Five and a Half Weeks Since “Departure”
She took a moment to respond to him, but finally managed a single word. “You.”
“What about me?” he whispered.
She opened her eyes and he saw in them things he had not seen before. “You make me want things I should not have.”
“It was done on purpose,” he spoke softly.
She nodded. “I know,” she whispered back.
He kissed the top of her head and then pulled her against him again, letting her melt into his broad chest and holding her tight until he was certain those sparkly thoughts of hers would not be tempted to fight against him.
They were pushing her - both the Granolith and he - needing her to begin her healing, needing her to understand, yet attempting to do so with patience and gentle redirection.
He sensed her desire to break the connection which held her fast to them so that she could be alone with her thoughts and knew she must be overwhelmed by everything she was being shown and the answers she was being given, but he could not allow that to occur yet. This "preparation" that the Granolith had summoned her for was not to be rushed. They understood she was frightened and confused, but if they let her alone too quickly their efforts would backfire and she would cling to her humanity more than before. Too much was at stake to allow that to happen.
“It’s all right, Liz,” he told her.
“No, it’s not.” She shook her head. “It’s what you were trying to show me, wasn’t it? That we are connected by our circumstances no matter which timeline we live in?” she asked. “That we are fighting for the same cause?”
“I think,” he said carefully, “we are connected by more than that.”
“You mean his bond to me,” she corrected, speaking of it for the first time to him. “It only linked us empathically. It wasn’t… it wasn’t like we were married.”
“It was a kaliquape – a betrothal bond.”
And a promise to him.
The kaliquape was an empathic bond linking a man to his future wife. This bond was often forged in childhood by parents whom wished to arrange their child's marriage. Once formed, the boy would be empathically connected to the little girl, able to sense her emotions and creating an awareness of her general state of mind. It created a unique, lifelong friendship between the two and, when the time came to marry, the young man and woman would find no hardship in the joining.
But such a betrothal should have been impossible. Rath, whom was bonded to the Granolith in a linking of minds known as the kaliquanupe, should not have been able to form a betrothal to Liz, nor should Liz, whom was married to Max Evans in a bond called the kalitupe, been able to accept such a betrothal bond.
But, through the benguela, he had seen what Liz had not. He was not the only one in Liz's mind the day Khivar had given her upoko. The Granolith had been there as well. Rath had used the powerful abilities of the great Being to form the "impossible" secondary bond between Liz and himself and, in the process, had sent himself a message…
Liz was to be his wife.
It was his destiny.
Rath brushed the back of his fingers softly down her cheek.
And he wanted that destiny.
But she wasn't ready.
And it was not time.
“I don’t want to do this right now,” she said.
“It’s all right, Liz,” he reassured her.
“No. No, it isn’t,” she denied. “We have things to discuss but I… I can’t do it right now.”
“No,” he agreed. “But soon.” There was more than enough time in the days ahead.
"Soon," she repeated, placing her hand on her stomach, an unconscious gesture he had seen her use in the benguela to steady the butterflies that flittered about when she was uneasy. Her nervousness at the idea of discussing such personal issues between the two of them filtered through the connection.
But she did not dwell on it. Would not dwell on it. There was something else she wanted.
"Leofori," he gently reminded her.
She bit her lip at his mild correction.
"I've played many roles in my life, Liz. I've had to be many people and carry many titles," he explained. As Zan, he had ruled Antar. As General Rath, he led the Antarian citizens in war. As Michael Guerin he had hidden in plain sight on Earth. And, in his most carefully concealed identity of all, he had been befriended by the Granolith and secretly served Its interests. "I don't want to be those people, those titles with you."
Her lips parted as if she wanted to say something. And the question 'Who do you want to be?' formed strong and clear in her mind before she squashed it and pushed it away because she knew who he wanted to be with her and she was not willing to entertain that thought.
But Rath was not willing to give up so easily. "Use my name," he insisted gently, ignoring her words. "Give me that much."
Liz shook her head slowly, determination rising steadily within her. "I don't think that's a good idea."
He had no need to ask her why. He knew she was still single-mindedly focused on fighting a war and she still needed him to be Rath, the man who would stand up and lead the fight for her people.
Be patient. She is doing well,
the Entity said.
No, I need this from her,
he told his Friend.
The need for reassurance in even such a small thing as a name must have filtered through their connection, for suddenly she was moving within his mind again with those same soft, nearly imperceptible probing touches that she used before, those touches that made him wish he could take up the betrothal bond with her as "her" Rath had once done.
What do you see?
he asked her.
Liz's eyes widened and her hand tightened into a ball, grasping the material of her blouse at her stomach. Her surprise at being caught was transparent and she recoiled from his mind, but he caught her movement and allowed her to retreat no further.
Don't be. I don't mind.
He curled his hand around hers, loosening her grip and, threading his fingers through hers, pulled her back toward him. He wrapped his arm around her and rested his chin atop her head. Will you at least think about it for the next couple days?
Why? What's happening in the next couple of days?
But the Granolith distracted her when energy abruptly fluxed anew and flooded around them, pouring through the chambers like a gale of wind, blanketing their skin as it burst forth. Liz inhaled sharply, again undone by the touch of the great Being, and buried her face into his chest.
Even though she had physically stilled against him, those sparkly thoughts of hers that had, thus far, been calmed and resting suddenly awoke and exploded in brilliance and coalesced.
Abruptly, she pushed away from him, propelling herself out of his arms, and took several steps backward, turning toward the pods, which separated them from the great Being. "I know what You are,
" she both whispered and telepathed, speaking to them both. "And I know what You've been trying to show me.
What is that, Child?
The childish delight of discovery draped itself about her and her whole face seemed to alight. "You're a metallotropic liquid crystal.
" There was something triumphant in her words and she spoke a little louder.
The Granolith's energy seemed to flow more intensely in Its amusement, neither denying nor confirming her discovery but waiting for her to continue.
Liz rocked back slightly on the balls of her heels as it flowed around her but, this time, forced herself to remain immune to the Entity's energy. You're laughing at me but I'm right, aren't I?
Rath smiled at her reference. He had never known his Friend to "laugh" per se, but there were times when he himself could swear that if It were Antarian It would have.
She turned back to Rath, the grin still on her face. "Liquid crystals are a state of matter that have properties of both a liquid and a solid crystal. And metallotropic liquid crystals are both organic and inorganic. It's… it's what I've been missing in my equations," she explained aloud. "It's why my shape keeps collapsing. I haven't factored in the organic component, temperature variables, mesophases, electrical field… I've been missing the whole point of the exercise."
She was as close to correct as he could expect her to be with the limited information she had been given. Imabuli might look like a giant, glowing crystal on the surface, especially if It was holding very still, but appearances were deceiving, for It was not a crystal at all but a living Being, albeit One that did behave in much the way a metallotropic liquid crystal might.
She was also correct about the variables. Because the Granolith was both organic [living] and inorganic [non-living] it was affected by a different range of influences than a simple crystalline form would. Liz had even seen the affects of one such 'influence' happen on the day Tess was sent away. It had been a hot day and the Entity's activity had only increased that heat; that heat coupled with the force of shooting the traitor away through the sky had changed and liquefied It and It had burst through the Chamber walls, spilling outside the rock face into the desert.
"And what is the point of the exercise, Liz?" he asked.
Her smile grew. "To understand the Granolith."
What do you understand?
Imabuli asked her.
Liz laughed softly. "I understand I need to go back and work on the computer some more."
"But this - this is what told me where you were," she said, speaking once again to Rath. She gestured outwardly toward the flow of energy, as if it were visible. "I couldn't feel you. You were completely closed off, but the Granolith - It's energy comes like…" She seemed to search for the right words and he felt her mind reaching, stretching. " …like ocean waves, ebbing and flowing. The energy surges outward like a wave crashing onto the shore. Then, when Imabuli rests, It goes into an almost sleep-like state, like a low tide, and, when It awakens, Its energy comes back like a high tide."
"Yes," Rath agreed. That was an apt description, perfectly describing the cycles and movements and activity of his Friend.
"And I - every time I open my empathic senses - I can feel It, feels Its energy. And piggybacked on this energy comes another sense, like… emotions, but - I don't know - more complex. And I can feel
how the Granolith feels about you and it - the emotions - seem like they get stronger when you're near to It or when you're communicating with It."
He frowned, deeply interested in her words and comprehending for the first time the depth of her ability as, through her memory, a small part of the sensation filtered into him through their connection. "How does it feel?"
Her gentle smile returned, but this time accompanied by wonder. "It loves you. In a way I've never felt before. And It's deeply connected to you," she said. "I didn't even understand until you explained it. I'd never felt a connection like that before. I didn't recognize it as a bond…"
"You have nothing to compare it to."
"Well, I - I should have. I know how it feels to be bonded to the person that you're married to. And I have Gudorian's memory of being bonded to a dragon." She tapped gently at her heart. "I still have Madison's memory of her connection to her fath… uh, you. And now I know what that family bond is. So, you know, you'd think I would have recognized it for what it was." And then she added, "It's so strong."
was 'so strong'. She felt deeply what others just barely sensed.
It is what makes her so important,
the Granolith made note to him. Its energy began to wane again, like Liz's proverbial wave.
She followed its invisible retreat with her eyes. "What's it called?" she asked softly, her attention divided.
She turned her head back over her should to study him. "Yeah."
"It is the kaliquanupe," Rath answered, knowing she would not understand the full significance of it by name only.
Her shoulders made a slight motion upward. "And?"
"It's like the kalitupe," /the marriage bond/ he answered. "It's permanent. Intimate. It has the same strength and intensity."
"Except that the kaliquanupe is trans-species like the kalitlaupe," /bond to a dragon/ Liz added.
"So, uh… how does it happen? I mean, how do you get bonded to the Granolith?" There was something very serious about her question; she was looking for a specific answer, something she very much wanted to know… no, needed to know, but what that was he could not ascertain.
The problem was not so tricky for the Granolith however. She understands the singularity of bonds such as the kalitupe and the kalitlaupe and wishes to understand how you bonded to her in the last timeline when you were already bonded to Me.
I cannot answer that,
Rath telepathed. She is not ready for the truth.
And what could he tell her? What could he explain that would make sense to her? That would herd her away from the direction her mind was going?
Sharing his own personal experience would hold no meaning for her. Unlike others in his position, it was not an experience he remembered. His link to his Friend had occurred before he was born. Perhaps he had agreed to such a bond in another timeline that he did not remember or perhaps the Granolith had simply chosen him. But whatever happened, the bond existed. To him, it simply was and always had been.
You wanted Me. I wanted you,
his Friend said as if that was all there was to it.
Liz frowned, once again missing the content of their conversation, and he knew he needed to give her an answer.
