The First Sin
“Apocalypse will come to the årdrakin upon fulfillment of the signs. The first sign, and many signs thereafter, shall be sins of our own making.”
So spoke Älår in the Ancient Age, year 30915.
The first sign is coming:
They will take the flesh of another and become beholden to it.
I WOULD KILL to have my thermal armor.
The thought sank through Tårik’s mind as the rising sun beat blistering heat on him and the parched desert plain he stood on. Insects droned in the sultry morning air as waves shimmered along the ground, forming mirages of vast pools of water in every direction, particularly on the black tarmac of the Shan Yau airfield. He ruffled his wings. Their thin, leathery membranes made light slapping sounds against his back as he tried in vain to cool off.
The cloudless sky stretched overhead. On a day like today, he could have ridden the thermals to soar to extreme altitudes. The air would be cooler up there.
His wings twitched. Tempted.
But not today. Today, he had to suffer the heat of the Yau Plains in his clan’s traditional armor. The metal plates, chain mail, and leathers hung heavy on his body, soaking up the sunlight and radiating warmth inward. He sighed. Thermal armor, once generated from the skinsuit he usually wore, would be wonderfully climate-controlled. Alas, the high-tech armor would contravene Clan Tsinna’s traditions where Sanctuary was concerned. It was forbidden to bring technology within its vicinity. The wetware in his head had been suppressed, blocking his ability to summon the protective gear.
Traditional armor it had to be. Formal armor too, brilliantly painted in the clan’s sea-themed colors, with a clan sash bearing a white silhouette of Tsinna’s sweeping emblem hanging from his hip. He wasn’t expected to go into battle with this armor, even though it could deflect traditional blades and repel a few plasma shots. Rather, Tårik was dressed to impress. As one of Tsinna’s highest-ranking clan guards, he’d been sent to Shan Yau to escort a visiting delegation from the Great Clan Sokôn.
Waiting for them to arrive had become arduous. His tail thrashed. The more the sun rose, the hotter it got. The Clan Sokôn delegation was late.
Anxiety pinched Tårik’s stomach. The emissaries from the Great Clan were flying from across the Sonakai Sea to meet with Adya Tårann, Clan Tsinna’s leader, and his high court. They would discuss the increasing aggression Tsinna faced from Clans Sakloskeret, Inalë, and Arúsúa—their neighbors to the south of Tsinna’s island nation. Tsinna was not a large nation, but they boasted something the southern clans relentlessly coveted: the richest deposits of lúmecíní on the planet. If Tsinna was very lucky, Tårann would successfully broker a treaty that would see Clan Sokôn extend their formidable protection to Tsinna. It was quite possibly the most important gathering the adya had ever arranged.
If they were coming. Maybe they weren’t. Maybe Sokôn had decided it was too much hassle to bother with Clan Tsinna. As a Great Clan, Sokôn already commanded immeasurable wealth and prestige throughout the empire, with great swaths of land on Drakirú and numerous extrasolar colonies under their control, not to mention the countless bonded clans they already held sway over. Clan Tsinna, as an independent nation, still served the empire but was not bonded to any of the Great Clans. It had only its tiny island and a few small colonies to worry about. What could they offer Sokôn other than lúmecíní that would make it worth the Great Clan’s while to come? It would be just as easy to let the southern clans annihilate Tsinna and then forcibly annex their territory afterward. Maybe that was the plan.
Tårik tugged at his neck guard as sweat settled between his shoulder blades and tried to banish his worry. Being bullied, that’s what it came down to. It wasn’t enough that Tsinna already traded freely with its neighbors. The other clans had to possess the lúmecíní for themselves. And to do that, they would try to conquer his clan and make victims out of them all.
His hand balled into a fist. Never.
Another bead trickled out of his mop of purple hair and slithered behind his frill. He flicked the mint-colored membrane, but the perspiration clung stubbornly to his dusky green skin.
