Men huddled around a fire beneath the waves of vast waters. The walls were thick and the room was black save the light cast by the flames. Each member wore a robe tightly tied at their necks and sweeping to the floor. None looked at another but all focussed on the figure before them. Set behind the fire was a platform. On the platform was an alien, distorted shape and before the shape was a heavily and richly robed male. He held a thick bunch of bound leaves in one had. Dramatically the robed man threw some fine grained material into the blazes. It immediately exploded with sparks and with a roaring, hissing sound the fire turned scarlet.
A fine mist still hung over the plains several hours after sunrise. The air had a crisp, almost minty quality to it. The breeze even the water, was still, like a great breath waiting to be exhaled. Only the vast tall grasses moved. A hidden wind wound through them like a hand caressing velvet.
Abruptly, a deep, echoing tone burst through the plains and flushed out the wildlife. It seemed too deep and slow to even be a sound; it was felt more than heard. From the grasses came the wind: a strange people in a strange place but they suited each other. They carried heavy burdens at their sides. Summoned by the noise, the beings walked on two graceful legs to the lapping edge of a lake so large you couldn't see the edge of it for months of walking.
One remained in the tall grasses. He quickly jammed long stalks of purple grass blades into his sack. Suddenly, a girl's head poked through facing him.
"Averell, hurry up," she scolded. "You're holding up the group."
" Ver'Kemi- um," Averell stammered, "I'm coming."
She held the grass aside for him and he stepped out into the sunlight. The others of his group were already at the water, chatting quietly. Averell quickly squeezed the air out of his bag and sealed it tightly. He hurried to them and they all turned to the water. He ran with them through the shallow surf until he was in chin-deep. Nearly in unison, they all unfolded their large side fins and sunk into the slowly gathering waves. Their shape was reminiscent of a manta ray, but distinctly different.
Averell blinked and opened his water eyes. These were quite the opposite of his main eyes. They were pitch black and were far better suited to this watery environment. However, these were poor otherwise just as his main eyes worked well above the water and worse below. With one on each side of his broad head, his vision cleared. At either side he saw Ver'Kemi, Mavi, Leeta, Jarod, Launya, and his other classmates. He swiftly slipped into the familiar V formation with them, taking the lead.
Averell glanced back briefly to check that Ver'Kemi was just behind him. He knew that she would be. She had always been, if not behind him, just in front.
She's a strong swimmer, Averell thought with admiration.
They were deep enough now to see more of the sea life swimming in abundance. Brightly colored fish swarmed around them. They were brave and oblivious to the peril they were in if one of the bizarre sting rays swimming through them should have wanted an extra fish for dinner that night.
A low, piercing call came from just behind Averell at his right. It was Mavi.
"Let's go faster," he told Averell using the singing-clicking language, Tola'rall, reserved for communication underwater. "I don't want to be late."
Averell complied as they continued onward deeper down where the light of the sun did not reach. Soon they got their first glimpse of a large, active city. Growing throughout the sea floor were many types of corals and sponges that glowed with life. These plant-like animals grew in a magnificent natural spiraling purple and green patterns all over the city. Their biological light lit the city as well as any light post along a city street. The buildings of the city were equally strange and beautiful. They looked just as if they'd grown there, which was true. They were related to the glowing corals but only distantly. Carefully cultivated to specific designs, their rigid skeletal structures were as hard as stone. Some were grown in upward spirals; others were grown upwards on raised patterns or domed according to their use. The Zagherra were the lifeblood of the city. Their growth and care was the prime obligation of hundreds of Ro'Kerriim workers. This was Ae'Gura, the trade, governmental, and cultural center of all of Rajavin and the Ro'Kerriimese people within it.
Averell lead them to the underside of a building on a raised platform. It was a bright red jewel among other brightly colored jewels rising above the city- his learning center. Under the platform was a large portal-like entrance. Swimming up through it and onto the floor, Averell delicately folded his fins onto his back and sides just as he lifted his tail out of the entrance. Other class groups were lined up against wall with their bags at their sides. At the front of the line was a very old Ro'Kerriim. He held a piece of thin bark in one hand and scratched marks into it with the line moved steadily and soon Averell was at the front.
"Averell, a good harvest today, I hope?" asked the seasoned Ro'Kerriim.
"The spon is bountiful Sajka A'tsu," Averell politely answered, adding the Ro'Kerriimese word for a respected teacher before A'tsu's name.
