Gods of the Flame Sea Excerpt

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“…Not everyone is suited to be a warrior,”  Krue stated.  Rising, he approached the two combattants.  The scales of his golden faeshiin armor scraped and clattered softly, almost musically against each piece when he shifted upright, but once vertial, he moved so smoothly, his armor made no sound.  “Not everyone can stomach the necessities of countering violence with violence, or the demands of war.”

Nadj, pulling free of the Death Lord’s embrace, sniffed and tried to hold himself upright.  Tried to look strong despite his trembling.  He could not, however, look up enough to meet thos ice-lemon eyes.  He had the light gold eyes and golden curls of someone with partial Fae blood, the brown skin and muscles of his human side, but at that moment, none of the grace that often came with that combination of lineages.  Not when he trembled so hard, he shook between sniffing breaths.

Krue-taje stopped to Nadj’s right, flanking him across from Ban-taje.  “Nadj.  There is no shame in not being a warrior at heart.  This is why we practice upon Ban, with his permission.  Killing changes a person.  In someone who is good at heart, this is a painful lesson, because it changes the warrior, leaving unpleasant memories in the wake of each fight.  And many who think they can take another life often only encounter that choice, and its cost, in the midst of actual peril.  Those who freeze or refuse are often cut down by the ones they fight.

“But with the aid of Ban, you have the chance to see what you are made of without permanently ending another’s life. You have not actually killed anyone,”  the Fae Gh’vin soothed.  “He is clearly alive and unharmed, no matter what we do to him.  No permanent damage has been done.  If you wish…you may retire from your obligations as our student.

“You will, however, continue to practice with your bow and your sling, your spear and your knife.  You have shown no hesitancy in killing animals, whether wild or domesticated,”  Krue added.  “You will still be expected to stand guard-watch over the valleys when your time in the rotation comes nigh.

“Now, go sit with the others, and accept comfort from them,”  the Fae stated, lifting his chin a little.  Unlike most of his kind, his hair did not flow down his back; even Ban had longer hair than his.  Though to be fair, Ban’s straight, black, waist-length locks had been reset alongside every scrap of skin and drop of his blood.  “You are not yet dismissed.  You still did well, despite your misgivings and hesitations.  Sit among them, accept comfort, and ponder whether or not you are suited to become a warrior of the Flame Sea.

“If your answer upon reflection is no, there will be no reprisals.  If your answer is yes, your training will continue.  Either way,”  Krue offered,  “I will always remain available to listen to your concerns and your fears.  I, too, once struggled with the rightness versus wrongness of ending another being’s life.”

Nadj sniffed and frowned at that.  He blinked, confused, before blurting out a question.  “Then why do you do it?”

“Because if the only people who know how to fight and harm and kill other people are the ones who enjoy fighting and harming and killing, then no one will be able to stop them.  Beings who are good must sometimes take up unpleasant duties in order to save the lives of others,”  Krue instructed.  “Evil people often think their cause is good and right and just…but Evil will always be quick to blame and quick to judge.  Evil is reluctant to help, loathe to give without getting in return.”

A faint scrape and slap of footsteps on stone pulled Ban’s gaze off toward the risers.  Or rather, to one of the tunnels under the arcs of seating rising up from the dais where they stood.  A shadow, elongated from the daylight beyond, bobbed and wove as its owner walked into the theater.

“A-And good?”  Nadj asked, sniffing and rubbing his nose on his forearm.

“Good is quick to help others, even without recompense,”  Seda instructed.  Like Nadj, she had the golden hair of her mother’s father, Éfan-taje, though she bore the green eyes and paler, merely suntanned skin of her paternal grandmother kin.  She wore fitted bits of oil-hardened leather for armor over clearly muscled limbs, in her prime despite having given birth to five children so far.  “Good is slow to judge without solid evidence.”

“Ah, yes, the morality of the Fae,”  a tenor male voice drawled, palpably amused.  “Good is such-and-such, and evil is so-and-so, and the choice between the two is quite clear…”

Nadj bristled, turning to frown at the red-haired speaker.  “The choice is clear between the two!”

