Arthur ran like the boy of years long past, and like that boy he was headed for a bright and innocent adventure.
A taleweaver, here in Verd. Verd deserved weeks worth of exploration, even a month or two, but that time had passed and he had seen most of it by now and a longing to find more of his kind had grown steadily.
They had only planned to stay here for a short time -- one day as Harbend promised the very night when they arrived. Such an easy promise, and such a difficult one to keep. Politics, demands, business and duty had all conspired to keep them both in one place. And the lure of the Inn, he admitted. To Weave, to shine on the scene again. He was at his best while performing, had known he held an almost magical grip of his audience even back on Earth. Such irony. His magic had helped bring true magic to the world, to all inhabited worlds in the solar system. Now when he was part of that magic it seemed he was bringing humanity here, those who didn't already live here.
He took a shortcut along Visitor's alley, crossed Tranda place, with its animated statue of the long dead hero crouching in a corner and then leaping atop the fountain that dominated the square. Arthur ducked under one of the few trees in this part of the capital and slowed down when he reached Larild boulevard. A few more shortcuts and he would be on Artist's street as so many times before.
That was, he realized an exceedingly stupid decision. He had seen men at labour here a few days earlier and yesterday evening not one but five shuttles had streaked down from the west on their way to the launch port.
"Exchange", a sign yelled at him in standard English. "Turn good FEMs to better gold. All major currencies accepted. No exchange rate older than a standard week."
He winced. This was his doing, indirectly. Less than a year earlier he had forced Federation partnership on the merchant houses. Of course someone was bound to do the same with the money traders.
The holo blared the same message in perfect De Vhatic, promising untold riches to anyone bold enough to trade with outworlders on their own markets.
The written message he only recognized -- Gring's magic had helped him to fluency in spoken De Vhatic. Letters were mostly beyond him.
A line of coaches waited outside the exchange office, the second reason he should have avoided this way. Whereas the local population only stared at one tall outworlder among others, either not recognizing him or simply too polite to harass a visiting taleweaver, Federation citizens had no such compulsions. One second they had been busy buying silver and copper shields, then one of them noticed him on the street. A moment of consternation was replaced by certainty and she scrambled to her feet and rushed out of the office.
He hardly had time to switch on his most professional smile before the rest had joined her frantically searching for notepads, organic clothing or whatever else was sure to hold an autograph permanently.
"Yes, I'm Arthur Wallman. No, I'm not doing another Otherworld Disclosed. Yes, Otherworld has magic. No, they're not barbarians."
Holo cams buzzed around him, not the horribly expensive ones he had lived with for over twenty years, but still of a type most of his viewers couldn't pay with a years salary.
"I have moved here permanently. Of course I like living here, otherwise I would have taken the next shuttle home. No I don't mind you taking holos." One would think they'd ask that question before releasing the cams. "I hope you'll have as pleasant stay here a I have." That would exclude being shot at, being held prisoner and almost sentenced to death. "No, I have nothing to do with New Sweden migrating here." What the bloody hell! That's over five million people! "Yes, the presence of Valhall will make travelling here safer." No wonder we only got rumours The best medical services and holo casting equipment in known space. They must have jammed every transmission on their way in. The people at Gatekeeper must be livid. "Well, Otherworld isn't Federation space so citizens of all sovereign nations have as much right to come here as we." And that includes every nut brain with an issue. "No, I haven't signed a contract with Red News for an installation, much less a full season of shows. No, I didn't get any shares. They bought Wallman Newscasting for cash and royalties." I have to get out of here. Find Ken Leiter, find a good horse, find a bad excuse and find a way out of Verd. "Well, I can't promise anything. I've planned some extensive travelling Verd is more a comfortable base than my permanent home." Red News bloodhounds. They're too damn good. I trained those dogs myself before I sold. They'll hunt me down to make sure I get as much of those royalties as humanly possible. Damn! I'm the one hunting for news.
Arthur signed as he spoke. He radiated benevolence and gratitude and interest in the questions he faced. It was part of who he was with a camera in his face. Shouting to them to leave him alone never occurred to him, and it was with a mixed feeling of satisfaction and irritation he bowed away from the admiring crowd knowing for certain that he had just added a few lines to the legend of Arthur Wallman.
