Chaos and Retribution, that is. Yep, book 2 of my new fantasy series, Sky Touched, just came out a couple of days ago. It continues the stories of Fen, Aislin and Karliss, three young people with the powers of Stone, Sea and Sky.
They’ve done some growing up since the last book. Fen’s still trying to hide his power, trying to deny it altogether actually, but it’s getting harder and harder to do so and it looks like it might cause him to lose the person he cares about most.
Aislin’s situation is different. She has no qualms about using her power at all. The problem is that she is disconnected from others. She has no empathy and doesn’t really care for anyone. Combine that with a volatile temper and power over water, and if she doesn’t figure out some things soon, someone is going to get hurt. Or even killed.
Karliss is learning that all those years of fooling around and not taking his power seriously comes with a cost. His clan needs him now. They need his power over the air, but he has a lot of catching up to do and events aren’t waiting on him.
To celebrate the release of Sky Touched, book 1, Stone Bound, is on sale for a limited time for 99 cents. Go pick one up. What do you have to lose? (Other than a buck, of course.)
Chapter One: Karliss
Karliss crouched on the hilltop beside Ihbarha, wind shaman for his clan, and knew his life had changed forever. Ihbarha’s mouth was open. His eyes stared vacantly at nothing. “Bagesh!” he whispered urgently. “Bagesh, wake up!”
Nothing. There was no sign of recognition in those glassy eyes. The ritual had gone bad, and Ihbarha had paid the price. His mind was gone, torn away by the wind.
Dimly Karliss heard running feet. “Move, boy,” someone said gruffly, and he was pushed out of the way. A woman knelt beside Ihbarha and bent over him. She was a healer, that much Karliss could tell by her red-dyed braids, but he didn’t recognize her.
Other people were converging on the hilltop, clan chiefs, healers, warriors. Karliss moved back out of the way and looked around. What he saw made him cringe.
Qara, the most senior of the tlacti and their leader, was flat on her back, blood coming from her mouth. She wasn’t moving. The young shaman whose krysala had fallen out of the sphere, causing the whole thing to collapse, was curled up on her side, shaking. A couple of the other tlacti were stretched out unmoving. None of them were bleeding, so they were probably unconscious rather than dead. The rest were sitting up, holding their heads, looking for their krysalas, which were lying on the ground scattered about the hilltop.
Then Karliss’ mother got there. Munkhe bent over him and lifted him to his feet. She took his face in her hands and stared into his eyes, searching. “Are you okay, Karliss?” she asked. “Do you know me?”
Karliss nodded, not trusting himself to speak. With a gasp, she grabbed him in a hug and squeezed him fiercely. “Thank the gods,” she whispered. “Thank the gods.”
Karliss held onto her as tightly as he could. He realized he was shaking. He felt as if the ground was sliding away under his feet, sweeping him away from all that he knew and loved.
At length she pulled back, though she did not let him go. Karliss saw that his father, Ganzorig, was standing at the edge of the hilltop along with a number of other warriors, keeping the people back so that the healers could tend to the wounded without interference. As he watched, his father looked back over his shoulder and met his eye. He saw concern in his father’s eyes in the moment before his father turned back to the task at hand.
“Come on, Karliss,” his mother said. “Let’s get you out of here. We’re only in the way.” Still holding tightly to his hand, she led him off the hilltop. Anxious faces surrounded them as they made their way through the crowd. Karliss felt their fear pressing on him. They had just seen their people’s shamans laid out by something they didn’t understand. They wanted answers. They needed answers.
One woman reached out to Karliss and grabbed his sleeve as his mother led him through the crowd. “What happened? Is tlacti Qara okay?”
“Please,” his mother replied, trying to push the woman’s hand aside. “Let him be. He can’t answer your questions right now.”
“What happened?” the woman persisted, still not letting him go.
“I don’t know,” Karliss said. “It happened so fast.”
“Let him go!” Karliss’ mother snapped, twisting the woman’s hand so that she had to let him go or get her wrist broken. “Can’t you see what he’s been through?”
Karliss’ brother and sister were waiting for them at the yurt. Narantse’s eyes were wide. Even Ganbold, who prided himself on being calm and untouched no matter what was happening, looked nervous.
“What happened, Ana?” Narantse asked. “We heard the boom. Did something go wrong?”
“I don’t know what happened. I don’t know that anyone does.”
“But you know, don’t you?” Ganbold asked Karliss.
“Leave your brother alone. Later there will be time for questions.”
She bundled Karliss up in his sleeping furs and then set about making him some tea to calm him. Karliss lay there, replaying what had happened. The tlacti created a sphere of power with their krysalas and caged an aranti within it. Then Ihbarha joined his mind to the trapped aranti’s while the tlacti used their combined strength to force the aranti to share with Ihbarha what happened to the missing clan.
