Dawn of the Flame Sea Excerpt
Year 0, Month 0, Day 0
The season of low summer
Energy shimmered into view, at first forming a single rippling, wavering line, then spliting and curving into an arch. It was pointed at the top somewhat like the pupil of a cat's eye, though if the bottom was pointed as well, its point was lost under the uneven stone floor. It wasn't the only source of light. Within moments, scudding balls of shimmering opalescent energy, like overgrown dust bunnies, soared in through the cavern walls. The energy balls impacted on the edge of the arch, brightening and strengthening it with each impact. Two, five, fifteen, then a trickle of a few more stragglers soared in to join the arch. A few seconds later, it stabilized.
A dark-clad body dashed through that shimmering portal into the dark cavern. The man spun, skidding a little as his bootsoles slipped on the gritty, uneven surface. One of the marks tattooed on his tanned face shimmered briefly with an odd, faint, brownish glow, then he turned in a circle, sword in one hand, glowing crystal-tipped shaft in the other, ready to stab or smash anything that threatened the glimmering archway.
Nothing attacked. The opalescent lights played over the mottled, spotted granite of the cavern walls, and gleamed off the black hair of the only man in the chamber. The sueded black leather of his clothes absorbed most the light rather than reflected it, leaving him looking like nothing more than a head and a pair of weapon-wielding hands attached to a humanoid shadow.
"Ban?" a feminine voice asked. It was projected by the crystalline hoop piercing the middle shell of his ear.
Something about the chamber, with its uneven folds and ragged exit, made him twist and peer all around for several extra seconds. The only sounds he could hear were his own heartbeat and breathing, the soft scrape of his bootsoles on the gritty stone floor, and a faint hiss from the Veil. Scents were simple and plain: warm sandstone, dust, his own body, and a hint of moisture in the mostly still air.
Unable to spot what it was, he waited...waited...then shook his head slightly and spoke. "It appears to be clear. You may come through now."
The rippling, opalescent veil brightened, scintillating in streaks of light that pulled back to reveal a heavily wooded meadow, and a cluster of men and women moving toward the doorway in the Veil between worlds. Unlike Ban, all of them were golden-haired and golden-eyed, more lithe and lean than muscular, with ears that swept up to modest points rather than bearing the smooth curve of his own.
One of the three men stepped through and lifted a crystal in his hand. Energy flared outward, bathing the chamber in an opalescent mist, before sucking itself back inside. He frowned a little, tilted the faceted oval and studied the shifting colors captured within, then shrugged. "It seems to be safe to use Fae magic, though I'll need to study this realm in depth. There are some oddities..."
"When are there not? Can you be specific, Éfan?" The voice came from the tallest and most stately of the three women remaining on the other side. No sound escaped the portal archway, just whatever magic allowed her voice to be heard through their communication earrings.
"The portal stabilized faster than anticipated, my lady," Éfan stated, still pacing slowly about the cavern. "A positive sign, but still something to be cautious about."
"It is not enough to turn us back," Jintaya decided. "We will continue establishing the pantean."
Two of the four women on the other side stepped through; with the two men, they formed a chain while the dark-haired Ban stood watch by the exit tunnel and the blond male with the crystal egg continued to frown softly at the device. It was not a chain of muscles and limbs, however; instead, each of the four merely lifted their hands, and the various boxes, bags, chests and crates started floating across the archway. Goods moved from one universe to the other silently, almost effortlessly, though of course using magic instead of muscle would still cost each of them in some way.
The cavern selected for this transfer was fairly large, if uneven; the Veil had been pierced at one end, the exit tunnel at the other, with a dip and three terraces between the two. Bags and boxes, chests and bundles were floated through and settled to either side, sorted by color coded ribbons and tags to differentiate between personal belongings and shared materials. This cave was at the bottom of a long chain of caverns and tunnels leading up to the surface, around a dozen. It would make an excellent, defensible home base.
The last of the crates and barrels came through, and now furniture floated past. Everything they would need to set up an initial observation outpost would be sent through for their use, including stores of food to last them long enough to either find edible things to cultivate and domesticate here on this world, or long enough to realize nothing was edible by their kind, in which case other plans would be made. The upper caverns would be claimed and occupied as rough living, working, and storage quarters, and eventually they would reshape the very rock of this place into something much more civilized. But that would take time.