He hurried away. Now he was followed by stares from several locals who couldn't help noticing the attraction he'd drawn from his own.
Ken Leiter. Arthur needed that meeting as much as Ken wanted it. The balance of need had just shifted unfavourably, but it couldn't be helped. Ken had offered to become his mentor, like the man had anything to teach Wallman, the miracle in newscasting, but that mentorship had included travels, and Arthur would accept most anything that provided him with a reason to get him out of Verd.
Red News was bad news. Not Federation. They'd put exactly the swing to the story he'd hoped when he fled here. Now he had no reason to hate any longer. The Terran Federation was not a choir of angels exactly, but the restraint they'd shown for over a decade proved they had respected Otherworld's need for a slow and gradual exposure to the rest of humanity. He had forced their hand and he didn't intend to increase the damage by becoming part of whatever political games were played between the independent states and the federation.
Ken lit up when Arthur entered. Any meeting with a fellow taleweaver was an occasion worth celebrating, but this one not only had stories from Earth. He came from Earth. Ken had searched. For half a millennium he had travelled the corners of the world in hopes of finding someone who knew about the home he'd lost. To find him in Verd of all places. All ways lead to Verd, indeed. That phrase, or at least one similar, had been ancient when he woke up here in the middle of the nightmare he'd taken years to accept as home. Seven hundred years. How many back home? He shrugged the thought away and greeted Arthur.
"Welcome. Your food should be here in moments."
Arthur gave him a look of disdain.
"But you already knew that," Ken continued as if he hadn't noticed. A pity he's such an arrogant prick.
"I've decided to accept you as my teacher, in as much as you have anything but history to teach me."
"And you've Woven for how long?" Ken stifled a yearning to slap some sense into the boy. Looks thirty, can't be much older. So full of himself.
"Half a year, here." Arthur smirked. "Two decades as a newscaster back home," he added.
Another of the words with a maddening similarity. Newscaster, some strange mix of journalist and media mogul. They had tried to strike up a conversation on his way to The Tree. English was nothing like what it had been. A smattering staccato with so many Arabic and Chinese additions it was almost impossible to understand. They had switched to De Vhatic before agreeing to meet here today.
The memory made him laugh. Ironic enough that he'd grown up with English as the lingua franca. To see De Vhatic take the position was hilarious in extreme.
"That would still leave me with a few years more experience, I believe." But he's well over forty then. Need to learn how to evaluate their age.
"You were in commercial casting? Never seen you."
You probably wouldn't. "No, I taught history at university before coming here," Ken answered instead.
"Academy drone. Should have guessed. Reading instead of experiencing, teaching instead of living, yes I know your kind."
The little shit! "Manners apart I think we should be able to come to some kind of agreement." Kick his arse all the way to Chen, but dammit, I've waited so long for news I'll take a piece of swollen head to get it. "We've both to benefit from one, wouldn't you think?"
Arthur shrugged. "Not in faci dress, at least."
What's his problem? Hates uniforms, that is certain. Some kind of takeover at home? I have to know. "I haven't been in a uniform for a long time. Promise you I have no plans changing that."
The relief on Arthur's face was frightening. "And we travel?"
"We have to." Ken grinned. "The experiencing and living part, you know."
Damn, a lemon would be sweeter.
"Oh bloody hell. I apologize. You can't help your background any more than I can mine. Has to be something you can teach me."
And if that is a sincere apology I don't want to know what he considers an insult. "I'm sure we will come up with something. Day after tomorrow?"
"Day after tomorrow," Arthur confirmed. "South gate?"
Ken agreed and they shook hands. He marvelled. Shaking hands. He hadn't met anyone who took that gesture for granted since he arrived here seven hundred years ealier.
Harbend stirred in his sleep. He was dreaming, but it felt like the dream didn't belong to him. Too many smells, and the sounds were too clear and distinct. It made him feel like a meal being prepared. It make his feel like... Gring! What are you doing in my sleep?
