This is a preliminary sketch of Daryl from Kurt except he should have long hair in a tail
Last night I emailed the “polished draft” of Falling to my editors, so what you read here is a work in progress. in the comments section you have a last chance to tell me what you like, what you don’t like, how many mistakes I made, what’s missing, what’s too much. Or even if you don’t like it at all and I should quit trying to be a writer. Sending off a draft to be edited is a scary thing. But I’m planning on releasing Falling in July, so it had to be done.
Natalie Naudus is also beginning to record the audible book of Hunter now. The big question is: Will I have fingernails by the end of June? Actually, I won’t have time to chew on them as I have started Book Four. I can’t decide between these titles: Betrayal, or Betrayed. Which should I use? What does Betrayed invoke in you, what does Betrayal? I like Betrayal.
Every time Readen Me’Vere pulled one of the ancient books from his library shelves he heard Daryl’s voice. “Wear the cotton gloves. These books are precious and fragile.” It irritated him, but he always did it. Why had no one ever made copies of these?
He knew the answer. No one had expected the Larrak to reappear––the Itza Larrak, the last Larrak. But Readen brought it back—freed it from its prison in the columns of the now blocked cavern beneath Restal Hall. He discovered it as a child, by accident. It had never stopped teaching him its own magic. I’m more powerful now than the strongest talents. I have the Itza Larrak
All the long winter Readen spent every spare moment perusing the ancient books. The stories of the war against the Larrak fought when the colonists first arrived on Adalta. The stories they’d learned about the first war, fought a millennium before between the Karda and the newly invading Larrak. He turned the last page of the last book, closed it, and pushed back from the table. No one, either Karda or human, had ever connected with a Larrak like he had. He put it back on the shelf.
All that time wasted, all that power wasted breaking the preservation field on the five-hundred-year-old books and he’d learned nothing. His head heated with the familiar surge of frustration. He didn’t have talent. He’d never had talent. He was never going to have talent. The only person on Adalta ever born without talent. Readen pushed the old frustration back down––a distraction, a waste of time. And irrelevant. He didn’t have talent, but he had power. A little worm of thought asked, was the power his or was it borrowed? He ignored it.
He pulled the silver medallion from beneath his tunic. Well, silver-colored. He had no idea what the metal was. The Itza Larrak gave it to him when he was ten years old, the first time Readen released it from its imprisonment in the inscribed pillars of the cavern—with his own blood. Everyone thought of the Larrak as a boogey man to scare children into behaving. A legend. A fireside tale. It was real, now. It and its creatures, the urbat.
For several hours he’d felt it calling him. The pressure of the Itza Larrak’s call was growing more and more insistent and painful. Readen’s resistance was weakening. His power reserve was weakening.
When he’d finally brought the Larrak into material form, he'd woven a protective web between him and the Itza Larrak to keep it from killing him, from stealing his body. But it was something more now. He could feel it sucking holes in him. Holes the Larrak was trying to push tentacles into. He could not allow the Larrak to subsume him. He could not sacrifice himself for the Larrak. He could not let the Larrak control their connection.
Readen concentrated, sending an image of Daryl, sending the message that attacks on Daryl’s villages should be the focus of the urbat. And take Daryl’s attention away from him.
A knock at the door startled him. He gathered his thoughts and his meager notes and walked out into the hallway. A guard said, “Sorry to disturb you, sir, but there is a man with a closed wagon here who insists on seeing you.”
Samel, it had to be Samel with prisoners. Days late. A fire of relief kindled in Readen. Now he could regain the power he needed to resist the Itza Larrak’s call. Perhaps even call it to him instead. He didn’t run down the stairs ahead of the guard, but he took the last steps two at a time and opened the small side door out of the hall.
The driver pulled the wagon close to the entrance. Illias––not Samel––dismissed him and rolled off his horse, groaning. Tall, pale-faced, his black curls in an artful toss, he bent and stretched and smiled at Readen and the expressionless guard. “I want to kiss the ground. I am not used to––”
“Why are you so late?” Readen’s words snapped. “And where is Samel? Why are you here?”
