The Beach and Sanctuary
The beach wasn’t quiet. Waves pounded the white fine sand with a steady rhythm like a lover’s heartbeat. Five children played in the shallows, searching for shells and clams for the evening’s dinner, shouting to each other and low flying blue-green wave skimming birds searching for edible tidbits, each child as precious as oxygen in space brining smiles to the faces of those on the beach for less joyful reasons.
A young girl, coltish with flying blond hair ran to Brother as he accompanied the village Torch to a reed walkway over the water. He feigned being unaware of her only to catch Leah just as she tried to pounce on the taller sturdier peace keeper.
“I almost got you!” She squealed as he tossed her into the air as if she weighed nothing instead of the sturdiness of an outdoor child.
“Almost is never your friend.” Brother ruffled her hair as he placed her back on the wet sand. “Where are your parents? Surely none of you are here without some sort of supervision?” He looked around with a slight frown.
Leah gave a squeal of outrage brushing the hair from her face into a less messy coif. “Treasher is keeping an eye on us.” She motioned to the huge Katherian whose buff fur coat blended into the edges of the forest shadow; well enough that even Brother had to look twice to spot him. Treasher gave a flick of an ear while keeping an eye on the other four rambunctious children he would fondly call godlings within their hearing.
“Mom and dad are at the funeral.” Leah asked, digging a toe in the sand, quickly looking down than up at Brother.
Brother’s eyes darkened for a moment. “Funerals are sad affairs and this one even sadder than usual.”
“Did you have to kill Nathan’s mom?” Leah looked into Brother’s green gold eyes with an innocence that made his heart squeeze and he hoped she would never lose.
“She was poisoning Grenich. When the poison didn’t work…”
“Thanks to Mauri.”
“Yes thanks to Mauri. She tried to stab him.”
“Why would she do that?” baffled at an adult acting illogically.
“Because Grenich isn’t human.”
“Why does that matter?” Very confused now.
“Nathan’s mom, was unable to live with non-humans.” Sister snapped.
Brother looked over at his sister with a quelling look as he amended his original response tempered to Leah’s age. “On the ships she could stay with humans most of the time. After the shipwreck though, with all of us living in close quarters and no village without at least a few others that weren’t pure human, her brain didn’t process the differences very well, which made her try to kill Grenich.”
Sister snorted but she added no commentary either.
“That’s very sad.” Leah said, her lips pulled down.
“Yes it is.” Brother gave her a quick hug. “Time for you to join with the other’s. Sister has to do a Reading.”
Leah’s eyes got huge and darted to the small wizened woman waiting patiently next to Brother. “Oh! Bye!” She gave Brother one more quick hug and a bobbing nod to Sister before scampering off to the other children.
“She takes after her mother.” Sister said, watching the children with a smile for young antics.
“And we are all happy about that.” Brother said with a smile of his own for the next generation of Runners. He turned back to Sister and offered his arm to her with ship formality. Sister inclined her head to her slightly older brother accepting the arm, leaning heavily on her heavy and knobby cane. They walked in silence to the edge of the reed path recently built just for this occasion.
Sister took a deep breath as her foot touched the reed walk way over the ocean water. The skies and the readings waited for no one. With the thought of the skies, she threw a superstitious glance up at the boiling skies. Behind the clouds, the sky was a deep blue. The kind that if you lay on your back looking into feeling of falling was very real, making you want to clutch the dirt under hand to keep from losing contact with land. Gravity always worked though.
She should have been dead three times over. Wrinkled skin with liver spots covered her face neck and hands visible through the loose flowing wrap. She had survived war between the Gods, or world ship crash landing and years on a world so dangerous the first month saw a mortality rate of over a third of the crash survivors.
Yes, death had kissed her hand a few times but had declined a final dance. Soon she thought, soon Death would want to finish this soiree. She was seeing an extra shadow when someone was close to death these twilight years of hers.
The thought sent a shiver through her. She clutched her bag of Gods’ bones a little tighter. She wasn’t scared exactly, but she didn’t want to leave life just yet. No one ever did, she snorted to herself. Death was a fickle lover, coming and going as it pleased, sometimes at the most inopportune times, either too soon or far too damn late to have been a mercy. Sister shook her head with lips pursed in annoyance. She wasn’t dead yet so time to roll the bones.
