Guesari 23, 622

Mu tihigne shi

(Knowledge above all)


— The Scholar’s Oath


“Are you alright?”

The disembodied voice cut through the fog shrouding his brain. His eyelids felt as though they were weighed down. It took all the strength he could muster to force his eyes open. All he could see was green. He was lying face down in the long grass. Under normal circumstances, the feel of soft grass on his face would be pleasant, but this was as far away from normal as he got. Somehow, he got himself up into a sitting position and clutched his head, eyes watering, trying to banish the pain. He squeezed his eyes shut in a vain attempt to block out the sunlight. 

“Linndan?” the voice asked.

Linndan opened his mouth to respond, but his mouth felt as though someone had shoved the entire desert down his throat. He coughed, struggling to sit up. The world swayed. Was the ground moving, or was he? He started to shake his head, only to send another jab of pain lancing through his skull.

He clutched his head even more tightly, resting his elbows on his knees. In front of him his horse pawed at the ground, whickering. He clicked his tongue, and the horse came close enough for him to grab onto the saddle and haul himself up onto his feet. He leaned against the horse, drinking deeply from the water skin tied to the front of the saddle. 

“What happened?” the voice asked.

“Sorry,” Linndan croaked. “I have to go home.”

“Home?” the voice repeated. “Why?”

A rueful smile tugged at his lips. “When the gods call for you, it’s unwise to ignore Them. Unwise, and painful.” He pinched the bridge of his nose for emphasis.

“Gods,” the voice scoffed. “You mentioned them before. I keep telling you there are no gods, only the blessed Saints.”

With considerable effort, Linndan swung himself up into the saddle. “That may be true here, but where I’m from, our gods are very real. I don’t know who’s calling me or why, but I’m not about to ignore Them.” He tugged at the reins, urging his horse in an eastward direction. “You can tag along or I can drop you off at the nearest enclave.”

“Thank, but no,” grumped the voice. “As annoying as this detour of yours is, I’d rather deal with that than the pity I’ll get from the others. Oh, poor Ellias,” he added in a mocking tone. “Just a head, no body to speak of. Can’t do anything.”

“You’re far from useless,” Linndan said, meeting the skull’s empty eye sockets. “If it weren’t for you, I’d still be locked up in that damp hole.”

Ellias made a rude noise he shouldn’t have been able to make given that he was a skull. “The only reason I helped you was so you would help me find my body. If I’d known we’d be taking a detour to Melphor, I would have made other arrangements.”

Linndan snorted. “You were in danger of being ground into dust if you stayed there much longer.”

“A small matter,” Ellias said dismissively. He paused and then said, “Does it hurt?”

“Does what hurt?”

“Going through the Way.”

Linndan shrugged. “It tingles a little, but it’s never hurt me. I’m not sure what you’re worried about. Bone doesn’t feel pain.”

“Not the way you meat sacks do, but this is magic we’re talking about. Who knows what effect it will have on me?”

“Perhaps you should pray to your saints for an answer,” Linndan suggested. There was no response from Ellias. He smiled and leaned against the raised back of his saddle, settling in for a long trip.


* * *


The Waypoint didn’t look at all special at a glance. It was a small ring of uneven stones stood around a slightly raised platform of smooth, plain stone. It wasn’t the only Waypoint on Liulge, but it was the closest to him. Truth be told, he’d have rather used the one further north near the settlement Ellias called Zalback. In his condition, there was no way he’d make it that far. Besides, one Waypoint was as good as any, particularly if you knew how to navigate the Way as deftly as he did. 

Linndan’s skin tingled as he approached. Xantoxu nickered at the sight of it, but allowed Linndan to guide him through the ring and up to stand on the platform. He checked his saddle to make sure everything was present and secured, including the padded saddlebag where Ellias was. He’d debated whether or not to keep the skull out in the open. In the end, he opted to keep Ellias secure in his bag as he wasn’t sure how the gods would react to an otherworldly visitor.

Sometimes it’s better to not draw Their attention, he thought, closing his eyes. Utilising a Waypoint was relatively easy. He formed an image in his mind, picturing his childhood home. While it wasn’t near a Waypoint, it was enough to tell this one to send him to Melphor without specifying which of Melphor’s Waypoints to use as a destination. 