He scratched his brow with his ring finger. "In general, Liz, there is a… a process, I guess you might say, that the Child must go through. The process begins by his being marked by the Granolith…"
"An internal mark within the Child's mind," he explained. He casually stuck his hands in his pockets and studied her, the woman who so much deserved the answers. "It's kind of like an adoption. In your culture, when a child is adopted, he is given the last name of his adoptive parents to mark him as then belonging to their family. In the Granolith's case, this mark indicates that It has chosen this individual as one of Its Children.
"Remember that the Granolith has many such Children at one time. Upon being marked, these Children leave their families and take up residence with the Granolith in Its Chambers. There It protects these Children and, with the aide of Its Ambassador, It trains and guides them. They grow up there."
"But only one is chosen to be the next Ambassador," Liz recalled. "What happens to the rest?"
She meant him. She wanted to understand his exact relationship with the Granolith and how that affected her… had affected her in the other timeline.
He was not going to give her the information she was looking for.
"They are all considered to be Friends or Representatives of the Granolith," said Rath, giving her only the most general of facts, "and come under the direct jurisdiction of the Ambassador himself. Wherever they go, whatever they do others recognize that these men and women speak for the Ambassador. They are respected and honored…"
"But where are they?" she asked.
He raised his brow.
"You told me that Khivar killed the Children. Did he kill the Granolith's Friends, too?"
"Not one of them survived? You're the only one left?" Her voice hitched on the words "only one", colored by her own feelings of being the "only one left" of her world.
She nodded almost imperceptively, understanding and pity in her mind and a tired acceptance of the seemingly inevitable, and dropped her gaze from him. "Okay," she said softly. And then, almost as an afterthought, she whispered: "Why?"
"Why what, Liz?"
Her eyes flew back to him. And the emotive aura around her, visible because of his connection to the great Entity, fluxed in surprise. "Oh, I… I didn't mean to, uh… I didn't mean to ask that out loud," she spoke, somewhat flustered. "That was…"
"You may ask anything you want," he told her.
She started to shake her head but the Granolith interrupted her thoughts. What do you wish to know?
It asked, drawing her attention in Its direction. She turned bodily toward the glowing blue pods, the only barrier between the Granolith and them. As both Rath and Liz watched, the pods' backlight changed green and a golden glow appear below from Max's pod.
Come ask your questions.
He saw the play of her throat as she swallowed reflexively before taking a single step forward and lowering herself down to her hands and knees so that she was level with Max's pod.
Max paced anxiously.
God, he loved Liz. No matter what twists and turns his life took, he knew that he would never love anyone as much as her. But this - this Liz having powers business - made no sense at all. How could the love of his life have alien powers?
And yet he knew conclusively that Liz had powers. He had felt them that morning when Liz had tied his shoelaces together and tripped him. Those powers had felt distinctly Liz-like. But what he did not know was how she had done it. She had not raised her hand at all to focus the alien energy and direct it at him. She had just looked
at him. How was that possible? The amount of control it must have taken her to accomplish something like that…
Up until Tess had left in the Granolith, the blonde had had Michael, Isabel and Max practicing their powers, strengthening them, honing them. They were not strong enough, Tess had insisted. They did not have enough control. But Liz… Liz had only been exposed to Gandarium, the "catalyst" according to Isabel's dreamwalk, a few month earlier. How was it that she had so much control over her abilities so quickly?
Better yet, who had taught her to use them?
Was it the same person feeding her information, answering her questions about the Granolith and bonding and upoko and all the other alien related mysteries in their life? Who was that person? Was he or she dangerous? Was the person enemy or ally? He would never forget how just a few months back, Liz had so easily been taken in by the Skin, Vanessa Whitaker.
And what did Michael suspect? Only days before, when they had had the meeting about Liz (which she had unfortunately not attended), it was Michael who had been the voice of reason, insisting that if Liz had powers that they should wait for her to talk about it when she was ready; confronting her and forcing her to talk about it was not the right way. Yet now Michael had taken Liz away. Why? Where did they go? What were they doing? What was Michael thinking? What did he want from Liz?
Max cursed softly under his breath. God, he wanted to tear into his 'brother' right then. Yell at him. Punch him. Throw him with his powers. Anything to make him understand that Liz was important, that she had to be kept safe, that if they lost Liz the entire world was lost too… That running off with her was reckless and risky.
And what was Liz thinking in going off with Michael that way? On his motorcycle?
She should have come to Max. He would have listened to her. He always listened to her; he listened to her even when he did not want to, even when his heart was broken. He could fix her, make her human again, make her into the Liz that she was before. He knew he could. And whatever her secrets were, he could fix those too. He could make things right for her, for all of them.
Max had tried calling both Michael's and Liz's cells. Isabel had tried, too. Neither one had answered. In fact, their calls had gone straight to voice mail, so he had to assume they were out of range or that they had their phones turned off. Again, why? What was going on?
"God! Stop pacing!" Isabel snapped at him.
Max stopped, but his heart still raced in near panic. "Sorry," he mumbled.
"This isn't right," Isabel said. "They should have been back by now. Where could they be?"
"I don't know," he answered. Second period had come and gone, and third period was about to begin. Students swarmed around them as they made their way to their next class, and a swell of voices filled the corridor.
"Well, where does Michael usually go when he ditches school?"
"I don't know. He's Michael. Who knows where he's gone?" Where Michael went was not as important to Max as why. To confront Liz? Or was there some other reason? Michael would not hurt Liz, would he? No, Max told himself, Michael would not go that far. But he might scare Liz. He might scare Liz into leaving, running away, hiding…
"Max, I've been thinking," she said, interrupting his thoughts, "about the Gandarium."
Max looked warily at his sister. She did not have to say it. He knew. He knew because the same thoughts had crossed his own mind. Knew that she was thinking about Grant Sorenson and the way the Gandarium queen had taken over his body and used him like a puppet. Sometimes the man had been well within his own mind, lucid, completely human and other times… He had almost killed Isabel, he had drugged and kidnapped a young woman, he had been volatile, and he had suffered memory loss. If Isabel's dream was true, then Liz was being affected by Gandarium just like Grant.
If Michael had drawn the same conclusion…
"I'm scared," she admitted. "Michael's wrong. We can't wait. We have to confront her."
"We may be too late," Max told her. If Michael had already taken it into his own hands to confront Liz… Or if the Gandarium had already permanently damaged Liz…
"No. No, don't say that. I lost Grant and I lost… Alex." Isabel looked pained as she fought back her tears. "I can't lose someone else. We have to find her."
He shook his head. "We don't know where to look." God, where had Michael taken her?
"Frazier Woods. Maybe Michael took her to Frazier Woods," she suggested.
Yes. Frazier Woods. Somehow the idea made sense to him, or at least it made sense that Michael might have wanted to take Liz back to the original location of the Gandarium colony to confront her. Maybe he wanted to have his proof at hand when he faced her…
"Okay." He was quick to agree. He loved Liz and he was just as scared for her as his sister, maybe even more so. And, if Isabel was right, if Michael had taken Liz to Frazier Woods to the place they had found the Gandarium hive, then they needed to go there too. "Let's go."
Isabel breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you."
Her breath caught in her throat as his voice pulled from the unexpected flash. "Sorry," she said softly, pushing through the back of Max's pod and into the small opening at the other side.
She rose to her feet and dusted off her pants.
"You okay?" Rath asked coming out beside her.
She stood up straight and lifted her chin to contemplate the man next to her. "Isabel found the Granolith," Liz told him.
"It was supposed to be you."
In the other timeline it had been Rath who had introduced them to the Granolith. It was he who protected It and kept Its location secret, he who had embedded into his mind the understanding of and instructions from the great Being. Because there had been no Ambassador, it was Rath who had acted like a spokesman for the alien Entity, but he had not done so until the last possible minute, until Khivar's spaceships had hovered in the skies across the globe and Earth's human population had been decimated by disease.
But this timeline was so different. In this timeline Liz had changed much earlier and her blossoming powers had altered everything. Her powers had been responsible for the flashes she received from Max, the impetus which sent them into the desert to discover the orb - the orb that had then communicated the whereabouts of the Royal Four to their enemies. Nasedo had come after that, much too early. He found the royals. He exposed them. He sold them out to the Skins. When he failed to get Max and Tess to pair up, he tried to get rid of Liz by handing her over to the FBI but he had not counted on Liz's ability to received flashes. Liz had alerted the others never realizing that this would inadvertently cause Max to be taken by the FBI instead. Max had been tortured, and because of that he was no longer the stable, capable young man they all looked up to.
When it became clear that Nasedo was a failure, the Skins took over. They killed Nasedo and then had tried to destroy the royals repeatedly, each time meeting up with their own failure. Max continued to fall apart and make bad decisions. Isabel was a wreck. Michael was angry and defensive. Their romantic and personal relationships destabilized. Tess had taken her own failure in love too hard and had switched sides, joining with their enemy. Their group, which should have been strong and close-knit, fought each other and made too many mistakes. People, like Alex and Grant Sorenson, who should have lived had died instead. It had been nothing short of a nightmare.
So many, many differences.
And all because…
All because Liz's early powers had begun a chain of events that had alerted their enemies and put all of them at risk.
Her brow creased as she studied Rath.
Rath stepped in front of her and reached out to cup the side of her cheek and stroke his thumb across it. "Everything," he told her, "has happened the way it has for a reason."
She said nothing, fighting the fact that every time he touched her their connection seemed to increase in depth and his feelings flooded more clearly into her, always with the threat that some part of her - the Antarian part - might respond, a luxury she could not afford.
She forced herself to focus. She did not yet understand why things were so different in this timeline, but she knew that Rath probably did, and it was important that she understand as well.
"Because of you, the Skins outed themselves when they were at their weakest and most vulnerable, Nasedo was killed before he could do permanent damage, and Tess revealed her true intentions but not before you kept her here long enough to destroy a major faction of our enemies. It is the way it had to be."
She brought her hand up and laid her palm flat upon his chest. "I put you in danger before you even knew who you were," she said, her voice hitching upward.
"I was never in any danger."
"We all have our purposes here, Liz. I speak for the Granolith and protect Antar's interests. Vilandra, hidden within Isabel, is our warning system; she gives us insight into Khivar's movements when necessary and can access people's subconscious. The ones you call 'dupes"? Their sole purpose was to reveal our earthly enemies to us; they look like us and have just enough implanted memories and programming to be credible counterparts, enough to confuse our enemies. Ava, was sent to act as an espionage agent. And Sahal, whose memories sleep within Max…"
"…is your decoy," she finished for him. She knew.
"Among other things," Rath agreed, and Liz could feel the caution in his answer, caution directed toward her. His thumb drew small, distracting circles along her skin while his caution gave birth to indecision. But indecision about what? What did he know about her husband that she did not?
