The First Sin
THEY RODE IN an uncomfortable silence punctuated only by the disgruntled keening of the nakishnikë, who sensed their riders’ persistent tension and grew annoyed by it.
“Ow,” Tårik muttered as Nenaen swatted the back of his head with the end of her tail. The impact jostled the lenses from his face. He straightened them and then smoothed his hand along the ridge of tall fur that ran down her upper back. Despite his soothing murmurs, she shook her head, pinned her ears against her skull, and swatted him again.
Someone coughed, attempting to cover a laugh. He saw Kalaanë with a hand at her twitching lips, peering at him over the tops of the lenses shading her eyes. Her stripes crinkled up with the sudden merriment.
A grin split his face and heat rushed to his eyepads as he reached back to rub his head.
His neck prickled. Eyes bored into him. Glancing over his shoulder, his gaze landed on the Sokôn dignitaries, clustered together in the middle of the group with their guards flanking them. Light gleamed on their armor and reflected painfully off the visors of the helmets they’d summoned, forcing him to squint despite his shades. The helmets covered their faces in full, creating a climate-controlled environment within the suits. Inside, their bodies remained comfortable despite the searing heat of the desert, and Tårik envied them. The visors on the helmets were also one-way: they could look out with ease, but no one could see their faces or their tactical heads-up displays. He couldn’t tell who was staring at him. Maybe they all were. The grin fell from his lips and he twisted around.
The sun continued to roast them as the day wore on. Their nakishnikë grew irritated, snarling and biting at one another, forcing the riders to spread out.
“It’s almost midday. We should stop,” Kalaanë suggested after trying to drink from her water bottle but finding it empty. “I need a refill.”
“I’m sure we all do,” Jälen said. He pointed ahead, where a thick spire of rock thrust up out of the ground a short distance off the trail. “How about there, where there’s some shade? What do you think, High Ambassador?”
“I’m quite comfortable,” Ciradår replied. His voice sounded somewhat distorted through his helmet’s speaker. “But I suppose the animals could do with a break.”
It was only marginally cooler in the shade of the towering rock. Even so, Tårik gratefully slid out of his saddle and stretched, spreading his wings wide while arching his back. Sticky with perspiration, the tunic under his armor clung uncomfortably to his body. The breeze remained hot but did little to dry him.
The others milled around while the së’seizalë distributed water from the supply carried by the scôrrosë.
“This journey would take considerably less time if we simply flew to Sanctuary.” The complaint came from Abezårí.
Tårik accepted a packet of jerky from a së’seizal and tore it open, offering a hunk of the soft, cured meat to Nenaen before taking a bite of his own. “If only we could, my lady. Haven’t you noticed how the wind has been picking up? It’s only going to get stronger from here. The Barren Gale lies ahead. It’s riddled with slot canyons that break through it like cracks in glass. The canyons also act as wind tunnels that generate incredible competing shears that are too dangerous to navigate for manual flight.”
Kehai growled. “Then we should have taken the flyer.”
“Ah, my dear khašë’yanzal! You’ve forgotten that our hosts would not allow such a thing.” Ciradår leaned against the rock, his helmet gone, with his armored tail curled casually around one ankle. His attention was on a hardlight holodisplay covering his forearm. He poked at it for a moment before raising his eyes to look at the scowling officer. “It would offend them most seriously had we insisted.”
“Besides,” Jälen added, “the winds make it treacherous for flyers to cross the plains of the Barren Gale at low altitude. Sanctuary lies within the canyons, at the headwaters of the Blood River. Most of the route is too narrow for vehicles.”
“And you call such a place sacred?” Kehai scoffed.
“Clan Tsinna conducts all of its most important affairs at Sanctuary,” Kalaanë said. “Peace treaties, clan bondings, rites of succession, trade deals, state funerals, spiritual cleansings… The location symbolizes the importance of coming together even when superior forces attempt to break alliances apart. It’s a crystal and stone temple that has been meticulously maintained since the time of Älår.”
