“Are you alright?”
Linndan forced his eyes open to find he was lying in the long grass. Under normal circumstances, the feel of soft grass on his face would be a plaeasant one, but this was as far away from normal as he got. He clutched his head, eyes watering, trying to stop the searing pain.
“Linndan?” the voice asked.
Linndan opened his mouth to respond, but his mouth felt as through someone had shoved the entire desert down his throat. He coughed, struggling to sit up. The world swayed. Was that the ground moving or his eyes? He started to shake his head, only to send a other dagger of pain lancing through his skull.
He clutched his head even more tightly, resting his elbows on his knees. In front of him his horse pawed at the ground, whickering. He clicked his tongue and the horse came close enough for him to grab onto the saddle and haul himself up onto his feet. He leaned against the horse, drinking deeply from the water skin tied to the front of the saddle.
“What happened?” the voice asked.
“Sorry,” Liunndan croaked. “I have to go home.”
“Home?” the voice repeated. “Why?”
A rueful smile tugged at his lips. “When the gods call for you, it’s unwise to ignore Them. Unwise, and painful.”
“Gods,” the voice scoffed. “You mentioned them before. I keep telling you there are no gods, only the blessed saints.”
With some effort, Linndan swung himself up into the saddle. “That may be true here, but where I’m from our gods are very real. I don’t know who’s calling me or why, but I’m not about to ignore Them.” He tugged at the reins, urging his horse in an eastward direction. “You can tag along or I can drop you off at the nearest enclave.”
“Thank, but no,” grumped the voice. “As annoying as this detour of yours is, I’d rather deal with that than the pity I’ll get from the others. Oh, poor Ellias,” he added in a mocking tone. “Just a head, no body to speak of. Can’t do anything.”
“Your far from useless,” Linndan said, meeting the skull’s empty eye sockets. “If it weren’t for you I’d still be locked up in that damp hole.”
Ellias made a rude noise he shouldn’t have been able to make given that he was a skull. “The only reason I helped you was so that you would help me find my body. If I’d known we’d be taking a detour to Melphor, I woudln’t have bothered.”
Linndan snorted. “You were in danger of being ground into dust if you stayed there much longer.”
“A small matter,” Ellias said dismissively. He paused and then said, “Does it hurt?”
“Does what hurt?”
“Going through the Way.”
Linndan shrugged. “It tingles a little, but it’s never hurt me. I’m not sure what you’re worried about. Bone doesn’t feel pain.”
“Not the way you meat sacks do, but this is magic we’re talking about. Who knows what effect it will have on me?”
“Perhaps you should pray to your saints for an answer,” Linndan suggested. There was no response from Ellias. He smiled and leaned against the raised back of his saddle, settling in for a long trip.
Liulge’s Waypoint didn’t look at all special at a glance. A small ring of uneven stones stood around a slightly raised platform of smooth, plain stone. Linndan’s skin tingled the closer he came to it. Xantoxu nickered at the sight of it, but allowed Linndan to guide him up to stand on the platform. He checked his saddle to make sure everything was present and secured, including the padded saddlebag where Ellias was. He’d debated whether or not to keep the skull out in the open, but as he wasn’t sure how the gods would react, he opted to keep Ellias secure in his bag.
Sometimes it’s better to not draw the attention of the gods, he thought, closing his eyes. Utilizing a Waypoint was relatively easy. He formed an image in his mind, picturing his childhood home. While it wasn’t near a Waypoint, it was enough to tell this one to send him to Melphor without specifying which of Melphor’s Waypoints to use as a destination.
If the gods want me there, then They can find me wherever I come out. He thought about it as the tingling intensified. Can They change where I come out? Is that within Their power?
Even with his eyes closed he could see the blinding light enveloping him moments before he felt the familiar dropping sensation as the Waypoint activated, sending him home.
It took a moment, as it always did, for his eyes to adjust. Beneath him, his horse whinnied in displeasure. Keeping a firm grip on the reins, he dismounted and led his horse down from the stone platform where they were met with a daunting set of faces. He swallowed and approached them.
“I take it this isn’t a social call.”
“Indeed not,” a tall, bearded man said. “We have a task for you.”
“What kind of task?” Linndan asked. “Is it urgent? I had business to attend to.”
One of the women waved a hand. “Yes, We know all about that. This is far more pressing. Or do you doubt Us?”
“I have every confidence in You.”
“Stop needling the boy, Szinre,” the man scolded. “He came when We called. Isn’t that good enough for You?”
