"How many dead?" Talis asked.
She looked around the still meadow which lay smattered with bits of red across the green grass. The suns had set, and a foreign red moon hung in the sky above her head. The brilliant shine of Watu's white gleam on Erridium was all the light that shone in Erridium's nightly sky, now on a world without that light made her feel tense.
"About thirty or so," Kloe responded. "Aliope's doing the best he can with the rest. The kids are sleeping in the tent over there." She pointed to a green fabric tent where Hansu was laying in front asleep.
"And Istyn?" Talis knelt down and inspected a square of grass that looked to have been burned away. "Did he cause this?"
Kloe walked up to Talis, bent over, and inspected the ground. She plucked a blade of grass which wilted and died in her fingertips. "It's blight. Unless they can do this some other way, it seems logical this was Istyn's doing."
What exactly happened here?
Talis stood up and walked to Aliope who was in a tent, one that had already been erected around the meadow. The tent's flaps were kept open with rope and inside there were Aliope stood over one of the foreign soldiers, a woman wearing a pair of goggles over her closed eyes and blood wounds around her stomach.
"Talo, Misia." Aliope said when he saw Talis enter.
Talis walked up to the woman and stared at her own reflection in the blue tint of the headwear. "What do you suppose these are?"
"Hard to say." Aliope opened his canteen and took a long drink. He wiped the water off his lips before continuing. "Most of the soldiers seemed to be wearing them."
"Any of them awake?" Talis asked.
Aliope indicated with his head toward the back of the tent where the man that Talis saw collapsing when she entered the meadow was lying on a bedroll.
"Hey, question for you, boss. "Aliope began, and Talis nodded for him to continue. "This is the first time you've met others like… like us, right?"
"You mean other humans? Yeah. We'd theorized that others had been on some of the previous planes, but that they had been destroyed or abandoned the planet through some other method once the place became inhospitable."
"I'm just saying, it's odd, ya?"
What's that?" Talis asked.
"That not only do we find a people that look like us, except for the skin color and all, but that they have bedrolls, canteens, weapons, you know?"
"There's a theory I heard once from Lagi about how if we did find another group of civilized people that they would be just like us. He thought that no matter what, a prime planet would give life to forms that would have to be similar to any other prime planet."
"Then this is it, ya?"
Talis blinked. "What's that?"
"This is our prime planet, this is where we are going to make our stay, right?"
Talis shook her head and looked away. "I don't know."
"What's not to know, Misia? It's got everything we're looking for: breathable air, the soil looks fertile since there's grass and trees, two suns, two suns!"
"You're missing the fourth tenet."
"What's that?" Aliope looked up from the sleeping soldier on the bedroll below him.
"It's inhabited by an already superior species."
Aliope shook his head. "No, that's not what they mean by that, right? It's for big creatures, like predators and such."
"It's any dominant species or species of high intelligence that could pose a threat to Netsu or Oni kind. You saw those people lying dead in the grass, all of them in the same uniforms, all of them from the same army. They were all slaughtered, yet did we find any others in different uniforms? Like another warring party? No, just these soldiers."
"Ya, but what does that mean?"
"It means that there is someone or something else out there. You felt their touch, just the same as I did. They used music to influence your mind."
"Why just me? Huh?" Aliope's eyes wetted as he spoke. "Why didn't you feel it? Why did they make me see…"
Aliope trailed off as tears fell down his cheeks. Talis realized that she had been yelling at him, though she didn't know why. There was no reason to raise her voice, especially when she wondered the same thing he did. For whatever reason, only Aliope had been influenced by the melody that played on the wind. Talis had heard it, yet it had no effect on her.
"I'm sorry, Misia." Aliope whimpered.
Talis looked up and met his eyes. "Sorry?"
"I couldn't control it." Aliope approached Talis with his hand extended. It glowed a bright green starting at The Tatu of bless on his right shoulder. He touched her neck and she felt a sting.
"Lapo, what did you-!" She cursed. Her demeanor softened as she realized that he was healing her. Her eyes went wide as she recalled the crawling vines that snaked their way across her body and around her neck.
