Book 3 of The Makalang series, The Golden Staff, will drop this Friday, so I’m posting one more preview chapter today. Enjoy!
Chapter 1, if you missed it, is here.
Mereceeree disappeared into the night as she usually did. I had asked her and the panikang who followed her to serve as my intelligence network in Phan-garad, and they had done so very effectively. But as I fully expected when I claimed her that night up in the mountains, she followed her own whims and instincts in doing so, coming and going as she pleased. The panikang her mother wished me to mate with were the same, slipping into my bed at night only to disappear before dawn. That had been our agreement, and my other wives had learned to sleep through it.
But I needed to know more about the circle she mentioned. If she wasn’t going to tell me, there was a way I could find out for myself.
I found the big prismatic crystal I’d taken from the cave on the mountain where the panikang lived. By experimenting with it, I had learned that I didn’t need to hold it in my hands or even carry it to use it, though my abilities were sharpest when I did. As long as it was near me – within a few feet – I could still use it to focus myself. So I usually didn’t carry it around because doing so gave me too clear a sense of everything going on around me. It was too much information on a day-to-day basis. But I needed it to use the crystal circles.
Without Mereceeree, I needed another wife to help me, one who could see in the dark nearly as well as she could. And Narilora needed to stay safely in the house.
Merindra was in the workout room, exercising in a tight top and leggings, swinging a pair of plastic practice swords around against the targets I set up for me and my wives to spar with. She stopped as I came in, walking up to me.
“I need you for something. We need to go somewhere tonight.”
Her face lit up.
“Yes. Get geared up.”
“Just the two of us?”
I saw the eager look on her eyes.
“Yes, foxy girl. Just us.”
I didn’t know what we were getting into, and given Mereceeree’s reaction to the idea, I didn’t want to take any chances. So I went to the office to get on my carbon-fiber LARP armor and strapped on my katana, and then gathered the rest of the gear we would need. When I was suited up, Merindra arrived in her sorai armor, which was a similar though lighter kind of composite, and her paired crystal swords.
I briefly explained my conversation with Mereceeree and what I wanted to do. Her face paled a little, but she didn’t waver.
“Do you think this is wise, Will? If she warned against it?”
“She just said she didn’t know what was on the other end. All I want to do is check it out. I’m convinced there’s something significant there, and the fact that there are others controlling the crystal circles tells me they might be able help us.”
“Or resist us.”
“Which is why we’re not taking any chances here. We’ll go, check it out, and come back.”
“Lead me, my tsulygoi. I will follow.”
I waited until it was fairly late, and we slipped out the back gate. Merindra and I walked for about half an hour before we reached the building with the crystal circle. The panikang had destroyed much of the first floor to make it impossible for anyone to simply walk up and stumble across it. But knowing it was there, Merindra and I were able to cast a rope up around an old pillar and climb up.
The circle was hidden in a room in the center of the second floor, away from any windows. Merindra could see just fine, but I needed my crystal flashlight to get my bearings. The ring of crystals was still there, unchanged from when I’d come back here with Mereceeree and Eladra.
“Just stand with me. This likely won’t feel like anything for you, if I’m even able to do it.”
Merindra followed me into the circle, standing next to me. Then I paused.
“Listen,” I said. “If I haven’t asked you along on things like this until now, it’s not because I don’t believe in you, or want you with me. I do. It’s because the first fight Narilora followed me into almost killed her. And because of all the stuff that happened afterward. I don’t want to go through any of that with you.”
She closed with me, kissing me gently.
“I want you to love me for who I am, Will. All of me. Not just this face you love to stare at.”
“I’m sorai. I’m a fighter like Narilora. You cannot keep me in a box like something you’re afraid of breaking.”
“Understood, babe. That’s why you’re here.”
She nodded, shooting me a brief smile.
“Then let’s go.”
She checked her swords and then loosened up her arms, stretching them to either side.
“You have no idea where this goes?” she asked.
“Yama-Kana. Beyond that, no.”
She smiled again.
“Then I am eager to see what we find.”