‘Of course!”  Udrin exclaimed, touching his spread hand to his chest, still clad in the finespun linen his sire’s kin were able to import from other realms.  “Isn’t that just what I said?  I just said that,”  the Dai-Efrijt drawled, flicking his other hand outward.  The gesture was Fae, the words in their letter were in agreement…but that tone, drawled just so, subtl mocked those words in their spirit.  “I swear, half the time no one ever listens to me.  Well, Krue-taje, I am here to report to you for fighting practice.”

“You’re early,”  Krue replied, his expression a calm mask.

Udrin flipped his hand again, and shifted over to sit on the lowest tier of curved benches.  “Then I shall watch.  What is today’s lesson, anyway?”

“We…we had to kill Ban,”  Nadj admitted, strengthening his voice.  “It…wasn’t easy.”

“Oh, nonsense,”  Udrin dismissed, arm twitching.  He fluttered it in dismissal, humming an odd little tune, then gestured.  “Anybody can kill Ban-taje.  The trick is making him stay dead.”  Tilting his head, Udrin studied the tall, tattoo-covered male speculatively.  “I do admit that—theoretically, of course—it would be fascinating to try each possible method, experimenting in a methodical, carefully recorded manner.  Perhaps a way could be found then?”

“Longer-lived beings than you have tried, and failed,”  Ban stated flatly.  “They always fail…and I always ensure they never start again, once I get annoyed.”

The red-haired youth twitched his hand again, then danced his legs a little, lifting and lowering his knees.  “Yes, yes, whateve—”

“Udrin!”  Krue snapped, cutting him off.  “Be respectful.  Watch in silence, or leave.  This is not your study hour.”

“…Of course, Krue-taje,”  the redhead amended, bowing slightly.  “I will be quiet now.”

Krue didn’t sigh or roll his eyes, or show any other sign of impatience.  He did let his gaze linger a moment on the teenaged newcomer, then turned back to the curly-haired youth.  “Take your place among the others, Nadj, and remember my words.  We will now continue the remainder of today’s lesson with a point-by-point dissection of Nadj’s fight against Ban.”

A flick of the Fae’s hand, and a quintet of shimmering anima-spheres arrowed down from overhead.  They morphed even as they descended, shaped by the warrior’s will.  Two formed the slender, muscular form of Nadj, transluscent enough that the rest of the theater-liked auditorium could be seen through his body.  The other three transformed into an equally semi-substantial copy of Ban-taje.

Moving away from the images, which bowed to each other and took up their starting positions, Ban caught Krue’s gaze and subtly tilted his head off to one side.  An equally subtle nod gave him permission to retreat, his services no longer needed.

Jumping off the stage, Ban walked past the Dai-Efrijt and down the corridor leading to outside.  With the braziers crackling inside, providing light, the air flowed from the interior of the cavern-carved theater to the outside, where the cool air of the overcast day provided a pressure differential.  Only fifty or so people were within view in the broad valley, roughly half of them visitors, some with herd animals for trade, others with goods brought from all over.

If they were not visitors or the occasional seller of goods, they were busy tending to the planting and weeding of the many irrigation-fed planting boxes that had turned the city into a green oasis.  The rest of the locals worked in the fields at this time of year, lending plenty of hands to the tending of all the crops that would eventually feed the ever-growing population of the Flame Sea Tribe.  Only in late spring, once the late rains had ceased, would there be leisure, until the height of the harvest in low summer.

It was an excellent time of year to travel.  For desert dwellers from just a few weeks of travel beyond the cayons, ravines, and wadijt here in the heart of the great dune desert, they could come and go at any point between early spring and low summer without fear of broiling heat or flash floods.  Most came from within the boundaries of the desert region, from the two mountain ranges to the north and south, and the two vast seas to the east and the west.

Those who came from the mountains to the south carried wood from those forested slopes.  A few even brought ice chipped from the high, cold mountains in winter, packed in furs for insulation and kept stable with anima-forces so that nothing would melt.  From the north, locally, they brought linen from the flax fields of the lower lands and silk from the caterpillars that ate the trees growing in those upper hills.  Already, the people of Ijesh were calling the south mountains the Frost Wall for how cold visitors swore it stayed even in summer, and the north mountains the Cloth Wall, for the textiles woven there.