"Mali. I didn't mean to do it, but that should help. It's about as much as I can give. I'm afraid if I give much more I'll be stuck in a bed like these poor leai."
Talis tilted her head in confusion. "That's a new one. Leai?"
"Mali, I use a lot of the old language with the little ones back on Tethi. It means wounded."
"Do you know a lot of the old language?" Talis asked.
Aliope found an empty bedroll and sat down and indicated for Talis to join. "It's part of being an Erridite. We are taught the old language as a way of preserving our history."
"How much do you know?"
"A pretty good amount. Let's see. E mafa oniou tuna at lo fia telia te oe?"
"Impressive. What did it mean?"
"Ah, see you are not a true believer, otherwise you would know." Aliope grinned.
"Following the Forgotten God is not too different from being an Erridite, you know."
Aliope elbowed her playfully. "Says the girl who can't keep her feet on one plane for longer than a sunset."
She laughed and pushed him back. "I may as well follow the Traveller, I suppose, like Istyn."
"Like Istyn?" Aliope asked, his smile fading.
"He used to carry a little statue of the Traveller with him on every walk back when I first started with Rewi, Lagi, Kloe, and him. He said he didn't worship the Traveller, but it was some kind of reminder."
"A reminder of what?"
"Why we have to find a new place to live, I suppose."
"Then I think we have a job to do." Aliope patted both his knees and stood up.
"What's that?" Talis extended her hand to Aliope who helped her to her feet.
"Like I said, I'm an Erridite. I'd rather see our planet healed, but I will settle for preserving its culture, and the only way to do that is to make sure the Netsu survive." Aliope walked to the opening of the tent and looked out at the sky full of stars in foreign constellations, the blood red moon shone on his face and he smiled. "If this plane is or isn't the one, I can't say for certain, but I'd say it's worth finding out."
Talis smiled. Hansu looked up from in front of the tent where the two children slept. The great beast lumbered over to her. With its third eye closed no extra light shone from the creature.
"Didn't know you could do that, Hansu." Talis said as she patted her familiar. She looked to Aliope. "If this place is special enough to create something as amazing as Hansu, then I'll have to agree with you. Get some rest, I'll take first watch.
Aliope walked back into the tent with the healing soldiers while Talis looked around for Kloe, and found her sitting beside the campfire on a large log, poking at the flames with a long stick. Talis walked up to her friend and sat down beside her.
"Ever think about what you would have been like as a fire starter?" Kloe asked.
Talis snorted. "What?"
"They seem to have fun, you know! Throwing flames left and right. That thing we saw that one fire starter do, remember? He set a trap on a seashell or something, and when that big creature came out of the ocean-"
Talis cut her off. "Don't remind me, I feel like I can still smell that thing whenever I get in a boat."
Kloe laughed and slapped Talis on the back. Talis nearly fell into the flames and Kloe laughed harder.
"Mali, I guess I'm still strong even when I'm not burning this thing." She flexed her muscles and The Tatu of the spear lit up on her right forearm.
"Just because you're not a fire starter doesn't mean you can't burn me when you throw me into the flames, you know." Talis affixed a fake scowl on her face, but Kloe saw right through it.
"Misia walker, Misia walker, what can I do to apologize enough!" Kloe got on her knees and held her hands up clasped together in a pleading motion.
Talis laughed and pushed away Kloe's hands. "Get some sleep, you big vale."
"If I knew what that meant, I'm sure I'd be throwing you into the fire for real." Kloe stood up and brushed the dirt off her knees. She gave Talis a gentle and friendly push that nearly toppled the young woman off the log.
"Hey!" Talis cried out.
Kloe didn't break her stride. "Shh… people are trying to sleep over here."
Talis watched Kloe go into the tent with the two children and close the flap. She stared at the fire and picked up Kloe's stick, poking at the burning logs. Hansu curled up beside her, the soft fur felt like a hairy pillow and despite herself, Talis yawned.
I'll just close my eyes for a moment. That should be fine.
Behind her came the sound of twigs snapping and Talis shot up off of Hansu. The great beast yawned then bared its fangs.