He said nothing for a moment, only holding her gaze and continuing to softly stroke her cheek, lost in his own mind with thoughts so deep that she could only look on with wonder.
"Tell me," she commanded quietly, her voice, though low, breaking through the silence.
She felt the Granolith's telepathic presence shift slightly within their connection, expanding as It watched on curiously. Waiting with seemingly eternal patience.
Rath tipped his head to the side a bit as his indecision faded away, locked beneath his firm hand of mental control. "Sahal was not only my decoy. He was also encoded with instructions, one of which was to locate and protect… you."
His unexpected words and the importance attached to them startled her. She brought her hand away from Rath to herself, clenching the material of her shirt in her hand. "Me?"
Her eyes glassed over instantly with tears she would refuse to spend. The memory of how her husband had saved her life so long ago in the CrashDown flooded through her mind, risking himself and everyone associated with him. Saving her had endangered all of them.
Lo sama naoba xoyan ielmisipopui, gungari da chagoi'a dojka,
the Granolith telepathed. /When the tree plays with the wind, it sheds its leaves./
A low laugh rumbled through Rath, and amusement slipped through their connection, his caution vanishing. Thank you, Friend,
"What does it mean?" Liz asked.
"It means," he began and then paused, growing quickly serious again and searching for the translation within himself. "It is… an Antarian proverb - our way of describing what you call the 'ripple effect'. The wind - it is just one thing, one force. But when it touches the tree, the tree drops its leaves. They fall to the grass. They drop onto the pond. They fly through the air until they land in a garden. They are picked up by birds and used in their nests. They disintegrate and become part of the soil, nourishment for growing things. Little insects take them into their burrows. This wind - this one thing - affects so many." He paused his words and pressed in closer to her mind. She inhaled as her mind accommodated his growing presence. "You are the wind. You are one person, but look how many lives you have touched.
"This is who we are, Liz. We are the ones whose lives have the most affect on the timeline. It is why all of us, including you, have been brought here."
Urangi ru cless,
he spoke telepathically. /We need you./
Kokua. Urani tu cless,
she replied. /I need you both, too./ She would not be able to accomplish what she needed without their aid.
He leaned forward, then cupping both of her cheeks with his hands, and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead, his desire to form the kalitupe with her once again flooding through their connection in a willful misunderstanding of her words. He knew what she meant - she could feel that much - but he chose to see them in his own way. The Granolith, shifted again, filling her mind in display of Its approval. Goosebumps prickled across her skin at their touch.
She closed her eyes and exhaled. Her hand tightened its grip on her shirt, steeling her mind in her unwillingness to give in to their scheme.
The connection enfolding the three of them was so strong. The flashes, the touching, the infusion of emotions and needs being exchanged back and forth, the electrical intensity - it was all so… alien
. There was a part of her - the human part - that wanted to pull away, that wanted to be alone so that she could think over everything she had seen and learned. Alone so that she did not have to fight her broken bond that ached to answer Rath's telepathic call and the Granolith's encouragement. But there was another part of her - her Antarian side - that wanted
the intoxicating connection - the connection linking her to the rightful king of Antar and his 'Friend" - a part of her that wished she did not ever have to let go so that she would never have to feel alone again. A part of her that would have even asked for more if she thought it at all safe.
The Granolith's touch shifted yet again.
Brushing through her.
Gently pulling at her.
Before she could respond, Rath's hand drifted downward, coming to rest on her upper arms near her shoulders, and he bent lower to whisper in her ear. She inhaled sharply, even as he spoke.
"Come. The Granolith has something you need to see." His emotions twisted their flow when he spoke those words. His caution had returned, but with it was also an excitement of sorts, the kind one felt when they were about to get something they wanted very much.
She opened her eyes and turned her head toward his warm breath on her ear, only to be confronted with Rath's beautiful, dark eyes.
"What does It want to show me?" she murmured, fighting to focus on his words and not her primal need to forge a bond with him.
There was a small smile that tugged gently at the corners of his lips, threatening to make itself known, but he did not answer her. Longing, hope, worry slipped through the connection - dampened by Rath, diluted almost, but still audible in Liz's empathically receptive mind - and want. "Please try to understand," he said.
A splinter of apprehension stabbed through her. "Understand what?" she asked.
The Granolith's and Rath's consciousnesses seemed to press in even closer to her, tucked around her like a warm blanket, their desire to see her at ease and comfortable paramount in both of their minds. Whatever it was that they wanted to her to see was very important to both of them, something not to be shared with just anyone.
"Just try… to understand," Rath spoke slowly, "what we show you." Touching her. Sliding his hands in a caress down her arms.
"Can you do that?"
She nodded, fighting as always the sensations he created within her.
The Granolith gave a gentle tug again at the same time as Rath took her hands in his. "Then come."
The Chamber was gone. Vanished.
The physical word ceased to exist.
In its place was a void.
But the Granolith and Rath - they were with her, touching her, holding her, cradling her between them. Soothing her fears with their quiet words. Whispering to her. Caressing her. Stroking her. Disarming her defenses. Arousing senses she did not know existed.
And suddenly the Granolith seemed to explode through her, their minds colliding and adhering and Liz felt as if she was pulled into trillions of pieces and scattered across the jewel-like galaxies. She spun through the universe faster than light - passing by enormous stars, planets of greater beauty than any she had seen in her own solar system, satellites, and comets whose tails were already beginning to burn out - spreading all the way to its very edges, presenting itself to her before her in all its glory and majesty. Time, too, stretched out like an eternal mathematical string before her, ready to be manipulated - cut, bent, singed, or split off into a new direction. And everything… everything
Then her scattered self began to come back together, to reform, to become "Liz" once more and the universe gave way to impossible colors that danced around her in dizzying, frantic displays. Physical sensations returned. What had been once understood became foreign again.
And then even the greatness and the power that bound them together began to rush away.
Wind roared in her ears.
Bright white light exploded.
A rush of blue and green tumbled passed her.
She felt solid ground firmly beneath her feet.
The world around her stilled.
The roller coast had ended.
Liz blinked open her eyes and found herself on the edge of a large clearing, enfolded by Rath's strong, steadying arms. She felt spent, satiated and out of breath. She felt the heat of the sun on her back. The air was warm and humid. The sound of rushing water came from somewhere nearby.
But her connection to the powerful Entity no longer was.
She reached for the Entity only to have Rath immediately block her search and gently pull her back. Tonu. Tonu,
he told her. /Not yet. Not yet./ There was a softness to his words and he stroked her telepathically.
/But the Granolith…/ the question rose in her mind.
he said. Sempra, Imabuli sempra dla. Juha, gungari reim'a tsemal aloka, Imabuli arharani yeh. Parubiro kailasa ia Imabuli hopoi nui ru zin cona semga Da.
/No, Liz. The Granolith is not here, but it will return in a few days. We must journey to meet It at Its next location./
she asked. /Okay. Where?/
But Rath hesitated and Liz sensed apprehension that he was trying to hide and knew that something was not right. She slipped from his arms and stepped back just far enough so that she could see his face, noticing for the first time that he was in full Antarian dress.
Her lips parted slightly and she raked her eyes over Rath's apparel - a mid-thigh length tunic and pants set (vaguely reminiscent of an Indian kurta), turquoise, with Antarian symbols embroidered in gold thread.
And then she looked down at her own clothes and discovered that she, too, was in Antarian dress. She glossed her fingertips down the material at her breast. Similar to Michael's tunic, but more feminine (like the salwar-kameez), her tunic was red and emblazoned with golden flowers, interwoven with complicated golden designs, and embroidered with tiny golden Antarian symbols, and she had a transparent red shawl to draw over her shoulders or arms that, also, was filled with golden scrawlings.
She looked back up at Rath, confusion slipping through their connection. Vivan, Rath?
/Where, Rath?/ Where could they possibly be going that they would need to be dressed in that?
he answered. He studied her, waiting. For something he thought to be inevitable.
But waiting for what?
Wiekoma tu indaldla. Bissau vivan?
she asked with a slight shake of her head. /I have not heard of Wiekoma. Where is that?/ There was wet, thick forest all around them and the sounds of many animals. Where were they? she wondered. South America? The Congo of Africa? Who were they to see in this place that would require Rath and Liz to wear official Antarian clothing?
Absolute shock colored her countenance. Her eyes opened wide. Her brows raised. Her mouth parted when she inhaled.
She leaned forward, staring at him in disbelief. "What?"
But because she sensed only truth from him, the next words she uttered were: "But I told you I would never…" And then she broke off, the full weight of his confession abruptly hitting her, and started backing away from him and turning to look at the world around her for the first time, at the forest that should look foreign to her but instead felt familiar.
Rath had no intention of letting her panic. He strode forward, closing the space between them once again, and grasped her shoulder; but Liz was already on edge and she stiffened at his touch, balling her hands into fists. Kaliua, Evans, urangi yeh,
he telepathed. Gungari parev cona reim'a tari uri.
/You're going back, Evans. It's just for a couple of days./
Liz looked back and glared up at him, a rather fierce expression on her face.
Rath looked down at her. "Are you going to fight me, little one?" he asked, his words deceptively quiet. A look of amusement crossed his face. "You won't win."
But he was not really amused. Waves of dread and worry flowed through the connection, even as the sense that he was truly steeling himself to do battle with her also filtered through.
"You tricked me!" she bit out between clenched teeth, but she made no move against him, simply standing frozen and poised to fight.
His smile faded, but his gaze remained intent. "I did no such thing." Again his words were soft and low.
"The Granolith isn't here!" God. The Granolith was not there
. It had left her alone - alone on a world she had never wanted to see.
You are not alone,
"The Granolith, Rath. Where is it?" she demanded again.
"It will rejoin us at Wiekoma," he answered.
"No." Wings of madness. He had brought her to Antar. He was taking her to a place called Wiekoma. What was he planning to do? "No."
Everything was wrong, horribly, horribly wrong. She should not be on Antar. She should not be with its King. She should be on Earth helping to look for the Granolith's Ambassador… The Granolith, Who was not there…
She tore her gaze away from him, her eyes darting about her. Her breath was ragged with unspent emotion.
She started to pull away from him again but Rath tightened his grip.
he called to her telepathically, commanding her attention.
She turned back. You shouldn't have done this,
she said. What were you thinking?
Rath rounded on her then, stepping so close that there was only a small space left between them and using his height to tower over her. He glared down at her menacingly. "I was thinking that you promised me your loyalty and support," he growled. "I was thinking that you said…"
"That's what this is about?" Liz broke in. "You're testing me? You brought me here against my will to test me?"
"I am not testing you," he denied.