“Perhaps it is for You, Hebron,” Szinre sniffed. “I have higher standards.”
“Could we get on with this?” the other woman asked. “I dislike being here.”
“With respect, I’d like to know why You summoned me,” Linndan said.
“Very well,” Hebron said with a sigh. “Tehaksha has gone missing.”
“That’s it? That’s Your problem?”
“Hebron is over-simplifying the matter,” Szinre said. “We haven’t seen or heard from Her in almost a century. We’ve looked for Her for years with nothing to show for it.”
Linndan paused, taking a good look at each of the gods in front of him. Szinre Prey Pacer was unusually stand-offish, but it was hard to tell what She was thinking with Her mask on. She was in Her two-legged form rather than the naga form he was more accustomed to seeing Her in.
Off to the side was another masked naga god. Though He had yet to say anything, the mask identified Him as Kalhalla the Seer. His posture was relaxed, his long serpentine tail coiled around Himself.
Beside Him, Tehvir the Wanderer stamped Her cloven hooves, Her long golden horn glinting in the sunlight. Ever the impatient one, this situation wasn’t doing anything to improve Her disposition.
Hebron the Scholar, one of the most level-headed gods, looked rumpled and unkempt.
It’s an odd assortment, but who am I to question Them?
“What would You like me to do?” Linndan asked. “What can I do that You can’t?”
“There was some debate on that matter,” Kalhalla said. “In the end, We concluded that Tehaksha can sense Us searching for Her. Perhaps an outsider would have better luck.”
Tehvir folded her arms. “You weren’t the ideal choice, but Hebron and Uras pushed for it. I doubt you’ll have better luck than We did.”
His guts clenched at the mention of the second god. He took a deep breath before speaking. “I understand Your reasoning, Tehvir. If You would rather choose some other poor sap for this, I’ll gladly relinquish my place.”
“That won’t be necessary.” Hebron shook his head. “We’ve been over this. You are Our choice.”
“Find Tehaksha,” Hebron urged. “Learn where She has gone and why.”
Linndan sighed. “I suppose there’s little choice in the matter.”
“For either of us,” Tehvir said.
“I assume You’ve spoken with Her sons.”
“I have,” Kalhalla confirmed. “You know little of Our ways, but enough to know how…difficult the Kha’len can be. Sahalje’ran got them to talk, but They had little to say. Aquhilte is convinced They don’t know where She is, but the Shin’ho’juan are…less convinced.”
“Such is Their nature.”
“Not had much to say, but His relationship with Tehaksha has always been…tenuous at best. They haven’t had anything to do with each other in, oh, six or seven centuries.”
“I can confirm that,” Szinre said. “Not is almost as bad as Aquhilte.”
Kalhalla narrowed his eyes but made no response to Szinre’s barb.
“Do You have any suggestions?” Linndan asked.
“Hebron claims you have some measure of intelligence,” Tehvir said. “I suggest you demonstrate it.” She turned and vanished.
Szinre shook her head. “What’s tugging Her tail today?”
“She dislikes mortals,” Kalhalla reminded her. “She mistrusts half-breeds even more.”
“To answer your question, I would look to Her priests,” Hebron said. “Tehaksha is vain. She may have dropped hints with Her favourite ones as to Her plans.”
Linndan frowned, folding his arms. “That narrows my search considerably. Unless things have changed in the last fifty years, She’s not the most popular goddess, even among the naga.” A thought occurred to him. “She has a holy site in Athros, doesn’t She?”
Szinre nodded. “That would be the one in Witesa. For some reason, though, most of her holy sites are here in Miltan.”
“I’d rather avoid the desert if possible. Nothing good ever comes of my going into one.”
“You’ll be pleased to know, then, that her nearest holy site is in Oldwatch,” Hebron supplied.
Linndan did a quick review of Miltan’s geography and sighed with relief. “That’s only a few days away from here on horseback.”
“This is why we drew you to this waypoint rather than the one in Silvestri,” said Kalhalla.
“I appreciate Your thoughtfulness.”
“Now that you have your task, We’ll leave you to it,” said Szinre.
“That’s it?” Linnda asked. “Find Tehaksha and a general search guide? What do You want me to do should I find Her?”
“Nothing,” was Szinre’s curt reply.
“Pay Her no mind.” Kalhalla rubbed his left temple. “All we need from you is Her location. If you happen to learn any valuable information over the course of your investigation, We’ll consider that a bonus. It’s unwise for anyone to go head to head with Her save for one of Us. Find Her and We’ll come to you.”
