Chapter 3


It was near noon when Arshel and Dennis arrived at the mountain city of Firestrip. She stood with her bhirhir on the steps of the shuttleport building, a chill wind whipping her thin Vrashin-style wrap as she eyed other travelers in thick cloaks. Before them, the five ragged mountains were shrouded in purple mist and decorated with a matte of glittering points where the harsh sun struck square buildings.

"Dennis, can't we go someplace warmer?"

Cheerfully, Dennis said, "See those two guys sitting on the fountain edge, the human and the kren? I'll bet they're complaining to each other of the heat." He laughed. "Now listen. I'll point out our major landmarks so you won't get lost." Rapidly, he listed them and pointed to the Mautri temple. "That's where you're going to school."

She gazed upward. "But it's so far from the University."

The temple and the campus are linked by a main street and an underground tunnel. It takes only a few minutes to cross the whole town, even in winter. We'll find a cheap apartment on South Wassly, halfway between the two schools. Arshel, you're going to love Firestrip."

He went on telling her about the wonderful town where he'd grown up, but her eyes strayed again to the two young men sitting on the fountain. The kren's eyes seemed to meet hers for a moment in obvious interest. No. No freshwater spawn would ever want me. Firestrip would be a lonely home.

At last, he guided her toward a dark doorway in a kiosk jutting up from the pavement in the plaza. Inside, they found steps. By the time they reached the bottom, she was panting in the thin mountain air, and a sharp pain lanced through her body.


He slowed, saying, "Yeah, I'm out of breath, too. Don't worry. In a couple of days you'll get over it."

They came to an underground platform. There were people waiting for the train, and some of them weren't human or kren. An odor hung in the air: mixed species in a closed space. Though it was warmer here, it was also stuffier.

All her life, she'd seen pictures and read stories about the mainland underground trains, but now that she was here, it didn't seem so glamourous. She had to keep reminding herself that the ground here didn't shake, that there wasn't an ocean above them trying to seep in and drown them.

Still when the train skidded into the station, she jumped and felt a hot flood of venom rush into her sack. Embarrassed, she thought that all eyes had noticed her sack quivering, and that produced another small surge of venom.

"Hey," said Dennis, putting an arm about her. "Relax."

His touch soothed her jangled nerves, and her fangs slid back into place. He studied the markings on the train and said, "We must have just missed one."

They stood in the stifling atmosphere as three more trains passed. But at last they mounted one of the sleek blue trains.

He thrust a small map into her hands, and as the train glided along, he tried to explain the system of markings and destinations. But she could only cling to the soothing sound of his voice, telling herself that if he wasn't frightened, she shouldn't be. But her surmother's voice whispered that humans had no emotions; how would he know when to be scared? Kill this human and come back to us.

She shook herself out of memory, aware of the human flesh next to hers in the crowded car. He's really immune to me now. I couldn't kill him unless I actually hated him. Even then I couldn't kill him and survive it.

The University was all pink stone buildings and huge parks. In one of the largest buildings, they stood in a line until Dennis could seat himself at a desk terminal—reassuringly familiar--and enroll in his courses.

When they left the campus, Dennis had an envelope stuffed with documents. He held one under her eyes. "See, our first stipend. Now we can open a bank account, find an apartment, and buy you a decent coat. Then we'll have to go back to the port and pick up our luggage."

He went on listing the chores that had to be done that day and the next, but Arshel couldn't take it all in. At one point, they emerged from another underground terminal into a hillside street. Dennis paused to survey the neighborhood. The houses here were older, fighting off shabbiness with worn dignity. Well, she thought, I always wanted to live in an exotic setting.

"I'm afraid we're going to have to hike up a few levels to find our place, Arshel. Come on, we'll go slowly."

Arshel eyed the switchback street that climbed the side of Wassly Hill and pulled her new coat up around her head. They'd eaten a hot meal in the students' facility, but all that heat was gone. She tried to breathe deeply as Dennis paused to read the map, but her throat constricted against the cold.

As he started to move on, she caught sight of a huge, old limousine with a Brenilak face framed in the rear window, peering at the natives. She glimpsed the human and kren pair they'd seen at the port fountain. The human was watching her, she was sure.

With a shudder that was from more than the cold, she followed Dennis up a stairway cut between massive buildings. It's the weather that forces them to build this way.

"There must be a tunnelway up this hill from the station," said Dennis, panting as they emerged onto the street above. "We'll have to learn the route before the first deep snow."

The apartment Dennis had the key to was small but decent enough to boast a small fountain in one corner of the living room and two full immersion basins, though no hatching pond. There was a balcony off the central room that gave a view of the sparkling lights of downtown Firestrip, scintillating in the deep shadows while the sky still glowed with twilight.