"I promised you…"
"Yes, you did." His jaw pulsed as he repeatedly clenched his teeth together.
The emotions flowing from him were raw and jumble, angry and unsettled and fierce. He was very upset with her and she saw that every one of his defenses was well set in place… in preparation for anything she might say or do.
But despite his intimidating posturing and emotions, she was unafraid. This was Rath and, with him, Michael. Neither of these driven men would ever do anything to harm her, nor would either one ask her to do anything beyond what they thought she was capable of. She trusted them. They were her strength when she was at her weakest, the voice of reason through the insanity.
She forced herself to relax. Her shoulders dropped. Her hands unballed themselves. What was done was done; there was nothing to be done to change it. Besides, as Rath had noted, there was no point in fighting; there were no winners in a battle, only losers.
She dropped her gaze and looked away to the tree with the familiar yellow-green leaves and white flowers at the edge of the clearing. "Tuavaero loved to eat that. It is so bitter but she…" Liz swallowed tightly, refusing to allow the old sadness swallow her. "… she just loved it."
"Liz," Rath called to her again, a mild warning in his tone.
"Osieri ujibi esdla, Tsheroko Rath. Sitam ueda," she said softly, still staring at the young tree. /Do not be troubled, Lord Rath. All is well./
"Evans," he tried again more firmly.
But, as she looked about the clearing at the alien foliage that seemed so familiar to her, she was experiencing a sense of déjà vu that overpowered anything else. Even the call of her last name, which normally brought her to quick attention, was not enough to distract her.
"Taya'a aslora gungari heu, hoapili jahan nei," she murmured. /The eye never forgets what the heart has seen./ It was an old saying, though not an Antarian one. She drew a shaky breath. Gudorian's old memories, as well as the flashes from the many, many Antarians she had connected to two months before, lived in her mind as if they were her own. She had an overwhelming sense that she had been there before. If only Tuavaero were there to lift her up; she knew she would recognize the area from a height.
Rath lifted his hand from her shoulder and drew it under her chin, turning her attention back to him. He had grown calmer when she gave in to him, but she could still feel his defensiveness and worry. "Would you have come if I warned you?"
She blinked and tried to shake off the sense of déjà vu. "No," she answered without hesitation.
"Even though you promised me your loyalty?" he pushed.
Liz opened her mouth to answer, but as she looked at him, he suddenly reminded her of the old Rath she remembered - the careworn Rath from her timeline who wore such a burden of seriousness, stress, and anxiety. She would have done anything - anything at all
- to ease that pain in him… in her Rath. Had, in fact, done everything she could to ease his burden.
In the last week and a half that they had had together - those precious few days before he had been ripped away from her when he died, when their bond had dissolved into nothingness - she had truly "seen" how great a load weighed down upon him, how haunted he was over those he had lost, and how much he wished things could have been different. With a desperation not unlike that of his people, he agreed to leave their fate with the great Entity. His unshakable faith in the Granolith emboldened and inspired what was left of their respective peoples, while in the privacy of his mind (and Liz's because she was connected to him) his regrets and worries threatened to overwhelm him.
She had gone to him then, whenever her husband was busy and whenever she could get away from her own duties as Queen, and sat with him in his quarters - just Rath and Liz. Alone. Away from the ever watchful eyes of their soldiers. Their empathic bond having pulled them together. They had held each other, instinctively seeking to quiet one another's mind.
"I don't know if you saw, uh… felt…" she stammered, uncertain how to explain. "When my Ra… when you died, I… I felt it. Max didn't feel it, but I did…"
"I saw," he said quietly.
The loss of her bond to him had made her stumble and fall. The strength of his will that she go on, despite his pain, had propelled her, but without it… "I lost you and I was about to lose Max. Everyone and everything that was important to me was gone. And all I could think about was how many regrets I had, how many people had suffered because of my carelessness… I can't
make the same mistakes again…"
"Am I a mistake?"
And there it was again. That defensiveness. In his own way, he was just as good as Michael was in pushing people away. Maria had never put up with it and Liz had always done her best to ignore it. It was his way of being strong and aloof, his way of being the noble leader he needed to be.
But she was not used to seeing this side of him in this Rath, in this time. Perhaps he was as unsettled as she was without the presence of the Granolith. Perhaps his bond to the Granolith caused him pain when It was not present.
She raised her hand to touch him, to give him comfort even in such a small way, and then hesitated. She was still uncertain how to proceed with this Rath. This Rath, although he was so similar to the other in so many ways, wanted things from her, demanded things from her that the other did not. He had shared parts of himself that her Rath had not. He confused her.
And then she shoved her confusion away to give comfort to the man before her, to the man who lived. She reached up and traced her fingers along his cheek until the palm of her hand lay over it. He closed his eyes at her touch and let out a long breath. The walls within him shook.
"Do you hurt?" she asked gently.
"No," he denied, his answer spoken so low that it was almost a whisper.
It was a half-truth. He was not in physical pain (he did not hurt as she did from her broken bond), but he was in pain. The walls he had erected, however, would not let her see what it was.
So, instead she simply told him: "You're not a mistake." Never would she consider him to be so. She relied on him. She needed him. She still did not know what would become of her once he was gone. "But I'm afraid that… that being here might be. What are we going to do if we run into your people? We are hatugli'a…" /hybrids/
He opened his eyes. "We will not run into my people," he stated simply.
She felt the conviction in his words, the knowing that what he was said was so. She wondered how he planned to avoid the billions of sentient persons on his planet.
Liz bit her bottom lip. She withdrew her hand and started to bring it back down. "But how…" she began.
Suddenly the walls within him crumbled and his greatness shone through once more - his confidence and faith and steadiness - and just as quickly he had squared their powers and taken command of her empathic ability, understanding of its use filling him with a mere touch.
Liz froze, hand still held mid-air, memory of the last time he had taken control of her empathy washing over her with startling swiftness.
"Hey," he said softly. He slipped his hand into hers and gripped it firmly, their hands poised between them.
His touch was all she needed to refocus her. She straightened slightly.
"I only want to answer your question."
Liz gave him a nod.
Nancy was not one to sit in bed during the day. She liked to be busy, whether it meant running errands, helping her husband manage the restaurant below their apartment, or visiting friends. But sitting in bed? She had to be pretty darn sick to want to do that.
Yet that was just what she was doing (and she most certainly was NOT sick). She had her library book tucked into her hand, a cup of hot tea on her night stand, and her most comfortable pajamas on. And there she was crawling into bed.
She pulled her pillow upright and leaned it against her headboard, crawled under her comforter, pulling it up around her waist, and then snuggled back against the pillow.
Only two weeks ago she would have felt guilty for even thinking about taking a nap or wearing pajamas in the middle of the day, let alone going to bed to read a book. Her own father and mother had never approved of such behavior. In her family, when one woke up, they were to get dressed and work (there was always work to be done). And Nancy herself had always stuck to that life principle.
Yet, there she was sitting in bed, relaxed as could be, and not feeling a bit guilty.
She wondered briefly if it had anything to do with Liz. When she had become so sick from Liz's strange computer and Liz had found her in bed, there had just been a… a rightness
… about the situation. There was no other way to explain it. It had felt right that Liz found her in bed, familiar
even. It felt right that Liz was there to take care of her. It felt right that Liz had taken charge and seemed to intuitively know what to do to make her feel better. It had even felt right that Liz had then told her to eat.
But Nancy did not give herself much time to dwell on that. She was more interested in the book she had picked up from the library: "Lucid Dreaming and the Art of Dreaming Creatively
Ada Windermere had sounded so crazy when she spoke and yet… Nancy could not entirely write the woman off.
___“Dreams, Mrs. Parker,” Dahicru interrupted, “like time, should not be defined in so linear a way. Among our people dreams are shared, especially among family members.”
“In what way are they shared?” Nancy asked.
“We call it the ‘kermes benguel’.”
A few weeks ago, sure, she would have judged the woman as a few sandwiches short of a picnic basket and forgotten all about her, but she could no longer do that.
___“Do you remember your dreams?” Mrs. Windermere questioned as she contemplated Nancy over her cup of tea.
“Not usually, no,” Nancy told her.
“Yet, I would guess that you have been feeling particularly troubled lately, haven’t you, especially upon waking.”
That was certainly the truth, although Nancy was not entirely sure that had anything to do with dreams. It seemed far more likely that it was just her constant motherly worry over Liz.
She knew - knew
- deep down that something was not right with Liz, but the more she investigated, the more confused Nancy became. She needed a miracle if she was ever to have any hope of getting to the bottom of the mystery. Unfortunately, she was running out of options.
___“If you cannot find the strength to talk to your daughter, then I would suggest you learn how to lucid dream.”
Nancy did not think the finding of strength to talk to Liz was the problem. The problem was more that Liz outsmarted Nancy at every turn causing all of Nancy's inquiries to meet with dead ends. It seemed she had little choice but to learn about this "lucid dreaming" that Ada Windermere had told her of.
Not that it would do any good.
But she was feeling desperate.
Her empathic senses, guided by Rath, flung themselves outward. They flew across his world with the speed of a dragon chasing after his mate. Her empathic ability rolled across the land, moving further and further. Hundreds, then thousands of miles.
But in all that space, there were no people, no dragons. No voices at all.
There was only silence.
Liz drew in closer to Rath. I'm sorry. I didn't know.
He spoke as he continued to draw them forward: Ioseguedes,
/You misunderstand/ he told her. This is the 'time before'. We are thousands of years in the past.
The words shook within her. The time before? Thousands of years?
Surely he could not mean…
But the answer was very clear in his mind, most likely because he wanted it to be.
At one time, thousands of years ago, Antar had been empty of people and dragons. Both were immigrants to the world that eventually became their home.
She looked out over the empty lands. Auyana Ahamo?
she questioned, using the expression she had seen earlier in the flash. This is the time before your people immigrated from Auyana Ahamo? There is no one here?
The staggering amount of time they would have had to pass through to reach this point in his planet's history stunned her. Impatiently Liz tugged on their joined powers and pulled her empathic ability to a stop. She needed quiet and stillness to try to grasp the enormity of what Rath was showing her.
But the soundlessness was deafening. It was like standing in a mall or a school or a stadium or some other big place and knowing you were the only
one there, that there was no one else around. For an empath like Liz, the implications were frightening. It was an aloneness that she could literally feel.
You are NOT alone,
Rath repeated. I will not leave you.
You better not.
I am loyal.
She clung to him, remaining immersed in the person he was, needing to feel the only other living, sentient person on the planet. Needing to know she was not alone.
Wishing she could go home.
she asked. Why here? Why now?
He touched her tenderly, stroking her through their connection, a desire for her acceptance and compliance strong within his mind. Your only objection to coming here was that you did not want my people to be ashamed of you, but there are no people here. This is the 'time before',
he telepathed. So, when I show you what you need to see, you will try to understand.
