The Departure of Manalk (a movement out of time)
In the north, just beyond the Thuresce mountains, the Light Star became veiled by dim, dusted cloud cover. A cloud-made figure, like an enormous painting of a giant creature, sprawled across the horizon, cumulus clouds thickening in behind it. Simkadans had gathered outside, watching the approaching storm restlessly. Soon, water would purge the city streets, but the storm, though a blessing for its water in this rain-lacking environment, was a concern because high speed winds endangered the istandric and kurieme trees, whose roots were shallow and more apt to fall in high winds. This was a major concern in some ways because the rampant death of any trees threatened oxygen supplies in the area.
Nadan was eavesdropping on the conversation of city warden down the street with some man from Valyna on Desa Road.
“This is a fairly sturdy istandric,” said the warden was telling a man with black-pearl eyes, a Valynan from the north. “We have it wired well to the building, and there aren’t enough capsules to protect it. But if it falls, I can pay you thirty cagmas to replant one.”
“And if more than that fall?” The man’s voice was weathered with cynicism.
“It will be a problem. We lost twenty-one istrandrics last fall, and our prijometers indicate that the oxygen depletes a half percent every dozen or so that fall dead. Once their roots pull out, there is no going back, as you know. They rarely return to full health, and most do not live.”
“In Valyna, we have oxygen creators, Ajun. We don’t have to worry much, but they are expensive. I’d like to begin trading them here eventually.”
The warden eyed him warily. Nadan knew he did not trust merchants from the northern city anymore than he trusted a penniless nomad on the desert. The odd part about the discussion was that the Valynan trader was immune to Nadan’s mind scanning, a process whereby he would read people’s thoughts and ideas, almost like on a transparent film-wave in his mind. Naturally, this intrigued Nadan and made him suspicious, and he wondered if the man was secretly walking amidst the city, keeping his identity as an ajnir secret from the rest of the others in the Othin.
Even as Nadan reflected on this, a black navkle, a bird with black and white feathers and rust-colored eyes, flew in and landed on the crimson-mud window sill of Nadan’s hut. And even as it began pecking on the frame of his dwelling and flew off, he forgot about the Valynan man and his conversation because he knew this was an omen that some calamity was about to happen.
“Are you certain of this?” asked Ranum, a friend of Nadan’s, also ajnir. He had arrived at Nadan’s hut a little while ago after Nadan had seen the omen and was there studying the Ashner, an omen book Manalk had given him from the underground metaphysical writings of the ajnir sect.
Nadan explained to his skeptical friend that an omen, as Manalk had explained to him, was not a random event amidst a realm of chaos but, more simply, a meta-influenced incident, a signal often from taktun that something was afoot when they couldn’t explain why telepathically or physically (mainly due to Unseen Laws).
“A bird of prey eating an insect to the east might be a signal from a taktun or a god you are in some danger,” said Nadan. “But a navkle like this means something terrible but not life-threatening may occur.”
“The wardens were just out here concerned about the oxygen if all the trees get knocked out by the storm,” Ranum noted, suggesting an interpretation.
“Maybe. But I think the omen was in the south, so it suggests it might relate to someone I know closely.”
Five miles away, a group of men in red uniforms made their way up a rock-littered, deserted landscape filled with intermittent kureieme trees, which lay twisted and dry on the outskirts of the Kiopic Desert. With their red Valynan helmets, which blended in with the color of the sand, they walked slowly and solemnly up the arid, writhing path that led up Zxe Mountain to the cave of Manalk. Although they looked calm, they were not. In the first time in years since the Preian War ended between Valyna and Simkada, they had not set foot on this land because the truce that ended the war forbade it. But although this fact made them anxious, it was not the sole reason for their restlessness: in truth, it derived from the source of their mission, which involved a sole man up on the mountain, who spent most of his time in meditation and silence. His meta-craft had both angered and made suspicious their leader, Sakr Ka, although they did not know why exactly. But the fact of the matter was the taktun from Kira Mandi, Manalk, was a problem for some reason they didn’t know, so big a problem that they were risking an incursion into foreign lands and maybe even starting a confrontation or even a war as a result. This angered the men, but they were more afraid of what Sakr Ka could do to them, for it was against the law to even question his authority as Military Overseer.