If the gods want me there, then They can find me wherever I come out. He thought about it as the tingling intensified. Can They change where I come out? Is that within Their power? 

Even with his eyes closed, he could see the blinding light enveloping him moments before he felt the familiar dropping sensation as the Waypoint activated, sending him home.


* * *


It took a moment, as it always did, for his eyes to adjust. Though he couldn’t see them yet, he could smell the flowers he’d planted nearby many decades ago. He doubted he was the only Melphorian who used Waypoints, but he’d never met another Sojourner from his home world. Either they didn’t mind the flowers or he was the only one who used this particular Waypoint. Regardless, the familiar perfume eased his nerves.

Beneath him, his horse whinnied in displeasure. Linndan stroked Xan’s neck. None of the horses he’d owned had liked going through the Way. He wished, as he always did, that he had some way of communicating that the Way wouldn’t hurt them. Barring that, some way of understanding what they felt while travelling from one Waypoint to another would be beneficial. Keeping a firm grip on the reins, he dismounted and led his horse down from the stone platform, where they were met with a daunting set of faces. He swallowed and approached them.

“I take it this isn’t a social call.”

“Indeed not,” a tall, bearded man said. “We have a task for you.”

“What kind of task?” Linndan asked. “Is it urgent? I had business to attend to.”

One of the women waved a hand. “Yes, We know all about that. This is far more pressing. Or do you doubt Us?”

Her words gave him pause. He’d often suspected that the gods knew of events transpiring on other worlds, but this was his first real evidence of it. “I have every confidence in You.”

“Stop needling the boy, Szinre,” the man scolded. “He came when We called. Isn’t that good enough for You?”

“Perhaps it is for You, Hebron,” Szinre sniffed. “I have higher standards.”

“Could we get on with this?” the other woman asked. “I dislike being here.”

“With respect, I’d like to know why You summoned me,” Linndan said.

“Very well,” Hebron said with a sigh. “Tehaksha has gone missing.”

The grave set to Hebron’s features made it seem as though that simple statement should have a profound impact. “And?”

“And what?”

“That’s it? That’s Your problem?”

“Hebron is over-simplifying the matter,” Szinre said. “We haven’t seen or heard from Her in almost a century. We’ve looked for Her for years with nothing to show for it.”

Linndan paused, taking a good look at each of the gods in front of him. Szinre Prey Pacer was unusually stand-offish, but it was hard to tell what She was thinking with Her mask on. She was in Her two-legged form rather than the naga form he was more accustomed to seeing Her in.

Off to the side was another masked naga god. Though He had yet to say anything, the mask identified Him as Kalhalla the Seer. His posture was relaxed, his long serpentine tail coiled around Himself.

Beside Him, Tehvir the Wanderer stamped Her cloven hooves, Her long golden horn glinting in the sunlight. Ever the impatient one, this situation wasn’t doing anything to improve Her disposition.

Hebron the Scholar, one of the most level-headed gods, looked rumpled and unkempt.

It’s an odd assortment, but who am I to question Them?

“What would You like me to do?” Linndan asked. “What can I do that You can’t?”

“There was some debate on that matter,” Kalhalla said. “In the end, We concluded that Tehaksha can sense Us searching for Her. Perhaps an outsider would have better luck.”

Tehvir folded her arms. “You weren’t the ideal choice, but Hebron and Uras pushed for it. I doubt you’ll have better luck than We did.”

His guts clenched at the mention of the second god. He took a deep breath before speaking. “I understand Your reasoning. If You would rather choose some other poor sap for this, I’ll gladly relinquish my place.”

Hebron shook his head. “That won’t be necessary. We’ve been over this. You are Our choice. Find Tehaksha,” Hebron urged. “Learn where She has gone and why.”

Linndan folded his arms. “No.” A moment of silence followed his blunt response, as if the gods were stunned by his refusal.

“What do you mean, no?” Tehvir asked. Her long tail swished dangerously.

“It means what it means,” Linndan said. He turned and walked back towards the Waypoint, only to find an invisible barrier blocking his way. He turned back to the gods. “Let me leave.”

“No,” Szinre said. Although Linndan couldn’t see it, he could hear the smirk.

He sighed. “So either I help you or I’m stuck here. Is that it?”

Hebron exchanged a look with His compatriots. “We aren’t unreasonable, but We are desperate.”