Illias straightened as if a whip popped him. A forced smile twisted his mouth.
Readen dismissed the guard with instructions to find Pol, his oldest and most trusted guard, and turned back to Ilias.
The man’s forehead was wet with sweat and dark with dust. “I’m afraid Samel is in prison, and no one can get in to see him. I didn’t enjoy making––”
Readen grabbed Ilias by the shirtfront and pulled him close, nose to nose, toes stretching for the ground. Ilias’s eyes bulged. Now the fop was frightened.
“How did that happen?” Soft menace leached from every syllable.
He let go of Illias, who scrambled back, as far from Readen’s as he could get without running away.
Pol unlocked the wagon door and pulled out the two people inside. A tall, slender young man and a young woman, almost as tall, but far less slender, both dazed and disoriented. He led the pair away to the cells in the depths of the hold. They could hardly walk. Pol had to hold them upright and push them.
Readen felt nothing but cold relief and cold satisfaction. No rush of heat deep in his belly. No shiver of sexual anticipation. A faint buzz of confusion at this absence fluttered in the back of his mind. He slapped it away, like swiping at a mosquito.
“Drugged. You cowardly worm, you over-drugged them. How much did you give them, and how long before it wears off?”
Illias reappeared and shrugged, his shoulders so high and tight they almost covered his ears. “I had no choice. They are both strong. And loud. How else could I keep them quiet? It takes a tenday to get here in the best conditions, and we didn’t have the best conditions. The mud was axel deep in places.” He cleared his throat, and his voice steadied—almost. “The effects will be gone in a couple of days.” His hands wormed around and through each other close in front of his belly, his usual aplomb nowhere in sight.
Readen sniffed at the fear smell pouring off Illias. It fed his power, but there was no arousal. “Go settle your horses and guards and come to my study. I need your report.” He went back up the stairs to pace the length of the room. Samel arrested and incommunicado. How had that happened? How had he been discovered? Readen depended on Samel to stir up and organize opposition to rule by talent in the prime so when Readen acted to take it over, there would be support. He’d not done that the first time. It had been a mistake.
Illias knocked on the open door.
“Who exposed Samel?”
Illias froze, fist still upraised, swallowed, and took a step inside. “I don’t know who. Or how he was discovered. Although I suspect it was too many unexplained absences from the Prime.”
“How are you explaining your absence? Can I depend on you, or are you next to be imprisoned? And spill what you know to Daryl? Or Krager?” Readen felt his forehead crease in a frown, but what he didn’t feel was the familiar rage at the thought of his brother and the duplicitous Krager. Then that thought drifted away, or was pushed by something. He shook his head.
Illias’s voice was thick, as if he needed to force control over his lips and tongue. “I’m checking on my hold, which as you know, is not far from here. To set up defenses against the urbat attacks.”
“Ah. yes. I’d forgotten you have a small holding.” Readen rounded the end of his desk and sat, his back to the light from the window. Illias frowned and squinted at him. “You needn’t worry about the urbat attacking.” He forced a genial tone. Holding his long practiced facade was difficult. It shouldn't be.
Illias looked confused.
I shouldn’t have said that. I can’t afford to inadvertently confirm any suspicion I released the Itza Larrak. I’m forgetting myself too often. Rumors of my connection with the urbat and the Itza Larrak must stay rumors. My troops, even the mercenaries would walk away on the instant if they don’t. “Your hold is close enough to mine. The mercenaries I’ve hired will be here soon. I can protect it.” He relaxed his shoulders and smiled the old, familiar Readen's-your-friend smile.
Illias smiled a shaky smile of relief. His hold was small and wasn’t rich.
“Now, give me your report from Restal Prime and your journey here. Are my rumors about the revolt against repressive rule by the strongest talents spreading? What news from the guards inside the hall? What is happening with the struggle against the urbat? Are they attacking? What has become of the Itza Larrak?”