Abezårí dismissed her helmet. It fizzled out of existence in a line of red light that swept over her head. “Since the time of Älår? Preposterous.”
“Believe it,” Kalaanë retorted. “Älår visited Sanctuary in AA 31695. Since then, zhiskaë through the ages have all decreed that Årdra Herself blesses the site and resides there from time to time. How else could the temple continue to stand unblemished when it lies on a fault line that is slowly splitting our nation in half? The Sanctuary clergy will be proud to show you how well-documented this is.” Her voice hardened. “It’s an incredible honor to be invited into Sanctuary’s halls.”
Ciradår’s frill pricked up. “Over a hundred thousand years of history, packed into one little temple on this largely forgettable rock of an island?”
“And why not? The temple at Vek Ålna is just as old.”
“Hmm. I suppose.” Then he laid eyes on Tårik. “And you, youngling, you’ve been to this place before?”
Tårik bristled. “I’m fifty-four, my lord. But, yes—my parents attended Adya Tårann’s marriage to Adya Melissår, and I was privileged to go along.”
Ciradår snorted. “Still so very young.”
Tårik opened his mouth to snark about the high ambassador’s age—presumably in the low hundreds, but who could really tell?—only to have Jälen snap his wings in warning, forcing the së’yanzal to swallow his comeback. He turned away to tend to Nenaen, ruffling his fingers through the soft fronds along her neck, and hissed under his breath.
The group did their best to rest through the hottest hours of the day, some of them seated and dozing against the stone, occasionally forced to rouse themselves and shift to follow the rock’s shadow as the sun burned across the sky. Ciradår spent most of his time studying his armor’s holodisplay.
After some time, the wind shifted. The nakishnikë, which had been lounging drowsily on the ground with their riders, suddenly lifted their heads to scent the air, and mewled to one another.
“Së’nåzal,” Ciradår murmured, looking up from his forearm and jerking his head toward the spire. “We seem to have some company.”
Everyone went on alert, dropping whatever they were doing to turn in the direction the high ambassador indicated. The Sokôn warriors’ weapons materialized in their hands, while the Tsinna guards pulled theirs from their scabbards.
Jälen motioned for everyone to hold position while he edged around the spire, Kalaanë on his heels. “How many?”
Ciradår smiled and dismissed his scanner. “A lot.”
Tårik cocked his frill, trying to listen for approaching enemy footsteps and wingbeats, but all he heard was a low rumble. Listening to it, he realized it had been there for some time and had crept up on them so gradually that no one had noticed.
After peering around the spire, Jälen exhaled into a relieved chuckle and lowered his sword. He turned back to the group. “Come look, but be quiet about it. This is a sight you’ll not want to miss.”
Tårik joined the others as they crept cautiously around the rock, stopping short and pulling his shades away from his face as his eyes fell upon the scene before them.
The ground sloped gently away to the northwest, spreading into a shallow bowl that might, in the distant past, have been a lakebed. Now it was just another stretch of scrub desert punctuated here and there by rock spires… and also completely obscured as far as the eye could see by a mass of plodding bodies. They were so numerous that their blue and white coats seemed to ripple like water.
“Låradíë,” Tårik said, his mouth agape. “The great herd.”
“There must be millions of them,” Abezårí breathed, awestruck.
The låradíë moved from plant to plant. The shuffling of the hooves on their hind feet combined into the omnipresent rumble while their forelimbs grasped at leaves and grass, guiding morsels into their mouths. Males patrolled along the outskirts of the herd. Their bugling cries struggled to be heard above the herd’s rumble, while light glinted off long golden horns that spiraled up from their heads to end in vicious blue points. Females chattered at juveniles and grunted in response to their mates. Here and there, rivals broke from feeding to bash heads, rear back to kick with their hind legs, and whip their thick, armored tails at one another in attempts to assert dominance.