The locals had learned over the decades that the Flame Sea Tribe was far more profitable to trade with than to raid.  They came and went all year, save for the worst of winter and the hottest days of summer.  For the far-distant travelers, curiosity seekers and exotic goods traders, this was the season either to arrive, or to pack up and head for home, with the traders either spending the winter or spending the summer here in the valleys and canyons of Ijesh.  They spent months coming this far, and spent more months going home, bringing pack animals and helpers to carry and defend the many goods they traded.

The easiest to spot of the outlanders were the peoples of the Ebrinnish jungles, swamps, and savannahs beyond the northern mountains.  Their wooly black hair and charcoal brown complexions were often coupled with brightly dyed leather and cloth decorated with ivory beads that gleamed in the sun, echoing the pale pearls of their teeth.  They brought exotic herbs, hammered silver objects, ivory for carving, plenty of jars and waxed packets of dye.  A few even brought strange, brightly-hued birds with fat beaks that could even squawk a few words.

In contrast, the southlanders were harder to spot, at least in the springtime.  Fair hair was not uncommon among the Flame Sea tribal members, thanks to the constant intermingling of Fae blood, but the locals almost always came with natural deep tans.  Those who had paler complexions hailed from the southern lands beyond the glacial mountains, marking them as outsiders…but even those who had only just arrived had been browned at least a little bit by the sun as they crossed the weeks’ worth of desert from oasis to oasis, meandering their way northward.

They brought leathers and furs for trade, gemstones and herbs, shipments of ice, and shipments of pottery crafted from better clay than anything locally made.  Often times, those thick furs they hauled around were simply the padding used to protect the fine pots and goblets, plates and jars.  Ban knew that if they could not sell the furs here—and often, they could not—they simply used the the things to wrap up whatever they got in trade for their other goods, and carried it back home again.

Most of them had originally heard of the wonders of the Flame Sea from Ban himself.  Or well, not these exact traders, usually, but often a neighbor, a relative…an ancestor.  But he did see one fellow within range whom he did know, and who looked a bit upset.  A tall Ebrinnish fellow from the savannahs of this world’s Sun’s Belt, he looked a bit upset as he wrapped up some of the finely glazed southlander pottery he had apparently just bought from a group of paler than usual blonds.  The others in his trading group were busy packing up some of the goods that had been bought, but they carefully avoided their leader’s gaze.

Seeing the other man stopping to press his palm against his brow, then heaving a visibly heavy sigh, Ban strode that way.  “Yusef,”  he called quietly when he drew near.  He spoke in the dialect of Ebrin-lon that the trader knew.  “Is something wrong?”

The middle-aged trader barely even looked at him.  Instead, he flipped his hand at a basket filled with pottery shards, glazed in the rare seafoam green shade that the southlanders called celandon.  “I traded two zebraskins and an ell’s wort of ivory for a full set, and that…that boy got me so angry, I broke the ewer that went with the set!  And the south-men will not replace it, since it was unique, and I have nothing to trade to buy anything else!  …I was going to give that to my son, so he could impress the family of his mate,”  he added, his tone tipping into quiet despair.  “I still have all the plates, but…”

“Which boy?”  Ban asked, since Yusef had come with fourteen others in his caravan last autumn, including six who could qualify for that label.

“The rust-haired one!  That…that demon of smug insults!” He flapped his hand in the direction of the auditorium entrance, with its deep, pillar-strewn walkway and upper balcony following the bulging curve of the cliffside.  “He went off that way.”

Ban narrowed his gaze.  “Udrin insulted you?  How?”

“He stared at us!”  Yusef accused.

Nonplussed, Ban blinked.  “He…stared.”

“Yes!  Like he was debating whether or not to step on a bug—I have been the recipient of many stares in my four dozen years, but rarely one as insulting as that,”  the trader added, shaking his finger.  “And then he laughed, and said something about ‘reshaping’ us so we’d ‘look better next time’ or something—whatever that meant!”

Again, Ban could only blink.  That was an odd thing for anyone to say, but…not entirely insulting.  “…Anything else?”