Illias began to talk. The longer he talked, the stronger his voice became and the straighter he stood. “We traveled by night, wrapping the horses hooves and harnesses to muffle them. My two outriders spotted a number of Daryl’s sentries, but we were able to avoid them. We weren’t spotted.”
Readen didn’t believe that. Of course they were seen. Illias’s only hope was that no one recognized him. Readen’s hope, too. Illias was accomplished at ingratiating himself with the powerful, and Readen needed his information. So he listened to Illias’s reports for a long time, unspeaking but for the occasional question. His expression genial, but inside he might have been one of the stones in the wall of his study.
Daryl pulled the small saddle bag off Abala’s back, reached down to give Cedar a hand up from her unexpected seat on the ground. Her eyes get larger and larger as Mi’hiru and troopers all around them unloaded the rolled blankets and small tents from saddle bags and the cargo harnesses of the un-partnered Karda who accompanied the group. Karda hated to be used as pack animals and didn't make it a secret, but they agreed to carry the extra supplies the humans would need, willing to do a lot of things they hated in order to defeat the Larrak. Pack horses couldn’t keep up with flying Karda.
They’d landed in one of the small oases that dotted the immense barrens of Adalta established by First Planters, who established trees and grasses around the springs they found as staging areas for later groups of the Planter Corps. Cottonwoods strained to release their flying feathery seeds but hadn’t let go of them yet, so he wasn’t surrounded by sneezes, dripping red noses, and watering red eyes.
“What’s all that for?” She turned to Daryl, hands on her hips. “We’re staying here all night? Outside?” The word “outside” squeaked.
“I thought you understood. I informed Glenn and Assam. It’s a three-day flight with so many people. Especially people who’ve never done anything remotely like this before.” Daryl’s eyes never stopped surveying the surroundings, but he noticed Cedar’s glare at Glenn. It could burn a hole in his back. Glenn turned, and Daryl struggled not to laugh at the his delight, at her disgust.
“Well, he didn’t tell me.” Indignation growled in a voice he didn’t think she intended him to hear.
Marta and another small Mi’hiru began setting up a tent near the little stream of water that wandered through the clearing. She waved Cedar over. “Finder Mireia has offered to share her tent with you. I figured you would be more comfortable sharing than alone this first night under the stars. And it will be good to have her near you if your talent manifests. It took a crisis for mine to show up, and it blasted through me. I hope you don’t need her like that, but she’ll feel better if you're close. She asked that Glenn and Assam share a tent next to hers.”
His eyes followed Cedar making her awkward way through the bundles and packs. “I know we were told everyone will manifest some kind of what you call talent ability, but I’m finding that hard to accept. And what stars?” She waved a hand at the gray sky. “We won’t see any stars tonight.”
Assam stood by the creek, staring down at the water. “The clouds will be gone soon.” Not a hint of doubt in his voice. Daryl didn’t think he even realized he spoke aloud. He watched the current swirl around and around in front of Assam. Tiny fingers of the stream reached toward him then splashed back. Assam was entranced. No one else noticed. A Water talent. And not only a Water talent, but a very strong one, and Assam doesn’t know.
He made sure Mireia noticed, and she moved to talk to him. Daryl set sentries around the edge of the oasis. He didn’t think the urbat attacks spread into the barrens, but this group was a large target, and Galen, with his incredible Earth talent, was one of their preferred targets. He, the Kern, Tessa, the Austringer, and Kishar had destroyed hundreds of Urbat. Tessa and Kishar had nearly killed the Itza Larrak at the end of fall last year.
Even though the oasis was not close to the Circle of Disorder that spawned urbat and should be safe, a number of Karda, relieved of riders and packs, flew watch in coordinated circles beneath the thinning clouds anyway. Abala was among them.