The sight of so many prey gathered in one location immediately ignited Tårik’s desire to hunt. His pulse quickened and his mouth watered with anticipation. Spying a fine-looking straggler, he pulled a hunting knife from his belt and crept forward, aiming for a smaller outcropping of rocks as cover.
A hand grabbed his wrist.
“Not now, Tårik,” Jälen murmured, firmly holding him back. “I feel the urge too, but we should wait until after we’ve arrived at camp.” He fingered a soft pouch hanging from his belt. Its contents clicked softly as it moved. “We’ll draw for a proper hunt then.”
Tårik eyed the bag, then reluctantly nodded and turned his back on the herd, sheathing the knife back in his belt.
“Phew.” Ciradår wrinkled his nose and waved a hand in front of his face. “They stink.” Seeing the looks even his clanmates were giving him, he added grudgingly, “But still impressive.”
“We’d do well not to bother them,” Jälen said. “I, for one, have no desire to be trampled in a stampede.”
The group remained rooted to the spot, mesmerized as the herd continued to pass by with no end in sight.
Eventually, Ciradår squinted at the sun, consulted his holodisplay, and then clapped Jälen on the shoulder. “What say we press on? I think we have some distance still to go before we reach tonight’s rest area.”
Jälen blinked at the high ambassador’s sudden familiarity. “Yes, of course, my lord.” He issued orders to check the mounts one last time before they set off and left the great herd behind.
Their course continued west. Gradually, the landscape changed: the tuft grass and scrub brush grew more infrequent while they passed more and more spires, some of which sported exposed sections of crystal.
“Senecíní?” the high ambassador mused, stopping his mount so he could stare up at a formation that towered over the group. Even in the bright sunshine, the crystal’s flashing inner light was visible, a pale rainbow of color that flickered randomly.
“It looks impressive, but it’s low grade,” Jälen admitted. “We have very few deposits rich enough to be worth cultivating for stardrive use. The Hoshakai Outcrop near Metra is the largest we’ve ever discovered, but it’s small compared to the resources other clans have.”
By late afternoon, as the temperature finally fell off, they spurred their animals into a hard run to make up for the time spent watching the låradíë and reached the camp after sunset. It was a simple rest area on the plain: several insulated domes with nests inside, the doors turned away from the prevailing, blustery wind; a firepit sheltered by a windbreaker; a spacious stable that doubled as a storage shed; and an outhouse.
After unloading and brushing down the scôrrosë, the riders stripped their warmounts of their armor, then eagerly gathered in a group. Jälen showed them all the soft leather bag from his belt. After a thorough shake, he presented the mouth of the bag to Ciradår. The high ambassador eagerly stuck his hand in, then pulled it out. In his palm was a nakishnik talon, painted white.
“Better luck next time,” Jälen said, the corner of his mouth twitching.
Ciradår’s lip curled.
Next came Abezårí. The ambassador slid her hand into the bag, cast about for a talon, then withdrew it. Hers was black, the natural color.
“Excellent,” she said, a wide smile gracing her lips.
Jälen turned to Kehai. She also withdrew a black talon and made a face of triumph when she saw it.
And so it went, Jälen giving each person a turn. Kalaanë’s lower lip pushed out into a pout when she saw the white talon in her palm.
Jälen surveyed what everyone had withdrawn from the bag. “Six white, which means…” He upended the bag over his palm, a grin on his face. The last talon spilled out. “Black for me.”
“Happy hunting, sir,” Tårik sighed as he put his white talon back in the bag.
They turned the nakishnikë loose. The twelve warmounts, along with the six warriors who drew the black talons, slunk into the growing darkness, eager to hunt for their dinner.
Tårik watched them go, wishing he was with them. Instead of hunting, those left behind became responsible for preparing the camp for the hunters’ return.
At his request, a së’seizalë handed Tårik a bundle of firewood. Ciradår watched him critically as he carried it to the firepit and set about starting a fire.
“That wood was on one of the scôrrosë,” the high ambassador said, his arms crossed and face sour. “Why aren’t you using the firewood stacked in the stable?”
