Before this world, there was another. The present world has no name, but its inhabitants knew the previous one as Dar. The present world is primitive by comparison, for Dar was a wondrous world where metal birds sailed the skies and metal fish swam beneath the seas. It was an advanced world of invention and innovation, where brilliant minds sought to untangle the intricate riddles of nature and existence. These curious minds opened one too many boxes and unleashed the mechanism of their demise, a demise that was swift, ugly, and all encompassing—or, so they believed. In desperation, they sought salvation by preserving a few volunteers in a suspended state, locking them inside a secret facility until some future date when it would be safe for them to re-emerge and repopulate the world.
They needn’t have bothered.
Others survived and repopulated for them...
An odd beast appeared on the southern horizon. An oval head with wide eyes showed first, followed by an elongated neck, then lastly a thick body propelled by four powerful legs. The droove was heading my way in a meandering fashion, and by shading my eyes I determined its burden, a lone rider slouched forward, his arms dangling.
I strained my sight to determine the slumped stranger’s identity as his droove slowly made its way across the high-grassed plain to where I sat astride an identical beast. I couldn’t see the man’s face, but I recognized his apparel ... a robe colored light blue. It had been almost a year since I’d seen the like, and its unexpected reappearance was not a welcome sight. I rode my droove out to meet the mystery rider.
I am Sanyel, shaman of the Sakita tribe, and recently turned sixteen. My father, the late Nanki, was our tribe’s medicine man until his recent death. With the demise of his successor, Pilkin, I ascended to that position, with the title coming to me only after considerable personal peril and controversy. Until a year ago, the dictates of our tribal law prohibited women from knowing or fulfilling the sacred duties of a medicine man. These were reserved for males by mandate of the sun god, Ra-ta—at least according to those same males. Women could not perform the intricate dances required in holy rituals, speak the sacred words, or practice the healing arts, all of which were required duties of those desiring the position of Ra-ta’s interpreter.
My father, from the day of my birth, had defied those laws and secretly raised me to be a full-fledged shaman, only to have our heretical actions discovered shortly after his death. Expecting capital punishment, my tribe instead imposed what everyone agreed was an equivalent sentence—banishment to the merciless Desert of Bones.
Surviving that peril by the grace of Ra-ta, I found myself thrust into a personal war with an ambitious people intent on conquering and enslaving the known world. Along with a small band of friends, I helped expel these ruthless aggressors from our land and free my tribe. As a result, the tribal council lifted my banishment, and thanks in great part to the efforts of Semral, our greatest warrior and now council chief, I found myself unexpectedly named shaman.
Before encountering the strange rider on this early summer day, I had been hunting, tracking an elusive animal. I had managed to separate a porse from its herd by using my droove and the persuasive point of my spear, and I had been chasing the shaggy, fast-fleeing beast across open grasslands. I had followed the porse into a stand of kanser trees but soon lost the trail. Upon exiting the stand onto a grassy plain dotted with low hills, I had spotted the rider to the south.
The broiling afternoon sun stabbed at my exposed arms and legs as I eased my droove into a slow trot toward the intruder. Pricking heat rays penetrated my scalp, despite the protection of the abundant blond tresses that sprouted from it. High humidity in combination with the heat had my short, sleeveless tunic soaked with sweat as I watched for any unexpected movement from the slumped man astride the distant, oncoming beast. I held my spear ready, as strangers were usually enemies in my culture, and the sight of the man’s blue robe made me extra cautious; it was the apparel of Spood priests, and I had yet to meet one of that species to whom I would willingly expose my back.
As I closed upon the man’s droove I spotted its reins dragging the ground. The plump rider appeared unconscious, or perhaps even dead, and when his droove swung around to grant me a full view of its passenger, I inhaled sharply. The exposure of the man’s curly red hair jolted me, as I was acquainted with but one overweight priest who sported such fiery locks. Could it be him? Could this be Borsar?