“Yes.  He twitched, stumbled, and almost hit Matouf,”  Yusef told Ban, gesturing at one of the younger boys in his expedition.  “He turned it into a dance, but his caperings nearly hit us again.  So I turned on him and yelled at him to go away, and he said that he would reshape me with ‘no mouth!’  No mouth!”  Gesturing at his face with both hands, Yusef demanded,  “Who tells an elder that he deserves to have no mouth?”

“I…have no idea,”  Ban admitted warily.  He believed Yusef, but could not think of a reason why Udrin would say such a strange thing.  “How exactly did the ewer break?”

Yusef winced a little.  He gestured slightly, confessing,  “I ordered him to go away, and…I swept my arm out too far, and knocked it into Jasef, who had just picked it up.  And now…now it is broken, and I have no replacement.  Look at the sculpting!”  he added, stooping and picking up a shard from the basket.  From the look of the piece, the ewer had been covered in finely shaped roses, detailed even to the hint of veins on the curved, green-glazed petals.  “An ell of ivory, wasted!”

It truly was well-made, even broken as it was.  Ban glanced over at the southland traders.  While a few met his gaze in silent sympathy for the gesturing, upset northlander, their leader merely shrugged, silently saying there was nothing she could do about the broken pottery.

A hundred years ago, Ban would not have cared.  Even fifty, he would not have stirred.  But the decades spent among the Fae in this land had healed most of the centuries of abuse he had suffered elsewhere.  So instead of shrugging it off, he said,  “I will ask Éfan if he can fix it for you.”

Yusef blinked at the offer.  “Éfan-taje, the Lord of all Animadjet?  You would ask him?  Do you really think he would stir himself for such a small thing?”

“I have seen him fix worse,”  Ban admitted.  “Or perhaps Kaife, or Zedren.”

“Oh, Zedren-taje!  Yes, that would be his thing far more than the Taje Animadjet.  He is the Lord of Crafters,”  Yusef stated, looking relieved, then a little worried.  “But, it is such a small thing.  Should we bother him?”

Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Ban pointed at the basket.  “Are all of the pieces inside?”

“Even the tiniest fragments, Lord of Death,”  one of the youths stated.  Jasef, if Ban remembered right.  His next words confirmed his identity.  “I picked all of them up so that the shards would not cut anyone’s feet.”

“Then I will take it and go find one of the Fae, to see if they can fix it,”  Ban stated.

Deeply grateful, Yusef nodded and flapped his hand at the teenager.  Jasef quickly stooped and lifted the basket, handing it over.  From the size of the shards, it would have been a rather large ewer, enough to pour out two dozen drinks, if not more.  Nodding, Ban took the basket with him, walking across the plaza toward the recessed, carved entrance to the Animadjet Hall.

The Fae had come a long way in their understanding of the local magical energies, and how those energies interacted in particular with themselves.  They no longer stole all the available magic every time they wielded a spell.  The best analogy Éfan had come up with over the years was one that stuck out in Ban’s memory.  We are like grand artists of vast, chamber-zied murals who have learned to recreate our masterpieces on the sides of dried lentils.

An apt analogy.  The newest members of the pantean, the group of Fae who had been sent to investigate this world for trade opportunities, had taken over a year to refine their grasp, but only because the original wave had spent several years figuring out how.  Something like Yusef’s expensive ewer would not be a problem of energy for any Fae asked to repair it.  Skill, however, had to be considered.

Zedren-taje, respected for his skill in various crafting arts, was in the workshop wing attached to the cliff-dug complex meant for training and housing visiting animadjet.  However, the pale-eyed Fae looked to be completely wrapped up in his task of examining stem to stern the airboat that had brought Udrin home from his father’s kin.  Several pieces actually lay on the stone floor of his workshop hangar.  Deciding to seek someone else, Ban wandered through the halls, some lit by oil lamps, some lit by transom-style openings high on the walls, guiding in bits of light from outside.

Eventually, he found Éfan visiting with their mutual human friend, Zuki.  Seventy-nine and completely white-haired, she was not the eldest member of the tribe.  Two others had seniority, age-wise, Lutun—whom Ban had almost killed, way back at their first meeting—and Grandmother Siffu, unspoken matriarch of the tribe, and personal headache for the Fae.