“Desperate enough to block the Way?”

Kalhalla sighed. “The Way isn’t blocked. We’ve merely prevented you from travelling.” 

Linndan tried to leave, but again found his way blocked. This time, his skin prickled on contact with the barrier. 

“We understand that this is a monumental task,” Hebron said. “While We had hoped not to resort to this, We are prepared to reward you for your efforts.”

“You have nothing I need or want,” Linndan said, scowling.

“Don’t be so sure,” Kalhalla said. “We know you better than you think. We know what your heart wants even if you don’t.”

“To clarify, what I want is beyond Your power.”

“What if you could grow old and die?” Szinre asked.

The breath caught in Linndan’s throat. “You… would take my immortality?”

“There is a way, but it requires considerable effort on our part to undo something you were born with,” Hebron said. “Do this for us, find Tehaksha, and we will grant you your mortality.”

“Why you’d want such a thing is beyond me,” Tehvir snorted. 

Linndan closed his eyes, taking a series of deep, even breaths before opening them again. “Suppose I agree to this. This is a goddess I’m looking for. The odds of failure are high.”

“You will be unable to leave Melphor until She is located,” Szinre said as plainly as if she were talking about the weather.

“There’s the catch,” Linndan said. He glanced at the Waypoint over his shoulder and took another deep breath. “I suppose there’s little choice in the matter. Either way, I’m stuck here.”

“That’s a pessimistic way of looking at it,” Kalhalla said.

“You’ve effectively backed me into a corner. How else am I supposed to look at it?”

“Leave him be,” Hebron said, scolding His fellow god. 

Swallowing, Linndan said, “I assume You’ve spoken with Her sons.”

“I have,” Kalhalla confirmed. “You know little of Our ways, but enough to know how… difficult the Kha’len can be. Sahalje’ran got them to talk, but They had little to say. Aquhilte is convinced They don’t know where She is, but the Shin’ho’juan are… less convinced.”

“Such is Their nature.”

“Not had much to say, but His relationship with Tehaksha has always been… tenuous at best. They haven’t had anything to do with each other in, oh, six or seven centuries.”

“I can confirm that,” Szinre said. “Not is almost as bad as Aquhilte.”

Kalhalla narrowed His eyes but made no response to Szinre’s barb in regards to His daughter.

“Do You have any suggestions?” Linndan asked.

“Hebron claims you have some measure of intelligence,” Tehvir said. “I suggest you demonstrate it.” She turned and vanished.

Szinre shook Her head. “What’s tugging Her tail today?”

“She dislikes mortals,” Kalhalla reminded Her. “She mistrusts half-breeds even more.”

“If I were you, I would look to Her priests,” Hebron said. “Tehaksha is vain. She may have dropped hints with Her favourite ones as to Her plans.”

Linndan frowned, folding his arms. “That narrows my search considerably. Unless things have changed in the last fifty years, She’s not the most popular goddess, even among the naga.” A thought occurred to him. “She has a holy site in Athros, doesn’t She?”

Szinre nodded. “That would be the one in Witesa. For some reason, though, most of her holy sites are here in Miltan.”

“I’d rather avoid the desert if possible. Nothing good ever comes of my going into one.”

“You’ll be pleased to know, then, that her nearest holy site is in Oldwatch,” Hebron supplied.

Linndan did a quick review of Miltan’s geography and sighed with relief. “That’s only a few days away from here on horseback.”

“This is why We drew you to this waypoint rather than the one in Silvestri,” said Kalhalla.

Linndan opted to not point out that he’d been aiming for this Waypoint in the first place. “I appreciate Your thoughtfulness.”

“Now that you have your task, We’ll leave you to it,” said Szinre.

“What do You want me to do should I find Her?”

“Nothing,” was Szinre’s curt reply.

“Excuse me?” he asked, confused.

“Pay Her no mind.” Kalhalla rubbed his left temple. “All we need from you is Her location. If you happen to learn any valuable information over the course of your investigation, We’ll consider that a bonus. It’s unwise for anyone to go head to head with Her save for one of Us elder gods. Find Her and We’ll come to you.”

Linndan clenched and unclenched his fists. “I won’t bother asking how, as I doubt I’ll get a straight answer.”

“It seems they can be taught after all,” Szinre drawled.