I took out the crystal and focused myself. The process itself wasn’t complicated. I could feel the circle around us, and in a moment, in my mind’s eye, I saw the circle in the mountains where the panikang lived. I’d been there, and it felt familiar. That time I was following Mereceeree’s instructions and only concentrated on getting us to Phan-garad.
Now, I just looked out, trying to see if there were other connections. Gradually, I began to sense something. More than one. There were others, unfamiliar ones. Something told me not to probe too deeply, but the realization was fascinating – where did they all go?
I saw the one in Yama-Kana. I couldn’t see Yama-Kana, but somehow I sensed that was the destination. It was being used, frequently, and the texture of it suggested the destination just as the circles in the mountain and Phan-garad did.
But beyond that, it felt different in other ways. The circles in Phan-garad and in the mountains had a certain flavor to them, which I realized a moment later was similar to Mereceeree’s energy and that of the other panikang. That made sense, since they’d created and maintained these two circles. The one in Yama-Kana had a different sort of flavor. The closest thing to it was –
A talalong had created this circle. That sent a thrill through my gut. Could it have been the talalong who approached Silas? But that had been three kumala-talons ago, and the circle felt newer somehow.
I tried to see around it, but I realized immediately that this wasn’t a method of seeing things far away. I could sense the circle and get a vague sense of where it was in relation to the ones I’d used, but nothing else. It was just there. So we would have to go and look.
“Okay, get ready.”
I formed a bubble of energy around us and concentrated on the circle in Yama-Kana. A tunnel formed before me. After that, a mere thought was enough to pull us there.
And we were in Yama-Kana.
Merindra spoke up immediately, alarmed.
The room was dark, and there was an unpleasant smell around us, something foul and corrupt.
Then I heard Merindra drawing her swords. She growled in a way I’d only ever heard her do when she was facing some kind of threat.
“Will, turn on your light.”
I had it clipped to my chest. When I turned it on, I saw were in a large room, maybe fifty feet across and twice that long. The walls were mortared stone, and the ceiling twenty feet above us was held up with thick wooden beams. It looked like an old storeroom or warehouse of some sort, because there were boxes here and there around the room. The crystal circle around us was different in design from the one in Phan-garad and more like the one up in the mountains: older, more detailed and deliberate.
And I saw what had alarmed Merindra. We weren’t alone.
Around us, standing motionless, were eight or ten figures. A mix of talalong, linyang, and sorai, almost all of them young.
But something was wrong. Very wrong. I saw it because I still held the crystal in my hand, which allowed me to see all the details of the energy in every living thing around me. I saw Merindra, pure and strong, and our baby inside her.
But in the others around us, I saw the thing I’d done to Narilora when I was trying to heal her. When I’d filled her with foreign energies and nearly destroyed her own. I’d fixed her. But in the process of fixing her, I asked Phareewee, Mereceeree’s mother and the old panikang at the head of their clan, what would have happened if Narilora’s energy had faded away and left the rest behind.
The thing that is her would certainly have died, she told me. Whether her body would have died with her is another question. Most likely it would have, but it is possible those other energies could have sustained it. Sustained it as something that should not exist.
These things around me should not have existed, but they did.
I saw it. Every one of them was animated by energies foreign to their bodies, with nothing of the original left behind. I didn’t want to call them mindless, for each one had some sort of consciousness, but it was a consciousness alien to their bodies. And as I began to appreciate what they were, I could see another layer to it, something controlling them.
The moment or two it took me to absorb all this was the same moment or two it took them to become aware of our presence.
And they moved to attack.
I shoved the crystal back into my bag and drew my katana. But we were surrounded.
“Breakout! That way!”
I charged toward the closest group with Merindra beside me. The nearest figure to me was a linyang with a crystal shortsword, and I swung my katana down in a cross strike at her. She tried to dodge, but she wasn’t as fast as linyang usually were, and my blade bit deeply into her shoulder. She went down.
Next to me, Merindra faced a talalong with a staff. The talalong struck as she closed in, but my fox-girl blocked the strike with her longsword, then shoved her short blade through the talalong’s eye.
We were through the ring surrounding us, but I saw almost immediately that we had nowhere to go. The room ended in a blank wall. I spun around. Far at the other end was what looked like a set of double doors. We would have to fight our way out.