The clouds were moving in from the east, large, dark and pendulous. The storms were coming soon enough. The water would raise, a vision seen for the last few decades, bringing more than just change to the land and ocean. The other two Torches had gone insane waiting, but Sister had waited with patience akin to the Silvers. Sister was the last of the world’s precognitive. A torch to lead the way out from the empty darkness of space, the old saying went. The clouds coming wouldn’t reach the island today, maybe not even tomorrow but the rain they shed would be felt and the clouds would be here soon enough.
The water had been shallow for many feet out two weeks ago, now deeper than could be measured with heavy knotted rope and wider, wilder than a strong swimmer could dare unless they had fins. The walkway had been bucking and heaving till she stepped foot on the sturdy arm sized bound reeds. The first step onto the walkway caused the water to still for two body lengths in either direction. Water still surged and raged except the area she was walking onto became as smooth and clear as battle plastic canopy on a fighter spacejet.
When she had been young, the ocean had been larger but slowly receding. The world’s axis had finally tilted throwing the weather patterns from a dry climate worldwide to whipping up clouds and moisture to drown the parched lands. The world was no longer a dry world but they could still die in the deluge. The shipwrecked survivors on the island and in those living in the waters needed to know the future.
Sister straightened as she continued walking on the now calm water, the bones vibrated at her touch, sensitive were the bones of the Gods, none of which anyone had seen in the last three generations on the islands. The bones had been given to her uncle, of quick wit and fiery red hair in a different pouch, his pouch, when the ship still flew through the stars, now hers to read and protect.
The village was down to roughly 150 people. The other villages scattered over the area were not faring population wise much better. The drying rivers had been low on fishing but the grazing for their animals precarious with the native wild life finding the goats and pigs as tasty as the shipwrecked survivors did.
The old woman shook her head again. “Getting old and senile.” She thought to herself. The years were not weighing lightly and the path of a Torch usually lead to insanity at a young age or suicide at an older age. Rarely was there another path. She was the last Torch for the shipwrecked, the last seer and guiding light of the Gods. Duty lay heavy across withered shoulders.
Sister was careful to never read too many times in a handful of days. She had been told her grandmother had the sight in such quantity that bones for focusing were not needed. But the sight had come at any given moment eventually driving her poor grandmother insane. Her uncle had decided swimming during a storm when flathead sharks were mating off the shores, a good idea, when the bones became too much for him. Sister still held onto her sanity but there had been days when she worried. Today was not that day.
She motioned with her chin for her brother to come help her. There was a time when her grace and poise while reading the bones had been perfect. Those years were no longer hers. Unlike her, Brother still looked to be in his early second decade, tall strong and flexible. Things her Power had deemed unnecessary for her to retain. Yet for all his youth, she would not trade their jobs. She told the future and guided the survivors’ paths. He had the task of enforcing the peace. Sometimes all that the transgressor needed was a talk reminding them why everyone worked together, other times a grave was added at the foot of the mountain. Those enforcements were the hardest. Every member was valued. Everyone needed.
Brother stepped forward on two legs, not four of his other shape, so silent his footsteps the reeds did not creak once on the walkway over the still water. Sister reached out a hand. Brother supplied an arm to help her down to her knees on the reeds, before backing up off the pathway as silently as he had approached.
She settled on aged sagging haunches with a deep breath, calming her mind. The calm was as important as the medium from which she was reading. With a deep breath out, her hands reached into the squared pouch, with a tying flap, at her side. Flipping back the cover fold, her hands touched the skin with reverence. She gently pulled a folded piece of thin tanned leather from the pouch. The first item she needed was butter soft and smooth, unlike the coarse tanned goatskin laid out for her old knees. The skin was not small, rather thin and compact covering roughly two and a half feet by one and a half feet, the width of most women’s backs.
With a flip of her stiff fingers, she laid the skin out in front of her. Next, she pulled bones of various sizes with symbols out in a wrinkled hand, thick jointed with hard work and long years. The pouch held fifteen bones yet only nine or eleven could fit into her hand at a time. Sometimes only five were grasped. The different runed bones pulled and the number helped her to concentrate her Power to See. The bones, like the skin, came from the body of the Goddess Red-Eyes in one of her various incarnations after she had died.
This time when she pulled the bones and threw them, she had enough time to gasp once seeing all the bones pulled, then the Sight came. Faster and faster images flooded her mind leaving an impression and images that would never be erased. She let the images flow through her brain until like a cup running over until no more could be stored.
