who steal food normally need it. People who murder for money are a different story.” As an afterthought, he added, “I don’t have much money.” He wondered if he could rip the air from her lungs before she could put that blade into him and calculated that, at best, it would end with both of them dead.
The thief – pirate? – chuckled richly and removed her dagger from his throat, then stepped back with a click of clawed feet on the wooden floorboards. “Keen ear, that.” Falar slowly turned and looked up at the taller rarra.
Scars lined her fog-grey skin like creases in fabric, and a few discolored patches of fine hairs suggested old burn wounds near her neck and shoulders. The thin horn that arced upwards from her forehead was broken at the tip, an ugly disfigurement that bespoke a rough past. She was lean and muscular and nothing like the townsfolk and ranchwomen that he’d seen – especially considering the half-dozen weapons she wore on her person like he wore seed pouches. Her clothing was leather, a rare thing on Ryarna, tailored to fit her and designed to provide limited armor over vulnerable areas. There was a ship’s ID patch stitched on her vest, but he couldn’t make out the faded letters in the dim hallway.
“I’ll take my wheeler and go,” she said with a hint of a smile, meeting his wide eyes. “You keep your animals off me, and you can go back to your fields. Sound good?”
Falar considered her reasonable offer, not exactly eager to pit his magic against her steel and unwilling to risk his sturdy guardbeasts against what seemed to be an experienced intersun fighter. He surprised them both when he asked, “Are you really a pirate?”
We can only breathe when we’re near plants. We learned from the namiccians, who learned from the tache, whose intersun ships had to carry a belly full of forest in order for the warriors to breathe when they sailed from one world to the next. The tahori who go to Nami Ka bring back stories of namiccians who have learned to fly, but they can only go so far from the plants on the surface of their world before they, too, can’t breathe any longer. There is an invisible dome around our worlds, a sphere wherein which life exists, and the plants somehow create it.
Between the worlds, there is blackness. Void. Nothingness. There are winds, currents – the tache used them to sail to us – but we cannot breathe them. There is no weight, no up or down. If the winds move you like they move the great ships, you don’t know it; you have no way to tell if you’re moving.
I learned to teleport in tiny steps. Inlanlu almost never have that ability, and no other tahori were friendly enough to help me learn, so I taught myself. I discovered my talent as a child, startled by my brother’s surprise pounce; I vanished and reappeared two feet over, wide-eyed and stiff-tailed. I explored it, learning to move one foot, five feet, fifteen feet. I learned how to pop back in a few inches above the ground and avoid getting my feet stuck in the dirt; I learned how to drop onto a sturdy tree branch twenty feet up, and only once did I miss it and fall all the way down. I learned how to move by inches only, enough to dodge a strike with hand or paw or stick.
In time, I learned how to go to places I couldn’t see from where I was. That was harder – I had to remember how everything looked and hold that in my head – so, instead, I started trying small distances again with my eyes closed. Once I got the hang of visual memory, I could do longer jumps easily. By then, I had met Tari, a fast-talking young man with a brilliant smile. He, too, could teleport, and if my packmates were uncertain to have me spending so much time with a non-inlanlu, they didn’t stop me from meeting with him. Together, we explored our abilities.
I was two years from adulthood when I first tried putting myself into the sky. It worked– I started falling, the ground an uneven patchwork of greens and browns below me. I didn’t have time to think: instinctively, reflexively, I teleported back to the safest place I could think off, three inches above the ground where I slept. It was still a hard landing, my momentum half-preserved. I was shaking.
Tari’s father took him to Nami Ka, enough times that he learned how to go on his own. That was exhausting, he told me, making a jump that far – but he got better, and without his father’s knowing, he took me. I met namiccians, heard their language, smelled their air, drank their water. I tried to remember what it looked like; after I went with him three times, I tried to go by myself.
I didn’t make it.
The distance was too great, and inlanlu don’t have the sheer amount of qki flowing through our bodies that Tari’s people do. I hadn’t known that I needed to develop such a flow, let alone how to do so. I hadn’t known how much was needed.
So I found myself in the void between worlds, bitterly cold, weightless, and unable to breathe. My lungs seized up, and my heart fluttered like a bird inside my ribs. I couldn’t feel my skin within moments, but my bones hurt from the deep chill. As before, I didn’t have time to think: my reflexes tried to take me back to my safe place, where I slept, where I could breathe.
But I was exhausted. Going halfway and then back again was like going all the way, and I couldn’t do it. Panic rose in me as my eyes felt like ice; I couldn’t close them, even to blink. My mouth felt fused shut. I couldn’t feel my hands, my feet, my tail, my face– and, swiftly thereafter, my arms and legs.
At some point, only a few eternal seconds past the realization that I couldn’t teleport home, I realized what I was seeing. Our sun was a tiny ball of fire, making a triangle’s third point with my home and Nami Ka; I was on the invisible line that linked Nami Ka and my world. The worlds were discs, huge in comparison to the sun, facing its warmth; behind them, I could see the cloudy underside of a third world, Ayunra Ka. The sun must swing a circle around all three, once every day. That’s why our nights are longer than our days.
My back was to the sun, and I kept my eyes away from it but for the brief glance over my shoulder; but, even so quickly, the frigid chill lessened, and I could blink again.
I’m in the middle of the universe, I thought to myself, calming. I was surrounded by all we knew, ka, the sum of everything. It was not a bad place to die, even young, even alone.
But the word die scared me again, and reflexes kicked in, trying to take me home, to a safe place–
I woke up a week later, cradled by my brother in his black-furred sanero skin. My pack had gotten so scared when they found me comatose in my sleeping spot that they actually allowed Tari’s family to come onto our territory to look at me. Tari’s father told them that I had used up more qki than my body had in it, an impossible thing, a fatal thing. Having no qki means your body shuts off: heart stops, lungs stop, head stops. You die when you do what I did.
No one was sure how I survived. But, as the years wore on and I learned more, trained more, and did more, I could do it again and again – I could use more qki than my body had and still not die.
Five years after I saw the center of ka, I was the most powerful warrior in my pack.