The remaining seven, whatever they were – crystal zombies seemed apt – were closing with us in a semi-circle. We’d surprised them with that first charge, but I didn’t want to try it again, at least not until we’d killed a few more of them. We backed up against the wall.
“You wanted to have some fun,” I said to Merindra.
“Yes,” she said evenly.
“Be careful what you wish for.”
Another talalong with a staff came at me, but instead of blocking it, I struck right at her staff. Taitala was a world with almost no metal and certainly not enough for anyone to create a sword like mine. I realized through a few fights that no one on this planet was used to fighting a big, heavy blade with the power to simply cleave through obstacles. The crystal swords they used here were almost impossibly sharp, but because they were also quite light, they were finesse weapons, and fighting styles had evolved around that.
The talalong’s staff snapped under my katana, and I continued the blow right into her neck. I lost some power doing it, but there was enough left to open a gash that immediately let out a spurt of blood. She fell to her knees, and I kicked her away from me.
A sorai came at me with her two blades, and it was all I could do to block her strikes with a downward cut. A linyang on the other side used that opening to come slicing in at me, and her blade scraped across my chestplate. I had to lean to my side and throw a roundhouse kick at her. I connected with her head, but not before she got her blade up, and I felt a white-hot line of pain across my calf.
Merindra was engaged with a talalong and a linyang. I looked up just to see her parry the linyang’s strike and lunge forward with both swords in a scissor motion, nearly decapitating the cat-girl-thing. But the talalong took that opportunity to strike with her staff and grazed Merindra’s head. She lost her bearings for a moment.
I couldn’t do anything for her, because the sorai I was facing was still coming at me. In sparring with Merindra, I’d learned ways of defending myself against the two-bladed style they used, and this sorai was not as skilled as Merindra was. But it took a couple of exchanges before I found an opening and cleaved her neck open with a cross strike.
I could tell Merindra was starting to weaken. There were just too many of them and only two of us. She fell back toward the other corner of the room. The linyang I’d kicked was down but not dead, having rolled away from me. I still had one talalong to deal with, but she was just far enough away that I could get past her to Merindra.
Merindra still had the talalong with the staff and another sorai facing her. The sorai had her back to me, and I struck hard at her. But just as I did, the talalong let out a wordless cry of alarm, and the sorai spun around. Rather than the strike at her neck I intended, I instead took off one of her arms, just as Merindra used the distraction to shove both of her blades through the talalong’s chest.
I expected the sorai to scream as her arm came off and a fountain of blood shot across the wall, but she didn’t. She just turned toward me, lunging with her remaining short blade. It was a weak strike that I blocked easily, and it brought me close enough to see into her eyes.
They were dead. Empty. No life at all.
I had no time to consider what that meant. I shoved her to her knees, knowing the shock and blood loss would take care of her, and spun around to see the last linyang coming at me in a flying strike. I only had enough time to bring up my arm to block her, hoping my armor would hold.
It did, but she landed on top of me, claws digging into my legs and arm. I had to drop my katana to deal with her, grabbing her clothes with my free hand and flinging her into the wall. That got her off of me, but as I did it, she raked her claws across my neck.
I ignored the pain as best I could, turning to face her. She came up with her blade, but she was down in a squat, right in front of me. Before she could do anything, I kicked straight out at her head and crushed her skull against the wall.
Merindra faced the last talalong, who seemed completely unconcerned that she was now alone and that we’d slaughtered eight of her allies. I picked up my katana and started to come at her from behind, but Merindra shouted, “No!”
I stopped. A few moments later, Merindra ducked under the staff and drove her short blade up in the talalong’s heart. The talalong barely reacted, just falling to her knees, and then forward onto her face.
Merindra stood up.
“I’m sorry, Will. But I was engaged with her alone. To let you kill her from behind would be dishonorable.”
“Are you okay?”
There was a red bump on her forehead where the staff struck her and a bloody sword cut on one arm, but she wasn’t seriously injured. Then her face filled with alarm as she looked at me.
“Will, you’re hurt.”
She came over and examined all the damage the linyang had done, touching the gashes my neck.
“I don’t think any of it’s that deep. I’m okay. You know I heal fast.”
