Part 1 – Worlds Apart
“O lowly minds of Theran soil,
Who bask in Elo’s mighty gifts,
And claim that powers used to toil
Belong to hands that plow and sow:
Know not thee of the veil between
The world of soul and that of flesh
Is thin and frail and often seen
Through selah’s bright and holy glow?
Beware the pride that seeks to hinder
And power that draws away the heart,
For spirits seek a heart of tinder,
Ripe for flame and set to bind.
But humbly seek the will of He
Who sang the worlds of flesh and soul
And wonder what new worlds may be
Revealed to hearts steadfast and kind.”
– Prophet Landio Say’a of T’lani Suun, 83rd Epoch
Chapter 1 – Thera
Two Days Ago
The Haweyh capital city T’Lani Suun was already humid and simmering by mid-morning, twin orbs reflecting off the polished roofs of stone towers and glass domes. Ripe fruit and vibrant flowers hung from semi-tropical plants, softening the outline of the city against the backdrop of the Castio Mountain Range framing its western side. Despite the early hour, the commercial sector bustled with locals and visitors on their way to shop or sightsee or complete a pilgrimage to the glimmering stone temple on the highest hill of the city.
The streets were made even more colorful by the many foreign races of tulinai – the sentient people who populated every corner of Thera’s largest continent – represented by skin colors as varied as the hues of the rainbow. Bright yellow Tielgen freckled in luminous purple rubbed shoulders with pale- to deep-blue Baracai and their flaming orange hair; silver-skinned Forgas dappled with blue half-moon spots exchanged goods with deep-red Corlan tradesmen. And while many walked, just as many rode through the streets on wooden carts, chargestone hoverbikes, and rocky-skinned lizard mounts, shouting and catcalling in foreign tongues and in general adding to the familiar noise. This was, after all, the pride of T’lani Suun: to welcome people from all trades and nations into Élo’s holy city.
Well. All except one.
Barrenger’s back slammed against the stone wall of a produce shop, his eye pounding from the punch. He steadied himself and dropped into the defensive stance Master Raysho had taught him, blood boiling as his fighting instincts roared to life. But he kept his face fixed in a cool, emotionless mask.
He couldn’t show his anger. They wanted that.
Magela, the young lady Barrenger had greeted on the street corner, stood with her hands clapped to her mouth. The bristling stranger who had punched Barrenger crouched protectively in front of her, a glower on his brown face as a small crowd formed around the scuffle. Golden energy formed a pulsing miniature shield around the stranger’s fist, a match for the light filling his eyes. He took a step towards Barrenger with a snarl. “I don’t know how you got this far into the city without raising the Watch, Rukilef, but if you come one step clos—”
“Stop!” Magela gripped the stranger’s shoulder, stopping him short. The assistant shopkeeper softened her voice, yellow eyes darting anxiously between him and Barrenger. “Samlin, this is Barrenger Teshma. He is the son of our Prophetess. He was born here.”
That set this “Samlin” back a step. The white-haired tulinai’s jaw dropped, his own eyes darting now as the selah powering his hand-shield sputtered out. Barrenger sighed, taking the opportunity to touch his slowly swelling eye. A newcomer to T’lani Suun – that explained the knee-jerk reaction. Barrenger dealt with some form of harassment or insult most days of the week, but he hadn’t been expecting the unfamiliar man at Magela’s side to turn around, look under his hood, and instantly sock him in the face.
At least I usually get some warning before they come at me, he thought wryly. Though he supposed he should be grateful that Samlin here was listening to Magela. The group of four who cornered him last month had chased him for three blocks before the Watch finally stepped in. But that was one of the usual downsides to looking like the mortal enemy of his mother’s people.