The ritual was inherently dangerous. The aranti were powerful creatures and not easily contained. Nor did they like being caged. This one had reacted as they always did, by racing madly about, trying to escape. As it raced about, it howled something about someone named Kasai, saying that was who killed the missing clan. But its words were in its own language, a language that only Karliss understood, so none of the other tlacti knew that yet. Right about then was when Ihbarha jumped up and started yelling something about the missing clan burning in gray fire.
Shortly after that was when things went terribly wrong. It was the young tlacti, the woman who’d only recently taken over that role for her clan, who caused the failure of the sphere of power. Her krysala fell out of its place, and the whole thing quickly collapsed. The power contained within the sphere escaped and much of it fed back through the tlacti, injuring them.
“Why did they do that?”
Karliss didn’t realize he’d spoken aloud until his mother turned to him and said, “What was that? What did you say?”
Karliss spoke without thinking. “Why did they trap the aranti? They hate being trapped. It would have told us if we’d just asked.”
She frowned, not understanding. “Trap the what? What’s an aranti?”
Karliss realized then that in his shock he’d let something slip. What he knew to be aranti his people thought of as spirits. It wasn’t the only thing his people believed that he thought was wrong. But he’d learned long ago not to reveal what he knew because it upset people and then they thought him a liar or worse.
“I meant to say spirit. I’m not…I can’t think right now.”
“How do you know the spirit didn’t like being trapped?” Ganbold asked. “I thought the only way the tlacti could communicate with the spirits was by drinking the moonglow tea. You didn’t drink any of the tea, did you?”
“No, Ihbarha drank the tea. I…” Karliss trailed off, not sure what to say. “It’s just a feeling I had. That’s all.”
“Try not to think about it anymore right now,” his mother said, putting her hand on his forehead as if checking for a fever. “Leave him alone, Ganbold. You can ask him questions tomorrow.”
“Seems like a strange thing to say is all,” Ganbold said.
“If you’d been through what he went through you’d say strange things too. Give him time.” She poured the tea into a mug and then helped Karliss sit up so he could drink it. He tasted the funnel leaves in it and knew she’d put them in there to help him calm down and sleep.
By the time the mug was empty he was already feeling terribly sleepy. As his mother was fussing over him he drifted off to sleep.
╬ ╬ ╬
When Karliss opened his eyes it was morning. His first thought was who, or what, was Kasai? Whatever Kasai was, the aranti were clearly frightened of him. That was why the creature had fought so hard to be free. They didn’t like being caged and always fought to free themselves, but normally they didn’t fight so hard. The aranti only became frenzied once Qara began to question it.
What could be so powerful that it could frighten an aranti?
That was what scared Karliss the most. He’d spent much of his life around the aranti. They were creatures whose sole purpose seemed to be playfulness and curiosity. He’d never seen them frightened before. Yet the one last night had clearly been frightened. Was Kasai a god, one he had never heard of before? He would have to ask Ihbarha. The old shaman might know.
Then it struck him.
Ihbarha had been injured. He remembered the vacant look in the old man’s eyes and he went cold inside. What if he never recovered?
And that’s when an even more frightening thought occurred to him:
I am tlacti for Spotted Elk Clan now.
Suddenly it was hard to breathe in the yurt. The sleeping fur was wrapped too tightly about him. The walls were too close.
He wormed his way out of the fur and sat up. His brother and sister were still asleep, only dimly visible as humped shapes under their furs. There was no sound from beyond the curtain which marked his parents’ sleeping area.
Karliss pulled his boots on and made his way quietly to the door flap and unfastened it. He eased through into the gray light of predawn. The camp was still mostly asleep. He saw two people over by the communal fire pit and one man on horseback, but that was it. It all looked so ordinary, simply another day, that for a moment he could almost convince himself that nothing had really happened. He’d simply dreamed it all.
But that was an illusion. He was not enough of a child to believe it.
He padded through the sleeping camp to Ihbarha’s yurt. The tlacti’s yurt was noticeably different from every other yurt in the camp. Arcane symbols and renderings of strange creatures were painted all over it. Ihbarha had taught him what all the symbols stood for, though Karliss hadn’t paid much attention and so didn’t remember most of it.
He went to the door flap of the yurt and scratched on it. He heard movement, and then the sound of someone unfastening the flap, and for a moment he allowed himself to hope. What had struck Ihbarha was only temporary. The old man would be his usual gruff, unpleasant self this morning. Karliss smiled. Things weren’t so bad.
His greeting for his bagesh died on his lips when the flap opened, and instead of the old man he saw a middle-aged woman. It was Enqa, the clan’s healer. The look in her eyes told him everything before she even spoke.
“He has not returned to us,” she said.
Karliss’ heart fell. Once again the world seemed to be crashing down around him. “Can I see him?”
She shrugged. “It can’t hurt.”