Talis rubbed her eyes and saw one of the soldiers who had been wounded approaching from his tent. She squinted and recognized him as the one with the injured side.
"Talo, how are you feeling?" Talis asked.
The man blinked in confusion. "Talo? Is that your name?"
"Well, it's close." Talis stood up and bowed before the man, placing her right hand in a fist over her heart. "I'm Talis of the Netsu."
"Talis." The man said her name as though it felt foreign on his tongue. "Are you with Istyn?"
"He came with us through the portal, yes."
The man looked even more confused. "Portal?"
Talis indicated for him to sit down. "Let me get you some water."
She opened her pack and saw that Hansu was still bearing his teeth at the soldier.
"Hansu, down." Talis let her Tatu on her face glow, and the beast obeyed.
"You have one too?" The man sat down and started playing with the top button of his shirt.
"Every Portal Walker has Tatu." She handed him her canteen.
He took it with caution. "Is this-?"
"It's just water from your stream over there." Talis pointed to the forest path alongside the rolling water. "Now, can you answer my question? How are you feeling?"
The man drank hesitantly at first, then took large full gulps. He handed her back the canteen. "Better than I should."
He inspected his side where the injury should have been and found it to be perfectly healed. The only sign of the wound was the blood on his shirt.
"Aliope is a great healer." Talis indicated back to the tent where Aliope was sleeping near the other soldiers.
"Does he have a tattoo for that?"
"Tatu." Talis corrected him. "Tah-too. The other kind doesn't have the same effect."
He shook his head again. "This is all so confusing. Talo, Talis, Netsu, Tatu, and how in Catal did you tame this thing?" He indicated to Hansu who laid on the ground by the fire sleeping already.
"Hansu? We found him in that cave on our first walk." She pointed to the nearby cave.
He took another drink. "I think I'm going to need something stronger."
"Sorry, we don't do that." Talis said.
Panic came across his face suddenly. "My soldiers, how many survived?"
Talis's expression grew dark. "Just the ones in the tent. I'm sorry. We didn't know what to do with the rest, just in case there is a ritual your kind have for burial."
The man blinked and looked at her as though trying to examine her. Talis felt nervous, though she couldn't quite figure out why. The man was tall and muscular with high cheekbones and brown hair. His beard had small patches of grey on his chin and his eyes were a piercing shade of blue. Talis had seen others with blue eyes back on Erridium, but they were always the result of certain Tatu, like Elei with his frost. This man's eyes were like two pools of deep water.
"I'm sorry, I haven't introduced myself. I'm Jeha." Jeha extended his hand.
Talis stared at it, unsure of what to do. She put hers forward and he grasped her by the forearm before releasing her. She wrinkled her brow. "What was that?"
"A greeting?" Jeha stated.
"Strangest greeting I've ever seen."
Talis bent over once more in her bow with her fist at her heart. "This is how we greet someone on Erridium."
"I see." Jeha returned the gesture. "Is that where you are from?"
"Yes, we came through the portal in the cave."
The man's eyes went wide. "You have a gate?"
"Are you one of them?"
Jeha's expression intensified and he stood up. "Are you a Verlass?"
"No, I don't even know what that is."
"But you can do magic like they can."
"You mean our Tatu? That's not magic, it's… it's hard to explain."
Jeha took a step back from her. "Magic is evil, everyone knows that."
"Magic, if that's what you want to call it saved your life. If Aliope hadn't healed you and the rest of your kind, you'd all be dead." Talis found herself raising her voice.
Fear came over Jeha suddenly and Talis felt sweat dripping down her brow.
"I'm sorry." She said, extinguishing her Tatu on her face. "I didn't know that I had done that."
"You don't have to play a song, or beat a drum." Jeha's question came out more like a statement.
Talis looked at him, waiting for him to explain.
"The Verlass." He started. "They use music to cast their spells. They call it bardcraft."
"Who are the Verlass?"
Jeha indicated around the meadow to where the dead bodies of his fallen comrades lay in the grass. "The people that did this."
Talis took a deep breath and sat back down on the log. "We are not like them. The Netsu are explorers, gatherers, fruit pickers. We are not murderers."