She certainly had given that one objection as her only reason for not returning to Antar with him. Trust Rath's strategic mind to work itself around that one and still get what he wanted… and with a promise to "try to understand" to go along with it.
Everything seemed to make sense to him.
But Liz was very confused. As usual she was well aware that Rath was not showing "all his cards". He never did anything without a very good reason (or set of reasons) and he was not one to pander to those in his command. Bringing her to the Antar of the past might have served to assuage her fears, but she knew it was not the real
reason he had brought her. No, there was some other purpose to their presence at that time and place.
Rath? Show me Wiekoma. I want to see it.
Rath needed no urging. He immediately rolled their conjoined power backward, reversing his earlier path. Narrowing it. Focusing it. Until, at last, he halted the empathic senses at a location about 55 or 60 miles away. /88.5 to 96.5 kilometers/
She studied Rath for a moment, moving softly through his mind, looking for some kind of reassurance, before gently retaking control of her ability and turning her attention to the place he had brought her to. To Wiekoma.
To the unexpected surprise.
Or something that reminded her of whispers.
Overlapping tones, like the low murmur of a crowd.
She could not define what she sensed. They were not pure emotive voices, like she would expect from sentient persons, but they were… people
. At least they felt kind of like people. People that were there but not there. People that were mere whispers of their true selves.
If Tuavaero were there she might have understood and explained it to Liz. But she was not there. Only Rath was, and he was studying Liz the way she was studying Wiekoma.
What does it mean?
she asked Rath.
Liz felt something equivalent to a smile come from Rath, sort of like the feeling a cat might have when it finally catches the canary… only Liz knew that she
was that canary.
That is part of what I want you to understand, but you won't be able to figure it out until we actually get there.
After that Rath led Liz from the small clearing and across the forested highland, following well-traveled animal paths, carrying a strong sense of relief with him.
He had done it.
He had brought Liz to Antar.
Rath drew in a deep breath of warm, moist air through his nose - the scent of green growing things and damp earth - crossed his arms and leaned back against a tree to study her.
A small swarm of mtiléha had flown down from one of the branches high above, their helicopter-like wings making soft whirring sounds. Liz had stopped and tilted her head back to observe them, and Rath sensed the recognition flooding her mind.
He let out his breath through his mouth.
Yes, he was home.
He had wanted to throw out his powers and touch every living thing in sight - his relief was so great - but he had had to refrain for Liz's sake. She had needed his comfort and direction.
But, by all that was holy, at least he was home, even if it was only for a little while.
And Liz was with him.
The seemingly impossible had been accomplished. The human girl had been brought to Antar.
When he was very small he had not understood how it would happen. The Granolith had shown her to him in waking visions and dreams repeatedly, patiently explaining who she was to become to him, but it had not made sense. He had not wanted her - not on his planet and certainly not in his life.
Ambassador Rawuri gazed down in some perplexity at the king’s son. “Tell me, child,” he said gently, “what does the Granolith say about the kaliquape.”
“It says the kaliquape must not be performed by you,” the child answered dutifully. “It says I will not be joined with Nakuombia Ava.”
“Why is that?” Rawuri asked.
“I am to bond to another.”
The Granolith spoke in his mind, showing him an image of a young woman pale of skin, with dark eyes and hair. She looked different from anyone he had ever seen before. “I do not know her name. She has not been born yet. And…” He paused as he considered the Granolith’s revelation. “I do not think she is from here. She does not look like us.”
“She?” Rawuri asked in surprise. Later he would tell Leofori that he had expected an entirely different answer. He had expected him to say he was to bond to the Granolith.
“But I don’t want to do it,” the boy had said then. “I don’t know why I have to. It won’t tell me.”
But later, much later when he was well into his adult years, he had grown fascinated with the idea of her, especially after she had appeared in the Granolith's Chambers on the Doju Islands to give the blessing to Ambassador Rawuri and to remove the tikava from the old man's body. She had seemed so… fragile and… small. She was so upset by the magnitude of the crime Khivar had committed in the Granolith's caves, so close to tears, and yet the little spitfire had the impudence to call him by his given name and had threatened to blast him as if she knew exactly
who he was and was not the least intimidated by it. Oh, she had been respectful enough - he had had to give her that much - but she did not try very hard to hide the fact that she was displeased with him. Him.
As if she had the right to judge.
He might have had a few things to say to the little trespasser to put her in her place if it were not for the fact that she was as taken with the Granolith as It was with her. He had not expected that. He had not known that the one he would take as a mate would be anything like her, let alone one that the Granolith would…
But that was neither here nor there, as they said on Earth. The event had not yet happened for Liz, and would not happen if he could not stay focused.
was Liz's first visit to Antar. She had things to discover about herself, him, his world, and his people, and he had a very short time in which to show them to her - a couple days at best, as he had promised her - and then they would have to return to her Earth.
As he stood watching, the cloud of mtiléha swirled downward, and Liz reached up to touch one. A look of wonder crossed her face when one of the large white insect-like creatures alighted on her finger, clinging to it with its four thin legs. She lowered her hand to eye level so that she could get a better look at it, watching it as its long, white tail curled and wound in a coil over its back.
There was a tightness in his heart because he could not help but worry about making things right for Liz, making sure that she accepted the things he had to show her, that she gained the understanding she needed, hoping that she would accept these from things from him rather than from Michael (because the Granolith had insisted he was the one to show her)… And, yet, seeing her natural curiosity take over as she relaxed more and more gave him a powerful sense of relief that he did not know how to put into words, as well as an ever strengthening hope.
And then her eyes were trained back on him rather than the delightful little creature that still clung to her finger, an unreadable expression on her face and her thoughts so quiet that he could not tell what was going through her mind, whether or not…
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and stared back, silently checking to see if his mental walls were still in place. Her powerful empathic abilities were hard to keep at bay, for she could move so easily through his mind without him even knowing it, could read him so well, better, he suspected, than even she knew, and there were things he did not want her to see…
Things like the depth of his need for the small, part-human Liz Parker Evans.
A flicker of a smile flashed for the briefest of moments across her face before she lowered her eyes to study the mtiléha once more.
"The last time," she said softly, "we were alone like this was when we were hiking down to Echo Canyon so you could train me."
He remembered. He had seen the memories through her eyes in the benguela. They had known well before Khivar had arrived that they would not win, that the fight against him would prove to be futile, that, at best, they had only a few years left to spend with one another… and yet Liz had left her "soulmate" behind so that she could train with "her Rath", so that she could take Ava's place in the four square. She had been so courageous.
But it had been more than that.
Even though her husband had not been with her. Even though it had been hard for her to learn to harness her powers. Even though the dread of Khivar's impending attack on earth loomed over her - over them. Even though Rath had so often gone crawling through her mind to help her, to teach her. Even though… she had been happy.
"I was," she acknowledged without looking at him.
She blew softly upon mtiléha and the small, white creature unfurled its tail, spun its wings, and took off to rejoin the swarm. She watched it leave, her hand absently rising to her temple where she tracing small circles over the pain that was always there.
"Happiness can be hard to find. You take it where you can get it," she said.
"Even with me?" he asked.
Her gaze returned to him. "Especially with you."
Rath sensed the truth of her words through their connection and, with that truth, he felt something more ease within him.
He took a step toward her… "Kokua mnaisha xoyan tu." /It is the same for me./
… and froze.
A gentle breeze danced through the forest around them, whispering through the trees and causing the leaves to brush lightly against one another. It made the hems of their tunics tap softly against their legs and drifted wispy fingers through Liz's hair. Her shawl fluttered around her, the fancy, golden glyphs sparkling as they played in the "sun's" diffused light.
Her lips moved soundless, her mind glittering with a thousand old memories both touchingly beautiful and stabbingly painful, and she dropped her eyes and looked away, a nervous hand tucking some wayward strands behind her ear before dropping lay over her stomach.
His simple words meant more to her than she knew how to express… and were far more dangerous, too.
Her eyes blurred with tears she refused to shed but, blinking them away, she looked back at him, at the great man of whom she was so honored to count as a friend. "Thank you," she said softly.
They stared at one another for a long moment, standing precariously at an emotional impasse that neither one of them could traverse.
And then it was broken when Rath's eyes narrowed and Michael's crooked smile appeared on his face and amusement rang through their connection.
"What?" Liz asked.
He gestured outwardly with his hand. We have a guest.
She whirled and found herself face-to-face with a rather large, rather purple animal
. She tensed, not recognizing the creature nor knowing if it was friend or foe.
It stretched its head toward her and its nostrils flexed and it blew large breaths at her as if it were smelling her.
She took a couple of steps backward. "It's a… it's a cow," she stammered lamely.
Rath's amusement grew, but he said: "Is not
" as if he were indignant. "It is a yusawara. It is more like… a mountain goat."
"What does it, uh… eat?"
He said it so blandly that for a moment Liz was quite taken aback but then he started to laugh.
She turned back around, thrust her hands onto her hips and glared at him. "That's not funny," she declared decisively. "You scared me."
But he only laughed more.
She felt the yusawara nibble at her back with its lips. "Hey," she said, turning back, only to find that the creature had a mouthful of her shawl.
Rath had to help her. He ordered the yusawara to bimon, to behave, but the animal did not want to bimon, and Rath had to pry its mouth open and retrieve her damp shawl.
"Oh… wonderful," she said when he handed it to her.
"Like a goat," he reminded her.
The yusawara reached passed Rath and tried to get her shawl again, but Liz pushed its head away with the palm of her hand, adding a little zap to it with her powers to give the beast extra incentive to back off.
She looked over at Rath and saw that his hands were wet with yusawara slobber, which he was busily wiping away on his tunic. She wrinkled her nose. "Maybe we should, uh… go wash up."
Rath agreed and led her away to some shenwé'a. /small pools/
The shenwé'a were like nothing she had ever seen on Earth. Each shenwé
was a perfect circle, no more than a few inches deep, with straight up-and-down sides, and a smooth, flat bottom. The size of each shenwé varied, with some being no more than a foot in diameter and others being as large as several meters (yards) across. And one flowed into the next by a miniature waterfall of softly tinkling water.
In the lower shenwé, a small herd of striped, spindly-legged jeshaka
were drinking water with their long, thin tongues. A few glanced up at Rath's and Liz's encroachment, but they seemed unconcerned with the two strange beings and went back to drinking.
Nearby a flock of tiny mieri
- a creature that looked like a cross between a miniature dolphin and a bird - were hopping about in the shallow water and making a game of disturbing slumbering mud babies (miseba'a), which then slithered and jumped away into underwater piles.
Liz let Rath lead her to an unoccupied shenwé on the furthest end.
