Thursday, February 9, 2012

Koreshi Chronicles - Chapter IV: A season in seven minutes

B'Ti, 12th Course, 0:07

The first obstacle of the B'Ti loomed before her: a massive rock face that stretched the entire width of the course. It wasn't thick, but it was smooth and straight, without a single handhold to help her. Around five feet up, holes appeared in the surface, only a few at first, but increasingly plentiful further up, so that the top looked more like a honeycomb than a wall.

Most of the holes were narrow, but a few were wide enough that they might admit a person, if she was small enough and nimble enough. Lyta took a deep breath and ran towards the wall as fast as she could. Seconds before impact, she used a jutting stone as a springboard, flung her arms out in front of her, and launched herself at an opening five and a half feet off the ground. If she missed, she would almost certainly break an arm, and probably give herself a concussion in the process. She stared at her target, and felt the cold stone pass millimetres away from her skin.

TN 1925, 8 Summer

The train hurtled through a tunnel barely big enough to contain it. The air in front of it thrummed as it slowed, coming to a stop on the platform. Lyta and Todd hefted the minimal baggage they were taking with them south and east, to Storm's Landing. Lyta, out in the public eye and surrounded by heartfelt couples wishing each other goodbye, was stony-faced. Lukas, naturally, was not falling for it.

"It'll be fine," he said for the third time that day. "We'll meet you in a season."

Lyta nodded, trying to remain stoic. She turned towards Ti. "Don't let him talk you into doing anything stupid," she said. Ti grinned.

"My plans are never stupid," Lukas retorted, as Lyta settled the backpack and adjusted the straps. "You just fail to see the wisdom in my decisions."

"They're still stupid," Lyta said.

There was a pause as the doors to the train opened, and passengers departing at Lance Point stepped out. "Be safe," Lyta said at last.

Lukas nodded. "Always." He leaned forward and kissed her cheek. "You too."

Todd mounted the steps first. "Khayr ad-Din, beginning of Autumn," Lukas reiterated, not that he needed to. Lyta and Todd both knew the plan. And then, with a final nod, Lyta ascended the steps as well and Lukas and Ti were lost behind the tinted glass.

Lyta didn't move as the doors closed and the train departed, staring at the platform as the car rushed towards tunnel. She took a deep breath and turned towards Todd. "So... I guess that's that."

B'Ti, 12th Course, 0:53

It was a long way down. The ground gave way at the end of the platform, leading to a fifty-foot drop. There was a path along the cliff-face, but taking it would waste nearly the entire seven minutes of the B'Ti. Instead, a few tangles of vines hung from the upper canopy, tethered somewhere far above. Lyta didn't even break stride as she jumped off the platform, grabbed a vine, and half-fell, half-slid towards the jungle floor below.

TN 1925, 10 Summer

The dust puffed in a cloud around her feet as she hit the ground. Another cloud puffed where Todd jumped off his armadillo beside her. The faces of the Koreshi in front of them were covered, as theirs were, to ward off heat and dust. Lyta unhooked the side of the bandana and it fell back from her face. The desert was hot in the near-midday sun, but tradition was tradition.

"I'm Hippartha, this is Torgath," she said, gesturing at Todd. Her Koreshi was rusty, but she was fairly certain she wasn't flubbing the words too badly. "We're Jonus Kerasi formerly of the Bathani Ratir. If you're going to Junira Loresh, we ask to join you to be better protected by the safety of numbers."

The two men who had come out to meet them hesitated. They exchanged a wordless glance, then one leapt on his springer to return to the main huddle of tents. "You will wait here," said the other. "We will announce you to our Thrall and our matriarch, and they will answer you."

Lyta nodded and re-attached her face cloth. Even the few minutes without it made her thirsty, but she stopped herself from drinking. She drove a spike into the ground, tethered the armadillos to it, and sat with Todd, waiting for what she knew the inevitable answer would be.

B'Ti, 12th Course, 1:44

The vines were sparse, and the river below her swift. She stood with her back against the side of the ledge, steeling herself. She remembered another river, swift and dark and underground, and how she'd leapt across it in the darkness of the CEF mine. She shook her head. No time for fear, not now.

With a shout, she jumped out into empty air, and her hands closed around the bottom of the nearest vine. Her momentum carried her forward, just far enough that she could catch the second, and then the third, as her shadow moved over the river beneath.

TN 1925, 21 Summer

A shadow passed across her as she sat at the vantage point. On the first day of the Imti'qhaan, many of the younger competitors ran the B'Ti, so she'd taken up station along the first course, watching as the runners leapt, vaulted, and occasionally fell into the shallow river that wended its way through the course.

The shadow was long and lean, and Lyta looked up to see who cast it.

In an instant, she was on her feet. "Jonas!" she exclaimed, and wrapped the Thrall in a crushing hug. "I missed you!"

Jonas hugged her back, and eventually they settled onto the grass floor. "I missed you as well," he said, his voice full of emotion that Lyta could not quite decipher.