Jeha stood and looked out at the meadow. He walked up to one of the dead soldiers and placed a hand on him. Talis watched him try to push the man over, but the man lacked the strength. Talis stood up and walked to him. Together they flipped the soldier onto his back. The fallen was young, with light skin and dirty blonde hair. His eyes were open in an expression of panic. His entire bony torso was covered in blood and dirt.
"Who was he?" Talis asked in a whisper.
Jeha's eyes watered up and he pushed the tears away with his hands. "Héctor. His name was Héctor."
Talis felt impressed to close the boy's eyes. "May I?" She asked, holding her hand over the face. Jeha nodded and she closed them. He looked peaceful now, as though he could have been sleeping.
"He was killed by a transmuter. Someone who can manipulate inanimate objects." Jeha explained.
"They used music to do this?"
"I don't understand."
"I'm sure it's just as complicated as whatever your Tatu can do."
Talis thought about it. Jeha had called it magic, and to many Netsu without Tatu, it certainly seemed like magic. She had always considered The Tatu to be a gift from the Forgotten God. A way for the soul to be released into the world to do the God's bidding.
Talis looked into Jeha's eyes. He had stopped trying to wipe away the tears and instead let them fall. The streaks cleaned through the dirt on the strange man's face. Talis burned her Tatu, letting it turn red, and touched his shoulder. He stiffened and looked up at her.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm trying to help you feel better."
He shook his head. "Please, don't. I need to feel this."
"Wouldn't it be better to let the pain go away?" Talis asked, taking her hand away.
"No." Jeha answered resolutely. "These were my soldiers. Brave Tolacin who gave their lives for a cause they may not have even believed in. Malit, the Monserrat."
"You just said a bunch of words I did not understand." Talis said with wide eyes.
"Were there any people here, did you pitch these tents?" Jeha asked intensely.
"We found two children, they're asleep in a tent by the fire with another of my kind with them. The tents were here already."
"Just these two, no others?" Jeha asked.
"They had mentioned others coming back, but-"
"I need to talk to them." Jeha stood up and walked back to the tents.
"They're sleeping, Jeha. Leave them be."
"You don't understand." Jeha started. "We came here to save them. If there are others I need to know where they are. Which tent?"
There were three surrounding the campfire. The first was where the soldiers, Istyn and Aliope slept. The second was empty, the third contained Kloe and the two children. Talis pointed to the third tent.
"That one, but we really should let them rest. Jeha!" Talis hissed.
Jeha threw open the tent flap. Talis watched as he put his head through the open and a brilliant blue light shone from within. Jeha stepped out, shielding his eyes.
"Who are you?" Kloe demanded as she stepped out of the tent holding her glowing spear and shield. Jeha fell backward onto the ground narrowly missing a log by the campfire as he did.
"Kloe, it's alright. This is Jeha, he's with the wounded soldiers."
Kloe looked to Talis then extinguished her weapons. "What do you want then?" She asked.
"I need to speak with the children." Jeha's voice was full of fear.
"Why?" Kloe demanded.
"Because, why?" Kloe bent over, putting her face next to his until they were eye to eye.
"Because there was supposed to be someone here at this camp. Someone important. I need to know what happened to her."
"You keep speaking in generalizations, but no specifics. If you're so intent on getting answers then tell us what you mean." Talis said.
The tent behind Kloe shifted as the two children woke up. The girl, Lina poked her head out and Jeha's eyes went wide.
"Princess." He said reverentially.
The girl's eyes went wide. "Master Jeha."
The girl waved her arms frantically. "Get up, Master Jeha. Please."
"What's going on?" Talis asked.
"Talis, this is Princess Lina. Last living member of the Tolacin royal family." Jeha announced, standing up, his face beamed.
Talis heard shuffling in the tent where the others slept. One by one the surviving members of the Jeha's group came out of the tent, as each of them saw Lina they bowed down low to the ground with a solemn, "Your majesty."
Istyn woke with a splitting headache. He groaned and opened his eyes seeing light coming from in front of him through the opening of a tent flap. Istyn took stock of his surroundings and noticed a series of bedrolls lying on either side of the tent's opening. He stretched his arms and legs, finding his muscles sore.