There he crouched near the pebbly bank and, after washing his hands, cupped them together and drank water, while Liz stood, still looking about her. It was so beautiful, so peaceful.
She saw the troublesome yusawara again. It appeared through the trees a ways down and headed over to the furthest shenwé to drink, but it did not try to approach them.
Liz stepped into the water herself and dipped her shawl in, washing the slobbery parts. Then she lay it over a nearby branch and dried it with her powers.
When she turned about, Rath was right there, standing and watching her. Staring. As if he were fascinated.
She gave him a half-smile. What?
I like your freckles.
She blushed and looked down, biting her bottom lip. Her freckles
. Right. Of course he would notice that.
We don't get freckles.
Yeah, I know.
She got the sudden distinct impression that he would like to examine her freckles more closely. She colored and covered her freckles with her hand just below the soft part of her throat.
Rath's amusement washed through their connection, but only for a moment. Then he stepped forward and held out his hand. "I found these for you," he said, holding out some stones.
He placed them in her hand.
Liz looked down at the stones he had given her - a fist-sized stone that was nearly black and several smaller stones of various, bright colors: turquoise, red, and yellow.
She gazed back up at him. "Thank you."
But he only shrugged as if his small kindness was unimportant and said, "I'll be back in a minute," and Liz understood that he was going to go find a place to relieve himself.
He walked off through the trees, leaving her alone.
Liz watched him walk away and then went and sat down by the shenwé. She wrapped her hands around the stones she had been given and concentrated, separating the molecules of the stones and restructuring them, changing their shape until a bowl grew in her hands.
When she was done, she opened her eyes again and turned the bowl about to look at her work. It was beautiful, smooth inside and out, and engraved colorfully with intricate designs set over a glossy sable. It was not as fancy as some Antarian bowls she had seen, but, like all the others she had created over the years, it came from her heart and was a testament to the fine teachers who had taught her the skill.
Her teachers who were all gone, she thought sorrowfully, their many faces flashing through her mind.
But then she corrected herself. No. Her teachers who had not yet been born.
Her teachers who would live long, full, happy lives if she had her way. Live their lives on the beautiful world Rath had brought her to with its amazing array of wildlife and plants and natural formations.
As she looked around her she thought of Michael's last words to her: It was worth it, wasn't it?
"God, it has to be," she whispered.
She bent forward and dipped the bowl into the shenwé and brought the filled container to her lips. The water tasted so good! She had forgotten that she was thirsty or that many hours had passed since she had last had a chance to drink.
She dipped her bowl repeatedly into the shenwé and drank to her satisfaction.
When she was done, she cradled the bowl on her lap and thought - thought of her own world and her own people. She hoped… no, she needed
to make things right for them, too. And she would, she told herself, because she could not face another end of the world. Not again. Not ever.
She lifted the bowl from her lap and brought it to her forehead, in the customary way she had been shown. And then, gathering the memories in her mind of all the things she loved about her home, she implanted them into the bowl - the startlingly beautiful image of Earth from above (the one she had once seen when she had Madison were taken) with its vast blue oceans and small glimpses of the continents peaking through fields of white clouds; the smell of the desert when rain fell, the way the drops splashed down in puddles and the sound it made on her umbrella; snowflakes falling from the sky and blanketing the ground and trees, deep footprints in the icy drifts, the sound of children laughing; a green forest shrouded in fog, the damp smell of earth and plants, watching panda mothers and their offspring eating bamboo and seeing the babies play; catching grasshoppers that sprung through the tall, wet grasses and holding them in her hand, their long legs clinging to her skin; and Liz's own small hand holding on to her father's as they walked through Frazier Park, the sound of the wind as it blew through the trees in the forest and the way it felt as it trailed soft fingers through her hair; sitting on her father's lap and feeling so safe with his arm around her as they looked up at the stars. Sola ta.
Satisfied she let her memories fade away, sensing, as she did so, that Rath had returned, and brought the bowl away from her forehead and held it out before her. Such a pretty bowl. And now it was more. Now it was a memory bowl, a gift to future generations of people who might pass by.
She set it to her right and then rose to her feet and turned to face Rath, who was leaning against a tree and calmly watching her.
"What did you choose?" he asked, but there was no real curiosity in his question.
"My home," she stated simply.
He nodded and Liz noted that she felt no surprise from him either. No, it was more than that. He had expected her to choose that, almost as if… he knew
How… interesting. She narrowed her eyes suspiciously.
But Rath only held out his hand to her. "Come."
As they continued on, Liz found that she recognized some of the wildlife, like the small flock of eager mieri that followed them - little blue fish-birds, with black dolphin-shaped beaks, and thin, nearly-transparent fins and flippers colored like fall leaves, while others she did not recognize at all, like the kliernoacl
with its long horns and scaled, plated back. She had startled when it unexpectedly ran out of the bushes in front of them. But Rath only broke a handful of twigs from the bush next to him, stripped them of leaves, and then knelt down and offered them to the creature, which came forward, sniffing with its long snout. It grabbed Rath's offering and darted off.
After it left, Rath looked over his shoulder at her, amusement rippling through their connection. It is a kliernoacl,
Its legs are on backwards,
Its legs are on just right.
She bit her lip. It has too many eyes.
It is a noacl, a "many eyes".
In front of Rath, about twenty or so small kliernoacl younglings darted out of the bushes and ran by, following after their mother. A few of them stopped and curiously sniffed at Rath while others propped themselves up on their hind legs to get a better look at him before running off. They are also prolific breeders,
he remarked offhand, referring to the "klier" part of its name.
When he rose again, it was only to turn to her and hold out his hand, upon which lay one last twig. Eat,
I'm not hungry.
You should be. It's been hours.
Gingerly Liz took the long twig from his hand. Like so many other things, it looked familiar. She even thought she might recall the name. Daoin?
he confirmed. Eat.
Rath broke off another twig for himself and stripped it of its leaves. Then he popped the end of it in his mouth and continued on down the well worn, animal-traveled path.
Liz put the end of her daoin twig in her mouth and bit it. It was very hard, too hard to just bite off a piece, but the flavor of the wood inside, where it had been broken off from the tree, hit her tongue - a strong, sweet… something
that she could not identify - and her stomach seemed to respond of its own accord. Suddenly she felt the hunger that Rath had said she should.
She began to work the wood with her teeth as she followed behind Rath, moistening it with her tongue and gnawing on it until the end splayed like an old paint brush, after which she as able to pull out wooden bristles to eat. It tasted wonderful, unlike anything she had ever eaten before.
They walked along for a while more - maybe for an hour - and eventually left the path they had been on and began cutting through the forest. Rath led her through a maze of ancient trees and thick underbrush and passed small murky ponds. They circumvented immense rock formations dripping with water and covered in something green and moss-like and splashed across wide but shallow waterways alive with mud babies (miseba'a) that were quick to scatter away in all direction, plopping through the muddy banks as they went.
After a while the forest began to brighten. Light flowed in, not just from the canopy above, but through the trees ahead of them. Strong light. Bright. The forest's end was upon them.
Rath turned back and held out his hand. "Come, Liz," he beckoned. "You must see this." His dark eyes glowed with excitement.
Liz put her hand in his. He closed his fingers around her and gave a reassuring squeeze.
He led her up a gentle incline through he last of the trees. His steps were quick and he fairly pulled her along in his eagerness.
And then they were at the top. The forest had dropped away behind them and Liz found herself standing at the edge of a steep cliff. Away to the left and right, the cliff extended all around, with trees rising tall and proud along its entire length and great vines creeping down over it, down, down to another great forest that extended below them. And, here and there, water from the forest above spilled over the side, dropping thousands of feet to the forest below.
Away in the distance, as far as her eyes could see, the land rolled away from them, green and lush with vegetation. Vast silvery lakes dotted the landscape. Rushing rivers coursed over it, flowing from the forest to the grassy plains, twisting and turning as they wended their way around hills, over flat prairies, into shallow canyons, and onward to a glassy blue sea.
Liz covered her mouth with her free hand, overcome with emotion. Her eyes welled up with tears she refused to shed. What a beautiful world it was! What an amazing world! She had seen pieces of it before from the minds of the Antarians whom she had touched, from their vantage points, but, under the influence of the upoko as she was, it had seemed like a fantasy, an unreality. But this - this was real! And it was the most incredible sight she could ever remember seeing!
This was Rath's land, his
home. The world that he had once ruled and cared for and would so again. A world that would be inherited by his son and his grandson after him and generations of his progeny.
"Liz. Liz, look up," Rath said gently, giving her hand a little shake to get her attention.
Liz raised her eyes to gaze off far into the distance, only to see a great flock of flying creatures as they rose from an outlying hill and took to the skies - snake-like creature with huge wings - silhouetted by avanisi clouds. They weren't dragons, but they reminded her of them. They were… She tried to recall the name from others' memories. "Uperangi
," she said, hitting upon the name. She inhaled in surprise and pointed. "Rath, those are uperangi'a."
She looked at her husband's cousin to find him smiling back at her, pride and satisfaction coloring his connection to her.
He turned his gaze from her and focused on the distant uperangi'a. He raised his hand toward them, as if beckoning them, and, although his hand did not glow, she knew it was only an outward gesture of a power she could not see.
Liz followed his gaze and saw the uperangi'a change direction. They made a wide turn in the sky, darting through the colorful clouds and back out, and headed straight toward Rath and her. Liz felt her heartbeat speed up a little with excitement. Rath had called them!
They flew closer and closer, their great wings outspread and their long serpent-like tails trailing behind them. Their iridescent scales took on a metallic gleam in the light. She began to hear the low whistles and chirps they used to communicate with each other.
And then the entire flock was suddenly upon them. Looking every bit like great, flying Chinese dragons, they flew overhead, their bodies twisting and winding as they flew. Their powerful wings pounded the air as they rose over the mountain, sending gusts of wind downward and blowing Liz's loose hair.
Liz, head tilted back to watch them, found herself holding her breath. The tears that had welled up at the sight of Rath's beautiful world finally fell unnoticed.
When, at last, the last uperangi had flown overhead, Liz discovered Rath studying her. "Urangi dahicru," he said somewhat mystified. /You're crying./
"Semier?" /Is that so?/ She touched her temple with her free hand only to find it wet. "Oh."
Then she smiled. "Bissau arabana." /That was beautiful./
"Juha urangi dahicru," he repeated. /But you're crying./
"Dahicru huila," /Happy tears./
He reached out to smooth the tear paths away with his thumb. "Iebo?" /Yes?/
She felt his relief and happiness slip through their connection.
Liz thought they would continue on after that, perhaps along the cliff edge of the forest, but Rath decided that it was time to eat.