Linndan clenched and unclenched his fists. “I won’t bother asking how as I doubt I’ll get a straight answer.”
“It seems they can be taught after all,” Szinre drawled.
“If you have no further questions, We’ll leave this task in your capable hands,” Hebron said. The three remaining gods turned and vanished, leaving the grass around the waypoint undisturbed, as though they’d never been there.
Well, first thing’s first, Linndan thought, mounting up. I need a change of clothes. I can’t exactly wander around Melphor looking like I’ve stepped out of a Guerian river town.
“You’re seriously going along with this?” a muffled voice asked from inside one of his saddlebags.
Linndan reached in and pulled out the skull that nestled inside. “When the gods call, I answer.”
“You were busy,” the skull grumped. “This is rather inconsiderate of them.”
“This is my home, Ellias. Those gods are my relatives, the only real family I have left. Not that I expect you to understand.”
“You didn’t have to come with me, you know.”
“It’s not like I have many options. Until we find the rest of me I’m helpless. What was I supposed to do? Sit on a cushion or pillar somewhere waiting for you to come back? Staying with you is as good an option as any.”
“So stop complaining or I’ll turn Xantoxu around and toss you back through the Way.”
“Watch me.” Ellias made no reply. “Incidentally, you might want to keep the chatter to a minimum while we’re on Melphor.”
“If this is your unsubtle way of telling me to shut up-”
“Melphor doesn’t have anything like the Cuerge. A talking skull would scare them and draw unnecessary attention to us. My task would be harder if not outright impossible to complete. I can’t get back to your problem until I do. So, if only for pure self-interest try not to talk around other people.”
“Your point is well made, though had you considered using my nature to your advantage?”
“What did you have in mind?”
“I talk, but I can also see and hear. If no one here expects a talking skull, they won’t expect one to be able to see and hear what they’re doing either. You could leave me somewhere to gather information as long as you promise to pick me up after.”
“You’re offering to be a spy?”
“Why not? It gets boring in that saddlebag. If helping out gets this over with sooner, all the better.”
Linndan pondered that for a moment. “Tehaksha’s primary symbol is that of a skull. I’m sure no one would notice an extra one sitting around.”
“Just what kind of a goddess is She anyway?”
“Melphorian gods all have colourful monickers that describe their personalities or functions. Tehaksha is known as the Soul Eater.”
“And she’s missing? How do you lose someone like that?”
“Damned if I know, Ellias. The affairs of the gods aren’t something I care to understand. I appreciate your offer of help. I’m sure it’ll come in handy.”
“Fair warning, though. I can’t promise I’ll understand everything I’m observing.”
“I doubt you’ll have any trouble understanding Ehkan. Most people around here speak that. I imagine you’ll only have trouble with cultural context and if you run into a non-human using words from their native languages.”
“I’ve told you about that before. I guess you’ll have to see it to believe it.”
“Just…get this over with so I can go home.”
Linndan put Ellias back into the saddlebag and urged his horse into a faster pace. Before long, the town of Faloress came into view. His strange, Guerian clothing drew a few stares on the road to the small house he kept in town. The modest, single story brick building was on the outer edge of town. Its location was ideal in helping him avoid drawing undue attention to himself in between trips through the waypoint.
He tied his horse up outside and went to the door. The key slid easily into the lock and the door opened without so much as a creak. The few surfaces inside sported a fine layer of dust. The caretaker, it seemed, hadn’t been by in some time. He took the saddlebag full of strange, offworld clothes into the single bedroom and emptied them into a storage box. Some of them could use a proper cleaning but there wasn’t time for such things. Perhaps on his way back to Liulge he could take the time, but not now.
A similar box contained cleaned and neatly folded clothing more suitable to Melphor. The familiar blue and green fabric of his Scholar’s tunic filled him with nostalgia. He slid the gold chain with its Quill-shaped pendant over his head and removed several changes of clothes from the box before shutting the lid. He dressed, combed his hair, and gave his face a quick shave before leaving.
“Well, my friend,” he said to his horse. “It seems that we’ve got another long road ahead of us. At least this is a road I’m familiar with.”
Xantoxu’s ears perked up as Linndan guided him back out of Faloress and down the stretch of road that would take them to Oldwatch.
<a href=”https://keverynn.net/2022/03/22/chapter-2-4/”>Chapter 2</a> ~ <a href=”https://keverynn.net/2022/03/22/chapter-3-4/”>Chapter 3</a>