7

Beneath a Double Sun

Waves of heat shimmered across the desert landscape. High in the air, a keehar shrilled as it dove, claws extended, to grasp its scampering prey. The small blue-gray shista had no chance. What it had been doing out in the heat of day instead of using the shadows of the long Zeistian night to race to and fro in search of food was beyond understanding. Sometimes prey just had to act like prey. They rushed out of safety and fled for their lives only to die in agony.

Kali paused in her desert jog to sip at the tepid water in her canteen. She swirled it about in her mouth, considered spitting it out, but elected to swallow the metallic-tainted water. Thirst wouldn't kill her. But dying of thirst was painful and in this case… unnecessary. She could handle the water being warm and stale.

Off to her right, the violet-hued Corbena Mountains loomed like sentinels despite being two days hard run away. The mountain-tops gleamed white with the snow that never seemed to fall in the arid lowlands.

She snorted as she replaced her canteen. The desert made for a hard life, but it bred men and women strong enough to tame it and not just survive… but thrive.

She wiped a tanned arm across her forehead and then shaded her eyes trying to make out the movement further on. But a dust plume was all she could clearly make out.

"Best travel on, then," she muttered. As she ran, the leather sheath of her omnipresent sword bumped familiarly against her back. No immortal went anywhere without a sword… not if he… or she… wanted to survive.

Hot desert air like that of an open oven assaulted her as she continued her bi-tenday jog. She had to train and stay in shape… perhaps moreso now than ever before. Before, she had been under the protection of her mentor, General Katana. Now, with the general's murder at the hands of ConLeod (mentally she cursed at the thought of the exiled rebel leader), her life and situation grew ever more precarious. The priestly caste who ruled Zeist had utilized Katana to keep control here and finally to be one of several sent out to destroy the ConLeod whose five year exile from Zeist along with others of their kind… the immortals… gave the priestly caste ever more control of the government.

Before long, they'd likely begin an inquisition against the remaining immortals… the ones who not joined in the ConLeod's revolt. Katana had foreseen it and warned her about it.

By this time Kali had closed in on the dust plume. She could see two pie-bald drizzuns, snarling and ripping into a raggedly-dressed human body… a body that already began to give off the faint sensation of immortality to come.

"Damn!" snarled Kali. Unclasping her steel tensile whip from her right hip, she twirled it overhead and trilled as the women of her tribe of deep desert dwellers had always done. Between the trilling, the whip snapping and cracking overhead, and her waving arms, the drizzuns paused in their feast, crouched and growled at her, but then whimpered and backed away. She could see them still eyeing what she could now see was the body of a young man wearing the pale, loose robes of desert garb. The blood on them had already turned a dark maroon in the heat. Kali coiled her whip and crouched a few feet away from the body.

Drizzuns were carrion eaters and had likely come upon the young man after he'd dropped dead from heat exhaustion or water deprivation. Kali could see no canteen and more importantly… no sword. As she watched his body begin its healing, she snorted thinking how much the medical branch of the priestly caste would love to sit and watch an immortal heal. Indeed… she could just imagine them bobbing their bald heads and rubbing their hands as they determined how fast an immortal healed at first death… and what he might not heal from.

In this case… it looked like the scavengers had only just begun feeding and had been more interested in tearing into the body to get at the softer organs within. While they were damaged, Kali could already see the minute crackles of healing energy as it went to work mending the damage. All she had to do was wait.

Wiping the perspiration from her forehead again, the immortal woman glanced at the white hot heat of the double suns, gauging the time. She had just enough water to comfortably last her on her jog. This would delay her. Mentally she reset the time in her mind into larger chunks to make it last.

"Hurry up," she muttered.

Yet she knew some first-timers took hours. Sometimes the damage held them up. She eyed the drizzums, sitting on their haunches, tongues lolling, and watching them both. If she left him, they would finish him off and Kali doubted even an immortal could come back from serious damage by hungry animals. On the other hand… why should she wait?