The vast majority of tulinai living in T’lani Suun, like Barrenger’s mother, and Magela, and this stranger, were Haweyh. The Haweyh people had white hair and brown skin, and their selah, the soul energy of every tulinai, manifested itself in glowing patches and patterns of any shade from light yellow to deep gold. Megala’s selah shone in the pale-yellow glow of her eyes, and her sun-streaked head of hair, and the irregular splashes that dotted her clay-brown cheeks and nose. Samlin had wide smudges of glowing gold on the earthy skin of his bare arms. He was obviously proud of his strength to be showing it off like that; Barrenger had a fleeting mental image of his mother tut-tutting in disapproval. Still, the Haweyh generally held a reputation for being a kind, fair, and reverent people, gracious in diplomacy yet undeniably strong in battle.
The Rukilef, on the other hand, were varying shades of dark green often bordering on black, especially against the vivid green stripes of their selah. But it was more the fact that they were violent, bloodthirsty demon-worshippers with an outspoken desire to kill every Haweyh on Thera that made them fiercely unpopular throughout the Haweyh nation. They weren’t particularly loved by other nationalities, either – but their single-minded devotion to eradicating Elo’s chosen people, combined with their inarguable military strength, made it a war of a truly personal nature that few neighboring nations wished to touch.
Needless to say, Barrenger wished that he’d inherited more from his mother than her hair.
Barrenger took a calming breath and flipped down the hood of his yellow sala-thread coat so that Magela’s aggressive friend could see one of his few Haweyh traits. White hair outlined his chin in a thin beard – the best he could manage at eighteen – and hung over his glowing green eyes, almost to the cat-stripe of luminous Rukilef green across his nose. “Common mistake,” he grunted, resisting the urge to touch his eye again. One benefit of having skin as dark as the forest at night: the bruises didn’t show.
Samlin blinked, flushed, made several unintelligible noises, and then just stood there with an open jaw, glancing uneasily between Magela and Barrenger. He finally stammered, “I’d heard rumors, but… but I didn’t actually…” The young man – probably Barrenger and Magela’s age – gulped and, with obvious effort, bowed to Barrenger. “M-my apologies, Isa Teshma. I hope I did not… too greatly offend.” He winced, either from embarrassment or resentment.
It’s probably a toss-up. Barrenger grimaced, hand slicing the air. “Don’t do that! I’m only related to the Prophetess, I don’t hold her station.” Bowing was bad enough, but he didn’t need strangers calling him by prestigious titles he hadn’t earned; he could already feel the glares of onlookers piercing his back.
The urge to break his calm façade and start screaming at all of them hit Barrenger like a physical wave. I just wanted to go on a walk! Just deliver a message and enjoy the suns! Was that really too much to ask?! Apparently it was, considering the pounding around his eye and the accusing and detached stares encircling him. The parchment in his pocket crinkled, but he left it there, too embarrassed and angry to trust himself. Why did this have to happen in front of Magela?
He couldn’t lose control. Not here. With some effort, Barrenger managed to take a deep breath and relax his fingers. He dipped his head stiffly to Samlin and Magela, keeping his features carefully blank. “Don’t worry about it. Blessings on your day.”
“Blessings on your day. Come on, Samlin,” Magela said, guiding her confused friend away. She glanced over her shoulder at Barrenger as they entered her father’s shop, soft pity in the yellow glow of her eyes. Barrenger heaved a mental sigh; that was usually the best he could expect, even from a close friend like her.
It was better than fear. Whether the fear came from his mother’s status, or the blood running through his veins – or, more commonly, both – the result was the same.
At Samlin’s departure, the small crowd broke up. Someone’s produce cart tangled with an upset lizard mount, and a few bystanders flashed selah-lit hands over the glowing chargestones embedded in their hoverbikes, gliding swiftly away before they could be caught in the developing traffic jam. Barrenger welcomed the distraction and ducked down an alleyway before his lifelong neighbors had a chance to show, once again, just how little they cared that he’d been openly attacked on a public street.
He barely made it to the shadowy back of the alley before he gave in to the heat bubbling under his skin. The green selah that had been glowing more and more brightly from the stripes on his arms suddenly swelled around his right fist, an undulating mass of translucent energy. With a suppressed roar, Barrenger punched the ground with all his might.