She moved out of the way, and he entered the shaman’s yurt. Karliss had never liked it in here. Ihbarha’s yurt was too cluttered. There were numerous clay pots and leather pouches, containing various powders, herbs, roots and such. There was a large, wooden trunk containing hundreds of tightly-rolled scrolls. There were also strange objects Ihbarha used to help him focus his powers. Several hung from the ceiling on leather strings: a wooden mask with only one eye and a snarling, tooth-filled mouth; a necklace strung with strangely twisted bones from some animal that did not live on the steppes; a dried gourd painted blood red that when it was shaken made a sound that caused Karliss to become instantly nauseated the only time he’d ever heard it.
All of this was to perform rituals. Rituals that would now be his responsibility, Karliss realized. The thought made him cringe inside.
Ihbarha was lying on his back on his sleeping furs. Even before Karliss knelt beside him he knew that what the healer had said was true. Ihbarha’s body was here, but his mind was gone. He was nothing but a shell.
Ihbarha had impressed on Karliss numerous times about the dangers inherent in interacting with the wind. He spoke of the spirits that dwelled within the wind as if they were wild horses. They could be directed to a certain extent. They could be touched if the shaman were careful. They could even be caught and forced to carry a rider. But they were powerful and unpredictable and no shaman, no matter how strong or how careful, was safe around them. At any moment they could bolt and trample a person.
Karliss knew what had happened. When the aranti bolted last night, Ihbarha’s soul was still linked with it. Ihbarha had not been able to let go fast enough, and he was carried away with the creature when it fled. The silver thread that connected his soul to his body was snapped. Now his soul was out there somewhere in the netherworld of the spirits, while his body was here. It was something that happened rarely, but it did happen. Bereft of soul, his body would slowly decay and die over the next weeks or months.
Karliss wrapped his arms about himself, trying to stop the shuddering that threatened to overwhelm him. He stood up and stumbled blindly from the yurt, striking his head on several of the objects hanging from the ceiling. He heard the healer ask him something, but he ignored her. He had to get outside. He had to get away.
Outside he stood gasping, trying to grasp how fundamentally his world had changed. He looked across the wide valley at the clusters of yurts that marked the eleven remaining clans. Only yesterday the valley had buzzed with the excitement of the annual Gathering. Only yesterday he’d been a child still, thrilled by everything the Gathering had to offer, racing around to drink as much of it in as possible.
Now the energy, the excitement, was gone. One of the clans was already taking down their yurts, though the Gathering officially lasted another day yet. Others would follow as the clans hurried back to their traditional hunting and grazing lands. Excitement had been replaced by uncertainty and fear.
Karliss headed back to his family’s yurt as the clan came to life, people emerging to face the new day. His mother spotted him before he got there. “There you are!” she exclaimed, hurrying up to him and checking him up and down as if he might have a hidden injury she was unaware of. “Where have you been? I was worried about you.”
“I went to check on Ihbarha,” he said.
“He’s gone, Ana.”
Munkhe pressed him to her. Ganzorig came walking up then, Karliss’ brother, Ganbold, with him. Ganzorig put a hand on Karliss’ shoulder and crouched to look him in the eye.
“You are rested?” he asked. Karliss nodded. “Good. You’re coming with me.” He stood and Munkhe turned to him with a question in her eyes. “Terl Dashin has called a meeting of the clan council.” As one of Dashin’s captains, Ganzorig was a member of the clan council, as were the elders of the clan.
Recognition dawned on Karliss and his mother at the same time. The tlacti was also a member of the clan council.
“So soon?” she asked. “But he is only a boy.”
“Not any longer,” Ganzorig said grimly. “Now he is tlacti for the clan.”
Karliss staggered under the weight of his words. It wasn’t possible. He was too young. He didn’t know enough.
Munkhe gave him another hug, then held him at arm’s length to look into his eyes. “Remember that I love you,” she told him.
Swallowing hard, Karliss followed his father and they walked to the council yurt. It was set up in the back of the largest wagon, the only yurt in the whole clan that was not set up anew with the arrival at each new camping site, then broken down at departure. On its sides were painted the clan symbol, a spotted elk, head down, antlers lowered, caught in mid-charge. Two warriors stood guard outside it.
“You can do this, my son,” Ganzorig told him, patting him on the shoulder. They mounted the wooden steps that led up into the back of the wagon.
Inside the terl, another captain, and three clan elders were already waiting, sitting cross-legged on the floor in a circle. Terl Dashin wasted no time.
“Tell us what happened.” The terl was a thick-shouldered man with well-muscled arms. His hair was tied back in a single, long braid that hung almost to his waist. Feathers, shells and various charms were tied in his braid. His chin was square and from it hung a long beard that reached to his chest. His jaws and upper lip were bare. His eyes were hard and they pierced Karliss as he struggled to find the words.
Haltingly, Karliss told the council about the spirit’s extreme agitation and how finally the young tlacti lost control of her krysala and the spirit escaped.
The council sat in silence for a minute when Karliss was done speaking, absorbing what he’d said. Then the terl spoke. His eyes swept the council. “Ihbarha’s soul is gone. It will not return.”