Raising to her knees she yelled “Stop! Stop for the love of Gods and my sanity, stop!” She coughed her plea to the air and sky. The images slowed but one last one burned into her brain, a woman and a laughing child, surrounded by the corpses of both the followers of the Dead Gods and Islanders. “They must live.” Sister screamed in a whisper before collapsing back onto her knees, tears of pain and the coming deaths pathing down her face.
Sister woke with a pounding head, not an unfamiliar sensation with the sight or with drinking too much. Something she had not indulged in since her late second decade. She looked up into familiar faces. Some concerned and other’s hopeful. “Not dead yet, damn vultures!” She snapped irritably, waving a hand weakly above her head. The crowd of five backed up, one or two chuckled at her well known waking temper. She struggled to sit up for a moment to give word of her Seeing.
“We are waiting on your word, Torch.” The headman said his beard and hair so dark there was almost no light reflection. Young, unaged and unknowing, Sister thought with disapproval towards Nathan. Sister glared up at him and his rudeness.
The headman’s face was neutral, neither hoping nor hating, though he had more reason than others to hate with both Island and personal losses from her readings or Brother’s enforcement.
“The waters will rise and Dead Gods own are leaving.” She turned to look at her brother.. He heard the words she didn’t speak.
“I will ask if Jolie is available to pull a trireme to the mainland.” Was all he said offering a hand off the woven reed mat she was laying on. She waved off his hand laying back.
“Brother.” He stopped as her voice changed to the Torch. “Do not interfere.” With that, she closed her eyes and fell into a sleep of recovery. Brother frowned but continued to the beach to find a merman to carry a message.
“Torch.” The sitting woman didn’t respond to the taller than average Katherian. He tried again with the human’s given name. “Atlanta!”
This got a response. The woman looked up with haunted purple eyes and deep bruising underneath from sleepless nights. “Yes?” Her curling red hair, unconfined, seemed to float around her shoulders.
“You ready for this drop?” The Katherian swiveled an ear at her, the tip of his tail twitching. His face was covered with a bone mask concealing the upper brow and cheeks, leaving his orange eyes and short dark furred muzzle visible. The mask could have covered up scaring, but Atlanta knew it covered Redeyes Judgment mark.
The stone steps of Sanctuary were still coalescing in front of the fifteen people, the early morning mist, mixing with the still see-through stone steps and massive metal doorway making the grassy area more surreal than enjoyable. Each of the team members had found a small lightning mark on their hands, a summons for a retraction. Someone or a few beings to be brought into Sanctuary. There was no telling how many or how few Sanctuary was opening up for but Sanctuary answered its own criteria for helping those in need.
The band, for this retraction, was particularly motley; three humans, seven Katherian and five Wolfen. Usually there was only one token human among the larger races, this time there were three. No Silvers, so the humans would have to do the crawling through tight spots and only one of the team members had not gone through full training. The God with them, the Torch. She didn’t carry any variety of swords or disc guns, like everyone else had, but she did have a sleek long barreled rifle with top grade sightings, slung over her shoulder. An assassin’s gun. The gun and her lack of other extraction missions making the others give her more than the occasional sideways look. The Torch being the unknown element on this mission.
The token leader, the unnamed Katherian was notably concerned with a potential rogue God messing up the retraction.
The Katherian had approached the red headed woman in the black body suite with an aggressive tilt to his head and a growl in his voice. “You can sit this out.” He said into her ear, not carrying to the others, though his body language screamed his thoughts.
The implied we don’t need novices who are going to hurl or get someone killed. More a command then a suggestion, one that Atlanta, as a God, could ignore. She smiled sickly, waving a hand dismissively at the stated and unstated commentary. The Katherian pulled his lips back over sharp carnivorous teeth in annoyance at this gesture.
“I can handle myself and my gun. Though this time, they shouldn’t be needed” Atlanta said calmly, lying to the Katherian as convincingly as she had to the vampires of her own world. She tried to stand but stumbled, the Katherian stuck out a hand to keep her upright, his claws sheathed. Bare skin touched fur covered skin. The Torch flared and she sucked in her breath as a Seeing occurred by accident.
“Redeyes will forgive you.” Her voice a mere whisper, caring no further than his ears, her eyes misting white for a second before clearing to purple again.
The Katherian gave a soundless snarl, baring predatory teeth. “The goddess will skin me, next we meet.” His voice no louder than a breathy whisper.