"Your bag is not as filled as it could be, with a harvest so bountiful, Averell," A'tsu complained disdainfully.
"I apologize honorable Sajka," Averell replied, head bowed but gritting his teeth.
He stalked away with the added gentle swimming motion of his side fins and waited against the wall of a side hall for Ver'Kemi. She came a moment after him.
"I heard A'tsu reaming you out," she commented.
"You know A'tsu," Averell offered. "He wouldn't be pleased with anyone even if they brought the whole harvest in single-handed."
She laughed her charming laugh. Agreeing with him, she turned and beckoned to Mavi and Leeta. They came at her signal and she began to talk about the harvest and upcoming festival with Leeta. Mavi walked up to Averell.
"Hi, Averell," Mavi greeted him with his tail lowered and palms up.
"Hey, Mavi," Averell returned the greeting.
"How long is it now till the festival?" Mavi asked.
"I don't know," Averell responded. "Thirty-seven days?"
"I can't wait till harvest duty is over!" Mavi exclaimed. "If I have to listen to A'tsu telling me I should have carried a field full of spon again I'll shred my harvest bag!"
He emphasized this by making mock slashing motions in the water with the scythe-bladed tip of his tail.
"Yeah, but that means the festival is coming up," Averell replied, "and that means more work setting everything up."
"Oh, come on, Averell. That's women's work. Just chopping a little wood and picking a few flowers-"
"And shells have to be hauled up, food prepared, the flowers have to be arranged-Mavi, you don't think they're going to let us get out of it just because it's 'women's work'?"
"Yeah, those old women might even drag A'tsu into it this year! All their meddling! They keep those pretty young things locked up for hours getting all painted and bejeweled just for me, and I'd like 'em even without all the to-do."
Averell rolled his eyes and gave an impatient flick to his tail and ears.
Mavi is always like this, he told himself. Like he'd have any other girl than Leeta! Maybe even he doesn't know that.
"But I am looking forward to studying under Brilar," Mavi continued with a hint of excitement. "You're lucky, Averell. You didn't have to wait all your life to start defense training."
"It isn't as easy as that," Averell wished Mavi hadn't mentioned his training.
It was a long time ago, he thought. He didn't mean it like that and you know it.
Leeta came over just then with Ver'Kemi.
She cocked her head and raised her eyebrows, "Did I hear you say something about the festival and 'women's work' a minute ago?"
"Ooooooooh, Leeta, I was just saying how it isn't right for us to have to haul and work all day and then you girls just take your time pampering yourselves. Seeing how I am going to have such a long, hard night of dancing ahead of me, I think it's only fair I get my own little prep ti-OUCH!"
Leeta flicked her tail quickly and smashed the broad side of her blade against Mavi's foot.
"YOU couldn't get anyone to dance with you, even with Averell's lineage," she tilted her head towards Averell and he felt heat flash up his neck into his ears. "You're so ugly and lazy you're a throwback for your whole pod!"
Mavi held up his hands in defense to her barrage of abuses.
"Look, I'm sorry you feel threatened by my obvious superiority, but really, Leeta, do you have to drag my pod into it? You know us Barakim are of the best stock."
Leeta clicked quietly to Averell and Ver'Kemi, "I think someone's delusional."
"We should be heading over to culture study now," Ver'Kemi changed the subject.
"Oh, right," Mavi said, "Come on Averell."
They walked quickly down the dimly glowing hall to their next lesson.
The dinner that evening included the spon cut freshly from that day. Wrapped around fish with rich red berries and smoked over a fire, it was especially delicious. Averell sat quietly eating at his pod's hearth on the sandy beach. Unlike many of his kin he was purely white with a blue iridescence gleaming off his sides in the firelight. Most of his clan were light blue, just as a great number of the other Ro'Kerriim clans were. It wasn't all that peculiar to be white, though. Many of the clans had some strange pale young mixed in among their numbers. Averell sat silently this night as with many other nights thinking about this.
Ver'Kemi is white, too, Averell thought. I wonder why all the adopted kin are like this. I should ask Sarat.
He turned to the old woman across the fire. She had been watching him all this time.
"Grandmother Sarat?" he asked and waited for her to nod at him. "Why are all the Children of the Cousins white and all the rest of the pods are-," he subtly gestured across at the other hearths, "not?"
"Averell, it's been explained to you before," she told him with a slightly challenging gleam in her violet eyes.
"I know Grandmother, but I still get this feeling that you haven't told me everything you know yet," Averell answered with equally challenging deep blue eyes.