Karliss knew what was coming next and he wanted to speak up, to argue and say it was too soon. Maybe Ihbarha’s soul would find its way back. They needed only to wait. But he kept his mouth shut, knowing how foolish and childish that would sound. No wind shaman had ever recovered after having his soul torn from his body.
“This makes Karliss our new tlacti,” Terl Dashin said. “Are there any who dispute this?”
Several members shifted uneasily and Karliss was aware of numerous skeptical looks thrown his way. His antics—and Ihbarha’s general displeasure with him—were well known. He lowered his head.
“I think it is a bad idea,” one of the elders said. It was Henta, the old lady who’d been guarding the progis a few days ago when Karliss and his friends stole some of them. How long ago that now seemed to Karliss. “He is nothing but a frivolous, foolish child. He cannot be our tlacti.”
“Yet what other choice do we have?” another of the elders asked, a man by the name of Yeke. He was the oldest person in the clan. Most of his hair had fallen out, and he had only one remaining tooth. He had barely the strength to sit up, yet his mind was still sharp. “We must have a tlacti.”
“Perhaps another clan would give us their apprentice,” Henta said.
“A waste of time even to ask,” Yeke said. “If there is another apprentice to be spared he or she will surely go to Striped Badger Clan. The healers think it unlikely that their tlacti, Qara, will survive the day.”
“Karliss will surprise you,” Ganzorig said then. “There is more to him than you know.”
“You say this because you are his father.” Henta’s lip curled. She had never liked Karliss. “It clouds your judgment.”
“I will not argue with you, respected elder. But in time you will see the truth of what I say.”
“Is there anything more to be said about this?” Terl Dashin asked, looking at Henta. She scowled and looked like she wanted to continue arguing, but there was nothing more to be said. She shook her head.
Dashin called out and the door flap was opened by one of the guards. “Bring it in,” he said.
The warrior entered the yurt. He had a sack tied to his belt and from it he gingerly took Ihbarha’s krysala.
No, Karliss thought a moment later. Not Ihbarha’s krysala, my krysala.
The warrior held the krysala out to Karliss, who took it, acutely aware that every eye was on him. It felt very heavy in his hands. He had a sudden fear that he would drop it, and it would shatter into a hundred pieces.
“Can you do this?” the terl asked him abruptly. His eyes searched Karliss’, looking for something. “The clan depends on you.”
Karliss took a deep breath and looked at his father. His father gave him an almost imperceptible nod.
“I can do it,” he said quietly. He put the leather thong over his head. The thong was too long for him so the krysala lay in his lap. He stared down at it, wondering if he would ever be tall enough to wear it properly.
“What information did you get from the spirit before it escaped? Did you learn what happened to the missing clan?” Dashin asked.
Karliss looked up to meet his terl’s gaze. “Ihbarha said something about them being trapped and burning in gray fire. He said it was all around them.” He hesitated, wondering if he should tell the council what else he knew, about the one called Kasai. But if he did so he would have to explain why he had this information and no one else did. He would have to tell them that he understood the language the aranti—what others thought of as spirits—spoke, and that he could speak it too. Somehow this didn’t seem like a good time to do that. He wouldn’t be able to manage the questions that would follow. They might even think he was making it up. And besides, what good would the information do anyway? They wouldn’t know who this Kasai was any more than he did. No, better to keep the information to himself until he knew more. It was possible that there was information on Kasai somewhere in the hoard of scrolls Ihbarha had in his yurt.
“Is that all?” the terl asked.
“We’ll move out today,” Dashin said. “But we need to know more about this, especially since our lands border the missing clan’s. If outsiders invaded their land and destroyed them, they may be coming for us next.”
Karliss hadn’t thought about that. The lands of the Long-striding Antelope Clan were at the very southwestern edge of the steppes. There were no other clans beyond them, only unpopulated mountains to the west, and to the south the high plateau that had erupted in smoke and flame some years back.
Dashin looked at Ganzorig. “Take six warriors and ride out at once. Find out what happened to Long-striding Antelope Clan and report back. Do not delay.”
“It will be done,” Ganzorig replied. He squeezed Karliss’ shoulder once, then stood and left the yurt. Karliss watched him go with alarm. First his bagesh and now his father. Who else was going to be taken from him?
“I want to be gone by the time the sun is at its peak,” the terl said. He looked at Karliss. “Tlacti, you will prepare the departing ritual.”
Karliss hesitated. He wanted to refuse, he wanted to say that he didn’t know all of the departure ritual because he hadn’t paid attention when Ihbarha tried to teach it to him, but he knew he couldn’t say that. He could never admit how lost he really was. Reluctantly, he nodded.
The meeting broke up then, and Karliss followed the others back out into the morning. People were already scurrying here and there, packing things into the big wagons, collapsing the yurts and rolling them up.
He made his way through the hive of activity. He wanted to go to his family’s yurt. He wanted to crawl under his sleeping furs and hide. But he was clan tlacti now. He had responsibilities he could not shirk, no matter how frightened or unsure he felt. That meant he had to go to Ihbarha’s yurt and get out the items that he needed for the ritual. The yurt couldn’t be taken down until he’d done that.