"What have you been doing? You have to tell me everything! Have you been here, or did they send you with another tribe of Ratir? Do you like them? Do they treat you as well as we treated you? I bet they don't bake you cakes like we did."

Jonas smiled as the words tumbled out, more like a child than a grown woman, and let them subside. "I have left Junira Loresh twice, with other tribes of Ratir, but mostly I have remained here to provide guidance and support for the Ferah." Lyta waited for him to elaborate, but instead he changed the subject. "And you? What have you been doing out in the world? When last you left, you were planning to join the Desert Wolves, as I recall."

Lyta shook her head. "That didn't work out. We're not really Wolf material." She bit her lower lip, trying to decide between her excitement at seeing Jonas again and her shame at some of what she and her siblings had done in the intervening cycles. "We mostly worked for ourselves. Doing... stuff, I guess. Not all of it legal." She paused, considering. "Probably most of it was illegal. And then about a season ago with met up with Ti." She shook her head, realizing the name would have no meaning for her Thralan. "Titan Corovan. He was a friend of ours from Baja, before the war. He does the same sort of thing we do now."

Jonas smiled to himself, and Lyta wished she understood the joke. "The great cycle still holds surprises for us all," he said. "I've travelled the sands with this Corovan for a short while. I see now that there more meaning in that than I had first assumed. Learn from my arrogance, Hippartha. He is a harbinger."

Lyta stared, a half-dozen questions swirling in her mind and struggling to be asked first. When had Jonas met Ti? Where? And why? What had they talked about? What did Jonas know about Ti, and Ti about Jonas? She blinked, twice. "A... What's a harbinger?"

B'Ti, 12th Course, 2:37

The vines ended at the top of a great tree, centuries or millennia old. Its branches were thick and straight, jutting out over the course like so many uneven bars from the gyms of her youth. It was also, she knew, her way down. Letting go of the last vine, she flung herself downwards, grasping the branch with both hands and flipping herself up, forward, down, until her hands closed on another branch and the whole thing began again.

TN 1925, 28 Summer

She held the staff with both hands and placed it gently on the ground in front of her. Jonas' tent was dark and calm in the throngs of Junira Loresh. Where once she had wanted to spend every moment of the Imti'qhaan watching the runners and the other competitors, now Lyta found that the Thrall's tent was a welcome relief from crowds of people she didn't know and didn't care to know.

"Jonas," she asked haltingly. They were both seated, cross-legged on the floor. Jonas had invited Lyta to meditate with him and, for once, she had agreed. But now the ritual silence was over.

"What is it, child?" he said.

Lyta bit her lower lip and let the staff rest between them. "Where did this come from, before you gave it to me?"

Jonas picked it up and examined it, turning it over in his hands. "We Koreshi took it off the body of a man who attacked one of the tribes of Ratir. He likely received it from a Mekongese collection. That is where they are usually found. Before that, it was brought from Old Earth."

Lyta's eyes widened. "Old Earth?"

Jonas nodded. "It is not a weapon manufactured on Terra Nova. I know little about this specific staff."

He passed it back, and Lyta pressed the switch to collapse it. "Why me?" she asked at last.

Jonas paused. "Because you were meant for it," he said at length. "And it for you."

Lyta put the staff back in its sheath across her back and pressed her hands against her face. "One day, Thralan, I'm going to understand more than two sentences at a time from you. But I guess not today."

B'Ti, 12th Course, 3:41

The air rushed past her, roaring in her ears and tugging at her clothes. The ledge was close, and getting closer by the second. And, as it rushed closer, she realized with a sinking feeling that she'd misjudged.

She'd planned on vaulting high enough that she could land full on the ledge, roll, and keep moving with barely a break in momentum. Instead, she was going to fall short. She pressed her body tight, willing it to get every last instant of forward momentum it could.

With a jolt, she landed against the side of the outcropping, holding on by her fingertips. Cursing, she scrambled her legs against the rock-face, gained purchase, wrapped her arms around the lip, and pulled herself up onto the ledge. Scowling, she clenched her fists and darted off again without a backwards glance.

TN 1925, 34 Summer

Her palms were sweating as she held her fists tight against her body and tried for her life to remember the next verse.

The assembled Thralls of Junira Loresh sat before her as she and Torgath related what they had seen and heard in the three cycles since they had left. Torgath had spent almost all their time traveling with the Ivandi Ratir composing the story and putting it to verse, and most of the time they'd been together in Junira Loresh he'd spent drilling the words into her head.

"Why can't we just tell them," she'd exclaimed on the third day.

"The Great Cycle is all in verse," he'd told her in a voice that brooked no argument. "So our story needs to be also."

She still wasn't sure whether she believed him. But she did believe that if she messed up now, he would never forgive her.