"I suppose it is an appropriate time for a tale," she acquiesced. "You know that our cousins lived far from here. Their waters were deep and their fish were plentiful. But they were a very strange people. Their ways were not our ways but they were still Ro'Kerriim. A long time ago the Cousins and our people were one. The white coloration was not nearly so rare as it is now. But slowly a rift grew between these white Ro'Kerriimese and the rest of us. Differences grew bigger and they felt uncomfortable among us. There was a tension, you see, Averell, a large tension and we were afraid our ways would be corrupted. They also felt this and decided to leave the collection of pods under the Council and start their own. Among our people this is known as The Great Separation. From that point on they became the Cousins and the people lost contact with them. Only the Council kept a contact with them because, after all, we are still kin."
"Grandmother," Averell interrupted, "I know all of this. I just don't know how it came to be that we are together again."
"Be patient," she scolded and continued. "Their ways grew still different from us with our segregation. And so, perhaps it is the will of the Old Lords that they would fall. In alienating the Council and Pods the cousins denied Them and they fell out of favor."
She left a dramatic pause only filled with the crackling of the dying fire.
"And then?" Averell anxiously whispered.
"And then came the year of tragedies. The spon failed that year and the fish were sickly. The Council was worried that we had dishonored the Old Lords, but it was soon learned who had really done the misdeed. A tremendous earthquake shook the land. It was not so great here, but we knew that it came from our Cousin's land. Many were worried. Some wanted to go and help our old kin but others thought that it would anger the Old Ones more. In the end the Council decided that we must help our cousins and they sent teams of rescuers to the unknown territory. But-" she said sadly with some hidden painful memory, "we were too late. The team searched the ruins of a vast city, even bigger than Ae'Gura, Averell, that is how big it was. Many of the structures were considered unsafe to enter but they found one that they could search. Still I remember how they described it when they returned. The rescue teams told of strange, great shells and giant bubbles as hard as the Zagherra. In the building they searched was a peculiar sight. There was air in there. The rescue teams were startled when they discovered this. They thought it must be a work of the Old Ones- a sign that this place must be searched. Inside, hundreds of children were held in turned over carriers crying around their dead caretakers. The rescue crew gathered as many as could be carried and started back to Ae'Gura. More would come now that the building had been discovered. But...when they got back the building had collapsed with still many children inside. Such an enormous grieving took place after that. We carried the pain with us. I have never heard Ae'Gura so silent before and never will again but we were also happy. We had saved some. The line of white Ro'Kerriimese would go on, cleansed by the Old Ones to return to us."
Averell questioned, "But why would you accept us after that- earthquake and all the disasters?"
"Oh, Averell, after that it was like the test was over. The fish got better, the spon grew back and we still enjoy such plenty. You were about one at the time," she paused, reflecting. "We had even been twice blessed. It was discovered when the question of where to put the children came up that at least one old tradition had remained among the cousins- and you know what that is?"
"The pod marks?" Averell guessed and touched the scar at the end of his tail.
"Yes, they had retained the wisdom of the pod signs. We were surprised to find that so many of the children carried familiar pod markings. We knew their direct family ties, even from so long ago. That's how we came to have you, Averell. You bore the Natari mark," Granmother Sarat said and tapped her own mark. "Even those that did not have familiar marks had a place made for them among the accepting pods. They were even good luck."
"So, I really am related to this pod?"
"You were raised by us, and your blood is true anyway, Averell," she smiled. "You even carry a few of our family traits- quite amazing even though we were divided for so many, many generations."
"It's good to know our blood runs strong."
"Yes, it is."
They put the fires out. Averell swam back with his pod to Ae'Gura deep beneath the waves .
Averell opened his eyes in the mild glow of his room. Taking a deep breath he righted himself in the water. It was early yet, few would be up. Quietly, he swam through the broad hall of his home and out the entrance into the open water. Following the seabed up he broke the surface a few hundred feet from the shoreline. A ghostly fog had settled in over night and Averell couldn't see the spon or trees beyond the shore.
Expelling the remaining water from his system, he gasped in the fresh air. Swiftly he swam into the shore, skipping above and beneath the water and gulping at the air midflight. He folded his fins against his sides as he stepped onto the sandy shore. Gradually, his fins shrunk down to a manageable size. Averell walked past the beach into the tall, cool spon. He caught the shine of luminous fraeli insects buzzing through the fields.