A few minutes later, the line of men formed outside Manalk’s cave, holding their spears of destruction in solemnity and silence. Would they meet their end here? The trees bent their shape at the entrance of the cave in the mourning, dangerous wind. They called out for a minute or so in the defiant storm air, calling for Manalk, but the mouth of the cave revealed only silence.
“We should go out and watch the storm,” said Ranum, staring moodily at the Light Star, peaking out from the layers of deep gray clouds.
Together, they moved out onto the transparent, glass balcony of Nadan’s earthen hut. Two istandrics swayed along the block, where the Valynan man was still standing, smoking some sort of isangia in a pipe. The warden had left, but he had attached two more wires to the dangerously leaning istandric across the street, with several stems jutting up into the anxious, darkening air. Nadan sat in a plastic chair at the side of his balcony, still and silent for a moment, pondering the black cumulus cloud, billowing on the northern horizon. Normally, he would have felt interested and enlivened by the experience of rain in the city, since it remained a rarity, but instead he felt agitated. He fiddled with a brown isaril bead on his neck, which Manalk had told him to wear on his neck to pacify his mind, ran his fingers through his scalp, and glanced at his time-rist band here and there.
Ranum sat at the edge of the balcony, where the slanting roof met the glass floor, where Nadan had set out wide, white basins to catch the water and was now staring into the distant, darkening sky, lost in thought. Like his friend, he was also seemed agitated but not based on his own assumptions and intuitions. He trusted Nadan’s omen reading better than his own, Nadan knew, and the sight of another flock of navkles over his head had disturbed Ranum. Nadan went back and read from the Ashner book, but he could find nothing there to decipher what the sighting could mean.
A moment later, as he walked over and was getting ready to sit next to Nadan on the sand-brick wall nearby, Nadan saw a disturbing visual image form in his remote viewing, and Ranum saw what he was seeing as well a bit, though his remote viewing had been deteriorating lately, and he could only see faint flashes of things going on but not whole incidents play out.
What they saw terrified them both.
“You are a Speaker, a Mouthpiece, not a taktun,” said Sakr Ka to Manalk, as the line of men stood outside talking and holding their spears, looking into the rain-filled skyline. One of them was absent, however, and it was their technician, a man named Orin, who sat in the cave assembling a black wheel, a tall, human-height latticed structure inside the corner of the cave with a white, ovular metal machine next to it. Here and there, the machine made soft drumming sounds that were both electric and sort of organic sounding at the same time. This was because the machine operated as both a living organism and as a machine; it had been created to work on both the soul, or astral level and at the physical level.
“I am what I am,” said Manalk, barely resisting the silver manacles on his thick, dark arms.
“I assume you are quoting Sarir: ‘I am what I am, a speck in infinity.’” Sakr was paraphrasing the line he had never read but which taktun often quoted.
“That is true, but some of the specks are more brilliant than others. They are all the same, though they each manifest differently. Some, like the Taktun, are able to identify with infinity, even though they remain a grain of sand.”
“That is an often quoted statement, so it does not prove you are one.” Sakr sighed, and sat down on the stone ledge, staring with his hawk-like eyes at the ceiling, though he kept one eye warily on the Taktun.
“I know you are doing this because you saw certain things. But I think it is also rooted in other things going on at the Wheel these days.” Manalk’s voice stayed objective, though he drooped in his chains as if he was sad about what was happening.
“You are right. We have had some incursions recently of so-called taktun feigning their abilities. It has been a common trend throughout history, though the one we had recently was all together more skillful in his guise than ever before. For now, I will not name him.”
“I am aware of him.” Even now Manalk could see the fake taktun in his mind’s eye, languidly watching the midra news network in Valyna on a couch somewhere, his charcoal black eyes barely suppressing his motives with a deep meta lock. It was deep, but not deep enough to prevent Manalk from knowing what was going on with him.
“Were you aware of this before?” whispered Nadan, in the darkness of the hut, after Ranum and he had walked inside, and as they watched the conversation between Manalk and Sakr continue.
“No. That is the part I don’t like.” Ranum was often able to see things with his remote viewing long before they transpired. A black and red skion lizard skated past and over his foot, but he didn’t notice it.
“This must be the omen. I wonder if Manalk was sending me a message, and I didn’t understand it fully. Do you think we should go up to the cave?”
“I wouldn’t recommend going closer at this point,” said Ranum.
“My metas will work better if we’re closer. I suppose I could get the soldiers to move on and do something else.”