“Hot enough for you?” Jälen asked, coming up alongside him.
Tårik shoved his hand behind his back and straightened up, cursing the heat that spread through the delicate skin around his eyes. “Së’nåzal! Yes, sir, it’s certainly warmer than we’re used to.”
Jälen surveyed the landscape, one hand resting on the sword hilt at his waist. The talons on his dark brown wings were hooked into golden clasps at each shoulder, keeping the membranes folded neatly down his back. His slate grey skin remained dull in the harsh sunlight; despite the heaviness of their gear, to Tårik it seemed Jälen somehow managed to not sweat at all, though he kept his tail from touching the hot earth. Only his shock of long red hair blazed in the sunlight, looking like a manifestation of the flames Tårik was certain were licking at his feet from the hot asphalt.
“Wretched-looking place, this desert,” Jälen said. “Flat and empty, seemingly forever. Not at all like the forests of home, is it?”
“On the contrary,” Tårik said, “this is lush.” Just beyond the tarmac, patches of tall, tuft-crowned golden grass swayed in the warm breeze coming down from mountains peeking just above the horizon. Between each patch the ground was bare or sported globe-shaped scrub brush with thick, stubby silvered-green leaves that hoarded water, and other low-lying plants that eked out a living in the heat. Out there, there wasn’t a tree nor hint of shade anywhere. “There will be considerably less to look at except rocks and dust once we reach the Barren Gale.”
“Hmm.” Jälen smoothed the fire-red hair on his chin. “Weren’t you hatched in Shan Yau?”
The city’s enormous biotech tree cast a sprawling shadow through the shallow river valley behind them, dwarfing the forest that lined the riverbanks. The tree reached a few thousand meters into the sky and cradled kilometers-wide disc-shaped platforms amongst its colossal, bioluminescent branches. Vehicles soared between the glittering skyscrapers reaching up from those terraces. People would be flying between those buildings too, no doubt taking advantage of the hot updrafts, but they were too far away for Tårik to see.
“Yes, sir, but I decided to take academy training in Sha Nakai and have lived there since. It’s been…” He considered. “…thirty-nine years. Much too long to feel any comfort here now.” He ran a hand through his hair and fanned his frill, trying unsuccessfully to catch some air beneath his thick locks to cool his scalp. “My family still lives here.”
Jälen grunted and rubbed his neck where a small welt was visible. “Too bad you won’t see them this trip.”
“It’s fine, sir. Plenty of time to visit later. Injection site bothering you?”
“A little.” Jälen gave his neck one last rub and then shook himself. The site was small, little more than a blemish. Tårik had one just like it, as did everyone else in their squad, a telltale sign their wetware had been temporarily suppressed. It was strange and even a little alarming, Tårik reflected, not being able to access his comm chip, not being able to summon any weapons, not being able to change his clothes at will. The wetware in his head lay dormant, as if it didn’t exist at all. How did anyone live without it for extended periods?
Jälen sighed. “The sooner we get to Sanctuary and then back to Sha Nakai, the sooner we can get our wetware reactivated.” His amber eyes slid over Tårik. “Don’t bake in your armor before then.”
Tårik mustered a grin for his commanding officer. “I’ll try, sir.”
An unexpected growl drew their attention. A woman led a nakishnik out of a nearby stable. The animal’s glossy spotted fur and dark scales caught the morning light, as did the long, curving sabers hanging below its upper lip as it padded along behind her. It was already tacked up with saddle and armor in the clan’s colors; the woman took it by the halter and tethered it to a wide hitching post standing in the building’s shadow.
Tårik watched her as she gave the warmount a scratch behind its round ear. It angled its head appreciatively, then shook itself as she worked her way along its side, checking the tack. Elaborate braids, not entirely hidden by her frill, crowned her head to keep her neck cool. The braids’ rich berry color flared to magenta as she moved in and out of the bright sunlight. She kept her dusky purple wings aloft, fanning them around her armored body as the outdoor heat quickly seeped in.
