The Road Long Sought
"You must be ill!" Jevrar hissed. The squat innkeeper bared his long, jagged teeth. His scales turned a bright red. "My cuisine is the finest, yet all you request is water. Were you not a patron of long standing, Ba'sir, I would throw you out of my establishment and onto the street!"
The black Thunderan shifted slightly on the only seat in the tavern strong enough to support his weight, and reached into his belt pouch. He dropped a faceted emerald that he had procured from his velvet bag onto the table before him. "I have also heard that your water is the most sought after on Zaben. Your best season, please."
Jevrar laughed and quickly scooped up the gem. "Truly, you have hatched from a demon's egg, Ba'sir," he said with approval. "You will have your way, as always." The innkeeper snarled a command to a slender female clad in a sheer tunic that shimmered with rainbow color. Her green hood erect with excitement, she darted from her sanctuary by the hearth, and disappeared into the kitchen. "Z'zin'da, your favorite, will fill your order. And should you choose the pleasure--"
The innkeeper tugged at the strings of his apron, and rattled his tail with displeasure. "You have been gone for some time. I don't know what happened on your last 'expedition', my friend, but it is clear that you need the services of a physician. No food and no sex. Although your size is still grand, you appear thinner. Scaled mother! Clearly, you are not yourself."
"It's too hot in here," Ba'sir remarked, ignoring Jevrar's comment. He removed his yellow turban, and set it on the table.
The innkeeper suddenly grabbed the head covering, and pitched it into the fireplace. The fearful patrons moved like a living wave to the opposite end of the large room. With the shrill tones generated by his tail emphasizing his words, Jevrar scolded, "If you were well, Ba'sir, I could not have done that, and I would already be dead!"
Ba'sir rubbed his thick chin in contemplation, but found no answer to his dilemma. Jevrar's words had sounded the truth. Since he had departed the world that had become the home to the Thunderans he had rescued from slavery, he had felt not jubilation, but only growing despair. His favorite pastimes enticed him not, and the reason for his melancholy had yet to make itself known.
The panther slowly rose from his seat, the burden of his thoughts hampering him far more than his substantial flesh. Jevrar backed away in terror, apparently convinced that for the ruination of the turban, the merchant was about to scale him where he stood, and serve him as the evening's fare.
Ba'sir passed him without a word. The Thunderan pushed his way through the heavy wooden doors, and disappeared into the night.
The ocean mirrored with unnerving clarity the two full moons of Zaben and the stars that painted the night sky. With each vanishing moment, the water edged closer to the lone figure who stood on the beach. Ba'sir pulled a shell out of the sand. Whatever had lived in the blackened spiral had died long ago. The merchant sang softly and the husk of the mollusc suddenly glowed red. The black panther heaved his find into the ocean. The shell sailed far before striking the surface and disrupting the perfection of the reflected image. Maybe they will come and reward the effort that I have made to get here, he thought. I have spent half the night traveling down that gods forsaken plateau. If the officials from the spaceport knew that I had journeyed to this protected area, the fines that I would incur would be steep indeed.
Weary of hearing only the numbing sound of the tide, Ba'sir spoke. "And maybe the Omnastari will stay beneath they waves, for they are a fickle race." His voice deepened with admiration, "But they are so beautiful." Turning away from the ocean, he walked toward a collection of rocks near the cliffs, and searched for a place to wait.
With little deliberation, he soon chose a wide, flat stone on which to sit. The merchant silently examined the idea which had the possibility of tempting him out of his melancholy. It would be over quickly, Ba'sir thought, scanning the ocean. A single tone, and then there would be no way back. Without the power of my voice, I would sacrifice all my magic. The finality of the choice made him shiver despite the humid warmth of Zaben's summer. He turned his mind to the delights that might await him in his new form, and began to thaw the ice that had frozen his soul since his departure from Third Earth.
Oh, but the gains! I would make myself the largest male amongst the Omnastari. My scales would glitter red and black, and my long green fins would billow like great sails. Many females would fight for the privilege of entering my rahildi. The chosen ones would eagerly follow me into the caverns. They would line the crevices in my cave with gems. They would choose the silkiest seaweed to weave for my bed. From the hunt, they would bring me only the best flesh. I would embrace females who would marvel at the width of my chest, and who would nuzzle the soft tissue surrounding my gills to show their favor. My powerful tail would encircle one who would gladly take me into herself and pleasure me beyond my endurance. Even though I would be weak with begging for release, she would not let me go until she had driven me into unconsciousness.