The rider’s droove came to mine and the two beasts nuzzled. I commanded my droove to kneel so I could dismount, and then I approached the limp figure aboard the other, whose precarious position aboard his beast showed him in danger of sliding from its back. I reached out to guide his heavy body to the ground but did not succeed, as the man’s considerable weight propelled him downward more quickly than I anticipated, causing him to slip through my grasp. His broad back landed hard on grass that barely cushioned his fall. Lucky for him, he was unconscious—or dead—and did not feel the fall’s effect.
I took a moment to examine the puffy face now turned up to me. It was Borsar, the fat priest. Memories of our confrontation a year ago flitted through my mind. Back then, the priest had been an ardent follower of the false god, Gor-jar, a creature I considered not so much a god as a perverse flight of fancy. Of course, no flight of fancy had ever led its followers to such a ghastly and grisly worship as had that monstrous deity, with the Spood having fed untold numbers of human victims to the god-beast before its sudden and welcome demise.
I had witnessed the cruelty of the Spood in service to this god, experienced firsthand their arrogance, and fought against their soldiers, the insufferably overconfident Creet. I had gazed at the white bones of my shaman predecessor, the hapless Pilkin, bones cruelly left hanging on the wooden abomination known as the grottis. Satu, the crippled boy I had befriended, and the one who should have been our shaman, was also a victim. The man lying prone before me had murdered them both.
The Spood had sent this man, Borsar, to govern our lands, lands once safely enclosed behind the high fence known as the Kodor Mountains, a ring of peaks that had for centuries cut us off from outsiders. With our tribe invisible and unknown to others, we had weathered the years behind those protective walls, living out our lives within a vast green bowl that included grasslands and forests, abundant water and temperate weather, and that teemed with wildlife, the lifeblood of our hunter culture. The infamous Desert of Bones to the south, with its seemingly impassable sands, had been our buffer against invasion from that direction, and the mighty river Raso had shielded us from constant harassment by the Raab, our former foes to the north.
Then, it all changed. A year ago the Spood had ridden drooves across the desert, a desert that we once thought uncrossable. They discovered the mountain fracture that led into our isolated lands. They had slaughtered and enslaved us, Sakitan and Raab alike, and we later discovered that their ambition was to dominate all corners of the known world.
They did not succeed. With the help of my spirit animal, the ferocious, green-skinned can-rak, and the powers of an unusual bracelet of bones given to me by my father, a small group of friends and I, along with freed Sakitan and Raab tribesmen, managed to evict the Spood occupiers. Since that time the Sakitan and Raab tribes had put aside enmities and now cooperated in mutual defense against future incursions. None had occurred, but now here was the murderous Borsar, a man I had sent away and never expected to see again, lying still on the ground before me.
As I contemplated what, if anything, to do, Borsar’s chest moved and a low moan escaped his lips, disproving my premature assumption that his stillness signified death. I could certainly change that reality by hastening the priest’s journey to the afterlife; I could thrust a rik-ta (short knife) blade into his heart and save us both from the awkwardness of an unwanted reunion.
Lucky for Borsar, I am not like him; I am not a murderer.
And, to be fair, the last time I saw the priest he had apparently changed his ways. He had readily accepted the demise of the ravenous god, Gor-jar, and showed a willingness to return to the embrace of the traditional Spood deity, the sun god Sester (or Ra-ta, as my tribe knows him). That I had something to do with that change of heart was undeniable, as I had spelled out to the defeated Spood the kinder and gentler attitudes that I expected them to cultivate, attitudes that I told them Sester demanded.
That part I had made up, of course, as I have no clue what a sun god might want, but it was better than telling them to go on killing and enslaving. Still, Borsar had not convinced me his conversion to that philosophy had been genuine.
Now, here he was again on our soil, apparently alone, and in no condition to be a threat to anyone in his current state. His droove carried an empty water skin and I wondered how long it had been since the priest’s blistered lips had touched liquid. Ra-ta, the sun, had disfigured those lips and burned his skin such an ugly red that it now complemented his unruly tresses. His body fat appeared diminished from what I remembered from our last encounter, though it would be far-fetched to claim he had slimmed down to any degree.