“Did you know Manalk was in trouble with the Wheel? It is strange they are using Valynan solidiers, which are not allowed within the city gates at all.”
“I did not know the Wheel had connections with the military. That is the part I don’t like.” Nadan twirled his braided chin beard nervously and looked out at the swath of the thunderstorm, as it approached, deepening the horizon with its high, death-like, precipitous cloud formations.
Half a gyra later, both were moving quickly through the crowded streets, unable to run in a mob of people, shuffling past. The rain was now falling heavier; great vats had been pushed out into the streets to catch the fast-moving, scurrying rainfall. Lightning scourged the horizon, and thundered rolled off the Thuresce Mountains. A few minutes later, after Ranum had slipped and fallen on the wet pavement once, they were outside the towering white gates of the city and running up the slippery, mud path up the foot of Zxe Mountain. Rain water was moving swiftly down the hillside at the base of low, dome-like mountain in tiny streams and rivulets, and often they had to run on the elevated sides of the path to avoid slipping on the stones and mud. The rain began to pour, and they started running up the mountain, as the lightning wracked the earth on the mountainous slope.
In a few minutes, they reached the mouth of the cave, where Manalk lived. It was small craggy opening in the side of a cliff at the base of the mountain. The soil was sandy at the front of the cave, which allowed no vegetation to grow around the entrance, but there were small shrubs on each side of the cave’s mouth. Even as they approached, they felt a heavy energy hanging about it, repelling them away.
“I don’t feel like going further,” said Ranum, stopping in his tracks.
“Me neither,” said Nadan, strangely. He assumed this was a repelling meta, one which made you not feel like doing something, and he sat down under one of the slanting rocks angling out from the cave, and began working his own counter-repelling meta. But the phrase, uttered quietly in his mind, was abruptly stopped, even as it started, and his mind felt hesitant to go forward with it, even as he was hesitant to move closer to the cave itself. Both he and Ranum felt tired suddenly, and they wanted to both sit down. Someone was forcing them both to fall asleep with a meta, but even with his counter-meta, Nadan was powerless to prevent it. The Valynan phrase of the sleeping meta went deeper into his mind, and, in one moment before he fell unconscious, Nadan saw a black navkle fly in from the north again, with the dull, gray, black clouds of the thunderstorm reeling, wielding in behind it.
The white machine, called a trystn, which could easily move objects and beings into other places like Dinjin and many other dimensional fields, vibrated faintly in the damp air of the cave. Orin was refining it with his emaciated white hands, resting on several green, luminescent panels that told him how to oscillate the controls just enough to transmute physical protons and atoms into an astral ray, which was then reassembled as such in that Otherworld. His group, the inventers known as Y’Taal, was also studying how to reconvert that astral ray back into the same atomic structure in another location in their world, but still that was a more difficult matter altogether. Deep patterns emerged on the trystyn screen; the panel grew green, then black, then gold, and the ordometer, which quickened the path of matter transmutation, glowed red finally, signaling the Gateway was unsheathing and becoming a constant stream. Faintly yet noticeably, the portal was opening, though the general bystander would see nothing but rain or air or scenery if they walked by it; they would only feel a faint hum in their limbs and flesh, and then they would be in another world. Through his special astral lens, which he had implanted in his right eye, Orin could see the tapestry of the world dawning before him: a red sky forming like chrysalis over a black, overarching mountain, with a stream running down beside it. Orin was afraid of it, but he knew it was the only place they could send the converts from their path—the ones who walked between worlds and kept their knowledge to curtail what they had all been trying to create. And yet still he felt hesistant, and he did not know, and a line of guilt appeared in his heart.
“Walk through, and don’t look back, or they may fire at you.” Orin looked at the Taktun and saw that he was not afraid. He realized this could mean two things: either he was free of blame and a great Taktun, or he was going back to the place he liked best anyways, the Mazag, the terrible dream world of ghosts and deserted souls. That was what the Wheel of Thought now did with those they felt were converts, Walkers Back, as they referred to them. Rattling his manacles on his arms, Manalk walked forward, his brown head beaming in the stillness amidst the flickering lights of the machine, and Orin wondered if he would make a run. But he did not.
“Slower as you go through on the final step.” Orin needed to watch to make sure the transferal went smoothly, without an atomic disruption.
Manalk took another forward more slowly. His form flickered like a wave of electricity before he disappeared into the air.