The Thunderan used his foot to trace a rune in the sand. In my original shape, I can never grow old. At least in a chosen form, time will touch me for awhile before it again knows defeat. As one of the Omnastari, I will pass many seasons under the water, unless I chose to die or a predator dines on me. In the eternity that is my life, my thoughts and my being will become those of my adopted people. My Thunderan nature will slip away. One day, if the gods have pity upon me, I will truly forget who and what I was.
The merchant looked at the mark he had made. "The rune of truth." Ba'sir chuckled. "My foot knows what my brain does not." He slapped his thigh and growled, "But it appears that two truths are evident. If I take this path, I will have failed my teacher Mri'rai'den, who taught me magic in return for my promise to fight slavery. And even among the Omnastari, I would eventually live alone. No female will stay with a male who cannot make her swell."
A memory surfaced and his inner self found fault with his reasoning. There was one female who mated with you only for the purpose of reproduction, and in that endeavor you succeeded, Ba'sir, the guardian chided.
He answered himself with annoyance. "It was my blood, not my seed that allowed her wish to be granted, fool!"
A meteor suddenly blazed across the sky. The distraction ended his argument. Perhaps I should take this as a sign, he thought as he watched the object descend and seemingly disappear into the ocean. The damned on their last journey.
The curving trails in the sand formed by wind and wave spoke to him of the ancestry that was his father's gift. Inheritance and sorcery hid the stripes that marked his mixed blood, but so much that he had achieved he owed to the legendary strength and endurance of the tiger race. Ba'sir breathed deeply of the night air. The tiny blue flowers that clung to the cliffs made a sweet perfume that reminded him of his mother. He remembered her dark beauty, and her powerful creativity, and wondered if somewhere in the silence, she heard his mournful thoughts.
Ra'sa'ba. Ta'sa'ba. I have lived a lifetime searching for you and others of our people. In my quest, I have rescued many strange beings from slavery. I have returned most of them to their homeworlds, or have given them refuge on my estate. But now the long seasons have carved their mark upon my soul, and I grow too tired to continue.
The panther leapt to his feet and raised his fist to the heavens. He roared his anger to the gods. "Only four Thunderans have I brought out of slavery. Why have you not shown me more roads to others of my kind! Have I not suffered and sacrificed enough? My spaceship is more my home than the world of Xi Four. Time flees from me. I have found no one worthy to train who might ease my path with companionship and commitment to my cause. I have nothing left to offer you, but my life."
The stars danced in the sky. Ba'sir put his hands to his face to stop the dizziness that lack of nourishment and stress had created. He knelt upon the sand and prayed. I have come to the crossroad. I am sorry to have failed my teacher, but it seems that the battle ends with me. I will become Omnastari, and offer myself to you, Ni'tara, Lady of Fate. Decide how long I am to live. In your mercy, give me someone with whom I can share my bed of kelp. Have pity upon me, and allow me to forget.
Surrender...surrender...surrender, the waves called.
The merchant studied the glittering patterns in the sky; ran his fingers through the soft sands; caressed the rough stone; and bade farewell to all that he had known. He removed his clothing slowly out of respect for what he had once been and the status he had earned. He stroked the lines of white fur that patterned his torso, a chosen remnant of the unique encounter which had allowed him to affect posterity. For a moment, he regretted having never met one of the brood he had helped to generate.
Returning to his work, he neatly arranged all that he had worn on the rocks. Ba'sir studied the pile, and for the first time in many suns felt a lightness of heart. Whoever finds this will surely have added to his wealth, he thought with amusement. Those wonderful silks from Ibari will bring a nice price; the boots are of the finest Xian leather; and jewels are such an easy currency with which to trade. He considered the poor officials who, under the laws of the Council of Worlds, would have the unfortunate task of carrying out the stipulations in his will, and laughed. They would have to decide how to distribute some of the rich cargo of his abandoned ship to the poor of Zaben, and would have to contact those individuals who guarded his estate on Xi Four, the heirs to what treasures remained. The officials should not curse me too much, Ba'sir thought with amusement. Enough will remain for them to be well paid for their efforts. The muscles of his chest tightened unexpectedly with anxiety, banishing his mirth. Better go before I reconsider, he decided firmly. The merchant quickly turned away from his possessions, and strode purposefully toward the sea.
The tepid water swirled about his ankles, the salt spray anointing his fur. When the sea reached his waist, Ba'sir halted, and reached for the stars.