It's so nice out here in the morning, he thought.
Just to feel the spon and air flow against his skin he ran through the field till he was out of breath at the edge of it. He stretched out a hand and stepped forward. Abruptly he walked into a tree.
Ow, he thought. Stupid fog.
But he'd thought he had heard something. Walking carefully forward through the tall trees with both arms probing, he followed the sound. It seemed far away and he walked slowly for a long time with only the fraeli for company before he reached it. It was a song, a wordless song. Slow and achingly beautiful in the still-dark morning, it felt almost supernatural to Averell. He pushed through the foliage and enormous trees into a clearing. Hidden in the fog, he crept along slowly. Averell neared a large rock and the song grew stronger. He saw a figure shimmering in the departing moonlight. It was perched atop the rock. Walking carefully not to disturb a single blade of short grass, he came as close as he dared. For a fleeting second, a fraeli flew past and lit up the figure's face.
Ver'Kemi! Averell exclaimed to himself and backstepped.
She had woven wreaths of flowers and was wearing them around her head, wrists and ankles. Hugging her knees, the fraeli glowed about her as she seranaded the dark. Averell could see the breath coming quickly from her mouth.
Suddenly, as if she knew someone was there, Ver'Kemi swung around and looked in Averell's direction. Feeling as if he'd rudely barged in on something, Averell turned-tail and ran back through the woods, terrified inexplicably that she'd seen him. he ran until the land ran out at the Edge. Fatigued, he leaned his weight against it. Slowly, Averell slid down against the Edge until he was sitting on the cool dirt. He began to think, sitting here at the Edge, of where he must be.
Let's see, he thought, I was at the meadow, and then there was Ver'Kemi- which way did I run? It will take forever to get back and they'll know I was gone by then and so will Ver'Kemi. It's still too dark to find my way out now. I'll just have to wait till the sun comes up.
Averell ran his hand quietly up and down the smooth surface of the Edge as he was watching the glowing Fraeli flit to-and-fro. Sneakily, as thoughts tend to be in silence, he began to think about the Edge and his lessons under A'tsu and old Grandmother Sarat.
I wonder what it really is, Averell asked himself. The old stories about the Creation seem so- I don't know. How does it go again? Oh, yes, "The Old Lords wanted to make a masterpiece and each would contribute of themselves to make it. Verna, Lord of air, made the winds and Ces'na, Lord of the Earth, made the land. Gra, Lord of water, made the sea, rivers, and ponds. Faeght, Lord of the skies, made all heavenly bodies. These Old Lords together created the Gifts of Weather and Change- which were also punishments. But one Old Lord, Sara Venya, had not yet contributed and so the masterpiece was not yet complete."
Averell paused to idely tear at some grass and scatter it in the air. He couldn't see it fall but he knew it had. Then he continued, "He thought for a great time as he looked down upon the chaotic gifts of the other Old Lords. After eons of time, Sara Venya came to a decision. He first gave order to the gifts. Water would flow according to his laws, and all other gifts would be bound by rules only breakable by the Old Lords. Then the Old Lords finished creating their world. They bounded it on every side with the Edge. The world was now a great bubble floating in the endlessness of the seas of the Old Lords. The Edge ended all existence and was constant proof of their might. Looking at this Sara Venya was still Sara Venya knew. He and the other Old Lords took from all the gifts. From far away star, rushing waters, flying winds, and red earth they created Life. And from that life they made the greatest of their creatures- the Ro'Kerriim. These creatures they set upon on the lands, in the skies, and under the seas to live and the Old Lords saw that this was their masterwork. It would change and develop- which was the only way it could be their ever- ongoing masterpeice. So, the Lords stepped back and watched. They governed their work and dealt punishment as well as reward to the Ro'Kerriim and so it is today." Such a long story. I hated memorizing it for A'tsu but Granmother Sarat was pleased enough. So I guess we have to know.
The sun was beginning to shine down enough through the trees for Averell to see. He stood up to leave and froze. Watching the fraeli closely, he saw them pass through the Edge just a foot from where he'd been sitting. Paralyzed he watched them skirt out, and more fly back in. What was this- a sign?
This can't be! Averell mentally screamed and willed his legs to move.
Horrified, he ran straight back through the woods, now sure of where he was. The braches of low shrubs sut at his arms and legs but he took no notice. At last he ran free into the soft spon. Not stopping, Averell ran through it until he finally broke into the glaring early morning. He collapsed at the beach and prayed someone would find him.