Maybe I shouldn't have starved myself for years then gone on a walk.
The smell of cooking meat drew his attention as it had the day before. He placed both feet on the ground and felt his bare feet against an unfamiliar material. He squeezed his toes and realized that someone had taken him out of his old clothes. Instead of his usual tank top, shorts and the boots, Istyn found that he was wearing a loose fitted button down shirt made of cotton as well as long polyester trousers.
Where are my clothes? Aliope better not have stolen them as some sort of prank.
Istyn looked around and saw a young woman with black hair cut in a bob and glasses fogging up with the steam from a bowl of soup she was eating.
"Sorry, did I wake you?" She asked between slurps.
"What are you eating?" Istyn's voice was gravelly. He had been out of practice with talking for so long, every morning was a struggle to regain his voice.
"Soup from the meat that was cooking yesterday. Want some?"
She stood up and offered out a spoonful. Istyn dismissed her with a wave of his hand.
"No. Well, yes, but I can get my own."
"Suit yourself." She withdrew the spoon and drank down the soup.
"I'd like to. Do you know where my clothes are?" Istyn asked.
"Your leader set them by the fire to dry off. They smelled pretty rank, like you all walked through a swamp or something."
"A cave. Talis is here?"
"Yeah," She pointed to the tent flap. "She's out by the fire with Jeha and the other two. Name's Magda, by the way. Thanks for saving us, how'd you do that exactly?"
"How did I do what?"
"That thing where you were sending smoke out and everything." Magda shook her hands around in an imitation of Istyn using his Tatu, spilling soup from her bowl onto the leather tent floor as she did. The spoon clattered onto the ground. "Malit, that's gonna stain."
Istyn smiled crookedly. "Careful with that."
Istyn burned his Tatu and wispy tendrils exuded from his chest into a small hand. The hand scooped up the spoon and held it out to her. She took it and the smoke dissolved.
"Miriga! That's amazing!" Magda exclaimed. "You gotta tell me how that works."
"It takes a bit of concentration to solidify the shadows, but they're generally useless, watch."
He summoned his Tatu and smoke formed between them. A pair of large gnarled feet appeared connected to large stocky legs. The torso was bent over with large wings coming off the backside of the apparition. The head was large and swung back and forth. The face met eyes with Magda who dropped all her food onto the ground.
"It's alright." Istyn said. "Touch it, you'll see."
Magda reached out a tentative hand and pressed her fingers against the shadow. It dissolved into billowing smoke once more and retracted back into Istyn's Tatu.
"What was that thing?"
"A Tarako. Winged creatures with large fire breathing mouths. They're the symbol of Fire Tatu bearers on our world. They're not real though, at least not anymore. There's some debate on that." Istyn blushed as he realized he was rambling. "Let me show you something else."
He created the shadowy beast again piece by piece. The creature walked around the tent snapping its jaws.
"The problem with Tokui, the Dark Tatu, is that it's just shadows. Shadows can't hurt you. That's why most dark walkers have a second Tatu."
He extended his right hand which glowed purple. The energy from his blight Tatu fused with the creature which now exuded a swirling miasmatic violet color. Magda raised her hand to touch it.
"Careful." Istyn said curtly. "You don't want to touch it like this."
He pointed to the ground where the creature stood. There were burn marks in the tent that left black footprints wherever the Tarako stepped. He pulled back on his Tatu and absorbed the creature and the blight energy back into himself.
"This is incredible." Magda looked up at him smiling brighter than he had ever seen. He noticed that her pale face was dotted with freckles. Istyn blushed.
"What's wrong?" Her smile turned quickly into a frown.
"It's just that, there are some who believe that my combination of darkness and blight is evil, that's all."
"Who would think that?" She pushed her glasses up from the tip of her nose.
"Some religions back home."
Home. Rewi. I need to get back.
Istyn walked to the tent flap and opened it. He peered out and saw Talis speaking with Jeha who looked to have healed well from his wound. There were half a dozen other soldiers walking around the camp and taking down the tents while Kloe and Aliope were extinguishing the campfire. Istyn looked back to Magda.