I would have been able to heal myself right then and there had I not mated with six different wives that morning, along with Lorelat. So I didn’t have the reserves of energy I usually did.
“What was this? Who . . . what were these people?”
I explained what I’d sensed in them with the crystal. Her pretty face went pale.
“That is horrifying. And wrong. So wrong.”
“I’ll agree with that.”
“The way they fought . . . their faces. They were empty. Like they didn’t care whether they lived or died.”
“I wonder if they were already dead when this was done to them.”
I knelt down to examine one of the bodies. The foreign energy drained out of them as they died. Now that I wasn’t fighting for my life, I noticed something else. Their flesh didn’t seem right either. They weren’t anything like movie zombies; they weren’t decaying. They’d bled like normal living things.
But at the same time, they felt wrong. Unnatural. I realized the corrupt smell I detected when we arrived was coming from them.
“Who could have done this?” she asked.
“Someone with a great deal of skill in manipulating crystals and energies. I probably could have, based on what I did to Narilora. Phareewee, Mereceeree’s mother could, though she never would. She said there were a few others in the panikang with that level of skill.”
“Someone put them here to guard the circle against intruders.”
“That seems logical.”
We spent a minute or two inspecting the room. There wasn’t much. The few boxes were either empty or contained only moldy, withered fruits and vegetables. The condition of the foodstuffs hadn’t deterred someone from eating them, though. Many were partially chewed, and recently. So whatever those things were, they still needed to eat. I wondered just how long they’d been standing there waiting for someone to come through the circle.
We tried the double doors at the far end but found them securely bolted or barred from the other side. We weren’t getting out that way, and I couldn’t see another exit. There were no windows anywhere, and there was no way to get up to the ceiling. We might even be underground.
“What do you want to do?” Merindra asked.
I sighed. I wanted to see what was here, where the Yama-Kana circle led to. And we found out. But until I knew more about what we were facing, going further didn’t seem wise.
“I think we go back. I have no idea what we’ve gotten ourselves into here. I didn’t expect anything like this.”
“And we come back here on the train?”
“I think so.”
The circle took us back to Phan-garad. When we emerged from the room and prepared to climb down, Merindra stopped me. She pulled me into her arms and kissed me fiercely, pressing her tight body against mine. I kissed her back until she came up for air after several long moments, pressing her forehead against my chin.
“All your other wives have seen you fight. Narilora and Mereceeree have fought beside you. I had not done either. I feel as if I truly became your wife tonight, Will.”
“You’ve been my wife.”
“In your bed, and in your home, yes. But not in your purpose on Taitala. You’ve given me a child. You’ve given me pleasure I did not dream of before you claimed me. But tonight was the equal of it.”
I laughed softly.
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“I hope so.”
We climbed back down to the street and headed home.
But we’d been back only a minute or two when I heard a flutter above us.
Mereceeree came gliding in, landing a few feet away.
“Tsulygoi – ” Then she got a good look at us and our injuries and gasped.
“You were right,” I said. “Whatever’s controlling that other circle doesn’t seem to want any visitors.”
I explained briefly. Her face took on a look of horror.
“That should not be possible.”
I just shrugged at her.
“Only a very evil person would do such a thing,” she said.
“It was clearly someone who didn’t care for those people, and was ready to kill to stop anyone from coming through that circle.”
“Are you all right? You are both wounded.”
“Not seriously,” Merindra said. “There were only nine of them. Fair odds for the two of us.”
She smiled. Mereceeree laughed.
“I am truly fortunate to have such fierce warriors as tsulygoi and awasa-late.” But her mirth left just as quickly. “I must consult with my mother about this. She needs to know, and she may have advice for us.”
“Do what you have to, bat-girl,” I said.
She spread her wings, and a moment later she was gone into the darkness above.
We tried not to wake the rest of them, but Ayarala had developed a sixth sense for issues around the house and woke up as we were getting undressed. It took a few minutes to calm her down once she got a look at our injuries, but she cleaned both of us up and stitched up the cut in Merindra’s arm and the one in my leg. Then she scolded us for doing something so dangerous without telling her first. Eventually we went to bed.