As shocked as he was sensing the predator's mind of a khraga in his dreams another shock jolted him awake. Something had happened. Something terrible. Something beautiful.
Suddenly Gring's thoughts flared clear in his mind. He could sense her somewhere out on the Sea of Grass, her determination and rage. Rage?
Her fury was terrible enough to drown the sense of inhuman wonder that filled the darkness, but her sorrow, her sorrow was worse. She told him everything, and her mind cried like a human mother trying to comfort a stricken child as Harbend roared his grief into the night.
Mairild rushed from her apartment into the streets, six members of the Imperial Guard flanking her on all sides.
The night had gone mad.
Yellow light from the lampposts all over Verd was mixed with that from lanterns and torches. Poor and rich alike had left their homes in the thousands.
Tens of thousands, unholy gods, they're everywhere!
She stopped at the edge of Ming Hjil de Verd. There was nothing else she could have done. The square was filled with people of all ages. Some dancing, some shouting, some singing in ecstasy but most silent in prayer.
The air vibrated with power. She had sensed it a few times when her duties took her to places she had to keep secret, but nothing like this. A days rain had given way to a dense fog, and every tiny drop of water caressed her with the forbidden power, every gust of wind filled her lungs with the gift, and all around her people stared ahead, and up.
The castle shone.
Magecrafters of an age past had wrought the living art from power and artistic skill, but what she saw was far, far beyond the skill of any human. Legends fought and loved. They were born, aged and died. Every song they heard she heard, every flower she smelled and every caress she felt, even those of steel.
High, high above them all a star she didn't recognize shone brighter than any other. It would dim eventually she knew, but for now she was filled with wonder. Nothing could erase this moment, not even the horrors of a hundred years past. For the first time in her life she understood deep inside why all of Erkateren had erupted in flame and violence the last time a god was born. Killing to celebrate a god, singing to celebrate a god or praying, what did it matter? Only celebration mattered. Celebration and ecstasy.
"What is that?"
"New god," Trindai answered.
Heinrich stared at him. Superstitious fool! He stared up at the sky again, shut down his sensors and raised his visor. Star going nova? No, wrong universe. There is only one star in this one. The rest are gates just like the one to home. He shivered despite the night being warmer than any he'd experienced since a dragon had teleported him and his entire command to the insanity in Belgera. Dragon! Maybe they have gods as well, what do I know?
"Hundred years last time." Trindai grimaced and waved for Elizabeth to slow down. "You see the rail road from here. We walk."
Heinrich looked out into the dark. For a moment he was tempted to turn on night vision, but he'd be damned if someone old enough to be his father should see better in the dark. There!
"Thank the ride."
Heinrich bowed and let Trindai's men debark before ordering Sergeant Chang to kick the engines into action again. One more month, he thought. Too close for my taste. Idiot woman! He glared at the sleeper tubes on the hovercraft. Bring a civilian grade reactor to a fire fight What were you thinking?
"I should thank you for shoving us the way home," he said instead. They had never needed any showing, but he wasn't about to tell the old colonel, no, general now, that. He probably knew anyway. Heinrich grinned at the thought. He liked the old man. They could speak, even with both aliens absent and the strange mind effects they used to make interpreters unnecessary. Trindai's English was poor, but not poor enough to make conversation impossible.
Trindai nodded and turned to his men. He voiced an order and more than a few soldiers laughed as they fell into two rows. Heinrich recognized the word for horse so the gist of the command was abundantly clear to him.
Poor bastards! Can't recall seeing them walking much. He gave his exoskeleton an appreciative clap hard enough to send a metallic ringing out in the darkness and grinned at the soldiers as they prepared to march away.
They grinned back and one shouted something at him. It was probably obscene enough it didn't need a translation.
He stood in the almost night watching Trindai march away with his soldiers. It was a strange feeling listening to them singing and then that singing faded away and the only sound remaining was the whining of the hovercraft.
Something had happened. New god or not, and he had a machine with a reactor heading for critical that needed skilled technicians as soon as possible. Launch port then. He let training and machine take over, and within moments he rumbled east in his body walker, almost the way they had come. Elizabeth Chang drove the vehicle some distance behind him.
