The Taren had left the plains behind shortly after sunrise just as the symphony of birds was dying down and the whispers of things moving through the tall grass was beginning. The only sound since had been its own footfalls, the skittering of gravel it had dislodged bouncing back down the rocky slope, and the rare screech of a hawk circling high above. The sudden cry of a Keui almost at its feet was so startling the Taren’s plasimetal body hardened in defensive response, nearly causing it to fall as its long, loose strides tightened.
But it didn’t fall, and a momentary thought relaxed its body. It ran silently and leapt to the top of a nearby boulder, scanning the rocky landscape around it.
So many crags and nooks, so many shadowy places. Not like the open grasslands below. The Keui must have thought it could hide here, but there was no hiding from starving Taren, and the three wrestling the lone Keui to the ground were clearly running on the last dregs of jing. They were slow, awkward, their joints stiff and their plasimetal flesh a dark rusty gray, like blood and ash.
The Taren on the rock fingered its energy blades. The fight for life at its feet was none of its business. But the Keui cried out again, one of its attackers prying into its belly aperture with desperate fingers, and the Taren found itself leaping off the rock, an energy blade spinning in each hand.
Creatures of blood responded to each other’s calls, to feed young or protect a pack member or softly nose a sick comrade. The Taren had observed it on many occasions. But its plasimetal stuff came with no such instincts. There was only jing and who possessed it. As the three starving Taren turned to face its blades it saw the Keui beyond, crawling away, its own jing-deprived flesh thick and dark. The Taren alone had jing in abundance, jing enough to outrun them all without even trying. This fight was illogical.
And quickly over; the numbers didn’t matter when its jing-rich body moved swift and lithe while the other three were awkward and lethargic. They quickly retreated, not wanting to waste what little they had left in a hopeless battle.
The Taren extinguished its blades and slipped the hilts back into the loops of its belt. It turned to the Keui, which was still backing away.
“Conserve your jing, there is no need to run. I mean you no harm,” the Taren said. “Rest, it’s nearly nightfall. You’ll feel stronger after you generate.”
“Thank you,” the Keui said, running smoothing hands over its body. Its flesh was dense but not entirely unresponsive; with patience it was removing the marks where the three Taren had grasped its body, where the one had tried to pry its belly open.
“In the morning you should get back to the Keui herds,” the Taren said. “There’s safety in numbers for your kind.”
“I am not like my kind,” it said.
“Keui life is hard,” the Taren said. “The strong ones leave the others behind, like bait. No, sacrifices. The strong grow stronger and the weak barely make it from day to day. I’ve . . . seen it.”
“There is no safety for me no matter where I am; I prefer to be here.”
“Suit yourself,” the Taren said, then leapt back up onto the boulder to look around. It was growing dark fast as the sun sank behind the mountain. Light still reached the grasslands below. A smaller herd of Keui were bedding down for the night near the foothills, oblivious to the Taren creeping towards them through the tall grass. Beyond the grass the shallow sea glistened red and gold in the dying light, and beyond that the sky met the earth. The Taren turned to look up at the mountain, the center of the world, so tall it touched the domed sky at its highest point.
The Keui below was sweeping dust out of a hollow in the rock, preparing to curl up for the night. The Taren hopped down, its feet striking the ground making the Keui flinch. The two spent the night on opposite sides of the fissure between the rocks. The Taren suspected the Keui slept little. When the first light of dawn reached them its plasimetal was as dark and stiff as the night before.
“You’re a slow generator,” the Taren noted. The Keui looked away, wrapping its arms around its hollow middle, its long braid loops hiding its face. “If those three come back for you they will be really desperate. They might end you. I’ve seen it more and more, jing-less husks of Keui slowly turning to dust in the grasslands.” Still the Keui didn’t answer. The Taren looked up the mountainside. “I’m going up the mountain. It will be hard going but I wouldn’t object to some company.”
“Why?” the Keui asked.
“To look around. I expect you can see the whole world from there. The peak touches the sky.”
“Why let me come?” the Keui clarified.
“I mean you no harm, I just find walking alone too quiet.” The Taren looked back over its shoulder at the plains below. “I too am not like my kind.”
The Keui rose creakily to its feet then gave a nod and the two started the long climb up the mountain.
It was indeed slow-going, the jing-deprived Keui not able to move faster than a shuffling gait. Occasionally the Taren scouted ahead to find an easier route, its lithe body leaping and running over the tops of boulders. It would get to the top faster on its own but it suddenly felt no need to hurry. It was likely a fool’s errand anyway. Its last quest to the outer rim of the world had been fruitless: days and days spent walking the circumference only to end up back where it had started, never finding a way out or a clue as to what lay beyond the dome of the sky.
If the mountain had no answer the Taren would need to find other questions.
The Taren guessed they were a third of the way up the mountain when the setting sun forced them to stop. The Keui slumped wordlessly to the ground but the Taren once more found higher ground to scan the surroundings.