With the Veil portal opened and stabilized, the light pouring from its magics was now equally steady. However, a hint of light off to the left of the archway flickered faintly, erratically. Narrowing his eyes, Ban watched out of the corner of his eyes—and sprinted for the spot, sword stabbing into the narrow rift even as he reached it. A frantic yell from the other side of the crack stopped his thrust, but only so he could pull the blade out and peer inside. Flames flickered and wobbled, casting weird shadows, but it did allow him to see a man running away from the crack, up a twisting tunnel raggedly illuminated by the burning torch in his hand.
"Ban! What is it?" Éfan called out. Parren and Fali looked up briefly from their levitation efforts, but had to keep working.
"A spy!" Unsure if that passage connected to the others or not, he wedged his hand into the narrow crack and flexed the muscles under one of the many tattoos painting his tanned hide. Between one breath and the next, he shrunk down, scrambled through, and re-enlarged himself as soon as he could. Ban flexed another tattoo to keep track of the twists and turns of the maze-like caves so he could find his way back, and gave chase.
The wand in his hand was brighter than the torch in the native's, making his passage hard to see. The smell and sight of its soot lingering in the air, and the thumping of his feet on the cavern stone, kept the black-clad warrior on the fleeing man's track. A spy who saw the Veilway was not allowed to speak of it to anyone else. That meant catch, or kill.
Jintaya will want him caught, so that we can attempt to erase his memories, Ban knew, long legs catching up on the fleeing native slowly at best, thanks to the smaller man's evident agility. Now how did he get in so close, on a path we could not see…? Ah.
These caverns were indeed connected to the others, though the connecting point was so low, he had to drop onto his belly to slither through the low gap the other man used more readily in a rapid, scuttling crawl, his crude pitch torch nearly guttering out from being scraped along the floor. By the time he got through, the native was halfway across the sun-lit cave. It was not a direct exit, but the next passage was broad, and led out to a cave that was half crevasse.
Finally free to run unimpeded by twists and turns in the granite face, his long legs closed the distance between him and his fleet-footed quarry. In the bright sunlight angling down from overhead, he could see the young man was about as heavily tanned as he was, with matted dark hair, some sort of primitive leather kilt wrapped around his hips, and very worn leather sandals strapped to his feet. One of those straps broke as he darted out of the crack they were following. He tripped, stumbled, then started yelling and waving his free arm, torch still held aloft. Sour sweat trailed in his wake, the scent of fear and an unwashed body, along with hints of pungent greenery and a drier kind of air than the caverns had held.
Abruptly wary, Ban skidded to a stop at the edge of that opening. Beyond it lay the green-speckled, wind-and-water carved ravine that the scrying spells of the others had scouted and checked. There should have been—and were—a number of wild-growing bushes, trees, grasses, even a few flowers, and a half-dried, somewhat muddy pond suggesting that this area did flood from time to time, despite the palpable heat radiating off of the rocky walls of the canyon.
There should not have been a good two hundred and more men, women, and children, ranging from babes in arms to greybeards. Most of whom looked thin, dusty, haggard from hard travel on little food, and whom had apparently pulled sledges of primitive belongings, of leather goods and grass-woven baskets. Though the wind was shifting the air only a little bit, he could smell how desperately everyone needed a bath. There was water nearby for bathing, and he could see dampness on clothes and skin where some had slaked their thirst., but they must have only just arrived within less than an hour.
Just over one hour ago, when Jintaya herself had checked through the initial hair-thin opening of the Veil, the cave system and its immediate surroundings had been native-free. Natives who were now grabbing for their spears, their slings and primitive bows, and who were pushing their children back out of harm's way as they faced the black-clad stranger who had chased one of their own out of the caves.
"Ban, what is happening?" he heard Jintaya demand, even as the man he had chased, a middle-aged fellow with a good amount of stamina, started pointing his way and babbling in the local tongue.
"Jintaya…we have a problem," he murmured, carefully lowering his sword so that it was not quite so threatening. The subtle blue tattoo marked around his eye, his ear, and all the way down to his throat twitched and itched a little, struggling to comprehend and translate their language.
"Tell me you did not kill the spy, Ban," she stated reprovingly.
"No, but I should have," he replied quietly, counting numbers, gauging weapon skills, and debating just how much of a fight he might have on his hands. The pale blue tattoo marking him from right eye to ear to throat and linked permanently to his personal, alien magics, finished making sense of their language. Syllables, vowels and consonants became sounds imbued with meaning. Words such as magic and great power and anima beings, whatever anima was, made him flinch. "He's now telling about…two hundred twenty people more what he has seen. Male and female, young and old. A tribe of some sort. They look like they have traveled far to get here, and have only just arrived."