Zuki was not one to see the Fae as godly beings worthy of covert worship, thankfully.  The animadj had a clear, thoughtful view of life, a sharp intellect that did not shy at questioning everythings he saw, and a peculiar fondless for the Lord of Death.  A fondness he returned, by setting the basket on a nearby table as she broke off her conversation with her other visitor, so that he could go straight to her side to stoop and kiss her age-weathered cheek.

He would lose her, soon—he always lost everyone, cursed as he was—but Ban would remember Zuki.  Some of the cultures he had encountered, both here and in other universes, they believed that so long as a person was remembered, they would live forever.  Whether that was by a person who had actually met them, or through the writings and objects they left behind, they could be remembered.  He needed to remember the good ones, and struggled to forget the bad.  There were, unfortunately, a lot of evil beings in his past.

“Ban, my friend,”  Zuki murmured, reaching up to cup his cheek with her hand, before turning to kiss his own.  “How was the trial of courage?”

“Most will survive it,”  he told her, crouching on the balls of his feet.  Tall as he was, that only put his head a little below hers.  “Young Nadj might drop out.”

“Pity,”  she sighed.  “His grandmother was very brave.”

“Not everyone is suited to such things,”  Éfan stated.  He slanted a wry look at Ban with his honey gold eyes.  “Jintaya certainly isn’t.”

“Ha!”  Zuki laughed, a sharp bark followed by a bit of coughing.  She waved off Ban’s concerned touch on her arm.  “…Don’t mind me.  I choked on some water earlier.  It’s still plaguing my lungs.  So, what gift did you bring me in that basket, hmm?”

“Not a gift, but a problem.  For Éfan,”  Ban stated.  The Fae immediately rose and crossed to the basket, peering inside while Ban explained.  “A trader from the northlands, Yusef, accidentally caused a very expensive piece of pottery to break…after being insulted by Udrin.”

Zuki narrowed her hazel eyes, intellect sharpening.  “Every time he comes back from the Efrijt-lands, he is worse.  I have never approved of him being raised by them.”

“We could hardly keep him to ourselves, Zuki,”  Éfan chided gently.  “Since we had no way to reinforce our rights to govern access to this world—and still do not—the only way we could get the Efrijt to heed our demands was to give them a chance at gaining control.”

“They may have doors to other realms,”  the elderly animadj dismissed, familiar by now of how the Fae and the Efrijt and even Ban—human though he technically was—came from other dimensions.  “But they do not have the power you have.  You could toss them through their doorways like sacks of grain without raising a single bead of sweat.”

“True, but that would be counterproductive,”  Éfan reminded her.  “They could choose to bring through an army of heavily equipped thousands…and even Ban would find such numbers difficult to defeat, when coupled with their machines and what little magic they can access in this realm.”

“He has a point,”  Ban admitted.  “I am only one man, and I can be stopped, even if only for a time…but I can be stopped more than once along the way”

Éfan, reaching into the basket, chuckled.  “Yes.  Like that boulder that dropped on you, just before you found the Efrijt had arrived.”

Rolling his eyes, Ban grunted, “Do not remind me.  And it was just the one.”

Zuki chuckled, only to cough again.  “Too late,”  she rasped, grinning.  Reaching up, she pulled the tattooed man close enough to press a smacking kiss to his brow.  “I have earned the right to be able to laugh at everything.  My wrinkles give it to me.”

“Poor Ban,”  Éfan sighed.  “Forever juniormost in face…and…  There.  One fully repaired, good-as-new piece of pottery.” He withdrew his hand from the basket, which now had a tall, ornately decorated, pale bluish-green pitcher sticking up out of its depths.  “No cracks…and imbued with a resiliency spell that will see it, at least, safely on its way for the next one hundred days.”

“It may take Yusef that long to get home,”  Ban warned.  “They may be used to more year-round heat than we get, but if I remember right, their caravan leaves in two days so that they can cross the desert before it becomes too dry.”

“So long as this Yusef fellow does not delay his trip, or get excessively angry again, the pot should survive,”  the chief mage of the pantean stated.  “And, of course, so long as some animadj doesn’t try to siphon the anima out of it.  The pottery won’t re-break, but it will resume being brittle.”