The skittering of rock it had been hearing throughout the day might be the work of blood animals, but it suspected the three starving Taren were still trailing them. They were too weak to catch even the slowest members of the grassland herds, this half-dead Keui was the best they could hope for.
The Taren leapt down to the hollow under the rock the Keui had chosen for their camp.
“It’s cold,” the Keui said. “I feel stiff.”
“You will feel better in the morning,” the Taren said.
“I don’t think I will.”
The Taren said nothing.
“How far back can you remember?” the Keui asked.
“I don’t know. I never counted the days. I don’t think on the past.”
“I can remember further back than anyone I’ve met. I remember long ago things were different. Taren would bring gifts to Keui, and Keui would freely share jing in return.”
“I remember,” the Taren said, but the memory was an old one, faded.
“One Taren decided that just taking what it wanted was better and then they all were doing it. It wasn’t always like it is now.”
“I don’t think it will change back. It might change, but not back. Something new will happen.”
“You hate this as much as I,” the Keui said. “You don’t feel like a hunter.”
“I will not harm you,” the Taren said yet again. If the Keui wondered where the Taren had accumulated so much jing without being a ruthless hunter it didn’t ask.
“I remember further back than that,” it said some time later. “I remember being different. I was a blood animal. I had this form, but blood flesh.”
“That’s not a memory, that’s a dream,” the Taren said.
“It’s a dream that feels more real than all this.”
In the morning the Keui was too stiff to rise.
“Do you not generate at all?” the Taren asked. The Keui tried to look away but its neck wouldn’t turn.
“Look, I’m going to share some of my jing with you. I have enough to spare.”
It didn’t add what a level of trust it was extending, they both knew it.
The Taren knelt before the stiffened Keui, taking one hand in its own and firmly pulling it up to its own belly. The plasimetal flesh was dense and fought the movement but the Taren was stronger.
Then the Taren focused, relaxed, let the aperture in its belly open to expose its glowing core. The Keui’s eyes sparkled in the warm light from the Taren’s jing. Then the Taren nudged closer and the Keui’s frozen hand brushed against the light. It gave a long sigh as the energy flowed into its body, but as soon as its plasimetal was supple enough to move it pulled back, turning away from the tempting glow.
“Is that enough?” the Taren asked.
“It’s more than I’ve had in longer than I can count. I thank you. Please, close up.”
The Taren tightened its aperture and rose. It felt weaker, but only barely noticeably so.
The Keui ran its hands over its braids, removing a gold pin shaped like a feather. It held it out to the Taren.
“A gift?” the Taren asked.
“In exchange,” the Keui said.
It touched its own hair, worn loose in the Taren way. It separated a thin lock behind one ear and braiding it down half its length, then took the pin and clipped it in place. “Thank you. I am honored to receive the gift of a Keui.”
The three Taren closing in on them were not as sneaky as they thought. The Taren turned, energy blades spinning in its hands.
“Back off. You cannot win this fight.”
“No, we cannot lose,” one said.
“You share jing with the Keui, you share jing with Taren,” said another.
“This Keui and I are comrades,” the Taren said.
“We can bring you gifts as well. Share a little first to refresh us and we will bring you troves.”
“We will be continuing our journey now,” the Taren said.
The other Taren made no further argument, just closed in, their energy blades sluggish but still deadly. The Taren spun and fought, easily trading blows with two at once, but while it did the third lunged at the Keui.
The Taren focused on the two in front of it, driving them both back with blows so fast and strong it could feel the jing burning in its plasimetal. Then it turned back to the third Taren.
Which was sprawled out on the ground backing away from the Keui. Or more specifically the Keui’s glowing energy blade.
“Run,” the Keui said, and the starving Taren did, followed more slowly by its two companions.
“You have an energy blade,” the Taren said. The Keui said nothing, just placed the blade against its thigh until it sank into the plasimetal, out of sight.
The Taren slipped the hilts of its blades back into the loops on its belt.
“We know what we are,” the Keui said. The Taren nodded agreement.
“You don’t generate.”
“But you do.”
The not-Taren and the not-Keui regarded each other.
“I was the weakest, always used as a sacrifice by the others,” the not-Taren said at last. “We were told no Keui could use energy blades, that we couldn’t power them. I can’t create them, I can’t take them into my flesh as you do, but I can power them. The day I found that out I stopped being a Keui.”
“I remember further back than anyone,” the not-Keui said. “I remember endless days in the company of one Taren. I don’t have the word for what we were. More than comrades. More even than two members of a pack of blood animals. We were as one. But it was the first Taren to steal jing. I still remember the screams of that Keui. Those screams rent the world. My life ended that day. I could not be a Taren any longer.”
“This world feels false to me, like a game,” said the not-Taren. “I found where the sky touches the land and I followed it all around the world. There is no escape that way. I found no answer to the question of why this world is what it is. But I will not rejoin the game.”
“You think there will be a way out on top of the mountain?” the not-Keui asked.