They sat among the massive brown and green "vines" that Rath called mueré. Their girth reminded Liz of tree trunks and they had roots that came out like branches that then split into sections and clung to the ground like great, gnarled fingers, clinging not just to the top of the cliff where they sat, but over the side of the cliff and all the way down, appearing to descend 2 or 3 thousand feet. /609 to 914 meters/ The mueré vines were covered with dark, spade shaped leaves and round, red berries (mari'a) that seemed to Liz to glow in the "sun" light.
Rath plucked a handful of berries and put them in her hand. "Mari'a raona," he said, giving her the name. /Raona berries./
When Liz cupped her hands together and tilted them so that the "sun" was no longer shining on them, she saw that they still glowed. She turned to Rath, the unspoken question clear in her eyes.
"Mari bellimi talada artix kamiri," Rath explained. /Each berry contains a single Artix./
"Sabil iiuna nihii." /A tiny luminescent worm./ He raised his brow in a challenge and then scooped a handful into his mouth.
Liz's eyes widened slightly and then she looked down at her own handful. She picked one of the berries up and held it up to the light. Inside, just as Rath had said, she could see a tiny, glowing worm moving slightly within its confines. Her mouth parted in wonder.
Then her stomach growled.
It looked too pretty to eat (she still was not used to the luxury of attractive, palatable food), but she was hungry. Something about Rath's world made her feel that way. And so she popped it in her mouth and bit down. An explosion of sweet filled her mouth with just enough spicy to make it taste good.
"Mm," she intoned, touching her lips, "Akade." /Delicious./
They sat for a while in silence, resting and eating their fill of the mari'a raona and looking out over the beautiful world. If she had been with another man (like Max), he probably would have explained everything to her - the reason why they were there, the intricacies of his world… all of it. Rath, however, was not like that. He was a man with secrets. He was a man who was born to lead and did not feel obligated to explain his decisions. More than that, he was a man that did not like to explain anything that he felt one could figure out on their own.
That part of Michael and Rath - the part that did not like to explain things - had always driven Maria crazy. She was an emotionally driven woman who lived for having things all spelled out for her in a reasonable manner, while her husband was a man of action rather than words. They worked it out though, mostly because, as Maria always said, she was Teflon.
Liz smiled at the memory.
A part of her wished Maria was with them then, wondering what Maria would have made of Rath's Antar.
"She would have hated it," Rath spoke softly from beside her.
Liz's smile faded. "Probably," she agreed. She looked at her handful of mari'a and then stuck the whole lot in her pocket, where the other half of the daoin already was. Then she laughed softly. "She was always more happy dealing with the wilds of the local mall."
She glanced at her husband's cousin.
"Eat some more."
"I'm not hungry."
Liz only shrugged.
"You eat like a child," he told her, and she could sense concern from him, the same concern that he had felt for some weeks, but she ate no more and Rath did not seem inclined to push her. She knew, however, that in his mind he was not done with the subject and would likely remind her of it at another time.
At last Rath himself finished eating and rose to his feet. Liz followed suit, ready to continue on their journey to Wiekoma. She started walking along and over the mueré vines to head back to the original place that they had exited the forest from when Rath stopped her.
She looked back.
Rath nodded toward the cliff edge. "We're climbing down."
"What?" she asked.
"Down," he repeated.
Her lips parted in surprise.
Gently, as unobtrusively as possible, she felt along their connection, but could feel no playfulness on his part. He meant what he said.
"Volér ur?" The words left her mouth before she realized it. /You're serious?/
"Tsheshi," /I am./ his sincerity from within evident in the firmness of his reply.
Wings of madness.
She cautiously made her way across the great vines to the edge and knelt to look down the steep drop. Her heart quivered strangely within her chest and she laid her hand over it as if she could force it to behave itself. She was not scared of heights or of falling, she reminded herself. It was just that she wished…
She wished she had a dragon to carry her.
Drawing slightly away from the edge and sitting back on her heals, Liz gazed up at him - at Rath, who stood with his arms crossed over his chest, staring at her as if he expected her to refuse his directive.
Well, she might not have her dragon, but she had Rath.
Rath, who was a dragon of a man by his own rights.
Proud and powerful and determined. Single-minded in his devotion. A dragon that would only let a handful ever get close to him, but would truly only allow one to ever know his heart. Loyal to the death. A dragon that would give his life to protect his rider. She could trust him to keep her safe…
Rath's nostrils flared and the corner of his mouth twitched as if he were fighting a smile. Amusement slipped through their connection.
"Oh god," she said softly. She rolled her eyes and looked away.
From behind her she heard the low rumble of his laugh.
Liz shook her head slightly, crossed her arms, and could not help but smile herself.
Still, she sent a 'you're not funny'
he said in reply.
Down below one of the Chinese dragon looking uperangi caught her attention when it made a low-flying sweep over the canopy of green far below, its iridescent scales creating a seeming gleaming streak of flashing silver as it sailed by.
She watched it dive in amongst the trees and disappear.
"It's feeding," Rath said, coming to sit next to her. He leaned toward her and set his hand to rest just behind her so that they were sitting shoulder to shoulder.
"I know that." Liz turned her head to gaze up at him.
"They thin our forests and keep them healthy."
Rath looked down at her. "Some years the uperangi flocks come together and plow down an entire section of forest or eat up all the mueré vines."
"Really?" Now that was something interesting that Liz had not known.
Rath nodded. "We came at a good time."
"There are mueré vines to 'climb' down on. We're lucky," he told her.
Rath brushed aside the leaves of the vines so that she could get a good view of the mueré trunk. He showed her the lumps that grew all over the trunk and branches of the mueré vine. "See these… mpelé'a?" he said, looking for the correct word.
"Knobbles," Liz translated, her heart still beating in an erratic pattern.
Not scared. Not scared…
she continued to reminded herself. She could not afford to be afraid right then. Fear caused people to make mistakes… deadly ones.
"Yes. They are easy to stand on with your feet and easy to grasp with your hand."
He lowered himself carefully partway over the edge and then stopped and encouraged her to come with him.
"Come on," he said. "I've got you." He held out his arm for her.
Liz drew in a deep breath, and then another. "I'm not scared," she whispered.
"You're very brave," he agreed.
He did not move at all, merely waited for her to begin her descent. The strength of his resolve to make the 'climb' and his belief in her to follow flowed purposefully through their connection.
Slowly Liz turned around and let him help her. He covered her body with his own, like a protective shield. And there, at the top of the high, high cliff, they clung.
"You're okay," he spoke near her ear.
"I'm fine," she said, although every muscle in her body was tense as she clung to the stiff vines. She did not try to turn to look at him.
He whispered words of encouragement to her - that he was proud of her, that he knew she could do it, that he admired her courage, that going down would be easy… - and all the while he never moved. He hovered over her protectively, speaking his easy words and stroking her softly through their connection - gentle placating touches that made her relax even though she did not want to.
After what seemed to Liz a long time, when it appeared certain that she was steady, he reminded her once again of how to thrust her hands and feet through the leafy plant, to feel for the knobbles.
And then they began their descent.
Rath kept on hovering, continuing to shield her with his body, making sure she knew what to do and was comfortable doing it, uttering encouraging words all the while. He did not move away from her until her was certain she was all right, and then he moved just below her.
awkward at first, but as they moved downward, it got easier. Liz began to find pattern to the placement of the knobbles and a rhythm in the way she had to coordinate her hands and feet to reach them. And after a while, as long as she did not look down, she found that she was able to move at a steady pace.
She also discovered that there were outcroppings all the way down, periodically jutting out from the face of the cliff. At each one they would stop and take a brief breather and then begin their descent again, with Rath always going before her and Liz always following behind.
She became so focused on the "rhythm", in fact, that she was surprised when they reached the first outcropping. Large though it was, it had been hidden from above, covered as it was in mueré vines.
They stopped and rested for a few minutes and then, at Rath's bidding, they continued on, 'climbing' down yet again to the next rocky, vine-covered outcropping.
And to the next.
_____ And to the next.
__________ And to the next…
Rath kept urging her on, never letting her rest long before beginning the next descent. Pushing her to continue.
The afternoon "sun" moved from its 2 o'clock position to its 5 o'clock position and began to drop low in the horizon. Orange emblazoned the distant skyline and started to creep upward across the sky in a fiery display.
Liz started to grow weary. Her arms began to ache. And she did not want to continue 'climbing' once it was dark. "Rath," she said, taking a careful step down onto the ledge.
Rath grabbed hold of her arm to steady her and guided her toward the cliff face and away from the edge. "Leofori," he corrected, but even though the reminder was gentle and firm, Liz was well aware of his own weariness, weariness that he could not hide from her empathy.
Liz grabbed hold of a knobby branch against the cliff and held on tight. The outcropping they were on was one of the narrowest she'd seen yet. "I'm tired," she said. "I need to rest. You do too. We need to find a ledge that's wide enough to bunk down for the night."
"There's a cave below us. It's not far. A couple minutes more maybe," he told her. "You'll make it."
Rath went first, as always, a sense of protectiveness emanating from him, as if, by going first, he would be there to protect her if something went amiss. And Liz followed closely behind, easily slipping right back into the rhythm of carefully seeking the knobs with her feet and hands and brushing leaves from under her tunic with her knees.
In her tired mind, she wondered absently if Sahal, her husband's Antarian predecessor, had ever climbed the mountain she was on, if he had clung to those same vines or bedded down for the night in the cave they were descending toward. She knew he had ridden dragonback on Tuavaero once - she saw that in one of Rath's flashes - but that was the only thing she knew about him. She wondered what he looked like (she had only seen the back of his head in the flash), what his life had been like on Antar and what he had done to become one so trusted by Rath.
She wondered what he would think of having two human-hybrids on his planet.
She wondered what he would think of her.
Liz gave herself a little shake and made herself focus.
Below her Rath had arrived at the mouth of the cave and he was reaching for her. She inched her way down to him and then let him help her slip through the vines and into the dim grotto.
She had to bend low to get into the cave because the opening was covered by so many vines, but was once she was in, Rath still did not let her fully rise. He put his hand on the top of her head and told her: "Sbelu novo. Ngawa shibesh'a pelor kiempra." /Duck down. There are sticky threads above you./
Liz rose slowly, head turned so that she could see what he meant.
Indeed across the entire ceiling was a blanket of threads hanging down - glowing white threads that descended from the roof of the cave like rain and hung downward about a foot or so. Just hanging there.
"What are they?" she asked.
," he answered.
"They are…" But he did not seem to know how to explain it, so he reach up to the top of one of the threads where it attached to the ceiling and scooped at something with his fingers. When he brought his hand back down, he had a tiny, green striped, wormlike creature with silvery blue wings draped over the length of his finger. It blinked its eyes at her but otherwise seemed content to stay where it was. "Nalumsibes," he said again. "They are… animals… that make sticky threads… like spiders' webs, but…"
"…they just hang," Liz said, finishing his thought.