I stepped to my droove and retrieved my half-full water skin. Kneeling, I poured a small portion onto the priest’s swollen lips and he immediately stirred, with his eyes fluttering open. He jerked as if in fright, lifted his head to glance around and then settled his sight on me. He stared with no recognition for a moment, then something registered and he made a weak attempt to reach out his arms. I pushed them down to offer him another sip of water and he eagerly accepted the warm liquid, grabbing the skin from me and swallowing as if its nectar rivaled that of the rare quana fruit.
As Borsar gulped down the water, I waited, and when he desired no more I took the skin from him and placed it aside. Appearing refreshed, he gingerly propped himself up onto his elbows, all the while eyeing me, no doubt attempting to gauge the meaning and level of my unexpected graciousness.
“I—” he began to speak, but then needed to clear his still raw throat before continuing. “I had to come,” he managed to utter, and in his inflection was a plea to hear him out, reinforced by an imploring look.
“Well, you’re here, so what do you want?”
I hadn’t meant the response to sound so harsh, but the Spood priest’s past transgressions still rankled and did not warrant a friendly conversation between us.
“Please, Disrupter, I had no one else to turn to.”
Disrupter. I had not heard that word used for nearly a year. Only the Spood called me by that name, a name they feared—and with good reason. A year ago my friends and I had entered their world and left ruin in our wake. Now, here was a man from that damaged world, a man once feared who now seemed in fear himself.
“I need your help, Disrupter,” Borsar was saying. “It is my son ... Do you remember him?”
Did I remember him? Hard to forget the chubby, arrogant little pup.
“Yes, I recall the boy.”
“He is a prisoner of Danara and—”
“Who?” I interrupted. “Who is Danara?”
Borsar’s eyebrows lifted in puzzlement.
“Danara, wife of the high priest, Smerkas.” He seemed surprised I did not know the name. I didn’t because no one had spoken the high-haired woman’s name in my presence until now.
“Why is the dead priest’s wife holding your son?” I asked.
“She has gone mad!”
Borsar had seated himself in an upright position and demonstrated his agitation by a sudden upward sweep of both arms. He grimaced with pain. The unwise movement gave the priest a sharp reminder of his cruelly sunburned skin.
“Some say her reason fled when she learned of the death of her husband,” Borsar continued after carefully lowering his arms. "Others claim it was witnessing the can-raks attacking and dismembering her friends that did it. I do not know. All I know is that she is not right in the mind. She took my son and other children of Spood families who wanted to embrace the sun god, Sester—as you told us to do. She claims we must declare fealty to another god, and she summarily locks up those who refuse to do so. She wants to indoctrinate our children into worshipping this new abomination. She is insane.”
“So, if you still worship Sester, why are you not imprisoned along with the others?”
“I escaped Grell before her Creet followers could seize me. I had friends who assisted and I thank Sester for their courage.”
After speaking the sun god’s name, Borsar brought up his right hand and winced from the pain. Through force of habit, he touched a finger to each of his shoulders and then to his navel, pantomiming the sign of the grottis (Y). It was the symbol of the old, deceased god Gor-jar, and I wondered if the priest was even aware he still practiced this once common, but now pointless ritual in deference to a vanished deity.
Borsar waited for me to respond. I contemplated his disturbing news, but soon realized it held no special interest for me. It was simply the same excrement always expelled from that malformed Spood culture. I had thought these foolish political and religious games were behind me and that the Spood would be well on their way to implementing the reasonable and compassionate society I had encouraged them to build.
“Why do your people always gravitate toward this type of nonsense, priest?” I said, irritated. “What power can this one woman possibly have over you? Did not the can-raks destroy most of those who ruled your empire, those of evil as I instructed them to do? Why is this single woman so feared?”
Borsar eyed me for the longest time before venturing to answer. His face showed there was much to say, with his forlorn sigh indicating I did not know the half of it.