As he was walking, he heard his name shouted and turned to see Batu running toward him. The chubby boy was panting slightly when he got to him.
“I can’t talk right now, Batu,” he said, continuing on toward Ihbarha’s yurt.
“So it’s true then?” Batu asked with a worried look on his face. “Ihbarha is gone?”
Karliss glanced at him, but did not slow. “It’s true.”
“That means…that means you’re our tlacti.” He sounded like he was having trouble grasping the idea.
“I know,” Karliss said. “I have to prepare the ritual for departure.”
Batu stared at him wide-eyed. “By yourself?”
“Yes, by myself!” Karliss snapped. “Who else is going to help me? You?”
“I never…I just didn’t think that you…” His voice trailed off. He winced, reluctant to say the next words. “Can you do it?”
Karliss sighed. He wanted to cry. He wanted to run away, go as fast and as far as he could. He wanted to go back in time, to when he was still a child. “I have to do it. There’s no one else.”
Batu stopped and stared after Karliss as he walked away. Karliss could feel his gaze on his back. He felt very alone.
The healer was gone and there was no one in the yurt but Ihbarha. Karliss made his way through the clutter and stared down at the old man. “Why? Why did you have to leave? I can’t do this. I’m too young. I can’t handle it.”
There was no response from Ihbarha. It was hard to tell that he was even still alive, his breathing was so slow.
“Come back!” Karliss yelled. “Your clan needs you!”
Tears came to Karliss’ eyes and he turned away to begin gathering what he needed for the ritual. A hollowed-out yak horn with a wooden stopper in the end. An elk antler with a number of small bells tied onto it. And, most important of all, a leather pouch with a number of small, polished tiles made of elk bones.
He started to leave with the items, then realized something. It would have to be him who packed up the yurt. No one else knew where anything went. Things could be lost or damaged, things it would take a great deal of time to replace, if he was even able to replace them.
He set the things he’d gathered aside and began the task of packing. There were several wooden chests, each with a number of small compartments inside. He started packing the pouches and jars into the compartments, hesitating over some things that he couldn’t quite remember where they went. He wished now that he would have paid more attention to the old shaman. Ihbarha had showed him all this stuff many times. He’d even helped him, though usually the old man was soon angered by his uselessness and tossed him out of the yurt and finished it alone.
Before he was finished two men entered the yurt. Neither looked at him or spoke to him. They gathered up Ihbarha’s limp form and carried him out. They were back a couple of minutes later, and Karliss knew they wanted to start taking down the yurt so he hurried, tossing in the remaining items wherever he could fit them. He’d have to go over them and properly organize everything later.
That done, he left the yurt, carrying the items he needed for the ritual. As he walked he tried to remember all the words to the ritual. He knew most of them, but there were a few he wasn’t clear on. Above all else he had to get this, his first ritual, right. Too many eyes would be on him, watching, judging.
It looked like the clan was nearly ready to move out. All the yurts except Ihbarha’s were already down. Nearly everything else—the clay ovens, the stools, tables, boxes—were stowed in the wagons. Teams of yaks were hitched to the wagons, and most of the wagons had already taken their spots in line, the spots determined by standing within the clan.
Karliss walked along the line of wagons, aware of the way that people stopped talking when he approached, feeling their eyes on him, the weight of their expectations, and their fear. Most of all he felt their fear. He knew what they saw when they looked at him. They saw a child, a boy who had never lived up to the expectations put on him. They wondered if he could guide them in the difficult times to come—and they believed difficult times were coming. Whatever had wiped out Long-striding Antelope Clan was out there somewhere, and they were heading toward it.
Near the front of the line was his family’s wagon. Narantse was sitting up on the driver’s bench. Beside her was Nasan, the elderly woman whose yurt Munkhe had patched a couple days before. With the loss of the rest of her family, she rode with them. Munkhe was standing by the lead yak, tightening a strap on the animal’s harness.
Karliss stopped. More than anything he wanted to climb up and take his spot on the wagon. He liked sitting on the back of the wagon, dangling his feet over the edge, watching the countryside roll by. But that wasn’t going to happen anymore. As clan tlacti, he was expected to ride in the tlacti’s wagon and take his place up near the front of the caravan, behind the terl’s wagon.
His mother looked up and saw him. She dropped what she was doing and hurried over to him. She gave him a quick hug, then pulled back to look at him. “Your father said you handled yourself well during the council meeting.”
Karliss tried to reply, but couldn’t find any words.
“It’s going to be okay. You can do this.”
“I don’t know if I can.”
“I have faith in you.”
“It’s…” His words faltered. He tried again. “I don’t remember enough. I didn’t…I wasn’t paying attention and I don’t remember all the rituals, the exact words and…I’m afraid.”