More and more Karda had shown themselves in the skies over the past several tendays, since winter lessened its icy hold and allowed spring to edge its way in. Karda in colors Daryl had never seen before. There were even a couple of white Karda with bright yellow flight feathers. Bays with dark blue heads and tails. Sorrels with primary colors on crests, on wings, on tails. And every once in a while, so high they were little more than shiny Karda-shaped dots, gleaming golds like Ket, the Karda who partnered Galen. Those gold Karda never landed anywhere they could be seen. Every time they were visible, Ket acted like he wanted to hide behind something, except there was nothing big enough to hide him.
No one knew where Karda came from, other than from the mountains. The only fledgling Karda ever seen were the two rescued by Altan Me’Gerron when their parents were killed. Karda showed up when they were needed as they had when the colonists first arrived on Adalta and joined the war between them and the Larrak.
They were cared for by Mi’hiru, with whom they bonded in a mystical, unbreakable connection. Sometimes a Karda would also choose another, as Abala had chosen Daryl when he was a child. Un-partnered Karda carried others, such as members of the Karda Patrol, forming friendships and alliances. Everyone knew there were more Karda in the inaccessible middle of the mountains. They’d disappeared from the rest of Adalta when that first war ended. Or rather paused for five centuries.
Daryl shook himself free of the mystical sight of Karda in coordinated swirls like flocks of enormous swallows overhead. He didn’t bother setting up his tent. The clouds thinned as Assam predicted. The cooks’ three fires burned to coals, and faint smells of dinner drifted. Some Karda patrollers were still setting up tents. The rest of the party perched around the fires on rocks or fallen cottonwood trunks dragged into a rough circle. There were stories, laughter, and chatter between the Adaltans and the ambassadors from the trade ship falling apart above them.
He made a round of the sentries, satisfied himself that they were spaced well, that most of them were experienced patrollers, that there were no new and young troopers who might be tempted to fall asleep—or panic over things that weren’t there. The night went quietly. Daryl made three more rounds. The stars shown bright every time, shadowed only by the swirling Karda taking turns keeping watch above.
As usual his sleep was fitful, second guesses circled doubts, circled insecurities, but by first light he was finally sound asleep. Until Abala screamed inside his head, ~Ware, Daryl. Urbat come. From the west.~
He heard Marta yell the same and saw Galen buckling his sword belt, looking toward the sky, probably telling Ket to fight from above. Daryl hid his eyes and nose in the crook of his elbow when Kishar landed beside him and scattered dust and leaves, unlike other Karda, able to touch down directly in camp without having to lope to a stop. Galen helped Tessa saddle him. She leapt to Kishar’s back from his bent knee. Galen strung her bow and handed it up with two quivers of arrows.
~How much time do we have, Abala?~ Daryl asked.
Before Abala could answer, Marta—whose ability to speak telepathically with all Karda was unique—yelled at Daryl, “Fifteen minutes, Daryl. Fifteen minutes. I’ll fight on the ground.”
Daryl knelt on the ground, pulling strength from rock and soil, water and air, until he was a full of talent as he could get. He finished jerking his boots and sword on and told Abala, ~I’ll fight from the ground, too. The ambassadors must be protected. How many come?~
The swirl of Karda above him swerved west, eager to meet the attack. Abala answered, ~We estimate two hundred, Daryl.~ Concern shaded his usual unperterbable telepathic voice.
The urbat poured over the hillside a hundred and fifty yards from the edge of the oasis. Karda swooped, snatched urbat, tore at their stubby wings with long, fierce talons, picked them up, flew high, and dropped them in the middle of the urbat force racing toward the camp. Everywhere one was dropped, there was a confused swirl of urbat tearing at the dead one, stripping away its metal bones.
Daryl’s stomach muscles tightened. Adrenaline flooded through him, and he trembled like a hawk in yarak, poised to fight. He’d thought two wings of Karda Patrol would be enough guard, with Marta, Galen, and Tessa. They might not be.