“If you have no further questions, We’ll leave this task in your capable hands,” Hebron said. The three remaining gods turned and vanished, leaving the grass around the Waypoint undisturbed, as though they’d never been there.

Well, first things first, Linndan thought, mounting up. I need a change of clothes. I can’t exactly wander around Melphor looking like I’ve stepped out of a Guerian river town.


* * *


“You’re seriously going along with this?” a muffled voice asked from inside one of his saddlebags.

Linndan reached in and pulled out the skull that nestled inside. “When the gods call, I answer.”

“You were busy,” the skull grumped. “This is rather inconsiderate of them.”

“This is my home, Ellias. Those gods are my relatives, the only real family I have left. Not that I expect you to understand.”

“That’s low.”

“You didn’t have to come with me, you know.”

“It’s not like I have many options. Until we find the rest of me, I’m helpless. What was I supposed to do? Sit on a cushion or pillar somewhere waiting for you to come back? Staying with you is as good an option as any.”

“So stop complaining or I’ll turn Xantoxu around and toss you back through the Way.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“Watch me. I might not be able to go through, but the gods said nothing about you.” Ellias made no reply. “Incidentally, you might want to keep the chatter to a minimum while we’re on Melphor.”

“If this is your unsubtle way of telling me to shut up-”

“Melphor doesn’t have anything like the Cuerge. A talking skull would scare them and draw unnecessary attention to us. My task would be harder if not outright impossible to complete. I can’t get back to your problem until I do. So, if only for pure self-interest, try not to talk around other people.”

“Your point is well made, though had you considered using my nature to your advantage?”

“What did you have in mind?”

“I talk, but I can also see and hear. If no one here expects a talking skull, they won’t expect one to be able to see and hear what they’re doing either. You could leave me  somewhere to gather information as long as you promise to pick me up after.”

“You’re offering to be a spy?”

“Why not? It gets boring in that saddlebag. If helping out gets this over with sooner, all the better.”

Linndan pondered that for a moment. “Tehaksha’s primary symbol is that of a skull. I’m sure no one would notice an extra one sitting around.”

“Just what kind of a goddess is She, anyway?”

“Melphorian gods all have colourful monikers that describe their personalities or functions. Tehaksha is known as the Soul Eater.”

“And she’s missing? How do you lose someone like that?”

“Damned if I know, Ellias. The affairs of the gods aren’t something I care to understand. I appreciate your offer of help. I’m sure it’ll come in handy.”

“Fair warning, though. I can’t promise I’ll understand everything I’m observing.”

“I doubt you’ll have any trouble understanding Ehkan. Most people around here speak that. Something about travelling through the Way lets a Sojourner understand whatever dominant language there is on any given world and for Melphor, that’s Ehkan. I imagine you’ll only have trouble with cultural context and if you run into a non-human using words from their native languages.”

“Wait, non-human?”

“I’ve told you about that before. I guess you’ll have to see it to believe it.”

“Just… get this over with so I can go home.”

Linndan put Ellias back into the saddlebag and urged his horse into a faster pace. Before long, the town of Faloress came into view. His strange, Guerian clothing drew a few stares on the road to the small house he kept in town. The modest, single story brick building was on the outer edge of town. Its location was ideal in helping him avoid drawing undue attention to himself in between trips through the waypoint. 

He tied his horse up outside and went to the door. The key slid easily into the lock and the door opened without so much as a creak. The few surfaces inside sported a fine layer of dust. The caretaker, it seemed, hadn’t been by in some time. He took the saddlebag full of strange off-world clothes into the single bedroom and emptied them into a storage box. Some of them could use a proper cleaning but there wasn’t time for such things. Perhaps on his way back to Liulge he could take the time, but not now.

A similar box contained cleaned and neatly folded clothing more suitable to Melphor. The familiar blue and green fabric of his Scholar’s tunic filled him with nostalgia. He slid the gold chain with its Quill-shaped pendant over his head and removed several changes of clothes from the box before shutting the lid. He dressed, combed his hair, and gave his face a quick shave before leaving.

“Well, my friend,” he said to his horse. “It seems we’ve got another long road ahead of us. At least this is a road I’m familiar with.”

Xantoxu’s ears perked up as Linndan guided him out of Faloress’s south gate and down Wrumevars Road, the beaten dirt track that would take them to Oldwatch.