“I hope only for an answer. I will see the whole world from there, and it touches the sky.”
The Keui who was not a Keui except by choice looked up the mountain and nodded.
The Taren who was not a Taren except by choice started to lead the way but found it was no longer comfortable with the not-Keui behind it.
“I will not harm you,” the not-Keui said. “I don’t think I could. I certainly couldn’t catch you if you were to run. But even so, I choose not to harm you. We are comrades. We have trust. I only want jing freely given, as you did this morning. Without that I will choose to starve.”
“Comrades,” the Taren agreed and they continued their climb.
The top third of the mountain was the steepest, ending in nearly sheer cliffs, but the climb was the easiest the two had faced since they’d left the plains. Gravity was lighter here, or their jing grew stronger, or both. The not-Keui could leap and scramble as gracefully as the not-Taren and its plasimetal was supple and bright, almost the liquid chrome of the jing-rich Keui in the grasslands below who ran too fast to ever be caught and drained by even the cleverest of Taren.
The not-Taren looked back over its shoulder. Their three pursuers were surely left behind now. They didn’t have enough left in them to climb high enough to feel these empowering effects.
The sun was low in the west when they reached the summit, or rather a fissure in the rock wall just large enough to squeeze inside. The not-Taren was tempted to keep climbing, the sky was so close it could touch it here at its highest point just as it had touched it low where it met the ground. But something within the fissure was glowing brightly, beckoning, and the not-Keui was already squirming its way in. Its supple plasimetal was giving way, flowing around protuberances. Then it was inside and the not-Taren was once more bathed in that beckoning glow. It followed.
Beyond the fissure was a circular space enclosed by the rocky mountain summit, the sky like a pool of still, opaque water overhead, the last rays of the setting sun barely filtering through, giving a weak, indirect light.
At the center of the enclosure was a pool, and it was this that was providing all the dancing light. The not-Keui was standing over it, its plasimetal form fairly dancing although its body was quite still.
“It’s jing,” it said.
“Yes, but not just,” the not-Taren said. It hovered a hand over the surface but couldn’t bring itself to touch it. “Look how it moves, it’s plasimetal. Plasimetal completely infused with jing. I feel like it’s deep, like it fills the mountain.”
“It feels familiar,” the not-Keui said. The plasimetal of its face rippled again and again. “I don’t remember.”
“I think this is where we came from. All of us, Keui and Taren,” said the not-Taren.
“It’s where our bodies come from,” the not-Keui said. “But we are more than our bodies.”
The two regarded the pool in silence for a long time. The sun faded away but the sky over the mountaintop had no stars. Everything but the pool and their two shining bodies was lost to the dark.
“Should we tell the others? This much jing free for the taking, this could change things,” the not-Keui said. “The world would not be divided into Keui and Taren.”
“Think of the climb,” the not-Taren said. “Only the strong could make it up here. The ones who truly needed it would be stuck below. They would be left to prey on each other more and more desperately while the strong and the fast grew stronger and faster.”
“I fear you are right. And I shiver to think of the day the mountain runs dry.” Its plasimetal did indeed give a little frisson.
They fell back into silence but then the not-Taren said, no more than a whisper, “I too have dreamt that I was a blood animal. I feel so alive in those dreams, more even than I do now, and in this moment my jing is singing in my flesh.”
The not-Keui said,” it was no dream.”
“Our bodies came from this pool, but our selves, who we really are, didn’t,” the not-Taren said.
“I think,” the not-Keui said, “I should like to see what is at the bottom of the pool.”
“I would too,” the not-Taren said, “but not alone.”
“I will be with you,” the not-Keui said. “We are comrades until the end.”
“No,” the not-Taren said, “I mean I feel there is a whole other world at the bottom of that pool, and I long to be there, but I can’t be the first to see it. I think I mean to be the last.”
The not-Keui nodded. “I understand. But I think I’m supposed to be the first.”
“We are bonded,” the not-Taren agreed and squeezed the not-Keui’s hand. “I shall miss you.”
“And I you,” the not-Keui said. “I have not had a comrade in such a very long time. I shall never forget you, no matter what lies at the bottom of this mystery.”
They stayed like that, holding hands, until nearly dawn, then without a word the not-Keui slipped its hand out of the not-Taren’s grasp and rolled forward into the pool.
The not-Taren could feel everything the not-Keui felt as it plunged into the mass of plasimetal substance indistinguishable from its/their own molten form. Its/their flesh melted into it. Melted away.
But something fell for three long days, something remained to sink into the source, and something passed through it and was gone.
And then the not-Keui took a breath. It felt something in that instant that the not-Taren could not, and the not-Taren opened its eyes and found itself once more alone.
It dipped a finger into the pool and took in every bit of jing it could, until its flesh glowed too brightly to be looked at directly. Then it turned to go back down the mountain.
The three starving Taren would be the first it touched.
• • •
Copyright © 2017 Kate MacLeod