“That was when you stole a ship with some of her best people on it as a gift to the Dead Gods.” Atlanta kept her voice low. Roland was a name, that history deemed the worst of the worst. One who had sold every other race on a world ship for his own race’s freedom from war. History had not been kind to Roland and his doomed mutiny.
The others coming along on this trip didn’t know who the tall Katherian was and neither He nor Atlanta were going to inform them. The others would have shot Roland on principle had his true name been known, no matter how many centuries or for some millennia past his crime had been committed.
He gave a more audible growl this time, drawing looks from those nearby. Two of the band gave the Katherian and the God more than a cursory quick glance, the other individuals looking away to give privacy in close quarters. Ship manners. The Katherian couldn’t place the two’s uniform, which told him they were from a future millennial then the one he or his regular extraction teammates were from. An unusual team of two post period guardians, a short human male and a young Wolfen female, turned their heads toward them, breaking off a conversation.
The Wolfen stepped towards them, her eyes narrowed at the Katherian, both sets of arms, upper and lower, reaching for sword or guns. Her partner stepping to her side on the left, his left hand resting lightly on his disc gun. A united front, the body language said team not lovers making Roland reassess their danger level from low to medium.
Atlanta waved them aside. “I’m fine. We are having a professional disagreement.”
“If you need help…” The man said with a level gaze, but it was at the Katherian he looked at. The Katherian did not need to read the man’s mind to know what he was thinking.
With flattened ears, the Katherian glared back. “I don’t do humans.”
“Not what it looks like to me.” The young Wolfen female growled back, her icy blue eyes steady on the Katherian, the ruff down her spine starting to rise. Her lower set of arms resting heavier on the huge disc guns, while she crossed her upper arms within easy reach of either set of swords strapped to her side or back. Roland would bet she had had some training, so the threat of their use wasn’t childish posturing.
“I am not forcing myself on the Torch!” The Katherian snapped at the young pup of a guard, his tail fluffing and twitching with his obvious irritation. He was having trouble keeping his hands off his own guns.
“Winisa,” Atlanta’s voice wasn’t loud yet still carried to the Wolfens and Katherians. The Wolfen startled at the Torch’s use of her name, her beautiful cupped ears swiveling forwards to catch every word Atlanta had to say. “I am fine. Really. He,” She motioned to the Katherian. “Is concerned that I don’t have the knowledge or fortitude for this mission. He’s just not very good at being told to butt out.” Atlanta said with humor at the Katherian’s expense, earning her a glare through his bone mask, but the others in the team gave a laugh. The unnamed Katherian was known to be overly controlling for retractions; however, his teams never lost anyone to accident or gunfire. No one asked his name or why he wore the mask. Sanctuary was a safe haven for many reasons.
The Wolfen girl gave an opened mouth smile to the Torch, flashing a mouth of sharp teeth from her long muzzle. The human only raised an eyebrow, but he did touch his partner on the arm settling her down. Her hands came off the guns and they went back to their quiet discussion, keeping a discreet eye on the other pair to their right. Just in case.
The Katherian turned back to her, a sideways tilt of his head, and a glare.
Atlanta reached up to touch the right sword strapped to his back. The left sword its mate. “Beautiful swords.”
“Thank you.” His eyes narrowed, not mollified.
“You do very nice work.” The Torch Power flared again, this time causing Roland to pull back slightly as a spider web appeared over her left hand. The threads of the future and the past forming a web of possibilities. “Swords that will kill a Dead God in the hand of a Siren.”
“Why are you coming on this mission?” Roland said in exasperation. “You’re not out of Change or fully a God yet. And Torches are always in short supply.” Torches were also rarely stable and this one seemingly less so than the few others he had met in Sanctuary. Those Torches went gratefully into their very own cryo units. No dreams or futures but their own filling their heads.
Atlanta didn’t answer for a moment, her eyes on the changing spider web of infinities. “Because I need to speak to Redeyes guards.” She paused for a second, tearing her eyes from the web to look into the Katherian’s fear dilated eyes, her voice dropping to a whisper. “And one of the team isn’t going to make it back.”
Roland’s spine stiffened and his tail snapped twice. “Everyone makes it back in my team.” He growled with bunching jaw muscles, turning with liquid grace, walking as far as he could and still be in the group waiting for the steps to solidify and the mission to start.
“Not this time.” Atlanta whispered sadly, shaking out her left hand dissipating the spider web of timelines. Sanctuary’s light hit the steps, mimicking sunlight at dawn, a new day of safety promised.