Munkhe looked around to make sure no one was close enough to overhear him, then she leaned in close. “Listen to me,” she said. “You are Karliss and you are favored by the wind. There hasn’t been a tlacti like you for hundreds of years. You can do this.”
“But I don’t remember—”
“Stop saying that,” she said fiercely. “Words like that frighten people and cause them to lose faith. Above all else they need to have that faith right now. Do you understand? So you don’t remember all the exact words to the rituals. It doesn’t matter. Let me tell you something. I grew up in the Angry Bear Clan. I listened to my share of rituals. I’ve heard many more in my years in Spotted Elk Clan. And you know what? The words aren’t the same. Maybe they were once, long ago, but they aren’t anymore. Words change over time. That’s what happens.”
“So you’re saying…?”
“I’m saying that the exact words aren’t important. It’s the intent that counts. Besides, what need do you have for words? You can speak to the wind.”
Karliss’ mouth dropped open. “You know about that?”
“I’m your mother. Of course I know. I’ve heard you many times. I know you understand the voice of the wind too.”
“You never said anything.”
“It was clear you wanted to keep it to yourself. I respect that. But this is why I know you can do this. Who else can talk to the wind? Who better to guide us?”
Karliss drew himself up straighter. “I won’t let you down, Ana.”
“I know you won’t.” She gave him another hug.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to hug the tlacti this much,” Karliss said, feeling eyes on them. “No one ever touched Ihbarha.”
Munkhe nodded. “I’ll try to remember that. Now go on and do the ritual. It’s time to go.” It looked to Karliss like she had tears in her eyes.
Karliss strode to the front of the line. Terl Dashin was sitting astride his horse near his family’s wagon, two of his sons sitting their horses nearby. His wife was on the driver’s bench, two small girls sitting beside her. The men never rode in the wagons unless they were sick or injured. Driving the wagons was left up to the women and the elderly.
“Are you ready, Terl?” Karliss asked.
The terl nodded. His face was expressionless. Karliss could read nothing there.
Karliss walked off to the side, picking a spot where those on the wagons could see him. Most of the men were already mounted and had either taken their places with the herds of yaks, horses and goats, or were off out of sight, scouting the way, watching for trouble.
Karliss held up the elk antler and shook it so the bells rang. “Hear me, gods and spirits of the wind!” he called. His voice sounded small and thin to him. Probably only the closest wagons could hear him. He tried to remember what his mother had said and forced himself to continue.
“We are the people of the steppes, the clan of the Spotted Elk.” He shook the antler again. “We call upon you to…” He faltered, suddenly unable to remember what came next. Too many people were watching him. He glanced around, saw his mother sitting up on the wagon, staring at him, and tried to draw strength from her. He started again.
“We call upon you to grant us safe passage, to guide us to green pastures and rich hunting.” There was something else that he couldn’t remember, but that would have to do for now. He set the antler down, took the stopper out of the end of the yak horn, and took out a pinch of the black powder inside it. It was ground up nettle root, used when the clan would be traveling west. He put the pinch of powder in his palm, held his hand up to the west and blew on it. The powder drifted away.
Now for the final step. He opened the leather pouch and shook the carved elk bone tiles out into his hand. They were each about the size of his thumbnail, each carved with a symbol. He rattled the tiles in his hand and tossed them on the ground. Then he knelt down to read them.
This was the part he remembered least. Every symbol had a meaning. But that was only part of the riddle. There was also meaning in where each bone tile fell and whether the symbol on it faced up or down. He also remembered Ihbarha saying something about how the meaning changed based on which direction the clan meant to travel and what the weather was that day.
Karliss stared at the jumbled mass of bone tiles and felt helpless. He had no idea how to make sense of this. One of the bone tiles lying face up was carved with a lightning bolt, but another piece carved with a staring eye was lying partially over it. What was that supposed to mean? Was it a good omen or a bad one? Prominent in the middle of the pile was a piece carved with the sun. That looked promising.
He realized he’d been staring at the tiles for a while now, longer than Ihbarha usually did. It was time to make a decision.
He gathered up the tiles and other items, then walked over to where the terl waited. “Well?” the man said.
“The signs are good. We can go.” A few moments passed and Karliss realized the terl was waiting for him to say something more. Then it came to him. Ihbarha always chose the direction for the day’s travel as well, choosing a route that would lead them safely to their next camp. He looked over his shoulder. He knew the clan’s lands were west and south of here. Other than that, everything looked pretty much the same, gently rolling hills in every direction as far as the eye could see.
He picked a random direction and pointed. “That way.”
The terl stared at him without responding, and for a second Karliss thought for sure he was going to say he knew Karliss was making it up. What would happen then? What would Karliss say? But after a moment the terl nodded. He called out a command, his wife snapped the reins, and the wagons began to roll out, making their slow, steady way across the rolling hills.