Unlike her mentor, Kali, while ruthless, tried to never be cruel. Katana had often laughed that it was her feminine nature rearing its head. But Katana was dead… and Kali would not wish the situation on any immortal… even an enemy.

By this time, thin new skin, already turning red and burning in the sunlight, covered many of his wounds. The scratches and small bites on his face and limbs had entirely healed. The major wounds in his torso would take a bit longer.

Finally gauging that enough time had passed, Kali took another sip from her canteen and reset her interior clock to countdown until she could take another one. The young man moaned in delirium. He thrashed suddenly and then screamed a broken cry of anguish from a throat long parched. Kali rose to her feet and drew her sword.

The young man coughed and gasped as he beat about him for the source of the bites he could evidently still feel. Kali nodded, recalling her own first death. For days afterwards, the memory of pain of that deadly wound had stayed with her… reminding her that immortal didn't mean she couldn't be hurt. She wondered if he felt the savagery of the animal attack in addition to whatever had killed him to begin with.

He noticed her shadowy form standing over him… and he saw the sword.

He screamed again and covered his head.

Kali sighed. Maybe he truly was a newborn. His power would be little more than nothing.

"Do you know what you are?" she barked at him sharply.

"I am Barhem of the Suhalta tribe. I am a plethen-herder," he explained in a trembling voice.

"A plethen-herder in the middle of the desert with no plethens, no staff, no food, and most importantly… no water."

"I left my plethens in the mountains with my cousin. I ate the last of my food and drank the last of my water three days ago. I've been wandering ever since. I was searching for Qaroom. Then the heat became too much and I collapsed. A thousand blessings on you for finding me."

"I didn't find you," Kali said grimly, even as she sheathed her sword. She pointed at the

nearby drizzums. "They did. They did quite a number on you before I arrived."

Barhem sat up and felt himself, awed at the rips and bloodstains on his clothes. "But I am not wounded!"

Kali smirked. "Not now."

Barhem let out another anguished cry."I am one of those cursed to be undying?"

Kali shook her head, recalling her own confusion and fear. "You can still die… you just won't age for a while." She pointed back the way she had come. "I'm headed for Qaroom. You can follow along."

"Alas… I must have water." One of his hands reached out in a begging gesture.

"I only have enough to get myself back. Besides… you've recently been reborn… you'll be in better shape than me as far as water and hydration goes for awhile. Follow if you wish." She pivoted and set off in an easy lope. Had she factored in a slower pace to let Barhem keep up? Maybe she ought to just leave him.

Off to one side, the two drizzums kept pace with her. Evidently they still hoped for meal.

"You are right, oh most beneficent one. I do feel much better than I did. Perhaps this won't be so bad. Do you live in the Qaroom? Who are you? I heard the priests speak of the unnatural nature of those like me. Are you like me?"

Kali tuned him out. She hoped he'd get thirsty soon. Then maybe he'd shut up.

The double suns continued their slow, methodical move across the arc of the blue sky. Two sips of water later, Kali could see the vague outline of the city in shimmering waves of heat on the horizon. Behind her, she could hear the ragged gasps and gulps of Barhem. She shook the canteen and tossed it to him. He fumbled the catch several times before dropping it. Hurriedly he picked it up and gulped down the mouthful that remained. He shook the empty canteen and eyed it with a frown. Then he snorted.

"You could have saved me some more."

"Sorry. I thought I had it gauged so I'd finished it myself. There's water in Qaroom," she teased and then started off in her fast loping gait.

"Just my luck," Barhem grumbled behind her. "I get saved by a sadist."

Kali smiled and then chuckled quietly as she gave herself to the calm center of her run. Perhaps she had picked up a few of Katana's traits, but if she were truly a sadist, she'd likely have let the drizzums do more damage. This new immortal had obviously led a soft life before his death. Maybe as a herder he'd spent his days lying in the shadows and watching his animals graze. Perhaps he should have stayed there and lived a long safe life, growing old and dying in his bed. He might have lasted longer.