"Yes," he answered. "When our 'sun' goes down the nalumsibes'a turn on the lights on their threads to attract insects. When they catch an insect, they turn their light off."
Liz's eyes grew wide when he then tipped his hand so that the "animal" would go to her. It wiggled and used its tiny legs near its head to move forward until its soft body sat on her palm. Then it blinked its eyes at her again and draped its silky wings over her hand.
She brought her hand up higher so that she could see it better. When she did she saw that pulsed with light every once in a while. A smile tugged at the corners of her lips. "Akamaiotia," she noted. /Lightening./
Beside her she heard the low rumble of Rath's laugh. "Not quite," he said. "It drinks from the phosphorescent pool over there."
Liz looked to where he pointed and noticed a shallow, murky pool toward the back of the cave. Water trickled down into it from the cavern ceiling.
The sight of the water made her remember that she was thirsty, something that she had pointedly ignored for the past few hours.
"You can't drink it, Liz, not unless you want to glow like our friend here," Rath explained. "But there's some water in the back for you."
Half-crouched, he led her to the back of the cave, to a darkened corner where there were no glowing nalumsibes strands hanging down and, from there, retrieved a large ceramic pot filled with water.
"What's this doing here, Rath?" she asked.
But Rath ignored her question and took a ladle and dipped it into the water. "Here." He handed her the ladle in exchange for the nalumsibes she held. Then, while she drank, he took the little creature and brought it back to its thread.
When he returned to her side, he asked: "Feel better?"
Liz nodded. "Yeah."
She wanted to know about the place he had brought her to - about the phosphorescent pool; about the nalumsibes'a; about how he knew the cave, hidden as it was, was here at all; about how a ceramic pot that was clearly made by a person was sitting filled with fresh water in that very cave - but he looked as tired as he felt and she could feel his hunger and thirst. So she did not ask.
"Cless'a ia modhai ahamo kayam cless'a ta." /The needs of others before my own./ That was what Antarians said.
"I hope you don't mind…" he began.
"It's perfect," she told him, interrupting whatever apology he was about to make regarding their accommodations for the night. "Thank you."
He studied her and suddenly she felt his misgivings slipping through their connection, and she knew he must be so much more tired than he was letting her see.
"Here," she said, and she passed the ladle forward to him.
When he took it from her, his fingers brushed over hers and for a moment he stilled. "You sure?" he asked in his uncertainty.
Liz smiled gently at him and only shrugged. "It's warm, it's comfortable, it's safe, I don't have to worry about being attacked… and I'm in the company of someone I trust."
She pushed the ladle softly toward him and then withdrew her hands. "Drink," she instructed him.
He did then, and he seemed to gain strength from the water because his mental walls grew stronger and his insecurities vanished as if they had never been.
She stuck her hand in her pocket and, when he had replaced the ladle in the pot, she showed him the handful of berries she had saved. "Here," she said, offering them to him.
But he only shook his head and gently pushed her hand back toward her, rejecting her offering. "I'll make us dinner."
"There's food here, too?"
He moved a short way away from her then and used his power to create a bowl-shaped indentation in the floor. Then, he brought out more supplies from the back, including a bowl filled with root vegetables. He handed Liz a knife and together they cut up the vegetables into small, bite-sized pieces and dropped them into the bowl-shaped indention. Rath poured a small amount of water over the vegetables. Then he heated a bunch of clay cooking balls
until they were very, very hot and mixed them in with the cut vegetables. He waved his hand over the indentation with the vegetables, creating a solid rock cover, which sealed the food inside so that it would cook.
Liz was not unfamiliar with this way of cooking. She had done this thousands of times during the war herself. It was a very Antarian way of cooking and it was a good way to heat food without making a fire, which could potentially give away their position to their enemy.
She wondered, though, who had left the food and the clay balls for them?
But she did not ask. Instead she went and sat at the mouth of the cave to watch the "sun" drop out of the sky through the protective vines and wait for the first stars to make their appearance in the sky, content to rest in silence while Rath's dinner stewed in its rock container.
Rath joined her, coming to sit behind her. He pulled her against him and wrapped his arms around her, and Liz leaned back to rest her head on his shoulder.
It's your dinner, too,
Liz was sure it would be. No doubt Rath would insist she eat.
They sat for a while in companionable silence, happy to watch the night fall in each other's company. For a while the world below grew quiet as the wild animals found a place to settle in for the night, but once darkness began to descend an entirely new set of creatures awoke and once more the world became alive with strange and exotic sounds, creating a beautiful melody like nothing she had ever heard before on her Earth.
When she had woken that morning (on Earth, that is), she had never suspected she would find herself on an entirely different world. There was such a sense of unreality about it all. She felt so out of place - belonging to two different timelines of Earth, having been befriended by and transported by the great Entity Imabuli, and actually being able to see with her own eyes the wonderful world of Antar so empty of people and dragons yet filled with whispers emanating from the mysterious Wiekoma. Emotionally, psychologically, mentally - she did not know how to make sense of all of it in her mind.
If only Max was there for her to talk to.
Liz startled when Rath's voice broke through her thoughts. "When did you stop wanting to eat?" he asked.
She put her hand over her heart. "You startled me."
"When, Liz?" he asked again, undeterred.
"None of us ate much during the war," she said softly.
But that was not the answer Rath was looking for. "You ate at first," he said, "whatever we could find."
It was true. They had eaten at first. They took food from the markets that were no longer open and from gardens that were no longer attended to. They killed livestock and wild animals they found. And she had eaten then. She was hungry.
When food became scarce, she was even more hungry. The soldiers tried to make sure she ate first because she was their queen - their aiza - but she would not let them because by then she had learned to value their saying: "Cless'a ia modhai ahamo kayam cless'a ta." /The needs of others before my own./ She still ate; she just made sure they ate first. She had to keep her army strong.
They found tasteless field rations at military bases. They gathered wild growing things from the land. Even insects were not exempt from their foraging. She got used to eating very strange things, things she would never have considered eating before. She did not even think about it after a while, at least until…
"Khivar's ship," Rath said, putting the pieces together at last. "It was on Khivar's ship, wasn't it? That's when you stopped wanting to eat." His words were gentle, but pointed, and she sensed his determination to get answers.
She did not want to tell him. She did not want to talk about it at all. Living on Khivar's ship… Having to cope with the inventive things he did to her each day…
She sat forward and would have moved away from him, but Rath prevented her by a mild reprimand: "There's no place to run". Gentle he curled his arms back around her and pulled her back to him and pressed her head back upon his shoulder. He soothed her telepathically, softly stroking her over and over until she relaxed against him. He was very good at that.
"Tell me," he tried again.
But when she was quiet, he prompted her again. "I saw what happened in the benguela. I saw the things he did to you…"
Despite the safety of his arms around her and the comforting telepathic caresses, she shivered.
He held her tighter.
He certainly had done things
to her, things that still played out in her nightmares.
"He gave me hamamelis," she said after a moment. A little bit, Khivar explained, acted as a relaxant. A lot, however, acted paralytically. But it did not just paralyzed her body; it paralyzed her mind too. She was not able to shut down her empathic ability. The terrifying physical paralysis usually wore off after an hour or so, but the mental paralysis could last for days.
She swallowed the lump forming in her throat.
"How could I eat when I could feel the people around me starving? When their hunger never let me feel full?"
"So, you stopped feeling hungry."
"Oh… I don't know what I did. I just didn't feel their hunger anymore."
"And you didn't feel your own either."
Khivar had come up with many other creative torments besides the appalling starvation of the prisoners with which to torture her, and through her Max.
"I hate him," she said softly, emotion coloring her voice. "I hate him so much."
Rath was quiet after that, thinking deep, worrisome thoughts that Liz could feel but not see.
As for her own thoughts, her own ugly memories, she pushed them away and tried not to think about them.
The stars became visible and began to twinkle through the vines. There were too many vines for Liz to see the constellations clearly, but she enjoyed watching what she could see of the tiny sparkles.
Liz began to grow sleepy after a while, comfortable as she was in Rath's warm embrace, and her eyelids began to droop.
"Hey, none of that now," Rath said softly.
"Tired. Long day," she murmured. And he made a good pillow.
But Rath rubbed her arms a bit to rouse her. "Look up," he ordered gently.
She did and drew breath in surprise when she saw that the nalumsibes'a threads, one after another, were lighting. The whole cave became bathed with their soft glow. And down below, the phosphorescent pool was illuminated with a blush of slowly swirling colors and tiny twinkling reflections of the glowing threads.
She angled her head upward so that she could see Rath's face. "It's beautiful," she said. "Onséi arabana." /Absolutely beautiful./
I hoped you would like it,
he telepathed, gazing down at her.
He smiled down at her in the dim light.
"We need to eat," he said gently.
They moved to the back of the cave again. Liz was exhausted and felt like she had to drag herself, but she did not mind really. Being that tired… that was a good thing. It meant that when she finally did get to go to lay down she would fall asleep quickly and deeply, probably too deeply to recall any dreams.
Rath handed Liz some stones - stones that clearly must have been transported there as they were colored differently than any of the rock surfaces in the cave - and he waited for her to produce pretty bowls from them.
When she was done, Rath opened up the cave floor and they used the bowls to scoop out the cooked vegetables. They ate the vegetable mixture with their fingers as was the Antarian custom.
"Want more?" Rath asked hopefully of Liz when she had finished.
But she shook her head. "No. Thank you." It had tasted good (that had surprised her) but she was not hungry. Not really. She was just very, very tired.
Rath only nodded his acknowledgment and took seconds for himself, resealing the remaining dinner beneath the cave floor once more after he had done so. His own exhaustion was once more flowing through their connection.
Liz set her bowl aside and waited. It was not cold in the cave but she preferred a warm body to snuggle up to for warmth.
When Rath finished, however, he surprised her yet again when he brought out some hecué'a /furs/ from the darkened recess at the very back of the cave. Liz helped him to spread them out in a circular shape (the usual shape for an Antarian bed) on the floor near the phosphorescent pool.
Without another thought, the two curled up next to each other on the soft hecué'a. Rath pulled more hecué'a to cover them and then draped his arm over Liz, pulling her close to him. Lulled by the warmth, the gentle trickle of water that slipped down the cavern wall to the shallow pool, and the soothing sounds of the forests above and below them, they fell quickly asleep.
*Lucid Dreaming and the Art of Dreaming Creatively
by Pamela Ball, ©2000 by Arcturus Publishing Limited, Kindle edition published 2008 by Arcturus Publishing Limited, 151-153 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1 3HA