“When we first returned from your land, we had great enthusiasm for the instructions you gave us, and we were all for implementing Sester’s wishes. We entered Grell and were stunned to find our home city and the entire fortress empty, devoid of life. Decaying bodies, ripped to shreds by your unholy beasts lay everywhere. We later discovered those who still lived had fled to the countryside outside the gates of Grell and were only now returning, having observed the can-raks departing just a day prior to our arrival.
“These survivors told us of the gruesome massacre that had occurred, and it was as you said; only the evil ones were targeted. Unfortunately, some of them managed to hide themselves from the can-raks’ wrath and lived to torment us again. Danara was one of them, and with her previous position as the high priest’s wife she quickly rallied others to her side and soon took over the government.”
As Borsar spoke, I shook my head. I had not expected such a rapid revival of the old order, but should have. I knew some would be clever enough to avoid the jaws and talons of the green beasts. I had hoped it would be just a weakened few. I had hoped those returning with this exciting new vision for their lives, courtesy of Sester and me, would persuade the majority to follow their lead.
“Danara claimed she escaped the can-raks,” Borsar continued, “thanks to—and I feel embarrassed to even say this (his already red skin managed to flush a deeper hue)—thanks to the advice of a—uh—a droove.”
I thought at first I hadn’t heard the priest correctly, but then realized my ears were fine and had not turned perfectly clear language into garbled mush.
“Advice of a droove, you say.”
I struggled to keep a straight face, and then said, “What did it tell her? Where to find the best grazing? How to chew her cud more efficiently?”
Borsar did not laugh and who could blame him. How does one find humor when the ludicrous nature of the news he carried must have been apparent to him long before he sought to burden me with it. And although it should have surprised me more, a talking droove actually fit right in. The high priest’s wife formerly took directions from her late husband, who was a porse’s ass, so a droove serving the same function did not seem all that unusual.
“I appreciate your amusement, Disrupter,” Borsar was saying, while clearly showing he did not, “but I’m afraid it is true. I have witnessed the droove speak. I was once at a gathering and heard the words coming directly from the beast’s mouth.”
This day had started out a happy one for me. Porse hunting is an exciting and enjoyable way to fill one’s summer day. Somehow, that enjoyable day turned into this. I should mount my droove and speed away, far away from Borsar and his talking animals. Why I continued to participate in this conversation was beyond me. Perhaps the bizarre subject was so patently Spood that I felt compelled to let it play out. I hadn’t had a good laugh in a while and the Spood, with their propensity to find and embrace the moronic, were always good for a chuckle.
“How can you be sure it was the droove speaking?” I asked, that being the obvious question. “Perhaps someone else spoke, someone standing near the animal.”
“I was no more than five paces from the beast,” insisted the rotund priest. “I saw its mouth moving and no one was near it.”
Not having been there, I could only take the priest’s word for it. In my short life I had come across some rather unusual situations involving the inexplicable. I possessed certain talents myself that one could easily say fall within that realm. Who else could toss a rik-ta or spear with the accuracy and strength of the sun god, Ra-ta? Who else had the power to control animals with a bracelet of bones, or to direct the ferocious can-rak by simply speaking to it? So this tale of talking drooves was perhaps not as bizarre as it appeared on the surface.
I stood, brushed strands of grass from my legs, then returned my attention to the sitting Borsar and said, “So, what is it you want of me? Why should I help you with anything? You seem to forget I know who you are and what you have done.”
The red-faced man stared up at me a moment, then painfully rolled himself to one side and struggled to his feet. He stood before me, resolve stamped into the rigid set of his facial muscles. With a plaintive, yet determined voice, he said, “I have done everything you asked of me, Disrupter. I have followed the ways and words of Sester as you explained them to me. I trusted in your assurance that Sester had returned to guide our people. I prayed and prayed for the sun god’s help in freeing my son and all the others from Danara’s madness, but there was no answer. I doubted you and was about to turn back to Gor-jar.”
As Borsar spoke, his despairing expression changed and he grew excited.
“Then, one day, I witnessed a young girl singe her fingers when a hot ember spit out from a fire. Immediately I thought of you and of the spear burn that harshly marks the palm of your ruthless right hand, the symbol that made all Spood aware of your divine favor and purpose. It was then I knew that Sester desired me to seek your assistance. I have come because you are the only one who can save my son and the other children.”