Near the city walls, she slowed to a walk, noting the merchant caravans being searched at the gate; She flashed her identicard to the guard and was waved through. They stopped Barhem. Kali loitered nearby and then, it was clear that Barhem was stuttering and unable to answer even the easiest questions.

"He was unconscious in the desert. I gave him water and he followed me home," she told the guard with a wink and a touch of sarcasm. The guard was one of the patrons at Katana's Kitten Klub, and often was front and center the nights she danced. She flashed him a practiced smile. He melted and absently waved Barhem through.

Once inside the great city wall which protected the denizens from frequent sandstorms, Kali stopped at the fountain in the first great square and raised fresh water to her mouth. Barhem dropped to his knees and began to gulp.

"Oh do stop," Kali snorted. "You'd think you hadn't had any water in day. Oh silly me… you haven't."

Barhem glared up at her and then gazed around in wonder. "Never have I seen so many tall buildings. I never knew they could be built with more than landing."

Kali laughed and dug in her money pouch for several golden Katana. "Here's some money to get you started."

"I'm not coming with you?"

She eyed him with an arched eyebrow. "With me? Of course not. If you stay with me, the priests will learn you are a new immortal and have you watched. You need time to learn the ways of the city, get a job, a place to live… and oh yes… buy a sword. Don't worry about challenges within the city walls. To stop the game, the priests made the entire city holy ground."

Barhem stood circling open-mouthed as he stared. He hefted the coins in his palm. "The entire city?"

Kali nodded. "I was a new immortal and watched quietly as they paced across every foot of the city… inside homes and business… swinging incense and chanting prayers. The city is sacred now."

Barhem looked puzzled. "Even the middens"

Kali shrugged. "I assume so," she said with a smile as she imagined the bald priests chanting in the middens and swinging their censors while holding their noses from the smell. It was a sight she'd hold in her memories every time she was called before them to act in their behalf for some reason. It would make the job more tolerable. She slapped Barhem on the shoulder. "Good luck and watch your head or you will have a very short life."

He saluted her and beamed… a blush covering his face and a wide silly grin plastered across it.

Kali pivoted and took a circuitous route home to prevent Barhem's following her. Finally she slipped through a small unassuming door and into the quiet courtyard of Katana's… no her… modest home. Water flowed in the fountain while the wind blew gently through the palm fronds. She sat wearily on the red tiled fountain recalling that once it had held the eels Katana had been so fond of. She chuckled. One change she'd made the same day his death was confirmed was to have the fountain drained and scoured. The deadly eels had been returned to their natural habitat. Now the water sparkled even by the light of the setting sun.

A shadow crossed her and she glanced up with a soft smile and a warm look in her eyes.

"You're up early lover," she laughed.

The man shrugged. "And your morning jog took all day."

"Tell me about it," Kali laughed. "I had to save a newbie from drizzums."

"Did you take his head?"

"I don't kill newbies… especially ones who seem so inept." She stretched languidly and then rose, leaning against her man. "At least I didn't bring home another stray."

His muscular arms circled her as he pulled her closer. "Oh… so now I'm a stray."

She trailed her finger over the smaller scar near his left eye thoughtfully. "No love… you are Earth's version of Katana. You landed on Zeist as an exchange of the transport. You are mortal and everything he wasn't." She rubbed her nose against his.

"Maybe I should be rougher then," he chuckled.

"Maybe you should hush and get down to business."

Hudson laughed and kissed her before throwing her over his shoulder. At least she was in a good mood tonight. Maybe he'd ask her for a raise later. He took the stairs two at a time to their bedroom where she squealed happily when he tossed her onto the bed. He dropped the red silk robe he wore and flung himself onto her.

Outside, the double suns hesitated a moment on the horizon coloring the world of Zeist blood red. A drizzum raised its muzzle into the air and sounded its plaintive howl. On a narrow street in a poor section Qaroom, a new immortal faced a new life with trepidation.