Tiny Mi’hiru Philipa grabbed Cedar’s arm, pulled it over her shoulder, and ran with her to the center of the clearing. There Finder Mireia sat crosslegged on the ground in a ring with two troopers and one of the cooks, all with eyes closed, intent with concentration. One of the troopers already had Glenn there. Assam stood close, his sword drawn, looking back and forth between the other two, Daryl, and the small stream, confused, as if he knew he wasn’t where he needed to be, and torn because he knew he must protect Cedar and Glen.
Sentries ran in and joined the others around the camp in a tight double circle. Galen walked the circumference, and a two-meter wall of brush loaded with long, razor-sharp thorns sprang up behind him, closing them inside a living fortress. He reached where Daryl stood. “That’s the best I can do now. It won’t keep them out, but it might slow them down. It’s too much to hope that they will attack in a close swarm so I can bury them”
Daryl grimaced. “They can fly over it. Burying them will be difficult if they’re in the air.” The urbat’s high pitched howls spread around them, circling the thorn hedge.
Assam moved up beside them. Daryl started to tell him to move back, but a look at his face stopped him. “I trust you can fight?”
Assam’s nod was tight. “Galen and Tessa described them to me, found me a sword they said was made of the monster’s metal bones, and told me where they were most vulnerable.” He paused for a minute, then turned, smiled a twisted smile, and said, “I’ve fought monsters on other worlds, some of them bigger. How can this be worse?”
~Abala.~ Daryl pathed. ~Is the Itza Larrak with them? He can’t hide himself in this barren landscape.~
Marta moved up next to him. “None of the Karda have seen the Larrak, Daryl.”
Abala echoed her words from the air.
Daryl looked at the tight ring with Finder Mireia and the three others in the center of the clearing. Cedar sat right behind her, and they were well guarded. Fear loosed something in his chest right before it iced again. She couldn’t fight. She couldn’t run. She could barely walk. She was too vulnerable. He looked away. He couldn’t thaw now. Wouldn’t.
Then the keening howls of the Urbat changed to loud, vicious snarls, and it wasn’t time to think anymore. He and Galen moved through a gap in the brush fence.
Galen was the first to react. He knelt on the ground and shoved. A wall of dirt and brambles and wicked thorns buried the first thirty urbat before they were fifteen meters away. The urbat behind them scattered too far apart for Galen’s first defense to work again, and some of them took to the air for the short hop over the bramble fence. It was time for swords and lances and arrows.
Kishar and Tessa swooped down, and a swift-moving storm of arrows felled seven. Kishar veered up and went wings-vertical in a sharp wheel and dove back down.
Then Daryl was too busy fighting to worry about anything else. He shook out his arm and long, slender bolts of fire hit urbat after urbat, burning through armor and turning them into fiery torches. The stench of burnt urbat and hair filled the air.
Four urbat bulled their way through the thorny hedge near the creek, tearing at a trooper. Assam ran toward them, Marta beside him. They fought side by side with two more troopers, Marta screamed instructions about the urbat’s vulnerable spots—neck in front of the armor, throat, legs, spine behind the armor. Someone dragged the wounded fighter away, and Marta, Assam, and one trooper fought to hold the opening.
But Galen’s hurried fence didn't slow the monsters for long. Daryl yelled at him to fall back into the circle filling with urbat and fighters. Blood and thick streams of stinking yellow ichor were everywhere, the grass slick with it.
Galen plugged a hole in the brush barrier by shoving a wall of soil at the six urbat coming through, burying them alive, then he turned to the next opening. Flying over the fence left urbat undersides vulnerable to upraised lances and swords, and urbat-metal tipped arrows.
Fighting got too close for Daryl to throw fire without hitting his own troops. He pulled his sword and shoved it halfway through the soft spot at one urbat’s throat as it leapt at him, jerked it free, and beheaded another. Eight urbat broke though the brush to his left. He shouted for his fighters to fall back, called for archers, and they hit the beasts with a storm of arrows, and Daryl threw bolt after bolt of fire. Galen closed the hole with thorny growth that surged up around seven trying to get through, entangling them, killing them with curved, wicked thorns.