The merchant clutched his brow. The unconscionable act resurrected old terrors. The memory of past torture made his heart pound. He answered the unseen one in same trade language that had pierced his thoughts. "Who dares to invade my mind!" Ba'sir thundered, both furious and frightened by the violation. He turned, and looked at the shore. "No one," he gasped.
*You are wrong, merchant.*
"Then show yourself!" the panther commanded. His emotions made him cast away jan'nirri stealth. Ba'sir stormed back toward the cover of the cliffs, the desire for vengeance compelling him forward despite his nakedness. He fervently hoped that he would find the one who had toyed with him, for then he would beat the stranger senseless for his unspeakable intrusion.
The stones farthest from the sea rose up from the sand like the pillars of an ruined temple. A long shadow intersected his path. A gigantic figure emerged from behind a column. "Snr'y't," Ba'sir cursed in surprise.
In all the seasons that he had roamed the stars, he had never seen another being that had matched this one. The yellow-brown colossus stood twice his height, and wore only a torque for adornment. Its long, serpentine neck ended with a wedge-shaped head. Although only thinly furred, its unclothed form gave no hint as to its sex.
The creature opened its six-fingered hands in a gesture of peace. Its small mouth made a vain attempt at a smile. The touch of its mind made the merchant cringe. *I will not harm you,* it communicated. *You may possess information that I require.*
To conceal his dismay, Ba'sir retorted boldly, "Stay out of my mind, or I will not listen to anything that you have to say!"
Its dark eyes blinked with surprise. The mind reply now carried an almost apologetic tone. *For communication, my race uses telepathy exclusively.*
Sensing the giant's discomfort, Ba'sir knew that he had gained the advantage. This being could have already felled me with a blow from one of his strong arms or legs, the Thunderan concluded with satisfaction. The merchant folded his arms across his chest, then spoke with a false confidence that he hoped would also quell his own fears. "I suppose that I shall have to accept your explanation. I am not unreasonable, but I do find such methods distasteful. For myself, I can only communicate with words." At least in this form! he thought, reflecting upon the half-truth he had spoken. "Now tell me what you are called."
The creature swayed, the six toes on each of its long feet clenching spasmodically. Ba'sir's uneasiness gave way to confusion. "Was the question too difficult?" he asked.
A rumble akin to the tone of a temple drum was the answer that the merchant received from the stranger. That the sound carried frustration was something that further piqued Ba'sir's curiosity. He remarked, "Even with my formidable girth, I don't believe that my diaphragm could help me to reproduce such a blast. Can we decide on a name that I can speak?"
Its long neck bowed. The being's dark eyes were now on a level with his own, and reflected what the merchant could only guess was consternation. *My kind have no use for names! We are the first principle. We are responsible for all that is!*
Although he tried to restrain himself, Ba'sir found that he could not resist the impulse to comment. "Then why, O Lord of the Universe, do you need any information from me at all?
The being did not move, but the blow that it landed with its mind knocked the panther down. Ba'sir immediately tried to sit up, but to his horror discovered that he could not move. "X'trint!" he cried.
The giant stood over him like a conqueror. *We progress through four forms for each lifetime. I am in the second phase of life. During the third phase, we can actively manipulate the reality our existence created. Those who currently have this power have set the rules to include themselves. Some things are left hidden, so that we will not grow bored.* The creature snorted as if perturbed. *At least this is what I know. Whether it is true....*
"You might know when you grow older," Ba'sir managed to remark, although he was helpless. The paralyzing grip on him suddenly loosened. Using the stones for leverage, the merchant stood. "I am sorry to have given offense," he said, his respect for the stranger having grown.
*Your race is a quarrelsome one,* the being replied, dismissing the merchant's apology. *Sometimes I question the wisdom of my elders, and wonder why they ever rescued your people from that malformation in space."
"There are others from Thundera!" the merchant shouted in disbelief.
Sympathy replaced the anger in its eyes. *Yes. Approximately thirty thousand individuals, survivors of Thundera's destruction and the newborn. They live on our world. When one of our kind found evidence to suggest that more Thunderans might exist on another world, the elders ordered a search. I have questioned many, and the trail finally led to you: a Thunderan, a traveler and a seeker. Can you enlighten me?*
He had heard the question, but the staggering number the stranger had given him was all that commanded Ba'sir's thoughts. "Thirty thousand," he whispered with the awe usually reserved for the recitation of sacred text.
*Can you add any to that count, merchant?* the giant asked with insistence.
The irony of his situation made the panther laugh. Unsteady from the shocking discovery, Ba'sir sat on the sand. Tears born of hysteria, joy and relief slid down his face. "The gods will have their jest," he declared. "The road does not end yet."