Bricks exploded into pulverized dust, cracks spider-webbing ten feet out to the opposite walls of the alleyway. A shower of debris peppered Barrenger’s skin. Someone paused in the mouth of the alley just long enough to take in the scene and keep walking at a much faster clip.
Barrenger barely noticed, his ragged breaths filling his ears. He stared at the inches-deep hole he had made, shoulders slumping as his selah and his rage slowly melted into dismal cloud.
No wonder people are afraid of me. Rukilef are good at destroying things.
It took an hour for Barrenger to weave his way through the familiar backstreets of T’lani Suun, avoiding contact with as many people as possible. Despite today’s unpleasantness, most citizens of the capital knew who he was and would give him a wide berth – but he wasn’t in the mood for their distrustful stares any more than another incident with a well-meaning but uninformed visitor. A few bumped shoulders with him while he maneuvered out of the busy market center, but most were in too great a hurry to even notice, much less recognize him. The ones who did hastily pardoned themselves and ducked away. One mother tugged her child more quickly down the walkway just before Barrenger ducked into an emptier side street, his heart stinging. Some reactions hurt worse than being punched.
Fortunately he didn’t have any more “incidents”, and the rest of his walk home went smoothly. The warm day and the fresh smells of green and purple primen trees growing alongside the streets helped restore his calm by the time he reached Fara’sai District.
Barrenger flipped his hood down again as he approached the entrance gates of the prestigious district where he and his mother lived. Marta Teshma might very well be the humblest tulinai in the entire country, but when you were the Prophetess of the Council that governed the Haweyh capital, people found it obscene for you to live in a sector beneath your station. Barrenger grinned to himself, thinking of the last time she’d ranted about moving to the slums and doing Élo’s work there if the stubborn Council gave her half a chance. She never mentioned the obvious fact that it was safer for him that they lived where they did. And he never mentioned how grateful he was for the excuse.
Barrenger walked up to the two burly guards at the gate and nodded to the one on the right. “It’s me, Henrit.”
“Where’s your badge?” The yellow-eyed guard looked him up and down sharply, as if he didn’t recognize the only black-skinned, green-striped, white-haired tulinai in the country. Barrenger rolled his eyes and flashed the badge bearing his family crest. “Blessings on your day, Master Teshma.” Henrit’s formal words were softened with a conspiratorial wink, unnoticed by the other guard who stared pointedly ahead. Barrenger left his hood down as he moved through the gates and up the street towards his house, feeling a little encouraged. It was nice being reminded that he knew a few friendly people in this city.
A few blocks down, he turned onto his home property and stepped up the cobblestone walk to their two-story house, the stonework climbing with vibrant flowering vines. He took the winding staircase around the outside of the building to the second floor, ducking through their back door to the refreshing smell of fresh-cut frejas. “Mum! I’m home.”
Marta Teshma stood barefoot in the kitchen, arguing with one of the servants. “No, I will not let Frai cook today! He’s my son and I shall be the one to—” She cut off when she saw him standing in the doorway, a blush darkening her brown cheeks. “Barr! Welcome home, pup.” Barrenger opened his arms to receive her as the short woman came and hugged him tightly around the waist. She always hugged as if sheer force of affection could absorb anything bad he might be feeling – and maybe she had the right idea.
Barrenger glanced over her shoulder as he returned the hug, raising an eyebrow at Cartien. The thin-framed man merely shrugged, a wry smile on his brown face.
“So, why are you yelling at Cartien?” Barrenger asked when Marta broke away from him.
His mother combed a streak of gold back into her pale hair, jaw set. “Something we shall continue to discuss in private.” Getting the hint, Cartien scuttled off down the stairs. “Or not at all, as the matter is settled!” Marta called after him. Turning back to her son, she beamed and straightened a wrinkle out of the yellow-patterned dayshirt under his coat. “How was your walk, my heart?”
“Eventful,” Barrenger muttered. Marta frowned, but when he didn’t offer more, she turned back to the kitchen and set her hand against the chargestone of the brewer. Her gold selah hummed around her hand like gathered sunlight before sinking into the stone and powering the machine. Soon fresh te’coa brew flowed from the spigot, and she filled two finely sculpted mugs. Barrenger followed her to the open balcony off the dining area, gladly accepting the offered cup. The bitter, fruity, energizing smell immediately improved his mood.