Wait a minute. Borsar was getting ahead of himself. Why would he assume Sester was pointing him toward me? Why assume it was the god speaking to him at all? Certainly, my experience with dealing with the sun god, whether Sester, Ra-ta, or even the female version, Mim, had convinced me one can never be sure if a deity is directing you, playing games with you, or simply ignoring you. In any case, Sester had not clued me in to any of this, so what concern was it of mine. Then again, how had the priest’s droove found its way directly to me in all this vast land if not by divine guidance?
Borsar stood before me, still shaky and weak from dehydration as I troubled over his unwelcome interference in my lately acquired contented existence. My tribe was at peace, my duties as shaman were fulfilling, and I could satisfy my appetite to experience the thrill of the hunt whenever I wished. Why would I give that up to assist a man I had no reason to like or trust?
The anxious priest could no longer wait for a response. “Please, let us go now, Disrupter,” he pleaded. “We can reach Grell in a few weeks, kill Danara, and free my son.”
“Why do you assume that I will go anywhere with you?” I asked, angered by his persistence. “You have murdered hundreds, most likely more, some of them people I cared about. You deserve nothing but my contempt. I should slide my blade into your gut and watch you slowly bleed out.”
Shock at my unexpected ire caused Borsar to take a step backwards. He bumped into his droove, which, startled by the sudden contact, proceeded to bolt, soon accelerating to an astounding speed as it sprinted across the plains, heading south.
“Come back here!” Borsar shouted. “Come back, you miserable creature!” The beast ignored the command, fled over a low hill and vanished from sight.
Borsar’s injunction was to no avail, for he was trying to persuade an animal that was a very poor listener and an even worse obeyer. A droove will do as a droove does, and imploring it to act as the sun when it knows only how to act as the wind is a futile exercise.
The redhead stared forlornly after the vanished beast and his shoulders drooped. He turned to me, lines of defeat etched across his pudgy face. His double chin sagged, as if being pulled into an abyss as dismal as that holding the black waters of Fuld.
I was actually feeling sorry for the fat bastard.
“What do I do?” the wretch moaned. “What do I do now?” He turned his view to the south as the droove reappeared on a distant hill. The beast was barely discernible, having diminished in size to a dot, and when it headed down the far side it was the last sighting we were to have of the creature.
“How do I get back to Grell, to my son?”
Borsar turned to me with a pathetic look, making me almost want to pat him on the head and reassure him as one might a despondent child. Almost.
“We’ll go to my camp and get you a new ride there,” I told him, masking my empathy with a brusque tone. “We have plenty of drooves to spare and we can look after your burned skin and fill your stomach with food.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you Disrupter! Can we then leave immediately afterward to rescue Porlak?”
“Porlak? What’s a Porlak?”
It was a rather insensitive thing to say, I grant, knowing full well he spoke of his imprisoned son, but resistance to such temptations when dealing with a man such as Borsar is not easy, especially when the boy’s name lacked even a hint of poetic charm. The priest, however, did not even notice, as he was riding an emotional high, believing I would accompany him to the land of the Spood and solve all his problems—a scenario unlikely to occur.
“I am sorry, Disrupter. I apologize for not informing you. Porlak is my son’s name.”
This obsequious side of Borsar was rather jarring, as he had once embodied an invariable arrogance and unflinching callousness, and was thus no icon of the meek or compassionate. Could this miraculous transformation into a humble and courteous human being be real? My doubts about that had existed from the moment a year ago when I informed him of Gor-jar’s demise and identified myself as the Disrupter. I had thought that defeat of his Creet soldiers and his resulting precarious situation had simply forced him into a shrewd and calculated move to appear compliant. I saw it as his convenient way to preserve his skin. I had fully expected him to revert to his old, brutal self once removed from my sight, but there was no evidence to support he had done that.
“Down!” I commanded my porse and he responded, folding his legs beneath him as he settled lower to allow mounting. I motioned for Borsar to climb aboard.