The impatient summons, forcibly sent, brought Ba'sir out of his bewilderment. "I have found but twelve in all," he answered, his composure slowly returning. "Eight are also survivors of Thundera's destruction, and, as I understand, one of them is the young king. They have settled on a primitive world well off the trade routes. They call it Third Earth, what we know as Sol Three. I can show you the location on my star charts. To this small colony, I brought four other Thunderans whom I rescued from slavery on Zera."
*Excellent! Then soon our world will be free.*
*The reason for the quest. We wish our world to be our own again. The elders have grown tired of this experiment. Simply put, you can help us resettle your people on this Third Earth.*
"Have they known peace on your world?"
*Yes. We saved them, gave them a city and supplies, and for the most part, have left them alone. The elders took only their spaceship to balance the debt owed for altering reality.*
"I am not going to solve the equation that transforms a spaceship into a city," Ba'sir commented, brushing the sand from his fur as he stood. "I won't venture a guess on how your elders work their magic. However, I will tell you that if the people have been content on your world, they won't willingly leave it, even to be reunited with the king of Thundera."
The creature's response was as cold as space, and left no doubt in Ba'sir's mind that it and its comrades would accomplish their objective with or without Thunderan cooperation. I suppose that I truly have no choice either, he decided. In this situation I am outmatched. He said with as much calm as he could muster, "How do we proceed?"
*In helping your people, you have made the right choice.*
Ba'sir frowned. "Judge me not by an altruistic standard, zak'shan. I am a merchant. Surely there will be compensation for my services."
The creature's long eyes narrowed with doubt. *As you say, fat one,* it mocked, returning one insult for another. *But for now, you must go to your ship, and I to mine. Once in orbit, you will follow my instructions, so that our ships can dock. My vessel has a drive that, upon activation, will take us anywhere in the galaxy in a heartbeat.*
"Hard to believe that such a device is real," Ba'sir commented dryly.
*As I have said, nothing is impossible for the elders. Time and space exist only for their amusement. They have designed the fleet with maximum efficiency for those of us who travel the stars.*
A disturbance in the water made Ba'sir hold his sarcastic reply and compelled him instead to look to the sea. Three Omnastari leapt out of the water, and made a graceful arc before disappearing once again under the waves. "Another time, beautiful ones," he murmured, a combination of conflicting emotions still plaguing him. He wondered whether a fabricated story of his life would hold under the scrutiny of so many Thunderans.
Enough nonsense, Ba'sir, he thought. The gods have opened a road that you must take. You must be grateful for the opportunity that they have long denied you, despite the considerable drawbacks to your privacy and your well-crafted veneer. The oceans of Zaben and the Omnastari will last a very long time. He turned his attention back to the giant, but found no one.
Ba'sir snapped, "His elders might rule reality, but it seems they have neglected to teach the young one manners. How arrogant of him to just vanish and to think that I would follow his orders immediately."
*You will,* the unseen one retorted.
"But at my own pace," the merchant howled, "or there is no deal. Then your elders can do to me what they will, but I will give them a fight that they will remember!"
The only reply he heard was in the whistle made by the wind coursing through the fissures in the rocks. Relieved that he was not struck down where he stood for his rebellion, the merchant walked back to his abandoned possessions. "I will not be skybound until I've had decent meal and a good k'trik," he declared, kicking the sand for emphasis. "I've waited a long time for the messenger and the path to appear, and now both can wait for me!"
As if in agreement, his empty stomach rumbled. Ba'sir tightened his belt, and for the first time truly marked the loss of weight that the unused notch in the leather indicated. This is something that I must remedy, he decided. I have a reputation for size to protect. The cooling breeze suddenly made his skull cold. And that scoundrel Jevrar owes me a new hat too!
Forfeiting the ocean and its promises, the merchant headed for the narrow path that led back to the top of the plateau. As he climbed up the slope, he suddenly realized that he might finally have the opportunity to love a Thunderan pantheress, a fantasy he had long wished to make reality. "Too complex an issue to consider at this late hour," he complained to himself, dismissing the heady topic. "Choose something simpler, Ba'sir, but equally satisfying." He erased his many concerns by pondering instead the gastronomic possibilities in his new venture. There were many facets of Thunderan cuisine with which he, as a son of outcasts, was not familiar. "Thirty thousand from our lost world!" he declared, his mouth beginning to water in anticipation. "By Savar's sword, I hope one of them can cook!"