“I take it your stroll wasn’t as pleasant as you’d hoped,” Marta stated. She stared out over the balcony at the green mountains in the distance, waiting with patient expectation.
Barrenger grunted, downing the mug in one go to avoid answering. He hated burdening his mother with the details of his less successful outings. But, as usual, she picked up on her son’s mood with ease. Her frown returned. “Didn’t you go to the Lantern District? Karlis’s family always treats you well.”
“Well, Magela did try to keep a visitor from killing me outside their shop, so I guess that counts,” Barrenger muttered. At the shocked flicker in her eyes, he grimaced and wished the words back. “Sorry. Don’t worry about it, Mum, nothing serious happened. I stayed calm.”
“I thought your eye looked lumpy.” Before Barrenger could protest, Marta’s hand was on his eye, making him wince. “You should have told me immediately!” she scolded. “Hold still.” Another glow of summoned selah, and this time her eyes filled with light from corner to corner. Barrenger couldn’t resist a small sigh of relief as her healing gift kneaded away the pain until no hint of a bruise remained. Marta gently patted his cheek, her eyes fading. “I’m proud of you for keeping your head. So, not the best birthday outing you’ve ever had. But I promise we’ll have a lovely day right here at home!” Her whole countenance brightened, eyebrows rising eagerly. “I have a special surprise for you!”
The conversation that he’d walked in on came back to Barrenger, and realization dawned. He leaned back in his chair and groaned. “You’re not cooking dinner, are you?”
A dappled hand slapped him on the shoulder. Barrenger put his hands up, laughing as his mother stuck her nose in the air over crossed arms. “Ungrateful!” she huffed. “After all my years raising you from a mewling babe! No gratitude whatsoever!”
“Sorry, sorry! You’re right, I’m the most ungrateful son in the city.” Barrenger coughed and barked another laugh, some of the pent-up tension relaxing out of his back and shoulders. His mother was one of the only people who could make him forget his troubles. The other… well. The undelivered invitation crinkled accusingly in his pocket, but Barrenger ignored it, determined not to lose the good moment. As he turned back to look out over the beautifully tiled roofs of T’Lani Suun sloping down from their balcony, Barrenger’s knuckles tightened around the handle of his cup. This was the beginning of his eighteenth year! Why should he spend it feeling miserable and shut in?
Well, his attempt to overcome the “shut in” part had failed. But that didn’t mean he had to give in to being miserable. Barrenger faced the idea with a grim smile, taking another gulp of te’coa. He was going to enjoy this day, even if it killed him.
“Ma’am!” Chef Frai bustled out, her chubby cheeks flushed. The older woman had the dark red skin indicative of the Corlans to the east, and rich cream selah patterns and eyes that glowed more brightly as she twisted her apron. “What’s this, what’s this I hear? I am not to cook the young master’s birthday feast? Ma’am, I beseech you, such a feast I will make him!” She turned to Barrenger, eyes wide and pleading. “Young Master, please, you will convince her! No one can make your favorite freja turnovers like Frai herself!”
Marta stood from her seat with great dignity. “He is my son, Frai, and I wish to do something special for him. I’m sure I can manage.” She frowned at the highly skeptical glances exchanged by her chef and son. “Come now, my last attempt wasn’t that bad, surely?”
“Mum…” Barrenger bit back a grin, eyes darting towards the kitchen. “You broke the oven.”
“I did not! The chargestone was faulty, and I have the stoneworker’s word to prove it,” Marta declared. But she was struggling to keep a straight face.
Chef Frai fluttered her doughy hands. “Ah, ah, yes, it is fair to say, the selah stone was not well attuned. Surely it is not the mistress’s fault that the stone has become so attuned to my selah that it resisted yours, Ma’am Marta.” A ghost of a grin flitted across the chef’s face. “And the use of the wrong powder that caused the dish to swell and fill the whole oven, surely this was not my lady’s fault, either.”