Tårik lit the kindling and blew gently to fan the flames before replying. “You might have noticed that trees are scarce in the Barren Gale. Tradition demands that incoming travelers pack in their own wood and leave whatever they don’t use behind. The Sanctuary guardians import wood from the Lost Vale to keep the camps stocked too, but their supply is only to be used on the return journey.” He fed the fire some sticks to keep it going, then carefully added a log once the flames leapt high enough. “Have a seat, High Ambassador. We’ll have to wait for the hunters to return before we can cook dinner.”
Ciradår scowled at the packed dirt surrounding the pit. “If there will even be any dinner. That herd of låradíë is hours away now.”
“There is still plenty of game to be found in the fringes.” Tårik paused. “Do you doubt Së’nåzal Jälen’s ability to hunt?”
A curled lip added itself to Ciradår’s scowl.
Before the high ambassador could disparage his commanding officer, Tårik added, “The Kôrhån Lowlands on the southern tip of the island are notoriously difficult to hunt, particularly because of the persistent low-lying fog, but Jälen counts the swamps as his favorite hunting grounds. The dhåzhÿvë down there are exceptionally fierce… and massive. There was one, a monster that no one had ever been able to bag, the biggest dhåzhÿv anyone had ever seen.” Tårik’s eyes dropped to the fire as he remembered. “One time, we were on the lookout for it, and had dropped into the fog to stalk on foot. I thought we’d never find it, but Jälen read signs in the swamp I never would have seen. When we finally caught up to it… We fought for hours.”
The curled lip faltered. “Hours?”
“Oh yes. Dhåzhÿvë are tough, and he wanted to eat us as much as we wanted to eat him. It was a fight for our lives. But while the beast was focused on Kalaanë and me, the së’nåzal leapt from Vaehak’s saddle and landed on its back.”
“Risky venture, considering the venomous spines.”
“Agreed. But we would have died if he hadn’t. One swipe to the base of the skull severed the beast’s head from its neck.” Tårik grinned. “We ate well that night. The fur was gifted to the adya and hangs in the clan hall. You’ll get to see it, if you return with us to Sha Nakai.”
“We’ll see.” Ciradår managed to sound unimpressed. “He still has to return with something tonight, else we’ll starve.”
“Not to worry. He will.”
The high ambassador’s curled lip returned and he scoffed.
Tårik brushed himself off and walked away, grateful to be free of Ciradår’s presence. He headed for Kalaanë, whom he spied struggling to keep a bundle of furred blankets from flying away as she approached a dome.
“The high ambassador’s in a mood,” he muttered as he took some of the unruly bedding out of her arms.
“What else is new?” she huffed, leaning into the door of the dome to open it. “It’s like he thinks he’s the only one of us disappointed to have missed out on the hunt.” Inside, it was quiet, save for the whining wind. “I feel bad for Jälen. He has to share a nest with Ciradår, and his guard, tonight and tomorrow.”
Tårik whistled. “That wouldn’t be my first choice.”
“Here, hold this.” Kalaanë dumped the rest of the furs into his arms and fetched a flat bat leaning against the curved wall. One at a time, she picked up the cushions lining the nest in the middle of the room and held them out the door, beating them with the bat to dislodge a fine layer of dust. The wind that whipped around the curved dome caught the dust and made it vanish into the air.
“So… Who am I bunking with?”
She sneezed. “Kehai and Abezårí will take a nest with their guards. The së’seizalë get the other dome.” A soft smile. “You’re in here with me.”
“Ah. No problem.” The flutter of excitement he usually felt at being near her raced through him, but he pushed it away. This was duty, and over the years they’d frequently had to share a nest, not just with each other, but also with Jälen and others in their squad, as circumstances of any given assignment demanded.
She finished beating the last cushion and tossed it back into the nest, then pulled the blankets from Tårik’s waiting arms and dumped them in too.
“Let’s figure this out later. Hopefully, the hunters will return soon. I’m starving.”
He laughed and followed her out of the dome.