Karliss headed for the tlacti’s wagon and got there as it started to roll. He caught hold of the edge, set his feet on the rungs of the short ladder affixed to the side of the wagon, and climbed up into the seat. He wasn’t surprised to see that Nergui was driving the wagon. Nergui had driven the tlacti’s wagon for as long as Karliss could remember. Nergui was in his middle years, but he had the mind of a child. Karliss had heard that he’d been kicked in the head by a horse when he was only a child, and after that he simply stopped growing up. He was a heavyset man with buck teeth and wide, childlike eyes. Unlike most of the Sertithians, his hair was unbraided and hung loose, blowing about this face.
Nergui gave Karliss a big smile when he saw him. “It’s Karliss!” he cried. “Are you riding with us today?”
“And every day from now on.” Karliss looked in the back of the wagon. Sitting propped up in one corner was Ihbarha. Boxes had been stacked around him to keep him from falling onto his side. It looked like he’d been set so he could look out across the steppes as they rolled, but Ihbarha stared blankly, his gaze registering nothing.
Nergui saw Karliss looking at the old man and he said, “He’s very quiet this morning. I think he might be asleep, but I’m afraid to ask him. He gets so angry.”
Karliss started to explain to him that Ihbarha wasn’t asleep, then gave it up and nodded instead.
“I’m sad the Gathering is over already,” Nergui said. “Are you sad?”
Nergui scratched his chin where a tangled, patchy beard grew. “Everyone is sad today. I wonder why.”
“Probably because the Gathering is over. Just like you.”
“That makes sense. I’m sad, they’re sad, everybody’s sad.” He turned and looked at Karliss closely. “I’ve never seen you sad before, Karliss. Why are you sad?”
“I’m a little worried is all.”
“Oh.” Nergui looked off to the west where some clouds were beginning to form. “Are you worried that a storm is coming?”
Karliss looked at the clouds. He hadn’t noticed them before. Storms from the west were never a good thing. Erlik Khan was the god of the west winds, and she was not a friendly god. The Sertithians mainly hoped to avoid her attention. Hopefully the clouds would dissipate before too long.
“I am worried,” Karliss admitted, realizing that he didn’t have to pretend to be in control around Nergui. Probably Nergui wouldn’t tell anyone else what he said, and if he did, people wouldn’t pay any attention to him anyway.
“I’m not,” Nergui said happily.
“You’re here,” he replied simply. “You’ll know what to do. I’m sure of it.”
“I’m glad one of us is sure.”
“It’s a good day to be driving a wagon.” Nergui picked up the whip lying beside him on the bench and popped one of the yaks who was lagging, causing it to move back up with the others. Nergui was simple, but he was a good wagon driver. “I think every day is a good day to drive a wagon.”
The next couple of hours passed uneventfully. Karliss relaxed a little. All in all it seemed like the ritual had gone pretty well, he thought. He’d always thought the rituals were unnecessary, even silly, and now it was starting to look like he was right. Probably it wouldn’t matter if he did them at all, though he guessed he’d have to keep pretending to do them so as not to upset his clansmen. He also needed to make them look as realistic as possible so that people wouldn’t get suspicious. He climbed into the back of the wagon and spent some time looking through boxes, locating the items he needed for the next ritual. Might as well be prepared. When he climbed back onto the seat, Nergui spoke again.
“Do a trick with the wind, Karliss. I want to see a trick.” Over the years Nergui had watched Karliss do a number of things with the wind. He was fascinated by the things Karliss could do. “I want to see something new,” he added.
“Not today,” Karliss replied.
Nergui scoffed. “Not for you.”
“Even for me. You see what it did to Ihbarha.”
Nergui looked over his shoulder at the old man. “He was never nice to me. He called me names.”
“He wasn’t very nice to anyone,” Karliss replied.
“Did the wind hurt him?”
“Yes, it did.”
“But the wind won’t hurt you. The wind is your friend.”
Is it? Karliss wondered. He’d always thought so. Now he no longer knew what to think. He’d seen firsthand what the wind could do to a person. He had only to turn around and see it again in Ihbarha’s blank eyes.
He felt the wind slapping at him playfully, heard its voices whispering around his head, and he recoiled from it. Leave me alone, he whispered in the language of the wind. But the wind ignored him and continued as it always did.
Nergui started talking again, but Karliss hardly heard him. He was focused on keeping the aranti out of his head. He needed to build a wall inside, and he needed to learn how to keep it in place always. He no longer trusted the aranti. From now on he meant to keep them out unless he had need of them.
He fingered the krysala hanging around his neck. With this instrument a tlacti took hold of the wind and bent it to his will. With this instrument a tlacti who was strong enough could make the wind do many things. He had never thought much of the krysala—what need did he have of it anyway?—and paid little attention when Ihbarha tried to teach him how to use it. But maybe now he should start trying to learn.
╬ ╬ ╬
Instead of dissipating, by mid-afternoon the clouds to the west had grown thick and dark. They rose up in towering masses, lightning flashing nearly constantly in their depths. The wind was blowing hard and it was unnaturally warm, almost hot. No rain fell from the clouds, but then, rain hardly ever fell from storms that came from the west. Accompanying the storm were a number of aranti, drawn as always by the energy and excitement of the storm.