The silence thickened for a moment. Marta’s chuckle broke it first, and soon all three were laughing. “I guess I – haha! – I guess I did make a mess,” Marta giggled, her face markings brightening with another blush. “Just don’t tell everyone their Prophetess is terrible in the kitchen! It will ruin my reputation,” she added with mock solemnity. Frai had to cover her mouth with both hands to hold in hearty giggle.
Barrenger rubbed his mother’s hand across the table. “I appreciate the gesture, Mum, but maybe Frai has a point. My stomach’s already growling for her famous turnovers.”
“Oh, fine, fine.” Marta swatted him before dipping a small bow to the chef. “I concede to your superior skill, Chef Frai. But perhaps you could teach me a thing or two, to sooth my wounded pride?”
“Ah!” Frai threw her hands into the air, and thick cream-colored selah expanded in a wavering pool around them. “With myself to teach, you shall be baking like a Corlan master before the noonday sun, Ma’am Marta!”
In every tulinai on the world of Thera, selah flowed; and where there was selah, there were gifts. Tulinai could from childhood wield this glowing life energy in ways that affected their surrounding world, although how those powers manifested themselves differed from person to person. Marta, as a pure-blooded Haweyh, had the gift of shield-making; and her secondary power of healing, another gift more common to their race than others, was strong. Of course, any powers paled to the gift of prophecy that had earned her the esteemed station of Prophetess of T’lani Suun. It was one of the seven Maker Gifts: powers so rare that only a few tulinai the world over were known to receive them each generation.
But Chef Frai was of the Corlan people, and their strong proclivity towards elemental gifts made Frai much better suited to the kitchen than her employer. Barrenger relaxed on the table and enjoyed the show as his mother tried to keep up with the surprisingly agile woman whizzing around the kitchen. Creamy-white selah flicked into chargestones, activating ovens and burners. Where a pot was too hot or cold, Frai sensed it in a heartbeat, often ignoring the burners and simply placing her hand against the steaming surfaces to draw out or add heat. Nothing cooked even a second too long or short under the watch of the master chef and her selah gifts of fire and air manipulation. It would have left most imitators dizzy with defeat but Marta Teshma had always been game for a challenge.
An hour passed this way, the suns moving up towards noon. A pleasant breeze carried the smells of zum blossoms and fruit spices through the open windows and then swished back out bearing the juicy scent of baking freja. Barrenger finished another mug of te’coa brew before leaving Frai to deal with his mother’s determined (if less than successful) cooking attempts. He felt lighter; maybe this day would turn out alright, after all. Swinging around one of the wooden structural beams that stabbed down into the tiled floors throughout the building, Barrenger jogged down the stairwell, humming a jaunty new tune that had been circulating the city’s music clubs.
“It’s a shame, isn’t it?”
Barrenger slowed near the bottom of the steps at the sound of Luelli, one of the new maids, just around the corner. Cartien’s quiet but firm voice brought him to a halt. “The mistress is doing the best she can, considering the circumstances.”
“Aye, yes, the poor mistress,” Luelli tutted. “She does such an admirable job, taking the young master’s mind off these things. It just wrings my heart, imagining my own eighteenth without my pap to prepare everything. It’s such a precious tradition.” Her voice lowered. “Although… perhaps not a tradition shared by Master Barrenger’s kind—”
“Luelli!” Cartien’s angry snap silenced the girl in an instant. Barrenger clamped his eyes shut, gripping the banister until his fingers hurt. Why did he have to walk into this? It was too late to announce his presence without making the whole situation awkward, but soft footsteps signaled that the two were walking away. Even so, Cartien’s quiet voice carried down the long hallway that led to the servants’ quarters. “Master Barrenger is not the first Haweyh without a father to prepare his celebration feast, and he won’t be the last. We must simply help them make the most of things and pray that Élo blesses this day with happiness.” Cartien’s voice sharpened. “And that includes silencing any chatter regarding Master Benide’s treason or Master Barrenger’s unfortunate lineage. Please spread the word that I shall administer punishment myself if I hear any more idle talk within this household.”