An hour, give or take some, and he would come full circle. He wondered if they had noticed the new star at the launch port. Of course they had.
Trindai marched along with his men. As the new star above them slowly faded, so did the singing. Now only the thumping of riding boots against hard stone and the occasional cursing when someone fell out of rhythm disturbed the silence.
He would see dawn break before they reached the gates. Until then only the Vimarin Highway under his feet and an eerie night filled with wonder.
Something had tugged at him when night became day for a few moments. Something deep inside that wanted to crawl out. You have the spark, Gring had said. He could feel it. Only a spark. It would never truly awaken, Gring had promised as much, but with a newborn god bathing the lands with power even a spark was enough. He felt the need to fill himself with forbidden magic, to move it along invisible lines and mold it into something he could comprehend.
He could see why practitioners of magic went to such lengths to master it. How come it would take a khraga to unlock this part of his humanity? Even if it took a god to make him fully believe what she had said.
He grunted, kicked a pebble from the road and marched on. That way lay danger, and it had nothing to do with the highway they walked. In all probability a couple of his own men still felt the fire in their hearts. That all of them had sensed the sudden burst of power there was no doubt about. Even the outworlders had been stunned by the force of it -- they had almost crashed through a fence and into a newly sown field when Wagon-master Chang let their vehicle run free.
Trindai let his thoughts wander. From misgivings about the chaos that was sure to hold Verd in a firm grip to the equally certain appearances of priests, clerics, monks and holy men. Hordes of pilgrims would crowd the roads within eightdays. Old temples washed clean of a lifetime's neglect filling with believers joyous and fearful, and somewhere, someone would rally followers to a holy cause. It always happened; from Chen to Gaz. News of those events always found ways to travel.
A holy cause. Those had an ugly tendency to grow into crusades, and from there the road to mayhem was too short by far. He shuddered. Old enough to have spoken with people who have lived through the Erkateren Madness.
That thought spawned another. One of three thousand imperial soldiers spearheading the largest caravan ever seen. An invasion in all but name. He'd have the balls of whoever came up with that insane idea, and then he would twist, hard.
Clouds clinging to the ground rolled in from Verd and hid the stars. Darkness and damp followed in turn, and Trindai hugged his clothes closer. His mind wandered from lessons of a Holy Inquisition of long past, how they were sent from Verd itself to hunt down heretics after World War. How those heretics had come to include anyone who openly spoke of gods, and how in the end the Inquisition turned on their old masters. If unholy horrors were still unleashed on hard-working men and women after all heretics were slain, then truly any use of inhuman powers were surely heretic.
Two hundred years ago. It took fifty to root out the evil in their midst, and the horrors were banished. Rejoice! But they weren't, were they? The Erkateren Madness. They had to swell their ranks with anyone willing to put on the yellow and green. The Free Inquisition.
Trindai grunted in disgust. He despised the undisciplined thugs who mostly harassed decent farmers out of sheer boredom when they couldn't find a foreigner to kill who hadn't been any closer to forbidden magic than watching it. Complaints from Kordar, complaints from Erkateren, Ri Khi, Kastari and even Ira. Killing traders from Ira had been especially stupid. Maybe that small city state was a haven for mages of all kinds, but it was also the only power with a fleet strong enough to divert the raiders. Not a ship, not one single ship had made the voyage to the Sea of the Mother and back after Ira finally tired of excuses and apologies and withdrew their coastal patrols along the Midland shores.
As dawn broke he still couldn't see the city walls ahead. The fog was too dense. The rail road beside the highway was clearly visible though, as were the people who scrambled up the road when they marched by. Once again an escort. Not for a caravan, but for men and women finding strength in numbers and the bright uniforms of his command, torn and dirty as they were. All were headed for Verd, to find answers, or enlightenment, or simply to celebrate.
From the capital, a low murmur. A rumbling in the morning. Verd had awoken to a new morning, and he knew he was listening to thousands upon thousands of voices asking what kind of a day a new god would bring.