“Go with Kalaanë to prepare your nakishnik,” Jälen ordered with a chuckle, and Tårik realized he’d been caught staring at her. “We’ll be riding with the animals armored today. Ensure the others are ready, too. The Sokôn flyer should be here shortly and I want to depart as soon as possible after they disembark.”
Tårik ducked his head at Jälen’s order, trying to hide the fresh embarrassed flush around his eyes as blood rushed to color the delicate skin. “Yes, Së’nåzal.”
As he approached Kalaanë, Tårik surreptitiously straightened his armor and ensured his clan sash hung properly from his belt. His hand went to his hair again, running through it. It was damp with sweat. He hoped it looked good anyway.
He nearly missed Kalaanë’s greeting when she turned her dark azure eyes on him, making his breath catch. They were like two pools of glittering ocean peering at him from the dark; her skin was black as night. The large silver scales on her nasal ridge seemed to glow in comparison.
Tårik cleared his throat as the anxiety in his stomach shifted into a flutter. He hoped the embarrassed flush had receded from his eyepads. “Åldråmí, Së’shåzal.”
The nakishnik pinned him with large pale eyes. Ears swiveled, seeking cues from Kalaanë. She patted its heavy shoulder and murmured, “Peace, Hakir. It’s only Tårik.”
Hakir’s nostrils flared as he stretched his neck forward. Tårik held out his hand, being careful to greet the enormous, full-grown male with slow, calm movements. The cold nose pressed into his palm and after a thorough snuffling, the warmount licked it with a wide, rough tongue before turning back to the hitching post.
Tårik relaxed. He wasn’t being tasted as a potential meal; the nakishnik had accepted his presence and wouldn’t be bothered by his proximity.
The grey stripes on Kalaanë’s face crinkled up as she smiled, amused. “Don’t worry. He hasn’t eaten anyone in a while.” She tugged on a strap to adjust a saddle bag. “It’s going to be a hard couple of weeks, Tårik. I give you leave to use my name rather than my rank while we’re on this excursion, except, of course, when Së’nåzal Jälen or the adya is within earshot.”
His frill fanned forward, buzzing slightly as he sensed her sincerity. Her amused smile had turned a bit shy, he thought. The flutter in his stomach rose to his chest.
“Of course. Thank you.”
“The other nakishnikë need readying. The pack scôrrosë should be about done. Come.” She led the way into the stable.
Tårik sighed with relief when they entered. Compared to outside, the interior was cooler, still warm but not stifling, and filled with the scent of clean, well-kept animals. His sweat dried. A modest, modern building, built adjacent to the airfield’s terminal, it was used to temporarily house warmounts and other large animals brought by, or waiting for, transports. Their mewls, growls, and other calls nearly drowned out the shuffling of feet and flapping of wings from the stable hands’ activity within.
“They’ve cleared air traffic for the delegation’s arrival,” Kalaanë said as they reached the stalls their nakishnikë had been assigned to. She clicked her tongue at a large male that approached the bars of his stall and pressed his nose against the gap. Holding her hand up for him to sniff, she said, “Hello Vaehak. Jälen is waiting for you. Ready to go for a ride?” The warmount’s tongue snaked out to lick her palm. She lifted the door latch.
“Nenaen,” Tårik called to his warmount as he entered her stall. Her head lifted and her ears pricked up. She rose from the floor and stretched luxuriously, then came forward to try rubbing her enormous head under his chin.
“Come on, girl, you don’t fit under there anymore,” he chuckled, scratching his hand along her thickly furred jaw and throat. Nenaen stretched her head up and purred, giving him the opportunity to bend down to examine the heavy overlapping scales covering her chest. He touched one gently. It was smaller than the rest, and the surrounding flesh looked tender. “Almost grown back in,” he said. “Good. Let’s get you tacked up.” She stood patiently while he brushed her down and fetched his saddle and other equipment.