As the stars came out, she saw in the far distance an outline of a kyralizth picked out in points of flame. It seemed to float above the sea of purple shadow, kyralizth, of heaven, not of earth. Curiously, it made her feel at home, and it struck her with such a thrill of awe that she couldn't move until the fire rippled downward and disappeared.

It was the Mautri ceremony, but it was virtually identical to the Vlen sundown ceremony she had been raised on. To the Vlen, it meant the pledge of the bhirhir to surparent the children of the other. But what might it mean to Mautri?

"Come on, Arshel," said Dennis, unaware of her thoughts. "Let's see if they left any bedding sand for you."

After Dennis had expressed her thoroughly and they'd had something hot to eat, she found it remarkably easy to drift into sleep, curled on the artificially warmed sand. In the morning, after a good hot soak, Firestrip didn't seem quite so inhospitable. She went for groceries while Dennis made the trip to get their luggage. He wasn't back when she returned, and so she busied herself cleaning the kitchen and sweeping the balcony, trying to ignore the pointed roofs.

She was on the balcony when he drove up below in a beat-up taxi with a hauler behind. He had not only their luggage but desks, lamps, bookcases, and a computer console of an old but very expensive model.

"Stopped by to get some of my things some friends were storing for me, and they loaned me a desk for you, too," he said breathlessly as he helped the human taxi driver cart things up the three flights of stairs.

As Dennis paid the driver, the man said, "Youngster, go slow until you get your lungs back. That sea air will rot you from the inside out." Then his eyes lit appraisingly on Arshel, and he mumbled an apology and left.

Again, Arshel felt herself in an alien world.

The rest of that day and the next went in getting settled. Then Dennis' classes began. But one morning he announced, "It's a lovely day for a picnic, and I've got something to show you. Dress warmly; it's windy up on top."

She found out that the hill they were living on had the Wassly Crown on its summit. Surrounded by the translucent green monoliths, sun slanting through them to bring them alive, she felt as if she were looking down into the depths of the ocean.

She wasn't aware of having moved at all, but her fingers touched the surface of one of the monoliths, and it was as if she melted into the green depths, swallowed by a profound peace, while on the edge of awareness there was something she had to know and couldn't quite remember.

Only the shifting sun, darkening the interior of the monolith, brought her back to reality. Dennis was watching her expectantly. "Did you see anything?"

"See?" This was an archeological site as old as the Vrashin site, but it was still alive. "No, it was just, well, almost as good as taking a long, deep swim in the ocean. But there is something here, Dennis. I just don't know how to get at it."

Beckoning, Dennis walked out of the stone circle, gathered up their things, and said, "The Mautri are going to teach you how to get at it. Come on, today is one of their receiving days. Let's go talk to them."

He was already on the path down when she caught up with him and pulled him to a halt. "Dennis, I'm not Mautri. I was raised Vlen. The Mautri here are freshwater spawn; they'll all hate me. And Dennis, they teach balbhirhir!"

He put one sheltering arm about her shoulders, his fingers just brushing her sensitive venom sack, sending waves of relaxation through her. "Is that all you've been worrying about? I'm not talking about enrolling you in the priesthood! I'm only talking about the Outer School. Lots of kren send their children there for a year or so. They aren't going to make you learn balbhirhir." He stopped and gripped her by both shoulders, searching her face, as unable, she realized, to read her expression as she was to read his. "Shel, you can't think that I want to get rid of you."

There it was in clear words, the fear she hadn't really admitted to herself. How could anyone think he doesn't understand my emotions?

He went on with a sort of quiet desperation. "I've been replanning my life around you. You said you'd train to become my archeovisualizer. I thought you meant it."

"I did, but—"

"The Mautri have the best training in the psychic fields, and you're a Lakely now. The best school is the only place you belong."

She couldn't find any answer to that, and his face became animated with wide-eyed excitement. "Shel, this is going to make you a true Lakely. When my father finds out what you and I can do together—you'll see! The City of a Million Legends will be a Lakely find!"

Her bafflement melted then, as she understood that it was the family achievement that was so important to him. But as they made their way across the city in silence, she thought, What if the priests send me away?

They waited much of the afternoon in the outside courtyard, watching the fountain and the creeping shadows. All around the walls, on stone benches, other applicants also sat, waiting. Some with their bhirhir, some alone, they all sat in stillness, as if applying for the priesthood itself.

Most of the applicants were children or, like her, on the very threshold of adulthood. As time passed, others arrived, met by the same priest who had met them. The newcomers were also told to wait.

By late afternoon, the benches were full and the courtyard lined all about with dusty feet in summer shoes. Dennis was the only human and Arshel the only one bundled up for winter.

Then the inner doors opened in a nicely arched doorway that revealed nothing of the dark interior. A line of seven blue-robed priests came out, circled the fountain, and turned outward to face every way around the courtyard. They moved toward the applicants, and each chose a candidate. Only seven were chosen from the fifty or more there.