"I need to go. It was nice to meet you, Magda."
She extended her hand to his and he looked down at her open palm.
"You take it with yours." She instructed and grasped his forearm.
He held on to her arm loosely and she laughed. Istyn released his grip and blushed again.
"Don't worry, Jeha said that Talis didn't understand it either." She grinned at him and he felt his heart skip a beat.
Istyn nodded at her and turned back to the center of the camp. He walked to Talis who noticed him first.
"Talo!" Talis shouted. "You're alive!"
She was holding a bowl of soup, though hers did not seem to have any meat in it. Istyn never understood why so many Netsu refused meat.
"Talis." Istyn grunted. "Jeha. Looks like you survived."
"Thanks to you, my friend." Jeha said with an extended hand.
Istyn knew what to do this time and grasped the man's forearm. Jeha smiled and Istyn released his grasp.
"Are we ready to go?" Istyn asked.
Talis furrowed her brow. "Go where?"
"Why would we do that? we just got here." Kloe sidled up to Talis as she spoke.
"We have to report to the council. This is a prime planet, after all."
Aliope took notice and walked over, standing beside Istyn. "I normally wouldn't say this, but I have to side with Istyn on this one."
"You can't go." Magda protested.
She stood behind Istyn and he turned to look at her. Her hair glistened in the light of the two suns and her freckles were even more pronounced on her face than in the tent.
"I mean, you can, it's completely your choice, and no one will stop you, but…" Magda trailed off as she kept Istyn's eyes.
"But to be frank, we need you." Jeha stated. "You can do what we can't. With your people's abilities against the Verlass, we could finally turn the tide of this war."
"We're not here to fight for you, Jeha." Talis said. "Istyn's right, we have our own mission to think of."
"Looking for a place to live, I understand." Jeha continued. "But if that place is here then you will find yourself involved in a war whether you like it or not. This conflict has gone on for generations, and it's not going to go away when tens of thousands of Tatu wielding suddenly appear."
"Then what do you suggest?" Talis asked.
"Make an alliance with us." Jeha pleaded. "Bring your people, help us defeat the Verlass so that we can reclaim our planet. If you do, you and all your people would be welcomed here."
Talis and Kloe exchanged glances before Talis looked to Aliope and Istyn. "Istyn, what do you think?"
"You're asking me?" Istyn was shocked. Why would the great Talis ask for his opinion?
"Of course. Before you left for so long you were nearly set to break the same record I did. I know it's just as important to you as it is to me that we find a place for our people."
Istyn swallowed. "We need to talk to the council, but I think we may need some assistance with that."
Istyn looked to Magda. Her eyes went wide as she understood what he was saying. "You want me to talk to your council?"
"Now there's a thought." Kloe smiled. "Bring in someone else, not a leader, no offense, Jeha, but a solider. Someone who can give them all the facts without any of the politics."
"Is that what you want, Magda?" Jeha asked.
Magda couldn't supress her excitement. "Absolutely!"
"Then it's settled." Talis said.
"Not quite." Jeha put a hand up. "If you're taking one of ours, then I believe one of yours should stay here with us."
"This isn't a prisoner exchange." Kloe said grimly.
"No, it's not." Jeha agreed. "It's simply an insurance that when you return, we will be here. We can't fight the Verlass without you. You see how they slaughtered more than half of us. We need your help."
"I can stay." Offered Kloe.
"I need you with me, Kloe." Talis countered.
"Then let me stay." Aliope said.
Istyn turned to him with a look of confusion. "Why would you want to do that? Aren't you ready to return to your vegetables?"
Aliope blushed. "I can help out here. If they get hurt I can heal them, what would you do, blighter?"
Talis walked between them and separated the two Netsu men with her hands. Her face glowing with her Tatu as she spoke, trying to calm their emotions. "That's enough you two. Probably better to separate them if we can. Aliope, you stay here. We'll take Magda."
Jeha nodded and Magda jumped with enthusiasm. "A whole new plane of existence! This is going to be amazing!" Magda squealed. "Jeha, if my metals make it while I'm gone, take care of them, will you? I'm going to another world!"