"Commanded by the men who'd set their tasks
Their minds a slate to program as they chose
But now that war had ended, they were trapped,
For in their wartime roles their minds had froze

"Sebastipol had risen through the ranks
And claimed there was another way to thrive
The GRELS could loose the bonds upon their minds
And towards a Perfect Form their souls could strive"

Torgath took over, explaining more about the Perfect Form movement, and their encounters with Artoor Vovelle, Baakov, and Jan Sebastipol. Lyta thought it was particularly cruel of him to have given her the part about the GRELs, but she hadn't argued. Torgath was doing most of the speaking as it was. Sometimes she wished she had a head for memorization like he did, particularly now that he spoke, so full of energy and power that she almost felt she was reliving the whole thing again.

She snapped back to the present as she realized Torgath was nearing the end of his section and she'd have to take over again, and seriously considered whether anyone would believe her if she chose to fake a heart attack to get out of it.

B'Ti, 12th Course, 5:02

A tangle of thorny roots and brambles lay across the jungle floor. Running across in the thin-soled shoes of the B'Timasti would have been pointless and landed her in the healers' tents in moments. Her normal first recourse, to swing along vines or run across branches, was impractical; the canopy was far too high at this section of the course to use it.

A handful of straight shafts gave her the clue she needed. Some previous competitor had apparently cut them, and Lyta scooped them up. One she threw down immediately, landing across the top of the brambles like a balance beam.

Carefully, she ran across, feeling the thorns tug at her pant-legs, but none of them dragged her down. Picking up speed, she threw down another and kept running, placing one foot in front of the other across her make-shift bridge.

TN 1925, 36 Summer

The bridge across the gorge was narrow, and the armadillos had to walk in single file. It was a safety mechanism, she'd been told the first time she'd seen it, back when she was a child, designed to ensure that invaders would have to enter Junira Loresh slowly, giving the Ferah time to pick them off before they crossed. And while there were several bridges across the gorge, at several strategic points around the jungle-city, it meant that leaving Junira Loresh always took longer than it did to enter.

She sat next to Torgath and waited for their turn. The Ivandi Ratir were conveniently headed east, and had agreed to allow the siblings to accompany them as far as they chose. She could barely feel the moisture on her skin anymore, and the smell of flowers and greenery had long since faded away. Not for the first time, she wished that she could spend longer in Junira Loresh, living in the lush richness of the jungle. But that would mean that she couldn't be with Lukas.

"I'll miss Jonas," she said softly, so only Torgath could hear her.

"Me too," he said.

There was nothing more to say, and they waited in silence.

B'Ti, 12th Course, 6:13

Lyta rushed through the close press of trees, wending her way between them and, occasionally, throwing herself up into the branches to avoid some obstacle on the jungle floor. She was making good time, she thought. She might actually pass. She ran across two branches, swung down to grasp a third, rolled across the floor, and launched herself up again.

With a shout, she cleared the tree line, and her heart sank. In front of her snaked a wide river, far too wide to walk across and too far even to vault. Sticking up from the water were slabs of rock, fifteen feet high and barely wide enough to stand on. A few on the near bank were low enough to jump onto. The water was deep, and she didn't dare think of what would happen if she fell in.

With a shake of her head, she launched herself forward, making for the first of the towering pillars.

TN 1925, 2 Autumn

She smelled the towers before she saw them, and she wrapped the cloth tight around her face. "Why are we here?" she cried to Torgath.

"Because this is where Ti's employer is, and so's Lukas." She couldn't see his nose through the face cloth, but she was almost certain he was wrinkling it.

"But why here? Couldn't he have picked somewhere nicer? Like Prince Gable or Mainz or something?" She stopped her armadillo, her love of Lukas pitted against her revulsion at the heaps of garbage.

"In Evelyn Krakehall's The Diamond in the Rough, Anders Varindo finds a chest of gold buried in one of the garbage piles," Torgath offered. "It had been put there by a drug cartel that needed to hide it, but Varindo got to it first and used it to bring them all to justice." He'd been quiet for days on their way back from Junira Loresh, fallen back into his scouting ways, but now that they were closer to civilization he was becoming more talkative. Right now, she wasn't sure whether she should be happy or aggravated.

"I don't care, Torgath!" Lyta exclaimed. "My point is that we have to go in there. With the garbage!"

He nodded. "That's where Lukas is."

Lyta sighed. "Yeah," she said at last. "I know."

With a flick of the reins, she started driving her armadillo forward and into the refuse city.

B'Ti, 12th Course, 6:52

With a grunt, Lyta ran forward and pressed her hands against the red-painted circle, the official end-marker of the course. For fifteen seconds, she did nothing but stand, trying to catch her breath. She had no idea how well she'd done. Whatever it was, it was going to be close.

She straightened, pulled her hands back and walked a few steps, letting her metabolism slow. She looked up to see the Koreshi judge consulting an antique-looking chronometer. She looked at him expectantly. Finally, he nodded and glanced up. "Six-fifty-two," he called out.

Somewhere, up beyond the vantage holes that Lyta couldn't see, Jonas and Torgath were watching her, had heard the judge announce her time. Somewhere, even higher up, her parents were watching.

Lyta grinned.

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