Six creatures pushed through on the other side of the little creek, and Daryl started that way. Assam and one trooper were the only ones near, and they weren’t enough to stop the raving creatures, or even slow them. But when the urbat splashed into the stream, water swirled up around them, a powerful whirling spout that caught all six of them.
Daryl looked at Assam, who stood, right hand holding his sword and left hand raised, palm toward the water, a mix of terror and jubilation holding his body rigid.
“Guard me,” Daryl yelled at the three troopers nearest him. He closed his eyes and concentrated, pulled deep from Adalta, jerked magma from the heart of the planet and threw a meter-round red, yellow, and blue ball of fire at the pillar of water. Steam billowed, and the urbat fell, dead and cooked.
“Welcome to Adalta, Assam,” he shouted to the astonished man. But there wasn’t time for thinking or celebration. Both men went back to battling the savage monsters with their swords, backed by troopers with swords, arrows, and short lances.
He looked to check on the small ring of Mireia and the three troopers. They were swaying, murmuring the arcane words of the spell to disorient the urbat, but to little effect. Three of them weren’t enough to affect the hoard of urbat. The Itza Larrak had to be close, hidden behind a shield, controlling them.
There were too many still attacking, and the human fighters were tiring or wounded or both. He didn’t want to think about how many were dead.
Daryl saw Cedar look around her, both hands over her mouth and nose against the terrible stink. Three urbat were almost through their guards. She looked lost in a daze of unbelief and terror—her hands clenched tight, her body shaking all over. Suddenly her hands fell away from her face, she straightened, her back arched, her head stretched back so far the tendons in her neck were taut ropes.
She fell to her knees, grabbed Mireia’s shoulders and pressed her body against the Finder’s back. All four members of the ring sat bolt upright, galvanized. Their heads fell back, their mouths opened, and the words of the spell screamed loud over the clamor of battle. The urbat stopped. All of them. They just—stopped.
Everyone stood still, staring around. Then they fell on the urbat with no qualms about killing a monster that didn’t defend itself. Some of them they threw in piles, still alive, and Galen pushed soil over them.
It was quiet, not even a stem of grass moved. Then the moans and cries of the wounded broke through.
Daryl organized the injured under the cover of a tree. Clouds closed in, and it began to drizzle. Three troopers grabbed tents,—ropes and pegs flying—and ran to cover the injured as best they could.
He shut out the rest of the world and went to work, sorting out the severely wounded, sending three of his men with healing abilities to tend the others, and stabilize those only he could heal. There was nothing but himself, anchored deep in the bedrock of Adalta, reaching into the streams of water that ran deep in her, pulling Earth and Water talent through his body and into the ripped muscles, tendons, bones, and slashed organs of the first fighter, a young woman. Mending, stabilizing, closing wounds, fusing broken bones until another healer pulled him out. “I can finish this, sir. You need to tend to that one.”
Daryl moved from fighter to fighter until he was certain all were cared for. Angry at the urbat, angry at the Itza Larrak, angry at himself for not knowing how to stop this never-ending slaughter. Angry at Cedar because somehow she had, and he didn’t know how.
In the background the sound of urbat metal popping out of mounds of new, green, grass rang. Long metal bones and razor sharp triangles of urbat armor were all that was left of the two hundred urbat that attacked their small group.
Daryl sat back on his heels and saw Mi’hiru Philipa run for Mireia’s tent and back to her with a small capped jar. Mireia, barely able to stand herself, held Cedar’s shoulders while she heaved, though he could see there was nothing left in her to heave. Mireia smeared something on Cedar’s nose and mouth. She stopped retching.
Daryl couldn’t help himself. He started toward them, but Mireia held up her hand and mouthed, “Talent surge” at him, and he stopped.
Cedar looked up at him, a smile that didn’t even hint at the usual sunshine on her face, and toppled over, unconscious.