“The problem lies with Udrin,”  Ban stated, standing up so he could stretch out his long, crouched legs.  “Apparently he made some comment about ‘reshaping’ Yusef to have no mouth, when Yusef ordered him to get away from his caravan members.”

Éfan frowned.  “That’s odd…”

“I keep telling you, the boy should have been raised by humans—and I don’t care that he’s Dai-Fae or Dai-Efrijt!”  Zuki asserted irritably.  “He’s gauging the fate of our world, the world of us humans.  He should’ve been raised to know and respect our values!”

“He was in part,”  Efan murmured, distracted.

The elderly animadj snorted.  “You know as well as I do,”  she stated, grunting as she heaved herself to her feet,  “that the Efrijt wanted to warp him from childhood to obey their ways…thank you, Ban,”  she added when the tattooed outworlder handed her the cane resting on the floor by her chair.  Even with Jintaya giving her healing energies, the human was simply old, and her knees no longer quite so forgiving.  She moved over to the table to examine the ewer.  “Raise him to understand and appreciate the humans whose fate he will decide.  That’s where you both went wrong.

“I’ve said it to you, and I’ve said it to that Sejo Zakal lady when she came visiting last,”  Zuki asserted.  “This is our world, and our resources.  We should decide who gets to use them…and that is indeed a gorgeous vase.  Well worth every drop of animadjic you spent on it.  Speaking of which,”  she continued, leveling a stern look at her superior in magic,  “when was the last time you ate anything?  That is, anything other than anima?”

Tipping his head back with an eye-rolling sigh, Éfan rolled it around to loosen his neck muscles before answering, his wheat-gold, thigh-length hair sliding along his golden robes.  “…Seven…no, eight days.  And I do plan to eat.”

“Tonight?”  Zuki prodded, not at all fooled by the vague promise.

Éfan rolled his eyes again, then turned those honey irises on Ban.  He sighed.  “I cannot even rely upon you for support in this argument, can I?”

“Only the second wave of Fae still feel the pangs of hunger, though it’s been twenty years,”  Ban told him.  “And they only feel it once in a while.  But that does not mean you do not hunger.”

Opening his mouth to say more, Éfan flinched when the elderly animadjet woman poked his shin with the tip of her walking stick.  Huffing, he gave both of them a dirty look.  “Fine.  I shall go find something to eat now.”

“Good boy,”  Zuki chuckled, as if she had more years to her than Éfan’s three and a half centuries.  She watched the Fae leave the balcony for a omment, then turned to Ban and lifted her free arm in invitation.

He leaned in for a brief hug, sharing it with one of his own arms, and even kissed her cheek, and even got one in return.

“You’re a good boy, too, Ban.  I will see you for supper tomorrow.”

“Of course.  Zuki…is there anything you think we can do about Udrin now?”  he asked, unsettled by Yusef’s revelations.  The boy had been getting rather odd in the last few years.

“Rather than complain about the improper raising of his past?”  she asked.  Thinking a few moments, she finally sighed and shrugged, bracing both hands on the top of her cane.  “I don’t know.  It would take a shock to his system to open his eyes, at this stage.  I fear he has been so spoiled and petted and indulged by the Efrijt that he will side with them, and they will take that as impunity to exploit our world and our kind in perpetuity.”

“They are only gaining the right to trade freely,”  Ban told her.  “At least, according to everything Kefer and his assistant Jinji have bartered out of their Medjant leadership.  They are not gaining the right to resource thievery.”

“You pare your words thinner than an onion skin, trying to cling to the hope they will behave,”  she groused.  “I wanted you to regain some capacity for trust over the last six-plus decades, not turn utterly naïve, Ban.”

“I haven’t turned naïve,”  he countered calmly.  “I am still watching to see if Udrin or the Efrijt break their word in any way.  I am simply…hoping…that they do not.”

A single chuckle escaped her, along with a wry twist of her tanned, age-seamed lips.  “Take up your basket and its ewer, and return it to your friend.  I need to go relieve myself before I’m due to give my last lecture of the day.”

Bowing his head, Ban picked up Yusef’s belongings.  He hesitated, though.  “Zuki, do you have any other thoughts on Udrin’s nature?  You see with more clarity than most.”