Barrenger waited in the stairwell until he was sure that the two servants were gone. “Treason.” “Unfortunate lineage.” His gut writhed, buried frustration longing to unleash itself on the innocent walls of the stairwell. Barrenger took several deep breaths and, after a few seconds of concerted effort, managed to shove his emotions back into submission.
Positive thoughts. He’d made a commitment to enjoy this day, especially for his mum’s sake. She was trying so hard. But there was sick irony in the fact that Cartien has caused the very damage he was trying to prevent. Even in his own home, Barrenger couldn’t escape the constant reminders of what he was and why people feared him.
Barrenger wandered into his bedroom, the lightness from moments ago evaporating. A few books lay on the floor where he’d tossed them the night before, his vine-patterned quilt still lying rumpled on his bed. He wanted to get his mind off his father, off his birthday, off everything for a few minutes – but the sight of a pair of crossed swords hanging on his wall pulled him up short. Swords that hadn’t been there when he’d left this morning, but which he recognized with instant, stabbing clarity. Barrenger stood at the door and stared, feeling a tremor in his legs.
“Positive thoughts,” Barrenger whispered aloud, but his eyes clung to the curved twinblades. Perhaps if he’d received them yesterday, or tomorrow, or any day when his troubles weren’t so strongly on his mind, he would have been more excited. He’d always admired the weapons, even trained with them; it was impossible not to appreciate their fine craftsmanship and perfect balance, the masterful cut of the unique caluthi crystal that channeled selah better than steel. Now, pain clutched at his chest with startling speed, forcing his eyes closed.
He didn’t remember walking towards the wall, but he found his hand pulling one of the perfectly-paired twinblades down from its mount, turning the translucent blade with practiced ease. The gold-inlaid handle, carefully molded around an amber chargestone at the pommel, looked unnatural against his night-green skin.
As it must have against his father’s.
His mum insisted the reports were wrong about Benide Teshma. Marta was one of the only tulinai in the city, the country, who believed in her husband’s innocence, but she guarded her conviction with a fiery passion. And sometimes, in his better moments, Barrenger could almost believe her. A fuzzy memory rose unbidden of a hunting trip when he was six, of holding his first knife and learning to skin a lepni. And the proud smile and green eyes looking down at him from a dark face.
Familiar clouds darkened the memory, wiping the trace smile from Barrenger’s lips. His father was Rukilef, and he’d betrayed them because he was Rukilef. Marta denied the Haweyh beliefs about those monsters, just as she denied that her husband and her son were also inborn with the dark nature that inevitably consumed all Rukilef. But when Barrenger’s blood boiled and his temper flared and his green Rukilef selah cracked stone like spun sugar, he wondered…
Barrenger roughly shoved the blade back onto its rack, shaking his head until it rattled. No, no, no! You’re not going there today!!!
Today, at least today, he would cling to his mum’s belief. Benide Teshma might be dead, and he was definitely a Rukilef, but he wasn’t a traitor or a murderer. He wasn’t. And Barrenger wasn’t doomed to follow in those footsteps just because he was a Rukilef’s son.
Barrenger turned his back to the wall, quickly exchanging his thicker outdoor jacket and shirt for a training tunic of white linen, the gold and orange patterns of twa’ki printed in swirling patterns across the chest. He tossed his gloves and boots beside the bed, then took a moment to practice his breathing exercises. Master Dama would put him through extra training reps if he showed up in with a sour mood.
Positive thoughts, he repeated, clinging to it like a calming mantra. Still, he kept his back to the wall mirror as he left his room, waving a flicker of green selah across the lampstone to kill the light. The swords caught a last glimmer from the windows as he trotted down the hall.
A/N: The chapters of Part 1 switch back and forth between the two worlds, so don’t worry, you will see more of Mercury next week. =) Let me know if anything in this chapter was confusing; it’s always a challenge introducing a whole new world setting in a fluid way. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
Thanks for reading!