Relief and alarm warred in Arshel while the priest who had greeted them all said that those who had not been chosen were invited to come again. The seven chosen ones stood facing their choosers while the courtyard emptied.

But as they reached the gateway, the priest who had greeted them said, "Arshel?"

Startled, she stopped, looking about for anyone she knew, but it could only have been the strange priest who had spoken.

"Arshel, there is one within who would speak with you. I cannot invite your bhirhir to attend within walls."

No! she thought, catching her impulse to yell.

The priest added, "You will be safe with us. And so will your bhirhir."

"How did you know my name?"

"I guessed."

"Arshel," said Dennis in a whisper, "go ahead. I don't mind waiting. This could be our lucky break. I told you they always recognize talent and never turn away anyone with a solid measure of it—like you have."

The priest said, "This offer will not be available to you tomorrow. The one who makes it is dying. You must decide quickly."

She looked at the rising tiers of walls of the inner courts, at the tall spires with tiny windows all about their enormous square stone girth. If she left now, she'd be curious about the inside of a Mautri temple all her life. Of course, she could always say no. She answered, "I'll come."

The priest turned, barring the gate behind the last of the failed applicants. The accepted ones were already out of sight. He led her to a small door and closed it behind them. They were in a small chamber between walls, and then another door opened to let them into a huge court with tiered fountains bigger than any she'd ever seen.

They went up twisting narrow stairs and down long, broad corridors. Occasionally, niches were carved into the walls, displaying ancient works of art, each seeming to radiate some silent message she couldn't quite read. Doors and more doors, and at last they came to a chamber fit for a feudal king.

Within the high room, woven hangings were draped from the ceiling, depicting the night sky. Under the hangings, the air was close for even the heat of summer; compressed kelp burned in the fireplace, an odor of home for Arshel. Beyond, enclosed by a circle of hangings, in a chair by the fire, sat the oldest kren she'd ever seen. The saltwater hues of his ancient hide were almost obliterated by the years.

Behind her, the door closed with a solid thump, and she was alone with the elder priest. He beckoned her to the fire, moving with ease, though his skin seemed taut enough to put him on the verge of molt. "Arshel, at last. Come sit by the fire. You must be cold in these mountains. But I've waited all this time for you, to welcome you."

"Venerable, though I'm glad to be welcomed, I've no intention of becoming a Mautri priest."

"Oh, no, of course not!" The old kren laughed, a brittle hissing sound that startled her. But oddly, venom didn't come in response to that surge of alarm.

"Your future lies," continued the old one, "if you're brave enough for it, out among the stars, among all the varied species of mankinds. Let me tell you a story."

His ancient eyes drifted to the fire, and she thought for a moment that he'd fallen into a doze or perhaps even died.

"Years ago," he resumed, "when I was still Chief Priest here, a human came to the inner court to sit for admission to the priesthood. He was hardly old enough to have begun schooling, yet he was worthy in every way. Eight days and nights he sat, determined to be chosen, though we passed him over every day. His instinct was good. He would have become great among us, if his parents hadn't come for him.

"For several previous lifetimes, he had been a Mautri priest and had perfected all that he could among us so that this time he was born as a human for a special purpose. When he was dying previously, as a white priest, he had instructed us that if he should return, we were to pass him over, for his destiny lay with the Arshel who would seek our training here."

Arshel didn't believe it. The Vlen did not believe that people could live again, let alone as another species. And how could anyone know it beforehand?

"He told us we must train this Arshel who would come with a human male as her bhirhir. Many such women have come—none, however, named Arshel, and none from the islands. Until now. And so we offer you our inner court and the best of our training. Many times before, you have chosen not to essay this most difficult path. But once again you stand upon the threshold to choose. This time you do not stand alone."

He's talking about Dennis. And he did know my name.

"Venerable," she said, "I don't wish to study for your priesthood."

"For the sake of our brother, we're offering you our training without the vows and obligations of a priest."

Since childhood she'd looked with yearning and wonder upon the kyralizth, certain somehow that to know its real secrets would solve all her problems. She wanted to say yes quickly, before the old man died. She caught herself.

"I must discuss all this with my bhirhir."

"Of course. You will return."

Suddenly, she realized that she had come to the temple wanting nothing to do with people who exalted balbhirhir, afraid of them as if it were contagious. And this old man in a white robe had simply spoken a few words that couldn't possibly be true, making her eager to take a place among the student priests!

She had ripped herself out of the bosom of her family, taken a human male bhirhir, followed him halfway around the world to a mountain city made of icy winds and square corners—and now she was eager to abandon her ancestral teachings and turn Mautri, as this white-robed priest must have done once.

What is happening to me?

End Chap 3  

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This Page Was Last Updated by JL  07/26/15 02:24 PM EST (USA)



First Lifewave novels copyright © 1980, 1982, 1985, 2000 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg.  All rights reserved.