Zuki hesitated, frowning in thought, then shook her head slowly.  Her bone-beaded headband didn’t even sway, she moved it so gently.  “Not pleasant ones.  His arrogance could simply be the petted and spoiled kind.  But…it could also be the over-indulged to the point of purified arrogance kind.  If he believes himself superior to both sides of his heritage…he may try to set things up so they benefit him the most.”

“If Udrin has been paying enough attention, he should have realized by now that the Efrijt are ruthless in punishing infractions against their rules,”  Ban murmured.  “They will only indulge him in every way until they have a ruling in their favor.  Then the spoiling will stop.  They seek to use him, and will not react well to being used.”

That made her bare her teeth in a grimace.  “Not a wise raising at all,”  the animadj muttered.  “He has a great deal of power.  Almost Fae-strength, in fact.  Far stronger than his Efrijt heritage would imply.

“The Efrijt might continue to indulge him somewhat, so they can call upon his ability to wield the anima in this realm for them, but they would still insist on running things their way,”  she reminded the tall male.  “If he gets it into his head to pick his own path…we may want to pray to our ancestors for help in dealing with whatever that boy concocts.  I fear if he does have plans that neither side will like, they will not be good.”

Ban’s instincts for danger sharpened.  “What suggests that?”

“The idea of ‘reshaping’ your friend so he has no mouth,”  Zuki told him, lifting her chin at the ewer in the basket.  This time, her bone-fringed headdress, mark of a senior animadj, clattered softly at the sharp movement.  “Flesh-shaping is difficult for non-healers.  This is wise, as those who have an affinity for healing anima often feel compelled to use it wisely and carefully.  They feel an inner urge to heal, rather than to harm.  Not always, but thankfully most of the time.

“As it is, flesh-crafting requires a great deal of power even for those who are attuned to its ways.  Udrin does not have much of a healing urge within in him.  Not enough to have the accompanying, insistent urges for compassion and empathy for others.”  She shook her head again.  “I would rather hope he’s simply a spoiled brat, than to think of him arrogant enough to try flesh-crafting.  He is strong, so he might be tempted, but such things often go wrong the first several tries, if it is not guided by the instinct and the need.”

“Aside from being…twitchy,”  Ban summed up,  “he doesn’t seem malformed in any way.”

She slanted him a chiding look, teacher to pupil.  “Your animadjic was never the same as ours.  It is also fully trained, since you tap into your own personal anima almost exclusively, unless you make an effort to tap into the world’s.  You didn’t need to learn the advanced lessons in what can and cannot be safely done.  Smart experimenters first practice flesh-crafting on insects and small animals, not on themselves.  Whatever he is, and whatever he may become, young Udrin is not stupid.”

Ban considered her warning carefully.  “…Do you think I should search for signs of flesh-crafting in the animals around him?”

“Yes.”  Her answer was blunt.  “If only to be sure he isn’t tormenting creatures.  But I can guarantee it will not have happened here in the Flame Sea.  Jintaya and Rua both would have sensed it, and been offended by it.  His mother, Muan, would have stumbled across it, and been shamed by it.  Éfan would be outraged by it.  His other kin…”

“If they allowed it, then it would have been a dangerous indulgence.  I will go looking for such signs.  In a little bit,”  Ban stated.  “Not immediately.  I need to discuss this concern with Jintaya and the others.  I do not think he would have bothered to threaten such a thing if if it wasn’t something that had crossed his mind already.  Which means he has not only thought about it, but quite possibly practiced it as well—or if not practiced it yet, he will practice it soon.”

“Exactly.”  She poked him in the calf with her walking stick.  “Go on, get moving.  I still need to relieve myself, and neither I nor the day are getting any younger. Unlike you, with each reset…and it is a pity about Nadj.  I do hope he finds some inner strength,”  Zuki stated as they once again headed toward the doorway off the covered balcony where she liked to sit and watch the people in the valley below.  “But if not, then I hope he finds a task he both enjoys and can stomach.  Fighting is not for the weak-willed.”

“So do I,”  Ban agreed absently, his mind more on Udrin than on Nadj.  “Not everyone is suited for what they think they should be.  It’s better to find out earlier on what to do about it, than when it’s too late.”

Zuki gave him a sharp look, but kept moving.

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