Like the aranti, Karliss had always loved lightning storms. Confident that lightning would never strike him, he’d played in them with abandon. The energy in the air was incredible. Lightning storms made him tingle all over. They made him feel alive.
But not this time. This time the lightning storm filled him with dread. He was going to be expected to do something about it, and he didn’t think he could. He’d only once seen Ihbarha perform a ritual to calm a lightning storm—one much milder than this one—and he remembered very little about it.
The storm was still a couple miles out when the wagon train came to a stop. The terl came galloping back to the wagon Karliss was riding in. “What are you doing?” he yelled angrily. “Why are you sitting there? Get out there and do something!” The terl didn’t wait for a response but galloped away again, shouting orders as he went.
Karliss scrambled into the back of the wagon and started going through the boxes of Ihbarha’s materials, now and then glancing over his shoulder at the coming storm. It seemed to be coming faster all of a sudden and in his nervousness what little he knew seemed to have fled his mind. He remembered Ihbarha waving a fan made of twisted reeds at the beginning of the ritual. There was also some kind of powder involved, but Karliss had no idea which one and there were literally scores of them.
“Karliss,” Nergui said nervously. “It’s getting awfully close.”
“I know, Nergui! Don’t bother me!”
There was a sudden, brilliant flash and a few seconds later a thunderous boom. The yaks pulling the wagon danced nervously in their harness, and Nergui had to fight the reins to get them under control. The wind got even stronger.
Another flash of light as lightning stabbed the earth less than a hundred yards away. The boom of thunder followed almost immediately. All up and down the wagon train people were unhitching the yak teams. The children and the elderly were climbing down off the wagons and taking cover beneath them.
Finally Karliss opened a box and found the reed fan he was looking for. He snatched it up and jumped out of the wagon.
The day had grown dark. The wind was so strong that he had to lean into it, and there were moments when he made no headway at all. Karliss went a short distance from the wagon and held up the reed fan as he tried to think of how to start the ritual. A moment later the wind gusted again, and the reed fan was ripped from his hand and carried away by an aranti. He started to chase it, then gave up. He would have to do the ritual without it. Fortunately, at least now he remembered how the ritual started.
“I am Karliss, tlacti of the Spotted Elk Clan!” he yelled. The wind snatched his words and flung them away. The aranti raced and cavorted around him. He could barely hear himself. “I order you to leave this place! Go and take the storm with you!” Then he faltered. He didn’t remember any more of the ritual.
Twin lightning bolts struck the ground near one of the wagons. Two women had almost finished unhitching the yaks from the wagon when it struck. The yaks panicked and bolted. One of the women was knocked down and trampled. The last harness trace broke, but not before the wagon was tipped over on its side. The thunder that followed was deafening.
Karliss started yelling at the aranti in their own tongue, telling them to leave, that they were only making things worse. But they ignored him and continued to play in the storm. The wind grew even stronger.
Then Karliss got an idea. What if he used the word of power? He’d only seen it once, when Ihbarha tried to teach him about it. With it, a tlacti could control one of the aranti, force it to do his bidding. Ihbarha had warned him that the word was dangerous if used incorrectly, but Karliss couldn’t see that he had any real choice. How much worse could things get? Another nearby lightning bolt decided him.
He picked a nearby aranti. Generally he either couldn’t see the creatures or they were only visible as dim shapes. But for some reason because of the intensity of the storm they had become much more visible. They appeared as amorphous, glowing orbs, tails of light streaming out behind them. Within the glowing orbs Karliss thought he saw faces, though they were alien and they shifted constantly
“Ken-shai!” he yelled, pointing at the aranti he’d picked out.
He knew right away that he’d made a mistake.
For a moment he had hold of the aranti. But it was like trying to hold onto the reins of a wild stallion. The creature bolted and broke from his feeble hold almost immediately.
And then it began racing around madly. As if infected by its manic energy, the other aranti did the same, whirling and darting everywhere with wild abandon.
When they did that, the storm grew stronger. Lightning stabbed down out of the clouds constantly. The thunder became a constant roar. The day had become nearly as dark as night, though the darkness was lit up steadily by the lightning, creating an eerie, nightmare landscape where people and animals appeared, disappeared, then reappeared in a slightly different position.
Karliss stared, aghast at what he’d done. He’d made things so much worse. It would have been better if he’d done nothing at all.
A lightning bolt struck Karliss, knocking him off his feet. For a moment he lay on the ground with his eyes closed, wondering if he was dead. Then he sat up. The tips of his fingers were blackened and there was a coppery taste in his mouth, but other than that he seemed unharmed. He got up and ran back to the wagon. Nergui was huddled under it, along with Ihbarha, who he’d laid out and wrapped in a blanket. Nergui yelled something to him, but Karliss didn’t even try to understand him. He huddled there miserably wishing he’d never been made tlacti.