In the stall beside him, Kalaanë called out, “Bags!” Moments later, stable hands flapped down from a level above with saddlebags already prepared with their belongings and other supplies they would need on their journey.
“How many will be in the delegation?” Tårik asked.
“A khašë’yanzal and two ambassadors. They’ll each have a guard.”
“I was expecting more of them, too. Maybe they have little confidence that things will go well. We might not be worth the trouble to them.”
Tårik tightened his saddle’s girth strap, feeling worry creep back into his gut as Kalaanë echoed his earlier thoughts. “This is only the first meeting between Tsinna and Sokôn. Perhaps they just don’t want to get too invested this early on.”
“You don’t sound confident.”
“Neither do you.”
Kalaanë fell silent and moved around in Vaehak’s stall. Tårik ran his hands down Nenaen’s well-muscled legs, encouraging her to lift her paws so he could check the condition of the pads and her claws.
“I feel the clan is trying to take the easy way out,” Kalaanë said. “Surely, Sokôn sees it like that, too. We’re threatened on three fronts and the adya’s best idea is to run to a Great Clan for protection?” He heard the slap of a leather strap being pulled tight and Vaehak’s sharply growled rebuke. The së’shåzal sighed. “I’d just prefer that we deal with Sakloskeret, Inalë, and Arúsúa ourselves.”
“He obviously felt this was the better option. We have to ensure things go smoothly to get the talks off to a good start.”
Kalaanë snorted. “Clan Tsinna has stood alone since time immemorial. We’ve never needed any of the Great Clans to help us fight our battles before. Sokôn should stay out of it.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever faced a threat like this before.”
“Not since ancient times. We survived then; we can survive now.”
But if Sokôn decides to encourage the southern clans… Tårik bit his tongue to stop himself from saying the words out loud. They would only get him in trouble. Instead, he concentrated on tacking up his mount and, once finished, led Nenaen out of the stall and tied her to a post.
The trio of së’seizalë Jälen had selected to accompany them stood clustered around three scôrrosë laden with supplies for the journey to Sanctuary. Their fully tacked warmounts idled next to them.
“Finish up,” Tårik ordered, gesturing to a few items still sitting on the floor. “Së’nåzal Jälen wishes to leave promptly.”
“We’ll be just a moment more, Së’yanzal,” one of the trio answered.
Tårik nodded and watched them work until Vaehak’s stall opened behind him. Kalaanë stepped out, leading Jälen’s warmount. The male nakishnik was large: Kalaanë was tall, and the saddle was just higher than her head. But Hakir was larger, he thought.
“Ready to go?” Her eyes were now hidden behind dark lenses, but she smiled lightly and the dusky purple spines of her frill had come up, framing her dark face. Whatever frustration she’d felt earlier had vanished, or, at least, was carefully hidden away.
He fished a set of his own shades from a saddlebag and clipped the frame to the scale that spanned the space between his eyes. “Yes, Së’shå—” He caught himself. “Kalaanë.”
Her smile widened. The sight of it did things in his chest he tried to ignore. Over her shoulder, she said to the three së’seizalë, “Follow us out,” and then led them into the sunshine, tossing a farewell to the stable master as she went.
The tarmac remained empty, and Tårik’s heart sank a bit more. Jälen came forward to greet Vaehak, who rumbled throatily at the sight of his rider and pulled forward on his lead.
“Thank you, Kalaanë. Fine work. No problems?”
“None, sir. Vaehak is well-tempered, as always.”
“Very good. Tether him there while we wait for the flyer.”
They hitched the warmounts along with the pack animals, which seemed only mildly skittish, standing so close to the large predators. Jälen inspected them all, surveying the work his people had accomplished.
Not long after, the hum of engines reached them and Tårik felt his pulse tick upward with anticipation.
Sokôn was coming after all.